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Darker Than Milk


“Get your hands off of that fucking deer, Charlie!” Warren called out to his soft-headed son from their trailer.

Charlie had indeed crept across the road into their neighbor Mr. Roach’s shed and was elbow-deep inside the deer that was strung up by the neck, blood drying brown and in streaks on its white underbelly.

“I don’t wanna,” Charlie yowled and stuck his arms in even further. It made a delicious squelching sound. He played in the blood and let it trickle over his hands in wonder. It was so warm, hot even, and the color wasn’t like how it was in the movies.

             “Get in the fucking house, boy, or you won’t get any supper now,” he called again.

            Instead, Charlie made two fists inside the deer and stood, unidentifiable matter hanging from his curled fingers in a sour, purple, stinking mess.

“Charlie!” Warren warned.

            “Do I gotta?” he yelled out to his Pa from across the twilit street, stalling for time, his thin little voice cracking and nearly disappearing. He stared at the deer’s big glossy eye. It looked peaceful. Charlie raised his chin to admire the smooth bone of the deer’s antlers.

The deer didn’t look real now that it was dead, and Charlie wondered if all things stopped looking real as soon as they died. He remembered his grandfather’s open casket funeral a year ago. He’d looked like a made-up wax baby doll, the same kind that the little girl down the street was always playing with, and Charlie had laughed out loud when he’d seen his grandfather lying there like that. Charlie remembered how his Pa had taken him outside and given him the belt because he couldn’t stop laughing, and even when the pain of poorly placed metal stung him straight in the middle of his back, he’d had to hold his mouth closed with both hands to keep from laughing still.

“Yes, Charlie. Now. C’mon and get your stew.”

Charlie felt the scalding tears come. He didn’t want to leave the deer. Not now. He glanced at the front door of their double wide to where his Pa was peering out at him from under the brim of his trucker hat. His shirt was unbuttoned, and a hairy belly hung out like a big white moon. Charlie shoved a handful of deer insides deep in his left denim pocket.

“S’okay. I’ll be back,” he whispered before sprinting across the street to their trailer.

            “Go on, wash up now.” Warren cupped the back of his son’s head when he finally came trudging over. He maneuvered him into the kitchen, nose wrinkling to a sudden and odd whiff of stink.

A big metal pot bubbled on the stove. Two hound dogs sat underneath it, tongues lolling out of their mouths, waiting for something to drop. Charlie blundered across the peeling yellowed linoleum toward the sink and Warren took attention to dinner.

Charlie sniffed the air. It smelled like squirrel again. He turned the faucet on, careful to use the cake of yellow soap on both hands and in between his fingers like his Pa taught him.

He glanced down at his pocket to make sure there was still a bulge there. A brownish spot had begun to bleed through the faded blue of his jeans and Charlie hoped his Pa wouldn’t see it, or worse, smell it, and make him throw the guts outside for the buzzards. He finished washing his hands and went over to sit down at the sticky kitchen table. Opened and discarded mail and a half empty bottle of bourbon sat next to his elbow.

Hanging on the wall in front of him was a crucifix, a framed photograph of Charlie’s grandfather in his Korea uniform, and the mounted head of an open-mouthed coyote. On the table was a plate full of Wonder Bread slices because that was how Warren had taught Charlie to eat squirrel stew, by sopping up the last of it with the bread. That was Charlie’s favorite part.

            Warren carried two steaming bowls to the table, two ice cold beers, and a Coke under his armpits. The dogs followed, saliva frosting their tongues, hanging in strings from their teeth.

            “Why do we have to eat this stew all the time? Don’t you know we had it yesterday too, Pa?” Charlie fingered his Coca-Cola and cocked his head at his father.

Warren cracked open one of the beers and guzzled it down. While he drank, he rolled the other can on the back of his neck and closed his eyes to the immediate reprieve. He finished the second beer and belched when he was done. “Just eat.”

“Hey, Pa?”

            “Charlie, how many times do I have to say it? You have a question, just ask.” Warren always talked with his mouth full so Charlie could see everything inside.

