Fiction
Fiction

Jakey Makes a Move

Lucas Church


 

The yard was in shambles, all weeded up. The dog was lying dead in the sun. Jakey Hunnycut sweated in front of his grandmother’s door and dropped his suitcase. It was maybe a hundred degrees. It was Florida. He’d walked the mile from the Greyhound station in the heat. He knocked on the door.

 

“Hold on,” she yelled from inside. “I’m moving as fast as I can.”

 

The dog was Priscilla, his grandmother’s cocker spaniel mutt. He went toward it, slowly parting the tall grasses in case there were more dead animals. After a long bus ride from Columbia, he’d walked here in a daze, stepping over smashed possums and cats without so much as breaking stride. Seeing a dead animal he knew the name of jolted him awake, and he remembered the unpleasant task that lay before him: summer with his grandmother, a woman he barely knew, sent for the July Fourth holiday to check to make sure she wasn’t dead. Since jittery old Granpap died over a year ago, she had cut off her phone and stopped talking to the family. He kicked his suitcase. It tipped over onto the powdery ground and sent out little clouds of dust.

 

The door opened and his grandmother came out. She must have gained a hundred and fifty pounds since he’d seen her last: Her now swollen skin crowded her eyes, turning them into slits. She jiggled and walked as if underwater, belly flopping over the elastic of her pastel-colored pants. She peered at him.

 

“I got your momma’s letter,” she said, “but it said you wouldn’t come ‘til Tuesday.”

 

“The earlier ticket was cheaper,” Jakey said. “What happened to your dog?”

 

“I can’t bear to look at her,” she said. “Oh, Lord. Please, you take her and deal with it. Awful boys here, doing awful things—” She stopped herself. “I just need you to get a shovel from the crawlspace and dig a hole in the backyard. They killed her, Jakey.”

 

She turned and went back inside, leaving him in the heat. He breathed in the smell of the outdoors: the dog, the yard with its black walnut trees. Anger flashed inside him, and he kicked at stray pebbles. He took some deep breaths, feeling flushed and stupid. He crawled underneath the trailer for the shovel, and bills fell out of his pocket onto the ground. He had been standing at the station in Columbia, the bus idling in the humid evening, and his mother had given him the money. “Son,” she said, stuffing three twenties in his pocket, “Get yourself a cell phone from a gas station. Call me when you get there.” He had turned to climb the bus stairs when she grabbed his shoulder. “If she’s dead, don’t look at her. Just call for the police. And don’t talk to anyone on the bus—sit up front near the driver.” He hugged her, turned, and only climbed a single step before she pulled him back again. “And if the driver talks, just be polite and nod.” She was still wearing her server uniform, a burgundy polo tucked into black pants.

 

Under the trailer, Jakey reached for the dropped money, brushing the dirt off. He stuck the remaining bills in his shoe.

 

                                                  ***

 

Inside, he ate an apple. Sweat dripped from his black hair; apple juice dribbled down his chin. Priscilla was in the ground. He watched his grandmother watching television, mesmerized by the sway of her arm skin as she fanned herself with the TV Guide.

 

“Gramma,” Jakey said. “What happened?”

 

“Jakey, how old are you now?” she asked. He told her the truth: thirteen.

 

“Momma says I need to spend some time with you,” he said. A strong wind blew, and the trailer creaked. “She worries about you now that Pap’s gone.” Jakey’s grandfather had been dead for enough for his features to lose their sharpness in Jakey’s mind, though he would always remember the old man’s hoarse and tired voice. After Pap’s death, his grandmother had called less and less often until Jakey, forced by his mother, phoned to wish a Happy Birthday and was met with the recording of a disconnected number.

 

“My poor Priscilla,” she said and fell silent. A few minutes later, picking the apple skin from his teeth, he heard her rough little snores. He left, shutting the door quietly, and walked down the road in the direction of town. He planned to go to the arcade, maybe find some kids who’d give him cigarettes. Maybe he’d get lucky and score some beer.

