Mesha Maren

May 23, 2024 
The following is from Mesha Maren's Shae. Maren is the author of the novels Sugar Run and Perpetual West (Algonquin Books). Her short stories and essays can be read in Tin House, The Oxford American, The Guardian, Crazyhorse, Triquarterly, The Southern Review, Ecotone, Sou’wester, Hobart, Forty Stories: New Writing, and elsewhere. She is an Associate Professor of the Practice of English at Duke University.


The problem was he cut too deep. Waited too long and cut too deep. A line so precise even an idiot couldn’t mistake it for an accident. Colton and I were on a family visit of sorts, up on Muddy Creek Mountain. Colton’s uncle, Luther, kept calling me Little Missus. Either he hadn’t seen Colton’s wife in so long he forgot what she looked like or maybe he thought Colton had got a new one. I didn’t say anything. Luther had a bunch of land, most of it slicked down into rusty mud patches. He had hunting dogs staked to little doghouses, each one with a different design—intricate and mesmerizing. Cupolas and widow’s walks and multi-angled roofs. The dogs were rangy and dead-eyed. They ran circles around their chains and kicked orange mud up in great sprays against their own personal balconies.

Luther also had a portable sawmill.

“So where is it?” he said.

Colton squinted and slugged the last of his Bud. It was November but real warm out and we were drinking in the yard.

“What?” Colton said.

“Well, I know you didn’t just come up here to tell me you love me.”


“You said you had something you needed cut.”

“Oh,” Colton said and then he held up his arm.

“So where is it?”

Colton waved his arm. He had a ratty plaster cast.

“Bull fucking shit,” Luther said.

Colton nodded. “I’ve done it myself before. Did it with a hacksaw blade but it took fucking forever. Just show me how to run the thing.”

“You’re gonna lose your fucking arm. End up a janitor.”


“You remember that fuck-wad that Nina hired to clean the diner at night. One arm.”

“He sawed it off?”

“Dirty needles,” Luther said. “Over and over in the same vein. Got gangrene.”

“See,” Colton said. “Now that’s just stupid.” He grinned and opened another Bud. Colton had a great smile, crooked enough to catch in your stomach and pull up to your heart. “What the fuck ever,” he said. “I’ll do it myself.”

When Luther saw he was serious, he said they’d be better off using a chainsaw. He said he had a lightweight Craftsman.

The saw was in a long shed that smelled of pine. I wandered away to the end of the shed where the light sliced in and framed the wood curls spilled all across the floor, each one perfect and singular. The saw ripped awake and snarled. I picked up a curl and held it cupped in my palm. The saw stopped. The saw snarled. I dropped the curl and watched it spin. The saw stopped. The saw snarled and then Colton screamed. I turned. I thought I’d see a geyser of blood, a horror movie stunt, but there was nothing. The chainsaw was on the floor beside Luther and Colton was dancing backward, holding his cast to his chest. Luther walked over.

“Let me see it,” he said.

The cut wasn’t deep but it fouled up the plan. The idea was to get the cast off and crush Colton’s fingers again and then go to a new doctor and tell how the accident happened up on the fracking rig and how he’d put up with the pain for a few days but now he couldn’t stand it. The idea was to get a new Oxy script. But he’d waited too long this time, gotten too tan. When he peeled the cast off his skin was moist and pale with that straight incision. It didn’t look like any hand that had just been working.

“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck a fucking duck.”

He went out into the mud yard where the dogs were pacing past their filigreed porches. He started rubbing the orange dirt all over his arm, into the cut and onto his palm.

“Hey, let’s just go find Ditro. I bet he’ll front me a gram,” I said. Ever since Natasha died, Ditro acted like he was scared of me.

Colton howled. His hand was the goose that laid golden eggs. He couldn’t leave her yet.

“Last time I seen Ditro he didn’t have shit,” he said and he opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a sledgehammer. He glanced up at me then over to Luther then back to me.

“Right here in the middle,” he said. “Just blam! One good smash.”

He hauled the sledgehammer over to a tree stump and turned to look at me. The forest was busy, squirrels gathering nuts and woodpeckers drilling for grubs. I was holding a lukewarm backwash beer.

“Fucking idiots,” Luther said and he walked away. The dogs all turned to watch him go.

