Little Nothings Inside

The gate was a custom job. Two pieces, meeting at the middle, with the guys’ wife’s initials in scrollwork on either side. It took my brother weeks to make them.

Little Nothings Inside
Photo by Matt Forster / Unsplash

By Stewart Engesser

My brother made an iron gate for a guy’s driveway, and the guy didn’t want to pay. 

The bill went out, and out again, and not for a small amount. 

But the money did not come. 

No, it did not. 

Calls went unanswered, texts unreturned. 

We sat on the porch. My brother drank his beer, and I drank mine, as the Grateful Dead explored the reaches of deep space. The record ended with a hiss and a pop. 

In the silence, the wind was whispering things in the trees, encouraging acts of vengeance, discouraging them, who knew. Perhaps the wind was trying to erase everything and failing. 

It was warm and the day was beginning to glow. 

Well, we’ll just have to cut out his tongue, I said. 

I was thinking, we take his eyes, my brother said. 

We could stake him to the ground, cover him with honey, and let the army ants do the rest. 

The gate was a custom job. Two pieces, meeting at the middle, with the guys’ wife’s initials in scrollwork on either side. It took my brother weeks to make them. 

So who was this deadbeat? Some kind of city creature, a remote worker, fresh to the country and living in the new development outside Blairstown. 

It used to be cows and silos out there. Family cemeteries, leaning stones, roses and thorns. Our parents are buried there, and their parents, too. There’s a little fence around the graves, and a new Circle K behind a ribbon of pine. 

I went in for a couple more. I am a teacher, and it was summer, a wonderful feeling. I was swallowing up two months of beautiful aimless nothing, my only worry being the dull hum of not enough money. 

Fuck it. 

I had a buzz going. 

I put on another record, glitter and sleaze, Jumping Jack Flash, a song we’d heard a million times. A hymn to bad decisions that resonated deep in my bones. 

I went back out with the beers, fired up a joint and passed it. 

There was a rabbit in the yard. 

Whenever I moved, it froze. It was like a game we were playing, me and the rabbit. 

If I froze, the rabbit nibbled. 

If I moved, the rabbit froze. 

We understood one another. 


Exchanging energy. 

When I was a kid I used to chase rabbits, right here, in this very yard! 

But I never caught them. 

My brother got up. 

The rabbit watched him. 


What’s this? 

A new game. 

And a new player. 

Rules discarded and invented, again and again, across the vast reaches of time. 

My brother spoke softly, hey little man, what are you eating, is that clover? 

I think he could have walked over and scooped the rabbit up. 

Animals love my brother. There’s a sensitivity to him, a calmness. They present themselves. There are four cats around this place, all strays, out of the woods, from up the road, wherever, and they all chose my brother. 

A red-tailed hawk floated in the thermals. 

Danger, rabbit. Danger! 

The rabbit hopped to safety. 

The unpaid debt floated out there, too, something calling softly to be acknowledged and respected. 

We didn’t need to talk about what we were getting ready to do. 

There was no hurry. 

We talked about Daniel Boone blazing the trail through the Cumberland Gap. Native American genocide, Dresden, the new restaurant in town that burned. Ha! Altamont, Hell’s Angels on acid, beating people with pool cues. Plague, war, the twin wheels of horror and change, eternally spinning. 

The hawk flew elsewhere. We watched the clouds arrange themselves. 

My brother is ten years older than me, almost forty, lean and a little short, red bearded, ropy, with a funny kind of walk. He leans forward, as though into a strong wind. People might take my brother for a hippie, a tree hugger, someone who seeks peaceful resolution. They would be mistaken. He’s comfortable with violence and understands its many languages and utilities.

The light was long and sweet. There was a pileated woodpecker out there somewhere. White throated sparrows, jays and doves and cardinals. 

My brother finished his beer and set the bottle by his chair. 

Let’s take a ride, he said. 

There are currents in any human life that carry you along. We rode past old dead fields, crows and their shadows. There was a destination, glittering like a cheap ring, a mission, a debt to square, and of course there was the thrill of possible violence. 

