One of Russell’s hands was on the steering wheel of a ’92 Honda Civic that his dad bought fresh off the lot years earlier. His other hand pressed a cell phone up to his ear so that Russell could tell his friend, Mark, that he would not go hunting with him and his friends that weekend.
“Really dude?” Mark said, sitting on a futon in his parents’ basement, talking into their landline phone. “You’re skipping out on this because you can’t handle a little blood?”
“I’m fine with the blood,” Russell said as he flipped the left turn signal. “I just think it’s boring. Most of the time, you’re just sitting there.”
“That’s the point,” Mark said, “sitting there, getting drunk, killing shit.” Then he tucked a fresh pinch of dip between his bottom lip and teeth. With his mouth full, he said, “I think you’re being a gigantic pussy.” Then he hung up.
It was August and the air was humid. Russell parked in a crumbling parking space in front of Big Lots, walked past the vending machines that sold worms and knock off sodas for pennies on the dollar; through two glass doors that slid apart as he put his uniform over the black Pantera shirt he already had on.
“You know I was supposed to get out at 3:30,” Melissa said as Russell took a spot behind Register #4. “See what time it is?”
“I though you wanted more hours,” Russell said.
“Yeah but not now,” Melissa said. “I woke up at five this morning and worked a ten hour shift. I’m fucking exhausted.”
Russell pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the time: 4:17. “Well I’m here now,” he said. “You can go home.”
Melissa zipped open her backpack. Loading in her vest and a squared cardboard box with a half-eaten personal pizza, she said “I’m willing to let this go if you take my shift on Thursday.”
“Then forget it,” he said, sliding his fingers back and forth across the checkout scanner with lifeless concentration.
“Russell, this would really mean a lot to me,” she said. “It’s my friend’s birthday—one of my best friends—and I haven’t seen her since she moved to Eau Claire in December.” Then she strapped on her backpack and looked him in the eye. “Please?”
Russell drummed softly with his knuckles on the counter. “I already have two morning shifts this week,” he said, “and I’m not all that interested in picking up a third one.”
“Oh big fucking deal,” Melissa said. She stepped out from behind the counter so that Russell had to look at her. “Tom makes us all take at least four morning shifts and somehow you get away with only doing two. I should report you but instead I’m asking you this as a friend.”
Russell sighed. He pressed his palms into the counter and said, “Why don’t you get someone else to do it?”
“Because they’re all busy.”
“And so am I.”
Melissa tugged the straps of her backpack. She was halfway out the door when she said, “I won’t forget this.” Then she got in her car and jerked out of the parking lot.
Russell tilted his head back. He looked at the purple stain that the fluorescent lights made through his eyelids. The longer he concentrated on its buzzing drone, the stronger it burned into his brain, drowning out the squeaking trolleys on glassy concrete, the rustling of cash registers, the chant of collective voices and the customer snapping his fingers in his face, saying, “hello? Excuse me? Kid, wake up.”
With a deep breath, Russell opened his eyes.
“What are you, on dope?” the man asked, panting.
Russell silently grabbed a set of screw driver bits and ran it across the checkout scanner. “Seven fifty six,” he said, flatly, and tapped at the register. “Here’s your change,” he said, with his fist extended in front of him, clutching a ball of coins and bills. “Would you like a bag?”
“No,” the customer snapped, yanking his new tool off the conveyer. “Why would I need a bag for just one item?”
Russell shrugged. He handed the customer a fistful of change; then the customer waddled out to the parking lot, where Russell watched him scream red-faced into his cell phone before a train of shopping carts blocked Russell’s view.
* * *
Six hours later, Russell’s shift was over and he was sinking into the seat of his car, his orange vest and nametag already off and thrown into the trunk. He fished a small glass bowl from the center consul and packed it with a bit of weed he had tucked in his pocket, wrapped in the cellophane lining from an empty cigarette pack.
After four large hits, Russell slid a key into the ignition and drove off. The moon was almost full, giving the road in front of his dashboard a glow like dusk when the sunrise was imminent. His little car snaked through miles of woods and rows of mailboxes at the mouths of long gravel driveways. Russell felt nothing but the breathing motion of his chest and the car’s fragile power, rising up and falling down on the hilly road like a rowboat on the surface of a wavy ocean.
A pair of headlights crept out from a line of trees and Russell remembered he was not alone. Other people were on these roads, making the same turns and pressing the same hills but in a different direction. Then the car zoomed past him and he flinched.
A few minutes later, Russell stopped at a gas station. As he wandered through the snack aisle, the clerk stared at him through a pair of rimless glasses, chewing on a stick of gum. Russell walked up to him and plopped a bag of Corn Nuts on the counter. “Pump number three,” he said.
