“The Trail” by Jeff Frawley

Issue 23 / Fall 2020

Raymond Arvizu finally summoned the nerve to check on José, who hadn’t turned up at the Good Luck Café two days in a row. Raymond’s hand shook as he inserted the spare key. A smell—he nearly collapsed. He filled his old lungs, closed his eyes, turned the knob. The low-ceilinged adobe was dark, newspapers and rubbish stacked window-high, litter boxes spewed across linoleum. And there in the recliner—Raymond made a sound—was José, mouth agape, eyes wide, covered in afghan. He’d complained of chills even in August, when the neighborhood baked and drinkers stripped down to undershirts. Raymond moaned at that discolored face twisted with pain, heart attack or stroke, pitted with purple-white gashes. A cat leered from behind the recliner, another by the rubbish, seven total in that tiny place, skittish and feral, lured indoors by sardines. Those gashes—Raymond pictured cats feasting: the black one with white socks, the one gray with dirt, the scraggly orange tabby, the piebald runt. He stumbled outside coughing up sickness, crying for help. Neighbors arrived, eased him to the curb. Their faces seemed missing, blasted by light.

 

*

 

Wires, adobes packed tightly and sheltered by pecans, swallowed by trumpet vine, connected the houses in that district. Panaderias spilled aromas. In a little bar, men ate sandwiches and, after drinking, cried towards the park, its grass scorched chalk-white. Children spied on the drinkers, whispering there was something back there in the dark, a white-fleshed giant crawling around, making sounds.

A man was once arrested for digging in the park, claiming he planned to bury his four maniacal children. The man pressed fingers against his skull, told police he wouldn’t harm the children, merely shovel soil to their chests and, under such conditions, deliver his lecture: if they didn’t calm down, they’d find themselves victims of terrible violence, some stranger fed up with their madness and bashing their heads. (The man shook his shovel; the officers flinched.) The kids woke him at night, cried the man, claimed he and their mother had irredeemably fucked up, had brought them into this world of unimaginable cruelty when there were other, better worlds out there, dimensions laid over this one like cellophane. Crying, pouring sweat, the man jabbed his shovel. Ever since their mother left, he shouted, they’ve gone ballistic, they even released black widows in the house—a matter of time until someone gets bit! By now, officers had eased the shovel from the man, who fell into their arms and, trembling, cried, What am I supposed to do with these kids?

 

*

 

By mid-afternoon, the team removed José’s body. Stroke, definitely stroke, a man muttered as they passed Raymond Arvizu. Doves on the patio cooed like mad. The earth surrendered its heat. Two new inspectors arrived, told Raymond to keep out. They asked what to expect inside. Cats, Raymond answered, plus junk, floor to ceiling. Probably roaches and mice. The inspectors said they hated this neighborhood. Raymond watched from the caged doorway as the men, gloves donned, poked moldered newspapers. Seeing him, they shut the door. Children gathered in the street, kicked a ball. Raymond stooped to collect puncture-vine burrs, worried about bike tires and bare feet. He worried too about strangers roaming the streets, nothing to do, rotten-teethed men with burnt-looking faces and eyes like bad fruit, all kinds of shit stuck between teeth. He was certain the houses with blanketed windows kept kidnapped children inside. He smiled at the kids in the street, pointed at the clouds curdled like innards. Just then, inside José’s house, an inspector bellowed and barreled outside, shouting he’d been bitten, damned if those cats didn’t have a taste for flesh thanks to the stiff. At this word, stiff, Raymond Arvizu cried there were children present. The inspector waved his hand, said they could learn a lesson from that old codger living alone, stockpiling cats, refusing to adhere to basic standards of hygiene. Seeing his hand, enflamed knuckles to wrist, the children screamed.

 

*

 

José used to beam when Raymond appeared for coffee or rum, the old men sitting on José’s patio and watching passersby: working-class couples, packs of wild children, those awful-eyed men.

