Burning Flags by D.B. Cox

 

Down in Jackson-town a sweat-stained street preacher dances along cracked concrete and prays over abandoned cotton mills, boarded store buildings, and one defunct movie house—stone-dead illusions that can never be raised from the ground. Holy invocations ride the evening heat waves on a feeble breeze.

Sunset drains crimson remains from gray clouds. Thunder rumbles in the distance and night comes down like a gate on a chain. As Blood Dixon moves along the downtown sidewalk, he can sense wary eyes shifting in his direction. He’s back home in Jackson, Louisiana—land of underworked citizens and overworked churches. Hopelessville, where it’s easier to find a place to rob than it is to find a job. A closed circle where fear accumulates like dust in every dark corner.

Bobby Lee “Blood” Dixon is a bad hallucination: clean-shaven head, mean black moustache drooping over the corners of his mouth, a long scar down the right side of his face that looks like a river marking on a Louisiana map. He’s wearing jeans and a short-sleeve, black T-shirt. On his prison-developed right forearm he has a tattoo—a confederate flag. The caption below the “stars and bars” reads “White Makes Right.”

Blood has walked all day—twenty-six miles along Highway 66 from “Angola Prison Farm” to Jackson. He was cut loose after doing every minute of a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. He has fifty-three dollars in the right, front pocket of his new jeans—all that’s left of the hundred dollars he received as a parting gift from the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Blood Dixon was born and raised to be a bad man. Even as a kid he knew fighting. Fury always ready—waiting like a rock in his pocket. The world reduced to a single primal point. Strange lessons that were more real than a “golden rule” that could not hold. He was comfortable hanging in the netherworld—on the fringe where the outlaws gathered—bad luck and trouble tied to his ass like two clanging tin cans.

Blood was put away for killing Reggie Fontenot in a barroom fight. Fontenot stabbed him in the back with a lockblade knife, and Blood choked him to death with a pool cue—old rage from old places. It was a clear case of self-defense, but a local judge saw it as a chance to get a dangerous citizen out of town for a while. So the judge sentenced him to ten years and sent him down the road to the “Alcatraz of the South.”

After the judge slammed down the gavel, he couldn’t resist making a short farewell speech: “Son, if you don’t change your wicked ways, you’re gonna find yourself riding through town with your belly to the sun, your best suit on, and nowhere to go but hell.”
_____

Just outside of town the multicolored neon outline of “The Rock House” cuts through the dusk. Blood’s emotions are spreading like a slow-burning fire. He’s barely able to contain himself—impatient to get at the task he has to do.

Blood looks up into the night and shakes his head as if to rearrange his vision of the heavens. He fights to stay calm as the adrenaline races like an express train through his veins.

As soon as Blood walks through the door and takes a stool at the bar, all of the rednecks that are talking too loud go silent. Papa Rock grins and says: “Hey Bobby Lee. You break out?” Blood leans forward until his nose is almost touching Papa’s nose and growls low, “They let me out and were happy to see me go. The warden told me I was a bad influence.”

Papa Rock is the owner and bartender of “The Rock House.” On the the night Blood had killed Reggie, he had seen it all. In court, he had told the story like this:

Bobby Lee was bent over the pool table lining up a shot when Reggie slipped up behind him and put a knife in his back. Bobby Lee turned, quick as a cottonmouth striking, and caught Reggie across the face with the big end of the cue stick. Reggie dropped straight to the floor like he’d been shot. Bobby Lee jumped on top of him, jammed the cue stick against his throat with both hands, and choked him ‘til his eyes were bulging out of his head like a bullfrog.

Blood looks around the room, but he doesn’t see who he’s looking for.

“Papa, this place is stuck in a fucking time warp. Same tired assholes sitting on the same stools. Same old bitch in the same tight-ass pants and cowboy boots in front of the jukebox dancing to the same song.”

“Quaint, ain’t it?” says Papa.

“Ain’t it?” says Blood.

“You want a beer, Bobby Lee?”

“Not tonight, bartender.”

Blood lowers his voice and asks: “Papa, was my little brother coming by before he died? How did he look?”

Papa knows where Bobby Lee is headed with this question.

“The drugs were making him old before his time—especially around the eyes. There was something desperate about the way he looked at you—like he was slipping off the edge of the world.”

“Was he still living with Caiman?”

“Yeah. One night, Billy put a dent in that classic car of his, and Caiman beat the hell out of him. Then he threw him out of his houseboat in the middle of the night. Billy told me that Caiman was so far into the pipe that nobody could talk to him. Toward the end, he was staying at your old place.”

“Hard to believe that beat-up box was still livable. When I leave here I’m gonna walk out that way.”

“Bobby Lee, for what it’s worth,” Papa said, “I’m damn sorry about Billy.” I had no idea he was so desperate. But nobody can turn back time and change the way the whole thing came down.”

“I ain’t looking to change things,” said Blood, I’m just looking to finish things—cause that’s what I do.”

“Where’d he get the pistol?” asked Blood.

“Well he asked to borrow mine.”

“You didn’t give it to him?”

“Hell no. I told him there was no way that I was gonna loan him my gun. I joked about it. I told him he might shoot himself—damn stupid thing to say.”

“That’s alright Papa. I think I know who gave him the gun—probably told him what he could do with it.”

“Bobby Lee, the best thing you can do is stay away from your fucked-up brother. When he’s on crank, he’s crazier than a shit-house rat.”

