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An Introduction

Wallace Boyer ( Car Salesman): Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead. That’s how it works for most celebrities: After they croak, their circle of close friends just explodes. A dead celebrity can’t walk down the street without meeting a million best buddies he never met in real life.
Dying was the best career move Jeff Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy ever made. After Gaetan Dugas was dead, the number of sex partners saying they’d fucked him, it went through the roof.

The way Rant Casey used to say it: Folks build a reputation by attacking you while you’re alive—or praising you after you ain’t.
For me, I was sitting on an airplane, and some hillbilly sits down next to me. His skin, it’s the same as any car wreck you can’t not stare at—dented with tooth marks, pitted and puckered, the skin on the back of his hands looks one god-awful mess.
The flight attendant, she asks this hillbilly what’s it he wants to drink. The stewardess asks him to, please, reach my drink to me: scotch with rocks. But when I see those monster fingers wrapped around the plastic cup, his chewed-up knuckles, I could never touch my lips to the rim.
With the epidemic, a person can’t be too careful. At the airport, right beyond the metal detector we had to walk through, a fever monitor like they first used to control the spread of SARS. Most people, the government says, have no idea they’re infected. Somebody can feel fine, but if that monitor beeps that your temperature’s too high, you’ll disappear into quarantine. Maybe for the rest of your life. No trial, nothing.
To be safe, I only fold down my tray table and take the cup. I watch the scotch turn pale and watery. The ice melt and disappear.
Anybody makes a livelihood selling cars will tell you: Repetition is the mother of all skills. You build the gross at your dealership by building rapport.
Anywhere you find yourself, you can build your skills. A good trick to remember a name is you look the person in the eyes long enough to register their color: green or brown or blue. You call that a Pattern Interrupt: It stops you forgetting the way you always would.
This cowboy stranger, his eyes look bright green. Antifreeze green.
That whole connecting flight between Peco Junction and the city, we shared an armrest, me at the window, him on the aisle. Don’t shoot the messenger, but dried shit keeps flaking off his cowboy boots. Those long sideburns maybe scored him pussy in high school, but they’re gray from his temple to his jawbone now. Not to mention those hands.
To practice building rapport, I ask him what he paid for his ticket. If you can’t determine the customer needs, identify the hot buttons, of some stranger rubbing arms with you on an airplane, you’ll never talk anybody into taking “mental ownership” of a Nissan, much less a Cadillac.
For landing somebody in a car, another trick is: Every car on your lot, you program the number-one radio-station button to gospel music. The number-two button, set to rock and roll. The number-three, to jazz. If your prospect looks like a demander-commander type, the minute you unlock the car you set the radio to come on with the news or a politics talk station. A sandal wearer, you hit the National Public Radio button. When they turn the key, the radio tells them what they want to hear. Every car on the lot, I have the number-five button set to that techno-raver garbage in case some kid who does Party Crashing comes around.
The green color of the hillbilly’s eyes, the shit on his boots, salesmen call those “mental pegs.” Questions that have one answer, those are “closed questions.” Questions to get a customer talking, those are “open questions.”
For example: “How much did your plane ticket set you back?” That’s a closed question.
And, sipping from his own cup of whiskey, the man swallows. Staring straight ahead, he says, “Fifty dollars.”
A good example of an open question would be: “How do you live with those scary chewed-up hands?”
I ask him: For one way?
“Round-trip,” he says, and his pitted and puckered hand tips whiskey into his face. “Called a ‘bereavement fare,’” the hillbilly says.
Me looking at him, me half twisted in my seat to face him, my breathing slowed to match the rise and fall of his cowboy shirt, the technique’s called: Active Listening. The stranger clears his throat, and I wait a little and clear my throat, copying him; that’s what a good salesman means by “pacing” a customer.
My feet, crossed at the ankle, right foot over the left, same as his, I say: Impossible. Not even standby tickets go that cheap. I ask: How’d he get such a deal?
Drinking his whiskey, neat, he says, “First, what you have to do is escape from inside a locked insane asylum.” Then, he says, you have to hitchhike cross-country, wearing nothing but plastic booties and a paper getup that won’t stay shut in back. You need to arrive about a heartbeat too late to keep a repeat child-molester from raping your wife. And your mother. Spawned out of that rape, you have to raise up a son who collects a wagonful of folks’ old, thrown-out teeth. After high school, your wacko kid got’s to run off. Join some cult that lives only by night. Wreck his car, a half a hundred times, and hook up with some kind-of, sort-of, not-really prostitute.
