FICTION RUNNER-UP: Mister Lucas’ Punishment

Guts and glory too; at the trial in the box he said No, no, no. But, he lost.

You stole that truckload of sombreros, Mister Lucas! cried the Judge.

Rising, the Judge pointed toward the exit door and spoke grimly.

So get out on the driveway; go get down on your hands and knees and wipe down the dirt driveway of this courthouse building, Mister Lucas. From the beginning outside the door there, then all the way around the curve, and out to the road. It is all dirt; it is a useless exercise!

But you are a useless man!

The large husky blond bailiff handed Mister Lucas a towel.

Go now! barked the Judge.

Mister Lucas took the towel, and did as he was told, head bowed. He went out and got on his hands and knees and began wiping down the dirt driveway next to the courthouse with the thick old towel. It was a foolish thing to do, being that it was a dirt driveway; but being made a fool of is sometimes fitting punishment. The driveway was pockmarked with stones. Sand was spread over the driveway, and of course, dirt. The dust rose; the dirt was dry. He sneezed. The roiling brown dust cloud came around him and he sneezed again. He wiped his nose with the towel; the snot came; he blew his nose into the towel and folded it over the snot. As he crawled and wiped and raised more dust, he moved into the shadow of a pear tree. But damn this dust! He sneezed, he wiped at his nose again. The dust boiled up. He wiped more lightly, and the dust subsided. So this was the way to do it. Just move the dirt around. Don’t wildly rub. He moved the dirt around. Rotted pears lay on the driveway, fallen from the tree and crushed by cars—smashed, sticky and half eaten away by the rotting sun and the yellow jackets that suddenly came up around him that had been feeding on the smashed rotten pears. The sticky mash coated his hands and knees and soaked through the knees of his jeans. He was deeply afraid of being stung. The towel moved and he learned to move the towel without disturbing the yellow jackets too much, though he could not wipe up the rotten pears. The insects circled around him; they landed on him. They landed and took off and circled and lighted on the rotting pears and they ate. Hundred of pears, it seemed like; the dirt underneath was grey and pebbled and sticky. The tire tracks spread out the sticky juices of the pears. He blotted out the tire tracks with the towel. The dust came up, but not like before. The stickiness of the dirt kept the dust down. He sniffled back. He wiped and crawled backward and came out of the area of the smashed pears but the shadow of the pear tree left him too. The sunlight flowed down over his back. It being summer, the sweat dripped from his nose as he crawled backward and wiped. Branches and twigs covered the dirt here. Branches and twigs that had got here from God knew where, as there was no tree above. The branches and twigs held thorns. Where had they come from? There seemed to be no rose bushes around; these looked like the branches and twigs of a rose bush; and then he thought it must have been planted here to make his job harder. He pushed the thorny mass aside and left it at the side of the driveway. Jesus had been tortured with thorns; the image of the bloody crown of thorns on the head of Christ came onto the dirt he was looking down at, rubbing. His rubbing made whorls in the soft dirt; his patterns lay in the dirt circular, as the crown of thorns had been. But the thorns now lay beside the driveway, harmless; so he could not dare compare himself to Christ, though his knees and hands hurt and the sweat poured from him. There was no blood. The thorns had been avoided. Now he was in the yellow gravel. The grey dirt gave way to pebbles and gravel and sharp stones and the towel rubbing on the driveway made a grinding sound; then, all at once, a patch of dirt. A hole in the dirt; and a bee flying around alone, lonely, came down and lighted on the hole and went down inside. The bee had no interest in him. He had read about bees that lived alone in holes in the dirt; but he never thought he’d actually see one. The hole was there and he wiped and wiped and suddenly, he’d wiped too far, and the hole was gone, rubbed over. Could the bee dig its way out? Guilt touched him; it was as though a miner had gone in a mine and at once the entrance collapsed. Miners must have died that way; what is the miner bee thinking? Oh, I will dig myself out, it must be thinking. In the pitch black dark, does it realize it is trapped? Or is it still going about its business? And what is its business, anyway? Does it have eggs or young down in that hole? Has a family been destroyed? Mister Lucas ran his hand over the spot where the hole had been