As Blood gets up to leave, he looks around the bar as if he might address the drunken patrons. Then he turns and stares straight into Papa Rock’s eyes. A curious half-smile flickers across his face.

“Papa,” he says, “Caiman ain’t never seen crazy.”

Then he nods, crosses the floor, and walks out the door into the night.
_____

Blood stops on the roadside and eyes the dark outline of his ruined house. The front-porch swing dangles like a hanged man from a single chain. What’s left of the shack is watched over by a five-foot tall stone statue of Stonewall Jackson. The mini monument gazes down coolly on the frame of a fire-gutted car and the white bones of a stray dog that no longer sings of lonely things in the night. Years ago, on New Years Eve, he and Caiman had stolen the monument from a cemetery in Chataignier. Blood had suggested that they stand the “Southern Hero” on the porch so he could get a good look at the sorry-ass place he had fought for during the Civil War.

Behind the house, next to the treeline, fireflies blink like tiny, yellow caution lights in the summer damp. The light drizzle seems to magnify the smell from the wetlands—dark, damp, dismal places of evil deeds—home to snakes and vermin—haunt of werewolves, vampires, and voodoo queens. Some folks believe that the “bad vapors” drifting out of the marsh can literally make you sick.

In the distance lightning flashes and after a moment thunder rumbles. This miserable little house is where they’d found him after he’d turned the gun on himself. How many years ago—five, six? What had he thought about while he’d waited for a signal to come from a gray place that only he could see?

Blood looks down the empty two-lane road and tries to spit, but his mouth is dry and his tongue tastes like iron. Everything in his mind is moving toward a single blinding point—heading for a place where there’s no coming back.

The metal ammo box is still where he’d buried it—under the burned-out frame of a Pontiac Bonneville. The nickel-plated .357, inside the box, is in a zip-top plastic bag. He unzips the bag and drops the cylinder. The pistol is just as he had left it—fully loaded. He closes the wheel and stashes the pistol under his T-shirt inside the waistband of his jeans.

The storm is closer. The wind has picked up. The leaves turn their undersides toward the night sky. He can reach Caiman’s houseboat before daybreak.
_____

Floating in the dark waters of the Tupelo River Basin Swamp, the houseboat called “End of the Line” rocks against the old tire-lined dock. A red 1970 Chevelle is parked a few feet away.

Caiman Dixon wakes with the barrel of a .357 resting against his forehead. When he brushes back the long, stringy hair from his eyes, he recognizes the face of his brother staring down at him.

Blood jerks back the sheet and checks the bed for hidden firearms—nothing.

“Lift your fucking head Caiman.”

“Do what?”

Blood fires one round into the headboard—about an inch over his brother’s head.

Caiman lifts his head. Blood snatches the pillow off the bed and flips it across the room. A .38 is resting beside his brother’s right shoulder. With his left hand, he lifts the pistol and hurls it through the window—the jarring sound of breaking glass. A damp delta breeze lifts the curtain and slips in over the windowsill.

“Now, Caiman, you can lie back and relax.”

“What the hell is this all about, Bobby Lee?”

“About? It’s about you and me. And most of all it’s about Billy. You remember him don’t you? Our kid brother we both walked all over. And that last footprint—that one was yours.”

“Hey Bobby, if I hadn’t given him the gun, somebody else would have.”

“I know it doesn’t stick in your gut because you spit it out—the same way you spit out everything else. But, this time, it sticks in mine. You and me, we never cared about anybody or anything except ourselves. We could never feel anything because we’re dead inside and we have to make everything else dead around us. Well bro, decadence has lost its shine, and I’m about to punch some tickets to perdition.”

“Come on Bobby Lee, there’s got to be a line you can’t cross. We’re brothers—both the same.”

Blood looks down at Caiman, taps him lightly on the forehead with the barrel of the gun, and speaks to his younger brother like he’s talking to a child.

“You just don’t get it do you? It’s because of the one thing you just said that’s true. You and me—yeah, we’re the same. Two more expendable motherfuckers—both of us dead men. Always have been—right from the start. But I always thought Billy had a chance.”

Blood’s right hand shakes a little as he pulls the hammer back on the pistol. As the rain rattles down on the tin roof, he raises his voice and says the last words he’ll ever say.

“Caiman, I’ve spent most of my life looking for a clue that might unlock this redneck fucking puzzle box—something, anything that might stamp a little meaning on this deranged game of a thousand cuts. And I can tell you one thing for certain. This whole goddamn show, whatever it’s been about, it hasn’t been about you or me.”

For a split second, time stops. In that instant, Caiman looks up into his brother’s eyes. He watches mesmerized as one tear rolls down that sad river of a scar on the side of Bobby’s face and drops onto the back of his right hand—just as his index finger curls inward against the trigger.

Caiman Dixon smiles. Bobby Lee Dixon smiles.

The explosion sends the Blue Herons and Pelicans skimming along the surface of the river.

The blast from the second shot gradually gives way to the rain. The bayou wind moves high through the Tupelo and Cyprus trees—seeming to sound a sigh of satisfied accord.

Advertisements

5 Responses to “Burning Flags by D.B. Cox”

  1. Wow! That’s all I’m going to say … DaP

  2. dapratt, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this story.

  3. Carter Monroe Says:

    Fantastic!

  4. Hello Carter, my old friend. It’s always good to hear from you, especially in these depressing days (“theater of the absurd”). I find myself looking back in time for a little peace of mind.

  5. Carter Monroe Says:

    Donnie, trying to get in touch with you. Peeler is reading tonight at Presbyterian College near you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: