Thin afternoon light filters through the full leaves of the sweet gums that line the edge of the hollow, masking the crisp clouds rolling above. The wedding reception is held in the open air about ten minutes outside of town. People drag their feet through the fresh-cut grass as they leave their cars and pickups. Tables are set in a square around a dance floor of hard-packed clay. Perhaps a hundred people have shown up, but George doesn’t know a damned one of them. He greets everyone because he’s the groom and it’s expected. He’s married to a beautiful woman out of similar expectations, even though he feels no love for her. And everyone at the reception seems to know it. Still, he tries to impress each person with a firm handshake. But the people have a puzzled look about their eyes when he squeezes their hands. Bewilderment initially, followed by a few stiff words and an awkward silence.
He stands on the edge of the reception, watching his new wife dance across the clay with one of her cousins. Her name is Jolene, and her hair shines glossy black beneath a crown of crepe myrtle. Her dress is plain and the dust from the clay tints the hem a dull red. He wants to tell her to stop and rest before she ruins her dress in the late June afternoon heat, but she’s smiling and this makes him happy.
A familiar hand comes to rest gently across the small of his back. He turns and sees his sister’s husband, Luke, with a package tucked under his arm and an open beer in his hand.
“Didn’t see you at the wedding.”
“You weren’t looking.” Luke passes the can and George takes a swig before passing it back. No one from his side of family had been at the wedding, except Abe.
“Clean up good in a suit.”
“Not really.” George’s palms run along the front of the suit, self-consciously smoothing the wrinkles. “It’s a rental.”
“Course, no sense in paying for something you’ll only wear again when they put you in the ground.”
The two haven’t spoken for almost a year and their last conversation didn’t end well. George had told Luke he was engaged. Luke couldn’t bear the news.
George scratches his arm where the starched shirt meets his wrist before clearing his throat, searching for something to say. “I sent out invitations.”
Luke shifts his weight to the heels of his feet. “Got mine. Can’t say if the rest of the family got theirs, but it’s likely that they did.”
The music fades, and the dance ends. Jo takes a seat. She knows next to nothing about George’s family and he doesn’t want her to meet Luke.
Luke hands him a gift. “From your pa.”
It’s a small box wrapped in butcher paper. George can tell that it’s a bottle of something from the sloshing liquid. A moment of shock comes over him. His father, the fugitive, still managed to find time to get him a wedding gift.
“Did you have words with him?”
“I did.” Luke reaches into his pocket and pulls out a plain envelope. “Told me to give you this.”
George takes the envelope and slides the unread letter into his pocket. “How was he?”
“Down on his back. Complained bout his prostate hurting him. You ain’t gonna read it?”
“I got an idea what it says.”
The band starts playing. Jo takes to the dance floor with another one of her cousins, and George leads Luke through the beaten grass, knowing that Luke tends to drink fast, hoping if he can get him drunk, then he might leave without embarrassment. The air carries the smell of creosote and cooking meat from fire pits set some distance away. Both men sit at an empty table along the edge of the dancing. A few people smile out of politeness when they see George with Luke.
Luke leans forward. “You know all her people?” George shakes his head and passes Luke someone’s drink from the table. He takes a sip. “Sure particular about the way they do things.” He doesn’t drink very fast. It’s not like him to take it slow. “Was it a Catholic service?”
“Nondenominational,” George says, setting another drink in front of Luke, but he ignores it.
“Nondenominational?” Luke leans back in the metal folding chair. “Sure you ain’t Catholic now?”
“I’m sure, Luke. That put your mind at ease?”
Luke says nothing, and his face reveals little. George doesn’t understand why he’s here. If there is still love between them, neither man shows it.
The dance ends, and he catches Jo’s eye. She walks over and sits down on his lap. Her face glistens with sweat, and he can smell the cheap aftershave of the men she’s been dancing with. But he isn’t jealous. Could she be trying to make him jealous? Should he be jealous – is that what a married man is supposed to feel? She wraps her arm around his neck and laughs, deep and natural, a loving sound that makes George feel guilty that he’ll never be able to return it. He reluctantly introduces her to Luke with a few dry words.
Jo shakes his hand. “Oh, I’m so glad to meet another one of George’s family.”
“Just my brother-in-law.”
