By P.M. Keith
Copyright 2016 © by P.M. Keith. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.
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Maxwell Mann had known Denver Mebb clear back to the sixth grade in Ms. Wooshink’s class when Denver’s dad moved to Pearlman to find work in the mines and Denver showed up coatless that winter, his thick-soled boots all caked with red mud, overalls bulging in the thighs, plopping down behind a desk near the front of the classroom like he’d just climbed atop a worn-out tractor.
“Jesus Christ!” Maxwell remembered Benson Ellis exclaiming later that afternoon, when they were all three standing in the shadows of the jungle gym, just out of earshot of Ms. Wooshink, who was standing guard near the outer rim of the playground. “You’re too big a sumbitch to be in the sixth grade. What, you get held back or somethin’?”
Benson was half Denver’s size, but that didn’t stop him from standing all puffed out like a spring gobbler and letting go a full mouth of tobacco spit at Denver’s toes.
“I aint never been held back,” Denver grumbled, the same time flailing his bloated midsection against Benson, knocking the boy flat into the hard dirt. “Now I reckon you’d better keep your mouth shut,” he’d warned.
Then there was the time back in high school when one Friday night they were all over at the SpitBall and a group of frats from the college a county over showed up all noisy and obtrusive like a herd of goats. They were already plenty lit up before they even got started, stumbling around and claiming the place in the name of Zeus, hooting and hollering about how the SpitBall was their new base of operations and from henceforth the poolroom would be reserved only for oversight of strategic operations, and, therefore, if you weren’t at least a sophomore in college—preferably with the intention of rushing Sigma Epsilon—it was ill-advised that you be present after eight p.m. Wasn’t long before they were all into it and Denver’d lifted one of the frats over his head and tossed him clear across the joint. It was the first time any of them had seen a dislocated elbow.
Or the time in the back lot of the Burger Fresh where Denver’d settled a bet with John Nichols that he could dead-lift the backend of his Toyota pickup truck. Maxwell could still remember their expressions as the wheels went off the ground, Denver’s hands hooked under the bumper as the machine went airborne, the circle of faces all gone frozen at once at the sight of the most extraordinary feat any teenager in Pearlman had ever seen.
Maxwell and Denver’d been friends in those days. But that was high school. And high school was ten years gone. He hadn’t even spoken to him but maybe twice since then.
He was standing outside Joseph Jones’s garage thinking about all of this and pitching pebbles into a small creek that meandered parallel with the building until carving out and away and disappearing nearly reconditely into a lush woods. No one messed with Denver. And no one knew that better than Maxwell. But here he was, caught right up in the middle of it.
Denver’s perturbation with him was mostly inadvertent from Maxwell’s perspective. The reality—as he’d mentioned time and again over the last month to anyone who may have even moderately implied an interest at listening—was that he hadn’t really been looking for anyone, hadn’t had any real intention of even being in the same company as a woman, and had certainly never meant for one to fall in love with him. But like everything else natural born—at least in Maxwell’s mind—it just seemed to all come together as inexplicably as do the forces used to pull a pebble to the bottom of a creek. There was nothing you could do about it. These things just happened. Pebbles sink. And people fall in love.
Not that he was full blown in love. Sure, he’d been attracted to Vanessa Millis, what with her long dark hair and tight curves, the softness of her brown eyes, thick pink lips, the way she twitched about town while she was out tending to Denver’s business—Denver owned a couple of tow trucks and had hired Vanessa on to help manage his affairs, answering the phone and coordinating dispatches, filing tax reports down at city hall, running errands occasionally clear into the city, and just plain livening up the dingy little gray office that he had so adeptly affixed, with his own hands mind you, to the three-stall garage he’d inherited from his father. There was no doubt she was beautiful, even intelligent, but Maxwell was almost positive he wasn’t in love with her . . . at least not as much as Denver.
