Ron A. Austin holds a MFA from the University of Missouri St. Louis, has served as a contributing editor at River Styx, and currently serves as a senior editor for December. His stories have been placed in Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, Natural Bridge, December, Gulf Stream, Drafthorse, and other journals. He teaches Creative Writing at the Pierre Laclede Honors College while completing his first collection of short stories: Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar.
Cut Open the Vein and All You’ll Find Is Rust
Ron A. Austin
Granddad could wink and fill an empty refrigerator with milk, eggs, meat, and cheese, call plump catfish from muddy banks and hustle them into a hot fryer, fertilize tomato plants with his dandruff, turn solid coin out of crushed beer cans, squeeze water from stone, resurrect busted engines with a thump and growl, honor old covenants of earth, blood, and motor oil. He could sew a loose stitch into a suit and clothe a naked man, roll breadcrumbs into a loaf and fill empty stomachs, but only a fool would mistake his kindness for weakness.
He could and would beat the breaks off a motherfucker – I’d seen him do it enough, beat a man with fists, feet, baseball bat, revolver-butt, or frying pan, crack skulls against counter tops, choke a man until air hissed out from ears and eyes, the body sagging like a sack of beans. He told me once: Have one damn thing worth a shit in this world, and there’ll be a bastard waiting round the corner, pipe in his hand, wanting to take it from you. Avery, a little looks like a whole lot when you got nothing.
Granddad could do all that, but his bones could not.
Granddad’s abilities had been expansive and strange, but I had a sound theory: his powers came from past lives. I read the birthmarks and scars on his body and saw the timeline. He had been a hunter, a slave, an architect; a hammer, a mason, a dragonfly; an alligator, a gladiator, a furnace, belly full of coals, head of smoke and rioting flame – this was true. He was not a man, but many. At the age of fifteen, I was a dumb-ass kid equipped with no arsenal of hard-earned survival skills, no past lives.
I was Avery R. Colt of the Joy Stick, Master of the Shoryuken, Reader of Comic Books, Lord of the Bathtub Ring, Disciple of the Wobbly Horse Stance, Burner of Toast, Conqueror of Succubi and Night Realms, Defiler of Sheets. I told you – I was a dumb-ass kid, and comparing me to Granddad would have been unfair and cutting, but after the wake, my folks couldn’t help themselves.
I mean, my folks couldn’t figure out what the fuck was wrong with me. I was supposed to evolve into a man like Granddad, but I had not grown much beyond the larval form, had failed at erecting a chrysalis of iron and nails – was my failure to mature caused by a lack of raw nutrients in the environment? A lack of magnesium and copper, boron and zinc? Or was it contamination from the paint chips Mom ate while I slept inside her womb? Or were there congenital defects of character, good as holes in heart and lungs?
My folks had an intense, scientific debate about it in the living room. Grandma offered the first hypothesis and blamed videogames. “It’s the radiation,” she said. “It’s shrinking his stuff – that’s why he’s so ornery. If he keeps it up, his manhood will look like two raisins on a withered vine, sho’ll will.” She concluded her findings with a firm nod.
My older sister Yell disagreed and said, “N'all, that ain’t it – it’s them white people at school. They got his head twisted in knots.” Yell had recently discovered white people were at the center of all problems worldly and cosmic, particularly her own. If she got a nosebleed, or diarrhea, or God ignored her prayers, surely The White People were at fault.
Colette Thompson, Mom’s best friend since eighth grade, waved a dismissive hand and said, “No – we have to at least respect his mind. I don’t believe he’s so simple.” Colette had just lost fifty pounds on a cabbage soup diet, and a sharp slit up the side of her black dress revealed one bodacious, muscular thigh. “The issue is easy: it’s too much salt, fat, and sugar. All that trash makes you thick in the middle and thick in the head. Some boiled eggs and fresh kale would do him a world of good.” Colette beamed a talk-show-host smile, smoothed her dress, and flexed that juicy thigh.
Grandma, who had made platters of pig’s feet, rib tips, chicken wings, and crispy snoots for the wake, pinned Colette with the evil eye and told her, “Now, don’t you say another word of that hogwash. Grandma bucked in her seat. “I’m telling you once – not one more motherfucking word.”
Colette looked down and quietly adjusted her pumps.
I spied on them from the dining room, through a gap in the sliding door, and to be honest, they all looked strangely beautiful and peaceful in their dark meditations, black veils falling over their faces like soft shadow, smooth, shiny hair swooped up and cylindrical like the headdress of Egyptian queens, this scene ready to be preserved in lithograph – and yet how I wished for ashes to fill their mouths and shut them the Hell up.
