a short story by Michael Credico
IN THE DISTANCE were such fucks. I was out on the edge of a cliff’s ridge watching these kids, these fucks, at play on a buoy, and I felt bad for it, the buoy, because it’s got no purpose but being there case something goes wrong. I hoped something went wrong but in no cruel way. I ain’t saying drown, but how about almost?
Almost it’d happened to me, and maybe it served me right where distance was concerned. I had a fixed address for three months in Muncie and lettered back and forth with a woman in Huntington. She wrote she had a pool, and it was a nice pool when it came to being clean. She wrote there were pumps and filters and that sometimes she’d swallow the chlorine. Do you know, she wrote, how nice it is to clean mouth another person? and that I could, if I was serious for her, swallow the chlorine too, and we could clean mouth each other while her folks did business in Fort Wayne.
I wasn’t much for water. I had fished with my father before he went soldiering, but soldiering was the last thing he ever did. I never thought to pick it back up. I didn’t know my mother neither. Could be she knew swimming, but I didn’t know her so I never learned.
I was serious enough for womaning and clean mouthing that I lettered back that I could make her town in two days’ time. She lettered back asking what color my teeth were, and I lettered back they were the color anyone’s teeth were.
At Huntington, she was already in the pool. Her lips lipped the surface. I said, “You know who I am?” and she shook her head, and the water turned into ripples. My mouth was clean enough. I had brushed up in the hole in the floor when the train stopped off at Marion. I had a good taste in my mouth as far as I could taste, so I bent down to clean mouth her right then. But with water, the distance isn’t what it looks like. I kept bending and bending and by the time I touched lips, I was good as dead. She pulled me out before I’d gone lights out. She clean mouthed me in a way that felt like my chest was emptying out its insides. “Chlorine?” I choked off. She tasted good.
“I don’t think this is going to work out,” she said.
“I came this distance to be your man.”
“It was a good distance. But maybe it was wrong to.”
“Is it that I brushed three counties ago?”
“It’s that I can’t always be there to save you. I’m not ready for that kind of man yet.”
Them words left a taste I couldn’t brush off. I figured maybe she was right about the distance being wrong. Maybe it’s that I hadn’t gone far enough like a man is expected. I decided then I’d not turn back. I’d keep forward. I crossed the state line and kept on until finding the cliff where land ends and lake starts. I climbed down to the ridge on the side of the cliff and it looked fine for resting on. I saw out on the whole of the lake. I wished I might be able to get away with calling it an ocean because an ocean means men are looked at different by the women. I think it’s the threats, the sharks and the whatnot, but not a lot of the women know the hurt of walleye gills and fingers in the wrong opening. My father wisdomed me that before soldiering. It’s a thing I’ll remember as good as love.
I have a heart. I’m a good man if even I come up short sometimes. I’m good as far as when dark came and the kids were safe as pets on the shore, I felt good enough about it. I’m good as far as though I can’t swim, I went after the dog anyhow, the dog that fell off the cliff and into the lake like a fig leaf. I jumped right in as a first reaction. It was instinct-like, seeing this live thing scrambling in the ripples and jumping for it. Always my thing was getting on out the way. Shield if need shielding. No taking up swords in the preventing sense. But this time, with this dog so close to lights outs, I was just action.
I’d been thinking what did I have to lose anymore? This was before the falling dog came along. Before them fucks at play on the buoy, even. I’d paid that thought a never mind. I did that thing I was getting real good at where I swallow hard like never mind, and the feeling slips into a pit at the bottom of my stomach. Most times this is a forever swallowed thing, but then I jumped like someone with nothing to lose. And in the air, I think, too late, I seen she was right, the Huntington woman, about her not being there to save me like she said she wouldn’t.
I had the dog in my arms. It was alive, and so was I. I screamed because I knew people were somewhere. Them fucks started screaming, thank goodness, “The buoy. Swim to it.”
I screamed back, “I can’t.”
I was sure it was it for me and the dog both until a floating donut fell to us like a miracle. I fit myself through the hole. The dog clung strong-pawed to my shoulders. We were lifted right up by a man who angry-like shouted, “Forget the damn dog.”
“I haven’t almost died for nothing,” I said.
When I was safe on the cliff’s ridge and the dog, parroted on my shoulders, yipped, I said, “Sir, is this your dog? Sir, did I do good for the both of you?”
