A Banquet in the Hay
By David Pemberton
I heard the rumble of my dad starting up his old Sedan over the squawk and squalor of Pink Eye and the other vultures. It was a beat up car, with this terrible golden brown coat of paint that hadn’t been touched up since the late 80s. It was a car he held onto out of pride, not because of any prestige that comes along with being a Sedan owner, if there is any at all, but because it was one of the few things he had ever bought brand new, with no previous owner. “Can’t even say that for your mom,” he’d say. I hated it when he’d say that. The Sedan’s muffler gave a metallic gurgle as he pulled out onto the main road, the road where I had met James about an hour prior. Dad was on his way to visit mom, upset that I was running late.
I was angry with him then, not because he was ignorant to my situation or because I could never tell him how much I hated and loved him, not for all the times he would strike up entirely intimate conversations with complete strangers or how little he bothered to annunciate or how much he loved to embarrass me, or because he got to keep going on while I was meeting what some would call a gruesome and early end. I was angry with him because he was right, had always been right, and I would never be able to admit it. I would soon know the true tragedy of my mother; know it as well as anyone can know anything. You know everything when you’re dead.
James dragged me off the main road in a hurry, into the middle of a field of hay in an off corner part of my parent’s farm. But he didn’t know it was my parent’s farm. In all fairness, he might not have known it was a farm at all. He surely didn’t know I was still alive. The bus stop was about a mile away from the first hay field I would usually just walk the short distance home.
I was flat on my back, breathing in deeply and with an annoying wheeze. My skin was paper-white, cut with steam rising from all the rips and tears and holes in my body, escaping to the evening glow of a red autumn sky. Everything smelt like salt, like the ocean. Pieces of my clothes were torn into my flesh, my ribs poking out of my sweater, my knee bleeding through my jeans, my wrist bending around a shattered watch that stood still at 6:15. If you viewed everything from a bird’s eye view, my body looked like a swastika (the good kind).
The sky was filled with clouds and vultures, or clouds of vultures, flying in a low holding pattern above my carcass, or my soon-to-be carcass, as they waited for it to become a carcass. Vultures are scavengers; they’ll soar above a meal in macabre preparation for hours, if needed, until the meal is finally dead. This is called a kettle. Vultures are constantly drawn to the singular point of their intended meal. They’re very circular this way.
In “An Introduction to Ornithology,” in the chapter on scavenger birds, it says that vultures are immune to most of the poisons that rotting bodies produce, like Botulinum. Upon ingestion, any other animal would be paralyzed, suffer internal bleeding, convulse, lose vision and then die. I wrote a paper on the subject. It’s used commercially for rat poison because it has no taste, but sometimes it’s also used to make certain kinds of Botox, so old women look like they aren’t dying. I always thought that was hilarious and, in that moment, imagined a vulture’s wrinkled skin pulling tight and smoothing out after eating me.
Pink Eye landed before any other vultures; she perched on the limb of an oak tree, the branch bobbed under her fat weight. She shook her neck wildly, waving back and forth. “Almost,” she squawked.
The shadows of her sisters crossed over my face, breaking up the light of the evening sun, like a car driving by your window at night, or when a light bulb flickers dead, or when the doctor passes the flashlight over your eyes; mysterious and dangerous, a feeling of knowing and at the same time not knowing.
They all landed close, with surprising grace, despite their incessant gawking. Talons scrapped against the earth with a dress shoe’s rhythm, that click clack that lets you know something serious is on the way. All of a sudden I was face to face with Pink Eye, her black eyes blinking with a certain kind of love. The greased feathers of the other vultures crinkled around as they impatiently restrained themselves, waiting for her to move.
Vultures aren’t known to eat living things, but I figured that maybe there was no real difference. A gracious way of looking at it, really. I was dying, but there was no culprit, no murderer, just a drunk driver, a series of events, a random rupturing of a vein inside a woman’s head. There is always some reason behind everything, an endless back tracking tapestry that has no real beginning. That’s fate. Maybe James was drunk because his father was a bastard, and maybe his father was a bastard because his father was a bastard. I guess that’s why we should forgive everyone, everywhere of everything, all the time. Because there is always someone else to blame, and someone else is someone we’ll never be able to find. Like I said, you know everything when you’re dead.
