Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Circle 

  

 

As Casey came down the trail along the side of the ravine out of the sun he saw Steve Nusser and the other guys standing around a circle someone had drawn on the dirt next to the creek.

“There’s O’Brien,” said one of the guys.

“About time,” said Steve Nusser.

Fats stood off to one side of the circle shadow boxing, crouched down, flinging his fists out into the air, making “huh! huh! huh!” sounds.

“O’Brien?” said Steve Nusser.

“Coming,” said Casey.

“Larson?”

“Yeah,” said Fats, stopping that shadow boxing.

Steve Nusser pulled a white handkerchief out of the pocket of his brown and yellow letter jacket.

“So, this here’s how it’s going to be,” he said. “When I drop this, the two of you”—he meant Fats and Casey—“step inside the circle. And you don’t come out until the other one can’t come out. Understand?”

“You betcha!” said Fats.

“O’Brien?”

“Yes,” said Casey.

“All right, then,” said Steve Nusser. “O’Brien, you stand here.”  He pointed to one edge of the circle. “And Larson, you there.”

“Hey, Steve,” said one of the guys looking up toward the side of the ravine.

“The little turd,” said Fats.

Casey saw what the other guys saw:  that new kid from the trailer park across the railroad embankment. He sat on a rock in the sun halfway up the ravine, legs dangling, watching the goings on. Everyone called him Turk even though his real name was Turkle.

“Will someone ...?” said Steve Nusser.

“I’ll take care of him, Steve,” said another guy. He ran over to the side of the ravine but slowed down to a trot as he started up the trail. That new kid, Turk, just kept sitting on the rock half way up there dangling his legs.

“Huh! huh! huh!”

Fats had started shadow boxing again crouching over and flinging his fists out. Some of the guys were lighting up, sharing a match. Bruce Miller, over to one side, pulled out a new, red Swiss army knife.

“It’s got sixteen different combinations,” said Bruce over to Casey. “Look.”  He pulled out a small pair of scissors and worked the blades. “Scissors,” he said.

“Okay, okay, okay,” said the guy coming back down the trail from the side of the ravine. Casey looked up at where the sun hit the rock and saw that that boy, Turk, wasn’t there anymore.

“Huh! huh! huh!”

Fats was pretending to hit Steve Nusser.

“Save it,” said Steve Nusser.

“Pow!” said Fats, throwing his last punch.

“O’Brien,” said Steve Nusser, “like I said, you stand there.”

Casey went to the place on the edge of the circle where Steve Nusser had pointed.

“And, Larson, you there.”

Fats went over to the far side of the circle, reached down and began to pull his shirt off. Casey couldn’t believe it, how his stomach came blubbering out.

“Casey, take off your shirt.”

That was Bruce Miller.

“My shirt?” said Casey.

“You’ve got to take off your shirt.”

Casey unbuttoned his shirt and handed it over to Bruce.

Then Steve Nusser held up the white handkerchief.

“You ready, Larson?”

“Ready ever since!” said Fats from across the circle.

“O’Brien?”

“Yes,” said Casey.

“Play ball!”

Steve Nusser dropped the handkerchief. It didn’t fall directly to the ground, but fluttered this way and that.

“Go on, Casey,” said Bruce.

Casey saw that Fats already stood inside the circle, all that blubber hanging over his belt. And he had a pig’s face. Really. Puffed up cheeks, small little eyes, wide nose. A pig.

“Go ahead, Casey.”

Casey felt Bruce give him a push from behind.

Casey stepped inside the circle.

Fats was crouching down, his fists up to his face, one of the fists higher than the other, peering out at Casey, beginning to move toward him. Casey tried to move away.

“Hey!” said Steve Nusser.

Casey must have stepped out of the circle. Hands pushed him back in—right at Fats.

The next thing Casey knew he was looking up at the blue sky from the ground, his mouth on fire. He reached his hand up. His lower lip was both there and not there. Inside his mouth one of his teeth went back and forth. When he swallowed he tasted blood.

Casey told himself to sit up. For some reason he knew it was important to sit up. But when he tried to sit up, it didn’t work.

Lying there he saw Fats had his shirt back on. Fats was laughing and talking.

