My story, "God's Gonna Cut You Down," featured in Just To Watch Them Die: Crime Fiction Inspired By The Songs Of Johnny Cash has been nominated for an Anthony Award!
Story is featured in the preview of the book here:
Or you can read it here:
(There might be a typo or two--I apologize)
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Jen Conley
I was outside smoking a cigarette when the call came. It was my father.
“Tomorrow night,” Pop said. “Six. Matt will get you.”
I flicked my smoke ashes on the small wooden deck, a deck I’d recently stained for my landlord.
“Eric? You listening to me?”
“All right,” I answered. “I’ll be there.”
“Park your car in the old A&P lot,” my father said.
Inside my garage apartment, I sat in the silence, finishing a soda. I didn’t drink anymore and my father never said much about this fact, although Pop never said much about anything, until he did. The man was seventy-three, alert, wiry with long arms, his grip as strong as it’d been thirty years earlier.
My father had two living sons and a deceased daughter.
I grew up down in Ocean County, in a bi-level house Pop still resided in, my mom dead ten years. It was a typical neighborhood, nothing grand, but four blocks away there was a small park along an inlet of the bay. A narrow path opened up from the edge of this park, a trail which had been cut in the 1980s and used by us kids and teens—a way to get out further into the woods along the water, to one of the clearings with a hidden beach. Bring a fishing pole, a blanket, beer, your girl. Last year before I’d quit drinking, I’d brought my young wife—ex-wife now—out to the second clearing where my sister, Dawn, had lost her life.
“I don’t want to be here,” she’d suddenly said, hugging herself, her eyes darting between the open water and the dense woods behind us. “Get me out of here, Eric! Fucking get me out of here!” I was annoyed. It had been her idea. Show me, show me… Over the years, I’d been out to the spot several times myself, looking for something that my sister might have lost—one of those barrettes I’d always found in the bathroom, the tube of mascara she kept in her jacket pocket, even the mix-cassette tape she’d made for her best friend, Renee Delgo, because nobody ever found that.
It was a long time that I sat on my couch, in my crummy apartment above a detached garage, thinking. I thought about a lot of things as one does when they live in a crummy apartment, but mostly I thought about my ex-wife. Pop had helped me move in after Emily gave the break-up speech. “We had three good years together but I can’t be tied to a man who has a drinking problem.” At the present moment, she lived in townhome in Jersey City with a new man and a cat. I worked in Newark for Horizon Blue Cross, and the apartment I rented was owned by a co-worker’s cousin.
“That wife was too young for you,” Pop said the day he helped me move in. “I’m sure the pussy was good, but she wasn’t doing much of the housework, was she?”
The pussy. My father would’ve never used that word if my mother was alive.
“She was not into housework,” I’d answered. “You got that right.”
Emily had been twenty-six when she left me, twenty-three when we met, too young, I know. “I can’t do toilets,” she’d whispered one night in bed. “I just can’t.” Once a month, I sent Emily a check, even though by law I didn’t have to—we weren’t married long enough. But she’d asked.
I got off the couch and went back outside, where I smoked several cigarettes, my throat growing ragged and pained. The autumn sun was deep orange. I wanted to think about Emily but she kept pulling away from my mind, like a boat drifting from the dock. My father’s voice, that phone call, and my sister’s killer, David Ward, who had been released six months earlier—that shit settled in my head like concrete. David Ward, the goofy older kid who had played army men with me when I was nine, that stupid dumbass had returned to my childhood neighborhood to live with his mother. His mother who lived nine houses away from Pop.
It’s been a long, difficult road with the ghost of David Ward hanging over my family. And nobody was angrier than my younger brother, Matt. Back in June, two months after David got out, Matt came up for a visit. “Motherfucker is waving to people!” We spoke inside my apartment, Matt with a beer in his hand—he’d bought a six pack from the local liquor store. “He’s got a used car and a fucking job, dude! A fucking job!”
I opened a soda.
“That ain’t all,” Matt went on. “I’ve been trailing him, right?”
