by: n k henry
Tank Girl, The Butcher and The Burnt Man take part in a series of events that would tax even the most tenacious of souls. A work of fiction so wicked and engrossing that it necessitates, and bequeathes, its very own mood-enhancing soundtrack…
The Soul Food (On the Juke: #018 “Tired of Being Alone” — Al Green)
What is soul food? she asked me. How could I have answered that? I wanted to tell her what it used to mean. But what good would that do? So I tell her what soul food has come to mean. Let’s just say that soul food is when two or more people gather for a meal, I told her. I told her these days she’s more likely to eat without company. That she will come to know the meaning of communion because she will lack it so often. She will know what it’s like to eat alone.
I want to believe this answer satisfied her because she pursued the question no further.
Arrival (On the Juke: #014 “Short-Change Hero” — The Heavy)
The crunch of gravel pops under the tires as the butcher slows his green El Camino to a stop in front of a roadside diner. The brakes squeal in the quiet. He lets the engine idle while he puffs a cigar and watches the photographic stillness of the lot. Old broken concrete stretching to the highway. The overgrown grass of the badlands just beyond the road lapping in the breeze. No company there nor in the diner either. He kills the engine, kisses two fingers and holds that sentiment to a worn photograph held with an elastic band to the rear view mirror. He steps from his car, a baseball bat in hand, the slugger badly pocked and darkly stained.
The butcher walks around the front of the vehicle, its fender sunken and splattered with half-caked blood. This new wound to his car, he kicks at it, then takes another drag, and scans the yard once more. He spies a weathered truck, skinned of its tires, sitting in the abandoned lot under a billboard advertisement for creamed corn. Rust had taken to it for some time, and the stains have burst through the painted children in the ad, their smiling faces leaking a sickly orange drainage from the bolts once hidden in their mouths.
The butcher mashes the cigar stub against the jamb as he passes through the door of the diner. He calls out “hellos” into the dining room, the bat tight in a one-handed grip. Startled by his voice, nesting sparrows flutter out through the broken window at the side of the shop, their protesting brief and the vacuum of silence fills the room again.
Most of the dining area sits destroyed, its tables broken and covered in filth, smeared with the wreckage of passersby. In their wake the dinner ware destroyed, the newspapers shredded, the seats torn. Scattered clothing drapes over benches and collects on the floor. The butcher calls out again as he moves through the aisles checking every booth, but each is uninhabited. Working his way into the kitchen he listens constantly, but he hears nothing. Only the scrape of tiles at his own boots.
Digging through the kitchen counters the butcher finds a single can of creamed corn under a mixing bowl. He grimaces at the label then sniffs at the tin for rot, but the can is true. He sets it on the counter and peruses the kitchen. A giant cauldron sits high above the walk-in freezer. Reaching his bat up to tip the pot, he leans against the freezer door in the effort. The butcher hears a faint noise from within and he puts his ear to the stainless surface. He spies a large spoon acting as a pin to hold the freezer unit locked. He listens again and hears some muffled shuffling on the other side.
Cauldron in hand, he places the large vessel on the stainless steel counter and walks back out to his car. From the bed he removes a tarp from an axe where a raw cut of meat sits split on the tool’s stainless steel head. He expertly skewers the well-marbled cut on the axe’s stainless steel head. Scanning his supplies he slips prep knives into his belt and takes up an old coffee tin, the contents dripping along its plastic lid.
Tank Girl (On the Juke: #004 “Ain’t No Sunshine” — Bill Withers)
The sky is already azure when Ada joins her father on the porch of their yellow house. She passes him a drink and sits beside him.
“Hey dad,” she says.
Sam Rae fixes his low slung hat from his brow and tilts his head toward his daughter. “Yeah, sweetie,” he says.
“Does it hurt still?”
“Not really. It’s mostly numb.”
“How long do you think?”
“I don’t know. A day or so.”
“Do you think mom will be back by then?”
“But do you think so? And don’t lie.”
“Because it just feels like she’s gone.”
Ada ponders this. “But she could come back,” she says.
“You’re right. She could.”
“I want to wait for her.”
“You can’t, sweetie.”
“I know. But how will she find me?”
“She’ll look for you if she can. Just follow the rail to the diner like we talked. Are you ready?”
“You can’t stay here, Ada.”
“I know. But what if I can’t go?”
“You just have to, sweetie. You have to go.”
“Let me stay ‘til morning. Then I’ll go.”
“I promise. I promise I’ll leave first thing.”
Sam exhales, gently rubbing Ada’s back with the breadth of his hand. His face is turned down, the years full blown in his brow and in the depth of his voice. “Depends on what kinda girl you are.”
“I’m Tank Girl.”
“What kinda girl are you?”
“I’m Tank Girl, daddy.”
Sam Rae smiles sadly. “You know that’s a promise you’re making, right? It better be true.”
“Yessir. True as blue, brother.”
“Brother? That’s cute.”
Absolution (On the Juke: #011 “Wayfaring Stranger” — Johnny Cash)
The burnt man is half sprinting, half slipping down the muddy steep leading into the slough. He hits the water like a baptismal candidate manic for god’s good grace. The fetid water closes in where the pain of the flames still foments, the parts already leathered. A huge swath of watery angel wings frames for a moment his entry point and he keeps below the water’s surface as long as he can hold his breath. The elation of calm on his raw skin.
