A Jackal in the Woods
My grandfather died and everything went to shit. He drowned on lung fluid in a Spartanburg County hospice house that overlooked a field dotted with black cows. The sunrise wasn’t anything special over there, just a smudge of yellow clouds, and the roads were full of bread and ice cream trucks running deliveries to the little failing grocery stores. Sometimes dogs chased the sweet smells of Bunny Bread and push-pops, then ended up run-over and whimpering on the shoulder, wet eyes shining from a distance until life faded and they didn’t shine anymore. Vultures picked what they wanted. So did insects, coyotes. An act as simple as a young boy cutting the grass would make the world smell fresh and new again, but before that, a stink would ride the wind for days, a stink attracting the most cunning and ugly creatures of the land. My grandfather loved ice cream.
His body was driven to Greenville, a thirty-minute ride, where it was incinerated and poured into a small brass canister. At the funeral service, I sweated through my bra, underwear, and black dress in that hundred-year-old Episcopal church, which creaked and moaned in the July heat. It seemed indecent for anyone to see my bra straps, so I wore a thin sweater that only furthered my discomfort. Beads formed at my hairline. All of the tissues allotted for tears were used on sweating foreheads. Nobody cried. One of my aunts was present, while another refused attendance due to “grievances,” and the third was long dead from a childhood boating accident. We flipped through brittle hymnals and sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” a quiet and unenthusiastic crowd at best. The priest spoke of my grandfather’s rocky personal relationships, his quarreling children, and a banking career that had garnered many enemies. “Nicholas,” the priest said, “lived a full and complicated life. He will answer to God.”
My dad tensed.
At the wake, I organized food over the counters and kitchen table. Spiced rum cake, cubed ham, deviled eggs, sugar cookies, ambrosia salad, fried chicken. I sliced lemons for the sweet tea and found an extra reserve of napkins in the pantry. Nobody directly acknowledged the horrible service, especially not to a family member, but when I passed my father’s study with a vodka tonic in hand, I saw two old ladies slumped like rag dolls in the oversized leather chairs, gossiping with hushed voices and wide eyes. The bookshelves were full of binders that organized the entirety of my dad’s construction company. The building codes were endless: fire code, plumbing code, mechanical code, electrical code, energy conservation code, and so on. I wished a couple of those binders would fall on top of the ladies’ heads. They had picked junk mail from a pile of letters on the desk, flyers pinched between bony thumb and forefinger, and were leisurely fanning themselves. The smell of rosewater perfume drifted into the hallway.
The fatter of the two said, “What an embarrassment.”
The waif leaned in, as if to expose a dark secret, and added, “The priest might as well have mentioned the infidelities.”
“Don’t forget the bankruptcy.”
“The way he harped on Nick…”
“Harped, he did.”
“He was living in squalor, you know.”
“Outside the city limits.”
“With the rednecks.”
I polished off my drink and shook the ice cubes, unsure if I was subduing my anger or encouraging it. I stepped into the doorway and with a prize-winning smile, said, “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” which shut them up.
Of course, later that evening, when guests finally left and the heat subsided and a single bat looped through the backyard, there was plenty of bad-mouthing. My dad and his sister, only two years apart, sat on the patio with a dish of salted peanuts and a jar of whiskey that my dad bought from a drywall man for ten dollars. They sipped and coughed and told stories with their tongues covered in shredded nut meat, as was my grandfather’s habit. He was dead but he was everywhere.
In 1965, he started a bank that flourished, then fizzled. In 1972, he purchased an entire city block in downtown Greenville that became a vacuum repair store, insurance office, and ice cream parlor, all of which burned in an electrical fire. In 1980, he traveled abroad and began collecting European girlfriends. In 1981, he pursued a young beauty in Cypress and was stabbed by a competing suitor. In 1990, he began teaching economics at Clemson University. In 2005, he took gold in every track and field event at the Senior Sports Classic, and when he couldn’t breathe anymore, he gave up jogging and played competitive ping pong at the YMCA. He coughed into a handkerchief. He lost muscle, then color. He put his portable oxygen tank in the basket of an electric scooter at the grocery store, piled fruit and pastries and cheeses in a pyramid over the cylinder, and charged everything to a credit card that he never intended to pay off. Asleep one night, the oxygen tube fell out of his nose. He turned blue. He lay unconscious next to fields of black cows. Maybe he dreamed of milk and sugar, mind melting like ice cream under a bright star. In 2012, he died.
