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By Tawni O'Dell
New American LibraryCopyright © 2005 Tawni O'Dell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI FINISH MY BEER, CRUSH THE CAN OUT OF HABIT, AND TOSS IT onto the floor of my truck, where it hits the other cans with a small clang. From where I'm parked, a sparkling stream of piss seems to be coming directly from the filthy blue roof of a yellow, pink-shuttered plastic playhouse, as if the structure itself is filled with liquid and has suddenly sprung a precise and artful leak.
I keep a watch on it as I take another bite of my ham-salad sandwich from the Valley Dairy and reach over to the glove compartment where I keep Vicodin and my revolver. I take out the pills and a folded piece of paper. An old high-school football team photo that Art, the owner of Brownie's bar, took down from his wall of fame next to the men's room and gave to me and a road map fall out, along with a can of shaving cream and a folder filled with car accident reports.
The piece of paper is a fax from the state parole board. I open it and flatten it out on the seat beside me.
Reese Raynor's grainy, black-and-white face stares up at me with the stale eyes of someone who thinks he's always being told something he already knows. His teeth are clamped shut, his top lip drawn back in a smirking snarl that I would probably find cartoonish in its attempt to intimidate if I didn't know him personally.
He haschanged amazingly little during eighteen years in prison. Except for a paunchiness around his jowls and the loss of some of his hair, he could be the same kid I went to school with.
Beneath his mug shot is the standard information on the parolee, his crime, his sentence. The only item I care about is the release date and time: Tuesday, March 12, 8:00 A.M. Today is Sunday. It's 1:16 P.M., and I'm late picking up Jolene to go to Zo Craig's funeral.
Next I glance at our old team photo in a needless exercise of confirmation: 1980 Centresburg Flames. AA District Champions. One game shy of a state title. Myself in the front row: I. Zoschenko, cocaptain. Reese in the back row, on the far end, with his stare like two grimy nickels. Beside him his twin brother, Jess, the other cocaptain, his eyes glazed with the determined numbness of someone forced to share a bus seat with a ticking bomb.
A few weeks after the photo was taken, Reese was kicked off the team. Most of the guys couldn't believe he lasted as long as he did. He rarely attended practice. He never opened a playbook. He stalked off in disgust each time Coach Deets wheeled the blackboard into the locker room. For Reese every defensive play began and ended with the simple wisdom "A crippled man cannot score."
But Deets let all that slide. He would've let Genghis Khan play for us if he could block, and Reese could block. He had no finesse or speed, and a very limited understanding of the rules and objectives of the game, but no one could get past him.
What finally made Deets give him the boot was his performance off the field. The day after a game-even the games we won-members of the opposing team would find the headlights on their trucks bashed in, or all the windows on their houses blackened with dog shit, or a younger sister deposited on the front yard, drunk and deflowered.
Deets would have tolerated that, too, but the other teams had a problem with it.
I put the photo back in the glove compartment and unfold my deputy's map: a highly detailed blowup of the county. I've traced what I think will be Reese's path, highlighting all the bars along the way and making a looping detour near Altoona to accommodate a trip to The Tail Pipe, a favored strip joint in the area.
I'm assuming he'll head to Jess's house. He doesn't get along with his parents, and the rest of his family in the area is made up of sisters who are married to men who won't let him come near their homes. He and Jess were the oldest and the only boys in Chimp Raynor's tribe of pale, lip-licking girls with dark stares like cloaks who never spoke unless spoken to and never walked down the middle of a hallway. The two brothers were the meat of the family; the girls were the drippings.
My job has brought me to the home of one of the sisters. She's married with kids now. Her mother is on the premises as well, the ominous incubator of Jess and Reese. She's hiding in the gunshot-riddled Buick in the driveway.
I get out of my truck and close the door softly, trying to be quiet, and take a few careful steps up the driveway, but my boots crunch over the windshield glass sprayed everywhere. As the pisser comes into view, he turns to look at me but keeps himself aimed in the same direction, continuing to make an impressive arc over his wife's peacock green gazing ball and her lawn goose prematurely dressed for Easter in a bunny costume they're already selling out at the mall.
