Gravel Roads and Grace, Too


by Steve Passey


Five in the morning and some man in a mini-van is stopped thirty feet past where he should have turned if he wanted to go down to the river. He’s got the hatch open and one of those big blue bags with yellow handles stitched on you buy soil in filling up all the cargo space in the van even with the back seat folded down. I’m lucky I didn’t rear-end him and kill all of us that aren’t already dead. I have, out of necessity, been driving with my lights off.

I turn on my headlights. Only one works. I get out of the old Chevrolet, with the back window busted out and an AM radio that doesn’t work. It got old and now travel passes in silence. Van man, wide-eyed, just stares at me. I see sweat upon his brow in the dull yellow glow of my one old headlamp. I get out, slowly.

I ask: “You going down to the river?

He answers: “I can’t find the turn.”

I tell him, “I missed it too. Its right beside me, to my right. Hard to see in the dark. Its single lane, overhung by tree branches. You can only go one at a time. At this hour I think we’d be ok to go down together. Ain’t no one going to be down there looking to come up.”

Our breath hangs in the cold night air and dances like familiar spirits. There’s no cowboy moon to see by tonight, only the stars light our exhalations, the stars and Venus. We are bound by the light of the morning star together on the gravel road, and the gravel itself is blue-white by her light.

I see a woman’s foot sticking out of the bag, soft-lit like the flesh of the recently deceased always is. It comes from within. It is a biological process. “Postmortem Luminescence.” I’m tempted to try and pretend that I did not see her, but he knows. He pulls out a shotgun from beside the bag and points it at me. Venus, blue Venus, lights his black eyes as he tries to make himself shoot. I put my hands up.

“You don’t want to shoot me”

“I have to.”

“Before you do, I want to show you something. In the back of my truck.”

He lowers the gun to his waist, but it’s still pointed at me. I can tell from looking at his face that he has been crying, crying hard.

“I can just kill you and look for myself.”

“You can. You can do that. But there is a hell of a lot of work for you to do before sunrise if you do. What would do with my truck?”

He brings the gun back up and motions me to walk. I go to the back of my truck, my hands in the air until I move them to open the tailgate. I lower it, not drop it. With that old truck, rusted out and with no back window, if you drop that tailgate they’ll hear it in town just as sure as they’d hear his 12-gauge even if it’s five miles away.

“I know these men.” He says.

I don’t need to look at him to know he’s not looking at me anymore.

“Wayne Frame Junior and Wayne Frame Senior. Why did you kill them?” He asks.

Wayne Frame Senior shudders a bit, and the man from the van sees it even though I’ve wrapped the old man in plastic along with his son. I haven’t got any of those blue dirt-bags, just some clear plastic like what you cover the floor in when you paint. The elder Frame shudders, twitches, and makes a sound like the start of a cough. His air has no rhythm though. He rattles; he hums, and then is silent.

“Don’t y’all worry,” I say. “He’s dead. That’s just the body letting go of its last bit of air. Once you get off of the pavement and on to the gravel it’s a bumpy ride, and bumpier yet down to the river, down to the draw.”

Van-man looks me in the eye now, but he’s rested the gun in the crook of his elbow and the barrel points at the ground.

“I know these men he says. But I don’t know you. This is a small town. How come I don’t know you?”

I don’t answer that. I just tell him how it is.

“I killed Junior first. He had been seeing my sister. My older sister. She was here on this earth before me. He had struck her, he had beaten her. More than once. ‘Go’ I told her, ‘Go and don’t look back. If you stay you volunteer. No one can help you but you.’ She volunteered. He’d stop, but then he’d start again. Last time he hit her so hard he fractured her orbital socket, right there beside her eye. If love ain’t blind already he was close to closing off one of its eyes permanently. So I went out to the Frame place. Junior here was dead drunk at the kitchen table and sleeping with his head in his arms. So I put one in the back of his head just like that and he’s done and gone.”

I pull out my Granddad’s old Cooey .22-calibre long repeater from under Wayne Frame Junior. The Cooey is a catalogue rifle. My Great-Granddad ordered it up in the nineteen-thirties. A birthday present for my Granddad. Its heavy, with iron sights, not that you need a scope to shoot Wayne Frame Junior in the back of the head from less than an inch away.

“I am surprised you can kill a man with that small a rifle,” Van man says.

“Oh, it’s the best way. The Germans, in World War Two, they knew it. You put a small caliber round right up in the base of the skull. A small bullet will tumble, flatten out, then stop and stay inside. Shuts everything down right here and now. Clean too, or as clean as it’s going to get. You use a big gun, a hunting rifle or steel jacketed rounds and they’ll go right through. May kill a man, sure, but it makes a lot more noise than Granddad’s old Cooey. A lot more mess too. Sometimes, when it comes to killing some asshole, less is more.”