Along the way, your kid got’s to spark a plague that’ll kill thousands of people, enough folks so that it leads to martial law and threatens to topple world leaders. And, lastly, your boy got’s to die in a big, flaming, fiery inferno, watched by everybody in the world with a television set.
He says, “Simple as that.”
The man says, “Then, when you go to collect his body for his funeral,” and tips whiskey into his mouth, “the airline gives you a special bargain price on your ticket.”
Fifty bucks, round-trip. He looks at my scotch sitting on the tray table in front of me. Warm. Any ice, gone. And he says, “You going to drink that?”
I tell him: Go ahead.
This is how fast your life can turn around.
How the future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday.
My dilemma is: Do I ask for his autograph? Slowing my breath, pacing my chest to his, I ask: Is he related to that guy…Rant Casey? “Werewolf Casey”—the worst Patient Zero in the history of disease? The “superspreader” who’s infected half the country? America’s “Kissing Killer”? Rant “Mad Dog” Casey?
“Buster,” the man says, his monster hand reaching to take my scotch. He says, “My boy’s given name was Buster Landru Casey. Not Rant. Not Buddy. Buster.”
Already, my eyes are soaking up every puckered scar on his fingers. Every wrinkle and gray hair. My nose, recording his smell of whiskey and cow shit. My elbow, recording the rub of his flannel shirtsleeve. Already, I’ll be bragging about this stranger for the rest of my life. Holding tight to every moment of him, squirreling away his every word and gesture, I say: You’re…
“Chester,” he says. “Name’s Chester Casey.”
Sitting right next to me. Chester Casey, the father of Rant Casey: America’s walking, talking Biological Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, people won’t be famous for fifteen minutes. No, in the future, everyone will sit next to someone famous for at least fifteen minutes. Typhoid Mary or Ted Bundy or Sharon Tate. History is nothing except monsters or victims. Or witnesses.
So what do I say? I say: I’m sorry. I say, “Tough break about your kid dying.”
Out of sympathy, I shake my head…
And a few inhales later, Chet Casey shakes his head, and in that gesture I’m not sure who’s really pacing who. Which of us sat which way first. If maybe this shitkicker is studying me. Copying me. Finding my hot buttons and building rapport. Maybe selling me something, this living legend Chet Casey, he winks. Never breathing more than fifteen inhales any minute. He tosses back the scotch. “Any way you look at it,” he says, and elbows me in the ribs, “it’s still a damn sweet deal on an airplane ticket.”

Guardian Angels

From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms ( Historian): The hound dog is to Middleton what the cow is to the streets of Calcutta or New Delhi. In the middle of every dirt road sleeps some kind of mongrel coonhound, panting in the sun, its dripping tongue hanging out. A kind of fur-covered speed bump with no collar or tags. Powdered with a fine dust of clay blown off the plowed fields.

To arrive at Middleton requires four solid days of driving, which is the longest period of time I have ever experienced inside an automobile without colliding with another vehicle. I found that to be the most depressing aspect of my pilgrimages.
Neddy Nelson ( Party Crasher): Can you explain how in 1968 the amateur paleontologist William Meister in Antelope Spring, Utah, split a block of shale while searching for trilobite fossils, but instead discovered the fossilized five-hundred-million-year-old footprint of a human shoe? And how did another fossilized shoe print, found in Nevada in 1922, occur in rock from the Triassic era?
Echo Lawrence ( Party Crasher): Driving to Middleton, rolling across all that fucking country in the middle of the night, Shot Dunyun punched buttons, scanning the radio for traffic reports. To hear any action we’d be missing out on. Morning or evening drive-time bulletins from oceans away. Gridlock and traffic backups where it’s still yesterday. Fatal pile-ups and jackknives on expressways where it’s already tomorrow.
It’s fucking weird, hearing somebody’s died tomorrow. Like you could still call that commuter man, right now, in Moscow, and say: “Stay home!”