José suffered his first stroke several years back, collapsing in the street as he chatted with Glenn Grijalva. Raymond rode along in the ambulance. When José’s speech returned, slow and loping, he rambled about the young men he once counseled at the Munroe Center, vets returned from violent conflicts, from bases in places hot and dusty or hot and humid. Why, José complained, did they send those poor confused men to such miserable places, only to ship them out to be shot at, nerves electrocuted, brains stewed like tomatoes? A big, milk-white woman was hired to visit twice a day, van stenciled with the name of a budget-rate homecare service, DESERT WINDS HOMECARE or MOUNTAIN BREEZE HOMECARE, crudely painted cacti and coyotes and peaks. Though soft-spoken, she handled José gruffly, yanking off clothes, dunking him in the tub, spooning mush she claimed was enchiladas. After a month José begged Raymond that he could no longer take it, she ought to be picking squashes or ripping drywall, not attending the needs of the inept. So, Raymond presented the termination paperwork scrawled with José’s now manic signature. The woman burst into tears.

He became José’s caregiver, opening tins of sardines for the cats, making sandwiches, doling diuretics, dressing his friend who grew more intelligible by the day. He tucked José in for naps, later returned to flip off the radio. Every third day, he helped him bathe, holding his breath at that odor worse than the cats’, steering José to the tub, clucking his tongue when José hollered as his buttocks touched water. Raymond poured water down his chest, lathered the bar of soap, stroked it in circles. José grunted pleasantly. He washed José’s scalp, those tangles of gray hair, José giggling like a child. Then he eased soap up his legs. Looking away, he rubbed José’s groin, genitals fanned across water, that little length of tissue like a drowned mouse. He moved on to knees and elbows, cleaned José’s ass by leaning forward and, summoning great strength for a man in his seventies, raising and lowering his friend so that water slapped his buttocks. He meticulously toweled, fearing the slightest chill might spell death. José’s pajamas he washed in his backyard machine, so old it bucked the side of his house. When, months later, José presented a thank-you bottle of rum, neither man mentioned the baths. But Raymond hadn’t minded: he’d often exited José’s house and paused in the heat, closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, filled with a devotion so intense he felt ready to split open, ready to combust, to slough insides onto sand. The sensation seemed to radiate from a place behind the sun. He reached out to grope it, seeing a pinprick, a wormhole. His chest shuddered. His brain roasted. He felt reduced to ash.

José refused to enter assisted living, even though he’d long complained about his own son’s refusal to treat mental troubles. And he’d counseled all those veterans desperate for help, angry, bug-eyed vets whispering about what they’d seen, brains ground into meat by the whims of the government, witnesses to torture and gassings, who now claimed to see things with scabbed-over faces in alleyways at night, things in bedrooms bubbling black-brown liquid from their mouths, vets who twitched and grunted when seated near doorways, who swore neighbors kept massive river creatures in back bedrooms, splashing them with buckets of water, and it was José’s job to secure these vets positions at Beep-Beep Quick Lube and Kleinsasser’s Dry Clean, positions walking dogs at the animal shelter where José’s cats would, that one afternoon, be taken.

Raymond, on the patio, would hear the control men’s howling and cursing, the rattle of cages, six cats loaded onto the truck. He didn’t tell the control men that one cat, the seventh, the piebald runt, had darted out the door, torn down the block. The others would never stand a chance at the shelter, too feral for adoption. After six months, they’d be injected with pentobarbital, spasming and dying as their owner had half a year earlier.

*

 

José, after rum, would unearth shoeboxes of Polaroids, mugshot-like profiles of his four hundred veterans assigned over two decades. Even after his stroke, slurry with drink, he’d shuffle through photos and recite names and job placement, Raymond dozing on the patio. José’s son’s memory was shot by twenty-four, names of neighbors lost, entire days missing. Paranoia blossomed, depression thickened; soon he didn’t leave the house. Fights between father and son intensified until, after a year, José had him moved into a group home. The young man had a singular talent: painting clowns with utmost precision, often melancholy clowns but sometimes clowns so joyous they looked ready to combust, weeping clowns or enraptured clowns embracing one another, several dozen at once, weeping, screaming for joy. José pasted his walls with them, until clowns were overtaken by the rubbish he amassed when his son died in his thirties, still living in that group home. He’d received a phone call one morning from the overnight caretaker: his son hadn’t come down for breakfast; she found him in his bed, that bed he so struggled to get out of each day. He’d died peacefully, inexplicably in his sleep, thirty-two or thirty-three (even José had lost track), no emotion on his face. They scoured the room for any indication, found nothing. It was, José told the young woman, to ease her guilt, the sort of thing his son had likely been praying for.

