Vol. 5, No. 4
When I first started reading Marvin Shackelford’s “The Kill Sign,” I knew him simply as “Author 32,” one of the many anonymous writers who make up Armchair/Shotgun’s slush pile. By the time I reached the end of the story you’re about to read, I still hadn’t the faintest idea who this author was, but I was a fan. There was a lot more slush to go, and many more stories to select for what would become our second issue, but “The Kill Sign” came up in every editorial conversation. Each editor had their favorite line (mine is the perfect cadence of: “‘Sure,’ I tell her. ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Listen.’”), and each of us still laughed after the second, third, and fourth read-through.
When the day came to make final decisions on content and unveil our authors’ names, we reached out to Marvin and the rest to ask that they be a part of Issue No. 2. One by one the positive replies rolled in… all except Marvin Shackelford’s. Had we lost the story to a simultaneous submission? Had we waited too long to get back to him?
It felt like weeks to me (though a quick look at the e-mail timestamps tells me it was a mere 48 hours) before we received the very last reply:
“I’m thrilled to hear y’all enjoyed the story and can use it. Sorry for having been so slow getting back to you; we’re in the middle of planting season, and life’s come to a standstill to ride a tractor. Many apologies.”
For me, this mirrored exactly what I’ve loved about “The Kill Sign” from first read—the story is funny, masterfully written, acutely self-aware, and ultimately moving, and it does all of this without the slightest hint of undue grandeur or pretention. Marvin is an incredibly skilled writer. He is also a regular guy with a job to get done. And his protagonist owes a lot to both of those truths.
It’s easy to fetishize “authenticity,” especially from a writing desk in Brooklyn. But what makes “The Kill Sign” for me isn’t the dialect, nor the cooler full of beers, nor the rambling pick-up truck ride through country roads. Rather, “The Kill Sign” is successful because it’s populated by real people, by characters who disturb me with their callousness on one page, only to make me understand the depth of their feeling on the next. By the end you don’t quite know who to root for, or even if there should be rooting involved. And that kind of authenticity is a rare thing.
Armchair/Shotgun is honored to have published Marvin Shackelford’s “The Kill Sign,” and is pleased as hell to be able to share it with even more folks through Recommended Reading. Whatever Marvin’s up to next, I have a feeling I’ll be a fan. We hope you will be too.
Managing Editor, Armchair/Shotgun
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by Marvin Shackelford
Recommended by Armchair/Shotgun
MY DOG’S ALL THE TIME humping the neighbor’s dog. It happens. Dogs hump. I see these bird dogs in someone’s yard on Jefferson every time I drive by, and half the time they’re humping. They’re good at it. They seem to enjoy it. But I’m not sure this is the case with my dog and the neighbor’s dog. There are problems involving my dog and her dog. Mine, for example, is a mutt, maybe part husky and three or four parts different shepherds or even some wolf, and hers, the neighbor’s, is a fine and well-bred poodle. Not dyed pink or anything but quite fine all the same.
And, really, beyond this being my dog and all that, there’s the fact I’d kind of like to hump my neighbor. Somehow, having our dogs hump doesn’t seem like the best way of advancing aims for human humping. You can’t start a conversation over humping dogs that leads to sex. At least, I can’t, though I haven’t tried. I just don’t find it to be a pleasant prospect—Hi, I’m John Peters, my dog is humping your dog, I live next door, I would like to hump you. While our dogs hump, if necessary.
Or maybe I did try talking to a girl about humping while two dogs humped, once. It was high school, at a party, and whoever’s house we were at had two beagles perched on the back porch steps, big wooden deck under floodlights, and I told Betsy Peller that what they were doing was quite natural and I could give it as good a go as the dogs. I was willing to see what happened. I knew about humping, I’d done a little before, and I felt good about our chances. But Betsy wasn’t entirely enthused. Found it off-putting, apparently. I try to remember what happened to her—seems like she got knocked up and moved to the river, out around Owensboro. Somebody said she decided to live off the government, and it galls me raw to think she wouldn’t give me just one drunk night when we were kids. Then I wonder what kind of a person it makes me, bitter or stingy or what, sitting around and remembering all sorts of stuff like that from almost ten years ago.
“Hump,” my buddy Petrie is all the time saying. “What kind a word is that for a grown man to use? Say fuck, Johnny.”
“Fuck you,” I tell him. “What kind a name is Petrie?” I want to know. “Petrie dish,” I say. I just don’t much like the word, fuck. It’s bitter and unpleasant. It’s a hard rock underfoot in a pretty field. Humping is friendlier.
“Well fuck me fuck you,” he says, “but your fucking dog is out fucking the neighborhood again.”
“Just unpleasant,” I tell him, and he shrugs. He’s on vacation from the delivery company he works for. All he does is sit around, seems like. Watching for the dog.
There he is, though, huge and hulking with that curved husky tail black on the topside and brownish underneath. Roscoe trots from behind one neighbor’s, crosses our front yard and disappears on the other side. I walk to the back of the trailer and see him at the other neighbor’s. Her lanky white poodle sits roped to a clothesline pole. Then Roscoe’s got her turned around and head down, right there on top of her, tongue out while he works. I peek out the blinds and watch him go until the door of the neighbor’s little camper trailer swings open and out she comes. She’s dressed for work, wearing a waitressing outfit they put on all the girls at the upscale strip club near the Air Force base. She’s too skinny, got some teeth going black, but she looks good in the outfit. Not stripper good, but good enough to sell drinks. She slaps her hands and yells at my dog. He just keeps on humping. She’s pissed, glaring from them to our yard, trying to see me, I know, where I’m hidden inside.
