I hopped over a patch of Stevie’s rust-tinted vomit at the foot of my grandma’s makeshift cinder block doorstep. The multicolored Christmas lights cast a faint rainbow against the melting snow, and even though it was only December twenty-sixth, I wanted to take down the lights before I went back to DC because I knew if I didn’t, they’d still be up when I came back for Easter. I was bouncing on the balls of my feet while configuring my GPS watch when Stevie pulled open the front door and stood swaying, holding the frame for support.
“I don’t know why you wanna spend all your spare time running.” Stevie spit snuff juice through his teeth making a mud-brown stain in the snow. “Seems to me like you’d be more concerned with chasing pussy than chasing around a buncha guys in shorty shorts.”
“Good one, Stevie.”
“Hey, I got a question.” He stepped over his vomit patch and onto the gravel path beside me. “If you had a girlfriend, and I know that’s a stretch – but just stay with me here. If you had a girlfriend, would she wear the pants since you wear the shorts?” He cackled at his own joke and spit again.
“I’m wearing pants right now, dumbass.” I touched my toes and jiggled my legs to stay loose. “Now what the fuck do you even want?”
“Hoping you’d take me into town.”
“Dammit. I’m about to head out for a run.”
“Oh, come on, Teach.” Stevie started calling me Teach back in high school because I tutored kids in a summer reading program. When I decided to actually become a teacher, nobody was happier than Stevie – mainly because his stupid nickname for me would finally make sense.
“What do you need from town?”
“Case of beer and a roll of snuff.” He put his hands in his pockets and looked down the road.
“Jesus. Can’t you wait till at least noon?”
“Come on. Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
“Buy me a Gatorade?” I crossed my arms.
“I guess if I have to,” Stevie said.
I jogged into the house to get my wallet and car keys. Grandma was sleeping in her chair while an infomercial blared about some crack sealer that was strong enough to attach a glass door to the bottom of a boat. She was wearing her new pink sweatsuit I got her for Christmas and the thick wool socks she raved about finding at the Goodwill. Her head was slumped onto her chest with her oxygen tubing pushing up her nose, but she was snoring away and I didn’t want to wake her up and explain to her that I was taking Stevie to town for beer and snuff before noon.
I pulled the door shut gently. Stevie was waiting in the car when I got in. The Saturn sputtered and shook as I backed out of the gravel drive.
“God damn, Teach, can you not afford a better car than this piece-a-shit?”
“It gets me where I’m going.”
“Yeah, city boy? You bought Mom a damn house, but you won’t buy yourself a decent car.”
For the cost of a new car, I got a low-interest loan for the small modular that my dad would have called a glorified trailer, and with the help of a few of my uncles and cousins, not including Stevie, the new place was installed a few hundred feet in front of the small house that Grandpa built for Grandma when they were newlyweds. I looked past Grandma’s new house to see the old house, which was being used for storage, and thought about when we used to have family gatherings there – when Grandpa and my parents were still around and Grandma still fixed her hair and made meals.
“Pull in here.” Stevie pointed to the spot in front of the flashing orange “Hot Spot” sign beside the GoMart.
“Don’t go in there, Stevie.”
“I just gotta pick up my winnings from yesterday.”
“Make it fast.” I knew damn well he didn’t have any winnings to pick up, but I wasn’t in the mood to play chaperone for my thirty-six year-old uncle.
While I waited, I thought about where I was going to run that day. There was an old logging road about a mile away from Grandma’s that I used to run every time I came home, but the last time I ran that way I came around a corner to find three parked cars full of people smoking stuff out of glass pipes. I pretended not to pay attention and increased my pace until I rounded a corner out of their sight. I cut through the woods, mostly a thicket of dry briar patches and crisply frozen leaves, until I found my way back to Grandma’s road. I had convinced myself that the smokers from the cars had assembled a posse of scrawny, blistered-lipped Timber Grove High School dropouts to find me and keep me from saying anything about what I saw.
I calculated how many laps around town it would take me to cover about twelve miles. Timber Grove sits in a half-mile wide valley that is barely big enough to be considered a small town. During the lumber boom of the early 1900s, streets and houses were stacked halfway up the hillsides just to make room for everybody. Five laps plus the trip out and back to Grandma’s would take me about ninety minutes, and I could run up and down the road if I needed to add time. I nodded and agreed with myself. Stevie got back in the car empty-handed.
