The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

June 19, 2011

WGI 3rd Place: A POCKET FULL OF HORSES by Chad Eagleton

Jack Freese turned off the highway. No Trespassing signs led him down Fairfax and onto a narrow dirt road. When the single lane dead ended, he kept driving. The truck muscled through the tall grass to the sparse wood sloping up to Empire Mill Quarry.

He parked as far away from the road as he could—close to the trees, under a weave of low branches. He was surprised to see no other vehicles. It was a summer’s Saturday, barely past midnight and still warm enough to feel uncomfortable. If nothing else, his brother’s car should be there — Scott called twenty minutes ago, told him to meet at the quarry and hung up.

Jack killed the engine and raised the windows. He let the lights linger. The beams showed nothing but dark wood.

A tangle of memories.

“Fuck.” Jack hit the lights and grabbed the cigarette pack from the dash. He hadn’t smoked in years, but there was something about tonight. Something he didn’t like.

He lit a cigarette and the cab filled with smoke and the smoke filled with ghosts.

#

Jack knew how to swim, he just never liked it. The only reason he went that first time was because Scott asked him and Scott never asked him to do anything — ever. He left the house at all hours and Jack imagined what sort of adventures he had during all those comings and goings. So many people. So many friends. So many girls.

Jack didn’t understand girls, but he knew from all the different pretty faces that came and went with Scott that even the girls must have been exciting.

He had to say yes. Had to.

Of course, this was before he knew Scott, before he knew to be afraid. Eleven years separated the two of them. A large enough span to mask Scott’s failings in Jack’s childhood inexperience and push his adoration into complete acceptance.

Once down the road, Scott warned him that it would be dangerous, he could never tell Mom anything about it. Jack nodded as Scott pushed the rear window open.

He climbed in the truck bed and bounced, rocked, slid and grinned down the back roads. During the march through the woods, he smiled and blabbered. He didn’t cry when he felt something crawling on him and Scott pulled it off, showed him the tick and burned it. He never complained climbing the discarded limestone blocks piled with all the care of spilled toys. When they reached the top and he dove in the water and climbed back out again, his teeth chattering, he didn’t whine about being cold even though he was.

The Strunk Brothers didn’t even bother him and Jack hated the Strunk brothers.

Adam was Scott’s friend. Tall and wide, thick boned and weak chinned, he was even weaker willed. Rumor was he got the name Adam not out of Biblical reverence, but because when he was born, his father, surprised at the resemblance, said, “Huh, he’s a damn Strunk.”

Jack didn’t get the story then. What he got was that when Scott got in trouble, Adam was there. So, he blamed Adam. He had to — Adam was nothing. Scott was his brother.

And Benny was Adam’s.

Adam was thoughtless and mean, but Benny was purposely and deliberately cruel. His age masked a growing penchant for terror. Benny would never do that, everyone said. He’s just a boy. Sure, Benny may eat snot and burp in your face, he is a Strunk, what do you expect? And isn’t that what boys do? He’ll grow out of it. He’d never break windows or shoot the neighbor’s cat in the face with a pellet gun.

No one could admit that Benny was a force of unstoppable fuckery birthed from a cocktail of poverty and ignorance, then garnished with a lack of oversight. No one, Jack thought, seemed to give a fuck.

That day even Jack didn’t give a fuck.

That changed when they took him up to the Rooftop with its wide cliff face looming 65 feet above the blue-green water, a legendary drop that even Jack had heard the stories about: wrists broken, legs shattered, concussions, two boys dead. He ledged it for a glance, saw the sheered rock going down, down, straight down, and he knew he couldn’t.

“Jump, Jackie boy,” Scott coaxed. “Let’s do this shit, buddy. You can rock this fucker. Kids at school will think you’re badass.”

“You’ll get lots a pussy.”

“He doesn’t know what pussy is, Adam.”

“Benny does.”

Benny, the little idiot, nodded.

No.

Scott switched tactics. “Come on, Jack, jump. We’ll go get some ice cream when we’re done if you jump.”

Nope.

“I’ll get you one of those army men you like. The whatchacallit—The GI Joe dudes.”

Nada.

“Fucking Benny will do it,” Adam said and Benny the little idiot nodded and took off running and leapt.

Splash.

“See,” Scott said.

Jack shrugged violently and sat down hard enough on his tail bone he almost cried. Only fear kept tears away. They’re gonna push me off. Gonna toss me.

Scott snatched Jack’s arm and jerked him to his feet.

Jack howled. Oh, god, he’s gonna do it.

But, he didn’t.

What he did was worse — he turned. “Pussy,” he said.

It marked him. “Bawl Baby.”

He was fair game. “Fucking fag.”

“Shoulda left your ass at home. Every time, man, every fucking time. Just fucking piss all over my good time.

