I'm gonna get this bad boy stuffed and hung above my toilet so he can forever look down into water. Just the way God intended.

Photo by Toni Tan / Unsplash

by Bradley David

Do our accumulations speak for us? Should we ask to be excused for them? Why would we ask such a thing? Our people don't ask to be excused. We ask to borrow a log splitter or an incubator for the robin chick that fell out of the nest. We don't bother pardoning flatulence or tracking mud onto the kitchen linoleum, and we certainly aren't in the business of pardoning someone's stuff. Because these are trifling matters or because pardoning is above our paygrade? Either way, it's just stuff. What sin is stuff? Everybody has it and nobody minds anybody else's. Someday they might need to use it and someday you might need to borrow it.

That's what I think they'd say. My parents. Their bathtub garden beds and petunia potties. A porcelain purity ring looking like God's electric fence. Mother on her haunches after a rainstorm, black boots in aquamarine Comet cleanser mudpuddles. The old dull whiteness can be brought back to life and doesn't everything smell just spick-and-span after a storm? Who needs a gun when we have Mary's manger of rich black soil? Mary loved my mother for that rich black soil. Her tended compost pile that smelled just like it should. You can have all those polished bathtubs and then a half-dozen rusting cars on blocks and a mountain of leftovers and leaves steaming into a miracle for Mary. Mother would squeeze a clump of soil in her hand and show me two tests. First, rich black soil should retain the form of your first. That's when you know it has retained just the right amount of everything you've given it. Then, a deep whiff. Rich black soil smells clean. Just smell that, Jonathan. Doesn't it smell rich? No odor whatsoever. That's what keeps Mary's flowers so cheerful. Don't they just look cheerful? Don't they look so cozy together in their beds?

Dad kept guns anyway. Lots of them. And he kept them as clean as Mother Mary's bathtubs. Sent oiled cotton cloths down their barrels on a rod to retrieve carbon flecks like swabs hunting earwax. Rifles and shotguns slept upright beside one another in an unlocked closet. Nearby, boxes of brass bullets and jewel-tone shells looked like cases of vintage lipstick. Color-coded for power: Ruby-red 12-gauge, Amethyst-purple 16-gauge, Canary-yellow 20-gauge. Each fashioned with a buttoned brass cap on one end, puckered plastic sphincter on the other. Keeping all the shot and wad snug and cozy. I knew which shell fit which shotgun without looking at the box. I knew which guns had the most kick and left your shoulder yellow. Dad made me learn them in case the time comes when I had to act fast without thinking. I could hype myself up into a frenzy in practice for that moment. My hands would shake and the shells would clack against each other, drop on the floor. I had to get it right. For that day when a robber, a militia, a . . . what? What would be coming? Why would anyone have cared about that place? We had nothing. We had no money, no stash, no bedroom of virgins cowering in their nightgowns. Why would anybody have followed that road to nowhere? And if they had reached God's Blessed Bathtubs, wouldn't that outdoor decor—the accumulations—indicate the owners weren't involved in a whole lot of big-time schemes? These were simple folk. Diamond chip engagement ring and the very first Barbie doll with her hair cut off and a peculiar smell. But if it's crazy you're looking for; well, help yourself past the ceramic fence.

You'll first enter the living room through a steel-reinforced wooden door made by my father. Its tricky latch requires two iron spikes hiding in the rafters of the porch. If you can figure out that puzzle, you're welcome to pillage and plunder. Once you put down the German shepherd. The heads on the wall are my father's. His thirty-day bride of 1970 took off with a few nice racks to some flyover state. If he had internet he could find her like I did; beam with pride at what the 'ol girl is up to these days: a flag-waving Trumper who got her name in the local paper for a trophy-winning bass. And I quote, "I'm gonna get this bad boy stuffed and hung above my toilet so he can forever look down into water. Just the way God intended." Yes, indeed. Every accumulation has a precious story and divine intention.

So you enter the living room, scan the walls, and, wow, overwhelming. If an object can be hung, and there's a space for it, it gets hung. But since there is no more space for it, it gets layered on top of layers. You have rusty hunting traps three deep. Old seed catalogs hanging from binder rings hanging from cast iron pots hanging from wagon wheels. The Farm Room, let's call it. Let's pretend it's an aesthetic. And there's dad stationed in his sweat-musty recliner in front of a TV cabinet full of VHS tapes. I can see John Wayne, The Great Pretender, and you can see Supreme Commander Eisenhower. They'll escort you up to the War & Western Room.

