Milky

by Kevin Grauke

 

Raymond Noakes can tell that she recognizes him when she steps inside from the cold, but how could she not? He recognizes her, too, because there aren’t too many girls who look like her, especially not in a town the size of Yonder. He knows her name is Faith, and he knows her fat fireplug of a father, Terry Colley, too. Terry’s both a regular client and a reckless shot, which has always made for a lot of difficult needle-and-thread time for Raymond. He’s never been this close to Faith before, except for the time he was in line behind her at Flatland Grocery. She was buying tampons, and he remembers how the sight of that blue box in her hands lit his skin on fire.

“I’m here because I saw this flier at school.” She says this as if it’s a question, as if she’s unsure whether she actually did see it at school.

“Of course,” Raymond says, “the flier,” and he wonders if she knows the three guys and the two ugly girls from her school that he’s already rejected. He told them that he’d already filled the position.

Now that the initial shock of her presence in the shop has passed, he allows himself the pleasure of soaking her in—because he knows she won’t be here long, and that she’ll probably never step through his door again. He tries not to stare at her lips, but they’re so plump and red. They re-mind him a little bit like Remy Lacroix’s, who he watched again last night in “Dorm Invasion 8.”

Raymond does what he knows he’s supposed to do next: he leads her back to the office (fearing all the while what she must think of the things staring down at her from the shelves and the walls), offers her something to drink (she accepts a bottle of water), asks her a few questions (she’s a senior, and she’s going to Baylor in the fall), tells her about what her duties would be (office work only, just like the flier says—he promises!), gives her the hourly rate he’ll pay (much more than he should, but he doesn’t mind), and then, after telling her how it’s probably not a real smart business move on his part after such a short amount of time, he offers her the job.

His heart is a jackrabbit in his chest.

“God,” she says, smiling for the first time, and her teeth glint in the fluorescent light nearly as brightly as the gold cross hanging from her necklace. “You don’t know happy this makes me! Because I’ve got car payments to make, like, right now, and there are just no jobs at all around here. My parents used to take care of them—the car payments, I mean—but then my grades dropped, so they stopped.”

“Well,” he says, and he tries to think of something more to say, but nothing appropriate comes to him, nothing at all, mainly because he’s having such a hard time believing that this is really happening. Of all the girls in Yonder! An uncomfortable silence makes its presence known like a third person in the room, but he ignores it. All he can think about is being alone in the same building as her right now, and then again when she starts work—at least until she quits, as he knows she inevitably will.

She startles him with a question. Waving her hands about, indicating the deer and the longhorns and the javelinas gazing down from their places on the office walls, she asks, “I don’t mean to be rude, but do you like doing this stuff?”

§

It was almost something like fate, he believes, that set him on his path.

First of all, his mother, Cora Noakes, got pregnant with him after a careless weekend spent with, of all things, a rodeo clown passing through town on his way to a stock show in Odessa. “His name was Soapy,” she said. “He was just as sweet as could be. I asked him to put his face on for me, and he did, even the red circles on his cheeks like big cherries. Later on, when I learned you were on the way, I asked all the bull riders I knew if they had any idea where I might find him, but it was already too late. He’d been stomped to death just three days before. A bull named Biscuit got him, stepped right in the middle of him while he was trying to save a cowboy who everyone said was going to be the next Jim Shoulders. I went to his funeral with you in my belly. His sister sang ‘Thine Be the Glory.’ She had a terrible voice.”

She told Raymond this when he was seven. He’d asked her why they lived with Uncle Monte, her brother.

“That’s no answer to the boy’s question,” Uncle Monte muttered.

It wasn’t until Raymond was older that he learned what Uncle Monte had been alluding to, which was this: his mother had only been fifteen when Soapy lured her to the El Patio Motel one hot Friday afternoon, probably with an icy six-pack of Lone Star. As soon as she started showing (despite her efforts to hide her new girth beneath an extra-large F.F.A. jacket), her parents, the second of two sets of grandparents Raymond would never know, kicked her out of their house in Cozzens with all dispatch, being the good Southern Baptists that they were. With no money of her own and nowhere to go, she hitchhiked southeast to Yonder where her older brother Monte lived.

