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Art Fiction Issue 3 Long Read

Kings in Exile

“You ain’t any good at this here, either, are you?”

By Robert McGuill

My folks sent me away to live with my Aunt Charlene and Uncle Bud in eastern Colorado the summer of 1969, praying I’d come back a reformed boy. I’d gotten into trouble at home, and my old man figured some hard time in corn country would straighten me out.

“You’re a lying little sneak,” is what he said as we drove up the highway out of Pueblo, toward the National Grasslands. “But guess what? Your Uncle Bud was a lying little sneak, too, when he was your age. So, there won’t be any pulling the wool over his eyes. He knows all about deviant behavior.”

Uncle Bud was a farmer, and a tough sonofabitch. Being stuck in a house with him for three months was going to be as close to hell as I’d ever get on this side of the dirt. The old man made that sparkling clear.

“You can have your guitar back when the summer’s over,” he said, glancing into the rearview, a smirk in his voice. “Same with your hi-fi. But right now, you’re cut off. You hear? There’ll be no camera, no transistor radio, nothing. You’re going to spend your time getting reconnected—with the world. Maybe a jolt of reality will straighten out your thieving little ass.”

The old man thought he was pulling a fast one, but I saw through the stupid stunt the instant he laid it on the table. He was hoping his lard-ass brother would do what he couldn’t. Namely, make a man out of me.

They’d cut me off from my friends, my girl…the works. I had nothing left. Not even the stuff I stole. They’d found it all and confiscated it, and they were sending me off to a place where people hunkered around the radio at night, drinking warm milk, listening to Milton Berle.

Cruel? Unusual? What punishment isn’t? But what made mine particularly hard to swallow was its naked contempt. My folks had no interest reforming me. They were nothing more than a couple of sanctimonious hypocrites whose only intention was to torment their tormenter. In other words, they were out to get even.

“And don’t go blaming anyone but yourself for this, either, wise guy,” the old man added when he saw me staring at the back of his Brylcreemed head. “It’s your own damned fault. Every bit of it. So, take your medicine like a man.”

We both knew the reason I was being punished, and it wasn’t because of what I’d done. It was because I’d gotten caught. The old man didn’t give a rat’s ass that I’d been pinched shoplifting that leather jacket. He was ashamed of me for being too stupid to get away with it. For making him look bad in front of his friends.

“Nice going,” he’d said, driving me home from the detention center that night. “Your mother’s so humiliated, she had to drop out of bridge club.” He cuffed the back of my head, then shook his finger like it was on fire. “Christ,” he snarled. “You’re a rotten son, you know that? You’re a bad seed.”

It was all BS. The old man wasn’t the least bit sorry for my mother. He was sorry for himself. If my mother dropped out of bridge club, it meant he’d now have unwanted company on Thursday nights. The ball games he liked to watch on TV? The beer drinking? Sitting around in his underwear, scratching his nuts while he thumbed the latest issue of Playboy? It was all coming to an end. From here on in he’d be stuck listening to the non-stop drone of her motor-mouth gossip. Tittle-tattle chatter about Clyde Sosinski’s affair with his secretary . . . Betty Antolic’s naughty lingerie, hanging on clothesline . . . the drunken bender Bob Ratz was on the night he crashed his Chrysler into the Piggly Wiggly sign on the corner of Main. Hell, yes, he was sorry. His summer was going to be as miserable as mine.

A herd of antelope rose from the grass and raced alongside the car at a gallop. They kept up pretty well for a while, then slowed and veered off toward the horizon and finally ambled to a stop. It was like they’d seen my face in the window and thought, Oh, wait, wait! Whoa! Never mind. It’s just Casey on his way to the work farm. Poor kid.

The old man looked into the rearview, trying to gauge the level of my misery. He wanted to make absolutely sure the fuck-me needle was taching at high end. When he saw my worried face, he eased back and smiled, breathing the whole thing in with sadistic glee. He could have saved a few bucks shipping me out to Uncle Bud’s on a Greyhound, but that would have been too easy on me. He did it this way instead, so he could get in one last kick. Rub my nose in the dirt for a couple hundred miles.

Good God, Hal, my mother whined when he unveiled his big plan to her on Saturday afternoon. Do you really have to waste the weekend driving that little brat all the way out there? But the old man puffed up and got tough with her. He said he didn’t trust me. He made up this cock-and-bull story about my “suspicious” behavior and convinced her I’d make a run for Denver if I got the chance. Jesus. I half expected him to tell her he’d caught me squirreling a c-note up my ass, too, and armed myself with a dangerous-looking pistol, carved from a bar of soap.

What a douche! No, he told her, puffing out his chest and raising one brow with Eliot Ness grittiness. He wasn’t going to risk anything like that. Not at this point. He was going to make goddamned sure I got where I was supposed to be, even if he had to sit on me the entire way. 

The antelope stared at me from the hilltop as if they knew what I was in for and somehow felt sorry for me in their softhearted antelope way. I raised my hand when they looked at me again, but they got smaller and smaller, and after a while they disappeared into the shimmering heat.

“You have no respect for other people,” the old man droned, climbing back into his pulpit. “Why? Because you have no respect for yourself.” His eyes were back in the mirror. “You understand this, right?”

I tugged down the bill of my ball cap so I wouldn’t have to look at him.

“I’m talking to you, mister!”

