Billey Elwood leaned against the black post of the railroad trestle and panted without taking in any air. Sweat collected like dew drops on the patchy, fine stubble that covered his jaw. He peered into the darkness up and down the creek and wondered where Uly had gone.
His right hand still tingled, as if he'd slept on his arm, cutting off the blood. It didn't hurt, but the feeling made him want to cry. He thought he'd worked the crying out of his system when he was a kid.
Billey had grown up with the notion that his mother was a horse.
He'd never actually met the woman, so for all he knew, the taunts he'd heard as he knelt in the playground sand were the gospel truth. It would explain a lot of things: the shallow slope of his forehead beneath the coarse tangle of hair; the bulging, whiteless eyes; the twisted stubs of teeth that lined his jaw like so many tumbling dominoes. It would explain the strength beyond his years that clogged his muscles, his atrocious table manners, his father's pride in being a horse's ass.
It would leave open the question of why his hearing was so bad.
"Yer mother's a whore," the kids cried. That was years before Billey knew what a whore was, so in his mind she became a horse. It wasn't a matter of not paying attention, or not wanting to understand. Billey made up in curiosity what he lacked in brilliance. He was dying to find out how he fell into this world without a human mother.
From what he could make of other kids' lives, his situation was unique. Boy and girl, straight hair and curly, they filled nooks in a private matriarchy that took pains to hide its soft secrets from him.
One day, just a week before Tommy Lagocki's mother barred Billey forever from their home, Billey stood mesmerized as she created their lunch. He was barely conscious of faces in those days—looking at them put a crick in his neck and he didn't know how to interpret what he saw anyway. Most of his lessons in life had been taught by hands, so that was the part of Mrs. Lagocki that his eyes homed in on.
The nails' deep red polish contrasted with the luminous smoothness of her skin. The hands moved quickly and deliberately—separating bread, carving cheese, breaking a head of lettuce—in patterns that mystified Billey. They assembled the first sandwich, and pressed it down with fingers that looked even softer, whiter than the bread itself.
The hands danced like puppets before him as they picked up the gleaming knife, trimmed the crust in four neat, efficient strokes, then rotated the plate to cut a diagonal through the sandwich.
"Let me!" Billey cried, lunging for the knife as it made its first slice in the second sandwich. "Let me! Let me! Let me!"
Billey didn't know how long everything remained motionless around him. Finally, he raised his eyes to see Mrs. Lagocki looking back at him with eyes just as wide as his.
So Tommy ate alone and Billey was left to wonder about these women in the other kids' lives. Somehow, they never grew coarse whiskers or had dirt under their nails or vowed to beat the tar out of anyone. Where did they come from? Where did they go? What did they do when Billey wasn't there?
"Where's my mama?" Billey asked one day while his father grunted against the weight of an enormous cable spool that he'd lashed to the bed of the truck.
To a boy like Billey, his father cut an awesome figure. He could pass a cigarette from one leathery corner of his mouth to the other without ever interrupting the stream of profanity. He wore sweat and oil stains on his plaid shirt like smelly badges of manhood. He rolled back sleeves that were too short to hide the snakes that twined his forearms. His pants were baggy and buttless and they sagged over his boots like an accordion duet. He was a man who answered life with a slouch and a scowl, who saw no use in answering a shit-brained kid.
"Quit yer whining and fetch me them wire cutters."
Billey knew better than to open his mouth again before he brought the tool.
Elwood set to work with the cutters, grunting and mumbling as his elbows moved up and down.
"Yer mama was a five-buck horse," the man said, making mud from the dirt of his sleeve and the sweat of his brow.
Billey's heart skipped a beat—he'd heard the truth.
"She smelled like wet plaster," Elwood grunted. "Looked like it, too. Had a voice like a crowbar workin' a rusty nail. Had a scar as long as your arm across her belly. And she had you."
Billey watched his father try to snip through the last wire, which was a heavier gauge than the others. Elwood swore. He chucked the cutters in the dirt and wedged himself between the spool and the back of the cab, pushing with both legs.
"Unh, unh . . . you . . . Mothah!" he cried until the line snapped.
Billey barely realized that he was about to be crushed, that his daddy's great, wooden wheel was about to squeeze his guts through his nose, like a grape pinched out of its skin.
The spool, as big as a hundred Billeys, slammed down the tailgate, thudded into the dust with a giant's footfall, and sped across the dusty stretch of gravel and dog-licked tin cans that made up their front yard.
Some reflex—even faster and more basic than fear—sent Billey scrambling to an inch's safety. The spool crushed Billey's plastic eighteen-wheeler before hitting the dead catalpa. It rolled eight feet up the tree trunk, and then barreled back down toward Billey.
Too dazed to move, Billey watched the terrible spool race over him, blotting out the sun as he survived, unscathed, between its two rims. All he felt was the catch in his breath as the thing bounced over an old tractor wheel, shattered the screen door and wobbled like a coin losing its spin on the front porch.
"I got ya, ya Mothah!" old man Elwood cried as he leaped from the back of the truck. He ran to the spool, squatted and did a duckwalk around it, muttering obscenities through his cigarette. He stood and kicked the wood, shouting "Mothah! I got ya!"
Then he turned to the kid and spat. "What you lookin' at?"
Billey wondered the same thing.
Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.
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