Monday, May 11, 2020

Against the Grain, fiction by Rob McClure Smith

Turning off Route 41, I need to flick the visor down to block a big orange sun like a severed head. Sparse woods run down a slope from the road where washboard gravel slants. I unlock the metal gate and gaze across gray flat fields at a sea of white turbines. The great three-sail steel and fiberglass machines turn slow that indolent way they do, generators humming like beehives. I listen a while to the wind slice the metal till the scraping makes my teeth hurt. The wind is clean till it enters the blades, then it's dirty. I drive on up the ridge past a burnt-up wheel-less trailer, an upright piano filled with rainwater, a couple of boats sunk in a mud field moored against a dead oak. Beyond this desolation, two black horses are sniffing each another’s butts with grim intensity beside my very favorite grain bin. Parked catty-corner is an ancient green Duesenberg with a plank stuck through its windscreen. It’s been there forever. These people. The curved driveway up to the farmhouse is covered with that fine reddish-looking dust from the cob of the corn. Cracks in the tarmac are red lines to cross. It plays havoc with the allergies too. My ex had to move all her plants out our old place to create this unique eco-system for me. When she finally quit on the relationship, she said it had been like living with the boy in the bubble, if the boy in the bubble also had some serious alcohol issues. I can’t say I regret her cutting loose. Shelley was about as funny as diphtheria.

On the porch I blast these massive clouds of nasal spray up my nostrils. Mrs. G stands behind the screen door in her dressing gown, like she’s Hugh Hefner reincarnated, contemplating me squirt the sinus stuff. She looks mildly perturbed. The screen between us is layered with bugs look like ladybugs but aren't, fake ladybugs from China got where they shouldn't. You ask me, Trump should be putting tariffs on them.

“Hello there, Mrs. G,” I say to her, friendly like. “Can Frankie come out to play?”

The old woman says nothing, looking at me with a face like haunted Tupperware. After a while of the blank staring, she gets bored and goes inside to wake him. I believe she thinks I lead her son astray, but it’s not like that one needs much leading.

The porch steps flake long thin strips of blue paint, and I commence squashing bugs on them. Their little red and black oval bodies explode underfoot with a satisfying crack, but they don't half smell putrid. Frankie emerges like a badger from its set and flops down beside me. He’s barefoot in black shorts and a wife-beater and his face is drawn with sleep. It’s 2pm. He has taken to sporting a faux Mohawk makes him look like a moderately powerful Pokémon. The effect is achieved by means of globs of gel makes his hair shine like videotape and is his way of expressing his personality, such as it is. Frankie’s a bit challenged in the social arena since it looks as if he’s had half his face carved off by a diseased butcher. But it was an accident just. Back when he was still cooking, butterfingers fumbled a pack of lithium strips into the anhydrous ammonia and blew up a barn. After that misadventure it was the Nazi method all the way for him. In general, Frankie is thick as two short planks, and I can't say that setting his face on fire and having his ass somersaulted into their pigsty that time did wonders for his character.

“It smells,” Frankie says, being ever the observant type.

“It was fine till you got here,” I tell him. “But let's assume it's coincidental.”

Foghorn Leghorn regards me blankly while fondling his spike. “So, is he driving here today or what?”

“No,” I tell him. “He'll be sailing down the Mississippi in a raft made of turnips, for variety's sake. What you think, Frankie? Of course, he’s fucking driving.”

“I was just asking, is all,” he says, looking peeved.

I indulge in the stomping of a few more bugs. Now the porch stinks worse than a porta potty at the Knox county fair. “He’ll be over Lake Storey in an hour,” I explain. “For our rendezvous, s’il vous plait mon sewer.”

“What you going to say to him about it then?”

“It?” I decide to pretend to be baffled by the use of the indefinite article.

“You know.”

“That we might need to renegotiate a few details of our agreement.”

“Like what?”

“Like what about I take care of the business end, and you don't sweat it?”