I ignored his ridiculous tough-guy blather and closed my eyes. The sun was hot coming through the window, and I stuffed my hands in my pockets and huddled against the door like a man battling sub-arctic winds.

He saw I wasn’t listening and started in with a brand-new arsenal of threats, but I blocked them out the same way I’d blocked out the others, thinking, Live it up, man. Enjoy yourself. Because payback’s coming for every last one of you bitches—including Uncle Bud, if he screws with me.

I was trying to wish myself somewhere else. A future that didn’t include parents or relatives or teachers or ministers. But it didn’t work. The reality of where I was, where I was heading, was too strong to be denied or even deflected. Truth was, I was screwed. The summer was lost, and for the next three months I was my Uncle Bud’s personal butt-boy. What they were doing to me was beyond the pale, and the only way I could get through it was to remind myself that the show wasn’t over. I wouldn’t be fourteen forever, I told myself.  I’d outlast the you-know-whats. I’d lull them to sleep, and when they least expected it? Thud—a boot in the nuts!

I drifted off after a while, slipping into this deep dream where I was walking down a railroad bridge on a sunny morning with a bindle over my shoulder and a cigarette dangling from my lip. My crinkled eyes were smiling at the horizon, my mind alive in anticipation of the adventures that lay ahead. There were holes in my brogans, but each one was a badge. A happy reminder of all the places I’d come and gone.

When I woke up, I was sweating. I glanced out the window in a panic, wondering where I was, and noticed that the landscape had changed for the worst. There was no bridge. No railroad to hobo heaven. Just the endless, empty prairie, flat as a pool table, brown and all but treeless.

The old man was whistling away, tapping his fingers on the wheel. I thumbed up my ball cap and sneaked a look over his shoulder through the dusty windshield. I’d hoped to see something that might cheer me up, but instead my stomach dropped in a freefall. We were coming up on Uncle Bud’s farm, the ass end of nowhere. The place of my summer detention.

The old white Victorian my aunt and uncle lived in sat high on a stubbled field with nothing around it for miles except a barn, some outbuildings, and a grove of gnarled cottonwoods. The driveway must have been half a mile long. The longest half-mile in the world, and the old man drove it good and slow, grinning the whole way. I’d seen the old prison movies, so didn’t take much to imagine the role I was about to play in this miserable drama. I was Casey Carlin, as myself, the young inmate falsely accused of high-crimes and misdemeanors, and what lay ahead for me were the cruelties of a life sentence in the bowels of the state penitentiary. The only question to which the plot begged an answer was, would I survive? Would my time here break me, or would I live to exact my revenge?

When we pulled up to the front of the porch, the old man started to say something important and redemptive. But I figured, screw it! I’d had two hundred miles of his rambling bullshit, and that was enough. So as a last bit of defiance I snatched my duffle and punched open the back door, and when he demanded to know what I thought I was doing I ignored the question and stomped across the dirt yard, his ball-less threats bouncing off my back.

The old man went on yelling as I trudged up the front steps to the house. But I pretended I couldn’t hear him. Aunt Charlene was standing on the porch, and she held the screen door open as I walked into the kitchen then closed it again gently behind her. The old man kept up his squawking, I guess because he thought it was getting him somewhere. But all it managed to do was rankle my Uncle Bud, who’d been busy working on a piece of machinery behind the tool shed, and who stormed around the corner barking some choice words of his own.

“Who’s the fuck’s making all the racket, goddammit!”

Bud had a long heavy wrench in his hand and murder in his eyes. The second he started yelling the rest of the world went silent.

It was another scene out of the movies. The old man’s eyes went googly-moogly when he saw his oafish brother lumbering out from behind the building, and he grinned, sheepishly, waving from behind the wheel like some runaway idiot who’d stolen a car. Bud, recognizing who the loudmouth was, lowered the wrench and hove up. His shoulders sagged and he shook his head, and the rest was two brothers trying to believe they were actually blood related.

“Come,” Aunt Charlene said, putting her hand on my back and directing me away from the screen door. “I’ll show you your room.”

She led me up the back staircase to the attic where somebody had set up a cot. Next to it was an old end table on which sat a pink hurricane lamp. There was a wooden desk pressed against the wall and a straight back chair that should have matched but didn’t. The rest was boxes and crates full of dusty books and old clothes and magazines.

I walked to the window, the plank floor creaking under my feet. Through the dirty glass I could see Uncle Bud and the old man exchanging words. I breathed in the musty, lung-cancer scent of the rafters, my chest tightened, my heart shrank, and I wanted to die.

I suspected the old man was warning Bud about me. Laying it on extra thick so there wouldn’t be any doubt about how to manage my delinquent ass. But I knew from years of family gossip Uncle Bud wasn’t the type to scare. So, if the old man was trying to make me look bad, it was only to prime the pump. Sharpen Bud up so he wouldn’t think twice about clocking me if I got out of line.

You have my permission to come down on that little shit like a ton of bricks whenever you need to, I could imagine the old man saying. Hit for distance if you feel like it, Bud. You won’t hurt my feelings.

I watched them talk. It was all business. I wondered what sort of deal the old man had struck to set up this knuckleheaded prisoner exchange, knowing there had never been any love lost between him and Bud. It had to be more than just a favor, I thought. The old man was desperate to get rid of me, and though I couldn’t be sure I suspected he was paying Bud for his services as a jailer.

