Joy J. Henry wrote a series of connected short stories and drew illustrations to accompany songs by The Mountain Goats. Have a listen:
Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums
After I got the call that Jenny had been in a car accident, I stared out the window for some time. Welfare kids played in the sand between the apartment units, ramped their bikes through the ditch. One with ash-colored hair and a green cast on his wrist sailed at least five feet into the air.
Like Jenny, these unwanted kids were developing slightly superhuman powers; the poison of being abandoned manifested in unforeseen ways, like being exposed to nuclear waste in a comic book: breaking the same bone five times and yet healing over again; effortlessly playing Legos while an aunt or grandma or whoever cared for them screamed at someone on the phone.
Jenny’s mother Beth, my daughter, had skipped town while Jenny was still in the cradle. I changed Jenny’s diapers, fed her mashed up bananas. She grew up sweet but detached. When she turned 11, she began stealing car batteries from Pep Boys for me when mine died, but she wouldn’t ever tell me what she was thinking. On the day she started her period, she woke up in a pool of fresh blood.
“I’ll deal with it, Nana,” she said, balling the sheets up and putting them in the washer.
Now Jenny was dead at 17, a year younger than Beth had been when she gave birth to Jenny and left town.
When I went into labor with Jenny’s mother, Harold and I had gone to the then new Seven Rivers Hospital. Now I wouldn’t take my dog there, if I had one. At the hospital, they put me in a gown, sat me in a chair.
“The baby’s coming,” I said. The nurse stared at me blankly, in her paper hat and white shoes. “The doctor’s not ready yet,” she said. “You’re going to have to keep the baby inside you until he’s ready. Here, let me show you how.”
The nurse climbed onto the bed, turned on her side, and pulled her knees up to her chest.
I didn’t know any better, so I imitated her as best I could. Harold stroked my head, getting more and more exasperated as I wheezed and grunted against Beth’s desire to escape. “That doctor can eat plums!” Harold yelled, so they could hear him down at the nurse’s station. Harold was Catholic, had worn the same crew cut since he served in WWII. “Plums!”
Eventually, the doctor came. When I woke up from the twilight sleep I had a baby girl and a burst womb. Beth was alive, but I had poisoned her that day, holding her inside against her will.
When Beth hit 14, she started sleeping with the shrimpers when they came to dock on the weekends. During the week she hung out with the burnouts from school, the ones who parked their cars on dead end roads and smoked dope. She had Jenny just before graduating high school, left a few months later with a top man from the Army Corps of Engineers.
He was the one who’d come up with the idea to build a cross-Florida barge canal, dredge a convenient shipping route through the state. Soon, Greenpeace was raising a stink about the endangered wading birds, killing the project. Beth flew with the engineer across the world, leaving behind a baby and a five mile long useless canal. A year later, Harold died of throat cancer. Envelopes arrived from time to time, with checks made out to Jenny and blank postcards indicating Beth’s current exotic location. I put them in a cabinet above the fridge.
I did the best I could raising Jenny. As a child she’d always loomed over me, like the three-legged frogs that came out of the woods near the canal, after they’d sprayed defoliant chemicals. “I can sense that something’s wrong with me,” she seemed to be saying. “And who did it? Was it you?”
What was I supposed to say? I accidentally poisoned you and your mother a long time ago? I told Jenny that her mother was an important government operative, and when she got too old for the act, I didn’t say much of anything.
“Your mother’s just off eating plums, honey,” Harold would’ve said.
Alpha Desperation March
I came out of the bank to find Barb chain smoking next to the Olds. She cut quite a figure there, her body long and lean from the exercise DVDs she couldn’t stop ordering off the TV.
“Dja get it?” she said, as I opened the door and snaked my body in.
“Why’d they build that bank with the hills around it like that?” I said instead, fiddling with the radio knob. It was permanently set on seek, and every 30 seconds would abandon its current station.
“Earthen berm,” Barb said, but it sounded like “earthen berm-a” because she was emphasizing so much. “Keeps the cool air in.” She smacked her gum with a knowing satisfaction. She was always chewing gum and smoking at the same time.
“I got it,” I said, showing her the withdrawal envelope stuffed underneath my left armpit. “$8,375.”
“Oh goddamn!” she said, slapping the dash. “Thank you Milly! Goddamn, duck soup!” Barb was from Brooklyn.
I had killed my Grandma’s cat, and taken the insurance money. I was in charge of Grandma’s finances, being that she was showing signs of senility, and I was the only one left.
At home, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. “How do they even make money selling pet insurance,” I said loudly, so Barb could hear. “Pets have such a short life span. Around here, you get a good five years before a feral dog eats it.”
I cut off my long brown ponytail with two or three clips of the scissors and threw it in the trashcan. I had hated it for some time.
“You’ve got these old ladies, they don’t let their cats see the light of day. They buy cat food instead of blood pressure meds.” She paused to chew some cereal. “Three weeks later the cat’s licking the dead broad’s eyeballs.”
I made a face in front of the mirror. The sink was surrounded by more of Barb’s TV purchases. A woman’s mustache trimmer, all-in-one makeup kits, a magnetic bracelet designed to decrease stress. I slid it around my wrist.
