Horse Latitudes

Jamie Black

0-302 ft.

Daddy named me Honus, but everyone’s always only called me what he called me: Onus. Lose the “H.” He told me someday I’d get the joke. I don’t. But there’s lots I don’t get. Like acts of God. Like how to do life, nowadays. But I don’t need to understand things to outsmart them, and that’s what I’m gonna do. I tested the harness this morning and it works. The Bambi, a third the size of the Airstream, moves with me when I walk. It’s just a length of heavy chain wrapped around the tow hook, a couple of seatbelts with towels duct-taped around them attached to that, but it works. I’ve outsmarted the next hurricane. I’m not gonna lose everything, not gonna drown when the next levee breaks.

            Lunchtime, I’ve only gone fifty feet, but I’m already sweating like a fat fry cook. Sun’s up high. Air feels like a fart. Strip down to just a beater, undershorts, and workboots. Undershorts have little pills of cotton on them and they’ve sprouted gills on either side—I’ve got too big for my britches, I guess. Chicken skin of my thighs shows through.

            I look back and I can see the cornbread-colored rectangle of grass where the trailer sat for years. When I look ahead, I get dizzy. It’s three-thousand feet up Aucun Hill, but it’s a trip I’ve gotta make. On the news, I saw this child inside its own house, crying up on top of a six-foot-tall bookshelf. Couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl, just looked like a wet cat. Dirty water that looked like old antifreeze still rising. I saw grandmas floating face up and face down. Houses crushed and rubbed smooth like sandcastles at high tide. Siding marked with scum lines, like a nuked Cup Noodle. This last hurricane canceled New Orleans, and missed Keener by less than a pit bull’s tooth on the map. I ain’t a gambling man.

            After beans over Sterno, I yoke myself back up. If I had a car, I’d leave town entirely. But Momma’s debt wiped out my bank account. I don’t understand economics neither. Anyways, this is where I live. So, I’m dragging all three-thousand pounds of my home, my entire life, up the side of the mountain, like some goddamn giant metal turtle.

303-627 ft.

            Wind picked up last night. Gusts that sounded like werewolves in heat. Went on for hours and hours, too. Took healthy leaves along with ones that already changed color. Lying all over the place, overlapping upside-down and rightside-up, the ground looks camouflaged. Like the backs of a thousand dead soldiers. I best keep on. Nature’s making war.

            Had to ditch some weight to get up faster. Just a couple of boxes. Kid junk. One-eyed stuffed tigers, Lego bricks, scratched up die-cast cars, that sort of thing. Deflated yellow balloons still tied with grimy strings—the ones they gave me years back, when me and Momma went for breakfast to Shoney’s. Stash it all behind some brambles off the trail. Nothing important. Nothing I need. But I’ll miss it, I think.

628-1000 ft.

            Cormac Delacroix, the Bastard Priest, is the son of a French Quarter whore and an unnamed abortionist who died in a clinic bombing soon after his kid was born. Cormac became a priest, I guess, on account of the guilt. Or because he needed God’s help to hate his folks so much. He hates most everyone and he likes to yell, so I’m not happy to see him rolling down Aucun in his wheelchair, flock clomping, heavy-footed, behind.

             “Look here, children,” he says, rolling to a stop. “It’s the boy what ain’t got faith to come worship since his momma died.” .

             Amen, his people say. Hol-ley-lou-yuh. They nod so fast and hard they look like epileptics. Bastard Priest asks me what in Hell I think I’m doing. I tell him my plan. Ask him, please, to get out of the way. I’m not taking any detours with all three-thousand pounds of my life tied to me.

             “Goin up the mountain?” Delacroix clucks his tongue and his goons shake their heads with shame. “Ain’t you got no faith at all, boy?” He raises a hand from the muddy spokes of his wheelchair and twists his fingers in the thin end of a Catfish Hunter moustache the color of raw French fries.

             “Ain’t got a life jacket, neither.” .

             “Goin up there gonna lead you to ruin, boy. The Devil works in private places. Ain’t you heard? No man’s an island.” A lady with a lopsided perm wipes the greasy, thick lenses of glasses on her gold blouse. “No man’s an island. Laws, no,” she echoes.

