The August sun boiled through the farmhouse’s tin roof. An argument over an insurance scam boiled into full-blown rage. Cooley, a mulatto skinned Indian, backhanded Connie’s thin ivory face across the kitchen table where her son Pine Box sat eating a plate of mashed eggs. Connie pulled Pine Box’s fork from his grip. Came off the table. Dug the fork deep into Cooley’s jugular.
Cooley pawed at the fork with red erupting like fresh struck oil. “You bitch!”
Connie stormed from the kitchen, went down the hallway where she grabbed a double barrel twelve gauge from the bedroom. Back in the kitchen, she stood hefting the double barrel at the head of Crazy Horse locks that pigtailed down Cooley’s bare-backed shoulders.
She said, “Pine Box, get us a Fall City from the fridge. Wait outside for mama.”
Pine Box crossed the kitchen. The screen door bounced against the jamb behind him. Followed by both barrels exploding and the Indian that had stitched Pine Box’s mind with daily fists, parted across the kitchen’s linoleum.
Connie took Pine Box and ran off with Cooley eight years ago from Indiana to Illinois. Her father had tried to drown Pine Box after his birth. Believed he was a Bastard Child. Connie’d been raised to recognize attention and abuse as equal hands drawn from the same deck. What mattered to Connie was how the hand was played. Cooley had played the one hand too many times.
Eight year old Pine Box sat with cheeks and fingernails bruised by dirt. Tire tracks of three week old chocolate milk and egg yolk ring-wormed around his lips. His lungs tasted a Pall Mall and his tongue shared a Fall City with his mother beneath an old hickory tree.
He asked Connie, “What we do now mama?”
With muffler-burnt roots from a dime-store-dye job Connie pushed her golden hair from her face, belched, and said, “Now we pack up, help your uncle Lazarus do that insurance scam with no Indian to drink up our cut.”
Tires pushed up gravel, leaving Pine Box at a dead-end turn-off encircled by thick oaks. He watched Connie and Lazarus disappear into the purple-neon morning. He remembered the unlocked windows he’d climbed through to steal jewelry. Working class cash tucked between mattresses. Coffee cans of the same hidden in drawers. Freezers. Fridges. He knew all the hiding spots where Cooley and Connie had taught him to look. But he’d never helped to vandalize a car for insurance money before.
His uncle Lazarus explained, “Some people believe sweating their lives away in a factory is making a living. That dream died when Reagan took office. Scamming. Swindling. Stealing. It’s the only life your uncle Lazarus and mama know. And it’s all you’ll ever know.”
Nicotine-burnt fingers swung steel. On the left. Then the right. Shattering the front lights on the nipple-pink ‘82 Cadillac with a sugar-coated top. Lazarus had driven to Hazard, Kentucky from Amsterdam, Indiana. Parked the Cadillac at the dead end pull off surrounded by green wooded hills and houses spread out by miles. Connie followed. Swapped Pine Box for Lazarus. Now he had five minutes until Lazarus and Connie came back in the Dodge Duster. Back from watching for cars at the end of the road. While he turned the Cadillac into junkyard scrap.
Pine Box’s boots climbed the mirrored bumper. Thundered his heels up and down on the hood. Six swings from the steel and the windshield was cracked like asphalt. His boots trailed up to the sugar-coated top doing the same heel-dent-dance that he did on the hood. He slid down the back window. Over the trunk to the gravel. His heart flicked his chicken-wing-chest. He heaved the steel, shattered each tail light. Lifted the snake-tongued end above his head. Battered the trunk. Walked to the driver’s side. Heaved and grunted the door open. Laid the steel across the white leather seat. Sweat burned his eyes as he offered up a tiny Buck knife from his pocket. Thumbed open the blade and murdered the seat. Made it bleed foam.
From under the seat he pulled the book of matches and rubbing alcohol left by Lazarus. Bathed the interior until it made an alcoholic smell clean in comparison. He grabbed the steel. Held the book of matches open. Felt a claw-hammer-hand dig into his jerky-tinted hair, skip him backwards across the gravel like flat-flint across a pond’s surface. Steel clanked. His palms and knees bit gravel.
Tears bubbled up and turned into pissed off. Pine Box stood, taking in the old man with gray, corn huskers hair. A tobacco-stained Haynes beneath bibbed overalls spitting black sludge.
“Think you're doin’ on my property, you little son of a bitch?”
The old man glanced up the gravel road listening to the Duster tear through the early morning air.
“Who in the shit?”
Pine Box’s hands stung with the violence he’d watched Connie and Cooley perform on one another like Saturday morning cartoons. He gripped and swung the steel into the old man’s shin. Dropped the old man to his knees. He spit, “Little shit! Know who you’re fuckin’ with?”
The old man backhanded Pine Box to the gravel. Pine Box hollered, “Dammit!”
