(August 1969—somewhere in western Carolina)

Zach points at the path in a cornfield as if I can’t see it. His conceited smile don’t belong to me or his mother. Just a little flicker on his lip with his mouth jumping like he’s about to laugh in my face. But I hold off this time. I stay in control. I watch the road. It’s summer so the weeds are high and the road’s so narrow the truck just fits and the cornstalks screech like alley cats scraping along the fenders. A half-mile on there’s a barbed wire gate with “NO TRESPASSING” scrawled on a pie tin but the gate’s wide open.

He don’t look enough like me to claim him but by law he’s mine. In the first place I’m big and thick and round, lots of muscle bunched into my shoulders and thighs, a fat ass, a strong jaw, a fleshy nose broken twice. Zach don’t have a whiff of me. He looks entirely like her, as if he don’t have no father. He’s blond, thin, and delicate with a baby face that she would say is because of his good nature but any man can see he’s just plain soft. And his eyelashes are long and wavy like a girl and his lips are bowed like hers, curving upward with a notch in his upper lip. With him there I can’t get away from thinking of her. It’s like I’m stuck babysitting her double.

We pull on by a pond with ducks and chickens scattered around the shore. The pond is all green slime and garbage. Three junk cars crouch in the briars. Nearby under a tree two fat collies sleep and when we pass near them they wag their tails, raise their snouts, and sniff the air.

I shouldn’t be here. I should wear some suit and run a company. I should take orders over the phone. I should wear dress shoes. But I’m the truck driver and jack-of-all-trades because Zach can’t work a clutch. The heavy lifting is on me since he’s mostly prancing off to college. That’s if I even get a load because these days it’s just tough to make one—beef is prepackaged and shipped to the big retail markets from places like Denver or Ft. Worth. So I truck a load of marijuana—a hundred pounds. I front Zach five hundred bucks and he buys off a professor who grows his crops in a greenhouse somewhere up in the east Carolina tobacco fields.

I top the load with a box of prime top sirloin in case we need to bribe a cop.

Because I need to make a living. Me, I keep plunging ahead since going back ain’t the way blood runs. Life goes one way. But convince sweet Jill with her nose powdered white and pointing in the air. It’s over, and she’s out the door. The way she sees husbands, we ain’t more than money machines. She wants to tour Europe just to see buildings.

*

Lynette, the girl Zach’s with, plunks down on his lap and they sit squeezed in the seat, heads backed against the windshield, her long flowery skirt draping over their legs. I swear they look like bugs copulating in a rose bush but I don’t even get a chuckle when I tell them.

“This is it—this is the Colony.” Zach speaks like a tour guide. He thinks he knows life when he ain’t lived much. “The home of the five teenage Christs,” he says, real sure of himself.

Five Christs! I’ll be goddamn—it’s like a corpse with a whitewashed two-story farmhouse sticking in its heart.

Way back, he cried in his cereal bowl because I poured cold milk. Jill raised him to be “the prince of wails” and I tell you he has no idea. And that slut of a girl he’s with could be some skinny version of a stripper I saw in Trenton, New Jersey—a strawberry blonde famous for high heels and paper towels. She’d peel the wet towels one by one.

This girl looks just as cheap, only with better teeth.

*

I park us in the shade between an old station wagon with its hood up and a van with painted daisies on the hood. Some fat cowboy in a straw hat and a western shirt is putting a quart of oil in the wagon’s crankcase and when I pull in, he puts up his hand as a stop sign—a small white hand that never saw no work. “What gives,“ I says, making my voice friendly but not too friendly.

“This space is taken. You can’t park here,” he says.

“I don’t see no cars and I don’t see no signs, do you?” I look both ways to show him I’m trying real hard to see what he sees. On either side of the woods there are open fields empty as prairie. “I don’t see nobody but me parked here,” I says.

The cowboy stamps a boot toe on my running board. He leans near my window. He shows me his face, his big hat slanted and low. He’s got small eyes all fuzzy like they have lint in the pupils, a sunburnt nose, and a fat man’s weak chin. He takes off his straw hat and waves it at the flies so I see his greasy black hair, greasy like somebody poured soap on it, soap that stinks of vinegar or some barroom condiment. He takes a peek at Lynette and scratches his ear.

“This is the owner’s space,” he says. “When he shows up, it’s for him. It’s the best shade.”

“There’s good shade all over,” I says.

“The owner is Edgar Allen Posner, and this is his space,” he says.

I suppose that should mean something but I don’t state the obvious: Who the hell is Edgar Allen Posner? “He’s a famous writer,” Zach says as if he’s read my mind. I shut off the engine and without looking swing my door so the cowboy has to step back or get whacked in the knees. “Are we here to see the Posner guy?” I says.

Zach’s listening now and Lynette’s off on cloud sixteen.

