’75 Dirge Deluxe
Matt Briney: Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, United States, 2017 (Unsplash)
by Judson Hamilton
We see a beige F-150 pickup speeding along from left to right, its movement demarcates the horizon, a scalpel’s incision that separates the marshland from the blood-orange-soaked clouds above.
The movement is definitive and inexorable. As though pulled forward by an unseen force, the incision smoothly and precisely carves this earthly life from the heavenly.
By the time he reaches his destination it is night and all we can make out of the pickup as it turns into the shell parking lot of a shuttered Cajun restaurant (a cartoon crawfish looking down on him with amusement) are its headlights. He kills the engine, and we can just discern, with the help of the low full moon, the back of his head in the driver’s seat. He seems to be taking a moment. He seems to be gathering his strength. He seems to be making a fateful decision.
He is getting out now. We can hear the driver’s side door swing open with a creak and hear his boots grind against the shells as he twists his body out of the truck and shuts the door. He opens a lockbox in the bed of his truck and takes out a set of gloves and a long-sleeve flannel. His footsteps are audible as he crunches his way across the parking lot. His steps are purposeful. The restaurant itself (keeping with local tradition) is little more than an upscale shack with a corrugated iron roof and wood-framed screen doors. Meant to recall nostalgia for a meaner, leaner time when poor rice farmers worked this land with calloused hands and fire and brimstone in their hearts. When fried catfish and okra, crawfish boils and cornbread were standard fare – not something you had to get gussied up for.
The restaurant is closed, has been for some time, and he makes his way out back to a covered porch with long tables. Normally, this would be filled with people and the heat of a summer night, mosquitos and cigarette smoke and couples doing the two-step and twirling in one another’s arms. The humidity making summer dresses damp, and the stomp of alligator and snakeskin boots, tight Wranglers and button-up western shirts as couples shuffled across the floor. The Cajun fiddles, the zydeco accordion, the steel pedal guitar. There are plenty of signs for Bud and Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors. Posters for concerts and constellations of signed and framed publicity headshots of guys in ten-gallon hats and grins. Some of the names are familiar to him: Junior Brown and Geno Delafose, Waylon Jennings, and George Strait. He seems to scan these, but we can’t be sure. His interest shifts to another patch of photos: mostly of families, some old and in black and white. His body posture tenses up and he seems more animated as he actively searches for something, someone, among the photos displayed on the wooden wall. He finds what he is looking for and leans in close, dusting the frame of this 5×8 picture with his hand. If we could see with his eyes or get closer, stepping up stealthily behind him we would just be able to make out a family of four, standing at the tail-end of a beige F-150, not unlike the one he drove here in. The parents are young, in their late 20s or early 30s and wearing regionally appropriate clothes from the eighties. The woman has short dark hair and a leather coat with Indian tassels. The man is wearing a three-tone puffy coat with a light grey Stetson. The children are not much older than 8 or 10 it would appear, and they are likewise wearing hats: the little girl looking off camera a flat brimmed black hat with decorative band and the little, older boy a black cowboy hat like his father’s with a satin sportscoat and snap metal buttons. He is smiling with privilege, security, youth. He is loved.
To the right of the porch is a boat launch, and beyond that, the bayou with its cypress trees, Spanish moss and pond scum. The full moon reflects off the still top of the water. The mosquitos are out in full and he begins to swat at them as they swarm him. There is a wooden deck that runs alongside the disused boat launch and he walks it – peering into the water about 10 feet out. Here and there the water quivers with movement: snouts visible just above the water. But he pays them no mind. Swatting them away from his focus as he does the mosquitos with his hand. He peers intently into the water where it meets the land.
