The smell coming from the body was awful. There’s no other word. It reminded me of cellar potatoes gone over, or a fly-blown carcass lying under a woodpile. It was the smell of maggot-scoured meat. The corpse had been in Kincaid’s shed all day, closed off from fresh air, torn apart and slopping out his damp guts like raw honey. Of course he stank, and it made me feel sick. It hit home what I was doing, and I wondered if The Handsome was worth the sickness I felt.
I once saw men digging a hole for a pig, said Kincaid. Took them all morning. They covered the pig with hot stones and buried it for the whole day.
That ain’t burying a man, I said.
I just meant that it took six good-sized men to dig a hole wide enough–
It ain’t the same, I said. We ain’t cooking this fella, we’re putting him to rest. His family and friends will never know. Whatever we do here, we do out of respect. It’s a solemn thing, not a barbecue.
I was just….
And it don’t have to be wide, it has to be deep. Real deep. Deep enough to stay put no matter what the weather, rain or tornado or earthquake, he has to stay put.
Vern Kincaid smiled. At least that was how it looked to me.
It’s still dark, and there’s still a dead body in the back of the pickup. We have to do something before sunup, and time’s running out. Time is greasy and melting like candle wax. The lines on the road are skewed, faded and wildly uneven. The sky is a thunderous canopy, blackened and bruised and moving like smoke. The wind smells sour and wet, and the road looks hand-drawn. Tree branches are too close and too low to the truck, and they scrape against the sides, sounding like scratched tinfoil.
I don’t see anything clearly in the truck bed, just heaps of old branches and the shape of a man wrapped in a dirty robe, his face obscured by deep shadows.
I have someone coming to take a look at it, he said. I turn my head, but there’s no one with me; voices sliding through the night.
And then the dead man sat up, and Vernon Kincaid planted a shovel into his rotting leg, and the sound was a screech, metal against dead bone.
How many days? They all bled together into different colors: lime green mornings, chalk white afternoons, muddy coral sunsets. But the night was the worst.
Sometimes he could see stars poking through the treetops, a hint of moonlight, but mostly just black. The weather stayed the same, never deviating much, and the mornings were colder, and he shivered beneath the old blanket and it amplified the pain. He dreamed – when he dreamed at all – about coming back home to Handsome. Nothing good ever came out of that town. Even leaving it was a bad choice. The town was like flypaper… even if you came loose of it, you were going to lose a part of yourself.
And he mourned. He mourned more deeply than he knew. He thought that was all behind, when he heard about his old man’s death. He cried then, yes, and cried hard. But mourning never broke the core of him. Maybe mourning was just something a son needs to do, he told himself; maybe it was a reflexive reaction to loss. But now he mourned deeply with dry eyes and scalded heart. He guessed you couldn’t really understand loss until everything was lost. Dying off the side of the road taught him that. And who would mourn him? The boy, maybe. He didn’t know Dwight as anything more than his link to survival. And Dwight probably saw him as… well, as a pet. A little smarter than a wounded dog, but not much.
He met an old married couple who asked him if he found Jesus yet, and gave Euart molasses cookies that were drier than stove wood. The two of them, they’d been together so long they looked like they wore the same face. Something dour about them that made Euart glad they only took him a few miles. The old man preached and the old woman knitted something with gray yarn. Euart thanked them before they drove off.
Sometimes the weather turned fierce and he’d spend his days looking for an old barn or empty corn crib for shelter.
Most days, he was on his own, sometimes with birdsong and wind as the only sounds other than the fall of his shoes. Gave him time to think, though he tried to push most thoughts away. Just wanted to enjoy the day, alone, unburdened by anything heavier than wondering about his next meal.
He didn’t have a map or a compass, but he knew where he was heading. Sometimes he’d move onto a side road, corduroyed and fouled with weeds. When the day was hot, it felt like he was breathing dust; when it was weathering, the rain sizzled on his skin. It was surely warm for October, but the nights were cool and the sky was slate-colored and starless.
