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short story    
 
benedict Buckeyes

My friends and I head over to the salvage yard to see this crowd of dead Ohioans. My dad drives a wrecker for the yard and he's told me about these people and their car. It's like a curiosity or something to him. He sees a lot, accidents and all. He sometimes brings home items from the wreckage, odds and ends, and he tells me about the really terrible ones, and the ones where there's something funny, like the couple that piled up their car because they were screwing out on the turnpike. When the guys brought up the saws and equipment to cut them out of the wreck, there they were, twisted together in the front seat, and the man's pants were down around his ankles and the woman hadn't got a single stitch on, stark naked in there on top of that guy.

So he tells me about these Buckeyes he brought in, tells me it's something I ought to see. I get some friends together and we walk over there. It's a bunch of kids from my sixth-grade class, like it's a field trip or something. When we get to the yard, the guy that owns the place—Mr. Legg is his name—is sitting in a chair at the gate, and he's got a stick laid across his lap, like a walking stick. When I go up to him and tell him hey, tell him what we want, he pokes the stick in my chest. Gives it a pretty good shove. He's chewing tobacco, got a sizable plug of it hung up in one cheek.

I tell him who I am, I say, "I'm Goody Pettus," and he just looks at me like I'm crazy.

"You go in there, I got a big black dog like to eat up your ass," he says to me. I'm standing in front of my friends. I've told them I know this guy, my dad works here, I'll get them in. So I tell him again who I am, thinking maybe he didn't understand me when I said it the first time. I tell him who my dad is. He just looks at me. I tell him what we're all there to see.

He says, "Little fuckers want to go in there and rip me off."

I tell him we don't.

He says, "Each one of you swipes something, you walk out of here with a whole car just about. Jesus Christ."

The kids behind me are starting to talk like they're going home, but I'm not finished yet. There's a sheet-metal fence all around the place. It's ten, twelve feet high, and no gate but the one that old man Legg has got blocked, so it seems like we aren't getting in any other way. Also I know the dog he's talking about. It's a huge bastard, a bull mastiff that has got to weight seventy or eighty pounds. My dad has told me the old man beats it pretty regularly with that stick to keep it mean. It hates everybody, even my dad, who is a guy that gets along with most animals.

I say, "We've got fifty cents." I don't actually have that much on me at the moment but I figure we can scrape it up among us. The old man looks at me, spits into the dirt beside his chair.

"Fifty cent apiece?" he says.

"No," I say. "Just fifty cents."

He looks the group over. There are about ten of us. He says, "That makes it a nickel each. Not very damn much."

I say, "It's what we've got. We might could go a little higher."

He says, "What do you think this is? A goddamn carnival? Pay somebody and you can go in and look at the sideshow freaks?"

A couple of the other kids have coasted off by now but I want to get past this fellow Legg. I say to him that my dad told me it was worth it, something you should definitely see because things like this don't come along so often. My dad said it was something like a piece of history. He said it was practically art, those people in that car.

He peers at me. "Who's your father, telling you something like that?" he says. "Do I know him?"

I say yeah. I tell him, "My dad's Conrad Pettus. He drives a wrecker for you."

Legg laughs. "Conrad?" he says. "That sounds like old Conrad. He says some pretty damn strange things from time to time. I guess I could let you in for a minute then. Cost you a buck and half, though, for all of you."

Those of us that are left huddle together, and with all of us pitching in we've got a dollar and thirty cents, something like that. We're a little short. I give it to the old man, a handful of change, and he doesn't even count it, just jams it in his pocket. He says, "You got ten minutes to look. Don't touch nothing back there, because the troopers are going to be coming by in the morning to look it all over. They say it might be foul play involved. They say that might be the scene of the crime." He pauses to cough a time or two, takes a couple of shallow breaths. "And you got to turn out your pockets when you leave. Nobody gets out with nothing he didn't bring in, hear?"

Then he points into the yard, where there are cars lying on top of one another, sitting on their sides, covered in vines, creeper that goes in at the windows and crawls up the radio aerials. I'm thinking about snakes, and about how this looks to be a pretty good place for them to live, to hide in. Some of the cars looks like they have sat there for twenty years, and they're all accordioned, got something wrong with them somewhere. Every now and again, a car will look all right as you come up on it, like a car anybody'd have, but then you see that the other side is mashed where a truck or something barreled into it, and you know nobody walked away from that one. So on into the yard we go.

