My lawyer thinks that I stand a chance; that he can convince them that it was the heat.
It was more than heat, though. Heat's what you talk about while sipping lemonade under the maple tree; or what scientists talk about while discussing accelerated molecular activity over coffee. With this... thing -- I don't know what to call it -- you didn't utter a word; you just absorbed it and your eyes grew narrow and your mouth hung open and anything you sensed through your skinny eyes became vile.
It was thorough, this thing; more pervasive than heat; pantheistic -- but not in the usual sense. It was everywhere, in everything, but when it caressed you, then lay on you, then with all of its weight crushed you, consuming you, becoming you and you it. It made you want to kill something.
Early that morning it was still only very hot when Fernando arrived. Fernando was my father-in-law and we often worked together.
"Too hot for make concrete today," he said.
"Call it off?"
"Naõ, we make. I already buy vinho for me and beer for you."
I was pleased by this; last time he'd only brought the red sour wine from his native northern Portugal and I'd been sick.
The job should have been easy -- we'd previously dug out and formed the patio we were pouring -- but the mixer was late, and it had gotten so hot that the concrete was setting up as fast as I could bring it in the wheelbarrow. Fernando was on his knees, frantically working his float in circles on the concrete surface, saying, over and over again, "Too hot for make concrete."
When we left the job at eleven o' clock we could feel its fingers on our sweat-soaked heads.
"The capitão não like my work -- I no care -- he pay me."
Fernando called our customer "the Capitão" because the guy was a toll booth operator and he was wearing his uniform when he expressed his dissatisfaction.
"Don't worry about that prick. It was too hot to do the job right. It's not your fault."
But I really wasn't happy with Fernando for botching it up, and if he hadn't been my father-in-law, and if I'd owned the company, that is, if there'd been a company, I'd have fired him. But I forgave him when he handed me my first Miller genuine draft and we sped off in the pickup truck, me driving as fast as I could with both windows down to get it out of the cab.
I'd downed two beers and Fernando half a liter of his red, sour stuff when we arrived at a hauling job I'd arranged for extra money. A school teacher had a big pile of redwood-sized tree trunk sections heaped in foot-tall grass and he wanted us to take them to the dump. Fernando wasn't too thrilled with the job; he'd been bitten and nearly killed by a venomous snake during the war in Angola.
"I watch for cobras," he said.
"I watch too," I said, but when he pulled on the first tree stump it had rotted and came apart and inside were a thousand angry hornets. I lit off in one direction and he in another and when I stopped after fifty yards I was glad they'd chosen to pursue him because he was dancing as he does when he's drunk and his Minhoto friend is playing the concertina; only the dance was livelier, and bizarre without music and with the little noises that came from Fernando's throat.
It was at this moment that I was struck with the epiphany of evil; those bees were possessed by it, and I had a dose of it myself because I didn't want to help Fernando; I liked watching his macabre dance. I experienced euphorically disturbing images; of a praying mantis devouring a struggling grasshopper twice its size, of red ants swarming over a writhing caterpillar, of salt poured on a twisting, foaming slug.
When Fernando's stoicism reached its limit and he bellowed out my name I had to help him, however, so I removed my sweaty hat and swatted at the hornets that furiously fucked him with their stingers, clinging to him like tiny pit bulls, and I took a few stings myself before we ran again, this time to the pickup truck, jumping in and rolling up the windows. There were a couple of the most tenacious hornets still having their way with Fernando that we had to kill inside the cab. A few others were trying to sting the windows; a few more circled the truck like sharks in fast motion.
We canceled the job without a word and took off in the pickup, dumping the windows once we were moving. Just before we rounded the corner we saw the school teacher come out of his air-conditioned house, swat the air a few times, and do a little jig.
We could feel it breathing down our necks now, so I stomped on the gas to get away from it, but there was no getting away from it. Our heads and our shirts were wet and the salt from the sweat made the stings hurt and I thought that Fernando, tough as he is, would cry.