“What he really needs is some pussy,” Yell asserted.
Colette gasped, smacked Yell’s arm, and shouted, “Young lady!”
Yell shrugged and said, “What? I’m for real. Beating off five hours a day will make any man blind, crippled, and crazy.” She leveled a mean smile at Colette. “And don’t come butting in – unless you gonna give him some.”
Mom said, “Unh-unh,” then finally gave her opinion. “What he needs is a good punch in the nose. If it was the last thing he did, I wished daddy could’ve whooped him. A soft ass makes a hard head feel, but what can I do with a half-grown man?” She shook her head and glared at her hands, disappointed with her own weaknesses.
Colette raised a hand with a pained look on her face. “I understand your feelings, but Avery’s still a boy – must we be so backwards?”
Grandma, Yell, and Mom looked at each other then mean-mugged Colette and shouted, “Awwwwwwwwwww, shut the Hell up!” Colette crossed her legs and thrust her chin in the air defensively.
Silence bristled for a hot minute, and then Yell said, “Avery couldn’t handle him no way. Grandaddy was a roughneck. He’d sneeze and knock the boy down.”
Grandma raised a fist and said, “My husband is strong. He’d holler and black that boy’s eye.”
Mom nodded and said, “That’s right. He’d snap a man’s spine with one look.”
Granddad had defended his family and general store with ferocity. So many louts, thugs, and minor-league villains realized violent changes of heart by his hand. Excitement sharpened blades in each woman’s cheekbones as they told stories about his epic ass whoopings.
Mom said, “I was there when he smashed that whole jar of hot pickles over Chuckie’s head. Chuckie had it coming, that dirty, conniving, left-handed bastard. Unh-hunh. And to this very day Chuckie will turn tail and holler mercy if you wag so much as a gherkin at him.”
Then Grandma added, “Oh, that ain’t nothing. I seen my old man whoop a whole baseball team with they own baseball bats, and this other time, he made a man eat his hat, back, brim, and all – now ain’t that wild?”
Then Yell asked, “Didn’t Granddady put his bare foot up somebody’s ass?”
Suddenly animated, Colette pointed at Yell and hooted, “I heard about that one!” She kicked the air. “Wham! Right in the stinkpot!”
And Grandma confirmed, “He sho’ll did and caught a fungus too.”
Mom, Yell, Grandma, and Colette all looked at each other and then busted out laughing. Hysterical tears dripped down their cheeks. I had a good story about Granddad whooping ass, but I didn’t want to interrupt and steal their joy.
Please do not think my folks brutish. They were more fearful than fearsome, and Paranoia was a sickly, unpleasant family friend who refused to die. He posed as a wise counselor, advised Grandma, Mom, and Yell to keep cash in cleavage, shoes, and pantywaists, conceal razor blades in purses and under tongues; he posed as a sorcerer, conjured savage enemies out of shadows in their heads, transmogrified anger into a scepter, bitterness into a charm, enchantments to protect them – if only I could have fashioned my spine into a spear and killed him, plucked and braided my hair into eternally black curtains that would block out the world, peeled and cured my skin into armor that would protect broken hearts, drained and brewed my blood into a soporific that would ease nightmares. If only I could hollow out my skull and fill it with answers, offer black and white truths so they might have peace.
But if I did all that, how much would be left of me.
Mom reckoned I’m-sorry-for-your-loss’s wouldn’t cover funeral expenses but selling the junk Granddad had kept in our basement might be a good start – and Grandma straight-up wasn’t having it. Her hands were knotted as the roots of a petrified tree, and a thick hump rose from her back like yeasty dough, but no way, no how. She refused to sell, not a wrench, not a ladle. Over the next few days Mom laid into Grandma as they organized condolence letters in the living room.
At first Mom approached Grandma with frank reasoning. “We have bills to pay, Mama – what in the world do we need with a beat-up twenty gallon mixer? You know some fool would give us at least fifty, maybe sixty-something.” Grandma shot Mom a glare that’d make The Devil clap his hooves and clench his butt cheeks, but Mom went right on, beads of sweat popping out her forehead. “Shoot, all them broke down washing machines will sell for scrap, Mama, and I bet if we looked, we’d find a big-ticket item, a generator, a jackhammer – something.”
Grandma told her, “Oh yeah, y'all might find a ‘big-ticket’ item or two, but listen up: make sure you find the glue while you’re at, so you can fix your fucking face after I bust it to Goddamn pieces."
