J.B. in the Desert
When Foreman Douglas smelled alcohol on J.B.’s breath for the third shift in a row, he fired J.B. from his new job at the oil refinery, J.B.’s fifth career in the past seven years. That night J.B. got drunk on Ironroot Corn Whiskey and reminisced about his days as a Texas Golden Gloves amateur bantamweight champion nearly twenty years ago. With the memories of his glory days flitting through his head, J.B. soon found himself darting drunkenly from one end of his trailer to the other, dodging invisible punches from phantom opponents, and trash-talking every asshole who’d ever looked at him the wrong way. Then, when the picture of Foreman Douglas’s fat face appeared in his mind, J.B. stomped out his front door and started the twelve-mile walk to the oil refinery to settle things for good with that chickenshit of a man. But after lurching through the soupy darkness for two hours, J.B. found himself hopelessly lost in the west Texas desert.
For the next two days J.B. trudged the rugged terrain of the creosote scrublands, trying to find his way back to his trailer. Prickly pear, ocotillo, yucca, and candlewood scratched at the knees of his worn blue jeans, the elbows of his button-up workshirt. Sick from the heat, crazed with thirst, yet somehow still alive, J.B. sucked on a pebble and yelled obscenities at the porcelain sickle of the moon. In his stupor he blamed the father he never knew as a child, the women who never accepted his love in adulthood, the whiskey that ruined his career as a boxer.
On the morning of the third day, the boiling eye of the sun banished the moon from the sky. Under this gaze J.B. lay crushed in the dirt by the heat. As his skin blistered in the sun, his thoughts drifted back to the slow Sunday mornings of his childhood. In his head he saw himself sitting in the front pew of St. Luke’s in El Paso, his tired head resting against his mother’s warm shoulder. With these thoughts in mind, J.B. looked up and begged God to save his life. It was what his mother would have wanted him to do.
While a pair of buzzards swam lazy circles in the blue sky above, J.B. saw a black dot emerge from the molten disk of the sun. For the next few minutes he shaded his eyes with his sunburned hand and watched the dot float gracefully to the ground, like a vulture riding the thermals. By the time the thing’s feet crunched in the rocky earth before him, J.B. couldn’t stop himself from croaking out a dry, painful laugh. He did this because the thing standing in front of him was no one other than Foreman Douglas, his chickenshit of a boss he’d wanted to fight so badly three days ago.
“Now you goddamn show up,” J.B. croaked, his voice shredded and thin, barely audible over the whirl of the wind. “When I’m half dead and caint hardly stand.”
“You asked, and I appeared,” Foreman Douglas said. “Did you not beg me to save your life?”
“That was a private conversation between me and God,” J.B. said. “I didn’t ask you for shit. Except for maybe a chance to break your jaw with a right cross.”
Foreman Douglas smiled and spread his arms in a gesture of welcome.
“You may very well get the chance. But how do you know I’m not the one you refer to as God? How do you know I’m not here to save your life?”
J.B. pressed his palms into the warm earth and pushed himself into a sit. For a full minute he tried to figure out if the man standing before him really was God, or if he was just a hallucination of his thirst-crazed mind. After a while J.B. realized it didn’t matter either way, because from the smug grin on the man’s face, J.B. could see he wasn’t here to help.
“Well, the way I figure,” J.B. said, his voice rasping painfully, “it don’t matter who you are, because one look at your face tells me you ain’t my friend. So I’d appreciate it if you’d buzz off and let me die in peace. But if the only reason you’re here is to watch me burn and twitch under your little magnifying glass, then I might have something to say about that, if you catch my meaning.”
The foreman smiled again and nodded.
“Splendid. One last fight before you fall stone-dead in the dirt. Even on the brink of death, you never change. You are such a fascinatingly irrational man.”
“Yeah, well, I tend to get a bit ornery when a pompous ass with a shit-eating grin tries to make a fool out of me for his own amusement.”
“I see,” Foreman Douglas said. “I knew this form would awaken your thirst for violence, but I didn’t expect such open hostility. In the past you’ve always been much more skilled at concealing your anger. You never cease to surprise me, Jonathan.”
“You don’t get to call me that,” J.B. said, his throat a pipe of burning coals. “There’s only one person on this earth who has permission to call me that, and she’s long dead.”
“Ah yes. Your dear mother Masie. Bless her foolish little heart,” Foreman Douglas said. He bowed his head and crossed himself, but his smug grin remained, which poisoned the gesture with an air of mockery. “All that talk about faith, and yet she refused to believe that her beloved Marlboro Reds would ever do her any harm. No wonder you’re so stubborn.” He stepped forward and offered J.B. a hand. “Shall we begin?”
J.B. turned his head to the side and tried to spit, but nothing came out. His lips were scorched and split, his tongue dry and swollen in his mouth. Ignoring the foreman’s hand, J.B. put on a performance of exaggerated weakness and scrabbled to his feet on his own. As one of the skinniest kids in school while growing up, this had always been J.B.’s most effective strategy for winning fights: play up your own weakness, watch them get overconfident, and then smash them with all you’ve got. And just like all the other times, the trick worked once again. Foreman Douglas’s shoulders relaxed; his hands dropped to his waist; his head cocked to the side in amusement. An instant later, J.B. snapped a quick left jab which caught Foreman Douglas square in the nose. As the foreman stumbled backward in surprise, J.B. juked with his left shoulder and darted forward a half step and let fly a flurry of two right jabs, a left cross, three solid blows to the body, and a right uppercut that grazed the tip of his opponent’s exposed chin.
Following this attack, J.B.’s legs collapsed beneath him. His body trembled and quaked with exhaustion. His heart hammered in his ears. With an aching hand pressed to the ground, he gulped huge dry breaths of desert air. No longer exaggerating his weakness, J.B. looked up at his opponent. Though it was clear his attack had done no damage, Foreman Douglas’s cocky smile had finally disappeared. Instead the man glowered at J.B. with wrath and anger.
Foreman Douglas raised his arm to the sky and shouted a series of words in a language J.B. had never heard before. Sensing retribution, J.B. corralled his remaining strength, leaped forward, and clamped his arms around Foreman Douglas’s flabby beer gut. An instant later, a crackling branch of purple lightning sliced the sky in two.
For the next few minutes, the jagged knuckles of the mountains was hidden behind a thick haze of smoke and dust. Soon the haze cleared and Foreman Douglas pushed J.B.’s dead body aside and clambered to his feet. With his hair disintegrated and his clothes burned to dust, the foreman stood naked in the hard morning sunlight, his pink skin glazed with dirt and ash. To his right, small orange flames slowly devoured a creosote bush. Aside from the crackle of these flames and the screech of a distant buzzard, the land was quiet, still, and peaceful.
The foreman looked down at J.B.’s charred body. Thin strings of gray smoke leaked from his eyes, his nostrils, the open tops of his partially-melted boots.
“Impressive. I didn’t think you had such courage and ingenuity in you, Jonathan. Based on this showing, I think you’ve earned yourself another chance. Next time, I hope you’ll find a way to put your skills to better use,” Foreman Douglas said. He kneeled in the dirt and kissed J.B.’s blackened forehead. By the time he stood up, J.B.’s body was gone. “Until we meet again, son, I’ll be waiting for you here. I hope to see you soon.”
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner from Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/
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