What It Was Turned Ollie Queer
Lamar kicked a cedar stump into the glowing coals. A swarm of swirling orange embers mingled with the stars. We watched them, in awe, just as we did decades ago when we were kids, as they meandered and faded. They were fire and brimstone to some of my companions. I still saw spaceships and shooting stars.
On such a mild October night we hardly needed a fire. Still, bugs tend to linger late into Fall in the middle Georgia Piedmont. The prevailing theory held that smoke kept flying pests at bay and a few of our fellow hunters supplemented the shield with cigars. They all had lived by this principle for 40 years or more and none would contest it now. A weightier matter hung over us. Nobody really wanted to talk about it.
Evidently, Lamar could only bear the silence for as long as it took to finish a tall boy. "They sure take long enough settin' up a damn tent." He spat a wad of viscous brown goo onto a fireside boulder where it sputtered and bubbled. More gobs followed from various directions. The results were no less delightful.
I coaxed a stub of log into the heart of the flames with my boot. "Nobody knows what they are or are not doing. Ain't nobody's business anyhow."
Lamar grunted. "You got a point there, Brantley. Maybe they just got a little decoratin' to do."
Deacon Lassiter spoke in the wheezy bass of a leaky pipe organ. "You know damn well what they doin' back there. It's a damnable disgrace is what it is."
At sixty-two, Deacon had twenty years on me. When he went into preacher mode and I had a few beers, I often struggled to maintain a respectful tone. Sometimes, I just had to let the pretense go. "Aw, Deacon! Ain't you been gettin' no lovin'?"
"Don't you toy with me, Brantley. That smile of yours may make you good at selling trucks, but it don't fool me a bit." He took a nip from a silver flask. "I been gettin' my share with my lawfully-wedded wife who is, in accordance with the tenets of Scripture, a woman!" He tipped up the flask once more and eyed us all with a righteous glare.
Hunt camp was the only place we knew the Deacon to drink. When he did, he chose straight Kentucky bourbon and not in moderation. He claimed it necessary to confront his demon once a year so he could triumph over it again. It was the one thing, he sometimes confessed, that kept him from the clergy proper.
"Now, Deacon, I've heard you say it yourself, we're all just God's children, whatever way He made us."
The white-haired man turned his face to me and raised one eyebrow. "Brantley, what's going on back yonder," he jerked his head in the direction of Ollie's campsite, "is an abomination unto the Lord."
"Who are we to judge?"
Deacon Lassiter's chunky frame went from a slouch to church-pew upright. He then stepped up on the cooler that served as his outdoor pulpit. His jowls shook as he stabbed a finger in the air and demonstrated the vocal skill inherited from his daddy, a full-fledged Baptist preacher. "I'll tell you who we are! We are the Turkey Bottom Hunt Club, by God!" With a steadying hand from a couple of pals, he stepped down and reclaimed his seat. "You may want to review your Leviticus, Brother Brantley."
Wallace Nesbit awoke from a seated beer nap. Working his mouth and jaw at what must have been a foul taste indeed, he scratched at the six-day beard that at best marked the date of his last shower. Having missed the underlying thrust of the conversation, he resurrected an old contentious issue. "We gotta change our name, man! I can't wear my club shirt up to the Wal-Mart no more. Other day, this little girl made fun of me in front of my kids and then when I'm buying ammo, she kep' hollerin' Turkey Bottom! Turkey Bottom! and shaking her rear end like a cheerleader. It was fuckin' embarrassing."
That triggered the usual senseless arguments on the origin of the name, what it meant, which deceased members came up with it and how they would forever spook deer if it changed. The word tradition came up so often a stranger might think he had walked into a synagogue. My bladder could not wait for the debate to run its course. I drifted off to the woods.
While anointing some knee-high weeds, I heard company off to my left. Lamar eased off a bubbly fart as his own flow commenced. "Tell you what, it ain't right."
"Damn right it ain't right! We got fifty T-shirts printed up. That was the minimum and we can't send 'em back."