It felt like having a purpose. 

The stereo kept cutting out, making a sound like stones being rolled in a machine, then my brother would pound the dash and the music returned. 

The main road had a washout the state was in no hurry to repair, so we drove back roads out of the valley, deep woods, sections unpaved, running for a time along the Delaware on the Old Mine Road. 

Credence played. Sometimes the tape slowed down, sometimes it sped up, giving the proceedings a distorted fun house quality that we both seemed to enjoy. 

We passed old houses, stone foundations, an abandoned church. 

Summer light flickering through green leaves. 

The world blurred past. Tall grasses, green, tan, flowers the color of butter, all of them waving, all of them saying things we didn’t understand.  

My brother had a bad tooth and when he opened his mouth to sing, a meaty cauliflower stink filled the cab. 

He needed the gate money. He really did. 

We took the turn for Blairstown, just as a long swooping jam began to gather steam, the slide guitar soaring up and away, like time, like life, flying away faster and faster. 

You don’t reach a river like this one without betraying someone, failing someone, failing yourself, breaking someone’s heart, and I had done all of these things and more. But I began to feel like all my cruelties and mistakes were forgiven. I began to feel as though I were being pulled out of my body, cleansed and transformed into a creature far superior to the one I had always been. 

It could be there was something in the weed. 

I felt observed, witnessed, buoyed by a strange sense of inevitability. 

Perhaps it was the looming action that made me feel these things, my understanding that I was a certain kind of person, and my brother too, and we were defending something important. 

There was a sense in those days that entire worlds were being eaten alive, but no one had the energy to scream. Another strip mall, another failed farm. An inexorable cheapening. It felt as though we stood in opposition to that. 

The truck shook and vibrated like a combat chopper. The trees dissolving in the dust and blare of us.

I believe in justice; I believe in consequences. But my mouth was dry, and I had a jittery feeling. I felt like we were in a movie, riding toward possible ambush, toward a warlord with eyes you might find in a joke shop, slurping some fermented hallucinogenic brew from a gourd. Bandoliers, severed heads, heavy weapons and mad pre-recorded proclamations blaring from a loudspeaker: For I am the Lamentation! I spit in the skulls of my enemies so that corn might take root in their sockets! 

My brother drove fast, hurtling us down the dirt roads. He swerved crazily. We swung and bounced and shook, bang bang over pot holes, our road, our valley, the sun in the trees, the river a winding blue promise, but of what?

I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t have any idea. 

Our ponies were snorting and stamping, our faces painted for war. 

I offered respect to our enemy. I offered my breath to the four directions. 

I was ready. 

The music was up as loud as it goes. 

The gates my brother made were closed when we pulled up. The idea that my brother had made them astounded me. They were so beautiful. 

We sat in the truck, the engine ticking. The house was new and stupid, adorned with fake rock and windows that didn’t open. The gates did not belong there. 

My brother got out and went around to the bed of the truck. He got out his torch, his mask, the tank of acetylene. 

The door of the house opened, and a man came out onto the steps. He looked like a small-time bank manager of some sort, a man of donuts and heavy cream. 

He did not give me the impression that he knew what he had gotten himself into. 

There were ducks on his lawn, white ducks, waddling around. The guy was feeding the ducks, I realized. He had a can of feed. 

Hey, he called. What the hell are you doing? 

The ducks flapping their wings, quacking and pecking. There was a little house for them off to the side. 

Hey farmer, my brother called. I’m taking the gates. 

What are you talking about, the man yelled. He had a high-pitched voice, a voice tuned to a frequency I wasn’t used to: traffic and tolls and long lines for everything. 

My brother didn’t bother answering. 

He flipped his welding mask down, fired the torch and began to cut. 

I’m calling the cops, you’re crazy, what the fuck, the guy yelled, but he didn’t move from the steps. I got out of the truck, standing clear of the showering sparks, keeping my eyes on him. 

I sent beams of energy in his direction, thought beams, obey me beams, animal beams, the lion and the lamb, stay where you are, do not move, we want no trouble, this sort of thing. The man stayed where he was. 

