Into the Weeds

Fiction by Curt Alderson

So I stop by the apartment during my lunch hour the other day, and there’s this little yellow slip in the mailbox telling me Sonny’s at the downtown branch and I’ve got to go sign for him.  I got, like, thirty minutes before I’m supposed to clock back in, so I drop the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and hot-foot it to the post office. 

Sonny’s there, waiting, all bubble wrapped and stamped.  I hand my little yellow slip across the counter to the clerk.  She slides another one back at me.  I sign the thing, scoop up the package, then race back across town.  By the time I make it to the office, I’m ten minutes late. But nobody seems to notice.

I take the package in with me and prop it against the wall of my cubicle as I check the messages on my voice mail.  I lean back in my chair and stare at the row of stamps in the upper right-hand corner.  There’s no name on the thing (other than my own), but the return address is from Richmond so I figure it’s from Megan.  We talked the other day.  She called to tell me all about it.  This was two days after the service.

She was wrung out-you could hear it in her voice-and I really felt bad for her.  But I was put off too, at first.  Genuinely pissed.  I mean, my best friend dies and gets planted; he’s six-feet-deep and cold before I so much as hear about it.  Megan says she didn’t even think to call me until it was too late.  Somebody said something at the service-asked about me-and that was the first time I crossed her mind. 

So we’re talking on the phone and she ends up falling to pieces before she can even finish whatever it is she wants to tell me.

“Look,” I say, “forget it.  It’s okay.  I understand.”  Jesus.  Her old man dies, and she’s apologizing to me?

I finish the day out.  I do my time until four, then split.  I tuck Sonny up under my arm and head for the parking garage.  Traffic is hell outside, so I decide to let things simmer down before I make my way back home.  I stop off at Leon’s for a cold one.  Out in the parking lot, I lock my doors, leave Sonny on the passenger seat.

They got the overhead fans turning inside, but it’s hotter than forty hells.  Geraldine’s tending bar.  She says the AC’s on the blink, but Happy Hour’s been extended until eight.  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she says to me with a wink.

“Seems I heard that,”  I say back.

           

I get home close to nine.  I can smell whatever my neighbors had for supper as I move down the hallway.  It’s a weird combination:  meatloaf,  spaghetti, tuna, grilled onions.  The stale air hangs hot and heavy all around me.  It’s like breathing someone else’s body heat.  A couple of folks have their TV’s going full tilt.  I hear them through the doors.  Sit-coms.  Hollow laughter. 

There’s a cool rush of air when I open my door.  It’s dark inside.  I cut on the lamp next to the easy chair and make my way into the kitchen.  There’s some cold fried chicken in the fridge, leftovers from a couple of nights ago.  I pull the plate out, snap a beer off the six pack I picked up on the way in, and settle into my chair.

I get the TV going and dig in.  I left it on some God-awful station the night before-the Learning Channel or something-but by the time I figure this out, I’m up to my elbows in chicken grease.  The remote’s sitting next to me, but I figure what’s the use?  I just sit there, stripping meat off a breast bone, watching this geek go on and on about plankton levels in the North Sea. 

After the chicken, I think of Sonny.  He’s still out in the car, waiting like he has been since work.  I drop my dish in the sink with the others and go out to the parking lot to fetch him.

Megan’s a very meticulous girl.  That’s not something she picked up from her old man; I can assure you of that.  She’s triple wrapped everything in plastic and used up almost half a roll of Scotch tape.  Eventually, I pull the videocassette free from all the wrapping and pop it in the machine.  There’s a note-card taped to the side of the bubble wrap.  I peel it off and hold it up under the lamp to get a better look.

Ben,

It’s not the same as being there, but I wanted you to have this.  I know how much my dad meant to you.  He talked about you lots.

Look me up the next time you’re in town.  We’ve got a spare bedroom and would love to have you as our guest.  Mi casa, su casa.

Take care,

Meg

I set the note down on the coffee table.  For a second, I think about going back out, maybe catching a band somewhere.  Megan’s all heart.  I know she means well.  But I’m creeped out by the whole thing.  No other way to put it. 

I go back to the kitchen, open the fridge, and check for limes.  There’s one left.  It’s rolled behind a can of Hi-C, so I almost miss it.  I reach in and pull it out.  I take it to the chopping block by the sink, cut it into four fat wedges, and mix a gin and tonic.  The tonic water’s half-flat and the gin is rot-gut.  Just like Sonny used to like them, I think to myself, almost smiling.