 

*

 

They once discovered a trail in the mountains, back when his son was a teen, a trail through canyons that opened upon a plain of juniper and scrub oak. They perched upon rock, the boy pointing out species of birds. Years later, after his son’s burial, José would return to the trail, venturing past the plain to a lush plateau: alligator junipers, piñon pines, rust-red maples, a fluke bio clime. Bright-throated birds screeched in the pines, roadrunners darted, hummingbirds droned—if only his son had seen this place, José daydreamed; perhaps this would have proven the thing to save him. Strange orange rocks rose behind trees, curdled into cow pies and intestines and piles of mud thirty feet tall. José felt on some Martian Serengeti. From then on, every Sunday for years, he returned to that spot, the sky a hallucinatory blue, the earth seeming to hum like a collapsing star. Sometimes he wept—if only the boy had seen it! And yet, José suspected this place didn’t exist until his son died. He took up speaking to cholla, kangaroo rats, collared lizards. Shadows were perched upon distant rocks, perhaps blackened husks of yucca. Some, José swore, had arms and heads and mouths. Once, just once—his stomach dropped to his knees—a shadow-husk rose, walked the length of rock, descended into desert.

Then, in his sixties, José came across a shirtless white boy up on the plateau. The white boy had wild curly hair and an open wound swathed from neck to chest: raw, purple, clustered with pus. He panted like an animal, eyes wide. José, trying not to collapse, asked what had happened. The young man calmly probed his wound, said not to tell anyone. José noticed a tent in the brush, scattered pots and pans, a portable stove big as a filing cabinet, clothes stained with something like blood, trash and utensils and plastic baggies—how long, José asked, have you been here? The young man, probing, repeated not to tell anyone. Fluid ran from the wound down his belly. People in town, he said, would rip him limb by limb, saw his bones, chop him up. He probed a pustule and José heard squeaking, like wet cheese. Please, the young man gasped. José thought of his friend, Raymond Arvizu, thought of Raymond begging to live in peace, alone. He imagined Raymond gouging his own seeping wound, a rind of pus upon his belly. Then, feeling faint, he thought of his son at that terrible group home, men cooing through the walls. He smelled a sweet, rotten stench. The young man’s wound seemed to seep gas or air—José feared he was being poisoned. But the young man only peeled back the bark of a nearby piñon. Another leak sprang in the wound. He tore several chunks and with a giggle said, The sap drives them out. José approached. Sure enough, honey-tinged pitch beaded the tree’s trunk, trapping black beetles. The young man, sweeping his arm, said the pines were infested by ravenous beetles that could gnaw through thirty-year wood in less than ten months, gobbling phloem, shitting eggs. José said the trees didn’t look sick, to which the young man laughed and winced, said it had only just begun—if the rains didn’t fall this year, the trees would produce less sap, drive fewer beetles out, within a few summers the pines would be dead. Junipers were different, tasted unfavorable. The young man, trembling, said the rains wouldn’t come because of all the new pavement in town, warehouses and manufacturers and apartments rising like alien cities, warping surface temps—inevitable, the young man said, soon you’ll hear their gnawing all the way down in town, deadwood and dried needles everywhere, the slightest spark will burst it all into flames—  Enough! José cried. He promised not to tell anyone about the young man’s secret. He only asked if the wound was from an animal. The young man, probing, said it wasn’t a wound; he’d been born with it, lived with it all his life. Exposing it to sunlight seemed to do it good. This more than anything unnerved José, who stumbled down the plateau, never looked back, never mentioned the young man, not even to Raymond Arvizu, though he did ask his veterans if they knew of comrades living in the foothills. The vets gave queer looks before answering that, yes; the arroyos and canyons were filled with such men. José, fearing those trees, tried other trails until, at seventy-two, he suffered his first stroke, never hiked again.

 

*

 

A husband and wife took in the piebald runt, José’s escaped cat. It puked pinkish pulp the couple mistook to be kibble. They nurtured it, named it Pumpkin. Then, thinking the cat was now theirs, they allowed Pumpkin out into the yard where it immediately fled, zigzagged the lot, leapt over the fence, dashed past the park. In the little park bar, drinkers howled to a song on the jukebox that went I’ve been gone since the moon turned wrong/I’m gonna spank your ass, Martian woman. Sky pressed against earth. The cat reached the Palo Verde neighborhood, often called the Palo Gringo, all those white people moving in, gutting adobes, stringing wind chimes and dream-catchers, kachinas and cow skulls.

