For Julian POW, WWII
The dampness inside Noah’s twelve-year-old Chevy truck intensified the reek of urine. Dog pee. Jena’s rat terrier Bella. No scrubbing, short of bleach, removed the stench. He had thought of trading the truck, but nobody wanted it. Town men teased and snickered. “Smell that truck before we see it coming,” they said.
Noah rubbed his sleeve across the foggy windshield. Damn rain. You would think after all these years of fighting Alabama Februarys he would get past this frustration that hit when he was caught with no cloth to dry off the mist. He swiped his shirtsleeve across the glass again.
In the cleared spot, a man appeared. Clad in a thin plaid shirt and army trousers, his shoulders were drawn up against the cold wet. Noah stomped the brake and yanked the steering wheel to the left. The truck bed slid toward the man. Noah fought the wheel. “Shit,” he said under this breath.
The gangly man turned toward the headlights and tugged at an untrimmed mustache. Noah rolled down the passenger window. Rain blew in, further wetting Noah’s sleeve. He leaned over to see if the man was who he thought he was.
“Clint? My God. Clint, is that you?” Thunder blocked out any answer the man might have given. “I could’ve killed you.”
Clint walked away from the truck.
Noah threw the gear into neutral and set the brake. He jumped out into the downpour, grabbed the man’s arm and twisted him around so he could see him face to face. “Thought I was seeing a ghost in all this wet.” When Clint did not answer, Noah said, “Get in the cab. You’re soaked.”
Clint yanked his arm from Noah. Noah seized his half-brother by the back of his shirt collar and pushed him into the truck. Clint dropped a soggy Piggly-Wiggly paper sack of belongings on the floorboard. Noah shifted into first and edged back on to Highway 12.
“Man, I thought I’d never see you again.” Noah shook his hair like a dog fresh out of a pond. “Leaving like that. Where you been all these years? Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of you.” Noah squinted and leaned forward. He knew this road, but he wiped the windshield again. His sleeve was now so wet it did little good.
Clint stared through the rain-streaked window at a stand of stick-like pines. He knew they wouldn’t prosper. Too close together. Even as a kid, Noah always pushed things. Now the pines. One right up against the other.
At the dead-end sign, Noah turned onto the road. Gravel pinged against the underside of the truck. He killed the motor.
“I’m getting out,” Clint said.
Noah strained to hear him over raspy wiper blades. “We’re going home. Jena’ll have us some supper. A hot bath. Good night’s sleep.” Noah slapped Clint’s thigh and nodded. “Just like when we was kids.”
“I ain’t going.” Clint reached for the door handle.
“‘Course you going,” Noah insisted. “It’s your home, too, I reckon.”
“Not no more.” Clint’s voice had a flatness in it Noah didn’t remember.
“Don’t be talking like that, Clint.” Noah reached into his shirt pocket for a Chesterfield and match. “Things’ll be better this time.”
Clint grunted. “Why’d you stop the truck then if you’re so sure I’m going?” he asked. He tapped his left leg up and down. After the constant battlefield noise in Korea, silence made Clint antsy.
Noah drummed his cigarette against the dash. “Thought you might be needing to make up your own mind, seeing as how I drug you into the truck and all.” Noah lowered his window a crack and lit the cigarette. He blew smoke into the rain. “No matter me wanting, it’s still your life you living.”
Noah coughed deep inside his chest. Clint rapped his fingers across his thigh as if picking out a forgotten song on a guitar. He waited.
Noah leaned toward Clint. Smoke blew out Noah’s nostrils. “’Member that night when you was fourteen? Fifteen? Snowing like hell. Jena and me, we met you running like a wild man down the middle of the road? Old man Smitty on your tail. Bet he’d skint you alive if you hadn’t hopped into the bed of my old truck.” Noah chuckled. “Moved his still, he did. ‘Fraid you’d tell.” Noah stopped talking and listened to rain plinking on the metal cab. “Didn’t know you much, did he?”
Clint clutched his fingers into a fist and pounded his thigh. He laughed. “This shitty truck stinks.”
“I reckon it does,” Noah grinned and stomped the starter. Noah’s wet shoe slid off the clutch. The truck rolled down the hill, and the motor kicked in. “Let’s get in the dry.”
The scent of hot lard and fried chicken met Noah as he crossed the threshold. Jena had her back turned. He knew, by the set of her shoulders, that she had seen Clint.
“He will not come in this house,” she whispered.
“Just barely.” Jena dumped washing powder into the sink. She grabbed the frying pan and attacked the grease where she had fried the chicken.
“No gravy tonight?” Noah asked.
