by C.A. Kaufman
There’s a pond about a half-mile outside town, down 160 and up past Wolf Creek Liquor. The sign at the turnoff says Tucker Ponds, plural. Troy would throw a lawn chair, a couple of dollar store poles he’d permanently rigged with one lure apiece, and a six pack of Coors Light into the bed of his pickup and head out there to fish most weekends during the summer. Sometimes he’d invite me by kicking my front door until I answered it.
Issue #68 soundtrack: Geordie Austen "Aces or Bust"
My grandfather left me his old clapboard house when he passed in the spring of '07, so I moved to Colorado that June. Troy had looked after the place in the interim, and it showed. When I pulled into the driveway in the U-haul I’d rented to cart away the mattress on which my grandfather had died, I noticed two things: first, the clawfoot bathtub parked on the wraparound and second, the diagonal tear that halved the screen door’s bottom panel, through which a gigantic house cat was struggling to emerge. Troy walked down to meet me, his right hand extended to shake but his neck swiveled around to look at the cat. I said hello to the back of his head.
“Hey. Troy Phillips. Don’t mind her. She’s kind of retarded.” He called the cat by its name and we stood still for a moment, staring at it. I think I held my breath. The cat appeared to have given up on itself at the halfway point and lay there cross-pawed, blinking sleepily. When Troy clicked his tongue in irritation and went to retrieve its lower half, I felt a sudden, fierce affinity for the cat, who howled a little bit and attempted to withdraw into the shadow behind the screen door. Troy was crouched and clutching it somewhere around the scruff of the neck.
“Maybe leave it be,” I said. At that moment the cat scratched him and he let it go and it retreated into the dust and darkness of a hallway I knew from childhood but could not see through the screen.
“Little bitch,” he said to the door, and straightened. A scrape was rising on his left forearm but I don’t think he noticed it. “You want a beer?”
It was then that I realized he’d filled the bathtub to the halfway point with ice.
“Sure,” I said.
Troy bent over the tub and rooted around for a bottle. Then he lit a cigarette with his shoulders rolled forward, shrinking into himself. The way he held it in his teeth when he brought the lighter to his face made him look for a second like he was grinning.
We devoted the rest of the day to getting drunk on the porch, chasing the cat out of the kitchen, hauling the old mattress out to the U-Haul. I tried not to think of blood and fate and poison. I spent a good twenty minutes convincing Troy not to launch my grandfather’s mattress over the second floor landing.
Troy ran the town’s auto shop, Phillips & Sons, and he was the son, the only Phillips still in town or above ground. He offered me a job, so I ended up a mechanic in phone calls home to my father. There were two of those: one on his birthday, and one on mine. What do you know about cars, he said, both times. Troy must have regretted hiring me, but by the time he realized it he’d already come to see me as some kind of long-lost little brother. It would've been a liability to let me work on any cars, so I spent most days reading library books and manning the phone in the office. It felt productive, even if it wasn't. I put too much thought into how I’d answer the phone, should it ring. It never rang.
Troy also regarded it as part of my job description to go fishing with him some Sunday mornings. I’d oblige him as a sort of apology, as a way of saying: At least I can manage to get drunk with you before noon on my day off. At least I know how to do that.
And it was restful up there, in a way. He’d unfold his lawn chair by the edge of the water, his mouth working its way around an unsmoked cigarette, the motions so rote they looked choreographed, almost suspiciously graceful. I’d sit down on the ground beside him with my jeans cuffed to the knee and my feet pruning in Tucker Ponds. We’d finish off the six pack by 10 a.m. and flip a coin to see which of us would have to coax his pickup down the road to Wolf Creek Liquor for another. We never caught any fish.
There wasn't a lot to talk about, either. I never really got a full story out of him, though once he told me that the last time he’d seen his father was in 2005, at Denver International Airport, immediately preceding his deployment to Iraq. And when Troy’s tour was over nobody met him at baggage claim. He returned home to cobwebs in year-old pizza boxes, a disconnect notice from the electric company, and reopened the auto shop with a little more dust riding the grease. Or so the story went. Some Sundays I'd reel in a lure and picture Troy glancing over his shoulder at the airport, expecting to catch his father waving, already lifting his elbow to mirror it, to find Phillips Senior had already vanished.
