by Nathan Ballingrud
Illustration by Sam Sultana
In the morning before going to work, Nick found his mother and gave her a kiss. He used the flashlight to locate her, careful as always to keep the beam from touching her. This time she was in the kitchen, her wheelchair backed into a small alcove between the refrigerator and the oven. She seemed only barely conscious when he reached her, which was not unusual; her head bobbed gently when his lips touched her cheek, as though nodding in recognition. When he backed away from her he almost tripped over a plate she had left lying on the floor. A quick scan with the flashlight revealed the bright red splash of blood on the china, a glaring arc of beauty like a detail from a Pollock canvas. Nick retrieved the plate and placed it in the sink. He went back to his mother and made sure the blanket was secure around her legs, and that she was warm.
The kiss was an act of duty and of love; if there was a difference between them, Nick did not recognize it.
Miss Josephine’s was a little Cajun restaurant half a block off the distal end of Bourbon Street, in what Nick had always thought of as the Fag District. It was far enough from the main drag that the owner claimed to be unable to afford an air conditioner in the kitchen. So the staff opened the delivery door, admitting the warm, viscous subtropical air, laced with the perfume of rotting garbage coming from the trash bags stacked along the curb every afternoon. The kitchen was tiny and cramped, even with only the three employees: Nick, who labored over the steamy exhalations of the power washer; and the two black line cooks, Tyrone and Big Jake. When business was slow – which was nearly always – and there were few dishes to wash, the owner justified Nick’s hours by having him prep food for the night shift and sometimes for the following day. This work consisted of peeling potatoes, cleaning spinach, de-veining shrimp, and skinning and cutting long, phallic ropes of andouille sausage. In this way, Nick was paid as a dishwasher but employed as a prep cook. Nick reasoned to himself that the owner, being a Jew, was only acting according to his nature, which made it easier for him to accept. Furthermore, the circumstances at home did not allow him the luxury of quitting.
The owner was an overweight, meticulously tidy man named Barry Bright – a failed car salesman from Idaho, and about as far from an actual Cajun as it was possible to get. When he walked through the kitchen it was with as much reluctance and mincing care as a man crossing a grassy median carpeted with dog turds. He stepped gingerly around the extended arms of simmering pots and refused to walk over the rubber mats behind the line, which were often caked with squashed gobs of meat and vegetable. The heat made him sweat, and because he was a large man he did so with vigorous industry, ruining his temper and his shirts. He hated being in the kitchen; when he had to address the kitchen staff he preferred to do it in the dining area, where he couldn’t afford not to run an air conditioner. So when the kitchen door swung open and he stepped back there, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him.
He pointed a finger at Nick and jerked his head back the way he had come. “Nick! What I tell you about phone calls at work!”
Nick set down the knife he was using to chop garlic and made a helpless gesture. “I didn’t call no one, Mr. Bright.”
“Somebody called you. Come out here and get it. She says it’s important.” He cast a disparaging glance around the kitchen. “You boys better get this pigsty cleaned up before the night shift comes in.” He looked at Big Jake, a huge man of indeterminate age and immeasurable girth. “You got it under control in here, Jake?”
“Always do, Mr. Bright.”
Bright nodded curtly and retreated into the dining area. Nick followed him out, taking off his hat and wiping a rag over his closely-shaven head.
When he picked up the phone, he found Trixie waiting on the other end of it.
“You gotta do something, Nick,” she said, without preamble.
“Hey,” he said. “I thought you were mad at me.”
“Stupid. Why would I be mad at you?”
“I don’t know. ‘Cause I ran out of there, I guess.” It had been nearly a week since the meeting at Derrick’s apartment, and he hadn’t heard from her at all in that time. He’d been sure she had cut him loose.
She was silent a moment, which let him know he wasn’t absolved. “Well, you didn’t exactly help yourself out,” she said. “What happened there, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” he muttered, leaning against the counter. His chef’s coat released little scent-clouds of garlic and onion whenever he moved. He saw Mr. Bright watching him from across the restaurant. “Fuck them. Derrick’s an asshole; he doesn’t want me in the group anyway.”
“Yes he does, but he’s not gonna just give you a free pass. To him you’re just some punk kid. My word gets you in the door, but after that it’s on you.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know if I want to mess with it. They hate me anyway. They think I’m a pussy.”
“Well are you?”
The question caught him off guard, and it hurt. “What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know, Nickie. You seem to be ready to give it all up.”
“Give what up? I’m not in their fucking group.”
“No, but I am.”
After a moment he said, “So it’s like that.” Something was opening up in his chest, some painful bloom, and when he drew in a breath it caught fire like a smoldering coal. He put his hand over his eyes and felt his throat constrict.
“This is who I am, Nickie. It’s part of the package.”
Bright called something from across the room and pointed at his watch. Nick turned his back to him. “I don’t know if I can do it, Trix,” he said. “I don’t know if I care enough. Does that make me a traitor? Does that make me a bad guy?”
She seemed honestly to consider it. Finally she said, “Not to the race, maybe. But to me. Do you care about me, Nickie?”
“Yeah,” he said; then, more forcefully: “Yes. You’re the only thing I care about.”
“Let me come over tonight.”
“Oh, Trix, I don’t think so.”
“Please. You never let me see where you live.”
Nick watched his boss come closer, standing in the middle of the dining area and staring at him openly. “It’s so fucked up over there. I mean, you just don’t know.”
