BRAGGING ABOUT PAIN
BRAGGING ABOUT PAIN
A man came up on me one day. Right out of the woods. I felt like he’d been there waiting for me the whole time. Or I happened to cross his path. Either way, it was something I didn’t have any control over.
He looked like he’d been homeless for a while and he wore this old Carhartt jacket and his stomach area was covered in a smear of oil like he’d been up under a car, trying to figure out something that took him hours to fix. Oil looked like a bird with wings that faded at the points and I could tell that those feathery tips were his fingers that had wiped away that black junk.
I’d been cutting the fields since that morning. Running the tractor hot until noon when I met him.
Woke up early that morning before the sun decided to show itself. Poured Old Crow in my Folgers and stood in the kitchen and looked at Sheila asleep on the couch. Took it all in: her sleeping there like a baby, wrapped up in her grandma’s quilt that had been passed down. When my empty stomach began to burn a little and my legs felt loose, I went over and sat on the recliner in the den and stared at her, sipping the coffee.
I never was much of a big breakfast eater. Don’t know why, but I just never got hungry until lunchtime. My daddy used to make me feel guilty about eating the whole plate. But it was too rehearsed. Like he was an echo of his old man. And I knew it was because he carried baggage from his own childhood. Used to tell me that money didn’t grow on trees.
When the church would call for prayer requests, my folks never said a word. Others spoke up and almost bragged about their pains and trials that they’d been given as if it were some badge of honor. And when the preacher asked the congregation to raise their hands for unspoken requests, my parents would sit on their fingers and look down at a hymnal as if they were more interested in cracking some musical code in those pages. And when they sang the song that the pastor called for that morning, they’d close their eyes and let the lyrics sneak out in whispers.
We were poor back then, growing up on canned food and cut-up bananas in between slices of white Sunbeam bread. Food wasn’t much of a commodity. It was something that helped us survive. It helped us fight off starvation. Got us through the day. Normally, for supper, we’d eat meatloaf and mashed potatoes and liver mush and wash it down with Dr. Thunder—an off brand of Dr. Pepper. But every now and then, Momma would switch it up on us and serve salmon patties with green peas and mac and cheese. And then my sister and I would get us some vanilla ice cream out of the freezer and pour Hershey’s chocolate syrup all over it while we watched The Munsters. I’d get so lost in Herman and his square head laughing at his own jokes that, after a while, I’d look down at my bowl of melted ice cream and was shocked to find that it looked like pictures of Jupiter from my science textbook at school.
Momma used to say I was going to be an astronaut. My knowledge of the planets and the way things worked up there in the eternal land of black above was what she called “astounding.” But I never went to some great big rocket science school. Read some cheap paperback science fiction from a used bookstore every now and again, but as I got older I learned that I had to focus more on things here on earth. Wished I could get back to that naivety. Wished I could get back to that type of wonder about what else was out there. But I just couldn’t ever get it back. Had too much to take care of down here.
When I first met Sheila back in high school, I took her on our first date to a place where they served hush puppies with slaw and fried flounder and crinkle-cut fries. It was some fish restaurant that was eventually closed down and turned into a dentist office. We had us a ball. You would’ve thought we were eating at the Olive Garden. Used to play games where we’d look at other couples and families eating at other tables and make up stories about their lives. About where they came from and why they looked so happy or so sad and down.
I sat there on that recliner, drinking my boozy swill of caffeine faster and faster as it cooled down, looking at Sheila and thinking about those times early on. Twenty-three years ago. Now, she looked like a baby curled up there on that sunken couch. I don’t see how she slept on it. Bless her heart, she’d always be stiff and hurting when she woke up. And I’d have to go over her back with rubbing alcohol, massaging those sore spots. Wish she’d massage my sore spots. Not the ones you touch and grab at in the dark when you both have enough energy at the end of the day to jump on each other, but the ones that are more in my head. The ones that haunt my dreams. Wish she’d talk to me. Wish I could tell her what was really on my mind.
She started sleeping on that old couch because I toss and turn too much, she said. And that mattress that I slept on was worse. It was flatter than a flitter and smelled like our dog that used to sleep there during the day when we were both gone for work.
