Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin.
-The Odyssey 19; 14
Some kinds of love are mistaken for vision.
- Lou Reed
1. Common Sense
They were agreed. Joe Hatchet would be easy to kill, and they were the men to do it. So Jack Bleeker and Art Small headed out to Tower road, but as they neared Saunder's Wrecking yard, Art let on to Jack that he had a terrible thirst and Jack said he could use a little something, so while they were feeling agreeable, they passed Saunder's and continued on down Tower road to Barney's. They pulled up in the gravel in front of Barney's, stepped out of Jack's truck, and they could hear the steady thrum of the giant power lines that ran all up and down Tower road. It was not a comfortable sound, Jack said, and Art had to admit, it was not his favorite.
Inside Barney's, they could still hear the sound of the wires, but it was down, underneath the other sounds. There was the jukebox playing Patsy Cline so low you could barely make it out. There was some talk between Gerry Hert and Will Parker, up at the bar. There was the familiar scrape and suck as Carl the bartender opened the steel-doored cooler. And there was the bubble bubble gurgle of the fish tank that took up most of the far wall, red light shining on yellow gravel and big tropical fish just swimming back and forth. And the hum of the lines. And the two men's thirst.
"Carl. How's things?" Jack said, sitting down on a stool beside Gerry Hert.
"Things is things," Carl the bartender said, not unkindly. He was a ropy man, shorter than he looked, thin and strong.
"How about a couple beers? Art and I've got some work to do."
Carl the bartender produced two beers before Jack had even stopped speaking. Carl the bartender had seen them coming. Art sat down next to Jack and sipped his beer. Gerry Hert was telling Will Parker about maiming Johnny Handsome the time he found Johnny with his wife. Picked up a whole chest of drawers and brought it down on Johnny. They had to take that arm off above the elbow.
Jack turned to Art and said, "Art, I'm thinking now. How we gonna do this thing? You have a gun?"
And Art looked shocked. "Jack, you know I don't have a gun. With children in my house? Don't take me for a fool." Art took another drink of beer. "You have a gun?"
"Have one, but it's at home. Locked up," Jack added quickly.
"Well I've got a knife, but it's only about three inches in the blade. Don't know that would do it."
"Let me see that knife," Jack said, and Art pulled the knife from his belt. Jack opened the knife and the blade snapped into place. That was another sound. It was a wide blade, curved at the tip, with a fake horn handle.
"I just don't know," Jack confessed. "I suppose it depends on where you're putting it."
Jack held the knife up to Art's chest, squinting his eyes like he was taking measurements. He turned Art on the stool and tried to gauge how far into his ribs the blade would go. "I suppose it might work. If you got the heart just so."
"I don't know. Where exactly is the heart anyway? On the left? In the middle?" Art poked around in his shirt, looking.
"What're you boys up to?" Gerry Hert said, turning on his stool to face them.
Jack and Art exchanged meaningful glances and finding that they agreed, they took their beers, and Jack took Gerry Hert by the elbow and they all three went over to a booth, past the fish swimming, and scrunched in.
"All right, Gerry, we're looking at putting this knife into Joe Hatchet's heart and making off with all the cash at Saunders'. We'll split it three ways if you help, if you help us really do the thing."
Gerry Hert looked thoughtful, then concerned. "What makes you think there's money worth stealing at Saunders'?"
"Art took in his mother's Buick this morning, and Kenny Greene gave him one hundred and forty dollars for it. Right there out of the till. They've got that kind of cash in the register. The point is, Kenny told Art that he was heading into town today, so Joe's back there all by his lonesome, waiting for us to put a knife in him. Easy as cake." Jack sat back in the booth and took a drink.
"Well I don't have any business with Joe Hatchet," Gerry said. "If you want someone to go in with you, you should talk to Ben Painter."
"It's not so much that we want someone to go in with us, it's just, we were trying to decide how to do it. All we've got is this knife." And Jack pushed the knife across the table.
Gerry picked up the knife, opened it, click, closed it again. "Yeah, that would do it. Just put it in and twist it." Gerry twisted the invisible blade into the invisible Joe Hatchet and the invisible Joe Hatched died. "That's the way they taught it in the corps."