            Bastard Priest says something about trusting God. I tell him God done most everything awful in the first place. He says something about God watching over. I think about those flood videos. Wonder who filmed them. Camera sometimes seemed snuck into places only God could get. Bastard Priest tells me even without legs he don’t want for nothing because he’s got God. I tell him, “No, it’s on account of the collection plate and your flock.” .

             “Mysterious ways,” he explains. .

             “Look I just don’t want to drown. And if God did this hurricane, got Momma, maybe I want to be somewhere He can’t find me. So pretty please, get out of my way.” I’m sweating marbles and all my muscles are trembling. Only thing harder than trudging up the mountain with all the weight of my life is trying to stand still. But Delacroix doesn’t move and he jabbers on about how God didn’t take Momma for her boy to turn his back on Him. So I don’t feel bad when I do it.

             “Cormac, you bastard, you need to learn when to keep your mouth shut,” I scream. From the look of his mouth, ain’t no one called him “bastard” to his face in a long while. I only give him a little kick, enough to set him off balance, and rolling into a stump. He flips over, out of his chair. Purple plaid lap blanket hanging over his head, he looks like an ugly ghost. His minions slap me, spit on me, as they rush by to help him. Like I said, ain’t God watching over him, it’s his congregation. Ain’t any lightning. God didn’t do nothing.

             Past some cattails, in a clearing thirty yards away, a girl with hair like sunset on the bayou claps for me. “Don’t you mind those nimrods!” she screams. She bends down and picks up the black handles of what look like two shovels and drags them uphill, behind trees, where I can’t see her anymore.

             I think about her that night, think about Delacroix, while I drag more deadweight into the woods. Momma’s Bibles and hymnals. Pewter-framed pictures of church socials, my baptism, first communion. A hand-painted Virgin Mary that weighs half as much as me. Lord knows I ain’t welcome at our church no more. ’Sides, it’s gonna be easier going without all this to keep me down.

1001-1257 ft.

            Didn’t get as far as I wanted today. Got to wondering about the point of it all. Maybe I don’t drown next time a levee breaks, but I die eventually. Five, twenty, forty years. Dropped cement blocks and rolled the Bambi in front of them, a block behind all four wheels. The sky was still eye blue, and I called it an early day. Even with the padding, the harness marked me. An X of tar black bruises across my chest. Gotta lose more weight.

            I stack my books behind the trash can-sized trunks of giant poplars ten yards off the trail. Textbooks I bought when I had dreams of being a college boy, back before Momma got sick, died, and damn near bankrupted me. When I thought someday I’d leave Keener. Twenty lipstick red leatherbound volumes of the encyclopedia: uncracked spines, gold pages still stuck together. I leave books behind four trees.

            So maybe I never get a good job. Maybe I just settle down and, worst case, my dreams come to slinging drinks at the Blue Law. I come down the mountain once, twice a week to make what I need. Old Harv promised I’d have a job there if I ever needed money. Mixing up mint juleps and boilermakers for all the other hopeless idiots who couldn’t drag their lives any farther than the town they grew up in.

1258-1499 ft.

            Less than a minute after the branch carves a fingernail moon into my cheek, she comes strolling out of a thicket of pricker bushes and pushes her tongue into the wound. Kisses the blood right off my face. Takes my filthy hand, all hairy-knuckled, in hers and says, “I’m Melody.” Her shoulders are almost solid orange with freckles. Her beater is grey and torn up about the hem. She takes a step back behind the bushes and drags two red wagons around the far side. I try to reach out and touch her again, but I can’t. Damn trailer holds me back.

            I try to tell her my name, Onus, but she shushes me, says that ain’t a name. “I seen your license at the Blue Law one time when you left your wallet by the pool cues. Your name’s Honus. Like the ballplayer.” .

            I give it to her. “If you say so.” .