Suddenly, lights turn on just under the water’s surface. Headlights. Their beams are tipped up and, diffused by the water, cast light back on the hood of the vehicle — dark and murky under the surface. Quickly he moves off the dock, taking leather work gloves from his jeans, and wades into the water. He reaches down into the water, up under the front bumper and yelps, jumping back. Pulling his arm out he can see the blood running down his forearm in the light of the car. The snouts will have smelt it too. He reaches back under the car and pulls out a rope. As he unspools it from the winch, we can see it is covered in barnacles some of which are sharp and cut into the gloves as he wraps it around his hands hoping to get a better grip. Gators begin circling the back as he puts the rope over one shoulder turns his back on the car and heaves, heaves, heaves. Water pours out of the sides of the car as he grunts and groans pulling at the barnacled rope the oyster shells razor sharp and slicing into his gloves and hands underneath. Lean and strong, his youthful reams of sinewy muscle glisten in the security light of the bar shining down on his back and the gators now hissing at his feet. He pays them no mind, so intent is his focus on freeing this car from the murk. Water pours out of its doors as he pulls it all the way out now, dragging it up into the shell parking lot. He lets himself fall backward on the ground his chest heaving, heaving, heaving the light from the car seeming to hold him there like something celestial, something benevolent.
A hearse. Covered in lichen and Spanish moss. It reeks of swamp water and bayou. It’s filthy with grime this hearse. He can’t see through its tinted windows. He tries the door handles, but both front and back are locked. The back window is covered by a curtain somehow still in immaculate condition.
He stands around in the parking lot for a moment catching his breath and scanning the horizon, but he can’t distinguish anything beyond the darkness above set against the darkness below. The land, sunk below sea-level, cedes dominance to the sky so his gaze shifts upward and faced with a face full of stars his mind (buzzing from the experience of just having exhumed a hearse) makes what it will of the spaces between them, drawing his own constellations to steer by. There is a chain of stars twinkling on the low horizon, orange and hazy but bright. He puts the barnacled rope to his shoulder and drags the hearse down the road towards them.
He’s been pulling it for about an hour or so when the pulsing ache in his arms is suddenly, matched by the pulsating sound of a beat. Bewildered, he drops the rope and scans the horizon but can discern only the crickets, frogs, and other nighttime sounds of the bayou. “Hey there! Hey man!” He turns and sees a teenager of about 16 with oversized plastic sunglasses on leaning out of the back window of the hearse. His skin is inordinately pale. “You got a light?” he slowly approaches the door. “Who are you?” He can hear the kid cackling over the bass thud of a dance track, the interior a swirl of colourful lights. “Who am I? Who are you?” He is just a few feet from the car door now and peering in can see a bunch of teens, about fifteen or so crammed into the back, some of them on laps, heads crooked against the top of the interior and hear girls laughing “I’m —” “You got a light or what? We’re trying to fire this up you know what I mean?” “Yeah fucking fire that shit up man!” “Yeah man what’s the problem who the fuck is this guy? Man, if you ain’t got a light then get the fuck back to driving motherfucker.” Raucous laughter. It’s too much for him to take in at once and he just barely got out “Where — where are you going?” “I dunno man you’re the fucking driver. Now get back to work!” “Oh I got one I found one.” The first teen in the glasses turns to him now as the girl on his lap pushes her tits into his face in an effort to divert his attention. He careens his neck around her “Sorry about my friends man they just wanna party, anyway looks like we’re all good.” The girl, annoyed at being ignored, leans towards him, “later” and rolls up the window. “Wait!” He pulls at the door handle, but it’s locked and the windows have gone dark, the car silent. He tries to look in, but the tint is too dark. He pounds on the window, but nothing happens. He tries the front door, but it is also locked and mute.
Another several miles on and he has sunk down famished and exhausted leaning his head back against the grill of the hearse. There are only the sounds of the bayou. Night sounds. Intimate and constant. He starts to drift off but can feel the car moving a little from side to side and the sound of two people making out. It’s as loud in his ears as if he were right there.
He knows the boy, on the advice of his friends, will wait too long to call her. That this will spoil any chance he has at being with her and that by the time he realizes what he’s lost, it will be too late to recapture it. He doesn’t know how he knows this, but he does. The regret is his regret.
