Burn What Will Burn by C.B. McKenzie is a gritty, gripping mystery and an enthralling character study of its poet-protagonist (Available June 21, 2016).
Bob Reynolds doesn't recognize the body in the creek, but he does recognize the danger of it. He's a newcomer to town, not entirely welcome, and not entirely on good footing with the sheriff. So far he's kept his head down, mostly over the bar at the Crow's Nest. But he has interests other than drinking and spending his inheritance, including one that goes by the name Tammy Fay Smith and who may have caught the sheriff's eye as well.
Reynolds would rather pretend he never saw the body, but when it disappears, he begins to doubt what little he knew about this secretive town, a town that seems to become more unwelcoming by the day. Try as he might, he just can't forget the body, despite the advice he's been given to do so, and despite the evidence to suggest that he might be disappearing himself soon enough.
The body floated stubbornly in The Little Piney Creek, one and four tenths miles of graded dirt almost due south on Poe County Road 615 from my place, what used to be the Old Duncan Place.
I had stopped my morning constitutional on the rusted iron bridge when I heard a hawk’s plaintive screech. A familiar red tail settled atop a loblolly like a drop of brown paint on the tip of a bristle brush and cocked an eye at the water below him. A fish rose against the creek’s green face and snapped at a bug.
My eye followed this, natural, series of events—the hawk looking down for food, the fish rising up for food—until I saw the body floating like a boat that was swamped but wouldn’t sink.
It was late August. Summer had been nothing but a long drought so the creek was running low and heated piss-warm in the shallows. But on occasion those days, there was the slightest chill in the morning air, a harbinger of autumn, that caused a mist to overlay the sides of The Little Piney, soft-edged strips of fog that moved as the water moved only slower, a ghost of the creek detached and hovering, too light to stay in the world, but too heavy yet to be gone.
Under this suspended shroud, on the north side of the creek, the body was lodged between a downed tree and the red clay bank, partially obscured by leaves, but unmistakably a big man in a red shirt and blue jeans.
“Oh shit,” I said when I saw him there.
Steered into the angle created by the shoreline and the fallen tree, the body was wreathed in leaves that flipped lightside to darkside in the pulse of eddied water. The skull bounced rhythmically between bark and bank. The dead man’s back heaved like he was learning his first hard lesson of breathing water.
I threw up over the steel rail of the bridge. Curdled moonshine, two hundred proof, splashed on the water, whisked away.
My watch said it was six oh seven a.m.
About as good a time as any.
* * *
Around the foundation of the bridge, riprap reposed at a steep angle. I tugged the laces tighter on my pricey new walking shoes and started down, slipped on the loose, sharp shards of crushed granite and only barely regained my footing on a shoreline narrow and slick as a side of cheap bacon.
It was only five yards downstream from that spot to the dead man, but I dawdled. It would be misleading to say that I stopped to “pray” per se, and so imply the possession of a spiritual faculty I do not, in fact, possess. But in my stop position it would be fair to say that I “waited with hope.”
What I was hoping for, in this instance, was that I had only imagined the corpse floating in The Little Piney Creek, and that this corpse would turn out to be a mere invention of my irregular way of thinking.
Because this dead man was not a problem I wanted to claim as mine, was a problem that probably needed a god or some strong medication to obscure.
But as I reached over the downed tree and pushed a shaky hand against the dead man’s shoulder, the rough bark of the white oak reminded me that this particular peculiar circumstance was real and not imagined.
A cottonmouth loosed itself from a tangle of downed tree limbs on the opposite side of the creek and began to slither across the surface of the creek in that menacing way that watersnakes have that defies gravity and logic and in that way terrifies sensible, Christian people in order to remind them of Edenic Reality.
I watched the snake cross the creek, his arrowhead swimming side to side, like a pocket watch swinging on a golden chain gone green, mesmerizing. The pollen was so thick on the creek’s face that the serpent’s trail was as visible as a deer track through the woods.
I reached back and grabbed up a handful of riprap stones to throw at the cottonmouth. I did not come close to hitting it, but did dissuade the snake downstream. He must have been over six feet long. The same length as the dead man in the river, more or less.
“This is some shit, isn’t it?” I asked the dead man.
The dead man nodded, agreeing with me or with some conversational creature sunk in the mud a couple of feet below his face, his guide to the other side maybe.
I pushed him slightly.