“We’re here for Charlie,” Zach says. “Charlie Malloy. You know him?”

“This is the Colony, man,” the cowboy says. “Everyone knows everyone.”

“Jesus Christ!” I says.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,“ Lynette says the cheap trash she is. “Especially around here.”

But the cowboy don’t pay her attention. “Who wants to know?“ he says.

“Don’t give me no bullshit,” I says. “I don’t like it.”

“We drove a hundred miles to see Charlie Malloy,” Zach says.

“Never heard of em,” he says and he gives me a liar’s grin.

He starts toward the farmhouse. My horn blast makes the fence wire hum.

The cowboy turns around. He ain’t smiling. He’s squinting. ”Lay off the big horn, man. I got jangled nerves.”

I plunge it a second time. His cheeks turn red and he holds his ears.

Lynette shrieks and Zach grabs my arm. He should be stronger but he ain’t. I shrug him off easy.

The night he brought the load in a U-Haul trailer I wanted to call the cops. Instead we got talking, me figuring the money we could make and him talking up the spiritual benefits. Spiritual benefits, those were his words. He thinks pot is mind-expanding, which I suppose is his way of saying smoking has made him smarter but I’d say it hasn’t paid off. We smoked some too and I saw it was harmless stuff—potent as three-point beer. It made him talk my ear off. I agreed. Because of that no-good woman, I was drowning in debt.

I press down and count ten. The moose horn bellows through the woods.

“You need to learn the ways of the Tao,” Zach says.

“What the hell you talking about,” I says.

*

The farmhouse door groans as it swings wide and a dozen longhairs tumble out the doorway, blinking like they were waked from a nap. Christ on a crutch, these kids are skin and bones because they been starving themselves. They eat nothing but vegetables and vegetables don’t stick to the ribs. And too much turns your eyeballs green.

I count twelve with greasy hair and scrubbed faces. No green eyeballs though they sure could use a steak. The girls are pink as lilies; the boys are bed sheet white.

“My ears won’t stop ringing,” Lynette says.

Charlie Malloy has a big dumb smile and right away I see he’s no college petunia. He’s a hard-looking ex-marine with a broad face and square jaw. His black brows dip down so he’s got no hairline to speak of. His hair is raked straight back. He struts around in suspenders and sticks out his chin.

“You bring what you said?”

“It’s all here in the truck, the whole shebang,” Zach calls out his window. “This is my new girl, Lynette.”

“Hi Charlie, pleased to meet you.” Lynette wiggles half out, her ass sticking in Zach’s face while she looks around. Through the window she’s got a view of the weeds. “What a place this is!” Like she found heaven. “I heard all about the Colony...The Five Christs, I mean...I can’t hardly believe that I’m finally here,” she says.

“That so.” Charlie’s face don’t change when he looks at me. “Who the hell are you?”

He stares straight at me and I look right through him like he’s window glass.

“That’s my father,” Zach says. “We’re partners in the deal.”

“I’m his boss and his father,” I says. “We ain’t partners. I’m Al Fish.”

“You believe in the Five Christs?” Charlie says.

”Maybe I miscounted but I thought there was only one,” I says. He searches my eyes, figuring me. I let him know by the hard way I look back I’m no pushover.

“Just pull the truck behind the house so we can unload,” he says.

“I don’t need you to direct me,” I says.

“I’m just telling you the easiest place to unload. Be cool.”

“I’ll cool you,” I says.

“Take it easy, Pop.” Zach says. “He’s a friend.”

“A friend,” I says. “I didn’t think you had friends like him. I thought everyone you knew was some four-eyed college kid with buffalo sandals. This guy don’t fit. Where’d you discover him?”

“I didn’t mean nothing. Peace, my brother,” Charlie says. ”You should meet the Five.”

“The Five,” I says. “What the hell is the Five?”

“You should meet them, Pop. You really should,” Zach says. “It would do you good.”

Lynette keeps looking. “They’re all I ever think about anymore,” she says. “It’s all that really makes sense anymore.”

I don’t go into it with them. I back the truck out and bring it around to the storm cellar. On the turn I make sure to cut close to Charlie’s left foot. He mouths some words under his breath. He looks and I look and maybe I show him a little piece of a grin.

The other guy, the fat cowboy, gets lots of dust.

“Your dad’s crazy,” Lynette says. “He might run somebody down. He might kill them.”

“It’s alright, honey. I’m not going to let that happen,” Zach says. ”I got everything under control—he promised me he would be cool and one thing I’m sure of when it comes to my dad is that he does what he says.”

“You trying to sound like a big shot for the little lady?” I says.

“Don’t call me that,” Lynette says.

“You scared ’em okay,” Zach says.

“You’re so crazy weird,“ Lynette says. “You’re freaking me out.”

