The Back of My Neck, by Matt Getty
I was nervous enough about going down to Red Creek to meet Jane’s pop, and then she tells me he’s got this thing about long hair. Right off, I refused to cut my ponytail. Said it was a piece of me—my spirit, who I am. Then Jane did that thing where she dances her fingernails on the back of my neck, and she starts telling me that once we’re married, me and her are the same spirit anyway.
Now sure, that grits me maybe worse than the cut-off-your-ponytail thing. I mean, I love her and all, but every guy wants to be his own man. You see it all the time down here. Boys running off with their guns and trucks. Might be chasing tail one minute, but the next they’re desperate to get to anywhere a woman won’t go. Could be I’m even more touchy about it ’cause I ain’t one to go hunting or mudding, but I still want to believe there’s something in me can’t be tamed. I try to tell Jane there’s things about me she don’t know, don’t want to know. I try to play tough, but Jesus those fingernails.
So, long story short: I cut it off, and, yeah, when the barber pinched them scissors shut with that long rip and snip, I felt like I might as well have been turning myself into a steer. But I can talk myself out of that feeling if I just think about how Jane’s fingernails will tickle up the short hairs on the back of my neck now.
Then we drive out to Red Creek—me with my clean-cut head and Jane with that flower-patterned dress she always saves for Friday night line-dancing up at the Holiday Inn—and, the thing is, when we get there, the old man’s not even around. I meet the mother, shake hands, set the box of wine down on the table, listen a bit while Jane’s kid-sister squawks about some high school football player who’s got hands like bear-claws, and I’m thinking, “I cut off the ponytail for this?”
Then Jane’s mom tells me the pop’s out back—I should just head on out and introduce myself—and before I’m even out the screen door, the three of them are sitting down at the table, sharpening their voices the way women do, and patting their hands on each other’s arms like they need to smooth something out of their sleeves before they can get their stories straight.
Outside, it’s hot. Red Creek hot—the kind where your sweat gets thick as syrup and the air feels like it could choke you. I look out over the backyard, already wiping at my forehead, and just past the edge of the porch I see him, hunched over and shirtless, just a big wadded-up ball of back muscle crouching over a garden and cursing up a storm of words I wouldn’t repeat on a Saturday night, let alone a Sunday morning with guests in the house. So, I stood right where I was for a second. Just watched his shoulders tense from the strain of whatever he was up to, the thin silver hairs there flicking back and forth while I wondered what the heck I should do.
Before I could make up my mind, though, the old man spun around looking for something and reached for the underside of the porch still cursing up a blue mile. That’s when he catches a look at me, and right away his face is turning purple, and he’s lifting himself up off his knees. He says his shoots, slaps the dirt off his palms and introduces himself with one of those handshakes we used to get from the Army recruiters who came around the high school—stand firm, look you in the eye, be all that you can be, son.
But soon as I get my hand out of his, I’m feeling pretty all right, ’cause he’s too embarrassed by his sweat and his cursing to play up the father thing too much, and right away I start to like the guy for it—the purple face, the sweaty back, the tangle of gray on top of his head. I figure, he’s all right, so I try to say something to show him I’m all right too.
“Getting in some work on the garden?” I say, and first, he’s like, “Yep,” but then he looks down at the ground, looks back up at me, and says, “I just can’t keep that little bugger out of the tomatoes.”
Now I’m nodding like I understand, like I got my own garden, my own buggers, and my own tomatoes back home. It’s all like, Yep, old-timer. The rest of the world may be against us, but I know how you feel.
Well, I guess he takes this all a little too seriously because next thing I know he’s talking up some kind of plan, telling me how I can help. Turns out, this bugger he’d been chasing scurried under the porch, and now he wants to flush it out with the hose on one side so I can catch it on the other. He hands me a spade, runs through the plan again, and then just looks at me, waiting for a nod.
Now mind you, I got my collar shirt on and my Docker pants, and I ain’t in a mind to take any more orders from the man I already cut my ponytail off for, but what can you do? I don’t know him enough to do nothing but nod my head.
