The day after their father was buried, Gib shot the family dog. He drove it the five miles to the town dump, the oblivious, rheumy-eyed dog enjoying the ride in the truck bed, its ears flared back from wind, its nose attuned to every smell along the way. He lifted it out of the pickup and set it on some stained cardboard, no hesitation, pointed his .22 rifle and fired. The old golden retriever collapsed like a creek bank cave-in.
You sumbitch, Gib said to his father.
He drove back home. He didn’t tell July or his mother what he had done, nor did he join the search after supper. Nobody could ever call him a hypocrite.
He hadn’t attended his father’s wake at Gant’s Funeral Home. At least two illegitimate children of his and their puling mothers might be there. He went to the funeral because his mother had asked him to be a pallbearer. He wore blue jeans, snakeskin cowboy boots, a black pocket tee and a red bandanna tied around his head. He had a tattoo on his left forearm depicting a naked Asian girl with the words, “Whore Chi Minh” under it. The mourners were aghast.
He and July didn’t speak, but the siblings seldom did. Every memory his sister dredged from their childhood, he didn’t remember. His shriveled mother, her silver hair uncombed, her body draped in black—how her mind was draped was her secret; her husband hadn’t spoken to her for months—was too afraid of her son to say anything about proper attire. The relatives walked around him like he was the plague.
After the service, people from the Baptist church—his father had no friends—shook his hand and whispered condolences. One liver-spotted, bent, dotty old man put a yellow golf ball on the dead man’s folded hands. Golf was their dad’s Iliad, July used to say. She read books, the stuck-up bitch. July, dressed in a white cotton granny dress and sandals and a necklace of three strands of beads, a tiara of woven wild violets crowning her limp blonde hair, talked up a storm and kissed and hugged all takers. She had played guitar and sung an out of tune rendition of Both Sides Now after the homily, the minister, having banned secular music, her assuring him she’d sing Amazing Grace, glaring at her. The indifferent Gib chewed three sticks of gum and watched the ceiling beams of the dingy funeral chapel. He spotted a lone pigeon roosting on a beam and hoped it would shit on somebody.
The last man in line, an elderly gentleman using a walker, his head covered by a snowstorm of white hair said, Your old man was a bastard. There, I said it. It is un-Christian to judge, but I—
‘The truth shall set ye free,’ Gib replied. Whut’d he do to you all?
Nothin much—just took my home out from under me a decade ago. The wife died of sorrow within a week of us movin inta the assisted care joint. May all bankers die and go to hell.
Amen, brother, Gib said.
Goddamn President ‘Tricky Dick.’
Gib scratched his elbow where the dog had clawed him. I don’t vote, he said. If it’s any consolation, the bank fired my old man years ago. Knowin him, he probably touched someone’s titty.
Was he a good father?
Good at beatin, insultin, Gib said. Good at screwin other men’s wives.
He left out that his old man had raped his sixteen-year-old niece Danny. She jumped off a bluff of the Mississippi River, landing beside the Great River Road, near Elsah. There was a ten car pileup of horrified spectators who saw a living, naked girl plunge and transform into a liquefied rainbow slush pile on a limestone slab.
A suicide note in an envelope addressed to July had arrived a few days later. She showed it to Gib, who showed it to the old man, who said he did it to teach Danel a life lesson about dressing like a slut, then he threw up, clutched at his chest and dropped dead. Gib pinned July’s arms to her chest so she couldn’t call for help. It wouldn’t have made a difference.
The old man patted his linen suit coat. I got whisky, he whispered conspiratorially. Join me for a snort after the burial?
You got it, man, Gib said. Ask you? Why come to a funeral when you hate the guy?
You know that song line, the old man replied, ‘You cain’t always get what you want?’
You know the Rolling Stones? Gib said, in awe.
My grandson plays that song incessant. Anyways, bein here, I got what I wanted. No offense.
None taken, Gib assured him. And then the song entered his brain and he couldn’t shake it.
You can’t always get what you want.
