Michael was almost to the gas station that didn’t sell gas. They sold out-of-date groceries and cold beer. After that he’d best go see Greenie Blake. Better he explain things than let someone else do it.
Sumerville, North Carolina, had plenty of Blakes and none of them worth a damn. The Blakes formed some foul stitch that ran through the town’s tapestry. Some twist in their DNA made them giants. “Shortie,” the shortest Blake, was 6’3″. The Baptist preacher called them Antediluvian before they quit going. The worst was Greenie Blake. Even the Blakes said so.
Michael’d first met Greenie because of Lucille, who lived across the field in a camper with the dirt drive separating her place and Michael’s family. She was eighteen then, dropout. Lived there for free cause it was Blake land, but they were too lazy to work it, and so leased it to the Cox brothers, except for the small plot with that Fleetwood trailer. Michael watched her. He was sixteen and still in school, and his mom hated her, but he watched Lucille lay out in the front yard or at night backlit in the window only wearing a bra. And he loved her. He watched her that day from his kitchen window as she run over to them, half naked. She asked his mom to be let in, said that her brother was coming for her. Michael was sweating as she started kicking the front door, and his mom screamed at her to go away. Finally, Lucille said that if her brother killed her his mom was to blame. When she let Lucille in, she explained that under no circumstances was she to go outside if her brother Donald showed up. They’d gotten into some kind of fight at the family softball game earlier that day. He called her to tell her he was on his way over to kill her.
Sure enough, his Camaro raised the dust as it shot up the drive. Lucille watched from the kitchen window as her brother threw her belongings out of the camper.She pushed Michael’s mom down to burst from their door yelling at him to stop. Donald ran at her like a bull set to rage over the flapping of her oversized T-shirt and the flash of her legs that had sent Michael mad, too. Donald beat her until the cops came. She collapsed waiting on the ambulance. She didn’t press charges-the Blakes never did. The police took Donald in for drunk and disorderly.
After that, Donald said he wished they’d let him kill her. People later said Greenie heard him say it and went straight to see what he’d done to Lucille. It wasn’t a secret how he felt about his cousin. Michael wasn’t allowed outside when Greenie’s Oldsmobile Cutlass was next door, but he could see the huge man leave that camper and come at that old car like it was what had laid up his cousin, and even as he was backing out, he screamed and beat a fist against the dash. They say he went back home where he hid his granddaddy’s gun. Then he said he was going on over to Donald’s telling everyone who wanted to stop him that he was only going to talk. Otherwise, he sure as hell’d be taking that gun. No one tried to stop him. He killed Lucille’s brother with his bare hands. He put the body in that Camaro Donald loved so much and set it on fire. Instead of running, he pulled up a cracked plastic Adirondack chair to wait for the sirens. For months, people would drive by Donald’s place to see that burnt spot and that broke chair.
Inside the gas station, Michael picked up two Millers and asked for some chew.
“You know Greenie’s back,” the clerk said.
“Going to see him now.”
“I bet it’s your thermostat.”
“I know what it is. I just ain’t had time to fix it.”
“You think it’s a good idea not to have a quick getaway you going to see Greenie.”
“Probably better not to have a vehicle around at all.”
“Probably right, considering last time.”
Outside, he opened one of the beers to drink as he walked on and put the other in the pocket of his Dickies, but it stuck out because of the pistol he had in there.
Greenie pulled the handle to recline the recliner. Shit, he thought, this is nice. The drink he’d just drunk burned its way down his throat. This was what he wanted to do. Just this. For a while anyway.
But then there was a knock on the door.
“Yeah?” he yelled.
Cocker came in. “You not going to believe this.” Cocker been the only one who’d visited him in prison. “Michael’s on his way to see you. That’s what Doug said anyways.”
“When’s he coming?”
“Now. He’s walking.”
“Why don’t you leave then.”
“Sure, sure. Sure you don’t want me to talk to him?”
“No, I’ll do it.”
Cocker just stood there.
“What?” Greenie asked.
“Nothing.” He stood there.
“Nothing’s all.” He finally left.
Greenie got up to get the shotgun.
