by Eric Nguyen
Billy’s boyfriend Rufus had been beaten to death and nailed to a telephone pole to make him look like Jesus. We woke up to that sight, the both of us. While crows picked at Rufus’s arms, Billy cursed himself for letting him take that late night bartending job off Route 10. It was a long walk home, he said. We lived in an unsafe neighborhood. Should’ve let him drive the truck, even if he didn’t have a license. Should’ve woken up at four in the morning to pick him up.
None of us knew how to climb, so we asked Mr. Hanson the telephone man from across the street to help us. The problem, said Mr. Hanson, was the nails were really in there. “Whoever did this knew what they were doing,” he said. Mr. Hanson pulled and pulled at them with the backside of a hammer. After several minutes, the nail in the right hand let go. The left one took a little longer. When both were out, Rufus fell down, the dirt muffling the fall. We called the cops who brought the paramedics and then the firefighters came for god knows what. Everyone was on our tiny lawn and I brought out Tang and plastic cups. The police drank as they wrote down information and asked us questions and examined the body.
Rufus was buried by the end of the week. Both families came to the funeral. Billy was supposed to make a speech, but once he got up there, he could only look at his hands. I’d never seen him look so sad. His mother had to walk him out.
The thought occurred to Billy two weeks after. We were having dinner and watching TV in the kitchen.
“What if,” Billy announced. He was chewing and thinking at the same time. There was a look in his eyes as if he had stumbled upon the best idea in the world. “What if we unbury him? Mr. Broussard taught me enough.” Mr. Broussard was the man who’d hired him a month ago at his taxidermy business. Billy found the job listing on Craigslist. Broussard hired him because no one else was calling. He trained Billy and paid him half wage until he could get it right. A month in, he was still at half wage.
I thought his words over. “Yeah, but what would you want to do with it?”
“We’d put him anywhere we want.” He threw his fork on the table. It slid across and fell off. “God, I miss him!”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. It sounded like the type of thing to be said, but I knew it didn’t do anything.
They’d been a lovely couple. They went to the same high school, but it was after graduation that they got together. It was just past their three-year when they answered my ad. My old roommate disappeared, never came back, though I never told Billy and Rufus this. The roommate moved, I lied. I needed someone gay-friendly because us queers had to stick together. They came and looked around and decided on the spot that they’d move in. We got along fine since then.
“So what do you say, Hunter?”
I took the skin off the chicken. I popped it in my mouth and the oil made it feel like it was sticking to my teeth. A commercial for “Feed the Children” played on TV. I thought about the ways we all suffered—not just the physical pangs, but the other ways as well: lifelong regrets, lost loved ones, guilt—and what could be done with all the suffering in the world.
“Sure,” I said. “What do we have to lose?”
My biggest fear is hunger. This explains why I hoard food. I go to the grocery store coupons in hand. Doesn’t matter if I don’t need it. If I can eat it, it’s in the cart and I’m paying for it and saving fifty cents. I want to say that this can all be explained by a poor childhood, that we diluted soup to make it last longer, that I went to school without lunch, nights sometimes without dinner. But none of this ever happened. My daddy was a fisherman from the Gulf Coast, my ma a cafeteria lunch lady. We never wanted for anything.
I just need to be sure that I won’t go hungry. It’s a fear, a clinical phobia. Is there a word for fear of going hungry? A word for fear of not having enough?
Dr. Wayne would’ve known with all those degrees on his walls. Dr. Wayne was the therapist ma brought me to after I came out to her and dad during dinner. He seemed like a quiet and shy man as he sat in his armchair, wearing a sickly green button-up, polka dotted bow tie, a shine that would not leave his bald head. He asked the questions, and I obliged.
When he asked me about my first sexual encounter with a man, I told him about a truck driving bear I met at a rest stop. “He was savory and tangy. His sweat gave him a salty taste. His cum was bitter and sweet at the same time. It felt like milk going down my throat.”
I had disgusted him so much he convinced ma that shock therapy would do the trick. I didn’t know that even existed. Ma sat next to me. I remember the sudden pain of the first shock, the buzzing in my fingers, the sharpness stabbing my head. I told Dr. Wayne to stop, I told him that I was getting better, but the shock continued, pulsating through my body. Ma sat next to me and did nothing. I blacked out during the first session.
When I woke, I was home and famished. It was mid-day and the house sat empty. I walked to the kitchen. There, a flood of urge washed over me: the fresh produce from their plastic bags, the frozen chicken breasts in their Styrofoam tray, the thawing ground beef soaking in its own blood: I ate it all with the wanting of an animal who had no limits, like a coyote or wolf or a bear close to hibernation, needing everything to put into his body. By the time I finished, the icicles inside the freezer were gone. Only the baking soda was left, though I’ll admit, I ate a pinch or two.
