Charles Dodd White
Excerpt from Southern Metal
A Novel in Progress
After laying a base for an evening forgiveness fire, Emile Cobb watched triplet doves home in low and fast across the green flat and light in the locust tree above him. In season, he would have come with his Remington pump gun and sat close by, clipped the birds as they came to roost, disposing the hour with a couple of cans of cold beer and swinging a bead on them as they closed. But this was April, and all the game warden permitted this time of year was the watching, though that agreed with him well enough. He had learned to wait for whatever the sky might surrender in its given time.
He whistled for Ty Ty, and in a moment the black mutt exploded up from the creek, slung a spray of muddy water as he shook out his coat. When he came close, Emile could smell the tang of the creek bottom.
“You stink to God and everybody. Come on.”
The dog was to his heels, matched there. It was only a few steps to the outside spigot next to the tool shed. The hose was warm from the sun and it tightened in Emile’s hands as the water ran through and melted mud in gentle sheets. He stepped away to let Ty Ty shake dry. Once he had, alternately kicking his back legs, he hobbled off to get at squirrels in the tall grass.
Emile liked to sit and watch Ty Ty hunt the squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits who would come up and tease him. He would huddle down in the sedge and peer through the stalks before tripping an ambush. A fine hunter, a patient one. The real concern was Daddy. The old man got confused, anxious. Convinced that his displaced mind was surer ground than it truly was. Saw the dog as a wolf or some other dark predator lurking on the edge of the property. Emile had caught him more than once with his Marlin, dropping long rifle shells into the tube, ready to kill the vagrant shape that owed more to his own nightmares than the gentle and loyal pet the dog actually was. Emile looked up at the house. Sure enough, he could see the old man fidgeting at the window with the rifle and bipod.
“Goddammit! Put that thing up,” Emile shouted.
The barrel of the .22 drew back between the bedroom sheers.
“Well, hell. You’ve ruined the shot by now,” Virgil shouted back. The window fell shut with a clap and the old man toddled off somewhere unseen within the house. Emile looked over to see that Ty Ty had lost interest in the squirrel and was sprawled back like a yogi, writhing tummy up. He went back to his fire pit, struck the match to put the flames in motion and began rolling a Bugler cigarette.
Perhaps that was what he was after, some way to get all that time back that had been destroyed and salted over like a defeated country.
With the fire cracking up through the small bundling of sticks, Emile closed his eyes and began to whisper, inviting the spirits of fate down to his level. It wasn’t a Christian prayer exactly. He’d read a book once about the Indians up north, the Anishinabe, and he’d remembered talk of how the men might seek after their medicine. Perhaps that was what he was after, some way to get all that time back that had been destroyed and salted over like a defeated country. Maybe that was what his medicine was, a broken clock and sterile ground.
He heard the sound of the approaching truck a moment before Ty Ty swung himself to his feet and wolfed. By the tick of the engine, Emile knew who it was. Ty Ty recognized the truck as soon as it rounded the screen of honeysuckle and stopped barking, curled back up close to the fire and closed his eyes with everything suddenly right in his small world. Emile opened his eyes, knowing trouble had just entered his.
Ernie Holt cut the growling Ford and yelled from the cab, “You thirsty?”
“That a rhetorical question?”
Ernie laughed, tossed out a plastic traveler of Wild Turkey. Emile unscrewed the cap and bubbled it twice before passing it back.
“Must be bad if you’re bringing store bought liquor out here.”
Ernie laughed again, showing no teeth as he came around and knelt by Ty Ty, put his hands between his sleek shoulders. He was the only black man the dog didn’t act like he was going to eat.
“Little warm out here for a camp fire, ain’t it?”
“You must be hard up.”
“Hard up?” Ernie countered, feigning innocence. “How’s that, now?”
“Hard up to come after me with whatever illegal shit it is you’ve got in mind.”
Ernie shook his head and spat. “Listen to that man, Ty Ty. The way he talks to his friends. Lord, he acts like I’ve never done nothing for him.”
“I won’t stand to be talked about to my dog, so you better cut that out right now.”
Ernie smiled, unscrewed the whiskey and drank.
“How’s your Daddy doing?”
Emile poked at a stick in the fire and shifted the base to let in some air. Another pair of doves whistled into the locust tree. Two beggarly gossips at dusk.
“Oh, he’s wonderful. You know, he’s a new man. Like living with an angel sent straight from heaven.”