“I thought you said you cared about me.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “We’re at a major turning point in our relationship, Nickie. You gotta let me come over. Otherwise I don’t know what to think.”
He considered a moment. “Fine,” he said. “Come over. But my mom is crazy.”
“I know, you told me.”
“No, I mean really fucking crazy. So, whatever. Come over if you want. But you’re not gonna want to stay.” He nodded at Mr. Bright and said, “Look, I gotta go. Emperor Zog is looking at me like I stole a nickel.”
“I’ll see you tonight,” she said, and hung up the phone.
When he walked back into the kitchen, Big Jake chucked him on the arm. “Boss Man must like you,” he said.
“Funny, it don’t seem that way to me.”
“Trust me. My wife call me, she got to be havin a baby before he even think about comin back here.”
Tyrone shook his head and made a noise of disbelief. “One thing you don’t need is no more babies,” he said.
Big Jake laughed. “I know you right!”
“What you got, big man, roun’ forty?”
The two men laughed and began to banter, and just like that Nick passed from their attention, like an amusing notion considered and discarded. He picked up his chef’s knife and went back to work on the garlic. “Maybe you stop havin so many kids, you won’t have to work three jobs,” he said sullenly.
They stopped talking.
“What you say?” Tyrone said, squinting curiously at him, as though trying to figure out what variety of lunatic he was faced with.
Tyrone was only a few years older than Nick; he had grown up in the St. Thomas project before the city tore it down and kicked everybody out. He and Nick worked all right together as long as they didn’t talk directly to each other.
Nick stopped what he was doing and looked at him. “I’m just saying use some fucking common sense. That’s why my paycheck is so fucking small every week, ’cause the government’s gotta take care of y’all’s goddamn kids.”
“This ain’t even about you, T,” said Nick. “Jake’s the daddy, I’m talking to him. Be responsible, dude, that’s all.”
“What you think workin three jobs is, bitch?” said Tyrone.
Big Jake put a hand on Tyrone’s shoulder. “This ain’t the place,” he said. Then he pointed one massive finger at Nick and said, “You better settle down, man. Your young ass got no idea what you even talking about.”
Nick nodded and returned his attention to the garlic. “It’s cool, Jake.”
After that, the kitchen was mostly quiet until two-thirty, when Nick’s shift ended. He punched his timecard and signed it; when he turned to leave he found himself staring at Tyrone, who’d come up behind him and left him no room to edge around. Nick took a reflexive step backward and was brought up short by the time clock. He’d thought that after the incident at Derrick’s place he would be anxious for a chance to redeem himself, but now that he was faced with a real confrontation, he felt his body quail. He became powerfully aware of how much larger Tyrone was than himself, and how many awful things could happen to a person in a kitchen.
But he pressed up to Tyrone until their chests were touching and their faces were only inches apart, in a kind of grotesque intimacy. “What you wanna do?” he said.
“Nazi motherfucker,” Tyrone said. “You get in my face sometime. See how it go for you then.”
“What you wanna do, T?”
“Like I said. Try it and see.”
Big Jake slammed a pan down behind them, making Nick jump. “Goddammit, get your silly ass outta here! T, get back on the line! We got tickets comin in.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” said Nick, and he slid around Tyrone and headed out into the warm October afternoon, where he kept walking until he was out of sight of the restaurant and then leaned against the painted brick of a 24-hour bar, breathing deeply, while his heart threw out flaring arcs of rage and frustration like an effulgent red star.
Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.
Throughout his childhood, Nick thought that meant that he’d been killed by them: trampled beneath a galloping herd, or thrown from the back of a bronco; when he was younger still, he imagined that they’d devoured him, dipping their great regal heads into the open bowl of his body, lifting them out again trailing bright ropes and jellies. At night, when the closet door in his bedroom swung silently open, the boogeyman wore an equine face, and the sound that spilled from its mouth was the dolorous melody of his mother’s sobs. Even now that he knew better, knew that his father had fled in part because of gambling debts incurred at the track, horses retained their sinister aspect.
His mother’s frequent struggles with depression apparently taxed his father beyond endurance, and what comfort he couldn’t find at home he made for himself at the Fair Grounds. He left them when Nick was four years old; he’d burned through their life savings, and apparently decided that there was nothing else worth coming home to. He existed from then on as a monthly child-support check, which supplemented his mother’s income as a receptionist in a dentist’s office.
But even that changed a few months ago, when the high school guidance counselor took him aside and informed him that his mother had been in a serious car accident. She was at the hospital, and it was not known if she would survive. He took Nick back to his office and they waited there for well over an hour, Nick sipping a lukewarm carton of chocolate milk from the cafeteria, the counselor looking at him with naked, cloying concern, his whole body freighted with the sympathy of the uninvolved.
She survived, of course: paralyzed from the waist down; both feet removed; with a grotesque head wound that became a scar so large that her left eye seemed pulled out of true, giving her a wild, glaring aspect even while she slept. She commenced a free fall into depression, unable to work and neglecting the bills until the utilities were cut off and mortgage payments went delinquent. Finally he understood that the medical bills far outweighed her negligible insurance, and that they were in dire financial straits. She developed an antipathy to sunlight, covering the windows with heavy curtains and protesting angrily even when he lit too many candles at night. Darkness pooled in the house and grew stagnant; shortly afterward, his mother’s affliction manifested into its current gruesome incarnation. It was his duty to assist her, and to clean the blood off the plates when she was finished.
