Nick Ripatrazone ’03
Paul wiggled between greasewood like a speared pupfish. He held the shovel above his head. Green leaves stuck to his chest. Kangaroo rats squealed from the bush’s roots. Their brush tails feathered across his feet.
Morse’s sweat had washed the tattoo of Mary off his back. His skin was part red, part butter-golden. His neck was pinholed and damp. He held the corroded knife high. Flies pinched his exposed armpit. His shoulders were caked brown; between his Wild Turkey dreams, Paul remembered seeing Morse wrapped in the deer’s hide, spinning in place. Then pissing in the dirt and turning his heel in the new mud.
The creosote finally trickled down to rat-gnarled patches. They crossed a graded Army service road that trailed from west of the Hansonburg Hills.
Paul couldn’t see. The sun had welded his eyes swollen. The wind, before sparse, was now fervent. Paul could only concentrate on his gunked, black feet.
He bumped against Morse’s back.
The bottom quarter of the rusted Ford Ranger buried in the earth. Grama stretched up the rounded sides. Wind whistled through the cab.
It was there. After thirty years.
Morse snatched the shovel from Paul’s hands and ran. He stopped at bed of the pickup. He palmed the pockmarked metal.
Wind sprayed dust onto Paul’s face, but he ignored the itch.
Morse leaned his foot on the shovel’s head and dug into the dirt that covered the sides.
“I’m digging it out. I’m taking the whole fucking thing out.”
Paul watched Morse’s shoulder muscles twitch. He grabbed the shovel. “Stop.”
Morse dragged the tip along the door. Rust blew onto his shins.
“This isn’t it.”
“It is.” Morse dropped the shovel and put his palm on the side. “Feel it. It’s still hot. Help me. We can get it out.”
17,000 dollars were buried under this truck. Wrapped in sweatpants. The sweatpants wrapped ten times over in garbage bags. Garbage bags stuffed in an Army-issue duffel.
Morse held up his hand. He swiped his knife from a belt loop.
The wind stopped but the sound of wind remained. An idling engine. A truck rolled forward from the base of the hills. Rock-glass popped under the tires. The truck stopped.
Clayton stepped out.
The tub smelled like a woman. Paul’s mouth was full of water when he woke. He spit and licked dripping saliva from his lip.
“Don’t get excited. You’re not dead yet.” Travis racked his razor in the water-filled sink. Shaving cream frothed along his neck but his cheeks were clean. He pressed Vaseline into a cut under a sideburn.
Paul shuffled his legs in the low water. He wore a flower-print bathing suit. His underwear, cleaned and starched, hung from a line tied between the shower head and a light fixture. His bad hand was bandaged tight and wrapped in a plastic bag tied at his wrist. His skin was burnt beyond color. He remembered tinted images. Splices of life. Face-flat on the desert floor, vomit spooling past his lips and chunking on the dust. Nudging Morse’s heavy arm.
“He shot Morse,” Paul said, turning his neck to face Travis.
“That’s the third time you told me.” The razor was loud against his stubble. “And this is the last time I’m going to go through this, so tattoo it in your brain. Soon you’ll remember the whole thing and kick yourself.” He paused long enough to finish his shaving and drop the razor in the water. Tufts of cream scattered across his smooth face and neck. “I found you passed out next to Morse. I thought the both of you were dead because you lay in his blood. I woke you up and put you in the bed of my Chevy.”
“I buried him.”
“In the desert?”
“Just like that. No one even knows he was here.” Travis patted his face with a towel.
“Clayton take the money?”
“All of it.” He slung the towel over his shoulder.
“Did you go after him?”
Travis smiled. He hung up the towel and put on a t-shirt. He pulled up the stopper to release the cloudy water.
Paul hoisted himself up onto the edge of the tub. Travis looked surprised. He leaned against the edge of the sink. “You know what the fucking thing is?”
Paul drained water from the bag. His bandage began to feel moist.
“The money was under the front seat.”
Travis walked down the hall and into a bedroom and shut the door. Paul followed the hallway to the kitchen, where the sun washed across an oak table, chairs at both ends. The table looked like an ancient place of communion.
The scar along Morse’s chest looked like a red and yellow ribbon.
Paul asked why Travis lied about burying him. Paul held up his arms. In the fucking end, he said, what does it matter?
Morse’s tongue flopped over his teeth as Travis heaved him onto the bed. The graded road sucked the truck’s tires while they swerved north. Paul sat in the passenger seat and listened to Hooch’s “Golden Valley.” He told Travis it was an odd song for an old man to listen to and Travis said he wasn’t as old as Paul.
They stopped. Travis left the truck running and took the shovel in one hand and Morse over his other shoulder and tapped the ground with the tip until it gave and he set Morse down but not that gently, more like a bag of mulch than a man, and he shoveled an oval hole that was only deep enough to reach his knees. He slid Morse in and ripped a crucifix from his own neck and dropped it on the dead man’s chest.
Paul’s palm was bleeding onto his thigh but he continued to watch. Travis dragged the dirt onto Morse’s body and smacked it down once he was finished.
It was as if Paul had never been here. It was as if everyone he had met was gone, and only Travis remained, and he existed as a ghost. Clayton could never have ever been real. It must have been Travis who’d gotten out of the truck, shot Morse, dug under the truck, dug so far he could reach something nobody would ever see. Smashed the shovel over Paul’s head. Otherwise how could Travis know everything?
Travis gave Paul two hundred dollars to get himself back home. Paul refused because he said he had no home. Travis said he could stay here for the time being, work at the station to earn his rent, and then go back north to Oregon, catch a train. It would be long but it would be a nice ride. At least there he’d be far away from everything, and now that things were finished he could go back to his carp fishing or whatever the hell he did in the forest. Travis said he didn’t like the forest very much because he always worried that he’d get lost. All trees looked the same.
The sun was on one side of the sky and the moon owned the other, and between the two a violet hue extended to the clay horizon. Travis walked outside with his hat against his chest and smiled and said the sky was so beautiful. It was almost as if God was there, shifting the clouds away. He said it would be a shame if no one else was looking up at the sky as they were just then, and he wondered how many times the sky had gone unnoticed. And it wasn’t because people are evil, it’s because sometimes they just don’t look.
Paul stared at the ground.
Originally published in Storyglossia.