|The Ballad of Duane
Ned uses dynamite to fish with. They come swirling to the top, stunned and stupid. You lean over the rail of Ned’s expensive boat and scoop them. You drink his beer and smoke his grass. Stay out all night and lie to your wife. Sometimes Ned brings girls, and we know from experience that the moon on the water and the icy Corona from Ned’s live wells and the right Jimmy Buffett song on the CD make Ned’s girls drip like sponges. You can crawl inside these soft wet girls that Ned finds and sleep there all night. They’re intelligent, Ned’s girls. They read novels. They’re real estate brokers or paralegals or college students.
Where does Ned find these girls?
He’s rich. They find him.
I’ve done the boat thing with Ned like four times, but I’m not rich. In fact I’m poor. I don’t shave but I do drink too much and sometimes in the evening I throw moldy fruit through the windows of the house Ned lets me rent, one-fifty a month, though I can’t remember the last time I paid. Ned understands. He buys Playboy magazines and looks through them once, then gives them to me. That’s what it’s like to be rich.
Here’s what it’s like to be poor. Your wife leaves you because you can’t find a job because there aren’t any jobs to find. You empty the jar of pennies on the mantel to buy cigarettes. You hate to answer the phone; it can’t possibly be good news. When your friends invite you out, you don’t go. After a while, they stop inviting. You owe them money, and sometimes they ask for it. You tell them you’ll see what you can scrape up.
Which is this: nothing.
If you’re wondering what somebody like Ned’s doing with somebody like me, it’s because he’s my little brother. I married for love, Ned married for money. Now he pays my light bill; it’s in his wife Nina’s name. Ned’ll come by on Thanksgiving or Christmas day with a case of beer, and he leaves what we don’t finish, maybe two cans. He rents movies which we watch on a TV/VCR unit from his real estate office.
In the divorce my ex got everything. Even kept her composure-no crying in front of the judge for her. That was somebody else’s department. Thank God there weren’t any kids: that’s what Ned said. I came home from fishing one morning and she was gone, the damn house empty. I called Ned from a gas station because she’d taken our telephones.
“Bitch ripped off everything except the mallards and the deer heads,” I said.
“Well,” Ned said, “buck up, big bro. Some people don’t have that much.”
So what Ned does now is find me these jobs. I cut the grass around some of his rental houses, rake the dead leaves, use the Weed Whacker. I wash his Porsche twice a week when the pollen’s thick, and this one time he even let me drive it to get it tuned. In the rearview mirror, I looked like Ned. But it was my eyebrow poking up over his sunglasses and it was me smoking his cigars from the dash pocket and shifting without using the clutch. It was me, Duane, cruising past the downtown hookers standing in their heels to see if there was something in my price range.
Another time Ned let me clean out the attic of a foreclosure, he said keep anything I wanted. Here’s what I took: three shotguns, two graphite fishing rods, a tent, a rocking horse, a road atlas, an ice chest, a coin collection, a Styrofoam boulder from one of Nina’s plays. When Ned asked if I found anything worth keeping I went, “Not really.” I used the coin collection to buy TV dinners and pawned the rest, except for one of the shotguns, a nice Ithaca twelve-gauge pump.
It’s been a year since Debra left and I’m still in the gettingover-it stage. I’m drunk every day; that helps. With the TV Ned left I discovered My Three Sons and soap operas and PBS. At night I sit and watch. There was this show called Animals Are Beautiful People. It was funny as hell. This baboon in the middle of a field picks up a rock looking for something to eat and there’s a snake coiled there. The baboon screams, then faints dead away. When he wakes a few minutes later, he picks up the same rock, and there’s the snake and whammo, the goddamn baboon faints again.
One night Ned calls. “Hey, big bro, Nina wants to sell the house.”
He means the one I’m living in. Holding the remote, the TV muted, I look around.
“But hey, don’t panic,” Ned says. “The price she wants, they’ll never move it. You’ll just have this for-sale sign in your yard.
“But you might need to cut that grass once in a while,” he says. “You can borrow our lawn mower. “Another thing,” he says. “We’re going to the Bahamas for a couple weeks. Will you check up on our place while we’re gone? Just drive by a few times, make sure it hasn’t burned down.
“There’s some cats there, too,” he says. “All those damn strays Nina feeds? Won’t get ‘em fixed either. Says, listen to this, that it interrupts the natural goddamn flow of everything.