Most of those stories were new to me. I didn’t know that he lived in Cypress and was stabbed by a fisherman in a dark courtyard and would have died if a stray dog didn’t keep him awake with yipping and licking until morning, when someone finally found him thirsty and soaked with blood. Nothing so exciting had ever happened to me and even though it wasn’t fair to compare one life against another, I felt like the most boring person alive.
My aunt recounted a family beach trip in which my grandfather snuck away every night to pick up women. “To that grimy bar that sold crab legs in buckets,” she said, drunk and misty. “That was the summer Betsy died at Lake Hartwell.”
I looked away.
She said, “I’m tired of talking about Nicholas the Ridiculous.”
My dad nodded.
She made a gun with her hand and pretended to shoot herself. Then, sighing, she asked, “What are you doing these days, Rebecca?”
“Living here,” my dad answered for me, “and assessing her next step. There’s nothing wrong with that. The job market isn’t kind to young people these days. A college degree doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
I slapped a mosquito on my leg, both surprised and embarrassed that the conversation had turned to me. I wasn’t prepared to talk about my joblessness. It was one thing to fill out applications and prepare for interviews and face rejections, and it was another thing to sleep and read and look out the window for hours without seeing out the window.
“And your mother?”
“What about her?”
My aunt reached for the jar and sipped, even though it was empty. “I don’t know. She’s a bitch is all I want to say, not even sending a condolence card.” She smacked my father’s arm and shouted, “God, you were married for ten years. I go to all the family funerals for both of my ex-husbands. They didn’t show up, either, but at least the bastards called.”
She yawned and stumbled inside. Through the window, I watched her drink an entire glass of water then head to the guest bedroom, resting and drooling and probably wetting the linens with tears through the night. In the morning, she would drive back to Richmond and drop off her funeral dress at the cleaners and wipe her hands clean of all this. She wasn’t the executor of the estate and didn’t want to waste time culling through photographs and furniture and silver, and she certainly didn’t want to untangle the complicated web of finances, which included $80,000 worth of debt, a huge inv
estment portfolio, and properties that were tied up in a family trust.
My dad and I swatted bugs in the dark.
“How did Betsy die?” I asked. I knew I’d heard the story before, when I was younger, but the details had gone fuzzy over the years.
“She was learning to waterski and Nick, your grandfather, was driving the boat. I don’t remember it very well but he made a wide turn, and when Betsy fell she hit her head on a tree underwater.” He snapped. “Knocked out. Just like that.”
A few houses down, neighbors lit fireworks leftover from the Fourth of July and they exploded in groups of three. I counted aloud and said, “It’s like a waltz.”
My dad had withdrawn into his own mind. “There’s a lot to do,” he said. “I’m going to need your help.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
I smiled a little and began to collect glasses and plates from the patio and bring them inside. Being home meant that I was available to help, but it also meant that I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I changed into my pajamas and got in bed, switching off the lamp and listening to my aunt snore in the next room.
Vicky cried when my dad gave her the eviction notice. She lived in the garage apartment beside my grandfather’s house and hadn’t paid rent for five months. She didn’t have a job or a car. It was hard to get your life together, she said, when you’re on parole. We stood at the bottom of weathered wooden steps that rose to meet the apartment door. Stone figurines of frogs and snails scattered the ground. Rain gauges held murky water. My grandfather’s old BMW sat in the garage with a mound of dog towels in the passenger seat from a springer spaniel that had died years earlier. Washington Taylor was his name.
Vicky’s long trembling fingers reached for my dad’s shirtsleeve.
He stepped away.
She wore high-rise blue jeans and a ribbed tank top. She let out a silent sob, shoulders heaving, and saliva strung between her dry wrinkled lips. There was a wide empty space where her two front teeth should’ve been. She handed me her glasses, tiny oval-shaped frames that a librarian might wear, and wiped her dark eyes.
She said, “My specs,” and I returned the glasses.