“Hell, you ain’t got to act that way.”
They sat quietly for a while, letting the hard feelings rub themselves smooth. More there between them than they could reasonably discuss.
"I thought maybe you could use a little extra money,” Ernie said finally.
Emile thought about Lorne’s medicine, the deferred medical bills lying heavy as wood slats in the kitchen drawer. “How much?” he asked.
“Depends on how quick we work. How soon you can be ready to roll.”
Emile warmed his already warm hands in the updraft of flame.
“I can be ready. What all do I need to bring?”
“You still got that old .357?”
“Yeah, I got it. But I’m deciding.”
“Deciding on what?”
“On how much of a fool I’m about to be.”
Ernie smiled. “Tomorrow evening then. About this time. You think you can shake loose? Do it without stirring up too much attention?”
Emile stood, nodded. Ernie reached down to pat Ty Ty once more before heading to the truck.
“You have your telephone with you in case anything changes,” Ernie said. When he hit the engine, Ty Ty matched the truck’s growl. He kept on until he was clear to the hardtop.
Once the fire had dimmed down enough to be abandoned, Emile went up to the house, left the dog to the outdoors and his own good sense.
“What that nigger boy out there want?” Virgil called from the living room as soon as the screen door slapped shut.
Emile crossed to the kitchen counter and shuffled clean plates from the drying rack into the cabinet.
“He’s fifty years old if he’s a day, Daddy.”
“That ain’t a answer.”
“You don’t want the answer I’d give you.”
“Boy, now you’re telling the damn truth.”
The television was running at a low rumble. Sirens and forensics and impossibly buxom detectives. Emile popped a Bud and stood in the corner watching the show for a minute, seeing if some quick accident of meaning might stumble into the dialogue. In a couple of minutes it cut to a deodorant commercial. Pretty women talking about their body chemistry.
“You need anything from the store?” Emile asked, swallowing the last big swallow of his beer.
“Something sweet maybe. Some of that peppermint candy, I guess.”
Emile nodded, crushed the can under his shoe and tossed the stamped disk into the garbage. It was nearly full. He’d need to make another run to the dump pretty soon.
“Don’t shoot nobody while I’m gone.”
“Not making any promises.”
It had gotten dark outside. Emile whistled for Ty Ty and the dog came running, scrabbled up in the truck bed. The yard was smoky still. Emile liked the smell, remembered so many fishing and hunting trips with his daddy and brother. Seemed like a million years ago. He would like to take another trip with both of them some time, but so much had wrung itself out in their lives since he and Lorne were boys he feared it would all seem hollow and out of joint.
He stopped at the mailbox and stepped out to see what news might have found him. A junk circular, a power bill, another postcard from his mother, addressed as always: Missing you all terribly. Dearest Mother/Madeleine. As with the others she sent at weekly intervals, it was postmarked from Atlanta, just the other side of the state line and less than two hours’ drive. The card’s scenery, however, was of island solitude with a sweating bottle of Bacardi stuck in the tidal flats. He folded the card and stuffed it into the hip pocket of his jeans. That was all he’d heard of her since she’d left the family place nearly ten years ago, just after Lorne’s accident. Even then she had been a remote and difficult personality, outside the margins of what people understood each other to reasonably be. Not so much crazy as willfully absentminded. But add to that one boy physically broken and another sent off to the jail house, and she’d released herself from family like another woman would shuck old clothes at the Goodwill drop-off. Emile knew he’d always despise her for the way she had let it all go, as easily as if it were someone else’s life to squander.
When he turned he could see the whole of the property spread out before him. Owned land was the only worthy thing she had brought into their lives. Though it had been neglected through the years, the property had once held acres of soy and a little tobacco, as well as enough tomatoes and beans to can through the winter. Never a farm really, as much as a healthy garden, though that had been more than enough to suit their needs. The four empty acres had been her dowry, her sole contribution as far as Emile knew. The house, the well dug into the ground, the boat shed and greenhouse, every bearing seed of food or flower, all that had been his daddy’s work. Hard to imagine him now as a man capable of such labors, but Emile remembered vestiges of the old man’s tireless energy, his ability to pull together the materials for whatever building project he concocted. Aside from basic competency, Emile had never developed his skills as a carpenter or farmer. He’d never had the inclination. One inheritance, along with others, he had elected not to pick up.
