By FATE THOMPSON
You know Jesus isn’t really there when you need him. You want to ask him where he’s been. He leaves you in the worst of times, when you need him most, and now you must live with your mother. You’re 40. She’s 65 and has her three yelping dogs, 10 chickens, a rooster named Rocky Red, and five rabbits all caged. She’s fattening them up to kill for rabbit stew. She’s confined all of you to this one-acre farm she inherited from your grandmother. A chain link fence runs around the property to keep the dogs in from chasing the cars and you in from running the roads.
You, a father of three, maybe more, unemployed, a felon stamped on his head and feeling damn lonely. No one knows or cares that you have no hand to hold. You ain’t the man you used to be. You shake from withdrawals of drugs and life. You want to come in from the outside, but the storm follows you like a restless cloud waiting to burst with a downpour of trouble and sorrow. You want to be free again, but you can’t. You’re broke, broken, and messed up. Your best friend Nathan died. You watched him snort the white line, watched him get high, and then die. That was two weeks ago, the drug overdose. He was a good man, maybe not by this small town’s Bible thumping ways, but he loved his boy Terry, and he always gave you a couch to sleep on when you were too drunk or too high to drive the backroads to your mother’s place of solitary confinement. You called it “the hole.”
Nathan would give you a fix whenever you felt low. No judgment, just a giving heart that played out when he took too much crystal meth. He’s buried now at the Woodland Cemetery. You visit Nathan most every day. You hump it down the two miles of dusty road past all the neighbors too poor to feed their children, but rich enough to buy meth. You walk past your kinfolks house, throw up a hand of hello, how are you, but keep on walking not wanting to listen to their sermons on getting right with Jesus. You understand addiction, but not family. Addiction makes you feel selfish and pissed as hell at yourself for being such a lowlife. Family is just a word. There is no feeling, just numbness of more boundaries, more secrets put upon you. You walk past what once was the old one-room schoolhouse where your Grandpa went to school. As a child, you had scribbled your name on what was left of the blackboard. Samuel. The school has since fallen down. It’s now just a pass and a path through for bucks on the make.
You can’t drive. No driver’s license. The police pull you over the night you drove drunk, the first night without Nathan. You get a DUI. You lose your license, your identity. At the cemetery, you smoke a joint. You can’t smoke cigarettes let alone a joint at your mother’s house. She’s a born-again Christian that’s been reborn so many times you’ve lost count. Can’t believe she hasn’t drowned from so many submissions and submersions. Remember. You don’t say much. Who will listen? Not God, not your mother. You just stare at Nathan’s grave and read his epitaph with your eyes shut. “Life is good. I am now with my heavenly father and on a great hunt.”
You knew Nathan since he was little. You and he walked the woods flushing quail and wild turkey and following the tracks of rabbits, squirrels, bobcats, deer, and even imaginary Big Foot. You sat together beneath the limbs of a mighty oak tree since you were 8 years old holding a BB gun. You played a game to see who could eat the most fallen acorns. They were a tough, leathery shell and bitter as hell, kinda like yourself, hard to crack. Nathan always won. You told him he was growing a tree out his ass. He threatened to shoot you with his BB gun if you didn’t shut the fuck up. You didn’t shut up. No bending to rules, even childhood egos, and the shoot was on. You came home with a sore backside from the pellets. Nathan went home with a bellyache from the toxic nuts. You always felt a closeness with Nathan, whether it was killing and skinning a squirrel together or tracking that big 10-point buck that always got away.
Nothing like hearing a buck snort. You were close to magic. The buck snort sounded like an old man hacking up snot from deep in the back of his throat or a man who had been on a drunk for days and was belching and burping and wheezing like he was about to keel over. You never forget that sound, that forceful expel of a single blast of air through nostrils or seeing the buck fight, scraping his antlers against another buck’s rack. Both fighting over the scent of a doe. Sometimes you think it’s just another version of a cock’s challenge—who is animal enough! The bucks circle each other and raise their upper lips. As they close off their nostrils, you hold your breath counting one, two, three, four, five … 10 seconds! Then, they blow a burst of air through their nostrils that makes a man stop to watch this nature show over and over. Your best friend is now gone. There’s no more hunting with Nathan, and there is only one way you can hunt with him again.
Today you lay beneath the big oak tree at the cemetery, just looking up at its arching branches and green leaves and trying to pick out the best toothpick from the pack. Oak trees are strong, enduring, and hard. Just like you. The Bible tells you so, or so you learned in vacation Bible school when you were a kid. The prophet Isaiah called it, the “Oak of Righteousness.” You look for a limb that hangs low, yet high enough. You don’t want your feet to touch the ground. You check the shade, the movement of sky. You want to make sure you are facing east when the sun rises so you can receive Jesus’ kiss of warm lips upon your cold eyes.
