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Stern Agony---Chapter One



For Shaw Pence, the bus ride home was the last good thing of a school day. At the end of it, misery awaited. 

From the front of the bus, “Proud Mary” blared from Mr. Kelp’s transistor radio. Zella Zanger, in her customary seat next to Shaw, unfolded a torn notebook page, looked down at it, and muttered, “Arithmetic's fucked. Reading's one thing, but math?” 

Shaw turned toward her. Her math book rested on her lap, in the sag of her dress between parted knees. She refolded the paper, moved the math book higher on her lap, crossed her legs. Tattered blue Keds, no socks.

Then she uncrossed her legs, perhaps for effect, and the hem of her dress caught, big time, on the math book—or on her hand. Her left leg now exposed to the hilt, she extended it under the seat in front of them. She slid it back, bent her knee, began bouncing that leg to the music. 

Tina Turner sang. Big wheels turning. Rolling down the river.

Zella, leaving her dress askew, turned toward the window, her head bopping to the beat. Shaw eyed her, inching down along her neck and shoulders. All that thigh. She reached up and fluffed her hair with her fingertips. As her hand dropped back into her lap, the math book slid to the side. She scooted around just so, and her dress hiked another two inches. Shaw knew she knew. 

The bus banged every hole in the road.

Zella and her family worked as tenant farmers for the Jespersen Ranch, and lived in a tumbledown white house a mile west of Shaw’s ranch. Zella’s home reminded Shaw of a scene from Grapes of Wrath—ramshackle, weathered, with broken-down outbuildings needing nails and paint. The Jespersen Ranch was prized ground, a reputed spread. But down in the hollows, on the backside of the Jespersen, where Zella and her family lived, was malignancy—scabrous, festering. Rusted farm implements and tarnished junk hiding in the pokeweed of their rut-yard. Skinny old chickens and mud-caked hogs rooted around free like pets. 

When Shaw inherited Hollows Ranch, he’d hire the Zangers away from Jespersen, build them a new place on his own land.

Zella’s father and her four older brothers were fair-skinned and blonde. Not Zella. The last to arrive by six years, she had nut-brown skin, white teeth, dark eyes. Although she lived within the grunge of poverty, Zella sparkled, especially her riotous black hair—homemade-soaped, carelessly dried, and left uncombed for the wind. As a Kansas boy, Shaw loved the wind, and in those promising 1970’s days of short skirts, what wind did around women, especially Zella, aroused him—fantasies for boys. On weekends or in summer when hanging out at their Dry Creek hideaway, he’d hold his breath at the dip and flare of her dress in the breeze, enthralled by glimpses of those legs. 

The bus clanged the rutted gravel road. Zella turned from the window and handed the notebook page, the math assignment, to Shaw. Scent of stale sweat mixed with morning soap. He glanced at the paper. “You want me to solve these equations for you?”

“For sure. Bring ‘em Monday or do ‘em now. We got nine more miles.”
“Too bumpy,” said Shaw over the racket of the bus. “I’ll bring them to Dry Creek tomorrow.”
“Jarod’s sick. Got a million chores. Can’t come this weekend.”
“You work too much. I’ll get bored hanging out by myself. I’ll bring them Monday, then.”
“At least you got Cassie. I ain’t got nobody but crazies.”
What he wanted to say was: “Dogs aren’t pretty girls,” but he couldn’t. 
Perhaps she sensed it, because she leaned hard into him, cocked her head, pooched those lips, gave Shaw her movie star pose.
Oh, my. 

Zella and Shaw rode thirty-two miles every school day: first on, last off. The oldest kids on the route, they’d sat together since fourth grade. By now, nearing the end of  junior high, they had the bus to themselves most of the way. After the last little kid got off, leaving just the two of them, Mr. Kelp would slow to a crawl, keeping one hand on the steering wheel. He’d jack out a cigarette from his pack, light it, then reach into the canvas military duffle at his feet and pull out his radio—a red Philips Babette, black handle, knobs along the top. He’d telescope the silver antennae full length, tune in the after-school rock show from 710 WHB in Kansas City. The music roused them: Beach Boys, Doors, Beatles, Stones.

Halfway home, the school bus crested a hill. Caleb Cranston’s half-ton Ford F 100, freshly painted the color of Gerber peas, nosed up behind the bus, sunlight glinting off the windshield. It honked and passed, blowing dust. Mr. Kelp downshifted. The bus gathered speed. 

Shaw’s gaze drifted down to Zella’s legs again. She stretched them. He looked up and away, squirmed in his seat. Countryside streamed past the windows, cropland and pasture interspersed with woods, the humusy smell of just-plowed fields.