From DRVR Radio Graphic Traffic: Expect a gapers’ delay if you’re eastbound on the Meadows Bypass through the Richmond area. Slow down and stretch your neck for a good long look at a two-car fatal accident in the left-most lane. The front vehicle is a sea-green 1974 Plymouth Road Runner with a four-barrel carb-equipped 440-cubic-inch, cast-iron-block V8. Original ice-white interior. The coupe’s driver was a scorching twenty-four-year old female, blonde-slash-green with a textbook fracture-slash-dislocation of her spine at the atlantooccipital joint and complete transection of the spinal cord. Fancy words for whiplash so bad it snaps your neck.
The rear car was a bitchin’ two-door hardtop New Yorker Brougham St. Regis, cream color, with the optional deluxe chrome package and fixed rear quarter-windows. A sweet ride. As you rubberneck past, please note the driver was a twenty-six-year-old male with a nothing-special transverse fracture of the sternum, bilateral rib fractures, and his lungs impaled by the fractured ribs, all due to impact with his steering wheel. Plus, the boys in the meat wagon tell me, severe internal exsanguination.
So—buckle up and slow down. Reporting for Graphic Traffic, this is Tina Something…
Echo Lawrence: We broke curfew and the government quarantine, and we drove across these stretches of nothing. Me, riding shotgun. Shot Dunyun, driving. Neddy Nelson was in the backseat, reading some book and telling us how Jack the Ripper never died—he traveled back in time to slaughter his mom, to make himself immortal—and now he’s the U.S. President or the Pope. Maybe some crackpot theory proving how UFOs are really human tourists visiting us from the distant future.
Shot Dunyun ( Party Crasher): I guess we drove to Middleton to see all the places Rant had talked about and meet what he called “his people.” His parents, Irene and Chester. The best friend, Bodie Carlyle, he went to school with. All the dipshit farm families, the Perrys and Tommys and Elliots, he used to go on and on talking about. Most of Party Crashing was just us driving in cars, talking.
Such a cast of yokels. Our goal was to flesh out the stories Rant had told. How weird is that? Me and Echo Lawrence, with Neddy in the backseat of that Cadillac Eldorado of his. The car that Rant had bought for Neddy.
Yeah, and we went to put flowers and stuff on Rant’s grave.
Echo Lawrence: Punching the radio, Shot says, “You know we’re missing a good Soccer Mom Night…”
“Not tonight,” says Neddy. “Check your calendar. Tonight was a Student Driver Night.”
Shot Dunyun: Up ahead, a sliver of light outlines the horizon. The sliver swells to a bulge of white light, a half-circle, then a full circle. A full moon. Tonight we’re missing a great Honeymoon Night.
Echo Lawrence: We told each other stories instead of playing music. The stories Rant had told, about his growing up. The stories about Rant, we had to piece them together out of details we each had to dig up from the basement of the basement of the basement of our brains. Everyone pitching in some memory of Rant, we drove along, pooling our stories.
Shot Dunyun: The local Middleton sheriff stopped us, and we told him the truth: We were making a pilgrimage to see where Rant Casey had been born.
A night like this with everybody in town asleep, the little Rant Casey would be ham-radioing. Wearing his headphones. As a kid, a night like this, Rant used to turn the dial, looking for traffic reports from Los Angeles and New York. Listening to traffic jams and tie-ups in London. Slowdowns in Atlanta. Three-car pile-ups in Paris, reported in French. Learning Spanish in terms of neumatico desinflado and punto muerto. Flat tires and gridlock in Madrid. Imbottigliamento, for gridlock in Rome. Het roosterslot, gridlock in Amsterdam. Saturation, gridlock in Paris. The whole invisible world of the traffic sphere.
Echo Lawrence: Come on. Driving around any hillbilly burg between midnight and sunrise, you take your chances. The police don’t have much to do but blare their siren at you. The Middleton sheriff held our driver’s licenses in the beam of his flashlight while he lectured us about the city. How Rant Casey had been killed by moving to the city. City people were all murderers. Meaning us.
This sheriff was boosting some kind of Texas Ranger affect, plugged into and looping some John Wayne brain chemistry. Boost a drill sergeant through a hanging judge, then boost that through a Doberman pinscher, and you’d get this sheriff. His shoulders stayed pinned back, square. His thumbs hooked behind his belt buckle. And he rocked forward and back on the heels of his cowboy boots.
Shot asked, “Has anybody been by to murder Rant’s mom yet?”
