Fiction: Trash and Treasure
By Hugh Blanton
With just three months to go until high school graduation, Martin Sasser had had enough of his bourgeois upbringing and decided to quit school and run away from home. The privilege-guilt was just too much for him to take—the new clothes at the beginning of every school year, the summers at camp, the ten-speed Schwinn gifted to him last Christmas, even his mother's spotless kitchen floor. The path he was on could only lead to more of the unfair advantages of the American middle class like university degrees and well-salaried careers. Martin's father had been part owner of a small independent coal mine in Bell County, Kentucky that brought in a significant amount of income during the coal boom years of the 1950's, but as far as Martin was concerned, it was just a cog in the evil American capitalist machine, a machine that wrought oppression and injustice upon the poor. And the best way to fight that oppression and injustice was to become one of the poor himself.
Martin had spent most of the school year making a study of the poor—hanging out with them behind the gymnasium building where they congregated to avoid being seen as they smoked cigarettes and marijuana, mimicking their speech and mannerisms, letting his grades slip and his hair grow. These were the bad boys and the bad girls that Martin had grown to admire. He made a few friends, but most of them regarded him as an outsider and a fake; that was in fact why Martin took the drastic measure of running away from home, to prove he was the "real deal." And it worked. Chuckaluck (long for Chuck), one of the stoners Martin had been hanging around with, told Martin he could stay with him at his house. Chuckaluck's mom, swaying under the influence of bourbon, said Martin could stay, but he would have to get back in school and graduate. Even mothers who drank whiskey at 10 in the morning demanded some responsibility. Martin's own parents made no effort to force him back home, deciding instead to let his teenage angst run its course (and also grateful for a break from his infantile rebellious behavior).
Martin didn't mind having to go back to school, in fact he looked forward to telling everyone about his 18 hours of homelessness and the cunning resourcefulness took to survive out there. And now that he lived on the wrong side of the tracks (Chuckaluck's home, a moldy hovel on the banks of the Cumberland River, literally had a railroad track that ran right behind it) he was a real insider. No one could accuse him of being a rich kid now—he was even riding the bus to school instead of being chauffeured in his mother's cream colored Cadillac. But what Martin really wanted was the respect that criminals had in the underworld of the poor. Criminals were looked up to as heroes, admired for their derring-do, and Martin was determined to reach the apex and be the most admired in that motley crowd he was now a part of.
However, Martin was disappointed to find out that all Chuckaluck did after school and on weekends, for the most part, was sit around watching TV. There seemed to be quite a few mobile homes and shacks around ripe for a burglary, but whenever Martin mentioned a specific one Chuckaluck would beg off, saying somebody "cool" lived there. Martin despaired of ever reaching his goal to become an outlaw badass and then it hit him—the church!
There was a little white clapboard church down the road from Chuckaluck's house that held night services every Sunday for people who missed the morning worship or for people who just wanted a double dose of prayer and sermon. After nightfall, the church's dirt parking lot would be prime ground for stealing gasoline from the cars parked there while the vehicle owners sang hymns in the pews. The plan was brilliant not only for its strategy, but its depravity too. Martin convinced Chuckaluck and Chuckaluck's next door neighbor Geno (a high school dropout and halfwit) to go along with him on the raid, but as they crouched in the woods of the hill above the parking lot Chuckaluck and Geno got cold feet. "Fine," Martin huffed. "Wait here. I'll do it myself." He took the plastic gallon jug and siphon hose down to the parking lot, and while he knew the basic principles for siphoning gas—suction and the receptacle lower than the source—his inexperience led him to leave the hose in his mouth one second too long and got a mouthful of gasoline. The gagging, however, did not attract the attention of the churchgoers as they wailed their hosannas in the nave and Martin successfully completed the theft. They traded the gallon of gas for a joint from Chuckaluck's dope dealer; Martin taking extra tokes and reminding them that it was his criminal prowess that had provided for them.
Martin's plan worked better than expected. He told the tale of his daring raid the next morning at school to his circle of pot smoking friends and by the end of the day the tale had made the rounds and made it back to him, embellished with complimentary detail that exaggerated his criminal accomplishment. Best of all, Tammy, the girl who lived two trailers down from Chuckaluck, sat next to Martin on the bus ride home, asking him if he really stole gas from people at church. He assured her he had, and basked in the glory of his daring deed and the smell of Tammy's Body on Tap shampoo.
