A Brief Silence
by James Redd
He awoke on Ray Williams’ couch and made himself a tall glass of water and drank it quickly with an open throat. Then he grabbed another mason jar of whiskey and walked to the front porch where Ray sat in whicker chairs with Houston, Lou Godwin’s boy. Houston was drinking from a full bottle but stopped drinking to laugh for a moment, maybe at a joke he had just made. Ray sat quietly and stared off the west side of his porch into the woods. Houston started drunk talking to the side of Ray’s face, and he laughed some more and drank some more whiskey. Then Tom himself drank some whiskey, heaved, and remained silent.
“You been asleep near six hours, Tom,” Ray said. “I been sitting facing this direction since you passed out. As I recall, we was gonna be watching the sunset. You didn’t make it. Then this kid showed up.”
“I ain’t no kid, damnit.” The boy spat. He could barely hold himself up in the chair.
“It seems Houston Godwin here has become a man tonight,” Ray said. “That’s why I gave him this jar of whiskey.”
Tom had never seen Ray give away whiskey. He’d been going to see Ray for two years, ever since he’d turned sixteen and knew that Ray sold it. He’d been selling his own whiskey for almost twenty years, ever since Tom’s father had sponsored a bill to turn the county dry for the second time. Ray was the only black man on that side of Vandler County, and he would sit on his porch almost every evening to do his business as the sun started to go down. Tom’s family lived right across the road, and since he was a baby, he’d seen Ray sitting there as his family had been getting ready for bed. After he turned sixteen, Tom made it a habit to sneak out his window and sit on Ray’s musty couch on the front porch and drink. Tom enjoyed Ray’s company because, despite never having any formal education, the black man was intrigued by science. He’d learned how to read, and his house was filled with textbooks and anything else he could get his hands on from what the white schools had thrown out. But the biggest appeal of Ray’s house was his porch, in plain sight of Tom’s father, David Wheeler, the preacher who’d founded Worley Hill Church. When his father would drive him up the wall and then bust him on his ass for doing wrong, he’d go over to Ray’s, in plain sight of his father who wouldn’t cross the road into a bootlegger’s yard. Ray never had any extended company that Tom had ever seen, but Ray allowed him because Tom had stolen some books out of his father’s library to given Ray.
When his father never returned from a revival a year before, Tom thought God was a sham just like his daddy. He took to listening to whatever Ray had to say, which was a lot. Some times they would talk through until daybreak. For the past two weeks, though, Tom hadn’t said a word in return; Ray hadn’t stopped talking long enough to notice.
“Me and Houston here are about to go see Lee Posey,” Ray said.
“Yep,” Houston began. “Ray’s a good enough nigra to let me ride around in the cool night air and drink this fifth while I go show him my little experiment. Ain’t that what you called it, Ray?” The boy laughed. “This is one nigra that likes ex-per-i-ments.”
Ray turned to look at Houston. “If you’re gonna be a man, boy, you need to take bigger warps of whiskey than that,” Ray said. “Tom is a couple years older than you, and ain’t a man yet, but he’s done drank a fifth of whiskey yesterday and is working on his second in twenty-four hours.”
“I done been drinking since noon, damnit,” Houston said and drank some more. “Came over here to finish myself off and I ain’t there yet. Don’t worry yourself none over me.”
Ray turned around. He was looking at the woods again. Tom treaded carefully across the rotting porch and sat next to Ray. He wanted to see what he saw, since he knew the man would have something wise to say about it. There was no light on in the house or on the porch. As it was a cloudless night, and the moon was out, Tom soon was able to see what Ray was looking at inside the woods: nothing in particular. The pine trees were so densely packed that nothing was visible for more than a few yards. Tom studied Ray, and the black man looked back at him. Then Tom motioned to the woods. Ray nodded that he understood.
“I’ve always been a wonderer of the ways of the world, Tom. You know that,” Ray said and stroked his mustache. “The world don’t let you see it on its own, Tom. It covers, don’t reveal. I’ve always been a one to want to find out what it’s covering because that’s the mark of a man. That he can find something of worth hidden in that mess out there.”