This is the gathering place. This is where your meat gets cooked. You can have it fried or you can have it baked in cream-of-something soup. And the photos on the wall are framed in rope. I counted once when I was sitting in the company of their silence. Seventy-eight photos and faux paintings. More by now, since I left and came back to get even further away. Let's call it a hundred. Mallards and wood ducks on foggy ponds and morning elk munching dewy grass. These are garage sale prints. Photos of random people clipped from old newspapers and magazines. My characters, she called them. All styles of men smoking cigarettes. Voluptuous black Buicks hauling upright city folk through the '40s. But also wagon trains and mountain men on horseback. Lassoed album covers of Johnny Cash and Glenn Campbell over each shoulder of Jesus; and, of course, the ubiquitous Indian accoutrement of the white interior decorator: teepees and wigwams, headdresses and tomahawks. An Indian Chief motorcycle tumbling your dusty nostalgia down Route 66 and now the wild wild west is really running on all cylinders. We've got your Sinclair dinosaurs and cartoon carhops. Locomotives rushing civilization through cuts in the miserable wilderness.

Choo! Choo! You've reached the Grand Petroleum Sitting Room and you didn't expect to find a sitting room in a ranch tract home. But these casement windows crank out into the front yard where mother can keep an eye on Mary. There is no sitting in this room. There is standing at the casements with binoculars to watch the comings and goings. Preferably goings. There is standing, watching the goings, shoulder-to-shoulder with Betty Boop and Minnie Mouse and Marilyn Monroe. So it is that the Grand Petroleum shelves dozens upon dozens of ceramic feminine fantasies. Hands on hips and skirts above the knee and Boop-Oop-A-Doop! That's All Folks—You Goofy Fucks!

Because there's mother behind closed curtains, binoculars nudging out their velvet threshold. Crosshairs on every passing car. The ones that go to slow—(can you blame them with the bathtubs, mother?)—what business do they have here? Are they turning in? Keep going. Keep going you son-of-a-bitch. And when there are no cars left, she can see across the road to the shack with the man inside. And he's another one. There's another story for ya. What's he still doing here?

That's LV and he's sitting at the window knowing full-well he's being watched by Jonathan's mum. That's all he calls her. So why doesn't he just sit somewhere else? Well, for starters, mother, if he wants to sit, that's the place to do it. His place doesn't have a couch, and he couldn't get himself on and off it even if it did. Even if he wanted to. Which he doesn't. He enjoys his little kitchen. His perch, he calls it. Left arm on the window sill, right arm with that mug of mud, he calls it. That same hard-backed chair had long been his preferred place to attend to and be attended to. Part of which used to be my job, part of which used to be hers. This was all when I still lived at home, of course, and before LV was hauled off and chopped apart.

We called him LV because he said it was okay and we were relieved because with Ludolf Voughtler sometimes we'd accidentally call him Vudolf Loughtler and also because, either way, it sounded a little too German, if you know what I mean. A little too adjacent, if you catch my drift. That was back when LV first rented the place and it was beyond us why he moved so far out in the boonies, because it wasn't long after he moved that he needed assistance. But Medi-whatever hadn't approved home care yet, so my mom volunteered. That is, until he asked her to clean under his sack.

That's when I took over. Not his sack, though. He just had to figure that out for himself. LV wasn't a perv. He had the same hard-to-reach places we all do and it's not fair when those places slough and accumulate and itch and smell. We think of it as gross, but it's as natural as anything when it happens and I can tell you he didn't like asking for help. But also, I think Germans are better about nudity. And also, I think humiliation wanes over time. I think humiliation wears itself out and eventually you start saying things—asking for things—that sound exposed. Dissolved of their pleasant coating. Their gelatin accumulation of manners and social mores. On the other hand, he was mightily disappointed when a male nurse showed up. Suddenly the German wasn't so free with his nudity. Humiliation found its second wind. Meanwhile, a male nurse sounded pretty good to me.