“I don’t wanna stay here anymore,” she said, arms crossed over her small chest. “Don’t get me wrong, but I feel bad about everything that went down. Nicholas did a lot for me. He forgave me when nobody else did and I can’t repay what I owe. I don’t have enough time left for that,” she said. “I’m only fifty-seven but it was the partying that made me look so dang old.” She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, then dug a soft pack of Camels from her pocket and lit one. “Feel bad that I couldn’t get to the funeral. I would’ve asked a neighbor for a ride except they’re not the kind of people I wanna mix with, not anymore. I’m on the straight and narrow.”
My dad asked, “Do you have anywhere to go?”
I figured anywhere would be better than that garage apartment. The surrounding woods were humid in the summer and desolate in the winter. Trees were full of silky white caterpillar nests in spring and autumn brought sheets of falling acorns and chestnuts. Owls hooted all year long. Wild turkeys and woodpeckers galore. The property sat on a floodplain and rainstorms flushed the little creek with stinking orange water that left behind dead fish and plastic bottles and mounds of displaced clay. There was a quarter-mile driveway that hit a country road full of reckless drivers. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would live there, except it was cheap and out of the way. It wasn’t quiet, though, not between frogs in the woods and engines revving on the road.
Vicky said she had a parole hearing in a week and if all went well, she’d be free and clear, and could move in with her sister in Helen, Georgia. “It looks like a German town with the buildings and everything,” she said. “Kind of like gingerbread houses.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“It’d be like living in Europe,” she said. “That’s a big step up from prison.”
My dad said, “I expect everything will work out then, if it’s true that you’re staying out of trouble.”
She said, “Oh yessir, I been a good girl.” Smoke drifted through the gap in her teeth when she smiled. “It’s better this way, leaving soon. People around here are nothing but trouble. There’s one guy, he’s driving a stolen car from Utah that belonged to somebody who died in an avalanche.”
Vicky dropped the cigarette and ground it with the heel of her hiking boot. She said, “Anyway, I guess it’s time for me to start packing.”
My dad and I spent the rest of the day clearing out closets from the main house. I piled seersucker and corduroy and tweed suits in garbage bags for Goodwill, along with tasseled loafers and penny loafers and cracked leather loafers and bedtime loafers lined with sheepskin. There were suitcases and hat boxes and toiletry bags. One shoebox contained a handful of disintegrated condoms. I found a jar of dark green lubricant that said “Grande Hombre” on the label and the directions claimed product users could make love up to five times per night. The place smelled like moth balls and mildew and chimney smoke.
“This is crazy,” I yelled to my dad, who worked in the next room. My hands were gray with dust and grime. Wiping them on my jeans, I said, “You better not leave me with a mess like this.”
He said, “Don’t worry, I won’t.”
My dad and I developed a routine. We drove to my grandfather’s house every morning, bringing a thermos of black coffee, and worked until our stomachs growled and we saw stars. Then we’d head down the road to an old hardware store that sold chili dogs for a dollar fifty each, near-frozen cans of Coke for seventy-five cents, and barrel pickles for fifty cents. That place creeped me out a little because the chili dog line was full of tradesmen with greasy hands, crooked mouths, and empty eyes. I worried about those eyes, if working long and hard shifts made them empty, or if they were empty because the heart was dumped roadside like a sack of unwanted kittens. We found a pack of face masks in there, which made me feel better about being around asbestos and rat shit.
After lunch, Vicky would come to the main house and work with us for a while. She scrubbed the kitchen, cleaned out the laundry room, and boxed mismatched pieces of china. She rode to the dump a few times, perched on a garbage bag in the back of the truck, while my dad and I sat comfortably in the cab. She waved at passing cars and babies in kiddie pools and lapdogs barking through trailer windows. Once, Vicky sat in a chair with a busted woven back, bouncing along as we drove to the dump, and when we backed up to the trash pit, which smelled like superheated metal, skunk spray, and blood, I saw that she’d taken an old crushed top hat out of a trash bag and put it on her little dome. She wiped her glasses, saying, “Gotta clean off this bug gunk,” and in my mind she became Queen of the Junkyard.
