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Mule by Elie Piha


Elie Piha’s “Mule” is the third-place winner of the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Alexander Chee.


From the first line I felt I could hear this narrator in my ear, so vividly alive, the voice carrying each line with an urgent lyricism that felt effortless, a story about how bragging hides, if not a broken heart, a broken man, and the broken man points out to the broken world. Our hero is trying to make himself right again and no one is interested in seeing that happen, not even the people who seem to be bringing him in on a deal, and so we begin the story’s electric hopscotch with a free car offered to a down on his luck veteran. As his plan to rescue his fortunes hatches, we understand that what he thinks is opportunity is most likely going to fall down around him, but we’re rooting for him—and this criminal enterprise—all the same. At the end, I wanted a whole novel like this. Elie Piha is a powerhouse, and I can’t wait for what he’ll write next.” Alexander Chee


 

Nobody had ever given me anything before, so I didn’t care that the car was a piece of shit. I didn’t care that it was a two-timer, twice handed down, first from me and Davis’s old squad leader to Davis, and now from Davis to me. It was a fucking car, and it was free. To tell the truth, I actually liked that I knew its last two owners, had deployed with them. That made me feel like a legacy. I was four months out of the Army and growing a beard, but the years I’d put in were already looking like they stood for more, and I had the car to prove it.

Davis had given me the worn, silver key and the faded green title while we were standing outside his Tacoma apartment in the rain. There was a vendor offering Mexican street corn and there was the scraping of forks and knives from people eating brunch under a glass awning. I hadn’t known how to thank Davis so I just laughed and said, “Seriously?” He asked me to take good care of it. I said it always did look like a drug dealer’s car, and he told me to be careful going to work for Ronnie. I said you too because Davis had just reenlisted and was on his way back to Afghanistan.

I dropped Davis off at Fort Lewis outside our old barracks and he smacked the hood of the car goodbye, then I drove thirty minutes up to Seattle to say a quick hello to my grandma. I used to visit her on weekends back when I was still stationed at Lewis. I’d hold her under the arm as she shuffled across the street to Congregation Or VeShalom on Saturday mornings, and it’d take ten minutes for us to make the short trip, me holding my hand out to stop traffic, horns bleating, my little grandma’s breathy voice saying, “Oh shut it, shut it,” to the cars. While she prayed, I’d smoke and read on her back porch until the service was over and I had to walk back and hold up traffic again just to help her come home.

I’d ridden in the car plenty of times, not just since Davis owned it, but back when our old squad leader did, too. Once a month our squad would skip morning PT and we’d go to Denny’s and eat omelets and potatoes and pancakes with whipped cream until we could barely walk. I was the one who had started calling the car The Atheist Mobile due to its original bumper stickers. GOD DOESN’T KILL PEOPLE, PEOPLE WITH GODS KILL PEOPLE. There was one about liking dogs more than humans, too, but when Davis got the car after we came back from OEF in twenty-ten, he’d covered most of the anti-God stickers with red and navy blue Ole Miss ones. Davis used to make the cross over his body armor and chest rig every time we went outside the wire, and our squad leader would tease him, telling Davis that he was one of the only religious people he trusted. At some point, before Davis got the car, someone had keyed In God We Trust into its driver’s side door.

The car was a Saturn and the black paint was faded grey, and I could press the pedal all the way to the floor while driving north on I-5 and not much more would happen under the hood besides the car sounding as though it was about fall into cardiac arrest. When I pulled up to my grandma’s house, she couldn’t believe that someone had given it to me. She was happy for me—she never did like the way I drove her Crown Vic over the speed bumps in her neighborhood—but she also didn’t like the look of the Saturn, either. She lived so close to the synagogue, and I don’t think she wanted her rabbi to see that heap of atheist junk parked in her driveway.

She wanted to know why Davis gave me his car. I told her, “It’s a legacy thing, Grandma,” and I tried to tell her about how Davis had gotten it as a gift from a guy we both used to serve under and how now Davis was doing the same thing for me. I think a car was too much for her to understand, though, even if it was just a piece of shit Saturn. My dad always talked about how her growing up in the Depression had shaped everything she did. That’s why Grandma has three freezers in the basement, he’d say. That’s why she cuts coupons. That’s why she’ll drive across town for gas that’s two cents cheaper.