Nobody would know it for a few more years. Certainly not LV. I'd go over sometimes in the morning before school and every day after school and he'd ask if I had a girlfriend. Diabetes was the thing, but so was a stroke. It was ulcers and amputations. He was losing parts of himself, but not his joviality. I don't know if his voice was gruff before the stroke, but he sounded like one of mother's rough & roped characters. His laugh was a cough and his cough was tarry and strained. Like a harbor seal puking up a cat. Sometimes we'd have to pause our card game for it. He'd say Sorry about that, chum and spit into a plastic grocery sack drooping off the back of his chair. He was long divorced and I'm pretty sure an alcoholic at some point or all points. He had a grandson my age who didn't stop by nearly enough for my liking, but he did make cigarette deliveries. Big ones. Cartons and cartons of whatever brand was sold at the reservation gas station. His mother would drive an hour for them but she never delivered them to LV. Never saw her once go in there. Always that grandson with the wavy brown mullet and deep-set dark eyes. Damn, he looked dangerous and fine.

I'd go home in the evenings and make up stories about him. That's what happens when you're too shy to ask questions about people. LV would have been happy to tell me about his grandson, but I thought probing would have come off suspicious. So, I decided the guy had already been to juvie twice. And since I didn't know what the inside of juvie looked like, I decided it was a sprawling barracks full of bunkbeds and angry guys in white t-shirts and white briefs holding porno mags vertically so the centerfolds hung down.

The point is, we lived pretty far from the nearest town, and that town was pretty far from the nearest city, and that city was nothing more than two towns put together, and an actual city city was eight hours away and I'd never seen it. I'd never seen a stage play or an art museum or tried sushi. So, I nibbled a tiny piece of raw brook trout and spit it out quickly and rinsed my mouth with cooking wine. That gave me all I needed to write a story about eating sushi in the city. I wrote stories and poetry and things in between. Here's one I wrote about LV. Except, it's actually more about loneliness and isolation. I didn't have any friends my age that far outside of town. There was this guy, Sam, that lived even further out than we did. Like LV he was much older than me, but I considered him a friend. Or a mentor. Still, most of the time it was just me and my writing. Like this:

LV is hacked at the gristle. Every time I see him he's lost another knee. He doesn't bring up the ankle he left in town but he keeps his humor. Doesn't need a foot to start a fire. I'm there to chop kindling, and between my axe and his match that country kitchen will be begging for a door opening to winter. That's the word I'm trying to get at. Somewhere in the world there's an ambling language with a word for that air. Where wood heat greets December nights with an urging hand, Quick, come in before they shut the door!

LV pays me in cigarettes he calls smudge and mud he calls coffee. Says he has the sugar disease. In a toss of the dice he asks if I have a honey. Keeps score with one arm and grumbles Your turn, chum, roll the bones. In the forgiveness of sweatpants his skin takes turns burning and sleeping. Stump taught and tendon like the sinew of my snowshoes. Later I'll glide home on fresh drifts and won't know the grip of crutches beneath the innocence of my lanolin wet mittens. I know ephemeral things like night and smoke. How winterdark won't air out the stench of my coat. From my white microwave across the road, I watch his kitchen's vintage bulb. Varnished with bacon grease and fly vomit melting an aperture in the snow. Then a blizzard descends and snuffs the forest frame out.

Tomorrow will be mounded with the fresh fluff of new hope; but tonight, everybody's on the edge of their sills. LV is awake and waiting, and because I'm awake I know we're both waiting. And everything since has told me that everybody's waiting.

It's embarrassing, I know. But my parents finally let my grandparents buy me a computer and I knew my writing was safe from anyone who could hurt me with it. My father couldn't bear to look at that machine because he thought it was the portal to the devil. My grandparents knew it was the gateway to education. Also, that if I didn't find a hobby, they'd find me hanging in the barn. How did they get so cool?

Well, not so fast. Because that reminds me about LV's field of pills. Well, they weren't his pills and it wasn't his field. This must be so confusing for you. See, LV's place is the old farmhouse on the property where there's also the new farmhouse. But the new farmhouse was built in the 1950s, so you can imagine how old the old farmhouse is. The property is owned by my grandfather and his siblings and they couldn't agree on what to do with it. They couldn't agree on letting anyone live in the new farmhouse, but they let LV rent the old farmhouse. The houses sit on eighty acres that don't do anything but sit there with their houses. But those fields were done unto. Oh, you just wait and see.

