Wake with the Devils
I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in ghosts, but someone was leaving these notes in my mailbox.
I came out on the awful hot day, soaking my shorts through and on the verge of losing last night’s dinner. I don’t drink anymore— not since the accident— but like a phantom limb always itching, I wake up every morning hungover, breathing nails with hammers in my skull. I can’t shake it. Doctor said it happened when I had my tumble but I say its penance.
I went to the mailbox. Sometimes I’ll get a letter from my brother. On the 15th, I get my settlement check. Usually, I just let the thing fill up with sale flyers and the mailman will eventually toss them for me. I opened the flap and inside was a wrinkled old envelope—looked like someone had crumpled it, tossed it, ran it over, tried to smooth it out and used my mailbox as a trash can. People don’t know, but tampering with the mail is a federal offense. It can send you up-water for a nickel if not longer. I’m not too keen on the particulars, but I know it’s illegal.
I didn’t want to touch it. There was a smell like burning tires coming from all around me and I thought I was going to lose my guts right there on the front lawn. My neighbor was standing in his baby blue bathrobe watering his daylilies. He gave me a weak wave and furrowed his brow like he was looking at a son he didn’t care much for. The sun was so damn hot and my neck was burning. Hot, salty beads of sweat pushed out from my skull and ran all down my face and into my shirt collar.
I grabbed the letter anyway. On the face, someone had written Cutty, my name, with beautiful penmanship. It looked like the type of handwriting on the notes girls would pass me in grade school. When everyone was writing in script because it was the new thing we’d learned. The C had this little spit curl curling into its mouth. The u blended softly into the two T’s and the Y had a big loop under it. The sure strike through the T’s streaked like a jet trail across the yellowy envelope— the final act of the writer before sealing.
I almost smelled it, expecting the lavender-rosemary blend I was used to, but stopped. My belly groaned like it needed to be fed but I knew better. I stuffed the letter in my back pocket and held onto the top of the box.
A fetid sour-smelling mash came leaking through my teeth. The tinkle of my neighbor’s hose stopped. He was just staring at me with his finger off the trigger, his mouth all agape. I took a moment to look him in his eyes before I went ahead and purged again.
The long trail of chunky liquid darkened the gutter as it made its slow crawl towards the drain that’d take it to Lake Miccosukee. Maybe a couple old coots were out there, drinking beer and talking about the nasty things they’d do to the old biddies and the young ones too. I liked the thought of that.
I gave the two-thumbed-A-OK to my neighbor and waddled back towards the house. Viscous liquid bubbled into my throat. I opened my shirt pocket and spit into it. Wet warmth spread across my breast and I went inside the cool, darkened house.
I opened the tap and ran some water over a half bowl of dry cereal. I stopped buying milk because no matter the use-by date it always tasted sour. I kept going back to the market to return cartons I was sure had gone bad. The last time, the manager opened up the paper fold and slugged one right in front of me to prove it was fresh like straight from the udder. I can still see the skinny trickle of white liquid working its way down his laugh lines.
I had to find a new market to shop at after that.
I poured a cold mug of day-old coffee and sat down at the dining room table. I kept two of the four chairs so I had a seat for ass and feet. The other two I chopped up and burned.
While I was crunching on a mouthful, I pulled the letter out of my ass and tossed it onto the pile of past due notices and greeting cards from holidays long past. The bottom of my name kept staring at me from over the Formica and I figured, what the hell, I might as well open it. Not like anyone’s going to pop out or anything.
I tore the tail off. Inside was a piece of folded line paper. I read it out loud because no one else talks in this house and sometimes I get lonely.
You ever listen to those old records anymore? The ones we’d put on and dance to ‘til all hours of the night. Otis and Zeppelin and what was that horn record? Man, the neighbors used to hate us, huh? I’d like you to remember the good times, Cut ‘cause I miss you like crazy.
That’s all it said. No more no less. No name underneath it. And I wouldn’t lie because I used to be a Christian. I had my hand gripped around the page so hard it was beginning to tear under my fingernails. The sweat from my palm was soaking into it. I knew those records back-to-front and could probably pick and play any song off the four of them. Those were Bets’s favorites. She wore down the grooves on all of them, dancing around the house in pink panties and a Bud Light t-shirt all cut up, showing off her tanned belly.
