ÂŠ Frederick A. Lierman 2011 Published by Philistine Press www.philistinepress.com
Contents Author’s Note The Fence Buryin’ Gran Conversation on a Foggy Morning Tuesday Morning Crossroads Hanging Grace and Ray The Hunters And We Talked of Rachel’s Dress Is it a Hallmark? History Billy Should be Here
There are two stories in this collection that begin with the same image and are built around the same turning point. There is the short, short story, “The Hunters,” and there is the longer story, “History,” that use similar circumstances and theme. The image that gave birth to both stories came to me when I worked in an engineering facility at the edge of town. North of our building was a ten acre plot that has never been built on. In the time I worked there it had morphed from grassland to scrub woods. It was midDecember, cloudy and promising snow on the late afternoon when I looked out the window. A deer stood in the short brush, absolutely still. And I thought, ‘The deer went deep into the woods before it died.’ Something in my being said, ‘story there.’ That evening, or several evenings later, I sat with my creative writing class at my old college, where I occasionally audit the creative writing classes. The instructor, someone twenty years younger than me, gave the assignment to write a complete short story, that is, beginning, middle, and end, in 250 words, or fewer. That became the first story, “The Hunters.” I think ‘The Hunters’ is 247 words. It tells its story, and maybe it helps form the story, “History,” which is the style I generally use, more words, more depth, more development. “The Hunters,” though, and the work that went into it, has helped me tighten the stories I tell.
I was trying to decide if the old building the stifling classroom was in or the enormous oak that stood outside the window on the wrong side of the building to shade it was older, and thinking it was probably the oak when she came in, almost last, and took the seat beside me, the only one left in the front row. “I have to sit up front,” she said, not especially to me or anyone, but not to the air, either, “or else I can’t see. I hope he doesn’t assign seats.” “No one does that any more,” I said, and she looked at me. Her eyes were dark, not brown, exactly, just dark, and didn’t look myopic. They were closely set around her narrow nose in that way that I’ve found attractive. Women who have eyes like that seem to me to always look a little startled. She smiled. I wanted to say something else, but the professor came into the room and then the bell rang. The bell surprised me because I’d been to three other classes in other buildings, and there had been no bells, just a clock on the wall that most of us watched. The professor was also a surprise. He was a sturdy man with thick, brown hair, a three piece suit in the heat of late August, and a panting guide dog. He walked with assurance to the table that occupied the front of the room and released the dog, which immediately curled under the table. After he removed his coat, rolled his sleeves to the elbows and loosened his tie about three inches he said, “Welcome to Addams Hall this warm August afternoon. I’m Doctor Donaldson, and as you can see, I’m blind.” He paused long enough to flash a quick grin. There were a few low snickers. “Forgive me for selecting the only building on campus that doesn’t have air conditioning, but I teach in this old building because it still has a bell system. It tells me when the class starts and when the class ends. That removes the temptation from me to run my fingers over my watch when I sense that I’m boring you, and from you to take advantage of the fact that I’m blind to end class early.” He grinned again; we obliged with a short laugh. 6
“Now, because I’m blind, we’ll have to do certain things in this class to accommodate me.” He did what I can only describe as looking us over for a moment. “First, I’m going to assign seating in alphabetical order, and then, each day I’ll call role. That’s just to remove the temptation to take this class because it fulfills the Philosophy requirement, and never participate.” Another instant grin, except this one disappeared immediately. He strode back and forth the length of his table, stopped at its middle and leaned toward us. His legs were shoulder width apart, his thick fingered hands spread wide on the table top, and he drilled us with eyes that didn’t see. “We’ve established Philosophy as a requirement because we think it’s just as important that you learn about different ways of thinking as it is that you learn to think.” “Doctor Donaldson?” She had raised her hand when he said that he would assign seats. When she realized it would do no good, she spoke up. “Yes?” “If you use the board I need to sit near the front so I can see it better.” “It may surprise you, but I do use the board, and I understand that my handwriting leaves much to be desired. If you need to sit close, I can accommodate you. What’s your last name?” “Robertson.” He shuffled through the class cards that must have been Braille imprinted for him. “I’ve found you, Ms. Robertson. I’ll assign you by your middle name. You’ll come after Abner and two Andersons, and end up right about the center of the front row.” “Thank you.” “Is anyone else visually handicapped?” “I’m not visually handicapped, Doctor Donaldson. I just can’t see chalk on the blackboards, especially those damn green ones.” “Point taken, Ms. Robertson. I’ll restate the question. If anyone else needs to sit in the front row, please speak up.” When no one else responded he began reading last names only. We all began gathering books and possessions, and shuffling around the room. My last name is Taylor, so I started automatically for the back of the room. If he read anything other than her last name, I missed it, and that bothered me because, for some reason, I knew I 7
wanted to know her name. Because she sat in the front row, she was out the door ahead of me after class, and I was disappointed when I didn’t find her. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. I saw her again in the bookstore in late afternoon. Actually, she saw me. “I’m from Cincinnati, and I’m here on scholarship,” I heard someone say from behind me. When I turned around I found her holding an armload of books and smiling at me. “I was hoping that you needed to sit down front, too,” she said. “And when you didn’t need to, I was hoping you were the last Anderson.” “Why?” I looked closely at her while trying not to appear to be looking anywhere except her face. When someone says something like that to me I want to know who is talking, not just physically, but the who that you can sometimes begin to discover the first time you really look at someone. She was taller than I had noticed when she came into the classroom, and thin. She still had those eyes that I liked, and they seemed sincere. “I don’t know. I think maybe I liked your voice, and you’re older than most of the people in there, more my age. I’m starting college after most of my high school class has finished.” She turned abruptly and started walking away from me. “Come over to the table with me. I’ve got to put these things down. They’re getting heavy.” She wasn’t content to just put the books down. She sorted through them as we talked, or she talked, because her conversation was a sort of non-stop hopscotch that encountered, left, and returned to subjects like a child’s feet to the squares chalked on the sidewalk. I didn’t say much, just listened and responded with an occasional “yes” or “no”. The funny thing about her monologue was that it all connected and made sense. Even when I said, “what are you doing with those books?” her answer made sense. “When you’re on scholarship, you don’t buy new books, and when you buy used books, you make sure they’re the right edition, complete, with no sections missing, and legible.” She put her last book on the pile. And then, “I’m a dorm student, and my roommate told me that. What are you? Where are you from?” “I’m sort of from California. I’m staying with my dad. He has a farm west of town, so I suppose I’m a town student. I’m here on the new GI Bill,” I said. And then added, “and my savings that once were equal to the finest racing bike available.” “I’d say California is way west of town. You like to bicycle? I like to bicycle, too.” 8
“My address is Winnebago, RFD. I like to bicycle, but the racing bike I wanted was a flat track motorcycle.” I watched her mouth say “Oh,” without any sound coming out, and saw her quick frown bring her eyebrows together. For a long time for her, she didn’t say anything. “Are you through picking out books?” “Yes,” she said. “Are you?” “Then let’s pay the man and get out of here. I know a place that has excellent food, burgers, pasta, salads for the weight conscious, if you’re interested. It’s easier to become friends over a table of food than over a table of books.” “I don’t know.” “It is, unless you eat books.” “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I mean, when you’re on scholarship, you don’t have money for eating out. You eat in the college dining hall, which I paid for along with my room fees.” “I invited you,” I said. “I’ve got a buck or two, and I’ve got a job for tomorrow and Sunday that’ll keep me fed for a while.” It was true that I had a job for the next two days, and it was true that I had a ‘buck or two’, but that’s all I had after I paid for my books. That and the job. “What’s your job this weekend?” “Stringing fence. About fifty rods of three strand barbed wire.” “How much is fifty rods?” “Eight hundred feet.” “That seems like a lot,” she said. “Do you do this all the time?” “Not really. I just do odd jobs. This is the first time I’ve ever pulled fence, as some people call it.” “Then how do you know what you’re doing?” “My dad showed me.” “I forgot. He’s a farmer.” “He’s a writer. We just live on a farm. It’s small, but he’s done about everything on it and around it.” She walked with me toward the parking lot where all the town students left their cars. “I’ll come for supper if I can come along with you tomorrow.” She looked down at 9
the pile of books she carried in front of her. I’d made the offer to carry her books for her, but she gave me one of those looks that told me she was able to carry her own. “What would you do? I mean, there isn’t a lot to this job, just digging post holes, driving steel posts, and stringing wire. I won’t even start stringing wire until Sunday.” “There’s sun and study,” she said, knowing as well as I did that she could come if she wanted to. “I’ll bring my books, a blanket to take sun on, and the lunch for us.” “I’m starting early.” “That doesn’t bother me.” * We hadn’t stayed out late. I’d brought her home right after a supper of salad, pasta, and garlic bread, but she still looked sleepy when I picked her up at six the next morning. She blinked once at the pile of posts, wire, and tools that filled the back of my pickup, and then shoved a small duffel and a cooler onto the floor of the truck. “I’m surprised you’re up,” I said. “Shhhh.” She rolled up her denim jacket, put it between her head and the window, tucked her feet up on the seat so the left one rode against my hip, and shrugged her shoulders once. Her eyes were closed immediately, and she was asleep. It wasn’t done for show either. During the forty minute ride that went from the northeast side of town south into Ogle county, and a little east, she only opened her eyes once that I knew of. And she twitched, something you can’t fake. Eventually I parked the truck on the shoulder of the narrow blacktop next to what appeared to be long abandoned pasture flanked on either side by fenced cornfields. There was a rutted drive, clear of weeds in the middle and grown up on the sides, that crossed over a culvert and wound through the scrub brush and woods toward the river. After I opened my window about halfway I slid out the door, pulled my hooded sweatshirt up over my head, straightened her legs a little, and spread the sweatshirt over them. She looked sort of comfortable to me. Working more or less silently for more than an hour, I pulled eight hundred feet of barbed wire from the corner posts of the fields adjacent to the abandoned pasture to keep the fence straight. I pulled it tight, so that it sang when I lifted it and let it drop so 10
it would be straight over the high places. I had my first corner post set and two of the wood line posts before I heard the door on the passenger side of my old Dodge truck creak and bang, and then pop open. “Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” I said, when I saw her walk toward me. “Don’t be corny,” she said, giving her brown hair a shake and then twisting her head back and forth several times as she rubbed her neck. “I’d rather sleep on the couch.” “Are you always grumpy in the morning?” “No.” “That’s good.” “Just since I’ve been born, I’m told, but there’s still time to change.” I watched her shrug her shoulders again, and thrust her hands into her pockets. She might have been cold, but I wasn’t. I had already shed my T-shirt, and the sweat was running freely from everywhere above my jeans, which were wet and darkened around the top. “Did you have breakfast?” she asked. “Before I picked you up.” “Is there anything for me to eat?” “Didn’t you bring anything for breakfast in that cooler?” “I don’t want wine and cheese for breakfast.” “Is that what’s for lunch?” I walked to the truck and lifted the gas-powered auger that I had rented from the back of the truck. “That, and some bread and fruit. It’s supposed to be sort of like a picnic.” “By noon it will be,” I said. I opened my door, tipped the old seat forward, brought out a paper bag and then two gallon jugs of water. “Here’s some water, and there’s six apples and two peanut butter sandwiches in the bag. It’s not wine and cheese, but it’s something.” “Do you have any cups?” “Didn’t think of it. I drink from the jug.” I opened the jug and drank about a pint. It was still cool. “Like that.” “Okay.” “There’s a good, sharp folding knife in the bag to cut up the apples, if you want. Sometimes I eat them that way because it takes longer. I pretend I’m just eating instead 11
of resting.” “Okay.” She sat on the tailgate swinging her legs and eating a peanut butter sandwich as I stood the power auger against the truck and poured gas in the little tank. “What’s that?” “A gas driven power auger. It’ll make the job easier and faster.” “Why weren’t you using it before?” “You were sleeping.” “Oh.” She put two apples on the tailgate and closed the paper bag. “By the way, what are the bathroom facilities around here?” “Behind any tree or bush in the pasture.” “I thought as much.” “Take a shovel and bury your paper and anything else,” I said, making sure I was looking at the post hole digger and not at her. “It’s what you do out here.” From the corner of my eye I saw her pick her way carefully down a path of sorts. Once she finally disappeared behind some scrub brush I started the auger. With the first hole, I learned that it would have been hard to be more wrong about it making the job easier. It powered its way down easily enough, but then I learned that I had to keep the auger powered when I pulled it from the hole. After three holes, I knew that a one man post hole digger isn’t. It wasn’t heavy, it was awkward, and all the time I was lifting it, it was trying to pull its way back into the earth. After the third hole, I just stood there, muscles quivering, and the auger shut down, wondering when I would try something to see if it would work first before I committed to it. I was still looking at the machine I had thought would speed up the job enough to justify the thirty-six dollar rental when she came back from the pasture. “You can’t handle that by yourself, can you,” she said, a statement rather than a question. “It looks like I’ll have to dig them by hand,” I said, feeling the pain of the wasted money. “How many do you have left to dig?” I thought a minute. “Twenty-three.” “That’s too many,” she said. “It’ll take too long.” 12
“Probably a couple hours longer.” “Longer than that,” she said, waving the shovel. “That ground is hard. Use the auger thing. I can help.” “I don’t know,” I said. “This thing is really a bitch to handle.” “I’ll bet it’s a lot easier to handle with two people.” She stuck her hip out with one hand on it and stared at me. “Are you going to be stubborn and macho or are you going to see if I can help?” I looked at her, measuring as best I could what I thought her reaction would be to the wrenching and the pulling that the auger would do. Though she was nearly as tall as I am, she was slight, skinny was probably a better word, and with what she was wearing, I didn’t have a clue about whether she had any strength. “Okay, we’ll try it,” I said. “I can drill the hole. That’s no problem. What I can’t do is wrestle this damn thing out of the hole. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to keep it running to even get it out of the hole.” “I understand.” “I’ll drill the hole, and when I stop the auger, you grip that handle like this.” I grabbed the handle on my side with my hands turned palms upward and the fists together, my elbows in to my sides. “Then I’ll start it again. Bend at the knees, and try to keep your back as straight as possible. Lift with your legs. When we clear the hole, we’ll set the auger to this side where it’s level.” “Okay.” It worked. In fact, it was almost easy. When I had drilled the first hole and she had grabbed the handle, I revved the auger again. She looked startled for an instant as the auger bit and tried to dive, and her legs wobbled once, but she pressed her lips together, set her jaw, and heaved upward. As she had said, it wasn’t hard with two people, and the auger came free, spinning and throwing dry dirt. We dug eight more holes before we hit a buried rock and I had to finish one hole by hand. “I wish I had brought a different shirt,” she said as she watched me pry the buried rock loose with the post hole digger. “This one is too hot to work in.” “I can believe that.” The shirt was dark and heavy, with long sleeves, and a collar. It looked hot, especially in the climbing sun. “You can wear my T-shirt if you want,” I said. “It’s hanging on the first post down 13
there by the truck.” “All right, but don’t watch.” “No way.” I had the rock out and the hole finished when she came back, my nearly white Tshirt tucked way down in her jeans, but still bagging about her body. “No bra,” I said, without thinking. “You like?” she said, in a Garbo accent, arching her back and tossing her head. She really was skinny. “Let’s dig post holes,” I said. “I’d like to get these done by lunch.” We did, too. Even with the ground hardened by drought, the auger worked well, except for several holes where I hit rocks that had to be dug out by hand. We spent almost as much time walking the two rods between holes as running the auger. For lunch we sat cross legged on the blanket she had stuffed in the duffel, and had cheese and bread and fruit, no wine. Water from my jug, or diet pop. I drank water. “I didn’t have any wine,” she said. “Can’t work after wine, anyway. It makes me sleepy.” We ate, mostly in silence, like eating was a serious thing, which it becomes when you are working hard. At one point, she asked if I had been in the war. “It wasn’t much of a war. Why do you ask?” “The scars,” she said, pointing at the scar that crossed one corner of my ribcage. “And there are three or four on your back.” “Three. They’re from getting off my motorcycle when the motorcycle wasn’t parked.” “Oh.” That seemed to be something she said a lot to things I said. I didn’t know what that meant. Not long after that we picked up papers and stuffed them into the sack. She stood and started folding the blanket. “What can I do?” “Study, like you planned, thank you. The hard part’s done,” I said. “Didn’t bring anything to study.” “Why not? Why did you come, then?” “I came for the morning,” she giggled, “the sun, the air.” She had her arms spread wide and was slowly spinning, her head tilted back and her eyes closed. If I had 14
tried that, I’d have been on my back. “I came to see what it’s like to string fence. I’ve never spent time in the real country, like this is.” I don’t know how she did it, but she stopped her spin when she had turned to me. “I came to see what you were like. How you are when you work.” I just stood there, not knowing what to say. She was looking at me, arms folded across her chest, and a smirk that wrinkled her narrow nose. “Does that make you uncomfortable?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it depends on what you see.” “Well. You’re steady. When things don’t work, you don’t seem to get upset.” She stopped talking and picked up the blanket. As we started to fold it, she said, “Best, you’re peaceful. You’re hired. How about me.” “You’re strong enough. You’re hired, too.” “What’ll I do?” “Tamp posts.” “What’s that?” “I’ll set the wooden posts at the right height and you can tamp the dirt around them so they’re set tight in the ground. While you do that, I’ll put the corner braces in and drive the steel posts.” “Show me how, and let’s get this done.” She snatched the blanket and strode off to the truck. So we set the posts. After I had set the end posts and tamped them tightly in place she took the old shovel handle that I had brought as a tamper, and the shovel, and set off down the fence line. I set the brace posts between the corner post and the first line post, stretched the brace wire, and twisted it tight. By the time I had the four end posts and brace post set, she was well down the fence line. As I walked toward her, I gave several of the posts a shake. They were tight. I had her fill and tamp the rest of the posts to within about a foot of the top of the holes, and I shoved dirt in and packed the rest of it with the short handled three pound hammer I had brought to drive spikes through the brace posts and into the end posts. Mostly, we worked in silence except for the sound of the tamper, the hammer, birds, and our own breathing. We finished the wooden posts about mid afternoon. If I had been pulling fence alone, I would have stretched another eight hundred 15
feet of barbed wire down mid height on the wooden posts to serve as a guide for keeping the steel posts that went one each between the cedar posts as vertical as possible. Instead, she sighted down the fence line and helped line up the posts. She was good at it. My dad had modified his steel post driver by welding eight pounds of steel to the top, and the extra weight made sinking each steel post quick, even if it wasn’t easy. I had to sink twenty-three about two and a half feet in drought hardened ground, and I did it in just over an hour. It was almost five o’clock when I leaned my tired, wet hips against the side of the truck and sucked on the top of the jug of warm water. “Save some for me,” she said. “Here. Finish it.” I handed her the last jug. It still held about a quart of lukewarm water that sparkled like fine champagne. “I almost could,” she said, and then did. Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she looked puzzled at the taste of salt on her own arm. “Do we string the wire now?” “We go have supper now,” I said, watching the late afternoon sun slide downward in the still sky. “And then we go home. I’ll string the wire tomorrow.” “I’m not tired.” “Bullshit, pardon me,” I said. “I’m tired, and if I’m tired, you’re tired.” “Good. I’m tired, too.” I gathered the tools and counted them aloud. “Do you have all of your stuff?” “It’s all here. Do you want your shirt back?” “I won’t need it where we’re going.” I tipped the truck seat forward and pulled out an old, gold towel and used it to dry myself off. “We’ll go over to Byron and stop at Aldo’s for pizza, if you like pizza. I’ll put my sweatshirt on. His place isn’t fancy, but the pizza is great and the air conditioner works.” “I like pizza.” “Beer?” “I’d have a beer.” “I’ll have you home by eight.” “What time do we start tomorrow?”