It was true she’d come to him not fewer than three nights prior while he was sitting in the back corner of the SpitBall. He’d been sucking on a Harvey Wallbanger and listening to the Smithereens on the jukebox when she’d slid into the booth up close, as indiscreetly as if the two had been betrothed that very evening. She’d pleaded for him to standup like a man so that they might be together more proper, but Maxwell just wasn’t interested anymore—especially after he’d found out that Denver had found out. And especially after he’d found out that she and Denver had planned to be married in the spring. And even more especially after he’d found out that Denver now had it out for him and had promised recently, on more than one occasion and to more than one of his own compatriots around town—and anyone else who’d moderately implied an interest at listening—to dead-lift Maxwell clean out of the picture.
It was the only thing Maxwell could think about as he stood awaiting Joseph’s diagnosis, what Denver might do to him. He cast a handful of stones into the air and watched them splash an oblong pattern into the green water. He’d expressed his concerns to a close cousin, Maurice, who’d been down from Chester only a few days earlier, and who’d made the trip by Greyhound for what everyone expected to be one final visit to their grandmother, who, at ninety-eight, was clinging loosely to what little life she had left, her emaciated form nearly consumed in a fluff of bed linens in the backroom of an old farm house, sunken deep into the mattress so that all that was visible was a withered, sallow face illuminated by a single forty-watt bulb that dangled balefully from a frayed cord in the middle of the room—her youngest daughter, Mary Beth, keeping vigil caring for the old lady day and night, hovering over and waiting patiently, like all the rest of the family, for the old woman to finally pass from this Earth and abdicate all her pain and sorrow and probably whatever meager parcels of estate she had left.
This same cousin had contemplated with Maxwell on the matter of his dilemma at some length as the two had spent a small amount of time together squirrel hunting and sharing a joint shortly after his visit to the aforementioned dying grandmother. Maxwell appreciated Maurice’s attention to the issue, as Maxwell was full on perplexed and had no inclination over how to mitigate the bad luck that had befallen him. Chances were, at least in his mind, his life was in peril, and if he lived to see another day—at least in his current form and not as some vegetative lump—he would be nothing but dumb and lucky. Fortunately though there was Maurice, and, in all his wisdom, he’d laid on the suggestion to Maxwell that it was perhaps long past time for him to, at the very least, take a vacation, if not altogether relocate to another region of the United States.
So that was the plan. There was no way Maxwell was going to take on Denver, and so he’d decided he’d load up his old rusty truck and drive it clean up to Chester to spend a few weeks with Maurice—once there he could look for employment, and when he wasn’t looking for employment, he and Maurice could smoke joints and drink moonshine together. And when they weren’t smoking joints and drinking moonshine, maybe they’d go out and find themselves some girls with whom to pass the time. That was it: he’d either drink Vanessa off of his mind or find some other girl to replace her. But first there was the matter of his truck. The damned thing just wasn’t running as optimally as he’d hoped, at least not well enough to get him to Chester and out of Denver’s reaches.
He’d walked back into the office and was sitting and staring at a rusty Pennzoil wall clock, thinking about moonshine and watching the secondhand stutter along, when Joseph came at him with the problem:
“Damned clutch is gone,” said Joseph, the same time clearing his fingers on the thighs of his gray bibs. There were fresh black stripes on either leg now.
“Been hinky since I bought it,” Maxwell responded. “I’ve babied the damned thing for a year and a half . . . went at it light-footed as hell.”
“They don’t last forever,” Joseph said. He pulled the tab on his Falls City and sucked yellow foam from atop the can. “Three-fifty and I can have it done by Wednesday,” he offered, throwing his head back to chug the beer.
Maxwell ogled at the man’s percolating Adam’s apple. “Mother of Christ!” he moaned.
“Ya gotta drop the damned transmission!” Joseph blasted, flinging his arms out to his sides. A dollop of beer splashed onto the concrete floor and flowed quickly downhill where it met up with a patch of sawdust and kitty litter to form a frothy gray clump. “The stall’ll be tied up for two days!” He finished off the beer, crushed the can with a quick grip, and then threw it fastball across the garage. It ricocheted off the wall and pinged into a black fifty-gallon drum. He cracked another. “I just don’t get why nobody can’t understand that a man’s gotta get paid . . . how in hell my s’ppose to live?”