 

                                                  ***

 

Drenched again with sweat, he found the arcade had closed years ago. It was an empty space now, but he smelled cigarette smoke and heard the faint rustle of movement behind the boarded up windows. He wandered through the adjacent alley. The shade was nice; for a moment, his neck stopped burning. The back door was open, and a boy about his age, with an open shirt and a yellow, toady chest sat smoking. The deep negative space between his collarbone and shoulder, a scooped-out hollow: Jakey stared hard at it. He tingled, and sweated some more. The boy had a cigarette hanging from his lips. Little shiny acne smears on his forehead and cheekbones. He slouched and seemed drugged by the heat, unwilling to make any unnecessary moves. His skin glistened.

 

“Hey,” Jakey said. “Did the arcade move?”

 

“Closed up,” the boy said. He smelled acrid, like the leavings of a fire. Jakey sniffed under his own armpits, ashamed of the perfumed, blue deodorant his mother bought for him. The boy slowly pulled out a fresh smoke and a plastic lighter, purple and see-through like grape candy.

 

“What’s your name,” asked the boy. Jakey told him and started to sit. “Don’t,” the boy said without looking away from lighting the cigarette.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jakey said and began to rise, but the boy laughed. He had the beginning few dark hairs of a new moustache.

 

“No, no,” the boy said, “You was just about to sit on a nail.” Jakey looked down and saw it on the floor, rusted, with its tip pointing skyward.

 

“Thanks.” He kicked the nail across the room and sat again, feeling helpless and malleable. This boy, with pimples and a dusty little body, made Jakey feel nerves he’d never felt. He exhaled cigarette smoke, letting it wash down his lower lip.

 

“Can I have one?” Jakey asked. The boy shook his head.

 

“Come out tonight,” said the boy. “It’s too hot to do nothing now, but new blood is always fun. Come back and we’ll get into something good.” Jakey wanted to tell him about burying Priscilla, but quickly pushed it from his mind. Instead, he agreed that the place was too hot and he should get going. He stood and dusted off his shorts. The boy stopped him, held up his index finger, and pulled a soda out of a cooler. He offered it to Jakey, the can dripping cold onto the floor.

 

                                                  ***

 

Jakey tried to show his grandmother the new pre-paid phone he’d bought her from the gas station. He’d already programmed in his mother’s number.

 

“No, press this here,” he said, showing her how to call. His grandmother had pushed her glasses up to her hairline, and she looked pitiable puzzling out the phone’s buttons and screen. Soon she became tired and snapped at him. He called his mother.

 

“How is she?” his mother asked.

 

“Priscilla’s dead,” Jakey said. He tried to bend his voice to sound like an adult.

 

“Who?”

 

“The dog. I think she’d been dead for a least two whole days. She stank bad and Gramma hadn’t even tried to bury her and—”

 

“What is she doing now?”

 

Jakey peeked around the corner: She had a red lollipop (cherry, he smelled it from here) in her mouth and another in her hand, poised and ready.

 

“Nothing,” he said. “She’s gained a ton of weight. I think I made a friend today.”

 

“Why did she cut the phone off? And how much weight?” His mother’s questions made his head ache—he regretted calling. He turned off the phone without saying goodbye.

 

A little before 10:00 he got up from bed. He’d been looking at an old gossip magazine he found in the bathroom, reading and rereading the same article about movie stars and their unacceptable beach bodies. He wasn’t able to concentrate. Though they’d only been together for a few minutes, he could not stop thinking of the boy. The television in the next room was on. She was asleep again, an open bag of potato chips next to her chair. He got a blanket and draped it over her. Jakey thought of the boy, of his mother, of his grandmother. They all seemed to bounce off one another in his excited mind. He chugged a soda, and the carbonation felt rough against his throat. As he left, he closed the front door with care.

 

                                                  ***

 

 “What are we going to do?” Jakey asked. The boy was lean in a tight black t-shirt and denim shorts.

