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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Family Plot
My ex started seeing the sheriff and pretty soon I’m getting pulled over every time I back out of my driveway. He says the phone calls need to stop, but what should I do? I haven’t seen my boys in a dick year and it’s making me ill to think of how tall they’re getting without me. I mean I’m their father, goddamnit—our destinies are intertwined, twisted on a double helix.
“Well, I don’t know what you should do, Jim,” the sheriff says, handing me back my license and registration. The flashlight’s glare eclipses his face and I can’t tell if he’s smirking or considering deadly force. “I really don’t. But whatever you do, I know I’d have you do it somewhere else.”
He cites me on a twenty-eight hundred—disobedience to a traffic officer—and it’s nice to see that he hasn’t let our little domestic struggle ruin his sense of humor. To think I used to be his deputy. There was a time when I was sure one day I’d have his job. Instead, he got mine. I keep my hands at ten and two until the sheriff’s gone, and I wonder if he is on his way to see my Valerie, my boys.
So I sell everything and buy a farm upstate near a little town where all of the able-bodied men seem to either work or reside in the state penitentiary. The house is set off the highway, up on a hill dotted with cottonwoods and rust-red tractor parts. Lightning licked the barn some time ago and there’s an entire subculture of feral, dreadlocked cats nesting in its charred loft. Every once in a while one of those little Rastafarians will amble up to the house just to die on the front porch. I bury them out back, next to the old family plot—surname’s Gestaurd on all the stones.
Even an optimist would be hard pressed to call this house a fixer-upper. Coastal systems have beaten off most of the paint, worn the wood smooth as bone. The windows have all spilled inside. Hornets drift through the attic like flurries of vibrating dust. Kids have been fornicating in here for generations. Their initials are etched into the walls, wrapped in hearts along with the date of their trespass. Some of them, I like to think, must’ve been copulating right where they were conceived.
Now the orchard’s heavy with crabapples and I’ve got fifteen acres of bramble and thorn to tame next spring. I’d like to plant corn, but the books say I’m in the wrong zone to get much of a yield. I need to call an electrician. The bulbs sizzle and pop, rowdy as hungry bug zappers. The breaker shorts out whenever I plug in the toaster and I have to go down to the cellar to flip it. Every time I do, I end up quarreling with a mess of cobwebs and believe me when I say it’s getting easier and easier to imagine that one day I might just lie down on that damp clay floor and let the spiders finish their work.
Of course, I did get the place for a song. In 1938, the real estate agent told me, old man Gestaurd curdled on moonshine and hacked up his entire family with an axe right over there in the parlor. Buried them in the root cellar and then, repentant and near sober, hung himself from the rafters in the attic, where the hornets now play.
“So you can see why I had written off this listing,” she said. “Still interested?”
She’d had about fifty decent years or thirty-five hard ones. Gray whispered softly through her blonde bob. Her face had taken a lot of weather. The coast does that to just about everything around here. Up on the roof, a gull landed and a fuzzy black shingle slid towards the earth.
“I’ll take it,” I said. “How about we grab some dinner to celebrate?”
She just smiled and showed off her ring.
“My husband works out at the prison,” she said proudly. “He’s the warden.”
“Any chance he’s hiring?”
“Don’t think so,” she said. “Cuts all around. But I could ask?”
“Ask,” I said. “Please.”
What she forgot to mention is that on foggy nights the prison speaks for the whole valley in a pandemonious voice that barks deep inside my sinuses. Why do they call them sirens anyway if their song’s not meant to lure you? I can only assume that someone has attempted an escape, or that the inmates turned riotous when the mist curling at their windows reminded them of their own appointments with the gas. I’ll walk a tall drink out onto the porch and sit and throb and try to remember the name of every man I’ve put away, but I can never be sure I remember them all.
When I call Val, my breath is soaked in liquor and one match shy of flame.
She says, “Jim, this has to stop.”
She says, “Jim, you motherfucker.”
She says, “You know you’re scaring your own boys, you piece of shit. What kind of father does that? What kind of man are you?”
And me? I just breathe into the receiver, swimming in her voice.
I can’t sleep. The ceiling is buzzing. Semis slip by on the highway as steady as any tide. Here’s what I want to know: If the old man buried them in the cellar and then took his own life in the attic, how did they wind up together in the ground out back?
Outside I hear a noise on the porch and I don’t know if it is a cat come to die or some kids looking to make a baby on the linoleum. The lamp doesn’t switch on. I light a candle, but the wind snuffs it out. In the dark, this house shifts and moans, it shudders and breathes. The locals say it’s haunted. I suppose it probably is.
Ryan Hume lives in Long Beach, California with his wife and daughter. He teaches composition at UC Irvine. More work can be found at Juked.