Mama Was a Breeder, and I Was Born a Son of a Bitch  |  Schuler Benson















             



ALL Y’ALL SUNUVABITCHES wanna mean dog. A killer. But don’t none of ya wanna get bit.
             When ya sit down ’n go ta talk about a man, how he lived ’n died, there’s gon’ be shit gets lost, caught up. Cain’t catch all of it. Don’t know Halfacre was always a bad man, a evil man, what have ya. Mighta died that way, but, hey … wudn’t no dogs born mean neither. Ain’t no dog born a killer. This’s as much about Halfacre’s lil girl as it is about Halfacre, but first, y’know, I tell ya. He wudn’t always like’ee ended up, I don’t reckon. That lil girl, though, I cain’t say. Well, I guess I’ll say again, ain’t no dog born mean.
             First time I met Halfacre, we was younger. His daddy was the kind always lookin’ fer the next big thang, y’know? Not like a get-rich-quick-type thang, but them change-the-world type thangs. We was green, ’n I was workin’ my first job, cleanin’ up guts at a processin’ shed. Deer mostly. Sumbitch hauled in a five-foot catfish one time, shitchu not. I didn’t care none. Guts is guts. I ’member Halfacre cuz first time I met ’im ’n his daddy was first time I ever did nothin’ ’round that shop other’n mop up innards. One uh Halfacre’s daddy’s next big thangs was emus. Yeah, them birds. The emus. S’posed ta be good eatin’, all that, but Halfacre’s daddy wanted a dynasty uh goddamn emus, I s’pose, cuz one day the ole man took Halfacre out ta the stretch where he kep’ ’em, ’n he says ta Halfacre, he says, “Son. One day all these emus’re gon’ be yours.” Way I heard was Halfacre says back, “I don’ want these goddamn emus.” So they end up killin’ thirty, forty-some-odd head uh emus, showed up at our place ta get ’em set up fer cookin’. Ole McHenry run the shop said he didn’t know thang one ’bout cleanin’ a emu. Gave a holler to a ole colored lady him ’n his buddies useta pay ta clean ducks they killt. Long story short, first day I met Halfacre, me ’n him was ridin’ top a johnboat trailer fillt up with dead emus, goin’ one end uh town ta th’other. We wudn’t friends er nothin’. But he knew who I was. And I knew who he was. Didn’t know I’d end up workin’ for ’im, ’course, but I did. And more. Worked for ’im, took care of ’im when he needed, ’n he kep a roof over my head more’n once. Guess he ended up with his daddy’s, uh, onter-panoorial spirit, y’know? Public bidness ’n not-so-public bidness alike.
             ’Fore he got all his ducks in a row with the scrapyard ’n them couple other legal thangs he had coverin’ up fer the gun-runnin’ ’n the dope cookin’, that sumbitch couldn’t put a bottle down fer the life of ’im. I ’member, cuz it was more’n once I hadda haul his ass out The Blue Lady, Crabapple, goddamn parkin’ lots, ever’where else. Sumbitch get mean when he was in it. Sumbitch drink ’imself cross-eyed on damn ole corn shine, what have ya, ’n ya’d know it was ’bout ta get bad when he’d start that pointin’ shit. Sumbitch look up atcha, crossed eyes rollin’ around like they was fightin’ fer which one was gon’ stare a hole in ya, ’n then Halfacre’d stick that ole crooked finger out in yer direction, ’n it always start the same ever’ damn time. He’d say:
             “’N then there’s this motherrrr fuckerrrr right here …”
             After that, he commence layin’ in, now, sayin’ summuh the most off-color shit he could think up ta say to a person. Name-callin’, shit-talkin’ yer mama, all the reg’lar shit, but then that other, deeper shit that get ta cuttin’ in yer guts ’n bones, curdlin’ down where shit a man says can seep in ’n fester. That shit caught ’im a whooped ass more’n a couple times when he was outta town, but never from me. I fought that drink just as hard, ’n I know what liquor’ll get a man sayin’. In that regard, Halfacre was my cross ta bear, ’n that sumbitch was heavy as hell ’n had splinters stickin’ off ever’ which-a-way. But that was then.
