by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80)
The Oddville Press Summer 2020
NOBODY HITCHHIKED ANY MORE, not through this America so full of dread and bad history. That did not necessarily mean the thing could not be done. Thumb out. If a person were leaving Broadhope County in south Virginia headed toward a destination he was as yet unable to visualize, it could not hurt to try for a lift. Not on the highway, where police prowled, just a plain old country road. Thumb out.
He put the odds at slim to none that somebody would stop and pick him up, this close to a dense wood of loblolly pines, under a gray sky in late October, a quarter mile from a broken-armed scarecrow in a field of corn- stalk stubble. Guilt by association. Slimmer still, those odds, that it would be a woman who stopped, but she did. He did not know cars. Makes and models evaded him. This one was red and looked sort of new.
“Where you headed?” the woman wanted to know. Her name was Avis, she informed him. She was black and old. She had a plain, calculating face and was not afraid of him.
“Oklahoma,” he told her, sliding into the passenger seat and strapping the belt across his chest.
His name was Quill. He was thirty and as of this morning no longer had a home. He was a man who had long allowed fear to dominate his decisions, his lack of decisions, but that was over and done with.
“You got a ways to go,” Avis told him, “but I don’t need to tell you that. What’s in Oklahoma?”
One thing he sensed right at the outset, in the freshness of change: lying was a lot like sailing. It called for an even keel as you cut through deep water. Not that he had ever sailed, but within the limits of his experience his mind was nimble.
“My granny died,” he said. “She left me a chicken farm in Arrowhead County. Not a big one, but it’s a going concern or so I’m told.”
“I am sorry for your loss. You were close to your granny, I guess.”
“Pen pals, you might say. We kept in touch.” “I see.”
Next to Avis on the seat was a telephone.
She could pick it up and check to see if there was such a place as Arrowhead County, Oklahoma. But she didn’t. She wasn’t going far, just to the Exxon station four or five miles from where she picked him up. She told him about the Easter, years back, her auntie wore a floppy bonnet to church and was attacked by a robin because the hat had a nest of simulated twigs in which rested little wooden eggs, painted pale blue.
Getting out of the car at the gas station, he thanked her for the ride.
“You want a piece of advice?” she said. He nodded.
“You gonna tell a lie, do it with more conviction.”
He nodded again, frozen in place until she pumped her gas and waved and went back up the same road they had come down together. The yellow grass in the field on the east side of the Exxon was briefly black with crows. Snoddy used to sit on the back porch and shoot them out of the sky with a shotgun. That was years ago in a simpler time when the rivers ran white with whiskey and the hearts of lovers cracked like tragic eggs. Snoddy was a man who had been his stepdaddy for a number of years, until that too came to its end. Quill always felt bad for the murdered birds, watching them plummet to the indifferent earth. With his ultra-keen eyesight he saw the birdshot, each tiny pellet, from the moment it left the barrel of the gun until it smashed into the unsuspecting crow. His momma called that bullshit. His concern for shot birds was just weakness, she insisted, it was the shameful weakness of a boy by the name of Penfield Quill.
He went into the little convenience store that was attached to the garage. He had a child’s weakness for gummy worms, but it was time to put away such things, on top of which there was the question of money. He needed some. He came back out again. It seemed more like fortune than luck when, after an hour of standing around, a geezer pulled up in a truck older than he was and asked Quill did he want to make twenty bucks.
The old guy, whose beard derived from the Old Testament, shook his head, bothered by the need to explain. Because Quill was not in a position to bargain for anything, not even information, he went with the man to a one-horse farm set back off the road where dogs on chains leapt and snarled. There was a pile of firewood. It needed moving from out behind the barn to the porch, where it had to be stacked leaving room for the front door to swing open. Winter was on its way, and fires called for. Quill moved the split logs with a wheelbarrow and did not hate the job.
After a while the old man came out with two cups of coffee, and Quill took a breather on the porch steps.
“Ain’t you got a regular job?” the farmer said. On either side of his large beard, his ears were question marks.
“I had one,” Quill told him inaccurately, “but I quit.”
“Hadn’t been feeling good. Went to the doctor. She told me I have a rare disease.”
“Oh yeah? What kind of disease?”
“First you lose your memory. Then it comes back, but everything you remember is different, and mostly wrong. After a while, you can’t cry anymore, or laugh, or even be afraid. All you can do is look straight ahead and wish things. Weird things, according to the doctor, like you wish you could be a wood duck, or that rain came from the ground and went up into the sky.”