Luke drains his drink and looks away, ashamed.
Jo knocks her husband’s shoulder with her fist. “You never told me you had a sister.” She turns to Luke. “Where is she?”
Luke says nothing. Jo turns her eyes to her husband, but he’s silent. George should have told Jo about his sister, but he was quiet about his family and ashamed when she went away. His family didn’t live in Eminence. They weren’t city folk like Jo’s people. They lived in hollows all over Shannon County. Most were farmers. Few had graduated high school, and George was like them.
The band begins to play again and a man grabs Jo and leads her off to the dance floor.
“Should keep an eye on your wife. I wouldn’t let nobody dance with her.”
“You tight yet?” George says.
“I’m on my way there.”
Dinner begins with no formal announcement. Women uncover the serving tables, revealing loaves of bread arranged like a pyramid and casseroles in porcelain dishes with twice-baked beans, potatoes, sweet corn, green peas, okra, yams, cranberries, and a tray of meat loaf smeared with ketchup. A woman with a broad chest pours copious amounts of rum-sweetened punch into a metal trash can beside cookie sheets of sliced pork. A severed hog head in the center table presides over the whole event, its eyes bulging from cooked sockets.
The line for dinner forms in no particular order. Jo’s father, Ben, sits at the head table and hands everyone a plate after exchanging a brief greeting. Martha, her mother, stands at the end next to the punch and serves drinks. The women set their plates down once they reach her so they can talk, and these conversations end with an embrace.
Luke finds a place in line. George remains seated and watches Jo dance. The music slows some. Even the band takes a break, but not his wife. A man seizes the moment and cuts in on the dance. Jo manages a smile. She leads and he follows, his movements clumsy and slow compared to hers. His hand stretches along the flank of her waist before shifting to the small of her back where he rubs the sheer fabric. George takes note of his face. The man wears a drunken grin and stares out on the crowd with sluggish eyes. A stone-faced woman sits opposite George. Her look can only mean she’s the drunken man’s wife, and George tries to match it with a look of his own. He’s her husband, he tells himself, and it’s what he’s supposed to do now.
Jo’s dress clings to her skin. The outline of her bra and panties holds the attention of the staring men. George gazes at her belly. It hangs out an inch or so more than it should. He only noticed this last week when she stepped out of the shower; and only when she was standing naked beneath the familiar fluorescent bathroom light did he see that the baby had begun to show. They told no one that she was pregnant, and George had no doubt that it wasn’t his child.
She was happy she had a husband and he was happy to have a wife. George spent most of the time thinking about what would happen if the men in her family ever found out.
The sun falls behind the ridge. Men light paper lanterns set atop poles throughout the reception as tables begin to fill with hungry people carrying platefuls of food. The artificial light spreads shadows across the linen tablecloths and into the empty spaces that stretch all the way to the deepening woods. All but one member of the band leaves to eat. The fiddle player remains, strumming out a slow number that clears the dance floor of everyone except for Jo and the drunk.
And that’s when it happens.
Three men walk through the crowd with rifles.
Ira, Jo’s brother, is at the front. No one in the crowd pays much attention to the men, except George, who begins to sweat.
Ira stops in front of him. “Noticed you sitting off by yourself.”
One of the men sets his rifle on the table. He looks out at Jo. “Think she’ll dance with me?”
Ira’s other friend pulls out a flask. He takes a snort and passes the flask forward. “The way I hear, she’s danced with half the county.”
Ira takes the flask. He offers George a drink, but George turns it down. George has heard the stories about Jo with other men, but having her brother taunt him with the rumors is a lot to take. Ira sets the flask on the table, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a box of rifle cartridges that have a pink bow attached, and slides the box across the table. “I’d figure to gift you something.”
It’s a touching gesture; the only problem is George has only ever spoken to Ira once before. And he wasn’t carrying a rifle then. “I got enough bullets.”
Ira furrows his brow. “They go to this.” He hands George the rifle.
The stock is cheap. The barrel isn’t blued. A price tag hangs from the front sight. George pulls back the bolt and sees a round in the chamber. The safety is off.
“Thanks,” George says, uncertain, “but I got a rifle.”
Ira shakes his head. “This here’s an automatic.”