             Halfacre gimme charge uh the yard ’round ’Ninety-Two. The county done set up that recyclin’ bullshit ’cross the creek, had a bona-fide car-crusher, with that damn magnet thang, whole kitchen sink, so ole Halfacre figgered the scrapyard’s days was numbered ’n started sinkin’ more money elsewheres. While he was seein’ ta what he called his “developin’ properties”—them houses down ’round Bossier where he had his boys cookin’ dope—he gimme the yard ta run. I’d done been with ’im a long time by then, ’n he knew I kep my eyes front, ’n he knew I’d do it fer peanuts. Cheap sumbitch, I’ll say that. Sumbitch shit fire ta save a match.
             Now I don’t know the back-n-forth on Halfacre’s goin’s on with whoever his boys down in Bossier dealt with, but far’s I could tell, it all run smooth enough cuz Halfacre’d come back up ta town ’n stick around the yard a few days. Put a dent in my action when he was around, as I’d give myself first ups on whatever come through that was worth more’n we’d pay whoever brought it in. Copper mostly. Salvage’ble car parts. If it was big work, I’d call out two, three dopefiends I’d use on the side ta get ta takin’ shit apart ’n cartin’ it off. Ain’t a man alive can strip cash scrap off a car faster’n a man on that needle. ’Course I’d have ta keep it roped in when Halfacre was in town. Took me a long time ’fore I was willin’ ta skim nothin’ off ’im. Other’n the first time I did, anyway. Tell ya real quick.
             Way back, ’fore I dried out, I’d mop up a couple nights a week at Halfacre’s bar. He kep a row uh well bottles ’neath the drafts, ’n I’d get in the bourbon while he, er whoever else, be in the back room countin’ up. Swapped it with water. Filled it right back up ta the line. One night, I get done moppin’, he come out early, wander back behind the bar, tell me siddown, asks me what I’m drankin’. I tell ’im bourbon, ’n he pulls out one uh them well bottles I been nippin’ on fer weeks, sets it next to a glass in front uh me, fills ’er up. I reach fer that glass; he grabs it first, pulls it up to ’is face. Holds it ta the light above the pool table. Says he looks in the liquor sometimes. Holds it ta the light ’n looks into it, like a mirror. Says it shows ’im the future, if he can see through it. Sticks the glass in frunnah me, ’n in that light I see water mix with amber, swirlin’ snakes uh broke, curved brightness, like a mirage er leaked gas in a street puddle. Water ’n liquor. Bullshit ’n the real deal fightin’ fer real estate in a tight spot. That’s when he says ta me, he says, “Cain’t see through muddy water,” ’n broke that goddamn glass across my scalp. I say this cuz after he gimme that beatin’ ’n I didn’t take off, he knew he had me, y’know? So he started givin’ me more ta do. That night with the glass’s when Halfacre figgered he broke me. He broke all of us worked for ’im ’n knew enough about what crooked shit he was into. Once I started at the yard, that’s where I seen how he broke his boys, ’n eventually that lil girl.
             When I tell ya ’bout Halfacre’s boys down ’round Bossier, I mean his boys. Sumbitch had four of ’em ’tween two differnt ole girls. He was a blood-is-bond fella, y’know? Rather have sons handlin’ his bidness when he could. Seen too many fellas get in a tight ’n run talkin’ ta the laws. Halfacre wanted his boys hard as cement ’n stuck to ’im the same. How he did it was the same ever’ time. When each uh them boys was ’round nine, ten, Halfacre’d bring ’em ta the scrapyard around evenin’, take ’em back ta the twel-buh-twelve chain-link kennel where them yard dogs stayed durin’ bidness hours. He’d get close ’n go ta pokin’ at ’em with this broke-off mop handle. Jabbin’ through the chain link like shootin’ cues on felt, like stokin’ a fire burnin’ on the body of a man he hated. Get them dogs riled up, madder’n hell. Soon as he’d got ’em ready ta tear ’im in half, Halfacre’d drop the mop handle. He’d take whichever boy he brought by the shoulders ’n he’d say in the boy’s ear, he’d say:
             “Every sumbitch in this world wanna bad dog, but don’t none of ’em wanna get bit. Between you and ever’thang worth takin’ is a dog’ll lay you open fer just lookin’ his way. A killer. So how you gon’ get by a killer?”
