For Clyde Eastman, such miserable spawn was born late in August of 1980, when he worked for Mannings Market far out in the swamps of Route 9. On the way home from visiting both local bars that Wednesday night (a little early in the week for him, but he made exceptions on nights he discovered his wife was cheating on him), Clyde’s course changed unexpectedly.
Beyond the Daveneau farmhouse, two-thirds the distance down the access road toward the Interstate, he drove his ‘73 Chrysler into the middle of a large, untended field. Only that much was an accident. As soon as he lost the road, he decided to agree with the direction his car was heading in. He pumped the gas pedal and ground the vehicle through bristly weeds and a generous peppering of granite rocks. Dirt spun up from the tires and speckled the window beside his head. The car’s prow tipped right over the top of a small hill, and the tires lost their grip. The large automobile slid sideways on a slick carpet of mud and came to rest in the mutt child of more serious ponds. A crooning boulder pinned the passenger door shut. Clyde watched the trees fifty yards in front of him shake fists at each other, and he decided to stay a while.
He spent ten minutes switching between radio stations; all the songs sounded wrong. He scanned the airwaves until he found a voice he liked: a deep baritone, light on its toes. He didn’t catch the sense of the words, but he nodded his head to the gentle words vibrating through the old speakers.
He pulled the tab off a can of Pabst and guzzled, thinking it was a damned lucky thing he’d stopped for the beer before all this happened.
Most of his other thoughts were spent on Audrey and her preschool teacher: what positions they liked; how she might’ve sighed with him on top of her. He pictured the man’s shoulders and the back of his neck, saw beads of sweat at the hairline—he couldn’t help it. He figured there was no way his mind was coming off the subject that night, so he ran with it, revving the engine, digging the tires deeper into the muck. He saw his wife dominated and loving every second of it. Moaning, groaning, grinding the gas—goddamn, but he heard it under the radio’s mumbling voices—all the words of the throaty language of fulfillment. It only got worse as more cans wound up empty at his feet.
The voice on the radio gave way to a noisy rock song, and Clyde turned the knob to shut it up. He bowed his head and hummed with the Chrysler’s running engine. Then he saw Audrey’s trampled copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions in the neighboring foot well. They’d been really into that a while back. Magic, souls, and messiahs—Clyde laughed, and because his laugh defined the empty space even as it filled it, Clyde made a sound in his throat that was angry and sad—the cry of a creature with no way out of the clamped teeth of its snapped trap.
Lifting his head back up, he saw the field. The glow of his headlights held the darker shadows of the forest at bay. He knew Audrey would worry. But let her, he told himself. Let her be riddled with guilt. Her anxieties might keep the preschool teacher away from his spoils for a day or two. He watched a cloud approach the moon.
In less than an hour, a shovel, plunged into the back of his neck, would divide his head from his body. Such an event was far from his mind as he sat and tracked movement in the night sky.
* * *
On the other side of the field three men stood under the trees and watched Clyde’s chugging car. One of them, Bub Jendreau, had witnessed Clyde’s arrival in the field and brought the others.
The leader of the trio said nothing. Jimmy Beetle was an aging man somewhere between sixty and eighty years old, hollowing out under thick, flannel clothes. The headlights’ reach ended inches from the tips of his black boots. He slowly pulled down the last two inches of his cigar. He hadn’t shaved in a week or been home in a month. The last time he’d gone in his front door, his wife Mabel had groaned, thrown down her book, and locked herself in the bathroom until he left.
He now spent his days in a one-room hunting cabin jammed into a rising hill twenty feet behind where he stood. Beetle owned the cabin, which he’d inherited from his grandfather, the field, and a four-hundred-fifty-acre trapezoidal wedge of forest and swamp between the Interstate Access Road and the Penobscot River.
The two men behind Beetle waited for a plan.
“What is this guy, do you think?” he finally said. He pressed the last of the cigar into the grass.
“How do you know it’s a guy?” Bub Jendreau asked. He pointed at the slanting front of the Chrysler. “Could be anything.”
