Scavenger Heart

by Krista McGruder

Granddad told me where we came from when I was fourteen:

Me hopeful of abandoning the polyester training bra based on his recollection of womanly traits.  Occasion was History class, genealogy assignment.  We sanded, stained and hinged seven-foot pressboard.  Triptych of organization, squared-off stenciling, decorative oil paints.  Week to dry, even then, Brother thumbed a print into the privates of the family crest lion.  Was confident of blue ribbon for artistic presentation, ole’ time religion-quoted inspiration, sour-faced, tinny-typed generation branching from generation.


Granddad said, Lou Arta, I looked into it.  Started asking around, neighbors, relatives.  Read obits pressed in Bibles.

What did you find out?  Me arranging supplies from an army-green canvas satchel.  Empty Big Chief tablet.  Recently graduated from pencil to black roller ball ink.  Blank cassette, pre-labeled Family History.  Ninth grader, studying pea matrices, Drosophila melanogaster.  F1, F2, F3.  Trait by ratio, mutation by chance.  Dig physical traits out of memories, odds of prediction improve.  Fill in the blanks.  Possibility of filling a C-cup or something close.

Portable recorder and microphone on loan from school library’s audio-visual.  Senior library aid, Billy Totten, bribed to overlook loss of lending privileges.  Too many books is late, Billy had said.  Unless you got a pair a panties to trade.

Granddad, talk into the microphone.

Happy to, said Granddad.

Exactly what I’d replied to Billy Totten.  Began to think of founding new field of study.  Genetic linguistics.  Could predict more than eye color, attached lobes, rolling tongue, blood type, extra fingers and toes.  Could predict what anyone would say, how he’d say it.  Useful to lawyers.  Easier to defend perjurers and vow-breaking spouses.  Not just his childhood, lawyer could say, but in his very genes.  Fault lay in the collective of homo sapiens.  Lawyer smart enough to pick a non-believing juror or two could cast a wider net.  Blame primates in general, unroll and extend the source of the scourge of liars and storytellers to the missing link.  Put the problems back in Africa, so to speak.  Winning strategy in many Arkansas counties.

What do you want me to say?  Granddad peeling and offering apple wedges.  Unusually helpful for Surghum Macburn 1.  A topic more interesting to the old horse trader than how long the goddamn country would suffer under a peanut farmer.  Useless pussy! Surghum 1 liked to shout at the black and white crowned with quivering, oblong receptors.  Hostages, oil prices and Russians, that’s your job!  Granddad was death on Dixiecrats, in the same way he wouldn’t cheat women but caveat emptored the men.  Men should have had sense to know better.

Assignment’s for History so I need names and dates.  But I want physical traits too.  Hair and eye color.  Ear shapes, cheekbone sizes.  Height, weight.  Be a better project if I can show some science to it all.  Talk toward the microphone, Granddad.

Had about twenty years on me when I got curious, said Surghum 1.  Shaped his poker mouth toward the black plastic.  Extracting seeds from apple meat, piling them on an upright dresser drawer.  Hard brown seed coats, as if memories of forests cleared for orchards had been tamped and stored inside.  I inquired about them coming out a Harlan, Granddad said, inquired about some relatives suppose to live in Owensboro.  Ever one a them turned up criminals.  Decided to stop inquiring.

Pushed stop on the recorder.  Makes sense, I said.  You wanted no association with all that.

I stopped, honey, Surghum 1 said, because I didn’t need to waste my time.  Could a told that story to myself, listening to my bones creak at me.

* * *

Let’s call it twenty-five years later:

Husband’s thoroughly decent.  Presses out cardboard boxes and shipping containers.  I try not to interfere.  A good thing.  The former Wife must have interfered.  She was on good salary until the unraveling.  Uncomfortable thing for Husband to explain to auditors about depreciating machinery that didn’t exist.  Something any hillbilly fifteen year-old could have worked around.

