The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue
by Bruce Holbert
Andre's luck was arbitrary as weather, and too often it caught him facing a shit-storm in short sleeves. He'd concluded his rickety fortunes were rooted in history, and he peddled the ranch his grandfather had pioneered to a neighboring farmer to be loose from it. His brother, Smoker, though, had a weakness for the place. Seven months after Andre's transaction, he won the house portion back arm-wrestling in Crazy Eddie's Tavern, which might've been reason to cluck had you not seen the building.
It was, as Andre had parted with it, aside from Smoker tacking plastic over the windows. Like most Aprils, the swollen creek had made a swamp of the yard, leaving it navigable only with two-by-eights laid end-to-end on the high spots. A dozen shingles littered the greening grass. The roof seemed a good rain from collapsing altogether, and the windward wall wasn't much more than splinters and gypsum, too far gone to patch. Andre had not returned since the sale and hadn't shared a civil word with his brother in that time. Only rumor advised him the place was lived in at all.
The door was ajar and Andre's knock pressed it open, leaving him staring at Smoker seated on a broken vinyl recliner, holding a sock filled with ice onto his left pinkie finger, which was clearly broken. Smoker nodded to the encyclopedia on the floor.
"She done it with that," he said. "Lucky I was quick to block my nose. She'd've creased me good." Smoker hooked a cigarette from his pocket and struck a match one-handed like a broken finger was nothing new to him.
Dede emerged from the bathroom along with the lavender soap smell and hairspray. Her black jeans and cowboy shirt was arced only by her hips and breasts, turquoise stitched across the latter. Her dark hair, parted in the middle and crescented around both sides of her face, allowed for her brown, almond eyes and delicate nose and cheek, sheer and perfect as clean slate.
She tipped her whiskey glass at him. Andre waved his hand. He was three months into his third try at sober.
"Right," she said, then bent and rattled the fridge until she found an orange.
"When was this fire, then?" Andre asked. Smoker had phoned they'd been burned out of their shed and required his help to haul their boxed keepsakes before the weather turned them mush.
"Go on and tell him," Dede said. She drove her thumb into the orange and sheared the peel like pencil shavings then halved it with her fingers and divided the sections. She put one in Andre's mouth. When he finished, she fed him another. "Explain it to him like you told me. Just like you said."
"You're not being polite," Smoker replied.
"I'm past courtesy." Dede tipped her head and drank her whiskey, graceful as a bird.
"Long time past it, seems to me." Smoker held up his useless hand. "How's it going to look, getting this broke with a book."
"Just say you were drunk and fell," Dede told him. "I won't argue."
"Nobody ever seen me fall drunk. They aren't likely to believe I started now."
"Suit yourself," Dede said.
Sister fussed. She would be ready for pre-school in the fall. It was too early for her bedtime but that was where Smoker and Dede had sent her; with a thimble full of cough syrup, Andre would wager. Many times, he and Smoker held up in such rooms during Peg's wars with Pork or the men who followed. First lull, they would play paper, rock, scissors. If Andre lost, he'd roll to his stomach and sink his face into a pillow until he breathed only what he'd let out and his head swum and his mouth turned sweet and dry. He would wheeze and cough. When Smoker lost, he stabbed or beat himself with whatever was at hand. Both continued until Peg detached herself from her bourbon and her argument to make certain they were well. The door would open and pour light into the room and, if she judged their wounds earned, she would take a corner of the bottom bunk where the two of them lay together cowering and cluck to them and stroke their hair. If not, she'd whack them with a spatula until she got the real thing.
Smoker carted Sis from the bedroom with his good hand and deposited her on the sofa.
"Let her cry it out," Dede said.
"I guess I'll hold my child if I'm inclined to," he said.
"Might not be yours," Dede told him.
One look at Sis and Smoker left little doubt her bloodline, but Smoker crossed the room just the same and lowered his face to Dede's.
"Fuck you," he said.
Dede stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. "Not for a while."
"I'm not liable to wait."
