Memphis rode in the pickup bed with all the killed. In this latitude of Indiana, the hills blasted out for state routes, the embankments formed meaty quadriceps. That late-afternoon swell of hot blood, asphalt, rasped habit. The dead buck’s antlers and shovels, percussed over each pothole, scratching Memphis’s calf. He let them. Karen would coddle him later, swab on antiseptic and anti-itch balms then blow a breathy cool across the cuts, maybe lick the underside of his scrotum, making him mewl like a starved goat. Of course he’d reciprocate with a generous licking to her pudenda-thereabouts, and Karen would rub her ankles together like some sort of bewitched cricket. They were animals, too, after all.
Except the last time Karen required him perpendicular was after the final Parent-Teacher conferences: undressing through the door, bra strap caught on a hinge, snapping back, leaving a pretty red hyphen on the bend of her shoulder…
Since then: the morning sickness, weathering the ever-ugh.
And: “It’s like TBD is teething on my libido, Mem.”
Or: “To Be Determined, could you please stop full nelsoning my bladder?”
And thus: Memphis in the shower, beating off like some vapid scowling indigene.
A honk. Bill pointed to the SugarBottoms billboard, the exit before the next Collection Site. Memphis re-reminded Bill through the back window that he didn’t like SugarBottoms. Just because. Bill picked a palm callus, an ancient moth. “Shit,” he hooted. “If the wifey ain’t house-trained you good. You’re all broken in, bootlicked and lickspittled! No wonder you like riding back there with the stiffs. Heel! Play dead! Ha!”
Of particular interest to Bill were the SugarBottoms dancers’ violences purchased in the champagne room. Bill showed Memphis the marks, proud as his kids’ report cards, if he’d had kids, and the deeper the welts and scores got the more Memphis understood they were as close to something tender as Bill could care for because they’d be gone in a week. Wippits owned SugarBottoms, a softie ex-linebacker for the varsity Land-Eaters. He sobbed during the National Anthem. Coach called him Wimpits. Often, he reflected on Bergot Hillestad’s cleavage. “The Great Fjord,” he’d sigh, still crushing. Kicker was Bergie danced for him, the Great Fjord fjorder now. Other dancers also graduated with Memphis, some he’d been certain would become VIPs and forget creeps like him, bonered and carving his band name into desks. Memphis didn’t like SugarBottoms because they all remembered him.
“The Mrs. is making lasagna,” Memphis tried.
Bill punctuated a whipping motion with a sound effect: WAPEEESH!
But also, really, who needed the touch/punch/choke of an uninterested woman feigning interest? Memphis preferred home, kneading Karen’s socked feet; maybe taste an extremity, collaborate on some nookie. But, also, really, if she was still moodless for his perpendicular, wouldn’t absence make the heart grow fonder? But, also, really, if that was true shouldn’t his heart be absolutely detonating from former agonies and truancies? Say, his incommunicado with his brother? Say, those years in Juvie? Say, the reason he went to Juvie?
But, also, really, wasn’t that all in the past? Wasn’t he a reformed, decent man?
But, also, really, wasn’t the past a goshdamn bloodhound? Didn’t he have those leg cuts?
He yawned, adjusted himself, and watched the other billboards: the car dealerships, his brother’s cosmetics company, the diners and motels, the plastered vacant For Sales. Snaking the horizon, trains outran them, bawling their magnificent horns.
Outside Furst Park the coy dog lay on the gravel shoulder. It wasn’t quite dead yet, twitching and lapping at the air. Its hind legs broken, minivanned, and when Memphis came close with the crusted spade it let out a low foamy growl. Memphis recited the Pre-Termination Apology. Obsolete protocol, but still. Bill ate a bag of chips, opening the truck door to block the view of kids on the roundabout. Memphis plunged the shovel between the dog’s eyes. A yelp gone gurgle. Memphis wiped the spade with his boot heel and recited the Post-Termination Prayer. Bill wrapped the still-jerking thing in a tarp and set it in the truck bed with the bloating others. The roundabout groaned, the children laughed and spun.
By the time they reached Pogo Annex the dog had quit necro-spasming, its paw pumping like a locomotive crank. Maybe these were its vestigial glory days: mail truck chasing or bone digging? After clouting the antlered buck, Memphis pretended its posthumous spasms were residual brook prancings. Postmortem raccoon spasms were trash riflings. Etc. And it was true, Memphis killed them all. Killed them if they needed some encouragement getting there. Never at fault, he told himself, just always at task. Coercing intention to matter. It only mattered and it didn’t at all. He told himself there was no hate or spite or vengeance in this task. His actions were not onto a harmless creature charged with life and sex and opportunity. No. He was acting onto a harmless creature in pain, in fear. His task, to alleviate.
Then the alleviated cadavers would be examined in Pogo Annex, salvaged, incinerated; those remaining bits transported to his brother’s various cosmetics laboratories to be extracted, enhanced, etc. etc., and become facilitating ingredients for sad or lonely or self-conscious people in need of affordable lip balms or lotions or exfoliants.
Which was a very good thing.