I try a joke but she don’t bite.

“I don’t like nothing dirty,” she says.

*

Malloy and the cowboy go off somewhere and I go around to the cargo and unlock the door. I climb the ladder into the box where the ten crates are stacked three tiers high, a little machine in the ceiling blowing cold air over them. A bulb throws dingy light against the bare steel walls.

Charlie comes back pushing a wheelbarrow. Maybe I misread him. I unload the crates and he hauls them away. Zach don’t raise a hand but he watches close enough. Lynette don’t even watch. I have a big talk with the two of them.

“You’re supposed to get paid to do work,” I says.

“By the way my new name’s Adriana,” she says.

“Adriana’s a great name,” Zach says.

“What’s that, an alias? No fooling, you better be eighteen,” I says. ”Or I ain’t going to let you haul around doing statutory rape with him in every county,” I says.

“Take it easy. I’m twenty-two,” she says. “You don’t know a freaking thing about me. I work part-time at the mill. Run a cross-stitch machine for men’s athletic socks. I just look real young.”

“As long as you’re no minor. Because that would be statutory and then I’ll see to it that Zach here is up the creek.”

“Mister, I’m no minor. I work the mill.”

She leans against his shoulder and he puts his chin deep into her hair. That hair is something—all wild and red like flaming strawberry. They’re whispering.

“Pop’s in the meat business,” Zach says. Like that’s a crime.

“The meat business pays for college,” I says.

“College, you go to college?” she says, like it’s some big deal, like he discovered America. “That’s what I was saving up for before everything.”

“I never guessed you thought about college,” he says.

“I don’t know why everyone thinks because I work in a mill I don’t know nothing.”

“I don’t think that,” he says. “I just thought maybe you had other plans.”

I swear he’s cooing. I says, “So long as you ain’t no minor.”

“Mister, I already told you I’m not no freaking kid. I already had two baby girls!”

“Two babies,” Zach says. Like that’s an achievement.

“Shows you how dumb he is,” I says. “Because we all know it don’t take no brains to have kids. It takes brains not to have them, especially when some woman traps you into marrying.”

“That’s my father’s story,” Zach says.

“But I ain’t never married,” she says and yanks her dress up to show her stomach. Her stretch marks spread all over like white vines. “You see? It was a hard delivery, and I was all alone.”

“I would sure like to kiss you,” Zach says. “For your hard life.”

“I would too honey but we probably need to wait ’til we figure the seating arrangement or get where we’re going.”

“Sure, no rush,” Zach says. “But I feel bad for everything that’s happened to you.”

“I appreciate that,” she says.

*

Later on, Charlie Malloy says, ”You look like you need a drink. I got a canteen of lemonade and it’s almost cold.”

“Sure, I’ll drink your lemonade, son.“ I’m standing there under a tree waiting to get paid.

“If you got something to pour it in,” he says. ”The Colony ain’t keen on glassware.”

“Glassware,” I says. “You must of been a barkeep sometime in your life. Only a barkeep would call it glassware. I keep a cup in the glove box for such occasions,” I says and climb up in the cab to get it.

“I was a barkeep in another life,” he says. “Till I got reformed.” He pours like a barkeep would and I swig it down. It’s sugary stuff but it puts out the fire. “I bummed around a long time before I found myself here and it’s all thanks to the Five. They made me see that a barkeep’s life was no life.”

“Well barkeep, you have electricity and plumbing in this place?”

“Sure we got electricity. But only the poet’s bungalow up in the forest has plumbing.”

“That’s the guy who owns the parking space.”

“Yah, him. Edgar Allen Posner. He wrote a book—Psalms of the Great Unwashed. I never read it. Books are dead anyway. They don’t have no future. Words are dead on the page like tombstones in a cemetery.”

“I don’t read much myself except the sports,” I says.

“Keep that barkeep stuff under your hat. I don’t want them kids around here to think I don’t come from the place they do,” he says. “It might put them off if they knew I once had a rough side.”

“Sure, it’s all right with me,” I says.

Charlie plants himself in the doorway, thumbing his suspenders. He hands me his canteen. The canteen is all shiny chrome—a full quart bottle that must cost thirty dollars. His lemonade makes me feel like there’s a school of fish swimming in my stomach.

“How would you like to get out of the sun?” he says.” You come in and toke up. Meet the house. Meet the Five.”

“Pot don’t affect me,” I says.” Pay me so I can get on the road.” I says. “I didn’t come here for religion,“ I says. “So don’t talk to me, because I ain’t interested in heaven. The way I see, this is as close as you get.”

Zach and Lynette look embarrassed but they don’t say nothing. The girl’s all lit up on marijuana and Zach is on a mental vacation.

“He’s okay, Charlie, really,” he says after a while.