“So the dickhead hits Wawa every morning. Gets his coffee and a fucking doughnut with sprinkles. Then he talks to the women behind the counter. Just chats, like ‘Gonna be a nice day’. And the women, they talk back, like ‘You stay cool!’ Fucking bullshit.”
Matt paced the room, raging a thousand times wilder than the average infuriated person because my brother couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t stay faithful to one woman, couldn’t hold a job long. He was a perpetual teenager, rebellious and hot-blooded—but it was all due to his ADHD. When you’re handed that card, there’s not much you can do but live it. Matty had the same wiry build as my father, the same long arms, broad shoulders, rectangular built, but not tall. The Irish side, my mother used to say. I was the big one—tall, broad shouldered also, but I was thicker, wider, stronger. The Dutch side, Mom would say. My sister, Dawn, she was just small.
In August Matt came back with more news. “He goes over to Spirits at Happy Hour. I went in, sat at the end of the bar. He don’t recognize me, the dumb fuck. He’s just some mushy fat pathetic loser, man. I don’t think anyone knows him. The boys let him play pool. Play pool! And Jessica, that hot bartender I was nailing? She fucking buys him back drinks. Nobody recognizes him anymore.”
It’d made the local papers that he was getting out after thirty years, and there’d been some uproar—Facebook postings of his prison picture, letters of outrage. But David Ward had followed the rules: registered as a sex offender, was in the house by ten o’clock, had his job at a fish market. He did good things, too. He volunteered to walk dogs at the local animal shelter and took his mom shopping. Within a few months, the outrage had died down.
“I ain’t forgot nothing,” Matty said.
Just a week ago, there was one last visit from Matt. “I saw him talking to some females, teenage girls, you know?” Matt lowered his voice but he was still aflame in fury. “The fucker was outside, mowing his mother’s lawn, and these two teenage girls come walking up and he says, ‘How’s it going, ladies?’ Like they’re gonna respond to the mushy fat killer that he is. Anyhow, those girls, they just looked at each other, ‘cause they know. The kids, they know who’s no good. ‘Cause we always knew old David was no good, remember?”
I’d been eleven, Matt ten, David
Ward fifteen, Dawn fourteen. David hung with a guy named Chuck, always a big hulk of a man-boy, and they’d had a thing for Dawn. She had the downstairs room in the bi-level, the entire lower
level to herself in fact, and they’d been caught looking in her window, jerking off together. Matt caught them. Because of his ADHD, he was always up, poking around his room, sneaking off to the
kitchen for cookies or anything with sugar, and he’d been sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, looking through the window at the backyard, the full moon illuminating our yard with the above
ground pool. He’d seen the shadows moving, two figures leaping over the chain-link fence, and he saw them skirt the edges, moving deftly through the night, until they disappeared from Matt’s
eyesight. In those days, Matty was in Scouts and he always had a flashlight clipped to whatever he was wearing, even his pajama bottoms. He went down the front stairs, slipping into his sneakers,
and went out the front door. He moved around the side of the house, opening the back gate quietly, and snuck around, suddenly finding these two with their dicks out, their hands over them,
shaking furiously. The light from Dawn’s room shined brightly through the window. Dawn was asleep, but she slept in a tank top and underwear, no bra, no sheet or blanket over her, and the police
would later find out Chuck and David had been jerking off to her for weeks.
“Disgusting,” my mom said to Dawn. “You can’t sleep with pajamas and a blanket over you like the rest of us? Why didn’t you just take your clothes off and dance for them?”
Pop took a piece of plywood and covered her window with it.
“I didn’t know they were there, honest,” Dawn said to me a few days later. “You believe me, right?”
Matt took a beer from his six-pack. “Wish they got both of them.” To that, I nodded. Chuck had been beaten to death in prison, murdered by his cell mate. David, he’d survived and now he was driving around, buying coffee at Wawa, playing pool, getting a buy-back beer from hot Jessica. Dawn, she was dead.
