b r a n d o n    b e l l

The Court

 

“I never cared for the cat, but that don’t mean I killed it.” Anzel leaned against the chain-link fence, chatting with Ms. Cleary. She sat on her back porch, robe hanging from her bones and a washcloth on her head. The spring dusk sun pushed their shadows to the cracked basketball court that ran along the backyards. Anzel unclinged the stained t-shirt from his hollow chest. He said, “Shoo. As cats go, Gerald’s wasn’t so bad.”

“That’s why we can’t believe you done him,” Ms. Cleary said. She spit phlegm-chew onto the step. A bucket of water sat between her ankles. Though bald, she mimed tucking strands of hair under the washcloth. “I mean hell. Gerald’s baby Leo never shit in yard one.”

“And I didn’t kill it. You hear how it got done?”

“Mm-hmm. Decapitated.”

“And staked through the ass like some kind of Jesus.”

Ms. Cleary started to rise. Anzel hopped the fence and helped her up.

“Damn, missy. How you stay so skinny?”

“Cancer,” she said.

“Shoo.”

Her wheeze sounded like a waterlogged tire pump. She dug the dip out of her lip and sprinkled the wad into the grass. Chew worms remained on her fingers. A cat jumped out of the dumpster at the edge of the basketball court. Anzel lit Ms. Cleary a cigarette and then stood with his hands in his butt pockets, disturbed.

“You about ready to testify?” he asked.

“Would you knock it off?”

“I know you seen Gerald putting that rock through my window.”

“Debbie tell you that?”

“Yup.”

“When did she tell you?”

“Last night.”

“Well she left for Pikeville two o’clock yesterday afternoon.”

“You saying I’m wrong?”

“Reverse your thinking and you’ll be right, kiddo.”

Ms. Cleary sat back down, handed Anzel the cigarette and reloaded her lip with chew. Anzel took a seat beside her. She smelled like mowing, though from looking at the yard she had no reason to. Anzel eyed her tobacco pouch. When she offered it, he shook his head and started working on the cigarette.

“Your momma seen Gerald break it,” Ms. Cleary said.

“It’d take more than glass shattering to get her off the couch.”

“She in there now?”

“Yup.”

“Hmm.” She spit. “Hmm.”

“What now?”

“I’s just thinking how windows don’t cost free.”

“You expect I should law the boy.”

“An innocent man might.”

“Maybe I’s too innocent.” He spit in the yard and wiped his lip with his sleeve. “That momma of his keeps mouthing and I might just law the whole lot of them.”

“Debbie seen you shoot that one feral.”

“I did that in broad daylight. Little bastard turned my yard into his personal toilet.”

“You can’t toilet train them.” She pulled the washcloth off her slick head and dunked it into the bucket. The washcloth came out dripping and returned to her head with a moist suck. Anzel paced back to the fence. From this distant, he studied her more intimately.

“You got a ride to your next chemo?” he asked.

“Debbie’s riding me.”

“Lord. Bring your earplugs.”

“The girl gets bored. I don’t mind lending an ear.”

Ms. Cleary stood real slow, rattling breaths. Anzel let her stand on her own but was ready to catch her if need be. She stepped in place like a geriatric grape squasher. Anzel turned away and eyed the basketball court woundedly, like it had wronged him. Like some heartbreaking finish had just occurred there.

“Back home, killing somebody’s stock would get you killed,” Ms. Cleary said.

“You consider that cat to be Gerald’s stock?”

“Like when that Haley boy stole one of daddy’s pigs.”

“This the same daddy that got shot.”

“I just had the one daddy. He didn’t make that boy steal his stock. Had no choice but to fire back. Now this Gerald’s operating under the same thinking. He wants revenge. And if you think breaking a window’s as far as he’ll go, well…”

Anzel laughed as if crying. “I can’t up and take holler justice on him,” he said. Suddenly he jumped the fence and ran to the basketball goal, dribbling a phantom ball, counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. He mimed a shot at where the hoop used to be, before someone ripped it off.

