"Petty Kings"

The heat is like being coated in a thin layer of vaseline -- I sweat, but it beads and rolls, no evaporation, no cooling, simply soaking into my already-soaked shirt, the salt ring creeping down toward my navel. The sky is a diseased shade of mottled blue, and the wind brings more moisture than it takes. The only sound I hear out on the porch is the droning gurgle of complaint from my great- aunt's overburdened air conditioner.

I am in extreme northern Louisiana this summer. The rural community of Maureen doesn't seem to find that much more pleasant than I do. Most of the people here are related to me in some way, but even the bonds of thinned blood do not prepare them to deal with this. My hair is long and ugly, beginning to mat from the conditions I've been living in. My voice is beginning to change, after only ten weeks, losing the crisp Oregonian diction in favor of a good old boy drawl. The accent of this region of Louisiana is, like the unincorporated village itself, so close to Arkansas as to make the differences invisible. Southern without the machismo of Texas or the illiterate poverty of the hills, without the rich cadences of Creole or the easy sliding vowels of Florida.It is a language of too long days and the vicious infighting of family politics. It is exhausting to keep track of who is In and who is Out, for it makes no sense to an outsider, even though the outsider is part of the same family. But the Oregon branch of the Holts, the Rubicons of which I am the youngest, has the same type of politics. Right now three of my cousins are Out, one is In, my oldest brother is Out, I am... I don't know. Here, I am out for the sin of being here without being like the rest. There, I am In because I am paying a visit to the old homestead, paying my respects to my roots by living in what was my grandfather's house before the random vandalism of the seasons. The cast of characters is larger here, and people have little business of their own other than gossiping about each other's.

It is a community of old, intermingled families. Everyone not related by blood is related by marriage. The "new people" moved in five years ago, and my relations are still upset about that.

Old Buck comes out from the relative cool under the porch. He is my great-aunt Jill's closest friend. I have watched them for the last weeks, watched as they fish together, Buck snapping impotently at the hooked crickets and trying to eath the bony bream, barely larger than minnows, that she pulls out of the pond next to the garden. He is of the commonest breed, the mutt. The hair on his back, at the base of his tail, is gone, ravaged by mange and his nibbling teeth. He is part Australian shepherd, and has their odd, appealing eyes, blue and brown pie charts. I do not like dogs as a rule, but Buck is firm in his conviction that he is a short hairy person. I respect that, and treat him accordingly. After poking his nose into my palm he scratches the door until it opens. Aunt Jill, a birdlike woman with papery skin and tight bluegrey curls, scratches his neck and murmurs softly under the sound of people fighting on television. Noone here cares about the news. Talk shows featuring wronged trailerdwellers and staged confrontations are much more real and immediate. Men in costume beating each other up in meticulously choreographed mock battle, accompanied by the soap opera of "offstage" maneuvering, is more true.

Inside are Rosalee and Uncle Billy. I honor him, for he is the smartest man in Maureen. My grandmother's youngest brother, he has not worked a day in thirty years, since his brother died. They were working together on the coast, hanging iron. Noone knows exactly what happened to Billy's brother except Billy. He hears voices that tell him strange stories when he forgets to take his medication. One day, out of boredom and random self-destructiveness, I took one of his pills. The voices spoke to me, late into the night. Billy owns a car, but he never drives it, preferring to walk incessantly up and down the roads, hitching rides into town simply to be able to hitch rides back. Although he is Out, the family pities him, pampers him. He knows more about baseball than anyone I've ever met.

Jill comes out of the house, accompanied by Buck. She sits in her chair, two over from mine. She is unsteady on her feet from sneaking nips of rye all day. Everyone, including her, pretends she doesn't. "Bobby's comin' back today. Time to run his dawgs." As if in answer, one of the hounds in the kennel behind the house whuffles. They are running dogs, Blue Walkers, and they look exactly like basset hounds don't. "Be nice not to hear them for a couple a days." She holds out her hand, and I pass her a cigarette. She hands me fire, and we sit in silence and stare at the church across the road.

