Today we’re excited to bring you a brand new story from Keith Rosson called “Devils Abound”. Rosson will also be releasing his new short story collection Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons on February 23rd through Meerkat Press!
By: Keith Rosson
©2021 Keith Rosson
Mike’s down at the river with his brother Cal and his son Raymond, the three of them doing what they can to defeat the relentless summer heat, when the Coffin brothers roll down the trail. Bad teeth, blurred green tattoos of naked ladies and Born To Loose on their biceps, the Coffin brothers are, to put it mildly, a couple of lanky, dumb motherfuckers. The sort of fellows intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the menu at the county lockup over in Roseburg. They’d all gone to school together, the Coffins and them. Mike sees them roll up and figures they’ll be good for an eighth, maybe a quarter ounce, and right away they ask him if he has anything good.
“I might,” he says, laughing.
His brother Cal’s just lost his glass eye to the current minutes before the brothers showed up, and Mike is still busting up about it. Raymond plays cop knee-deep in the river, the boy grown golden and blonde from a summer spent outside; he shoots the whole world with his blue plastic police gun, makes gun noises. It is August of 1980, and the heat wave is killing people left and right.
Another hour or so and the five of them trudge back up the trail. The Coffin brothers are voted least drunk among them, so they pile in the front of Sharon’s beat-to-hell olive green Newport. Mike and Cal get in the back, Raymond between them. The boy’s shoulders have grown lobster-red with sunburn and Mike feels bad, realizing too late he’d forgotten the kid’s sunscreen in the glove box. The brother in the passenger seat passes it back, and Mike slathers it on the boy’s legs while Raymond pokes his gun out the window and shoots. It’s a whole police set his mom bought him at the Bi-Mart – sunglasses, handcuffs, gun, walkie-talkie. At one point, Raymond turns and solemnly tells everyone in the car they’re under arrest, and all the men, dizzy with heat and tall cans of Hamm’s, laugh uproariously.
The trailer sits at the end of a long gravel road well outside of town. The road braces the foothills of a mountain range on one side, with the other flanking a six-foot drop into a wavering sea of growing corn. It’s the height of the afternoon, the sky a searing blue, AC/DC on the radio, the song dipping in and out with static. The time of day when nearly everything in the car is too hot to touch.
Mike’s almost asleep, buzzed as he is, his chin dipping to his breastbone, when the Coffin brother in the passenger seat – the dopey one with the extra fucked up teeth, he can never remember their names – turns and says, “Doug Reed says you been skimming on him, Mike.”
“Shit,” Cal says.
“What?” says Mike, blinking. He sees the barrel of a little revolver poking over the front seat.
“We drank beer with you assholes,” Cal says. “Y’all drank our beers the whole damn day. Gotta be shitting me.”
“Shut up,” the guy says, and turns back to Mike. “Doug Reed says you’re skimming on him.”
“My kid’s in the car,” Mike says quietly, nearly a whisper, cutting his eyes to Raymond, who is slumped over, asleep. Wearing his cop sunglasses with his little cop gun in his lap, one hand curled loosely around it. “My kid is right here.”
The guy shrugs, cuts his eyes away. “Well, Doug still says you owe him. He⎯”
Mike cups the driver’s skull and rams it into the side window. The window buckles a little. Cal leans over the seat and grapples for the revolver.
The Newport veers, hanging on two wheels for a moment. They roll down the embankment, into an endless, stilled field of summer corn.
Pebbles of glass in the dirt. Churned earth, oil, the rich green scent of corn smashed open. The Newport’s landed on its top.
Raymond’s sunglasses are hanging off one ear and he’s standing there next to the car, still holding his blue gun. He’s too shocked to cry.
Mike takes his son by the hand and pushes through the corn, guiding the boy up the embankment to the road above. Down in the field, one of the Coffin brothers is cursing, all jammed up in the seatbelt.
Raymond has a scratch on his cheek and Mike licks his finger and wipes the blood away and then carefully hooks the boy’s sunglasses on both ears.
Raymond nods, the tears finally spilling down, his lips trembling.
“Okay.” Mike digs into the pocket of his cutoffs and drops a fistful of change into Raymond’s open palm. Mike’s bleeding from somewhere up in his hairline, bits of glass peppering his scalp, and it stings a little, mixing in with the sweat. “Count this money for me. Sit down right here.”
“On the rocks?”
“Yeah, on the rocks, bud.”
“Mike,” Cal calls from down in the cornfield. “Little help here.”
“I’ll be right back,” Mike says. “You sit right here. Don’t turn around. If you count that money right, you get to keep it all. You hear me?”
