Outside, a Hemi winds down to a rumble. Amanda doesn't wake. The petals of the lotus tattooed on her stomach blooms with each breath she takes. Even when her big eyes are closed they still dominate her face. Her red hair fans out over the pillow like flames. If Satan were gorgeous he might be her.
I walk softly so the trailer floor doesn't creak and peer through a rip in the vinyl blinds. The reflection of my home rolls to a stop in the chrome hubs of a '67 Chevy pickup. The door opens. Earth crunches under foot as a man steps out, dust blowing out his boot heel and the hinges of the door screeching shut. The wind is heavy. Evergreens bow like royalty is in their presence. It's a long walk from the dirt road to the trailer. Through discarded tires, daddy's old recliner, tumbleweeds and finally a patch of sunflowers that Amanda planted a couple months ago when she first moved in. They are her favorite flower, “cause they ain't too fancy, but still pretty, just like me,” she always says. I like when she says that. The man's hips move like a gunfighter; confident, calculated. His head straight, shoulders back. Under the breast of his suit coat the outline of thick muscle shifts. His jaw line stern, merging into high cheekbones. His hair long, black and braided. It hangs out the back of his cowboy hat. Tucked in the band of the hat is an eagle feather. Long and white, the tip black. It makes the man look even taller than he already is. I get down on my knees and lift the blinds so only my eyes are exposed. I don't recognize the man, but the feeling in my gut is the same feeling I used to get when I'd hear daddy snap his belt. I'm hoping the Indian is a bill collector but something tells me he isn't here for money. He looks too serious, like his profile should be on the back of a coin or a stamp. I can't help but wonder if Amanda would recognize him, but I don't want to wake her. She doesn't like mornings.
Cigarette smoke forms soft blue bouquets and disappears as it breaks towards the yellowed ceiling panels. A wire skeleton hangs from a hook like a suicide victim. Amanda makes them from coat hangers and paper clips. They are all over the trailer bent in various positions. This one mocks me with its empty bronzen face as it shoots invisible arrows at nothing in particular. I tell her she has too much time on her hands. She says she can't work because of her bi-polar. She says she is waiting for her disability to be approved and will be getting a check any day now and we will go out to eat, and she will buy new tires for my truck. She says she is sick, but she seems normal to me.
My brain is moving like five hundred wild horses; a stampede of thoughts. I try to figure out what the Indian at the door wants without actually talking to him, I look for signs in his facial expressions, but there are none. His thick fingers curl at his sides looking from east to west. He disappears from view and I hear boots step towards the door, Tony Llamas I'm guessing. Just like my daddy's. I could always tell the kind of mood my old man was in by the sound of his boots on the porch. If he was steppin' heavy then boy you'd better run. A series of solid, cop-like knocks follow. He clears his throat. I start sweating. Finally, boot heels fade. The truck door slams. The engine reaches red- thrown into second gear. The tires spit gravel. I stand up, grab a stale beer off the counter and take a drink.
The parakeet makes clicking noises in the background. I rub the sweat from my face and my fingers snag the knot above my eye. Broken plates litter the linoleum on the kitchen floor. Looks like I ducked most of the them. Luckily, I don't eat off fancy things. Memories of last night are beginning to show themselves, one by one, like hostages being let free with each demand complied: her threatening to leave, again, if I don't come up with enough money for the procedure, and me, saying anything to please her. The plate hitting my head and me pinning her against the wall, red-faced and hollering that she's nothing but a younger version of her momma.
Amanda wakes up and runs to the bathroom a few minutes later. I hear her puking so I follow. I try to hold her hair but she swats my hand away. She glows as stray sunbeams escape through the morning window. The tiny hair on her arms radiates like fiber optics. Mascara stains her cheeks and snot glistens like spiderwebs from her nose and mouth. “I'm gonna meet Earl at the bluffs to look for snakes. I'm hoping today will be the day baby. If all goes well I'll have enough money by tonight.”
She looks up from the toilet, “Real men fix cars or build houses or pave highways. Little boys play with snakes. You are a little boy Lenny, just a snot nosed kid in a big dumb body.” I decide not to argue. She'll never understand. I tell her all the time- rattler skin will be in demand any day now, and all the boot companies will be coming to me. Daddy was the one to teach me how to catch em and cut em. Cut the head off, cut the rattle, slice down the soft pearl belly and give it a big yank. It peels off in one piece just like a gym sock from a foot. I must've been six years old when I collected my first rattle, now i have a whole drawer full. The way I look at it, with each snake I kill, I potentially save a life. I guess you could call me an angel.
