Court Merrigan’s short stories have been published in Evergreen Review, Blackbird, and The Summerset Review, among others. A full list can be found at courtmerrigan.wordpress.com/short-stories. After a decade of the nomadic life in East Asia he’s at home in Wyoming with his family.
Halfway to town a careening car rushes past with music blaring and a hurled empty beer bottle strikes Bunk in the hindquarters. Bunk sidesteps and rears and throws Herb into the borrow pit. As Delia tries to calm Bunk who tosses his head hard at the reins Herb gets up without brushing himself off and runs into the middle of the road making an obscene gesture at the car as it is swallowed by the rise.
“Herb, goddammit!” says Delia. “Get out of the road! Whoa there, boy. Whoa. You want em to come back?”
“Fuck them bastards!”
“It’s all right, Bunk. Whoa. It’s nothing.”
Herb stalks out of the road. Skittish Bunk starts at his touch.
“You damn ijit,” says Delia. “What are you trying to do?”
“Break a windshield,” says Herb. He leans over to collect a couple sharp chunks of asphalt from the crumbling roadside.
“Right, Herb. That’s real smart. They’d pound the living shit out of you and then turn you over to a road agent and who knows what they’d do to me.”
“I told you we should of come the back way.”
“It’d take too long. We went over this. Everything will be fine if you just keep yourself to yourself.”
“Who do they think they are?”
“Seven of them in that car is what they are. Ease back, boy. Whoa. Come on, Herb. We got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”
Herb looks down the now-silent road. Tries to pocket a chunk of asphalt but it is too big to go in a jean pocket. He drops it and puts a foot in the stirrup and climbs behind Delia to sit on the saddle blanket behind the cantle. Delia nickers and taps Bunk’s sides and they set off down the road for Steppe again.
They left the house midmorning, after Leftwich pulled into the yard on his dilapidated four-wheeler. Delia was about to go hunting in the hills on Bunk. There was about nothing around the house to eat and they’d hunted the set-aside down to nothing but twitchy squirrels. They have not been to the grocery again and Dad no longer
brought sacked goods home. He was among them but no longer with them, even when he was there. Now he had been gone for ten days. As she was tightening down the saddlebags Leftwich said, “My dad saw your dad this morning.”
Delia stopped with the saddlebags and turned to him. “Where?” she said.
“In at The Haymaker’s. Said he stopped in for a bowl of that breakfast chili and saw your dad sitting there.”
“You’re sure? Absolutely sure?”
“That’s what he said.”
Delia patted Bunk once on the hindquarters then went out of the barn yelling, “Herb! Sloan!”
It is well into afternoon, water nearly gone, when they come to the crossroads. Bunk is fidgety before the vast expanse of asphalt where triple-stacked semis roar by with black smoke bellowing and horns blaring and cars rattling over the washboards with no flash of brake lights. The stop sign formerly atop the island is gone, stripped by road crews. A cross of tinfoil and duct tape is planted in a mound of gravel in the concrete island. A dirty strand of tape waves fitfully from a bent arm. Delia leans over Bunk’s neck soothing and caressing but the horse shifts back from the roadside, tossing his head and whinnying.
“Better walk him over,” says Herb.
“Yeah,” says Delia. “We better.”
They dismount. Delia holds the reins and Herb watches the road. Passengers in cars rubberneck as they pass. As they start for the island an out-of-state car stops and someone leans out to take a picture. Gripped tight to the reins and pulling Bunk along, Delia jogs across the hot asphalt. He trots alongside her then his ears flatten and he circles snorting. He will go no further however Delia yanks on the reins.
“Come on, goddammit!” yells Herb. “Come on!”
“I’m trying!” says Delia.
Bunk rears and pulls Delia from her feet. Bearing down on the crossroads is a semi with horns blaring and headlights flashing and it will not slow. Bunk paws the asphalt, eyes rolled back in his head, Delia leaned on her heels.
“Come on, boy,” she says. “Come on!”
But Bunk doesn’t come. The air horn of the semi is a continuous blast. Delia throws a foot in a stirrup and pulls herself up in one lithe motion. Digs her heels in his sides while twisting one of his ears viciously.
“Run, God damn you,” she yells. “Run!”
Bunk leaps forward as though prodded with a hot iron, leaping over the island as hot air from the semi washes over the back of her neck. Knocks the cross over and lopes across the highway to halt at the borrow pit there. He chomps ferociously at a tiny green patch of weeds, sides heaving. Delia slowly unclutches the reins. Pats him on the neck.
