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Connor de Bruler
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elmuerto.jpg
Art by John Stanton 2009

El Muerto 

 

Connor de Bruler

 

    

He got the call around eleven; some kind of domestic disturbance in the East Washington trailer court.

 

Officer Garcia-Gomez  knew this place all too well. It was a little settlement of mostly illegal immigrants working the mechanics’ shops and the local slaughterhouse. Every week they needed either him or Officer Esteban to go in and bust someone for using a fake ID, or a forged green card because they didn’t want to—and he hated this excuse— “seem condescending to the Mexicans by sending an officer who could not speak fluent Spanish.”

 

He knew that wasn’t the reason. Gomez could only speak what he knew growing up with Cuban parents, so most of his Spanish jargon was meaningless to the Mexicans. The truth was, the precinct didn’t want to waste their time with the Mexicans themselves, so they had the only two Hispanic officers do all the work. Why not let Hispanics deal with Hispanics?

 

          “A domestic disturbance?” he asked into the radio for confirmation. It didn’t seem to fit with the area. Had it been reported in any other park in the county, it would have seemed routine, but the people who resided in East Washington did so quieter than church mice. They weren’t pant-sagging, La Eme Chicanos from Watts, Los Angeles; they were straight over the border, illegal, Mexican aliens. They wouldn’t dream of contacting the police for any reason. A very bad feeling came over him. He didn’t like what he was hearing.

 

          “Yes, the family in trailer number seventeen called and said that screaming and cries for help were coming from number eighteen across the street.”

 

          He hesitated for a moment, and then replied, “I got a bad feeling about this one, do you think you could send me some back up?”

 

          “I’ll get a hold of Officer Esteban.”

 

          “Of course you will.” he said contemptuously, under his breath.

 

          He pulled out of the Chevron gas station with his Mountain Dew in hand, and started speeding down the shortcut to the trailer park.

 

          It had taken him exactly nine minutes to reach East Washington, and an additional two in order to find the right trailer. He walked out and slammed the door to the police cruiser.

The living conditions in East Washington were lower than substandard, and they depressed him with every visit. He wondered if there lives were really any better here, than in Mexico. He doubted it. The trailer he was standing in front of looked as though it were made of rusting sheet metal, and water-logged plywood. It couldn’t have been warm enough for winter. The number seventeen had been spray painted on the side, with less precision than railroad yard graffiti.

 

He walked up to the front door, but before he knocked, he noticed the shrine that had been set up in the front yard. At first it looked like the little candlelit shrines people placed on the side of the road for car crash victims. There was a cross with the name “Alberto Jimenez” scrawled across it, while a painting of Mother Mary watched over.

 

That’s when Gomez realized tonight was November first. By the stroke of midnight, it was officially the Day of the Dead in Mexico: El Dia de los Muertos. Among the shrine were a few sugar skulls with Alberto’s name written across the foreheads, and a few skeletal Catrina figurines had been placed around the flower arrangements.

 

          Que volao.

 

          After knocking on the door a few times, a small, round woman opened up and started speaking in rapid Spanish. He calmed her down and told her, over enunciating his words, to explain the situation to him. She took a breather and said, “Mi hija habla bien ingles,” telling him that her daughter spoke English well. She called out to the far left of the trailer for a girl named Gloria.

 

A young girl, perhaps only fifteen years old, approached her mother from behind one of the paper thin, plywood walls. Her face was flushed a deep red as well as her eyes, as though she had been crying for some time. The woman told Gloria to explain what had happened, in English, to Gomez. Gloria turned to him.

 

          “She was a nice girl. She never hurt nobody.”

 

           “I need you to tell me what you heard,” he said.

 

          “I was sitting in the kitchen with my mama, and we heard Julia next door screaming. She was sayin’ stuff like ‘Help, he’s gonna kill me’ and then,” Gloria covered her mouth, and began to hyperventilate. Her mother pulled her into her bosom. 

 

               “What did you hear, then?” asked Gomez.

 

          Gloria shook her head from behind her mother.

 

           “You need to tell me,” he demanded.

 

               “There wasn’t nothing. She didn’t make no sound after that.” She started crying. “It was too fast for us to help. So, we called you.”

           If he had the time, he would have taken a knee, in order to reach eye level with Gloria, and played the good cop for her. He would have spoken softly and tried to reassure Gloria that everything was going to be all right. But there was no time for that. It didn’t look like everything was going to be all right. In fact, he was pretty sure everything was going to be terrible, because he’d seen it too many times before. He had seen house invasions, stabbings, gunshot wounds, and bludgeoning. He had met men who killed their wives, women who killed their husbands, and gang members who had killed people they had never even met. He had spoken with angry drunks still holding their bottles, depressive teenagers who stood on the edges of skyscrapers, and black-eyed women in neck braces who still claimed they had fallen down the stairs. He had accepted at this point, that in his line of work things were seldom (if ever) all right.

 

               Leaving the two of them in the doorway, Gomez ran as fast as he could across the street and through what felt like a briar patch. The trailer was much farther away than he thought, expecting it to only be a few feet past the bushes and thorns, but it was a reasonably long way off into a vacant field of tall grass. He could only see a partial outline of the trailer amidst the darkness, because none of its lights were on: a very bad

sign.

 

He ran up to the point where he was close enough to enter the trailer when the next bad sign came: the trailer door was wide open and swinging in the wind, which seemed to almost speak as it whistled through the screen window. Perhaps Gomez had heard something, or perhaps his mind had simply interpreted something he wanted to hear. Either way, he could have sworn the wind had, faintly but surely, uttered the name Julia. Perhaps it was just because he felt so strongly for this girl, Julia, and knew, in his heart, that he would find her dead body in the trailer.

 

          The Day of the Dead.

 

               Drawing his pistol, he walked into the trailer and almost without thinking called out her name.

