The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 13
Welcome back to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week, we are pleased to share 'Durango' by James Braun which offers readers a disjointed and deeply dismal experience of adolescence, family, and expectation. 'Durango' was a favorite among members of our fiction staff and was eagerly defended for publication. We hope you enjoy!
James Braun's work has appeared and is forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, Zone 3, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Braun's short story "Clay", forthcoming in The Rectangle, won the Herbert L. Hughes short story award. A relatively new author, Braun has been working hard to become an established writer of fiction. Braun lives in Port Huron, Michigan.
It’s me and my cousin Luke with the gravel after dark, shoveling in the yard for Uncle Wes’s and Grumma’s driveway tonight. With the bottom of the blade we lay the gravel flat, while from the back of the house we hear Grumma calling out to us, Child, child, bring me you know what I want. Luke drags his shovel behind him, raking rocks into the lawn. We work by the light of Uncle Wes’s flashlight, shined at us through the window screen from his corner of the porch.
When the road’s one street light flickers on at the end of the drive, we let our shovels fall to the dirt and cross the road to sit on the guardrail. Grasshoppers arc over our heads as we slap at the ‘skeeters that land on our arms and legs, the two of us waiting for my father to pick me up after his shift at work. Down the road we see headlights round the corner, the high-beam kind that can only mean my father’s Durango. We rise and wave to him from the asphalt shoulder, but he blows right past us and bowls into a row of mailboxes. Splintered wood and metal shards sail over the unfinished driveway. My father drives on, Uncle Wes’s flashlight lighting up the interior of his car until he’s out of range, bound for the city limits.
Luke finds the metal shard that has his address on it and puts it in his back pocket. He stares down the road for a minute and leads me back across the street and into the house. You can stay with us tonight, he says.
Uncle Wes blinds us as we enter the house. He sits cockeyed in his corner, safe behind his light. Through the hallway that leads to the kitchen, we hear Grumma in the back room silent for a minute then breathing loud again, Sleep apnea, says my cousin Luke. My cousin Luke is my biggest cousin of all the cousins, him being my only cousin. He brings me into the bathroom beside his bedroom and opens the mirror cabinet for a box of bandages. We wrap our hands, the skin torn and callused. Luke’s fingers are bent and crooked where my palms are only starting to roughen.
After bandaging, Luke floats down a spare bed sheet over the living room couch and gives me a blanket and pillow. He says we will figure things out with my father in the morning. I lie on the couch and wrap myself in the sheets as Luke sleeps in his own bedroom, listening to Grumma saying in the back room while dreaming, Child, child, bring me you know what I want.
Luke’s in the kitchen smashing Uncle Wes’s face into the tile while the stove’s on, boiling water for oatmeal. On the counter there’s pancake batter in a bowl that’s sent flying when the two slam into the cupboards. I watch them from the table, eating brown sugar out of the bag. Luke, taking down Uncle Wes at the knees as he tries to get up, slides a white tablet into his father’s mouth and forces his jaw down on it, telling him to swallow.
Last night was not a night where sleep was to be had. Field mice scurrying up from the corn break came into the house, getting into the drawers and pantry. The clothes Luke gives me to put on this morning are rat-chewed and two sizes too big. Once, in the night, I felt miniature hands clawing across the sheet pulled over my head.
After Luke lets go of Uncle Wes, he scoops up what he can of the pancake batter from the floor and pours it onto a PAM-greased griddle. He adds oats to the boiling water. When they’re cooked, Luke fills a coffee cup with oatmeal and adds raisins, and with it heads to the back room of the house. I lean my head over the table to see him go in, and when he does a cloud of smoke escapes at the borders of the doorway, Luke disappearing into it.
Uncle Wes sits across from me and points his flashlight in my eyes. In his other hand he holds a flip phone that he talks into, only setting it down to take bites of his pancakes. I think at first it’s chocolate chips in the pancakes but really it’s mouse droppings, just like how I think Uncle Wes is talking to someone when really his phone’s been disconnected a long time ago.
After breakfast it’s cleanup then back to shoveling gravel. Luke gives me a pair of oven mitts to prevent calluses. Don’t worry too much about your father, he says, I’m sure he’ll be back. Luke jabs his shovel into the gravel mound, shoves his heel into the step of it, taking up another load and spreading it flat.
It’s around noon when there’s the sound of glass breaking inside the house. Luke runs in with the shovel. I follow behind. Inside the kitchen, Uncle Wes has broken a plate and is trying to cut his wrists with the ceramic shard. His flashlight’s on the ground, the battery dead. Luke knocks his father over the head with the shovel and drags him back onto the porch. From the back room Grumma says, Aw, Lukey, just let him do what he wants. Luke replaces the battery, setting it back into his father’s hand for when he wakes.
At the end of the day when we’re working in the cool of the evening, Luke and I spot what we think is my father’s Durango down the road. It stays there for the better part of an hour until it turns around, Luke and I watching its taillights fade as it drives off in the other direction. Lukey! How’s about you head down to the corner store for a pack of my brand? Look it here child, take care of me now and I’ll return the favor for when I’m gone.
After breakfast, Luke leaves on what used to be Grumma’s bike when she was little, a three-wheeler with a basket in the back. He rides off down the road and I am stuck with Uncle Wes and Grumma. Luke calls back saying if I have any trouble I should hide in the neighbor’s shed, it’s unlocked most of the time. I block out Grumma’s Child, child, with the raking of my shovel against the gravel.
I spend the morning cleaning up mailbox shrapnel, picking pieces of it off the lawn and putting them in a plastic bag, covering some of it with gravel where I can. The mound in the middle of the driveway is getting smaller, though it’s still about a foot over my head. I take up another load, spreading it in the places where the path is less.
In the meantime, Uncle Wes taunts me from the sun porch. Son, he says, I’m sorry you’re stuck here, but if I were your father I’d leave you too.
You don’t know me! I say from down the drive, and shovel more gravel to prove it.
Your father can’t avoid us forever. Mom’s not going to be around much longer, and it’d be better if he came sooner than later.
What do you know? I say. You don’t know.
Uncle Wes shines his light at me like Yes he does know.
When Luke rides back down the road in the evening, he stops at the end of the driveway. In the rear basket there’s more pancake mix and a carton of cigarettes. He looks at the gravel mound and the drive, and says, Somebody musta pissed you off. Then he heads up the wooden steps to the front door, goes inside to give Grumma her cigarettes.
That night, we watch the road for headlights, but none ever shine our way.
The next day we declare a full work day. Luke says if we focus we should be able to spread the rest of the gravel, then move onto something harder like ripping out the house’s floorboards, the creaking bothers Uncle Wes. As we work, I see that Uncle Wes is no longer in his corner, and there are no rasping calls from Grumma to be heard. By the end of the day the gravel mound is gone and the driveway runs all the way alongside the house, curving back into the garage. A few chunks of gravel sticks up out of the lawn but Luke says that’s okay, he’ll run them over with the mower. Luke and I use the evening to dig a hole to put a new mailbox in. As we’re putting it in, I look down the road for a high-beam light, hoping to see there my father in his Durango, driving up to us and down the path we made for him to come home.