by George L. Chieffet
Curley’s father escaped the Turkish massacre to raise chickens in America. He had dark wild eyes, a swarthy complexion, and a mean streak that could flare up at the drop of a hat. His real name was Majobian, which he changed to Majo because to him it sounded more American. Once in America he began to build a house for his mail-order bride, Curley’s mother, before she came over from the old country. He stopped work the day she ran off with a lathe operator from the aircraft factory and never hammered another nail. A woeful piece of carpentry, the house stood empty ten years. Then Curley’s father, while hunting in the woods, happened upon a one-armed stranger painting on an easel. The stranger was looking for a farm to buy; his name was Kremitz, trying to relearn to paint after severing his good right arm in a car crash.
Curley worked on the old chicken farm with his father who was now a hired hand. The farm now belonged to an absentee landlord. Day after day, Curley and his father slaughtered chickens for market, cutting the birds’ throats with a long knife and placing them upside down into funnels so their blood would drain into a large tub. At night when Curley shut his eyes he would imagine the speckled feathers of the squawking chickens bleeding into the tub.
The rickety coops housed eighty thousand hens until the farm went broke when the bottom dropped out of the poultry market; but the farm remained, and before he went to prison for his long stretch, Curley often visited the old place. The coops were long gone, the land overgrown by bramble, and the barn collapsed. The house stood silent and dark, its windows shot out, its floor pried up, and its ceiling caved in. The woods, or what was left of them—less than an acre by Curley’s best guess—was a stubble of skinny pine and briars along the new highway. Most of the forest had burned when some homeless jackasses camping there had accidentally set their tent on fire. Dwarf pines that sprouted afterward shed their needles and listed on their sides.
Curley‘s father slept badly if he slept at all. Often he went on a bender at night and woke the next day laid out on a couch on the porch with a galvanized bucket for his dead smokes and empty whiskey bottles. He forgot what he had done, though he saw visions, which he admitted were crazy—the couch as pea-soup green (when it was gray), its big round arms swollen much like the fat woman’s thighs he rode with his pants down at the whorehouse. During the night the porch poles swayed, the weary sofa cushions groaned, and Curley’s father rode up and down on the fat lady’s thighs. Then the whiskey in his brain cranked up and she climbed on top of him and her flesh rolled over his cheeks and sank down onto his face so that his wooly hair filled the cleft of her backside. And Curley? When he saw what was going on he pitched a tent in the woods to stay out of the way.
When the woman buttoned up her skirt and drove off in her jalopy, Curley’s father smashed the couch with a sledgehammer. He burnt the armchair with lit cigarettes and whacked himself off in the burn holes. The sofa stank of cooked horsehair and the fat woman’s stale perfume. In a year’s time he took a hatchet to every chair in the house. He put a knife through the mattresses and ripped them open like the stomachs of men he wanted to kill but hadn’t the nerve to. He put his fist through a wall because he couldn’t kill the Acme lathe operator who ran off with Curley’s mother. This was Curley’s introduction to whores.
One night his father, roused by the roar of a jet plane, launched himself from the weather vane on the roof of the barn. He bounced into a pile of manure and came out covered in shit. He was spared by fate and laughed it off, hosed himself down, and burned his mattress on the driveway. He drank until Sunday night, then poured gasoline over his pickup, crawled in behind the wheel, and set the cushions on fire. He would have roasted like a potato if it weren’t for Ajax, who saw the flames racing over the burning truck and pulled him out the driver’s side window. Curley was drunk when it happened. How many times had his father tried to kill himself? Until that night he had never done the job right.
The truck exploded and the gasoline whipped flames into the woods. Sparks flew everywhere. Flames swept like ghosts over the treetops. The inhabitants of the neck came out to see Ajax, Curley’s best friend, swinging a brush axe, fighting the fire barefoot, his singed hair standing on end while he chomped a cigar and doused the flames with a garden hose.
