LOVE, GUNS & GOD in America
by Christian Fennell
Firenze Books Publishing
In the coming of time; in the coming of love in the time of America, a man will lift his head from a thick and darkening pool of his own blood.
Hellish pain rushing forward, and he’ll say, Jesus fucking Christ.
Dirt and gravel stuck to the side of his face.
There’s a gun on the road, and he’ll puke, mostly blood. A long line of spittle hanging from his lower lip.
Am I dying?
He’ll say, Isabelle, why?
And this man, everyone called him Finn.
Time here, time now, in America, and it’s all changing.
Sterling Spalding, eating his breakfast on the terrace, thought, it’s a damn good thing.
A damn good thing.
And let them hear this: Humble before God, praise the lord.
Fucking right, let them hear this, and let them hear it, always.
Through the barrel of a gun, or not.
He looked around, and he said, where the fuck is the jelly?
And now, time then, forty years back from time here, and Lizzy is down by the stream by the big trees by the muddy bank, and there comes a small breeze.
In the shadows.
In the tall grass.
Lizzy. Zander’s hand is on a damp stump and there are bugs and it smells punky. He moves away, closer to Lizzy on the other side of the stream.
I hav'ta find my bear.
It's by the big rock, I saw ya do it.
All the little feet sinking in the ever-mossy ground.
There’s blood on her white nightgown, high up between her legs.
And now a voice comes with the breeze, up from the downstream: You are a child of God too.
In the silence by the woods by the stream she is there. Why Zander? Why do we hav'ta go now?
I told ya already, ya know why. C'mon now.
A waxing moon in the still coming night. Watching everything.
In the quiet loneliness of this place, a broken, ten-strand post and wire fence, a small field with tall weeds, no livestock, no other sounds, big birds feeding on the easy downslope of the hill, a Shagbark hickory, long shadows of more time yet, and he said, hey, and he closed the door behind him, the wind rattling the thin tin walls of the drive-shed.
Looking at his younger brother cleaning a motor part at his workbench, Jake Burelson walked to the grease-stained fridge and grabbed a beer. He tossed the cap at a garbage can surrounded by empty auto part boxes, dirty rags, discarded bottles and cans, assorted other trash. What’s up?
Looking back, his brother said, rings are broke.
Jake leaned his big frame against the tin wall and took a sip of beer.
What'd the doc say?
Said I'm shootin blanks.
Shit, Jake, I’m sorry to hear that. Have ya told Sugar?
Nope. And I'm not about to neither. Not tonight I'm not. He finished his beer and tossed the empty at the garbage can. He walked to the door and said, later.
Yeah, said Jared, later.
He walked forward in the coming heat, small steps in worn black leather shoes, baggy black trousers, white jacket, his bony papery hand with raised thin veins and dark aged spots lifting the Life section of the morning paper.
On his phone, Sterling looked at the boy, the boy's hand clasping his mother's long fingers, culled from this place and time, a certain form of thought.
There was something there, you could see it.
She didn't look at her father, walking past him with such ease and effortless purpose, slow, her bathing suit cut high over her high hips, her long brown hair falling over her bare back, much the same as the loomed broken dreams of this place; of our hearts laid bare before the coming of the moonlight. And now down wide stone stairs, a big white house farther back and high up. She stopped at the big pool, the clear blue water reflecting back the heat, the brilliance of white Hockney clouds rippling before her.
Ya play poker, don't ya? Sterling picked up a piece of toast. Good, we'll see ya tonight then. He flipped his phone shut and put it down and took up a knife and spread jelly on his toast. He took a bite and looked back at the Quiet Man in a dark suit sitting at a small wrought iron table set back from his and looking at the young boy still.
Finn’ll want to stand. He won’t be able to.
A long line of RVs driving by.
A young girl, pointing, will say, Momma, look.
Her momma will tell her, don’t look.
Her father will say, tell her, don’t look.
I did. Don’t look.
He’ll want the RVs to stop, but they won't, and he’ll say again, Isabelle, why?
The man’s bare feet find the dirty sticky floor, his elbows his knees, his hands rubbing his face and moving through his hair.
A father to the children, Lizzy and Zander.
From a father in the night.
He exhales to the late morning boozy air, and he leans back, his thin white chest and arms poxed with the markings of a man burning in the certainty of this place.
Of this heat.
He reaches for his cigarettes and lights one. He puts the lighter back on the nightstand and leans forward and closes his eyes and takes a drag. His body rank with destruction, and he knows it. But it won't always be. Not always. He opens his eyes and exhales, drifting blue smoke heavy in the hot dead air.
