Nov 072012
 

Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell is a transplanted Englishman who seems to have found his Inner Arkansan. Or he has that Nabokovian gift of mimicry coupled with a fascination for Americana. “The Perfume Trees of Arkansas” is a short story about an Iraq War veteran nicknamed Jesus who drinks too much and doesn’t exactly WANT to die but doesn’t care much either which leads him to a stunning act of self-renunciation that is, well, oddly transformative. “The Perfume Trees of Arkansas” is funny without exactly being hilarious; it’s also immensely sad (with the sadness of all that lost, drug-polluted and under-educated underclass America that is yet human and oddly hopeful) without being depressing. The author lavishes much attention on his milieu — you think he must have grown up there, too.

dg

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The night shift is over at Michel’s, and Nordic Jesus sweats in the Chariot of Doom, smoking a joint and wishing he could see real bright colors. Beyond the parking lot, in the lamplight, the brick boutiques, coffee shops and antiques stores of the Heights have the muted hues of a vintage monochrome photograph that has been artily tinted. Nordic Jesus feels that life has become remote, like a movie playing on a cell phone screen. He can see the world but he isn’t in the picture anymore. From the day his HumVee hit an IED on the airport road in Baghdad, it’s as if he never got over the concussion and what happened to Doug and the others. After the explosion his buddies joked that he’d risen from the dead and started calling him Jesus; when the 39th returned to Arkansas the nickname followed him. Nordic Jesus, his friend Elijah dubbed him, when his orange hair and beard began to look like a Viking’s, and the moniker stuck. Owen has even started calling himself Nordic Jesus now, mainly because he finds blasphemy funny—it’s one in the eye for his dad, a Church of Christ preacher—but also because he’s just superstitious enough to hope that some of the magic of the man from Galilee might rub off on him. He wishes he would just wake up; so far it hasn’t been much of a resurrection.

Yalla, he coaxes himself in Arabic, Come on. When he hears the steel door of the kitchen slamming, he turns his head to see Michel locking it, then stumbling across the lot toward him.

Nordic Jesus likes his boss—Michel doesn’t piss him off, anyway, like most people do—and Michel’s accent and manners amuse him. He’s a genuine French chef, short, fat, dark and alcoholic, and plays the part to the hilt.

“Go home, Jesus,” he says, smacking his employee’s car. It’s an ’89 Chevy pickup with hand painted flames on the sides, the legend ‘Chariot of Doom’ in big black gothic letters across the rear window of the cab, and a bumper sticker that reads Jesus is Lord. “You have enough trouble with the police lately, I think,” Michel adds, pinching his assistant’s cheek and slapping it for good measure.

The hash is taking effect. The Heights are turning into a town in the South of France, the streetlights are Van Gogh fireballs, and Michel’s parting words are imbued with significance. “Sois sage, Michel says, before staggering away and flopping into his car. Be good, Nordic Jesus thinks, remembering his high school French. But doesn’t sage mean ‘wise,’ too?

The Chariot of Doom starts with a smoker’s cough. Nordic Jesus finishes the joint and wishes he could die. The dogwood trees and crape myrtles that form a canopy over the parking lot are blooming, and their scent reminds him of women, makes him yearn for one again—it’s been months. It’s strange that his sense of smell has remained acute; maybe that’s why cooking is the one thing he still loves. Through the open window he breathes in the air that steams around him like a fragrant gumbo, and the aromas of the evening’s dishes linger in his nostrils: garlic, onion, sour cream, prawns, orange sauce. The lady who called him out tonight to congratulate him on his roast duck was wearing a sweet, tart perfume, as if it were made with oranges, and Nordic Jesus was so overwhelmed that he almost fell on her neck and kissed her.

He doesn’t exactly want to die, he realizes; he’s simply tired of living.

