BY PERRY LOPEZ
We’d spent the last December in Arizona, chopping apart the cactus that had grown huge in my grandmother’s yard. Our machetes sliced through the stems that extended over the driveway and they fell to the dirt with a rubbery bounce. The cactus had engulfed the orange tree we used to pick fruit from as children, my cousins and I, and as we worked we gradually uncovered its remains. A spindle at the heart of the thorny mass, all the water sucked out of it by the cactus, its bark fossilized into a kind of skeleton, its fruit dried hard and black.
We picked up the fallen stems and tossed them into the dumpster we’d rented, which was about as big as the house we were emptying. My cousins and I wore gloves, while Uncle Clint worked shirtless and with his bare hands. He sweated in the dusk and bled from countless small puncture wounds. He said not one word to us as his brothers, our fathers, carried a sofa out of the house and tipped it over the rim of the dumpster. Clint’s shaved head wore a crown of veins that pulsed beneath the skin and he leaned back to drain the warm dregs from his beer then threw it clattering into the street. The mountains in the distance were beautiful and pink and supposedly populated by Apache spirits. They were also supposedly where a hole leading to hell could be found, depending on who you asked. Though I didn’t see why both couldn’t be true.
At the funeral it was only the six of us and Aunt Laura who’d arrived the night before. The consensus was that the mortician had done a great job, but I’m not sure I’d agree. Laura kept saying she looked just the way she used to, but I can’t recall my grandmother ever looking so doll-like and burnished. Clint stood over the casket for fifteen minutes then went to sit at the back of the room with his face in his hands. My cousins and I sat in the front row and listened to the music piping in. Laura tried to read a speech she had written on the flight over, but found she couldn’t, so she gave it to my father who read it and wept, saying, “Thanks, thanks for that, Lori.” When asked if he had anything he’d like to say, Clint reported from the back of the room that he was going to murder the cocksucker who did that to his mother’s face.
That was three months ago and now we were driving up through Oklahoma, headed for the Lake of the Ozarks, where we’d all agreed to gather for a fishing trip. I’d graduated from college recently and been accepted into law school with dreams of practicing environmental law—not yet knowing that the only jobs to be found in that field were with the oil companies. My father, an executive at an aerospace corporation, had just gotten back from Turkey where he’d been engaged selling riot equipment to army forces, to be used against their own citizens most likely, if not the Syrians.
As he drove, he told me about the negotiator for the Turkish government, a drowsy official who kept him and his translator waiting for hours in a stuffy lobby with a squeaky ceiling fan and would allow no bathroom breaks until terms were reached, but afterward had become gregarious and taken them to a strip club where they saw a teenage girl pull a string of candy beads out of herself and dangle them over the official’s mouth like bait.
In the backseat of the Lexus was a jangling carillon of liquor bottles. My father picked up something new every time we stopped for gas. I’d work the pump while he went inside under the pretense of using the bathroom, then would come out with another six pack or a flask, pulling it out of the crinkly paper bag for my inspection. He showed me a sixer of some Okie craft stuff and then a murky little medicine bottle of Jaeger.
A few hours later we were getting close. We drove along roads that wound between small mountains and knew we were almost to the lake by the number of bait shops that blurred past our windows. I answered a call from my mother asking where we were and how the drive was going. I told her we were almost there and the drive was going fine. We talked for a couple of minutes while my father stared silently through the windshield, easing us along the curves. They had not spoken since the divorce, and my mother did not ask how he was doing. After I hung up, I put my phone in my pocket and had a brief but satisfying fantasy of attacking (possibly killing) someone who had insulted my mother in some way. This was happening either in the woods or in an office environment. I ducked a punch and kicked their knee so it bent the wrong way. I snapped their elbow across my forearm. I smashed their head either against a plaster wall that cratered with the impact or the side of a tree that didn’t. Siri told us to make a right onto the frontage road and my father did, then pulled us into a gas station on the corner.