Like Daddy explaining to the I.R.S. how the bull he shot for being too smart with rope-knotted gates, tearing up heifers out of turn, could draw deductions for feed and vetting.  Daddy oathed to that skinny guy, talked straight at his egg eyes and twisty teeth and said, Whiz been leased out to rut.  Rancher out of central Missouri drove down on pure rumor told in a roadhouse as punch to some un-Christian joke.

Stud fee of a hundred dollars, Daddy said.  And rights of first refusal on Whiz’s ball-bearing progeny.  Ha ha.  Excuse me, Lou Arta, honey.

It’s okay, Daddy.  Me blushing for the inquisitor.  Could also cry if needed.  Had rehearsed since tear ducts and the rest of me popped, slimy and out-screaming the woman evacuating her belly.  Never quit of pains from you, Mamma said.  And you little and your Brother big and easy.

That so?  The brown-suited man flipped to ‘Schedules for Farm Deductions.’  Standing on plywood Daddy set in the bullpen, to save the man from a cow-pie shoeshine.  Courteous, that Surghum 2, even to a government worker.  When any decent American would only take a government salary if he wore a badge or dog tag.

Daddy said to the egg-eyed man, Ole Whiz never had it so good.  Love that Angus.

You can produce some kind a receipt? the auditor asked.  Such brown and tangled teeth, bulbous forehead cavity.  Could always tell an old lead mine farm kid.  No fluoride and never called the state in to test the water.  Family probably sitting on a clean fortune in claims against the corporate owners of this or that defunct exploration and mining company.  Too stubborn to admit to birth defects or too scared of evidence of in-breeding.  Maybe not brothers and sisters but cousins, uncles and nieces, sure.  Not so much a family tree as a tangled thorny bush.

Lou Arta, my papers, Daddy said.  You know where.

Should hope so.  At fifteen, I’d been figuring taxes for years.  Apparent to both Surghums that my fraction and multiplication abilities exceeded theirs.  Resourceful S.O.B.’s put me on filing duty for the price of a bag of sugar snaps and cinema Sundays.  Saw High Plains Drifter maybe twenty times.  Wrote about it for college English class.  Told fellow student to impregnate herself when she insisted vigilante justice was a bad cliché.  Cliché maybe.  But cliché is not a word people should use when they can’t fight their way out of wet paper bags.

Was a more honest time.  Parking lot justice not accountable to student-faculty trials and alleged speech bias against women.  Against which I would argue that any such rule is predicated on verifying underneath the alleged bias victims’ skirts and did they?

But didn’t escape all punishment for breaking Suzie-Smarty’s cliché-condemning mouth.  Was expelled from the sorority for conduct unbecoming a lady.  But none of those ladies were really pissed until the Special Occasion coke hidden in a box of laundry detergent was replaced with video tapes of the Gipper’s movies.  Figured if the girls were attending Daddy’s fundraisers for the President’s re-election, they required familiarity with the man’s earlier work.

Sprinkled the coke on the sorority house toilet seats.  Imagined the Homecoming Queen snorting off the backs of other girls’ thighs.

* * *

More to the point:

I didn’t prepare the Surghums’ taxes solo.  That kind of story would put me conquering Harvard or in some ultra-violet fiction that my college roommate, snooty book lover, banned from my post-ladylike dorm room.  Pooling resources is what Surghums 1 and 2 did.  Break-through in labor relations, really.  Give a girl a sense of what might be plausible and let her take initiative for composition and calculation.  Then watch the confluence of utility and artistry.

Bullshitting’s more successful when the math works out.

Like free crab legs at Little Dickey’s Hoot House or Mamma’s plan to quit smoking, truth in telling always starts tomorrow.

The Surghums didn’t shoot big dumb Whiz because the bull sawed through the gate’s rope ties, got on the heifers and studded the spring calves too early.  The only bigger idiot than a guy who shoots a good bull for rutting with too much enthusiasm is the pencil-neck who believes that story.

Daddy lied about spending on the dead bull when he should have told that skinny, nose-picking auditor the truth: that the dead past can’t expense to nothing.  Half-lives upon half-lives of paying won’t chisel the obligation to zero.

