Chapter One

 

Satan draws the soul to sin by choosing wicked company. “Do not be
deceived; evil company corrupts good habits.” Corinthians 15:33. I
say to you, you shall not suffer yourself to dwell among the wicked, nor
shall you permit them to dwell among you, lest you become one of them.
You shall cast them out, as you would a wolf among the sheep. Send them
out, I say, to live in the wild places of their wickedness, like wolves in
the barren mountains. Suffer not the sinners to taint the peaceful valley,
where the righteous dwell.

                                                                              —Reverend Edward Johns, Gideon,
                                                                                Church of Christ Returning, 1794

Near the top of north mountain a tumbledown shed leaned
against an old lightning-struck oak at the edge of a raggedy field.
Inside, Albert Erskine bent over a sprouting box and gently, methodically,
planted the marijuana seeds he’d soaked last night. He placed
each one half an inch deep in the soil-filled paper cups, pushing the
seed down with his index finger, the nail black-rimmed. The air,
hazy with dust motes, smelled of warm mouldy earth mixed with the
fertilizer he used in the sprouting mix. The seeds had been perfect,
virile, and had given off a good solid crack when he’d tested them on
a hot frying pan. Once the seeds were settled in their nest of humus,
soil, sand and fertilizer, he’d water them and leave them in the locked
shed under a grow-light fuelled by a small generator. Later, in a couple
of weeks, he’d plant the seedlings out in the field. In the meantime
he’d prepare the field with hydrated lime and a little water-soluble
nitrogen fertilizer.
     Growing a good cash crop of marijuana took smarts and Albert
was well aware of how smart he was. He knew, too, the power of
his physical presence. He would have been called handsome in
another place, with the cleft in his chin and the furious shine in
his brown eyes. Even as a whip-thin, lock-jawed boy there had
been something to notice about Albert, some flash of sinewy grace.
    Albert finished up, locked the shed with a bicycle chain and combination
lock and headed back to the compound. It was a couple of
miles through the woods, up and down and slipping sometimes on
the spring-mucky ground, but he didn’t mind. It was quiet out here,
except for the song of the cat-bird and the early robin.
     Halfway to the compound he skirted around the slope, coming
up on an old trailer from the low side so he wouldn’t be as easy to
spot. He paused at the edge of a clearing. The uncles, Dan, Lloyd
and Ray, were paranoid bastards at the best of times. Albert knew
he should just keep clear of whatever they were up to in there, but
yesterday his little brother, Jack, told him the uncles had started a
cooking operation. Albert couldn’t believe even they would be that
stupid; he had to see for himself.
     The rusty, partly-yellow trailer tilted on its blocks. The windows
were covered with tin foil. The breeze shifted and the scent of something
sickly sweet wafted toward him. And something else . . . ammonia?
Jesus. Albert crept to a stand of trees closer to the trailer to get
a better look. A small pile of rubbish lay half-hidden under some
branches. Used coffee filters. Part of an old car battery. Drain cleaner.
Dozens of empty cold remedy packets. If things had been bad on
the mountain before, Albert suspected they were about to get worse.
Much worse. Meth made everything worse.
    “What you doing up here, Bert?”
     Albert swung round. At the edge of the treeline, Ray, a shrivelled,
short man smiled at him over the barrel of a rifle. His teeth were
brown stubs, and his close-set eyes glittered with malice. Uncle Ray
might not be a big man, but even among the Erskines his temper
was legendary. He’d beat his wife, Meg, so bad she had convulsions,
and when his son, Billy, didn’t have a black eye, he had a split lip or
another missing tooth.
     “Just getting my seeds ready for planting.” Albert made sure he
kept his voice steady. “Good day for it.”
     “Field’s nowhere near here, now is it?” Ray shrugged the rifle closer
in on his shoulder.
     Behind Albert, the trailer door opened. “What’s this then?” It was
Lloyd’s voice. “Ray, now, put that rifle down. Ain’t nothing but Bert.”
    Ray did not lower the rifle. “He’s spying on us.”
    Although Albert didn’t like the idea of turning his back on Ray,
he glanced over his shoulder. Lloyd, his dark hair and beard bleeding
together in a shaggy mass, wore a plaid lumber jacket. His jeans
drooped below his boulder of a belly. He stretched as though he’d
been hunched over something and his back was cramped.
     “Hey, Lloyd.”