His father’s monthly checks still arrived, but the man who wrote them maintained an absolute radio silence that swallowed all hope of rescue.
It was around this time that he found Trixie — or rather, that Trixie decided to retrieve him from the scrap heap of social inconsequence, for reasons which were still mysterious to him. She provided him with an excuse to spend more time away from the house, which was almost as good as spending time with her. It was a precarious but practicable existence, until it became clear that his father’s checks would not be enough to sustain it. He would have to get a job.
So three weeks ago he waited by his high school’s front gate for the final class to let out. He spotted Trixie coming down the steps and remained there until she strolled up to him. Her red checkered skirt and white blouse seemed absurd in the context of her closely-shorn hair, the enticing hint of a tattoo looping down below her right sleeve, and the openly confrontational stance she maintained with the school and just about everybody in it. She was a year older than he was, but to him it seemed as though she was from another, more sophisticated country, where people were cool and didn’t take any shit, and where they believed in themselves absolutely. That she had recently seen fit to spend time with him was a stroke of luck that very nearly compensated for his mother’s dismal condition.
“What’s up, gorgeous?” she said, falling in step with him as he turned away from the school. She started unbuttoning her shirt, revealing the white tank top she wore underneath. He could see her black bra through it, and again he wondered at his fortune. “Playing hooky today?” “No,” he said. They walked a few steps and he added, “I’m quitting school.”
“Holy shit, no way! Are you serious?” She looked at him with a mixture of alarm and delight.
“Yeah. Mom made me.”
This was apparently too much. She threw out her arms and pinwheeled along the sidewalk, yelling, “Oh my God, no way! You have the coolest fucking mom!”
Nick just shook his head and watched her dance off her gleeful burst of energy. “She had to quit her job, so I gotta work. It’s not like I get to do what I want.”
“Yeah, but Nickie! Oh my God, I wish I had your mom.” She considered a moment. “Hey, that would make you my brother, wouldn’t it? Mmm, kinky.”
Nick blushed and turned his face to hide it. She still hadn’t let him so much as touch her breasts, yet she taunted him flagrantly with these constant sexual references. Sometimes he wondered if she was using him as a kind of science project, in which she was trying to determine just how much provocation a teenage boy could endure before his hair caught fire.
“Where are you gonna work?”
“I don’t know, somewhere in the Quarter I guess. I can always get a job washing dishes or something.”
She looked stunned. “That’s nigger’s work, Nickie!”
“Well what the fuck, Trix, I don’t have any skills. I gotta make money somehow.”
She nodded absently and kept whatever she was thinking to herself. As per routine, they bussed down to the French Quarter, where they played video games at the arcade until it started to get dark. For a time he submerged himself in the surf of the arcade’s fuzzy explosions and kaleidoscopic light show, content with the warm proximity of this strange beautiful girl and the narcotic effect of the video games, with their offerings of bright cartoon villains and violent catharsis.
“You know those meetings I go to every Thursday?” said Trixie.
Of course he did. They meant he couldn’t hang out with her much on Thursdays; the two of them had to forego the Quarter altogether and hang out in one of those insufferable Uptown coffee shops, which he hated almost as much as he hated going to school. He tried not to speculate about what she did at those meetings, but because she told him nothing, even telling him to mind his own business on the one occasion he did ask, they had become cauldrons of evil possibility: maybe she got drunk with older, more sophisticated boys, or posed nude for some college art class.
“Yeah,” he said. “I always figured it was church or something.”
“Stupid. Can you see me in a church?” She thought about it, and he watched her face settle into a more serious cast. “Although maybe that’s not too far off. It is people who believe in something more important than themselves. So I guess it’s like a church. Or a family.”
He nodded. “I see.” He wondered if he was about to get dumped. He felt suddenly light, as though he had no real substance, as though if she said the words he was waiting to hear he would just dissolve into the atmosphere, like a sigh.
“You seem like you could use a family,” she said.
He looked at her. Time snagged around her words, where it fluttered, waiting to be set free again.
“I been telling them about you. They want to meet you.”
It came loose and drifted free, a red silk banner twisting into a blue sky.
“And now he’s all, he’s blubbering like a little baby, he’s got snot coming out of his nose. ‘Oh please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, I’ll suck your dick, please don’t kill me!’” Derrick’s voice goes high in a falsetto imitation. “And dude, what did you do, Matt? What did you fuckin do?”
Matt shrugged. “I took my dick out.”
“He did! Matt here whips it out and says well go on then! Get to it!” Derrick paused while the others laughed. He was telling this story to all four guys sitting on stools at the bar beside in this little dive tavern on the Westbank, across the bridge from downtown New Orleans. The four guys Nick was with were all heavily muscled, with shaved heads and elaborate tattoos. Derrick was the biggest of them; he wore a thin wifebeater, and Nick couldn’t help but stare enviously at all his muscles, at his arms and back covered with swastikas, bloody-fanged skulls, and, over his heart, crossed hammers against the backdrop of a Confederate flag. He looked to Nick like the apotheosis of man, some rarefied ideal of physical and mental presence. It was a little past seven and the bar was not crowded. Nick felt the atmosphere change when they walked in, felt the gravity of their presence draw every eyeball in the building. When they settled in and ordered beers the fat man behind the bar who brought the drinks to them wouldn’t even look them in the eye. Nick, clearly underage, didn’t warrant a glance.
