In A Familiar Americahttps://i2.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/37725410_10161066618280179_8707476259069755392_n.jpg?fit=960%2C960&ssl=1960960Kevin WinchesterKevin Winchesterhttps://i1.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Kevin-Winchester.jpg?fit=91%2C96&ssl=1
A cliché: A quiet house that looks like a house in a familiar America. The upstairs bedroom adorned with pastel lamp, quilted flowered comforter, tie-backs on the curtains, muted sunlight streaming and a framed print—trees in fall foliage, rock face rising above the leaves, an athletic girl climbing, unroped—commanding: Believe in Yourself. Below the print: Jessica Ashley Stephanie collapsed on a bed, pale, dyed hair splayed across her thin back. She has soiled herself, the room smells of ammonia. Perhaps she believed in herself. Perhaps, but the syringe is empty, still spiked from her vein. The cut increases margins, death increases demand.
Behind the house, beyond the listing barn, past the smokehouse and hog lot where the slim brass of the .22 shell plodded through the sow’s brain just yesterday, stands a sparse patch of trees, marking the line where woods meet pasture. At the edge between wood and field grovel pokeberry and horsenettle, red sorrel and prickly sida, ever eyeing the trees arching above them with caution and disdain. The trees are nondescript, perhaps pine, maybe white oak or red maple, it doesn’t matter. They lean toward the open pasture, wanting more sunlight, more space. Trees are greedy that way.
From the rafters in the smokehouse, the twine taut and knotted efficiently around the rough burlap sack with red lettering, the words long faded, cinched onto the shaft of shoulder bone, the newly salted ham twists in a half circle, this way, that, back again. The floorboards, old pine worn smooth and slick, a still lake’s surface at sunset, creak familiar as old bones in the cold. Elise touches the recent addition, stills it before she weaves and threads into the gut of the frame building, dodging the other hams in the mist-steeped shadows until she reaches the farthest row, selects the oldest. Curing—such an odd term. Hanging, suspended as time and the elements strip away, season, preserve. Curing. To be cured. Cured.
Deeper in the trees, the noxious border weeds give way to infrequent sumac, the occasional fern, the undergrowth muted by the thick carpet sloughed off fall after fall after fall. The earth beneath these trees adds layers like new skin, the detritus of leaves reincarnated. The swing of axe, the sharp bite and crack in the crisp air, a snare drum snapping time, Aaron’s breath a barely audible accompaniment. Swing, retrieve, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. A meditation that warms twice.
These things are true. There is no fiction. Nothing is novel. The story is old and unchanging. Jesus knows this. These things are true.
A metaphor: Jesus watches the breeze rifle the tree leaves, sending a few spiraling to the manicured lawn of the quiet house on a quiet road just beyond the encroaching cul-de-sacs that looks like a house that looks like a house in a familiar town, in a familiar America. Jesus tries the door, opens it, finds the kitchen neat, fills the glass with ice cubes, lets the tap water trickle over the cubes, filling the glass. He knows this house, these stairs, the pastel bedroom, though he’s never been here before. Upstairs, he removes Jessica Ashley Stephanie’s pants. She smells of piss, the stench of chemical. Jesus drinks, sits the glass on the nightstand beside the lamp and rolls her over. Takes another drink, then lifts an ice cube from the glass, tenderly spreads the fatty gluteal mounds and uses his thumb to ease the ice cube into her anus. A twitch. Jesus repeats the process. Another ice cube, another twitch. She sputters, regurgitates; the sputum thick, frothy, sickly white. She kicks, rolls over, eyes wide and panicked. Jesus leaves, easing down the stairs and back to the street. It’s so rare to find love on a random afternoon. So rare to save a life from itself, if only for a moment. A day, a week, a year? A moment.
Elise and Aaron sit at the table, biscuits, ham, potatoes, beans before them. They bow in gratitude, in prayer, in silence, in anxious desperation. Upstairs, through the window, Jessica Ashley Stephanie watches the brown-skinned stranger disappear down the street. She’s not hungry.
These things are true. There is no fiction. Nothing is novel. Jesus, this story is old and unchanging. But the trees . . . three thousand miles away, in the White Mountains, stands a Great Bristlecone Pine, nonplussed for five thousand and sixty-six years now.
Kevin Winchester lives in Waxhaw, North Carolina and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. His debut novel, Sunflower Dog, will be out in spring of 2020 with SFK Press. His story, “Waiting on Something to Happen,” won the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Gulf Coast, StorySouth, Barrelhouse, Dead Mule and the anthologies Everything But the Baby and Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas, among others. Main Street Rag published his short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat in 2009. He currently teaches writing at Wingate University.