Long after, Curley told a jailhouse reporter that he fell in love with Lola Kremitz the night of the fire and that the teenage girl had been his father’s favorite prostitute, but this was a lie—Curley just cooked up the story because he wanted his picture to make the morning news. The real story was something entirely different, something that he refused to tell the simpering priest who hovered around his cell and pressed him for details. Kremitz had bought a fat lady and her two “daughters”, Lola and Verna, from a traveling carnival for a three-year-old car and seventy-five dollars, and after he realized the fat lady was too crazy to do housework, he brought up the daughters to be prostitutes because he scarcely eked out a living from the junk business he ran from his front yard. Tall, yellow weeds grew along a stream, and as Kremitz collected more things, the yard became a minefield of jagged steel—sharp-edged plumbing fixtures and rusted engine blocks, looped rolls of copper and brass tubing.
Although Kremitz had advertised for husbands in the newspapers, it was taken for fact that no one wanted to marry Verna and Lola. And nobody imagined someone would ever love them. They lived beside the stream tending to their invalid mother among the junk piles and even their sweetest smiles revealed jagged teeth. Knowing they had to take care of themselves, the girls began earning their own living; they capped their teeth and cared for their insane mother who thought herself an opera singer, hanging her big rear end out the window while baying opera lyrics at the moon. Her voice was a haunting mix of high-pitched squeals and low whinnies, like the braying of a stranded mule.
When Lola and Verna became successful in the whoring business, they prettied up the house for their customers and put the fat lady in a home. They put frilly red curtains in the windows and painted the steps a brilliant white. They lined the front yard with whitewashed stones, planted beds of daffodils, and fenced off the mounds of junk with a chicken wire.
The sisters spoke to no one at first and the rumor was they were mutes. Their sallow faces and their creased foreheads showed worry, as if they feared the earth would suddenly open to swallow them. Their dresses flopped around their ankles and loose threads hung from their sleeves like corn silk. Their feet were stuffed into lumpy shoes, and every day they ate seeded bread, chicken necks, and boiled beets that stained their teeth and left purple rings on their mouth. They were called purple witches because of their beet-stained teeth. They walked to town through the St. Aloisha Cemetery past the huge Acme Aircraft barns and the Wolf Hill Highway. Fighter planes on test runs from the factory streaked through the sky thundering black trails of exhaust. The sisters grew accustomed to ducking the tomatoes lobbed by teenage boys speeding by in their jalopies.
The girlie business had its drawbacks, but it made them money. Curley counted the cars prowling along the narrow road, their headlamps like iridescent owl eyes beaming: everything from shiny convertibles decked out in chrome to four-cylinder pickups chugging like panting dogs. And the men, often big strapping soldiers, would climb out from those vehicles, sneaking along, stumbling in a drunken amble, leaving trails of whiskey bottles and a shower of cigarette ash, sometimes even shoes or a khaki shirt stuck in thorns. Every window in the house had fluttering scarlet curtains, and the night visitors, parking their cars in the woods, followed those curtains to the front door while their breaths, perfumed with tobacco and stale whiskey, sifted through the dark to where Ajax and Curley were camping. And on Curley’s later visits on his prowls through the woods, he saw the sisters lurking in the window behind the scarlet curtains. Curley waved his sweetheart wave but they ignored him—he supposed that if they kept a loaded shotgun by the front door, they would have used it.
After the poultry market crashed and the farms went bust, Curley and Ajax lived in tents beside the stream. They had grown up together. Ajax was black, the son of a migrant picker; at age fourteen he had been accidentally left behind. He and Curley did odd jobs—digging wells, cutting trees, picking crops. They lived on the remaining chickens and boiled eggs, and when they had money they bought beer and canned spaghetti and cooked the spaghetti and drank up the beer. Gradually the money and drink affected their thinking—they followed the sisters around and began having savage thoughts when the sisters snagged their dresses on the briars along the trail. When the girls knelt alongside the path, Curley thought the sisters were doing something peculiar; he imagined them undressing, swinging their hips in a wild dance, only to realize that their long fingers were working to unhitch thorns from their skirts. There was some crazy joke in all this though Curley couldn’t say exactly what the joke was. Curley hid in the bushes jerking off as he watched the sisters fussing over snagged fabric.
