What the Jesus Man’s Eyes Won’t See
The girl sees it first, a smudge of fur along the gravel shoulder. She stops, and Small almost walks into her, then he sees it too. Yes, it’s real. Brindle-coated and square-headed. Probably wild born. Probably didn’t know what a truck was — those trucks that hurtle down this stretch with no lights on, that know not to stop, not even for a woman staggering and gripping the gash in her side, much less a corpse of a dog. It’s still fresh. The buzzards haven’t yet found it.
Small tugs at the girl’s arm and keens out a plea. The girl nods, lets him lope ahead to the dog’s matted flank, and she follows. The dog is smaller than she’d hoped but still large enough that they have to take turns dragging it across the scrubby remains of the grove. Big once told her there used to be lemons and oranges and fields of strawberries as far as the eye could see, but Big is always telling stories about how things used to be. She even claimed they had a dog once — a live one — but it ran off.
Before? the girl asked.
Before, Big answered.
By the time they emerge from the grove, the girl and Small are panting. Big is in the yard, squatting over a scavenged hubcap, mixing pigments in the makeshift bowl. Small yipes out his We’re back call, but Big doesn’t look up. Beside her bruised and scraped knees sits a new crucifix waiting to be painted. Preacher must’ve come by again.
Last visit, he’d pointed to the freshly painted crucifixes — five of them, hanging and drying where Momma used to hang their clothes — and told the girl that the Jesus Man was always watching. He said that with his own watch-y eyes that flicked to the girl’s legs.
He sometimes brought cans of beans, torn bags of rice, sludgy oil they’d cook with — gifts, he’d proclaim, though Big said they were never free — and always the crucifixes he carved himself. Big told the girl they couldn’t get rid of them, that Preacher would get mad, would think they sold them, would make them pay. The girl had nodded and tried not to stare back at the Jesus Mans’ freshly painted eyes, each pupil a pinprick of night, almost as black as Preacher’s eyes. She always minded Big, and Big never told her she couldn’t carve them out, couldn’t bore out their darkness with a screwdriver. Five sets of eyes in the palm of her hand. She went with Small to the ribbon of road and scattered them across the pavement. An offering, she’d said. For luck. And now they have a dog.
Small yipes again. Big looks up, sees the dog. Her cracked lips bend and stretch like they do when she talks about Before. Get Momma’s knife, she tells Small, and he clicks his tongue yes and runs off on all fours. Big runs a hand along the dog’s pelt, then splashes the last of their oil into a frypan. Big will get some more from Preacher, the girl knows, but the new Jesus Man won’t be able to watch. His eyes will be in the road.