Shaw reached toward the floor and placed Zella’s math paper inside his book bag, sneaking a closeup of her leg on the way down and back. The smooth and slender length. “Hey Zell,” he said, sitting up, faking a yawn. “You know I could have handled it myself.” 

“I done saved your smarty ass. And don’t call me Zell.” She turned to face him. “Damn, little buddy, your face is all swelled up. Your eye’s a mess. I should’ve jumped in sooner.” 

Ike and Tina had given way to Janis Joplin.

Zella spread her arms, stretched, leaning back, playing her wanton game. Her dress—the blue one, sleeveless, cut at the knee—tightened across her chest. Nine months older, almost fifteen, Zella seemed an actual woman at times. And not just the latter-day curves, or the absence of the leg hair and dirty knees of their childhood, but something mysterious and intoxicating.

“Franks hates me,” said Shaw, thinking tits. “But I can’t figure why.”

“‘Cause you’re a genius—and a smart-ass. Hell, Shaw, you better hope he’s out sick come Monday. Franks is a stink. He bothers you and I’m not around? Grab his nuts and hang on.” She popped Shaw on the shoulder, flexing the workaday muscle of her arm. 

At the bottom of the hill, gears shifted, grated, meshed. They clattered across Hatcher’s Creek bridge, and the engine stuttered and the bus lurched into a rumbling climb. 

A pinkish crayon rolled down the isle. Shaw reached for it with the toe of his boot. Then, leaning over, using his index finger, he rolled the crayon into his palm. He held it up. Bittersweet. Odd name for a color, but it might suit Zella. She hated Zell. Didn’t much care for Zella, either.

“Look at this,” said Shaw holding out the crayon. “Be a good nickname for you.”

She took the crayon, inspected it. “That’s two names jammed up together, dumb ass. Bittersweet ain’t even a color. It’s a mouth thing.” She lolled her tongue at Shaw, made a sour face.

“I know. It’s a taste.” He licked and smacked his lips.

She rolled her eyes. “I keep telling you. Call me Zee, not Zell. Sounds like hell. Sure not Bittersweet.” She stuck her tongue against the inside of her cheek, aimed the crayon and hurled it toward the back of Mr. Kelp’s head. It fell short, dropped to the floor and began rolling back and forth to the sway of the bus. She laughed and jerked her head, flipping the hair from her face. 

By reputation, gossip mostly, Zella’s family were known as peculiar Arkansas hillbilly kooks. But, despite hardships, living thickly in that crowded house, Zella spun family stories with affection. She claimed they squabbled, all six of them, violently at times, over workloads, food portions, sleeping arrangements, and who’d be last in the bathwater. Instead of television, reading, or cards, the Zanger clan played drinking games, staged shooting matches, liar contests, and competed in feats of strength. Zella claimed she lied best—no surprise to Shaw.

Shaw imagined her, as he often did, dressed in better clothes, living in a better house. Maybe he’d get her a necklace, earrings, a bracelet. She’d look so sexy. His mother had hordes of such trinkets. But her older brothers would probably steal them, sell them for beer and cigarette money.

As he watched the crayon lurch and keel along the floor, a nubile image blossomed in Shaw’s memory—a week ago, when he and Zella were hanging together at Dry Creek. They were sitting side-by-side on the ledge overlooking the gorge. “Satisfaction” blasted from Shaw’s radio— drumbeats resounding, guitars driving the beat. Zella rose to her feet as Mick Jagger sang. With the sun setting behind her, she danced along the ledge. Shaw watched in awe as she grooved to those pounding rhythms, mesmerized by the inner curve of her thighs sunlit through her dress, the arch and surge of her body, like torch flame cavorting with wind. Shaw had no inkling, then, how Zella’s desires might differ from his own. But he’d begun to understand the suffering in hope. The rosy tongue that wet her mouth. Lips so hot, he bet her kisses tasted red.

“Franks don’t like that a girl backed him down, neither,” said Zella, turning. 
She stared into Shaw’s eyes. He looked at his feet. 
“Franks will be on your ass. So I’ll need cigarettes this time. Whatever your momma smokes. Two packs a week.”
“One?”
“Two. And three Snickers. I ain’t been to the drugstore to steal any.” 
“I’m doing your math assignment.”
“Well, the smokes and one Snickers then.”
Near her home, Shaw leaned toward her. Their arms touched, her body radiating faint but palpable heat. The bus, suffused with the smell of Juicy Fruit and the earthiness of farm kids, bumped along the washboard road.
The bus stopped, road dust wafting in a cloud. Zella prepared to depart, gathering her things, seeming oblivious to Shaw’s ogling. Despite that Shaw got on first and off last, Zella always insisted on the window seat, and her crawling over him had become a daily highlight. 
Her little boulder-butt--and just as hard. 

