Fire Off the Black Road was a submission for Dennis Covington's undergraduate creative writing workshop. This is a re-written revision of the original.
Content Warnings: Abduction, alcoholism, blood, death, and violence.
Fire off the Black Road
Squares of television light reflected against the acrylic bar top in front of the man’s face. Slow, drunken blinks bent the light into shapeless waves that crumbled and reassembled and refracted in the man’s amber drink. To his right and left were long rows of empty wooden chairs, each inscribed and pitted from the wear and tear of drunks before him. The chair below him wobbled in a grievance. A chain beat against a loose ceiling fan above, and behind him, a bell rung near the door. The man didn’t look back, but he looked up as the bartender returned to the room, wiping both hands with a patterned blue and white rag.
Anything I can get you? the bartender said.
The man at the bar felt a heavy presence beside him and a puff of displaced air. He turned to the newcomer, and when he did, the newcomer stared the man right in the eye, and his lips were twisted and soft purple.
I think I’m quite alright, the newcomer said. Here for a friend.
The bartender looked between the two and nodded. He stepped through the door to the backroom and out of sight.
You feelin alright, son? the newcomer said.
The man lifted his head some and looked at the newcomer again, and nodded.
What’s your name, son? Bill? John? Joseph?
Joseph, the man muttered.
Oh. That’s a Godly name, you know.
Joseph didn’t say anything.
My name’s Israel. That’s a Godly name too, I reckon.
Oh hell, in a world run amok like this one, I figure it’s worth mentioning, Israel said. You a Godly man too, Joseph?
I don’t believe in no God.
Oh. Well, that’s a shame, ain’t it?
You might say something different standing right in front of him. Then, I don’t think you could stand for your own mama’s funeral rites, given the condition you’re in.
Joseph looked away and took a drink.
You do something wrong, Joseph?
You fuckin want somethin? Joseph said and slammed his glass on the bar counter.
Israel turned away from Joseph and watched sensationalism on the news. He saw the scrolling red and yellow banners, the capitalized words, the branded sneers of made-up men shouting into a camera at one a.m. angry about something. Israel tapped his fingers on the bar top and pulled once at his collar with his other hand. He slipped his fingers into his front pocket and pulled something from it into a closed fist.
Joseph watched the television too, and when he felt the brush of Israel’s arm against his chest, Joseph looked at him again.
What're you doin, man? Joseph said.
Oh hell, I saw you wobblin, son. You want a ride home or somethin?
Joseph shook his head and waved the man off and said, I want you to leave me be.
Israel smirked and nodded. He stood from the chair and stepped back to one of the empty tables in the bar and put his hands on the back of one of the wooden chairs. His fingers curled into the wood, and his fingertips scraped the thin lacquer away as Joseph shook his head and finished his drink. When Joseph didn’t hear the bell again, he looked back to Israel and noticed his immense height, long bootcut jeans, and plaid long-sleeved white and gray shirt. The back of his balding, horseshoe grayed head. Israel turned back to Joseph, and his hairy gray brows scrunched together, and his red nose lifted some.
You have spent enough time in the past doing as Pagans do, Israel said, and he spat the words rife with monotony and solemnness unlike any of the words he spoke to Joseph before.
The words hit Joseph like an incantation, and he pushed the empty glass away. He stood and watched Israel’s figure as the light around him dimmed. A swell of disorientation pulled Joseph forward, and before he could hit the ground, Israel caught the man in his broad arms. When Joseph looked up, he saw spots of Israel’s face, marred with redness and anger, and Israel muttered echoes of distant words, but the only word that broke through was Judgement.
The grumbling of a truck’s exhaust stirred Joseph to consciousness. His eyes opened to a sky full of stars, each skittering like fireflies above the vibrating truck bed. Joseph rolled to his side and crushed loose strings of hay that crackled beneath his gracelessness. He jerked his right arm and felt the rub of rope hairs against his wrists, and when he tugged again, he realized his arms were bound behind him. Joseph rolled himself up into a seated position and stared out the back of the truck as it turned from a long black highway to a dirt road obscured with dust and dirt kicked from the truck's tires. When he looked behind him at the rear window of the truck’s cabin, he saw Israel’s horseshoe hair and the barrel of a Winchester rifle propped against the headrest of the passenger seat. Music, hymnal in nature, heavy with masculine baritones, muffled against the rear window and leaked from the cracked driver’s side window.
You shall not shout, Israel said, though his words were weak in the noise. You shall not make your voice heard. And no word shall go out of your mouth until the day I tell you to shout. Then you shout.