“Make you a deal,” Ned says. “If all those cats are gone when we get back, I’ll pay the responsible party two hundred bucks. All on the Q- T, though. Nina would freak.”
On the morning they’re leaving for the Bahamas, I’m sleeping on the porch: it’s too hot inside, and the flies.
Ned kicks a beer can. “Hey, bro,” he says.
I sit up, blink, see dried vomit on my pants. Brush at the ants working in it.
Ned tosses me a small brown paper bag. “This might come in handy,” he says, and winks.
The bag’s heavy, like a pint.
Ned squats and socks me in the arm. “We’ll have to go fishing when I get back, huh?” He stands up, goes past the for-sale sign. Screeches off in the Porsche.
I open the bag to find a small silver pistol and two plastic boxes of twenty-two cartridges.
Ned and Nina have been gone for a week when I decide it’s time to head on over there. I sit up in bed at four in the afternoon and blink at the calendar girl. Finish the beer on the nightstand. The pistol will never work on cats-they’ll probably zigzag all over the place and my aim’s not that good-so I dig in the closet and find the Ithaca and a box of shells-number eights, birdshot-and go outside, load the stuff into the backseat. I get in front with the pistol, not relishing the idea of all that shooting with my hangover.
There’s a line of big black ants, some carrying white things over their heads, going across the dash of the car. Not to mention the water standing in the back floorboard, hatching all these mosquitoes. I put the car in gear and drive to Ned and Nina’s big spread in the woods. The magnolia trees and the million-yearold oaks and the Spanish moss. All so damn depressing.
Their lawn’s high; Ned’ll probably ask me to mow it. I get out slapping at mosquitoes, and four or five cats eye me from the lawn furniture. One yawning from the limb of a tree. There’s a sprinkler that I turn on: it makes a ticking sound that alarms the cats. The pistol is snug in my pocket and I take it out, load it. Point it at a fat calico.
“Bang,” I say.
I have the house key I copied off Ned’s key ring the day he let me take the Porsche. Nina, you can bet, won’t like me being inside. I go up the steps, winded at the top, and let myself into the den and sit on the sofa and rest. Rustic as hell. I leaf through a magazine. Try to remember the kind of wood they use to make these big ceiling beams. I get up and wander to the kitchen and take a Heineken from the fridge, put the rest of the six-pack under my arm and start rummaging through the pantry. There’s several cans of sardines and tuna that I pocket. Then I notice something else: Ned’s Porsche keys hanging on a rack over the sink.
Outside, I open the cans and imitate Nina’s squeaky, cute voice: “Here, kitty kitty kitty.”
Soon the clueless cats are feasting and purring at my feet, rubbing their shoulders against my ankles. They’re half starved. With Ned’s Porsche’s trunk opened I pick up them one by one by the scruffs of their necks and load them in. They’re getting wary now, making these low moaning noises.
But five cats and three kittens are locked away before the smarter ones disappear.
I let myself back into Ned’s house and climb upstairs to wash my hands. I look like hell in the bathroom mirror. Those eyes, Christ. Opening the medicine cabinet, I find some Tylenol and swallow four. There’s some Valium, too, and I empty most of them from the bottle into my shirt pocket. Nina’s prescription. There’s dozens of bottles of pills in here. Reading their names is like reading Mexican or something. I unscrew some of the caps and sniff inside. Stale. When I find a container of Nina’s birth control pills it gives me a semi. A little packet of orange sinus pills looks sort of like the birth control, and I switch them.
Sometimes-and I’m not proud of this-I do a strange thing regarding Nina. I know it’s embarrassing, but on nights when Ned’s out, I call from a pay phone and wait for Nina to answer. When she says hello, I just hold the line, let her hear me breathing.
“I know it’s you, you bitch!” she screams. “You whore!”
Then I hang up, excited and guilty.
Finishing my beer, I go past the door-length mirror into Ned and Nina’s bedroom. Their water bed isn’t made. I crawl in with my boots on and slosh around: Nina’s pillow’s sweet smell, a blond pubic hair curling on the quilt.
Going through the nightstand I find seventy-five dollars. In Nina’s underwear drawer there are frilly pieces of lingerie that are like Kleenexes they’re so delicate. I toss one into the air and let it land on my face. Perfume. There are little fragrant soap balls in the drawer. I lift a thin negligee from the pile and hold it in front of the mirror.
The phone rings.
