But I Still Got an Space To Fill
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This was no such country for wounded thirst. Or so it goes, she mused, over a bottle of lukewarm ginger ale and instant grits more rubber belt than grain—in the eyes of the zealots. The congregation laced politicians. The evangelicals and telecasters. Sneering, pouring over miniature campaign buttons and ratings and peaked baseball caps, dyed twofold an synthetic, squeamish red.


Cardigan had eaten it all up. But Cardigan, too, was dying. Imploding inside with the telescopic rod of titanium that cross-sectioned, bound together his ribs. The forward hemisphere of two lungs.


A bellows without a nozzle. Letting out staggered, shaky gasps like gusts of flame escaping a mineshaft. Tried to readjust his head against the brim of the bench seat, wincing and clenching his receding temple whenever she floored the pedal. Flipped the bird to a lifted Ford. The state trooper standing with the radar gun on the median cutoff of US 67. Tore headfirst down the main street of yet another hamlet populated by shuttered laundromats and mobile homes with lawns strewn with nothing but broken Radio Flyers and decapitated plastic flamingos, strutting where potted milkweed and the willows began to crush, compact together.


How long had he stopped downing six-packs of all-glass root beer and watered-down Stella Artoises and began taking aspirin, plucking them, one-by-one from the blister package?


Back out West. Oregon.


On the fire road running parallel to the Klamath River, a muddied-oil slick ribbon that barely seamed itself into the hillside and the evergreens. With the doe and what was left of its autumn prey–the skull of a raccoon—sprawled cookie cutter over the hood of the Cadillac. Muzzles and bone and hide overlapping. Intertwined. Bone and a softened jaw speared, framed in position near the hood ornament, the busted lower steel panels. How she watched those ears—extended—glistening still with the dew and bits of leaded buckshot from an sawed-down Ithaca—wince and droop. Droop like a vinyl pennant, held under a Zippo and a razor blade. Coming to rest on the bumper.


His switchblade. Spring-loaded stainless steel snapping into position over an ivory hilt. Fermented sweat and pine tar hardened in a pungent crust behind his ear. In the armpits, where the patchwork Felix the Cat print cut off. Interchanged with a glucose line.


Talk. Too little and too much. Small whistlings about fiscal cliffs. A weekend bout in youth, somewhere in backwater Montana against an enclave of rabid wood gnomes, flushing them out with firecrackers and picking the rest off with an BB gun. Inflation and the annual price per pound of canned chili. The texture of leech casserole, growing cold in the clamshell of a Snow White VHS tape. A spurt of nitrous-oxide flush lining up an holographic sight with the tail of an MIG-21 over Tehran, firing off a salvo of heat seekers just as they tore through the archway at Azadi Square, then the Shah’s zoo—enclosures and walking paths reduced to a steaming pit—rhinos picking over piles of plastic bottles and ruptured sewage bowling over, retreating into the shade cast by fault lines of concrete and ornamental castings as afterburners fired, etched another tally mark into the horizon.

Mainlining biology. Weaving a new limbic system. Iranian and Lockheed-Douglas and Chinese tracers dispersing clumps of phosgene and anticoagulant serum. Contrails, joining together in lattices. On a good day he would measure out his own cough syrup, doling them out in little gulps to bypass the terminus of the rod—a disc fastened tight to what once was a vocal cord. Injection sites swollen, puffy like the roundels that graced aviation rivets and sheet metal. Mikoyan and Mirage. They…


It…


Won’t settle for any cut. Any cadaver. Do it right the first time and you won’t have to start over. To groan and zero in the sights, crossing yourself with two fingers and making a start into the hillside above, following the trail where the sugar pines heeled over with a chunk of Spam, fingers coiled firm on the double triggers. She watched idly as he worked. Start from the loin and move forwards, the tapered edge out towards the belly. It’s only after you move the guts out of the way that you can place the centerpiece in. Sew it down. Firm. Pus and vomit and tainted gristle, threaded and clamped together with two-part epoxy and formaldehyde.


Sundown like a broken clay pigeon. Diluted red in the rearview mirror, smearing past the next row of billboards. New variations of a Burma Shave sequence. The same old tumor. _Rump, President again, two thousand and twenty five. Es_us AVES…Corinthia–s 3:19. A pack of Marlboros was clutched in his hands. Gold with the filter tip—lavender asbestos and synthetic leaf that glittered, sprung through the cracks of the cracks of his fingers when they snagged the flame.


Another tight turn, this time spearing through a cluster of willows. The typical GDOT failures. A branch grazes the convertible top. She winces–somewhat–feeling the foot on the accelerator slack. Let loose. His eyes, for something seasoned to even a shred of a dip in the velocity of a Cessna—barely register. Remain fixed on the next ridge of poplars and cottonwoods, projecting their shadows onto the empty ashtray recessed into the plush velour.


