I was hiding out in Frankie Johnson’s car, a canary yellow '69 Super Bee that could shit and get. We were on a spree, stealing anything we could get our hands on—tape players and car batteries, gasoline and beer. It was a day or two after my sixteenth birthday, and I hadn't been home in a week. And even though my old man was telling everyone around Knockemstiff that he hoped I was dead, he kept driving up and down the township roads with his head out the window looking for me like I was one of his lost coonhounds.
Frankie kept saying that three hundred dollars would get us to California, but the only person we knew who had anything worth that much money was Wanda Wipert. Depending on who she was fucking at the time, a man could end up sleeping at the bottom of the Dynamite Hole with trash fish and bald tires for ripping Wanda off. Besides that, my old man's place was right across the road from her house. "No way," I said. Even talking about it gave me the willies.
"Fuck 'em," Frankie said. "Shit, Bobby, we'll be three thousand miles away."
We broke in through the bathroom window. Pressed into the gray scum of the tub, our boot prints looked like those fossil feet frozen in rocks that my crazy cousins said the Devil had planted all over the world to trick people into believing that we came from frog shit and monkeys. There was a little radio next to the sink playing one of the country music stations. The DJ was announcing a sale on Thanksgiving turkeys at the Big Bear. A pair of red panties was balled up on the linoleum floor, and Frankie stuffed them into the back pocket of his coveralls. "Let's don't be fuckin' around here," I whispered. Every creak of the old house sounded like a gunshot to me.
The little meat freezer was in the hallway next to the bedroom door. Inside we found four bottles of black beauties—pharmaceutical speed—hidden under a quart of frozen strawberries and a Barbie doll still in the box. The pills were wrapped in a sheet of bloody butcher's paper that had CHUCKlE'S HOG BRAINS writ on it with a blue crayon. Somebody had already eaten the brains.
Wanda tended bar at Hap's and sold the black beauties on the side. The hilljacks loved them because a three-dollar capsule made it possible to drink four times as much and still miss the telephone poles on the way home. She had a whole posse of big girls that she carted around southern Ohio to the fat doctors. To get a prescription of black beauties, all they had to do was stand on the scales and let the nurse take their blood pressure. Wanda bribed the women with cheap tennis shoes from the Woolworth's and Rax Roast Beef sandwiches and Dairy Queen milk shakes. My older sister, Jeanette, was one of her regulars. The only time I ever saw her happy was after one of those trips with Wanda to cop a 'script. She always came back with mustard stains on her good blouse and something sweet for her two illegits.
"Maybe we oughta leave one bottle," I said.
"No way, Bobby," Frankie said. "We use our heads, these babies will get us clear to goddamn San Francisco."
"How long will it take to get there?"
"Five days," he said, shoving all four bottles deep down into his front pockets.
Leaving out the back door, we climbed up over Slate Hill and through the woods toward Foggy Moor. That's where we'd stashed the Super Bee. The moon rose up behind us like a flat, shiny skull. We had to fight our way through the brush and briars for two miles, but at least nobody would be able to say they'd seen us in the holler that night.
Four bottles of black beauties—240 pills—was enough rocket fuel to send a trash can to Mars. The pills still had frost on them when Frankie opened the first bottle and handed me two. Our plan was to eat just a couple, and then head west on Route 50 after we sold the rest in town. Within forty-five minutes my heart was ticking like a live bomb. By midnight I was chewing holes in my tongue listening to Frankie obsess about having sex with movie stars. "What about it, Bobby?" he finally asked me. "What would you do to her?"
Frankie had been listing all the stuff he wanted to do to Ali McGraw. I'd known him my whole life, but the part about the ax handle took me by surprise. I'd never been with a woman, and I was still trying to figure out if such a thing was even possible. "Shit, I don't know," I finally said with a shrug.
He fired up another cigarette off the one he was smoking. "Did you get off?" he asked, looking over at me.
"Yeah," I said. "Why?"
"I don't know, man. You just seem out of it."
"Look, I'm thinking maybe we should take them pills back, Frankie," I said. "I mean, if Wanda finds out—"
"Are you fuckin' nuts?" he said. He uncapped the bottle and handed me a couple more of the black capsules. "You're just comin' down, Bobby, that's all."
He was right—two more made all the difference. Within a few minutes, a great happiness surged up inside of me as I thought of running away to California. Suddenly, I knew that all the lousy, fucked-up things that kept happening in my life would never happen again. I remembered the last time my old man had went crazy on us, all because my mother had fixed him oatmeal instead of eggs for his breakfast. I began to talk and found that I couldn't stop. While Frankie drove around the township in circles that night, I told him all the secrets in my house, every single rotten thing that my old man had ever done to us. And though, in a stupid way, I felt like a fucking rat the more I blabbed, by the time the sun came up the next morning, it seemed as if all the shame and fear I'd ever carried inside of me was burned away like a pile of dead leaves.