“It’s a twenty-two.” George says, disapproving such a small weapon. He leans the rifle against the table and tries to relax. If Ira wanted to hurt him, he wouldn’t have handed him a loaded gun.
But Ira still looks menacing. “Up for some night shooting?” Ira pauses. “Got a Coleman lantern in my truck.”
“That’d scare living hell out of these people.”
Ira takes a seat. “There’s a dry shut-in on the other side of the ridge. Nobody hear a thing.”
The thought of being led out into the woods by his wife’s drunken brother to shoot in the night is more frightening than sitting in the crowd next to Luke. “It won’t look right, me slipping out like that.”
“We’ll have you back in no time.”
Ira doesn’t wait for him to answer. He rises and walks away with his friends following. George wipes his forehead with a napkin. Jo is still with the drunk. She looks like she’s holding up a boxer who went one too many rounds. He picks up the box of cartridges and weighs them in his palm; then, he sees Luke near the end of the line. Luke’s plate is full, and Martha pours him a drink. Soon he’ll return to the table and sit. And talk. Luke turns and gives a quick nod. He’ll be at the table in a moment. George feels his fingers wrap around the box. He rises from the table, picks up the rifle, and walks to Ira.
The Coleman casts a halo of harsh light around the men who stand with Ira near his truck. The flask has been replaced by a bottle of country whiskey. Ira has a queer grin on his face. He swings the lantern from his hip like a pendulum in an old grandfather clock. A white-bellied hound lies at his feet. George says nothing to them, walking past the men, toward the woods. They crowd together and follow him through the switch grass grown tall, brown, and still.
Ira catches up with George and wraps his arm around him before handing one of the men the lantern and sending his friends ahead. They pass beyond the edge of the woods. It is fully dark beneath the canopy of green leaves. There’s a heavy, musty smell. The hound walks to George’s left while Ira stays to his right, and George can’t decide if Ira smells worse than the dog.
“Awful sorry your family didn’t show.”
George shrugs off his arm. “Nothing to be sorry about.”
The voices of the two men who went ahead become distant, and George can just make out the lantern as they make their way up the hill.
“Your dad must be a busy man,” Ira says, poking fun at the fact that George’s father has been on the run for almost a year now.
But George refuses to take the bait. “He waits for people to come to him.”
Ira shortens his stride. “Old people are like that.”
“Not really. It’s more or less a personality issue. We’re too much alike.”
Ira stops, letting what George said sink in. “Jo didn’t tell me much about you.”
George stops nearby and leans against a tree. He can’t see the other man’s face in the darkness, but he can sense Ira’s fear. “Ask any question you like.”
“Well,” Ira says, letting his thumbs rest on the lip of his jeans, “I know you got some money.”
George’s eyes begin to adjust in the darkness. “I’m not a criminal like my father.”
Ira has a serious look about him. “Something to be said about a man who don’t know his limits.”
“He was a farmer who got down on his luck, that’s all.”
“That’s a noble profession nowadays.”
The hound shuffles into view. The talk stops as the animal regards each of the men. It moves like a much older animal than it looks. The dog sniffs the air and decides to lie down between them.
“That’s a fine animal,” George says, hoping to turn the conversation.
Ira scratches the dog. “Some would say.”
“Well, it’s what I say.”
“People sure are fond of their animals.”
They start walking again and George thinks about his father and the time he spent with him along the Missouri River when he was hired to help watch the convicts that the state sent to help build the levees. The land rises as they climb the ridge. George is forced to grab saplings along the path to keep from falling. Ira struggles behind. He stops below the crest of the ridge and waits for Ira to catch up. Trees grow sparsely here. The sound of their breathing echoes off the furrowed bark. The hound struggles up the ridge.
The rifle Ira gifted him is smaller than the one his father taught him to shoot with, and feels alien in his hands. There was an old shed that his father didn’t use on the farm and George stood against it while his father traced the outline of his son’s body with chalk. George had learned to shoot at a target the same shape and size as his own body; in effect his father taught him how to shoot himself.
Ira crests the ridge above him and descends the other side, moving faster as he travels down the ridge and out of sight.
A gunshot. Ira stops. Another gunshot.
“They’re not shooting at us,” George says, catching up with him and then walking past.
“How can you tell?”
George stops. “Well, why would they?”