Matt, a little fireplug of a kid, was on the other side of Derrick. “Tell him the rest of the story before he starts thinking I’m some kinda fag.”
“So this little queer crawls over to Matt and starts to reach out for his dick, still bawling, and Matt fucking balls up his fist and fucking drills him in the head! Crack! Motherfucker drops like he’s dead.”
“I thought he was,” Matt said, taking a sip from his bottle. “I was like, goddamn, he really is a pussy.”
“He wasn’t dead though. He was still crawling around, making this weird little sound. We kicked him around a little bit and then I fucking curb-stomped him to make my point.”
“Shit,” Matt said. “You did that boy a favor. He probably sucks good dick now.” While the others laughed and shook their heads, Derrick said, “You believe that story, Nick?”
“Sure. I guess.”
“Oh, he guesses. My man here guesses.”
The bar had gathered all the residual heat of the afternoon and hoarded it with a miser’s resolve. A ceiling fan whickered pointlessly, stirring the thick air like a spoon in a honeypot. Trixie was back at Derrick’s apartment with the other girls, hanging out doing whatever until the boys were done talking business. They would give them time to talk and then they’d show up later. Women were rarely welcomed into meetings such as this. The point of the meeting, Trixie had told him, would be to judge his worth as a recruit to the Confederate Hammers, the regional chapter of the white nationalist movement called the Hammerskin Nation.
“Do you even get that point of that story, Nick? That dude was a junkie. He was sucking cock for drugs. Now you know, whatever, the world’s full of human cockroaches, I can’t worry about all of that shit or I’ll go crazy, right? But it was in my neighborhood. He’s walking up and down the goddamn street, cracked out of his mind, talking all this shit a mile a minute so it made you crazy just to hear it. In this goddamn neighborhood. We got kids that live here, you know what I mean? Got so I just couldn’t stand for it anymore.”
He touched his fingers to a swastika on his chest. “You see this here? That’s what it means. That’s why we wear it on our skin. All that German secret police shit, forget all that. That was just one manifestation. We’re the new manifestation.” He tapped the symbol. “White family. White brotherhood. Now, sometimes you gotta do ugly things for the family’s sake. Just like me and Matt had to do. And you know what? Niggers and fags might not be the brightest creatures on this earth, but they can take a message if you deliver it right. I ain’t seen that boy back here since.”
The other boys nodded. “Damn right,” one said.
“Violence is the only language they understand,” said Derrick. “So if you don’t know it, you better learn it.”
Nick nodded again. He resisted the impulse to check his watch. It seemed like Trixie and the other girls should have been here by now. He figured when the girls got back they would set aside business and just sit around and get drunk, which is what he really wanted.
“You got what it takes to earn the broken cross, Nick? Put the S.S. On your skin? You know, you got to earn it.”
“I know,” said Nick.
“Can you handle yourself in a fight?” The others looked him over like they couldn’t really believe it. “‘Cause I mean, no offense dude, but you’re kind of a scrawny little fuck.”
“I can handle myself,” Nick said.
“You hear that Matt? He think’s he’s hard.”
“He don’t look too hard,” Matt said.
“Well. I guess we gotta ask Trix about that.”
Nick flushed. Derrick leaned toward him and said, “Our girl, she knows all about hard. You think you can fill her up, little boy? She let you in there yet? She ain’t a little kid. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you ain’t gonna fool her.” He grabbed his crotch, spreading his fingers to indicate he had quite a handful. “Besides, I stretched her out pretty good. I don’t know if she’ll be able to feel your little needle.”
“Fuck you,” Nick said.
“Uh-oh, here we go,” said Matt. Nick glared at the floor and stood up. Derrick rose to meet him but Nick turned toward the door.
“What?” said Derrick? “Are you going to cry? Oh my god, you are.”
Nick strode toward the door. A stinging heat pressed behind his eyes.
Derrick laughed. “You sure you want to go? We got four of us, only three girls. I think Matt could use a bitch, couldn’t you Matt?”
“Fuck you dude,” Matt said.
Nick opened the door and stepped outside; the evening air felt cool after the dense heat of the bar. He felt an absurd impulse to ask them to tell Trixie that he’d gone home, but crushed it. One of the boys said, “What a little bitch,” and then the door shut behind him. He started the long walk to the ferry, which would carry him across the river and back into familiar territory. Streetlamps along the way shed cold trees of light. The dark sky was close and heavy.
After that, he was sure she was done with him. But this morning’s phone call at the restaurant gave him new hope, and he found himself waiting for her on his front porch. He watched the evening settle over New Orleans like some great hunched buzzard, the sky deepening into the star-spiked blue of twilight. Fitful gusts of wind carried a cold undercurrent and occasionally pelted him with a few fat, isolated rain drops. Across the street, the thrashing fronds of a palm tree tossed around a bright shard of moon.
Nick and his mother lived in a shotgun house a few blocks lakeside of St. Charles Avenue, and like many other houses on their street it existed on the cusp of total dereliction. Paint peeled from its walls, and the wood was so riddled with termites that, during mating season, huge swarms of them would choke the air inside the house. Their tiny lawn seemed eager to make up for its size with outright belligerence, as though it harbored aspirations to junglehood and resented its confined circumstances. As porch lights and windows began to glow along the street, his own home grew darker by comparison, until it looked like an abandoned house, and would have likely attracted the usual doomed human ecology of abandoned houses were it not for the occasional errant stabs of light glimpsed through windows, and the mournful sounds which from time to time seemed to exhale from the building itself and spoil the air around it.