“No he’s not okay,” Lynette says. ”Don’t trust anything he says. I mean, he just has that mean look, like he’s a powder keg.” “That drink should take him for a ride,” Charlie says.

He’s wrong, of course. I don’t feel a thing. It’s all a matter of will, I say. If you believe someone can overpower your mind than it will happen. I’m a citadel. I look at the sky like Lynette’s up there with the clouds. I don’t show nothing because when women make their minds there’s no changing them.

Charlie says, ”Go around to the storm cellar—they’ll let you in there. Have some cider and a plate of beans. You should get to know how we live.”

“I don’t eat beans. I’m no Mexican,” I says. “And I ain’t interested in your life. I’ll just wait here and you collect the money you owe me and we’ll be gone.”

“You’re so uptight, man,” Charlie says. “You need to cool it for a while. Take in the vibe.”

“He means well, Charlie,” Zach says. “Honest, I wouldn’t of brought him if I thought he’d be trouble.”

“That’s my truck,” I says right to Charlie. “And I brought twenty top sirloins as a good faith throw-in. Prime beef.... Can you give me a drink of plain water in a clean glass and pay up so I can get back on the road?”

“Sure. Good faith, Brother.” Charlie says, but I know he don’t mean it. I can just feel in my bones he don’t. “If you want some water, there’s a faucet on the side of the house,” he says, “and you got your own cup.”

“I’m not coming inside,” I says. “And I’m not waiting around.”

Zach says, “We were thinking, Lynette and I, that we might stay.”

I should have guessed he’d be taken in. Let him have the experience, I say. It’s cheaper than his college tuition. Now I happen to carry a pistol in my coat. She’s an army .45 bought years ago for hijackers, but Zach don’t like the idea and when he sees me fidgeting around in my pockets he says, “The world is different now. If a man’s so hungry he’s forced to steal food, I say let him take it. The old ideas of nations protecting themselves behind fortress walls can’t work in 1969. We’re a global village. We perish if we don’t put down our arms and pull together...”

“That sounds like they’re teaching you communism,” I says. ”Does the governor know?”

“Communism is an economic philosophy,” he says. “And the governor’s a jerk. I’m talking about joining together for peace and brotherhood. Being good to your neighbor, loving one another. Like the Beatles say, ‘Love is all there is.’”

“Oh really,“ I says. “Is that a fact? You ain’t even been married once. When you’re married a few times then you come back here and tell me about loving. Then we’ll compare notes, buddy boy.”

*

They go around the house and leave me there. Maybe I expect too much. Sure, I was raised as a man. And him, I blame Jill. She makes the fish in my gut swim that much harder like they’re going upstream to spawn.

Malloy goes for the money. The grass on the lawn looks like leafy yellow seaweed. The door slams. The bolt slides in place like it’s lock and load. I’m surprised they got one because Look Magazine says hippies don’t lock their houses. I read they believe there’s no such thing as property. Or marriage either. They believe anyone can screw anyone whenever the hell they want. I read in the Digest that in San Francisco everyone screws everyone as a round-robin sport.

I drink from the faucet. I smoke a cigar with the doors open in the truck. A breeze runs across the truck’s metal skin, hot from cooking in the sun. Cigar smoke floats around my head like clots of dust. And it’s like the whole world is laughing and whooping in the house. Guitar music and thick sweet smoke drifting my way. I think about shooting down the door. I can see the spray of bullets, the red splatter everywhere, and the words to say. But as time passes, I’m sitting there without moving.

They all could be asleep.

Hell, that lemonade was spiked. In the side mirror, I see how dog-eared and miserable my face is.

The mirror shows some old bum with his earlobes curling, his jawline sagging, and his teeth yellow and crooked. Hell, that can’t be me. There must be some mistake, and it sure feels like I fell asleep in a movie and woke with the credits rolling and the house empty. I sit there watching the credits roll. I have no idea how things turn out.

I smoke a cigar and eat chips. I always keep a bag for a bad time. Salty chips. I spread out the Daily News and read sports. Sports don’t mean nothing but I don’t want to shut down. I lie on my back but I don’t want to sleep away no time. I want to be awake for everything before closing.

Those two collies smell the chips and nose around my pocket, and to get them the hell away I feed them some and they roll over with their mouths grinning, their long pink tongues licking their teeth. I stare into their brown human eyes and give them a good belly rub. They seem sort of lonely searching around all day for a human friend. Close up in the grass I see the bumblebees like I never see, their big black stripes like prisoners’ uniforms.