Ira stares at the rifle in George’s hands. “They’re drunk.”
George considers his reaction. “A bullet sounds like a hornet when it passes close to you. That’s how you know.”
“Like a hornet?”
The men move down. Sharp rock walls run the length of the dry streambed. Ira’s friends stand in the middle of the gully. Busted glass and rusted cans litter the length of the wash. The lantern hangs from a sycamore tree. Beer cans are set along the gnarled branches. One of the men raises his rifle and drops a can from the tree. The report echoes from the rock walls. George climbs into the wash and Ira follows, dragging the hound by the collar. The men greet the two, handing Ira the whiskey. One of the men tries to pass George the bottle.
Ira stops him. “My brother-in-law wants to stay sober so he can get it up tonight.”
The men laugh. Ira waits to see George’s reaction before he joins them. George takes note of his face, smooth shaven, except for the small patch of hair growing under his bottom lip. The sight of the fuzz can’t help but make George grin. It looks like Ira had an unfortunate run in with a moldy peach. Ira smiles once he sees George’s grin, thinking that the joke is on him. But George wonders how happy Ira would be if he knew that Jo shaves herself, leaving a small patch of hair just above her sex about the same size as the patch of hair on his chin.
The hound searches for a spot to rest clear of cans and broken glass. The shooting begins. George is the last to go. Ira stays with the bottle of whiskey. The men’s aims are true to the liquor in their stomachs and it takes several reports from their rifles until the first can falls. The hound doesn’t stir at the sound from the shots. His lidded eyes show him near sleep. He must be deaf.
When George’s turn comes, he has to remove the price tag from the front sight to take aim. A gentle squeeze of the trigger sends a round flying. He misses on purpose, not wanting to show off. Be a part of the crowd, he tells himself. Fit in.
“Take another whack at it.”
George does. He levels the rifle, holds his breath, and repeats the process with the same result. “Sight’s off,” George says, wanting to call it a night and go back to the reception.
Ira snorts. “I sighted it myself.”
He takes the rifle from George and he fires off a series of shots. The rounds miss their intended target, and George can see that most pull above and to the left of the branch by a few inches. Ira keeps on firing. He nears the end of the magazine when one of the cans falls away. George steps forward and reaches for the rifle but Ira moves it away from his reach. His two friends come closer, and George realizes his mistake. He shouldn’t have let Ira take the rifle. The air stills. No more jokes are told. His friends now wear sober expressions.
Ira taps the stock of the gun. “It meant a lot. You coming out with us tonight.” He raises his hand. “And this isn’t the liquor talking.”
“It’s getting late,” George says, trying to leave.
Ira steps forward and George begins to sweat again. They know. They must know. Either Jo told them or they saw Luke at the party or before. God. And now it comes down to this. It would be over soon enough. The cruel faces surrounding him let him know that it was rage, rage that would kill him quickly. Let them shoot, he thinks, please let them shoot me and not beat me so bad that it takes me hours to die in this cut. Knowing that this was the end made the fear go away somehow, to a place deep within him. He only hopes someone from the family finds his body.
Ira kneels down in front of George and runs his hand along the length of the hound resting at the man’s feet in slow deliberate strokes. The animal rolls onto its side, tail wagging.
“Look at that,” Ira says, nodding towards the dog’s genitals. “You ever heard of Neuticles before?”
“What?” George’s lungs push the word out.
One of the men kneels beside Ira. “You know, Neuticles, prosthetic testicles for dogs.”
George’s face feels like a thousand nettles. He doesn’t know whether to run or to laugh.
Ira places his hand on the dog’s scrotum. “Come on down and give em a feel.”
A slight cry comes from some part of George he’d worked so long to hide, and it’s followed by another. “I’d rather not.”
Ira and the men look concerned. “Oh, old Ned won’t mind.” The dog beats its tail along the ground as Ira’s hand lifts and separates each fake testicle to show just how lifelike they are.
Ira’s friend nods at George, his face serious – the face of a businessman wanting a sale. “Give em a feel.”