Just before the other pallbearers walked in, his uncle Noah Jim appeared in the open doorway. He was skeletal and gaunt, fifteen years his brother’s junior, but looking much older. His body was lost in a blue polyester suit, a Stetson hat in his hands, his cue ball head the result of his cancer. July hugged him and took him by the arm, walking him forward to the casket.
I apologize for bein late, Noah Jim said. It’s a miracle I made it—the cancer eatin my insides.
You-all take your time, Gant, the undertaker told him. Are you fam’ly?
I’m the deceased’s brother. Family, I ain’t so sure.
I am sorry for your loss.
Noah Jim sneered. He looked at his niece and nephew. I ain’t lost anythin, he said. Anybody lost anythin?
This remark caught Gant, a scarecrow of an undertaker, off guard. He wobbled at the ankles, like a tree about to be felled. Gib righted him.
Thank you, sir, he said. I’ll just … uh … get the hearse ready. He backed out of the parlor.
You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, July said. Even Daddy—what he was.
July, show Noah Jim the note, Gib told her.
July pulled a folded paper from her purse and handed it to her uncle. He opened it up and read the suicide note. His breathing got heavy and he bit at his lips. His right leg began to twitch uncontrollably.
My brother fucked my kid, his own niece?
We wondered if you all knew, Gib said. His uncle shook his head. We didn’t know if we should call the cops.
No, Noah Jim said. I got the five acres in prime marijuana—early sativa; I don’t want the fuckin sheriff around my place. That crop is—was—Danny’s … college fund. Y’all can have it, you want.
Daddy wouldn’t allow drugs in the house, July said.
Daddy jackass-jack-off is silent partner now, Gib said. I am new man of the house. Noah Jim, I am damn sorry about Danel. If it’s any consolation, the old man dropped dead and shit hisself when he see’d the note.
Him cryin at Danel’s wake like a baby, Noah Jim said. He did it to the wife too. Wasn’t rape—just fun at my expense. That’s why she ain’t come. But what he did to my precious girl …
He was a prick, Gib said.
They could hear the small group of mourners outside and the opening and closing of car doors. Two little boys on bikes stopped on the sidewalk. They walked to the window and peered inside, probably hoping to see a dead body. Gib gave them the finger and evil eye and they rode off.
I need to speak to Gib alone, sweetheart, Noah Jim said to July. Do you mind?
Yes, I mind, July answered.
That’s right, I’m honey. I am something from a hive, sweet and pliant and nescient. The nescient men grimaced at the foreign language. ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’ Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone who? Gib said.
The men want the women out of the room—it’s a Barnes tradition, July replied.
Gib don’t mean it like that, darlin, Noah Jim said.
Yes he does, darlin. I’ll go console Mama.
July walked out through the sliding back doors.
Did we just get cussed out? Noah Jim asked.
She’ll get over it, Gib said.
Your dad was fixin to leave y’all, Noah Jim said. He told me he got some waitress stashed away at the HiWay House. Month before he passed, come to my farm one night, a leather satchel full of somethin on a shoulder, ast to borrow a shovel. I give it him and he walked off into the woods. He come back, no satchel, and said he’d slice my throat I looked or told. Check your ma’s savings statement. I think you’ll figure it out.
It’s yours, Gib said. Restitution for what he did to Danel.
Ain’t no possible price could replace Danel, Noah Jim said. The loot is yourn.
Thanks, Gib said. Don’t tell July—you know.
Ain’t women business, Noah Jim said.
They looked at the body, the thick makeup and rouge of the cold dead face, Noah Jim’s face turning crimson, his callused hairy hands knotting into fists. They looked at each other for a minute, Vietnam vet to Korea vet. They knew about souvenir taking, about warriors pissing on the enemy.
You all want to have at him, be my guest, Gib said. He’s just a piece of property I own now. I don’t know if he can see from hell, but not knowin shouldn’t stop you all. Mutilate the bastard, you want.
Noah Jim reached for the golf ball on his dead brother’s hands, pursed his lips and whistled. A Titleist NXT Tour S Yellow, he said. Shame to waste a good ball like that’n. The cancer sure as hell won’t let me golf.
What you gone do with it?
I aim to shove this up his ass.
I’ll guard the door, Gib said.