I watched them nod and shake hands. It was awkward, and there were no smiles. Just a lot of serious, meaningful looks. They spoke a moment longer and then it was over, and afterward the old man climbed back into his car. He didn’t waste any time with niceties or long goodbyes. Nor did he bother to come looking for Aunt Charlene and me. He just cranked the engine, put the car in gear and sped away, hightailing it back to Trinidad, the same way we’d come. The dust raised by the wheels hung in the air, thin and brown like a stain against the sky.

Aunt Charlene still had her hand on my back, and I looked up and our eyes met through the thick lenses of her horn-rimmed glasses. I’d forgotten she was even there. I’d been so caught up with my own troubles I hadn’t noticed the ugly little bruise on the side of her neck, blue leaning toward a funny shade of khaki. She asked me if I was hungry. I lied and said yes. I was afraid they’d put me to work if I wasn’t busy doing something constructive, and food seemed the easiest way out.

Downstairs, Charlene showed me the chair that would be mine for the rest of the summer. It sat at the small, square kitchen table, between hers and Uncle Bud’s, facing the big double sash window over the sink that looked out into the dirt postage stamp she called a yard. Her chair and Bud’s chair were made of unvarnished wood, like the table. But mine, mine was chrome. Chrome, with a vinyl seat covered in tiny pink flowers.

“Go on,” she said, kindly. “Sit.”

I did, wondering without hope, what had become of my life.

The kitchen windows were dressed in lace drapes with pull-down shades to soften the afternoon sun. The shades were yellow from all the years they’d hung there and decorated with braided drawstrings from which little red watering cans dangled. I stared at the watering cans as the terrible weight of exile settled onto my shoulders and the bitter taste of self-pity filled my mouth. My eyes started to well, but I refused to cry.

Charlene arranged a corned beef sandwich on a plate and put the plate in front of me. I picked it up just as Uncle Bud walked into the house.

“What the hell’s this?”

He spoke to Aunt Charlene but nodded at me. Or the sandwich. I couldn’t tell.

“I’m feeding the boy some lunch.”

“Lunch!” Bud was a big man, tall and heavy and deeply tanned, and when he walked into the room it shrank by half its size. He considered the sandwich in my hand then raised his eyes to the yellow clock over the stove. “Lunch was three hours ago.”

“I know, but—”
“You’ll spoil his dinner.”

I half-expected my uncle to snatch the sandwich from my hands and toss it to the dog. But they had no dog, so I was allowed to keep it. At least for the moment.

Still eyeing me, Bud went to the cupboard and took down a can of Bugler tobacco and a metal rolling machine. He set the items on the table and drew back his chair. But before he sat, he pulled a small sheaf of cigarette papers from a drawer under the sideboard. Soon he was churning out cigarettes like a factory worker. He was acting as if it didn’t matter that I was having lunch when it wasn’t lunchtime. But you could tell it did. You could tell it mattered a lot by the way he worked that machine. He cranked out those home-rolleds, one after another. But between finishing one and starting the next would sneak a sharp glance my way and give the machine a brutal, almost sadistic squeeze.

A month into my stay it occurred to me I was going to survive. It turned out that Uncle Bud, while every bit the hard-ass I’d pegged him to be, had no real interest in “straightening me out” as the old man would call it. We got along well, my Uncle Bud and me, and if my old man had seen us together, I’m happy to say he’d have shaken his head in despair. Yeah, I missed my guitar. And my girlfriend. But really, that was the worst of it. I had it easier here on the farm than I’d ever had it at home, so I tried to look at my time away as a kind of unexpected vacation.

Bud and Charlene weren’t big talkers, but that was all right. I wasn’t much of a listener. They both had health problems—Bud took blood thinners and walked on a cane when it suited him (favoring one leg one day, the other leg the next), and Charlene had vision problems that had her forever stumbling into walls or falling down stairs. So, they spent most of their time worrying about themselves, not me. Which, again, proved better than anything I’d ever had at home.

Now and then I’d picture my old man sitting in front of the tube with a smug look on his face, thinking I was out here doing hard labor on his brother’s farm. But what the clueless sonofabitch didn’t know (because Bud had never told him) was that the farm wasn’t a working farm anymore and hadn’t been for years. Yeah, Bud still kept a few chickens around the place. And a milk goat and a horse. But otherwise the barnyard was deserted, and the fields were unplowed owing to the orthopedic problems that kept him off his feet. Which meant, instead of waking up at the crack of dawn to slop the hogs or buck bales, the two of us would fuck off most of the day, fishing and shooting guns, or driving around the countryside with our elbows out the window, listening to hoedown music.

Turned out Uncle Bud was a big outdoorsman. I didn’t know that before I came here. He owned a boat, a canoe, waders, fishing rods. A whole cabinet full of rifles and pistols and other backwoods crap. He laughed the first time he took down one of his guns, an old Marlin .22 carbine, and saw the greedy look on my face.

“You know anything about the woods, Klepto?” he said. “You ever shot a gun before? Pitched a lean-to? Made fire with a bow drill?”

“Klepto” was his nickname for me. He called me Klepto, and he called Aunt Charlene “Queenie Charlenie.” I didn’t like my nickname any more than Charlene liked hers, but with Bud there wasn’t any point complaining. If he gave you a name, it stuck.

I shook my head.