This sheriff wore a brown shirt with a brass star pinned to one chest pocket, a pen and a folded pair of sunglasses tucked in the pocket, and the shirt tucked into blue jeans. Engraved on the star, it said “Officer Bacon Carlyle.”
Come on. Talk about the worst question Shot could ask.
Neddy Nelson: You tell me, how in 1844 did the physicist Sir David Brewster discover a metal nail fully embedded in a block of Devonian sandstone more than three hundred million years old?
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms: You might see Middleton from the air, flying between New York and Los Angeles, and you’ll always wonder at how people can exist in such a place. Envision ratty sofas abandoned on porches. Cars parked in front yards. Houses half off their foundations, balanced on cinderblocks, with chickens and dogs sleeping underneath. If it looks like a natural disaster has occurred, that’s only because you didn’t see it beforehand.
Neddy Nelson: How do you explain the fact that an Illinois housewife, Mrs. S. W. Culp, broke open a lump of coal and found a gold necklace embedded inside it?
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms: Despite the dreary scenery, it’s all very sexual, these towns. It’s only the individual who attains an early beauty and sexuality who becomes trapped here. The young men and women who acquire perfect breasts and muscles before they know how best to use that power, they end up pregnant and mired so close to home. This cycle concentrates the best genetics in places you’d never imagine. Like Middleton. Little nests of wildly attractive idiots who give birth and survive into a long, ugly adulthood. Venuses and Apollos. Small-town gods and goddesses. If Middleton has produced one remarkable product in the tedious, dull, dusty history of this community, that extraordinary product was Rant Casey.
Echo Lawrence: “The big reason why folks leave a small town,” Rant used to say, “is so they can moon over the idea of going back. And the reason they stay put is so they can moon about getting out.”
Rant meant that no one is happy, anywhere.
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms: The central metaphor for power in Middleton, and especially within the Casey family, was the staging of their Christian holiday meals. For these events—Easter breakfasts, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners—the family members were divided between two distinct classes. The adults dined with antique china that had come into the family generations before, plates with hand-painted borders, garlands of flowers and gold. The children sat at a table in the kitchen, but not actually one table, more a cluster of folding card tables butted together.
Echo Lawrence: In the kitchen, everything was paper, the napkins and tablecloth and plates, so it could all be wadded up and shit-canned. When the Casey adults sat down to break bread, they always said the same blessing: “Thank You, God, for these blessings of family, food, and good fortune which we see before us.”
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms: Aging family members still stalled at the children’s table prayed for salmonella. For fish bones stuck in windpipes. The younger generations held hands and bowed their heads to pray for massive strokes and heart attacks.
Echo Lawrence: Rant used to say, “Life’s greatest comfort is being able to look over your shoulder and see people worse off, waiting in line behind you.”
Shot Dunyun: Before Party Crashing nights, when our team would go out for dinner, Green Taylor Simms would watch and sneer while Rant ate every food with the same fork. Rant wasn’t a dumbshit, he just never got past using a plastic spoon.
Behind Rant’s back, Green used to call him “Huckleberry Fagg.”
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms: Mr. Dunyun refers to Rant as “The Tooth Fairy.”
Echo Lawrence: Get this. Around midnight in Middleton, Shot Dunyun and I parked at the turn-off to their farmhouse, next to a mailbox with “Casey” painted on it. In the middle of a lot of crops, the house was white with a long porch along the front, a steep roof, and one dormer window looking over the porch: Rant’s attic bedroom with the cowboy wallpaper.
Bushes and flowers grow close to the foundation, and mowed grass spreads out to a chain-link fence. We could see a barn painted brown, almost hidden behind the house. Everything else is wheat, to the flat circle of the horizon going around every side of Neddy’s Cadillac. Shot fiddled with the radio, hunting for traffic updates.
From DRVR Radio Graphic Traffic: Just a heads-up. Watch out for the two-car fender bender along the right shoulder, westbound at Milepost 67, on the City Center Thruway. Both vehicles appear to be wedding parties, complete with the tin cans tied to their rear bumpers. Traffic is slow, as drivers rubberneck to watch the brides and grooms scream and throw wedding cake at each other. Be on the lookout for bridesmaids and white rice in the roadway…
Echo Lawrence: Shot fell asleep, snoring against the inside of the driver’s door. I kept waiting for a sign Irene Casey was still alive and no mysterious stranger had strangled or stabbed her to death yet.