George’s throat is dry. He can’t manage to hush the sounds from his throat. They don’t seem to be joking, and fearing that the three armed men won’t take “no” for an answer makes George kneel down. The dog raises its head and watches him. George rubs his hands together, warming them out of common courtesy. Ira takes his hand away, and George coughs, forcing the cries to stop. He tries to match the men’s earnest faces as he feels Ned’s scrotum. He tries to fit back in, but the quality that let him pass for so long as one of them feels broken beyond repair.
Ira’s eyes possess a strange glow. “Notice a difference between the two?”
“They feel pretty real to me.” George lets his hand fall away, distant and unfeeling to any contact.
Ira grabs the right testicle. “This one feels different,” he says, squeezing it between his thumb and forefinger like a grape. “That’s because it’s not a Neuticle.” Ira smiles. “That’s our product.”
Wiping his hand clean on rented pants, George wonders how this can be reality. “What’s it called?”
Ira reaches out his arm and places the same hand on George’s shoulder that fondled poor Ned just a moment ago. “That’s the beauty of it,” he says, pulling George closer. “They don’t have a name yet.” There are tears in Ira’s eyes and his voice cracks. “We want you to name them as our new financial partner.” George stands. Ira does the same. “No need to say yes now.” Ira goes on, and tells George how his product is saline-based and safer than the silicone Neuticles.
A dog apparently goes through a certain level of trauma when neutered and needs to rebuild his confidence. And indeed, Ned appears to have suffered some long lasting trauma, but George doubts that it’s from his castration. George begins to recover and regain confidence in himself. Ira stops talking.
He mistakes George’s silence for serious consideration. “I think I’d like to dance with my wife,” George says, finally.
The men head back to the reception in silence. Ned trails them at some distance. The lights from the party can be seen as they crest the ridge. It’s a safe glow, something familiar and civilized. Ira drinks the last of the whiskey.
“You and I are like a couple of bulls,” he says, chucking the bottle into the darkness. “With one difference. A young bull stands on a hill and says, ‘Hey, let’s me and you run down and get us a heifer.’ But an old bull says, ‘No son, let’s walk down and screw all them heifers.’”
A giddy feeling spreads along George’s legs. Ira can run or walk into the arms of any women for all he cares. The rifle is given back to George, and Ira hurries on ahead. He’s misjudged Ira. The man is just a fool. A failed businessman trying to scam his new brother-in-law. The only thing dangerous about Ira is his mouth.
The gun feels light, and George brings it close to his chest. The night carries an odd chill with it, and he tells himself that it’s the walk that makes him begin to sweat again. By the time he’s through the woods and walking in the tall grass, he has nearly convinced himself that it’s the truth.
Jo scowls at his return. She’s finally sitting at a table. Her parents are with her. So is Luke. George’s stomach drops, but he still manages the courage to sit next to them. Jo’s hand falls onto his thigh. She leans over his ear. “You missed the bridesmaid speech.”
He makes a face, letting her know how sorry he is.
“It’s a shame.” Martha slaps his other leg. “A damned shame that none of your family showed.”
Jo introduces Luke before George can stop her.
“Why doesn’t he give a speech?”
All eyes turn to Luke. Both of Jo’s parents are upset that he didn’t have a best man.
Luke pales at the invitation. He opens his mouth and lets out a sigh, so brief and quiet that only George is aware of it. “All I can say is that George is a hell of guy,” Luke says, fumbling over the words.
“Well, stand up and shout it.”
“He really can’t speak,” George says, kicking Luke under the table. “It’s his nerves.”
Martha gives a warm laugh and takes George’s hand and presses it to hers and looks at Luke, who has bent down to rub his leg. “Isn’t he just wonderful?”
Luke raises an eyebrow. “Yeah. A real peach.”
Martha turns to George. The heat off her breath tells him she’s been drinking. “I can’t tell you how glad we are that you married Jo.”
Ben looks to his wife. “She gave us a lot of sleepless nights.”
Jo looks desperate. “Mother, stop.”
“She’d always vamp.”
George lets his hand fall away from Martha and excuses himself from the table. Jo moves into his empty seat and whispers to her mother. It’s a short conversation. Martha’s back grows rigid and she appears sober once again. Jo’s eyes are watery, and Martha’s comment sends the world spinning. George walks to the serving tables to get some water. Does everyone know how many men she’s been with? The band sets up on stage again. Men rise and walk toward Jo. There’s damn near a pack of them. George leans against the table. The food is covered, but flies still buzz the air.
