The Wages: an Argument
At twelve years old he was at the lake. Colorado. Playing hide and seek or war or something with his brother, lots of running through the bushes, getting farther and farther away from the truck. The shape of the part of the lake they were at was like a finger reaching into land, and all the green things grew right up to the water. He was twelve years old; he wasn’t thinking anything, he was thinking maybe about his little brother, the way their hair was the same, dark and shiny and fine. It would make a ring in the sun that stayed level even when his head moved, his eyes always looking somewhere else.
They were running in the trees now.
He was ahead of his brother but not by much, but enough that for a moment, when he stumbled out into tall grass and sunlight he was alone, blinking, and he could hear them coming, right out of the pages of National Geographic, manifesting first as heads balanced on long necks and then as things driven by men on horseback—llamas—and for as long as he stood there with them streaming by he could believe anything.
At fourteen years old he was sitting at the breakfast table waiting for his pants to warm in the dryer. It was exactly eight days after his dad walked out of a bar and shot himself in the cab of his truck. At school no one talked to him. He could do whatever he wanted; he stared into his locker. His pants were tumbling four feet away, the only thing in this morning. His mother walked past them, past the dryer, to the porch with her first cup of coffee, then returned, waited for him to finish his cereal in a way that he knew that’s just what she was doing. When he was done she told him their kitten had had a kitten of her own. Just one. It was on the porch. She told him twice that she couldn’t do it. He nodded okay.
On the porch the kitten was still breathing. No hair no eyes.
His mom offered him the gun through the screen door but he couldn’t, because it would spook the horses, and he had to get school. So he picked the kitten up with the flat-bottomed shovel and carried it to the burn barrels, where there was a small concrete pad. It was cold. His breath hung white in front of his face. Because he was wearing basketball shorts and boots without socks the kitten when he slammed the cinder block down was wet on his legs, and warm, and he didn’t tell any of them about it.
At twenty-six years old he was sleeping in a queen bed with his wife. He slept with his toe on her heel, the same trick he’d used with his brothers when he was young to make sure they were there. His brothers were all in different states now; he had stayed within a hundred miles of home. He woke silently a little after two, and he lay there breathing until almost four. Telling himself to breathe. When his wife asked him if he was okay he told her yes the first two times, but then the third time he didn’t answer. She sat up and he didn’t ask her if he’d ever killed anyone one drunk night with a trashcan lid, but he did tell her that he had that memory, all smeared around in his head. Of placing that person with a face in plastic under the kitchen floor of a rent house.
His wife told him that she was with him all the time back then, that that never could have happened, that, drinking, he wouldn’t have planned ahead enough to take care of everything, that there would have been a smell, something, but then too she said that the only reason this seemed so real to him was that this is what he does, as a writer—that it was his job to anticipate all the details, all the excuses, anything that might expose the lie—and her voice coming at him across the darkness of the bed was the same as the llamas rushing past, only now they were going the other way.
S p r i n g G u n P r e s s 2009
Underwater Breathing Apparatus
The World of Darkness
The Psalmist's Journal
The Rufus Poems
Stephen Graham Jones
The Wages: An Argument
In the Beginning
John Paul Stadler
On the Road to the Great City