EVERYTHING IS DYING OR DEAD
Alexander Michael Ziperovich
Like oil drying up and rending a city to dust, love will leak out of a man like blood, leaving him cold and stupid with rage. Passion shall be buried, lost forever splayed out on dirt. Strength will succumb to weakness, honor to corruption, and finally, or throughout everything, life must abdicate to death.
Inside the light of a dusty, slightly incomplete moon, hung as if suspended by an invisible string above a rutted field inside a halo of pale blue, a broken switchblade refused to eject from its rusted spring. In the cradle of the handle lay its blade like an obstinate child.
There was a sound, two sounds in quick succession, the second followed closely by the first. The first was a single gunshot, unmistakable in its license, throbbing heavily as might the deep crack of a whip had one pounded the sky.
The next sound was small, a sound only the producer of the first sound would recognize, a body falling backward, backward, backward gasping, down into the earth landing with a horrible diminutive thump.
Then a third sound, the sound of frantic running, of thrashing cattail blades being trampled, swept away beneath desperate footfall.
And there were no more sounds to be heard and the night was again vacant, silent in its indifference to the lives of men.
Rusted oil machinery is scattered idly about like dead beasts that refuse to die peacefully and fall into the earth, as does everything else in death. Five old men, shoulders sagging, their heads slightly lolling, stand around the wraparound porch under a peeling sign above them proclaiming General Store’s existence. A plastic jug is being passed slowly about them, the massive metallic monsters gleaming grimly down at them as they drink the piss-warm booze in the swelter.
The dead oil rigs much like Bartlesville, skeletal and unmoving, decaying- one massive steaming carcass in the dirt. The men of Bartlesville much like the dead rigs, sweaty, brown, slowly awaiting their death in the dirt.
In the faces of the men there is a new awareness as they begin to see a figure emerging from the haze, chewing tobacco leaking down the sides of their upturned chins like tiny rivers of shit. These men are turning their heads now to stare at a red-faced girl carefully stepping out of the passenger side of an old green coupe, which has pulled into the small lot that the General Store shares with the adjoining Bartlesville Inn a small distance from where the men stand. They are staring at the girl and at the swinging abundance of her hair the color of the flesh of a ripe peach as she retrieves a worn floral print suitcase from the car.
They are watching her waving, smiling back at the driver in her windy, billowing red dress as he is pulling out of the parking lot and who is now speeding back down the only road that delivers cars and the people in them back to the 95, which is the interstate highway that provides those that drive on it the sole view of the town of Bartlesville. Those travelers, afforded their brief, inconsequential glimpses of the town, those who do not live there among the dead, oily beasts, those without any reason to be there but who are simply lucky enough to view it as detached, perhaps wistful observers of the detritus of a crumbling America as they move on to better, more ideal destinations, they will never be forced to think about or consider or to even remember ugly meaningless little Bartlesville and they will regard it and quickly disregard it as one instinctively regards and than quickly disregards the ugly, transient things of life. Consequently, they will never hold the things that happen there within their hearts and the things that happen in Bartlesville will be of no importance to themselves or anyone else and they will all be happier, for they know nothing of the souls of the people that live in places like this and in their ignorance they will be at least somewhat more graceful and free.
The oldest of the men turns and looks away, squinting at the little green car disappearing down the interstate and briskly he spits on the ground as if he were trying to rid his mouth of something particularly distasteful.
The huge burlap tent, which had been set up and pitched by the men and women of the traveling Apostolic Church Of Christ in the blistering sun the previous day on the periphery of town was now filled with the desperate, hopeful incantations of worship and from within the golden glow of the tent you could hear the fevered, impassioned cries of praise punctuating the pauses in the speech of a deep, drawling voice of a man on a megaphone:
“Come wary, come ye forlorn, come find ultimate joy walking with Christ, know peace as you bring yourself to a life lived in God’s embrace, find newness in your lives, find rebirth and the serenity that has escaped you, find the joyous love that has eluded you, find the everlasting acceptance and salvation in the Lord Jesus!”