“How come the old man is still moving?”

“Well, two things. I already told you about air and dead bodies and rough roads. The other thing is that I didn’t shoot him in the back of the head and kill him clean like Junior sleeping over there.”

While I said this I looked at Junior. He was wearing a wife-beater and boxers. During the course of our transport he had rolled over onto his side and did indeed look like he was sleeping. However, he bled out a little through that little hole in the back of his head every time the truck bounced him to lie any way but face down and there was a big messy smear of blood around his head on the plastic. It obscured his face. Had Van Man been able to see it, he’d be able to see that Wayne Frame Junior’s eyes were closed.

“What happened with the old man?”

“I didn’t know he was there. I shot Wayne Junior like I told you. Then I went back out to my truck to get the plastic. When I went back in the old man was there, same t-shirt and boxers as Junior, only different colored boxers. He used a walker. He was holding Junior’s head up yelling at him like he figured he could wake Junior up, get him into bed, and have him sleep whatever off. We made eye contact and I laughed. That’s when he knew.

“You shot him then?”

“Not right away. We had sort of a race. He’s in his walker, crippin’ over to the kitchen counter. Going to get a knife I thought. I walked out to the truck where I’d left Mr. Cooey, steadied myself, and walked back in. He’d almost got to the front door to lock it – almost. He did have a knife in his hand. I shot him five times. The first one caught him in the chest – right at the heart, right where I aimed. He tried to cover up and the next one caught him on the wrist. He dropped his knife, and lowered his arm. I shot him three more times in the chest. The last one from so close the muzzle touched his flesh through the hole made by one of the earlier rounds. I shot him in his lungs, his heart, whatever. He died. The man is in a walker. He slumped over, he rattled a bit, blew bubbles, tears rolled down his cheeks and I dragged him out of the walker and put him into the plastic on the floor and soon after, Wayne Junior with him.”

“What’s done is done,” said Van Man.

“True.”

“Did you know the old man was a rapist? Wayne Frame Senior? A rapist?”

I shook my head.

“You would if you were from around here. Yeah, he raped this girl. Friend of the family, used to babysit Wayne Junior. Little bitty thing. They pled it down and he got two years less a day. Didn’t seem right even then. Standards were low, but still. This was thirty-odd years ago but it didn’t seem right. She and hers moved away. Can’t blame them. Wayne Senior got out of prison after seven-hundred-and-twenty-nine days served and moved back here. She left and he stayed. It wasn’t right. Not then, not now, not ever.”

I slid the Cooey back in under the plastic beside Wayne Junior.

“Look. It’s going to be light soon enough. At Six AM the Town Police are on the clock. People are up. We need to make a covenant, here and now, you and I.”

“A covenant?”

“If you kill me you have four bodies you have to hide, and one truck. They are going to catch you before noon, standing in the middle of all of this, a gun in your hand, and sweat on your brow. Even if I hadn’t come along you can’t roll her out in the ditch like that. Not in that blue bag. Someone will find her in a day. Two maximum. The birds of the sky, the dogs of the field, they’ll find her. Then people will come. They’ll be after you. You got to come on down to the draw with me. We have to give them – Wayne Frame Senior, Wayne Frame Junior, and your girl – to the river. That’s what you planned to do right? That’s what I planned to do.”

He nodded.

“You don’t know me.” I reminded him. “This is our covenant: No more names. Not yours, not mine, not hers. The Frames? Forget them.”

“You ain’t from around here, that’s for sure.”

I got back in the Chevrolet and turned the lights back off – the one light. I backed up and then came forward again and idled down the single lane. In my rear view mirror I saw him repeat my maneuver, and follow me, only in that Mini Van of his he had the running lights on once the key was in the ignition. Can’t turn them off. Not a real great vehicle for a night like this, but no one ever plans these things in that kind of detail. They think about fast, not about good.

We idled down into the draw. Orion, the great hunter of the constellations, sank in my rear view mirror until at last the bank of the river obscured him completely. Already the pale blue glow of dawn was on the eastern horizon, the blue the same color as Venus who has been watching us all along. Dawn would come soon and take Orion with her, and Venus another hour after. It is the way of things. But for now we were beneath it, out of line of sight of all but the most distant stars, stars whose names no one knows and who do not care.

The draw was a section of the river dug out so that farmer’s could pump out of it. This one was called Allen’s draw after the family that farmed here and used it. They had a couple of generations on the same land but the river changed over time, it bent, and they’d built a new draw farther away, leaving this one to collect water in an excavation ten feet deeper than the river. The trees on the bank above obscured even Venus, and when we got out of our cars, it was dark again, dark but for the Milky Way and the thin reflection of starlight on the black surface of the draw. The air smelled of cold water and turned earth from his blue bag.