At last he stands in the slough, the water slipping from his shoulders, and he coughs and chokes on what he’s swallowed. In the murk, only paces behind him, appears a set of bovine legs stiff as boards and bobbing in the soup. And as if by the burnt man’s own gravity, the hull of that dead creature is drawn to him, nudging him in the back. The burnt man turns to see his company. In a frenzy the man struggles up and out of the slough retching when he reaches the bank. Finally, he prostrates himself into the muck, the heaviest burns on his cheeks cradled in the cool, softened earth.
Propane (On the Juke: #015 “Doggin Around” — Jackie Wilson)
The butcher kicks through the diner doors, a propane tank in one hand, the bat in the other. He moves straight to the kitchen, placing the tank on the floor next to the oven. He jostles at the dial on the stove until it pops from the brass orifice, and he runs the propane tank’s rubber hosing to the exposed gas line, binding the joint tight with a metal clasp.
Releasing the valve on the tank, he sniffs at the element, then strikes a match and drops it to the stove. The flame burns orange and he closes the valve lowering its intensity, its hue deepening in shades of blue.
Placing the cauldron on the element, he cracks open the coffee can and pours the contents into the pot. It’s a thick dark sludge, the bite of habanero and the sweet of honey rising as the sauce touches the warming belly of the cauldron.
The Harbinger (On the Juke: #003 “Something You Got” — Eddie Floyd)
Rose leans against her broke-down Nova and looks bleakly down the highway she had just traversed. The road appears as an endless, lonely track, but now even that cannot be easily distinguished. The sky and earth are closing down their differences in the oncoming dark, and Rose can only but watch the stars populate it. She pulls back a drifting hair from her face. Do something, you coward, she chides herself. She looks around the bumper to the road she intended to travel.
Rose forces herself up and opens the trunk removing a sweater from a bag. She desires the sweater not so much for the approaching cold, but for the comfort it offers. The sweater hangs off her shoulders and past her hands and she buries her face in its sleeve breathing deep the scent of her husband. She reaches once more into the trunk and takes a small bundle of food from it stuffing it into her back pocket. Then she shuts the trunk, picks up a bloody screwdriver from the ground and begins to walk in the direction she meant to drive.
Two hours later Rose hears the improbable. It’s a distant mechanical roar. She turns to face the sound and soon enough two far-off headlights glare down a slope then disappear. The engine hammers on and in a minute the headlights are back up the belly of the road and flash wide across the fields.
Rose jumps and flails her arms. She hollers for help and watches the headlights push on apathetically. The oncoming vehicle rushes past her and she flails with even more determination in its drag. Cherries break out into the dusk as the vehicle stops.
Tenderizer (On the Juke: #005 “I’m a Man” — Bo Diddley)
Sam Rae listens to Ada as she sleeps by the fire, her even breathing a pureness to him in the quiet night. He curses himself for keeping her there and the weakness of his character. Reaching his hand to her face he brushes her hair from her mouth then grabs a canteen and rises, stepping into the cold night.
He walks to the shed with Ada’s pack in his hand and hides it just inside the door. Reaching out to feel the frame of the shed’s wall, his fingers align on the worn handle of a sledge hammer. Lifting the steel, Sam lets the weight of the tool rest against his leg as he walks back into the yard. Resting at his toes sits the rusted spool of a tractor wheel that once served as a chic flower pot. From his pocket he takes a long wooden spoon and then proceeds to sit on the yard’s half-dead grass. He rolls his pant leg up from his ankle and sets his bare foot upon the cold wheel well of the rusted tractor tire before slotting the spoon between his teeth. With the sledge he practises the arc of his swing three times from a height above his head curving down to his ankle. Sam exhales hard then thrusts the hammer down with all his might. But the swing isn’t true to its mark and it blunts, instead, a tear into his calf. Sam, half dizzy with searing white pain, cries out his agony into the stick between his teeth. His temples ache, his ears ring.
Gathering his breath once more, Sam mocks the pain and repositions the sledge at his ankle. Breathing through the spoon he drops the sledge like a mortar shell, his ankle crushing into the lip of the tractor wheel’s spool. The shatter of bone total, his skin a rucksack of ivory decimals..
Holding his breath against the pain, Sam’s veins push through his neck like cords of rope. Saliva drools forth from his mouth as he writhes in the dirt until a ghastlier euphoria overtakes his body. He let’s fatigue and the warm embrace of shock take him, and his mind drifts away as if in a trance.
Her voice like a chest paddles to his suspended state. “I’m here, sweetie,” Sam wheezes.
“What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, sweetie. I’m okay. I was just putting your pack in the shed for tomorrow. Just in case. I’ll be there in a minute, okay?”
“Daddy? You’re hurt. I can hear it in your voice.”
“I’m alright. You just get back in the house now.”
“Don’t worry, dad. I’m coming to get you.”
“No you don’t. Don’t you come over here. You just stay there, Ada. You go back to bed.
I’m coming to help you.”
“Ada, that ain’t Tank Girl talk. Tank Girl don’t do that. I thought you was Tank Girl. Are you Tank Girl?”
Ada pauses a long while. “Yeah,” she relents. “I’m Tank Girl.”
“I thought so. Now you get back in the house.”
“Okay, dad,” she says. “Just come in here quick. I don’t like you being out in the dark all by yourself.”
