Head: Stories

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"People speak of stories and novels as being ‘plot-driven,’ or, say, ‘voice-driven.’ If anything, Tester’s stories are fear-driven. There is, in these stories, fear of women—each jittery flirtation an agony of nervous desire—fear of a cruel stepfather who routinely endangers his stepsons, fear of one’s prospects. There is fear of the very act of speech, given the narrator’s ruinous stutter. Yet it is the resulting clumsiness—the missteps, the need so great—that seduces us in ...

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Overview

"People speak of stories and novels as being ‘plot-driven,’ or, say, ‘voice-driven.’ If anything, Tester’s stories are fear-driven. There is, in these stories, fear of women—each jittery flirtation an agony of nervous desire—fear of a cruel stepfather who routinely endangers his stepsons, fear of one’s prospects. There is fear of the very act of speech, given the narrator’s ruinous stutter. Yet it is the resulting clumsiness—the missteps, the need so great—that seduces us in ways some smooth operator could not."—Amy Hempel

The eleven gorgeous stories in Head are remarkably varied in setting and cultural context: a bullying cattleman forces his two stepsons to lay fence in a Florida swamp; a haunted gay drifter hooks up with a rich young Italian in the shadow of the Vatican. Like Harold Brodkey’s manic protagonists, William Tester’s characters seem constantly poised on a psychic edge. Head contains some of the most daring and genuinely erotic writing in contemporary literature.

William Tester is a native of Charleston and North Florida, and is the author of the novel Darling, published by Alfred A. Knopf (1992). He has degrees from Syracuse and Columbia Universities, and is the recipient of the NEA Fellowship for Fiction, the Hob Broun Prize, the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In "Wet," this anxiety-prone collection's fine lead story, two teenage brothers struggle against nature and their overbearing stepfather in an odd, real estate-grabbing task: stretching barbed wire across a portion of Florida lake as a lightning storm sets in. Inauspicious as this scenario may seem for exploring troubled family dynamics or the acid reflux of fear, Tester (Darling) escalates the narrator's hungover awkwardness, his older brother Jim's competitiveness and their stepfather Lloyd's bullying to a fever pitch as their pointless labor becomes a struggle for power and survival. Some of the better stories here recount earlier incidents in this Florida cracker family album. "Cousins" features narrator Nim and Jim's adolescent competition for a pretty cousin, and the quietly sad "Floridita" evokes a unique mood and tone as the children listen to their father's tape-recorded letters from Vietnam, even as they know their mother is leaving him for Lloyd. Elsewhere, Tester's successful experiments in everyday dread include the linked stories of a night on the town for aimless New York singles ("Where the Dark Ended") and an existentially difficult stint at the office ("Bad Day"). Sometimes, though, stories like "The Living and the Dead," featuring a college dropout's hitchhiking and hustling tour of Italy, have the air of retrograde minimalism, with the hallmark of an affectless and slightly inarticulate mind game. Yet, overall, this work from Head, who won the 1999 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, shows a strong new talent on the rise. The book's bizarre cover, depicting a man with a hat made from a plastic jug, may please or repel browsers in equal measure, but it will get their attention. Agent, Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Scott Bradfield
By virtue of their hard, sensual clarity and a refusal to sentimentalize, they deftly manage to avoid the yawning threat of solipsism . . . A beautifully written book, a book well worth entering even if it doesn't quickly show you the way out.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781889330488
  • Publisher: Sarabande Books
  • Publication date: 10/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Wet


Like it wants something, barbwire bites at my T-shirt and nicks my belly and my chest. But I take an end, lug up a roll with my brother. We heft the barbwire into our truck. The bed shudders—our truck has its own mind too, just like everything. Even my thin freckled arm.

    I leave the barn, blink at the soggy green land on our farm with the palm trees' breezing fronds. Junk is everywhere. What doesn't still need to sleep? Already. the sun seems to vaporize last night's rain into a visible greenhouse heat, and everything glistens, or wavers, and steams a little.

    "You're pickled. Sit, Snow White," Jim says. He tells me, "Easy, Hercules. I got it."

