The Concrete Underneath
Later, everyone would assume the shooter had missed their target. The bullet slid through Edna’s throat and scattered chunks of skin, esophagus, and her inactive thyroid gland onto the refrigerator. Charles’ first thought was of the damage to the appliance; they’d gotten a new model only two years back that had a water and ice dispenser and they were still paying it off. The shot surprised him—he’d squeezed his can of Schmidt so hard the bass being ripped from the river crumpled and he knocked two other cans (one featuring a five point buck, another a thrashing trout in a grizzly’s maw) onto the floor. Their clank set his ears ringing. It was the gun shot, obviously, that had done that to his ears, but people often mistake the cause of one thing for that of another. Edna made a sound he would later describe as “guttural,” and he realized she was alive. He moved toward her, but didn’t touch her. She was still there; her pupils pricks of black in the blue, and he took a hand towel from the oven’s handle and lay it across her throat.
“Jesus Christ, Edna. There’s blood everywhere.”
Her head was angled toward the refrigerator, where photos of their grand-daughters were arranged chronologically. Teena and Tisha had horizontal records of their growth since kindergarten. Edna had just added the most recent photos earlier that afternoon. Charles had mentioned Teena looked like she was twenty, then held Tisha between his thumb and pointer finger until Edna had said “Leave her alone,” and magneted it onto the refrigerator.
Teena would be entering high school in the fall, Tisha the sixth grade. Edna had noticed a mole just to the left of Teena’s nose and wondered if it was real. Tisha’s shirt collar was slightly folded inward on the right side. The pictures would of course now have to be disposed of.
Charles heard the screen door click shut, and wondered how the police had gotten there so quickly. Nobody entered; it was the county, gunshots were not unusual, especially in the summer when there were so many hours of daylight to fill. Everyone on their block owned guns. Some for hunting, some for fun, some for protection.
Charles called his daughter, Teresa.
“I think your mother’s dead.”
Mary Trapp, the neighbor to the east, felt the boom of the shot in her fillings. She had spent the past forty-five minutes looking for Christina, her fourteen-year-old daughter with Down’s Syndrome. Christina was highly functional, and under normal circumstances her mother wouldn’t have worried. There were woods and trails on their five acres, and she often hiked through them alone or with other neighborhood children. But a week earlier, Mary had interrupted Christina exploring her body in a way she hadn’t expected, even though Christina’s doctor had warned she was on the verge of womanhood. Mary remembered the power of this type of exploration—how it wandered even the most responsible and capable girls into situations she knew Christina would not understand or be able to prevent.
The neighbors often discussed Christina, expressing surprise at her capabilities, her “almost normal” looks, and more recently her developing body seen as a disaster waiting to happen. They’d shake their heads, mentally praising themselves for creating children with forty-six chromosomes. Charles had noticed Christina’s development and knew she occasionally spent afternoons in his barn. She had long, thick blond hair that her mother spun into ringlets or whipped into braids. He couldn’t stand its thickness, and when she shook it to free hay or a leaf, she looked like the woman on the Nice and Easy box his wife bought every three- to- four months to hide the gray.
Christina was not on her family’s property at the time of the shooting. She had climbed into Grandpa Chuck’s hayloft. Neighborhood cats often meandered between the bails and collected the loosened hay into soft bundles to birth their kittens. The feline mothers seemed to understand Charles allowed his barn to become a manger for these strays—other neighbors weren’t as accommodating, such as Jon Williams, who each spring filled a bucket with water and held kitten after kitten under until they stilled.
As with most children, Christina loved discovering a batch of fresh lives, writhing blindly until their mother’s nipples silenced their mewing. Christina wedged her body between two bails, listening so intently for the tiny meows that when the bullet exploded she wet her pants, something she hadn’t done in years. The air of the barn was so thick and warm she barely felt the urine blackening her blue jeans.
Jon Williams did not at all enjoy drowning kittens. When possible he’d lock the mother cat in the dog’s pen, well out of view of the bucket, dump the dog’s food into the grass and refill the bowl with the canned soft cat food usually saved for mashing de-wormer into. He felt the tiny scrawl of kitten claw against the plastic edge of the bucket in the deep unnamed part between his ear and throat. They were of course too weak to wiggle free from his grip, but he was careful not to squeeze their middles too hard during the last squirming of life.
Though his wife was always sure to have their daughters, Michelle and Joanne, away on these days, he knew them being able to choose one kitten from each batch to keep would soon not be enough for them to tolerate this getting rid of. Michelle, who was thirteen, had actually asked her mother if she could stay home for the most recent drowning. Though she’d always had a much higher tolerance for that which his wife and youngest daughter found gruesome, (at eight years old she slit open her just-caught fish, tugging out the organs and slapping them into the gut bin) he was firm she leave with her mother and not witness the drowning.
