Donnie’s mother had been seeing this old guy named Cecil for a couple months before she finally bothered to say something to Donnie about it. Cecil had been a marine during the First World War. He came back from France a sergeant, and some years after that he killed a guy with a horseshoe. It was something about a girl, she told Donnie. He spent 22 years at the Oregon State Pen for what he did. It was a long time ago.
“So I don’t want to hear it,” Wilma said. “He’s eighty-two, and he carries an oxygen tank with him. He’s harmless.”
“That’s fine Ma,” he said.
“I’m a grown woman.”
“I never said you weren’t.” Donnie didn’t want to sink into an argument with her, not over some old ex-con who was probably a few steps away from the end of his life. The whole thing made him uneasy, for sure. Wilma wasn’t a rotten mother, but she made a lot of rotten choices when it came to men, Donnie’s father included. Guys came and went in her life like appliance repairmen, most of them leaving her even worse off by the time they were through with her. But the subject of Wilma and Her Men was one that Donnie learned to keep out of a long time ago.
“He changed out my light switch, and I didn’t even ask him to,” she said. “What’s that tell you about him?”
“It’s good, Ma,” Donnie said. “This guy Cecil sounds just fine.”
Donnie’s mother was staying in one of the Black Lake Cabins, the dozen or so fishing cottages left over from the days when the lake had water, before it was drained and a Red Apple supermarket was thrown up on the dry bed. He had gotten her into the one farthest back from the gate, where the fences came together near the grocery delivery bay. Just down the street from the Social Security office and right on the bus line, the place was the perfect spot for her. She had given up driving some months earlier, now that she couldn’t see much past twenty yards anymore. Besides, the long lines at the gas stations were making her half crazy, and the dates were so confusing, she was never sure if she was supposed to fill up on an odd or an even day.
The cabins were drafty as ice shacks and had about five layers of roofing tacked on top, but they were decent enough. A cluster of welfare apartments came to the tree line just off the side of her cabin, and now and then a woman or teenaged kid would come running through, cussing and crying, sometimes half-dressed and barefooted, usually drunk or high. Every Tuesday night a diesel street sweeper roared up and down the length of the empty Red Apple parking lot from midnight to one, but Wilma assured Donnie she had earplugs for that.
Winos sometimes came around to dig through the garbage cans, or go door-to-door, asking to wash windows or pull weeds in exchange for a couple bucks or a beer. This didn’t seem to bother her any, but there was one guy who had been hanging around her shed quite a bit, tugging on the doors and picking at the windowpanes, trying to get inside. When she told Donnie about him, there was strain in her voice that Donnie was used to hearing, so he didn’t think much of it.
“What kind of guy is he?” Donnie asked. He was already halfway through a six-pack and not in the mood to make the drive over to his mother’s place.
“What do you mean, ‘What kind of guy is he’?” She breathed into the phone, deep and rattled. “He’s a kid, probably on drugs. I don’t want him messing with my shed.”
Donnie lay back on the sofa, and stared up at the water-spotted ceiling. “I could come out, if you want,” he sighed, the offer floating like a day old party balloon.
Wilma cleared her throat. “It’s fine,” she said. “Cecil went out there last time he was here and took care of it.”
Donnie felt the edge of cut glass in his mother’s voice, like always, when it came to someone else taking on a job that Donnie ought to be doing. “He took care of it,” Donnie repeated. “How’d he do that?”
“I wasn’t standing right there,” she said. “He had words with him.”
“That’s it?” Donnie got up from the sofa. He had a hard time picturing an eighty year-old man standing nose-to-nose with a junkie. “What’d he say to him?”
“How the hell should I know?” she said. “Something. It don’t matter. Cecil’s old, but he can stand his ground.”
Donnie went back to the fridge and took another beer from the rack. Maybe this Cecil wasn’t so bad after all. It could be handy to have someone like him around, him and that air tank.
“If you ever see him, I don’t want you asking about the prison thing,” she warned. “He wouldn’t want me saying anything to you. And besides, it’s water under the bridge.”
“I’m not an idiot, Ma,” he said. “I got some sense.”
“I’m just telling you.” And then as she was about to hang up she brought up the vermin. It came out of nowhere, as if she’d snatched it from the air before it could get away.
“Goddamned rats,” she said. “Got into the pantry on the porch again, made a mess all over.”
“You call Max?” The question came as something of a reflex. Max What’s-His-Name, more a ghost than a landlord.
“He ain’t picking up.”
Donnie worked his fingers at his temples. The heat rolled up his back and over his neck. “Put some poison in there and give it a week,” he told her. “If it’s rats, that’ll be the end of it.”