Tom hoped that Ray could teach him how to be a man, one that didn’t run away from his troubles, like his daddy had. Tom stared at the woods for a while, but he couldn’t see through the mess of bushes.
“That wilderness is like the womb,” Ray said. “Can bring a man into the world, or spit a boy out.” Houston stood and leaned against the railing of the porch. The boy was bent over and had his head down directed at the grass. He began to vomit.
“Me and Houston gone go see Lee Posey,” Ray said. “See if Houston become a man.”
Ray went into the house and came out with a crowbar and a toolkit. “We’re setting out Northeast,” he said and got into his truck.
Houston lost the coin toss and had to ride in the truck bed with Ray’s Rottweiler, though Tom knew about Ray’s double-sided nickel. The dog was tied up to the front part of the truck bed with a short rope. Houston pulled himself into the rear end of the bed and got up close to the tailgate. When Ray revved the truck and pulled onto the gravel road, his Rottweiler jumped to the edge of the rope barking and choking and growling and snapping and choking. Houston was just out of reach of the Rottweiler’s jaws, and when Ray shifted into second gear, Houston had to push himself off the wheelwell to keep from lurching forward into the dog’s reach. He held on tightly to the tailgate, crying and drinking. Tom thought it was mighty funny of Ray, messing with this ignorant kid’s head. He laughed.
Usually Ray would listen to talk radio shows in the truck. Tonight he cut on a black plastic box on top of the radio. Nothing came out but static. He didn’t turn the volume down. “There ain’t gone be no listening radio tonight,” Ray said. “I rigged this box up where it scans for police talking. Don’t hurt to be a little inventive when you’re in my line of work.”
Ray took a drink and fitted his whiskey bottle between his legs. Tom did likewise. He had heard many a story from Ray in just this fashion: driving down a gravel road at midnight, drunk.
“I bet you want to know why we’re heading where we’re heading, huh?” Ray said. “What I got to do with Lee Posey?”
Thomas fingered a hole in the truck’s cloth seat and nodded.
“Me and Lee Posey met in high school,” he said. “I know. I didn’t go to high school, but there was one teacher let me sit outside her window during her chemistry classes. I’d watch the experiments when she’d do them, and one day Lee saw me, and I guess decided he would show off. He took some acetone, the stuff in your momma’s nail polish remover, and poured it into the sink, and then he pulled out a match and dropped it in the hole.” Ray laughed. “I tell you what, fire shot up from every sinkhole in that lab. It didn’t last but two seconds then, but it’s like an eternal fire in my memory cause that’s when I knew what power was. Afterward, he showed me how he’d burned off his snake eyes tattoo with car battery acid. We took to each other. He liked to blow shit up, and I just liked to watch him.”
As they pulled up to a stop sign, they looked at Houston. The boy had passed out, slid down to the front end of the truck bed, and the mason jar had fallen from his hands. Ray’s Rottweiler was licking up the whiskey that had pooled at the front end of the truck bed. Ray put the truck into park and stepped out. He grabbed the whiskey jar and slapped the dog across the mouth. Then he dragged Houston to the back end of the truck bed. Ray pulled a bottle of liquid out of his coat and poured it on a handkerchief and held it under Houston’s nose. The boy awoke cursing. Ray shoved the rest of the whiskey jar at Houston’s lips and told him to open his throat. When he’d emptied it, Ray gave Houston his own whiskey jar. The boy took a sip and was silent. Ray got back in the truck and opened his glove box and grabbed another jar. They rode on.
Ray pulled the truck onto another gravel road right before they came to a relatively busy intersection. Ray drove slowly as the gravel cracked underneath the tires. The truck’s one headlight barely shed any light and the trees hung well into the road. The branches began to slap Tom on the face, so he rolled up the window. They drove up a steep hill where the trees hung over the truck like a thick spider web; they were completely covered with kudzu. Tom imagined himself a spider for a moment, sucking the confidence out of Houston, and then remembered once when his father had talked of the way God holds men when they sin, like spiders over the flames of hell. Tom began to scoot a little closer to Ray, but the stick shift and the jar of whiskey were in the way.