The corpse was, I suppose, what is called a “floater” so he bobbed like a bottom-weighted buoy from the pressure I had applied to him. My stomach roiled and I swallowed some corn liquor bile, took ten deep breaths and “centered” myself (as some psychotherapist had once taught me to do in order to manage my anxiety). My anxiety, however, did not return to its normal, free-floating level, even after ten deep breaths.
I shoved him again, harder. He rolled onto a shoulder, but didn’t show his face. I cracked back a few branches of the downed tree and touched a fingerend to the bruised depression at the base of his skull.
That bruise did not look good to me. In fact, it looked like a factor that would compound the problem.
I patted the back pockets of his blue jeans and found a couple of packaged condoms—XXL size—and a bullet about as long as my little finger. No gun nearby, though, not on the bank and not in the mud of the shallow water I filtered through my fingers.
I stuck the unfired cartridge in the pocket of my short pants along with the Trojans.
I searched all the pockets of the dead man, pants and shirt, and found he had no wallet on him, no car keys.
But looped on his leather belt was a large leather knife scabbard, empty but with the word, or name, “Buck” stamped on it. The scabbard looked big enough for Jim Bowie’s knife.
“Buck” was a heavy bastard and, small as I am, it took all my strength to drag him out of the creek and when I had his body beached I was gasping at the air and my walking shoes and short pants were filthy with wet, red clay, my arms and hands covered to the elbows with mud and what I suppose was corpse slime.
The dead man’s head rested between my knees, face in the red clay of the creekside. When I pushed him off, Buck fell on his back and his whole body seemed to exhale a malodorous fart.
I am not a doctor, a mortician or a policeman in any conventional understandings of those jobs. I was just a dyspeptic poet with a little family money. So I did not hazard a guess as to the cause or causes of the dead man’s death. Though that big bruise on the back of his head did not, as said, look good.
Buck was hirsute with dark hair thick on his head where the flesh had not been nibbled away by fish or snapped away by turtles or pecked away by birds. Hair was thick even on his neck and arms.
There was a delicate gold wedding band depended on a thick gold link chain around Buck’s neck. There was no inscription on the outside or inside of the ring, which was so thin there probably wasn’t room for an inscription. The ring certainly could fit no finger of this big man, dead or alive.
I unclasped the chain and put it around my own neck, just for safekeeping.
Buck’s eyelids were gone. Where his eyeballs had been were but black holes, though these spaces in his face seemed still, somehow, expressive; not so much expressing a particular emotion—of desire or loss, pain or joy—but as only empty vessels now waiting to be filled.
I swatted away the crawdads clinging to what was left of his lips and earlobes.
What remained of the dead man’s nose was just a ridge of cartilage, dangled above vacant space by sinew, like a weird chicken bone suspended by fishing line over a garbage can.
Buck’s exposed teeth were scary like a Halloween mask is scary—that is, so scary they did not even seem real.
I looked away from the dead man and leaned back. The sky had been made jigsaw by interlocking trees branches. I put a few blue pieces together then turned back to the dead man. He was still dead as a doorknob. And nobody to me, I decided. No one important to me at all.
* * *
I wanted to run away from the dead man in The Little Piney, but I’m not much of a runner. So I pulled him ashore and started another series of events, which is all history is really, mine and everybody’s, just one damned thing after another.
I waited for a spell, waited for something/anything else to happen. I think I supposed someone, someone other than me and Buck, would appear. But the road I lived on was about as dead-ended as a road can be and still be a road. So …
No one appeared. Nothing helpful happened.
I’d spent much of the day before at my most local bar, in nearby Bertrandville. (There was no bar in Doker, my newish, nearest “hometown” of three hundred souls, and the whole county was dry but for the “members-only” establishments attached to hotels and country clubs, which were the only places for miles to buy a drink.) By early afternoon the day before I had been more than mildly drunk as is my regular wont.
So there were plenty of witnesses to my whereabouts that day before.
And during the early phase of my most recent bar-drunk, I had even written poems on paper napkins and distributed them liberally to my fellow patrons of the Crow’s Nest Saloon and Grill. Then I watched the Cardinals play baseball on ESPN with the daily regulars, and then discussed mutual fund frontloading with the after-work crowd later on, and even later, slept away the early evening in my regular rented room at the Holiday Inn in which hostelry my Crow’s Nest is housed and in which my domicile (Room 116, poolside) I pay for by the month because membership (that is, cash money) has its privileges.