    "I'm not all that awake," I say, and sip at a bottle of warm Coke by the truck.

    "I'm good," he says. "You rest your drawers a minute."

    Jim means it. He's shirtless, tanned and knotted and has a copper circling of hair around dark nipples on his chest. Wet lines of sweat run down his stomach. It's cooler inside our tin barn, shaded, and I sit with my hangover across a hay bale and watch how Jim talks with the wire, familiarly, used to big tools and to working—but he will suddenly, like our dad would, haul off and beat at some machine. I remember this one old Polaroid picture: Jim has the smirking, dented eyebrows that our younger father had.

    I'm still tipsy, and Jim just keeps loading the wire. On most weekends our stepdad, Lloyd, doesn't wake all that chipper himself. He'll rub his big bellyand tell me, Modern days, you got to be scheming and spending just to show you're still afloat.

    You can't bullshit a bullshitter, he says.

    A smell of mouse steams up when I turn a roll. There are three nude, baby, pink mice. They're blind, asleep, and twitch like fingers, and I have to dry heave over a bale.

    "Know what I think? You ought to eat some sandwich," Jim says, and he nods to a plate on a rusting barrel with his white bread and ketchuped eggs. I'm nicked as shit, but barbwire never scratches Jim. He cleans and jerks a roll out in a slant of barn-door sun. I see him practicing baskets at school. Always far from me. Greasering under his car hood. Bad in math, smirking—that's how he is.

    And who's this squirt?

    That's Nim, my brother. Jim takes me cruising, drinking beer.

    We meet girls at night, girls who he says will swim naked.

    I try to help. Things could be worse, I figure. The rain last night maybe broke the drought. Maybe not. The palm trees in back of our barn lean with a breeze, but our land is blasted. I could be dead, I guess, or stuck here sweating without a brother. I pull my gloves off, and it feels like I'm peeling away heat. "It's useless, I'm no good at this farm shit," I say. "I give."

    "I got it. Why don't you rest your head," Jim says.

    I say our dad wouldn't be working us raw like this. I ask why are we working so hard when it looks like it's going to rain. Gray hills of cloud float over our fence line, piling up.

    Jim says, "Either way. We get the dried end of the lake fenced off, and the rest of the weekend's fishing. Now Dad's city kids, what can they do down there in Miami? We can take the boat, hunt if we want or whichever."

    In a swamp, I think.

    All morning everything watches me. I'm hungover as hell. I sit still on a hay bale, dreading work, a heave rolling up in my stomach, then I see our stepdad's hatted shadow cross the ground past the door of the barn. I go grab wire.

    The shadow talks.

    "You boys having a problem?" Lloyd says.

    We look at each other like we don't know what, but that's okay, because all the wire is loaded, all our tools. Our little sister packed our cooler with sodas.

    Lloyd blocks our doorway scraping his boot heel. He is big as sin. "You're about green in the gills," he says, and thumps me in the ribs. Lloyd gingers off his Stetson, fans. Then uses it to silently count out rolls of the loaded wire. "All righty, that lake ain't getting no drier. If you girls are ready to work," he says.

    I sit in the rushing truck wind by my window faking sleep, but even with my eyes closed I know all the curves and stop signs, every tremble of change in the roads. Smooth blacktop, whispering gravel, macadam. In the swimming red-blackness behind my eyelids I know here's a truck-stop parking lot and there's a grove of lemons. I lose my grip sometimes and sleep, but I don't like it—and I wake with a spot of my drool on Lloyd's arm.

    Lloyd passes wind. "Listen to that alligator yawp," he says. His face is unshaven, and some whiskers glint clear with an inner light.

    Lloyd likes to keep me up front in the cab with him, to split us up. Past the shotgun rack and the window, Jim rides crouching in the truck bed with Sherman and Abe to keep those red hounds in, so I lean farther out. I lean as if only looking and spit a thin, long stream of bile. Abe sniffs at it, interested. I see Jim yelling something at me, but his sound all dissolves in a wash of wind. With their noses up, our dogs wait for me to spit again.