Neddy Nelson: Tell me how in 1913 did the anthropologist H. Reck discover a modern human skull buried in Early Pleistocene soil of the Olduvai Gorge? Explain how modern human skulls have also been unearthed from Early Pleistocene and Middle Pliocene strata in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Ragazzoni, Italy, respectively?
Shot Dunyun: We walked around their cruddy cemetery, a mess of lawn-mowered weeds, but we couldn’t find Rant’s grave. How weird is that? We found the best friend’s name in a phone book, Bodie Carlyle, then found his trailer at the end of a dirt road. Tumbleweeds piled window-deep against it, and a pit bull chained and barking in the dirt yard. This was hours before sunrise. We didn’t even knock on the trailer door.
Echo Lawrence: Forget it. I never did see Irene Casey. We didn’t even knock on her door. For all we knew, she was already dead inside that farmhouse.
Wallace Boyer ( Car Salesman): Sell cars long enough and you’ll see: Nobody’s all that original. Any lone weirdo comes from a big nest of weirdos. What’s weird is, you go to some pigsty village in Slovakia, and suddenly even Andy Warhol makes perfect sense.
Echo Lawrence: Give me a break. At dawn, that redneck sheriff pulls up next to our car and bullhorns that we’re in violation of the federal Emergency Health Powers Act and the I-SEE-U curfew. We didn’t want to leave Mrs. Casey unprotected, but the Big Chief Sheriff points his gun at us and says, “How about you-all come into town for some questioning…”
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms: In Middleton, sleeping dogs have the permanent right-of-way.

Dogs

Bodie Carlyle ( Childhood Friend): Wintertime, Middleton dogs run in a pack. Regular farm dogs hereabouts, they’ll tear off and disappear, except you can hear them howling and barking at night. Other dogs, people car-dump them at the side of the road. Abandoned. City folks figure any dog can fend for itself, turn wild, but most mutts will starve until they’re hungry enough to eat the shit left by some other varmint. The shit’s crawling with fly eggs. Most of those let-go dogs die of worms.

Other dogs, they pack together to stay warm. The dogs that survive. The pack runs down rabbits and mule deer. Come winter, the farm dogs hear the packs howling over a fresh kill down in the trees along the river at night, and the farm dogs take off.
A pet dog hears that howl, and, no matter how much you call, even the nicest dog forgets his name. Except for their howling, all winter, they’re as gone as dead. Snow starts to fall and your pet dog, your best friend, is nothing but the wolf-man sound of far-off howling in the dark. Sound carries forever when the air turns cold.
Wintertime, a kid’s worst nightmare was walking home after dark and hearing a dog pack, all that howling and snapping, coming closer and louder in the dark. Something with a zillion teeth and claws. Folks come across a mule deer caught by a pack, and the skull might be the biggest chunk left. The rest of any hide or skeleton you’d find in bites, tugged apart by teeth and scattered all over. With a rabbit, you might find one little foot in a mess of fur, spread everywhere. Blood everywhere. The rabbit’s foot, with a little wet, soft fur, just like folks carry for luck.
The Caseys’ dog, it ran with the packs every winter up until it disappeared. Used to jump on the sofa, look out the windows at night, ears up to listen, when the packs were roaming. Hunting. Those packs, more rumor than anything real you ever saw. Half legend. The only monster we have hereabouts. More than half. The idea those dogs, maybe even your own dogs, would go crazy and hunt you. Your own dogs might track you home after school. Trail you through the brush alongside the road. Stalk you. Your own dog would run you down and yank you apart, bite by bite. No matter how much you might call out “Fido” or tell him “Stay,” tell him, “Sit!,” the dog you housetrained from a pup, spanked with a newspaper, that dog will snap his teeth together on your windpipe and rip out your throat. Fido would howl over your dying and drink the blood still pumping hot out of your own loving heart.
Sheriff Bacon Carlyle ( Childhood Enemy): Don’t ask me to feel sorry for him. Even in grade school, Rant Casey was begging to get killed some terrible way. Snakes or rabies. The Caseys, their dog, they named it “Fetch.” Some sort of half-hound, half-beagle, half-Rottweiler, half–bull terrier, half-everything mongrel. That’s the name Chester Casey gived the dog: Fetch.