“Damnedest disease I ever heard of.”
“Like I say, it’s rare. I figured, what the heck, if that’s what I’ve got to look forward to, might as well see the country.”
“This what you call seeing the country?” “I’m just getting started.”
Quill accepted the old man’s offer of a bed for the night. The farmer, whose name was Burnside, cooked sausage and eggs for their dinner, and Quill told him more lies about the symptoms of his disease. He had the sense Burnside wanted to believe him but was struggling to get past his doubt.
It rained that night. Quill got out of bed in the guest room upstairs and opened the window. He sat there in a straight-backed chair with a sense of bereavement that subtly influenced the falling rain. It made no sense until he realized he was lamenting the loss of the person he had so recently been. Get the hell out, his mother had ordered him the night before. Serious, this time she was. You ain’t gonna freeload off me no more. Get out of your goddamn room and go be a man somewhere. He was taking her advice but with the foreknowledge that his particular path to manhood was likely to be crooked.
In the morning, Burnside told Quill he knew what he needed. Quill did not ask what that was, but he took his open mind and went with the farmer to a house clear across the county—it was taking longer than Quill had anticipated, getting out of Broadhope—to a yellow house on the outskirts of Red Post, near the trailer park where the Black Muslims lived. Quill had seen the Muslim women shopping at the Kroger, now and then. In their head scarves and self-possession they looked like saints and reinforced his suspicion that he was not the person he ought to be. It was not so much that he was evil as that an insidious worm was forever crawling through his innards, leaving a trail of slime as it went.
Burnside told him to wait in the truck and spoke at some length to a redhaired woman on the porch. Phyllis had big thighs and shifted from one foot to the other as though she had to use the bathroom. The conversation, from Quill’s distance, was emphatic, but at the end of it he was inside her little house, in her little wallpapered bedroom, taking off his clothes with a combination of shame and joy, both of them deep. The pattern of the wallpaper was row upon row of pink roses and green leaves. When he had turned seventeen, Snoddy was still his stepdaddy and took him to a house like this one in Briery, the county seat. So he was able to tell the woman truthfully that he was not a virgin. Not that she asked.
“You’re an unusual fuck,” she told him after they had been in the bed an hour or so and were worn out with mutual thrashing.
Quill focused, greatly desirous of getting this next one right. “I had a twin brother. Iden- tical. Growing up, we had our own language. We could even do math problems in it.”
“Something happen to him?”
“You won’t believe me.”
“Not if you don’t tell me, I won’t.”
“Our momma didn’t like it, us being so close, going around saying stuff nobody could understand. She called a man in the federal government, I don’t know who. They came in a tan-colored car and took my brother away. We were age eleven at the time. A sedan. The tan car was a sedan, four-door, and the driver had a red tie with little blue balloons on it. I remember like it was yesterday.”
Phyllis sat up in the bed, and Quill thanked his one lucky star for the sight of her breasts, which were firm and shapely for a woman of her fortyish age, with red-brown nipples that went beautifully with her hair. She lit a cigarette, offered him one he turned down. “What was your brother’s name?”
“Wilton. It’s not like he’s dead. We get reports, every once in a while, about the scientific tests they’re running on him at a laboratory in New Jersey. The reports make him out to be some kind of genius. He’s a hero. I miss him. I miss him a lot.”
“Poor Penfield, stuck home with no way to be a hero. Still, you got Old Man Burnside to spring for an hour of my time, and I know for a fact that man’s wallet only opens once every couple of years. You must have a little of what Wilton’s got in you.”
Quill didn’t answer. He was thinking about Oklahoma, wishing there were a county called Arrowhead in that western state. He asked Phyllis if she minded, could he take a nap in her bed.
“Suit yourself,” she told him. “No extra charge.”
It was pleasant to watch her dress from the snug disordered bed, which retained her scent. He had wondered often enough what it looked like, seeing a woman put on her bra. In this case, the bra was black, and the sight of its cups capturing her breasts moved him. But then he fell into a profound sleep. It was probably all that firewood hauling the day before. At home, in his previous life, he had not been actively active. A dream came to him, but he was able to switch it off and sleep unimpeded.
