SHORT STORY | BLUEBERRY HILL
One summer, while I'd been playing hooky from junior high school back in Jackson, I found a crate full of stolen Aztec coins buried in a bayou over in Concordia Parish, and that following summer, I found a stolen dinosaur skull buried in a bone yard in Greenville, so you'd think I could find the damned rut of a road that leads to Blueberry Hill: but I can't. Now that my young bride Angie's gone missing, I can't even find my way to the damned bathroom without a compass and a map.
There's a rabid pack of wild dogs guarding the back country now. I can see them hovering like the ghosts of dead soldiers in the swamp willows that grow along the weed-choked ditches. The black crows lining up in sinister rows along the fences tremble in the heat and stare at me with dead eyes and hearts so hard I doubt they even beat. I've got an old Bourbon-stained map, but all the roads on it either lead nowhere or somewhere even less interesting. I could be anywhere for all I know.
The rusted iron sky glows gold and tangerine, and the a dying oak tree casts deepening shadows against the vine-tangled underbrush. Trapped in the muddy silence, I begin to wonder if there really is a road that leads to Blueberry Hill. That's how it is down here in the scorching heart of another broiling summer, right before the hurricanes blow in from the Gulf. It gets you wondering if maybe you're not quite right in the head. Makes you think Mississippi isn't a place, but a thing.
A blast of hot air shoots across the path, throwing me off track, then creeps off crazy and slow, leaving a twirling dust devil in it's wake. Beaten down by the withering heat, I just ignore it, and God knows the rain's no relief. The wild dogs slink along behind me as sullen as hit men on their way home from a fresh kill, their teeth still dripping with blood. If they're waiting for me to make my first mistake, they don't have to wait long.
I drag my antique Colt .45 Peacemaker out of my boot and fire a round at the lead dog; he whirls to his left like he saw it coming, already in motion, whining as the shot screams above his head and whistles off through the black trees.
That was stupid. I may as well hire a sky writer and let everybody know where I am: as if they don't already know. It's a nasty bitch, this wind. Even the clouds have left town, and the birds all seem to be singing off key. All I want to do is to find Angie and go. I know she's out there somewhere; the vague trace of her scent lingers in the swaying trees, but it's faint, watered down by the humidity and a sweet touch of sweat. Odds are they've got her stashed in the same old wreck of a tumbling down horse barn where she and I used to spend all those sultry summer afternoons together, rolling around naked in the long cool shadows of Blueberry Hill. It's just like the twisted dirt bags to take her there.
The hundred year old white oak tree I'd found on my crumpled old hand-drawn map is still here. The cow trails still meet at Hunter's Mill, and the suckering root strangled headstones in the bone yard beside the old Brooker's Fort trail are still standing. But no road to Blueberry Hill. And no Angie. It's too late to go back to D'Iberville tonight. Setting up a quick camp, I crack open my last bottle of water. I left my poncho in my truck, and only brought enough food for two meals. It's going to be a long night. I'd thought this would all be over by now. So did the dogs apparently, and they don't seem too happy about it, loitering around back there in the sumac, hiding from the rain. Then the night comes in and drapes itself across the damp tips of the cypress trees, snuffing out what's left of the crimson light. Now that I let them know I'm armed, I drop my Colt in a Ziploc bag and bury it in the woods just off the trail.
Suddenly I hear rustling in the black gum trees, and when I spin around, I see what appears to be Sasquatch, lumber out of the treacherous shadows and dangle a Smith & Wesson howitzer the size of a Ford truck in front of my face, but it's only Angie's older brother, Sammy Rats, my junior high school partner-in-crime. "Hey there, dick head," he says, like he thinks we're two long lost Confederate buddies just back from Chancellorsville. "Long time, no see.
He hands me a half empty bottle of Old Grand Dad. "No thanks, Sammy," I tell him, "I only get shit faced with my friends. Hope you don't mind."
"Suit yourself, you toad sucking wimp. There ain't no more where that came from."