Edna Perry ( Childhood Neighbor): If you’d care to know, the three of them Caseys called each other by different names. Irene Casey called her husband “Chet.” He called her “Reen,” short for “Irene,” and only to her face. Nobody else called Irene Casey that. Rant called Chester “Dad.” Irene called her son “Buddy,” but his father called him “Buster.” Never “Rant.” Only Bodie Carlyle called him Rant.
History is, Rant called Bodie “Toad.” No lie.
Everyone gave a different name to everyone else. Buster was Rant was Buddy. Chester was Chet was Dad. Irene was Mom was Reen. How folks lay claim to a loved one is they give you a name of their own. They figure to label you as their property.
Sheriff Bacon Carlyle: Same as dumping a dog, the worst thing a man can do is turn himself loose.
Echo Lawrence ( Party Crasher): Listen up. Rant would tell people: “You’re a different human being to everybody you meet.”
Sometimes Rant said, “You only ever is in the eyes of other folks.”
If you were going to carve a quote on his grave, his favorite saying was: “The future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday.”
Shot Dunyun ( Party Crasher): That’s bullshit. Rant’s favorite saying was: “Some people are just born human. The rest of us, we take a lifetime to get there.”
Bodie Carlyle: I remember Rant used-to saying, “We won’t never be as young as we is tonight.”
Irene Casey ( Rant’s Mother): Used to be, Buddy walked with his Grandma Esther to church on Sundays. Good weather, Chet and I would drive Buddy to Esther’s place and drop him off. Little Buddy made it a habit, seeing how she didn’t have nobody to walk in with. She only lived a glance down the road from Middleton Christian. An old lady in her little church hat, and a little boy wearing a clip-on bow tie, holding hands and walking along a dirt road, they made a picture to touch your heart.
One Sunday, we’re through the opening hymn, through the first Gospel reading, and halfway into the sermon, but Buddy and Esther still ain’t arrived at the church. We’re passing the basket for the collection offering, and the church door busts open. A pounding comes up the steps outside, pounds across the church porch boards, and the big door swings open so hard the inside knob punches a hole in the vestibule wall. With all the heads turning, craning to look, little Buddy stumbles inside, panting. Leaning forward with a hand braced on each knee, the door still open behind him and sunlight bright around him, Buddy’s panting, his hair hanging over his eyes, trying to get his breath. No bow tie. His white shirt tails hanging out.
The Reverend Curtis Dean Fields says, “Would you kindly close the door.”
And Buddy gasps and says, “She’s bit.”
He catches enough breath to say, “Grandma Esther. She’s sick, bad.”
Being cold weather, I figure a dog pack, could be a dog bit her. Wild dogs.
Sheriff Bacon Carlyle: Don’t hate me for saying, but no Casey never paid to fix that hole Rant punched with the doorknob in the church wall. Even accepting he done it by accident.
Irene Casey: Buddy says a spider done bit Esther. From the look of it, a black widow spider. Buddy and his grandma was walking, halfway done, and she stopped, stood still, dropped his hand. Esther shouts, “Lord!” and uses both hands to rip the hat off her head, the pins pulling out ribbons of her gray hair. A sound, Buddy says, same as tearing newspaper in half. Her black church hat, round and black, about the size of a bath-powder box. One swing of her hand pitches that hat at the dirt ground. Both Esther’s church shoes stomp that black satin in the dust. Her black shoes, gray with the dust. Dust stomped up in a cloud around her black coat. Her purse swings in her other hand, and she waves Buddy back, saying, “Don’t you touch it.”
Still pinned to the hat, tore out at the roots, thick hanks of Esther’s gray hair.
With one church shoe, Esther toe-kicks the hat over, and the two of them squat down to look.
Mixed up in the dust and gravel, the mashed-up veil, and the crumpled satin, just barely bending one leg, flexing one leg, is a spider. A dusty black spider with a red hourglass on its belly.
From the Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms ( Historian): Cousin to the shoe-button spider of South Africa, of the genus Latrodectus of the comb-footed spider family, the black widow nests in isolated places such as unused clothing or outdoor latrines. Until indoor plumbing became prevalent, bites from the black widow were most commonly inflicted on the buttocks or genitals of the victim. More recently, the spider is more likely to bite when trapped between clothing and the victim’s skin—for example, when a spider nests in a seldom-worn shoe or glove.