             “I saw you, day before last,” she says. “Yelling at the Bastard Priest. I like the way you carry yourself. Plus, you got eyes like butter-rum Life Savers.” She brushes long bangs that float like spider webs away from her face. She’s got the smallest hands I’ve ever seen. Dirt under short nails and a silver ring on each finger. Her eyes look like broken Rolling Rock bottles pressed into wet clay. “I’m going up Aucun,” she explains. “In case another flood comes this way.” Her lips purse and pucker into a left-of-the-middle smirk while she waits for me to say something. I don’t want to be anyplace else ever again.

             I nod. Introduce myself. Tell her I’m doing the same. She asks if I’m from the trailer park and I tell her the long story so my answer can be No. Momma and I came from Ohio when daddy went in for sixty days on account of beating her up. Momma got sick and died. I got stuck here. “Was supposed to be for just a while,” I say.

             “Well, no one ever lives the life they expect,” she says, then busies herself wiping those hands on her thighs. Those thighs, all light blue denim and little continents of caked mud, they look like a map of the world. Melody pulls her hair out of a ponytail and stretches the yellow tie between her finger and thumb. “Think I might walk alongside you a while,” she says, firing the band at me with a cartoon sound effect. I catch it mid-air. “If you want me, that is.” .

             “I do,” I say. “I do.” I wrap her hair-tie two times around my finger. It’s still wound with strands of her hair, smells like strawberries and soap. We walk on. Can’t ever stand still.

1500-1724 ft.

             Melody’s lashed herself to me with some rope she had in her wagons. She walks in front of me and I hold her hands. We pull all three-thousand pounds of my life up Aucun together. The load seems so much lighter. I can’t get my head around how strong she must be.

            Nighttime is downright chilly. Feels like standing sweaty in front of an open freezer door. Melody wears a drape of a grey sweater and looks like a little girl playing dress-up. She wears it every night, she says, and when she rests her head on my belly I catch the citrus and cinder smell of a thousand smoked cigarettes, sewn right into the wool. Halfway to the top, and I know that this is the very best night I’ve ever lived.

            Melody traces the shape of my bruises with the tip of her pinky and I can feel every swirl in her fingerprint, I swear it. I ain’t even cold no more. She’s all the blanket I need.

1725-1990 ft.

            She takes these double sighs, Melody, like the first one’s a stutter. Like she’s settling in to get really settled in. When she smiles at me, I can see a single white freckle below her lip, mixed in with all the others. Chicken pox scar, maybe. I watch her shoulders all day long, staring at pale spots and waiting for new freckles to form. Her sweat smells like Momma’s chicken noodle soup. When she puts her hand to her chin and turns her neck to crack it, sometimes our eyes meet, and she winks at me.

            She chatters on like a grackle. Asks me all sorts of questions about being a kid. “Don’t really recall being young,” I tell her. Tells me about when she was a kid. Stories are short, but I get the hint and, if her daddy wasn’t all the way back in Keener, I’d kick him in the jimmy. Asks after my hopes and dreams and such, and I got no answers for her. “Future?” I repeat the word as a question of my own.

            Once, she stopped dead and spun to kiss me. One kiss, the first since she cleaned the blood off my cheek before she even knew my name. I feel like a kitten in the window during a lightning storm. Hair on end, can’t think, can’t move. But the three-thousand pounds of my life gives a tug and reminds us of the weight of it all. She turns back and braces herself to walk forward again. I’ll get rid of something later. I never made up for adding her wagons to the load.

1991-2127 ft.

            Steeper still. Where we wind up, I could skip a stone to where we camped last night. Damn trailer’s still too heavy. Melody tries to talk me out of it when she sees what I’m ready to do, but I tell her the truth. “I’d feel better without her,” I promise. “Sometimes it feels like being haunted, carrying Momma everywhere with me. And it weighs so much. Besides, I got another lady in my life now, don’t I?”

            She sits criss-cross applesauce in front of me, blue bandana around one wrist, red around the other. The knees of her jeans are wearing through and, with the full moon peeking between clouds, the white, white skin underneath looks like deer eyes in the dark.

             “Don’t I?”

             “I guess you do,” she says, then turns back to frying up a skillet of canned hash.