What? Joseph said, and his voice shook. Joseph slid his body toward the rear of the truck, and he forced his feet into the tailgate, but it didn’t give. He kicked several times again until the truck braked and slid to a stop on the dirt road. The night insects went quiet, and something in the truck’s guts hissed.
The driver’s side door opened, and Israel rounded the truck and stood up on the left rear tire and lowered the long barrel of the hunting rifle down just inches in front of Joseph’s face.
Did you hear me? Israel said.
Joseph seized and stared.
I’ll tell you to shout. Until then, you shut it.
Joseph’s mouth curved into the patterns of words, but no sound came out. A second later, Israel turned the barrel away and stepped down from the tire. He sat back into the cabin and closed the door before the truck accelerated and continued down the road. Joseph kept crunched near the tailgate, giving to the inertia of the vehicle until his face was flat against the truck’s cold metal.
The shadows of dead trees whipped lines across Joseph’s face as the truck drove beside them. The smell of black oil stung his nostrils as they deepened into the flat country. Distant red lights blinked amid the monolithic and sluggish rotation of wind turbines, packed together like sentinels across the landscape. The truck turned once more, and the thick canopies of leafy trees overwhelmed the night sky. Joseph caught a glance of a stop sign riddled with bullet holes concentrated around the O in STOP. His heart jumped just as the truck came to a stop.
When the ignition cut, the hymn rang on. Joseph rolled onto his back and watched the rear window of the truck, and Israel’s head fell back against the headrest before he looked at the gun at his side. He then glanced back to Joseph but turned away as the driver’s side door opened, and he stepped out. Israel circled the bed of the truck and watched the bound man in the back of it. Joseph saw the wetness of Israel’s eyes and his frowning purple lips through the rare bits of fleeting moonlight. Israel opened the tailgate, and Joseph scurried back near the window, but before Joseph reached it, he was grabbed by his ankle and pulled out of the truck kicking. Joseph landed hard on the caliche and felt consciousness waver, but Israel’s boot against his neck drew Joseph’s eyes fully open. Beneath the harmonized moan of choir music, Joseph's sight tunneled, and white spots dangled and popped at the edge of his vision, and in the middle of the starbursts, Israel smiled down with both of his hands on his knee.
Judgment, Israel said in a near whisper. Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.
Spit ran down the edge of Joseph’s lips, and he teetered on the fulcrum of his bound hands beneath him, and he pushed his knees up with his feet flat on the ground, but his head remained pinned on the ground beneath the increasing weight of the man’s foot. All at once, Israel’s foot lifted from Joseph’s neck, and he stepped away and back to the open driver’s side door, whistling the hymn’s notes. Joseph burst into coughs as the night's natural darkness displaced the breathless faux-light, and he rolled to his side to relieve weight and pain from his bleeding knuckles. When Joseph’s breathing quieted, dim objects beyond the truck came into focus.
Charred stones sat in a circle a few feet from Joseph. A recessed pit in the center of the rocks guttered flakes of ash around fresh logs. The scent of soaked lighter fluid broke through the foul and stagnant smell of sulfur. Melted plastic bottles and black beer cans littered the pit beside the remains of small animals. Far beyond the pit, at the edge of the treeline, rose a rotting rural church with two shattered lancet windows bearing the broken faces of Mary and Jesus and Jesus on the cross. The jagged edges of broken glass were dulled by years of West Texas wind and dirt, and ruptures in the white window frames revealed broad mold patches, combining primal life with scenes of ritual death. One of the two double doors hung open, bowed, and connected by its lower hinge. The other door held atrophied. A rose window above the door remained entirely intact, but a smiley face of red graffiti subdued any majesty. At the top of the building, a sinking spire projected the remains of a cross. Joseph blinked at the sight of the broken cross, and when his eyes opened, flames burst from the pit.
Israel circled the fresh fire, plunging the rifle butt to the ground like a cane. His index finger tapped the gun's barrel with each step, and he watched Joseph on the ground and the reflection of the fire in his scared eyes.
Israel stopped across the fire and squared his shoulders with the rifle in front of him, and he said, Whoever is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Do you believe now, son?
Joseph didn’t respond.
Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, Israel said. Then Israel leaned forward, and the fire waved and crackled around his underlit face, and he said, You raped that young girl, didn’t you?
Joseph’s mouth fell open, and he rolled back onto his knuckles before returning to his side, and he said, You got the wrong person, mister. I ain’t raped nobody ever. I’m no rapist, and this is all a misunderstanding.