Martin tried to come up with something to top his gasoline theft, but graduation rolled around and Chuckaluck's mom told Martin he had to get out. Nothing to do with his thievery (she in fact didn't even know about it), she just didn't want him there sponging off her good nature anymore. There was no way in hell Martin would return to the home of his square law-abiding parents. A construction site in Middlesboro, some fifteen miles from Chuckaluck's home, was hiring laborers and Martin decided he would give it a shot, earn some wages and find a place to rent to buy some time. The day he was leaving, he shared a farewell joint with Chuckaluck and Tammy and told them not to cry, to wait for him, he would be back. He tried to recite a goodbye speech he remembered from some movie he'd seen years ago but he flubbed it. No matter, he was a respected badass outlaw and he could be forgiven for sounding like a dork. And it must have worked too, because neither of them cried.
Martin got the job and rented an Airstream in the backyard of a pensioner's home that was within walking distance of his job site. There were three other such trailers in the backyard, all occupied by men with very little money and a need to stay hidden. Martin was laid off from his job two months after starting it and spent the last of his savings on a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 wine. He brought it to Rammo's trailer, where the renters gathered most nights for drink, smoke, and conversation. Martin looked forward to ingratiating himself with them—these were not pot-smoking school kids, they were bristly-chinned, viper-eyed fugitives well experienced in crime. Rammo made his living fencing stolen property (Martin had mistaken Rammo's South Australia accent for British), Zeke was a vagabond from nowhere, and Tank was a murderer who had been released from a Michigan prison just six months ago.
"That old hag Flossie kicked me out of the trash and treasure yesterday," Rammo said. "She wouldn't give me my table fee back, neither."
"What's a trash and treasure?" Martin asked.
Tank answered him. "The flea market, dumbass." Tank had made sure since Martin moved in that he didn't like him.
"I didn't know," Martin said, defensive. "Look, us poor people gotta stick together. I'm tired of being poor! Those rich motherfuckers live off our hard work. It's time we took back what's ours!"
"And just how the fuck do you plan to do that, kid?" Zeke asked, smiling after a sip from his whiskey bottle and swatting away a moth that had strayed near his face.
"Tell me where she lives," Martin said. "I'll steal her TV, her radio, anything she's got."
"Over by Parker Branch," Rammo said. "Ever seen that two story brick house in the woods near the chicken joint? That's it right there. She lives there by herself, her husband died about a month ago. You wouldn't think someone running a trash and treasure would have that much money, but there you go."
"The kid here thinks he's Boston Billy," said Zeke.
"Nah, he's just a bunch of talk," said Tank.
The next morning Martin got up and walked the mile Parker Branch to scout out Flossie's property. Set quite a way back from the road and fenced off with a locked gate, it was partially secluded by pine trees and overgrown brush, but not secluded enough to risk a daytime break in. He would return late at night under cover of darkness and use stealth while the old woman slept. He spent the rest of the day in his Airstream, anticipating the hero's welcome he would get from Rammo, Zeke, and Tank when he brought back the loot and proved he wasn't "just a bunch of talk." At five minutes to midnight, he headed out.
He nimbly hopped the locked gate and quickly walked up the narrow strip of grass in the middle of the unpaved driveway to avoid making sound on the pebbly dirt. No lights were on and Martin went to the rear of the home in search of a place for entry. The door was of course locked, so he used a utility knife he'd stolen from his job site to slash a window screen and lifted the unlatched but curtained window. It made a bit of noise so he waited to see if the lights came on before climbing in. After a minute, he was certain he'd been undetected and hoisted himself up and through. The room he found himself in had a mildewy smell and a rotting wood floor. Obviously some sort of storage room, it was strewn with junk—a rusted bed frame against the wall, piles of clothing, even a four-cylinder engine block among all the detritus. He didn't see anything of value and crossed the floor careful not to trip over anything in the dark and slowly opened the door, literally holding his breath.
It opened to a hallway and at that end of it was Flossie's living room. The adrenaline pumping through his body was now making him feel weak and shaky, he hadn't eaten anything in the last two days except for a can of Beanie Weanie and a Coke. The living room was a shabby mess, whatever Flossie was spending her money on, it wasn't housekeeping. Her television was too large to take and carry for the mile trip back home, so Martin moved on to the kitchen, his heart about to beat a hole through his rib cage. There on the kitchen table was a vodka bottle, an empty tumbler, a bottle of sleeping pills—and a gray metal box. He undid the hasp on the box, opened the lid and the dump of gastric excretions in his stomach was so strong it sent fumes up to his mouth. The box was stuffed with cash: ones, fives, tens, twenties. He slapped the lid back down and turned to go when the lights came on, Flossie standing in the doorway with a .22 pistol in her raised hand pointed right at him.
