Antiquing

by Kevin P. Keating

-1-

They were lost, well, maybe not quite lost, how could they be, there were only so many roads out here, impossibly long ribbons of two-lane highway that cut across fallow fields, bisecting one another at ninety degree angles every three or four square miles, a thousand nameless lines plotted with monstrous logic on a grid in the middle of this gray, treeless, March desolation. Few things attracted their attention--power lines, the rusted hulk of a burned out car, here and there an old grain silo, a crumbling barn, a dozen rotting fence posts marking either the beginning or the end of a wilderness, it was difficult to tell which. On occasion the simple white gravestones of a forlorn cemetery dotted a distant hillside, the last inhabitants of an abandoned town returned at last to the anonymity of scattered dust. Some of the stones had been toppled over by drunk and listless teenagers, the inscriptions erased by a century of wind and rain.

“I bet the coffins slide down that hill,” Ed said. His coffee had gone stale and cold miles back, but he drank it anyway because it gave him something to do. “Erosion, you know. The soil gets thin, the earth crumbles away. Imagine this place after a heavy rain. Bet those coffins come bounding down the hillside like sleds. Probably a pile of bones right there in the gulch. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Karen said nothing. She rarely listened to anything he had to say these days except of course when their finances became the topic of conversation. A thousand times he wanted to reassure her that they had nothing to worry about, that they could always make the minimum payments, everything was under control, but as the sedan screeched around sudden bends and struggled over abrupt hills, Ed recalled with the mounting panic that had begun to define his life that the car payment was now two months overdue. But this fact hadn’t deterred them from embarking on this little adventure. How much money had they spent? No, he wouldn’t think about just yet. They were having too much fun.

“Maybe,” he said, “I’d be better off buried up there.” Self-pity came naturally to him. Over the years he’d mastered its gratifying tone of despair; it gave him such pleasure that at times he felt almost like a hedonist, shamelessly wallowing in his own anguish and misery. “I’d be the first new resident in a hundred years, maybe more. Gotta be cheap for a plot. Save on funeral costs.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “We couldn’t get credit for a pine box.”

Her voice had an omniscient quality, it never went away, not entirely. During the long afternoons when Ed dozed in his cubicle at work and late at night when he fell fast asleep and dreamed of forbidden delights the voice came to him, shrill and acrimonious, and even now, as he drove through this barren landscape, he heard the voice, a coiling phantasm that rattled and hissed in the claustrophobic confines of the car and harmonized eerily with the real voice, the one that berated him and told him what a lazy and incompetent and idiotic and…

Over the years he’d gotten used to it; it lulled him into passivity, soothed him, calmed him, made him think of warm water, blue skies, white sand; it was so hypnotic in fact that he didn’t hear Karen suddenly shriek beside him, didn’t see her turn her face from the windshield and cover her eyes. By then of course it was much too late to hit the breaks. He felt a sudden thud against the bumper. No amount of hypnosis could disguise the snap and crunch of bones, the wet splatter of disembowelment, a shock of scarlet against the endless gray expanse, a great shaggy carcass tumbling end over end along the gravel road.

Karen regained her composure almost immediately. “Just keep going,” she instructed him.

Ed scratched his scruff of beard. “We can’t do that.” He hadn’t shaved since they left home. How long had it been now? The days were as dreary and formless as the sky. He tried to imagine this place in the summer, lush and green with stalk of corn and Queen Anne’s lace on the side of the road, but he simply couldn’t do it. He suffered from a lack of imagination, that’s what Karen said at any rate, told him while he made love to her at the bed and breakfast not far from here.

“Why are you slowing down?” she asked.

“I’m sure we have some kind of, you know, legal obligation…”

“Christ, Ed, we can’t afford a lawyer. Keep driving.”

He stopped the car but wasn’t so foolish as to cut the engine. “There’s no need to worry,” he told her. “When the time comes I’ll be able to explain everything.”

She pointed to the thing in the road. “How do you intend to explain that, Ed?”

“You don’t give me enough credit.”

Karen breathed deeply. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Ed dear, but I think you’re losing it. I really do. I think you’re fucking delusional.” She reached into her purse for her pills, huge pink tablets that he suspected were some kind of placebo. She took handfuls of them but they seemed to have no effect on her. “Besides, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was already dead when you hit it.”

Ed shifted in his seat. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes, dead in the middle of the road. Flies buzzing all around it.”

“But…”

“Don’t make me repeat myself, Ed. You weren’t paying attention. Obviously. Now that settles it. Please drive away. I’m getting nauseous.”

