Joyland

The Midwest |

Excerpt: Above All Men

by Eric Shonkwiler

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

This excerpt is part of the novel Above All Men published by MG Press, the micro-press affiliated with the journal Midwestern Gothic. More on the novel below the excerpt.

Months passed. He got a call from Glenn saying a railroad friend had come by, talking of a few half-starved horses by the state line. He said he thought David would want to know. David thanked him and talked to Helene and O H. The next morning he went across the yard to the shack with a bag of food and water and change of clothes. He knocked on the door and waited. Delia opened it and stood aside for him to come in.

He’s getting dressed.

Okay. David stood inside the door and set the bag down. Delia shut the door and went to the sink. Melanie was at the table eating breakfast, the rest of the dishes set upside down, bowls and cups turned over and the pitcher of milk covered with cloth. He smiled at her. How’re you?

She shrugged and put down her fork. Fine.

David scanned the rough wood walls. He had been inside only once since building it. They’d put up pictures and there was a painting along the back wall where they’d put the couch. Melanie saw he was looking.

I painted that.

No kidding? He raised his eyebrows. He stepped closer to it, a creek in watercolor, grass, a woman in front of a weeping willow. He smiled at Melanie. It’s really good.

I painted it before we moved here.

Wow. He tried not to see the walls and the floor and to think of what she could have been, what Samuel could have been. What they could be. One of the two doors opened to the small corner rooms and O H stood there threading a belt through his jeans.

We ready?

Yep.

Alright then. Let’s go be cowboys. He went to Melanie and kissed her head and he kissed Delia and took a small duffel bag from her. They stood at the door. See ya’ll after a while.

They walked together to Danvers’. The sun wasn’t long up and the sky was overcast. They readied the horses and David pointed to Samuel’s silver bay.

Well, bud. Get up there.

O H smirked. I’m gonna surprise you. Be a natural. He put his foot in the stirrup and grabbed the saddlehorn and pulled himself up onto the horse. You’ll want to give me your hat.

David mounted up and started forward and O H followed him out. Passing the granary a breeze hit their backs and it was cool. He thought it might snow if it got colder, if there was any water in the clouds.

So how far we goin’?

Depends. If we find a horse right off looks like it hasn’t been fed in a while we might go another couple hundred yards.

Seein’ as how we won’t?

Be about a full day’s ride one way, bit more. Probably across the state line. Glenn said he found his just inside Colorado.

Never been to Colorado.

It’s nothing special. Everything looks the same until it’s different.

O H grinned. I’ll remember that little gem.

It’s true. Especially now with these dusters.

After a while they reached the interstate and stopped their horses. There was half a foot of dust covering it, the median and ditches graded smooth. Down the length of the highway were lines of dead trees, some toppled onto the road, the dust built up against them. David dismounted and brushed away the sand with his boot until he could see the pavement, cracked and worn paintless.

The breeze died in the afternoon and the air warmed. David hadn’t been far south of Dixon in years and he thought whenever they crested the soft rises that passed for hills they might see before them a desert of high red dunes or a place where the land and sky were one blur of crumbled brick. By now he knew that O H was sore but there were no complaints. It was several hours past the highway that they smelled smoke and David wished he had brought a gun. There was no source for the smoke anywhere. The plain was broken by gray trees in the distance and fenceposts and telephone poles. The fencewires were cut.

If I didn’t see this every day I’d think we landed in hell.

Yeah.

You were never in the desert, right? Overseas?

I never went overseas. They sent me straight to Rica.

O H looked around them. It ain’t quite like this. But it’s got some of the ingredients.

David halted his horse. Let’s break for a bit. He held up the reins, circling. They were in the middle of an empty field, keeping track of the road they followed by telephone poles. He dismounted and watched as O H hefted his leg over the horse and dropped down. They squatted in the dust and ate their lunches. O H lay on his back and sighed.

My ass is gonna be sore, boy.

Should have brought a pillow along for you.

Uh huh. He sat up and picked a leg under himself to stretch it. How did Glenn know to come down here?

There was a guy raised horses he heard about. Lost everything and just turned ‘em loose. Killed himself.

O H stood and patted at his pants. This country, man. Goin’ to shit.

Been shit.

They mounted their horses and started along the road again. Toward nightfall they reached a crossroads and in the southwest corner sat a farmhouse. A worn picket fence ran across the yard with the dust eating up the posts and behind the house was a small barn. As they crossed the street the front door opened and a man came out onto the wraparound porch. David nodded to the man and O H raised his hand. The man’s chin dipped and he put his hands on the porch railing. They passed by and passed the barn and O H leaned over.

