An Appalachian Story

Joe Halstead

Southern Correctional was dying to put the net over me again, so a week from my sentencing I started going camping every day, you know, to get it out of my system. One night, I’d downed most of the piss beer and was shooting off my rusty .22 when I found a 16-week-old fetus in my pack of hot dog wieners. It was in a package that said, “West Virginia Meat Processing Plant.” For some stupid reason, I stuck it in my back pocket. I wish I could forget it, but it did something to me. Every time I close my eyes, I see it again, like when I used to play an Xbox game for too long. I want to stick a red hot fucking stick through my ear and into my brain.
             Back then I was a worm. I’d been in and out of juvie, jacking cars at sixteen, kicked out, taken back, kicked out, busted, paroled, busted again, always reaching for that golden ring, that one you always reached for as a kid, only this one was behind a sewer grate just beyond your fingertips. But the thing you gotta know about me is, asshole or not, Christian or not, I don’t think I’m all that bad. Really, it wasn’t that I was especially pissed about my hot dogs. It was more like waiting for something to make sense. Some people cared; most people didn’t give a fuck. I was one of those. But this started to twist my thoughts and bend my world so bad that all I wanted, all I cared about, was for something to make sense when nothing did.
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Another thing. Apparently my dad was in a mental institution.
             I found this out the next morning when I needed money. How sad is that? All I wanted was a couple dollars. Ten, maybe twenty bucks. I only planned to be in the house a few minutes, just until I found the cash, but somehow I wound up next to the portable toilet in the backyard, my nostrils stained blue. I’d spent the rest of the night out there snorting Adderall. I remembered being fifteen, when 80mg gave me a good high, but at that point I was hard-pressed to feel anything with 150mg. At that point, I was all about the OCs. That was the only thing worth snorting, really.
             Anyway, it didn’t turn out so fucking wonderfully. I was in a dry heap there on the pavement. Somebody pushed my shoulders back. I let my head fall limp against the outhouse wall.
             — Jamie? Jamie, what the fuck?
             I opened my eyes a slit, just enough to see my Uncle Jack standing over me. He had a cell phone to his ear and said he was arranging childcare for my disabled half-brother Stewie. I would’ve said anything to get the guy to leave me alone. He started telling me straightaway Dad had been in the mental institution for two weeks now.
             — He cut himself with a scissors. Nobody knew for three days. I don’t know what we’re gonna do about Stewie. Are you sure you’re all right?
             — Fuck, I already said I was fine about fifteen times.
             Everybody’s uncle goes batshit over something. For my Uncle Jack it was Stewie. After we realized there was a problem, let me tell you, it was like living with Lieutenant Douche. We went to doctors. We changed his sheets daily. When Stewie would eat a ketchup sandwich without shitting himself, Uncle Jack felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. Dad complained for a while, too, but he quit after Uncle Jack hit him in the head with an iron skillet. Jack worried constantly about that boy. I could never figure out why he cared so much.
             So when I heard my dad was in a mental institution, there was a minute where I was trying to get my brain around the idea. It was weird. It took a couple seconds and then it hit me.
             — At least dad won’t have to put up with Stewie anymore.
             Uncle Jack just looked at me with his big, dumb Labrador eyes. Then his face got all red and he grabbed me by the throat and he said, Don’t you ever talk about your brother like that again. Oh, then he balled his fist up and hit me and threatened to kill me etc. etc.
             — Look, I’m really fucking sorry, okay? Jesus. Don’t hit me anymore, okay?
             — You’re a faggot. What are you?
             — I’m a faggot, sir.
             And then comes the part that still fucking irritates me.
             — Just like your fucking dad. I swear to God.
             — I know, I know.
             He was either unaware or didn’t care that my ribs were broken. I didn’t say anything about the hot dog thing, and that was my mistake because, unless I’m crazy, I think my aunt was a butcher at that meat packing plant at the time and she might’ve known something. I was able to fool myself into thinking I was fine. For about a minute.
             — Put you in jail for thirty years and you’ll be no different when you come out. Just like your father.
             I said I didn’t need him to tell me what I was, and he got that look on his face again — the one that meant he was about to get all high and mighty, that sanctimonious dickface.
             — You hit a sixty-three year old woman. No denying that.
             — I wasn’t trying to kill her.
             — But she died. You did kill her.