“Son of a bitch,” the man said. He ripped the dog off my shoulders and tossed it back into the lake. I’d never before seen a live thing go flying like that with no wings. I turned after it. I leaped off the edge of the cliff’s ridge but was caught by my shirt collar by the man.
“Your dog,” I said. “I can save it like it deserves.”
The man slammed me onto the dirt. He straddled me so I was stuck.
“But sir—” is how I began my next set of words. I didn’t end it because the man stabbed me clean through the stomach. It was lights out as soon as the cold became pain. It was a long out, too, but not forever as I’d feared. I came to. I looked for the man. There was no man. And the dog, his dog, was done for, bellied up, in the water next to the buoy.
I checked myself for blood. It was pooled in the dirt, and there was a lot of it. I thought it might be a whole body’s full. I didn’t know how to check for self-death other than pinching. It hurt when I did it, but then my whole self was hurting.
I wasn’t alone on the cliff’s ridge. At the other end, there sat an old lady. Her legs dangled over the water. She was crocheting, which is no strange thing because this was still the heartland and winter was always coming.
“Am I dead?” I said.
“I’ve been doing this since before your parents were born,” the old lady said. “You’ll be okay if you don’t try to be no hero no more.”
I lifted my shirt. I was crocheted shut where the knife had gone in. I looked like a wool sock after hiking a hot week in shit shoes. “Thank you,” I said.
“You never Ohio’ed before,” she said.
“I’ve been Ohio’ing a week now. If that’s enough.”
“Not to Ohio right,” she said. “Do you want it back?” She held out the knife. My blood was still stuck to it.
“I suppose I might,” I said. “If it means Ohio’ing right.”
“At least, you might stand a chance some,” she said. “Don’t go getting into what you shouldn’t.”
“I’m only going,” I said. I thought she might appreciate that, but she kept on with her crocheting. I took no offense to it because she was the same heartland folk I was used to. We don’t steady well on more than one thing at a time.
The only difference I saw between Ohio and home was the lake. It was theirs. Chicago had its claim on the Michigan on account of culture and economy, and no Indianan ever worried them for it. It wouldn’t be Indiana’ing right to worry over anything north of Route 6.
Far as things else, I still smelled calf shit and the corn wafts and the train steam. It troubled me some: the distance I’d gone and the sameness it brought. I’d hoped for, expected, even, different. Every town might well have been Danville over and over again.
I climbed up off the ridge and followed the shoreline as far as my legs could take. I took to walking slower on account of the wound. The hurt was less and less each day, but then I got full of the hunger and the hunger pains. This was at a port called Clinton. I looked out for a church because Fathers always ate better than they’d let on. There were plenty of them, so I went for the steeple tallest.
Father was sitting lonesome at the altar. “Father,” I said.
He looked up. His eyeglasses slipped to the end of his nose. “It isn’t Sunday,” he said.
“I came for charity.”
“Is that what you believe in?”
“I believe in all of it.”
“You even American?”
“A man, I would say, in Indianan terms.” I went to the altar to greet him hand to hand. “The hunger, is all.”
“I’ve accumulated distance.”
“I’m not sure.”
He stood up and pushed me up against a concrete Jesus. He gave me a pat down. “Not sure how it goes in Indiana,” he said as his hands slid down my thighs, “But in Ohio—yes!” He found my knife. “Looks like you already killed,” he said. “You mark me next, son?”
“I mark no one,” I said. “It’s my own blood.”
Father set the knife to soak in the holy water tub. “I shouldn’t believe you,” Father said. He brought back from the rectory a plate of goose liver bits and a couple bottles of sermon wine.
“I’m not much for drinking,” I said.
“Wine and liver. Good as Mary and Joe.”
I ate in the pews. Father gobletted me sermon wine until my head filled with the wondering about saving. I said as much too. “Father, you think I need saving?”
“Some people aren’t meant for saving. It all works out in the end probably.” He lifted the knife out of the tub. It glistened bright from the clean and from the votives at the altar all lit up and dancing.
“If I might not be one for saving,” I said, “maybe this wine deserves mouths not mine.”
“The mouths are fewer anymore,” he said. “Money, too.” He gave me the knife. He took up space against the wall under a stained glass angel. It was like it was standing on Father’s shoulders. I stopped chewing the liver bits it was so pretty. I swallowed hard because it was one of those moments I needed to swallow hard and stand quickly, chest out, like a man who’s come to think he needs to make decisions.
“Father,” I said. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Hold up that knife,” he said. He lifted his hands, dive-like, so the tips of his fingers arrowed the angel’s doodly region. “You know some about penetration?” he said.