Like Cora, Monte had left home young (while she was still galloping around the dusty yard on a stick horse, as a matter of fact), but he’d done so voluntarily, to apprentice himself to the best taxidermist to be found between Lubbock and Abilene, Belton Dair. Monte had always liked killing animals (but not torturing them, it should be noted), especially the kittens that nobody ever wanted anyway, and then horsing around with their dead bodies, usually posing them in outlandish positions in order to spook unsuspecting folk. One day, his father—Raymond’s grandfather, Archie Noakes—having had just about enough of this nonsense, brought home a library book on taxidermy in the hopes of maybe guiding the boy’s interest toward a more worthwhile activity. The book was a hit with Monte, and for a long while he spent more time studying it than he did roaming the town in search of things to kill, much to the relief of his parents, especially his mother—Raymond’s grandmother, Nina Noakes—who was sick and tired of gruesome discoveries.

From Dair, Monte eventually learned all there was to know about mounting everything from bobcats and coyotes to mule deer and longhorn steers, but for years he rarely got to do much more than keep the scissors and knives sharp with a carborundum stone, and this was still mostly the case when his drum-bellied sister showed up at his door. However, by the time Raymond turned ten, Dair was dead, and Monte had become the man whose skills were sought by everyone within shouting distance of Spites County who cared enough to pay for the best trophy work in West Texas.

The day Raymond turned 13, Uncle Monte made an announcement after eating a second enormous slab of red velvet birthday cake. “Now that you’re fixing to be a man, I think it’s about time you start earning your keep.”

Cora reminded her brother that Raymond helped with the dishes and the laundry and lots of other things around the house.

“That’s helping you,” Monte said to his sister. “Now it’s time for him to start helping me.” Soon after, Raymond’s after-school hours started at the shop, which was still called Mounts by Belton Dair due to his uncle’s general laziness regarding everything other than fleshing, degreasing, and all the steps that followed. Raymond wasn’t all that happy about his first job—he preferred spending his afternoons reading the Stephen King books he checked out at the library—but he didn’t complain, mainly because he always did what his mother told him to do, and his mother told him that she guessed his Uncle Monte had a point. He also didn’t complain because he was afraid to make his uncle mad. Monte scared him some (it was his eyes that did it, how they looked more like glass than the glass eyes on a finished mount), despite having never been anything but good to both him and his mother. He never even seemed troubled by the whispers that had started around town thirteen years earlier and never stopped, the whispers about Monte and Cora maybe being much more than brother and sister, and that maybe Raymond was their freak of a love-child.

“Why else would that boy be an albino?” said the whispers. “God cursed him for their sinfulness. You know, because of the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation and all that.”

Raymond tried hard not to let being an albino bother him, but living under the unrelenting West Texas sun certainly made life difficult. He rarely ventured outside between March and October, but when he did it was never without being fully covered—long-sleeved shirts buttoned at the wrists and neck, a safari hat, wraparound sunglasses, work gloves, and sunblock for his face. Worse than blistering in the sun, though, was going to school, where he wasn’t bullied so much as he was just ignored, which was somehow more painful than getting beaten up. For the most part, other than getting pegged with a nickname by Zell Beers that would stick with him into adulthood, he moved through his school years as if he were alone. Even kids like Benji Eccles, who was a cockeyed harelip, steered clear of him. It was almost as if everyone feared that his snowy skin was something that could rub off on them just like an armadillo’s leprosy.

“Both Johnny and Edgar Winter grew up albino exactly like you down in Beaumont,” his mother liked to remind him whenever she sensed his mood sinking lower than usual. “And not just one of them, but both of them, became world-famous musicians, by God, and don’t you ever forget it. One of my favorite records of all time is Edgar’s ‘They Come Out at Night.’ That song, ‘Frankenstein,’ is on it.”