Some time goes by, though I couldn’t say how long, and there I am blinking into a dark as hard as sheet metal thinking I’m dreaming, half-blind, or maybe even dead. I whirl through the life I had and the memories I’d like to dump on the side of the road. I just can’t bring myself to let the whole thing go. I remember massaging Jill by the shoulders and pressing my fingers into her curls. I swear I tasted menthol on her breath every time I kissed her, but when I told her she said she wished I said roses because she loved them and our last time in Florida, remembering she said roses, I gave her a rose corsage before we went dancing. She had me wear my blue suit that night and she had on a low-cut dress. We went out in a rented convertible and turned up a swing dance place in an alley on the strip. A six-piece orchestra played old standards. Jill liked the foxtrot and she liked old tunes. The trouble was I can’t dance to save my life. So I wind up mashing her toes. She wears diamond earrings like a movie star and she loses one when I clobber her foot. She swears like a truck driver and then people look for her earring and ask if she played in films, but she laughs them away with that throaty voice that means she has a few cocktails under her belt.

*

Inside the farmhouse I hear bursts of groggy singing. Like some kind of church hymn but more like a drone. The smell of wet straw in the pasture cools me off.

In the hotel lobby that awful night we have a knockdown drag-out and I tell her where to go. I tell her I carried her picture in my helmet liner during the war. I tell her she is the only one I ever loved.

This is a mistake because she laughs, she really has a fit, and says a sweaty helmet is no refined place for her picture. “Refined”—that’s what she says. So I see red and rip her gown so her boobs pop out. She has a lacy black bra because she expected it was going to be a special night. And it was in some way—glimpsing her bare jugs before she rushed away. I go out to smoke, laughing my ass off. I walk on the beach most of the night because if I go back, I could strangle her.

She said she had married a damn fool. That I live in my own world, that I think people are trying to break in, but in truth no one is except her and she needs help or she is giving up. She had enough of being on the outside feeling like a thief.

I wake, my stomach at high tide, thinking she’s there. I feel her menthol breath as if she’s stroking my thigh in the dark whispering so many sweet words. I’m caught in some dream. Then it’s night and I hear someone running, trampling the brush, running hard. I jump up and reach for the pistol—my fingers turn up pocket lint. No pistol. My head is whirling. I search the newspapers and claw the grass. The pistol is gone and someone took it.

I head for the farmhouse. The moon is up high and full, reflecting in the big dizzy windows and the tin roof so I see pretty good. I run right past those chickens through the dark hunting that thief. Then I see the ducks and Zach out there by the pond and Lynette coming up behind him with the hem of her dress drooping around her ankles and her bare shoulders shining and her arms wrapped tight squeezing her boobs. I’m almost at the farmhouse door, that far away, but I keep coming. It’s feels like the air is so thick I’m swimming through it. I yell stop but they don’t even look. They glide right past me, floating like shadows, flying straight for the water. Moonlight sparkles like broken glass and the mud smells like moldy socks. Zach waves the pistol in my general direction. I think he might shoot but he flips it in the air then drops it into the pond. The splash is bright silver. I hear the pistol calling my name from the bottom of the lake.

*

But I don’t go after it then. I want them that stole it to help. Their door is sturdy, made from thick oak boards which is a surprise since everything else here seems flimsy. I slam my shoulder into them. I hear the hinges creak but nothing gives. My shoulder begins to throb then, and pain shoots from my backbone through the bones in my wrist. I see lights like flashbulbs popping all different colors which renders me blind for a moment and then it clears and I yell for someone to open the door.

I know they hear me—there’s whispering inside, their feet tramping on the floors. I bang the door with my fists. If I have to, I might smoke them out using my Daily News as a torch, shoving it under the door.

I put my mouth up to the keyhole. I yell. The latch rattles and the door opens. The smell of charred meat mixes with stale smoke. A flashlight bobs across the doorway and the door closes. The shadow and the flashlight streak together and the light in my eyes tapers into a long narrow beam sharp as a spear point. “I’m Fortune,” the voice behind the strip of light says. There’s a small girl there and she’s standing with her knees bent, balancing a platter of food on her head. She angles the light so I can just make out her face and offers me the food. By the looks of her she’s not eating three squares a day.

“We don’t eat meat, but we thought you would.”

“Yah, I enjoy a good steak,” I says. “That’s prime American sirloin you’re serving up. Best steak money can buy. Brought them myself...Say where’d you learn to balance with your head?”

“We fed most of the steaks to the dogs,” she says. “We didn’t know what to do with them.”

“Sure,” I say. “What could any sane person do with steaks besides eat them?”

“We don’t have utensils,” she says. ”I learned in Guatemala to eat without them and that’s where I learned to balance.”

“Guatemala,” I says. “That’s a long way to go to learn how to balance a tray,“ I says. I hold my knife out. “You want to try some? You’d like it. Eat off the blade.”

Her eyes get shiny like dimes. “You wouldn’t hurt anyone?” she says.

“Of course I wouldn’t. You should try,” I says. I call her dollface for the hell of it. “You’re freakin’ stoned.” She sounds gleeful and I’m too dragged out to argue the point.