A plane overhead. A dog barking. Soon it would be dark. There would be foxes coming around, looking for those ducks. 

He made no move to call the cops. It would take forty-five minutes for them to come, anyway. I wasn’t worried about them at all. Nor was I worried about him. This man was not going to try to stop us. He was not that kind. 

It was both a relief and a disappointment. 

I realized I was hungry, and started thinking about dinner at the Fountain House, two stools, a burger at the bar. 

The first gate fell to the ground smoking, and I helped my brother lift it into the bed. Then he started cutting the second one. 

Those are my goddamn gates, the man yelled. 

And behold, a pale horse, and Hell follows with him, my brother said. 

My brother was often saying spooky stuff like this. Fever talk, Bible quotes, tent revival gumbo.

The man looked worried. I didn’t catch what you said, I don’t think, he called over. 

We put the second gate on top of the other. 

My brother stowed the torch, the tank and helmet. 

The ducks started heading our way. Waddling with authority. Beady eyes, orange bills, orange feet, flap flap. The man called after the ducks, hey, goddamn it, where are you going, as though the ducks spoke English. 

The road was not a busy road, but still. No one wanted harm to come to these ducks. 

My brother and I started herding them back toward the house, but they didn’t want to follow our directions, either. We nudged them, or tried to – they were fast, flapping their wings, quacking, ruffling feathers – showing off their best duck material. 

The greatest hits. 

The guy came down from the steps, shaking the can of food, to which they paid no attention. 

They’re my daughter’s ducks, the guy said. My wife and my daughter’s. 

We better not let them get in the road, then, my brother said. 

My daughter’s at a sleepover, the guy told us, as if her whereabouts might be of interest. 

He came come over to where we were, and we all started clapping, shouting and waving our arms, hey ducks, yo ducks, back to the house. Scooting them along with our feet. 

The ducks went everywhere but where we wanted them to go. 

Christ, the guy said. This is ridiculous. 

He was winded, panting, as though he had run a fifty-yard dash. 

What could you say? The ducks were running the show. 

We were along for the ride, the supporting act. 

My brother suggested we leave a trail of food leading up to the little duck house, and pile some inside so they’d go in. 

The guy got more food and started laying the trail. 

We herded them around, one duck going this way, one the other, on and on, feathers flying. 

The guy looked a little sick. But the plan worked. The ducks started eating the food, honking, flapping, waddling, wiggling their tail feathers. Following the trail. 

They headed for the duck house. 

Eventually we got them all corralled. My brother latched the little door. 

Christ, fuck, the guy said. Thanks for your help. What can I say? I feel like an asshole. 

We didn’t disagree. 

You guys hungry, he said. I’ve got lasagna. 

The house was a disaster. Dirty dishes, moving boxes, things where they didn’t belong. A blow dryer jumbled in with a pile of shoes, a bag of compost in the kitchen, shovels, picks, paper plates, hardly any furniture. Toys, little kid stuff, paints, a naked headless doll. 

We sat in the kitchen. The guy took the lasagna out of the oven, using socks for oven mitts. He put it on the stove. It smelled good, bubbling away. I hoped there was going to be bread, warm bread, and just as I thought that the guy grabbed a loaf out of the fridge and started wrapping it in foil. 

We’ll warm this up a minute, he said. He put it in the oven. 

He opened beers and passed them around. 

There were a lot of empties on the counter already. 

My wife’s dead, the guy said, out of nowhere. 

My first thought was, do you mean dead here, now, recently, as in, upstairs, in a pool of blood? 

But no, no. No. It wasn’t like that. 

Things slid into focus. 

The house, nothing where it belonged, unpacked boxes, socks for oven mitts. 

Grief, man. Shit. This man was drowning. 

She died a month ago, the man said. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I quit my job. 

We drank our beers, watching the lasagna steam. The man dished up some plates, took the bread out and set everything on the table. I felt awkward eating, but it was awkward either way, and I was starving, so I broke off a piece of bread. 