Just outside the din of devotion, sitting on an upturned bucket, sat one of the men that had set up the tent, one of the traveling members of the Church. A recent member who had just signed on and whom no one knew much about. His first name, Charlie, and a few vague details about his life were all that he offered to those that inquired. He was a welcome help to the traveling mission, though, and he was quiet and grateful and he did not cause problems as he kept mostly to himself and was otherwise amiable and so he was as accepted as any of the other anonymous men and women that made the traveling Church possible.
The brassy glow from the entrance to the tent spilled down upon him, illuminating his icy blue eyes. He sat and smoked and watched, glancing at the people coming and going. His face handsome and young but weathered in that peculiar way that a man’s face becomes hardened when he experiences such a brutality so early in life that it is written on his face. His icy eyes like deep, cold oceans conveying a stolid melancholy to all that looked upon him.
A girl with a flushed red-face and long hair the color of the flesh of a ripe peach tapped him softly on the shoulder.
They could be seen running together into the dark, hands intertwined, until they were beyond the golden glimmer of the tent.
They found an old tree above a small, rare patch of grass and they made wondrous love under the quivering stars blinking in the sky.
From the golden tent could be heard voices singing “Hallelujah”. The voices mellifluous, carried by a meandering wind to the embracing lovers like the scent of a flower in a dream.
Henry’s lifeless eyes were still open, terrified and open. Elijah bent down and closed his brother’s eyes. It was a day of reckoning and the face of the dawn sky was flushed with anguished collisions of purples and oranges and reds swirling like fires above the shuffling men, huddled above the dead body in the field. There was Henry lying on his back, an astonished expression locked onto his gray face, the cloth of the shirt over his heart embroidered with a rusty red flower where he had been shot.
The brothers looked up, up and away from each other out into the distance. Just now there was a jagged shard of vengeance settling and lodging into each of their hearts. Elijah again bent down and picked up the unopened knife that lay a few inches from Henry’s body and put it in his pocket. They turned and walked off, out of the field, leaving their brother. They would let the women worry about Henry’s funeral; they had in them the visions of the machinations of death to be carried out upon another in reprisal for the death of one of their own and in their fury they were solemn.
Charlie sat on the bed in the small motel, warily cleaning the pistol with a gray rag. “They’re coming for us.” The muscles of his jaw fluttered in his face as he ground his teeth together. His forehead creased and his whole face seemed to squint as he spoke, “I killed him and his brothers will come to kill me but I won’t let them hurt you, darlin’. I don’t care what else, Georgia, they won’t touch you. An eye for an eye, a life for a life and all that, but not yours.” Georgia sat on the bed with her back against the wall, her knees drawn up against her chest. She looked up with eyes that begged, “He tried to rape me.” Charlie spoke softly, “And that’s why I killed him.” He whispered, wiping at the damn gun, “That’s why I shot that piece of shit.”
“They can’t kill you if you kill them first,” Georgia said. Charlie pondered this for a moment, stopping his wiping and then resuming it again as he began to speak, “Yep. I reckon that’s true.” He thrust his bottom lip out in thought, closing his eyes and taking in a deep breath. He placed the gun and the rag on the floor next to the bed and reached out toward Georgia and rested his ear against the small bump in her belly and listened as she cradled his head in her soft hands and kissed his stubbly cheek. “Can’t we keep running?” Tears streamed down her face and chest onto his face and chest like silent rivers. “No.”
The gunmetal sky shone darkly as the last of the twilight was being swallowed up by the gaping black mouth of the night. Elijah pulled into Bartlesville and idling his red truck, stepped under that smothering sky. Clouds of dust hovered mirthlessly around him as he got out and surveyed the town. Off in the distance was a massive tent being dismantled by a a half dozen men. Elijah watched the tent collapsing into itself as the stakes that held the poles that held the tent aloft were ripped one by one from the ground. He again imagined what it would feel like the moment he killed the man that murdered his brother as the tent fell in on itself, crumpling feebly into the ground like a crumbling tissue.
