Sure is difficult, Abraham Todd says and shakes his head, to settle on coin of value these days. But there’s other specie than food and lodging.
And his eyes cross a low-lit room to a girl in a blue nightdress.
Moses Todd walks out. His brother emerges soon after, having agreed on terms.
We’re in business, Abraham says.
It don’t have to be that way, Moses says. You don’t always have to take the most they’re willin to give.
They agreed to it, didn’t they?
So they collect the supplies for the community and return. The people are pleased, and the brothers are fed. Moses watches as the girl in the blue nightdress is instructed by three older men to go and sit by Abraham. She does so, and Abraham puts an arm around her shoulders as though to reassure her. He takes a slice of tomato from the table and tries to feed it to her, but when she doesn’t open her mouth he slides it across her lips as though he were applying a stick of lip rouge.
You and me, Abraham says to her, we got time to kill.
A highball of whiskey is brought for Moses, and when he gulps it down they fill it back up again. He drinks and smokes his cigar down to an ugly stump and feels all his muscles go slack. They are gathered in one of those big cardboard mansions built in clusters on culde- sac roads, and there is a blazing fire on the hearth that casts lovely shadows on the thin eggshell walls.
He sits on the couch and drinks more and talks to the elder men about all the places of the country they have been, and he can hear his brother’s hyena laugh behind him but he can’t bear to cast his eyes backwards. Instead, he lets his eyes fall closed and is soon asleep.
It is still before dawn when he is awoken, though the fire has burned down to embers. All is quiet, and he is quiet in himself, when a sudden shrill cry sounds through the mansion. He is up, quick, a blade readied in his hand, despite the woozy, thunderous tides going back and forth in his head.
A figure bounds down the stairs, a frail white shape. The girl from the night before who was wearing the blue nightdress, except now she’s naked. She notices Moses at once, screams again, and runs out the front door. Now others appear, men and women commoted from sleep.
And his brother, Abraham, at the top of the steps, naked also, his filthy unwashed hands and face like gloves and mask on a pale, chalky skeleton.
We had a deal, Abraham says.
Get in your clothes, Moses says.
It was bought and paid for with services, Abraham says.
Get in your goddamned clothes.
Abraham disappears and returns a moment later. Half wrappered in his pants and shirt, he stumbles down the staircase as the men of the community begin to circle, looking angry.
What’s going on? they say.
We’re leaving, Moses says.
And the two brothers open the front door to find a man with a shotgun aimed directly at them. He is a skinny old man with white hair and red-rimmed eyes. He is decrepit, and the shotgun shakes in his hands.
What did you do to my granddaughter? the old man says.
It was bought—, Abraham begins, but then Moses seizes his brother by the back of the neck as you would pluck a kitten from a litter. Abraham winces with pain and hushes.
We’re leaving, Moses says to the old man.
My granddaughter, you filthied her.
I got no truck with you, old man, Moses says.
Others from the community gather round. They wonder what devils they have invited into their midst for the price of a few supplies.
You got truck with this, the old man says, gesturing to the shotgun with shaky hands.
Moses quickly unsheathes his knife and thrusts it at the man’s face, the point of the blade an inch from the old man’s nose. The old man quakes and shrinks away but keeps the gun pointed at Moses.
Stand down, Moses says. I ain’t so sure you can pull that trigger. But I’m damn sure I can use this knife. I am repentant about the agitation we caused, but we’re gonna be on our way now. Understood?
The old man hesitates a moment longer then lowers the gun and steps aside miserably.
Filth, he says as Moses passes by dragging his brother along by the neck.
The brothers climb into their car. Most of the residents of the community watch quietly as they leave. And a few gather around the old man to hold him back as he starts to run after the car, crying, You go to hell! You go straight to hell!
Some fun, eh? Abraham says.
Shut up, Moses says, and his voice must be a gavel of some sort, because it works to keep his brother hushed for the next half-hour.
And when they are out in the desert, Moses pulls the car to the shoulder of the road and brings it to a stop. In the far distance there are two slugs walking slowly, knocking together clownishly as they move. When they see the car, they begin to amble towards it – but they are desiccated and slow.
What are we stoppin for? Abraham asks.
Moses climbs out of the car and walks around to open the passenger-side door. Then he reaches in, grabs his brother by the upper arm, drags him out of the seat and tosses him to the hard pebbled earth.
What did you do to that girl? Moses says.
It was bought and paid for, Abraham says.
Say it again. Just say it again. Now what did you do to her?
Nothin. I didn’t do nothin. I barely touched her, her just laying there like a stinkin mackerel.
Moses wants to strike him, but he turns and brings his heavy fist down on the hood of the car instead. The metal warbles with the violence.
You better get right, Moses tells his brother.
Get right? Mose, we’re f**kin mercenaries.
We all are. Everybody is. Ain’t you noticed?
Get right or you’re gonna get made right.
Get made right by who? You?
How come not you?
I’m your brother. You got one fate by me but another fate by the world.
Don’t get mystical, Mose. Ain’t but one man could stop me doin anything, and that’s you. You don’t stop me, that makes you complicit.
That ain’t how it works.
According to whose laws? Theirs?
Abraham points to the two slugs drawing closer.
There’s plenty in the world to stop you, Moses says, but only one to stand beside you. Whether I like it or not.
Abraham stands and brushes off the seat of his pants.
That’s a touching thing you just said, big brother. Now I’m all filled with grief and contrition. Come on, that girl, it was just a little fun I was havin is all.
Moses looks at him, his younger brother. There are forces working on forces, there must be, and so they must converge on every moment, every place, every person – even his brother. There must be born somewhere the force to take care of the problem of his brother – just as his brother was born an antidote to so many strains of goodness. These things converge. They must.