No part of the killer Billy Joe Cantrell’s real name was ever on the mail box on the county road up the hill from his family’s shack. After the box rotted off its post and dropped into the ditch, the family left it where it fell, perhaps to finish off some lingering lie about who might be where. Mail was to ignore for a clan that had no truck with government, and did all its business in cash.
Back in those days that meant selling dope they raised a mile south of their house in sunny gaps in the forest surrounded by ten-foot thick sprawls of jumbo-thorn blackberry vines. They were not above stealing anything they could get away with, and none frowned on whoring to make ends meet.
Out behind their shack, beside the single seat in the outhouse, a pile of booklets of real estate ads and giveaway newspapers teetered in the corner. The sisters swiped replacement wiping paper from racks on the sidewalk in town.
The drone of flies grew so loud in the summer that near the outhouse the gurgling creek further back transformed into a silent movie. Such was the stench that most folks wouldn’t pass through the door but the family paid that no mind. If it wasn’t freezing cold and raining too and sometimes when it was, a few of the Cantrell men were prone to use the surrounding woods or go behind the woodshed, but not because of the stink.
None would admit it but those men were every one so claustrophobic that the guards over at County marveled that they could tolerate their jail time. Every one of them except Billy, that is. Something inside that man was broken or missing, like the part God stuck in so you can tell a man with human feelings from a low-down starving mongrel.
Close to sunset, as was their custom, the menfolk of the Cantrell clan collected on the drooping front porch, where it was cooler, taking no notice of the weeds poking through the broken and missing planks. Little brother picked and sang old blues songs about cheating women and murder and religion, but he got the words wrong. Grandpa and Pa and the sons drank whiskey and shine and smoked pot. A river rat nibbled crumbs near the door, pausing to eye folks when they moved. A haggard scar-faced cat the boys named Hal, in honor of Hal Capone, lazed on the window sill, eyelids drooping. When the river rat strayed too far into the light, Hal rose and dropped smoothly to the floor and slipped into the shadows below the window toward the rat.
This particular evening the sisters came to hang out on the porch because Billy was back after hiding out someplace secret for a while–no one knew exactly why–and the sisters hoped to find out what was going on and maybe partake of a bit of liquor or dope. They waited on the porch while Billy fooled around with his guns inside.
Soft light flickered in the rusted kerosene lantern hung on an iron hook at the edge of the porch, laying yellow over the evening. When the night breeze pushed the lantern, dark images of the family swung gently to and fro on the wall like a shadow theater.
From the road, two rowdies were approaching, with such alike slack-jawed grins they could have been one fool and his mirror.
Pa figured they were after dope. They were strangers and the family was running low on supply, so Pa hollered to them to go away. They kept coming, but now with a trace of fear in their moves.
“We’re looking for Billy,” one said.
“He ain’t here.”
“When’s he coming back?”
“He run off to Hazard. Y’all git now. I’m done telling you with words.” He waved them away but they spat and stood ground for a few seconds to show they weren’t afraid then swiftly turned and scurried back toward the way they came.
A little further up the hill one turned and shouted, “What about a girl?” He craned his head and peered hard at the porch. Hearing no answer, he said, “We got money.”
Pa made a vague motion at the stranger and spoke to someone through the screen door. Ma took Slow Sally’s hand and led her up the hill. She haggled some then left Sally with the men. After Ma handed the money to Pa, he felt around in the pockets of her dress for quite some time to make sure he got it all.
Billy stepped out the front door a few minutes later.
“Two boys looking for you,” Pa said.
“Do I care?”
“Buyers, I reckon.”
Billy shrugged and lit a cigarette and sat on the edge of the porch. He smoked for a while then turned toward the family. “Anybody seen Zeke?” The family all knew Billy was letting on like he’d kill Zeke Carter for shooting brother Will, but they also all knew Zeke was too dangerous to mess with.
“Me, I’m glad to get shed of that damned Will,” said little brother, whose poverty of judgment was an object of wonder even on that slanted porch. The girls went mannequin.
Pa swatted little brother hard on the back of his head. “I ought to whup your ass, you.”
Grandma and Ma showed ugly faces at the boy.