Our dog ran off about a year ago and never came back, but her smell on that mattress just wouldn’t go away. We’d sprayed it with lemon water and even some of the fancy anti-odor mess down at the hardware store. Nothing worked. She smelled the dog in that bedroom and couldn’t sleep there without crying. I’d left the gate to the pasture wide open. The dog must’ve smelled a fox and went off and gotten lost. She never came back. I called for that beagle every night. Yelled out “Betty! Betty!” I’d expected her to come out of those dark woods, tail wagging, and bite whatever piece of food was in my hand like Jaws. All I heard were crickets.
I knew we had to budget and save more money to buy a better couch and mattress, but it wasn’t that easy. I’d just been laid off at Freightliner and Sheila’s job wasn’t accommodating enough to pay much more than bills.
She had a job down at the post office in town, sifting through the mail, packaging suspicious parcels from suspicious people who would come there, and I knew that she’d have a story to tell when she got home. Made me wonder how people lived with themselves, them being so weird and distrustful acting. What were they thinking mailing something that was too big to fit in a small rectangle box, so much so that whatever was inside poked at and stretched the cardboard from the inside? Sheila said some of those boxes had looked like origami and the tape looked like it was slapped together by a preschooler. I asked her “What the heck is origami? One of them terms you read in that Kama Sutra book that you picked up from the county fair?”
She took offense to that one. Especially since she didn’t know that I knew where she hid that book. I knew what that thing was about. One time, when I was a kid, I crawled through the barbed wire fence on the perimeter of my family’s farmland and I’d come across a couple of crushed cans of Miller Lite and a Playboy magazine cradled in poison ivy. I got a stick and moved over the leaves and reached into that empty space to grab that magazine. I flipped through the pictures inside and saw an article with those ancient drawings that made sex look all mysterious to me back then. Sheila and I had been intimate, but the dog leaving us and me losing my job didn’t go over well and it was a wedge in between us that wouldn’t budge.
My hands had to grab hold of something powerful. Somehow, grabbing hold of something that could tear things up seemed to ease my mind. And I knew that the field was calling my name. Had a bunch of hay to bail. It was one of those jobs I’d been putting off for a while now and I knew that I better get out there sooner than later. It was the kind of job that might take until nightfall if I kept at it all day.
So I got up from looking at sleeping beauty and walked out the door and went to work.
By noon, my stomach had started growling and the buzz from the Old Crow coffee had worn off and I couldn’t fight the hunger any more. I cut off the tractor and stepped off that apocalyptic behemoth that cut things down and tore up little worlds of insects and rodents and walked off the field until my feet hit the pavement.
The Country Corner gas station wasn’t but two miles down the road so I walked the length, cicadas buzzing in my ears and through my thoughts until it made the back of my neck itch. I thought about how my life had ended up the way it was. I thought about that boy that got himself killed on Daddy’s land all those summers ago. It had been some time since I’d thought of that incident. But I pushed it out of my head quickly.
I ended up walking out of the store with a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a bag of salted peanuts. I returned to the field, walking down the highway, cars zooming by to their own destinations.
The corner of my eye picked up on his movement when he scampered up a hill of trees covered in kudzu. This land had a way of killing people if they veered off the road an inch. Those shoulders weren’t anything to joke about. If you didn’t stay in your lane, your car would go down the embankment. There’d been plenty of deaths. But the man in the Carhartt jacket came up out of that curious black hole of undergrowth and pointed a gun right at me. I had to put down my case of beer when he told me to raise my hands.
“What you got on you?” he asked.
“Ain’t got nothin on me. Just some peanuts in my back pocket.” I’d paid for the beer and peanuts in cash. Had a few quarters and dimes in change leftover in my front pocket.
“Let me check.”
He wobbled over to me on jelly legs, pointing the gun at my head. Dark circles made homes around gray eyeballs that looked like they’d been in a neon lit bar for hours. Acted like his eyes were about to get a sunburn as he squinted, searching me, putting a strange hand in my pockets, looking for money. His breath smelled strong of alcohol and I got a little nervous standing there, thinking that if he killed me, it would be accidental. He didn’t look like any regular criminal. Just a guy having a bad day. Or week. Or month. Looked like the type to mail some suspicious stuff at the post office. Sheila probably saw him before I did.