    I can taste something like silver, a smell of beer.

    "God, when'd you all get to bed?" Lloyd says. He shakes his head and reaches for a packet of cheese crackers on the dash. "I catch you all out drinking, and me and your mama'll whip your ass. Say, tell the truth. You weren't out chasing those split-tails, were you?" He grins.

    I see me sitting last night in Jim's Nova. We're at Ocala Lake. The tape deck is going, and while Jim is parked off in Regina's car, I'm drinking his six-pack of Coors. I'm bored, and I'm muggy, and my throat is tight. I pop a beer. Rain rumbles out on the windshield. A car door light blinks on outside, streaked with rain, and two girls run off to another car. I thought, what could I say to those girls? One was laughing, her clothes blue as milk in the darkness.

    I could have driven on home on my learner's, but what was at home?

    Green-fruited orange groves line the highway, and in the new housing development behind the groves, a water tower is painted to look like a golf ball on its tee. "God a' mighty, look! Look at that Yankee shit," Lloyd says.

    My temples are roaring and I would rather not talk to him. I try to look grim and nod.

    "So-called real estate.... Guess you two studs have been out all night drinking? Like I can't tell," he says. "Well, if you're pukey, there's some Old Crow under my seat, here." He spooks me by reaching over quickly to squeeze my knee. Lloyd yawns, rubbing his whiskers, then he glances over and sees I've flinched. He wins. Lloyd's not that bad, but I think despite himself, fear gives him some small sense of pleasure. It's a kind of awe.

    His eyes go dead and shiny, and he waves a big tanned arm at the world. "Paving everything. Soon won't be nothing left," he says.

    I nod, but we're off to fence his lake in.

    We stop for gas at Stuckey's, and when I come back from getting sick in the men's I see three city children in matching clothes walk up to look in our truck. They're Miami types, fish-belly white, and they poke at things. Jim lets them, his back to the kids while he pumps the gas.

    Then Jim says our dogs will bite their hands off.

    No way, the kids tell Jim.

    "Well?" he asks me.

    "Every finger," I say. "Go ahead."


* * *


Our other land is swamp and jungle. There's no land, just trees and overgrowth of vines, and green palmettos, roots and cypress, muck and ferns and moss and mushroom clusters—there's no earth, but what there is is lush and pretty. We bump down a weedy trail through a moss-hung tunnel beneath the trees. The dead gray moss blocks almost everything, fluffing across our windshield like a solid mossy wall or like the ragged clothes of ghosts. Big white magnolia flowers hanging low enough to hit our truck hood burst apart when we drive by the branches, scattering leaves and long white blossoms that slap like hands against the glass. From inside it is a wonder, with spiders and speckled emerald lizards falling all over and our dogs straining and snapping at stuff in the back.

    Out here, everything is sweaty or bites or is dying. In a steamy heat.

    Lloyd pulls up through a clearing. Where we are is the wooded end of a bean-shaped lake. It is mostly marsh, and it is ready to be grazed to the water. Right now though, the cows haven't wrecked it, and it's peaceful here, totally wild. You could lie down and practically sleep, but Lloyd and Jim would see. "Sleepy, here, still needs his nap," they'd kid. I sit up.

    Lloyd parks on the marsh bed down by our metal boat. We're stopped, but I still feel the wind, its static. The air has a charge, and the far end of the lake is now rimmed with those pearly gray mountains of cloud. Like the bomb was dropped.

    Lloyd says "You boys don't start playing. We're here to work."

    I think to myself, what a jerk. I look back at our two dogs wagging their bodies entirely, grinning back. The dogs are foolish and all jumped up. Lloyd gets out and steers Abe's nose to the waving sawgrass while he points at nothing much. "Go get 'em," Lloyd whispers, and the dogs leap out there running. Our dogs are gone.

    I follow Lloyd and Jim a hundred yards out where our fence ends, down to the brace posts sunk in the weedy marsh. Lloyd squishes out onto cattails. I act interested and drag out the crowbar we use to spool wire.