Every night he has the same sensations, the same thoughts. At work, he is absorbed by what Michel teaches him, but then come the long silent hours in his grandmother’s house. He can’t sleep. He watches the cooking channel, tries out new recipes, plays his guitar, drinks bourbon. Most nights he goes for a run to tire himself out, and finally falls asleep, drunk, around dawn. Other nights, when the river runs like the Congo through the jungle and tropical smells are swirling in a crazy cocktail in his skull, he feels the urge to do something reckless. He drives to Stiff Station, where the crack houses are. Elijah, who was in the National Guard with him and now makes the desserts at Michel’s, has warned him about venturing there alone—Don’t be gone where you got no allies or alibis, white boy—but Nordic Jesus reminds him that he’s been in a war zone; he’s seen children’s bodies charred like barbecued chickens, and brains splashed like vomit on the sidewalk. This is Little Rock, for God’s sake. Besides, he is the Son of Man. No one can harm him.

He’s cruising along Kavanaugh, the radio tuned to a jazz station, Coltrane’s saxophone coiling like a dervish in his brain, when he sees a white woman wearing a batik dress and one sandal, limping and looping past homeless men who wave bottles, inviting or threatening her. She’s carrying her other sandal and a denim purse. She has long legs and bare arms, tattoos and dreadlocks. He slows down. Right here a couple of weeks ago Nordic Jesus was passing three junkies shooting up on the sidewalk, when he saw a black boy, no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. He offered him a ride; the boy gave him the finger. Tired of playing the Good Samaritan and getting no thanks, Nordic Jesus has made up his mind to drive by, when the woman lurches into the street and freezes like a rabbit caught in the headlights. He stamps on the brake.

The Chariot of Doom comes to a slippery, screaming halt. The woman folds herself over the hood and throws up on it.

Nordic Jesus laughs aloud for the first time in months.

“Feeling indisposed, ma’am?” he calls out the open window.

She looks up, startled or scared. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I truly am.” She has both palms flat on the hood, as if she just pushed it down. She’s dropped her purse and sandal. With her head sagging over her sick, and drool dripping down onto her chest—she’s stacked, he can’t help noticing—she looks like some creature from the netherworld. He recognizes her all the same. He saw her on one of his nocturnal runs, yelling at a man on a lawn in Levy.

Nordic Jesus opens his door, drops out of the cab. “Need a hand?”

“Why, sir, you are a gentleman,” she says, in tones as thick and sweet as molasses, as ladylike as Scarlet O’Hara’s. Pity about the dreadlocks, tattoos and puke-spattered tits, he thinks. She pushes against the hood, but her hands are glued to it.

Nordic Jesus grabs a box of tissues—grandma likes to have some handy when he takes her shopping—and after prying the stranger off his car, dabs her face. Her smile is vacant and her features ordinary, but he finds himself liking her. Or maybe he just feels friendly because of the pot he’s smoked, and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape he’s been drinking at his own expense. He hands her the box so she can swab her chest. And then, though he knows it will mean trouble, and he is being far from sage, he hears himself asking if she could use a ride.

“I could.” The woman sways before him like a slow metronome. “But I don’t know if I should.”

“I don’t mean you any harm.”

“I heard that before,” she snaps. “But to tell you the truth, I’ve always liked men with red hair. And I think I seen you before. Where d’you live?”

“Levy. I’m staying with my grandma over on Texas.”

She opens her mouth as if she’s about to yell ‘oh!’ She takes a step forward; he has to catch her. Nordic Jesus hasn’t touched a woman since Whitney dumped him just after he got back—a year and three months ago now—and it feels real good, or would, if the chick didn’t smell like a Friday night frat-house party.

“I know!” she says. “I seen you running past my house on Arizona. You was near naked.”

“I get hot when I’m running.” He’s hot now, sweat streaming down his neck and back, his boxers damp, the insides of his thighs sore. It was a hundred and fifteen in the kitchen tonight, and it’s ninety-eight or nine now, outside.

She pokes his chest. “You didn’t have nothing on but shorts and sneakers. You’re buff, dude.”

“I lift weights.”