“Stop fucking, you fuckers,” she screams.
I figure I better go over. I step out the back door, jumping down where we’re a few cinderblocks short of proper steps, and wave to her. She don’t blink, standing over the dogs with her arms crossed. I holler at him to quit, but Roscoe takes his time and finishes up. He hops off, gives me a happy look before going on his way.
“That shit-eating dog of yours,” she says. “Why can’t you stop half-ass chaining him to the tree, or put up a fucking fence? You better do something.”
“Times are hard,” I say, disappointed we’re talking like this. I don’t know how to transition to me and her, us. “Your name’s Angel, right?”
“I’ll fucking kill him if he knocks her up with a bunch of mutts, you hear me?”
“Sure,” I tell her. “Yeah,” I say. “Listen.”
But she don’t listen, just steps back inside her tiny trailer and slams the door. I hear her banging around inside. Her poodle stares up at me, head on the ground between her paws. I don’t know whether to apologize to her or what. I go back inside and sit in my bedroom, watch our brown yards until Angel comes back outside. Doesn’t take her long. She mounts up on the little moped she drives. She doesn’t own a car. She slips a helmet over her head and whirs off. I see her disappear down our strip of the park and then she’s into the street and gone.
Angel, that’s a name. Sure. Could be a stripper name but she uses it for everything. We’ve gotten some of her mail and it’s all addressed to a Ms. Angel van Gogh, but no way in the world is that whole name a functioning unit. I start looking for ways to make it make sense—Angel is Angela, van Gogh is Vanguard or maybe van Zant. I can’t make anything better out of it. They’ve dumped in our mailbox an electric bill and a trashy sort of lingerie catalogue, plus a couple post cards that are blank beside the address and mailed from different states. One came from Rhode Island and has a bunch of chickens on the front, white-speckled black chickens. Not even Reds. The other shows the Eiffel Tower with a drowsy purple sunset behind it and came from Florida. I keep it all tucked inside my nightstand for a rainy day, for when the dogs aren’t at it and dropping by to visit Angel van Gogh sounds like a good idea.
“Oh, she’s a real mystery,” I tell guys at the plant. “Did you ever see that movie where the kid keeps talking to the guy who isn’t there?” I ask them. “That’s what this is like. I keep expecting her to be dead. Or one of us to be, anyway.”
There’s laughing and some rolled eyes. We’re grown men who make cookies for a living. We wear nets over our heads, over our beards if we got them, and we bake and ice and package eight hours a day like a bunch of Girl Scouts. We trade stories and sneak cookies off the line. One or two at a time, a package here and there. At home I’ve got the raw parts to make about five hundred creme-filled cookies at any time. So does everyone else, so we have to be tough somewhere. It’s kind of a group feeling that buying into stupid stuff, believing something crazy, might be that last little pathetic step no one wants to take. We’re usually real careful with ourselves.
“But her,” I tell them. “Angel is something from outer space.”
There’s the name. Still snaking out of my mouth like a wrong-number phone call. Then it’s the way that little trailer of hers sits plopped in the middle of the park, a tan-striped gooseneck-drawn box that looks a million years old. Her camper is the only one of its sort in the place. White, blue, gray double-wides, a rainbow patchwork of singles, and her mobile. Somebody had to haul it into Shady Court with a pickup and dump it down amongst all the regular old house trailers. I imagine him an Army man in a green dual-wheel, the disappeared Mr. van Gogh. No one, not the neighbors been living there twenty years who’ll tell you anything over a couple beers, or the fat woman in the landlord office, nobody remembers how she and the trailer and the dog got there.
“Women,” one guy tells me. “Them bitches come and go,” he says, and everyone laughs.
Me and Petrie rented next door and she still seemed new. Her poodle hadn’t worn the backyard grass out yet. She sometimes waved to us from a lawn chair, and we’d offer her a beer in the evening. Then we’d stand there with her just a short minute before she’d start hearing a phone ring somewhere and slip into her little back-end tin door.
“How hot’s that place got to get in the summer,” Petrie started saying. “Go stick my head in the oven and simulate the experience,” he said. “Can’t be no good.”
Late nights I see her come home laughing and accompanied. Army men that look like maybe the Mister of the house-box come to drive her away, in pickups and new sports cars, ATVs of all makes and models. They come heads shaved and arms low around her cocktail outfit, a thin but long line of them. I see her under the security lamps and think beautiful, what a singular beautiful Angel. Sometimes the trailer goes to rocking on its low axles or sometimes not. Some squeaking or not so much, like she’s maybe doing something different each time around. I never know what to think.
Petrie took one look at the parade and said to me, “Crack whore.” He doesn’t even look at her anymore, we never stop by to say hey. Nothing goes between us. Not long after we got there Roscoe found her poodle, too. Hackles got raised. I started getting a hint of that screaming voice whenever she rocketed outside to chase at my dog.
Still, I tell everyone over break-time cigarettes, there’s something beautiful about her that I think Petrie just ain’t seeing.