A small band of black kids made their way down the street, one of them swinging a long stick in a sweeping arc, like an explorer hacking his way through heavy foliage. They talked easily, loudly, apparently indifferent to anything in the world other than themselves and their own immediate impulses. Nick watched them come with a puzzling lack of emotion: they were just kids tonight, kids he didn’t know. He tried to summon the anger he believed was justified and proper, and failed. The one with the stick whacked it against the fenders of parked cars, sending little detonations ricocheting down the street. Normally this would throw Nick into a fury, which he would nurture from the near-obscurity of his front porch; but tonight each crack of the stick vanished into a gulf inside him. As they passed in front of his house, they fell abruptly silent. They did not look at him or his house, and they held their heads back and sauntered with their customary loose-limbed bravado, but he knew the place spooked them. Sometimes that embarrassed him, other times it made him proud. Tonight he just felt defeated.
Finally they disappeared around the corner. Their voices picked up again, and soon he heard the steady, diminishing whack of the stick against metal. He waited several more minutes; the wind increased, and heavy clouds moved in to obscure the moon. Nick watched as two headlights glided around a distant corner and made their steady way to him. Trixie had finally arrived.
Before he opened the door for her, he said, “It’s dark inside. They ain’t cut the power back on yet.”
He led her inside. By now he had become accustomed to the darkness, but he remembered his first time coming home to it, and knew how Trixie must feel. It had been so overwhelming that he had actually experienced a rush of vertigo, and a brief, terrible conviction that he had been struck blind, or that perhaps he had died.
He dug a little flashlight out of his pocket and flicked it on. The grim state of their home bobbed into sight, like surfacing detritus from a sunken ship. Clothes lay in careless piles on the floor, unwashed plates and empty or nearly empty glasses – insides rimmed with coagulated syrup from soda and sweet tea – were stacked and strewn across the coffee table. Furtive shapes clicked and darted amongst them, erupting every now and then into violent skirmishes: cockroaches, which had found in his home a kind of Eden. They cloying stench of fried meat and stagnant air covered them like a shroud.
“Jesus, Nick,” Trixie said.
A sound crawled toward them out of the darkness: a broken, lurching squeal, like a rat being ground beneath a boot. It was so alien, and so painful, that he half-expected some nightmare creature of tall, scraping bone to amble into view, its jaw swinging loosely beneath a searching, serpentine tongue.
Nick ushered Trixie into his bedroom, located right off the living room, and gave her the flashlight. “Wait here,” he said. “I got more flashlights in here you can light. I’ll be right back.” He shut the door on her, and turned toward the sound coming down the hallway.
It was his mother, in her grandmother’s old wheelchair, looking so much older and smaller than she had before the accident. It was as though some ancient version of herself had bled back through time to confront him, dismayed and death-haunted. A blanket was bunched around her legs, which only barely registered as two thin ridges underneath. She held a votive candle in an ashtray; it was the only light she would permit herself.
“Nickie, you’re home,” she said. “I was worried.”
“I’m okay, Mom.”
“Um . . . a girl. Trixie. She’s my friend.”
“A girl?” She looked at the shut door of his bedroom. “Oh, my.”
“I really don’t wanna do this now, Mom.”
“Please, Nickie. Please. I need it so bad.”
“Godammit,” he said. “Fine. Let’s make it quick.”
“Okay,” she said meekly.
She led him down the hallway, the little candle casting a golden corona onto the wall as she wheeled along, so that it seemed he was following a ghost. They went into her bedroom, which was nearly unnavigable, strewn with clothes and bloody bedsheets, exuding the cloistered funk of a shut-in, even more powerful here than in the rest of the house.
“You gotta wash the sheets or something, Mom. It’s rank in here.”
“I’m sorry, Nickie.” Her voice sounded childlike and bereft, and he felt ashamed of himself.
“Forget it. It’s okay.”
“I know I’ve been a terrible mother.”
Fuck’s sake, he thought, not now. He was determined to head this one off at the pass. “No you’re not. You just had a hard time.”
“It’s no excuse.”
“Look, can we just do this?”
She said nothing. He stepped into her bathroom and ran the faucet until the water was warm, then filled a mixing bowl halfway full. He pumped a few dollops of soap into it, and dropped a washcloth in. Returning to his mother, he knelt before her and pulled the blanket from her legs. She wore old cotton underwear and nothing else, permitting easy access to her thin, bleached legs, which ended in rough stumps just above her ankles. The calf muscles of her left leg were shaved nearly to the bone; her leg was wrapped in bandages, stained a deep rusty brown.
She touched her fingers to his back, making him jump. “You look just like your father,” she said. “So handsome.”
“Come on, Mom.”
“No wonder this girl likes you so much.”
“You don’t even know that.”
“No, I do. You’re too much like your dad. You even sound like him.”
Nick elected not to respond. He hadn’t seen his father since he was a little boy, and the notion that he was growing into him, like a disease with a single prognosis, was hardly encouraging.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were bringing a girl over?”
