Low Down

by Michael Northrop


   So the kid hanging around outside the Rexall Drug Store for the last couple of days turns out to be my son. Looks like I left my mark on this town after all. The first time I saw him was on Monday. I thought he looked familiar, but I just figured he was another relative. This town is full of them. That's one of the reasons why I've avoided it for most of the past two decades. Up until now, anyway.
   I was just stopping by the drug store to pick up a copy of the Journal. It's a weekly, so I figured it would still have the info I needed. People used to call it the Urinal, because everyone's a critic, but when I asked the guy at the counter for the Urinal, he said it was for customers only. When I said I meant the Journal, he just gave me a look and pointed to a stack at the end of the candy aisle. Well, excuse me. What did it do, win a freakin’ Pulitzer while I was away?
   I turned to the page where they announce births, deaths, and kids making the honor roll and found a box in the center under the oversized words "Spooneybarger Funeral Thursday." All the details were there. Off to the side was something that read "Randolph Spooneybarger, an appreciation, by Lee S." Christ, Lee, you don't have to kiss their ass once they're dead. I didn't read it. The more you turn manure over, the more it smells.
   My family and I have never really seen eye to eye. It was that way even when I was kid, and it got a lot worse after that. It's been a long, long time since I was invited to any holiday dinners, but I am blood to a lot of folks around here. Sooner or later, that's got to be worth something. When I heard the news, I thought maybe this time. Hell, Randy and me practically grew up together. We were always outside shooting BB guns at bottles or inside playing Battleship or Risk or Monopoly. I used to cheat like a rich hooker at Monopoly, but I could never tell if he did too. He always acted like he was too good for all that, but I don't know, he seemed to win a lot.
   When I came out of the drug store, the kid was staring at me. Maybe he's 15. He looked like the kind of kid who hangs out outside of these places trying to get someone to buy him cigarettes. That's the kind of kid I was, but still, it's like everyone in this damn town was giving me looks now.
   I said to him, "You a Spooneybarger?"
   And he just said, "Yep."
   Monday night, I went down to the new bar across from the ballfield. The first football game of the season was on and there was a pretty good crowd there. I pretended to like the Packers and got this pack of cornfed morons to buy me drinks. What a bunch of Cheeseheads was doing around here is beyond me. I'd say they were here for the sightseeing, but I hear Wisconsin is kind of scenic, itself. All they were drinking was Bud and Wild Turkey, so that's mostly what I was drinking. Go, Pack! It was a shitty game. 
     Then at some point, I had a drink called Liquid Cocaine, because this girl was having one. That's Jagermeister, something else, and rum, I think. I had a drink or three more, and it gets hazy after that.
   I woke up midmorning on Tuesday, feeling like death and lying on my back in the middle of a field filled with turkeys and turkey crap. This actually didn't surprise me. I looked around and found my old cap, stood up and smacked it good and hard against my pant leg before putting it on. I took a deep breath, which was a mistake considering the turkey crap, and began the rest of my walk.
   The turkey farm's just outside of town and a bit of a throwback. This whole town used to work for a living, but now mostly spends its days looking pretty for part-timers and tourists. I don't know how this broke-down farm was still hanging on, but rooms near it could be rented cheap, on account of the smell. I was holed up above a garage on the other side of the field. I didn't mind so much.
   If you've never walked through a field of fat, farmed turkeys, you should know that they follow you. They either think that you're the biggest, baddest turkey ever or that you're liable to start scattering feed. Whatever they're thinking, you move forward, they move forward. You stop, they stop. You turn left, well, you get the idea. And they gobble when they're moving but not when they stop, like you won't notice them standing there without the racket. Get a whole field of them going and it can be a pretty weird thing to be in the middle of, especially when your head feels like it's going to split.
   The night before was all about Wild Turkey and the morning was all about the domestic kind, but either one beat that afternoon, when I had to shoot a horse. Really. I put the word out that I was interested in doing odd jobs, just at the drug store and what not, and this is what I got: shooting a horse. Hasn't anyone heard of mowing a goddamn lawn?
   People always say they're "interested in doing odd jobs," but what they really mean is they're willing to do them. I guess people figured I was willing to do just about anything. I guess they were right. The turkeys walked along with me as I walked to the edge of the farm's property, bobbing their heads and gobbling the whole way. I stopped a few times, just to clear my head of the noise. Then I climbed the fence and disappeared from their four-acre world. They just watched me go.
