Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured in issue 294.3/4, spring/summer 2009. This is the first half of the story and the conclusion will be posted tomorrow, Sunday June 7, 2015.
The raccoon took a crap in my truck last night. Inside the cab, in the cup-holder. I was still a little bleary this morning and my coffee thermos wouldn’t sit straight so I kept trying to push it down. That’s how my day started. That and a sore knee. He must have dropped down out of the pine and pushed in the cardboard I had over the busted rear window. I can’t remember what Gwen threw to break that out. Back when she still had the strength to throw stuff and hadn’t pawned everything in the house worth throwing.
Some night if I can stay awake long enough, I’m going to put out a can of Super Seafood Supper cat-food and when he’s fat and happy and licking out the bottom of the can, I’ll shoot that little fucker right through his eye, just so he knows it was me. Skin him out and hang his carcass in a tree to warn off his buddies. I’m starting to believe the house was built on sacred ground, cursed by a great Ohio chief like Cornstalk, right before one of my wife’s relatives cut off his nut-sack for a tobacco pouch. I don’t know what else would explain everything going insane, even the animals. My great grandmother was Shawnee, and claimed an unbroken bloodline back to Black Wolf, who
raided up and down the Big Sandy and Tug Fork, down into Virginia and crossing the big
river up into this part of Ohio, killing the men and babies, stealing the women, and
trading the children to faraway tribes. But besides black hair thick as fishing line, which I
passed on to my daughter, and being a sorry, sloppy, and cheap drunk, I don’t see it when
I look in the mirror. That’s why I can’t ever catch him, because by my third beer I’m
either drooling on the sofa or I’m out on a tear chasing down Gwen.
This time last year I got the ladder to clean the leaves and needles out of the gutters. Blocked gutters in the winter can cause ice dams and do all kinds of damage. I was a roofer for seventeen years right out of high school, back before the Mexicans started doing it for free, and I got nothing to show for it except bad knees and a shingle hatchet under the seat of my truck that slides out if I brake too hard. Now I work at the
discount tire place over on Route 4. Down the whole length of gutter on the east side of the house, every six inches, like he had a tape measure, were little piles of raccoon turds. Not piles that had been on the roof and got washed in by the rain, but direct deposits. In the quiet hours of the night, a raccoon is climbing on my roof just so he can hang his fat ass off and crap in my gutter. I don’t know why. There’s a square hole in the front porch where there used to be a rail post and he likes to go in there too. Last August he took a dump in the swimming pool of Amber’s Barbie Wee Three Friends Splash Splash Splash Play set and chewed off the little blue plastic umbrella. She and the Wee Three Friends were already living with my sister up outside Akron by then so we both didn’t have to watch her mom go bat-shit crazy every couple of days. She asks about it every time I call,
and if she doesn’t forget about it soon I’ll have to get my mother-in-law to find a used one on the eBay to send her for Christmas.
When I got to work Billy was already out in the service truck and Grimace was
climbing up out of the pit from underneath an old BMW.
He said, “Hey, Chief.” But it didn’t really sound any more like Chief this morning
than it did any other morning. Billy named him Grimace after that purple thing in the old
McDonald’s commercials. A few years back, the batch of meth he was cooking blew up
in his face, so like the original, he has no ears or nose to speak of and what’s left of his
lips are pulled back so tight he has a hard time closing them around words or food. Every
morning his senile mother paints eyebrows on the angry purple skin and he lets her
because it was her house that got burned to the ground. They change a little each day and
sometimes it can take hours to put your finger on just what mood he looks like he’s in.
But not today.
I said, “Concerned. You look concerned.”
Grimace said, “Really?”
He’s not big on mirrors and each morning it’s up to me to let him know how it
turned out. He thought a moment and said, “Yeah, I am. But I wonder how she knows?”
More often than not, Ma Grimace’s work with the eyeliner pencil seems to
capture what’s going on behind the hillbilly Botox.
I said, “Mothers know these things.” And there was a time that I believed that,
back before Gwen left Amber alone with only a cigarette smoldering in the shag carpet to
keep her company.
Grimace worked his chin against the pull of scar tissue and said, “They’s holding
a driver’s side caliper for me over at the Beemer store. Hey, you know the difference
‘tween a BMW and a porcupine?”
Counting Billy, I’d heard it at least twice for every BMW we’d ever put tires on, but it was so painful to watch him get out “porcupine” that I just said, “Seems like I’ve
heard this one.”
He said, “Porcupine has the pricks on the outside.”
Grimace’s laugh would scare Christ down off the cross.
He said, “If you go get it for me, I’ll fix that flat that’s waiting on you. Billy don’t
have to know.”
Billy likes Grimace to take care of his own work, even if that means a customer
lounge full of staring strangers on his way to a parts counter. Me, I don’t mind helping
I said, “Is that it?”
He said, “That’s it, Chief.”
