Creston Lea was born in New Hampshire in 1971. His stories have appeared in DoubleTake, Open City, and W.W. Norton's 25 and Under: Fiction. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young daughter. There, he builds electric guitars under the name Creston Electric Instruments. WILD PUNCH is his first collection of stories.
An intense, nimble, and flat-out tough debut collection that portrays loss and honesty in subtle daily revelations.
- Turtle Point Press
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- 5.10(w) x 7.56(h) x 0.81(d)
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By Creston Lea
Turtle Point PressCopyright © 2010 Creston Lea
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Chapter OneBY ACCIDENT on day-off Friday after Thanksgiving, Lewis, whom everybody called Knot, found the old lost town in the worst and unlikeliest of spots, between mountains and near no good source of running water. He found the rows of cellar holes, filled up with tall bunches of white birch. He breathed hot air onto his hands and knew what he'd found. "I'm not stupid," he said right into the darkening sky. His teeth felt stale from coffee hours earlier.
The German Wirehair, a useless dog brought back by Knot's sister from her time in the Air Force, had run off on the Tuesday before, chasing a strong whitetail deer she would never catch. Knot found her tracks in the first sticking snow. Her prints were tight together: slow and cold. Then there she was, walking out from under some trees, eyes down like Knot was something she was practically bored with. "I see you," he said into her ear. He breathed into her nose and she licked him on the lips.
She watched Knot rub his palms together and carefully bring the plastic bag out of his jacket pocket. He laid the cold lumps of turkey stuffing out on the granite slab that had been someone's doorstep before the coming of scarlet fever or diphtheria or whatever had done it. She pushed at yesterday's food and then ate it down as fast as her stomach would allow.
Up above, Knot was saying, "Look what we found. Look what we found."
JEFFREY AND I came upon the coyote at some hour past midnight, Jeffrey drunk and me driving. It was young, or small at least. Twenty pounds at most. It was there, right outside the kitchen door of my house, licking at the grass where I'd dumped the grease out of a bacon pan that morning and every morning. The headlights got him as we came over the rise and he skipped into the trees without looking up. Most animals will look up. Most animals will freeze under lights from a car. Jeffrey didn't even notice, but later he said it must have been hungry to stick around as long as it did. It's true, a coyote is shy.
JEFFREY HAD a brown bottle of beer out on the dashboard of his Skylark. He was sitting in the driver's seat, wearing his old high school basketball jersey to show off the new tattoo.
"Watch you don't end up in the ditch," his father said, grinning, coming out of the house with Laurel. He was wearing his softball uniform. There was still a big stripe of dirt down one leg from the last game. He had his cleats in his hands and boots on his feet and the elastic loops of his stirrups hung around his heels. They both had a look that said they'd gotten dressed in a rush. Laurel had her shoes in her hand too. She was only a couple of years older than me and a lot younger than Jeffrey's father. Jeffrey's mother had lit out from New Hampshire two years earlier. She'd been a secretary at the college. When the professor she loved took a new job in Lexington, Virginia, she went with him without any remorse, leaving Jeffrey's father behind to wonder what had happened. Jeffrey learned of his parents' separation by mail when he was in the Gulf.
The Skylark was green, a 1972 350 he bought from the town minister, battery dead from playing the radio where it sat in the yard. Jeffrey couldn't drive. His military driver's license didn't transfer to a regular driver's license. Which is why I had to drive him everywhere in my father's truck ever since he got discharged. He'd failed the written DMV test twice. I was the one who had to drive the car back from the minister's house in the first place. I was the one who put it right there under the butternut tree for all the butternuts to fall on. The grass was grown up under the undercarriage where Jeffrey couldn't mow when he did mow.
Laurel noticed the tattoo and broke off from Jeffrey's dad to take a look. He had taken off the wrap too early and there was a little dry blood around the edges.
"Well," she said, putting out a finger to touch, "that's colorful." The tattoo was a USMC eagle, globe, and anchor that said Desert Demons underneath in stencil letters.