Greenie’s place was in the bend where the road snaked back on itself almost turning completely around the way it’d come, as if the road had been heading toward the Blakes’ and then thought better of it. The land surrounding was ugly brush and some half-ass pines the Blakes had planted themselves in the hopes of selling them the way they clear cut the hardwood forest that’d been there before. This stretch of road made Michael feel like there weren’t no God.
That old black poodle Greenie’s mom kept chained to the porch growled when Michael come up. After he hollered into the house, a “Come on in” came back. Greenie was set up in the recliner, feet on the floor, and had an old 10 gauge shotgun in his lap. He was oiling the stock. He’d grown a scraggly beard that covered some of his face but left enough out in the open so you knew he was hiding acne scars and plain scars from living. And he wore the overalls he always wore before-people weren’t sure how many pairs he owned, but they were all dirty and about worn see-through in places. Part of the oil he worked into the shotgun dribbled on to the overalls leg. Michael took the beer out and shifted it to his left hand, so he could put his right back in his pocket to feel the pistol grip, though he didn’t think it’d much matter.
“I brought you a beer.”
“That’s kind of you.”
“How was prison?”
“It was nothing.”
“Time’s up anyway. And I told them I was sorry.”
“But you ain’t?”
“Where’s your mom?”
“Run off. I guess she was scared I’d be angry the way she ignored me all those years.”
“Was she right?”
“Yeah, I guess she was.”
“What you figuring on doing?”
“Well, I think this house and land will make amends. Probably get a job. Grow a garden.”
“Don’t it though?”
“Look, Greenie. You may have heard rumors, but I want you to hear it from me. Lucille and me are together.”
He just kept polishing the gun-a little more furiously, it seemed to Michael. Michael put the beer on the card table beside the recliner that held some other cans and a rum bottle.
“You married then?” Greenie asked.
“Not married, not now anyway. Together.”
“Is it because of your kin? Afraid they wouldn’t come to the wedding?”
Michael didn’t say anything to that.
“Or you afraid hers will?”
“I love her, Greenie.”
“She happy?” Greenie asked.
“Seems so to me.”
“That’s all I want.”
“All right then.”
It took all he had to turn his back on the man, but somehow he made it to the door. When Michael’d got to the porch, Greenie called out, “I hear you two got a kid.”
Michael stopped then but didn’t go back in. When he heard Greenie get up and clomp toward the door, he went down a step or two before turning around. He could hear the poodle growl beneath the porch. Greenie took up that door frame. His head brushing the top even stooped over. His middle was big now, but so were his arms. His face broke into what Michael guessed was a grin. And he held that old shotgun.
“Yeah,” Michael said. “A son.”
“What’s his name?”
Greenie seemed to consider that. “You know this gun here is my grandpa’s? Nicest thing I own.” He held it out, pointed down but ready for a pull. “I’m getting it ready for your boy.”
“Why is that?”
“He’s the littlest Blake, isn’t he? Not likely I’ll have any of my own.”
“He’s not a Blake. He’s a Starnes.”
“Now, that don’t sound right to me. You won’t make my cousin honest, but you’ll claim her young-un?”
“He’s mine too.”
“I reckon part of him is. You tell Lucille hey for me.”
Lucille on the couch with the place stinking, the Muppet lunch box she kept it in on the floor beside her, and the TV old-people loud, and Donnie in the papasan playing his Gameboy, and she nodded at him a hello.
Michael turned off the TV. “I told you I don’t want you doing it around him.”
“I was nervous. How’d I know you were even coming back?”
“Donnie, go on to your room.” His son’s thumbs beat away at his game until Michael took it from him. The batteries fell out, the case long gone. “Here, get them up and go to the kitchen and tape it with the masking tape in the junk draw.”
The boy went on.
“So what did he do?” Lucille asked.
“He didn’t do anything. He’s not going to do anything.”
“How do you know?”
“He’s just got out of prison.”
“Greenie don’t give a shit.”
“He’s not going to bother us. That’s why I went to talk to him.”
“I just don’t know,” she said. “You don’t know him. When I was growing up, anybody, and I mean anybody, who picked on me, come back later and apologized. The boys had black eyes and bandaged limbs. But the girls were worse. Like Greenie had his hand around the throat of their kitten. I thought that was how family was.”