* * *

Mamma of little use for History:

A half-quadroon adopted out to pick cotton.  Though the employing family might have exaggerated encouragements about her genetic heritage.  Well-documented that African descendants could outwork Europeans and had less to fear in childbirth.  Trouble with either implied that Lu Ann harbored a lazy heart, moral defect or both.

Mamma’s marriage to Daddy: she sixteen, he twenty-two.  A have-to kind of situation and like Surghum 2, her fractions were terrible.  Thought being half-quadroon made her a quarter Black and told him so after she relayed the other news and waited to see which he’d take worse.  Said she kept a hand on the car door handle.  Ready to confront the devil set loose upon those who tried to pass.

You need to know, she said, because I can’t predict about the baby.  Might be obvious.

Shit, Lu Ann, Daddy said he told her, I ain’t running a civil rights project.

Mamma breathed fast, uncurled her toes.  Said she was prepared to outrun a grizzly and if it meant the woods woman for poison then there was that too.

Daddy laughed and said, Lu Ann, long as the kid’s right in the head.  You could be Catholic and Oriental.  Still the best-looking woman I ever saw.

Eloped no farther than the County Courthouse then Brother came, easy as predicted.  Plumped boy, quiet, liked to suckle and sleep.  Nothing unusual to mark the baby and when Daddy decided to drive a long-haul rig, he brought Brother and Mamma back to Macburn Holler.  Where Surghum 1 was baching it because his fourth wife had waved a Saturday Night Special in his face and told him she was taking a long vacation on her parents’ farm near Memphis.

Hello, Mrs. Macburn.  Momma said Surghum 1 greeted her, stuck his hand through the rolled-down rig window.  Pleasure to have an exotic and beautiful woman on the place.

Glad to be here.  Momma said she made her apple eyes at him, round and secreting all the future.

To my knowing, they never again discussed matters of the exotic, their greetings the only recognition they needed.

Surghum 1 didn’t need to be told about Mamma.  Kind of man who cursed nigger-this and nigger-that.  Even when I could hear, me with six and one-quarter percent, a black line stenciled to scale, meeting the white date of birth line on the History triptych.  A flourish of my own.

Smart man, Surghum 1.  Taught me better than to think anything of words.  Knew people screaming to banish words couldn’t trust themselves not to say them and mean it.

* * *

So try this one on:

Husband’s former Wife—likely not so decent.  Seems to have forged heavy machinery invoices; depreciated equipment that didn’t exist.  Colluded with two suppliers to falsify invoicing, payables and warranties.  Humdinger was the insurance.  Agent auditing once a year, due diligence kind of thing, standard premium re-up.  Day before Husband and agent walked the floor, Wife must have collaborated with collaborators to position begged and borrowed machinery in factory corners.  The backup equipment.  Went unused, mostly, the agent noted in his log.  Theory being that a going concern couldn’t have enough backup if a conveyor threw craps or some stamping timer miscalculated.  Wife rumored to have known the foreman in the way polite people arch their eyebrows instead of pronouncing the truth when old or adolescent females can hear.

Husband oblivious or maybe not.  Kind of man who might humor a woman by allowing her to believe she could take him.  Himself not an arbiter but a deity of stoic equanimity.  Knowing each deception requires indulgence of the deceived.

Came down to Husband owing the I.R.S. back taxes and fines and explanations.  Wife was charged but never arrested.  Even a backwoods sheriff can’t cuff and stuff a suspect he can’t find.

* * *

Granddad not much of a horse trader:

Babied those strings of used-up broncos he’d buy off third and fourth tier rodeos, winded and hoof-fractured six year-olds from claiming races, backyard nags so neglected muzzle flesh had grown over halters like trees eating barbed wire.  Surghum 1 doctored and vetted, stabled them in stalls he mucked each day.  Gathered them before poor weather, bedded them nights with straw and alfalfa forage.

Said he didn’t mind the upkeep.  Said the horses gave back plenty, especially when he’d been married and needed reasons for a weekend in Ft. Smith.  For vetting and shooing and what-have-you.

