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A Rich Man’s Knees by Douglas W. Milliken

December 31, 2014 Western 2 Comments
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A Rich Man’s Knees
by Douglas W. Milliken

The whole town had gathered around the church because Hollace Whitaker was holed up inside and we knew and he knew that he pretty much had to die. It wasn’t anything personal. It was, in fact, the definition of impersonal. A man can’t shoot his wife and expect to continue drinking coffee and plowing fields and shooting deer like all the rest of us who just want sometimes to kill our wives but never do. Everyone knew that, maybe Hollace best of all. But clearly that didn’t mean he had to like it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bivouacked in the church. He knew no one would open fire and blast apart the new altar or the cross over the pulpit that that miserable old carcass Halston Smith had carved with his own two crippled hands. He shot his wife and trotted directly to the only safe place in town. So we gathered around and kicked at the dust and shouted for him to come out, and when he shouted back that we could all go fuck our own selves, some folks looked genuinely hurt. We all liked Hollace. Couldn’t he see that?

Eventually, Hollace’s brother John showed up. John ran a ranch quite a piece outside of town. His horse was lathered and crazy-eyed from the long, fast ride. John rode up to where we were gathered and got off his horse and held out the reins for anyone to take hold. Then he walked to the church’s backdoor. He didn’t announce himself, but he wasn’t acting sneaky either. He did not take off his boots or spurs. Hollace was still near the front of the church, shouting whatever craziness came into his head. John walked through the backdoor and for a while things got quiet, then there was a shot and John came out the front with two guns in his hands, his and his brother’s. He held the guns in the air like he was surrendering in his brother’s stead, or maybe was showing us the evidence of what he’d just done, and there was a tense and unified silence before finally, everyone raised their hands and cheered. In the back of the crowd, the band struck up a round. We could finally have our goddamn funeral.

There was a little flurry of activity after that. Some folks got a readymade coffin from the coffin maker and carried it to the church. Hollace was lying there with a hole in his chest and one hand flung over his face like he couldn’t bear to see what had happened with the rest of his body. We stuffed a big blanket inside the coffin like a sponge and rolled Hollace on top. We left the box by the altar and a little while after that, his wife’s coffin joined him up there. When the party commenced an hour or so later, all the blood was cleaned up off the church’s floor and women were bringing in hot dishes of food. The band set up behind the pulpit, underneath Halston Smith’s hand-carved crucifix, while some folks dragged the long pews to the side of the room and started to dance.

Even though I was younger than them both, I considered myself something of a friend of the Whitaker brothers. When I was a boy and John was just a young man, I’d go out hunting with him as a sort of helper, although he always made a joke of calling me his squire. He would shoot the deer and I’d dress the carcass while he got the smoking fire going. When I was older and had a trade, I’d sometimes work repairs around his brother Hollace’s place. Hollace paid me well and often invited me to stay for dinner, and his wife always brought me water or coffee, no matter what I was doing or where on his farm I was working. Neither of the Whitaker brothers ever said much, but they were good men and I always enjoyed their company. So this whole affair left me feeling pretty muddled. It struck me as the best possible outcome that John was the one to shoot Hollace, but it also seemed pretty damn unfair. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I tried to dance but couldn’t dance, my legs didn’t want to, not really, so I kept John company. I know you’re not supposed to have whiskey in a church, but there’s a lot of worse things a man can do in church and we’d all seen some of that already today, so John and I drank whiskey and watched the girls dance and when I asked him how he felt, he said fine, and I believed him.

After a while, a group of men gathered around us in the back of the church, passing around jars and talking about whatever. In a corner nearby, Halston Smith the famous crucifix carver was slouched on a three-legged stool, pretending to watch the twirling skirts but just as likely listening in on everyone’s conversations. He had a big floppy black hat laid across his lap, the sort that you’d maybe expect a Quaker to wear, with his face like an empty grain sack all bunched up and forgotten in the dusty corner of some barn. Instead of talking to the other men, I just stood there and stared and felt my guts boiling. Sometimes, honestly, I hate that old man. I couldn’t even tell you why. But I was startled out of my hateful study on account of one of the younger fellows asking John why Hollace would want to up and shoot his wife like that, and everyone all at once hissed at him to shut the hell up. Who knows what rage builds up inside a man as he lies next to the same woman every night, listening to the sound of her breath while she sleeps? It wasn’t anyone’s business why she’d died.