I see his gun leaning against the playhouse where he put it while his hands are otherwise occupied. A Winchester twelve-gauge. Chuck, our dispatcher, didn't say anything about its being a shotgun, but his wife probably didn't think to specify when she called. I reach into my pocket for a roll of Certs and pop one in my mouth to mask the scent of beer.
The man's face doesn't register any definable emotion or even recognition upon seeing me, but he raises a hand in greeting.
The gesture causes him to lurch slightly to one side as he's drying up to a trickle, and the goose and ball get spattered. I glance toward the front window of the house and see Bethany Raynor, now Bethany Blystone, and her two little girls peering through the curtains. She turns livid when she sees her goose get hit.
I take a few more steps toward him, passing by the car. Inside, his mother-in-law is hunkered down as far as she can go on the floor. There are fragments of glass in her teased, gray hair that look almost decorative when she cranes her neck up toward me out of the shadows and a plank of daylight falls across her face. The seat above her has been ripped open by the shotgun blasts.
"Are you all right?" I ask her.
She's trembling, but she's remarkably calm considering the circumstances. Forty-five years of marriage to Chimp have probably taught her to dole out hysteria sparingly. She manages to nod, then whispers to me, "Why are you all dressed up?"
She works at the Kwik-Fill on the north side of Centresburg where I buy my gas, and she always sees me in a deputy's shirt.
"Funeral," I whisper back.
"Zo Craig's?" she asks.
"I saw her obituary in the paper," she goes on. "It was almost as big as Elizabeth Taylor's."
"I'm pretty sure Elizabeth Taylor is still alive."
"Oh, you know who I mean. The other one."
I look in Rick's direction again. He has a slight sway to him now.
"Right," I say. "I loved that movie she did. You know the one."
She nods again.
"Jess did Zo's mowing. Did you know that? She has a real nice John Deere tractor. He loves that tractor."
"I better go talk to Rick," I tell her. "You stay put."
I take a deep breath and start walking toward him. There's a strong smell of wet dirt beneath the acrid carbide smell still lingering around his gun and the stench of alcohol wafting off him. I'm not close enough to smell yet, but I swear I can see it hanging around him the way heat in the summertime makes the air ripple.
The dirt smell makes me think about Zo's impending funeral and the freshly dug plot that's waiting for her in the J&P cemetery next to her long-dead husband, one of the ninety-seven men who died in Gertie.
"How ya doing, Rick?" I call out amiably.
He fixes a glassy stare on me.
I move closer but still keep a fair distance away from him so I don't panic him. I have two objectives at this point: get hold of the shotgun and save the lawn ornaments from any future urination.
I motion at him to move toward me.
"Why don't you bring it over here, Rick? Your kids play around there, don't they?"
He's staring at me trying to place me, not in the present but in the past where most of us like to keep each other now that we've seen the future.
He finally drops his gaze and looks forlornly at the puddle he created next to an overturned doll stroller with a stuffed animal strapped inside it.
With his back toward me, I move quickly to the playhouse and pick up the shotgun.
He doesn't turn around. He raises his head and stares at the land behind his house beyond his yard.
The morning rain has stopped, and the sun is trying to make its presence known by shining dimly behind the wall of gray clouds that meets the rim of lavender-smudged hills with the finality of a lid. The weather's been pretty good lately. It's a shame it couldn't have been a little drier today. I know that wherever Zo's practical soul is right now, it will be upset over the thought of all the good shoes that are going to get caked with mud and the time spent cleaning them afterward.
"Ivan? Ivan Z?" Rick asks unsteadily, turning around to face me.
"Yeah, Rick. It's me."
A smile ticks briefly at the corners of his mouth like a small spasm.
"I heard you was back, but I didn't really believe it. Working for Jack, huh? How's it going?"
"Okay. How's it going with you?"
We both glance at his house, where the two little girls are still pressed against the window, but Bethany has disappeared. Their stares dart back and forth between their dad and me and the car with the shattered windshield where their grandmother is hiding. It occurs to me that they might not know if she's living or dead.
"They're closing Lorelei," Rick announces.
He stands in the middle of the yard and somehow manages to look uncomfortably stiff even though everything about him, from his dick hanging out of his jeans to his arms hanging at his sides to the drunken slackness of his unshaven cheeks, is limp.