He dudn’t live there, does he.

No.

He was starin’ pretty hard.

He’s just a squatter. Worried we’d come to throw him out or something.

O H sat straight. If you say so.

The sun was deep behind the clouds and there was no setting, only the slow draining of color from the land and it seemed as though the ground was bleeding out, turning gray and cold. The road ahead and behind them was empty and with the going of the light the sounds they made came clearer.

I wish we hadn’t passed him so close to dark.

David squinted into the dusk. Ahead was a line of trees on the horizon. We’ll lay up in there for the night.

We gonna make a fire?

Not if we can help it.

I thought you said he was just a squatter?

Yeah, well. Squatter ain’t an occupation.

They made it to the trees and dismounted. They led the horses in and tied them and David watered them from a small pot while O H cleared the ground. He took the blankets from the horses and spread them out and when they were done they sat in the dark listening to Samuel’s horse cribbing at a tree.

Tell him to quit gnawin’. I can’t hear anything else.

There’s nothing to hear.

They were quiet for a while. They’d both gotten into their sleeping bags and thrown their blankets over them. Eventually the horse stopped chewing.

What’s the worst thing you ever did?

David sat up. You mean in the war?

I sure hope it was in the war, yeah.

What brought this on?

Just my mind wanderin’. Making conversation.

He nodded in the dark. There’s a lot. I got a list of worst things long as my arm.

You don’t have to say.

He thought of something near the end of his tour, innocuous. Real enough to believe. The night around him had gone darker somehow, or he had. He breathed in, pretending to hesitate. Couple days before they retook Talamanca we were holding them off at the foot of the mountain. Low on ammo, low on food. This guy named Bradford, a real shit, gets hit with a pete round, burned all to hell. David put his hands behind his head. He was staring blindly at the sky. So we get one of theirs, shoot him in the leg. I put a tourniquet on him. We trade potshots for a while. We were all short timers, nobody wantin’ to miss their wake-up. Then Bradford up and died. Just sputtered and quit like he was an old car. I never liked that son of a bitch, never, but I’d been in country with him from day one. So I went back away from the line, where we had the prisoner tied up against a tree. Snuck back there and looked him in the eye while I cut his tourniquet. Watched him bleed out. Just sat there staring him down.

Damn. O H shuffled around in the dark. David could hear he was facing him. Why’d you ask if I meant in the war?

I dunno. I guess some people put all that away, right? Soldiers do bad things.

What would you say was your worst thing outside it?

He made a sound between a laugh and groan.

What?

Couple years after the war I ran out on Helene to bring Red back.

Who?

Sam’s godfather. My best friend since forever. I got wounded just a few days after killin’ that prisoner, sent back to the States. Waited on him to roll in at the end of his tour and he never did. I tried hunting him up, wrote letters and called some folks. Nothing. So I made a go of it with Helene for a while, Danvers gave me a job and the house for a little bit of nothin’. And then one day I get these letters. Whole bundle. Him talking crazy. Bad, bad shit. So I went and got him. Helene was pregnant.

Does that come in at number two? Number two worst thing?

He paused. It’s the one thing I did that I did on my own, in all my life, that I know was right. All the other stuff, I dunno. Even enlisting. But getting Red was batshit stupid so I know I did it just because it was right.

I like that. Don’t know if I agree with you, but I like it.

David shifted. What’s yours?

Mine? O H laughed. Man, I never even fired my rifle in combat.

You son of a bitch.

Shot at a goat once.

David rolled over and threw a handful of sand in O H’s direction. Jarhead motherfucker. They were silent for a while, David thinking about Red and about Samuel. About the femur. Why’d you enlist?

Money for school.

For college.

Mhm. O H laughed briefly. I didn’t have any future playin’ ball. Knew that much.

Helene had me try a class, fresh from my tour. It never took for me.

You know, I can see that about you.

You’re bein’ a real shit.

Yeah, yeah. So you? Why’d you join up? Be a hero?

David sighed. Pretty much. Red and I tried soon as the bombs started goin’ off all over the place. Got shot down, too young. Tried again once things were lookin’ a little worse and they turned a blind eye and let us in. We thought we were gonna save our mommas and our suzies, you know?

We had plenty of those. Surprised you didn’t go Marine.

