Josh Patrick Sheridan lives with his fiancé and their dog, Baxter, in upstate New York. He works for an early college in the high school program and is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the incredible College of Saint Rose in Albany.
Ain't No Me
Joshua Patrick Sheridan
Julia Marie Slocomb died without ceremony in the heat of a West Virginia afternoon. Her knees buckled, and her skinny legs crooked sideways; her weight came down and her face smashed against the walls and then the floorboards. The old man’s coffee tin, which she’d been carrying out to him, rattled against the door and its contents seeped underneath to the front porch.
Slocomb, fixing new rivets to a set of tack in the yard, heard the carump of his wife’s body over the prattle of a radio propped on a hay bale. In the direction he moved, so moved his hound, and the two of them opened the door and came upon their altered world together, silently, for the wind had gone still, the river had slowed to a stop, the crows in the field had choked to death on hardened bits of clay.
On their first date, Julia Marie taught him how to dance.
He’d been terribly nervous, waggling his hands and his hips in some imitation of what he figured was the style of the day, and her laughter had pierced the barn. Slocomb lifted his boots and kicked them out sideways like he was shooing a goat.
“You look like a drunken marionette,” she said, taking his hands. “Give ‘em here.” She slowed him down, brought him back to Earth. He didn’t take his eyes off of her.
She taught him to waltz by stomping on the appropriate boot at the appropriate time. He was a slow learner, and his hands were rough and callused, but his grip on the waistband of her loose white cotton dress at least was confident.
When he missed a step, she kicked him in the shin with the tip of her shoe. He spent plenty of time clutching her belt, a toddler at the hip.
The men in the corner, smoking and eyes rolling, had been there all night, but the one of them in particular was a hawk, his slim eyes locked on Julia Marie, the eyes lost every time he blew smoke out his nostrils and it streamed up into the rafters. Slocomb had not been paying attention until he stopped bounding long enough to notice Julia Marie, still, focused on the man in the dirty blue jeans, the corners of her mouth bent to sharp points.
When Slocomb followed her stare, the man in the corner looked away, and the next time Slocomb remembered to look he was gone completely, the vapor of him leaving in the breaths of the men he’d been with.
They went outside to breathe, both of them laughing and panting. They stumbled into the yard and sat Indian-legged in the damp grass. Slocomb pulled a tiny pewter flask from his hip pocket and they took turns drawing on it until the whiskey was gone. They lay back and laughed with their heads in the grass.
He could hear pops and cracks in the woods beyond the yard. Footsteps. Men whispering. Whistle calls. There were two of them, and they slunk out of the trees at the same time, black shadows inching their way toward the new couple. One of them was flicking a straight razor between his thumb and forefinger, its tiny blade glinting in the moonlight.
They moved in slow on the kids, stopped just short of the light from the lamp above the barn door. “Hot damn, Dervil,” said one, the taller of them. “Lookit this bitch here, now.”
Dervil chuckled like an idiot.
“Mmm, my baby, mmm-mmm,” said the tall one. “Derv, toss me that blade.”
Slocomb and Julia Marie both stood quickly and set back-to-back. They raised their fists in the same way. They spread their legs and braced. When the tall one got within a couple feet of her, Julia Marie reached down and grabbed up a handful of stones and dirt from the walkway and threw it into his eyes. He dropped the razor and clutched at his face, shrieking.
Dervil charged forward and Julia Marie dropped him with a quick punch to the nose. He stumbled sideways for a second before slouching on the grass and leaning sideways, loose fingers holding his bloodied face.
Julia Marie picked up the razor and chucked it into the woods.
Slocomb took her shaking hands up in his own.
“Goddamn,” he said. “Will you marry me?”
The neighbors, having heard through the grass that Julia Marie was dead, began to wander onto his property like highway litter. By the time the first ones settled on the porch, Slocomb had dragged her body outside and laid her across a canvas tarpaulin. He brought out a box of her effects and rifled through them.
“What are you searching for?” called Mary Strong from the porch. She drew on a handrolled cigarette and kicked her shoes onto the lawn.
