The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 18
Hello and 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. Please enjoy "The Red Herring" by Mekiya Outini, a short story we couldn't let go because of compelling character dynamics,
Mekiya Outini holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and a BFA in creative writing from UNC Wilmington. His short fiction has appeared in Chautauqua, The Write Launch, and Sunspot (the last awarded him their 2020 Editor’s Prize), and he’s published nonfiction in ABILITY Magazine and the Michigan Quarterly Review. His novel, Ashes, Ashes, has placed as a finalist or semifinalist in several contests, including the Chanticleer Somerset Awards, and its first two chapters appeared in the West Trade Review. He’s also published poetry. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Mekiya now lives with his life partner, Itto, in Kansas City, MO, where they’re working together on her memoir, Blindness is the Light of My Life, and launching a joint blog, Bogging is the Light of Our Lives.
THE RED HERRING
Lucas was five months a father the summer he helped Craig move back to South Carolina to die. Weeknights, he worked at a downtown taproom, reaping tips that filled the fridge for half a month at most, leaving him and Martha scrounging, and on Saturday mornings he volunteered at the homeless shelter, stationed at a pushcart loaned out by a sympathetic hotdog vendor, ladling watery chicken broth for queer-punk teens and amputees and all manner of disheveled and discouraged and deranged. On Sundays, he pretended to sleep until noon, ears stuffed with rubber plugs that failed to shield him from the light, the kitchen clatter, and the cooing and cajoling as Martha did her best to soothe their colicky son, who still didn’t have a name, but was learning to answer to Bean.
“Being?” Lucas had asked when she’d first proposed it, and she’d rolled her eyes and nodded at the grainy ultrasound, legume-esque, on the screen.
Fava, Lucas thought, would’ve been better. But no one had consulted him. The child’s given name, according to the birth certificate, was TBD.
Sometimes Lucas went for aimless hikes through neighborhoods where the city had never laid sidewalks. He smoked weed when he could get it and anticipated with unease his son’s soft weight against his shoulder, and his hot breath, and his shitting, and fragility, and when Martha whisked Bean away and spread-eagled him as if to prep him for dissection, removing reusable diapers and clipping on clean ones, Lucas hid his relief, or thought he did, by peering on attentively.
At the homeless shelter, for a few short hours every week, Lucas exchanged the responsibilities he was saddled with in favor of the ones he chose. It was there that he met Craig—Craig of the protuberant belly and the lazy, cobalt eye—who sidled up to the soup cart one morning, unbidden, and clasped Lucas’s hand in a meaty paw, saying something that could’ve been, “Morning,” in what Lucas mistook, at first, for a Slavic accent so strong that it blotted out syllables.
Craig looked like he lived under bridges and preyed on unsuspecting souls. He had a lopsided gait, and a clean-shaven pate, and above his left eye, instead of a brow, a glossy, convex scar. The homeless people—not the other homeless people, as Lucas first thought; Craig had an apartment in Black Mountain and was himself a weekend volunteer—gave him a wide berth. Some remembered him from nights at the city jail, where he’d once served as deputy sheriff, always on desk duty because of the fragments of Desert Storm lodged in his knee. Among them, rumors circulated: Craig had been dishonorably discharged after getting caught in bed with another soldier; he’d once chased a man and put him in a headlock for stealing a teenage boy’s bread; he started drinking whiskey around ten a.m. and didn’t stop until midnight. His speech did slur, missing letters and sometimes whole words, and his breath smelled medieval, but his good eye burned with an awful sobriety, and the odor that rode on his breath wasn’t alcohol.
“A red herring,” Craig announced, still grasping Lucas’s hand.
It took Lucas a beat to parse the words, and a few more to realize that Craig was answering the question that he hadn’t known he’d asked, and by that time, Craig was already jabbing an insistent finger at his own open mouth, repeating, “A red herring! It’s what I got!”
“A red herring?”
“Yeah.” Satisfied that Lucas understood, he went on, “When I was a kid—” leaning in so that Lucas’s eyes watered and he had to fight the urge to flinch away, “—I got one on my back. Big old lump. Doctor said it was a red herring.”