The rest of the evening, after I fed my chickens and until dawn, was spent at home, returned inside my cups again watching videotapes of Columbo and Rockford Files.
Hence, the day before I’d have probably missed anybody driving down County Road 615 from ten a.m. on. Which meant that if my dead man in the creek, Buck, had come by my place the day before, I would not have seen hide nor hair of him.
So (I speculated, that is, hoped) my dead man in The Little Piney had passed by my deserted place, found the creek, fished awhile, imbibed a few cold ones maybe, tried to climb back up the steep slope of riprap, slipped as I had, fell, coshed himself on the back of his head, managed to return to the fallen oak tree, sat down for a rest, got woozy, blacked out, fell into the creek and drowned, in two feet of water as easy as in twenty. Buck had slipped, bumped his head and drowned. That seemed a satisfactory scenario. Happened all the time.
But where were his beer bottles? Where was his fishing tackle? His wallet and ID? His big hunting knife? The gun that went along with the bullet?
Most of all where was his vehicle?
“You shouldn’t be out here,” I told the corpse. How did you get here of all places?
Because I had never, in ten months and twenty-one days of local residence, seen a stranger at that spot on The Little Piney. That part of The Land o’ Opportunity was just not someplace tourists wound up in, accidentally or on purpose. It was too far off Arkansas Scenic Highway 7 to attract visitors. The road was just brown dirt or red clay, gutted in places, ribbed in others. And it was no place in the world you could get to without a car or truck, a mule or a pair of willing feet in sensible walking shoes.
Only a few Locals ever went to that spot on The Little Piney and only me and one other fella ever walked down here. Buck was not a Local that I knew of and he did not seem to me to be the type of fella to walk much of anywhere in his snakeskin cowboy boots. He also did not seem like a tourist—he seemed like a well-heeled hillbilly who would know his way around a creekside, drunk or not.
So it was hard to explain how, or why, Buck had gotten himself there dead in The Little Piney of all places.
I shrugged even though there was nobody to see me do it.
When you live a long time alone you just do things like that—shrug, nod, talk to yourself, or your chickens, the dead or God.
I have these habits of action, because, in general, I am as lonely as Adam before Eve appeared—living underneath a God who thinks of me as only a hobby of His, but in a Garden, more or less, of Plenty.
Thinking of Eden’s Garden made me hungry for Miss Ollie’s diner. I was missing my breakfast at EAT Cafe spending time with this dead Buck.
I tore a small branch off the water-soaked white oak, knelt beside the corpse, covered the dead man’s face with the oak leaves, looked again at him.
On the inside of his right forearm was a crude tattoo of eagles rampant, the Stars and Stripes, the Marine Corps motto.
“If you say so, Buck,” I suggested as an encomium.
I started up the bank.
* * *
Brush rustled under the trees on the opposite shore.
“Hello?” I called across the creek.
I snatched a handful of riprap and threw the stones across the stream, almost.
“Hello!” I hailed a shadow.
I looked past the bridge toward a weedy twenty acres or so that was outlined by ten-foot-tall chain-link fencing decorated with loops of concertina wire and NO TRESPASSING and DANGER: NO OPEN BURNING signs.
A stone house was tucked in one corner of the untended spread. But no one lived there. Mine was the last inhabited place going in that direction for several miles past The Little Piney. Beyond which was nothing but a very bad, two-track road, deer trails and kudzu cloaked, dense-to-black forest, hardwood and softwood crowded thick and currently dried out as stacked, seasoned cordwood ready for a fire.
“Malcolm? Reverend Pickens? Isaac? Newton? Jacob?”
I named almost all the inhabitants of our isolated little hollow.
None of them answered me.
But someone was watching me.
This is not an unusual feeling for me to have. I have long lived with the ghosts of my departed and often sense my dead daddy, momma, my wife, our stillborn child hovering nearby me. At times I believe God is taking a too-keen interest in my simple affairs, intruding into my complicated thoughts like a bookmark stuck over and over again, willy-nilly in the pages of my life’s odyssey, my crazy story.
But this was different because there was really someone there, on the other side of the creek, hiding in the bushes, watching me.
I didn’t waste any more time trying to find out who, if anyone, was there spying on me from the other side of The Little Piney. It was probably someone, or something I didn’t want to know or even know about.
