“Stull, Kansas” by Eric Ramseier
Each morning, everyone who worked for JB Construction would gather in the warehouse awaiting the day’s schedule. Most tipped over lost cinderblocks and sat down in the middle. I always stood outside the main circle, away from the conversation, where people were too hung over or half asleep to talk. I’d always wanted to work on the same crew as Chad the Impaler. He was like the quarterback in middle school. Everyone gravitated to him. Every Monday I would go in and hear other people talk about what a great time they had at the Impaler’s houseboat. When Wednesday hit, they would start dreaming about how fucked up they’d get at the Impaler’s houseboat in just three more days. On a construction crew, though, you can’t really go up to your boss and say you want to work with one particular guy. If anyone else in the crew finds out about it, they call you names until you figure out you have to quit. I never got put on the same crew as the Impaler because I had no real skills. I mostly did clean up and demo. Sometimes the boss would let me mud dry wall, but that was only if he couldn’t get his regular crew of Mexicans to do it for cheap. I only got the job because the boss’s dad was friends with my mom. I only worked there because I needed money to move to Detroit to be with my mom.
I hadn’t seen the Impaler for most of the week, then he showed up on Friday, and the boss said the Impaler and I would work together. He wanted the Impaler and me to do this demo job on the church in Stull. It would have taken an hour to do with a front loader, but the boss also owned the church and wanted each stone preserved so he could sell them on the internet. I didn’t know why anyone would want any of those bricks, but I was happy to work with the Impaler.
I’d known about the church—most people had. It’s supposed to be one of the seven gateways to hell. The church was a small, old, windowless building that made you wonder how anyone could get in there for a regular service. Then again, Stull only had a half dozen houses, all hugging the county highway between Topeka and Lawrence. But the church had been vacant and in disrepair for as long as anyone could remember. I used to go up there while I was in high school to get drunk or smoke weed. It was spooky just because of the stories you’d hear about it, about how you could put a soda can in the middle of the chalk pentagram on the floor, turn your back, and it’d be gone, how even though its roof was missing, it never rained inside, or about how you could throw a glass bottle and it wouldn’t break. But I never saw any ghosts or heard any weird noises or anything. Maybe I was always too scared to try any of those famous things.
The place hadn’t changed since I was a teenager. The church sat on a hill surrounded by level corn and alfalfa fields. The cemetery still surrounded the church, the gravel road leading up to it, a small clump of cottonwoods, but now there was a chain link fence around the property and huge signs that said KEEP OUT. The back corner of the church closest to the trees was caved in. All the stained glass was gone. It was sad in its own way. At first, it didn’t feel like the same church from when I was young. The mystery was missing. I had remembered it being foreboding even in the daytime when I skipped class to go to downtown Lawrence. Still, the Impaler and I worked from the outside, not from the graffitied, rough planks of the floor inside.
“You get to work on that side,” the Impaler said, motioning to the side that was crumbling. When you are new on the job, you have to take the work that no one else wants. It’s an unwritten rule that I was fond of most of the time. I didn’t want to get caught doing something wrong. It would lead to mockery.
We used crowbars and chisels to chip out the mortar and pull out each stone. We had wooden crates that we filled with the stones after we cataloged them on a clipboard. Once we filled up a crate, we took it down the gravel drive on a pallet jack, walked across the street and deposited it in the abandoned fire station. It may not have felt quite the same as when I was younger, but you can’t fight history, and I was very much aware of what was going on around me. Any rustling of the tall grass or trees, I immediately turned around to see what was happening. I thought it was easy, taking from the already crumbled foundation. I didn’t realize you were supposed to start from the top. The walls wobbled and stressed with each piece of limestone brick I squeezed from the mortar. Eventually the whole corner fell, scattering stones and dust. I wasn’t hurt, but I did fall down the hill towards where we parked our cars. I stayed there smelling the rubber of the tires, hoping the Impaler hadn’t seen me fall over.