and thought to dig down slightly, to help the bee out. Maybe he could reopen the hole. But the bee would come out eyes flashing, stinger flexed and ready, ready to get whoever had dared to close over its hole. So Mister Lucas left the spot alone—or maybe it was a different spot—it all looks the same across the dirt, the dirt is the dirt. One inch this way or that way and he would miss the hole. So leave it be. Wiping in long wide strokes now across the graveled dirt, he came upon a corpse. A dead mouse lay mangled and flattened by the tires that had rolled up and down this driveway but Lucas could still tell it was a mouse. Grey with a white belly, all dry and the legs out like little twigs. What had killed it? Surely it had not been run over by a car. Surely it had died of natural causes, and then, by its mangled look, Mister Lucas thought of a cat. A cat may have tormented it to death like they do and then not even have given it the honor of being eaten. When Mister Lucas was a boy he had seen a cat run across the grass of the front yard with a mouse dangled by the tail from its mouth. The cat had taken the mouse under the yellow flowering forsythia bushes by the front steps and it ate the mouse—all but the tail. That mouse had the honor of being killed for a reason. But this mouse in the courthouse driveway was just wasted. What is worse than being killed for no reason and just left? And how did it get in the driveway? Surely the cat had not played with the mouse in the middle of the driveway. It may have been carrying the mouse to a forsythia bush like that cat had that Mister Lucas remembered but may have been spooked by an approaching car, dropped the mouse, which then was smashed by a passing big Goodyear, one of a set of four. The cat came back and saw the crushed mouse, now a mess and very unappetizing, burst open with red glistening guts in the dirt soon to be absorbed into the dryness, and may have haughtily walked away, tail held high. Mister Lucas brushed the dead mouse to the side, into the grass, as his task demanded. He backed up on his hands and knees and all of a sudden, there in the dirt was a bone. It was a tiny misshapen one; but still a bone. Carnage had taken place on this patch of ground Lucas knelt on; a mouse worried to death by a cat; a bone which had once been part of a living creature, manner of death unknown, and type of creature unknown as well. Where there is one bone there must be many others about. And also, a tiny skull should be in the dirt, crushed perhaps, but there. Maybe all the other bones of the tiny creature had been ground into the stony dirt by passing car after passing car. The bone lay amidst a sudden occurrence of a spread of dead dry leaves. And Mister Lucas noticed his feet had entered the shadow of a great apple tree that stood next to the drive. And coming up behind; smashed and rotting apples, small green ones, covered with swarms of yellow jackets like the pears had been. The dirt was wet with the juice of the apples; Mister Lucas’ knees were going to once more get soaked through, and his hands made sticky and disgusting. But the large folded towel he wiped back and forth with may protect his hands. His knees and the toes of his shoes would be ruined, but, drenched in sweat, he was glad of the coming shade. Then, he came upon the ants; inch-long pitch black creatures suddenly swarming around him, under him; all from the base of the great tree that they most times called home. They crawled all about his knees and his feet and his wiping hands. They crawled up him and around him and their stiff jagged movements reminded him of some kind of tiny robots or automatons. He backed up hoping to get out of the area of ants but still they kept coming. And now his feet were entering the masses of rotting green smashed apples and the swarming yellow jackets. That this had been a fitting punishment for him now seemed clear. The Judge in his wisdom had known best. Lucas crawled backward into the mush and the yellow jackets and the ants and the crushed apples and mud from the apple juice was under him, the mud soaking into his knees and it all spelled misery. The yellow jackets landed on him and he swiped them off and they were angry, most angry; and the ants kept on below him in almost a solid carpet and the ground was turning pebbly and jagged but still he wiped. He crawled backward faster to get out of this pestilence and then realized that the ants were biting him under his pant legs and they were all through his clothes, and in anger he brought the large towel down on a cluster of feeding yellow jackets and the ants and ground it savagely into the dirt, and lifted it, and most of the creatures were dead or dying, some smashed flat into the