             And now you know. And now you’re beginning to think I’m a bad person, but don’t waste your rotten fucking prayers. Ms. MacCauley was dead. I’d killed her over a mere lottery ticket. All I could think about was the first time I went to jail, a six month stretch in juvie on a half-assed assault and battery. The first day there, I wet the bed twice in one night. The worst part was that it didn’t even smell like mine. No one in the whole world knows that.
             Now don’t get me wrong. I got used to it. I was working in the laundry, stirring the orange jumpsuits, when I met this guy Jimmy. Jimmy and Jamie. Me and him always sat in the first pew at chapel. I’m not a Christian or anything, but it’s nice when somebody talks about goodness and they can still believe it. Anyway, it’s not like I’m a homo, but Jimmy held my hand when we lit our candles. He said each flame was like his own personal birthday wish. I said I didn’t think it worked like that and later that night, he hung himself from the top bunk.
             I had no problem doing that six month stretch when I was barely fifteen and knew I had something waiting for me on the outside. But now I started to get scared. It was a mixed up kind of scared. I knew it was happening, the same thing that’d happened to Jimmy when he figured out each candle wasn’t a personal birthday wish to him. I knew something had happened to me when I saw that dead baby.
             Anyway, there comes a point in your life when you realize somebody is just wanting something from you. It happened to me when Uncle Jack stopped kicking my ass. He said all he wanted to do was ask if I’d put in some time to go pick up my dad, just an afternoon, to help out while he watched Stewie. I told him, as I usually did when asked to do anything, to fuck off.
             Uncle Jack was silent for a good five to six seconds, then he sighed. He sank to his knees and plucked a single blade of grass from the ground and held it between his thumb and index finger. He said something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Then he blew hard on the blade of grass and I heard a shriek out of it. He reminded me I didn’t have a lot of time left to do anything, and quickly added, in case I planned on interrupting him, that he’d give me a few bucks for the bus. I said a few bucks wasn’t good enough. What good was a few bucks going to do me etc. etc.
             He ended up taking out his wallet and giving me twenty bucks.
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             Being young is good. However fucked-up you are, you can still beg for one more tomorrow while you’re finger-fucking every today. After the run-in with Uncle Jack, I took the bus upstate to the mental institution. I wanted to forget the fetus, but I couldn’t. The thing was growing in me, working like a fist banging against my head.
             The bus driver drove fast. I must’ve fallen asleep at some point because he downshifted, slowing so he wouldn’t miss the next turn, and I woke up yawning. I never realized before how weird a mental institution was. My nuts suddenly drew up. I thought maybe I could just run in and spit in someone’s eye then run out real fast. That would almost be worth it. But then I just got off the bus and walked inside.
             I walked through the door and into the lobby. I saw the people I always thought would be in a place like that and heard the sounds I always expected to hear. I stood there in the doorway until this nosy secretary bitch asked me if I needed anything. I said it wasn’t an emergency but I needed to pick up Steve Paddock. She told me to wait a sec.
             So I sat there, hunched over, thinking. The place had me so shit scared; I mean, I couldn’t think of anything but the people who must’ve worked there. The nurses who held down the patients and chopped off their heads and legs. They were around every corner, in a hall of locked doors and human screams, leaving their bodies to twitch and die like they were trying to escape something that’s already happened. I’d give anything for a little electro-shock treatment to erase all memory of this.
             — Can I help you?
I turned to see one of the nurses standing in a doorway. She was middle-aged and pretty and looked very familiar. Kind of like my aunt, who either worked at the meat packing plant or the mental institution. I can’t remember which now. She was smiling, and I felt suddenly weird, like she was doing voodoo.
             — No thanks.
             — Are you here for someone?
             I fucking hate talking about myself in person to someone. Like when people talk to me and ask me personal questions I fucking hate it and stand there staring. But like I’m talking about it in this letter, it’s okay. It’s like if someone is looking at me, then something happens, and it fucks me up. I’m not sure what.
             I cleared my throat and looked at the stains on the floor. Then I turned my head back toward the nurse, my eyes first, then the rest. I said I was looking for Steve Paddock. And the look on her face, my God, like she was possessed.
             — Hey, just wait here; I’ll call him down for you, okay?
             Then she gathered what she was carrying and went back down the hallway.
