by Nathan Ballingrud
(2013: Small Beer Press)
The genius of the system is that it keeps saddling us with a self-image of atomised passivity and acquiescence, then lets us tear ourselves apart when its individual solutions fail to save us from its carnage. Is it any wonder opioids have become the opium of working people?
I feel very close to Nathan Ballingrud's characters because of this shared class predicament. Some of his men are husbands, some fathers, and some sons. Some are facing-down eviction, bankruptcy, homelessness. One just came home after six years in prison. Another is haunted by the New Orleans drowned by Katrina.
Many are the real monsters, but Ballingrud always gives this genre cliche a twist. No easy answers when even the questions break our hearts.
You Go Where It Takes You
"I got to ask you something," he said. "I been wondering about this lately. Do you think it's possible for something beautiful to come out of an awful thing? Do you think a good life can redeem a horrible act?"
"Of course I do," she said quickly, sensing some second chance here, if only she said the right words. "Yes."
Alex touched the blade to his scalp just above his right ear and drew it in an arc over the crown of his head until it reached his left ear. Bright red blood crept down from his hairline in a slow tide, sending rivulets and tributaries along his jaw and his throat, hanging from his eyelashes like raindrops from flower petals. "God, I really hope so," he said. He worked his fingers into the incision and began to tug.
A man loses his small contracting business and gets his best friend and best worker killed in the process.
…Tara sobbed once, both hands still clutching the steering wheel. Her face was twisted in misery. "You have to get a hold of yourself," she said. "I don't know what's happening to you. I don't know what to do."
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He felt his guts turn to stone. He knew he had to say something, he had to try to explain himself here, or someday she would leave. Maybe someday soon. But the fear was too tight; it wouldn't let him speak. It would barely let him breathe.
….The horse's big body jerked as it tried to right itself, and Nick heard bones crack somewhere inside it. The horse screamed. It lay next to the overturned car, amidst a glittering galaxy of broken glass, its legs crooked and snapped, its blood spilling onto the asphalt and trailing away in diluted rivers. It was beautiful, even in these awful circumstances; its body seemed phosphorescent in the rain.
Nick knelt beside it and brushed his fingers against its skin. The flesh jumped, and he was overwhelmed by a powerful scent of urine and musk. Its eye rolled to look at him. Nick stared back, paralyzed. The horse's blood pooled around his shoe. It seemed an astonishing end for this animal, that it should come to die on some hard ground its ancestors never knew, surrounded by machines they never dreamed. Its absurdity offended him.
Someone splashed by him and dropped to his knees, peering into the overturned BMW; he shouted Oh my God, oh my God, and tugged frantically, futilely, at its door. Nick sensed a larger movement around him as people left their cars and began shouting, milling around the scene in a vortex of chaos and adrenaline.
Trixie materialized behind him and pulled at his shoulders.
"Come on, we have to get out of here!"
He came to his feet.
"Nick, let's go. The police are coming. We can't get caught with that gun."
The gun. Nick brushed roughly past her, nearly knocking her to her knees. He retrieved the gun from her glove compartment and headed back to the horse. Trixie intercepted him, tried to push him back. "No, no, are you fucking crazy? It's gonna die anyway!"
He wrenched her aside, and this time she did fall. He walked over to the horse and the gun cracked twice, two bright flashes in the rain, and the horse was dead. A kind of peace settled over him then, a floating calm, and he stuffed the gun into his trousers, ignoring the heat of the barrel pressing into his flesh. Trixie had not bothered to get up from the pavement. She sat there, watching him, the rain sluicing over her head and down her body. Her face was inscrutable behind the curtain of rain, as was everything else about her. He left her there.
Behind her, the car was hopelessly ensnared in the traffic jam. He would have to walk home, to his mother, broken and beautiful, crashed in her own foreign landscape. Bewildered and terrified. Burning love like a gasoline. He started down the highway, walking along the edge of stopped traffic. He felt the weightlessness of mercy. He was a striding christ….
"Okay," he said. "Okay, Atka."
Kneeling, Garner caressed the dog. It growled and subsided, surrendering to his ministrations.
"Good boy, Atka," he whispered. "Settle down, boy."
Garner slid his knife free of its sheath, bent forward, and brought the blade to the dog's throat. Atka whimpered—"Shhh," Garner whispered—as he bore down with the edge, steeling himself against the thing he was about to do—
Something moved in the darkness beneath him: a leathery rasp, the echoing clatter of stone on stone, of loose pebbles tumbling into darkness. Atka whimpered again, legs twitching as he tried to shove himself back against the wall....
The Monsters of Heaven
....Amy never told Brian that she blamed him. She elected, rather, to avoid the topic of the actual abduction, and any question of her husband's negligence. Once the police abandoned them as suspects, the matter of their own involvement ceased to be a subject of discussion. Brian was unconsciously grateful, because it allowed him to focus instead on the maintenance of grief. Silence spread between them like a glacier. In a few months, entire days passed with nothing said between them.
....Their father left right after the hurricane. He used to work on the oil rigs. He'd get on a helicopter and disappear for a few weeks, and money would show up in the bank account. Then he'd come home for a week, and they'd all have fun together. He'd fight with their mother sometimes, but he always went back out to sea before things had a chance to get bad.
After the hurricane, all that work dried up. The rigs were compromised and the Gulf Coast oil industry knocked back on its heels. Dad was stranded in the house. Suddenly there was no work to stop the fighting. He moved to California shortly thereafter, saying he'd send for them when he found another job. A week later their mother told them the truth....
North American Lake Monsters
....They did not speak much as they walked. Out of jail for only three days after six years inside, Grady was struggling to recognize his thirteen-year-old daughter in the sullen-eyed, cynical presence striding along beside him. She had undergone some bizarre transformation since he'd last seen her. She'd dyed her hair black; strange silver adornments pocked her face: she had a ring in her left eyebrow, and a series of rings along the curve of one bejeweled conch of an ear. Worst of all, she'd put a stud through her tongue....
The Way Station
"You have a problem," Davis says.
The words push through the dream, and it's gone. He waits for his throat to open up again, so he can speak. He says, "I think I'm haunted."
Davis keeps his eyes locked on him. "I think so too," he says.
Beltrane can't think of what else to say. His hand rubs absentmindedly over his chest. He knows he can't see his daughter while this is happening to him.
"I was haunted once, too," Davis says quietly. He opens a drawer in his desk and withdraws a pack of cigarettes. He extends one to Beltrane and keeps one for himself. "Then the ghost went away."
Beltrane stares at him with an awed hope as Davis slowly fishes through his pockets for a lighter. "How you get rid of it?"
Davis lights both cigarettes. Beltrane wants to grab the man, but instead he takes a draw, and the nicotine hits his bloodstream. A spike of euphoria rolls through him with a magnificent energy.
"I don't want to tell you that," Davis says. "I want to tell you why you should keep it. And why you shouldn't go see your daughter tomorrow."
The Good Husband
She will never be happy.
The thought came to him with the force of a revelation. It was as though God spoke a judgment, and he recognized its truth as though it had been with them all along, the buzzard companion of their late marriage. Some people, he thought, are just incapable of happiness. Maybe it was because of some ancient trauma, or maybe it was just a bad equation in the brain. Kate's reasons were mysterious to him, a fact which appalled him after so many years of intimacy. If he pulled her from the water now, he would just be welcoming
her back to hell.
With a flutter of some obscure emotion—some solution of terror and relief—he closed the door on her. He went back to bed and, after a few sleeping pills of his own, fell into a black sleep. He dreamed of silence....
29 November 2019