 

“Whatever we find,” he said. “It’s just you and me.”       

 

They went to the dollar store and the gas station, and burned through one of Jakey’s twenties. They bought chips and drinks. The old guy at the gas station sold them cigarettes, which they lit up while walking back out into the night air.

 

“Are you from here?” Jakey asked. “And I never caught your name.”

 

“Just right down the road past the Garden of Eden billboard,” he answered. “C’mon, I got an idea.”

 

They walked to a new strip mall that was under construction on a low hill in the middle of town. They scrambled up the loose dirt embankment to the wide flat space that would soon be a parking lot. The boy brushed the dirt from his jeans. They found a tire from a dump truck loose on the ground, and the boy pointed at the police station across the street, bathed in yellow light.

 

“Help me push it up,” he said and started lifting the tire. Without hesitating, Jakey rushed to help, squatting next to his new friend. They grunted and struggled until they’d managed to get the thing upright. It was taller than either of them. Jakey swatted at a moth flittering next to his ear. The boy put his shoulder next to its oversized tread. “Ready?” he asked.

 

They pressed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, rocking it back and forth. Jakey liked the crunch of the gravel, the repetition and musicality of it. He felt the boy’s warmth pushing against his side and lost himself for a moment in the broken little song, watching the shadows make impossible shapes in the tread’s deep grooves.

 

They both began a countdown, from three, ticking off numbers with every rock of the tire. When they reached one Jakey screwed up all his strength and they pushed it over the embankment. It rolled, strangely silent, over the sidewalk and road, steering itself toward the police station. They crouched to watch as the tire glided past the lone parked squad car. It crashed into the front doors, shattering the glass. Jakey thought he was going to piss himself. He grabbed the boy and they both fell over the construction debris, concrete pipes and stacks of rebar, laughing and rolling. As they ran their separate ways in the dim light, Jakey thought he saw the boy watching him run out of the corner of his eye.

 

                                                  ***

 

In bed, he masturbated, only a little surprised when the boy showed up in his thoughts. He crept out to wipe himself up and stopped at his snoring grandmother. She was still sleeping in her chair. The television was snowy. He washed his hands and crotch in the small bathroom sink and went back to bed. In the morning he brought in the paper, still high from the night before. His grandmother perused the police blotter. She only read  that and the obituaries.

 

“This whole town is going to hell,” she said. Jakey strained over her shoulder to see. There was a paragraph about the bulldozer tire in the police station parking lot. Jakey felt a swell of pride—he couldn’t wait to see what he would get into tonight.

 

“Whole town,” she reiterated. He bit into the last apple in the house, and she fried up some sausage.

 

“Is there something to do with the Garden of Eden here?” Jakey asked.

 

“If you believe one crazy old preacher, we’re standing in the middle of it.”

 

“Really?”

 

She nodded and said, “He claimed the trees and rivers were the same as what was in the Bible. Made a fuss about it until the day he died.”

 

“Do you believe it?”

 

“What I believe is that no Eden would have anybody from here in it,” she said. “It’s for tourists and fools.” Jakey decided to wait to ask where the billboard was. He’d been daydreaming about surprising the boy at his house. “Call me Jake,” he'd say. He spit out a seed onto the linoleum and watched it tumble across the floor.

 

                                                  ***

 

Jakey had told his grandmother he was going to see the fireworks. He’d scraped up his hands on the tire and felt like they were badges of honor. Dressed in the same clothes as the night before, the boy took Jakey to the same stores and Jakey bought him the same things. Another pack of cigarettes, another bunch of sodas. Jakey was down to his last ten. He looked down at the pack of cigarettes in his hand.

 

“Before you can have these,” he said, “Promise me you’ll buy next time.”

 

“Promise,” the boy said. “Tonight, I’m taking you on the hike.” Jakey looked confused and the boy continued, “The hike is a trail we made, with places we hang out.” The boy held out his hand for the cigarettes.