Slowly, with tears in his eyes and a gnawing in his stomach that goes beyond hunger, he shoulders the rope and pulls, pulls, pulls, a few more miles.
The road stretches out before him like something outside of time. It is dark and he can only make out the few feet in front of him by the weak headlights of the hearse. Surrounded on either side by bayou and marshland he can hear the scuttling of underbrush or whooping of crane wings, the loud splash of a gator. He is wet with fear. He is wet with sweat. As the dawn rises the asphalt starts to steam in the morning sun already eight parts humidity and the temperature in the mid-90s. He’s been down this same road as a boy, as a teenager, as a man. He recalls his friend Kevin who died in a drunken car accident, his friend Kit going the same way a few years later. And there were those who’d taken other roads: Sean overdosing in New Orleans; James serving out a federal sentence for trafficking ecstasy across state lines; Daniel strung out working the railroads; and all the other nameless addicts of his youth withering away in mouldy, rundown houses out by the petrochemical plants.
“Broodin’ ain’t gonna get you nowhere.” He looks up shading his eyes from the sun to see a food truck on the side of the road. “What’s done is done. Ain’t no sense in worryin’ ‘bout it.” He walks towards this apparition, this anomaly. “I know what you’re thinking: ‘new-fangled’ but well you can’t move a stand around now can you? Well, what’ll it be?” says an older man with an improbably large stomach and beard. He is wearing an apron with the anatomical breakdown of a crawfish on it. He looks to be in his mid-70s with piercing blue eyes. Watery with grief, red-rimmed with exhaustion. Eyes that have seen more than his share of violence and heartbreak. He gestures towards the laminated pictures on the side of the truck. “Special today is oysters on the half shell. But, uh, you look like you got a day’s work ahead of ya.” “Ya’ll got steak?” “Chicken fried. Mashed potatoes and gravy?” “And cornbread.” “Alright, here,” the man said handing him a plastic red cup and pointing to a large cooler with a spigot. “Help yourself to some water.” He searches for his wallet but can’t find it. “That’s ok” said the man, his face serious. “You’ll pay later.”
The shade under the awning was a welcome relief. He gulps down cup after cup of water starting back over the asphalt and to the hearse that sits innocent in the bright sunlight against a backdrop of marshland.
“How far is it to the city?”
The man sets two large plates of food in front of him.
“That where you’re headed?”
He nods his mouth full of chicken fried steak.
The man leaned out the window watching him intently. “Not that much further. You pullin’ that thing all by yourself?”
He nods his mouth full of mashed potatoes.
“I’d tow it for you but … that ain’t the way, is it?”
He nods his mouth full of cornbread.
“Lord knows we’ve all got our crosses to bear.”
This last sentence the man says under his breath almost to himself. And, busy guzzling water, he doesn’t hear.
“Appreciate it,” he says wiping his mouth with a napkin.
“You have a blessed day now.”
He walks across the asphalt stepping out of the dark shade of the awning and into the intense swelter of the sun like crossing a threshold between here and the underworld. But the down-home cooking has fortified him and it’s with renewed strength that he slings the barnacled rope over his shoulder, slowly pulling the hearse forward.
The thing about the heat around here is the heaviness of it. You don’t feel like you’re being cooked – this is not a desert heat. Instead, it is the weight of the humidity that makes you feel like you are slowly being smothered to death with a wet, hot, steaming towel. The weight constricts you, wringing you out. Every drop of moisture in your body is being called to the surface to join its kin in the air.
He has pulled the hearse all day, he is soaked through all the way down to his underwear. The sun sets, raging out against the horizon in a pool of its own blood.
