Thomas H. McNeely’s debut novel, Ghost Horse, was published in 2014, winning the Gival Press Novel Award; it was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize in Writing as well. He has published short stories and nonfiction in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, Ploughshares, and other magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2000 and Algonquin’s New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best. He currently teaches in the Stanford Online Writing Studio and at Emerson College, Boston, and has led writing workshops at the Grub Street Writers Workshops, the Lighthouse Writers Workshops, the Writers’ League of Texas, Writespace Houston, and Inprint Houston.
McNeely is also a Bloom writer; his Experience Required essay “The Long Journey of Ghost Horse” appeared here in 2015.
His recent short story collection, Pictures of the Shark: Stories (published in July by Texas Review Press), revisits Ghost Horse protagonist Buddy Turner, looking at his life from one angle and another as it follows him from boyhood to adolescence to his years as a young man. The portrait is sad but not sorrowful; there is the hope of persistence in Buddy’s stories, and McNeely never loses hold of a deep love for his characters.
Below, an excerpt from “No One’s Trash” from Pictures of the Shark:
No One’s Trash
Outside, Margot saw the Knight girls, Cara and Darla, hop across the paving stones in the back yard, like naiads, like water sprites, already soaked to the bone. Buddy turned to her, his mouth pinched and vindictive.
“Get rid of them,” he said.
“I can’t do that,” she said.
She couldn’t, even if she’d wanted to; they were already at her door.
* * *
She laid towels on the kitchen floor, scolding the girls for their thoughtlessness, while they dripped and stared down at their bare dirty feet; they were used to being scolded. Both of them wore the same cheap pink polyester shorts they’d worn all summer, and matching T-shirts with two tie-dyed handprints above the message: HANDS OFF. Margot wondered if their mother had bought the T-shirts for them. Buddy stared at Cara with a vacant, fixed expression. Darla watched him with puppy dog eyes. Cara pretended not to notice Buddy’s stare, though she kept her arms crossed tightly over her chest. When it was just Darla and Buddy, they got along fine, but when Cara was there, it was almost always a disaster.
Cara was as tall and gangly as a colt, with a long, pretty face men would find attractive. She was already going on dates, though she was barely thirteen. Margot thought that she had escaped the brunt of Mr. Knight’s violence. Darla, three years younger, the boy’s age, was by far more the intelligent of the two, and would be more beautiful, neither necessarily an advantage. In the past year, she had gained weight, become spooky and withdrawn.
“What were you thinking,” Margot said, using a tone, getting the girls in line, “coming over here, dripping all over my floor?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cara said. “We’re sorry. We didn’t have time.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t have time?”
Cara glanced at her, hesitating, caught.
“Do your parents know you’re over here?” Margot demanded.
“No, ma’am,” Cara said. “The lights went out and we ran.”
“They’re crazy, ma’am,” Darla said. “They been fighting all day. Mamma yelling at daddy to leave us alone. They’re both crazy.”
“Hush, Darla,” Cara said, under her breath.
Neither of the girls would look at her. Now she would have to call the Knights, too, after she got the girls settled. She couldn’t send them back home. Maybe she would just let Mrs. Knight find them. But that would only make matters worse.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll get you some dry clothes. Then I’m going to call your mother. You put me in a tight spot.”
They grinned. They had gotten what they wanted, she thought; they wouldn’t have to go back home.
“Thank you, ma’am,” they said, bright as bells.
* * *
Estelle Knight answered on the first ring. Margot asked Estelle if their power was out, and Estelle said that it was; then she told Estelle that she had the girls there, bracing herself for what would come next. Estelle was a difficult woman, whom years of marriage to Donald Knight had not improved. She had a sharp face and a beady gamine stare. Margot thought, in her less charitable moments, that she was just intelligent enough to be vicious. Estelle had railed against Margot in the past, accusing her of trying to steal the girls, a charge so absurd Margot recognized it as a sign of her desperation.
Today was more of the same. Of course Margot had her children—chirren, Estelle said, Margot couldn’t help but note. That’s where they always were, Estelle said. Margot Liddy, she said, holier-than-thou, with her churchgoing and her fancy degree, who couldn’t keep a man in her house, who had to send her son away every weekend with his father. Maybe that’s why Margot was always tempting her girls over there. Maybe Margot needed to get her own house in order.
