Sunday, March 20, 2011

We are the Monsters #samplesunday

Welcome to Sample Sunday...

1: We’re All Liars Here, or The Death of Leonard Jantz

Here’s the truth about growing up in a small town: you tell lies to survive.

I worked at a grocery store during high school, part time on the evenings and weekends. I saw plenty of strange things there: avocados stuffed in a barrel of fresh popcorn left to rot, a coworker who punched holes in the caps of beer bottles with an awl, pies marked “Verda’s own home-baked” which came frozen on pallets with the Sunday dairy truck. I found a body in the trash bin once, but nobody can prove who put it there. No one can prove it was there.

There were too many bodies for a town the size of Springdale. The name of the town is a lie, but the bodies aren’t. All of them. When you find a body lying with the outdated yogurt, wilted lettuce, and cardboard boxes, you make up stories to cope. You can’t process a body in the grocery store trash bin. A trick of the light, you say. The way the shadows fell across certain bits of debris like the coat hanger beast in a little boy’s bedroom. That head of lettuce, there, in the corner, looks like a human hand.

Bodies are bodies.

Dead is dead.

And lies are lies.

~

We killed a man during the fall of 1992, our senior year. I say we, but BJ did the killing. The rest of us were just there.

BJ was a big kid, six-feet tall, four feet wide, all linebacker. The local team, the Saints, kind of sucked—sucked as in they won seven football games during our four years—but BJ made all-league three times. He managed forty-six tackles for losses during his career and dished out seven concussions. One guy, a lanky kid from Abilene, still gets tingles in his toes when the weather changes. At least he says as much on Facebook. BJ was boiled over anger and clenched fists, and he hated Leonard Jantz.

Jantz had fired BJ’s father from the grain elevator.

Mike, Dan, and Tony were all there when BJ killed Leonard. I was there, too, after my shift at Larry’s Grocery. We were all drunk, either from stolen beer or revved hormones. I’d met them at the Shack after work. I still wore the red polo from Larry’s. Red polo and jeans, the store dress code. The other guys, little Mike with his embarrassing mustache, fat-mouthed Dan, and Tony the liar, had been hanging out at the Shack, telling stories and passing out a battered copy of playboy Tony had stolen from his father’s stash. The beer was his dad’s, too.

Tony lied so well his old man never suspected a single can went missing. The lies came easily, especially after years of practice. By the time he was sixteen, Tony had lied about grades at school, fights, which girl he kissed at recess, and even how Max, the Robertson’s cat, died. That was a big one, but not as big as Leonard Jantz. The big lies he reserved for special occasions, but all of them—big or small—came from his lips with a sliver of magic.

Lies can be a shield, a force field, a special aura of protection.

Lies can keep you from seeing the truth, no matter how grim.

~

The truth bends in small towns, and the lies come like fog, constructions of mirrors and smoke machines, odd noises and flashing lights, or funhouse effects to bend the truth back, to stuff all the weirdness into its place. Soon the lies look like the truth.

I lied about loving a girl when I was seventeen. She was new in town, beautiful, and utterly untouchable. I met her two days after Leonard Jantz died, in study hall, room 178, Spring County High School. She sat beside me and borrowed a pencil on Tuesday. By the end of the week, she asked if I knew Leonard Jantz.

I say I lied about loving her because I didn’t love her at seventeen, not really. Love was little more than some overwrought hormones and a wish to see her naked, with me, in the backseat of my Mustang. My imagination didn’t really take it any further than lying there, smashed together, skin against skin in the back of the car. She’s the real problem in this story; Leonard Jantz just kicked things off.

I didn’t really love her at seventeen, but I do now. It feels like a chunk has been sawed from my chest and I’ll never have it back.

~

Leonard Jantz died because he was in the wrong place.

We left The Shack and cruised south of town in Mike’s truck, a red, rust-flanked Ford F-150. Mike wasn’t a truck guy, but his dad, a perpetual drunk since Mike’s sister died, had nothing else to offer. Mike was thin, always pale. Big, lost eyes. He’d tried to grow a mustache since our sophomore year. BJ rode up front, on the other end of the bench seat. Dan, Tony, and I were in the back. We had a bat, smashing mailboxes as we sped down gravel roads and asphalt county highways. The bat sang when it struck a mailbox—it sang and sent a sharp shiver into your bones.

We found Leonard’s car on the shoulder of E1450 Road.

He was standing in the ditch, taking a piss.

Tony swung for his mirror, and missed.

“Turn it back around,” he hollered, handing the bat to Dan.

Dan wasn’t a fat kid, but he had a big mouth, big enough to stuff a five pound bag of flour inside and make him look like a squirrel. But it was dark out there. I couldn’t see his face. Maybe he smiled; maybe he didn’t. Dan had moved to town at the beginning of the year. He was a kindred spirit, meaning another boy with too much anger stuffed down inside and not enough places to aim it. The town welcomed boys like Dan. The town was hungry.