I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of leaving my body, forgiving my father for keeping my mother alive, forgiving James, giving up my ghost as Pink Eye dug in. Her sisters joined the banquet, tasting the sweetness of an end. My funeral would later be held, understandably, with a closed casket. My name was Jonas.
James drove just over the speed limit, with the windows down, breathing out a strong bouquet of alcohol. A cigarette hung limply in the side of his mouth, lit but unsmoked, while strands of velvet lifted and mingled with his tangled and grease-soaked hair, seeping deeper and deeper, engraving an aroma of nicotine that would never be washed out. His eyes stayed still, looking but not looking, reflecting a slow pattern of streetlights. James took the cigarette from his mouth and flicked it out the driver’s side window.
The car crossed over a bridge that bisected a large body of water that, in the nighttime, reflected the stars and the moon and the shadows of the forest and the lights of oncoming traffic, and for a moment the line between what was being reflected and what was reflecting blurred for James. His entire vision filled with an endless expanse of light and dark and waves. An explosion of fire erupted from the road behind him as the discarded cigarette split open, releasing red-hot embers of star patterned tobacco.
My family’s farm wasn’t too far out of town, giving James the luxury of a short drive. He pulled into the parking lot of a gas station next to the town’s only hospital, parking his car behind the dumpster where no one could see the dents and stains and cracks. He grabbed a lambs-skin jacket kept in the back of his car and shoved himself into it; he had somehow managed to get my blood on his shirt and nowhere else. For a moment, James thought about writing a note, but decided that no one would read it if he did.
A bell jingled, signaling to the apathetic cashier that James had entered. The young boy remained behind the front counter, barely nudging from his magazine, bored by a summer job that had bled into fall, his ears grown deaf and numb to the sound of the doorbell. James walked past the counter, paying the cashier a reciprocal amount of notice. The store was run-down, comprised of three aisles filled with candy and condoms and beer, walls lined with adult magazines and coolers filled with energy drinks and more beer, weighing down the air with moisture and mold, pressing down on James’ lungs as he breathed in the odors of an uncirculated linoleum hell.
The cashier was reading an article on 20-gauge shotguns especially designed for hunting doves. Of course, pigeons and doves are the same class of bird, in ornithology the names can be used interchangeably. Basically, a dove is just an albino pigeon. But, thanks to religion, white-pigeons are better respected and then, ironically, hunted, though they are just as filthy. But then, I’m rambling.
James cleared his throat. Sitting on the counter was a small box of rat poison and a tall cup of coffee. The cashier peered over his copy of “Guns & Ammo,” eyes dull and dim. “Will that be all for you today sir?”
“Yeah, just the coffee and this. That’s it.”
“That’ll be six fifty, sir. Thank you for choosing Smart Choice Station today. Have a nice day sir. Please come back soon again, sir.”
James placed the box in his pocket and took the cup of coffee in hand. He turned from the counter and walked deeper into the convenience store, towards the Formica tables and plastic booths that were littered in a claustrophobically small area crammed in a corner wall between a slushy machine and a rotating hotdog grill, designated by a hanging sign just overhead which read “Dining Room.”
He slid into the closest booth with his back towards the front counter and his front towards the large window that looked out onto one of the town’s two main roads, taking the blue box out of his pocket and placing it in front of him while his coffee remained in grasp. He gave a glance to the boy at the counter, who buried his eyes back into the hypocritical world of dove hunting.
The hanging doorbell rang, the young cashier remained listless, an older man waved hello and asked the boy how his studies where going. The boy responded curtly and the old man walked to the self-serve coffee pot, pouring gulps of scalding black into a non-degradable Styrofoam cup. James did his best to ignore the old man while fidgeting with his rat-poison box, but from the corner of his eye noticed that the old man was watching him. James put a handful of blue tablets in his mouth and, before he could vomit, washed them down with coffee. Eyes red and watered, he folded his arms on the table and buried his head like an ostrich.