At the shop, Monte set him to work organizing the chaos and cleaning the filth. Raymond eventually gave everything its own hook or compartment—the bone cutters and the brain spoons, the scalpels and the sewing needles, the borax and the clays—and everything was, if not clean, at least much cleaner, even the fleshing wheel.

“Damn, boy,” said Uncle Monte.

Soon enough, Raymond was nearly as happy to be at the shop as at home. Not only did he grow used to the sights and smells, he grew to appreciate the trade. Pulled over carefully carved body forms, the limp blankets of skin and fur not only came alive beneath Monte’s fingers, but they seemed to acquire a dignity impossible for them to obtain while still breathing. They became majestic in their eternal stillness.

Having been watching Monte work for weeks on a mountain lion springing from a limestone ledge, Raymond said, “It’s really art, isn’t it?”

Monte lowered the lip tucker he was holding and looked Raymond straight in the eyes. “You know what? It is art, goddamnit, and I appreciate your saying so.”

Feeling the sudden momentousness of the occasion, Raymond said, “I think I want to learn.”

Monte came over and put his arm around Raymond’s shoulders. “I’ve been hoping you’d say that someday. I’d be honored to teach you.”

And so Monte taught him. And as the years passed, Raymond learned from Monte, just as Monte had learned from Belton Dair. Raymond graduated from Yonder High in the middle of his small class and didn’t contemplate college, not even for a moment. After more years passed, it became clear to both of them that Raymond no longer needed any more help. They were equals, and so Monte made his nephew a partner with a shared stake in the business. Hides, feathers, scales, skulls, antlers, and horns were received in bunches by the both of them, and together, but always working separately, they delivered fine sculptures to men who rarely recognized what they received as anything more than the necessary evidence of their kills. Meanwhile, the original sign, “Mounts by Belton Dair,” which had never been anything more than a hand-painted plank of mesquite swinging beneath a sun-bleached cow skull, remained above the door to fade a bit more with each passing year.

§

Raymond expects that she’ll only work for a couple of days, not that he blames her. After all, thanks to the movies, everyone thinks that taxidermists are weirdos and perverts, that they stuff their dead mothers and make masks for themselves out of human skin. Why would she think that he’s any different?

But she doesn’t quit. And sometimes, after she leaves for the day, he stands where she’s been, breathing in the fading wisps of her clean perfume, and he thinks about how lucky he is that her father forced her to start making her own car payments.

She works fifteen hours a week, from 3:30 to 6:30, Monday through Friday, organizing years of neglect in the dingy office. Raymond, meanwhile, stays in the workroom, a place he’s told her that she never needs to step into. “Not that I’m hiding anything,” he says more than once, but there’s no reason for her to see and smell what’s going on back there—the skulls being defleshed by colonies of dermestid beetles in the glass tanks along the wall, the bones whitening in pastes of hydrogen peroxide and magnesium carbonate, the hides soaking in the tanning tub’s pickle solution, and, of course, all the mounts in various stages of ragged, eyeless completion. If something comes up that needs his immediate attention, she knows to ring the bell for him.

On some days, he doesn’t even see her, though he knows she’s there, just on the other side of the door. Through the wood, he can hear her moving around, laughing on the phone with her friends, listening to bouncy pop music on Uncle Monte’s old disc player. Just knowing that she’s nearby is enough, and he’s proud of himself for not inventing stupid reasons to step into the office, which he now thinks of as hers, not his. When he does have a reason, he always makes sure to remove his crusty denim apron before doing so, and to wash his hands and to check under his fingernails for unpleasant gunk. He does his best to remain nonchalant, just like a real boss would.

“Hey, Faith,” he says, leaning against the doorframe. “When you get a chance, could you call Van Dyke’s and order us two more gallons of degreaser? And make it Knoblochs Super Solvent.”