She staggers back, out of his arms, and looks him over. “Yep, I can tell.”

At the end of the street a police cruiser is approaching. They eye it apprehensively, and she says she might as well come with him. She stumbles around the front of the truck, swinging the denim purse and sandal he’s picked up for her, and collapses into the seat beside him. “Thanks, sweetie,” she says, sliding down as if she can’t stay upright. She sits with her legs apart like a little girl. She has rings under her eyes and her breasts sag. Still, when her dress rides up, her long white legs make him swallow.

He pulls away, taking the first turn before the cruiser can reach them.

“So what’s your name?” he asks.

“Honeysuckle. My folks were hippies. Came from Pennsylvania in the sixties. Lived in a tepee in the Ozarks till the locals chased them out.”

“I’m Owen, but they call me Nordic Jesus.”

 “I can see that,” she says, cackling. “Well, I guess we both got funny names.”

 A liquor store and a pawnshop slide by—GUNS GUNS GUNS, the neon sign blares—and in the sodium light the city looks like tarnished brass. “Where’m I taking you, Honeysuckle?”

 “I oughta go home or Dwayne will be mad. Fact he already is mad ’cause we had a argument and he’s kind of psycho. He’s an ex-con. He sees me with you, he’ll kill us.”

 “How come you’re on your own, then? What happened to you tonight?”

She explains: They were scoring shit in Stiff Station and Dwayne went off on her on account of he thought she was making eyes at some black dude—Nordic Jesus interrupts to ask if she was, and she giggles and says, maybe—and not long after that she passed out. When she woke up, the sonofabitch was gone.

 They are crossing the Arkansas River, a broad band of mercury in the moonlight. When he was a kid, it made Nordic Jesus think of French trappers in deerskins and Davy Crockett hats; it always gave him a pang. Not any more, though. To their right, the girders of the bridge are a metal net and the Clinton Library looks like a doublewide. He wonders if Little Rock is pretty or ugly. In the rearview mirror it’s mostly glass towers, like any other American city.

“Your boyfriend sounds like an asshole,” Nordic Jesus says.

“He’s an asshole, all right, but I ain’t much, either.”

“You’re OK.”

“You don’t know me, Jesus.”

“Jesus know everybody,” he says, imitating Elijah’s accent, which is Little Rock street with Delta undertones.

She gives him a dopey grin that reminds him of how Whitney used to smile in high school. When he came back from Iraq, she still looked like a cheerleader: long blonde hair, heavy makeup, crop-top, low-slung jeans, high heels. But she seemed sillier than ever: all she talked about was movie stars, American Idol, shoes, her Spyder sports car. She was studying at UCA but he never saw her open a book—not that he cared, but it seemed like she was just going through the motions in everything she did. She wasn’t really alive. He thought she’d changed; she said he was the one who had changed. He was no fun anymore and he never brought her flowers or said he loved her. He just wanted to fuck her, not make love like they used to. What the hell was the difference? he wanted to know. He didn’t feel tender. He’d been a sniper in the Sunni suburb of Sadr City and had killed seven men. That was one video game he couldn’t get out of his mind. Draw a bead, hold your breath, squeeze. Jolt, crack, exhale. The guys never screamed. It was only up close, when you saw their faces, that it got to you. He tried to explain it to Whitney once, while she was watching Oprah, but she thought he was being morbid, told him he could leave if he couldn’t talk about something normal. He did just that, got up and strode out. Hasn’t spoken to her since.

“I don’t know as I want to go home just yet,” Honeysuckle says. “You got anything to drink at your place?”

“Just beer and bourbon.”

“That’ll do.”

“We’ll have to be quiet,” Nordic Jesus says, “or we’ll wake Grandma.”

“I’m sorry I’m not as beautiful as usual tonight,” Honeysuckle says out of the blue.

As far as he can tell, she isn’t making a pass. “You look fine,” he tells her.