James was motionless.
“You awake in there, son?”
James glowered at the tired looking old man. Pale yellow street lamps beamed through the windows of the gas station and fell upon Charles, revealing the deep set wrinkles in his face that were clearly visible, but only in certain lighting, and accented his high cheek bones, which he often referenced as proof of his one sixteenth Cherokee heritage. Held gently underneath Charles’ weathered hands was a black leather Bible, a golden cross embossed upon the cover, firmly pressed against his Carhart jacket.
James drank more of his coffee.
“Well, nice to meet you.”
A large black bird flew to the top of a building that overlooked the gas station. James caught the bird’s black eyes and stared at her for a moment. “I’m not interested thank you,” James wiped his nose on the edge of his sleeve. A blotch of blood was starting to set in. “I won’t be long; I’m not long for this place.” Another drop of blood fell to the table, pooled a little bit and began to run towards Charles.
“Now what would that be, that you aint interested in?”
“What you’re selling, by which I mean that thing.” James nodded to the bible. “Believe me old timer, I’ve heard everything anybody could have to say about any thing that’s in there. Haven’t bought it before. Can’t imagine I’d buy it from you.’
Charles slid into the booth opposite James. “Ah kid, I aint said nothing about this thing. Hell, I just got it myself.”
“Then why’d you sit right here, right here at the same table as me?”
“No other good seats, I recon.”
James looked around the dinning room at a good few open seats, a comfortable distance away.
“Truth is, I didn’t feel like sittin’ by my lonesome right now. Didn’t feel like goin’ home neither. I’m in what you might call a purgatory ah sorts.”
“Well go somewhere else please. I’m busy.”
“See my wife is in that hospital right over there. She’s sleepin’ now, been sleepin’ for days and days and on and on. I just went to sit by her, like I do at dusk, and this fat old preacher came in and started gawkin’ to me ‘bout the grace o’ God n’all. I took this thing from her mostly t’ shut her up.”
“Yeah, it’s annoying when someone’s talking to you about something you don’t want to hear,” James dabbed more blood from his nose, just trying to keep it in with his fingers. “Or talking to you when you don’t want to talk at all.”
“Here now, I got somethin’ for that,” Charles pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket. “You go ahead and keep that handkerchief,” Charles said, “Looks like you might be needing it for awhile, all that stuff comin’ out. I keep one with me, usually, round here my nose dries out when the seasons go and change.”
James stuffed an end of the handkerchief into the side of his nose that was bleeding. “Thank you, I’m James.”
“Nice to meet you James, like I done said my name is Charles. And like I was sayin’, sometimes out in the field I’ll be balin’ hay or tillin’ some kinda dirt and my nose will just start gushin’. Doc says it’s something to do with the low humidity.” James pulled the end of the handkerchief out, examining the blood apathetically. “ I find, during this time of year, that if I drink a glass ah’ salt water, it’s an ole Cherokee trick you know, that if I drink a glass ah’ salt water in the mornin’ then I don’t get a bloody nose, which don’t make no sense to me-”
“-Look, I appreciate that you’re lonely and that your wife is sick or whatever, but I’m in the middle of something. I’m probably going to leave here soon anyways so let’s just-“
“-You remind me of my son, you know that? He’s probably ‘bout your age, don’t smell as much like whiskey as you do, but he’s got that short temper what comes with bein’ educated.”
“I’m not educated, not more than anybody else.” James looked out the window at Pink Eye and knew he was being watched.
“Yeah, well James, you’re lonely like you’re educated. Disconnected.”
“And how in the hell,” James strained his posture a bit. “Do you know so much about me?”
Charles smiled coyly and sipped his coffee with a sense of knowing. “Well, for starters you up and buried your head in your arms to avoid seein’ me when I walked in here. Secondly, you done spent more time lookin’ out that window than at anything else. Sounds like a man with a bit ah longin’ in him, don’t it?”
“Please man, you don’t,” James coughed into the handkerchief. “You don’t know anything about me, I promise.”
