Halloween Fright Reads: Trout Shirt by Dan Essman

Our friend, Dan Essman, sends this creepy tale from his (one hopes) forthcoming AN APOSTLE AT THE KIT KAT AND HORSEKILLER.    


They found the Potter girl. I wasn’t imagining it. That doesn’t make me any happier.
Stretched out like that. The rope. Her clothes were under a rock. Not really hidden. Of course, to me, nothing’s really hidden.
* * *
     Steelhead season but no rain to swell the river. The big fish cluster at the plugged mouth and want in with all their silvery flesh. The fishermen shove at the bar cursing the river and get numb drunk on Ed’s liquor and bang their dice cups progressively louder and louder to drown out the sea roar west of the highway. Liquor breath and beer piss and nobody changing clothes because the bad boys are on holiday and this is the country so rules don’t apply here. Like hell they don’t. I light a cigarette to cut the general stink.
     One a-hole started telling redneck jokes. That was stupid. There was a fight. It was short. Ed doesn’t tolerate that shit. But there were more words out front of the Kit Kat. The seaside economy depends on tourists but rumor had it the town wackos were sharpening their VFW bayonets and fuck the damn outsider money.
     It would’ve been a joke except I remembered what inspired the rumor. Last August, the youngest son of Millie, our book lady, was playing mumblety-peg with his great-granpop’s bayonet and put it right through his little foot, severed a nerve. His older brother came home from Scouts and found the kid near dead from bleeding. He applied first aid straight from the manual and saved his brother’s life. Jimmie got a merit badge and a commendation from the sheriff during Drug Education Week at the middle school.  Great story, a hero story and worth remembering. The kid will limp, that’s okay, but the knife should be destroyed. It’s tasted blood, a border’s been crossed, and the knife, too, will remember.
      I’ve seen this all before. Take a deep breath and consider the drought. I’ve hung at the Kit Kat these lost seasons of faithless weather. Bad for the town, bad for me. No fish, failed marriages, bent broken people drawing dry zeros through four carousel years of go-rounds. Only the bivalves have kept me sane, but then, I’m not a normal person. Loosely speaking, I have multiple personality disorder. But that’s only loosely speaking.
     The Kit Kat. I come every evening and practically live here when I’m not tending the oyster beds. I've got a favorite seat, my butt’s dented the vinyl and the stool's probably mine by common law. It's four seats from the wall so I won’t have to watch Ed walk the full length of the bar. Life's short and steps add up.
     But there's more. And it's critical.
     I chose the seat because it lacks distinction. I pay attention to the storyless places because they're safe.
     I won’t sit at a corner seat like Moley's. A corner is for the half-formed, the ethical namby-pambies. And I won’t sit up against the wall where I might feel safe because that's an illusion. Primates feel safer when their backs are to the wall. Try it sometime. Sit there and see if you feel better. You will. It’s not courage, it’s the soft surge of adreno-testosterone, a phony hormone deceit our body tells to our mind.
     There’s one more place I won’t sit and it’s the worst. I won’t sit right in the middle, that’s the lonely zone, it’s crowded. Watch the smirky outta-town professionals toss cheap lines to snag our local girls who are pretty well willing to believe what they know for damn sure isn't true. Fuck and abandon, fuck and abandon. But the local women are hungry. Did I say hungry? No. More than hungry. More than starving. There's anger in the skin.
     I swear to god where we sit tells as much about us as anything we do. I'm sure of my geographies. I huddle away from the whole sad scene. Steelhead season, tourist town blues, who cares? 
     I drink my bourbon and become the invisible man hiding out in the warm buzz. In the dark and blessedly alone. I have my reasons. Hiding like this keeps me from disappointing anyone. Sometimes I do too good a job of hiding and end up being talked to by loonies. They're the only ones can see me...they're used to the invisible world. 
     There's another reason, the real reason, I drink alone. I've got the Sight, a birthday gift from my mother, and I'm a tad too sensitive to the inner world of others. That's an understatement. People's thoughts and feelings are loud bright movies in my brain, and I don't always know whether my thoughts are really my own. Is it telepathy? Sort of. A stranger touches me, his guilts and his shames pour over me, pour through me…is that telepathy? Whatever it is, I know his story. And even if they don’t touch me, they’ll still tell.