He took the bag of peanuts, threw the change on the ground. Tilted his head at me and said, “You know my face now. If you report me, I’ll have you killed.”
I thought about saying something smartass about his face. About how the left side of his jaw sagged at an awkward angle as if he’d been hit hard with one of Ali’s haymakers. But I didn’t want to leave Sheila completely alone in this world on account of my sarcasm and ego. So I just let him have it. Let him have the satisfaction of knowing that he had the sharper tongue, the bigger threat. “You’re the boss,” I said.
“Yeah, I am,” he said, looking me over, studying my face. “I ain’t a bad man.”
“Never said you were.”
“Stop judging me like that.”
“Wasn’t. Sun’s bright.”
“I’ve been through hell, you know. Pain that you couldn’t imagine.”
“I’m sure, hoss.”
He looked at the six pack on the ground and said, “I need this more than you.”
Then he picked up the case of beer and walked away. That’s when I just about lost it. I thought about tackling him in the back, but he wasn’t worth it. And, plus, that’s cowardly, coming at someone from behind like that. If I wanted a confrontation, I would’ve taken the gun out of his hand. But I didn’t. And that’s something I’d have to live with.
There on the ground at my feet was his wallet. I’d heard it slap that hot asphalt when he bent down to grab the drinks. It’d fallen out of his jacket pocket. I waited for him to take a right and go back down through the woods from where he came. When I couldn’t hear him stepping on sticks any more, I lowered my hands and picked up his wallet. His license was in it. Name was Dylan.
I squeezed on that wallet and walked on back to the house and got on the tractor and tore up the field again.
Later that night, after I rubbed down Sheila’s back, I sat on the front porch and stared at that man’s license. Saw his address. Recognized the street name. Thought about paying him a visit.
The drunk was in my dreams that night. In them, he kept waving that gun in my face and convincing me about how much bigger his problems were than mine and searching through my pockets over and over, dumping out endless handfuls of coins that didn’t seem of any use to him.
I didn’t mention anything to Sheila. She had enough to worry about. But about a week later, after supper, I drove on down to that man’s house in my pickup. I sat a good thirty yards from it on the side of the road in his neighborhood. Turned off the lights and slouched down in the seat.
Half an hour later, he showed himself, walking out of his house. Hair slicked back. Beard trimmed. Wearing a white T-shirt and jeans with holes in them. Got in his beat-up Ford Orion and drove on past me.
He came to an elementary school. Same one that I’d grown up in, reading about galaxies and planets with more than one moon. He went through the front doors that had been painted a deeper shade of red since last time I saw them. And I followed him through the lobby. Through the cafeteria. Through the hallway to a familiar classroom.
I carefully pushed open the door and saw a group of people with long faces, not paying any mind to me. Some stirred red sticks in Styrofoam cups of coffee. Some grabbed at chocolate glazed doughnuts. Some patted others on their backs as they greeted one another.
A man came up to me and introduced himself as Greg. Welcomed me to the meeting. Didn’t ask for much else about myself because that would come later, he said. Told him that I was just there to observe for the night. Still unsure about things. Told him I wasn’t there to brag about myself or anything. Whatever it was. Whatever it was that they were going to talk about.
I’d worn a ball cap low on my forehead, shielding my eyes, and sat in one of the seats near the back of the classroom. One by one, the people in the room announced the current length of their sobriety. Dylan said that he’d been free from the drink for two whole months.
“Dylan. Want to share anything that might be a load off your shoulders? Might be something that we all benefit from,” Greg said.
“There was somebody that came into my life not too long back. When I feel like messing up, I just talk to her. Tell her about my pain. You know. The stuff on the inside that makes me want to drink.”
“That’s good,” Greg said, prodding him on to explain more because he sure wasn’t making a lick of sense to me.