* We started out at seven, after I went to early Mass. Stretching and securing the barbed wire, or ‘bob wire’, as some people call it, wasn’t hard. I tied it off at one end post, unrolled it to the next end post, put the stretcher on it and ratcheted until the wire was singing tight. She held the stretcher, and I went down the line, measuring and driving staples. When I got to the end post, I drove a pair of staples tightly into the post, wound the wire around the post, and tied it off. As we were finishing the stretch of fence west of the culvert and drive, a new pickup with an old man in it pulled up. “Are you leaving a gate? It looks like you’re leaving a gate,” he said, before I could say anything. “You have to leave a gate, and without a lock on it. It’s the law.” “I’m leaving a gate, and no one will be able to lock it,” I said, pulling off the leather glove from my right hand. “I know the law.” “Good,” he said. “Nice job on the fence. As good as I’ve seen.” He didn’t say anything else, just got into his truck and drove away. “What was that all about?” I pulled the glove back on my right hand and picked up the hammer that I had dropped when the truck stopped. “If you’ve crossed a property to get somewhere for a long time, maybe it’s seven years or twenty years, something like that, then, if someone puts a fence up, they have to put a gate in it. They call it a prescriptive easement, and it’s part of Illinois common law, and the laws of a lot of other states. The people around here have been crossing this field for years to get to the river.” “How’d you know about that?” “I could see from the track. You can tell if it’s been around long, and you can tell if it’s being used.” She looked down the track. Whether she could see what I saw, or not, she didn’t say. “When I bid this job I saw the track, and so I asked some of the locals. The owners are from Chicago, and they wouldn’t know.” “How’d you know about prescriptive whatever?” “Prescriptive easement. From my dad, first. He knows about people’s rights and believes that you shouldn’t always have to fight for them,” I said. “It’s right to fight for them, but no one should ride over them deliberately so you have to end up fighting.” “He sounds like a good old sixties idealist.” 17
“No way. He’s the real thing.” “What’s the difference?” “Most of the sixties idealists just adopted causes. Made noise. Ran around telling everyone that things were wrong. They never did much, and for most of them, when the cause quit getting attention, they just went away.” I started driving staples again. “Dad stayed in there.” “Is he one of those fighters I’ve read about?” “Nope,” I said. I was tying off the last strand of wire as we talked, and didn’t look at her. That was best for me, because the subject of my dad, who lived in Illinois alone with his stubborn idealism, was something that my mother, who lived in California with a series of lovers, had harped on through most of my childhood. Resolving the differences in the natures of the two people closest to me was not only difficult for me, but I wasn’t through doing it. “He doesn’t gather attention. He doesn’t go around looking for causes, but if he comes across something that isn’t right, he speaks up. And he’s so damn logical, so damn reasonable, he usually gets his way.” “I’d like to meet him some day.” “I imagine you will, if you keep working for me.” We made the gate. Like many gates for fences like we’d just built, it was three strands of wire strung between two posts. The posts fit into loops of brace wire that could be lifted off on one end, allowing the post to be lifted out of the bottom loop and the gate laid down or pulled back. When we finished, and put the gate in place, we drove up to the farm house where the owners lived. Mrs. Hathaway came with us in the truck to look the job over before she paid me. Mr. Hathaway stayed in the only place I’d ever seen him, in a lounge chair on the back patio, in the shade. Mrs. Hathaway was sun browned, wrinkled, and narrow faced. She looked intense, as if she would be difficult to deal with, but she hadn’t been. Mr. Hathaway was pale and flaccid looking, and seemed to take no notice of me or the process of contracting for the fence. First, we drove the length of the fence. “It looks straight and true,” Mrs. Hathaway said. We stopped, and she got out and tugged at the wires, and tried to rock the posts. “It’s solid,” she said, walking along the fence line. “You’ve done a good job.” “Thank you,” I said. 18
“But I didn’t order a gate. I didn’t want a gate. Why’d you put one in?” “The farmers and the locals have been crossing that pasture or whatever it is for always, as far as I can see,” I said, as we stopped by the track. “I mean, there’s no sign that this land was ever fenced, so by the right of prescriptive easement, you have to have a gate in your fence to allow them access.” “You’re sure of that?” “Yes, ma’am, I’m sure.” “What do they want to go across my land for?” She looked at me, her dark eyes sharp and fierce, and showing that she was younger in spirit than her body looked. “There’s nothing back there.” “There’s the river. That’s what they go down there for.” “But that’s my land. I moved out here to get away from people trampling all over my property and my rights. You have no idea what it’s like in the city now.” “There’s another concept in law called Riparian rights. According to that concept, you can’t own a river because the water is only passing through it. It doesn’t belong to any one, but to everyone.” She sort of smiled at me, and didn’t ask me again if I was sure. “Besides, the only people you’ll get down that track are local people. Most city people won’t drop a gate to get in. They don’t appear to have left any trash or to have done any damage. If you haven’t noticed them going down there before, well you won’t notice them now.” “I suppose you’re right about that,” she said. “What are you?” You aren’t a farmer, and you don’t do this for a living, not at what I’m paying for this job.” “I’m a student.” “And is this your wife?” “My classmate. She’s in my philosophy class.” “You’re not going to be a lawyer are you?” Mrs. Hathaway turned and said, “Please tell me he isn’t going to be a lawyer.” “He’s not going to be a lawyer.” “I’m not going to be a lawyer.” “Thank God. What are you going to be?” “I don’t know yet.” “He wanted to be a motorcycle racer.” 19
“Good Lord.” “Not anymore,” I said. Mrs. Hathaway smiled at me, looked one more time down the fence. “Straight. Straighter than any other fence around here,” she said. “It’s new. After nature has worked on it for a few years, it’ll look different.” “Now is what counts. Now is when you get paid. Take me back and I’ll write you a check.” * On Monday morning, I cashed the check, and put the money I’d used for the materials back into my savings. After Philosophy on Tuesday, she gave me back my T-shirt, washed, and whiter than I’d remembered. Over her protest, I split the money I’d been paid for our labor with her. It was fair. * After that, we spent some evenings together, and parts of the weekends, and we studied together. We had some meals out, and some of them ended in holding hands and walking home. And on a hot, late September Sunday, the last day of summer, we went back to the piece of land where we’d strung the fence. I dropped the gate, drove through, and put the gate back up. The track had sparse grass growing up in it, showing that there was less use now that the fence was up. I wondered whether it was because the dry year had affected whatever activities once drew the locals to the river, or if it was the late season, when the corn and bean picking had begun, or if it was respect for the fence. We drove my truck down to the river we’d helped fence away, spread a blanket, and had a picnic. In the early afternoon, we went wading in the river. It was clean there, and shallow, and the water was still warm from the lingering summer sun and the heat of the earth. There were big boulders a little way downstream, and as we waded beyond them the current almost disappeared. The water went from mid-calf to mid-thigh in two 20
short strides. “Do you think it gets deeper,” she said, turning toward me, “deep enough to swim?” “It might. This little river is known for some surprises.” She said nothing further, only stood for a moment looking at the wide stretch of quiet water. Even as she turned and began striding back toward the boulders, she was pulling her T-shirt up over her head. As usual, she was braless. Leaning her back against the nearest and smallest boulder, she carefully removed her shorts and underpants, and placed them in a neat pile on the boulder. She flashed me a grin. In several quick strides she was beyond me, up to her waist in the river. She porpoised and disappeared under the dark water, reappearing about fifty feet away. “It’s deep,” she said, when she had rolled around in the water and swam back in a strong, even breaststroke, “quite deep in the middle.” As she rose to standing in the water and began walking toward me she shook her head, then pushed her hair back with both hands. “The water’s nice. Don’t California kids ever skinny dip?” “Just me,” I said. I waded back to her boulder and left my shorts and undershorts next to hers on the rock. When I reached where she stood, she took my hand and pulled me into deeper water. She swam gracefully, like Marlie Matlin in Children of a Lesser God. I swam effectively, keeping up, keeping close, beating the water to a froth until I was tired enough to simply stand where the water was up to my ribs while I watched. She swam back and forth several times, and then back to me. I kissed her, or she kissed me, or we kissed each other, I’m not sure which, but we kissed. She wrapped her arms around me and burrowed the side of her face into my chest, holding tight to me. I stroked her wet hair, pulling it back from her face, and we kissed once more, but only once more, gently and passionately and chastely, if two naked people can kiss that way. We stood chest deep in the slowly moving river, she looking toward the riverbank back the way we had come, and I, chin touching the top of her head, looking downstream and upward, watching the few white clouds flee eastward, away from the afternoon sun and the high level winds. We didn’t talk. It was nice, peaceful. After a while, we walked back to the blanket, holding hands and carrying our clothes, and prostrated ourselves, letting the sun warm our cooled bodies, and dry us. 21
When our backs felt dry, we turned over, perhaps feeling that being naked in the sun was natural, but being careful not to look at each other, which wasn’t natural. Our bodies touched lightly at the side. I still felt peace. I almost slept. As I lay there, I felt her begin to shake, and I thought she was cold. When I raised on my elbow to pull the edge of the blanket over her, I saw that she was crying. “What’s wrong?” I said, but she didn’t answer. When I put my hand on her arm she rolled against me, and buried her head between my chin and my shoulder. It was past dark when we left the river for home. There have been times since then that I’ve thought about how we met, how we built the fence, remembering how she cried. I’ve never learned why she cried, and each time I’ve asked, those eyes have filled, and she hasn’t answered, only turned away. I haven’t asked for a long time.
Gran raised me. Not from forever, but close enough. My parents dropped me off with Gran when I was past four and short of five, so I remember them in a vague sort of way. Then they went off on a trip to Spain on a plane that landed about a thousand miles short of Madrid, and I never saw them again. In my memory, they were tall. They laughed a lot that day, and I always thought their car was blue, the only color I can remember from the last time I saw them, but Gran told me it was green. There is still this black and white picture of the three of us from that day that Gran took of us. When I look at the picture, I don’t think I look like me, and the other two people don’t look a bit familiar, so I wonder who these people were that day, and why they were standing on our front porch. There are two porches on the farmhouse. The front porch is up four wide steps from the flower garden, and stretches all the way across the front but for a little way on each end. It was made that way, they say, to be aesthetically pleasing. The back porch is smaller, and is up only two steps from the kitchen garden because the farm rises up, from the road to the house, from the house back to the barn, from the barn through the fields, until it reaches its far boundary at the edge of the western mountains that are steep and black with trees. The back porch was Gran’s. Spring, summer, and fall, she sat part of each day on that porch at a small and round, warped and weather-checked table, adding to the scars that kitchen knives make when a table is part of the tools used to make daily meals. She took with equanimity the shade or the sun while she shelled peas or husked corn or snapped beans. Usually she celebrated the day’s end in that familiar and friendly place. She went in and out across that porch, to feed what stock we had, to hang the week’s wash, to tend and gather from the kitchen garden and the orchard. Even when she tended the flowers in the front garden, she went across that porch. She went to choir practice on Thursdays and to church on Sundays across that porch. Later, when she went in to school to see my teachers, I expect she went across that porch. 23
The front porch belonged, by undeclared but granted sovereignty, to my grandfather, who asked little of me except that I call him ‘Granda.’ Granda, a good times man, wore high work shoes that he called his good times shoes, old work shirts with the sleeves rolled above the elbows, and suspenders to hold up loose, dark pants. When he was home in the evenings he sat on the front porch with his whiskey, his pipe, and his guitar and banjo and violin, and sometimes with other good times men and women who shared whiskey and tobacco and the call of music. Every night that he was home, Granda sang. I like to think he sang with the best of them, and probably, on his scale, he did. He sang – they all sang – songs that today we call bluegrass, but were probably more than bluegrass, more like songs of their roots, songs of their upbringing. While he played on the front porch, I watched from inside the screen door, where I could see him, sturdy and thick fingered, see his good times shoes begin to rap a rhythm on the unpainted boards, hear the music start, and the clang and the clatter and the rhythm and the words. And when the song ended, I heard the same music lingering, hanging on the mountain shadows, coming back to me on the evening and the air, made whole, like a familiar spirit. He sang in the parlor by the fireplace, too, when weather was bad, and regularly disappeared down the mountain with his guitar and banjo and violin to sing in the taverns on the back roads and in the small towns. I never saw him play in those places. Though my memory of it seems never to be the same twice, I can see him in the parlor or on the front porch, dim in the particular dusk each place creates in late evening, sometimes with his companions, sometimes alone with his music. He always ended the evenings with his violin, with music that became slow and melancholy and as haunting as a sleepless night. I wonder now, if, when he went down the mountain to play in those places, he finished his performance with those songs that always sounded like unrequited loneliness. Gran, too, loved music, though she shunned the gatherings and even most of the solo evenings. She was a white woman who sang or hummed white women’s gospel in her soft voice all day long. She sang, Shall we gather at the river, and, Will the circle be unbroken and other songs I don’t remember. She sang them low, softly, so they were almost a prayer, and perhaps they were.
I have told you of our farmhouse and farm. Then, it was truly a farm, though Granda tended the crops and the fences with indifference, at best. It was not a farm and he was not a farmer that together would prosper and become rich. I, the orphan, didn’t know then that we were poor, and wouldn’t have cared if I had known. After all, neither had I knowledge nor experience of being rich. When I was nine, Granda, the good times man, died of the good times. Of the whiskey, of the tobacco, of the bluegrass music and the melancholy music, and the nights away from home. One day, he went down the mountain to play, and several days later, Gran and I went down the mountain to bring him back to the small church he had last attended on his wedding day, where we laid him out for his wake. Gran had him laid out dressed in his good-times clothes, his high, good time shoes, black baggy pants, work shirt, though the sleeves were not rolled up, and his suspenders. A woman I had never seen before, who was perhaps one of his relatives, said to Gran that it was disrespectful to dress Granda like that to meet his maker and was she angry or did she hate him, to which Gran replied that she was not angry nor did she have reason to hate him. She was only disappointed that now she must make her way alone, with a boy, once again half orphaned, and that Granda would meet his maker dressed as he had lived. He would be recognized for who he was, and above all, he would recognize himself. That way, he would not be lost. The woman pointed her nose in the general direction of the vaulted church ceiling and walked away. After we all left the church that day and buried Granda in the tiny farm cemetery with about 20 ancestors and predecessors, I never saw her again. The day Granda died, the music left that front porch and the parlor, the good times music and the melancholy, but Gran’s hymns never left the back porch, except as she carried them with her around the farm. I’m not sure how we got by, but we did. Gran tended the farm animals and the gardens and the orchard. I wasn’t big and I wasn’t farm smart, and I don’t suppose I was much help at first. We gathered the crops that year, got in the hay, gathered every last thing from the kitchen garden. Between us the next spring, we put in corn and store beans, and put in the kitchen garden. That’s how we lived. We lived off the farm. Most of the money we made paid the taxes and the bank. Granda hadn’t been a prudent man, but he hadn’t
been a spendthrift either. When he passed over, the farm mortgage was current and the taxes paid up. But there was no bank account or insurance to tide us over. As I remember, it was a sort of natural balance. We could take our own food from the farm, keep the mortgage and the taxes current, and in general, that was about all. But when we needed something, like I grew out of my pants with great regularity, and out of my shirts and shoes, there was always enough to sell and keep us clothed. And as I remember, it was a good life. Nine months of the year, my society was in school. Gran’s society was what it always had been. The pastor and his wife came by to visit. Over the years, several teachers visited, sometimes out of courtesy, but usually because I had done something, good or bad, that they deemed worthy of remarking on. Our neighbors came and went, except for Anthony Todd, who never came. He was a man Gran’s age who owned the next farm north of ours. Before I learned the word “dour” I thought of him as angry and hateful. Sometimes he stood for long periods in his field that was closest to our house, scowling and staring, it seemed to me. Once I asked Gran what he was so angry about, and she replied that he wasn’t angry, only sad. Summers, I became the substitute for Granda. By the time I was thirteen, I was probably more effective at farming than Granda had been, mostly because Gran taught me what I needed to know, and let me know that our existence depended partly on me. So I plowed, planted, tilled, harvested, and learned to maintain the old equipment we had. We were a mechanized farm, our mechanization always purchased second or third or fourth hand, and at great sacrifice. By the time I was fifteen, I was playing music. I played the radio, the black and white television, and the trombone in the school band. I was pretty good with the first two. If you ask me what I liked best about that part of my life as I remember it, I think it was the red foxes, the hawks, and the crickets. Whenever I walked the fields, especially early or late in the day, I would try to watch the fence lines for fox, and if I happened to be walking the fence line, I’d look for sign. There are little trails in the long grasses and weeds and brush that grow in the fences. The mice and the rabbits and the moles make these trails as they go back and forth, living in that cover. The red foxes that hunted there were graceful and proud.