Jo takes to the floor with Luke. She must be using him to escape her mother.
The music is a real fast number and Jo swings her hips to the beat while Luke side steps, the only dance move he knows. George had to teach it to him. The men stand along the edge of the dance. Ira is amongst them. His mouth gapes a little, an expression shared by the other men. The music speeds up and Jo places Luke’s hands on her hips. The crowd gives a whoop. The men have a look of hunger fueled by whiskey. But Luke has no idea what to think, or how to handle a woman well enough to pass as straight.
Without much thought George’s legs carry him through the crowd toward the dancing. He passes by the rifle Ira gave him. Pitiful looking thing. Why had he ever been frightened of it?
He cuts in on the dance, shoving Luke to the side, and Jo makes a big scene, throwing her arms about, acting, trying not to look hurt. But George doesn’t care.
Someone lets the band know to play it slow, and so they do. Jo moves close. Everyone’s seat is empty. Jo forces a smile and the dance ends with applause.
Jo pinches his arm. “We didn’t even cut the cake.”
Tradition has it that the last dance of the evening happens when the bride and groom come together. Once it does, the night is at an end. People begin to move about. Some return to their seats and collect their things. Martha tries to cut cake and hand pieces to people as they pass.
Ben cuts through the crowd and stops in front of George. “This weren’t cheap.”
Jo leaves her husband’s side and joins her mother. The last thing anyone wants is a fight.
“I’ll pay you back.”
Ben throws up his hands in disgust before joining his wife without saying anymore. His insistence on tradition put George off from the moment that Jo made him ask his permission to marry her.
The crowd thins. Engines rev. Headlights click on. People start leaving. Ira pulls his truck up to the reception. His friends help him load the stack of gifts. George moves to join them, but Luke stops him.
“She’s pretty, you’re wife.” Luke folds his arms. “Real pretty.”
“Please – ”
“Maybe somehow you’ll be happy, together. I guess saying that about a marriage is bad luck, but still, I wish you the best.”
“Don’t be like that,” George says, reaching out for him but stopping once he notices people watching. “Nothing has to change, not between us.”
“Really?” Luke’s eyes are bloodshot – the blood vessels cobwebbed out hotly in the whites of his eyes like lightening. “If you believe that, then you’re more of a fool than I could’ve imagined.”
“We made it work when you got married.”
“Work? It was a farce then and it’s made even worse now that there’s another person in it.” Luke leans close to George until their faces nearly touched. “Can you get it up with her?”
“Or do you have to close your eyes to get hard?”
A quick shove from George and Luke finds himself on the ground. People nearby stop and watch. Luke recovers himself, brushes off his shirt and tries his best to recover. He fits in, at least he does his best anyhow. Just like George. He leaves without saying any more and George helps Ira finish loading the truck. The band keeps playing.
With the truck loaded, George sits at their empty table. The remaining people crowd around Jo and her parents while someone takes down the rest of the serving tables. Soil is kicked over the fire pits and the earth rises, bubbling from the heat. It kind of looks like love, that bubbling mess of dirt, steaming and heaving upward, readying to burst but cooling at the same time.
George doesn’t want to think about it, so he grabs Ira’s gift and unscrews the tube magazine. The box of bullets Ira gave him has some use, and he uses it to reload the mostly empty rifle. It comes to rest across his lap like a cheap toy. Jo isn’t far off. She takes off the myrtle and lets her hair dry in the cooling night air. There’s not a more beautiful sight than her hair, especially when it’s wet. He wishes he could have hair like hers.
Her parents follow them to their house. Ben stays in the car, but Martha walks to the porch with Jo. George opens the house to find all the gifts neatly piled inside the door. Jo must have given Ira a spare key. He turns to ask her, but stops when he sees Martha speaking to her daughter in a hushed voice. She holds both of Jo’s hands and kisses her.
The light is on, so he steps inside and waits for her. A car door shuts a moment later and her parents drive away. Jo has tears in her eyes when she enters the house. The rifle is leaned against the wall. She stands in the open door frame, silhouetted against the night.
For a moment George actually thinks she’s waiting for him to lift her across the threshold. She walks into the house and he can smell the men she’s been dancing with. She wipes the sweat from her forehead and heads to the bathroom.