We left after we washed dishes and wiped down the kitchen. We packed a shovel, a trowel, and two jugs of water into the back of Billy’s pick-up, drove five miles down the main road and took several turns down smaller streets. The graveyard was off a creek, so close you could hear the water trickling. It surprised me that the graves were underground.
“Have you heard of caskets sinking into rivers?” I asked Billy. “In hurricanes, the bodies get loose. Dogs drag home body parts—an arm here, an ear there. Soon, the rest of the body arrives with a knock at your door to get it back.”
“Ha, ha, funny,” Billy said lamely. “This isn’t New Orleans.”
“But this is Louisiana.”
The gate was unlocked. It squeaked as we entered. Walking, I asked, “Do you think it’s still there? I mean, do you think it’s still good?”
“He should be. They pump dead bodies with chemicals to make them last longer.” He sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I left it at that.
We found his plot easily, a meager one under a slanting tree. It was an old, thick tree, but one more hurricane would’ve knocked it down easy, would’ve sunk Rufus a couple of more feet down. The flowers Billy left two days ago were still there, still alive. “It’s a sign,” Billy said. He forced the spade of the shovel down and took out a lump of grass and dirt.
“Whatcha waiting for?” he said. I got down on my knees and got to work.
A foot down, we were sweating like hogs. My arms ached like hell.
“How about this?” Billy said, turning on the radio in his car. He played the jazz he always liked. “Music for pain,” he said. He always played that stuff, at least while Rufus was alive. I used to hear music from their room and get up just to see him and Rufus dancing beautifully, like they weren’t poor and they deserved such elegance, such loveliness.
We hit the coffin at around three in the morning. We hauled it into the truck, covered it up with a tarp, and refilled the empty grave. We were out by eight, the sun shrouded in fog.
On the drive home, a police car started following us. A nervous wreck, Billy began taking a detour, a left down a street here, an entrance into the freeway, and then back out, but the cop followed us anyway. The police lights came on when Billy accidently went into a dead end.
He pulled over and took a gulp of water. “What do we do? What do we do?” He was shaking wildly and having a hard time breathing. I told him to drink more water, which he did, and then the officer came and knocked on the window. Billy looked straight ahead, paralyzed with fear. I leaned over and rolled down the window.
“Yes, officer?” I asked in my good boy voice.
Billy came to and looked at the officer. The officer took off his ranger hat and dusted the brim with a gloved hand. I wanted to laugh—his whole outfit was too much, like something you’d see in movie; he was even chomping gum!
“Do you know why I pulled you over, son?” he asked Billy. “Do you know?” He looked at me. I took a swig of water and swished it around in my mouth, waiting for Billy to answer, wondering if I should answer for him again.
“Your left tail light,” the officer said.
I spat the water out and started laughing and coughing. It made my belly ache. The officer knitted his eyebrows and took out his pad. I quieted down and he handed Billy a citation. The officer patted the top of the car and Billy said he was sorry. “It’s been such a long night, that’s all,” he said. “We’re just tired.”
“What do you guys do all night?” There was a smirk on his face.
“Graves!” I said, coughing to hide my laughter. I felt so tired, I didn’t know what I was doing. I watched the plastic Jesus bobble-head on Billy’s dash bounce. We didn’t move, but it bounced. It had serious eyes and looking into them, I felt damned.
“We work at the cemetery. Night shift,” said Billy.
“There’s been a problem with grave robbers,” I added.
“Well, get on your way now. And remember the tail light,” he said as he left.
We drove home in silence, both of us frightened and giddy.
“We did it!” was what I kept on saying. Meanwhile, Billy said nothing.
We pushed the casket to the back shed, leaving a trail of scraped up morning-dewed grass behind us. Billy closed the door and rushed off to shower. Broussard didn’t like it when his workers were late. I got to sleeping, listening to the water in the bathroom. I dreamt of bacon, of bloody steak, of chopped liver.