“I had a go with a girl like that,” one old guy says. He’s got a foot-long white beard wrapped up in a net and he’s eating cookies hot off the line. He tells us, “She was from up at Louisville, had two kids that picked their nose and ate it while you was watching. I’d go see her and there they sat in the yard, eating out their noses. She picked up and went to Nashville before long.”
“How the world’s that like mine,” I want to know.
“They’re all the same thing,” he says.
I wake up early to shouting. Part of it’s Petrie, banging his hand on his bedroom wall hard enough I wonder if he’ll put a hole through. He keeps hollering, “You old bitch, you old bitch.” He slams himself into the wall. Somebody else outside is screaming back and beating on something. I crawl up and peek out the blinds, can’t see nothing but the sun for a moment before it all comes to focus. Angel’s in her bathrobe, jaw working up and down and hair all frizzed. She swings a dull green garden hose over her head and slaps it into the wall of the trailer. Its metal lip pings and cracks and I’m sure a trail of pecks and dents are sprouting up along the outside. Probably leaving some scratches and grooves. Roscoe’s made his way into her yard and is humping the poodle again. Water slings out of the plastic hose and sprinkles the glass between us.
“It happens,” I holler out at her. She stays wild. I want to tell her, Come on in. We’ll talk about it. But instead I just raise the blinds up and wave and pat my hands in the air until she gives up and drops her makeshift whip. Roscoe finishes and they get untangled. I keep telling her, “Sorry, sorry.”
Roscoe trots back. He looks at her on the way, ears up, as she says something to him low enough I can’t hear. She shakes her fist and draws a thumb across her throat to make the kill sign.
It’s the weekend. I’m wide awake and don’t bother trying to go back to sleep. I fry up some eggs and think about a baseball game. The signal always comes in on a clear day. I open the back door and whistle for the dog. He hops in, and I feed him half my breakfast and sit on the couch to try and have a talk with him.
“You can’t keep doing this,” I tell him. “It’s no way to behave,” I say. “You know,” I finally let out, “you’re fucking my operation up something fierce.”
I get a cock-headed stare from him, his ears tilting right and left, then he comes over and starts licking my bare leg. His rough tongue tickles, and I lean down to scratch at his head. I tell him he’s absolutely worthless and he lays down in front of me, snout on paws and staring up. Suddenly sad, making you feel like he don’t know what he’s done wrong. He’s awful good at it.
“What am I supposed to do?” I ask. If he’d answer I’m sure we could work it out. He could do me a favor and cool it. Things would be easier. I bet Angel would even be less of a mystery. Then I’d stop feeling like I never been laid and don’t know how.
Roscoe don’t offer up a word.
Petrie drives us out into the woods, down tar-chip roads with no lines, slipping over a state highway here and there and getting onto dirt roads. He turns down one-lane roads and a trail or two I’m pretty certain aren’t roads at all. We’re just driving through a field, two ruts of dirt with grass in the middle. Cross over a dry creek bed. Deer jump from the trees and Roscoe barks his fool head off. The woods give way to corn fields, then we see cattle grazing, and then it’s woods again. We stir up brown dust and white dust, then Petrie finds us a big choking cloud of red dust that makes me roll the window up. It keeps pouring right in through his side and doesn’t bother him any.
Petrie, he moved down here from Ohio when he was a teenager, but he knows all these little roads and nowhere spots. I’ve lived here forever, and he gets me lost. When we go somewhere like Nashville or Louisville and he does the driving we never end up going a normal way. Not many highways, awful roads sometimes. No interstates. He knows all this land likes he’s from it. Days like today he gets tight-lipped, won’t tell where we’re headed. Especially if we’re headed nowhere. He makes surprises out of it.
“That woman,” he says. “All that screaming. You need away from it, too.”
“I didn’t mind it so much.”
“You just want to fuck her,” he says. “You’re thinking out the wrong end,” he tells me. “Just enjoy the ride,” he hollers over the wind.
We stop different places. At an old stone bridge on a dirt road, middle of nowhere, he gets out and talks to a truck farmer. The old man’s parked on the bank, vegetables out in baskets on the bed behind him, and he holds a cane pole out over the stream. They carry on a while and laugh like old friends, then Petrie pulls out his wallet and hands him some money. The man unravels a plastic grocery bag from his overalls and trades it for the cash. Petrie steps to the pickup and fills up with the produce, picking out a few tomatoes big around and red as apples, some squash, a few ears of corn. Then he climbs back in and we’re off. We wave to the old fellow and he lifts his cap off his head.
Petrie stops at a couple houses, knocks on trailer doors and goes inside barns to see people. I sit and get to daydreaming, fall asleep a little. Somewhere along the way I’m back in high school with Betsy Peller, watching them dogs hump. She’s got the straightest, blondest, longest hair a woman ever had and I keep my mouth shut until they quit. I offer to get her a beer. She says yes. She dresses like a waitress and lives in a tin square like a jack-in-the-box popping out from nowhere. Then Petrie bounces me awake, turning onto a state highway. I wipe the drool off my chin and we coast into a wide spot with an old gas station, two pumps in front, and a few houses around a crossroads. I know where we are, for once. We’ve been driving around for three hours. We’re maybe half a dozen miles from town.
