The Difference Between a Goose and a Swan

by Chris Clements



Gordie and I were driving away after killing Bob Schumacher when, out of nowhere, he stopped the car on the side of the road, by this lake. This was back when everyone still called him Gordie, before he got busted by the cops for strangling all those geese and he went back to being either plain old “Gordon” or else just “That one asshole who strangled all those geese.”

To be clear, Gordie was the one who killed Schumacher, not me. The big bastard choked Bob to death with the cord from Bob’s wife’s curling iron. I told Gordie before we even set foot in the man’s house: Take it easy with him. I told him: We’re only supposed to put the fear in the guy—got it? After all, it’s not like he and I were psychos. We were truck drivers, typical guys, employed by the H.G. Wallace Logistics Corporation out of Blakesburg, Iowa. And sure, we’d been known to slouch into The Haven every now and again to drink ourselves blind. That didn’t make us bad people, though.

Because two days before Bob and before the lake, a certain Mrs. Schumacher showed up at The Haven broken and bloody and begging for protection from the beatings Bob was giving her, and it was piss-drunk Gordie H. Pound and I who stepped (or staggered, more like) up to help her.

“He hit you,” Gordie burped out, more a statement than a question.

“She said that twice already,” I said, shaking my head at him. “What have you been doing with all that Jack? Pouring it in your ears?”

I swiveled my stool back towards Bob’s better half.

“We can handle this for you, Allison. Absolutely we can.”

I hadn’t noticed until right then, but it appeared Bob had torn chunks of hair from her scalp in the scuffle. Her blonde hair was dark with blood.

“Thanks,” she said. Then, meeting my gaze for the first time since she entered the bar: “You know, you kind of look like him. My Bobby.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

She wiped a stray tear from a blackened eye, took a drag on the cigarette she’d been smoking, and ashed it on the mahogany bar top. You might think that a bit strange—ashing a dart on a bar top instead of using a tray—but it’s actually not. Every dive bar has a little gimmick, a little quirk to them, something to make the hole-in-the-wall aspect cute, and letting patrons ash their cancer sticks on the bare bar top was The Haven’s. Years of people doing exactly that had turned it the color and consistency of asphalt. But if you rubbed at the thing long enough, the black gunk would crumble apart and you’d be able to see a bit of what came before.

Gordie stepped off his stool, adjusted his jean jacket, said, “I gotta go drain the snake,” and promptly fell backwards into a group of college students, knocking pints of beer to the ground along with his own heaving carcass. When one of the kids cursed at him in response, Gordie paused a second from his place on the floor, then yanked the kid’s ankle to bring him crashing down. It was like watching a watering-hole alligator surprise-attack a gazelle. The two commenced wrestling, by which I mean Gordie began beating the piss out of the kid.

“Excuse me, Allison, won’t you,” I said, slapping a twenty-dollar bill on the ash-stained wood. “Looks like Gordon’s gotten himself into a bit of a donnybrook.”

I guess you could say he didn’t have much capacity for restraint.

*   *   *

And so two nights later we sat in Gordie’s car, parked on the street opposite the Schumachers’, snorting the lab-quality speed I’d bought from my sister Barb through the plastic straws you usually use for soda pop. It had just started to rain, and it was late enough in the evening to where the orange streetlights were twitching on, one by one. The lights made the flecks of rain that dotted the windshield look as if the night sky had been smeared onto the glass and put to flame. The Schumachers lived in one of those modern-type houses with the geometric architecture and the neat rows of sugar maple illuminated by little decorative light fixtures. “The Beast in Me” by Johnny Cash dribbled from the radio and pooled at our feet. No crickets were chirping.

“Ugly,” I said, pointing. “Their yard.” I wiped the sweat from my forehead.

“I don’t think so,” Gordie replied, scratching his tattooed arm. “I kind of like it. It’s artistic, you know? It’s artistic.”

We’d both taken a class at the local learning annex for uneducated thirty-somethings like ourselves called “Understanding Art” (an activity our wives suggested we do, claiming we needed to get a little culture in us in the down time between hitches). After a while though, you might say the class grew on us. We’d taken to arguing about art in an abstract way via the walkie-talkies in our truck’s cabins while OTR (trucker slang for “Over the Road,” meaning a long-term cross-country hitch), when the isolation of our job became unbearable.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked him as I lowered my head to the dashboard to take a mighty snort. “That yard’s a Picasso-esque hellscape, all those weird little shapes and shit.”

“Nah, it reminds me more of that Mark Rothko motherfucker than Picasso.”

The speed wasn’t really necessary for this gig, but, like debating the merits of Dadaism as an art movement, using it had become a habit during our long lonely drives across the U.S. of A.