In Seattle I left my grandma with a kiss on the cheek and I got on I-5 again, this time heading south. I had one earbud in listening to Ethan Hawke read Slaughterhouse Five from beginning to end. I had thought about stopping in Portland, but I knew Ronnie was waiting on me. There was a job waiting for me, too, and I was happy to have the car now to contribute something to Ronnie and his brother’s business.

As I was heading up the mountains in southern Oregon, I paused my book when my dad called. He asked about Grandma and about the car, and I lied to him that I’d checked the oil when Davis gifted it to me in Tacoma. Then all of the sudden an eighteen-wheeler changed into my lane damn near on top of me. “You blind asshole,” I yelled into the phone. A string of angry, bumper-to-bumper cars honked behind me so I swerved to the inside shoulder for fear of being swiped off the road completely by the semi. My dad asked if everything was okay. My rear tires fishtailed back and forth and I yelled “Holy fuck” then dropped the phone between my seat and the center console. I got The Atheist Mobile under control, took a few breaths, and waited for a break in traffic to pull back out onto the road, then I spent the next couple of miles squeezing my hand into the crevice where my phone disappeared. Eventually, I did find my phone, and I had to flex my fingers like tweezers in order to slip it back out from under the seat. My dad had hung up, and I was going to call him back, but then I felt something soft. It was a pair of yellow cotton panties. In a glittery font across the ass cheeks was the word Saturday.

In Redding I called Ronnie and he put me on speaker so Lucky could give me directions to his house. I hadn’t been to Redding before, but Ronnie had warned me that it could be just as redneck as some of the small towns back in Georgia where we’d grown up. A meet-you-at-the-Walmart kind of town. I’d been living in Oakland with Ronnie since I’d gotten out and only flown up to Seattle to visit Davis before he deployed again and to see my grandma.

Oakland was nothing like Georgia. Ronnie and I could drive around all day and never get bored. Back home, it felt like there were only three places to escape to, two of which were empty parking lots and the third a field where we could only go at night because the farmer was a gun nut and had warned us that he was within his rights to pepper us with birdshot. Me and Ronnie made sure to piss on his mailbox every time we visited his field.

Ronnie knew the best views in the Bay and when I first moved there Ronnie showed me his favorites. He took me to Treasure Island and he took me to the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. He took me to Bernal Heights in SF and we drank a six pack under the tower. He told about the dealers him and his brother dealt with, about the farms they bought from, tucked away in the mountains of Humboldt. I smoked a joint all to myself. I told Ronnie how fucking happy I was to be out of the Army, how fast it all seems to have gone by, but how I could remember counting minutes in the back of an MRAP more times than he could imagine. Ronnie said he was going to make a million dollars, that he’d always have work for me if I wanted it. He said him and his brother had the best connections. Then he said he was never going to go back to Georgia and I said I wasn’t either. We got in his pickup and talked about finding a bar so I could meet someone, but I fell asleep when we were driving over the bridge and the next thing I knew Ronnie was waking me up outside our duplex on MLK. He’d said I’d snored the whole way.

Lucky’s voice came through my phone. He said, “Yo, it’s Lucky. Where you at?”

“I’m heading down two-ninety-nine,” I said. I had my phone on speaker tucked in my shirt pocket. It was a burner Ronnie had given me. We called them bats because they were small and black and flipped open like a flapping wing.

“What do you see?”