"Makes sense to me," said Jack, and Art agreed.
"You ever seen Joe out there working that crane?" Gerry asked.
"Never have," Jack answered, and Art shook his head.
"His brother gets him up into the seat, and he just runs that thing like nobody's business. The crane with the big magnet. Boy can't walk, and man, he's up there moving those cars around."
"It would be nice to have a magnet like that," Jack said.
But Art corrected him. "Couldn't do it. You could never drive a thing like that away. You'd be hitting power lines all the way down Tower road."
And the three men all nodded their heads together. That was true. You couldn't argue that.
2. Real Time
Ben Painter had been off almost all his life. Three years lost in Deer Lodge and a full, irretrievable decade gone to alcohol. But Ben Painter was getting things under control, straightening up, trying to set things right and get back on it. On the back of his left hand, the ink still fresh and the skin still raised, was a roman eagle in red and black. On his right hand was a solid black cross that he'd had done three weeks before. Erik from the brotherhood had complimented the cross and lifted his sleeve to show Ben the eagle on his shoulder. That's power, he'd told Ben, and Ben had believed him. But now, Ben was worried. When he spread his fingers, the eagle looked alright, but when he closed his fist it distorted, the wingtips pulling out.
He was driving down Tower road, flexing his hand, watching the eagle shift, when he hit the fox. He pulled over, not sure what it had been, and climbed out. The fox was still in the middle of the road and very much alive. Its back legs were a pulpy mess, chunks of bone shoved out at the hip, but the fox was still moving, scraping its front legs and trying to pull itself off the road. It made a sound like brakes squeaking, an almost constant sound that rode high above the moan of the power lines, and Ben knew what he should do, what his father'd have done. He thought about the forty-five in his glove box. He stepped up closer, took the fox by the neck, wondering that the animal didn't even try to bite him, turned its face up toward his own. Its eyes were perfectly round. It looked dead, but he could feel its breathing and the legs kept waving. He set it back down gently.
Standing at the center line of Tower road, Ben Painter pulled off his white t-shirt, bent down, and wrapped it carefully around the fox's bottom half. The fabric went dark instantly, and Ben picked up the animal, holding it like a baby doll, and carried it back to the truck. In the truck, Ben pulled a blue flannel shirt out from back of the seat. He wrapped this around the fox as well. The fox was trying to sit up, to look around. It continued with the high squealing, louder now, inside the truck. Ben started up the engine, put it in gear. Down Tower road a ways, he passed Saunders' wrecking yard. He could see the big magnet on the crane, hanging motionless. He thought of Joe Greene, lying with a hatchet in his back, realized he didn't really remember this. These were shared memories, common knowledge. But it was still true. Ben looked at the fox.
"I do believe you are a sign. Well, don't you worry, we'll get you fixed up."
The fox laid its head down on the seat, whimpered.
"Call you Joseph," he said to the fox. "My past come back and, for once, didn't try and bite my hand."
Ben smiled at the fox and at himself for his own cleverness. He pulled into the gravel in front of Barney's. The fox lifted its head again.
"We'll get you a drink," he said to the fox as he raised it off of the seat.
There was a small, dark stain on the seat. Ben carried the fox inside. The place went quiet when he came in, like in a western movie, and this was for two good reasons. One: Ben Painter had been on the wagon for six months and everyone knew it. And two: he was bare chested, carrying some half dead thing that had smeared blood up his arm and let out a sharp whining cry.
"What you got there?" Carl the bartender said.
"Joseph," Ben answered.
"What is he?" asked Gerry Hert.
"Sign, symbol, and prodigal returned," Ben said.
"Dog," said Jack Bleeker, and Art Small agreed.
"It's a fox," corrected Ben.
"Well get it the fuck out," called Will Parker from his stool.
"We're going to save this animal, boys. But right now, I think it needs a little something for the pain. And I believe Will just volunteered to buy the first round. Carl, how about a bourbon?"
Carl poured a shot of bourbon into a glass
"How you plan on giving it?" he asked.
"Only one way to drink bourbon, Carl." Ben set the fox down on the bar, lifted its snout, and pried the little jaws open. Holding the jaws apart with his left hand, he picked up the bourbon with the right.
