This Thanksgiving Holiday, let us provide you with a feast of words. Pick up your knives and forks and enjoy some food for thought.
The Roles by Jonathan Ashley
Steve Hurn and I did time together in Jessamine County. He looked out for me my first few weeks in custody and I shudder now to think how hopeless and pitiful a sight he must have found the four-eyed cut of straight lace I’d been early on in my two-year Federal sentence, after the staties and the DEA caught me selling Percocets and Narcos out of the pharmacy my family had owned for half a century.
We parted ways when he got final sentencing and, after an eighteen-month flop, he served out from Big Sandy. Steve had twenty-two days left on his rip when the three Jessamine County boys caught him alone in the weight room. He knew they’d be coming, but listened to the experience that told him these things only happened in the stairwells and showers, places he’d avoided since inciting the wrath of Brady Dalton.
He’d had words with Dalton the week prior when Steve, laid up in his rack and stripped down to a thermal t-shirt and boxer briefs, talked back to Sandy's three longest surviving sodomites. Brady and his road dogs—in trustee greens, fresh off their sick bay shift—slowly passed Steve’s pod and, together, peered through the Plexiglas like they were observing the strange habits of some animal caged in a sad mockery of its natural home. Brady whistled. “Look at that fine piece of state pussy, boys.”
Steve had never been one to play the whore for any man, to cite the words of his shiftless father, oft repeated until the old man gave up the ghost in a state as far from grace as a drunken stripper dancing in center of a blood-drawn Heavy Metal pentagram.
“State pussy?” Steve twisted Brady’s words into a question, applying a sissy lisp. “I didn’t know your daddy was locked up again, Brady. Send him on over. It’s been a minute since I got one in.”
Hurn told me later that, as he faced down his three assailants in the weight room, he wondered if his disrespect had brought this trouble down on him, or if, like Brady claimed, if it had been Steve's ass that served as the sole source of his downfall, in which case, he’d been—in more than one sense—fucked all along.
Outnumbered and doomed to submission, Steve sought the few strikes he could enjoy and he made damn sure they counted. He knocked three teeth free from Brady’s blackened gums before Shorty came up with a bar bell and ushered Steve into the merciful void of the unconscious.
He remained in Medical for two weeks. Thankfully, Brady and the other two were placed in isolation as an informer had dropped a note to the guards claiming to have borne witness to the three trustees fleeing the weight room minutes before Hurn had been discovered unconscious.
He lost a front tooth and earned five forehead stitches, six in his ruptured anus. He’d been commanded daily by nurses to remain on his stomach the duration of his bed rest.
Officials investigated the incident with more care than any of the players involved could have predicted and some sallow investigator for the DOC questioned Steve on five different occasions.
When asked, after the inmate's unceasing denials of sexual abuse, how, if Steve had simply taken a bad tumble, the “more internal” of the wounds occurred, Steve would laughingly produce the same answer, “Hemorrhoids, I guess.”
He was shipped from Big Sandy to the Rotary Farm outside Lexington, closer to home, where he remained in custody for less than an hour as his paper work had already come through. He talked reckless the day he left Sandy, telling anyone without a snitch jacket, especially those he knew kept up with Dalton, that he planned to murder the sickly pride of Jessamine County. “Graveyard dead,” Steve specified.
He had a job waiting for him when he touched down. He’d lead the same crew of convicts he’d worked alongside in Jessamine County before his final sentencing, digging graves at Holy Innocence. I'd been transferred back home for my last month in custody and Steve drove me and two other inmates every morning to the graveyard from the County Jail in a white van advertising the state government on both sides in bright silver. In my old friend’s proud gait I noticed a weary drag, like he'd been injured in a war and deserved all the benefits reserved for veterans.
“We got a bad one today, boys,” Steve told me and the other three convicts in DOC coveralls. Steve dressed in nearly matching Carharts, only a darker shade of gray than what the state assigned Work Release. I wondered why he didn’t dress more street. Then I remembered how he was. He didn’t want to come off like he’d gotten some notion about hisself now that he was no longer behind the fence. “It’s bad, but we do it like we done all the others. We maintain a professional front, no matter what we’re facing.”
“They’re all bad,” said the corpulent Methamphetamine cook killing out a five-year flop.
“Like that college boy last month.” The killer, who himself had ran over his wife’s lover, referred to the nineteen-year old student, dead under the wheels of a drunk driver.
“That woman …” Steve shivered at the thought of the college boy’s mama. “I truly believed there a second I’d have to call a hearse for her too the way she went on.”