He continued on. “When I was ten, me and my brother visited a friend’s farm. I knew this boy from school. He used to tell me stories about what he’d done on his dirt bike. Said he’d ride that thing all over his daddy’s farm at night, the wind in his hair. Said that it felt like he was on one of them speeder bikes that the Storm Troopers rode on, just driving in the blackness of the night. Used to tell me how it felt like he was riding in space. He knew the lay of the land and could do things like that without getting hurt or running into rabbit holes. Called it a KTX. I begged him to let me on it just once. He told me to wait until summertime when school was out. So I told my younger brother to come on with me. When we got there, I saw that it was lime green. Stuck out like a sore thumb. It was the blackest night ever. No moon was in the sky. The land was quiet. Perfect night to feel like a Storm Trooper. So I drove it first after this boy told me where he lived. My brother. His name was Jessie. He got on that thing and took off after I had my fill of fun on it. Just disappeared in all that darkness of the field. When he didn’t come back, we went looking for him. He must’ve not been able to put on the brakes. Had ran smack into that boy’s barn. Broke his neck,” he finished, catching the lump in his throat, head down. “Died right there. Hand still gripping that powerful machine tight.”
Those people, they came up right on him and laid hands on him and closed their eyes and told him that it was all going to be okay. Going to be alright. He’s in a better place, they said. He’s safe now.
The room spun around me because I knew who he was talking about. He was talking about my KTX that I grew up riding. Talking about my daddy’s farm. I remember that night. That’s what had been on my mind lately. The guilt of it all. The stupidity of my trust in someone else handling my stuff and being able to handle it the same way that I could. And seeing a kid in a helmet going down the rode on one of them dirt bikes about a month ago was what brought it back to my memory. And here I was, in the same room as Jessie’s brother. I knew that I couldn’t talk to Sheila about it. If I had, she’d brush it off and tell me to stop living in the past. Tell me to focus more on getting a different, better job—one that didn’t lay people off. One that could get us back in bed together and get a new dog.
He finished his spiel and I managed to keep myself all reclusive to where he didn’t even notice I was there.
After it the meeting was over, I followed him back to his place. Parked my truck closer to his house that time. And when he opened the door, I heard a bark echo from inside that I recognized.
I got out of my truck and opened his front door and pushed him out of the way when I saw Betty sitting there in a cage next to the kitchen table. He tripped over his own feet and fell. “This who you were talking about?” I asked. “This the ‘someone’ you met not too long back?”
Working his way back to his feet, he said, “I just found her. She came up on me out of the woods.”
“She’s my dog.”
“Don’t blame me for you losing things.”
“She just ran off.”
“Not my fault.”
“And you never thought to see who she belonged to?” I unlocked the cage and Betty whimpered and licked my face.
“I’ll let you have her back. But let me keep her name. Bible talks about how great a name is. And I want her name.”
“Either that’s a riddle or you’re out of your gourd.”
Dylan pointed at Betty and said, “Give me her tag.”
I looked at Betty who still had the blue collar with the silver tag around her neck. “Why you want that thing?”
“It’ll help me.”
“Help me with my sobriety. She wouldn’t ever talk back to me when I would tell her about my faults. She’d just sit there and listen.”
“Fine,” I said, and took the dog tag off the collar. I tossed it to him and he desperately caught it.
“Don’t lose it.”
He nodded and rubbed a thumb on the dog tag and said, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. For your brother. For everything.”
“Thought I recognized you.”
“I’m sorry, Dylan,” I said, and threw his wallet on the ground. “But we’ve all got to move on from it. Gotta stop braggin' about it. Be bigger than that. Your brother wouldn’t want you to be like this.”
I left and got in the truck and hit the road.
On the way home, I looked at Betty who panted, tongue out. She looked different. As if she had seen things that I might never see. Things that granted her wisdom beyond her years. I know how journeys are. I know how long they can be and how long they stick with you. “You and me, we’re the same,” I told her. And we rode down the highway with the windows down.
When I got home, Sheila ran out of the house. “Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!” she yelled. Betty jumped through the passenger side window and sprinted toward her.
Sheila collapsed on her knees in the dirt as she embraced Betty, the dog licking at the tears streaming down her face. We wrapped arms around that beagle, our own little circle of healing pain, repeating her name over and over, her tail wagging in a tornado of love. And there, under those faithful stars and planetary bodies that had been there since I first discovered them, I rubbed Sheila’s back and cried.
Brodie Lowe was a finalist for Broad River Review’s 2018 Ron Rash Award in Fiction and Still: The Journal’s 2018 Literary Contest in Fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Broad River Review, The Mark Literary Review, The Olive Press, Antithesis Journal, and elsewhere. He has a BA in English from Western Carolina University.