A nursery, Mamma said.  Man’s running a charity for nags.

Daddy in agreement but not occupying a morally persuasive position.  Daddy lived in Surghum 1’s house, ate off Surghum 1’s grocery account and slept on Surghum 1’s goose feather tick.  And drank Surghum 1’s special corn and rye inspired creations.

I ain’t getting into it with him, Daddy always said.  Until we start starving from charity.

Surghum 1 offered horses in pairs.  Usually to thin wives and light-eyed progeny, words Prep and Academy naming their Little Rock and Tulsa schools.  Husbands treaded in soft loafers, assigned hours with heavy watches, leisured on weekend boats.  People who’d driven miles of hills to buy a pony but would learn the conditions.

What you’ve got here is not a bill of sale, Granddad would say.  What you’ve got here is a long-term contract for lease of these creatures.  My property reclamation rights are triggered by cruelty, abuse or what I might determine to be unfit conditions.

Soft-shoed men whistled, laughed, said they wouldn’t sign.  Often left cursing mountains and dirt roads and crazy crackers who thought they had some corner on the market for beat-up nags.  Women were easier, in high-waist dresses and square-heeled pumps, tongue clucking and baby-voiced to Junior or Junioress.  Isn’t that horsy pretty?  So why not two pretty horsies?

Mamma smoked cigarettes inside the house, dog-earing catalogues showing clothes the horse-shopping women wore.

Surghum 3, hair slicked with Momma’s spit, threw rocks at departing automobiles, indifferent between folks who had or had not leased Surghum 1’s horses.

Surghum 1 quick on Brother, bending the boy’s wrist, flailing him with a fresh-cut hickory switch.

Me, arms uncrossed, shoelaces tied and knotted.  Old-time standing start sprinter position.  Because when Granddad tired of the switching, leaving the corral to locate a knotty tree hoarding a bottle, Brother came into ideas of laying off some of that whipping action.

* * *

Daddy wasn’t much for advice:

Especially after Mamma’s first delivery.  Doc told them to wait half a year before relations but again, fractions failed them and Surghum 2 deposited me three months after Brother’s greased, easy exit.  There was Mamma—still nursing and sore in her privates and cursing that apple-eating Eve—belly swollen again.  She said her confinement with me was the last time in her life when the world acknowledged her sacrifice for family.

Mamma was good at being pregnant.  Chocolates and cigarettes from Daddy and candied apples and salted walnuts from Granddad.  The Surghums hired a girl to cook and clean, both men so respectful of Lu Ann they exercised prerogatives over the help in the barn or storage shed.  Lu Ann would probably have continued birthing babies and enjoying the housemaid’s contribution and sweet treats if I hadn’t ripped up her insides.

I was brought up hard, Mamma always said.  But knew that with breeding I should live easy.  Stroked Daddy’s arm, pointed to Surghum 3.  Gave your father a son and your grandfather a granddaughter.  Could have done a lot more for myself but I chose sacrifice.  Good breeding’s not something anyone is born with.  Has to be learned.

Established that women of good breeding did not earn money, perform house or fieldwork or lack for help cooking dinner.  Further established that women of good breeding could not be expected to privilege a shady skin daughter to a peach-fuzz son.  Men would carry the family name forward and any girl unfortunate enough to retain her maiden name would not signify.

Other daughterly traits could also be disclaimed.

Morning of the school History Fair, there was Mamma, smoking, erect at her writing table, wearing a mail-order dressing gown.  Lifting the handset from the cradle, rotating the plastic dial to her bridge partner.  Me sitting at the breakfast table, cereal wilting in curdled milk.  Brother opening and slamming the porch screen door on a squirrel that had been half-alive when he started.

Don’t think I haven’t worried, Lu Ann said.  Not concerned about the party line she shared with two up mountain families.  If I didn’t know better, I’d worry.  I’ve read about that baby switching racket.  People offering thousands for the fair ones.

A silence from Lu Ann, the bridge partner likely offering condolence or advice.

Well, we’d had hopes but it’s unlikely.  Lou Arta set me up for a life of female troubles.