"I don't mean the club name, Brant. I mean Ollie and his little friend Pablo."
"Whatever. It just makes me ill."
"Leave it go, man! Ollie's a founding member. He's paid his dues and then some. It's his life and all."
Lamar grunted as he struggled with his fly buttons and belt. He needed to face the fact he had a fifty-two-inch waist or lose the lower half of his body to gangrene. "Brant, your daddy and mine were founding members, just like Ollie. Rest of these jokers come in as friends, kin or friends of kin. Never been no equal opportunity or diversity or any such shit about it. Best thing to do would be to get Ollie to buy us out so we can get some other place."
"You know he can't do that. That divorce like to ruint him."
"In more ways than one, it seems. You know, for a goddamn lawyer, he sure got the shit end of the stick on that deal."
"Yeah, but he wanted to see his kids were took care of and avoid all that mess in court."
"Well, plumbing ain't as complicated as the law, but I could've done a better job. He practically gave away his fortune."
"Maybe so, but don't forget, Lamar, he's still the same man who kept our folks out of jail or hock a time or two."
"He'll still have to answer to the Lord."
"So shall we all."
We said no more until we reached the edge of the clearing. Lamar caught me by the elbow and spoke just above a whisper. "You ever wonder what it was?"
"What what was?"
"What it was turned Ollie queer?"
"To tell you the truth, Lamar, ain't none my business—or yours."
"The hell it ain't! It's every member's business! We're talking about tradition!"
There was that word again. Neither of us whispered anymore.
"For God's sake, Lamar! The club dates back a whopping twelve years! We ain't had but two U.S. presidents since then. I'm still driving the same truck and you've got the same bloodhound you had when it was founded."
"He wadn't but a puppy then."
Such irrelevance was so typical of Lamar I let it go and tried to state my case simply. "The point is we are not the Sons of the Confederacy or the Shriners or some such. We're just a bunch of guys who like to hunt and fish. We pool our money, share the land and everybody gets a few bucks, toms and lunkers. Long as everybody hunts by the rules, nothing else should matter."
"But you think whoever puts up the most dough can carry on like he owns the place?"
"Lamar, do you have ready access to $80,000? That's how much of a share Ollie has in this camp."
"Damn it, Brant! You know that's not what this is about!"
"You brung it up."
"Look! I got two kids in college, one in jail and a wife who likes goddamn show dogs. Don't mean I gotta hunt at fuckin' Homo Acres!"
"Hunt anywhere you like, Lamar. Just keep in mind our option to buy the tract next door expires next year. Club treasury can cover it unless we have to buy Ollie out. In that case, everybody will have to come up with, oh, eight grand apiece. How you think that'll go over?"
"Be a little tight for some. We could let 'em finance some of it or something."
"How do you think that'll go over with their wives?"
Lamar sighed. "Be about like the time Duane bought that bass buggy without telling his old lady."
"Exactly! When's the last time you saw him? When you reckon he last saw his nuts?"
Those around the fire pit listened to us quietly. Each man was either nodding or shaking his head. I knew where each stood on the Ollie issue. Opinions ranged from somewhere around Oh, no! to Hell no! We were unanimous in wishing the issue had never arisen. Trouble was, Ollie's ex-wife had a big mouth, as did the other club members' wives. No coming out party or embossed announcement with tissue paper was necessary. That morning, when Ollie showed up with his young, dark-haired, cabana-boy-fit friend, everybody knew the story.
Deacon Lassiter gave the alert. "Looks like they've finished setting up camp. They're headed this way."
A solitary beam played along the ground and through the trees on the wooded slope above us. Two men. One flashlight. I was relieved to see that they were not holding hands when they emerged from the darkness. It was still so odd seeing Ollie's familiar backpack on Paco's shoulder.
"Evening, gentlemen." There was no shame or apology in Ollie's voice and his gaze met that of each us who looked up. We acknowledged him with a sort of group mumble, neither fanfare nor overt hostility.