             Then, he’d kneel down between the kid ’n the pen, and he’d put a butcher paper pack uh bloody deer sausage on the gravel, and he’d put a ole pistol next to it. Pistol had one bullet. Meat was fulla poison. ’Fore they even got there, them boys knew they was gon’ hafta take a life. Halfacre didn’t give ’em no choice ’bout that. But he let ’em decide how they was gon’ do it. I seen ’im do this shit with all four boys. All four of ’em picked up that pistol first, then set it down ’n threw the meat over the fence. Then they’d sit ’n wait. Time come that ole dog finally keel over, Halfacre’d open the pen, make ’em drag the carcass out ’n bury it out in the back forty. Hell of a thang. Them boys come up stuckit their daddy like glue after that. The lil girl didn’t come til way later, til all them boys was already growed ’n doin’ Halfacre’s dirty work elsewheres.
             His oldest was early twenties, I s’pose, when Halfacre’s daughter come along. Her mama named ’er Juliet, but she didn’t go by it not a day in ’er life. She was a lil girl with brothers, I’ll say that, ’n you could tell. She was buckshot. Lil barnburner like ’er oldest brother’d call ’er. Them boys got ’er, y’know? Halfacre … Halfacre didn’t really know nothin’ ’bout how ta raise a lil girl, I s’pose. It was like them two never spoke as a daddy ’n a lil girl. More like for’ners don’t speak each other’s language, feelin’ each other out ’n not makin’ no sense. Mighta been where he went wrong with ’er. Coulda been somethin’ else. I don’t know; I wudn’t there fer all of it. But I was there when he brought ’er ta the yard ta break ’er like he did them boys.
             Even though the dogs was differnt dogs ’n the years was differnt years, it was like them dogs had a way uh learnin’ from the ones came before ’em. Evenin’ Halfacre brought that lil girl ta the yard, they hit that pen fence like they was mad at it soon as he come in sight. Some reason, I couldn’t figger he was gon’ do her like he done his boys. I didn’t know what ta make of ’er bein’ there. Them dogs sure didn’t care. Halfacre get close ’n go ta pokin’ at ’em with that mop handle somethin’ terrible. Them dogs was in it, now, done took off on one. Barkin’, snarlin’ like a sumbitch, hittin’ that chain link over ’n over. Bad dreams. Coupl’a goddamn monsters. Lil girl wudn’t cryin’, nothin’, just had ’er head cocked down, lookin’ through that fence, little hands pent up in fists ’n I could see ’em just a’shakin’ like she was trynna keep from catchin’ on fire from the inside. Halfacre slid a hand down in his blue jeans hammer pouch, pullt out a butcher paper bundle, still bleedin’ on the corners. He set it on the gravel at his lil girl’s feet, then stuck a hand in the other back pocket ’n pullt out a revolver. Somethin’ snub-nosed, blued. Smaller’n the mag he’d done used with them boys. He flipped open the chamber, wagged the gun in his hand, feelin’ its heft, then snapped it shut ’n laid it on the ground nexta the raw meat.
             Even over all them damn dogs’ racket, I could hear ’im talkin’ low, like it was secrets, poison pourin’ in that lil girl’s ear in a scratched-up half-whisper:
             “Every sumbitch in this world wanna bad dog, but don’t none of ’em wanna get bit. Between you and ever’thang worth takin’ is a dog’ll lay you open fer just lookin’ his way. Goddamn killer. How you gon’ get by a killer?”