Mamma stopped speaking, replaced the receiver with a damped thud.  Smells of fresh cigarettes, one burning in each room she might pass through.

Me sitting at the breakfast table, hearing the rodent scream.  Relieved when the unhappy noise stopped.

* * *

Considered tacky to assign a 3 after a boy’s name:

For Brother, also unlucky.  Surghum 3, the family story goes, suffered severe skull contusion in a fall from the crib his Daddy and Granddady had rested in.  Probably an early Southern Colonial piece off a Georgia plantation.  Relic from dead women who labored in birthing then assigned the rearing to house slaves.  Surghum 1’s great-grandmother had saved the crib, another family story claims, casting treasures into the well as Sherman marched.  Couldn’t protect draperies or china but she preserved a piece of Southern womanhood that believed offspring should be seen at bedtime and never heard from earlier in the day.  Momma mourned the shame of losing the bedroom set that would have accompanied the crib.

Shame about Brother as well.  The great fall bruised his brain, forever putting the church nursery and elementary teachers on alert.  Brother was exceptionally large, exceptionally developed and toddler curiosity and natural strength had propelled him over the rails.  Condemning him to the life of a strong back and high-temper, kind of man who could sign on for the work of two men but cause the troubles of three.

Doc told Daddy that the boy might prosper in a special school.  Wouldn’t cost you anything, Doc promised, and the boy might get some kind of education.

Who pays? Daddy asked.

Government pays, said the Doctor.  Taxpayer funded.

Settled that question.  Surghum 3 learned from Mamma how to write his name, count and figure two plus two and use the toilet instead of making in his trousers.  Daddy taught Surghum 3 to stack hay bales and never to touch a gun or tractor.  Granddad taught his grandson how to avoid cattle and horses and how to sandpaper apple seeds to overcome natural dormancy.

I taught Surghum 3 how a girl sometimes gets tired of running.

Family effort to overcome the unlucky Fate raised against Mamma’s first-born.  Some sacrificing more than others.

* * *

Two things I can verify:

First, that crib railing, two-inch cherry, had been splintered.  John Henry’s two year-old should have been so strong.  Wasn’t past five when I recognized Daddy’s repair work.  Terrible with the lathe, new rails were chopped and dented where he’d hurried the blade into teething at unsteady angles.  Second, my supine view of Mamma leaning into the repaired crib, a tall funnel cloud of perfume, cigarette smoke and girdle lines.  Folding and bending over my charcoal-swirled head like great, sucking winds.  Laying a pillow, flipping me on my stomach, walking to the corner to stretch her thin long legs over the floral chaise.  Smoking with one hand and with the other putting Brother’s blonde pale cheek against her silk-draped breasts.  Heaving, singing and exhaling as if trying to pump all her insides into the room.

Me waiting.  Face pressed against that cotton-covered goose down.  Brother crawling under the crib, Mamma’s head sleepy and dangling when Granddad entered carrying a bushel of apples for Mamma and a rattler’s tail for Brother.

Later, a girl hired for changing Mamma’s children, cooking Mamma’s meals, cleaning Mamma’s house.  Granddad rearranged his habits, slept next to the crib in the company sitting room.

Mamma’s station improved and so did her children’s health.

A white trash storyteller might be challenged as too young to remember.  A mostly white trash storyteller would respond that memories are animate projections on shuttered eyelids.  Impossible optics but as real as human trafficking in affairs of the unconscious and dead.

Brother’s dented skull rocked in the mixed matters of liquids and solids.  A mind that feared the cradling water would drown him; suspected the mooring pylons would wreck him.

Granddad said Surghum 3’s core-shaped eyes were like cauls, insinuating future intent.

* * *

Jesus Lord, what a pussy-whipping can do to a good man:

Granddad said it and he meant it.