Cooley’d busted him until he spit and pissed red. Making it hard to walk. Talk. Eat or sleep. Pine Box swallowed the bitter. Eyed his target through bubbled vision. Stood up. Indented the old man’s flesh with a Hank Aaron swing. Rolled him backwards onto the gravel, moaning.
Tears connected dirt-dots across Pine Box’s cheeks like freckles on a red head. Mucus bubbled from his nose as he grabbed the book of matches from the gravel. Connie stomped the Duster’s brakes. Pine Box pressed a flame from the match. Lit and tossed the pack into the Cadillac’s front seat that flamed up like the hell Baptists preached every Sunday morning.
Lazarus opened the passenger’s side door and hollered, “Shit boy, get in here!”
Pine Box limped to the Duster sucking mucus and spitting red. Lazarus pulled him in and heaved the door shut. The old man made it to his feet with liver spotted features painted by blood. His jaw gaping and unmoving. His throat gargling incoherent tones. His hands met the Duster’s passenger’s side fender. Connie stomped the gas. Made the old man disappear. Lazarus hollered, “Stop so I can finish him.”
“Ain’t no time.” Connie told Lazarus as she cut the wheel back to the main road while Pine Box burrowed his tears into her lap. “We gotta get Pine Box back to your place. Get him fixed up pretty as a Methodist boy in Sunday school.”
She drove with one hand on the wheel the other caressing Pine Box’s greasy hair. Out the driver’s window trees and fenced pasture combined into a blur.
She cut the wheel out onto the chewed pavement. The rear tires barked.
An explosion swarmed the early morning air. The surrounding pasture and pavement rumbled. Jarring the rear fender of the Dodge Duster. Connie kept the gas floored. Rubbing the mucus-red mixture from Pine Box’s busted nose and warped lips, feeling the same pain she’d known since having sight in this hell that everyone called living.
Before his uneven flesh rattled the screen door he smelt the memory of charred outlines on foreign soil. Gripped his nickel-plated .38 snub nose from his waist. Thumbed the hammer back and opened the door.
Decomposed features spoiled the air inside of the farmhouse’s kitchen similar to the commie flesh he’d whittled, pliered and burnt in the jungles overseas. Green flies hummed in the humidity. While maggots burrowed and swam within particles of marrow and black-cherry blood that sketched across the linoleum.
Shell-shot had peppered the rusted fridge and yellowed-wallpaper walls. But what stood out at first glance was the fork rooted into the neck. Hands mortared around it as if the male had planted a tiny pole for a surrendering flag.
Kurt’s brows pushed wrinkles into his forehead. His bottom lip puckered into his top and in a deep gravel tone he muttered, “Nice.”
He stood with a beaded belt. Bracelets constructed from animal hide and bones braided around each wrist. His flesh was tattooed by shrapnel fragments from twelve months of recon-jungle-heat.
He thumbed the hammer of his nickel plated .38. Slid it into his waist. He knew the female and her son he hunted were gone. Just like he knew what she and the male who was scattered across the linoleum enjoyed.
Stepping over the male Kurt admired the skull; misshapen like a cantaloupe attached to a neck and shoulders with its fruit busted and cleaved into decaying chunks. Kurt had seen their type in every hole in the wall shack, trailer, backroom bar or barn lot cock fight. A male who abused a female and the female who craved it.
Kurt had been hired to find the female and her son for the man they’d left for dead. Mr. Hayden Attwood. Who now lay in a hospital bed with second-degree burns. His jaw wired shut. Ribs fractured with a splintered left shin. Pissing red through a clear tube. Unable to slur a sentence he wrote down for the Hazard County Deputy Sheriff and Detective what he remembered. Nothing.
The deputy sheriff told Mr. Attwood the charred-license plate they’d found had been traced back to a Mr. Lazarus Dodson who’d reported the car stolen. But Mr. Attwood wasn’t a big fan of the law. He had his own justice for the maladjusted-law-breakers who crossed him. That was Bonfire Kurt. Who’d been working for Mr. Attwood since his discharge from the US Marines back in 72’. Mr. Attwood had written down the plate number of the Duster that he’d tattooed into the hard marrow within his skull after being clipped by it. Left for buzzards to circle while his flesh baked by the exploding Cadillac.
He gave the plate number to Kurt, who had connections for finding people who didn’t wanna be found. That plate number yielded Connie and her son Pine Box Voyles shacked up at an address along the Illinois/Indiana line with some Jimmy Joe Cooley. Part-time thief and swindler. Fulltime drunk. Kurt believed Connie and someone had stolen the Cadillac for whatever reason. Then that someone followed her to dump and leave Pine Box to vandalize the Cadillac. Then she and that someone came back for Pine Box.