In fact she looks pretty fucked up. She makes him nostalgic for the world he’s lost, when Arkansas always seemed to beat Texas at football, The Eagles played constantly on the car radio, America fought for freedom, and God was the nation’s CEO. Honeysuckle gives him a coy look.

“I don’t got no makeup on and I ain’t wearing underwear, either.”

A trickle of sweat runs down his back. Is she a tease? He can’t make her out. Hold tight, he tells himself. Pretend you’re on night patrol. Straightaway he is back in Al Sadr City, padding past white villas, his eyes scanning every wall, steel gate, and roof for gunmen. He switches off his feelings. Someone is pounding his heart with a steak mallet, but he’s not scared. It’s like going out to play football and knowing his dad and Whitney and the coach are all watching: you can’t mess up. If you stay alert, you’re more likely to survive. Yalla, he urges himself again.

He’s surprised to find they’re already in Levy. After the burnt ochre, orange and brown of the desert, Arkansas is a hallucination of heaven. The Chariot of Doom rattles past oaks and maples, azaleas, dogwood and hibiscus, magnolias and mimosas, crape myrtles and bougainvillea, all the perfume trees of Arkansas. White blossom, pink blossom, violet blossom—all dull, drained. With his window down Nordic Jesus can smell the feminine scents, although the odors in the car remind him of keg parties at U of A in Fayetteville, where he had a football scholarship for a year.

He draws up outside a nineteen forties brick dwelling, single story, with a porch supported by white wrought-iron ivy. A maple tree stands in the front yard and bougainvillea blooms on the trellis. He feels zingy, the way he used to when he played in an important game.

Nonetheless, although sex is clearly a possibility, the prospect doesn’t thrill him. “I only have a twin bed,” he says as he unlocks the front door and leads her through the cat-scented darkness of the living room. “I guess you can take it and I’ll sleep on the couch.”

He turns on the light in his bedroom. The floor is a swamp of sour clothes, the mattress a sinking raft, its sheets twisted and tangled like cypress roots. A Hogs pennant and posters of nineties grunge bands hang on the walls.

“We could share the bed,” Honeysuckle says, her expression unchanging, “if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind.”

He puts some alternative country on the stereo, so low that he can still hear the crickets and katydids through the open window, and Honeysuckle lifts her dress over her head. He turns off the light and takes a long pull on a bottle of Southern Comfort before stepping out of his clothes. In the radioactive glow of the streetlighting, Honeysuckle looks as if she has jaundice. She sits on the bed and stares at him. Not with desire, as far as her blurred features show, or even curiosity—she’s just staring like a cat. Nordic Jesus takes another swig of whiskey and hands the bottle to her.

“I can’t get to sleep if I don’t drink,” he says, lying beside her on the bed.

She takes a long swallow, sighs and leans back on her elbows. They haven’t touched yet. “That’s something else we got in common,” she says.

“Orange is my favorite color,” Nordic Jesus tells her.

“Oh yeah? That because you got orange hair?”

“Yes! How did you know that?”

“I may be dumb but I ain’t blind,” she says, misunderstanding him. He doesn’t try to set her right. She lifts one foot and places it on his leg. He tells her that when he was a kid he used to wear orange clothes and his dad painted his bedroom orange for him; he loved carrots, Cheetos, egg yolks, orange juice, apricot jam. He’d steal the orange pills from the medicine cabinet and eat them. Nearly killed himself once. Honeysuckle laughs, drinks, laughs again.

“I’m kind of drunk,” Nordic Jesus says, taking a good burning swallow, “but don’t you think that blossom in the yard smells kind of like oranges?”

She turns on her side to face him, then sits up with surprising swiftness and agility. “Didn’t see no orange trees outside.” She smells as though she’s made of Cheddar cheese.