Margot looked through the storm door at the pecan tree, at the water in the yard lapping toward the garage door, upbraiding herself for the tears that pricked her eyes. Estelle’s viciousness, she knew, was a consequence of her suffering.
“Estelle,” she said. “You know that’s not true.”
“I do not know any such thing,” Estelle said.
“The girls came over here on their own, Estelle, just as always. They’ve been coming over here since they could walk.”
“It’s because you tempt them over there. Then you use them like maids.”
“They choose to come over here, Estelle, because they feel safe. Wouldn’t you say that they need somewhere to feel safe?”
Estelle didn’t answer her.
“Would you like me to send them back to you?”
This was unfair, Margot knew; she had no intention of sending the girls back. But Estelle had been unfair to her, too.
“No,” Estelle said.
“Okay, then. You just let me know when you want them to come back. You know it’s always a pleasure for me to have them.”
* * *
In the back of the house, Darla was calling for her, her voice pitched at a level of alarm that seemed to require Margot’s actual presence. Buddy had been screaming and carrying on, but it hadn’t been noteworthy enough for her to take action. He was always acting, always melodramatic. In the hallway, Darla stood outside the bathroom, her round beautiful face and quick blue eyes lit with alarm, and excitement.
“She’s killing him!” she said. “She’s killing him!”
For a moment, Margot couldn’t trust what she saw. In the dimly lit bathroom, Cara knelt, mantis-like, over the toilet. She was sick, Margot thought; then she imagined Cara was pregnant, and felt a bolt of panic. Then she saw Buddy, beneath Cara, stripped to his underwear, headless, because Cara was shoving his head into the toilet.
“What are you doing?” she said, pushing past Darla.
“He started running around and screaming and took off all his clothes,” Cara said. “You don’t do that, you hear?” she said to him.
“Let him up!” Margot barked.
Cara pulled him up by his hair. Her son lolled back against Cara, sliding down into her lap, so that she had to kneel to hold him up. His eyes were closed; a faint, sated smile flickered on his lips, as if he were asleep and dreaming. Cara cradled his head against her stomach. Margot didn’t know what to think.
“Have you lost your mind?” she said to Cara. “There are parasites in toilets.”
“He was running around in his underwear,” Cara said.
“He is still in his underwear,” Margot said. “So you have not improved the situation. I should send you both back home. Is that what you’d like?”
Cara, blushing, shrank from her. Margot felt guilty, playing this gambit; but she was angry with Cara for letting things get out of control. “Why on Earth were you running around in your underwear?” she asked Buddy, to even the score.
“They wanted me to,” he said, dreamily.
“What do you mean?” she said, poking him. “Did they ask you to?”
“No,” he said, opening his eyes. “But I could tell.”
“If they had wanted you to do that, they would have asked you.”
“I wanted it to be like it was before,” he said, spinning a yarn; he could rationalize anything, she thought, just like his father. “I used to run around naked all the time and no one minded. Now you like them better than me.”
She wanted to tell him that at twelve years old, he was too old to be acting this way; but she didn’t see any point in humiliating him further.
“I like you just fine,” she said. “It’s not like it was before. Now clean up while there’s still hot water. And put some clothes on.”
* * *
They ate lunch in the dim kitchen. The house hadn’t gotten as hot as she’d expected, the cool air underneath it drawing up through the wooden floors; but a film of moisture clung to everything. The girls’ faces were shiny with sweat. Margot wanted a glass of wine, but it was too early in the day for that. The backyard resembled a lake, lapping the shore of the concrete slab porch underneath the second story on Mr. Knight’s house, reaching dangerously close to the door of her garage. Someone would have to go outside to clear the drain.
The girls now gazed upon Buddy with sisterly compassion. By some mysterious means, a score had been settled between them, peace regained. Darla, in prosecutorial mode, recounted the horrors he had fed them about the private school Arlene paid for him to attend—the uniforms, the French lessons, the marching to chapel. Cara moued and nodded. Buddy sat back in his chair, fattening like a tick on their sympathy.
“Beau told us he has to go over to his grandmother’s house every weekend,” Darla said. “He says that he has to do all his schoolwork over again. He says that his grandmother’s mean and crazy.”
Margot shot a glance at Buddy, piqued; he knew she didn’t like him talking about their family. But of course, that was why he’d done it. He stared back at her, as cold-eyed as a gangster.