    Jim says, "It's rained here, too," and he kicks the muck. "The water's high. This land's still as wet as my pecker."

    Like Lloyd, Jim's guessing, since no one can see for the swords of grass. It could be millions of years ago here, all the dragonflies. Sawgrass is thick as dry wheat. Things flit and swarm at my forehead. "And it's buggy, man."

    "So. Now we're here.... We're laying fence," says Lloyd. "This little swamp pond will dry up directly."

    Lloyd takes his hat off as if it would help him to think. On a map this lake shows bigger, but Lloyd says when a drought settles in on North Florida the lake goes dry for years. Lloyd buys the shoreline strip of cheap forest, to the waterline. If the lake shrinks small, Lloyd tells us, then two hundred curving acres of shoreline will dry into a thousand acres of land. New, sawgrassed, grazing land for cattle. "We fence this end of the lake, and it's our'n. You follow me?

    See, your smart man will think so he won't have to work, he says.

    "We'll lay that barbwire, razor tight, right on the top of the water. Just a single strand ... won't even need us no posts."

    Jim says, "But the lake makes a fence, you ask me."

    "Well, knothead, next time I'll ask you. How's that?"

    I sneer at Jim. Lloyd yanks my T-shirt, and we follow him out where the lake is marsh. I nod like I'm listening, but I'm gone again.

    —Last night, they were out in the rain, looking for beer. I called to them. One girl laughed out in the darkness, running car-to-car. "She let me, Nim. I screwed Regina," said Jim.

    I could tell he did.

    Out on the marshy grass, I watch a swamp rabbit slip through palmetto shoots. I think, if Lloyd wasn't here, I'd blast that swamp rabbit all to hell.

    Lloyd brings me back to him. "She's drying fine. Look it here, look how much field we could claim. Now you all go load up your boat. Take that crowbar, and spool up your barbwire out from the boat back."

    "The boat," I whisper. "Are you kidding?"

    I aim the crowbar at Lloyd's back like he's a rabbit.

    "Yeah, you all go bring up the boat," Jim says, but not where Lloyd can hear him.

    I go with Jim. It's not that I care where we lay the fence. The thing is, my head's still banging, and I need to slow down our pace a bit. The air trembles. I tell myself I shouldn't drink. I can't drink, I say, and I think about sneaking a nip of Lloyd's liquor, a Sprite even. I whisper, "Why don't we just lay the fence where the lake is dry."

    "That'd be too simple," says Jim.

    "It sucks," I say, then I knock it off, hearing myself.

    I help my brother upright our small rowboat. A heat pours out, sickening us. Where the boat laid up draining, the grass is bleached, making a shadow boat. Yellow-green. Bugs flick up in the spiky grass, and from everywhere crickets and frogs and cicadas hum, droning. The sound wants to buzz from inside your head. Then it feels like wet sand in my mouth—like I'll lose my lunch, and I sneak to the pickup and fish under the seat for Lloyd's whiskey, but I chicken out.

    "Well, tiger, you look good," Jim says. "The Living Dead. Why don't we just fucking shoot you." We drag the boat out from under the tree line and up to the marsh where the lake water starts. We load it up, aluminum buckling and popping. No one talks.

    I think back to when we were small. Our dad would take my sister Jane and me and Jim fishing. Jane and I always got sick. Or I'd hit her. Once I was afraid to bait crickets, and I dropped their butter tub in the water where they got away. "Fuck it. Forget it," Dad said, and he took us home, knuckling the plasticky steering wheel, choking it. Now Dad is different. He has other kids, and I think about living with him in Miami.

    Dad could drive up and come save us.

    But I know I'm dreaming. I will never go.

    Lloyd sort of hops in the little boat and feeds out a loose end of barbwire.

    I take it, and when the thunder hits, each of us leaps back a step from the wire and a thunder sound hums through our fence post and down the fence, rumbling us.

    "—That liked to scared me, no shit!" says Jim. "I'd say it's fixing to storm."