“Seriously, we need to decide what we are going to do cause I can't live like this anymore, Lenny. I deserve so much more. Many men would love to have me as their old lady. Sometimes I think I was better off without you.” She lights a cigarette, sits down against the wall and pulls her shirt over her knees.
“You should be happy. I gave you a place to live, shit, look at this place, a beautiful double wide--a brand new deck.” I finger the wound on my head, “You have one hell of an arm. I hear the VFW is looking for a second baseman.”
“Don't you go and change the subject on me Lenny. Anyway, you deserved it.”
“I'm trying to get the money. You know how many snakes I have to wrangle for that kind of cash? Just remember, I love you. That's all that really matters.”
“Maybe you need to get a real job.”
“Just trust me. I'll handle it. You know I'd--
“And no, don't say you would do anything in the world for me. You always say that shit. If that was true you'd a done it by now. And no, I don't believe in love. I ain't never felt it. You don't know what it is either. Love don't pay for this thing growing in my stomach Lenny. Love didn't make it, and love ain't gonna fix it.”
“I treat you better than those assholes who smack you around like some god damned pinata”
“Well, at least I could feel something with them. Even if it didn't feel no good.”
I stare at nothing. My mind is still fixated on the Indian.
“You aren't even listening,” she says.
“I am listening.”
I peer outside to make sure the man is gone. Maybe he is someone daddy owed money? It had been only last winter that the lawyers contacted me about this trailer. I was living in the camper shell of my truck at the time, and Amanda was living motel to motel with different men. God might a took my daddy, but he gave me a place to live out of it. It took me three whole days just to throw away all the empty whiskey bottles dad had hidden around the house. Me and Amanda planned on fixing it up, talking late into the night about the possibilities. She hung her dishtowels in the kitchen, the kind with tiny roses embroidered in the corner, picked wild flowers from the field across the street and put them in empty milk jugs, hung the only picture she had of her own father on the wall, made a book case out of cinder blocks and painted them all polka dotted colors. Women like doing that type of stuff. She really brightened the place up. I hadn't felt a woman's touch since I was a kid. I mostly felt happy for Amanda though. She never had a place to call home.
The sun is heavy and wet. It is seeping through the thin walls. I lift the door to the birdcage. I want the green parakeet to feel what its like to fly in its native land, wherever that may be. One time, Amanda showed me an article in Highlights magazine about the flocks of wild parakeets hanging from telephone wires in the streets of Brooklyn, flying through the Tenderloin in San Fransisco, building nests in the cracks of the Sears Tower. Those magazines are the only thing she brought besides clothes when she moved in. Her daddy got her a subscription for her fifth birthday. Shes had those twelve copies ever since.
I talk to the bird like it is a toddler. Amanda rolls her eyes, “You care more about that damn bird than you do me.”
“I brought you both in from the cold. You're kinda like this bird baby doll,” I laugh.
“I can only wish I had wings to fly me away. If you love me so much can I get some money?” I pull a few dollars from my wallet and hand it to her. She kisses me. “Thank you baby. I have to call my momma.” She grabs the phone and heads to the back of the trailer and closes the door like she always does. I hear her laugh. Her and her momma never laugh together.
On the back of the bird food box it says that natural sunlight is just as important as food and water. I feel bad for penguins and owls. Last winter I was staying with Earl in his tiny shack out by the highway and I found the little guy on the coldest day of the year, ten below zero. I walked out to my truck, can't remember where I was going, but there in the snow something fluttered and caught my eye like a dollar bill in a street full of trash. I thought it was my lucky day. The sky was milky, kind of like a blind man's eye; the horizon wasn't any different. I couldn't even see the foothills to the west. Like the clouds were tired of being so high that they gave up. No beginning and no end, everything was nothing. I walked towards the movement, it was alive, scared and shivering. It tried to fly from me, but its feet were frozen to the pavement. I pulled it free, took it back to the room, put him in the empty bath tub and closed the door. I grew attached to him so I kept him. Two months later its feet turned black, and one by one they fell off somewhere in the cage. So now he sits on top of my book shelf, overlooking my living room.
