Wood Man by Joseph D’Agnese

Wood was his life. His new life. Mornings Walt took the truck south beyond the border and scouted the desert for dead or dying trees. He was really in it for the mesquite. He’d been doing this long enough to know where the most likely pickings were. He levered branches and logs into the truck bed by hand. Used the winch to raise the heavier trunks. On the way back he’d prowl the small villages to see what people had for him. They’d wave him down from the side of the road, their faces brightening into grins when he proffered dollars for their salvaged barn boards or dilapidated privies or scavenged cacti ribs.

He worried sometimes that he was sowing bad habits among them. He had one rule, which he tried to impress upon them, so much as his bad Spanish would allow: We must not ever take a live tree. Me entiendes? A good tree would come to them in time. When it was ready. No sense in pushing it.

Wood was his life. His new life. Mornings Walt took the truck south beyond the border and scouted the desert for dead or dying trees. He was really in it for the mesquite. He’d been doing this long enough to know where the most likely pickings were. He levered branches and logs into the truck bed by hand. Used the winch to raise the heavier trunks. On the way back he’d prowl the small villages to see what people had for him. They’d wave him down from the side of the road, their faces brightening into grins when he proffered dollars for their salvaged barn boards or dilapidated privies or scavenged cacti ribs.

He worried sometimes that he was sowing bad habits among them. He had one rule, which he tried to impress upon them, so much as his bad Spanish would allow: We must not ever take a live tree. Me entiendes? A good tree would come to them in time. When it was ready. No sense in pushing it.

Over the border and back in the shop, he’d sort everything. Some branches were so small that they were only good for kindling and seasoning fires. He stacked the barn boards along the back wall, according to size. If they weren’t too big and not too full of nails, he might be able to clean them up in the planer. But he preferred them beat-up and scarred. Weekdays he hired Mexicans to help him march the logs through the mill and prop the slabs on spacers to dry in the sun. In time the good pieces would become tabletops or mantelpieces in homes he’d never visit, or else bartops in places too pricey to drink in—Taos, Santa Fe, Scottsdale. The better slabs became chair seats, the fine branches spindles, the weatherbeaten boards buffet tables and rustic pie safes.

Nights he sat on the porch with his mezcal and his cigarettes and carved the scraps into crosses. He must have whittled ten thousand of them since coming to the desert. Ten thousand palm-sized crucifixes handsome enough to sell to tourists headed to the local shrine.

It was smart to craft merchandise that could be had for pocket change, he told himself. Still, it surprised him how easily the crosses took shape in his hands.

The wall of his shop was now so full of these objects that he’d started donating them to the church gift shop in the next village. Sus crucifijos, the padre had said once, son sinuosas. His eyes puckered, perhaps worried that Walt didn’t understand him. Tortuosas!

The rest of the time, Walt kept his head down and lost himself to the buzz of the saw and the spray of sawdust and the smell of tree flesh bending to his will.

He was working on a Windsor chair, tapping in the spindles, when the man from Chicago came in.

Help you?

The guy looked around, puzzled. So: this is what you do, now, huh? Don’t seem worth it.

It was that tone—the mocking and the accent—that pegged the man instantly as someone from not-here.

Sergey.

The man reached inside his jacket.

Walt flung a spindle. It popped Sergey in the forehead. The gun dropped. Walt rushed him and drove him to the wall. Sergey fought, his face instantly slick with sweat. Walt kept him busy trying to breathe.

Their throats sucked mesquite dust.

Walt’s shop goggles fogged. His eyes peered under the droplets just enough to see. He snatched a crucifix off the wall and pounded Sergey’s neck with the end of it. Took him six tries to open the man’s jugular. Sergey slackened, sprayed, and slid to the floor.

Walt locked up and lowered the blinds. Didn’t allow himself a drink until he’d run the body through the table saw and bagged the pieces.

He’d mop up. Leave for the desert when it was still dark.

He would use the time alone to think.

Think about buying some paint.

Think about how best to ditch Sergey’s vehicle.

Think about sharpening the bottoms of some of those crosses.

How Lil’ Jimmie Beat the Big C by Joseph D’Agnese

The morning Jimmie was running late, he held a finger up to the guard who came to collect him. Just a sec, the finger said.

The finger of a man shriveled down to the bone.

A few months back, the guards would have whipped his ass for doing such a thing. These days those bastards evinced a kind of sad-eyed leniency in the presence of Lil’ Jimmie. God himself was speaking through those around him: Take all the time you need, Lil’ Jimmie. Heaven knows time is one thing you ain’t got.

Jimmie turned back to the phone.

Can’t be, the voice on the other line said, you was always loyal to me.

Most the time I was, Lil’ Jimmie said. Just not when it come to her. Sometimes she slipped when we was getting hot and heavy. Called out your name. Your nickname. Oh! Oh! Porky-Worky! Shit like that. Funny to hear.

You motherfucker! the voice said.

Jimmie hung up and let the guard haul him off to get suited up for his appointment. Fresh civvie sneaks with the Nike swoosh. Freshly laundered DOC sweats. Puffy, down DOC jacket. Polyester cap in DOC orange. Twelve years in this Carolina shithole, and his recent Monday outings earned him the newest set of clothes he’d ever worn.