The night was just what Pop had predicted—clear, dark, perfect. I got into Matt’s white pick up and we drove over to Spirits. It was dark, and Spirits was a liquor store with a secret bar in the back, where bar customers parked. David Ward was staying on after Happy Hour ended, enchanted by Jessica, Matt explained. “But he leaves before nine. It’s like clockwork—8:47. Must be all that living by rules in prison,” Matt said. “You get all institution-like, right?”
My brother handed me a small flashlight, told me to hold onto it, and got out of the truck. He disappeared around the corner of the bar, and I took over the wheel.
David Ward came lumbering out the back door at exactly 8:47. Matt trailed behind him, then broke into a whip-like charge, snapping a long arm around David’s neck, a knife at his throat. Matt’s truck had one of those narrow back jumpseats and he’d shoved David inside, the knife at his neck, telling him he better keep his fucking fat ass still. I drove the white truck out of the back parking lot, onto the highway, turning off into our old neighborhood. The same neighborhood where for a time, David and Dawn and Renee Regalo and Matt and me—we’d all played Manhunt together the summer before Dawn was killed. We’d ridden bikes together a few years before that. And during all those years, David, always a dull-witted kid, had played army men with me in the backyard near my above ground pool, drawing lines in the dirt, digging trenches for our men, making machine gun noises when we shot each other down.
The park was desolate. I turned the truck off and got out, opening the side door for Matt. David squirmed and whimpered. The inside lamp of the vehicle glowed dimly and I caught a glimpse of the guy’s face. I barely recognized the boy I’d played army men with all those years before.
Using Matt’s flashlight, I led the way to the trail, then through it, Matt with his arms around David, dragging him along the earth, the fishy stink of the inlet strong and putrid. We hit the first clearing, then arrived at the second, where several cinderblocks were piled off to the side—Matt had stacked them earlier in the day. David whimpered and blubbered, awful desperate noises coming from his mouth, but no real words. We stood by the inlet, listening to the water quietly lap along the shore. David struggled, tried to move, but Matt pushed the knife into his throat harder, puncturing skin, and in the dark night, when I shined the flashlight on them, I saw the glistening liquid drip down David’s neck. “You fucking stay still,” Matt warned, his face tight and gruesome. “Stop your blubbering.” My brother’s fierce and brutal focus unnerved me. I lowered the flashlight.
The sound of a small motor echoed quietly in the night. It was Pop, cutting through the water, moving the boat close to shore, stepping out in his high clamming boots. He held a loop of hemp rope which he chucked off into the sand, and stood before us.
“Come here,” Matt said to me. He took my flashlight, handed over his knife, told me to hold David. “You’re stronger.” I did so but was shocked by David’s fleshy body, soft and useless. He had no chance. Matt stepped into the chilly water, soaking his white sneakers and the bottom of his jeans. He leaned down and yanked the boat halfway onto the shore. He shined the flashlight on David.
“Hold him up,” Pop said now, taking the knife from my hand. “Hold him with both arms.”
I had my hands hooked around David’s arms, my front against David’s back, but keeping him from buckling to the ground was difficult. David kept sinking, his body dropping. He was squirrely with his relentless whining.
“Boy, hold him up!” Pop snarled at me.
I wanted to let David drop. I wanted to let go, but I did as my father ordered. I jerked my old army-playing buddy up to attention. David whimpered and cried but he did not apologize, or beg. He only whined, “My mom, she’s at home, my mom…”
It’s human nature to feel sick when someone is about to die—no matter how awful they’d been in life. They’ve done movies about it, books too, maybe it’s even in the Bible. I’m not a religious guy, never paid attention in Catechism classes, so I wouldn’t know. Still, there is this part and if you’re at a certain age, like I am, you probably can just guess what it is:
Renee Regalo had promised my sister there’d be a party at the second clearing, or “the second spot” as the kids called it. “Bring that mix tape you made me. They got a boom box.” She promised Dawn that Anthony Martino and Joel Rutherford would be there, because that’s what she’d heard. “They were cool, you know, cute,” Renee told the police. “And we just wanted to hang with them.” But Renee had overheard the story wrong, the party was planned for Saturday night, not Friday. When she found this information out, she called my sister but my mother answered and Renee couldn’t leave a message like that with my mother. So she assumed Dawn would figure it out once she got to the second spot.