            One of the dogs figured out that Charlie had dead animal guts in his pocket and started sniffing at him. The other dog began to whine loudly. Charlie put a protective hand over his pocket.

            “What in Sam Hill’s gotten into you two?” Warren ducked his head under the table and realized the stench he’d caught earlier was coming from his son’s jeans pocket. Spread under and between Charlie’s fingers was something gummy looking and off-color. He cursed silently for the wash he would have to do later.

“Y’all get.” Warren stood from the table, nearly spilling Charlie’s Coke from the sudden movement, and shoved both animals outside by their necks. They pawed at the screen door a few times, howls echoing sadly into the trailer until they gave up for good.

            Charlie sighed in relief that he hadn’t gotten caught. He sucked up a mouthful of stew. “Pa, I’d sure like to hear that jail story again. Would you tell it?”

            “Why’re you always asking to hear that story?” Warren worked on a tough piece of squirrel between his incisors.

            Charlie raised his shoulders up and then let them slump down in a heap.

“Fine,” Warren said, swallowing. He liked the story anyway. “You remember this was when I was with my fifth whore of a wife, Nancy, right?”

Charlie cheered up perceptibly and nodded. This was a good story, one of Pa’s best. His Pa was the greatest storyteller around. Everyone in town said so. He used his hands and everything.

“So, I was working in the Josephs’ field, planting taters and squash, so it must’ve been about springtime.” While he spoke, Warren waved around his silver spoon that flashed under the fluorescent light. “I’d forgot my sandwich that day, so on my break, I drove on back up the road home. But when I opened the door, what do you know?” Warren feigned surprise and Charlie giggled. “Some black fella almost barrels over me, running out of my house buck-naked like his whole ass was on fire, nuts flapping in the wind.” Warren took a break to laugh his great belly laugh and Charlie laughed with him.

“And so, I run to the bedroom, pick up my ’22 rifle and blew out the back of his leg with them frangible bullets.” Warren dropped the spoon for effect. It clattered in his bowl. “And mind you, all the while old Nance is naked as the day she’s born and begging me to come in the house and leave that boy alone. I’d half a mind to knock her teeth out right then and there.”

Charlie nodded along seriously. “It was a real mean thing to do, Pa. What happened next?”

“Well by that time, the son of a bitch was long gone, just a little old spec by then.” Warren showed Charlie how small he was with his thumb and forefinger. “So, there was nothing else I could do but have Nancy fix me something to eat. And there I was eating a peanut butter sandwich at this here table when the police come to arrest me and take me on to Pittsylvania Correctional.” Warren slapped his hand on his knee and let out a final guffaw.

“Where was I, Pa?”

“You weren’t live yet.” Warren picked up his spoon.

            “’Kay, but you forgot the part about your glasses,” Charlie reminded him.

             “Oh yeah.” Warren grinned. “If I’d had my glasses on, I’d have blown his head clean off, but seeing as I didn’t have them on me, I missed.” He wiped the newest sheen of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

            Charlie smiled and slumped forward, cradling his chin in one hand while he sucked his stew down in big slurps. “You liked prison, didn’t you, Pa?”

            “Oh, I liked it fine. Got a bed to sleep in, plenty of outside time. Cooked for all them boys the last few years. Where I learned to make this here stew, in fact.”

“It’s a mighty fine stew, Pa,” Charlie said. He picked up a piece of the white bread and sank his bitten down fingernails into the middle of the slice to make prints.

“Don’t play with your food,” Warren grunted and picked up a piece of bread himself. It was time for the soak. He smashed the bread in the bottom of his bowl until it filled up with liquid and picked it up with his fingers to slide the whole thing down his gullet in one go.

Charlie imitated his father, but he soaked his bread too long so that it got stuck in the bottom of the bowl and started to disintegrate. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.

Warren laughed. “C’mon, time to leave.”

“Where’re we going? That Bonanza rerun’s on soon.”