I told Lucky that I’d just passed one of the biggest goddamn churches I’d ever seen, and he told me that his street was about a mile past that on the right. Lucky kept me on the line. I could hear Ronnie and his brother in the background laughing, his brother’s grinding voice. I’d only met Bitz once before on account of him being nine years older than us. I’d been thirteen and my mom had dropped me off at Ronnie’s house. Bitz was home on leave from Iraq. Ronnie and I grabbed sodas from his fridge then headed for the back door. There was a creek out back and there were big pines that had fallen over it, and we liked to run across them, arms out wide, balancing, the bark slippery under our sneakers. Bitz was sitting on the couch and before we made it outside, he called Ronnie a little bitch and suggested we were going out to the woods to suck each other’s dicks like a couple of horny skunks. I remember it as if it were yesterday because it was the first time I’d heard someone talk like that. For years afterwards, I wondered if I was missing something obvious about the sex lives of skunks. Ronnie told his brother to shut the fuck up—I’d never heard my best friend use that word—and Bitz exploded off the couch like buckshot. Bitz had a high-and-tight haircut and he was all muscle and bronze like a movie star. He body-slammed Ronnie and slapped him over and over again in the face, and then he asked me if I’d like to get some hits in. I said, “No, thanks,” and Bitz called me a pussy. Even Ronnie said for me to just go on and do it, that his brother wouldn’t be satisfied until I took a few licks.

Bitz had been a Ranger in Iraq. Most of his friends were dead from bombs or drugs or suicide. I knew he was crazy. Ronnie said Bitz wanted me to work for them because Bitz liked that I’d been grunt, even if I’d been just a grunt and not some highspeed Ranger.

Everything east of Redding turned from strip malls to forests. Gated driveways disappeared up shaded hillsides when I turned onto what I figured must be Lucky’s street. I thought about my new car in this fancy neighborhood, how it didn’t fit in, or maybe it fit in too well. After two months of living with Ronnie and getting a glimpse into California’s weed business, I’d started seeing anyone who had more money than me, which was just about everyone, as likely having a hand or two in the pot game.

That’s what Ronnie and Bitz called it. The game. When something went bad, like someone they knew got robbed or they lost a shipment, or if someone God forbid went to jail, Ronnie and Bitz would say, “Chalk it up to the game.” We were all players in the game.

I told Lucky I’d arrived and his gate buzzed and slowly swung back. I drove up and parked. His house was two stories high and its face was all windows. A black Mercedes nosed towards my Saturn from an open garage door as if suspicious of the newly arrived company. Behind the car I counted three dirt bikes and a four-wheeler, and outside poking around the side of the garage was the tail end of a speedboat with its name stenciled in Old English–type across its rear: Pocahontas.

I walked right in. I didn’t know what kind of dog it was that greeted me, but it had short white hair, clipped ears, and a long skinny tail like a stingray. Its chest was like a whiskey barrel. The dog must’ve weighed two hundred pounds. Though its tail was wagging, my instincts told me I should cover my nuts with my hand and back into the corner behind the front door.

“He doesn’t bite,” a woman’s voice called out.

“Hey, buddy,” I said to the dog.

He was smiling and he sat down in front of me, his back legs shifted out to the side. He didn’t have a collar on and I asked the voice what his name was. I kneeled down and started petting him.

“That’s Benji,” the voice answered. “Everyone’s in the basement.”

I said, “Hey, Benji,” and scratched behind his ears then walked further into the house.

Thick beams ran along the ceiling and skylights framed in the night. All the walls in the living room were lined with long black leather couches and the white-carpeted floor was littered with plastic toy trucks and remote-control cars. There was a Scarface poster and one from The Fast and the Furious tacked up in the hallway. I made my way into the kitchen and Benji went into living room and lay down on the floor. The TV was on, some reality show, people arguing. The volume was turned up and the arguing reached to the ceiling.

There was a woman cutting carrots and celery on a granite kitchen island and she introduced herself as Deedee. She said she was Lucky’s wife. Two toddlers in high seats stared at her with their mouths open from the other side of the island, and there was a purple and green bong between them next to the dish where Deedee was putting the cut vegetables. I asked her what her kids’ names were and she told me but I immediately forgot. I said, “Hey, kiddos,” and Deedee told me they were about ready for bed.

“Did you just come up from Oakland?”

“Down from Seattle, actually.”

Deedee said, “Wow,” and then pointed with the chef’s knife towards the spiral staircase that led to the basement. She told me she’d join everyone once she put her babies to bed.