             This’s what Halfacre give his kids. My mama never gimme nothin’, ’cept ta gimme up. I’s told she passed not too long after they pullt me from ’er, ’n she lit out fer god-knows-where, light one kid she didn’ want ’n ready fer the world. Found out a couple years ago I got a brother lives in one uh them shit towns in the delta. Eudora, somewhere. Ain’t that far. He been there all this time; I been here, neither of us none the wiser. I don’t know ’im, but I know ’im, ya know? He’s a lush. He got buckeyes under the skin in his knuckles from a life spent haulin’ a better man’s rope. Mama didn’t give him er me no part of ’er was the part’d pick up ’n go ’n move on, ready fer the world. Cain’t never say what’s gon’ get passed down ’n what ain’t. Halfacre was the kinda man ta pull a trigger, but not a damn one uh his boys was. Not when they was kids, at least. I ’magine that’s what he was ’spectin’ when he brought ’er downna the yard ta break ’er. She bent over, picked up that pistol, set it back down, just like ’er brothers. But then, she picked it up again, lil hands just a’shakin’. Swung it around at ole Halfacre’s guts ’n took a big step back.
             He says, “Now who you think you are, pointin’ that at me?”
             First time I ever heard ’er talk. She says, “A goddamn killer.”


♥ End ♥




Schuler Benson’s fiction and poetry have been featured in Kudzu Review, Hobart, The Fat City Review, and elsewhere. His first book, a collection of short fiction titled The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide, is forthcoming from Alternating Current, summer 2014. He currently resides in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he is wrapping up a ten-year bachelor’s degree in creative writing. [Author photo by and © Celeste Zendler. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Grading Bad  |  Jon Sindell















             



SHE WAS THE INCORRUPTIBLE, so named by a senior during the most grueling AP World semester ever.
             “Just one night off, Ms. L,” whined star student Jasmine, comically sliding halfway to the floor.
             “Did Napoleon take a night off before Austerlitz? Did Metternich take a night off when orchestrating The Final Act of the Congress of—?” Brilliant eyes gleamed as if to say, It’s a gimme.
             “Vienna!” sang the choir, and Ms. Lollar air-marked one point.
             “You expected a night off,” grinned quipster Dave, “from The Incorruptible?”
             “Which epithet refers to whom?” asked the imperturbable teacher, scanning the class with her luminous gaze. None dared dip his eyes, for doing so would ensure being called on.
             “Robespierre,” said Maria, a shy girl with an emergent smile.
             “Naturellement. And incidentally”—Ms. Lollar’s eyes noted the change of the hour from World History to English Lit time—“why do I say ‘refers to whom,’ and not who? Brandon?”
             Brandon’s eyes were on the teacher, but his grammar brain was elsewhere. Pronoun usage could not compete with The Gleeful Grammarian’s tight gray business skirt, crimson sweater, shining blond hair pulled into a tight bun, full lips painted red and poised to curl up into a generous smile or down into a disappointed little frown, or the geeky black specs—understood as an affectation meant to make the teacher less intimidating.
             “Brandon? Are you there?”
             The entire class would have understood Brandon’s vacuity, even if his cheeks hadn’t turned chili-red, for all of the boys had giggled in the first week of school when one boy floated a trial balloon about Ms. Lollar and “cougars.” The two-time Santa Fe Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year had ignored the thrust of the uncouth remark, had forgiven the boys for considering her cougar-aged when she was just thirty, and had immediately started a lively discussion ranging from the psychological significance of the age-thirty milestone to an examination of intergenerational romance in literature to a survey of historical norms that accepted the pursuit of younger women by older men, but not the reverse. The girls, for their part, readily forgave Ms. Lollar for her allure, not only because they revered her, but also because they knew in their hearts that she would never encourage even the cutest boy in the class to pursue her.
             “Whom is for objects,” said that cutest boy, a defensive back. “Who is for subjects.”
             “And you, Mr. Castillo, have just won a Lollar Pop. Chocolate with jalapeño.”
             “Thank you, Ms. Lollar.”