Like, castoreum? It was a vital fixative in perfumes. But it came from beaver genitals. Last month, Memphis delivered seven roadkill beavers to Pogo, which, who knew how many bottles of perfume those beavers would produce, how many self-esteems subsequently boosted, fragrant attractions inspired, fulfilling relationships/loving marriages forged. Where would we be without beaver genitals? Imagine what might decline without the world catalog of aroma? Memory? Patience? Gosh forbid, Population? Though, if he was being honest, whenever Karen dabbed on perfume now he pictured a giant beaver pissing all over her. Though, if he was being honest, he much preferred her natural scent, something powdery and infantile in the pores, growing sweeter the more she sweat, her neck a natural salt lick.
He concentrated on that neck as he slid cadavers down Pogo’s delivery chute. Anatomies thumping, gone to a square black. Maybe it was this sudden question of how many he’d slunk down there over the years, or maybe it was the burnt smell coming from the smoke stacks, but something made Memphis re-recite the Pre-Termination Apology.
“What’s with you and that dumb old protocol?” Bill asked.
Memphis shrugged, “Makes me feel better.”
“You know it’s just a few more seconds they suffer while you do that.”
So Memphis decided to quit reciting the protocol.
Bill parked at HQ. “Why’d the chicken cross the road?”
“So we get a paycheck!” Bill laughed and punched out.
At the kitchen table, Karen was grading mock spelling tests, picking under her nails where cocoons of Elmer’s thickened. During the school year, a Vietnamese lady manicured her nails with cartoon characters. Now her nails were clean, experimenting with new pens, honing the plumb of her plus sign. After a long day of grading, she returned with a migraine and gold, silver and bronze star stickers all over her, and Memphis’s recreation was seeking through her hair, behind her ears, the crook of her elbows, and plucking them.
“Mm! Mmm!” Memphis sang, kissing her cheek. “Smells like lasagna.”
Karen gave him a look. He’d seen it before.
“That’s because you don’t smell the trash. Because I took it out.”
“I’m sorry, sweetums. I forgot.”
“How do you forget a stink like that? TBD’s sucker punching the lady Os! Estrogen has my nose meticulous. I smell you, Mem. I hear your smell. I see it. Who needs pharmaceuticals when you have hormones? My stomach’s a washing machine. My stomach could show an astronaut the frigging ropes. It’s pulling Gs, Mem. From smells. You ever hold your own hair over the toilet? I feel like the saddest kind of prom queen.” She crossed her arms. “You know Dr. Tart doesn’t want me straining myself. And the cravings? You have a good day? I always hope you had a bad one. I mean, that you had nothing to scoop up. Those poor critters! TBD’s uppercutting my appetite! How can I be hungry and nauseous at the same time? Ugh. Also, we should probably name TBD before his ears develop.”
Memphis raspberried the exposed rind of belly pushing from her tank top.
“Oh, you big dummy!” she laughed, pulling him up by the hair to kiss him. He wanted to undo his pants, but didn’t. If he was presumptuous, he’d get another kind of look, the kind that sent him to the couch for the night, his 24-carat thinking spot. In fact, it’d been the couch, post-look, where he contrived the idea to accumulate at the local kill shelters and deliver all their euthanizations to Pogo, which helped surplus ingredient deficiencies on Belle Cosmetic’s monthly inventory report (the increased cats and dogs helped surfeit Stearic Acid), and Mr. Lombardo in the Production Labs sent the annex a hand-signed (not stamped) congratulatory memo for the large haul, which was also cc’d to Memphis’s brother, who’s signature, Memphis scrutinized, was most definitely stamped, discerned via the rectangular outline that the stamp made around Nicholas’s Hancock from pressing too hard, perhaps to reinforce a position, or juncture, (the memo had crinkled from the stamping). But the couch cover was plastic and stuck to him in the summer, so best not undo the pants! Plus, he loved Karen so much and wanted her to be happy, and humping with this talk of smells and nausea was the last thing that would deliver happiness, which, still, panged his heart. It was hard to stomach, himself, any circumstance in which his touch made her sick.
Karen’s tongue withdrew. Memphis opened his eyes. She was wearing another look. The woman, bless her, was fashioned from them. She glowed and levitated pregnant. Having her was the most genius kind of punishment. He often sweated and squirmed, thinking she’d entered his life just for the purpose of leaving it. You bully, Karma! You tyrant, Serendipity! But this wasn’t the couch look, and he’d seen it before.
“Christ, who died?” he said.
Taped to the fridge (the corners coiled from years of humidity) was a photo of Memphis and his nephew Tic-Tac-Toeing on diner place mats. Or maybe he was watching Karen and JR play Hangman, which was her way of covertly implementing a spelling lesson. She’d been a substitute teacher then. Memphis, a year out of Juvie, still blinking in daylight. They’d dated six months by then, a girl of violent beauty who moved to Oolitic for a job after Purdue, the only one in town who didn’t remember him, which was one of the unscented attractions for him, and why, Memphis figured, she agreed to go out with him at all.
JR: “I love you Aunt Caring! I love you Uncle Membrance!”