He pulls in and we gas up at one of the slow-rolling machines. Inside I buy a pack of cigarettes and a coke, pay a little old woman who looks a hundred if she’s a day. Petrie buys a sack of homegrown potatoes and a jar of salad dressing and chats her up about some tent sale, flea-market type stuff. She says there’s a guy coming up from Mississippi, selling rattlesnakes. When we walk out again there’s a girl sitting in my truck. She hangs her bright red head out the passenger window and grins. Roscoe wags his tail and reaches forward over the rail, trying to lick her face.
“Hey there,” she tells us. “Nice dog you got here.”
I start to ask what she thinks she’s doing and Petrie walks up and kisses her on the mouth. I stop and stare at them until he leans back and wipes his hand over his lips.
“John, this is Lizzy. Lizzy, John.”
“Charmed,” she says. “I’ve heard so so so much about you.”
“Right,” I tell her. “You’re news to me,” I say.
“It’s been a little bit of one of those quiet things,” he says, and I tell her, “Silent.”
“Come on, baby.” Lizzy opens the door and wraps her arms around Petrie when he climbs in. I see her bare freckled arms twisting and her smooth skinny legs ranging into the floorboard and think, Jailbait. She says, “We gotta go.”
“Yeah,” he says, “we probably ought to get moving.”
Most of the story I get on the drive home. They huddle up and I shift gears along the highway about as fast as I can. They coo. But Lizzy’s a talker. She keeps popping up from Petrie to tell me all about the magic of their love. That’s what she calls it—the magic, like it’s a fairytale sort of thing. He looks a little embarrassed when she talks, his cheeks sucking a little tight, but I just let her talk on and listen.
“He just showed up,” she says. “I was at home by myself. Taking a day off, you know, and there he is, delivering me a package, or for my mama or somebody. It wasn’t for me, but whatever. Mike’s there at the door in his uniform, the truck’s parked there, and he’s trying to get me to sign. I just can’t stop thinking, oh, my God. This man.
“And I don’t know.” She shrugs. “You know magic when you see it, right? You feel it?”
“Sure,” I tell her.
“Mike, baby, you felt it too, right?”
Petrie mumbles something. I try to remember other people ever using his first name, can’t even think of another woman doing it. But she saw his name tag and it stuck. They finally get to the sketchy part—she’s sixteen. A very mature sixteen, Petrie promises. Almost seventeen. I shake my head and she tells me it’s not that big a deal, but her daddy thinks it is. They sneak around and barely see each other, except when he’s out of town. It’s not like it’s illegal but you don’t want to mess with these statutory things, they say. Daddy does that with all her boyfriends. Daddy’s an Army guy.
“What about you,” Lizzy says after a while. I start to tell about Angel and what a mystery she is, because it’s the best story I have and the one that seems the most true, but then we’re pulling down the lane at Shady Court and up in front of our place and Petrie laughs. He points and says, “There’s his woman.” Angel’s beside her camper, dressed in a sports bra and tiny shorts. She’s sweaty, watching while we park and get out.
“Your crazy neighbor woman?” Lizzy whispers. “He’s serious?”
He doesn’t answer, just laughs again and drags her through the front door. I walk in behind them, fill Roscoe’s bowl up with water. They disappear down the hall and into his bedroom. Petrie’s radio comes on. The dog laps water with his tongue, puddles a bit on the floor. I feel like I’m taking up too much room in a crowded backseat. Sometimes I find myself in a spot like this, invited, in my own place, but a third wheel. Useless. I wonder what kind of a person I must be to not even know how I got where I am. I wonder if, at her age, this makes me some kind of accessory to kidnapping. Or worse.
I wash the food we bought, dump some beer from the fridge into a cooler. We’d talked about this being a big night. I guess Lizzy’s the reason but it doesn’t matter. I carry the booze into the backyard, hook Roscoe on his chain and fire the grill. Across the yard I see Angel going around her trailer. She kicks each tire, bends her bony body to check the air pressure with a key-chain gauge. Like she’s getting ready to take flight. I picture her on the moped, pulling her camper along. Roscoe’s off his lead a moment later and over sniffing around her. There’s no sign of the poodle, though, and Angel just stands and watches him until he wanders off.
I wrap three ears of corn in tin foil and set them on the high rack. I think about her, how I keep coming back to the mystery of her and how that trailer of hers rocks back and forth, or sometimes it doesn’t. I shove down how horrible I’ve been feeling about me and Petrie and his secret little girlfriend and everything, and I lift my hand and wave. Angel waves back. I hold a beer up and holler, “Wanna come eat?”
She goes inside her trailer and comes right back out with a t-shirt added to her outfit. I’m careful to look only at her face anyway.
“Hey, neighbor,” I say. She takes a beer and watches me put the burgers on.
“Hey yourself.” Her voice is like roses over sandpaper. Her lips are full and pursed, despite how skinny the rest of her is. I grin and get a wide-eyed smile back.
“Sorry about the dog,” I tell her. “Thought a friendly meal might make up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “That’s all done and gone.”
“I don’t know whether to tell you good luck or be pissed off,” Petrie says when he catches me in the kitchen. “Be careful with this bitch.”
Then him and Lizzie are gone, supposedly for a couple of days. Dinner was quick and quiet, nothing but small talk. The food’s good. I even bake some cookies, paste them together with icing. But it’s kind of unpleasant. Petrie’s not happy, still can’t see what it is I feel in the woman. He’s too busy with his own deal to pay attention now, anyway.
