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 that 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.

///

Though March lacks the money to buy a car, he walks onto the lot of Olympus’s sole car dealership unworried. Because of certain connections and levels of indebtedness that March had never desired to learn, any member of Peter’s family could get a car off the lot whenever they needed it. Which, of course, wasn’t often—Olympus being the type of place where you drive a car until the fender falls off, then duct tape it back on, and drive it until the engine finally explodes in such a way that fixing it defies financial logic. March had gotten his first vehicle here and driven that truck for over fifteen years, until he traded it for the ill-fated black truck. March could see the top of the owner’s head, cowboy-hatted, coming towards him, possessing that instinct of all car salesman to sense a potential customer in their vicinity. As the man rounds the row of Suburbans, he stops short at the sight of March and his dogs, perfectly centered in the aisle.

Lionel looks distinctly unhappy to see him. It’s not just that an Eberhardt means a loss instead of a profit for him. Lionel’s also friends with Hap and gets a good deal on any bodywork he needs.
Thinking briefly of June, March decides to make this painless for the man, even though it isn’t necessary; Lionel is so beholden to Peter, March doesn’t have to be nice to get what he needs. “Lionel,” says March, nodding. He reaches his arms back to briefly touch each dog on middle of their spines. They obediently lie down on the paved lot.

Lionel touches the brim of his hat in greeting, allows a smile, and relaxes into his suit jacket. He is already sweating from the midday heat. “Been a long time. Your old truck finally give up the ghost?”

“Traded it in up north. Needed something with four-wheel drive for the snow. Think it wound up with an old lady who only drove to the store when the roads were nice.” March knows that Lionel has a weird attachment to all his cars, likes to see them around town, likes to see them well-used. When Lionel flinches, March fights twin feelings: satisfaction in saying one of the few things that would gall the man most, and a little guilt for not acting as he had intended. It could have been worse. March could’ve alluded to the truck’s failings in some way. But still, it had been enough to suck all ease from the conversation.

“Don’t know why anyone would choose to go up north, anyway,” says Lionel. March begins to protest, but he is cut off. “I know it’s the west, but it’s still north of here.”

March takes a breath and adjusts his tone. “Guess both me and the truck were out of our natural element. Anyway, I was hoping you could set me up with a new mode of transportation.”

“Don’t know what we’d have that’d suit you,” Lionel says as he surveys the rows and rows of shiny vehicles.

March takes a second breath, preparing for the effort the coming niceness would take. “You know I don’t want to take advantage of your kindness. I’ve got a perfectly good truck out at my parents’ place, less than two years old. It’s got some . . . cosmetic issues, but the engine’s fine. I’m sure you could get it towed to Hap’s and he’d fix it up good as new, free of charge.”

“Would he, now?” Lionel looks understandably skeptical.

“He would, no questions asked. He’s the one who caused the cosmetic damage. You might ask him to paint it, too. Fucker’s black and hot.”

This seems to satisfy Lionel. “I think I can help you out. Guess you need something to carry the dogs in? I’ve got an almost new Suburban. Take out the back seat and they’d have plenty of room. I have a new truck I could part with, too, but it’s white. Doesn’t seem like white is really your style.”

March thought for a moment. They dogs were big fans of the truck and the breeze. Besides, if he was changing his behavior a bit, maybe a color change, even if too brutally obvious, would be nice. “The truck would be perfect. Do me a favor? Wait until this evening to get the car picked up. I’ll need to swing back by this afternoon to get some stuff out of it.” The men shake hands. Though Lionel looks like he would have rather parted with the Suburban, he gives up the keys willingly.

Without the ramp, March has to lift the dogs’ back ends up to the truck for them. It isn’t too much for him, despite their two hundred-pound bulks, but he knows the dogs think it undignified. They avoid making eye contact with him in protest, and now March is covered in dog hair, though he can’t bring himself to ask Lionel for a lint brush.

Once in the truck, having pulled out of the lot and onto the street, March finds himself driving to Hap’s shop. He can’t articulate to himself why, either. He parks half a block away, wanting to approach unseen, and walks up—empty lots on one side, a cow pasture on the other, an apartment complex on the far side of the pasture. He’s consciously trying not to skulk. Once he spots the unmistakable, slightly hunched form of his brother, welding mask on and sparks flying, he turns and walks away.