   The fence was actually pretty high, since science still hasn't really determined whether or not turkeys can fly. I probably would've mangled myself on the wire if I'd made it that far the night before. I know I shouldn't have gotten so wasted, but when was the last time you had to shoot a horse? It's a big production. Plus, I like horses. Truthfully, I'd rather shoot a person.
   I cleaned myself up as good as I could manage, without actually having access to a shower or a bathtub, put on dark clothes, and arrived at the Carlson's horse farm at just after 1 o'clock. I hadn't seen Roger Carlson in 20 years, but he still didn't shake my hand. He just started giving me directions and telling me to "make it clean." He couldn't bring himself to do it, he said, because he'd known the old horse for so long, and he couldn't very well ask his daughters to do it, either.
   He showed me where the pit was. It was dug by a backhoe a few days ago, and the bottom still had some rainwater in it. It had been warm all week, but the barn was cool and musky when we walked in. I waited for Carlson to say his goodbyes and go get the gun, then I put the bridle on the horse and led it out. The horse wasn't skittish, wasn't friendly, wasn't much of anything. He just seemed kind of tired. I led him right up to the edge of the pit and put the gun to his head.
   "Goodbye, old fellah," I said and pulled the trigger.
   I gave the body a quick push with the barrel and stepped back as it collapsed into the pit with a huge, wet crash. It's done that way because no one wants to lug a dead horse around.
   After I filled in the hole and collected my money, I went down to the town lake. The sun was still bright, I had shorts and a towel, and I figured I'd earned it. I put my towel down toward the back of the beach when I got there, then swam out to the big raft. I dove off the side and kept swimming down until the water got cold. On my way back up, I rubbed my face and neck to clean off any stubborn horse blood. Then I swam to shore and walked back to my towel to dry out and watch women.
   At my age, there are three types of women in the world: illegal, legal, and possible. Basically, you allot 18 years for each of the first two categories, then lump the rest of the years into possible. All three kinds were at the lake. After I'd been on the towel for about half an hour, the girls from the town swim team began to trot by, all ponytails and puberty. Lord, help me.
   He didn't, so I went and sat on a bench near the lane-markers where they were practicing. I didn't have anything to pretend to read and the bench wasn't really facing practice, so the only way to act like I wasn't watching was, mostly, not to watch. I looked at the sun on the lake and listened to their chirping and splashing. The lady coach called out names and instructions.
   Morgan was the one I liked best. The rest of them were an overscrubbed pink, but she was chestnut brown, the color of a freshly stained deck. People around here probably still thought "there goes the neighborhood" when they saw her splashing around with the local girls. That's what they think about me, too, except I'm just the old neighborhood coming back.
  "You still owe me four more laps, Morgan," barked the lady coach. "Breast-stroke then back."
   I couldn't help but look. The girl's bright young eyes met my dull old ones and for a moment I thought, "Maybe  . . ." But she just put her head down and powered forward like a seal. It's always something like this, some reason why I don't stay in any one place too long. "Come on, Morgan. You still owe me laps."

   I spent most of Wednesday pulling weeds and trimming hedges on Academy Street. A few hours in, I took off my shirt and let my skin bake in the sun. It was like being a teenager, except for the leathery hide and trick back. I finished up around 4 and got paid in cash, so I went over to the store to buy a sandwich and a six-pack of beer.
   It turned out to be kind of an eventful walk. First off, I saw my son, who I still figured for like a third nephew twice removed. He was just standing around outside the drug store, but his eyes locked on me like I was food. I ignored him and turned down the walkway toward the market. It was like Family Feud day, because one of my cousins was coming out of the store's sliding doors as I was about to go in them. I hadn't seen him in lord knows how long, but I recognized his fucked up nose.
   "Jefferson," I said to him.
   "Ted," he said to me.
   "Shame about Randy," I said.
   "Yep."
   "How you been?"
   "OK, I guess."
   "Have you heard anything about, you know, the money?"
   "You're such a fucking vulture, Ted. Is that what you're back for?"
   I didn't say anything, and he didn't walk away or hit me.
   "Josephine knows," he said finally. "She said something or other about it at the memorial. Lee probably knows, too. Don't imagine you'll be ringing them up anytime soon."
   "Fuck Lee."
