Issue Twenty-Seven - Winter 2016

Keep Apace

By Allison Collins

That night when I first heard the glass in the window rattle I honestly thought the girl from next door had driven her Corolla into the side of the house. Sharp and sudden I heard it—over the steady hum of the air conditioner propped into that untidy little window and the noisemaker so busy filling the air with soothing jungle noises, making my whole bedroom sound like someplace I would probably never get to. The girl next door had only just got her license and, if rumor was true, also recently discovered beer and weed. Later, I would be unable to distinguish if it was the hot-blooded scent of fear or simply possibility that tinged the air, made it somehow fuller feeling.

It was after midnight but a noise like that is not a full bladder, not something to be rolled over and slept through. The sound demanded rising. Plus, I could hear the neighbors beginning to gather in the street below. It didn’t matter that we were all in various states of undress—bathrobed, pajama-ed, slippered, bare-chested. The teenage girl was there, thoroughly innocent, stretching balled fists above her disheveled head and wearing booty shorts printed all over with sleeping frogs. Her Corolla was curbed off in the distance, beige and unassuming.

It didn’t take much to drum up curiosity in a town this small. The sight of mothers up and down the road clutching shut their chenille and plaid-checked bathrobes against sagging tits, toplit by the cones of honey-colored light that poured from motion-sensing front porch overheads was not so strange a thing. Nor was the way they whispered loudly and hurriedly into their husbands’ ears. It just didn’t usually happen at midnight and the cause was more often a loose dog out roaming or Drunk Charlie riding his tractor down the sidewalk again or that year’s senior class out with a crate of spray paint. Maybe on an especially exciting occasion a small car crash right there on the corner of Adams and Main or perhaps a run over or even rabid animal. But never a gunshot, at least as far back as anyone could remember.

The first shot was what woke me; me, and apparently the rest of the street on both sides. The shot had missed, we learned that fast, because the troopers’ spotlights were still roving up and down the pine boughs in the backyard trees. They were calling out to each other, the troopers, and whatever they’d shot at wasn’t answering but there was a lot of rustling and the voices of the men sounding urgent and scared, all at once.

That afternoon I’d heard about a bull getting loose from the auction house. The thing had clean jumped the railings keeping it penned in and taken off. Word had criss-crossed town all day—in the post office, the grocery store checkout aisle, over the handles of pumps at the one gas station. I enjoyed the thought of it, a beast so hell-bent on outrunning his destiny he’d scarpered, by hook or by crook. Anything to strip Fate of its pacing. No different from any of us, really.

My mother’s contractor had snapped a picture of the thing standing square in her front yard, right between the saw horses straddled with bits of her cabinets set out to dry in the sun. The librarian’s peony bushes, just yesterday falling over with the weight of all their creamy, cupping, ant-ridden blossoms, were flattened to nothing. The blossoms had scattered in shreds like baby shower confetti and the would-be buds were green pulp, masticated right into the tiny grooves of the sidewalk. The little dug-in solar lights lining the pharmacy walkway were wreckage under the flight of hooves.

But word was the thing had last been seen headed for the hills. I’d thought of the bull fondly then, imagined the last few glimpses of him tearing across Main Street, running red lights with panic in his eyes, yes, but purpose too. I thought of the shrieks of the people and their brakes, all too shocked at what they were seeing to be angry with the sudden ruin of the intersection. I thought of him making it, wherever he was headed, his presence up there in the meandering hills becoming the stuff of local legend. He’d caused a ruckus, left a path of some small destruction in his wake, but he’d done it. He’d clawed and barreled his way to peace, to something freer than the card he’d been dealt. Good for him.

By day’s close news of the escaped bull had turned to dinner table fodder, a sofa anecdote for during the commercial break. Nothing lasted long. It was always that way with gossip, and other things.

But here were the troopers now. Two of them, in the scrappy woods between our house and the librarian’s. I thought of the librarian—a widow, alone in a sprawling stone house she’d filled with stacks of old newspapers and dogs. The dogs were going crazy. I could hear their barking above the commotion and it wasn’t like when a squirrel ran by or someone unexpected came to the door. They sounded frantic, possessed. It was probably the smell, the way the air hung pregnant.

The troopers stomped out from within the trees and scanned the length of the street, hemmed as it was with onlookers. The site of so much clustered human life, comically mundane in all that flannel and bedhead, forced the men to rearrange their features. The light from the streetlamps was tangerine, but still I could see their faces working toward neutrality, conditioned surety. One nodded to the other in wordless confirmation and the former unclipped something from his belt, brought it to his mouth.

