by Bud Webster
Martin had always hated the shed. As far back as he could remember, he’d hated it. It was dark, musty, dank; the walls were lined with peg-board and rusted tools hung here and there on hooks like broken teeth. There were spiders and ancient wasp nests, filth in every corner, and there was an evil smell, like time gone bad.
What glass had once been in the windows had long ago been lost to rocks thrown by anonymous boys goaded on by their equally anonymous friends. The shed stared at him, sightless and terrible, beckoning.
Worse were the memories. The shed was full to bursting with them, razor-sharp in his mind even after thirty years. They came at him now, like sand whipped by a hot desert wind; his mother, face drawn and gaunt, meeting him at the door as he came in from school and saying, “Your father’s waiting for you in the shed.” The hopelessness of her voice—she’d had her turns in the shed, too—the long walk through the back yard, grass hissing against his feet; the shadow inside the door waiting, waiting. “Your father is waiting in the shed.” Are there any more dreadful words in a child’s experience?
Then the beatings, usually with a belt, but sometimes (if the sin had been grievous enough) with a stick of firewood that left him bruised and not infrequently bloody. The shame was part of it, too, and the heat and the grit of dirt under his shoes as he stood crying in the aftermath, his father’s breath washing over him in waves of rage and whiskey. A bad report card. A chore undone. Farting in church. The reasons didn’t matter; there was always a reason. It was the thing itself, the agony of humiliation, sharp as a carpet-tack hammered into the center of his soul.
Last night was the first time he’d been in the shed since leaving home at seventeen. Tonight would be the final time. Looking at it now, he knew that going in there again would be like pissing on a live wire, but he had no choice if he was ever to be whole again.
He’d run from home as soon as he’d graduated from high school, desperate to leave it all behind, knowing deep inside himself that it would never be far from him. He’d gone alone, with his mother’s blessing. “One of us should get away,” she’d said as she pressed $134 in dingy, tattered bills into his hand. She’d hoarded it, hiding it from his father under a loose window sill. “I can’t. Not no more. Go to Roanoke, or Richmond and find work. Try to get some college.” Then she smiled, and it almost broke him to remember it. “I’ll be fine, boy. Just go before he wakes up.” He had, and a part of him still bled that he hadn’t found a way to take her with him.
The wind blew an empty soda can across the top of the driveway where he stood. He looked at the label as it rolled: Black Cat Cherry Cola. He smiled a little at the irony. After last night, bad luck was the least of his worries.
His mother had simply given up when he was twenty-three, stealing pills from a co-worker’s purse and swallowing them methodically, one at a time. She’d passed out at the table in the break room and just never woke up. At her funeral, his father had been drunk in the chapel, drunk at the gravesite, loudly proclaiming his grief and her worthlessness. Few others were there to mourn her.
It was a month now since they’d buried his father, dead after years of solitary drunkenness in his cheap trailer up in the Amherst woods. There were no mourners; Martin saw his father into the ground alone. The service had been short and perfunctory, led by a minister supplied by the mortuary who kept mispronouncing his father’s name. Martin didn’t bother to correct him. It didn’t matter, not even the Pope could keep his father out of Hell.
It had taken Martin that entire month to work up the courage to come back, to do what he had to do. There was no estate to pay for maintenance, so the grave was already becoming overgrown and weedy. The staff of the little boneyard had better things to do with their time than to look after a plot stuck off in a corner.
The house was gone, gutted by fire a year after his mother’s passing. The fire department came, but only because a neighbor spotted the smoke and called. His father had stopped paying his phone bills long before.
The land was his as the only surviving heir. There was no nostalgia here, though, no attachment, no sense of ownership. What value the land might have was far outweighed by the vileness that saturated it like blood in dirt.
He would be done with it soon enough, in any case.
He closed his eyes against another memory, flinching at the intensity of it. He was eleven, already in a perpetual state of terror. The three of them sat at the dinner table: his father with bottle at hand, sly and furtive, staring at his wife and son through piggish eyes as the two of them ate slowly and warily. Suddenly he lashed out, slapping her across the side of her head and knocking her glasses into a bowl of potatoes. She slowly turned her head back around, not looking at anything but the table in front of her, and fumbled her glasses out of the bowl. With trembling hands she wiped them on her apron, then put them back on, her face already swollen and red. “That’s what you get,” his father had said. “Just you don’t forget it, neither of you.” There had been too many other meals like that one.
The light was beginning to turn now, deepening towards dusk, and it was time. He stretched his back, still sore from the night before. It had been hard work, and foul, and he was certain that at some point he’d crossed the line into madness because of it, but it was done. Now he would put paid to all.
Tomorrow, he’d burn the shed and all the hateful poison it held. There was still work to do tonight, though, and he was as ready as he’d ever be. He took the baseball bat from where it leaned against his car in hands that were still raw and blistered from digging, glorying in the pain, letting it flash through him and carry him on. He began the long walk, the grass hissing against his feet for the last time.
His father was waiting for him in the shed.