mud some staggering around on broken legs but some came flying at his face in revenge. And he backed into an area of broken glass mixed with the smashed apples and found there must have been a fender bender here, the glass was pebbled as though from a smashed headlight and his feet went back out into the sun and he was clearing the mess of smashed apples yellow jackets and the ants and he backed out fully into the sun. The sweat poured off him making its own mud in droplets on the ground but still, he wiped and the glass ground into the towel and then, out of nowhere, a large striped grey tabby cat crossed the driveway in front of him and gave him a look as if to say What are you doing this for, who has cursed you with this punishment and the cat paused a moment, sniffed the ground, and ran off onto the lawn and across the grass and quickly disappeared in the pain of Lucas’ bloody knees. The denim of his jeans was torn and shredded and bare skin now rubbed on the harsh stony driveway. There was a cluster of old roofing nails bent into the driveway, luckily they had not found their way into someone’s tires but they still might, and Lucas could have swiped them off into the grass but he didn’t. Whoever drove this driveway now, now that it was spotted with his own blood and the bits of flesh which were grinding off his knees, deserved to have the trouble of a sudden flat tire. As a matter of fact, he wished this on them. He rubbed and scattered the nails about the driveway, they had been embedded into the hard pack but now they were loose and deadly for tires. He crawled backward rubbing and rubbing from one side to the other and he came upon a tiny tin man, a red painted child’s toy, smashed flat into the dirt and he picked it up and it was full of rust and flat and thin as a piece of paper. It had once had arms and legs that moved but the crushing and the rust locked these now into place the way death locks the limbs of a corpse in place, askew as they may be, the only difference being that the limbs of a corpse may be moved by a coroner or doctor or undertaker or such like. But the limbs of the tin man were frozen. Thinking that the tiny tin man had taken enough punishment, Lucas tossed it onto the grass at the side, where it could oxidize further in peace and not be crushed further into the harsh grey dirt. He spied a spider then on the pebbly dirt. It wobbled along like another little robot, like the ants had, and suddenly there was a swarm of spindly spiders crawling across the driveway. Lucas was fearful of spiders and gave them pass. They paraded along thinking nothing, no doubt, of this huge creature on its hands and knees rubbing with the towel. They did not swarm about him as though somehow interested as the ants and yellow jackets had. They went on about their mission oblivious. Then Lucas was distracted by the fact that he was astride a great stain of oil in the dirt, still sticky and foul and the oil mixed with his blood and then he noticed the spiders were gone. Pain knifed into his knees; his hands and wrists were sore and he was sweat drenched and miserable as suddenly, painfully, the driveway turned to pure grey trap rock. It dug into his knees and his towel moved it around and there were ruts in the trap rock and mud at the bottom of the ruts. An ancient flashlight bulb lay in the stones and he swiped it aside without a thought, being filled to the core with pain from his wrists and his knees and his feet and the sun beat down with all its might and he thought What if I collapse onto the driveway? What if I do not stay up on my hands and knees? What if I fail to make it? What will my punishment be then? Incredibly weeds grew at the bottom of the ruts, green and fresh and alive and somehow at the same time unhealthy looking and foul. Life could not be here. Life should not be here. The trap rock passed by under him and he came back onto a reddish kind of dirt, seeming to swarm with color but then he realized it was a hill of tiny red ants each the size of a comma in a story but there was no story there was only pain. And he knew that tiny red ants would bite so he hurried past wiping and wiping and the towel was in shreds. And his knees! His wrists! His feet! His whole sweat soaked body! Was it worth it to have a truckload of sombreros? He thought not, and he thought the Judge had been very wise. At last, his feet touched the sidewalk. The driveway was past. At last, he rose. A jeering crowd appeared all around. Criminal, they yelled. Look at you, they yelled. But Lucas let the towel drop to the sidewalk and stood there bloodied and in pain and sweat-soaked, his mop of hair dripping; and he pushed past the crowd.

 

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