"Laurel," his father said, "I'm not gonna be late." He looked at Jeffrey. "Watch that don't get infected." he said. "Put something to it or you'll be sorry." He nodded at me too, at the cut on my foot. Laurel got into her Toyota and started it up. A logging crew was working the woods below my parents' house that summer, above Jeffrey's place. They were clearing land for a string of new houses. Starting at sunrise, the trucks rumbled down the hill and flew past Jeffrey's house. It was illegal. There was a sign on the little bridge over the brook that said Legal Load Limit 6 Tons. They drove like there was nobody else on the narrow road. Laurel waited for the truck to speed past on its way back up to the log landing. The steel stakes on its empty trailer clanked around in their pockets as the tires rolled over the washboard ripples in the road. She waved her fingers at me as they backed down the driveway.
Dust was everywhere when they took off down the hill. It rose straight up and then drifted right into my face where I was sitting on the porch. I couldn't remember the last rain. It was the beginning of the summer, I was twenty-five, Jeffrey was a veteran, twenty-three years old. The air on a Saturday afternoon made you too lazy to do anything but sit there with your shoes off, rubbing the new bruise where a sick horse had stomped on your foot. It wasn't a bad year for blackflies-too dry or too hot, something. My own parents were gone off in the camper they bought at auction. The Grand Canyon, Old Faithful.
THIS WAS ALL back when I was first taking care of the gelding that the state had taken away from the Christian Scientists who had let him go gaunt and sick. You should have seen those people's barn stalls. Chewed to death. Same with all the trees on the place: bark stripped away from everything right down to the dirt. The grass was all eaten up and even the tree roots were bare from gnawing. Right after my parents left, the state split up the horses and I took in a three-year-old Arabian named Esau with bad teeth and shrunken hooves. I fed him and watered him down and generally saw after his welfare along with the other horses we kept. I was still living at home. I handled the cutting and selling of the hay from the fields myself, made a dollar seventy-five per bale and gave eighty cents on the dollar to my parents. My father had a good job and we were living well.
I'll admit it, I was mostly living off him. It was easy to do, then.
That same summer, King Bushey opened up a tattoo shop at his place on the River Road. By Appointment Only. Plenty of us that were young and watching the dry days pass went and got decorated by King's electric needle. Even my father got his own name written inside a twisted scroll across his arm. I went with him and looked at King's drawings up on the wall while my father smoked Larks and King wiped away the blood, telling stories about when he was working down in Lebanon, clearing trees off the place where they put up the new hospital. He said everybody was storied on marijuana and working like five hour days. They paid so much, he financed all the tattoo equipment with what he had left over at the end of the job, quit that heavy work forever.
He got his needle all ready to go again and rubbed Speed Stick deodorant on my arm and shaved it of its little hairs. I saw the blue and red crown tattoo on his fore arm.
Because the ink is permanent, my arm still bears the likeness of three horses riding right out at you with all the speed you can imagine.
Jeffrey became vexed with jealousy when he saw it and had me drive him down to King's place immediately but King was booked solid and Jeffrey had to wait. Two weeks later, when Esau took a bad turn, I drove Jeffrey down to King's and went back to the barn to meet Ivy. Esau's thin under-eyelid had slipped partway down and I worried about moon-blindness or worse-things I had only read about. Before long, his whole eye was shut. For the days I'd had him, I'd kept him in a stall up in the new part of the barn for quarantine until he could get all his shots so the other horses wouldn't catch strangles or whatever else. Daytimes, I put him out in the paddock behind the barn after I'd gotten all the other horses into the lower fields, away from him. The Christian Scientists never gave them any shots. In court, they said it was freedom of religion, but everybody thought they were using that as an excuse for not bothering. It seemed like they had the money. When I first brought him up to our barn, he so glutted at his food, I had to put big rocks in the bucket with the feed to keep him from wolfing it all at once. But by the time his eyes swelled up and leaked dampness onto the short hairs of his face, he was hardly touching food. He hadn't opened up his eye in two days. I called Ivy on the barn phone.