Then Steve Nusser came over and stood above Casey.

“Loser gets this.”

He held the white handkerchief up over Casey and dropped it. Casey saw it flutter down and settle on the brown dirt.

“Hey, Steve!” said Fats from over where the other guys were.

Casey watched them leave, Steve Nusser, Fats, even Bruce Miller, starting up the trail toward the top of the ravine.

Casey tried to sit up and this time it worked. Once he was sitting up he put his hand toward his mouth. He could feel his upper lip, but he couldn’t really feel his lower lip. Well, he could feel it. It was there, all right, but it just didn’t seem as if it were part of him. As if maybe it were a piece of meat. Something like that. So he had to concentrate on the way he got his finger past his lower lip into his mouth. And when he got the finger in there and touched the tooth, the tooth went back and forth. He was afraid to touch it anymore.

“Say, there,” he heard a voice say.

Casey turned to look, but slowly because he discovered his neck hurt, too.

“Hey, that guy popped you for sure.”

It was that new kid from across the railroad embankment, Turkle. Turk. The one who had been sitting on the rock half way up the ravine dangling his legs.

This new kid sat down right in front of Casey. Well, he didn’t sit down so much as hunker down, one knee going up in the air.

“Tooth’s loose,” said Casey.

“Open your mouth.”

Casey did so.

Turk reached over. But he didn’t put his fingers on Casey’s lips. He cupped his hand under Casey’s chin.

Casey looked right at Turk’s face. His hair and eyebrows were more than blond:  They were almost white. And his eyes were almost pink. His skin was almost pink, too. His cheeks were covered with acne, little grimy red spots.

“Say, hey.”

Turk took his hand from under Casey’s chin. But the way he slid it away was more like a girl doing it than a boy.

“Tell you what,” said Turk. “Tell you what. You come over to my place. Yes, sir. My old man’s got a kit full of bandages. We put a bandage on your lip.”

“I should go home,” said Casey.

“You don’t go home. You come to my place.”

“No, I think I should go home.”

Suddenly Turk rolled back from that hunkered-down position and stood up. “Ol’ Turk’ll show you something, all right. Yes, sir. You won’t believe what Ol' Turk’s gonna show you.”

Turk reached down and got a hold of one of Casey’s hands and pulled him up to his feet.

“Come on, boy.”

Turk started toward the creek.

Casey looked across toward the side of the ravine and saw the trail going up, switching back on itself, coming out of the shadows into the sun. Up there was the way home. That’s where he lived. That’s where everyone he knew lived. Only Casey wasn’t so sure he could make it up that switchback trail just now. Well, he knew he could if he forced himself to. But that would require a lot of effort. Maybe it would be easier to follow Turk down along the creek.

“You coming?” called Turk.

“Coming,” called Casey back.

Casey followed Turk along the trail. At first it was a real trail with little side trails going off to places on the creek where fishermen fished. But once he and Turk got past that big oak tree the trail divided up going this way and that, just animal trails until even those animal trails gave way to bushes.

Once the trails gave out Turk stuck right to the creek, even crossing it on some rocks, until they came to the dump, not the real town dump, but the dump a lot of people used.

“Say, tell you what, Ol’ Turk’s gonna have himself a look around.”

While Turk was climbing through old stoves and washing machines Casey put his finger on his lips, slid a finger into his mouth and felt the tooth again. It moved back and forth in there.

“Yes, sir!” shouted Turk over by a pile of tires. “Yes, sir!”

He held up a rusty old hunting knife.

“Yes, sir, Turk’s taking this ol’ boy.”

He stepped around the pile of tires and held out the knife for Casey to see. To Casey the knife looked like it had been laying out here in the dump for at least a year.

“First you take some sandpaper and grind her down. Then a whetstone. Yes, sir!  She’s gonna make a good knife for Turk.”

He took the tip of the blade between his thumb and finger and turned toward a tree.

“Well, guess what?  There’s Ol’ Steve Nusser.”

Turk threw the knife. It spun end over end and stuck in the trunk of the tree making a pinging sound.

“See that, boy?  Ol’ Turk knows a thing or two.”

Turk went over to the tree and pulled the knife out.