Curley’s want for Lola, the older sister, had nothing to do with meat on her bones. Scrawny as a feral cat, she had a large, pointed nose and a bitter mouth. She had an ugly complexion—rough like burlap cloth but a shade or two lighter than burlap. Her hair was black as a jet trail and her eyes black as scorching smoke. Curley noticed her eyes; they were darting about, searching for menace.
Ajax often went along with the sisters when they walked into town. He had an easier way about him and he especially liked Verna’s milky skin, her nice fat bottom, her big tits, and the red hair down her neck. He said she might have been shaped like a turnip but she had some flesh on her bones.
Curley actually collided with Lola on the path to town. As if their meeting were a traffic accident on the road, they smacked into each other, then gathered themselves up and stood side by side taking long, slow breaths. Something passed between them although neither spoke. They drew back into the shadows, disappearing into the clover. In no time Lola was flat on her back, her arms pinned behind her, and Curley was combing his fingers through her wild black hair. He imagined she was crying out with pleasure, though he was wrong. When she fainted, her black irises rolled up under her lids, and Curley felt her pulse beating against the small bones in her wrist.
Then Ajax knocked him to the ground where he lay on his back blinking up at the wooly clouds that floated over him.
“What the hell?” Ajax said, standing over a dazed Curley. “You don’t even have enough money to pay for it.”
Lola wiped her throat. Curley had left bruises on her neck.
“Get that pig away from me,” she said. “I may be a whore but I ain’t no slut.”
“I was just having some fun,” Curley said. “With my girl.”
“Your girl,” Ajax groaned in disbelief. “You better watch yourself or you’ll have Ajax to deal with.”
Thoughts resembling tadpoles swam the narrow creek dividing Curley’s brain into innocence and evil. Blood was a delicacy that often tasted like plum wine. He had no recollection of wanting to do harm. Lola lay weeping on a blanket, her eyes glassy ovals, her skirt torn down the seam.
“Why was I ever born?” she said.
“Are you all right?” Ajax said.
Curley said, “I thought she was giving it away.”
“She ain’t giving you anything, if that’s what you’re asking.” Ajax said. “You scared the hell out of her.”
“I never said you could,” Lola said. “You raped me.”
“I didn’t want to,” Curley said, but he was lying. That was exactly what he was trying to do.
Then for some odd reason he fell on his hands and knees and cried alongside Lola. Their crying was a screechy chorus.
“They should put him away,” Verna said as she rushed to her sister. Curley imagined he saw her hair as red flames, as if she had been set on fire.
“I thought she wanted to,” Curley repeated. “I thought that’s why she went with me.”
“You got shit for brains,” Verna said.
“You should pay me twenty dollars. I don’t do it for free with no stranger, especially one I met on the road,” Lola said.
“You don’t treat no girl that way,” Ajax said. “Pay her!”
“I didn’t hardly touch ya,” Curley insisted. But he gave her the twenty.
Lola took the twenty and folded it into the frilly cup of her bra. Then she raised herself up and dusted off her skirt. “Because of you I’m so damn sore I’m not gonna be able to work tonight. It should be forty you owe me,” she said. “How’s a girl supposed to make a living with idiots like you chasing them around in the daytime when they got to put out in the night?”
Curley gave her his last twenty dollars. “Maybe we can do it for free sometime,” he said. “Like real people do.”
“You bet, honey,” Lola said. “I’ll be giving it away when hell freezes over. You come around then.”
Verna gave it to Ajax for free because he was so good to her. They put out a blanket between two trees and built a huge fire from pieces of the barn. The flames blazed up as tall as a man licking the sky, glowing over the woods. They gave no thought to the flies swarming or the skinny moon peeping through the tree branches. Far away along the curves of the highway, traffic hissed like a snake. The roar of the night freight echoed through the trees. Ajax gulped down whiskey from a bottle, and Verna, who acted more refined, sipped from a paper cup. Ajax matched her shot for shot and they drank too much and tumbled to the ground. Then Verna put Ajax on a stool and wrapped him in towels, and while Ajax held a lit candle and sang drunken songs, Verna snipped away at his hair. It took almost an hour to get it right and when Verna finished her barbering, she swept away the hair clippings that had floated down around their feet and massaged homemade pomade into his scalp. The pomade—a mix of beeswax and linseed oil—smelled like cheap perfume. Ajax had his first haircut ever.