We arrived at Shelly’s place around 5:30. The last half hour of the drive was into pure wilderness. Blacktop became gravel, became dirt, became tracks in the switchgrass leading up and down the sheer banking hills. I was getting nervous, so I took a pull from our open bottle of Captain Morgan, an action my father didn’t remark on, intent as he was on steering his Lexus over the berms. As we crested a hill and made our descent down the other side, we saw Shelly’s house emerge from the dogwoods on our right. It was a mobile home with corrugated siding that sat on the edge of a cliff overlooking the water.
Uncle Luke had texted that he and my cousins had arrived that morning but there were no cars in front of Shelly’s place. “They must have gone out to get something,” my father said as he eased the Lexus down the ditch that lead to the trailer. We parked the car in the grass and got out. The air was sticky and full of the sound of newborn cicadas screaming. In the small clearing that surrounded the trailer there was a fire pit, a smoker that looked like it weighed a ton, and a shed painted bright yellow. We grabbed our luggage from the trunk and walked up the stairs of the wooden porch on the far side of the home.
We stood on a platform of pressure-treated lumber and looked out at the reservoir, its surface glazed by the afternoon sun. Speedboats were roving with a detached buzz and shimmer. Fishing vessels were nudged gently nowhere by the wind. Clouds towed their shadows through the empty glare. It was big, once the biggest man-made lake in the country, and had the fractured aspect of all bodies of water created by interruption, the erratic shape of a stymied river. Directly below us was the rotten pier where Shelly kept his fiberglass skiff tied up. The pier was maybe thirty feet down, at the base of the cliff, obstructed by trees that grew sideways on the slope, and leading up from it was a steep gravel path.
The entrance to the trailer was a doorway covered only by a magnetic mesh screen and as we turned with our luggage Shelly’s dog trotted out. The animal was of some mixed breed I was not prepared to identify, her hair greasy and clumped with mud, though she was clearly well-fed and unafraid of people. The dog looked up at us and wagged her tail then padded off into the tallgrass to look for a shady place to sleep, locusts arcing out of her path.
Inside it was a familiar homey disarray. Cardboard boxes of yet more liquor brought by Luke on the counters. A linoleum-floored kitchen with dishes in the sink, rags hanging from the drawers. A carpeted living room with a modestly-sized flat screen, a linen sofa, a large DVD collection stashed against the far wall. The main bedroom was off the kitchen and the one where my father and I would be sleeping was at the other end of the trailer. He went in and put our luggage on the bed while I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor. A plastic skeleton sat in the corner, gawping up at the ceiling. We got our drinks from the car and crammed what we could into the fridge, then made some sandwiches. My father opened a beer and went out to sit on the porch while I went to the bathroom to check my hair, which I feared had been thinning lately. There was some kind of black scum coating the bottom of the bathtub and a portrait of Death over the toilet. In the portrait, Death appeared to be a woman, her heavy breasts distending the cloth of her robes even though the rest of her was skeletal.
We’d drunk two bottles on the porch by the time Uncle Luke and Shelly got back from town where they’d been buying fishing supplies. As they stepped out of their trucks Shelly’s dog came bounding out from under the crawlspace, charging its owner and yapping. Shelly, an old friend of the family, smiled down and gave a whistle that made her spin in circles.
“Hey there, Luke,” my father said to his older brother who was walking towards us, rangy and bright-eyed in cargo pants and a sleeveless t-shirt.
“How’s it going, hermano,” replied my uncle in his second-generation rasp.
My cousins, David and Marcus, vaulted out of the bed of Shelly’s truck. Both wore full beards, one black and the other a wispy sun-bleached blond. Both were a few years older than I, Marcus a little taller and David a little shorter. Their skin was dirty and gave off the ripe musk of adventurous living. For them this weekend in the Ozarks was just the last leg of a road trip around the country celebrating Marcus’ return from a stint in the Peace Corps, spent walking a donkey loaded with milk up and down a hill in some malarial place or other.