“Well I’ll make a deal with you,” Charles pulled a hipflask from his coat. “I’ll tell you somethin’ ‘bout me,” he poured a bit from the flask into his cup. “And you tell me somethin’ ‘bout you,” and then poured a bit into James’.
“No thanks, I just quit drinking.”
“Well horseshit you did, ‘less you up and quit after that drink I’m smellin’ on you. Hell, you smell like you’re just barely sobered up, if you’re sober a’tall.”
James took a sip of his Irish coffee.
“Now there you go, we’re ole drinkin’ buddies now. So I’ll do you the favor of startin’. See, I’m hidin’ out in this gas station, was hidin’ out in the hospital. I was hidin’ from my son who’s supposed to be home from school to see his mother. Now I’m hidin’ from his mother, which is down right silly considerin’ she ain’t exactly lookin’.”
“Why are you hiding from your son?”
“Well, you see, me and him ‘aint never really been too close. He and his mother though, they’re thick as thieves. But ever since she slipped into this coma, it’s just been Jonas and me, and it’s just been strange. Like all of a sudden I have this grown son that I never known about, and in part I’m ashamed ah that and in part I’m just tired of it.”
“You love your wife then?“ James coughed again, and started to shiver.
“Hell, ‘course I do. Might not always’ve treated her as such, but you can’t always judge a man how he acts.”
“Why are you hiding from her?”
“’Cause she’s gone I guess, and I don’t want her to be. And I think, and I think maybe I’m mad at her somehow, ‘cause she’s leaving me and she ain’t comin’ back and like that fat preacher said, ‘Where she’s goin’ I ain’t allowed t’ follow.’ Not yet, anyways. It’s hard to look at her knowin’ she won’t look back.”
James and Charles took a moment to drink. Pink Eye perched alone outside, unwavering.
“Last time I talked to my son, we fought ‘bout it. See, Jenny is up there in that hospital bed connected to all these wires. Doc says that it’s what’s keepin’ her alive, and that if we jus’ take em’ out, then Jenny’ll move on. Jonas says that’s what we should do, say’s that’s what’s best ‘cause right now she’s trapped in there. Say’s I’m being selfish with it. Hell, he’s right, that’s exactly what I’m bein’. Maybe that’s why I gotta hide from him, cause he knows I’m still holdin’ on to Jenny and that’s not something that I want to have to know too. I guess you young bucks don’t know how much old timers jus’ want another day ah’livin’. You cold, with all that shakin’?”
“No, maybe it’s just sobering up. I don’t feel cold.” James shivered, visibly.
“Ah, the folly of youth, as it were. You gotta cut that drinkin’ out now, you hear?” Charles took a drink straight from his flask. “I should know, you know?”
“Yeah I know.”
“So now you tell me somethin’ ‘bout you.”
“Well…” James did his best to ignore Pink Eye, who had moved one building closer. “This guy I kinda know, or sorta met, well he j-just died. J-just died.”
“Oh yeah, I see it now. You got it written all up n’down, you do.”
“I can’t help but feel like it’s my fault, or that I’m responsible for it. I didn’t know him well, didn’t know his name if I can b-be honest.”
“Well it’s easy t’feel responsible for the dead. Guess that’s part ah what makes it so goddamn terrible t’live.”
“I mean I didn’t mean it, you know? I’d take it back if I could. Shit I wish I could just take it back.”
Charles poured the remainder of his flask into James’ cup.
“Or maybe even trade places. Yeah, I think I’d just trade places.”
“Now don’t go say nothin’ like that, you hear? You’re carryin’ the weight of this with you and that ain’t fair cause ain’t nothin’ can be done ‘bout it. Best thing you can do is live. That’s how we honor the dead you hear? We jus’ gotta live. Now how’d this fella die?”
“He was hit by a drunk driver, this asshole of a driver.”
Charles took in a deep sniff. “Well it weren’t you who was drivin’, now was it?”
“- Then there ain’t nothin’ t’ feel guilty ‘bout. Prolly doesn’t do much good for your heart to be drinkin’ too. Hair ah the dog don’t work with death.”