He punched in some Joe Pug on the CD player and drove into town, listened to the sad harmonica and broken voice. Something about hearing it reminded him of groaning boards in an old house, a sound that always was a comfort. Ty Ty danced around in skittering circles in the truck bed, drunk on the rushing air, until Emile hollered at him to settle down.
It wasn’t long before Emile began to see street lights and the few desolate facades of closed businesses. The hard glare of his headlights swung by the glass and brick, illuminating what had little reason for being. Pennington, along with so many other small towns in the foothills and upstate, had been driven down hard through the last decade. There were a few mechanics and a tool rental shop and the occasional nail salon that managed to stagger along, but much of the rest was defunct. Empty hulks come to rest on the shore of this bleak economy. Even the Blockbuster had gone out of business. Everybody that was making money seemed to have figured out some way to do it elsewhere.
At the poorly lit dead end, he wheeled onto Harrison Road and drove hard, knowing there was slight chance he would find his brother any other place than in front of a pitcher of beer. A few minutes later proved him right. He nosed in next to Lorne’s Caprice in the gravel parking lot of Shug’s. The bar was slow and dark tonight, like many a similar evening. Inside, the dependable drunks and their few women. Later on, a bunch of them would pair up and dance a slow jukebox song and maybe kiss and fight some, though with little heart. It was still too early and severe an hour for that. Whether he liked it or not, he knew he belonged among them. He got out of the truck and went from the moonless night and stepped under the small lights strung over the threshold. Quiet and frozen stars in plastic bulbs.
Lorne was at the bar, off by himself with a laptop opened up. At his right hand a pilsner glass and a chipped pitcher half shot. Emile said hello to Hardy, the bartender, who got him a fresh glass and asked how his daddy was doing. His answer was polite but short before he moved down. Lorne had seen him coming.
“E-meal, big brother. Warm you ass on this stool,” he said, smiling. His voice, as always, boomed.
Emile watched the two of them in the long, smutty mirror. All the soft geometries of liquor bottles and mixers and the fluid movement of the other patrons swaying and tipping from one end of the glass to the other. He looked over and saw that Lorne was writing an email.
“This your office now?”
“Something like that. My wi-fi crapped out last week. Hardy gave me the code.”
“Who you writing?”
“Just responding to one of those Missed Connections on Craigslist.”
“Missed Connections, huh?”
Lorne reached over for his beer, bottomed it swiftly, filled both their glasses gold brimmed before lifting the empty pitcher in Hardy’s direction for another round.
“Well, I answer them, you know. To the best of my ability, anyhow. It’s hard to get the details just right since I’m pretty much shooting in the dark.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
In the half light of the bar it was hard to see the scar there at his hairline, wide as a seam running the length of his skull, but he could still observe some of its effects . . .
It was always like this with Lorne, a goddamned farfetched story. One of the remaining parts of him Emile could still recognize from when they were boys. In the half light of the bar it was hard to see the scar there at his hairline, wide as a seam running the length of his skull, but he could still observe some of its effects: the failing hands, the slackened left hemisphere of his face. A borderland in a map back to some place in memory Emile had been trying to forget for more years than he believed could have lapsed. All that time burning behind them, erasing what they had once believed was the God-given future.
Lorne reached for the pitcher, topped them both off before he answered.
“Listen, it’s a public service, answering all these people. They get on talking about how they’ve seen somebody that means something to them, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. I figure they deserve an answer, even if it isn’t true. They’re kind of like prayers, I guess. I’m answering them.”
“So, you’re lying to them.”
Lorne shrugged, craned around to see if there was anybody worth studying out on the dance floor. There wasn’t.
“So, brother, what brings you down to check on your retarded sibling? Daddy decided it was time for a little fatherly concern?”
“Just looking in on you, seeing if you might could do me a favor tomorrow.”
“I imagine I can if it doesn’t require rocket science,” he said, tapping the pink rise of the scar. “You know, the headpiece isn’t my strong suit.”
“I just need you to sit with Daddy for a while tomorrow evening. Make sure he doesn’t do anything too batshit.”
“Ah, I see. Off on one of your adventures. Let me guess, Ernie turn up like a bad penny?”
“Something like that,” Emile admitted. The suspicion he read in his brother’s face matched his own fears too well.
“This ain’t going to be like Detroit again, I hope.”
“Yeah, you and me both.”