Once they’re gone I expect Angel to get up, too, but she stays put. We sit in Adirondack chairs and drink while the sun sets. I smoke her cigarettes. Roscoe lays in the grass in front of us. I wonder if I ought to say something, how I ought to get things moving, then a car pulls into her drive. It’s blue and riding close to the ground, pulling a short trailer. She gets up and goes to talk to the guy who gets out. The man tells her something, and she gives a long answer back. He finally takes his wallet and counts out a handful of bills. He’s about six-foot-six, bald across the top of his head but solid muscle. I get a kindly sick feeling in my stomach. But then she walks to her moped, kicks up the stand and rolls it to him. He loads it onto the trailer and then he’s gone.
“Guess you’re leaving town,” I say when she comes back.
“Could do it.” She stands over me, eyes glazed, and rocks from toes to heels.
“No more worrying with your neighbors.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Getting out of the strip club,” I guess.
“Haven’t been there in a while.”
“Wanna hear a story about my last day there?” she asks, and I nod. “I was in early to do the midday cleaning. Mop shit up. I haven’t stripped in something like three years, you know. But I get there and it’s quiet like always. I’m going around and taking care of business and everything’s fine. Then in the back, I’m in the kitchen looking for some chemical shit, and there they are. Two of the cooks, these backwoods motherfuckers they cart in to work cheap because. You know?”
“Rednecks,” I say.
“Yeah, but worse. Plain white trash. There they are with their pants around their ankles, cocks out and hard and laid on the counter, trying to measure which one’s longer.”
“Shit, you’re kidding me.”
“I’m not. And then it gets better,” Angel says, lighting a cigarette and waving it at me while she raves on. “These two fuckers see me and start waving them at me.”
“What, their junk?”
“Fucking all through the air like wands,” she says, shaking the cigarette. “First they try to calm me down, tell me to shut up. But I freak out hard, keep yelling for them to pull their pants up. I mean, I don’t know what they’re gonna do. Then they start shaking their cocks and asking if I want some. So I start throwing shit. You know? Pots, pans, bottles, whatever was laying around. I went wild.”
“Waving them,” I say. It bothers me, but there’s something a little funny about it, too. I don’t laugh and tell her, “I’d of quit, too.”
“Oh, I didn’t quit. They fired me. Yes, sir,” she says. “They fired me. Because I freaked and broke shit. Can you fucking believe that? The guy that was just here? He’s the manager. Said it wasn’t that big a deal that they’re messing with their junk. He didn’t want to find new cooks is what that was. So I tried to kick the shit out of him.”
“And you just sold him your moped?”
“It’s not a moped. It’s a fucking Vespa scooter. Don’t you know shit?”
I shrug, see some irritation in her face. Moped, scooter, all looks the same to me.
“It’s vintage. Worth money,” she says, rubbing her fingers together. “But I took him on it, too, so don’t worry. He overpaid by a mile.”
I shake my head. Stories like that, I don’t know what to think. I hear them at work, from the other side. I get a lot of them from Petrie, people opening their front doors for a package and they’re all kinds of naked. Doing weird stuff. I think a minute, something jarring around in my head. I look up and find her watching me.
“But that outfit,” I say. “Your waitress uniform. I still see you in it all the time.”
“It still comes in handy.” Angel smiles and spins a slow circle like she’s testing the air around us. “Guys around here recognize it, lets them know where you’re from. What you’re doing. They feel okay coming up to you. Especially guys like that.”
I light a cigarette and watch her grow dim with the disappearing sun. Any moment I imagine she’ll be gone, poof. No trace left. She stands there looking at me, and I feel her flat eyes scrape me over. I realize this is it, this is the moment. The mystery of Angel van Gogh is really just the stupid little-boy love I keep feeling, and right here I can open it up to something else. I open my mouth and she speaks first. She steps over to me and straddles my legs, lowers until she’s on my knees like something drifting down from heaven. Then she bounces a little.
“Are you one of those kind of guys?” she wants to know.
She presses her lips to mine. I slide my hands up her legs and get a good hold, and we kiss in the new dark. Her hand works on the front of my pants and I feel myself getting hard. I think this is it, I’m right there. I run my fingers up under her shirt, feel her strapped-in breasts. But it’s all off. Everything good about her, the skinny dark legs and sinking stomach, the tinge of sweat deep in her hair, it all feels broke. Right when I know, right now, I need to take her inside, get what I’ve been dreaming after, I feel nothing but panic. Some big bad fear I don’t even want to put a name to. I wriggle around and loosen us up some.
“No,” I tell her, hardly getting my breath. “I don’t think I am one of those guys.”
She sits on me, panting a little. Pulls my zipper back up. I didn’t know she’d even gotten that far with the pants.
“Too fast,” I say. I wait for her to answer but she just nods. She stands up and stretches. Can maybe see something in my eyes, a little part of what’s creeping up in me.
“Can I take some of this food?” she wants to know. “Y’all made way too much.”