The bird flies straight out, circles the room and slams into the closed window. I cup it in my hand, he bites me as I gently toss it back in the cage -- I don't hold it against him. With its beak it pulls itself onto the edge of the food dish. It looks down at me, ruffles its feathers and begins to sing along with a meadowlark outside.
Amanda is getting dressed. She rubs lotion on her tits, then on her thighs; softening bruises that never seem to fade. She exudes a slight innocence the way the top of her ears poke through her wet hair. For a moment I see the little girl she once was, not too long ago, lost, and taking care of her pill addled mother. I picture her picking up her mother's dropped cigarettes during nods so they didn't burn holes in the carpet. Her mother saying, “What? I am awake,” as Amanda scolded her. There are light blue circles under her dark blue eyes. Her stomach is getting bigger. I wonder what the baby looks like. Sometimes I wish it was mine. I think a baby would set me straight, but I can't tell her that. She told me I can barely take care of a bird. I pull the last cigarette from her pack and light it. “Ok, well I'm gonna go meet up with Earl now.”
“Do what you need to do. How long will you be gone?,” she says as she puts on dark red lip stick.
“Lipstick? You got a date or something,” I joke.
“Yeah Lenny, I got a date. With a tall dark and handsome man,” She laughs. “Give me a break. You got to trust me more than that.”
“I trust you. I was just playin.” I try to kiss her and she turns her head.
“You're messing up my lipstick,” she says and then blows me a kiss as a consolation prize. “What time will you be home? Maybe I'll have dinner ready.”
“Around dark,” I finally answer.
The first time I met her I was coming out of the Lariat Lounge. It was so cold it almost sobered me up. As I stumbled to my truck, the faint sobs of a girl softly mingled with car engines starting. It was coming from in between two parked cars. There was Amanda, angel faced, crying her big round eyes out. All she had on was a pretty dress, ripped down the side, one broken heel and a hoodie two sizes too big. The hoodie was pulled over her knees; her chin tucked in her chest like a sleeping pigeon. She grabbed at pebbles and tossed them at a piece of broken glass. “Hey, you alright?” I asked. She didn't answer, just wiped her nose on her sleeve. “You need a ride or something? It must be five degrees out here.” She looked up and from the headlights of a departing car I noticed red finger marks around her throat, her eye was puffy and a purple half moon hung under it. I didn't want to get too personal, so I didn't ask what happened.
“You got a cigarette?” she asked while catching her breath from crying. “My old man done took off with mine.” I lit one and handed it to her.
The sky envelopes my tiny truck as I drive into it. The silver edges of clouds tarnish and cut into the sky until it bleeds deep blue. Earl waits there on the other side of the cattle guard on county road sixteen. I roll, shoot him the deuce and park my truck. “About damn time. What in er hell happened to yer head?,” Earl asks. I toss him a beer, throw the rest in my pack, grab my metal rod, slip on my boots and gloves, and start walking to the top of the bluff. He grabs his stuff and follows. “Amanda,” I say. A meadowlark calls in the distance. The sun drags begrudgingly across the sage, splitting its belly open, heat like guts spill out across the high plains. “Sometimes I wish I didn't love her so much.”
“Ya love er? I be damn. Could a fooled me.”
“Yeah I should buy her flowers or something. She's a good girl. She means well. It's not her fault she's bi-polar.”
“I always told ya she's bad news. I heard some things bout her. I swear I seen her around town with some big--”
I cut him short, “Earl, I don't want to hear it. I've heard enough rumors.”
“What's the saying? Love is blind? Maybe you is in love. You two is a match made in some kinda heaven.” I hated when Earl spoke in cliches. Mostly because he didn't know what they meant. They were just words he heard thousands of times. I respond as I cup my eyes from the sun, “Well, they also say, if it ain't broke don't fix it.” We trudge uphill, sacks slung over shoulder, beer in hand. Earl's last few words echo in my head, “With some big--.” I hope he was about to say “shit eating grin.”
From the top of the bluff I can see the brown corners of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. And if I look real hard, the Oregon Trail. It looks like a scar cut into the stone face of America. Hawks circle and the wind blows through the trees like the laughter of lost Lakota children. This place is basically still untouched by human hands except for the Indians that used to live here.