 

               Julia?”

 

           He called out for her in Spanish, telling her or any other person who may have been hiding that he was a cop. He carefully went through every room with his flashlight.

Thoroughly checking corners and dark, empty alcoves.

 

The place was in shambles, though it didn’t seemed to be the result of  a recent conflict, rather months of poor housekeeping; piled dishes in the sink, cracked, yellow toilet bowls, dirty clothing and tissues discarded on the floor. He felt relief having not found a trace of violence. Despite the unkempt look, everything was in place; the sheets on the bed, the chairs placed neatly near the kitchen table. Nothing had been kicked over or broken. He couldn’t find a single smear or drop of blood, either.

 

This comforted him for a moment until he realized that it wasn’t good that the trailer was empty. He began piecing it together in his head. They had heard a girl scream. Now she was gone without a trace that anything had happened, and the door was swinging open.

 

          My God, he thought. It was an abduction.

 

          Then, before he could reach for his radio, in the dead silence he heard a faint amount of breathing. He followed it to the small kitchen segment, and stood trembling over the sink. It was coming from inside the drain. He leaned over it and heard the fast- paced, almost feverish breaths. They were not the long, deep breaths from physical exertion, they were the short, hushed breaths from unmistakable fear.

 

Overcoming his inherited superstition, he had a moment of clarity. Kneeling on the floor, he opened the cabinet below the sink.

 

There was a sudden scream from both Gomez and Julia, who lay crouched inside the cabinet as though she were hiding for her life. Gomez had jumped about two feet away from her in fright, and now lay on the floor facing the ceiling, catching his breath in relief. Julia still crouched inside the cabinet.

 

In between exasperated, adrenaline-induced breaths, he asked her what she was doing: first in English and then in Spanish. She replied in Spanish, saying that she didn’t want to come out if he was still out there.

 

Gomez, looking up and thanking God that it wasn’t an abduction, wanted to know who she was talking about. She told him that a man who could walk through walls was trying to get her baby. Gomez turned his other flashlight on, to better see her face and noticed that she was pregnant. He repeated what she had told him, and she confirmed it. He asked her why this man wanted her baby. She wouldn’t answer; she closed the cabinet doors, saying, “He’s still out there.”

 

          Who is out there?”

 

          “El Diablo, she said and shut the tiny door.

 

          “I seriously doubt the devil is after your baby,” he said, and opened the cabinet, attempting to pull her out. She kicked him in the shin and slammed the cabinet on his fingers.

 

              “Damn it, woman!” he yelled, in English. He would have loved to grab her by the back of her neck and thrown her out onto the ground, but she was a woman, a pregnant woman.

 

          At that moment, a dark silhouette appeared in the doorway. Gomez immediately knew it would be Esteban.

 

           “Thank God you’re here, man. This woman is hysterical. I think she might be schizophrenic.”

 

          No answer.

 

               “Don’t just stand there. Help me get this lady out of the cabinet,” said Gomez.

 

          The figure entered the trailer.

 

               “Bobby?” Gomez asked, Officer Esteban’s first name. Turning the flashlight on, Gomez saw Julia, hiding under the sink, but as he raised his flashlight on the figure, it was apparent that it was not Esteban.

 

Gomez noticed the boots. The figure standing before him wore boots with an elaborate, rose design sewn into the leather. The blue-jeans, caked with dried mud and dirt, were held up by a gleaming, silver belt buckle.

 

The man did not speak when Gomez asked him what he was doing.

 

Gomez drew his pistol out and told him to identify himself. Gomez, allowing his mother’s superstitions to creep back into his mind, felt that this character was perhaps not of this world. His silent stance, and the way he entered the room so swiftly, seemed enigmatic enough. Gomez tried to shake off the irrational notion and told the man to put his hands up.

 

               “Manos arriba.” As soon as he said it, his feeling (or wanting) that the man wasn’t actually there was squelched.

 

Julia tried to run for the door, but the man charged out after her. Who was this guy to Julia? And why was he so determined to kill her?

 

Again, Gomez found himself in a race against time. He ran off into the field after the two of them. They were heading left into a construction site.

 

He tore after them as fast as he could, but the very ground seemed to be oscillating under his feet. The world was a seesaw, tilting back and forth, up and down, moving against him. He kept his gun in its holster in case he slipped. Many of his friends’ guns had accidentally discharged once or twice and claimed a toe or an object in the distance. It was also a natural reflex to tighten one’s hand when running, making it dangerous to have the trigger near.

 

Vaulting through an obstacle course of hardened cement bags, and twisted metal, Gomez eventually caught up with Julia. She was crouching under a wheelbarrow, hiding from not only her attacker but from Gomez as well. He saw her but tried not to react to her. He didn’t want the man to catch both of them.

 

There were a few streetlights past the tree line that illuminated patches of the site with a dim, orange glow. There was a long moment of silence.

 

Gomez, holding his Smith & Wesson, scanned the area. If there was no longer any sign of the assailant, he would grab Julia and make a run for it to the cruiser.

 

The site was quieter than anything he had ever experienced before. It was a heavy, dreadful silence that seemed to constrict the senses. He flattened his back against a tall, concrete pillar and checked the other side of the raised foundation. It was clear.

 

He rushed back to the wheelbarrow Julia lay under. He whispered in Spanish, telling her the area was clear and that they needed to get back to his car. He told her there was nothing to worry about, that he was an armed officer and she was safe with him. She may not have believed him after what she had seen, but it was a better idea than hiding under a sink or a wheelbarrow. Frustrated with her hesitation to answer, he lifted the wheelbarrow and saw, as the dirt was carried off by a gust of wind, that she had left.

 

               Gomez felt a sharp pain.

