Garden of Fire and Blood

"Deceiving Smile" by Jaime Ferreyros
“Deceiving Smile” by Jaime Ferreyros

by Ron Austin

Nothing but junk bloomed in the general store’s back lot. Snarls of copper wire wrestled creeping ivy. Shattered glass glinted under lazy, wilting dandelions. Red bricks studded the dirt like spores. That back lot would likely yield more bottle caps than green beans, even a blind man could see that, but Grandma thought she could punch seeds into the earth and bully out a garden, fat tomatoes hanging low, waxy peppers shining, buttercups popping, all lush and good smelling.

Now Granddad would’ve called Grandma a damned pig-headed fool, if that stroke hadn’t hit so hard and left him laid out in bed, arms and legs twisted like poisoned roots, craggy head sinking into over-fluffed pillows, red and yellow gunk oozing out the side of his mouth every time he coughed (I swear, I heard junk rattling in his lungs, too, bent nails and stripped bolts).

Granddad was plain useless, a lump of petrified wood. Without him there to talk some good sense, Grandma worked the hairy, stinking dog ass out of me all summer, as if my sweat might seed a bountiful New Eden.

Grandma barked, Avery, pull up them weeds! And I was throttling stubborn brambles out of the ground with no gloves, tough, green thorns tearing pink gashes in my knuckles. Avery, cut down them branches! And I was shimmying up horse-apple trees, chopping limbs with a wobbly machete—Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!—impacts rattling my teeth loose. I worked myself dumb as a dead stump. Scabs the size of wood beetles swarmed up and down my shins. Blisters lurched across my palms like slugs, and I had never felt so useful. But, after a few weeks of my strongest efforts, the back lot was still all weeds and wreckage. Of course, Grandma blamed the lack of progress on my pure laziness.

I was hoisting and stacking goliath cinder blocks to make a raised planting bed like that one Grandma had seen in Better Homes and Gardens when she shook her head and said, “Boy, I swear I’ve known canned Spam with more backbone than you.” She leaned forward in her chair, shoulders hunched like a heavyweight boxer swarming. “You got no heart, no smarts, no strength—tell me, boy, what good is you?”

I had no answer.

I don’t know why, but Grandma’s insults always clung to me like science fiction leeches, drooling corrosive bile, chewing through soft spots in my head. Mean comebacks bunched in my jaw, but I didn’t have the nerve to spit them. So I hefted another cinder block, and Grandma kept right on, telling me, “And you had better not be over there setting up my blocks all wrong, acting like a goddamn mongoloid.”

The understood, or I will beat you deaf, dumb, and blind, was a hoarse whisper cutting through my hypothalamus, making my sensitive fight or flight switch jerk like an overworked arcade-stick. All my life Grandma had slashed axioms of moral decency and respect in my back with dogwood switches, old, burnt-out extension cords. It didn’t matter that aggressive puberty was spoiling me with new biceps, height, and scrubby chest hair. She had implanted hard nodes of fear so close to the bone I could never cut them out, not with a knife, not with nothing.

“You hear me, boy? I said do it right.”

The cinderblock in my arms became denser, heavier as I tried recalling every detail of those glossy Better Homes and Gardens pages. Now were the cinderblocks stacked in rows of three, or was it four? The cinderblock sank into my ribcage, displaced my lungs. No, Rows of two or three, maybe, but stacked how high? The planting bed’s simple enough design twisted violently, became something gothic, javelin steeples and facades like shattered faces. But if I go and do all that, will there be room for posts? The sun beat savage drum solos on my skull.

“Boy, you hear me? Do it right. Do it right, or so help me God!”

Right before my damn arms went slack, I heard a series of tight rubberbands snapping in my head—plik! plik! plik! I fumbled that cinderblock and smashed up a finger between it and the planting bed. A cold wire of pain cut through me, lashed every tender nerve something awful. I bit my tongue down to the sinew and didn’t cry. Crying wouldn’t bring relief or help—it could only confirm weakness.

Grandma rolled her eyes and said, “Oh Lord.”