            I bury Momma by myself. Takes an hour to dig a hole deep enough, silver urn’s the size of a fire hydrant. Cremains and all, it weighs about sixty pounds. I make a marker with some glue stick, a Polaroid, and the two-by-four from under the short leg of the stove. Pushing dirt back in, I can feel nightcrawlers squirm between my fingers.

             I haul two boxes of Momma’s clothes and diaries off into the woods and leave them behind a boulder half a man high. When Melody yells at me, I say, “Maybe I can come get them later. It won’t flood again this year. I’ll find time. ’Sides, why do I need diaries when I got your mind to keep me occupied?”

             “They say ‘you can never go home again’ for a reason, Honus. You can’t.”

             “You feel like home,” I say. I ain’t lying. She does. Still, seems like a strange thing to say.”

             She pulls up a pantleg to scratch an itch and I see the sharp short hairs on the bone ridge of a skinny shin. Think about those shins tight around my waist, those hairs rubbing my sides raw, leaving a kind of rugburn that would shine in the daylight like the inside of a snake’s mouth. I crawl around the campfire to her. Kiss her knees. “I love you,” I say. And I ain’t lying. I do. She winks at me. Presses my face between her dirty palms and pushes a wet kiss, hours long, between my eyebrows.

2128-2304 ft.

            Melody jumps out of the harness the second I say we’re done for the day, and I almost fall on my ass, skid all the way down Aucun. Already forgot how heavy the Bambi was without her help. She’s been quiet all day. Early, we talked about music and movies, but it turns out we don’t like any of the same stuff. When she comes back from her piss, I’m grunting, my back to a collapsing cardboard box full of cassettes, comic books, and videos. Pushing it over trampled grass and into the weeds.

             “Now what are you doing?”

             “Just getting rid of some heavy stuff. Old tapes I used to like. Boom-box. Nothing I need. Don’t listen to the radio much anymore and I never go to the theater. Guess I’m old enough to not get what people like these days.”

            Melody sneers at me. Box against my shoulder blades, I crab walk it back into the woods and when I come out, she’s got a fire going and she’s digging up flat rocks to circle around it. She stops, wipes her hands on her thighs and tries to light a cigarette. Her stainless steel Zippo won’t spark, so she leans in over the flames, bangs dangling. The smell of singed hair is skunk spray strong. “I don’t get you, Honus,” she tells me. “You told me this morning you liked those things.”

            My bones creak like an old oak rocking chair as I sit down beside her. “Suppose I just realized how stupid they were after we talked. Most of it’s just stuff that one person or another told me to try. I don’t get what people like now and I don’t even like what I liked anymore. It’s all just so much work, to get into tapes and videos and Hollywood and all that. It’s so much weight, I figured I just might as well ditch it.”

             “So what do you like?”

             At first I can’t figure an answer and the feeling’s like the time just after I had long hair, and cut it all off. Kept trying to find it with my hands, tuck it behind my ears. So, I look at her, sort of guilty feeling, and it hits me. “I like you,” I tell her.

             She pokes at the dirt with her finger. Draws a dozen zeroes. Looks up at me without moving her head. Her nostrils flare, the half of her face near the fire is orange, the other half black. “If it’s about weight, why don’t we just leave the trailer here and move the tent up top. Tomorrow, we can use my wagons and take what you’ve got left up there. It’ll take a couple of trips for both of us, but you won’t lose anything else in a rush to get wherever you want to be.”

             Wipe my brow with a black bandana she gave me. “I’m over halfway there, Mel. It’s too late to change the way I do things. Just wouldn’t make sense.”

             She flicks her filter into the fire. Turns her back to it. Says, “It doesn’t have to be just you doing this. I wish you knew that.” Reaches for my hand and pulls the yellow tie off my finger. She tips her head back, careless, and fastens a ponytail. Both our noses twitch with the stink of burning hair. “I’m afraid to see how much I lost,” she tells me, then stands and walks away, brushing the dead leaves and clinging twigs from the swaying curves of her hips and ass.

             Zipping herself into the tent, leaving me by the fire with some cold, salty beef hash, she whispers, “It’s only too late to change when you believe you’re incapable of changing.”

