Joe had almost died three times in his life. People he knew were somewhat in awe of his fortitude and enjoyed telling about it. I heard the stories from his wife, Evelyn, who cooked Joe's dinners and lunches and lived with him in the dark trailer they had shared together for twenty years. Joe had almost died once outside an art gallery in Buncome County when he fell off the roof doing gutter work. He was lying there on the sidewalk as a milk truck from the Builtmore Dairy drove by. When the driver stopped Joe asked him for some milk and the driver, confused and frightened at hearing a bleeding man speak so calmly, hurried to his truck and fetched out a half gallon of whole milk. Joe drank it all and asked for buttermilk and the driver compliantly brought him a quart before calling a doctor. He had two fractured bones in his left arm and seventeen stitches that day, but Evelyn would say with a stern look that never hinted of a smile, "It was the buttermilk that saved his life."
The second time Joe was on the telephone when lightning struck and his two silver fillings nearly jumped out of his mouth onto the floor. The brass buckles on his boots singed the leather under them, and, Evy would continue telling in a hushed voice, he made a puddle on the floor of the parlor. Not, she hastened to add, while he was being shocked, but afterward. His fried brain failed to direct him to the trailer's bathroom. He stood, put the telephone receiver neatly into its cradle, walked two steps, unzipped, and pissed right beside the dining room table as she watched from behind the sewing machine.
I heard these stories the first time when I was thirteen. That summer as my parents fought domestic battles behind closed doors in their suburb I was sent to the mountains to stay with my father's parents. Air conditioners that year had gone on the blitz all over central North Carolina and the waiting list for repairmen stretched through to July. My brother was sent down to West Palm Beach to stay with cousins who only had room for one brother. Two days after school was out I lay in my bed sweating and listening to flies bounce against the window screen, my bags already packed and waiting just inside the door.
I was happy enough to be in the Appalachians for two months, to spend afternoons fishing, sitting silent in the front of the motorboat while my grandfather drank Miller Lite, or following him through the aisles of hardware stores searching for the final screw or bolt or hose that would make his Winnebago salable. After dinner Granddaddy usually went to bed. Grandmother played the piano until he had finished his shower, then sat up reading her weekly devotionals.
I was kicking around in the tool shed beneath the back deck one afternoon when I saw this girl Beth watching me through a crack between the boards. She was wearing a terrycloth tank top and shorts. It was nowhere near the heat of the central piedmont, but still my armpits were damp. Beth's hands had the sticky smell of grapes and grass, pixie sticks, dust. She didn't speak as I came out of the shed. We sat on one of the big cement benches in the garden, flicking ball bugs across its surface toward each other. She squealed when one hit her leg. I liked her, invited her to the kitchen where we drank apple juice and listened to my grandmother playing the piano in the next room. The house was quiet in the afternoons that summer. Everything was kept dark and cool and so you felt inclined to whisper, as if making any noise would, like pulling open the curtains, raise the temperature of the room. The lip of the apple juice bottle touching the rims of our glasses as I poured made two isolated, echoing clinks in the room. The bare floor under our feet was almost cold, but warmed up if you stood in the same place for too long.
Joe and Evelyn's trailer sat, squat-legged but well-repaired on the edge of my grandparents' property. In the evenings that summer I would wander down the hill beneath the apple trees at the edge of the garden where Joe's outdoor grill simmered with charcoal briquettes. Sometimes I would go barefoot, and scrub the slug slime from between my toes with an apple leaf while Evelyn made ginger ale with ice for me to drink. Beth, who was my age, sat with Evelyn on the couch outside the door of the trailer watching her knit, tracing marks in the dirt with the toe of her shoe.
...[she] wondered to herself what her mother had done to bring the baby back, and why she had left her alone on the porch, playing marbles.
