(The estimated reading time for this is 20 minutes)
The following is an excerpt of the novel Corrosion by Jon Bassoff. Available now!
I was less than 20 miles from the Mountain when the engine gave out, smoke billowed from the hood, and Red Sovine stopped singing. I pushed the old pickup for a while, but it was no use. She’d let me down good this time. I pulled her off to the side of the highway, kicked open the door, and cursed at the wind. I stared down the cracked highway; a backwater town was just up ahead, surrounded by derricks and grain elevators. I grabbed my army-issued duffel bag from the trunk, pulled on my camouflage jacket, and started limping down the asphalt.
The town was called Stratton, and it wasn’t much. Just brick buildings and rotting bungalows and poor-man shacks all dropped haphazardly by God after a two-week bender. Old Main was hanging on for dear life. An abandoned convenience store, abandoned gas station, abandoned motel. Rusted signs and boarded-up windows.
The wind was blowing hard and mean; I pulled up the collar of my jacket and buried my hands in my pockets. I caught a glimpse of myself in a darkened window and shivered. It was a face that I still didn’t recognize. A face that appeared to have been molded by the devil himself…
Twelve hours on the road and I was in bad need of a drink. At the corner of the block stood a white stucco building with the words Del’s Lounge hand painted in red, a neon Bud sign glowing in a submarine window. I went inside.
The floor was concrete and the tables were wooden. There was a pool table with torn blue felt, and a jukebox, twenty years old at least. A burly fellow with a red handlebar mustache sat at the counter drinking from a Coors can, his overalls smeared with paint or blood, while an old man with a rosacea nose sat in a vinyl booth, arms cradling a tumbler of bourbon. The bartender—a skinny man with sickly yellow hair and liver spotted-hands—whistled a nameless tune and wiped down the counter lethargically. Head down, floor creaking, I walked across the room and sat at a corner table, back to the bar. I placed my bag on the floor and stuck a pinch of snuff between my gums and lower lip. After a few minutes, I heard footsteps. I didn’t turn around. The bartender stood right behind me and asked me what I wanted, his voice all full of barbed wire.
Bottle of beer, I said. Cold.
Doncha want some food? We got hamburgers and hot dogs and the best barbecue pork in town.
All I wanted was the beer, but he moved so that he was in front of me and handed me a menu, and then he saw my face and said, Ah, Jesus. It was an involuntary reaction.
Just a beer, I said again.
He muttered an apology and walked back to the bar and everybody was looking—the same curious bystanders who watch in disguised glee every time there is a car wreck on the highway or a shooting outside a nightclub. I stared straight ahead, tapping the table with my fingers. The jukebox creaked into action and Merle Haggard started singing, but the speakers were busted and his voice was warbled, drunken.
The bartender came back a few minutes later with my beer. He could’ve left me alone, but he wanted to prove he wasn’t frightened of me. He just stood there, jaw slack. He had a full set of bottom teeth, but nothing on the top. I could smell his breath, a strange combination of bourbon and candy canes. So, uh, what’s your business here in Stratton? he said.
I cleared my throat. No business. How much do I owe you?
You don’t owe me a penny. Drink’s on the house.
I was used to it. I made a living off other people’s pity. They’d bury me in a potter’s field.
I took a long drink and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. I’m looking for a place to stay, I said. Someplace cheap.
The bartender smiled slyly. Everything is cheap in this town, he said, but the Hotel Paisano is cheaper than most. Just a few blocks down on Third.
Much obliged, I said.
I drank my beer, and then another and another, and then I heard a car pull up outside, the engine growling. The door slammed and I could hear a man and woman arguing outside, and the sound of a bottle shattering on asphalt. The man shouting Goddamn slut, you are!
A moment later, the door opened and a woman walked inside. She wasn’t very pretty, but that sort of thing never mattered to me. She was tall and skinny with bright red hair swooped up in a sort of beehive. Her face was pale and her nose was crooked. She had a stud in her lip and a tattoo of Betty Page on her arm. She wore red boots and cut-off jeans and a Misfits T-shirt.
She stomped her way up to the bar and plopped down on a stool. Got Maker’s Mark? she asked the bartender.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and nodded. Yes, ma’am. How do you drink it?
Quickly, she said. And give me a Michelob, too.
The bartender pulled out a heavy-looking glass, poured a fistful of whiskey, and popped open a bottle of beer. She raised the glass and made a toast to all the bastards in the world before slugging it down. Then she coughed and grimaced and reached for the beer. I was hooked.