We had some good times, her and me. Drinking ourselves to sleep and making love with the windows open. All of creation could hear our nasty, bodily noises— honks and clucks and moans and guttural grunts.
Most of my records I burned in that brick-lined pit in the backyard, but some I just couldn’t bring myself to toss in the fire. I spun Been Loving You and let the needle find the groove. In the old pressboard wood-patterned cabinet above my record player, I kept a bottle with a sticky note that said In case of emergency. I cracked the top off and poured half a finger into a dusty shot glass. Most drinkers are seesaws. It’s a little here, a little there. I’m a slide. Or, I was a slide. One of those fast aluminum ones we’d grease up with petroleum jelly when we were kids. I saw plenty of bloody skin back in those days. You’d come out of that slide doing maybe twenty-five and hit the gravel pit. Tear up your jeans and your shirt. Catch tetanus or a bloody nose.
The liquor smelled like old oak and gasoline. I set it down on the coffee table and set myself into the cream-colored leather couch cracked like the sides of my eyes. I wrung my hands until they were raw and wet and the wrinkles in my knuckles refused to smooth out again. If I wanted to have a sip, here in the light of a letter from my dead wife, I think I should be allowed. No one, not even God, would deny me that, right?
I put the glass to my mouth and breathed in the pungent astringent, and then I dumped it into the carpet. I poured another shot, and did it again. I ditched the shot glass and dumped the bottle onto the carpet like it was the back of my throat, until it was darkened with the liquor. I rubbed my toes in the soggy puddle and laid my head back on the couch.
There’s a scar on the top of my head where the hair doesn’t grow anymore. From a time when Bets and I had been fighting bad and she whomped me with a Dirt Devil. I touched it with the tips of my fingers and soaked up the noise of the soul music. The record got to a spot where the groove was all the way worn down and started skipping, the same five words over and over: I got ta have it. I got ta have it. I got ta have it. I decided I couldn’t be in the house anymore. Not with this ghost flying around. I slid my belt between the loops and my whiskey damp feet into my boots. I let the record keep on skipping and left the house.
I went walking and passed another haunted house. See, back before I was lonely, Betsy was getting high with the girls across the way. They were in college and boys with different lengths of hair came and went at all hours. They did all manner of unspeakable things and spent all their time naked. They’d gotten their claws in Bets and she was naked most of the time too. The three of them would play ring around the rosy in front of the house and all the Samoans and neighborhood rats would come and watch. Broken bottles and glass pipes burned at the ends laid all around their yard like glittering bones.
Bets would come home smelling like an old tire and burnt hair. If you’ve never smelled bad drugs, well, that’s what they smell like.
There was a mother with a young kid living there now. I saw them in the warm light of their living room watching the tube through their old green drapes I helped them hang. I used to do handyman work for a living. I still do here and there but not as much as I used to. I took a bad fall on a contract job, hit my head pretty hard and shattered my pelvis if you must know. Ended up getting an all right settlement.
I hung with the woman and her kid a few times too, you could have maybe seen my body between those drapes if all had gone right, but nothing ever sparked. I’ve never mentioned all the bad that went on in the house to them.
The soles of my feet were sticking to the bottoms of my boots and they began to itch as I walked in the heat. I walked all the way to town. I live pretty close, not more than a half-mile or so.
I went to Frank’s Place. It was empty except for this young girl in the back. An older guy behind the counter recognized me and smiled the sad half-smile of sympathy and regret. He offered a beer but stopped himself and set a mug down in front of me. The coffee was cold and tasted burnt so I asked him to freshen it up. He poured some steaming liquid into my mug but it tasted the same.
I paid for the coffee and left. A few folks honked their horns at me and gave the two fingers over the wheel. I stuck my hands in my pockets and nodded at them. Something about the sun and the folks was making my head spin. Somewhere a car alarm was going off and somewhere a dog was barking and the new competing noises made me sick. Everything drained me.
I went home and rubbed my toes in the damp whiskey spot and took comfort in the television talking. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, I slept.
I woke up feeling like someone had pulled weeds in my head and stuffed cotton balls in my mouth. My house smelled like a party I’d wished I’d been invited to, boozy and bready with beer and whiskey. I looked out the window and it was dark out. I wasn’t sure if it was night from the earlier day or if I’d just lost a whole day. I’d lost a lot of days like that back when I was drinking.