I jerked my finger from between the cinderblocks. A blood blister swelled like a balloon, strained against the crushed nail.

I told Grandma, “I can do better.”

“No you can’t.” She spat and folded calloused hands on her belly. She looked like a sack of lumpy yams in that oversized sundress. “I’ll get men to do it. Spoiled backs fail, strong backs don’t.”

I wasn’t fool enough to say anything out loud, but who in the whole wide world would be desperate enough to work for an ogre like Grandma? I wondered who? as my blood dried black on the cinderblocks.

Nobody. Nobody would work themselves half-dead building Grandma’s dream garden—nobody but those Skuzzoids. Skuzzoids were mutants from the gutter. They ate cold, gelatinous soup straight from the can, chugged pints of cheap rum, chewed cigarette butts, pissed in pickle buckets, and sucked their black, mossy teeth while advising that good pussy was best eaten like ripe honeydew, slurped clean, gnawed down to the rind and all that, and Grandma treated them like gentlemen—at least for a little while.

On that first day, I rode my bike over to the back lot and found Skuzzoids farting around, Grandma was sitting in her lawn chair, primping a chocolate brown doo-wop wig, and fingering a mother-of-pearl necklace that reflected sunlight in great bursts. She entertained an audience of a dozen or so Skuzzoids seated on milk crates and moldering stumps, and I could only wonder in what desolated corners of Hell Grandma had posted Help Wanted flyers.

“Boy!” Grandma called me, waving her flabby arms in a rare fit of good-natured excitement. “Hey, boy! C’mon, now!”

I leaned my bike against the horse-apple tree and approached Grandma with slow, cautious paces. Quick movements might have ruffled her good mood and sent it soaring away on willowy wings.

Grandma whopped me square on the rump as if I were a goat fattened for slaughter and introduced me to the Skuzzoids. “Hey, y’all, this my grandson, Avery,” she said. “He grows like them goddamn weeds—just as worrisome and ugly, too.”

Most of the Skuzzoids just grunted or coughed while others seized into painful smiles. One enthusiastic dude mashed his hands together—Clap! Clap! 

Me and the Skuzzoids went to work planting these pitiful lily bulbs Grandma had gotten cheap from Soulard Market. The bulbs were shriveled and coated in dust. Weak roots stretched from their tops and bottoms, tangled like thin pubic hair. This was a dreadful crop—no wonder Grandma had gotten it for a steal—but me and the Skuzzoids kicked shovel heads into hard earth, used them anyway.

And Grandma didn’t holler, or cuss, or say one mean word the whole time. She just sat there with her rough hands folded in her lap like a deacon’s meek wife, the smile on her face brittle as the costume jewelry around her neck, all flimsy accessories.

If she was plotting something, I sure as Hell couldn’t tell what—but at least she was quiet.

The Skuzzoids quit right at sundown, hunkered in the dust, and passed a Black N’ Mild between their cracked lips, even though only four lonesome rows of lily bulbs had been planted in a good day’s work. Black N’ Mild smoke was a blue specter, phasing through me, infiltrating my head and lungs slowly. Fireflies drifted through the smoke, scorched holes in the air like fever dreams.

Grandma stalked the crooked rows of lily bulbs as the bronze dusk darkened into leaden blue. I couldn’t really make out her expression under those silky, synthetic bangs. But then, this one firefly grazed her cheek, bathed her face in an eerie, yellow glow, illuminated a jagged scowl. Her gruesome mug would’ve been perfect for an old school Tales From The Crypt cover. That firefly crumbled into a speck of ash and floated away. My fight or flight switch click-click-clicked.

The Skuzzoids kept right on belching smoke, unaware of the acidic scorn primed to spew, blister their hides pink and raw. Sweat on my back cooled into ice, scored my spine with chills. I couldn’t tell if I was more fearful or excited. I wanted Grandma to eviscerate the Skuzzoids with sharp words, flail her tongue like a scythe, cut them down, heads tumbling under the horse-apple tree—someone else just had to get it besides me. But the Skuzzoids remained whole that night.

