Lucky Jack

White’s heart beat through his fingertips, I felt something heavy in my chest like a fist, but instead of sinking in, it was filling up, and when I breathed I didn’t strain my lungs, like when you sniff mash and it feels like a cheese grater tore open your chest and lungs, I was flooded with air.

Lucky Jack first appeared in Happy, Issue 20

Sheriff knew where Daddy’s still was for the black mold on the tree trunks and the limestone in the creek bed.  You could smell the mash like baking bread from the highway.  Sheriff poured the mash, bloated dead raccoons and all, into the creek and took the tub and the Ford radiator and gave Daddy the twenty-five hundred dollar fine he never paid.

That night, I was in the hall when Daddy come in the kitchen through the back door.  He picked up the enamel pot and smelled the white beans, then tossed them on the floor.

Ma stared at him, her cheeks red and her eyes dry, “Ain’t bought store beans in my life.”  She wet a dishrag in the sink, her splotchy hands shaking.

Daddy hopped around on one foot unlacing his snow-covered boots and tossed them in the corner, dripping with mud.  Then he spit on the baseboard’s flaking paint, nearly slipping on the pine floor in his sock feet.

Ma swirled the icy rag in the bean puddle.  “You ruined the last of our canned beans,” she said, staring at him.

I left to hide in my room, on my bed, trying to breathe without wheezing.  Without letting my chest rise.  I lay in the dark for ten minutes, clutching the quilt and listening to my father pry up the floor planks to get the jugs.  My lungs felt like they were in a vice and I started wheezing.  His cracked palms scratched my door and I gasped but the air was stuck like ice in my mouth.  There was a gaping hole in my chest where all the air fell through.

His white liquor voice slipped in my room through the dark, “Put on your boots,” he said, “we’re going to the Lucky Jack.  See Roy.”

I laced my boots carefully in the dark, I fed the laces slowly, I thought if I took long enough my father would forget he asked me for help, but he didn’t.  When I saw his shadow in the doorframe, I hurried on my double knot and left the laces uneven.  I was glad he didn’t have the strop.

Daddy hitched me up like a donkey with leather belt and shoulder straps to the garden cart with dry rotting tires, half-sunk in brown snow.   I gripped the freezing aluminum hoop in front of my chest and stared at my boots as my father loaded the cart with bottles of liquor, the plywood bottom sagging, nearly scraping the icy ground.  I wanted to lean down and retie my shoe, the inside laces uneven by an inch or more.  I wanted my shoes to be perfect.  Like mornings when you wake up early enough to see the road before anyone’s run it over, making sheets of muddy ice and uglying up the ditches.

Daddy lit a cigarette, “Go on,” he said through his teeth, then I heard him open a beer bottle.  I strained for a foothold but the cart wouldn’t budge.  Daddy grabbed the cart with his red cracked hand and shoved, “When I want to get moving I ain’t got time for you to cry about it!  Move!”  His breath was like motor oil.  I fell to my knee and thought the cart was going to crush me before I could stand, but I scrambled up and got to tugging the cart faster than I should have.  “You’ll wear out quick,” Daddy said.  I didn’t want him coming after me, so I slowed and blew big white clouds in front of my face.

The snow started when we got to the Broad River bridge, a dried up line of limestone and rickety concrete slab with no guardrails, about a quarter of a mile from the house.  Wind come through the trees and knocked ice from the branches, Daddy ducked and I heard his tongue clicking on the neck of his bottle.  The wind got caught in the ridges of my ear and made noise like a waterfall.  My neck, my wrists, the tips of my ears disappeared one after the other.  I felt my toes leaving, though I still felt the plastic end of my shoelaces unevenly tapping the sides of my boots.  I closed my eyes and pressed my boot through the snow and into the mud, the rubber tread sinking without grabbing.  My lungs burned and I heard my father stumbling behind.  The snow came harder and I couldn’t see, the flakes hit my lashes and glued my eyes shut.  I wiped and twisted my head to the woods, saw only white frenzy against the tree trunks.  An engine gunned up the road and Daddy called something to me, but I couldn’t hear for the waterfall in my ears and the uneven clicking of my shoelaces.  My chest was in a knot, I saw the breath leaving my mouth and hanging over the road, but it felt like I wasn’t breathing.  I moved over for the green truck to pass as people I didn’t know stared at me with their bright pink faces against the drippy, foggy windows.  I heard Daddy yell again.