Frankie shakes his head from side to side in the fashion of a horse. “Yeah, but.”
“I’ll make a real compelling case that he should be contributing more to your 401K, Frankie. How’s that suit you?”

“I don’t have a 401K,” Frankie announces, looking stupid as he is. Last summer, I had to disabuse him of the notion that hepatitis B was a vitamin.

“What do you have stuffed down your shorts there?” I ask, noticing the bulge.

“It ain’t nothing,” Frankie says, looking shifty as a cobra.

“By my reckoning that is either a gun or you have acquired a colossal hard on.” I nod at the jut. “And, honest to God, I’m not sure which I find most disturbing.”

Frankie lays the gun down on the steps in front of us, looking chagrined. I pick it up, despite knowing where it’s been. It’s a Bersa Thunder 380, and loaded.

“Who do you think you are? James Fucking Bond? You don’t think he’ll
search us? He finds this on you there’ll be hell to pay, double O.”

Frankie just shrugs. “Better safe than sorry,” he offers.

“In your case it’d be sorry. Seriously, with your track record you’re most liable to shoot your own balls off.”

“It was just a thought,” Frankie adds, turning purple as the creepy dinosaur used to be on the idiot box.

“And whom,” I ask, being grammatically correct, “did we agree would do the thinking here, knucklehead?”

***  
It's a half hour drive to Galesburg and not scenic. I overtake a truck whose driver is reading a newspaper. No hills, few inclines, treeless stretches and a river the color of cold. I-74 cuts through miles of flatland, empty fields either side stretching to the edge of the sky. A scarecrow a red rag tied to a stick. When I see the sign for the last remaining Lincoln-Douglas debate site I cut out past houses the size of garages dwarfed by their swimming pools, a dead Maytag factory, Carl Sandburg College, the place I got my Associates. I could have gone on to Western after that and got a degree but what’s the use? These days we all dance to the algorithms. You can’t go against the grain. Face it: the robots are coming for your job too. In the gig economy, a person needs a gig.

“I was watching this documentary last night about how ships are put together,” I say, informatively. Frankie looks at me, vaguely curious. “It was riveting.”

“How come?” Frankie blinks at me like a broken machine. “Sounds like a
real boring show.”

“Never mind,” I say, realizing he’s a complete lost cause. “Never fucking mind.”

“You think you can get Crowell to give us a bigger cut then?”

Frankie's back on his hobbyhorse. There’s no getting him off it now, one track mind. He thinks our Dubuque friend shortchanges us, and he’s not altogether mistaken.

“The thing about him is, he underestimates people,” I explain, reasonably. “That’s good for us. A person underestimates his underlings is in for a rude awakening.”

“I already had a rude awakening,” Frankie says, offering a fake yawn. I’m wary of this attempt at humor and watch him out the corner of my eye, wondering if he’s secreted a knife. “We’re going to be early as fuck for this meeting,” he says, innocently.

***
As it happens, we're late. Crowell prowls the rinky-dink dock talking on his phone while contemplating the wave-less fake lake, like he's Moses arranging to have the waters parted. He’s being worn by a new outfit; this blue shirt and black slacks combo, yellow socks the color of vomit and little wire-rim specs shade in the sun. He’s shooting for the suburban dad look but it’s like someone shaved a monkey and kicked it through Banana Republic. Reclining against this hideous snot-green Chrysler minivan is a heavyset bald gorilla with a neck tattoo who looks like he could easily go three MMA rounds with Behemoth. Crowell travels with muscle these days, now he's making money hand over fist, now he’s getting Sackler big.

This sidekick finger-walks my pockets, tracks with his palms the inside seam of my jeans and socks. He’s not conversationally inclined. “I didn't realize we were this intimate,” I tell him. “If you're feeling frisky you should ask me out for a drink first.”

The knuckle-dragger doesn’t crack a smile, just starts right in patting down Frankie too, then nods at the boss, job well done.