Hawks, on the other hand, appeared lazy, but incredibly free. In spring, when the fields we worked were freshly plowed, the strong sun heated the black earth, creating thermals that rose high above the sloping fields. The hawks, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, sprawled out and rode the thermals in endless, effortless circles. People who knew them better than I said they were hunting, using their incredible eyesight to find prey hundreds of feet below them. When they spotted something, a luckless rabbit or mouse or gopher, they plummeted straight down, struck their prey, and then carried it off where they would use their hooked beaks to tear it apart like we would eat a barbequed chicken. That’s what they told me, but I never saw it happen, not even once. In my opinion, they ordered room service. The crickets, though, provided song. I don’t remember ever hearing them before late summer, when the planting was done, the tending was winding down in the usual dryness of the season, and evening was coming earlier. It always seemed to me that one evening I’d hear them and wonder if I’d heard them before that, and it always seemed to me I hadn’t. Their song was pretty much a peaceful, one-note song that seemed to sing the coming end of another growing season. Most evenings, Gran sat in her rocker – not an old lady rocker, but the rocker she had sat in since she nursed my father when he was first born – or sat on the front porch with me in Granda’s old rocker. For some time after Granda died, I avoided the front porch because it felt to me to be empty without him but haunted by the image of him, and by the lost notes of tunes he’d played and sung that somehow found their way there from the woods and fields and hills. But I reclaimed the front porch eventually because it faced east and was shaded and cool in the evening. Granda was gone; the ghosts that came were a comforting thing. I went to bed at night knowing I’d wake up in the morning on that farm, tend that farm with Gran, and for nine months each year, attend school. Those were my certainties. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that someday I’d grow up, but I didn’t think about it much. Like most kids, I wandered from interest to interest, some of those influenced by television. If it hadn’t been for television, about all I would have known about would have been Granda’s old music, farming, and going to school. But time has that habit of not waiting around for anyone, and so, ready or not, I grew up, past high school, and into college. That was Gran’s plan. She and Granda had 27
somehow sent their only child, my late father, down the mountain with the assignment to finish college, not be poor, and to marry well. He was successful in the first, did not become rich but never lived as if he was poor, and married, as it is claimed he said, the first woman who said, “I love you back.” That, he also said, is marrying well. My father became a salesman. I don’t know what he sold, and neither did Gran, but he must have sold a lot of it. He won the trip to Madrid by being his company’s top salesman. Sometimes I wonder how I would have grown up if he hadn’t won that trip, but mostly I don’t because wondering about something that isn’t doesn’t grow flowers, as Gran used to say. I went down the mountain with those same instructions, and I carried them out about as well as he did. I finished college and went to work teaching English, which I knew wouldn’t make me rich, but wouldn’t leave me poor, either. I bought a little house that I lived in most of the year, and went back to the farm and Gran at school breaks, and off and on across the summers, and so I still farmed. It was a part of my life, the part I seemed to understand the best. Dirt has a smell to it, and I learned that farm dirt smells differently than city dirt, that it accepts the summer sun and summer rain and gives you crops, while city dirt accepts the sun and wants watering just to keep the grass from going brown. In the city, in the summer, the air became stifling and heavy and seemed to stick in the hair on my arms, and sweat became thick, like oil. On the farm, the air was always lighter, and the hotter it got, the lighter it became. Sweat made dark rings under the arms of my old blue work shirts, but I didn’t notice, and well water tasted colder and better than city water, running, as I pumped it, around my dusty workshoes, and off the wellhead to water the leggy country daisies that volunteered there. Even as a schoolteacher, I stayed a farm boy, in love with the certainty of it, and at the same time, the uncertainty that was always there. Loving the mornings and the evenings, the sun rising over the valley and setting behind the mountain. Loving the songs Granda sang once on the front porch and the songs Gran still sang on her old back porch. Loving the sounds, the winds rising in the yard trees, the sounds the fourcylinder tractor made, and the creaks of the wagons, the clank of the baler, and the squeal of the mow conveyor that never seemed to get oil in the right place. Loving the cries of the hawks on still days, and the crickets singing on still nights. One day I 28
realized that these things, or parts of them, were the music that Granda and Gran heard and gave back in their way. I could only hear it. I couldn’t play it or say it or sing it or even hum it. That brings me to Emily. When I was 35, I would meet Emily. Later on, she would say, “I love you back,” and so I would marry her when I was 37. When I was 39, we would make a baby boy we named William after his grandfather, Arthur, after his other grandfather, Franklin after Granda, and not Virgil, after me. I can’t say I hated the name Virgil, but I can say I didn’t like it much. We would call him, “you lucky little boy,” when we talked to him, or, “that lucky little boy,” when we talked about him. As he grew older and taller, we just called him “Lucky.” He would be born with blue eyes that became brown, and nearly white hair that would become honey brown. Like his mother, he would sing. And after that, his sister would sing. But before any of that, I would have to bury Gran. Gran was always there, at the farm, each time I came to what I thought of as home. And then she wasn’t. I knew she was gone when the voice on the phone that afternoon said, “Virgil? This is Anthony Todd, your grandmother’s neighbor.” I listened, not dispassionately, but with a certain numbness as he told me that he had been walking his fence line, as he did regularly, he saw Gran lying in her garden. It isn’t planted much, he said. It was too early, so he could see her plainly. She was gone even then, he said. She had gone into her garden as she frequently did, and she had collapsed and died. She looked peaceful when he found her, he said. The sheriff had come, and the coroner. They had removed her to Fischer’s Funeral Home in town, where Mr. Fischer was awaiting my further instructions. The preacher had been called, and had suggested Saturday morning for the service. The ladies of the church would prepare a lunch for after the interment, the preacher had said. “Virgil, I’m terribly sorry,” Anthony Todd said. “If there is anything I can help with, please ask. Virginia was the finest person I’ve ever known. So gentle.” “Thank you, Mr. Todd,” I said. “I’ll come tomorrow.” Just like that, Gran was gone. The next morning, I drove up the mountain, stopping first at the farm. When I stepped out of the car into the cool of late April, the first thing I noticed was there was no song. The mountain, the woods, the fields, the farmhouse, all the things that sang 29
were silent. The sky was empty, of hawk, of songbird, even of cloud. I went into the house that was as absurdly empty and silent as my heart. I went to her jewelry box, which wasn’t empty. It contained her pair of pearl earrings, her wedding ring worn thin over many years but resting on a folded tissue in the box for some time, since arthritis had begun to swell her knuckles, and an envelope that read, ‘Will and Death Instructions’. I sat in the old brocaded chair by her window and opened the envelope. “Virgil,” I read. “Have them put my earrings on me, and the ring on my finger, if it will go. If not, fold my hands around it. I will wear my best blue dress, but no gloves and certainly no hat. And for God’s sake, no perm and no makeup. Don’t let them do that to me.” She included a short list of additional instructions, the songs to be sung, the prayers to be read, the flowers to be purchased from the funds left in the envelope, the simple menu for the lunch. The last line said, “Bury me in the farm graveyard next to Franklin. It’s time to put a proper headstone on Franklin’s grave, which has, as you know, a crude thing made of concrete. Add my name to it. Gran.” That afternoon, I met with Mr. Fischer and then with the preacher. I took her dress, her earrings, and her ring to the funeral home. “I knew your grandmother because she made all of her arrangements several years ago. She has selected everything and paid for it,” Mr. Fischer said. He was the large, soft man I’d always seen wearing a dark suit and a white shirt that would soon need tucking in. I’d never talked to him, nor had I spoken to him. Now, he had dark eyes, short gray hair receding to a widow’s peak, and a five o’clock shadow. His voice was soft and clear as he led me through the formalities that go with death. “None of these instructions surprise me, and we will follow them, except for the makeup. We will add only the faintest to restore, as best we can, some natural color in place of only paleness. I think you’ll be happier with it. If you don’t approve, we can remove it.” “Yes,” I said. “I think that might be best.” * I found the preacher, a man younger than I, placing a ladder under the rectory’s overhang, a brush and a bucket of paint sitting a short way away on the sidewalk. “You 30
must be Virgil,” he said. “We will miss Virginia. She was an anchor, a constant in our little church. I know you miss her as well. I’m Pastor Seger, by the way. Please call me Mark.” “It’s a day I knew would come, Pastor, though it isn’t one I could prepare for,” I said, as I shook his hand. “I am filled with the joy and love of having lived the most important period of my life with her, the two of us taking care of each other, and I am still empty from the loss of her. I used to hear music of all kinds, all the time, and now I hear silence. I think the world I know is in mourning. It feels strange. I feel strange.” “Virginia told me you didn’t have a family yet. It’s harder, then, because there is no other focus. Only our loss.” He placed his hand on my shoulder and led me toward the office. “Let’s go plan this thing, the soffit can wait. We’ll get through this together. You focus on the love and the good because that is never lost. I’ll make sure the service goes as she would wish, and hold you up when you need it. It seems trite to say, but you have friends here.” “Thank you. I must have led a sheltered life, Mark. I’m thirty years old, and this is only my second funeral. I don’t have much experience at this.” “Nor do I. I’ve been to a few, but this will be the first time I’ve officiated at one. But we will indeed get through it.” I spent most of the next two days in the fields. I sowed alfalfa in the field that held corn the previous year, and disked the alfalfa field that would become corn. It was mindless work, work done by rote, my hands moving controls by memory, and the tractor, like an ancient plow horse, following the contours of the fields as if they were ancient trails. In the evening, I turned the television on, but I didn’t watch it. Instead, I found myself standing at the window, watching night creep down the mountain and fill the valley. Friday afternoon, I put on my dark suit and shined shoes. Gran was laid out at Fischer’s, wearing her best blue dress, her pearl earrings. Her left hand was over her right, and her wedding ring was on her finger. Good, I thought. Her hair was combed much as she would comb it, and the color added to the gray complexion of death was indeed subtle and well done, but I wished I hadn’t agreed. I held her hand for a moment.
I stood in the long room while her friends and neighbors came by, some carrying flowers, some prayer books, and most bearing the platitudes of well-meant solace. Many I knew, and many I didn’t. Saturday morning, we closed the casket, and Gran was gone. Pastor Seger conducted the service, and two thin, gray ladies sang the songs Gran had requested, Shall We Gather at the River, In the Sweet Bye and Bye, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. They sang so softly, like Gran did on her porch, that together they made up one voice, but a voice that was blended in reedy sweetness. We carried the casket to the hearse, drove to the farm, and across the pasture to the small, fenced graveyard. Gran was lowered into the ground next to Granda, the words were said, and she was covered over. Most of the mourners stood with me and Pastor Seger on one side of the grave. Anthony Todd stood away from the gathered friends on the far side of the grave, looking smaller in a blue suit that bagged on him, and a starched white shirt that stood away from his browned neck. His striped tie was perfectly knotted. His face showed a deep sadness. I realized I hadn’t seen him the night before, nor at the service. When the service ended, the mourners began to drift away until only Anthony Todd, still on the far side of the grave, remained. I stood for a while, surprised, because I heard the songbirds again. I scanned the sky, but I didn’t see a hawk. When I started to walk down the hill, he spoke. “Virgil,” he said, “I am truly sorry about Virginia.” “I understand,” I said. “Probably not,” he said, a smile coming to his face, probably the first smile I’d ever seen from him. “Can you walk with me down the hill?” “Sure,” I said, not knowing why. “You know, the two of you did a good job with this farm,” he said. “In the long haul, probably better than Franklin ever would have.” “Thanks,” I said. “He was all about his music, Virgil. Farming he did out of necessity, to support the family. But if he had time to study farming or music, he chose his music. He was good. Do you remember that?”
I didn’t speak for a moment, remembering those nights on the front porch. “Yes, I remember that. I’ve remembered him and his music all my life. I hear music everywhere, all the time. There’s music everywhere. I wish I had inherited some of his talent, not just his love for it.” “You inherit the farm?” I nodded. “She had no one else to leave it to, Mr. Todd.” For some reason, I felt defensive about being an heir. We had reached the fenceline that ran between the two farms. It was three strands of barbed wire that had separated our pasture from his fields. The wire was rusted and sagging, some places, broken. The old, grayed posts leaned in whatever direction gravity and time had tugged them. Anthony Todd stepped through the gate, closed it behind him, which is good manners on the farm. He pointed at the fenceline that was grown up with weeds, wild berry canes, low brush, and occasional wild cherry trees, now separating us by nearly ten feet. “‘Least you got something. I’d say you earned it. Would you call me Anthony, please? Have you ever thought about cleaning out these fencelines? Gonna sell the place, now that she isn’t here?” “Well, yes, and no and no. You asked three questions. Yes, to the first one, and no to the other ones. Anthony. Do you? Think about cleaning out your fencelines? Think about selling up? Retiring?” “No. Be a shame to do it. Any of it.” “Yea,” I grinned. “Aside from the raspberries and blackberries, this is home to a lot of critters. Home to me especially.” “I’m glad you see it that way.” We started walking down the hill in a kind of easy silence. I had already said more to Anthony Todd, my next-door neighbor for about a quarter of a century, than I had in all the time I had lived with Gran. “You know, I went to see my lawyer yesterday,” he said. I didn’t say anything. “I figured after what happened with Virginia, maybe I’d better get my affairs sorted out. I’m several years older than she was, at least I think so, I never knew her age, exactly.” 33
“I’m not sure I do, either,” I said. “I asked a few times, and all she ever said was, ‘I’m old enough to be your grandmother.’” “A woman’s age is her secret, is that it?” “Seems like it.” “Anyway, I went to my lawyer yesterday, and got everything in order. So, when I go, you’ll have two farms.” We walked another hundred yards or so before I understood what he had said. “What? You’re leaving your place to me? Why?” “That’s what my lawyer asked me. I told him, why not? I don’t have any family left, so why not leave it to the kid next door?” “Well, that’s not a good enough reason.” “It is for my lawyer. That’s what counts from that conversation. He has my family tree, and he can search it, if he wants. He may find a distant cousin, but not any one I’ve ever met or who even knows who I am. So that should be open and shut. But the real reason is, I loved Virginia when we were both young, and loved her all my life.” “Oh,” I said. We were almost to the end of the field by then, and I remembered him standing in his field watching Gran. I understood, now, why she said he was sad. “Did she know?” “Virginia knew, alright. In fact, we had a six-week thing when Franklin was out of the county one summer. She told people he was off playing his music, which is how it started out, but he ended up spending sixty days on a work farm for drunk and disorderly and several other offenses some judge didn’t appreciate.” Anthony stopped talking and stopped walking. I stopped, too, and stood there, numbed and dumb, looking at him. “Right after Virginia married Franklin she found out he was not a good husband, not then, and not for quite a while. The only thing he seemed to love, the only thing he paid attention to, was his music, not his farm, and not her. It was such an empty and difficult life that she thought of leaving him. But the jail time, and the long time away from Virginia had its effect on him. He came home, and straightened out. Became the man she loved, the man you knew. A good man, then, not a good farmer, mind you, but adequate, and a good man.” Anthony stopped again, but I didn’t say anything.
“But the real reason I’m leaving my farm to you is that your father, William, was my son, not Franklin’s. He was conceived of us in that unhappy moment in time, and so you’re my grandson. Don’t think ill of Virginia. She was a good, loyal woman. She was the best.” Anthony turned toward his house. “Talk to me when you’re ready, or never again, if you can’t forgive me, but I pray you will.” He walked away. It wasn’t until summer that I found I could talk to Anthony. Of course it was awkward at first. But in the three years he lived past that day, we talked a lot, shared breakfasts some Sundays, or winter afternoon Sunday meals that I always prepared. During that time, the regional school board opened up our consolidated high school, and I came home to teach English, which made farming easier, especially after Anthony passed and I had three times as much land to plan for, plant, and gather from. That brings me back to Emily. Pastor Seger called me one Thursday night and told me that he had a new choir member who could sing my socks off, who was also new to our school staff. Her name, he told me, was Emily Taylor. New to town, of course, she taught music in the consolidated school. She didn’t want, he said, to live in a rooming house or an apartment, as if our town had many. She wanted to live in a house. “And you have an extra one,” Mark said. “How about she comes out Sunday afternoon and looks it over. See if she wants to rent it. It still has its furniture, doesn’t it? I hate to see a good old house go to waste.” I met Emily. She rented my extra house and stole my heart in one afternoon. We became a family, she and I, and once again there was music on the front porch. Not the music of Granda, but the music Emily could make and teach. Our son began to sing in church with the choir when he was eight months old. Hah, you say, but it’s true. Emily sang from the choir loft, and Lucky sang from my arms, at high volume. He didn’t just yell, he sang. The people around me looked, smiled, laughed, and at times, applauded. I, for one, knew that at eight months old, he was better than I was. Later, his sister would do the same, hearing music and then making music. “How did you miss out?” Emily said as we drove home from church on Sunday afternoon. “You’ve told me about your grandmother and her singing, and I’ve actually heard and read stories about your grandfather. Does musical talent skip generations in your family?”
“Did I ever tell you how I came to have two farms?’ I said. I kept my eyes on the road. “When Lucky and Anna go down for a nap, I’ll tell you a story.”