"Me neither," Dede told him. "Let your brother here take the baby and we'll fuck the whole town, you and me. Everyone except each other. See who holds out longest."
Andre seated himself on the couch with Sis and capped her ears with his hands. She winked at him, a trick Smoker had taught her before she could talk. He winked back, but she threw her arm over her face. Her long dark hair tangled in it.
Smoker lit a cigarette, then blew some smoke into the ceiling and watched it break up.
"Maybe you best go on," she said to him.
Smoker took his lined coat from the chair back, eased it past his bad hand with his good one, then paused to kiss Sis and disappeared through the door.
Dede poured herself more whiskey, then banged some ice from a tray.
"Where do you suppose he's going?" Andre asked.
Dede shrugged. The soda was outside with the beer when the weather was cold, and she retrieved a cola and filled a glass with it.
"You're not off caffeine, I hope."
She sat next to Andre and took Sister's hand in her own. "The only time I get with her is the time he's gone off." She blew on Sis's fingernails like she was drying polish. "When he's here, it's always him and me or him and her." She glanced at Andre. "I gave her a locket that came down from my grandmother. You know what he did? He stuck a picture of himself in it." She drank, then stared at the whiskey bottle, her empty glass shifting in her hand until she thought the better of it.
"I wish I could quit like you," she said.
"You two already went that way."
"You quit liquor a time or two, didn't you?" Dede closed her eyes. A muscle in her jaw tightened. Andre heard her suck in air between her teeth.
"He's a rat bastard," she said.
"He's my brother," Andre told her.
"And you know best."
Sis had dropped off. Even so, Dede drummed her fingers on her chest, transmitting her wordless mother's code. "You heard from Claire?" she asked him.
The name sounded foreign, like the old Salish his grandfather grumbled. He closed his eyes and wondered if he could recall her at all. Growing up, he had prided himself on distance. It was all he possessed Smoker didn't. Days he'd keep mute except to answer those addressing him. Giving up people made him feel noble and he attributed it to discipline, like lonesome was a religion he could practice. It wasn't until Claire that he discovered himself not any more able to hear or speak to a person's heart than rock is to keep seed.
"Mentioning her was mean of me," Dede said.
She returned Sis to her room. Andre rubbed at the ache in his neck. When he looked again, Dede was undressing. He peered at the white bra that kept her in and smelled again the hair spray and the liquor on her. In her skivvies, she kissed him, not like she had Smoker before, but like she was trying to get venom into him with her sour tongue, or maybe like she was trying to suck his out.
"You're after revenge is all," Andre said.
"Don't you think he needs getting back at?" she asked. All the boldness was off her. She was just a person staring at another. He said nothing and after what must've seemed long enough for him to answer, she undid her jeans and then helped him from his own.
- - -
After, Andre escaped out the back door to get his head right. In the yard, an orange cigarette ember went red and lit Smoker's face. He was hunkered in the grassless yard on a round cedar chopping block. Andre could hear the creek collecting an early snow's thaw left from day's sunshine. Smoker pulled on his cigarette again.
"It's cold," he said. "I'll start a fire."
Andre listened to him bang through the shed. Finding no suitable fuel, Smoker yanked at the porch's roof beam with a crowbar until the whole of it collapsed. He hauled an eave to the fire ring and splashed the boards with gas. When he struck the match, the flame's blast shriveled his eyebrows and consumed his arm hair altogether. The sheepskin coat took a spark and Andre beat at it.
Smoker wheeled, fists doubled. "I'm out already," he said.
A wedge of light from the house turned them pale and Dede stepped onto the steps and over the porch's ruins. She wore her long duster and a hunter orange stocking cap and rubbed her bare legs together like a cricket. Smoker finished his cigarette and struck a match for another.
"What're you going to do?" Smoker asked her.
"Take a shower. Go to town."
She scratched at her hair underneath the hat. "Stay drunk awhile."
"You leave Sister, then."
"I'll keep her with your brother," Dede said.
"I'd be the last person he'd want tending his child," Andre told her.
Dede smiled at him. "You aren't so bad," she said. "Not near as awful as you're worrying." She pointed her chin at Smoker. "He knew you'd thought about me."
The mossed shingles wouldn't keep lit. Andre hoisted the crow bar and yanked the shed's wall until a 4 x 6 came loose. He shoved the roof from the coals and added the beam. The dry wood caught and burned hard, backing them into the darkness.
"You best get on if you're going," Smoker said.
"How about your hand?" She lifted an aspirin bottle from her pocket and began counting them out.
"I'll do. Don't pile the rig up worrying over it."
"Don't make this about me," Dede said.
Smoker squinted and cocked his head.
"What?" Dede said.
"I'm looking for stretch marks on your arm from being twisted," he told her.
"You're a rat bastard," she said quietly.
Andre pulled another 4 x 6. Three studs tore loose with it. None were burnt. He turned the boards to be sure, then glanced up. Sis gazed from her window at them. He and Smoker had pressed their faces to that very glass, keeping vigil for Peg or Pork, two days absent winter on ice slick roads, sure one or the other or both were dead, and they just waited the night through so they couldhike to the neighbors.
"Wasn't no fire, was there?" Andre said.
"I was leaving," Smoker said. "I couldn't tell it all on the phone."
"You hightail it once a month," Andre said. "She wouldn't have broke bones over that."
Smoker didn't speak, just held his bad hand with his good and spat. Andre glanced at Dede and she looked at her bare feet.
"I don't remember what it was about," she said.
"This don't make us square, goddammit," Andre told Smoker.
"I know it," Smoker said.
Andre opened the screen door intending a piss. A puny .22 rested in the mudroom corner. Andre collected it, cleared the bolt then pressed it forward with a round. Smoker heard and tipped his head cockeyed. Andre shot him in the ass through the screen.
"What were you aiming at," Smoker groaned, on all fours. "My head or my feet?"
Dede stepped in front, blacking the peep sight. "I hope he wings you again, you rat bastard."
Smoker scurried into the dark on all fours. The shop's backdoor creaked. The Model 70 he stored there put out the porch light.
"Knock it off, Goddamnit," Dede shouted.
A bullet snapped her flapping duster below her knee. He would need a rest for such shots, but Andre could see no rock outcropping or deadheaded pine. Dede hissed and rounded the front of the house. Andre heard Smoker's truck start and bust the gravel.
"You thought I had it so good," Smoker shouted. "Jesus. Well, I guess now you know."
"I don't know nothing of the kind," Andre yelled back.
He set his rifle on the steps. The screen door banged and Sister joined him without a coat. He gave her his. "Who's shooting?" she asked.
"Your Daddy," Andre told her.
He patted for Sister to join him on the step. "It's Ok," he said. She and Andre stared into the dying fire. He rubbed her hands with his and considered finishing the shed, though it would leave him a target in the light. Some time later, as he was still considering, he heard the rifle safety click in the doorway behind him. Andre raised his hands.
"You going to shoot me anymore?" Smoker asked.
Andre shook his head.
"I guess you can quit surrendering, then."
Blood blackened Smoker's jeans pocket. It followed the seam's path then ticked on the linoleum. The puddle shined silver in firelight where it had not yet clotted.
"Your truck got a full tank?" Smoker asked.
Andre said it did and Smoker hobbled that direction, his broken finger dangling from one side and his shot up buttock forcing a limp from the other. Andre followed with Sis. He set her on the seat, then started the rig and hit the blower. She found a map in the glove box and folded it over herself like a blanket while Andre and Smoker stood outside and let the motor warm.
"Where we headed?" Andre asked.
"Town. That's where we'll find her ain't it?"
"How many wives you have?"
"None," Andre said.
In the cab, Smoker took the passenger side, stroking Sis's hair and bleeding on the seat. Andre put her ankles across his lap. The fire glowed in the rear mirrors and threw light up the hill. Andre stared at his reflection. He saw no wisdom, nothing gained for his living. He tried to picture himself twenty years ahead, but he didn't want to imagine those years and he didn't want to live them.