He sat there in front of her, looking at her mauled appendages.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. She pushed her right leg toward him, the nub hovering just over his right knee. Nick tried to remain stoic as he unwrapped her bandages, the gauze tugging at the scabby undergrowth. A ripe odor wafted from the wound; he closed his eyes and steadied himself against it. Blood still seeped from the place she had shaved more of herself off. He squeezed soapy water from the washcloth and applied it gently to her leg, dabbing the raw areas, wiping down in smooth, clean strokes in the places where the wounds had closed. Nick didn’t cry, but that was no kind of victory; tears would be better than this numb separation.
His mother watched him while he performed these ministrations, her face graced by something like a smile.
When he done cleaning her wounds he applied some alcohol to her leg. Then took the bowl of bloody water back to the bathroom, where he poured it into the sink. He returned with fresh bandages, which he wrapped around the leg. His mother’s hand slipped off the armrest and grasped at the empty air; Nick put his own hand into it, and she squeezed it tightly. “If I could change it all, I would, Nicky. I would.”
He shook his head, though she wasn’t even looking at him.
He climbed to his feet, tucking the blanket back over her ravaged legs. He noticed a plate on the floor by her bed, a smear of blood on its face. He stooped to retrieve it. He wondered what she would do when she ran out of leg. He wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten anything cooked.
I should feel something, he thought. Where is the part of me that feels?
From elsewhere in the house, they heard the sound of Nick’s bedroom door opening.
Trixie’s voice floated down the hall. “Nick?”
His mother touched his hand as he moved to walk by. The light from the candle she carried made of her face a study of soft golds and darkness. A Madonna in Hell’s ink. “I want to meet her.”
He built a smile. “We’ll see, Mom.”
He pushed Trixie back into his room. “What the fuck were you doing!”
“What? I was looking for you. Get your hands off me!” She slapped his arm away. “What the fuck!”
He closed the door and sat on his bed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
His room was lit by the crossbeams of six or seven flashlights placed at various opposing points; the net effect was, if not complete illumination, then at least a kind of flat radiance. Though not as distressingly fetid as the rest of the house, his room was still the refuge of a fifteen year old boy, and cluttered even at its best. His bed was unmade; a leaning stack of CDs tottered on the edge of his bureau, comprised of bands like Hatecrime and RaHoWa and Midtown Boot Boys; posters of Seventies slasher flicks and zombie epics covered the walls. He suddenly noticed that his small collection of pornographic movies, which he had neglected to hide, had been aligned in a neat row behind him across the mattress. He opened his mouth to offer an explanation that would preserve his dignity, but of course there was none. He considered braining himself into oblivion with one of the flashlights.
She leaned against the desk and looked him over. “How often do you do it?”
“You jerk off, right? That’s what these movies are for.”
“Um, I don’t . . . .”
“Are you embarrassed?”
He laughed too loudly. “Yeah, I guess, kinda.”
“How do you like to do it? Do you use a lubricant? Spit on your hand or something?”
“Um, no.” His body temperature was escalating to dangerous levels. She looked at his crotch, put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at an angle.
“Come on, Trix.”
“Why do you think I came here tonight? Show me.”
He gave up trying to subdue his fluttering heart, hoped she wouldn’t see his hands shake, wondered if she knew that he had never been with a woman before, wondered if that fact blasted from him like bright radiation. He undid his jeans and took his penis out, and began to do as she wished.
“Do it slow,” she said, stepping closer. She watched for a moment, then started to unbutton her shirt. She wore nothing underneath, and she moved her shoulders so that her blouse slid behind her to the floor; she stepped out of her jeans like a woman stepping out of water. Tattoos were inscribed all over her thin flesh; their bright colors made them luminescent in the harsh glow of the flashlights: a snake coiling over her upper right arm and looped halfway down to her elbow; a naked pixie with a devil’s face under her collarbone; a series of words – poems or mysterious lists – beginning at her pelvis and wrapping around her thighs; the crossed hammers over a Confederate flag on the slope of one breast; a black swastika, like a clumsy snare of stitches, on the other. They glowed on her naked body like an incandescent language. He had once heard the phrase “illuminated manuscript,” and although he did not know what such a thing was, he thought that it must be something like Trixie’s body, which was covered with the letters of a holy alphabet, and which was itself a supple word, or a series of words, a phrase which she whispered to him now as she moved his hand aside and replaced it with her own. She moved them toward his bed, ands he abdicated himself to the study of her.
“I have fat thighs,” she said. They lay atop his sheets, still naked. The event had lasted only a few awful minutes; he’d spent himself almost immediately, after which she had rolled abruptly off of him and stared at the ceiling. He wanted to get up and clean himself off, but he didn’t know what the protocol was. He felt scooped out, doomed, as though he had seen an emptiness behind the face of things. So he followed her direction and just lay there silently, until this revelation.
He craned his neck and looked down at her thighs. But his attention, despite his honest effort, was drawn powerfully away from them. “They look all right,” he said.
“I got ’em from my mom. There’s nothing I can do about it.” She popped her hands against them, making them shake. “Fuck,” she said.
“Hey, stop. You’re beautiful.”
“Yeah, whatever. Derrick says they’re good for the movement, though.”
“He said what?”
“Big thighs. You know. Child-bearing hips. It’s our duty to produce pure white babies.”
“Oh.” He imagined Derrick examining her hips, running his hands over them. He was pretty sure Derrick lasted a lot longer than two or three minutes.
