I know I can get better if I want to. Everybody can get better if they want to.
At the Duck Thru the black ladies are talking ‘bout the Bradley man that used to be sheriff in Halifax County. He killed himself yesterday. Melissa’s rescue squad was called out to it. They say he called 911 and told them he was having chest pains. And by the time Melissa and them got there he’d shot himself in the chest with his sawed off twelve gauge. He was still alive when they found him. Wallowing right there in his recliner. Melissa said he’d sold everything in the house except for that recliner. Like he’d been getting ready for it for months.
The black ladies are making sausage biscuits. And all Krystal’s doing is looking at me.
“Right wet out there ain’t it, Donnie?” she says.
I nod and rain falls off the end of my hat.
She giggles and leans on the counter, pushes her breasts together.
I ask her for a can of Grizzly, and she bends over like she’s stretching. And I wonder for minute what she’d be like, how she likes it. Me taking her from behind. Wrapping that white blond hair round my hand one good time. And it’s alright. She’s been acting like she wants me to be thinking about it— going on a while now. Since she turned up at our church, bringing them kids to Vacation Bible School.
She puts the can on the counter and says, “I won’t tell Melissa.” Melissa put me on the prayer list Sunday. Her cousin just got mouth cancer so she thinks I will too.
Krystal clicks her fingernails on the lighter case, her pointer finger has a little diamond in it. “Just got ‘em done yesterday. You like ‘em?” She holds out her hands in front of me, wiggles her fingers.
Before I can answer she turns to them ladies, smiles at them and says, “Miss Gretchen and Hilly think they’re gaudy.”
“But anyways.” She turns back to me and bangs the register with her fist to open it. She hands me my change, her bracelets clinking. “You got a plumbing snake? Melissa said she thought y’all did. I think one of my boys done put a truck in the commode.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” I say. If I don’t help Krystal, I’ll hear it from Melissa so I tell Krystal I’ll come over ‘round five.
Krystal tells me to call her before I head over. She writes her number on the back of my receipt. I put it in my pocket without looking at it.
When I walk out the door them women are trying to figure if the Bradley man is gonna have an open casket.
“If he don’t look too bad, then they ought to do it,” one of ‘em says.
“It’s the right thing to do… for the family,” says the other one.
I sit in the truck some and watch the cars fly down Highway 258. Flinging puddles out the road. Fore I even went out to the MacDaniel farm this morning, I knew it was gonna be a swamp. All that corn won’t be worth five cents. Count of that tropical depression, rain’s been here all week. I can’t do nothing. But I called Wayne anyway like a damn piece of shit cause me and Melissa need the money now with another baby coming. I called him and asked him did he want me to do anything out there on the MacDaniel farm. If there was any work I could do on that old picker in his shop. Wayne said he wished he could help me, but he’ll have me back in the field once the rain lets up. He tells me to tell Melissa he said, “Hello.” And right now she’s rubbing her belly so happy.
And right now I’m sitting here alone outside the Duck Thru in my truck and one thing I can always do right is count the teeth on this Grizzly can. That bear comes out having five teeth every time you count it. I put in a good dip. Hell, when me and Melissa was youngins she’d dip too. Don’t know if she really enjoyed it, or if she was just trying to show off to all us on the baseball team. But she’d put a dip in bigger than anything you’d seen and sit right there on the tailgate looking just as pretty as you please, swinging her legs, telling us how she loved the tingle of it.
Now she’s bought them special vitamins for having healthy babies. It’s the first thing she does every morning. Takes that bottle from her nightstand and pops them vitamins and looks at me and grins.
It didn’t even feel like nothing when I made that baby with her. I thought that it would feel different but it just felt like every other time.
If I sit here too long folks’ll see me sitting here. Don’t want anybody to think anything. I just want something to happen. Or get caught up in something until something does. Wish I could just go to sleep and wake up and feel like there’s something to look forward to.
I get out the truck and dig through all the shit in the truck bed. I find my cane pole and cooler and figure I’ll go out to the pond. Long as I know my family’s been fishing in this pond back off behind Slade Store Road. It’s real nice, lots of pin oaks and gumball tress round the edges. A big Magnolia so old the roots rise up out of the ground and you can sit there on em. Don’t nobody ever come out there. Nobody to look at, nobody to look at me.