“I hope your dad wasn’t upset.”
She leaves the bathroom door open – there aren’t to be any secrets now that they’re married. “Don’t mind him. He’s just a nut for tradition.”
He turns his attention from his wife to the gifts stacked along the wall. “Have you given anymore thought about Salt Lake?”
His father’s package sits off to one side.
Jo steps out into the hall, naked. “Motels are cheap.”
They haven’t decided on a honeymoon, not yet. He takes the package and thinks about the Great Salt Lake. Jo’s shown him brochures, and he’s come to understand that it’s a large inland sea in the middle of a desert. Nothing sounds more wonderful than that right now.
He opens his father’s gift, a small bottle of bourbon without a label, something very old. Jo rubs soap onto her face and smiles at the bottle in his hands. “We’d have to bring along booze.”
He sits down at the table. Jo turns to go back into the bathroom, and he can’t help but notice her belly from the side. “You didn’t happen to tell your family you were pregnant?”
“No.” She sticks her head from the door. “Why do you ask?”
He chuckles and shakes his head. “That brother of yours.” The faucet squeaks as it turns. “Scared me half to death.”
But Jo doesn’t hear him above the sound from the shower. He uncorks the bourbon. There’s heat coming from the liquid inside. How his father bought it while he was on the run he’ll never know. He steps onto the porch and smells the dampness in the air. The sky is overcast, but he can see the faint outline of the moon through the clouds. The fields to the east and west are full of dry corn stalks that farmers have left to die so the soil won’t get dusty like it used to when he was young.
His father used to bring George along with him when he worked with convicts along the Missouri River. The endless days of building levees clogged the sky with dust from the sandy soil. The convicts wore masks over their mouths as they moved along the rows. Their faces, white and black with mud-caked eyes. Hair in coiled loops of dried sweat and dust. They would chant while they worked. All were chained, sometimes together at the ankle.
George spent his time watering down the convicts. He would go home at night, and his mother would wash him from head to foot. She used to shove a wet washcloth up his nose to get at the sand crusted around his nostrils. The cloud of dust spread with the wind and covered their small farm. Towels and old blankets were shoved under the doors and wedged beneath window frames to keep the dust out. It was too hot to cook inside, so the family ate Spam and canned beets on plates at first. But everything had a thin layer of dust to it, so they ate straight from the cans. They could still taste the grit.
Dusk was always the restful time at work. The heat didn’t fade as it should when the sun hangs along the horizon. Convicts would eat their supper, and George would bring them water. Game birds cooled themselves in dust baths throughout the fields behind the levees. Boredom was always an issue for the watchmen. They’d give a few convicts leave to chase down pheasants.
One afternoon, the sharp crack from a rifle echoed in the valley like a rumor of thunder. A convict had chased a bird too far. The watchmen dragged the fallen man – a neat hole the size of a dime in his chest. There was very little blood. It was impossible to see his face in the growing twilight. No one asked who shot him.
George’s father walked with him afterward, the rifle slung across his shoulder. He kept plastic over the muzzle to keep dust from fouling the barrel. It had popped sometime during the day so George offered to clean the rifle once they were home. But his father never answered him and didn’t speak the rest of the night, not even when mother asked him why he was so quiet at supper.
George leaves the porch and enters the bedroom, feeling a little more tired than he should. Jo is waiting for him. There are two full-sized beds and she lies in the one nearest the window. No one had asked about why they needed two beds, thank God. Most thought it was out of tradition.
“Why are you crying?” she says.
He brings his hand to his face. He hadn’t noticed the tears. “I dunno.”
Laying his suit out neatly across the dresser, he wipes his eyes with the hem of his pants before getting into bed. He turns to face Jo. She is awake but silent. They stare at each other.
“Are you happy?” she asks, finally.
“Yeah,” he says, trying to smile. “Are you?”
“Yes,” she says. But she doesn’t return his smile. “Was the man at the wedding – ”
“Yes. Was he the one?”
Jo raises her knees to her chest until she’s resting on her side in the fetal position. “He’s handsome. We should have him over for dinner sometime soon.”
“I don’t think he’ll come,” George says, his voice cracking. He raises his hand and covers his eyes.
“We have an arrangement,” she says, puckering her lips. “He should know.”