“What did you do?” the Impaler asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “The wall collapsed. It’s the first time I’ve done demo like this.”
“Is it the first time you’ve been a retard like this?” The Impaler laughed, then looked confused. “Do you need help or something? You’ll probably want to report this in case you’re injured.”
“No. I’ll just—I’m okay—I’ll, uh—” But before I could finish, he’d gone back to work.
At lunch, we silently decided not to sit in the church, so we walked across the street to the fire station. It was hot enough that waves were coming off the asphalt. Sweat dripped from the top of my hairline, collected mortar dust from my brow, and dropped like gray, salty rain onto my peanut butter and honey sandwich. The Impaler stood in the corner pressing shut one nostril and blowing furiously out the open one, then switched and repeated with the other nostril. Gobs of gray sludge collected on the floor.
“So,” I said, “are you having a party this weekend?”
The Impaler paced the room, stuffing a burrito in his mouth. “You know why I’m cool as fuck? It’s because I don’t need this fucking job. You think I give a shit if I get sent out to do this shit job? I’m apprenticing as an electrician, and he’s got me pulling down a haunted church with someone who doesn’t realize you can’t pull down a collapsed wall without it collapsing on him a lot more?”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting it is all. I mean, I could kind of guess that the wall would come down a lot faster, but—”
“Fuck it. I don’t care. I’ll do it. He’s just pissed at me.”
“Is it because you’re banging his wife?”
“What did you say to me?” I had heard this rumor that he was called Chad the Impaler because he had a huge unit and gave it to the boss’s wife whenever the boss wasn’t around. The boss was never around. The morning meetings before we got our assignments would always have bragging sessions where the flannel-wearing tradesmen would jam their elbows into each other talking about porking different girls. They would always ask the Impaler about his special lady on the side and he would always lace his fingers behind his head and lean back, smiling, not saying a word. It was impressive. The boss was a huge guy. I wouldn’t have messed with him. “I don’t even know who you are. Why do you think you know so much about me?”
“I’ve worked here two months. You hear things in the morning.”
“Stop listening, then.”
I avoided eye contact, focusing on my sandwich. The Impaler paced the warehouse twice and went back to work. I finished my sandwich but decided to give him some time without me around. It was getting hot enough that it felt like the world was pushing down on me, the air heavy and sweating. We wouldn’t work much longer that day because of the heat. The boss wouldn’t want to have to pay the medical costs if we got heat stroke. I walked back up the hill to the church. I went back to my corner, but worked toward the Impaler’s sight line.
With the roof off, we pried the stones out of the wall like corn on the cob. The beginning of each line of stones in the wall afforded me the chance to see what the Impaler was doing. He wasn’t as far along as me. He didn’t look like he knew what he was doing. I just turned the corner, so I was working on the same wall as the Impaler. I began chipping at the dusty mortar and using the bent end of a crowbar to lift the stone out, tumbling to the ground. I saw the Impaler watching me. Soon, he copied my method. I didn’t want to make it look like I was showing him up, so I went back to my wall.
The late afternoon is the hottest part of the day. We were covered in dirt and dust. We were soaked in sweat and sunburned. It was time to go home. The Impaler came over to my side, clapping his blackened hands. “I used to come up here all the time,” he said, “but I never could look inside this place.”
“It’s kinda weird, right?” I answered.
“I’m going to keep working from the outside, though. All that writing on the floor. It’s creepy.”
I never engaged in much small talk in my life, but I thought I was doing fine. It seemed like I was back in his good graces, and it felt really good talking to him. We were headed toward our weekends, and I had to know if I could go to his house. “So is everyone getting together at your house tonight?”
His eyes became slits. “No. No one is coming over to my house tonight,” he said. Never in the history of the world has someone narrowed their eyes like that, said no one was coming over to their house, and actually meant no one was coming over.