The Long Descent (On the Juke: #012 “Fixing to Die” — G. Love)
The burnt man smothers his burns in the muck, the mid-autumn sun blazing across his back. He might not ever want to leave but for the sound of someone stalking him through the tall grass. He listens again but it’s no longer just one that he hears, but several and so he heaves himself up and sneaks away to nearby tree line.
The mud on his face begins to dry and the pain of the burns return in waves. He can hardly see out of his right eye and for the first time since the fire he touches his face. The lids of one eye are near coalesced. For a time he wants to learn no more about his state. But then his fingers find their way to his neck and the wounds there cauterized by fire.
Crossing an old fence line, he finds a broken post and wraps a strand of barbed wire around its end. Further onward he trudges, into the dark, his breath like smoky horizontal pillars in the moonlight. This man of agony, on and on he plunges.
Dining Deluxe (On the Juke: #016 “Big Legs, Tight Skirt” — John Lee Hooker)
The sauce bubbles and the butcher holds the open can of creamed corn in his hand. Dipping his finger into the can, he tastes what sticks to it as he looks at the walk-in freezer. Whatever unlucky creature exists in there, it protests constantly. At every ding of the pot, at every chop, it thumps itself against the door. The butcher smacks his mouth at the sweet taste of the creamed corn and turns back to his work, pouring the contents of the can into the pot.
Grabbing a raw cut of meat, the butcher slices into the flesh and examines its color. With a hatchet he plunges clean through the bone on either end of the selection and sweeps the discards into a pile.
With a carving knife the butcher peels the flesh into strips. Again he examines the meat’s marble and color, sliding those cuts he deems below grade into the rubbish pile. Wiping his nose with the inside of his arm, his hands bright with blood, he sets the knife down and dumps the surviving cuts into the cauldron.
From his pocket he takes a small bottle of liquid silver and holds it to the light. Grimacing at the remaining volume, he dumps the effects into the stew.
When the meat browns, he scoops the contents onto the lid of the coffee can. The butcher then finds the cleanest booth and eats. It is a small, simple meal eaten slowly. All the while the butcher reads whatever news the long-forgotten paper on the table holds, trying to ignore the intensifying petitions of the noise in the freezer. He stops eating and looks around the room. In the far corner is a jukebox, and the butcher rises and goes to it.
The jukebox is one of those new kinds but made to resemble the past. Someone had tampered with it, for it was pulled from the wall, the wires rigged to some sort of multi-use booster. He bends for a closer look. A loose alligator clamp wrapped in wire lies on the booster. The butcher takes it and re-attaches the connection—wire to wire—via the clamp and the lights from the juke warm to a reddish- yellow glow.
Taking a handful of coins from the exposed change box, he drops them into the money slot and makes a few selections. The juke drops a record to the spool and the butcher smiles an honest smile at the brief hiss of static. In his ears flow the timeless aroma of soul.
He leaves his meal half eaten and by a flame and a bottle of gas-line antifreeze he cleans the pot and his blades. As he cleans, the noises from the freezer clamor madly against the door.
At last at his car the butcher cleans his hands with a generous dose of industrial hand cleaner. Behind him is a wall-mounted advertisement for Biggs’ Soda. It’s “The End of The World” campaign boldly featured. There’s some romantic yet ironic depiction of all the uses a return to glass bottles would make in the ridiculous End-Time event. The butcher eyeballs the signage. He grips his bat. “Well,” he says. “My damn curiosity is gonna have me dead one day.” Then he dips back into the diner toward the kitchen.
No Paint (On the Juke: #019 “The Wanderer” — Dion)
I knew she was nervous. I could hear the crunch of her teeth at her nails. We were looking down the wide divide of intersecting coulees, Drumheller built in the crux. We could see we wouldn’t be alone. Then she asked me another question. When did it all go so wrong? And I told her the truth. That it’s been going wrong all along. Nothing has really changed. Only maybe the paint has come all the way off. This did nothing to stop her nail biting. So I told her eating herself won’t erase the truth either. And that made her smile. Her first real grin at me.
Translation (On the Juke: #007 “Hold on I’m Comin’” — Sam and Dave)
Ada wakes, the laboured breathing of her father shaking her from her sleep. She looks at him asleep on the floor and ponders how worn he looks even in so little light. She climbs over the back of the couch and shakes her hair out as she stumbles up the stairs to the bathroom. She lights a candle, locks the door and sits to pee, her head resting in her palm. Her gaze aimlessly meanders around the room, examining the contours wavering in the flame. She hears a creak and looks at the door. “Daddy,” she asks with uncertainty. The door bangs with the shock of enormous and powerful hands. Ada jumps, freezes. The door booms a second time, sending a crack through its thin central panel.
Ada stands up from the toilet and calls out softly for her father, but there is no reply, only the wheeze of mucus on lungs. Again the door shakes, the wood frame splintering and Ada wets herself where she stands as tears fall down her cheeks.
Winnebago, Blacked (On the Juke: #009 “Sun is Shining” — Bob Marley)
The butcher bolts awake in the cab of his car. He is thick with sweat in the depths of his scruffy, greying neck and across his brow. His eyes are wide, his breath stopped in the noose of his throat as if he needed every silence. In that vacuum he tries quickly to discern if the possible racket of his dreams is not actually a lone clamor on the highway. But he hears no further sounds and he rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms. He blinks against the long sun at the windshield and there suddenly in his view, as if projected from behind him, tumbles a black Winnebago side over side through the air. The wheels still spinning, the straps that hold down the roof rack of jerry cans trailing in the suspension. Rocks fly from the spectacle like batter from a beater. The butcher can see the face of the driver, not panicked. Just a face in limbo. It’s possible, he thinks, that the driver sees him back, sitting in his car in the narrow scrub bush along the highway.