Kurt bent down. Palmed Cooley’s thigh. He wasn’t that someone. What had happened in the farmhouse took place days before the ‘82 Cadillac had been stolen and torched. Cooley’s frame was bone-stiff with a lot of days into decay.
Wanting to place features to the hunted, he followed the hallway’s flea infested carpet to a sheet that doubled as a bedroom door. Inside a used king-sized mattress furnished the far left corner. Bullet holes and rape stains intact. A single wadded quilt lay in its center. No pillows. The air was mold and mildew. A few flies had taken up residence on a dented and scuffed file cabinet that was used for a dresser. Shirts, jeans, socks and boxers hung out the open drawers. No pictures on the smoke damaged walls. Just a few fist-sized holes. He opened a closet door. Found a wilted, freezer-taped cardboard box. Removed the lid. Leafed through scattered black and white photos of men and women. Some young. Some old. Until he found a colored Polaroid with the names “Connie and Pine Box 1980” chicken scratched along the bottom. The female was white-trash erotic. With dirty-peroxide-locks. A remorseless marrow-white complexion. Eyes so bottomless brown they were hollowed out by a God that substituted pleasure in the form of pain.
The boy had kippered locks. Eyes a mud-puddle brown. His pigment corpse-pale. A grin pasted on for a smile. His mother in male form. Kurt shook his head.
He slid the photo down his shirt pocket. “Evil lookin’ shits.”
Moisture heated the back of his neck. Dripped from his brow. He pushed the sheet from the entrance. Followed the hallway carpet back to the kitchen’s linoleum. Stepped over Cooley, out the screen door. The mid-morning heat stole his breath as his hands tremored. He pulled a flask from his back pocket. Twisted the cap, took a hard slug of Wild Turkey that ignited his insides.
Men of his flesh had watched the world bleed its own too many times to feel pity. He’d seen half strung eyes, faces and limbs removed and charred. Enough pain to make anyone believe in hell. This Connie. What she’d done to Cooley reaffirmed that hell’s existence.
Sliding the flask back into his pocket he walked toward his orange International Scout knowing he needed names. Addresses. Where Connie and Pine Box could’ve went. Course people this malevolent didn’t keep close company for long.
From the distance a salvage-yard-ready Pinto bounced down the dirt drive. Pulled to a stop. Stepping from the Pinto was a female in cutoffs that used to be white with the hem of her ass cheeks peaking out and blowing kisses as she turned to close the car door. She wore a cinnamon-striped tube top that held the shapes of two ripened tomatoes ready to be handpicked. Her waving locks matched the spots on her face, the color of rust while her leach lips smacked the sugar of the Bazooka Joe bubble gum. She swayed toward Kurt speaking in an unsure tongue, “Connie around?”
“No. Wouldn’t know where she and Pine Box might be would you?”
“Who are you?”
“I ain’t heard from her in better than two weeks. Thought I’d come by. Make sure that drunk hadn’t beat her black as a milk snake again.”
Her river green eyes glanced down to his crotch. Moved up to the .38. Her eyes got confused as she met his hollow vision.
Before the female could exhale, Bonfire had a fist full of her rusted hair twisted in one hand. The thumb of his other clicked the hammer of the .38, the barrel bruising her cheek.
“Didn’t catch your name sugar.”
“Well, Barbra Jean, I need names of any acquaintances of Connie. Someplace she and Pine Box might hole up.”
“Only person Connie ever spoke of was her older step-brother.”
“Does he got a name?”
After removing the cloth wrapped around Pine Box’s palms anger flared from Lazarus’s lips.
“That spent-liver Indian the one who used your palms for ashtrays?”
A single cigarette dangled from the corner of Lazarus’s mouth as smoke twined into the bacon grease air of the trailer.
Pine Box sat at the formica table, taking in the chewed-oozing pink of his palm. A cornmeal crust infected the corners of his eyes that were muddy streams identical to his uncles.
“You gonna answer me or play Ann Frank all damn day?”
“Dammit Pine Box answer me!”
“Every time Cooley got to drinkin’ and mama was out earnin’ her way he’d get some kinda’ hornets’ meanness in him. Wanna play chicken. I wasn’t scared. I played.”
From the kitchen’s gas stove Connie stood bra-less in a worn-wife-beater and Kentucky-blue nylon shorts saying, “Well, that Indian’s ten kinds of stink now.”
Stubbing his cigarette out, Lazarus shook his head. He asked, “Connie ever tell you how your name came about?”
Behind Lazarus, Connie’s hand trembled. She stabbed crisp strips of bacon from the cast iron skillet to a paper plate. Remembered how her step-daddy couldn’t keep his hands off of her. Made her stepbrothers move out into the barn when her claymation features thinned out into a shapely woman. She never wanted Pine Box to know anything of her past. How he was conceived. Almost killed and named. Anger charred her face and words combusted from her lips. “Lazarus, shut your damn mouth!”