Before the former Wife disappeared, Husband was billed for mink stoles, important pieces of jewelry and long white Lincolns.  No children between them, not so much a choice as facts of a certain age.  European vacations and Caribbean boat charters.  Nice marriage and mansion for a woman out of Arkansas.  Best way to choose a good man was to be raised by a bad one.  Best way to get out from under a poor man was to infatuate a rich one.  Mamma’s axioms and she didn’t give a damn if no one generally accepted her conventions as true.  Best way to learn a law of the natural world was to live in it.  Best way to leave a family was to break one.

Mamma didn’t have to prove that axiom.  Living was explanation enough.

* * *

Not much History can do for anyone except make introductions with the future:

Surghums 1 and 2 away in Ft. Smith, buying horse feed and what-have-you.  Me feeding and bedding Surghum 1’s horses for the night.  Slipping them dried apples from the smokehouse.  Me feeding hay to the cattle, breaking ice in the watering troughs.  Not unheard of in Arkansas but cold for March.  As if the freeze hoped to embarrass our apple blossoms, pinch off buds fool enough to trust the length of daylight.

Brother carting manure and straw from the chicken coop with a wheelbarrow.  Moving slow but staying clear of the back of my shovel.  Moving slow into the coop for a load of shit, slow out of the coop, uphill toward mounds inside the orchard rock wall.  Because the more shit and rotten things dumped up there, Surghum 1 told us, the sweeter our harvest.

Brother pulling downhill fast, releasing the wheelbarrow to crash against the vetting chute.  Then Brother leaking against the barn door, flipping off droplets then climbing the hayloft ladder where men of the family went when they couldn’t get to Ft. Smith.

Me showering with the daylight drowning outside the bathroom window then up front with the hired girl driving Mamma in the Buick’s backseat.  Bound for school’s Open House and prize-awarding.  Best science and history projects, best written composition.  Mamma attending because if not, she’d have to write a note explaining why.  And she’d be tarred and feathered before she had to explain herself to some spinster teacher.

Arriving in front of the school gym to let Mamma alight at the entrance.  Me walking with the hired girl from the parking lot to the classroom where she would wait and drink coffee.  Under the cheerleader-painted Welcome Banner, standing next to a man in suit and necktie, Mamma.

Mamma underneath a brushed and steamed hat two seasons out of fashion.  Mamma on top of discount store pink heels and stockings she ordered special because she’d be damned before she’d pull some wrinkled mess out of a plastic egg.  Mamma offering a pilled and stained satin glove, introducing herself as Lu Ann.  Mrs. Macburn and the suit and necktie man skirting the out-of-bounds line, stopping in front of exhibits.  The suit and necktie man snapping pictures of pictures pinned to a History genealogy project.  Him kissing a ninth-grade girl who was known in school as living with a mother divorced from a father living in Tulsa.  Known as the girl with a different coat and pair of shoes for every day of the month.

Me walking into the gym.  Examining a papier mâché solar system; watching a volcano puke dry ice; smelling the buds of Billy Totten’s first-place Science prize, scion-grafted Ozark apple trees.  Hothouse managed, with Billy claiming over eighty percent yield in saplings, birthing the same fruit, year after year.  Make contiguous cuts in the scion and understock, seal with electric tape and lady’s mustache removal wax, wrap with wet newspaper and store for winter.  Set in two years later, prune the tops.  Hire a bunch of Mexicans to climb up ladders.  Sell the harvest to wholesalers requiring apples bred to travel, not apples grown to eat.  Praise the beauty of planned and grafted nature.  Collect blue ribbon and a brown spot from the principal.

Lot of wind and fury over nothing except selling a dollar’s worth of labor to some dumb housewife for ten dollars when she visited the tree nursery.

Surghum 1 stocked his orchard from seeds, cast fate to the insects.  Being products of pollination, took years to know what kind of fruit would grow.

* * *

Surghum 1 had rules about women, children and idiots with the bull:

Was a calf rejected by the heifer.  Bottle-raised and fed out of hand by Surghum 1.  The worst kind.  All the anger and strength of the species but none of the innate fear of humans.  A life that could calculate and did decide its value was worth more than the inconvenience of its maintenance.  No friend to its keeper.