He walked to the back of the funeral parlor and locked the sliding doors, hearing a sequence of sounds behind him: the opening of the bottom lid of the casket, the grunts of exertion at undressing a corpse, a rolling thump, a mumble about needing some Kleenex.
Uhhh! Noah Jim exclaimed. Whoa, that flesh is cold. You all want to see my handiwork?
Jesus, the dead weight of him. I need help, Gib. I done turned him back over, don’t worry.
Gib rejoined his uncle and helped hike the old man’s pants up and tuck in the shirt and zip and buckle the white Pat Boone belt and button the maroon sports jacket, then he closed the bottom lid of the casket. The torso looked rumpled so he closed the top lid too. The men stared at each other and put fists to their lips to hold in the explosion then they laughed hysterically
I shoved a golf ball up a dead man’s ass, Noah Jim said. How many can say that? Oh, my dear Danny girl …
He crashed to the floor, the laughter turning to tears for his daughter, and he convulsed and moaned. Gib had never expressed condolences for anything, but he knelt and put a hand to his uncle’s shoulder and it seemed to help.
Gant the undertaker unlocked and opened the doors, the other pallbearers standing behind him. They are gettin nervous out here, gentlemen, Gant said. Is your uncle all right?
I am fine, Noah Jim blubbered. I’ll be a customer you can cut open, month or two—you all can wait. Do not put me in this here parlor. My nephew, here, in charge of arrangements. Do not fuck with him. You got that, death man?
Yessir, Gant said.
Gib pulled his uncle to his feet. The deceased is all yours, he said to the undertaker, looking at his father’s coffin and struggling not to laugh. I done closed the lid for y’all.
The pigeon dove and flew out the doors, excreting a thin stream of white on the faded red carpet and some last drops on the bald head of a hapless man standing in the doorway.
July had driven Gib to the local VFW to watch mostly WWII vets rehearse for his father’s service, the old man having served on a minesweeper in SydneyHarbor. He was there for the free beer but he had to feign interest in the goings-on. Later on, the party drove to a firing range, and on the second volley an old WWI codger’s rifle completely fell apart, breaking his bifocals. Gib pulled his own .45 from the back of his jeans and fired seven shots into the air.
The disgusted men left him to walk the eight miles back to Alton, which suited him just fine. Within ten minutes he hitched a ride from a girl who looked sixteen at best (I’m Cindy; I’m Bob). He had another kind of ride with Cindy within thirty minutes, in the back seat of her maroon Chevy, the car parked up in an empty lot at PereMarquetteState Park, the setting sun over the Illinois River dappling their naked bodies through the leafy treetops.
She insisted on driving him all the way home after that, a wet spot on the seat between her legs, her joking that no birth control had been used and lookit the sperm, that tadpole life leaking out her shorts—hope no baby was on the way; would he do the right thing? He didn’t want her to know where ‘Bob’ lived, so he had her drop him off at a house several blocks away and kissed her goodnight. She playfully rubbed a streak of semen across his cheek as a remembrance and he slapped his open hand over her right ear as a remembrance. He could hear her wail a block away.
July had been Gib’s punching bag since grade school. The old man hit the wife. After the bank job went bust, he worked at the boxboard factory in Alton and built up resentment toward the rich factory owners who lived in fancy bluff homes overlooking the Mississippi, a gated community called Fairmount. He insisted that the family have supper together. He called this practice a sacred ritual. If he dropped a fork, he slapped his wife. If the food was cold, he slapped July and the wife. If the newspaper depressed him—and the newspaper nearly always depressed him, as Woodward and ‘Jewstein’ ruined Dick Nixon’s presidency—he slapped everybody. They ate out at a Rustler’s Steak House once. The old man forgot where he was and slapped the waitress. That cost him eight days in jail and a week’s pay and he stomped into the kitchen back home and broke every dish, letting the kitchen know who was boss.
After supper he would lay with the old dog on the floor, his arms around the beast, his face being licked and slobbered on, him talking baby talk: Willie-Boy, widdow, widdow Willie-Boy. Who woves its daddy, yes it does. July Jo don’t wove me, Gibbie don’t wove me, wifey don’t wove me. Does anybody wove me? Willie-Boy do. Ooh—dog breath and Willie-Boy farted, yes him did.