His grandfather had known mine well, or so Troy said. I’d seen the yellowing photographs my mother kept in a shoe box on the floor of her closet: one showed two men in uniform standing shoulder-to-shoulder, squinting against the sun, each with an arm slung protectively around a young and grim-looking wife. One man had a face mine now approximates. The other, blonde, his eyes in shadow, wore a meditative half-smile and probably already knew he’d be leaving himself in Normandy a few months later.
I’d tell stories about growing up on the east coast every once in a while, but they didn't hold his interest. His features would grow pinched and his eyes would wander, or he’d take out a cigarette and absently start to crush the filter between his thumb and index finger. He was the sort who would call up a friend and realize after the echoing hellos that he preferred to be alone, after all. It wasn't hard to imagine: the voice in his ear becoming muddy, howling away into the receiver, a fervent prayer or whisper in a register too low to hear. I suspected he habitually grasped the first opportunity to cite some fake distraction—a gas station attendant, a passing ambulance, most often another call (there was never another call)—and he would say, I’ll call you right back. Maybe he would even intend to, but then the relief of being alone caused him to forget. He meant well but the voices turned to creek silt and he’d forget.
He spent a year in Iraq and maybe twenty minutes of it on the phone. The first eighteen were spent listening to his girlfriend break up with him, her voice ratcheting up to a scream: Five months not one call, Five months not one call, Five months not one call. When she said that she was finished with him, he hung up. A week later he left her a two minute-long voicemail in which he said that he had thought about apologizing but he also thought she was fucking that scarecrow who hangs around Croaker’s and that maybe defending America’s freedom out in the fucking desert was the reason he hadn't been in touch. And maybe a man might be forgiven for not calling. The voicemail didn't address her by name because, for precisely the span of those two minutes, he couldn't quite remember what it was. It’s a million fucking degrees out here and this phone is frying my brain, he’d said, and hung up.
It turned out she had, in fact, been fucking that scarecrow. When I first moved into my grandfather's house I'd see them around sometimes. Her new boyfriend was a beanpole, six-foot-three and all angles, a sort of permanent down-for-the-count who hailed from Cleveland and leveled his a’s with a rolling pin when he spoke. She still lived with her mother just down the road from Croaker’s, where they both waitressed. Nobody knew where the scarecrow spent his days, or where the money he spent nightly at Croaker’s came from. If he had a job, the details were slippery. When he talked it was always to tell a real funny story with a disastrous outcome for which he shouldered zero responsibility.
Troy was careful never to mention the scarecrow or his ex, but on nights he could not sleep he would park across the street from her house and sit there until dawn. I knew this because one day his ex-girlfriend marched up my porch steps, opened the screen door, and screamed, Do you know what your shitbag friend does at night?
I called down to her from the second floor landing and said that I did not.
He sits inside his truck looking through my living room window like a god damn freak. I want you to tell that fucker the next time he so much as thinks in my direction I'm calling the cops.
I spotted his ex-girlfriend and her mother once at the Walmart in Alamosa, where the aisles rose up around me and posed an incomprehensible threat. I wandered until my palms were clammy and nursed a headache. I stole a doughnut from the bakery section and ate it while I pushed my cart and felt like a man in the desert.
We encountered each other in the aisles, our carts gliding past the same displays in opposite directions, and she would manage to present me with the back of her head most times we drew level. Her blonde hair with its loosely wound curls bobbed at the nape of her neck, an addendum to every movement. When I caught a glimpse of her profile—she was reaching for a box of cereal, she’d smeared sherry red lipstick over a pout—it struck me that her features were somehow just shy of beautiful. There was something off about the proportions, I decided, but the source of the dissonance depended on the angle, or the moment. Maybe it was just the way she did her makeup.
When I watched her turn the corner, I came unmoored. Cereal mascots leered at me, the ranks of their boxes like picture frames fastened to the shelves. Everything was a memory instead of a window. I could not find the space she had carved into them, and my heart ached.