Chuck and David happened to be out that night, sitting on the wooden picnic benches. The moon was full, bright, and they were smoking cigarettes, and they noticed Dawn, noticed her go into the brush, and they followed her because Chuck said they should. At the second clearing, they found her sitting on a log, waiting for the phantom party to happen. When the two boys showed up, she said hello, said she thought there was a party, and that she had to get going. The boys took their moment. Chuck grabbed her and knocked her to the sandy ground and both boys did what opportunistic young men and grown men had been doing to women for centuries. They kicked and punched and raped her and did other ungodly things with sticks and an old bottle that had washed up on the sand, Dawn’s screams echoing across the inlet, the bay, but it was a windy night, the water choppy, the splashes against the shore loud. Even so, the teenagers who came out to party always screamed and cheered, and the people who lived along the inlet concluded that her cries were just that. My sister was alive when the boys finished and dragged her into the water. But she was unconscious and she quickly drowned.
Pop took the knife and held it up, the metal glimmering in the light Matt shined on us, and as I held David tight, so tight I knew that God was just as conflicted as I was with myself, my father drew the blade across David Ward’s throat, deep and gruesome. David jerked, shook, then caved in on himself. I looked into the dark sky as I let the dying man slip from my arms onto the sand.
While Pop held the flashlight, Matt and me tied rope around David’s body, and looped it through the square holes in the cinderblocks. We did this quickly, without speaking, then loaded the body into the boat. It was Pop and Matt who waded out in the chilly water, waded out until they were chest deep, and then yanked David Ward overboard with his cinderblocks, and put him in a dark grave.
At the house, Pop drank whiskey and Matt drank beer. I stuck around until midnight, when I could no longer resist the urge to drink. I drove back up to my apartment, the moonless night alit with bright stars.
The dreams were relentless. Sometimes I found Dawn’s barrettes and I gave them back to her and she smiled. “You believe me, right?” Sometimes I was a boy, playing army men with David, drawing lines in the dirt. Sometimes it was me who drew the knife across David’s throat.
“You got no inner strength,” Pop said one night, a few months after the killing. Things had died down by this point. Sure, Mrs. Ward had begged the police to find her son, reaffirming that he was feeble-minded, yet no one seemed to care. Newspaper articles on Facebook were a flutter with righteous comments of Karma’s wrath and God’s retribution. The cops, many who had either known my father from my sister’s murder, or were the sons of cops who had handled the murdered, questioned Pop, but they didn’t question him hard.
“I’m just concerned,” I said. “That they’ll come after me and Matt.”
“You ain’t concerned about shit,” Pop said, standing up and taking two glasses from the cabinet. He returned to the kitchen table where the bottle of whiskey sat. “You’re just worried ‘cause you can’t handle it, can you? You felt sorry for the man.”
“He was dumb, Pop. Low IQ. Stupid. He always was.”
“You’re too goddamned soft.” Pop poured whiskey into both tumblers and slid one halfway across the table towards me. Saliva watered in my mouth. “You’re former wife,” Pop said, “she tell you you had a drinking problem? Was that the reason she gave?”
I glared at him.
“And you believed her.” I’d never told him that I still sent Emily $300 a month, but I could tell he knew.
Pop reached across the table and pushed the glass closer to me.
“I know you’re having inner struggles,” Pop concluded, “but what we did was right, justified and moral.” He nodded at the glass in front of me.
I wanted to get up and walk out, but I didn’t. I picked up the whiskey, smelled the ferocious stink of booze, sipped it, felt the burn in my mouth. Then, with my father watching me, I drank the rest.
My new story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the
Edge of the Pine Barrens, is out now. It was nominated for an Anthony Award!!
Published by Down and Out books.
You can buy it on Amazon here.