Our budding camaraderie disappeared when she found me reading letters that she’d written my grandfather from prison. My dad was cleaning out bathrooms, collecting dozens of empty Barbasol cans and aphrodisiac creams and soap slivers hardened into daggers, while I organized office papers into IMPORTANT and DISCARD. It was slow going until I found a stack of letters from the Goodman Correctional Institute. At first, I was drawn to Vicky’s tiny penciled handwriting and wondered if my grandfather could even read the letter without a magnifying glass. I propped my feet on the desk, relishing in this new discovery, and squinted my way through the letters one by one. She begged for his forgiveness and hoped she could move back into the garage apartment after her releas
e. She talked about her six-month drug addiction program and that she would never disappoint him again. She expressed gratitude for his patience and understanding.
I couldn’t believe that my grandfather, wrinkled and white-haired and faux-affluent, had carried on a friendship with such a woman. They did have a similar look, though. Both were tall, thin, and bespectacled. They looked hungry but strong. I suspected that they depended on each other mentally and maybe physically. Vicky wrote “I love you” more than once and said, “Before lights out, I brush my teeth and kiss my hand goodnight. I pretend it’s you.”
There were footsteps in the hall. I turned, holding the letter, and started to say, “Dad, you won’t believe this.”
But it wasn’t my dad. Vicky held a wad of paper towels in one hand and window cleaner in the other. She threw the bottle into my stomach, snatched the letter from me, and scanned the lines of tiny script. She hollered, “Don’t you know to keep your eyes off private letters?” and grabbed the entire stack. She clutched them to her sunken chest. Then she slapped me clear across the face, my left cheek instantly set afire. My eyes watered. Vicky stomped downstairs and the screen door slapped shut and I heard her waning voice, “Nicholas, Nicholas,” rolling his name over like a black bear rolls a stone.
After I told my dad what happened, he went down to the garage apartment, walked up those battered stairs, and knocked on the door. He called her name.
“I ain’t helping no more,” she shouted. “If I don’t get any respect, I ain’t helping. You won’t see me anymore. I’ll be cleared out of here in a few days after my hearing.”
My dad said, “Do you really think that was an appropriate response?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do.”
“Go away, dickhead.”
He knocked again, saying, “Maybe you two should apologize.”
“I’ve got pepper spray.”
“Fine,” my dad said. “I’ll go.”
We didn’t see Vicky again and a few days later, when we pulled into the driveway with our thermos of black coffee in the muggy morning, we found a note taped to the front door of my grandfather’s house. The same tiny writing.
My parole hearing was good. Now I’m free as a bird. My nephew’s giving me a ride to Georgia tomorrow, so this is goodbye forever. I thank Nicholas in heaven for helping me change my life for the better.
The day after Vicky moved out, my dad sent me to work alone. He hadn’t been in the office for a while and, in his words, needed to make an appearance and put out a few fires. He finished his coffee, placed the mug in the sink, and adjusted his necktie. I hadn’t seen him in office clothes for over a week and was reminded that his titles extended far beyond father, son, and executor. In a freshly dry-cleaned blue suit, with faint smells grapefruit and roasted coffee beans and newspaper ink, he was the boss. While my mother had sequestered herself every Halloween in my childhood, drinking hot tea and flipping through a stack of catalogues, my dad accompanied me on the trick-or-treating route in his slim tuxedo and dress shoes. When someone asked, “Who are you supposed to be?” he would reply, “Bond. James Bond.”
I sat at the kitchen table, bleary-eyed.
He said, “I’d like you to pack up all the books today.” He picked through his wallet and dropped twenty dollars on the table. “You can buy some cardboard boxes from the hardware store, and I’ll leave the keys to the truck.”
He picked up a stack of folders and headed for the door. “One last thing,” he said. “Make sure Vicky locked the apartment. I don’t want anybody else going in there, any of her crazy friends.”
“She cooked meth in there.”
I took the money and the truck, heading outside the city limits, and as the big downtown buildings shrank in the rearview mirror, low blue mountains appeared before me. I rolled down the windows to smell air thick with the scent of flowering weeds and the cut grass of mountain churches and mushrooms peeking out of soft earth. Radio signals disappeared in old wells. The way to my grandfather’s was claustrophobic and winding, with nothing on either side but rotten barns and NO TRESPASSING signs nailed to trees.
I pulled into the hardware store’s gravel parking lot and saw a woman selling peaches from a card table out front. Their sweet fragrance reached me from a few feet away, and I thought about buying a handful of the ripest specimens, but the woman glared at me with raptor eyes. Inside, the cook stirred a pot of chili in preparation for that day’s lunch rush. Two men in white painter’s overalls sat in the corner table, eating pickles. I bought as many cardboard boxes as I could carry and didn’t make eye contact with anybody on my way out.