He's holding the bottle in one hand and his .357 howitzer against my forehead with the other. It's all he can do to decide whether to aim the gun or the bottle at me. I don’t take a drink, because the way I figure it, the faster Sammy gets crocked, the faster he's going to let his guard down and slip up: and sooner or later Sammy always slips up. As if reading my mind he says, "Don't count on me getting so hammered I can't jam a round up your butt if I need to, shit-for-brains." You ain't as smart as you think."
Lucky for me, I'm smart enough to know that Sammy's not only a lapsed twelve-stepper, but a hideously obese, cold-hearted psychopath, and I know better than to push him. I doubt he's slept since he'd heard I'm coming. "Where's Angie," I ask him, as casually as I can, trying to tweak down the tension a bit.
"Wouldn't you fucking like to know?" he slurs, pointing the bottle at my face.
"Well, actually, I would like to know. That's why I asked you where she is. Are these questions too tough for you, Sammy ?"
"You always were a wise ass, dip shit. I have no idea why I've let you live so long. But it's me who's holding the cannon this time, and I'd suggest you keep your smart mouth shut. Now shoulder your pansy-assed Girl Scout pack full of Barbie Dolls and move your sorry ass. It's a long drag to where we're going."
I know where we're going, but Sammy doesn't know I do. We're going to Blueberry Hill. As least that's what I'm counting on. Sammy's not the brightest rock in the box, but he is street smart, which makes him as unpredictable as he is dangerous. I'd known going in, that the odds of me catching him and his two brain-impaired brothers, Floyd and Lester off guard were long at best, and having Sammy lead me to Blueberry Hill had pretty much been my back up plan from the get go. I'll deal with him and the other two Stooges later, assuming I can find the gun I'd buried.
Angie isn't all that far away. I'd recognize the scent of her skin anywhere: lavender, blackberry jam, and sopping wet pine needles. It makes my dick hard just thinking about it. For a minute, I think I can actually feel the sticky warmth of her, simmering in the wet Gulf breeze, but I can forget about getting lucky tonight, because I'm sure by now she's madder than a wet cat, wondering where the hell I've been.
Bloody hair, chattering teeth, and the sawing of bones: violence has always come easy to these burned out Guicano brothers, and Sammy's the pick of the litter. He's always been a bloated sloth, and God knows he's whacko enough to kill for a thrill, but because he's not quite bright enough to figure out how to get away with it, he hasn't actually pulled the trigger yet: but from the deranged look in his eye, I'd say he's about to make an exception out of me. He'll never forgive me for taking off for Reno with Angie and the money the boys stole during our last year of junior high over in Hattiesburg from a guy they'd thought was a nobody racket boy burnout, but turned out to be a Dixie mob bag man from Biloxi. I wasn't actually there when they cut up the guy; I was just the money man who's job it was to hide the cash in a hole so deep it would take an experienced crew of gravediggers and a 310SG John Deere backhoe dig it up. Even if I had been there, I doubt I could stopped all that stupid damned John Wayne bullshit Sammy pulled. Served the primate right, getting sent up to the State Pen at Parchman for five years. The hot-tempered son-of-a-bitch still blames me for not going along on the job. Says if he'd had some half-assed intelligent backup, he wouldn't have had to knife the disrespectful guinea prick when he'd refused to give up the cash. Just one more thing he'll never forgive me for.
A lot of people doubt Blueberry Hill even exists anymore, except for maybe Fats Domino, but after Lee punked out up at Appomattox, it became known as Quantrill Hill and was a hideout for Johnny Reb holdouts who had no home to go home to after the war. Sammy and I once found a box of ball cartridges, a tin of rancid coffee, some petrified hardtack, a blood-stained bridle, and all kinds of other rebel shit buried up there. But now, all there is up there is a tangled jungle of tulip trees and rotten sweetgum fruit. It's been years since I've seen the place, and it would take me ten more to find it on my own. Sammy had always been the tracker on our sorry crew, and if letting him lead there by like a dog on a leash with a gun buried between my shoulder blades is the only way I'm going to get there, then so be it, because I know that's where Angie is.
