From The Last Will and Testament of Said Gun
We sold moonshine to police officers and the terminally ill. We sold to little boys before their baseball games. We’d root for both sides and proposition their swan-like mothers. We sold to widows whose hard shoulders I would hold as they wept in poorly wallpapered living rooms while Trembles stole their laudanum and Benzedrine. If anyone opened a rival still we fed them a few of their teeth. Money hatched in our pockets like mayflies, but wealth was not the only point. It was an eschatological prank. It was revenge for what we could not name, something so large it couldn’t be seen in its entirety even if you were on your back on the hood of a Packard watching the moon turn clouds as strange as an infant’s white hair. For so long we had lived in landscapes other men owned. We scrawled our nightmares on notecards we pinned to our collars like children sent to the store. When you sell neighbors their vice you feel equal parts good Samaritan and disease. We were making a county of drunk struggling through their houses moaning about pensions and the scratchiness of their robes. When they couldn’t afford a drink you couldn’t imagine what they offered in trade. Earthworms. Quilts. Bull semen. A glass eye who she swore had once been in the mouth of Hank Williams. Their tongues. Directions and the time of night to be in a secluded silo and hell are you boys going to like what you find there. We always made sure to hold back enough for us. Every night we killed a fifth of the moon.
We tied ropes from building to building. This way if we were too drunk in the too dark we could still orient ourselves. Crossing from the still to the house I pretended I was on a rope bridge, dangling over a cavern with land a mile below, although the reality was that land was all there was. 3AM got clotheslined by them as often as he was guided to the house. Trembles would walk the whole circuit of ropes in a circle for hours. The Big Dipper looked to him more like a wartime powder horn calling for a charge.
It struck me that to others it probably looked like the worst fence, and us the poorly pent stock. Some farmers believed that you should wash your sheep. They’d lead them to a creek or a vat and carry them into the water, but take care to not let their hooves touch the bottom. Afterwards, they would press as much water out as they could with their hands, as if they didn’t the weight of the wet wool would make the sheep unable to stand. We wandered soused in our pen, farmerless.
I brought my old baby crib down from the attic to keep the baby chicks in during the winter. I shoved cardboard around the mattress so they wouldn’t get out but they ate right through it with their keen beaks. So the crib became the place where 3AM would sleep off his drunks, curled in the fetal position. Trembles and I would collect all of the chicks in a tub and dump them all over 3AM and they would peck him mercilessly out of fear, making holes in his clothes, drawing blood. Trembles and I held our stomachs and bellowed like stags.
You could have called 3AM our best customer if he ever paid. Instead he became a sort of advertisement for us, a spokesman for stupor. He would stumble and pratfall like a silent movie actor. If we were in mixed company we would apologize for him, but more often than not the response was “Sell me whatever he had.” There is something about doing physical labor, whether it be working with brick or pinching a darning needle between your fingers 14 hours a day, that makes you want to become a stone, or run a thread back and forth between one’s ear in the last hours of the day. The cessation of thought. The intellect hangs its key on the brass hook. The body wants to wander aimlessly inside of itself, a child in a field. I sold them permission.
Once when 3AM was curled in the crib and Trembles and I were washing jars. We had people return them when Trembles would come to deliver the milk. 3AM’s snoring was our work song. Then we heard a car door shut close by. The still, the barrels, two racks of jars ready to sell: all was in the dairy barn, which we couldn’t see from the sink. We both wiped hands on our pants and grabbed shotguns we had sawed short to fit in a glove box.
By the time we got to the barn, the door was already open, and a large black car was parked in the grass alongside. I wondered how we hadn’t heard an engine, then guessed that they had pushed the car in neutral from the road across the yard. The car was mud-caked behind the tires. In the backseat there was what looked to my eyes like a mannequin with a five-pointed hat on. Two men were starting to lift one rack of jars. Another approached holding his right palm out vertically. He had a pistol tucked between his belt and pants on his left hip. “I’m Officer Victor Sippel. We got to take the liquor and the proceeds. No trouble.” He had something in his teeth. A form of black lettuce. He wore blue trousers with grease stains on his thighs and buttocks. The badge looked legit, if a bit too pristine, fresh from the hydraulic press. I aimed the shotgun at his cocked moustache.
Trembles and the other two men raised their firearms as well. One aimed at Trembles; he wasn’t even trying to play a police officer, as his coveralls were covered with fleece as if he was pulling a caper on a shearing break. The other man aimed at me with the smallest gun I’d ever seen. I imagined it was made for a woman to carry in her purse in Tombstone, Arizona. His fingers were so squat he could barely fit the trigger guard. If he had sneezed he’d have fired. I found myself feeling very much like I wanted this man to be dead.