Grandma just called out to them in a tired but nice enough voice. “Hey! C’mon in y’all! Let’s get some hot grease on them guts!”

Inside the general store, the Skuzzoids lined up and accepted paper plates heaped high with fried catfish, butter pickles, yellow onions, cold spaghetti, and slices of Wonder Bread as payment for their labor. Not a one of them complained about the catfish being freezer burned, and none of them begged a red penny, either. They happily sopped grease off their plates with bread crust, smacked skin right off their damn lips, licked fish bones bare and sparkling. Only one Skuzzoid ate as if he had any kind of table manners. He cut his catfish neatly with a plastic knife and ate in small, efficient bites. He caught me watching him, made a show of daubing his mouth with a napkin, and then sauntered over to my table, rocking narrow hips.

He extended his hand and said, “And how do you do? I’m Miss Coco.” The “Miss” hit me like a cast-iron skillet upside the head. I thought he meant to say “Mister”, but then I noticed that lime-green nail polish, that heavy concealer struggling to soften a sturdy jawline, that beauty store necklace shouting SPARKLE! in big, bold, bubble letters. I nearly bit my tongue clean in two, and just let it be.

I took Miss Coco’s hand and told her, “I’m good.”

She frowned politely like a reading tutor and said, “No, no, no young man, you are well.” She squeezed my hand. “You are well.” She returned to her seat in the corner by the twenty-five cent gumball machine, raked out her shoulder length hair with a broken comb, and reapplied lip-gloss.

A gangly Skuzzoid jabbed a plastic fork at Grandma and said, “Miss Margret, you sho’ll put the good foot in this one.”

Grandma adjusted her wig, bared a grin full of alligator teeth, and said, “Oh, that ain’t nothing. At least somebody will get a taste, ‘sides the rats.”

“Well, I sure hope y’all had plenty,” Grandma said while ushering Skuzzoids out of the general store. The Skuzzoids heartily grunted appreciation and poked toothpicks between what teeth they had. She slapped on this earnest-Girl-Scout smile and watched them shamble into the humid, suffocating dark. Once they were gone, she rapped my knuckles with a wooden stirring spoon and told me, “Boy, go’n get that garbage. Now.”

I shook the sting out of my knuckles and hustled a gang of leaking, overstuffed trash bags through the back door. On my way to the dumpster, I found Miss Coco playing nurse in the alleyway, kneeling on the cobblestone, tending to a bloodied up Skuzzoid. The bloodied up Skuzzoid was slumped in a ratty, cushion-less lounge chair, hissing as Miss Coco carefully picked dingy bits of glass and metal out of his bare feet.

She scoured the wounds with a liquor soaked rag and told him, “Milkdud. Oh, Milkdud. You know you need to just hush up.”

He ignored her chiding and responded with more hissing: hssssssssss.

“Now, how else am I supposed to get you right? And I’m wasting good shit on you, too. Ten dollars a pint.”


“Who told you to go and work the livelong day with no shoes anyway? It surely was not I.”


“Okay, Milkdud, okay, but I’ma tell you: this is a fine way to catch tetanus.”

Hssssss—the hissing caught in Milkdud’s throat.

Miss Coco affected the tone of an evil witch who skulks through old wives’ tales, casting hexes, devouring nasty children. “Yes, Milkdud. Oh, yes. And if the rot spreads, they’ll saw…at the ankles.”

I dropped the trash bags on the ground and asked the dumbest question, “Where are his shoes?”

Miss Coco jabbed a blocky fist in her square hip and glared. “Avery, if he had shoes on in the first place, why in God’s name would his feet be all torn up?”

I shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

Me and Miss Coco looked to Milkdud for an answer. He was caked in dirt and lousy with grass stains as if he had been on all fours gnashing weeds. Plus he had the hard, pebbly eyes of a rat stuck on a glue trap. So of course, he had not a clue about what happened to his shoes either.