The sisters to the last one were terrified of Pa’s temper and Billy’s too, but one, who hadn’t liked what Will forced her to do under the cover of night, gave little brother a small smile of support. Then, for fear Billy might have caught it, she said, “He’s at his momma’s a lot, Zeke is.”
Billy shook his head. “It’s got to be alone.”
Truth was, even if none of the brothers had good sense, they knew better than to tangle with Zeke. Still, none told Billy he was on his own–they made excuses. One brother said, “I heard he moved to Knoxville,” but they all knew it for a lie.
Billy stood and spat. “I’m fed up with the lot of you.” Not a soul among them imagined he meant to include Pa or Grandpa in that remark. “I’m wanting a drink.”
No one spoke up, so Billy fetched his everyday guns and walked off with his snub-nosed .38 under his belt and his twelve-gauge shotgun in one hand. Grandpa yelled after him, “Boy, don’t you be forgetting the shooting match in the morning.” He raised his voice, “I know you hear me.”
Billy may have said he had a hankering for a drink or two but the drinks went on pouring themselves until he had tied one on something awful, staying up all night doing it, and the next morning had the worst hangover – even while he was still so drunk he could hardly walk.
He expected no one to be at home because that was the day Grandpa insisted they all go to the shooting contest over by Pine Town. Billy still had his shotgun and pistol with him but not his rifle, so with that excuse, he said the hell with it and elected to sleep off the booze. As he crossed the yard his mother opened the screen door and spat, eyeing disapproval at his staggering.
“Ma, why ain’t you at the match?”
She spat again. “You damn fool. Where you been?”
“I ain’t right, Ma. The whiskey . . .”
“You know the rules.”
“You okay?” he tried, a poor imitation like he cared.
Billy stumbled on the steps to the porch and lost hold of his shotgun. As he grasped and slapped at it, frantically trying for a catch, it went off square center into the chest of his mother, tossing her backward, arms flung straight up as she hit the rough wood stretched full length and moved not at all.
Her blood puddled outward like angel wings unfolding broken and purple.
“No, Ma.” Billy reached out a hand as if to touch something then stood unmoving.
A shiver rattled his body like a standing man in seizure and a swelling wave of recognition of his wretched nature twisted through him. But that selfsame nature could not identify guilt or responsibility and leaped to block out all feeling. Near motionless, he stared at his mother’s body for all of two minutes. Finally, he shrugged the way he did when the law accused him, and to his mother’s corpse said, “It were a accident.”
He looked around out front and ducked inside to make sure the place was deserted. Pa’s gonna kill me, he thought. Following that, a notion more natural to Billy slid in: If the old man made a play for him, he’d lay Pa in his grave for sure.
Returning to the porch, he eyed the body and rubbed his chin as the black, smothering ghost that lived inside him enfolded his mind. He was hardly aware of his own presence when he took hold of his mother’s ankles and dragged her with a thump to the dirt and around back to the outhouse.
It took some squeezing and pushing and strain but he stuffed her through the hole and heard the slop splash of her hitting bottom. Her body twisted as it fell, so her face looked up out of the dark hole right at him, and her eyes stared straight through his brain all the way to hell.
His hand moving of its own volition, he crossed himself, and it spooked him. I ain’t no Catholic. He laughed at himself and tossed aside the feeling as easily as he spit.
He stood over her breathing heavily then tore open newspapers and ads, spread wide the pages, and dropped them carefully to block out the sight, layer upon layer, loosely to take up the most space, until nothing but paper could be seen, and that not well, it being dim down in there.
“It weren’t my fault, Ma.”
Back on the front porch he saw that most of her blood had drained through the cracks between the boards and down to the dirt below, but enough remained that he thought, They’ll damn quick see that.
Fetching an old shirt and a bottle of liquor, he poured and rubbed until the blood on the porch looked like it might be some other kind of stain but told himself, Pa ain’t no fool and Grandpa will sure as shit know what that is.
He found a bent bucket of decayed brown paint under the shack and smeared it over the stain and wiped up most of it so he could tell his Pa and Grandpa, “Somebody must have spilled something but it weren’t me.” Then he stumbled off into the woods to bury the painted, bloodied shirt then made his way home so he could pass out and sleep it off.
