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Stress Test Ch. 20

The Big Picture

By Alan GoldPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 6 min read
Image by MikeGunner from Pixabay

Each day held everything Billey needed. He stashed water by the river and he peed in the tank. The sun darkened his bare chest. Black Wolf kept him company. Digging gave him all the exercise he could ever want. He looked forward to an extra bowl of beans at the end of the day.

But he ached every night when he crawled into the camper. When he crawled back out in the morning, stiffness had replaced the pain in his muscles. The hardness of the earth he worked by day spread into his body at night. His arms bunched up with new power. He remembered a picture Tommy Lagocki had shown him of a man with arms like tree trunks lifting a pony over his head. Billey wanted to be that strong some day.

He slipped a hand beneath Black Wolf's chest and one beneath his belly. He straightened up and tried to hoist the dog overhead, but Black Wolf kicked and twisted and sent himself flying into the dirt.

One morning before Elwood woke himself up with that loud, uneven snort of his, Billey heard shouting from the road by the shack. There was never much traffic out there, seeing as how it didn't go anywhere, so Billey set down the coffee can he was filling and ran around to see.

Two boys were riding bicycles down the road, zigging and zagging against the backdrop of the sunrise. They were big kids, laughing like no one cared if they laughed. Billey stood on the gravel near the road and watched them, silent as a telephone pole.

"Howdy!" yelled the big kid in the green shirt as he steered through a tight circle in front of Billey.

"Yeah, howdy," shouted the other one who just kept pedaling straight ahead.

The green shirt stood up on his pedals and worked hard to catch his friend. They said some things to each other and then looked over their shoulders.

"Hey, Elwood," they shouted, coasting down the road. "Nyahhhhh!"

It wasn't until Billey's third water break that he realized those guys were Dankowski and Barton. How had they grown so big? It used to take both of them and two more to tackle Billey. Now they looked almost like real men.

When Billey and Black Wolf trudged back to the shack to sneak some lunch, they found a hub cap peeking out of the ground. Billey kicked the gravel away and pried it out of the dirt. He spit on a section and wiped it clean on his pants.

The shiny patch of metal caught the sun and threw it anywhere Billey wanted. Even in the middle of the day, he could light up a tree stump or a rusty engine block just by tilting the hub cap at it. He made the light dance like a fairy across the bleak landscape. Black Wolf barked and chased it.

Billey had to blink or go blind when he turned the hub cap on himself. After it flashed in his eyes, he saw his rippled reflection through the spit streaks and rust spots. The curved metal surface made his arms look huge and hard as tree trunks. He held the shield closer, looking for the face he remembered but he found a dark man with big, useless ears and a rough jaw peering back at him.

Once in awhile, Elwood brought home a paper bag stuffed with old t-shirts and undies, maybe some jeans that weren't quite ragged yet.

"Damn if you ain't bustin' outta yer clothes," he said, running his finger up Billey's sleeve and out through a hole in the shoulder. "These oughta be plenty big for ya."

The underwear had "Jimmy" written along the band with a red laundry marker. Billey thought of Jimmy as someone bigger than himself, even bigger than Elwood from the way the stranger had stretched the elastic. He wanted to meet him some day.

"Don't you go throwin' away that old shirt," Elwood said. "Got me a man pays good money for them things. Trouble with you, Billey, is you don't know how hard it is to raise up a shit head like you. Never will know, neither, 'cause any horse worth her rubber's gonna turn hightail when she sees you comin'."

Most of the time, Elwood only brought home stuff for himself. He never said much about most of it, but the big gun was different.

Billey was sleeping off his exhaustion when thunder split the night. He knew the sound of Elwood's gun well enough, but this was like the difference between a tree toad and a bull frog.

"Gimme that, Otis," Elwood said outside the camper. "I swear you couldn't hit a horse on Westmore Avenue."

The blast came again and Billey tried to make himself flat as his threadbare green blanket. Tommy Lagocki once told him that an A-bomb made the loudest noise in the world. This sounded like a Z-bomb.

As Billey survived deeper into the night, the thunder came less often. Finally, he slipped into a fitful sleep, with his eyes flashing open at the slightest sound.

Come daybreak, he found his daddy and Otis on the porch. Elwood had his feet propped on the spool, with his head lolled back and his mouth wide open. Otis had his big old butt in Billey's chair. His head and arms spilled over the spool, like somebody had plopped a handful of wet clay there.

As he got closer, Billey saw the enormous silver gun lying across his daddy's lap. Elwood's hand crooked lightly around the barrel, moving back and forth slightly each time he snored. Billey thought he'd better not let him wake up just yet.

Billey had been digging a couple of hours when the pickup came bumping across the field to the hole. The two men waited for the dust they stirred up to pass, then climbed out, squinting against the sunlight.

"Looky here, Billey," Elwood said, holding the shiny gun up to the sky. "You ever seen anythin' like it?"

Billey thought about his answer carefully. "I seen your gun plenty of times."

"You ain't never seen no gun like this," Elwood snapped. "Ain't that right, Otis?"

Otis didn't say anything at first. When Elwood turned to look at him, the big man nodded like a slobbering dog. "Shoot the peter clean off a chinaman with a gun like that," he said.

"That's right." Elwood held the gun at arm's length and swung through an arc of the sky. When his sight reached the willow that stuck up over the river bank, he pulled the trigger.

All three of them jumped at the sound. Black Wolf dashed behind the tank. A branch as thick as Billey's leg flew off the top of the tree, its leaves streaming behind like hair in the wind.

Elwood seemed kind of glassy eyed. He shook his head a couple of times.

Billey's ears were the first to quit ringing. "What are you gonna do with a gun like that?" he asked.

Elwood looked into the hole and shouted. "Trouble with you, Billey, is you can't see the big picture. You know that?"

"I dunno."


"I dunno."

"Yer just like Otis here. He can't see past the end of his peter."

"Need a telescope, don't you, Otis?" said Billey.

"Telescope?" Otis snorted. "I need a mikerscope!"

"I got me the gun now," Elwood said. "But I still ain't got my goddam hole, Billey, and whose fault is that?"

Billey kept quiet.

"Gun don't do me no good without a hole, and a hole don't do me no good without a gun," Elwood said. "Is that too much for a shitbrain like you to unnerstan'?"

"I dunno." Billey looked at Otis and could tell that he didn't know either.

"I done my part, Billey." Elwood said, sighting along the barrel again. "Now you best hurry up and dig afore I blow the dirt out of the ground. Me and my one-eyed friend want to get us some gasoline."


Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.

Read the next chapter.


Complete novel is available on


About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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