She made room for him on the couch. He sat and took her into his lap. She pushed her face into his arm.
“He said he wanted you to be happy. I make you happy, right?”
She nodded into his armpit. “Yeah, but how’s Greenie going to know that.”
He pulled her face up to his and kissed her. “He asked about Donnie.”
He could just as well punched her. “Shit. Oh God, shit.”
“It’s fine. He even seemed like he liked the idea.”
She pushed her head into his armpit and cried.
Greenie came up on them at the creek-he’d tracked the boy for days. His parents had finally let him out of their sight to play with some friends. And here they were at the place where the creek came out of the steep ravine to get fat in the middle of this flat. Donnie’s friends lifted the rocks hunting crawfish while Donnie stayed on the bank with his video game. Greenie watched a while to see if the boy would join in, but the only thing he done was crack open one of the crawfish his friends had put in a pail. The way the boy tore at that thing, he examined it, taking it apart almost mechanically, like to see its clockwork innards. Greenie took note that there weren’t any squeamishness in the way he did it. Something Greenie had been afraid of as he watched the boy the last few days, only seeing him bang out on his game. Greenie’d almost thought the boy wasn’t worth his trouble. Donnie put the crawfish remains back in the bucket for his friends to find unexplained.
Greenie snuck behind them. He put his hand on Donnie’s shoulder-the boy jerked and the two down the bank startled. He could imagine the sight, as big as he was dwarfing Donnie and holding him in one hand and the shotgun in the other.
“You boys, run on,” he told them. And they did, splashing up the water. “Calm down now, Donnie. I know your parents.”
“That’s what a bad stranger would say.”
“I guess they would, wouldn’t they? Well, then. How about you hold my gun? A bad man wouldn’t give you his gun, now would he?”
Donnie seemed to think about it. He finally shook his head no.
“All right then. Put your box down.”
The boy stood and tucked his game away. Greenie held out the shotgun and showed Donnie how to hold it.
“Like this now.”
The boy looked like he was holding glass. But when Greenie told him to grip it like he meant it, the boy clutched and threw it up to his shoulder, a natural-like hunter.
“You’re a real Blake.”
“No sir, I’m a Starnes.”
“That’s just what they call you. Inside you’re Blake.”
“Your mom and I are cousins. That means the two of us, we’re cousins.”
“Why’s that then?”
“You’re too big.”
“I’m a special cousin.”
“I know all my cousins. Janice, Rutha, Mason,” He counted them on his fingers.
“What about your cousin Brent?”
Donnie shook his head.
“They don’t take you over to Edith’s? To your mother’s mother. Your grandmother’s?”
He shook his head.
“I can tell you’re a Blake. You know how?”
He shook his head.
“I see it in you. I see inside you.”
Donnie looked down at his stomach as if he would be able to see his insides.
“You ever shot a gun?”
“So all you do is play on your little box?”
“Seems like it to me.”
He shook his head all tiny anger.
“All right then, you want to shoot this?” Greenie touched the 10 gauge, and Donnie nodded.
Those two little friends must’ve went and told because here came Michael, red faced and out of breath. Greenie reached down and took the shotgun from the boy.
Donnie ran to Michael. “Daddy, I shot a gun.” He rolled up his sleeve to show off a baseball-sized bruise.
“Is that right?”
“Boy got to learn sometime,” Greenie said.
“Go up to the house. Your mom’s up there.”
Donnie looked back to Greenie.
“It’s all right. Listen to your dad.”
“You’re damn right it’s all right. Get up there now, Donnie.”
They watched him climb out of the ravine.
“He’d be fine if he got his head out of that box.”
“I don’t want you to talk to him with us not around.”
“You ever take him fishing? I had an uncle took me. We rowed out in Lake Lee. Probably have to have a damned license do that now.”
“Did you hear me?”
“You been brave enough, son.” He breached the barrel. The empty shell he tossed on the ground. “You don’t have to keep on.”
“You’re upsetting Lucille.”
Greenie snapped the barrel back, empty. But with the next movement he slammed the butt of the gun into Michael’s face. He stumbled back till he fell flat. Greenie took a couple steps and kicked him in the side.
“You know what’s bad about prison?” Greenie asked.