 

Sonny and Tina had been married only a year or two when I first met them.  Back then, I was still living in this little three-bedroom cracker box out in the burbs.  Sonny and Tina lived next door.  Our houses were the last two in the cul-de-sac and we had adjoining backyards that ran right up to this thick stand of trees.  The woods were choked with kudzu.  In the summer, the vines turned dark green and snaked through the high branches until they formed a canopy so thick no light could get through.

Shortly after they got settled, Sonny built a big deck on the back side of their house, overlooking the woods and our two back yards.  When the weather allowed, the three of us would get together back there in the evenings.  We’d grill out, maybe have a few beers, shoot the breeze.  After dark, we’d lean back and listen to the stereo play through the screen door as the fireflies danced all around us. 

Sonny and Tina had moved from Montana and Sonny liked to brag on the fishing he’d done back there.  He’d tell me all about the cutthroat he used to go after along the Gardner.  Said how some days you’d have bighorn ram or bull elk coming right down to the waterline for a drink, with you standing just a few feet away.  I told him about Little Buckhorn and the monster browns you’d find there in the back eddies of the north fork.  Tina never said much once we got started.  She’d just sit there grinning, shaking her head every now and again like she’d heard it all before, which I’m sure she had.

A lot of nights went that way.  But this, of course, was long before the rabbits, long before Sonny and Tina’s marriage went south and Sonny followed suit, splitting for Phoenix.

As soon as their trouble started, I could sense a change.  Things got weird.  Tense.  The three of us didn’t get together as much, and the two of them started spending more and more time apart.  Tina would take these weekend trips to Baltimore, where she had people, and Sonny would stay home alone for no apparent reason.  He’d mope around for days, doing bullshit stuff just to keep busy.  I figured a fishing trip or two might help to take the edge off.  I mentioned it to him one night.  He didn’t seem thrilled, but he didn’t say no either.  We talked about heading out early-before daylight-and hitting the mountain streams, but we never made it any farther than Hollet’s Pond.

Hollet and I used to work second shift together at this ceramics factory.  One night we’re sitting in the break-room drinking coffee, and he tells me about his farm-a little fifteen-acre plot about twenty-minutes outside of town.  Said he bought the place with some money he’d had willed to him.  Hollet was what you might call a gentleman farmer.  He kept a half-acre garden, raised a few beef cows, but that was about it.  He wasn’t much on fishing either, but when he figured out I was, he told me about the pond he had, nestled in the far corner of the back pasture.  Said I could come on over and give it a try any time I felt the urge. 

“Don’t really know what you’ll find there,”  he said.  “Bluegill’s about all, I suspect.”

He was right.  After he gave me the green light, I fished Hollet’s Pond every day for a solid week but never caught anything bigger than my hand.  Still, it was nice to go there in the evenings.

Sonny liked it too.  Whenever the two of us went, we’d take our fly rods and one dry fly apiece.  Then we’d make a game of it, keeping track of who caught the smallest fish, because that was something too.  Getting a hit was nothing, but setting the hook could be a trick.

One evening, after we’d been out there a few hours and caught maybe a dozen each, Sonny walked over to where I was still fishing and took a seat on the berm. The light was fading from the sky and the bats were coming out to feed.  I wanted to get a few more casts in before we headed out. So I kept at it while Sonny sat in the grass breaking his rod down.  I knew he was right there next to me, but when he finally spoke, it made me jump a little.

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it,” he said.

I thought I knew what he meant, but I didn’t say anything right at first.  I just stripped a couple yards of line from my reel and made a cast for a cattail stand near the opposite bank.

“You remember that night I took her to the emergency room?” 

I did.  He didn’t say her name, but I knew he meant Tina. 

“It was real late,” he said.  “Past midnight.  You remember?”

I nodded. 

“Well, I told you she had the stomach flu, but that’s not how it happened exactly.”

I reeled everything in, and snipped the fly off the end of my line.  Sonny didn’t say anything for a while.  I had almost finished packing up all my gear when he started up again.

“We’d been trying to make a baby, see.  But we lost it that night.  That’s why I took her to the hospital.  That’s why we both stayed home from work the next day.  She took to the bed and I stayed home to look after her.”

“Damn.  I’m sorry,” I said.  “I hate that for y’all.”

Sonny nodded.  Then he caught a glimpse of a bat circling high above our heads.  It swooped down on the pond for a drink then flew away.  Sonny watched the little ripples moving toward him across the surface of the water.

“Thing is,” he continued, “it wasn’t the first time for us.  Same thing happened once before.  Back in Bozeman.  She was further along that time, so it was pretty bad.  We been to see a few doctors, but I don’t think they know what’s going on exactly.  They said we shouldn’t give up.  Said it was a fairly common thing.  But when it’s happening to you, it don’t feel common at all.”