Daddy always said there was a bass out there but I ain’t never seen one. Pond’s too small for a bass. My daddy worked for Wayne’s daddy. That’s how that works. Won’t until I was grown that I that I realized Daddy half assed everything Hell he half parred everything. He always told me he learned everything he knew from his daddy. I never knew the old man, he died before I was born. But I heard my daddy’s old man hollered at him from the time my daddy was a baby. Scared Daddy so much he didn’t talk until he was five years old.
Reckon that’s why my daddy did some things to me too. I tell Melissa sometimes at night before we sleep and she listens and tells me it’s alright. Melissa’s too good a woman for me.
Soon as I pull down in there, I spit out my dip and I find the Rich and Rare in my glovebox. It’s the best Canadian whiskey that’s bang for your buck. I drink till the rain lets up to a drizzle and it feels like time is moving easier. And the rain looks like static on the pond. I get out and catch some crickets easy. I catch me a couple baby brim with the crickets, and bait the brim for a damn bass. I throw in round the edges and start jigging the line. A bass would be something.
Truth is before our baby came I came out here and swam out to the middle of that water. Went right in with my boots on. I wanted the water to fill me up till there won’t nothing left. I wanted something to come and just pull me to the bottom. But I just floated there all afternoon watched the sky change to stars. I was waiting there when I heard Melissa calling for me. I watched the light she was shining on the water, watched it get closer to me. She was screaming my name, running down into the water with her big belly, pulling me out. Telling me she loved me over and over and I couldn’t say nothing. She was pulling stuff out of my hair and beard. Then she stopped and showed me. “Look, forsythia blooms,” she said.
The line tugs and then pulls hard like a snatch and I know, I can feel it. It’s a bass. And he’s fighting too boy. I get him to where I can see his eyes and get him on the shore. His stripe is pretty and straight. He’s got to be about eight pounds.
I lay him in the tall grass, watch his gills open and close. He moves his fins real pretty. And he’s bleeding from where he swallowed the hook. And looking at him like that, I almost don’t want to keep him. But I sit there and watch his mouth move till the blood stops coming out of him. And I can’t hardly believe it all. My fucking daddy.
I fill the cooler up with water and put him down in it easy.
My watch says quarter till 4. But I figure I’ll call Krystal up anyway, get on over there a little early. And I don’t know how she did it, but the way Krystal curled the “y” on her name looks like a damn heart, like some bullshit. I know she lives in Arrowhead but don’t know which trailer is hers. I call her up and she tells me she lives at the back edge in the blue singlewide. The one with the baby pool she says.
Only time I ever been out to Arrowhead was when Wayne’s son asked me to bring him out here to buy some drugs from Big Bay Odom. I pass Big Bay’s trailer and him and all them are sitting out in their yard watching me, smoking with their shirts off. When I pull up to Krystal’s all these cats go running out from everywhere. And all her kids are watching me from the window, all those little heads, one on top of the other.
I grab the plumbing snake out the truck bed. And I check on the bass and his gills are still opening and closing. He’ll probably be dead by the time I look at him again, suffocate in that water. I put in another dip and I hear Krystal yell at the kids. She flings open the front door and hollers, “Don’t be a stranger Donnie, come on in the house.” She’s in a top she’s about to fall out of. I know then what all this is gonna be. I look back towards Big Bay Odom’s. They’re still watching me. I can feel them watching me when I step into Krystal’s trailer. She hugs me and thanks me for coming over and her kids all go stand in front of the couch. There’s four of them, a boy ‘bout twelve, two middle ones, and a baby. They all have white blonde hair like her. The place smells like cat piss.
“Y’all ‘member Mr. Donnie don’t ya?” She tugs at her shirt to show more of her breasts. “He’s the one that cuts the grass at church.”
The middle girl starts to pick her nose.
Krystal pops her hand.
“What’s that?” The oldest points to the plumbing snake in my hand.
“A plumbing snake, ain’t that a funny name?” Krystal says.
“Don’t look like a snake to me,” the middle girl says.