Over the next few weeks, he learns bits and pieces about her life, some of which she tells him directly, some of which he overhears through the workroom door that he slides shut behind him. Her car is a year-old Mustang, and she washes it every Saturday. She loves animals, especially Jack Russell Terriers, though she doesn’t have one, and her favorite place to eat is Manuel’s El Rancho Grande. Her favorite color is periwinkle (“Not pink, like every other girl,” she says), and her boyfriend is Kade Billups. They both wear purity rings because, as she tells Raymond when she shows him the silver band on her left hand, “It says in Thessalonians that unless you’re married, you must abstain from fornication. Daddy bought both of them for us.”

Raymond nods his head solemnly upon hearing this, and he thinks about how he would still be a virgin, too, if Uncle Monte hadn’t introduced him to the prostitutes on Walnut Street in Abilene on his sixteenth birthday, the prostitutes that he still visits whenever the porn he watches makes him too sad, as it does occasionally.

§

When Monte died in a car crash on his way home from the annual Texas Taxidermy Association convention, burning both himself and his prize-winning pronghorn up, Cora had already been dead for three years from colorectal cancer that had gone undiagnosed until it was too late. Raymond was 37 and alone for the first time. Although he knew he’d miss Monte nearly as much as he missed his mother, he also knew that he was now free to run the business however he wished. If he wanted to shut down for a month, he could. If he wanted to refuse to do any more novelty work—no more jackalopes, swamp boogers, antler-legged stools, roadrunners on crutches, or armadillos clutching Lone Star beer bottles—he could. The full truth of this fact came to him only once he stepped inside the shop that first morning after Monte’s death. For the first time ever, it seemed, the sound of Willie Nelson’s nasally voice wasn’t irritating the air. It was quiet, and so still. Monte’s old black Labrador, Skoal—mounted with a tennis ball in her mouth and stationed like a watchdog near the front door—stared at him with her patient glass eyes, waiting for him to do something.

The first thing Raymond did was throw out all the country music and bring in his Norwegian black metal, which he had been special ordering from a place in California ever since he first read in fascination about the church arsons committed by several of the bands. To mark the occasion of the shop’s new era, he played Gorgoroth’s “Huldrelokk” as loudly as he could. Monte’s cheap speakers protested by rattling and buzzing. Cora had hated her son’s fascination with this music, and feared that it was a possible sign of deep emotional troubles, but he eventually convinced her that his love for these faraway Nordic bands was rooted merely in their power and aggression, not in their messages, which he couldn’t understand anyway. This explanation wasn’t entirely a lie. What had mostly drawn him to it was how it made him feel like nothing else had ever made him feel. It throbbed and roared and hammered inside of him, lifting him up on dark waves. He forgot about being lonely in a small town surrounded by nothing but an enormous, unbroken emptiness. He forgot about how much he wanted to move to a big city, maybe somewhere like San Francisco, somewhere that an albino might actually be able to blend in and make a life for himself. He forgot about now being middle-aged and too much of a coward to take a chance and start over in an unknown place. Instead, he lost all sense of himself. With the sound pummeling his head, he closed his eyes and saw visions—knives piercing flesh, hammers crushing faces, swords cleaving bodies in two—and a strange peace came over him that made life bearable.

The second thing he did was staple fliers on the telephone poles lining the street of the high school: “Wanted—conscientious student for after-school employment. Phone and office work only. Very good pay! Apply in person at Mounts by Belton Dair, 223 Gilbride Street.” He didn’t actually need any help at the shop, but some female company would be nice. There was nothing creepy about it. He understood the situation, that’s all. His skin repulsed women, as did his rabbity eyes and his white lashes. Being skinny as a beanpole and basketball-tall didn’t help, either, but he needed a woman to look at, to hear, to smell. It was as simple as that. Any guys applying would be out of luck. He just wanted some female company for a few hours a day.

§

In May, she graduates from high school, and because he doesn’t want her to think that he only cares about dead things, Raymond surprises her with a puppy, a Jack Russell Terrier that he spent too much money on in Abilene. She shrieks, startling him. She’s deliriously happy, he realizes.