    Lloyd looks at his boots in the boat floor. They are rubber-soled, and he glances above at the weather. "Fine," he says, satisfied. "It'll cool us off good if it sprinkles. We leave now, and some rich man'll come put up a fence. Now you all come back here and push us off," and his mouth seems to stiffen like another Lloyd, serious.

    Through cattail reeds and sawgrass, I see water where muck has been. I see where the rain has filled our old shoreline, in tea-colored ponds. But we tiptoe in. Jim and I push, and a smell steams from under the boat, something sulfury, duckweed and pond scum and rotting fish. My boots sink, and Lloyd dips his oars in the sawgrass and tries to row.

    Aluminum warbles and scrapes the grass.

    Across the marsh, sawgrass bends tan on the water and a breeze stirs up, cooling us. Lloyd slaps his oar at some cattails. "Keep pushing! This mother won't row yet," he says. "If it storms, we'll quit."

    We shove him off, but the boat will not move through tall weeds.

    Lloyd curses and slams the old oar down, and unrolls more wire to give us slack. It jumps as it kinks and uncoils. We push him about ten feet out in the water, then Lloyd seems to read us—to be measuring Jim, and his face takes a sheen of fine sweat.

    "... Better yet," Lloyd says, "why don't you all stay out and just push the boat."

    I don't get him. I stand around looking when I understand Lloyd. It's his other voice.

    "Could yall wade?" he says. "Marsh here is too thick to paddle. If the water gets high we'll row her, but not till we're pushed past this sawgrass. You follow me? Well come on, girls. I don't mean starting tomorrow. Push!" he says. "I can't row this some-bitch, and sit here, and lay out the barbwire both."

    So we wade the lake slogging through water, kind of waking me, and my knees disappear in brown silt.

    Jim whispers, "We'll all be lightninged. We're gator bait."

    "It sucks," I say. "Why doesn't it just start to rain?"

    "—I tell you what. Why don't you all do what I goddamn ask!" Lloyd answers. "And I'd keep my boots on for snakes. Now let's see how far you can wade the boat. Push, damn it."

    Unkinking, the barbwire rolls out between us like a giant spring, and I suddenly slip in mud to my waist. "Whoa! Wait," I say.

    Lloyd snatches the uncoiling wire aside. "Good Christ!" he says, hovering his big, hatted bulk at me. "All right you sissy, get in! Get in ...," he yells. "Get in the fucking boat."

    Thunder comes, murmuring again, moving like stereo over the water. It is all around.

    "Believe this shit? Go ahead, Skinny, get in. Get in!" says Jim, holding the boat. "The lightning will kill us, if we don't sink."

    Now I'm too scared not to listen to Lloyd, and I climb on into the boat.

    My brother stays pushing; he wades the lake, moving us, sliding our boat across deeper glade. Before us the lake is a maze of marsh, walls of tall sawgrass. And rain coming.

    Lloyd hands me an end of the crowbar, and we lay the wire.

    "Push it, Jim! Look at your big brother work," Lloyd says to me. "Ain't you ashamed even a bit?"

    I want to answer him, yes.


* * *


Behind all these gray clouds above us, the lake has a long purplish curtain like night coming, but it's just noon. We hit clear water, and Jim climbs in and starts rowing. He is sopping wet up to his chest. A mile away, heat lightning strikes on the farthest shore. Flickering white.

    "Boy, hold that crowbar," Lloyd says, and he slaps my head.

    An egret unfolds and flaps softly across the green water lilies, toward the shore, and into the moss of our forest. Then the air rumbles closer. It thunders, and for a second we stop like our dogs will, and get back to work. Cattails surround us, then pass.

    —I'm fading. I almost puke holding the wire up. It coils out shining and quickly sinks.

    Jim drags his oars at the weeds, and the oars wing up, dripping with green rags of lily pad, bogging up.

    "Damn it to hell. We're all stuck again. Move," says Lloyd.

    Jim rows harder, only rocking us. "I'm caught," he says, catching his breath.

    "Idiot."

    I think, you gob of spit, and imagine us shotgunning Lloyd on this swamp somewhere, then a big, purple, darkening curtain draws over, and a drop of ice plops on my shoulder, and some smaller drops, clapping the water like shattered glass, and all at once it starts to rain.