Which was sixteen Christmases ago, JR’s speech impediments most likely gone with the color tone of the fridge photo. Little about his nephew since came from Ma’s emails, Nicholas always cc’d but never responding: JR was accepted at Fredonia. JR dropped out. JR enlisted. Then the planes into the Trade Center. JR was in the desert. JR was safe on a base. JR had been out on patrol. JR was coming home. JR was purple-hearted.
Or maybe Nicholas didn’t get Ma’s emails? Maybe he didn’t even know his younger brother worked for him? Perhaps the memo stamp was irrelevant? Belle Cosmetics had recently absorbed the porta potty company Memphis worked for as a driver/collector. BC was buying land with government grants, expanding HQ into a complex of skeletal buildings, probably the root of Nicholas’s employees nicknaming him The Pharaoh. But Nicholas must know Memphis was on the payroll. Growing up, he inventoried his toys, kept them in original packaging (he still had them in storage apparently) and itemized damages to the few used. He saved receipts. Memphis was more reckless, losing or breaking his with hard play, and Nicholas would goad and lord his tidy museum of unplayed toys, inciting bickering. But sixteen Christmases ago, the last time together, the bickering took on something adult, old grudges metastasized, and The Pharaoh turned redder in his ginger freckly face and lorded his ultimate goad, the thing their parents never discussed, the Juvie thing, which Memphis rebutted with a lionized charliehorse and strangulation with the blinking Christmas tree lights that sent the shadow of The Pharaoh’s flailing across the wall, and Ma poured out the egg nog, bawling in the sink, and Pa took dinner in the wagon with the radio loud, hocking the Pacers replay.
Driving home, Memphis had to pull the car over to place his head in Karen’s lap. She’d been at the mall with JR and his mother, visiting the department store Santa. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “Why won’t that make me feel any better?” he sobbed. “Because,” she said, “you’re all grown up, Mem. And things still matter.”
The shovel/buck scratches on his calf began to itch. Memphis clawed them.
“JR’s here?” he whispered.
Karen shook her head, “He called from the Super 8. He asked for you.”
“Why isn’t he up in Crown Point with Nicky and Sara in their chateau?”
Karen threw him another couple looks. The first, pronounced his whole first name, a solid scold. The second: Remember Sixteen Christmases Ago? And Memphis wished to God right then that she’d been around twenty Christmases ago, before he’d snuck out with his father’s gas can and thermos of gin, before becoming the infamous Immaculate Combustion, wishing she’d been there to give him those looks when he really needed it.
Third lap around the motel and Memphis realized that the person on the cement wheel-stop in the Super 8’s parking lot was his nephew. JR’s hat matched his duffel—that tan/black/brown camouflage. Like chocolate-chip cookie dough, Memphis thought. Orange beard, buzzed sideburns, runs of freckles on the thickened neck. And the muscle! JR looked compiled of former selves. An arm was JR in Tee Ball, a big toe was his premature infant fist, an ear the boy’s appendix. Ma never attached photos to her emails, maybe because she didn’t know how, referring to the Internet as The WWW. Or maybe Nicholas forbade it. The Pharaoh’s final judgement, unadulterated exile. The only lingering detail from his nephew in the fridge photo was how JR hugged his knees, some residual adolescent shame.
Time, this subsidiary sort of punishment, showed its elapsed teeth.
“No vacancy,” JR said. His voice had queerly deepened. “Plus, I don’t got cash.”
Memphis sat on the end of the wheel-stop, “Why didn’t you just come to the house?”
“Don’t know where you live.”
“I live where I’ve always lived.” But as he spoke it, Memphis realized that JR would never have visited—a toddler when The Pharaoh constructed his palace up in Crown Point. Ma and Pa retired to Florida, sold Memphis the deed to his childhood home for a buck.
“Well, where’d you get that beer if you don’t have any money?” Memphis asked.
JR offered the bottle.
Memphis stiffened, eyed its condensation with teeth. He shook his head. “I don’t drink.”
“You have a hat or bag like this and people just give you things.”
“Are you even old enough to be doing that?”
JR took a drink.
“You been back long?”
Memphis toed some gravel, “Your Dad know you’re here?”
JR held several gulps in his cheeks.
A dog barked somewhere in the trees. The humidity peeled, the sky cooled and popped. A memory: Karen’s college roommate’s wedding, a game to see who could snap the longest strand of static electricity. California’s dry air was fertile for such wizardry. Guests shuffled socks on the carpet, zapping each other, swishing jars of wine, Memphis squeezing his water bottle, gnawing the question, What could just one hurt?, but knowing, sending a bright bolt about a foot long from his finger to an elbow, the record, reigning Kaiser Current. The hairs on his forearms and cowlick rose, something static always latent and ready.
“Aunt Caring’s pregnant.”
“It was on purpose.”
JR blinked. “Then I don’t know what to say.”
“She says hello. You want to see her? Why don’t we go back to the house? Aunt Caring made lasagna. You like lasagna? Remember calling her that? You were always mispronouncing things. You even called Canastota Road Can of Soda.”
“Could you please stop calling her that?” JR winced.