A legless man in a wicker sombrero wheeled himself toward them. Craig seized a bowl and thrust it into Lucas’s hands.
“Have you seen a doctor?” Lucas asked, filling the bowl.
“Too late,” Craig said. “Can’t do nothing. So. You won’t be seeing me next week.” He paused, seeming to gauge Lucas’s reaction, before adding, “Moving. Mom’s down in Goose Creek. Ain’t got much longer. Time to go home, I suppose.”
“A red herring?” Martha echoed.
“That’s what he called it.”
Lucas had come home to find Martha in her bathrobe, stacking dishes on the draining board. Bean rested in the crook of her arm, supported by a sling that she’d rigged from the strips of an old floral dress. A clamshell tattooed on the back of her neck, open and empty, peeked out from under her dark, springy mane. She clattered a bowl on the sink’s metal rim. Lucas wanted to tell her to be careful, not to wake Bean, but he bit his tongue.
He’d pieced Craig’s story together on the ride home: something, perhaps a benign melanoma, had grown on his back as a child; a doctor had been called, an idiom—"red herring”—deployed and misinterpreted; and now he’d dredged up the memory to explain whatever lurked on his tongue. In doing so, he’d made it something more than a tumor. Something one-of-a-kind.
“Poor guy.” Martha placed the last dish on the rack and turned, dishtowel in hand. “You said he’s got family?”
“His mom lives in South Carolina.”
Bean squirmed and nearly slipped, and she shifted to steady him. “Is he married?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Nope.” It wouldn’t make much sense, what Craig had asked Lucas to do, if he had children around. Or friends.
“That’s sad,” Martha said. “That’s really sad.”
“He’s moving back to South Carolina this weekend,” Lucas said. Then he hesitated. He felt suddenly anxious, as if on the verge of confession. “He asked if I would help him.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said okay.”
“How long is that going to take?” Was it only his imagination? Or was her voice a little more metallic now?
“I don’t know,” Lucas said. “Half a day, maybe? Or a full day?”
“But you volunteer.”
“We’ll go in the afternoon, after we’re done.” Lucas had imagined his selflessness might earn her approval—she was always talking about helping the needy—but it occurred to him that, compared to the people at the shelter, she might not think Craig worthy of charity. “He’s got shrapnel in his knee,” he added. “He’ll need help with the furniture.”
“Shrapnel?” Martha repeated. “Like, war shrapnel?”
“I think so.”
“You didn’t say he was in a war.”
“I didn’t not say it,” Lucas said.
“You did not say it,” Martha said. “You didn’t say it. That’s not saying it.”
This didn’t seem accurate to Lucas at all, but, he had to admit, it technically was. He’d gone to the police station twice already that year to get Martha from jail, first for breastfeeding in public, then for protesting the war in Afghanistan. It had just been her and two other people, but they’d stayed for hours, holding signs and chanting at passersby, and eventually they’d stood in the middle of the street outside the police station until a bemused officer had ambled out and taken them into custody.
“So, you’re going to spend Saturday with someone who’s probably killed innocent people,” Martha said. “In cold blood. Because George Bush told him to.”
“But he was just doing his job,” Lucas said, realizing, as he said it, that this didn’t make it sound any better. “And it wasn’t even the same George Bush. And it’s not like he kills people now. He volunteers.”
“I bet that’s because he feels guilty.” Martha folded the dishtowel into thirds. A strand of saliva hung from Bean’s mouth to her shoulder, linking them, a ghostly umbilical cord.
“I’m sorry,” Lucas said. “I didn’t know you’d be upset. I thought—”
“I’m on my own with Bean all week. Literally all day, every day. And I don’t even ask you to take over on the weekends. I just figure you’ll be around, you know, so I can take a nap or something if I need one. So I don’t have to be on twenty-four seven. But apparently that’s too much to ask. You’d rather help Mr. Patriot.”
“I didn’t—” Lucas stopped. No point. “He already sold his truck,” he said flatly. “I said I’d bring back the U-Haul after. Can you give us a ride to his place from the shelter?”
