Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gita M. Smith

THE TRACTOR THIEF’S JACKET

This place will swallow you up. One-syllable words describe it: plain, dull, gray, and dry. Add ‘harsh’ in winter. One of the ice ages wore everything here down to a nub. If the emptiness doesn't hollow you out, the lonesomeness will. As far as you can see in every direction, the only thing taller than a man is a grain elevator. All the rest is flat, like something bit down on the earth, sucked all the juice out and left the skin.
I killed a man the other day. He tried to steal my tractor. I shot a hole in his neck and let him bleed out next to the John Deere. I'm wearing his jacket inside out, right now, and his gloves. Something of the man lingers in his clothes -- a desperate courage, maybe. By March, his bones will be bleached; by August they'll be reduced to their components. Calcium and phosphorous are good for wheat.

Under the laws of the prairie, he had it coming. Prairie law spells it out clearly. The worse your surroundings, the meaner you are allowed to get. The meaner you get, the greater the likelihood you'll overreact in elemental ways. Scorpions will sting each other over nothing. Sparrow hawks that've gone a week without field mouse flesh will try to fly away with a farm cat twice their size. A man tries to steal your thresher and ends up deader than a hammer.
Come see our laws in action for yourself.

The town, now, it has a thin veneer of civility. It had been a remote outpost until a railroad spur came to it in the ‘50s to pick up cattle hides and grains, back when America was selling wheat to the Russkies, and every stalk counted.
Main Street is a dirty thread running east-west. Ten stores, five on each side, face each other like chess pawns. The buildings are rough field stone with painted wooden facades, store names stenciled on them in the same Ponderosa style letters you’d see in a western movie. There are no traffic lights. Those cost money.
A dentist set up shop here, a while back. If every man, woman and child visited him once a year for cleanings and a filling, he’d have no more than 100 appointments. The man didn’t move here to earn a living. I’ve been pondering that for a while.
If you want a doctor, undertaker, shoe store, bicycle repair, barber or hand job, you got to drive 90 miles to Barstow on the Kansas–Oklahoma line. If you want justice, well good luck with that. You could drive to the courthouse in Wichita, but what they dispense over there is neither just nor adequate. That court is designed to put men into the new, ‘outsourced’ prisons that the governor ordered built by his brother-in-law’s construction company with kickbacks a-plenty for all the county commissioners and grain inspectors in this great state.
We have a café, Tessa’s, for coffee and pie, and a roughneck bar, The Combine, for out-of-town cowboys and grain estimators. Now and then, an insurance adjuster wanders through because someone’s barn blew down or a prize bull got struck by lightning.
Someone musta made a deal with someone, at some point, to keep whores out of this town. Even though there’s call for them on Friday nights, we have to send the drunks down the road to Barstow and plenty of them never come back alive. It’s our way of thinning the herd: natural selection.
If a man is stupid enough to drive drunk at night with a wallet full of payday, there’s all kinds of folks who’ll help him run off the road. One time, this kid from Montana came through, brand new souped-up Dodge, horny enough for a whole city. He threw back three or four whiskeys at The Combine, and when he mentioned his pecker was a ticking time-bomb, an accommodating few guys slid off their barstools and offered to show him the way to titty city.
“Naw, you ain’t drivin,” they said, shouldering him to the curb. “Ride with us and we’ll bring you back.” He slid his happy butt into their back seat and was never seen again.
After a while, the sheriff impounded the car, and a while after that was seen driving it. Those off-duty deputies who took the young man to get laid, they get to drive it, too.

What does a truly innocent man look like? I don’t believe I’ve ever met one. I’ve only known men by their shades of criminality. Some people are outright thieves and murderers who will walk up to you and say, “I’m going to kill you,” as rote as a catechism. Some are criminals-in-waiting: They have larcenous hearts but have not yet acted. The greed is there, simmering and dormant. Others wear the garments of righteousness while wielding their small amount of power like a club: the border crossing guards, the priests, the jailers. They are not what they seem until – until – you learn to see beyond the brass button and the cross. Out here, people expect very little love from their neighbors. and they are never disappointed.

I have been watching the dentist. “Stent Wiley, D.D.S.” says the sign above his window. He is a well-spoken man, a bachelor with a slight stoop and blunt features. His flesh is loose on his frame in a way that reminds me of curds or clabbered milk. He attends the Episcopal Church in Barstow. He plays pinochle with the sheriff. He keeps his overhead low by foregoing a receptionist and taking phone calls himself. His waiting room looks out on a trailer park where the Indians live.
The good doctor locks up on many afternoons at 4:15, and carries a Polaroid camera down a rocky path, through Joe Pye-weed and sage, to the center of the trailer park. There he disappears, or so he thinks.
I have seen the look of resignation on the sad, cinnamon-colored face of an 11-year-old girl whose father pushes her inside the trailer where the dentist waits. She is on the upper age range of the dentist’s tastes. There are 9-year-old girls, as well, with bruises on their forearms where they resisted, where they struggled. The dentist pays these fathers well, in whiskey and in cash. Sometimes he carries a small black satchel with him to these airless trailers, these tin cans with dirty mattresses. I hear whispers that he anesthetizes the boys whose fathers offer them up to the rich, white D.D.S., and that he throws grim birthday parties for the Indian children and takes their pictures eating cake.

I have nothing else to do today, so I decide to go to the dentist. I arrive, walking casually, just at closing time. I am wearing the tractor thief’s jacket with its deep pockets and his gloves. I carry a simple tool: heavy-duty metal snips that cut through barbed wire. Every rancher carries a pair. In the pocket of the tractor thief’s jacket is a folding knife, a skinning knife, sharp enough to shave an eyelash. I pass through the empty waiting room and into the treatment area where Stent Wiley is bent over a sink, splashing water on his face. He stinks of medicinal soap and Listerine. I stand behind him for a moment admiring his dedication to hygiene. How do those little Indian children feel, in later years, when they smell Listerine, I wonder. If they smell it on a stranger, do they experience fear? Terror? A sickening helplessness? Will they always, for the rest of their lives?