Down the road, deer whistles screamed. Some mornings before school, Ma would wake her sons early, and bedheaded Nicholas and Memphis would have to write out all the mean things said and done to each other while they ate cereal. Then those papers were nailed to trees and reconciled with an ax, frustrations vented, bitternesses exhausted. Ma called them Grievance Trees. Still, when Memphis walked behind the house, he found stumps, hatchetings, trees wormed thick with scar tissue and hardened sap. The deer whistles were a siren. Between thumps of the ax, if the brothers heard the whistles they knew the school bus was approaching, and they’d lift their backpacks and sprint up the driveway.
Make up, makeup . Time was also not without a frisky and savage irony.
“You know, I almost didn’t even recognize you?” Memphis laughed after a silent minute, watching the dog emerge from the trees to sniff at car tires. “Hell, I drove by you twice! You’re all filled out, little John Remington. It’s good to see you.” He reached to pat his nephew’s back, but JR recoiled, purpled, bared teeth. Even the stray froze.
“Don’t,” he growled. “Don’t you fucking don’t.”
Memphis raised his arms, “Just trying to say thanks for what you did is all.”
“You know, uncle stuff.”
JR hurled the bottle end over end and the dog trotted after its shatter. “Uncle stuff,” he scoffed. “You remember that time you visited us, Uncle Membrance? We ate at some diner and played Tic-Tac-Toe on the paper place mats? Well, you always took the center square. Every time. You never let me win. Not once. So don’t start trying to be an uncle now.” The tips of his ears smoldered, that same hothead as his father.
Memphis rubbed his neck. “Well, what should I be then?”
“Be horrible again. Be the guy who burned down that church.”
“You OK? You sound funny, Mem. Is JR all right? How does he look? Is he eating? Does he look like the army is requiring him to finish his meals? I bet he looks so handsome! Is he coming here? Did you tell him about TBD? You OK?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know him, Kar. My own nephew. He knows more about me than I do about him. I’m out of breath. I thought I was all cried out. He’s asking why I did it, Karen. He’s asking about the church fire. This is just—do you think Nicholas would tell him about it just to—I mean, I’ll never outrun it will I? Do I just pretend, or?”
“Oh, Mem,” she sniffled. “Both of you just come home. Please, come home.”
Suddenly, JR froze. He stared beyond the moth-beaten headlights. Then Memphis saw it, too: the dead deer twisted up on the shoulder. Nearing it, JR leaned toward his uncle, flinching and covering his face as they passed it by. After, he sat up, let his posture rediscipline, catching his breath and staring forward, never a word.
Being fifteen, the state refused to identify Memphis as a criminal. He was a delinquent who’d done a delinquent act. Being fifteen, the state believed Memphis lacked steely maturity, good judgement, unclear on the line between right and wrong.
The state, also, had never been privy to The Grievance Trees.
Had the state known, they might’ve changed their tune, and some nights Memphis woke in sweats or pushed away his plate or softened in his own hand during his shower maestroings, all from a foundering bout with memory. He retched on the absences he’d spawned. There were voluntary and involuntary kinds of absence—his older brother, the steaming cement footings of the church, the man with big knees known as Land-Eater in a straight-jacket and padded cell, rattling off fire safety codes with puffy bruised eyes. Gosh, Memphis sometimes wished the state had changed their tune. Punish me more! he prayed. Lord, taketh away! Maybe that’s why he pecked his own liver from time to time (like residing in the place that knew him as a delinquent who’d done a delinquent act; like attending the rebuilt church he helped burn down), unforgiven by himself, sick with guilt, spawning his own absences.
Maybe that’s why he drove his nephew to SugarBottoms instead of his house.
“They got cheap beer?” JR asked.
“I told you I don’t drink.”
The subwoofer howitzered and kaboomed. Or was it a plea of nerves? The subwoofer as heart. Memphis raked his tongue over his teeth. Strobes automated each dancer choppy and mechanical, all Chuck E. Cheesed. Except these robots wore unmerciful amounts of glitter on long inverted thighs as the clenched and pole-lutzed. Stilettos saluted Mecca. Enough to make a mother hurl herself off a bridge clutching her daughter’s third-grade yearbook. Among the limbs and throes, Memphis noticed Kate Loretto. During Chemistry, he and other boys balled up frilled edgings of spiral notebook paper and tossed them into her hair. She won the contest for memorizing the most numbers of pi, knew the Periodic Table by nitrogenic heart. The girl once in the 3.14 shirt, grabbing her ankles while men reveled and spent.
Kate and Memphis tripped eyes.
“If it ain’t The Immaculate Combustion,” she said, thumb-pantomiming a lighter.
Memphis beelined to the corner stage. “Lasagna must’ve been pretty damn burnt!” Bill laughed, turning his head to show off new finger-shaped welts on his throat. Wippits sat beside him, fashioning a bouquet out of drink umbrellas, lip trembling around a hesitancy to confess his love for Bergie and her fjorder fjord, or some other general reminiscence.
“Who’s this?” Wippits asked.