For a moment, maybe because he couldn’t quite accept the reality of it, he let out a sigh of relief, kissed his wife’s hand out of gratitude, smelled her lotion, it was like a magical balm capable of absolving his innumerable transgressions, and he put the car in drive, but before pulling away he couldn’t help but look back one last time, studied the thing lying there at the edge of a muddy ditch, carrion for the great birds of prey that hovered always in the sky, huge creatures prehistoric in their visage that swooped low over the fields and perched on rusty wires to peck madly at the vermin burrowing in their black wings, and though he couldn’t be certain, he thought he saw the thing shudder and writhe with unimaginable suffering, doomed to take its last agonizing breaths beside a pasture reeking of cow shit.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Karen snapped.

He brooded, gazed dreamily into the distance, and after driving a mile or two he once again imagined hundreds of exhumed townspeople, thousands of them, riding coffins rank and fetid with untilled soil down the steep hillside into the carnal house of oblivion.

-2-

They went through a town hemmed in by abandoned warehouses, a Hadrian’s Wall of crumbling red brick that skirted a meandering canal of sludge and stagnant water. Weeds sprouted from the cracked pavement, the curbs littered with cigarettes butts, car tires, crumpled beer cans. Up high in the skeletal branches of ancient oaks and sycamores blue plastic bags flapped in the wind with the timbre and resonance of half-hearted applause or like sardonic laughter from deep inside a well. Near the center of town a horde of dirty children swarmed around a simple clapboard house and stared blankly from the lopsided porch. Karen and Ed trolled the narrow streets, searching for a fast food restaurant, a coffee shop, a bakery, but found only the usual bars and boarded up storefronts where men in denim coveralls smoked and checked their lottery tickets.

At the edge of town a diner. They decided to go in. Ed lowered his head to avoid the scorn of the other customers who chewed their buttermilk biscuits sopping with gravy and stared at them with obvious loathing as if to say, There is something not right about you people, you are depraved and ruinous, now leave us be.

Karen ordered the fish, picked with surgical precision at its bones with the tong of her fork, and somehow knew without asking that the thing had been scooped up out of the noxious waters of the canal with a net kept beside the diner’s back door. She tossed her fork down and it landed on the plate with a loud clatter.

Ed leaned forward. “Honey,” he whispered.

“Goddamn tourist trap.” She snapped her fingers three times. “Waitress, would you come here for just a moment, please?”

Ed didn’t want to look up from his plate of mashed potatoes because he knew that by doing so he would be implicated in this crime, an accessory to his wife’s condemnation, but the waitress was young and pretty, no more than nineteen- or twenty-years old, and he needed to inspect, to study, to fantasize about her slim physique, her disproportionately ample bust, the caked muck around her eyes, he had no choice in the matter, the human soul yearns for variety, he had to supply his dwindling libido with some kind of fuel however meager. It had been days since he’d seen an attractive woman, only morbidly obese ladies who sighed and grunted every time they trundled their hefty rolls along the cramped aisles of antique shops or tried to wedge themselves into narrow booths at ice cream parlors and whose necks jiggled whenever they belted out that raucous laughter of theirs.

“I can’t eat this fish,” Karen informed the waitress.

The waitress’s eyes glazed over with obvious boredom. “That’s your prerogative, ma’am.”

“Prerogative? My, my, someone’s been taking night classes at the community college.”

Karen was much too proud of her education, she’d earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago in American Studies, and whenever she could she worked it into a conversation, “Chicago, oh, yes, I lived there for a time, Hyde Park. Hmmmm? Yes, I did attend the University of Chicago,” still bragged about a seminar she had with Saul Bellow who, she claimed, made a pass at her at the end of the semester. Ed didn’t believe this story, not for a minute, but one night when Karen got tipsy on scotch at a dinner party and confessed to having given in to the great author’s advances (“The dirty old sonofabitch stank like garlic but he fucked like a champ”), Ed stormed over to the shelves, found her copy of The Adventures of Augie March signed in bold black letters by the author himself, and tossed it onto the fireplace. The pages crackled with a sort of lilting musical quality. Karen screamed, called him a book-burning, goose-stepping Nazi, but Ed quietly insisted, even while their guests looked at their watches and started to make excuses, that no one should possess that kind of talent, it wasn’t natural, it was in fact freakish and thus doomed to extinction, but it satisfied him that the ashes of the book looked no different than the ashes of the newspaper he used earlier that evening to kindle the fire.

The waitress pointed. “No refunds, ma’am. Says so right there on the door. Sorry.”