Shelly brought up the front, his dog bouncing at his heels. A picturesque guy in his way, short and thick about the waist, his hair emerging in gray tendrils from under his hat, his face a pure sunbeaten red and frozen in a perpetual smile. He had grown up with my father’s family in Miami, the only white kid among the Cubans. I shook his hand as he mounted the stairs.
“Alex, holy shit,” he said, his eyes glistening in their creases, “Last time I saw you, you were a fucking baby, man. Goddamn, making me feel old. Drinking beer now? Jesus.”
I reached out to shake my uncle’s hand, was pulled into a hug. My cousins followed suit.
“Where’s Clint?” my father asked into his beer.
“Just got off the phone with him,” Luke said, leaning back against the railing, “Said he should be here in a few minutes.”
My father put his bottle down, crossed his arms. “He sound alright? I’ve been hearing some stuff from Laura, stuff about him having problems, causing some problems for her. She said he’s been acting weird since Arizona. She said he’s being Crazy Clint again.”
Uncle Luke just shrugged his shoulders and went inside to get a beer.
We stood on the porch and talked while the sun fell toward the hills on the west bank. I asked Marcus about his time in the Peace Corps and he smiled and told me it was great, that the donkey was very cool, that he missed the donkey a lot. David and I traded news on our progress in the latest ranked season of League of Legends, which had occupied our conversation for most of our stay in Arizona. My father told Luke and Shelly about his trip to Turkey, speaking mainly to his brother with only occasional glances toward our host, recounting the same events he had told me of in the car, but now with fresh energy and embellishments of detail.
It was almost dusk when Clint arrived, the waters of the lake behind us going dim. We heard him before we saw him. The throb of bass from his car permeated the wind hissing through the treetops. Then we saw the glassy blue glare of xenon headlights seeping through the bushes as his Chrysler emerged into view, gave three long honks, rolled down the ditch to Shelly’s and parked next to my father’s Lexus.
Uncle Clint stepped out of his car and bellowed like George of the Jungle. We cheered as we walked off the porch to greet him. “Sorry I’m so fucking late, guys. Boss had me scheduled for a surveying run even though I told him specifically I was going to see my family today.” He hugged David and Marcus together, pulling them both down to him so their shaggy heads touched his bare scalp, a spliff burning between his fingers. Grinning, he handed this to David, who took the joint without hesitation or comment, then passed it to Marcus. “Give that a try, boys. That’s good stuff. Little powder in there. That’ll get you fucked up.” When Clint reached me, he locked his hands tight around my waist and lifted me into the air, shaking me back and forth. I laughed consentingly until he put me back down. “Alex, how’re you doing, man? You look like you’ve been hitting the gym. Look at these biceps,” squeezing my arm, glancing at my father. “So I hear you’re going to be a lawyer. Man don’t do that. Go be anything but one of those motherfuckers.” I shrugged and he gave me a smile then went over to his brothers.
“How’s it going, Clint? You’re looking slim, man,” my father said to his younger brother as Clint shook Luke’s hand somewhat stiffly. Clint was in fact much thinner than the last time I had seen him in Arizona. His muscles bulged under the loose canvas of his skin and his sinews stood out sharply. The cords in his neck strained with every movement of his head, the internal puppetry of a person made visible.
“Yeah man, for sure. I’ve been working out like crazy these past couple months, been doing yoga, been doing all kinds of stuff—kayaking,” jerking his thumb at the slender vessel lashed to the top of his car. “Got myself a tattoo. I’m changing shit up.”
“A tattoo, huh? Let’s see it.” Uncle Luke said to no response.
Clint shadowboxed with Shelly’s gut by way of greeting then went back to his car to grab a huge Ziploc bag full of nuggets of marijuana and rolling papers from the seat. Holding the bag proudly, he went inside to grab a drink, came back out with another joint burning.
“So what the fuck is with that bathroom, Shelly,” Clint said. “Did you not know we were coming?” Shelly smiled down at his dog and said, “Hey, sorry man. Not my fault. It’s just the well water. Dead stuff in the pipes. Gunks up everything,” accepting the joint between his fingers.