A dancer squatted onstage and spun tassels that brushed JR’s cheeks, every single thread rotation like a mothering, and Memphis became startled by something equivocally familiar and sorrowful in his nephew’s closed eyes and deep furrow.
How would the son of The Pharaoh be dealt with? Prince Belle? The Pharaohette?
“Karen’s nephew. John.”
“John, roll this buck up and watch what she does with her open mouth!” Bill said.
“I’ve seen enough open mouths,” JR said.
Bill hooted and slapped his knees.
JR blinked. “Bill, tell me how you got those bruises. What horrible thing did you do?”
Bill grinned, “Them are badges. The upshot of conditional love. Love’s the horrible.”
“What’s the condition?” JR twitched. “If you can get your baby pecker up and in?”
Bill laughed through his teeth this time, glancing at Memphis.
“Sounds more like you as a kid, Mem,” Wippits said, smelling the umbrella bouquet.
“You knew my uncle as a kid? Tell me about The Immaculate Combustion.”
Just one just one just one, Memphis thought, ogling the bottle suddenly in JR’s hands.
Wippits got misty, “We don’t talk about that, son.”
“Is that why he doesn’t drink, too?”
The subwoofer as heart! The damp bar rag sung with mildew as heart!
Bill grunted. “Respect your elders. Karen’s nephew or not, I’ll pop you, you anus.”
JR sneered. “I don’t like you, Bill, which is why I like you. You’re making me feel a little better. But those bruises aren’t badges. They’re more like this,” and JR pointed to his camou hat. “You’re overcompensating. We got a name for that. Want to know what we call you? A FOD. Actually, more accurately, a Poodle-faker.”
“What’s a FOD?” Memphis asked, rubbing a foot against his scratched calf.
“Friend of Dorothy.”
“Who’s Dorothy?” Wippits asked.
“What’s a Poodle-faker?” Bill asked.
“A gay man who spends too much time with women.”
“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep talking about?” Wippits asked.
But Bill was already up, tightening his ponytail. JR was smiling.
“He’s a vet!” Memphis pleaded, stepping between them. “He’s been over in the war!”
So Bill sat, “Oh. Thanks for your service, kid.”
“How about fuck you?” JR barked, his neck veins pulsing fat. “You hillbilly faggot!”
Bill stood again.
“Let’s not!” Memphis cried. “He’s not himself! He’s not!” But how could he know this? The boy was sick. The boy was sick. The boy was sick. The boy was a creature like the rest of them. But what was he charged with? Memphis urged to hold him, shake him free of it. But the camou hat. The chocolate-chip cookie dough pattern under the black lights incandescing fiendish. Dancers noticed. They pulled JR on stage and ordered him on all fours. JR responded to every command. The crowd roared, Bill glared. A dancer yanked his belt free, lashed him. Another rode him like a mule. JR, blank and gasping, obliged. Maybe his arms were shaking, maybe it was Memphis. The dancers ordered him up. JR stood tall, chin squared. The crowd hollered and applauded. A dancer ripped open his shirt. Buttons ricocheted. Then the crowd stopped, Bill sat again, and Wippits really started blubbering. Only the subwoofer thumped. JR’s muscles astonished, just not as much as the thick webbing of scar over his left pectoral, the wider mess out his back, an open hand of pure healing tissue.
That scar about where Memphis would have patted his nephew if he’d let him.
They drove through town. JR’s new XXL black t-shirt with the SugarBottoms logo—a pair of sugar cubes in a neon pink thong—wasn’t as oversized as Memphis wished. He wanted his nephew to look foolish. Wanted him to look small and callow.
That scar! Memphis rallied potential reckonings that might’ve caused it. What significance had his nephew done? Or, gosh, undone? Could his nephew be capable of terrible things? The boy who mispronounced Oatmeal as Opium?
Or Frogs and Foxes and Forks as Fucks?
Look at the significance Memphis had undone himself, and much younger.
But, he objected, look at what all could be done, too.
“That’s city hall. I got a certificate from the mayor as a kid for helping prevent deer jackers on our county road. Your dad ever tell you that? That’s where I give blood when the Red Cross has drives because I got good veins, they tell me. There’s the dentist’s office where I helped put on the roof. I’d set a ninety-pound pack of shingles on each shoulder and climb the ladder with no hands. There’s Belle Cosmetics HQ.” Behind the iron gate and security booth, the compound consisted of unfinished iron-framed buildings, cranes, factories, warehouses, and one corporate tower, a single top floor window lit, and Memphis wondered if Nicholas was in town, if that was his office, if he was up there looking at this truck, wondering similar things. Memphis avoided the church, drove past the liquor store twice. “There’s where your dad went to high school. The mascot’s the Land-Eater: a dinosaur with a neck and head like a John Deere backhoe. This guy, Glade, was the mascot. The hardware store filled the backhoe bucket with coupons and Glade gasped and hauled the hot foam suit up and down the bleachers so fans could pluck them. In middle school we were ruthless. Just to impress the older girls. The only thing worse than adolescent boys are the girls. Because they liked to see Glade tortured, they were attracted by our tormenting. And we were attracted to their passing attention. Just the possibility of their orbit. Gosh, we were cruel. Super-glued Glade’s costume zipper so the football coach had to cut him out. He was schizophrenic. He had these fat knees from pads worn under his insulated fireman pants—the kind with the reflective striping? He wanted to be a firefighter. Those steel-toed rubber boots always clunking. Always on his lawn with the garden hose, practicing and practicing. But they wouldn’t take him on account of that mental illness. That’s his old apartment building. Had his own mailbox shaped like a fire engine. He’s dead now. Buried up there in Oolitic Cemetery under a tree.”