Conversation on a Foggy Morning
The world had disappeared in thick, still fog beyond the firs and red pines that had been planted too close to the house. For the short distance he could see that the trees dripped steadily and the long grass glistened and lay bent over from the persistent weight of the collecting dew. Though it was nine o’clock, it remained dark enough that the kitchen light reflected in the water streaked window. Dean brought two very large mugs to the round kitchen table in the alcove made by the bay window, taking his customary seat at the west side of the window. He turned his chair slightly so he could rest his stockinged feet on the seat of the chair under the window. Gretchen set the plate of muffins in the middle of the table, pulled out her chair, and sat down, swinging her long legs up so her feet rested on the chair and touched Dean’s. Almost as a reflex, their feet repositioned so they touched in layers. This was a Saturday position, one that had begun most Saturdays for fifteen years, the only alteration being that the chairs had changed once, and in summer, their feet were always bare. “Good muffins,” he said. “Compliment yourself, Dean. You made them last night.” “So I did,” he said, remembering. It wasn’t that he was forgetful, it was only that they were interchangeable in most of their household routines. “Tea was a good idea, though, and that was yours.” Gretchen lifted her mug, sipped cautiously. “Hot,” she said, then cradled the mug to her chest. “Feels good. Have we ever had such a foggy Saturday?” “Some, or close, but not many. Usually when we can’t see any further than this it’s snowing and life as we know it is canceled.” He held his mug against his chest as she held hers, letting the heat seep into his fingers, and through his wool shirt into his chest. “I’m going to light a fire after we’re through here.” “Is there any dry wood?” 37
“Some in the garage, so I won’t have to go to the shed. Left over from March or April or whenever it was last Spring that I was going to have a fire and didn’t. Lots in the shed, of course.” “A fire will feel good, and I like the way it smells on still days like this. It kind of fills up the world with burning oak smell.” Gretchen broke a muffin and dribbled honey from the pot into the middle of it. “These would have been better warmed.” “You always like the way it smells. Do we need to clean today?” “I don’t think so. Carry out the papers and maybe dust. That’s all. We haven’t been very hard on this place this week.” “As if we ever were. Let’s put off cleaning, then. I’ll light the fire and you choose the music. We can put our feet by the fire, sip tea, read, listen.” He looked at her angular face. It was paler than it should have been, and thinner, it seemed. Slight dark half moons made her eyes appear recessed far under her brow. “I wish we didn’t have to go out this afternoon.” “If it stays like this, we won’t be going anywhere. Neither one of us is going to drive down the mountain if the visibility isn’t better.” Dean sipped tea, then settled his cup back against his chest. “We’ll miss Shelley’s funeral.” Dean pressed upward with his bottom foot and downward with his top foot just enough to give Gretchen’s foot a slight squeeze. She took her eyes from the window where she seemed to be studying her reflection or the nothingness beyond, and gave a smile. It was a good smile, but not the one Dean always claimed should win awards. “We can miss that.” Dean watched Gretchen’s reflection in the window. There was enough daylight that the reflection wasn’t sharp, and the double glass gave two outlines like the ghost images on an old TV. Looking at the reflection he could almost convince himself that the image looking back, with its faint smile was the same as it had always been. “Clark will expect you,” she said, over her cup. “Clark can go...” “Dean,” she said. “Don’t say it.” She unlayered their feet for a moment to rub the top of her right foot with the ball of her left foot, then slipped them back between Dean’s. 38
“I’ve never understood it,” she said. “Before we were married I thought you two were best friends. I even thought he’d be your best man.” “It looked that way, didn’t it,” Dean said. “But it wasn’t. I halfway liked Clark back then, but Richard would’ve been best man even if Clark hadn’t said what he said.” “What did he say?” “It doesn’t matter.” Dean gave her trapped foot a squeeze, puffed at the steam cloud and took a small sip of tea. Gretchen gave a quick squeeze back and remained silent. “It matters,” she said, after several minutes. “Something that makes two friends suddenly not friends, and it lasts for sixteen years must matter. It must matter a lot.” “You won’t like it.” “Maybe,” she said, “but if it was about me, I probably won’t mind a bit. What I’m talking about is, it matters to you. So tell me.” Dean sat, silent but tense, his growing stiffness making him appear reclined, but awkward. “He said...” Dean raised himself slightly in his chair and settled again, a different position, still the same stiffness. “Yes?” “He said you had too much bone for the meat.” Gretchen’s laugh exploded. “Well, he got that right.” She gave Dean a quick smile and turned back toward her cup, catching the little dribbles that had bounced over the rim when she laughed. “That’s absolutely on the mark. It’s the best description of me I’ve ever heard.” “That’s not it.” “Well, what, then?” Her smile warmed him, almost eased him, but her eyes seemed hot, as if from fever. “You know how Clark is,” said Dean. He stopped, as if that explained everything. “No,” she said. “Not the way you do. Not the way you see him.” “If you haven’t noticed, he tries to run everyone else’s life.” “He does not.” “He does, but after the fact.” “What do you mean?” 39
“Remember when Wilson’s oldest kid, Rob, bought the new truck, the four wheel drive one that he put rollbars on and jacked up so it was another foot and a half higher? Big tires on it?” “Midnight black and silver, all polished up, yes.” Gretchen looked over at him, brow furrowed slightly , as if to say ‘get on with it, Dean’. “I liked that truck. Rob seemed so proud of it. I’m glad he wasn’t hurt when he rolled it in the stream bed.” “So’m I.” “Well, what of it, Dean?” Gretchen said, after a half minute of silence. “I hate it when you don’t want to talk about something. I have to get it out of you with crowbar and jackhammer.” “Well, when the boy showed it to Clark, Clark told him that it sure looked nice, but in eighteen months, two years tops, there would be a line of rust showing along each side of the box where the panels were welded.” “So what if he told him that. It shouldn’t have mattered.” “It did matter, though. You should have seen Rob’s face. When we walked away, Rob was still standing there, looking at the side of the truck, touching that seam like it was already happening.” “Well, it wouldn’t have.” “Yeah, it would have. It was typical of that truck. The point is, when someone has something that they’re proud of, they’ve chosen something, it’s not his business to denigrate that choice, even if he’s right.” Dean thumped his cup down on the glass topped table. Tea sloshed, and he jabbed his napkin at the spill, and sat up straight. “He does that all the time. Always has.” “I’ve never noticed.” Gretchen reached across the table and surrounded the spreading spill with her napkin. “That’s because he’s never done it to you.” “You’re telling me he did something like that to you?” “Only once.” “Dean, he’s always struck me as a loving and generous man. One time shouldn’t affect a friendship.” Gretchen’s tea sat forgotten on the table. She looked across the table at him, the furrow above her thin nose deepening, and her brows moving closer together. 40
“Clark can chair the United Appeal every year, he can endow the history chair at the college, and he can furnish the new maternity wing and cry at the ribbon cutting and still be an asshole.” “That’s uncalled for. Totally uncalled for.” “You say, but you weren’t there.” “Nothing could be that bad.” She picked up her cup, and tasted carefully. “If I spill half of what’s in here, will it cool enough to drink?” She put the cup down again. “Maybe. Maybe it’ll cool. No maybes about what he did.” “What did he do, Dean. Tell me.” “He said, when I told him I was asking you to marry me, he said, ‘you’ve waited until you’re forty-five, Dean. Wait a little longer. You can do better.’ That’s what he did.” As she fumbled with her cup Gretchen made a low noise and turned her face away. “Did you say something?” said Dean. Gretchen sat stiffly for what seemed a long time, her hands trembling slightly, fingers automatically collecting the tea that sloshed over the rim of the cup and ran down the sides. Finally, she turned her face toward him. “Maybe you could have,” she said. Two small streams of tears ran down her pale cheeks. “Not ever,” said Dean. “I can honestly say you are the only woman I ever loved, the only woman that ever made me even feel like loving.” “Oh, that can’t be true.” Gretchen wiped at her eyes with her crumpled napkin, then at her upper lip beneath her nose. “Totally true. I dated for about twenty-five years before I met you, and I never got past moderate like.” “Handshakes at the door?” Gretchen flashed him a quick smile, but there was still an unusual moistness in her eyes. “Sometimes, and others a kiss on the cheek or the lips.” Dean looked at the small puddle of tea he was chasing around the glass table top with artificial intensity. He glanced up from time to time, as if he was allowing her to find her composure. “Sometimes I’d be invited in, and there’d be enough kissing to stir my libido, but at the back of it, there was always this voice telling me that whoever it was, it wasn’t the one.” 41
“So I married a virgin?” “That’s none of your business. It wasn’t when you married me, and it still isn’t.” Dean looked squarely at her, trying to hold her eyes. When he succeeded, he said, “The point is, my relationship with you has been based on the fact that I love you. It always will be that way.” “I accept that, Dean.” Gretchen wiped away a tear that had escaped one eye. “It was hard at first. Not to accept you, but to accept that anyone loved me that way.” “Why would you ever think that?” “The way I am. The way I was is more accurate. Clark said it, too much bone for the meat.” She flashed another smile. “And I’ve got this narrow face, my nose is crooked and too long, and my eyebrows come together, like Brooke Shields’, except I’m not beautiful, in fact, not even pretty.” “That’s not true. That’s you seeing you, not me seeing you. As far as I’m concerned you have cornered the market on beautiful. I thought you were beautiful the first time I saw you, and I knew it after I’d talked to you once.” “Oh, bull.” She looked down into her cup and wiped her eyes. Dean reached onto the counter and brought back a small stack of napkins that he placed on the table by her elbow. Without looking up, Gretchen threw her ragged, soggy napkin near the center of the table and took two napkins up to her face. A third slid from the pile onto the edge of her leg, then to the floor. “Damn,” she said, her voice low and tight in her throat. “It’s not bull.” Dean turned toward her, leaning forward until the side of his ribs were hard against the table top. “Haven’t you noticed all the pretty people who seem to be alone, while so many others who don’t have nearly the physical perfection have friends, lovers, husbands, wives, children, all fitting together nicely? “You mean like a ménage? No.” Gretchen smiled, but only briefly. “Not like a ménage, at all, no. I said all of those because of all the different stages of life we see. No, it’s like each has found his or her person, and they’re joined. They’ve managed it because they’re attractive, even beautiful, far above just physical beauty.” “So I’m attractive?” “You’re beyond beautiful.” “What did you find attractive in me?” “Not did, do. Your smile. I’ve told you so many times, your award-winning 42
smile.” Dean pushed his cup away, took a napkin, and sopped at the tea rings and puddles he’d made. “In the hall the first day. You were smiling, and when I said hello, that smile you’ve got came out like a field of flowers blooming, a genuine, from-theheart smile, and something told me, ‘this is the one,’ and so I asked you out as soon as I was sure you were single.” “Love at first sight.” Gretchen looked up at him, smiling again, a flush spreading up from her neck. “Not exactly. Better. I’d probably loved you for a long time. I just hadn’t found you.” “How could you do that?” she said. “Love someone before you even know they exist, I mean?” “I don’t know,” he said. Gretchen looked across the table at him. Her face was softened, unlined, young again, flushing a soft pink instead of holding the haunted pallor of the last week. Dean watched her face for a time, his small smile matching her large smile. The color in her face held. The lines of tension stayed away. “I don’t know. I’ve asked myself the same question. It always seems that I get the same answer, ‘I don’t know how, but that’s the way it was’.” “I wish I could say the same thing, but I can’t,” she said. You’d dated for twentyfive years. I was thirty years old and I’d scarcely dated at all.” Dean said nothing, just watched her face. “When you asked me to dinner on the first day I was at the school, I mistrusted you,” she said, after some moments. “Mistrusted me?” “Honestly, I did,” she said, her smile widening. “You were short and cute...” “Short and cute?” Dean snorted. “I’ll give you short, but I’m not cute. If I ever was cute, at forty-five I was far beyond cute.” “Short and extremely good looking, then, and I thought immediately that you were one of those guys – middle-aged, good shape, divorced a second time, and living out an adolescent fantasy of bedding every woman you met. And on the first date.” “Why’d you go with me, then,” he said, “if that’s what you thought?” “If you remember, I didn’t accept right away. I wasn’t going to accept, either, but your face kept popping into my mind every chance it got, and the more I thought, the 43
more earnest and honest you seemed.” She laughed and tapped his arm lightly. “Besides, you were so ... short and cute.” “Short and cute again.” “You were, regardless of what you think. I also checked with Martha.” “Martha? I don’t remember Martha.” “The other gym teacher. The pregnant one I was replacing. She seemed to think you’d be a catch, not that it mattered, because by then you seemed somehow genuine.” Gretchen sipped her tea, wrinkled her nose, and put the cup down. “It’s gone cold. Besides, you were the only one who asked.” “I was the first one.” “You were the only one. No one else asked that day or any other.” “That’s heartening to know. You went with me because I was the only one who asked.” Dean picked up her cup and untangled his feet from hers. “Make you another one or just nuke this one?” “Another one would be nice. Blackberry this time. Earl Gray isn’t my favorite.” “Nor mine, either, but your friend Marcia seemed to think the sixteenth anniversary is the tea anniversary. There’s something wrong with me. I can’t waste anything.” Dean filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. “I put the kettle on,” he said as he sat down again. He reached over and switched off the light. Gretchen’s smile was gone, but her face was peaceful as she looked out the window. “I’ll start the fire as soon as the kettle goes,” he said, looking at her face in silhouette, seen the fine, long line of her nose, the slope of her forehead that disappeared under the dark curls that fell forward and slightly shadowed her face. The soft grey light from the window contrasted the color that still suffused her skin. “It’s so foggy,” she said. Dean reached across the table for her hand, squeezed it, then held it. “It’s like the world ends somewhere out there in that fog,” she said, as he placed his feet back on their shared chair-footstool, lapping one over and one under her feet. She didn’t look at him. “Not far out there. Not far at all.” Dean watched her face. It was solemn, not troubled, but solemn, like she lived with an enduring sadness. When he reached over and took her hand, she didn’t look at him. “I wish I could go through this instead of you,” he said finally. 44
“The incidence of breast cancer isn’t very great in men,” she said softly. “If I could, I’d take your place,” he said. His eyes had filled as he watched her, and now they spilled and ran down his cheeks, though he didn’t notice. “You can’t,” she said, simply. “But I can be with you. If it happens, I’ll be with you like the last time.” He reached his left hand across the table, sandwiching the long fingers of the hand he held between his broad palms, working his short, thick fingers in an almost frantic rhythm. “If it happens, maybe this time it won’t be so bad.” “If it happens? If it happens?” Her voice was high and tight, though she still kept her face toward the window. “I’m not sure, but I think the lump in my breast is probably malignant. I had pre-menopausal breast cancer, and there is a very high recurrence with pre-menopausal breast cancer. I’m probably extremely lucky that it’s taken this long. When the doctor talked about this the first time I should have listened more carefully than I did. I was afraid to. I didn’t want to hear. I should have listened.” Her voice trailed off as she lowered her face. “That was fifteen years ago. More than fifteen, almost sixteen.” “I’m not sure that the length of time matters. I don’t think it does.” “Well maybe it does.” He felt his nose drip on the table. “And maybe it won’t be so bad.” There was bitterness in her voice. She raised her face and looked at him before he could speak. “It’ll be bad, Dean. I’ve read about the new treatments. They’re just like the old ones, except maybe you survive longer. And maybe you don’t. They can’t even tell you that, yet.” As the teakettle began its low boil moan he dropped her hand and stood up in a flurry of sudden motion, hitched at his pants, took a half step, and stopped, thumbs hooked in his belt, and eyes fixed beyond the window at the nothingness he felt. “Where are you going?” “Get the wood. Start the fire.” He ran the palm of his hand under his eyes and over his nose, and looked at the wetness as if it surprised him. “You’re running away from this.” “I’m not. I’m just going to start the fire.” “I don’t want a fire.” “A fire would be nice. We’d feel better.” 45
“You’d feel better. I won’t feel better. And this conversation isn’t nice. I don’t want nice. I don’t need nice, now. I need to finish this. I’m not letting you run away this time.” “I never ran away last time. I changed your dressings. I helped you with your rehabilitation. I was with you every day and every night. I didn’t run away.” “Remember the first day I went back to school and I had to begin coaching the volleyball team because it was two weeks to season and there was no one else to coach them?” “I remember.” “I came home in real pain, but happy. I showed them how to serve overhand, when I wasn’t sure I could even get the ball to the net. The first one went over and I served until I could barely lift my arm. I hurt so bad, but I was so happy because I found out I could still do what I did before the cancer and the surgery.” “I remember. You took a hot shower and then I gave you a massage. You liked it.” “I liked it until I had to ask you to massage my right breast ... chest. I don’t have a breast anymore. Then I felt bad.” “Why?” “Because I had to ask you to. That was the part of me that hurt the most, and I had to ask you.” “I didn’t want to hurt you.” “I already hurt. I needed your help. I had to ask.” “I was afraid I’d make you feel self-conscious.” He felt his eyes stray to her reflection in the wet glass of the window. She was looking at his reflection with such intensity that he looked away. “Is that why you’ve never touched me there since? Not even once in fifteen years of love making, of lying together, and all the things we’ve done have you touched my right side.” “I have.” “You haven’t. Not even once. Not even by accident.” He could feel her stare, as if she had changed her focus from his reflection to the side of his face, but he didn’t move. He wanted to, it seemed, but his muscles seemed frozen. “Even when you put your arms 46
around me from behind and put your right hand on my left breast you never touch my right side, except at my waist.” “I don’t. I don’t do that.” He said it softly, wanting what he said to be true, but knowing as he said it, that he lied. “You do. If your hand was on my breast, or where it used to be, I’d feel it. I’d at least feel pressure through my prosthesis.” He stood stiffly, as if he were a fence post long ago cut from a tree, stripped of branches, seasoned so long that he couldn’t even feel the earth when he was planted in the fence row. “I didn’t want you to feel different,” he said, his voice trembling and tight. “I am different.” “You’re not. Not to me.” “I’m different.” Her voice had softened a moment. “You know I’m different. I know it. I can see it and feel it every day. I’ve been maimed. They took away my breast and muscle and lymph nodes and God knows what else.” Her voice rose again. “They left me with huge scars, hard places where I should be soft, places that frighten you when they should invite you. Ugly colors. Ugliness that never fades.” “I hate what they did to you. I hate how they hurt you.” “They gave me life,” she said, her voice lower again. “You hurt me.” “How did I hurt you?” he wanted to ask, but didn’t because he knew. “When I see you, and what they did to you,” he said, finally breaking his rock like immobility and looking at her, “when I see that...” “When do you see me, really look at me?” “Every day.” “Really?” “Every day.” “What do you think?” “That it’s unfair. You didn’t deserve that.” “No one deserves breast cancer. What they did allowed me to live.” Dean felt his shoulders sag and some of the tension lift at the same time. “I wanted you to live. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” “You’d have lived on. Lived out your life, a different life than we have, but 47
probably a happy one.” “I don’t know. Somehow I think it would have been empty. I’d be empty.” “You’d find someone to take care of the emptiness.” Gretchen was studying the backs of her hands almost as if she was searching for something. “I wouldn’t.” He realized he was speaking, they were speaking, as if it was something that was in their future. His stomach churned and he wanted to cry, put his arms around her, hold tight, and cry. He could hear the kettle screaming in the kitchen. “I wouldn’t have,” he said almost to himself, his voice surprisingly steady. “I waited so long for you I doubt there could be – could have been – anyone else.” “Maybe not,” she said, at last looking up at him. Then, “Where are you going now?” as Dean turned toward the kitchen. “I’m making some hot tea. I’m cold,” he said. “Sit down. We don’t need tea.” Dean sat heavily, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He hid his face in his hands and cried. “I didn’t want you to have been hurt. Every time I looked at you I could see how you must have been hurt. I still see it. I wanted to make it so you could forget.” “I couldn’t forget, can’t forget,” she said. “I can see, too, and I touch myself when I shower, when I dress. And I don’t dare forget.” “I made it worse,” he said. She had both hands on his shoulders, rubbing his muscles, fingers working up the back of his neck. “I even knew I made it worse. I kept telling myself I didn’t, but I knew it.” “I don’t think you made it worse, Dean. But you just might have made it better if you could have touched me. Or even just talked to me. Why didn’t you talk to me?” “I was afraid to,” he said at last. The tears had stopped but he didn’t raise his head. Gretchen’s fingers probed his neck and shoulders gently. “Afraid of what? Afraid of me?” “No.” “What, then? What was there to be so afraid of?” “I don’t know. What I might learn, I suppose.” He raised his head and folded his hands in front of his knees. Beyond the window the fog was as thick as in early morning. Gretchen’s face was reflected clearly in the window, but he couldn’t tell if the streaks 48
