Photo by D A V I D S O N L U N A on Unsplash

Go Get Your Honor by Sheldon Lee Compton

The young boy stoops in the dirt. The house where he sleeps looms behind him. Its sides, once white with neat green trim at the windows, are now soot covered from the trains that pass fifty yards from the back porch. The roof sags in spots and sports curls of rusted tin sheets in others where tack nails have been pulled loose by wind or weathered in half over time.

The C & O runs twenty hooked cars three times a day moving an overloaded swell of washed coal westward. From the train peeks lager-black mounds five or six inches above the tops of the cars. The largest animal in Three Mile, the iron boa screams across the tracks and sprays blankets of coal dust across the swath of skyline visible in the massive fox-hole of a trench called Dodge Hollow in a larger trench called Three-Mile. The clouds of dust, prowling dark ghosts, move away from the overstuffed cars in poltergeist packs.

He thumbs through the dirt, the boy, whose name is Man Dodge. He can smell the scent of the mountain’s deathdark belly that falls across his small world in the dirt yard. Man builds piles from the ageless dirt, burying his hands and then pulling them slowly upward, the rising dead of ten year old hands remerging so that the earth cracks above his wiggling fingers.

He stays here in his stooped study of the packed and bald floor of the valley for as long as his knobbed knees allow while his mother spends her time in the room with her dying parents in the mornings. His father works on things at random throughout the day, always outside, away from the two old dying people in the front bedroom.

“Smells like piss in there,” his father says from the building that houses the dying water pump. “Old folks piss theirself, Man. It’s just something that goddamn happens, I guess. It just goddamn has to happen.”

The pump burned out again and Nathan Dodge is bent to it, the blackened backside of his jeans the only thing visible from the cavity of the rotwood latch door. The rest — the stained shirt, the tilted Sylvia Mining cap, the roped forearms and spider-bodied hands and fingers — are lost in cool shadow.

Man has tattooed the block building with his name and other symbols and random lines and circles with cans of spray paint. Dono Collins always brings them from Vic’s Quick Mart gas station. Nathan hates Dono Collins and hates Vic worse. Man eases up from the ground and watches for Dono on his Honda Razz scooter and tunes his father out, finally returning to cover his hands with the soft piles of dirt.

Nathan hears the rattling of the paint can from inside the pump house. He places his tools carefully along a banged up metal shelf and steps outside, squints and blots out the sun with the back of his hand, lowers his head. The sound is a frightened snake trapped in metal.

Nathan is a thin man, but well built, stone for stone, brick by brick. He comes around the corner to Man who is aiming the paint can steadily.

“Drop it,” Nathan says. He raises his chin and fans the collar of shirt. His squared face is red from work and heat.

Man twists his head to face his father. The rest of him stays frozen in place, arm extended, the paint can hovering inches from the block side of the pump house.

“I said drop it,” Nathan says and takes one step toward Man before noticing the Honda scooter parked at the edge of the yard. His muscles tense and bulge from torso to arms. “Dono’s here, ain’t he?”

Man stands still, the arm is lowered now, but the paint can remains in his dirt-caked grip, a weapon and his smoking gun. He doesn’t answer and Nathan nods once, waves his hand, and Man drops the can. It rattles a final time as it connects with the ground and Dono pops around the corner, a lopped smile on his face that peels away the instant he sees Nathan.

“Hi there, Nathan,” Dono says. His body tries to fold in on itself. “Hot as hell already today, huh?”

Nathan turns to the house and Man moves from the building. Nathan turns back. “Stay right there, Man.” He faces the house. “Janice! Get out here! Talk to your boy.”

Dono is already to his Razz scooter, swinging his long legs over the torn apart cushion of the seat. He’s about to turn the key and Nathan transforms from slow-moving shadow into blue-hot electricity and is beside the scooter in seconds. Dono pulls the key from the ignition and drops his head. He glances at Man and Man wants at that moment to attack his brick-built father. Dono never hurt a soul. Never bothered anybody.

When Dono was Man’s age he was in an accident that tore up his head pretty good. Now he drove a Honda scooter and brought paint cans out to Dodge Hollow from Vic’s and was about to be tore all to pieces all over again by Nathan Dodge.

Janice Dodge strolled into the middle of it all as idle as if she were picking flowers. She wore tight jeans she’d had since high school and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a shimmering bouquet of chestnut in the sunlight. Man was sure his mother was the most beautiful woman on Three-Mile and Dono often agreed. Dono stares at her, helpless to do anything else, and Nathan slaps him hard across the face. The blow sends Dono’s calico welding cap flying from his head and to the ground. Lumped in spots, Dono’s head is without hair in many places, a misshapen gourd of a thing shaking now like a wind chime.

“Talk to your boy,” Nathan says and walks past everyone without another word, the shadow removed, the retreating bolt.

When Nathan is out of sight, Dono takes in a long snort through his nose and rubs at it with the back of his sleeve. Three long rash-pink prints from Nathan’s fingers run from the corner of his lip and disappear into the thick kudzu of his sideburns.

“I didn’t mean any harm, Janice. Honest. What’d I do?” Dono says.

