Fiction by Schuler Benson
I HIT HAZEL CAUSE I LOVE HER even though I first seen her shinin in that field among all them broke things. I seen on the TV one time, there was a ole girl got stuck in her garage with a badger or a wolverine or some such critter they got up in Canada. It had her cornered, see? It didn’t wanna be there no more than she did, but she couldn’t get out and this thing go to hissin or barkin or whatever them things do, so she done what she had to and jumped on it and got clawed and bit all the hell up, but she beat that goddamn thing to death with a spare brick and then bleached the skull and kep it as a reminder, and that is how I love Hazel.
First time I seen Hazel was when we was kids and she was across the field where our daddies kep all the broke tillin equipment couldn’t be fixed or sold or traded. We was eight or ten and I was covered in mud and hidin and Hazel stood there in the sun like she was made outta windchime glass, smooth and small and beautiful like nothin with a name. A tornado come in Fifty-Eight, killt eight or nine people out in Strong, but left other things behind. Out checkin trot lines after that tornado come through, Daddy and me seen a set of sheet metal shelves from a gen’ral store got tore down, and them shelves was up top of a little stand of pine saplins, maybe fifteen feet off the ground. It was a week of tornado weather and that day me and Daddy saw them shelves, the sky was still blue and green and yellow like a bruise fadin, waitin on more twisters, and the way the sun hit them shelves through that beat-up sky looked like light through stained glass and I seen it and knew it was beauty, and that’s the same thing I thought when I seen Hazel that first time. I recollect her beauty now, and it was real.
My daddy and Hazel’s daddy was farmers and fishers, and I wasn’t gonna stick to no farm, as I am the type of man to say fuck a farm; I will farm that blood. Oil don’t go bad, don’t go nowhere, don’t get sick or et up. Oil don’t do nothin but wait like a monster sleepin. And like a monster sleepin, it will from time to time, wake up to eat a man that don’t step correct. I got on my first rig when I was eighteen. My daddy was still workin corn; Hazel’s daddy lost his field to the bank. So me and him get on that first rig together. Third day, he got his arm took off in a accident, died right there. Next week, I married Hazel. She wore a white dress and our mamas did what mamas do, and that night I drank whiskey for the first time and felt that warm seep in and let it get down in that mud in me and mix with it and start from the inside a thirty-year trip of turnin me to solid concrete.
Me and Hazel was still young the first time I hit her. I’d done put in fourteen hours pluggin a orphan well and was four deep into some tallboys I picked up after I cashed my check at Eddie’s on the way home. I get to the house, wasn’t nothing cookin or done been cooked. I go to ask Hazel how come. She was on the porch readin, done been off in the sherry herself, and she gon pop off about how if I was gon stay out late I might as well take my ass to the Pinecone for drive-thru or some such shit. Now, my daddy told me long time ago that a man can’t never take no lip off no woman. First time she spout off, a man gotta let her know the order. So Hazel got that shot off, and as I could see her sort out what to say next, I come up from next to her and pop her in the mouth one good time. She folded up, like Daddy said they all do. Half hour later, dinner was served. Hazel didn’t never spout off again. Never. But after that one time I popped her a good one, I knew I liked hittin on Hazel. I felt that blood rushin up, bloomin in my cheeks when that anger took hold, and I felt all them same things I felt the first time I whipped a man’s ass, but didn’t have no fear to go with it. No fear at all. And with Hazel, I knew if I kep her scared, wouldn’t never be a time she’d wanna do nothin to make things worse on herself. God knows what another man’d do after his ole lady said some shit like that. Lucky she was mine. I hit her pretty regular after that. Because I loved her, now.
Never left no marks on Hazel nobody could see. I member back then hearin about Ricky Willis and how he’d done beat his ole lady, Becky, damn near to death. Sheriffs come and locked his dumb ass up. Everybody done seen it comin, though, cause Becky was always showin up to her work with marks and such. I member I heard Ricky talk about it one time on a smoke break. Said he just couldn’t stand her, said he knew she was fuckin around on him, and until he could find the fella who put it to her on the regular and beat his ass, he’d have to settle for beatin hers. Fella like Ricky, mouth jagged liked he’d been teethed on barbwire, you’d think he’d just hold onto whoever’d have his sorry ass. Smoked every tooth out of his head on that shit they was cookin out Strong way, and ole Becky wasn’t a half-bad piece when she didn’t look like a damn dropped apple. But sometimes a man can’t hold that hittin back. Ricky said one time we wasn’t that far removed from them savages used to till this land. Crazy shit to say. I figger ole Ricky’s better off locked up. After they hauled him off, I made me a rule: No marks above the collar or below the sleeves. If I had to grab Hazel, I’d grab the top of her arm, above the elbow. I’d pop her in the back of the head under her hair, or I’d get her in the back or the chest or the gut. All of em got her attention, and not a one of em put me in lock-up.