The runt leapt into the yard of a gringo pruning oleander. Hello there, kitty-cat, said the man, lowering his sheers, tugging off gloves, inching forward. He’d adopted several strays back at his old duplex by the desert. Once, exploring, he came across a pickup truck rumbling on a service road. Just then, its driver dumped a box of kittens, tossed the box, sped away. The man crept forward, gathered the creatures. Later, near his duplex, he spotted the truck idling, windows down, driver on his phone. The man, miscalculating his authority, accused the driver of abandoning the kittens, only first he shouted Hey, dumb-fuck or some such thing. The driver, in disbelief, closed his phone, wiped his face, said surely the man wasn’t talking to him. The man held up the box, said, I saw you, dumb-fuck. Fear pinched his guts. The driver’s grinning teeth were brown. Then the driver smacked his truck, told the man to get lost, otherwise he’d meet someone he didn’t want to meet. The man, sweating now, shook the box, shouted, You dumped these fucking cats! Deep in the truck’s cab, something shifted in the shadows, a creature or a man wearing some sort of mask: slathered blue, wet, a heat-fried mane of hair bushy as a skunk. Its giant eyes blinked. Something slimed out its mouth. Then it ducked or disappeared. Who’s that? the man gasped. He turned and ran. In subsequent months, telling the story, he’d leave the blue thing out, saying he’d really let the driver have it. Good for you, replied his listeners, stroking those kittens now grown into cats. Things were changing for the better, they said, people like that driver deserved to be pushed out of town. The man avoided weighing in, knowing his new adobe had been repo-ed from a family of five—but someone, he told himself, had to buy it.

 

*

 

José’s piebald runt he housed in the laundry room, eventually integrating it with the other cats, the man wondering whether this was some precipice of despair, an expanding horde of cats that would grow until his death.

One day, while the man watered his garden, the runt slipped away, disappeared. The man imagined it in the desert, struggling to survive, or, if lucky, accepted into a pack. Or maybe hit by a car. He scoured the streets cooing its name, inspecting sun-blackened roadkill. Sullen, he retreated indoors and didn’t emerge for days, dreaming about death, about being eaten by pets like that man in the paper. By noon some days, he uncapped his first beer. He finally acquiesced to clear the runt’s bedding. There, behind the dryer, he found a dense funneled web, an obsidian spider big as a buckeye. He went breathless—how hadn’t he noticed this nest, broad as a basket, littered with bugs? A moth, stuck to a thread, beat its wings. The man freed it. The spider darted forward. He grabbed a broom, smashed the spider, caved the thing in, swept it all up.

The moth, meanwhile, dies in the house or escapes out a window, flutters several blocks and alights on a branch, whispering its silent moon language. It falls to the curb where, one day, it crumbles to dust. By then José’s house, its walls and floors bleached, will be rented. A developer, though the house is on the historic registry, finagles permission to have it torn down. Perhaps the developer recounts for the registry council the once-owner’s gruesome fate. Several rental tenants—two young couples, a widow, a mechanic—have each stayed less than six months, disturbed by some presence, by stains on the walls that appear and retreat, by smells difficult to pinpoint. Then the final tenant, a part-time teacher at the community college, spots a figure down the hall: windblown hair, unimaginable skin, blue and glistening with dew. The creature shows its teeth, oozes oil from its mouth.

Which all begs the question: what sort of awfulness exists in the cracks of this world, the spaces behind it, occasionally slipping through? Perhaps the developer poses this to the registry council, which grants permission to fill the lot with a duplex casita. On the second day of demolition, the crew will discover at the rear of the foundation the remains of a mammal tucked between cinderblocks, smothered with dirt, larger than fox but smaller than coyote: needle teeth, tiny claws, snout-stretched skull. Mummified flesh leathers its bones. It’s old, the workers say, prodding with shovel, much older than originally thought. They’ve really found something here, an important discovery, and what they all want to know is: how long has it been here, from where did it come, was it alone at the end?

 

Jeff Frawley‘s fiction has appeared in Faultline, South Dakota Review, Portland Review, Storyscape, and many other publications. “The Trail” appears from his short story collection, Trace Lands. He now lives and teaches in the mountains of southern New Mexico.

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