 

“Who’s we?”

 

“Just some other guys that live around here,” the boy said. Jakey envisioned a few clearings in the woods strewn with beer cans and dirty magazines. The boy looked at Jakey and said, “Just some other guys, that’s all.”

 

“Okay,” Jakey said. He paused and then handed over the cigarettes. They walked into the woods. The trail was tramped down grass and the hangouts were nearly what Jakey had imagined, open spaces and creek beds wrecked with trash, trees gouged with initials and angular hearts. It was like the places he’d seen in the woods near his school, where the juniors and sophomores hung out. They walked and walked, stopping to pee and smoke some more. The boy talked about an older kid he knew that could maybe get them some pot and beer. The woods cleared into neighborhoods and he pointed out all the shit he’d pulled, all the stuff he’d fucked up. Broke that window, he claimed. Toppled that mailbox and stole those plastic flamingoes.

 

“Me and the other guys torched an old barn out that way,” he said, pointing to a dark space in the distance. Jakey mumbled wow, feeling miserable. The night was humid and gassy, and Jakey was tired. He’d begun to grow bored of the boy’s boasting and annoyed at the constant grab at the cigarette pack, the greedy guzzling from their shared soda. He rubbed his eyes, and they stood in front of his grandmother’s trailer. Blindness had led him back to his starting place; Jakey felt like a wandering fool. His mouth was dry. Anticipation made his heart prickle.

 

“What a shithole,” the boy muttered. “She called the cops on us one night after we were shootin' bottle rockets at each other.” He spat. “Said it upset her dog. Figured we would scare her a little.” He cracked his knuckles and began walking toward the trailer. Jakey stopped him. He scarcely knew he was doing it.

 

“You killed Priscilla, didn’t you,” Jakey said. The sting of realization made his eyes water. “Why? How could you do it?”

 

“Who’s Priscilla?” asked the boy, and Jakey pulled him close. Jakey trembled; he’d thrown himself out without protection, no one to save him, no matter how many twenties his mother stuffed in his pocket.

 

“She was a good dog,” Jakey said. His breaths were shallow and were coming fast. The boy’s eyes widened. Jakey arched his fist back, a punch readied. “And she deserved better than that.” The boy grabbed a handful of Jakey’s shirt and began to wrestle and push him back. Jakey leaned in hard, and they kissed. The boy’s lips were chapped and thin and tasted tobacco sweet. Jakey pressed his face into them, dimly aware this was his first kiss and maybe he should push his tongue into the boy’s mouth. Kids at school did that—he’d seen it in the shadowier hallways. He dropped his fist and grabbed the boy’s crotch, missing a breath when he closed his fingers. The zipper poked the soft meat of his hand, just under his thumb. They stayed this way for only a moment, but Jakey would remember it for much longer. He liked to think there was a slight give, that the boy opened his teeth up just a little and allowed their tongues to touch, but it was most likely just a reflex, a surprised reaction. He heard the whistle and crack of fireworks going off. In an instant they were bathed in fifty different colors, voices off in the distance whooping and hollering at the explosions in the sky.

 

Jakey felt the moment the boy jerked his head back. Then, connections: the cheek (right under the eye), the back (kidneys), a few to the arms (no big deal), the nose (the worst, nearly broken). Jakey took a kick to the stomach. Faggot this, faggot that, the boy yelled. Honestly, he looked more hurt and confused than anything, like some trust between them had been breached. Jakey ached, spit some blood onto the ground. He smiled that he had done what he did.

 

“You,” the boy said. He spit. “You motherfucker.” He spit again. He kicked Jakey—Jakey still on the dirt, bloodied and dazed—on the shin. He got in a few more blows until the porch light clicked on. The boy bolted, swearing revenge into the darkness.

 

Jakey heard the heavy shuffle and wheezes of his grandmother. He saw a huge silhouette hovering over him. His eye was swollen and everything was blurred.