“You just gonna sit there nodding and grinning, or are you gonna drive this pile somewhere?” Stevie tilted his head back.
“You decide against the beer and snuff?”
“Naw. I just need you to run me by somewhere else real quick.”
“Dammit, Stevie. I’m not your fucking personal chauffer.”
“It’s on the way.” Stevie rubbed his face and brushed his greasy blond hair to the side. “Bradley Cowell owes me.”
“So we’re just gonna stop by his place at ten in the morning and ask for a case of beer and some snuff?”
“Me and him’s like this.” He crossed his fingers and shook his hand. “I fixed his satellite up so he gets all the channels.”
“Jesus. You should get a job with Dish Network.”
“I might do that if it wouldn’t affect my disability.” Stevie worked as a surface miner for about a month before he said he wrenched his back and started collecting disability.
“Right. Your back.” I made quotations in the air with my fingers for the word back.
“Fuck you.” He gave me a half-hearted smack on the side of the head. “Now let’s go get your Uncle Steven his medicine.”
Bradley’s place looked empty. His truck wasn’t there, and although his wife’s Sunfire with the CANDI novelty plate, tinted windows, and fake-chrome hubcaps sat in the snow-patched grass beside the house, there were no lights on inside. Two dark brindled dogs barked behind the fence in the back yard as Stevie walked up the stairs of the porch. I wondered where else he would want to go after he accepted the fact that nobody was home.
After a few minutes of knocking, Stevie crouched down and lifted up the welcome mat. He picked up what I assumed was a spare key, jammed it into the doorknob, and let himself in the house. I covered my face and shook my head. At first I couldn’t believe that I was serving as a getaway car for Stevie’s entrance without breaking, but then I became more shocked that people actually left spare keys under their welcome mats. How stupid can you be? was the predominant thought running through my brain. I asked it about myself. I asked it about Stevie. I asked it about the Cowells.
Bradley Cowell may have been stupid, but he also had a notorious mean streak that caused him several legal issues and trips to the emergency room for all involved. Bradley got kicked off our high school track team for putting a kid from Meadow Bridge in a headlock and punching the kid’s face until his cheekbones and nose were a jellied mess of blood, mashed cartilage, and cracked bone. He was suspended for ten days and sued by the kid’s parents, and we ended up losing the state meet that season by six points (six points that Bradley would have easily scored in the shot put and discus). When I was in college, I heard a story about him beating up a guy for accidentally opening the stall Bradley was using in the McDonald’s bathroom. Bradley didn’t even pull up his pants before he started swinging, so the victim sued him for sexual assault as well as battery.
The rumble of modified exhaust pipes and crunching gravel made me whip my head around. Bradley’s black Ford was rolling toward his house, and I was in his parking space, waiting for my uncle to finish ransacking the fridge and god knows what else. As Bradley skidded to a stop behind me, I could hear him yelling over the guitar riffs of the stereo in the cab before he got out and slammed the door.
He ran over and pounded his fists on the roof of my car and yelled at my window. I gave a timid wave and rolled down the glass a couple inches. He stopped and looked at me, looked at
his house, and looked back at me like he was considering for a second that maybe he was in the
“Curtis? Man, what the hell you doing?” He stepped back and put his hands on his hips.
“Hey, Bradley.” I looked up at the house. “I was, uh.” I watched Stevie come out the front door with a half-empty bottle of Evan Williams and a few cans of Skoal.
“You motherfucker.” Bradley bounded over to the bottom of the steps, blocking off any exit for Stevie. I put my car in gear as I watched Bradley yell at Stevie while holding on to both sides of the railing. Stevie flung a can of Skoal at Bradley, and it burst open, covering the front of Bradley’s light blue Tapout t-shirt in fine-cut grains of tobacco. Bradley charged up the stairs, and Stevie launched another can of snuff that didn’t explode or seem to slow Bradley down. As Bradley reached out with his mitt-like hands, Stevie swung the whiskey bottle into Bradley’s jaw. The bottle against bone clanked like an aluminum bat against a soggy ball. Bradley clutched his face and writhed on the porch, his feet hanging over the edge of the steps. Stevie stumbled over him, stopped, picked up the bottle, and bounced down the steps and to the car. From what I had seen in movies, I knew I was supposed to speed off quickly, leaving only dust and scattered gravel, but I couldn’t back out of the driveway because Bradley’s truck was blocking me in, so I maneuvered a several-point turn in the yard, spun out of the soggy grass, and headed back toward town with mud-caked tires.