“Goodbye, Dono,” Janice says, keeping her eyes on Man.

Dono turns his key and pushes the start button. The scooter purrs to life and he jerks the handlebars and pistols the gas. It tilts and bumps down the potholed dust path.

Man turns back to his mother but listens to Dono retreating into the dust instead of her half-hearted warnings. When she follows his father and Man is left beside the pump house, he pivots to where Dono sped off, but there is nothing.

Dono puffs out his cheeks then opens wide and lets air whistle through his teeth. He opens wide just like the dentist said and allows the rushing wind to fill up his mouth. The heat has pushed its immense weight onto everything earthly and the days had become a tortuous thing. He could taste the heat, the lazy burden of the sun.

The hollow soon gives way beneath the street-tread tires of Dono’s scooter to Route 82. With no traffic in earshot Dono leans forward and turns his wrist to full speed. The scooter lurches onto the road and he quickly takes his place along the yellow line at the edge of the blacktop. Vic’s is just over the tracks at the end of a long stretch of road where coal trucks always ratchet to full speed to gain a few minutes on a run. Dono leans further over the front of the scooter, listening for trucks to bounce over the tracks and gear up.

Before he has pulled into the parking lot, two people are already waving at him. He kills the scooter, kicks the stand and mopes over to the front doors. One of the wavers is Jeff Dodge, Man’s older brother. As Dono gets closer he can overhear Jeff and the other man talking. They are haggling over the price of a gun Jeff says he can have for the man in two days. They talk steadily until Dono makes it to where the two stand, guarding the cigarette island Vic put out a year ago to cut down on his having to use the weed blower so much to clear the parking lot of butts. Jeff has a cigarette burning between his lips and pulls it loose like a smoldering flower petal and flicks it into the parking lot.

“Hey, Dono,” Jeff says. “Tell Josh here that a .45 that’s only been shot half a dozen times is worth two-hundred.”

“A .45 that’s only been shot half a dozen times is worth two-hundred,” Dono says. He asks Jeff for a smoke and Jeff fishes around and hands him a cigarette which Dono places in the corner of his mouth. Jeff produces a lighter and flames Dono into action.

Josh gives them both a nod and leaves. Dono takes a baby drag from the cigarette and wipes at his forehead. The smoke pinches in his chest. Jeff lights another for himself.

“That boy don’t want a gun,” Jeff says after awhile. “I could tell by the way he kept haggling over the price. Two-hundred is as fair a price as he’s gonna find. Whatever he’s pissed about, he’s just about over it. All the steam’s gone.”

Dono nods knowingly and notices Vic standing inside the quick mart, his meaty forearms roosted onto the handles of the double doors. He is staring hard at Dono. Jeff looks over his shoulder.

“Vic’s had a bug up his ass all day,” Jeff says.

Dono decides not to wave at Vic, to keep his distance if he can.

“You don’t own no .45, Jeff,” Dono said.

“Don’t have to. Lots of people I know own one. Some own more than one. And one’s plenty enough for anybody, right?”

The front doors swing open and Vic saddles up between them. He is bigger even than Nathan, but wider and thicker, carrying his middle age with less grace. A sprawling beard hides the reddened face of a man who drinks and drinks often. He has a noticeable limp, but not when he’s in a hurry. When he’s in a hurry he just works through the pain, he says.

“What happened to your face?” Vic asks Dono.

“Nothing.”

“That’s a damn lie,” Vic says and blows air from his nose when two cars pull in for gas at the same time. He turns on the squashed flat heels of his old sneakers and dips back into the quick mart. He knew Dono had been hoarding cans of spray paint and taking them out to the Dodge place. He hadn’t said anything, wasn’t sure what it was all about, but knew that before long something like this would happen. After rushing the customers out, Vic returns.

“Watch the store,” he says to Jeff and grabs Dono at the elbow.

“Why?”

“We’re headin out to your place to talk with that pisser of a old man of yours,” Vic says. Dono sits beside him wide-eyed and mute. “Nathan hit you, right?” He looks to Dono, but Dono only stares ahead through the mud-trimmed windshield.

“My dad hit you, Dono?” Jeff asks.

Still Dono doesn’t answer. All three sit quietly, Dono and Vic in the cab of Vic’s truck and Jeff standing at Dono’s elbow. Long seconds pass before Dono nods his head and wrinkles up his nose.

“Goddamit,” Vic says.

Jeff rubs his chin and lifts himself into the back of the truck.

A few minutes before they reach the Dodge house, Vic slows the truck.

“Was Janice there?” he asks.

“Yessir,” Dono says.

“Good. That’s good.”

He brings the truck back to a lurching forward bound thing and feels Jeff shift around in the back. Two curves before they reach the house, Jeff bangs on the back window of the cab. Vic slides the glass to the side.

“Stop for a second!” Jeff says and jumps from the back of the truck.

Man is sitting in a ditch that starts at the side of the road and leads up the hillside. The knees of his pants are caked with dirt and his face is wet with tears.

“What’s wrong?” Jeff asks.

“I don’t know,” Man says. “Nothing.”