             I sat there until my ass was numb. It scared me a little because I couldn’t make any sense of it. All of a sudden I got that sick feeling and the room’s mint green walls seemed to spin around me. I stared at them for like half a minute before the door opened again and a doctor brought my dad out. The doctor asked me if I was there for Steven Paddock, but he already knew the answer. I got up out of my chair and shook his hand. He came around the desk and got some forms I signed and then he turned to leave.
             My dad and I stood there in the waiting room just staring at each other. I thought we’d just leave and not say a word. I wouldn’t be so lucky. For some reason, he smiled and cupped my chin in his palm. I jerked my head away.
             — What the fuck?!
             — What?
             — That’s fucking disgusting, that’s what! I said, my stomach aching.
             Okay. Deep feelings of hatred toward my dad. You got it. That was me. I had no idea what he was doing, just a vague feeling of being nervous. I thought about how I should — no, how easy it would be to — take a knife and shove it in his throat to cut those cords and get the hell out of there for good. I dreamed of being under an umbrella in some fancy restaurant with, oh, I don’t know, maybe, a dark steak.
             Extra on the dark, I’d tell the guy.
             It would be as easy as walking into Dairy Queen and ordering a couple barbecue sandwiches. I’ve often wondered what might’ve happened if I’d taken my Buck knife, killing him like that, which would’ve been how I did things most of the time anyway. Guess I’m just a softie.
             My dad offered his hand and said, Son, it’s good to see you again.
             Five minutes later, we were headed south to Dairy Queen.
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We sat in one of the corner booths. It was going on nine o’clock and I still had most of the twenty bucks Uncle Jack had given me, so I went to the counter and ordered. I returned with two barbecue sandwiches and a Butterfinger Blizzard for my dad. He looked older, skinnier, and more insane. He was getting a little gray. He had some sort of scaly skin thing going on and was taking in deep breaths and letting them out in long, tight streams. I think it was probably an anger management technique. His mouth twitched.
             — Been a long time, I said.
             — Up at the house last summer, just a year.
             — Long year for me.
             — Where you work now?
             — Work, I laughed, becoming nervous. I’m kind of going to jail.
             — Oh, he said. He took a bite of the Blizzard with one of those long red spoons they give you. He chewed his barbecue sandwich and wiped a smear of sauce off his chin.
             — That’s a good fucking deal right there, he said.
             — Still smoking? I asked, and I offered him a cigarette.
             — You trying to avoid me?
             — What?
             — I never see you. You never come see me anymore.
There was a shake in his voice.
             — How’s Stewie? He said. Is he all right?
             — Why you wanna know for? He ain’t here.
             — What the fuck? He’s your fucking brother. Tell me what’s going on with you.
             — You first.
             — There’s nothing going on with me.
             — I wish to hell I’d listened to my gut and walked away when I seen you.
He tried his best to hide how much this hurt him. It wasn’t working out the way I’d planned.
             — What’s a matter with you? he said.
             — Nothing.
             — Nothing? What’s wrong?
             It’s hard, at least for me, to talk or do any kind of confessing. I told him about the mystery of the dead baby. I put the hot dog package on the table and it took him a sec to realize what was in it.
             — Jesus Christ, Jamie, what the fuck? Where did you find this?
             I felt like crying. It was the wanting to cry that I remember the most. But there was no way I was going to cry in front of my dad.
             All I remember after that was crying like a fucking girl.
             I was crying. Just call me Sally. I told him everything. About how I quit high school and how they had the law out looking for me. About Ms. MacCauley. I told him how I hit her in the chest with the door handle and knocked her down the stairs. All for a stupid lottery ticket. But my dad didn’t even blink. I forgot for a second that things had been turned upside down. I told him I was a murderer. He didn’t seem to care. My tongue was so fucking dry from talking. But from the look on his face he didn’t care one fucking bit. I wanted him to say something. My ears started ringing.
             His fingers traced a circle around the hot dog pack. He seemed to be wrestling with some big mystery. After about a minute he excused himself from the table and went to the public phone just outside. He called somebody. He was beginning to look more angry than insane. Like when I was five years old and he kicked me down the porch steps. I couldn’t decide which of the two looks I preferred.
             I started to wonder who he was talking to. I got up and stood with my back to the door. I watched his reflection in the case that held the birthday cakes. That’s when I got to thinking.
             What if he was the one who did it?