"The blood and the life," he smiled, and he poured the shot down into the fox's throat. The fox coughed, gagged, shook its head violently, whined, relaxed. The men all cheered.
"That thing won't make it through the night," Will Parker said.
"I'll take that bet," said Ben Painter, and he ordered another bourbon.
"This one's on me," cried Jack Bleeker.
Ben repeated the operation, and this time the fox didn't gag, but took it down, shook its head again, and lay back down. Its whining had ceased.
"Hey Carl, hand me that phone," said Ben.
Carl lifted the phone up and set it beside the fox. "It's bleeding on the bar, Ben."
Ben smiled, picked up the receiver and dialed. Doctor Reverend Jim was neither a doctor nor a reverend, but he was a bit of both to the men at Barney's. Doc picked up the phone and growled into it.
"Doctor Reverend, this here's Ben Painter. I'm down at Barney's."
"Well then, God forgive you."
"I've got a little problem down here."
"God bless the child that's got his own.”
"Think you might come down and take a look?"
"Ben, there's not an axe in nobody's back is there? Just call in the police, Ben."
"Just come down. Bring your bag," said Ben, and he hung up.
Everyone was quiet for a bit. They looked back and forth at each other, at the fox, at Ben Painter, shirtless and bloody. The hum of the lines was big. The tropical fish swam back and forth and then back again. In the quiet they could hear Roy Orbison singing Ooby Dooby, and that was alright. That was nice. The fox was sleeping or dead, but Ben put a hand on it and it was still breathing. Carl the bartender gave Ben a towel, and Ben did his best to wipe the dried blood from his arms and chest. The men all stood around watching the muscles shifting around in his shoulders and back. Ben Painter was a thing to see.
A half an hour went by and there was no Doctor, no Reverend, no Jim. Ben called his house again, but there was no answer either. He put his hand on the fox and he could barely feel the breathing. The fox was going to die.
"This fox is going to die," Ben said to the floor.
"That's what I told you," said Will Parker.
"The Doc will be here, Ben. He'll know what to do."
And then the fox was awake, but bad awake, shaking like with a fever and the sound coming from its throat like a sick thing. It's eyes had whites to them now where they didn't before, and it kept opening it's mouth and snapping its jaws at nothing.
"This ain't right, Ben," said Carl the bartender.
"Carl's right," said Jack Bleeker. "That animal's suffering."
Art Small just nodded his head, looked sad, slowly shook it from side to side, like he just couldn't make up his mind. There was angel music from the jukebox. Jack Bleeker took out Art's knife and set it down on the bar beside the fox.
"It ain't right for a thing to suffer," Gerry Hert whispered.
"That fucking sound is killing me," said Will Parker. He was drunk now for sure.
Ben picked up the knife. Click. That was the blade. The angel music was rising now, high strings and trumpets.
"We're put on this world to suffer," said Ben Painter, tears in his eyes. "Who's to say when we've had enough?"
But the men all told him it was the thing to do, that it was right, that it was kind, that that's what the fox was wanting now more that anything. Tears fell on Ben's chest, mixing with flecks of dried blood, rolling red down his stomach. He wrapped his left hand around the fox's snout, knife in his right, and quick as can be, he cut the fox's throat. Blood pooled on the bar, but nobody, not even Carl seemed to notice. Ben turned away. Everyone was quiet. Even the angels had stopped their song. The fish stopped their swimming, just hanging there in the water. There was just the hum of the lines and the squeak of Will Parker's stool as he turned to Ben.
"About fucking time," Will Parker said. "I was about to do it myself."
So Ben Painter put the knife in his neck.
3. Barroom Girls
Johnny Handsome came through the door with an angel on each arm, which was a bit of a joke, considering. His left sleeve was pinned up at the shoulder, but the angel's hand still held on where the arm should have been. Like the ghost of the arm. That's the way with angels.