“What’re you going to do with your brother’s place now?” I asked, mostly to change the subject. But John just shrugged.


John wasn’t looking at me. He was watching the fiddle player’s bow slide over the strings. The band was playing the sort of song that everyone knows even though it maybe doesn’t have or need a name. I watched John watch the band and I could tell what he was thinking. A minute later, I said I’d help him clean up the place, and he thanked me, and that was that.

The band played a couple more songs and people danced and then the band took a break and everyone rested and ate and talked. This was when the preacher was supposed to say his bit, but the preacher wasn’t anywhere around. No one knew where he’d gone. Then these younger boys got up on stage—I recognized them as the strange kids who worked at the Upper K, mucking out stalls and talking about books—and the three of them took to playing a song on piano and guitar with one of them just singing. I hadn’t known those boys to play music. I guess it took everyone by surprise. It wasn’t a song you could really dance to, but it was pretty and sad and the one boy sang something about how even the richest man’s knees get dirty when he prays. When the song was over, I looked at John and his eyes were all red and itchy-looking. Even after the boys stepped down, he kept looking up at the pulpit, as if they were still there under Halston Smith’s cross, still playing their sad, strange song.

We buried the bodies soon after that. The sun had just about set and the earth was hard but we all took turns with the shovel and pick until we finished by the light of two lamps. By then, the preacher was back and he said what words he had but his words seemed poor after what the kids had sung, but we said amen anyway and put the dirt back where we found it. Then we all went our separate ways.

And I remember, as everyone slowly headed back toward wherever they thought they were going, I spotted the cross-maker hobbling among the other meandering bodies. He was shaped so much like a question mark and held a cane in the knot of his hand. He looked about a thousand years old. How could someone so sucked-dry by time have possibly carved anything resembling Our Lord in His most painful last moments on this earth? Most of the times I see Halston Smith around town, I just wish the old bag of dust would die already and leave us alone. But that night, standing between those two new graves while everyone I knew walked away into the night, I did not wish death for him. Maybe for the first time in my life, in a way that made me feel scared like a child, I was glad that he was alive.

Afterward, I decided I would keep John company through the night, so we rode out into the desert and built a fire and made a simple sort of camp. Neither one of us wanted to be in anything like a house right yet. There was sage and saguaro and about a million stars up above, and at first it was fun riding and gathering wood and drinking the last of our whiskey, but after a while I wasn’t sure if it was the best place for us to be. The desert that night made me feel old the way Halston Smith looks old. Stooped and vulnerable, hands twisted and spent. I don’t know what it was John felt out there, saying nothing while the fire crackled and snapped. Neither of us slept. That night we saw a fox that was mostly black but for silver veins tracing its sides, then we saw four pronghorn rush past us in the dark. But John insisted they were unicorns. I didn’t know what to make of that. His eyes were shining like silver dollars in the firelight. I waited for him to blink. Then he did. I wanted more than anything to not be spooked out there with my friend. But I was. The moon rose and fell and the fire died but we remained, and in the morning we rode to his brother’s empty house, tired-eyed and silent, to pour water from the well across the kitchen’s worn floorboards, to wash his sister-in-law’s blood gelled still and thick and forgotten in the grains her own bare feet once polished to a sheen.

* * *

Recent winner of Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” contest, Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals (Pilot Editions/Publication Studio) and the codex White Horses (Nada). Other work also appears in McSweeney’s, Slice, and the Believer. Learn more about Douglas at www.douglaswmilliken.com

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    Butch Field says:

    Great descriptive writing; helluva a story.


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    Mike says:

    Very interesting story

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