It's evening, and the sun has gone down behind the line of hills to the west. In the half-light in the valleys between the stacked cars, it takes us a while to find the one we're looking for. All I know from my father is we're hunting a Packard with Ohio plates. He told me the Ohioans were still in it when he dropped it off at the yard, and I'm hoping they're there yet. I keep checking around for the dog, but then I hear it, locked in the little shed the old man's got for an office. It's scraping on the door, whining and screeching to get out and get at us. It gives me the shivers to hear its nails on the metal door of that shed, to watch the tin wall panels shake when it throws itself against them, and I imagine the others feel the same way.

One of the guys gives a yell when we've been looking five minutes or so, says he's found the car. It's just an old Hudson Hornet, though, that's burned out and empty, nobody in it at all. There is melted blackened windshield glass on the hood, so the fire must of burned pretty hot. I yell at him for wasting our time.

One of the other guys says well, it's been a while, maybe we ought to go before the old man gets tired of waiting and turns the mastiff loose on us. Maybe our time that we paid for is up, he thinks.

I say, "He gave us ten minutes to look. We got to find the car before we can look at it." They don't seem convinced, but nobody leaves, and we keep poking around among all these piled-up wrecks, and some of the piles reach up thirty feet or so. They're like little mountains of smashed cars, nothing you would want to climb on. You could put a foot wrong and go through a windshield, break a leg, cut yourself on a jagged edge of sheared steel, bleed to death, catch tetanus. You could slip between the cars, slide down into the dark spaces among the exhaust pipes and the differentials and the cast-off wheels, the rotting tires with the canvas belts showing through. Who knows how far you could fall?

I wonder where all these cars have come from. It seems like more than the people around here could drive, let alone wreck, even in a hundred years. I make up my mind I'll ask my dad about that, when I get home.

I'm beginning to have doubts about the tolerance of Legg and the dog myself, beginning to get itchy like we need to go, and I wish I'd asked my old man a little more about where the car was placed, exactly. Then the same guy, the one who located the Hudson, sings out. He's really found it this time, he says. He's the littlest one of us, and his voice is high, like a woman's echoing off the smashed cars. We all razz him a minute, oh yeah, what did you find this time, Lou? but it turns out that he has. He's found the Packard full of flatlanders.

The car sits off by itself, right up against the metal fence. It's a bulbous thing with a great long hood, looking as much like an upside-down boat as it does a car. Its finish is completely gone, the bare metal eaten through with rust in any number of places. The tires have vanished, and the Packard rests on its rims now. There is no glass to be seen anywhere on it. The interior looks like it is full of jumbled garbage. I can't bring myself to approach it. No one else goes near it either.

Until yesterday, the Packard sat at the base of a limestone cliff on a mountain to the east of us. No telling how it got there. The cliff is called the Eagle's Nest because they say golden eagles used to live in openings in the rock face. They would cruise the river when they hunted; fold their wings and drop a thousand feet like a rock; hit the water and come up flying, with a speckled trout in their claws. Now it is just noisy black crows that make their nests in the crannies.

The cliff faces a wide bend in the Allegheny River, with a patch of national forest behind it, and people picnic there all the time, make out on the cliff top at night. The rocks along the edge are covered with graffiti, people's names in bright colors of spray paint, hearts with arrows, little slogans. Sometimes you get a short poem. The crevices up there are stuffed full of old used rubbers, and oftentimes a brassiere or a pair of panties is caught in the branches of a scrubby tree, waving with the breeze like some kind of racy flag. Sometimes but not as often, it's a man's Fruit of the Looms.

All those people coming and going for all that time, and nobody ever saw the car from Ohio down below, sitting at the cliff base like it was parked there. It was in the same place for thirty years or better, from the look of it.

A couple of rock climbers found the car. They had scaled their way down the face, and they were eating lunch at the bottom, sandwiches in plastic bags, drinking from a thermos of hot coffee, getting ready to go back up. They thought it was a boulder that had come loose from the cliff face. There are lots of boulders down there, everything from the size of your head to the size of a trailer house, is what I've heard, and the car was covered in vines and mounds of bird guano, surrounded by trees and bushes. There were trees growing up right inside it, right through the floorboards and out through the windows and even through the roof. It was only when they went to climb on it, to start back up the cliff, that they found out it was made of metal, that it was a car and not a natural formation.