“Uncle Membrance, why are you showing me all this?” JR asked.
Memphis thought about it. “I don’t know,” he sighed.
Down the road, Memphis passed the dead deer again. He U-turned.
“What’re you doing?” JR asked, panicked.
Except it wasn’t a deer. It was a kangaroo.
“Where did it come from?”
Memphis nudged it, still and lukewarm. “Must’ve escaped the zoo next county over.” He squatted down and pet the head, its eyes dull stones. “I bet you were beautiful once,” he whispered. “And perfect. I bet you could’ve fucking been. Amen.”
“What’re you saying?”
“Come on,” he told his nephew. “Help me get it into the truck.”
On their way back toward Belle Cosmetics HQ, Memphis could see the steeples of the Cathedral of The Tabernacle of Praise & Deliverance silhouetting the distance. Its belfry clanged once, twice in Memphis’s heart. The police found Glade sobbing under a nearby porch, hugging the spigot he was supposed to use to douse the minor fire, one he’d described as only being a “Class B Prescribed, Controlled Burn.” But Glade became so terrified by the bright orangeness of its sudden feral. The fire only meant to burn the main office steps with little damage, Glade to extinguish it as the fire department arrived, thus proving his firefighting competency. Instead, Memphis’s lighter seized the dry wood, and floating cinders sparked the retro wall-to-wall shag carpeting inside, a goshdamn tinder bundle. Mature flames licked their lips and jutted their hips between the pews, bursting the psalm books, blackening the bronze Jesus, ashing the crucifix around his nails, melting the chancel’s stain glass windows portraying Francis of Assisi’s stigmatas and Saul of Tarsus’s blinding on the road to Damascus, climbing the walls, spouting from the spire like some Pompeii-redux, gaining magnificent lungs in the vestry among the records and choir robes. The fire department had no choice but to let the thing exhaust itself, containing it via, what Glade described with awe from the back of the cop car, his handcuffs clattering with excitement, the “surround and drown.”
On probation three years later, a reformed Memphis found Glade muttering to himself on a bench outside the post office, aged and thin, wearing a post-op surgical mask he never took off. He’d been up in Marlboro Psychiatric for a year. He got Glade a job cleaning porta potties. Glade didn’t remember him, but was appreciative. Thank you. Warm wishes. Thinking of you. Memphis bawled in his truck, imagining Glade in that mask, covering bruised sockets, on those knee pads scrubbing urinals, his years of glorified mascoting forgotten, mopping and mumbling spit bubbles in the shapes of old fire codes, until dropping one morning, broom clattering and ammonia spilling, causing wheezing employees to peek from their porta potties and witness Glade still and sodden. At the wake, Glade’s mask was gone and Memphis saw two crude scars over his eyelids. His sister collapsed over the casket like a retired marionette.
Crunch through the orbital bone, twist the ice pick. Memory, behavior, etch-a-sketched.
Memphis felt a grasping at the back of his neck.
How horrifying! The ease it would always be to make a beautiful thing ugly!
Because they were all animals, too, after all.
Lord! If the state only knew he’d lit those church stairs out of conscience! That the years of tormenting Glade at those football games had taken their toll. Just picturing him up at the altar, removing his fire helmet to take the Eucharist, crumbs in his beard. That mature, ravishing guilt! The state should have tried him as an adult, as an animal.
JR looked into the chute, his voice tinny inside. “What’s down there?”
“Turtles, bears, stuff. That chute over there is for plants. They go down to Sorting.”
“How many you think you’ve dumped down there?”
They lifted the kangaroo out of the truck and set it in the dirt.
“You ever think about what you inherited?” JR asked. “I do. The worst parts of you that maybe nobody knows about? Things you've done, thought. If you got the ability from someone else? Or maybe that you might bestow them on your kid?”
“Please tell me why you burned that church,” JR said.
“Who told you? Your dad?”
“Saw a newspaper clipping at Gramma and Pop-Pop’s.”
Smog billowed in flocks of mummified quails. Memphis toed the precipice of something.
“Why now? Why do you want to know about it so bad now?”
JR looked up, Pogo’s floodlight arrested it. Memphis saw him clear. This face he’d once known, worn away and built up and worn away again. Eyes like his own, post-fire. These two dark chutes. Like the holes of the post-op surgical mask.
“Please,” JR said, voice chipping. “I hurt people.” He looked at his palsied hands. “I’m associated with tremendous death. Maybe even children. They liked to throw water balloons at us. But how else were we to know if one might be a grenade?”