On the way to the BMW dealer, I could hear a song in my head like the bandit
raccoon had returned the ghost of my stolen CD player. It was “Chief,” by a singer named
Patty Griffin. I used to like it, liked it so much I bought the CD for Gwen, called “1,000
Kisses,” and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day. At first, Gwen and Amber would sing and
dance around the kitchen. Then Gwen started listening to it over and over, just that one
song, and she’d sing along with the part about dreaming and flying and laughing “way up
high” as loud as she could. And hour after hour, day after day, that’ll wear on you. I came
home from work one cold October day and Amber was sitting up in a pine, in a little
pony t-shirt and stocking feet because freezing to death seemed better than another four
hours three minutes at a time. I went in the house and snapped “1,000 Kisses” into a
thousand pieces and that was the last time I’ve heard it anywhere except inside my own
head. For a while I tried to remember the lyrics, like maybe there was a riddle hidden in
there somewhere, but all I could ever hear was the part Gwen sang.
But nobody but Grimace ever called me “Chief,” and I can’t remember now
whether I first liked the song because he called me that, or if the name came later, in one
of those twists you won’t ever figure out. I could ask him, like I could buy another “1,000
Kisses,” but either one would make the answer disappear like summer fog. Better that it’s
out there and I never find it than have it gone forever.
Two crows were picking over scraps of fur in the turn lane in front of the BMW
dealer, and they hopped out of the way at the very last moment. The parts counter is
inside their “courtesy bay,” a long, double-wide garage with doors at each end, tiled walls
and a spotless floor. The customers drive in one end to drop their cars off for service, and
even though the “customer care team” wears white shop-coats that make them look like
doctors, the first thing they do is cover the seats in plastic and put paper mats down under
the pedals. The best you can hope for at Discount Tire is a complimentary ass inspection,
when we show each other the seat of our pants to check for any obvious globs of grease.
While I was waiting for the parts guy to get off the phone, I watched a blond in a
black sedan. She’d pulled in a few minutes before and was checking her hair in the
rear view mirror while she talked on her cell phone. She had a good ten years on Gwen,
but she had the kind of money that works like polishing compound because she was lean
and tan and buffed to a soft glow. And she sure didn’t have an addiction piling extra
years on her wasted body. Maybe she might make herself puke after a big meal at the
club, but she didn’t have sores on her arms that she scratched bloody in her sleep or death
on her breath.
Two mechanics in blue shop-coats yelled, “Close the doors! Close the doors!”
The one in front had three feet of two-by-four over one shoulder and the other one
followed at arms length with a flashlight and they both stepped like Elmer Fudd hunting.
The one in back yelled, “We got him now!”
The parts guy hung up the phone and customers and salesmen crowded in to
watch and all of the employees were wearing white or blue. The blond closed her phone
and dabbed at the corner of her open mouth with her pinkie. She opened her door and put
out a black high heel and a length of calf as hard and smooth and polished as a furniture
The parts guy said, “Ma’am, you might want to stay in your car a minute. We’ve
got a little bit of a situation here.”
She closed her door and I turned and said, “You got a caliper for Discount Tire?
A guy called on it.”
He looked at my mesh-back cap and said, “Look alive there, Slick. We got a
sewer rat running around big as a ‘coon.”
And I said, “And we got a shitbox beemer clogging up our alignment pit.”
A girl screamed and someone yelled, “There he goes!” and out of the corner of
my eye I caught something a foot long and rust colored disappearing under the sedan.
Flashlight knelt down behind the car and after a quick look said, “Shit, he’s got up in her
The parts guy said, “That don’t sound good.”
Two-by-four said, “Rock the car. Bounce it and I’ll get him when he drops
Flashlight looked at exactly how close he’d have to stand to bounce the car, and
quietly said, “Fuck that.”
One of the salesmen yelled, “Get her to pull up and brake hard. That’ll fix him.”
Two-by-four yelled at her and made big motions with his bat and when she
cracked her window open just an inch, like maybe he might be crazy, he still yelled like
she was way across the river. When she pulled up and stopped, the rat dropped down and
ran, ran without thinking about where he might be running. I turned on my heels and
drew back, and just before he reached me, the toe of my boot was there to meet him. My
sore knee twinged and he sailed over the black sedan, dead before he hit the tile wall. It
went quiet for a moment, then the salesman threw up both arms like a football ref and
yelled, “And it’s good!”
Flashlight and Two-by-four worked their way around to the other side of the car
and Two-by-four poked at it a couple of times. I was watching her and she was watching
me, and I don’t know why, but I took off my cap. Two-by-four opened her door, and she
turned, wool skirt on leather, and paused with her ankles crossed. She looked at me, past
the greasy jeans and the hard hands, and bowed. Not a big bow, from the waist, but a
slow dip of the neck and head, lowering her eyes for just a breath.
She said, “Thank you.”
And Two-by-four said, “You’re welcome.”
But I don’t think she was talking to him.
Flashlight walked up to me and said, in a voice filled with hurt, “You didn’t have
to kill him.”
When I got back to the garage, Billy and Grimace were in the grubby little office
with their heads together listening at the phone. Billy turned it back to his ear and said,
“Yeah, he just come in the door. So why do suppose the turd herding rats are all over at
your shop?…Well, you know what they say, ‘Fuck the best, die like the rest.’”
Billy hung up and smiled.
I said, “It’s ‘fuck with the best,’ not ‘fuck the best.’”
Billy said, “Is it?”
Grimace looked at me with an eyebrow smeared sad by the phone and said,
Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.
Come back Sunday June 7, 2015 for the conclusion of “Standing Deadwood”.