At Jena’s feet, Bella crunched her food. He looked at Jena’s terrier hunched over her bowl. Massive ears, thin, rat-like face splotched in orange and white, rock-hard body and skinny tail. He wanted to grasp that tail and sling her out the window. “Damn dog. Got no business eating in the kitchen.”
Jena shrugged. “She’s my baby.”
Ask and Noah will admit he had babied Clint for years. Clint was the only brother he had, even if he was a half. Noah, five years older, cut Clint slack by doing his chores. Lied to their old man to keep him from throwing Clint out when he didn’t come home nights. Slipping an extra dollar or two into Clint’s pocket, knowing Clint would drink it up before the week was out.
Noah recalled a Clint who followed nobody’s rules. He allowed no temperament to slow his actions. His life had been lived within a copse of prickly cedars, with Clint appearing and disappearing, leaving only a broken gap behind, a gap that closed before anyone could enter. Then Clint met North Korea.
And look what it had all come to. School dropout. Stint in Korea. Pistol whipping Buck Hobson nigh on to death. Then walking off without a word. Crazy restlessness, now so deep-rooted, he couldn’t settle.
Jena leaned into the counter. She waited for Noah to give her justification for bringing his brother into her house.
Rather than give her time for a thought to come together, Noah reached around her waist and laid his head against her neck. “Come on, Hon. We can’t leave him out in the cold. Think about what he could’ve been through.”
She twisted, but he held her snug. “He’s been Lord knows where. With Lord knows who.” She whispered, as if she suspected Clint might be eavesdropping. “No word. No nothing. Since that fight over Buck Hobson’s woman. What? Six years back?”
“I won’t let no harm come to you.” He kissed her behind the ear. “I’m right here, Baby.”
Her body softened.
“What if Bella don’t like him?’ she asked as she pulled away.
“Nothing’ll happen to Bella.” He nibbled her ear.
She faced Noah and wagged her forefinger near his rounded nose, “Absolutely no whiskey. I know he’s a drunk and they’re saying on the television that drunks can’t help it, but I won’t stand for no drinking in my house.”
Noah nipped at her finger and grinned.
“One week, Noah. That’s all. One week.”
Noah, his hand against Clint’s back, nudged him into the kitchen. A chipped enamel-topped table sat in the middle of the wall. Three mismatched chairs filled the open sides. Noah felt Clint’s back stiffen when he saw that what had once been his place was now closed off, shoved against the wall.
Noah pointed to the chair across from where Jena would sit, where their papa used to sit, leaving Noah his stepmother’s place.
“Just like old times, right, Clint?” Noah said.
“Reckon so.” Clint did not look up.
Jena plunked the bean bowl down on the metal tabletop. Then a plate of cornbread. Her knife struck the plate and crunched the crisp crust as it sliced into the pone. Smell of sweet corn drifted up from the bread’s opening. She placed a platter of fried chicken legs in the table’s center.
Noah slid the chicken platter toward Clint before reaching across the table for beans, bread and onion slices. Noah spooned pinto beans in bite after bite then sopped up bean liquor with his bread. His mouth full, he pulled the last of the meat off his chicken leg with tobacco-stained teeth. Metal against crockery and Bella’s crunching dry dog food accentuated the silence. Noah and Clint leaned over their plates, chewing. Noah reached for another chicken leg.
“Where’s your fork?” Jena spoke without opening her lips.
Noah drew back his hand. “Damn, Jena, I ain’t no five-year-old.” He picked up his fork and stabbed another leg so hard the fork rang against the platter.
“Stop it,” Jena demanded. “You want to break my good dishes?”
Noah twisted in his chair. His elbow pushed the stripped chicken bone to the floor. He ignored it and dropped another leg on his plate, changed his mind and put it back on the platter. He downed a glass of sweet tea and pushed his chair away from the table.
After eating, Noah pulled Clint down on the couch to watch Gunsmoke. “Ain’t no better show on television,” he said between cigarette puffs. “Been watching it since ’55. Three year. It gets better ever week.” Clint rose to move to a chair, but Noah caught his arm and pulled him back down. “He ought to marry that Miss Kitty, don’t you think,” Noah said, not expecting a response. What he said was not to be questioned. After the program, Noah gave up on trying to decide why the New York reporters had come to Matt Dillion’s town looking for a story anyway, butting into somebody else’s life like that. “Ain’t no reason in anybody roaming over the country looking for trouble,” he mumbled.
When Clint didn’t answer, Noah said, “Might as well go on to bed.” He stubbed his cigarette out in a thick glass ashtray, stood and stretched. “What can you do with a man like Dillon?” Noah said. “Liquor, women, fights.”
Clint ignored him. He removed his shoes, gathered a blanket from the back of the couch and covered his legs. “Night,” Noah said. Once Noah left the room, Clint pulled the blanket to the floor and lay down to sleep.