Steve stood behind the mourners, his hands clasped at his belt line, with his back to the grave crew. We tried to mirror his reverence. Us cons wore work coats over our county grays to shield the aggrieved from further reminders of loss.
My most recent dead, Stephanie, was the only sibling provided by my momma, a true enthusiast of the methadone clinic and pay-by-the-week motels who could not identify the father of either child. Stephie had been a cheerleader in Hazard, Kentucky only three years ago, then married a biker, a man of Brady Dalton’s ilk whose only ambitions on Earth involved violence and testicular relief. He’d driven into an oncoming semi, the wrong way up an off-ramp. The loss that proved so small to the sum of us devastated my sister. She no longer tested her dope before taking her first shot and died within a week of her beloved outlaw’s accident. She was a mountain-holler force of nature now interned indefinitely in a Jessamine County mausoleum up a wide swipe of freshly-cut bluegrass from where I stood the day Steve met the woman who’d bring him to face Brady Dalton again.
The morning of her baby’s funeral, Shelby Boulden had fashioned her dusky coiffure into a miniature beehive. She’d developed the bust and gait of veteran pole dancer. But the minute she opened her mouth, any accusations of cheap harlotry were, more often than not, quickly re-considered. She’d not backed down from a fight since the first schoolyard scamp made the unfortunate mistake of pulling on her by the pigtails.
She was one of the only five mourners present for the abridged burial proceedings.
Steve carried the tiny casket to the hole alone.
We had not dug six-feet. To save money and time, we were regulated by the state to stop short of five. Steve leaned down and lightly placed the infant departed into the pathetically precise rectangle of earth his men had cut. He had barely fit himself and the baby into the hole when he glanced up. The mother dropped at the grave’s rim bawling on her hands and knees like a loveless mountain lion braying at the lonesome, empty heavens.
Yet it was Steve who could not rise.
He cried with her, nearly crumbling atop the casket.
At the site of the foreman's breakdown, in a few short instants, Shelby becalmed and rose as if possessed by the Holy Spirit both damaged souls had long forsaken.
She offered the broken gravedigger her hand.
I was released a week after the infant funeral but continued work grave digging. My second day a free man, after Steve returned the others to the jail where we left them to their overnight confinement, we traveled to downtown Lexington where we could enjoy the sights of coeds still sheltered by baby-fat and daddy, elbows locked with carefree boulevardiers, wandering blindly this wicked world.
We sat on the veranda of a beer garden overlooking the University Emergency room across Limestone Avenue.
“Be nice if we got to see Brady Dalton wheeled in.” Steve had confessed what had happened to him in the short road trip from the Jessamine Jail to Limestone Avenue, the first time he told anyone, he said. I'd heard the rumors already and, for more details, I’d subtly inquired among the felon class who kept in contact via the underworld avenues that allowed our kind mobility and chance.
“Should have killed him when I had the chance,” Steve lamented with a pull from his bottle. “Should have thrown him off the tier before he could even …”
I offered no response, support, or even some sad and half-measured remonstrance, for I couldn’t claim with any confidence that I would not, from where he sat, share his sentiments. Instead, I allowed him a few more mumbled and tired threats on the life of Brady Dalton after which I attempted to divert the dialogue’s violent current.
“How’s your women?” I asked him. It was a catch phrase of ours from back when we were young and unsullied, playing like we were playboys.
“Just got me one.”
“The girl at the funeral.”
“I don’t want to hear any of it.”
“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Nothin’ except you’re a lucky sumbitch. That little body on her ... no offense. But she's one bad motherfucker. And I mean that, like, complimentary.”
“And that’s how I’ll take it.”
“That’s how I’d expect you to.”
Steve guffawed. “I'd hate to think I wouldn't.”
“We just ... uh ... consummated I guess would be the appropriate term … just a few nights ago.”
“I think it's deeper than even that, bub.”
“You were screwing half the county that couldn’t piss standing up last time you had a lapse of freedom.”
“But this one's an angel.” He smiled for the first time since I’d last seen him, on the day of his transfer from FCDC. “She’s batshit crazy, but I’m sold on her.”
“I like her already, then.” I finished my beer. I was starting to get tight, running from my Stephanie and her mausoleum. I couldn’t begin to remember why I’d even been crying earlier, alone in my tiny quarters at the hovel halfway house to which I’d been paroled. “Hell, Steve, you oughta go ahead and marry the girl.” Then I sung, “You ain’t no kid at thirty-three.”
Steve sipped his beer and said, “She wants me to break into the house and rape her.”
