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from benediction

Late March winds chewed through tears of ice frozen in the cracks of granite passes, bringing quick melt. Water actually spoke. It awakened a part of Mason he’d thought long discarded, a lightness in the limbs and skin that needed to shake off the heavy blankets of winter. It made him hungry. It made him want to eat away at the world.

His small cabin had kept him well through the coldest months. A few trips to Ray Ray’s hollow had supplied his primitive larder with canned goods and cheap beer. In exchange, he’d helped his cousin string barbwire and shore up the trailer’s rotting porch. Throwaway jobs. Gestures at barter meant to spare his feelings. But with the warming weather his desire found increase. He needed some greater possession than mere subsistence. Some piece of what other people called real living.

He hitched his way into town in the back of a county works truck hauling tools and tar back from a half day of patching road. The stink got down into the fibers of his clothes. When after only a few miles he jumped from the deep bed, thumped the side of the truck in thanks and turned down the main street of Canon City, he smelled bad enough that anyone passing close involuntarily winced. He went into the first service station that offered restrooms along the back exterior wall and locked himself in while he stripped and doused his clothes in a sink full of sudsy water before airing everything beneath an automatic hand dryer. He stepped out into the sun, blinking, waiting for some sound idea to yield itself to him.

He walked the entire street looking for Help Wanted signs, but saw none. He went on toward the edge of town, the railroad tracks curving beyond the paper mill, and squatted in an empty lot behind a flap of torn cyclone fencing where an aluminum screening business had once stood. He smoked a cigarette, watching the afternoon sun work its foul glimmerings across the puzzlework of busted glass spread across the concrete. Vandals had scribed enormous script in black spray paint across boarded up windows, but the characters belonged to no alphabet Mason could decipher. Some failure of symbol perhaps, some shared mistake of heart and eye.

As the afternoon wore on and drew clouds and finally sunset, cold came back in by degrees. Little traffic passed by the edge of town. He realized nothing could be done with what remained of the lapsed day, so he broke through one of the window boardings and stepped straight through into the vacuum of dark. Loneliness swung up from beneath his gut as he walked across the bare concrete floor. Awareness of empty space opened inside him like something decayed giving way to deeper waste. Just one depth breaking into another, a headlong descent that was endless and paralytic.

He had become homesick for his small self-made cabin, slight and crude as it might be. Just a day off the mountain reminded him of how much a good place could mean. In every true effort, there was some measure of approximation, a strain toward what felt right.

A single sodium light buzzed on at dusk, relieving the overall dark. He looked for something to burn, considered the boarding, but was afraid a fire might draw the police. He hunkered against the back cinder block wall and listened to the occasional scurry and sidling of invisible rodents. Eventually, he nodded off, sleeping deeper and better than he thought he might deserve.

The sound of a truck door clapping shut woke him in the soft blue of dawn. He went to the jagged break in the window and saw an old man across the road working beside a rust dappled pickup. He was hauling big crates out of the back and swinging them around toward an abandoned concrete platform, stacking them with an eye to keeping plumb. Mason watched him for a few minutes before he crawled through and walked across the street to speak with him.

“I can’t tell whether I should pop you with my crowbar or not,” the old man said, leaning toward the truck cab.

Mason showed him his hands. “Nosir, I’m an honest feller.”

“Boy, I doubt that. Those that need saying it usually ain’t the best qualified. What you doing stepping out of that old place?”

“Just caught a long way from home when there wasn’t an easy ride back.”
“You laid up there drunk, were you?”

Mason nodded over toward the platform.

“Want a hand with that what you’ve got?”

The old man looked over at his heaped crates for a minute, considering. Finally, he leaned back into the truck and brought out a hammer and pinch bar, pitching them both underhand to Mason.

“Pop those tops off and spread everything out by kind.”

Mason did as he was asked, revealing rows of greens—mustards, turnips and collards—as well as red potatoes and deep bundlings of yellow squash. Once all the produce was presentable, the old man reached out a tight bundle of plastic and paint roller extension poles so they could pitch an awning over everything once the sun was up.

By the time they’d finished, a short line had formed, older women mostly who probed their fingers into the vegetable flesh, testing, sensing, judging. The old man smiled and ducked his head when they said something that was supposed to amuse him, though Mason could tell it was all theater. There was a hardness behind the old man’s expression that spoke some immeasurable distance. Once the customers moved on, the old man drew a pint bottle of Old Crow from his denim jacket pocket and bubbled a snort.

“Here,” he said, handing the bottle across. “I know what it’s like to suffer the wrath the next morning.”

Mason took the proffered drink and did it justice. They looked on the whole vivid green field of unmown grass, slow wind moving.

“Name’s Virgil. Virgil Hammond,” the old man said, sticking out his hand.

Mason shook it and gave his own name. The talk that passed between them eventually eased. When their silences came, they did not hinge on some subsequent perturbation. They did not look too deeply into the moment. Instead, they merely swapped language, letting it settle over them like good weather.

“You know,” Hammond began. “I can’t offer much more than what veggies you can carry with you and a few dollars at the end of the week, but I could use some help if you’re of a mind. My back can’t handle this hauling like it used to. Plus all the cheap whisky you can hold, as long as you can hold it. I need somebody to sit and watch the store too, from time to time.”

“Store?”

“If you’re of a mind.”

“I might be.”

“Alright then. Let’s load up and I’ll run you over there to have a look.”

What remained of the vegetable stand could be gathered and boxed in a pair of the bigger crates. The remaining empties the old man crushed flat for kindling and tossed in with the tarpaulin and poles. Mason got in and rode, letting his arm drape from the open window, sunshine beating down hard against his skin. The slipstream gushed up to his armpit. He felt like some invisible hand was trying to lift him up or maybe make him flap his arms.