“Anything?” Beetle looked back and scowled. He waited for Bub to avert his eyes, but the fool never did. He’d been coming to the cabin for years. It didn’t matter that no one liked him. Joe Beldon plucked the blaze orange cap from Bub’s head and threw it into the woods.
“Hey!” Bub said, and before he could go back to get it, Beetle motioned the men forward.
“Well, come on,” he said.
The Chrysler’s door opened as Beetle made it to the fender. Clyde came out, already half unzipped. Beetle clicked on a flashlight, and steam from Clyde’s hot urine rose in the beam. Clyde swatted at the air.
“Aw, Christ!” he said. “Get that out of my face!”
Beetle kept it on him. “My name’s Jimmy Beetle. This is private property. What’s your name, kid?”
“First off—what are you, a cop? Anyway, I’m thirty-two years old, so I don’t want to hear no more of that kid shit. Secondly…”
Clyde turned and pissed on Beetle’s boots.
“Ha!” he said and wagged his prick.
There were many things that drew people to Jimmy Beetle’s cabin: Some came for the booze, others for the aging pornography piled under the eaves, but most came for the drugs. Beetle had grown marijuana on his land for years, which created a symbiotic, encouraging relationship between land, company, and money. Beetle didn’t worry about much, and it was this self-possessed calm that held the greatest attraction for others as they spent more time with him. The drugs were only drugs; it was Beetle’s lifestyle that enticed the most repeat business. Though an entrepreneur of sorts, he was not an ambitious man. He spent his money sparingly and lived on the ragged edge of Enoch with as little as possible. His choice to live in apparent squalor made those who couldn’t help living in actual squalor feel less forsaken. Beetle laced his drugs with the righteous vindication of poverty, and those who followed him said he defied the System. Capital letters plagued their descriptions of him. He was a Wizard, a Leader, a Prophet; the pollen of cheap spirituality and mysticism clung to him. Beetle knew what he was and what he wasn’t, but he recognized what he had to be for the people who came to him in need of a Wise Man on the Mountain.
The downside was that they then expected great things from him when strangers pissed on his boots. He glanced back at Joe’s hard face in the shadows behind Bub—both of them acting like audience members before a puppet show.
Beetle sized Clyde up. Thirty-two, he’d said. Maybe if he was lucky, thought Beetle. The baby cheeks, rising and yeasty under the thick, brown hair, made Beetle think of a man half-finished. Beetle frowned at his wet boot.
“You’re a young one, Thirty-Two,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Clyde waved to his car. “Getting drunk. What’s it look like?”
“You ought to do that somewhere else. This is my field. Legally, I could shoot you.”
“Yeah?” Clyde said. He seemed to be trying to figure out if Beetle was joking. “Go ahead. Shoot me. What do I care? My damned wife—she’s probably getting schooled right now. That preschool teacher. So I get drunk. What’s the problem, man?” Clyde said, lapsing into a friendlier tone. “You got a nice field for it, actually. Where’s your house?”
Beetle thought a moment. He grabbed Clyde by the shoulder. “I’ll show you. Come on. Take you on a walk. It’ll be good. You’ll see.”
“Hell, yeah, that’s a good idea!” Clyde said. “Fuck it. Let’s get lost!”
“Well,” Beetle said, as though speaking to a child at a carnival, “we’ll see.”
Beetle led the group back, but he did not go in the direction of his cabin. If anyone had asked him what he thought he was doing taking Clyde into the woods that night, Beetle would’ve told them he thought it was expected of him. For lack of something better, Beetle would make a practical joke out of Clyde. Why not? They’d been terrorizing Mabel for years, and nothing too awful had ever happened.
* * *
Later, with Clyde Eastman’s corpse stuck in a steamer trunk, his head and legs hacked off, Beetle eased himself down onto a large rock. The pot he’d smoked earlier had worn off, but so much less was clear to him now. His pants were soaked, he was lost in a four-hundred-acre swamp, and Thirty-Two was dead but not yet buried.
Four hundred and fifty acres he owned—barely ten of them were good for logging. He’d thought—and now it looked like he’d been wrong—that in the middle of the waterlogged part there was a bunch of drier land where they could’ve buried Clyde without risking him being uprooted up by a logging crew. Beetle’s watch had stopped working an hour ago. Joe sucked tobacco. Only Bub seemed happy.