“Don’t know,” mumbled Maxwell.
“Everybody!” he shouted. “I mean to tell you . . . everybody that walks through the damned door thinks they should get somethin’ for nothin’.” His eyes were closed and he was shaking his head. “I have half a mind just to push the damned thing back out into the drive and call Mebb to come tow it out to the middle of nowhere,” he grumbled.
“No, no,” Maxwell stuttered. “I’ll get ya the three-fifty,” he said.
Joseph stood straight at Maxwell’s sudden accord, a proud grin pulled tightly across his face as if he’d just negotiated himself into a major windfall. He tucked his thumbs haughtily under his bib straps. “Course I’ll need half up front,” he smiled, this time showing his crooked teeth.
“Half?” Maxwell chuckled. He removed his tattered billfold and thumbed through nine twenties. He handed over five. “I’ll be back with the rest,” he said. “You just get started.”
“This aint half,” Joseph protested.
“Jesus!” Maxwell choked. He handed over three more bills. “That do it?” he growled.
“I’ll be back with the rest,” Maxwell said. “You just get the damned thing up and goin’,” he ordered, the same time starting out of the garage.
“I keep the truck till ya do,” chuckled Joseph, watching contentedly as Maxwell walked across the front lot.
The sky was bright and clear as Maxwell moved down the sidewalk. He didn’t make it any farther than the SpitBall. Darkness slammed his face as he walked through the front door. He could scarcely make out the bar, only the glowing outline in the background, Red Matheny in the distance serving up someone clear to the end, as if he were floating there in the distance, part of some smoky dream. Sure to be Tater McKinis he’s serving, thought Maxwell.
He felt along the entry wall, flat palm against the greasy paneling, carefully guiding himself as he made a line for the bar, his eyes too muddy. It occurred to him that most of the time he was going in the opposite direction while hanging onto the wall, blind for different reasons.
“Hey, Red,” he smiled, popping onto a corner stool. Red only grimaced, as if he’d just gotten a whiff of something acrid. “Get a whisky?” Maxwell asked. The bartender turned over a glass, filled it with ice, poured brown liquor overtop, and then slung it forcefully down the bar. “Hey Tater,” Maxwell shouted. The man didn’t react, just stared ahead. He was a permanent fixture for the SpitBall, always there, always sipping whisky-sours in the same position. He was ninety-three and a stroke had rendered him mute and nearly useless on the left side.
Maxwell headed for a booth near the backend of the room and plopped down. A memory flashed and suddenly he was there as a four year old, balancing like an egg on the corner bar stool, his eyes as clouded as they were now, slowly adjusting to the darkness after having walked all the way up from the mines with his father in the noonday sun, the whole place in a smoky gray fog, him trying to make out the faces—Red as a younger man, Tater same as he ever was, except with his voice and full use of body—and then the shiny mirror stretched across the length of the back wall, little Maxi mesmerized by his own reflection, and the bleached ram’s head mounted overtop, the colorful liquor bottles lining the shelves on either side, glasses of all sorts perpetually glistening and sparkling in the bright lights, glints of green and gold, stacked as high as he could see in a mighty wall—for some reason the tumblers had reminded him of the glass maze that had come up with the carnival that spring; Max had tried to go through by himself and had gotten trapped somewhere near the middle; he remembered being confused and afraid and lost as he’d pinballed back and forth between two slices of glass, stuck and wailing for his mother to come save him.
His father loved to bring him to the SpitBall. All the regulars made a deal of it, hooting and hollering when they saw him, offering to buy the boy a bottle of beer or glass of whiskey—Tater was partial to offering up the fuzzy navel. Max could still hear his grated voice slur, “get that youngin’ a fuzzy navel . . . that’s whatcha want aint it Maxi? . . . a fuzzy navel? . . . you wanna fuzzy navel dontcha?”