For no reason I can tell, she points the light through the tree branches out toward the pond, then whirls the beam up at the sky. The shadows stretch across the lawn, thick black shapes that don’t make no more sense than she does. Maybe she’s hungry or maybe she sees the whole bunch of them looking out the windows but when I look there’s nothing but flecks of moonlight and those crazy shadows.

She hands me the tray and I look at those two scorched sirloins lying dead on the plate and I don’t feel much like eating. The steak’s tough as shoe leather and my jaw grinds like a dry bearing.

“How can you eat a living thing?” She watches me chew and waits there, scrunched up with her legs folded under. It’s like she don’t want to take up much room in the world.

“Charlie owes me. Would you tell him?” I says.

Me tell him,” she says. “Nobody listens to me. I’m just somebody to clean. You wouldn’t tell nobody I said that,” she says. “You look too nice to.”

“I won’t say nothing,” I says. ”Especially when somebody stole something I own.”

“I didn’t do it.”

“I didn’t say you,” I says. ”I says somebody. I ain’t out to hurt no girl.”

“No, you wouldn’t. You’re a loser like me. They make me do the housework. You’d share. They’re selfish. That’s what the men do here—it’s like slavery.”

“I’m no loser,” I says.

Up close she looks thirty, thirty-five, like her face is old. Then again it might be wishful thinking because hell how can you stop thinking about it when it’s going on all around you.

I put the plate and cup down and she waits. She waits and she might be in a trance—it’s hard to know. There’s a shine in her eyes; her mouth is shut tight like a gate. Her breathing is loud, no mistaking that. She breathes so hard her nostrils flare like a galloping racehorse. She moves right up to me on her hands and knees and presses down. I can see she’s got a scar on her head, a gash like teeth marks. “By myself out here,” she whispers and I feel warm breath flood my ear. “Don’t have a boyfriend and never made love to a stranger before.”

Maybe this is a mistake and maybe later I’ll regret it like so many things I did. I can walk now. That would end it. I can be more careful later or more careful now. In fact, I stand there a damn long time like I’m in a cathouse and I’m pulling my pud.

“You don’t have a rubber?”

“No, I don’t have one but even if I did it wouldn’t be the right thing,” I says.

She unbuttons her dress. She wrestles the dress off her shoulders. When she gets halfway her little pink boobs peek through the shadows, the nipples like buds.

“This is beautiful,” she says, turning in a circle to show off her back. She’s got smooth, shiny skin and a spine like a mackerel.

They say hot women show everything. I wish I thought so. You get their flaws, their faces, everything they never say. Most have good faces and bad ones—you see them as night beauties in the bedroom and then like they are before breakfast with their mouths big with oatmeal but they never say nothing, nothing you can listen to. They have moments when they’re old hags and you see that too.

But Fortune’s don’t reveal nothing. And she don’t move her face like a woman who wants kissing. I don’t kiss her because I can’t see how to. I’m not cautious; I just can’t find the handle. Sure, I want to, even if I’m thinking about Zach drowning my gun. I go in and out before deciding, and before I decide, her face melts like an aspirin tablet in water. She moans and I shut my eyes and think of Jill.

In the damp grass we watch the moon skim through the treetops, the light scrape across the pond.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Jill says in a faraway voice, like we’ve just seen a movie on our backs.

I feel real gloomy watching the moon but I suck it up and grunt some nice words. I put on my clothes and Jill rubs between her legs and pulls on her underpants. She combs grass and twigs from her hair and buttons her dress. “Don’t be so bummed out,” she says, kissing me on the cheek. “I wasn’t expecting much.”

Her voice tinkles like an ice cream bell. Then she stops talking.

“Did you take something from me? “I says. “Something very big.”

“What would I take?” she says. “You got any grass?”

“They stole all the grass I have. It’s in the house,” I says.

“You want to try again?” she says.

“No thanks, I had enough. Come around tomorrow if I’m still here.”

“If you don’t want to spend the night with me, I’m going,” she says. ”I’m getting eaten up by these freaking mosquitoes.”

She walks away, swaying her hips like some sexy little girl in the movies but I don’t chase after her the way movie heroes do. I let her go, slapping at the mosquitoes, dragging herself through the weeds.

*

She complained I was always dreaming—dreaming of small things—and I answered her, raising my voice like I always did when she got under my skin, that everything was a dream of forever to her. Big or small was no different because beyond that was the damn world, and for me and her, the end of the world too.

Zach comes around and he’s got Lynette tagging along. She has a big friendly look, and braces on her teeth are gleaming, and Indian bracelets on her wrists make a lot of noise. She reaches over to touch my fingers and we almost touch below the waist before I realize what’s she’s doing. Good thing Zach never sees what’s going on.