Lizzy and Zander walk in the woods, little and lost, the Spanish moss their covering. By the stream. Always stay to the stream.
Where are we goin?
I told ya already. I've told ya a hundred times.
Tell me again then.
Oh, California. Is that far?
Yes, it is, it's far.
But I'm tired now.
They cross a dirt road and there's a thin old man with beautiful olive skin wearing a trilby hat riding a bike backwards. He looks and smiles, and Lizzy does too.
They walk on and soon they come to an open field. A young boy is there. He has long blond hair, long past his shoulders. He's short, maybe Lizzy's age, and there's a dog.
Looks like a wolf.
The dog looks back. The boy too.
What's your name?
My name's Lizzy. Where are ya goin Ty?
What’ya mean nowhere?
The little boy points south in the wide open field of that day, the beautiful tall grass, the sun hard upon it, a strong scent of alfalfa.
Lizzy looks to where he points and there's a small girl sitting in the moving grass, her back to them, her long full hair falling away.
Zander says, Lizzy.
I have to say goodbye to Ty.
Never mind. Goodbye, Ty.
But he is gone—and there he is, walking more yet down from the northlands, the dog out front.
Easy breezy, Lizzy thinks. Bye bye little girl.
She bounced her one leg folded over the other, a nervous energy of how she was hinged. Much like this place itself. Why won't you put that greasy thing down and come over here? Why won't you? There's no one here.
Jared didn’t answer.
Sitting on a high metal stool she leaned back, her thin milky-white forearms resting on the workbench, her one leg bouncing, her thin summer dress high up on her long legs, and she tilted her head, the thickness of her blonde hair falling to one side and catching the light just right, and she knew it, and did so without having to.
She looked at her chipped red nail polish. Where the girls at?
Ellie stayed at a friend's. Alice dropped Addy at my mother's on the way to work.
Jake's working. Saturday or not.
Shit costs my money, Sugar.
I know it does. But he don't never wanna be at home. Not very much he don't. She looked out the small window. At the scrubby land. At the coming heat. Baby, it's gotta be time for a cold beer. This day is gonna be a hot one, it's comin.
He walked to the fridge and grabbed two beers and walked one to her.
She opened it and took a sip.
The fan in the window rattled and started up and it blew warm sticky air. He leaned forward, sweat from his forehead dropping to her thigh.
She looked at her leg, at the drop, and she put her finger to it, and it ran like a tear.
The smooth touch of her dress moving up. She pushed herself forward on the stool, just a little, just enough, a lazy southern cat stretching its underbelly to the warming sun.
I know, baby, and she looked back out the window. At a small bird landing on the outside ledge. Maybe a starling. She didn't know. She did once, when she was just a little girl.
A pickup will come, pulling off the road, a young kid with long dark hair stepping out and walking around to the back of it.
You got something to smoke?
You mean like—.
Right here, and ready to go. The kid'll fire up a joint and take a pull. He'll hold the smoke. He'll exhale, and he’ll say, you look totally fucked up.
The kid’ll step forward and pass the joint, and Finn’ll close his eyes and inhale, the kid looking back at the big lights of the big town. Poor fucker, I wonder what the deal is? He’ll look back at Finn. I'd take you back there, but I can't, I don't got the time.
You got something to drink?
I gotta couple of beers in the truck, ya want one?
Yeah, and Finn’ll take another hit of the joint. He'll open his eyes and the kid'll be there, standing before him with a cold can of beer. Thanks. He'll open it and tip it back and try and swallow and it'll hurt like hell. He'll lower the beer and take a last hit of the joint and drop the thin stained nub of rolling paper to the ground. You need to be careful.
What the fuck are you talkin about?
A road like this can be dangerous.
I'm just sayin … and he’ll watch the kid get back in the truck and start it up and wait to cut back into the long line of RVs. I just meant—and he’ll watch the kid driving away. You don’t always see what’s comin next.
What I meant.
He’ll put his hand to the bullet hole in the back of his head, and he’ll look at the blood on his fingers, and he’ll say again, Jesus fucking Christ.
In the big space of the big kitchen there was only one small light on over the kitchen island.
Do you never go home?
He looked past the fringes of light, at Sterling Spalding's daughter, sitting at a small table beneath an opened window, the empty and the dark there, reaching far beyond her, this undercurrent of a restless stillness that is the South. There, wanting and waiting.
A darkened visibility.
The broken lines of her.
On my way now, said the Quiet Man. He looked at a large yellow envelope on the kitchen island. Can't sleep? He took a coke from the fridge and closed the door.