“We’ll do the two men first.”

I motioned for him to help me. Both men were wrapped in the same plastic sheet. It was awkward to move them although neither were big men. In fact, it was funny how small they looked dead. Elves or goblins or something like that. Tinkers. A terror to the weak, a nuisance to the strong. We carried them out hammock-style and laid them beside the draw. I went back to the truck and took out a pair of forty-five pound cast iron plates from a weightlifting set.

“Lay these on them. Ninety pounds. That should keep them.”

There is a saying in the gym business that the “iron never lies.” Forty-five pounds is always forty-five pounds. It was never as true as now. We set the plates on the Frames and walked them into the draw. Wayne Senior rattles again, and shifts and I think maybe he ain’t quite dead after all. But if five rounds from the Cooey won’t do it forty-five pounds of iron times two and ten feet of cold, lightless water surely will. We let go the plastic and they sank into the darkness without another sound.

We walked on over to his van without speaking and each took one end of the blue bag. I could see her foot clearly now, extending from the bag. I lifted the bag up from that and he the other. I could see one of her hands now, sticking out from his end, and see her fingers tightly clenched. She had balled up her hand into a fist, gripping her own thumb. Even as she stretched out in rigor, even as her sinews became as stiff as roots and her skin prepared to fall like leaves, she held that fist, that grip on herself. We set the bag down on the edge of the draw as we had done with the two men.

He asked me: “Do you have any of those plates left?”

I went and got one and brought it back. I handed it to him. He slipped it in and just stood there for a bit. I noticed that she had painted her toenails; they looked shiny and black against the light luminescence of the skin of her foot. I know he saw me looking at her foot.

“She was a beautiful woman?” I asked.

“Very beautiful.”

“She kept herself up?”

“She took pride in her appearance. That ain’t black polish, like some teenager would have. It’s aubergine. Like plum, or eggplant. I know this. She told me. Back when we were on better terms. She wore it often.”

“Do you still love her?”

“I do.”

“Can I see her face?”

“No. No. No.”

I understood then, where he had shot her, and that she was gone.

I moved to my end of the bag and waited for him to pick up his. He took a hard, sharp breath, and held it then, and we slid her out into the draw. We walked in up to our waists in the freezing water, and let her sink into the eternal night of the draw like the Frame boys. We walked back out.

“You can leave.” He told me. “I might stay awhile.”

“Don’t do it,” I said. I know he isn’t thinking right. “You are from around here. You keep to your routine.”

“You’re right.”

He closed his hatch on the Van.

“We still have a covenant, right?” he asked me.

“We do,” I said, and then, “Do you wonder why you came to be where we are? Do what we did? Do you believe in the devil, that he made you do it, led you?”

He looked surprised when I asked him that. He looked me in the eye for the first time since he had the 12-gauge on me, back when we first met in the weak light of my old truck’s one headlight.

“No. I don’t. Not like that. I believe in Grace. You either have it, or not, but there ain’t no Devil.”

He left then, idled up the lane from the draw back out to the gravel road, got back up under pale Venus and fading Orion and drove carefully into town.

I stayed there just short of first light when his girl came back up to the surface, both legs straight out, both her thumbs in her hands now held high above her head. Faceless and shining and arched like a diver she came to the surface and started to drift from the draw into the river, her movement on the water slow enough to be measured by the light of stars, her direction processional. She is going back to where she came from. That forty-five pound plate was too heavy to sit straight on her when she went beneath the water. She’s a small woman, with a small woman’s center of gravity. Nothing to hold that weight. Somewhere in the still water she turned, and the weight came off and took the bag with it and she was free, free now to see the stars and go with the river.

They are going to find her. She’ll get out on the river and near enough to town that they’ll find her. And then they’ll find him. Who else could it be? They will go to him and no other. I have seen how he cried. He won’t cry when they come for him. That part is done. He’ll just offer up his empty hands and go with them. There won’t be a trial, just a plea and a sentence handed down. They aren’t going to find the Frames. They don’t have a lot of people to wonder about them. They aren’t ‘disappeared’, they’re just gone, as if they’d walked away on their own.

I look up at Venus. She’s touching dawn now, her daughter, and still strong even in her last light. Across the river I can see an old truck moving, some farmer’s wreck, rusty and cyclopean with one headlight and an old topper over the box. I wish I had a truck like that, with a topper. I can hear the gravel under the tires as the farmer seeks the bridge into town, and I imagine him driving the other way past a man in a van, the only other man on the road at that time and the farmer remembering it. I already know they aren’t going to find me. I am the son of the morning star. I have that much, and Grace, too.


 

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