“Oh, I just thought—”
“Well, this was probably just a one-time thing. I’ll probably be back at my regular gig on Monday, so I’ll see you around.” The Impaler got in his car and drove back to Topeka. I followed behind.
I followed the Impaler all the way to his houseboat. It sat in shallow, marshy water close to the camping grounds. Across from the camping grounds stood a shelter with some picnic tables, a bathroom, and a few barbecue pits that people could rent for birthday parties or reunions. I sat at one tables in the shade. It was covered in a sticky film, swastikas were etched into the wood, and a layer of chewed gum clung underneath the table top. Sweat dripped from my head, and I swirled it with my finger to dissolve the stickiness. The houseboat was still, silent. Perhaps he was taking a nap. I wanted to take a nap, too, but thought better of falling asleep in that public place. Any teenager could come up and do something to me and runaway, unseen.
As the sky turned purple, lights turned on in the house, and cars parked next to the ramp to the door. I saw guys from work carrying cases of beer up to the door and walking inside. Ten or eleven people showed up, and I could hear music coming from the house. Perhaps it was a last minute thing. The Impaler didn’t have my phone number. There was really no reason I couldn’t be at that party. The Impaler and I shared a rapport. He couldn’t possibly mind if I showed up.
Night didn’t come until close to ten o’clock. The only lights were the several squares of orange from the houseboat that reflected out on the lake. More cars had parked and there was a din of music and talk and shouts coming from the house. I’d never been to a party before. It was too easy for me to get lost in the crowd. I couldn’t talk to people, and I would get depressed. Lots of people stood or sat or sprawled out in the small yard between the campgrounds parking lot and the ramp to the houseboat. Plastic beer can rings littered the ground with tangles of fishing line and smashed Styrofoam coolers. A small bonfire struggled for life, unattended, in the culvert by the road. Men sat on the hoods of their cars, their shirts unbuttoned to the navel. Women stood talking to the men, adjusting their bikini tops and pulling down the hems of their too-short shorts.
I recognized a few guys from work standing at the front of the ramp. Gatekeepers, it seemed. If it had been strangers, I would have turned around before I even approached. But maybe the Impaler talked about working with me that day. They gave me the same slit-eyed look the Impaler gave me at the church. “We know you, don’t we?” one guy said. “What are you doing here?”
“I was just going to stop by and see the Impaler,” I replied.
They looked at each other and laughed. “You want to see the Impaler, huh? Why you want to do that?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t prepared for questions, and I didn’t really know what these guys were like. I searched for some place to put my hands while he spoke. I groped my thighs for pockets, but there were none. I wanted to look normal. Like I was listening. I was very aware of my hands, switching from folding my arms across my chest, to letting my arms dangle loosely at my sides. I hoped they wouldn’t notice.
“Were you invited to this party?” the second guy asked. “I’ve never talked to you in my life; how’d you get invited?”
Before I could answer, the first guy said: “Yeah, why you always so quiet. You a little queer or something? Is that why you want to see the Impaler?”
I’d been quiet most of my life. If I was around someone and conversation was expected, and it usually was, I’d get flustered and couldn’t think of anything to say. I was always bad at making friends. Chad the Impaler seemed like an easy enough personality that even I could be friends with him. But these were things I couldn’t tell the two guys. I’d been down that road before, and at the end of it was me being made fun of. I shrugged again.
The first guy imitated my shrug. “You doing a dance?” he said. The second guy laughed as the first guy continued to shrug, flail his arms, and shift around on his feet in an impromptu dance.
I wasn’t getting in. I wasn’t sure if I wanted in. The two guys didn’t seem like they would fight me, but I wasn’t sure. They seemed drunk enough that anything would have been possible. What bothered me the most was that I couldn’t count on the Impaler vouching for me so that they would leave me alone. Too many questions. Too many ‘what ifs’. I wanted a good time. An amount of time where I could freely be in the company of other people. Even one other person. At the shelter, my car was covered in egg and flecks of their shells. Teenagers. The yellow yolks dribbled down my windshield. I squirted them with washer fluid and whisked them away with the wiper blades and drove home.
