Hungry Dogs, Wild Pigs
by Mark Spencer
Mark Spencer's books include The Weary Motel (Backwaters Press), Love and Reruns in Adams County (Random House), and two collections of short stories. His work has received the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for The Short Novel, The Omaha Prize for The Novel, The St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Award, The Bradshaw Book Award, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize. This is his third appearance in Amarillo Bay.
Black night, wind in my bones on a three-lane outside of Devil's Elbow, Arkansas, my truck's engine spewing smoke.
My head's under the hood when she pulls up alongside me and rolls down the window of her Vista Cruiser with her rumbling tail pipe, cracked windshield, and tires bald as a porn princess. The green dashboard lights give the lady's narrow face a witchy look.
Standing on the crumbling asphalt I bow down to the window, say, "I'd appreciate a tow to a spot where I can work on my beast, ma'am. I got a good rope." She eyeballs me hard, so I add, "My name's Jacob," and I grin big for her. Women always feel better about a man who's quick to show his teeth.
She nods. "Jake, you mean," she says. "Jake The Snake. Like the wrestler."
"No, ma'am. Jacob."
"Don't call me ma'am. I ain't your mama."
I stand up straight and stare into a set of high beams heading at me. "Okay."
"Now tie me up," she says. "I'm gonna take you home."
# # #
My truck has a camper shell, and inside I have blankets and candles, a plastic cooler, some tools, and my books. I've still got my textbooks from my three semesters at community college twelve years ago, but mostly I like reading about the misery of famous people — not bubble-brain movie stars or millionaire jocks or glassy-eyed rockers, but presidents, generals, inventors. The rich and famous always get their share of misery, and they overpay for all the same things a poor man gets free or cheap. Two thousand dollars for a night with a whore or for a line of coke is just plain stupid.
That said, I understand addiction as well as anybody.
For three months, I've been driving from one redneck town to another, looking for a woman who promised to wait for me but didn't. When I stopped hearing from her a couple of months before my release date, my gut started to gnaw, and now my pants sag low on my skinny hips. My boney fingers tremble when I roll cigarettes. Every time I close my eyes she's waiting for me in the darkness, her hair yellow and orange like fire, her grin wide and sloppy. She smelled like wood smoke and autumn. My cellmate asked me every night how she tasted. Salt. Apples. Oranges. Cherry wine.
Back when I was smelling her and tasting her on a regular basis, she had an ex-boyfriend who kept coming around the Piggly Wiggly where she worked. He'd pick up a box of Red Hots or an Almond Joy, and get in her check-out line. He'd lean over the wide, black conveyer belt and whine, "So why can't we be friends?" He had thin, cracked lips and dark circles under his shiny eyes.
He'd sit in his Ford Fiesta outside her little rent house at all hours, waiting for her to come home. If I was with her, I'd eyeball him and cut across the grass toward him, and he'd crank the Ford and take off with his fan belt squealing. If I wasn't with her, she'd hurry inside the house and hold her breath while she waited for him to start knocking and whining, "I need to tell you something. . . . I got something for you. . . . You're the only friend I got. . . ."
When he tried a screwdriver on her back door, I had to go after him. She pulled on my arm and said, "Please don't," but stopping me was like trying to stop nature. As a kid, I'd picked up some knife skills from my little brother, who used to do some wild shit with chickens, pigs, and an occasional squirrel or rat. When I found the ex-boyfriend's Fiesta in the parking lot of the neighborhood titty bar, I stuck my knife in the tires. They were still hissing when I went inside the bar. He tried to get away, but the crowd was thick and he just kept bouncing off drunks like he was a ball in a pinball machine. I grabbed his shaggy head and flung him down on the sawdust-covered floor. People made room for us. Sitting on his chest and holding his jaw with my right hand to keep his head steady, I carved the word "STOP" into his forehead. He tried to bite me, so I put an extra long and curly tail on the "P." The key to making such surgery successful is working fast. I was done before the bouncers got to me.
The judge was a pretty, middle-aged lady with surgery-enhanced breasts that not even her black robes could hide. My lawyer bragged to me that he'd porked her one time after some politician's funeral. She seemed to understand my story, and she even nodded when I insisted I wasn't trying to kill the ex-boyfriend. After all, it was obvious I could have slit the bastard's throat. I simply was not the killer type. I hadn't even carved a dirty word.