He got back into the truck and drove until he found a secluded darkness where he could rest until the light of the day would allow him to begin hunting the man he would kill; he envisioned himself slaughtering him like the pigs he had watched his father slaughter as a small, scared boy on their farm. He picked up his .45 and gently laid it on his lap, lightly caressing the grooves of the trigger between his thumb and forefinger until he fell into a deep rhythmic breathing where he waited.
The grinding sound of the key opening the lock woke Georgia up, who stood and went to the door. She was both terrified and relieved as Charlie tore his way past her, removing the gun from his waist as he slammed the door shut behind him. He was breathing hard, he had been running and sweat lined his creased brow and soaked the center of his heaving shirt. He sat erect on the bed, gun in hand, “Elijah’s red truck is here.” She came and sat next to him on the bed, Charlie between her and the door. “Did he see you?” He clutched the pistol and put his back against the wall. “I don’t know.” The tip of his index finger just on the trigger and like that they too waited.
In the cloudless sun the monstrous machines looked as though they were grinning, massive steel jaws hungry for prey. The day was burning down into everything, the white-hot sun making it all a furnace. There were no birds flying above or at best the thick, hungry heat had devoured the sound of them singing.
Only a few wretched vultures circled the site where the Apostolic Church had been the day before, morbid beasts that were much like the oil rigs in their ugliness and their brutality, turning an orbit above the debris that had been left behind by the church in the dirt.
Elijah began cruising the town at first dim light. There was a man running in the far distance, running away it seemed, from him. Elijah raced toward him and had ended up at a decrepit motel where the man must have entered but he had been behind and could not ascertain which room the running man had found refuge in. Elijah looked up for a vantage point from where he could watch the comings and goings of all the rooms’ inhabitants; there were two sides and each had its own set of rooms and doors.
He drove away and found a small turnout on the side of a road on a hill overlooking the motel and he parked, staring from above.
Charlie knew he was out there, waiting, watching. He could feel him, his rage like silent clapping thunder. He knew the murder that filled the heart of the man outside as he knew the murder that filled his own heart when he shot and killed that man who had tried to rape his pregnant wife. There would be blood. It must not be Georgia’s blood that was spilled. Charlie pulled the shades back from the window with the barrel of his pistol and looked out but all he could see was the dust and the sun blazing down on the mottled parking lot outside. There were no red trucks. There was no nothing. Still, he was out there somewhere waiting, watching.
Both men sat and painstakingly cleaned their guns as they watched the sun burn into the earth like a searing hot brand.
Georgia laid on the bed, beads of sweat on her neck, her face like a prayer, her hands clasped together resting on her abdomen, her hands rising and falling with every breath. Charlie sat near her on the bed, his finger brushing the trigger, the gun on his knee aimed at the door. “We wait until the darkness.” After a minute Georgia asked, “Then what?” Charlie looked down the barrel of the gun, “I kill him or he kills me.”
The ball of fire in the sky was dogged in its hold on the heavens and it seemed that the sun refused to fade away and the day took on the dimensions of weeks and months and years in what seemed to be its infinite dominion over them all. Time seemed to have died and by the time the bright white light afire in the sky finally began to recede into a lesser light and finally, after that, into a twilit half-light, time seemed no longer to ever have been.
As the darkness enveloped the town of Bartlesville and covered the motel in its blanket, enshrouding Elijah and his red truck, the men were ready to kill each other with the same hateful conviction of that horrible sun’s incandescent authority over the earth.
Charlie took Georgia by the arm after a last look outside the window, “We’re leaving. First car drives by I’m getting it.” He waved the gun for emphasis on how this would be done. “Ready?” He already had his hand on the doorknob. She began to go to her suitcase but Charlie simply said, “No.” The door opened and they ran.
Elijah stared hard, his eyes cutting through the darkness like knives and he saw two dark figures emerge into the black night, two figures, moving too quickly. He started his engine.
Charlie heard the truck start and knew as did Georgia and they ran faster, diving into the pitch black toward the interstate and the lights of the few cars on it.