“You damn near got yourself killed over that bullshit, Emile. Pissed off some pretty goddamn dangerous people.”
Emile was learning nothing new, saw no reason to reminisce about the many errant detours of judgment that so consistently landed him in the deep end of bad luck.
“You able to sit over there tomorrow or not?”
“Hell, you don’t need to ask. I’m not exactly overbooked on my social calendar. Why don’t you just relax and go hit on some married woman over there so I can have a little bit of entertainment.”
Instead, they drank the pitcher down and another after that until Emile told Lorne he was driving him home himself or calling the Sheriff’s Deputy about a DUI in progress. Lorne complied without a word of protest. Emile propped him on one shoulder and stiff-legged it out to the truck, promising they’d pick up the Caprice when he brought him over to the house tomorrow. They drove along without saying much. Lorne leaned his head against the cool passenger’s window, breathing soft as one on the edge of a dream. He sat up straight when they stopped in front of his apartment.
“Damn, I might be a little bit drunk.”
“You make it up the stairs?”
“Sure,” he belched. “I’m golden.”
Emile watched him ease out and balance against the opened door as he stared down at the pavement like it had tried to ambush him. He waited a minute before he ventured on, put his hand in the air to signal that he was good, and began the heroic climb toward the second floor. Emile put the shift into drive and left the man to his own dignity.
He’d had enough to drink to become sentimental and stupid, and before he knew what he was doing, decided to stop off at the Valero gas station on the way home. The excuse he gave himself was that he needed to go to get a few things for the house, to get that candy Daddy had asked for, though he knew the old man was asleep this time of night, and the real reason was the good chance of seeing Carol working the swing shift.
He parked under the awning next to one of the pumps and before he’d even got out could see her in the glare of the store interior, leaned up on the counter with one of her cosmetics magazines. He saw that she’d cut her hair, not too short, but enough that he could tell a difference. A lot changed in a couple of months apparently. He got out and went in, stood there facing her until she looked up.
“Hey,” she said.
“It’s kind of late to be out, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is. Thought you might be out front smoking.”
“No. I quit them the same time I did you.”
He winced, tried to take it as a joke. She came around and shelved her magazine. He thought she looked good, healthy. He maybe should have told her so.
“You seeing anybody?” he asked.
“Jesus, Emile. How drunk are you?”
“No more than a little bit,” he said, caught himself slurring. Focused before he spoke again. “Why don’t you come over and have supper with us this weekend? Daddy asked about you just this morning. I can fry up some catfish and do hushpuppies.”
He recalled the time she’d gone down to Hilton Head with him on a whim, just jumping in the truck with an overnight bag and that big laugh instead of thinking of the gas money or lost wages. Three days in the early fall, the waves still warm, the cheap hotel that stank of mildew, the glare of so much immediate horizon. They’d eaten fish and sucked on raw oysters, washed it down with Cuervo and Cokes. In the bed they rolled around in sandy sheets, loving and whispering profane endearments until they were raw from the sex and had to lie completely still, only their hands touching, eyes closed while they listened to the roar of the ocean and passing automobile traffic.
She had gone back behind the register without an answer for his invitation. He went up the aisle and scanned the shelves of potted meat and candy bars, let his hand fall to the objects without thought of practical use, simply collecting weight in his hands. He set everything before her in a ragged pile.
“You forget the kitchen sink?” she said, smiled faintly.
He snapped his fingers, as if remembering one detail, pulled a six pack of Budweiser from the cold case. She began to total things up, shook her head.
“Same old Emile. You got a twenty?”
He dug into his wallet and passed a bill across. She made some scant change that he dropped in the Shriners jar.
“Take care of yourself, Emile.”
“Yeah, you too.”
He opened one of the beers and sat outside drinking it. Surely she could see him, and some meager part of his pride surrendered itself in the hope she’d maybe take pity on the sight he made for a few minutes of easy company. After a while, though, he turned the truck key and drove back home alone.
Charles Dodd White was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in both the city and the woods. He currently lives in Candler, North Carolina. He has been a Marine, a fishing guide, and a journalist. He is the recipient of the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, an individual artist grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, and is the author of the story collection, Sinners of Sanction County, the novel, Lambs of Men, and co-editor of the contemporary Appalachian short story anthology, Degrees of Elevation. His novel, A Shelter of Others, will be released in 2014 by Fiddleblack Press. Read an interview with Charles in an earlier issue of Still: The Journal.