AN EXCERPT OF NO PLACE TO PRAY
BY JAMES CARPENTER
Whiskey awakened once more from the same nightmare: the heat charring his face, the blue flames pulsing in the systole and diastole of fire, scorching him to the black of soot and scarring him with a many-pointed star clinging to his neck and face. He touched the star’s webby threads to assure himself that the burning had been only a dream, that the star was indeed a scar and not a fresh wound. But then he thought only-a-dream don’t matter, because the hurt in a dream is as bad as any hurt you can get in the world.
Sometimes in his dreams the star on his neck was a primal leech-like thing risen up from the muck of a swamp to suck the blood out of him and all of his strength with it. Every time the dream went that way, he awoke feeling like the star was humping him and he felt beaten and diminished and afraid to go back to sleep.
He reached out in the dark and rested his fingers on Agnes’s bare milk-white shoulder, lightly so as not to disturb her sleep, the touch a kiss sent through his fingers and just that hint of a kiss was enough to whip up his heart so that it raced in his chest and he had to clench his fists tight and roll the other way to keep from cloaking himself around her and to keep the sound of his heart from awakening her.
He slipped from the covers and sat on the side of the bed and listened to the dark, not the sounds of the things that lived or came alive in the dark, the insects and night birds, the house’s clapboards creaking, the soughing of the air as it eddied and rose in pockets of warmth and chill, setting the trees gently shaking and coughing like a sick old woman. But listened to the dark itself, the groaning so low that Whiskey had to still his own breath to hear it, how it opened up cracks in itself, inviting him in, murmuring come unto me and lay your burden down. When he let go his breath again, it warbled from his throat like an injured bird, bruised and swollen.
He stood up and gathered his clothes and picked up his shoes but then laid the shoes back down on the floor and slipped barefooted into the kitchen and set the clothes on the table and stood there naked, not moving, feeling the darkness seep into his skin and down through his flesh, marking him deep inside like ink drawing itself on his bones. Standing in the dark he thought of all of the dead things he ever saw in his life, dead animals and dead people, those newly dead and those dead for a long time, and it came into his head that every time he had seen a dead thing, it seemed to be looking up at him from a deep well of misery and what the dead thing wanted above all else was to still be alive. Whiskey wondered how it could be that such creatures could be so wrong, how they could have forgotten the pain of being alive and how could it be that they might wish to be in such agony ever again.
He dressed in the dark and went to the screen door and let the cool night air waft about him and the smells of the night with it, the damp smell of grass and the thick sweetness of honeysuckle and the terrorized smell of small prey animals being put to bay. The screen door creaked as he opened it and he hesitated, listening to hear if his opening of this door into the world outside had awakened either of them, but the house remained quiet. He stepped onto the porch, the grain of its worn wooden floor speaking to him through the soles of his feet like a letter someone had written to him in delicate, swooping handwriting. Whiskey thought about how in his entire life, he had never written a letter to anyone. What was that like? To sit at a table with a pencil and put down the day and say in the letter Dear Agnes. And then wonder what to say next and then to say it. What if it was wrong what you said? What did people do after they sent a letter and then thought that what they said was not what they really meant, knowing there was no way to take it back once it was in the mail? It wasn’t just the words in letters you can’t take back. You can’t take back mistakes either, undo an unkind word or heal the bones you just broke in another man’s face or what you stole from somebody you didn’t even know. Or what they stole from you.
He picked up the shotgun lying across the arms of the rocker and leaned it up against the house’s yellow clapboards and sat down and began the endless rocking that was all that filled his days now, rocking through the long dark winter and through spring and into this dead summer of air too thick to breathe. He flexed his bare toes so that they lifted him and rolled him back. He shooed a mosquito away from his face and thought of all of the things in the world his rocking mimicked, the baby in its cradle, the waves in the ocean, a dragon y swaying at the top of a long thin weed. He remembered the different ways he had himself rocked in this life. As a child lying in the bottom of a boat, lulled into daydreams lled with sun and water. Staggering home from a night in town, the stars spinning when he looked up and the road under his feet seesawing when he looked down. Him and Agnes locked together, the slickness of being inside her and the slickness of their sweat mingling as they slid back and forth across one another. Her and LeRoy rocking him in the dirt to snuff out the pale blue re, its ravenous tongue lapping up all of the parts of him that he had been proud of and leaving him forever stained with this ragged scar.
A blackbird tentatively chirped from the plum tree, the center of its eye black within the orange circle of its gaze, its eyes like polished stones liquid with black light, hard as his used-up soul, the bird shaking its voice like a ghost trebling a warning in a corridor that ran the long course of distance between everything that was alive and everything that was dead, as if the bird were saying I am the archangel’s shadow come to lead you home. The bird shaking out its voice meant the day was almost here and the inevitability of its coming was nothing he could stop, not a thing that could yield to his will even if he had any will left.
Whiskey got up from his chair and took up the shotgun and reached into the rafters of the porch roof where he kept his just- in-case shells and took two down and loaded both of the gun’s chambers as the blackbird released itself into full song, the pale light of the sun beginning its pitiless odyssey across the sky. Whiskey stepped from the porch onto the damp grass, the dew baptizing his feet, and walked straight and tall to the springhouse, through the door with its still un-repaired hinge, now a thing that would never be made right. Whiskey thought of all of the things in his life he had left undone, each of them a broken promise. He went into the springhouse and sat on the bench, the smell of vegetables and fruit rotting on the shelves around him beckoning him on to this thing he was about do to. A cricket chirped. A frog splashed into the well. The swamp maple gently brushed a branch against the wall outside as if it were trying to reach in and caress Whiskey’s cheek and croon gently like a mother that it was all right, just go ahead. She would hold him in her arms while he did it. Whiskey stood up and stuck the gun’s cold muzzle beneath his chin and pulled both triggers.
Born and raised in rural Mercer County, PA, James Carpenter made his way through college working various eclectic jobs and, after graduating, taught middle and high school English. He then retrained as a technologist, eventually developing the Erica T. Carter software system that composed the poetry anthologized in the Issue 1 dustup. Erica’s poetry has been published in several dozen literary journals and he’s presented Erica at international conferences, including at the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and the e-poetry 2007 conference in Paris.
Carpenter spent fourteen years as a member of the affiliated faculty of The Wharton School, where he lectured in computer programming, system design, and entrepreneurship before retiring to write fiction. Since then, his writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Chicago Tribune, Fiction International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Ambit. His novel, No Place to Pray, is forthcoming from Twisted Road Publications in September.