In his dream, Lola gave Curley tender kisses and he was fully transformed by love. He was her protector and he imagined tasting the grit and clay from the junkyard on her fingers and her toes. Her dark face, set with a hawk nose, big eyes, and a frenzy of hair stared up from a slit in the ground. Had he killed her without realizing he had? No, he only dreamed that he stood over her grave gnawing the pink flowers blooming there. These were the swampy vines she stood knee-deep in when she picked briars from her dress. He imagined he cradled her on his knees and spoke to her in a soft voice although the words he said made no sense. He discovered her breasts were full and her dark nipples were ripe as figs. Her eyes remained closed and she never said a word back to him.
At night Curley climbed one of the sheds and called the sisters, braying from the roof, but the sisters never came out. Curley had other disturbing dreams about Lola wading the creek, her face old and tired and her cheeks hollow and marked with deep scars. He would hide in the woods on his side of the creek and by the time he waded across, the sisters had vanished. Curley heard the sound of Lola’s excited breathing, which seemed both close by and far away, and then suddenly swirling all around him. The moon was a thin sliver reflecting down on the trees, and the light illuminated a barely visible outline of branches. Curley, scarcely able to see, wandered in the forest, going in circles. In the bramble Curley stumbled on to one of Kremitz’s failed paintings. It was a painting of a forest distorted with bright reds and blues. Skinny trees stood erect like emaciated soldiers. Blotches of sky bled through the branches. The frame was splintered and there were bullet holes in the canvas. Curley laughed because the bent frame somehow reminded him of the crippled painter. He angrily kicked the frame aside and searched in the dark, stumbling through the brush like a blind man. He became lost and couldn’t find his way home. Then, like all dreams, something senseless happened. The yards whirled by, suddenly overgrown with bramble so thick that he was sucked into the snarl, and every trace of the house, the junk sinks, and toilets were swarmed over by these wild vines. The swaying vines seemed like a green ocean rising over him like a flood, and all that remained of the world he knew was a fat, white moon with a stupid face, saucer eyes, and a big smile.
He wished he had the courage to say what Ajax said. Of course he couldn’t imagine what to say. Most of what he said made no sense to anyone so he just observed her working in her yard—while she scrubbed clothes in a washtub, swept the dust from the sheds, dug trenches to bury the garbage. Her face was like a gaunt shell with a long chin and rubbery features that changed into a hundred different faces depending on the light—into old ones and young ones, innocent and mean, bloodless and lively. She seemed like a golden blonde in a certain kind of sunlight; standing in the woods at dusk, she became as dark as an Indian princess. Sometimes her faces changed so quickly it seemed to him he was flipping through a deck of playing cards. Sometimes at night he peeked into the window and saw her curled on a sofa entertaining her men. She was a hundred different persons or no one in particular. He never understood why the soldiers called her “Plain Jane.”
When Ajax first began making real money working in the sandpits, he moved into a tenant house and began bundling Verna off to dance joints in Mulberry, the black town ten miles away, but he never took her where a white person could see her. And even in Mulberry he made her put on a blonde wig and sunglasses. The wig showed off shiny artificial curls like those worn by the Mulberry whores; it made people think she was one of the hookers from the Mulberry railroad station.
Curley saw how the wig changed Verna. She laughed more frequently and when she laughed, her whole body shook with nervous energy; she became a high–strung, beautiful slut and wore bright red lipstick and tight dresses sewn from bolts of cloth, and she and Ajax went places in the panel truck that doubled as a funeral hearse for the African Baptist Church out in Mulberry.