Jo leaves her bed effortlessly and slides next to George, curling her body next to his. “You’re a man. You have needs. I know. And I love you. I love you still.”
“The baby,” George says, letting his hand rest across Jo’s belly. “What will we tell it? That it has no father?”
Her chin raises until it presses into the crook of his neck. “You will become the father he needs.”
“It’s a boy?”
“Yes. I think so. I hope so.”
George rolls on his side away from her. “I hope it’s a girl. The world has enough boys.”
Nothing more is said. Nothing can be said. They fall asleep anxiously. Jo snores almost immediately, but George rests fitfully, tossing and turning until uneasy dreams begin to fill his mind: dreams of being a convict and being chased in a blinding dust storm, falling into the dust and choking on it, being swallowed by dust and sucked down so far into the buried earth that no worms could find him. Being stuck there for centuries and feeling his body become desiccated and dry until unearthed, his corpse mummified and put on display in some macabre museum.
A rustling outside forces his eyes open, the horrible memory of the dream fresh on his mind. Lights flicker on and off through the window, too harsh and artificial to be lightning. His eyes cannot adjust to the harshness of the light but he can make out a shape in the window frame. A terrible shape, inhuman, with antlers where there should be a head. His heart races. An air horn sounds, splitting the silence. His wife sits up beside him, her hair draped across her breasts. The sound of clanging metal fills the room and the walls begin to shake. The lights begin to flash on and off. Jo begins to beat her hands together, clapping madly. She’s smiling and doesn’t seem afraid. George gets out of bed. Hide! He must hide. He tries to drag Jo to the basement, but she wraps herself in the bed sheet and falls to the floor laughing. The rattling increases and comes from all sides of the house now. He sees the rifle Ira gave him resting against the wall. He takes it into his arms. It’s tiny and synthetic, but it is the only thing he has to protect himself. He takes the rifle and steps outside the front door.
Blinding light greets him on the porch. Strange shapes hoot from the bushes. They look like people, but they’re covered in fur. A group of vehicles faces the house, headlights full on. Something darts in front of the porch, banging pots and pans together.
These are people. There’s no doubt in his mind, and the thought of it makes him sick. This is a shivaree, another one of Jo’s family’s traditions. They dress up like animals and bang pots and pans together. It’s supposed to be a welcoming, but it feels nothing like one. Nothing her family has done has made him feel welcome.
He steadies the rifle toward one of the trucks, aims down and to the right. He squeezes the trigger, shattering one of the lights and making Jo’s family feel just as welcome on his land as they made him feel the whole night. Another report from the rifle causes the windshield to fracture into a thousand cracks. The driver rolls out and runs to the trees. There’s screaming now. No more clanking metal. A man rushes George from the bushes, but he’s ready for the intruder and catches the side of his mouth with the stock of the rifle. The cheap wood and plastic splinter. The man drops to the porch and lies motionless at his feet.
Jo appears in her bathrobe behind him, trying to pry the rifle away. Voices call out from the night, pleading with George to stop shooting. He lets go of the rifle. Jo kneels next to the fallen man. Ben and Martha appear. They’re dressed like sheep, and they step onto the porch.
“What in the hell!” Ben removes a hat with antlers from the local Elks lodge.
Martha has a cooking pot and a frying pan in her hands. “We were just belling.”
The man rolls over. It’s Ira. He’s awake and moaning. Several teeth lie on the porch. Jo begins to scream. Martha sits down to comfort her daughter.
“Sonofabitch,” Ben says. “You sonofabitch.” He raises his hand to strike.
Martha stops her husband. “He’s never heard of a shivaree. Can you imagine how frightened he must of been with Jo and the baby?”
His wife gives George a hurtful look. She’s lied to him when she said she didn’t tell her family that she was pregnant. George lowers his head and walks back into the living room and sits at the table. It takes some time for things to settle down outside. But when it does Jo enters the house and tells him that no one has been killed. She lays her hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him, but it feels cold.
Mark Watkins lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, the writer Emily Howorth. His stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses, Boulevard, Third Coast, Texas Review, StoryQuarterly, Foxing Quarterly, The Fog Horn, and elsewhere. Recently, he served as a guest fiction editor for the 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue (available for download as a PDF).