“You're late,” Crowell observes, slipping the phone in his pocket. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that punctuality is the politeness of Kings?”

“Thing is, I'm not a King,” I tell him. “Not yet.”

This remark causes him to eye-fuck me some, not liking that sentiment at all, not appreciating ambition in a subordinate. He looks at Frankie and frowns. “And who's this fine specimen of humanity when he's at home?”

“This would be Frankie, and he's not at home right now.”

“And who might Frankie be?”
 
“He’s my employee of the month.”

Crowell saunters over to him. “Are you from the future?” he inquires.

“What?” Frankie says, slow on the uptake.

“I mean did you quantum leap here from an alternative universe? What's with the funky hairdo at all? Are you auditioning to be a toilet brush?”

Frankie looks at Crowell glassy-eyed and I’m relieved I took the gun from him. I decide it’s for the best to change the subject. “You were admiring our fine lake view?”

“There is no view, and this puddle is a sorry excuse for a lake.” Crowell spits a thick gob in the water. “I could never live in a podunk town in a thousand years.”

“It’s not so bad,” I tell him, not believing it.

  “If I had to stay in a place like this I'd go loco. Seriously, I’d just stick my face in a meatgrinder and go live in the woods.” Crowell nods towards Frankie. “Like what Mr. Stein here went and did.”

“What?” Frankie says.

“Where we going then?” Crowell asks, clapping his hands, suddenly all business. “I take it you’re not scooting around with money in the car. It’s not your mojo.”

“Frankie's farm,” I say. “It's not very far.”

“Oh boy. Can you even believe it?” Crowell starts up this ugly cackling noise. “They keep cash on hand in an actual farm.”

“My name isn’t Stein,” Frankie says.

  Crowell quits cackling. “Is it MacDonald?”

“No,” says Frankie, still humorless as the Pope. “Gustafsson.”

“This must be fucking trying,” Crowell says to me, exasperated.

“Yeah, but he does try though,” I point out. “Credit where it’s due.”

“Leave your car,” Crowell orders. “We’ll drop you back. We’re taking mine.”

“No offense,” I say to him, grimacing. “But your ride is a bit embarrassing to be seen in. Looks like something a suicidal soccer mom would drive.”

“Which would be the fucking point,” Crowell says, slowly, squinting at me with those fish-pale eyes of his. “I don’t know about you, dipshit, but when I’m moving a few thousand Oxycodone, Fentanyl, and Percocet, I prefer going the inconspicuous route.”

I suppose he has a point, but I can’t say I’m feeling the love today. “Do we still get our orange slices though?” I ask him.

***
The one good thing about a Chrysler minivan is there’s plenty legroom in the back. That’s where we’re put, which means Crowell has to turn around in his seat to insult us. Frankie doesn’t wear a seatbelt because he suffers from claustrophobia. He’d have a certificate of exemption on his license, if he still had a license. Crowell punches the address into his GPS. Now he can find the farm whenever he wants, which is not a good thing at all.

“You still seeing the one with the legs?” he asks me.

“No, she left the state.”

“With another guy?”

“No, with the circus.”

“Well, she was already used to hooking up with clowns right enough." Crowell locates a smirk. "Usual issue was it? See, doctors can treat impotence and handle cases of premature ejaculation, but when you have both conditions. . .” He’s grinning ear to ear now, mouth like a coin slot. “They have such a small
window to work with.”

“You're dead funny,” I tell him.

“But my pockets aren't full of money,” Crowell says. “Yet, at any rate.”

“We’ve been giving that some thought,” I announce, sounding nervous as I am.

“We?” Crowell frowns. “Who are you now? The Queen of England?”

“I’ve been thinking that there are elements of the recent surcharge on delivery expenses and overhead may be contractually negotiable as regards inventory.”

“Why can’t you talk properly?” Crowell asks me. “What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s just that . .”