Back inside the truck, March inhales the new car smell and tells himself that what he is planning is not what he had been thinking all along. Before Hap’s, before Lionel, before he even told Artie to take him to town. It is what he had started thinking as soon as he saw Hap, is probably the one thing responsible for his delay of rage this morning. He wants to see Vera, wants it so much that it blots out any other want—food, drink, his mother’s approval. Why he didn’t want to as soon as he got back to town, he can’t say. The fact that Hap triggered it might be troubling to a man who wants to dwell on his motivations, but March is not that man. It’s hard enough to try and do the right thing, or what he envisions is June’s “right thing,” without getting into all the complications of motivations. But then, how could he say he had been trying to do the right thing when he’s now about to do the one thing she has asked him not to do?

But she wouldn’t have to know. He could revert back to the system that had served he and Vera well for many undetected months. Her and Hap’s place didn’t have close neighbors. He can pull up behind the house where the car is hidden from the road. The dogs know the routine, would remember it surely, and would simply camp out under the big oak tree by the house’s back porch. And besides, he tells himself, he isn’t going to have sex with her. Perhaps he just wants to make sure she is OK. Perhaps he wants to apologize for taking off and leaving her in a world of crap. Not that she would have gone with him if he had invited her.

Vera is beautiful. This is the biggest understatement March can conceive of. She is so beautiful that it dwarfs every other trait she has, leaving them insignificant. It not that she isn’t smart or funny or interesting. She is. But her beauty is so great there probably isn’t a man alive that could elaborate on her personality. It’s impossible to get that far. March thinks even Hap can’t get past it.

If the men had bothered to ask women, which they didn’t, they could have learned more about Vera’s personality. Even the ones who count her a friend, like Artie, would not heap praise upon her. But they understand that Vera’s vanity, and her petulance if she doesn’t get her own way, are not her fault. If they had been treated identically, it was likely they would be near as bad.

He drives out of town, then turns to reach Vera’s house indirectly, using barely paved back roads. He keeps telling himself that if no one finds out, there will be no harm in it. For a moment he marvels at how easy infidelity must be in cities, where you can pass one hundred people and know none of them. How had he not exploited this perk while in Ruidoso, a town overrun by tourists? Why had he only needed anonymity in a town where it did not, could not, exist? In Olympus, if one person saw you doing something even remotely out of the ordinary, the whole town would know about it in eight hours. A flat tire, even a trip to the post office, anything seen by at least one person had a high probability of being pieced into some story of a person’s day, told to spouses, friends, the bartender.

March takes the dirt road that runs parallel to Vera’s house, and, at the appropriate time, turns and heads through the field of scrabble, through her twin rows of lime trees, up to the back porch. If he leaves tracks, they will be washed away by the thunderstorm that March can feel coming. The air hasn’t turned yet and there is no smell of rain, but off to the west lies a pile of grayness, headed this way. He just has to make sure he leaves before it has rained too long, and while it is still raining. Good to have a reason to leave, an added impetus to keep him out of trouble.

He gets out of the truck, lets the dogs free. They immediately go to marking territories before settling into the shade. Vera comes onto the back porch, has heard the truck. She looks unsurprised but not particularly happy. Arlo had once explained to March that a large part of Vera’s appeal lay in symmetry. That if you cut her face in half and simply mirrored one side, she’d look exactly the same, whereas most people would look quite different. Why exactly that’s powerful is beyond March, but he does feel its power. Vera’s hair is wet, parted down the center. It hangs in clumps of curls, reaching down to well past her waist. She has on a robe, even though they aren’t too far from lunchtime, and no shoes.

“I wanted to see how you were.” March has regained his voice but stays still under the oak tree.

“And how do I appear?” she asks, without inflection.

“Dangerous. I’ve already forgotten all my good intentions.”