With good behavior, I was out in fifteen months and went straight to my girlfriend's little rental house, but when I got up to the door, three pit bulls leaped against the screen and tried to eat their way out. A little Mexican woman, her teeth flashing in the dimness beyond the door, and a half-dozen dark little kids all yelled at the dogs in Spanish. As far as I knew, they were ordering the dogs to kill me. I hollered back, "I'm looking for Faith!" The woman shook her head with fury, and the dogs got madder.
The brother of the woman who had promised to wait for me told me she'd taken off with the ex-boyfriend . . . the same ex-boyfriend she had claimed to be scared of, the same ex-boyfriend she called a nut job and a loser, the same ex-boyfriend who saw the word "STOP" every time he looked in a mirror. The whole situation was rich. I laughed my scrawny ass off. Her brother said they had customized a Dodge van into a mobile meth lab.
I wasn't sure what I would do to her when I found her. I'd wait to see. I wanted to believe that forgiveness was in my heart — if she earned it. I did know what I'd do to the boyfriend. I'd do what I had to do. No choice about that. It was just a matter of not doing it in a public place — I'd learned that much. It needed to be done somewhere private, and then I would need to make sure nobody ever found him. I gave a lot of thought to it all.
# # #
This woman in the Vista Cruiser pulls around in front of my beast and I tie them together as sleet starts coming down like buckets of nails. I go to her window and tell her we're ready.
"By the way, my name's Mandy," she says. "Don't be callin' me Mary or Minnie or Marie or Mabel. I'll scratch your eyes out and cut off your balls."
"I won't forget."
She drags me on slick roads to her rusty tin can in a little trailer park squeezed into a clearing in some woods.
She jumps out of her car and hollers through the sleet, "Come on in. I'll give you a beer."
The inside of her trailer smells of burnt popcorn. The TV is on with a snowy picture. A man's grease-smeared trousers and one work boot are in the middle of the floor between the sofa and TV.
"Your husband around?"
"He's gone," she says. She drops her mangy-looking fake fur coat on the floor, and I get my first decent look at her. Thirty maybe. Skin and bones.
"He at work?"
"No, he's gone." She has a chipped front tooth.
The trash can overflows with cardboard and cans and plastic TV dinner trays and some kind of rotting meat that mixes with the smell of burnt popcorn.
"I'll get you that beer."
"Hot coffee would be fine."
She opens a cabinet and pulls out a long-necked bottle.
A clash of metal rings through the trailer. I look at her.
She says, "Wind." Gripping the bottle of whiskey by its neck, she holds it straight out toward me, her arm long and skinny. "There's some loose tin on the back side. Maybe you could fix that for me."
"Be glad to, ma'am."
"I told you about callin' me ma'am."
"You're real polite, ain't you?"
"You're a nice guy, too, huh?"
I'm showing her my teeth again, and she's looking at me, and I look back, but finally I drop my eyes and say, "So when is it your husband's coming back?"
I glance at her, and she's still looking at me with her big muddy eyes. "He ain't comin' back. Least not any time soon."
# # #
I pin her arms behind her head. She smells like honey and peanut butter and whiskey. Through clenched teeth, she says,
"Say my name."
I hesitate, hovering over her, and look at her, at us, sweat in my eyes. She has let me keep the light on. We're a tangle of bones and pale skin and bruises. "Mandy," I said.
# # #
When we're done, I'm hungry, and she says she'll cook for me. She stands in front of the microwave, white and boney naked, and stares at the SpaghettiOs bubbling and splattering inside. I butter myself some white bread.
After we screw the second time, I'm hungry again and make myself fried eggs and toast, scrape clean a jar of peanut butter with my finger, and drink a half gallon of milk that's on the verge of turning sour.
In the middle of our third round, she orders me again to say her name. I collapse onto her and breathe it into her ear.
# # #
The loose tin bangs all night. I wake up a dozen times, muttering, "Jesus Christ, give me some peace." And each time, she gives me a little pat on my face or my arm or my chest.
When gray light presses against the thin curtains, she wakes up and, looking at the blank white ceiling, says, "They're gonna line up at the edge of the woods back here." Her soft, husky voice blends sleep, whiskey, and sex.
