Fiction

An Excerpt from
OLYMPUS, TX

  • Photo courtesy of George Thomas.

Sitting up in bed, March is again reminded of the importance of air conditioning. His movement causes his two mastiffs to also rise, but the lingering heat from the day before has left them tired and sapped, even first thing in the morning. If they could speak, March suspects they’d ask to go back to New Mexico. They had returned to Texas just a few days before, but every day that passes seems to age them a year. They deserve a little cold air. He’ll give in and talk to June about rentals today. He has long since learned to ask his own parents for nothing, but upon hearing of his return, his uncle had offered up a place on the edge of his compound. March is separated from the cemetery by his uncle’s big house, his mortuary, and a wide field of overgrown Johnson grass. March gets out of bed and takes the dogs outside.

There is just enough cool in the breeze to forget what it will feel like by this afternoon, but March still feels heavy and vaguely sad. The dogs regain some life and wander through the tall grass. March is a big man, within a few centimeters of his father. His build is so akin to the old man’s—just shrunk an inch or two in all directions and minus the softening of age—that it has taken years of bad behavior to strip the townspeople of their involuntary tone of respect for him. March, up to his waist in the grass, adjusts his boxer shorts and waters the ground. He hasn’t spoken to his parents in two years, since his last colossal fuckup—his affair with his brother’s wife. He had expected Hap’s wrath, but he hadn’t expected his entire family to shut down, to will him away. His only defense had been to decamp, move to New Mexico, where their absence would feel chosen instead of forced upon him. He had bought into this line of thinking so fully that he decided he could choose the opposite by moving back home. It wasn’t until he exited the highway for Olympus that he realized he may have made a mistake.

So he has come but he has not yet been to his actual home. He’s killed time, hung out with his half-siblings, Arlo and Artie, spent too much time on his porch or at his uncle’s. He thought he was easing in, confirming things were OK with his more removed family before sitting down with his parents, with his brother. But now he realizes he wasn’t easing in, he was hoping he could just sit and wait for someone to come to him. Someone to issue the invite so he could just slip back in.

March plucks a long piece of the grass and starts tearing it down the center, whittling it into strips. He can’t see his dogs but grass shakes in two distinct spots that draw closer and closer to him. If he wants to stay, and he does want to stay, he is going to have to reach out. And since this leaves him feeling unsettled, he knows he should get it over with now, this morning. Better than putting it off, living with that disquiet. He’ll drive over to his mother’s to ask about rentals. This seems more tenable than driving over to apologize.

He feeds the dogs and then cleans himself up as they eat. June’s coffee is better than his own, and there’s no human food in his place, so he herds them both out the door, lowers his tailgate, and slides a wide panel of wood out and down until it provides a ramp for them. They wait patiently, climb in, and stand far enough toward the cab that March can slide their walkway back into the bed.

To keep the dew out, March had rolled up the windows. It feels as if yesterday’s afternoon heat is still in the cab. Turning the ignition brings a wave of almost cool air. He waits for it to turn cold before he pulls onto the dirt road that will lead him off the property.

His parents’ house is just one hundred yards away, across the river. However, he has to drive five miles up, over the truss bridge with its arced and rusting metal, and then five miles back down. Before he left town, there were two other bridges tying the sides together, but, according to his uncle, a flood a year back washed them away. He could take the rowboat his uncle keeps tied to the bank, but the dogs don’t like water and he doesn’t want to visit his mother without the dogs. They provide a distraction to June’s picking at him. She also picks at the dogs, alternating between the three of them. Besides, he always senses a little affection under her bitching at the dogs. He owns them, so what they garner is also his. If he thought too long on this, he might see some flaw in his logic, but March has long since learned to not think too long on anything regarding his relationship with his mother. Or his father. Or his mother and father’s relationship. Those things exist on their own. They function the way they are without any contemplation on his part, so why expend the energy?

March can understand being the black sheep of the family because his affair was merely the culmination of a lifetime of mistakes. Starting a riot on the football field in high school when the Olympians had been playing for the state championship, on the five yard line, first down, a minute and a half left—a riot that caused the game to be lost by a mere point. Or when he started the fistfight that led to a fire, destroying the town’s one-hundred-year-old domino parlor. And of course, his dishonorable discharge from the military after being blamed for a friendly fire incident.