Always someone would respond: “that boy don’t need no fuzzy navel . . . he pro’lly got enough fuzz in his belly button already!” And then the place would erupt with laughter. And then came the hands, people piling on to poke at his pink belly. He didn’t know what any of it meant, just knew it made him feel funny, like walking naked near an open window.
And then his father lining up three rounds of liquor along the bar—always three—and shooting each one down with an emphatic gasp, as if he’d conquered some exotic beast. Maxi thinking how strong his father must be, the man standing there breathing hard, his eyes all red and glassy, coal soot above his lip.
Maxwell stretched out and counted his change: he had seventeen-fifty. He lit a cigarette and locked in a tight drag. There was enough to get half drunk and buy a pack of cigarettes, but not enough to get him any closer to Chester. Another hundred eighty wouldn’t be easy to come by. That’s what he was thinking when he looked up to find Red standing there.
“Somebody said you was leavin’ town.”
“Yeah,” Maxwell answered, pulling the whisky to his lips. “Goin’ away for a couple days . . . gonna visit my cousin . . . Maurice. You remember him?”
Red nodded. “Sorry to hear about your grandma,” he groaned. “She was one of the good ones.”
Maxwell smiled. “Mary Beth says it won’t be much longer.”
“You been up to see her?”
Maxwell shook his head. “Been a few weeks. I was thinkin’ about it . . . maybe before I go.”
Red let out a sigh. “Probably should,” he grunted.
“Yeah . . . I suppose.”
“A feller needs to say his goodbyes”
“I suppose,” Maxwell answered.
“Well, if ya do, give her my regards. Annette was always a favorite,” said Red. He looked away, tapped the table twice, and then turned back toward the bar.
Maxwell watched him walk away, thinking about the number of times he’d seen Red on this side of the bar—they were few. And then it hit him. The money for his truck was right there at Annette’s, in the back pantry of the farmhouse on a top shelf shoved into an old crock. Everyone knew she kept spare money in that crock. Right there in the wide open. All he had to do was get to it. It was his ticket.
He wasted no time, downed the liquor and popped up from the booth, went straight to the bar and ordered another shot, downed it too, wiped his mouth with a sleeve, and slapped down the money. “Keep the change,” he gasped.
“Listen son,” Red started, catching Maxwell as he was turning for the exit. There was a pause between them, the two locking eyes, Red’s bottom lip quivering as if he were tempted to say nothing at all. “The world hates a pussy!” he squelched.
Maxwell glared at Red, unsure what to make of him. Red stared back, cold and solid. It was a look that said “I know you . . . clear to your core . . . I know you.” He wanted to respond, to say something, but couldn’t find the words, only stood there staring at the old man, breathing nervously like that same four year old who’d first come in with his father all those years ago, unsure what it all meant, unsure whether or not he was standing there naked.
The bartender let out a grunt and turned away, never looked back. And Maxwell retreated into the sunlight.
The scent of bacon lingered as he slid into the back foyer of his grandmother’s house. There was the hint of maple syrup, too. Mary Beth had probably cooked a good breakfast. She always did, even though it was only her. “It was the smell of home,” she’d said. “The least she could do for her mother. Let her die in a place that smelled like home.”
Sometimes the neighbor-lady, Mrs. Laurel, would stop by and the two would sit together in the dining room enjoying toast and coffee and talking for hours about recently uncovered theories regarding one or more of the daytime stories, One Life to Live or All My Children. The rest of the time they sat wondering if today would be the day.
“She’s a tough one,” Mrs. Laurel had said on more than one occasion. “Always has been.”
Mary Beth agreed. “She’ll hold on for a while longer,” she’d said.
The wood slats creaked heavily beneath Maxwell’s feet as he moved to the inner door. The hinges sang out a series of short chirps as he pushed through. Mary Beth was standing alone in the kitchen, finishing up the dishes.