The paralyzing sound of laughing girls leading their men along drifted from the Limestone sidewalks. “Are you serious?”
“I ain’t sure.”
The third evening of their ramshackle romance, Steve called the sober living apartment where he’d stayed since his release and told them to keep his deposit. Shelby worked at the Austin City Saloon on Eastland Drive tending bar for the Honky Tonk crowd while Greg, whose last name hung above the entrance, painted in white on a black swinging plank, crooned Conway Twitty and Kansas.
“He’s cleaned up?” I interrupted Steve’s story to ask after Greg Austin. Greg had been a sheet writing strong-arm long before I’d drank my first Falls City.
We were back at the beer garden, decompressing after spending so many listless hours begrimed and breathless among the newly dead.
“That ain’t none of our business, Mr. Austin’s affairs,” Steve reminded me. “’Specially considerin’ he was the only one looked after Shelby when her piece of shit baby daddy put her in the ICU then skipped town to parts unknown.”
“He was the only one until you, partner.”
After a night of Louisiana cuisine, they returned to her house her mother had left her on Pearl Street, a one-story shotgun sagging and buttressed by structures identical in frame, all primary colors. She asked if Steve liked the etoufee or if he’d just been polite to the server. “Polite.” Steve affirmed her charmed suspicion. He was French Creole, half his life spent in the bayous before his mama ran back to Kentucky in a vain attempt to save the boy from walking in the slanted footsteps of his dope-peddling daddy.
Steve swooped Shelby up by the hips and sunk into the thin mattress tied to the futon's frame. She straddled him and whispered dirty nothings, purring in his ear. She told him she’d let him share her with a friend, man or woman, it didn’t matter. Will you use my vibrator on me while you take me from behind? Can I snort a Xanax off your shaft? Then she whispered lower, “Let’s play. You be the escaped con. I'll be the tumescent house wife so long neglected.”
Back on Limestone, drunk again and enjoying a particularly sluggish opiate euphoria induced by the Percodan I’d purloined from my aunt’s purse over the weekend, I praised my old road dog and his romantic prowess. “Got you a live one.”
“That was just the start, man. The shit about the convict and the farmer’s wife.”
“The start? Woo-eee. I'm more excited than you are, son. Keep talkin'.”
“The next night she was going on and on about how she’d gotten herself off thinking about a stranger just kicking down the door and takin’ her.”
“My God alive.”
“I used to read about all the serial killers,” she’d told him in bed one night after they’d both finished. She tapped ashes from the tip of her Newport into a Dr. Pepper can. She’d half covered herself with a quilt she’d sadly sewn last summer after her old man disappeared, when the little one was still with her. “That Ted Bundy … did you not know he got thousands of love letters on death row? Women love an alpha male. A man who just takes what he wants, damn the torpedoes.”
“I don’t know if I can do it.” Steven had walked me to my truck, asked politely of Stephanie—it was her birthday and he’d remembered—in a way that acknowledged my hesitancy, the lifetime of malaise I faced meditating on my dead and what had brought my darling sister to the Jessamine County Cemetery to await my company.
So we’d returned to the more inspiring subjects of damaged women still living and rape fantasies.
“Are you asking my permission?”
“I don’t ask permission, motherfucker.” Steve puffed his chest out then laughed with me like we were still street kids horse playing, like good ol' boys with which nothing could be done, the way, God willing, we’d always be.
A sagging box of ski masks had long gathered dust in the shed at the northwest margin of the cemetery, still unopened for purposes of professional decorum. Who wanted to see a bunch of brooding convicts dressed in state orange coveralls with their faces disguised with the same garment associated with liquor store hold-ups, home invasions, and bank robberies?
Management had taped a note to the box surmising that the board of directors understood the convenience such winter wear might provide the grave crew during colder months. However, mourners—“Potential clients,” Steve rephrased to himself—would likely find unsettling the image of four convicts dressed “not dissimilar” to what some of them may very well have used as a disguise during the perpetration of the crime for which they’d been incarcerated.
Steve tried the mask on in the truck, read the notice over again, and broke his voice laughing himself further toward the reaches of irredeemable madness.
He did not kick down the door. Neighbors could misunderstand the sound and call the police. He’d edged along the side of the house and lifted the window he’d left unlatched that morning before he left for work. He knew this deprived her fantasy of some legitimacy, but the element of surprise, he believed, would more than compensate.
She may have only just awoken.