We ran over the chicken three days after we stole the pills. It came out of nowhere. I was at the height of my powers then. Eat twenty-five black beauties in three days and you will know what I'm talking about. "Fuck!" I yelled when I heard it thump against the car. Frankie slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a stop. I jumped out. The chicken was smashed against the grill, its neck broken. I pulled it gently away from the chrome and held it up by its bumpy yellow feet. A glob of blood as fat and round as a red pearl hung on the end of its busted beak.
Climbing out of the car, Frankie said, "How'd that get there?" He checked the front grill, wiped it off with his coat sleeve. Then he got down on his knees and looked underneath for damage. He loved that Super Bee. "Goddamn chicken," I heard him say.
"I can save it," I said.
Frankie stood up and frowned at me, pressed a finger against the side of his nose and blew snot all over his work boots. "It's dead, Bobby." He rubbed the toe of each shoe against the legs of his greasy coveralls while chewing the inside of his mouth as if it was a big soft seed. His pupils shone like tiny headlights in the dusk.
"I can save it," I repeated. I held the bird close to my chest, felt its warmth slowly slipping away in the cold wind blowing across the flat fields. The farmers had already picked the harvest. Two-inch stubble covered the landscape. Even the highway was empty. I stroked the chicken's tiny head with my thumb. "Pop the trunk," I said. Then I wrapped the body in my flannel shirt and laid it gently on top of a spare tire.
Later that same night, I lost my cherry to a girl with razor-thin lips who kept telling me to hurry up. Her name was Teabottom. We first saw her coming out of Penrod's Grocery in Nipgen carrying a carton of milk. Her red frizzy hair looked like a bush burning atop her head. She was wearing a ragged blue work shirt and grimy plastic sandals. Her feet were purple from the cold. A little leather purse hung from a dirty string around her neck. "Hey, baby!" Frankie yelled as he whipped the car into the gravel lot and cut her off.
We worked out a trade, and she climbed in the backseat. Frankie flipped a coin, and I went first. From everything I'd seen in the movies, I thought I should hold her tenderly, but she was all business. She pulled her shirt up over her head so I couldn't kiss her. The carton of milk busted in the floorboards and sloshed on my feet. I might as well have been in a barnyard.
"Damn, she ain't no Ali McGraw, but I wish I had that fuckin' ax handle now," Frankie said to me the second time he climbed over the seat. Because of the speed, we couldn't get enough. We tried to wear her out, mostly because of the disdainful way she looked at us. But nothing we did made any difference to her as long as we handed her two more pills every time we took a turn. She stuck all of them in her change purse.
The third time I went for it, I asked her about the milk. My socks were soaked with it. "It was for my baby, dumbass," she said. She was smoking a cigarette, bitching about being sore.
"You got a baby?" I said.
"What, you hard of hearing too?"
"Well, where is it now?"
"Don't worry about it," she told me, holding out her hand. I laid two pills in her palm, and she spread herself down on the seat with a groan. But I couldn't stop thinking about her baby, and wondering who was taking care of it while Frankie and me tried to screw her brains out. I kept imagining all kinds of horrible, fucked-up things happening to it. When I finally gave up and climbed off of her, she cupped some of the spilled milk from the floor into her hand and poured it over her crotch. She didn't even bother pulling her jeans back on anymore.
Toward morning, as I drove us along a gravel road, I thought I heard Frankie telling the Teabottom girl that he would take her to Nashville as soon as he could get rid of me. But when I turned the radio down, all I could hear was the steady squeak of the seat behind me. I turned around in the seat, saw him hovering over the top of the girl with his eyes shut. "Frankie?" I asked.
"What about California, man?" I asked. We hadn't left the county yet, hadn't sold a single pill.
"Jesus Christ, Bobby, not now."
When we finally let her out, Teabottom stumbled bowlegged to her trailer through a yard strewn with rusty car parts and old empty dog boxes. We sat in the Super Bee watching numbly as she stepped up on some wobbly cement blocks and went inside. A light popped on, then off again. I lit a cigarette and pulled another black beauty from the stash I had in my coat pocket. "My dick feels like a goddamn snappin' turtle's been chewing on it," Frankie said. Then he backed out of the driveway, burned a patch of rubber all the way through first gear. Above us, the black sky slowly turned into a gray waxen sea.
By the end of the fifth day, we were fried. Now the speed was like water running through our veins, and we couldn't get off anymore. Our throats had turned to leather from cigarettes and talk; our gums bled and our jaws ached from grinding our teeth together. Frankie kept whispering to a beer can that he held in his hand like a microphone, and I had struggled off and on all that day to convince myself that it wasn't talking back to him. And in the backseat, the spilled milk had soured and filled the car with rotten fumes that kept reminding me of Teabottom's little baby. "What about California, you fuck?" I finally said. "Shit, we coulda been there by now."