Oh, I don’t think so, Israel said.
I swear to God, mister.
You ain’t got the faith to swear to nothin. But maybe I can save you.
I ain’t done nothin.
Maybe I can save you yet, Israel said.
Israel leaned down and plucked a small flask from beside a sitting stump, and he walked around the fire with the rifle in one hand until he was beside Joseph, and Joseph felt the heat emanating from Israel’s body. Israel stepped over Joseph, straddling him, as Joseph lay sprawled and helpless on the ground. Israel opened the flask and lifted it to the sky.
We baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Israel said, and he tipped the flask, and a peaty scotch whiskey poured down atop Joseph's head. Do you renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil?
Joseph turned away and groaned as the whiskey sunk and burned beneath his closed eyelids, and he said nothing.
There ain’t no savin you, son, Israel said.
Why are you doin this? Joseph cried.
Israel sighed and stepped back around the fire while taking a swig from the flask. He winced and capped the flask before putting it into his front pocket. He sat down on the stump and watched Joseph from over the fire, and Joseph could barely discern the human features of the man from his place on the ground because it was all fire and terror. The old wood creaked from within the decaying husk of the church as a breeze picked up, dragging long yellow and orange wisps of flame from the pit in front of Joseph. He felt the mix of tears and whiskey about his foggy eyes.
Israel lifted the barrel of the rifle and pointed it at Joseph’s head, and with a squinted eye down the sight, he said, You shot up that old couple in Smyer now, didn’t you? You point your gun at the two of them, just like this here? They beg to live the same way you are now?
What? Joseph said. I ain’t done no such thing. No such thing. I ain’t killed no one and I ain’t raped no one, mister, I’m tellin you, you got the wrong man.
Israel wet his lips, and they glistened in the firelight. He shook his head against the gunmetal.
I ain’t a murderer, Joseph said.
Israel pulled back the gun’s hammer with a click and said, Idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger.
Joseph rolled and pulled himself up until he was seated, and the barrel of the gun followed his rising head.
Rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these, I warn you, you shall not inherit the kingdom of God, Israel said.
Joseph wailed. Tears dried against his heated cheeks as soon as they fell and as Joseph shouted, Israel stood from the stump and walked straight over the fire with the gun pointed, and the barrel came flat against Joseph’s head, and all at once Joseph went quiet and crosseyed as he stared at the gun.
Confess to the Lord why you thought it right to sleep with that man’s wife like you did, Israel said through spit-soaked words, and the words meshed together in a feverish chant.
Joseph felt the gun barrel's coldness amid the heat of the fire. His heart sank into his stomach, and his mouth fell open, and he scrambled for air, but before it was found, Israel shoved the barrel into Joseph’s mouth, and the barrel scraped along his mouth's fleshy roof.
Confess, Israel screamed.
I ain’t done nothin, Joseph mumbled around the weapon’s barrel.
Confess here before God, Israel said.
Joseph stared at Israel and the gun and thought the two might have been God right there, and he knew all the power of God hid inside of the black chamber of that weapon. His teeth locked around the gun as he sucked in the building saliva, and he shook his head once and purged tattered air from his nostrils.
Confess, Israel whispered.
By God, I ain’t done one fucking—
Joseph stopped as a bullet ripped into his spine and out the back of his neck, and his body rocked and convulsed once and held upright on the end of the gun barrel like he didn’t know he was dead yet. As blood filled the whites of Joseph’s still open eyes, Israel hooked the body into the fire and pulled the gun from the man’s bleeding mouth and shattered teeth. Israel stared down to the body as it cooked and turned away as the sweet scent of meat filled the air, and he stepped toward the truck with a wake of gunsmoke behind him. Israel whistled the hymn that warbled from the truck's speakers and placed the rifle down into the bed of the truck before closing the tailgate. He looked back to the body as the fire grew and whispered a prayer.
Israel’s bulging red eyes lifted to the bent church spire and to the cross at its peak. Behind it, bloated gray clouds slogged through the distorted sky, and black smoke choked away the remnants of starlight and cast hideous shadows across the church’s failed roof. Israel’s jaw tightened. He walked around the truck and sat in the cabin and turned on the ignition. With both hands on the steering wheel, Israel kept still for several minutes. His lips quivered, and he stared at his glossy eyes in the rearview mirror, and as the hymn crescendoed into power and immensity, Israel’s eyes dried. He closed the driver’s side door pulled away as the fire burnt on.