“I figured you’d gone by now,” she smiled, surprised to see him.
“On my way out,” he stammered. “Just wanted to say my goodbyes.” He could smell the liquor on his own breath, turned slightly so that she might not smell it too.
“Maurice was down,” she said.
“I saw him,” he smiled.
“Well, you can sit with her for a bit if you don’t mind,” Mary Beth said.
“That would be fine,” he responded.
“Think I might slip over to the trailer . . . since you’re here,” she said.
“That’d be fine,” he smiled.
“Anything changes you just holler. I promise not to be too long,” she said.
“No need to worry,” he said.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, embracing him tightly before going for the door.
He went to the back room and peaked in. Annette was still, the room nearly silent. The scent of bacon gave way to the acridity of urine. He couldn’t bear it. He didn’t even look at the old woman’s face. Instead he went for the pantry. Quietly.
The pantry was more a cellar, its access door in the back corner of the kitchen. He pushed through. There were two steps down. He paused to notice a sign affixed to the overhang; in bold letters she’d written “DUCK!” He chuckled at the block type, his grandmother’s shaky hand.
It’d been years the last time he was in the pantry, but it was as he’d remembered it. The room lined with shelves, canned foods four or five deep on each shelf, multitudes of corn and green beans and peppers, processed from the little garden she’d managed in the back lot. There was also the smell of damp concrete and dirt and newspaper, the occasional sweetness of powdered soap and fabric softener.
Immediately he saw the crock, high upon the top shelf. He went for a small ladder propped in the corner of the room, unfolded it, and started toward the jar. But then there was a noise and he froze midway up, backed off.
It’d come from the other room, and so he glanced through the crack to see if Mary Beth had returned. It was hard to see and so he tiptoed back into the kitchen.
Up to this point there’d been few instances in Maxwell’s life that’d left him as totally and completely in shock as seeing his dying grandmother standing in the doorway of the dining room. Of course there’d been the time he and his best friend, Ben Wiseman, had been swinging off the hayloft in his grandfather’s barn and the rope let go, sending Ben ten feet to the dirt floor, full force. It’d snapped the boy’s arm in half, the bone split clear through the skin of his forearm. Ben just sat there in the dirt laughing. Maxwell couldn’t hold his stomach and went straight to vomiting. It was the most gruesome thing he’d ever witnessed, left him with nightmares for years.
When he’d thought about it years later, it hadn’t really been the compound fracture that had disturbed him as much as it was Ben just sitting there holding the mangled thing in his lap. It was Ben’s expression. The look on his face. His eyes so far gone he wasn’t seeing anything—at least not anything in the real world. Maxwell wondered about it all his life, where it’d been that Ben had gone that day, while he was sitting in the dirt cradling his snapped arm, laughing and slobbering in a fit.
Suddenly he was back in his grandma’s kitchen, as a boy, four or five, Annette patting back his hair away from his forehead, feeding him a cookie and calling him a good little boy, and then the smell of food, maybe Thanksgiving—he could smell turkey and ham and pumpkin spice—and all the women working around the kitchen in aprons, moving briskly about from one station to the next, rattling utensils and stirring pots, the long oak table nearly full of food in the dining room, people all around, bowls of fruit, the sound of laughter, the smell of wine, and his mother holding hands with his father, in the shadows, his father moving in for a kiss, his mother laughing giddily and fending him off like a schoolgirl, and then the smell of gun smoke, a bang, a series of bangs, the Fourth of July on the back lawn, his uncle Jack so drunk he couldn’t stand up straight in the kitchen, Annette icing his fingers because he’d forgotten to let go of the firecracker, and his grandfather sitting in his favorite recliner in the front room, his feet propped up watching Barney Miller and Kojack and Hee Haw, and his grandmother dancing around to Conway Twitty; and Mary Beth, still living at home, nineteen, contemplating moving to California to live with Cousin Jess, the whole family in an uproar, everyone with an opinion over what she should do with her life, that if she went out to California she’d probably get mixed up with LSD and a cult, and finally there was silence and candles and a coffin, Max’s father’s body laid out in the front room, people all in black standing around, whispers and sobs, and Annette standing before the crowd, thanking them for all they’d done, thanking them for remembering her son, that he was a good boy, a good man, that he’d loved his momma, his family, his wife, little Maxi. Max’s momma sobbing in the front row. And him standing in a daze, staring down at his father’s body wondering if it was really him, waiting quietly, as still as he could, to see if the chest would rise, if his father would take another breath, and then later out at the pond, casting stones as high as he could, and watching them plunk through the dark water while wishing he was a million miles away.