"Drink some more wine, Fernando."
He did and I drank more beer and we were going to go home, but, we needed money, so we headed for our next hauling job.
The job would normally have been easy, but it was lying on us now, making it hard to breathe. We didn't say a word to each other as we loaded a brush pile onto the pickup, drenched now; jeans -- everything soaked; the limbs of the dead branches scratching us, mixing blood with sweat; the dust from the dried tree bark clinging to the sweat, getting in our noses and our eyes; big bugs zooming around making us duck and dodge because we thought they were hornets; both of us reeling a little bit...
At the dump I fell into the dumpster because I forgot to let go of a heavy branch as I tossed it in; I escaped injury because the dumpster was full, but when I looked at Fernando up above, standing in the back of the pickup, he was looking at me the same way I'd been watching him dance, and I wondered what images were flashing through his head.
When I pulled onto the blacktop driveway I could see it rising from the ground and feel it seeping in where the sweat came out. I parked in the shade, but I knew it wouldn't help, because it sneaked into the shade from the ground and from the sides, and shade didn't matter. I sat in the truck for a long time, I remember; just sitting there with my eyes getting skinny.
The door of our trailer was stuck a little, so I had to kick on it to get it open. Right away I could feel its presence stronger here than outside. Céu lay on the couch, its upholstery torn and covered with dog hair. She was breathing heavily, covered with sweat beads, and although her eyes were closed I knew she was awake. There were clothes lying around, and dirty plates and cups, and the TV Guide was on the floor. Our tiny kitchen stank from old garbage and piles of dirty dishes; grease was everywhere around the stove. Rosie, our fat, old Pomeranian, sat near the TV guide, gasping for air and scratching fleas. Kitz, our cat, stretched herself out on the kitchen floor linoleum. I went to the fridge for a beer, but the beer was gone, so I drank tap water, leaving the fridge door open for longer than was necessary. The fan we'd just bought from Ames was unplugged.
"Why isn't the fan on?"
"Because it quit working."
My eyes narrowed. I sat down in a dog-hair covered armchair that smelled like cat piss. Rosie nuzzled up to my leg, but I pushed her away with my foot. When she tried it again, I kicked her.
"You know we're going to Tom and Cathy's today, right?"
My eyes narrowed into tiny little slits.
"No, I didn't know," I said.
"I told you last week that we were going."
Céu still hadn't opened her eyes or moved anything other than her mouth. I got up and went out to the porch, nudging Rosie out the door because she was acting like she had to crap. A half empty Miller set on the concrete, left there the night before; I grabbed it and sat on the old, paint-peeled wooden steps that led to the front door. The only movement came from a swarm of flies around the overfilled garbage can, and from Rosie, investigating an empty can of ravioli and some torn up freezer paper that had been pulled out of the garbage by stray cats. Beyond the porch was a pile of two-by-fours that we used for the concrete work, with grass growing tall along the edges where the mower couldn't go. On the other side of the porch was an antique chest-of-drawers that I'd salvaged from a hauling job because Céu had begged for it; she was going to restore it and sell it and start a little business, blah, blah, blah. And now there she was like a red, wet balloon on the couch and the chest-of-drawers had rotted and become trash.
I tasted salt and I was slimy with sweat and grime. My face and arms were covered with specks of dried concrete and tree bark dust, and the stings still ached. My matted head itched, my back itched, my glasses were covered with greasy sweat; my socks and underwear were wet. I cramped up in the calf of my right leg while Rosie dragged her ass in loops and circles on the porch, scratching a flea at the same time. I kicked her and she scurried onto the lawn like a crab and it was crushing me now and I thought about cutting Rosie in half with a shovel.
Even in the shower I continued to sweat and as I sweat it seeped in through the pores, consuming me.
"So, where do I turn?" I asked, flying down route 27, still trying to get away from it.
"Make a right on Beelzebub."