The Winnebago lands on its wheels but the momentum carries the vehicle forward a few more tumbles. The jerry cans are inches from the pavement at each turn. When the camper crashes down at last it slides on for yards, sending a fusillade of sparks into the now cracked and spilling fuel. Fire jumps up from the road in short pursuit of the prone carriage.
The Winnebago itself comes to rest on its port flank, the metal frame complaining with its stresses. Then all is quiet. The wheels spin freely. A hubcap wobbles away from the wreckage like some hilarious survivor. And then there’s the fire. Leaping, swallowing flames engulf the vehicle. And out of it emerges a man from the starboard door, the door more like a hatch on that tipped over Winnebago. As he drops down afire,a woman clambers out after him, latching onto his back, and plunging her teeth into his neck.
A moment later the Winnebago explodes, the force smashing the running man to the ground. The woman, absorbing most of the blow, is sprawled out on the pavement and disembodied from her legs. The burning man leaps up from the pavement still semi-consumed in fire, and hurdles himself into the hard-packed earth along the ditch. The woman crawls after him, bloody and wild-eyed and gnashing her teeth.
The butcher steps from his car. His face is orange-lit in the fiery glow and he searches out the burning man. He sees him reappear somewhere in an adjacent field, running a madman’s run. A thin pillar of smoke hangs after him. The butcher props his bat across his shoulders and watches the flaming man for a while like he is something to calculate. On the road nearer to the butcher he hears the woman. She scrambles to him now. The blood path of her freshly torn innards leaving a thick red stain in the gravel behind her. The butcher turns and steps onto the highway as the woman yawns a bloody, eating mouth, and reaches out for him. He can see by what is not charred that once she might have boasted about her olive skin and dark eyes. A woman not so far from his own years. Quickly her hand is on his boots. In one severe motion he swings the bat from off his shoulder and square into her face. The woman’s cheekbone is left dented and convex and she fidgets dumbly within the last lights of her mortally injured brain.
Run (On the Juke: #008 “That’ll Be the Day” — Buddy Holly)
With trembling hands Ada picks up the screwdriver from the toothbrush stand and shoves it under the sill, popping the window just as her dad had shown her. She climbs onto the ledge and wipes her eyes, but does not look back even as the bathroom door bursts open. Even as Ada cries she runs the overhang like her feet kept a map of cold lines and ordered steps and she thinks Tank Girl, Tank Girl all the way to the ladder at the end of the roof. On the ground she cuts across the yard in the early light to the shed for her knapsack. Swinging it to her shoulder, she picks up her shoes between her fingers and runs back out. She can hear her father on the front step, and knows he will hear her as soon as her feet hit the gravel. Dropping in the grass she pulls on each sneaker tight. She stands. Declares herself Tank Girl once more and sprints up the drive as fast as she can.
Her father leaps from the deck after her, his gait swift despite the tremendous hobble in his smashed ankle. She can hear his gurgling effort behind her, his heavy steps closing the distance. I am Tank Girl she thinks. Each thought like a torque to her feet. Her falling strides planting and pushing her forward, the black morning in her hair.
Into the ditch she runs and there she can see a storm drain. She sprints for it. And as she ducks into it her father catches her knapsack, tearing the canvas open, spilling most of its contents at the mouth of the pipe. Ada screams and it carries shortly into the corrugated steel, and she crawls in rapidly after it. When she is safe in its depths she looks back to the mouth of the pipe.
Her father is there, raging, an animal too large to crawl in. He is emitting alien-sounding growls and moaning angrily as he reaches his arms in after her. Ada hugs her scrawny knees and rests her head as she watching him thrash around.
Daylight breaks and Ada waits still. She waits and so does her father with a same new want as if he only had just arrived. But as the day wears on she hears the rip of air in the distance. The seldom heard sound of a car barrelling down the highway. She looks back to her father, but his silhouette is gone.
There is first the screech of tires on the road, then the crunch of steel on flesh. The engine is huge, whatever it is, and it roars away until it’s just a slip of wind in the air.
When Ada finally emerges from the pipe she finds her father eviscerated by whatever car he had battled with. She kneels down and cries for a while, but only long enough to compose herself and when she is done she takes up her canteen and sets out for the railway.
The Mansions (On the Juke: #001 “What Am I Living For” — Percy Sledge)
Harvey and Linda Mansion sit at the end of the bed. Both are quiet. Linda’s buttoning up her shirt. The stench of ancient cigarettes permeates the room. It’s a small suite with the uniform décor of the Starlight Motel with coarse orange and pink fabrics for the carpet, bedding and curtains, and baby blue painted walls. There’s a wood grain Formica table at the back of the suite and a small TV without power on a even smaller dresser at the foot of the bed. Harvey eats from a half-full bag of peanuts. All at once he stops chewing, and Linda stops buttoning her shirt. Instead she falls back on to the bed and reaches under the pillow. When Linda sits up she’s wielding a tire iron and nods toward the window. Harvey, already clutching a small revolver, thumbs back its hammer slow and quiet as he can. The sound of the infected are at the door. Their shadows in the window. The Mansions wait. They wait for the shadows to leave, until they can’t hear them any longer, and all that’s left is their own muted breaths.