And then the dream was over and Annette was standing in the doorway, propping herself up with a willow-thin arm, her eyes wide and milky, gazing into a distance as unknown as the one Ben had seen. Maxwell stood frozen. Her breathing was shallow and she was mouthing something in small gasps.
“What is it, grandma?” he asked, moving reluctantly closer. He was nearly in a fright, unsure what to do. She was still mouthing. He listened. “Water? You want water?” he asked. The old woman smiled. He rushed for a chair and helped her sit, and then went for the water. He brought the glass easily to her lips and she sipped. And then there was Mary Beth.
“Whadya give me for the truck?” asked Maxwell, twisting his hands nervously.
Joseph squinted. “Wanna sell it, eh?” he whispered.
Maxwell nodded. “Give me back seventy-five and you can keep it,” he said.
“Deal!” shouted Joseph.
The Greyhound attendant stared impatiently at Maxwell. “Roundtrip?” he asked again.
Maxwell couldn’t make sense of it. Why would he want a roundtrip? he thought. Why’s he asking that? Don’t make no sense. Why would he want to come back to Pearlman? Why would anyone? There was no round trip, not this time.
“One way,” he whispered.
“Twenty-three fifty,” the man said.
He handed over the cash and got back a ticket.
“Leaving in five,” the man said, motioning toward an idling bus.
The smell of liquor and diesel particulate was thick. Both frustrated him. The trees slid by in a green blur, the bus’s engine bearing down in a tight growl as the machine pulled the last steep hill out of the valley. Before long they were on the highway. A mile from town. And then two.
He watched the window, passively absorbing the scenery, not invested in any of it. But then in the reflection he could see himself as an old man, naked and hanging by his ankles over a concrete stall, Joseph Jones lowering him by block and tackle into a vat of thick black axle grease, the whole town surrounding him, casting stones and chanting ‘the world hates a pussy’, and then calling out his name as if it were some diseased meme that needed eradicated immediately and completely from the annals of time. And suddenly his insides felt dense and dark and caustic, and his skin felt as though it might peel back from his body in a wave of convulsions and unveil his septic heart, exposing it for everyone on the bus to see. The vision caused him to hyperventilate.
He tried to steady his breathing, pulling in slow, regular breaths, but it was all liquor and diesel. And he was nauseas. And he felt trapped. And he wanted badly to get off the bus, more than anything. And it was as though he might die there. Hyperventilating on the hard vinyl seat, huffing the liquor and diesel fumes.
But then there was something familiar, coming up alongside the roadway. He squinted to see it, to understand it. And he knew it was his only chance. And then a new panic set in and he began to wheeze as the scene went smaller and smaller. He knew he had to make his move, get off now.
“Stop the bus!” he shouted, blasting out of his seat.
The driver managed the machine to the side of the road. “You shouldn’t do this,” he warned.
“Just open the door,” ordered Maxwell.
The heat walloped his face as the door went open, and he was out on the roadside standing in dust, the bus starting away, onward toward Chester. He watched it top the hill and then disappear, and for a moment wondered about what he’d done, wondered what Maurice would think when it got there and he wasn’t on it. But it didn’t matter. All that did was that now he could breathe. And like that, he started down the dusty road, back toward Pearlman, back toward the tow truck idling there in the distance.
Casting Stones is a short story about a young man attempting to run away!