“Good morning, Mister,” she says as if Zach’s her prom date.

“They’re afraid of you,” Zach says.

“They got reasons to be,” I says.

“They don’t have money and they’re practically starving. They’re waiting for Edgar Allen Posner. He’s the money man around here. Charlie offered to give it back if we couldn’t wait. I said no,” he says. ”Because I believe in the cause and I want to support them. Peace and love,” he says.

“Peace and love!” I roar back at him. “You giving them every goddamn thing free. Free!” I says. I’m so mad I’m shaking. “I want to get paid,” I says.

“The money don’t matter,” Zach says.

“I know who stole my .45,” I says. “It was you... I seen you...I want it back... I want it back before something happens,” I says.

“It wasn’t me who took it, Pop,” he says. “Honest, whoever took it threw it in the lake.”

“Don’t give me no bullshit. You go roll up your pants and trawl that pond. You stole what was mine and you get it back. Then we’ll go get the money.”

“I can’t,” he says. He sticks out his chin like he’s put one over. ”They say the pond is bottomless.”

“This is turning into a screwed up deal,” I says. “What’s with this rich guy?”

“You mean Edgar Allen? Who knows?”

Lynette says, “You’re a creep!”

Zach must like a woman fighting his battles. He gets dreamy-eyed.

“I gave them some ounces to tie them over,” he says. “They’re broke but they think we should give the stuff away at rock concerts. Free nickel bags for a free society.

I says, “I need that money. I need to pay bills.”

“I can get student loans.” he says. “They don’t even have enough money to buy macrobiotic food. They’re eating plain boiled vegetables. Potatoes without sour cream. No money even for ketchup.”

“I guess they’re too proud to eat my steaks though. They fed the dogs.”

“Get with it, Pop,” he says, like I’m slow. “Nobody eats meat around here. Edgar Allen Posner believes red meat releases aggressive toxins. Meat encourages violence and war.”

“Violence and war! Who don’t eat meat?” I says.

“Lots of people.” he says.

I says, “If you’re really hungry you’d eat garbage or rawhide shoelaces or cardboard.”

“Please don’t yell,” Lynette says. She complains about yelling when she’s yelling herself.

“You’re frightening her,” Zach says.

I bang my fist on the door and when no one answers I force it. I work my clasp knife in to pry the hinges. I can’t stand no more. I work the blade under the lock and the screws and those brass hinges tear away from the frame. Inside there’s one skinny lamp and the air is smoky and sweet smelling. Electric music squeaks from an old phonograph.

What a dump. No one cares.

*

I step over sleeping bodies. They sleep like the dead around here. They age quick. Everyone has gone to hell. It’s a long room with flower wallpaper yellowing and water stained. In the second room I find Malloy stretched out on a couch. He’s eating a bowl of Cheerios and he’s in his underwear with a long leather vest over his drawers.

I pull the front of his shirt. The bowl goes flying and the shirt tears off in my hand. I throw him down and his head bangs on the floor. “You owe me money.”

“Money,” he says and those big eyebrows flutter nervous-like up around his forehead.

“You do right by me,” I says.

“Get your foot off my neck,” he says.

I hold him by his ankles, pull him through the doorway and down the steps. By then everyone in the house is awake, clattering around. I can see them hovering or sprawled out on mattresses.

“You guys need to help me,” Charlie says.

It’s the girls who come after me—brave hippie girls, shirtless and barefoot, the brave ones like tigers whose boobs shake like potatoes in a sack. But I don’t hear their screams since I’m not there. I’m somewhere else, some past time crouched in a ditch and whistling at the rain. I can hear my heart banging and my blood squirting between my ears. I don’t hear them swear.

I only hear Charlie pleading when I squeeze his throat. “We aren’t going to let this redneck get away with stealing from the Colony, are we?”

From far away I hear myself speaking muffled words. “You promised money, “ is all I hear myself say, flying high above them on the rim of the world. There’s sunburn on their earlobes, spigots of hair sprouting from their tanned skulls. The sun reflects gold specks in the chimney flashing. People move in waves of glistening wet bare feet, their slender noses like prows of old ships poking out from their faces. I see them coming at me, so sure of themselves, the rightness of everything they do.

“It’s just one of those things,” Charlie says. “We’re broke.”

I crash to earth like a dud bomb. My left cheek throbs in the tempo of a foxtrot orchestra. I can hear birds whistling and hens by the pond babbling like the endless sound of words. I glimpse Charlie on his back staring at me. He looks frightened. He’s got a mark on his forehead, a red starburst above his eye. Those are teeth marks, for chrissake, and ten of those brave girls waving tree limbs are coming at me, and dollars to doughnuts, the grunting like a one-cylinder engine on half choke is Zach and Lynette off in the woods. He’s taken up with that girl. I know he’s going to leave me. They’ll camp out in the woods. They’ll live on love. Hell, love ain’t something to live on. That’s how his mother and I started though I have my doubts we started with him. A true son would stand by me. I could tell by the shape of his face more like an egg than a potato.