 

          He’d been hit across the back with a tire iron. It felt like a car had just run him over. He fell to the ground with less animation than a sack of flour, limp and lifeless. As his consciousness began to disintegrate, he found himself able to process only one singular thought.

 

          Where is Julia?

 

           The tall, dark figure kicked Gomez’s body around with the points of his boots. They looked wickedly macabre to Gomez, but he kept on thinking . . .

 

          Where is Julia?

 

           The Mexican who had struck him placed the tire iron across Gomez’s neck and began to push down.

 

          Is Julia all right?

 

               Gomez could not breathe.

 

          Don’t let Julia die.

 

          His eyesight was fading. Everything was growing darker now. He felt less and less pain.

 

          As long as Julia is okay . . .

 

               Gomez looked up, hoping to see the man who was killing him. The man had those same, crazed, bloodshot eyes whose retinas indicated no presence of a soul behind them.

 

But, from the left, someone else entered the picture. It was not Julia. No, it was some stranger. Another Mexican with long, black curly hair and a faint mustache haunting his upper lip. He was dressed similar to the other.

 

Before Gomez completely blacked out, his attacker was forced off by this Good Samaritan. The two struggled with each other. The stranger was holding the man down for Gomez, who tried to get to his feet but continually collapsed into the cold clay.

 

The man eventually threw the stranger off of him and was once again walking towards Gomez. The stranger had bought Gomez all the time he could.

 

Understanding this, Gomez searched around frantically for his gun. The Smith & Wesson firearm was unfortunately black. There was no hope of seeing it, let alone the ground beneath him.

 

The man tackled Gomez and they both rolled down a steep incline. He clawed and punched at the man as best he could, but could not protect his neck from being throttled.

 

That was when he felt it: a cold, rough object had been placed in his hand. The stranger had handed Gomez his gun. He slowly set it against the man’s chest.

 

The man was completely unaware and continued to choke Gomez until the moment the trigger was pulled, and the loud, familiar crack went off into the night.

 

               Gomez rose to his feet. He called out to the stranger but no one responded.

 

               “Where are you?” he yelled. He checked the entire site for him. He owed his life to him, but the stranger was nowhere to be seen.

   

    

 

 

 

           Julia was in the process of being sent to a women’s shelter, answering questions for a social worker. Gomez held an ice bag to his neck, sitting on the hood of the police cruiser with Bobby Esteban.

 

          “I’m sorry I couldn’t have gotten here faster,” Esteban said.

 

          “It’s not your fault,” said Gomez. He paused, then began to revisit the whole ordeal.

 

               “Looks like he got your neck pretty good.”

 

          “That guy was so determined to kill this woman. I’ve never seen anything like it. He didn’t seemed to care I was a cop, or that I was armed. Something wasn’t right with him.”

 

               “There’s always something wrong with them,” said Esteban.

 

          “I thought he was you at first, the way he walked right into the trailer. And I mean, this woman was scared. I found her hiding under her sink,” Gomez said. “I didn’t think I was going to have to shoot him.”

 

          “You don’t have to justify it, man. What you did was necessary. He would have killed you and her. You did your job tonight.”

 

          Not if that guy hadn’t helped me, Gomez told himself. “Here, I need to go speak with this woman for a second.”

 

          The woman who had originally heard Julia’s screaming was standing once again, in the doorway of her trailer talking through her daughter to a couple of men from the forensics team.

 

Gomez parted the men as if they were a curtain, and asked Gloria’s mother in Spanish who the man was and why he wanted to kill Julia. She said that he was her ex-lover, and she had left him and become pregnant by another man.

 

          “Who was the other man?” he asked.

 

          She told him that she didn’t know.

 

          He asked her one more thing. He asked her if she knew a man with a small mustache and long, curly black hair in East Washington. She said that she wasn’t sure.

 

               “Thank you, anyway,” Gomez said. As he turned around, the two forensics workers nudged him aside as he had done.

 

He walked back out onto the spare, dirt ground. The fact that grass never grew in these trailer parks must have reminded the residents of Mexico, he thought. He looked at the shrine to the deceased Alberto Jimenez, and noticed for the first time that there was a small Polaroid photograph of a young man, clipped to the black velvet painting of Mother Mary, with a clothespin.

 

It was a young man with curly, long, black hair, and a faint mustache.

 

 

 

 

taxidermist.jpg
Art by Jeff Fallow 2011

A Brief Incident at a Taxidermist

 

Connor de Bruler

 

 

 

     The rusted, puttering Fiat 128 inched along the scenic highway and past the Tennessee state line.

     “Can you tell me which state we’re in, buddy?” Limon asked.

     “Tennessee.” said Jacob.

     “Very good. Now, which state did we just leave?”

     “Carolina.”

     “Which Carolina?”

     Jacob thought for a moment before replying, “North Carolina.”

     As he praised his eight-year-old son’s grasp of geography, Limon turned onto an exit ramp that led the flimsy vehicle deeper into the foliage. The Italian car seemed unfit for the daunting woodlands. There were cage nets along the sides of the highway to protect traffic from boulders twice the size of the Fiat. Limon found the car at a junkyard and after careful inspection, he realized it had a decent transmission. He didn’t care what the guys at work thought. It was good car.

     Somewhere, off in the woods, a camping space reserved under a pseudonym waited for them. He wasn’t sure how much further they needed to drive.

     “You know your grandpa used to be a welder for the Tennessee Valley Authority.” he said.

     “What’s that?”

     “The TVA was a program started in the 1930’s.” he said. “It was a way to get people jobs when they didn’t have jobs.” There was no easy way to describe depression-era relief efforts to a child.

     “And it was here in Tennessee?”

     “Oh no. It’s all across the southeastern region here. It’s still around today.”

     They passed a sign that read, “Montgomery Mountaineers’ Family Gem Mine next left!”