He sits catching his breath with his back against the grill. It is burning horizontal marks across his back, branding him, but he doesn’t care. Amid the quiet of the early evening, he takes stock of how far he’s come when he is startled by blaring industrial music. He gets to his feet and looks back at the hearse to find smoke billowing out of the back window along with voices overlapping each other in a drunken, drugged frenzy. “Hey! … Hey!” No one can hear him over the music. He gets right up to the open window and peers in. They are all here. Here. Young and alive. “Hey man!” “Where the fuck you been?!” “I thought they locked you up.” “Man, I heard they used that um what’s it called?” “Electro – electroshock therapy.” “Yeah, that shit man.” Kevin flops around like he’s being electrocuted. “For real? My fucking cousin had that he was fucked up after that. Gone.” They shift their focus to the mirror that is going around and the powder on it. They are all here. Young and alive. Here. “Hey. Hey man.” He looks down to find James whispering, leaning out of the window, his eyelids half open “You want some of this?” James says handing him a joint “some of that dust on it, ya know?” “No no I — I can’t I —” James leans back his eyes widen as if trying to take all of him in “Oh shit. What’d they do to you in there, man? What happened?” “… a lot of shit happened in there.” But James’s not listening he’s rejoined the party and one after another Kit, Daniel, and Sean take his place in the window, sticking their heads out, filling it out, all of their faces pale with abuse and days without sleep. In unison, they all open their mouths slowly, their jaws unhinging at the back and drawing their faces long. The air is filled with a menacing hiss. A hideous white static hissing. His ears are ringing with it and he backs away, turns to run away and bumps into a woman in purple and green-sequined top. The street it filled now with people in Mardi Gras regalia, there is a brass band and topless people wearing plastic colourful beads. People are hootin and hollerin and yellin’, singin’ to the brass band and pouring down around him in waves, a procession of joy, of lust, of life. There are more and more of them until they’ve formed a stream pushing against him, pushing him away from the hearse. He has to push past people to carve a path back. He fights his way back to the front of the hearse and waits for the last of them to trickle past, the final ones stumbling drunk and colourful into the dark.
He wakes up on the hood of the car. It is mercifully overcast and cooler today. He starts to drag himself off the hood and takes up the rope but doesn’t have any strength left in him and spends the day dozing on the hood instead too exhausted for thoughts or dreams.
Night comes and half expecting to find another party in the back seat again he readies himself with some questions he wants to ask, a course of action he can follow. While doing this he idly circles the car trying all the door handles and pulling on the doors and for the umpteenth time peering in only to see his reflection in black.
The next morning, he awakens to suffocating humidity and sunlight torching the already sunburned skin on his face and neck. He shades his eyes and peers out at the flat marshland and armada of clouds on the horizon. He approaches the ditch next to the side of the road sees it is filled with plenty of water and goes to wash his face and upper body. He crouches down next to the water and cups his hands splashing the warm stagnant water on his face. Still, the water feels good on his face and body and he begins to reach deeper for cooler currents and splash more liberally and is standing, wiping the water from his face when a gator lunges for him its wide snout snapping shut inches from his leg. He screams and falls back scrambling to his feet as the gator lunges again and explodes in skin and a twist of pink-red muscle and shards of teeth. There is another shot fired at the still-writhing reptile — this time to the wide, swollen body of the gator splattering his jeans and just-cleaned torso.
“Get away from him! He’s still dangerous.” He scrambled up out of the ditch and on to the road. The man from the food truck was standing in the road, a shotgun in his hands. He wore a faded blue green big-mouth Bass tournament 1981 apron stretched across his massive upper body and belly. “You alright? I didn’t hit ya, did I?” He struggled to hear his own voice answer in the negative over the sound of the blood hammering in his ears. “Good. Come on and eat then,” the man said throwing him a towel he had draped over his shoulder. “You can clean yourself up with this.” He said making his way back to the food truck with a slow limp. “We got seafood gumbo today and fried catfish and baked potatoes with all the fixins.” Without waiting for a reply, he starts filling out the counter with a bowl of the spicy Creole soup and plates of food.