I had not seen Ollie for a couple of years but he somehow looked different from what I remembered, maybe even younger than the sixty he claimed, though I knew he was bald under his brown bucket hat. He kept his short gray beard neatly trimmed, but not in a way that suggested he paid someone to maintain it. In the flickering firelight, I saw no obvious signs of surgery or skin-tightening injections, but his whole demeanor had changed. He possessed a serenity that he lacked in the days around his divorce.
Ollie and Paco took their places on a single cooler; not unusual but for their sitting side by side. The accepted manner for two men sharing a cooler was to sit at opposite ends, back to back or spanning the corners, allowing at least a half a foot gap. Several guys took note, exchanged glances and looked away. A few wandered off without a word, taking their ice chests with them.
The Deacon rocked on his seat, as if winding himself up for a tirade. I tried heading him off. "So, Ollie! Where the hell you been?"
Ollie gave Paco a look that made me want to retract the question. "There was a very young moon in the west at sunset. A mere sliver. It took us a while to find it."
Unsure if I was missing some kind of gay code, I was reluctant to inquire further. Wallace lacked my inhibition. He had accumulated enough tobacco juice on the red stubble on his chin to show he was a little too drunk to spit properly. He remained in his warm, effusive phase. "Tell you what, Ollie, you done a real good job on them T-shirts. That deer looks so real I practically wanna shoot my wife when she's wearing one."
"Thank you, Wallace. That is a high compliment, indeed, but I would feel terrible if anything happened to your little Suzy."
"I'm serious, man! I mean, that hog and that tom, what with the leaves and all, I mean, it's fucking beautiful."
Ollie dismissed the praise with a humble wave. "Well, I just got in touch with my inner faggot and let go!"
All but Deacon Lassiter joined in a laugh.
Lamar spoke with a pained grin. "Aw, man! Do you have to put it that way?"
Paco reached into the old canvas knapsack that had been a part of Ollie as long as I'd known him. He pulled out two bottles of some German beer with a name I would not even attempt to pronounce. At least they weren't sharing a bottle or, God forbid, drinking white wine.
Paco held the bottles out as if presenting a bouquet. Ollie pried off the caps with his knife. "We don't wish to make any of you uncomfortable. We're just looking for some peace, quiet and a chance to nab some venison. Isn't that right, Paco?"
He responded with a smile, a nod, and a thumbs-up gesture that I interpreted as I'm on board with you, Señor but I don't speak a fucking word of English.
For the most part, Paco kept his gaze fixed on the fire. He paid attention to the conversation, but took care not to stare, unless Ollie was talking. In that case, he nodded as if listening to the wisest man in the world. He looked wary when anybody else spoke, though I had no doubt he could outrun or out-fight anybody there. He could probably climb a tree like a monkey.
I put such thoughts aside and resolved to introduce some civility. "Hell, Ollie, we're honored to have you here. Same goes for you, Paco." I looked to my companions for backing.
Lamar and Wallace nodded and mumbled something that sounded supportive, but there were no identifiable words. Deacon Lassiter eyed this one-world, everybody-gets-a-trophy, do-your-thing crowd with disdain and struggled to his feet. "Well, you all have a pleasant night. I come here to get me a deer." He scanned the assembly as if he had just issued a challenge.
Ollie nudged a chunk of fatwood into the fire pit with his walking stick. "We all come here for the hunting, Deacon, but there's always more to it than just killing a deer."
"Whatever else you come for, I don't want to know about."
"Fair enough, Deacon." Ollie pulled a purple sack out of his pack. "I was hoping you'd join me in a taste of Crown Royal."
Deacon Lassiter had a weakness for that particular spirit and shared many a bottle with Ollie in years past. After a brief pause, he sat back down and held out his favorite mug, the one with the outline of a fish. "I ain't drinkin' out of the bottle."
"I wouldn't dream of it. That would be barbaric. I was counting on you to help me finish this one off. I need the cloth bag for my shells."
Lamar snorted. "You still bothering with reloads, Ollie?"