It took a crane brought over from a highway contractor in the next county and a team of a dozen men, my father among them, to get the car up the cliff. They lowered the men and their axes and hacksaws and chainsaws down to the river bottom in a big basket. I would like to have seen that operation, the car lifting up, riding on the hook of the crane, and a couple of men scrambling underneath with the chattering saws, cutting away the last few roots that held it. And the car cranking slowly toward the sky, banging now and then against the rock wall, sending stone chips and bits of rust and metal and who knows what else in a shower down on the men who sliced it loose. The stuff probably got in their eyes, them not able to resist watching as it rose into the air and away.

The engine block broke free of its mountings about halfway to the cliff top and dropped out of the bottom of the Packard, trailing the transmission, the metal parts pinwheeling back down the stone wall. The lightened chassis rocketed upward, fouling the crane's steel hawser against a stone outcropping. The men scattered, shouting and pushing each other out of the way, stumbling to get clear. Nobody was really sure which way the falling motor would bounce when it got to the bottom, and the team ended up scattered in a rough semicircle, crouching behind bushes and saplings that could not possibly stop a heavy object falling from that height. The heavy V-8 mill hit a spot of soft ground and didn't bounce at all, just sank deep into the dirt like it had been planted there.

My dad told me they managed to haul the car the rest of the way up in one piece, even with the snarled cable, swung it over the edge with the huge crane, and dropped it onto the back of the flatbed wrecker that he drives, neat as you please, and he chained it down and brought it on to the yard. He said a couple of sparrows burst from the windows when he was winding the chain tight. They were frightened by the rattle of the links against what was left of the car body. He jumped, thinking it was maybe the spirits of the people who had died in the car finally escaping.

Why weren't there more? I asked him. Four people in the car but only a couple birds.

I don't know, he said. Maybe there were more birds, and I just thought it was a couple.

You could still see them in there, he said, dark shapes among the limbs of the trees that had grown up, and the sticks and the trash that the birds had brought, the dried skeleton of the driver propped behind the wheel, the others still in their seats. They were the driver's family that had died along with him, or maybe they were his friends, or business associates. Nobody knew.

A bird flies from the empty windshield now, bursting out with its wings fluttering, a sound like the shuffling of a deck of cards. I'm ready for it, but the others fall back a couple of steps and Lou, the little one, gives a squeak. This is stupid, I think, standing five yards from the thing when we come a pretty good way to see it up close and have spent time searching. We don't have much longer to look. The shadows are getting long and deep, and Legg won't wait on us forever. I go to the car and peer in the driver's window.

At first it just looks like a hedge has grown up in the car, some kind of a thicket, bracken that is green and leafed out. I take a sniff, and the only smell on the air is honeysuckle, and the faint scent of metal. The leaves move in a breeze that has sprung up. Lou stands beside me. He's embarrassed that he yelled at the bird, and he's showing off. He calls back to the others, "Hey, it's a car full of brush." He turns to me and he says, "You brought us out here to see this? This old piece of junk?" He kicks at the fender nearest him, and his boot on the metal makes a hollow clang.

"My old man told me," is all I can think of to say.

"Your old man's screwed up," he tells me. The others have come up close too, and they're standing around the car. Their voices are loud, like they're glad to have found out that the car's got no dead Buckeyes inside it, even though that's what they came to see, what they paid the old man to see. Lou tells me to hand over some money. "You owe me thirty cents," he said, "because that's what I give to get in here, and now it's nothing like what you said." He's leaning against the trunk of the car, pushing against it with his little legs, rocking the whole thing. The car's rotted suspension is giving out these little cries every time he pushes.

"I owe you nothing," I say to Lou, and I take a step toward him, figuring to shake him a little to shut him up. The others are watching us, and I know it is my dad has brought me here, where my friends are mocking me. His jokes. His idea of a joke. An empty car. Lou's still pushing at it, looking at me with this expression on his face like he thinks I won't hit him, which is an error on his part because I will, I surely will. Somebody else, one of the bigger kids, is shoving at the other side of the car, and they've got a pretty good rhythm going, like they plan to rock the gutted Packard over on its side.