“I bet you didn’t know that I’ve got three dogs myself,” he lies.

The white and brown wriggling thing licks at her face, and she asks Raymond its name. It doesn’t have one, he tells her.

“It? He’s not an it. He’s a he!” She hands him to Raymond. “You’ve got to name him. Look him in his cute little eyes and tell me his name.”

Raymond looks it in the eyes, but nothing comes to him. It’s as if all the names he’s ever known have faded from memory, even his mother’s. He looks into the puppy’s wet eyes as it lurches and strains against him. They tell him nothing.

“How about Monte?” he says.

She frowns and shakes her head. “I don’t think so. Maybe another one?”

It tries to get at him with its sharp teeth, but he tightens his grip.

“How about Soapy?” he says.

“Soapy?” She laughs. “That’s funny! But why Soapy?”

“I don’t know,” he says, handing it back to her. “Maybe because he smells good?”

§

Very late at night, long after everyone in town has fallen asleep, sometimes Raymond searches for fresh roadkill on 208 and 84 and all the FM roads in between. Most of what he finds is way beyond salvaging, flattened to the width of a tortilla, but he manages to come across just enough in satisfactory shape to make it worth his time. He scoops them up—armadillos too slow and stupid to make their way from one side of the road to the other, rattlers too long for their own good, turkey vultures too greedy to flap away from their rotting meals in time to escape a tire—and he lays them in the tarp-lined bed of his truck to take back to the shop, where he experiments on them with new techniques without having to worry about screwing up somebody’s prized kill.

However, finding cleanly killed specimens, while certainly nice, isn’t even necessary for him to feel good about these excursions. Simply being outside on the empty roads, with the delicate skin of his face and arms exposed to the fresh air, is a wonderful thing. Rolling through the warm night with the windows down, his music turned up loud, and the wind blowing through his snowy hair (which he grew long only once his mother died), he thinks about how he’s almost like a vampire—only able to be truly free when the painful sun is down and the moon up. If only he could turn into a bat. If only he could fly through the open window of Faith’s periwinkle bedroom and sink his teeth into her thigh’s great saphenous vein.

Out there in the flat and total darkness, amidst the gnarled mesquite and the endlessly undulating barbwire and the nodding pumpjacks far beyond the reach of his brights, his eyes scan the skimming asphalt for lumps and smears while his thoughts remain at the shop, with Faith. These thoughts make his stomach feel a bit queasy, just as it always does whenever he watches bondage porn or pays one of Abilene’s whores to take his pale worm in her mouth, but he can’t resist them. He carries her back into the workroom while Darkthrone’s “Panzerfaust” deafens her. She struggles and thrashes, determined to defend the sanctity of her purity ring, but she’s as light and hollow-boned as a scissortail. With a quick sweep of his arm, he clears the surface of the sturdiest table, sending the shoulder mount of a ten-point buck to the floor along with a dozen clattering tools. He hears her screams, but only as another layer of “En Vind Av Sorg,” his favorite track on this album. With one hand he restrains her, pinning her delicate wrists above her head, and with the other he strips off her clothes, popping buttons and ripping fabric with each downward swipe. Her breasts are just as he’d imagined, like Madison Ivy’s, and down below she’s appropriately waxed. He jerks her to the edge of the table so that her legs (kicking still, but doing no good) hang over the edge, and he steps between them like Tommy Pistol or Lexington Steele would, to get at her, to get at it—

A dead dog on the road’s shoulder flashes past. If it fell from the bed of a truck, Raymond thinks, it probably snapped its neck, leaving itself perfect for him. He brakes, shifts into reverse, and Faith melts away as he steps out of the cab with the leaping beam of his flashlight.

After his late-night hunts for fresh corpses, he sometimes parks in front of Faith’s house just be-fore the sky begins to lighten. There’s nothing much to see—motionless curtains in dark windows, a yellow porch light—but it still makes him feel good to be this close, especially since she has no idea he’s there. Inside, in her periwinkle bedroom, she’s sleeping, dreaming. Her lips are pale, and her skin is cool beneath the stirring air of a ceiling fan.

§

The end of things sneaks up on him and catches him unaware. He knew she was heading to Baylor in the fall, but since he didn’t go to college, fall has always meant November and whitetail season to him, not August at its white-hot, hellacious peak. Consequently, a couple of weeks after the Fourth, when she tells him how much she’s enjoyed working for him and that her last day will be in two weeks, he does his best not to seem as surprised and upset as he is. He nods his head. He says, “Sure, sure. Of course, of course,” then he nods his head some more and tries to smile.

Two weeks later, the true end comes. Her last day. He has her final check ready and waiting. It’s folded inside a card wishing her good luck. For an hour, he struggled with what to write. He wanted to tell her how beautiful she is and how wonderful it’s been for the last seven months, but, in the end, he simply wrote, “Best of luck and take care,” along with his phone number. He was proud of himself for keeping control of his pen.

She blushes when she sees the red velvet cake that he baked for her.

“You’re just the sweetest,” she says, eating a slice.

He tries to make small talk. He asks her what she’s going to major in, but she doesn’t know yet. He asks her if she’s going to live in a dormitory, and she says that she is. He asks her about Kade, and she says that Kade’s a stupid dummy.

“Y’all didn’t break up, did you?” he asks, not that he’s foolish enough to think the answer would make any difference.

“Oh, no,” she says, laughing, “but he’s still a stupid dummy.”

“I’m sure he’s not that bad,” he says, wanting to sound diplomatic and mature.

“I just don’t want to be twenty-five and still waiting for him to propose, that’s all.” She shrugs as she sets down her paper plate. “Oh, well, I guess I better get going. Thanks so much for every-thing.”

“You’re welcome,” he says.

“Bye-bye!” She gives him a very quick hug—it’s the first time she’s ever touched him, and it’s over as soon as it begins—and then she’s gone, out the door and into the bright sunlight.

Silence fills the shop in an instant. The pressure of her body fades from his skin, despite his best effort to hang on to it. Skoal stares at him with her tennis ball gripped in her mouth, and he thinks about Uncle Monte rotting away in Greasewood Cemetery next to his mother, who has rotted away even more. Meanwhile, he’s still here, alone again. To clear his head, he turns Morduk’s “Warschau” all the way up and plants his head between the speakers. Later, when he falls asleep, his pummeled ears will still be ringing, deaf to everything but his heartbeat.

§

Weeks pass. Raymond stays busy, especially with an elk that Guy Pritchard shot somewhere in Idaho. He wonders how Faith is doing at Baylor while he listens to Mayhem’s “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas,” the last album Euronymous recorded before being murdered by his former bandmate, Varg Vikernes. He listens to it over and over and over. He pictures Faith sitting in a giant lecture hall. Her hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail. The professor is scribbling all over the blackboard while lecturing about Shakespeare. He has a British accent, and she’s staring at him, engrossed.

Raymond thinks about hanging fliers at the high school again, but every girl would disappoint him.

Late at night, after his highway prowls, he still goes by her house, but only because he doesn’t know what else to do, and he has to do something. He can’t drive to Waco, after all, at least not just to say, “Hi,” so he parks in front of her house and stares at the dark windows, thinking about her empty bed—the periwinkle pillows, the periwinkle sheets. Once, on a whim, he drives down the alley behind the house, just to get a different view. Through the chain-link fence, he sees Soapy sleeping on a dog bed beneath the patio light, and he feels like a fool. Of course she left it! College is no place for a dog, but he’s still upset. He gave it to her! Knife in hand, he gets out of his truck and cuts the tongue from the mouth of the bloody deer lying on the tarp in the back and then pokes it through the fence.

“Come here, Soapy.” While it gnaws on the tongue, he pets its head and scratches its ears. “She doesn’t love you either, does she?”

§

In November, her father brings in an eight-point buck in sorry shape. He wants a shoulder mount done up, despite having shot the thing flush in the face. Raymond is flustered by the sight of him. He takes a drink of water to settle himself, and then calmly asks about Faith.

“She’s doing great in her classes, of course,” Terry says, “but what I’m really proud of is her initiative. She’s only been down there a couple of months, and already she’s applied to be a Chapel Student Leader.”

“Impressive,” Raymond says, wanting to then add how he sometimes fantasizes about burning down the First Baptist in Cozzens as payback for what his grandparents did to his teenaged mother all those years ago.

“It is, for a fact.”

“Tell her to drop in to see me the next time she’s home. I’d like to hear all about everything.”

On his way out the door, her father says that he will.

When Terry returns after Thanksgiving to pick up his mount, Raymond asks as casually as he can manage whether Faith came home for the holiday.

“Well,” Terry says, smiling, “she wanted to stay down in Waco for the Oklahoma State game the Saturday afterward, but I was having none of that. A girl’s supposed to be with her family on Thanksgiving.”

Raymond says that he agrees wholeheartedly. Then, he asks Terry if he happened to mention to Faith how she should drop by the shop.

“I did,” he says, “but she was just so busy, you know, what with Kade being back from Tech, too.”

“Sure, sure,” Raymond says, not letting himself imagine what they did to each other after having been apart for so long, purity rings on their fingers or not. “Could I get her address at school, then, so I can send her a Christmas card? Because everyone loves getting Christmas cards.”

“You’re right about that, especially when they remember that Jesus is the reason for the season.” Terry winks.

To this, Raymond says, “Amen.”

As he’s scribbling Faith’s address on a piece of paper, Terry looks up at him. “You a God-fearing man, Noakes?”

“I am,” lies Raymond.

Terry nods agreeably, but then he says, “I hope you’ll pardon my frankness, but how come I’ve never once seen you down at the church?”

“That’s because I worship at the First Baptist in Cozzens,” Raymond says.

“I see. And who’s the Senior Pastor over there again?” Terry asks, squinching up his face. “I’m drawing a blank for some reason.”

Raymond has no idea who it is, but he wills himself not to look away from Terry’s piggy eyes. “His name’s Wayne,” he says. “I can’t remember his last name, though. We just call him Pastor Wayne.”

“Pastor Wayne, huh?” Terry shakes his head as he folds the piece of paper with Faith’s address on it and hands it over to Raymond. “That doesn’t ring a bell. You sure about that?”

“Sure as shooting.”

“Alrighty, then,” Terry says. “Don’t forget to send my girl a card now.”

“I won’t.”

After Terry leaves, Raymond blasts Taake’s “Kveld” so loud that he can’t hear himself screaming as his fists strike the workroom door.

§

Inside a card with a picture of the three wise men plodding along beneath the star of Bethlehem, Raymond writes:

    Dear Faith,

          I hope you are well. Things are pretty much the same here. You know Yonder! Your father said that you were home for Thanksgiving. I bet it was nice to see your parents again after being away for so long. And Soapy too. I know you have to miss him a lot. Anyway, when you’re home for Xmas, make sure to come and see me. It’s so quiet here without you! All I have is Skoal to keep me company, and you know that she is not much of a talker!

                                                    Your friend,

                                                    Raymond Noakes

He mails it using a stamp with a picture of Joseph leading Mary through the desert on a camel.

§

In December, Yonder dresses itself up in holly green and candy-cane red. Colored lights blink from the eaves of houses, and Santas smile and wink from every direction. Strands of silver tinsel drift down the streets on the wind. Raymond sees Faith’s Mustang parked in front of the Colley house for the first time on the twenty-second. He forces himself not to drive by again until the twenty-sixth. Freshly washed, it’s still there, parked in slightly different locations along the curb on the twenty-eighth, the thirtieth, and the second day of the brand new year, too. On the third, however, her car is gone when he drives by, and it’s still gone on the fourth and the fifth. On the sixth, he drives down the alley to see Soapy. Soapy comes running just as soon as it sees him. He feeds it offal through the fence, and it nearly bites his fingers in its hunger and excitement.