The truth is that it’s pretty much impossible to be in our piece-of-shit profession without using some kind of stimulant. Gordie and I—we hauled fifty thousand pounds of pressurized cement seventy hours a week back then, sometimes for as long as eight days in a row, all alone in the bosoms of our eighteen-wheelers. Solitude like that can do things to a man. It builds up in your chest and twists a fist-sized knot in your insides and makes you feel trapped. You start bleeding for ways to untangle it—take this job at the Schumachers’ for example—because anything is better than facing another day of that soul-sucking sixty-five-miles-per-hour sameness. Time spent OTR will do that to a guy.

On the face of it, the problem is a simple one: you want to make money and support your family. Trouble is, you’re expected to ride those interstates for as long as the boss tells you to, sanity be damned. That’s where the amphetamines come in. You do a bump off your car keys or snort through a straw or inject it into your veins or whatever and you give it a few minutes and then:


Everything in your field of vision is sharper, like it’s cut from glass: bolded and italicized, so to speak. What was once so boring a job you’d been eyeing your hunting rifle with lust becomes a nonstop thrill ride instead, and soon your heart thumps up in your throat and you stop needing sleep and you get hard-ons that last for hours and your mouth gets all dry and warm like hot sand and you start wearing black during benders because you need to disguise the fact that you’re sweating like a fucking pig roast.

Now you’re able to handle seventy hours a week, no problem. But it only lasts for so long until you’ve got that knot in your chest again. At some point you begin to dream of scissors.

“Alright, let’s do this,” Gordie said to me, his goatee dusty with bits of powder. He had a baseball bat I’d lent him twirling real fast between his legs. One of the drawbacks of using speed for any length of time is the nervous tics you develop.

And this is when I warned him to take it easy on Schumacher.

The thing is, I could see Gordie’s eyes had begun to widen and shine in an all-too-familiar way. I’d seen them shine like that before. That time he broke a man’s jaw outside The Haven. That time he shanked, and was shanked by, a prostitute outside a shitbox rest stop in Kansas. That time he went off on a bender and turned up at my door in the middle of the night covered in scratches, like he’d been out foraging naked in a blackberry patch. Gordie’s tendency toward what my wife Clarice called “toxic interpersonal contact” had always bothered me to some extent, sure, but the way I figured, I was just one individual. I mean, what could I do? It was Gordie who was doing the kicking, punching, pushing, slapping. Though I’ll be honest, it was a goddamn hell of a show to see him in action. But something deep down inside (“repressed,” as Clarice put it) made me wonder why we couldn’t all just get along. Every time Gordie went postal with some poor bastard, he seemed to get wound up a little tighter inside, seemed to get a little more distant from everything and everybody. I’d even begun to suspect that these things he did to people—that he chalked up to “shit happens”—these things weren’t just going away. They stayed with him.

In the end I decided that some people are just born that way: you are what you are. Of course, it certainly didn’t help the situation that the big lug had a head the approximate size and shape of one of those Easter Island statues, and hands like catcher’s mitts. And those eyes. Those fucking eyes.

He’d begun staring at the rain droplets on the windshield, jaw slack, looking increasingly zapped.

“You’re good though, right?” I asked him. “Cause you seem—”

“Let’s do this.”

So we opened the car doors. Shut them. I remember they sounded like cannon blasts. Gordie with his bat, me with my unloaded hunting rifle. I followed behind Gordie, practically walking in the man’s shadow, as we approached the front door (which, by the way, was a horribly gauche glass-and-wood pattern that made me want to spit).

It was then that I realized what a stupid fucking decision this was, starting with giving Gordie my baseball bat⁠. The man was six feet nine inches and 280 pounds if he was a pound: he didn’t need a baseball bat to intimidate anyone.

I held the rifle behind my back and knocked.

Bob cracked the door open. He was short, fat, and pasty white. Going bald and wearing a fluffy white bathrobe, by the look of it. For a split second I thought the speed had finally gotten to me.

Bob Schumacher and I looked exactly alike. A spitting image.

“Can I help you?” he asked, and coughed. I think he had a cold.

“Christ, she wasn’t kidding,” Gordie said. He jumped his eyes between the two of us. “You really do look alike.”

“Can I help you?” Bob repeated, opening the door a little more.

Gordie said, “Sure thing,” and kicked the door into Bob, hitting him in the head and knocking him to the ground. I followed Gordie inside.

This part had been discussed in advance. I was going to watch Bob so he didn’t run off, and Gordie was supposed to look around the house for something to tie him up with. We’d rough him up a bit, maybe steal some stuff, threaten him, and leave. I had Bob sit in one of his kitchen chairs while I put my rifle to his head.