He laughed and stuffed one of his home-rolleds between his fat, chapped lips. “You know anything about anything?” He watched me over the tip of the burning match. “Or was your old man, right?”

It was a deliberate attempt to tick me off, and it worked. Bud laughed all the harder when he saw my face darken. I stomped over and yanked the rifle from his hands and made like I could have shot him if I’d had a mind to, but all he did was double up and laugh. I stood there like some ball-scratching numbnut while tears streamed down his face. He laughed so hard he started to cough, then choke. Then he sobered up and pressed his sleeve to his eyes. “Sit down,” he said humorlessly, lifting the gun from my hands. “Before you hurt yourself.”

It was our first breakthrough. Bud and me, we understood one another in a whole new way after that episode with the gun, and it wasn’t long before we were close friends. The sky opened, just like the guy in the Bible says, and a shaft of light came down and threw itself over us in a bath of glory and we saw for the first time who we really were: brother and son to a clueless jackass. A man who considered us both losers.

Bud took me out plinking that weekend. He couldn’t stand the thought of a boy my age not knowing how to handle a firearm and he was determined to rectify the deficiency. My old man would have blown his stack if he’d seen me with a gun in my hands, but Uncle Bud was different. Uncle Bud trusted me. I think he even believed in me. We walked out to the fence line and set a bunch of rusty cans on the top rail and Bud handed me the .22 and encouraged me to blast away. Which I did. I didn’t knock over a single can, which was embarrassing given my uncle’s expert, if impatient, marksmanship advice. But all the same, he didn’t give up on me the way my old man would have. He just kept on trying.

The next afternoon we abandoned the firing range and went out on the water in Bud’s canoe. We were floating down a slow brown stretch of the Wagon Tongue River with fly rods in our hands when he looked over at me rather glumly and said, “You ain’t any good at this here, either, are you?”

I couldn’t blame him for being disappointed. We’d gone the better part of three hours without a strike, and it was clear I was some kind of serious bad luck charm. Bud said he’d never witnessed anything as pitiful as the likes of me and made a strong argument that even a retard could catch a fish if you put the worm on the hook for him. Harsh words, but I knew he meant well when he said them. I shrugged and told him I’d never been fishing before. I said I was as surprised as he was to find I wasn’t any good at it.

“I ain’t sure a single summer here is enough to save you, Klepto,” he said, wearily, casting out his line. “But I guess we gotta try.”

The next time we went fishing we dispensed with the finesse gear. The fly rods and canoe went back in the shed for safekeeping, and we rolled out the heavy artillery: Bud’s beloved bass boat, Cirrhosis of the River. In his infinite wisdom, my uncle had come to the conclusion that I couldn’t be taught a sophisticated art like fly fishing in a single summer, and that the natural world would be better off if I learned to spin cast instead. He soon learned I was as bad with a spoon and plug as I was with a fly.

The boat rocked at edge of the lake. The sun was hot, and Bud’s straw hat sat low over his eyes. “You know, Klepto,” he said, “your piscatory skills ain’t worth a good goddamn, but I will say this—” He raised his rod and cast the shiny Panther Martin at the water. “You’re all right company.” He turned the crank. The bale clicked and he retrieved the line. He reeled the lure in slowly, jigging every couple of turns, then glanced at me and said, “You ain’t half as bad as your old man says you are.”

I made a visor of my hand. “You either.”

Bud smirked, but the look on his face soon curdled and he set down his rod and pointed to the cooler at the back of the boat. “Fetch us a beer, smartass.”

I did like he asked but hesitated at the last second wondering if he’d actually meant it when he’d said “us.” He frowned. When he gave an order, he expected it to be carried out. He wasn’t a man who asked twice. “Are you deaf, goddammit? What did I just say? Fetch us a goddamned beer!”

I dredged a can out of the cooler and he snatched it from my hand, brushing away the ice. He popped the tab and shoved it back at me. “Suck up that foam before it spills, dipshit. I don’t want jizz all over my boat.” I slurped at the side of the can while he grabbed a cold one for himself. “Keep that container low, between your knees,” he warned, sitting back against his seat. “John Law motors this way to pay us a hello, you hand it back to me, pronto. Got it?”

He closed his eyes and rolled the can across his forehead. His hand paused as if he might say something important or engage me in some man-to-man instruction regarding fishing or drinking. But then he just sat there, eyes shut.

The look on his face was like nothing I’d ever seen before, a kind of small but sublime smile, and when I understood what it was—complete and utter contentment—I couldn’t help but be jealous. Uncle Bud was The Man, lord of his own domain, subject to no one. What’s more, he knew it. He may have been my dad’s younger brother, but he played second fiddle to nobody.

We finished the first beer and Bud collected the empties and sank them in the water, directing me to open two more. I did, and while I was working on my second, he had a third and a fourth. The beer was good. It came on in an electric buzz, and lit up all the dark, empty places in my head. I closed my eyes and laughed, thinking about the old man, how he’d once said me and Bud were a lot alike, both thinking we were smarter than everybody else. He’d meant it as an insult, but I’d never been prouder of anything in my life.

“What’s so fuckin funny?”

I looked over. Bud was staring at me.

“Nothing.”

He belched, fat lips flapping. “Goddamned blockhead.” He shook his head. “Fruit didn’t fall far from the tree, did it?” He snorted, raised the beer can to his mouth and paused, chuckling. “Your old man couldn’t hold his liquor either.”