The thing about when you stop drinking is, suddenly you’ve got to find all kinds of new places to hang out. It’s sort of like when you move away from your religion, a thing I also did, and everyone asks, “Where you been?” You have to answer all polite and vague. Or you can be honest and they’ll laugh you out of their address books.
When Bets passed on, all my drinking buddies and all the church biddies were trying hard to crease me into the fold for good. Here in my Great South, we do beer, then we do church, then we do beer again. If you don’t do either, you may as well lock yourself in the house and draw the shades. I walked away from both of them and never went back. That was that. Now I’m a man without a country. Just floating around my house, shiftless and idle to the eyes of my town.
When I do go out, I usually go to the library because nobody knows me there. I’ll chat with the librarians and ask them to recommend me a book or two. I think maybe keeping my nose in the books kept it clean in the hardest of times. Maybe I traded one addiction for another. All I know is nothing there reminds me of the past and I like that.
I got up off the couch and went outside. I thought about hoofing it to the library but it was probably past close. The tin mailbox drew me in. As you might have guessed, there was another letter in the box, my name written in the same effortless script. I tore the envelope open and let it fall into the street.
Remember the time we went out and hit the beach late late that night? I did that to you and the sand and we forgot about all the hard times for a while. I never told no one about it.
I folded the letter over twice and stuck it in my back pocket. I got in my truck and decided to go out for a ride. It’d been a long, long time since I’d done some cruising. I stopped at a gas station and got a bottle of ice cold Coke and pressed it to my temples to ease the sweat and pounding. I took a couple of turns and time seemed to stretch out long and lean. There was a song I liked on the radio and I turned it up. Before I knew it, I’d ended up at the gravel before the sand, the parking lot before the beach. Like the damn letter was pulling me along.
Bets and I went to the beach a lot in the bad old days. I could never convince her to put any clothes on, and the only place other than the camps out in Tate’s Hell you could go stark nude was the beach. Most nights, I’d pack her into the Dodge and we’d go driving and I’d try to get her back on my side. I really don’t think I tried hard enough.
I cranked the truck into park and got out. I recognized an old Japanese beater in the parking lot, a blue cross hanging from the rearview. I’d sold this car to a guy I knew in high school. I once went for a ride with him after he’d had it for a while and the car reeked like chemical blueberry. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. You get it?
The moon was high up behind some clouds casting silvery beams of light just barely illuminating the coast. The tide had pulled itself all the way to the other side of the Gulf, probably to Louisiana or Texas somewhere, leaving sand bars out for a hundred yards. The water was calm and black as an oil slick. Someone was a sucked on chocolate Popsicle way down the coastline. I rolled the cuffs of my jeans to my knees.
There was a vertical trail of handprints and footprints all down the thick sandbars like they’d been doing cartwheels out towards the water. I followed them for a while.
There was a time when Bets and I made something like love here. She was screaming about how she wanted to fuck the beach, fashioning a long rod out of handfuls of sand, trying to sit down on it. Her pubes caked in tiny crystals. She let out a mean cackle every time she dropped down on the sand dick. She kept building it up, and then busting it with her ass. She was breathless when I came to her. Smelled like ocean and musty sex. She pulled my jeans down, got me up, clapped two handfuls of sand on either side of my organ and sat down on it. I told her she was liable to catch something doing as she did. She shoved two sandy fingers in my mouth and got to her place. That was the last time, I think.
I walked way far out from the coast following the trail of hands and feet but they disappeared into the silent black water. I looked back and could just see the reflection of the moon in my headlights but the beater was gone. The wind changed directions on me. I picked up two palmfuls of saltwater and slicked back my hair.
For the better part of three weeks, the letters came every day, sometimes twice a day. Sometimes it’d be one letter; sometimes it’d be a whole bunch of them. All with my name in the same, perfect script. Same lined notepaper torn lean from the spine of the same notebook. A couple of sentences detailing places, events and times Bets and I had shared. Little slivers of conversation and code no one else would know but the two of us. The mailman caught me and said something like; you got a secret admirer or something?