“We’re going to the Josephs’ farm.”

“You got work over there?”

Warren nodded and went to clear the table. 

“This time a night?” Charlie looked confused. “You only go over there in the daytime I thought.”

            “Well, big brains, sometimes I got work in the nighttime, okay?” Warren rubbed the bottom half of his bristly face, staining his forearm orange.

            “Can I get a glass a milk fore we go?”

Warren clicked his tongue. “You drink too much milk, that’s why you’re soft.”

Charlie nodded his head. He’d heard that too many times to count.

Warren opened the near bare refrigerator and got him a half glass anyway. “Use two hands,” he reminded him.

Charlie drank the cold milk so fast that most of it dribbled on the front of his shirt. He let out a big, contented sigh and placed the empty glass on the table.

         “C’mon now.” Warren grabbed his son’s chin, something he did once in a while when he was trying to be affectionate. Charlie swatted his father’s hand away. He was always putting his fingers on his face and leaving grease spots.

They went out to the Ford pickup and Charlie yelled to the dogs to be good while they were gone. From the rolled down passenger window Charlie looked back at the Roach property to where his friend Ricky Roach stood under a dogwood tree aiming to shoot holes through the wings of birds with his shotgun. Charlie waved, but Ricky must not have seen him. They drove toward Luster Road while the sun beyond them smarted the sky with bruises and burst capillaries.

Bumping down the road they went, to where banded lines of emerald cornstalks and fraying wheat buds emerged. Golden hay bales dotted the farms along with clusters of brown or black cows and spotted horses. They drove past folks sitting in rocking chairs on their wraparound porches, wisteria vines climbing their doorways. Charlie counted the Thank You Jesus picket signs in every front yard. Warren kept his eyes on the road.

“Could you tell the Cousin Anthony story, Pa?” A slight breeze lifted, and Charlie closed his eyes to enjoy it.

Warren watched his son start picking at his ear, a little pink scalloped thing that had been burned and scarred over last summer when a bug had crawled inside it and had scared him so bad, he’d pressed the side of his head to the hot stove to get it to stop buzzing.

“Cut that out.” Warren removed Charlie’s hand from his ear roughly and smoothed his hair over it. A yellow truck passed them on the road and they both waved half-heartedly to whomever was inside.

“I wanna hear the story.”

Warren groaned. “Why do you like that story so much? Downright morbid.”

“Tell me,” Charlie scrunched up his face and yelled.

“Alright, alright. Well, it was nearing around supper time when Cousin Anthony comes driving down the way and sees Old Carter’s red pickup parked on the side of the road. And Anthony thinks he may’ve gotten a nail in a tire or something, so he drives up to help him, but all he sees is Old Carter’s eyeballs laying on his cheeks and his brains blown to kingdom come. Bits of it all over the place. Scared Anthony half to death.”

“And?”

“And what? Story’s over now. Hush up, you hear?”

“What about them lesbians?”

Warren sighed. “Well, we all found out soon enough that Carter’s wife, Christa, had gone lesbian on him and I suppose that’s the reason he killed himself. Now hush.”

Charlie smiled and finally fell silent, picking now at the chapped skin of his top lip. He watched the houses down the road become bigger. Metal fences replaced the wooden ones around the lusher properties. He looked up to watch thunderheads rolling in. Warren also noticed those clouds and wondered if they were an omen. He was a God-fearing man.

By the time they got to the Josephs’ farm, night had fallen. They pulled into the entrance of a long driveway lined with crape myrtle and apple trees. Warren put the truck in park.

“So, what do we have to do, Pa? Spray down the cows?” Charlie remembered earlier that year when they’d donned hard hats with green flashlights at night to shower the cows with anti-bug spray.

“Too late in the season to do that.”

“Well then what?”

The sky fissured suddenly, splitting down the middle in a great big zag of lightning. Warren, who had been sitting bullfrog-like, knees bowed out around the cracked leather steering wheel to accommodate himself, started pulling on his whiskers. Charlie watched him in the half light and wondered what had gotten his Pa all riled up.