“You’re scared, aren’t you, boy?” Ray said. Tom shook his head and Ray laughed. “I been scared too, you know.” Tom thought that Ray should never be scared of nothing after all he’d seen and been through. He didn’t say it though, and Ray kept talking like always. “One of the scardest I ever was was when Lee Posey went out back of my parents’ house to old Mr. Massey’s field and stole some propane tanks and buried them in the middle of three hay bales. He shot those things execution style with a thirty-ought-six. Somebody called out the Volunteer fire department, and momma made them lemonade – hers was the best in the County – to try to ease up their fuming. Old Mr. Massey came over with his kids and set his boy right about two feet in front of me. Massey was down on his knees holding him. He pointed at me, looked up at me, looked down at his kids, then said, ‘These here, this white boy over there and this here nigger, is criminals, son. You learn from their mistakes. They’ll pay.’ Massey didn’t do nothing though. My daddy was known to gut the dogs of people who fucked with him. He was one of the last niggers to keep a knowing of the woods. But Posey didn’t depend on nobody else. He just lied. Straight up lied. Said he was the son of some feller over the hills up in Tishomingo County. Don’t know why he lied. If Massey would’ve showed up at his house, Lee’d just have killed him dead with that thirty-ought-six of his.”
Ray’s box lit up with a message interrupting his speech. “Cars four and six report to fifty-eight highway thirty. Domestic violence reported. Possible drug use. Possible prostitution. Four male suspects and three females, one subject of abuse. Use of force allowed.” They were near highway thirty, about five miles from Bay Springs Lake. Ray brought the truck to a stop and did a three point turn. They retraced their steps for a while and then pulled off the road next to a metal gate that barred entrance to a hay field. Ray beckoned Tom to leave the vehicle. Tom, curious to see what inventiveness the man had to show him this time, followed him to the gate. Ray got his toolkit and laid it down in front of the fence. He inspected its lock, a brand new deadbolt.
“I can’t chance running into the cops with all this whiskey in my truck and two drunk white childs,” Ray said. “We gonna have to cut across this field to get to that gravel road over yonder on the other side. It’s the only way to get to Bay Springs Lake without staying on thirty.”
Tom squeezed the gate. It was solid steel and looked to weigh several hundred pounds. He looked at Ray. Ray smiled and walked back to his truck and started rattling through his truck’s toolbox. “It’s mighty cold out tonight,” Ray noted. “Take that empty whiskey bottle and fill it up with water from that creek over there.”
When Tom returned, Ray had a cylindrical brass can in his hand and a gasoline can at his feet. The device in his hand had a handle that was a thin piece of metal and the top of it had a spout sticking out horizontally. There was brilliant blue fire coming out of the spout of it. Ray pointed it toward the hinges of the gate. “I learnt this from Lee Posey,” he said. “Now, throw that water on these hinges.”
Tom emptied the bottle, and the bolts in the hinges shrunk, and the gate creaked and groaned and unsettled from its hinges.
Ray and Tom got back in the truck and used it to finish pushing the gate over. They drove through the hay as tall as a man, laying it down behind them. It was rotting and frost bit. The owners must not have harvested their crop this year, Tom thought. They planted it; it grew; but they didn’t get no use of it. Like they forgot about it, or were so absent-minded they didn’t even notice it growing. Whoever they were, they must have known his father. Ray and Tom reached the other side. They drove on.
The road had deep ruts in it, like a tractor had come through every day for a couple of years and the alderman hadn’t bothered filling them up. Ray drove between the ruts, balancing the tires on the shaky ground. “Now that I think of it,” Ray began. “You must have known Lee. He went to your daddy’s church for a little while. That was before he started turning his lab into a dope den.” Tom didn’t look at Ray. Ray wouldn’t get him to talk. No one would. He wouldn’t be responsible for anyone’s downfall. His father would have wanted him to tell. He flipped on the truck’s heater, but it didn’t work.
“Tom, why don’t you talk to me no more? Didn’t we have some good talks?” Ray finally recognized Tom’s silence. “What has shut you up these past couple of weeks?”