2305-2491 ft.

             I’m up before dawn when Melody squirms out of my arms. Humid outside. Hot. Inside the tent, it feels like a lung. In the corner farthest from me, she’s pulling on a dirty striped tube sock and boot. I reach over to her, clap her one bare foot between my hands. “Hey,” I say and kiss her toes. “I love you.” The black of her eye swells as she stares at me. Her lids droop, and she exhales hard enough to mess my hair. “I’m going,” she says.

            I don’t speak when she tugs her foot away and jams it into a sock. My eyes feel like peeled bark, chest packed with cotton balls and old charcoal. “What do you mean?”

             “I’ll find my own place somewhere. Or maybe I’ll decide to go back to town. I can’t do this. I’m not a superhero. I can’t carry both our lives.” She shoves her foot into a boot. I can smell the cheesy scent of the leather inside and I love it. The boot reaches mid-calf on her chopstick leg, but she doesn’t thread the eyelets, just loops the laces around. Like she’s in a hurry to get gone.

             She crawls out, stands at a distance from the open flap and looks in at me, still on my belly, for a long minute. I try to memorize her. Mask of freckles, small hands, ashy elbows. Smile of belly peeking out from under a black tank top: white, white, white. “I’m sorry. I can’t love you,” she says. “I’m no universe. Good luck.”

             Stay awake on the polyester floor till noon. Instead of Melody, I memorize the placement of each cicada shell abandoned in the corner. Each bent blade of grass, gold and dead. I get up off my belly near eleven. Touch the top of my head with my fingertips, tender like. Feeling for scalp. I’ve shed some short black hairs on the pillow, the kind I know won’t grow back.

2492-2598 ft.

            Melody took everything except her sweater. Left it neatly folded for me. There are two toothpick-thin tan lines on my finger, like those house-side watermarks from the flood, but in reverse. Don’t know how I’m gonna go on alone. Guess I have to admit I didn’t plan this real well. Didn’t make it very far today. Aucun is twice as steep here as when I started. Took the stove out and left it. Doesn’t seem to make any difference. Even almost empty, it weighs so much. Maybe it’s just the steepness, but it seems the emptiness actually weighs more.

2599-2733 ft.

            Been eating nothing but canned tuna and chewable vitamins two days. My piss smells like both. I’m spraying all over my boots when the couple sees me. The woman has fragile flat yellow hair teased into a tumbleweed. Her man wears an ironed polo shirt tucked into olive shorts with a blinking cell phone clipped to his belt. I scream when they walk out from between stationwagon green pines.

            I stammer. “S-sorry. Don’t. . .don’t see too many people on this side of Aucun. All the pretty stuff’s over yonder.” I wave my hand off toward the horizon.

             “We came up for the view,” she explains, breathing hard with every word, like it’s a huge effort. Talking like a queen. “You can see my cousin’s house from up here. It takes hours to get there, though. From up top, you forget how far you’d have to go to get to anything.” She gasps and flutters a hand like a paper fan in front of her mouth, sudden. “Oh, Tad! He’s a pervert!”

            Tad gnaws the end of an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth. Scratches his cheek through three days growth of a salt and pepper beard. “Disgusting,” he snorts. “Real Louisiana trailer trash. Tiny too. Let’s go down the other way, Tab.” They turn their backs on me and march back up to the top, holding hands. Which is about the time I realize my dick is still drooping from my fly. Bead of piss still clinging to the end. All soft and shrunken, it looks like a toe. Ridiculous.

            I relive the experience all day. When I put down for the night, I drag a dusty cedar chest full of magazines into the trees. Penthouse, Hustler, Victoria’s Secret, all gone. After Melody, those women don’t look like anything but ink. Anyways, I’m too old to be thinking about girls all the day. Must be something more worth my while.

2734-2909 ft.

            He’s three times my size and his belly hangs a good six inches over his belt line. He’s got a leather vest and matching cowboy hat. In high-tech plastic sandals, his toes look like bloated pink worms shot through with yellow shards of glass. Says his name’s Hilliard and he’s son of the man who owns Aucun Hill. Says he got word of my plan from someone at church, and he’s resolved to stand in my way till I change my mind.