Not two moments later the man came charging in. He wore cowboy boots and tight blue jeans and a heavy flannel. His face was bloated and red, his mustache thick and gray. He was twice as old as the girl, easy.
He wanted her out of the bar and he said so, but she wasn’t having any of it. Fuck you, she said. You’re not my keeper.
This man strode to the counter with more than a little purpose. He yanked the beer out of her hand and slammed it hard on the counter. The fellow with the bloodstained overalls rose to his feet and took a couple of cautious steps back. The bartender said, Now, just take it easy, mister. We don’t want no trouble here. Me, I watched from a distance, seeing how it would all play out, because I wasn’t a violent man except when I had to be…
Let’s get out of here, you goddamn whore, the man said, and you could tell he meant business. She tried pulling away, and that’s when he got rough with her. He grabbed a handful of her red hair and yanked her off the stool. The girl screamed. He let go of her hair but grabbed her arm, twisting it behind her back. She was flopping around like a rag doll.
I rose from my seat and walked unhurriedly across the bar. The old man didn’t pay any attention to me, just kept twisting her arm tighter and tighter. I could feel the blood running in my veins.
Let go of her, I said, my voice barely louder than a whisper.
He looked up. Seeing my melted face distracted him, and he loosened his grip on the girl’s arm. She managed to twist away for a moment, but he recovered and shoved her against the wall. I grabbed the bottle of beer from the counter, came up from behind, and slammed it on the back of his head. He wobbled around for a few moments before his legs gave way and he fell to the hardwood floor.
For a good long while he didn’t do anything but moan and groan. Then he started moving, pulling himself across the floor, but there was no real conviction to his movements. Every time he tried getting up I gave him a good hard kick to the stomach or the face. I wanted him to know a few things. His girl was pleading for me to stop but I knew she didn’t mean it, that it was all for show. By the time I got through with him, he was curled up in a ball, coughing up blood, his face a pulpy mess.
I went back to my table, drank down the last swallow of my beer, and slung my bag over my shoulder. Everybody was watching me. I walked slowly toward the front of the bar, graveyard boots echoing on the cement. I stepped over the man and nodded at the bartender. The Paisano, right? I said.
Yes, sir. It ain’t nothing fancy, but they’ll treat you real good, yes they will.
I nodded my head at the girl and pushed open the door.
Wait! I heard her say. I turned around. She flashed a crooked grin, dark eyes filled with adulation. Who are you? What’s your name?
My name’s Joseph Downs, I said, and I served my country proudly.
I wandered around for a while, the wind kicking up dirt, until I came to a little worn-out brick building with The Paisano painted on the side. I walked up the crumbling steps and pulled open the door. Inside, everything smelled like rotted wood and formaldehyde. An elk’s head hung from the far wall. A baby grand stood in the corner of the room, unplayable. Behind the counter was a dwarf of a woman wearing a floral dress and sporting a rowdy blue bouffant. She had pasty white skin, cherub cheeks, and a turkey wattle. She put away the flask she’d been sipping from and stuck it beneath the counter. Then she looked up at me and smiled through gritted teeth, revulsion concealed. How can I help you, mister? she said.
I want a room.
Just a room? Or will there be something else? She said this with no playfulness.
Only a room.
Okay, she said. I can get you a room. She reached behind the counter and grabbed a key.
I followed her up a narrow flight of stairs, the lightbulb dangling from the ceiling creating menacing shadows.
The second floor was in bad shape. Paint peeling from the ceiling, curling up on itself, lights flickering, walls covered with graffiti, gibberish all. From inside one of the rooms, I could hear somebody moaning. Against one wall there was a wooden bench, and sitting on the bench was a young woman wearing red boots and a red wig and a badly tattered wedding dress. A cigarette dangled from a lipstick-smeared mouth. She winked at me and I looked away. Ugly face, she said. Don’t bother me none. I’ll suck your cock.
You keep that pie-hole shut, the hotel owner said. Now git on back to your room. C’mon, git!
The girl rolled her eyes and rose to her feet. She rearranged her underwear and slunk on down the hallway. With a smile or a sneer, she opened a door and disappeared to the dull gray light of a T.V. show.
Don’t mind her, the blue-haired woman said. With a violent jerk she pulled open a jammed room door and handed me the key. Well, I sure do hope you enjoy your stay, she said. She studied my corroded features for a moment, her amblyopic eye drifting toward her skull. And if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.
I won’t need anything, I said.
* * *
The room was what you might expect. Grime-scrubbed walls. A sloppily made bed. An old Kelvinator refrigerator with the kickplate ajar. A filthy window overlooking a filthy town.