I stepped up, swallowed my beer and set the bottle down. “How hard?” I said.

“Give it everything you’ve got.”

The sun was warm on my back but it had been more than twelve hours since my last Oxy and I was starting to feel the sickness creeping in. I picked up the sledgehammer. It was so heavy I had to bend and stick my butt out to get a good enough angle to support it. I wondered if Luther was watching.

Colton’s hand was splayed on the stump, his tan arm, tan fingertips and pasty pale hand smeared with mud. I shifted my legs and focused my eyes on it. Behind me I could hear the dogs clanking their chains. I pictured them straining to get a better look.

“One,” I said, “two, three.”

I missed.

The hammer hit the mud and Colton screamed. “Fuck you!” Funny thing was that when I did really get him, he didn’t say anything. The hammer hit his hand with a kind of wet smoosh that made my stomach turn. I let go as soon as it made contact and the hammer bounced to the side and landed in the pine scrub. Colton sat down heavy. His face was white and his eyes big. His hand was still pale and slick with mud but it was all crooked now, his pinky kicked back like it had an extra joint. There was only the sound of the dogs’ chains and the squirrels cutting nuts and Colton’s heavy breathing. He lay back.

“Come on,” I said. “We gotta go. Where’s your keys?”

Colton didn’t move.

I looked around for Luther. The dogs watched me look, swiveling their heads, but Luther was not there.

“Colton, come on, we gotta go,” I said.

I found the keys in his pocket and half dragged him to the passenger seat. He was heavy for how small he looked. Maybe it was just his oversized clothes that made him seem small, although if you asked him, I bet he thought they made him seem big. He didn’t say a single thing the whole drive except for when I plugged his phone into the stereo and Metallica’s And Justice for All came on.

“Yes,” he said then, “yes.”

The doctor’s office was in a half-empty strip mall between a Long John Silver’s and an abandoned PayLess. From the looks of it I wondered why Colton had even bothered to re-break his hand, it seemed like he could of just said the word “pain” and gotten a new script. But apparently they were cracking down everywhere, even in shopping mall doctor’s offices. The waiting room was all burnt-orange seat cushions with foam sticking out and dusty mustard curtains. A receptionist with spinach between her front teeth.

“My husband,” I said to her, just as I had practiced. “He’s in a lot of pain. He had an accident at work and I know it must be real bad because he usually never ever complains.”

They kept him in the back a long time. I didn’t know how long it was supposed to take but I started getting nervous. I kept looking down at my arms. My jean jacket was covering them but I still felt like the receptionist could see the marks. I didn’t know if I was supposed to act worried about Colton but I did know I shouldn’t act nervous. There was a woman across from me with an oxygen tank. When she pulled out a pack of Pall Malls I bummed one.

“She won’t let you smoke it in here,” the woman said, cutting her eyes towards the receptionist.

I held the doors for her and when we were outside, she asked me to push her oxygen as far away from her as the tube would go. “It makes me nervous.”

There were only five cars in the whole long parking lot. At the far end a kid was riding a skateboard. He kept steering it into the puddles where little birds were bathing. He would zoom through and they’d lift and swirl and dip down again.

We were back inside when Colton got through. He’d found his words. His arm was in a sling and he was hollering. “Fuck you all you cocksucking, motherfucking…my hand is fucking busted to shit and you won’t do shit about it.”

My stomach dropped. The receptionist was watching with an almost smile on her lips and the oxygen lady was shoving her glasses up on her nose to get a better look.

He whirled past me and out into the parking lot and I had to run to catch up.

“Colton, what happened?” I said.

“Fuuuck YOU!” he screamed.

I made it into the passenger side of the car just before he tore off. The hills were bright with changing leaves, gobs of orange and yellow across the mountainsides and the sky a sheer and staggering blue.

He was driving with his left hand, swerving all over the place. We shimmied past the Pizza Hut where Mom used to take me once a month with my Book It coupons. Five book reports for one personal pan. By the end of every month I’d get four pans.

“Let’s go find Ditro,” I said. It seemed it was the only thing I could say.

“Fuck you,” Colton said. He didn’t have a big range of vocabulary either.

“Come on,” I said. “I bet he’ll front me.”