“Well, Hell if I know,” Miss Coco said. She shook her head, flapped that rag on the ground–whap!–and got back to her grim little job. She extracted a small screw from Milkdud’s heel, held it up to the harsh streetlight, and said mmm-mmm, baaaaaaay-bee in that matronly way. The streetlight did Miss Coco no favors. Stubble crept across her upper lip, fine as centipede fur. She shook her head as Milkdud’s blood drizzled over the cobblestone. And if this were an old wives’ tale, Miss Coco would be the woman who slathers honey on wounds while her sister offers up goblets of lye–but, honestly, I didn’t know what disgusted me more: Milkdud’s total helplessness or Miss Coco’s need to indulge him.

So, I forgot about the trash bags and lunged inside the dumpster with both hands. I figured I could find a sneaker, a boot. Something to shut them up. A mass of congealed muck possessed by disturbing warmth gushed up and licked my wrists like something alive, a supernatural ooze-beast hungry for idiot kids like me. My fingers grazed rough edges and soiled cloth, but not a sneaker, not a boot. And Milkdud started that damn hissing again, louder this time, as if his gut was a bog of black mambas. Miss Coco chided Milkdud. Oh, Milkdud. And dude just wouldn’t listen.

Back at home, Grandma held Granddad’s hand and told him about her ideas for business saving renovations, whispering in his ear, urgently, as if talk of new toilets and formica counters were honey-coated epithets. Granddad was laid out in a hospital bed, nothing but limbs jutting at wrong angles underneath a shaggy quilt. The living room had become his infirmary, catheters in the magazine bin, saline pouches in the fish tank, dark stains crushed in the carpet. I kept a post at the door in case he needed to be rolled on his side, so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit, and I never looked him in his face. If I did, he would sputter and tremble, newly afraid of me, as I had always been afraid of him.

She told him, “I got men who will work themselves to the bare, bloody hoof for a steaming pot of coffee and a fried baloney sandwich, sho’ll will,” she thumped him on the shoulder lightly, “Now watch me, Henry, just watch me. I’ll have them pans burning up, them fish jumping, that cash drawer fit to bust.”

Granddad replied only with that grating cough, junk rattling in his chest, drill bits and bullet shells, splintered razorblades.

“Watch me turn a drop of piss into good wine,” she said, “watch me—you’ll see.”

Grandma’s cordial spirit didn’t last long. Me and the Skuzzoids dragged cinderblocks through the back lot like low-born Egyptians, built those romantic Better Home and Gardens planting beds in tight grids, and she told us, Y’all is the sorriest excuses for men I ever set eyes on. Can’t tow a line, can’t bust a grape. Me and the Skuzzoids attacked spiked battalions of weeds, snapped rusty shears through thorned stalks, as devil’s eyelashes and milk thistle stung our ankles raw, and she told us  I could turn the dead fresh out they graves and see them hustle ass faster than any one of you lazy, good-for-nothing bastards. At the end of each day she never thanked us, never patted us on our sore and knotted backs. She just told us I hope somebody loves you, be it Jesus or the motherfucking Easter Rabbit, cus’ you know I sho’ll don’t.

Grandma’s insults stuck in my head like hot shrapnel while the Skuzzoids easily slipped her bombastic volleys of meanness with well-timed shrugs. Muttering awww-yeah-yeah-yeah, they paid her no more mind and finished their jobs. They surely knew Grandma was only confirming pathetic little truths everyone else in their lives had already discovered about them. And besides, I don’t think they could beat her cooking.

Grandma dogged the Skuzzoids out all day, every day, but fed them like courtesans at the fold-out dinner table. The Skuzzoids were happy enough working for a hot plate, as if the salmon croquettes were dredged with diamond dust, neck bones ruby studded, like the cornbread was 24-karat. Every last Skuzzoid grinded hard for that plate, except for this one dude called Skyhook.