“She has been very generous to us,” Margot said, hoping to convey by her tone that they had overstepped.
“Beau says he hates his school. He says it’s full of snobs,” Darla said, drawing out the long “ah” in “snobs.” Cara giggled.
“I hate it,” he said.
“Why can’t he go to Jackson?” Darla said.
Jackson was the public school down the street. Her son couldn’t go to Jackson, Margot thought, because it was a war zone.
“Because he’s going to St. Edward’s,” she said; then, to Buddy, “Do you want to go to Jackson?”
“Sure,” he said.
If faced with the actual prospect of going to Jackson, Margot knew, he would beg not to; or if he went, he would get beaten up, bullied, or worse. She had moved fourteen times before graduating high school, and she’d gone to schools like Jackson, and she was not going to send her son to one, not if she could help it.
“Beau says his grandmother thinks he ought not to play with us,” Darla said, staring dead at Margot with her beautiful blue eyes.
It was a question, Margot realized, that Darla wanted answered for the sake of her dignity—that was how the boy had gotten the girls so riled up about Arlene, by implying that Arlene’s sending him to St. Edward’s was a sign of her disapproval of them. Which, of course, it was. The boy grinned at her vindictively.
“I’m sure she never said anything like that,” Margot said to him, a hint.
“Yes, she did,” he said. “You know what she says about them. You know why she doesn’t want me to play with them. She says they’re trash.”
Cara and Darla flinched, as if they’d been struck. Margot saw that Buddy hadn’t said this to them before. She wanted to reach across the table and strangle him. He smirked, thinking only, she knew, of how pleased he was that he had embarrassed her, not caring how his words hurt the girls. What would become of him? she thought. He was weak, like his father, seeking comfort wherever he could find it. She didn’t know how she had raised such a child.
“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t like you. Not when you act like this. You think you’re so clever, but you’re not. You’re behaving like an imbecile.”
Now it was her son’s turn to flinch, his eyes to water. The girls looked at her curiously; she hoped they would remember that they could speak to a man like this. “No one’s trash,” she said. “Except people who call people trash. We’re not going to talk about this anymore. We have a lot to do. Old Beau here is going to clear the drain.”
Buddy mumbled that she had told Jimmy the drain was just fine; but only a little. He knew he needed to redeem himself, Margot thought.
He changed into his yellow swimming trunks and went outside. The rain was still coming down hard. The girls and she watched from her bedroom, which had a view of both the yard and the street, where the drain reached the curb. After Jimmy had returned from the Army, when it was clear he wouldn’t live with them anymore, he had dug a trench through the yard to the curb, smashing the sidewalk and the curb with a sledgehammer to lay the drain pipe, then repaired the curb at the mouth of the drain and poured a new square of cement in the sidewalk. Later, she saw he had written their names in the sidewalk, and the year, 1977, three years before. It would be out there forever, she thought, on her property, a monument to folly, a tombstone; sometimes, she imagined going outside and smashing it, as well.
They watched Buddy wade into the yard, squinting in the rain, his hair plastered dark and slick on his head. He moved carefully through the water, carrying a garbage bag, his face grave and older-looking; she had instructed him to put the detritus from the drain into the bag, wait for the drain to clog, then clear it again. She imagined lightning hitting the pecan tree, or the metal fence, water moccasins and amoebic waterborne diseases. If anything happened to him, how would she explain it to Jimmy and his mother?
Then, she thought, he was hers to sacrifice, if she wanted. If Abraham could take Isaac to the mountain, why couldn’t she send her son to unclog a drain? She had fought, first to have him, then to keep him. He was and would always be hers.
Buddy cleared muck out of the drain into the bag, then waited. A whirlpool formed, drawing in more sticks and leaves and who knew what else; he cleared it again. Margot watched him, and the mouth of the drain at the street; it was possible the pipe had clogged, and all of this would be for naught. Cara and Darla were following the drama, too, remembering how Jimmy put in the drain—the story of the sledgehammer and the new concrete. Her son stood over the drain in the yard, waiting. In his frowning, abstracted face, she saw Jimmy’s face, and the faces of her father, her uncles, her cousins, silent, dutiful men—useful men.
In the street, a gout of leaves and dirt pulsed out into the water rushing past it, toward the storm drain. In the yard, water spun, disappearing around the boy’s ankles. In Margot’s house, she and the girls cheered.
Author photo by Alice Mayra McGrath.