Irene Casey: Granny Esther touches the top of her hair, two fingertips feeling between the strands of her hair, stepping the curls one way, then the other, until she touches a spot that makes her mouth drop open and her eyes clamp shut. When she opens them, Buddy says, his grandma’s eyes, they’re blinking with tears.
She clicks open her purse and fishes out a tissue. When Esther presses the tissue on top of her head, Buddy says, when they looked at the tissue, they seen a red spot of fresh blood. It’s then Esther told him, “Fast as you can, run get your pa.” Esther Shelby lowered herself to one knee; then sitting, then laying in the dust on the shoulder of the road, she says, “Boy, be fast!”
Echo Lawrence: Rant says his granny told him, “Run fast, but if you ain’t fast enough, remember I still love you…”
Cammy Elliot ( Childhood Friend): Kill me if I’m lying, because I ain’t, but Middleton dogs turned wilder when the wind blowed too hard. A real gust of wind and all the trash cans go over. Dogs love that.
The first lesson a gal learns in sixth grade is what a septic tank can’t digest. Any female trash, you have to wrap it in newspaper and bury it, special deep, in the garbage. The honeywagon comes to pump out your tank and he finds more than just natural waste, it’s an extra cost.
’Course, when the wind blows over a garbage can, depending on the household, you have dirty Kotex flapping everywhere. Those gusty days, it’s everybody’s Aunt Flo has come to visit. Pads and napkins walking off, a regular army drove by the wind. Wrapped and losing their newspaper, they’re showing dark blood coated with sand and cockle burrs. Pin-cushioned with cheatgrass seed. Every trash can that blows over, that army of throwed-away blood gets bigger, marching in the one direction of the wind. Until they come to a fence. Or a cactus.
Shot Dunyun: Close by, Rant could hear the dog packs barking and snapping. He didn’t want to leave his grandma, but she told him to get going.
Cammy Elliot: No lie. A regular three-strand barbed-wire fence will look Christmas-decorated with those white puffs. Walk too close and you’d see the condoms snagged there, same as so many dead party balloons. Flapping green or gray or light blue, every rubber with some white mess still hanging heavy in the end.
Flapping at you in the wind, snagged on those pricks of sharp wire, you got panty liners and big strap-on, heavy-day pads. Smooth and ribbed rubbers. Brands of condoms and sanitary napkins you never saw on the shelf at the Trackside Grocery.
Old blood and chunks so black it could be road tar. Blood brown as coffee. Watery pink blood. Sperm died down to almost-clear water.
Blood is blood to most folks, mostly menfolks, but you’d be hard-pressed to match any two tampons pinned on a mile of barbed-wire fence.
Here and there, you’d find pubic hairs. Blond, brown, gray hairs. A good wind kicks up and all the folks of Middleton, we’re hanging out, same as birds on a telephone line. Like some 4-H display at the county fair.
Sheriff Bacon Carlyle: If you ask me, the worst part was keeping your dogs inside the house. Folks didn’t even need to see the spunk and blood snagged out on the barbed wire to know the wind had dumped somebody’s trash. The dogs would turn crazy, whining and digging at the bottom of doors, scratching the paint and wearing out the rugs, to get at that smell so faint only a dog nose would pick it up.
It’s different than needing to go outside and do their business. Dogs smell those rubbers and pussy plugs swinging in the hot wind, and dogs start to slobber.
God forbid you open that door. Most folks got right on the phone, blaming each other for the mess and calling someone else to come pick up.
Cammy Elliot: Country around here, it’s so flat folks can see from anywhere to anywhere just by looking. Regular folks hold to too much dignity to go hiking out in the face of a Sex Tornado. Nobody wants the community watching them harvest the shame like so many ripe tomatoes.
It’s either all the folks pick up their own, or nobody will.
Always, a big showdown. A decency stalemate.
Mary Cane Harvey ( Teacher): If I wasn’t still teaching, Lord, the tales I could tell you about Buster Casey. An exceptional young man.
Sheriff Bacon Carlyle: Don’t forget how some folks, including the FBI, was saying his Grandma Esther was Rant’s Victim Number One.
Mary Cane Harvey: Buster never got higher than a C in any language-arts course, but there was a sense that Buster would build you the entire world out of just sticks and pebbles and the few words he’d learned. I’d compare it to Tramp Art that men make in prisons, or sailors used to make on voyages that took months. For example, scale models of the Vatican built out of wooden matchsticks, or the Acropolis assembled from sugar cubes glued together. These are artworks based on limited materials and tools, but requiring enormous amounts of time and focus. Monuments to patience.
