Years later you’ll grunt that you’ve got no clue what we’re squinting at from under our hands, held like visors over our eyes. You’ll remark that the windshield’s behind us. That’s true: the sunlight glints silver on the truck’s rear windshield, the light’s arc the slow-motion blur of an adze planing a surface. The three of us are standing in the Ford’s bed in a soldierly row. The truck’s peacock-blue tailgate dams us in. It must’ve been molten to the touch because none of us dare grip it. My oldest brother wears his head shaved except for a braided rattail that dangles over his shoulder. His scalp has already burnt and peeled, and it emanates the pulp-sweet perfume of the aloe gel that he slathers over his bristled skull. Purple and teal craft feathers dangle from the rattail, the points of each feather bleached a sun-sick white. Our little brother has found a rust pock the size of a half-dollar, and he’s wormed his finger through the hole. His fingertip waggles, the loll of a grub sunning after a rain. Sun-faded from black to ochre, his Pirates cap slouches so low, it looks like he’s shaved his eyebrows. Maybe he has. I stand behind the boys, my bronzed face obscured by a wind-tangled nest of hair. Careful or crows will roost on your head: that’s how you would warn me, before spitting into the dirt and grinding the glob with your toe like it was a cigarette butt.
What are we squinting at, you’ll ask. Maybe we’re saluting, I’ll say, and then you’ll spit black into the pepto-pink cup on the rolling tray table.
In the picture, breathlessness and coal dust give our cheeks a dusty rouge. The truck’s bed is emptied, the discount coal shoveled from the bed into a plyboard bin. Each of the coalbin’s walls still bears the electric-blue chalk stamp from the lumberyard: Premium Plyboard – 86 Lumber & Supply. Everything bristles. The cobalt lettering on the wood. The heat shimmers rising from the truck. My older brother’s rattail flicking against his chest. Little brother’s finger in the rust hole, flirting with the ragged metal, courting the first of many tetanus shots. You, photographing us, your cut-off jean shorts revealing the crescent-moon flesh ringing your thighs, the white surrender-flags of your pocket linings peeking out.
You’ll smudge your thumbs over the film until I huff, almost laugh, and wait for you to say: what.
To say what you’ve always known. What I’ve insisted on knowing about the too perfect hole that little brother probes with his finger. I know what punctured the tailgate: the mangled bullet which I’d found while shoveling the black-matte heaps of coal into the bin. I clutch it in my palm so you and the boys can never see but it’s so sun-hot, it feels like I’ve caught your old Bic lighter by its wick. Or a wire by a bit of frayed copper. I tingle, my skin an electrified mesh, the bullet a transistor conducting fragments of thought from my nerves to my synapses. The peacock-blue truck. The plyboard walls of the coal bin. The full bed of coal. You combing your fingers through your beard and saying, Everything costs damn near zilch if you know what you’re doing—and if your foot’s fast enough on the clutch.
The Polaroid clicks and its bulb flashes, muzzle-fire white. Of course we wince at it. We would’ve been blind to you even without the camera’s plastic bulk blocking your face.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the Associate Editor for Fiction and Poetry at Modern Language Studies. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in publications including The Massachusetts Review, CHEAP POP, Clarion, and Passages North, and his work has also been selected for inclusion in Best Microfiction 2020. He is an instructor and Coordinator of Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.