The first thing Noah saw when he entered his bedroom was a hump on the bed. Knowing what it had to be, he threw back the spread. “Good Lord.” Bella lay on her belly, next to a mushy pile of undigested food. He slung the spread to the floor. He swatted the dog’s rump, and she jumped off the bed with a yelp. Noah wadded the dirty blanket and tossed it on the floor. “Jena, get in here,” he demanded.
Jena met Bella at the door and cradled the dog to her breast. “Poor baby. Have a widdle tummy ache?” She kissed Bella on the head. “Mommy get you some tum-tum medicine. Don’t let that bad old man scare my baby.” She grumbled on toward the kitchen.
Disgust settled over Noah. He mumbled as he crossed the room. “Baby brother struck dumb, won’t talk. Why’d he come home if he didn’t plan to be family? Jena loving on a ratty old dog. You’d think it was a kid instead of a dog. Years since she’d put her head to my breast.”
Inside his bedroom closet, Noah reached behind his shirts for his camouflage coveralls. From an inside pocket, he pulled out a flask of vodka. He downed the alcohol easy, as if it were water. He crawled under the sheet and wiggled around to settle into a place for sleeping.
Down the hall, the TV squelched as electricity rushed into the room now that stations had shut down. Clint sat upright. He shuddered. It was two-way radios on the battlefields of Korea, all over again. He blinked. And blinked again to drive that memory away. He propped his back against the couch and stared at the screen, mesmerized, at the test pattern of circles inside circles, each broken by four wide intersecting bands. The black lines made his eyes water. His hands shook.
A knothole in a board he had slept on in the prisoner of war camp in North Korea had met him each night, eye-to-eye. He would put his eye so close to the hole that when he rose he had a dent around his eyeball. He often wondered if he could carve out a hole big enough to see who slept under him. For three years, he would sleep no more than ten inches above another human being. The POW became nothing more than another face. They never spoke. He learned that to break a rule meant a bloodletting. He learned that rule, early on. Eight days after he was captured.
Four Korean soldiers had rushed into the barrack, jabbering words Clint barely grasped. “Soldier from Alabama talking,” he thought they said. At first, he couldn’t breathe. They meant him. He was from Alabama. They pulled a POW, a kid no more than twenty, out of the group. Clint hadn’t heard anybody talking, but he kept his mouth shut. Clint wrapped his arms around himself and balled his fists to stop the trembling. The kid was bound with rope and dragged out of the wooden building. The four ordered the POWs out of the building.
Outside they tied him to a stripped pole and riddled the boy with bullets. He never uttered a sound as his body bounced and jerked from the firing squad. They gouged him to prove he was dead, then they laughed. His head hung low. He stood in a pool of blood, supported only by the ropes that help him to the pole. The soldiers forced the POWs back inside and locked the door. Clint lay stone still throughout the night.
The next morning as the POWs marched past the hanging boy, a thin mist blew from the his nose as he breathed, indicating a whisper of life left there. A winter wind from Siberia had hopped mountain over mountain and scotched his blood flow. He would lose a lung, an arm from the elbow down and both his balls, but he lived. The kid later said he lived so he could talk about it. After the war ended, Clint would testify to what he had seen. He finished his witness with “No need to talk about this no more.” And he had not.
After that shooting, Clint lived a life of “what ifs.” What if he had had a knife? What if he had more to eat so he could have strength to run the cornfields after he wormed under the wire? And tonight? What if tomorrow his sister-in-law woke up half-human? What if his brother. . .? But he had none of these answers. Staring into a black television screen could make a fellow go blind.
Just after dawn, Noah dragged himself into the kitchen. “Where’s Clint?” he asked, scratching his bare chest.
“She’s around somewhere. Probably under something.” He poured a cup of coffee. “Still raining?” He glanced out the kitchen window. The rain had slacked a bit, but it rained nonetheless. He saw Clint squatted next to the chicken coop. A shovel leaned against the pine trunk. “What’s he doing out there?”
Jena drew closer to the window to look.
At the far edge of the backyard, Clint crouched on his knees, bent over a pile of dirt. His plaid shirt stuck to his skin. Next to his knee lay a lumpy blue shirt. He lifted it with both hands, as if cradling a baby, and placed it in a hole. He guided muddy dirt over the hole with his hands and tamped it, first with his hands then with his fists.
Jena let the kitchen door slam and ran screaming across the yard. “Murderer!” She threw herself on Clint’s back. Her weight flattened Clint face-first into the mud. Noah grabbed Jena at her waist and heaved to get her off his little brother. She flailed her arms and legs, kicking Clint’s hips, his back, and Noah’s shins with her hard-soled oxfords.
She shouted at Clint, “You SOB.” One turn and she wiggled out of Noah’s hands.