The clerk looked thoughtfully at Russell, then tapped at the register. “Supposed to be nasty weather tomorrow,” he said. “Then clear up by Wednesday. I’ve got big plans this weekend and I can’t be having rain.”
“Oh really,” Russell said, absent-minded.
“Yep,” he said, grabbing the Corn Nuts bag and examining the barcode, “but dumb fuckers like yourself wouldn’t understand the stuff I’m into.”
Russell’s face flickered at this. “Excuse me?”
“Got your attention, didn’t I?” The clerk said, grinning. “Listen, what do you think of the people around here? You think they’re pretty stupid, don’t you?”
“I guess so,” he said.
“Well, I think they’re pretty stupid,” the clerk said, sliding the bag of Corn Nuts towards Russell, who pulled two twenty dollar bills from his wallet.
“What’s my total?”
“You know what their real problem is?” he said. “They’ve got no audacity. Their wives bitch at them and what do they do about it? They go to the lake just to catch fish and throw them back so they can catch them again.”
“And this is less exciting than what you do?” Russell said, still holding the cash suggestively.
“Hell yeah!” the clerk said. “I do real shit, you know? Some communing with higher powers. You ever done anything like that?”
“Can’t say I have,” Russell said. “So what’s my total?”
“Hey, I see you trying to worm out of here,” the clerk said, “but this is important so listen: you got things you want to do? Places you want to go?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to get home.”
“Not like that. I mean things you want to do on this earth.”
Russell answered quickly, “No.”
“That’s bullshit!” the clerk said. “Everybody wants to do something. It’s just that nobody ever does it. Now you want to know what I do?”
Russell crunched the dollar bills into his fist.
“I speak with God,” he said, “but not the same God you learned about at church. This one gives you ways to get on his good side. Gestures and things that most people don’t know about.”
“Look, I’m not really interested—“
“Bullshit,” the clerk said. “And I know it’s bullshit because you’re going to come find me on Wednesday to check out what me and my group are doing.” Then he opened up the credit card machine and pulled out a strip of receipt paper. He wrote down his name, address, and phone number and slid the information across the counter. “Nine PM. Big ceremony. Oughta be fucking wild.”
Russell put the number in his pocket without looking at it, paid, grabbed his Corn Nuts and walked out the door, throwing on his hood as the exit chime faded. Then he filled up and drove home.
The door to Russell’s house was heavy and unlocked. On a braided rug, he slid ooff the heels of each shoe with a thud using the tip of the other, thudding as they hit the floor. “That you?” his dad shouted.
“Yeah,” Russell said, walking into the living room.
His dad was lying on a duct-taped reclining chair—a can of Miller High Life in a koozie wedged between his hairy thighs. “I made some sausages this afternoon,” he said. “They’re probably cold by now but you could reheat them in the microwave.”
“I grabbed something on my way back from work,” Russell said, opening the Corn Nuts.
“Well, can you still do me a favor and grab me a beer from the fridge?” Pressing his thighs inward, he pulled the can from its koozie and held it up. “This one’s almost empty.”
The ceiling light in the kitchen buzzed steadily. Swinging the refrigerator door open, Russell grabbed two golden High Life cans from a box on the bottom shelf. “How are the Brewers doing?” he said, stepping into the living room.
“Losing,” his dad said as he switched to a public access channel with four gray haired rockers playing “Mississippi Queen” in a dive bar. He took a beer from Russell’s hand. “I’ve got the day off Thursday. Do you want to go hunting?”
Russell took a seat on a floral sofa with foam emerging from each armrest. “You know I hate hunting,” he said, opening his beer. “Dead animals gross me out.”
“Ever since that one time,” his dad said and tipped his beer can up to his silver beard. “You know the reason you threw up wasn’t because of the deer. You were too young to remember but you got the stomach flu just a couple days later.”
Russell shrugged. “It still makes me queasy.” Then he went upstairs to his room.
That night, Russell dreamed he was in a place he didn’t recognize and woke up in his room, disappointed to still be there. Everywhere disappointed him. Or at least everywhere he’d been shown.
* * *
Phillip Cervinski, 715-555-0483, 12 Duck Lake Rd- Silver Lakes, WI; Russell didn’t even need the slip of paper because he had the information memorized, but he kept it with him anyway when he went to the clerk’s house. The house was a one-story ranch with missing shingles and a sloped yard of grass that brushed Russell’s knees as he walked up a path of crumbling concrete to Phillip’s door. Russell gulped heavily and lifted his hand to tap a sticky metal doorknocker that was shaped like a lion.