The first time I tasted blood that wasn’t my own, it was from a twink I picked up after chatting online. I drove him back to my place. He couldn’t keep his hands off me. In bed, we kissed roughly, the way men do, our hands massaging each other with a strength and tenderness we didn’t know we had until moments like this. After eating his ass, I went to the night stand, but he begged for me to do him bareback: to fuck him raw. I grabbed the lube and fucked him like he asked. He screamed pleasure with each thrust. I grabbed the skin of his butt, pushed nails into it, as he twisted himself to meet my lips. We kissed hard and then I tasted something metallic. The taste was strong. It made me pound him harder. He breathed faster. I reached for his cock and stroked it until he came over the bed sheets and over my fingers. I thrust in deeper and came in his ass. We fell over, exhausted. We napped for an hour before getting up. Before he left I made him breakfast, though it was night. I cooked up everything for him—pancakes, eggs, toast, bacon—the works.
I woke up at noon to my phone ringing. “Hunter,” Billy said.
“Yes?” The curtains were drawn. There was no light.
“Is the body still there?”
“I’m sure it is.” I rubbed my eyes, stretched my muscles.
“Go on and check it, will you?”
“I’m sure it’s still there,” I said. “I’m sure.”
“No, go out right now. Keep me on.”
I sighed. We went silent.
“Now!” he said.
I got up and went out back without shoes. The sun was bright, high in the sky. The grass tickled my feet. The dirt was dry and hard. “Where’re you gonna put him? I mean, after you’re done doing what you do.”
“Rufus?” There was a pause. I heard him chewing then swallowing.
“After you’re done, you gonna display him like that bear rug you made?”
“No, silly. He’ll sit in his chair, in the corner.” Then as if I needed more convincing, “He’ll watch the same TV shows we do. He’ll be at the table when we eat. And at night—at night, I’ll take him to my room.”
I unlocked the door. The scent of wood dust filled the air. I coughed. I tried to lift the lid with my free hand, but it was surprisingly heavy. I told Billy to hold on as I laid the phone down. With two hands, I pushed up the lid. A sickening sweet smell wafted out, like cologne or perfume, but mixed with a sharp chemical tang. I didn’t know if I wanted to smell more or barf.
Inside was Rufus. He looked at peace despite the bruises and cuts and decaying holes and paleness. My hands shook furiously as I held the lid up. It was so heavy, but I couldn’t help but look at him and remember what he was like.
I had thought he was beautiful when I first met him. He had a ruggedness about him. Like a lumberjack. He was muscular and hairy. Looking at him then, I wondered who killed him. Who could have brought down a man like this? Blacken his eyes, cheeks? Broken skin and bone to insert metal, rusted? Made him scream for mercy? I took a deep breath of the sweet body smell still in the air.
“He’s in there,” I said after closing the lid.
“Good, good,” Billy said. “Hey, my break is almost over. I think I might stay a little bit longer today. We’re doing another bear. Don’t wait up for me.
“I’ll leave your dinner aside.”
“One more thing, Hunter,” he said before I could hang up. “Thank you for everything. It means a lot.”
“I know,” I said.
After I hung up, I lifted the lid again. But I had to drop it, because this time the stench changed, smelling like it was supposed to: rotten, dying. The smell clung to the air, trapped by the humidity. I ran back to the house to get away from it, but it was everywhere. I sprayed the place with air freshener until all I could smell were flowers and flowers and flowers.
Patrick did not disappear. I know where he went.
Patrick was the roommate who first rented the house with me. I couldn’t afford the house otherwise. He was from Wyoming and moved down to Louisiana to work out in the bayous. He was a thick man. He told me he played football in high school and that he didn’t work hard since, but the muscles stayed. “Good luck, I guess,” he said.
I was mesmerized by him. I fantasized about feeding him. The best I could do was try to cook for him. “What do you want?” I would ask him from the pantry. He was fascinated by that, my pantry. The look on his face, wide-eyed, mouth-opened, I knew he never saw a thing like it in his life. It seemed, I guess, bigger on the inside than it was on the outside, the shelves filled with boxes of pasta, jars of sauce, bags of flour, sugar, bottles of mustard, ketchup, cans of soda, all of it rows and rows going deep into the walls, a type of catacomb of food things.
“What would you have?” I’d ask, but he never wanted anything. A straight guy, he seemed opposed to any other guy cooking for him. It was a woman’s job, he must have thought, though he never said it. What he said was that he liked beers and girls. What he said was that he had this girlfriend back home who was finishing her degree. She would come down at the end of the year when she was done, live in the house before they finally settled down somewhere else.
“Oh,” I told him because I didn’t know what else to say.
He didn’t know I was a queer. I never told him because I was afraid; he was a man who you knew—just knew—hated your kind, and the best thing you could do was stay shut about those types of things and hope for the best. And I tried, I did: I tried. I was smart. I took precautions. I kept the men out of sight. They never came when he was home. They only came when he was gone. They only came when I thought he was gone.