“Now now,” Sippel said in an inscrutable tone, meaning either to instruct his men to commence shooting, or to scold me for my aiming a gun at his face like a father would to his errant son. Now. Now. We all stood and listen to a train warn an empty crossroads of its consignment of coal. I’d read of scenes like this in books, sheriffs point guns at bad guys forsworn to skullduggery. Oaths are exchanged, escapes are engineered, or deaths are meted out according to the definition of justice easily digested by children. In this scene, I killed Sippel. Shot him in the right side of his face, with some of the buck pellets missing him and putting little holes in a window, but passing through a spider web without disturbing a single silk. His body slumped backwards and onto his side, away from me, as if his blood was his own affair alone.
Killing the leader of a trio of moonshine thieves, it turns out, is not dissimilar to the relationship of a slain alpha to his pack. The two men began shooting with great ferocity with little accuracy, falling back deeper into the barn as if they had coordinated each movement, firing in our general direction until they reached a horse stall, where they went silent. The stalls were made of brick up to the hip, the rest being iron stanchions up to the ceiling. They crouched beneath the brick with only their guns visible over the top. I assumed they could see us through a chink in the masonry. Trembles and I sat down cross-legged and tried to whisper a plan. He yammered a convoluted strategy of half-accurate military language. I shook like a heat mirage.
Killing a man made me feel like this: I am a small girl having her tangled hair brushed out roughly by her mother. She worked my scalp with a steel comb, no oil or even water, the snags unkinked by force. My head burned underneath my hair and still the fingers dug at it, teasing out the nest of pain. And it would not spot even when the hair was straightened, but only when the hands decided it was over. All the while I felt shame. I had broken something. A sentimental thing: mother’s mother’s doll, or the pearl father had been planning to give to me on my birthday, with another to follow for every year of my life until I had a full necklace and was then ready to no longer live under his roof. I had broken it and now had to find a place to hide it so I could never be blamed. The man laid so that I could see the small of his back, which was covered with thin dark hair. A grave would have to be dug. I would have to hide God’s toy under a sheet of earth while he clacks his teaspoons together in the maple tree.
While Trembles and I spoke, we did not notice a figure enter the barn from the side door, behind the stall where the man hid, holding a wooden crate. The first hint that something new had entered was the faint sound of chirping. I took my eyes a long time to divide the browns and grays to determine that the figure was 3AM. He walked up to the stall towards the U-shaped opening in the door made for a horse to stick its head through. The men’s ears must have been so stuffed with blood they did not hear him. Into the opening he dumped the contents of the crate, which was all of the baby chicks we kept in the house. He then pulled a pistol from the waist of his pants and shot the two men as they gaped at the yellow cascade of biddies falling over them, some already drilling their egg teeth into the men’s skin. In their dying, the men staggered and fell, stamping upon and crushing some of the chicks before they fell onto the splinters of straw.
Trembles and I ran towards 3AM, who was still drunk. The exertion of this act hit him all at once, as it did for me as well. He had to have sussed out the danger, searched the cluttered desk in his brain to remember where I kept my last resort pistol, fumbled through my drawer full of bullets to find the right calibers, then collected the scattered chicks in the crate.
Now they pinced chiggers from the dust around the dead men, hopping on the issue of dust and blood, even the dead from their own brood.
“Why did you throw the chicks in there?” Trembles asked.
Looking up with eyes wet and large, all iris, he panted, trying to explain something about family, while a biddy leaped onto the toe box of his boot and sipped blood from a crease in the leather.
We buried the three men in the shadow of the barn.
Trembles hotwired their car and abandoned it in the parking lot of the unemployment office for the desperate to strip for parts they turn into peaches or train tickets or a pig.
In the pocket of the man with the small gun, we found a small card with a phone number written on it. I told 3AM to let it be, but he called it. Said nothing. After hesitating, a woman’s voice tested out a man’s name through the static. He hung up and drank half a jar in one gulp before curling back into the crib.
From then on we kept the moonshine up attic. We put the chicks in a pen over the fresh-dug dirt behind the barn so they could feast on the bugs that were trying to find again their socket of darkness.
I was arrested with my mouth full of pheasant feathers.
Trembles was arrested in a glen of deer bones.
I was arrested over and over as the turntable’s needle skipped on the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
I was arrested as a crow took to the sky like a thought death just had.
Trembles was arrested with his soul spinning like a flicked penny.
I was arrested not knowing which to prefer, the bark of the terrified officer’s demands that I become one with the ground, or just after.
I was restrained by the length of rope that hung John Hardy.
I was tied to a wheelbarrow full of severed bull’s horns.
I was placed inside a silo for interrogation.
I was placed into a silent field of snow for interrogation and cracked during the first interminable question.
Trembles was asked how much a tongue costs in this county.
Trembles was asked to pick scare, scar or scatter.
I was locked inside of a trough of gnawed apples.