Linda and Harvey stand from the bed and each puts on a coat. Both rayon metallic green, the monogram reads “Linda Mansion Racing Team.” When they are ready they walk slowly to the window, Harvey’s pistol leads their direction. He nudges the curtain ever so slightly, peaking his eyes through the gap. He looks back at Linda and she lets the tire iron slide in her grip until the hooked end is at the far end of her reach. Linda nods. Her blue eyes sparkle despite her exhaustion. Harvey winks.
“Happy thirtieth, honey,” he says. “You’re still as beautiful as the day we met. Well, the morning after, anyway.”
Linda smiles and shakes her head.
“That was as good an ass-pounding as I ever got, Harv’. Don’t go and get all sweet on me now.”
Harvey smiles back then takes her hand to hold. He kisses it then opens the door and they move out onto the tarmac towards their car.
Ragged Man (On the Juke: #013 “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” — Skip James)
The burnt man arrives at railway tracks and follows them north. He walks for an hour until the tracks emerges from the dense brush into a clearing. The moon’s generous light fills the glade and he can see ahead of him a figure walking hunched against the cold. The figure is red hooded, small and, by a few slight gestures, female.
Both of them walk that track in succession for hours. He comes to think of himself as her watcher, a decrepit guardian angel who more and more needs his makeshift club as a cane than as a weapon. The hooded girl keeps her head down most of the way, her pajama pants dragging underfoot.
The day stays grey and a coolness embraces his skin. It’s a welcome relief for the jigsaw of char that runs across the back of his limbs and the side of his face. He rubs his neck where the woman tore a chunk from his flesh and a greasy sweat has settled into the wound.
Exactly when the girl had first taken notice of him he is no longer sure, but every so often she looks back to watch his ragged gait. He waves but she does not respond, and only hurries her own steps. He hurries as well, fearing for her vulnerability. He calls for her to slow down, to wait for him to catch up, but she only runs faster, and he can hear her cry. The burnt man gives chase but he cannot catch her and he stumbles to the rails after a short distance. His breath is heavy with fluid, and his thoughts are flickering like a movie reel with many missing frames. Guttural moans well up in his throat, the sounds of a dying man: he knows he’s becoming one of the sick, So he talks. He says his name over and over like such an incantation might save his own humanity.
“Are you thirsty, mister?”
The burnt man turns to the voice. A canteen hangs from the end of the girl’s reach.
He blinks his good eye at her many times. “I’m alright,” he finally says.
“Did you get burned?” she asks, still offering the water.
“Yeah. I’m burnt.”
“Who’s Lewis Moon? You were saying it over and over.”
The burnt man cocks his head at her a moment. “I am,” he finally says.
“Are you following me, Lewis?”
“No little miss. I was attempting to protect you.”
“But you’re sick aren’t you?”
“I am. And it won’t be long until I cross over, either. So I won’t follow you anymore.”
The girl drops the canteen to her side and looks at the man with all the gravity her eyes can carry.
“Do you want me to kill you?”
“Do you want me to kill you?”
“I heard you. You’re a kid.”
“It’s just, I thought maybe because you’re pretty sick. My dad calls it mercy killing because sometimes it’s more cruel to live.”
Lewis looks the girl over. Her eyes are large and brown and sunken into her dark skin. “Your dad ever mercy kill anybody?” he asks.
Lewis ponders her easy answer and her question. “How would you do it? If you could, I mean,” he asks.
The girl makes a bud of her lips and pulls it to the corner of her cheek. From the pocket of her sweater she produces a railway spike and holds it out to see. “I found this big nail by the tracks,” she says. “I could put it through your head. Something like that happens in the Bible.”
“And you’ll kill me with it?”
“If you want me to I will.”
He looks a long time at the girl, tries to see through her. “You’re serious?” he asks finally.
Lewis nods. At first they are small, uncertain nods then choppy, decisive ones. He looks at her.
“Okay,” he says.
Lewis lays his head on the rail and notes the implacableness of its touch. He watches as the girl searches for a rock. When she finds one she places the flat of the large stone against the head of the spike. Kneeling beside the burnt man she places the nail to his temple under his careful guide.
Ada raises the rock, looking at the man’s pinched eyes as Lewis hyperventilates with anticipation. After a few tense moments the rock falls beside him and the girl sits defeated on the rail.
“Sorry. I can’t kill you,” she says.
Lewis sits up. “It’s alright.”
“I don’t think I can be Tank Girl,” Ada says, and she runs her hands through her hair.
But it’s the way she does it that Lewis denotes, and it makes him sick in the heart to see it. He keeps watching her. Her jaw, her eyes, her skin.
“You’re mother is Rose, isn’t she?” He asks, as if he cannot help but to ask it.
Ada freezes a moment. “What?”
Lewis hangs his head, not really needing to hear the girls answer. “You need to go,” he says. “You need to leave.”
Lewis grits his teeth, and he is made gruesome by it. “Get the fuck away from me.”
Ada begins to cry. “I don’t understand,” she says.
Lewis raises up. He grabs the girl by the arm, throws her away from himself. “Leave. Now,” he growls, “Get the fuck out of here. Go. Get the fuck out!”