I thought I might have been going crazy so I called the preacher though I hadn’t been to church in over a year. All he could muster up was, “Sometimes God comes to us in mysterious ways.” Then he said there was a group meeting in the basement on Thursday with punch and baked goods and I could come if I wanted. I thanked him and hung up. I’ve been to meetings before and I didn’t care much for them. I can’t see coming clean to a bunch of church folks all sitting around with their hand’s clasped together like if they squeezed hard enough all the wanting and pain would drip out on to the floor before them.
On the bright side, I was getting out of the house more since I couldn’t stand to be in the presence of all those letters. I went back to Frank’s, drank more coffee and had another sandwich.
I hoofed it out to Lake Miccosukee and went fishing. Dale Pendleton was out there and waved me down and we sat in his boat for a while. He drank beers. I drank Coke. We both spit over the sides of the boat. Neither of us caught shit. We talked like two guys who hadn’t told anybody anything for quite a while. He told me about his divorce. I told him about the letters. He asked me why I was keeping them and I told him I couldn’t say but I guess I felt a closeness to something I hadn’t felt in forever.
I even went out on a job. Nothing too heavy. I replaced a couple air filters for this old biddy down the way and she paid me in cold water and stamps. I told her to keep the stamps but she pressed them on me. I told her I hadn’t been having the best luck with the postal service.
I came home and started emptying beer cans into the rug when someone knocked. I ignored it. Salesmen still come to this part of the world. Jehovah’s Witnesses too. I guess they’re both selling something. I’m not buying either of them. I don’t care the quality of cutlery. The guy knocked again and I told him to fuck off. I heard them doing something to the door and some keys jingling.
“Alright,” I said to the house. I went to the door and opened it up. There wasn’t a soul in sight. They probably heard me walking heavy and scattered. I stepped out into the bright-blessed day. The neighborhood was quiet.
There was a note taped to the door. No envelope. Lined notebook paper. I plucked it down. All it said was I’m sorry. I’d gotten a few of these before— tear-stained, a couple of them downright damp. I crumpled this one up and pitched it into the yard.
I went into the house and stuffed the letters into paper bags. Cleaned up the whole mess of them and found a patch of carpet I hadn’t seen in a while. I took them out to the back yard and put them in the center of the blackened brick-lined pit I’d burned half the house in and set them on fire. They went up quick.
I thought I’d feel something when they were ash but nothing came. The ones at the bottom of the pile were going up and this tiny voice said, “You missed one.”
I turned around half expecting to see the ghost of my last good girl. But there was this little pale thing with her arm out. The crumpled up notebook paper in her fist. She was familiar to me. Black eyes like the ocean at night, bags you could camp in under them. The right side of her face— stretching from the top of her ear down across her cheek to her chin and lips— was all puffed out and scarred like someone a long time ago had dragged a hot iron across it. Her hair was shit brown and chopped up, longer in some places than in others like a blind man had cut it with safety scissors.
The girl motioned with her hand, “Take it,” she said. “Don’t you want to burn it too?”
I plucked the crumpled paper from her fist and chucked it into the dying fire.
“I been sending you those notes.” Her eyes were getting all wet and she was shaking like the cold had come early. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “You said so in the last letter.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “I just burned it.”
She gave a weak laugh and unsnapped the top two buttons of her white blouse. Rings of sweat dampened and darkened her armpits. She sat down in one of the crumbling blue folding chairs I kept around the fire pit and crossed her ankles. She pulled out a small metal flask with some initials engraved into it and took a pull.
“You’re the last person I have to make amends to before I can move onto the next step,” she said. “For my treatment. I’ve done everyone. My mom, my dad. They were the first. Then a bunch of the guys I diseased. Jesus. Their wives,” she pressed her hands to her face. “Those were hard. I ruined a few lives. You don’t know how that feels,” she said and looked around the yard. “Maybe you do.”
“Looks like the treatment ain’t going so well,” I said and nodded at the flask.
She took another pull and laughed, “It’s a different kind of treatment. I don’t know why but I thought the letters would help. Thought I could ease my way into it. I guess I got drunk on it. I’m not brave.”
I squatted down next to her and made line drawings in the dirt with my finger.