I started packing books and realized after two hours of stacking and sorting that it was going to be a long job. I decided to skip lunch, since I wanted to finish as soon as possible, and worked my way through every book shelf in the house. My grandfather had hoarded old National Geographic magazines, scholarly journals on economics and urban development, history volumes, travel guides, road atlases, and beginner novels that probably belonged to my dad and his sisters when they were growing up. A ringlet of baby hair fell out of a guide to Cypress, tied with blue ribbon, and I wondered how many illegitimate children my grandfather had abandoned around the globe, the continent, the county. The question wasn’t if there were other children but how many.
The upstairs den required the most attention. Bookshelves stretched floor to ceiling, a treasure trove to antique dealers, but a cause for despair in my case. I heaved the family Bible off its high dusty roosting place, along with its mystic and cracked leather-bound companions. Cobwebs and dead moths covered the filthy dust jackets, while the pages were clean and untouched. I wondered if they were unwanted gifts but didn’t find any inscriptions. As I taped the last boxes shut, I realized that he may have bought them as a decoration. Guests, namely women, might have seen the collection and thought him enlightened. My arms ached from lifting books all day and my eyes stung from dust. I carried a box outside, wishing I hadn’t made it so heavy, and slid it into the truck bed.
I remembered to see if Vicky had locked her front door. I walked up to the garage apartment, the stairs swaying a little under my feet, and reached for the doorknob. It was locked. I tried to peek inside the apartment, to see what remained, but all of the blinks were shut.
A voice said, “Hello.”
My heart jumped and I came down the stairs quickly, as if I’d been caught red-handed.
In the driveway, a heavy-set man stood in faded blue jeans, a sleeveless shirt, and a Braves baseball cap. He carried a drawstring athletic bag that all the basketball players at school had used as flimsy backpacks. He walked over to my grandfather’s old BMW and peered through each window, saying, “I knew the old man who died.”
“He was my grandfather,” I said.
“He was my neighbor.” He lifted his sunglasses, looked into my eyes for an uncomfortable spell, and dropped them. “I fixed his toilet once,” he said. “It wouldn’t quit running.”
I walked over to the truck and pretended to count the number of boxes that I would cram together, hoping I’d appear busy. I watched out of the corner of my eye. He didn’t move. Traffic droned from the road.
He asked, “That your truck?”
“You paid for it?”
“Well, it’s my dad’s.”
He walked alongside the truck, inspecting the shiny black paint, and stopped behind me. His breath was loud, belabored. He said, “Ford’s a good truck.”
I didn’t say anything.
He said, “There’
s a bug in your hair,” and I flinched when he stepped toward me, his soft stomach grazing my arm and his hand lifting to my face. He gently pinched the gnat and pulled it out of my hair. My shoulders dropped, relaxing.
“Copper,” he said. “Your hair.”
Then he dropped the bag over my head, tightening the drawstring around my neck, and put a hand over my mouth. He pulled me into his pudgy stomach, whispering, “Even if you shout, nobody’ll hear you.”
I started to scream.
“Go on,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
I struggled against him, but the inside of the bag steamed warm with my breath and one disoriented step brought me to my knees. I screamed again and he hit the side of my head.
“Get up,” he said, digging his hand in my pockets and fishing out my cell phone and car keys. “We’re walking.”
He urged me forward and I high-stepped in the direction he pushed for, cautious of uneven ground. I wondered if he carried a weapon. I wondered if he was going to hurt me sooner rather than later. I wondered if he was born cruel-hearted or if he became that way over time. The driveway disappeared underfoot, replaced with soft leafy earth. He grunted. I tripped over a rock and whimpered. The land tilted, sloping, and I brought my feet down slowly. I feared never touching the ground again, anticipating a solid surface but never finding one, sinking into endless blackness, weighed down by this heaving gorilla. I was freaking out.
I felt sand, water, rock. The creek had so shriveled in the drought that I couldn’t even hear its murmur. As soon as my shoes dipped into the cool water, they were out again. The man said, “Up,” and we stepped over the bank. We walked for thirty minutes that way and I tried to mentally track our movements so that, in the event of a courageous escape, I might be able to locate my grandfather’s house again. Maybe it wasn’t thirty minutes. Maybe it only felt like thirty minutes. I couldn’t accurately measure time, not with my heart thundering and my open eyes searching for an image to suddenly, magically, appear out of the darkness.
