My idea for the night involved Shady and me alone, but she needs a little party, some reefer, to find the patience for me, so that meant stopping at Spunk Greuel’s house—where I didn’t want to go. I had been trying to keep scarce because of all the suspicion and innuendo surrounding my brother’s disappearance, gossip careening over the county like the tilted powerlines splicing the sky, taking advantage that nobody wanted the police involved. People wanted my version, my opinion, and I did not know a thing. But I did know Spunk, and once you’re with him, you’re with him all night long.
Spunk’s father is dark and entertaining, and he is the man for whatever you want in Pirtle County. Probably all Kentucky, too; “any sin on spec,” he likes to say. Mister Greuel with his swollen tongue from some strange sickness, goggle eyes amok in this squat stack of a sweating head. His tongue tosses spit and mucks his words: Spunk’s real name is William, for instance. We called him Billy. But one night long ago providing us boys with the gifts of our destruction—what Mister Greuel called the bottles and blunts—Billy’s dad started getting on his son for not bringing any girls to sit on his lap. It was for the girls laughing on his lap that Greuel gave us the gifts of our destruction. He wasn’t happy about there being no laughing girls around while us boys raided his store of gifts, and he started muttering about William being a punk. But for his tongue the word came out shpunk, and you mix that moment with a handful of teenage boys baked on the bomb and Billy Greuel becomes Spunk for the rest of his life.
I do not like nor trust this man. Neither did my older brother Fleece, though he made some fat money running dope for him. Now no one knows where
Fleece got off to, and the stories involve two trash bags of Kentucky homegrown, my brother’s ambitions as a renegade entrepreneur, and the fact of his ’78 Nova found burning on the old seminary drive three months ago. The flames curled a nearby hemlock and the Nova’s bleached husk still stands beneath its black branches, inspiring my brother’s disappearance to folk tale. He burned that car to throw off the scent and now he’s kicking it easy in the Panhandle somewhere. Montego Bay. He ripped off Papa Greuel and got away with it.
Or Greuel had someone disappear this upstart and that body, man, will never be found.
Past the rickety gate shored against a rusted post, across the yard with its zoo of oxidized implements and crumbled statuary, we stepped onto the porch. A clutch of gar hung there gape-mouthed and stinking, their eyes eaten out. Shady didn’t ask—she was on a mission—and I didn’t offer any excuses for the fish. Like that, the Greuel house was upon us.
Before the screen door clapped shut Shady was past Spunk’s howdy and at the big bowl spilling with pot by Mister Greuel and his rocking chair, hardly touched by the man’s unsettling greeting: he keeps the lights off except for the blue glow of a small, muted TV set, and flashes a garden floodlight about the room. You walk in and are speared by its white glare just as your eyes begin to adjust to the dim house, like you opened a door to find yourself under interrogation. It’s a greeting impossible to get used to and I have walked into this room a thousand times.
Not Shady. She was in his lap with her hands in the bowl saying, Mister Greuel how do you do, whyn’t you tell us a story while I roll us up a fat one.
The old man’s laughter came sick and raspy, but it has always sounded that way and he will never die.
“I like her!” Greuel shifted in his chair to make room for her, the weight of them both wrenching a complaint from the struts. “Who is she?”
As she introduced herself his floodlight played over me, the heat of it alive on my face and arms. Spunk reminded his father who I was, twice saying my name, louder the second time against his father’s shouted What? and Who? and shaking his head with a finger stuck in his ear. Then he set aside the light with a final, heavy thud, as though to smash a scattering bug there.
“Ah, I don’t see so well. Come in here with a pretty girl and you know where my eyes’re at.” Greuel’s smile unveiled crooked teeth the color of cooked bacon fat. “What do you hear from that brother of yours? Any word?”
I told the man nothing. Later, in the car (as Spunk yelled out improvised, awesomely-disgusting limericks from the back seat), it occurred to me that I could have thrown the old man by saying we got a postcard or something. To see if he flinched. But I never think well in the moment; it’s always afterward, when it no longer matters.
“His car still at the seminary?” nodding contentedly, with rue, before I even said that as far as I knew it was. “Isn’t it something, what a little money and reputation can still do these days. Shielded from improper authority, we track our own conclusions. . . .”
“What conclusions are those,” asked Shady, nonchalant as ever, running her fine tongue the length of a paper. Mister Greuel patted her blue-jeaned thigh just above the knee.