Elijah maneuvered the hill’s sharp turns heading toward the figures, which were weaving in and out of his vision like ghosts, like blurry heat waves from a dying fire, and he focused and aimed his car in their direction and sped up. Finally he was close enough to see the face of the sonofabitch that murdered his brother, he saw him reach down to help Georgia up onto the interstate and Elijah turned and drove onto the onramp where he ascended onto the asphalt where their guns would meet.
Charlie ran into the road with his pistol in the air and aimed it an oncoming station wagon, which swerved to miss him, the driver correcting hard and finally smashing into the median after turning 180 degrees. Elijah drove up and passed the steaming car and spun around and stopped in front of it a few yards up the road facing oncoming traffic and Charlie and Georgia.
Bullets flew at Elijah as he got out and he found safety behind his car, leaning out to return to fire. They had traded two rounds each and neither man had hit anything.
The red truck’s headlights shone brightly and cut a large swath of light through the darkness. The station wagon and its occupants, a family of four, were screaming and sobbing as they tried to get out of the steaming wreck. It appeared the driver, the father, had broken his neck in the collision.
“You know that shit brother of yours tried to rape my Georgia? You know that?” He leaned out into the light and screamed. Elijah yelled back at the top of his lungs, “I wish he would’ve killed the whore like I’m fixing to after I dispense with the spilling of your worthless blood!” They traded shots again, both each very close to hitting flesh. They were both down to three bullets each.
The little girl from the back of the station wagon began limping into the road, in shock from a concussion, walking directly into the middle of a firefight. She stumbled out into the light from the red truck and screamed for help but there was no reply.
Charlie and Georgia were safe behind the station wagon and Elijah couldn’t find a shot. He quickly stood, trying to smoke Charlie out so that he could shoot him in the heart. Charlie saw him stand and rolled once, twice and landed on his belly and took aim and fired and he saw Elijah pushed back by the impact of the bullet that had just ripped through his right shoulder. Elijah was screaming like a pig being slaughtered but he knew it wasn’t a fatal wound he had incurred and somehow Charlie knew this too.
Elijah fell to the ground and lay on his stomach like Charlie, his shoulder leaking blood creating a small puddle, the wound spurting blood every time his heart beat.
“I’m fixing to kill you right here and now, Elijah! Save you the pleasure of fuckin’ bleeding out all over this nice highway!” Elijah howled, “You come fucking kill me then you fuckin’ coward!” Elijah used all his strength to roll onto his back, right arm lifted with his finger on the trigger.
Unfortunately, the first thing he saw was the ataxic, screaming girl, her arms reaching out like she was blind. The gun exploded into her abdomen. The pain had blinded him and he had killed a little girl. He watched her stagger and collapse, her wailing turning to a soft gurgling whine. Elijah was seething with anger and anguish and hate and pain.
“You shoot that girl, did you? Let me help you, here, motherfucker.” The triumph in Charlie’s voice, his gun leveled at Elijah’s head. But something happened and Charlie’s gun did not fire even though he had rounds in the clip, something had jammed. Elijah barely lifted his right arm again, gun in hand, to fire his last shot as Charlie watched through those icy blue eyes of his, and Elijah shot Charlie dead center in his chest. Charlie fell to the ground wheezing, tears leaking out of his eyes, blood out of his mouth. His voice wet with the blood coming from his mouth he begged, “Georgia, Georgiaaa.” Blood fell as a steady stream from the corner of his mouth to the highway as he begged for his Georgia to kiss him before he died.
She ran to Charlie sobbing, horrified at the three dying people strewn across the ground. She went down and kissed Charlie on his bloody lips looking into his rolling eyes, and she picked up his pistol. She slid the clip out and jammed it back in and cocked the hammer. “I love you, baby.” She put the gun to Elijah’s forehead, letting him feel the hot metal searing his skin. Crying, she pulled the trigger and everyone was dead except her. Georgia suddenly became aware of sirens and screaming police.
That baby would be born in the maternity ward of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester.
His name would be Charlie.