“What’s Tina saying?”

“Not much.  She’s turned quiet on me.  It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking anymore.”

“So you imagine the worst.”

“Pretty much.  Sometimes I think we should try again, but I don’t know.  I’m scared to even bring it up.  I think she blames me.”

 

That was August.  By December of that year, Tina was pregnant again.  She and the baby made it through the first trimester without a hitch.  But the doctors ran a sonogram the first week of March, and things didn’t look good.  The baby died before the month was out.  The doctors said they couldn’t do anything with it on account of  Tina being so far along.  So she carried it, dead inside her, a solid week before her water broke and she finally had the miscarriage.

Sonny and Tina missed a lot of work through all this, and money started to get tight.  The doctor bills piled up, aggravating an already miserable situation.  Their house fell into disrepair.  The bushes and shrubs along their property-line grew wild, ragged.  One gray afternoon, a storm blew through the neighborhood and knocked down a couple of limbs from an old Dutch elm at the edge of their driveway.  The limbs stayed right where they fell in the front yard.  Weeks passed.  The green leaves withered and slowly fell away. 

Weeds took over the yard, out back especially.  Come May, when the days grew warmer, they started blooming.  It was a strange scene, peaceful almost.  The buttercups would bob and sway in a gentle cross-wind.  The purple clover came alive with bumblebees.  I said something to Sonny once-offered to push mow for him, clean things up a bit.  But he just looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and disappeared back into the house.

A couple days later, I noticed Tina’s car missing from the driveway.  But I didn’t bother going over to see Sonny.  This once, I figured some time alone might do him good.

Later that afternoon, I’m stretched out on the couch watching a ball game.  It’s halftime and UNC is whipping the piss out of Virginia.  They’re getting ready to sound the horn for the second half when I first hear the commotion outside.  It’s Sonny.  He’s dragged his push mower out.  He yanks the rip-cord ten or twelve times before the engine finally comes to life, choking and wheezing at first, then gradually smoothing out to a steady hum.  I lay there on the couch a while longer with the volume on the TV turned down low, listening to Sonny tackle his back yard.  I hear him grinding away for a moment or two before the inevitable “CHUNCK” of the mower locking up.  I raise up and peek out the window.  I can see him, creeping along, an inch at a time.  When the mower starts to bog down, he tips the front of the deck so the blade can spin freely.  I think about getting my mower out, maybe starting on the far end of Sonny’s yard, meeting him in the middle.  Then I remember the look he gave me the last time I said something.

I give up on the ball game midway through the fourth quarter when UNC starts running four corners.  It’s not quite suppertime but getting close.  I go to the kitchen to see what I can dig up.  I’m standing there looking through the perishables, listening to the refrigerator motor buzz, when I realize I haven’t heard Sonny for a while.  I swing the door shut and walk over to the kitchen window.  From where I’m standing, I can see him.  The bright sunlight glares against the curve of his bare back.  He’s sitting in the tall grass, hunched forward, shoulders trembling.

I rush out my back door and cross over into Sonny’s yard.  He doesn’t turn when I call his name.  The mower’s sitting right beside him.  I can hear it pinging as it sits there cooling.  The heavy scent of burnt motor oil hangs in the air.  Sonny just sits there, shoulders hunched, eyes red, face wet.  He’s trying to say something, but his lips are drawn tight so the words never make it through.

Then I hear something rustling. I catch faint hints of movement out of the corner of my eye.  They lay there, squirming in a tangled heap, inches from where Sonny sits.  Baby rabbits.  He’d run up on a nest of them.  Some are cut clean in two, others lay thrashing, half-dead on the grass.

I get Sonny to his feet and help him into the house.  He’s crying but he doesn’t make a sound, only jerks at the shoulders some.  Inside, he sprawls out on the couch while I go over to the stereo and cut the tuner on.  I get it set on something mellow, but crank it loud.  Sonny never so much as looks my way.

I leave him there, go back to my place, and head straight for the nightstand next to my bed.  I open up a box of shells and fill the chamber of the .38 I keep stashed there.  I drop a couple extra shells in my pocket for good measure then cross back over to Sonny’s yard to finish the job.

After I find a spot for them deep in the woods out back, I go in to check on Sonny.  He’s up from the couch, sitting in a recliner.  The music’s still blaring through the speakers, but Sonny just sits there, staring dead ahead at a stack of magazines on the coffee table.  Zoned.

