Fiction by Matt Starr
Growing up, I knew violence by the voice it used to holler. A mangled, deep thing, like the wet howl of a bluetick. That’s how it always started, with people barking and carrying on. It ended in a similar fashion but with more whimpering than anything else. Mama and Deddy learned me how to use my hands at an early age. Said don’t start nothing, but by God, you’d better finish it. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t.
There was this one time in Missus Shelton’s second grade class that this kid name of Wesley Wilson, who sat in the desk left of mine, got it in his head to pinch the dickens out of my closest leg. I reckon for no other reason than to see what kind of hurt he could inflict. The answer was a lot. I squirmed and protested, but he kept at it for a good ten minutes while the teacher told me to pipe down. Old hussy wouldn’t even give me the chance to explain myself.
“Quit peenching me,” I demanded through gritted teeth.
Wesley Wilson smiled his shit-eating smile and made to do it again. But soon as he reached for my leg, I came upside the top of his head with my right fist and he spilled onto the floor, arm-chair desk with him, like a goddamn jar of tipped-over counting beans. He hadn’t even been on the tile for the blink of an eye before he started to wailing, naturally. I was surprised at how swiftly Missus Shelton yanked me loose of my desk by my right armpit and ordered her assistant, Miss Lentz, to watch the class while she dragged me down the hall to the principal’s office. The roughness of the act had forced hot tears into my eyes, but I’d learned to hold those back. A boy who cries becomes a man who cries.
They called my mama down from her job at the mill. Deddy worked there, too, but he was at home now snoozing, getting ready for third shift. There was a quiet fury in Mama’s face while Missus Shelton recounted the whole deal, the principal sitting wordless and bored on the other side of a large oak desk. When the teacher was through, Mama glared at me with the sharpness of a thousand trapper knives. Until I leaned over and whispered into her ear. Then a different kind of anger worked the expression on her face. She nodded and made me pull down my britches just enough to reveal the purple rosettes, nearly a dozen in number, on the otherwise pale, delicate skin of my left thigh.
Missus Shelton’s eyes were the size and shape of table coasters. The principal brought in Wesley Wilson to explain himself, and when he couldn’t, he just cried and cried and cried. Tell you the truth, I don’t even remember what became of the situation from a disciplinary standpoint. I just know that on her way out the door, Mama patted me on the back of the neck. Then she looked Missus Shelton square in her face and said, “I find out you laid another hand on my boy, I’ll mop the damn floor with you.”
When brutality is as second nature as tying your shoes—something you never really stop doing once you learn it—you get in the habit of wreaking it on everybody. Even yourself and the people you hold dearest. Even though Wrath is one of the seven deadlies. It gets to be so much so that even the ones you wreak violence on don’t think nothing of it. Or rather they think of it as a normal wage for existence. I come from a family of fighters and drinkers, on my mama’s side in particular. What our stock lacks in upper body strength we make up for with sharp knuckles, scrappy limbs, and the never-quit disposition of a dog. We bring the same philosophy to brawls as we do to moonshine drinking, and the two often mix about as horrible as you would expect.
I’ve heard tell of this family pig picking back in the day. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I do know that Mama was a little girl. Her cousin, Clyde, was a few years older than her and used to tease her something awful. He’d even put hands on her a time or two, just fooling. It got to be so bad that Mama’d be boohooing anytime she came back from playing over in the backyard at Clyde’s house, which wasn’t but two blocks up the way.
The last time it happened, Paw Paw knelt down in front of Mama and said, “If you don’t whup his ass, I’ll whup yours.”
Which brings me to the barbecue. Paw Paw and his brothers’ families were gathered outside the old house at Cricket Holler, the men and some of the women passing a jar, the kids playing tag. Well, Clyde tripped Mama while she wasn’t looking, and down she went. All the cousins had a good laugh about that until Mama got up, dusted off her dress, and tackled Clyde to the ground. She grabbed hold of his head by the hair on each side and commenced to thumping it into the earth ‘til one of Paw Paw’s brothers, laughing, pulled her off. One person who didn’t find it funny was Paw Paw’s other brother, Ralph, a feller who was known to be a hothead. They said he had the Devil in him. All you had to do was look at him wrong in the glass eye—the one he had on account of the real eye had been lost in a knife fight—and he’d be all over you like a flesh fly on shit.
No, this didn’t sit well with him at all.
“Ain’t right for her to do him like that,” Ralph said.
“I told her to,” Paw Paw said. “Boy been hounding her since Adam was a baby.”
“T’was a cheap shot.”
“No, it weren’t. She got him fair.”
“All right, then. I’ll remember that, Press.”
That’s all there was to it. Everybody went back to the pig and all the trimmings, but about two years later, Ralph pulled up out of the blue, drunk as a skunk, to Paw Paw’s house running his clumsy mouth about how the whole thing wasn’t fair.
