The old man took a hand-rolled cigarette from his front shirt pocket and placed it in his mouth. He loved his cigarettes. He rolled them with the care of an explosives technician cutting a bomb’s wires and smoked them with the tenderness of a death row inmate partaking in his last meal. Half a century’s worth of smoking had left him with an appreciation for his cigarettes. The one perched on his lips was his last and he wanted to smoke once more before going outside. The storm had picked up and now rain blew sideways in large sheets, hammering his screened-in porch.
He flicked his Zippo open and ran the flame over the end of the cigarette. Once he thought it to be lit well enough, he snapped the lighter shut and leaned his head back, taking a nice, long tug. Smoke crept into his lungs and made him feel like he was ingesting lit coals. It felt great.
“My Deddy told me they call cigarettes fags overseas. Where is it, England?” The old man glanced over at Henry, who peered at him through shiny, violent eyes. Henry smiled mechanically at his own joke, like a jackass eating briars. “I reckon it’s ‘cause of the shape. It’s like a tallywacker.”
Henry laughed again and shook his head. The old man’s glare did not leave him. “I don’t have any idea what they call them across the pond, Henry. I ain’t been to either coast yet, let alone across ’em.” He regarded the boy for another minute, trying to sort out in his mind just what exactly was wrong with him, and then he turned his attention back to the storm. He had tried not to look at the object on the couch at Henry’s knee. The variable. A pistol big enough to put a hole the size of a fist through him.
“You know your problem? Old ess-oh-bees like you, they don’t care to know anything. You sit around this old shithole feeling sorry for yourself. Waiting on Mister Black-Robe-and-Scythe. Do something. Read a book. Get a TV. Deddy always said learning is work, just like, well, what we’re ’bout to do.”
The old man puffed and let the sweet-slash-bitter smoke course through his lungs. Holding his breath with the skill and precision of a professional at his trade, he chose not to exhale but to let the wisps of smoke curl up his face and dissipate somewhere above his head. He listened to the thousands of fingertips thrumming on the rooftop and tried in earnest to ignore the stupidity of his companion, whose rolling bulk occupied half of the couch on the other end of the room.
Sitting there, stalling, smoking rolled Prince Albert butts, all of it gave him time to think. Henry had shown up to his door an hour ago, about the same time as the first cracks of thunder on the pecan orchard, as if announcing the degenerate’s arrival. Seeing the gun had given him instant understanding of what was going to be required of him. Anytime somebody showed up these days – which wasn’t very often – it wasn’t to talk baseball. It was the boat. The swamp. Somebody needed a ride out there, needed taking a once around to make sure the disappeared bodies of little girls and stolen cars weren’t being stashed in the muggy depths of the water. Mostly it was Sheriff O’Donaghy with some form of federal enforcement, the DEA or FBI, wanting to track down meth dealers.
But Henry Bunch had no legal associations the old man knew of. He ran with his uncle. Byron the mayor, crooked as a broken bow string and as hard to hold down. From what the old man could gather, somebody’d disappeared and Henry was out here making sure the job was done. The imbecile liked to talk as much as the old man liked to smoke and had, over the course of an hour, scooted right up to the edge of telling the old man everything. The Bunches were evil, greedy people, lowlifes in high places, and Henry Bunch’s uncle had had it out with another man.
Apparently, the other man caught the worst of it.
“You ain’t finished that cigarette yet, old timer?” Henry whined. “Jee-sus Louie, we don’t have all day to do this thing. I got other stuff.”
“Look at the rain, boy. We can’t get out in that crap. We’ll both drown and then they’ll have to fish three bodies out tomorrow.”
Henry flashed him an angry look. The old man watched his reaction. The right hand of Henry’s jerked down onto the couch, pressing the snub nose out of sight. His fingers caressed the metal like an impatient cat. Finally, he said, “Watch your mouth, old boy.”
“What did I say?”
“The body. It’s best you keep that to yourself.”
“Why? The man’s gone. It don’t make difference one way-”
“Yeah, it does. Just don’t mention him. It makes me nervous.”
Henry scratched a pate of hair just above his ear with the free hand. His broad, round face, like a plate, bunched up into a wrinkly mess. He stood abruptly and cocked the snubnose pistol. Against the soothing chaos of the rain on the tin roof, the hammer click sounded muted, so the old man’s heart didn’t quite jump into his throat.
This time he’d gone too far. He’d pushed the youngster over the red line. Henry trained the barrel on him. “Put that fag out. We need to get out to finish up so I can get back to my uncle’s place. Otherwise he’ll get real worried about me and send some more folks out here. I don’t need that, and you certainly don’t. No, that’d be bad news, Bear.”
He waved the gun in the direction of the door. The old man dropped the cigarette on the wood floor and pressed it out with his boot. He stood, bones creaking, and watched the rain come down. Before he could react, a great force knocked him over the threshhold and down the front steps. He hit the ground awfully crooked, crying out as he felt something in his shoulder bend farther than it should have.