I still have no idea what I was doing running with Sammy and his hoodlum pals back then. In the summer mostly, after I'd finished baseball practice, I'd hide out with them in the woods around Blueberry Hill after the heat had come down hard on them for tossing cherry bombs at a police station, or TP'ing some Army Recruiting Center or National Guard post, or pulling some other stupid stunt or other. We were all bored and crazy bastards back then. Our parents were all part-timers at best, and rarely even asked where we'd been, even after we'd been gone all night. Thanks to sports, I was the only one of the boys who wasn't headed for reform school or prison, but even so, I still couldn't stop myself from taking all my adolescent anger and frustration out on anything we could blow up, burn down, or steal. It's an honest to God miracle that I'm still sucking oxygen.
After Angie grew up and got so damned pretty, things changed fast for everybody. And once I started slipping and sliding around with her on the sly, buried up to my nose in those savage black curls of hers, we decided that, if we were ever going to leave the life behind, we'd best put Mississippi in our rear view mirror and never look back. Three days later we arrived in Reno. We'd never even been there before. We told nobody where we were going, we just changed out names, got two new near-perfect sets of ID, and went, just like that.
A year later, after I'd graduated from Reno High, the only job I could get was as a trucker trainee, hauling beef and poultry coast-to-coast for a Canadian livestock transporter. But fortunately, my brainiac wife Angie got herself a great gig as a systems programmer at the Nugget Casino in Sparks. But it only took about a month or two of listening to pigs, goats, cows and chickens screaming their lungs out, for me to realize how much I missed her, and when I got home late one Sunday night, I just came right out and asked her to marry me: and damned if she didn't say yes.
We kept a low profile after that. Angie got an even better job with a company that makes bingo machines, and I enrolled at the University of Nevada-Reno. After I got my degree, I couldn't find a job anywhere and went back to hauling livestock and groceries for Land & Cattle. Angie and I had been hoping that enough time had passed for her brothers to have cooled off a bit, and that maybe they'd forgotten about that bag man money. But we weren't fooling anybody; we knew how much they boys loved holding grudges, and how much they enjoyed eating their revenge cold. And once they got pissed, they stayed pissed.
Angie was barely nineteen when we'd left Mississippi, and even as tough as I thought I was, I knew I couldn't keep those inbred freaks away from her much longer. I heard from an old junior high football buddy back in Jackson that as mad as they still were at her, they still wanted her back home, almost as much as they wanted the key I had to the bus depot locker, which I'd kept more as an insurance policy than anything else. I can still remember how shocked I'd been when Sammy made the drop and I picked the lock on the bag man's solid steel attaché case. I'd never seen that much money in one place before in my life, even in the movies. We'd had no idea. I didn't have the heart to tell Sammy and the boys that, by the time we were supposed to meet up and split the money, I'd already spent a quarter of it on a wedding ring for Angie and another quarter of it on a down payment on a condo on South Gulf Shores.
Who knows what kind of semi-incestuous bond those boys thought they had with Angelina or just how mad they really were at me for not asking their permission to marry her and then running off to Reno with her. Not one of them had ever had a full time job, and their parents had both recently died in a car wreck outside of Natchez, and I guess Angie was all they thought they had left. She and I kept hoping that they'd forgive us eventually, but as long a I still had the key to the locker, we knew they never would. Sure enough, after finishing up a week long cross-country cattle run, and returning home to Reno one steam-heated summer, Angie was gone. Her suitcase, her purse, and all her clothes were still there, but no Angie.
Floyd slinks out of the woods first, looking like a cat caught with a canary in his throat. His mute brother Lester is close behind, stomping on his brother's heels. "Hey there, Shitface," Floyd snaps at me. "Long time no see."