“This is it, man,” I said, trying to sound tough. “This is how it’s all gonna end.” Bob’s head was bleeding and he was whining softly, making noises like a rusty hinge. We didn’t bring our own rope because I was afraid that later, after it was over, the police might be able to trace whatever we used back to us.

I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I’d be lying if I said it was entirely because of the road dope. Seeing Bob—practically my twin—made me feel like I’d just been woken up from a real bad dream, only to find a hunting rifle in my arms. I’d never even used that gun before, and I was pretty sure it was only good for squirrels or ducks or whatever.

Then I smelled piss, Bob’s, and realized I had no idea how long it’d been since Gordie left to look for rope. I told Bob to “stay fucking put, you wife-beating prick,” and left to go find him. I called Gordie’s name over and over again: no response.

Eventually I did find him in a guest bathroom, standing very still. The walls were orange and yellow. I can still remember them.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked him. “Where’s the rope?”

He looked hypnotized, staring unblinkingly at this painting above the toilet, and in that instant I was reminded of another major drawback of using speed, specifically what truckers like Gordie and I liked to call “the tunnel vision,” in which a guy becomes momentarily divorced from reality and enters a horrible cocksucking psychic state replete with all sorts of creeping hallucinations and delusions, accompanied usually by strings of thought that fire off in angular, jagged directions, and that in Gordie’s case almost always gravitated towards violence.

“You know what this is?” he whispered. He’d dropped my bat on the ground.

I knew what it was. It was a reproduction of an Edvard Munch painting called “The Scream.” We’d learned about it in our art class. It showed a man walking along a path, his hands clasped to his bowling-pin head, either hearing or giving off a soundless cry of despair. Our class hadn’t been able to come to a conclusion on which it was.

And suddenly there was a real-life cry of despair—I turned and saw Bob Schumacher barreling toward us, a kitchen knife in his outstretched hand. He stabbed me in the shoulder with it and leaped onto Gordie’s back. In the rush of it all his bathrobe fell off and he was naked. He looked like a gargoyle.

I fell to the ground and lost consciousness for a second out of shock, I guess. When I came to, Gordie had gained the upper hand. He’d put Bob in a headlock with one arm and was desperately searching the bathroom countertop for something using the other. They both made these subhuman gasping noises as they fought for control.

I pulled the knife out of my shoulder slowly and dropped it to the floor. The pain was pure electrified hotness, as if I’d stuck a fork in a wall socket. The hotness was leaking down my chest and seeping into my shirt, which was black.

Gordie’s free hand brushed against a curling iron on the countertop and, ripping its cord out of the wall and up over Bob’s head, he began to strangle him with it. Their noises became even more animal.

I told Gordie, in a voice that was not my own:
Stop, you don’t have to do that,
you can stop,
let’s just leave,
I’m okay,
it’s okay,
let’s just go,
let’s just go,
let’s just go.

My memory goes all fuzzy after that, staticky, like a TV with a busted antenna. In the last year or so since that night, I’ve walked into bathrooms to find that my hands have started to shake.

The next thing I do recall was getting back into the car and driving away. Gordie and I settled into silence with only the carnivorous roar of the car’s engine in the background, the kind of noise that manages to be all around you and yet you never even notice it. I’d wrapped a spare shirt I found in the back of the car around my bleeding shoulder, which had started to burn in a steady rhythm that mirrored my heartbeat. And right as we passed by Rathbun Lake, headed back to The Haven, right as I began to think we’d turn everything that happened into a memory, there was a flash of white light in front of the high beams and a small bump under the wheels. Gordie pulled the car over on the side of the road.

“Gordie,” I said quietly. “We’ve got to get the fuck out of here. The cops, Gordie.”

He didn’t say anything. He killed the engine, left the lights on, and stepped out of the car. I got out too. It was late at night and no other cars were coming from either direction. There were still not any crickets chirping.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” was all he said in reply, and into those two words he somehow managed to cram all the rage and ugliness of the last two hours. He started walking, as if in a trance, back down the way we came.

A little ways behind us, lying in the center of the road, was a dead swan. You could see it clearly in the moonlight. A pool of blood extended out from its pale body, traveling in all the little cracks of the asphalt, like it was trying to reach itself out towards the darkness of the forest.

Gordie kneeled down next to the thing. His huge hands became softer in the light of the moon, and with them he picked up the swan’s broken body. Cradled it. And then he started sobbing.



Chris Clements is an undergraduate English major at Arizona State University. His fiction has been published in Lux Undergraduate Creative Review, which is produced with the help of Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. He has received the Jules J. Anatole Creative Writing Scholarship from ASU for his fiction writing.

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