He slept until the family came back from the shooting match arguing and barking over who done what.
Now, Billy’s sister Stella smoked cigarettes and pot right in front of the whole family, but something got into her about cigars. Maybe it was something Ma said. Stella hid out in the woods to smoke them or, if the weather was bad or a bunch of people were around, she might sneak one in the outhouse. That’s what she did that afternoon while the menfolk collected out front to drink and get high and pontificate about the shooting match. She had it half smoked when she heard somebody. Someone who came so quick they rattled the door latch near as fast as she knew anyone was out there.
“Hang on. I ain’t done.” She spread her legs and flicked embers off the end, took a last deep drag, and threw the lit cigar into the waste pit. She flapped both arms all around in big arcs to spread the smoke.
“Hurry up, Stella; I got to go something awful.”
“You always got to go right now.”
“I ain’t fooling, I really got to go.”
“I’m coming, dammit.”
As she stepped out the door she fiddled with the top button on her jeans to make it look like she’d been in there doing it for real.
Stella was in the kitchen arguing with two boys about Chevrolet suspension when the yelling started.
“Fire! It’s on fire!”
Everybody rushed out back and saw smoke pouring from the outhouse door. The boy doing all the yelling slapped at the butt of his pants and hopped around like a man on fire but anyone could see he weren’t more than singed a bit at the edges. Nothing worth such a ruckus.
The old outhouse wood was dry anyway, and there being no rain for so long, the fire took hold of it almost quick as if someone threw gasoline on it, way ahead of what anyone could do with their two pails hauling water from the creek.
After heaving a few useless arcs of water they all stood around and watched, some holding their noses. The blaze hurled up whorls of sparks that snapped and startled. Greasy curls of scalding smoke swept out to sting those too close. A few speculated on how it started, and argued and cussed for their theories. Others fired up fat joints in preparation for commencing their lies and stories.
A boy from a farm in the next valley over rode up on his bicycle and said, “I seen smoke all the way at the road. What’s going on?”
“What’s a matter with you, boy?” Billy said. “It’s a damn fire right there.”
The boy lowered the kickstand on his bike and stood next to Grandpa to enjoy the blaze. After a couple of minutes he laughed and said, “I heard of shitting fire but this sure beats all.” Grandpa knocked the boy down on the ground for that one.
“Good for you,” Grandma said. “That kid aggravates me to no end.”
Anyone up on the road could see it, the smoke rose so high. Plus all the commotion echoed sounds through the trees like there was a celebration back in there. There must have been twenty folks came of curiosity from somewhere. At first they could feel the heat of it from some distance but the outhouse burned fast as kindling so before long there was nothing but a ring of ashes with red coals winking through them circling the hole.
Most soon tired of standing around mouthing over a fire and returned to the front of the house or left. A few curious young’uns drifted closer to kick at live coals or pick up a burning sliver of wood by the cool end or peek into the hole.
Of a sudden, one of the teenage girls screamed and with her hands on her cheeks proceeded to stamp her feet real fast like a football player running in place. She screamed and screamed so all thought for a second she was burnt, but there was nothing on her. She looked fine but for the screaming and stomping.
Finally, Pa went over next to her to see if she’d gone crazy and she pointed at the hole. So he leaned over and looked into the pit then jumped back with a shout like a big snake struck at him. At that most of the boys and the rougher girls all had to see, so they crowded in too.
The fire had drawn tight her facial muscles, so there at the bottom of the pit, Ma, all black and crispy with no eyes, grinned up at them with the widest span of teeth she’d ever showed, her elbows strutting out wide, and knees too, like a devil dancing a jig.
After a while, all but kin wandered off and the Cantrells retired to the front porch to get out of the sun.
“What do we do with her now?” Stella said.
“We’ll bury her out yonder,” Grandpa said, pointing toward the thicker woods to the west. “I’ll say a few words and be done with it.”
Pa frowned. “There’s so many damned roots in there it’ll tear up my shovel digging a hole.”
“Anybody ever find that damn Bible?” Grandpa said.