Daddy was in the ditch behind me, his leg twisted, his brown coveralls soaked in mud.  We were almost at the Lucky Jack.

“Want to ride in the cart?”  I asked, shifting my chest in the leather straps.

Daddy tossed his broken bottle into the woods and wiped the mud and snow off his pants.  He limped to the cart and sat on a crate, his legs dangling off, scraping the snow in the road.  I could see through the hole in his pants his knee was swelling, but the store was just up the road, past the curve with the sinkhole.

Lucky Jack was up a hill, so I let go the cart and sat on the frozen aluminum to rest a minute, my father snoring on the crates.  The snow covered my cheek and did not melt.  I lay my head down and thought I could lean over and retie my shoes, but I had no hands, I had no feet, my head was going, too.  I shut my eyes and tried to wiggle my fingers, but they were like slugs.  The leather straps moaned as I lay down, stretching them too far.

I woke up in the small back room of the Lucky Jack.  Roy had put me on a cot in my underwear, my hair was wet and the electric floor heater was buzzing at full blast, the coils blazing orange against the wood paneling.  There was a tray of Twinkies and muffins, cups of coffee, water, and a straw dispenser full of jerky.  I had fingers and feet again, one of my toes was gone forever, black like a shadow, a silhouette reminder.

Long underwear in a plastic bag was piled in Roy’s leather office chair, the calendar over his desk still turned to October.  I put on the long johns and rolled the sleeves and legs up so I wasn’t stomping them all over Roy’s floor and getting them dirty.  He never mopped.  People could die in the aisles and burst pickle jars all over and he’d just throw down a layer of sawdust over the bodies and vinegar.  Probably still sell the pickles, too.

I ate a Twinkie and the filling was hot from the electric heater.  Everything was hot and stuffy, I felt like I was choking on a pillow in my sleep.  I thought I was going to be sick.  I forced all the food down my throat with a mouthful of coffee.  Someone knocked on the door, then it opened and I saw the hazy eyes of The Murderer like I always saw whenever me and Daddy come to sell Roy his liquor.  The Murderer walked in the backroom holding a carving knife and a chunk of white ash.

The Murderer wasn’t much taller than me.  His beard and hair was white, his eyes glazed over with something like milk, but the rest of him was wrinkly charcoal.  I didn’t know if he could see me, but I squatted behind the cot in my long johns, holding the coffee mug like a weapon.

“Roy told me check on you if you come around,” he stuck his carving knife in the doorframe, put the white ash in the chest pocket of his shirt.  His fingernails were bright pink like his palms, both smooth, warm looking.

The Murderer’s head cocked back, he stared at the ceiling.  “Not much of a talker, is you?”

His voice cracked with half a laugh.  I wanted him to talk more, to hear the walls shake.

“Want a grouse?  I’m carving a grouse for anyone who wants it,” he sounded like a radio show.  Like his voice transmitted miles away and came out his mouth.

“No thanks,” I said, putting the coffee mug on the table by the jar of jerky.

“Your name Holiday?” he asked.

“Yessir.”

“Holiday, your Daddy like to froze to death.”  He let a low whistle.  “You was dead, too, I swear.  Roy come hollering for help.  Is a goddam shame the only help you got is a coot what can’t see,” his laughter punctured the wood paneling in the room, I stood, I could smell the Murderer’s sweat despite the snow, sweet and stale.  “I rolled your Daddy up in that busted cart of yours, like to froze my hands off.”

“Daddy all right?”

“Daddy living.  Daddy ain’t all right.  Roy took Daddy to the vet down the road.  Come on up front, we got to wait on the plow,” he turned on his heel and run his shoulder into the doorframe, then danced around it, his arm sliding against the wall, turning off the light and leaving me in the dark.