             I had this feeling in my gut that something bad had happened though I didn’t know what. I looked back and he hung up the phone. The feeling grew stronger; something wasn’t right. I wasn’t crazy. I tried to explain it away, but I now could see it in his demented fucking face. I’m not crazy. I stood there for a sec and, in my mind, I knew what’d happened in my family but my heart wouldn’t let me believe it. My brain spun out of control, I couldn’t think, I started to go crazy inside. I thought about his sister working up at that meat packing mental institution. She’d have slaughtered so many animals or people, whatever they were, thousands of them. So many of them she could no longer feel guilty about it. I’d done a million things then, I suppose, none of them right. But nothing like that. While I sure as shit didn’t think I was perfect, man, that was wrong. Just plain wrong.
             I walked out the door and grabbed the hot dog pack from the table. I walked toward my dad, and his face became something I couldn’t see. I’m telling you, it must’ve been him. I made him look at the hot dog pack. I wanted him to see what he’d born.
             — Some shit went down, man. Some shit went down and it was all your fault, I said against my better judgment. There was no putting that genie back in the bottle.
             — What the fuck are you talking about? I’ll call the cops, goddammit.
             — Call the fucking cops. I want them to know. I’m telling the cops you’ve been fucking your sister.
             —You’re fucking crazy.
             — Come on, chickenshit, admit what you did.
             He laughed. He laughed so loud it was so fucking whack I can’t even begin to tell you.
             He told me over and over I was a long way off base or something. I don’t really remember. I just kept saying, No man, no man. My ears had started ringing louder at some point.
             — You’re having an episode, he said. I mean, really, I hate this. You’re out of line with this shit.
             — What about Stewie then?
             — What about Stewie? The state don’t award custody to the mother when the mother’s dead.
             — You’re lying.
             — Take a breath, Jamie, come on, you’re having a bad reaction or something.
             — Why are you not even sorry for what you done, not even a little?
             — Because I been sorry for ten years.
             — Why am I not surprised?
             — Know what? I don’t give a flying fuck.
             — Well then I guess it don’t matter to you that Stewie don’t have no one then.
             — You know something? I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry for him. I didn’t sign a contract to be in this family, but goddamn. He’s all the family I got. No, I got other family, but he’s the only family I want.
             Sometimes, I think of that, what he said, and I wish I would’ve said more. I wish I would’ve told him to get the fuck away and throw himself out a fucking window. I wanted to throw up and just run away, but I couldn’t. There were tears on my face, and it was pretty fucking sad if you want to know the truth about it.
             — Fuck you, I said.
             We looked at each other. We were both just two twisted fucks, and, honestly, something was just so wrong about the whole thing. My dad took a look at the hot dog pack.
             — Get rid of that shit.
             I wanted to show him. I took my Buck knife out of my pocket and flipped it open. I held the hot dog pack in the other hand then buried the blade vertical in the plastic. I cut into it. I wanted him to see. It wasn’t hard, and the hot dogs and all the juice slid out. The fetus looked like a pink eraser with arms and legs there on the grass. But there was something about it, an awful sight I didn’t notice before: the face was twisted. The legs weren’t on right and there was only one arm, the other one just a nub. To this day I could swear it took a breath. I shook my head to get the ringing out of my ears.
             My dad was saying something; his voice was desperate. But my ears were ringing too loud to hear. I couldn’t let go of it. Not now. I threw my right and it hit his stomach hard and I clamped him face-down so that he couldn’t raise his head. He was jerking his head in my hands and grunting like a little kid.
             I showed him what he’d done, goddamn him, but it wouldn’t make a difference. I let him go and I could see him start to feel afraid. It was how he looked. He started walking away in the opposite direction, like he didn’t even know who I was. He couldn’t look back.
             I sat there for a minute on the grass. It was great, cleansing, freeing. I knelt down and plucked a blade of grass and held it between my thumb and index finger. In spite of everything, I would go to jail a few days later. Thirty years in the fucking hole. Oh, I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did so let’s deal with it. By the time I get out my life will be over. Too bad. Who knows, I might’ve been somebody. I just keep telling myself I’m somebody not like my dad. But there is one upside: I solved the mystery of the dead baby. The downside? When I get out, I’ll be scared.
             I’ll be forty-nine.
             I’ll be getting a little gray just like my dad.
             I blew on the blade of grass. I can still hear the shriek ringing in my ears.

Joe Halstead is a writer living in West Virginia, whose mountainous, myth-ridden landscape he often explores in his stories. He is currently working on a screenplay and a novel. He can be reached at jshalstead@gmail.com.