In the basement I found Lucky and Ronnie and Bitz. There were bean bag chairs and a fifty-inch flat-screen and an Xbox and a PlayStation, and a liquor cart and everyone was drinking out of short crystal glasses. A punching bag hung from chains in the corner and the TV was on. A stereo played Biggie Smalls and the floor was covered in pot. Garbage bags full of pot. Plastic tubs full of pot. Twice-vacuum sealed bags of pot I knew weighed exactly one pound each.

“The mule has arrived,” Bitz said. He sat in a leather swivel chair and wore black pointed leather shoes. He smiled and the way his legs were stretched out and his shoulders bunched up he looked like he was made out of something heavier than flesh and bone.

Ronnie nodded at me and I nodded back. He was weighing pot to seal up. He wore latex gloves.

Lucky offered me a drink and I took one and I asked Ronnie if he needed help and he said there was only one vacuum sealer and that I could just relax. They asked about my car and Bitz joked about how my battle buddy Davis had dumped his trash off on me because we were scummy grunts. He said Rangers take care of each other. Lucky said a free car is a free car and I agreed, and Bitz said, “After a few weeks, Mule, you’ll be able to buy a new car, cash.”

The vacuum-sealed pounds piled up around Ronnie as Bitz and Lucky talked prices and future deals and logistics and how much money there was to be made. Later Deedee came down. She was holding the bong and she offered it around and everyone turned it down. Ronnie didn’t smoke when he was working, and I didn’t know Lucky well enough to know if he didn’t smoke or if he was simply stoned all the time. Bitz turned it down, too. He said it made him paranoid.

Deedee offered me the bong. I saw that it wasn’t an ordinary piece and I asked her if it was weed.

“It’s resin.”

“Is that weed?”

Ronnie said, “It’s a concentrate,” and I asked how I did it.

Deedee held the bong up to my mouth and said hit it like normal and then she started heating up the end with a handheld torch as I breathed in. I watched a thick grey smoke twirl in the chamber.

Deedee pulled the slide and I cleared the smoke. It shot into my lungs. I tried to cough but nothing came out. I was fucked instantly. My vision flicked on and off and I heard Bitz laughing as I stood up and stumbled towards the bathroom. I leaned over the sink and coughed and dry-heaved and I saw myself through the eyes of a fly perched on the ceiling.

I was upside down. My shoulder blades shook under my shirt. I’d been out of the Army for four months and I was soft and I wanted to impress Bitz and Ronnie and Lucky and Lucky’s wife, and I wondered why I hadn’t even taken a fucking moment to think before hitting her bong. My chest was trapped in hot oil. I kept looking at the mirror to see if blood was running from my eyes. I wondered if Bitz was right, that Davis really had just dumped his trash off on me. I wondered how long I’d been a sucker and I wondered if everyone could see it or if it was only visible to the people that wanted to use me.

Bitz was laughing, but I really only worried if I’d embarrassed Ronnie. I expected to walk out of the bathroom feeling naked. It felt obvious that I had been the ass end of a joke my entire life. My face was the punch line and I saw myself choking and slipping in Lucky’s basement and waking up with blood between my teeth.

I don’t know how long I was in the bathroom. Eventually the coughing stopped and then I was just really high, which wasn’t so bad, and when I took a seat on a bean bag next to Ronnie he asked if I was okay, and I said, “For a second, I thought I was going to die.”

Bitz said, “Boy, you got stuck, Mule. You were in the next dimension.”

I laughed with everyone and it felt like I was going to pass out and I didn’t fight it. As my eyes closed and I curled up on the bean bag, I listened to Lucky talk about a book he’d just read. It was called As If, and it had taught him to act as if he were already what he aspired to be. He kept repeating the title. “As If. As If.” He said it was the first book he’d ever read, and the last thing I remember before passing out was Bitz laughing so hard that he was screeching. He couldn’t believe that Lucky had never read a book before, and that made me feel a lot better.