Some asshole had upset her at the bar the night before. “One of your people,” she’d said, meaning an ex-con fresh on the street. “Guy gave me the creeps. Looked like one of them cho-mos on 60 minutes.” Steve had thought of Brady Dalton and submission and all the parts we play in this life and he grabbed her as she walked out of the bathroom wrapped in two towels, one an empty terrycloth papoose allowing her hair to dry, the other covering everything a man wanted to see. He came from behind. She’d gotten a few paces short of the bedroom door when he stepped beside her, slipped off both towels, and dragged her the rest of the way, by her hair, throwing her on the bed. It'd all taken place in moments, as fast as a cheap magician’s trick.
I met Steve at Al’s off 2nd Street the night it happened, after he’d burned the evidence, telling himself it was just role-playing. He sat alone in a slanted booth near the empty bandstand. I looked at him across the rutted Formica a good minute before he took his eyes from the half-empty bottle of Bud Light.
No one was home.
“And?” I said.
“I raped her?” he answered in a lilted tone unsure of itself.
“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” I said,” but wasn’t that the whole idea.”
Someone had chosen “Honky Tonk Girl” on the juke. He raised his voice to accommodate the song. “I mean I think it was real.”
“She was probably just playing along.” I needed a drink but did not feel it prudent, at that moment, to abandon Steve.
“Playing along?” Steve smiled and leaned back. “Is that why she called the cops?”
He told me of the brief but deafening sound of her stifled wail cut short by his palm. He said he should have known, she wasn’t that talented an actress. He’d caught her up in small lies before, about her daddy and her exes. And he knew better than to buy her struggle as for show. But before he could take a moment to wonder, he was thinking in another way, of other men, of what she may do to him one day, of his drunk mama kissing on him when he was six, and later, of Brady Dalton and dominance and submission, and when it was over and he was backing out the door and buckling his belt, he made sure to tell her, “You say anything to anyone about this and I'll fuckin' kill you, bitch. Then I'll come for your nieces and nephews. I may wait on that faggot boyfriend you got. But eventually, I'll slit his throat too. Remember, I know where you live.”
He made it just past the Nicholasville city limits, heading back to the bone yard, when his cell rang, a number he’d never seen. He answered and found himself speaking to a female LPD detective who thought it’d be a good idea if Steve Hurn returned home early and forgot about overtime for tonight. Shelby needed him.
And her and the other investigators wanted to ask him a few questions.
Most questions were general. Had he noticed anything out of the ordinary? Strange cars parked on the block? A driver just sitting at the wheel, waiting for something maybe? Prowling types lurking around the neighborhood? He affected a long-practiced hillbilly naiveté, and claimed that, even if there was anything, he wouldn't have been the one to notice with the distractions of work and parole and staying clean—he lied about attending five meetings a week—and remaining available for his amalgam of fictional AA peers and sponsees.
Much to his surprise, not one of the three officers said a word about his felony record. Perhaps, on this street of sagging tin-roof shacks and Section 8s, they'd expected as much.
Shelby wanted to be alone. She’d showered, not thinking, and now a rape kit would yield compromised results at best, inadmissible if a perpetrator were to ever see trial. The investigators were honest and admitted to holding little hope of making an arrest. “She showered,” the corpulent detective had said. Steve had expected a more pronounced interest in the case, especially out of the overgrown tomboy, but perhaps she'd fallen victim to burnout like most of the cops he'd been unfortunate enough to meet. “She showered. The violator didn't seem to leave any prints. And he wore a mask.”
He sat on the foot of her bed and looked away from her. She wished to avoid the subject of their most recent tragedy.
Ain’t like she hadn’t been through similar and worse before.
And if Steve summoned the nerve to open his goddamn mouth, he better explain why he couldn’t seem to stay away from that cemetery, why he so feverishly coveted the company of the dead.
“No one is going back to jail,” I offered after Steve had finished talking.
“I deserve whatever I get.”
“Had to add one more sin, one I ain’t never thought I’d carry.”
“The cops got shit. They said so themselves.”
“I can't tell if she suspects it was me, man. It's killing me.”
“If she does, she didn't seem too quick to drop a manhole cover on you when she had the perfect chance with them detectives in her house.”
“Maybe she's playing with me. Punishing me. Making me wait and see what she does.”
“It’s over, man. It’s dead.”
She bought a little gun and started spending hours and hours at an indoor range in downtown Lexington. She didn’t want his help.
He took to sleeping in the den, passing out to the vapid voices of talk show hosts and crusading cable detectives who always delivered the most righteously indignant indictments while handcuffing the burglar, the killer, the rapist. He dreamed of dead babies and weeping women cradling themselves in the fetal position. He knew he had to do something when he found himself slowing his truck at the sight of a blonde co-ed locking her car door, probably heading off to a night class, all alone.