     “You want to go to a gem mine?” he asked Jacob. “I mean it’s a bit of tourist trap but I suppose we’re tourists.”

     “Not really.” said Jacob. His son didn’t say anything for awhile. The silence was once again broken when he asked, “What’s a welder?”

     “A welder is a skilled worker who uses a special tool to melt metal.”

     “You can melt metal?”

     “Sure you can. That’s how we make frames for buildings and cars and other things. It’s how two pieces of metal are fused together.”

     “Is it hot like lava?”

     “Yeah, you have to wear special clothes and a face shield.”

     They passed another sign. This time it said, “Buck Micklen’s Exotic and Wild Game Taxidermist! Left on Oaken Falls road.”

     “Do you want to go see a taxidermist, Jacob?”

     “What’s that?”

     “It’s a guy who hunts and stuffs animals.” he said. “It’s like going to a zoo but the animals are dead. It’s a little morose.”

     “What kind of animals?” asked Jacob.

     “Well the sign said ‘exotic’, so I imagine he’s got all kinds of animals.”

     “Yeah, let’s go there.”

     Limon took the left onto Oaken Falls and headed down a gravel road. The underbrush and weeds whipped at the tires and underbelly of the chassis. The car kicked up a beige mist as Limon shifted gears and sped down the remainder of the road. They found themselves paralleling a creek when Jacob spotted the cabin.

     “There it is. I see it.”

     “I reckon.”

     Jacob looked off into the woods.

     “Hey,”

     “Hey what?”

     “I think I saw a deer.”

     “You might have.”

     The taxidermist had renovated an old mill near the creek. The waterwheel was still turning alongside the reinforced clapboard slabs and stone chimney. Limon parked the car near the entrance and got out to stretch his legs.

     “I didn’t realize we were driving that long,” he remarked.

     Jacob leapt out of his seat and quickly slammed the door.

     “Careful, this car’s old.”

     They walked up the creaky wooden stairs to the front entrance. On the front porch sat an old man with a handlebar moustache and sunglasses. He appeared to be asleep. A few empty beer cans were strewn around the planks underneath his chair.

     “I hope he’s not the only owner,” said Limon.

     “Is he drunk, dad?”

     Limon wasn’t too proud that Jacob knew alcohol when he saw it. His girlfriend, Sheila, had been reckless in those bygone days. She wasn’t a great influence on either of them.

     “Best we let sleeping dogs lie. Come on, lets go inside.”

     The front door’s sign read “Open” in cheerful cursive script.

     “Hello?” Limon called out. “Anybody here?”

     There was no answer.

     Beasts from every continent lined the walls, eternally suspended in the ferocious poses.

     “Oh, look at that.” Jacob exclaimed, pointing to the African gazelle.

     “Isn’t that something?” his father said.

     The gazelle seemed to be darting away from some unseen predator which, in all likelihood, was the hunter who shot it. Jacob pointed to the grizzly bear next.

     “Look at its claws.”

     “Yeah,” Limon was still looking around for someone in charge. All he could see was an endless menagerie of leering creatures’ faces. There was an entire wall covered in raccoon and beaver pelts, a tiger skin rug, and the mammoth bust of a hippopotamus.

     “Didn’t you see a grizzly once?” asked Jacob.

     “I used to see them all the time when I was up in Montana.” he said.

     “Oh, look at that alligator.”

     He left his son by the reptile and stepped over to the tiger skin rug. Wasn’t that illegal? Weren’t tigers endangered? He supposed it could have been a family heirloom. Beyond that was a giant boar with hair like electrical wire.

     “This guy really likes to shoot stuff,” he mumbled under his breath. “I wonder what he’s compensating for?”

     Suddenly an enormous hissing sound penetrated the old mill from outside.

     “What was that?” asked Jacob.

     Limon didn’t say anything. He took his son and they stepped back onto the outdoor porch.

     The front tire on the passenger side of the Fiat was sagging.

     “One of our tires popped.” said Jacob.

     “It didn’t pop.” his father said, gritting his teeth. “You see that gash on the side. Somebody slashed it.”

     Limon turned to the drunk man still snoozing in his stationary rocking chair.

     “Hey,” he yelled snapping his fingers. “You see who did that to my car?”

     The man didn’t budge.

     “Hey, asshole! I’m talking to you.”

     The man was still stagnant. Limon approached him and gave the man a violent shove. He fell to the side out of the rocking chair.

     Limon gasped.

     The man’s body didn’t go limp. He stayed rigid and stiff like a piece of wood still in the sitting position. His hands were still folded in his lap. The sunglasses had been knocked off and both of them saw that his eyelids had been sewn shut.

     Jacob opened his mouth to scream but nothing would come out.

     Acting as quickly as possible, Limon grabbed his son and they ran back into the shop, locking the front entrance.

     “Dad, I’m scared.”

    “So am I.” he said. “But we’re going to be fine.”

    “That man…was he…stuffed?”

    “I think so.” he said. He looked around the building. The man had to have a knife or a gun rack somewhere. Above them was another level to the taxidermy museum, but there weren’t any stairs or ladders to access it. It was a storage area just high enough for Jacob to reach if Limon hoisted him. There were several doors on the bottom level and Limon knew someone would get to them soon. He could at least hide his son there on the upper level.

     “Jacob, I’m going to lift you up onto the next level. Do you think you can find us a gun or anything sharp?”

     “I can try.”

     “Ata boy.”

    He lifted Jacob onto his shoulders and he crawled onto the wooden planks of what used to be an attic. His son walked around for while tipping things over and maneuvering around the displayed animals.

     “Do you see anything?”

     “Yeah, I found something.”

     “What is it?”

     Jacob came to the edge of the floor holding a decorative samurai katana.

     “It’s a ninja sword.”

     “That’s perfect, just drop that down, okay.”