   "Well, I guess you'll have to go to the funeral then. I guess you should, anyhow."
   "I guess."
   He walked away and I walked into the market. Grocery stores don't sell liquor, and I considered making another stop for that, but I just got a second six-pack instead. I didn't want to run into anyone else. I left the store, walked across the post office parking lot and the library lawn, then climbed down under the Castinook Brook bridge.
   It was cool and dim down there, and I leaned my bag where the wall of the bridge met the sloping bank of the brook. I fished out my sandwich and a beer and started eating as I looked for my initials. I'd carved them into the concrete going on 30 years ago, but I carved them deep with the kind of knife they don't let you carry around anymore. I didn't find my initials or much of anything else. They must have redone the concrete at some point.
   After that, I sat down in the damp dirt and drank. The water burbled by at my feet and the cars swooshed by over my head. It was just like it used to be, except back then, the cars used to be every once in a while, now they were almost non-stop.
   I stayed in bed late on Thursday, until the funeral was only a few hours away. I tried to think who might be there, what I should say to them, and what they were liable to say to me. I tried to remember what they all looked like the last time I saw them. Then I tried to age them up, like they do on cop shows: "Here's what he might look like now . . . Here's what he might look like with a beard . . . He also goes by the alias Zippy . . ."
   The funeral was a big chilly mess, like a spilled shrimp cocktail. It went bad for me from the word go, since Josephine was greeting people as they walked through the opening in the hedge and into the cemetery. The family plot spread out behind her, with a dozen markers of various sizes and the freshly turned dirt of Randy's plot. Josephine's face was red from crying, but it got redder when she saw me.
   "I didn't think I'd see you again," she said.
   "Just here to show my respects."
   "Maybe you should show your respects to your son."
   "You know I don't have one."
   "I know for a fact you do, because he's standing over there next to Lee."
   Christ, as if this weren't awkward enough. I looked over and wasn't all that surprised to see the kid from the drug store standing next to Lee, just off to the right of the priest. All of them were looking at me.
   "You could've told me," I said.
   "I told him you were low down and you were probably dead. His mother skipped town, too, but then you always did have such fine taste in women."
   "Who was his mother?"
   "You are an evil man, Theodore."
   "Just here to pay my respects."
   So the old lady feathered her empty nest with my kid. I should have been mad about it, but I guess it probably worked out better for all parties. I mean, hell, Jo sure did a fine job of raising me.
   A lot of people said a lot of crap at the service. The man they were describing didn't sound much like the guy I knew, but then I guess that's the way these things went. I looked around. Half the town was here, and half of them had tears in their eyes. Randy's funeral would be on a weekday, what with the whole world revolving around him and all. He had gone through his whole life being superior to me. Better educated, better loved, better everything. But now he was in the ground, and I was standing tall and feeling the sun on my full head of hair.
   I unclipped my tie when it was all over. People who didn't recognize me said things like, "He was a lovely man." No one came up to me who knew my name. Lee, Josephine, and them all huddled together at the far end of things, surrounded by sympathizers. I saw my son standing alone and walked over to him. I felt eyes on my back now. I looked right at him. He looked healthy.
   "You know I'm your father."
   "Yep."
   "What's your name?"
   "Simon."
   "That's a good name."
   "I guess."
   "Maybe I'll see you around."
   "I'm around."
   I couldn't think of what to say next, so I walked away. Jefferson was just a few feet to my left, so I turned right. I looked down, pretending to read one of the gravestones. When I looked up, Josephine was standing in front of me. She had an envelope in her hand. My heart started beating fast.
   "Randolph wanted you to have this. I don't know why," she said as she handed over the fat, white envelope. My name was written on it in magic marker.
   "All right, then," I said as I snatched it from her. "I appreciate it."
   She walked away without another word. I watched her go, then turned toward the grave, put my hand to my brow and fired off a quick salute to Randy. I put the envelope in my back pocket, wheeled around, and headed out of the cemetery.
   Once I was past the hedge, I took the envelope out and turned it over a few times in my palms. It was plenty thick. My hands were shaking as I ripped the top off and looked inside: pink, yellow, blue, green; light colors, thin paper. It was Monopoly money. That son of a bitch had cheated, after all.
MICHAEL NORTHROP is currently a senior editor at Time Inc. His fiction is forthcoming in Snake Nation Review and has recently appeared on the McSweeney's web site.
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