I took a handful of jerky and a couple of Twinkies up front to where the Murderer was sitting behind the counter on the stool Roy made out of old GM wheels.  I handed him what food I had.

The Murderer waved his hands over the aisles of the Lucky Jack.  “I got the whole buffet,” he laughed.  “Keep it.”

I put the food by the register and hoisted myself on the counter, on top of the laminated cigarette logos.  The parking lot, the gas pumps, even our cart were all covered in snow, white like the Murderer’s beard.  I stared at the whitewash, and where the whitewash had worn away, there was few skeletal trees.

“We’s to be here a long while,” he told me.  “Plow’s got better places to be than the Lucky Jack.”

The Murderer took off his fur-lined coat, his flannel shirt buttoned to his wrists.  He took a cigar from the display behind him and bit off the plastic wrapping.  He lit the cigar with a display lighter by the register.

He took a long draw from the cigar and blew into the ceiling, it smelled like cherries.  The Murderer clamped the cigar in his teeth and unbuttoned his sleeve at the wrist, then folded it up into a neat rectangle at his elbow.  I stared at the tar-black tattoo while he smoked and stared out the window into the whitewash lot.  He hummed an Easter hymn.  Just hummed it over and over, up and down, up and down, the knot on his throat sliding.  I almost felt gold sunshine sitting in the Lucky Jack, like Easter, hiding from the cold wind in the hot sun by the cedar post cross draped in purple cotton.  I traced his tattoo in the in the air by his arm, tried to follow it up his sleeve, tried to imagine how the rest of it looked on his body, whether there were pictures or not.

Still outlining the tattoo, I nodded off a minute and poked the Murderer in the forearm, right on his tattoo.  I didn’t know if it hurt to touch them.  I pulled my hand back and jumped off the counter.

“Don’t you ever do nothing like that,” he said to the white.

“Sorry,” I said, heading to the back room and the cot and the tray of stuffy food.

“Inking up your body’s just about the lowest thing a man can do.”

I stopped.

“Just about,” he said, picking tobacco off his lip, then puffing on the cigar.

“What’s the lowest?”  I asked.

“Doing something that deserves inking,” he said, exhaling.  “Come back here.”

I turned and hoisted myself onto the counter.

The Murderer raised his sleeve past the elbow, just below the shoulder, where the tattoo stopped.  He put the cigar in his mouth, “Back when the sheriff thought he knew something—he don’t know nothing, if you ever talk to him a second you’ll see he don’t—he give the inmates marks.”

“And that’s yours?”

“That’s mine,” he said through the cigar.

“What’s it mean?”  I asked.

“Boy don’t read?”

“Huh?”

The Murderer ran his finger over the thin, curvy ink, over the leaves and vines and birds wrapping his arm with fingerlike feathers.  He inhaled the cigar, “Cal ‘White’ Wright: Wife killer, Incarcerated June 16, 1963 by Sheriff Hiram Polk,” he sighed.  “Folk call me White.”

“It’s pretty, White.”

“Had to make it presentable for church.  Sheriff never thought maybe God don’t like tattoos.  I thought maybe God would prefer them with a bunch of ornamental crap,” he blew cherry cigar smoke above us.  White looked like a shadow evaporating.

I opened a stick of jerky and tore off a piece to put in my mouth.  White stared out into the snow and finished the cigar.  He spit on the end and dropped it in the mint-green pail below his stool.  Daddy always rubbed his cigarette butts between his palms.

“You killed your own wife?”  I asked.

“Been so long ago,” White said, “I don’t know what I done.”

“White?”  I asked.

White turned until he thought he was looking at me, “Holiday.”

“Want to see my mark?”

White laughed, “Ask the blind coot does he want to see your mark.”