The music drips in his ears for a couple of hours or more, but when she finally leans toward him and sucks at his mouth he tastes citrus and his blood stirs. A soft current pulses through him, electric, crackling and popping, and through his thoughts flit bright birds, blue jays, cardinals, orioles, and although his sensations don’t seem to fit or go together—cheese and slide guitar, whiskey and orange, throbbing and sweat and shock and awe and feathers—it’s like a jambalaya; it makes no sense but somehow it works. Yalla, habibi, the blonde whore told him in that stinky hotel in Dubai, come on, baby, hamdulillah, fantastic. Why did she keep speaking to him in Arabic? She was European, Russian or Romanian or something. Honeysuckle straddles him and goes straight into a frenzy, gyrating so fast and hard that he’s immobilized. He just hopes he can hold out. The bed bangs and creaks and Honeysuckle hollers as if Judgment Day has come.

Nordic Jesus doesn’t hear his grandma’s footsteps in the corridor, or the door opening, but there she is all of a sudden, four foot ten and bent like a bush in a storm. Mad as all get-out, too. “Out of my house, you little hussy!”

Honeysuckle freezes.

“You get off of him right now or I’ll flay you alive!” Grandma says, waving a limp claw at Honeysuckle as if she’s batting flies away.

Honeysuckle turns her head but keeps her seat. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“You will be, girl, if you ain’t out of here in ten seconds flat.”

Honeysuckle dismounts, stands, and gapes back at grandma, too dazed to cover her nakedness. She takes her dress and searches for the armholes for about five minutes. Nordic Jesus waits for his grandma to leave—she makes a feeble attempt to slam the door—then he pulls on his checked chef’s pants and greasy T-shirt. Although he didn’t even come, he’s relieved that it’s over.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t matter. Dude, you’re a strong lover,” she says, to his amazement. It was little more than a feat of endurance.

As they step out the front door the fragrance of the trees crashes over him like a wave. “Take a deep breath,” he says. “Smell that blossom.”

“Man, I’m still wasted. I wouldn’t a noticed it if you wouldn’t of said. If you don’t mind,” Honeysuckle goes on, once they’re in the Chariot of Doom and pulling off, “we’ll go by my place and if the truck’s in the drive you better drop me off round the corner.” She sounds as if she’s just coming round after being heavily sedated.

“He got a gun?”

“You kidding? He was inside for armed robbery, only they let him out early on account of he was only sixteen at the time. I never knew a guy didn’t have him a gun, except my dad. But even he got himself one now. Don’t you got one?” Before he can answer that he doesn’t, she gabbles on. “Dwayne ain’t much good with his, though. Other day, during that thunderstorm, there was two copperheads on the porch banging their heads on the glass door, trying to get in. So Dwayne stomps out, drunk as a skunk, and blasts at ’em with his twenty-two. Never did hit the sonsabitches.”

“I hope we don’t run into him, anyway.” Nordic Jesus is out of patience for rednecks—even if he has become one, as his parents seem to think.

Little white frame houses drift through the trees. On a porch, short Latinos pass a bottle. In a driveway, two black dudes in baggy basketball outfits, beer cans in their hands, lounge against an eighties Oldsmobile that looks like it’s been flattened out by a steamroller.

“We’re in luck,” Honeysuckle says, pointing to a surprisingly neat place. “He ain’t home yet.”

Nordic Jesus almost expects to see a Confederate Battle flag, but there isn’t one, or a truck on chocks either. The drive’s empty.

She leans across the bench seat and kisses him. “Well, thank you, Jesus.”

He deadpans the verse: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

She hoots. “Amen,” she says, and hobbles away, carrying the sandal that had come off. So that’s that. He’s already pulling away when he sees a pickup approaching and Honeysuckle running back toward him. Left her purse on the seat, goddamnit.

He considers driving off; he could always bring it back tomorrow. He hears thrash metal, a rage-filled roaring and guitars that sound like overworked machines. But he brakes and backs up. By the time he’s out of the Chariot of Doom, proffering the purse to Honeysuckle, the white truck has screeched to a halt and out jumps a guy even bigger than he is, with long, thinning hair, and tattoos. He’s wearing a tank-top, camouflage pants, and sneakers. And holding a pistol.