            Just over a hundred feet to go and hours of daylight left, I’ve gotta stake down for the night. I can’t go around. I start crying, so he helps me shove the blocks behind the Bambi’s tires. My ears are plugged and he keeps trying to reason with me.

             “You can’t survive all alone. With nothing. Without someone’s help. Without paying my daddy lots and lots to build some lines, you can’t have no electric, no gas up there.” He wrings his fat hands, cracking joints, and I shudder with every noise they make. “What you gonna do all alone up there, anyway?” I don’t answer. Insects hum and chirp. Owls hoot. Campfire snaps. “What’s a life without anything or anyone?”

             “What’s life with everything and everyone? Let’s call ’em both ‘running out the clock.’”

             He doesn’t say anything. His shaved head droops ’til it about touches his floppy man-titties. Maybe he’s fallen asleep. I drag a full-length antique silver mirror out to the woods. Toss it on the ground where it shatters, then crawl into the tent Zip myself inside. Raindrops sound like tapping fingers, like static, like a rolling boil. They creep into my dreams.

             When I wake up, Hilliard’s gone and everything’s drenched. All those boxes tucked everywhere down the slope: there really ain’t no going home again.


             It’s bald of trees like the top of a monk’s head. Made it to the top. Three-thousand pounds of my life, three-thousand feet above sea level. Way above any flood. I open the trailer door and check inside to see what’s left. Not much. Sink with no running water, fridge with no power, musty clothes. Cupboard full of canned tuna, franks and beans. Bottled water. Deck of cards. Not much.

             Picture of Momma. Melody’s sweater.

             I wonder, why’d I bother with the fridge if I ain’t got power. I might’ve kept something to read. No one teaches you about this sort of thing, how to do it. How to drag your whole life around and make it where you’re going, same as you were at the beginning.

             Tad and Tab were right. I can see into town. Kids playing baseball, parents gathered round to watch. A sea of faces. The field’s a swampy mess, sure, but it ain’t flooded. There’s decent living everywhere. I hear the crack of a bat when the lanky boy that hit the ball is halfway to first base, running off a dinger. I start to clap, then I remember. Ain’t no one gonna hear me.

             I sit criss-cross applesauce in the mud, slapping cards onto a moth eaten bathrobe. The sky goes from robin’s egg blue to churchwife salmon to orchid purple to busted TV grey, but some things ain’t much good without someone to share them with. If Melody was here, she’d maybe come up behind me, wrap her arms around, push her tiny hands up under my shirt to keep them warm. Tell me that this is some pretty part of heaven and we’re safe, free to be happy forever.

             When it’s dark, I have to stop playing cards. Was boring anyway. Rain cooled everything down. Pull on Melody’s sweater and breathe in the stale smoke and dry sweat scent of her. Air up here is crisp like toothpaste breath, like dragging on a menthol cigarette back up north, in Ohio winter. Wind blows like Velcro pulled fast across your cheek. I walk to the edge and look down on all the little lights in town. Churches, libraries, an office or two. All those people with something important to do. Husbands and wives having supper. Babies taking baths in metal sinks, listening to mommas or daddies reading Goodnight Moon or Winnie the Pooh. All the regular boys are probably planted on their stools at the Blue Law, betting college football. Melody, maybe in the plastic bubble of the bus stop by the post office. So many busy lives.

             It rains for a minute, then quits, then kicks in again. Nature can’t decide whether to advance its front lines. All those busy lives gonna seem fragile as beetle wings when the next one blows in from the Gulf. Least the floodwater can’t touch me up here. Ain’t nothing, no one, can touch me up here.

Jamie Black studied Magical Realism and Metafiction at the State University of New York at Brockport. After that, as is tradition, they continued to tend bar for a decade. They live in upstate New York with their partner and 2.75 cats who have rich interior lives. Their fiction has been published in The Wisconsin Review, Natural Bridge, Amoskeag, Redivider, and Spindrift, as well as several smaller journals.

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