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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Wednesday, 17 August 2011 16:23


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Amanda Gowin Amanda Gowin

Sepp and Arlo Clancy raised rabbits and chickens but the chickens always died. One night Arlo pulled up, big wheels rumbling over the cattleguard. He hopped out, tiny beads of sweat poking through his fresh shirt where the seat belt held him, and thumbed the black plastic button on the porch door. Hit him immediately: chicken sizzling and popping in a grease Jacuzzi.

Sepp had his back turned, frustrated but nonconfrontational, focusing on the stitched cows in the paper towels, wet and bunched on the counter. He asked his hulk of a brother how school was and Arlo twisted open a beer with his forearm and said, “Boring.” Sepp followed suit with the beer and set down at the poker table littered with crumbs and abandoned husks of chili cans and Tuna-2-Go snack lunches. He rubbed his black goatee, a fashion choice that he picked up in prison, along with the neck and finger tattoos and the cholo accent designed bring out his Mexican half, because ten years is a long time, I guess. Spending all day alone or with his brother had brought the twang right back, but he maintained his fashion choices the way vets sport army surplus shit.

Sepp hated getting tattoos in prison, grinding his teeth and chewing his tongue as his brothers looked on, and in the entire time he was there had only ever gotten one that mattered to him: a surprisingly well-done portrait of a halo’d pitbull, etched just below the crook of his arm. Isabella was Sepp’s only true love, gunned down without hesitation when the pigs kicked the door in. He’d been out of prison for six months and couldn’t bring himself to buy another dog. Seemed wrong, somehow. But he still had that love for animals, that love which probably should have gone towards a woman or his extended family, and he poured that into the animals on his small farm. It was killing him, them dying off like they were.

Arlo once told Sepp about his belief that he could speak to animals, and he was sure to add that he didn’t believe that they spoke back to him. But he could talk and they would listen in a way that other people couldn’t. Sepp had thought it was horseshit, considering his brother didn’t really seem to care one way or the other. But now that Arlo was off at college all day, and the chickens were dying at an otherwise inexplicable rate, the younger of the Clancy brothers began to suspect that maybe, if not directly, maybe Arlo was a bit more open minded than other folks, and maybe his mind kept the animals alive. And, vis a vis, its absence was killing them.

The big brother picked up on Sepp’s silent frustration. After dinner Arlo knocked on his door. The fan spun full blast, fluttering the pieces of notebook paper on the wall. Sepp doodled Comedy Tragedy masks and clowns and cholo-style graffiti. They didn’t hash anything out: Sepp being too embarrassed to admit to what was eating him, and Arlo too sure of his inability to understand to bother inquiring. They made a deal to fish the next day and Arlo closed the door quietly and drank himself to sleep in front of the TV.

Next morning they took the johnboat out to the Pocahontas river, backing it down a clay incline. The boat kicked up clouds of dust in the brown water and scared the fish. They hooked crawdads to their lines and caught a few catfish and tied them to the stringer. The cats fought and scraped the side of the aluminum boat, the only noise besides the cicadas. Both men took their shirts off and put on sunscreen and after about an hour of having fair to middling luck with the crawdads they decided to noodle.

Sepp feared the water and everything in it. His pride and desire to impress his brother brought him out to the river about once a week. Kept him from fainting or vomiting every time he had to take a fish off the line. Arlo understood his brother’s fear and was beyond caring or even finding small cruel pleasure in ribbing him over it, so he scouted while Sepp smoked cigarettes on the bank and shoveled wet clay with his toes.

Every minute or so Arlo’d come up for air and wipe the dirt from his eyes, then take a breath and disappear. After a bit he came up and whistled and Sepp tentatively stepped into the deeper water. Arlo laughed quietly to himself, his brother the picture of toughness, muscles and tattoos and that godawful goatee, and here he was scared of fish. He prayed silently that Sepp would be able to handle it just long enough to wrangle the catfish.

They swam under the shade of a bald cypress and submerged and Arlo pointed to a hole set in the trunk of the tree. Sepp grabbed ahold of his brother’s ankles.

Arlo reached into the hole. The fear was there: always a good possibility that it was a turtle den, or a snake. He waited for the strike, for the small dull teeth of the cat to envelope his arm, the rafters of its gullet flexing against his skin. Adrenaline. The fish wasn’t striking, but that was fine. He reached in further, scraping his finger on an exposed root. When he finally felt the wet skin, the fish didn’t flinch. He was momentarily disheartened. A dead fish. Just his luck.

He got his fingers inside the gill and yanked as hard as he could. The gill opened like wet lips. His vision was quickly clouded by an expulsion of tiny white flakes from inside, what he assumed, by their transluscent constitution, to be scales. He pulled again, and the fish came loose. His brother let go of his ankles and he breathed in the fresh, heavy air and it was only then that he realized he wasn’t holding a fish.

Arlo screamed and splashed. Sepp panicked at his brother’s behavior, mildly convinced that some seabeast had found its way to the Pocahontas River. When he saw the severed head bobbing in the water, his panic turned to fresh, unbridled terror, and he pinwheeled his arms against the brown water, overtaking Arlo halfway to the bank, where they both scrambled up the incline and into the truck and off down the road, johnboat and catfish be damned.

Arlo’s big hands quivered on the steering wheel. Sepp lit a cigarette, ignoring the ash tumbling off its edge and onto his shirt. The day was hot and soon the wind had dried them off. Arlo petitioned that they might go to the police, which Sepp instinctively recoiled against, until his brother reminded him “That body’s got my prints on it, dumbass, plus what about the boat?”

Before they reached the police station, Arlo pulled into a 7-11 parking lot by the air pumps, away from the gas, and held his head in his hands and cried. Sepp’s cigarette burned his fingers and he rolled down his window and tossed it out. He looked back and his brother was still at it, his shoulders rocking, really crying. He got out of the truck and bought some candy and soda and cigarettes from inside. He brought them out to the car, where Arlo had composed himself and turned on the radio. They pulled back onto the road. The day was quiet. A pickup stopped next to them at the light. A Rottweiler sat in the bed, squinting in the sun, big tongue hanging. Sepp looked at it for a long time. Smiled. The light turned green and the pickup turned right down the road.

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J David Osborne

J David Osborne is the author of the Lynchian gulag-escape novel By the Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends. His second novel, Low Down Death Right Easy, is due out this winter from Swallowdown Press. He lives in Oklahoma with his dog.

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