It squats, plastic covering half the roof. I was watching when it happened. The wind twisted the top of the oak tree, the ancient white oak that had narrowly missed being cut down fifteen years ago when they built the new social center of the community, the white oak that sprouted before the Holts and the Stays and the Lefabers cleared the forests for farms. The sound of a door slamming dozens of times -- I had watched the graceful fall (double axel with a half twist, 9.4, 9.6, 9.6, 8.9, 9.5). I had to wipe the smile off my face before anyone saw. The indignities I had suffered in that church, the church I had attended a few Sundays to appease both my family and my own search for meaning, were too many to forgive. The last service I attended, I was late. After the preacher finished his rant against the enemies of God and America, someone made a comment about long haired freaks coming where they weren't wanted. Delores Stay could not meet my eyes on her way out of the church, and I never set foot in the building again. If the Christian God lived anywhere in that valley, it was in the old church, hidden behind the monstrosity that cost as much as four houses. He lived in the shabby green one-room house built of native logs and put together with notches and pegs by hand before the civil war. They built the new church because they needed more room, and half the congregation quit going when it opened its doors.

The clouds begin to arrive, thunderheads building up from the Gulf. Jill's son Bobby arrives before they do. In the back of his truck is a bull terrier. The animal is carved from gold-flecked black marble and given life from the breath of a gargoyle. Its head is made of cubes -- one for the shrunken brainpan, one for the snout, smaller ones for the powerful muscles of the jaws, one cut diagonal and the pieces rudely hollowed into cropped ears. The dog, if you can call it that, jumps out of the truckbed and runs for the house.

It is a magnificent animal. It terrifies me.

Buck forgets he is a person and growls, hackles raised. He charges at this intruder, this powerful rival. They bounce and roll. Bobby breaks them apart by grabbing his dog's collar and smacking Buck sharply across the snout with a heavy fist. Buck whines and retreats under Jill's chair. Bobby ties his machine to a tree with several feet of chain. It can't quite reach the porch.

He goes into the house, and I hear him talking to his wife, describing the sandwich he will have. Jill doesn't. She is concentrating on the buzz in her head telling her to have another shot of rye. She thinks no one knows, but her martyrdom deepens with each drink. By the end of each day she begins to whine. No one forces her to buy Billy cigarettes and do his laundry. Any of her sisters would be happy to prepare Sunday dinner. She won't hear of it -- but eventually everyone else does. Perhaps she is not as bad as all that. She is generous to a fault. Still, that is proof of the expression.

Rosalee tells Bobby all of Jill's routine complaints. Buck, hearing the refridgerator door opening and closing, goes inside to grovel and beg. "Damned wothless mutt. Tiger's woth three of ya," Bobby says aroung a mouthfull of bread and meat.

When Buck comes out, heartbroken, the intruder hits the end of his chain, all four paws leaving the ground. Buck warily circles the growling juggernaut and lays in the cool dust, out of reach. When Bobby comes out, fed and refreshed, served by his wife like an earl, I see the look on his broad face. It is ugly, dyspeptic. He manages to kick dust into Buck's face as he walks past to free his hounds.

The pit bull doesn't bother them, but Buck snaps at one that comes too close. He does not connect, means no harm, but he does need to let them know he has seniority. His breed has been around longer than these sleek upstarts.

I have seen this routine before. Every few weeks, Bobby drives the dogs up into the hills. There they run free for a day or two, chasing deer, squirrels, anything that moves. They return Jill's one at a time, heads down, so tired that they neither bark nor walk further than the water trough. If he gave the order to chase instead of simply letting them go, they would run themselves to death to please their two legged god from whom all blessings flow.

He sits on the porch with us for a while while his hounds wait patiently, tongues lolling in the heat. "Just bought that dawg. Cost me a sight, too -- he's my new guard. Names Tiger. Guy in Texarkana I bought him from fought him a couple times -- didn't get a scratch on him."

"Why'd he sell? Man stand to take a lot of money from a good fightin' dog." The words taste bad in my mouth, lying tone, kissing up to a man who spends more time with his dogs than his bride. A wave of self-disgust passes through me, invisibly.

"Almos got busted last time. He gets another conviction they'll take them away." I don't need to ask what they would take. "Well, gotta go. Rose! Git my boots!"

When she kneels before him I can see the look on her face.

At the wreckage of my grandfather's house, I carefully roll my clothes and stow them in my backpack in the fashion experience has taught me is the best. I put a few day's food in the bottom of my sleeping bag, roll it tightly, wrap my serape around it and sling it from the bottom of my packstraps with two short ropes. I fill two canteens with sweet, clear, cold water from Uncle Billy's well.

It only takes half an hour to reach the Arkansas border.

(c)1991, 2001 Eponymous 1 2 2.9 3