He shook his head in the dark. I guess straight Army sounded better. More patriotic. They both laughed a little and were quiet. I saw that painting Mel did.

Pretty good, right?

Real good.

Yeah, she’s a regular artist. By his voice David could tell he was grinning. We were hoping back when, you know, we could fast-track her, get her in a art school. Delia wanted to see her go someplace private up in Decatur. She was good enough. Now, I don’t even know what good school’s doing her. Maybe she’d be better off watchin’ us.

It’ll do her good.

I dunno, man. What good?

World can’t stay this way forever. Give it time.

How much time? More’n ten years already and it’s only gotten worse. I don’t think that’s gonna change. Who’d change it?

He wanted to argue, to convince O H he was right, so at least one of them would believe it. He wanted to keep them both talking.

What about Sam?

Helene wants to make sure I don’t pressure him into farming, let him do what he wants. But I’m kinda like you. It’s hard not to worry.

He’s about as smart a kid as I’ve ever seen.

Smart idn’t the trouble. He’s got this, I don’t know. We had a dog before you got here, and when she died Sam came right up beside me and helped me dig her grave. I didn’t ask, didn’t tell him to. Just came right up. Didn’t cry that I ever saw.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

No, I know. It just worries me. Helene says I’m real distant all the time, blames it on the war. I never notice it when she says it about me, but I see it in Sam. He can be right in front of you but really he’s off in space. That scares the hell out of me.

Just sounds like he’s mature for his age. I wouldn’t worry too much.

That’ll happen.

They were up at first light. David made a fire to warm their breakfast and O H watered the horses and untied them. The clouds had broken up overnight and in the east the light came pale and uncolored still. O H circled about their camp looking for tracks and he shook his head when he sat by the fire. They ate bacon and beans and kicked dust over the remaining flames. They packed and saddled their horses and rode out of the trees as a weak duster blew in from the south. It rolled toward them and they turned their heads in tandem when it hit.  The wind faded fast and the sun rose onto their shoulders after, their shadows slanting long across the dust. A while later they came to a two-lane and a sign nearby for a Colorado state route. They rode east along the highway and came on an overpass. The horses shied but they went under it and David pointed out the smokestains where travelers had made fires at the joints of beam and ramp. Beyond the overpass was another sign listing nearby cities.

We’re in the right place. I guess just cruise around until we see somethin’.

Sounds good.

The nearest town was almost five miles ahead. Halfway there a dense line of trees grew up from the dust. The road and treeline converged a mile on and they stopped the horses before a suspension bridge that crossed the water. It flowed red, thick and smooth, riffling through a section of wire fence stretching over the creek. There were weeds and grass growing near the edge where the dust had fallen away. David started the bay onward and they crossed over the bridge and rode down into the field along the creek. The horses began to prance sideways and O H pointed out a carcass twenty yards ahead, not far from the creek. It was a horse, the jawbone open and the ribs tarped over by the shrunken hide. They pressed on. In the distance he could make out the hazy frame of a water tower.

What do we do once we find a live one?

David shrugged. See how feral it is. I dunno how much breaking a horse needs after a year or however long it’s been loose. We’ll just rope it and hope it follows us.

They were coming to the edge of town when a set of horsetracks curved in from the field and they rode alongside, passing the first houses. The tracks faded and split on the thinner dust in town. There were signs of feeding on the early buds of bushes and the remains of hanging plants and flowerbeds. The houses around them were decrepit and the dust trackless except for animals. The pavement widened as they came downtown and there was a long stretch of brick buildings and storefronts, the dust mounded up on the sidewalks in soft waves. At the main intersection a broad-boned sorrel draft stepped by them calmly, its shoulders and ribs working under its red hide. Another horse followed. David smiled and let out a quick laugh.

That first one. Bigger. They followed the horses, going slow. As they closed on them the stores fell behind and the houses became smaller and tighter packed than at the edge of town. O H pointed to their left and down a sidestreet was a row of empty lots, the houses burned, blackened posts sticking up out of the dust. Then he pointed up and David saw all the powerpoles had been stripped of their lines. The sky was oppressive for its unwiring.

What’d I tell you about shit getting bad?

I thought I agreed with you?