#

Jack followed the old railroad grade for a half mile through the woods. Old bottles and cans littered the dirt path. Impaled on thorn bushes, hamburger wrappers shook in the wind like pithed insects as ratty shoes swung like charms from old laces on high branches.

Jack tossed cigarette butts like breadcrumbs until the woods broke into a rocky clearing with slabs of weathered limestone. By then his head buzzed with nicotine and his lungs ached. He closed his eyes. Tried listening to the quiet. Why did I ever come back here? I should have stayed away. Should have looked for another job in Indianapolis. Should have fucking left Indiana.

His thoughts would not still. He opened his eyes, breathed heavy and sat against a pitted block. He plucked at a patch of grass. The green blades were sharp. He didn’t care. This was his fault. He knew better than to come here. He could have ignored the call.

Ignoring was easier when Scott was in jail. Jack wished his brother was still in jail, an awful thought, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t understand why they never kept him. No matter what he did, they never kept him.

Someone yelled — Jack couldn’t make out the words. The echo bounced them around the quarry. Trees stripped consonants. Rocks dropped vowels. It was all just gibberish.

But the voice? That he knew. The tone he recognized — Scott.

Jack looked up at the quarry. Shadows moved. His mind gave in to their suggestions. Carried by fear, snatches of memories came back — a rib breaking, yelling in the night, gunshots, desperate women, Coke-can bongs — things his brother had done. Fear stole years. He felt six again, and the grip kept tightening on his arm.

Another voice yelled, pulling him to the present. He caught his name in Benny’s nasal lilt.

Jack looked back at his trail of Camels. They were lost in thorn and brush, hidden in grass and weed, swallowed by darkness. No choice. He stood, patted his pocket and began to climb.

#

“You should wear your shoes,” a girl’s voice said. “Keep your feet from bruising.”

Jack at 16 looked behind him at a girl with cutoffs over narrow hips and a faded STP shirt over a flat chest. “Don’t know if you’ve jumped before,” she said, “but if it’s your first time—shoes, definitely shoes.”

Jack hoped it would be his first time. He had not been back to the quarry since he was six. He thought if he didn’t acknowledge it that would be enough.

It worked for Scott.

Every time Scott was arrested, Jack sacrificed a memory. Every time he stole from them, he erased a feature. Every time he made the paper, his last name shortened. Jack Freese became Jack. Just Jack. Nothing else. Jack with no brother. No ties. No family. Scott? Scott who? He didn’t know a Scott. Couldn’t place a face.

The quarry was just as easy until he made the mistake of walking the vocational hall where Benny Strunk loitered and flunked. Jack spotted him first, thought about turning back, heading down one floor and then over but there wasn’t time—he’d be late.

He tried moving quickly. He knew if Benny saw him, he’d be — “Holy hell, it’s Bawl Baby” — fucked.

The girl looked down at the water. “What do you think?” She asked.

Jack blanked.

“What do you think?”

He looked at her. He knew her — of her. Her name was Annalee. Her last name began with an R. Something short and not very pretty like Ruf or Rupp or Rudd — Rudd, her last name was Rudd.

Rudd? Ah Fuck!

The Rudds lived in a rusty trailer down the same overgrown back road as the Strunks, only further out. Out where the poor people said the poor people lived.

“Whaddya think?”

“Huh?”

“What do you think? Not about my face,” she said. “The jump?”

“I don’t know,” he said, still looking at her face. She had impossibly long and delicate eye lashes.

She laughed. “I’ve done this a bunch. Million times. Know what? It still scares me.”

Jack thought, Say something—something witty and insightful. His mind blanked. I need to say something. It doesn’t matter. Anything. By then it had been too long since she had spoken. So, he said nothing. Said nothing and shrugged.

“Well,” she said, “I have done this a lot. But I’ve never jumped with anyone. We could jump together. My brothers would never do it.” She held out her hand. “Unless you think I’d fuck you up? On the way down? Like your landing or whatever.”

“No,” he said.

Her hand was small. All bones.

“Ready?”

Jack nodded.

They leapt and he spent years trying to remember exactly how it felt. The drop. Cliff just inches from his back. Her hand. The water’s sting. Gravity pulling them apart. Sudden temperature change.

He never could. Never could remember it all in a way that felt right. When he reached out for that day, the only thing he remembered was her face. Her small round face when they came up for air and she said, “You didn’t cry.”

#

Benny pulled him up to The Rooftop.

“Wondering when the fuck you was gonna get here,” Scott said.

Benny belched in Jack’s face. “Hey, man.”

Jack wiped his hands on his jeans. “I didn’t see your car.”

“We parked at the church.”

“You’ll get towed,” he said.

“Fuck it.” Scott chucked a beer can over the edge “Behind on payments anyway. Let the fucking bank take it. They will eventually, one way or the other.”

Of course, loan wasn’t in your name.