“I had this friend,” Bub said, frowning down at the trunk. “Had a terrible wife. A real horror. Used to dump his booze down the drain when he wasn’t looking, sell his guns for sewing machines—I think she had about ten—and all she ever cooked for dinner was this rubbery fish, tasted like salted sneakers.”
He chuckled. Beetle stared at his wet boots.
“Come on, that’s funny!” Bub said. “Well, all right. So we’re lost. We’ll find a way out.”
Joe prodded the steamer trunk with a short twig. “I ain’t carrying that prick no more. He stays here, I say fine. Who comes out here but us?”
“We need to find the dry part,” Beetle said, but he knew he was losing his sway over the others. Going into the swamp had been his idea. Bub and Joe had wanted to bury the corpse behind Mabel’s house. Joe felt it would be fine, especially if the pieces were cut small enough. But Beetle knew how many of his neighbors let their dogs run wild. Covering up a murder was not a job he thought should be done half-assed.
“Hey, Beetle,” Bub said. “What you think this guy’s wife was like?”
“How should I know what his goddamned wife was like? You damned prick. Fuck’s next? Want me speculate on how fucking cute his kids were? Christ’s sake …”
“Well, all right, only asking. It’s not like ignoring him is going to change the fact he’s dead. Had this other friend, lived in New York City—died in his apartment one day, right? Just fell over dead. But the neighbors, they hated this guy so much, they didn’t bother knocking or asking around even when no one had seen him for weeks. Even when he started to smell, no one wanted to go near that door. They only found him when he failed to pay his rent on time and they went to throw him out. By then, he was just this dried out stiff. Still, you can’t ignore things, y’know. They catch up to you.”
“How is it you have so many damned friends?” Joe asked.
Bub shrugged. “Who can explain these things? Friendship is a many-splendid thing. People get together, that’s all. Just random luck and happenstance.”
“Are you still fucking high?” Joe asked.
“Enough,” Beetle said. “Pick up that damned trunk, you two. I don’t want to be here when the sun comes up.”
* * *
This is how Clyde wound up dead:
After shepherding him a few feet into the forest, Joe held him back and pointed out barbed wire running between the trees in front of them.
“Careful going over, kid,” Joe said. “Tear your sack off, you don’t watch yourself.”
“I’m thirty-two,” Clyde said and tipped his chin up.
Ten feet farther, his feet slid into the wheel-rut of an overgrown road. Beetle led them over a stream on the other side and up a stony slope that ended in a long pile of firewood. When Clyde reached the top, he saw a second field on the other end of a narrow hallway of trees. Clyde howled at the moon, sneaking away from the clouds as if from a tryst.
They came to a stop where the field poured into a long downward slope. A wide brook divided it from its mate rising on the other side. A wooden bridge led over the water, and from there a worn path stretched up to a two-story farmhouse.
“You see that, Thirty-Two?” Beetle asked, coming back at Clyde with an energy and ferocity that seemed channeled from a source that was more than Beetle could ever have been alone. His eyes alight, his arms electric wire as he gestured at the building. “You see that there? What do you think that is?”
He’d filled out within his flannel clothes, and he looked like an ancient general wearing an old uniform, remembering how to move, how to command—all the while knowing that the skill and grace he was capable of would be an easy sell on this crowd, which insulted all earnest effort in its effusiveness. But Beetle rolled over for them and played it for the groundlings, because it was the only audience he’d had.
”A house,” Clyde said, rolling up his sleeves despite the chill in the air. “Yours?”
“But whose house is it now?” He stared at Clyde, and in his peripheral vision he saw Bub and Joe grinning. They knew it was Mabel’s house—once Mabel and Beetle’s house.
Clyde pondered the question. Beetle’s voice—the conviction of it—made him feel like he’d already been told about this place—or should have been told.
“Whose house?” he repeated. “You mean it’s not yours?”
“Mine? No!” Beetle said. “That house there—that’s your house, Thirty-Two. Your new house. You know who lives there now? Mabel. Mabel lives there. Do you know Mabel?”