Then one night I was fucking this guy. His flesh was soft and hot like the inside of a lobster. He had come over and we started kissing at the front door, making our way to my room where we fell down to the bed to strip off our clothes. We were careless in the moment, leaving the bedroom door wide open. Patrick wasn’t supposed to be home, or so I thought, but the car pulled in without us noticing and the door must have opened without its usual squeak and he passed my bedroom to get to his, and there we were, tangled in bed sheets, naked and going at it like beasts in some wild heat. Patrick ran out of the house so quick, I almost questioned that I actually saw him.
Later that night, he came home drunk. He slammed the door and the house shook on its cinder blocks. It woke me up, but what got me more scared were the sounds of his footsteps coming closer and louder. He busted into my room without a word. I don’t know why, but I buried myself under the covers. He jumped onto the bed. He yelled something, slurring his words, his hands searching for me. I prayed. I didn’t know who I was praying to, but I prayed. As if hearing my thoughts, he found me and yanked me out and threw me down to the floor. I bumped my head on the nightstand and the alarm clock fell down, its screen breaking. I turned around, trying to get up, but I couldn’t.
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. It sounds silly, really silly, but: it was his eyes. They paralyzed me. They used to be unremarkable, but still beautiful, but now, they were a darker blue, a violent storm blue. What I mean is: there was a meanness in them that I’d never seen before, not anywhere, not ever.
He reached over me and took the packing tape from my desk, ripping off a long strip as he stared at me with his shaking eyeballs.
“Dude,” I said. “Pat,” I said.
I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore, those eyes. I wanted to erase them from my memory, so I closed my own and in a panic kicked out my legs. All of a sudden, there was a yelp of pain and the sound of the bedsprings bouncing. When I opened my eyes, he was down on the bed. I wasn’t thinking. I grabbed the scissors from my desk. I wasn’t thinking. I felt like a cow in one of those videos about slaughterhouses, when they’re about to die, when they know they’re going to die and can’t do a thing about it. Yet with those scissors: in my hands.
I wasn’t thinking. I was not thinking.
Afterwards, I cried not knowing what to do. I stayed up all night thinking. By sunrise, I was tired, hungry, sweaty. I looked at Patrick, beautiful Patrick. The blood stains went black where the scissors went through. His eyes were closed—finally—and I sighed with relief. I went to the kitchen. It had been a long night. I was so tired, so hungry…
A week after Patrick disappeared, the search started. The cops came to the house, asked me all these questions, though they couldn’t search the premises just yet, Fourth Amendment and all. When did I last see him? Did he say anything before he left for work that day? Did he act suspicious? Did he have any enemies?
His girlfriend also flew in. She was a pretty brunette with a beauty mark that looked like a chocolate drop and fingernails painted the color of watermelon meat. She wanted to be part of the search.
“He must still be alive,” she said as I showed her his room. She asked me questions, too. Did he really like it down here in Louisiana, what with the weather and everything? Did he ever feel lonely down here? Was I kind to him?
What I learned was that a whole lot of pain could be avoided if only we didn’t say what we meant. I told her he loved it down here, that we got along swimmingly, that I’m sure he was okay. I’m sure he’d come by any second.
After she left, I buried what was left of Patrick in the backyard. I had frozen him—he was a big guy—but hadn’t touched him since that night. The thought of it made me sick, but it also made me hungry. I buried him while I snacked on a raw beef sirloin, cutting pieces of it out of the package, avoiding the flies that landed on it. I shooed them away, but they stayed so I tried my best. When his remains were buried, I threw up on the ground and ran inside. I felt weak, as if hit by lightning, but knew I had to make it back inside. I imagined flies chasing me. I swore they were swarming my body, mouths wide, eager to take a bite. I ran inside, bolting all the locks. That night I dreamt of nothing, but woke up in a cold sweat.
The police came back the next day. They searched the house, turning it inside out. They found nothing, though they took away most of his stuff. The girlfriend took the rest back to Wyoming.
“Are you sure you have nothing to tell us?” asked an officer.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“Positive?” he said.
“Positive,” I said.
I go back to the shack after taking a shower. I walk to it barefoot. The casket sits, still closed. I open it with both hands and peer inside. Digging in, I lift him up, lay him out.
From there I start digging at the spot where I buried Patrick. I start with a shovel, but then use my hands, working the dirt between my nails and fingers, faster and faster, then faster and faster and more.
When Billy comes home, I will tell him I saw nothing. The body could have gotten up and left. Who could stay here, truly? Who could?
I am saving the both of us. I am sure of this.
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
Image: “A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 1550”, by Pieter Aertsen.