“Hush now, Charlie,” Warren murmured. They drove toward the big field where horses and cows stood judging them.

Charlie watched them back. Their eyes looked liquid. One of the cows mooed and a couple of the others followed suit. Charlie loved animals and trusted that they were good. He never had to reckon with them in the way he had to with people. It was people that his Pa was always warning him about. It was people, other kids mostly, he was always worried about. He didn’t understand them. He didn’t know them the way he knew his animals.

While Charlie watched the cows, Warren felt the gnawing in his gut that he had to reckon with each time he went to the Josephs’ property to work on the crops or to clear the brush by the pond. There was an uneasiness in seeing all that Mr. Joseph had, all the same things he wanted for himself. The wanting never neared an end and never subsided. He couldn’t help thinking to the chapters of Exodus and Job that had taught him the foolishness of envy since before he was Charlie’s age.

“You have to promise me something now, Charlie.”

  “What is it, Pa?”

“You have to be quiet-like. Pretend we’re hunting for deer. You have to be as quiet now as you are when we go hunting, ‘kay?”

Charlie nodded.

Warren reached down in the bed of the truck to where he kept a trusty bottle of Daniels and turned it over in his hands. He put it back, needing to be stone cold for this part. Needing to fuel that bone-dry rage in his head for this. They got out of the truck.

Warren looked up toward the dark clouded sky, to the angelic peaks of Smith Mountain. He felt like kneeling and praying for forgiveness right then and there.

“Follow me.” Warren unclipped a gate and stole through one of the dark fields on the other side of the property to where a tractor and trailer sat, the same machinery he had worked on only a few days ago.

Charlie followed and held the gate open, keeping an eye on things while Warren drove the tractor as quietly as he could into the horse trailer that he had chained to the rear of his pickup truck. Charlie raised his thumb and squinted, measuring against it the toy size of the Josephs’ beautiful white three-story farmhouse. The cows in the field across from them watched. There was an eerie stillness.

“Pa?” Charlie whispered.

“Quiet now, Charlie.” Warren worked on bolting the trailer.

“I have to make a BM, Pa, could I use theirs?” Charlie pointed to the farmhouse and started walking toward it.

“Dammit, Charlie, get back here.” Warren yanked his son back by the scruff of his neck.

Charlie sat on the ground in a humph and pulled at the sweet grass, tears starting in his eyes. He wished he could be in his bed right now. He had missed his Bonanza episode too. He put a finger inside his left pocket to feel the deer insides that had since turned gloopy.

When the tractor was snuggled safely inside the trailer, Warren and Charlie closed back the gate and climbed back into the truck. He took a few big celebratory gulps of whiskey and offered it to Charlie who yelped in delight and took a sip, only to spit it out on the windshield.

Warren laughed and patted his son’s shoulder. “You’ll get a taste for it soon enough.”

They sat in the car and listened to the idle, but Warren didn’t put the truck into drive just yet. They looked out at the Josephs’ land, going out as far as the eye could see. The clouds opened and it started to rain then, drops pattering on the windows in big plunking knocks.

“Why’re we doing this, Pa?” Charlie asked after a while.

Warren watched his son feel his upper lip for mustache hairs, eyebrows scrunched in concentration and couldn’t help but smile.

“Well, Charlie, we’re doing this cause that Mr. Joseph thinks he’s the Lord of the Earth, and I just can’t have that anymore. Look at that house, Charlie.”

Charlie looked at it.

“That’s a nice house, right? Nicer than ours, right?”

Charlie nodded, not understanding.

“Them people in there look at us like bugs, Charlie. They look down at you and me as the lowest folks, the people to use and work and they look at everything else as something to take. They’re always coming out on top. But what about us?”

            “So, we gotta show them?”

            “That’s right, son. We have to show them that they aren’t better than us. That we’re all the same. That’s what the Bible says, right?”

            “Yeah.” Charlie seemed satisfied.