"So I heard."
"I only got called back nine months ago. I was out of work for almost a year before that."
I hear the front door open and see Bethany, out of the corner of my eye, head for the car. She opens the door, and a sob catches in her throat. Her mother stumbles out, and they wrap their arms around each other. Rick watches them.
"There's only Marvella left now," he says, "and it's all longwall."
He shakes his head.
"I don't want to do it again. I can't do it again. Being unemployed."
The two women are crying. He notices and points accusingly at them.
"My mother-in-law has a steady job. She's been working at that goddamned Kwik-Fill since the beginning of time. She used to sell Slim Jims to Ben Fucking Franklin."
We watch the women help each other into the house. Bethany shoots him another scathing look, this time directed at his exposed manhood.
"And then there's Chimp. Worst miner ever lived. And he ends up working longer than anybody. Gets full retirement. Now he's even collecting black-lung benefits when nobody else can get them, and he doesn't even have it. You know he doesn't have it. He's got that shit you get from smoking all the time. What's it called? Empha-seeming?"
"Yeah. That's it. I swear, if he fell into a pile of shit, he'd come up with a golden turd in his mouth."
I think back to high school and the few times I visited Jess at home. He and his family lived in a peeling, sagging shell of a farmhouse with a pack of spittle-flinging dogs roaming in and out of the propped-open front door and had a yard covered with so much junk it looked like the house had vomited its contents.
If there were such things as golden turds, Chimp obviously didn't know what to do with them once he found them.
"Is that why you tried to kill your mother-in-law?" I ask him, getting back to the topic at hand. "Career envy?"
"I didn't try and kill her," he says.
He takes a few wobbling steps toward me, then stops suddenly like the ground has been yanked away.
"I was shooting at the car," he says once he finds his balance again. "I didn't want her to leave. That's all. I knew she was going to drive straight back to her house and call every goddamned old lady in the tristate area and tell them what a loser I am. What a goddamned fucking loser I am!" He screams it to the heavens.
The effort makes his knees buckle, and he drops onto the muddy grass. Once he hits, he starts crying. I don't know if it's out of misery or because he got caught in his zipper. He puts himself back in his pants and brings his hands up to cover his face, knocking off his company ball cap with J&P COAL stitched in frayed, faded gold across the front. Losing his hat makes him cry harder.
I squat down in front of him, and my bad knee sings out in pain. It's been almost twenty years and six operations since my accident. I can walk pretty well, but I will never again be able to squat; however, something in my mind and body won't allow this fact to register, and I'm still constantly attempting it the same way my mother continues to make mincemeat pies for Christmas every year, even though my dad was the only one in our family who liked them.
I put my hands on Rick's shoulders. He stops sobbing for a moment, and understanding briefly skates across his dull gaze.
"You gonna arrest me?" he asks.
"I'm going to take your gun for a while. Do you have any more in the house?"
"I'm going to take those, too."
I brace his shotgun against the ground and use it as a crutch to help me get back to a standing position.
"Why don't you just stay here for a minute?" I instruct him, needlessly.
He's already fallen over, sprawled out on his stomach, with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself. I head for the house and knock on the front door.
Bethany answers. She's not happy to see me even though she's the one who called and asked me to come here.
She stares at me, courteously defiant. She's put on about sixty pounds of flesh and attitude since high school.
I try picturing her young self without the extra weight, with her hair feathered like Farrah's, wearing Chic jeans instead of the orange stretch pants she's wearing now, worn shiny at the knees, along with a voluminous thigh-length sweatshirt created by retailers for the sole purpose of concealing various types of female physical hell.
"How's your mother?" I ask.
"She's fine. A little shaken up is all. She's lying down."
"Your husband says he wasn't trying to kill her. He was trying to prevent her from leaving."
"Yeah," she says. "I told her to just sit down and let him cool off, but she had a hair appointment. Now she's missed it anyway."
Behind her is a room that belongs to a woman who doesn't put housekeeping high on her list of things to do.
Excerpted from Coal Run by Tawni O'Dell Copyright © 2005 by Tawni O'Dell. Excerpted by permission.
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