The trees passed in a blur, and the pickup leaned around the curves.
"It'd be nice if we made it to Cathy's alive."
But it was too hot to respond and I didn't slow down.
"You need to slow down because I'm not sure where their new house is."
I hit the brakes hard then released them but the wet balloon didn't break against its seatbelt. I could see that Céu had skinny eyes too.
"So you don't know where we're going."
"I've been there before, when they were thinking about buying it, but you have to go slow because I think it's close by. If you don't go slow I'm walking."
I imagined her stepping out of the truck at high speed, rolling and tumbling, arms and legs flinging about, her long black hair whipping around, her high heels flying into the woods and fields. A farmer would find one someday at harvest time and remember what had happened.
"What are you laughing about, you don't think I will?"
"I hope you try it," I muttered.
"What? What did you say?"
"I'm just wondering why you didn't call her for directions, you know, 'cause, well if I didn't know where the hell I was going, instead of just saying like an idiot, 'Okay, here we go into the wild blue yonder!' I'd call to---"
"Shut up, Hunter! Shut up, asshole!"
"You're so attractive when you're like West Virginia white trash." Céu cried with that, and became wetter and redder.
At the end of the road, down by the river where it was usually cool even in the worst heat -- where now the thing snickered as it smothered you -- we turned around to look again.
At the top of the hill we came out of the woods and into the open where the farms passed by, looking like they'd been abandoned -- without movement -- like farms in an old, yellowed photograph. I spotted a lone cow, grilling in the middle of a field, and the flies were so thick around it I could see them from a distance. I thought about maggots and smelled the stench of cow shit, and then I thought about maggots coming from C‚u's crushed skull.
"Cathy's new house has central air-conditioning. She said she'd have margaritas ready for us when we get there."
The maggots and the crushed skull went away.
"I knew something good would come out of this."
I thought about Cathy and Tom. Cathy was a diz, a fun blonde who liked to host parties and serve margaritas to people who usually drank cheap beer. Tom was an alcoholic who married Cathy because she served him margaritas while he fucked her. At least, that's what I was picturing when Céu said to stop.
"Back up. That's it. Down that lane through the woods."
I imagined that it would go away now, that it would lift itself off and disappear when we stepped into the air-conditioned, margarita-laden house, with a table full of hors d'oeuvres like crab cakes and shrimp cocktail and all the things that Cathy liked to spend her parents' money on. But when Cathy opened the door it was still there. She was as sweat-soaked as we were, and she spoke in low tones as if she was hiding something. But she didn't hide anything.
"Hi, guys. Bad news, the AC broke down."
Then she whispered, wide-eyed and frantically, "Tom's drunk! He's drunk everything in the house and he's really shitfaced. Try not to piss him off, okay?"
My eyes were tiny little slits again and my upper lip was curled when she let us into the house, and when I looked at Céu I could see that she was afraid, whether of me or of Tom I didn't know.
Céu didn't smoke much and hadn't smoked all day but she lit one up now and as we rounded the corner into the kitchen the three of us bumped into a guy with a crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses.
"Don't you think it's rude to be smoking in my brother's house without permission?" he asked.
"It's okay, Mike."
"No Cathy, it's not. When are you going to learn some respect?"
"Sorry," said Céu, "It's not okay to smoke then?"
"Not until you've asked Tom," said Mike.
Céu put her cigarette out by running water on it from the sink. I stared at this guy, Mike, and images flashed through my head, and as I stared at him he stared at Cathy, and I knew that images flashed through his head as well, and I felt, ever so briefly, an odd kinship with him. It was with us both; we were it; and I trembled with excitement at the thought of using a kitchen knife on Mike, and then on Mike's behalf, on Cathy. There was something profound in it all, like understanding Truth for the first time.
"Hunter, Céu, this is Mike, Tom's brother."
"Uh, huh," I said. Céu remained silent.