     “That right, Bert?” said Lloyd. “You spying?”
     “Just rambling.”
      Lloyd spat and stepped down from the trailer’s cinderblock step.
“Bullshit.”
    Albert stepped to the side so he could keep both men in his sights.
    “Don’t take another step,” said Ray.
    Lloyd was now within arm’s reach. He scratched his beard. “You
know, Bert, you are a mystery. You don’t act like family at all now,
do you? Don’t come visiting. Live in your little shack. Course maybe
you have your own parties. That it? You have the kids come see you?
That’s not hardly sociable, now is it? You got your own little weedgrowing
business going and we leave you alone with that don’t we?
We let you have your way there, ain’t that true?”
   “I think I’m generous,” said Albert. “You get your taste.”
     Ray laughed. “You’re generous? That’s rich. This is Harold’s fucking
mountain, Albert. You breathe because Harold says you breathe.”

“The point is,” said Lloyd, “you live like you don’t want to be an
Erskine, and that ain’t right. Makes us think, especially when we find
you snaking around like this. Nope. I don’t think Harold’s gonna
like this at all.”
“You do what you gotta do, Lloyd, but I’m telling you, nothing
good’s gonna come from—”
Lloyd’s fist shot out. Albert crumpled to his knees, gasping for
breath. It felt like he’d been hit with a pile driver. He struggled to
keep his eyes open and watched Ray’s boot travel in slow motion
to his head. He rolled and the kick landed on his shoulder, another
landed on his kidney.
Lloyd bent down, put his meaty hand under Albert’s chin and twisted
it so they were eye to eye. “Albert, you need to watch yourself, boy. You’re
Erskine. You’re family. We take care of family, don’t we, Ray?”
“We sure do.”
Albert heard a zipper and felt something wet and warm spray
on his legs. He wrenched his face away from Lloyd, kicked out and
squirmed away from the urine stream.
“That’s enough, Ray, put yer pecker away. Now, you get on back to
that little shack of yours, Bert, and remember who you are. All right
now, say it with me. Erskines don’t . . .”
“Talk,” he croaked.
“And Erskines don’t . . .”
“Leave.”
“Good boy,” said Lloyd, and he pulled Albert to his feet. “Now,
get on back where you belong.”
It took half an hour to reach the compound. Albert made his way
past the old outhouse. Bastards. One of these days he’d show them.
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Our Daily Bread 5
His shoulder and back ached. He smelled Ray’s piss. He slapped at
a cloud of gnats. That’s what the Erskines were: a cloud of biting
gnats. No matter how you swatted at them, they reformed and came
at you again.
A few minutes later he came on the cabin his mother Gloria lived
in with whatever man she was shacking up with, and Albert’s brother
and sister, Jack and Jill, and Kenny, Jill’s son. Smoke slithered out
of the rusty chimney, so somebody was probably inside, but he kept
going. Gloria had never been a source of comfort.
He veered toward the back of Harold and Fat Felicity’s tin-roofed
grey-sided three-room main house on which the compound centred.
Harold and Felicity’s grown children, simple-minded Sonny, Carrie
and Carrie’s son, Little Joe, lived there, too, as did an ever-revolving
stream of uncles and cousins and other assorted Erskine flotsam. A
pair of shutters hung on one of the windows. The shutters and the
door had once been painted red, but all were faded and peeled now,
as much grey as red. The top half of the door held three panes of
glass and one of plywood. There were no curtains on the windows,
and under the porch canopy rested a spring-sprung couch. Next to
the house sprawled a pile of garbage: disposable diapers; plastic bags,
which rose up in the wind and festooned the trees, hanging on the
branches like pale shredded skin; empty bottles of various kinds,
some soda, but mostly beer, wine and bourbon; used sanitary napkins;
a stained and swollen mattress; the twisted wheel of a bicycle,
the spokes sharp and defensive-looking; a small refrigerator Uncle
Dan had dragged home from the dump thinking he could fix, but
with which he’d become bored after a day and there it lay on its side,
its door gaping; various household objects—a bent spoon, a broken
cup and three plates, an old brown-stained pillow where mice now
nested; two shoes, not matching.
Scanning the house for signs of life, Albert caught a glimpse of
Sonny in the front window, waving. He waved back and Sonny smiled
and picked his nose. Albert crossed the dirt and ignored Grunter III,
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6 Lauren B. Davis
the huge brown and tan mongrel who crawled out from under the
house and sidestepped over to him, wanting a scratch behind the
ears, but fearing a kick. A sympathetic desire, perhaps, but Albert
was in no mood.