Jeff spins around and seems to study the cloudless skies. Vic has stepped from the truck.

“Did you know that Dad hit Dono?” Jeff says.

“Hiya, Vic,” Man says, standing up from the ditch.

“Hey, kid. Come on. We’re heading out to talk to your dad. Catch a ride.”

Dono sticks his head through the window of the truck. “They got it out of me, Man. I didn’t tell nobody until they asked. I promise.”

Man stops in front of Jeff and puts his hands on his hips. In the early shadows of late day there seems to be deep wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. His lips appear to quiver against his teeth. He might have been seventy years old.

“What’s he doing here?” Man asks, pointing to Vic.

Vic answers for himself. “I’m pretty much here to kick your dad’s ass,” he says.

Nathan sees the dust rising into the sky above the tree line before he sees Vic’s truck. The dust tells him someone is coming and he rises from the pump house, feels the stiffness ease up into his neck. The sun is low now and the work is nearly finished. With someone coming, he is sure the work is finished for the day. It is probably his brother and his brother will have beer. They will sit on the back porch and watch the train and drink. So many days had ended this way.

He sees it’s Vic’s truck and anger flints inside of him, stone against stone. No beer, no brother. Just a chubby fuck rolling up his driveway. The truck pulls closer and he sees Dono in the passenger seat, feels his knuckles tingle. When Jeff and Man jump from the back as the truck comes to a stop, he starts toward Vic, his brain on fire.

There are no words from either of the two men. Vic emerges from the cab of the truck and cuts a line toward Nathan, who centers in on Vic. They meet at the edge of the pump house where Vic takes up two handfuls of dirt. Nathan backs up a scarce few inches, reaches into the pump house without taking his eyes from Vic and brings out a shovel.

Jeff, Man and Dono circle the two men. Each of them is church quiet, shrouded in the evening gloom. The weight of this moment is burdensome as the heat from earlier in the day. Their arrival was the flash of heat lightning, and now all stood waiting for the crack of thunder.

That second note of thunder comes at last from Nathan, yelling and then swinging the shovel in a high arc over his head just as Vic tosses the two handfuls of dirt toward his pinched face and side-steps. The shovel strikes the ground and rattles from Nathan’s grip. He tries to rub out the stinging in the palms of his hands and while he rubs Vic thrusts toward him connecting a hard right across his lip.

Nathan staggers back, his face all circles, the wide eyes, the gaping mouth, and then Vic’s tightened fist strikes again, this time across his brow. A gash appears too quickly for blood to fill up, standing white and trenched and bare before the blood finally comes. Nathan’s face is a slick mask with the blood and he staggers once more and falls into the side of the house, a massive thud in the still of the hollow. In the seconds before Vic descends like a fattened hawk, the thin screech of the train along the tracks winds through the hollow. The sound is far off, the train miles away still as Vic overtakes Nathan.

Roars from a wounded man become whimpers. Nathan crawls away from Vic, his hand spreading across the side of the house leaving tracks of blood to mix with the coal dust always there. Vic pulls him back, straddles his shoulders and starts working on trying to split the ground with Nathan’s face. He does this until Janice runs from the front door and takes him by the arms. She is not crying. She is not yelling.

“That’s enough,” she says evenly.

Vic stops immediately, turns to her and wipes his hands on the front of his pants. He pulls his hair back from his forehead. His skin looks boiled. His eyes jitter inside the sockets.

“That’s enough,” Janice says again. “That’ll do.”

Night shrouds the hollow. Man has taken to the moon, taken to walking across the backyard to the tracks and resting on the rail of the evenings and watching it. Here he can spot the moon all to himself. At midnight the number three run comes through, though, and he knows to keep one hand flattened on the rail. When that rail starts vibrating, the midnight run is coming and he only has a few minutes before the train will make its loud crawl through the hollow.

He takes his hand from the rail and flattens it now against his cheek. Thinks of how swelled his father’s cheekbones looked after Vic beat him. Thinks of his father inside the house like a whipped dog and thinks of Vic back at his store telling his story.

Across the backyard Man can make out his mother’s figure standing in the kitchen window as still as the raised moon above and just as powerful in the same way the moon has a quiet power, the same way the moon controls all of the ocean with its invisible pull. The trapped heat inside his hand from the hot rail is now spreading across his face, down his neck and into the top of his shoulder. If he could keep it there, Man thinks, Vic would never show his face here again. If he could make himself as hard as the sunlight baked into that rail, as hard as the midnight run, Vic would think twice.

When his mother stirs away from the kitchen window like a shadow moving with a bank of clouds Man spreads his hand out again on the rail. When the vibration moves from his hand into his elbow he keeps his eyes on the moon, keeps his hand on the rail, keeps it there for as long as he can.


First published in Emprise Review.


Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of five books of fiction and poetry. His third novel, Dysphoria: An Appalachian Gothic, will be published in the spring of 2019 by Cowboy Jamboree Press. He is now writing his first book of nonfiction for West Virginia University Press, a hybrid work about the writer Breece D’J Pancake. To learn more visit breecepancake.com.