“Postwar: Heartland” by Michael Credico
Enjoy Michael dark and dangerously funny short story from his collection Heartland Calamitous.
The sniper leaves his wife to save the whales. No. That isn’t true. The whales are a cover thought up by his wife, Sister. Actually, the sniper suffocated himself with a plastic grocery bag. And now Mother is expected at any moment. Suicide is a no go.
“Do you think whales are big enough?” Sister says to Brother. “Do you believe me?”
Sister and Brother are in the bedroom. The sniper’s body is still on the bed.
Brother goes to the gun safe. “Where do you keep the bullets?”
“Not you too.”
Brother flip-cocks an empty rifle. “I mean—it’s so much easier.”
“He was a professional. This wasn’t about business.”
“Was it about you?”
The doorbell rings. Mother is praying on the stoop. Brother helps her up from her knees.
“Where’s your husband?”
Brother nods at Sister like go ahead. Sister nods back like I can’t. “After god’s own heart,” Brother finally says.
“Amen,” Mother says.
“My husband,” Sister says.
“He left me.”
“To save them.”
“You’d never allow it—god wouldn’t—”
“The great divorce,” Brother says. “Of an entire species.” Sister falls into Mother’s arms. Mother lifts a rosary out of her bosom. The crucifix hangs from her fingers over Sister’s mouth. “I will pray for sharks,” Mother says.
Slugger is late for the ball game. Old Ball Coach is waiting for him in the dugout. “Fifth inning,” he says.
“My father’s gone,” Slugger says.
“So’s our lead.” Old Ball Coach gives Slugger an aluminum bat. There’s a runner on first. No men down. Old Ball Coach drags his index finger across his neck. Slugger misses on two attempts to sacrifice himself. Old Ball Coach walks up to Slugger, spits on him. “You’re as good as buried now,” he says.
Slugger digs in at the plate. His prayer is simple: go far.
He swings at the next pitch. Contact. A rope up the middle. The ball strikes the pitcher in the head. Slugger rounds first. Slugger rounds second and third. The game is called before Slugger is safe at home. There is a man down.
“If you knew the fundamentals,” Old Ball Coach says.
“I was playing hurt,” Slugger says.
“Heartache isn’t real hurt.”
“I miss him.”
Old Ball Coach pulls the wad of dip from his lips. He rubs the dip over Slugger’s heart. “If this don’t make it better nothing will.” Old Ball Coach removes his cap. “Maybe this don’t seem like the right time,” he says. “But what’s right is right.”
“We’re making a change.”
“I can be better.”
“It isn’t about being better. It’s about doing right by the game.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
Old Ball Coach puts his arm around Slugger. “I was your age once.”
Slugger pushes Old Ball Coach away. “What do you know?” “I don’t know anything. I just make decisions.” Old Ball Coach gives Slugger an envelope. “You would do the same in my position,” he says.
“It’s a different game over there. You might stand a fighting chance.”
“What about my family? My mother?”
Old Ball Coach’s eyes well up with tears. The tears make trails in the dirt on his old leather face. He caresses the seam of a ball. “The hide is what’s beautiful,” he says. “Isn’t it?”
The plot is fucked. Flames shoot from the hole in the dirt. Brother covers his face. A sharp-toothed man, reeking of Oud Wood cologne, walks up behind him, puts his hands on Brother’s hips. “Do you smell that?” the sharp-toothed man whispers in his ear.
“Yeah,” Brother says, his eyes watering.
The sharp-toothed man takes the shovel from Brother, checks the coif of his hair in the blade. “This here gas field is worth millions. I’ll give you a thousand. Cash.”
“Is that your body?”
“Dead, looks like.”
“Yeah. And that’s the plot.”
“Is he somebody someone might come looking for?”
“No. He’s a marine veteran.”
The sharp-toothed man helps Brother drag the sniper’s body to the flames. The body phoenixes.
“Now about the land,” the sharp-toothed man says.