“She don’t look right,” he said, reigning in a sob. “She needs something for her eyes.”
Mary Strong came over and picked through the tins and tubes and held one up finally.
“You want this,” she said, pulling the cap from a can of eye liner. “Like this.” She mimed circling her eyes with it.
He took the makeup and drew bulbous raccoon eyes on Julia Marie’s face. Mary rummaged more and handed him a tin of rouge, which he applied liberally until his dead wife looked like a burlesque whore. He finished her off with a wide swipe of lipstick and when he stepped back he nearly gagged at how ugly he’d made her.
As Mary Strong opened her mouth to console him, reaching her antenna-like fingers to his shoulder, a bolt of lightning lit the afternoon sky behind her and its thunder crashed straight through the middle of her sentence, cutting it in half – the knowable part and the unknowable – and clouds gathered over the valley to the north. The old folks on the porch pushed themselves away and retreated to busy work in the barn or the kitchen. Mary Strong and Slocomb watched as rain began to fall, like grain from a sack, across the far fields, and within seconds it was dancing at the tips of their toes, had come all those miles in the time it took to marvel at it to begin with, and before they could move it had blackened Slocomb’s denim shirt and wilted Mary Strong’s apron to her breasts.
Slocomb looked on Julia Marie, the rain pelting her forehead and pooling between her lips, washing her of the terrible job he’d done with the makeup. The eye liner followed her crow’s feet and the wrinkles left over from her laughing. The rouge pinked the tarpaulin. The lipstick slipped into her mouth and darkened her chin like a wound.
The rain let up as quickly as it had come, the sun shone, and Julia Marie’s face was so clean it appeared, briefly, that she had come alive again, was merely sleeping, that while the water dropped from her open fingers they were, in fact, moving. Her hair was wet and her skin had begun to prune. She might have been resting after her afternoon bath.
After the wedding, they caught the overnight train to Knoxville and hired a coach to take them to a cabin in the Smokies. Slocomb had figured on several days’ fishing and, if he played his hand right, the consummation of, and then a series of re-consummations of, their marriage. Julia Marie brought along several paperbacks and a folio of cross-stitch patterns. They brought clothes enough for a week though they both knew they could only afford to stay half that long.
The coach stopped in front of the cabin as the afternoon was waning. At the end of the property, the sun glinted and shattered on the waves of a wide mountain lake. The yard was shady under a full grove of pines, and Slocomb climbed down to hold his hand out for his new bride. They hadn’t taken three steps from the coach when the driver shouted “See y’all Tuesday!”, winked theatrically, and whipped his team away down the ruts.
“This,” said Julia Marie, exhaling, “is an auspicious start.” She extended her long white arms from her sides and stretched, tilting her head back to breathe in the sky.
Slocomb stood turning, unsure of which section of the beautiful spread he should pay attention to first. Several times he called out, hallo, but only heard his own voice in return, and there was no smell of woodsmoke, no smell of farmland, no smell of any town big or small.
“Perfect, Jule,” he said. “Don’t get no better.”
“To read, to sew…”
“Cheers to young love,” he said, and trotted down the path toward the house, pinching her bottom as he passed.
She saw the dog before he did.
“Babe!” she shouted. “Wait!”
Exactly when her voice bounced off the cabin, Slocomb saw the animal, too. He pulled up, shoes skidding in the dust, and turned sideways. The dog was big as a wolf, with dark, matted fur that hung off his belly like braids. His eyes, black as they were, seemed more like holes drilled into his skull than regular eyes, and when he looked at Slocomb with them, Slocomb stood peering into their emptiness, dumbfounded, unable to move.
“Sweet Mother Mary,” Julia Marie whispered.
The animal growled, a low bass note that scared birds from the treetops and vibrated the ground beneath Slocomb’s feet. He pulled his lips back to prove what an impressive bite he would have. Then he started walking forward.
Julia Marie tiptoed up to her husband and he reached behind himself to grab her waist.
“Just stay easy,” he said.
