by Scott Loring Sanders
followed by Q&A
Henry’s pale skin burned in the sun. He hadn’t eaten in five days. He hadn’t slept in three. Not one wink. And other than the fishing rod in his hand and the tackle box next to him in the dirt, he’d pawned everything he owned. Everything. When Jad, his oldest buddy from high school, had kicked him out of his place that morning, Henry had nowhere else to go, so he grabbed his fishing gear and hitchhiked down to the river. And that’s where he sat now, on a rotting sycamore log, his sneakers nudging at a faded and cracked plastic cup that had once contained night crawlers.
“That’s it, man,” Jad had said a few hours before. “Get out. You can’t crash here anymore. You haven’t paid me shit in two weeks.”
Henry hadn’t protested. The only thing he said, after he grabbed his rod from the corner of the trailer’s living room, was, “Can you hook me with a few bucks for a bag? I’ll pay you as soon I get some cash. I’ve got some coming from Jackhammer soon.”
“Look in a mirror and tell me if you need another bag.”
And Henry did just that. He went into the bathroom (carrying his rod with him because he thought Jad might steal it otherwise) and took a piss. After zipping up, he saw someone in the mirror he didn’t recognize. His face had turned the gray of fuzzy vegetable mold, and the upper parts of both cheeks were scabbed and pocked. Several of his teeth had fallen out, and the ones that remained were yellowed and rotting. And his eyes…he refused to look directly into his eyes.
He walked out and mumbled to Jad, “Yeah, I think I need another bag. Just one to get me through.”
“Jesus, you gotta go. You’re totally whacked.”
“Just a few bucks. Come on, man, please.”
“Get out, Henry,” said Jad as he clamped onto a mop handle, wielding it like an axe.
Henry left Jad’s trailer, walked along the dirt driveway, and eventually grabbed a ride from a junkyard flatbed driver who was on his way to pick up a smashed Subaru down by the river. When the guy dropped him off at the railroad crossing, Henry nodded thanks and then headed over the rough gravel by the side of the tracks, checking his back pocket every five seconds to make sure the pack of Marlboros he’d swiped off the seat hadn’t somehow jumped out and run away.
After rigging his pole with a frog-patterned Jitterbug, he lit a cigarette. The book of matches he found in his pocket only had three remaining, so he built a fire before casting. And though the early morning August sun was already beating down on the wide expanse of the New River, he had gone into survival mode. He had a full pack of smokes and only three matches. Unless he wanted to jumpstart a new cigarette before the previous one burned-out, he had to plan ahead.
Between the sun burning his skin, and the heat of the fire on his back, Henry knew he should be perspiring. But there was nothing in his body to sweat out. And every time a tiny drop beaded on his forehead, he swiped it with his finger and sucked it, hoping that maybe there were at least a few residual traces of crystal within.
He tried to remember how long it had been since he’d snorted the last of it, but he’d lost track of time months ago. He knew he’d been at Jad’s, it was dark outside—he did recall that—and he’d been staring at the TV, but at what show, he couldn’t remember. He knew by the pounding in his head that he needed more, and quickly, but he also knew there was none to be had. But he checked every pocket of his jeans several times over anyway.
And then the voices started. He’d heard the voices a few times before, and each time he’d walked to the pawnshop and parted with his last remaining possessions: his stereo; the rifle his father had forgotten when he walked out on Henry and his mother years earlier; and the antique Bowie knife his grandfather had left him after he died. But all he had now was the fishing rod and a tackle box stuffed with rusty-hooked lures. And he knew the bastard at the pawn shop wouldn’t give him shit for it.
So the voices began, softly at first, but getting louder and louder until they screamed and shrieked with such intensity that Henry wanted to split his head open with one of the rocks from the fire ring and strangle the voices within. He picked his nose and sucked off anything that clung to his fingers. Mostly it was the black crusts of dried blood, but he ate it anyway, imagining that he felt a faint burn on his tongue from the bitter chemical. He took his thumbs and pushed them deep against his eyelids to relieve pressure. He balled his hands into fists and knuckled them against his temples.