He rolls out the hose and squats down on one side of the porch while I stand over on the other side wondering what I’m supposed to do with the spade. I wrap my fingers tight around the handle, roll my knuckles a bit. The air is thick, sure, but it’s got that summer smell—all mowed lawns and baseball fields. I can hear the women giggling it up inside, and for a minute, I like the way it all feels. I can pick out Jane’s laugh skipping up over her mom’s and her sister’s, and I look over at the old man nodding his head at me, getting ready to twist on the hose, and then I’m standing back and looking at all of us, thinking, this is me, and this is them, and this is all kind of like us now. It’s a good kind of feeling. Happy. I can picture it all. Jane’s pop walking her down the aisle, her mom dabbing at her nose with a Kleenex in the first pew, her sis standing by in some big yellow bridesmaid dress.
It all looks just about right to me, and then I hear the rush of the water. Jane’s pop starts cursing again, and I stare down at the hole on my side of the porch, waiting for this little bugger—whatever it is—to pop out. First, there’s just a scratching sound, then a hissing, then you can hear the scurry. I tense up, flex my thumb and my fingers tight around the spade handle, and before I can even ask Jane’s pop what to do, this big old groundhog—long and fat as a cow’s belly—rumbles up from that hole.
First thing I do is jump back though, cause I’m not one to mix much with animals, and this little bugger looks mean enough to bite through a couple of toes. Still, even as I’m jumping back, I can hear Jane’s dad yelling.
“Get him!” he shouts, “Get him!”
What can I do? I suck it up, turn the spade so it’s between my shoes and the groundhog, and I start shoving him back into the corner between the house and the porch.
He rolls against the spade, darts back toward the house, all panicky, not knowing what’s happening or where to go, and the whole time I’m cutting off all his angles until I got him wedged up in the corner. Now he’s treading up dirt, rolling and scratching against the house and the spade, and I yell back to the old man that I got him. And now, even though I can feel my shirt sticking to my armpits, I’m feeling pretty good again, like, “Yeah, me and the old man did it.”
Soon enough though, I’m thinking, Well, what now? “Where we going to put him?” I ask the old man. “What’re we going to do with him now?”
Jane’s pop high-steps his way around the porch, jogs up behind me, and starts shouting, “Whack him! Use the spade, son. Kill the little bugger!”
Now, like I said, I’ve never been one for hunting, and I never done any real farming or any kind of animal handling. I mean, I got nothing against it all. I’ll eat burgers and wear my leather boots ’til the day they stick me in the ground. But still, I’ve never had to be the one to do it, and I never expected I would. So, I glance at the old man over my shoulder, asking him for some kind of help with my face, but he just keeps on shouting.
“Whack him!” he says. “Whack him!”
The spade feels heavy as a sledgehammer in my hands—like if I swing it, it’s going to carry me right down with it. Still, there’s the old man’s face, puckered up and red, and there’s his voice ringing out for me to whack away like it’s no big deal, like it’s something we all do, just part of the routine.
And the thing is, the voice somehow makes that spade lighter, makes my hands lighter, tells me there’s nothing to think about here. Thinking’s done. Now all I got to do is do.
So, I hoist that spade up in the air and swing it down against the groundhog’s nose. He tries to bolt out of the corner, but I catch him clean and send him right back against the house with a crunch.
Thing is, the little guy’s tougher than you’d think. Soon as he bounces off that wall, he’s bolting back out again like nothing happened. I swing the spade again, catch him on the top of the head, and swing it again, and then again after that, like it’s not even a groundhog, like I got a hammer and I’m just trying to drive home a nail. But this nail won’t hold still. He keeps rolling and darting, the spade is ringing up off his hide and his bones and all, and he starts squealing as loud as a siren.
So, now I got the old man behind me screaming for me to kill him, I got this groundhog squealing and hissing, and I’m thinking, that’s why they call you a hog, ’cause you squeal just like one, and it’s all sudden, like now I really know something. I know this little critter’s name and where it comes from, I know how his head and back make the spade handle rattle in my hands, I know how the spade rings when it hits a hard spot of bone and how it splats when it hits a soft spot in between.