He’d assumed she’d want Craig in the backseat, but that would’ve meant him sitting next to Bean. Instead, he rode shotgun. Martha drove with the windows down, but Craig’s breath still filled the Subaru, mixing with patchouli and weed. His slur was more pronounced today. When he spoke, Lucas found himself envisioning a tiny man perched on his tonsils, seizing each word as it rose from his throat and slinging it haphazardly toward the light. His breath had worsened, too. Every syllable rode a wretched headwind.
“Left,” Craig said, and, “right,” and “left,” and then “appreciate your husband.” Lucas sensed, from the way Martha’s shoulders tightened, that she thought he was giving an order, but a minute later, Craig added, “Get him back in one piece. Promise,” and Martha nodded and made a small but not completely hostile noise.
The apartments in Craig’s complex were small and shoddy, stacked five high and packed in rows like slaughterhouse cages. The back of a U-Haul truck protruded from a parking space. “Already loaded up,” Craig said.
“I thought you were helping with that,” Martha said, eyes on Lucas in the rearview.
Craig shook his head. “Taken care of.”
“So, he’s just going along for the ride, then?”
“Need help unloading,” Craig said. “Returning the U-Haul. Appreciate this.”
Lucas looked at Bean. Bean’s pudgy hands unfurled like anemones, then balled back into fists. He screamed. Craig stepped out and stood by the car, gripping the door in bulging knuckles, a muted tremor running through his frame.
“Call me,” Martha said as Lucas got out, too.
He offered a hand, but Craig waved him away, shut the door, and slapped its flank with a palm. Giddy-up.
Martha made a three-point turn. Bean’s wails trailed from the Subaru’s windows like just-married banners as she pulled away.
For the first hour, Craig and Lucas listened to the radio. Whoever’d had the U-Haul before them had tuned it to a classic rock station, and Craig didn’t bother changing it when they crossed county lines and the frequency broke up, then coalesced again into a show about tire maintenance. Craig’s inflamed jaw worked rhythmically, masticating an inadequate lump of menthol gum. Lucas kept his window down, breathing in cow dung and roadkill and skunk, and was grateful.
After an hour, without lead-up, Craig asked, “You got family, Lucius?”
Lucas weighed the pros and cons of correcting his name before deciding against it. Maybe the sh sound was easier. “Virginia,” he said. “My mom and sister live in Richmond.” In a housing complex that looked a lot like Craig’s, in fact, but this he didn’t add.
“Been to Fort Lee,” Craig said. “Never been to Richmond.”
“Never,” Craig repeated, “been to Richmond,” so emphatically that Lucas suspected he might be lying, though he couldn’t fathom why.
“Are you from South Carolina?” Lucas asked, grateful to be finally talking. He didn’t much care whether Craig answered truthfully. Anything was better than pretending that tires and roadkill enthralled him.
“Been all over,” Craig said, as if this answered Lucas. Silence stole back in.
“I’m just from Richmond,” Lucas said. “Mom worked a lot. It was mostly just me and my sisters.” Ruth and Carmen, both older. “One of them’s going to school in St. Louis. The other’s still in Richmond.” Last year, Ruth had appointed herself their mother’s live-in caretaker, though their mother wasn’t ill, cooking meals and running laundry while their mother worked fifty-five hours a week so she could send checks to take the edge off Carmen’s medical school tuition. So far, Ruth had remained unnervingly chipper about the whole affair, but Lucas sensed bad karma building up. Sooner or later, the levies would burst. Ruth would explode, accuse them of throwing her under the bus and chasing selfish dreams, and Carmen would say she’d been plotting to steal the moral high ground now and their mother’s social security later, and Lucas would quietly not take sides.
“I’m lucky,” Craig said. “My age, still got both my parents.”
“Have you got brothers or sisters?” Lucas started, but Craig wasn’t done.
“It’s all right.” With cumbersome fingers, Craig reached into his mouth and extracted the grayish lump of gum, now adorned with large, brown flecks, and pressed it to the inside rim of the cupholder. He wiped his fingers on his thigh. “Want to know about my red herring?”
Lucas hesitated, unsure of the true answer, much less the right one.
“Cervical cancer,” Craig said earnestly.