I've used so many names by now I can't even remember half of them, and as far as I'm concerned, Shitface is as good as any. I'm surprised Floyd doesn't just pop a cap in my back and get it over with. He's always wanted to. Sammy never trusted him and had always kept him on a short leash -and as far away from the action as possible. And Floyd knew he did. He may be a tad dead in the head, but even he knew he was no John Dillinger. On the other hand, even though I was an outsider, Sammy trusted me and made me his second in command: and Floyd resented the hell out of that. Just to spite me, the sick dickhead sliced off a railroad agent's trigger finger during a small time mail theft caper the boys pulled, because the scared shitless twit wouldn't jump when Floyd said jump. So Floyd went to work on his finger for no other reason than to blame it on me, and when Sammy found out about that, he never took him on another job. And of course, Floyd wasted no time trying to square things with me: "My brothers and me stay brothers, no matter what," he'd barked, like the pint-size Chihuahua mutt he was. "You're not even blood and we treated you like one of our own. I don't know what barn you were born in, but we don't steal other people's sisters and then turn our back on family. We stick together, and don't you forget it!"
And off he went, furrowing through the underbrush on his tiny feet like a gopher, to scheme up what could only be a half-baked plan to get even with me for him losing face. Even from a hundred yards away, I could smell smoke coming from the gears grinding in his half-a-brain.
Fortunately for me, Floyd had the attention span of a common house fly, and shortly after the bag man job, he ended up doing another five-to-ten year stretch at Parchman for robbing a Big Star Supermarket, after trying to escape in a taxi. Needless to say, intelligence does not swim on the male side of the Guicano gene pool. Sammy's the only one of the boys who can count to five without using his fingers, but even he gets confused when he tries counting to ten.
Lester, however; for all his physical afflictions, had always been as loyal as a puppy and had gotten us out of a dozen or more slick spots, and we could always count on him to cover our backs in a pinch. I guess that's why I'd always felt some kind of misguided loyalty to him, unlike his chemistry-experiment-gone-wrong brother Floyd, who the rest of us had basically carried from that start. But until Angie started coming around my place in Jackson, looking so hot and sweet in those yellow peek-a-boo summer dresses she used to wear, I never dreamed that anything could have ever come between all of us like it did.
And now, here we all are together again in a sea green carpeted cut that a thousand years of neglect and erosion have slashed into the side of Blueberry Hill, and even after all these years, there's something about this place that seems almost human. Off in the woods, the dogs are keeping an eye on us, their golden wolf eyes glistening in the dying light, probably wondering what four dip shits like us are doing mucking around on their turf in this evil heat. Even so, it's eerie how beautiful it is here in the late summer when the shadows do their sexy little soft shoe dances, and the dew beneath the dogwood trees shimmies in the morning mist, but considering the plethora of generic defects the boys have to deal with, it's only a matter of time before things go to straight to hell. I can see in Floyd's eyes that's he's still steaming, and judging by the smoke coming out of the homicidal little troll's ears, he obviously believes he's finally going to get his shot at me. "Get the fuck out of my way, Sammy," he snarls at his older brother, flapping his .41 Magnum in the breeze. "It's my turn to light this pussy up and see what he's got. Turn him loose, Goddamnit, I've waited long enough!"
Sammy brushes Floyd back with a flick of his massive wrist and looks over at me quizzically, like a death row guard, bewildered as to why his dead man walking prisoner isn't peeing his pants, considering the fact that he's about to get smoked, but I see no reason to worry; you die, you die. Why make a big deal out of it? I've been to enough funerals to know there's no sense stewing over the big sleep anymore. We all go sometime, and without Angie, I figure now's as good of a time as any. But I'm in no hurry; I've still got cards to play.
Lester's sitting over there on a rotten magnolia log, carving away on his fingernails with a butcher knife, humming Fats Domino's version of Blueberry Hill to himself. He looks like a used car salesman who sells lemons to suckers for a living in his smoked up sunglasses and his shady silence. He cracks a smile and gives me a conspiratorial wink. He's always reminded me of an unnamed planet, circling around out there in space, dancing in and out of sight. He must drive astronomers crazy trying to figure out what he's doing up there. I've got no doubt that he's capable of killing me out of sheer curiosity, but he and I have never had a problem. Always the reliable muscle and trustworthy backup, he did his job and kept to himself. I stayed out of his way, and he stayed out of mine. Unfortunately, Floyd's losing patience fast and Sammy knows it. "OK," Sammy says to me, "here's the deal. We've got Angie, and you've got the key to the bus depot locker. Seems like we got the makings of a deal here, right?"