He sighed and whispered one more time to the can, then tossed it out the window. "Hey, Bobby," he said, "you can go anytime you want. I ain't stopping you."
A few minutes later, we pulled into Train Lane, a rutted farm road that divided two cornfields on the edge of Knockemstiff. It didn't matter how many miles we traveled by day, we always ended up back in the holler at night, though I was scared shitless that we'd run into Wanda Wipert or, even worse, my old man. At the turnaround at the end of the lane, we parked beside an illegal dump, piled high with bags of trash and busted chairs and cast-off refrigerators. The sun was sinking with a purple glow behind the Mitchell Flats. The DJ announced the sale on Thanksgiving turkeys again.
"Jesus," I said, "how many fuckin' Thanksgivings are they having this year?"
Frankie shut the engine off and sat staring straight ahead for a few minutes. Then he jerked the keys from the ignition and stepped out of the car. I watched him hunt through the trash, throwing boards and paper off to the side. He found an old tire and rolled it out into the middle of the road. As he bent down and started stuffing the inside of it with paper and cardboard, I opened the glove box and grabbed one of the two bottles of black beauties we had left. I slipped the speed in the top of my sock and got out of the car. "What you doing, man?" I asked him.
He was holding his lighter to some of the damp paper, trying to get it to ignite. "I'm fuckin' cold, and I'm fuckin' hungry," he croaked. We both watched as a tiny flame began to grow inside the tire. "When you figure was the last time we ate?"
"I don't know," I said.
"It's been a week. At least a week, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe so."
Walking to the back of the car, Frankie opened the trunk and lifted the chicken out. My shirt was still wrapped around it like a shroud. "Oh, shit," I said. I fumbled for the last pill I had in my coat pocket and bit it open. "Just give me a minute here, man," I said, swallowing the bitter powder. "Maybe I can still do something."
Frankie shook his head. "You want your shirt back?" he asked. He was swinging the chicken back and forth by its feet as if he was trying to hypnotize me.
"No," I said. "Well, yeah, I guess so."
"Here, hold this, just for a minute." He handed me the stiff bird. Then he began digging through the trash again, finally pulling a broken stake out of the pile. "This'll work," he said to himself. Taking the chicken from me, he set it on the ground, and pressed his foot on its neck.
"What are you doing?" I said as I took off my coat and put my shirt back on.
"Watch," he said. And with one quick motion, he bent down and rammed the stake up the chicken's ass until the point broke through the breast with a crunchy sound.
"Goddamn it," I cried. I was so worthless I'd forgotten all about it, and now nobody could bring the chicken back to life. Then another thought occurred to me. "You're not going to screw that, are you?" I asked him. "Because I'll tell you right now, Frankie, I won't allow it."
"I hadn't thought of that," he said, "but no, I'm gonna eat the fuckin' thing." Then he lifted the chicken up and carried it toward the fire. One of the bird's eyes was open, staring at me blankly. A thin strand of blue intestines hung from the tip of the stake.
The tire was blazing now, the thick black smoke funneling into the night. The smell of the burning rubber started to make me sick. I stood back and watched as Frankie held the carcass over the edge of the flames. The feathers curled and melted and disappeared. "Ain't you even gonna gut it?" I said, stepping closer.
He looked back at me and showed his teeth. "Just got to cook it," he gagged. He pulled Wanda's red panties from his pocket and held them over his face. The chicken began to grow soft, and started to slide off the end of the stick, but Frankie righted it just in time. The skin sizzled and smoked and started to turn black. Drops of fat began to splatter into the fire. The feet shriveled up and fell into the flames.
Without another word, I stepped across the drainage ditch and out into the soft barren field. I pulled the bottle of pills out of my sock, stuck them in my pocket. Route 50 was two miles away, and I started walking toward it. Mud stuck to my boots like wet concrete, and every few steps I had to stop to shake it off. Looking up, I saw the red blinking lights of an airliner, miles above me, heading west. I'd never been on a plane, but I imagined big-shot bastards on vacation, movie stars with beautiful lives. I wondered if they could see the glow of Frankie's fire from up there. I wondered what they would think of us.
© Donald Ray Pollock 2008
This electronic version of "Pills" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the author's collection Knockemstiff published by Doubleday, a Division of Random House, 2008. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Donald Ray Pollock was born in 1954 and grew up in southern Ohio, in a holler named Knockemstiff. He dropped out of high school at seventeen to work in a meatpacking plant, and then spent thirty-two years employed in a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio. Currently, he is a graduate student in the MFA program at Ohio State University and still lives in Chillicothe with his wife, Patsy, a high school English teacher. He hopes to someday teach fiction writing. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Third Coast, The Journal, Sou’wester, Chiron Review, River Styx, Boulevar, Folio, and The Berkeley Fiction Review, and he has contributed essays on politics to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. He is currently at work on a novel set in 1965, about a serial killer named Arvin Eugene Russell.
Author’s website: www.donaldraypollock.com