Curley also bought a wig at the five-and-ten and presented it to Lola as a gift, but Lola refused to put it on. She told him she had more than enough hair. She stood in the doorway and barred his entry. There were two drunken soldiers, customers, standing behind her smoking. One soldier with a big square jaw looked mean and he wanted a piece of Curley, but Lola told him she had more than enough trouble in the house and if he wanted a good time, he should stay quiet. Curley went away that night but he wanted to show her a good time and kept asking until Lola agreed to go with him to the Roseville Drive-In, although only if Ajax and Verna went along. Then Lola sat up front with Curley as cover for the mixed-race pair. She enjoyed watching movie musicals, even with Curley in the big front seat of the Mulberry hearse. Anyone could see that she was happy sitting quietly in dress-up clothes—even with her own hair—watching the handsome men in tuxedos and the women in glittering gowns dancing and singing on-screen.
The boys brought along whiskey and ice. They parked the big hearse way back in the shadows. The second movie was a war movie starring John Wayne. Bombs and rockets exploded across the screen.
Curley, having other things on his mind, reached across the seat to loop his arm around Lola. “You would be a snazzy blonde,” he said.
Lola pushed his arm away and showed her teeth. “Let’s just watch the show,” she said.
Lola disliked the worn upholstery and the harsh wooden dashboard of the old panel truck. She wanted all the glamorous things she had never had in her life. The radio had a dented chrome speaker shaped like a jet nose cone and it played scratchy music. There was a stink of death that even perfume couldn’t smother. Curley held the steering wheel pretending to be a hearse driver and Lola sat beside him painting her fingernails with red polish. She stared at the movie screen without really following either picture although she enjoyed the musical’s costumes and beautiful scenery. While she observed Ajax pouring whiskey into paper cups, she imagined herself in cowboy pictures wearing a flouncy gown and working in a saloon. Rhythm-and-blues music played on the radio. When the whiskey loosened them up, Ajax and Verna began a slow dance that Ajax had invented. He put Verna on his lap while holding his arms out like a ballroom dancer. Then in the back of the hearse behind a black curtain where the coffins usually sat, Ajax and Verna had sex under a blanket.
Curley observed everything and he tried to do the same with Lola but he pushed too hard and forced her against the steering wheel and hit the horn. Of course everyone in the drive-in heard the loud blast.
“God you’re stupid,” Lola said. “I don’t know why anyone decent would want to fuck you.”
“Don’t you love me?”
“I’ll love you, all you want for fifty dollars, sugar.”
From behind the curtain Curley heard Verna laughing; it sounded to Curley like a saw cutting into soft wood.
“Make that a hundred, because we’re double dating,” Lola said with an edge in her voice that went over his head. He tried to kiss her but she pushed him away.
“What do you think I give this stuff for free?” she said.
Curley imagined what it would be like to have someone feel about you the way Verna felt about Ajax. He made attempts to feel up Lola but she pushed him off. When he became insistent she asked Ajax for help.
“Ajax thinks you need to cool it,” Ajax said, leaning over the seat.
“I’m just trying to give her a good time. She gives it out to other guys, I know that much.”
“Well she ain’t prepared for what you got to offer—she’ll tell you when.”
“I’d have a better time if you paid me,” Lola said. “Maybe you shouldn’t take me out if you don’t have no cash.”
“Nobody charges for French kissing,” Curley said.
“They sure do,” Lola said.
After that unpleasant incident Lola put as much distance as possible between Curley and herself. If she went out with him at all, she pressed herself against the passenger side door, craning her neck out the open car window as if taking the breeze. One night Curley got all worked up and Ajax reached over the seat and snatched Curley by the scruff of his neck. Curley knew what was coming—he let up on Lola.
“Don’t you go spoil things acting crazy-like,” Ajax said. “I want this to be a good night.”
“I wouldn’t do anything to ruin it for you,” Curley said. “I promise I won’t.”
“Be nice for once in your life and watch the movie,” Verna whispered to her sister. “He’s really a okay guy.” She peeked through the curtain. She was half dressed, her hair was sticking out all over. Lola sipped at the whiskey bottle and Verna shook her head. “You need to get away from whoring.”
“What do you expect me to do?” she said. “Work as a secretary? I’d make some good little secretary with my bare titties flopping.”