Lucas gulped down a nervous laugh. “But only women get that,” he said. “It’s in the cervix.”
“Well, I got it from a woman.”
“You got cancer from a woman?”
“Cancer virus,” Craig said. “Can’t be cured.”
“But cancer’s not a virus,” Lucas said. “And…it can’t be cervical cancer. Men don’t have cervixes.”
“Yeah they do. In the throat.”
Lucas wished Carmen were there. She’d shoot down Craig’s bizarre pronouncements, maybe give a real diagnosis. All Lucas could do was meet speculation with speculation. Cancer virus meant probably some kind of carcinogenic infection. HPV, maybe. He doubted very much that Craig had gotten it from a woman, but letting that part of the story stand seemed the least he could do. “Did you get it from a woman here,” he asked, hoping to steer the subject away from anatomy, “or overseas?”
Evidently, this was the wrong question.
“Got to call Mom,” Craig said, rummaging for his phone. Lucas folded his hands in his lap. Craig found the phone and dialed with one hand. Lucas heard a woman answer. He couldn’t make out words, just an accent, strong and Southern.
“Yes, ma’am,” Craig said. “Yes, ma’am. Laila come today? She change the pan?”
Lucas tried not to listen, but there was nothing else to pay attention to.
“Be there by six,” Craig said.
Was Craig’s habit of omitting pronouns military affectation, Lucas wondered. Or was it the red herring? And was the subject of that final sentence I or we.
He couldn’t decide if he missed his own mother. They never saw each other anymore, the family too spread out, pinned down by stainless steel responsibilities. Then again, at least they texted. Martha didn’t talk to her parents at all. Lucas used to admire her guts and integrity, but now he wished she’d walk back her rebellion. Her folks had money, after all, and despite the many iterations of the baby needs a father that had eventually driven Lucas to propose, what Bean really needed was a benefactor. Without the marriage certificate, Martha’s parents would’ve excommunicated them. With it, the door stayed open.
“Mom’s not coming,” Craig said, putting the phone in the cupholder where he’d stuck the gum. “Can’t get out of bed.”
“Does she know you’re sick?” Lucas asked.
“Dad’s in the hospital.”
“Does she know about the red herring?”
“Doctors always said it’d be fine,” Craig said. “Never did nothing. Said it’d be fine.” He drummed his fingers on the wheel and gunned the engine, passed a pickup toting a canoe. Something heavy-sounding shifted behind them. “It’s in my brain.” Craig tapped behind his jaw, then again above his ear. “Here, and here. So. I won’t live too long, I guess.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucas said.
Craig aimed his chin at an oncoming gas - exit sign. “Want a Coke?”
They took turns emptying their bladders at the Shell. Lucas returned to the U-Haul first and sat in the cabin, feeling like a child as he watched Craig fill the tank in the side mirror. He wondered if he ought to check his phone in case Martha had called, but he’d read somewhere that phone static, if sparked too near a gas pump, could ignite the whole station.
Back on the highway, Lucas couldn’t raise his head above the muggy light, the mordant odor wafting from the driver’s side, the pavement’s thrum. Craig, on the other hand, seemed oddly cheerful. He shuffled stations until he found one playing oldies, hummed along, broke out scatting. The bulge on his tongue gave odd shapes to the notes, pinching off corners, but he went at it anyway, bopping along to Sinatra and Dylan. The distance in between their seats yawned wide enough to swallow them. Lucas wondered why he’d not pushed harder for abortion, backing off when Martha said it was her body, her decision, hers alone. At the time, this had made sense to him. But now they had a child, and the child didn’t even have a proper name.
“Probably all the exhaust fumes,” Craig said. “How I got it. Maybe it’ll clear up now I’ve sold the truck. Bike’s healthier.”
“The red herring?”
Craig grunted an affirmative.
“I thought you said you got it from a woman,” Lucas said.
“Don’t know where I got it,” Craig said. “Doctors don’t know much about red herrings. Can’t treat them.” He took a swig of Coke and screwed the plastic cap back on with one hand. “Don’t smoke, do you?”