Phillip opened the door, wearing a maroon velvet cloak that stopped above his ankles, revealing a fresh pair of Nikes and black dress-socks. “I knew you would show up,” he said. “Come inside. I want you to meet The Divine Faction.”
Russell stepped through the doorway. He peeled his tongue from the roof of his mouth and said “The what?”
“The Divine Faction,” Phil said. “That’s Jonathan on the left and Chris on the right.” Both men were sitting with their legs straight on a snow-white laminated sofa.
Jonathan tapped his feet and pulled at his unwashed hair.
Chris rested his palms on his knees and peered at Russell without blinking or moving his arms. “It is your great fortune that you have joined us tonight. May I kiss your hand?”
“No,” Russell said, bothered, but grateful that he at least asked.
“Relax,” Phil said. “You want something to drink?”
“What do you have?”
“Beer and orange blossom.”
“A beer,” Russell said.
“Jonathan, get him a beer,” Phil said.
Jonathan stood up, straightened his robe, walked to the kitchen and pulled a Leinenkugel’s from a beige refrigerator that was rusting along the edges. Then he opened the dishwasher and took out a ceramic stein from the Mount Rushmore gift shop and had the presidents’ faces carved into the side. Silently, he walked back to the living room and handed both items to Russell.
“I don’t know if you go to a church,” Chris said, gesturing with his hands. “But I will tell you right now that those places have great inferiority to what you see here.” Russell cracked open the beer and poured it into the stein. “Our God is different. Better. And he’s already granted great power to the Divine Faction. But after tonight, we will be unstoppable.”
Phil grabbed a beer from the fridge and opened it, taking large gulps straight from the can. “Chris, what you’re saying is important but I’m getting antsy. I say we do this thing. You boys ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Jonathan said.
“Fuck it, I’m going,” Phil said. The spring on the screen door creaked as he stepped out to the backyard. Jonathan followed. Then Russell.
Nothing could have prepared Russell to see that enormous moose chained up in the backyard, and hear that ferocious, wheezing moan. When he saw the fur on its neck bleeding around the perimeter of a rusty iron shackle, and the roots of a tree that it was anchored to rumbling the soil around it as it tried to break free, a burst of sympathy rose within his stomach. He started panting. “You did this?” he said.
“Yeah, quite a prize, isn’t it?” Phil said, gazing at the beast. “And man, you should have seen the crazy fucker that we bought it from. For the last thirty four years, he’s lived only fifteen minutes from a grocery store but he still eats nothing but rabbits.”
“That would kill him,” Russell said, preoccupied with watching the beast the beast quiver on its knees.
“So one day, this unfortunate soul,” Phil said, raising his beer can in the direction of the moose, “steps into one of the guy’s snare traps. Well the guy obviously wasn’t going to eat the thing cause it’s not a rabbit. So he sells it. He puts a sign out in his front yard like he was selling a truck.”
Jonathan walked up to the animal and affectionately stroked the white fur on the inside of its right knee. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
“Lucky for us, I drove past his house because now we’ve got a damn good sacrifice.”
Russell nearly burst at this. “You are not killing it,” he said.
“Why? Do you want to do it?” Phil said.
Chris walked from the back door, carrying a steak knife. “I think that would make a very good initiation,” he said and put the knife into Russell’s hand. At this moment, the moose crooned. A heaviness gathered in Russell’s stomach and shot through his throat.
After he threw up, Russell dropped the knife into a pile of chunky vomit in front of his sneakers. Once he found the bathroom, Russell puked once more in the toilet. For nearly half an hour, he held his head over the crusty toilet bowl. Even after he knew that there would not be a third eruption, he stayed in the same position: kneeling on the checkered tiles with his arm stretched over the toilet seat and his head hunched forward, peering at his reflection in broad ripples.
The moose burst into a deep roar that developed into a steady rhythm of gasps and screams. Its breaths were violent at first but slowly they subdued into a whimper and stopped once the moose died.
Russell lifted his head and shut the cover over the toilet bowl. Using his palms to push himself upward, he straightened his knees and bent his spine backwards. Then he took his phone out of his pocket to check the time- 9:34 and Melissa had texted him: went to eau claire 4 the night I really really want u to take that shift cause Tom could fire me over this I just need a night out ive been doing the same—then it continued in another message—thing 4 too long. 1 last time, can u pleassssssse cover for me tmmrw, please?!?!?
Russell texted her back: I can do that for you.
Eric Wallgren lives in Chicago, where he plays in a band called
Lamestains. He’s online at ericwallgren.tumblr.com.