"Now, Lamar, understand it's an art akin to napping arrowheads. You might say it's a survival skill."
That was a wake-up call to Wallace, a self-styled survivalist who thrived on conspiracy theories and rumors of the coming collapse of society. "Shit! I can survive. I got plenty of ammo. Things get bad, I keep a couple of rounds for myself."
Lamar loved to toy with Wallace. "Think it'll take two to kill yourself?"
"I might be drunk. Could miss that first shot."
Deacon Lassiter did not look amused and locked his gaze on Ollie. "Suicide is a sin. That's a Scriptural fact."
All chatter ceased.
Ollie poked at the coals. "You know, Deacon, there are many sins that I have committed and probably more that I will commit before I die. Does it matter so much if the next thing I do or the last thing I do is a sin?"
Deacon Lassiter pursed his lips and held out his mug for a refill. Ollie generously complied.
"Depends on whether or not you gain the forgiveness of the Lord beforehand. Of course, if you just drop dead in the middle of some abominable act, you are shit out of luck."
"Matter of chance then. Sounds a lot like gambling."
Deacon Lassiter rose like a missile, spilling a good half of his whiskey into the fire, raising a pillar of blue flame. "I am not going to debate you on whether or not drinking or gambling or smoking are sins. These things are bullshit compared to...sodomy!" Righteous as he was in his anger, the man was not so steady on his feet. Air wheezed from his cooler as he sat back down.
"Sorry you feel that way, Deacon." Ollie replaced the spilled liquor. "I pray for the day of your enlightenment."
"Better you pray for your own salvation." Deacon Lassiter rose again, downed his liquor and lurched forward. It was hard to tell if it was an act of aggression or just a misstep.
I caught him by the arm. "Now, Deacon, we don't need no trouble."
He regarded me as an old soldier might a traitorous son. "You listen to me, Brantley Jacobs, your daddy was a God-fearing man and I have no quarrel with you. Just know this—there will be a reckoning." Shaking loose from my grasp, he stumbled a few more steps, corrected course and proceeded in the direction of his campsite.
Paco looked on with a thin smile that disappeared when he noticed I was looking at him. I circled a finger around my ear a couple of times to convey what I hoped meant crazy in Ecuador. Paco mimicked the gesture and mouthed what I assumed was the word loco. I nodded. It was our first meaningful conversation.
Lamar shook his head. "For a church-going man he can sure put away the whiskey."
"Don't ever forget, no matter how much he puts away, his faith is unshakeable. I respect that." Ollie held his bottle up to the firelight. "Looks like this one's had it and Paco needs to get some sleep after that flight from Quito."
Paco pressed his hands together, laid the side of his face against them, and closed his eyes. That brought a few uneasy chuckles as he and Ollie walked back into the dark woods.
When they were gone, the hardcore drinkers and philosophers numbered three: Lamar, Wallace and me. We sipped beers for a while and cleared the sullied air with talk about hot women, unruly children and NASCAR.
After half an hour or so, Wallace suddenly changed the topic, speaking his mind a little too loudly. "I don't know about that boy Pancho."
"It's Paco." I swore that would be the last time I corrected anybody on this point.
"Yeah, whatever. Them motherfuckers come here, take our welfare, eat our damn pets and won't even learn fucking American."
Liquor seemed to have put him in touch with his inner bigot. I knew we would have to roll with it for a while, but I felt a duty to debate him. "Eat our pets? For God's sake, Wallace, he's Ecuadorian, not Korean."
"Yeah! And that goddamn Ko-ran! Damn old Bible beat the hell out of that shit."
I imagined the cartoon image running through Wallace's mind. Two books battling it out, one with a burnoose and scimitar, the other with a halo and cross. "Wallace, Ecuador is a country in South America. Folk there don't eat dogs or cats. Most all are Catholic, not Muslim."
Wallace had passed surly long ago. His nose described tiny circles as if spinning some imaginary flywheel that allowed him to stay upright. "Alright, Brantley, I don't want to deny you an opportunity to show us how much fucking education you got. Tell me, what the fuck do Ecwademians eat?"