They giggle and she tells them to go play in their room. The oldest one looks back at me and follows the rest of them ripping down the hall. Krystal leads me to her room and hollers to them to make her some more pictures. And I look back at the fridge and it’s already covered in paper, every one of them is pictures of horses. Horses running in fields, on the beach with big suns over them. She’ll have to take some down to make room for more.
Krystal’s bed is made up with velvet looking pillows that say “Angel.” She picks one up and squeezes it against her. Her skin looks glittery. “Got these from the Dollar General,” she says, “Can you believe it? They’re getting more cosmopolitan all the time.”
“Yeah,” I say, “Where you want me to put this plumbing snake?”
“That sink there’s fine,” she points behind me to her bathroom.
There’s a big picture of Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss above the commode and Krystal’s got a candle lit in front of the bathroom mirror, smells like cotton candy. It’s next to a pink ashtray slam full of butts. It’s a glass one, looks antique. I tell her that most folks think you need a plumbing snake when they just need a plunger.
“Well I tried the plunger already. All day yesterday I was trying that plunger.” She comes into the bathroom and lights a Virginia Slim with a flowery lighter. She edges up on the counter and sits her lighter by the candle.
“I’ve been having to use the kid’s bathroom,” she says, “And with all of them, it’s right crowded.” She flicks her cigarette into the ashtray. “Bout like living in the old days,” she laughs.
“I reckon,” I say.
I grab the plunger from behind the commode and while I’m plunging, I can see her out the corner of my eye tracing her knees with her diamond fingernail. I can feel whatever that’s in the commode give and I spit my dip out in it. I give it a flush and it unclogs just fine.
“Well, that won’t much of nothing,” she says and she stubs out her cigarette.
“I don’t think it was a toy, coulda just been a lot of paper,” I say.
She gets down off the counter and wiggles her toes into the pink rug. “I knew it, I’ve been telling Jeenie to stop using so much paper, but she likes using my bathroom. What can I tell her? She’s my only girl.”
Krystal is acting dumb but she knows what she’s doing. I study her feet. She’s picked every one of her toenails down into the quick. There’s dried blood in the corners of some of ‘em.
“You just don’t know how much I appreciate it,” she says. She comes closer. “It’s hard here you know. I need all the help I can get.” She runs her fingers down my shirt buttons. Her nails make a sound when they touch my buttons. Like a clink like a tap… “And I know you need some help too sometimes.”
“Let me make you feel better, Donnie.”
And she puts a finger into my shirt between the buttons, scratches my chest. “I know you’ve been hurting,” she says, “for a long time.”
And I’m caught up in it. I don’t have no control. I pick her up and put her on the counter and rake my teeth down her neck, all the way down to her collarbone. Her nails go into my shoulders and her heels go into my ass. I shove my hand under her bra and her breasts are hot and soft at the same time. I bite her nipples and she clinches harder, gasps.
“You like it hard, don’t you.” Krystal says.
I throw her on the bed. She gets up to reach for me and I pull her legs out from under her. She gets up again and I grab her hair, wrap it ‘round my hand one good time.
“You’re a bad man, Donnie Dunlow,” she says.
I stand there and hold her out from me on the bed and she likes that. She’s making good noise. I want to feel her shaking while I’m inside her. So hard inside her.
“That’s right, I am a bad man,” I tell her.
She’s trying to reach for me, clawing for me like it’s all she knows how to do.
“Fuck me, Donnie,” she gets louder, “I said I want you to FUCK me.”
A kid starts screaming, comes flying down the hall. And the bedroom door starts beating, the doorknob shaking, turning so fast.
I let go of Krystal’s hair and she falls on the bed. The bathroom light makes my shadow on her. She turns over to face me and I see now all of her naked body. Her chest heaves, her legs stretch.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Baby,” she yells to the door. She starts to get up and stops in front of me, looks at me like she’s about to cry.
I’m back where I started and I can see everything now for what it is. And all I can do is slap her. I slap the shit out of her, slap her as hard as I can.
I pick her hair out from ‘round my fingers and watch the beating door. When I open it the middle girl’s standing under me wringing her hands.
“Tell them to stop chasing me with that spider,” she points down the hall.
They’re all looking at me from the end of the hall. But I still wipe my face and pull myself together. And I tell them I gotta bass in the back of my truck.