Soon bills infested our house like spiders. Mom crushed them in her small, brittle fist and asked Grandma, “Now what are we going to do about this one? And this one? If I could wave a wand, I would.”
Grandma told her, “Fuck if I care what you wanna do. Why don’t you roll ‘em up and shove ‘em up that fat, lazy ass of yours? That’ll sho’ll make ‘em disappear.” She made a crass squelching sound and said, “Gone. Never to be seen again.”
Grandma’s craziness was iron-forged, impenetrable, a blast shield against good sense, so Mom abandoned the direct offensive and conscripted me and Yell as secret agents. Wearing rubber gloves, faces masks, and bandannas, me, Mom, and Yell spelunked into the basement, certainly not to appraise and catalogue inventory, but just to tidy, make our house a little less cluttered and depressing – that’s the lie we told.
Grandma didn’t buy it, but she couldn’t tromp up and down, up and down those steps with her bad hip and knees that snapped like dry wood. She frowned every time we descended into the basement, telling us, “About time y'all used some elbow grease in this trifling, nasty motherfucker.”
The basement possessed every disquieting quality of a crypt. Dead men huffed cold breath on my neck. Wind muttered curses and conspiracies. Rats chewed chunks of gristle, observed me with curiosity then contempt. I lugged beat-up washing machines from one spot to another, carefully avoiding holes in the wall, afraid a troglodyte might reach through and stroke my hair. My fears infected Mom and Yell. They wouldn’t work alone either, or brave the side room where rag dolls rotted.
Even as hi-watt bulbs softened the gloom and organization provided simple comfort, I was unsettled by grim fantasies of what lay in the strata beneath the asphalt, beneath my feet, the crown and casket of a dead king, broken totems and war axes, jackal bones, canopic jars, a tribe of men crushed into blood red diamonds.
A corrosive strain of toxic grime colonized under my fingernails, between my toes, this dank, sewer stink clung to my skin, and one night, I woke up coughing, expelled a whole, live moth. It levitated in the dark between my eyes, swooped like a paper plane, and disappeared in a wisp of flame and smoke. For real. After weeks of superstition and toil, the basement remained elementally gross but was made neat enough, plunder displayed on long fold-out tables.
Me, Mom, and Yell excavated all kinds of junk, rotary telephones, exercise bikes, power tools, musty clothes, dress shoes, pipes, door frames, costume jewelry, bullets, Granddad’s army revolver, Cabbage Patch Kids, traffic signs, and a mess of crooked keys. I fingered the keys and imagined they might unlock lost armories and forbidden spell books. Not a pawnshop, not a fool would buy half that crap, but Mom had hope.
One night she raised a tarnished brass plate and grinned. She told me and Yell, “Look, y'all. Bet I could hit this with vinegar and lemon juice, shine it up something fierce, flip it for 10.99.”
That’s when Grandma war-marched out of the side room and hollered, “The Hell you will!” Stunned, Me, Mom, and Yell hunched our shoulders and stiffened our backs, braced for blows from a young, slender switch. Grandma butted folding tables with her hip, slapped neat rows of trinkets into messy piles, and shouted, “This is mine! This is mine! And this is mine! I say if it stays or goes – and Goddamnit – I I say it stays!”
Mom waved her hand as if she was clearing out a bad smell, hung her head, and said, “Mama, I don’t know what else to do.”
Grandma had an iron in one hand and a wrench in the other. She was going to clobber Mom upside the head with a two piece combo – Whop! Whop! – I knew it. Tension was a rich odor in the air, spoiling my stomach. I bit through my lip. Blood tasted sharp and bitter like battery acid. Yell plucked and chewed sugary strands of her hair. Mom stood strong. She could take a lump, smile through cracked teeth.
Grandma relaxed, put down the iron, the wrench, and said, “Okay, little girl. Let’s do it your way.” She kicked off her slippers, ripped off her wig, wedding ring, and earrings, pelted Mom with each item as if it was stone. She ripped the neckline of her sun dress and revealed a low, parched breast. Scars scored her arm and chest. Her hands and feet were claws. Hard labor is a tyrant who slaughters beauty, and Grandma had long suffered his cudgel.
Yell raised her arms defensively and groaned, “Uhnnnnn, Grandmama! Ain’t nobody trying to see all that!”
Mom said, “Mama, you need to get it together and cover yourself up!” She looked at me and snarled. “There is a young man in the room."
And me – I didn’t say shit.
Grandma shook her head like a water buffalo harassed by flies and told Mom, “N'all. You wanna take everything, well then here it is. In the flesh.” Grandma bucked her hips and thumped her chest.