The guards loaded him into the van in his body-belt, cuffs, and leg-irons. A quick hop in the January cold to that sweet facility out by the highway. The inside of the oncology practice looked like an airplane hangar, complete with a snack bar and gift shop. Tons of civilians, young and old, waiting in chairs for their names to be called. Everyone looking thin, shuffling along like bald-assed zombies.

Downstairs, the guards shackled Jimmie to the drip chair and left. They had a TV hanging over Jimmie’s head, but he could never bring himself to watch. The sessions wigged him out. He didn’t see the point of it all. Three times a month; the drips, the scans, all at taxpayer expense. What did a thing like that cost? And all for a man most civilians would agree didn’t deserve shit.

He thought about all those assholes he put in the ground for Billy May. God rest them all. At least he’d done them quick. Two in the head, easy. Wasn’t a better way to go than doing the cancer zombie shuffle?

Now, Jimmie hated to look at himself in the mirror. Losing the hair didn’t bother him. He was losing it anyway. But the empty flesh? The sickness? The muscle melting off him? Shit, nothing used to scare him. But this, this right here, this scared him. Fuck—he didn’t even know what all a pancreas did.

Out the door of the chemo room, down the carpeted hall, Jimmie caught a glimpse of the two guards, bored off their asses. One watching the CNN program, the other tapping the glass of the tropical fish aquarium.

When the plastic teats ran dry, Jimmie trembled as he watched how gently the nurse extracted the needle from the port under the flesh of his chest.

You believe this? he thought. I’m surrounded by kindness.

He clung to that feeling as the guards led him up and out to the carport. The younger guard stayed with him. The other fetched the van.

The young guard was gabbing about something he’d seen on the tube, and didn’t notice the black car roll into the parking lot. Didn’t see the two guys leaning out. Didn’t see Billy May—ol’ Porky-Worky himself—sitting in back.

The guard took one to the thigh, dropped, and tried to return fire.

Jimmie stood the whole time, drinking in the hail and thinking of kindness, of deliverance, of mercy.

By the time the older guard came running, the black car had rocketed away. Shattered glass on the sidewalk. People screaming inside.

The guard clapped a hand to his partner and bellowed for help.

Couldn’t do nothing for Lil’ Jimmie. Poor bastard was

lying in a puddle of his own gemcitabine-tainted blood.

And smiling.

Even by Joseph D’Agnese

It’s just us girls in the kitchen on a hot summer day. I’m sipping one of Jay’s mojitos, which taste as sweet as his cock. Anne, that chunked-out cow, is chop-chopping away on her butcher block, mincing basil and parsley and whatever the hell she grows in that garden of hers, looking to put the rest of us neighborhood ladies to shame. Truth is, I’d rather be out on the deck right now, smelling the meat on the grill. Jay has a way with meat.

Anne says, “That funny man in the supermarket, the one behind the meat counter, told me the funniest joke. You want to hear it?”

Like I have a choice.

“I guess he’s from down south and they have these hillbilly jokes down there? There are two hillbillies on the porch whittling and rocking, and the one hillbilly says to the other, ‘Say, if I came to your house and slept with your wife, would that make us kin?’ And the other hillbilly, quick as a wink, says, ‘No, but it would make us even.’”

I’m already laughing.

Anne flicks her knife off the board and nicks me in the boob. I jump back, spilling my drink all over myself.

She’s holding the tip of the steel right on my left tit, poking at one of the freckles I wish weren’t there. But shit, past a certain point a girl can’t help most things.

Her face gets ugly. “You think that joke’s cute, do you? Because I’ll tell you one thing right now, Connie. We are not even. I’m a mother. You’re a slut. What do you do but lie around all day, making time with other people’s husbands? I’ll never be even with you. I read.”

What the fuck is she talking about?

The knife is carbon steel, sharp, and spattered with black stains. Green flecks of chopped herbs stick to it. She isn’t going to cut me again, I figure. I mean, Christ, our kids are outside running around on her lawn. My lardass husband is dozing on her deck.

“What do you read?” I say to her. “Bruschetta books?”

The knife bites again.

“Jesus, Anne!”

“Jesus, my ass. I read texts, emails, credit card statements. I may not have a college degree but I know a whore when I see one. Would it kill you to wear a decent shirt over here?”

I’m wearing a green crepe thing, the bottom tied in a knot above my middle. The kind of top Anne hasn’t been able to wear since she was twelve, if ever.

Quick as all that, she goes back to chopping. I’m pretty sure we’re gonna be picking splinters out of that bruschetta; that’s how deeply her knife’s biting into the block.

I don’t know how Jay ended up with this insane bitch. When he comes in the back door a minute or so later, I’ve got a paper napkin clapped over the two pinholes in my boob.

“What’s with you?” he says, smiling.

He’s trying to hide it, but I notice the way his eyes look me over. There’s no way he can see the tiny drops of blood on my blouse.

“Damn,” I say, “you made this strong. I spilled mine. I’m gonna have to go change my shirt.”

“Well, make it quick,” he says. “The grill’s hot.”

“Was there something you wanted?” Lady Bovine says.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m putting the sausage on next.”

Anne peers through the window over her sink. She can see the grill from here, gray smoke rising over the top of her deck.

“You keep that sausage where I can see it,” she says.

She looks at me and winks. Her upper lip wears a sweat mustache.

Chop-chop, you knife-slinging bitch.