Raymond nods, his face crumpling behind his glasses. A single fat tears slides down and tracks through the dust on his cheek.
“Don’t turn around.”
Mike thinks about kissing his son on the head, smelling that little boy-smell he still has. He considers telling Raymond that he loves him. He wants to remind himself that he’s lucky, this could have been a lot worse. But rage is yowling up and down his spine in a way that makes it physically hard to do anything. Hard to breathe, even. The audacity of these men. It makes him want to move one way only, to only do one thing.
“Don’t turn around,” he says again, and then walks stiff-legged back down the embankment into the smashed corn. He steps around Sharon’s ruined car, and he and Cal drag the Coffin brothers out and make quick, ugly work of them.
They walk the rest of the way home. The three of them in a row, Raymond in the middle, all their feet dragging lines of dust through the gravel. Mike is frowning at a divot of flesh taken out of his knuckle where he’d caught it on someone’s tooth, and Cal wipes endlessly at his empty eye socket as it gets mucked up with road dust. The men walk with their shirts tied around their heads, their big freckled backs red and sweating. Mike left Raymond’s shirt back at the car – another thing that he will surely catch hell about from Sharon. The Coffin brother’s pistol is a small and silver thing, pressed in the rear waistband of his cutoffs. It’s loaded. He feels angry all over again.
You’re telling me,” Cal says now, “you had no idea those guys were dickswinging for Doug Reed?”
Mike turns, his face drenched with sweat, and angrily cuts his eyes down to Raymond.
“Sorry. You know what I’m saying. You didn’t know they were on his payroll?”
“Hell, no.” Mike said. “They’ve been to the trailer before. They’d buy an eighth, drink a couple of my beers, get the hell out. Stan and Dan? The hell are their names again?”
“Assholes is what their names are,” mutters Cal.
“Assholes,” Raymond parrots. He’s stopped crying. He shoots the mountain.
“Hush,” says Mike, gently gripping the top of his son’s head as they walk down the road.
“Well, we’re in for it now,” Cal says.
“They shouldn’t have done that,” Mike says almost absently. “You don’t do that shit with a kid in the car.”
“I hear you.”
“You just don’t do that to people.”
“Man, I hear you,” Cal says again. “But we’re in for it now. You shouldn’t have skimmed on Doug Reed, damn.”
Cal laughs, wipes again at his weeping eye. “You never could lie for shit.”
They make it to the trailer, finally, couched there in its little yard of brittle yellow grass. The corn on one side and hills on the other and to the rear of the place is a dusty, boulder-pocked ridgeline gone almost white with dryness. You can see a mile and a half straight down the road, the horizon hazy with shimmer.
“Sharon’s gonna be pissed about the car,” Cal says, pulling his t-shirt from his head and wiping his eye with it. Mike clomps onto the porch, pulls out his house keys.
“Least of my problems,” he says, setting the revolver on the porch railing, opening up the trailer door to release the furnace-blast of trapped heat.
Mike sells grass and sometimes paints houses. Not in this heat, though, fuck that, so mostly it’s been a summer of moving Doug Reed’s dope out of the trailer, driving Sharon to work at Arctic Circle in the mornings and doing stuff with the boy before it gets too hot. Cal cut trees for Stillson Lumber two years before and then lost an eye to a falling limb; he’s twenty-five years old and too broke and drunk to sue them over it. He lives with their mom over in Roseburg, just kind of floating along.
They’d left the Coffin brothers gasping in the corn, gagging blood, and Mike had spit on the one that pulled the gun, then kicked him in the balls and stomped on his face. It’s very unlikely that things will end there. Like Cal said, they were in for it now. Doug Reed almost surely buys his dope from the Crooked Wheel club, bikers who suffer no fools. Even after the stomping, turtled up on his side, face pulped into a horror show, the Coffin brother had sneered and lifted his middle finger. Cal had dry-heaved when Mike had bent down and snapped the finger in half, the guy’s scream swallowed by all that corn.
You just get wrapped up in the thing, and by the time the smoke clears, you realize you’re fucked. You realize it all comes with a price.
Mike’s got one tattoo: a stick-and-poke crucified Jesus on his shoulder, green and fuzzy. He got it during a little week-long stint in county lockup a while back, some Drunk in Public thing. The tattoo got infected, wept pus for a week, and by the time it healed, it looked like something Raymond might have drawn on scratch paper while he was falling asleep.
Sharon had laughed outright when she saw it, laughed her ass off, asked Mike if he was a churchgoer now. Asked if Jesus was gonna be the one to start rounding up bail money from here on out.