She fired once, missing him, and tried to shoot again, but the gun jammed, as might be expected of a revolver that had been in a nightstand for the last twenty years. Martin screamed, grabbed an eight inch cheese knife from the counter and charged at Flossie as she kept trying to pull the trigger. He went for her throat and they both tumbled to the floor, Martin releasing the knife and now shrieking hysterically after his hand slipped up the handle and onto the blade. Flossie, writhing on the floor in her filthy nightgown could barely struggle under the effects of the booze and pills. Martin retrieved the knife, made another stab at her throat and found the mark. Flossie weakly grabbed at Martin's wrist but, choking on her own blood, gave up. He kept plunging the knife in place until she stopped moving, then he rose and backed away until he bumped into the kitchen sink. All four of the fingers on his right hand had been sliced to the bone and were bleeding freely. He used the dirty dishcloth as a bandage, grabbed the cash box and exited through the window he entered; Flossie gurgling her last breaths on her kitchen floor.
Martin stopped under the bridge that spanned Little Yellow Creek to assess the damage to his hand. It was still bleeding freely and the pain was excruciating. A hobo stirred awake in his hiding spot and asked Martin if he was okay. Martin picked up the cash box with his good hand and ran the rest of the mile back home.
The sun was just coming up when Martin had stopped the bleeding and the knock on the door of his Airstream caused him to jump.
"Marty, you in there? It's me, Tank."
Martin opened the door, Tank lunged in and headbutted him, nearly knocking him unconscious. "What did you get? Where the fuck is it?" Martin was too stunned to answer and Tank kicked him in the groin. There was no where for Martin to retreat in the tiny trailer and Tank unfolded his pocketknife. "Tell me where it's at or I'll kill you." Martin whimpered and Tank slashed Martin's left cheek.
"It's under the seat! You can have it! Don't hurt me!" Martin screamed.
Tank lifted the upholstered board that served as a seat/storage space lid. He took out the cash box and flipped through the bills. "What else did you get, Marty?"
"That's it. I swear."
Tank slashed Martin's right cheek. "What else?"
"Nothing!" Martin screamed and cried.
Tank left with the cash box.
It took a couple of hours to get the bleeding stopped. Martin knocked on the back door of his landlord's home and asked to use the phone. Martin looked like he had just walked off the set of a slasher film, but all the landlord said was, "Right over there. No long distance." Martin sobbed as he asked his father if he could come back home. He gave his father directions to where he was and then hung up. The landlord told Martin there were no refunds on the rent. Thirty minutes later Martin got into his father's car for the ride back home. It was almost a year to the day since Martin had left.
He was back in the same bedroom he'd endured chickenpox in, the same one where he'd been comforted by his mother after having nightmares, the same one where he'd read Hardy Boys books every night of the summer vacation between 3rd and 4th grades. His parents cleaned and treated his wounds without asking questions about what had happened, assuming half correctly that he'd been a crime victim. Mild infection set in, but Martin's young and healthy immune system beat it back and within a week he was restored to health. Except for his hand. The fingers had only a limited range of motion and were locked into a shape that gave his hand the appearance of a deformed claw.
A month after arriving back home Martin got a job as a short order cook at Kelly's Jelly Belly, a roadside diner about a half mile down the highway from Martin's home. Martin knew nothing about cooking, but Kelly was a friend of his father and had sympathy for the wayward youth. Martin's rebellion was finally over, he was back home with people who really loved and cared about him. No more dope, no more booze. The cigarettes were a tough habit to break, so his parents indulged him and let him have his Marlboros. They were happy to have him back home and healthy. It was the happiest of endings. Until Martin's fifth day of work when two Bell County Sheriff's deputies walked into Kelly's Jelly Belly and snapped the cuffs on young Martin.
Martin repeatedly demanded to know what was going on as he rode to the Bell County jail, the deputies repeatedly told him to shut the fuck up. He told them his father was the owner of Bailey Hill Mining company and the deputies told him to shut the fuck up. An hour after being booked into jail a detective from the Kentucky State Police arrived and read him his rights. Martin was sure he could convince the clean-cut, athletic looking detective that he was totally innocent and waived his right to remain silent. Martin spewed his bullshit for more than two hours before the detective left and a deputy put him back in his cell. Martin reminded the deputy of his right to make a phone call. The deputy told him to shut the fuck up and locked the cell door.