Heading out the trailer the cats come up underneath my feet, bout to damn trip me. The baby runs straight into the baby pool fast as lightning, even with all the rain it still looks like the water’s been standing in it for months. The middle girl grabs him, wipes the green shit off his fat little legs. The boys crawl up the sides and lean in over the truck bed. I open up the cooler, and he don’t look the same anymore. He don’t look as beautiful. He’s starting to die.
“Now that there is the prettiest bass I’ve ever seen!” The oldest takes a picture of him on his phone. “You’ll have to take me with you next time man.”
One of the cats jump in the truck bed, looks like it’s got a stomach full of worms. The oldest boy picks it up and starts scratching it’s head.
“Lookee!” The girl holds up the baby and the baby sticks it’s head in the cooler.
The bass moves his tail fin and barely makes the water slosh. The cat perks up. The baby squeals. It’s right pitiful.
“What you gon’ do with him, Mithter Donnie?,” The middle boy has a lisp. “He’s so big, he’d liable to take up the whole wall!” He holds his hands out real wide above his head and the rest of them laugh.
I look out towards Halifax County and it looks like another storm cloud is coming. It’ll be raining again soon. I tell the kids to head back in the house. And Big Bay Odom and all the trash sitting in their front yards, smoking cigarettes in Arrowhead, sees me leave out of there.
I sit in the truck outside my house and I tell myself that I caught a bass and that my wife will be happy. And that I am a good man coming home to my family. I am a good man.
When I walk in the house, first thing Melissa says to me is, “Where’s the diapers?”
She hits the side of the skillet with the spoon and puts her other hand on her hip, “I told you this morning ‘fore you went out that Bailey needs some more diapers.”
Bailey’s on the floor reaching for her Mama with cheerios stuck to her chest.
I grab Melissa and kiss her on the mouth.
“Golly, honey,” she says, “What’s gotten into you?”
I tell her to close her eyes. I watch her a little there with her eyes closed wiping her hands on a dish rag. “Did you get them pork chops like I asked,” she pushes a curl out her face.
I run and grab the bass out of the cooler and the baby laughs at me when I come in. And when I tell Melissa to open her eyes she is so happy. She says how special the bass is. She tells the baby her Daddy ought to go in the paper for a bass like this. I’m standing there in the kitchen holding it and I be damn if he ain’t dead yet. His gills open and close so slow. Melissa don’t even notice. She’s kissing me, taking off my cap. She’s taking a picture of me and him on her phone.
“I’ll caption it: MY GREATEST CATCH,” she says. She giggles at her own joke. She looks at me like she loves me.
“Let me put him down,” I tell her. I put him on the cutting board and he lays there real still. We stand over him together and I put my hands around her waist.
“He’s so pretty Donnie,” she says. “You ought to mount him. We could put him above the TV!”
I watch him stop moving.
Melissa moves my hand to be on her belly. “We could mount him and put him in our little man’s room,” she says it so sweet like.
But I don’t want to think about that. I tell her let’s eat him. He’ll be good and nice with all the vitamins and all that stuff our babies need. I can’t believe how happy I sound saying it. And I rub her belly and she puts her hands on mine.
Melissa says that she’ll clean him, that she’ll finish taking care of supper. She tells me I deserve it. I pour a glass of tea and I sit on the couch and look at the baby in front of the TV. Melissa keeps going on about the bass.
I scratch my beard and some glitter falls outta it. What did Krystal say to those youngins when they all jumped in front of each other showing her the horses they made for her? I don’t remember. I watch the ice melt in my glass, watch the glass drip on the outside. It’s gonna make a ring on the end table. I feel like the glitter is all over me. I feel like it’s shining all over me. Then Melissa hollers for me.
She’s standing there with blood on her hands.
“I can’t do it,” she says, “you’re gonna have to get the head. His bones are too strong.”
When I bring the knife down it feels like the rest of his body jerks. His backbone is so strong I have to really work at it until it breaks in two. Krystal said she knew I’d been hurting. I ‘bout can’t stand it.
Melissa puts her hand on my shoulder and then puts his head in a bowl in the sink.