Inside the car, a big mess of sticks, a squirrel's nest or a bird's, gives way with the car's heaving, collapses onto the floor. The screen of brush parts as though a hand has passed through it, and something is gazing out of the back of the car at us. Skin like yellow leather, long lank brittle hair that looks as thought he birds have been using it to add to their houses, and dark eye sockets that seem to stare even though there are no eyes in them. It's like an illusion, a magic trick, where at first I couldn't see this thing sitting in the back seat of the car. Now that I know what I'm looking for, I see it perfectly, and I wonder how it could be that I missed it, that we all missed it, before.

It's small, like a child, a girl child, and its hands are folded in its lap. Its clothes have melted away over the years, or been taken away by animals, and it is that same yellow color all over, and wrinkled. It's peering out the window next to it. At its side is another like it, but this one is even smaller, and its head is missing, maybe rolled off and gone under the seat. Two others, larger, sit in front. They are slumped together, like tired people after a long day of driving. It is a family in there—mother, father, sister, brother—and it must seem to them like they are somehow on the road again after all those years, a rough road that makes the car bounce, and bounce, and bounce, and bounce.

The others have spotted them, and they back away one by one, until it is just Lou and the larger kid shoving. Then the large kid sees them too, catches them out of the corner of his eye, and it is just Lou. He stops what he's doing, but he thinks we're joking with him. When he looks into the car, he sees nothing. Even when I point things out to him, the bones twined among the tough scrub—"Look, there's the hands, the fingerss, lying on the knee. There's the skull for God's sake!"—he claims it's nothing at all but just weeds and garbage. I don't believe him, that he can't see this family, and I take hold of him. I'm going to shove him in there close where he can feel them, if he won't see.

I'm dragging him to the driver's side door of the Packard when the old man comes into sight around a big pile of loose bumpers. He's got his dog on a rope lead, and the mastiff is straining against him, giving the rope short little jerks. The old man's hand, the one holding the rope, flies out from his body every time the dog leaps forward, and I wonder how strong a grip he has on the thing. It's strangling itself against the knot in the leash, and strings of milky drool hang down off its jowls.

"What the hell?" he says. He seems surprised to see us. "You're still here?" he says. He must be making a last patrol of the place before locking up. "Christ, I said ten minutes, not ten days. Get the hell on out of here."

The others are already making for the gate, Lou at the head of the pack, but I stay where I am for a little longer. It's dark in the yard, dusk getting on to night, and when I look into the car it takes me a minute to make out the little girl, the daughter, in the back seat. Suddenly I'm not sure anymore which is her and which is her brother. I'm not sure what is a bare stick and what is the bone of her forearm. It's black inside the Packard, no colors showing at all now.

"I told you to get out," the old man says. His voice is shaking, and he lets his grip on the dog slip just a bit more.

"I heard," I say, and I walk past him. I keep my pace steady.

"I know you heard me," he says. "I know your daddy. He works for me. You better not be stealing nothing. Nothing better be gone from here." I'm out of his sight, but his voice carries to me as I go. "I can check up. I can tell your daddy to smack fire out of you!" He goes on for a while, but it is hard to make out his words, the farther away I get from him.

I walk out the gate of the salvage yard, and nobody is there. All of them are gone, running to get home, I guess. I wonder what they saw that made them back off from the car. They must have seen the same thing that I did. Or maybe they just saw me seeing it, and that was enough to scare them off. Remembering, I can't tell which way it is, and I know they won't be able to recall either, if I ask them about it at school tomorrow.

All the way home, I make a list in my head of the things my father has brought home from the yard, items that nobody wanted or thought to claim. He's brought home bracelets; two full sets of dentures and an upper plate; a Fuller Brush salesman's sample kit; some tiny atomizers full of cologne that he gave to me, and some miniature bottles of liquor that he kept; a suitcase with a busted handle, full of women's party clothes; several car jacks, with and without handles; spare tires, full of air and flat; packets of bobby pins; a .45 caliber pistol with a broken slide; a crushed box of chocolates; the waxy white hand of a mannequin; a barrel full of greasy chain; eyeglasses; sunglasses; empty artillery shells; and a hundred other things that it's impossible for me to remember or that he probably never even showed me.

He keeps these things stacked around the house, or gives them away to people who can't use them either. Our neighbors used to laugh when he gave them stuff, but now they just take the items that he hands over and then carry them away, God knows where to. He never asks about the fate of what he gives. As I walk, the air grows cool and I wish for a jacket, wondering what prize he figures to bear home from this latest find, what terrible next thing will make its way into our house.

o henry awards
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    Copyright © 2001 by Pinckney Benedict.