My biggest problem as a kid, I reckon, was I knew how to hold ‘em but not how to fold ‘em. I was in a playground scrap with this one big ‘ol boy over a holographic Chansey Pokemon card—which he’d taken a quarter to—and I’d given him as good as I got to a point. But after a few traded haymakers, he proceeded to beat the tar out of me. I threw everything I knew about boxing and wrassling at him, but sometimes you’re just outmatched. I hit the deck two or three times, stars filling my eyes, worms of blood inking from my nostrils, but I kept getting back up while my classmates laughed and cheered, oohed and aahed. Finally, the school resource officer intervened, and we were both suspended. I wound up at the urgent care getting stitches. The other boy switched schools. Would you believe that, years later, I buddied around with that dude in high school? That he was with me when a bunch of us got caught trash-barrel fire drinking in a housing development they’d just broke ground on? I think there are townhomes there now in the place where our ghosts dance and roar like cavemen. I don’t know that I ever had anything in common with that boy other than cruelty.
Another time, in middle school, this kid name of Lane Horton had been giving me a hard time about a number of things, from the clothes I wore to the goddamn contents of my lunchbox, so I said something about his mama. From where he was seated behind me in Language Arts, he hit me about halfway up the back with a pretty good shot while the teacher was off making water. We stood to our feet, puffed up chest to chest, face to face in the aisle of desks. I told him to meet me over to the Robert F. Hoke Elementary School after the last bell of the day on account of I didn’t want to get suspended no more. He said that’d be fine.
“Mama,” I said when she got home from the mill. “Can you take me to Hoke?”
“I need to fight some joker who punched me in the back.”
“Come on,” she said.
I showed. Lane Horton didn’t. Not because he was a coward, but probably because his mama said no. Maybe that was the reason. Or maybe he knew—like he knew the sky was blue or that fresh blood tasted like copper—that there would be another time. There was always, my Paw Paw said, another time. Either way, I stayed out there on the kickball field of that elementary school ‘til the sun went down because I didn’t know no better.
Maw Maw told Ralph to go home and sleep it off, but you couldn’t tell the fool nothing when he got that creekwater in him. He staggered out of his green Plymouth Savoy, pitched the hooch into the grass, and glared a hole into Paw Paw with his good eye—the reddest the Lord ever popped in a socket.
“Go home, Ralph,” Maw Maw repeated.
“Hush your mouth, hussy,” Ralph slurred.
“Don’t you talk to my wife like that,” Paw Paw said. “What bidness you got here, little brother?”
“I mean to kick your ass up one side of this holler and down the othern.”
“You better listen to what Febby says, boy,” Paw Paw said. “You go on and take yourself to sleep fore I put you there.”
“Your talk’s cheapern that dirt you’re standing in.”
“Well, come on then, hot shot.”
“I’m fixing to.”
It started as a graceless tangle of limbs, the two brothers wrassling holler-style. Grunting and cussing up a storm and kicking clouds of dirt into the air. Hard to tell who had the upper hand. When there was enough separation, several fists flew. Word has it that Paw Paw got the better of that exchange until Ralph, slick sonofabitch he was, slipped his hand into his back pocket and whipped out the Case. He sliced a four-inch gash longwise into Paw Paw’s right forearm, switched into a reverse grip like he aimed to strike again.
“I’m gonna cut you every which way but loose!”
“God damn you, Ralph,” Paw Paw barked, seizing his brother by the wrist with his good arm.
Then, up the way, here come Aint Bitty, Ralph’s wife, a big gal who could throw down in her own right. She separated the two men, flung her husband off like he wasn’t nothing.
“What in Christ Amighty is wrong with y’all?” she asked. “Carrying on in front of these youngins like heathens. Y’all orta be ashamed.”
Neither of them said a word. Nor did any of the other adults or kids. They all just set there staring at Paw Paw’s wound. Marveling at the blood like it was the first time they’d ever seen it shed, even though it wasn’t. Not by a country mile.
Mama never understood why I let the business with Lane Horton go. Maybe I haven’t yet. Maybe I’ll see him out at the gas station someday or else at a house party where we’re all roiled up on substances that have fucked with our brain chemicals in a mean way. Maybe I’ll do him like I done Wesley Wilson. Maybe he’ll get me when it’s the farthest thing from my mind. Even though violence is never more than an arm’s length away.
Maybe me and him will mix.
But for now, it’s five years later, and we’re sitting in a jeep in front of Lane’s house, smoking a bowl of headies with half a crushed Lortab on top of it – for whatever reason – like nothing ever happened between us. Is he thinking the same thoughts as me? Or have the endorphins melted his savage brain, left him in a state of indifferent euphoria?
I don’t reckon it matters. I hit the bowl hard, cough smoke. Through my watery eyes I see the harsh cloud from my lungs morph into an apparition of Paw Paw and his brother. Folded before each other, hugging and apologizing and crying, sharing their twisted sign language of barbaric love, the thing that tied them together, blood-thick. Wrathful men. Men who knew they’d never see Heaven.
Matt Starr is from North Carolina. He wrote Hell, or High Water (Main Street Rag, 2018), as well as Prepare to Meet Thy God (2020) and Things That Don’t Belong in the Light (2021) — both from Grinning Skull Press. His essays and short stories can be found in Barren Magazine, Empty House Press, and Schuylkill Valley Journal, among others. Follow him on Twitter @illmattic919 for dog content and useless ramblings.