"The volunteers. The search party. They're gonna walk a straight line, sheriff said. You gonna help?"
Through a chink in the curtain I can see my broken pick-up crouched cockeyed backside of this box, and I lie tangled in her long dirty-blonde snarls, so I murmur, "Sure, if you want," but my stomach is damned uneasy with the mention of a sheriff. "What they looking for?"
"Lawrence LaRue. AKA Larry La La."
I look at her but her face is turned away, so all I see is a tangle of hair. Then somebody's banging on the front door. She gets up, pulls on an old black robe, and leaves me with the bedroom door wide open. I'm hustling into my jeans when I hear her say, "Come on in, sheriff. You, too, deputy."
A man's voice says, "We're going to get started at eight sharp. Now you realize you could save us a lot of trouble, Amanda. You could save yourself a lot of trouble, too." He clears a throat clogged with phlegm. "Things would be better for you if you'd just tell us all you know."
There's a long pause, and I'm not breathing as I'm ever-so-gently tugging on my shirt.
Then the wind blows and the loose tin bangs, and she says, "You want something to drink, Ed? Coffee? Apple juice? Whiskey? How about you, Bill?"
Silent as a ghost, I'm pulling on a droopy white sock.
"No, thank you, Amanda."
"No, I'm fine."
"Well, I got you another volunteer, sheriff," she says. Then they're walking, the trailer trembling. She appears in the bedroom doorway. "He's in here."
There I stand with one naked foot as a big-bellied sheriff and a pimply deputy look in at me.
"Jake here is gonna help you look for Larry, but I'm tellin' you Larry ain't out there in them woods. I'll bet you anything he took off to New Orleans or Memphis."
"But, Amanda, how do you explain us finding his truck at Bobby's Bar-B-Q just down the road?"
"One of his girlfriends is probably givin' him a ride."
"Tina's the one reported him missing."
"I said one of his girlfriends. Hell . . . Larry likes variety, you know."
The deputy and the sheriff are eyeballing me, and the sheriff says, "It appears you do too, Amanda."
I nod. "Howdy," I say.
"That your truck out there?"
"Sure. I broke down last night and — "
"Jake's an old friend," she says.
"Well, no, I — "
"It's okay if he helps you search, ain't it?"
The jowly-faced sheriff keeps eyeballing me. "Sure. Come on, boy. Let's go." He watches me get my other sock on and my shoes.
In the living room I pull on my coat and I glare at her and she smiles her chipped-tooth smile at me. Then I follow the sheriff and his deputy through the door.
Outside, it's colder than a witch's tit. Sleet and snow have fallen most of the night. I turn to the sheriff. "How long this guy been missing?"
"Week at least. Maybe two. His blood is soaked into the back steps of his and Amanda's trailer. She says it was old blood. She said he cut himself carving a pumpkin on Halloween. She say anything to you?"
"Said he was gone and she wasn't expecting him back any time soon."
The sheriff nods. "She tell you she cut up a man with a broken bottle one time in a night club because he wouldn't dance with her?"
"No," I say. I look at the thick, frozen woods. I think about hungry dogs and wild pigs.
About fifty volunteers, mostly men in their deer-hunting fatigues, line up at the woods' edge, which curls like a quarter moon around the trailer park. Some fat woman, her pink hair swirling around her head, smiles at the scene from her back steps.
The sheriff tells me where to stand. "I need you to come right over here." He's looking out at the woods. "Yeah, I think this is a good place." I have been installed between his deputy and a high-school lineman. "Now you just walk a straight line best you can. Inspect the bushes. Look under fallen trees. We're gonna walk all the way through. We'll come out at State Route 3."
So we start, all of us scanning the ground in front of us. Pine needles, dry locust leaves, sticks, vines thick as a man's arm, rotting stumps, dead birds, beer cans. Not two hundred feet in, there's a boot right in front of me in plain sight. A man's work boot lying on its side under a dead birch. The deputy sees it and the high-school lineman, but they don't say anything. They're eyeballing me. I stop and point at it.
The deputy shouts, "Boot!"
The sheriff comes over and says, "Well, looky there. You found something, now didn't you, boy." He picks up the boot with a stick and holds it in front of my face. It's dusted with snow, and the treads are full of frozen mud. "Look familiar?"
