The men walk without talking for the most part, though some are loud with panting. Many of them I don’t know at all, I’m not even sure who brought them, but here to my right is Porlie, trusted Porlie, Porlie who I’ve known since we were 12, 13 years old. I’ve never liked Porlie. Whenever I look over, he’s mopping his face, mopping his beard, handkerchief bunched in plump, soft, pale hands. Could hands like those pull a skull apart in two neat halves? I think not. I don’t even know if skulls are designed that way, or I’m confusing them with coconuts.
The rest of the posse’s spirits lift with every trill of birdsong around us, worsening my mood. The afternoon’s too beautiful, flooded with pale yellow light and air so sweet, your lungs gasp to drink more in. It’s an afternoon for fishing and making love in meadows. How the hell we going to turn this into frenzy and violence when we get to Amy’s place, because that’s what we have to do? The river sparkles through the trees below before twisting away from town, out of sight, near the Buckthorn Motel. In the other direction, hidden by the treeline, is the grocery store where we’re headed.
I picture Amy, down there, surrounded by bikers. I don’t know if she’s working on the till for this new guy or if she’ll be in the back office with him, drinking iced tea and Jack Daniels, but there’s bikers in both scenarios as I flick between them, undecided. Everybody’s facing forward, like posing for a portrait, Amy in the middle.
Porlie looks over and I wonder if I’ve been moaning out loud.
He has a pack on his back, looks heavy. We haven’t discussed what to bring. Should I have made suggestions, perhaps even laid on means of harm? I overtake, slapping him a little too meanly on the arm as I pass, which makes him laugh, for some reason, and mop his neck again with those smooth fat chicken-breast hands.
The next walker on’s a red-vested old fella I’ve often seen sunning himself in front of his bait store. He plucks a pipe from his cherry lips to cry hullo. What use is he going to be in a rumble?! I keep walking, trying to squeeze the tears I feel forming back into my eyes. Finally, I find a man I like the crappy looks of, moving fast between the trees. As I draw level, he peers back at me with piss-sack eyes and shakes a rusty handsaw at me in greeting; a salt of the earth type. I should have asked him to rally a crew for today, I’m sure they would have been cheaper and, thinking of what I’ve seen of this lot so far, righter, as in wronger. He draws his lips back to show blood-pinked teeth and again shakes the saw. Maybe it isn’t a greeting. In fact, is he even with us…?
I hurry along.
A kid with fluorescent acne whistles at me through his teeth. What’s his name? Malcolm? Clarence? The cleaner where I work. Not too bright but good with solvents. “You got mustard on your shirt!” he calls, pointing. It’s true. It must have been there when I put it on. I had hot dogs from a jar last night.
“Thanks!” I call back and splash some beer onto the stain as I walk, applying my thumb to it, which only makes the colour spread. Malcolm/Clarence waves it off, a good kid. He’ll be the first to get hurt, I suddenly know with certainty.
My thumb’s now yellow too.
I wonder if Amy will appreciate what I’m doing for her. It would be a first. She may even decide to fight with the bikers. She’s got a savage bite on her, that woman, and I don’t want to be on the end of it if that’s what’s going to happen. I’m hoping she’ll see it as a rescue. A rescue from herself, maybe. Given enough time.
The memory of food rides heavily on the beer swinging around inside me and I’m glad when the trees open out on one side, and we decide to stop for lunch in the clearing. Porlie sits near me, unwrapping waxed paper sandwiches lifted from a deep brown paper bag. Thick white slices of sourdough from the looks of it, soft as a dream, crisp maple-roasted bacon, thick-cut turkey, lettuce, tomato. I have a knob of unidentifiable cheese and a cupcake, the latter of which I boot into the bushes, loosing a clutch of birds.
The sky ripples around the sun. Soft male laughter and what I think might be grass waft lazily across the afternoon air. I have an idea to get the men’s blood up. It’s a doozy. We catch a rabbit and get someone to hold it by its hind legs while the rest of us try to hit it from a distance with stones. To make for even better sport, we’ll really be aiming at the man, while pretending to target the bunny. We’ll laugh as we bleed out our compassion and get ourselves ready for later battle. I applaud my cunning with another slug of beer.
Well that was a stupid idea, I tell the rabbit, some drinks later, as a well-slung piece of flint bursts the skin of my shin open and the men all heartily cheer. I laugh too, but they ignore me and keep throwing.
Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including Open Pen, the Lonely Crowd, Firefly, Spelk and Litro. They've also won various flash contests and been listed for the 2015 and '16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the Spread the Word Prize.
Illustration by Bridget M.