             The Incorruptible was incorruptible in every way that a teacher could be. Whiny pleas for grading on a curve were deflected with aplomb: “Would you want your dentist or airline pilot to be graded on a curve?” Requests for extra credit were chuckled away as the puerile residue of the middle-school mind. Nor was Ms. Lollar susceptible to the suave importuning of a Canyon Road art gallery owner that his son’s grade be rounded up, a plea oiled with hints of an extraordinary discount on a Ghost Ranch landscape. On reflection, the doting dad grandly stated, the blemish giving rise to the discount really ought to preclude any charge at all. In reply, Ms. L strode briskly to her office door and stood erect against the jamb. “The lease on my apartment prohibits nail holes, but I shall be certain to visit Ghost Ranch soon. Perhaps I’ll take pictures.” The gallery owner correctly perceived a cordial invitation never to return.
             The Incorruptible was just that.
             Until Mittens got sick.
             It was December and chilly, and Mittens had been caught in a draft. The result: a listless eye and a ghastly wheeze that to Ms. Lollar’s ear sounded like death throes. Covering poor Mittens with a soft cloth and setting her beneath a heat lamp affected no cure. Administering chicken soup and warm milk with an eyedropper did not help. Murmured endearments and cradling arms failed to restore Mittens’ health, nor did eschewing unsettling nighttime entertainments such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men in favor of New Mexican Desert, an ambient blend of coyote howls and Native American flute. A mail-order antibiotic merely reduced the teacher’s cash to near-nothing, and an expensive prescription from the veterinary clinic finished the job. A vet specialist was needed, but no money was at hand for the fee.
             Then, Ms. L recalled Jason. The Homework Help Guy. Jason Beene, a slacking former student who had driven her crazy because he was bright but obstinately resistant to her efforts to reform him. It was Jason who had recently been fingered by a D student as the source of two ghostwritten B papers in another teacher’s class. The principal had alerted the faculty to be on guard for fraudulent essays, but Ms. L had paid the matter no mind because she trusted her students completely.
             After dismissing the cast of Macbeth following a spirited evening rehearsal, Ms. Lollar recovered Jason’s phone number from a file in the vacant counseling office. “Jason,” she said in an authoritative hush.
             “Ms. L!” Even four years later, even on the phone, Ms. Lollar’s voice produced tremors. “I’m in school, Ms. L! Really! I mean, I took some classes at Community. But I’m learning! I’m—”
             “Jason. Please. I need to see you.” Ms. Lollar set KFC for the meeting because it was the last place a teacher who taught Fast Food Nation with a vengeance was apt to be seen by anyone she knew. “Jason,” she murmured with a cool look around, “I know all about your ghostwriting service.”
             “That’s poor diction, Ms. L. That’s a—euphemism, you know? Calling it a service. It’s a scam, man. But I’ve quit it. Honest!”
             “Jason.” She set her womanly hand on his, and he trembled.
             “All right,” he said helplessly. “Just say what you want, and I’ll do it, Ms. L.”
             “I want,” said Ms. Lollar in the way a different kind of woman might prepare to extract massive concessions from a rich, lovestruck suitor, “perfect grammar and impeccable diction. I want MLA style correctly applied. I want cogent essays with thoughtful theses supported by airtight logic and illustrated with pertinent examples. I want a personal and provocative viewpoint. And for the love of God, dude, if you can’t spell a word”—Ms. Lollar peered at Jason with eyes that radiated intelligence, wit, and authority—“use a spell checker!”
             Jason stared back like a babe at his mom: trusting, mystified, and completely in love.
             Within a few days, da kine hit the street, and the legend of the purest essays ever seen in the Southwest spread through the schools like wildfire through the dry summer pines.
             “All right, Ms. L!” grinned Jason, raising a fistful of ones and fives. “One more essay and I get my Halo map pack and two new controllers!” He swiveled on his rusty computer chair eager to enter the print command, for a customer waiting at the drop spot in the plaza had to leave soon to walk the dog.