About a year prior, Lee Posey had come to Worley Hill Church for a couple Sundays, claiming to be seeking the Holy Ghost and the second baptism with fire. During song service, he’d ask Tom to play “How the Fire Fell” on the piano. Lee would play the guitar and sing. But he wasn’t singing; he was screaming, “Oh, I never shall forget how the fire fell, how the fire fell, how the fire fell!” He’d scream until his face turned red, and he’d lose his voice by the third verse.
A few days after his father had disappeared, Tom was driving to school when he saw Lee Posey on the side of the road. Lee was bent down on his hands and his knees. Thinking that he was hurt, Tom pulled over to check on him. Lee was bent down on the ground with his head leaning over some hay, like a cow. There were two gasoline cans beside him.
“Mr. Posey, what in Lord’s name are you doing there eating hay like Nebuchadnezzar?” Tom said.
“Hell, I ain’t eating it. Not like this. Ever heard of St. Anthony’s Fire? This here is a patch of rye grass. I’m mulling over it, you see. It’s infected by ergot.” He was still on the ground, not looking up at Tom. His body shook momentarily, like Tom had seen some women shake when his daddy said they were under the power of the Holy Ghost. Then Lee jumped up and looked Tom straight in the eye. “Sorry, kind of got lost watching the grain move.”
“The grain is moving?” Tom asked.
“What? Sorry, what I was saying is that I was mystified by its dynamic texture. I’m going to take some of this home. Work on it in my lab.”
“Well, I guess I’ll leave you to your work, so long as you ain’t hurting none.”
“Thomas, you’re a kind and generous boy, aren’t you?” Lee stretched out his arms with his hands turned up and tilted his head, as if to question Tom. “My truck is broke down a couple miles up the road. That’s why I got these two gasoline cans.”
“Well, I didn’t know you were needing nothing, Mr. Posey. I ain’t the type of boy to leave a man down, if that’s what you mean.”
Lee got into Tom’s truck, and they went back down the road the way Tom had came. On the way, Lee put a pill in his mouth. Tom was relieved when he saw him do that because he thought he looked sick. The truck was parked on the side of the road. Tom didn’t remember seeing it there before. It was parked crooked and the front of it was angled down a short slope. There was no rifle in the gun rack on the back glass.
“There it is, Thomas.” Lee stepped out of the car and walked up to the truck and looked at it and placed the two gasoline cans next to it. He pulled out his knife and stuck it into the ground and turned his back to Tom. Lee sat down on the dirt, stood still and looked down for a moment. His body shook, and he made a hollow breathing sound and, after a time, breathed hard again.
Not the kind of boy to question a grown man, Tom spoke: “I think I’m gone head out if you’re taken care of now, Mr. Posey.”
Lee stood and walked back to Tom’s truck and put his hands through the window and demanded, “Thomas, reach hither thy finger and behold my hands.” When he had been sitting on the ground, Lee must have ripped open a hole in each of his hands.
“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Lee walked backward toward the truck, and he said, “Have you ever seen a Holy Ghost explosion, Thomas?” He smiled, and then he hooked his arm under the gasoline can handle, lifted it up and began to pour it over the truck.
Tom drove away as fast as he could in his beat up 70’s Datsun. Soon after, he found out that the truck had exploded, killing Mr. Massey, the owner of the truck. Tom didn’t tell anybody about what he’d seen; he hadn’t spoken to anyone about anything since he’d seen it.
They drove on. They were on a remote dirt road deep in the woods, and Tom hadn’t seen a house in a while. Tom knew that Lee Posey lived in town, and they weren’t headed that direction anymore. He looked at Ray.
“No. We ain’t heading toward Lee Posey’s house,” Ray said, as if he’d heard Tom’s thoughts. “See these places every now and then where the bushes look ran over for a little ways? Most of these is junkyards. There’s personal junkyards everywhere.”