“Better become a housewife for some white dick,” Verna said. “It’s the nice girl’s way of being a whore.”
“You don’t mean him,” she hissed. “I might as well live in the street. He ain’t got a pot to piss in.”
“No, not him. Some horny clerk in a store who’ll watch you do tricks.”
Curley found out that Ajax wanted to marry Verna only when Ajax proposed right there in the hearse between the first and second show. Curley heard everything that was said. Lola was even more surprised and told her sister not to answer when Verna, overcome with emotion, started to cry.
“I never thought anyone would ask,” Verna said.
“Well Ajax just did,” Ajax said. “We could drive up to New York tonight.”
“It’s so wonderful . . . like a dream,” Verna sobbed. “I feel so sentimental. Even if we ain’t got a ring.”
“I’ll get one tomorrow as soon as I get paid at the yard. Then we could take the drive.”
“Don’t rush her, sweetheart,” Lola said. “She needs a little time to marry a colored man.”
Verna couldn’t hold back her tears. ”You’re so ever-loving sweet. You know I want to.” She put her hands to her dimples and rubbed her puffy eyes—they reddened and still the tears kept gushing like someone had turned on a spigot. “I’m ready now; even if I get carsick I’ll go,” she said. “And I don’t care a hoot about a ring.”
“You will care later on, Sis,” Lola scolded, “when you’re out of money and you need something to hock. Then you’ll cry your ass off.”
“That ain’t never happening to her,” Ajax said. “Cause Verna is gonna have a hard-working man for a husband.”
“Sure, that’s the way it always is,” Lola said in her sly way. “Maybe up there in Canada they got so many jobs they’ll make a colored man the mayor or chief of police.”
It was Curley, not wanting to spoil his night, who told them about a Shinnecock lobsterman marrying two white girls. He had seen the lobsterman purchasing groceries at the farm stand with his two wives—one gray-haired and thin and the other a plump dishwater blonde who looked like a hundred-pound sausage.
He did not say that Curley’s father had seen them too and wagging a long crooked finger had warned Curley, who was six at the time, that the lobsterman’s wives were whores run away from a cathouse. He said they used the frankfurter sausage for the sex act, but Curley never believed the story his father growled because the girls looked too plain to be whores. Curley’s father had made it clear that there was some big difference between whores and other women though he never explained that difference. He said that Curley’s mother had been a whore. Even though Curley hardly remembered his mother, he sometimes remembered her pale white arms and shiny black curls. What he did come to understand was that everyone had the same blood.
Curley told of the lobsterman putting out hundreds of pots and becoming rich and building a big white house in the dunes where the three of them peaceably lived out their lives. But he did not tell them anything his father had said.
When Curley finished his story, most of which he had made up, Lola announced Verna was doomed. Ajax, flexing the bulging muscles in his arms, said nothing would stand in the way of his love for her. He would approach their stepfather the next day.
The next day Kremitz stood in the clearing when Ajax asked for Verna’s hand. And he went ghost-white as the blood drained away. Kremitz was a crooked little specimen—skinny and bowlegged, hobbling along, his spine damaged by a car crash. His arm stump hung in a half-sleeve with a rough-cut end. Curley remembered him coming to collect rent. Sometimes the one-armed man came to the property in his long johns for the sixty-five dollars and Curley’s father rooted around his overalls and paid with wadded-up and discolored bills squeezed from his pockets. Then there were times he didn’t have a dime, when Curley’s father boiled and held a hammer under the long end of Kremitz’s nose and Kremitz wheezed like an engine with a blown gasket.
Seeing the big African American intrude into his yard had startled Kremitz and now Ajax’s request made it seem that Kremitz was witnessing a shadow floating free in violation of natural law.
He struggled to contain himself and plunked himself down on a stool, his legs having suddenly given out. He poured whiskey from a flask into small glass jars. He offered Ajax one of the jars with an unsteady hand and the two men drank and talked while aiming wary gazes. Some distance away Curley spied on them, crouched in the woods flicking his clasp knife behind a thicket of Virginia creepers. He could neither hear them nor read their faces. Yet faithful to his friend he watched them and went back across the creek only when Kremitz lifted himself off his stool to piss in the woods. He was already asleep when Ajax stumbled home across the yard.