Merle Haggard was on the Jukebox, but that skipped and skreeched when they came through the door, and the angels on Johnny's arms were singing something so high and sweet that everyone looked up from their drinks. Jack Bleeker says they were singing the Ave Maria, and Art Small, with a little coaxing, agrees. Carl The Bartender swears those angels were singing The Star Spangled Banner. Gerry Hert thinks it was John Henry, but admits it could have been Mystery Train just as easy. Will Parker didn't hear a thing, dead as he was, lying on the barroom floor, one foot caught up in the stool. But it's Ben Painter who tells it best, who saw it all, and he says that when Johnny Handsome came in, he was walking with two perfect angels, one with red curly hair and the other black skinned with long braids, and they were singing The Old Rugged Cross with voices so sweet and so pure that it rang in their glasses, set the lights swaying, and put the quivering shakes through the puddle of blood that stretched out from around Will Parker's body.
The angels stopped at Will Parker, their feet just above the floor, and though they cried then, tears of grief and sadness for Ben Painter, bottle in his hand, who'd done this terrible thing, they kept singing and the sound didn't waver or falter once.
"Holy Shit, is that Will Parker?" asked Johnny Handsome.
"The body laid low by a good man's hand," said the angels together. "The first step to the promised land, slain by Moses and blessed by God."
"Holy shit, Ben. You've done it now."
And the three of them moved in around Ben, and Ben was all but surrounded by looking faces, but he just looked back and forth at the angels' faces. Their mouths were dark flowers and their eyes fox's eyes.
"What you gonna do?" asked Johnny Handsome.
"Get the hell out," answered Jack Bleeker
"That'd be for the best," said Art Small.
"If you got going quick, we could tell the police something. Say we didn't see you," said Carl the Bartender.
"Why'd you have to do it?" asked the angels.
"He was suffering," said Ben.
"Not long," said Gerry Hert. "Dead before he hit the floor."
"He was suffering and I was to blame."
"We're put on this world to suffer," said the fox.
"Will Parker never could keep his mouth shut," said Johnny Handsome.
"He didn't have to kill him though," said Jack Bleeker.
"Suffering," said Ben.
"Who's to say when we've had enough?" asked the fox.
"Who's to say?" said the angels.
"You got any cash?" asked Jack Bleeker.
"I didn't even see him," said Ben.
"That reminds me, Jack," said Carl the bartender, "you were paying for that second bourbon."
"Hit him on the road," explained Ben.
"I didn't even try to bite," said the fox. "You've got power."
"Ben, I've got an idea," said Jack Bleeker. "I know where you can get some cash. To get out of town on."
"Power in your hand," said the fox.
The angels took Ben by his hands. The angel with red hair let his right hand rest in the her palm, and traced the cross with her finger.
"The sign of forgiveness," said the angel.
"You come with me and Art, down to Saunder's Wrecking."
The black skinned angel held Ben's other hand, looked at the eagle there. She looked sad or tired or ashamed.
"It's just a matter of finishing what you started with Joe Hatchet," said Jack Bleeker.
"It just isn't right," Ben said, flexing his fingers.
"These things that you've done," said the angels, "how will you make up for them?"
"I don't think I can," said Ben.
"Don't you love me, Ben?" asked the black skinned angel.
"Don't you love me, Ben?" asked the fox.
"Don't you love me, Ben? asked Will Parker.
"Are you even listening to me, Ben?" asked Jack Bleeker
"Of course," answered Ben.
"You just put it in and twist it," said Jack Bleeker.
Art Small nodded his head.
"That's the way they taught it in the corps," said Gerry Hert.
"Or with a chest of drawers," said Johnny Handsome.
"You just go on, Ben," said Carl the bartender. "I'll clean up here."
"You must offer the right hand of forgiveness," said the angels.
"I don't know how," said Ben.
"Find the cause of your suffering, dear," said the angels.
"Easy as cake," said Jack Bleeker.
"I think I understand," said Ben.
"Of course you do," said the angels.
"You always have," said the fox.
"Sign, symbol, and prodigal returned," sang the angels.
Ben leaned forward and kissed the angels, one after the other, on their foreheads. Their skin was cool like stone. Then he stepped away from the crowd, over Will Parker's body, lifted the limp and heavy fox from the bar, and turned at the door.
"I've a need to talk to Joe Hatchet," he said.
"That's a fine idea," said Jack Bleeker.