I laughed along, and why not? I’d come to enjoy his insults. I didn’t know what he had against my old man, but when it got right down to it I didn’t particularly care. He was wrong about me, though. I wasn’t at all like his dimwitted brother. And I’d prove it to him, too. I was serious about being somebody in this life. Being my own man, like he was. I just needed someone to come along and show me how. And now I had. I’d get better at fishing and hunting. Holding my liquor, too. He’d see. I’d show him I was more his nephew than I was my father’s son. All I needed was a little practice.

By the end of July, the summer had begun to move too fast for my liking. But there was no slowing it down. With every passing day, I longed for the return of the one before, and every night, after I’d turned out the light in my attic bedroom, I’d lie awake on my cot, hands behind my head, dreading the time I’d be returned to my worthless parents.

One sweltering August afternoon out on the lake, Bud tossed me a home-rolled, and told me I’d done well that morning “ . . . for a pussy-boy from the city.” He was referring to the snapper I’d killed with the fillet knife. We’d caught a stringer of yellow perch and tied them to the gunwale, and while we were lounging in our chairs, drinking beer, it attacked. The boat began rocking, for what seemed no good reason, but Bud knew right away it was a turtle. A big one. “Sonofabitch is after the fish!” he cried, dropping his beer and stumbling over me to save the catch. He grabbed the stringer chain with both hands. Hoisted it from the water, dripping, his face taut and red. He hadn’t intended it, but the snapper came along with the half-eaten stringer of fish. Mauling the chain with its jaws, its huge claws raking at the air.

Bud dropped the line and the snapper hit the deck, going after him in a savage charge. I’d never seen a turtle so big or vicious in my life. It lunged at him, striking here and there, but missing each time, and it was luck—pure luck and nothing more—that I found the unsheathed knife near the tackle box, and even bigger luck that when I took a wild slash at its neck I hit home, all but decapitating the thing. Bud had been fending the prehistoric monster off with an oar, beating it about the head and shell to no effect, and somehow, in my panic, I saved the day. I struck the fatal blow. I’d acted out of fear, not courage. But afterward it didn’t matter, and I didn’t care, because I’d never felt so good in my life.

“Next time you hear me preaching about a sharp knife, you’ll know why,” Uncle Bud said, kicking the dead animal in the snout with his steel-toed boot. He laughed like a madman. “Hell, boy, you dealt this sonofabitch a good one! Drove his nasty old self straight down to Turtle Hell! Woohoo!” He settled down, running out of breath. Shoulders falling flat and even under his fat, beet-colored head.

“Fetch us a couple of cold ones,” he said, reaching for a smoke, face going suddenly sober. “I believe the moment demands it.”

I did, and we knocked cans in an informal toast.

Bud chugged the first few swallows, then took a drag off his cigarette and lowered the can. He jutted his chin at the dead snapper. “We’ll butcher that ornery fuck when we get home tonight.” He looked at me, a weary smile. “You ain’t lived,” he said. “Till you’ve eaten turtle.”

I lit the cigarette he gave me and fanned out the flame, flicking the spent match into the river. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I’d never gotten into a fight with a wild animal before and killing the snapper had changed me in a way I couldn’t explain. Made me stronger, somehow. Surer of myself. Or that’s what I believed, anyway, and I was determined to hold onto that feeling as long as I could. I drew down hard on the smoke and let the nicotine infuse my lungs. Kept it there a moment, then breathed it out again. All that thrashing and snapping. Those flailing claws. Blood, spraying across the deck and Uncle Bud swinging that oar. Hell. It had all gotten to me. Hit me where I lived. I suppose I should have let the feeling settle and enjoyed it as long as I could. But the second it was over I wanted more. I wanted to kill again. Only something bigger this time, and even more dangerous.

After a long spell of silence, I confessed to Bud that I wouldn’t mind coming back again next summer if he and Aunt Charlene would have me. But he was slumped in his seat with his hat pulled low over his eyes, his half-empty beer can propped on his gut, and I realized as soon as I said it, he hadn’t heard me. He was passed out in the bow, snoring.

When we walked through the front door that evening, Aunt Charlene stepped away from the stove and looked at us timidly. “That fella come around again today, Bud.”

“What fella?”

“You know.” Her voice went soft and secretive. “The disability fella.”

 Charlene was a nice lady, but she had two annoying habits. One, she was a klutz who couldn’t stop stumbling into things. And two, she was pathetic.

Bud, who’d just lit up a smoke, pulled the burning weed from his mouth and frowned. “You tell him what I told you to tell him?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“He said he needs to talk to you, not me.”

Bud let go an exasperated sigh. “Goddammit, Queenie. Can’t you just once handle things the way I say?”

“I tried, Bud, but—”

Bud mashed out his smoke in the tin ashtray on the sideboard and plopped down next to me at the table. His silence was always worse than his ranting, and it pissed me off that Charlene had put him in a mood over this insurance business after the outstanding day we’d had on the water. I wanted to talk about the snapper. Hear Bud tell how I’d saved him a gruesome mauling. But now the whole evening had all gone to hell, and when it went to hell with Bud, there was no saving it.

He pushed the plate away when Aunt Charlene set his dinner in front of him. So, we all sat there, saying nothing. Staring at three steaming piles of food as they went cold under our eyes. Bud eventually drew the plate back, and when he did, he dug in, attacking the roast beef and potatoes with an unhinged savagery. He stabbed and cut and sliced, and when he was finished gorging himself, he shoved the plate away, demanding Aunt Charlene clear it from sight so he wouldn’t have to look at it.

