After the funeral, I ate most of a potato casserole. There were probably six in the fridge and this one had onions, which I didn’t like, but it was the easiest to reach. It had baked too long and the crust was sticking to the side of the glass dish, so I started in the middle, plunging my hand to the bottom and scooping. With each shoveled handful, I allowed the excess potato to cover the corners of my mouth and settle into my beard. I winced each time I crunched down on an onion. Maybe I would have covered myself in casserole and passed out, but a stern knock on the trailer door meant the apotheosis of my criminal career would be short-lived. I suppose I should have expected this much— what with chickens coming home and all that.
We are all projectors. Our bodies and our minds run on blood and air and magic, and we project. Heaven, Hell, love. Paradise lost, paradise regained, paradise island. A natural occurrence takes place and our need to believe— our need to be justified— turns the natural into the miraculous.
The Texas Miracle. Stab the earth and life oozes out. Bring in the trucks, the jobs, the revenue. Chew the roads, the ground, the resources. Pump it all. Drill everything. Project this as our success, our justification. It’s a rain dance. If we’re wet, we’re right.
During the miraculous days, I worked the derricks. Fear of heights need not apply. I also helped the drillers, where sweat and dirt covered even our shadows. Offsite, I spent some time in the bars and a few houses of ill repute, but mostly I played cards. One night my life was in the middle of the table when a third ace, studded with diamonds, put me in a bad place with worse people.
I owe for the drug, too. It started out of necessity, to stay awake during shifts. Then it was pleasure, during the monotony of the off weeks. I fought against it the first time or two— the drug— as it crawled through my body like an insect, spilling out of my ears and eyes and fingertips. It weaved in and out of my ribs with every breath I took. Now it comforts me. Now I crave the way it feels, sliding down the back of my neck. I get scared it will fall out of my mouth, so I breathe through my nose. I need it.
The miracle died with the leaves last winter. We pumped down the price. By spring I was driving back home to East Texas on the cheapest tank of gas I’d bought in years. My job had vanished, but my debts had not. Even the pine curtain couldn’t stop them from following. The drug came, too. It was a fixture, now. We were one.
I approached Lufkin from below, wheeling my old truck through the facade of an economic renaissance. New roads, hotels, restaurants and shopping centers were stacked on top of one another at the city’s southern mouth— there to serve travelers heading up from Houston. I passed gated residences, trimmed trees and sidewalks that led to the country club. A community built for insurance salesman and politicians, not welders and factory workers. But it was all paper-mache. A projection. The economy that built the town— the timber industry, the paper mill, the foundries— was leaking and would soon sink. The effects were already being felt by those not living on streets named for the great golf courses of America. I saw the consequences for myself as I pulled onto the road where miracles didn’t happen.
A car honked. I couldn’t tell if I was driving too fast or too slow. I glanced at myself in the rearview. My eyes were splattered with red and pink veins that sprawled across my sclera like a network of tributaries. I wasn’t too far from the trailer, but the drug needed me. I pulled into the overgrown lot in front of the mill where my grandfather once operated a paper-making machine. I embraced the drug with such enthusiasm I thought both of us might suffocate. Die together. Instead, it saved me. It told me the plan, and I listened.
This time I knew I was speeding. I wanted to fly. Someone yelled “slow down.” Maybe it was a car I passed. Maybe it was my subconscious. Maybe it was God. I ignored them all. Slow down. Never. Not us— the drug and I. Those chickenshit words may as well be the motto for this place. This place that produced me— churned me out on an assembly line like thousands before me. It’s not my fault. It’s this place.
She didn’t look after me. She didn’t feed me, or check to make sure I did my homework. She didn’t care if I even went to school. He did whatever he wanted to her. To me. If we stood up together things could have been different, but she laid down inside bottles— pills, booze, and this place. She let them all take what they wanted, just like him. But I’m stronger than her, now. I was raised by this place. I’m part of the humidity, part of the pines, part of the rust— and chickens always come home to roost. Her life is worthless. You can’t fly inside a bottle, but you can die there. It’s a good plan, and I need the cash. I made the call to a tweaker-friend of a friend. He was willing. We’d split the life insurance money.
I don’t know how long I slept once the drug was done with me. It had tossed me, and my truck, into a ditch about a mile from the trailer. Not many folks came out this far, so maybe I had slept for a day, or two, or forever. Maybe someone turned off the projector and I didn’t exist anymore. My phone vibrated in my pocket.