You lay there in the grass, looking up again at the limbs, the veins of the tree, how they run in all directions clinging to earth. You make plans. This morning, you took Uncle Ron’s thick rope from the barn. You knew not to ask. He wouldn’t let you borrow it. He won’t even let you hunt on his land that once belonged to your grandparents. He’s like that and the rest of your family. They like to talk about your drug addiction behind your back. Talk about how ashamed they are of you. How you should straighten up. You know. Your uncles and aunts prefer secrets. It’s easier for them to pretend their own children are not meth heads, just sorry ass you. Suppose your cousins will inherit the woods filled with snorts of bucks and grunts of does. You laugh. Hell, they can even have the rope back when you’re finished.
The hay rope is old. You and your cousins used to pull up bales of hay to the second floor of the rusty red barn back when the farm belonged to your grandparents. Damn that smell of sweetness. You never forget it, sucking on a blade of dried fescue. Almost better than the weed you are smoking now. Grandpa’s truck bed was loaded down so much so that it dragged the ground. You sat on the tailgate with your cousins letting your feet drag through the hayfield and through the currents of the swift cold creek.
Your cousins, all boys, also used the rope to hog tie your sister. You know, where you tie someone’s hands and feet behind their back. Then they tied the rope to the clothesline. Your sister screamed and screamed for help, but the cousins laughed and just called her a sissy. You never understood why they did it, but you never stopped them either. You just watched, afraid you were next. You and your sister were the needy grandkids that always got picked on, got the hand-me-down clothes from your cousins and clipped coupons for extra cash. You never went to the city swimming pool with your cousins. You couldn’t afford the $2 fee.
After your cousins left, you released the knotted ties that bound your sister to fear. A rope that tight could kill a person, could cut off their circulation. Despite all its use and wear, it never broke. Not for all that struggle of weight with your sister and with bales of hay. Surely it would hold 182 pounds of muscle, tattooed with the ink of prison and a gut that grew bigger with each sip of Busch beer.
A single leaf floats down and lands on your chest. You will need a bench. You remember. There is one over next to the cemetery gate. That’s where the folks meet for preaching at the graveside funeral services. Just last week old Isabelle died. The grave is still fresh with clods of clay. Older folks usually sit down during the service. Too much talk of hell and damnation and too much heat during the middle of an Ozark day makes them feel faint. Not sure if it’s their age or recall of sins against their Christian brothers. Many private grievances they took to the grave. It’s best, you suppose, for their fucked up mess they’ve made of their lives. Of course, they would not have said “fucked up,” just a life of mistakes not made by them, but by someone else, and forgiven by God. More judgments were handed out here at the cemetery, more than any handshake. Maybe not criminal or prison worthy, but a mystery that kept holding back the next generation in the next life. The bench is rickety but should hold your weight until … and if, you are brave enough to give it a good kick.
You’ve read it takes 20 minutes for the heart to stop beating, three-to-five minutes for your brain to die, and 30 seconds to lose consciousness. If you do it right, you will break your neck, die instantly. You must make sure you tie the knot on the left side of the jaw. If your neck does not break, you die a slow death, just strangling. You wonder. What would you think in those 30 seconds before you passed out? Such a short time to remember all 40 years of your life.
You throw the two-inch-thick rope over the strongest oak limb you can find, not too crooked or too straight. It looks almost like a cradle of a mother’s arm, and it’s at least nine feet off the ground. You grab the bench, try to level it on the acorn-covered ground. There was a heavy crop this year. The bucks will eat well. You brush away the acorns with your foot. The bench sets better now. You step on top of it. You loop the rope around your neck. Remember, tie the knot at the left side of your jaw.
You wonder who will find you, who will even stop. It is the perfect place to die. Your kinfolk will only have to carry you a few feet to lay you in the ground. You know your best days are ahead. They sure aren’t behind. Honesty, that’s the only thing that makes you feel alive and the whistle of breath through the gap between your two front teeth. The count down will begin with your fall of grace. Will they cut you down like a deer strung up for the gutting of its insides? Will your spirit jump like that of a buck being butchered? Its heart still warm. Will anyone feel upset for you that this buck got away? You are not sure you know how to let go, how to snort like a buck. You kick the bench. There is no going back after this leap of faith. Only 30 seconds:
:01 —You hear it! The sound of a buck snorting. It is loud and headed straight at you. Inside you. Where’s your rifle? Damn your neck hurts. The oak tree looks blurry, out of focus. The branches are moving.
:02 —You feel warm water running down between your crotch, down your leg. Shit!
:03 —Oh man, you just peed your fucking pants. You can hear your Daddy saying, “You can’t do anything right? You can’t even kill yourself right!”