Ray pulled the truck into a little path that was more suited for 4-wheelers. He parked behind some trees. Then he went to the truck bed and woke up Houston like he did before. “Which junkyard is it that you met him?” Ray asked. He asked three more times. Houston kept falling asleep, and Ray kept waking him up. Then Ray punched him hard in the gut, and the boy vomited in the truck bed. His eyes were a little wider now. Ray repeated, “The junkyard that you met him.” Houston snorted and spat. Drool and snot covered his open mouth like a spider web.
“Old Grainery,” he said.
Ray pinned Houston to the truck rail and got on top of his arms. He grabbed the whiskey jar and shoved it at Houston’s mouth, but he wouldn’t open. Ray hit him again in the gut. This time Houston heaved but nothing came out, and he tried to spit at Ray, but he couldn’t get his spit past his own chin. Ray rammed the jar inside Houston’s mouth, denting in some teeth, then pouring a generous amount down his throat. He held his mouth shut by grabbing his chin and pushing his head against the truck bed. Whiskey and blood came out of the sides of his mouth, but eventually he swallowed. Ray got off of him, leaving Houston to cough and choke and heave. Ray’s Rottweiler stood in Houston’s vomit and licked it up, but Ray didn’t slap him. Tom drank and leaned his arm against the windshield and put his face in his hand so wouldn’t be tempted to look at the boy anymore. He’d never seen Ray so vicious. He knew what Ray was trying to show him, but it wasn’t how to be a man. He was showing him the punishment for falling short. Tom already knew punishment, what he didn’t know was accomplishment. But this was no accomplishment. He cleared away his tears before Ray got in the truck. They drove on.
As the grainery became visible around a bend of trees, Tom thought it looked like God had came and stove it in, hitting it so hard that it toppled over. It lay on the ground folded up, like a used up and then mashed shotgun shell. Ray drove his truck a couple of yards down a path that was behind the building. Ray got two flashlights and gave one to Tom. Then he unleashed his Rottweiler, and the dog bounded into the woods. Along the path, they walked by trees with exposed roots, TV’s with busted screens and ripped ironing boards. Soon, they came to a clearing. There was mud and 4-wheeler tracks coursing the outlines of the clearing, and between the tracks were acres of felled trees that were sucking up most of the moisture of a swamp that had once been in the midst. Directly in the path in front of them was a deer’s spinal cord. Ray picked it up and knocked off the dirt and palpated the ridges of the vertebrae. They followed the slope of the valley down several hundred yards and came to a point where bundles of newspapers stacked as high as a man marked the entrance to an acre of scattered junk. They heard the echo of the dog’s bark. Tom cut open a bundle of soggy newspapers. They said, “Worley Hill’s New Preacher!” Underneath this headline was a photo of Rev. Edward Eaves, smiling and waving with the congregation of Worley Hill surrounding him. Ray and Tom walked deep into the junkyard. There were sets of tires and stereos. BBQ Grills and box fans. Cans of food and spray bottles. Garden hoses wrapped around baby strollers. Near the middle of it all was a flattened septic tank. They walked to the tank. It was riddled with bullet holes.
“Houston and his friends came out here to meet Lee Posey,” Ray said. “Posey made all sorts of different dope; don’t know the name for most of it. He had the talent to do it in his lab, just like I had the talent to build me up a still. We’s both bootleggers working over the same folk, and folk like Houston here thinks that we is at odds because of it. That’s why that boy came to me, but it ain’t so. Me and Posey is two of a kind.”
Tom saw a small puddle coming out from the edges of the septic tank. There was someone inside of it. Tom turned his flashlight away, but Ray didn’t. Ray used his crowbar to pry open the sides of the tank where it had been pinched in on the body by the flurry of bullets. Dark fluid oozed out of his neck, and his skull was split open. His body was still stuck to the septic tank where the bullets had come through shoving the metal edges into him. As Ray opened the tank more, the head lifted with the rising metal and then became unstuck and fell down hard. The brain slid out in two halves, and Ray flipped one half of the brain over with his crowbar.
“Houston thought he’d show me his experiment,” Ray said. “How he and all his friends thought they’d make themselves men. Of course, men drink the wine of violence.”