Memphis recalled The Grievance Trees. One horribleness could be lessened by a worser. Maybe at some point they’d all cancel each other out. Get so big that each grievance just seemed trivial. Relativity was a kind of religion like that, wasn’t it?
He had this ancient aching loyalty to swing his fists at nothing, in vain, for the boy.
Memphis chewed his cheek raw. “My band was called The Immaculate Conceptions. We carved it into desks at school. Death metal. We were awful, tone deaf. The name took care of itself after the fire.” Memphis shook his head. “Your Gramma fainted. When the cops came to the house to get me? Fainted right in Pop-Pop’s arms.”
“But why? Why did you burn it?”
“I was a stupid boy. I was trying to do something good.”
“Sometimes,” Memphis said, “consequence doesn’t line up with intention. Intention should matter more than it does.” His nephew clenched his jaw, remembering, remembering, remembering, and trying not to. “Like,” Memphis added, “how obligation and circumstance don’t always line up with one’s own personal set of righteousnesses.”
The floodlight clicked off then on. Cockroaches fled into the downspout.
JR looked at his fists. “So how were you able to feel better about it?”
“I don’t,” Memphis said, looking into the chute. “You just learn to tolerate it.”
JR wiped his forehead, already sweated through his shirt.
“Thing I don’t get,” he said, “is how setting fire to a church could ever be good?”
“It wasn’t supposed to burn.”
Then Memphis heard squeaking. He followed JR’s eyes down.
But the kangaroo was still. Memphis nudged it with his foot, placed his watch under the snout but the glass face didn’t fog. “Here,” his nephew said, lifting something from its pouch. A pink joey, hairless, no bigger than a football. JR cradled it. The capital L-shaped legs shivered and hung limp, weak, squinting. JR started to cry.
“I think I have too much hate in my heart, Uncle Membrance.”
“No.” Memphis shook his head. “No. You’re still jet-lagged. Let’s get you home.”
“I’d like to hold this a little while longer if that’s okay.”
“That’s okay, bud. That’s fine.”
The joey blinked, each breath labored. JR bounced and shushed it, stroking its snout with a finger. Memphis had to smile, considering. “I did always like that you called me Uncle Membrance,” he said. “I’m sure your dad—well. I’m sure he’s said some pretty terrible things about me. And they’re probably true.” He rubbed his arms, goose pimpling in the chill and yowl of each Indiana gust. The trees smelled of prehistoria. “I think about it every day. What I did. I worry to death I could make a stupid mistake like that again.” Memphis’s throat ached, his nose softened and dripped. Memory could be an influenza like that.
“And him. I think about him a lot. Your dad.”
Memphis sucked a deep breath, his deepest yet, he thought.
“I didn’t come up with Uncle Membrance. That was what Dad called you,” JR said.
Memphis thought about his brother even more. The Pharaoh would never surrender to something so sinisterly affectionate as Uncle Membrance. Not the way he harbored and lorded and balked. Those inventories of toys and axed tree meats. No. Aunt Caring, Can of Soda. His nephew had lost whatever it really was in translation again.
So Memphis sounded it out: Un-cle-Mem-bran-ce.
“So what now that you’re stateside?”
“I was thinking about becoming a gym teacher.”
“The world needs gym teachers.”
The joey gnawed its tongue. JR set it beside its mother.
“Know what else Dad said? ‘Some mistakes are just too big to ever make up for.’”
“No,” Memphis said, not exactly sure to what. How could the boy ever look his father in the eyes again with tonnage like that? It took Pa three months to visit Juvie, and another month to look at him. When Pa finally did, it was the first time Memphis noticed Pa’s different-colored eyes. Disabused polychromatism. Disappointment drove men crazy. But maybe this here was a chance. That joey was a TBD, too. All that opportunity in and out the nostrils. Gosh, it could still get worse for it. For all of them. But if it could get worse, couldn’t it also get better? They could repair. Race the joey to the vet, the zoo, and save it.
Except JR already knew what had to be done, and while Memphis deciphered The Pharaoh’s nickname for him, before he could fully articulate this repair, or muster protest, JR raised the shovel from the truck and swung it across the joey. Then he tossed it down the chute, stony, as if it was something he’d already done a hundred times.
Memphis bought JR a bus ticket back up toward South Bend. JR refused to come to the house. The thought of seeing Aunt Caring would kill him. “More so than my parents.” JR took his hat off the dash, the duffel out of the bed.
“Thanks, Uncle Membrance.”
“For trying to help,” JR said. “You know, uncle stuff.”
JR shut the truck door. The two looked at each other through the lowered window.
“Listen,” Memphis said. “Just.” His eyes blurred, unable to get around the words.
“I’ll tell Dad you say hello.”
“No,” Memphis said. Then, “Well, okay.”
And JR was gone.
I’ll never see that boy again, he thought. Then: Man. I’ll never see that man again.