“Are you serious? When does retail ever dictate terms to wholesale?” Crowell leans across to put his mouth beside the driver’s ear. “You think Jeff Bezos here is playing with a full deck, Ivan?”

“Ivan never has much to say,” I observe.

Crowell sighs. “Ivan doesn’t speak English,” he explains.

“Why do you keep talking to him then?”

“Well, he gets the gist.” Crowell rubs the driver's bald head with his palm, like it's a magic 8 ball. “It’s all contextual.”

“He’s Russian then, is he?”

“Something like that.” Crowell shrugs. “He’s from Idontgiveafuckastan.”

“And his name is really Ivan?”

“Christ, no. We call him Ivan because he’s a terrible person.” Crowell fixes me with a glare. “You bring money up again I’ll set Ivan on you, so I will.”

I decide in the circumstances to let the subject drop.

Crowell is staring Frankie down. “That goes for you too, Rooster-Prick.”

This most recent exchange proves somewhat chilling to the social affections and we drive in silence for a while. I contemplate clouds thick as beaten egg whites through a crooked black lace of trees. It’s like the photograph of a memory I used to have.

Crowell decides to pull the thread of our earlier conversation. “So, what was it went wrong between you and legs then?”

“Lots of things. Her parents didn’t appreciate me.”

“How was that?”

“Her father told Shelley he wanted me to hurry up and murder her so the family could get to grieve properly.”

“That's harsh.” Crowell nods thoughtfully. “That's toxic masculinity is what that is. Shelley was the name then, eh? Like the stupid-ass poet fell in the water that time?”

“Uh-huh. No relation but.”

“Still have her digits? Might give her a buzz next time I'm stuck in this wasteland.” Crowell turns to Ivan. “This girl had the longest legs.”

“They went all the way to the ground,” I add.

Crowell wrinkles his pug nose at me, disgusted, reeking of Old Spice Swagger. “And what she was doing with a loser like this I cannot for the life of me fathom.”

I used to bitch to Shelley all the time about Crowell's fuckery, and she would just laugh and say he sounded like me, except he said out loud what I was thinking. I was just more restrained, she noted, which was ironic given that restraining order she took out.

***
  Crowell is incredulous when he finds out where we store the inventory. I explain how even the police in Illinois are cautious about getting in a grain bin. “Morons keep falling in them,” I tell him. “They’re notoriously unsafe.”

“Once you go down in a grain bin,” Frankie observes, mordantly, “you die.”

“And you keep the money inside this thing as well? Holy fuck.”

“We don’t never use this one no more for nothing,” Frankie says. “It’s obsolated.”

“That’s not a word,” Crowell points out, examining the sheer sides of the silo.

“But the cops don’t know it’s no longer used, see?” I am sensing a possible opening. “We could store a lot more, a ton more. Profit margins could be tremendous. I’d say we’re utilizing at most 20% capacity right now. Scratching the surface. Macomb could be the new Medellin. We could be doing far more than Knox and Warren. Could service Peoria and Fulton too. In no time this place could practically be. . .  Iowa.”

“Talk to me,” Crowell says, sniffing filthy lucre.

While I do the hard pitch, Frankie heads on up the farmhouse to get the keys from his mom and comes back to conduct a tour of the facility. He shows Crowell the unloading building on its raised cement slab, the old conveyer system, storage bins, the grain dryer. Crowell sees the possibilities, his brain turning over like a slot machine. Now the two of them are getting along like a house on fire, all forgiven. After we unload the pills from the mini-van and slide the bags through the vents and under the grain, Frankie decides he also needs to show him where we hide the money, which is a terrible idea. We leave Ivan by the car and the three of us climb a 20-foot metal ladder and crawl on hands and knees into the silo. From the gantry, you can look down at the grain mound where the pills are tucked away. Across the gantry, Frankie has rigged planks to make a serviceable walkway. He points to where the cash bags are wedged behind the stanchions on the far side. Of course, Crowell steps out onto the planks for a better look. Above the walkway old corn is caked on the sides of the bin forming a solid crust overhead. Frankie starts jabbing at the loose corn kernels sticking there with this iron bar he’s found somewhere.