Colton turned and looked at me. “You bet. I need better than that. You just smashed my hand with a fucking sledgehammer.”


He parked in the back corner of the Walmart parking lot.

“We’ll split up, fan out,” he said. “Look for receipts. Look for ones with high dollar shit but keep any of em that’s got stuff worth ten dollars or more.”

“Then what?” I squinted over at him.

“Cash back,” he said. “You go find the stuff, take it to the service counter with the receipt. Bingo. Cash back.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. Are you sure you’re gonna be okay?” I nodded towards his sling.

“They gave my hand a shot of some kind of numbing shit. It’s gonna wear the fuck off soon though. So get fucking cracking.”

I took off towards the Garden Center, walking with my head down, staring at the pavement. I liked the straightforwardness of my task. It felt like something I could achieve, not like all the other big cloudy problems in my life. I’d been maybe permanently suspended from dancing at Southern X-Posure. I’d missed too many shifts without calling in. It didn’t seem like you could exactly get fired from a strip club but Raven had taken me completely off the schedule until I “got my shit together.” I’d burned through my savings fast. I was shooting my Oxys by then but my script was gone and the pills were expensive. Dope was cheaper but the quality was never reliable and ever since Natasha died, I was worried.

The wind was blowing the trees along the edge of the lot and the flag in the yard across the street. A nice strong ripple breeze. I saw a bit of white paper under a truck tire and I skipped towards it, smiling. This whole thing seemed magical and funny. Find a piece of paper, turn it into a different kind of paper and turn that into Oxys. The world was a funny, magical place.

There was an insulated thermos on the receipt worth $11.60 and a pack of batteries, $7.99. Plus a bunch of other two or three dollar items.

“Colton!” I called, holding the receipt up above my head. I couldn’t see him through all the vehicles though. The Walmart lot was full up. I kept having to dodge people with buggies and babies, keeping my eyes on the ground the whole time. I could feel the sick building in me, in my sweat and in my stomach, but finding the receipt had given me a little surge and I felt sure we’d get ourselves fixed up.

“Hey, miss, hey, did you lose something?”

I jerked my head up. There was a man with a goatee staring at me. “You alright, miss?”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay.”

“No?” he said. “Or, it’s okay?”

“What?” I was rubbing the receipt between my fingers. My eyes darted away, looking for white paper.

“I said are you alright and you said no.” He was standing next to a blue pickup.

“Oh,” I said, walking past him. “Alright.”

There was something in among the leaves at the base of a light pole. I bent and grabbed it and when I stood up the man was right in close to me. I could smell the Skoal on his breath.

“I swear I know you from somewhere,” he said. “You look real familiar.”

I wondered if he’d seen me naked.

“You lose your shopping list, sweetie?” he asked.

I looked down. It was in fact a shopping list, not a receipt. I balled it up and threw it so it bounced off his chest.

“See ya,” I said.

It turned out that the first receipt I found would be the only one for me that day. Colton found two but all together it only added up to thirty-seven dollars. We needed at least twice that much to get both of us better. If we added in the little stuff on the receipts it got us to just over fifty but Colton said you couldn’t return every item on every receipt or they got suspicious.

“Go into the baby department and grab some pampers and formula,” he said. “That shit always re-sells. I know a guy in Ronceverte who’ll take it off us.”

I did just like he told me and put the diapers and formula in a buggy and pushed it over to the automotive department.

“I already paid for this up front,” I said to the guy behind the desk. “My husband’s just out there getting the car looked at. I need to get back to my baby.”

The man buzzed the door for me and I loaded it into Colton’s trunk and we drove down to the river city. The Greenbrier was moving fast and smooth with a high current from all the upstream rain. It was late afternoon and the sunlight through the willows made me ache in a way I couldn’t separate from the sick that was coming on strong by now. Colton had a little trashcan stashed behind the passenger seat. I vomited into it. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. It felt like I was barfing up my heart. When it was over, I looked up and we were parked right across from the spot where Cam first kissed me, in the back seat of Mom’s car, almost exactly two years before. The barfing made tears come out of my eyes but I wasn’t crying.

“Let me have that,” Colton said and he took the trashcan and handed me an empty Walmart bag.

The house Colton took me to was one of those big old white ones with front and back porches, three stories tall. There was a pit bull on the front steps and the man had to call him off before we could go in.