“It isn’t mine.”
“Then it’s settled.” The sharp-toothed man gives Brother a thousand-dollar bill. A construction crew erects a drill rig. The drill plunges into the earth.
It’s too big. My sister won’t allow it.”
“Do you believe in god?”
“If this here was god, you’d say, ‘Amen.’ You’d say, ‘Hallelujah.’”
“But I don’t think god—”
“No. Don’t think god. Believe him.”
Sister is crying over the eviction notice. “You said you’d give the money back.”
“It only bought us a week.”
An earthquake strikes the home. The ceiling splits. Mother falls through the crack and onto the sofa next to Sister. “Have you tried prayer?” Mother says.
“It won’t work”
“You have to be born again, is all.” Mother runs upstairs to the bathroom. She falls through the crack again. She leaps off the sofa. She fills up the kitchen sink.
“We can’t drink the water,” Brother says.
“Don’t drink,” Mother says. “Instead, let it fill you.” She drags Sister by the hair, plunges her head into the water. When Sister is drowned, Mother turns to Brother. Brother backs away. Another earthquake. Much stronger. A ceiling beam dislodges. “Oh god,” Mother says. And she is right. She is struck dead by the ceiling beam.
“This seems like a bad time,” the sharp-toothed man says from outside an open window.
“We’re all a little shaken up,” Brother says.
“Well we’ve sprung a leak out here. I see you’ve got a swing set. Kids, maybe. But I can spare only one gas mask.”
“He is out playing ball.”
“I am still a good man,” the sharp-toothed man says, tearing the rosary from around Mother’s neck.
Slugger is climbing Mount Kaikoma of Yamanashi Prefecture to retrieve a ball. He is 2,000 meters up and losing consciousness. He digs his spikes into the rock. He lifts himself onto a ridge where he rests, stiffening from the cold.
A serow appears before him, wearing the beard of god. Slugger’s instincts stir in his stomach. He attempts to spike the throat of the serow. The serow leaps out of harm’s way, shakes its beard of god at Slugger.
“Americans,” the serow bellows.
Valley fog engulfs the ridge. When it has passed, the serow is dead at Slugger’s feet. The sniper drops his rifle. “But you’re gone,” Slugger says.
“We are all gone,” the sniper says. He skins the serow and wraps its hide around Slugger. He holds him close until he stops shivering.
Slugger points to the summit of the mountain. “Did you find anything up there?”
“There is nothing up there. Absolutely nothing.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m sorry,” the sniper says, leaping off the ridge.
Sister is dead in the sniper’s arms.
“There’s only one mask,” Brother says. “You understand?” The sharp-toothed man pours gasoline around the house, drops a match. The house ignites.
Brother pulls off the gas mask and plunges his head into the sink.
The sharp-toothed man knocks on the front door. The front door turns to ash.
The drill continues through the earth. Fucks it. Fucks it. The sharp-toothed man unbuttons his shirt, wipes the sweat off his face. “Who are you and why are you still here?” he says.
The sniper spits, hitting the sharp-toothed man between the eyes.
The sharp-toothed man grins. Earlier, he swallowed Mother’s crucifix. It glows like another, sharper tooth in the back of his throat. He thumbs through a bible that he found at his feet. It feels heavy to him, at first. And then it feels like nothing. Whole verses evaporate. The cover melts, like tar seeping between his fingers. “Exodus,” he repeats. “Exodus. Exodus.”
To read more stories by Michael Credico, consider purchasing his debut collection, Heartland Calamitous.
“Chiseled and coiled like a hungry serpent with a wicked sense of humor, Michael Credico’s stories lure you in with terrific sentences and just when you expect to be crushed, embrace you with an unexpectedly tender heart. Denis Johnson meets Donald Barthelme at a dive where Gordon Lish tends bar and Amy Hempel rules the jukebox. Don’t believe me, believe Credico. Read this book.”
—Imad Rahman, author of I Dream of Microwaves