"Can't say it does." He's eyeballing me. I eyeball him back. I say, "Does it look familiar to you?"
His jowls are rosy, his eyes watery blue. He spits. "It's too damn cold to be out here all day."
But we continue, walk all the way through to that highway.
# # #
A black cat climbs up on my chest and purrs in my face while I'm lying on my back under the engine of my truck. I smack it away and keep working, but my fingers are damn near frozen. Then Mandy comes out and asks me what I'm doing. All I can see of her are her fuzzy green slippers and her thin, pale ankles. "Trying to get the hell out of here," I say.
"What? You don't like it here? You don't like me? You said you'd repair that loose tin on my trailer."
"I don't like being set up."
The fuzzy slippers don't move. "I didn't set you up."
"Listen. I don't care if you killed your husband or a whole slew of men, but I don't need the connection to it."
She says something I can't hear because the wind is blowing hard.
"What?" I say.
"I said . . . I didn't kill Larry. They didn't find him in the woods. The sheriff even admitted that that boot wasn't Larry's size."
"Sheriff said you cut up a man that wouldn't dance with you."
"Hell. Well, he was very rude about it. And I was nineteen. Long time ago."
"Why'd you send me out there in the woods?"
"I didn't want it looking like you or us had anything to hide."
"Yeah, well, it sure looked to me like you were trying to pin something on me."
A gust of wind swirls snow all round her feet. Her toes curl inside her slippers.
"You need to come in," she says, "and get warm." One of the fuzzy slippers nudges the side of my face. It feels like a damn cat rubbing against me.
# # #
I fix that loose tin the next day. Then it starts to rain and doesn't stop for a week. The water runs down the windows of the trailer, and when I look outside things are blurry and soft. Mandy goes to her job in town four days a week at a thrift store where she waits on customers and mends old clothes. When she's gone, I watch the one channel her TV gets, re-read some of my college books, look out those rain-wavy windows. She comes home with grocery sacks in her arms.
Everything is muddy for a while. Then things get more solid, and the days get warm. Two, three, four weeks go by, and everything starts turning green. The day I get my truck started, the sky is a pale blue and the sun is yellow as buttermilk. Mandy is at her job. I climb into the trembling beast and look through the grimy windshield at Mandy's tin box. The fat woman with pink hair next door waves to me. I wave back and put the truck in reverse.
I drive out to the highway, read all the road signs, choose a direction, and start picking up speed. Then a sack of nails on the floorboard shifts, sounding like the sleet that came down that night she found me, and suddenly I have the taste of her in my mouth.
My foot lets up on the gas pedal, and I pull off into an abandoned gas station. There are holes where the pumps used to be, and the clapboard garage leans east, gray and rotted. I slap the gearshift lever into neutral and shut off the engine and sit a while, looking at that old building and watching the wind move in the tops of the trees, the sun getting lower, the shadows longer.
When I get back to the trailer, she's home from work. She won't look at me, but I can tell her eyes are red and her face puffy. The place has never seemed so quiet. She told me one night that she was named after a Barry Manilow song and that life was all downhill from there.
I lay my truck key on top of the TV. "I got my truck running." Then I turn on the one channel that the TV gets and sit down on the sofa next to her.
Mandy is crazy, I have decided — her hugs manic, her loving mouth fierce, her whispers whiskey-tinged and wild.
But I have gained a good fifteen pounds on microwaved dinners and peanut-butter sandwiches.
# # #
Before I hear him or see the dark blur of him or feel his hands on me, I smell his smothering stench. It's the smell of an animal that has not been bathed in years. The smell of Bigfoot. An instant after I get that whiff of death, he jerks me off the bed. The room spins. My head hits the nightstand, and my bare butt burns a path across the orange shag carpet. Mandy yelps like a run-over dog. I see work boots, denim trousers stuffed into them. In those first seconds, the lamp from the night stand gets knocked over and loses its shade. The hot bulb is searing my thigh, and he's on the bed with his hands on Mandy's throat.
Then I'm on my feet, jabbing that hot bulb against his ear. He jerks away and I stab the light at his eye, but the plug comes out of the wall and everything goes black.
"Son of a bitch," he says. Then, "Bitch."
