Slick T camps in the woods not fifty yards off 328 because no one will house him anymore, not even me. He shows up eerie silent on Saturday morning sporting his fishing vest, nothing beneath it, and khakis streaked with ditch clay.
By ten thirty, we reach the lake out on Daddy’s land. We flip the boat over and step back for wasps and cottonmouths, then paddle to where the bass grow fat on sunk Christmas trees. Pre-drunk, my mind loops over my ex-wife Sara’s dimples, her goober nose. My thoughts swing to my drunk ravings and cravings, our lost marriage, how I ruined what tiny happiness we’d carved into the world.
Slick T says, “I left a girl in the woods, Boss,” like he’s lost his keys. “I got blackout drunk and left her on a stump.” He shivers. “Think maybe I killed her.”
His girl on the stump shakes something loose in me. This muffled hum starts in my ear like a gnat burrowing in honey. He’s had scrapes with the law and is out of get-out-of-jail-free cards. Drunk car crashes, knocking people up. Maybe it was just a matter of time before he killed somebody.
“You’ve lost your damn mind,” I say. “You did no such thing.” My line clicks as I reel it in empty. I just want to fish, and he comes at me with stump girls.
On his next cast, the end of his pole slaps into the water, and he kneels on the seat for it, cussing. My foot in his ass flops him face-first into the water.
He comes up puffing and sputtering.
“It’s like you farted in my church,” I say. I throw my beer at him. “I should club you with this paddle.”
He stands up, water to his waist. “I wish you would.”
A crow squawks overhead and lights in a dead pin oak.
“We’re going,” I say. “You scared the fish.”
Back in the boat, the vest clings to his spine as he paddles. It feels like the beginning of the end of everything.
Raccoons have spread his garbage everywhere, Wonder Bread and Cheetos bags blown into the briars. He takes a long drink from a water jug and roots around in his tent for his pocketknife until I make him show me where he left the girl.
We follow what looks like a deer trail. Sometimes I think the trail has ended, but Slick T keeps going. I’m thankful it’s too early for ticks and mosquitoes and poison ivy. We climb down red banks to a clearing with an enormous stump, a long-gone white oak. He drops to his knees, eyes closed.
There’s no girl. I want to weep. He’s annoyed me for entire years of my life. I lose it and kick him in the chest. Sara might still be my wife if Slick T didn’t need so much help. Fresh from a bender, I signed her divorce papers.
“I left her right here, Boss!” he hisses from the ground.
I stomp the briars back to my truck. Slick T hates himself for how life turned out. How he was too drunk to help his mother’s dementia when she blasted shotgun holes through the sheetrock of their old home place. How he couldn’t stop the bankruptcy or foreclosure from doctor bills.
By the time I get home, I’m hammered with the truth of getting old, the losing of so much love. I grab a fresh handle of gin and walk out to the backyard naked, feel the night’s breath on my junk. Crickets scream as stars reveal themselves like lovers. The wind picks up sweet honeysuckle wafts from the woods. I remember Sara’s pursed lips under that goober nose.
I swear before I pass out, a stump girl, her face luminous smoke, meanders out of the bushes.
I hit the factory floor on Monday with my shoes untied, don’t even bother, just tuck the laces in. We pour burnt-orange liquid into molds shaped like jack-o’-lantern faces, wait twenty minutes, and pull out pottery. My job is to snatch them, stinging hot from the chemicals, and make sure the triangle eyes are carved out, the mouths gap-toothed, and the bottoms trimmed. Someone can put a candle inside, so the theory goes, and this is considered attractive. I work thousands of these pieces of shit with a cheap knife and wonder who in the world would buy such a thing. Sometimes they come out deformed, faces missing or the corners chipped and flaking. That’s when I smash them onto the shard heaps under the tables. I take great pleasure in smashing them. Some days, what I do most is smash things.
It’s shameful, but I drive by Sara’s house after work and park in the duplex a few driveways down. She comes out in tights and a sports bra, too heartbreaking to be in public, and begins to run.
My heart clogs with sand and wet newspaper.