On Monday, I stood at the periphery of the gathered workers. I saw the two people at the ramp. They didn’t say anything to me. Perhaps they were too drunk at the party and hadn’t known they harassed me. The Impaler walked in. I waved. He looked at me, but walked past to take his seat in the middle of the group. Conversation instantly became lively. I listened to the details of the party I almost went to. It sounded exciting, though I either didn’t see or didn’t remember the details exactly as they cited them.
The boss assigned the Impaler and me to the church again. The Impaler looked crestfallen when told. I liked having another chance. I wanted to ask him about the party, and if he thought I could come by the next one. That would be later, though. I’d have to figure out some way to let him know that the two of us weren’t so different. I had to let him know I wasn’t really weird.
The Impaler was pissed. He was all body language. I started working on the same wall as him. “Dude,” he said, “it’d just go faster if we worked separately. It’s bullshit that I even have to be here.” Because he was so pissed off, I didn’t argue with him. It wouldn’t have been an argument, but I didn’t think he wanted to hear anything from me. So I went back to my wall, which was quite a bit lower than his.
By lunch, the Impaler’s wall was the only one left. We sat down in the fire station to eat our lunches. The room was stacked waist-high with old limestone. The old, formidable building on the hill was a series of wooden planks and a foot-high wall. In pieces, the church lost all its power. It was just another job. “It’s crazy having all these stones in here, right?” I asked the Impaler.
“Yeah. When I was a kid, I was so scared of this place. It’s really no big deal now,” he answered. We laughed.
“Hey, I wanted to get to your party Friday, but I was busy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“On Friday. Your party. I happened to be driving by up at the lake and saw you had a get-together. I stopped by but couldn’t stay. Sorry I didn’t say hi or anything.”
“You came to my house? How do you know where I live?” He looked angry. He backed away from me and couldn’t settle on looking at me or in the opposite direction of me, like he was searching for something.
“No, I just—” and trailed off.
The boss walked in the fire station. “You better not be taking more than a half hour,” he said. “After you finish that wall, I got one more thing for you to do. And it better get done today.” The boss looked at the Impaler the whole time. I wasn’t sure if he even knew I was there. “After you’re done fartin’ around with that wall, you need to pull up the floor. Don’t fuck any of it up. It’s got to be intact.”
“I’m not lifting up those floorboards,” the Impaler said.
“What’s the matter, worried you’re going to get sucked into hell?” the boss replied. “Get it done, and get it done today.”
The Impaler had forgot about me; he was livid at the boss. We surveyed the floor. It was covered in different colors of spray paint and chalk. Pentagrams, seemingly random words, crosses with initials in each quadrant, and almost professional drawings and paintings of beasts and demons and devils. Without the walls, it looked like an art installation. “Are you scared?” I asked.
“I’m not scared, you asshole.” He cocked his crowbar like he would hit me. I flinched. “I’m not worried about any demons. This floor is ancient. Even if we get these up, they’ll probably disintegrate. It’s a waste of time.” I smiled at him and shrugged. I just knew I didn’t want to get yelled at again.
I started on the floor while the Impaler finished off his wall. I tried prying up ends of the boards. A few came up. Most just chipped off or wouldn’t budge. I wedged the end of the crowbar into a gap in the middle of the floor, near the pentagram. I jumped on the bar a few times. On my last jump a floorboard snapped up and I sprawled forward. I slid across the floor and into the dirt. The Impaler walked to the hole and looked in. He shrieked and ran towards his car. He tried to open the doors, but they were locked. He was so panicked, he didn’t even look for his keys. He slid to the ground, hanging onto the door handle, crying.