    It roars on us.

    Rain splotches over Lloyd's shoulders and molds his clothes.

    "Jesus, God, give me a break," he says. "Idiots!"

    Rain makes Jim's hair wet and flattens his head to a smaller head. A smaller him.

    The rain pours down heavier, in a wall of wet. Rainwater runs on our faces and drums the boat. I'm dying. The wire is so heavy it feels like my fists have fused over the crowbar. They are throbbing white.

    Lloyd says, "Yall are so lazy ... it's not worth my effort to whup your ass." Lloyd's shirt is soaked. He shifts around trying to figure and nicks his fist, which pinkens with rain and thin blood.

    "I can't ever get nothing to work!" he yells. "Nothing, I swear it! I'm getting wet," and he hefts me the full weight of the wire.

    It breaks me, wham, and the wire drops past me and dents the floor.

    "Sissy boys, give me a try at those oars," Lloyd yells, and I watch my brother wince. Lloyd rises and crabs around standing, and shimmies the boat in the water, nearly tipping us. "Shit," he says, "I'm too big," and he sits on the boat wall and grins.

    Then I'm scared again. I watch Jim chew at his cheek. I have seen this look. He just sits. In thunderclouds flickering with lightning, we sit in our boat on the lily pads, rocking a little, surrounded by tall walls of sawgrass and bearing the rain like our blinking dogs.

    Not a mile away, lightning falls zigzagging, and I totally let go of the crowbar. Conductivity. I think of water and science. The rainwater pools where my wire roll dented the boat hull. Electric things. "See, Jim," I mutter to him. "He don't care."

    "Hell's bells," Jim says, and he stands to pole. "Okay," he says, passing an oar to me. "Then pole it when I do," he says. Jim poles hard and the boat lifts, rocking us, and I take up the oar and start shoving, but we barely go. Jim heaves. We're moving, and it looks like to me that my brother is not so much poling the boat, as he is dragging the whole lake beside us, like a giant rug.

    Then we stop.

    "That's it," Jim yells. "Molasses. She's fucking stuck."

    Lloyd bends to slacken the wire.

    Jim says, "Couldn't we just back up and row in?"

    Lloyd squints his face toward the rods of rain. His Stetson drips thin streams of water. Above us the storm howls and rains in tons, flooding our boat.

    "We could try, but we'd lose all that wire," Lloyd says. "It'd get all bunched up," and around him the sound is of thunder, and a roaring splash.

    "I can't," Lloyd says, finally. "Not at fifty-five dollar a roll."

    We squat there not moving, and then I sit.

    "... No way in hell," he says.

    The rain drifts in big sheets and veils of wet, raising a staticky roar of white noise. I start to like the sound, and behind the clouds, I can see lightning. It is beautiful, following us, like we are being eaten alive.

    I realize my head is fine. I don't feel a headache.

    "He'll have us fried," Jim says, huddled.

    Lloyd plays his hand at the water like a swimming fish, and the forest clouds flicker with lightning. He grins at Jim. "Look, son, it's really not all of that deep," he says, working on us, greasy, and he tips the wet front of his hat brim to dump the rain. Lloyd starts with Jim, hunkering down.

    Lloyd says, "The lightning's quit over us. Say, Jim, why don't you get in the water and push again? Why don't the two of you get in and push us."

    "Yeah, if you cut the wire," Jim says.

    Lloyd bows his head. "All right," he says, nodding a bit.

    Maybe there isn't anything in that world. But the shadowed lake looks at us, pocked with rain, and the three of us look back into its darkness.

    I touch the lake and notice it's warmer, then my hand jerks back from the lily pads feeling that something moved under the water, that it senses us, and Lloyd and Jim can see I got scared. I hear myself think don't give in. Don't show them you know that you've flinched.

    I dip my hand back in.

    I tell myself something our dad had said, Touch the bait, son. We were fishing then, touch the bait, son ... it won't kill you. Anyhow, you won't be scared if you're dead, or it could have been something else like this. Or a different day. But that was him, while I know that something in the lake, here, will kill me.