“Smoked when I was overseas,” Craig said. “Quit when I got home. Got a car, though. Shouldn’t’ve gotten a car. Bike’s healthier. Got to get healthy. Got to take care of Mom. She’s moving in with me.”
“But aren’t you dying?” Lucas asked, regretting it instantly.
Craig frowned. “Got a red herring,” he said. “Guess I’ll die sometime.” He lapsed into silence, but continued to hum.
“I’m sorry I said that,” Lucas said.
“Mom doesn’t know,” Craig said. “Haven’t told her.”
“Oh?” Surely no one could’ve missed whatever changes Craig had undergone, the red herring’s effect on his breath and his words.
“Don’t know what she’ll say,” Craig mused. “Dad’s dying. She’s pissed at him for dying. Not said. I just want her to be sad.” Then he started to cry. Silently, but his shoulders quivered, huge and gelatinous, and moisture glittered in his eyes.
Lucas looked away. His own eyes began to water, asphalt kicking back the sun.
“Haven’t been a real good son,” Craig mumbled.
“Don’t say that.”
But Craig repeated, “Haven’t,” and for several miles, that was all.
The farther they drove, the more the South asserted itself: alabaster crosses looming taller than water towers and billboards bearing missives from the undead unborn. “It’s okay, Mommy,” one of them blared in blood-red letters. “I forgive you.”
They reached Goose Creek a little after four. The neighborhood they turned into, tucked back from the highway but still within earshot, terminated in a cul-de-sac and cookie-cutter houses, flat brown lawns all soaked in stagnant sun. Behind the houses, the land rambled off into thickets of thistle, blown tires, and weeds. A single sprinkler chugged in one yard, casting a half-moon of black on the asphalt.
Craig had been to war, Lucas remembered as he watched him back the U-Haul into one of the narrow drives. He’d probably driven Humvees. Lucas couldn’t even parallel park. The U-Haul’s tires scraped the flowerbed’s wooden frame, and Craig cut the wheel a few degrees, not even looking. A few feet from the garage door, he killed the engine.
The house he was moving into looked like the others. White and plain.
Craig got down, unbolted the U-Haul’s door, and tugged the nylon tether. The clang from the rising door echoed through the neighborhood, dissolving in the highway’s ragged hum, and the ramp came rattling down and smacked the gravel hard. Slanting sun fell on a twin-sized bedframe, a dresser, two futons, a small dining table, and two wooden chairs. In between, Craig had wedged boxes and pillows and wadded-up clothes. In a furrow near the door, he’d tucked a potted cactus sprouting bloated prongs.
Craig unlocked the house, promoting a loose brick to doorstop, and they set to work taking his belongings inside. Paint specks freckled the old maroon carpets. The house had stood empty awhile, it seemed. They put the table in one corner, the boxes in another. When Lucas tried to take the cactus, Craig waved him away, carried the pot to the small kitchenette at the back of the house, and placed it with care on a windowsill.
By the time Lucas sensed the transformation, it was in full swing already. Their trips in and out of the house were losing reference to the outside world, transcending purpose and utility, becoming somehow ceremonial. Craig moved with the assurance of a grizzled priest, sanctifying every beveled lampshade and electric fan, and Lucas fell into step with him gratefully, relieved by the implicit rhythm of their labor, Craig’s authority. The only sounds were stoic grunts and gravel under shoes. In a very short time, nothing remained in the U-Haul except a stack of rolled-up carpets and a coiled Bungee cord.
Hands on hips, Craig eyed the carpets. “Got to hang these.”
“Should we set up the bed first?” Lucas asked. Part of him clung to the notion that the rest of the evening might still unfold in a logical manner. That Craig remained, in some small way, the man he’d taken him to be. “Or utilities?”
“Take care of that later.” Infused with new energy, Craig seized the topmost carpet, hauled it bodily off the truck. Lucas chased the other end.
They carried the bundle into the house and laid it out on the floor, revealing a Persian design: abstract, symmetrical, wine-red and gold.
“Women make these,” Craig said. “Village women. By hand. Thread’s so small, they spend years embroidering—” the word embroidering came out potbellied, “—go blind.” He picked up one corner of the rug and stepped up onto a chair. “Need you for this.”