“He’ll just buy a new fucking car,” Benny said. “No problem. Tell him, Scotty.”

“Shut the fuck up, Benny.”

Benny shut the fuck up and handed each of them a beer.

“So,” Scott said, “got some news for ya.”

Jack sipped.

“Benny and I were at the gas station — .“

“The one on 37 south.”

“With the stupid fifties theme and the dumb name spelled funny.”

Jack nodded.

“We saw your woman.”

“What?”

“You know,” Scott said.

“Annalee, dumbass,” Benny said. “What other woman you ever had?”

“She works there, man. I know you still think about her.”

“I don’t get it, Bawl Baby,” Benny said. “I mean, I’ve had her, everybody has.” Benny curled his lip. “Wasn’t nothing to write home about.”

Jack threw his can. Benny batted it and laughed. “What the fuck you gonna do?”

Jack thought for a moment, stood up and swung.

#

They were drinking then too.

Scott had been out for four days. All but one, he spent with Adam on the front porch drinking. For that one, they traded beer for roach clips of Indiana ditch weed.

“Where ya heading?” Scott asked.

“Out,” Jack said.

Scott emptied his can and passed it to his brother. “Throw that away first. Mom was bitching about the porch.”

Jack stacked the beer can on the wicker table with the others.

Scott smirked. “Got a date, huh?”

“No shit?” Adam asked.

“Yeah,” Scott said. “He’s got a girlfriend.”

“Shut up,” Jack said.

“Rosie Palmer and her five sisters?” Adam asked.

“Oh, better’n that.”

“Who?” Adam held up his other hand. “Her friend Jill?”

Jack didn’t know why he didn’t get in the car and leave. Even as Scott laughed and said, “Nope — Annalee Rudd,” he still didn’t know.

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

“You had that yet? Of course you’ve had that. Everybody’s had that. ‘Cept for me. I can’t believe I ain’t had that yet. You’ve had it and I ain’t.” Adam looked at Scott. “Can you believe it?”

Scott shook his head and belched.

“Damn, son. I heard she’s still real tight. Is she tight?”

Jack wanted to hit him.

“Take some condoms,” Adam said.

Scott laughed. “He don’t need any. She’s got a pocket full of horses.”

“Fuck, that’s right. That’s her. Who told us that?”

“Her brother.”

“Shit, yeah. Damn! You know he’s had that too.”

Scott nodded. “He’d put his dick in anything.”

Jack felt sick.

“You okay there, Jackie?” Adam stood and slapped him on the back. “Huh? You thinking about that little pussy? Huh? Maybe if you’re real nice,” he said, wrapping his arm around Jack and mock humping his thigh, “she’ll leave the horses in her pocket and let you do her bareback.”

A week later Scott and Adam were both in jail, again. It didn’t make him feel any better.

#

Jack knew it was wrong.

He could feel it as soon as he let his fist fly. His feet were flat. Shoulders too tense. Wrist bent. Swing too wide. It wasn’t going to land right. It wasn’t going to do anything. It wasn’t even going to hurt.

But it did.

Jack’s wrist buckled on Benny’s sharp cheekbone. Two of his knuckles popped. He staggered at the sudden stop of momentum.

Benny was fine.

His narrow, hooded eyes were clear as he stood. He snatched the collar of Jack’s shirt and slammed an uppercut under the arch of his ribs. Jack doubled over.

Benny punched him again. The blow cut gag reflex as Jack’s muscles seized. Lungs froze. Stomach locked tight and tense. He felt like he was choking. Choking on nothing.

“That’s enough,” Scott said.

Benny punched him again.

Jack thought he must have hit something. Something inside. An organ. Jack didn’t know. He had never felt anything like this. He dropped to his knees and rock shards slit jeans.

“Fucking stop.” Scott grabbed Benny, spun him and punched in the face.

Jack watched from the rocks. His vision rimmed and awkward angled like one of those frustrating movie fights—Scott’s fist, Benny’s stringy hair, pushing face into the punch, wet sound, somebody crying.

Was it Benny?

Or was it him? Jack didn’t know.

Scott pulled him to his feet. “Damn, brother, you need to learn to punch.”

Jack nodded. Scott sat him down on Benny’s rock. The six-pack fell over. A can popped and hissed. Beer shot out and pooled on the limestone, clear and yellow and cheap as piss.

Scott grabbed the sixer, tore the punctured can free, wiped it off and sucked it dry.

Somewhere below, Benny yelled for them to go fuck themselves.

Scott wiped his mouth, crushed the can and offered Jack another. “He’ll be back,” he said. “He’s fine.”

“No thanks.”

Scott sat next to Jack. “More for me.”

Neither of them spoke for a long time. They sat there in silence, for a moment or two like brothers.

“You know, man, she looks good.”

“Who?”