The night he decided to tell her the truth, Steve asked me to take a ride with him. He took us back toward campus, this time to a bar called the Tin-Roof, a favorite of the college types with a surplus of expendable, inherited wealth. He parked at a meter and left the engine running. After a moment, he pointed toward the bar’s open garage patio. In a wife-beater and Oakley’s, pantomiming, for the sake of the coeds drawing away from him, the lewdest gestures one could dread to witness on a street like Limestone, Brady Dalton stumbled like the gut-shot villain of a b-Western. Sadly, he was just drunk, and not dead or dying.
“I guess he’s out.” I regret now, upon identifying the pederast, not saying something of more depth.
Steve removed his Ray Bans and squinted as the late afternoon sun eclipsed the nicotine and dust stippling the truck’s cracked windshield. “I’m gonna kill him.”
I begged him to drive away.
And after a while he did. But when he dropped me back at the sober living house, he told me to look after Shelby as he predicted the attendance of several witnesses to the murder of Brady Dalton.
Shelby called him half an hour after I’d found her at Austin City Saloon and told her that Dalton had just hit town.
“Come home” was all she said to him. “Come home and we’ll talk when I get off work.”
“What’d that idiot tell you?” Steve asked, talking about me.
“Just that you was about to bloop out and kill some Jessamine County boy you had truck with in the joint. I know you may think you’re losing me, but it ain’t like that, baby. Just go home. We’ll talk. All will be well, and all will be revealed.”
He didn’t know as he liked the sound of any of that, but he did as she had instructed.
Brady Dalton safely took a cab from the Tin Roof. No one shot him in the bar, or knifed him in the parking lot, or ran him down in the street. When he entered the taxi, he told the driver, “Take me to Austin City and don’t be shy with that goddamn gas petal.”
Steve had waited since dusk for her to get off work, smoked a whole pack of Newports she'd left on top of the refrigerator. He held his bladder, desiring no ease and comfort save the nicotine until he told her the truth, that it was all him. I believe too that he would have gone back to the joint gladly, even if it meant another rip at Big Sandy and cohabiting with more men like Brady Dalton.
His anxiety shifted to wordless confusion when I walked in with her, when she placed the little gun on the coffee table and sat at his side.
She whispered, “I killed the bastard. He came after me again in the parking lot after we closed down. Same son-of-a-bitch that was sweet talking me the other night. The creep. The man who raped me.”
“Are you sure?” Dark hues of carmine now colored Steve’s sunken visage. He knew she wasn't sure. And he knew something else now. There was a side to this woman she'd hid all along.
They'd both been playing their roles so well that the other had remained ignorant.
“It was Brady Dalton,” I told Steve. “I saw him at the bar the other night. He was talking bad about you, man. I couldn’t have that no more.”
“You told her what he did to me?” Steve rose from the futon. I recoiled as he quickly approached, yelling, “You swore you’d never tell no one. Goddamn it…”
I thought for a moment, when he came up from the futon so quick, that he was going to lay me out, had his fists tightened and his shoulders drawn like I'd seen him do when we'd tumble with black kids born to slums half a mile from our own.
But something stopped him and he turned back to Shelby. “You knew. You knew it was me in the house. Me who did that to you. If you’d thought it was Brady Dalton, you’d have said something to the police.”
She slowly broke a smile brighter than any flame the most practiced arsonist could kindle. “I been around, baby. And that Dalton ain’t gonna hurt you. He ain’t gonna hurt you then come in my bar and talk reckless. He ain’t gonna hurt my baby, flirt with me, and keep tasting air.”
“If my sister can’t, he shouldn’t be allowed to,” I affirmed.
“If my little girl ain’t with us,” Shelby said, “then he ain’t invited either.”
We took turns looking at each other, agreeing silently that we could live with this.
“We should call the cops,” I said. “Can’t wait too long. It’s all gotta add up. She closed the bar and was last to leave. He was the one broke in the house the other night and come back for more.”
“Only she was ready,” Steve said.
“She shot him,” I continued. “Then I drove by and saw her, brought her here to collect herself and do the right thing and call it in.”
“Does Greg Austin know about this?” Steve asked.
“Most of it was Austin’s idea,” Shelby said. “All but the brilliant parts.” She winked at Steve.
He no longer questioned her acting talents. And he now knew he wasn’t a rapist. That he was nothing like Brady Dalton.
“Will this work?” Steve said.
“It’ll play.” Shelby drew closer to him. “Everyone just remember your role.”