She piles a plate up, a ton of leftovers, and then she’s gone into her tiny trailer. I think she even takes a tray of raw hamburger we didn’t cook. I don’t care. I go inside, Roscoe following me in. I pace around the living room a while and he stares at me. Something just fell through my lap, kind of literally, and I can’t tell if it’s a good thing to let it go or not. I think about running over and making the big plea like in a movie, please baby won’t you have me, or getting her flowers. And then pleading. Begging like a dog. The taste of her’s in my mouth, though, and that’s the only thing that tells me it’s okay, I didn’t just piss something away. She tastes like something sad and mean.
Still, that voice calling me a wimp stays in my head. I’m not even good as a dog. Roscoe, he sits and watches me. I start asking him about it. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I just hunt and mount up? You saw it all—what’s the problem? Am I really sniffing something evil on her or am I just crazy? I’m not a dog, for crying out loud—then I think, too, his friend the poodle, she’s not even around. It’s probably wrong to grill him like this when his answers to life’s big questions have gone missing.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “It’s not your fault.”
In the morning I’m telling Roscoe the same thing, over and over. It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault. I sleep rough and wake up early. When I open the door to let him in for breakfast he’s weaving around, can’t stay balanced. He starts to jump up inside and misses, bounces his nose off the wall of the trailer. He wobbles like he’s drunk and I feel sick. He stares up at me. Eyes dull and quiet. I step out and check him over and he’s otherwise fine, but then I see it right there in the backyard between two of our big wooden chairs. A big bowl of mess soaked solid yellow and greenish in antifreeze.
What I know is it’s bad. More they eat the deader they’re likely to be, and it’s sweet so you can bet he ate a lot. I holler for Petrie, remember he never came home, and drag Roscoe around front by his collar. He staggers but goes. I open the truck door and he climbs in the floorboard, sits looking up at me. Then we’re off. I tear ass through town and wonder about cops. Sunday morning and everything’s empty but I know stories about them pulling over pregnant women on the way to give birth and writing them tickets. Sick dog would be worse.
“It’s not your fault,” I tell him. He stares at me with those slow brown eyes, so ridiculously sad. I run a red light and go the wrong way down a one-way. I think about just taking him to the hospital. Out on the boulevard, though, there’s an emergency vet, a white building with just those words written across the front. Emergency Vet, beneath that 24 Hours. It’s a pizza restaurant they rebuilt to suit them and something about that scares me a little bit, but I pull in and park right in front of the glass doors. Inside there’s a tired-looking girl at a desk. She looks from me to Roscoe and asks how she can help.
“Antifreeze,” I say.
She gets right on the phone. I wait for the doctor and fill out forms. Roscoe’s come around a little, but I don’t think it means much. He marches over and lays at the receptionist’s feet so she can scratch his head. The vet gets there and asks a quick string of questions on the way to the back: How long’s it been? I don’t know. How much was it? I don’t know, probably a lot. What’s he eaten? It was soaked in some meat or something, nothing else. No breakfast. Then he shuts up in an antiseptic-smelling room, aiming to pump Roscoe’s stomach, I guess, maybe thin his blood, who knows. I’m sitting in the tiny box of a lobby, again, talking to the receptionist.
Or she’s talking. She’s a veterinarian student. Sort of. Or something. She wants to be. She’s in college. This is just a shit job. Did I know that they give the dogs vodka, get them drunk? That it seems to help them survive antifreeze poisoning? No, I didn’t know that. She wants me to know that she thinks it’ll be all right.
I look up at her. She’s pretty. The way her face curls under her red-frame glasses sends a shiver through me. She offers to make some coffee, but I shake my head. I’m already wide awake. Not really there, maybe, but as awake as anybody ever was. I look at her a while and she looks back. She smiles and I wonder, what the hell. What the hell? Every woman I ever lay eyes on feels like the same one, over and over. I’m starting to wonder what’s wrong with me. I climb up and stand in front of her desk.
“If he dies,” I tell her, “save his body for me. I’ll bury him myself.”
She looks at me cockeyed and opens her mouth. I don’t wait to hear her. I leave.
It’s a real mystery, I tell myself. I drive slow back across town. I pass churches starting to fill up with black-suited people and I wonder what good that is. The mysteries of Jesus, the everlasting life, all that, what are we supposed to do with it when we can’t even figure shit in this life out? The dying won’t stop right here and now. I don’t know what heaven will do for a dog, anyway. I drive on past the steeples.
It’s a mystery how I went to bed and everything was fine, how I got out of the bed and everything was all wrong, the dog was poisoned, and it done so blatant it’s almost unreal. They came into the yard and set it out for him. And I think about it, who would do something like that to a dog, then I think, Roscoe, specifically Roscoe, and it near makes me sick. I wonder if he’s dead already. I think about who has told me and him and everyone else they want him dead, over and over like a prayer. Angel van Gogh, that mystery of mysteries, but I really don’t want to even think about it.
At home there’s more I can’t figure out. Right off, at least. A big truck sits in the drive next door. I watch it, feeling suspicious of anything and everything. And then I see him. Standing over Angel. He’s got a crew cut and he’s wearing Army fatigues, dwarfing the skinny woman while he keeps an arm around her shoulders. The often-imagined and always absent Mr. van Gogh. There’s not a doubt in my mind. They watch me pull in and talk between themselves. When I climb out of the truck he starts toward me.
“Hey, you,” he hollers. “Hey. You’re the fucker with the dog.”