“Good boy,” she says. “Good boy.”
Herb trots over. “Goddamn horse is going to kill us,” he says.
“This goddamn horse is all that’s getting us home.”
“No. Dad will take us.”
“I’m not leaving Bunk.”
“Dad will know what to do.”
At home, when he is home, stretches which come at odd, unpredictable intervals, he will see fitfully to their feeding. For two weeks he dished them out nothing but plain-milled oatmeal, undercooked and swimming with grubs. He wanders about the outbuildings, pulling away cracked paint in great stripes and ripping off peeling shingles
and tearing down loose drainpipes. The children tend the garden. They keep the house clean. They shelve the books Dad throws to the ground. Once, he rips pages from a paperback and tries to light a two-in-the-morning fire in the sunroom. Another day he hauls the dusty computer monitor down to the county road and heaves it onto the washboarded gravel and leaves it there. But mostly he sits at the table with a bottle before him, pissbucket at his feet, journal open. Sometimes he will write, mumbling into the beard which has nearly enclosed his mouth. His slanted scrawl will trail off the page onto the table and then he will snap the pen and hurl it across the table. Pieces roll across the floor and under the stove and Alexa collects them. Delia brings him new pens. He sits and drinks himself steadily into his own mire, silent, impervious to time or children or sleeve tugging or
cheek kissing. He brushes them away without looking, as he does proffered food or water and books. He does not see them but he sees something, a distant replay of speculative memory, and that alone he watches.
The first time he hit Delia was when she tugged his beard. Alexa had fallen and cut her hand. He turned in his chair and with no change of expression backhanded her across the face. Delia’s legs crumpled and she sat holding her jaw, feeling nothing. The pain would come later. Oh it would come. He sighed. Red-tinged eyes shifted to Alexa who had gone silent holding her bleeding hand out. He leaned over to pick her up and enfolded her in his arms, rocking her with head pressed to his chest, humming a toneless melody from the phlegm-gargled depths of his throat. He did not look at Delia and the song was not in English. After a while Alexa went to sleep, hand staining a crimson patch on Dad’s shirt. Delia got up and went to the bathroom. Spit out pieces of tooth. Sloan and Herb followed.
“You got what was coming to you,” Herb said. “Nagging on Dad that way.”
Later she went back. Alexa lay on her side sleeping next to Dad’s chair. Dad’s chin was to his chest. She signaled Sloan and together they carried her up to bed. Herb turned on a lamp in the corner. Dad did not stir. Later she came back again. It was near midnight. Reaching over to turn the lamp off Dad craned in his chair to see her.
“Delia,” he said.
Delia jumped. Looked at him frozen.
“Delia,” Dad said again. “Come here.”
She went to him, tongue running over her sore mouth and the chipped edge of her tooth, thin frame quaking. Dad picked her up. Sat her spread-legged on his lap as he had not done for years. She melted into him, unresisting as a puppy, face pressed to his chest, tears boiling from her eyes, almost tasting his sodden breath washing over her face.
“Don’t let the darkness take you,” he murmured into her head as he ran a rough palm over her smooth hair. “Don’t let the darkness take you.”
She waited for him to say something more but he did not. The house silent but for the rasping of dry trumpet vines against a windowpane. Then Alexa upstairs began that low bawling which would carry on for hours if she were not calmed immediately. She sat up in Dad’s lap. His chin was down, his lips parted. His eyes did not flicker as Alexa’s moans crescendoed. He would wake when he would and that would be a long while. She crawled down and jogged upstairs.
The Haymaker’s is a squat saloon in a former maintenance shed at the edge of a trailer park. A solitary neon sign burns fitfully in the one dirty window, roof oddly angled by windstorms and snow and hail, the sun blazing hard over its peak. A horse ridden by two children is a sight to see so there are watchers aplenty in that nameless place as Delia and Herb come down the road, Bunk straining at the bit for weeds in the borrow pit, spiky bitter-flowering growth sprung from years of roadside rubbish. Delia keeps him going with slaps to the neck and
hard-yanked reins but their progress is slow. By the time they reach The Haymaker’s a bemused knot of observers and hangers-on has gathered at its door.
“Hell,” says someone, “it’s the wild west.”
“Ain’t there some kind of law?” says someone else.