I slip one hand inside the jacket for my knife and bring around the cutters with the other. My knife opens with a quiet snick. Oblivious, the dentist swishes the mouthwash around, hands braced on the sides of the sink, head down. Tick tock, I think. Enough foreplay.

My first slice comes from behind to his carotid artery, a deep curving slash. I take one giant step back to see which way his weight will shift. He goes straight down on his knees, gargling a little. It’s not an unpleasant sound.
My second slice carves across his forehead, just above his eyebrows, prodigious bleeders for some reason. In an instant his own warm blood-salt stings his eyes.
I step back again, to see where he will end up. Some people are crawlers. They haul themselves across the floor as far as they can go, pumping blood in spurts and streams all the while, until they are dry and their hearts stop. Stent Wiley manages to travel four feet before falling flat on his face.

I am quick as a bunny with the metal snips. This must be done while he is still alive.
“Stent,” I say, “would you like to hear a nursery rhyme?”
I pick up his left hand.
“I’ll sing it for you,” I say.
Taking hold of each finger in turn, applying the cutters to the second joint in time with the tune, I sing, “ONE little TWO little THREE little Indians. FOUR little FIVE little...”
I don’t think he heard me reach TEN. It doesn’t matter. I leave him there, the tractor thief’s jacket thrown over him. But I keep the gloves.

© Gita M. Smith 2012

Author’s Note to readers: This piece was put together from a few different ideas as my contribution to the short story reading circle at HoW3, the third annual gathering of internet writing friends. It will appear in the HoW3 collection book designed by Sandra Davies. Immense gratitude to all who attended HoW3 for their encouragement.

Gita Smith is a career journalist, whose work has appeared on The Sphere, Fictionaut, Not From Here Are You (The NOT), and her reporting on the South appears at LiketheDew.com, a news site.

22 comments:

  1. This is a masterpiece, Gita. No kidding. Love the narrator's voice and matter of fact demeanor. I believe I saw a little of the beginning once maybe as a six but it seems to have grown into something complete and is truly outstanding!

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  2. Yes, Harry, it started out as a small sketch. You have a good memory. Thanks for reading it.

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  3. This is so very excellent. Cormac McCarthy, Steinbeck and Hemingway all sort of mixed up in one little read.

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  4. I like the direct sparseness of this piece. You told and showed the story with great balance. The POV was perfect for the action. Having read so much of your shorter work, this story was a real treat. The longer length suits you well.

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  5. I really enjoyed this Gita- the Kansas landscape reminded me of many Canadian praire towns "Main Street is a dirty thread running east-west." Tied in nicely the tractor stealer to the final crime- great writing

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  6. this still haunts me! the coldness prevails on paper, although you reading it is even better!

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  7. Hi Michael,

    I just finished Gita’s story. Blogger will not allow me to post. Please copy and paste this in comments for me.

    Gita, I applaud you. My heart was pumping at rapid speed throughout this story. I believe this is the best story you have written. I thought it clever when you had the off duty deputies pull one over. But, when you brought back the man with a mission I was spellbound. BRAVA!

    Jeanette Cheezum

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  8. I've been awestruck since I first heard this read at HoW. Now that Gita has made this available to MuDJoB, I'm dumfounded.
    By the time it sees publication in Sandra's collection (coming very soon), it should be considered a classic.

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  9. Brava, wife. Reading it again gave me the same chills as when you read it aloud. I agree this is very possibly your best ever.

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  10. Oh.My.God. This is amazing -- the writing, the revenge, the intensity and consistency of the most believable character. Your creations can't be fiction. They're much too real. I think you pick up on their signals, copy them to the page. Mike's right. This could be your best ever. And the New Yorker is WAITING.

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  11. Fantastic! Rich writing. So much going on, the desciption of the town. Great slice of revenge, too.

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  12. Wow, the prose here serves as an inspiration for us all here. Simply brilliant. This is THE Piece from you Gita, from everything I have read from you thus far, this is The One! surely...

    The horror here is so very real, and I keep thinking of sum of SK's earliest short stories, his best ones from Night Shift, reading this, and the hauntingly nietzschean survival of the fittest nature of the town kept reminding me somehow of McCarthy's Suttree.

    This is a terrific achievement, Gita. Take a bow! ;)

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  13. This story has been nominated for a Spinetingler Award. http://www.spinetinglermag.com/2013/03/31/2012-spinetingler-award-best-short-story-on-the-web-nominees-2/

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  14. Gita, this is stunning. The voice is midwest and homey, which makes the denouement all the more startling. Just amazing. Thank you.

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  15. Don't read this story before breakfast. 'Gritty' Gita Smith has produced a minor classic. This story has fangs and can draw blood. Compelling and great.

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  16. Now that the chills have settled down; I have to say before my bones bleach out. That I voted for you at Spinetinglers. Gita Smith, my hat goes off to you. I love the way your mind works.

    Jeanette Cheezum

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  17. The power of your clean prosaic simple sentences still captivate me.........
    Brava, Gal!!!!!!!

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  18. Grisly fun with prairie justice.

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  19. Your vivid writing is just great.I would just love to read a novel written by you.
    Gerald Maritzer 4/21/2013

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  20. Thank you immensely all who voted for The Tractor Thief's Jacket. Wow. It actually won!
    I'm reeling.
    Thanks for all the writing encouragement. Death to child molesters!

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  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  22. It's a worthy winner - very well put together and a sharp ending. Nice.

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