    Electricity. I touch my hand at the water.

    I'd rather let it, I think, than to be scared of Lloyd.

    I put my oar down. I squish off my boots and jump in.

    "Yeah, buddy, swim!" says Lloyd. "Push it boy."

    "Hell if I'm stupid," Jim yells. "It's too stormy, man." But after Jim says this he drops his oar, takes off his boots, and slides in.

    "Just shut the fuck up," he says, swimming. "You think I'd just sit there with him?"

    Where my face breaks the water, the lake is the color of iron and the rain is gray.

    Lightning hits. A slash of white over our shoreline. I feel thunder thump under the water, and around my feet, it quivers the rubbery-stalked lily pads.

    "Ignore it, boys," Lloyd yells. "See them tall cypresses? We're not the highest thing here. Push," he says.

    Down in the lake water, the sound of the rainfall surrounds me and pats my head. My chin parts the duckweed and hyacinths, lily pads, their flooded leaves sunken, or floating just under the lake in a film of rain. Jim and I swim back and paddle.

    I count the light flashes and wait for hot lightning to glow down our fence somewhere, boiling us. I won't give up, I think, swim.

    Lloyd rolls the wire and we push the boat, kicking again at the lake bottom, and I slog through what feels like a soup of snakes, cottonmouths. Leaves that fold over and mold my arms.

    Lloyd still leans over us, fencing. His hands are nicked, shaking, and he jerks a hand back when the lightning hits.

    A fizz fills my ears for a second. But I've gotten used to the lightning. I expect the flash, and I can hear rain patter under the water. Holding me, mud sucks and floods as I kick it, and loads my clothes. We swim twenty-odd feet through wet greenery, and I see what at first is a floating log, then I see it's the brown, swollen back of a gator and panic runs over my stomach and down my legs, jolting me, and I see that it's just an old car, just a rusty old car sunk out in the water, mostly rounded roof. Its windows are gone, but the hood is up, yawning high, lipping out over green lake moss. I see bullet holes. Torn places punched through the rust.

    We swim the boat forward and paddle close. It's a ghost bucket. Where the car windshield should have been, a turtle head floats on the water. I imagine the car is all full of them, thousands there, their leggy shells saucering around underwater and between my knees.

    Instantly the turtle head sucks back under the lake. The car creeps me out, and I shiver still. Jim stops swimming and holds the boat, watching the old car in the water.

    "Keep pushing, hey!" While Lloyd pokes an oar at the rusted hood, crumbling it, I peek up. I chin myself over the boat hull and see some trees. I see the south fence and the other end. Our forest, our fence, and the shoreline.

    "Jesus," Lloyd yells, "look at that! I'd make it to be like a Edsel. Say a 'fifty-eight."

    I feel something staring, aware of me. We swim by the ghosts in the Edsel, and its shaded old car windows watch as we pass.

    "—Jim," I say into the rain. "We'll get killed like this."

    "I know," he says. "Barbecued."

    Lloyd tips for a second and rights himself, shouting at us, "Push, damn it."

    The raindrops fall swollen and form plate shapes that rattle the water.

    I stop shaking, and a current like lead fills the air. The sky turns a gray like the lack of good color, and the rain doesn't let up, but the weak are forgiven, and I know the absolute bomb is falling, or something like that, really big.

    The tallest dead cypress tree shakes on our shoreline. It glistens. From the highest fork, a branch snaps and drops from this cypress and the air flickers glowing and lightning slams, shaking the boat, and the rain gets a smell like there's roasting sap.

    "Forget it!" Jim says. "I mean, Jesus ... I thought you were cutting the wire, Lloyd."

    "Don't pussy out on me. Push!" he says.

    Jim whispers, "Why aren't you here, pushing us."

    My fillings taste bitter.

    I count off in thousands and wait for it. I count the calm, a space in the air like remembering, and in my face, a white arc of light flares the water. Lightning hits. A column so white it is almost blue. In front of me, smoke circles up from a stand of palms, and the sky flickers, quickening, and the air on my face feels like satin.