For the most part, them first ten years or so, things stayed the same. I’d come home, Hazel’d have my supper on the table, but she’d have that look in her eyes. Them green eyes. She’d get to starin at me. Glarin, but in a way that wasn’t never outright enough that I could call her on it. I’d hit her anyway, though. She was lookin for any kinda way to defy me, I reckon, and that look she’d give me was about all she could muster. So I’d get to hittin on her. Ten years or so of it, they say it’ll change a person. Abuse and all, I mean. Like they talk about on the TV. Hazel wasn’t never much for no kinda standin up for herself. Didn’t never fight back, didn’t never come at me with no knife or nothin, didn’t never try to poison me that I know of. Naw, Hazel changed a little, but it was different with her. She quit flinchin like she used to. And the way she done it was peculiar.
One night I come home, and Hazel done run up a hundred fifty dollars on the card. Buyin kitchen knives off the goddamn television! I laid into her, and I lit her ass up good. It was when I was headin toward her to get to whuppin on that ass that I noticed she didn’t flinch, but she hunched down. She’d get to hunkerin down and movin backward, all the while them green eyes starin up at me. And this is on her hands and knees, now. Glarin. Took her a while, but she got to movin faster, and after a longer spell, Hazel got to where she could damn near navigate the to’s and fro’s of the whole house without bumpin into nothin — goin backward, now, hands and damn knees. God damnedest thing I ever seen.
This shit go on for years. Hazel’d have herself a misstep, I’d have myself a tallboy, and she’d get that ass laid out, and I then began to see she was changin, really changin, now. When we was real young, Hazel wasn’t much on opinions as far as her surroundins went. She would have walked through life tastin just air, seein nothin but light or low shadow. But she had herself a holy fit when she seen them hardwood floors in the house I bought her. Hardwood all the way through, cep for the laundry room. I believe it was the only time she ever showed herself to be excited. When I went to polyurethane the den floor, I seen all these scuffs and scratches. Now, I been known to put Hazel on her ass, and most of the time when she wound up such, it was in the kitchen, but there was fingernail marks all over the damn place in spots I knew Hazel hadn’t never fell down, at least on my account. Done been a while since she started with her hunchin down and crawlin spells, and I don’t mind sayin that shit gimme a chill somethin God-awful with the way she’d get to glarin at me. For all them marks I seen, Hazel was spendin more time on her hands and knees than I made for her. So, I come home early one day, and I seen it. Hazel was on all fours, just a’movin through the house. On all fours, see. And she musta been doin it for some time, because Hazel was movin. Fast. She had her hair down in her face, mussed like pale moss and pine straw, so she didn’t see me come in, I don’t think. She was wearin her flowery day dress she liked, and that’s how I seen it. When she caught sight of me, Hazel took off toward the back like a shot. I coulda swore I seen somethin wigglin just above her ass in that flowery yella day dress.
Few more years, day finally come when Hazel had enough, and to be honest, I’d done got the damn willies so bad by the whole thing, I welcomed it when hell full-bore broke loose. It was a Tuesday, and so goddamn hot I’d done sweat through my overhauls before I even got out the truck in the a.m. I recollect as I was headed to the house that I might have a problem if Hazel didn’t have supper cooked up quick, fast, and in a hurry that night, as goin upside that head mighta done me more harm’n her, seein as I split my knuckle down to the bone workin that afternoon. Hazel knew the back of my hand pretty well after all these years, so I figured if I had to, I could get my point across without havin to ball that ole fist up anyhow. By this time, see, my whole hands was et up with the arthritis. I come home with a wound, and I like me a tallboy for my evenins anyhow, but I didn’t want none of them painkillers for the hand, so I picked me up somethin with a little more kick on the way to the house. I hadn’t left Hazel with no check for the grocery that week, so I knew if she’d done some cookin, pretty much all she had right for my plate was the deer sausage her nephew sent me home with last November. I love me some deer sausage, now, and with half a pint or so of the Tough Willie in me after the drive home, I was ready for any and all things deer sausage-related. Come up the drive, go in the house, and I find Hazel in the kitchen, hair in her face as she’d let herself go, y’see, blank stare, standin over a pot on the stove.
Cookin fuckin grits.