I stuff the nightie in my pocket and close the drawer, hurry down to the living room where the answering machine is. It beeps and Ned’s recording plays and some asshole comes on and asks about the house for sale. Call him, he says, as soon as they get in. I study the machine. A digital number changes from 1 to 1. I press the play button and listen for awhile. There are several calls, that I erase, about the house for sale.
Outside, you can hear the cats meowing and clawing around in the trunk of the Porsche. I get in and rev the engine, spin off and take curves hard and fast to shut them up.
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever killed a cat. Deer, sure. Doves, squirrels, coons. Practically any game animal. Three or four dog accidents with my car and a few dozen snakes, possums and armadillos.
But none of that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. The worse thing I’ve ever done was when I woke up in my car after drinking all night with Ned-it was a time I don’t remember that much, a week or two after Deb left, blackouts are what they call them in jail-and my clothes had a lot of blood on them. I couldn’t remember where it came from, so I called Ned and he said he didn’t have a clue. Said not to call him at work. Hung up on me. It was my first week renting Ned’s place. There was so much blood that I burned the clothes in the fireplace, went outside wearing a bedsheet and watched the smoke coming out of the chimney, worried what my new neighbors would think of a man who burns fires in August and stands in his yard in a sheet.
While I’m paying five dollars for gas at the Jiffy Mart, the clerk squints her eyes and says, “What’s that commotion coming out your trunk? Sound like you got you a wildcat in there.”
I tell her it’s my ex-wife and she laughs a toothless, goodnatured laugh.
A drink seems in order next, so I drive the Porsche to the Key West and get a corner table. I finger the pistol in my pocket and think about killing things. Stub out my cigarette in an ashtray shaped like an oyster shell. I glance around. This place is designed to look like an island. Tropical shit, I mean. Every once in a while a fairy floats in thinking it’s a gay bar because of how Key West is down in Florida. I guess they don’t take the hint from the pickups in the parking lot. The gun racks in back windows. But when they see how the regulars glare at them, they get the picture pretty quick and gulp down their peppermint schnapps or whatever they drink and drop a giant tip for Juarez, the bartender. Juarez for the record isn’t foreign: his real name’s Larry, but Larry says with a foreign name you get more pussy. Over a shot of tequila, I consider changing my name to something better, tougher-sounding.
I roll my mind over this: What if Ned ever hires me for a real job, to knock off a person, say? Or at the least just beat the shit out of some asshole, maybe some yo-yo who cuts Ned off at a red light and Ned gets the guy’s license number. Or maybe somebody’s fucking Nina. Ned calling me and saying he’s got a big score, yeah, the real thing. Meet him at the Key West. “It’s a doctor, “he’ll whisper in my ear, “ fat plastic surgeon thats fucking her. “
All I’d have to do is call Ned in the middle of the night and hang up a few times. Get him worried.
“Ten grand,” I’ll say, and Ned’ll go, “Too much,” and I’m like, “Hey, Ned? Then pay somebody else, okay, Ned? This ain’t some piece of real estate you’re buying, Ned. Some piece of ass. This is a professional job, little bro, and if you get some clown who don’t know what he’s doing, he gets excited by the blood and suddenly you got a body on your hands. Now you’re dealing with forensics detectives, Ned, guys pulling hairs off the body with fucking tweezers.”
I’m enjoying my little plot until Juarez appears and hits me with more Cuervo. Seeing him reminds me that you need an alias for certain kinds of deals. I pronounce my name out loud and decide my last name’s the problem. So I take my cue from Juarez and there on the spot become Duane Juarez. He sounds like a dangerous guy, somebody you don’t fuck with.
I head to the bar to buy the original Juarez his poison of choice. Pouring, he wants to know what the occasion is, and I tell him I’ve just made an important decision and we clink our glasses.
“To you,” he says. “To Duane.”
“Juarez,” I add.
Then the subject of cat-killing comes up, and Juarez tells me he grew up on a farm where their mousing cats were always giving birth. Juarez says his old man would stuff a whole damn litter of kittens in a croaker sack and beat it against the ground until the bag stopped moving. Which reminds me that I have a job to do, so I pay my tab with one of Ned’s twenties and head outside There’s another cat sitting on the Porsche, attracted, I guess, by the noise or the cat piss smell coming from the trunk.
“Scram,” I say, but this one’s friendly, and as I pass, it strains its head toward me. “Nice pussy cat,” I say, scratching it behind the ears. Then I take it in both hands and toss it into the bushes.