“Yeah I’m sure. That’s how it works.”
She pushed air through her teeth, the sound of her having had it up to here with something. “I hope to hell you’re right. Next thing they’ll be in the kitchen, and then I’ll be on your front stoop.”
Donnie told her what to get and how to find it in the grocery store, and then he hung up and forgot about the whole thing. In fact, he didn’t give it another moment’s thought until maybe a week later, when the phone rang some twenty minutes into the Channel 11 late movie.
He put down his beer and pushed himself from the sofa, navigating the dropped clothes and empty pizza boxes, and an empty plastic soda bottle that lay between him the phone. It was a studio apartment, not much more than a pullout bed and a hotplate on a tile countertop. But that didn’t mean it was easy to keep clean. He was busy, and things had a way of piling up pretty quickly. He picked up the phone on the fourth ring.
“Donnie?” It was a voice he didn’t recognize, a man.
“It’s your mom’s friend, Cecil. What’re you doing?”
“I’m watching a movie,” Donnie said, leaning to get a look at the screen. So this was Cecil. He sounded old.
“A movie, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s an old science fiction thing. War of the Worlds.”
“I saw that. Tower Theater. Fresno, 1953. Gene Barry.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, I’m calling to tell you, you need to get out here and take care of this situation at your mom’s.”
“The smell that’s coming from under the house. She says it’s a rat, but I’m telling you it ain’t no rat.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. It’s that goddamned dog.”
Donnie pulled the curtain open over the sink. The window was dappled with raindrops and the pavement below was dark gray under the streetlamp, slick with water. “Mom doesn’t have a dog.”
“I know she ain’t got a dog. There’s this old gal here in the park, her lab mix went missing a few days ago. Had me driving her car all over town looking for the damned thing.” There was the sound of whispering through the earpiece, like a balloon giving off some air. “I’m thinking it must of got into something in the garbage, something it shouldn’t of. Crawled under your mom’s house to die.”
Donnie had a bad feeling about where this was going. The last thing he wanted to do was crawl around under the cabin. Besides, a lab mix would be a big dog.
“You sure about this?”
“I know that smell.”
He pressed the handset to his shoulder and rubbed his eyes. The subject of the rat poison occurred to him, and he almost mentioned it to Cecil but then he thought better of it. If there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that some things were better kept quiet. He put the receiver back to his ear. “Tomorrow’s my day off,” he said. Hauling heavy shit from warehouse shelves the loading dock was all he did most days. This was the last thing he needed.
There was no response at first, just the rumble of hard-won breathing at the other end of the line. “Hell,” Cecil said finally. “I’d go under there myself but I might never come back out again.”
It was after ten in the morning by the time Donnie finally found his way out the door, Mason jar of sugared coffee in hand, dressed in a heavy flannel shirt still smelling of solvent from the carburetor cleanout he’d done the weekend before. The Nova idled like a new clock, a cotton cloud of exhaust filling the driveway behind it.
He sank the jar into the cup holder and pulled out into the street, punching his Doobie Brothers cassette at the stop sign at the end block. He kept under the speed limit as he went, singing along and skipping over “Greenwood Creek” and “Beehive State” like always. The odor of axle grease and his own sweat wafted from the coveralls balled up on the floor beside him. His head was already pounding and he tried to push the image of the crawlspace from his mind, dank and putrid, bloated dog swarming with flies while Cecil the convict waved arms, probably knobby and tattoo-riddled, from behind his giant, torpedo-like oxygen tank.
Cecil had given Donnie a list of things he ought to pick up at the Ace Hardware on his way over, things that he’d need to move a dead dog from the crawlspace without it coming apart in his hands, and bury it in the vacant grove of cedars behind the cabins. Sturdy gloves (rubber), a cheap shovel, some garbage bags, a roll of Visqueen. A good-sized bag of quicklime that the young checkout girl eyeballed as she rang him up.
“Looks like you got a project ahead of you,” she said, chewing her gum as she talked.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Burying a dog.”
The girl leaned over the counter and peered into the cart. “That’s a lot of quicklime for a dog,” she said.
“It’s a big dog.”
By the time he pulled alongside Wilma’s cabin the rain was coming down pretty good. He killed the engine and tipped his forehead to the steering wheel, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The sound of drops on the metal roof filled the space and he concentrated on it, breathing in the smell of his own shirt, hoping for calm to wash over him, a kind of calm that listening to the rain from the under a roof usually brought. But the noise may as well have been a stopwatch tapping against in his head. They were in there, Wilma and Cecil. And there was no way to pretend that he wasn’t just sitting in his car, keeping them waiting for no good reason.