     I’m not like my mother. I hate myself. I can’t take the constant pain.
     I sip the bourbon, finish it, don’t say anything.
     Ed refills the glass, says nothing but he’s half-zombie from the old Asian war.
     Gemmie Potter left town last week. She was that little hippie girl with the golden brown dreads from the group in the school bus camped in China Gulch. She said she was going to the City for the free reggae concerts in the park.
     She’d asked me to drive her and I would’ve because I had the time but the spirit world was fucking with my head. It’s late in the year and the autumnal equinox opens doors that should stay closed...when the dead can touch the living. Watch your cats and dogs. I’m not kidding. Listen to them  At such times the last place I should be is behind the wheel of the oyster van.
     There are beings out there who want to get in. I need to know that that hitchhiker on the shoulder is really human because sometimes they do get in and the games they play have secret rules that I don’t want to ever understand. But I shouldn’t think about them.
     Tonight’s the worst. Something is moving out there, something hungering for form in the sea spray. I can feel it’s twisting like stepping on a river eel in a muddy shallow.
     It’s late. Its quiet. The outta-towners are at Larraine’s diner next door, she can handle them. Ed’s counting change. Moley’s pinching his lower lip, making sure his face is still there. The Kit Kat’s practically a dormitory. Judy, the neophyte Buddha babe, is asleep on the couch beneath the steelhead trophies. The place is extraordinarily quiet.
     A couple fishermen stroll back in from next door. They’re well behaved. The fish and chips seem to have civilized them. Good for them, good for the rest of us.
     I look over at Ed. He’s polishing his skeet trophies. I’ve never really looked at the names on the plaques so maybe they aren’t his. Ed’s in silent conversation with himself...he doesn't like what he's hearing. Great.
     Once upon a time, Ed was with military intelligence. He was assigned to a permanent firing squad because of his experience as a hunter and his silent personality which veered toward the autistic. It was in 'Nam and the squad was three men with rifles, two held blank rounds, only one held a bullet.. 
     Folks used to ask him about this whole thing, Viet Nam and the executions. He would just say, “You never know. You never really know.” When they pressed him to remember, he'd shut down early. Folks got the hint.
     Moley diddles himself in the corner. He burps out that he's a Cubs fan to no one in particular. One of his unpleasant habits. Then the peckerwood pops the cap off his Bud Lite and foams all over the front of his grubby khakis.
     I’d thought about asking him to drive Gemmie, we need to help our little girls. Moley stunk too much of too many things. I couldn’t trust him. 
     But I understand. His dad was a short guy who screwed a whole lot of women more than he screwed Moley's mother but she kept herself busy in her nervous twitchy way. The whole twisty family scene worked on Moley’s head. Then there’s the fact of these brown moles splayed across his face like the constellation Scorpio.
     I find Ed encouraging, but Moley’s a pretty sad mess of a person.
     I'm having this weird feeling, a brain shadow like an amnesiac's name. Ever been diagnosed with cancer? It feels like that. Big and circling.
     Then it comes.
     A hand grabs at my heart, grips and squeezes my heart from the inside. The pain is sharp. I suppress a scream. The hand pinches my heart in iciness until my soul screams. I didn’t drink enough or run fast enough. The hand is gone. But, “Tag…I’m it.” That’s how the game starts. With mischief, with me running.
     A couple drunk tourists start to sing their parody version of an Eagles’s song aimed at the locals, “Life in the Slow Lane” which was sure to start a fight so Ed cranked the juke box. He has a volume dial hidden beneath the olives so he can chill the a-holes. He doesn’t encourage karaoke, or fighting.
     Judy gets off the couch and comes over. She wants me to make a play for her so that she can think about her crotch without having to feel guilty. A long time ago, I gazed into her darkness and saw all the small towns of her life. There's some major damage in her panties that’s kept me out of them. A pussy in a minefield. But that was a long time ago. 