Mike is Raymond’s light and Raymond’s darkness. Such is the merciless orbit of a father. He brings great swaths of terror upon the boy – Mike and Sharon’s fights have left the living room a minefield of ruined cookware and shattered beer bottles – and he is also the man who brings Raymond frogs cupped in his big fists, frogs that give meek little ribbits from the dark cave of his father’s cupped hands that make Raymond breathless with laughter. He falls asleep on his father’s chest while they watch game shows on their eighteen-inch Panasonic, the slow engine of his father’s heart beneath Raymond’s cheek. He’s seen his father break every single light on a man’s truck with a little wooden fish bat, and then threaten to kill the man when he came out of his house. And he’s also the person who reads Richard Scarry books to Raymond, the scent of alcohol misting his breath, his voice scratchy and raw with cigarettes while Raymond lays curled in bed like a little apostrophe. Such is the variance inside us, the possibilities, the wide yawing of life and death. His father is a kind of dark magic – loving and terrible and fearsome. Unknowable.
The trailer is dim, quiet, explosive with heat. Raymond is playing in his room. Mike seethes. The last of the beers were forgotten in the flipped car, so he’s drinking a bottle of Sharon’s pop and pacing the living room, sweating and red-faced, his long hair in wet curls on his back.
“Well, I’m thinking about taking off,” Cal says, standing near the front door with his hands in his pockets. “I’m supposed to take Mom to bridge tonight.” He says it like it’s just any other day.
Mike just laughs, points at him with the pop bottle. “Where you gonna go, bud? That’s six miles of road out there. It’s a hundred and eight degrees outside. You gonna jump in your invisible Corvette and zip away?”
Cal wipes his eye. “You should have told me you were skimming from Doug, is all.”
“I’m not,” Mike says, lifting the bottle of RC to his lips.
“Can’t lie for a dog’s dick.”
They smoke some grass and Cal puts on a Creedence record and opens the front door to get some kind of meager draft going. Mike tells him to close it.
“What do you think?”
Mike calls up one of Sharon’s friends in town, Rachel, and tells her that Sharon’s car broke down. Can Rachel give her a ride back home after her shift? There’s an eighth in it for her if she says yes.
Rachel can do that, and Mike hangs up and sits in his recliner facing the doorway, the Coffin brother’s pistol on the armrest, his sweaty back snarling on the leather every time he moves.
The band warbles on about fortunate sons. In between songs the men can hear Raymond making shooting and punching noises from his room.
Rachel brings Sharon home and she and Mike get in a big fight right there in front of everyone when she drags it out of him, what really happened to the car. Rachel doesn’t even get a chance to leave, just takes Sharon and the kid straight to Sharon’s folks’ place in Roseburg. Cal sheepishly asks if he can catch a ride back to town and Mike stills him with a look. He makes lame-ass hamburgers that night for the two of them, just meat on white bread with ketchup, and Cal spends a lot of time smoking grass and blotting his weeping socket with toilet paper, muttering occasionally about losing the fake eye. Mike’s got the pistol and Cal leans Mike’s .30-06 against the arm of the couch.
Night falls and they keep the lights off. Not even the television on. At last, there’s a breeze and they crack the front door, slide open the windows behind the blinds.
All in the Family’s on when the phone rings in the kitchen, both men turning to stare at it like it’s some third person, some intruder that walked into the room. After eight or ten rings it stops, then starts up again. With a sigh, one hand grasping the pistol, Mike walks over and answers it. Standing there in the dark.
“What,” says Doug Reed, “the fuck.”
“Hey, Doug,” says Mike. He motions at the window, and Cal goes low with the rifle, lifting a corner of the blind and glassing the road with the scope.
“You put Ronnie Coffin in the hospital, man. Busted his face up pretty serious.”
“Well, tell him not to pull a gun with my kid in the car, Doug. You don’t do that shit.”
“Well, he’s serious right now. He’s in serious trouble. They got him in the critical care, and Ricky ain’t much better. You two did a fucking number, didn’t you?”
“Well, like I said. My kid was there. He’s a little guy, Doug. He’s only five.”
“Regardless of that,” says Doug Reed, “you been skimming off me for a while now, haven’t you?”
“Wasn’t me that did it.”
“Bullshit, and now you just made it all kinds of worse.”
“Well, I keep telling you. Those guys shouldn’t have a pulled a gun with my kid in the car. That’s the bottom line.”
The moment stretches out. He can hear Doug breathing on the other end of the line, can hear him light a cigarette and exhale. “So that’s it, huh?”
“I mean, that’s all I got to say about it.”