When they pulled into the gravel lot it was near suppertime and Hammond’s old collie barked its welcome. The dog was mangy and tied up to an iron pipe. Its eyes were fogged with cataracts that Mason could make out from a dozen feet away. He leaned over and scratched it behind the ears. He could feel burrs that had been picked and scabbed. The dog quit barking and licked his hand. He saw the water bowl was empty and filled it from the house spigot, watching it drink while the old man unlocked the door and turned on the lights.

He followed Hammond inside the general store, looking up and down the length of the shotgun aisles of canned meats, vegetables and hardware. A box fan was rattling from somewhere far in the back. Dust motes danced.

“Crack something open if you’re hungry,” Hammond called.

Mason turned in among the Vienna sausages, Spaghetti-o's, etc. He turned the key open on some Spam and dipped his fingers in, chewing and sucking on the juice while his gaze took in this place from half a century gone. A tin sign tacked over the transom featured a pickaninny rolling ecstatic eyes over bloodred watermelon.

“Only true general store left in the county,” Hammond said, tumping out some more of the Old Crow into a pair of red Solo cups, followed by a splash of lukewarm Coca-Cola. “My Daddy willed it to me back in the eighties.”

Mason briefly wondered if any customers had ventured the threshold since that lost decade. He took the red cup and turned it up, his head light from so much already on an empty stomach.

“We used to get more foot traffic from the college before they went and got that big bond so they could build everything up. Put in campus stores. Fucking Starbucks. Now it’s not too many. But I guess I keep the doors open out of nostalgia as much as anything else. You ever been up to the college?”

“Father used to work there. Years ago.”

“That right? Well, it’s good money I guess.”

Mason didn’t allow whether it was. He followed Hammond around to the few shelves, learning where everything was kept: the ledger, cash register, the ancient scattergun loaded with single aught buck.

“Can’t be too careful with goddamn methmonkeys running around.”

“Methmonkeys?”

Hammond fell to a story of a meth lab run by a strawberry headed boy known by the name of Strom who had cooked crank by the deep crook of the Plum River, remembered up unto that point in time for hollering drunk at the full moon, claiming hereditary werewolfdom. When he met the blunt edge of sobriety these claims evaporated as surely as the river fog did, but that did little to allay the sufferings of any souls within earshot whenever the animal spirit moved on him. At some obscure point he had inherited a chimpanzee rejected by a traveling circus, rejected supposedly because of the ape’s proclivity for detaching his trainer’s digits with his teeth. Two such poorly prepared individuals had no correct business being placed in one another’s company, of course, but the universe conspired and this ill-favored boy and this ill-starred primate found themselves domestically bound. There were some who believed, despite all common expectations, the pairing drew a previously obscured sense of responsibility out of Strom, as a magnet might draw out solid mineral deposits from a pile of dry scat. He was seen tending to the hirsute dependent, running a comb over its wiry coat, mimicking the grooming behaviors of true children of the wild.

The problem, however, came when the county deputies caught Strom out on the back end of Buchanan Holler, delivering three baggies of crank to a bachelor party for Roddy Buchanan, a boy less than six weeks back from the Iraq war. When he was popped for possession (as a result of being shaken down in a routine brace since there was no mystery to the illicit nature of the boy’s income), Strom mouthed off to one of the arresting deputies, which resulted in a quick jab to the mouth with the tough end of the lawman’s PR-24 police baton. The blow did more damage than intended, dislocating Strom’s front teeth and swelling his mouth so that his words came out in an ugly and largely ignored stream of profanity. Lost in this muffled diatribe were his entreaties about his pet chimp, locked without direct access to food or water in his small trailer.

Three days passed before the boy recovered his ability to speak clearly enough to be understood. Animal control was dispatched to the trailer immediately but could not have been prepared for the evil greeting them, the starved and outraged beast delirious from its meth binge. Before the officer could wrangle the steel loop around the chimp’s neck, it burst through the front door, hissing and foaming at the mouth. The animal control man dove back into the protection of his truck cab. Since that day, the furry addict had been running the hills, howling for its accustomed fix. Many mistook the sound for Strom’s own wailing, but some knew the boy was still in county lock up and that the cry belonged to a soul even more hopeless than he.

Mason did not betray a smile through the course of Hammond’s cautionary tale. He knew it foolish to discount a man’s wildest fear when the man himself believed in the telling well enough to treat it as wisdom. And despite his incredulity, once Hammond left for the evening, Mason picked up the shotgun and ran a dust rag over its oiled surface before returning the weapon to its customary concealment, comforted by having the piece close at hand. He sat alone in the dark as moonlight slowed across the puncheon floor in those long hours, the fan softly rattling behind him. He was listening for any night cries. Though there were none, he occasionally leaned from his chair and touched the breech of the shotgun, gradually learning its total shape, discovering his affinity for what such a piece of metal might issue.





charles dodd white was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1976. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he teaches writing and literature at South College. He has been a Marine, a fishing guide, and a newspaper journalist. He is the author of the story collection, Sinners of Sanction County, the novel, Lambs of Men, and co-editor of the contemporary Appalachian short story anthology Degrees of Elevation. His short fiction has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, The Collagist, Fugue, The Louisville Review, North Carolina Literary Review, PANK, Tusculum Review, and other publications. In 2011 he was awarded a fellowship in prose by the North Carolina Arts Council. His next novel, Benediction, is forthcoming in late 2013 from Fiddleblack Press.



©2012
photo credit: Sandra Neumann