All that could be heard were succinct snatches, the tone betraying an unwillingness to admit defeat but working to impart gravity, too. “We almost got him. Shots fired. No, no. We’re gonna get him, it’s not a question of if. The sunnofabitch has horns like a mother fucker. ‘Course we did! But he’s mad as shit. Damn near tore up my right thigh. No, sir. We’re not fucking around with tranquilizers. No, sir, we’re gonna get him. Yes.” I could just make out in the orange of the streetlamp the spot where horn had caught the navy pleat of the trooper’s trousers, a dim flash of flesh, visible where it shouldn’t be. In that light I couldn’t be sure of bloodstain versus shadow.

The talking trooper nodded wordlessly back at his partner. All bravado, even now. The other scanned the crowd once more, shouted broadly, “All right folks, keep your distance now. We’re going back in for him. Everyone just stay where you are.”

I couldn’t say which was louder, the collective intake of breath up and down the street or the third and final shot as it rang out, the bullet tumbling from the barrel to finally find its mark. The echo that came up behind the shot fired, that perfectly silent vacuous moment following impact, was somehow loudest of all. Louder even than the thud of that big body hitting the russet carpet of pine needles and crashing through thin-limbed branches in its descent. Now the librarian’s dogs sounded as if they might tear from her house. I wondered if there would be any screen left in her door come morning.

I stood rubbing the bare tops of my arms, the place most covered by gooseflesh. The breeze was toying with the hem of my nightgown. The ground had not all the way recovered from spring’s first, heaviest rains and I could feel my feet sinking wetly as I shifted from one hip to the other. I’d thrown on flip flops and knew now that there would be mud sunk deep and dark into the impossible crevices of toenails and knuckles. The troopers re-emerged from the copse of pines and made a show of re-sheathing their weapons by way of confirmation. Still holding the tops of my arms with opposite hands I stepped forward; it was my backyard.

“What’s gonna happen now?”

I’d been so pleased to think of the bull earlier in the day, all free of his keepers, himself, his fate.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. We’ll have his body out from the trees here shortly.” The man’s voice sounded squarer even than his neat, shaven jaw. That wasn’t what I’d been asking.

“I mean the bull. What will happen now, to him?” Suddenly it seemed so important to know.

The trooper with the ripped trouser leg chortled a bit, said “Don’t think much of anything is gonna be happenin’ to him now.” I couldn’t make out if he actually winked at his partner or not, but the second trooper spoke, tried to sound conciliatory. Probably the filmy nightgown wasn’t helping.

“All questions for the owner, ma’am. You don’t need to worry about it. We’ve been in contact with him and he’s on his way. The damn thing might’ve jumped a fence or two, but he always belonged to somebody.” In my head I thought, don’t we all, and blinked back tears I hadn’t felt coming. I wondered if the man could see the small damp twin puddles brimming my lids, but then felt certain he had never actually looked at me. His eyes were scanning the crowd above and behind, his elbows making cocksure triangles from fingers slung through belt loops.

A truck appeared from nowhere, reversing down Adams with officious beeps. The officers, so much more comfortable in their skins now, held up their palms and directed the vehicle needlessly down the street with waves, hands beckoning and upturned like at a construction job or a school cross walk.

It did take some jiggering, getting the truck up onto the grass and angled right into the patch of woods. In the morning there would be pairs of tire lines gouged into my lawn marking every attempt at getting it right.

The owner and the troopers talked behind the gem-bright glow of taillights with their arms propped up against the corners of the truck’s back end. I was still standing on the spot I’d stepped to. Up and down the street a few people trickled sleepily back into their houses, rusted storm doors yawning right along with them.

I couldn’t say how long I stayed there, held fast to the spot with the looped trim of my nightie brushing against bare calves in the subtly scented wind. All that muscle, all that fervor and will and brute force—still couldn’t get away. Not really, not when it had counted. He’d spent a day runningrunningrunning toward something he’d known enough to want, just not enough to claim, blind with fear and trying.

In the end he was hooked on a claw and winch, cranked and dragged up and down the street as the driver of the truck reversed, drove, reversed again. There is still a ragged carmine stain on the pebbled tar of Adams Street where the bullet wound bled. I wish I hadn’t seen the particular loll of the creature’s tongue as they dragged it out and away; or the milk of its opened eye in the silvering light of moon. But then, no one had made me keep looking. It was just one of those things.

I thought of the jungle rhythms no doubt still chirruping away upstairs in my bedroom. Wondered as the sound of its one downturned horn scraped against street at what the bull had last heard—men’s voices, heavy and hard, with no understanding.

I listen to a continuous loop of recorded parrot squawks and rain falling to help me sleep, not even knowing what a true rainforest sounds like, simply trusting the button labeled so. I seek solace in the noises of a place I’ve never been, probably never will go. The bull was left with the same sounds he’d only ever heard reverberating in the space between his horns. That, and the ring of fired bullets underscored by the sound of his own moist breath blooming on the night like small scared clouds. I can’t say which is better, which worse.

Copyright 2016 Collins