I don’t feel the gun’s kick, but the cat jackknifes and lands and now it’s only half a cat. It flops a couple of times. The woods are bone quiet, everything frozen, the leaves not rattling, the acorns perfectly still on their stobs. I go stand near the cat, which is dead now, and watch the black stuff pooling around its belly. It’s a dark gray one with white feet, the kind you’d name Mittens. Some of its fur is moist with blood and I shuck the shotgun; the smoking red shell case lands beside my boot. I think this cat ought to have a name, so Mittens it is. Was.
Back at the trunk, I open the last beer and raise it in a toast, then let another cat out. It hauls ass for the trees.
“Nina!” I yell. The first shot whirls her around but doesn’t stop her, and even before the gunshot’s faded I’ve jacked in an other shell and I’m batting my way through limbs and spiderwebs in the woods, following her bright red trail. I find her scrabbling up a tree with her sides pumping. When she sees me she howls with her ears flat on her head. She tries to climb higher, but with another shot I send her spread-eagled through the air and she hits the leaves like a tiny bearskin rug.
Then I remember something. It was when we were teenagers, after Ned and I had dropped Nina off from a drive-in movie one night. We both liked her and we’d been drinking and smoking grass. As Ned drove home, we saw beside the road this dead poodle that had belonged to Nina’s family for like eleven yearsit’d been missing for a day or two. The dog was lying on its side, its legs straight, and-Ned’s idea of a joke-we took it back to Nina parents’ mansion and stood it there dead on the porch, like a statue. In the car, Ned laughed so hard he started gagging. Then he passed out. When I snuck back to get the dog and bury it, Nina’s father caught me in the porch light, my hands around the poodle.
I name the next cat Debra, because it’s gray like one Deb used to have, but even as I pull the trigger I feel guilty. I find her wallowing in her pool of blood and shit, gnawing at her shoulder. I decide instead to hang a Mexican name on her. “Maria,” I say, taking the pistol from my pocket. But just when I’m about to put Maria out of her misery, I’m struck with a memory of Debra, before we got married, when there was a shicload of love. I don’t know why I think of it, but there we are, on the sofa, watching Mad Max. I’m getting fresh and Debra’s saying okay, okay, we can fool around, but we can’t do it because she’s smack in the middle of her period. So we’re kissing and groping until it gets real steamy and she’s climbing allover me. Finally she rolls off and stands up, kind of swaying, her nipples hard through her shirt, and I follow her into the bedroom. She throws the covers off and gets a towel and spreads it over the bed. There’s this loud zip and she steps out of her skirt. I hope you like it rare, she says.
Closing one eye, I squeeze the trigger on Maria and that’s that. At the trunk this time two escape and my beer bottle rolls off the car. Juan the Manx heads for the woods, his body opening and closing like a little hand, and I fire and bowl him over, then shucking the pump whip around and wing-I think-the one jumping into the bushes.
Left now are the kittens, two identical blacks and one solid white. I open the trunk wide: they’re cowering behind the spare. All this noise has their fur ruffled, their tails puffy, eyes red, ears flat, teeth bared. “Kitty kitty kitty,” I say, and get one of the blacks by the scruff and lift it out and hold it up against the sky. Do it with the pistol right there, specks of blood on my hand and arm.
That was Leigh, one of Ned’s girls, and this is Cindy, and there she goes, flung, landing in that tree. But here’s Duane Juarez, reloading.
The white kitten is moving. It jumps out, disappears under the car, and here’s Duane Juarez dropping to his knees, watching the kitten scramble up into the engine. Duane Juarez on his belly, sliding under the car, and trying to nab the bastard getting bit hard on the knuckle.
Duane Juarez by the Dumpster in the alley behind the Key West, kicking a stranger in the chest. Picking the guy up and breaking his nose with a head butt, Ned behind them, rooting in the shadows. Duane Juarez picking a tooth out of his knuckle and tossing it to Ned for a souvenir.
The woods are as quiet as a back alley. There’s only one way to deal with this kind of cat situation. You have to get in the Porsche and rev its engine to a scream. You have to leave the shotgun barrel holding down the accelerator. You have to climb onto the car with the pistol. The hood might buckle with your weight, but it’s your job to stand there, ready.
This one’s Ned.
©1999 by Tom Franklin
reprinted by permission of the author