I remember the night I found out. It was like I was looking down on myself looking down on it. Like I was two removed from the whole scene. I saw the ambulance, and the fire truck, and the two cruisers, all making lights in the cool night, but nothing else. It was as if the emergency crew was down their having beers together or something.
I came down the hill a little more. My legs like jelly under me. The guardrail going over the bridge was broken; a metal gash like god’s hand came down and tore out a chunk of it. There was this old dude with a bunch of crusty blood in his eyes sitting on the bumper of the med wagon. He was saying something. I was close enough to hear it.
“She was flying through the air,” he said. “I thought for sure the rapture was happenin’. This angel, nude as her birthday was hovering over my ride. She hit the ground after the truck went into the drink. Most sickening sound I ever heard in my life.”
Betsy had been in the bed. They found most of her washed up down river. Animals had torn some pieces from her but they told me she didn’t suffer. She was gone long before the water took her out. The truck was laying chassis-up in the bend under the bridge. One of the girls was crushed. Her chest caved in over the steering wheel. The truck must have landed square on the driver’s side.
They didn’t find the other girl. I guess for a long while they thought her dead, all chomped up by gators or taken bit-by-bit by blue crabs.
I sat down on the grass and kept searching my pockets for cigarettes though I knew I didn’t have any. I thought about going over to the EMT boys because they always have smokes, but I didn’t. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t speak. Sometimes I think maybe I wasn’t there at all. Like I stayed home and dreamt it, or really did watch it all go down from above. Like a ghost. Like God.
I slept in my truck for five days after because I didn’t want to go home.
When I finally did go back, nothing looked right. I used to sit on the john and watch Bets yank out all the little hairs between her eyebrows with tweezers, until that patch of skin between her two brown caterpillar brows was bald and red. She’d smooth it out with her finger and smile at me. I did that with the furniture in the house. I just started yanking it out and chucking it into the fire pit until the whole place was as bald as plucked skin. Then I stopped drinking and you know the rest.
She offered me the flask and I waved her away. For a long time, I figured this little girl was long dead. I was never handed anybody to hate but myself. Forgiveness is a drug I’d like to get fucked up on. If I could figure out how to uncork the bottle, I’d be drunk on it everyday. Now I didn’t know what to think.
“When I came out of the river—” she said, “Well, you know how we were. These two dudes came and found me and brought me back to their place on the water. It was bad for a long time. But I guess I owed them something because if they hadn’t found me something else would have. After they’d gotten tired of me, they left me at a service station with a twenty and a pack of smokes. I probably would have died from exposure that night after the accident. I don’t hate them. I forgave them.”
I stood up and dusted the dirt off my hands. Smoke drifted into the sunlight and the burnt ink smell hung in the air. The girl was staring off into the yard she used to roll around naked in, smoking what she smoked and doing what she did.
“Cutty,” she said, “You don’t have to forgive me. That’s— I know you wouldn’t be able to do that. You just have to know I’m sorry.”
I wanted to do bad things to her. Believe me when I say this. I could have done plenty. Could have said plenty. I could have told her all about my loss and the life she’d ruined. Drag her into my sleepless nights and force her to wake with the devils I wake with in the pale moonlight. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
She knew it all already. I saw the Hell she’d been drug through in the pockmarks etched into her milky skin and her sleeping bag eyes. I popped the bottle on forgiveness and let it wash over the both of us. I couldn’t even see her anymore, just a great big bright light where a girl used to be.
“Maybe I should leave,” she said. She took one more pull from the flask and screwed the top back on. She got out of my chair. “Have a nice life, Cutty.”
She began to go but I took her by the wrist and spun her back to me. I drew her in, touched her warmth to mine. She smelled like lavender and rosemary and booze and sunshine. I closed my eyes.
“I forgive you,” I said, and kissed her on the bad side of her face. She went ridged in my arms. I ran my tongue along the cloud-soft puffs of scar tissue. I could taste all the liquor on her pores, the heat of the sun on her skin. I tasted her until she was wet with my spit and the booze was all on my tongue.
“I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you,” I said. My lips grazed the spongy cartilage on her cauliflower ear. I ran my hands through her hair like I used to do and buried my face into her bony shoulder. “I just hope one day you can forgive me.”
Remy Barnes Klein writes and drinks in Texas; his opinions on popular culture, fried food and football can be found @remybarnesklein