The old woman was prone to fits and foolishness, but this was goddamned decadent.
Totally overwhelmed, Mom plopped on a stool and munched on a bag of plaster chips. Yell blew a whistle, an actual whistle she'd found in an ancient box of Frosted Flakes. I watched with grim fascination as Grandma clenched her finger between a pair of pliers and hollered, “I got fingers 5.95! Buy all ten, get a fresh pint o' blood on the house!”
In that moment, Grandma’s eyes were bright and terrible and empty, senseless shards of obsidian. If you could have unlatched the clasps of her skull, clicked her bald head open like a briefcase, removed her brain, and halved it like fruit to see the core, you would find a nest of vipers coiled inside the gray matter, ruby scales slick and glistening, fiery tongues thrashing.
Why did she covet that useless crap? We could not dress Granddad’s bones in overalls and scrap, reanimate the dead. What a man leaves behind is wreckage, keeps no promises. But Grandma didn’t know this, and neither did I.
While Mom and Yell watched Grandma rave, I tucked Granddad’s revolver in my waist band, swiped bullets by the fistful.
Grandma used to sit outside the general store and hawk the lunch specials at passersby. Come and get it! she hollered. Come and get it! Fresh, big-lipped catfish straight out the muddy Mississippi! Hang a tooth on that cornmeal crust! Hot sauce and onions ain’t never had a better friend! I said c’mon, y'all! Them pans is burning up! That grease is popping! Them catfish is jumping! Boy, is they jumping! The general store closed, but passion like that cannot fade or be destroyed. It must become something else, be it furious wind, or a fire that scorches hearts and minds.
Mom wouldn’t occupy the same room as Grandma for weeks, like the mean old woman might club her with a vase, slam her head in the oven and press broil. On days when Grandma was a dust devil thrashing from one end of the house to the other, Mom wouldn’t even leave her room. If Mom needed the trash taken out or a toilet plunged, she would call me on the cordless house phone from her Trac-phone, making serious demands in low, quick tones, hating to waste her minutes on this nonsense. She reduced herself to vapor, became a specter in her own home. I imagined Mom had given up on hawking Granddad’s junk, but then I answered the house phone one morning, and she said, “Avery, go get those keys on your dresser.”
“What keys?” I asked.
“Hush up. Just do it.”
I found the keys, jangled them, and wondered what secret passages Mom had used to sneak inside my room at night.
“Avery,” Mom rasped. “You got ‘em?”
“Yes,” I pocketed the keys. “Got ‘em.”
“I need you to get down to the store and do some cleaning. Organize, too. Don’t just make a bigger mess.”
I held the phone in the crook of my neck and pulled Granddad’s revolver from under my bed. I slapped and spun the chamber. It clicked like a trading card between bicycle spokes – tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
“What’s that noise?” Mom asked. “Avery, what is that noise?”
“Nothing.” I spun the chamber and slapped it closed. “I’m refurbishing a hand crank generator I found in the basement. For science class.”
“Boy, don’t get smart.”
“I’m not. Dumb as ever.”
“Whatever you say. Just get over to that store.” She huffed into the receiver. Her breath burned my ear. “I’m not asking too much, am I?”
“Put on gloves and a mask – new gloves and a new mask, not used ones – and please don’t wear good clothes.”
The line clicked dead. I loaded and unloaded the chamber, discovered the revolver’s weight was proportional to the amount of pain it could cause. A full six bullets was heavy, but I could manage two. I didn’t know how to hold it, how to shoot it, but I figured I could use it a talisman against fiends and evil spirits. Truth is I felt more burdened than powerful with that revolver in hand, but of course I took it with me anyway.
Now here’s my story about Granddad whooping ass: A few years ago, Grandma was roasting lamb shanks, I was practicing knife skills on a carrot, and Granddad was smoking snoots when this geeked-up oldhead stomped into the general store and talked shit. The oldhead was so high, I couldn’t discern insults from gibberish, but Granddad found a few phrases worth a brawl. Granddad talked shit right back, and when that didn’t squash it, Granddad vaulted over the service counter, yanked oldhead’s collar, and cracked him with a nasty hook – Whop! – that dude’s whole face exploded. I mean exploded. Eyes bulged, nose busted, teeth broken, tears, blood, and snot gushing all with that one blow. Granddad didn’t need to hit him again. Oldhead would have fallen if Granddad wasn’t holding him up by the collar. And what’s more, one of Oldhead’s teeth had been snapped off by the punch and was imbedded in Granddad’s knuckle. That tooth beamed like a pearl in black moss.