He walked to the edge of the river, cupped his hands, and took a few swallows of water, watching as a crawdad propelled itself backwards under the bottom of a rock. A few copper minnows glimmered in a beam of sunlight and stared at him with blank, stupid looks, the way fish will do. They laughed at him and said, “Look at you. You’re nothing but a junkie.” And then they darted off when Henry angrily smacked the surface.
Henry dried his hands on his pants leg and lit a cigarette, using a flimsy twig that stuck out from the fire. He sat back down on the log, grabbed the fishing rod he still hadn’t cast, and convinced himself that the water had done the trick. The voices had subsided, at least momentarily.
But the screeches immediately began again: metal on metal, distant at first, but steadily growing louder. It was only when he turned away from the glass of the river and looked behind him that he saw the coal train flashing through the oaks and sycamores, the sides of the cars flickering through the trunks of the trees like strobe lights. But as the rhythmic clicking of the cars whooshed by, only fifty yards away from where Henry sat, he realized that the craving, the yearning for the crystal, had indeed subsided. When the back engine pushed the rest of the cars by, and the hum got swallowed by the mountains of the Blue Ridge, Henry tossed his butt into the fire and closed his eyes.
The sun helped to awaken him. He found himself lying in the cool dirt near the riverbank as a faint hint of wood-smoke crept into his burned-out nostrils. He pushed off the log next to him, struggled to an upright position, brushed off the needles and debris, and looked at the sun sitting low in the sky. He didn’t know if it was morning or evening. Birds chirped from the surrounding trees, and a pair of squirrels played tag in the sprawling branches of an oak above him.
He turned to the blackened remains of his extinguished campfire. With a stick, he poked at the ashes, finding a few embers barely clinging to life. He gathered some pine needles and dead leaves, dropped them on the coals, and began blowing with a smooth, methodical breath, the way his grandfather had taught him when they used to go bird hunting together. As the flames caught, he added more twigs, then thicker sticks, and finally a broken branch.
Other than the twitters of the birds and a subtle flit-flit as the fire worked on the branches, the surrounding forest was silent. The smoke climbed vertically toward the sky in a tight, organized column. Everything was calm; the river hardly seemed to flow. Henry determined, mainly because of the dead fire, that it must be morning and that he’d slept all night. He confirmed it shortly thereafter when he noticed the sun slightly higher above the tree-line.
Henry settled himself on the log, lit a cigarette, and looked out at the water. The softness of the morning light comforted him. The faint wisps of river fog, like translucent wraiths, floated and burned away as the sun worked its magic. A shaft of orange light stretched across the expanse of the New and lit up a hula-hoop patch of water in front of Henry. The circle helped to clearly expose everything, another entire world, that existed below the surface. Flecks of gold sparkled in frozen suspension, bits of leaves and other organic debris floated and turned in slow motion, and a caddis fly emerged to the surface. The insect created microscopic ripples as it furiously attempted to dry its wings. After a minute or two of struggle, the little bug rose off the water and fluttered away, rising higher and higher toward heaven until it disappeared.
And then, as if a symphony conductor had synchronized it, there were thousands of caddis flies across the river; greenish-white clouds appeared where only seconds before there was nothing. Suddenly, the conductor instructed the symbols to crash; the water boiled as smallmouth bass started feeding. Henry watched the performance with fascination.
But then his head began to snap and buzz. The voices started once more, though they weren’t nearly as intense as the previous day. Henry grabbed a handful of damp stones from the river’s edge and began flinging them, one by one, across the water. But the rocks were clunky and didn’t skip well. So instead, he plopped them into the circle of light as he fought the ripping in his head. The stones squiggled and darted, appearing drunk—if rocks could appear drunk—as they descended to the bottom. Rock…break…bottom. Rock…break…bottom. Henry became obsessed.