Michael tried to roll away, but in a couple long strides, Greenie was on the other side, kicking him again.
“All you fucking know are the goddam movies where they ass rape everybody. You think anybody tried to do that to me?”
Michael shook his head, but Greenie brought his old boot down on it.
“No.” It was barely there. “No.”
“No, they fucking didn’t. And I didn’t want any of that shit.” His boot was on Michael’s neck. “The worst thing was someone telling me what to do. When to eat, when to sleep, when to shit.”
He bent down, Greenie’s beard felt wet with slobber like he’d gone rabid, the froth from him yelling. “You ever tell me what to do again.” He pressed his boot till something in Michael cracked like a pecan shell. “You going to tell them you fell down.”
Michael tried to nod.
“And I’ll be seeing your boy or Lucille anytime I like. I’ll come over for Sunday dinner if I like.”
Greenie started to walk away then. And Michael, his body enough under his control, managed the pistol out of his pocket. But as Greenie took those colossal strides that carried him a challenging distance for a marksman better than Michael, cowardice took hold, made him lower and hide the gun for fear Greenie would turn around and see. It was cowardice that had Michael in the dirt and Greenie silhouetted on the rise, the preacher right, like some kind of last remaining giant that God had forgotten.
“So you fell down?” Lucille asked Michael.
“The ravine, yeah.”
“You have to be kidding me.”
“No. And I’m going to bed. To lay down.”
“How did Greenie take the talking to you gave him?”
“He left before I could.”
“Greenie Blake ran away?”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“He’s alone in the woods with our son and a shotgun, and it’s no big deal?”
“I think we’re being too hard on him. If he wants to see Donnie, I don’t know if it’s the worst thing.”
“Are you going to tell me not to worry about Greenie? You think our son should hang out with the man who murdered his uncle?”
“All he’s ever done is try to protect you.”
She didn’t say nothing in reply, just stood up and spit on him. She walked slow, maybe waiting for him to hit her, back to their bedroom and slammed the door. Michael washed up in the kitchen and played the TV to drink by until he passed out.
“Mom’s been asleep again,” Donnie said, sitting out in the yard when Michael got home from work digging landscaping trenches.
Michael climbed the cinderblock steps two at a time past his son. The room air was thick with a smell like burnt paint thinner doused in urine. He shouted her name, but it sounded silly, and so he quit speaking. Her head arched over the back of the arm of the couch. The Muppet lunch box lay open and all her shit everywhere. He felt what she’d become, that body that he wanted and wanted when warm and now a cold that crawled up his fingers and burrowed under his skin, and he shivered from his hate of what was left of her. Her eyes were half open as if she watched. Something had dried around her mouth. He didn’t hug her. He didn’t caress her. He didn’t kiss her. Whatever sorrow that should have come to fill the empty spot in his stomach, fear had gotten there first.
“Donnie, Donnie.” He’d forgot his son had come in by his side. What had the boy thought or done being alone with her?
“Was she like this when you got here?”
“Why didn’t you go get someone?”
Donnie didn’t say anything.
“Your mom. She’s gone.”
The boy, without hesitation, reached out to touch her, also not a caress but a probing almost like he would twist her skin. “Like she wasn’t even real,” he said.
Michael looked at his son. What did he mean by that? It didn’t sound sad or any emotion really, just blunt statement. Maybe this was just how kids were with all the electrical pulses floating in the air.
“Go put your good clothes in a bag,” Michael said.
“I’ll do it. Go outside. Wait a sec. Instead, go to your room. We’re going on a trip. Take whatever you don’t want to leave behind.”
They didn’t own any luggage-when had they ever went anywhere? They had talked big wedding and Hawaii honeymoon. He got some grocery bags out of an old liquor box they kept them in under the sink. He got what looked like a week’s worth of clothes for him and Donnie. He found the cash he hid from her at the top of the closet with the pistol and bullets.
They drove most of the night to get there. As they left Sumerville, down the piedmont into the sand lands between there and the coast, the road lost all character. Straight and lined with pine, broken only with abandoned buildings and closed stores that could have closed that evening or ten years ago, the road let Michael think about Lucille. All he could think was he wished he’d taken the heavy metal T-shirt she’d worn the day before.