Henry kicked him. The fat sumbitch caught him right under the ribs. Something seemed to buckle inside him, but soon after the pain passed, and he waited until his energy came back to get up. He rolled over onto his back and felt the rain pelt his face and throat. It was warm and heavy and soaked his old white t-shirt through. Henry knelt at his side, smiling that asinine smile of his. He was enjoying this too much. He said, “Aw, come on, I didn’t kick you that hard.”
The old man’s place had been built on a plot of land so vast that nobody and everybody seemed to own it. Right on the corner of the county, the swamp provided a good buffer between the rival towns and no one disputed ownership of the land. Old-timers like himself owned old cottages or clapboard shacks around the base and edges, where the ground became too muddy to build anything. Beyond that, there was farmland on which illegal immigrants picked cotton and onions in enormous, shadeless fields.
His road was not paved and would not, in his lifetime, see a drop of concrete. Miles off a nearly nameless highway, the road and the Georgia clay and white sand combined to make one hell of a bumpy ride. Other than the blacks who fished for trout and the people like Henry, no living body visited him, and he was fine with that.
The old man led Henry down a footpath to the edge of the swamp, to the point where land started getting iffy and the water was very thick, like oatmeal left out to rot. Other than the rain, the woods held still for them. The only sound beyond the padding of their feet was the millions of wet drops serenading them, rustling the leaves of the dogwoods and banana trees he’d planted decades before.
Down by the water he kept his aluminum boat, a ten-foot number that didn’t seem like it could hold water or keep water out. It was old and green, and hoisted on the back was a meek trolling motor. It couldn’t outrun the Feds, but it was dependable enough for the old man.
“You sure that thing’ll hold us?” Henry said as the old man shoved the boat into the water. It slid effortlessly for a moment until the old man pulled the rope taut, causing the boat to jerk violently.
“The both of us and the body I intend on bringing back. Or sinking to the bottom of the swamp.” He looked at Henry, whose face had flushed a bright red. He raised the barrel of the gun and pointed it at the old man’s chest.
“I told you not to talk about him!” Henry jerked the pistol upward behind his head, as if he were about to strike the old man with it. His eyes were alive with anger. He was overreacting but the performance was real enough; the old man flinched a bit, just to make sure Henry wouldn’t actually pop him. “That asshole wanted to mess up my uncle’s chances for mayor, that’s all. That’s what I was told. And now I got to clean.”
“Let’s go see if we can find ‘im,” Henry said, with a hitch in his breathing. “And then we’ll talk about what to do with the body. You let me worry about that.”
“Doubtful,” the old man said, sliding onto the small seat by the trolling motor. “Bodies don’t keep well out here, so there won’t be much of him to see.” It was true. With the gators, vultures, turtles, and flies, there was a good chance the man would be nothing but bone and sludge when they got to him. What he didn’t point out was that the rain and wind probably had washed the body far away from its original dumping point anyway.
“You know him?”
“I asked if you knew this guy.”
He squinted. That meant no. He couldn’t think of a good lie, the old man guessed. “That’s enough. I get it. I don’t have to hear that. I’m just following orders, man. I don’t want that guy to be dead any more than you do, but I also got to make sure I don’t end up like him. You hear me, you old tallywacker?”
Henry’s eyes flickered and the old man could see he was on the verge of tears. In that respect, he looked like a frightened little boy, one whose mother has walked off and left him standing alone in the market. Instead of goading the poor guy, he turned his head and watched a small turtle crane its neck forward on a nearby stump. He wasn’t in the mood.
They rode for a little while in silence, Henry sitting at the front of the boat, rocking back and forth and feigning looking earnestly for the body. The old man circled old stumps and small sand faux-barges with memory. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the town didn’t know the topography of their little swamp and couldn’t do what he was now doing. They’d have ruined the prop, caught it on a submerged oak or patch of grass by now. Hell, there were a thousand traps out here for the inexperienced boater.
But not for the old man. He was a pro. So professional, in fact, he had let his mind begin to drift. He watched the back of Henry’s meaty head, wondering briefly if he could jerk the doughy sumbitch off to either side and run over him. He could find a little stump where the mudcats lived and push him in there, and there’d be nothing left if he-
“There! I think I see him,” Henry said, pointing his gun to the right of the boat. The old man squinted but saw nothing. His eyes weren’t worth the sockets they fit in anymore, so he had to assume he’d missed seeing the body. The rain had stopped, at least momentarily, and there was a distinct, thick heat surrounding them, like a bubble encased in fire. Once, during a card game in which he managed an Aces/Kings full boat, one of the drunks playing accused him of cheating and had two other fellas hold him down while a plastic bag got wrapped around his head. This heat felt no different. It was stifling, inescapable.
Finally, as they approached a small island topped with dried-out pines, the old man saw him. Or it. It lay face down in the water, seemed to float there, casually drifting along as if on a morbid vacation of sorts. And, unlike the old man’s prediction, the body possessed few of the characteristics of a disposed-of body. It was not – surprisingly, he had to admit – a rotted skeleton, picked clean by the wildlife. Some clothing and skin, though discolored, remained intact. The old man was surprised. He expected a vastly decomposed corpse.