Curley was jittery when he saw Ajax’s intention was to run away with Verna. It seemed crazier than anything Curley himself could ever have dreamed. Every afternoon he watched his only friend, a silent visitor among piles of bedsprings, broken pipes, old starters and engine coils, leaf springs, chrome bumpers. One time Ajax found Kremitz struggling and muttering while stacking a bedspring, the stump of his severed arm tied in a sleeve dangling from his shoulder. Seeing Ajax, Kremitz dropped open his jaw, unable to contain his surprise, and at the same moment Ajax suddenly and recklessly extended his hand. Ajax had come into the yard to spend time with his future father-in-law but Kremitz saw the other man as an apparition lurching toward him. They had lived side by side for twenty years and had never shaken hands. Ajax snatched the old man’s stubby fingers.
“I got lots of things to sell,” Kremitz said, absorbing the other man’s presence as he pulled away. “Good prices too.”
“I’m not here as a customer anymore,” Ajax said. “Ajax have something to say to you.”
“Not a customer . . . ” Kremitz said. “Maybe I can persuade you otherwise—“
“It’s about your stepgirl Verna,” Ajax said. “Something serious.”
That night, both sisters came to the creek wearing clean dresses. They were contrite. Their hair was combed down so flat it looked waxed. Ajax never told Curley what had been said, though later Curley figured that Kremitz by not answering had refused. The sisters had sorry faces and never stepped off the riverbank. Verna’s face was sadder and Lola’s face was all knotted up with anger.
“Where can we live, on the moon?” she screamed.
“We could cross the border to Canada anytime,” Ajax hollered across at them. “Ajax coming across to get you any day now. We don’t need no moon. Nothing’s going to stop Ajax.”
Then Curley thought up his wonderful idea to help his friend: murder Kremitz and have the pair leave town. He would be alone with Lola then and he would love her in his own way without there being anyone to stop him. He would be free to do what he pleased. Curley’s idea lit up his brain like a torch as he watched the light burning in Kremitz’s window.
One night after his disastrous proposal, Ajax crossed the stream and climbed through the bedroom window. He loved up his sweetheart until morning shined in the window, and Curley heard bedsprings creaking all night. Curley heard the moaning and grunting but he stayed where he was. He spent a sleepless night rolling around in his tent and slapping at mosquitoes. In his dreams he imagined Lola in bed calling him to join in but he wasn’t able to cross the creek because rushing water had swelled to a river. He jumped in and the current spun him around and swept him up against sharp rocks. He woke battling his sleeping bag. Then he saw a man among the shadows climb out the window and crawl down the drainpipe.
In his dream having found a lightness in his hands, he touched Lola without hurting. He touched her face with just the tips of his fingers, tracing the notched angles of her cheekbones and the soft cartilage of her nose; he stroked her hair, which reminded him so much of his mother’s thick black curls that it brought him to his childhood. He spoke to her in a soft voice, the way he once had when begging his mother for ice cream. Yes, Lola wanted to go away. They would live together in a rented cabin outside Mulberry and he would work in the sandpit for the concrete company. At night when he came home she would have a supper on the table and they would buy ice cream at the drive-in and make love in their bed.
Was he still dreaming? The way the light floated like smoke through the trees, it seemed that he was, and the air thick as poured engine oil belonged in a dream. Everything was quiet and slow the way it is in early morning. The trees swayed like belly dancers, their branches hanging limp. The sky hung low and the mist seeped up from the ground, winding up through the grass like a nest of snakes.
Kremitz, in search of the intruder, was breathing heavily as he came into the yard. He stood there shirtless, his hairy body bathed in silver-white moonlight. He was shit-faced drunk. His face was crooked, his jaw was slack, and his double chin hung down over his neck like a chicken’s wattle. Smoke from the campfire crept up around his knees. Sparks danced around the empty sleeping bags. Somewhere far away, maybe in another town, a factory engine cranked away.