It must have had a keen sense of mimicry. Even Sherman’s March to the Sea must have not fazed, much less stirred its hunting grounds. One continuous streak of tempered earth intersecting past a cinder block rest stop, a country store adorned with nothing but Jefferson Davis paraphernalia and Esso pinups wasting away above barrels of boiled peanuts and salt water taffy. For one glorious summer, a torrent of blue kepis and loaded Springfields and kerosene wildfires punctured through the battle lines. Surged south. Two halves joined together at the rear like an open pincer. An awl boring down through the heartland on foot and crutches and captured mules, their makeshift bits strung together from scraps of leather and what remained of neoclassical window sashes. Chestnut and grubby rose mashing over ruined powderhouses, plantations, batten board coliseums— standards of butternut and mulberry gray—until they convulsed, folded over with the ash and dust. Rightfully excised. She swings the nose of the Cadillac, feeling the suspension skew. Whitewalls smoke. Fuses rattle behind the dashboard bezel. Crushed off-brand Tylenol banks up, forms transistorized static on his lips.


Do it right the first time and you won’t have to start over.


The V-8 chokes coming up a gully. Burns out whole with the headlights at the mouth, where the thicket of kudzu and sponge elms lost their traction and broke away. Formed an uneasy semicircle.


Through the smoky windshield, scales and anchored muscle rise. Gently coil and unfurl outwards in the moonlight, transposed like an acetate slide against the last figments of the muggy heat rippling back against distant bluegrass foothills. She snaps open his switchblade, propping the sharp end over the fork of the steering wheel. Watches as the blood drains out from the knuckles pressing firm to the guard. Another quick pass and it retracts. Tumbles away onto the center console. She slips it into her pocket.


His offerings, strewn across the backseat.


His shotgun. The Ithaca with the twin sights and the nylon sling and swallow-shot shells. His combat boots. Brass clasps and oiled hide whose two-ply creases smoothed out—pinched—her ankles. His heat signature. Dissipating as she cracks open the door, the electronic buzzer joining with the mating call of an owl. She rocks the soles. Collapses a stray foxtail. Takes the long way around to the passenger side. His Marlboros, housed in a paper carton and the holographic quality assurance sticker: an aerial negative of Babylon. Dry scabs and archeological scaffolding cross-referenced with pockets of moisture.


The rod in his chest flexes. Squelch and stamp and rattle in a culvert of an ribcage, no longer lodged in position by muscle. Its snout was turning, now, on an axis leveled with his lolling head. Antennas, extruding open from some hidden pore in the diamondback skin. Two rows of fangs and angled incisors, bulwarked and clumped together in a seawall against saliva. Regurgitated stomach acid. Dribbling lengthwise. A pulpy sash foaming across its lower belly.


In flight, he had uttered—once—eyes glazed, lacquered over with not an open sky—flecks of magnesium and energized filament and marker lamps of some passenger airliner but intersecting planes of drywall and laminated wallpaper, deboned—you don’t think. Exercise surefire judgment. To give your own body a second thought. Or pitch away your reflexes. I was a sucker for the saffron rice in the chow hall. Not for their taste, but the timing. Pure looks over any shred of taste. Your sense of taste gets shot…anyhow. How the grains quiver with your fork and your tongue grows stale, no longer jacked up on speed and altitude mixture. You grow to expect that, y’know?


It extends, inflating its belly. Plates and chinks flexing like a fault line. A new spire, with all those outcroppings—anvils and updrafts and slats, momentary gaps in the fronts—hot and cold—looming over the runway, the radar dishes and radio towers mounted atop an concrete embankment rising up like an petri dish beyond Soviet-era apartment blocks and quonset huts. Slowly spinning, winking in an incubated yolk of the sun. Bouncing—once, twice—masts and struts and caved in-faces bruised, stripped to bare ligature, nerve frequencies and joints. One dialed in for takeoff. The rest–all thirty seven of them–ground and satellite and jerry-rigged ham radios, aimed toward the revelry. Telescopic aluminum and tendon and cerebellum and tearing, snapping whole. Turned about. Plied over.


A canopy, mottled crimson and indigo and salted gray descends. Tries to snap over her bare shoulders, swinging loose—unencumbered—as his pelvis twists, reels back. The phantom hiss of internal pressurization. Gyroscopes and altimeters slowly calibrating against her palms. Notches and indication lines. Cyrillic and Hangul and Mandarin characters coasting transparent in wide, fattened strokes. Neutrally buoyant. She staggers back. Tributaries of safety glass and leaded gasoline follow. Swish underfoot.


Shotgun.


Switchblade.


Cigarettes.


Lavender-infused.


Abort. Abort. Abort.


They’re coming for the big ticket items—for the city proper, with all its cutoffs, its roundabouts, spilling their first limbs over the defensive membrane—curving forwards, arteries and spine and capillaries and nerve and bits of his clotted ribcage streaming up, still energized, sparkling with electrical signals. Like strips of crumpled foil. She sweeps skywards the muzzle of the Ithaca, peering down two slivers of iron drifting, wriggling like mealworms. Over and under the curve of vulcanized steel. The residual glare of the moon, erased by isopropyl.


Prime—


Clench.


Heave. Hold steady.


Twelve-gauge erupts in the breech. Under its jaw. In her abdomen. Viscera smears past her ear, her cheek.

Feeds.

Spools.

Calcifies in an uneasy film across her throat.

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