LV's rent covered taxes and whatnot, but the upkeep of the barn and houses—new roofs and chinking and shoring up sagging foundations—went way beyond what anyone wanted to spend on a fallow farm. But then my grandfather was approached with an offer he called a sweetheart. This man in town owned a septic cleaning operation. A fleet of trucks with tanks on the back that sucked sewage out of backyard septics. As this guy's operation grew, he needed a secret place to dump all that human shit. Someplace like a faraway field, obscured by forest, gated and watched over by a daughter—eh hem—who possessed that precise skillset. So, my great grandma's field—rest her restless soul—became a spreading ground for anything that could fit down a toilet bowl. Oh, you didn't know where it all went? You thought a treatment plant? Aww, cute.

So that makes my grandfather this complicated man who supplied me with a computer, all the software and hardware I could ask for, who allowed for a toxic waste dump in my backyard. I had these black rubber boots that went up to my knee. We all did. And I'd walk back to the field to see what had been spread. I loathed the man. The Shit Man. I seethed for him to get caught. How many times had I thought to blow the lid off the operation. How does one call The Feds? And how many families would I have destroyed? What would have happened to LV? He was, after all, my charge, in part, at least until I graduated high school and left for college.

Everyone wants to know what the field looked like and smelled like. The smell was obvious. It smelled like Mother Nature gone gangrene. Also bitter and metallic. It looked like forty-acre swirls of gray mashed potatoes. As it lingered in the sun it baked onto the stubbly dead grass like strips of papier-mâché. Concretions and smears. Strong winds would blow its chaff into the woods, plaster it onto tree trunks. But what remained in the field for as long as I lived nearby were the inorganic substances. The piñata of pastel tampon applicators, condoms, green army men, Legos, Q-Tips, Band-Aids, Chapstick caps, syringe caps, tangles of blonde doll hair, and most surprising of all, pills.

I mean vitamin pills. The kind that are supposed to dissolve an alphabet of goodness into your stomach but don't even dissolve in acid rain. You could still read the brand names on the tablets after they'd snaked through someone's digestive system, bobbed along the septic system, were inhaled by Shit Man's vacuum, and puked onto my great grandma's field. Where the best strawberries used to plump in the sun. Oh man, they don't sell strawberries like that in stores. You'd think the human manure would fertilize the field but hardly anything grew after that. Because imagine all the toilet chemicals. The bleaches and the clog stoppers. The bottles of booze and sacks of blow from people pouring out their vices. All the liquid chemicals that a person finds themselves in need of disposing, provided no knowledge of where to dispose them. Grandfather decided we were that place.

LV didn't know. Or, if he did, he pretended he didn't. It's not like he could walk that far. And the smell didn't always reach us. We were mostly lucky with wind direction. The operation lasted a good five years until things started to come apart on the farm. LV took a turn for the worse and even home care wasn't enough when he kept needing doctors for dizziness and heel cracks and ulcerations. For that traveling black skin. His daughter moved him into some city facility I wasn't told about. She didn't like me. She had a sense, I think. Maybe the grandson had the sense and blew my cover. Whatever the reason, I never saw LV again. My grandfather and his siblings gave up on renting out the old farm and the septic guy grew twitchy about the EPA. So it was all locked up and blocked off and left for Mother Nature to clean up.

And me? I'm off doing something with computers. I write to Sam and think about making it back someday for a visit. But I could never live there again. I could never pass by those bathtubs, that field of pills, the collapsed old farmhouse. I talk to my parents by phone and it's perfectly pleasant—until it isn't. So, I think they're perfectly content with the distance. And I'm living in a city city now, which means I shouldn't feel alone. I'm surrounded by all these people, yet that merely means I'm surrounded by all their buildings. It feels like I'm waiting for an earthquake. For a space to open up. For something or someone to need me. I'm awake and waiting, and because I'm awake I know we're all waiting. And everything since has told me that everybody's waiting.

Bradley David's poetry, fiction, essays, and genre-bending work appear in Terrain, Allium, Rougarou, Exacting Clam, Anti-Heroin Chic, Identity Theory, and others. His creative nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is also the Blended & Beyond senior editor at jmww journal.

Twitter @strangecamera and Instagram @mystrangecamera. Selected work at