I had to give that some thought, not necessarily for the correct answer, just something that sounded plausible. All I could recall from my two years of junior college was that a good amount of cocaine came our way from that part of the world. I knew of no recipes calling for it.
Ollie's voice came from the darkness. "They are fond of ceviche. Fish marinated in citrus juice. Delicious. They also eat many of the native mammals, including the capybara, the world's largest rodent." My rescuer came into view bearing a small purple sack.
"Well, thank you, Ollie, for that bit of enlightenment." Wallace pointed at me. "You have once again shown that our Brantley here is a four-star dumbass."
I could not let that go by. "I can still kick your ass, sumbitch!" I gave Wallace a light poke in the shoulder.
Wallace brought his fists up and planted his feet in classic pugilist style, for a moment free of the earlier sway. It might be a little act but I had seen it turn real on occasion. Drunk or sober, Wallace had a way of finding fights and knew how to get by in one even before he went to prison.
Lamar stepped between us. "Boys! Fightin' is specifically prohibited by club rules. Besides, ain't nobody here sober enough to drive either of y'all to the hospital."
Ollie held his bottle up high, letting the wavering light of the fire playing off the ornate glass. "Anybody who throws a punch at anybody else gets no Crown."
We took our seats like well-trained dogs. Awaiting my measure of whiskey, I shook a menacing finger at Wallace. "There will be a reckoning!"
He spewed his mouthful onto the fire. It was unlike Wallace to waste good liquor and I stared in wonder as he got his breathing under control, then busted out laughing anew. "You done stepped in it now, Brant!"
I knew to look over my shoulder. Sure enough, there stood Deacon Lassiter, staring at me like a hanging judge. He shuffled over to his cooler, shaking his head as he lowered his ass with care. "I was awakened from my slumber by the distinct sound of a bottle of Crown Royal being withdrawn from a velvet sack."
Ollie snapped to attention and nearly filled the proffered mug. "There you go, Deacon. I, too, was unable to sleep. That Paco snores like an alpaca."
If the Deacon was put off by this too-familiar reference to another man's sleeping habits, he masked it with a show of savoring the liquor. "I thank you, Ollie, and apologize for my earlier lack of manners. I prayed on the matter and decided that your salvation is between you and God."
We all settled in for a solid round of second wind drinking. I tried to get things off to a good start and make amends. "Glad you rejoined us, Deacon. Ollie here was just telling us about South American cuisine."
Wallace jumped right in. "What in the hell would possess a man to go off to a place populated with cannibals and snake worshippers?"
Ollie considered and addressed the question with undue gravity. "After my divorce, I was a man adrift. My faith left me and I was curious about systems of belief that differed from those of my progenitors."
"Are you a fucking space alien?"
"Forgive me, Wallace. I was referring to my ancestors. They were Baptist back as far as we could trace in this country. I knew we were of Irish stock, on both mama and daddy's sides, which suggests we were Catholic originally. Somewhere along the line, one or more of my forebears made a major switch. They changed their pact with God."
He paused as a pair of whippoorwills called out from opposite sides of the camp. They were close by. Ollie resumed when it seemed they had finished. "Anyway, when the settlement came down and I paid off the bitch and set up college funds for my kids, I got to know a curandero."
"Is that like some kind of fucking chiropractor?"
"In a way, Wallace, but more like a chiropractor for the soul. He was a shaman I met at a lecture on Peruvian culture at the anthropology department over at the University of Georgia."
"So, what made this guy better than Jesus?"
Ollie pulled a glowing stick from the fire and traced a figure eight in the air. "That is a profound question. I can only say that he is no better than Jesus; he just puts some of the same ideas in a different perspective."
That either satisfied Wallace or exceeded his attention span. At this stage, he could still form words and phrases but all civility was lost. Outside of hunt camp, it often led to his ass getting kicked. As we shared a shack, it fell upon me to be proactive. "What do you say we turn in, Wallace?"