I’ll get butter, the guy said, but he didn’t move. 

I forgot to buy butter, sorry, he said. I don’t have any. 

So we sat there, eating the dry bread, dipping it in the lasagna. 

That’s a bummer, man, my brother said. About your wife. 

Yeah, man, I said. I stopped eating and stared at my plate. 

Of course I wanted to know what happened. How had she died? Cancer, accident, stroke, what? Was she murdered? I wanted the gory details, but he didn’t offer them up. 

Were we supposed to ask? 

I wished there was music playing or something. The silence was so heavy. I could hear my stomach doing things, churning this way and that. The ducks were still making a fuss, you could hear them all the way from outside. Quack, quack. 

I guess he didn’t want to talk about his wife. Anyway, he didn’t say anything more about her. 

What rules were there to follow? What was expected of us? Fold our hands and sit with this stranger, as he meditated on his grief? 

I don’t have it, the guy said. I thought he was still talking about butter. Who cares, it was fine, the bread was good. 

The money, he clarified. For the gates. I don’t have it. I wish I did. I’m in a trough, I guess. A hole. Like outer space. We were supposed to be here altogether, all of us. Start fresh. 

Frankly, I felt terrible. I almost wanted to give him a hug. The poor guy. I mean Jesus. Things were not good, obviously. Things were rough and getting rougher. But at the same time, I didn’t care at all. I wanted to make idle chit chat about things of no importance and be on my way. 

My high was slipping around on me, and a feeling of paranoia began to assert itself. Complexity. I didn’t want it. 

I wished we’d just gone on our way after we got the ducks inside and headed to the Fountain House. There was a bartender there who moved a certain way to the music, a little bump, a little sway, like no one was watching, like she was in her own kitchen, getting out the milk. Laura. She did something to me. She was sharp, and pale, and her black hair stood up funny. 

Do you guys have ducks at home, the guy asked. My daughter, she’s like a Dr. Doolittle or whatever. They do whatever she says. Ducks, what do I know from ducks? 

You’ll get the hang of it, my brother told the guy. Keep putting the food in the duck house, they’ll start going right in. 

He smiled, we smiled. OK. 

The lasagna wasn’t like what I make, there was something different about it, but it was okay. Was there cheddar cheese in it? Maybe. And something sweet, cinnamon or something weird. 

The guy stood up. 

I’ll be right back, he said. 

He went upstairs. The house echoed and banged as he thumped around, the way an empty house does, no carpets, nothing on the walls. My brother let his breath out, as though he’d been swimming under water and had just made it to the surface. 


This is a trip, my brother, he said. 

The light in the kitchen was warm and soft. It was a nice enough place to sit. One of those places where you look around and think, well, things could be worse. 

Do you think this guy is going to try to murder us, my brother asked. 

I thought he was kidding. I looked at him and saw, no, he wasn’t kidding. Were we in danger? I hadn’t even remotely considered the notion. Once my brother cut the gates and this man did nothing to stop us, I assumed we had moved beyond possible danger, into whatever this was. Dinner time. 

I think we’re fine, man, I said. But the wheels started turning. There we sat, in a stranger’s house, a stranger who owed us money, a stranger in crisis, who even now could be rummaging through boxes, wondering where he’d packed his machete. There were so many voices in my head, all saying different things. 

We looked around for weapons. Kitchen knives, cleavers, a meat tenderizer, anything. The man had a thousand wooden spoons, whisks and tongs, but no knives? Nothing to cut meat? 

He thumped and banged around upstairs. 

If he’s armed, my brother said, I’ll hit him with the lasagna. 

It was a terrible plan. 

Are you wasted, I asked. It was often hard to tell with my brother. 

I’m vibrating weird, he said. 

I don’t know, man, I say. What about we just grab chairs? 

And then I saw the knives. They were on a magnetic strip on the side of the cupboard by the sink. We grabbed our weapons of choice. 

There was for some reason a photo of Marlon Brando the actor, dressed up as a woman, nailed to one of the cabinets. Just nailed right up there, like with a hammer. Then I looked more carefully, and it wasn’t Marlon Brando, it was an actual woman. Was this his dead wife? 