And I go take a shower and get all the glitter and blood and everything off of me.
When Melissa says the blessing, she opens her eyes to me and rubs her belly.
“He just kicked,” she says, “He’s so excited about his Daddy’s bass.”
I know damn well that’s not true. She’s not even showing yet. But I feel excited that she feels excited. And that makes me feel like it’s something I can smile about.
Melissa fried the bass perfect. And she eats him like she’s starving, like she’s been waiting for him all along. It makes me feel good. In between mouthfuls she asks me what work Wayne had for me today, and I tell her nothing.
“Didn’t even have nothing at the shop?” she says.
I shake my head and the baby bangs her hands in carrot shit in the highchair. She’s even picking at half a filet.
“Well, y’all will be out in the field soon enough.” Melissa wipes the baby’s face and hands. “Weatherman says this rain will be easing off soon.”
I take my first bite and he don’t taste musty or anything, cleanest fish I’ve ever tasted.
“What about Krystal,” Melissa says. “You get up with her?”
“Well, yeah,” I say.
“You didn’t charge her nothing did you?” Melissa says. “You know she can’t barely afford any shoes for those kids.”
I try to remember if those kids had any shoes on.
“I told the women’s auxiliary that we need to take up a love offering for ‘em.” Melissa talks to the baby getting her out of the highchair. “Ain’t that right, sweet baby girl?”
“And you know what,” she stops on her way from the table, “I’ll put some of them filets together and you can take them to her tomorrow. We’ve got enough to feed an army.”
I think of Krystal poking my bass apart with her fingernails, feeding all those youngins like little birds. Them underneath each side of her reaching up with their open mouths.
“You’re a good woman, Melissa,” I say.
I clean off the table. And then I get the rest of my bass out the sink. I take him out and dump him at the edge of the yard.
Bailey sleeps in our bed between us. She don’t move or wake up for nothing. Melissa thinks it’s sweet.
Melissa puts her Bible down on her stomach and I can tell she’s praying, praying for everybody, but I know she’s praying for me. I’ve known that since she found me out there in the pond. And I know she wants to tell me that she knows that’s where I caught that bass. But she won’t say it because she don’t want to hurt me.
“Don’t forget the Bradley man’s wake is tomorrow,” she says.
I think about that Bradley man sitting alone in his recliner, alone in his empty house, in the middle of the afternoon. He probably had the blinds pulled. But he didn’t want to be there for days until someone found him. Have his children come in and find him like that. That’s why he called the rescue squad.
“Did he say anything when y’all got there?” I say, “I mean, was he able to talk?”
“Honey, I don’t want to remember.” She brushes my hair of my forehead and starts to touch my face.
“Well a man that kills himself ain’t a man at all,” I say. I feel like that’s important for me to say. That’s what my daddy said when L.G. Cook found out he had cancer and shot himself down one of his paths. That was the first time I remember knowing about anything like that.
“I think I’m proud of you, Donnie Dunlow,” she says.
I can’t do nothing but turn over away from her.
She tells me she loves me.
I look out and watch the rain start to hit the window and I tell her I love her too.
Melissa’s pager goes off at about 11:45. She kisses the baby and is gone. I turn on the scanner on the nightstand and listen to her. She says there’s a bad wreck out on Galatia Church Road.
Way off I can hear the sirens. I get my Grizzly from under the dresser and I start to pack my dip, I slap it harder and harder. I put in my dip and look at my hands. I look at the back of them and I look at the front, I turn them over and over. I go to the gun cabinet and find half a bottle of Rich and Rare and sit it next to me. I spit out my dip and start to drink.
Melissa’s still on the scanner. The baby’s still asleep. And I sit and watch the rain start sideways, hear the lighting come. Next thing I know I near ‘bout finish off the bottle.
I head out the house and it’s so dark I can’t see nothing. I walk into the push mower. It’s already rusting, sinking in the mud. Every man ought to have a shed for his tools. But that don’t matter now. The rain makes the bottle slip in my hands, but I drink it damn straight. Right there in my backyard, right there in front of the fields.
And don’t you know that the damn coons and dogs came out in the storm and took the last parts of my bass. I’m down on my hands feeling for him. I want to find where I broke him in two.