The next morning Ronnie and I loaded the four duffle bags full of the pot that him and Bitz had purchased from Lucky into the back of Ronnie’s rental car. Ronnie handed me the keys and gave me a pair of fake glasses and a sweater, and he told me to keep my bat turned on. I gave him the keys to The Atheist Mobile and him and Bitz laughed as they lowered themselves into it. Ronnie drove. Bitz was on his third DUI. I followed them down the driveway and back onto highway two-ninety-nine, then lost them at a light in Redding and headed south down I-5.

It took me seven and a half hours to get to Bakersfield. The whole trip I kept Ronnie’s rental on cruise control at sixty-six miles per hour and I listened to Siddhartha on my old iPod, and when that finished I tuned to the radio and found a classical station which kept my mind off how long I was going to go to jail if I got pulled over. Ronnie and Bitz offered me fifty bucks per pound for the job. I had seventy-five in the trunk. All I had to do was drive and deal with the drop-off. Bitz knew a guy in Bakersfield who could take as much as Bitz could get him, so when I got to Bakersfield I called the number from a McDonald’s parking lot and Bitz’s contact told me he’d come meet me and I could follow him to his house.

The contact showed up ten minutes later looking like he could be someone’s dentist. He didn’t introduce himself, just nodded for me to follow, and when we got to his house, he helped me unload the duffle bags from his garage and up to a second-floor bedroom. There was a handgun on the kitchen counter and he handed me a paper bag full of cash and I asked him if he had a place where I could count it.

I called Ronnie and told him how much was there—forty grand total—and Ronnie said it should be four times that. I handed the phone to Bitz’s contact and listened to him say he’d have the rest soon, that he was waiting on a few different people to pay him. The tip of the gun was hanging over the edge of the counter. I thought about how fast I could get to it. I wondered if the guy had another one on him. I imagined cops busting in and me diving through the glass window and hoping there were bushes to catch my fall.

The contact handed my bat back to me and I asked Ronnie what he wanted me to do, and Ronnie said, “Just bring back what he gave you. That’s just how it goes sometimes.” Then Ronnie said he may have to pay me a little less than we agreed on, and I didn’t say anything except that I’d be back in a few hours. Driving with forty  grand was a risk, too, but I didn’t get paid for that. Any amount over ten was subject to confiscation. I could tell Ronnie was pissed, and I wanted to get away from that dentist and his gun.

With an empty trunk I headed back to Oakland, the floorboards of the rental covered in wrappers and empty Gatorade bottles. It was near one in the morning when I finally arrived. I gave Ronnie the money. He counted it and then handed me what we’d agreed on initially, and I told him I would drive back down to Bakersfield and collect the money when their contact said he had it. I said, “Fuck that creep in Bakersfield. We’ll beat it out of him if we have to.” Ronnie laughed, and the next morning when I woke up and went outside to drink my coffee on the sidewalk like I always did, I saw that there was a parking ticket wedged under the wiper of my Saturn. It was for sixty dollars. Street cleaning. I remembered the twenty-seven-fifty Ronnie had just paid me and I drank my coffee in the sun.

Ronnie didn’t have another job for me just yet, so I decided to get the Saturn put in my name. I waited at the DMV without an appointment for four hours and read Stranger in a Strange Land only to have the clerk tell me I had to get The Atheist Mobile to pass a smog test first. I asked where I got that done and he said “Google it,” then asked if there was anything else he could do for me. He reminded me of paper pushers in the Army, the guys who took pride in the cleanliness of their uniforms, who never left their desk because that was their kingdom. I said, “No” and “thanks” and that I’d be back.

The car didn’t pass smog. It needed its engine rebuilt. That was going to cost three grand. The car was barely worth one. I called Ronnie but he didn’t pick up. I looked up a metal scrap yard and found one in the flats of West Oakland. I stopped first and got a roast beef sandwich at a bar and had a few beers, then made my way to the scarp yard. It was rows of engine blocks and doorless refrigerators. There was a pile of crushed cars and bumpers, and in one corner were dozens of rims and steel wheels stacked in towers. The owner of the scrap yard looked over The Atheist Mobile while I stood under something that looked like a commercial jet wing. I thought he might say something about how ugly it was. He didn’t. He just gave me two hundred in tens and twenties.