Once she gets past the big houses on the hill, I slide down side streets to avoid detection. I only wanted her to be herself, never asked her to change, and made it clear I’d never change. But as she turns the corner, I think maybe I’ve never seen either of us clearly. Our former selves were blurs, but now the focus is too sharp. Or maybe she’s sharp, and I’m still dull.
I get caught at a light. I drive toward the university, but the streets are empty of runners, and Sara’s another lost girl.
I watch baseball and get evil drunk on freezer gin. In the backyard, I pull up fistfuls of grass, kick over lawn furniture that hasn’t been used in the year since Sara left. We’d have couples over to barbecue, her friends, respectable people who smiled and talked to me like I was worth a damn when I was making construction money. Now when I see those people in town, I duck around corners. I don’t enjoy the what-are-you-doing-now question or the I-work-in-a-pottery-factory answer.
The whole town knows Slick T isn’t all there. In the beginning, the cops would pick him up just for fun. That went on until he shat in the back of a patrol car. Since then, it’s been a war, if you can have a war where one side is all guns and muscle and the other side has nothing but a fishing vest.
Sara hated Slick T, hated the way he lives, and never understood what I see in him. I’ve explained Little League championships, how we’re like brothers strung together through blood and muck. I told her about our best years framing houses, both of us thinking we were courageous men setting straight the crooked world instead of knocking it out of true. She’d smile at that and say nothing because she’s smarter than me. Within seven months of getting married, she knew I was a goner.
I go inside and put on a bathrobe.
Even though I know she doesn’t exist, I picture the stump girl, brown leaves piling around her, her face made up like girls who want to look old enough to get into bars and run into people like Slick T. Ugly as he is, he has a way with those girls, always has, since he was young and dumb and full of you-know-what.
Next day, I wear a mask to heft hundred-pound bags of dust into a mixer shaped like a horse trough where metal blades combine it with water and whip it into chocolate milk that smells like clay. It’s a hundred degrees in the room. White dust coats the walls and gums my eyelashes. After my shift, I leave without even air-hosing off.
Sara passes me on the highway going the other direction. I U-turn to follow her through town until she pulls into a strip mall and gets out dressed in a karate outfit, a blue belt, and goes into Isshinryu Dan’s Karate World.
All the lights are on inside, lots of windows so I can see everything from where I park. They get in formation and follow the sensei, kick and punch at the mirror behind him. Sara punches and kicks. She throws people. They throw her. She keeps getting up and shaking it off, and I realize she’s a completely different organism since she left me. I thought she needed a man, even one like me, but it isn’t true. Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I feel sickly lonely.
At the end of class, everybody bows and smiles. Sara’s face is shiny, pink, happy. It’s like they’ve been through something awful but the struggle was worth it. I ask myself if the factory and living out the shards of a life is worth it, the leaf blowers howling emptiness through my soul.
Sweaty Sara glides to her car. Her headlights sweep into traffic, and the sun dips behind the strip mall. The town darkens me.
I leave work at three thirty again, covered in dust, wanting a beer and a cool, dark place to drink it. Slick T is on my porch.
“I’m sorry, Boss.”
“I’m not worried about it.”
He’s smoked his cigarette down to a filter wedged and forgotten between his fingers.
“I thought for sure I’d killed her. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
“Does she have a name you could look up? A phone you could call?”
“I blacked out anything else. I was thinking maybe I left her in town. I guess she’s just a dead girl on the brain.”
She appears then at my tree line like a flashbulb dying out, her long, wavy hair thick as a billion spider legs. My tailbone purrs. She places a finger to her lips and fades.
“Nah,” I say, shaking. “If she’s anywhere, she’s on a stump out in the woods.”
He’s wide-eyed, like I’m god speaking and he hears the clarion call.
That night, I roll around on the floor with the empties I pushed off the coffee table and think of stump girl, leaves up to her shoulders, her painted face wearing an expression like life is a joke not worth telling. Turkey vultures preen on bare boughs around her.
• • •
TO READ MORE FROM THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 55 No. 3&4
MAX HIPP is a writer and musician from Oxford, MS. His stories appear in Cheap Pop, SmokeLong Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, and other fine journals. His flash fiction is included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 for 2022, and he’s assembling both a novel and a story collection. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Mississippi.