I let Charlie go and he narrows his eyes and looks sad. “It’s ours man. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours,” he says. It’s Zachariah’s gift. He believes in our New World Vision. He gets us.” “I see only what’s there,” I say.

Then one of the brave ones, some curly-headed babe barks, “Ownership is Capitalism...Capitalism is death.” She puts her face close to me as if she wants me to kiss her, but the vicious shine in her eyes is hate.

“Abolish property,” someone hollers.

I just look at them. I look at them all. Let them choke on their words. Let their words poison their lives. It don’t matter what they say because this is a scene from the movie I slept through. Shouting and band music—the noise keeps coming. Inside my head they’re crashing a party. They’re having a bad fight and they’re yelling.

“You should leave,” a bearded kid whispers. He looks like a sixteen-year-old Christ in a bathrobe.

“Go,” another, taller Christ barks. “Before this becomes a bad scene.”

But I think this is a bad scene.

Now there are five Christs of different shapes and colors, like they escaped some dream. It feels like I’m smoking marijuana—nothing is new but everything seems special. They prance on the balls of their feet like thoroughbred racehorses. They slink like big cats. They ooze like molasses. But they’re only humans. They’re just clear-eyed boys the same as Zach with the same open faces full of hope. One has brown skin like burnt toast, and curly yellow hair like flaxseed. He wears farmers’ overalls. Another one, who is tall with black corkscrew curls and pink cheeks, wears striped prison pajamas. There are twins with blond Chinese eyes, and a skinny Mexican Christ wrapped in a blanket.

I take a step but I’m blocked by that curly-headed bitch. She’s got big shoulders and big breasts. Through her gauzy blouse, I can see the outline of her nipples like bunches of red grapes. I never hit a woman but if I ever would I’d choose her first. She takes one swing with a big straw satchel and misses, stumbling backward. She swings again and the satchel slams into my leg. “Make love not war,’ she says, but the way she growls it seems she means the opposite.

She starts up a thin little chant and the five young Christs join in.

“Make love not war, love not war...”

I head out to the woods and at the last second I get this bright idea. I veer off and head into the field—down toward the blackberry thicket and past some chicken coops. I make for the shining green water of the pond. The hard edge of daylight stretches out over the trees and everything turns from silver to gray hazy smoke. By the water’s edge the rings of algae are thick as cheesecloth, and out in the middle where the surface is glass, the light ricochets off the water. Soapy green foam boils up under my trousers. It sounds like a murmuring voice. My drowning gun calls me from the lake bottom, saying my name. Heat lightning flashes in my eyes. I slosh into the water. I watch those ducks huddled in circles and the hens on shore on high alert cackling like hysterical women. Later it will storm a big heavy gust of weather. Charlie, who must think he’s invincible to electrocution, takes cover under a tree and watches me but he don’t come no closer. In fact the whole damn bunch is probably watching and it’s so warm, a soapy sweat runs down my forehead, and the slugs crawling up my socks leave a sticky trail like paste in the creases. I don’t let on though—I say let them be surprised. Because none of them would be me. None of them have my grit. They’re life’s bystanders. I just plunge right in like I’m going for a swim, my trousers soaking up the black water while I make for the deep part where the pistol has to be.

But my soggy clothes make me too heavy to float. I can’t search out the pistol because the pond water’s so dark. I sink in the mud, I touch bottom, I keep sinking. The water reaches my armpits. I dog-paddle for all I’m worth but my legs cramp and I stand there sinking like a lead weight and mud sucks over my shoes. The black water comes up to my chin. Standing on my toes, I’m spitting up muddy scum and the first rain drops spatter on my face. It’s all muck and I’m sinking in deep, sure as hell I am, and here comes Charlie Malloy leading the way with a rope on his shoulder grinning like sunshine and wading in behind the five Christs, bare-chested now with their arms reaching out to me, their soft faces girl-like with tears like they hope to save my soul, their soft pink mouths curled up with sympathy when their voices singing high chilling notes call me by the wrong name, some damn name they must think belongs to me.

GEORGE CHIEFFET received his MFA from UNC-Greensboro, studying with Fred Chappell, Robert Watson, Allen Tate, and Peter Taylor. He has published stories and poems in Comstock Review, The Greensboro Review, Pebble Lake Review, Broadkill Review, and Furnace. He co-authored Notes to the Motherland, a Theatre Mania Best Play of 2004. His graphic novel, Lucky in Love, co-created with artist Stephen DeStefano, was published by Fantagraphics Press in September 2010.