“Stop that,” I tell him. “It’s dangerous.”

“How?” he asks, and the mass of grain settled against the walls gives and all the mess caked on the sides collapses in this massive avalanche that right away sweeps Crowell ass over tits off the walkway. Down he goes, heaved with a dull thump against the corrugated silo on the descent, to land face down in three feet of corn, which is sort of amusing. Getting to his feet, he doesn’t look that amused though.

“Jesus,” I say. “You stupid fuck, Frankie.”

“Oopsie-doopsie,” Frankie says, suppressing a fit of the giggles.

“How do I get out of this thing?” Crowell yells up at us, feeling at his head with his fingers. He’s seething like a pit bull. “By the way, you two retards are dead.” He commences groping around in the grain searching for his specs.

“That’s a terrible attitude,” Frankie says to me.
“So, how do we him up from there, as a matter of interest?” I ask. “A rope?”

“We don’t,” Frankie says, looking at me like I’m stupid. He bawls down at Crowell, “We’re not the ones are dead here,” and bangs the iron bar hard three times on the metal and immediately this grinding vibration wells up around us.

Crowell is startled and wheels around, a bit panicky, wondering what the noise is. I know what the noise is. The electric motor on the north side that starts the v-belts has started up. The belts open the horizontal floor augur in the hopper that speeds the flow of grain. The sudden displacement sucks Crowell to the floor of the silo, engulfing him. Moving grain does not support the weight of a person. Once you get in, it’s like water. A body in grain takes seconds to sink, or so I’m learning. Crowell gives a choked scream as an air pocket pulls at him and yellow-brown kernels get forced up his nose, into his ears, down his throat. His fancy outfit is going to be ruined, and he worked so hard at it.

“We have to get him out,” I say, clawing at Frankie’s arm.

“Why?” Frankie asks.

And it’s only then I realize, being slow on the uptake.

Crowell slowly slides into the sinkhole frantic as a man caught in quicksand, scratching at the surface. “I’m going to die,” he screams up. “My God, I’m going to die.”

“That’s right,” Frankie yells back. “This here rooster-prick has to agree.”

The two of us watch as the kernels pour past his chest, up his chin and over his head. Then there’s just corn where once there was Crowell.

“He always was a bit corny.” Frankie looks at me and his eyes are slits. “That’s me being James Fucking Bond, knucklehead.”

***

Frankie clutches a Bud light bottle in his right hand as he walks over to the car. Ivan sees the beer and smiles and reaches his hand out and Frankie smashes the bottle over his head, which causes it to cave like a soft-boiled egg. The neck of the bottle is still between his fingers, the broken section ending in a jagged splinter, and he starts carving at Ivan’s face with it, whipping the sharp glass back and forth artistically, each slash opening new spurting channels of red. An ear is hanging in a way that ears do not. Ivan is still very professional about it though, backhanding Frankie in the solar plexus and knocking the wind out of him, then pivoting on his left foot to follow up with a right cross, in the same motion raising his knee and thudding it in Frankie’s belly so that he jack-knifes forward, sending spit showering out his mouth.

As Ivan begins to explore the possibility of choking Frankie to death, I consider an intervention. “Hip,” says Frankie, but I'm assuming he means help.

Ivan tosses Frankie to the ground like a rag doll and opens the passenger side door. That he is even semi-functional with his head like that constitutes a miracle of sorts. Ivan reaches in the glove compartment, for a gun I suppose, and what is left of his face explodes like a sledgehammered watermelon. This mélange of blood and bone fragments and brains showers across the dashboard and windscreen and then he topples with surreal slowness and falls onto the grass lengthwise like a concussed cartoon character.

