What follows is an excerpt from Rick Harsch’s second novel Billy Verité (1998, Steerforth Press), reprinted here with kind permission of the author. It comprises the entirety of Chapter 3, “Skunk in Kentucky.” Billy Verité can be read in the recently published omnibus edition of Harsch’s first three novels, The Driftless Trilogy, available online from coronasamizdat.com.
“Biliary dyskinesia, that’d be my guess.”
“I’ll be darned — you a doctor?”
“Now do I look like a doctor to you?”
“No, no, I’d guess I’d have to say you don’t.”
“That’s right, I don’t. And if you know your history, what I do look like is Lee Harvey Oswald. Only he looked older than he was and I’m not. That make sense? I mean to say, I look about thirty and I am thirty. Skunk Lane Forhension, that’s my name. And you? You’re a bartender suffering from biliary dyskinesia, and right about now you’re wondering what in the fuck I am and what I’m doing in your little bar in your little Kentucky town.”
“No,” the bartender said, a wry grin suppressing itself near the corners of his mouth as he decided to guess this Skunk fella was just a lonely traveler who couldn’t help running like a festering wound at the mouth and was not some kind of troublemaker. “No, I was kind of wondering what you might like to drink.”
“All right, that’s all right,” Skunk Lane Forhension said. “That ain’t the entire truth, but I’ll have a shot of that clear shit you make at home and most likely keep in a vodka bottle back there somewhere. “
“Son, you sure do have a way about you.”
The bartender poured Skunk a shot of moonshine out of a Popov bottle.
“Looky there,” Skunk said, holding up the shot, “clear as the piss of a swamp country mongoloid.”
“How’d you know I got biliary dyskinesia?”
“The way you was holding your hand to your gut as I came through the door. I bet you just ate, too. It likes to act up just after you eat.”
“That’s a fact.”
“That’s two facts.”
“Nothing. What you want to ask is where I come from, where I’m going.”
“Being as there’s nobody else in here, I guess … “
The bartender wore a plaid shirt with rough holes where the sleeves had been ripped off at the shoulders. One fat arm crossed over his chest as he belched.
“See that?” Skunk asked. “No relief. One of the signs…I’m coming from a little place called Hension, Georgia, and I’m on my way to a job up in a place called Lay Cross, Wisconsin. Lay Cross, that’s French.”
The bartender leaned on the bar and looked Skunk over, his white T-shirt, his skinny arms, trying to figure out what kind of job it might be.
“What sort of — ?”
“Don’t you got a name?”
The bartender straightened, reaching absently for a bar rag.
“Sure,” he said, “Ken.”
“Ken. What sort of job? Well, it’s more in the nature of establishing a presence, if you know what I mean, which you don’t. They got a situation up there, Ken, a situation … “
“What sort of — “
“Look at the way that dust hangs in the sunlight, Ken. You think dust is especially attracted to sunlight? I don’t. Shit’s everywhere and we’re breathing it in, right now, you and me.”
Ken didn’t know what to say.
“Feels better, don’t it?”
Ken looked down at his gut and nodded.
“That’s the way with biliary dyskinesia. Feels better and better till you eat again. Only thing you got to watch is anxiety, stress. Stress’ll set it off between meals. You married, Ken?”
“That’ll make it act up.”
“That little kitten you keep at home. “
“Maybe you ought to stick to your own story, friend.”
Skunk smiled to himself and reached for his shot glass. He threw the whole shot of moonshine down his throat and let out a hiss through his pursed lips.
“They got this situation up there, Ken, like a lot of situations I seen more and more lately where things get stretched and stretched, further and further, and you might want to try and get there and say hold on before it breaks, but there’s just no use, it’s all gone broke and snapped and nothing to take its place. See, you take this pig and — no, you take a … stack of envelopes and you put a rubber band around it and it can’t but barely get around them envelopes and then it breaks and you got no way to keep that stack together, and that’s a piss-poor example, and you and I both know it, but we both know that’s the way it is, too, Ken, don’t we? Things bust and don’t hold and they get all over the place, and it works the same in law and order and business, which you and me, we know to be the same thing. It gets stretched and stretched, that’s the situation they got up there in Lay Cross — got French written all over it, don’t it, Ken, Moulin Rouge, the fairy from Paree; you come — anyways it’s getting stretched and it’ll break see me there and I’m on my way, and then it breaks I’m there and I come sliding up all primal through the cracks, if you see my imagery there, Kenneth — what comes up primal through the cracks … that’s me.”
Ken lifted the shot glass and wiped the bar under it.
“Know what I mean, Ken?”
Ken didn’t. He shook his head.
“I’ll tell you, then. I had this place down in Algiers. Know where that is?”