“You leave my friend here alone.”  Turk gave the trunk of the tree a kick. “Don’t mess with him.”  He gave the tree another kick.

Then he brought the knife over to Casey.

“You want to get your lick in?”

Casey took the knife by the handle and saw some brown rust come off on his hand.

“Hey, boy, this way,” said Turk taking the knife back from Casey and holding the tip of the blade between his thumb and his finger.

Casey took the knife back and holding it the same way faced the tree.

“Throw that bugger!” said Turk.

Casey threw and the knife banged off the tree and fell to the ground.

“That’s ‘cause you’re afraid of Ol’ Nusser,” said Turk going over and picking up the knife. “You can’t be afraid of a boy like him.” 

Turk came back to where Casey was standing and turned to the tree.

“Fuck off!”

Turk threw and the knife stuck in the trunk of the tree making that pinging sound again.

 “Bullseye!” said Turk going over and pulling the knife out. He gave the tree another kick and sat down on the pile of tires.

“You ever seen a naked woman?”

“Me?”

“You. All the way?”

Well, Casey had a little sister. And also there was that one time he had seen his mother coming out of the bathroom after taking a shower. So he said, “Sure.”

“You stick with Ol’ Turk and you can see all the naked women you wants.”

Turk stood up and gave the knife a throw down the rutted dirt road that led up to the dump. This time it didn’t stick when it hit but bounced from one rut to the other before it came to a stop.

 “Coming?” said Turk heading down the dirt road. When he got to the knife he picked it up and gave it another throw ahead of him, and then another until the road came out of the woods into the sun right by the railway embankment and the tunnel that went under it.

Turk waited for Casey at the mouth of the tunnel.

“Hey, boy, you ever heard tunnel whistling?”

Turk stepped into the darkness of the tunnel and started whistling.

Casey had never quite heard anything like that before. Well, maybe on the radio. It was almost as if Turk were playing some kind of musical instrument. It was that beautiful. Especially the way he trilled two notes together so it almost seemed as if he was whistling them both at the same time. Also the way the notes echoed around in the tunnel.

Near the end of the tunnel Turk stopped whistling.

“Boy, you know what this here is?”

Turk pointed his knife up at a drawing someone had made on the wall with red and blue paint. It showed a man and a woman, the man in red and the woman in yellow. The man had stuck his thing into the front of the woman’s belly. You could see the red of his thing inside her yellow.

“Sure,” said Casey. “I know.”

“Tuitie-fruitie!” said Turk.

And Turk began to laugh. Only he wasn’t laughing because anything was funny. At least, Casey didn’t think so. Maybe he was laughing just to laugh and make his voice echo around in the tunnel.

To get away from it Casey went out the end of the tunnel into the sunlight. In front of him he could see “The Park,” the mostly dried up lake, the miniature golf course, the drive-in theatre which closed down two years ago and the trailer park with pick-up trucks parked in front of some of the trailers.

Suddenly a knife stuck in the ground only three feet away from Casey.

“Tuitie-fruitie,” said Turk coming over and pulling the knife out of the ground. “Come on, boy.”

Casey followed Turk down a little street into the trailer park. No one lived in the first trailers they passed. Casey could tell that because the yards beside the trailers were all grown over with weeds.

“So you want to see a naked woman?”

When Casey didn’t answer Turk said, “Hell, ’course you wants to see a naked woman.”

They started passing trailers with neater yards and even some with the wash hung out, and then they came to the headquarters house. It had a sign hung out in front of it:  “Turkle’s Trailer Camp,” and under that a smaller sign, “Long or Short Term.”

Casey followed Turk around the headquarters house to the building that had a sign saying “Toilets.”  One door of the building said “Women,” and the other door said, “Men.”

“This way, boy,” said Turk going in the door that said, “Men.”

Inside it was darker but Casey saw the usual things, two urinals, two wash basins and a stall.

Turk held a finger up to his mouth, whispered, “Shhhh!” and opened the door to the stall, knelt down, got his head right in there between the toilet bowl and the wall and pointed to something. Casey leaned over for a look and saw light coming out from a hole in the wall not that far from the floor.