Then I hear something else besides the squealing and the yelling, and I know it’s Jane—that little half-scream, half-gasp she lets out whenever I grab her waist all of a sudden from behind. So, I look up at the porch, and there she is. She looks at her dad yelling, his face blue, then she looks at me, all crouched over this squealing animal that’s got only two legs still pumping, and she clasps both hands over her nose and mouth.
Her eyes dig into me. They spread wide and dig like she can’t even recognize me.
I want to tell her it’s OK; I’m just working with the old man, just getting along and all. Or maybe I want to tell her about the way I feel, the way every muscle in my body is flexed, tense and alive, this electric thrum going straight through me, the shock and thrill of what I’m doing, what I know I’m about to do.
But that groundhog is still trying to scurry away, still trying to lunge out at my feet or anything else he can get his teeth into. The sweat on my forehead trickles over my eyebrows, stinging the corners of my eyes, Jane’s pop keeps shouting, and as I look at Jane and know what I can’t tell her, know that I got to ignore her and drive the edge of that spade down into the soft spot between the groundhog’s head and body, I can feel every one of them short hairs on the back of my neck standing straight up.
Matt Getty is a writer, editor, and teacher. His short fiction, which has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Million Writers Award, has been anthologized in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web and has appeared in Opium Magazine, FRiGG Magazine, Rainbow Curve, and other publications.
Interview with Matt Getty
1. How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was very young, but my first story was published 22 years ago.
2. Is writing your full-time job? If not, what is?
In a roundabout way, I make my living from writing, but my fiction is just a small fraction of that. I work as the director of editorial services for Dickinson College, a job that requires a lot of writing and editing of higher-education marketing materials, and I teach various writing courses as an adjunct professor for the University of Maryland Global Campus.
I have earned some money here at there from short stories and a book of fiction published more than a decade ago, and more recently I sold two screenplays, but the bulk of the bills are not paid by my creative writing.
3. What inspired this work?
Many years ago, when I was around 19, I was driving up to a friend’s house when I saw his neighbor attacking a groundhog with a shovel in his font yard. I knew the man. He was normally a calm, kind person, but obviously, the way he looked then clashed with that perception. That moment stuck with me for many years, and I always came back to it, looking for some way to dig into how someone could be drastically transformed in a relatively mundane way.
Years later, another friend told me about when he’d met a girlfriend’s family for the first time and her father was preoccupied with trying to kill a groundhog that had been getting into his garden. Somewhere around that same time, the writer Richard McCann said something about fiction that stuck with me. I can’t remember it word for word, and he may have been quoting someone else, but it was something about the invisible first line of every great story being “another thing I could not tell …”
Something about that idea of fiction being about what you can’t communicate in any other way tangled with this idea of an unexpected moment of violence. I started to think about a man in that situation not being able to express what he’s feeling, not fully understanding himself something hidden and inaccessible that’s coming to the surface in a moment like this. Those three things then kind of lined up and led me to these characters and this story.
4. What writers or artists inspire you and your work?
The poet Gadi Ben-Yehuda and the band The Bigger Lovers inspire me and my writing. As far as fiction writers go, I’d also say John Cheever, Ted Chiang, Michael Chabon, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Chuck Palahniuk.
5. Where can we find your recent or future work (please provide links)?
Two recent short stories are “When My Girlfriend Lost the Weight” and “Keeping Susie Whole,” both in Frigg Magazine. My novella “You Will Behave” is available on Amazon. I think I’m contractually obligated to tell you that it is the first book-length work of fiction written in the second-person future.
Also, two screenplays I cowrote with the screenwriter Tony Moore, “Andover” and “Pretty in Black” are currently the property of Spokelane Entertainment and Skipstone Pictures respectively. God-willing, they will someday be on a screen somewhere.
6. What would you advise those interested in becoming published writers?
Write every day, even when it feels pointless.