“You think I make so much this doesn’t bite me in the ass, Mike? You think I’m such a wealthy man? They’re saying Ronnie might lose his eye.”
“Well, it could have been worse for him.”
Doug laughs. “You dumb fuck. You got no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
Mike says, “I think I got enough in the tank to run circles around you, my man.”
“Selfish is what you are. You know that? I’ll see you around, Mike. Real soon.” The line goes dead before he can say anything else. Cal looks back at him; he seems diminished, small, crouched at the window with the .30-06 and his weeping, empty eye like that. His brother’s scared as hell.
Mike springs awake on the couch that night, scrabbling for the pistol, lucky he doesn’t shoot his own dick off in the dark. There are cars coming down the road. Lifting the corner of the blind, he sees two sedans parked in a V in the road, headlights turned off. They’re a couple hundred feet out there. Everything bright in the moonlight and pale dust of the road.
He hears the squeal of doors opening, and sees the unmistakable bulk of Doug Reed step out into the washed-out light of the moon. Five other guys, six, peel themselves from the pair of cars. Maybe Doug’s crew, maybe Crooked Wheel guys who didn’t want to ride their loud-ass choppers down the road. They all start walking down the road towards the trailer, this cluster of them, lazy and undisciplined. He sees three, four long guns.
A shot rings out from the hilltop, echoes in the valley.
One of the men drops to the gravel, cursing and writhing. Everyone scatters.
Mike fires the pistol through the space between the open window and the blind. Doug Reed ducks back behind a car, and Cal fires again from where he’s dug out in the hillside above the trailer. The men make clouds of dust that look blue in the moonlight as they slide down the embankment into the corn.
Maybe three, four hundred bucks he’s lifted from the man over eight months of dealing. And this is what it comes to. Jesus Christ. The way things just get away from you.
A bullet punches through the trailer with a sound like a guitar string breaking.
Two days later, Sharon’s cooled down enough. Their love is something she keeps coming back to – he is the father of her boy, and there is some lean and hard part of her that is warmed by the small kindnesses he lays upon her, even as they endlessly claim war against each other. Mike hasn’t answered the phone, and so she gets a ride back to the trailer from her dad. Raymond is still in Roseburg with his grandma. When Sharon and her father pass her Newport, still wheels up in the corn, her old man’s mouth curls with distaste but he keeps silent. They make it to the trailer and he begins to pull the truck into the driveway when they see the scattering of bullet holes pocking the trailer walls. The front door stands open, a black mouth. The world is brutally hot and still.
Her father reverses back onto the road, and they become enveloped in their own dust. He parks the truck at an angle on the road and leans back and takes his .30-30 from the rack at the rear window. He steps out, pulls the rifle bolt back, checks that a round is chambered. Her father worked the choker for Stillson for thirty-five years, and his hands, gnarled with arthritis as they are, are still so big and scarred they make the gun look almost like a toy.
“Don’t,” Sharon says. She speaks quietly, her heart like some useless thing that has become moored in her throat. “Let’s just call the police.” She sees that the kitchen window is marred with a single spiderwebbed bullet hole.
Her father holds his rifle in one hand and adjusts his cap with the other. A breeze sloughs through the corn, a ghostly, lonely sound. “Please, Daddy,” says Sharon.
“Hush,” he says, hard set, and she sees his Adam’s apple bob at the seamed flesh of his neck. He walks around and waits for the dust to clear and lays the rifle on the hood of the truck, spending a moment glassing the trailer with the scope. “If I’m not out in a minute,” he says, “once I get through that door there, you take the truck and go. One single minute, Sharon. You hear any shots, you take the truck and go. You hear me?”
“Let’s just go now,” Sharon says.
Her father’s face is shadowed beneath the brim of his hat. He spits once on the ground. “I always knew this one was no good, Sharon. I knew it. Your mother knew it. She told you a hundred times this one was no good, and you were hellbent on not listening. Raymond or no, you didn’t listen.” He can’t help himself. “Just so hellbent on having badness handed to you.”
She watches as he walks down the road and across the dry, dirt-scabbed yard and up the porch steps, rifle cradled in his hands. He’s never seemed more an old man to her than right then, and she curses him and his vulnerability and his splay-legged, old-man walk, and she has put him there, her father, entering the broiling tin shitbox she calls a home. The hills and the corn and the depthless sky feel like something out of time.
Eventually – maybe a minute, maybe more – her father clomps back down the steps, his face cast once more in shadow.
When he raises his head to look at her, she still can’t read it, can’t read whatever message is written there. His face is closed to her, as immutable as if he were carved from stone.