Skyhook was tall, long and lean as a bullwhip, and strong, too, but he was just plain lazy. He slow-bopped up to the back lot at about noon each day, still wearing fly gear from the grown folk’s lounge, snakeskin loafers and wide lapels. His breath stank of sour beer, and his eyes were bloodshot, like he had busted a few capillaries, a shameful sight in the too-bright day. I imagined if I took a sharp circular saw to his skull, I’d find his brain floating belly up in a puddle of cheap vodka, bloated and tinged green like a pickled egg, but even staggering around the back lot half-drunk, Skyhook was sly enough to pass off his fair share of work.

He ran game on me and his fellow Skuzzoids daily. I hate to admit it, but I was easy pickings. He used unspoken tenents of elderly respect as a bludgeon. Hey, young-blood, he’d say with twisted metal and smashed bottles at his feet, threatening to slash and gouge his buffed and shined loafers, go snatch up that broom and do your big brother a solid. He’d grind palms in his lower back, grimace for my benefit. Ooo-weee, that evil world done knotted my spine something terrible. I’d nod like I totally understood, grab the broom, sweep. When I was done, he’d always lock my hand in both of his, the spa-fresh manicure on his nails taunting, and say something like ‘preciate you, young-blood—we sho’ need about a thousand more good Christian soldiers like yourself out here, not all these ne’er-do-wells and hoodlums.

I was desperate enough to accept his encouragement, even if it was the by-product of crude manipulation.

Skyhook suckered the other Skuzzoids into handling his work by distracting them with bright bars of gossip, mined from the grown folk’s lounge. He’d clutch a trowel in his fist, tight, as if he was ready to slay a vampire, and say stuff like, You know Jay and them? Yeah, buddy, I heard they was ‘bout to hit a lick. He’d scrape a rake across a few rocks and say, Oh, yeah, best watch yourself out here. I heard them dick-boys be lurking. Got old Bennie Williams caught up. Twenty-five years to life over some dope and a peashooter, on that third strike. Yeah, buddy, on that third strike. Now ain’t that ‘bout a bitch? He’d pull a ripcord, get that leaf-blower hacking and sputtering, pull a dude in close, and tell him, you heard about Chloe? Yeah, nice girl. School girl. Educated and everything. Well, times is tough, homeboy, and she out here slanging that cat–I ain’t lying. If you feeling blue, holler. She’ll do it for a button, sho’ will.

Skyhook, the shysty bastard, did less than nothing, and still got a place at the fold out dinner table, up until that one afternoon where his sense of fashion did him in.

The sun had a vendetta that day. Sunbeams were iron rods, thudding heavily, battering buildings and flesh all the same. Leaves roasted yellow and brittle, fell off sagging branches. Cups of water roiled, brewed, and instantly transmuted into stale armpit sweat. Ice-cubes popped, evaporated on contact with the atmosphere—they could not save you. The Devil himself was stunned by the heat. He took off his wife-beater, plopped on the asphalt, and devoured a watery Sno-cone, ivory horns thrusting skyward, tongue lolling. And on a day like this, Grandma needed the compost heaps turned, and she certainly wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Those composts heaps were open-air digestive tracts, belching and gassing nefarious fumes. Stick a shovel in that muck, and the stench would claw your face to the wet, glistening bone. Even worse than that, those compost heaps blasted heat, had a bad habit of combusting. The clumps of horse manure at the heart of each pile were good as grenades. But none of that concerned Grandma. Fanning herself with a crumpled Chinese food flyer, she hollered, who’s gonna turn them piles of shit?

I sure couldn’t. I was swinging a machete, trimming a yew bush, ratcheting my shoulder off, my skin bubbling like roofing tar. She kept on hollering, I know y’all hear me. I said who’s gonna turn them piles of shit? Those Skuzzoids sure couldn’t. The heat had whooped them long ago. They were catatonic in the dust like horned lizards, sweat sluicing over ridged brows, skin so ashy it shone. Hey! Who’s gonna do it? God damn it–I said who’s gonna turn that shit! And Miss Coco sure couldn’t do it. The heat had melted her eyelashes off. For real. The heat straight melted her beauty store eyelashes right off. She cupped them in both hands, tenderly, as if they were dead butterflies, gauzy wings torn free. Hey! Y’all can be lazy and trifling as you wannabe, but somebody is turning that shit! And Milkdud, well, he was running a beat lawnmower over a patch of gravel, his eyes vacant, dull like old marbles. I’ma say it one more time: turn that shit. Somebody is going to turn that shit! That’s when Skyhook be-bopped up to the back lot, g’ed up in this cocaine-white suit, cool as a snow drift, everyone else sweltering. That fool even had a yellow umbrella slung over his shoulder to boot, daffodil yellow, glowing.