The man said, “Three steps.”
I tried to wrestle away but he was strong.
One hand gripped my arm, while the other briefly uncovered my mouth and a door opened. I inhaled, the fabric of the bag sucking against my lips, and screamed as loud as I could. The sound became a dragon that rose from my stomach and breathed fire all around me. The man kicked the backs of my legs and I fell through the doorway, my hands feeling carpet, dirty carpet, covered in coarse hair, sand, and crumbs. He stepped on my back and I wheezed, “It hurts.”
Nearby, feet clacked against cheap linoleum. I wondered if those little feet belonged to someone who could help me. I said, “Help,” but realized it was probably no use. Those feet weren’t on my side. They were on the man’s side.
The man said, “Go to your room,” and the feet went.
He pushed me forward a few steps and said, “Sit.”
He tied me to a chair with rope. I could smell his armpits. They smelled like pepperoni. When that was finished, he loosened the drawstring around my neck and took the bag off my head. My leg muscles trembled as if I was outside in the cold, but I was sitting in the middle of a living room that connected to a kitchen. There was a corduroy couch, a tall lamp, and two barstools by the kitchen counter. Crayons scattered the floor. One of the cabinet doors was missing and I saw a package of Oreos on the shelf. It looked the man had just moved in or was on his way out. I figured that I was either going to be killed, raped, or tortured. I’d seen crime shows on TV but never in a million years thought I’d be in one of those situations.
The man took my cell phone out of his pocket and tapped the screen. He said, “I’m going to call your daddy, and you’re going to ask for ten thousand dollars to be placed in the old man’s mailbox.”
It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind that I might be held hostage for money. That only happened to kids with rich and famous parents like Charles Lindbergh. My dad built his construction from nothing and made a good living, which he worked for and deserved, but we didn’t go on deep-sea fishing vacations in the Caribbean like our next-door neighbors. We washed our dishes in the sink, for God’s sake, with a sponge and soap. We dried our cups, plates, pots, and pans with checkered towels and returned them to their appropriate cabinets without the help of a maid.
“When I fixed the old man’s toilet, he talked about your daddy being a successful businessman. I saw that new truck and those earrings you got on. I been watching you two.”
He held the phone to my ear.
My dad answered, “Hey, did you just finish?”
The rope burned my twisting wrists.
I saw my reflection in the man’s sunglasses. A red line circled my neck from the tight drawstring. My hair was frizzy and a tear slide down my cheek, although I didn’t know that I was crying.
I relayed the message to my dad, and my voice shook and I sucked air in like a child on the verge of a meltdown. He said, “What?” and I felt the dragon walking circles in my stomach and breathing smoke and curling up in a tight heavy ball. He started asking questions and I couldn’t answer any of them, because I finally understood the reality of the situation, that I was tied up in a strange place because my grandfather had bragged about his son’s success and there was a chance that I might never leave that place, so I cried into the phone and, in a way, that answered almost every question my dad could’ve asked.
“The bank’s already closed,” he said. “The bank’s already closed.”
The man took the phone and said, “Tomorrow morning then. First thing.”
The prickly jowls were illuminated by the screen’s light.
“Let’s keep this between us,” he said. “No cops.”
“Who are you?”
“The girl’s dead if you call the cops.”
“Don’t hurt her.”
“I’ll hurt her if you call the cops.”
“I won’t. I won’t.”
“Can I talk to her again?”
“After you drop off the money tomorrow.”
“Put it in the mailbox, then leave.”
“Then await her call.”
“Don’t hurt her.”
“What happens to her is up to you.”
Then he smashed my phone with a hammer.
That night, I didn’t want to sleep. I believed that if I closed my eyes, the man might do something horrible to me and I wouldn’t wake up in the same world I’d fallen asleep in. My wrists and ankles burned when I squirmed under the rope. My arms and back ached from lifting books. My eyelids stung and my stomach growled. When the sky turned dark blue and the cicadas chimed in operatic waves all throughout the woods, the man turned on the tall lamp, which colored the walls sickly yellow, and he cooked a box of instant macaroni and cheese on the stovetop. The metal coil stank when he turned the heat on. He spooned the food into two red Solo cups and carried them into another room, to those little feet, I figured.