“It’s funny when you think about it,” Trixie said. “The things we pass on to our kids. I got my mother’s elephant thighs, which sucks, but I also got my pure blood. Which is, you know, really fucking important. And which I gotta pass on too. So I guess you can’t complain too much.”
Nick watched the ceiling. They had turned off all but one of the flashlights, which burned like a star in the far corner. Everything in the room threw an exaggerated shadow. “How many kids do you want to have?”
“Five or six, I guess. We got to. White people are the minority now. We’re losing our country. It’s my duty to have lots a kids.”
Nick tried to imagine being a father. He didn’t know what fathers acted like, what they looked like or how they spoke. “I don’t know if I could do it,” he said.
“You’d make a good dad. You’re sweet.”
It was not the word he was hoping to hear moments after losing his virginity.
“What did you get from your parents?” Trixie said.
“I don’t think anything,” he responded, after a moment’s consideration.
“You had to get something. Your looks, the way you act. It’s kinda weird, the only way you might get to know something about your dad is through the kind of man you grow into. It’s like a special hidden message he left you, or something.”
Nick decided fuck the protocol, he was getting up. “I gotta get out of here,” he said, jumping out of bed and fishing for his clothes.
“I’m getting at something though, Nickie.”
He stopped. “What.”
“Responsibility. Heritage. You can’t just be selfish anymore. You got to decide who you are, and what you owe your family.”
“The one you already have, and more importantly the one you’re going to have.”
“You want me to prove something to the Hammers.”
“Why don’t you start by proving something to me. I need you to be more than just a sweet boy, Nickie. There has to be more than that.”
Nick didn’t look at her as he dressed. “Do you have a gun?” he asked.
She clearly hadn’t been expecting that. She stared at him for a moment. “I can get one,” she said.
Tyrone still lived with his mother. Nick had overheard him talking about it to Big Jake one day, how she worked second shift out at a hotel by the university on Elysian Fields, and he had to pick her up every night at ten and drive her back home. It was still not quite nine; it would be a simple thing to stake the place out and follow them home. In fact, all of it would be simple. He’d shot a rat once, when he was a kid stalking the neighborhood with a BB gun. He didn’t think this could be much different.
Trixie was the only one who summoned any feeling from him anymore. He would do anything it took. If it took something grandly catastrophic, all the better. Maybe he would feel that too.
While they had been inside, the sky had really opened up. By the time Trixie drove them through the torrential rain to Matt’s house in Midcity, it was well past nine o’clock.
“We need a gun,” she said to Matt after he ushered them inside. Matt was dressed in boxer shorts and nothing else. He sat on the edge of the couch and stared at the TV, which was showing some war movie.
“You wanna beer?” he asked Trixie. He had not looked at Nick even once.
“What you need a gun for.”
Nick waited for Trixie to explain it to him, but when she remained silent, he knew the question was meant for him.
“I need to shoot somebody,” he said.
“No shit.” He kept watching the TV.
“I’m ready to do my duty.”
That seemed to get through, but not in the way he wanted. Matt looked up at him with naked contempt. “By shootin some nigger? All that’s gonna do is get you thrown in jail. Next thing my ass is right there with you. Get the fuck out of here, dude.”
“I won’t get caught.”
“Not with my gun you won’t.”
Trixie spoke up. “I know you got some disposables here,” she said.
“Why don’t you shut the fuck up, Trix?”
“This is what Derrick wants, Matt. Come on.”
Nick stared at her, suddenly off kilter. When had Derrick become a factor in this?
“Well he didn’t mention it to me,” Matt said, looking back at the TV. He seemed unaccountably engrossed in a commercial for an electric razor.
“There’s a lot he don’t mention to you,” Trixie said coolly. “Not to any of you. Not unless you been climbin in bed with him … but I don’t remember seein you there.”
Something in Nick’s chest dropped; he felt suddenly heavy, and wondered if he would be able to move if he had to. Matt stewed silently for a few minutes, then cursed under his breath and went into the bedroom. He came back a few moments later with a small black piece of metal wrapped in a washcloth. He handed it directly to Trixie, and said, “This is on you. If things get fucked up, it’s on you.”
She took the gun from him. “You act like I don’t know what I’m doing.” She turned for the door. Nick turned to follow, but Matt said, “Hey.” When Nick looked at him, he smiled. “So how does Derrick’s dick taste?”
Matt was still laughing when Nick shut the door.
Streams of water flowed along the passenger window as the car sped down a raised stretch of I-10, and behind the water the city flowed by too, bejeweled with light, like a dream of an enchanted kingdom. Nick leaned his head against the glass and tried to pretend he was somewhere else, somewhere far from this city and the people who lived in it, somewhere you didn’t have to fight a war every day to justify who you were. Trixie sat beside him, steering the car through the rain, her fingers clenching the wheel like it was a lifeline.
“What about his mother?” she said, breaking his lovely illusion.
“I don’t know,” Nick said. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Well now’s a good time to start.”
He decided not to respond. Trixie nodded, thinking her own thoughts. The rain increased its intensity, and she clicked the windshield wipers on high. New Orleans was behind them now; Nick had to look in the side mirror to see it. The deluge slowed the traffic, making the rain seem even heavier. Headlights from cars in the opposite lane smeared across the windshield, growing and fading like pulsars.
“You knew I was with him,” Trixie said.
“Was, I knew you was with him! I didn’t know you came straight from his fucking house!”