:04 —“I’m sorry,” you say. Your mother picks you up, changes your diaper and carries you into the kitchen. You smell the frying of fresh kill. The deer meat will taste so tender. You want to move your jaws, but they are shut tight. Help, you want to scream for help, but there is no one to listen.
:05 —You want your Daddy to take you hunting. You want your Daddy to say, “Son, I love you.”
:06 —The rush. Noise, no silence, no noise. You want to cover your ears, but your arms are so heavy and so are your eyelids. They are falling. Go to sleep. You want Daddy and Mommy to stop fussing. It’s so loud inside your head.
:07 —Daddy is leaving. He takes all the guns, even your BB gun. You’ll never get to go hunting again.
:08 —Scooby Doo. Sister, I only wanted to watch my favorite cartoon show on Saturdays. I never intended to cut you. I don’t know why I grabbed the knife.
:09 —It hurts bad. You are bleeding down there on your underwear. Your cousin said he just wanted to show you his one-eyed monster. He promised he would take you hunting every weekend if you didn’t tell anyone. You kept the secret. You are seven. You are 11. You feel bad, but he feels happy. You keep thinking about killing that big buck while he’s wiggling his one-eyed monster. You will get happy in the woods. You pretend you are snorting like a buck.
:10 —You track him in the snow. His white tail flies, but not fast enough. You shoot. It feels better than making a touchdown in the senior high football game against the Highland Rebels. You feel good. You feel bad. Your cousin is spending the night.
:11 —You got your girlfriend pregnant. You are 15. The one-eyed monster did not make you pregnant, but it did her.
:12 —Baby, oh my sweet baby girl. Let me hold you. The pain of giving you back. Sweet surrender is what your cousin calls it when you hurt, when you bleed.
:13 —You get drunk. Forget those touches. Remember, those tracks of the buck in the snow. The steam of a stained white innocence. Oh my Millay.
:14 —Flashes of red, yellow, orange. You hate him. You hate you. Where is the buck in the snow? Stop.
:15 —You smoke weed. Relax. Forget. You feel high. You are flying.
:16 —You use meth. You fly higher. The buck snorts grow louder in your head, and so does your cousin’s laughter.
:17 —Twenty candles. You blew them all out. Bars. Prison. You wave goodbye to Scooby Doo. You are crying.
:18 —You are scared. You want your puppy dog, Winston.
:19 —Keys jangle. Forgotten. Let me out. There are no buck tracks on this cold concrete ground.
:20 —You see a black boy. Down on his knees. White boys on top. Guards laughing.
:21 —You know. You are next. There are many one-eyed monsters.
:22 —Night. Rough sheets. You are ready. You are released. Free, but still doing time. The shank did not save you. You snort with an anger no forest has yet heard, and you aren’t looking for a mate.
:23 —Pain. Numb. Weed. Meth. Money. Police. Back to prison. Back to shanks. Cousin. Buck snorting.
:24 —Nathan visits. Slips you a joint. Relaxing. No shakedown. Born innocent.
:25 —Free to go, but where? Woods. You bed down with the doe, so tired, sleeping.
:26 —No work. Felon stamped on your head. You cut sticks, sell them for 60 cents each. Damn your arms are hurting.
:27 —Listen …. You hear the bucks running through the woods?
:28 —Am I dreaming? Is that the pearly gate? I don’t fucking see it.
:29 —Morning fog rising. You see bodies lifting up from their graves. They are motioning you to follow. Long arms are tree branches. Fingers are roots. You see Nathan.
:30 —He is wearing his camouflage pants, holding a shotgun. You flare your nostrils. You circle him. There are buck tracks everywhere, and the bucks are grunting back and so is Nathan. He’s snorting, eyes alert and ears twitching.
“Hey man,” you say to Nathan. “You look great. Love that rack of horns!”
“Samuel, where you been? Heaven is great man! Got bucks to hunt everywhere up here.”
The sun is setting at Woodlawn Cemetery. The bucks from the forest gather at your feet that are dangling from the oak tree. The bucks snort and stomp. They scrape their antlers against your legs over and over, marking you as their own. You know it’s the greatest show of respect for you, the boy, who only wanted to hunt, the child, the man who kept hurting, who kept the secret. You stop your pain, your bleeding, your addiction. You are just a buck snort away from bellowing peace.
Fate Thompson grew up in the Ozarks on the family farm and first found literature at the bottom of a feather mattress. There in the rise and fall of her grandmother’s breasts, she listened to hand-me-down tales of slaves hiding beneath beds, black panthers scratching at cabin doors in the coldest of a winter’s night, and Civil War soldiers hiding in shocks of fodder. She says she can still hear the cadence of her grandmother’s voice mixed with the calls of the creatures of the night. The crickets. The Whippoorwills. The owl. Thompson received an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University.