That night we ate steaks on paper plates that turned transparent with grease, sitting around the fire as stars developed in the evening sky and crickets made a holy racket from their stations in the tallgrass. I shook my head every time a joint came my way, saying the dusted stuff made me too nervous. Instead I tipped back my longneck in the firelight then went into the trailer to get another, fearing nothing, futureless.
By midnight the fire had burned down to embers and we were all wasted. My father was shouting comments over other people’s conversations and laughing only at his own jokes. Uncle Luke and Shelly were discussing the politics of drone warfare at high volume. David and Marcus lurched in and out of the darkness, taking shots of tequila at their own pace, watching videos on their phones. Clint had left his body. He danced shirtless by the fire, bleeding from his scalp after having attempted a cartwheel on the concrete patio. The last time he’d spoken was to call the President a cocksucker, his only contribution to Luke and Shelly’s conversation, but now was merely swaying at the edge of the fire. A bottle of beer hung from between his fingers and a joint burned between his lips. The way he danced went from somnambulant to spastic with no reason, whatever music moved him existing only in his mind. One moment he would be rolling his head, shuffling his feet. The next he would burst into a frenzy, punching and kicking at the night that engulfed him, rushing to people—my father, Luke, me—aiming blows at the empty air around us. We’d just laugh and push him away, not quite gently. But there was nothing playful in Clint’s dance. He grimaced and sobbed tearlessly. Blood ran from the top of his head to drip through his gray goatee. His eyes challenged us to look back into them, but we chose not to. We didn’t feel like addressing the issue—the dead woman who hung in the air like smoke.
Instead we drank. I sat low in a lawn chair with my head titled back, swallowing the saliva that flooded my mouth, trying not to vomit. The lake beyond the edge of the cliff had vanished. In the starless, moonless morning it was nothing but a gulf of pure absence between the hills, a hole into something awful, deeper than the sky.
“But don’t you see how messed up that is, Shell?” Uncle Luke said, chuckling, frustrated. “How would you like to live that way, praying for cloudy days?”
Around 2 a.m. we decided to turn in. Shelly gathered up his dog in his arms and went to his bedroom. David and Marcus went inside to crash; one on the couch, the other on an inflatable mattress. Uncle Luke dumped water from an ice chest on the smoldering remains of the fire then went to his own room. I took a piss in the tallgrass then went to lie in my sleeping bag at the foot of the bed where my father was already snoring. The Halloween skeleton sat quietly in the corner. Clint took the gravel path down to the lake where he had pitched his tent in a patch of ryegrass near the dock, wanting to be close to the water and alone.
I woke to a beautiful morning, only slightly hungover. The air was misty, and light from the rising sun gave form to the suspended vapor. Everything was orange and purple through the windows as I went out into the living room for coffee, where everyone else was already awake and talking quietly. I said good morning then poured myself a mug and took it out onto the porch with my laptop under my arm, not ready to be sociable. I breathed the steam off my Folgers and glanced up every few minutes from the screen to watch the mist rolling over the hilltops, the sky reflected in the vast mirror of the lake.
When I went back inside my father was excitedly telling everyone about the failed putsch that had taken place in Turkey last night, staged by a rogue faction of the military. He went from person to person, holding up his phone for them to see. David nodded, his mouth full of cheerios. Shelly waved him off, sitting on the couch with his dog. Luke said Holy Shit. I snapped a banana from its bunch and leaned against the counter. I was chewing when my father held the screen up before my eyes. I saw a gif of a nude man hung from a streetlamp, swaying in the jittery light of a thousand camera flashes. I had never seen a lynched person in full color before. His feet were swollen black with the blood no longer impelled against gravity by a beating heart. His face was a deep cobalt and expressionless. His tongue had forced its way through his open mouth like a parasite attempting to flee its host. The rest of him was very pale. The copper wiring they had hung him with was gleaming under the light of the streetlamp. It had sliced into the flesh of his neck, twisting his head upward, directing his sightless eyes toward the sky.