The third time Joe's life was saved by my grandmother. Evelyn was in the kitchen at the house, helping Grandmother can tomatoes, when Joe came up from the garden followed by a swarm of mad bees that had broken loose from one of the hives. Evy flew into hysterics and locked the door when she saw them coming. It was my grandmother who finally had to let him in. "Margrit! Margrit! Let me in! These bees are after me! Let me in!" he cried, pulling up the doormat and swatting at the swarm with it, which only made them angrier. She took a look through the glass and yelled from the other side for him to strip—for the bees were already inside his shirt and trousers by this time—if he wanted in. "Take off your clothes - take off your pants!" Here my Grandmother would tone her voice to a fervent timbre I'd never known before, as if to mark the fact she knew what she was saying was scandalous. Joe, though standing on the front porch in clear view of the neighbors, was in a panic, and after only a slight moment of protesting he tore off his shirt and pants. Nearly knocking the door off its hinges (this is also true—theirs was a big oak door that was always too heavy for its frame), he collapsed beneath the piano seat to the sound of the door closing soft and soundly behind him, just as it always did. Grandmother called an ambulance just for good measure, as if to give some official measure of validity to the near-catastrophe, but by the time they arrived Joe was already sitting up at the kitchen table sipping lemonade. In the end it was Evelyn the paramedics offered to drag from the broom closet. She refused the rum Grandmother offered but finally took a sedative from the ambulance driver who, for several long minutes until the story could be explained, was sure it was she and not Joe who was suffering multiple bee stings. The driver went away finally, shaking his head. My grandmother herself was too distraught even to offer him a lemonade.
Beth and I made love on her birthday. When she pulled at the clover the blossoms came up between her fingers. Once or twice I heard the grass make a wet squeak as it passed through the knots of her fists. Afterwards we walked up the hill to the Ice Service Store and got creamsicles and stared at each other under the fluorescent lights. I was hoping she wouldn't get pregnant. I looked at the space beneath her terrycloth halter-top and tried to imagine it growing. I imagined having to send my weekly allowance in an envelope every Friday to pay for milk and pacifiers and blankets. Beth wasn't concerned. She said she was on birth control pills, but somehow I knew she was lying. Two days later we tried it again, this time on a blanket I smuggled out of the house.
Joe's occult experiences were not to be disregarded as a general part of one's summer experience at my grandparents', though they were not as carefully numbered as his near-death incidents. Once he and Evelyn had driven as far as Nashville (it was hard to imagine them driving together) and somehow found themselves alone in a vast, empty cemetery in the middle of the night. They had a dog with them then, a little spaniel-bloodhound mix Evelyn's sister had given them out of someone's litter. I've seen pictures of this dog; it was unattractive to the point of looking malformed, but supposedly it was bright and long-lived. It was November, two months after Joe's own brother had died while stacking hay in a cousin's barn. The dog was crazy to get out of the car, and huffed along the path on its leash like a furry gargoyle with its enormous ears dragging through the wet leaves, pulling so hard the end of the leash cut into Evy's hand.
Evelyn would say with a stern look that never hinted of a smile, "It was the buttermilk that saved his life."
"We shouldn't of been walking that dog in the cemetery," Evelyn would say. "That's plain as oysters." (She said it “oyrsters.”) They began a game between them of whispering into each of the mausoleums they passed. They had never seen mausoleums before, and though the gates were all locked, you could peer in with a flashlight and see the stone boxes and vases of plastic roses set on them in the backs of the vaults. The dog was on the trail of something the whole way, and they followed where he led, playing this game of whispering "Hello! Anybody in there?" into each tomb they passed. At last the dog stopped before one and they stood there for a minute and (here they looked at each other, judging whether or not to divulge this detail) shared a cigarette. Evelyn bellowed a whisper into the tomb and they stood with the dog panting and sniffing at their feet. The cigarette smoke blew cold down the hill into the shrubbery. They could see it rising under a streetlamp. Then something like a gasp emanated from behind the iron gate of the mausoleum, and a gust of air passed toward them through the bars. Before they had time to exchange a glance the dog had gone wild pulling at the leash and was free. They took off running after the dog, both of them glad of an excuse to get away from the front of that moaning mausoleum. When they reached the car the dog was already there, standing on the roof stiff-legged, with the hair on its spine ruffled like an angry cat's, howling balefully, its toenails tacking on the metal as it shook with each cry. When Joe unlocked the door it jumped down into Evelyn's arms without any urging, and they didn't stop the car again until they reached Knoxville.