“We make of the world what we want of it,” he said, leering—though his was just his attempt at a smile. “You, me. Fleece. But no hard feelings here. He’s happier now, no doubt, out of this rough county. And Kentucky is fertile ground.”
I did not know how to respond to this man. What was he saying? Because of that fat tongue it takes time to decipher what he says, and then his words offer only confusion. And now wasn’t the time because there was Spunk and he hardly cared. The way his mind works, once his father mentioned Fleece and the car, he wanted to hit the abandoned seminary there for kicks. Spunk’s head rarely questioned; his mind caught only the promise of something to do.
The seminary of Saint Jerome has been empty for years, a vast cavern seated behind seed-corn fields. It’s known to be haunted, to house rituals for devil worshippers, and to provide a hideout for men on the lam from the law, family, their lives. A mad caretaker is said to shoot trespassers on sight. Many of these stories originated with my lost brother Fleece—except for the caretaker, a guy he assured me was truly unhinged. Fleece sold him reefer and they shot bottles together off the stone cemetery walls out back the seminary grounds. He exchanged pot for the right to squat in a few rooms on the top floor; it meant a lot to Fleece to keep off the grid.
As teenagers we were all obliged to head there; we ghosted the place, wandering the corridors with our flashlights, exploring the hidden rooms and silent saints receding into the walls (everything seems hidden when you come upon it with a flashlight) and avoiding the mythical caretaker, caught up in our fears. But far as I knew Fleece was the only ghost or devil that haunted there.
Spunk spoke as though he didn’t hear the rumors about my brother or of his father’s hand in disappearing him. Otherwise why would he begin speaking before me, before his dad, of nothing but Fleece’s genius for scaring hell out of seminary ghosters? Suddenly Spunk was all about the old tales for Shady—the time Fleece webbed a hallway in fishing wire and crucified a scarecrow there; how he kicked trashcans to clatter down stairwells if he heard someone in the building, or moaned through lengths of PVC pipe. Spunk choked his voice by holding in his hit, calling my brother’s antics legendary. This and more, as if Shady had not dated Fleece for years in high school—his only true romance, one that ended badly, as true romances do.
“He’s so clever, he can’t think of something better to do with his life?” Her eyes glassed in a rosy pink as she shrugged and got to work on another blunt, swaying her hips in Mister Greuel’s lap for reasons I did not want to pursue.
Mister Greuel frowned at the floor. “You do wonder where he got off to, don’t you?”
I told him of course I did.
“I know what you are hearing. I know the stories. Tell me what you believe.” “What happened?”
Greuel turned up his hands in question, his palms soft and swollen as
needle cushions. “Doesn’t matter what we think; all that matters is what you know. I can’t speculate. But you should understand I had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t think you did,” I lied.
“That would be smart of you. That would be very mature, even wise. I don’t need you coming after me to make up for Fleece. You can see I’m a sick man.”
Greuel grimaced at his son. Spunk appeared to have shifted into his own world, miming slow-motion moves learned from his obsession with martial-arts movies, drawing loose arcs through the shadows of the room with razored hands. Abruptly he stopped and turned at me. “Hell, Cole, he’s probably hanging out at the seminary keeping it low. Had his adventure and come back.”
“And burned up his own car before he left? What the fuck, Spunk?”
“You can’t explain Fleece Skaggs. You couldn’t explain him when he was here. Now he’s not and you’re gonna try?”
Mister Greuel picked up his floodlight again and waved it over the walls and ceiling. The shadows swung opposite the wide beam and the whole room swayed; shadows dipped forward to listen in, leapt back. My eyes felt swollen and gritty and my head felt close to where I liked it to be. Spunk’s shadow, striking poses again, looked a huge warrior attacking the walls. Then Greuel stilled the light fully on me.
“He’s in that seminary, I’d like to know. Doubt it, though. And if he is there I can guar-an-damn-tee it’s not with my stock he helped himself to. But why don’t you kids find out? Nothing else you might find something to bring home, something we can put in the yard.” And with that he tapped Shady on the hip to indicate she should get up; I offered her my hand, which she happily ignored and which I should have expected. Then we were sent off into the night in pursuit of I don’t know what, Spunk cackling in the lead.
We were arguing by the time the rain began. He said by all rights and purposes he shouldn’t even hang with us after what Fleece did. He said if his father had Fleece put down then he would know about it—and he knew nothing. He said his father looked out for all of us in his own way and Fleece had betrayed him.