“That’s my guy,” my father said, beaming. “That’s the official I negotiated with.”
“Goddamn, dad. I’m eating,” was all I said, closing my eyes. The banana mush in my mouth had suddenly turned sour and goopy, unswallowable.
“Sorry,” my father said as he went to go show Marcus, who sat at the table drinking OJ.
A few minutes later Uncle Clint emerged from the bathroom where he had been taking a shower. He walked steaming pink and naked through the living room to the fridge. “Shelly, man, that bathroom is fucking revolting, dude. How do you live in this shithole?” Shelly just laughed softly in response. Clint grabbed a beer from the fridge and drank deep as he scratched at the hair above his crotch. “Hey, come on, lay off Shelly,” Uncle Luke said, smiling even though his eyes were serious, “and go put on some clothes.” Uncle Clint straightened up and scowled as he looked out the window. “Nah, you know, Luke, I think I might just go out on the lake like this actually. Do some worm fishing.” At this, Clint punched me on the shoulder and winked. I gave my most neutral laugh, a burst of air from my nostrils. Luke grinned with the false humor that precedes an explosion, but it was Marcus who intervened. “Just get dressed, Clint. We need to hurry so we can get out on the lake while it’s still early.” Clint shrugged, went to the bathroom to put on some shorts. When he returned my father showed him the gif on his phone, which Clint only glanced at. “Strung his ass up like a fish,” he laughed, pouring himself cereal.
While he ate, I inspected the tattoo Clint had talked about before, which I’d mistaken in the firelight for just another shadow flickering on his skin. There really wasn’t much to it. Just a broad, blacked-out circle over his heart. Little Apaches dancing around the edge.
Shortly we were staggering down the gravel path with coolers full of booze and food, leaning way back against the grade. Uncle Clint was at the front, carrying his kayak by himself, his feet skidding on the loose rock. Me and my father carried opposite ends of an ice box. Uncle Luke and his sons had the rods and tackleboxes and some other small coolers. Shelly carried his dog who howled in excitement, bawling up the sun like an angel.
Down at the pier, Shelly decided to show me something incredible. We had not spoken much since our first introduction and now, he felt, was the time to correct that. While everyone else was loading stuff onto the fiberglass skiff we would be spending the day in, and his dog was standing on the prow wagging her tail, I felt a hand fall on my shoulder and looked to find our host smiling up at me. “Alex, I got something cool to show you, come check this shit out. You hunt?” I shook my head. David laughed knowingly as he cast his line in a high whistling arc off the pier then reeled it back. “Well, come on anyway,” he said, his eyes eager inside their ratty nest of hair. “I think you’ll appreciate it all the same.”
He took me back to the wooden gangway that lead onto the dock. There I saw a length of frayed manila rope knotted to the railing. At Shelly’s prompting, I looked over the edge and saw where the other end of the rope vanished into the olive water. I could just barely make out the silhouette of something tied to the end of the rope and a swarm of small fish that darted around it, pecking at the edges then retreating. “Think it’s clean, Shell?” Marcus called from the boat. “Bet you it’s just about,” Shelly sang as he grabbed the rope and hoisted.
The head of a mountain lion lifted out of the lake, stripped of nearly all its flesh and with two streams of water pouring out of the holes where its eyes had been. It was gruesome, but it didn’t stink to my surprise. “I’ve been living out here, what, twelve years and hadn’t see one of these things until just yesterday. Found her hit by a car on the side of the road.” Shelly lifted the mountain lion’s head higher for my appreciation, spinning at the end of the rope fastened to the back of its skull with a fishhook. “Yeah, and I’d never seen a person dance over roadkill before,” David grunted around the cigarette in his mouth, casting the line out again. Shelly ignored him, his eyes reverent on his prize. I made an impressed noise from my chest.