“Well – whatever, Trixie! What the fuck!”
“It’s not like I’m his girlfriend or anything, okay? We just fuck sometimes. It’s no big deal.”
“Right, no big deal.”
“Oh, fucking grow up, would you?”
A green BMW cut in front of them and Trixie stepped on the brakes. The tires locked for a moment and the car hydroplaned nearly halfway across the lane before it regained traction.
“Motherfucker!” she said, lips peeling back from her teeth.
“You want me to drive?”
“No, I don’t want you to drive.”
“Nick! I can drive the goddamned car!”
The BMW in front of them veered to the right and accelerated down the highway. Someone leaned on a horn. A pick-up truck eased into the vacant spot, pulling a horse trailer. Nick could see the animal’s vague white shape inside, and he wondered where it needed to go in all this rain, what urgency compelled it.
After a few moments, he said, “Did you even want to sleep with me? Or were you just following orders?”
Tires squealed on the pavement somewhere ahead of them, followed by the dull, muted thud of crumpling metal. Red brake lights splashed over the beaded water on the windshield. The pick-up swerved to the right but it moved too quickly and the horse trailer yawed over on its left wheels and for one moment it seemed to freeze there, as though weighing consequences, and beyond it Nick saw the green BMW on its roof, its wheels sending gleaming arcs of water into the sky as they spun, and another car further ahead with its front end crushed against the concrete divider in the middle of the highway. Then the horse trailer fell, sending a rooster-tail of sparks into the air; the walls came loose, and the horse careened along the pavement in a grotesque tumble of limbs and flying hair, until it collided with the BMW and stopped.
Trixie hit the brakes and the car spun in a half circle, sliding across the lanes until the rear bumper hit the divider with the sound of breaking glass and folding metal, and they stopped. The car faced backwards; they watched approaching regiments of headlights ease to a slow crawl.
They breathed heavily for a few moments, hearing nothing but the drumming rain. A burnt, metallic odor filled the car. Someone outside started to scream.
Nick grabbed Trixie and turned her face towards him. “Trix? Are you okay?” She nodded, dazed. He felt blood on his own face, and reached up to feel a small split between his eyes; apparently he’d hit the dashboard. He looked out the back window at the accident’s aftermath and said, “Stay here.”
He opened the passenger door and climbed out into a cold brace of air. The rain was a frozen weight, soaking his clothes instantly. A confused array of lights speared through the rain, giving the scene a freakish radiance. He noticed that he was casting several shadows.
The horse’s big body jerked as it tried to right itself and Nick heard bones crack somewhere inside it. The horse screamed. It lay next to the overturned car, amidst a glittering galaxy of broken glass, its legs crooked and snapped, its blood spilling onto the asphalt and trailing away in diluted rivers. It was beautiful, even in these awful circumstances; its body seemed phosphorescent in the rain.
Nick knelt beside it and brushed his fingers against its skin. The flesh jumped, and he was overwhelmed by a powerful scent of urine and musk. Its eye rolled to look at him. Nick stared back, paralyzed. The horse’s blood pooled around his shoe. It seemed an astonishing end for this animal, that it should come to die on some hard ground its ancestors never knew, surrounded by machines they never dreamed. Its absurdity offended him.
Someone splashed by him and dropped to his knees, peering into the overturned BMW; he shouted Oh my God, oh my God, and tugged frantically, futilely, at its door. Nick sensed a larger movement around him, as people left their cars and began shouting, milling around the scene in a vortex of chaos and adrenaline.
Trixie materialized behind him and pulled at his shoulders.
“Come on, we have to get out of here!”
He came to his feet.
“Nick, let’s go. The police are coming. We can’t get caught with that gun.”
The gun. Nick brushed roughly past her, nearly knocking her to her knees. He retrieved the gun from her glove compartment and headed back to the horse. Trixie intercepted him, tried to push him back. “No, no, are you fucking crazy? It’s gonna die anyway!”
He wrenched her aside, and this time she did fall. He walked over to the horse and the gun cracked twice, two bright flashes in the rain, and the horse was dead. A kind of peace settled over him then, a floating calm, and he stuffed the gun into his trousers, ignoring the heat of the barrel pressing into his flesh. Trixie had not bothered to get up from the pavement. She sat there, watching him, the rain sluicing over her head and down her body. Her face was inscrutable behind the curtain of rain, as was everything else about her. He left her there.
Behind her, the car was hopelessly ensnared in the traffic jam. He would have to walk home, to his mother, broken and beautiful, crashed in her own foreign landscape. Bewildered and terrified. Burning love like a gasoline. He started down the highway, walking along the edge of stopped traffic. He felt the weightlessness of mercy. He was a striding christ. Sounds filtered through to him: people yelling and pleading; footsteps splashing through the rain; a distant, stranded siren. From somewhere behind him a man’s sob, weird and ululating, rose above the wreckage and disappeared into the sky, a flaming rag.
Nathan Ballingrud is the author of the critically acclaimed collection North American Lake Monsters, where this story first appeared. One of the stories in the collection, ‘The Monsters of Heaven’ won a Shirley Jackson Award. He now lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his daughter in an apartment across from the French Broad River. Freight trains pass by the window at night. Check out our interview with the author.
Sam Sultana is a 23-year-old bi-national (Maltese and French) artist currently based in Zebbug, Malta. To learn more about his work, log on to http://samuelsultana.com/