Karen smiled. “Oh, I’m sure you are, sweetie. Well, could you please box up our food so that when we leave this filthy little establishment I can toss the box into the trashcan so your customers can see just what I thought of your ‘home cookin.’”

“Sure. You want that in a Styrofoam box, ma’am?”

“Oh, Styrofoam would be lovely. It releases toxins, you know.”

As the waitress strode off to the kitchen Ed noticed that her blouse, which was made of a thin material that made it a little to easy to guess the color of her bras and a little too short so that it crept up her back. Whenever she stopped to lean over a table and pour a fresh cup of coffee he saw a butterfly, small and pink and lovely, tattooed only a few breathless centimeters from the glorious crack of her ass. Karen, who had a sixth sense about these things, caught him staring.

“What?” he asked even though it was useless to play stupid.

“Let’s go, Ed.” She stood up.

“But the waitress hasn’t brought us our check.”

“She’s lucky I don’t talk to her manager. Now, come on.”

Karen marched toward the door, and Ed considered tossing a few singles on the table, but such a foolhardy action might prove fatal, so he scurried obediently to the door and once again tried to avoid the scornful glares of the other customers who seemed relieved that the weird couple surrounded by the swirling haze of madness were at last leaving.

-3-

They continued driving, still lost, and Karen, who’d given up long ago on the whole adventure, thought they should keep going until they ran out of gas and had to walk to the next revolting bed and breakfast run by ex-hippies, but Ed no longer heard her because the voice was back, that omniscient and needling voice, a perpetual drone between his ears, the volume rising and falling, fading in and out at unexpected moments, though it seemed almost to vanish whenever he closed his eyes and saw the waitress, skinny little country girl, bored out of her mind, nothing to do on a Saturday night but get drunk and fuck her good-for-nothing boyfriend, the bruises on her arms told him that much, rough fingers pressed into her soft flesh, just the way she liked it, cruel and unpleasant, lots of dirty talk, vivid instruction, sheets sullied with sweat and stinking of cigarettes.

He opened his eyes and saw another dilapidated barn with a faded American flag painted across the rotting planks of wood.

“I gotta piss,” Ed announced.

He pulled over and marched across the field to the barn and stood behind the great decomposing door where he took his penis in his hand and masturbated ferociously. He moaned with pleasure and self-loathing. Something told him that the waitress probably had ugly tits. Large, with areolas like slices of baloney, asymmetrical and pink as the belly of a prize-winning pig. Such details aroused him. The idea of razor burn on the inside of her thighs and around her snatch turned him on. He imagined her at the restaurant bent over their table, the butterfly rocking back and forth as he thrust his hips against her with wild abandon, his wife watching impassively, saying between sips of coffee, “So what. I fucked Saul Bellow.”

He clutched himself more tightly, varied the rhythm, unwilling to give up on the project, some kind of catharsis was needed, but after a moment the voice turned into the drone of an old engine, the clank and clatter of a rusty machine barreling down the road, and this made it impossible for him to climax. Through the cracks in the barn Ed glimpsed a red pickup truck, and with a grunt of resignation he stuffed his disobedient prick back in his pants and watched the truck veer around their mud-splattered silver sedan and pull over to the shoulder.

The man who emerged from the cab didn’t look particularly menacing, he was old, a bit stooped, trembling slightly with what might have been the onset of Parkinson’s, and in the mist small droplets of water formed on his forehead and trickled down the bridge of his nose. A gentleman farmer on his way home from church, a familiar hymn on his lips, a Bible opened beside him on the seat, the pages turned to Leviticus. The Jesus fish on his back bumper gave him away. So did his sober blue suit. But something told Ed not move, not to stir. Maybe because the man cradled a shotgun in his arms. This Ed took as a bad sign.

He felt his throat constricting and looked around in a panic. It wouldn’t be easy to hide in here, but if the man was hell bent on senseless slaughter, Ed could always scramble into the rafters and remain absolutely still until he’d finished his business with Karen and disappeared again into the gloom. But Ed knew the longer he lingered in the barn the longer he would have to endure Karen’s taunts and insults (“You were hoping he would kill me, weren’t you, that would make you so happy”) so with a heavy sigh he emerged from the barn and, waving one hand high above his head, called, “Howdy!” but the moment the word left his lips he cringed. Nobody used that word around here, wrong part of the country, probably wrong decade as well. He struggled up the muddy embankment, choking on the blue fumes spewing from the truck’s rusted tailpipe.

At first the man said nothing, only nodded, looked into the sky as if wondering when the real rain would come or when the hand of god would stamp them all out like scuttling black bugs, and when he spoke his voice was high-pitched and plaintive. “I believe you’re the folks that ran over my dog.”