* * *

After Open House:

Mamma, quiet and flushed during the ride home.  Humming.  Sticking a finger into a plastic pink container of colored goo, smearing and shading her eyelids.  Gulping her throat and extending her neck, smoothing wrinkles under her throat.

Me in the front seat.  Note from the History judge with a red, circled F.  Mamma saying her people were out of Louisiana, her father and grandfather, respected parish esquires who owned a horse ranch near the Delta.  Not the forty-acres and mulers I’d drawn on her side.  Don’t know why she tries to embarrass me, Mamma told the History judge.  Why her imagination would bring her to trample on my background, I simply don’t know.

Me sitting in the car until Mamma sent the hired girl out with a flashlight.  Told me Mamma wanted me to move the bull to the back pasture because she’d parade naked on the town square before she’d lose another night’s beauty rest to that damn bull’s bellowing.

Poor Whiz with Bodark spikes up his nose.  Thick groves of trees marked property lines from times before barbed wire.  Horse high, bull proof and hog tight.  Thorns enough to dissuade stray dogs and curious people.  Was excellent wood for Indian bows until property changed hands then Bodark became excellent cover for distillation and pharmacological remedies.  Surghum 1 and myself knew the belly-path from the hole in the apple orchard rock wall, a machete-cut twister through that garden of thorns.  Surghum 1 knew because it was his office.  Me because if he didn’t come home, I was to locate his buried lockbox before the goddamn law leeches could find it and tax his corpse.

But flesh-shredders could be hell on livestock.  So me filling a bucket with apples, driving Surghum 2’s rig into the pasture.  Offering the bucket from the cab window.  Looping a chain around Whiz’s neck and rolling slow toward the weedy north forty.  Dropped apples beside Whiz’s front hooves, slid out the passenger side to ride the gate open then shut.  Shining the flashlight on Whiz munching apples, approaching long and wide then vaulting up the running board.  Whiz safe in the north forty and me safe with the door closing behind me, turning the steering wheel toward downhill and home.

A chain-looped dark bull under a new dark moon.  With flashlight, me feeling spines in the creature’s wrinkles.  Apologizing to Whiz but nothing to be done until the Surghums finished with what-have-you.  Scratching underneath the chin, finding spines and pus pockets.  Slicing my right palm when Brother’s voice sounded; severing the tip of the small finger when Brother sounded again.  Headlights showing Brother straddling the metal gate.  Raising the devil with his yelling and waving a Surghum 1 rifle.

Brother’s feet landing inside the fence, loping toward the rig.  Chain dropping from Whiz’s neck, the bull bellowing, thrusting into the truck door’s paint job.  Me shifting the stick, not finding the right gear.  Me watching Brother watch the bull run at him.  Me watching Brother raising the rifle, exploding the windshield.

Me dripping glass and skull blood, single-eyed, piss-wet and ear-ringing deaf.  Watching Whiz charge down the hill.  Whiz retreating after taking a round in the rear haunch.  Protesting no louder than he had from his mouth-encircling halo of thorns.

Me shining the flashlight on the castaway rifle, approaching long and wide then vaulting up the running board to empty the chamber.  Dropped rounds beside Brother’s head then slid out the passenger side to ride the gate open then shut.  Brother down in the north forty and me safe with the door closing behind me, turning the steering wheel toward downhill and home.

* * *

Mamma answered questions for Social Services workers:

I sent him out, Mamma said, because I was worried about his sister.  And I’d have rather jewed a bargain with Satan before I’d think she would sit and watch him get near-killed.

Mamma traveled a week later to enroll Brother in a home.  Packed her best shoes and dresses, called Surghum 2 to say she’d found a fine Tulsa place.  So fine she decided to stay.  And no one should worry about sending clothes and unmentionables because she’d be drawn and quartered before she would ever wear those rags again.

Surghum 1 removed spines from poor Whiz before he bulleted the bull’s skull.  Used four horses to drag the body to the burn pile.  Turned Whiz into orchard compost then crawled into his office to tend to business.

I followed, belly-crawling but careful of my bandages.  He offered a sip of vintage and I accepted then said, Mamma got away with almost murder.