Ada stands to her feet. Tears stain her cheeks but she makes no sound. She just stares at Lewis seeing a burnt and defeated man. She waits for a moment for when his eyes catch hers. “Did you know my mom?” she asks.
Lewis rests his head against the fence post. “Please leave,” he says and he says it so quiet. It’s the last words he’ll say to anyone, and Ada Rae is gone when he finally succumbs to the sickness.
The Fool (On the Juke: #006 “Smiling Faces Sometimes” — The Undisputed Truth)
The vehicle at a standstill before her, Rose runs to the driver’s side. She smiles a pensive smile and catches a dim semblance of herself in the dusk-darkened window. She watches her image disappear as the window rolls down and Lewis leans out into the newly created void. They look at each other silently.
“Seen a car back there. That yours?” Lewis asks.
The driver looks around the near blackened fields.
“Lot of bodies brained around there. That your work?”
“And you’re okay?”
“So far. But I could use your help.”
“I need a ride. As far as you’re willing.”
“I can pay.”
“What have you got?”
Rose pulls a small package of old and brittle jerky from her back pocket.
Lewis takes it out of her hand. He looks around again and spies something moving about in the long grass. “You better hop in here,” he says. “You’re not safe.”
Rose moves to the passenger side door and slides up into the front seat. Lewis is already chewing on the jerky. “This shit is tough,” he says through a mouthful. “Where’d you get this shit anyway?”
“Uh-huh. So where is it you need to go?”
“And what’s in Rosebud?”
“I see. And why did your husband let you run off by yourself out here?”
“Let? He’s blind, asshole.”
Lewis holds his hands up in faux surrender. He grins an unfriendly grin. “Okay,” he says.
“Listen, I just need a ride. Can you help me?”
“I can. But uh, I hate to be a bastard. But, ya see, jerky, well it’s nice but, there’s not a lot of it, you understand. Let’s help each other.”
“I have more food in the trunk of the car. Two milk crates worth.”
The driver stares at her, he tilts his head. “You mean those crates?” he asks as he throws a thumb to the rear of the Winnebago.
Rose follows the gesture.
“Oops,” he says with a laugh. “Mine now I guess. Where’d you get them anyway?”
“Ah. So. Now I see.”
Rose sucks in her lips. Holds her chin a little higher.
“I know the currency around there. That’s why you left the hubby home.”
Rose says nothing but her eyes are bitter.
“Well what are we doing here? I already have your food. What else have you got?”
Rose looks long at him. “Please,” she says, “that’s for my family. I have a little girl.”
“Hey, I’m not an unreasonable man, miss. I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Well, what do you want then?”
“You know, ma’am, I never stop for people on highways. Never. Between the hijackers and well, what is a good name for those soulless freaks—it’s just too dangerous. A fool stops. That’s who stops. You know why I stopped?”
“Because you’re a fool.”
“That’s right. Do you know how long it’s been since I last saw a woman that looked like a woman?”
He waits for an answer.
“No”, she finally says.
“Two years. Two years, ma’am.”
Rose says nothing but she reaches for the door. Behind her she hears the steel click of a cocked gun. She looks back at Lewis and he’s making a show of the half-full chambers of his .38. “Wait a minute,” he says. “I never got your name.”
Rose looks at the gun then the man. “To hell with you,” she says quietly. “No names.”
“You sure about that?” he asks. “Look, this doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. But I can make it one.”
She stares at him. She’s not afraid, just out-maneuvered. At length she runs her hand through her hair as if doing so might remove the moment. She considers lying but tells him the truth.
“Rose,” she says and he rolls the gun through the air to encourage her for more.
“There you go.”
“Well then,” says the driver, reaffirming the serious presence of the gun before reaching out his free hand and sliding it up and under Rose’s sweater. In that moment Rose is stone in the doing, thinking only of her family. But then her eyes soften and she moves to take his hand by her own.
Lewis tightens a moment but sees her eyes and something of a grin and the flesh of her body is in his hand. Rose controls how his hand wanders. Stomach, ribs, breasts. It’s quiet in the Winnebago save for the antithetical drums of two beating hearts. When Lewis pulls for Rose’s waistline she steers his hand a moment to her underwear, resting just below the ridge of her hips. She puts his fingers into a wound festering there. One which the sweater did as much to comfort as it did to cover. The sick had got to her, after all. They had they stormed her at her broken down car and she was bitten in the place where she now put Lewis’ fingers. Lewis is only a second behind to realize just what the sludge he felt means. He never sees her other fist fly at him and for all her thinness her punch snaps his head around and he drops the gun with the impact.
When Lewis looks up his face is bleeding and Rose is smearing the bloody slop from her fresh bite wound in his hair. She rubs it over his face too, his eyes, and the gun in her hand glints in the dashboard lights.
“Drive,” she says as she rests back against the door. I need to get my food to my family.
“I’m sorry. You can have the Winnebago.”
“Oh I’ll take it. But not before we are in Rosebud. I’ll let my husband have a crack at you first.”
“What does that even mean?” asks Rose. And then she rolls the gun in her wrist and Lewis puts the camper in drive.
Back to the Question (On the Juke: #017 “Just You and Me Darling” — James Brown)
The butcher is at the freezer, his hand on the spoon that pins the door shut. Above him he hears a soft thump. He looks to the ceiling. James Brown from the jukebox in his ears.