that seemed to be on her cheeks were silent tears or rivulets of condensation on the windows. He turned to look at her. He reached one hand up, took one of hers from his shoulder. Held it to his face. Squeezed it. Kissed it. “Sometimes I asked myself that, not why I didn’t talk to you, but what I was afraid of. I never got a clear answer.” Gretchen pulled her hand from his and dragged the chair close with her foot. When she sat down, she gathered his hand in both of hers. “What kinds of answers did you get?” “That sometimes I was afraid I’d lose you. Sometimes I felt that if I said anything I’d hurt you ... maybe make you afraid ... maybe make you think that your scars bothered me in a way that would make you feel lessened. I don’t know.” “You did both ... made me afraid, made me feel lessened.” “Always? I’m really sorry, Gretchen.” Dean glanced up, tears again crawling down his cheeks. “Not always,” Gretchen said, squeezing his hand. “But enough. If I waited, it would pass. I’d forget, sort of, and then I’d feel good again for a while.” “You should have told me.” “Why? What good would it have done? You just would have felt worse and longer.” “I don’t know if that’s true. If we’d talked about it, maybe you wouldn’t have been so afraid.” “And if I made you recognize the damaged part of my body, maybe you would have left me.” Dean looked up in surprise. “It happens,” she said, after a long silence. “When I was recovering, when I was first healed, then when you never acknowledged my injuries, I feared that.” “I wouldn’t have done that,” he said. “It’s easy to accept that on an intellectual level, but emotionally, only part of me ever accepted that. I thought you were hiding to protect yourself.” “I was protecting myself, too,” he said. “Not having to deal with your pain protected me, too, but I love you. Didn’t you at least know that?” “I knew. I know.” 49
“More than you know. More than you can imagine.” “I love you a lot, Dean. Before you I always wondered if there would ever be love in my life and then there was, and it’s wonderful. So maybe I know.” “I’ve watched you love me. I’ve felt you love me,” said Dean. He was smiling up at her. “I like it, how you always show me, but I have to tell you that what I feel for you is intense, and immense. It’s somewhere inside me, just sitting there getting its energy from something I’ve quit trying to comprehend. You’ll never know, Gretchen, because there’s no way to tell you, no way to show you. You’ll just have to trust that it’s there, and that I’ll never be able to spend it all on you. It’ll always be there, and so will I, regardless of what happens. Can you believe that?” “I’ve always counted on that.” The lengthening silence that followed was not uncomfortable. Neither of them moved, except once, when Gretchen reached across the short space between them and wiped the end of Dean’s nose. “Do you feel like we’re about to start arm wrestling?” he asked, nodding at their clasped hands. “Do you want your tea hot?” “I’d like that, if we haven’t boiled that poor kettle dry. All I’ve done is spill most of it, and you’ve barely touched yours.” “I’ve spilled my share, too.” When he came back from the kitchen he held the two mugs by the handles and carried a small plate with two muffins on it “They’re hot.” “I can smell them. I hope I can eat. Right now, I don’t feel particularly hungry.” “Eat if you can. You know how important it is to keep food in your body if ... You know, all week I’ve been concerned that you weren’t eating enough, and I couldn’t say anything.” “You still haven’t. Almost, but you haven’t yet.” “Eat. If you have a malignancy food, healthy food, is important to your recovery. At least try the tea. How’s that?” “Congratulations. Just don’t overdo it.” Gretchen inhaled the steam plume that rose from her cup, then sipped it carefully. “Hot. Smells good, too. Earl Gray smells too much like, well, tea.” “That it does,” he said. “I suppose it’s good in its own right, though. Would you like a fire?” 50
“Maybe. Not just yet, though. There’s something else we need to talk about.” Dean leaned back in his chair. He said nothing. “Do you remember when I was in the hospital – after the surgery?” “I remember,” he said. It was instantly clear, the stillness when he first entered the two bed room whose whiteness couldn’t be softened by the drawn blinds nor the dim lighting. Unfamiliar smells he identified now with serious illness. The darkness of her uncombed hair contrasting her pallor, and the unrelenting whiteness of the sheet drawn past her shoulders. How still she had been. “Do you remember all the flowers?” “Yes,” he said, breathing again. The sterile white room had been half-filled with flowers. “Well, not specifically, but I remember there were a lot of them. Before you could use your right arm and hand I wrote the thank yous for all of them.” “Except one.” “The one that came without a card. The big one that was all pink and white roses.” “Carnations.” “Carnations. Yes. It was pretty.” “It didn’t have a card because it was personally delivered.” Dean waited. “Clark brought it to me.” “Clark?” “He brought those flowers to me himself. I woke up and the man who isn’t your friend anymore was standing by my bed, holding my hand, and crying.” “Clark?” Dean said again. “Yes. At first I thought he might be the Angel of Death he towered over the bed so. He had my hand so gently in the huge hairy paw of his that it felt like it was supported on air. He wasn’t making a sound, but when I got myself fully awake from all those drugs I could see the tears running down his face like rivers. I don’t know how long he’d been there, but he kept wiping at his face with his handkerchief and it looked pretty wet. As soon as I could talk, I made him sit down. Then he kept telling me I had to get well because of what I meant to you. He even told me what he’d said, not in the words you said, but how he’d insulted me and offended you. 51
“He apologized. He said he hadn’t known me well enough, and that he’d been looking out for you because he was your best friend. Then he said I was your best friend now, and I had to get well.” “You should have told me.” “He didn’t want me to. Anyway, he should have told you himself. I always thought he would.” “Why didn’t he?” “Male pride. Male ego. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, you two have wasted sixteen years over nothing.” She swept both hands across her face, and smoothed back her hair. “Why are you telling me this?” “What good did it do to not tell you?” Gretchen broke off part of a muffin and popped it into her mouth. She chewed it slowly, and swallowed it as if it was dry. Dean looked past her into the foggy morning, watching the heaviness for any sign of motion that meant the wind might help carry it away. There was none. “Are you going to start a fire?” “Not enough time. When we finish this meager breakfast we should get ready to go.” “To Shelley’s funeral.” “Yes. I’ll get us down the mountain somehow.” He turned his head from the window and found her looking at him. She was smiling, and her face was pink again. “Maybe Clark will be glad I’m there.” “I think he might. Friends facing that kind of pain need friends.” She squeezed his hand hard, ate another bite of muffin, then sipped her tea. “Good,” she said.
He had driven them down the mountain through the fourth morning of a lingering low pressure system in glistening, wet darkness. When they had reached the comparative level ground of the valley and turned down the blacktop they called Dead Cow Road, Dean still had the headlights on. The wipers were swatting at the large drops of sporadic, wind driven rain. Silence inside the Cherokee overrode engine noise and the howl-whistle of the headwind that rocked it. As they crested the low hill they had both glanced at the spot where five years earlier in the Spring a cow had died, half in and half out of the shallow ditch. It was a Hereford, not common in their area of Guernseys, Holsteins, and the occasional Belted Galloway, and for some reason they never discovered, it wasn’t removed. They had passed the spot twice each day. After the third day, they automatically rolled the windows up a quarter mile before they reached the spot. They had watched as the carcass bloated, collapsed, went through its various stages of decay, and ended up a white, curving ribcage reaching up through the tall, spring grass. Eventually, the county crews had mowed around it, but they hadn’t collected it. Like everyone else, Dean and Gretchen had begun to call it Dead Cow Road, a name understood, accepted, and perpetuated by the local residents. Randall Road, once a name of some historical significance, existed only on the green signs and in the county plat book. “The way we watch that thing decay makes me understand the term ‘horrid fascination’,” Dean had said. “I’ll be glad when we don’t have to keep the windows up. I’ll be glad when that part’s over.” Dean had reached over and taken her hand this morning, wondering how many miles, how many hours they had spent on Dead Cow Road, holding hands or touching in some way as he drove. This morning, though, neither had spoken. Her hand had been uncharacteristically cold; his had seemed clammy. At the clinic they had separated him from Gretchen. He had been sent to do 53
paperwork and she had been taken back into that walled off area of the clinic that never sees sunshine. She had smiled over her shoulder at him, but she looked pale and nervous. Now, with the paperwork done, he paced the smallish, softly lit waiting area. At first, he had tried to read, alternating between the poems in The Atlantic and Yankee, an article on naturalizing in Country Living, and finally, a profile piece in Sports Illustrated. He’d given up trying to read when he realized that he either wasn’t reading or he wasn’t comprehending. So, he paced. As he did, he stopped at the wall decorations, studying each one without really seeing it, before going on to the next. Then, he found himself looking at a print, a watercolor of a creek that crossed a spring meadow, cutting its way through an uneven plain of long, new grass and almost disappearing into the darkness of the undercut stream banks as it committed its meanders. They had been there. Not that meadow and stream, but like it. Their meadow and stream. Spring. It had been a slow, deliberate spring that wasn’t in a rush to become summer. Only lately had any leaves other than lilacs broken bud. That Sunday was so warm that after the hard cold of winter it seemed almost hot. Nothing remained of the breeze, which had been light in the early morning, except an occasional wish. The sun had begun to ring humidity out of the earth and from his winter-locked pores. They’d gone wandering after Mass in his old, ugly Dodge, and found the stream. He knew it was there, of course, but it never had any particular attraction for him. Its attraction that day was to Gretchen, who had wanted to look for wildflowers in the meadow. “Let’s find some violets,” she’d said. “I think violets are a woods flower.” He didn’t know, though, and still protected his ignorance of every flower except the daisy. But, he had stopped the car. He left his jacket and tie in the car and she, her sweater. As they walked slowly across the meadow they held hands, an incongruous pair he thought, she at least four inches taller than he was when she wore her church heels, as she called them. “Gretchen,” he’d said, and she’d looked over at him, her smile coming out of every pore, it seemed. “I love you.” “I’ve known that since fall,” she said. Beyond that, she gave no sign that he’d just 54
laid his heart at her feet. She was silent and kept walking, her long legs moving in a sultry, slow swing. She stopped, then, and said, “I’m glad.” After another long pause she had said, “I love you, too, Dean” It wasn’t the first time they had kissed. He’d spent many hours kissing her and looking into her eyes, but he remembered kissing her awkwardly, standing in a wide, open meadow, his heart suddenly pounding, the sweat beginning to run freely down the middle of his back and in a tickling river in the valley between his chest muscles. * “Mr. Whitaker?” Dean looked away from the print, aware that the woman behind the desk had been speaking to him. “Mr. Whitaker, would you like a cup of coffee?” “No, thank you. It’s terrible, if you’ll forgive me being blunt.” “Mine isn’t,” she said. “We keep a pot in the office, here, and I make it. I use only filtered water and good coffee.” “Oh. Thank you, then. I thought you meant the vending machine stuff.” He didn’t want coffee, but holding the cup would be something else to think about. “Come through the door over there.” She pointed. “I’ll get you a cup. Do you take anything in it?” “Cream, please.” “It’s milk. Actually, skim milk.” “That’s okay. When I say cream it’s out of respect for other days.” “True. Do you trust me to add it, or do you want to?” “Go ahead.” Dean took his hands out of his pockets and went through the door. He stood, fidgeting, until she came out of a door down a short hallway. She wore a pleasant smile. She was as tall as Gretchen, but heavier, with the hint of a second chin. Her plain face was unlined, though, and her short, grey hair was brushed back, showing a smooth forehead and eyes that responded when she smiled at him. “I don’t believe in paper or Styrofoam,” she said, as she handed him a large pottery mug, a sort of creamy tan with gold-brown wheat shocks rendered on both sides. “Nice mug.” “I started out with china – fine china from my grandmother’s china cabinet – she 55
died thirty years ago – but we’re just too brutal here. Pottery is practically indestructible. That’s one of my favorites.” “I can see why. I’ll make sure to bring it back.” Dean turned toward the door, but stopped when she said, “Don’t go back out there.” He turned around again. “You can sit over there, Mr. Whitaker,” she said, pointing to a chair tucked in the kneehole of an unused desk. “Dean, please,” he said. He didn’t want to sit, but he did. “I usually drink tea. I don’t know much about coffee, except this smells good.” When he sniffed, the thin stream of vapor masked the sterile smell of the clinic. Why does clean and sterile always smell like illness and injury and death, he wondered. “I’m the one who makes it. I use good water and good coffee in a good coffee maker. Can’t miss.” She looked over at him. “I already told you that, didn’t I.” “That’s all right,” he said. They sat in silence, looking awkwardly at each other, each trying to smile. Occasionally they sipped from their cups, cautiously, as if the coffee was hotter than it really was. “Do you want to talk?” she said, after several minutes. “No.” He wanted to run. He wanted to go back through the waiting room, beyond the waiting room, beyond even the clinic and its parking lot, beyond the town. Home. He wanted to go home and find Gretchen there. He wanted to close the door on fear and pain. Instead, he lowered his eyes to his cup, sitting almost immobile, as he had learned to do over the past five days. “I do,” she said. Something in her voice made him look up. He saw first the nameplate on her desk, then her, Rebecca Benjamin, tall, plain, on the far side of middle age. Sturdy. Unlined face with blue eyes that were filling with unspent tears. “Seven years ago tonight my husband died.” He waited as her eyes overflowed. Annoyed, she brushed at the tears that slid down her cheeks. “Carl was a good man, a wonderful man, actually. A loving man. He loved me, I know.” She felt for her words, each sentence separated from the one before it and the one after it by long silences. “We’d finished dinner, and cleaned up the kitchen. We always do. Did. My friend Sylvia Meyers called just then, and I answered the phone. We were talking, we talk a lot, while Carl microwaved some popcorn. He went into the den to watch Monday night football. He always does. Did. He was a sports fanatic. He wasn’t any good at 56
any sport, really, not even bowling, but he loved sports. He was overweight and uncoordinated and he participated through his eyes. He understood the rhythm and the grace and the striving to be better. I could tell when he talked about it. It wasn’t scores and loyalties and macho living out fantasies. He just loved what he saw.” She stopped talking and pretended to drink her coffee. Dean stirred uneasily, writhing inwardly. “I didn’t see when he died. I heard the popcorn bowl hit the floor. It didn’t break, it rang like a bell. I turned around and saw the popcorn all over the carpet and Carl sprawled back like he was asleep, except I knew he wasn’t, and I could see him twitching. I said to Sylvia that something had happened to Carl, that I was going to hang up, and would she please call 911. My God, I was calm. I knew he was dead before I pulled him out of his chair and started CPR.” She stopped again, this time wiping at her eyes and her nose. Dean stared downward into his coffee cup. “I don’t think it was more than four minutes, or so when Dana Anderson, she lived down the street, showed up. She’s a paramedic with the fire department. She’d grown up with our children. Been in our house almost as much as she was in her own from the time she was about fourteen until she graduated high school. She was Karen’s best friend and, later on, she had a crush on our son, who was in college. Someone at the fire department had called her because they knew our address and they knew us as her second family. She took over until the rescue team came. They did what they could, but I knew it wouldn’t help. By then I knew.” She was staring at him as she talked, but she didn’t seem to see him anymore. When she began to cry, Dean put down his cup and stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders with firmness and, he hoped, tenderness. “Becky, would you...” One of the doors behind him had popped open, and he heard someone in the hall. “I’m sorry.” The door closed. “Oh, God,” she said. “Oh, God.” Dean wanted to lean down and wrap his arms around her. “They’d been working on him for, I guess ten minutes, maybe more, maybe less, and Dana looked up and said, “Becky, he’s dead. We just can’t do anything for him. He’s dead,” and she just hugged me, crying as hard as I was. And that was the end of him.” As she cried, Dean leaned over her chair and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, his face in her short hair. He rocked just slightly from side to side and made 57
low, comforting sounds until she stopped crying. She reached out and ripped a handful of tissues from the box on her desk, shook her head, and began swabbing at her eyes and face. “I didn’t know it could be so hard,” said Dean, as he sat in his chair, but he did. “I suppose you wonder why I went and told you all this,” she said. She took several deep, straining breaths and finished wiping at her face. “Well it’s an anniversary, and I needed to talk, I guess. I feel Carl’s loss deeply. I do all the time, but especially days like today.” “I’m truly sorry,” said Dean. He looked at her face, her eyes that were pinpricks of agony. “You know what she’s in there for.” “They’ve found a breast malignancy. I can usually tell from the tests they’ve scheduled.” “You’re telling me to be prepared to say good-bye, if I must.” “Not. I’m not.” Her eyes opened wide and seemed almost, to pull him in, shake him, and spit him out. “Do you think treating someone like they’re dying will help? Do you think saying good-bye all day, every day, will help? Not you. Not her.” Dean sat in silence, looking at this large, suddenly fierce woman, who stared back at him with a mixture of anger and agony. “What’s her name?” “Gretchen.” “Do you love her?” “As much as I know how.” “Then never say goodbye. I never got the chance to tell Carl goodbye, and for a while it bothered me, and then, it didn’t. It seemed to make sense. Carl didn’t know he was going to die, and I didn’t know, either. But he knew I loved him. He always knew that.” “Gretchen had her right breast removed almost sixteen years ago. We’d only been married three months when she found the lump and had the surgery. I was afraid I’d lose her when we’d just gotten to know each other. It’s been on my mind ever since, not a focused thought, mind you, but something that pops up at the oddest times and drops the stomach right out of me. I’ve never told her this, but I’ve spent some sleepless nights since then. Too many.” 58
“She must know. When Carl was alive and I had one of those toss-turn nights, he always knew. Sometimes he’d wake up, but other times he’d just sense it, and ask me about it in the morning.” “I don’t toss and turn. I get out of bed and pace around the inside of the house. Say prayers over and over again. It helps.” “I thought you’d wear out the waiting room.” She grinned at him, then wiped her eyes again. “Believe me, she knows when you get out of bed.” “Not Gretchen. She’s blessed with the ability to sleep like no one I’ve ever known.” As he spoke the words the intimate image they created gave him a sense of comfort and a sense of loss at the same time. “She drops off to sleep like a marble rolling off the table. She doesn’t wake up until it’s time to get up.” “I envy that. I struggle to sleep almost every night.” “If Gretchen dies I don’t know how I’ll ever sleep. Or eat.” He spoke the words with difficulty, feeling his throat closing and his eyes beginning to mist. “Eventually. Out of necessity. We all do.” “I suppose.” “Well I did. Look at me now.” Dean managed a smile. “You look fine. Your eyes are a little red.” “Just a little?” She almost laughed. “You know, I wasn’t trying to tell you anything. I know it helps some people if they talk about what’s happening to someone they love. When I thought about how you must feel I started thinking about Carl, and I felt like hell again, even after seven years.” Dean saw a slight tremble in her chin. “No, I’m all right.” “If that was Carl in there, or me, with him out here, I know what we’d do. We’d never say goodbye. We’d start the day with a hello, like it’s the first day, not the last. Always like it’s the first day.” Dean didn’t answer. “From what I’ve seen of the people who come in here, the ones that choose that way, their life seems fuller and the end of it seems quicker and more graceful, if you know what I mean. There’s no lingering in some slow decline with everyone struggling for enough conscious time to find the words they couldn’t find when they were whole.” He looked up toward the ceiling, seeing only a swimming blur because his eyes had filled. There was a tightness in his chest that made each shallow breath an effort. 59
He stood up, then, clenching and unclenching his hands. “I’m afraid,” he whispered, as he heard the clicking of low heels on the tile floor of the long hallway and recognized Gretchen’s footfalls. He passed both hands across his eyes and wiped them on his pants. “Thanks for the coffee,” he said. “It really was good.” Rebecca Benjamin smiled. “I wish you both the best. Remember what I said.” “I can’t do this,” was all he said before Gretchen reached the little office area. To her, he said, “All through?” and forced a smile. “For now. The results won’t all be in ‘til late tomorrow. We meet with the oncologist on Thursday, and he’ll tell us about the course of treatment he thinks is best. We’ll talk prognosis then, too.” She was pale, tense, as she struggled with her coat. Dean grabbed her hand almost before she could put her arm through the sleeve. At the doubled glass doors that led from the clinic they started through together, one on each side of the center post. At the last instant, Dean sidestepped the post and went through with Gretchen. Outside, they stood in the sudden sunshine that follows the breakup of a storm system. Dean took deep breaths and looked at the sky. “Are you all right, Dean?” Gretchen was frowning at him. “Yes.” “Then what was that all about?” She raised her arm and hand, the hand that Dean still held. “I thought one of us was going to lose an arm in that doorway.” “I don’t know. I just found I couldn’t let go.” He looked at her, a smile spreading across his face. “You might have to learn how,” she said. “Not today. Not now.” He looked around at the sharp sunlight and the deep blue October sky. “Let’s drive up through Franconia Notch. See how many leaves the storm left on the trees.” “It’s turned into a nice enough day, but that’s over sixty miles.” “Further, if we wind around through North Conway. Maybe take a room, if they have one.” “They should. The season’s over.” She tilted her head to the side, the beginning of a smile forming. “Then let’s do it. We can go home tomorrow afternoon.” Dean dropped her hand and held out his arm. As she took it he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as the 60
Spencer Tracy type. If I had a hat, I’d tip it back right now.” “I suppose I’m the Katherine Hepburn type.” “Only beautiful,” he said, as he helped her into the car.