"Not exactly," I tell him.
As long as they've got Angie, I'm not about to give them shit. Once I give Sammy the key to the locker, and he gets his chubby paws on the bag man's cash, then what? The concept of honor among thieves with this bunch of retarded lab rats is a shit sandwich; it ain't going down easy. As leaky as their brain pans are, they all have memories like elephants, and sooner or later, they'll want a piece of me: but I'm not walking away from this. It's got to end here. I need Angie and they need the bus depot key. I can hear the dogs snickering in the background; "Dumb shit peckerhead rednecks."
Floyd's foaming at the mouth and leers at me. The minute Sammy turns his back, he rolls back on his skinny haunches and lets fly with his .41 Mag, squeezing off rounds so fast I barely have time to hit the dirt. The first few rounds sail high and wide, giving me a chance to dive for the safety of a sycamore tree whose roots form a perfect temporary bunker. After emptying the rest of his chamber at me in about three seconds flat, the dumb shit primate just stands there gawking at me like he's got a load in his little boy drawers. Crawling back down the trail, I finally rip the antique Colt .45 out of the Ziploc bag I'd buried it in, and fire a round at Floyd's bony red face before he can reload. Miraculously, I hit him in the leg, but it's all fat and gristle, nothing fatal. First time I've hit anything I was aiming at in my life. You'd think I'd shot his dick off, the way he's screaming, but he still won't go down.
I dive for a ravine and crawl through the flowery spikes of lavender and buttonbush that cling to the banks of a restless little stream that's wandering along like it knows where it's going. I wish to hell I did. I can see Sammy, sweating like a sumo wrestler, hobbling towards a stand of river birch trees, making a play for higher ground. Floyd's limping along behind, whimpering like a little school girl. I've only got two more shells in my chamber and can't find risk firing wild.
Moving fast along the sandy stream bed, I nearly trip over Angie, who tugs on my sleeve, and leads me towards a stand of beech and ironwood trees on the opposite bank. We don't say anything. We don't need to.
Protected by a line of long black shadows, we decide to we decide to make a run for Blueberry Hill, but when we hear footsteps in the woods behind us, we belly flop behind a thick growth of holly that's snarling up the roots of a cherry laurel. When I see Floyd pop up over the bank of the stream, I unleash another shot in the general vicinity of his balls. My damned gun kicks like a mule, but astonishingly, I manage to nail him in the ear. Annie Oakley would have married me, she'd have be so impressed. When Sammy comes stomping out of the woods like a pregnant walrus, I fire another round at him. Fortunately, agility is not his long suit and the round cuts a chunk of fresh meat out of his right shoulder. He drops his piece and slumps down in the mud. He's hurt but he'll live. I don't want to kill Sammy, but fuck Floyd. He'll take whatever I give him. I've got a bead on Lester too, but cradle the hammer. Like I said, I've got no beef with him.
Angie grabs me by the arm and drags me down the same narrow dirt road that I couldn't have found earlier if my life had depended on it. She could find her way to Blueberry Hill on a pitch black night in a hurricane naked, which, come to think of it, she has, and might have to again if the wind picks up any.
We're just about free and clear when, out of nowhere, Lester rises up like an unholy apparition out of the ghostly green shadows, and before I can so much as twitch, he casually rests the cold hard muzzle of his Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic against the side of my head. Smiling the enigmatic smile of the dead, he backs off a foot, and in slow motion, shoves his piece into his pants pocket and sticks his hand out. I smile back and hand him the key to the bus depot locker that I'd duck taped to the inside of my shirt. He takes it and flips us a little Queen of England wave before vanishing into a grove of swamp dogwood trees. Lester says more with that one move than most men do with a thousand words.
"Hell of a way to get my brother's blessing, "Angie says, flashing me her beautiful, heartbreaker smile. Then we're gone. And this time, we plan on staying gone.