The horses had stopped in the street and were watching them. His bay came forward swishing its tail and he let it lean its head to the sorrel. He patted the blaze on the draft and it didn’t shy. He slipped the rope from his saddle and tied a lead as the bay and draft circled and he slid the lead over its head. The draft shivered as he cinched the rope up and he leaned over and rubbed along its neck and withers. He payed some rope as the slack lessened and the draft tossed its head. It settled and he drew in and the draft didn’t fight and he looked at O H and grinned. He gathered the rope and reins in one hand and put the bay down the street a few yards and the draft was slow to follow but came along. It sidled to them and he petted it while he looped the lead around the saddlehorn. He circled his finger in the air for O H to turn and he brought the horses to the intersection and they started the way they came. The other draft was staring at them, unmoving. They rode out of town with O H in the lead and he pointed out fresh wheeltracks in the dust.

They broke for lunch at the creek and they let the horses drink. They ate sandwiches wrapped in waxpaper and David balled his and threw it toward the creek. It fell short of the water and rolled, leaving odd wobbling marks in the dust like the tracks of a limping bird. The draft eyed the ball. David stood and went to the creek for his bay.

You think we scared off another squatter?

He shrugged. Couldn’t say.

They’re all pretty flighty, seems like.

Not sure why. They got as much a right to be there as anyone, now.

As much the folks who used to live there?

He stopped beside O H with the reins in his hand. They’re gone. I guess if they weren’t they’d have a say.

O H stood and David helped saddle his horse. They mounted up and David tied the draft to his saddle and they left the creek for the road headed west. It was a while riding before O H looked aside at him.

You really believe that?

I try to. I don’t know that I do. We did take a dead man’s horse.

They rode on until they reached the road north and took it. The cart tracks continued westward. It was nearly evening when they passed the camp from the night before. It got cold and colder as the sun sank below the red edge of the land. David set his hands on the saddlehorn.

You want to go wide of the house up ahead?

Seems like a good idea.

They angled their path off the road and into the field alongside it, the horses sinking into the dust in the ditches and climbing out. There was a fence ahead and they rode down it for several yards before finding a low wire to step the horses over. In the distance and dark they could see the house by the white fence and barn. Smoke was lifting almost invisibly from the chimney and the sky above was still clear and populated with stars and the horn of the setting moon. O H evened with David and thumbed toward the house.

What say would the old owners have if they came back?

David shook his head. Kick the guy out, if they want.

What about him?

He looked toward O H. They halted. What are you getting at?

I’m just wonderin’. I like to know what people think. He paused a moment. Say they didn’t abandon it. Say they left a note sayin’ they’d be back, went out looking for work?

And the squatter moved in?

Right.

I dunno. My gut reaction is he’d better check out quick, but, really? Nowadays? He was quiet for a moment. Seems like everything is up for grabs.

But what would be right?

David shook his head, laughing a little harshly. You’re rakin’ me over the coals, man.

Okay. This fellow in particular. Say him. What do you do with him?

I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t decide. Is he hurtin’ anything?

I doubt it. But there’s the principle, right? If that’s what we’re talking about.

Is there? Is there anymore?

I’m the one askin’.

David closed his eyes in the dark. If he shouldn’t break into someone’s house, if that’s wrong, why don’t we do something?

He’s not bothering anyone.

But he broke the principle.

Yeah.

I feel like I’m just as bad as him. Ever since I got out of the war I see people breaking laws and rules, being evil. And I don’t do anything about it. That same principle says I ought to do something. He felt himself begin to start the horse and hated the movement.

All the right you do oughta count for somethin’.

It isn’t enough. If I don’t even know what to think? That might be worse than anything.

Hours later they rode past the mine, silent now and with few lights opening the pits to them. The town was asleep. When they reached the square O H was slumped in the saddle and his hands were limp around the reins. The draft horse had been falling behind every few hundred yards and he pulled it close as they came out of town and both horses followed him to the barn. He woke O H by shaking his saddle.

We back?

Yeah. Thanks for your help.

Uh. He leaned over the horse to glance at the ground. I don’t recall doin’ anything.

Well you kept me company. That’s something.

I guess. He slipped his leg over the horse slow and awkward and stepped down. Oh, Jesus. I am sore.

David smiled. Walk it off. I’ll see you tomorrow. O H cast a hand back in goodbye and David put up the horses and tack.  He was wide awake and wanted to raise the house and talk with his family.

***

More about Above All Men: Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, which worsens drought and opens the land to crime. Amid the decay, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. After the murder of a local child opens old wounds, he hunts the killer through dust storms and crumbling towns, confronting his own nature.