I changed my mind, picked the ponytail out of the trash. Inside the master bedroom, I sprinkled the hair across Barb’s rose bedspread. Around the bed, opened and abandoned boxes filled the floor: faux leather jackets, limited edition NFL jerseys, pillows for side sleepers. This was what my savings had been transmogrified into.
Barb stood at the kitchen counter over the empty cereal bowl. “Whaddya say we pawn some of this stuff before we hit the road,” I said, trying not to let my hands shake. We put the DVD player, the TV, and a Brett Favre juicer into some trash bags, grabbed our suitcases, and got in the car. The plan was to go live in her brother’s in-law unit in Palm Beach, get a fresh start with our cash.
I pulled into the plaza, helped Barb carry the bags of electronic equipment into The Getting’ Place Pawn. I had never had the heart to stop her, really. She was only ever truly happy when she was telling me how some new purchase was going to change our lives. Those leathery ladies on that QVC channel prey on the weak, and they know it.
As I walked back out to the Olds, I could hear Barb’s familiar pointed tone negotiating with the pawnshop man over prices. “You’re called Barb for a reason,” I would half-joke to her sometimes. I snaked my body into the driver’s seat, fiddled with the radio, and drove left out of the Food Ranch parking lot.
Tahitian Ambrosia Maker
When we got off the airplane, Beth was still feigning strength. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to cry like a little girl.
“You ever ran away from home before?” I asked, running my fingers along the white skin behind her ear. “You know, made some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, put them in your little backpack, and walked to the edge of the neighborhood?”
The year was 1974, and yes, I was an asshole, but I had just been dishonorably discharged from the Army Corps of Engineers for trying to dig a canal straight through Florida. A little piece of Panama right here in our own country.
“You’re just like Harold,” she said. “Just another fucking post-war jerk.” Harold was her father. I should’ve known the thing had daddy issues. She was 18, had left her newborn baby at home with her mother.
“Beth, I was two years old when WWII started.” I winked at the young Polynesian woman who stamped our passports, walked out from under the overhang of the outdoor airport, and opened the door of a taxi.
I’d booked a room in a low bungalow over the water, the kind you needed a boat to get to. The walls were sheets of canvas that you could roll up or down by pulling a cord. Beth methodically went around the room, pulling each up to bring a 360 degree view of the water.
“Now it looks like our bedroom is a marooned life raft.” She was calm now, had retrieved a marijuana cigarette from a little baggy she kept stuffed in her panties. She sprawled out on the bed reading maps and guidebooks, wearing only a long flowy skirt.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “Our closest neighbors are some tribes who continue to inhabit islands where we tested the H bomb.”
“I do enjoy your cutting social critique,” I said, and she smirked at me. I climbed on top of her. “But I like your body better.”
I met Beth when she was serving Army engineers beer and chicken wings at the Pub in Inglis. She made snide little jokes when she would bring us more blue cheese or celery sticks. By then I knew the canal project was going straight down the shitter, courtesy of some long-haired fucks at Greenpeace. One night I caught the small of her back as she carried a tray of dirty plates into the kitchen. I told her I was leaving the project out of principle, and that she should come with me.
Night fell and the lights from the other bungalows bounced off the water, a small colony of life rafts. We made love, Beth still wearing that stupid skirt and intermittently laughing hysterically.
“My Tahitian ambrosia maker,” I said afterwards, as I retrieved a beer from the ice box. She was eating straight from a loaf of sourdough bread she’d brought in her backpack.
Jerky crying sounds startled me awake in the night. As my eyes adjusted I could see Beth sitting on the edge of the bungalow, her feet dangling above the water. Would I say I felt guilty? Yes. Yes, I did, taking a young girl away from her tiny child and home. At the time, I just muttered fuck, and started to fall back asleep. If she wanted to go back to Inglis, her career at the Pub or Texaco station would still be there.
The next morning she was gone, along with the little dinghy, the only transportation off the bungalow. She had cased the place, taken my watch, traveler’s checks, the few hundred dollars I’d brought.
She left an angry note—must have been expecting more. The truth was, I’d booked this flight through dubiously acquired frequent flyer miles. I bought $15,000 in $1 coins from the U.S. Mint on an airline credit card, then deposited the coins in my bank account. I had to give my ex-wife and kid every cent of the discharge money I got from the Army.
Goodbye Bob, the note began. I know you were fired from the army—it’s a matter of public record. Adios.
Not fired, I thought, you don’t get “fired” from the Army. But there was no one there to argue with. I sat around waiting for low tide, until I could make my way to the shore.
Fall of the Star High School Running Back
I woke up in the hospital, my hands shackled to the bed. An officer in a black DEA jacket was reading a wrinkled People magazine. I tried to close my eyes quickly, so he wouldn’t see I was awake. Too late.
“Where’d you get it, Donahue,” he said. He was being a bastard, not looking up at me from the pages.
“Exactly how happy are Brad and Angelina about their new baby?”
“Don’t be cute with me, son.”