“Men like Mr. Joseph got no respect for anyone but themselves. Got no respect for the land. And they take from you and me too. Them people like the Josephs think they walk on water. But folks like us, Charlie, only face the dark side of the moon.”

Charlie tried to listen, but the rain pattering on the windshield was making him sleepy. All he wanted to do was curl up in the seat and lay his head on his Pa’s lap.

But Warren was in a kind of stupor. “You remember your grandaddy, right?”

Charlie nodded that he did.

“He worked two jobs all his life just to get by, had a little old problem with the drink, but fought in the goddamned war when he was just seventeen years old. Had the biggest calluses on his hands I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m twelve years old,” Charlie contributed, his lids getting heavier and heavier.

“That’s right,” Warren said. “Your grandaddy worked every day of his life and when he was finally set up to retire, he had a goddamn heart attack. And that sort of thing is just our luck, you hear?”

“Is that why you’re always telling me to get out and leave one day, Pa?”

Warren looked at Charlie. “Yes, son. That’s right.”

Charlie nodded. He heard.

Warren looked out at the now tractor and trailer-less field. The cows had closed their wet dark eyes and the horses had retired themselves into their barn. The only light was that of a solitary naked bulb attached to the front of that barn where if you squinted, you could watch the moths and other insects free-float around their imitation moon.

“Well,” Warren said to himself. “I guess we’d best be moving on now.” He put the truck in drive and the windshield wipers flicked water left and right. He drove back through the gate and down the driveway while he imagined Mr. and Mrs. Joseph were sleeping all pretty, snuggled up in their bed of roses, their hearts beating against their sun-spotted hands, dreamworlds seizing and rupturing inside their wrinkled old noggins without a care in the world.

            “Pa, I wanna hear about all them women you bagged when you drove those trucks all around. And my brothers and sisters. Tell me about them.” Charlie was ready for his bedtime story.

            “Well, Kelly Anne was my first wife and my best wife,” Warren started, feeling a little sentimental from the drink. “But we never had any kids.” From Kelly Anne, he moved on to his second ex-wife, Priscilla, who he’d met at an Ohio truck stop. She’d had a tongue sharper than the teeth of a badger and together they’d had his oldest daughter. And then Warren spoke of Charlie’s mother, a sweet woman who used to sneeze seven or eight times in a row when the ragweed was at its worst, a woman Charlie never got to know properly.

Charlie curled into a ball in the seat and rested his head against the seatbelt. He was lulled to sleep by his Pa’s voice, his most favorite sound in the world. He dreamed of a deer running through sunlit forests. Of milk so cold it stung your teeth. Milk drizzled with honey from a bear-shaped bottle. Charlie slept as Warren drove all the way to Lynchburg. He slept through the exchanging of the tractor for a thick wad of cash and did not move a muscle during the entire ride back home. 

Warren had been keeping company with his bottle, his old friend Jack. He recalled only a handful of days before, when Mr. Joseph had given him a few hundred-dollar bills and told him not to come back to work. He’d seen him drinking on the job one too many times, he’d said. “This’ll show him who’s boss,” Warren told himself.

He looked over to his sleeping son, his son who he’d found kissing the neighbor, Ricky Roach, the other afternoon and gripped the steering wheel tight. He remembered the smarting pain on his palm when he had smacked the living daylights out of both boys and sent Ricky home with a bruised backside. Charlie had gotten off easy, he thought. “If my daddy had seen that, he would have gone and killed you without batting an eyelid,” he whispered out loud.

Warren tried to piece it together, tried to understand the un-understandable. It was just plain rotten luck he had. Years he’d worked just like his daddy to make life bearable. And this, this kiss. This thing he couldn’t cleanly shake out of his head because it had teeth and claws. It smashed about his skull loudly. This thing that was completely beyond him, that brought his blood to boil. This thing he’d had to watch happen from the window of his own home. What had he done wrong? Was it all those innards and remains his son kept bringing into the house? Was it all those goddamn cartons of whole milk? Was it darker than milk? Or something larger than all of it combined?