The second he climbed out of the car the smell hit, a fishy, sour aroma that was more than garbage or rancid fruit. Donnie stopped, leaned against the fender, and put his hand to his nose. The tiny crawlspace opening glared back at him.
As bad as it was out of doors, inside was a thickness that made Donnie’s head swim. It wasn’t merely a slight odor emanating from the back bedroom or the sort of thing that might arouse suspicion that something wasn’t right. This was the kind of rot that could bring a search warrant.
Old Cecil sat at the kitchenette with his hands cupped around a coffee mug, the skin crepy and spotted with crude tattoos. His hair was thick and the color of butter, and it swept back over his head like it was melting down his neck. He nodded as Donnie came into the kitchen, plastic tubes straining over his jug ears.
“Can you smell it?” Wilma asked. The ponytail that jutted from the back of her head was a shade of brown that Donnie had not seen before. She was still in her blue quilted bathrobe, next to the cracked kitchen window, a cigarette pinched between her fingers. “When you first came in, did you smell it?”
“Yeah, I smelled it,” Donnie said. He angled a finger at Cecil and said to Wilma, “You shouldn’t smoke around that guy’s tank, Ma. You’ll blow this cabin right off the pilings.”
“Don’t tell me what to do in my own house.” Wilma stabbed her cigarette in Cecil’s direction, her bony arm reaching out of her sleeve. “He says it’s fine if I stay by the window, and I’m by the window.”
Donnie went to the cupboard and pulled down a mug. “I’m just looking out for you,” he said.
“You can look out for me by crawling under here and taking out whatever it is that’s stinking up the place.”
Cecil pulled the hose from his nostrils and leaned his head back. He took in a whistled breath, his lips curling in a clownish grin. “Yep,” he said finally in a gravelly exhale. “I sure as shit know that smell.”
Donnie poured coffee from the percolator and leaned against the counter, taking in the smoky aroma. He looked out the window and made a comment on the cold. Cecil said it was November after all and said something about the dog again, and then Wilma pushed air through her teeth. The moment and the smell hung together in the room, rank and pungent, and pretty soon Cecil looked up at the wall clock and cupped his hand under his nose. Donnie nodded at him, took a swig of coffee and poured the rest into the sink.
The needle-like thistle quills worked into his stomach as he dragged himself over the threshold, into the open mouth of the crawlspace. The moisture and the funk closed on him like he was dropping into a cesspool, the soil cold and mucky, working its way under his fingernails and sticking in clods over his knees as he moved. He kept to all fours, the floor joists scratching his back, the spot of his flashlight zipping through the dark as his hand swatted at cobwebs that clouded around him like cataracts.
Donnie stopped, pulled his collar up over his nose and mouth and took in a heavy breath, hot and damp and smelling of his own body. He passed the spotlight around the space, brushing it over posts and draping webs. The light invented silhouettes as it edged over beams and cinderblocks, black stripes falling in weird angles over the dirt floor, brushing potato bugs and centipedes as they scurried away. Shifting to one side, he aimed the light between two posts. In the far corner, the shadow fell over a dark mass huddled against the wall.
“There you are,” he said to no one.
He leaned back and pulled his gloves farther up over his wrists. It was a long way to drag a dead dog and, as Cecil had warned, the thing might come apart in his hands. The smell, strong like it was. It could be full of maggots and bugs and who knew what else. He stuck the handle of the flashlight in his mouth and pushed ahead.
Above him, the snubbed tones of a conversation crept though the boards, the creak of footsteps crossing from one side to the other. He thought of them up there talking about him, Cecil saying, Wasn’t it something that Donnie came all the way out there on his day off to take care of a dog that wasn’t even his? Then Wilma would roll her eyes and shrug her shoulders, or do that thing with her finger, looping a circle in the air, as if anyone with half a brain and two legs could have done it.
He took hold of his flashlight and crawled slowly forward, as if moving too fast might disturb the dead animal that lay ahead. He hadn’t gone two feet before the light traced over the hard, black curve of a combat boot.
Donnie leaned against the siding, the rain running down his hair and soaking through to his shoulders. An unlit cigarette danced between his teeth, up and down, his heart drumming while his chest swelled under his flannel and he listened to the water rushing along the gutter and slurping into the downspout. In the Red Apple parking lot, tires hissed over asphalt.
The cops needed calling, but Wilma needed telling, and with the storm swirling in his head he couldn’t for the life of him place the importance of one in front of the other. He walked around and stood at the front window. Cecil was sitting in Wilma’s recliner watching television. Donnie climbed the steps and opened the door, putting his head inside.