"Just hurry," said Carl.
"Forgiveness," sang the angels.
"Forgiveness," cried the fox.
"Just get the fuck out," cried Will Parker.
And Ben Painter went out into the daylight, angels singing in the room behind, and headed down Tower road. Iron drawn by the stone.
Doctor Reverend Jim was heading down, too late, to Barney's, when he saw Ben Painter, underneath the powerlines, walking down the shoulder of Tower road, something in his arms. For the best, thought Doctor Reverend Jim. Best that he just get home and be rested. And Jim thought of Joe Greene lying with a hatchet in his back and Ben Painter asleep on the floor beside him. He'd seen this. He still saw it. He watched Ben Painter getting smaller in his side mirror. Ben Painter was a thing to see, and then he couldn't see him. He wondered what that might have to do with faith. Nothing, he thought. And, "Nothing," he said out loud to himself. He heard those about the same.
4. Hawks and Doves
Ben Painter saw the crane first, a black hand reaching up into the white sky. He looked at his own hands. This seemed to him a natural train of thinking. Marks on his hands. Symbols, he thought. A nice word. He said it out loud. "Symbols." He thought of water from a pump. This didn't surprise him. He was used to thinking in this way. He looked up again and the crane was bigger now, looking more like a crane and less like a hand. He dropped his hands back to his sides and looked toward the crane and the magnet, just visible, a thick disk hanging from an invisible wire. Symbol, he kept thinking.
When he got to the gate of Saunder's Wrecking, he stared up at the sign, yellow with red chipped letters. Wrecking was a good word too. He looked at his hands again. Symbols. He went into the yard and up to the office. It was a tiny glassed up place, dark. He went inside.
Joe Hatchet was sitting behind the counter, working at a long column of numbers on the back of an envelope.
"Hold on a second, Ben," he said without looking up. He chewed the eraser of his pencil. He scribbled some numbers and set down the pencil. He looked up at Ben.
"You look like shit, Ben," he said. He looked at the dead fox in Ben's arms, back to Ben.
"I've had a day," said Ben, laying the fox on the counter.
"What exactly can I do for you?"
"I need your help."
Joe Hatchet looked solid at Ben, rolled his chair back from the counter and came around to the front. Joe Hatchet wore fingerless gloves for getting himself around. He looked Ben up and down.
"How am I going to help you?" he asked.
Ben held out his left hand, turned it over, showed Joe the roman eagle.
"The source of all my suffering," he said.
Joe Hatchet laughed.
"Help me," said Ben.
Joe Hatchet stopped laughing. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked.
Ben looked around the place. It was cramped and messy. There were papers everywhere. Leaning against the far wall was a three foot circular saw blade. Ben went over and picked it up, carried it back to Joe.
"Cut it off," he told him.
"With that?" said Joe.
Ben looked at the blade and then set it back down.
"It's all I have," Ben said, and he felt tears coming up.
Joe looked at him, sighed, and rolled himself back into a second room, a tinier office like a closet. He came back with a red handled ax. A fire ax. It was laying across the arms of Joe's chair.
"I've got this," Joe said, lifting the ax.
Ben took it from him and held it by the handle like he was going to swing it. And then he did swing it and it stuck with a chock right into the countertop.
"Perfect," smiled Ben. Things were looking up.
He pushed the papers off of a desk and pulled up a chair. He handed the ax back to Joe, and stretched his arm out across the table.
"Okay," he said and looked away.
Joe stared at the eagle, then he looked at the ax, and he looked at his legs, lying useless in his chair.
"Why do you want this, Ben?" he asked and Ben turned back toward him.
"Forgiveness," said Ben.
"What's this to do with forgiveness?"
"Once I've suffered, then you can forgive."
"That's not forgiveness, Ben."
Ben held up his right hand, showed him the black cross.
"Symbols," he said. "Symbol of forgiveness and symbol of suffering."
"And this?" asked Joe, pointing at the eagle.
Joe nodded his head, looked at Ben's hands, one, then the other. It almost made sense. He lifted the ax. Ben looked away. He lowered the ax again.
"This is gonna hurt," Joe said.