I pulled my shirt to my chest with one hand and took hold of White’s hand with the other.  I put his soft, pink palm on my chest, in the dent Daddy made when I was a crying baby.  White’s heart beat through his fingertips, I felt something heavy in my chest like a fist, but instead of sinking in, it was filling up, and when I breathed I didn’t strain my lungs, like when you sniff mash and it feels like a cheese grater tore open your chest and lungs, I was flooded with air.  White’s eyes rolled around like dice in his head, seeing the dent with his hand.

When I woke, the sky was dark and the snow kept coming, I was curled on the counter by the register, a shirt under my head, wrapped in White’s fur-lined coat.  I smelled pee.  White was on the stool breathing heavily.  In the dark I only saw his watery eyes reflecting the white outside.  He looked dead but for his eyes twitching every couple of seconds.  There was a scraping sound, and I could tell in the dark he was carving the grouse again.

We sat at the blue dark counter, wind lifting the rolled steel roof and clapping the layers back together.  The wall heater glowed orange, sunk into the paneled wall, not buzzing like the other, just lighting our corner of the store in neon.  All the creases were black.  We looked like tigers in the dark.

I peed myself while I was asleep, I handed White his coat.  “Sorry if it’s wet,” I said.

He took the coat from me in the dark and handed me another plastic pack of long johns.  “Go change,” he said, not angry, not tired.

I hopped around in the back room like Daddy taking off his boots.  I bumped into the tray and knocked the rest of the muffins and jerky to the floor.  I peeled off the cold wet underwear and threw them in the trashcan by Roy’s desk, my feet freezing on the tile floor.  As I pulled on the fresh long johns, I fell onto the cot and a spring snapped and cut my shin enough to leave a red streak on the underwear.  I felt my pants on the back of the leather chair, they were dry and warm so I put them on, then stuffed the leftover food into my pockets.  I heard the bell on the door ring, a wet shuffling of boots on linoleum and a high pitched voice I knew was Roy.  Everything was muffled, I opened the door and saw Roy and another shadow standing in front of the counter.

“Holiday up?”  Roy asked.

“He in the back room changing,” White said.  “He had an accident.”

“Boy always reeks like piss, you ain’t need give him something else to pee all over,” Daddy’s voice rose from the dark.

“It’s all right,” Roy said.  “Long johns is on the house.”

“Holiday!”  Daddy shouted.  “Come out here, you ain’t changing,” he shouted at me, then told Roy, “He ain’t changing.  Nope.  He’s standing there listening to us.”

I opened the door and walked over to White, lit like a tiger on his stool.

“Come here, Hol,” Daddy said.  I didn’t move.  “I said to come to your Daddy.”

“He been drinking?”  White asked.

“Had to do something for the pain,” Roy shrugged.

“I said get the hell over here, Hol!” Daddy shouted.  His voice shook the cellophane wrappers lining the aisles in the store.

“We’re going to take a nap,” Roy said.  “We going to lay you down and you going to sleep.”

White grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me between him and the wall.  Roy led Daddy into the back room with the cot and turned on the light.

Daddy turned around to face me, to yell.  In the light, I saw his hands and parts of his face were black like asphalt, like my one toe, and his skin was red and chapped.  He’d been through Hell, burned by heat so hot it was ice, by ice so cold it was fire.  Daddy thrust his black hands out, “He’s my goddamned boy, Holiday you my goddamned boy!”  He lunged forward and Roy grabbed for him, “You went to sleep you son of a bitch!  You left me to freeze to death.”  Daddy tried to grab my throat but his hands were dead, his black fists drove into my neck and body but they were limp.  His fight was dead.

He pounded the hole in my chest with his dead hands and I gasped for air, he was punching the air out of my body.  Trying to suck the air back in was like eating through a straw.  A stream of white light flooded the Lucky Jack, and I saw my father’s petrified face, and above that I saw White’s dangling beard, and between the two was White’s fist, clutching the carving knife buried inside Daddy’s chest.  White pushed Daddy off my body and left him gasping on the linoleum.  The lights faded out and I heard the diesel of the plow chugging in the parking lot, as it turned in the lot, the interior of the store lit again.

In the light, I looked at my shirt to see if Daddy’s hands stained my white shirt like charcoal.

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