“Cross the river from New Orleans. I had this place above a tavern there no nicer than this shithole of yours — you wince a little there, Ken? See, that’s what I mean about stress, anxiety. Can’t let the little insults bother you. You want, I’ll apologize, but then that would offer credence to the notion you got something to be upset about, which may as well be a telegram to your liver saying it’s okay to act up at each and every little emotional upset. So we’ll skip the apology, Ken, and get on with the story, since you asked. I lived above this bar facing the alley out back, and every night these two big old cats meet back there, right behind the bar, and tear into each other, rip each other a new asshole every night, every night, same time. This goes on a few weeks, it gets so I’m waiting up there for them, see, and they don’t miss a single night. Fight to a draw and turn back the way they come. Finally one night one of them shows up and the other don’t. I don’t know, maybe he finally crawled off and died from his wounds — both these cats was scarred up good — but maybe he took one look at himself in the mirror and figured it weren’t worth it no more; I don’t know … my guess: he’s dead. Nothing else would’ve kept him from that other cat, from that nightly fight. Well now that other cat shows up and waits around awhile, and he prances back and forth awhile, and he struts, and he’s waiting, feeling pretty big, I guess, and after maybe an hour or so he starts up this mewling, I mean serious mewling, Ken, and he paces back there, and he gets to howling a little bit — howling now — and he’s getting angry, he’s getting angrier and angrier — he wants to fight, he’s got to fight, and now there ain’t no one to fight— I’ll tell you one thing, I knew I wasn’t going down there in that alley— so he’s got to fight and there ain’t no one and he starts acting crazy — I’m up there leaning out the window like every night and he pays me but no attention, he’s going crazy, he wants that other cat to come back, and he’s getting crazy from it, starts leaping up and throwing himself against the back of the tavern claws out and everything and to tell you the truth the first time it was kind of funny cause he jumped at the wall with his claws out and he kind of stuck there for a minute before he disengaged himself and really went berserk on it, I mean screaming — screaming now — crazy, throwing himself at that wall and tearing at it, fighting that wall, and screaming, leaping up, then backing off, running hard at that wall, smashing his furry little head into that wall again and again, ramming his head again and again on that wall until finally one time he backs off kind of stumbling and falls over on his side dead. Plain dead. They threw him out in the morning, Ken. Garbage can. And this is where a guy like me pays attention. I’m up there next night same time waiting to see what happens, and sure enough right at fight time long comes this skunk. He sniffs around kind of waddling like they do, never even stops, and he lets this stink mist out his ass and keeps on walking. Two months later when I left, place still smelled like skunk.”
“Huh? Oh, shine? I don’t think I’m getting through to you, Ken. Well there’s more than one way … One more …”
Ken wished he hadn’t asked. Skunk noticed his wince as he reached down for the Popov bottle.
“Ready for me to leave, Ken?”
Ken poured the shot.
“I got things to wipe down,” Ken said, and started walking toward the other end of the bar.
“No you don’t. “
“You needn’t act contrary, son.”
“‘Son,'” Skunk repeated. “No, I needn’t, Ken, but you got to be stronger — I mean emotionally. Everytime you upset that little sphincter by your liver — that’s right, we all got more than one — that little liver asshole tightens and you get pain. Anyway, that’s about how it works.”
“I got nothing more to say,” Ken said, and turned again.
“That just ain’t true, Ken. You got lots to say, but you’re scared of me now. Alls I got to do is open my mouth and I can bring you pain, just some asshole off the street, some stranger, maybe a psychopath who just happens to pull into your little town early one sunny summer afternoon — makes you feel a little unsafe, don’t it, Ken? Gets to you. And if I was to mention your little kitten alone at home, maybe — “
Struggling to cover the pain, Ken said, “That’s enough out of you. You go on your way now. Right now.”
“You’re hiding it, Ken. It’s starting to hurt like a motherfucker.”
Ken dropped the charade, holding his belly with one hands reaching under the bartop for a baseball bat with the other. He lived in the kind of town where a bartender in his own tavern could club a stranger to a sack of pulp and later be absolved by officials. But Skunk Lane Forhension remained at his stool.
“One swing you can knock me cold, Ken, one swing, but you ain’t got one swing in you cause I’m thinking here about your little kitten and how you got to be wondering by now if maybe I got her tied up and gagged in the kitchen and you thinking about me thinking about what she’ll be thinking when it’s me instead of you and that kind of thinking is too much, too much stress for a biliary case such as yourself … “
Ken struggled to rally the anger that would have raised the bat over his head but instead began to yield to the pain that made him want to lay his forehead on the floor. The blood rushing to his head pushed the veins at his temples out like guinea worms and his eyes bulged fishlike with hatred, involuntarily entranced by the calm smirk on the face of the man who really did look a lot like Lee Harvey Oswald, and suddenly he dropped the bat, stumbled backward and doubled up, his arms crossed over his belly, and looked up at Skunk Lane Forhension to say with pain-suppressed fury and a dull wonder, “You’re evil.”