Michael’s mother’d moved away a few years ago-said she couldn’t bear to see her son with “that woman,” but also she’d always talked about retiring to the beach. What she could afford was still forty minutes from the water. A five room shack surrounded by sand-ugly sand, not dream beach sand, this sand could support only shrubs, pine, and trash. A flat little community composed of a gas station and an ABC store, where he stopped to sleep in the car. Donnie was already out. Michael didn’t dare wake his mother.
The manager of the liquor store woke him up tapping on the window. “You can’t park here,” the man said, as if the whole damn place weren’t an empty lot.
Michael knocked on his mom’s door with a bottle of her favorite tequila. Donnie pushed the bottom of a hanging basket full of a fern so that it set the plant to swinging pendulum-style. He got it going violently.
She finally let them in. Michael lied and lied, but she picked and picked until he unraveled. Then she put on some vegetable soup she left over from the night before.
“That’s not really what I want for breakfast,” Michael said.
“Well, too bad. That’s what I got.” She set out some bowls on the table. “I didn’t really want you to bring this to me, but here you are.”
They ate in silence. Donnie kept crumbling up saltines so that his bowl was full of white crumbs. She told him to stop. Michael told him to stop. Donnie didn’t.
Greenie walked into the viewing for Lucille wearing the suit he’d worn at his trial. It no longer fit, the sleeves pulling so that his wrists showed and the pants unbuttoned held up only by his belt. Cocker put a hand on his shoulder, but Greenie shook it off. He ignored the receiving line and went straight for the casket. He cut in front of some regular old fart who gave a glance and made room. Greenie touched Lucille’s cheek, thick with makeup. He stood there blocking progress until Edith came up.
“Greenie,” she said.
“Edith,” he said. She had grown fat while he was gone, as if she were a tree accumulating rings as the years passed.
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” she asked.
“Yeah, I do, but I’m here right now.”
“I loved her.”
“We all loved her.”
“Is it love if you ain’t got to pay a price?”
He took from his suit pants a pocketknife. As he opened the blade, natural, in one motion, Edith yelped. Several ushers came, but none made toward him, as afraid as everyone else. He picked apart Lucille’s hairdo, so stupidly not the way she’d have fixed it, until he had several strands, and he cut a lock.
“God help you, Greenie Blake,” said Edith. “Desecrating a body like that.”
He did leave then, with Lucille’s lock nestled in his palm, though, it occurred to him what with the color and the length, it could as well have been Donnie’s. .
Michael rolled up to the Piggly Wiggly after riding around aimless for several dead hours. Michael’s mother sent him out to find a place for him and Donnie to stay because she thought they would be safer, which sounded like she didn’t want them there. He told her he didn’t have the money for that, and she told him to go find a job then. So he was just supposed to go out that morning and find a job and a home easy as all that.
“And oh,” his mom said, “since you’re out, can you stop by and get groceries seeing as you ate or wasted all the food I had around the house.”
Instead he drove to the beach and rode past the waterfront homes on stilts that he remembered as a boy replaced with mansions set on enclosed garages. If it were just him, he could camp on the beach. Stay at the state parks when he had the money. But he decided his mom wouldn’t just put them out, so he went to the store. While he was there, he thought that he was some kind of father. His guilt at not letting his son attend the funeral, for not being there himself started to make his fear seem foolish. But hadn’t he called Cocker and heard that Greenie showed up? Hadn’t Greenie made a scene? Hadn’t he had a knife? Michael was protecting his kid. Michael was protecting himself.
He was just about back with enough groceries to keep his mom quiet. He slowed to pull into the packed sand driveway to the shack when he saw the taillight sticking out from behind the house where someone had parked there not to be so easily seen from the road. That taillight belonged to a Cutlass, Michael was sure, though he’d never taken an inventory of cars and their lights. He drove past the drive and stopped five minutes down the road.
He tried calm. He took deep breaths. Michael weighed it in his mind. He could call the cops, but that meant killing his mother and son if they weren’t already dead. Greenie would sooner burn that house to the ground. Michael’d left his gun in the guest room-not wanting his mother to see it. But what else could he do? Where else could he go? It wasn’t something he could just leave off doing.