When Gib was physically big enough that the old man couldn’t hit him anymore, he asked why his dad didn’t marry the dog, fuck the dog, and keep the wife on a leash, let her lick his face and talk baby talk. He was kicked out of the house. He couldn’t have been happier.
He found a cheap apartment up in Hardin and went to work on a barge that plied the Illinois and Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The boatmen took him in as a brother. The inside of the tugboat was papered with photos of naked women; the drinking lamp was lit at four. The crew got shit-faced on Busch beer and ate fried river fish prepared by the captain’s wife and nightly brought whores aboard the boat. They aimed the tug at unsuspecting fishermen in john boats, horselaughing when the victims dove overboard and the boats collapsed like beer cans. They had battles of the barges, playing chicken to see which captain would swerve away. They got wasted on meth and smoked weed. They shot great horned owls from perches along the riverbank. They fought with Bowie knives. The recent high school dropout the crew called ‘Giblet’ was in heaven.
The draft board finally caught up with Giblet and took away his happiness. He rationalized the change as giving him license to kill people. He reported to Fort Leonard Wood and was trained and shipped out in time for the Tet offensive. And he killed slant-eyed people—men, women, kids—oh yes he did, and he shot his corrupt, bully of a colonel who was taking a shit at the time.
When he came home two years later—the old man let him back in—he could not sleep two hours a night, could not be confined in the house. The meth habit probably didn’t help. He pitched a tent in the backyard and slept on an air mattress. What sleep he got was filled with nightmares. He kept seeing his sergeant, his back to the jungle, saying how poorly trained the Gook snipers were, the sergeant’s head exploding onto Gib at that exact moment, the bullet piercing his right cheek, him standing in blood, brains and skull splinters like acupuncture needles, across his face. He would scream until the neighborhood dogs howled, until the cops were called. They were called almost four times a week.
A professor at SIU Edwardsville asked him to speak to his political science class. He showed his four medals for valor and told his stories, leaving out the parts about the children and the colonel. His audience was slack-eyed and wristwatch watching. Vietnam was a swear word; heroism was comic book. He ran out of things to say at the half hour mark and the professor hung him out to dry by keeping quiet. A girl raised her hand and asked if he had seen tigers in the jungle. He gave her a look like he was a tiger and she shrunk down in her seat. Afterward, as he walked out of the classroom, two boys spat mucus on his face. He grabbed their heads and smashed them together, breaking a nose. The campus police arrested the guest speaker.
He wanted revenge. He drove to the most bad-ass bars and beat up the toughest customers in each. A court ordered him to seek counseling at the VA hospital in St. Louis. The therapist, a woman with tortoise shell eyeglasses pushed up on her forehead, chain-smoked cigarettes and consulted a clipboard for questions. She wore mini skirts and Gib focused on her underwear choices. She told him that his rage was understandable—Vietnam was the most unpopular war in history. He said a good lay was all he needed; if she wanted to cure him, fuck him, but not today because he could see she was on the rag. She handed him over to a male therapist with a tremor in his arms and a voice like a girl’s. He answered every one of the man’s questions with the word ‘boo.’ He failed to show up for his second appointment.
The dog search ended at ten-thirty. Gib sat on the front porch swing, a bottle of Stag beer in hand, rubbing the cool bottle across his forehead, watching the swooping night hawks and the fire flies, listening to the furious calls of barred owls and the shrill wing scrapes of cicadas, when July and Mama, covered in mosquito bites and sweating from the dense humidity, came back home. They would distribute flyers in the morning.
No luck? Gib’s smile was invisible in the darkness.
Thanks for your help, his mother said deadvoiced as she and July walked into the house.
Dog spelled backwards is god, Gib mumbled to himself. Huh. Dog bless you.
The lights in the house went off bottom to top. The front screen door opened and July, clad in an extra large tee shirt, came out and sat on the steps.
Do you care about anything, Gib?
Let me think—no.
Not even Mama?
Especially not Mama. We wouldn’t be born, they hadn’t met. I would have liked to stay in that unborn place.
What is that like?