“Shut up,” Noah shouted. “That’s enough.” He groped again, grabbing whatever he could grasp.
Jena shrieked in pain and rolled off Clint. She turned on Noah and beat his chest with her fists. “What do you mean, grabbing my tit like that?”
“God, Jena,” Noah said. “You gone crazy?”
“He’s done killed Bella.” She slapped Noah hard across the face. “I told you not to let him stay.”
Behind her, Clint smoothed the center of the mound and rose from the mud.
Noah gripped her wrists. “Stop it, Jena.”
She fell against him, breathing hard.
“He killed Bella,” she whimpered.
“Big Brother, you ought not feed a dog chicken bones,” Clint said, his back to his family. “They sliver. Little dog died from inside.”
Noah felt his pants for a cigarette. There were none there. “I didn’t feed . . .”
Jena spit her words toward Clint. “I knowed all along you was a no-count.” She squatted down and threw a metallic object off the mound and evened the soil. “Noah should’ve left you on the side of the road to die.”
“Now, Jena.” Noah stroked her shoulder. She pulled away.
Clint picked up his paper sack and took the muddy shovel. Jena cowered over the little grave and watched him wide-eyed. Clint beat the shovel against clay stuck to the sole of his shoe. He stuffed his Piggly-Wiggly paper sack, now empty, into his pants pocket. He stepped over Bella’s grave and cut between Noah and Jena.
Rain has a unique trick of falling in one place. The rain and the sun appear to battle for the right to claim some invisible barrier. It allows folks to walk into the rain and back out again. Often for no particular reason, other than the thrill of controlling what people do.
Noah moved out of the rain and away from Jena. He picked up the medal piece, now washed clean. He held a bronze cross, no more than two-inches high with an eagle on the center and a scroll beneath. The scroll read “FOR VALOR.” Noah flipped it and read Pvt. Clint Townsend. “Oh, baby brother.” Noah’s words struggled for air. Something viscous lodged in his throat and held his words at bay. “Why didn’t you say so?” He put his brother’s Distinguished Service Cross in his pocket. The patch of rain moved over and fell again on Noah.
In the distance, Clint climbed the road toward the highway. Before he reached the crest of the hill, he brought out a whiskey bottle, turned it up and drank it dry. He threw the empty toward a pine’s black trunk. It hit its target and shattered into a brown explosion.
From the beside Bella’s grave, Noah called out. “We need to talk.” Clint walked on. Noah twisted around and glared at Jena. “I need me some hard liquor,” he said.
“Don’t you dare.” Jena said it almost like a gasp. She seized Noah’s arm.
Noah wrenched her hand away. He stepped out of the rain. He slammed the kitchen door as he went inside.
Dazed, Jena moved one foot. It fell on Bella’s grave. Her shoe sank into mud. A rowdy hen squawked at her. Jena gagged from the stench of wet chicken shit across the wire fence. She untied her oxford and drew out her foot. One foot bare, she limped toward the kitchen.
By dusk, the rain had stopped. Noah heard a series of abrupt yips and a soprano howl from the back woods. A wolf pup stalking his chickens, he thought. “Going out to check on the chickens” he called to Jena. She didn’t reply.
He hid his vodka bottle in the bib of his overalls. He walked easy. His bones ached from the tension of the past twenty-four hours. Outside, he swallowed a long draft of liquor and watched the sun shoot pink and purple clouds across the horizon. The coming dark didn’t hold him back. He stumbled on. He needed to get as far away as he could so he could be alone with himself.
Near the chicken coop, he stopped as he approached the fence. Something shadowy sat atop Bella’s grave. At first glance, Noah thought it was Bella herself, back from the dead. He paused next to the mound and rubbed his eyes. It wasn’t Bella. It was a shoe. Jena’s shoe, filled with rainwater. He bent to lift the shoe but ordered himself not to. “Leave it be,” he said to nobody. “It won’t matter none one way or the other.”
Raised in Alabama hill country on what has been called the “toenail of the Appalachians,” Laura Hunter wrote her first story before entering the first grade. A cowboy out to get the outlaw Peg-Leg Pete uses a unique footprint and a circular spot in the desert sand to track the villain and become the local hero.
Since 1994, she has published sixteen stories and nine poems, as well as numerous free-lance articles in anthologies, magazines and online. She has a short story collection, Southern Voices, ready for publication submission, each story having been published and/or received national and/or international recognition. Her novel, Beloved Mother, was released April 1, 2019 by Bluewater Publications. It has been awarded the 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Winner of First Novel (over 90,000 words) and Grand Prize for Fiction as well as American Fiction Awards Finalist for Best Cover Design and Best New Fiction and the Literary Titan Book Award.