Shaw rode alone; one mile to go. He slouched with anxiety, trying not to think of home. He fingered his swollen eye, ran his tongue over his teeth, tasted the coppery tang of blood. Shaw’s gut cramped at the prospect of facing Gerald Franks at school on Monday. Franks had rushed him from the side, clocked him twice in the face. Then someone had yelled, “Fight!” as the circle of kids tightened around them. When Zella elbowed and clawed into the middle of it, everyone hooted. She backed Franks into a wall—because she could. Because she was Zella Zanger, by god. Franks slid to the side and walked away. He spun around and gave Shaw the finger. “I’ll get you come Monday,” he said. Zella had humiliated both of them.

Shaw scanned the vacant seats around him. Rips and stains and old gum. Initialed heart-shapes carved with vintage puppy love. Toward the front, on the back of a seat, someone had drawn a pig with the name ‘Fat Alice’ scribbled over its belly: Alice Stamper, an obese classmate he’d known since kindergarten. He got up, staggered forward as the bus reeled, and obliterated the pig with his pen.

The bus chugged uphill, nearing Shaw’s Hollows Ranch gate. The last half-mile, it passed under an arching tunnel of trees, casting a mottled dimness over the roadway. Shaw gathered his book-bag from the floor. As he leaned, blood trickled from his nose onto the back of his wrist. Shade dappled through the windows. Given his shame, the appearance of his blood in shadows seemed foreboding. What was wrong with him? His blood looked black!

Sixteen miles east of Nekoosa City, Kansas the bus eased to a stop. The gateway was open. Iron letters arched over the entryway read: Hollows Ranch—1853. 

The radio blasted “Honky Tonk Women”. Something about a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis. Mr. Kelp reached his fat arm, hauled back on the handle. Liver spots on his hands. The door flapped open. He took a last pull, then flipped his cigarette butt toward the ditch.

 Shaw thanked Mr. Kelp, as always, for their shared delinquency—the transistor radio and the rock music. Shaw stepped to the road and stood to the side. The bus backed and stalled. Mr. Kelp ground the ignition, the gears. Shaw waited. The bus coughed a gout of black smoke, then rattled away toward town, its yellowness paling in dust. 

Nearby, hidden behind a double hedgerow, a tractor rumbled. A horse whinnied in the distance. A windmill creaked. Shaw caught a whiff of the cattle now nosed to the fence-line. Chores beckoned. He paced along the ditch. An odd underfear ate at him. Past the gate, down the steep and winding lane, Henry awaited. 

Shaw kicked at the gravel road, stepped toward the entrance, under the lettered ironworks, and whistled for Cassie. He shouldered his schoolbooks, whistled again. And here she came, busting. Her entire body wagged. He knelt. Cassie licked his face. He stood and turned. “Come on, girl.” And they walked down the lane among deep-shaded trees, descending and twisting toward home.

At supper, Shaw and his mother picked at their beets, roasted beef, and mashed potatoes, while his father gobbled and belched. Shaw had always called his father, Henry. He wasn’t sure why. Henry slavered over a last bite of veal cooked blue—raw. His lips shined. 

Asshole ready for his apple pie. 

Henry’s voice snapped over the customary silence of dinnertime. “Looks like someone gave Einstein here a whipping.” Remnant gravy dribbled brown toward his chin. 

Shaw’s stomach knotted. It always did when Henry spoke. He’d been wondering when someone would mention his face.
“Shaw, your face, who…?”  said Mom, her voice trailing off. She took a sip of vodka. Ultra smooth,” read the label—Syr voka—shipped by the case from Moscow. She drank it straight.