"Say-oo? Now that's a name. What planet do you hail from, Say-oo?" said Mike. Then, to Cathy, he said, "And we don't have anything in this place to give to these people. Cathy, go get some beer at the store."
"Tom has the money, Mike."
"Well, sorry folks. Cathy invited you over without permission and with nothing to offer you. She's a real bitch about things like that."
"Wha' th' fu's goin' on?" asked Tom, stumbling in from the hallway. Though very tall, he was hunched over, and his normally ruddy, Slavic face was beet red. His eyes scanned the room in different directions, working independently. It clearly possessed him, but its purity was corrupted by alcohol.
"Tom, Hunter and Céu are here, can we fix them something to eat?" asked Cathy.
"We. . .don't. . .have. . .anything. . .to. . .give. . .them," said Mike. "Unless you want some chips?"
Mike grabbed an empty bag of Ruffles, shook it, turned it upside down and caught a few crumbs. He stretched his hand out to Céu.
"Here ya go," he said.
"Maybe we could get a pizza," said Cathy. "Tom, can we go get a pizza?"
"You expect Tom to drive in his condition? Are you trying to kill my brother? Huh, bitch?"
Cathy looked like she was going to cry. Céu stood behind her and to her side, holding her hand and looking very frightened.
"No. . .I thought maybe you---"
"You thought maybe I'd go and get it, Tom's addict brother, who doesn't have any money and had his license revoked for being the only one who really knows how to drive. You're out to get us, I know you are, Cathy dearest!"
"I'll get a pizza," I said. There was silence as everyone looked at me. "And I'll get some beer too. In fact, it's on me; my treat."
"That's cool," said Mike.
"Hunter, you don't have to---"
"Shut up, Cathy," said Mike.
"Wha' th' fu's goin' on?"
"Tom, why don't you and Hunter go get a pizza together? You can show him your new car!"
"No Cathy," I said, "that's okay."
"You want this guy to drive my brother's new car?"
"Who's th' fu's drivin' m' new car?"
"Nobody is. I'm going in my pickup."
"No, Hunter, go with Tom," said Cathy. "The two of you can talk. Mike, why don't you go too?"
Tom rushed at Cathy, grabbed her throat, and pinned her to the fridge. It was strong in him, now, and while Céu screamed, I could barely contain a smile. When I looked at Mike, he was looking at me, and smiles emerged on both of our faces. I wanted to kill the lot of them.
"Please, please, please," was all Cathy could say.
"Hunter, do something," said Céu.
Tom was breathing hard on Cathy's face, close up, and drooling a little, but he was just too drunk. He teetered and his eyes couldn't focus and he just couldn't pull it off.
"Be nice, Tom," said Mike. And Tom let go, scanning the room as best he could, his wet, red head bobbing unsteadily, until his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell down unconscious.
"Well, I'm off to get pizza and beer!"
"We're eagerly awaiting your return!"
But I was out the door and speeding down the road in an instant, not even worrying about trying to get it out of the cab anymore.
Back at the trailer I searched for the right weapon. You would think it would be easy -- just grab the big Japanese sword hanging on the wall and go to it -- but the wonderful things one imagines and the practical reality of it all are two different things. For example, the Japanese sword; in reality, the handle was broken; nor was I an expert in its use; nor would I easily have brought it into Cathy's house without arousing suspicion and alerting Mike, who was alert, indeed. And besides, it would have been so ostentatious, and seemed so premeditated. So my search continued.
A large kitchen knife that I found seemed like a cliché; everybody uses those things. My shotgun was an obvious choice, but too efficient, and too impersonal. My aluminum softball bat tempted me, but it was a bit too unwieldy; I hoped to find something a bit more compact. My neighbor had a chain saw but, well, I had to laugh aloud at that idea; only in the movies. . . .