     Now, she's a devotee of this local happy happy New Age guru who's maiming something passionate and beautiful in her spirit and replacing it with Sanskrit. I might have loved her. Once maybe. Not now. Not anymore. She gives me the chills. In the presence of slaughtered women, my cock is a phantom limb. Besides. I’m It.
     I tell Judy that I'm kinda sick. She mutters a brittle “Om shanti” at me and moves to the small crowd at the middle of the long bar. What I told her was pretty much the truth, as much truth as her ego needed to know.
      I light a Winston. The guy in the garish cotton trout shirt on my right who doesn’t look like one of the drunken yuppies, he spills his drink. Then he hard eyes me like I made him do it.
     "Keep it inside buddy" he says. "...or I'll cut them out."
     I flinch.
     Trout Shirt is mumbling, but not really to himself. This is a confession. The cotton is sweated to his back. He turns to me. I know what's coming.
     "Got a moment buddy?  I ain't the one." he says. "I ain't the one but they keep calling me."
     Whoa! So that's how it's gonna be. I give the high sign to Ed who pumps the juke, “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” so loud!, but that doesn't do any good. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Now I'm in a world by myself, surrounded by the walls of music. Me and Trout Shirt. There's one other person here. I kinda expected her.
     Trout Shirt says to me that he's sorry. That he's always been a real hard worker. He flexes his smooth worm-white hairless bicep, shows me the tattoo of a busty perky girl with big red nipples...she's straddling a heavy fishhook above a caption, "Fresh Bait."
     He says, "I took her to the river even though she was younger than my daughter 'cause god she wanted to anyway and she was so pretty and solid like a woman at her very beginning...not filled out and soft like a woman floating in her years. And shit, I was a fisherman, and she was fresh and clean. Fresh. You know, right outta the water. The drugs were hers. I wouldn't a brought them, I ain't no hippie. What did she want if not what happened? You'd a done the same."
     There's the key. They always say this to me, that I'd have done the same. They think that because I listen, because I don't anvil down hard on them like some sin heavy holier than holy born again, that I'd do the same. They've got me wrong. I see evil, I recognize monsters, but I can't help it if I love, and I love…sure, that’s me, a regular Jesus.
     It’s closing time and Ed is hustling the losers out of his bar. Judy walks past me as if I weren’t there. I’m not. Holding her arm is some stranger in a Porsche wind breaker…a clueless outta-towner but local girl makes good. 
     Closing time, when the strongest prayers happen from the center of the heart of desire when no one else is listening. From the tongue of the will in a choir of gimmes and groping for all the subtle hungers of freedom. “Forgive us! Forgive us!” Maybe it's my choice of barstools, but they always ask me to intercede.
     “It was her as opened my pants and grabbed my dick. It was her as strung herself onto me and tossed herself left and right. It was her as made the sounds in the back of her throat and that thing happened with the river. I never really touched her. She was already white and cold. Hell! She called me an old pouch in the pickup. What'd she mean...an old pouch? What a crazy screwy thing to say.”
     I shrug but it feels like a wince, rivers always are causing grief.
     My cigaret has burned down. A coil of smoke snakes between us. He grabs my wrist, I notice his thick black fingernails, the slits at his neck that open and close with each breath. His skin with the trout print pattern is dripping wet, is soaking into his pants. I don’t want to know what organs of viciousness he’s hiding beneath that stained cloth. The sins a man commits change more than his soul.
     A dark puddle spreads across the floor.
     Then I see her. Like I knew I would. Gemmie Potter.
     She is crouching on the floor, naked and shivering and all of fourteen years old... looking up at me with her dark blue after midnight eyes. She’s sloshing softly in the
water, her legs coiled under her like a mermaid. Droplets flash in her sodden gold-brown dreads, Gemmie, her name to me like knives. If only I’d…
     The song ends. The juke goes silent. Trout Shirt is gone and away into the dark stream of unbeing. And Gemmie Potter? I pray for her wherever she might be. I offer a terrible petition from my heart for our lost daughter, for what I know to be true, not to be true.
     Who’s listening? Don’t answer. Don’t speak their Names…they feed on it.
     Ed wipes down the long empty bar.
     Just me and him in the Kit Kat
     I think about changing stools but know it won't make any difference. I am being followed.



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