“Where would Fleece sell so much pot outside Pirtle County?” I asked. “You don’t just go to market with the stuff.”
“Fleece has a method, man. A method for everything. And I’m not going to say a word about what his method might be for little brother hooking into his ex. Not even going to say a word about it.”
We talked like she wasn’t there. Shady kept her eyes directed out her window, playing the same game. I had no idea, not even a guess, what she thought about anything.
Then we were running over the fields by the drive, cold, thin rain pricking our skins. The wild corn lay fallow in its remains, unharvested from the fall before. At the edge of the cul-de-sac drive we stopped to scan for the caretaker making his rounds. My knee grew cold in my jeans where I kneeled. Such a vast place: five stories high and as wide as a football field, the facade high windowed like some vampire movie, the bulk of it all just a foundation for the large stone cross that loomed above beneath the even larger, angry sky. Gazing at that place from within the crush of wind and night and rain, you hoped without confidence for a merciful God.
We broke in through a second-story window on the eastern wing, opening our flashlights into a long room littered by scattered steel folding chairs. The smell of dust and rust and fungal water, a sewage-like odor, clutched at our breaths. For long moments we stood without moving, unsure where to go or what to do, searching for a man we knew was not there.
Spunk ran his light over graffiti sprayed above one door: RIDE THE CLEAN FUEL. “See? That’s Fleece right there, he did that. He’s here.” That Spunk could connect old graffiti to my brother’s immediate presence says all you need to know about him. Still, we passed through. The hallway tilted with the pulse of lightning.
We peered into empty rooms, kicked at trash, none of us speaking as the rain started heavily now and hammered at the windows to our left. Shady kept to herself, hands clasping elbows, off to the side and slightly ahead of me; Spunk bounced along, sometimes running up onto the cinderblock walls to see how many lateral steps he could make before falling. And I thought of you, Fleece, and wondered—if you were there, listening from some dark corner on another floor— what you might plan for us. Despite my stoned head, I understood that if you were hiding out then you obviously did not want to be found, not even by your little brother. And there I was, not only trespassing on your territory but with your old girl, too, with my own designs in mind, and I faltered before the possibilities of how you might react to this. Before I’d even left home this night our mother had called me lukewarm water in the mouth of God. Many times she had chided that I followed you too much, that I wasted time chasing the crumbs you left behind, eating them up in hopes they would help transform me into you, Fleece Skaggs, rather than being content with whoever I was supposed to be. She thought me sad.
So many girls and you want the one’s going to always compare you to your brother? —Our mother, making a disappearance of her own with roofers and goofballs.
I didn’t tell her the difference between us was greater than she might think. I never abandoned anyone, for instance.
I watched Shady walk just to the side of the faint wash of the flashlight, her mind preoccupied in its own thoughts, same as mine—thoughts of you, Fleece, and what you might do should you find us there together.
Somehow we ended up on the roof. Hours had passed and we were twigged again on a blunt Shady had made from Greuel’s stash. Her dark eyes, swollen slightly, reminded me of walnut shells. “Where does that go?” she asked, the red ember in her hand indicating a distant gray glow, a hovering square that appeared to waver in the dark. Before I could answer she was already moving down the passageway.
The glow turned out to be the night; it fell through a wired window cut into a steel door that swung open with a retch onto the rooftop of the rest of the wing. After the stale humidity of the corridors the cool wind that rushed over us felt as necessary as longed-for water. We tasted the weakening rain. Shady squealed in stoned delight and jumped down two wooden steps and danced the length of the roof some fifty feet, her sandals scattering wet gravel over tar paper to the far ledge. Her white top glowed phosphor beneath silent lightning flares.
Thunder followed the lightning and stayed, the roll of it so continuous and unremitting it could have been a jet circling overhead. I didn’t join her until she motioned to me. Once there, without a thought I wrapped my arms around her waist from behind and set my chin on her shoulder. Wind shushed the stand of trees further back on the grounds that surrounded an old cemetery; this was a good wind, wind as God must imagine it, pure and singing.
“What are you doing,” Shady complained. Softly. I could hear the smile in her voice and she leaned into me. She pressed one hand into the back of my head as if to keep me there.