The bus has wheezed away from the crossroads and disappeared where the narrow highway turns the hill. Hallie stands away from Darold, who leans in affected laziness against the green Dodge truck that used to be mine. He has dumped my duffel in the back. “Y’all gonna get in, or what?” His smile raises the small hairs on the back of my neck. “Or what,” she says, not looking at him. “Go on home. We’ll walk.” She stares at me until the noise of the truck is gone, and the red dust settled before she says, “I thought being in the desert, you’d be browner.” Hallie’s the same as I remember, pale hair, fair skin, thin. Thin arms slightly corded now from growing up. Carrying. Her eyes are different, narrowed, thin lines at the corners, still fierce blue. She stares at me like God does when he counts my sins. “Sun’s burnin’ hot. You wear long sleeves and a hard hat. Most the time, gloves.” I want to move closer, but I can’t. I want to run. Can’t do that, either. I won’t look at her anymore, those eyes, so I look at my hands. Whole, in spite of the spinning chains that laid claim to fingers and thumbs, and late one afternoon, the silent Arab’s arm. They are clean, but not quite, with crude, black and stubborn around the nails and in the deep creases. “Why’d you go?” “For this.” I look up and pat my pocket. “They can’t tax this, so I made as much in eighteen months as I’d make in three years, if I had a good job.” She just keeps looking at me, squinting against the sun. “As much as I’d clear in five, more’n I’d save in twenty.” She says nothing. “I sign up and go back to Saudi for another eighteen, it’ll be more than this.” I pat again. “Another year and a half,” she says. Her eyes never leave me. “If I want.” 62
She comes to my side of the road the way she walks when she’s mad. “It wasn’t me that went alone up to that secret place of yours. It wasn’t me that planted the seed alone.” “I know it. . .” . . . the memory I’ve called up more than half a thousand desert nights, until it’s dog-eared and creased like a doctor’s office magazine. Warm. Familiar. Fuzzy with then, not sharp with now. Half faded moon, thick Georgia air pulling me down like she did, tangling me in her limbs and lank hair. Rough wool of the old khaki blanket on the smooth, packed earth, the pounding of her heart. I can smell the river below the rocks, smell her skin, somehow like roses, hear night birds and crickets. Hear her whisper, over and over, “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. . .” “She’s Hannah,” she says, like music, and I look up. The hardness is gone from her eyes. “Take her so’s she knows you,” she says and Hannah is there in my stained hands. Hannah looks up at me a moment, then smiles around her first tooth. The smile runs and drips on the stiff new blue of my shirt. I hold her, though I don’t know how to, exactly. I shift her so her head lays against my shoulder and neck. She burrows in, sighs, sleeps suddenly. I smell purple lilacs in her red-gold hair, and her mother’s breast, and soured milk. Poop. “Let’s go home.” She starts down the road. “Where’s home?” I follow. “The Jefferson place,” she says. “Daddy had Darold fix it up.” “Needed it,” I say, remembering neglect and overgrowth. “It’s all right. We’ll live there until I finish school.” “School?” “Nursing,” she says, and walks on. “Pediatrics or geriatrics.” Proud of her words. She walks ahead of me, red dust rising around her feet. I see her loose jeans hanging on her hips, the grey of her tank top beginning to darken at the small of her back. I feel the sweet heat of Hannah, my Hannah, against my chest. Sweat collects and rivers down my backbone. “The beginning or the end,” I say. “Like so many things,” she says, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t have to choose yet.” 63
“Wait up,” I say. “Can I walk with you?” She stops while I catch up. After a while she puts her hand on my free arm. “If I go back at the end of the month. . .” She lets go, moves a little ways away. “. . . when I come home we can buy any place in the county. Or Atlanta. Or Mobile or Memphis. Wherever you want to live.” “The Jefferson place,” she says. “Until I finish school.” “Why’d we walk?” I take my cap off and settle it on my baby’s head, the bill shading her round face. “They’ll all be there, your mama, my folks. My folks don’t like you much.” “Never did.” “They think you ran away.” “Never did.” “First to school, then off.” “I didn’t know. You didn’t write even once. I wrote you a lot.” “At the beginning,” she says. “Then not much. Is that cap clean?” “It’s new,” I say. “I didn’t think you cared.” “You weren’t here,” she says. When she looks up at me her eyes are watering from the sun or she is crying, I can’t tell. Don’t want to know. “I have to provide the best way I know,” I say. “Sometimes. . .” She stops talking, wipes at her eyes and nose. “Sometimes you have to choose what you provide.” We are mostly silent the rest of the way to the Jefferson place. She pushes the gate open for me. Checks the mailbox with her name on it. “We’re home, baby,” she says, shifting the sleeping baby to her shoulder. She walks away from me, up the steps, across the small porch, and goes inside.
When the door opened Sheriff Sherman Wilson was completing his every morning ritual. He had entered the office before six, and had hung his crisp Smokey the Bear hat on the coat rack in his small office. He had checked the night log, which was, as usual, blank except for the Sarah Miller affair, and talked over the passing of the night with Vernon Hampton, the tall, ramrod straight, black chief deputy that reined over the duties through the night. He split the day equally with Vernon, starting at six and ending at six, and seldom taking a weekend day off. Both frequently had to fight the tedium and the weariness that came with the long hours. As usual, he had arched his back and stretched. He had scratched his stomach, which was still flat muscled in spite of the comforting mid-forties fat that was layered over it. He had rolled his shoulders to shake away the stiffness that was always there after his too short nights. His last act of morning ritual was always to draw his first cup of coffee of the day, the only fresh brew he ever got. Vernon made coffee every morning at five-thirty, and was good at it. Jerry, the day deputy or Sherman himself made it the rest of the day. It ranged between pissy bath water and swamp bottom, he’d once told Vernon, without ever passing through good. That first cup of coffee had become the signal that Sherman had resumed official command of the sheriff’s office and that Vernon could head for home. When the door opened and the two men came in Sherman was in the doorway to his office, cup in hand, on his way to the coffee pot. First through the door was a medium sized man, shabby in a soiled, too large suit. He entered head down, shoulders stooped as if he was eternally weary, and walked slowly and reluctantly to the desk where Vernon sat facing the door. Behind him was Tom Gardener, a large man in a blue work shirt and loose overalls. His huge hands pushed the smaller man gently forward whenever the man hesitated. “Found him in my house last night,” said the big man.
“Sit there,” said Vernon, and pointed to the chair next to the desk. The shabby man sat down. The big man remained standing. “What was he doing, Tom?” “Putting food in a feed sack. My wife was at prayer meeting, and I was in the barn. I guess he thought no one was home.” “What time did you find him?” Vernon was making notes on a green arrest pad. “I dunno exactly. Just before dark, when I came in. He hadn’t turned on any lights, and when I turned on the kitchen light he was just standing there. Big as I am, he gave me quite a turn, I’ll tell you.” “Did he try to run or threaten you in any way?” “Nope. Just stood there, kinda blinkin’ at me, like I’d put a light on a’ owl.” The big man shifted back and forth as he talked, sometimes thrusting his hands in his pockets, then pulling them out and grabbing at the straps on his overalls. “When I settled down some I asked him what he was doing there, in my house, but he didn’t say nothing, just stood there.” “Then what?” “I sat him in a chair while I put the food away.” “Put the food away?” “I didn’t want Marie to come home and find that sack a’ food and start asking questions.” “Why didn’t you call us, or bring him in here last night?” “Once I had a good look at him he didn’t seem all that threatening, if you know what I mean. I had to come to town anyway today, to go to the hardware, and I figured I’d save you a trip and me a trip.” “Hardware isn’t open until seven-thirty. You’re early.” “I hadn’t told Marie anything about him until this morning at breakfast. I never told her he’d been in the house, just that he was prowling around the place, but it still made her nervous, having him there.” “Where’d you keep him?” “In the old root cellar, with the door wedged shut. He wasn’t going anywhere.” “Did you rough him up in any way?” “Nope. Just kinda took him by the collar and led him to the root cellar. He behaved like he did when I walked him in here.” 66
Vernon looked over at the man in the chair. “Do you speak English?” “I was taking his food,” the man said, raising his head. “Just a minute. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you...” Vernon spoke the rights from memory, each word clear and precise. “Do you understand these rights, and do you want a lawyer present when we talk to you?” “I don’t want a lawyer. I was taking his food.” As he spoke the man sat straighter, as if the admission of guilt restored some sense of dignity. “Very well,” said Vernon. He placed an arrest report form into the typewriter. “Name, please.” “Sharp. Aaron Sharp.” “Middle initial?” “Edward. E.” “Present address?” “No address. Just passing through.” “Where are you from?” “Peoria.” “Peoria where?” “Peoria, Illinois.” “Got an address there?” “Not any more.” “Where are you headed?” “I don’t know. Columbia, Greenville, Charleston, maybe.” “Have a suitcase somewhere?” “Somewhere, I guess.” The man almost smiled. “It was stolen.” “When and where?” “Atlanta. In the bus station. It seems like a long time ago.” “Empty your pockets, Mr. Sharp.” There was a brown leather wallet that appeared to be of good quality, some small change, a key ring, a watch with a broken band, a much used handkerchief, and a gold wedding band that was worn thin. Vernon inventoried all of it on a sheet that Sharp signed, and placed everything into a large manila envelope. 67
“I’ll put him away, Vernon. You can go on home. It’s been a tough night.” “That it has,” said Vernon. He rose from his chair, placed his hands on his hips and arched his back. “Let’s hope I don’t see you tonight.” “Come with me, Sharp.” Sherman led the way back into the block of eight cells, all empty except one, where a short appearing, bulky man with matted grey hair lay in a deep sleep that seemed to border on a stupor. “Last cell on the right. Go on in, and take off your coat and your belt.” “My belt?” Sharp’s hands went to his waist, where the belt, with new holes poked into it, held up pants that were gathered at the waist. “Your belt, yes.” Sherman looked at the belt. “It looks like you’ve lost some weight.” “About sixty pounds since I left home. I used to be fat.” “When did you leave home?” “Just after Christmas. Not even New Years when I left.” “What is, or was, home?” “A two story colonial, with a wife, a kid in college, and another about to graduate from high school and go to college.” “That’s a lot to leave,” said Sherman. “All responsibility. Nothing else.” Aaron Sharp stood silently, and tears formed in the corner of his eyes. “Nothing else. Three other people with their directions chosen, eyes fixed on the horizon. Nobody looked back to see where they came from, or who made it happen. Nobody looked at me. No love. Sometimes, not even ‘Hello’.” “I’ve heard that before. I know a little about that, myself,” said Sherman. “What happened after you left home?” “I left with a girlfriend. Someone I’d known for years. Does that surprise you?” “No.” “I think I’d been planning running away for years, you know? I left with a pocket full of money I’d put away in little bits. I never took anything away from my family, you know?” Sherman just stood and listened, something he’d learned usually produced more information than all the questioning he ever did. “Alicia, what a name, I called her Al, left with me, dressed fit to kill, in clothes I’d bought her. We went to West Palm Beach, not some place I’d ever thought about, and stayed about six weeks. Then, I 68
thought maybe I’d need a job, and we left for Atlanta. We were there for a long time, it seems now. I didn’t find a job, and I awoke one morning and Alicia and everything I had, except for my clothes, was gone. Does that surprise you?” “Yes. What happened to the rest of your clothes, your suitcase?” said Sherman. “I was in the bus station at Atlanta, just before I left there. I had my suitcase with me, and I turned my back while I was buying a book. And my suitcase was gone.” “Happens all the time.” “Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Any part of this.” Sharp stood in the middle of the cell, looking at Sherman. “I’ve been wearing the same suit since then. The same underwear. I bought another pair of socks, but I lost the old ones somewhere.” “And now you’re here.” “I want to go home.” “Do you know where home is?” said Sherman. “Yes,” said Sharp. Then, “No. I know where I want it to be. If I ever get there, I’ll have to apologize, see if I can put things right.” “It seems that they have some things to put right, too, if it’s to work. It doesn’t sound as if your family was the only ones wronged.” Before Sharp could answer, Sherman said, “Let’s see your shoelaces.” Sharp raised his pantlegs, showing scuffed shoes that once were good but now were scuffed and covered with dirt. The shoelaces were knotted and short. “Keep the shoelaces.” Sherman took Sharp’s coat, noting that the label said high quality. “Nobody gets to hang themselves in my jail. People can do it with their belt or sometimes with their shoelaces. Your shoelaces aren’t worth a damn, though.” Sherman glanced through the cell. “The stool’s in the corner over there, and so’s the basin. I’ll get you a cup. You have to use paper towels when you dry your hands or wash up. There doesn’t seem to be many left, so we’ll bring you some more, by and by. Do you want some coffee?” “No, thanks.” “I’ll get you a cup anyway, so you have something to drink out of, and some more paper towels in a few minutes.” “How long will I be in here?”