He met up with a pair of coyote pups just before nightfall. One of them was injured and his sister was tending to him. She stared at Euart for a long time, licking her brother’s wounds. He could hear a single howl somewhere back in a field, couple of miles away, and it gave him a shiver.
He walked up to them as close as he dared and saw the wounds weren’t mortal. Someone pelted the pup with bird shot, probably they were caught sniffing out chickens. Their mama wasn’t going to be happy, and Euart backed away slow.
That night he found an old cow barn to sleep. The roof was mostly caved in and the wood was bled white. Inside, there was old hay that didn’t have any smell left, a shriveled rope hanging from a nail. Something that looked like a rocker panel from an old Roadster, so rusted it settled into lace. There was no sunset, just a gray and purple veil tugged down from the sky. He slept with his head on an old tire stuffed with no-smell hay, no blanket.
Many many thanks to my pal Greg Fisher at rouletterevolver.wordpress.com for tweaking the cover for me with his improved text. Thanks Greg!
Fifty-seven years ago, a young man named Euart Monroe came back home. Only two people knew what happened to him.
Years later, the man most responsible for Euart’s fate, is paid a visit. But is it a ghost? His own tormented guilt? Or is it the boy grown up seeking revenge?
Welcome to Handsome, Oklahoma, population 883 and falling, a place where some men bury their mistakes. It’s a town on the fringe of becoming a ghost.
Jimmy Wheat, small-time thief, has visions of grandeur. With a dying wife and desperate for cash, he pulls one final job that has devastating consequences.
Henry Wasson, third-generation owner of The Handsome Hotel, father of Euart, helps conceal a shooting by partnering with the only man who can help him hold onto his business.
Edwin Kowalski, gas station owner, whose paranoia and jealousy takes him to a secret place where he speaks with the dead. And the dead speak back.
And Euart Monroe Wasson, at the center of a tragedy. A young man seeking peace for the deeds of his father only to discover there’s no peace in Handsome… and no escape.
I kissed Arlene goodnight. The room was shrouded with blankets and black curtains. A dull 40-watt light bulb constantly shone on her night table, displaying a cluster of pill bottles and cups of stale water. Her forehead was warm, and her hair dull and fine. Her breathing was steady but shallow. The skin on her face looked too tight. And her hair smelled like black tea. I don’t remember if that was its natural smell or if it’s just a never-ending memory, a smell concocted from the drugs and the sweat of dying. I think her hair always had that smell, and it was something always uniquely Arlene. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t dying.
I can’t tell you how much my heart broke with every goodnight kiss. I sat beside her for a few minutes each night and stroked her hair. I don’t know if she knew I was there, or even sensed it, but it calmed me. I would cup the side of her face and, though it was always damp and somehow greasy, I could feel the soft underneath-skin, the skin I caressed and kissed and marveled over. Minutes would turn to more minutes until I was afraid to leave her, afraid to stay. I don’t know that I had the courage to see her – feel her – die in my presence. I think that kind of courage was beyond me. But I would. I wanted her last physical perception to be my hand stroking her hair, with a kindness that let her know I was still amazed that she chose to be with me at all.
He took me to a shed on the back of his property. The ground was still hard from all the rainless days we endured and it sounded hollow under my boots. The grass was an unnatural shade of green for late October. The clippings near the shed door were uneven and frowsy, and it spoiled the illusion of perfection. Still, Kincaid probably spent more money on his lawn than I spent on groceries. I tried to shove my resentment aside, but the hard feelings wanted to bubble over.
I don’t know what I expected to see in the shed. A workbench, maybe, with all the tools lined up in alphabetical order; a coil of garden hose, a freshly hosed-off lawnmower. I knew there was something darker inside, so only part of me was surprised when I saw a dead man sprawled across the wood plank floor.
The man had been gut shot. Kincaid spread an old bed sheet over the man’s torso, but what was once white was now a soggy maroon. If I had to guess, I’d say the man died roughly the time Kincaid made his telephone call to me.
Then I could see the trail of blood from the door to where the man now lay. I looked back and saw that Kincaid had roughly raked over part of the blood trail, masking it with torn grass and dirt. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t notice.