The dog’s paws slapped at the ground as he stalked toward them. Slocomb could feel himself moving into a crouch.
“Just. Stay. Easy,” he said again, more quietly.
“Babe,” Julia Marie said from behind him. “I can handle this.”
She spat on both of her palms and knelt to gather a handful of dirt. She rubbed her hands together until they were filthy with the fresh mud, and she stepped away from Slocomb and extended her arms to the dog.
Slocomb’s heart turned inside out as the dog came within inches of his wife. The beast kept its lips back, strands of saliva falling from his gums every time he breathed. When he reached Julia Marie’s hands she said, “We’re all of us the same blood,” and he pressed his wide black nose into her palms and sat down on his haunches.
“I’ll be goddamned,” said Slocomb, rubbing his jaw. “Sumbitch trusts you just like that.”
“It ain’t so weird,” Julia Marie said. “You did the exact same thing.”
The dog stayed with them through the weekend, every so often splitting through the cattails by the lake and watching Slocomb fish, or laying by the kitchen door, waiting for scraps. Once, on the day before the coach came back to get them, Julia Marie fell asleep in a chair on the porch. When she woke, the dog was seated beside her, looking out into the forest, watching night come on.
With the oppressive heat of the afternoon bearing down, Slocomb fetched his shovel and wheelbarrow and chose a shady spot near the garden to dig. Mary Strong watched him from the porch, tugging at her damp shirt to help it dry. Other neighbors had sauntered in and some had slinked out, having left small gifts – candles and jars of corn liquor – on the table with homemade cards attached.
“Did she keep a will?” Mary Strong said.
“Don’t believe she did,” said Slocomb. He was dragging Julia Marie’s body, still spread out on the tarpaulin, to its final resting place. “Not that I know of, anyhow.”
“How do you know she’da wanted to be buried then?”
“I don’t s’pose I do know that for sure.”
He took the shovel up in his wrinkled hands. His hound trotted over and licked at Julia Marie’s neck. Slocomb called him off and made him sit at his feet. He thrust the shovel at the earth but it was like striking cement, sent a jar of pain up through his arm and into his shoulder and he dropped the shovel and winced. The hound scampered away and tucked himself under the porch.
“Hit a rock?” Mary Strong said.
“I musta done.”
He moved over a couple feet and set the shovel up and tried pressing it into the ground with his boot heel. The tip bent upward slowly. “Well now, goddamn it,” he said. He took the bent tip of the shovel and dragged it along the ground and everywhere he went it sounded like he was scraping it across limestone.
“That ground is telling you something, I believe,” said Mary Strong. “That woman didn’t want to be buried. You gotta burn her.”
Slocomb’s eyes twisted up at her words. The thought of burning his wife. She’d been dead now several hours, almost alive still. How could he burn a living thing?
“You gotta burn her,” Mary Strong said again, her confidence unchallenged.
“How?” he said.
He tilted his head and thought on it, nodded his submission, and went into the house. He came back with a table lamp, unscrewed it, and poured the fuel over his wife’s clothes and hair. When it sunk in, her body puffed once, in-out, like she’d drank it in a large gulp. Slocomb backed away and struck a match. He threw it onto the tarpaulin and Julia Marie exploded in a rush of flame.
The wind picked up then, quick and violent. It came across the corn field in a breath, carrying husks and a cloud of dust, and when it swept across Julia Marie’s body it hushed out the fire with the sound of a metal door slamming shut, grabbed up the flames and threw them into the garden, where they quickly burned up Slocomb’s tomato stakes, his gourd vines, his late summer lettuce. When he looked down, Julia Marie’s skin was rusty brown, her hair burned back on her scalp, but she basically looked like herself still, though in death already she’d seen torrential rain and been set aflame by the man who once gave her nothing but care.
They stood just the two of them, naked and shivering, on a flat rock by the Greenbrier River. The summer was pushing out, had its good foot out the door, and when the sun fell back in the evenings it left a silvery chill behind that for several weeks caught people off-guard, those who were fool enough to believe that warmth would last forever.