     Jacob tossed the sword down.

     “Now jump into my arms.” said Limon.

    Before Jacob had a chance, he looked behind his father and saw it. What was at first blurry soon presented itself to them. The sight was barely fathomable: a tall figure stood behind the window on the porch. It wore an elk’s head as a helmet, like some mutated creature with antlers. Blood drizzled down its camouflage hunting gear. In the figure’s hand was a double barrel shotgun. With the free hand, it began smearing it blood across the window.

     “Jacob, I want you to stay up there and find a place to hide okay?”

    His son dove behind a stuffed bobcat. Limon gripped the katana and pulled it from the scabbard only to realize there was no blade on the handle. It was purely a decorative piece.

     A deer slug obliterated the lock on the door as red hot metallic fragments singed the fur covered surroundings. The intruder casually stepped inside. The kill was cornered. There was no need to rush. Limon took a chance and dove past the grizzly. The elk man spent the second round, bursting the bear’s stomach. A disorienting blizzard of stuffing filled the ether and Limon used it to race toward his attacker, ramming his boot into the crotch and prying the empty shotgun from his hand. Limon felt a strong foot like a wooden baseball bat slide beneath him. He fell backwards onto the floor and saw a fillet blade driving toward his face. Frantically stopping it with both hands, he wrestled the elk off his knees and onto the floor. He could see a man looking at him through the elk’s mouth. Odorous blood dribbled onto Limon’s face as he struggled.

     “Jacob!” he called out. “Jacob, drop something on him.”

     He didn’t hear anything from his son.

     “Drop something heavy on him.” Already he could feel the sting of the blade as it began to slice into his face. His son was probably frozen stiff. After the antlered psychopath carved him into pieces, he’d go upstairs and probably stuff Jacob for display.

     What Limon heard then sounded like the rattling of chains. His son was struggling with something. It was scraping the wood as it dragged across the upper level floor. A heavy circular object fell towards the elk head. It latched onto the fur like a snake, perfectly missing the antlers. A mechanical ring echoed through the old mill building. He heard a muffled screaming noise. It was coming from inside the elk. The man grasped at the rims of the iron claws that constricted his morbid apparatus as well as his own head, but there was nothing he could do. Gushers of blood spilled over the wood floor as the antlered man fell backwards, writhing. His son had dropped a spring loaded bear trap from the upper level.

     Jacob feebly called out, “Is it dead?”

    “It’s just a man, Jacob. And he’s not dead yet,” Limon pulled the knife off the floor and thrust it into his attacker’s jugular.

     They raced outside.

     “You did good, Jacob. You saved my life.”

     “Should we call the police?”

     “No, we can’t call anybody. And why can’t we call anyone?”

     “Because of what happened to Sheila.” repeated Jacob for the billionth time. “But what if someone else comes here?”

     “Then they’ll call the police.” he said. “Nobody is going to get hurt anymore. We killed him. Now help me get the spare tire from the trunk.”

     As Limon changed the tire to the Fiat he had Jacob change the license plate once again. His son was getting pretty handy with a screwdriver.

    “Your face is cut daddy.”

    “I’ll get it fixed.” he said. “Is that new plate almost on?”

    “Yeah,” Jacob kept looking around in nervous anticipation. He looked back at the old mill.

     “Daddy!” he screamed.

     “What! What’s wrong?”

     “Look.”

     He didn’t see anything.

     “What is it?”

    Jacob pointed to the porch and the empty space where the old man’s stuffed body used to be.

 

 

     Officer Black stepped out of the taxidermy museum, gracefully ducking under the fresh crime scene tape. The deputy was waiting for him on the porch, waiting for his analysis.

    “Well, it’s like you said…one hell of a mess.”

    “The eye-witness said she wouldn’t come back out here. But it’s just as she told us it’d be” said the deputy.

     Officer Black wiped the sweat from his forehead with a rag and said, “It ain’t so much horrific as it is confusing. Why the hell would he wear an elk head like a mask, antlers and all? He must have kept that thing in the fridge all this time. Ain’t no reindeer around here.”

     The deputy mused for a moment and said, “I figure somebody must have forced the ol’boy to wear it. You know? Humiliation. Then they stabbed him in the neck and made him rest his head into the bear trap. Might be one of those eco-anarchists trying to make a statement about hunting.”

     “Your guess is as good as mine.” said Black. “We better get the Sheriff and the Coroner out here. Looks like your eyewitness found something big.”

     As the deputy walked back to the police cruiser, Black noticed a figure in the distance: a man with a handle bar moustache and sunglasses.

     “Hey, this here’s a crime scene. You’ll want to head on back now.”

     But the figure didn’t move.

 

alligatorsong.jpg
Art by Mike Kerins 2012

Alligator Songs

 

By Connor de Bruler

 

 

 

     I’ve been writing alligator songs most of my life, ferocious, visceral, parasitic things that enter through the senses and latch onto the human gut with fish hooks. None of my songs have any sound. They’re songs you read with the eye. I’m a photographer and a sculptor. Some call it being an artist, but I call it being nothing more than being a photographer and a sculptor. Most call the things I’ve done photographs and concept art. Some call ‘em pictures. I’ve even heard folks say pics. I don’t call ‘em anything but songs, because that’s all they are. They’re just songs, musical images that pluck on the brain stem like fingernails on a rusted guitar string. They are wild and they are violent and I don’t need to sing or strum on an old box to get them out there. My camera flashes with a steady rhythm and my song is finished in a lightless room. They are pulled from liquid and hung from a clothesline, bobbing up and down till they are dry. They are born in flaming chambers and reek of smoke.

      My songs are sinister and my songs are honest.

    This is the story of my first song, the first one I ever did.