She stood and leaned against the end of the island, tilting her head, looking at the Quiet Man, her one hand moving down her neck, her long fingers of her other hand wrapped around a heavy crystal glass. She looked at a slow run of moisture on the glass. Not so much. She looked at the envelope. She looked back at the Quiet Man, knowing always the sense of him. Tell him to stay out of it. She leaned forward sliding her arms over the cool granite. I've tried. Maybe he'll listen to you?
His eyes lingering. And Hunter? Sleeping is he?
She stood straight and finished her drink. Fuck you. Just tell him.
And now Zander is tired, too, beneath a low heavy sky. The Spanish moss shaded, and it is weeping.
Lizzy stops, listening.
A sound in the woods.
Like a lamp held up to daylight.
Did ya hear it?
Zander says, shh, Lizzy, and he steps forward more, slowly, crouched over.
Careful, Zander, these bushes are prickly.
Don’t touch em.
Look, says Zander, it’s a monkey.
Sitting on a stump, there’s an extremely large man, and he leans forward, slowly moving his massive hand over his very large, bald head. Turning, he looks at the children, and he tilts his head, his hand still there. He narrows his dark dark eyes. He smiles. A broad smile. A gold tooth.
No, larger, but a killer of brutes, yes.
No, not judgmental, and kinder. Real.
And he says, if I’m a monkey, I'm the Monkey King, and he laughs, a bigger than all the world laugh, in the wind, his harp music again, long and lonely, and forever still, over the sounds of the streamy water.
The children standing, looking, their eyes wide still.
The man lowers his harp, and he says, I’m not here to frighten you.
Zander, seeing all that he has been told, reaches his hand out to Lizzy’s arm.
And you, Lizzy? What do you see?
She sees her duskywings, despite not knowing, if she’ll need them.
Why are you two here? the man asks. In the woods, his long arms reaching out before him. In the dark.
They don’t answer. Zander starting to back up, his hand still on Lizzy’s arm.
I guess ya runaway, huh?
We ain’t, says Zander. We’re goin home now.
You are? And the man stands—the height of him, staggering to the children.
Yes, says Lizzy. We are—I mean, running away.
Lizzy! says Zander.
Lizzy looks at her brother. It’s okay, Zander. We are. You’re the one that said it. California, remember?
The man runs his hand slowly over his head again, tilting it again, and narrowing his eyes again. He smiles. His broad smile. His gold tooth. And he says, California.
He walks into the kitchen. There had better be some fuckin coffee. He picks up a small pot from the cluttered mess on the counter and looks inside. He puts it down next to the scrapings of burnt toast crumbs and he picks up another one and looks inside of it.
There’s flies buzzing at the window, bouncing off the glass, and she comes, wrapping her arms around him, from the back of him, her sticky crisp blond hair in her face pressing to his back. Where are the kids at?
How the fuck should I know? Outside. Make some damn coffee.
Sitting on the porch step, his mug of coffee in his hand, his white and pink skin, his markings, his fear, not unlike all the others, there and for all the world to see, he thinks—but no, he cannot. Not that.
Finn’ll manage to stand, bracing himself against the rushing air of the passing RVs, the front of his white shirt ruffling in the moving air, the back soaked with blood. He'll tilt his head back and close his eyes and his equilibrium will drop out and he'll fall.
In the back pocket of his jeans his phone'll vibrate.
He'll try and sit and he won't be able to, and he’ll dig his left hand into the dirt for a purchase by which to pull himself up, dragging his feet over the ground, leaning forward, resting his arms on his knees, his breathing slow and thin, his heart racing.
He’ll try and stand, draining the last of his strength, increasing the pounding pain his head.
Closing his eyes, he'll quiet himself, and in his mind he'll see the RVs stretching out on the road as far as his mind can see.
Mackenzie, he’ll say.
The fan high up turned the heavy blue smoke of their cigars, the light hard upon them, these aged and lined men with cards of fate in their hands. And they laughed. Why would they not? That two-faced bitch of God’s lust far outside of their reach.
Fate boys, fate, and Sterling wins the hand. He looks at the man seated to his left. Come, speak with me now.
She wonders still. A man such as this. A Monkey King man.
And he stands, taller than us all, and where where is Lizzy's bear now?
And who is ever to know such a thing?
The fate of invisible friends?
Sweating in the dead night air, his pudgy white hands gripping the balcony railing, he looked to the darkness, against the falling of a nation we came together.
What else could be done?
No, that’s right.
It can’t be stopped.
Humble before God.
He walks in the woods, his bare feet, his white cotton shirt opened at the neck, big baggy pants, a wide leather belt. He stops and looks back. Come along now, ya mustn't be staying out here. Not here.