I knew it was going to be a long night after that, so I asked if it would be okay if I went up to my room.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Aunt Charlene asked.

 I looked at her.

“Go,” Uncle Bud said, “Get your worthless ass out of here.”

I went upstairs and laid down on my cot and sulked. I didn’t blame Uncle Bud for getting overheated about the insurance man. He’d told Charlene what to do, and she’d ignored him. You might not like what Bud told you to do, but you didn’t ignore him. Not if you knew what was good for you.

I got out of bed and went to the window and looked down at the yard. It was blue in the moonlight. I pushed up the sash and stuck my head out and took a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I thought about my parents, wondering if they’d even recognize me anymore? My attitude would throw them off, that’s for sure. I was happy now—happy for the first time in my life—and for that alone they probably wouldn’t believe what they saw. Yet, here I was, the boy they’d betrayed and sent away, reformed. Or, changed anyway. I still missed my guitar and my girl (though I suspected Caroline had given up on me by now, moved on to someone else), but that aside, I didn’t care if I ever saw Trinidad, Colorado again. I was beginning to figure out who I was, and where I was going in this life, and all I knew was that by abandoning me to my Uncle Bud, my old man had made me stronger. Helped me see the world for what it truly was.

When I straggled downstairs the next morning, still half asleep, Aunt Charlene was cooking breakfast. She was wearing a pink robe, and there was an iridescent bruise under her left eye that I didn’t notice until she turned to serve me my bacon and eggs.

“What happened to you?” I said, dragging my napkin across my lap.

“She tripped,” Uncle Bud answered, peering over the top of his newspaper. “On that butt-ugly rug she insists on keeping in the bathroom.” He looked at me. Sneered. “I kept telling her one of us was gonna break his neck someday. But she didn’t believe me. Ain’t that right, Queenie?”

Aunt Charlene said nothing. She slid Bud’s bacon and eggs in front of him and stirred up a cup of instant for herself. When she sat down, she looked out the window with sorrowful eyes, as if she were nursing some terrible secret the rest of the world wouldn’t understand. Not to be mean, but sometimes the way my aunt shuffled around the house, indulging her endless bruises, wearing her sad lost looks, I wanted to smack her a good one. Say, Shape up, will you, Charlene! You’re making everybody miserable!

“Me and young Klepto here are going out to the lake again today,” Bud said, rattling the paper. “You think you can get through the morning without falling down the well?” He drank from his coffee cup. “I can install a set of curb feelers on your shoes, if you like.”

I laughed, but Aunt Charlene didn’t find it funny. Her response was a grim, lightless stare.  

Bud and I took off after breakfast and spent another quiet afternoon out of doors, away from my aunt and the rest of the world. But when evening fell and we were driving back home, the “disability fella” my Aunt Charlene was supposed to be holding at bay, ambushed us a mile out from the farm. He’d parked behind a patch of ditch weed on a little-used side road, and when we drove past, he cranked up his engine and pulled onto the gravel behind us, following our pickup at a polite but steady distance. Bud pretended he didn’t notice, but his movements grew more and more stiff.

“Klepto?”

“Yeah, Uncle Bud?”

“Reach back there and fetch me my cane.”

“Yessir.”

His hickory cane was in the rifle rack. I took it down and propped it beside his leg. When we pulled up to the house a couple of miles later, he checked the rearview and spit out the window. “Get your skinny ass inside,” he said. “And don’t come out unless I say so. Hear me?”

I nodded.

“Go.”

I went inside and watched from the kitchen window. The insurance man stepped out of his car and fit his fedora on his head and walked up to the pickup. Before he got there, Bud knocked open the door and thrust out his cane and made a mighty struggle of getting down out of the cab. The insurance man stopped and put his hand on the bed rail, unimpressed by Bud’s efforts, but still trying to be polite. He began saying something, falling back on expressive gestures to make his point. But Bud just stood there, staring at him like he was speaking a foreign language.

The insurance man paused to gather his breath and when he did Bud held up his hand. More words were exchanged, and Bud came out with something that took the man aback. Something hard, I guessed. Hard and ugly. The man straightened and started in again. But Bud was finished jawing. I knew the look, and I knew what it meant. He turned his back and hobbled away.

I rushed to the pantry and rifled the shelves, sorting through cans and boxes and sacks of flour, until I found what I needed. Aunt Charlene was upstairs in the bath, trying to take the swelling down in her legs, and that was probably for the best, given Bud’s attitude. There was a lot of unpleasantness going on and getting caught in the middle of it wouldn’t have done any of us any good, especially Charlene.

I went to the window and peered out. I didn’t see Bud or the insurance man, and that was exactly what I’d hoped for. They must have wandered into the shed, the insurance man refusing to be dismissed. But it didn’t really matter to me where they were or what they were doing as long as they stayed where they were long enough for me to do what needed to be done.

“Sonofabitch,” Bud muttered when he bulled into the house fifteen minutes later, screen door clattering behind him. “Sonofafuckingbitch.” He hauled up and went to the window, fingering back the lace curtain. He didn’t see me standing by the stairs, but I could see him clearly. His face was red and swollen, and his shoulders were trembling with rage. “Goddamned, pencil-necked bastard,” he swore under his breath. “You ever come back here—”

He flung his cane and across the kitchen and it struck a cupboard and clattered to the linoleum.