“Yeah, call the pigs. That’s the stuff.”
Harsh laughter and a couple drunks unsteady on their feet lurch over as though it is a petting zoo and Bunk the prime attraction.
“Anybody know them kids?” says someone.
“Hey, little girl,” says another, “you here for someone?”
“Yeah,” says Delia, circling Bunk around as the drunks get close.
Then Herb is batting her on the shoulder. “Look, Del, look!” he says.
Dad has come out of the door. Glass in hand, arm around a redhead neither of them recognize, blinking in the bright light.
“Dad!” calls Delia. “Dad!”
Heads swivel to him, head cocked, making a study of the distance. The woman encircles his waist with an arm and leans her head on his shoulder.
“Dad!” calls Herb.
“Dad!” Delia calls. Herb starts to climb down but Delia stops him. “Wait.”
“Them kids yours, Priam?” someone asks.
Dad shifts his weight. “Never seen them before in my life,” he says.
“They must be addled on something.”
“Damn if they don’t start em young.”
“They surely do.”
“Twacked-out kids on a horse,” says the redhead. “That’s funny. See you later, kids.”
She tugs Dad back into the bar’s dark maw. He glances over them but does not resist. Delia and Herb sit the horse shorn of speech. A drunk grabs Delia’s knee. Delia jerks the reins and Bunk tosses his head, sweeping the drunk off his feet. More laughter.
“What the hell,” the drunk says, and starts to get up.
“Dammit, Herb, stay on,” says Delia, and reins Bunk around.
“Come on back here, cowgirl,” says the drunk. “Come on back.” He gestures sloppily and the people laugh some more. “Nice cowgirl. Here cowgirly girly girly girly.”
Herb again tries to dismount. Delia grabs his arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” she hisses.
“After Dad,” says Herb.
“Don’t you got eyes? Don’t you understand?”
“Maybe he just didn’t see us right. Maybe....”
“Did you have to look twice to see him right? Did you?”
Herb stays on. Delia spurs Bunk back down the broken asphalt.
Thirst is on them with dull-honed blades. Triple-digit heat and hours since they’ve had anything to drink and the swirling debris and diesel smoke of the road rides the ridges of their tongues as Bunk’s head droops and he stumbles. They come to a stout house under a grove of rippling cottonwoods where a hose is curled seductively in the grass. The chain-link fence is tipped with glass shards mounted on a board but it is not high and the glass is dulled and pitted. They sit Bunk a few minutes watching. Nothing moves on the premises.
“I got to have something to drink,” says Herb.
It is the first they have spoken since The Haymaker’s. Delia nods. Nudges Bunk up the short driveway to the fence. A pickup goes past, its passengers rubbernecking them the same as the others. They dismount and Delia ties Bunk loosely to the fence. The glass sparkles dully.
“Give me a knee,” Delia says.
“I’ll go,” says Herb.
“No. Give me a knee.”
Herb drops to one knee and Delia very slowly edges her way over the glass shards then drops to the pale green grass. Strides quickly to the hose, turns on the tap. The hose gurgles and jerks. Water comes in hot spurts, then steadily and cool. She fills the canteen and drags it the length of the yard. Throws the canteen over to Herb and slots the hose through the fence to nickering Bunk. She runs it directly into his mouth and the horse’s neck shimmies with swallows, water dripping from his puckered lips to disappear in the dust.
“Don’t waterlog yourself, pal,” she says.
“Del!” yells Herb. “Del, watch out!”
She turns and sees the dog charging without a sound, a low-slung rottweiler with rippling cheeks and bouncing tongue and yellow teeth. She scampers up the chain link as the dog crashes into the fence. Bunk rears. Delia thrusts herself over the board, glass cutting arms and chest. A dull shard goes in the corner of her mouth and rips up the side of her face past her eye. She flops to the ground inches from where the fence bends before the dog’s maniacal weight as Bunk trots up the driveway for the trees.
The hose is still stuck in the fence and so they wash Delia’s face and the cuts on her belly and shoulder and hands inches from the gnarring dog snapping its wet snout against the chain link. The bleeding will not stop and it hurts bad enough. Herb rips his damp shirt to strips and wraps it about her head. Brings Bunk over and helps her mount behind him. His spine goes slick with blood as he pushes the horse to the point of collapse getting home where Delia lies with cold compresses to her face two days before Dad finally does come home.