Bodie Carlyle: To show you how popular Rant got by senior year, one night our dogs took to howling and digging at the door. The wind was blowing, and you didn’t need sunshine to see it was the usual Sex Tornado.
Rant came knocking at our kitchen door. While my mom was on the phone laying blame, Rant waves me to come outside. Throwed over one shoulder, he’s lugging an empty burlap bag.
Seeing the gunny sack, my mom shakes her head no at me. But I kick the dogs away from the door and trail Rant into the dark outside, the wind snapping our hair, snapping our shirt collars up on one side.
At the fence line, a wad of white stuffing is flapping in the wind, wild and alive as a rabbit in a trap. Condoms flapping like gray tongues tipped with spit. Rant plucks a rubber free and holds it under his nose, the foamy spunk too close to his top lip, and he sniffs. He says, “The Reverend Curtis Dean Fields.” He smiles and says, “I’d know that stank anywhere.”
Rant drops the trash into his bag. He plucks a pussy plug, this one with just an itty-bitty dot of red in the middle of that white pillow. The red looking black in the moonlight, Rant sniffs it and frowns.
He sniffs again, with his eyes closed this time, and says, “It’s LouAnn Perry, all right, but she must be back taking those fluoride pills…”
Rant offers me the red dot, but I shake my head.
Before anybody decent has showed up to help, Rant’s picked the length of our back fence, guessing every dick and pussy.
Mary Cane Harvey: There’s so little to stimulate young people in Middleton. Social life is centered around the church or school events. The grange hall hosts a get-together every weekend, sometimes a cakewalk come springtime, and a craft fair going into the holiday season. Or the Cub Scouts will organize a haunted house as a fund-raiser around Halloween.
Bodie Carlyle: Rant Casey had a dog’s sense of smell. A human bloodhound, he could track anything. From staying out late at night, he could smell even better. By being the most popular boy in school, he knowed the name behind every smell. And by twelfth grade, all these talents, they finally started working together to his advantage.
“Look at this,” Rant says, and shows me a white pillow with a tight red flower in the center. Little as a violet. Without even sniffing it, he says, “Miss Harvey from English class.”
The howl of invisible dogs on the wind, the sound slipping around us.
It’s Miss Harvey, he can tell, on account of the red shape. “Makes a ‘pussy print,’” Rant says, one finger drawing around the outside of the red stain. “A hundred times more personal than your fingerprint.” The stain, he says, looks exactly like a kiss of her down-below parts.
You didn’t have to ask how Rant knowed the shape of Miss Harvey’s parts. Same as animal tracks in the snow or sand, he could hand-draw you the kiss of a wide-ranging variety of local pussy. Native-born or just passing through. Just seeing how far a rubber was rolled down, Rant could reckon what dick it come off.
A ways off, in the kitchen window of my house, you could see my mom’s outline standing at the sink, one elbow raised up and poked out sideways, her hand holding the outline of the telephone pressed to the side of her hair. Maybe watching us. Probably watching us.
Rant plucked another wad of white, splashed with a dark stain. He sniffed it and looked back toward my house.
I asked him, “Who is that?” and nodded at the old blood.
This new pussy print, a flower bigger than Miss Harvey’s, a sunflower compared to her little violet.
And Rant opened his bag, saying, “Forget it.”
No, really, I said, and reached for it. “Let me smell.”
Rant dropped the sunflower-big stain into his burlap bag. He walked a step away from me, walking down the fence line, saying, “I’m pretty sure it’s your mom’s.”
My mom, watching. Her ear still looking for blame over the phone.
Walking out with Rant Casey, time had a habit of getting stopped. That moment, another when time got stuck. That moment forever and always doomed to keep happening in my head. Those stars, the same old hand-me-down stars as folks still wish on now. Tonight’s moon, the same exact moon as back then.
Sheriff Bacon Carlyle: Between the time it took Rant Casey running to church, and the time we took getting back to old Esther, the dog packs had already found her. Irene’s mama. They left her something awful to come pick up.
Bodie Carlyle: If Rant Casey ever fucked my mom, I didn’t never have the balls to ask.

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