Grandma sneered at Skyhook and chuckled, low and mean. She pointed and said, “You—I got you now,” she waggled her finger, “Oh, I got you, Sky-guy, Fly-man—whatever the fuck it is they call you,” she pointed at a compost heap heavy with fruit flies, “go turn that shit.”

Skuzzoid eyes settled on Skyhook like gnats. I wiped resin off my machete. Skyhook brushed his sleeves, closed his umbrella, and produced a handkerchief from his breast pocket with a flourish that confirmed how much I hated his guts. He thoughtfully wiped his forehead and neck, leaned on his umbrella as if it were a cane, and pointed to a bird’s nest hanging from the general store’s rain gutter. “I thought you wanted me to get that bird nest,” he said. “You know I’m long and strong.”

“If you’re so damn strong, turning that shit won’t be a problem,” Grandma countered. She rocked herself out of the lawn chair. She shuffled over to the plastic container of random tools we had, fished out a pair of rubber gloves, and tossed them to Skyhook. “Here—don’t  want that funk under your nails.”

Skyhook caught the gloves and actually snapped them on. He propped his umbrella on the side of the general store and made for a shovel.

“Ah-ah,” Grandma said. “No shovel,” she eased back in her lawn chair, “Got to turn it with your hands. Lets it breathe better.”

Skyhook scrunched his eyes shut, as if he was working through a calculus problem. He opened his eyes and saw the Skuzzoids smirking like school children, anxious to see a prank play out. He ripped off those rubber gloves, thrust out his chin, and told Grandma, “I ain’t getting my hands in no shit. And you ain’t clowning me.”

“Then you ain’t eating,” she said. “Don’t think I never saw you running that big mouth.”

“Oh, I’ma eat, all right.” He faced me and the Skuzzoids. “Watch me come right back up in this bitch and get a plate.”

“I wish you would,” Grandma said, a growl in her throat. “I sho’ wish you would. I’d love to burn your ugly, mooching ass to the ground and stamp out the ashes.”

“See you at six on the dot, Miss Margaret, and you know I like my greens with a little extra pepper.” Skyhook performed an elegant bow, retrieved his umbrella, and strutted off into the broiling day.

Grandma watched him go, chuckling low and mean. “I’ll be damned,” she said to no one. “I’ll be damned.”

So Skyhook actually showed up at six on the dot like he said, decked out in evening attire, a red velvet suit, and a for-real pocket watch, silver chain and all that. The Skuzzoids put down their crispy snoot sandwiches and murmured. Grandma folded up her lottery numbers and charged off to the back with unusual swiftness.

I quietly finished my potato salad and then positioned myself in the room’s center, equidistant to the rear exit, front exit, and emergency axe.

“Good evening, my fine-feathered gentlemen,” Skyhook addressed me and the Skuzzoids. The Skuzzoids replied with grumbling, but I didn’t say nothing—speaking to dead men invites plagues upon the soul. Skyhook fixed himself a plate, a double snoot sandwich, two heaping scoops of potato salad, and greens with that extra dash of pepper. As he took a place at the head of the fold-out dinner table, he fashioned his handkerchief into a bib and hummed a falsetto tune, Isley Brothers, I think. The smart Skuzzoids scooted away from him, chairs scraping linoleum, shrieking.

Skyhook took a bite of his snoot sandwich and uttered his boldest commercial-ready Mmm! Mmm-mm! He smacked his lips, licked his fingers one by one, and said, “Ain’t nothing like a home-cooked meal, you hear me? Where’s the chef so I can give her my regards?”

