Excerpts

A few excerpts of stories I’ve published in literary journals.

“Burning Slag,” Published in The Butter

All the children had been given away, and now Darcus Mullins found herself driving the curving road up toward Isaban to look again at the burning slag heap. Along the way, she would pass the house where Leonard had been sent, and she would slow the car to a crawl so she could peer down into Hatfield Bottom where he sat playing in the mud with his new foster sisters, patting pies into shape and drying them on the low stone flood wall. Between the leafless trees she could see his dark head bent in concentration, the little white heads of his new sisters beside him, the littler one with her arm crooked up over his neck.

The screen door to the little clapboard house was scotched open, and Darcus knew that the girls’ mother was keeping a careful eye on the children. The windows were rolled down in the car, and Darcus heard music coming from the house, Donna Fargo. “Funny Face.”

Darcus inched down the mountain taking a long slow view of the swing set next to the house and the coal shed nearby, piled near full. There was a pony in the pasture between the house and the trailer where old Eudora Hatfield the landowner lived, that looked like maybe it belonged to the blonde-haired foster family. On a previous drive-by, Darcus had noticed the rabbit hutch where the girls had seemed to be showing Leonard how to hold one of the animals without getting scratched.

If she had had a man who’d built a rabbit hutch, Darcus had thought sullenly, well, then that would’ve been a different story.

“Barry Gibb is the Cutest Bee Gee,” published in The Greensboro Review:

In her room we lie on her bed and look at magazines with foldout posters of Eric Estrada and John Schneider. We measure our chests with the measuring tape from her mother’s sewing kit. We prime the roller balls of our lip gloss with our fingers and then smear gobs of sweet-smelling, chemical-tasting gloss over our lips. We want desperately to kiss someone.

Outside it is gray. Steam rises from our sidewalks, our driveways, even from the grass. Mama’s tan is fading. “Rain is so depressing,” she says. But I like it; I like the air before it rains, swirly and damp. I never really tan anyway. I am still peeling long runs of skin off my shins. Kimberly scratches at the pieces I can’t reach on my back with her neat fingernails. I bite my nails, so I have to use the sharp point of a jack rock to bring up edges that I can grab hold of.

“My uncle saw a man skinned alive in Vietnam,” Kimberly says.

“Which one?” I ask.

“Tim,” she says, and my heart hammers behind my training bra. “But they couldn’t brainwash him,” she says. “They never could.”

“Run, Little Girl,” published originally in Night Train, and later in other journals and anthologies:

There was something about him, Brother Harpy, something she couldn’t name exactly, but something she felt and mostly at night, lying awake for hours the way she did, thinking back over her day. She’d heard he lived alone in a ramshackle, old company house somewhere near Johnny Cake, and she wondered if he could throw a tomahawk, and she guessed he could, that maybe he could kill a wildcat with one if he felt like it, or a snake.

She wanted to catch snakes herself, hot snakes with flicking tongues, angry serpents, not the sluggish pieces of rubber she’d handled at church. She felt she could, or at least she might have been able to at one time, when she was full of faith, before the coal truck and Elwood McGuire. You couldn’t grab up snakes with fear and doubt in your heart. And that is what made her love Brother Harpy. He had no fear, and just looking at him, that slick hair, both dark and light at once, that rough-looking face with its dark eyes, made her feel something funny, something akin to courage, a boldness. She drew nearer and nearer to him when he came delivering snakes. She helped him carry the jumping sacks into the basement, and he did not warn her to be careful. “I ain’t afraid,” she said.

And he said, “You ain’t, huh?”

She shook her head, and her blonde hair fell down both sides of her face and moved like a soft breeze had picked it up and let it down again. He looked at her, standing under the single bulb of the hand-dug basement, her bare feet and calves gleaming white against the dark packed earth beneath them, her pretty pink toenails catching the light like opals. He tossed a sack into the basement and it jumped and rolled as the serpents fought each other inside the bag.

“Monsters in Appalachia,” published originally in storySouth and later elsewhere:

She hungers for something soft, the sweet, tender things of before. Now it is all hard hide and claw and horns and scales and beaks and necks and parts unheard of.

She looks at Anse. They string up the beast in the hemlock and split it down the middle. Bile rolls out and acid that singes what little grass there is. There is no heart inside it, nor any innard they can recognize, just what looks like a stomach, gut-colored and bloated. Anse pricks it and out comes nothing but noise, low grunts and shushed cries. She grabs it up and throws it to the dogs.

“Look what a taste for it they’ve got,” he says. But she looks away, cannot bear it. “Did you hear it?” he asks. “Hear it wailing? You should’ve seen it hiss and spit at me. Look at those horns. Have you ever seen anything like it? And those wings.”

“It’s unclean,” she says. “Take it out of here.”

“Clean as any other beast,” he says. “Why, look, it’s an angel.”

She steps closer, studies its faceless, floppy form, its veiny, segmented torso, its swine-like hoofs, cat-gut wings. “It’s no angel,” she says, “but a monster.”