Suddenly Casey heard the slamming of a door from the other side of the toilet building and the sounds of footsteps coming toward them.

Turk lifted himself away from the toilet bowl.

“Now!” whispered Turk, pushing Casey’s head right down there next to the toilet bowl.

Casey got his eye to the hole about the same time he heard the door to the stall on the other side of the wall open. At first he just saw the white of the bottom of the toilet bowl, then some kind of darkness covered it up, then he saw the white bottom of the toilet bowl again, then shoes and ankles. Those had to be the woman’s shoes and the woman’s ankles. The ankles were big and fat and round. Then Casey heard a sound:  a tinkle. She’s pissing, thought Casey. Only he couldn’t see anything—just those fat ankles in front of him. Then other sounds. Like small explosions. Now she's doing the other thing, thought Casey. Although he wasn’t sure he wanted to see that, even if he could, which he couldn’t. Then a long blowing sound, then the rolling sound of the toilet paper dispenser. Now she’s wiping herself thought Casey as he looked at her fat ankles.

He heard the flushing sound, the view of the ankles went away, he saw the white bottom of the white toilet bowl again and he heard the door of the stall open and shut.

It was only then that Casey became aware of the fart smell everywhere. It was pretty bad, and he lifted his head to try and get away from it.

“Say, hello,” whispered Turk. “See, boy, that’s what I gets anytime I wants.”

“Yeah,” said Casey pushing himself up past the toilet bowl and squeezing past Turk out of the stall door.

Turk followed him.

“Anytimes I want.”

“I think I should go home,” said Casey.

“Ain’t no need.”

Casey looked at his watch. It was only two-thirty.

“My mother expects me.”

Casey opened the door of the men’s toilet and stepped out into the sunlight. Turk followed right behind.

“You stay here with Ol’ Turk. There’s lots more coming. Sometimes young girls.”

“No, no, I got to go home.”

“I can get us Pepsi’s. All the Pepsi’s you want.”

But Casey had already started walking up the little street past the trailers with the neat yards and sometimes the washing out. Turk followed right behind him.

“Say, hello,” said Turk coming up beside Casey, “you want this knife?”

“No, no, I don’t think so.”

“Ol’ Turk don’t need this knife. Ol’ Turk  gets all the knives he wants. This here’s a gift from Ol’ Turk.”

“Thanks,” said Casey taking the knife. But he kept walking.

“Hey, boy, Turk here’s your friend.”

“I’ve got to go home,” said Casey.

“You stay with me, boy. You hear?”

Turk stopped walking, or at least he wasn’t beside Casey anymore. Still, Casey started walking faster passing the trailers with the weeds in the yards all the way out to where the street stopped in front of the railway embankment and the tunnel.

Casey looked at the tunnel. He looked at the way it went darker inside. No, no, he thought. He wouldn’t go home that way.

Instead he started up the side of the railway embankment. But because it was so steep he couldn’t go straight up but had to walk sideways, first one way and then the other, zigzagging back and forth, until he got all the way to the top.

Up at the top he could see the rails of the tracks shining in the sun as they passed the green of the real golf course and the white of the country club buildings. Beyond the white country club buildings he could see the first houses of “Manville Heights.”  That’s where he lived—and  Steve Nusser and Fats and the rest of them.

Something in his hand.

Casey looked down and saw the knife. And not only the knife. More of the rust had come off on his palms. And when he tried to wipe the rust off on his pant legs, a lot of it didn’t go away but stayed right there on his skin.

Well, one thing was for sure. No matter what that new kid, Turkle, said, it certainly wasn’t a very good knife. Not worth keeping. Anybody could tell that. Because probably it had been lying around that dump for two years or even three or maybe four. And it wasn’t even the real dump.

Casey took the tip of the blade between his thumb and his finger and looked back toward “The Park” and all those trailers.

Wasn’t that him, the new kid, Turkle, walking around the side of the toilet building?

“Fuck off!” Casey shouted and gave the knife a throw.

Even though he threw it as hard as he could and even though the knife spun end over end, it didn’t go that far. Not as far as “The Park.”  It just dropped into the dark grass at the bottom of the embankment and disappeared.

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) and has had over 65 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of  “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.