“Neighbor girl kick your ass, did she?” Henry snarfed an oversized bite of pie. Cinnamon grouted the lines between his teeth.
“Gerald Franks, for no damn reason.” Despite his attempts to sound mature and strong, his voice quavered. “It doesn’t even hurt much.” He looked down at Cassie, slipped her a piece of veal from his plate.
“You didn’t fight back, did you?” said Henry, his voice muffled by pie. “Pussy. And quit feeding that damn birddog your supper.”
Henry’s chair slid. A moment later the bathroom door slammed. 
With Henry away, even objects like the beet juice on Henry’s plate running red beneath the prongs of his fork, or the wall-clock with its agonizing second hand, changed aspect somehow, from stern to hopeful. Shaw inhaled, then let out a breath that moved the napkins.
“Well then,” said Mom. She cleared her throat and took another sip of Syr. “Otherwise, how was school?”
“Fine.”
“Bores you, I’m sure. Martha found my copy of De Sade in your room while she was cleaning. Have you fallen for Justine?” She grinned. 
“I only read a few pages.”
“I see Gramp has you reading Sartre. How well I remember: ‘She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist’.”
“Sartre’s complicated.”
“That’s your grandfather. Dad wants you to challenge yourself.”
“Way over my head.”
“Ha. Read Nietzsche.”

Mother read philosophy; mother married Henry; mother drank.

Henry opened the bathroom door. The atmosphere transformed with a gut-wrench, like when the phone rings at three in the morning. Henry returned fumbling with his lighter and a Marlboro. 

“Please don’t smoke at the supper table,” said Mom. He hiked a leg and farted. She threw down her napkin, stood, walked across the dining room in her tight, tight bluejeans and opened a window. “Let’s have some fresh air.” She came back to the table, mouthed a ‘fuck you’, at Henry. 

Despite the warming season, through the open window a tinge of old winter stirred the tablecloth. The house was a dreary place seeming as if from another era, surrounded by trees and adorned with antiques, hardwoods and rich leathers. And ever darker when they fought.

“What were you telling this boy while I was pissing? How to cook or how to curtsey?” 
“Discussing our reading preferences. I like Nietzsche; he likes De Sade; you like Popular Grease Monkey.”
Henry, his eyes boring into hers, lit the Zippo with a flip, sucked flame into his cigarette. He killed his drink and got up to fix another. “Freshen mine,” said Mom, clinking her diamond on the rocks-glass. He leaned across the table, reaching for her glass, shot a wall of smoke in her face. She rolled her eyes and swallowed a belch.
“I’m shutting the window, Dacy. It’s gotten chilly,” said Henry over his shoulder as he finished mixing their drinks at the buffet.
“It sure as hell has.”

Shaw’s mouth hurt, his teeth. He ate small bites, snuck more meat to Cassie. He wondered about Zella; he worried about Franks. Out the window, the day waned, the dusk so dark, so dreary. He longed to be up in his room.

Henry returned to the table with their booze. “Here you go, sweetheart,” he said, his cigarette bouncing between his lips as he spoke. He planted Mom’s glass beside her plate. A bit of vodka sloshed on his index finger. He sucked it, then leered into her eyes. A smile thinned her lips—forced, sarcastic. 

Henry sat, took a long pull on his Marlboro, and blew a flawless smoke ring across the table. It drifted and dipped toward the basket of bread and rose misshapen to Mom’s face. Their chins raised in mutual defiance, Mom and Henry glared across the table as if connected by a thread of loathing—a fuse.

Gone were the old days of Shaw being too young to appreciate their loathings. By now, he got it. Drunkenness. Hatred. Marriage. Birthright wealth. 

Henry fired another smoke ring. Like a warped bullseye, the gauzy donut hung, midair in front of him. He poked his finger through the ring, wiggled it while wagging his tongue.

Despite himself, Shaw dropped his fork and grinned. Nice touch, Henry. Smoke sifted toward Mom. She squinted, drained her glass, then called Henry a fucking jerk. She’d never say that sober. 

“What’s funny, Pussy-Boy?” asked Henry. Shaw’s throat tightened. Henry reached under the table and clamped Shaw’s knee. He clenched, squeezed. 
Shaw remained motionless. His eyes watered, Henry’s grasp like a vice. Shaw spoke through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Sir.” 
Henry squeezed harder, grinding the rough denim of Shaw’s jeans into his tender flesh. “Did you check those two calves, or did you forget?”
“Yes, Henry,” Shaw gasped. “I gave them their medicine.” Henry’s thumb bored the tendon at the inside of Shaw’s knee as if it would penetrate. Shaw winced, unable to breathe.
Henry released his hand and raised it to the table. He pointed to Shaw’s plate. With his other hand, he killed his drink.
“No more talk, Son. Wipe your nose while I fix me another Jack.” He twisted the butt of his cigarette into the remains of his mashed potatoes. 
Mom raised her glass, shook the ice and spoke, a hint of tipsy in her voice. “I’ll have another.”

Shaw looked out the window, then looked at his hands. He fought back tears. 


Under the table, Cassie muzzled Shaw’s thigh. He patted her good old head.

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