She seemed happy and kind, in a sturdy milk fed kind of way. The nail went right through her eye. 

Seeing her photo nailed up like that set me on edge. I mean, nailing a photo into a kitchen cupboard isn’t normal, right? Especially the photo of your late wife? Get a frame, buddy, some wire, hang it on the wall. 

But what did I know about love? The kind that sends you into the black when you lose it, into the deep-boned howl of coming apart. All that was off away still, waiting its turn. 

Footsteps on the stairs, bam bam bam. My brother and I clutched our steak knives and turned to face death. 

He appeared not with a machete, nor an AR-15 or a trusty ax, but a cardboard box. It was heavy, you could tell. 

We quickly put the knives on the counter. He didn’t say anything or ask what our intentions might have been. 

It was records. Vinyl records. 

I heard music when you pulled up, the man said. Maybe you can use these. They’re Carolina’s, they’re my wife’s. 

Maybe you should hang onto them, my brother said. 

I want to make things right, the man said. 

A truck passed on the road, going too fast, alarming the ducks. 

Well, let’s take a look, my brother said. 

There were the usual suspects, Zeppelin, Floyd. 

My brother pulled out an old jazz record, Stan Getz, one of his bossa nova things. 

Do you have a record player, my brother asked. 

Yeah, but I haven’t hooked it up. 

Let’s fix that, my brother said. 

We hooked up the stereo, the speakers, the receiver, the turntable, everything just sitting on the floor in the empty living room. 

We opened beers. 

Choose a record, man, I said to the guy.  The paranoia had cleared, snap, like that. No one was killing anyone. It was peace in the valley. I rolled a fat one. 

You choose, the guy said. 

Choose one for Carolina, my brother said. What did she like?

The guy pulled out something by Rush, which I was not expecting. He lowered the needle, pop, crack, and then came the phased-out sci-fi stomp of Tom Sawyer. 

I’ve never liked Rush. I really haven’t. But they sounded good to me then. It certainly wasn’t sad or maudlin music. It reminded me of high school, coming home to an empty house, dropping acid and driving shitty cars too fast. 

Here’s to Carolina, I said, sparking up the joint. 

To Carolina, we all said. 

The guy turned the song up and then turned it up again. The house shook. The glass in the windows. He got up and danced, played air guitar, singing along, tears streaming down his face. Carolina, oh Carol, he said, wiping his eyes. Fuck, shit, OK. 

We joined right in. We shook our asses and jumped around the living room, pogoing, doing whatever: the shopping cart, the karate chop, the robot. Our moves were executed without concern for aesthetics. We barreled around like bulls and horses. I wished we had a strobe light! A strobe light would have been perfect. 

The record ended and we stood together panting. 

It was late, and suddenly I wanted to go home, not because I was afraid, or because I had anything in particular to go home to, but because everything in that moment felt good, everything felt balanced and kindhearted and lovely, seasoned perfectly with that tinge of sorrow that makes life so sweet, so impossible, so deep and beguiling and strange. 

I didn’t want anything to happen that might ruin what we’d built together. 

We didn’t take the records. We left them with Glenn, that was his name. Glenn. 

We thanked him for the food, we left him sitting on the floor, drunk and stoned out of his mind, cranking something synthy and morose. Bring on the dancing horses. 

We drove away into the summer dark, windows down, air warm. I figured we’d see old Glenn again. I figured we’d stop by sometime and maybe help him get things in order. He didn’t have anybody. Just his kid, his little girl, a girl without a mom. 

Peepers, crickets, the creatures of the night, singing their songs of love and death. 

Why had we even come? The reason seemed pointless and far away. Who cared about the gates anymore. Not me, not my brother. Maybe we should have left them. But we didn’t. 

In the old days, a man would shoot you for taking those gates. There would be no threats to call the police, there would be no office pants or dress shirts or feeding the ducks, no fake stone chimneys. You knew exactly what to expect. A shotgun, and a man who knew how to use it.