“Nothing but net. And the crowd loses their shit.”

Anzel took a victory lap around the court, spinning on the pole of the opposite goal, this one also missing its rim. Ms. Cleary chuckled and coughed. A cat that had been sleeping against the concrete edge of the court cowered to Anzel’s yard and hid under the shed. Anzel trotted back to the fence, half-winded.

“You a devil,” Ms. Cleary said.

“Can I theory with you?”

“Go on.”

“I think that Seth fellah killed Gerald’s cat.”

“That trust funder didn’t kill nobody.”

“Now hear me out. I walk by his house every day. He has that paranoia fence around his whole backyard. But see, he spaced the slats all wrong and you can see fine right through. That’s how I come to know he stakes his tomatoes with actual stakes.”

“So.”

“So I use cages. You know that good as anyone. Now Gerald’s dead cat was staked with a stake. Same as that fellah’s tomatoes.”

Ms. Cleary shook her head. “You keep on grasping for them straws.”

“No straw to say the boy’s warring on me.”

She laughed humorlessly and tried to stand again. Anzel climbed the fence and held her elbows to help her rise.

“I’m not sitting here for this,” she said.

“Well I can’t sit by and him breaking my windows.”

“Well I don’t expect you to.”

“Well what you want, me to bury him?”

She sucked air and didn’t seem to get any. Anzel held her steady and watched, waiting for something to happen.

“What’s it like when you can’t breathe?” he asked.

“You’ve held your breath before, ain’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well it ain’t like that.”

“Shoo.”

“You just waiting for me to pass on.”

“Ah now, Missy.”

Anzel let go of her elbows and kicked at the pebbles crumbled from the porch. She touched his chin and put her face into his neck. The washcloth slipped off her head and fell to the grass.

“God, baby,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

“I ain’t going nowhere, missy.”

“Promises ain’t no more solid than smoke.” She pushed out of his embrace and hunched bald-headed up the concrete steps. When he tried to follow, she waved him away and opened the screen door and stepped inside. Alone in that darkness, she studied the screen between them. She said, “Don’t matter who started the feud. Gerald thinks you did. That’s the reality he’s operating in.”

“Gerald ain’t no killer.”

“Well we’ll see. Just don’t come to me for nursing if it turns bloody. You best have the good sense to die like a man.”

She receded into the dark, wheezes hovering before they too disappeared. Anzel laughed in silent disbelief. A squirrel ran through the grass and up the fence. Anzel followed the squirrel up and tightroped the fence-beam to a fat branch and hoisted himself into the tree. From this boyhood perch, legs straddling the branch, he overlooked the basketball court. Night settled in. Television light flickered in Anzel’s mom’s room; Ms. Cleary’s house did not shine. Cats alone and in pairs scurried across the court. So did a possum carrying in its mouth a still life with reflective eyes.

When the child crept to Anzel’s yard, Anzel whistled birdlike. Gerald scanned the tree, fists clinched. Anzel lightly waved the branch and remained unseen. Gerald walked to a dark window on back of Anzel’s house, stood on tiptoes and tapped a small stone against the glass. A cat climbed the fence. Gerald paid it no mind.

Ms. Cleary’s porch light flickered on and off. Anzel’s breathing stopped. He closed his eyes, leaned back against the tree trunk and put both palms to his chest like a corpse in a casket. Again Gerald tapped the glass as Anzel slid both hands around his own neck.

Choke him, Anzel thought. Head pinned to the earth, sitting on his chest, thumbs sunk in neck, eyes bulging from Gerald’s clear red face.

Like this.

When Gerald reeled back to strike the window, Anzel squeezed his own windpipe. The back of his head dug into the tree bark as his grip tightened, enough pressure for both hands to shake. A practiced self-strangulation too focused to break when the window did.

 

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BRANDON BELL lives in Louisville, KY. His work has appeared in Apiary, Leaf Garden, Barrier Islands Review, and Inkspill Magazine (United Kingdom), and will soon appear in Work and Cricket Online Review.


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