I stepped forward, cautiously. “He won’t be coming back.”

“Eh?” Bud wheeled and locked his eyes on me. He was simmering with rage.

 “He won’t be coming back,” I said, voice low so Aunt Charlene wouldn’t hear. “Not anytime soon, anyway.”

Bud kept staring at me, lips curled back on his ugly yellow teeth.

“His fuel line’s gonna clog up.” I said, producing the empty jug of corn syrup I’d hidden behind my back. I held the jug up so he could see it better. “Most likely out on the highway. Before he ever even gets home.”

Bud blinked, and his expression softened.

I told him I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the insurance man’s car ended up in the shop needing a valve job. Or worse. I told him I thought it would probably be a good long time, if ever, before we saw the jerk again.

Bud broke into a broad hateful grin. Then he laughed. He strutted up to me and gave me a hard but affectionate punch in the arm. Still laughing, he snared me in a headlock. “You’re all right, Klepto,” he said, rubbing his thick knuckles on my sunburned skull. “You ain’t half the peckerhead your old man says you are.”

Those were the nicest words I’d heard all summer, and I loved Uncle Bud for saying them. They were, in their own way, the nicest compliment anyone had ever given me.

There was a hardware store calendar hanging from a tack on the landing of the back staircase. It featured colorful photos of ag implements every sensible farmer would want to own if he had the money. When I first moved in with my aunt and uncle, I checked this calendar every morning on my way downstairs to breakfast, calculating with brooding anger the days until my release. But then, over the months, the impossible seemed to happen. I began to enjoy my life with Uncle Bud and Aunt Charlene, and after a while the days I despaired over were the ones that lay ahead, the worst of them the day I would be repatriated with my parents. So, when Bud blundered into the kitchen that evening with the news my father would be coming for me the following day, I nearly cried.

“Just got off the blower with your old man,” he announced blandly, trying to sound unconcerned. “Tomorrow’s your last day here. He’s coming to pick you up sometime late in the afternoon.” He dropped down in his chair, passing his hand over the bristle of his short gray hair. “Time sure flies,” he muttered. “Don’t it?”

Aunt Charlene was in the yard, taking the wash off the clothesline. When she backed through the screen door carrying her wicker laundry basket and turned and saw our faces, she came to a quick halt and asked what was wrong. “Has something happened?” she said. “What’s the matter?”

Bud dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “Harold called. Says he’s comin’ for Klepto tomorrow.”

“I thought it was supposed to be next week.”

“It was. Somethin’ come up in the meantime, I guess.”

Aunt Charlene made one of her sad faces and began to tell me how sorry she was. How much she and Uncle Bud would miss me, and what a good time we all had while I was here. But I didn’t want to hear it. She was blubbering up a storm, talking all kinds of embarrassing stuff, and the more she said the worse I felt. I did my best to play it cool, like Uncle Bud would have. But everything inside me was going whapatawhapatawhapata—like cement in a mixer. I wanted to kill my old man. Strangle him with my bare hands.

“Piss on it,” Bud said, abruptly. “If it’s the boy’s last goddamn night on the spread, I, for one, ain’t gonna sit around moping. Get your melancholy asses up off those chairs. Let’s get the hell out of here. Carnival’s still in town, ain’t it? Let’s go have some fun.”

I thought he was joking, but I should have known better. Uncle Bud wasn’t clever enough to make a joke that good. He told Charlene to run upstairs and put on something presentable then turned to me and asked if the shirt I was wearing was clean. I told him it was, it had just come out of the wash, and he said good and pronounced me fit for travel.

We waited. But when Charlene reappeared, Bud winced. “That’s what you’re wearing?”

Charlene lowered her eyes. You could see she wasn’t sure where the outfit had taken a wrong turn. She was dressed in a print smock and tennis shoes, her gray hair knotted up in a blue scarf. “If you don’t like it,” she said, modestly, I can change into something else.”

“Please do.” Bud snorted. “Change into Gina Lollobrigida, if you don’t mind!”

He thought this remark funny and laughed a good one over it. I laughed too, though inside I was still fuming over the news of my old man’s unexpected return, cheating me of my last week here on the farm.  

Aunt Charlene dragged a shawl over her shoulders, which made her look even more pathetic than before. But Uncle Bud had already lost interest.

“Pile into the pickup!” he ordered, rising from his chair. “We’re leaving.”

I palmed the wristwatch when the carnie turned his back. It was on display with at least ten others, all similar in style and color. I slipped it in my pocket when he glanced down to rummage through the change he kept in his canvas apron. The sign next to the watches said, “Win a Watch! Four Plays for a Quarter!” and he was breaking a five for this sucker in a ball cap and windbreaker standing next to me.

The watch was Jap junk—the kind of garbage they wouldn’t even sell in the dime store back home—but it didn’t matter. I had to have one.

I was in and out before anyone knew it, and the second the watch was in my pocket, I strolled off down the midway with a lazy smile, as if I’d lost interest in the game and decided to move on. I was sure I’d gotten away clean. But then, out of nowhere, the carnie came up and grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back. I turned, and he smiled, meanly. Like he’d caught a great big fish that he meant to gut and fry over an open fire. He tossed back his long oily bangs. Laughed as I tried to lurch free.