“Jesus. Why didn’t you help me?” Stevie slapped the dashboard.
“I wasn’t about to get in his way. Brad’s a crazy bastard.” I checked the rearview mirror. “Besides, I thought you guys were tight.” I waved a pair of crossed fingers in Stevie’s face.
“He told me to come by anytime.”
“Did he tell you to use his spare key to raid his liquor and snuff stash?”
“He didn’t tell me not to.”
“Please tell me that’s all you took.” I checked the rearview again. Still clear.
“That was it. I ain’t a damn thief.” He examined the bottle. “Check it out. Still in one piece. Nothing like in the movies.”
“Well, you better drink up because I’m sure we’re gonna be in some shit with Bradley soon enough.”
“Calm down. Bradley’ll be alright.”
“He’s a fucking lunatic. He might try to kill you – and me.”
“I’ll call him when we get home. He’ll be fine.”
“So you’re just gonna call and smooth things over. Just like that?”
“Listen, Teach. Me and Bradley’s tight. We get in scraps like that all the damn time. You ain’t around no more, so why don’t you just shut up and let me handle it.” Stevie crossed his arms, cradling the whiskey.
I checked the rearview again before we turned onto Grandma’s road – nothing was behind us.
I wanted to go out the door and run down the road, run up over the mountains, run across rivers, and keep running until the land got flat and I was back in my apartment in the city where people minded their own business . . .
Grandma was still sleeping in her chair when we got home. Stevie went in his bedroom to call Bradley and, “smooth things over.” I sat and watched Grandma’s feet twitch and wondered what she was dreaming about. I imagined she was dreaming of her younger days when Grandpa was still alive and working at the saw mill and my dad was home from Vietnam and the baby, Stevie, was still innocent with his golden curls and unclouded blue eyes. My own feet were twitching, too, which usually happened when I wasn’t able to run in the morning. I wanted to go out the door and run down the road, run up over the mountains, run across rivers, and keep running until the land got flat and I was back in my apartment in the city where people minded their own business and I could live my life without dealing with my dad’s little brother or crazy guys from high school.
“Everything’s good.” Stevie emerged from his room and set the telephone in its cradle. “Bradley ain’t even mad. We was laughing about it.”
“That was awfully quick.” I walked over to the phone.
“What you doing?” He stepped between me and the phone.
“Just wanted to check on something.”
“Why don’t you just go ahead and do your lil run.” His hands were at his sides, elbows slightly bent like a gunslinger ready to reach for his pistol. I thought about him cracking Bradley in the jaw, and the dull clank echoed in my mind.
“Yeah. I’m gonna run. That’s all I wanted to do all morning anyway.”
I trotted down Grandma’s road, hesitant to start off too fast in case I needed to make a dash to safety later in the run. I thought about the shit that Stevie was always getting into. I thought about Stevie before he drank. As kids, we always played together and were good friends up until high school. He was a senior when I was a freshman, and most people thought we were brothers or cousins, but he always made me call him “Uncle Steve” at school. He was a hell of an athlete and got a baseball scholarship to West Virginia Tech, but he only made it two semesters in college before dropping out and coming home to work odd jobs and live with Grandma and me.
I think that my parents’ death was just as hard on him as it was on me. He was on a baseball trip when he got the call about the wreck, and he only went back to school a couple times before he moved back home for good. He started partying with some kids from high school, including Bradley Cowell, and by the time I graduated, he was rarely sober. He managed to get himself banned from my track meets for lewd remarks to the other runners, and he got so drunk at my graduation party that he threw up in the punch bowl, almost causing my grandma to have a stroke from embarrassment. Even though he was hard to deal with, I was pretty sure I still loved him, or at least the memory of him as my oldest friend who would take up for me at little league practice when the other kids would tease me for flinching at close pitches.