“You’re kind of a c-contradiction, old man, you know that?”
Charles leaned back in his seat. “Anyone who ain’t is dead, I spose.”
“I’ll d-drink to that.”
Charles leaned forward and thought about reaching his arm out to place a hand on James. Would that be ah’ comfort, he thought. Jonas always hates it when I touch him n’ public.
“How did you’re wife go c-c-comatose?”
“Ah hell, I don’t know all the right words that the doc uses, but I guess this gasket in her brain burst an’ got all this blood in her head. Put her t’ sleep just like that, while we were out for a walk as it were.”
“How l-long ago?”
“’Bout six months. The blood is pretty much pooled up in her skull, and liquid is getting’ and stayin’ in her lungs. She needs a machine t’ breath, t’ pump in the air. Guess I came t’ terms with her dyin’ a few months ago, but I just ain’t ready t’ let her go.”
“It’s understandable. Being stuck in limbo, you know, it’s undes-s-s-ierable.”
“You sure you’re okay kiddo? You know Jenny was stammerin’ like that right before-“
A loud crack broke the monotony of the gas station, enough to rouse the cashier. Charles turned around to the window looking out on one of the town’s two main roads. The street, the sidewalk, a trash can, buildings, shadows, all split up by a wide spread strip of midnight red running from the bottom of the windowsill and reaching to the upper end of the glass, punctuated by a collision splatter with extending cracks at it’s beginning.
Charles stood from the booth and moved the window. Stretched out on the side walk below, with twists and squalor, trembled a long pink neck, bending in too many directions, poking into a ruffled mass of black silk feathers, swimming in a sea of fresh crimson, twitching slightly with the movement of a body that hasn’t yet figured out it’s dead. Vultures have so many nerves in their neck that they can remain active for up to an hour before rigor mortis sets in. Pink Eye was gone, bits of me still in her.
“The damn thing kamikaze’d the window. Can’t believe it didn’t break through. It’s still twitching out there and everythin’. You probably oughtta call animal control or somthin’, don’t you think son?” Charles turned to the young boy at the cash register, who stared aghast at the dinning room. “C’mon now, It’s just a dead bird, ain’t nobody dead what matters-“
It was then that Charles realized that James was no longer in his seat, but slumped over on the floor of the dinning room, shaking violently and gurgling a cocktail of blood and foam. The cashier stumbled for the phone, frantically dialing the same three numbers over and over again.
“Goddammit!” Charles fell to his knees and scooped James up. “You sonofabitch, what is it now, what is it?” A small blue tablet vomited from James’ mouth.
“I-I’m sorry,” James choked through spit and tears, “Please f-forgive me y-you have to f-f-forgive me. S-someone has to f-f-f-orgive m-me.”
“C’mon now, goddammit!”
James’ hand squeezed tightly on Charles’ “P-p-please…F-f-orgive me…s-someone-”
“What’d you do? The fuck you do?”
“I k-k-killed him, I d-“
“Oh shuddup now, just shuddup I don’t want t’ hear that. You ain’t gotta die now, tradin’ places ain’t gonna do nothin’, you hear me? You hear me now? Goddammit where is the ambulance, the’guddamn thing is right there!”
James stopped moving, going limp in Charles arms like a son falling asleep in his father’s, neither knowing entirely who the other was. The cashier was done, abandoning the phone for the speed of his feet and the effectiveness of his shouts.
Charles sat, clinging to James’ body, thinking of Jenny in her hospital bed and wondering if she would shake when the cord to her life support was finally and inevitably removed, if her death would be so violent. He stayed with James, repeating, forgiveness over and over but without knowing why, promising himself that he would leave all this immediately and, without hesitation or doubt, tell me that he loved me and that he was happy I was his son.
The lights of an ambulance sparked into the gas station with flashes of red, giving the scene a sense of mystery and wonder, like when a bird flies overhead, or when sunlight pokes through a tall tree in a dark forest, that feeling of knowing and at the same time not knowing.