I seen them grits, then I seen red. So in that bottle now, I forget all about my hand and I commence to lay into Hazel somethin fierce. As I was learnin her for the umpteenth time, I got to screamin at her, askin why the hell there wasn’t no goddamn deer sausage hot on my table with my name on it. As I was hollerin and cussin, I figure I musta lost my footin and took me a tumble. When I found myself ass-up on the hardwood, I felt that warm wetness creepin up my gut and onto my chest and as I raise up, I see I’m in a puddle and I see it done come from where Hazel was layin, as she’d done gone and damn pissed herself as she was takin her beatin. But Hazel was gone. I rolled over on my back and grabbed the icebox door to help myself up, and then I seen the cupboard under the counter cracked, which was cause enough, in addition to soilin my kitchen floor, for Hazel to catch a proper Ricky Willis-style ass-kickin. Far as I was concerned, I wasn’t dealin with no woman no more. I hated open cupboards. As I come to close it, I caught the whole smell. I say the whole smell, because from the minute I come in, I remember catchin a whiff here or there of somethin over them grits. Somethin else, like somethin done died. I pull that cupboard door wide, and I seen that brown package of deer sausage in there, holes gnawed in it here and there and everywhere. Musta been there for a good while, as the whole mess had done thawed out and there was blood clottin on the inside of the door and on the shelf edges. Things upstairs got a little swimmy for me there for a pinch as I tried to wrap my head around how this shit got from my deep freeze to my cupboard and what in holy hell had et it up, and I got thinkin hard because my guard was all the way down, and then Hazel was on me.
Over the years, I done read or seent somewhere somethin about how we overlook the faults of the ones we love, or some such shit to that effect. So I’d done missed a lot. Hazel was real hairy. She was on me, and I had my hands clutched tight on either side of her head, and them hairy titties was swingin back and forth like a coupl’a damn baby possums, as Hazel had done stripped stark nekkid before comin at me. Like I say, I had her by the head, and them teeth — Goddamn, them teeth. I don’t know what Hazel had used to file em sharp as they were, but them wasn’t no woman’s teeth no more, far as I reckon. And her breath was foul as sin. I felt that nub up above her ass had done come all the way in, as there was a tail of a good six or so inches in length just rigid as greenwood, stickin straight up in the air as my hairy goddamn wife was tryin like hell to lay my throat open. Hazel had an animal in her and that animal was on me, but God put man on Earth to be above beast, with cunning and whatnot, so I shifted my weight and grabbed the ole iron we used to prop the pantry door open, then I give Hazel a whop for the books right across the side of her head, and she come down hard.
I see myself as simple. I see myself reflected but not like in a mirror. More like in a saw blade or the finish on brushed copper. I collected Hazel, limp as a noodle, tail just a’hangin, drool just a’comin out in ropes, and I did what any man would do. I took her out back to put her down. She’d done turned on me, and a dog that’ll turn on a man is no good to have around. My daddy taught me that. But I loved Hazel. She was a good girl, and I loved her, and I just couldn’t bring myself to pull that goddamn trigger.
Hazel is tricky. She’s a good girl in her heart, and such a comfort for me with the cancer, but she’s tricky, and I keep that in mind. She lives in my old tool shed now. I fixed it up for her real nice, got her a nice bed with a heat lamp for when it gets cold. She’s chained up, a’course. Much as I’d love to let her out, I just don’t know how it’d go, so in the shed she stays. I feed her scraps sometimes, but usually it’s something nice, like raw deer sausage or maybe the fat off a steak. Nothin but the best for my girl, as knowin she is there is a comfort to me when I hurt too bad to get out the bed.
Sometimes I start to get cross about Hazel not keepin a home no more. Them burdens fall on me now, and they’re mine to bear alone, but I make do. I love Hazel now more than I ever did before. She’s tricky, though. Sometimes when I feed her in the evenins, she’ll have that glare in them still-green eyes, and I know she’s plottin on me. But I keep her. Hazel is mine, and I love her like a man can only love a broke thing. And sometimes you gotta suffer for the ones you love. Like we all do.
The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this piece as a finalist for the 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blind and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
SCHULER BENSON’s work has been featured in Hobart, The Lit Pub, Kudzu House, The Pinch, and elsewhere. His first book, a collection of short fiction titled The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide, was released in 2014 by Alternating Current. He currently lives by the ocean with his wife and animals in South Carolina, and is a candidate in the MA Writing program at Coastal Carolina University. He tweets from @schulerbenson.
Originally published on 8/19/15.