“See, this is what you do when you’ve got bones need to be cleaned,” Shelly said, arriving upon his lesson. “Fuck that bleach-peroxide stuff, this is all you have to do. Just put it in the water and let the fish pick her clean. The lake loves to eat dead things. And by the time we get back this afternoon you watch how clean she’ll be. I’m going to nail her right on above my bed and have her dreams. Bloody fucking dreams. I’ll be a she-beast while I sleep.”
We fished all up and down the bights and coves of the lake that day. We skewered worms on shining hooks and flung them out into the water. We reeled catfish out of their cool void and brought them gasping into the sunlight, their suffocation faintly audible. We rode in the skiff as Clint paddled along in his kayak, which had its own fish radar and built-in tacklebox. In the big coolers there was beer and liquor, sandwiches and chips and bottled water. The air was cold just above the waterline and time sucked up into the empty sky. It was the job of the person in the kayak to perform reconnaissance, usually Clint but we all took shifts, skating quietly across the surface and watching the radar for signals. We found them sleeping in shallow inlets under the shade of sweetgums that hung over the water and we dragged them up out of the murk to take pictures with them dangling on shining lines from our fists. Some we tossed back, but most we kept for the fish fry planned that evening. My cousins and I talked about videogames while my father and his brothers remembered their mother, told stories until they cried.
“Speaking of bleach,” Clint remarked to no one, “remember when I dumped a bunch in that big stone fountain she’d let moss over? How snails started floating up? First a couple, then dozens. Just oozing out of their shells. That was sad. Like a snail Jonestown,” tipping beer down his throat, already drunk. “I didn’t even know they were there. It was too dark.”
When there were no other boats nearby, the dusted weed came out. Clint rolled two joints and passed one to us on the skiff while keeping the other for himself. He paddled off a ways and sat with his legs hanging over the edges of the kayak, kicking himself in circles as he touched the joint to his lips and let the smoke rise like incense from his mouth, all alone in the middle of the lake. He leaned so far back that the dark circle on his chest was pointed straight at the sky where it was the deepest blue and where a daytime moon floated in a chalky fade. I remember thinking how strange he seemed then, how so many years alone can only make you strange, to everyone but yourself, and I wondered if he really wouldn’t mind dying.
Luke passed the joint to David who passed it to me. I was confident that the alcohol in my system would overwhelm the effects of a small puff, would keep me safely grounded in the rote beauty of the reservoir, the windless drift of things. And so I brought the nub to my lips, took a drag, held it a pulse, then blew the pale vapor into the air. It was fine. My heart beat faster, but not in the cardiac-event way I was familiar with. I strung a fresh worm on my hook, feeling its muscles spasm between my fingers as I drove the point through, then cast my line toward the shore. After just a couple minutes, I got a bite. I reeled as the bobbin buzzed. I held the catfish up for a photo then wrenched the hook from its jaw, holding it carefully so as not to be cut by the serrated fins as it throbbed for life against my palm. I held the fish a moment longer, slick and cold and thrashing in bursts, then tossed it back into the lake. My cousins groaned, and Clint shouted, “What the fuck,” across the water. But I just shrugged, feeling saintly, unimplicated, and used artificial lures the rest of the day so I didn’t catch another fish.
That was the turning point of the afternoon, when the sun began to dip once again toward the western hills and shadows moved across the lake. The ice chest we had brought was now full of dead catch. Spotted bass, largemouth bass, catfish, a few of the bigger bluegills. We gathered on the skiff and took a shot of Jaeger to celebrate the success of the trip, touching our Dixie cups each to each, knowing we wouldn’t see each other again until the next funeral. We tied up as Clint ran his kayak aground. I stepped clear of the boat and stretched my spine. My bones ached from sitting in the skiff and my mouth was dry from all the liquor. I remember thinking that this was how it must feel to be old. As we were unloading the ice chest and gathering the empties in trash bags, Shelly went to the gangplank and pulled the manila rope out of the water. At the end was a skull so clean it gave off a sallow, lunar glow.