* * *
Out of habit I stopped at my bullet-riddled mailbox. It was open, but empty, as per usual. The Star Route postman would not deliver rural mail to my rural house as he didn’t approve of a Reynolds living at the Old Duncan Place since nobody but Duncans had ever lived there before me. Snow, rain, heat of day, gloom, etc., apparently did not dissuade local government employees of USPS from their appointed rounds, but delivering dividend statements to a nonLocal did.
The Locals had their own special reasoning about life and its operating procedures that I didn’t even try to understand.
A black widow spider had constructed an elaborate web in the mailbox, which was but a metal box with a hinged lid on it, a lid that could be shut tight at any time. Still, she sat centered in her ignorance, waiting, doing her thing. If I closed the lid on the box, the spider would die. But I left the mailbox open because I admire patience and can appreciate making an innocent mistake as much as the next guy. Sometimes we set ourselves down in trouble through no fault of our own and only survive it because a god doesn’t shut down the lid on our little box and cut off our life supplies.
I limped to the house to find my car keys so I could drive to a public telephone.
A blister bloomed on my left heel. I had paid a lot of money for my walking shoes, but they still did not fit me.
* * *
I don’t have a phone for two reasons—either they ring or else they don’t ring. They’re bothersome to me either way, so I don’t have one. Except for a couple of distant relations who are waiting impatiently for me to die, my neighborhood friend Malcolm and my stockbrokers and money managers in Fargo and Houston and elsewhere, nobody cares in the least where I’m at or what I’m doing there.
Most people need a phone, for emergencies if nothing else. But I didn’t have any emergencies left in my life.
I didn’t think of my discovery of the corpse in the creek as being any kind of emergency situation—not for me, at least. And Buck’s emergency had passed. He was passed. In an hour he would be just as dead as he would be in another day or next week, forever dead, suffering or celebrating beyond this pale.
And the dead don’t need me. Maybe sometimes they bother me, but never do they need me.
And I cling to the misguided belief that the dead, in general, somehow, consciously or subconsciously or unconsciously, bring their ends on themselves, by deed or else by nature.
So to protect my own self from death, purposeful or accidental, I don’t keep straight razors or abusable pills or loaded weapons in the house and before I start any vocational drinking I hide my car keys from myself, because, sometimes, we can be our own worst and most dangerous enemies.
It took over nine minutes but I found the keys in the bathroom.
I slipped on dishwasher’s gloves and extracted the key ring from the tank of the toilet, washed the keys in shampoo, rinsed them and dried them and sprayed them with disinfecting spray, ungloved and scrubbed my hands thoroughly with lye soap, cleaned out my fingernails with a stiff brush, smelled them.
They smelled faintly of corpse slime, so I redid the whole handwashing operation and topped it off with a rubbing alcohol rinse and a splash of bleach, dried off with toilet paper and flushed the paper down and out into the septic tank in the backyard.
I took a long but tepid shower, abusing my skin with the coarsest loofah available on the common market, then dried off with the coarsest bath towel available on the common market. I brushed my teeth until my gums bled, swallowed the toothpaste spit, then rinsed with Listerine for the prescribed two minutes, then scrubbed my face, again, with a wet sponge, put rubbing alcohol in my ears and nostrils and put a moleskin patch on my newest blister. I slathered my whole body in sunscreen, adding an extra dab to my bald spot, then proceeded to the bedroom and changed my dirty short pants for a clean pair of chinos, a fresh-from-the-package, white pocket T-shirt, antifungal cotton socks and another pair of expensive walking shoes that had been guaranteed to work cooperatively and efficaciously with my small and preposterously flat feet.
I wasn’t hopeful.
* * *
By six forty-nine a.m. I was returned to the bathroom and examining my face, hairline, and waistline in the crooked mirror hanging above the sink.
I looked the same as per usual.
I did feel a slight twinge of nausea, but I have felt a slight twinge of nausea every day of my life.
If anybody had been there to ask me, I would have said, automatically, that I was fine.
Copyright © 2016 CB McKenzie.
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CB McKenzie is the author of Bad Country, which won the Tony Hillerman Prize and the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America and was named a finalist for the Edgar and Shamus Awards for Best First Novel. A graduate of Arkansas Tech University, he lives on the Slow Coast of California when he's not traveling.