Scott elbowed him. “You’re fucking stupid for a college kid, you know it?”

Jack didn’t laugh. He looked at the spot where he stood the day she showed him the VW bug rusting at the quarry bottom. You could only see it from a certain angle, at a certain time, in a certain light.

Not tonight.

“She wasn’t wearing a ring or nothing,” Scott offered. “And she does look good. Still thin. Fit. I don’t think she’s shat out any kids or nothing. Her hair looks really nice too. Still dark.”

“What do you want?”

“Huh?”

“What do you want from me, Scott?”

“Nothing, man. I wanted to tell you about seeing her. I know you’re still sweet on her.” Scott stood and walked to the ledge. “Never understood why you quit seeing her.”

“That’s fine and you wouldn’t, but whatever.” Jack breathed deep. His gut ached. He spat and said, “But what do you want—from me?”

Scott up at the sky. Jack didn’t think it was the moon. “Why do you do that?” Scott asked.

“What?”

“Assume I want something?”

Because there’s always a return, he thought, but instead, quietly, “What do you want?”

Scott toed the edge.

“She works at a gas station,” Jack said.

“Yeah, the one —.“

“I know which one you said. Are you planning on robbing it?”

“A gas station? For what? A hundred bucks and some cigs?”

“There’s an angle somewhere.”

“Maybe,” he said. “You’ll see.”

Jack shook his head.

“Better you don’t know. You will, but for now —,” Scott tossed the can. “‘Sides, I’m trying to help you.”

“No, you’re not.” Jack stood and faced Scott’s back. “Do you remember what you told me that day?”

“Which day?” Scott turned. The night ate his face.

“The thing about a pocket full of horses?”

Silence from the black hood.

“You know where that came from? Where it really came from?”

“Heard it somewhere. Someone told me.”

“No. I’m not talking about the line from the fucking Prince song. Or some shit Adam told you. Or some shit you think her brother said or maybe he did say. He was always a cock too. Fuck him. What I mean is where it started. Where it really started.”

Jack stepped closer. The moonlight shifted. Cut shadows. He still couldn’t see Scott’s face. Only small, uneven teeth.

“Her father died. You know that, right?”

Something hit the water. A faint splash. From Scott—nothing.

“Her father died and one of the last things he gave her, he bought at the dollar store. A plastic bag about like this. It was full of little horses. This big or so. Little plastic horses. All different colors.”

Jack closed. He could see the graying stubble on his brother’s muscular neck. Sharp like the thorns below. “She carried them around in her pocket after he was gone. All bunched up. Big bulge. Some of them broke. Their heads. Their tails. She just kept refilling them. Shoving more in. And she’d tell everyone where she went, she was still real little then, that she had a pocket full of horses. What else could it mean? A pocket full of horses.”

Jack faced his brother—Scott was empty. “I know she works at the gas station. I found her on Facebook. Her name’s not Rudd anymore.”

Jack reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and held it tight in his hand. He talked to his fist, “I drove down there. She smiled when she saw me and for a moment —.” Jack shrugged. “We went around back on her break. You know that back parking lot where no one ever parks except during the car shows, the cruise-ins? We went back there and we talked and she told me about her life and she’s good. Real good and happy.”

Jack raised his fist to dead eyes. “Before I left, she gave me something.” He opened his hand. A little, plastic gray horse rested on his palm.

Scott worked his jaw. Muscles bunched at the hinge.

The horse toppled. “Her pockets are empty now,” Jack said. “Empty just like mine.”

Scott took it and watched his brother leave.

Once alone, he looked at the horse. It was sculpted mid-gallop—frozen. He held it with two fingers and examined it closer. Plastic. He took the lighter from his front pocket and burned it. He watched it melt until the heat stung his thumb, then he flicked it over the side. When it hit the water, it didn’t splash.

It sank without a sound.

7 comments:

  1. if that's third, we've got tremendous things to look forward to. the tombstoning scenes, brought out the worst of my fear of hights. so it's all hard luck and hard men and then you bring in the horses. that softened me up just like the little grey melted in the flame. i wrote a piece recently about how difficult it can be to find the words to end a story - if i'd seen this then, i'd have quoted it as an example of a perfectly handled climax. superb.
    thanks and congratulations,
    nigel

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  2. Terrific story, Chad. But they always are.

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  3. Thank you both for the kind words.

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  4. Great ear for dialogue. Could be Pinter. The ache on the inside of the story is palpable. I, too, like the ending. Nothing contrived. No melodrama. Of a piece with all that comes before. Steady and ominous as a rock quarry at night.

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  5. Terrific tale, Chad. Loved the play on words and the characters you built around it.

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  6. Like Ron said, Chad, the ache, the ache is almost unbearable. Tight prose, strong characters, cracking dialogue, killer lines, and a depth that gets deeper and deeper after each reading. Top stuff, mate.

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