It was two days before Martin found out that his parents had retained an attorney for him. The half-million dollar bail was a bit much for his parents to fork over, so they left him in pretrial detention. Four months after the arrest, Martin's attorney visited him and suggested, "strongly," that Martin plead guilty to the murder of Flossie Young. "But they don't even have any evidence!" Martin protested, having convinced himself of his own lie. The attorney informed him that his DNA had been taken from a cigarette butt and a paper cup found at the diner where he worked and matched to the blood at the crime scene. And a witness who'd seen Martin running from the crime scene with a bloody hand and a cash box.
"Take the deal," Martin's attorney said in a slow Kentucky drawl, "or take a chance on sitting in Old Sparky." Martin took the deal.
At age 20, Martin entered the gates of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, aka the Castle on the Cumberland, to begin a 25 years to life sentence. The jagged knife scars on each side of his face gave him a fearsome appearance, but it wasn't long before the hardened convicts there discovered he was just a scared kid. Martin also made the mistake of telling a fellow inmate that his father owned a coal mine. Not even two weeks into his sentence he had to be placed in protective custody after inmates began attacking him and demanding that he put money on their books. When he was let out of PC, a couple of the older convicts showed Martin the ropes of doing time. He was able to put up enough resistance to get the extortionists to leave him alone, and his time became a little easier.
Two years into his sentence Martin was summoned to the warden's office. He was informed that his father had passed away but due to Martin's status as a convicted murderer serving a lengthy sentence, he would not be permitted to attend the funeral.
Correspondence from his mother continued after his father's death, but trailed off with time. It got down to a card every birthday and Christmas, then birthdays only, then no card at all on Martin's 27th birthday. He had attempted a couple of letters to his old friend Chuckaluck, but got no responses. Martin made the mistake of complaining about not getting any mail and was reminded that almost none of the older inmates got any mail, either. Prisons are full of people nobody cares about.
At age 40, when other men might be having a mid-life crisis, Martin looked at his face in the stainless steel mirror in his cell. The two scars were still pink after all these decades, and his pallid face had become mottled. His right eyelid drooped, his scalp was visible beneath his wispy hair. Martin's mother had been dead a year—the notice said she died in a nursing home in Kansas. He didn't know of any family relatives in Kansas and wondered how she ended up there. He examined his hand in the mirror; it had become more deformed and inhibited his ability to run the sewing machine in the prison's textile factory resulting in a recent disciplinary write up when he failed to make his quota. Now in middle age with plenty of time on his hands, Martin often took trips down memory lane. The memory that most often popped up was from his seventh grade class when he was 12 years old. The class was discussing a recent gruesome murder that had happened out in California and Martin's contribution to the class discussion was, "THAT SCUMBAG SHOULD GET THE DEATH PENALTY!" With pretty much no chance of parole, Martin was practically given a death sentence himself.
After all these years, he still hadn't forgot about Tammy. He had sent her three letters, the last one about two years into his sentence—she of course never replied. Martin couldn't be sure if his memory was becoming clouded with time, or more clear, but now when he thought of the time he bragged to Tammy about stealing gas from cars, it seemed like her facial expression was saying, "What a dumbass," not "What a daring swashbuckler you are, Marty!" He fought like hell to keep his imagination from conjuring up images of Tammy laughing at his prison sentence, laughing at him getting slashed by Tank, laughing at him as he cried on the phone to be allowed back home. But there was nothing he could do to quash the realization that he was a forty-year-old virgin rotting away in a fetid penitentiary.
Martin contracted a virulent strain of Hepatitis C even though he'd had no sexual contact in the prison and had not even gotten a tattoo. Not long after that, he had a case of influenza so severe it required a two week hospitalization. With Martin's medical bills piling up for the commonwealth of Kentucky, he was miraculously granted parole in the 48th year of his sentence. His caseworker set him up with Supplemental Security Income, a food subsidy, a housing subsidy, and a tiny studio apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. He loved to sit and look out the window of his new apartment until the rambunctious teenagers outside taunted him with "Wachoo lookin' at Scarface!" and he was forced to close the curtains and retreat.
There's no nostalgia as intense as the nostalgia for things that never happened. Martin's maudlin nostalgia for university degrees, marriage and children, salaries, and well stocked retirement accounts put him in a severe depression. Worse, he still let himself believe that Tammy was out there somewhere looking for him and she would walk through his apartment door any day now. He rehearsed the jokes he would make about his yellow skin and bald, liver-spotted head. Martin never visited the graves of his father and mother. Not that he didn't care, but he was just so goddamn tired all the time.
Hugh Blanton is an Appalachian expatriate now living in San Diego, California. He grew up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky before wandering and ending up on the American West coast. He has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, As It Ought To Be, The Scarlet Leaf Review and other places. His book A Home To Crouch In is available now from Cajun Mutt Press.