Just standing still, Wallace looked like a marionette operated by a novice puppeteer. "You hittin' on me, Brant? I'd expect that kind of shit from Ollie here." He smiled with all his remaining teeth and dropped a hand on Ollie's shoulder. "By the way, what the hell was it turned you queer anyhow?"
I noticed that, though all noses pointed directly at the fire, all eyeballs angled toward Ollie. "Jesus, Wallace! This man loaned you six grand when your trailer burned."
Ollie bade me to back off. "I appreciate your concern, Brantley, but I find Wallace's candor refreshing."
Wallace seemed unsure. "Aw, dammit, Ollie! I didn't mean nothing! It's just, I want to know, was it like, seeing your baby borned or your divorce or what?"
"Oh, you know, I was brought up on a farm. I've seen a lot worse things than childbirth. I've had to reach my arm up to my shoulder in a cow to correct a prolapse or two. The divorce, now, that didn't turn me against women so much as it disgusted me with my fellow lawyers."
Wallace nodded, less in understanding than in dozing off. Whatever the case, he finally sat down on a stump. It looked like he was going to take another seated nap, a technique that allowed him to drink well beyond normal human limits.
Deacon Lassiter observed Wallace for a minute until it was clear the man's eyes were closed before addressing Ollie. "Isn't your wife's lawyer a woman?"
"As a matter of fact she is, Deacon, but her specialty is real estate. I hired her myself when we drew up the charter for this very club. She and Carol became good friends. It was natural that Carol hired her to handle what was just basically an uncontested divorce. What was unnatural was the chunk they took out of my hide."
The Deacon nodded with uncharacteristic sympathy. "She pretty well cleaned you out, didn't she? Or should I say they?"
"Carol did get the house, the cars, and the stocks. All I really wanted to keep was my share in this place, my Harley, and guns. My children were grown enough to make their own decisions about whether to accept me or not."
Lamar had his own theory ready. He put it right out there along with his cup. "It wasn't your fault your daddy died when you was a boy."
Ollie smiled and poured. "I appreciate that, Lamar, but I was sixteen years old at the time. My father showed me plenty of attention and no lack of affection during my formative years."
Deacon Lassiter looked thoughtful. "You know, having a peculiar name can cause some unwanted attention in youth."
"What now, Deacon? You saying you don't like my name?"
"I'm just saying, you know, Ollie. I mean, it's not like Bob or Billy or Dave. It's just kinda, well, odd is all. I'm sure other kids gave you hell about it."
"It was my grandfather's name. He was a good man and I never saw anything wrong with it. If kids wanted to rhyme it with say, trolley, folly or even Polly, it never particularly bothered me."
Lamar had another brainstorm. "You know, my brother Tom saw our grandma naked one time. He got to where his old lady run him out of the house."
Wallace, his eyes still closed, laughed aloud. "What the hell does one got to do with the other?"
Lamar glanced about as if his brother might be lurking behind a nearby tree. "Tommy would kill me for telling this, but, he allowed as how he couldn't perform, you know, his manly duties."
I could not let that go by. "Tell him they got pills for that now."
"Doctor said he couldn't take them on account of his diabetes. Plus which, he been having these dreams about when Granny lived with us just before she died. We was both barely teenagers at the time and she broke her hip getting outta the tub. He run in when he heard her scream and found her squirming around on the wet tile. It was awful and it come back to haunt him last year."
Ollie stroked his chin. "Lamar, your brother is sixty-eight years old and a three-pack-a-day smoker since he was twenty. It would be extraordinary for him to be able to perform his manly duties."
Wallace let go another laugh. "Not to mention, Lurleen's ass displaces more than his bass boat. Don't you tell me that ain't so, Ollie!"
"Now, Wallace, that woman gave him seven fine children."
"Shit! Maybe six! You better hope that little sumbitch Derek never gets out of jail."
I hoped we could leave that topic alone. Methamphetamine seemed to bring out the worst in good people who just gave in to temptation. What it brought out of those no good to begin with did not bear discussion. I threw in my two cents. "What about finding your mama dead on the porch? Mightn't that have messed with your mind some?"