The smell of her up close like that jumped in my blood like another drug; I could have passed out in it, my nose against her neck, inhaling the moist heat off her skin. My hand moved toward her breast, drawn there by the arch in her back —but then my eyes opened slightly, and the view stilled me: I had been in this very spot before. Yes, with Fleece. But when? We had sat with our legs dangling over the edge on a bright afternoon, taking in the old cemetery and its crumbling stones, tossing pieces of gravel into the air, listening to them drop. It was maybe my third or fourth time smoking pot and I was still cataloging the effects it made in my body, trying to note the difference between stoned or not-stoned, between cottonmouth and thirst, and I was smiling stupidly when Fleece said that in that cemetery stood headstones weathered smooth and blank by age. No names or dates, he said. Just a crumbling stone. Is that sad? I can’t decide if it is or not.
I was twelve or thirteen; I didn’t know. Fleece seemed on to things I was too young or too dull to come up with on my own.
He pointed again as if directing me toward specific headstones even though we were too far away to see more than a suggestion of them, tilted and chipped and strewn like loose teeth beneath the dense trees. He said, The bodies beneath those smooth stones, the lives that they once held, may as well as never happened at all. You know what I mean?
No, I did not know.
I would like to be remembered, he said.
Shady asked what was on my mind. I asked if she missed him. Power lines lifted to the rooftop from a pole in the meadow; an old
transformer, rusted, hummed hanging from one corner. It seemed weird that live power still connected there, since none seemed available inside—the lights didn’t work—and I could only shrug again at what I didn’t understand, my head off imagining electrical grids covering these acres and this land and off to the townships and county after county, stretching over the entire nation and all of it connected, all of it coordinated by hands and minds we never see and leading to this small and forgotten cylinder to throb with it.
“Your brother didn’t need me. That’s no fun for any girl I know,” Shady said.
“Still, you miss him?”
“Sure I miss him. Sometimes. Not always.” She turned in my arms in a way that broke our embrace, leaving me to stare at the deep tree shadows where the cemetery would be.
Shady hugged herself and moved to the inside of the roof that gave onto the campus interior. A basketball court crumbled there, surrounded and broken by high grass, and then further jutted out the chapel that split the grounds down the middle.
Would he vanish and leave no sign behind? Was that even possible, or was I fooling myself? That day with Fleece on this same ledge, when we were held in one of our casual, drawn-out silences—so much time with my brother passed with neither of us saying anything, just staring out at fields or the car window, listening to music or to nothing—Fleece had stood on the raised ledge near where Shady stood now, his arms raised slightly at his sides, eyes closed, his face contorted in this combination of grin and grimace as he leaned backward as far as his strength would allow. The breeze that day feathered his dark hair as if he were already falling, and he waved his hands dramatically.
Stop it! I yelled at him. Stop it! and I kept yelling until he stepped from the edge.
“Chill out, little man,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
Such words sang true to me then, the way only an older brother’s words can. The picture of Fleece swaying on the ledge near Shady hovered in my eyes like a ghost image, the afterglow of a camera flash.
The transformer hummed at one corner, and the cemetery stood out only as a heavier darkness within the lighter dark of the night, and there was nothing more to see. I asked Shady if she wanted to go and she responded with a slight shake of her entire torso, her hands clasping either shoulder, her back to me. I watched her for a minute more from the steps of the doorway. A vague feeling overtook me with a slow, inevitable climb from my gut and into my chest and neck, and I felt very alone, and wished I could make something happen, something with the weight of certainty behind it. And as if the world were listening to my head, the wind and rain started down again with new urgency, the sweep of it loud in the trees. Shady ran back to join me under the rusted awning, laughing and extravagant. Within seconds the lightning was streaking the sky again, and the thunder came in giant claps.
Like something out of a movie, we agreed, and kind of romantic. But every cottony, insulated nerve in my tweaked body told me she did not want to be touched, that her proximity now was only chance luck. I told her we should try to leave soon. She said she wanted to stay a little longer to watch the storm. “Gather up your buddy,” she said, and I left to do so, dogged-down to realize there would be nothing in this night worth any comfort.
I found him a spidery shadow standing outside the glow of his flashlight on the floor. The fresh air flowing in from behind me seemed to be eaten by the muggy air of the corridor in a process I could witness. Spunk was trying without success to stand the statue he had torn from a wall setting; to extract it he had broken off its feet. In his grasp the saint stood completely white, one hand held to its robe in front, the other extended in blessing.
“You get on her?” I shook my head even though he kept looking at the statue rather than me. “Figured you all left me for some privacy,” he said. “Didn’t have nothing to do, found this.” When he released the statue the thing tipped toward the floor and he grabbed it again. Then he spun the saint like a top, catching it again before it fell.