The name Mabel coming from Beetle’s mouth made her sound like a goddess or a witch: Mabel the Almighty; Mabel the Wicked—titles in capital letters.
“Mabel,” Clyde said somberly, nodding, thinking that was a good way to fake comprehension.
“You don’t know who Mabel is,” Beetle said. “But why should you? Why should you care about Mabel? She care about you?”
“No, I guess she—”
“That’s right! She doesn’t care about you,” Beetle said. “Now all you’ve got to do is go in there and take that house from Mabel.”
Clyde said, “What?”
Beetle, undaunted, ignored him. “Can you do that, Thirty-Two? Can you take that house from Mabel?”
“Ah, I guess,” Clyde said.
Beetle smiled. “And can Mabel stop you? Do you want to let Mabel stop you?”
“That’s right, my friend!” Beetle said. Once again, he put a hand on Clyde’s shoulder. “So. What do you think?”
Clyde hesitated, watched Beetle’s eyes for a moment, and tried to figure out the right answer. “Well, I guess I could—”
“Damn right, you could. So go do it! The door’s wide open! Do it!” Beetle shouted. “Charge, Thirty-Two!”
Clyde stood still. He looked back at them. Was it a joke? What the hell were they talking about?
Joe shoved him, and Clyde stumbled three feet down the hill. There was laughter from above, and, still unbalanced, Clyde told himself he understood. Laughed right back and took the hint gravity gave him. Soon he was running for the bridge and the brook, the wind sounding like a cheering crowd. His intoxicated mind turned Beetle’s cryptic lessons on the hill into crystalline logic, and Clyde absorbed it like information in a dream.
His? Yeah, that house was his. Who the hell was Mabel? The lights were dark in the white farmhouse, and a loose board clamored as he pounded over the bridge between the hills, the roar of the water in his ears. He saw the house—his house—all the lights dark, all of it so small he could crush it in his hand. Yeah. His. He ran faster. His confidence grew. His house. Definitely. He was thinking again of Audrey, Audrey the Wicked, Audrey the Almighty. He thought of her and the other man, and he saw them together, upstairs in Mabel’s house, and, oh Jesus, but they were doing it, just doing it doing it doing it all the time in Mabel’s house, and, oh Jesus, how could that happen? How could Mabel just sit downstairs and let them do that? And, oh fuck, oh fucking Jesus, it never stopped. Just went on-on-on, and oh-oh-oh.
He would kill the preschool teacher. That was all there was to it. He’d take back all the pretty red apples and smash them—smash all his goddamned pretty fucking apples and then smear them on Audrey. Let her see what she’d done.
Clyde put more fire in his feet, dug his toes into the hill, and pushed himself up. Clawed his way to the top. Flung the storm door open with a great racket. There were boots inside the entryway. Gum rubbers. He’d gone wading in his father’s gum rubbers once, stuffed them full of sand because he’d wanted his father, not his father’s boots. But his father hated that. Wanted his boots, not boots full of sand. Those gum rubbers in Mabel’s entryway brought back the shame of staring at his father’s back, muscles working beneath his shirt as he shook out the boots, emptying them on the ground. Then a light came on and there was Mabel—Mabel who he didn’t know; Mabel with a shotgun.
It was quiet then. Just the wind, scaring slithering drafts through the cracks in the walls. Mabel was as big as she wanted to be as she stood there in her nightgown with a head lost in tangled black and gray hair. Her mouth was an upside-down V of anger. He forgot about Audrey, forgot about the preschool teacher, and opened his mouth. Something occurred to him to say, and he pointed at his feet.
But before he spoke, she mumbled something Clyde was too drunk to understand but sounded a lot like, “My, my. Oatmeal.” Then she fired the shotgun.
Clyde Eastman died seconds before lying about everything.
* * *
“I could tell you a story,” Bub said the next time they stopped. “It’d knock your socks off, but I could still tell it. It’s about these woods here, and about how this friend of mine got rid of his wife.”
Beetle pulled his right boot off his water-pruned foot. Knocked the heel to get out a collection of small pebbles.
Joe said, “We ought to go back.”
“This guy’s wife was a real Arctic princess, if you catch my meaning. Had a vault that opened every few years when Halley’s Comet swung by, y’know?”
