City Paper 2013 Short-fiction Contest: First Place

Goodie promised to pick me up and there he was, waiting outside the small airport, khaki jumpsuit bleached in the sunlight, arms crossed, leaning against his truck, and that grin of his, cut hungry across his face. He looked like a clever little lizard. Hey, he said, look at you. A prop plane coughed through the sky behind him. Goodie pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and offered me one. No thanks. I told him I had quit.

I put my bags in the truck bed, reluctantly, seeing how filthy it was, the edges crowded with beer cans and burger wrappers, large psoriatic patches of rust, grease, and dried mud. This thing still runs? I kicked a tire and looked up and down the old Ford. Of course, Goodie said. He opened the door and the sound echoed, even in the empty parking lot. Built tough, man, indestructible.

We drove out through the airport, down the mile-long stretch of used-car dealerships, diners, motels, the rest of the boredom that decorates any post-airport area, and turned onto the expressway. Goodie slumped over the steering wheel as if studying the minutiae of grime on the windshield, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. I thought that he might be drunk. How are you, I asked, half hoping he'd say something simple, final, something that wouldn't require comment or another question.

Well, he choked out, a fist of smoke slung from his mouth. Ash flaked onto his lap, unnoticed. Goddamn Clarice left me. He pounded the wheel with a palm, more smoke, more ash. Left me, a whole damn lot about children, dogs, mortgages, and who knows what else. Goodie shook his head, took one last drag of his cigarette and flicked the butt out the open window. But that's all done and done, man, keep on trucking. Right?

Too bad, I said, I thought she was good girl. Truthfully, I never knew a Clarice, nor an Angela or an oft-talked-about Isabella. As a matter of fact, I never knew any women, girls, or whatever that would take a chance with Goodie. It wasn't that his appearance, roughly made and bird-chested, limited him. That was just part of the package. You had to accept that Goodie was loud and crude and sometimes smelled like dry cheese. Otherwise you would want to kill him.

Yeah, man, Goodie said, I really thought I had that one bagged, you know, another Isabella. He turned to me. A frown stretched his face in craggy angles. He exhaled, letting his lips flutter dramatically. The scent of cheese filled the cab. Another smell too, almost sinister, like damp metal. He had certainly been drinking. I turned away and pretended to study the landscape.

So, I asked, what's the plan? Each time I flew home, Goodie would promise that things would be taken care of and insist on being secretive about it. It was always such a strange routine, seeing Goodie, coming face-to-face with a part of myself and still not knowing what to expect. What we were going to do, where I was going to sleep, these were all mysteries to me.

Goodie slumped back over the steering wheel and grinned. It's a surprise, he said, and lit another cigarette.

Goodie had an old friend who lived up the mountain. Known him way longer than I known you, he said. Goodie and I go way back, since grade school, and I never thought, then or now, he had friends other than me. Not that he was unpopular, I just always believed without thinking that our relationship was singular, insolated, and in that respect we were mutually doomed. We were the scattered, forgotten bits of each other.

We were driving down a narrow road flanked on both sides by heavy trees. Goodie reached under his seat and pulled out a can of beer. Are you sure about that, I asked. He cracked the can open. The truck hit a pothole and some beer spilled onto Goodie's lap. Shit, he said, you want one? I shrugged and held out my hand. Wait till you see this place, Goodie said, it's nice, lots of land, no one around for miles. He reached back under his seat, found a beer, and gave it to me. My friend, he said, is a cool guy, letting us stay up there, you're gonna like him.

As we got further up on the mountain the trees became less plentiful, scrubby and anemic. Some completely dead, their skeletons half-uprooted from the dirt. Crows, silent and cold as bullets, clung to the branches. When we passed, they watched us go. The sky, too, was turning, becoming heavier, more oppressive. The clouds hung low over the brown earth. I tried to focus on nothing. I tried to ignore how the trees slipped past the window.

When we came to a balding spot of field grass, what I figured must be the very top of the mountain, we turned off the road onto a gravel driveway. The truck swayed and bucked, rocks popped under the tires. Something vibrated angrily in the glove box. This guy is an A-plus, original mountain man, Goodie said. His voice came out in a stutter. The ridged and pleated road shook us so violently I pressed my hand to the ceiling to keep from hitting my head. Beer sprang from Goodie's can, shot out like sparks, ash sprinkled off his cigarette, peppering his jumpsuit and the dash, but he didn't seem to mind. He just barreled down the driveway, jerking the wheel back and forth to dodge the pits and ditches, grinning like a snake.

Goodie brought the truck to a hard stop. The tires locked and skidded against the gravel. Pale smoke circled the truck and leaked in through the open windows. It tasted metallic and keen, but old and chalky, too, like ground fossils. Goodie crammed the drive lever into park and turned to me. Well, he said, what do you think, man? The smoke from his cigarette and the gravel dust hung casually in the cab. It swirled around him. The sunlight reflected off the cloud, made it glow yellow and gray. Goodie's face was almost hidden, but I could still make out his smile. The red eye of his cigarette seemed to float out from his buckled teeth.

You wait here, he said. Goodie turned off the ignition and opened the door. The rusted jambs whined, and when he slammed the door shut, there was a touch of scorn on his face. Goodie leaned in the open window. This guy's a little shaky, you know, kind of a hole-in. I nodded without feeling, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a vague sort of understanding.

I watched Goodie walk up to the house, an old ranch, drying in the mountain air. He looked nervously around him. We parked close enough, and I could see the dirty white paint crawling back from the clapboards. The windows were dark; in one, a chewed and torn curtain. Two arthritic planks held up the small porch roof. Not much was out here: a dead lawn, an oil drum shot through and purpled with rust, a gray smear of charcoal where a fire must have been, a wind that snapped from the field. Up here, on perhaps the top of a mountain, and all I could see was the low sky and desolation.

Goodie knocked on the front door. He waited for a few seconds, turned back to me, grinned, and then turned back to the door. I began to wonder how much planning he had actually done. The front door cracked open. I couldn't see anybody, but I could see Goodie's lips moving and I heard the faint gabble of speech. At first he was amiable, confident. Then, immediately, his face went blank, his smile straightened out. He started to move his hands around in beckoning gestures, he pointed to me and I waved at the pitch crack of the doorway. Who was I waving at?

Now Goodie was frantic, flailing his arms in the air. A flash lit up the doorway, illuminating the lines of an old woman's face, a rifle blast. The crows scattered from the trees that surrounded the field. Goodie stumbled back, gripping his upper thigh. He ran toward the truck as best he could, slinging the shot leg forward with his arms, and ripped open the passenger door. I slid quickly over to the driver's seat. Instinctively I gassed the truck to life and yanked it into gear. The tires spun, spat out gravel like loose teeth, gripped and pushed the truck into motion. We rocked down the driveway, bouncing out of our seats.

Goodie reached in between the seats and brought out a stained rag. He wrapped it around his thigh with scary precision, a dark blot soaked through the cloth. Fuck, he said, wrong house, man. Goodie patted both breast pockets of his jumpsuit for a cigarette, his bloody hands leaving red prints, like wings, across his chest.