They smoked more, looking out at the night, at God’s own glory, the moon hanging before them like His own one bare bulb dangling above this darkened netherworld, reflecting the quiet flowing waters of the Tidewater River.
The shadows of big birds flying.
A warm breeze.
And these men; these types of men, freed from their worldly obstacles of wanting. But not their minds. That which they know to be true. An entangled magniloquent of thought. And we watch them, as we have through time, twisting in all four winds, and saying to the darkness, one nation within a nation under God.
These United Christian States of America.
What they wanted, and what they’ll have.
Knowing always what the world needed—these gods, or the ones yet to come.
Guided by the truth of these hands.
Forever, and never letting go.
Humble before God.
You can do it, Lizzy, go on now, you can walk in these woods, like that, with this man.
Come along, Zander, we can do it, we can walk in these woods, with this man, take my hand and don't let go.
And don't you worry, Lizzy, don't you worry one bit, we'll find your bear and keep it safe. We promise.
Everythin all right?
Finn'll look up and see a man with long gray hair tied in a ponytail turning his motorcycle off and setting the kickstand.
Anything I can do?
Finn'll try and speak.
I think your phone is ringing, can you get it? Where’s it at? In your back pocket?
It'll vibrate again and the man'll walk around to the back of Finn and before he can reach into Finn's pocket he'll see a fresh line of blood trickling out of a small hole in the back of Finn's head, just below his skull to the right, pushing out past darkened blood mixed with bits of dirt and gravel. Fuck me, would you look at that. He'll see a gun on the road. Ya really fucked this up, didn't ya? He'll take the phone from Finn's pocket. Do you want it?
Finn'll look at the phone and fall from the heels of his boots.
The biker will catch him and help him sit upright. Jesus Christ, you're just about stone cold dead, aren't ya? He'll look at the phone. He’ll look back at Finn. Can you hear me? Are you still there? I think it's your kids.
He'd like to stand.
What’ya want me to do?
But he can't.
It's from Mackenzie. Would ya like me to read it?
He'd like the RVs to stop.
She says, hey Dad, Cael's with me, we're here for the call. Dad? Are you there?
But they won't.
She wants to know if you're still coming home for her graduation. She says, it's in two weeks.
The phone'll vibrate again and the biker will look. He’ll pause, not wanting to read anymore. Not wanting anymore of these shitty reminders. He'll place the phone on Finn's lap. It's there if you want it, and he’ll say, look, I'll tell ya what, I'll call 911, but that's it, that's all I can do. They won't get here for a while, but at least you won't be left out here dead at the side of the road.
He'll walk back to his bike and take his phone from his jacket pocket and make the call. He'll give his name and the reason for his call and hang up. He'll put his phone away and he’ll look back at Finn. Listen, brother, I'm sorry about your troubles, I really am, but I gotta go. He'll start the bike up and take it off the kickstand and ride down the side of the road, tucking in behind an RV, disappearing back into the long line of their conformity that rolls on over these high hills without trees in perfect sync and harmony until fading away somewhere just beyond the farthest reaches of the midnight sun.
Did he pick up?
No, Mackenzie will tell her younger brother, Cael. But he had better come home soon, I can tell you that much.
Cael’ll turn and walk away, and she'll watch her brother go, standing there in the quiet empty of a parking lot next to an old brick wall of a small building. A café. A bakery. Finley's Home Hardware. Tidewater. Early, the sun just up over a small town.
He'll walk more yet, just eleven-years-old, out past the broken pavement, across the scrubby weeds and the tall grass section of flat land, and into the woods. He'll climb an embankment and walk until he comes to a set of railroad tracks where he likes to go, the heavy air turning before him, stepping over sticky creosote and wayward stones. He'll come to a bend where the trees stop and he can see the town. A town he did not know. Did not care to know. And why would he? And where the hell are you? And why won't you come home? He'll look back at the big white house atop of that high hill and all the other nice houses coming down from there, the road dropping toward town, to the river, and its tidewater, the one bridge to all the other houses, moving on until you got closer to the mill where his dad once worked when he was just young. He'll pick up a stone and throw it at the river. The hell with you, we miss her, too, you know.
He'll come back.
The two of them looking out from the back door, a tall thin old man with white hair, a faded green apron with the word Finley's on the front, and that young girl, just thirteen, and so big now, looking up with big round brown eyes and long dark hair. Worlds apart, this suggestion of us. In a look. An opened back door. Quiet on a Saturday morning.
What’ya say we get the sign out and the door opened up, their grandfather will say to them. You go on and I'll just stand here and worry him home a bit more.