He raised his chin and shouted to one of his carnie buddies. “Hey, Buzz! Lookie here! Caught us a little thief! Sneaky little thief!”

The second carnie, Buzz, was working the Zipper ride. He had his hand on the lever that guided the speed of the machine. He was smoking a cigarette. A real cigarette with a filter. He spoke through clenched teeth, which were stained and broken, and the store-bought smoke rode up and down on his lips.

“Whatcha gonna do with him?”

“I dunno.”

The carnie was twisting my arm, all the while trying to sink his hand in my pocket so he could retrieve the watch. I tried as hard as I could to escape, but the bastard had me dead to rights, and all I could think was, this is it. They’re gonna throw a burlap sack over your head, Casey, nail you up in a painted box and haul your sorry ass away to the salt mines. You’re done.

The noise and music and metallic cries of the heavy machines were so loud in my ears, I couldn’t hear my own screams. But then the noise died, and the crowd scattered, and I looked over my shoulder and saw my Uncle Bud charging toward me. Knocking people aside. There was a murderous look on his face, and I knew the goodwill I’d built up over the course of the summer had just flown out the window. My uncle had seen me for what I truly was, and he was going to teach me the lesson the old man hoped he would.

But I was wrong. It wasn’t me Bud was after. It was the carnie, who had also seen him, and who had ceased smiling, and was in the midst of explaining how I’d stolen a watch when Bud dropped him with a stiff crack of his fist. The carnie crumpled to the grass, conscious but only just so, and only for a moment because Bud wasn’t finished. He mauled the carnie, first with his fists, then with a barrage of savage kicks, laying into him the way he did the corpse of the dead snapper. When it was over, the other carnies had to lift him into a wheelbarrow and roll him away.

I’d never seen a man so blind with rage as my Uncle Bud. The ground underfoot trembled as he beat the carnie, and people screamed and ran off in all directions when he rose, sweating, and glared at them. It was a terrible thing to witness. Terrible.

Uncle Bud said nothing the whole drive home. Aunt Charlene put her shawl around my shoulder and held me close. She said nothing either.

Back in the house, Uncle Bud broke the impasse. “The nerve of that sonofabitch. He’s lucky I didn’t break his goddamned neck.”

Bud had broken everything else on the carnie, so I don’t know why he was worried about the man’s neck. But he was right. The guy was lucky.

Aunt Charlene asked him please not to talk that way, but her back-sassing only made things worse. He shot her an unforgiving glare, mouthing something I couldn’t quite make out.

 “The boy doesn’t need to hear language like that,” she stuttered, holding her ground.

 “Oh, really?” Bud propped his elbows on the table. His face turned different shades of red. “You’re an expert in this now, too, huh? Well, what does the boy need to hear? Huh, Queenie? Why don’t you inform my ignorant ass?”

“He needs to hear we’re his friends.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means he needs to know we love him but can’t have him breaking the law. He shouldn’t steal and be left to think he can get away with it.”

The meaning of the conversation seemed to reach beyond the watch, and Uncle Bud fixed on her the same way he’d fixed on the carnie. The same murderous way he’d looked at that nosey insurance agent.

“Go to bed, Klepto.”

I went.

Their voices fell then rose; whispers turned into shouts. I’d never heard my Aunt Charlene get up on her hind legs the way she did that night, and I might have admired her moxie if what she was saying hadn’t pissed me off so badly. She accused me of being a thief, and a delinquent, and said the carnie hadn’t done anything wrong. She said I’d stolen the watch and deserved to be punished, and that I needed to be punished if I ever hoped to learn anything. But Bud only hollered for her to shut up. SHUT UP!

She brought up the insurance man, the disability checks. Tax returns and other stuff. Money matters I knew nothing about and had no wish to know anything about. I lay on my cot in the dark, fingering the stolen watch as they tore into one another, and finally I couldn’t listen anymore. I pulled the pillow over my head and closed my eyes.

The next morning when I wandered into the kitchen for breakfast and saw Charlene’s split lip and black eye, I knew I should have felt bad. But I didn’t. Whatever she walked into after I went to bed was her own damned fault, and she could learn to live with it the same way she learned to live with all her other miserable accidents. She’d talked dirt about me. Come down all judgmental and sanctimonious on Uncle Bud. I felt sorry she was a klutz and couldn’t keep from falling down stairs or tripping on rugs, but that was as far as my sympathy went. I had my own problems to deal with now. There was no room in my heart to feel sorry for anybody else.


Robert McGuill’s work has appeared in Narrative, the Southwest Review, the Saturday Evening Post, Louisiana Literature, American Fiction and other publications. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times, and short-listed for awards by, among others, Glimmer Train, the New Guard, Sequestrum Art & Literature, and the Tucson Festival of Books. McGuill lives and writes in Colorado, USA.

Image: “Winter Swimming,” 2020, Molly Knobloch, acrylic paint and oil pastel on canvas, 40” x 30”

Molly Knobloch is an artist and designer based in East Austin. A creative from day one, she found her love of painting at Tulane University in New Orleans. She works with acrylic paint, oil pastel, pencil and more to create pieces layered with energy and movement that allow viewer to enter and explore.

Molly will be showing work at CraftHER Market in Austin on Sunday, April 12 and at the West Austin Studio Tour (WEST) in Austin at the Commune Annex on May 9–10 and 16–17