"Yes. I think that's true."
"And that's not justice?"
"Don't talk symbols anymore," said Ben. "Just do the thing."
Joe raised the ax again. He pictured it, the hand away and the blood, still at first and then pumping. Left hand. Closest to the heart. A lot of blood. He pictured the roman eagle, lying useless on the desk. He lowered the ax.
"Ben, let me tell you something first."
Ben turned toward him again.
"The thing about pain, well, the thing is," Joe looked around the room, like he was searching for props. "Pain isn't all bad."
Ben raised his right hand, smiled. "I know," he said.
"No, I mean like in general. You see, I thought about this a lot, right after, when they told me I wouldn't walk. You see, Ben, I can't feel a thing below the middle of my back. Nothing."
Ben looked at him, tears at his eyes.
"And, I don't want to sound all melodramatic or anything, but that pain, Ben, you can come to miss that pain."
"I can see how that could be true," said Ben.
"That pain is a part of you. That's what you took from me, Ben. That's what I can't get back."
Ben pulled his hand back from the table and let it rest in his lap. This wasn't what he'd wanted to hear. This wasn't how the angels had told it. He didn't know what to do next.
"Joe," he whispered. "How did it happen? I mean, why?"
Joe looked at the ax in his hand, looked back at Ben.
"No reason, Ben. No reason at all"
"I don't remember a thing about it," Ben said, "but I know I never planned on doing a thing like that."
"Well, planned or no, here we are."
Joe was silent. Ben was silent. The angels were silent. The little room was silent as could be. Ben looked over at the fox, Joseph, his sign and symbol. He thought of the fox there on the bar, shivering and shaking, snapping at nothing. Who's to say? We're put on this world to suffer. Ben looked at his right hand. Black cross. Mercy. Who's to say?
"I see what I've done, Joe. I think I understand. You're right, Joe. Forgiveness has nothing to do with us. Just wasn't reading the signs. Find the source of our suffering. That's what has to be done."
He put his right hand out on the table, spread the fingers out flat. Black cross on white skin. His hand against the cool grey of the desk.
"I just had it backward," Ben said.
"No," Joe said.
"What do you mean, no?"
"I won't do it. Enough blood around this place," he said, nodding toward the fox.
Ben turned away. The fox, he thought. No power, no nothing. Nothing in these hands. And then he thought of Will Parker, laying on the floor of Barney's, lying there just like a man laying dead on a floor.
"No more blood and no more symbols," he agreed.
And they didn't speak, no more blood and no more symbols, but Ben Painter got up from his chair and Joe rolled over to the counter. Ben lifted the fox, its head swinging like it was on bearings. He tucked the blood-soaked shirt around it, lay it in Joe's lap.
They went back amongst the stacks of cars and engine parts, across the oils soaked ground. Ben felt suddenly nauseous and light, but he could hear the angels again, up above, singing. They came up on an old, blue Buick that was half rusted out and battered. Joe opened the trunk, set the bundle in, and shut it again. He wheeled himself back and looked at Ben.
"Can you get me up into the chair?" he asked.
Ben just nodded, not really understanding.
Joe rolled over to the crane, wiggled himself to the edge of his seat, held onto the handles on the crane's side. Ben took Joe's legs and lifted him up into the crane's seat, and Joe pulled his legs in behind him. Ben sat down in Joe's chair. He was feeling lightheaded, the sound all about him coming in. Joe started up the crane.
There was the sound of the crane's engine, rumbling along. That was a sound. And the squeak of the big arm spinning around. That was another sound. And then Joe turned on the power to the big magnet. It was a hot buzzing thrum of a sound, and it only lasted a second, but it rolled along underneath the other sounds, mixed with the sound of the wires up above, and Ben could feel it going through him. Then there was the skreek-groan of the car coming up off its wheels and Ben Painter just sat back in the chair and laughed to see it. A car, flying through the air, up high above his head.
Josh Hanson is a graduate of the University of Montana Writing Program who currently lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and two daughters. Recently, mhismanuscript was named first runner-up in the Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Diagram, 42Opus, Plainsongs, Stirring, Three Candles, Rock Salt Plum, Ginbender, Megaera, and others.