Jon heard the gunshot while dragging a homemade, three-pronged row-maker across his garden. He split-second paused—he had many guns, most of which he kept in a safe, but his revolver was in his nightstand. What good would a gun do if someone broke in and all his guns were locked up in a safe? The girls knew it was there, too, and he’d shown them how to use it last year when Dwayne Jeffries moved back into his parent’s house across the street. Dwayne had been gone for five years, and though no one knew where for sure, Jon thought you could never be too careful. Dwayne’s people weren’t quite right, he thought, and though he believed people should mind their own damn business he carefully watched for any activity at the Jeffries house: a different car on the lawn, the flag on the mailbox up only moments before the mailman drove by, the thick scent of cedar smoke twirling from the chimney in non-winter months.
The shot was a quarter mile or so away, John guessed, the girls were fine. He returned to thinking about which rows of the garden would contain which vegetables, (was it eight rows of corn last year or six? He’d have to check his notebook) and carved another trio of rows into his carefully leveled soil.
He dragged the plow over the square of garden Joann had tended to for the past four summers. Earlier in the week he’d told her it was ready for her to plant, she’d looked at him with pity, then to her mother who was elbows-deep in a sink-full of dishes. They’d gardened together since she was four, each year squealing at the sight of the first prong of green slicing through the soil, but it seemed to him now she felt she was doing him a favor. He didn’t quite understand who his girls were becoming.
Just that previous night his family had gone to Charles and Edna’s for dinner, as they’d been doing at least once a month for the past year. As usual, John provided the vegetables: lettuce, tomatoes, kohl rabbi, everything but the beets. A doughy scabbing had infected his entire batch, so when they arrived at Charles and Edna’s, Grandpa Chuck asked the girls to help dig some from his garden.
At dinner, Michelle had loaded her plate with beets and nothing else. She scraped their greens into a pile, each leaf with its own screech. Jon had thought it was odd—his daughters had always refused to even try them. No one else seem to notice her plate, each person concerned with slathering butter on the corn, and carving mashed potato caverns for the steaming gravy. Michelle slowly sliced each beet into thirds, then shoved them into her mouth. When she finally looked up from her project, she saw Jon watching her, and she smiled the forced smile she saved to ruin photographs—eyes squinted tightly shut, mouth stretched to reveal as many teeth as possible. The blood from the beets had stained her teeth blue and ran in a slow river from one corner of her mouth.
After dinner, Charles suggested corn field hide-and-go-seek to the girls. Michelle rolled her eyes but grabbed her sister’s hand and disappeared into the corn. While Jon was meticulously tidy about his garden, Charles planted things in the spring and hoped for the best. His corn stalks were at least six feet high and the rows crooked and weedy. Jon thought it was creepy as hell—he’d always been sure to make his own corn rows carefully enough to see out from any point, but the girls zipped and weaved through the stalks, appearing to understand the logic of the flawed patterns. Edna even joined in, following Charles with a limp because of a bunion, waddling and lurching to keep up with him. Jon had wrapped his arms around Mary-Ellen and listened to Charles’ laughter and the girls’ shrieking. Near dusk sent stalk-shadows ten feet high and they stepped into one of them to protect their eyes from the setting sun.
Dwayne Jeffries heard the gunshot while peeling soup labels off his neighbors’ aluminum cans. Chicken Noodle was the overwhelming favorite—the occasional Tomato appeared during summer months. Sometimes coupons were printed on the backs of the labels, and he figured the savings part of his wage. He didn’t eat these soups—he worried about the effects of too much sodium in one’s diet—but he liked to have them on hand in case of visitors. He ate only fresh fruit and vegetables, whole wheat bread, eggs, chicken, and the occasional steak when Jon Williams was cleaning out his freezer to prepare for the fresh meat he turned his cows into. He accepted the organ meat, but slipped it into the burning barrel when Jon was at work. “So fresh, it’s still breathing,” Jon said when he handed him the heart and liver. “Wife can’t stand it in the house or I’d eat it myself.” Dwayne wasn’t an ungrateful man, but he believed eating heart and liver wasn’t good for one’s heart or liver.
The gunshot didn’t worry him. His body was whole, unwounded, and his father was resting safely in his bed, drooling bits of gummed animal crackers onto the towel tucked into his collar. Buster Jeffries was now in the latter stages of Alzheimer ’s. Dwayne had first known something was wrong when he walked in on his father urinating onto the wood stove and not showing a hint of surprise at the piss hissing on the surface. Buster had zipped up his trousers, turned to Dwayne and said, “Doesn’t anyone knock any goddamned more?”
Dwayne Jeffries knew the neighbors thought he’d been to jail, that he’d been convicted of rape and served five years at Walla Walla State. The oldest Williams girl had told him so week after he’d returned home.