 

“Jakey?” she said. Her voice loosed his bravery from its sticking place deep inside him. He let go of it, felt the sharp stitches of pain everywhere on his body, felt his heart had been just a little bit rended, and started to cry.

 

                                                  ***

 

She’d given him half an expired Vicodin, and he slept for twelve hours with no dreams. He cooled his wounds with a bag of frozen peas, covering his blackened eye and tender nose as they walked to a nearby restaurant, a faux-50’s diner. The place was empty, just the two of them and the waitress. Jakey heard the clattering of an unseen cook in the kitchen. His grandmother shifted her weight and made the vinyl seat squeak. Her enormous drooping breasts spilled out onto the Formica table. She looked at her grandson.

 

“I’m sorry your friend and you had a fight,” she said. “But you’ll see things ain’t so bad.”

 

He felt very tired and small. Some kids walked past the windows. They were little kids, six or seven, and their faces were stained red from watermelon. They wore the emptied rinds as helmets as they ran down the sidewalk shrieking. A harried young woman in pigtails chased after them.

 

“What happened to you, Gramma,” Jakey asked.

 

“Me? Nothing. Nothing at all. But, I ain't stupid. I know this is why your momma had you visit.”

 

Jakey nodded. The waitress brought them menus.

 

“I knewed she would. It’s all right, though. Jakey, want to know how your grandpap died?”

 

“No.” The frozen peas crinkled when he talked.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’ll tell you this then: Until the day he died, he never ate more than a handful of pintos and a piece of cornbread for dinner. Jakey, son, how is that a dinner? How is that good enough for the same dinner for forty years?” Jakey shrugged. “Well, had I knowed he was such a miser when it came to the plate, I would have thought twice at ‘I do.’ When he passed on—and God saw that man make no complaint of pain or discomfort, not one—I ate. I could finally eat. At first it was just an extra piece of bread at supper, then more and more. I took an extra helping of beans. I ate boiled peanuts before dinner. Wasn’t too long before I was a regular here. I developed tastes. I wanted things I hadn't known before. And maybe when you look at me, you see a woman blown up and sad. And there might not be a good reason for this—” she looked down at herself, “—being this way, but here it is. It feels good.”

 

Momma would think that was crazy-person talk, Jakey knew, and he tried to think of a lie he’d tell her later, one that would assuage her fears, but he was tired and decided it could wait for the bus ride home. His grandmother called the waitress over, a young blank-looking girl with a neck tattoo. Jakey stared at her from behind his frozen peas while his grandmother ordered two fried chicken plates. The tattoo was a snake coiled around a pitchfork. The waitress walked back to the register, and he watched her large backend sway to the music, some Doobie Brothers song he always heard on the classic rock station in the car.

 

“Oh, my poor boy,” his grandmother said. She reached out and touched his swollen cheek, rubbed the tears from it. Her fingers smelled like Sweetarts.

 

He put his head in his hands and realized he never learned the boy’s name. He would always be the boy. The vinyl shuddered when he shifted his weight—it was nice vinyl, new with soft cushions. A pale blue. The phone he had bought his grandmother buzzed in his pocket, and he heard the door open and the watermelon children ran inside. They were sticky and hyper from the sugar. The woman in pigtails followed them in and asked for the largest table they had. Jakey repeated it under his breath: The boy, the boy. In the commotion, no one heard him. The waitress went to push two smaller tables together at the other end of the diner. He clicked the phone on. His mother's voice, tinny and far removed, repeated, “Hello? Jakey? Where are you?” One child pushed another to the floor. Fresh screams and cries erupted from the group. The woman in pigtails grabbed them both, stuck her face between the two, and threatened to take them back home.

 


 

Read Next: "Child? Dog? Stay? Run?" by Leigh Newman

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Lucas Church's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Carolina Quarterly, Hobart, Palooka, and dislocate. His website is www.lucaschurch.com. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is currently in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.