When he woke, Phyllis was drinking a cup of tea on the front porch and scratching her ankle. She was dressed to go out, waiting for him to finish his nap.
“I’m running into town. You want me to drop you somewhere?”
“Where you going?”
“To see your brother.”
“It’s about time, wouldn’t you say?”
So she dropped him downtown in Briery.
They shook hands like business partners, and Quill walked to Memorial Park. The October air had a tang in it. The tang of death, he called it. Pleased with the description, he sat on a bench.
She’s not a bad mother, he heard himself say, but it sounded like somebody else’s voice, one he was not sure he ought to trust. Belinda Ruth had lived her own difficult life. Her childhood stories were enough to curl the hair on a bald man. Why wouldn’t she take it out on her son, now and then? Well, and of course he had grown up to be her special disappointment. He missed his room, which was where he spent most of his time. But with an effort of will he put his mother and his ex-home out of his mind. He was a long way from Oklahoma and an inherited chicken farm.
The college kid walking by toking on a cigarette said sure when Quill asked him if he could bum a smoke. That was not how you said it, not in today’s America where there would be a cooler way to ask. Quill had never smoked a cigarette in his life so had to pretend to inhale in order not to make a coughing fool of himself. But Will—that was the student’s name—didn’t seem to notice his defective smoking, and had some time to kill. He took a seat on Quill’s bench, and Quill retrospectively analyzed what he had told Phyllis about his brother Wilton.
It was not yet the essential lie toward which he was making his stumbling way. Still, he had made enough progress in the science of the thing to have this insight: how the right verbal forgery might lead him to truth.
His power of invention was momentarily shut down. As badly as he wanted to, he could not come up with anything worth saying to Will except thanks for the cigarette, and the student moved on.
Suddenly it was the evening of the second day of Quill’s adventure into manhood and
he had not left the county. Some trip, some voyage of self-discovery. As an escapee, he was a failure.
Mentally, he put up his hand in a stop sign. He absolutely could not be what his mother had forever charged him with being. Slow learner, maybe. All right. He could admit that much about himself. But not a failure.
A place to spend the night. He left the park and walked dark streets, stopping at a fast food place to eat a piece of fried chicken and drink a glass of water. The teenage girl at the window handed him the water with contempt. Free water was for losers. But he had to husband his money, not knowing what lay ahead. When it seemed late enough nobody would notice, he lay down on the porch of a big house with pillars in the Whispering Pines neighborhood. He fell dead asleep despite the chilly air, the ungiving boards, no pillow. Nature, he surmised, was protecting him.
A squirrel woke him early, chattering from the steps. That was a good thing, because he was able to roust himself and move on before somebody in the house came out onto the porch to pick up the Richmond paper, which had been tossed there as Quill slept. Don’t bother reading that crap, Snoddy used to say, all the news in the damn paper stinks to high heaven, which at the time made Quill wonder if there was a low heaven, more accessible to a person like him.
His penis as he walked reminded him of Phyllis, and the same shame and joy he had felt in her bedroom yesterday came back to visit like two old friends who never went anywhere without the other. His dick swelled and jumped around in his pants, calling out curses and blessings in a tongue with which he was not overly familiar. Before he could think about any kind of Oklahoma, he knew he had to see the red-haired woman one more time.
It took the better part of the third day of his journey to get back to Red Post. He hiked to the edge of Briery and put his thumb out, but nobody stopped. The early spring heat didn’t help. His face got red with it, and his forehead was wet with sweat, giving him the look of a man in distress, a sight from which it was all too easy to look away. He waited a good hour, a bad hour, before hiking some more. He got a short ride and was put down at a crossroads that bisected a fenced pasture, from one side of which seven llamas of different sizes and colors looked at him with tall disdain, their mouths working steadily as they chewed.
Another short ride. Another long walk.
Not until the sun was going down did he reach Phyllis’s yellow house. As he went up her drive, an army of noisy starlings pivoted in the shimmering rose-gold sky, on their way to the night’s bivouac. He gave thanks in general to see her car. She was home. The car, like the house, was yellow.
She did not want to let him in. “Please,” he said.
“I owe you an apology,” he explained. “Apology accepted. Now move on, Penfield.”
“I told you a lie, yesterday. A whopper.” “I knew you never had no heroic twin brother in New Jersey. You ain’t that good of a liar.”
“Can I come in and tell you the truth?”
“If you’re after a free piece of ass, look someplace else.”