Finally, the sun, very low on the horizon, caught an object on the porch near the two- by-fours, and made it shine. I was drawn toward it, and my eyes widened as I gazed upon the most beautiful weapon of destruction; beautiful in its simplicity, in its form, in its blue fast-grip handle; beautiful in its tempered steel hammer and claw, gleaming unpretentiously in the sun, like a proletariat Excalibur. I snatched it up and held it before me in wonder , then I leaped about the front porch, swinging it as if in battle. My Estwing hammer, perfectly balanced, would do the job.
On the way to getting the pizza and beer I imagined the whole scene. I would enter the house with the hammer held behind my back. I would have to do Mike first; he was the greatest threat; the most able, the quickest-witted, embalmed with the purest strain of what had consumed us. But I would have to use the hammer rather than the claw; if I used the claw, it might become lodged in his skull like the sword in the stone; in the meantime, Tom would be on the attack, and two women would be screaming and generally causing unnecessary stress. So I would have to bludgeon Mike quickly, if not to death, at least to senselessness, so I could finish it later. I'd have to swing accurately and forcefully, as though I were driving a ten-penny nail into a two-by-four with a single stroke.
Then I'd move against Tom. I'd have to be careful with him because, though his condition would give me an advantage, if he did get his big, red hands on me, I'd be finished. With Tom I could use the claw end, sinking it into the top of his balding head and hoping to see it emerge from under his chin-at least, that would be the goal. Then there would be the problem of the ladies. Perhaps they wouldn't be hysterical. Maybe they'd be grateful. Then I could save them for another day. More likely they'd be making a scene, and I'd have to take care of it.
I was pondering this problem when I pulled into the deli; and I was setting the twelve pack of Miller genuine drafts on the seat of the pickup when the pickup suddenly lurched forward. I heard the unmistakable crunch of smashing tail lights as I leaped from the truck. The offending vehicle was a black, Ford Grenada, and its driver, a retiree with shorts and a Hawaii shirt, bailed out of his car, red faced.
"What are you doin', ya stupid sonuvabitch?" he said. "Nobody ever parks there! This goddamn lot's too small! Look how yer parked! Yer ten feet outta the parkin' space! Ya stupid sonuva blah blah blah..."
I felt for my Estwing under the sack of beer, and felt an intense tingling current run through my body that made my toes curl up. The beer had made the hammer cool and I grasped it and turned it over in my hand and the old man began to sputter. I strolled over to the Ford, and as I began to methodically batter his car, he grew silent. My weapon rhythmically pounced and smashed, rising into the twilight where it paused for an instant, proudly gleaming from the parking lot lights, then descending with a fury, pitting itself against the Ford.
It wasn't until we'd begun smashing the windshield that I noticed the old man's wife in the passenger seat, wide-eyed and mouth agape, clearly stricken with terror. The old man stopped his raving and pleaded with me now not to hurt his wife, pulling on my arm and reaching for Excalibur held high above him. His wife covered her face in her hands. The plea for mercy caught me off guard, and as I paused, I gazed around the parking lot, dropping my tempered steel hammer to my side. Three or four people stood around watching, some of them holding pizzas or brown paper sacks of cold beer. I thought at first that their passivity was due to eager anticipation of what would happen next, but there was no eagerness; there was only fear on their faces. I looked each one of them in the eye, silently, and I could see that it was not present in them. Without further reflection I jumped into my pickup, backed out of the lot, and with tires squealing raced down the road.
The elation that I'd felt with its embrace vanished as I considered the heretics in the parking lot. Why hadn't they felt its embrace? The old man had begun his tirade well enough, and I'd retaliated with my own, and if nobody stopped me it should have been because of the joy of my Estwing's destructive bent. But it was because they feared me, and the old man and his wife feared me, and it wasn't present in any of them; the whole event had taken place as though I were a maniac. But when I thought about Mike and the gang, and how it must surely be present in them, my hopes were lifted-we were the elect-- and I winked at Excalibur, laying patiently on the seat.