“Reginald Park,” I said, remembering what Barb had told me. If you ever get caught, you bought this shit in Reginald Park.
I spent the time before my trial in Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center. This center had recently been toured by a foreign diplomat, as part of a program of cultural exchange.
“But where’s the prison for white kids?” he’d said after the tour.
My cell mate was a fifteen year old who went by Rocko. He had somehow gotten his hands on a cat o’ nine tails, had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon. He had OCD, would remake his bed five times every morning. “Cock-a-doodle-do, Irishman,” he’d taken to saying in my ear to wake me up.
I wasn’t sleeping well, was having strange dreams about my mother. I would look over and her legs would be amputated at the upper thigh, two stubs. She just smiled, beaming at me and laughing. “But why?” I’d argue, my eyes growing wide.
In reality I talked to her several times a day, collect. I could hear my step dad hacking in the background, counting the phone bill in his head.
“William,” she said, “I’m sending you a care package.” It was seven hours from Jackson county to Inglis. “We just came back from the bank. They say we can refinance the house again.”
“Mom, don’t do that.”
“We’re gonna get the best shark of a lawyer we can find.”
“Eh, they’re all sharks, mom.”
Mom still kept pictures of me in my football uniform on top of the entertainment center. Cynthia always snickered at them when she came over. Cynthia was the type of girl who would’ve openly laughed in my face, before my knee turned to jelly and I had to have my ACL replaced.
The night I’d gotten caught began like many nights, sitting in lawn chairs in Cynthia’s garage. Now that my football career was over, I enjoyed smoking cigarettes, the fumes curling up in my lungs. We didn’t have any paper, so we took turns dropping the acid from a medicine bottle into the whites of each other’s eyes.
“Where do flies go in the winter?” Cynthia asked. She was obsessed with 19thcentury joke books.
“I dunno,” I said.
“To the glass foundry to be turned into bluebottles!”
“You are so funny,” I said, smiling, coming up behind her and kissing her earlobe, the hairline beneath her dyed-black ponytail, her collarbone. Inside the house we could hear the rat-a-tat of gun fire from the Xbox, where her mom was playing video games. This is all she’d been doing since Cynthia’s older brother, Brad, had wrapped his truck around a tree and died in the hospital, a year ago.
We got on my new Japanese bike, chrome spokes paid for with drops of acid to friends from other little bottles. The road was beginning to quiver and iridesce. We would go to a party where I’d put a few drops on a piece of paper for a handsome young plainclothes policeman.
After my son Brad died, going to the Food Ranch became my favorite pastime. Inside the store, time had stopped a long while ago, before Brad’s nineteen-year life began. There were huge wooden signs in ‘70s burnt orange and poop brown, demarking the produce, the meat, the frozen foods sections. Brad had ran his truck into a tree at 70 miles per hour, with this girl, Jenny, in the passenger seat.
If I needed nothing else from the Food Ranch, I could always pick up a card. The sentiments were all boring and tasteful—no sexy women tantalizing old men on their birthdays, no animals making fart jokes. I grabbed one from the thank you section with dancing peanuts on the front. I would go nuts without your help, the inside insisted. I put it in the cart.
When I got home I would make it out to Jenny’s grandmother. The wrinkled, hunched woman had been Jenny’s guardian, her only real family. A few days ago, she’d pulled up next to me at the gas station, and I had a moment of terror where I could imagine her looking over at me and slowly mouthing, “Your son killed Jenny.”
But she just held her hand over her chest and looked at me through my windshield, devoid of hate. She had long grey hair and skin like crumpled up paper, openly eschewing old lady haircuts and cold cream. She wheeled her oxygen tank inside the Texaco, bought a carton of Kools, and drove away.
The human resources man at work had told me I needed to express my feelings, as he’d stared down into my cleavage. He might be a pervert, but he had a point. I began filling up greeting cards, inspired by whatever phrasing happened to be on the front. Then I fed them into the garbage disposal.
I picked up a card out of the congratulations section, one telling a young child that Jesus made them special on their baptism day. On the front, a few children stood around expectantly while a long-haired, virile son of God fed some sheep.
It looked just like the only memorial cards the funeral home had for a young person’s death. Jesus leading a little kid to heaven. I hadn’t wanted the cards passed out at the funeral, but I’d told the director yes anyway. Brad’s sister Cynthia had been with me, and she’d plainly hated them.
“Maybe you have something more teenager-y, more extreme?” Cynthia asked the funeral director. “Perhaps Jesus jumping out of a plane, or ollying his skateboard.”
I knelt down on one knee, leaned my head against the twelve-pack of toilet paper underneath the cart. I saw the pattern on Brad’s dress socks, inside my slip-on loafers.
My eyes focused through the metal bars of the cart, a close-up view of the vigil I was keeping—packs of Top Ramen noodles, the peanut card, some bananas, $6 bottles of wine. In other countries women wore black for years when their loved ones died, they paraded the body through the streets, assembled shrines of powerful mementos. I knelt there for minutes or hours, until a bag boy came and gently touched my shoulder with the tips of his fingers.