“Who the fuck are you?” Dwayne says, glowering at Nordic Jesus and pointing the gun at him.

“The Son of Man,” Nordic Jesus sniggers, still stoned.

“You laughin’ at me, boy?”

“No sir,” Nordic Jesus answers as if he’s back in Junior High: the more he tries to repress his grin, the more obstinately it asserts itself. He reminds himself that an enormous man—an enormous wronged man—is pointing a gun at his heart. It doesn’t escape Nordic Jesus that he’s been wishing he could die. This is your chance. All you gotta do is wind up boyfriend here a bit more.

“He’s just a friend, Dwayne,” Honeysuckle pleads. “He done give me a ride.”

“I bet he did,” Dwayne replies. “I see you, bitch, whored up like you had a mile of dick run through you.” He turns to Nordic Jesus again. “You screw my woman, asshole?”

Nordic Jesus draws a deep breath, as if he’s sucking on a joint, and his lungs fill with the scent-drenched air: crape myrtles, magnolias, wisterias, hibiscus and honeysuckle vine. For a moment it feels good to be alive. “I sure didn’t,” he says hopefully.

“Was you fixing to?”

“Nope.”

Dwayne frowns. “I bet you’d like to, though, wouldn’t you?”

Nordic Jesus glances at Honeysuckle and grins—his Huck-Finn-Grin, Whitney used to call it. Honeysuckle isn’t in the same class as Whitney, in fact to be honest she looks more like a truck-stop whore than a cheerleader, but she smiles back, kind of embarrassed, and gallantry compels him to say: “I sure would.”

“That right, smartass?” Dwayne cocks the pistol with his thumb; the safety is off. “I might could blow you away.”

I don’t have to lift a finger. “Do it, dude.” Yet even as he speaks it occurs to him how bizarre it is: facing death, all he can think of is perfumes and washed-out colors. Just one more time, he’d like to eat a meal cooked by Michel and see the world in the pure primary colors of the child’s paint-box.

“You don’t think I would, do you?” Dwayne rasps.

“Nope.” And know the love of a good woman. That’s all I’d ask for.

“Oh yeah?” Dwayne holds his pistol arm out straight and shaking, eyes bugging as if he’s seeing the ghost of General Sherman.

“You gutless bastard,” Nordic Jesus hears himself saying. “Why don’t you go ahead and shoot me if you’re going to? You can’t do it, that’s why.”

“I can’t do it?” Dwayne’s voice rises to a squawk. “You think I can’t do it?”

“That’s right. You ain’t got the balls, man.”

“I ain’t got the balls? You saying I ain’t man enough to kill you?”

“You got it.”

Honeysuckle is moaning like a sick dog, but Nordic Jesus is looking right into Dwayne’s eyes. He doesn’t see anything but confusion. The dumb fuck might actually pull the trigger. Dwayne tries to speak but is so worked up he chokes on the words.

“I told you, do it,” Nordic Jesus says. He grabs the barrel and pulls it against his heart. “You can’t miss.”

“Jesus, Jesus,” Honeysuckle groans, and he isn’t sure if she’s invoking him or his heavenly namesake. She makes a sound halfway between a yelp and a squeal.

What the hell, looks like I am going to die after all. He tells himself he doesn’t care, even finds it funny, but his heart is fizzing, blowing fuses, and he can’t kid himself any more. He wants to live.

“You’re nothing but a wife-beater,” he goes on in spite of himself. Dwayne’s eyes are popping and sweat pours down his face. “You ain’t a man,” Nordic Jesus sneers, remembering how his daddy used to look when he whipped his mother.

“Do it!” he roars.

Dwayne’s face twitches like an epileptic’s. This is the last thing I’m ever going to see. Nordic Jesus pictures his mother, her halo of white hair and pursed lips, stout, in a purple skirt-suit, a Church of Christ matron who smells of bleach and banana-bread. He feels the briefest pang of love and remembers what she said last time she saw him, two months ago: You’re bound for hell, Owen boy.