"She had been ill for some time and in great pain. She wanted to die at home and it was a relief to know that her last wish was fulfilled. I accepted her death then and there as a gift from God."
We sat in silence as a tiny light danced down the slope again. No one was surprised when Paco emerged from the darkness and, without words, took his place beside his friend.
Ollie continued. "To tell you the truth, the one thing that my wife and two girls have in common, other than beauty and now my money, is an ungodly propensity for yakking. Talking about their hair, their weight, the people they hate, the things they want, the way other woman act. Whining. Bitching. Bellyaching. Each is as much a stranger to silence as Wallace is to a toothbrush."
Wallace sat up straight. "Now, Ollie, there ain't no need in being hateful."
"You know I don't mean nothing by it, Wallace. We've been close a long time."
Wallace waved a warning finger. "Now don't be giving folks the wrong idea."
Ollie held up one hand and spoke in a commanding voice. "For the record, Wallace is not now nor has he ever been my type."
Wallace nodded as if satisfied, then closed his eyes and mouth like a robot shutting down.
Ollie smiled. "That's what I love about that man. He knows when a discussion has run its course." He turned to me and gave me a distinctly deliberate wink. Situated as we were, I was certain that nobody else could see it and I knew he intended it only for me. It was not any kind of gay wink, I was certain of that. It was more of a shared joke kind of thing. What that joke was did not come to me right away.
Ollie looked over at Paco and they stood up together. "Well, enough of my gabbing. I'm ready to turn in for good."
Paco stepped close to the fire and warmed his hands. "I thank you gentlemen for your kindness. It has been a most instructive and enjoyable evening. Good luck in your hunting." It was the first time since he had arrived that I heard him speak more than a pair of syllables. His accent was slight, his pronunciation flawless.
As Ollie and Paco faded quietly into the woods, I took in the faces of my companions in the waning firelight. Wallace, his eyes wide open, looked as if he had just seen the ghost of Jim Beam. Lamar looked as if he had just been reprimanded by his bloodhound.
Deacon Lassiter looked like he had just been rebuked by Jesus himself. Looking at me, he recovered his composure. "What the hell do you think is so damned funny?"
"I can't honestly say, Deacon, but I know there's a joke here somewhere. Some kind of riddle." I wandered back to my pissing spot to ponder. The fireside conversation went on without me. Lamar shared theories drilled into him by his homophobic drill sergeant daddy. Wallace said whatever popped into his head. Deacon Lassiter had the whole of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to draw upon. They made an unholy chatter in an otherwise peaceful night. It occurred to me that my own voice had been part of it only minutes before. I felt shame.
I reached the warm zone as Lamar delivered his latest prognosis. "Could happen to anybody, you know, under certain circumstances. Like maybe get a knock on the head."
Wallace would have none of that. His upper lip was twitching. "Not in a million fucking years, man. Not even in prison, and I been there."
They looked to me. I just stared into the fire and let it out. "My God! Would you listen to yourselves? Sound like a goddamn hen party! That boy Paco, he could have spoke up anytime he wanted to. Probably speaks English better than any of us, but there we were going on and on about nothing. Not a damn thing. No wonder he and Ollie get along. They understand each other just fine without all that." I looked around. "So, where the hell is Deacon?"
Lamar regarded me as if I had sprouted horns. "He went to baptize a bush."
Wallace gave me a brief look and then concentrated on the fire. We enjoyed a good five minutes free of human voice before Deacon Lassiter returned. Once seated, he took a sip from his glass and looked at us over with the look of a man who had just bit into a persimmon. Just like his daddy, he seemed to regard so much silence as an invitation to speak.
"Still ain't right."
A burned-through log collapsed, launching a rising spiral of sparks. A chorus of three spoke as one. "Shut up, Deacon!"
This story first appeared in the 2015 Saints and Sinners contest anthology from Bold Strokes Books, edited by Amie M. Evans and Paul J. Willis.