“Right here,” Grandma said. She had a bottle of lighter fluid in one hand, matches in the other. “Right here, you great greedy motherfucker.” She squirted up Skyhook’s chest and crotch with the accuracy of a gunslinger. Skyhook knocked over his plate and lunged at her, but she had already flicked a match across callouses on her palm. After that whoosh! and those orange flames licking the air, there was this stink of scorched rags, Skyhook’s growling and cursing, the Whap! Whap! as he slapped himself stupid to kill the flames.

You know he wanted to punch Grandma out, jam both thumbs in her throat and push until he heard bone pop, but he never got the chance. Soon as he smothered one swath of flame, she squirted his leg, his sleeves, his shoes, and lit him up again, and again, pushing him back to the front door, and putting a boot in his ass as he stumbled over the stoop and sprawled out on the concrete, smoldering.

She rattled the rusted, iron front gate shut, lumps of muscle hard in her biceps. And in husky breaths, she told Skyhook, “Hope you enjoyed. Tell all your folks, and y’all come back soon, you hear.”

Funny thing was, Skyhook did come back just a few days later. Me and the Skuzzoids were busting up dead stumps with hatchets, Grandma telling us swear I’d get more use out of each and every one of you if I shredded you into mulch, raggedy bones and all. When I saw Skyhook be-bopping up the sidewalk, I gripped my hatchet tightly, ready to sink it in his skull. He was back for revenge—I knew it—twin pistols in his belt, thick sticks of dynamite lit behind his back. But, when Grandma saw him, she didn’t flinch. Her lips curved with an awful, knowing grin. She relaxed in her lawn chair and hollered at Skyhook like they were old pals. “Hey, Skyguy! What you know good?”

Skyhook strolled closer, put on the airs of a great philosopher, and said, “Man can’t survive on gin and tonic alone.”

Grandma jammed a fist in her chin and told him, “That’s the wisest thing I’ve heard in years.”

Silence dissolved their banter, and I noticed Skyhook wasn’t dressed so clean, so fly. He wore a plain baseball cap, a dingy tank top, and stone-washed jeans, worn in the knees. One of his flip-flops had a broken thong, too. The only thing loud about him was his belt buckle, a chrome fist studded with rhinestones. Maybe Skyhook didn’t want to risk anymore of his good clothes around Grandma Either that, or she burned the swagger right off him, as if it were a layer of ethanol, nothing elemental. Skyhook took off his hat and swatted a nagging mosquito. He said, “Miss Margaret, I was stopping by to see if you needed me.”

Grandma gazed up at Skyhook with a naked look of wonder, as if he had sprouted a unicorn horn from his forehead. “Need you?”

“That’s right.”

“Need you.” She shook her head thoughtfully. “Now what would I need with a high-saddity piece of fluff like yourself?”

“High-saddity?”Skyhook grimaced and flapped his hat at the accusation. “Na’ll, that ain’t me.”

“Yeah, you is. Dress it up, dress it down, I know what’s in your heart,” Grandma affirmed her instincts with a nod. “I got no need for a man who can’t tell his dick from a stick in the dirt,” she waved an arm over at me and the Skuzzoids, “got enough idiots as it is. All full up.” Skyhook’s jaw flopped open in protest, but she raised a hand. “I swear you could fish through pumpkin guts and find more brains,” she chuckled low and mean. “Need you? Man, you’ve got some nerve.” Thunk! A hatchet fell, severed a root. Skyhook scrunched his hat and turned away, and just then, Grandma said, “but come to think of it, I might need a scarecrow.”

Skyhook wheeled around cautiously. “A scarecrow?”

“That’s right. A scarecrow.” Grandma got up and stood belly to belly with Skyhook, studying his eyes, like she was going to kiss him. She reached up and squeezed his shoulder, “you tall enough,” she prodded his ribs, “bony enough,” she blew in his face, and he suppressed a snarl. “Ugly enough.” She patted him on the chest. “Oh, yeah, you’d make a perfect scarecrow.” She turned to me, “Yo’! Avery! Go’n get a milk crate, two buckets, and some rocks. Big ones.”