Though Jon Williams had told Dwayne he was “goddamned sorry to hear about your dad,” Dwayne knew Jon Williams watched him, and that each bit of action on the Jeffries’ property translated into something disgusting, immoral, and illegal. When Dwayne dumped the burnables into his barrel, wedged twisted pages of the Record Journal into the spaces the garbage naturally fell into, and lit it, he knew that even in these everyday actions there were things to ponder and fear and talk about with one’s wife or neighbor or kids. County folk were actually very poetic, he thought, in their insistence upon metaphor and symbolism; a thing never meant just that thing, but usually a thing entirely more dangerous.
Dwayne didn’t blame the neighbors for their assumptions about him. He even took a little pleasure in constructing their translations of the everyday into something they only allowed themselves to think about in the context of his alleged behavior. He understood the complexities of the act of rape. He believed most men imagined rape in a way that most reflected what they most desired. He, too, understood metaphor, and had his own interpretation of what it meant to methodically plant each seed into a garden three times bigger than was needed to feed one’s family– Jon’s shovel, hoe, spade, and his ridiculous handmade row-maker each served a specific sadistic purpose. And Charles with his barn and its four feet deep pool of loosened hay for the kids to fling their bodies into from various ledges and ladders, laughing hysterically, having no idea how close they’d come to the concrete underneath.
Still, every week Dwayne drove from house to house on his block, picking up carefully labeled and bagged garbage not fit for burning. The pop and beer cans brought a ½ cent per, and his neighbors drank enough of both to easily cover his gas, groceries, and a monthly dinner-and-movie out. He’d been doing this for almost a year now, and though it took some of them awhile to be comfortable with his weekly stops on their property, they appreciated the service–no one enjoyed being responsible for dealing with their own garbage. And Jon and Charles thought every man, no matter his faults, had a right to earn an honest living.
Jon’s wife, Mary-Ellen, thought very little about Dwayne and his possible prison past or what might have led him there. She knew the suspicions of her husband and neighbors, each version uniquely grotesque depending on the gossiper. But she left that kind of thing up to Jon to worry about and she trusted in his ability to keep her and the girls safe from those tangible threats. Her job was less literal, and certainly not resolved with something as simple as a gun in the nightstand. She’d been living off Tab and Weight Watcher meals since she’d read <Our Bodies, Ourselves, and believed there was nothing more important than making the girls understand they were the bosses of their bodies—they had “the say.” Her husband often teased her when she cooked the food: “That smells like what I shovel from the barn. I paid how much for that?” But the diet was working—at her last weigh in she was eight pounds under her pre-baby weight. And when she slid into her old jeans and saw no fat slumping over the edges, a thrill zipped through her body into places she hadn’t noticed for years. She knew Jon felt the zip too. The sex was similar, but she heard the swish-swosh of mouthwash from the bathroom before he slid into bed, felt the tiny pricks of freshly trimmed pubic hair against her skin.
Her new body was about to have another alteration: she was scheduled to have a hysterectomy in two weeks, and though the thought of surgery made it a little less easy to take a deep breath, part of her was curious about the weight of a uterus. Surely it couldn’t be much, but every little bit counted. She was of course looking forward to surgery for medical purposes. She had something her doctor called “Pelvic Adhesions” that caused her a great deal of pain. The doctor explained the condition by saying that the slippery things inside had become sticky. He’d given her some pamphlets to read. She’d looked through them, reading the writing in bold at the beginning of each section, and the next day called to schedule the surgery.
Because Mary-Ellen knew children, especially girls, rarely took the word of their mothers, she used non-verbal techniques to persuade the girls to empower themselves. The girls had no idea they’d been drinking two percent, or that the American cheese on their sandwiches contained just half the fat of the regular slices. She believed they had no idea she knew of the book, <Savage Thrust, the older girl read then hid in a place obvious enough for the younger to find, read for a bit, and return having taken the care to memorize the page number rather than the tell-tale sign of a dog-eared corner. Savage Thrust contained descriptions of acts she certainly didn’t want the girls engaging in, but she had been surprised and impressed at how the female characters chose when, where, how, and with whom to please themselves. Jon had always been a generous lover, but it hadn’t occurred to her she could have such say and variety in her own pleasure until quite recently. She wasn’t naïve enough to assume she could have a conversation about such things with her girls without creating an awkward situation—the book was a blessing.
Michelle knew her mother had found the book. She saw it smeared all over her mother’s body like she felt it on her own. She noticed the jeans her mother was wearing, so tight she would’ve warned Michelle about damaging her “lady-bits” had Michelle worn them. And the shoes she crammed her toes into while simply working in the house or going shopping for food at the Mark-and-Pack. Michelle noticed the women in the book were always about to be “taken with ferocious abandon,” even while they were doing normal things such as vacuuming or fixing a sandwich. The women often resisted, but soon gave in and lost all control.