The checkout line was hedged with bargain bins. I pulled my cart in behind hers, chewing the inside of my cheek as I watched her mother emerge from one clutching a red vinyl pocketbook. She was a brittle-boned woman whose fatigue wrapped around her like a scarf and left her eyes impervious to her smile. She offered the pocketbook to her daughter.
“How about this one?”
She unclasped it and peered inside, considering.
“I said, big enough to put my cigarettes in. Jesus.” The line shuffled forward. I closed my eyes and anchored myself to the headache behind my lids. From that space I heard her say, “Your depth perception’s way off today, huh.” I imagined her opening presents Christmas morning, maybe in 1997, a pout working on the corners of her mouth.
About a week later I was clocking out at Phillips & Sons when Troy came into the office, glass-eyed and smoking a cigarette from between the jaws of a pair of pliers. He ripped his jacket off the hook by the door and punched his free arm through one of the sleeves.
“We’re going to Croaker’s,” he said.
“She’s not there.”
“Okay,” he said.
“And it’s a Tuesday.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Troy sat down, held the pliers up to his face, and took a drag. Loose sheaves of paper on the desk fluttered when he exhaled. He leaned forward abruptly and pawed at the phone, fumbling with the receiver, then placed it back on the hook. “Get your shit together,” he said, and I went to wash my hands in the cramped office bathroom, careful to avoid the mirror over the sink and the cobweb connecting it to the light fixture directly above the toilet. I locked up while he jogged toward his pickup on his toes like those kids who always get picked last for team sports and wondered, for the first time, how a guy could run like that and make it back from war unscathed but for a pack-a-day habit to treat alternating bouts of boredom and fear, his hair bleached nearly white from the sun.
He swung around the lot to pick me up by the entrance to the junk yard and leaned across the passenger seat to toggle the handle for me. I climbed aboard as he lit another cigarette. I swallowed my dread.
Croaker’s was probably wallpapered sometime in the seventies, and Tuesdays were open mic nights. Troy killed a beer while I went to the bathroom, and when I sat down beside him at the bar he’d already accepted another from a stranger who wanted to thank him for his service. Tuesdays there were some of the saddest on record, and that bar was my least favorite place on earth.
“How do they always know?” I asked.
“To buy you the drink.”
“Small town, I guess.” Whenever I went out with him time did not exist between drinks. He downed a shot of whiskey, then leaned over and shouted into my ear.
“She was fucking that scarecrow the whole time.”
“She claims you never called her.”
“Not never, not once.” Troy pointed the business end of a Corona bottle at the bartender and screwed one of his eyes shut. The bartender responded with two shots of whiskey. He took one and turned to hand me the other, a veneer drawn taut over the hurt on his face.
“You know what she said to me? You want to know what she said?”
He downed both shots.
“She said I was like a log cabin in the middle of nowhere and a hammer is the only way to get to it.”
“Do I look like I know what that means? That’s just how she talks. Go ask the scarecrow. That’s who she tells it to now.”
“He’s not here.”
“Bullshit. He’s fuckin’ installed here, nailed right into one of the bar stools. Nailed right into the floor.”
Troy scanned the bar, fished around in his pockets, and when his keys turned up we left.
We drove to Wolf Creek Liquor in silence. In the parking lot, we passed a bottle of Goldschlager back and forth until Troy said he could feel it traveling down his brain stem, then headed back onto 160 toward Tucker Ponds. I closed my eyes and let my skin crawl over the passenger seat for a while, the sensation hollowing me out. Ahead of us, the road folded into darkness, and when Troy said he felt a deer coming on it seemed like the most logical thing in the world to pull over and wait. And when there was no deer he rattled us up the road with the windows down and the headlights off, hovering over the steering wheel, a cigarette gone dead in his left hand.
He threw the truck into park with a jolt that launched me into the glove box and got out, leaving the door open. I climbed across the seat after him and watched him walk to the edge of the water.
“We’re going to drag the lake, man.”
“It’s a pond.”
“Whatever. She’s down there. I can see those curls floating like seaweed right up underneath the dock.”