“If you’re taking to good intentions, that’s sure a disappointment. People should stay in character.” She turns and walks back inside the house. March follows; he can’t help it. He follows her back, follows her into the kitchen. It feels as if he has never left town, like he has spent the past two years just walking behind her, waiting for her to turn around. He won’t let himself look at the pieces of Hap scattered around the kitchen—the metal kitchen table, the hand-tiled mosaics between the counter tops and cabinets. Vera opens the fridge door, leans down and obstructs his view of her.

“Guess you thought I’d be by sooner—since I’ve been back in town awhile.”

“Have you?” she says. March can hear her moving bottles around, an irritable clinking. “I never thought you’d leave in the first place, so why bother trying to guess when you might appear in the future?”

“How are things? Between you and Hap? I saw him this morning and he still seemed pretty angry.”

She stands up and looks at him over the top of the fridge door. “What did he do?”

“Just a little damage to my car. But still, surprising for Hap. I wouldn’t have left, maybe, if I’d known—” March doesn’t finish the sentence because it doesn’t feel true. He would have left no matter how angry Hap might have been at Vera.

“He started off pissed. Of course. But his embarrassing me like that, in front of his family, I think he thought it was enough. Then once I threatened to leave, to follow you to wherever you had gone, he spent the next six months trying to make it up to me.” She pauses, just long enough for March to wonder what it would have been like if she had followed him. Then she adds, “Idle threats work well on Hap.”

A curious wailing comes from the back of the house, and March shifts around in alarm. Vera brushes past him and comes back with a large baby boy, dark curling hair and his mother’s lips. She pauses in the doorway to the kitchen, then turns her back again, and he again follows her, this time to the living room. “Sit,” she tells March, so he sits on the couch beside her. She shifts her robe open and the boy, already quiet, latches on.

March is hit with a powerful feeling, one that has nothing to do with the child, and it shames him. He ignores it and leans in to look at the boy’s face. “Is he?” But he couldn’t be. Someone would have told him. Artie, at least.

“Yours? Takes after you, doesn’t he? Although, he also could just be taking after his grandfather. Hap is convinced he’s the father, and I think that’s most important. He says the baby has his ears, which is true. But they’re June’s ears, too. Convenient, sleeping with brothers. Or inconvenient, depending on which side you take.” She cups her hand around the boy’s head, smiling a new smile at him, one March has never seen before.

“But who do you think?”

“I don’t care to. If grows up impetuous and irritable, then he can be taking after me as well as you. And if he turns out nice, then it could just be all the time spent with Hap. Covered on all bases. I like mystery. I’ve got no problem with negative capability.” She laughs, but March is too distracted by the nearness of Vera to concentrate on their conversation.

March gently touches the boy’s head. He is about to ask the baby’s name, but instead he pulls back the other side of Vera’s robe.

Vera sighs and leans into his waiting hand. “Where are your good intentions now?”

“I can’t keep them around you.”

“Don’t flatter me, March. You can’t keep them around anyone.” She says, “I guess we deserve each other,” but she doesn’t look happy as she says it.

March leans over and kisses her, but when he feels the baby squirming against his ribs, he pulls back and remembers himself. Vera gets up and pulls a crocheted blanket off what March had thought was a table, revealing a playpen. She sets the baby down and turns around to face March.

“I’m going to go,” he says. He even stands. Outside, the clouds have rolled in and the room is getting darker and darker. Vera goes over to a window and opens it, inhaling. The smell of the coming rain soaks into the room. She walks back over.

“Are you?” Her long leg emerges from out of her robe, and she uses her foot to shove magazines off the coffee table in front of March.

“It’s only going to cause more trouble. We don’t need more trouble.” But March doesn’t move, stays standing across from her.

“I’m seeing to my birth control with renewed vigor,” she says, putting one foot up on the table, a flash of thigh visible before she steps up on the table. She is now taller than him. Outside, there is a flash of lightening. March counts in his head—one, two, three. Vera unties the sash on her robe—four, five, six. She let the robe fall open, exposing a three-inch-wide strip of herself from neck to feet—seven, eight, nine. The robe drops to the table and the house rattles from the thunder that comes right after.

“Big storm, big thunder,” says Vera. March guesses they have a good ten minutes before the rain even starts to fall. He circles his arm around her waist, lifts her up and back with him to the couch.