The man returned with empty cups. He threw them in the sink and sat on the couch. He still wore the Braves baseball cap and sunglasses in an attempt to hide his identity. I kicked a pink Crayon by my foot. My grandfather had once been a little boy. That was hard to believe now. A little boy in a sailor shirt, rosy-cheeked, having his picture made in 1932. Then a stream of women, sex, skin. Eastern sunsets. Springer spaniels sleeping on the kitchen floor, looking up with sagging red-rimmed eyes, trotting through the humid woods with lolling tongues. Peppermint ice cream. I was called “The Little Waitress” at family Christmas gatherings, when my grandfather laid a dishtowel
over my forearm and gave me a notepad to write dessert orders on. My dad always made a pecan pie but the real decision concerned ice cream, a variety of flavors crammed into his freezer. Strawberry, cappuccino, vanilla bean, mint chocolate chip, rum raisin. My grandfather and I always chose peppermint, which melted easier than the others and dripped pink across the floor. I never really loved him, but I admired him for not dying in that courtyard in Cypress. I admired him for surviving as long as he did, but I hated him for leaving me in this position.
Someone tapped on the door.
It was Vicky.
“Hey,” she said. “It’s hot as hell out here.”
The man heaved off the couch and met Vicky at the door. In a hushed voice, he said, “What do you want?”
“Don’t play me like that,” she said. “I want my mini grill.”
“It’s by the steps.”
Vicky crossed her arms and said, “Well, well, well.”
I said, “Vicky.”
“I see you met the Jackal.”
“My nephew’s in the car,” she said, ignoring me. “I’m about to take off and just wanna say bye.”
He said, “I don’t know why you want that thing. Propane’s better.”
The man shrugged and shut the door.
I shouted Vicky’s name.
He said, “You ought to learn some manners,” and then returned to his sunken place on the couch. Head leaned back, mouth slightly open, and I couldn’t tell if he was awake or asleep behind those sunglasses. I tried to scratch through the rope’s hairy fibers with my fingernails but I only felt myself growing weaker. After a while, exhausted, I fell asleep. I don’t know how much time went by, a few hours, but when I woke up a little boy stood in front of me. Maybe seven years old. The man’s head was slumped over and the glasses had fallen into his lap. The boy pressed a finger to his lips, signaling to be quiet, and held up a stack of Oreos. He popped one into his mouth, smiling, and held one up for me. He placed the cookie on my tongue and I wondered if the boy wasn’t an angel sent to help me. The boy fed me the rest of the Oreos and then darted back into his room, so light-footed that he didn’t make a sound.
In the morning, I woke up to the little boy slipping outside and the man saying, “Just hide in the bushes, don’t let him see you.” I didn’t know what time it was, although the light outside was still bluish and I thought it might be a while before the bank opened. I figured it might take a while for such a large cash withdrawal to be arranged and then my dad would have to drive all the way out to my grandfather’s house for the drop-off.
I asked, “Can I have some water?”
The man picked up one of the dirty Solo cups from the night before, filled it with sink water, and held the cup inches from my mouth. I pursed my lips to reach the plastic rim and he moved the cup a few more inches away. I leaned forward in the chair, straining the ropes around my chest and stomach, just so I could drink from the fool’s cup. When I couldn’t get any closer, the man said, “Not trying hard enough,” and poured the water on the floor.
I hated him. I got up my courage and asked, “So why did Vicky call you the Jackal?”
He threw the Solo cup and it bounced off the wall.
He said, “I bit someone once.”
“Like a dog?”
“Yeah,” he said, mocking me. “Like a dog.”
I swallowed my own spit and watched shadows change shapes across the floor. There was plenty of time for me to think. I was actually surprised that my dad hadn’t called the police the night before. I had half-expected to look through the windows and see flashlight beams in the woods. But as much as I wanted to see the Jackal go down, I was glad the police didn’t come. I didn’t think he was bluffing when he threatened to kill me and my dad, thank goodness, wasn’t willing to call his bluff.