When the truck sped past the car, Dan planted the bat right on the side of Leonard’s head. An accident. The old man had finished pissing and was staggering back to his car, the driver’s side, right beside the mirror. Dan wasn’t one of us, yet. His aim was off.

“Jesus,” he said. “Oh Jesus.”

I never hit anyone with a bat from the back of a speeding truck, but I imagine how it must have felt: a sudden jolt, but the target of the bat gave a little, soft because of the skin and flesh pulled over the skull. Even worse than the jolt, I imagine the realization which might have shot through Dan’s arm to his brain, a brain which had already processed the image of a pale face nanoseconds before a baseball bat collided with it.

But Jantz wasn’t dead. Not yet.

~

Uncle Elmer was my first dead body. I was four.

Lying in his coffin, Elmer’s face looked like a pale yellow hunk of taffy, stretched too long and covered with a thin layer of wax to preserve it. His eyes were shut, but it didn’t look like Elmer. Even at four, I knew these shut eyes wouldn’t open, even when Aunt Gladys leaned over, stinking of talcum powder and mouthwash, and said, “He just fell asleep.”

I couldn’t sleep alone for years.

By seventeen, the body count in Springdale toughened my nerve.

~

BJ killed Leonard Jantz like this:

We huddled around the crumpled body. Dan pissed his pants a little, just the hint of a darker stain on the inside upper thigh of his blue jeans. He kept muttering, “Jesus,” like a prayer. He hopped from the truck first, pale and shaking, and staggered to the side of Jantz’s mint green Chevelle. “Oh Jesus.”

Leonard Jantz’s fingers twitched. His mouth opened like he was trying to talk. Movies always made it look like someone who got knocked in the head hard enough would be out cold, unconscious if not dead. Not in real life. Not Jantz. A little kiss of blood marred the side of his head where Dan’s blow struck. His mouth flapped open and shut and a little noise, not quite a squeak, came bubbling out.

“The fucker isn’t even dead,” BJ muttered. His fists clenched and unclenched, whitening at the knuckles each time. Little half-moon marks marred his palms as he released his fists. He was angry. Anger stuffed into linebacker’s skin.

“N-not d-dead?” Dan wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. “N-not d-dead?”

That was when BJ snapped, sort of like somebody yanked his human cord from the socket and left pure animal in charge, like a feral dog or hungry lion or even a shark from one of those nature shows. He always wore these scuffed, black, steel-toed boots, hand-me-downs from his father. BJ drew back one foot and gave Leonard Jantz a vicious jab in the side of his ribs, lading a solid kick with his right foot. The old man jumped like he’d been hit with an electric shock and coughed. The night grabbed my stomach with cold fingers and squeezed.

“Get the bat,” BJ said.

“Shit BJ, don’t…” Dan stopped blubbering, but he was pale, almost pleading.

I looked at Tony and Mike. They were frozen. I’ve lied so much about killing Leonard Jantz since that chilly evening in October, 1992, but here’s the truth: I handed BJ the bat. I went to the truck and touched the cold aluminum and brought it back to our little cabal at the side of the road and handed it to him. Maybe he needed an accomplice. An accessory before the fact for a potential court case. BJ, all linebacker and fast twitch muscle, wasn’t capable of long term thought, but maybe, just maybe a bit of him, deep down, understood the gravity of swinging an aluminum baseball bat down on an old man’s head until it split open and more than blood came out of the crack.

“Dead now,” BJ said. The bat dropped to the ground, rattling and hollow.

Dead. But Tony was there, and Tony would save us with a lie.

At least he would try.

~

Tony Manning held the record for consecutive world championships for lying. This is how he lied about how his neighbor’s cat, Max, died:

In fifth grade, Tony built a ramp in front of his house with spare plywood and two-by-fours his father had discarded. It wasn’t much of a thing, only two, maybe two and a half feet at the apex, but we spent hours after school riding various wheeled contraptions over the top: skateboards, bikes, and even Mike’s homemade go-cart. Once. The rear axle shattered upon crash landing.

Max watched. He was that kind of cat. Especially as dusk gathered, and we filled those last fleeting moments of freedom with frantic activity before scurrying to our homes, dinner, and homework with a few hours of mindless television afterward. Max seldom did anything but watch until one night he plopped in front of the ramp and stared at BJ.

BJ was ready for his final run, one foot on his skateboard, the other pressed against the gravel.

“Move the fucking cat,” he said.

I took a step toward the ramp. Max’s eyes glinted yellow and mean. He pushed back his ears and hissed.

“Scat,” I cried.

Max didn’t move.

“Move the fucking cat,” BJ said again.

“Just go,” I said. “He’ll move.”

But Max didn’t flinch. BJ stuck Max at full speed, lost his balance, and tumbled to the ground at the side of the ramp. His elbow dragged against the ground and his right knee skidded on asphalt before he was able to tuck over and roll toward the curb. BJ staggered to his feet, a dark patch of blood already seeping through the knee of his jeans.

“Fucking cat…” BJ stooped, picking up his skateboard.