“Hey,” he said.
“Is my ma around?”
“She’s in the john,” Cecil said without looking over. There was a game show on the screen. Two people sat in chairs leaning into one other, snapping words back and forth as chimes sounded every few seconds. “How’d things go down there?”
Donnie heard the sound of water running in the bathroom. “It got complicated,” he said.
Cecil reached up and tugged at the tube under his nose. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Donnie looked back over his shoulder. The rain was falling in sheets now, pinging from the hood of his car and the cabin roofs, and pooling into a hundred tiny lakes throughout the parking lot.
He stepped in and closed the door behind him. Cecil took the remote and reached his arm out, the skin hanging loose like silk. He drew down the volume on the television and shifted in his seat, leaning in toward Donnie. The edge of his lips pulled slightly and he peered at the window, out into the hard rain.
Wilma appeared from the back. She was dressed now, in loose fitting jeans and a checked blouse, like she was ready to go out on the town. “What’s going on?” she said. “You find the rat?”
Donnie came over and sat down on the sofa, across from Cecil, the coffee table separating their knees from one another. The old man’s eyes held Donnie’s, as if he was waiting for him to say something first. The smell was worse now, worse because now Donnie knew exactly what it was that was putting it out. The image was molded to his brain, the guy’s stick fingers curled at the knuckles, nails chewed to the cuticle. Lips crusted with yellow, almost fluorescent against the blue-gray of his skin.
“There’s a guy down there,” Donnie told her, just like that.
“The hell you say,” Cecil said.
Wilma stopped and put her hand against the wall. “What the hell do you mean a guy?” she said. “What’s he doing down there?”
“He ain’t doing nothing, Ma. He’s dead.”
“Jee-zus,” Cecil said. “You suppose it’s a bum or a wino, been sleeping under there?”
Wilma circled around Cecil then and took hold of his arm, and the two of them looked at each other without saying anything. Donnie leaned back and looked out the window to his car. The cops needed to be called. Wilma moved to the sofa and sat next to him, a freshly lit cigarette clinging to her lips. She set the big clamshell ashtray on the coffee table in front of her.
“What’d he look like?” she asked. She pulled the cigarette from her mouth and set it in the tray.
Cecil said, “What’s it matter? This place has got bums and dopeheads coming in and out all hours of the day. One looks just like the other.”
“What’s he look like?” she repeated.
Donnie looked down at his shoes, worked to clear his head of the smell and the thought of the ex-convict sitting there, sucking air through those tubes, peering with yellow eyes from that ragged, cigarette-singed recliner. The guy’s hair had been matted, blond maybe. He had a beard, patchy and caked with some kind of residue. There was a jacket. Flannel, red. Maybe wool, and he was stretched out on a sheet of cardboard, a filthy blanket lying in the dirt next to him.
“I can’t remember,” he said. “He just looked like a guy.” He glanced up at Cecil. The old man took his gaze for only a second then looked away, at the television. “So I guess we should call the cops in, then,” Donnie said.
Cecil let out a groan and leaned forward in the chair. He fingered the gauge on his tank then tapped at it a few times. “Hold up on that,” he said. “I’m about dry here. Let me run home and swap this thing out first.” He got up from the chair, joints popping and breath whistling through his nose.
Donnie looked to his mom. Her hands were knitted together at her waist, one thumbnail picking at the other.
“What do you say, Ma?” he asked. “You want to wait to call the cops until he gets back?”
“I wanna be here when they come,” Cecil said. “I don’t have but an hour or so left in this thing.”
Wilma kept on working at her fingers, not looking up. Cecil walked past Donnie and tugged at his sleeve before heading on out the door. Donnie followed him down the steps where Cecil stopped at the back end of the Nova. He rested his hand on the trunk.
“Buses quit running an hour ago,” he said. “I need to borrow your car if you don’t mind.”
“I told you. I gotta run home and swap out this tank here.” Cecil looked hard into Donnie’s eyes, stony. “You can drive me there yourself if you don’t trust me,” he said. “Leave your mom here alone. It’s fifteen minutes away, twenty tops.”
Donnie wanted to get a look at the gauge himself but he couldn’t think of a way to do it that wouldn’t accuse Cecil of being a liar. “You can’t wait till this is all over?” Donnie looked toward the crawlspace.
“If I stand here much longer there’ll be two bodies to haul away.” He pushed his hand out to Donnie. “He’s been down there awhile. What’s another hour?”
Wilma sat in a folding chair back from the crawlspace opening, a clear, plastic scarf tied down over her head. On her lap she held an old towel that she’d dug out of her linen closet. It was well past dark and spotting rain.