He laughed. Joe kicked the edge of the steamer trunk, perched on a large root above a leaf-covered pool of black water. It tipped, threatened to go over, but then fell back into place. Something—probably Clyde’s head—rolled around inside.
Thinking they hadn’t understood him, Bub said, “Vault as in a cold pussy, see? Vault, pussy. Get it?”
“We get it, you ignorant shit,” Beetle said. “Now shut up.”
“But I haven’t told you how he got rid of her so as no one ever knew what he’d done.”
“You don’t cut it out, I’m gonna get rid of you,” Beetle said. “Now shut your mouth.”
“All right, all right,” Bub said. “Just a good story is all. Wanted to share it. Jesus Christ.”
In the quiet that followed, they heard an owl and the more distant sound of the paper mill spewing fumes miles away. It was getting close to dawn. Joe rocked the corpse’s makeshift cradle. Beetle waited.
It was time to go back, but which way was that? Beetle prepared himself for the moment when he would stand back up and assure them he suddenly knew where they were. Then they’d head off again, the others still believing him for no good reason.
* * *
Watching Clyde go into the house, Beetle thought he’d pulled the joke off. That was before the blast of the shotgun extinguished their laughter, and Beetle’s gut sank to the ground by way of his cold toes. But Mabel’s subsequent screaming—screaming so excessive and shrill it could not be taken seriously—undid any momentary sobriety the murder might have caused.
“She shot him!” Bub shrieked. “Jesus Christ!”
They ran down the hill, forged up the next, stumbled into the house, and nearly tripped over Clyde’s corpse.
“Jesus, Thirty-Two,” lamented Beetle.
Joe looked through the kitchen doorway to the closed bathroom door. “Beetle. Your woman’s holed up again.”
“Goddamn that nutbag!” Beetle said. He went into the house and started pounding on the bathroom door. “Mabel! Get out here now! I want you to see what you’ve done!”
She screamed. Beetle pounded harder.
“Now, you stop that racket, you fat bitch, or I swear to God, I’ll get the axe,” he said. But it was an empty threat; the handle of the axe was broken. Could she even remember? Hands on his hips, he looked back at the dead man. “Aw, what the hell are we going to do with that?”
Awkward silence. Beetle wondered why he always had to come up with the plans.
* * *
It had taken them until dawn to find enough rocks to weigh the trunk down. The horizon brightened, and they sent the corpse to its underwater grave.
“Good riddance,” Beetle said as it sank, and that was all the burial Clyde got. Even Bub had quit talking two miles ago.
Air bubbles escaped around the edges of the trunk and through the keyhole in the front. Beetle thought he heard the head, knocking on the lid. He wondered: Do corpses float? He recalled dead fish beating the shore of some lake he’d been to, its name forgotten. Curious gaps in knowledge betrayed any attempt to pin down the specifics of his history. His memory was filled with odd fragments, framed by empty waste.
“I don’t know as we should leave him in that thing,” Bub said. “People’ll think it’s sunken treasure and drag it up, crack the sucker open.”
Beetle and Joe saw the trunk, in the middle of a swirling cloud of dead muck, four feet down in one of the deeper pools.
“Lucky them,” said Beetle.
* * *
Mabel wailed upstairs, shouting unintelligible, monosyllabic curses at them. Downstairs, in a room of corkboard, nails, sawhorses, and splintery workbenches, the three men circled Clyde’s dead body.
Beetle plugged in his table saw. “I don’t know if this is going to work,” he said.
Bub came around the corner, emerging from a smaller backroom with a steamer trunk. “I didn’t find any good tarps—they all look rotted out—but what do you think of this?”
“It’ll do,” Beetle said, wanting something to carry the pieces in other than a plastic garbage bag. He picked the dead man up by the arms, took the body to the bench.
Joe struck a third match. “I don’t think the head’ll come off that way.”
It didn’t. For the decapitation, they had to spread the corpse out on the floor again, face down.
Joe stepped down on the back of the shovel, as though breaking into tough ground. The crack of divided vertebrae. Bub told a brief anecdote about a friend who accidentally backed over his own kid in the driveway.