Warren watched the butterfly pumps of sleep breath that his son’s chest made and recalled the evening he’d found six-year-old Charlie drinking maple syrup from the bottle and had to sit with him all night long while he’d thrown it back up. He’d known then that he was dealing with a different kind of boy.

He looked at his boy who hid those animal parts, who didn’t fit in with the other kids. He wondered about his punky son’s constitution and what on earth God had created. He prayed a silent prayer, eyes misting over, that Charlie could make it longer than that gutted up deer that lay strung up in Mr. Roach’s shed.

When the rain softened to a drizzle and then stopped altogether, Warren thought about Mr. Joseph, a man conservative by nature and overly cautious with his words as if he was always on the verge of saying too much. The man who had always shown him kindness and generosity, given him too many chances to count. He thought about how Mr. Joseph had forced his hand in all this mess. He took another drink because he couldn’t bear the silence.

Warren drove through tender trees on either side of him. Trees with leaves bursting forth their gold, now black in the night, but still there. He drove between broken white lines and the mountains loomed above and in front of him and he knew those black-hearted hills like the back of his hand. He loved the place where he was from although he knew, in a way, that it didn’t love him back.

When Warren pulled into his own driveway, he woke up his son. They stumbled out of the truck and Charlie cursed when he fell. The new moon gave little light to guide them. Charlie didn’t ask his father any questions. He just followed him inside their trailer and got ready for bed. He was careful to take the deer guts from his pocket and wrap them inside a tissue. He laid it nicely in the box underneath his bed with all the other little animal bones and bird feathers he had collected. He so loved those things in that box because he knew them. He could feel them between his fingers, he could look up their unpronounceable names in library books. He could mouth the words of their inside parts and rest assured that every inch of his animals could be known, could be named.

Warren lay in his bed, whiskey in hand. He had placed his own treasure underneath his pillow wanting to keep a close eye on it, scared it might disappear by morning. But something in him didn’t feel good having it there so close to his skin. He moved the wad of cash to an old shoe box on the top shelf of his closet.

Warren sat back on his groaning bed. He was afraid to go to sleep, afraid to wake up, and afraid of what would happen to him and his boy. If they’d make it. But Warren was most terrified to dream. He took a great gulp of the bottle, finished it, and still tossed and turned sleeplessly.

Charlie rolled over in his bed to look out the window. He listened for noises to see if his Pa was still awake but didn’t hear anything. He snuck back outside, crossed the street to Ricky’s trailer, and threw a small stone at his bedroom window.

He waited and Ricky’s shadow came out before he did. Ricky’s eyes blinked rapidly, adjusting to find a place in the heavy darkness.

“What is it, Charlie boy?”

“I gotta tell you something,” Charlie said. He turned and Ricky followed him to the shed. They both stood there and looked at the great fallen beast in front of them. Ricky turned on the dusty bulb, lighting them both in a jaundiced glow.

“He looks live, don’t he?”

Charlie nodded. He wished the deer was still alive. He looked at its glassy eyes. He could almost see his own reflection inside of them.

“What is it, Charlie?”

Charlie told Ricky about Mr. Joseph’s tractor.

“Do you think it was a bad thing to do?” Charlie asked him in a loud whisper.

Ricky shrugged. “Sorta. I guess,” he whispered back. “Real snake-like, I reckon.”

“Yeah.” Charlie crouched down to touch the deer’s flat triangle of tail. There was a circular cut around the anus, split from a hunting knife. Charlie got a rag from the cutting table and wiped the now-black blood from the deer’s tail. Ricky helped him. The two boys held hands and admired their work.


 

Lindsay Forbes Brown received her MFA from American University, where she served as Editor in Chief for FOLIO. She is a Kenyon Review and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference alumnus and is currently Assistant Editor for Grace & Gravity. Her work is featured in or forthcoming in Cimarron ReviewGargoyle, Hobart, JMWWOff-ChanceSo to SpeakSonora Review, and on her website: lindsayforbesbrown.com.

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