Tom turned off his flashlight and turned around and began to pet Ray’s Rottweiler. Tom wanted to ask Ray thousands of questions. Did Houston and his friends know what Lee Posey had done to Massey? Did they plan it out? What was it that Lee had done wrong to provoke a terrible death like this one from the hands of children? Tom held the Rottweiler tightly around the neck. When the dog saw that it wasn’t allowed to get near Lee’s body, it ran back off into the woods.
“Wasn’t nothing wrong enough with what Lee did that deserved this,” Ray said. “Our generation saw what we had to saw and knew what we saw and what we used to saw. What was wrong was the kids who came up behind us who didn’t used to saw. Kids like Houston. Saw the world after science had finished with it. Thought the world was all figured out. No getting lost no more. But there ain’t no finding nothing that way; that’s lostness itself. Lost in a no more forest, not knowing that the trees can be growed back, and should.”
Tom stopped listening to Ray. The man had nothing to say to explain what had happened to Lee and how that was tied up with what he’d seen Lee do. Was what happened to Lee them dumbass boys finally managing to pull off something of their own accord without fucking it up, even if the final outcome was to fuck something up? Or maybe it was God that punished Lee, like his father might have said. Was Tom himself being punished by having to see this because he wouldn’t tell nobody what he’d saw before? Tom sat down on a tree stump and looked around at the clearing and the junkyard and the dried up swamp. After a while, Ray stopped talking, turned off his flashlight, and sat with him. Tom felt uneasy sitting next to Ray, who wouldn’t break the silence anymore. He walked back toward the truck in the darkness with Ray following behind. The moon had gone behind a cloud, and they found their way back from memory. Tom felt the trees thin and the path get wider. The truck had to be right in front of him.
He heard a slopping noise, like pigs at a trough. He walked toward it. Ray turned on his flashlight and shined it at the truck. The Rottweiler stood on the edge of the tailgate licking Houston’s head. When Tom got close, he saw that the boy couldn’t drink whiskey anymore; he no longer had a mouth. The dog had eaten it. The boy’s eyes stared ahead at Tom or the sky. That boy was of the same generation as he, he had taken trust in Ray, he had looked to Ray for approval, he lay now in the back of Ray’s truck with no mouth to speak. Tom cried.
“I see you pity that boy. Back there you pitied Lee too,” Ray said. “You got something nobody else has got anymore. You got something I ain’t got young man.”
Tom didn’t thank Ray for what he said. He couldn’t stop crying. He got in the truck. They drove. When Tom looked up from his hands, they were at Houston’s house and Ray was laying the boy’s body on the front porch, right in front of the door for his mother to see when she awoke in the dawn.
When Ray got back in the truck, Tom spoke. “Take me home, Ray.”
Ray didn’t act surprised at Tom’s words. He spoke calmly and as mysterious as always, without any compassion: “You’ve been to the wilderness, Tom, and you’ve heard what I’ve seen, and you’ve seen what is now, and you know the difference and the change and the end. Christ was in the wilderness before he became a man, and he came out a God, or a nut. Is you gone come out here a boy like Houston, or a man? A man with a voice that carries from the wilderness?”
Tom didn’t stay at Ray’s that night. He went to his mother’s and called Sheriff Dodgson.
He told his story. He sat on his mother’s porch not drinking, letting the headache dwell. The sun rose behind him. Not long after, the Sheriff came and cuffed Ray and beat the Rottweiler with his nightstick. It lay on the ground motionless long after the cop car had driven away. He heard a voice: “An eye for an eye.” Only, this time it was him speaking.
Winner of the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award and nominee for inclusion in Best New American Voices, James Madison Redd heads the Crooked Letter Interview Series, a monthly online series featuring contemporary Mississippi writers. “A Brief Silence” is from the collection Taking the Cure, which was a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, and is about “a drug deal gone bad in the haunting setting of an illegal junkyard in the Deep South,” says Redd. The story’s final scene was inspired by the tragic events surrounding the death of a teenage boy who attended his high school. Redd’s fiction, poetry and scholarship has or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Fiction Southeast, Penwood Review, Parting Gifts and other literary journals. Currently, he is an Editorial Assistant for Prairie Schooner and is writing his dissertation, a novel called Revival!