As the endorphins kicked in, my mind relaxed, and I focused on my form and stride and tried to avoid thinking about Stevie. I thought about the twenty-six-point-two miles I was preparing for, and I calculated possible mile paces and pondered different strategies. I turned off of Grandma’s gravel road and ran on the soft shoulder toward town. I ran laps around town and thought back to fifteen years ago when one lap was a typical workout and a three-mile race felt like an eternity of burning lungs and aching legs. I wondered if any of my teammates from high school were still running.
On my final lap, I climbed the steady grade of Chestnut Street and looked across the valley, past the Foodland and GoMart, all the way to the opposite hillside. A siren on the other side of town echoed through the valley and bounced off the hillsides, reminding me of what I’d learned to ignore while living in the city. After I crested the incline and followed Chestnut Street back down into town, my heart-rate had settled, and I was entranced by the rhythm of my breathing and the soft scraping of the soles of my shoes against the ground. I felt like I was breathing as if I were sleeping. I crossed the bridge in the middle of town and followed the sidewalk until it stopped, leaving me with nothing but a sliver of pavement and white paint to tip-toe until I made it to Grandma’s gravel road.
Stevie was sitting slumped on the cinder blocks, whiskey in hand, when I got back. I stopped my watch and shook out my legs in preparation for some form drills and dynamic stretching, my hot breath leaking out of my mouth and steam radiating off of my shoulders as if my flesh was slow roasting inside of my dri-fit shirt. After one series of drills, I looked over at Stevie who was staring at the ground where he had covered his vomit patch with dirt speckled snow.
“You okay, Stevie?”
“You drunk already?”
I continued my routine until I heard the droning roar of an engine coming from down the road. Stevie was clutching the whiskey bottle and rocking forward onto his knees. A black Ford truck came around the corner, the tires kicking gravel and mud off to the sides.
“Bradley?” I looked at Stevie.
“Shit.” Stevie stood up and looked at the door.
“You can’t run in there and scare Granny.” My voice was a raspy whisper that felt like I was yelling.
“Shit.” Stevie sprung off the cinder blocks, almost falling, and stumbled over beside me. “Oh shit.”
Bradley’s truck slid to stop in front of the house, and he got out clutching an aluminum baseball bat and groaning unintelligibly. The left side of his face was reddish purple and his eye was swollen shut, and it looked like he had an entire pack of Big League Chew bubblegum jammed in his cheeks. He swung the bat while approaching us in a zig-zag pattern, making noises that sounded like Frankenstein’s monster with some twang. Stevie and I shuffled backward like basketball players on defense. I bumped into the side of my Saturn and pawed for the door handle. A gunshot blasted through the valley, and Stevie tackled me onto the ground and pinned me between him and the car.
When I looked over Stevie’s shoulder, Bradley was on the ground with one hand covering his head and the other patting his shoulder and chest to see if he’d been hit. Grandma was on the porch with Grandpa’s old forty-five revolver shaking in her hands.
“Bradley Cowell, you get your ass up and off my land before I call your momma and daddy.”
“But Misses Allman.” Bradley mumbled and tried to catch his breath.
“But nothing, boy. Don’t make me pull this trigger again.”
Bradley got up, shoulders hunched with mud covering his jeans and shirt, and shuffled to his truck. He turned the vehicle around without tearing up any of the grass and left while Grandma kept the barrel pointed in his general direction.
"I thought you boys knew better than to run around with the likes of him.” Grandma shook her head and went back inside, slamming the door behind her.
Stevie helped me up, and we just stood there for a few minutes without saying anything. Both of us were breathing harder than I did at any point of my twelve-mile run. We walked over to the cinder blocks, and Stevie picked up the bottle of Evan Williams. He sat down, took a swig, and handed it to me. I shrugged, took a pull, and passed it back before joining him on the stoop.
Zach Williams is a 2013 graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program. He is the recipient of the 2013-2014 Irene McKinney Postgraduate Teaching Fellowship and currently teaches English at WV Wesleyan. His work can be seen in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact.