Greenbriers by Manuel Martinez
Creager thinks that the Greenbriers are preparing for war, and has called a meeting at the bell tower to make the case for attacking them first. I’m against an attack and will do what I can to bring everyone around to my side, but no matter which way the vote goes, I won’t be attacking anybody. Creager sees this as a betrayal of the first order because, in the two years since the Collapse, it’s been me and him working together that has allowed us here in Raintree to hold on all well as we have. None of us has starved to death, and the only person we’ve lost to sickness has been my wife. Overall we’ve been pretty lucky, but we have no idea how the Greenbriers are surviving. Creager thinks they must be desperate, thinks that they’re all starved down to nothing and are planning on using there last bits of strength to come and take what we have, and he might be right.
The bell tower sits in the center of the subdivision, in the middle of what was a large, landscaped roundabout that is filled with crops now instead of grass and flowers. There’s no actual bell in the bell tower, and there never has been. Back before the Collapse, it chimed out an electronic imitation of Big Ben every hour, and from my front porch, I can see Creager standing at the base of the tower, waiting for everyone else to show up for the vote. He won’t look my way, but I can see in the way he is standing that he wants to ask me why I’ve changed. He wants to ask what happened to the guy he used to know, the one who was always itching for a fight. It’s a good question because there is no doubt that I’ve changed. Back before the Collapse, whenever got cut off in traffic by some kid with more horsepower than sense, I’d be ready to get out of my truck and tear the kid’s head off. If I was alone, I’d bang my fists against the dashboard and the headliner, and once I even cracked my own windshield. But if my wife was with me, she would put one hand on my arm and another on the back of my neck and tell me that everything was going to be fine even though it seemed like until I dragged the little prick from his car and pounded his face into the pavement, nothing would ever be fine again. But then, with her making circles just below my shirt collar, almost magically, everything actually would be fine. I’d be able to breathe again, and I could feel the car moving solidly beneath me, all four wheels humming softly over the asphalt and the air-conditioner vent blowing a cold blast of air right into my face.
Creager wants to know where that guy is now, the one who used to punch holes in walls and calm himself down by patching them up. And it’s as curious to me as it is for him because, for two years, Creager has nudged and cajoled our neighbors while I’ve been the one to yell at and threated them, and between the two of us, we’ve good-copped and bad-copped this place and kept it running more smoothly than even we could have imagined. Things were a mess right after the Collapse. We were running low on food and it was hard to get people to cooperate. Before the Collapse, Raintree was a community in name only. We didn’t have any responsibilities to each other besides keeping things generally neat and clean, so people hoarded food instead of sharing and nobody wanted to show up for watch in the tower because they were afraid their neighbors would try and steal from them while they were away. Creager was on the neighborhood board at the time of the Collapse, which meant that he mostly worried about the sprinkler system and making sure that the Christmas decorations were all down by the first week of January. But because he had some kind of authority, he started mediating fueds that, before the Collapse, had been petty squabbles about garbage cans and where a dog had done its business, but that had grown until they were bringing us to the brink of civil war. Creager’d appeal to everyone’s sense of civic duty, an appeal that went over much better with me patrolling the street behind him with Creager’s shotgun slung over my shoulder. Before the Collapse, I’d never laid hands on a gun because I couldn’t trust myself, but after the Collapse, Creager gave the shotgun to me on permanent loan because the the threats needed to be cridible and everyone knew I could easily become unglued. And it worked. Eventually we turned Raintree into a community that we are all more proud of now than we were back when we believed that mowing our lawns and pressure washing our driveways was somehow saving us from something. Creager and I had a shared vision. We could see beans and sweet potatoes growing in what had been bright green grassy lawns, could see the hunting parties coming back from the swamp, each man with fresh cuts of meat drapped over his shoulders. We could both see the Collapse as a new beginning, and so while the residents of the city to take their chances with whatever kind of government was left running there, we stayed put and kept our heads on straight. The Greenbriers stayed put too, but we have no idea how they actually survive. We’ve watched them closely and know that they don’t hunt, and we don’t see signs of any gardens, although they may just be hidden behind the walls and hedges. So they might be just as desperate as Creager thinks they are.
From the top of the bell tower, we can look across the no-man’s land of the strip mall parking lot that’s wedged between us, and through the small gaps in the hedges growing out of control on their western wall, we can see bits and pieces of their houses, the chipped stucco painted in nearly identical shades of coral which were mandated by their deed restrictions before the Collapse. We can see the scalloped red tile roofs that have started to crack and crumble, but we haven’t seen an actual Greenbrier since right after the Collapse when we all retreated behind our respective walls.
But even though we can’t see the Greenbriers, we can hear them late at night. Because I can’t stand to be alone in my house in the dark, I volunteer for overnight watch and so know the Greenbrier’s sounds better than anyone else. It’s the clanging that comes first, the ringing of metal against metal that echoes through the air, cutting through the singing of the frogs and drone of the mosquitos. And we can hear them calling out commands to each other, their voices firm and urgent and purposeful, and when we hear them grunting in unison, we imagine them straining at ropes, heave-hoing large objects from one end of the subdivision to the other. Then, in the early morning when their work is done, they begin to sing, and what I haven’t told Creager or anyone else is that, even though there is something war-like in their songs—something martial and driving and purposeful—underneath all of that, the Greenbriers’ singing that shifts something around inside me, rewires my brain scratches at my itchy trigger finger until I can’t imagine hurting anybody.
Back before the Collapse, all of the music I listened to had drums pounding away under a smothering of electric guitars. Back then, the thing I wanted most—the thing everybody wanted most, it seemed—was to quiet down those thoughts that were always screeching up from God knows where and that made it hard to keep on doing what it seemed like needed to be done. My solution was to listen to music that took up as much space as possible, and when I was in my truck with the volume cranked up as high as my ears could handle, there wasn’t room in my head for anything else. But sitting in the bell tower when the blackness of night is beginning to soften some around the edges, I hear the places where the Greenbriers’ songs slow down and thin out, where they pause some to let the phrases hang in the air for a while before they sink in. I can’t make out a single word of it, but I know that they are singing about pain and loss and about a depth of sorrow that before my wife died, I never could have known existed.
But Creager hasn't lost anything that really matters. His wife and children are at home, tending the garden and waiting for him to return. Without that loss, he can't hear what I can in the long pauses of their singing, and so the music drives him crazy. In those long pauses, he hears the Greenbriers thinking up unspeakable acts to commit against us, and that’s what he wants to convince everyone else of.
When Garcia and Mitchell and the rest of the guys we hunt with show up at the base of the tower, they start butting heads and punching each others’ shoulders as if the decision has already been made. And even though my wife would be rolling her eyes if she were here, it makes me lonely to see all that naked affection in those grunts and small bruises. I’ve spent more nights than I can count hunting with those guys. When the moon is full, we slip our boats into the canal at night, and glide silently out into the vast emptiness of the subdivisions that had not yet been completed at the time of the Collapse—past land that had been filled in and raised up above the surrounding swamp but that had not yet been built upon, where the rusting hulks of bulldozers and front loaders have since been swallowed up by bushes and vines. We wait for the glowing red eyes of an alligator to appear in the light of the moon that blazing down upon us. Even though I’m new to guns, I’ve become a good shot, so I’m the one who hits it with a blast from the shotgun before we move in close to finish it off with rebar and garden tools that we’ve sharpened until deadly. Then we come back to Raintree with all that meat—our dicks dragging the ground and our balls are so big it’s a wonder we can walk—and before we even start on the butchering, we start in on a few bottles of fruit wine and take turns running across the strip mall parking lot to piss on the Greenbriers’ wall. When we run across the no-man’s land, we’re deadly quiet even though we’re giddy drunk inside. It’s a stupid thing to do, especially in the light of the moon, but after a hunt it makes perfect sense. My wife would have no patience for any of that, and back when she was still alive, I kept it from her, even though I’m sure she knew, if not the details, the shape of what we were up to.
I never used to understand the appeal of the grave. It made no sense to me to visit the hole in the ground that had consumed the body of someone you’d loved, but there are times now when I desperately wish that I had a grave to visit. The night after my wife died, we took her out the back gate, loaded her into Creager’s boat and paddled out into the swamp. When we were a mile or so away from Raintree, we stopped and sat quietly in the boat for a while with all of that emptiness stretching out around us. Nobody rushed me. When I was ready, Creager said a few words that I didn’t hear, and then we lowered her into the water where the alligators would do with her as they pleased. It’s what we do now, what we have to do. Creager fired off a few precious rounds from the shotgun, aiming at God and the germs that had made her sick, and when the echoes of the shots had died down, when the alligators had started bellowing again, and all those insects that are too small to do anything on their own began chirping in concert until the air throbbed around us, we left her, paddled back as a sliver of moon began to rise up at the far end of the canal, pointing us towards home.
With no stone to visit and no place to put flowers, nowhere to go to pretend that some part of her is still close by, all I have to remind me of her is my own restraint. Sometimes when I get relieved from watch just after dawn, I take off my shoes stand in my back yard with my feet in the dew-wet ground, eating an orange from my tree, and with the songs of the Greenbriers still echoing in my head, I hope against hope that they are building a monument or a temple, something tall and shiny, a monument rising to the sky that will stand as a testament for all that they believe. Because if the Collapse has taught me anything, it is to think carefully about what we leave behind. In the city there are stadiums and Interstate spurs, drawbridges spanning the once-crowded waterways, but out here in the suburbs, the stucco in our houses and in the bell tower is already crumbling to dust so that the engineered wood beneath is exposed to the elements which are dissolving it down to nothing. I want to believe that the Greenbriers are working against all of that somehow, that whatever they are building, it is something that will last for a while at least, something that will stand long enough that generations from now, people will stand in awe of what they have done.
From the base of the bell tower, Creager yells that it’s time for the vote and so I’d better come over. But I stay where I am because even explaining myself is more involvement than I want right now. They can vote however they want to vote and can try to mount an attack without because I am rooting for the Greenbriers somehow. Because even if they conquer us, we Raintrees will live on in their songs, and our memories, my wife’s included, will forever float in the air.
© Manuel Martinez, 2018
Manuel Martinez earned his MFA from the University of Florida, and was an Emerging Writers Fellow at The Center for Fiction in New York. His stories have appeared in Blackbird, The Quarterly, The Sun, Hotel Amerika, The Carolina Quarterly and other publications. The opening chapter of his novel in progress, Miami Don’t Know, received special mention in Pushcart 2018. He teaches English and writing at Queensborough Community College.
Greenbriers was read by E. James Ford on 6th June 2018 for Questions & Answers