I sat down on the bed and removed my jacket and my boots. I unzipped my bag and pulled out a can of George W. Helme snuff, a bottle of plum brandy, an army-issued bayonet, and my worn leather King James Bible, the pages starting to yellow.
I snorted some tobacco, took a long pull of burnt wine, and opened the Bible: And Gideon said unto him, Oh my Lord, if the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt? but now the LORD hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites…
The power of the passage moved me, and I collapsed on the bed, eyes squeezed tight. I was beginning to think that there wasn’t a single righteous person in the world. I was beginning to think that everybody had secrets, terrible secrets.
* * *
That night I lay in my bed, bonnell coils jabbing my skin, and stared at the mildewed ceiling. There was a long, jagged crack. I watched it grow. Water dripped from the crack into a rusted pot. Drip, drip, drip. Chinese water torture. Through narrow slits, I gazed out the window. The moon was the color of jaundiced skin.
I couldn’t sleep at all. The mice and rats had taken over the house. I could hear them scurrying along the wooden floors, climbing up the walls, gnawing at the furniture. And then I heard something else. The faint echo of footsteps on the pavement down below. I crawled out of bed and stared out the window. A man walked slowly down the street, just out of the glow of the streetlight. He wore a tattered suit, a blue tie hanging around his neck like a noose. He had iron-gray hair, badly disheveled, a skeletal frame, and a haunted, emaciated face. When he saw my silhouette in the window, he froze and stared right at me. I shivered involuntarily. A lunatic smile spread slowly across his face. I took a couple of steps backward, my breath trapped in my windpipe…
* * *
An hour or more passed. I sat in the bed clutching my knife. Every so often I’d take a peek outside. He hadn’t moved; he just stood there, waiting. The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, and a screen door was slamming open and shut.
* * *
12:05 A.M., and I heard a knocking on the door. Three short knocks. I gripped my bayonet tightly. I walked slowly across the room, sinews full of dread. I unlocked the door and pulled it open. Dull light spread across the hardwood floor, and I shielded my eyes with my hand. But it wasn’t the stranger. It was the redhead from the bar, her face all blurry, a rain-soaked windshield.
I know it’s late, she said in a little girl’s voice.
I wasn’t sleeping.
Can I come inside?
I’m not gonna stop you.
She smiled that crooked smile and stepped into the room, the door slamming shut behind her. She wore a red Nancy Drew raincoat tied tightly at the waist. I was wearing boxers with bears on them and an A-frame undershirt. She looked me up and down. You’re well-built, she said. I don’t mind the face. I’ve seen worse.
Maybe, I said. Do you want something to drink? I have plum brandy. Don’t have any glasses, though.
Well, that would be just fine, she said. Do you mind if I take off my jacket?
She wasn’t wearing much underneath. Just a futuristic-looking little silver dress and the same red boots as before. I handed her the bottle of brandy and she took a nice long swig, watching me from the corner of her eyes. She was a drunk, a bad girl, but she reminded me of somebody from long ago…
I wanted to thank you, she said, for how you helped me this afternoon. Most men would have walked away.
I shrugged my shoulders. The way I was raised, a fellow’s not supposed to lay a hand on a woman. And if he does, you’re supposed to do something about it. Who was he?
She took another swig, this one longer than the first, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. My husband, she said.
I nodded. And you gonna stay with him?
I said: A guy hits you once, he’ll hit you twice.
Oh, he’s hit me more than twice, believe me. You didn’t see anything today. She stared at me for a long moment, then pulled up her sleeve and showed me the remnants of a couple of cigar burns.
I clenched my jaw and shook my head. You ought to leave him, I said.
It’s not so simple.
Sure it is. You pack up your bags. And you leave. Simple.
She didn’t say anything for a while. Then: This brandy sure is good. I’ve never had brandy before.
Yeah. I like it okay.
For the next hour or so we drank the brandy and smoked cigarettes. I’d stopped thinking about the stranger, stopped thinking about the Mountain. Off in the distance calliope music was playing. The girl touched my leg with her hand. Her skin was soft, her fingernails filthy. She licked the corner of her mouth, said, And Joseph? Do you think I’m pretty, just a little?
Yes, I lied. I think you’re very pretty.
She moved closer on the bed. Her face was in soft focus. Pimpled skin. Bloodshot eyes. Lovely, no. But I was in love. It happens too easily for me.