     It may surprise you but I wasn’t born here in Tennessee. I was born in Africa, all the way from fuckin’ Africa. Might seem strange to you, a white man coming from Africa and all, but that’s where my mother gave birth to me and I lived for the first decade of my life. When I got to America kids would surround me saying, “You an African? What happened. They ain’t got any black folks left?”

     I didn’t even speak English then. I spoke and played and thought in Afrikaans. My father was supposed to be from England but I never saw him. He left and went back to wherever he was from before my mom knew she would have me. He probably doesn’t even know his son is walking around. I might’ve learned English sooner had he stayed in Africa, done the honorable thing and married my mom and all. I could have learned that la-tee-dah King’s English, instead of old riverbed American. Course, I doubt my mom’s folks would’ve let an Englishman wed a young Boer girl. Afrikaners, or Boer people as some like to be called, didn’t care much for the English. They said they came to Africa first and started a holy country like the Jews who showed up in Israel, but the English came and killed their men and rounded up all their women and children and put ‘em in camps. They say the native blacks helped the Brits with the job, that’s why everybody had to be separated. If I was a black native, a Xhosa or a Zulu warrior, I would have even helped the damn Nazis get rid of all them pious whites from my country. Then I’d turn on the Nazis or whoever and get things the way they should have been. But Boer people hated everybody; blacks, non-Boer whites, foreigners. There wasn’t any changing that, and when my grandparents found out my mom was pregnant by a foreigner, an English guy to be exact, they stuck her ass out on the street like she was one of them. They called her a whore and she was left to figure on her own.

     She didn’t do too bad. We moved to a little village eastward and she worked at a drive-in theater. She made just enough money to keep us in a little two-room place near an empty field.

     Now when people think of Africa they think of lions and the tall men with spears. That wasn’t what I saw. There were shops and roads and churches; people driving cars and bicycles; men walking downtown with white shirts, short hair and fine suspenders. The Africa I knew wasn’t wild. But I didn’t really get to know Africa too well. Before I knew it my mom met another foreigner; some American man named Wilson Praat. He pronounced his surname like Prat, like a rat or a bat. But we rolled the R and called him P-rrr-aaat because his name meant speak in Afrikaans. And I’ll tell you what, he did speak. He was a world-class story teller and a seasoned prevaricator, granted I’m not mistaken about that word. He asked my mother to marry him and move back to America with him and she said yes. They knew each other only two months when we got on the plane and headed for home.

     The smoky mountains of Tennessee were wild to me, wilder than anything I had seen in Africa. I’d walk on the outcrops and think of Indians and cowboys racing into the field, shooting at each other. I’d see deer running through the forest and hear bears foraging at night.

     I saw America had nearly cleared up their race problems. There were still some racist people who wouldn’t serve blacks or Mexicans at restaurants but, for the most part, blacks and whites drank together in bars and lay in the street beside each other. Even the occasional Indian stepped past me. Their hair was never long and they looked better dressed than most people I saw. I also saw young white girls with black young men down by the creek sometimes.

      Wilson wasn’t much of a dad, I have to say. Till this day, I never did know what he was doing in South Africa because he didn’t do much but work all day and drink back in America. He worked for the TVA doing something with hydroelectric dams. It never interested me. He used to get on my case all the time, saying, “When are you gonna learn English?” He’d interrupt me and my mom when we spoke in Afrikaans and call us names. Said we were African Krauts and we couldn’t make the TH sound if our tongues were stapled to our lips.

     It took me six years to learn English well and forget a lot of my Afrikaans, like a kid forgets how to play piano when he switches to a guitar.

     My mom stuck by the asshole for a long time, too long really. He liked her cause she was young, pretty, submissive, thin for a girl who’d given birth, and she had a strange accent he thought sounded like she was half German, half Australian. I think she stayed with him most of my life because he didn’t make her work. She still kept odd jobs here and there once they were properly married, but they were always temporary. Wilson might not have treated her all that well, but he wasn’t a philanderer. But I think if he had the chance he might’ve. Thing was, my mother was the best slice he ever had for himself. I listened to my mom and my new daddy fuck almost every night. He was sick. He’d call her all sorts of strange things, things I don’t wanna recall. I was so worried I’d have a little brother or sister at some point. A little baby who’d never know anything about where we came from, about the towns squares and small shops lining the street in our small African village. They never did have another kid, though.

     Wilson wasn’t much a dad, but he never beat me except for once and it wasn’t even that bad. I called him a cunt in Afrikaans and he knew what that meant and smacked me across the face and whipped my bottom before throwing me in my room to think about what I’d done. When he was really drunk, he used to make me swig a thimble of beer or whiskey or rot-gut moonshine. Said it was good for a man to know the taste of a drink. A drink was good for a working man. My mother stood idly by. I don’t think she cared. I don’t know if she really liked Tennessee, but I know she was glad to live somewhere outside of Africa.

     The nicest thing Wilson had ever done for me was give me a camera for my birthday. He even showed me how to use it and get my pictures out. I started snapping pictures everywhere I went and hung them up around my room. That’s how I learned a good amount of English that first year. I had pictures of flowers and fire hydrants and everything. But they weren’t alligator songs yet. No, the first alligator song came two years after I called America home.

     I was twelve years old, and my English wasn’t bad. I had the strange accent still, part Tennessee, part Afrikaans. Where we lived, just up the road, was a playground. In the summer it was too hot to play in the daytime, so I waited till it was almost full dark, right when the street lamps were about to turn on, before I went outside to play. Sometimes I brought my camera with me in its small satchel-like case, but other times I left it at home in case some big kid would take it. Parents didn’t watch kids back then like they do now with all that GPS nonsense, and my folks let me wander ’round as long as I didn’t talk to men. Wilson always made me promise I wouldn’t talk to a man. Women and other kids were fine, but men couldn’t be trusted. He said, “Some old black man or a toothless white guy comes up to you, run away scream for help. Even if he’s some young older kid with a car. They’ll say they have candy or a lost puppy, but they ain’t got nothing for you but a world of hurt. You can’t trust ‘em.” My mom would be translating from the hallway behind him, just to make sure I got it. As I look back on it, I seriously wonder if Wilson had ever been molested as a child. He seemed to have the details down pat.