“I know the dust unto dust part,” Grandma said. “I’ll help put together some words.”
“Might be easier to fill in the hole where she be,” Slow Sally said. “Somebody’s got to put up a new privy anyhow.”
“God dammit, girl,” Grandma said.
Two sisters giggled but they didn’t mean anything by it, they just never did like Ma.
“It sure enough was murder, that’s for damn sure,” the oldest sister said. “I’m calling the law.”
“Sheriff couldn’t solve a crime if it bit him on the pecker,” Grandma said but shut up when Grandpa gave her that look she saw before a whipping.
Grandpa smacked the arm of his rocking chair with his palm. “We ain’t having no law around here so you forget that fool notion once and for all.” He leaned harder in his rocking chair to emphasize his point.
Pa nodded sagely. “I have inclination to agree.” He took a swig of whiskey from his bottle. “Maybe she just upped and fell in and drowned.”
That notion took Stella by such surprise that she almost took out a cigar right there in front of everybody. Wide-eyed, she covered her mouth. “Drowned in shit?”
“She’s your wife so this one’s decided. But I say again, ain’t no need for the law meddling.” Grandpa made the rounds of faces with his eyes squinted to check for rebellion but nobody there was up to crossing him. “And I’m sick and damned tired of all this hollering and crying and arguing.”
“Could it be suicide?” Slow Sally said. “They say some folks do that, honest, they do.”
Stella patted Slow Sally’s hand. “Honey, don’t you be worrying yourself that way, you hear?”
Still, heads were shaking at the mystery of it.
Billy squirmed like he couldn’t find a way to sit right.
“What’s a matter with you, boy?” Pa said.
Billy shook his head.
Pa narrowed an eye at him. “Spit it out, boy.”
Billy leaped to his feet, trembling. “Nothing.” He shuddered then raised his voice near to a holler. “Ain’t nothing a matter.”
The whole crew gaped at him.
His face got that strained look he gave off when doing number two or a thought worked its way into his head. He shifty-eyed them like they were turning jury on him and spoke up right clear. “Not a damn thing.” He shuffled his feet. “Except for Ma, I mean.”
“Hell, boy, ain’t nobody blaming you for nothing.” Pa gestured. “Sit down.”
Billy got half way sat but turned stiff and stood again. “I know who done it.”
All eyes and a lot of open mouths were offered up to that one.
“Zeke. He’s figured out I’m coming for him so he come for me and done her.”
Stella furrowed her brow. “That don’t entirely make sense.” She scratched under her dress while she thought. “Ain’t nobody told Zeke he’s found guilty.”
“It were a warning to me,” Billy said. “And to all of us. If we don’t get him first, he’ll kill us all.”
“All right, then,” Pa said. “The facts is clear.”
Pa took another swig of whiskey from his bottle. With no thought of the fire out back or the dry grass in front of his family, Pa flicked the butt of his smoke far into the yard. “Zeke’s got to pay.”
And with that, all heads nodded agreement that someone ought to kill Zeke for what he done. He had it coming.
Billy said it plain and clear, “I ain’t scared of no man.” And no one ever said he was shiftless or no account.
Not to be making excuses, but it was first one thing and then another.
Billy went away for a month at county. Nothing serious–just fighting, public drunkenness, disturbing the peace–normal stuff.
Then Pa took sick for a couple of months from some bad moonshine, or something he ate. Naturally Billy wouldn’t go off and leave his Pa in that condition, so he hung around on the porch and in the yard. For a while after that Billy didn’t feel his usual self, so he couldn’t really do anything then either.
And somewhere in there Slow Sally got snakebit. A water moccasin, Stella claimed, but a rattler was more likely in the woods where it happened.
Of course the pot had to be planted and tended, and even if the girls did do all the work, Billy had to be the man and be around to keep a look out and all.
Time is most likely the party responsible for anything that didn’t get done. It just kept rolling along and smoothing off edges and wearing folks down until it once again made things like they always are, and life went on the way it does. Smoking some dope. Drinking. Cash business, a little stealing, a little whoring. Resting on the porch to get out of the heat.
“Pass that shine down here, Grandma.”