Later that spring, Joe saw his dead brother standing on the floor of their cousin's barn, dark like a shadow, with his hands shoved deep in his pockets. Sometimes in the story Joe's brother looked up at him, and the only thing about him that wasn't like a shadow was his white eyeballs. Most of the time in the story he just stood there, hands in his pockets, lost in thought.
I don't know how I found this out—it was much after this summer, and perhaps, thinking back on it now, I only guessed. If I did, it was one of those guesses that you can make sometimes as a child and know immediately is true somehow. Evelyn had been engaged to Joe's brother before she had taken up with Joe. This was the only one of all Joe's stories she didn't take part in telling.
We tried kissing after the third time, but it was a sticky business. Beth insisted on it as something that had to be done to make our intercourse correspond to some kind of rules she had. These rules were secret, but essential, and she spoke so little of them while insisting so firmly that I trusted her. We tried kissing again on a day trip to the state park at Mill's River when I came out of the bathroom and found her leaning against the brick partition between the men's and the women's. We walked a little afterward, through a field away from the others, and I thought for a while we might lie down again on the grass, but we kept walking and soon I forgot about the idea.
Evelyn once killed a rat with a trap set under the trailer, and for a month afterward they heard every night, just after midnight, the rat's footsteps on the spare aluminum siding under the floor of their room, timid steps, and then, just at quarter past twelve, the slamming of the set trap, which had long since been removed. When Joe drank too many of his spiked lemonades he would sometimes tell me he had gone under the trailer one night with a flashlight, and seen the rat's glowing eyes, but Evelyn always stopped him there with a shudder and a giggle.
They went with us to Mill's River since there was something odd about Grandmother's car that summer, and Granddaddy wanted to be sure there was someone else around to help fix it if it broke again. But mostly he wanted someone to listen to it. He would sit in the front and pull the gears back from one place to another on the highway. Joe, in the back, would force a little "Hum" through his lips from time to time, louder or softer to be heard depending on the noise the car made. But, from the back, I was sure he wasn't listening. Sometimes he and Evy held hands in the back seat beside us for a minute, then they let go, and Evelyn would look out the window.
As a child Evelyn had seen her dead baby sister playing marbles on the front porch steps. She was coming home from school, and as she paused at the gate to let herself in, she was there. But when Evy reached the porch steps she was gone.
"She didn't disappear, really," Evy said. "She just wasn't there anymore." But the shape and the color of marbles stuck in her mind for days afterwards, almost as if she had stared at the sun and burned its darkened image into her eyes. It only happened that one time, though. She had stopped at the mailbox just for a minute before continuing up the walk to the porch, and wondered to herself what her mother had done to bring the baby back, and why she had left her alone on the porch, playing marbles.
Beth never did get pregnant. We had never said much to each other, but suddenly she began to say nothing at all. Sometimes I imagined nothing had happened, and sometimes I imagined fabulous things had taken place between us. In my grandmother's kitchen she and Evy cut the vegetables, ran water, brought in flowers. My grandfather puttered in the basement with his tools and came up for a scotch from the decanter upstairs every few hours.
At the end of August I went home. Sometimes later I found myself almost believing I had imagined everything. That's how I thought of it, whenever I turned it over in my mind—as "everything."
J.M. Parker’s first novel, A Budget Traveler’s Guide to the Museums of Europe, was published in 2017. His short stories have appeared in ISLE, Frank, Gertrude, Segue, Intellectual Refuge, Chelsea Station, SAND and Callisto, among other journals, and in Best Gay Stories 2015. He has lived in Seattle, Paris, Istanbul and Berlin, working as a journalist and translator, and is currently an assistant professor in Austria, where he teaches creative writing and American literature.