I walked home and I decided not to tell Davis what happened. I pictured him praying in the back of an MRAP, his convoy passing under the shade of a concrete guard tower. West Oakland was littered with windswept trash and the streets and sidewalks looked gutted. It was getting dark, and under a bridge a city of tents began to glow. Somewhere a basketball swished through a chain net.

I told Ronnie about the car and he thought it was the funniest thing in the world and seeing him made me realize he was right. Ronnie said dinner was on him, and that night we ate one hundred and sixty dollars’ worth of sea bass and oysters and I had four whiskey cocktails. We laughed about Lucky and the book he’d read. We said, “As if I wasn’t an idiot. As if I wasn’t a fuckhead. As if I knew how to fucking read.”

Then we went back to our duplex on MLK and Ronnie’s girl came over. I went to my room and they fucked in the living room and I could hear her going o o o o. I scrolled through my phone. I found a joint in my desk and smoked it while bouncing on my bed in my underwear. I did forty pushups and one hundred jumping jacks. Oakland was yelling outside my window. My neighbors were curtained by bedsheets with cartoons on them.

Ronnie and I were going to be millionaires. In a few weeks, I would buy a new car with cash. I’d put together my own deals. I’d pay people to drive weed for me. I held my three grand in my hands and then put it in stacks of hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds again. I fanned each stack out on my sheets. I took a picture of them with my phone. I lay down next to my money. The house was quiet.

 


ELIE PIHA is an MFA student at Cornell University. In 2016, he won Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Award for Short Fiction. Before writing, from 2008 to 2012, Elie served as a paratrooper in the Army. His fiction is forthcoming in War, Literature and the Arts. He is at work on a novel.

 

Author’s Note

I can’t talk about “Mule” without talking about Cherry by Nico Walker. If anyone who’s read Cherry reads my story, they’re going to notice the obvious parallel in plot: a soldier leaves the military and enters a world of drugs. But that aspect of Cherry isn’t what inspired me to write “Mule.” I had my reasons for writing about California’s marijuana business just as Mr. Walker had his in regards to writing about heroin.

That said, reading Cherry was, for me, an incredible, inspiring, mind-opening trip. The protagonist’s voice was something I’d been searching for. The writing, from chapter length to scene development to the book’s blunted, deadpan sentences, were what I wanted to do with my own writing. I was one semester into a two-year MFA program when I read Cherry, and it was Cherry that finally gave me permission to just let go and write.

Sure, a writer has to have his toolkit. Maybe you’re a killer writer of dialogue, but can’t come up with an engaging narrative arc. Whatever. Know your strengths, know your weaknesses. With “Mule,” as soon as that first sentence came to me, I knew what kind of story I was writing. I knew that I was going to lean on my strengths. Straightforward sentences. Punchy descriptions. Humor. Masculinity—what that is and what it isn’t. When I was drafting “Mule,” every time that ambitious writer-student voice spoke up in my mind and said, “How about a clever metaphor that speaks to the narrative at large?” I pushed it aside and reminded myself to just tell the story.

“Mule” came out in a bang, and I think that process was the result of a lot of pent up creative energy locked behind a literary world that I didn’t feel like I belonged to. It just so happened that Cherry was the keeper to that door. Since lockdown in the spring, I’ve picked up and put down more books without finishing them than I ever have in my entire life. That’s just where I am in my writing career right now. Maybe a book promises an original story, but if the voice isn’t speaking directly to what I’m trying to do with my own fiction at the moment, forget it. I’m not interested.

Read what you want. I mean, have an open mind, but don’t be afraid to tell Tolstoy or Austen that you’ve got better things to do if they’re not absolutely blowing your mind. The highest compliment a writer can give a book is, “Reading this made me want to write.”

 


ELIE PIHA is an MFA student at Cornell University. In 2016, he won Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Award for Short Fiction. Before writing, from 2008 to 2012, Elie served as a paratrooper in the Army. His fiction is forthcoming in War, Literature and the Arts. He is at work on a novel.