The old days are gone. 

We are far from where we need or want to be, all of us, everyone. 

It isn’t all bad. There’s a new Thai place in town. 

The gates bounced in the bed of my brother’s truck as we drove. I tried hard to focus. The tops of trees in headlights. The warm breeze, the peepers singing. We had accomplished something of value. That feeling! I wanted to live this way forever. 

What are you going to do with the gates, I asked my brother. 

Let ‘em rust, he said. 

Over the next year, I ran into Glenn a few times, at the market, pumping gas, even once at the Fountain House. I won’t say he was thriving. He had grown a beard, a wispy, wild-haired thing. I’d put my hand out and he’d take it between his fingers like he was picking up something wet. My brother saw him once, too, pulled over and screaming into the steam of a broken radiator, as if verbal abuse might inspire his shitty car to heal itself. My brother gave him a lift after the tow truck came. The house was a ruin. Lawn wild, ducks long gone. 

One Friday a few months later I pulled in and saw my brother on the porch. My brother was drinking whiskey. No glass, no ice. He had the bottle with him. He tipped it back and took a pull. I climbed the steps, and he handed the bottle to me. There was something in his face. I’d seen it a few times before. Whatever was coming wasn’t anything good. I took a swig. It had been a fine day, but now we were into something else.  

Deep saturated light made the tops of the trees glow. Old man Newbold was doing the first cut on his field, the green smell of hay, the shriek and clang of tricky, outdated machines. 

That guy Glenn, my brother said. 

Honestly, it took me a moment. 

The guy with the gates?

He killed them, my brother said. His wife, his own little daughter. 

I’d been imagining scenarios, someone we loved, stricken by disaster, laying somewhere dead or maimed or facing a terrible prognosis. I am ashamed to even say it. I laughed out loud. It was the shock of it. The relief it was no one we knew.  

They were dead when we were there, my brother said. Buried in the yard. 

It began to sink in. A mom, a little girl. I couldn’t trust my legs, I had to sit down. That feeling. The whole time we were in that house... and we shared a meal with their killer. We danced together and felt, what? 


At six we turned on the news. Cops, yellow tape. And Glenn, looking like he’d been living under a porch, jostled to the cruiser, a look on his face that said, punish me

They had the bones, they had the little rotten dress they dredged out of the earth. 

I turned off the TV and found myself standing in a different room, living a new part of my life. 

There’s a kind of static in my ears. It gives the rooms I walk into a different feel. 

Somehow word got out about the gates. Where are they? Who has them? We talked to the cops about it. They weren’t interested. Gates? Who cares about gates? But there are people who want them. Weirdos, Satanists, the kinds of people who write love letters to serial killers in jail. My brother could sell them and make some serious money. 

He won’t sell them. They have the wife’s initials on them. He set them up behind the house, out of sight against a red maple, and planted flowers. Daisies, black eyed Susan. Morning glories that wind around. The blooms open when the sun hits them, and they close when it gets dark. He dragged a picnic table out there, and sometimes he sits and tries to catch that moment when the blooms first open. 

My brother isn’t the same as he was. More and more, he prefers to be left alone. 

I’m not the same either. 

What’s real and what isn’t? 

There are ghosts in the wires. There’s a crone in the bog casting spells. The Great Spirit puts a bird here or there, a song on the radio at the perfect time. Sure, OK. Why not? But he doesn’t save everyone. Did I feel a hand on my head that day? Did something in me hear the bones calling? I’m not the keeper of mysteries. I don’t know. 

There’s a singing in my chest, there’s a song in there that’s mine. I didn’t put it there. Nobody put it there. But it’s mine. Maybe that’s all I’m talking about. A little nothing inside yourself that helps your body sing. 

Some people don’t have even that. You pass them on the street, sit down for a meal, you’d never even know they’re dead. 

Stewart Engesser is a writer and musician living in Maine. His work has appeared in upstreet, Forge Literary, great weather for MEDIA, Whiskey Tit Journal, and Book of Matches, among other places