The man takes a seat on one of the stools at the counter and tears into the food with ravenous gusto.
“Shame,” says the old man looking over his shoulder and shaking his head in the gator’s direction. “That’d been good eatin’.”
A good half an hour passes without a word, with the old man placing full plates on the counter and removing the empty ones. He serves iced tea with the meal and strong chicory-flavoured coffee afterwards.
“I don’t know how much I owe you, but this is how much I got,” he says, digging into his heavily stained jeans pockets and coming up with some waded bills. “Nah that’s ok you keep it. Young man’s gotta have a little change in his pocket. ‘Sides. Bad luck to take money from your last customer. I’m folding up shop. Movin’ on.”
“Retirin’. Maybe do a little fishin’.”
“Well, I sure appreciate what you’ve done for me.”
The old man looks at him with those watery blue eyes filled with pain and regret and a sheen of sadness seemed to come over them. He nods.
“So long,” he says getting up to leave.
“Son?” He turns back to the old man and food truck. “You can’t walk through the gates of Heaven unclean. Death is a release; a freedom. But you gotta work at it here. ‘Specially at the end. It’s the hard road that’s gonna get you there. Which is the one that stands at the gate? Peter? Well … he don’t like no dirty feet.”
Now it’s the young man’s turn to nod as he turns back towards the darkened and mute hearse and takes up the barbed cord from the road.
He has been pulling, pulling, pulling all day when he sees a cloud formation low on the horizon. It is fluffy and thick and swollen with rain. In what seems like minutes it has swallowed up the sun quickly darkening the sky. As the humidity swells, he tires and stumbling to a stop, slumps down in front of the grill. He begins to pull more and more slowly until he grinds to a halt and it is then that he can hear the whispering from the back. Somewhat used to these apparitions now he drops the cord and, wanting to catch them in the act, quickly makes his way to the back of the car. “Now listen you assholes either get out of the fucking car or — ”
The window slowly rolls down and a smell wafts from the back of the hearse. The smell of devotion, of penance, of sacrifice. 100s of red votive candles arranged in a half circle, smouldering, their flames guttering at a gust of humid wind from the outside, lighting up the back of the hearse from within. 100s and 100s of saintly icon cards as if from a several playing decks have been pinned to the back wall of the hearse, covering it in the bearded saints of shepherds and the calm enigmatic smiles of women saints in habits. Taking this all in he hears the whispering again and his eyes are drawn to a small and frail woman who is seated with the religious icons at her back and the candles weeping wax, dripping red. Her hands are folded in prayer and bound by what looks like several wooden rosaries, her bony fingers worrying one bead at a time her whispering rapid, incessant. She sits perfectly erect. Pristine. Immaculate. There is not a trace of the end on her. Everything negative or coarse has been refined down and blown away. Only devotion remains. His eyes fall from her hands to the quilt that is draped over the lower half of her body it takes up most of the back of the hearse with candles weighing down its outer edges. Sewn to it, in a patchwork of the past, are black and white photos of a family long since undone. Here they are in front of a newly bought car. Gathered together for a birthday party their paper cone hats slightly askew, faces distilled in mirth. At a family reunion, generations stacked one atop the other in a group shot. Snapshot after snapshot, they are by turns proud and sullen, surprised and joyful, a family life traced in time. By the light of the candles, he can just make out the faint edges of the photographs frayed with handling. “Mom!” He shouts but she will not be swayed. Her focus tight and unwavering. Her hands slowly working the rosary, whispering under her breath. “Mom! Mom it’s me! Mom … I’m sorry! I’m sorry mom … I … Mom!” The wind kicks up outside blowing out the votive candles one by one, darkening the interior. The window starts to slowly, slowly roll up. “MOM! MOM!” he screams beating on the window, trying to hold it down, hold it in place until all the candles have blown out and he can just make out the faint outlines of her face, a translucent halo hovering like a white neon holograph above her head as the window shuts forever.