A six foot diamond back sunbathes across a granite ledge. I smack Earl with my loose glove and motion for him to keep still. He freezes with a beer can welded to his lips. I creep up behind the snake making sure he can't see me or my shadow. He knows nothing. With much force I slam down my L shaped rod just behind his skull pressing him into earth. “Hand me your knife,” I say to Earl. Snakes are all muscle. The sinew pops like piano strings as I saw through. I remember a story my daddy used to tell every time company came around. He says if you take the snake by the tail and whip it just right, that the head will pop right off when it hits the speed of sound. As a kid I always imagined the snake's head flying through the air, mouth open, fluorescent fangs out, like some bad ass, black velvet hot rod painting.
“Earl, check this out,” I say as I clench just below the rattle to make sure the rattle won't pop off too. The snake thrashes about like a broken air hose in my hand. I keep my arm outstretched and contort my body when he get too close with that mouth.
“You is fuckin crazy man,” Earl says, his toothless smile beaming. As I cock my arm back, the snake, head hanging half off, manages to reach up and sink his razor sharp teeth into my thigh, mere inches from my nut sack. Out of surprise I drop it and the snake goes spinning like a helicopter with bones off the ridge.
“ Earl, goddammit! I been bit.” It starts to swell immediately. Earl drops his beer and runs over. I take my pants off to look. The area is turning purple and two puncture marks bleed in the center. “Earl, you gotta try to suck out the venom. The nearest doctor is forty miles from here.”
“Man, I don't know about this Lenny.”
“C'mon, I'm starting to feel funny.”
“You feel funny? Ya want me to snuggle up to yer balls. How do ya think I feel?”
“Motherfucker. This ain't no time for jokes. I might be dying here.”
Earl turns his hat backwards with the seriousness of a doctor putting on scrubs. Leaning back into a rock I spread my legs so he can get his head in there. “Take a swig of that beer to kill the germs in your mouth,” I tell him. He slams the whole can and gets on his knees. His beard rubs against my junk. I can't help but laugh, “Hurry up god dammit. It tickles.”
“I am hurryin. Ya think I want to be down here. Smells like my last girlfriend.” His gums are soft and warm against my clammy flesh as he sucks my thigh. Nubs of yellowed teeth scratch the swell. He spits, “That's the best I can do. Let's get the hell outta here. I ain't doin no more.” He wipes the ball sweat from his face.
I decide to drive myself home. I haven't fallen over dead yet and I don't have the cash to see a doctor anyway. The only money I have saved is for Amanda. If I didn't throw the damn diamond back off the cliff I would be her hero right now. A skin like that fetches big dollars down in Denver. The truck rattles side to side, leaving a plume of dust behind. The sun looks angry as it goes down. The road is becoming blurry. The bitter taste of bile is bubbling up in the back of my throat. Not only from the thick venom running through my veins, but of the thought that consumes me daily, like a hired killer going through stress of a divorce, the question of who the baby daddy is follows me around every dark corner. She says she don't know, and I believe her. I want to believe she is still pure in some small way. I can't wait to get home and fall into her arms, and say when my life flashed before my eyes all I could see was her. I want her to be sympathetic and feel my forehead for a fever, tell me to go lie down. She'll cry and tell me she loves me. She won't let go. Her tears will seep through my shirt and I'll say, “I'll be ok. We'll be ok.”
The trailer is silent when I get home except the wind clanging two of Amanda's wire sculptures together. In the amber light they resemble a cowboy and an Indian. The last light of day follows them and their shadows fight on the wall. I rip one down when I see the a huge eagle feather resting on the old, matted carpet. I squeeze the sculpture in my fingers. My lungs struggle for air and my pulse races. I close my eyes. The parakeet sings its last tune before night fall.
Jason Hardung was born and raised in Wyoming with the wind constantly speaking in tongues through his ears. He now lives at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Ft. Collins, Colorado. His work has been published widely throughout the American underground. It has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Evergreen Review,Rip Rap (the lit journal from Cal State Long Beach), Word Riot, Zygote In My Coffee, Underground Voices, decomP, Thrasher, Lummox Journal, Heroin Love Songs, Polarity, Up The Staircase, St. Vitus and many more. His first chapbook, Breaking The Hearts of Robots was published by Covert Press, and a full length book, The Broken and The Damned came out on Epic Rites Press late 2009. He is currently working on his second full length book with Epic Rites. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is co-editor of the Front Range Review and Matter Journal in Colorado.