“I’d like to,” I said. “Depending some on if you mean man or woman.”
“It’s a symbol,” he said. “Think warmth in your cheeks. Your heart.”
“I think it’s the sermon wine.”
“You think your aim is no good here?”
“I think I’m not much for hurting no one.”
“It isn’t no one. It’s gospel.”
“It’s word, is what you’re saying.”
“I say, ‘Ready,’ so get ready.”
I held the knife by the blade. “Suppose I throw off and you’re done for, Father?” It’s something I was worrying for. No good comes for men who kill Fathers, especially men filled up on Fathers’ sermon wine and liver bits.
“It’s a short distance for a man,” he said. “I have eyes looking after me.”
I aimed the knife much higher than the angel’s doodly region in case I mistaked bad, so I could stomach it, a mistaking.
Father gave me the slow nod that meant throw. I reared back and let loose on the angel on Father’s shoulders. I struck it an inch, maybe, above Father’s fingers. “Christ,” he said.
The glass didn’t shatter like I thought it might. The knife just stuck up and out in such a way that I felt my cheeks fill up with the blush.
Father gobletted me more sermon wine. He patted me on the back. “I know a man who pays two hundred easy for that kind of talent,” he said.
“I never thought myself worth so much,” I said.
Father went to prayer. I set myself horizoned on the pew. The sermon wine and Father’s lips moving set me right on sleeping. Drink dreams was something I’d not had much of. Maybe I slept hard because of them though. Maybe I dreamt up my worth, two hundred dollars, the kind of money that could take a man a good distance.
Me and Father set out the next morning on the condition we split my worth even on account of his taking the trouble. I didn’t worry him for it because though I wasn’t much for church, I’d always had that thought that I could do more than I could do. I figured a hundred could do right to get me far, and if trouble stuffed me up from moving farther, there was always churches wherever I might be. It was California logic, I think it’s called. That when rushing for gold was the thing people had gotten into, they’d used the church system to survive the west. You take a meal here and there, and soon enough, you’re where you wanted. You give back how you can manage, maybe even start a church by your lonesome, because that’s how you’d gotten so far to begin with. Most probably, I could never be a churcher. But a hundred is no small thing. Might even feel heavy-like in on-high’s coffers.
We walked a ways from the church to where the lake was gone from sight and where the corn grew tall as home. Father led us through the corn, cutting pathways with my knife. “How’d you get so good with cutting?” I said.
“I only aim not to get lost,” he said.
After the corn, we were in brush and then the wilds. I saw a cabin a ways off. “There?” I said.
“Here,” Father said.
He knocked on the door. A woodsman answered and crossed himself Catholic until Father crossed back. He gave the woodsman a bottle of sermon wine. The woodsman looked a good while at the label. He frowned a little, I saw, and I thought what wine could be better than wine that was blessed? He looked up at Father. “This the coming for?” he said.
“No,” Father said. “This boy here. He’ll kill you.”
Most probably my ears should have wolfed up at kill, but the woodsman eyed me hard like the label of the sermon wine. Certainly I wasn’t blessed. I’d only just survived the hurt from being critical’ed by a stranger. I didn’t think I deserved scrutinying like that by a stranger as well.
“Sir,” I said because of manners.
“The boy?” the woodsman said. “I only need an almost.”
“I won’t promise you almost,” Father said. “Just that the boy can knife.”
I lowered my head sheep-like. I had a new hurt: being called boy. I was old enough for legitimate employment and soldiering, even. Maybe it’s that they were an age that could be my father’s. But my father was long soldiered, and what age would he be now if he hadn’t, even?
“Boy,” the woodsman said again.
“No boy here,” I said. “I can serve if I wanted.”
“Is there still a shortage?” Father said.
“Which war is it this time?” the woodsman said. “It’s over, I thought.” He and Father got to pondering. Me? I didn’t know so sure, but I knew I could soldier if I wanted.
The woodsman gave back Father the sermon wine. “I got another thing,” he said.
“And the money?”
“Out back. Wait.”
Out back was a clearing. At its farthest end was logs done up like racked billiard balls. Father opened the sermon wine and gave me the bottle. I was sick a little from the night before, so I shook my head no. He took a swig. We sat in the grass and waited. It was four swigs when the woodsman appeared from inside the cabin. He’d taken off all his clothes. The whole of him, every damn part, was carpeted with hair thick as the thick in the wilds around us. If I had a gun, if I didn’t know better than that he was a human being, and that I wasn’t no cruel man, I’d have shot him right then for the sport of it.
