A long overdue debut from Chris...
It’s still dark out when I pick Paul Wayne up from his singlewide. He’s waiting on the porch smoking a cigarette and drinking Gatorade. He’s wearing a raggedy Dale Earnhardt shirt and hacked-off jeans and from a distance, you don’t know he is dying. He tosses his rod into my flatbed as I brake to a stop beside Tori’s station wagon and slides into the cabin with a bewildered smile dancing under his jaundiced gaze.
“How’s Kate?” he asks, slamming the door.
“She’s hanging in there.”
“Well, Tori finally left me,” he declares with a strange enthusiasm.
“What’s her car still doing here then?”
“The transmission went out on it. Besides, it’s my car anyway, I bought the damn thing.”
“She take a cab or something?”
“Does it really fucking matter how she left Carlton?”
“No, I reckon not” I say, pulling out of his yard.
We pass pale fields fathering the bones of barns and homes and after a few minutes Paul Wayne finally says, “You would have never known that she’d have that kind of final coldness hidden inside her.”
“I imagine not.” I should be brooding upon the recent escape of my own wife. Instead I remember the night about a year back when I picked Tori up from a gas station, her nose candied with dried blood. I drove her around town for hours, and discovered she was also a fan of National Geographic. We found ourselves at Dunkin Doughnuts during the early morning hours talking about dead civilizations, all the ruins we wanted to explore. In the parking lot we kissed and lied to each other for a few minutes before I brought her home.
“Women are mysteries, and once you solve them, it’s too damn late,” Paul Wayne says lighting a cigarette.
Dryer Lane is a narrow, cratered dirt road that crawls for a hundred yards before ending at the lip of a small root -choked slope surrendering to the Neuse. We get out and grab our rods, making our way to the shore’s feeble finger under a gaunt congress of long leaf pines. As we’re weighing and baiting our lines Paul Wayne asks me, “How long ago did Kate leave?”
“The fuck you talking about?”
“No bullshit today Carlton, please, for me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh, well hell, that’s nice, you’re the only person on this planet I can share my shit-stink with and here you are taking the fifth like that fucking pervert senator all over the papers.”
I shake a Winston out and light it. After a few of drags I tell him, “A couple of weeks ago.”
“Why did you lie all this time?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m still in denial or something.”
Paul Wayne gives me an infected grin and lights a joint.
The sun is climbing the trees after our third cast and there are no birds to praise it. The Neuse fades from black to bronze and we stand there for a while smoking and playing our lines.
“You remember the time I caught that forty pound flathead?” Paul Wayne says, his eyes never leaving the water. “Boy she was a beauty. That was some fry we had that night wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, until Ronnie Blair grabbed Kate’s ass.”
“That was pretty damn funny; you almost killed that sorry sack of shit.”
“I should have killed him; at least I would have finally proved to Kate how much I loved her.”
“Shit Carlton, a waste of seed like that doesn’t deserve the privilege of murder.”
“The privilege of murder,” I echo. I think about these words, turning them around and around like small, ancient artifacts. After a couple of minutes I ask, “Who deserves the privilege of murder?”
“A person who can leave a permanent hurt,” Paul Wayne tells me, “the person you dearly love.”
“You mean Tori?”
He doesn’t answer me and I remember what my headlights briefly caught inside Tori’s car parked out front earlier. The back seat stuffed with bags of clothing. My mouth is dry as well as my mind and a cold beer right now would be a blessing. But I brought no beer, because I’m sure a few of them would probably kill my friend.
Paul Wayne’s rod suddenly bends and he’s pumping his reel, bringing the bite home, wearing a rictus of delight. I forget about Tori’s car, joining into his profane chant of triumph and for a bright, scalding moment the boys buried within us are alive and screaming. A couple of minutes pass and Paul Wayne hisses something I can’t make out and hands me his rod. He wades several careful feet into the shallows and bends over hauling out a pissing bundle of bone and rusted chain.
“What the fuck is that”? Paul Wayne doesn’t’ say anything. He walks back to shore and tosses the pile at my feet. I back away a few steps and my shoulders are throbbing with something deeper than rage. “The fuck is your problem man?” I shout at him, already done with his mood.
“That is the sorriest sight I’ve ever seen in my life,” he whispers. He drops to his knees, inspecting his catch. “Pit bull,” he says holding the skull under his palms. There isn’t much else left to it; just the ribs, spine, and a hind leg all webbed with malign quarter inch links. He traces the chain and finds the lock inside the ribcage. “Combination,” he declares. He turns to me and asks, “You got any WD40 in your truck?”
It’s going on two hours and Paul Wayne is still playing with the lock. He’s sitting cross-legged in the mud with the carcass on his lap, searching for the right sequence. Nothing is biting today and nothing ever will. I’m thinking about Tori’s car again as I finish reeling in my ninth cast and I tell him, “Alright man, I’m leaving.” He doesn’t respond and I say, “Well, I’m going to Last Loop for a couple of beers you can stay here all day fondling them bones if you want.” I pick up my tackle box and begin to make my way up the slope, never looking back. I put my rod and box in the flatbed and slide behind the wheel.
As the truck roars alive, Paul Wayne walks past me cradling the chained remains in his arms like a child. He carefully sets them in the back and gets in. He’s left his rod behind. “A cold one does sound good,” he says softly.
There are no words on the way to the bar, only the rattle of chain and bone. I pull onto a grave of crushed bottle caps and kill the engine. I hand him two twenties from my wallet. “Get us a couple of beers, and some shots, I’ll be in shortly.”
“Where you going?”
“Calling Kate’s sister, just want to make sure Kate’s ok.”
“Well, don’t’ drool for forgiveness too long, the side-effects may include puking and depression,” he tells me. His eyes are wet with death and something worse. He turns and shakes his head all the way to the black mouth of the bar’s entrance.
I call Paul Wayne’s trailer and listen to his phone ring for over a minute. The Pepsi thermometer outside reads ninety but I’m shivering. I walk back to my truck and drag the carcass out of my flatbed. I sling it into the middle of the parking lot and slide behind my wheel. As I’m pulling out of Last Loop I see Paul Wayne in my rearview standing in the entrance. He’s smiling like a fried skull and raising a bottle to me. I bury him in a cloud of dust.
I pull up beside Tori’s car again. The shades are drawn on all the windows. I try thinking about my wife but she seems strange and distant to me now, like a pleasant dream you give up trying to preserve. I think of my friend, hoping that forty bucks is enough to put him out of his misery. And I think of Tori, of the morning we held each other in the dying dark of the Dunkin Doughnuts parking lot, of the frail promises we left to rot inside each other’s ear, of the dead cities asleep all over the world we planned to wake together hand in hand. I sit there, listening to the mournful purr of my truck’s engine, waiting the rest of my life for the front door of the trailer to open.
Chris Benton was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina where he still resides. He can be found on Facebook.