He had already bent down and begun to take off his shoes, tangled up in the laces. After a small struggle he managed to free one foot and straightened, pausing to look down at the shoe in his hands. Then he lifted his chin from his chest to give a brief but profoundly disturbing animalistic roar. And when he was done with that—the finish abrupt as the start, holding its own shape against the darkness—he set to work on his other shoe, tearing at it, furious.
Troy had waded waist-deep into Tucker Ponds before I realized that he was going to drown. Panic announced itself in every inch of me and raked my heart over. I waved at him from where I stood by the pickup, shouted: Hey. Come on. The fuck are you doing.
He thrashed, propelling himself into deeper water. I could hear him better than I could see him. He was partially submerged, surrounded by nothing.
“Go to hell,” Troy yelled, sputtering.
“She’s in Cleveland. Get out of the water. She left with the scarecrow. Get out of the water.”
He dragged up his response from the floor of Tucker Ponds, from the very bottom of an insular hurt. The sound of it rose and carried back to me as the reflexive scream a child gives when stung by a bee, the words saying at a pain sunk so far into the moment it subsumed the moment: Go to hell go to hell go to hell go to hell.
I said, “You need to stop yelling. I’m trying to work with you here.” But I was tired and cold, so I climbed back into the pickup and shut the door behind me. Curled up in the passenger seat, I lay my head against the window and slept for a while.
Troy woke me up by repeatedly yelling, But how can you be serious. He was standing outside the driver’s side door, yelling it barefoot and soaking wet.
“Calm down,” I said.
“Unlock the fucking door.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, leaning over to toggle the handle for him. “It’s been unlocked the whole time.”
He flopped into the driver’s seat and sulked, his arms crossed over his chest. I began to drift off again.
“Is that a hole in my ceiling?” He pointed at something I couldn’t make out in the dark.
“No,” I said.
“Then what the fuck is it?”
“It’s a hole in your ceiling,” I said.
We slept side-by-side in the pickup until sometime mid-morning, when a man in waders rapped on the driver's side window. Troy rolled it down and spat out an irritated What.
“You know, people bring their families here,” the man said, gesturing to a station wagon parked nearby. I could make out two kids who looked maybe six or seven peering out at us with their noses pressed to the window, fogging up the glass. “Take that shit elsewhere.”
For one horrific second I thought Troy was going to get out and fight him. I threw my arm across his chest out of instinct, the way my mother used to do to me whenever she slammed on the brakes. The man in waders took two steps back and glanced over his shoulder at his children. Troy broke free and coiled around the steering wheel, wild-eyed.
But then, with a deliberate calm I'd only seen him exercise when weighting a lure to a fishing line, he turned the key in the ignition. We drove to Phillips & Sons in silence.
I grew up in a college town where all the old houses had been gutted and rented out piecemeal to students. The first time I had sex was at a party hosted by a group of my dad’s graduate students in one of those apartments. I was seventeen. She was maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, and so drunk that everything she did required a prop to lean against. After a while I found myself alone with her at the foot of the stairs in the foyer, and she told me she could tell I suffered the way she did, and she took my hand and led me to the second floor. She recited the alphabet backward to prove that she was, as she put it, a being of sound mind and memory. She kept on repeating: It only gets worse, you know. You know. She spent the rest of the night on the porch, teetering on her heels and bouncing off the circle of graduate students talking there. I remember overhearing one of them express concern that she might lose her balance and fall down the porch steps.
“You want to know how I got here?” she said to him. “I said fuck it and left the last place I was at.”
C.A. Kaufman received her B.A. in English and History from Cornell University and currently works as an Associate Editor at Oxford University Press. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Amanda Cruz is a San Francisco-based artist who enjoys working in layers, patterns, and printmaking. Recurring themes that she explores include: communication, relationships, and the wandering mind. Cruz graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2009. Visit her online portfolio at acruzing86.wix.com/hardlystarving#!.
Geordie Austen is an unsigned singer/songwriter from Brooklyn, New York. He recently released a three-song EP titled "Your Secret Baby" which is available to stream or purchase on Bandcamp. A video for the title track, shot entirely on location in New Mexico, is currently being edited and will be available at geordieausten.com shortly. You can also find him on Facebook.