“A monster? Yes, you’re right,” he says. How many do you suppose there are? What all kinds, you reckon?”

“Justice Boys,” published originally in Fried Chicken and Coffee:

The baby, five weeks old, lays down hard on his scream, though now his throat tight­ens in a hushed blue choke that scares Rita more than the locked bow­els, more than the Jus­tice boys outside.

Arjay is still gone with Cleanth, but the Duster’s in the yard, and that’s what draws them, fir­ing their shots now and again at the bag of dog food lean­ing next to the house or at the tulip-shaped retreads Arjay cut up to hem in the peonies.

They leave the car alone, use­less to her as the soap. Use­less as Arjay, gone again as always, some­times three and four days. This time, he takes Cleanth and Jimbo and a stick of dyna­mite Cleanth swiped from Lit­war. Cleanth is half sense­less, espe­cially when he’s drink­ing and that’s always. He tells Arjay they’re going to fin­ish this thing tonight, but a lot of good that does Rita now with them out­side, the one Jus­tice boy Arjay took a pool stick to at Omie’s mak­ing turkey calls, Hurt. Rita got a good look at him at Easter, up at the park, when they came dri­ving by slow and pulled their van over by the slides where they could watch the kids.

“Little Miss Bobcat,” published in RE:AL:

 I have always been a good artist. I can look at something and color it exactly the way it is. If I color a butterfly, for instance, I use black and yellow. I have never seen a purple or pink butterfly in my entire life.

After we drew our bobcats and napped for a little while on our towels, Mr. Munger sent Lester Luster and me to the cafeteria to pick up the afternoon ice cream order. We have ice cream every Wednesday, and sometimes I get a strawberry cup or an orange Push-up, and sometimes I don’t get anything. It depends on how much money I find in Daddy’s wallet. Daddy’s pants are always laying on the floor beside the bed, so I usually sneak in and check before I ask, and there wasn’t no need to that morning. I didn’t feel like ice cream anyway. I erased the boards until everyone was through and then Mr. Munger let any of us who wanted to sign up for the Little Miss Bobcat contest. “Whoever gets the most donations in a month,” he said, “will win a genuine quartz crown and will get to ride on the Bobcat Grammar School float in the Easter parade.”

I could already see myself up there in my angel-wing dress and my big Little Miss Bobcat crown, waving at everybody just like Miss America. I practiced by raising my arms out to my side so my angel-wings would hang down. You could see my arms inside the see-through purple cloth, so I was wondering if I could maybe wear long gloves, too, like Miss America does. Then all of a sudden, Needy Baker told everybody my panties were showing. “Why don’t you wear something that fits you sometime?” she said. “And why don’t you comb your hairy head?”

“The Immortal Jesse James,” published in Midwestern Gothic:

They are traveling Route 66, the Mother Road, toward Rialto, California, where they will stay with her sister Mary Polly for a while until they find their own place, Boy Baby says. He and his brothers are caught spellbound by every billboard promising strange and wondrous sights. Boy has filled their heads with visions of painted deserts and petrified forests, of wigwam motels and red rock canyons. This is why he has brought them along, he reminds her, to show them some little bit of the world, even parts unknown to him.

“It’ll be fun, Puss,” he says. “We’ll camp.”

They have been camping since they left Gary, Indiana, sleeping in the car at truck stops or on concrete picnic tables at roadside rests. It’s the middle of July, and even at night the temperature hovers near seventy. Jane is exhausted, and she and the baby are covered in road grime. Black sweat bands have formed in the creases of the infant’s pudgy arms and legs. They have been bathing at campsites or washing up in public bathrooms, but the wind through the open windows keeps her hair feeling oily and her skin feeling tight and dirty. She pulls out the diaper bag and goes to work lifting little rolls of baby fat and smearing away dirt with a burp cloth dampened with baby oil.

“A Girl at His Show,” published in Backwards City Review:

I should go, she said.

Go where?

Home, she said. He did not ask where she lived, and she imagined it was because he could not really conjure what such a thing was, home. She thought of him sleeping in rooming houses next door to girls of the night that probably he slept with, or else in trailers back behind fairground fences where the air was choked with the smell of elephant dung and cigarette smoke and the fumes of generators.

She sat upright in the box. I wish you’d stay, he said. She wanted to. For a fleeting second, she dreamed of staying, of being part of his show somehow. Only she had no talent of any kind, no beauty, no wit or charm whatsoever. She was just a fat girl with yellow eyes.

He seemed desperate, though, afraid of something. He needed her company like no one had ever needed it before. He needed her. She was the only person in all the world whose company he wanted, craved, had to have. Any number of things might happen to her later, during the course of her own long life. She might marry, have children; might slim down; become a Pilates instructor; take up Sodoku. But nothing would bring her to the edge of herself this way again, the brink of her very soul, looking at another human being who was not really human at all but something else entirely, something ethereal, something beyond her flesh, his flesh, all flesh altogether, something she could only think of as breath. Hers, his. It was the same. And it flickered like a candle and was gone as quickly as she could think of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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