“That depends,” said Sherman. And the answer seemed to satisfy Sharp. He stood in the middle of the cell for a moment as one unfamiliar with his surroundings. Finally, he tested the bunk with his hands, brushed it once, sat, slipped off his shoes, and laid down. His eyelids fluttered once or twice, and he was asleep. Sherman glanced back, looked only briefly at the other prisoner, and returned to the office. “What do you want done with him, Tom?” said Sherman, as he poured his first cup of coffee. “If you find out there’s no harm to him, I won’t press charges. He wasn’t taking anything except food. He looks like he hasn’t had much of that lately. I’d appreciate it if you’d give him a ride out of the county, though, in the general direction of Columbia or Greenville.” “First thing I’ll do is run his name through Peoria and Atlanta police departments, see if they have any record of him.” Sherman sipped his coffee, surprised at how bitter it had become in the short time he had left it on the warmer. “Might send his fingerprints to Washington, but right now, I’m inclined to agree with you. Doesn’t seem like he’s a threat to anyone, but I know how looks can be deceiving. Whatever I do, I’ll let you know before I do it.” The sheriff stood up and stuck out his hand. “Nice to see you again, Tom. If I wasn’t going to be so busy today, I’d have you sit around here and drink coffee with me.” “Lotta work?” Tom took the offered hand. “I’m afraid so. Harris Miller’s oldest was killed out near their place at the edge of town last night.” “Sarah Miller? That’s terrible. You don’t think Sharp could have had anything to do with it, do you?” “Not a chance. He was locked in your root cellar when it took place. Besides, I know who did it, how it happened, and how it should be handled. I’m sure that some folks around here won’t approve, but I have to do what I think is right.” Sherman wiped his hand over his eyes. “I’m tired. I didn’t get but about three hours of my beauty sleep last night.” “Thanks for your time, Sherman. If I knew the Millers better, I’d stop over and offer my sympathy.” Sherman walked Tom Gardener to the door. “I don’t think I’ll wait around for the hardware store to open. I’m going on home.” 70
“It’s best that way. Millers aren’t talking to anyone right now, except family. This kind of thing is hard to understand. I’ll call at your place when I find out about Sharp. Give my regards to Marie.” He watched as Tom Gardener climbed into the green Chevy pickup that was angle parked in front of the office. Sherman had to grin. The truck was a classic of sorts, an uncommon one-ton that burned almost as much oil as it did gasoline. It was more than forty years old, and sounded like it as Gardener started it and drove down the street. Shift change was at seven, the two night patrol officers going off duty, and six coming on duty. Sherman assembled both squads, which was an uncommon occurrence. “For the benefit of those of you that are just coming in and haven’t heard, Sarah Miller, Harris Miller’s daughter, was killed last night about nine-thirty. It’s a solved case. We’ve got the perpetrator.” Sherman looked over his men. “What we’ll be doing over the next day or two is to transfer the perp to State jurisdiction and the State Hospital. It won’t be popular with some folks, but it’s the right way to handle this. What I’m instructing is this. Simply this. No one talks about any details. None. Whatever anyone wants to know, they have to ask me. I’ll handle all questions. Your response to questions is ‘Ask the Sheriff’. I’ll be available to answer questions.” “Yeah,” said Robert Bell, one of the night patrol. “And everyone knows you won’t discuss any case before trial, or after. How is that going to get any of the heat off us?” The deputies chuckled. “Following my good example, that’s how. Seriously, if we maintain our practice of silence about things like this, sooner or later, when we say ‘No comment’ people will know that they aren’t going to provoke or wheedle information out of us.” He looked at each deputy individually, establishing eye contact with each one before looking at the next. “Remember, it’s we who investigate, we who assemble the case. We are the ones who gather information. We don’t give it out. Let’s get on home or get out there and go to work. It’s business as usual.” At eight, when Jerry Pickett, the only desk deputy came on duty, Sherman repeated his instructions, reviewed the night’s activities, and handed out several assignments, then went into his office to start his inquiries about Aaron Sharp. At eleven-thirty, Sherman went back into the cell area to check his two prisoners. Both 71
were sleeping, Sharp soundly and quietly. The other slept restlessly, his clothing soaked in sweat even in the cool of the air conditioned cells His sleep was punctuated by sudden twitches and unintelligible noises, and sometimes, his eyes would open or almost open and dart wildly about his cell, then close again. Sherman shook his head. “We ought to feed the prisoner,” Sherman said to Jerry, when he returned to the office area. “And get your feet off the desk.” “Weeks, too?” Jerry swung his feet to the floor and leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. “Not Weeks. He’s got the DTs and anything would be wasted on him. Do you have your lunch?” “I’ve got my lunch, but I’ll go to the cafe.” “I’ll go myself,” said Sherman. “I haven’t had breakfast, don’t have lunch, and your coffee has given me another bellyache. I ought to get something for my stomach.” “You ought to get married again, Sherm,” Jerry grinned at him. “You aren’t taking very good care of yourself.” “And trade a bellyache for a headache. The bellyache goes away if I take something for it.” At the door he turned back to Jerry. “Remember, if anyone wants information, it comes from me. And no one goes back into the cells. I’ll be back in forty-five minutes, if anyone needs me.” He closed the door and walked down the street toward the cafe. The midday sun was almost blinding, and he wished for his sunglasses, even though he hated to wear them. The July heat was brutal after the cavelike coolness of the office, where the blinds were always closed in summer. As he walked the two blocks to the cafe, his eyes adjusted gradually. The beating heat seemed to mellow slightly, until he could almost convince himself that it was a nice day. As Sherman entered the cafe the aging air conditioner that filled the transom above the door dripped on him, then rumbled and blew icy air on his back as he closed the door. After the brilliant sun it seemed almost dark in the cafe. Green tinted windows blocked the sunlight, and grease darkened tan walls soaked up the humming florescent light as fast as it was produced. In a booth at the back of the cafe, two men wearing their uniform of stained Lee Riders and short sleeved shirts fresh out of the laundry bag, with the sleeves rolled up to 72
the shoulder watched him as he walked down the length of the counter. One of the two ran a hand through congealed hair. As he passed near the booth Sherman could see thick dirt under the fingernails and wondered if they were that dirty before they were pushed through the hair. They talked low across the table, and kept their eyes on him. Jeanine, the waitress-cook, arms folded beneath her breasts, stood against the wall at the end of the counter, shoulders hunched as if she was cold. Her eyes were wide, watching Sherman. No smile today, he noted. Sherman took a stool at the counter next to the lighted glass rack filled with wedges of pie. He was far enough from the door that the air conditioner wasn’t dumping winter on his wet body. “Four hamburgers, please,” he said. “Where is everybody, Jeanine?” “You’re early,” Jeanine said. “The place doesn’t fill up ‘til noon, or so. What do you want on ‘em?” “Everything.” “Are these for you and Jerry? Jerry likes his with just ketchup,” she said. “I should remember that,” he said. “Make two with just ketchup, then.” He watched her lay four meat patties on the grill. “Jeanine,” he said, and when she spun around and looked at him with frightened eyes, he asked, “do you have anything for my stomach? I’ve had too much bad coffee today.” “Just Rolaids or a Bromo, I guess.” “I’ll take some Rolaids.” When Jeanine brought the tube of Rolaids from the case under the cash register, Sherman handed her a ten. “I’ll pay for the hamburgers now, too.” “Need a receipt?” “No, but thanks for thinking of me,” he said. As Jeanine turned back to the grill Sherman heard one of the men start across the room from the booth. He didn’t look up as the man took the stool next to him. “Is it true someone killed the Miller girl last night?” “It looks that way,” Sherman said. “Who done it?” “We’re investigating,” Sherman said.
The man sat silently, sucking deeply on a cigarette. He blew smoke insolently past Sherman’s face, then leaned across to stub the cigarette in the ashtray. “Think you’ll catch somebody?” he said. “I think so.” “I heard your deputies ain’t even out looking or asking questions. Just driving around like usual.” “That’s how they do their jobs,” Sherman said. “I don’t think you’ll catch him.” “If I don’t, election is coming up next year and you shouldn’t vote for me. Vote for someone else. If you know how to make an X.” “If you catch someone, you’ll just have to let him go again, most likely.” the man in the booth called across the room. “Why’s that?” “The Supreme Court looks kindly on rapists and murderers, don’t it?” said the man in the booth. “I wasn’t aware of that,” said Sherman. “Besides, I don’t think the Supreme Court will have much to say about this.” The man on the stool leaned closer until Sherman was conscious of the rank, acrid smell of his unwashed body. He could feel the rotten breath on his cheek. Rotten from diet, from rotting teeth, and from a rotting soul, Sherman thought. “The sonuvabitch raped her and then he killed her. That’s what happened, and he’s gonna get away with it,” the man on the stool said. Sherman pivoted on his stool so quickly that the man on the adjoining stool jerked backward. Sherman stared hard at the pale face and red eyes over pouchy, dark, half moons. “Who said anything about rape, Cooper?” Sherman let the question hang in the air for perhaps ten seconds. “Where are you getting your information? Do you two know something about this killing?” He pivoted his stool toward the booth. “What about you, Rasmussen? Do you know something I should know?” For several moments there was only the sound of the old air conditioner and the sound of meat frying on the grill.
“Nothing,” said the man on the stool as he jumped up and backed toward the door. “I don’t know nothing,” said the man from the booth, as he loped with long, loose-jointed strides toward the man from the stool. “Then you two jackasses let me do the investigating and the worrying about the Supreme Court. That’s my job. You keep your big mouths out of it, or you’re on your way to my office to tell me exactly what you do know.” The man from the stool reached the door first and jerked it open, stumbling as he went out into the brightness. His companion, equally blinded, bolted through the door, collided with him and sent him sprawling. As the door closed, Sherman saw the man from the stool pick himself up and start down the street in the direction of the Railhead Tavern. “Goddamn pair of jackasses,” said Sherman. He slapped his palm on the counter. “Goddamn stinking pair of jackasses. They spend half of the day down at the tavern and the other half trying to get well. Neither one of those ignorant bastards will hold another job until their unemployment runs out.” “They didn’t pay for their breakfast,” said Jeanine. She was backed across the aisle way behind the counter, arms crossed again, watching him with wide eyes. “My men are on duty,” said Sherman. “I’ll have those jackasses back in here to pay for their breakfasts thirty minutes after I get back to the office. They’ll leave a good tip, too. Mind those burgers, now. Damn things will be like leather.” Jeanine turned around and checked the patties and glanced back. “They’re fine.” While she stacked the patties on the buns and started adding things Sherman peeled down the Rolaids wrapper and chewed two. The way his stomach felt, he began to wonder about an ulcer. “Sheriff?” Jeanine said. “I put everything on all of them. I’m sorry. I’ll do them over.” “That’s all right, Jeanine. I’ll take ‘em that way. Wrap ‘em up.” He stood up and pocketed two dollars from the three-something change from his ten. “I’ll tell Jerry that it’s my fault. I ordered ‘em that way. I’ll tell him to eat ‘em that way.” “And he better, too.” Jeanine smiled at him as she handed him the bag.
“Thank you, Jeanine. Give my regards to your folks.” Sherman reentered the stifling summer heat, glancing at his watch. He wanted Cooper and Rasmussen paying for their breakfast in no more than a half hour. When Sherman reached the office Jerry was cleaning the sandwich papers off the desk. The faint odor of tuna fish, mayonnaise, and onions hung in the stillness. He dropped the bag on the desk and headed for the radio. “Feed Sharp, Jerry. Give him two burgers and some coffee. Make sure he’s got toilet paper, paper towels, soap and something to read, if he wants it.” In less than two more minutes, Sherman had dispatched a car to the Railhead Tavern, with several suggestions about where to look for the two men. He washed his hands, picked up his hamburgers and sat down in his office. They were done perfectly, and they were still warm. “Thank you, Jeanine,” he said. Jerry took the hamburgers, a cup of thick, steaming coffee, toilet paper, soap, and paper towels on a wooden tray back to the last cell. Sharp was still asleep, snoring softly. “Wake up, Sharp,” said Jerry. He pushed the cell door open. “Here’s some chow.” Sharp roused, sat up stiffly, and rubbed his face with both hands. When he looked up at Jerry his eyes were clear, like those of a child that has just been awakened. He took the tray and set it on the bunk next to him. “Watch the cup, Sharp. It’s metal, and the coffee is plenty hot. Do you want something to read?” “Thank you, no. I’ll sleep.” “Do you smoke?” Jerry offered his cigarettes. “No, not anymore.” Jerry watched, as Sharp washed his hands and face and dried on the paper towels. He sat down on the bunk for several seconds, head bowed, then crossed himself and picked up a hamburger. “I don’t know what they’ve got on them.” “It doesn’t matter. Right now, I’d eat shoes.” Sharp smiled. As Jerry came back between the cells he stopped and watched Weeks. Weeks was asleep, but his sleep was punctuated by groans and small noises and violent jerks of the body that almost returned him to consciousness. Heavy sweat poured from his grey face 76
and soaked his clothes. There was a small pool of yellow vomit on the bunk next to Week’s head, and more on the floor. The smell of him and the smell of the vomit reached across the cell and made Jerry grimace. “Shoulda strangled on it, you sick, stinking, son-of-a-bitch,” he said under his breath. He looked down the row of cells at Sharp, who had stopped eating and was watching him. Jerry turned away and left the cells. “How’s Sharp?” Sherman was at his desk with a half finished hamburger in one hand while he worked his way through a stack of papers. “Sharp’s awake and eating,” said Jerry, “but Weeks has been sick on his bed and on the floor.” “Clean it up, and if you can get him up, put a clean blanket on the bed. If you can’t, then clean up the bed as best you can.” “I just ate, Sherm.” “And I’m eating.” “Why don’t we just leave him in it? It’s what he deserves,” said Jerry. “I don’t know what he deserves,” said Sherman. He sat there looking at his deputy, realizing that he no longer thought in terms of justice, crime and punishment. He had learned in his first years that weighing justice wasn’t his job, only law and order. Sherman upheld the law, maintained order. “I don’t even know how you judge what someone deserves, but in my jail no one lays in vomit.” “Why do I have to do it?” “Because there’s only two people in here besides the prisoners. You and me.” Jerry stood in front of the desk, arms folded, and a blank look on his face, his posture and countenance familiar to Sherman, who saw it every time he assigned Jerry unpleasant or unwelcome duty. “I’m the sheriff. You’re the deputy, and if you want to stay the deputy, then you clean him up. When that’s done, you can do this report over again. I’ve told you before to keep your damn feet off the desk. You’ve got shoe polish on it.” *
In the late afternoon, before Jerry finished his daily tour of duty, and after the day shift had been replaced by the evening shift, Sherman walked down the hill again to the cafe. The sun had eased lower in the hazy sky, dropping nearer the top of high green hills, and seemed pleasant rather than brutal. Even though the cool air flowed down from the hills, the heat trapped in the pavement, the buildings, and the sidewalks kept the town hot and stifling. The afternoon waiter-cook behind the counter was one of the few people that had come into the small town in the hills and elected to stay. Sherman glanced at the dozen or so early customers that were lodged in the dimness in the booths opposite the long counter. His lunch time adversaries were not among them. “Two burgers, with everything,” he said. “Make ‘em to go, please.” “Workin’ late, Sheriff?” “Looks like it.” The cook-waiter neither responded nor acknowledged as Sherman sat down on the same stool that he’d taken that morning. Deliberately, he kept his back turned to the other customers. He sensed curious stares and unvoiced questions, and answered them all with a stiff back and a silent comment, “None of your damn business.” He waited with practiced patience until the sandwiches were ready. * “Sherm, you better have a look at Weeks,” said Jerry, when Sherman came into the office. “He looks damn sick to me.” “Let’s feed Sharp and have a look at Weeks,” said Sherman. “Get Sharp some coffee or a soda if he’d rather. Have you brought him anything to read?” “No.” “Dig out some magazines and bring them along. I’ll look at Weeks.” As Jerry brought Sharp his sandwiches, coffee, and magazines, Sherman watched Weeks from the doorway before he entered the cell. What he saw was an older man, past sixty, who was jerking and trembling without control, sweating to the point that his clothing was soaked and his hair matted. The fresh blanket on the bunk was spotted with vomit and showed several large areas of wetness. When Sherman entered the cell, 78
Weeks bolted from the bunk, swinging wildly and shouting words that had no form or meaning. Sherman stepped under the swinging arms and grabbed Weeks around the body and held him against the wall of the cell. “Goddammmit, Jerry, call Doctor Walker’s office. Tell him we got someone with the DTs. We need someone over here, pronto.” Sherman held Weeks tightly from the back. He was surprised that someone who felt so weak and frail should continue to struggle so desperately without tiring. Weeks’ breath began to come in gasps even though his struggles didn’t lessen. Sherman held tight, his head buried in Weeks’ reeking back until, finally, the strength that shouldn’t have been there, and the endurance that was impossible began to flag. “Get another blanket, Jerry.” When the new blanket had replaced the soiled one on the bunk, Sherman eased the old man down. Sherman saw Week’s yellowed eyes and slack skin. It didn’t seem to matter that he talked to Weeks. No matter what he said, Weeks didn’t or couldn’t register any recognition that anyone was talking to him. When, at last the doctor came, looked at Weeks and injected some drug whose name Sherman didn’t know and then left the jail, Sherman covered the shivering old man with another blanket. “Shit,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit! This is just a goddamn waste, all around. Just a goddamn waste. Just a waste. It seems like I’ve been dealing with this kind of shit all of my adult life and I’m so goddamn tired of it. Sometimes I feel like the best thing I could do for myself is to quit this goddamn job and go to work in some hardware store. Find another woman who’d marry me. Hell, she’d end up hating me because all I made was what the hardware store paid me, just like Carolyn hated me for spending all my time in this goddamn office, or another one. Seems like all the humanity I come in contact with is either dead or diseased. I don’t think I can stand it anymore.” Sherman’s voice ran down, even as Weeks had finally run out of energy. He tucked the edges of the blanket in, like a mother covering a sick child, and left the cell. “What do you waste your time on him for?” Jerry turned on him as soon as they were through the door. “You talk about a waste in there, spending time on him is a waste. He’s been in and outta here for years, every time except this time for being drunk. He ain’t never been worth a shit in all the time I’ve known him.”