Eventually, I heard a noise outside, getting louder and closer, and the little boy opened the door and leapt in the trailer with a gym bag in his arms. The blue gym bag that my dad carried to the YMCA when he played racquetball with his friend the drywaller. I cried from happiness, not from pain, discomfort, or thirst. The man took the gym bag, unzipped it, and removed a single bundle of cash. He flipped through the wad of hundred-dollar bills and looked somewhat disappointed by the bounty, as if he had expected ten thousand dollars to look like a hell of a lot more.
The little boy skipped over to me and said, “Good morning.”
I wanted to hug him.
He said, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “I’m going home today.”
I wanted to enroll him in a good school, buy him light-up sneakers, let a monkey sit on his shoulder, strap him in a go-cart, and in the darkest moment of his young life, when his hands were tied and the future appeared uncertain, offer him a bowl of ice cream. I wanted to take him to haunted houses, amusement parks, lighthouses, white beaches, and old battleship museums. I wanted to take him with me, cross-country, and see the great landscapes of America.
Then my world went dark again. The Jackal cinched the drawstring around my neck and told the boy to get his bag. Maybe he grabbed a backpack from his bedroom. I thought I heard the metal clinking of zippers and keychains. He collected the crayons around my feet. The Jackal untied me from the chair, rope falling in a heavy pile around me. As we walked through the woods, I felt a small hand in my hand, and also a bigger rougher hand guiding me by the shoulder. Tree branches brushed my arms and legs. My ankles rolled in soft spots. I didn’t take my time searching for the ground. I moved quickly, tripping over saplings and rocks, and didn’t care. I stumbled down the creek bank and kicked through the water, as did the little boy, who jumped and squealed, and pretty soon the soft ground turned into a familiar driveway.
I felt giddy. My temples pounded. I couldn’t see anything but I reached out my arms and touched the black pickup truck. The man opened the back door and said, “Get in, both of you.” The little boy crawled in the back seat first with his bag, knocking over a pile of CDs and fidgeting with the seat belt. I got in next, relishing the smell of new leather that my dad loved so much, and when I instinctively started to buckle up, the man said, “Don’t bother.”
We drove for a while, the man going through the pre-set radio stations and grumbling at all of them, and I prayed that nothing would go wrong so close to the end. We turned onto a different road and accelerated. Cars whooshed all around. The little boy sounded out passing signs. “Muff-ler.” “Dis-count.” “Mu-sic.” “Su-shi.” “Re-pair.”
We slowed and swerved. Then came to a stop. The man turned around in his seat and, for the second time, took the bag off my head. He picked a pile of change from the cup holder in the front seat, handed it to me, and said, “Pay phone.” I rubbed the cool coins with my thumb. My dad was waiting for me to call. I was ready.
The man unlocked my door and I stepped into a gas station parking lot on Wade Hampton Boulevard, beside six lanes of speeding, blaring, rumbling traffic and an endless stream of strip malls, convenience stores, furniture outlets, franchise restaurants, and retail giants. The boy said, “Gas-o-line.” Heat waves rose off the asphalt. Two liters of soda were buy-one-get-one-free. Cases of Budweiser were on sale for fifteen dollars. An ATM glowed beside a freezer filled with ten-pound bags of ice. The little boy looked out the window, twisted in his seat belt, and pressed his nose to the glass. He and the Jackal had the same wide, flat nose. The boy didn’t yet understand the ordeals people went through because of fathers. Generations of them
lined up like beads on a necklace, the position of each bead determined by the position of every other bead. The automatic locks clicked. The black truck peeled out of the parking lot and shot down the boulevard.
I remembered my grandfather taking me to lunch at McDonalds when I was little, probably the same age as that boy. For some reason or another, I ended up pitching a fit in the parking lot and my grandfather just got in his car and drove away. I thought he’d really left me, so I sat on the curb and cried. Being alone in a parking lot was almost the worst kind of loneliness I’d ever felt. He must have circled the block once, though, just enough time to scare me, because he came back a few minutes later. He hugged me and said, “That was me teaching you a lesson.”
I said, “What lesson?”
I was crying into his shirt.
He said, “Be good,” and patted my back.
I loved him and I hated him all at once. That never changed, not when he was alive and not when he was dead.
Wynne Hungerford‘s work has appeared in Epoch, The Normal School, The Boiler, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She recently graduated from MFA@FLA, the writing program at the University of Florida.