Michelle had just covered her ears with the hood of her sweatshirt and slipped into Grandpa Chuck’s pool of hay when she heard the gunshots. When she was seven she’d jumped into the hay from the second tier, and a blade of hay had entered her ear and stuck into the wax. She’d felt it in her body so deeply that when she pulled it out she was sure some crucial part of her body had been lost. When she woke up every morning she’d try to recall something from each year of her life, just to make sure she still could, then checked the pillow case for some sign of dying. From where she lay now she could see the soles of Christina’s shoes dangling from the edge of a bail. She hated Grandpa Chuck’s barn–there was something sour in the thick air that coated her throat, but she’d been following Christina for over an hour, and this is where she’d been led.
Michelle had begun following around the neighborhood after she’d noticed her wearing new Levis; who got new jeans in the middle of the summer? Michelle loved the curved stitch on the pocket, the button-fly that kept the crotch from creeping. She’d wanted a pair for two years, but they weren’t the best deal at Sears, and Michelle’s father worked too hard to blow his money on a name brand. Christina’s body seemed designed for the jeans, curves where Michelle had edges, skin where Michelle had bone.
The gunshot didn’t cause Michelle any concern. Someone could’ve been shooting at a coffee can wedged onto a fence post, “helping” a cat that crawled away from the busy road, hind quarters dragging flat, or slamming two bullets into the brain of the cow that would feed a family for a year. She’d watched her father do all of these things, and even mentally prepared herself for the task of finishing off a cat if the need arose and her father was away. He’d shown her and Joann where to aim to make sure it was “quick and painless.”
When Christina stood and Michelle saw the dark stain of urine on those Levis, Michelle said something she’d been told to never say, and never been compelled to say: “Retard.”
Christina turned but not toward Michelle. She looked out the window Charles shoved the hay bales onto a conveyer belt from that lowered them to the ground. She looked back toward the batch of kittens, wondering if what her mother said was true about the effects of touching newborn kittens: “Get your smell all over them and their mother may reject them.” Some of them were still damp from their mother licking clean the blood and mucous. The mother surely couldn’t reject them all, she thought, and she lifted each one individually, cradling each in the palm of her hand, checked the sex then positioned what she thought were the females in front of the mother’s nipples.
Moments after the gunshot, Joann found Michelle watching Christina in the barn. Joann had been following Michelle since she’d started refusing to play the games they’d played before—cribbage, Life, even the spy game they’d perfected the summer before. It had been two months since she’d peered into Grandpa Chuck’s basement window and seen his head buried in Michelle’s crotch. Joann had crouched lower in the garden bed, her chin denting the soil behind the rose bush, and focused on the meaty valleys her sister was scratching into her arms.
Joann saw Christina’s pants and smelled the urine immediately. She shivered. She herself refused to let any smells to collect on her body. She showered daily, sometimes twice if she could convince her mother she’d spent too much time in the barn or the dog had thrown up on her, and had for the last six months since she’d sat down to pee and saw the blood smeared on her underwear. She wasn’t scared or surprised, just disgusted at what her body contained. She had taken off the underwear and scrubbed the crotch down with the Borax soap her father used to clean oil and grease from his hands. She knew her older sister hadn’t yet gotten her period; she’d inspected her underwear while doing laundry and saw nothing marring the clean white cotton crotches.
Joann left Michelle to her watching and Christina to her stink and walked the path to her house. She was sticky and sure she could smell the meaty scent of blood on her body. Her father was in the garden, but didn’t look up when she jogged by and into the house. She used to love to garden with him, but now all she could think of was the shit that plopped from the pink asses of the cows that eventually spread over the soil. She couldn’t stomach the thought of eating her old favorites: sweet, crunchy carrots, the fat bright tomatoes she used to pop into her mouth and explode between her teeth–seeds spraying like bullets.
In the shower, blood oranged by the water slid down the drain. She dragged a razor against her armpit and legs. Though she’d left it alone up until this point, she shaved the small patch of pubic hair with two swipes of the razor. She’d been nervous to do so thus far—her mother swore that once she started to shave the hair would grow back faster, thicker, darker, but the sleek, clean feel of her legs and armpits was too tempting. She patted herself dry with a towel dark enough to hide any sign of what her body was up to.
KAMI WESTHOFF’s work has appeared in various journals including Meridian, Carve, Third Coast, Phoebe, and Stone Highway Review, and is forthcoming in WomenArts Quarterly, The Dallas Review, Mojave River Review, and Lost Coast Review. She teaches Creative Writing at Western Washington University.