March normally doesn’t mind thinking about his bad behavior because it’s like thinking of a separate person, a person you admire for their bravado and, as they are not you, for whom you have no reason to feel guilty. When he becomes angry enough to do those things, he has no memory of the event afterward. It’s hard for him to own something he can’t recreate in his mind. Also, the trouble comes from others feeding off what he starts rather than something he actually does. He thinks people dislike him for revealing that they are the same as him. Or the same as that other person he is supposed to be. Mulling over his past usually leaves him feeling vindicated and astute. But thinking of Hap and those things March did with Vera, none of which are stripped from his memory, pulls his mood back down.

He wallows in the feeling that he has done little with his life, has never tried to make anyone else’s easier or better. It isn’t that he wishes his family ill; those things just never occur to him—they’re as far removed as understanding particle physics, or writing a symphony. So the fact that his parents favor Hap and his sister Thea does not surprise him. But June even seems to prefer his half-siblings, no blood to her, the results of his father’s philandering. Especially Artie. March feels like he ranks lower, is less loved. It is not quite motherly. And that was even before he slept with Hap’s wife.

March reaches the bridge and can’t help reducing his speed as he thinks about seeing June. Something like fear starts in his gut. But he makes it over the bridge, successfully fighting the urge to turn around. He shuts off all thought for the rest of the drive, and rolls down the gully towards his parents’, the big white house visible through the trees. Artie’s jeep is pulled into the grass by the yard, taking up the only tree-shaded spot. He parks next to it, knowing the truck’s black leather interior will suck up the sun. Should have left the dark truck in the mountains of New Mexico where he bought it, gotten something more suitable for his return.

The dogs are waiting for him to let down the gate, but before he can lower it his mother starts shouting at him. She and Artie are up on the balcony, sitting in her wicker chairs, but they stand up and move to the railing to get a better look at him.

“March, take your animals to the kitchen. Don’t let them run after the peacocks. Brown,”—his mother never can remember, or never cares to remember, the dogs’ names, referring to them only by their colors—”don’t steal any biscuits off the counter. You leave a trail of drool over the whole plate, even though you are polite enough to take just one.”

Even at this distance, March can see his mother’s face lighten into a smile, and that feeling in his gut eases. “That’s some welcome for a son you haven’t seen in two years.”

He sees her smile vanish. “Surely no son of mine would disappear for two years. No son would—,” but she stops her sentence and turns her back to him. March loses sight of her on the balcony.

Artie leans over the rail and arcs her entire arm out in a parody of a wave. But her smile is genuine.

As March walks up, one dog surges towards the north corner of the lawn, aiming for a settled peahen. March clicks his tongue, and the dog obediently veers back towards him. Heading for the kitchen, March can hear his mother and Artie coming down the stairs to meet him. He sits at a shortened barstool at the island, his large knees jammed underneath the marble. He has never found the kitchen comfortable, but he knows his mother never invites more than one person at a time on the balcony, despite there being four comfortable chairs. Sitting out there with her always gives March the feeling that his mother is his therapist—something he doubts Freud would approve of. Besides, for a pseudo-therapist, she is rather hostile. Still, the balcony is better than the kitchen, which always gives him the sense he should be doing something—shelling peas or canning tomatoes or some other activity he is ill-suited for.

Artie comes in and gives him a half-hug, then dotes on the dogs. He has already seen Artie and Arlo this week. The same age as March, they had been more friends than relatives since junior high. Besides, Artie was always the most approachable (and most forgiving) of the family, and Arlo held no loyalty to anyone beyond Artie, avoiding all the Eberhardts except March. They held no grudge, even though he hadn’t spoken to either of them after he’d settled in Ruidoso.

June enters the kitchen but ignores March, instead filling a large metal bucket with water. The dogs follow her to the porch to drink and drool in equal measures. June moves the circular pan of biscuits in front of March, brings jam and butter from the fridge, and pours him a cup of coffee. Hostess duties done, she settles on the stool next to him while Artie pulls herself up on the counter, curling her legs underneath her.