At home, Memphis stripped. He stared at the phone in his underwear, chest heaving. He picked it up, put it down, picked it up, pressed a number, put it down. Did Nicholas have the same area code? Plus, he only remembered the first two numbers, like fossils. He drank a glass of water over the sink, washed his hands, knuckled his eyes until his breathing calmed. Upstairs, he eased into bed, desperate to place his hand on Karen’s chest, or hers on his. Sometimes she literally sparkled in her sleep from those star stickers. Gosh, Karen was so much better than he was. He could never catch up to her goodness. Just listen to those breaths! Even her apnea was opera! Her snore was polite. Her snore could tell you where Hoffa was buried. She smelled like Jerusalem. He could climb on top of her this minute and yell, “Do you know how much I love you, goshdamnit? Do you know how incapable I am without you?”
But that might scare her, or hurt TBD, and he could never. Never.
So he just lay there, listening to his heartbeat: encumbrance encumbrance encumbrance.
He scratched his calf, the outskirts of his mourning until Karen stirred.
“You’re fidgeting, babe,” she yawned. When’d you get in? How’s JR? Did you put him on the sofa? I set out linens. Did you get him a towel in case he wants to shower? Did you have fun? You okay? I hope you had fun. I was so worried but sleepy.”
“Sorry, sweetums,” Memphis said. “He’s not here. He’s going home. How’s TBD?”
Eyes half-shut, she smiled and touched her stomach. Memphis put his hand on hers.
Now this is damn perfection, he thought. What’s the rush?
“Oh, no,” she said, lifting his hand to her nose. “You smell.”
He put the hand to his face and whiffed. “Huh, I don’t smell anything. Just soap.”
“Well you stink, Mem.”
“I can’t tell.” She crinkled her nose over his wrist.
Kangaroo! he thought and gulped. “Is it a good smell or a bad smell?”
“I don’t know yet.” She buried her face in the pit of his elbow, his clavicle.
“Could your stomach show an astronaut the frigging ropes?”
Karen shook her head and straddled him. Her nose worked behind his ear. Maybe he felt TBD kick. “It’s all over you, Mem. This smell is on every inch of you. I’ve never smelled anything like it before.” She ran her finger along his thigh, placed it to a nostril. “But it’s not on you. It’s coming out of you. You’re sweating it.”
He remembered parties, pre-Juvie, grounded by Pa, Ma weepy and reprimanding.
I smell the booze in your blood, Memphis Lee!
“Can you hear and see this stink, too? Like the others?”
She nodded, plugging her nose into his bellybutton.
“What’s it sound like?”
She smelled his knees, his hips. “Popping.”
“What’s it look like?”
“Rainbows.” She rubbed her nose on his forehead. “Maybe confetti?”
Somewhere outside, deer whistles, a thumping. Maybe the ghosts of childhoods, residual energies of he and Nicholas sprinting up the driveway in unison. Memphis held his breath, his face clotted up. When he cried and howled Karen took his head, smelled his hair, and pulled him against her. “Oh, Mem,” she said, “What did you do?”
Nicholas was nine, eating the cherry on his sundae when a balloon popped at a nearby birthday party table. Startled, he gasped, sucking it down his windpipe. He turned maraschino, croaking, flailing his arms, spilling his ice cream. Ma and Gramma were there, shrieking. Waiters called the manager, the manager called 911. Gramma started praying. She grabbed Memphis’s arm and hollered Jesus. And that scared Memphis. Not like monsters under his bed. Fear visceral, intestinal. Remembering, his fists twisted up in his wife’s nightgown under the tensile strength of that fear, as if it was yesterday, or if yesterday never quite concluded, shovelfuls of his stomach spaded out. Seeing his brother like that made the backs of his thighs ache, not quite a decade old, gasping for air, eyes bugged, chairs knocking over, waiters tripping, Nicholas redder, then a little blue. Memphis covered his ears and shut his eyes, dropped under the table, head on his seat. It was cool and quiet there, and he thought, My brother is going to die. I am not going to have an older brother anymore.
He opened his eyes, hands still over his ears. There were Gramma’s heels, Ma’s sneakers scuffing the carpeting, the melted ice cream with rainbow sprinkles that fell from the spilled bowl. And Nicholas. Ma had him on his stomach on the booth across from Memphis, punching his back, trying to break the cherry-obstruction free. Under the table, it was only the two of them while the world argued and scrambled above. Under the table, Memphis watched his brother’s face deepen in color, retch and fight, unable to escape it.
Later that night after the cherry popped free, mush that left a lipstick kiss on the toe of Gramma’s shoe, they played together. Nicholas unvaulted his toy museum, without inventory sheets, and they played recklessly until several broke, were scotch-taped together and broken again. They snuck into the lawn, cold damp blades of grass biting their ankles, and they buried the remnants with their hands. Memphis left the dirt under his nails even after scolds from Ma and Pa. He wanted that dirt to stay under his nails forever.
Memphis heaved and trembled. Karen pet his head. He thought of the light on the top floor of Belle Cosmetics tower, imagined that silhouette there watching. Then years and years ago, Nicholas lifting his bloodshot eyes to Memphis under the table: head on the chair, hands over his ears. What he must’ve looked like to Nicholas across the way, as he coughed and gasped and drooled cherry red, to decide to reach out for Memphis.
Under the table, the brothers watched each other.