He smacks her. I don't see it. I hear it. A loud pop. She makes a sound, kind of a huff, and I hear her weak woman-slaps as she fights back.
Just as I find my jeans on the floor, he kicks me in the head. I roll over, stars exploding all around me, clutching my jeans. He kicks me in the chest, and I'm empty of air for a few strangling moments as I turn and take his boot to my back and my ass. I've got my hand in the left pocket of my jeans, and my fist closes tight around the handle of my knife, and that changes the whole situation.
Some guys I knew in prison said it was like cutting butter or carving a turkey. It's not. It's a unique thing to stick a knife into a human being, his hot breath blowing in your face before you back away with your hand cramping around the handle of the knife and the feel of warm, sticky blood on your knuckles.
# # #
We don't move for a long time. It's pitch black. I'm breathing hard, and she's breathing hard. His body odor stinks the place up. I can't believe how bad he smells. When I was a kid I lived in an old farm house, and in the winter my step-mother put out poison for the rats that came in from the fields, and they'd crawl inside the walls to die. That's how he smells. Like those rats.
I tingle all over, kind of like I'm cold, but it's more than being cold. A trickle of sweat runs down my temple. I eventually relax my grip on my knife, a six-inch switchblade with a pearl handle, and let it fall to the floor. I sit down, the shag carpet tickling my balls, and lean easily against the wall, and I just sit there, listening to myself breathe and to her breathe.
When the moon shifts down and appears all milky in the corner of the curtains, she clears her throat and says, "He was a no-good bastard."
I nod. "I see that."
She gets off the bed and comes over and sits next to me, leans against me. "I been thinking. Maybe it'd be best if nobody knew 'bout this." She gets up, climbs over the bed, and goes into the living room. When she comes back and sits down again, her skin against mine, she says, "I don't see his truck or nothin' else out there. Somebody must of dropped him off or he was walkin'."
"Would your girlfriend drop you off at your wife's house?"
"I don't know."
"More likely he was hitchin'. He was always hitchin' places. Anywho, I was thinkin' maybe we don't need to tell nobody."
"I don't know." I touch the tender spot on my skull where he kicked me. "I think we got us a clear case of self-defense here."
She snorts. "You're mighty optimistic for a convicted felon."
"Well . . . I just don't know."
"I'm thinkin' 'bout them woods out there. I'm thinkin' the ground's good for diggin'."
"I don't know."
"They already searched them woods. They ain't gonna bother to search them again."
I think about what she's saying, feeling her skin against me. I imagine myself with a shovel in my hands. "How could you stand the way he smells?"
"Now, listen. Listen to me good. Hell, they 'bout forgot Larry La La. You listenin'?"
I nod in the dark.
"Jake? You listenin'?"
"Okay. Good. Now here's what you do. You take him down them back steps and ten feet you're in the trees. Nobody can see into them woods now with everything green."
I squint into the blackness of the room. "How I know you won't be calling the sheriff while I'm out there?"
"For one thing we ain't got no phone."
"You could run over to that fat woman's place."
"I promise you. I won't even put on my clothes. I'll just wait."
"I don't know."
"You can tie me up if you want. I'll wait for you to get back."
I've been looking in the direction the stench flows from, but now I turn my head toward Mandy's voice. When she speaks again, I can feel her breath on my face.
"And we'll go on like we been," she says. "We can go on for the next fifty years like we been."
I close my eyes, and in that new darkness I see the old girlfriend I've been looking for. I have often imagined her mobile meth lab blowing up, pieces of her — an arm, a leg, a toe, a tit — flung into trees and ditches, caught in barbed-wire fence. This time, I don't see any explosions. She is just there in front of me, like a wax figure, a mannequin. That monkey is off my back. If her meth lab blows up or not, I don't care anymore.
Then I feel Mandy's breath on my face again. "Wouldn't you like that? Go on the way we been? It ain't been bad, has it? Has it?"
It's hard to shrug off a monkey and not have another hop on. You just got to hope the new monkey doesn't kill you as quick.
I can't see Mandy. It's still black in the room, even with that milky moon in the corner of the window, but I can smell her. Despite the stench of that black mound at the foot of the bed, I can smell her. And I breathe her in, deep and long. Whiskey. Peanut butter. Honey.
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