Joyland

Toronto |

Shape of a sitting man

by Kevin Hardcastle

edited by Kathryn Mockler

When Arthur leapt out from the black the eight men around the fire quit talking. One stood like he was pulled up by cables. The fire burned six-feet high in the quarry-pit gulley and showed the skin of Arthur’s legs painted with dirt and ran through where he’d been cut by rock and thorn on the way down the grade. He passed through those seated on stumps and stooped near the fire to take up a long and knotted cedar limb, black by the thick end. He stepped outside of the circle of men and turned. Little lights yet traveled the wood when he clubbed the nearest man across the brow bone with it. That man half-rose with a hand by his face, soot black forehead torn and swelling.

“That’s from Bill Cooper, you motherfucker,” Arthur said.

The next shot loosed smoldering charwood from the branch and sent the man sidelong into the bonfire. Arthur ran hell-bent at the grade and climbed fast while the men below hollered and tried to pull their friend clear.

*

He came to the trailhead and broke left through the pines. Footfalls on the hard ground nearby. He ran into the Merritt girl blind and they both went down into the bracken. He’d just got his bearings and started to stand when she laid into him about the neck and face. Rings on her right hand split him on the cheek. He got her wrists and wrestled her back, tripped her, sat on her legs. She bucked her hips but couldn’t get him off.

“Jesus,” he said. “Quit fuckin’ fightin’ me.”

“What’d you do?” she said.

She settled a little and Arthur stood, let her up. She whacked him again and he just took it.

“This is why you were hangin’ around me for? Ain’t it?” said Merritt.

“Let’s just get in the car.”      

“I’m not drivin’ you anywheres. You son of a bitch.”        

They stood there looking at each other. Arthur tall and wide by the shoulders, dark eyes and dark hair. The blonde Merritt girl with a horse-bite scar through part of her chin. Out from the pit came battle cries. Boots on the hillside. Nucleuses of fire carried up on logs and sticks. Arthur grabbed the girl’s head in both hands and kissed her by temple.      

“I ain’t sorry,” he said, and took off down the trail. Partway down he realized he had but one shoe on. He kicked through a sapling with his shod foot and kept going.

*

The trail showed in flashes of shallow moonlight. He had thumped a pint of whiskey on the ride out there, but it didn’t hit him until he was deep, deep into the wood. He puked airplane fuel into a patch of ferns. Arthur did not know the trail by sight, but it sloped down toward the northeast and to town. So down he went. He had been terrified that they would have dogs but he heard none.

By the time his feet found tarmac the stockinged foot was cut and bloodied. To his left the narrow concession lanes ran long and vanished into the black. The half-moon and pinhole stars were dimmed by passing cloud and Arthur could see little that told him where he was. He turned right and loped away, his gait getting stranger and stranger by the damaged foot. Finally he had to stop and he got down to his knees and put his head in his hands, hauled air too deep and choked on it. He got up and went on. A few minutes more and he saw incandescents burning high behind the tree line. A crossroad there with fresh-laid asphalt and a metal gate. Steelwork shape of a boat welded to the barrier.

*

Inside the marina grounds Arthur moved in shadow and went wide around the boathouse. He came to a length of pier and hobbled to the end. Little lights aglow in the distance. Brightest from the town’s silica refinery and bayside grain elevators. Arthur looked down to the waters and he could hear but couldn’t see them. He leaned in like he might dive and then his legs felt funny and he went sideways, landed forearm down on the cement pier-top.

“Fucker,” he said.

He got to his feet and went back, started along a drawn-out line of boatslips, most of them empty, the dock-lengths bobbing but slightly in the water. He found a twenty-five footer with its covers on and he waited on his haunches. Not a sound. He climbed up onto the stern by a short ladder. The pegs and button-ties of the vinyl coverings were thick with dust and grit. Arthur popped enough of them to slide under, face-first to the aft deck and the cabin door.       