     I walked out to the playground, same as every other night, with my camera wrapped around my torso like a purse. The case kept it safe if I dropped it, but I seldom did. I snapped a few pictures of the street lamps and the jungle gym, then I set the camera back with the two Polaroids inside the case too. I liked sitting alone atop the warm, rusted monkey bars and watching the stars, hoping to see one move. The telephone poles and trees behind the playground were covered in a wall of dark green kudzu. Beyond that was a sequestered creek, filled mostly with filth, rocks, and broken glass. There was an old general store up the road from the playground and people often walked back home past me with bags of provisions. I also saw the occasional truck or car speed by.

     On this particular night, the night I wrote my first alligator song, a young woman came down the road and sat down on the swing set. Her name was Lizzy. She was the good-times girl, the town prostitute. If you drove further north into the heart of the woods, you came across a lot of whores. They wore corsets and blood red lipstick and everything you’d think a prostitute would wear. Lizzy wasn’t one of those types of whores, though. She wore jeans and a white t-shirt and never put on makeup. She said she was a quarter Indian but didn’t look it much. She was discreet about her business, and the town kept it quiet. She didn’t bother anybody, and nobody bothered her unless they wanted her services. She worked at the gas station most of the time, giving men blowjobs in their cars behind the carwash. I didn’t really know what she did back then, I just had an inkling. What I knew was that I liked her. Though I hadn’t spoken to her but once, I always watched her.

     She was sitting on the swing set drinking a Dr. Enuf and smoking a cigarette. I walked up to her and asked if I could take her picture.

     “Yeah, whatever,” she said, and blew smoke from the side of her mouth.

     Her hair was dark and her eyes a chilly blue. She was the only person I had ever seen without red hair who had freckles all over her body. I snapped the picture and crammed it into my pocket.

     “Where are you from, kid?”

     “Africa,” I said.

     “Africa? You don’t look African.” 

     “I am. I come from Olystraat. Is a small place like here.”

     “Hmmm. I ain’t heard of there,” she said. “How come you live here?”

     “My daddy is from here. He is my stepdad.” I was still rolling my R’s and prolonging my S’s.

     She drank from the green bottle and nodded. “You ever seen a lion?”

     “No, but I seen a bear once.”

     She laughed. “Yeah, they like to go through them garbage cans.”

     I sat down in the swing next to her and started swinging as the old metal squeaked and rang out like a busted suspension bridge.

     “You got a mom?” she asked me.

     “Yeah.”

     “She speak African?”

     “Yeah.”

     “My granddaddy could speak Cherokee. I used to know it when I ‘as ’bout your age. Can’t remember nothing now.”

     “What’s Cherokee?”

     “It’s Indian.” She watched me swing for a while and finished her cigarette, then drank the rest of her soda. “Say, kid. You thirsty?”

     “Yeah,”

     “Follow me up a ways and I’ll buy you a Coke.”

     I thought about it for a second. Wilson never said anything about talking or being around women. Besides, I liked the way Lizzy made me feel when I heard her voice and saw that vaguely sardonic smile. “Okay,” I said. We walked up the road as a faint breeze gave us a short break from the humidity. One of the street lamps flickered and puttered out like it had run dry on gas. I heard a couple of cats fighting in the dumpster, the closest thing to a lion I’d ever see again.

     I don’t mean to tell this story disrespectfully. I’m just telling it the way I saw it. I probably don’t need to explicitly point out that Lizzy don’t end up well by the end of this, and I don’t want you to think I’m cruel or twisted. The rest of the night came on so surreal. I didn’t know how to process it as young as I was. I guess that’s why I wrote my first alligator song.

      Anyway, she took me up to the corner store and bought me a 7-Up instead of a Coke. I didn’t like Coke or Royal Crown. We didn’t have anything like that in Africa. We had Pepsi and Canada Dry and Ginger Beer from England. I still saw some Pepsi here and there, but Coke was dominant. I liked the way 7-Up tasted. It was like Canada Dry but smoother, more exotic to me at the time. The old black man who ran the shop handed Lizzy the green bottle then she handed it to me.

     “Ain’t that boy a little young for you, Lizzy?”

     “Shut up, Crawford.”

     “I am twelve,” I said. My accent really showed when I tried to say twelve.

     “Oh, well that’s just fine and dandy.”

     Lizzy took me by the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

     A truck followed us all the way to the playground. The driver kept honking his horn and whistling and Lizzy just ignored him. I was too afraid to say anything. I just kept to nursing on my soda-pop. The truck’s driver kept begging for her, calling out her name, saying he was sorry. I figured she knew him by then. Of course, a lot of guys around town knew her. I wasn’t sure how well he knew her. I got back to the playground and she met up with the truck at the stop sign. I watched them talk for a long time. After I had finished my drink, she came back.

     “I gonna head out now, kid. You steer clear of strangers.”

     “What is steer?”

     “Just don’t talk to nobody, ’kay?”

     “Thank you for the 7-Up.”

     “You’re welcome.” She leaned down and gave me a warm kiss on my forehead. The heat spread throughout my body.

     “Get’cher mouth off that boy and get in the truck, Lizzy!” the driver yelled.

     “You shut the fuck up, I’m coming.” She walked away and they drove off. I sat in the sand, still feeling the kiss on my head in the form of blood rushing up my body, causing me to blush. I still consider Lizzy to be my first kiss. I knew what sex was at that point and all I could think about was having it with Lizzy. Wilson was coming down the road from our modest home. He cut through the playground sand. I knew he was going to the corner store beyond Otis’s, the one with the iron gate welded to the front door and the letters ABC painted on the side. When he sat down on the swing next to me, I knew he saw the whole thing the way he was smiling.