I answer, therefore I exist.
I recognized the voice, but not the words. It was taken care of, but the terms had changed. He wanted more money. I told him that was impossible— I owed people. I had to pay or I was a dead man. Not his problem. Okay, I said, I’ll figure something out. Was it clean? I ask him. Clean as murdering an old lady can be, he says.
I felt numb. I usually did when the drug was done with me. Guilt was sneaking into my veins and clogging my arteries. Sadness was eroding the lining of my esophagus. Anxiety and panic and pain dug into my belly-button, clawing their way through my stomach. I didn’t feel any of it, just numb.
There is no grand entrance leading across the grounds of my mobile estate. There are no gates or sidewalks. The road itself is the type that makes you believe you missed your turn, but it would be safer to keep driving than to stop and ask for directions. Creeks that feed the Angelina River cut across the landscape, but the generational poverty cuts harder. Out here, if you want to flush the toilet, you dig your own water line. Each small road turns into a smaller one, as each day turns into a lifetime for the folks who call this stretch of evergreen forest home.
I choked on the air in the trailer. It was thick with mold and rot and regret. Roaches scattered from one hiding place to the next with each step I took. There was no couch or television, which meant the only divide between the living room and the kitchen, was the ragged lip of flooring where the rough carpet ended and the cheap linoleum began. There was a bedroom in the back overrun with boxes and trash and the reasons I left. I turned the knob on the kitchen sink, but received no response. I sunk down onto my stomach and slept.
The funeral was two days after I woke up. The casket had to be closed, but the murder case had been busted wide open. I let the drug read the headlines with me. The voice from my phone belonged to the mugshot in the paper. There had been a struggle. DNA had been recovered, and matched. I had never seen her fight for anything, but of course she would fight now. Of course she would let me down when I needed her the most. She failed to have strength in life, and failed to be weak in death. If the deed-doer decided to tell the truth now, I’d have to fly to get away. But first, the funeral.
Funerals are our biggest projections. We work so hard to make death appear bright. A light at the end of a tunnel, shining glory of the afterlife, illumination of the soul and all that. Black suit, black dress, black glasses and black gloves— anything we can do to make the living seem dark, so death will seem brighter. We work so hard because we are so afraid. But our fear does not change the truth. My mother is dead, and there is no light. There are only people dressed in black clothes. They aren’t crying for her, or for me. They are crying for themselves, because deep down they know the truth. No matter how dark their clothes are, or how dark their life seems, one day they’ll be dead too, and there will be no reprieve— no light waiting on them. They don’t have wings like I do.
If I’m in prison, they’ll take the drug from me. I can’t be in prison.
You didn’t know my mother, why are you here. I ask.
“Just stopped by to pay my respects,” the detective looked at me, and she saw. The other people didn’t see. For two days they brought their casseroles and their cobblers, but they were blind.
“Well, looks like you’re paid up then,” I said. The drug needed me.
“And what about you?” the detective asked. “You all paid up, yet?”
She knows. The drug began screaming in my toenails and testicles. My pupils went in and out, back and forth.
“Speaking of which,” she continued. “That junkie we arrested for the killing told us one hell of a story. And I imagine we’ll be coming to see you real soon.”
The drug took me back to the trailer. I wasn’t hungry, but it told me to eat, to build up my strength. It ran its fingers through my hair and put its lips against my ear. It stroked me, and whispered. I’m not sure I was there anymore, or if it was only the drug. There was less work that way. I’d worked too hard, it told me. A clump of the casserole fell from my chin onto my groin and it felt good. I heard the knock, and their instructions. But their truths were not mine.
I chose to fly.
I entered the rest of the drug as the rest of it entered me. As my eyes rolled back, my wings flared out. As my body seized, my feathers sprouted. The transition wasn’t painful— the drug had promised it wouldn’t be. As my heart stopped, I opened my beak and clucked. And by the time the officers busted through the door, I was already flying high above them— above the pines that shelter destitution, above the paper-mache city of my past, and above the projections of a world filled with miracles.
James Wade lives in Austin, Texas, where he writes fiction for his wife and two dogs. His wife is encouraging, but the dogs remain unimpressed. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Skylark Review, Bartleby Snopes, After the Pause, Potluck Magazine, Through the Gaps, Yellow Chair Review, Typehouse Magazine, and The J.J. Outré Review. Visit him at www.jameswadewriter.com