That pretty much describes you now, Gib. Vietnam did a number on you.
Here’s a number for you—number of guys you fucked at the high school while I was fighting for your freedom, Gib said. Listen up, hippie girl. I inherit the house. No college money for you. Get you a job at the glass plant in Alton so you can pay me some rent. This ain’t no commune.
I’ll pay my own way to college, July said. I’ll move in with my boyfriend. Don’t ask his name; you’ll never meet him.
Like I want to meet him. You’re making me all sad, July.
Tree frogs and crickets played night music. The plaintive wail of the Chicago-bound train from St. Louis sounded faintly, nearing the Alton stop.
Wish I was on it, they said together, Gib angry that he had a shared vision with his sister, knowing July would hope this was a sign of truce.
I don’t understand why Willie-Boy would run off like that, July said. He loves us so. Do you think he knows Dad is dead and is mourning?
Gib took a swig of Stag. Humans mourn, he slurred. Dogs don’t mourn, don’t dream, don’t know they’re goin to die. And they don’t love us; they just wait for the aliens to fill the food dish. He’s-he’ssss out searchin for some bitch in heat.
You are drunk and disgusting, July told him.
Dog bless you.
Dogs have souls.
Then they got somethin we don’t have, her brother replied.
At sunrise the next morning, Gib, who had taken down the tent and moved back into the house, began to stir in his bed, upturning an empty Jim Beam bottle and his flurazepam supply. He heard something over the noise of the bottle rolling onto the wooden floor. He thought it was the damn robins’ plaintive chirps. He heard July’s bedroom door open and close and her bare feet descending the stairs. He heard her scream. Then his mother came out of her downstairs bedroom and began to moan and wail.
I am tryin to sleep up here, he yelled, fondling his erection. Shut your female mouths and make me breakfast.
But the keening below only escalated. His phallus surrendered so he hitched up his boxers, scratched his thick black hair and beard and rolled out of bed. He opened the bedroom door, squinting at the early light and feeling his way toward the stairs. His mother and July were at the front door, fixated on something outside.
He descended and pushed them apart to get to the door. He looked out.
Willie-Boy, shot to hell, had crawled its way back home and lay on the sidewalk, panting.
July ran outside. She sobbed and wrapped the dog’s shivering body into her arms, the animal flinching and wailing in pain.
They shot Willie-Boy, their mother said. What monster would do that? Probably them coloreds moved in down the street.
Gib knew what monster. He knew the myth of innocence, about suffering, the nature of Man, Nature and that all beauty was death. Memory suddenly burst in him like spring flowers, and he shrieked from the overwhelming pain. His life fast forwarded like a runaway 16 millimeter film spool, ending at a wet spot on a girl’s car seat—his seed. He beat his head with his fists to stop the movie.
He walked outside and knelt before the dog from his childhood. His cry was that of a primeval creature as he smelled the blood of the dog, placed his hands in the blood, winced at the bloody paw rust and matted fur laced with straw chaff and dirt and melted tar and shit, the rut of flies and the race of maggots. His grief was a thunderstorm from the maelstrom of his brain, and tears spouted from eyes, from ears, from nose, from skin as though his head was a pluvial flood of sour sweat, of saltwater, of jungle swamp, of a triad of rivers, of viscous winter fog. He recalled the beaten down boy he had been, a baby boy named Gibson by his father, homage to the great and fierce St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, Bob Gibson, a warrior of a black man, the irony lost on the old man who hated black men, hated mankind, cheered when JFK was assassinated, attended a Klan party when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
July took his hand. He let her do it; he interlocked fingers with hers. He could not hear her. He realized he was deaf, shaking his head to clear the silence, watching his sister’s lips mouth, I love you, words he had never heard much less seen, seeing his mother waving a fist and mouthing, Niggers!
Black and white neighbors emerged from their homes and gathered, shaking their heads at the scene. One lone black boy, shoeless and shirtless, laughed and whirled in a frenetic dance, singing a song of silence, pointing at the blood-smeared white man and the suffering dog then backing off when older men intervened.
He collapsed on his dog, cleansing its blood with his tears.
Willie-Boy licked his face.