             “And what do you call this?” gasped Ms. Lollar, staring at Jason’s laptop and wrinkling her nose at more than the putrescence emanating from Jason’s kitchen sink. “‘Though only six,’” she read, “‘Atticus speaks to Scout in a candid and respectful manner.’”
             “What do I call it, Ms. L? I call it a good essay; that’s what I call it. A strong B, at least.”
             The teacher affected the look of horror that her ex-student remembered too well. “I call it a misplaced modifier, Jason. Unless you think Atticus Finch is just six.”
             “Aw, Ms. L—”
             “Aw is for awful. Now listen, paisan. The only reason this essay mill has gone from thirty dollars a week to one hundred ten and rising is the purity of our product. Which means you cook clean, or you don’t cook at all. Is that clear?”
             “Yes, Ms. Lollar.”
             “Don’t mumble.”
             “Yes, Ms. Lollar!”
             “Good. Now, clean up this rhetorical mess before you hit the street, and I don’t want to see one dangling participle, one instance of awkward syntax, or one punctuation mark out of place. And for God’s sake, man—clean up your apartment.”
             Two days later, Mittens saw the specialist, though the veterinary bill and the cost of a rental car for the trip to Albuquerque consumed most of Miss Lollar’s share of the booty. Back in Santa Fe, Mittens recovered, and the elated Ms. Lollar celebrated with a cup of chocolate elixir at Kakawa. It would not be the last, for the team’s take soon reached two- to three-hundred dollars per week.
             There was a scare, though, when a rival essay mill run by two high school seniors warned Jason that any further encroachments on their turf would result in his bike being crushed like a piñon. They knew not what they had done. For Ms. Lollar took an essay that a disgruntled customer of the rival mill had shown to Jason and marked it up in gory red ink with dozens of comments flagging the grammatical errors, structural flaws, and faulty logic that made it a ghastly exemplar of the ghostwriter’s art. Copies of the devastating document were circulated throughout the underground “grade culture” of the three high schools of Santa Fe Public and all of the privates. Suddenly, the whole turf was theirs.
             The celebration of Ms. Lollar’s victory took place shortly after school ended, in a basket suspended from a rainbow balloon over Albuquerque. Prudence dictated that Jason not be invited, but seven new grads soared over the desert at Ms. Lollar’s expense and smiled with the satisfaction of possessing cool arcane knowledge when Ms. L reviewed last fall’s lecture on the French fascination with manned balloon flight during the latter days of the Scientific Revolution. And when the pilot poured champagne for Ms. Lollar and mineral water for the grads for a post-landing toast, and asked the group in a rhetorical tone why balloons are always supplied with a bottle of champagne, each student knew that the custom had originated with King Louis, who supplied his balloonists with the king’s own vintage to mollify any such peasants as might be disturbed by the landing of balloons in their fields.
             “You’ve got quite a teacher,” the ruddy pilot marveled. “The only thing I don’t get is how a teacher can afford a balloon ride for eight.”
             Ms. Lollar lowered her eyes demurely, and for a moment her features grew dark as she contemplated how little cash remained.
             There did remain enough, however, for a point-and-shoot camera and a car-share membership that allowed her to make the long drive to Ghost Ranch. There, the woman just crowned Santa Fe Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for the third time, marveled at the red rock cliffs that had enchanted O’Keeffe, and framed a picture with Mittens in the foreground. Would Mittens flee? Hardly. Though the desert was her natural home, the iguana loved her owner, who gazed back at her with commensurate love, and asked herself for one uncomfortable moment whether the reptilian gaze directed at her wasn’t just a little akin to that which she saw in the mirror these days.


♥ End ♥




Jon Sindell’s short fiction has appeared in several dozen publications, among them Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, Connotation Press, MadHat Lit, New South, Mojave River Review, The Good Men Project, Prick of the Spindle, and Weave. A human, he earns his bread as a humanities tutor and professional writing coach. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco and practiced law once’t. This story first appeared in a shorter version in Hobart. [Author photo by and © Christopher Novak.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.