Six-year-old club-footed Brenda, one of Lloyd’s kids, stood on an
old bucket and looked in a back window. She wore a boy’s jacket over
a filthy pink nightgown, and a pair of rubber boots several sizes too
large, to accommodate her twisted left foot. She’d been in need of a
bath several weeks ago. Albert knew what she was probably seeing in
there, and he knew if she got caught she’d get a worse beating than
he just got. If he called out he’d just scare her and she’d make a noise
and then they’d both be in for it. He should just walk away and let
whatever was going to happen go right on and happen. Erskines don’t
talk, and Erskines don’t leave, and Erskines better mind their own
fucking business. She turned then, and looked at him, tears pouring
down her face.
Brenda watched him come near, wiped her nose with her palm and
then turned back to the window. Albert put his hand on her shoulder,
and his head next to hers. The window was smoky with grime. Inside,
a bare bulb hung from the ceiling. Dan sat on the side of the bed,
wearing only a stained undershirt. His head was tilted back, his eyes
closed and his mouth open and slack. Between his legs knelt Brenda’s
little brother, Frank. Dan cupped the boy’s head and moved it back
and forth. The child’s hands flailed weakly.
Time peeled away, fled backwards and Albert was six years old
again, his mouth full, gagging, the stench and the sound of moans,
his own flesh tearing . . . bile rushed acidly into his mouth. His hands
shook. His knees shook. He turned away. Spit. Spit again. One of
these days, he was going to do it. He’d get his rifle and put an end to
the Erskines, all of them.
“Down,” Brenda said.
Albert lifted her off the bucket and watched her hobble off into
the woods. He stomped across the yard, passing the plywood-covered
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Our Daily Bread 7
well, and as he did he looked back at the front of the house. Old
Harold stood on the tilting porch. He wore the same stained and
smudged grey overalls he always wore, and the same John Deere cap.
He was a big man, with a barrel chest, and if his arms were oddly
short, they were thick with muscle, even though Old Harold had
to be in his seventies. White stubble showed on his sagging features
and his bulbous red nose was an explosion of broken blood vessels.
His small, deep-set eyes—wolfish and keen—tracked Albert across
the dirt.
“You come visiting, Bert?”
“Just heading back to mine,” said Albert.
“That’s not very sociable. Not right for relations to keep so distant.
Come on in.”
“Not today,” said Albert.
“Be seeing you then. I’m watching you, boy.”
Albert felt Old Harold’s eyes on him until he ducked into the
treeline and walked the short, but crucial, distance to his own place.
Three years ago, Albert had built a sparsely insulated, one-door, twowindow
cabin from materials liberated from building sites and scrounged
from junk yards. The roof was lower by a good foot and a half on one side,
no running water and no electricity, but it kept the rain off and mostly it
kept out the cold. He pulled the string with the key on it from around
his neck and unlocked the padlock. Inside, he tossed a log into the black
potbelly and jostled the log to make sure it caught on the embers. When
he was sure it blazed, he flopped down on the mouse-chewed brown
corduroy couch that folded out into a bed. Photos of naked women,
some astride motorcycles, papered the walls. On the floor were boxes
of books and a stack of tattered paperbacks—The Hobbit, The Catcher
in the Rye, Tom Sawyer, Lord of the Flies. A sink drained through a pipe
directly into a pile of gravel a few feet from the cabin, and over the sink
was a shelf with a few canned goods, crackers and a box of corn flakes.
Albert reached under the couch for a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels,
and drank. Good liquor from Wilton’s Groceries and enough in the
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8 Lauren B. Davis
locked trunk under the window to last a man for weeks if he wanted
it to last that long. No, it might not be much of a place, but it was
his—a place where he was his own man. Albert drank again, wincing
as the fiery liquor seared into a canker on the side of his tongue.
He ran his hand down his stomach. Hard as a washboard. His arms
were cut, baby, cut. He wasn’t going to be another of the fat fucks up
here. Two hundred push-ups every morning. One hundred chin-ups
on a tree branch out back, rain or shine, winter or summer. Bring it
on. Just bring it on.