I turn down the volume and move into the kitchen.  Sonny always kept his fixins up under the sink.  I pull everything out, get some tumblers, and mix us up a couple.  Sonny snaps out of his trance long enough to latch on to the highball I hand him.  I turn the stereo down a click or two then sit in a chair opposite him.  The shades are drawn, and it’s good to be in from the heat.  We don’t say nothing, just sit there listening, drinking.  Then the music stops all of a sudden.  An announcer comes on with the weather forecast.  He’s talking in this whispery voice, makes some remark about the barometric pressure or something.  He’s trying to be clever, but I don’t catch the gist of what he’s saying, and my lack of understanding depresses me.

 

Next thing you know, Sonny and Tina are packing their stuff in two separate

U-hauls-a his-and-hers set.  Hers heads for Baltimore, his for Phoenix. 

I stayed put a few more years, got new neighbors.  But things never were quite the same. And after a while, I put my house on the market too, got the apartment I live in now.  I’m closer to work this way, which is nice in the winter when weather hits.

I kept in touch with Sonny through the mail mostly.  The first letter I got from him was signed “Your Pen Pal.”  I chuckled when I saw that.  But really, that’s how it turned out for us: friendly but distant.  After he moved away, it was like there was always something between the two of us, something more than miles.

We were still friends, sure.  When Sonny re-married, I rented a monkey-suit and booked a flight.  Never thought twice about it.  I was there when Megan was born too.  But those visits never came off the way I thought they would.  Sonny had moved out there to make a fresh start, maybe forget a few things.  Then, every two years or so, I’d show up.  New salt for old wounds.  Of course, Sonny never said as much-treated me like family, in fact-but I knew what my being there did to him.  So I decided to more or less phase myself out.  I pulled a disappearing act.  Sonny’d made a good life for himself out there.  I just left him to it.

 

Now he’s gone.  Now, this thing’s all I got-Megan’s video.

 

I sit back in my chair for a time, stirring ice cubes with my index finger, listening to them clink against the glass.  I press play on the VCR remote.  The TV goes black.  Everything’s quiet.  Sonny’s name flashes up on the screen, followed by two dates.  Then they start up with the organ music.

Next comes the picture, a full view of the casket.  There’s flowers piled high on top of it, flowers to either side on wire stands.  I can see the backs of the heads of all the people in the first couple of rows.  I scan the crowd, over and over, but can’t seem to recognize a soul. 

They’ve got the lid up, but with the angle of the camera, I can’t really get a good look at the body.  I figure it’s best that way.  It’s not exactly Sonny they got boxed up anyhow.  I been to enough funerals-enough “viewings”-to know that much.  Wax dummies.  That’s all I ever manage to think.

The camera must be mounted in a far corner or something, because the shot never changes.  Every so often, somebody comes in frame, walks over to the casket, peeks in, then walks off the screen.  Some are clutching hankies.  They walk up, dab at their faces, then move along, their shoulders all hunched up.  A few people walk by with their hands stuffed in their pockets.  Real casual, or so it seems.  Like they do this every day or something.  After ten minutes of this, I still don’t recognize a single one of these people.  The family’s most likely in another room, out of view, hidden.

The organist plays all the old regulars:  “Just As I Am,” “Peace in the Valley,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  I take another swig.  The gin sits cold on my belly. 

They finally lower the lid and a preacher comes into frame.  He stands behind the casket, offers a few words.  Says he didn’t know Sonny but that, over the past few days, he feels like he’s gotten to know him some.  Says he’s talked to family and friends.  Says he’s heard stories.  He tells a few and I watch a couple of heads nod up in the front pew.  The preacher does what he can, but he misses a heap.  A life’s a big thing, and he’s pressed for time. Gotta get on with it, clear the room for the next set of grievers.

He says a few words about Jesus, closes with a prayer.  Someone says “Amen.”  A couple fellas in dark suits show up.  They each take an end of the casket and wheel Sonny down the center aisle.  Then the music starts up again.  But it’s not the organ this time.  They got pickers somewhere, guitar and autoharp.  They play “The Old Gospel Ship,” and I think how it’s about the only good thing to come out of the whole damn production.

I watch as the last part of the casket slips away from the bottom of the TV screen.  The people in the pews all stand up.  I stand up too.  I hold my glass up high, tip it to one side, and let the rest of the highball fall to the carpet.  I don’t spare a drop.

 

Curt Alderson has been writing stories and poems for fifteen years. He lives with his wife and two sons on a small family farm in southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in various publications, including Currents, Red Crow, Pitch Weekly, and Aura Literary Arts Review. For additional stories, poems, and readings visit curtalderson.blogspot.com

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