He’s huge and covering ground way too fast. Angel stands with her arms crossed, kind of a smirk on her face. He gets close enough to read the name Pitts on his shirtfront, and I reach behind the seat in my pickup and pull out the tire iron. Offsets our difference in size. I push the door to and he holds out both hands, cocks his head and stops walking.
“Hey, now,” he says. “I just wanna talk about the dog.”
“The humping?” I say. “I wouldn’t worry about the dog,” I tell him. I slap the tire iron against my palm and let him know, “Dogs only do what comes natural.”
“Listen,” he says.
“Furthermore,” I tell him, “my dog’s very ill, and this ain’t a good time to talk.”
Pitts stands still a minute, glances between the iron and my face like he’s trying to decide if I’ll use it. I give him a little wave with it, try to erase the doubt. He steps back onto their side of the grass and turns to Angel to say something low and bristly, looking between me and her. I let them say what they want and go inside and start drinking.
A guy comes by to disconnect their power and water and septic, and Pitts screws a new license plate onto the trailer. They take all her backyard junk and put it inside. Every so often they stop to hug and kiss and I try to make sure it’s not just some kind of jealousy in me, wonder if she’d really try to kill Roscoe. I clean up the antifreeze out back, dump meat and tin pan and all into two trash bags, and hope no one else’s dog got into it, or a cat. I imagine them for a sick minute turning feet-up all over the trailer court and wish I’d gotten it sooner. I watch Angel and Pitts. Both Pittses, I suppose, never van Goghs. I think about the difference between my heart and a dog, can’t think of much separating them except I know not to drink a car’s bodily fluids.
The telephone goes to ringing about noon. I wonder between the vet, who I just can’t make myself talk to, and Petrie. Petrie I could stand speaking with. He’d talk me out of anything stupid. I pop the top on another beer, open a new pack of cigarettes, and the assholes next door load themselves, butt-slapping and cooing, into his shiny truck after a while. I watch them pull away and sit a minute. Then I get up, take the tire iron just in case and go next door. I stand outside Angel’s trailer and stare at its dirty siding. I walk in back and think about smashing the door in but try the silver knob first. It opens right up. Either there’s something inside that tells me she did it or there’s not. A wave of dark heat floods out and I step into it, shut the door behind me. My eyes adjust, then it’s like I’m standing in some sort of wonderland.
The trailer’s put together about like I expected, cramped with a port-a-potty-size toilet closeted on one side next to a kitchen sink, microwave, tiny gas range. The other side is lined with a small fold-down couch and built-in table snuggled into a booth. The bed’s raised up in back, arched where the gooseneck extends out to dip down into the truckbed. It’s all pretty normal, but it’s all not. The walls, the door out and the bathroom door, the windows, everything, it’s all covered with little pictures. I check them out, tear one or two off and see that they’re the same kind of postcards we’d found in our mailbox. Blank on the back, showing different scenes. There’s ice caps and pyramids, Midwestern states showing different shades of wheat, streets and native-looking people and houses and skyscrapers and huts and all sorts of rivers and boats and ocean-liners.
Whichever way I look it’s a stretch of different scenes, almost disorienting. Like staring at the TV wall in an electronics store, all tuned to different channels. Everything else is normal—clothes piled in the booth and under the table, glasses and dishes packed tight and ready to travel in the cabinet over the sink. I turn around and realize she must bathe in the sink. It’s a shitty place to live, really. I go to work on what I came for, trying to turn up a sign of antifreeze. A can or receipt or whatever. I look over and around the Gettysburg battlefield and Shiloh and the Vietnam monument in Washington. I feel stupid after a minute, looking under clothes and in the drawers beneath the bunk. There won’t be anything, nothing that tells me a thing at all. She’d just throw it away.
I’m ready to get out and give up about the same time tires crunch over gravel. I lift the Seattle Space Needle from the window and see the truck. It sets me to panicking a little—I think about jumping out and running, waiting until they open the door, I don’t know what. I hear them climb out and I go backwards, scramble over the cleared strip of floor and into the lofted bed. I bury myself in sheets and dirty clothes and stay as still as I can. The door opens and they’re laughing. Angel’s saying something about there not being any ocean in Arizona. I grip my tire iron tight beneath the blankets, decide as soon as a cover pulls back I strike. I bash their brains in and leave. I do whatever. There’s a little piddling around and then nothing. The door closes once more, slammed hard.
I’m sweating bad, draining all the beer I’d drunk right out my skin. I hear hard breathing, panting, start to worry they’re humping right there with me, but the truck cranks to life. It shifts around and growls right up under me and in a few moments the whole place rocks, metal squeals and I’m lowering. They’re hooking the trailer up. I still don’t move, decide to wait them out. There’s the clatter of chains being hooked, the hitch falling onto the ball and latching, the jack lifting from the ground. It takes about fifteen minutes before two doors slam and we jerk into motion. I feel the lot disappear beneath, the gravel drive, then pavement. They’re going. I’m going with them.
Still there’s that breathing. The trailer lurches through stops signs and lights and some traffic. They crawl up to a steady rhythm, out on a highway, and I stay in the bed until I can’t take the sweating anymore. I fling out of the covers with a shout. Staring up from the floor is that dog of hers, the poodle. She lays there panting, head between her paws like she’s about to drown in the heat. I see they’re about on track to kill two dogs.