He feels a sharp prod, then nothing.

“Goddamn,” Dwayne says, his gun-arm drooping. “I can’t do it.”

Nordic Jesus’ right fist lashes out of its own accord, cracks against Dwayne’s forehead and sends him sprawling.

“Holy Moses,” Honeysuckle says. “He’s out cold.”

Lights are coming on in the neighborhood and sirens wail in the distance.

“Someone musta called the cops,” Nordic Jesus says. “Let’s get outta here.”

The Chariot of Doom careens around a corner as if they are under mortar fire. “Dude,” Honeysuckle says, “Dwayne coulda killed you back there.”

“Sure, if he’d had the balls.”

“You got balls, though, dontcha? You’re brave, man.”

“Brave? Nah, I just don’t care no more.”  He tells her how he joined the National Guard after he lost his football scholarship, not expecting to find himself in Iraq, and describes some of the things he’s seen: women and children screaming and crying when the soldiers burst into their homes in the middle of the night and threw their men on the floors; his friend Doug with a glass dagger in his eye when the IED went off; the little boy hit in the leg, caught in the crossfire. Coming back from Iraq, he was looking forward to being out of harm’s way again, but it seems you can’t escape violence. The world is going nuts. “Hey, where you want to go?”

She looks at the clock on the dash, tells him she’s on the early shift at Shipley’s Donuts on Cantrell, and asks if he could drive her there.

Light is leaking through the leaves, seeping from the sky, soft blue and grey. The Chariot of Doom smells of beer, bourbon, sweat and marijuana. They drive through Burns Park, a fairytale of firs and blue hills, with luminous white cottages, then pick up the freeway and swish past road works, billboards, bougainvillea, fields. Life’s an Irish stew, Nordic Jesus realizes. You can’t just pick out the bits you like.

“Ever think about getting sober?” Honeysuckle asks him.

“Sure.”

It might be sweet to find a woman, settle down and have kids, but he knows he isn’t strong enough yet. One day he’ll have to stop drinking and doing drugs. One day he will face the bullshit on his own. If only there were dazzling colors, like the plumage of the birds in his mind; if only he could see the way he can smell. He feels more like Lazarus than Jesus: brought back from the dead, but already decaying, only half-alive.

The grey sky glows like a hotplate warming up as they cross the I-430 Bridge over the Arkansas River. Nordic Jesus recalls how he used to spring out of bed on Saturday mornings when he was a kid, eager to discover what the world held in store for him. The water shimmers and flickers and flashes, as if the surface is made up of millions of metal lights. Steel, silver, brass and bronze and copper, gleaming, glimmering, glinting as the sun bobs like an orange buoy on the river to their left.

“You think it’s worth it?” he asks Honeysuckle.

“Getting sober?”

“I mean life,” Nordic Jesus says. “Is it worth living?”

“Hell, I don’t know. You just keep on doing it, I reckon.”

“Yeah, you do.” He looks at her and she looks back at him, her face framed by the window and the river and the sunrise, and although she isn’t exactly pretty when she shows her stained teeth, although he doesn’t love her and will not spend another night with her, although or because he’s weary of nights like these—he has been neither good nor wise, he reflects—and sex with her was far from scintillating and he’s still kind of numb, he feels sorry for her, understands she’s in pain and isn’t a bad person, just weak, like him, and he finds himself smiling, with something akin to tenderness. Honeysuckle’s face is lit by a tangerine sky, the river blazes, and if only for a moment, he can see the colors once more.

Nordic Jesus turns onto Cantrell and drives into the sunrise, hoping he will be able to stay awake.

— Garry Craig Powell

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Garry Craig Powell‘s novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil has just been published by Skylight Press. Powell is an Englishman who lived for long periods in Portugal and the United Arab Emirates, and shorter ones in Spain and Poland. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Central Arkansas in the USA. For more information, visit his website where you can also find his blog about life in the Persian Gulf.

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