The woodsman sat next to Father. “Show me the knife,” he said. Father set it next to the sermon wine. The woodsman turned to me. “You Ohio, right?”
“Indiana,” I said.
“I never thought Indiana for killing,” the woodsman said.
“It’s a sharp knife,” Father said. “Saw it with my own eyes.”
“You Indiana before?” I said.
“I had family there,” the woodsman said. “It was hard times. I needed a place a while.”
“I Indiana’ed all my life until Ohio,” I said.
“It says something that you got out,” the woodsman said. “Says balls, I think.”
“Not so hard for a man,” I said.
The woodsman laughed. “It’s flat. I remember I could see clear across to the other side. I left before I Indiana’ed too far, too long.”
“The flatness isn’t so bad after a while.”
“After a while, if you Indiana too far, there’s no escaping it.” He turned back to Father. Father took another swig. “You sure the boy is what you’re saying?”
“I have holes to prove it,” Father said. “The threat is real.”
“You sober?” the woodsman said to me.
“As thistle,” I said.
“That won’t do if you’re as good as God’s wordsman is saying.”
The woodsman went back into the cabin. He fetched a bottle of whiskey.
“Stakes,” Father said.
“Two hundred is our agreement.” the woodsman said. “With stakes.”
“It isn’t my head,” Father said. “So long as my hands are full.” He gave me the whiskey.
“I don’t think I should,” I said.
“What’s it say about my word then?” Father said. “What about God’s?”
I reached shamedly for the bottle. I held it to my lips. I took a good sniff and I felt my eye corners swell up a bit. I looked to Father. Then the woodsman. “Go on,” they said. I swigged until my chest felt charred.
The woodsman gave me the knife. “How do you feel?”
“A lot less,” I said.
“Enough, then,” Father said. He took the whiskey and swigged it himself.
The woodsman pointed to the logs done up like billiards. “You see that there?” the woodsman said. “Father will set me running for it. When I’m running, you throw the knife.”
“Where towards,” I said.
“As close to me as you can.”
Father hobbled up close to the woodsman. “So you’re set?”
The woodsman grabbed Father by his collar. “I’m a sinner,” he said. He spat in Father’s face. “A sinner.”
Father wiped the spit off. He slugged the woodsman hard on the jaw. A tooth jarred loose and landed at my feet. There was blood on its roots. The woodsman collapsed on account of blunt force. Father collapsed on account of sermon wine and whiskey. The woodsman looked up at me. “Sinner,” he said. “Remember that.” He stumbled to his feet. He set off running for the billiards. I reared back as was Father’s word. I hiccupped. I threw the knife. The knife whizzed by the woodsman’s ear and stuck clean into the log I’d call the orange five. The woodsman threw up his arms. He was laughing. He shadowboxed, jumping up and down, going, “Yes, yes.” He came running to me fast like there was no hurt on him at all. He took my hand and we shook like we was man to man as we should be. “I’ve never been that close before,” he said. He was flush as a drunk and breathing like he’d done jailbreaked.
Father lifted his head up. “The money?” he said.
“Again,” the woodsman said.
“Two threats cost double.”
The woodsman set four hundred dollars on the grass. Father sat up and shuffled the bills. “Well?” the woodsman said. Father pocketed the bills. The woodsman ran to the logs done up like billiards and brought back the knife. “Drink first,” he told me. I swigged at what was left of the whiskey. “Father?” the woodsman said. Father was passed out. “You then,” the woodsman said. “You then, boy.”
“I’m no boy,” I said. “We just shook like men.”
“Boy,” he said again, and I slugged him in the gut with all I had in me. I felt his hair between my knuckles like a sheep’s mane. I felt whatever air he had inside him on my face. I saw his eyes like how could you? I saw fear.
“I’m sorry,” is what I tried for him to hear, but he was already off running crooked to the billiards. I was ashamed of myself and my violence. I couldn’t call myself no cruel man no more if I was knifing for money and for distance. I let the knife drop to the grass. “I won’t,” I said. I crossed my arms over my chest. The woodsman didn’t notice my peace. He smacked headfirst into the logs done up like billiards. I’d call it the red seven: the log that split the woodsman’s skull clean open.