Curley did not hesitate to go after him. He locked on his eyes: they were round and dark like a blind man’s pupils. He raised his knife—first the man squinted blindly against the fire’s glare. Then he saw the glinting knife blade and his eyes went wide with discovery.
Curley, almost a man now, brought the blade down with two hands, twisting deep into the base of the man’s neck. This was the way he slaughtered the screeching chickens. The knife handle just stuck there bumping around like a cork in the ocean. Blood bubbled along the cut and when the man began to resist, his lips turned a bloodless gray and his mouth opened wide as if shouting voiceless words—before long he had the waxy look of a dead man. His fingers never made it to Curley’s throat. His arm fell to his side and he toppled backward.
Now Curley was free. He wrapped Kremitz in a tarpaulin once used as his ground cover even before the man stopped breathing. He watched his blood bubbling along the gash, the knife floating in the wound like a bottle stopper.
Near the end of his short life, Curley sometimes wondered what Kremitz might have been thinking when he inserted the knife, but he never lingered too long on that. In his prison bunk at night, he felt frightened as a heavy darkness like poured concrete closed in on him. He remembered Kremitz trying to muster breath enough to speak his last howling words. The effort had drained the one-armed man’s strength and Curley, embracing him like a lover, hid him in the briars.
Curley remembered the man’s bleeding nose and the dimples in his cheeks twitching the morning of his execution. He never looked a second time—it was not so hard to move him if he shut his eyes and pretended he was pulling a sack of cornmeal from the barn to feed chickens. When the prison guard put the blindfold over his head, he could hear the chickens crowing in the coops and he saw a light switch on in the house. A scratchy voice talked on the radio. Ajax was waiting for breakfast, smoking a cigarette on a broken stool. He imagined the glow around his fingers from the lighted cigarette brightening his face.
Curley heard the prison priest droning words as though he were trying to force goodness down his throat. Near the end he wanted to speak though he only sputtered. Some invisible force weighing heavily like concrete bound his jaw tightly shut; he knew if he spoke he would give himself over to the invisible force that pressed down hard on top of him threatening to squeeze the breath from his lungs. His teeth hurt and he felt light-headed; his tight jaw was cutting the flow of blood. He felt a sharp pain in his chest as if he had stumbled into one of the porcelain sinks hidden in the weeds and fell down on his back and lay there looking to the sky over him, panting, gulping as much breath as he could swallow. Suddenly Curley saw stars and lights flash across his vision like jet planes streaming through the clouds. He was blinded by the flash and he pulled away shaken by that realization. The radio voice inside the house was screeching louder and louder, speaking to him directly though he couldn’t make out the words.
He crossed the stream, imagining the sisters were waiting. Of course Lola would meet him by the creek; as he embraced her, her black flowing curls would brush his face and he would finally tell her of his deep feelings, whispering into her ear. But when he finally arrived, breathing hard as if from a long journey, he found that the house was locked and the windows were dark. Curley hunkered down in the soft moss where he had first gone after Lola and tried to collect his thoughts. All he could think of was the dead man. He had never before seen a dead man and he was disturbed by the mottled skin and the bloated face, which made him remember overstuffed sausage in the cooler at the farm stand, and even though the dead man’s eyes remained open, he was surprised to discover that they were like windows in an empty house; the dead man’s rumpled skin, now drained of color, had taken on a concrete-gray cast and his jaw was set at a truculent angle so that he seemed determined to dispute his stepdaughter’s marriage into the next world.
George L. Chieffet received an MFA from UNC-Greenboro and has published stories in Greensboro Review, Furnace, and Broadkill Review. He is the co-author (with Paul Rajeckas) of “Notes to the Motherland,” which was a Theatre Mania Best Play of 2004. His play cycle, “Lithuanian Trilogy” will be presented at the new Arlington (VA) Playhouse in the fall of 2011. His poem “Everything” was a finalist for the 2008 Muriel Craft Baily Poetry Award. He co-created the graphic novel Lucky in Love, published by Fantagraphics Press (2010).