I was locked inside a ditch and fed thorns ground into bread.
Trembles was placed in solitary inside of the last day of summer.
The trees took off their black bras.
I placed my one phone call to the animals made of light inside of God’s skull.
Trembles called my house and the mice froze.
I waited in a simple room: white sink, eight spiders, no chair and a little blood.
I waited to be sober.
Trembles pled for water.
I lost count of the shadows that held my name up like chauffeur drivers.
I thought about my fields forsaken to fireweed.
I grew an elaborate set of antlers that made it impossible to move my head in my cell.
Trembles fed lice to the baby bird of his patience.
The pipes for hot water knocked on the door of my sleep.
I slept like thirteen dollars in a drunk’s pocket.
Trembles changed his name to Rust.
My parole board eyed me like da Gama eyed the horizon.
They asked me about the chary insides of Said Gun’s skull.
I set my fatigue out on the table like an ugly wooden cup.
They told me I was too gone to be bad.
Rust wrapped his hands around the bars of his cell.
They let me go.
My parole officer was a swollen river lined with dogwoods.
My parole officer was a dog’s gray eyes.
Rust stayed behind, reduced to a combination of water, oxygen, dioxides and thirst.
I went back home, where I was greeted by a rooster with a belly full of gravel.
On the next farm a woman I’d never seen before pinned up her underthings as if she was incapable of shame.
I was capable.
There is more to damage than tenderness afterwards.
There is more than meat, more than I.
I pledged allegiance to a radical provincialism.
I raked leaves, burned them.
I pledged allegiance to the wind.
I put newspapers over the broken windows.
They told me that lives like mine are invisible.
I put on a dead man’s best clothes.
Wind is the revenge of the invisible.
I will not speak much of my time in prison. My own stink sat beside me like a hideous wingless bird. A man looked inside my mouth with a flashlight. It lasted 60 months. Trembles moved off to his folks in Mechanicsburg. 3AM lost his mind and was not seem fit for release by the County Committee for Mental Hygiene. I went back to the farm. I tried to read the past few years through the scat throughout the house. The mice have made a temple to gluttony with their black rice. Bats cover the attic, the only insulation it has left. Silverfish festoon the pipes like an endless necklace. A raccoon lay dead next to a hill of salt.
In the barn the pigeons had set up a kingdom of shit so complete it could only be called feudal. The still had been completely stripped and stolen. The three dead men hummed a little song of shale underground. While in prison the police asked us about them. Said gun, said knife. We kept our mouths shut. I wonder if that’s why they used the flashlight. The garden had grown strange hybrid squash that glowed orange. The plow wore its rust like a fur coat. I had to decide whether to take the farm back or to leave it behind. I was broke, save for the value of the land. I was a felon. I was a virgin. I thought back to my baseball days, running for home, running from home. I went to the front closet and grabbed a broom my mother had made from split cornstalks, ash and twine. As I cleaned, I came across scat on the stairs that I did not recognize, and not old. I half expected something to be crouched in the corner and snarling. It did not scare me. I stood silent, marveling at the prosaic light coming through gaps in the warped lumber, the creaks of joists whose weight held for who knows how long some nameless creature who found refuge from the wind for a night, or a life.
Some nights the three dead men call out to me, even now. Their voices sound like a cat’s with a bottle stuck on its head. It helps me sleep to think that as they turn back into earth, their bodies are being mended. Their bodies are reminded of this sensation back before they were people. It’s all God’s farm. He grows people and plants them under the soil. But what is the grain, the yield? That’s probably the wrong way to think of it. The point is to make more dirt. Eventually there will be so many people underground that the dirt of the world will overflow and crowd out the lakes and oceans. It will be the opposite of the flood. The world will be field after field fueled by the sugar and nitrogen of all of our bodies. The black soil will swallow cities. God will have nothing to do but play with the light. We will be unbroken under one earth. No seeds, no potential, just blood-charmed mud amen.
There are no horses any more. Maybe one for the weekend farmers to trot their fat daughters around on, or one on a Mennonite farm. The Bottoms are now full of trailer homes. Kids sell drugs there and the drugs are, get this, mushrooms. People nearby don’t come around as much. They don’t need help like they used to. An engine is more a reliable kind of animal.
I wonder where you are Trembles.
I wonder in what wilderness 3AM’s mind wanders.
There are no more wolves. Hardly any coyotes. You don’t have to pull your own weeds anymore, as you just spray the whole field with DDT. And even that you can hire an airplane to do for you.
Almost every barn is still here, though fewer are in use. Those that aren’t sag and their trestles twist off plumb. They collapse in elegant equipoise. These fill me with overwhelming sadness. They are not my self-portrait, but they do tell part of my story. They are my museums. My dearest uncles. My admonishing supervisors. My arks.
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