The storm has come on in full now, the clouds having pooled their malice until they were of one mind. Single in intent. Raining begins pelting down in huge drops as he beats the hood and windows with all him strength. Lighting fractures the horizon as he screams, howls, rages at the sky. His shirt rips with his now swollen chest muscles, his calves shred his jeans, his mouth lengthens and stretches into a snout. Hollow quills sprout from his back tearing through his shoulder blades, and he is a beast, no more than a beast and will never be more than a beast. Unworthy. Unloved. Untamed.
Incapable of human speech he snorts and snarls moving to the front of the hearse where he now faces the brewing storm head on. Taking up the barbed cable with his bare hands he moans low and pitiful as it pierces his flesh, hoists it over his shoulder, and groans his way further down the road.
We are miles and miles down the road now. The tires are nearly flat. His boots have fallen off his feet. His clothes soaked through with the torrential rain have started to tear free from his body. He is up to his knees, now his waist, in water the wind blows the skin around his snout back and the quills tremble with its force. Still, he persists. Passing overturned cars, submerged houses, vivisectioned buildings, boats upturned, whole sections of crumbled highway, streetlights downed, bloated farm animals, uprooted trees and still he persists. He sees the occasional human but they shriek in terror and paddle, swim, float away from him as fast as they can. They wouldn’t dare come near him, and neither do the alligators or sharks, they give him a wide berth recognising one of their own. The highway takes him up on to an overpass, up and up, out of the swamp, the muck, the wreckage. From up here, high above it all, he can see the horrific swirl of the storm; its destructive power and the mayhem it has wrought. And for the first time in days, he slows his pace. There in front of him is the torn end of the overpass, rebar sprouting from it like the sharp quills from his back. And for the first time in days he stops, dislodging the metal barbs from his palms. He whimpers at this but not in a human way. He makes his way to where the road has broken off and risks vertigo to look down, down, down over its edge. He walks back, the rain and wind threating to topple him, and crumbles next to the driver side door. He tries to whimper but the elongation of his face and teeth make it difficult and it comes out wrong like something sinister and feral. He can still cry though, tears roll down his cheeks through shut eyes, accompanying the spasms of grief his body gives out in intervals. Then, as if by apology, he can feel the sun on his face. Suddenly, all is mute and quiet and there is only a dissonant ringing in his ears. Slowly, he opens his eyes and there is only the sun and a mild wind. Blue sky stretches for about as far as he can see. He stands and hears the door pop open behind him. He turns to find it ajar. In one fluid motion, he grabs it, swings the front door open wide, slides into the front seat, and shuts the door behind him taking a moment to breathe and appreciate this gift. The interior smells of leather. It’s as if it had just rolled off the factory floor. He half turns towards the back and sees the partition is closed. He searches around and finds a switch to lower it, his heart hammering away in his chest. In the back is an open casket of walnut with pillow white lace. He lies in state. A boy, an innocent boy of 12 or 14 maybe. He tries to get a better look at himself straining up out of the front seat, turned awkwardly. He is wearing a suit he’s never seen before; his pallor is pale but otherwise he seems to be untampered with. He’s a boy; just a young boy.
Stilled by this, he turns back to face the front. He cannot so much see as feel a vaporous calm in the seat next to him and he knows what to do. He looks at the ignition and turns the keys and the diesel engine grinds to life. He grabs the gear arm on the steering wheel and throws it into reverse about 300 yards before braking hard. He shifts into drive, the engine growling, egging him on. He can hear his breath. The air a struggle though these nostrils. He can smell the stench of himself and feel shame twisting a knot in his stomach. He looks out the windshield at the blue sky and suddenly he is reminded of a clear summer night spent at a friend’s beach cabin. Too young to drive but laying on the hood of a car with a friend, listening to music, looking at the stars and talking all night. Aching for the future.
He guns it, flying up and arcing off the end of the broken highway into the sky. And for a moment there, just before the fall, he soars.
About the Author
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