My legs were like they weren’t stuck to my hips. It was on account of the influences, I think. I ghosted on over to the woodsman. I shook him to be sure he was what he seemed he was. And, yeah, he was. What was inside the woodman’s self seeped into the dirt. It was serene seeming despite my own head feeling done come apart. It was like I was a child again and I’d upped a tree the first time in the spring after a long winter. I’d find nests and eggs inside them nests. I’d watch over them until dusk. I’d whisper so only the eggs could hear, “You know something’s coming back for you,” and while I’m no child no more, almost, I said that very same thing to the woodsman.
I heard Father stirring. “I think it’s time you said something,” I said.
When he saw the woodsman’s skull split like that, he vomited. “Give me your shirt,” he said. He wiped his lips. He covered the woodsman’s head. He counted the money. He slapped the stack of bills against his palm. Then he pointed at the crocheted spot on my stomach. “What is that?” he said.
“My hurt,” I said. But I was lying about that. I was feeling better. The stitches were tight. The influences were thick in my stomach.
“Self-defense, it looks like,” Father said. “Will you keep that in mind in case some folks come wondering?”
“Is that all?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Father said. I followed him into the woodsman’s cabin. The door was locked. He broke through a window with the crucifix end of a rosary. He reached in and unlocked the door. The woodsman lived as modest means as I’d ever seen a man with a place to call home. There was no furniture except for more logs. No pictures and what haves you.
Father went to all the different rooms. He got on his knees and scanned the floors. He opened all the closets. More logs. Some woodchips. “That is it, isn’t?” he said. He counted the bills again.
I went to what must’ve been the bedroom because the logs were tied up in a way a man could sprawl out comfortable. There was a shelf in the corner. On the shelf was miniature trees of all shapes and colors. That they were whittled statues was obvious. Less obvious was the labels in small cursives tacked to their trunks: pawpaw, alder, sumac, buckthorn. I called for Father. “You seen this?” I said.
“Worthless,” he said. “Just wood.”
“Life looking,” I said.
“Toys,” he said. He took up a handful and threw them across the room. He went on counting the bills over again. “This is all he had, I think.”
I pressed my hands against the walls. “As sturdy a home as ever been a home,” I said. Father was standing at the broken window. “You think there’s folks?” I said.
“All I see is roots,” he said.
My heart sunk into my stomach when I thought about just roots. “Will you help me, then?” I said. I pointed out the window to the woodsman lying lonesome out yonder.
“We split the money as soon as I’m sure there’s nothing left saving here.”
“I’ll go it alone, then.”
I took up the rosary and went to the body. The air was fresh as green was grown for. The influences were wearing off. I think it was escaping through my sweats. I took the woodsman by the feet and pulled him from the clearing to where the trees were thicker. I had some strength I’d not had before. It was like I was bigger. I’d never been much for God, but with the way the rosary hung from my neck it could be it made for things like pulling a body from a clearing to the where the trees was thicker a little like saving.
Where I stopped was a good distance in from anywhere. It was hardly that our two bodies could fit. I had to bend the woodsman and my own self to make our sizes work. I looked up. There was so many trees, I got the feeling I’d never be able to get out again. That I’d gone off too far.
I took the shirt off the woodsman’s head because a woodsman in the woods ought to be able to see up as much I could. I thought of another thing my father wisdomed to me before he soldiered: trees are for the fall if they’re not felled first. I think what he’d meant is we all go too far sometimes. That we do things and not always get to undo them back. There’s limits to the distances a man can go. If you’re not stopped by yourself it’ll be something else that will stop you for you.
Fall was coming, I could tell. I shivered like a man should when he’s done gone off without the right means. I saw the sun through the trees like a face through where you don’t expect it. It wasn’t hot like I had to turn away or visor my eyes with my hands. It was cool-like. My skin goosefleshed off my bones. I covered the bare chest of the woodsman with my shirt.
I think the right thing to do right then was to run, to turn back, but I couldn’t stand, even. If the thick was water, I’d be called a floater. I realized right then it was easy, floating, as breathing, so long as you don’t float so long your life gets taken under. I started getting feelings that were comfortable at first. But then they got uncomfortable. I was a dog in the water. I was thinking up my next move in my head. But then my thinking became hoping. There was a lot that wasn’t up to me any longer. And when there ain’t much up to a man any longer, the best he can do, I guess, is wait around for something to save him.
Michael Credico’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Black Warrior Review, Blue Mesa Review, Booth, Diagram, Columbia Journal, Hobart, Juked, New Ohio Review, NOÖ Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Quarterly West, and others. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.