A faint whistle in the distance finally awoke him from his trance; a train was approaching. As he listened, he realized he’d fought through the voices again and felt better. As he looked at the tracks, awaiting the approach of the distant engine, off to his right he saw a flicker in his peripheral vision. It took him a moment to zero-in on the movement, but when he did, and his eyes focused, in the shadows he located a doe, her brown tail twitching occasionally, showing glimpses of white. Her head was bowed to the ground as she foraged through the detritus of the forest. Henry clicked with his cheek and she sprang to attention. Her head cocked up, neck extended, as she looked back toward him. She appeared to see him but didn’t act alarmed. Henry stood perfectly still and admired her grace and beauty. After a moment, she took a few steps closer to the train track embankment before eating again.
Henry placed some sticks on the fire but never took his eyes off the deer. The metallic sound of the train got louder as it rolled closer. Suddenly he realized that on either side of the doe, not more than four feet away, were two more deer, also rummaging for food along the forest floor. They had materialized out of nowhere.
The train whistled again, this time much louder, and the rumble and clicking along the tracks began its rhythmic, hypnotic beat. One of the deer that had recently appeared, along with the one Henry had first spotted, propped their heads to attention when the whistle screeched, but the other continued eating as if she didn’t have a care in the world. As the metronomic hum of the train got louder, the two alert deer effortlessly bounded up the small hill and over the tracks to the other side. They stared at Henry as they stood in the open sunshine.
To his left, the engine turned the corner as the headlight peeked through the trees about a hundred yards away. When he looked back to the doe, it was no longer there. Up the hill, the other two deer across the tracks still looked back in Henry’s direction. And then, just a little farther down, he spotted the solitary doe, standing in the middle of the tracks, her head down and seemingly foraging for something between the crossties, but for what, Henry couldn’t imagine. Henry glanced to his left as the train drew dangerously near, then back to the deer on the tracks, and repeated the process as if watching a tennis match. Henry waved his arms and screamed, “Get off the tracks. What the hell’re you doing? Get off the tracks.”
As the engine screamed past him, the doe still remained stationary. She finally looked up, but the train was already on top of her. The engine skewed Henry’s sight, so he didn’t see the impact, but he felt just as sick as if he had. He couldn’t do anything except watch as car after car flashed by in front of him. He had already started running toward the foot of the hill but now waited futilely as the endless train kept rolling by. Brown painted steel, crested with mounds of chunked coal, whipped past as the wind stung his face. When the rear engine finally passed and the train disappeared once more into the mountains, Henry looked down the vacant and lonely strip of track. Everything had gone hauntingly quiet. The birds still sang, but nothing else stirred. He saw no sign of the doe, no mangled pieces, no destroyed and bloody carcass. He looked across the tracks and saw the other two deer, now a little farther up the mountainside, feeding once more, their tails casually twitching.
Henry climbed the little embankment and stood on the railroad ties, the thick, sweet smell of creosote filling his damaged nose. Patches of black tar on the wood already cooked in the heat. The silver steel of the tracks gleamed. And then, just on the other side, in the bottom along the gravel and rocks that formed the foundation for the tracks, he saw the third deer—standing, her head upright, her tail hanging down, perfectly content as if nothing had happened.
The doe slowly made her way toward her companions, and when they’d regrouped, they trekked up the slope of the mountainside as quietly as an owl on the wing. Henry kept his eyes on them until they melted into the landscape. He wondered if the doe had ever realized how dangerously close she had been to dying.
As Henry stood on the tracks, he looked around and soaked up the beauty surrounding him: the lush mountains; the cobalt sky sprayed with white cumulus clouds; the glimmer of the river below; his little fire sending off a gray stream through the trees; the buzzing of grasshoppers in the high weeds. He felt alive.