The summer after twelfth grade, when she was home from college, Ivy and I spent a few nights together in the field behind her parents' place. But I generally don't know how to talk to girls. The phone went quiet and she said, "That horse is actually sick, right?"
She had agreed, out of charity, to provide attention to all the sick horses taken from the Christian Scientists. The animal people's national fund paid for shots. Ivy testified to the horses' poor medical condition in court. The lawyer called her by her real name, Lillian Hayes. I had almost forgotten that Ivy was a made-up name. My parents and I went to the North Haverhill courthouse and watched. All three of us put our names on a list of volunteers for taking on a sick horse. Ivy's smart. She talked to the judge like she'd done that a million times.
On the phone, she told me to block off the light and talk to Esau to keep him calm. Jeffrey appeared when I was up on the ladder hanging horse blankets over the windows. He stood there in the bright square of the sliding door, wearing his high school basketball jersey, ready to have King carve into his arm. The jersey was tight over what remained of his military muscle.
Jeffrey said, "He sick?" I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
"He's got something in his eye, but Ivy won't show up for another hour. There's nothing I can do yet except for make it dark. I'll still run you down to King's."
I nailed the blue blanket over the window and made it dark. Jeffrey went into Esau's stall. I heard the horse blow, stamp, turn.
"You'd better leave him alone," I said. "He's all nervous."
"I won't hurt him."
"Yeah, well, he can't see you at all."
"Me either" he said. "I can hardly see anything."
We went back into the light and drove my father's Ford into town and then down into the river valley to where King's place sits on the flood plain. With the wind coming in the window, the heat went away. We didn't talk at all, just watched the faded gray pavement of the state road and the yellowing fields and the green, green woods. The river was low. From King's dooryard, you could see the water's stain high up on the opposite bank, below the sand cliff where kingfishers flew in and out of holes to dive into the water. I parked next to the leaning pole of the basketball hoop King built for his kids. Jeffrey started fidgeting in the seat. He was rubbing the spot on his arm where the tattoo would go.
He saw me noticing and stopped. "Semper Fi," I said. "Do or die."
He shook his head and smiled down at his feet.
IVY'S VET TRUCK was idling in front of the barn when I came back over the rise. The door to the barn was pulled shut except for an inch or two where a yellow extension cord ran in from a special plug on the side of her truck.
The sun was full-up by then, just hanging there. A spitbug was off making its whiny whistle someplace.
In the shade of the run-in stall below the barn, the appaloosas we boarded, Speedy and Dumpling, were standing silently side by side, flicking their tails over each other's noses to whisk off the flies. They belonged to summer people. It was too hot for them to come up and ride their horses under the sun, to leave from wherever they lived, where there was air-conditioning and cold drinks. Both horses were growing round from still days spent below the barn. They were resigned to the heat in the dusty shadows, switching their tails in a constant rhythm. The other horses were out of sight, but I knew they'd be ganged together down in the shade at the bottom of the lower field.
"Ive?" I said into the dark. I could see the glow from her mechanic's hooklight from where it lay in the wood shavings on the stall floor. "I'm back."
"He looks bad. I need your help getting his eye open." I couldn't tell if I saw her shape in the dark or not. I imagined I could. "Get a halter and tie him."
I felt for the halter and line where they hung on a hook and felt my way into the stall. Esau huffed and stamped twice. I could hear Ivy whispering to him. She had the light turned toward the wall so it was just a glow there. It showed the whorls in the grain of the pine boards through their dark creosote stain.
Esau threw his head as I slid the halter past his eyes and over his ears. Ivy and I said, "Easy ..." at the same time.
I said, "Remember when I stained these walls and the creosote in the oil made my skin puff up like air bubbles?"
"I remember you telling me about it." I felt her hand touch mine and she took the braided lunge line away from me. She snapped one end to a ring on the halter and then I heard the soft clicking sound of the line being pulled around one of the stall bars as she tied it off. "Hold his head," she said. "Talk to him." (Continues...)
Excerpted from WILD PUNCH by Creston Lea Copyright © 2010 by Creston Lea. Excerpted by permission.
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