A glittering dust of bees-wings is falling through the declining sun behind Mrs. G. I’m looking right at her. She is about sixty, today in jeans and work boots, with too long hair, gray streaking the black, and childish bangs. I’ve never seen her up close and fully clothed. Her face is grimly set and I notice that she is quite terrifying. It was her started the machinery. The AR-15 is aimed at my groin and she is most definitely considering her options. My bowels at once evacuate, which is embarrassing. Mrs. G only lowers the barrel very slowly. “Little Alec,” she says, nodding at me. Then she looks up at the sky and yawns. “The nights are fair drawing in.”

“You OK?” I ask Frankie, sprawled and wheezing like a busted concertina.

“Get up,” his mother barks. “There’s nothing the matter with you, shake it off.”

All the excitement has left the purple imprint of finger-bruises on his neck and caused his mohawk to deflate somewhat. “Thanks for nothing,” he says to me, spitting out a bloody tooth. “Don’t you ever call me a stupid fuck again or I'll do for you.”

***
The night has indeed drawn in, a moon like a shard of fingernail in the gloaming. A faint and steady rain of dead insects spirals down from the big bulb on the silo, little toasted corpses pankling against the metal side. Crowell’s cellphone has popped out one of the augur holes and is ringing. IPhones are sturdy, being made in China, like the ladybugs. Through a hole in the bin, I can make out the outline of a leg. I look at the phone screen and see someone called Rhiannon is calling. I don't know who that is, maybe his daughter? I know what it was her mother used to listen to.

“Well,” I say, silencing the cell. “This is a situation.”

“How's that?” asks Mrs. G.

I make the discovery that I can't seem to stop shaking and sniffing. “I was alluding to the current double homicide debacle?”

“Townie got all the big words,” Frankie says to his mother, sneering.

“Must be a real whizz at the Scrabble,” she says.

I can only stare at them, teeth still chattering like castanets.

“Francis and I have this,” Mrs. G. says, steelily. “What I need for you to do is wipe this car down and drive it back and leave it at the lake and get your own car and go home. Do you think you can manage that now? Do you want me to write it down?”

“There are bits of brains,” I observe. “The seatback's a bloody mess.”

“So?” she snarls at me. “What of it? The gunk is inside us is always wanting to get out. Bleach in the scullery. Give it a good scrub. Come back for further instructions tomorrow. There’s a lot to do now with my supplier gone, things to consider, arrangements to be made. Business can't wait. I can’t sleep on this.”

“There are cameras,” I tell her. “When they find his car, they’ll trace it to me.”

“College-boy must have seen that shit on CSI,” Frankie says.

Mother and son laugh at me together in the mothlight.

“You used a burner when you talked to him, right?”

“Always.”

“Get a clue, boy,” she says. “You think there are decent cameras on these roads? Where you think this is? This is nowhere Illinois. No one gives a shit about you.”

“What about the. . .?” I cannot seem to articulate the word bodies.

Mrs. G's laugh is the sound a metal garbage disposal makes under a sink. “Pigs got to eat,” she says.

I'm shaking like a lemon blancmange and my nose is running. “I need to change my pants,” I suggest.

“Yeah,” she says, wrinkling her nose at me. “You do that.”

***
At midnight the cold-green river is an ink sheet and the highway a darkened blue, that big white moon before me. Insects swirl in the lamp beams of the mini-van, splatter against the windscreen. The fields are filled with those tall, bone-white stalks whose tips emit red light blinks like giant lonesome smokers in the dark. They look like flocks of giant, three-winged seagulls until you get close and can see the long sharp-edged shadow swoop of blades longer than the Statue of Liberty’s arm. I want those great white wings to snatch me into the sky away from all of this. I’m in way over my head. I need them to scoop me up into a rope of trembling black stars. 

Rob McClure Smith is a writer living in Galesburg, Illinois. His short story collection The Violence was published by Queen's Ferry Press in 2015. He is currently working on a novel about a Scottish detective investigating a murder in Washington D.C.

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