“I wanna see what he looks like,” she said, kneading the terrycloth. She told Donnie to shine his flashlight into the space, as if she could see the guy from where she was.
Donnie walked out into the open and looked up and down the gravel loop, at the parking lot entrance, at the other cabins with their draped windows glowing orange. When he turned the light onto her face, Wilma got up from the chair and took it from him.
She squatted down on her haunches and leaned in close to the crawlspace mouth, pulling her scarf back from her forehead. Her head tilted from one side to another, like a bird watching the dirt twitch. When Donnie put his hand on her shoulder, she didn’t shake him off or anything. She just kept shining the spot into the opening and muttering to herself.
“Tell me what he looked like,” she finally said.
“He was just a guy, ma.”
Donnie settled into the folding chair and wiped his hands over his pants legs. He tried to piece together the face, the image of the body curled up like a sleeping child on a patchwork mattress of flattened cardboard.
“He’s young,” he said. “Beard. Blond hair, I guess.”
“What’s he wearing?” she asked, the spot of light trembling over the dirt floor.
“Just dirty wino clothes,” he said. “These Army-type boots. Kind of a flannel jacket. Red flannel.”
Wilma turned her head, as if she hadn’t heard him clearly enough. “A red jacket?” she asked. “You sure?”
Donnie sucked in his breath, and scanned the image in his brain again. The dark pants, legs bent at the knees. Hands balled into fists and held close to his stomach. Red, plaid jacket, buttoned to his matted beard.
“Well, damn it, then.” She stood up and handed the flashlight back to Donnie, and walked around to the front of the cabin, peeling her scarf from her head as she went.
Donnie folded the chair and tucked it under his arm and went inside, where his mother was sitting in the kitchen at the small table. She had a coffee mug in her hand and she was moving it in circles, looking down into it as if she was watching the liquid swirl. When he came into the kitchen she got up and went to the refrigerator, taking out a can of beer. “You might as well drink this,” she said. “Sit by the window and watch for Cecil. Let me know when he gets here.”
“You okay, Ma?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
He took the beer from her and she left him, shuffled in socked feet toward the back bedroom, a pack of cigarettes clutched in her hand as if it was a security blanket. Donnie slid the armchair to the window and drew back the curtain, setting the can on the ledge without opening it.
“Donnie.” She was still there, standing in the short hallway under the weary glow of the overhead light.
“What is it, Ma?”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I ain’t a doctor.” There was no use telling her everything he saw under that house. The garbage strewn around the boy’s body, like he’d been down there for some time. The large blossom of red that spread out from his head, blood soaked into the cardboard. Maybe someone had clocked him good, bashed him with a metal pipe, or a tire iron.
“Guess we’ll find out soon enough,” he said.
Wilma leaned against the wall and looked down at her feet. She didn’t say anything for a minute; she just nodded, her dark ponytail moving back and forth under the ache of the dingy light. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said, pulling herself from the wall.
“What am I thinking?”
She swayed in the lamplight on unsteady feet, her arms folded stubbornly across her chest. “Just because he did time in prison once, doesn’t mean he did it again.” Her head shook from side to side but she stared at Donnie hard, like she did when she scolded him, when he was a little boy. “People make mistakes, you know. One mistake doesn’t mark a person for life.”
“I never said it did.”
“Maybe he hit him, but it wasn’t anything. It was barely a knock upside the head. He hit him and the guy walked away. He was fine.”
“I’m sure he was,” Donnie said.
“He’s a good man,” she said. “No matter what anyone says, Cecil is a good, decent man. When he gets back here, he’ll tell us what to do. ” She turned away from Donnie then and went to her room, and shut the door hard behind her.
Post lamps arched over the parking lot, like the cobra-headed weapons of Martian spaceships in a late movie, tips spraying light down onto the water-spotted parking lot. The cabins around him were sleeping dogs, their amber eyes fluttering now and then, and the secondhand on his wristwatch ticked on like the outside dripping of water from the broken gutter, tapping into the pebble bones that connected his hand to his arm. Somewhere, Cecil was looping his plastic tubing over his ears and wrestling that tank of his into the front seat, or maybe he was at the tavern, telling prison stories and throwing back one whiskey after another. He’d be back with the Nova before long, though, Cecil and his new air tank. Anytime now, he’d be pulling in with Donnie’s car, with the garbage bags and the unused shovel, and that big bag of quicklime.
Warren Read is the author of a memoir, The Lyncher in Me (2008, Borealis Books). His fiction has been published in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review and Henhouse (Write Bloody Publishing). He is currently an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop.