Life Number TenMarch 22, 2018
Harlan stood at the kitchen sink, staring out the window, looking at nothing in particular. Cocking his head from side to side, he pretended to look at something. He’d seen a guy do it like that in the movies. But outside there were only dark pine trees, big ones that reached to the sky. In fact, he was waiting to wash his hands, but the pressure was down and the water just trickled out of the old faucet. He draped his hands over the edge of the sink and cocked his hip in a relaxing fashion. He’d seen a guy do that, too.
“I once had sex with a cantaloupe,” he said. Waiting and looking out the window at nothing made him think hard.
He spoke to his brother, Earl, sitting at the kitchen table behind him. Earl was perusing an old copy of a popular girlie magazine, looking for the Stephen King story featured on the cover. He was a horror story freak. Some of the pages were stuck together. He was trying to unstick them with a 10-inch blade he’d taken off a trucker earlier that night.
“Was it a fruitful experience?” asked Earl. He smiled and sliced the pages apart. Harlan wouldn’t get it.
“I split that baby down the middle. Opened her up. I put my whole face in it. She was wet and warm and juicy. I was spitting out seeds for a week.”
“The thing about any melon: don’t refrigerate. Consume within two days at room temperature. Ask any chef,” Earl answered. He was well-read, reciting from memory. He pried apart two more of the magazine’s pages. He was tired, weary, felt lost, and was glad for the distraction of the magazine.
The trucker had tried to kill Harlan with the knife, so he’d cold-cocked the trucker before he could do any more damage than Harlan had already just done. He should have killed the trucker.
The trucker knew them. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was something not right about killing him after what Harlan had done. Some kind of karma at work. Earl couldn’t put his finger on it at first.
A pocket of air vibrated the faucet. Rusty water flowed in a staccato fashion. Harlan put his hands under the water as it cleared. The dried blood rinsed off easily with the help of a bar of Lava soap. He rubbed his blood-soaked face and sucked some soapy water in his mouth. He sloshed the water around inside his mouth then spit out the pink water. His mama had taught him that keeping your teeth clean was important. You’d need them your whole life, she’d said. The taste of the soap made him think of the farm. The only soap that got cow shit off your hands, his daddy had said. It did wonders with blood too. Earl watched the pink liquid swirl down the drain. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and dried his hands on his jeans. He wiped everything on his jeans. They were so streaked with grime and fried grease and blood, and God knew what else, they could have walked on their own. A pungent odour drifted off his body and filled the room.
“What’re we gonna do now, Earl?”
Earl split two more pages and stared at the young snatch in the old magazine. The appeal was ageless. He looked up. Harlan was leaning back against the sink, his head cocked, his eyes vacant. He looked like he was in deep thought, but that wasn’t possible. His arms were folded in front of him like he was a politician deciding on his next platform or more than likely for a politician, figuring which filly from the secretarial pool would accompany him on his next stump. But as he stared at Harlan, Earl realised those were his thoughts, his imaginings. Harlan had no original thoughts. He wasn’t capable of having any original thoughts.
“I guess we’re gonna wait,” Earl answered.
“That trucker’s gonna be comin’ with his boys. They know us, Harlan. No tellin’ what they’re gonna do.”
“They gonna be mad?”
“I ‘spect so. That girl was that trucker’s best whore. You killed his best whore. What do you think?”
“Shit. Didn’t know she was his best. I’m sorry.”
“They’re gonna tear you up, boy.” A tear ran down Harlan’s cheek.
“I’m scared,” Harlan said.
“You should be, brother.”
“We could run,” Harlan offered.
“Don’t know. That’s you. You always know.”
“Not this time. Those guys were our best customers. Now, we have no one and nowhere to go. Because of you.”
“I said sorry.”
Earl watched Harlan as he started to pace around the room. He had one hand thrust in the front pocket of his jeans, and with the other, he touched things as he passed them, like he was taking inventory. He was just looking hard for words he could say. When he couldn’t find any, he plopped down at the table in a chair next to Earl. He felt safe next to his brother.
“I remember the cat,” Harlan said.
Earl wasn’t surprised. Harlan could remember things. He just couldn’t think things through. His memories taught him nothing. They were just things that happened.
“You mean the one you nailed to the side of the barn?”
“I did that? I thought it was you.”
“You nailed up the cat. I took the blame,” Earl said.
“Mama was real pissed off with you. I remember that.” Harlan laughed, slapped his knee. He’d seen a guy do that.
“It was easier to take the blame than try to explain it.”
How could he explain to his mama the deficiencies Harlan possessed? Mothers don’t see those things in their children. Denial is a mother’s privilege and her last hope.
Earl stood up behind his brother.
“Cats have nine lives. You told me,” Harlan said.
Earl reached around the front of Harlan and pulled his head back against him in a caress like a lover might do.
“Yeah. When he died, you told me that was number ten.”
“I guess he reached his limit,” Earl said.
Harlan put his hand on Earl’s. Earl couldn’t let him suffer at the hands of the uncaring, those seeking revenge for their own reckless need. Maybe he’d make it on his own, Earl thought, maybe not.
He pushed the knife slowly, and only a little ways, into the side of Harlan’s neck, just enough to puncture the jugular. Blood pumped out between his fingers.
“It’s getting dark,” Harlan said.
Earl looked out the kitchen window. The morning sky was starting to brighten.
“Don’t worry, little brother, it’ll be light soon.”by