He smelled the piss on his pants. “Shit,” he said. He crossed the
room and lifted the lid on a steel bucket in the sink. It was threequarters
full of water. It would do. He used his knife to shave slivers
off the bar of soap on the counter, stripped off his pants and dumped
them in the bucket.
Half an hour later there was a knock on the door. Not loud. A
small, safe knock.
“Come on,” he said.
Ten-year-old Toots shuffled in wearing a too-big duffle coat, her
sullen, sharp-featured little face hidden behind a curtain of greasy
hair, her skinny legs bare and scratched above the rubber boots.
“Put some pants on, will ya,” she said, not moving too far from
the door.
“Just washing mine out, don’t worry.” From where he sat on the
couch Albert leaned over and pulled a pair of sweat pants from a
small pile of clothes on the floor. As he was putting them on he said,
“Dan’s got hold of Frank.”
“Yeah, I know. I won the mailbox race today. Felicity said I could
run for Brenda, too.”
The mailbox race—first kid to the mailbox and back won a day
without having to be “nice.” Kids learned to run awful fast. Albert
could have won a fucking gold medal for sprinting.
“You run fast,” said Albert. He sat back down on the fold-out bed
and took a long draw from the bottle.
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Our Daily Bread 9
“Harold says you got any booze?”
“That what you’re here for?”
“Harold said I had to come ask you.”
“They drinking down there?”
“You’re drinking, too.”
“So?”
“I’m just saying.” Toots folded her arms with her hands up the
sleeves of her coat, scratching her elbows. “What you got to eat?”
she said.
He took another swig from the Jack and guilt wriggled into his
bloodstream with the booze. He was the oldest of his generation.
He should have stolen cans of beans or something—soup or crackers.
The younger kids looked to him: Little Joe, Toots, Frank, Griff,
Brenda, Cathy and Kenny. What was less clear was the nature of
that responsibility, up here where the view was like heaven and the
living was like hell.
He looked at the calendar on the wall, the one with the picture
of the earth taken from space. Six days to go until the first of the
month and the welfare cheques. They’d be down to ketchup soup at
the house.
“I got a couple jars of peanut butter.”
“Where?” Toots said, scanning his shelves. “You got any bread?”
Albert got up and went to a wooden box by the back window. He
pulled out two jars of extra crunchy peanut butter and turned to the
little girl. “No bread, sorry.”
She grabbed the jars and stuffed them under her coat.
“You got no manners? You don’t say ‘thank you’?”
“Yeah, right. Thanks.” She glared at him from beneath her dirty
hair. “What about the bottle for The Others?” She used the kids’
name for the adults.
He regarded her, skinny and defiant, practically feral, and so smart.
What would she be like, if she’d been raised in some other place?
It was a question he asked too often, this great what if? And it was
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10 Lauren B. Davis
always prodded along by the desire to get the hell out—the great
lurching, gut-squalling impulse to grab a couple of kids and run for
the city. But a couple? Toots and . . . who? How the fuck could you
take a couple and leave the rest? How did you choose? He had no
money, no schooling and no skills. How would they live in the world
beyond? Besides, Erskines don’t leave. They were probably all fucking
damned anyway. Erskines, for better or worse, stuck together.
They’d drilled the code into his head since before he could remember.
Nobody talks. Nobody leaves. Seems it didn’t matter how big Albert
got, how grown he was, Harold would always be bigger, and meaner.
“Where are the kids?”
“Gone to the woods. Kenny and Frank are inside.”
“Kenny, too, huh? You going to the woods?”
“Can I stay here?
“I’m drinking, too, aren’t I?”
“You’re not much good then, are ya?” She looked at him for the
first time and her eyes were razors. “Not when you’re drinking.”
“Smart kid.” He raised the bottle, turned away from her eyes. “Tell
Harold to go fuck himself.”
“You tell him,” she said. “I’m going into the woods.”
And she was gone then, like some scrawny forest sprite. She was
fast, that one.
“Shit,” he said to the pictures on the walls. Albert considered ignoring
the demand, but they might come up and take what they wanted.
They’d clean him out if they found his stash, and God only knows
what Ray and Lloyd were saying. He took a couple of bottles out of
the trunk.
Albert stood in the middle of his cabin. He sure as shit didn’t want
to go up to the house, but what choice did he have? He ground his
teeth and his knuckles whitened around the bottle necks. Wasn’t
there anybody on his side? Surrounded as he was by kin—practically
drowning in them—there wasn’t a single person Albert could
call “friend.”

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