He spied a huge thicket of blackberry bushes running along the opposite side of the tracks, and, for the first time in nearly a week, a pang of hunger stirred in his gut. He dropped into the bottom, spilling a little cascade of gravel down the embankment in front of him, and immediately began popping the purplish-black fruit into his mouth. The sweet-sour juice trickled from his lips and down his chin as he voraciously picked and stuffed. He ate like a feral dog. He ate like a man who hadn’t ingested anything but pure chemical for a week.
When Henry got back to the fire, he dropped a few more sticks on the flames, picked the tiny seeds from his teeth, and then went for a drink. He noticed his fingers, stained a deep purple, as he cupped his hands to the river and drank. He began scrubbing them in the water, rubbing them with sand and pebbles. He then removed his clothing and waded into the water. He put sand in his hair and massaged it into his scalp. A coarse rock from the river’s bottom became his washcloth. As he washed, bits of his old, gray skin fell to the surface and mingled with the transparent exuviae of the caddis flies.
When he walked out, he stood by the fire and let it dry him. He then got dressed, sat on the log, and lit a cigarette. He had decided he would finally cast his rod when the voices returned once more. This time they didn’t come softly; they came with abandon and raged violently. Blood pulsed and throbbed along his temples, and pain pierced into every recess of his skull. He thought he might vomit. He dropped his cigarette and tried to drink some water, but his hands shook so violently that he couldn’t manage a sip.
Visions of his screaming father flashed through his mind, telling him what a no good son-of-a-whore he was. He opened his eyes to make the visions go away, but they refused. He closed his eyes, but they persisted. Relentlessly. He used the heels of his hands and ground them into his eye sockets, slightly relieving the pressure, but he was sick. He needed a hit. He had to have a bump of crystal or he thought he’d go insane. If he wasn’t there already.
He grabbed his rod, his tackle box, and the dwindling pack of smokes. He didn’t bother to extinguish the fire. When he reached the tracks, he began walking back in the direction he’d originally come from, where the junkyard man had dropped him off. The pointy chunks of gravel stung the bottoms of his feet as they pushed through the worn soles of his sneakers. The voices continued screaming, and twice he doubled over as the steel bristles of a wire brush viciously stabbed and scraped at his insides.
When he made it to the road, he walked toward town. He tried to hitchhike, but every car passed without slowing. He cursed each one of them for not stopping. He cursed them for the way they glanced below their sun visors, took a peek, and then quickly turned away as if they’d seen some horrible aberration. He cursed the world, his life, and the goddamn voices that refused to leave him alone. “Feed us,” they said. “Feed us you son-of-a-bitch.”
The bells above the door jingled. The pawnbroker looked up and smiled when he saw the familiar, haggard, drawn-out face of Henry.
“What can you give me for these?” said Henry as he placed the rod and tackle box on the counter. “I need at least fifteen.”
The pawnbroker smiled again, knowing that he wouldn’t offer more than five. And he also knew, without question, that Henry would take it.
Scott Loring Sanders is the author of two novels published by Houghton Mifflin, The Hanging Woods and Gray Baby. He was a fiction award winner in The Atlantic Monthly's Student Writing Contest, was chosen as the Writer-in-Residence at the Camargo, Foundation in Cassis, France, and has twice been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In addition to publishing in various literary magazines, his mystery stories frequently appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He lives in Virginia and teaches writing at Ferrum College and Hollins University.
Q&A with Scott Loring Sanders
Tell us a little bit about this piece.
I wrote this story while I was a fellow at the Camargo Foundation in France. I'd taken a break from the novel I was working on, and I was also reading Raymond Carver at the time. As often happens when writing, I found myself trying to mimic Carver in certain ways, though I don't think anyone in their right mind would ever compare this story to any of his stories. I'm afraid he's way out of my league.
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
A giant slice of New Jersey style (not New York) pizza
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
Two places—The Calanques in Cassis, France and Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
I've read Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Chekov, and Dostoevsky but I wouldn't say they've had a profound influence on me. My big influences are Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner, and Ron Rash among a million others.