Finding the small ladder leading to the roof, he climbs his way up. Opening the trap door slowly, the butcher scans the roof then climbs all the way out on it. A pallet lays flipped upside down on the roof, the blue paint of it strangely untouched by weather. The butcher readies his bat and makes a wide arc around the air conditioning unit, the toe of a pink sneaker made visible in the widening angle.
“Are you alive?” the butcher asks, moving no further.
“Are you sick?”
“No. Are you?”
“No. Is anyone else with you?”
The butcher pauses a moment, looks off the roof. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
“When did you last eat?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I have food.”
“I don’t want it.”
The butcher slips back down through the trapdoor and returns to the dining room. Despite her own words Ada, the owner of the pink sneaker, is soon to follow. She stops just shy of the freezer, her eyes on the spoon that pins the door shut. When the butcher re-enters the kitchen he notices her gaze.
“You know this one, don’t you?”
Ada nods her head. “His name is Lewis Moon. He chased me here and I couldn’t kill him. What do I have to do for it?”
“What do you have to do for what?”
“You have to sit on your ass and eat it.”
“I don’t have to do anything gross?”
“I don’t want to say. My dad said some people are like that.”
“Not this ‘some people.’”
The butcher leads her into the diner, indicates the thermos at the booth. He opens it and pours the contents into the cup that makes the lid.
She moves into the booth, lowering herself to the seat by placing her hands on the table. She sniffs at the meal and tries the sauce, then takes a bite. Then another. Within a few bites she gives up any restraint and gorges herself in an effort to tame her hunger.
“Slow down there, pup,” says the butcher as he sits in the booth across from her. “How’s it sitting?”
“Good. But kind of gross too.”
“Kinda gross is about as good as it gets.”
“It’s just, is that creamed corn?”
“Yeah. Soulless soul food, in my royal opinion. The butcher scratches his head and gazes out into the slipping evening light. “Look little lady, I’m about to head out. I know you don’t know me, but you can come if you want.”
“Anywhere, everywhere. Drumheller next, probably. I need a little liquid silver,” he says as he holds up a small, empty bottle.
“I don’t know. What about Lewis?”
“What about him?”
“I’ve been thinking. I think he should be dead. Like real dead.”
“So what’s your plan, you want me to do it?”
“No, me,” Ada says and she produces the iron nail. “Tank Girl would do it.”
The butcher looks the girl over, taking in the torn up world exampled right there in the diner. “Okay,” he says, “How ‘bout I help this Tank Girl out.”
Ada looks up at him trying to see just what kind of adult this is. Something about his physicality reminds her of her father. “You’re a good guy, right?” she asks.
The butcher looks at her. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have I got that bad at making friends?”
“Well friends know each other’s names.”
“Is that so?”
“Alright. I’m Otis Parrish. Now how about we go take care of Lewis? If you wanna be friends after that, you can tell me your name.”
A fair trade, and the killing of Lewis Moon is instructional. But Ada does use the iron nail and she does cry when he dies by her hand. And for that reason the butcher allows her a moment alone in the El Camino, for she seems above all, ashamed of her sorrow. Besides, he himself needed a moment to consider this second encounter with the burnt man.
While Ada wipes away her tears she looks around the cabin of the car. There is clothing and bottles for water strewn about. A pillow. And while she summarizes most of what she sees with passive interest, there is one focal point a photograph held in plae by an elastic to the rear view mirror. She leans to look at it, noting the woman’s auburn hair and her ice blue eyes. She almost looks like she is laughing, her smile is so genuine.
The door opens and Ada is startled from her investigations. The butcher slides into the car with a fresh lit cigar and he glances across the console, knowing already what Ada was looking at. She lowers her head as if some privacy had been breached.
“That’s alright,” he says. “That’s what a picture is for.”
Ada looks up with her big brown eyes at the butcher. He knows those eyes, but it’s the best and worst kind of a secret to keep.
When the El Camino leaves it swerves madly onto the weather worn highway. Neither passenger speaks for a few minutes. Ada watches as the butcher smoke his cigar and notes the depth of his draws. She watches him and the woman in the picture alternately.
“She’s pretty,” Ada says finally.
“Lenore? That she is,” the butcher says glancing at the picture. “Sometimes I still tell her so.”
“You talk to her?”
“What do you say?”
“I don’t know. I tell her what’s going on. What I’m thinking, I guess. I tell her I miss her.”
Ada nods once, looks out her own window, the grey country panning swifty by. “Can I ask you a question, Otis?”
“You can if you tell me what this Tank Girl business is about.”
“Okay. So what is soul food?”
What The Butcher Does (On the Juke: #010 “I Got Mine” — The Black Keys)
The burning Winnebago plumes in a great last blast of flame, the fire finally at the gas tank. The butcher sits on the hood of his car, his hand resting on the hickory heel of a stainless steel axe. The heat of the blaze makes him sweat, the falling ash looking like oil as it mixes with perspiration.
The metal siding of the Winnebago finally folds in the heat and soon the fire calms to an even burn. From his pocket the butcher produces a cigar. Adding its own aromatic fumes against the bulk rank of the vehicle, and against too, the tines of burnt flesh lingering there. He takes up his axe as he walks back into the melee.