But nothing was happening. The Impaler groaned, and I decided to look in the hole, too. I was prepared to react the same way he did. Bones. It looked like there were hundreds of them. Most were gleaming white. I wasn’t scared. The bones didn’t animate and come after me. They were small bones. Animal bones; the skulls were no bigger than my fist. I went down to the Impaler’s car. “Hey man, they’re bones,” I said.
“Are they human sacrifices?” he pleaded.
“I guess it could be a sacrifice, but I don’t think it’s a human. Looks like a raccoon or something.”
“Christ.” The Impaler stood up. All the horror in his face was gone in an instant. He wouldn’t look at me. I guessed he was embarrassed. I wanted to tell him it was funny, but I imagined he wouldn’t agree.
We walked back up to the hole in the floor. It looked like it was a family of small animals that got trapped under the floor after the joists collapsed. They had tried to dig themselves out. We scooped out as many bones as we could. I tried to put them together so they formed full animals. Only I didn’t know anything about animal anatomy, and the animals turned into these strange beasts that probably could have never existed. The Impaler laughed at my creations. I smiled, too.
“Should we catalog these?” I asked.
“He’d probably want us to,” the Impaler answered.
We moved the bones off to the side and pulled up the rest of the floorboards. The scariest thing I had ever seen was just a flattened surface on top of a low rolling hill. We were soaked through with sweat and dirt. Our socks squished with sweat at every step. My legs chafed through the wet denim. I thought underneath my fingernails would be permanently black.
“You don’t really talk to anyone at work, do you?” the Impaler asked.
“No, not really. I don’t have anything to say to them,” I answered.
“You know why they call me the Impaler? I never banged the boss’s wife. I’ve never even met her.” He took off his shirt. A quarter-sized patch of skin that looked like raw hamburger stood where the arm met the shoulder. “I fell on a piece of rebar, and it went right through. That’s why boss hates me. He has to keep me on or pay worker’s comp. So I was impaled on this rebar. I kinda started that thing about his wife because it sounded cooler—like I impaled her on my dick, right? Everyone else thought it was funny and ran with it.”
I’d never been confessed to. It made me really uncomfortable. What was expected of me? I supposed I should share a confession with him. I didn’t know what to share, though. Perhaps the truth?
“I want to be your friend, so that I don’t have to spend every weekend alone. I don’t know anyone else, and you know lots of people. You seem like a good guy.” As soon as I said the words, I wanted to pull them back in my mouth. Most people I’d seen didn’t respond too well to desperation like that. I was sure I would get called a fag and pushed down to the ground. It had happened like that before.
“That’s really weird, dude,” he answered. “You can’t just decide to do something like that. It freaks people out.” But that didn’t make sense. Wasn’t that exactly how people made friends?
He shifted his attention, and I was grateful for the relief from the conversation. He looked over the collection of bones. “I know we should catalog these, but I kinda don’t want to,” he said.
“Are you going to sell them?” I asked.
“We should burn them. Right here. Doesn’t that seem right?”
I didn’t know about ‘right,’ but it did seem fitting. I would have never considered doing something the boss didn’t approve of. He was the guy paying me. It didn’t make sense to piss him off. But I knew something about the Impaler that he probably hadn’t told anyone else. As uncomfortable as I felt at that moment, I owned that moment, and no one else could say the same thing.
I walked to the fire station and came back with some cardboard boxes. I shredded and piled them in the middle of where the floor used to be. The Impaler poured some of the butane out of his lighter and set it ablaze. We gathered dead grass and twigs to build the fire. Once the fire was strong enough, we started putting the bones in it. The flames turned blue and consumed the old, brittle bones. The Impaler howled. I laughed. We started to dance around the fire. It happened without thinking. It was a natural movement for both of us at the same time. With each pass of the bone pile, we picked one up and tossed into the flames. The fire climbed and climbed as we danced in the hard afternoon sun. Dust kicked up and clung to our already sweaty and dirty bodies. Our skin turned gray. We looked at each other and howled. We were filled with abandon, something I had never felt before. I was drunk from it. We were friends.