He found himself at the door, and he shook so, he wasn’t sure how he would ever turn the knob. But damn if he didn’t. He half expected the blast to come then, ambush. Yet he stood and the door slowly swung in.
It wasn’t till he’d made it through the living /dining room to the open kitchen that Greenie, stitched in a stinking suit too small for him, come out of the hallway shadows.
Greenie told him to take a chair from the table and turn it to face him. The chair made a whining noise against the linoleum. Michael sat feeling like he was about to be interrogated, but he asked the first question. “Where’s Mom?”
Greenie just shrugged. “She never liked me none.”
“He’s in the back room playing on his box.”
“You know she did that to herself.”
“I know you let her do that to herself.”
“Or you pushed her to do it?”
Greenie’s eyes that had that mad dog dominance stare went to the floor, as if he were taking some of the responsibility on. But soon enough they were back boring down on Michael.
“You’ll go back to prison,” Michael said.
“You think I care? That it’s about me? Some things are more important than me. Nothing you’d know about.”
“I didn’t have to come here tonight.”
“Really? Where else you going to run off to?”
“I saw your car. I didn’t have to come back.”
“Well, that’s true. I’ll give you that then.”
“You’d do it with the boy in the house?”
“He can take more than you think he can.”
The place was inferno hot, as if Greenie’s bulk were planetary, creating its own humid atmosphere.
“Get done with it then,” Michael said.
Greenie laughed. “Yeah I could do that.” He set the shotgun aside by the threshold to the hall. This show scared Michael more than he’d been. The beast before him stretched, like an athlete getting ready for the sport. As tall as tall, Greenie said, “Yeah, I wanted that. On the way here, God, I dreamed you dead a thousand bloody ways.” He stepped closer. Michael thought about hitting him, trying at least, surprise enough to run. But he’d killed his cousin, his own flesh and blood, with his bare hands. One of those huge hands rested on the top of another kitchen chair and squeezed. Veins rose to ridge his knuckles.
“Change of heart?” Michael asked.
“After. After I thought all them massacres of you, I started to cry. I tell you this because you know how close we are here. I cried the rest of the way down. I haven’t ever cried in my life. It got me so angry I couldn’t stop. I was screaming at myself and crying at the same time.” Greenie put his hands up to his face as if to check to see if he were crying now and didn’t even know it. “Why, Michael, aren’t you crying this very minute?”
“I grieve in my own way,” Michael said.
“Do you now?”
Greenie rolled his jaw back and forth like his mouth was full of chewing tobacco. Why didn’t the floor collapse with the weight of the man?
“You got in her pants,” Greenie said, “but where else?”
There was a sound then from the hallway. The sound of the shotgun being taken up. Donnie, bracing the gun to his shoulder how Greenie must have shown him, aimed.
“Damn if that ain’t a good boy,” Greenie said.
Michael wasn’t sure if he should shout for his son to stop or yell encouragement. In that moment, though, Michael saw his son, saw something in him, something not in his father. His son could do this thing-he could kill Greenie dead right in front of him. Michael saw Donnie as he would be, saw the teen Donnie, saw his face shine and erupt into pustules and scar over as the boy grew giant. Whatever would let him do that wasn’t in Michael, and it would crawl its way out of his future son to fight with the world.
“Donnie,” Michael said, “your cousin’s here to take you home.”
“Yeah, he come to get you. You’re going to go live with him for a time.” Was he saving himself or his son or Greenie? “That all right with you?”
“I guess so. Can I have the gun?”
“He’s going to teach you to shoot some more.”
“That’s right,” Greenie said. “Put the safety on there.”
Donnie did and threw the barrel up to the ceiling to rest on his shoulder, little solider.
Michael said he’d get the boy’s things. When he came back, two grocery bags full, Greenie was helping himself to the goods in the refrigerator.
“For the road,” he said. His dour countenance now lightened in his enthusiastic pilfering for road trip provisions. Greenie’s happiness Michael understood as a creature almost extinct finding another of its kind. The way the giant clapped the boy on the back was just as a beast could only find gentleness for its own young.
They left Michael perched on the porch-Donnie did hug him but raced to the car when Greenie called. The boy was swallowed by the Cutlass. The Blakes drove off, and Michael spit on the ground, damned if he’d be damned with them.