    The next time it hits it is quiet, then the day goes impossibly white.

    The air explodes, slamming like gunshot.

    Jim stops to see if Lloyd is serious.

    I watch the men.

    "Lloyd," Jim says, whispery. "Okay now, Lloyd, it is lightning us."

    Lloyd rolls the end of the wire out. He ties the free end to our final roll, and spools up one last roll of the wire.

    He lays it out.

    "Then you better push faster," he says.


* * *


In the rain last night, Jim woke me up when the girls went home. The windows were fogging, and I forgot I was there in his Nova. "Hey," he said, the rain hung in beads from his open door. "Who drunk up all of my Coors?"

    I woke up then, wanting a beer. "Not me," I said. I was scared.

    "Looks like you've had you a party.... Who you been doing, Slick? Anyone?"

    I told my brother zilch.

    "Get real," he said. "What are you waiting for, Christmas?"

    It was me and Jim. I remember they laughed on the water. I'd heard them swimming in the lake somewhere. When the girls ran by, I called, Hey, listen, but no one turned. I knew no one could hear through my car door, the rain falling. I pretended I didn't care. There were other girls. One was naked. They were white as ghosts out in the rain.

    Out in the moss and weeds, I let the boat go and swim.

    "Jim," I say, swimming away, "I'm going in. I'm too spooked for this."

    "No shit?" he says. "Serious."

    "Really, Jim. If I leave," I say, "what are you thinking you'll do?"

    "He'll beat your ass."

    "It won't be as bad as the lightning."

    "God, screw it," Jim says. "He can't kill us."

    "He wished he could."

    "—What are yall saying?" Lloyd says.

    I swim away from there. I don't care. "Hit me," I tell him. "I'm going in."

    I hear Jim splashing and look back at him. He shoves the boat roughly, and swims to my side of the wire. Then Jim blows his nose as he surfaces. "Lloyd, I better help him. It's too deep," he yells, and Jim swims away from the boat.

    "I dare you! I dare you to try it, you little shit."

    I hear my brother, Jim, swimming behind me.

    "I'm going home to call Dad. I'm too scared," I say, and that's how we leave the man sitting, the boat gleaming wet in the water. Electrified.

    When we reach the trees' canopy, passing as if through a smaller storm into the rain broken under our forest, it's another world. The trees are green and everywhere dripping. Their leaves shelter us, while the rain and the lake are like night outside, a grassy field troubled with lightning. We walk sodden under dripping magnolias, huge cypresses, and onto a trail at the forest edge. A dog is there. Abe crouches crying and shivering, holding his tail hooked between his legs. Coming in, we find Sherman hiding under our pickup. Jim asks, shouldn't we swim back and help him, and he peers for Lloyd out by the sunken car. "He'll kill us," Jim says. "If the lightning quits."

    "Yeah, but what if it doesn't," I say.

    Across the lake, clouds make a cave on the tilting grass, marsh grasses, darkening now with black water, where it's flooding back.

    Jim climbs up on the truck hood. When he spots the boat, the first thing Jim says is Lloyd's hat is gone. When I see him, his head is bare, glowing and rained on, and his shirt is off, but Lloyd is still poling the boat. Like he'll never quit. I count off in thousands and listen. I count the calm. Behind us a wind sweeps the forest, and I'm wide awake. A shatter sound passes the tree leaves, the rain falling, thunder, and pattering water. I find the Old Crow and we crack it. We watch Lloyd forcing the boat. I let our dogs shove into the truck with us, and I wait for what all will hit next.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 11
Wet 19
Where the Dark Ended 47
Whisperers 69
Bad Day 75
Immaculate 95
Cousins 103
The Living and the Dead 121
Floridita 151
Who's Your Daddy Now? 169
Us 195
The Author 197
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2001

    Excellent collection!

    Stunningly written. I am reminded of Harold Brodkey but Head is totally it's own work. This collection is worth reading alone just for the visual images that Tester's words evoke. This collection is completely worth your time ... read it!

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