     “You should be careful around those kind of girls. They’re not clean.”

     I was curious about what he meant, but I didn’t want to ask him. I always wanted to avoid talking to him when I could.

     “Come sit on your old man’s lap. I’m gonna tell you a story.”

    I didn’t like it when he called himself my daddy. I still liked to think that Englishman would pick me up and whisk me and my mom to London one day.

     “Come on.” Wilson patted his leg.

     I got into his lap. I could smell only a slight hint of whiskey off his breath. Wilson’s stories were probably the reason for my linguistic disposition to the Southern drawl. Sometimes he pulled tall tales out of his ass or regurgitated old Hollywood plots he knew I hadn’t seen. Now and then, he’d tell a bona fide story from his childhood or a legend passed down from the ages. That particular night, he told me one of the strangest stories I’d ever heard.

      “Twenty years ago, things were different here. We had us a little Klan just outside of town. But not anymore, cause of Pedro Jones. Jones was a big young, black fella taller than his old man or any other man in town. He played a fierce game of football and mangled up some people bad. He was feared, and he wasn’t afraid of nothin’, especially not the Klan. But he had one weakness: girls. He found himself with a beautiful white farmer’s daughter, Amy Sue…”

     “The girl was Amy Sue in your last story,” I said.

     “It’s a common name. Anyhoo, him and Amy Sue was with each other near every night. He got to loving this girl and invested a considerable amount of his feelings in her. The farmer, her daddy, caught wind of this after nearly catching ‘em in the act, you know what I mean, and he went looking for the Klan. The Klan though, they can’t ever be trusted. They weren’t into right-violence, the playground toughness, protecting your kin and such. They were cowards who didn’t give a damn who they hurt, as long as blacks got the hurt in the end. Only thing set them off more than a black was a white girl who slept with blacks. They thought all the black men would take up all their white women and there wouldn’t be nothing left for ‘em.

     “The farmer asked them to help him out, but it was all wrong. The clan was afraid of Jones. He could’ve broken any of their skinny necks if he wanted to. And there was a rumor he wasn’t a bad shot either. The Klan was more angry at Amy Sue, since most of the johns in town had their eye on her. They decided it was more important to get back at her and make Jones hurt in his mind. They dragged her from the street one night, slashed her face with a razor and raped her. You know, when a man forces himself on a girl, he forces her with violence to have sex. That’s what your English daddy did to your mom.”

     As horrified as I was with the story, I was even angrier at Wilson. My mom never told me she was raped by an Englishman. I was red with confusion and contempt. All my fantasies of a great romance between my mom and a young Londoner dissipated into Wilson’s stale whiskey breath. Now I could have told you that from the get go, but I didn’t see much place for it as I’m no writer. The ball gets rolling and it won’t stop at times. Plus I’m still not so sure Wilson was telling me the truth that night. For some reason I just kept listening to his twisted story. If I took a swing at him, he’d have smacked me and then argued all night with my mom. I was tired of those sleepless nights.

     “The Klan bashed her down so bad, the next day she hung herself in her daddy’s barn, writing a letter to Jones before she did it,” he said. “But you see the Klan thought they broke Jones, but Jones was just set off. He went out into the kudzu one night and asked to see the devil. Old stretch come up from the depths and asked him what he wanted. Jones told him what he planned to do, and he told the devil he needed to be exempt from death for a few days. So the devil took his soul out and put it in a coffee can and buried it in the dirt. Then he filled Jones with the powers of hell and he went and killed Amy’s daddy and every last Klan member he could find. But he lived the rest of his life cursed, living in prison, cause he couldn’t find his soul in that coffee can anywhere.”

     I was too pissed off about what he said about my mom to listen to the final leg of his story. I just sat there wanting to kill him and after he finished I tore off into the kudzu. Wilson didn’t come after me. He just strolled up to the liquor store and did what he did best. I ran off crying, as you can guess, and hid myself in the woods.

     This is finally where all this squalid stuff brings me, the final ugly, upshot of my own goddamn story. This is where it all turned. They’ve got my pictures up in galleries now and on the covers of books and movies sometimes when the directors and writers pay me. They look at all my shit, my alligator songs, and they talk about what they think it all means when they don’t know anymore than I do. But they won’t ever see my first alligator song. I keep it hidden away in my desk next to my revolver. No one should ever see my first alligator song.

     I was crying in the woods and kicking sticks across the ground. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother and the possibility of her rape. I couldn’t get Wilson’s cruel little story out of my head. I couldn’t do anything till I came up to the creek and saw what I couldn’t un-see. I always figured the driver of that truck had done Lizzy in and thrown her body in that creek. She looked like somebody had fed her to an alligator and it was creeping up in the water to tear off a chunk and give her the death roll any minute. I lifted my camera and snapped a photo. I had the police come down that night, but I never told anyone that I took that picture, till now.

     That’s about all I have to say about myself. You pretty much know everything there is to know about me that’s in any way interesting. I know this story is dark and gross, but I can’t change the past. I don’t know how good this write up is. They always said I was slow in school. I guess it doesn’t matter as long as I’ve been honest. I’ve been looking at that photo of Lizzy the whole time I’ve been writing this, and I think I’m gonna stop now so I can go burn finally. I’m gonna light a cigarette and burn this thing in the ashtray on my porch. The only thing that’s gonna live on are these words, and even that I’m not too sure about.
 
 

Connor de Bruler has written short stories for Southern Gothic Shorts, Death's Head Grin, Dabblestone Horror, The Horror Zine and The New Flesh, to name a few. He lives in South Carolina.

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