“Back tire going over the kid’s head,” Bub said and pointed down, “sounded just like that.”
“And how the hell would you know that?” Beetle spat, angry that someone would invent such horrible details.
* * *
Even after dumping the chest, they waded for hours. Instead of getting to any remotely stable ground, they found themselves surrounded by reed-ridden water.
“Anyone ever been in the Army?” Bub asked.
Neither Joe nor Beetle answered him.
“I think that was about the best place we could’ve buried him, y’know? Who’s gonna come through this?” Bub said.
“That’s what I said hours ago,” Joe replied. “You parrot.”
Thirty minutes later, they found a broken circle of trees jutting out of the water. One wrapped upward like a J, and it held Beetle when he sat on it. He poured the water from his boots but didn’t know why; as soon as they left, he’d be right back with waterlogged socks again.
“Ah!” said Bub triumphantly. “Dry ground! This’ll be a good spot to take a break, huh?”
“Hey, Beetle,” Joe said, winking without joy. “That water—fucking wet, no?”
“Really wet,” nodded Beetle. They laughed together. Eyed Bub with his earnest face.
Bub, confused, complained he didn’t get it.
* * *
The ground firmed up beneath them, but that didn’t dry them off. Nor did it produce any solid food, which was what Beetle wanted most of all. He thought of a ham sandwich, mustard, lettuce, melted Swiss cheese, and a hidden slice of warm tomato. It undid him. He sat down on another rock.
“You giving up?” Bub said. “Where’s your stamina? Daylight’s burning! We’ve found the land. We’re almost there.”
“Almost,” said Beetle. “Shit on your almost.”
Bub was annoyed, walked away, moaned about the refusal of some to let their spirits be lifted.
He was vindicated when they got to their feet forty minutes later, walked another fifty feet, and saw a bridge, green and rusty, stretched over running water.
Beetle watched Bub take the lead and knew that somewhere down the line, Bub would say, “One time, this friend of mine got this guy shot, then got lost burying him. Would’ve given up—only inches from a road—if I hadn’t pushed him to go on.” Bub would dig a morsel of a moral out of the whole thing. Rather than feeling good about such incorporation into the Bub Jendreau canon, Beetle felt hatred, spite, and impotence. Jealousy too. But why should he be jealous of a fool’s ability to reduce the world to gory anecdotes?
* * *
Beetle’s grandfather had raised him after the deaths of his parents when he was four. They’d been lost when their car slipped off a bridge and dived through the ice of Big Soren Pond. His grandfather always said that the cold water killed them immediately, which Beetle believed until he tried to kill his dog in the lake four winters later. He spent three hours chiseling out a hole with the dog right there beside him. When he dumped the mutt into the freezing water, she panicked, but only for a second. She scrambled out, using her sharp toenails in the jagged ice. He tried to shove her back down, but she was slippery and quicker than his eight-year-old limbs. Some part of him was shamed, blaming himself for not being enough of a killer. The dog ran back to shore and got a long stick from the woods. She waited for him. Seeing he wasn’t coming immediately, the dog took a moment to shake water off her back. Then she waited some more. Still friends.
As Beetle climbed onto the road with Bub and Joe that morning in front of the Dead Stream Dam, he remembered how cold he’d felt walking back across the ice to his dog on the shore.
Joe’s exhausted face pointed down the road toward the cabin; Bub, happy, just wanted Beetle to admit his optimism had been sensible all along.
“Well, now,” Bub said. “That’s what I call an adventure. One for the books!”
Joe clapped Beetle on the shoulder. “We’re out of it.”
Beetle turned on Joe with Bub beside him. “This whole thing,” he said, “means fuck all. You two—just a damned mess, is what this shit is. Now, for the last time, shut your damned mouths, and you,” he said to Bub, “you can burn your goddamned book!”
He hiked back to his cabin. The two behind him bickered and followed at a distance.
What bothered Beetle was that he couldn’t recall if he’d played fetch with the dog after she escaped. He remembered only that he hadn’t been able to kill her, let alone trade her life for the dead he wanted back.
She, and now they, continued on—alive, despicable, and with friends only because murder and death hadn’t quite broken their way.