They hoisted it, but it proved too long. The only way was to cover a window. Lucas held one corner while Craig pounded an irreverent nail through the other, filling the air with little puffs of drywall dust. The light in the room turned the color of wine.
“Want to hang them all?” Lucas heard himself ask. His own speech was taking on Craig’s affectations, growing around the man’s words like a vine.
Craig stepped down and stood with folded arms. “Not enough wall.”
“U-Haul place’ll be closed for the night,” Lucas murmured. Then, “I should call Martha.”
He went outside and called her from the brittle, yellow lawn.
“You won’t be home tonight?” Her voice, though hard-edged, sounded level, as if she hadn’t yet decided whether this could be forgiven.
“Craig needs me,” Lucas said. “Or he needs someone. And I’m here, so it’s me.”
“Bean needs you, too. He’s been having a rough day.”
In the background, Bean persisted with the same continuous scream that had begun that afternoon.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” said Lucas. “I love you.” He feared the way his words might hang in silence after. Still, he forced himself to end the call.
Back inside, Craig was also on the phone, too. “Uh-huh,” he said, and, “That’s all right,” and, “All good here. Got Luscious with me.”
Lucas wished that he’d corrected Craig before. This new person—Luscious—was a presence that could not be disinvited. Lucas pushed his hands into his pockets. Didn’t want him there.
“Check in tomorrow,” Craig grunted, then hung up and put his phone back in his pocket before Lucas could see if it had any gum.
“You hungry?” Lucas asked.
Craig tipped his head back and stood like that with his hands on his hips, squinting at the pebbled ceiling.
“Pizza?” Lucas ached for something normal, anything to drag the evening back on course. His stomach, empty since morning, concurred.
“Cheesy mac,” Craig said, eyes never leaving the ceiling. “Kitchen box.”
The water had not been turned on. Neither had the gas or electricity. Craig filled a pot with bottled water, and they cooked the pasta on the living room floor with a propane camping stove. Craig lit a single candle with the stove’s blue flame, lowered it into a mason jar, and set the jar on the carpet between them. Distended shadows flung themselves against the walls. As if they’d done this before, Lucas thought. In a past life. As if the two of them had once been cavemen crouching in a dingy grotto. He wondered what their silence might’ve meant then, in a time before language. What it would mean once they ran out of words.
“Can’t eat much besides this,” Craig mumbled. Though he’d already swallowed, his left cheek still bulged.
“How come you don’t see a doctor?” Lucas asked. “Maybe they know more about red herrings now.”
“Saw a doctor,” Craig said. “Last month. Too late. Nothing to be done. Should’ve gone sooner. Didn’t want trouble. Figured I could take the pain. So.” He put the last spoonful of pasta in his mouth, set the bowl on the carpet, and looked straight at Lucas. “Lets build a fort?”
Lucas’s mouth swung open. He hauled it shut, like cinching a drawstring.
The night must go on.
They gathered the cookware and candle and set them aside. Craig dragged chairs and boxes into a circle, knock-off Stonehenge. Lucas got ahold of one of the remaining carpets, and together they pulled it taut across the boxes and the furniture. Then they stood side by side in the dark, breathing.
Craig went first, crawling into the fort on hands and knees. Lucas followed him into that thicker, more noxious dusk, sucking air through his mouth, wondering suddenly if he ought to be afraid. He couldn’t sit without his forehead pushing up the fabric ceiling, but he didn’t like hunching, either. He tried keeping his back straight, bending at the hips the way Martha had taught him after coming home from yoga, but Craig leaned forward, too, closing the space between them, foreheads nearly knocking together. A tremor worked through the older man’s body. And then Lucas was holding him, fingers on vertebrae, arms against once-muscled arms, and Craig was shuddering, the red herring putting lumps in his sobs.
It wasn’t really crying when a baby did it, Lucas thought. Or, conversely, that was crying. This was something else.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but Craig’s shoulder muffled him, and his voice in the dark sounded clumsy and wrong. For the rest of the night, he resolved, he would say nothing more. He made a small noise, and as if Craig were the wall of a cliff, it came back to him, and they both held on tighter.