“We’ve got pampers and formula,” Colton told the man and the man said go talk to Terry.

The house was set up like an indoor yard sale. There was a room for food stuff and another with lawnmowers and chainsaws. One room with men’s clothing and another for women’s. Everything had handmade price tags on it, a couple bucks cheaper than what it would cost at Walmart. Everything was set up neat and clean. Mom would of loved this place. She loved discovering things she didn’t know she needed. Zucchini spiralizer, guillotine bagel slicer, doll-head toilet seat. Mom would of loved Colton’s uncle’s dog houses too, all that intricate hand-cut wood. Before Cam, Mom had been my best friend and I always thought of the world through what she would like. Then Cam came in and I learned her music and her new language. And soon Cam was in on Mom’s tastes too. And then I spun out—Kandice, Colton, Mitcham, Jason Hicks. I had no idea if they liked kitsch or what kind of music. I had no idea what Colton liked besides Oxy.

The stairs creaked as Colton wandered up to the second floor. I was going to follow but I had to stop and barf. Every time, right after I retched, I’d feel better for a minute before it settled in again and I was standing there holding a bag of bile, strings of it sticking to my lips and teeth.

Colton came back down hollering. It was one of those grand type staircases, the kind a Southern belle would walk down in a hoopskirt, ready for a ball. “Fuck you,” Colton yelled. “You cocksucking, motherfucking son of a whore.”

The dog leapt up when we came out onto the porch.

“Ralph,” the man called and he lay back down.


Terry had all the pampers and formula he needed. He also didn’t have any Oxy. We got back in the car. Colton tried to light a cigarette but started to barf. I handed him the trashcan. When he finished, he looked over at me, eyes all watery. “At least you can use the baby junk,” he said.

I shook my head. Eva ate solid food now and Cam was getting her potty trained. I stared out the windshield at the river park. The sun was down below the ridge and the cold was settling in. I could feel goosebumps rising on my sweaty skin. Somewhere in there with the cold and the dark coming on and the images of Cam and Eva, happy up in Charleston without me, a corkscrew of hate started to mix with the dope sick. We just needed fifty, maybe a hundred bucks and everything would be erased.

“I know where we can get some cash,” I said. “Let me drive.”

It was blue dark by the time we reached Kandice’s. There were lights on in all the apartments except for hers. I still had a key even though it had been almost a year since I’d babysat. We used our cellphone lights to pick our way through a maze of plastic toys and dishes. I headed for the bedroom with the Willie Nelson poster and overflowing dresser. The bedroom where she taught me to dance. There you go baby girl, that’s good.

“Hey, come on, hurry,” he hissed.

I moved towards the closet. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I know her schedule at the club, she won’t be home for hours yet.”

I could of just taken fifty bucks. She probably wouldn’t of even noticed. I could of just taken a hundred, a hundred and fifty. But I cleaned her out. At the time I thought I didn’t know why, but now I know I was trying out the size of my greed. I was building towards something.


We went straight to Ballew’s. On the road it had started to rain but inside it was all warm and happy. Junie was serving her extra-generous shots. Mitcham was there, he hadn’t been put away yet. The river was burbling down in the dark. And Ditro had black tar.

I bought us fresh rigs and we ran giggling through the rain to Colton’s car. Colton had to shoot up in places like his foot or his crotch but I could still use the veins in my arms. We settled into the backseat and cooked up our shots. The taste came up over the back of my tongue and then the rush overwhelmed me. I was weeping, shining, leaping. It was like coming up from the bottom of the pool when your lungs are all empty. Pure relief that peaks so hard it shakes you. I watched the rain on the glass, the dark soft around us. Colton was sighing deeply beside me. And then blink! The Christmas star came on. It was this huge, twenty-foot-tall star that lit up on the side of the water tower on the hill above Render. It only ever came on in late December. I never saw it out of season but that night it must of fritzed. Life was a funny, magical thing.

“Hey look, Colton, look,” I said but he’d nodded out.

I watched the light shine through the rain and felt its warmth spread in rings around me and it was gone then—that corkscrew of hate and everything dark I was ever capable of.


From Shae by Mesha Maren. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2024 by Mesha Maren. 

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