“Did she even come out and play with you when she was home?” he asks. “I bet she didn’t.”

Soapy smacks and swallows.

Raymond understands well enough why Faith never bothered to come by. Why should she? Life beyond Yonder, beyond Waco, beyond Texas … all of it will be hers for the taking soon enough. Her Ford Mustang will become a convertible BMW. Her periwinkle bedroom will become a penthouse in some faraway city like Philadelphia. All she had to do was stop by for only a couple of minutes. All he wanted was for her to talk to him for a little while when he wasn’t paying her, when she wasn’t on the clock. Just once would’ve been enough.

Staring at Soapy through the diamonds of the chain-link fence, he is struck by an idea, an image. Having seen no evidence of Terry or his wife being home, he lets himself in through the fence’s gate, snatches Soapy up, and hurries back to his truck.

When he parks behind the shop, he turns the truck’s engine off and calls Soapy to him. Ever friendly, it hops up from the floorboard and onto his lap. Its nails dig into his thighs, and Raymond stares down into its dark eyes as he strangles its neck. Gradually, it slumps against him, heavier in death than in life.

For the next few weeks, wired on pot after pot of coffee, he listens to Burzum’s “Hlidskjalf” on a never-ending loop. At night, it keeps playing in his head, supplying the soundtrack to his sweaty dreams. It calls forth strange creatures that come to him like oracular visions: three-headed coyotes sheathed in armadillo shell, tarantulas spiked with the stinging tails of scorpions, fetal puppies and kittens tied into crowns by their tails, a wild-eyed raccoon birthing a coil of three rattlesnakes, a javelina with the oil-black wings of giant carrion birds sprouting from its back….

In the morning, jittery, he takes notes, complete with titles perfectly suited for black metal songs yet to be written—“Armored Cerberus,” “Arachnophobic Evolution,” “Aborted Halo of Life,” “Poisonous Conception in Scaled Triplicate,” “Snouted Buzzard (Angel of Death)”—foreseeing all the while a new life for himself as a new sort of artist somewhere far, far from Yonder.

Meanwhile, after the usual skinning and fleshing comes the dehairing with hydrated lime, which he almost never has any reason to do. Its head, however, he leaves alone. After that, it’s time to carve the body form out of polyurethane foam. All in all, it takes him nearly a month to finish because of his usual client work, but when he does, he’s happy with the result, especially considering the difficulty he had getting its hairless hide to stretch over such an unnaturally positioned model. A dog is not meant to lie flat on its back and spread its front legs out wide, after all. Its eyes, though, may be what he likes best. Rather than using glass replicas appropriate for a Jack Russell Terrier, he simply glued marbles in the sockets and painted them red with glossy nail polish, which makes it look as if it’s possessed by a demon.

Tomorrow night, after he’s packed his truck with the last of the stuff that he’ll take with him to San Francisco (including all of his essential equipment and the “Mounts by Belton Dair” sign), he’ll drive over to the First Baptist of Yonder. There in the dark, he’ll pound the sharpened tip of his first true work of art into the dirt beside the Nativity scene that never gets taken down before February. To the tenpenny nail hammered through Soapy’s left paw, he’ll tie a tag that says, “Dog-Headed Jesus on a Rugged Cross of Mesquite.” From the nail through its right paw, he’ll tie a tag that says, “Artist: Milky.” Then, he’ll get back in his truck and, with the night’s wind in his hair and Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” turned up so loud that he’ll feel every black note of it deep inside his chest, he’ll speed west, racing to stay ahead of the sun rising behind him.
 

Kevin_Grauke_AuthorKevin Grauke was born and raised in Texas. He is the author of “Shadows of Men,” which was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. His stories have appeared in such journals as The Southern Review, Fiction, Five Chapters, Story Quarterly, and elsewhere. “Milky” comes from a work-in-progress, a collection of linked stories set in the fictional West Texas town of Yonder.

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