Max still didn’t move. Another hiss slipped out of his mouth. Green eyes flickered. BJ brandished the skateboard over one shoulder like a club, like the little plastic caveman in my dollar dinosaur box from Duckwalls. He hammered Max with the board, cracked it down on the cat’s sleek skull. It sounded like smashing an egg, but amplified.

Nobody said anything.

Headlights peered over the hill a block away from Tony’s place.

“Move the ramp,” he said.

BJ stumbled toward the lawn, tossing his skateboard onto the grass. Mike and I tugged the plywood contraption to the curb. Tony closed his eyes. The headlights swelled. Tony ran toward the car, waving his hands. Tires screeched. Voices rose and fell in the street. The headlights rested against pavement, slumped and tired. A car door opened.

“Hey,” a voice called. “Hey, kid. Jesus I’m sorry. Is this your cat? Oh, Jesus I’m sorry.”

Tony glanced toward us and smiled.

BJ touched his knee. No blood, no wound. At least we didn’t see the blood anymore. An illusion. Isn’t that how magic works? “Tony?”

Tony waved him off. He turned back to the back-lit figure at the side of the road, the driver of the car.“I-I tried to stop him,” he sobbed. He held his scratched and bloody hands out as proof. “I t-tried.”

“I’m sorry kid. Man, I’m sorry,” the driver said.

Tony could lie really well. Like magic.

~

Tony worked his magic with Leonard. He tried to save us.

“Aaron, get Jantz’s keys. We’ve got to move the car, take it down to the river.”

My head tingled like the sensation you feel when you stand up too quickly and the blood can’t keep up. I walked over to the body and fished out the keys. The fact I was picking a dead man’s pocket washed over me like a warm breeze. Warm, not cold. I didn’t flinch. Tony could do that—he could make magic happen. He made BJ’s scrapes vanish six years ago. He made a middle-aged stiff think he hit Tony’s cat, even though the cat wasn’t Tony’s and Max was already dead.

He could make Leonard Jantz go away, too.

“The river bridge,” he said. “Head for the bridge. We’ll meet there.”

And then I climbed into the Chevelle. Mike and BJ had already put the body in the passenger seat. I didn’t look. I wouldn’t. Looking might break the spell, might make what happened more real than it was. The V-8 under the Chevelle’s hood growled to life; the seat rattled with the throaty voice of the engine. I followed Mike to the Republic River Bridge southeast of town. The others were already standing in a small group as the Chevelle’s headlamps swung toward the river. I climbed out and joined them.

“We fucking killed that old guy. We fucking killed him.” Dan glared at Tony. “We killed him. I-I killed him.”

Tony shook his head. “Calm yourself, Dan.”

“The body…”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jant. Jantz. Whatever his name.”

Mike pulled at his lower lip. BJ shook his head.

Tony smiled. “Damn, Dan. You make up some stupid stories.”

BJ looked up. His face brightened. “Yeah, Danny. You are such a pansy. Listen to Tony. He’s our man.”

Tony nodded. “That old fucker got wasted and drove himself into the river.”

Mike hesitated, but it was clearly his turn. Both BJ and Tony stared at him until he opened his mouth. “Yeah. Yeah, Dan. Hopefully the cops will find him in the next couple of days. Leonard doesn’t have any family.”

“Those fucking bottom feeders will have a good time with my boy Leonard,” BJ said. He couldn’t hold back a crooked grin. “Fucking catfish like pickled meat.”

I felt it in my stomach, the cold fingers again. We were all in deep.

Ken leaned forward, searching Tony’s eyes. “I hit him with a bat. On accident.”

“God-damn, you’re a good liar, Dan.” Tony looked at the rest of us. “He’s a good liar, right?”

“Sure.” Mike nodded.

The aluminum bat wagged in Tony’s hand. “You didn’t hit anybody. Just a drunk old fucker who drove his sorry ass into the river. There’s not even a bat.” He heaved the bat into the air where it tumbled like a baton and splashed into the river beyond. It glinted with moonlight before splashdown. “Poor bastard just drowned.”

On cue, I slipped the Chevelle into neutral. BJ pushed at the passenger door, helping me shove it toward the river.

“You were just confused about what you saw, right?” Tony asked.

Ken flexed his fingers, staring at the back of his hand. He glanced at his jeans. He swallowed hard. “I-I don’t, I suppose.”

“You do this enough, Dan, and it gets really easy.” Tony gave Dan’s shoulder a slight squeeze. “Like magic.”

We were all parts of the same whole. BJ channeled our anger; Dan our panic, our raw, childish fear. Tony lied for us, became our sly, devious halves, the part which is really afraid, deep down. Mike watched, our moral compass, and he swallowed our guilt, too much of it in the end. I was the last shove over the cliff. I wasn’t proud of it; it just was.

Magic. Sure. Sometimes you have to tell lies to survive.

Sometimes the lies don’t work, and the dead don’t stay dead.

2 comments:

Milo James Fowler said...

"That was when BJ snapped, sort of like somebody yanked his human cord from the socket and left pure animal in charge" -- good stuff, dude.

Danielle Ferries said...

A great read, Aaron. It certainly lifted my Monday morning.