“Pull him in,” Henry said quickly. “Let’s get him into the boat and get the hell out of here. This shit’s creepy.”
The old man looked over the side of the boat. He rested his hands on his knees and looked from Henry to the body and back, his brow furrowed with disgust. He said, “I might have signed on to come out here and show you this body, but I ain’t about to pull him in here. I didn’t agree to that.”
“Well, I’m not doing it.”
“I’ll just tell your uncle you couldn’t handle all this. What would he think of it?”
“What if I shoot you?”
“Good enough, but that still won’t help you get that body in this boat any faster. I’ll drag him along but I ain’t touchin’ him.”
Henry stood up and contemplated the situation for a moment. He squinted his eyes and spat angrily into the water, creating a small ripple next to the boat. He started to do that chest-heaving thing again and, through clenched teeth, he said, “Fine. I’ll do it. Just get out of my way. I guess you just ain’t got the pecker to do it.”
“Just be careful. You could tip us both over and we could catch some kind of mess bleach can’t get off. There’s no telling what’s out here in the swamp floatin’ around this guy.”
Henry pretended not to hear him and knelt down in the boat, which rocked precariously as Henry found a center of balance. The old man clenched each side of the boat so hard that his knuckles turned a brilliant white, his eyes never leaving the body.
Henry stuck both hands into the soup-brown water and burped. It was the burp of a man trying to keep his food down. The old man watched the shaking fingers creep along the surface of the water, reaching forward, getting ever closer to the body. He pulled back once, the first time that his knuckle touched a ragged flap of fabric. His whole body seemed to shiver, but after a minute he managed to stick his hands back out there.
“Well, here goes,” he said, laughing mirthlessly. His voice sounded tremulous.
It took him a few tries but Henry finally got his hands on the body good enough to flip it over. The big reveal, obviously, didn’t sit well with him, though. Upon seeing the face, Henry fell backwards and screamed, his ass thumping good and loud against the far side of the boat.
“Careful,” the old man said, raising the pitch of the last syllable, but it was too late. He had already displaced too much weight. The old man leaned forward in an attempt to correct the imbalance but it would not suffice. He closed his eyes and felt the boat go out from under him. A gunshot was fired as he heard Henry plop heavily into the swamp.
The water came up from underneath and dragged the old man down, its muddiness filling his mouth and nose. He breathed out and opened his eyes to try and get his wits about him. He could taste the grittiness in the water, like when he had tasted mud in his yard as a child. It was dark and disgusting, but it brought him back to reality. Until then, he’d felt as though he were tumbling soundlessly into some kind of muddled obscurity.
He could feel the vibrations from Henry’s panicky flailing as he surfaced. “What is it, boy?” the old man said as he tried to flip the boat over on its right side. He struggled to stay afloat, kicking his legs and trying to lift. Henry didn’t seem to hear him.
“My daddy! That’s my daddy he done killed!” Henry couldn’t focus on keeping himself above water. He bobbed up and down in between outbursts. The old man looked around; he could not see the dead man’s body and could not confirm his identity, though judging by Henry’s reaction, he didn’t feel he needed to. Henry seemed to recognize him just fine.
“He’s dead! My daddy, my daddy!” His voice was high and unyieldingly piercing, like a siren. He flailed at the water as if being attacked, and it was apparent he was willing to take anybody down into the depths with him if he could.
The old man finally managed to flip the boat over and crawl into the middle seat. Something loosened and clanked against the bottom of the boat. Something metallic. It was the snubnose pistol. It had lodged between the seat and the boat’s hull and managed to stay there while the boat was submerged. The old man raised his eyebrows and grabbed it.
He pointed the .38 at the tumult in the water. He looked back behind him at the place where Henry struggled to keep afloat and watched him sink down for the last time. He had tired himself out with all that yelling and screaming and couldn’t stay up to catch his breath. The old man fired three shots in quick succession approximately where Henry had sunk, and then he waited. At first there was nothing but the brownish sediment mixed with water. There was a sickly gathering of red liquid, like a liquid blossom, and then nothing at all.
He sat there, by that small island full of trees, and waited to make sure Henry didn’t surface again. Henry was right about one thing. It had been a set-up all right. But not for the old man. Henry couldn’t swim. His uncle probably knew that as well as anybody, the old man guessed. Pretty good bet that the idiot would somehow find a way into the water and never come back out.
The body – that is to say, the body of Henry’s father – had disappeared altogether; perhaps it had floated off in all the commotion. The old man sat in the boat and caught his breath, looking in all directions for a sign of a floating mass. But he couldn’t see much of anything. Either way, it probably wouldn’t be found. The gators would get to it eventually and then it wouldn’t be fit to drag out of the swamp. He shrugged. But, then again, he had been wrong before.
The old man turned the boat in the direction of his house and sped off, making a few small waves in the water – the biggest a trolling motor can do – and glad to do it. The rain had all but stopped and he couldn’t wait to get home. He wanted to roll a few more cigarettes and smoke them one right after the other in silence under his front porch, just waiting for the mayor and his men to show up and ask for a ride out into the swamp – just to make sure.