I crawl down and look her over. White and fluffy, untrimmed. Tired-looking. The tire iron weighs heavy in my hand and I look at the dog and it looks at me and I wonder if that’s it. Eye for an eye, revenge Roscoe. The feeling makes me sick. We bounce along a few minutes and then I get her up, grabbing by the scruff of her neck, and push her up to the bed. She sits panting and staring at me. I tear postcards off the window over the sink and look out. We’re on a county road, not as big a highway as I thought. I watch a while and realize we’re going some back way I’ve been with Petrie a thousand times. I pop the window vents open and channel some air in, then I open the ones on the opposite side. It gets a little more livable right away. The question is the best way of getting out. Then there’s what to do before I go—I think about smashing things up, but I don’t know what. The dishes? The table? I could pound holes through the wall. I stand there and look around and see the dog. I’m still not sold off that. Then I watch some cards pull up and suck out the window, and that’s it for me. I start taking them down. Cornfields, Mardi Gras, the Statue of Liberty, Dodger Stadium. I pull them all off the wall. I take them in taped-together strips and rip them off of individual staples and work around until I have pretty much every last one in my hands, a nice neat stack of Angel van Gogh-Pitts’s blank communications. I step to the back door, unlock it and peak out. No traffic. We’re in the middle of nowhere. I let the door loose to swing out, flap around and swivel in the air.
I take the cards and flick them one by one out of the trailer. They sail away, curl and fly to the pavement, into the grass, up under the wheels. Miami Beach, Key West, Havana. Salt Lake, a burning scarecrow, the Hoover Dam, it all goes flying. We go from the Chicago Pier to the Kremlin to the Great Wall of China to the Outback, and I keep sending them out. The air whips through and cools me off, clears my head. I feel better. There must be 300 postcards, and I toss them all into the road.
When I run out of cards I turn around. I want something else. I pull all the dishes from the cabinet and drop them out. They crack and shatter, and the fragments skid dusty to a stop behind us. The silverware I hurl onto the shoulder to spare people’s tires. I drag the toilet paper and soap from the bathroom, cans of beer from the tiny fridge shoved under the built-in table. One of those I drink, the others I shake and toss. They pop and spew like geysers if I throw them hard enough onto the skipping pavement.
I toss a pair of her shoes out and then start into all her piled-in clothes. I work through the small stuff, bras and socks and the underwear I’d been thinking so long about getting into. Gray cotton briefs, not even sexy like I imagined. I fling them to the wind and work up to bigger stuff. I get some skirts and shirts. I find her strip-joint uniform, roll it into a polyester ball and chuck it. The larger things get the more I expect them to notice, pull over and check it out. It’s like they’re blind, maybe just oblivious to what’s behind them. Or I can picture it—she’s bent over, face in his lap, sucking him off on their way out of town. I pull the comforter from under the dog and hurl it out into the road.
I’ve nearly emptied the place by the time they start to slow. I feel a panic go through me. Pitts is probably about to kick the shit out of me, maybe shoot me if he’s got a pistol. His kind usually does. I look out the window, though, and see us pulling up to the junction between these two roads angling together in an open field. I take one last look at the poodle, still panting hard as she can go.
“Come on,” I say, giving her a whistle. She jumps from the bunk and wobbles as we rattle to a stop. I lead her out onto the pavement, shutting the door and holding her collar. I stand a moment before they pull away, headed north on the intersecting road. I watch them go and pretend for a moment that Angel looks in the mirror, or he does, and they see me there, holding their dog at the crossroad. They’re getting out of sight, can’t see us clearly, and they have to wonder—where the hell did those two come from?
But I don’t think they even look. They pick up speed and travel on, emptier than they think into a patch of trees and around a curve, out of sight. I look at the poodle, try to decide what to call her. Don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call her anything.
“You’re not a bad-looking dog,” I tell her. “Guess I see what Roscoe’s thinking.”
I take my belt off, loop it through her collar. She’s a ransom for Roscoe, now. If he makes it she’s his. He can hump the shit out of her to his heart’s content. If he don’t, well. It goddamn makes me sad. I light a cigarette and start back the way we came. The stuff I tossed out starts slipping up on us, trail markers, and what I did settles in. Threw somebody else’s whole life out like garbage. I wonder if I’m just as shitty a person as her or anybody else, think I must be. But I’m feeling good and don’t much care right now.
About the Author
Marvin Shackelford holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana. His stories and poems appear in such journals as Cimarron Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Confrontation, Southern Poetry Review, and Harpur Palate. He lives in the Texas Panhandle, earning a living in agriculture.
About the Guest Editor
Armchair/Shotgun is an award-winning, Brooklyn-based literary journal, founded by working writers in 2009. Armchair/Shotgun’s third issue launched September 2012.
Armchair/Shotgun assesses all written work anonymously, without regard for bio or pedigree, concealing even an author’s name until a piece has been selected for publication. Armchair/Shotgun feels that good writing does not know one MFA program from another. It does not know a PhD from a high school dropout. Good writing does not know your interstate exit or your subway stop, and it does not care what you’ve written before. Good writing knows only story.
“The Kill Sign” originally appeared in Armchair/Shotgun No. 2, and is reprinted here by permission of Marvin Shackelford. All rights reserved by the author.