“You have plenty to do soon,” trying not to hurl the flashlight at him. “Don’t you now? Somebody has to take over Fleece’s runs.”
Spunk tilted his head, squinted at the statue as he tapped it back and forth between his hands. “It isn’t like that, man. It’s not like that at all.”
“What’s it like, then?”
“Cole, he wanted out—“
The hairs on my body spiked hot and somebody turned on all the lights.
Suddenly I was on my ass on the floor with my ears singing this awful ring, and somehow my elbow, sharply aching, had found a puddle of rainwater. Spunk lay splayed out several feet away; the statue spun a circle on its side. Silent fireworks popped in great laser-like blossoms throughout the room and my head felt like a bag of crushed glass.
Spunk shot to his feet and launched into an excited rant but I could hardly understand what he was saying. His mouth moved but the pitch in my ears would not let the words in; lightning, I made out; he was saying lightning. He began to dance within this faint illumination, a strange dusky glow, holding out his bony hands, turning them back and forth as though marveling at the fact of them. His face wrenched in wild pain, a howling as his feet moved as though on hot coals, until my hearing returned in a great wash and I realized this was laughter, the feral laughter of the thunderstruck.
But Shady? Shady was still outside alone. And then just as I moved to head back down the hallway I heard her high giggling squeal as she scurried toward us in the dark. And I could see her coming, too, which confused me, as if some basic element in the dark had changed in unidentified ways. She was standing just in front of me, haloed by pulses of light.
Come see, she said.
One day I will make of this world what I want of it. It will be long from now, after Shady and I learn we have nothing more to say to one another, after Spunk decides I am a man to avoid, after his father finally dies of whatever illness is at him. But this is a day that will come.
The seminary will have been torn down to make way for a new suburban plan. I will be up late, as usual, while mother sleeps. I’ll be sitting on our front porch, so slanted you can’t set down your beer bottle or else it will tip over. I’ll have just lit my last cigarette in the pack when a single light appears, turning onto our dark street, the low rumble of an engine knocking off all the houses. The motorcycle will pull up into our yard and I’ll unbutton the sheath of my knife, until the rider slips off his helmet and I recognize my brother Fleece.
He’ll smile and sling me the helmet and tell me the bike is mine, he doesn’t need it. He’ll teach me to ride by taking me along the miles of road along the river, empty of stoplights or street lamps, the smell and feel of water heavy in our faces. Fleece will want to see the old seminary and I’ll tell him of what happened, of how it was torn down, and when we walk among the huge mansions that line the new manicured streets he used to haunt, he’ll begin to recount the many hours spent with the crazy caretaker, name of Hardesty, and we’ll wonder whatever happened to the man once the seminary was no more, with Fleece saying over and over again, I guess it’s best this way, what other way could it be. My brother is not one to talk much, though, and he leaves most of that to me, asking simple questions of my life and of mother without offering a single detail from his own experiences. I know if I ask I’ll get nothing but a joking riddle.
We return on the bike and he leaves it in the yard, striding toward the front door and into the kitchen, where he sets a fat wad of cash, bound, and instructs me to give this to Mom when she wakes up. Tell her to get the porch fixed, he says, or, come to think of it, why don’t you get off your lazy ass and do it? And he laughs his high yapping dog laugh as he leaves—he just walks away, past the bike and onto the walk, half-assing a salute as he goes. The last thing he says to me will be Never fear, little brother, as he walks off into the dark again, where I lose him quickly in the moonless night.
And it won’t be until later that I realize how happy I was to see him, or how the anger began to dazzle me once he was gone again. It won’t be until much later that I remember how we do not touch the entire evening, that he instructs me to hold the back of the saddle on the bike instead of placing my arms around his waist, and it will seem no part of his fate will have been clarified for me.
But for now I prefer to think of that night when I was frightened, and so jittery with confusion, when Spunk and I followed after Shady through that black passageway to the roof again to find the origin of that throbbing light: lightning had hit the old transformer, and it was burning. Within the rain the night was filled with white sparks that jetted onto the gravel and tar paper and over the edge into the dark; scarves of flame reached along the power lines, and the pops and hisses from inside the blaze briefly drowned out the wind. We stood silent and enthralled at the awesome power that pulsed there, that existed for no reason, and only for us—thrilled by our proximity to that danger, and beauty, surrounded by a darkness greater than we could stand.
Source Photo Credit: Alex France