Granddad considered his fist, considered the tooth then considered Oldhead’s ruined mouth. I dropped my knife. Grandma closed the oven door, put a fist in her hip and said well, now g’on. So Granddad did. When his right fist was tired, he used his left. Oldhead sputtered something like please, but Granddad didn’t stop, and I don’t think he could have if he wanted.
Once the beating was done and Oldhead tossed into the street, Grandma closed the store and set to fixing Granddad’s hands. I gathered the peroxide, lighter, and clean rags. She gathered the sewing needle and spool of fishing line. The backs of his hands were shredded, as if he had wrested meat from a bear. The gashes were red and deep. I could see down to his fat and gristle. An opened wound is the oldest pornography.
Grandma soaked a rag in peroxide, cleaned the grit and dirt out of Granddad’s wounds. She sparked the lighter, dipped the sewing needle in flame, and blew it cool. She threaded fishing line through the needle, pinched the skin together around his deepest wound. Granddad tipped back a bottle of whiskey. Grandma patted his back and said get you another. He did. She said g’on, have one more. He did, and she pushed the needle through his skin. The fishing line and Granddad’s mouth jerked taut. Her stitching was deft and easy as if she were only patching a pair of ripped jeans. Granddad frowned and shook his head. Grandma said I don’t know why you had to do him like that, and Granddad said I don’t know why either, and Grandma said, oh, don’t fuss now. You got it. Sho’ll do.
I biked circles around the store a few times before I had strength enough to slide back that rusty, iron gate, open the front door, and venture inside. The place languished in a shade of limbo. Walls had sponged up smells of cooking and meat and produce, and that thick, stagnant air tasted like chicken stock and onion, grubby old potatoes. Sno-cone syrup bruised the tile and faux-marble counter tops. Brass buttons on the cash register sparkled sadly like commendation medals. Tables and chairs salvaged from the dumpster were littered with soiled napkins, broken plastic forks, cigarette ashes, and fish bones, phantom customers dining and dashing. Sun light blazed through the open backdoor and banged off the stainless steel slicer. Nostalgia is stealthy, will slink from the dark, grow hands, and throttle you. I was massaging the tightness out of my chest when barbecue smoke and laughter poured through the backdoor, and then I thought – shit, why is the back door open?
I stepped outside into the back lot and found a bizarre celebration. Little boys and little girls wetted each other with Super Soakers and water balloons. One girl wearing a frilly swimsuit whirled a hula-hoop around her plump belly, shook water out of her braids. Old men and old women congregated, held cold cans of beer to their foreheads, and spoke on what it is, what it ain’t, what it never was, and what it always will be. A man built like a slab of fatback hulked over a tiny grill and flipped polish sausages, coals flaring and popping. A boom-box crooned sweet, classic R & B. I didn’t know these folks partying in my grandparents' back lot, but they looked happy, and I was stupefied by their kindness.
An old man told me "Hey, now, grab you a bite!" He shoved a polish sausage in my hand.
Another old man said "Get you a beer!"
But then an old woman said "N'all, he too young."
Then another old woman winked at me and said "He looks 'bout old enough to me and fine, too."
And the first old woman said "Then give him a sip of yours, if you like."
I ignored the offer and watched as a few sulky teenage dudes with ropes tied around their waists hauled away an indoor smoker. It was the same smoker Granddad had used to cook crispy pig ears, rib tips, and snoots. Three trucks idled in the alleyway, flatbeds loaded down with kitchen equipment from Grandma and Granddad’s store. A fast song rattled from the boom box. All the old folks and kids screamed and started jiving.
Who was I to ruin their celebration? They had hit a lick, wanted to share wealth, but I couldn’t let them laugh and take what belonged to me and my family. I shouted, “Hey!” and nobody listened. I shouted, “Hey!” again, and an old woman smiled, tried to take my hand.
I pushed her away. She told me "I didn’t want to dance with you no way, ugly." I pulled out the revolver. An old man two-stepped in the dust. An old woman raised her hands and clapped. I cocked the revolver, aimed at the sky, squeezed the trigger. No report, just a click. A kid busted a water balloon at my feet. I cocked the revolver and squeezed the trigger – click. The teenage dudes lit cigarettes and high fived. I cocked the revolver and squeezed the trigger – click. An old woman raised her hands and clapped. I cocked the revolver and squeezed the trigger – click.
Fatback pointed at me with a fork and said, “Now what in the hell is all this?” Vipers slithered through my brain. The world flashed ruby. Fire crept up my spine. I cocked the revolver, closed my eyes.