Arthur couldn’t get the door open. The locks were inside the door itself and he had nothing to pry with or break the thing down. He lay there on the decking and held his shoulders. Fifteen minutes passed and his teeth were clacking. The shoeless foot hurt from the cold. He sat up and stuck his head out through the unfastened cover flap. After a minute he climbed back out and went low past the docks again.

*

The door of the old trawler was made of wood and pinned shut with a rusted padlock. Arthur lay on his back with his hands braced against a battered deck-box. He kicked with both feet and the door blew inward, swung back at him and rested crooked in the jamb. He crawled inside and found bench seats laid over with canvas seat cushions. Arthur stripped them and dropped one length of padding on the bare cabin floor, lay under the others and turtled. He fairly shook but couldn’t see his breath. He reached down and took the sodden wool sock off his one foot, rubbed at the thing with both hands. It ached and sung by the nerves.

*

He woke up with his eyelids wound all the way back. The boat listed slightly and settled again. Shuffling on the aft deck, outside the broken door. Arthur squatted there in the cushions and waited. He could see movement by the broken framing. He scrambled around the cabin and came back with an expired fire extinguisher for a weapon. When the door opened, he squeezed the trigger and let fly a tepid cloud of white. No more in the cylinder. He raised it like a cudgel and nearly swung but didn’t.

The Merritt girl dropped something heavy in the doorway. She had white powder in her hair and on the skin of her face.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Arthur said.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she said. “I can’t see a goddamn thing.”

Arthur shoved by and took her hand and went out onto the deck. He eyeballed the row of boatslips and the grounds and the hills beyond. Nothing moving that he could make out. By the rear-seat he found an old bait-can stained light with dried soil. He reached over the bow and dunked the can in baywater. Shook it and tipped it and dipped again. This time he got hold of Merritt and poured the water on her face. She hollered and tried to spin away. Arthur put his hand over her mouth and she opened her eyes wide. She hit him behind the ear with her palmheel. Arthur sat down on the deck and the can rattled clear and fell to the black waters. Merritt wiped at her eyes with her shirtsleeve. Arthur looked around again and went back inside the cabin. She had dropped a whiskey bottle and he found it and took a huge pull. She came back inside.

“How’d you trail me?” he said.

“You son of a bitch,” she said.

“Quiet down, will ya.”

She cussed him out until he crowded her and put his hand back over her mouth. She bowled him over to the cushions and he just held her there by his left forearm. Muffled threats and calls for murder in his right palm. Her hand went inside his belt where he was hard as could be. She gripped him fierce and worked, her elbow running a furrow on his front from belly to sternum. He took his hand away and tried to kiss her too sudden. Teeth clacked on teeth. They had their tongues flicking at each other’s and he got her jeans unbuttoned and off over her hips in one downward tug, underwear and all. She made a funny sound as the cold hit her ass. Arthur had his buckle sprung and pulled his own jeans off, cleared but one foot from the cuff before she climbed on.

*

With the bottle mostly gone they dozed, back in their clothes, too cold was the night air through the broken door. Arthur’s guts took a spin or two and settled. Merritt’s head lay warm on his chest and she snored small. He studied her for a long time.

*

He woke alone in pale light. Gray shades of dawn and the eerie sound of loon cries. Swamp life humming and chuckling from without. He was chilled to the bone, his shirtback damp with cooled sweat. Arthur cast about the cabin for signs of the girl. Nothing but the empty bottle and her better smell. He edged the door open and saw the sun huge and barely risen over the marsh. Dewbeads on the decking and not a tread or footprint left there. She had left him some time ago.

Arthur searched the boat, drunk yet but sharp enough. In a cupboard he found two distress flares layered with dust. The first a rocket-flare to fire by hand and the other a beacon-flare to plant. He laid them by. He pulled a cushion-cover loose and set about folding it into some kind of bootie for his bare foot. He tore bits of fabric into strips to tie it on. He walked the deck unevenly and then stepped up to the stern and opened his fly. The skin of his dick hurt bad as he pulled back against the cold to piss. The last staccato lines of urine killed him to shove past, and still he felt like he hadn’t loosed all there was. Arthur zipped and was about to get down when he heard voices carrying from somewhere behind the treeline. They came again and louder by far. His heart thumped even though it was broke in the places that counted.

“What’ve you done to me?” he said.

Arthur fired the rocket-flare from the deck and watched it sail. Then he lit the beacon-flare and left it burning on top of the cabin. He wiped his shoesole on cushion fabric and then eased down onto the dock, walked carefully and left little in the way of prints. On the lot-concrete he took off and ran hard to the west, coasting the shoreline where the marsh ran shallow. He heard a diesel engine rumbling low from somewhere in the marina lanes. Men calling his name over and over, bellows from the cousin of the man that Arthur had laid down face first in the bonfire coals that many hours ago. If there was a female voice in the pack he couldn’t tell. He went down the bank and into the soup.

Arthur’s legs were numb throughout before he’d slogged ten yards across the swampway pass. His balls had gone and his hurt-dick didn’t complain anymore. The bogwater reached high on his chest at the deepest, cattails and lily pads sliding past and catching his shirtcloth. Gnats and mosquitos spun clouds above the putrid catchwater pooling stagnant in the hollows of pinned tree branches. He went fast as he could without drawing attention to himself, without risking a misstep in a pocket of riverbed mush and going under entirely. The men were on the boat now. The beacon-flare went spiraling against the blue, blue morning sky and landed out in the bay. Arthur Cooper traveled on.

A hundred yards out in the marsh he found the other bank. He had young, bowed willows to help his cover as he eased up the rise on all fours. When he cleared the water he looked back. On the other bank he saw the Merritt girl standing with one hand to shield her eyes. She dropped the hand and stared a second more. Moved along. He shuffled off through the swamp-woods.

*

The TV was playing loud on the back porch of the little house when Arthur came through the yard at a stagger. It was mid-morning and the sun had scorched his shoulders and the backs of his ears. Huge pines shaded the crabgrassed yard and most of the house. Great shape of a sitting man through the porch screen. Arthur announced himself in a rasp and then went heavy up the wooden steps.

Bill Cooper watched the TV from his armchair, slippered feet tapping on a throw rug like they were working piano pedals. When Arthur came in the man turned slow. Eyes ringed underneath and his unwashed hair sticking out from the side of his head. He lifted one massive, knobbled hand off the chair arm and put it back. Smoke circled up from the other hand and hung thin below the ceiling. Ashtray nearby full of butts. Bill Cooper’s left eyelid would not open all the way. A thick cranial scar started just below his hairline and mostly hid under his thick, black hair.

“Late gettin’ home,” Bill said.

Arthur nodded. Touched his brother on the shoulder. He went through to the kitchen and took a beer from the fridge. He twisted the cap loose and drank it down in two pulls. Stood the empty on the counter and got another and went back to the porch. A folding chair stood near the wall and he set it up.

“You sit out here all night?” Arthur said.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

Arthur slumped on the busted chair and sipped. Bill stared at Arthur long and then started turning back to the TV. He moved like he was underwater always, messages part-delivered by his nerves. Stew of medications in the blood. For all of that his feet and legs would not quit their little dance on the chair and on the floor. The big man reached up to smoke in short, repetitious drags, his fingernails bitten through to the quick.

They sat together and didn’t talk anymore. After a while Arthur watched Bill’s head start to nod and then loll to the left against the chair back. Arthur got the lit smoke from between Bill’s fingers and stubbed it out. Waved at the air. Then he went through the house and locked all the doors and windows. Pulled the drapes and the porch-shutters. He took the coverings from his bed and laid them over his brother. Shut off the television. Arthur sat there wretched in the dark, his ruined foot in a basin of hot water and antiseptic. The big man whispered things in his sleep. Arthur listened and listened.