She placed her hand on mine and moved it beneath her dress. The calliope music got louder. I was feeling good and anxious. There were some things I wanted to do. I wanted to howl at the moon, I wanted to knock her around. But I was paralyzed. She leaned in close. I could smell the layers of perfume and sweat and burnt wine. Her mouth smiled against my skin.
I pulled her toward me. A dog barked spastically. I placed my hand between her thighs. She moaned. A familiar revulsion spread through my veins. I felt like I was going to be sick. Maybe we shouldn’t do this, I said. Maybe it isn’t right.
She grinned, baring her fangs. For how long have you been concerned about right and wrong?
I thought that one over for a moment. Then I grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to her feet. With a quick jerk, I shoved her against the wall. She gasped, but the smile never left her face. I studied her eyes. I could’ve found the truth, maybe, but I didn’t want to. Instead, I reached back and slapped her across the face, got her attention. Then I kissed her hard, biting down on her lower lip until it bled.
* * *
There’s not much more to tell. She let me do some things. I couldn’t stop myself. When we were done, she told me we might fall in love.
I don’t even know your name, I said.
Lilith, she said. Created from clay…
After that we lay in bed for a while without talking. Outside, the wind kicked a tin can down the sidewalk and I felt good and empty. I squeezed my eyes shut and fell asleep. I dreamed that old familiar dream: a murder of crows, circling over a mining shack, cawing in excitement, and me being pinned down by faceless demons…
When I woke, the sun was rising and the sky was a bloody mess. My body was drenched with ethanol sweat. I sat up, head aching but good. Lilith was lying on her side, head propped up on the palm of her hand. A sly grin on her face.
So? Did you have fun, Joseph?
Just so you know, I don’t usually do this kind of thing.
No. I’m sure you don’t.
I’m not that kind of a girl. Not usually.
She lit a cigarette and sucked down the smoke, eyes unblinking. And then the question. Unspoken usually. Not with Lilith. No transition even. Your face, Joseph. The scars. What happened? I know I shouldn’t ask, but…
I met her gaze for a moment and then shook my head. It’s okay, I said. I reached across her body and grabbed the package of cigarettes. I stuck one in my mouth but didn’t light it. It bounced up and down as I spoke. I told her the story. I knew the story well.
I was in the Marine Corps, I said. 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Division. Stationed in Mosul. Bank of the Tigris. Home of Jonah. Home of Nahum. To me it was hell on Earth. I hadn’t been there long, not more than two months. I was with my unit and we were driving in a Humvee. We were trying to secure the area or hunt for insurgents or build a nation. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, we were driving down this dirt road and it was pitch black, and our lights were off. We were wearing night vision goggles, so we could see. We came to this tiny bridge over a canal. Nobody was worried, soldiers were joking around, talking about whores they’d screwed and towelheads they’d killed. We drove across the bridge and suddenly I got this bad feeling. I don’t know why, can’t explain it. It wasn’t a moment later when we hit the tripwire. They got us but good. My eardrums exploded and the world went up in flames.
The Humvee finally came to a stop. I could tell I was torn up pretty good but I didn’t feel any pain. Flames were everywhere. Then I heard my squad leader screaming: I think I lost my leg! Oh, Jesus, I think I lost my leg! And my best friend Dan was in the front passenger seat where the bomb went off and he was screaming: Where’s help? Where the fuck is help? And then everything went quiet.
Time passed in a dream sequence. Everything was out of order and mixed up. I saw trucks materialize through the dust and flames. And then a soldier with a gas mask. His head was jerking all over the place in a strobe light. He disappeared and the flames got stronger, hotter. Then he reappeared and I saw him crawling into the Humvee, sticking out his hand. I guess he saved me. I never saw him again.
Next thing I knew, I was lying on the dirt and my whole body was burning and throbbing and I tried to cry but I couldn’t. I reached for my face and it was all swollen on one side, and when I touched it, my middle finger went deep into my temple. Everything started getting blurry. I closed my eyes.
I heard voices loud and panicked and incoherent. They thought I was a goner. I wanted to open my eyes, wanted to say something, but I had no control.
The world ended for a time. The next thing I remember is being in a chopper, flying over the burning desert, and I wasn’t sure if I was dead or not and I prayed to God that I was. And then I drifted away again and I don’t remember anything else until I got to the hospital…
I stopped talking and looked over at Lilith. Her shoulders were trembling and her eyes were moist. She touched my cheek with what might have been tenderness.
I guess I’d told the story well.
Ready to read the rest? You can:
© 2013 – 2016, DarkFuse & individual contributors. All rights reserved.