In Cathy's driveway I realized my plans would be postponed; I couldn't bring the hammer in with the pizza and beer. So I set the hammer on the hood, and after finishing the pizza and beer with the gang I'd come out and retrieve it. Or, if Mike or Tom had already murdered everybody, I could set the pizza and beer down, run out to the pickup and have easy access to the hammer.
In case of the latter I had to be cautious, so when I approached the door I put my ear to it, listening for mayhem or unusual silence. I was caught off guard by the laughter; not Mike's, identifiable by its contempt, but Cathy's, wholly absent of it. Then I heard Céu laugh.
"You'd better call the morgue," she said.
"Just let him rot on the couch. It's a fitting tomb for a couch potato," said Mike.
The three of them had obviously formed an alliance and murdered Tom, and now they were waiting to murder me. My heart sank as I thought about C‚u's betrayal. I set the pepperoni and Millers down, grabbed Excalibur and returned to the door, opening it slowly. The laughter continued as I sneaked down the hall to the kitchen, ready to kill. This readiness, however, was no longer eager anticipation, but the readiness of one who'd questioned his faith -- one who, like a cornered rat, was overwhelmed by a strong desire for self-preservation. Fear and self-contempt put my insides into revolt.
I swallowed hard as the couch in the living room came into view. Tom was dead all right, splayed out on his back, pale white, his hand curled like a claw on the floor, head thrown back, mouth wide open, eyes slightly opened, with only the whites showing. I wondered how they'd done it without spilling blood.
"That's not a word, Mike!" whined Cathy.
"'Simpling...,' sure it is. It means, 'getting or making simple,' or it can refer to an exceptionally simple person, especially a very young one."
"I'm looking it up," said Céu.
Clearly it was pure in them, to be playing scrabble as though nothing had happened. Because it had deserted me I cowered in the hallway, wondering whether to run, attack them all, or make an entrance as though all were well. I may have wondered all night if Tom hadn't groaned and rolled over on the couch.
"I hope he's not waking up," said Céu. "It'll be better for you if he just stays in a drunken stupor for the rest of his life. Where do you get these creeps from, Cathy?"
"Be nice," said Mike.
"Well, Mike, he is a creep," said Cathy.
"You're a perfect couple," said Mike.
"There's no such thing as a 'simpling'," said Céu.
So Tom wasn't dead after all. And suddenly everything was muddled, as it had always been before that day -- that day when everything seemed so profoundly clear. I quietly left the house, putting the hammer under the seat in the pickup, and I brought in the pizza and beer to a hero's welcome. I joined in the game, losing because Cathy used the dictionary to find words, and I drank a beer and ate a slice of pizza. Mike drank three beers and ate four slices of pizza, and pretended that we'd never wanted to murder everyone.
If it hadn't left me, perhaps I could have taught these brothers some manners. But without it, I could only talk about in on the way home.
"So, do you think I should've killed 'em?" I asked.
"You're insane," she said, detecting my sincerity.
But I knew she'd felt it too.
A few days later I was contacted by the lawyer for the old guy with the battered, black Ford.
Over a big Portuguese meal with wine Céu and I laughed with Fernando and Mama
Sogra; about the Capitäo, about the hornets, about when I fell into the dumpster.
Then I told them about the old guy and what I'd done to his car and we laughed about that
too. It was the heat, they said, and the old man deserved it, and not to worry because
Mama's lawyer would take care of it for me; he could convince anyone of anything.
© 1998 Ken Schroeder, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
The subcutaneous loathing of humanity exhibited by the story's protagonist is present wherever norms condemn the group or individual to the periphery; but the violent and random reaction resulting from even the weakest catalyst is peculiarly American, and is brought about by that individualism that no longer beatifies itself through creativity, and so resorts to destruction as a means to self-assertion. To exemplify: American friends who've read the story find themselves identifying with the protagonist, while Portuguese acquaintances who are proficient in English remain detached, and see the story as further evidence of ordinary American maluco-ness.