I dropped my hatchet and moved quickly to get that stuff, Skuzzoid eyes darting after me. Miss Coco pressed a broad forearm across her forehead and sighed, Oh Lord, please help us. I set that stuff at Grandma’s feet, one milk crate, two buckets filled with big rocks. Grandma wiped her mouth as if she had just bitten into a water bug. She kicked over the buckets and said, “I never said put the rocks in the bucket. Don’t you ever listen?” She took her teeth out of my neck and deftly turned on Skyhook. “Now, stand on that crate.” Skyhook closed his eyes for a moment, revisited that worrisome calculus problem, and then stepped up on the crate. Grandma said, “Alright, good. Next, I need you to spread your arms up high. I said high. Na’ll, spread ’em higher, like a hawk. Right. Now,” Grandma placed one chunky rock in each bucket, put the buckets in Skyhook’s hands. “Hold ’em tight. Hold ’em high. Right. Just like that.” She beamed a smile in Skyhook’s face, gleeful as a little girl. “Don’t you know I’m growing tomatoes and peppers? Can’t have them nasty birds tearing ’em down.”

While the Skuzzoids went back to work on the stumps, busting them up, wrapping them with chains, and hauling them out of the ground, grunting like a team of oxen, I had to mind Skyhook. The day grew long, and Grandma commanded me to toss more and more rocks in the buckets swinging at the end of Skyhook’s fists. Evil tremors broke through Skyhook’s face and body as the buckets grew heavier, but he held on strong, didn’t fall off the crate, didn’t drop so much as a pebble, but na’ll, that wasn’t good enough. If Skyhook’s arm wavered and dropped, I had to jab knuckles in his shoulders, right in the bolts, Grandma telling me, “Harder. I said hit him harder. You could at least do that right.”

After setting Skyhook straight, Grandma got harsher with the Skuzzoids—and it worked. If grimy, used mops were left outside to mildew and attract gnats in black halos, every last Skuzzoid had to march around the neighborhood, Salvation Army boots clopping on broken pavement. If any dude was caught bullshitting while bricks needed to be sorted and organized, Grandma made him chew asphalt and flex knuckle push-ups. And if that old dude puked, well, he knew where the sawdust was.

With a few weeks of no-tolerance discipline, the back lot was polished into something almost charming, and Grandma figured it was time for Granddad to see it. She jerked him around in a wheelchair, pointing at new additions, all the hidden jewels. A bright steel arch for roses had been erected and threaded with robust, green vines. “See that, Henry?” Breaths of blue star sparkled like sapphire, hyacinth crowns bowed. “And how about this?” Celosia waved leafy blades of fire and blood. “Now ain’t that something else?” A clutch of tomatoes was coming in, golden, swelling, fat. “See it, Henry? See? I told you so, didn’t I? Sho’ll did.”

Granddad just moaned as his head pitched back and forth.

Sure, that back lot looked good, but I knew it couldn’t last. I could see the Skuzzoids second-guessing themselves over the tiniest details and finding not the barest pleasure in their labor nor the meals that followed. I knew how they felt. I knew how it was to stutter over the easy steps, how a rake could become a monstrous, skeletal wing, flapping, fighting your grip.

So as the Skuzzoids passed their Black N’ Mild one day, I tried to tell Skyhook sorry.

“Sorry for what, young-blood?” He said, inhaling and narrowing his eyes.

And I tried to tell him. “For the–”

He raised a hand and hollered to the other Skuzzoids. “Hey, y’all! Young-blood say he sorry!” The Skuzzoids boomed laughter. Skyhook snatched my hand, turned it over, and slapped me once, twice on the wrist. He jabbed a finger in my face. “Boy, I’m grown. Can’t nobody hurt my feelings.”

3 replies on “Garden of Fire and Blood”

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