Lazarus remembered his daddy. The man who’d offered a lot of love in the form of pain. A year ago he passed. Left his insurance policy to Lazarus. He used some of the money to purchase the nipple-pink Cadillac. What was left he gambled away. He hated that bastard. He felt a lot of rage for him. Growing up out in that barn. That rage returned when he’d seen Pine Box several days ago. He held Connie responsible. Feeling as though he was being cheated. Letting some other man raise Pine Box.
“Done about fucked us on the car job. Should have let me out, made sure that man was dead.”
“That man was redder than canned tomatoes. Hazard County Police told you he can’t remember shit. Laid up in a hospital. All we’s waiting on is the insurance check. Besides, you the one who went and parked the car on his property.”
Lazarus’s hands dampened at the thought of squeezing Connie’s complexion from bone pale to the same shade of red that pumped through her black heart. Pay her back triple for what she’d let that Indian do to Pine Box. Then a bullfrog-belch pushed from Pine Box’s mouth.
“Where my name come from, Uncle Lazarus?”
“Your granddaddy Dodson said you came not out of love but out of sickness. When you was a just born child he fetched you up. Put you in a burlap sack. Took off down the road in his beat-to-shit Ford.”
Unsteady. Not wanting Pine Box to hear the story, Connie flipped the gas stove flame off. Yelled, “Dammit Lazarus, shut your friggin’ mouth!”
“His name has got meaning. It’s his birthright.” Glancing at Pine Box, he continued, “Connie, she took off after your granddaddy. Running barefoot down the gravel drive. Followed him all the way down to the creek. Now picture that burlap sack you was in being tossed from the Ford as it crossed a one-lane bridge. Smacking against the current of the creek. The weeping whine of you, the just-born child getting his first swimming lesson. Connie waded in. Thinking she’d have to build a pine box to bury you in. Pulled you from that sack. You belched creek water and cried. That’s the story Connie always told. How you wasn’t born. You was salvaged. And she named you Pine Box Voyles, the just-born burlap baby.”
Remembering that day, how she’d cradled him while telling the tale to others in the town tavern. Getting hitched on whiskey shots. Pain scraped the walls of her skull. Fermented her grip around the cast iron skillet’s handle. To pick up. Bust over Lazarus’s skull.
Then the trailer’s door burst open.
Lazarus stood up hollering into the outdoor light that created a silhouetted shape in the doorway. “Who the—”
The silhouette interrupted with, “Lazarus Dodson?”
“Compliments of Mr. Attwood.”
Orange-gun-fire opened the sticky trailer air. Parted Lazarus’s forehead like an egg against pavement. Lazarus dropped backwards. Pinned the formica table down onto Pine Box’s legs.
Connie screamed. Came at the silhouette with the skillet of popping grease. Her nose met the butt of the .38. Her eyes stung with liquid. Her nose bled, knees punching the linoleum. The skillet bounced. Bacon grease splattered. The silhouette smiled. Aimed the nickel plated .38 at Connie’s face.
“You’re rough company, girl.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Bonfire Kurt. Work for Mr. Attwood. Man’s property you parked the Cadillac on. Vandalized. Then left him for dead.”
Pine Box clinched his eyes. Squirmed and pushed to get from under the table that Lazarus dead-weighted down.
“Picked the most vindictive man in all of Hazard, Kentucky. Way I figured, Lazarus and you dumped the Cadillac in Kentucky. Pine Box destroyed it. Lazarus reports it stolen. You and he split the insurance.”
“How you know who we are?”
“A personal contact, little recon and some Barbra Jean.”
“Barbra….? What’d you do to her?”
“Not near what you did to Mr.Cooley. I paid you a visit. She showed up. Gave me some answers.”
Connie spit, “You son of a bitch!”
Five knuckles dug into Connie’s dime-store hair. Pulled her to her feet. While the .38’s heated barrel singed her temple. She twisted her neck into his hambone forearm. Dug her teeth into his shrapnel-flesh. Took a blood sample. He hollered. His trigger finger twitched. Gun fire quartered skin and bone from her skull across the trailer’s kitchen. His knees buckled with her weight. Lowered her to the kitchen’s linoleum.
Pine Box stood behind Bonfire with water-logged eyes looking down at the motionless red mess. “Mama?”
Bonfire bent his knees to standing. Turned to Pine Box whose taffy-pink palm reached for Bonfire’s hand that held the .38, pressed his forehead into the heated barrel. His clouded eyes dug through Bonfire.
“I ain’t scared.”
Blood pumped from the chewed opening of Bonfire’s forearm coating the nickel-plated.38 as he lowered it. Looked at Pine Box.
“No you ain’t, you evil little shit.”
Bonfire’s empty hand opened, palm up. Offered Pine Box another choice.