Exploded tire lies burning in small pieces, ghost-like fabric floating black against the fire. The butcher puffs at the stogy as he uses the axe to sift through chunks of roasted steel. The woman’s carcass, cooked on the side closest to the fire, is still oozing on the other. He leaves her for other debris. Through the smoked and cracked glass of a thrown door he sees what he waited for. Flipping the wreckage from off his prize, the butcher bends down and feels the woman’s dismembered leg. He chews his cigar as he inspects the limb and finding it well enough, he sinks the axe blade into the calf and walks back to the car, the bloody cut slung over his shoulder. Then he half turns in the road toward the wreckage and he winks at you and then moves on.
The Name (On the Juke: #020 “Good Man” — Raphael Saadiq)
What surprised me is that she stayed. When she found out I ate them back, I mean. Though truthfully, I wouldn’t know where else she could go. When most of the world wants to eat you, I guess you go with the guy with the car. Not that she didn’t look at me sideways for a week. Finally she forgave me, though, I think, because she came and sat across from me while I was eating. Her big eyes just levelling at me. And finally she spit it out.
“How did you even know you could eat them?”
“Well, the crows, I guess. If they ain’t fresh the crows won’t bite.”
“And how many have you eaten?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you know their names?”
“No. How would I? Besides, they have no names. Not anymore.”
“They all have names,” she says pointing at the stew on my plate. “Like this guy. He should have a name.”
“Alright. How about, Stu?”
“Stu,” Ada repeats in disgust. “Nice joke, Otis.”
Little Ada. And she’s been like that for a good while now. Calling me on my bullshit, but at least she’s eating. But truthfully, I do remember the name of the first one I ate. But I’ve never let slip that name out loud. Not until that moment with Ada.
“He was the first, Ada. Harvey Mansion was the first.”
Prelude: The Final Frontier (On the Juke: #002 “Who Knows” — Marion Black)
…six years earlier, the town of Vulcan, AB…
The skies are endless grey over Vulcan, but the rains themselves are down to their last smatterings, and every colour under that cold, wet motif is deeper for it. The green and red tractors at the dealership, the few but various abandoned cars and pickups, the old plastered box buildings and road signs. The monumental World War II planes atop their concrete perches are blacker and more foreboding. The whole town is ghostlike, Otis thinks as he spies it on the long empty highway leading to it. The man himself is gaunt under the tarp he wears, a beard on him growing all chaotic like a northern bush.
He arrives exhausted at the town’s edge, an involuntary chatter to his teeth. He leans against a transport van haphazardly left on the tarmac, finding a moment later, the rear doors of it unlocked. He sits his tired self at the edge of it, too tired to clamber fully inside, and for a time he stays there, thin and lifeless.
Through the grey, towards him, ambles one of the sick. It’s a man in a metallic green rayon racing jacket, a pistol dangling at the end of his arm. Otis rises slowly to his feet and calls to the man but his only response is garbled breathing. Otis moves out from the mouth of the van, his baseball bat dropping into view from the interior of the tarp.
A single dull thud fells the man. Otis swings a second time, battering his head into the torn asphalt. A leg spasms and the rain trickles. In the man’s hand the gun shows its cylinder and six vacant passages. In his other hand are the interlocking fingers of a woman, the digits roughly gnawed on. Her wedding ring still intact. There on his coat, is embroidered the man’s name in a curling font.
Otis nudges the man once with a boot then returns to the van to sit. He leans on the bat and stares at the man named Harvey Mansion laying dead in the road.
After a while a crow comes and Otis watches him begin to eat. He is enamored how the bird chooses the best meal from him. The bird begins at a fresh and fleshy tear in Harvey Mansion’s leg. Strings of raw meat. Gore on the beak. This is not the first crow he’s watched. “Shit,” he says. “I’m really gonna do this.”
He makes a small fire right in the van, burning the passenger seat after a small and unsuccessful foray for more suitable and dry kindling. The fire burns strange with its synthetic hues, but Otis doesn’t notice them. Instead he turns a hunting knife in his hand mindlessly, his eyes ever on the crow eating away.
It’s the only solace Otis offers Harvey Mansion aloud before he puts the knife to the man. The cuts he takes are few and quickly made and he cooks them near to black. When he finally eats he looks skyward as if to god. But it’s not god he sees while he chews, instead it’s the town’s most iconic symbol: a replica of the USS Enterprise.
After the meal he waits. Every gurgle of his belly and every turn his guts make, he considers them all the sure signs of incidental suicide. Then the guilt sets in and his guts turn even more. So he offsets it with industry, climbing the ladder of the town’s water tower to see what he can see. But while he’s leaning over the rail he vomits, the notion of what he did finally flipping his guts over more so than the meal itself. While the last of his purge hangs in tendrils from his mouth, he spots in the parking lot of the Starlight Inn, a car as green as a lizard. And given the violent shade of green, he’s willing to bet it’s the car of Harvey Mansion. So to Harvey Mansion he goes once more, this time in search of keys.
Otis will find the car at the Inn, and the engine will turn live and loud. He will pluck a photograph of Lenore from his coat, will stick the corner of it into the rear view mirror and when he looks at her he’ll promise he’s looking for her, and it’s a fine sentiment to believe. He’ll seal it with a kiss laid on two fingers and hold them to the image.
Read more from n k henry at Across the Margin!: “Endure Ye Yet, O Unfortunate Beast.”