Ed scratched his jaw, stuffed his hands deep in his pockets.

The old man pointed to the bed of the truck. “You wanna take a look, see if you know him?”

Ed stepped forward. “Godalmighty,” he gasped.

The thing was still alive though it seemed impossible.

Karen rolled down her window. “Excuse me! We’re in a hurry here!”

The farmer leaned over the tailgate and stroked the things head. “Ain’t right, you know, to let an animal suffer like that. Maybe you folks never had a family pet.”

“I’m allergic to cats and dogs,” Karen called. “Tell him, Ed.”

“It’s true. Never even owned a goldfish. We used to have a bird feeder but they kept shitting on our cars so we poisoned them. Poisoned the rabbits, too. They kept eating our hostas. We don’t have children. My wife is barren, you see.”

Karen laughed. “Funny, Ed. Your boys don’t swim!”

The old man looked baffled. “Well, I don’t know anything about none of that.” For a moment Ed thought he might get back in his truck and drive off. “What I come here to say is that since it was you who run down my dog I figured you should put him out of his misery. It’d be the decent thing to do.”

“Sir, my husband didn’t hit your dog. Ed, admit nothing. Isn’t there a vet around here? A quick shot in the hind leg and it’s all over. Rover will be playing fetch with Saint Peter.”

Ed gestured to the gun. “I’ve never handled one of those things before. But if you show me, I’ll be the one to pull the trigger.”

“Ain’t nothin to it. Just point and squeeze. It’s already loaded. Buckshot.”

The gun felt heavier than he expected, smelled vaguely of powder and oil, the black barrel glimmering faintly in the light muted and dulled by the heavy clouds inflexible and motionless as sheets of steel. Inside the bed of the truck the thing lifted a paw toward him, its reeking innards bubbling and foaming. He couldn’t tell the breed, but guessed it was some kind of sheep dog, black and immense. He stepped forward, paused a moment, waiting maybe for some message imparted on the wind, but this was a futile thing to do, the silence was stunningly banal, though he did hear a small whimper, whether from the man, the dog or his wife he did not know, his eyes were shut tight at that point, and when he finally squeezed the trigger he counted the echoes from the blast--three, four, five--each one ricocheting off the ugly little hillocks of clay on the far horizon, a sound that was gradually swallowed up by the land and its dumb immensity.

The old man was quietly weeping, his head bowed. He muttered something in Latin.

Ed handed the gun back. “I don’t believe in god, haven’t been in a church since we got married, but I said a prayer for your dog anyway.”

The man plodded over to the cab of the truck, tossed the gun through the window, and leaned heavily against the door, his hands spread out across the rusting surface, fingers picking absently at the flakes of red paint. Then with a small grunt of discomfort he climbed inside where he sat for a time behind the wheel, staring out at the road. He wiped the droplets of water from his forehead, the tears from his cheeks, and with a smile as intractable and harsh as the desolation all around turned slowly to Ed and said to him, “Don’t believe in god. Then, my friend, you will burn, you will burn.”

Had it been a dry day, the kind of day in July when the sun scorches the fields and blisters the backs and arms of the indigent men who came each summer to pick the crops, Ed would have felt the sharp sting of gravel against his face as the man sped away, but it was March and the road was pliant and the tires of the truck didn’t spin with the ferocity the old man would have liked and so Ed felt only the soft splatter of mud against the cuffs of his pants, and he watched the truck rise and fall on the ribbons of road like a boat carried high and low by the swells of a sea, and he kept watching for what must have been miles and miles because there were no other roads out there in that mindless waste, nowhere to turn off, and even though his wife urged him to get back in the car because they were in a hurry, the antique shops closed early around here, he stood very still and breathed very quietly and waited to see if the old man might pull over to bury his dog high atop one of the distant hills.

_______________

Kevin P. Keating's essays and fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Identity Theory, Exquisite Corpse, Rough Road Review, Crush Magazine, Fiction Warehouse, Tattoo Highway, The Plum Ruby Review, Numb Magazine, and many others.

He has, for as long as he can remember, been obsessed with the films of Stanley Kubrick, particularly "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Barry Lyndon", both of which explore the nightmare scenarios of money and sexual (in)fidelity. Mr. Keating published an essay about Kubrick entitled "Eyes Wide Shut: Kubrick's Epic of Copulation" which appeared in the literary journal 63 Channels.

He teaches English at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Ohio.

Antiquing
© 2006 by Kevin P. Keating

 

 
     
     

 

 



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