“So, you’re home,” June says, finally looking at him.

“I am.”

“And when are you going to try talking to your brother?”

“Is that possible?” he asks.

“Perhaps not possible, but inevitable.” June looks concerned but then swivels away from him. The black dog has laid his big head on the island, sniffing hard at the smell of biscuit. June breaks off one and tosses it out on the porch. The dog bangs against the frame of the open door in its haste. “You better get back in here when you’re done eating.” The dog obediently returns, a string of drool speckled with bread crumbs hanging from his mouth. He settles near the other dog on the floor.

March is about to bring up housing, to see if one of his father’s rentals is open, when he hears an engine approaching. There’s a slamming of a car door, a gruff voice yelling Motherfucker. The dogs lift themselves up and pause to listen to the sound of metal scraping metal, a heavy tool being pulled across the flatbed of a truck. Then there is the sound of breaking glass.

March and Artie run onto the porch, June following close after, the dogs already out the door. June tells her son to call the dogs off before March has time to fully register what is going on.

“Boys, back, no.” The dogs, who sense the calmness of their master, pull back, though they still have hackles raised. June shoves and shushes them into the kitchen and closes the door.

Hap is attacking March’s truck with a sledgehammer. March has a moment in which he thinks he probably has it coming to him. Hap hadn’t physically forced him to leave town, hadn’t taken a single shot at him. And since Hap hasn’t divorced Vera, there is probably a lot of festering rage left over. A car is not a bad thing to take it out on. March even has a moment to reflect that he’ll have to pay his brother to repair the damage that he himself inflicted. But then March watches his brother take out his entire windshield, and a sense of violation comes over him. He is easing into the place he will not remember. It is a comfortable place, and he lets himself go there. He sprints across the lawn, making straight and fast for his brother, yelling so loud the dogs start barking in the kitchen, pawing against the door until it shakes. March, a good fifty pounds heavier than his brother, hits him while still running.

By the time March is aware of himself again, he’s lying on his back, breathing hard, his shoulder hurting. Hap is a foot away, lip bleeding, dirt and grass smeared across the left side of his face. Artie stands between them with a shovel, looking shaken. Hap rises quickly, but June steps in front of him, pushes him back. March relaxes into the ground, focuses on the sky through the tree branches, and deep-breathes himself into a calmer state.

“I’m not paying you to fix that damage,” March says.

“Backstabbing piece of shit,” Hap replies. “Moral fucking vacuum.”

March realizes they have just entered their fourth shared decade of name-calling. He’s trying to come up with a reply when he sees his mother’s face above him. She’s looking at him with such a mixture of hope and concern that he, to his annoyance, cannot ignore it—so long as it requires only a suppression of speech and not some words to placate or apologize.

“I thought you might be dropping by one of these mornings,” says Hap.

March notes with pleasure that June is glaring at her favorite. “You purposely came over looking for trouble?” she says.

“He’s owed trouble.” Hap tears a sticker burr out of his muddy beard.

“Am I owed trouble?” June says. “If you know he’s in town, you know where he is staying. Don’t tell me that sledgehammer won’t travel to your uncle’s house as well as mine.”

Hap avoids his mother’s gaze. “I’ll go back to town,” he says. But he gives March a look that implies he is not really ready to put the sledgehammer away.

“Come by for lunch tomorrow,” says June. Hap grunts in reply, tossing the big tool into the back of his truck. March watches him whisper in Artie’s ear. His brother has always been so free with apologies. It sets him apart in this family.

They watch him drive away. “You stay away from his wife,” June says before she walks back to the house.

Artie sits on the ground next to her half-brother and picks up a jagged piece of headlight. “I think you may be needing a ride.” They both stare at the windshield, a concave and opaque mass of lines with a gaping hole in the center.

“Was thinking of buying a new truck, anyway. Black’s too damn hot.”

He turns to see June still standing on the porch, watching them. She lets the dogs out, and they start toward their master but look at her before taking off. March sees the half-smile on his mother’s face and bets that she is wishing her own sons would mind so well.

///

Read Part 2 of Olympus, TX

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