Granddad slapped me, melting my cheek as if I’d flown too close to God.

Lou Arta, I’d rather fall stark dead than see you feel sorry for yourself.  You feel wronged, you do something about it.  You understand?

I do, Granddad.

Surghum 2 took the hired girl on his cross-country hauls.  They faded into California after the auditor ruled against him on Whiz.  Last I heard, he jackknifed on the Gulf Coast Highway.  Rep for the trucking company said the passenger walked away with Surghum 2’s wallet, unharmed.

* * *

Let’s call it twenty years later:

Surghum 1 collapsed stark dead while reading limey poetry in the Bodark grove.

No one would have guessed.  Never saw Surghum 1 read anything but trade rags pitching horse supplies and insurance.  Damn poetry paperback and plastic-wrapped cash stored in the lockbox.  Enough, Surghum 1 wrote, to pay the goddamn pussy-wasted government the goddamn taxes you’ll owe on the farm because I had the goddamn bad taste to make myself into a corpse.  And should be enough left, he wrote, to get you by if you need to hire some work done.  Or keep what’s left over and do the work yourself.  Plant some seeds, see what you get.  Bury me beside my goddamn horses.  They’re my goddamn family.

Scrawled letter, horse skeletons, nudie books he’d hidden in the grain bins.  Only things left to witness how love turns on itself.  Contorts smooth cords of human wants into vulnerable, fleshy buds of unknown consequence.

* * *

Husband seems more happy with his third Wife than with his first or second:

First Wife, slightly senile lady mourning their daughter who died young of leukemia.  She telephones at Christmas to wish us Merry.  Nice lady, confides in me as she would a daughter.  Told me she married because of a have-to kind of situation.  Told her I could imagine.

Commonly assumed that Husband’s second Wife skipped to Mexico with a truckload of embezzled cash.  Strangest thing.  Because she’d sworn to Husband that she’d be carried out feet first before she’d give up her shoe collection.

Husband under suspicion long after we’d vowed the vow and walked the walk.  Swore he’d known nothing of wife’s deceptions, wouldn’t have thought her possessed with motive or capability to manipulate finances.  Coincidence about the second and third Wives’ given names but my people came out of Louisiana, horse ranchers and lawyers each one of them.  Her people were out of Arkansas.

* * *

Not the same since I sold out of Macburn Holler:

Generations of out-breeding and the orchard’s gone exotic, hundreds of thousands of branches seeding and pollinating into varieties University Extension folks can’t name.  A point of pride in the Apple Blossom State, fruits that can’t be identified.  A tourist-destination orchard, pruned, watered and harvested by buyer Billy Totten who turned out good for more than cigarettes behind the school gym.  Honorably discharged Navy Seal who never refused an old friend who had a pair a panties to trade.

Me awash in coincidence.  Meeting Husband two years before he was embezzled.  Me offering accounting and tax services.  Telling him I’d bring a confluence of utility and artistry to the job, but needed to work without meeting the staff.  Maintaining independence from the job, avoiding appearance of conflicts in interests.

Bullshitting’s easier when the math works out.

Me awash in more coincidence.  Discovering the Wife-perpetrated fraud on Husband two days after my last belly-crawl under a hundred feet of death-on-flesh Bodarks.  Two Navy-issued brush knives and a bomb squad suit that sharks would want for biting through.  Me dragging Mamma’s molding blanket, which Surghum 1 once used to rub down Whiz’s caul-birthed progeny.

Mamma had screamed bloody murder but I told her the best way to learn a law of the natural world was to live in it.

Husband does the right thing, supports the second Wife’s special son who lives in a special home.  I accompany Husband each fall, when the special son who calls himself Esquire enjoys our help harvesting apples from the grounds’ pruned dwarf stock.

All we conspire not to know of each other stipples our hearts.

Krista McGruder‘s work has appeared in The Best of Carve Magzine Volume III, The North American Review and storySouth, among others. A book of short stories titled Beulah Land is forthcoming from The Toby Press in 2003. She attends the New School’s fiction MFA program.