They had spent the day swimming and roasting corn on a fire Slocomb built on the rock, the swimming hole a place his father had showed him twenty years before and a place which he would one day show his own son. In all his years, he’d yet to see another family there. His intent was to keep it so.
“The year went so fast,” said Julia Marie, stretching a cotton skirt across her hips. The absence of a belly on her was just as startling to Slocomb as if it had been there. They’d tried for a baby since last September, but Julia Marie was still slender, skinny even, and whether it was her or him it was neither of them.
A water moccasin drifted lazily across the stream.
“A year to us is a day to the world,” he said. He set down on his knees in front of her and pressed his cheek against her bare stomach. “When we go, someone will be right there to take our spot. Paint our house. Tend our garden.”
The moccasin swam to the rock, its eyes the whole of it visible above the water. It searched for a way over the ledge, licking at the smaller stones and switching back and forth between fallen branches.
Slocomb could feel her when she started to cry. Her little belly shivered, tight and silent.
“Everything’s as it should be, Jule,” he said.
She wiped her eyes and looked down on the snake, though the falling light of the sun made it hard to see much but shadows, and when it finally peeked its head above the ledge, she bent down, picked up a flat river rock, walked over, and smashed the snake’s head between the two stones. Its body dangled in the water, swinging with the current, but she held its head firm to the ledge and nodded enthusiastically.
“Maybe it is,” she said. “Exactly as it should be.”
Mary Strong stood at the edge of the burnt-up garden, kicking ashes and scarred bits of tinder off the grass.
“Everybody’s leaving,” she said. “It’s getting to be later than we thought.”
Indeed people were lined up in front of the porch, settling their hats on their heads and lighting cigarettes. They buttoned their summer jackets and waved listlessly at Slocomb, who stood with the shovel in one hand and the empty lamp in the other.
“Well, I’m awfully sorry they didn’t get their show,” he said.
“It ain’t right for a funeral to drag on hours,” she said.
He’d doused the yard and the garden with buckets of water and returned Julia Marie to the front. The skin on her arms had tightened in the fire. Her mouth was pulled back taught. In a way she looked younger, healthier.
“I guess there’s just the one other option,” he said. He lifted her up as though she’d drifted off in a chair and he was taking her to bed. “River’s high enough she might make it to Tennessee.”
“You weigh that poor woman down, you gonna do it thataway,” said Mary Strong. She slowed in the middle of the field and watched him walk. “Otherwise she’ll wash up on down the creek, some coyote drag her out, and, well…”
Slocomb crossed the cornfield toward the river on the other side, the hound trotting at his heel. When they came to the line of trees that stood just before the muddy bank, Slocomb stopped and set Julia Marie down in the grass.
In the middle of the stream stood a sickly horse, his coat dusty, pallid, rippling. Loose on his bones. He shook yellow teeth at them and blew streams of spit from his mouth. He appeared to be favoring one of his hind legs, drawing it near his chest now and then before setting it back down in the water. He was mounted by an old, dark-skinned man who wore a denim coat and a tattered cap and carried a long-barreled revolver in a skin at the horse’s ribs.
“Condolences for your loss, Mr. Slocomb,” the man said. His voice was high and shrill, like a young girl’s. “I was on my way to the services, but it looks as though they’ve come to me.”
“I don’t recognize your horse, mister,” said Slocomb. “Have we met?”
“Several times in the past, yessir,” the man said. “You even looked me in the eye oncet.”
“Well, I surely do apologize for my memory,” Slocomb said. “The ceremony will be right here, if you’re itching to see it.” He picked up his dead wife and set her on top of the still water, which surged underneath her and carried her away before he’d finished saying goodbye.
“She was a good, good woman,” said the man on the horse. He pulled his six-shooter.
Slocomb looked on her in silence, and he remembered where he’d seen the empty-eyed man before. He pointed downstream, where Julia Marie’s body had turned a bend and was gone.
“There ain’t no me without her,” he said.
“I know it,” said the man, and shot him.