“I only want to tell you the truth,” he promised.
The important lie was crystalizing in him, growing firmer, acquiring a more definite shape, with every passing minute. That was a relief. Tramping country roads all day had brought him to a low ebb of discouragement. Now, though, crossing Phyllis’s threshold into her cozy living room, he had a strong sense of something that resembled accomplishment about to be.
She sat in her saggy upholstered chair eating a bowl of spaghetti and drinking red wine. She could not help being sexy, not any more than his penis could help its intermittent high-pitched yelping. She was wearing jeans and a blouse with a V neck that emphasized the indisputable fact of her breasts.
“You want some spaghetti, help yourself,” she told him. “It’s a pot on the stove.”
Quill thought he would tell a better lie if he had something in his stomach, so he helped himself to a bowl of spaghetti and poured wine into a tumbler. He sat opposite Phyllis, and they watched each other eat.
“You want the TV on?” she asked him. “No, thanks.”
“You think I’m a whore.”
“To be honest, I haven’t given it any thought.”
She frowned, which increased her age by a good five years. “I’m no whore, I’m a woman in a messed up situation.”
“It’s complicated, I bet.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
He let her go on for a few minutes, explaining the history of her personal and professional mistakes. It was the least he could do, since she was going to be the repository of his indispensable lie. When she came to a breaking point, he began.
“You hear about that house fire over to Darlington Branch?”
She shook her head.
“You will. That was our house, the Quill place.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Furnace blew up, an old oil burner. My momma, my stepdaddy, our two dogs and two cats, they all got burnt up in the fire.”
“But not you?”
“I was out in the barn when it blew. I ran up and tried to get into the house, hopefully save somebody, but the flames were already too big. That old farmhouse went up like a matchstick.”
“And you lost your family.”
“Yes, ma’am. And also the deed to the property, and a coin collection my granddaddy willed me—one guy that looked it over told me the collection was worth ten thousand dollars, but that was a few years ago so probably it was worth more now—and the family Bible. Not that we were religious, but it had the history of the Quills going back a hundred and fifty years. On the flyleaf, you know how the old-timers used to write that stuff down? Also, I lost a photo album with the only pictures of Lottie we had.”
“My baby sister. She died when she was six months old. From pneumonia.”
“Did you have insurance on the house?”
“Momma missed too many payments. Anyway I am shit out of luck. No money to bury them on, far as that goes.”
“So you have nothing.”
He nodded. The science of telling a lie included knowing when to shut your mouth. He leaned forward and placed his empty spaghetti bowl on the coffee table, next to an African violet in a clay pot. He liked the plant’s being there, in the home of a woman with red hair who was coping as best she could with her situation. The deep purple blossoms were, to his irreligious mind, a note of grace.
“I don’t know what in hell to believe,” Phyllis told him.
“Believe the truth. That story about my brother Wilton… well, I never had no brother of that name and never will. The truth is, it’s all over for me, period and the end.”
Finally, he had gotten it right. Knowing that, being sure, gave him a warm feeling inside that complemented the wine. Speaking of which, he went to the kitchen and brought back the bottle. He poured them both another glass. Facing each other they drank slowly as the night came down on the yellow house, on Broadhope County, on the well told lie of Penfield Quill’s wrack and ruin. There were tears in his eyes as he lifted his glass, as well there should be, just not the tears Phyllis presumed they were.
“All that hard luck coming down on your head,” she said with understandable suspicion, “it’s sad all right, it’s real sad. But it don’t entitle you to no free nooky.”
He shrugged. “How ‘bout we see what’s on TV now?”
She shrugged, her shoulders moving just as much as his had, just as little. “Remote’s around here somewhere.”
Quill was not big on television, as a rule, but he didn’t mind watching a little with her. This was how it had worked, just as he’d had an inkling it would. Find and tell the exactly right lie, and you punched through to the truth. Which in its perversity had been hiding on you. And the truth was this: he was a seedling, head just barely popping up out of the dirt.
It was not the end, it was the beginning. Of everything. His life was not over, it was just starting. With any luck, with the right combination of sunlight and rain and whatever it was that trees ate, a year from now he would be a sapling. In Phyllis’s little living room, in the heat of her reasonable reluctance, that sounded pretty good. He got up and hunted around for the remote.
Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80) has published more than 150 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, and The Hudson Review. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press. His website can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.