“What do I waste my time on him for?” Sherman pushed by Jerry. “What do I waste my time on you for? What are you worth? Why do I waste my time, if that’s what I do, on anyone?” “What do you mean by that, Sherm?” “Never mind, Jerry. Just ... never mind. Get out of here. You’re shift’s been over for almost an hour.” Sherman sat down at the day desk and looked into his empty coffee cup. “Thanks for helping me. Now, get out of here and go home. And remember, you aren’t to talk to anyone about anything in this office, not to anyone. At this point I’m too tired to talk to anyone or argue. Go on home.” When Jerry had gone, Sherman poured a cup of coffee that turned out to be scorched and bitter. He sat at the day desk fiddling with the cup until Vernon arrived to take command for the night shift. “Looks like it’s been a lousy day, Sherm.” said Vernon, when he came in the door. “I’ve had better. All of us have had better.” Sherman walked into the small bathroom and dumped the sludge from his coffee into the sink and rinsed his cup. “For God’s sake make some decent coffee and show me how you do it,” Sherman said. “I’m tired of drinking something that ought to be used to fix the parking lot.” Vernon gave Sherman a quick grin and started on the coffee. Even before Vernon had rinsed the pot and started measuring, Sherman began to describe the day in detail. Somewhere between the time that Vernon began making the coffee and the time Sherman had finished his first cup, he realized that he had paid no attention to how Vernon had made the coffee. He liked coffee, it was a corrosive staple in his diet, but he would never make good coffee except by accident. “Have another cup,” said Vernon. “If you want good coffee, the trick is to make it and then drink it right away. If you wait and it’s on a warmer, it scorches and gets acidy, and if it isn’t, it gets cold.” “Sometimes I think there isn’t an open mind in the whole damn county,” said Sherman, “except for you and me. That pair in the cafe hadn’t the slightest idea about what had happened, but they were ready to believe, in fact, did believe, that Sarah Miller had been raped and murdered instead of being struck down by an old alcoholic that didn’t have the least touch with reality.” “Do you think they would have listened if you had told them?” 80
“It’s not likely. There are some people who have a picture in their minds about almost anything, and you can’t change it.” “Why’s that?” said Vernon. “What you said. They don’t listen,” said Sherman. “There seems to be something going on in their minds that just shuts everything else out. You can’t reach them. There are other people who want to believe certain things, and will not listen. Don’t want to listen. Refuse to listen, because, if they do, they can’t justify whatever it is they want to do. “Do you ever hear the news or read the newspapers and think that there are people out there who are just looking for an excuse to use the law to justify some act of violence? I do. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m not sure how to deal with it. It’s like some people have to do something violent to get even, or to get ahead of something.” Sherman rubbed his hand through his cropped hair several times. “I used to think that if someone got rear ended and punched someone out, it was a natural reaction. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking it might be that, but more than likely, it’s either someone who has built up anger over a period of time, or someone who is sick and looking for an excuse to use violence. I think Rasmussen and Cooper are sickos.” “Maybe you just don’t like ‘em.” “Liking has nothing to do with it. I never liked Rasmussen or his pa, either, when he was alive, and I’ve never been given a reason to like Cooper. They aren’t what you would call good citizens, but that doesn’t mean anything. I don’t borrow trouble. Someone breaks the law or they don’t. I don’t have time to imagine grudges, or promote them.” “What I like,” said Vernon, “is that you ran ‘em out of the cafe, and then had John Peek round them up at the Railhead and go back and pay their lunch check. Now that’s justice ala salt-in-the-wound. Some people deserve that.” “Felt good.” “It must have. Now, why don’t you finish your coffee and go home for awhile?” “I’ve got no reason to. I think I’ll keep you company for a while.” “Get a dog, Sherm. That’s the lawman’s option for an excuse to go home.” “I couldn’t have a dog with my hours unless I brought him down here every day.” Sherman scratched his chin. 81
“Think the sheriff would allow it?” Vernon grinned. “I know him. He might.” Sherman laughed and drained his cup. “Good stuff, Vernon.” * Sherman stayed at the day desk through an evening of almost no activity. He and Vernon took turns checking on Weeks, who slept, and on Sharp, who read for a while, then also slept. At eleven, he saw the evening shift come in and the two night patrols go out. Sherman, who was beginning to feel the weariness of the long day, was standing at the day desk when the phone rang. He picked it up on the first ring, “Newberry County Sheriff,” and listened. “Railhead Tavern? Inside, or out in the parking lot?” A pause. “Anybody hurt, yet?” Another pause. “Five minutes. I’ll have someone there in five minutes.” “What’s the matter?” Vernon came out of the office. “A fight at the Railhead. Inside, and they don’t think anyone’s hurt yet. I can handle it and then go home.” “I’ll take care of it, Sherm. You’re tired, and that makes it dangerous for you.” Vernon buckled on his “tool belt”, the Sam Browne with the pistol, handcuffs, Mace, nightstick, and pager hung on it. “Mind the store, if you will, and I’ll be back in fortyfive minutes, an hour at most. Maybe I’ll get the chance to put some hardwood up against Cooper’s head, or Rasmussen’s. I don’t like them, either.” He spun the nightstick and slapped it against his left palm and grinned a wide, tooth-filled grin. “Give anyone except those two a pass, if you can. We don’t need more residents, even temporary ones, in here.” Sherman watched Vernon stride out the side door toward the county car. Later, Sherman estimated that the car had cleared the parking lot no more than thirty seconds when the door was thrust open and the hooded men burst in. Sherman, who had been standing between the door and day desk yawning and stretching, turned far enough to see and remember four men before he was knocked to the floor by the lead man, who swung a pick handle against Sherman’s head and
shoulder. The man with the pick handle hit him again, and the world went black and roaring. Sherman had seen four men, but there were five. As soon as Sherman was downed, they ran into the cell block, turning on the bright overhead lights as they entered. “Hey, is this him?” A second man glanced into the cell. “No. That’s only Weeks, drunk again.” “Who’s Weeks?” “I thought everyone knew Weeks. Willard Weeks, usually drunk, that’s who.” “He’s back here. This gotta be him. Ain’t nobody else in here,” one of the men shouted. “It’s gotta be him. How do you open this thing?” “Right here. I seen it done once,” and the man released the electronic lock. Inside the cell Aaron Sharp was coming out of a heavy sleep, barely aware of the clamor created by the five men. He sat up on the edge of his bunk, rubbing his eyes against the brightness. His eyes weren’t fully open when two men grabbed him, on from each side. “What’s going on?” was all he managed to say before the man with the pick handle swung it against his head viciously. “Jesus God, you mighta killed him,” said one of the men, suddenly supporting a limp body. “Wouldn’ta made much difference,” said the man with the pick handle. “C’mon, we gotta carry him.” “Hey! He doesn’t have no shoes on.” “The hell with the shoes. Get him outta here.” Aaron Sharp was born up roughly by the three men who had entered the cell, and carried past the cells into the office. As the men passed Sherman, the one with the pick handle paused long enough to deliver a hard kick to Sherman’s side. “Take him out the way we came in,” he said. The five men holding Aaron Sharp without care, but firmly, went through the side door, down the stairway and through the lower level of the jail to the truck waiting behind the jail. His body was thrown into the back of the truck, which began to move even as his captors scrambled into it. 83
“Hog tie him,” said the man who still carried the pick handle as if it was another of his limbs. The truck roared down the dark street followed by a second truckload of men, and a car. Sharp was pulled to a sitting position while the men wound rope around his body, pinning his arms to his sides. He was shoved face down in the back of the jolting truck. The trucks and the car reached the edge of town and turned south down a narrow blacktop road. The hills descending to the edge of the twisting road, and the brush growing straight up beside it created a pitch black, narrow canyon, empty of light, sound and life, except for the roar of a high volume of exhaust being forced through tail pipes. “Who’s that in the car following us?” “I think that’s Joe Don Jackson’s car,” said the man with the pick handle. “He’s got some more school kids with him.” “We gotta get rid of them.” “Let ‘em follow us. They gotta learn how to take care of murderers and rapists.” He leaned over and dug the pick handle into Sharp’s back. “Just like we’re taking care of this one.” Perhaps eight miles south of the town a pair of overgrown ruts led away from the blacktop toward the river. The trucks slowed suddenly, almost stopping, shut off their lights, and turned down the path. The driver of the car was taken by surprise. He locked his brakes, slid sideways and almost into the ditch. Spinning his tires until they were smoking, he backed the car around and back up the blacktop until he was past the ruts. Following the example of the trucks, he killed his lights, and bolted across the shallow ditch, bottoming on the far lip and bouncing his riders against the roof of the car. The three vehicles reached a clearing that was dominated from the north side by a sprawling white oak. The lead pickup drove straight into the clearing and stopped under a huge limb that had spread into the clearing. The second truck stopped at the edge of the clearing with its lights shining into the clearing, lighting the back of the truck. The car swerved into the low underbrush until it was nearly hidden. The boys in the car forced the doors open against the choking the brush and came toward the clearing, hanging far back from the edge, not daring to join the men in the clearing.
Aaron Sharp was conscious when he was jerked to his feet and held erect, blood from abrasions from the truck bed flowing down one cheek. The man with the pick handle pointed at the limb, and one of the other men threw a rope over it. “What are you doing,” Sharp screamed. The man with the pick handle rammed it hard into Sharp’s ribs. “Shut up, you,” he hissed. Sharp’s breath whistled out as he was hoisted onto a wooden box on the back of the truck. Without a belt his baggy pants started to slip down. His arms were free from the elbows downward, and, instinctively, he grabbed at his pants and held them up. From behind him, someone dropped a noose over his head and drew it tight around his neck. He opened his mouth to scream or plead or pray, but no words were ever heard. Almost at the same instant that he opened his mouth the truck engine roared, the truck lurched forward, and two men thrust Sharp from the box. It wasn’t a clean death. The rope slid on the branch enough so the drop didn’t break his neck, and instead, only tightened mercilessly. Whatever sounds he may have made were drowned by the sounds of the truck as it spun at the edge of the clearing until its lights shown on Sharp’s struggling figure. Sharp’s face was contorted. His arms strained upward against the ropes that pinned them at the elbows to his sides. His pants slid down the kicking legs, then off one shoeless foot until they hung from one slowing leg and dragged in the dirt below his body. As the rope strangled life from the body it ceased its struggle. First, his hands dropped. Then, his sphincters loosed and his bowels and bladder emptied visibly down both legs. The body itself spun slowly on the rope, quiet except when another muscle twitched and surrendered. Someone shut off the truck engine and turned off its lights. Black night returned to the grove, hanging around its edges like a madman’s tapestry. In the center of the clearing all the light from a moonless, cloudless night seemed to collect in one faint shaft that fell on the suspended figure. The only sounds in that night were the shocked gurgle of the passing river, and from the bushes, the sound of someone sobbing and retching. Then the sound of a siren began to grow in the distance, becoming louder, changing as it
seemed to find the track into the woods, finally coming closer, like a banshee coming to collect the dead. * “This is all of them.” Sherman stood in the prosecutor’s office with a list of names. “Most of them turned themselves in. The State Police caught Rasmussen and Cooper. They led the mob.” “Has the state turned them over to you, yet?” “Not until tomorrow. What’s going to happen to these men?” The prosecutor leaned back in his chair and looked up at Sherman. “The kids had nothing to do with taking Sharp from the jail. They were cruising and saw the trucks leave from the jail and suspected what was happening. They are being considered material witnesses.” “The rest of them?” “There are a number of charges that we can bring against them. We’ll be selective, but all of them will be charged with something. It’s too bad, really,” the prosecutor said. “Just living with what they’ve done is probably enough punishment for most of them.” “Not Rasmussen and Cooper. That pair of bastards are as guilty of murder as Willard Weeks is of killing Sarah Miller.” “Yes, as guilty as Weeks. Maybe, probably more. They’ll be charged with assault, kidnapping, and murder. That’s what they’re responsible for.” The prosecutor dropped the folder onto his desk. “Did you ever find out why Weeks killed her?” “No, and we aren’t likely to, either,” Sherman said. “The doctors at the state hospital tell me what I expected. Weeks no longer communicates. Both Harris Miller and his neighbor tell the same story. Sarah was on her way home, almost to her gate, when she met Weeks on their path. She appeared to say ‘Hi,” and Weeks swung his wine bottle and struck her down. Before anyone could get to her, he hit her several more times. Killed her. In spite of what he looks like, he could be strong. I know that.” “So nobody knows why he did it.” “Least of all, Weeks,” said Sherman. 86
“How did Cooper and Rasmussen find out that you had someone in the jail?” said the prosecutor. “Jerry,” said Sherman. “He went home and told his wife. She told her sister. It went on from there.” “That’s the beginning of a tragedy all right.” “It won’t happen that way again. I fired Jerry.” “For having a big mouth?” said the prosecutor. “That, and having been so unreliable over the last ten years that I couldn’t let him out on patrol. I think I’ve kept him on all this time because I despised him as a law enforcement officer, and I refused to do something I might think had personal motives. I’ve had to live with that.” “You can’t blame yourself for trying to be a fair and caring man. Not everything works out right, but you try, and I try. Sometimes I wonder about the results myself. I think the results are much better than if we didn’t.” The prosecutor stood up and shook Sherman’s hand. “Most of these people I won’t want to prosecute, but I will. It’s not right to let someone else out there think that this can be tolerated.” Sherman stopped in the door way. “You asked about Sharp? He was just what he said he was, a runaway husband and father, out of money and out of luck, just waiting to get caught and sent home.” As Sherman left, closing the door behind him, he heard the prosecutor say, “Seems like a high price to pay for a little freedom,” and nodded, silently.
Grace and Ray
“Help me,” he said. “Grace fell yesterday. I got her into her chair, but I can’t get her into bed. I need to get her into bed so she can use the bedpan.” She was a stocky woman, tall, heavier than me, and far larger than Ray. Nearly blind, cataracts whitening her eyes that didn’t know me anymore. When I touched her side she cried out. “It hurts,” she said, her voice so small. “When he tries to lift me, it hurts.” I lifted her the way an old, black nurses’ aid had taught me. I bent over her chair, had her place her arms around my neck and hold tight. When I stood up, she came up with me, standing, embracing me almost as if we were in some intimate dance. I got her into the bed as gently as I could. When I moved her legs I know it hurt her, but she only made small sounds, like my children did after I had calmed them so I could repair a knee or elbow or bloodied lip. I held her hand while Ray called his son. It was an old hand, 92 years, or more, the oldest hand I’d ever held, dry, smooth, surprisingly strong. “Don’t let them take me to the hospital,” she said. “If they take me to the hospital I’ll never come home.” When he took the chair beside the bed, took her hand from mine, it was as if I wasn’t in the room. “Art’s coming, Grace,” he said. “We’ll take care of you.” They were alone together even before I left the room. I wasn’t there when the ambulance came, but I knew they would take her, knew somehow when they did take her. I think it was ten days, or so, before Ray came in our back door. He started his conversation as he came in, as he always did, I think to announce himself in some informal way. Finally he said, “Grace died today. I thought you should know. I’m okay, though. We had a good life together.” He turned and went out the door before we could reply. He lasted a little more than a year. He was a small man to begin with, but he didn’t feed himself then, and in the end he often didn’t wash himself or change his clothes. His spirit had fled long before his stubborn body could. I mowed his lawn and 88
cleaned his walks that year, and called Art from time to time to look in on him. And after he died, during the year their house stood empty, I mowed his lawn in summer, and swept his walks when it snowed. I remember his story. It was his story, because even when we moved in next door, Grace was cataracted and house bound, and never came to our house. I only talked to her a few times. Often, I’d see her at her sun room window, trying to make sense of the shapes and dimness she saw. Ray talked of her, though. Like old people do, he told me the story of her over and over, the one story, the only story that mattered. He always told it the same way. She was a single school teacher, a year older than he was. He was a fifty-five year old widower who had delivered her milk for years. “One day when I was delivering her milk I just said it. I told her that I didn’t have a thing to offer her and that maybe she would throw me out, but I had to tell her that I loved her. I had to tell her I wanted to marry her. I had to ask her to marry me. And she did. This was her house when I met her, and we’ve always lived here.” For thirty years they had lived there when I moved next door, and then it was thirty-five. At the end, thirty-six. That was it. They were married when he was fifty-five, and they stayed married for thirty-six years. Not anything to write novels about, or even a short story, except for what they wrote with their hearts. Of Grace, I’ll always remember her hands, how they felt. I’ll remember how frightened she was, how like one of my own frightened children. I’ll always remember the way Ray turned and walked away that day. I prefer to think of them in their house, where they knew how the summer sun surrounded the porch in the morning, and how it kissed the kitchen clock in the afternoon, when the season was right. I prefer to think that they heard the creak of old floorboards, the clinks and clanks of their dishes and their old furnace, and the echoes of their sweet whisperings. And I remember that they both died in the hospital, a place of tile floors and bare white walls with sounds that echoed oddly, and people they didn’t know asking how they were. They’ve been gone for fifteen years, now, but I still remember how they were taken away. I don’t know if it was a lousy way to die, but it wasn’t right.
The deer went deep into the brush before it died. Thick snow covered its blundering final passage so when the man and half-man finally appeared they were tracking more by instinct than sign. “We’ll never find it.” “We shot it, we’ll find it, Sonny. You made a clean shot. Can’t be much further.” “It’ll be frozen.” “Only snowing. It’s not real cold.” They pushed their way slowly through several hundred yards of brush that was becoming interlaced mounds of snow. When they found the deer, the snow had almost hidden it, but not the lightless eyes and dark muzzle. First, the man raised his face a moment to the choking snow. Then, he dropped his coat, rolled his right sleeve to the elbow, and drew his curved knife. The boy crouched at the deer’s head, staring at the dulled eyes. “I wish Mama hadn’t died. Why’d she have to die?” He rubbed a glove under his nose. The man stood, wiping his faintly steaming hands and right arm on his red bandanna. “Don’t start crying, Sonny. Almost fourteen’s too old to cry.” He looked at the bloody bandanna, then threw it down. He jerked the boy’s shoulder so they stood face to face. Hot tears streamed down the boy’s cold, red cheeks. When the man wrapped his arms around the boy and began to sob he tried but couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried. It was long past dark when they finally reached the road.
And We Talked of Rachel’s Dress
Karen made an exception that Sunday, and went to Mass, even though we both knew that before the day’s end she would be more tired than was good for her. But it was the right kind of day for it. The late August day carried a coolness and a crispness to it that foretold early autumn. The sky was that unique blue – every time I see it I think there is no other blue like it – and the few clouds were so white I always believe that they have been put together just to call my attention to them. It was a day of strength, it seemed. We took our lunch on the broad porch, letting the breeze and leaves and our small conversations be our music. After I’d cleared away the dishes, Karen and I moved to the old oak porch swing, and Rachel to the backyard, which was wide and long and sunny. She ran among the islands of late summer and early fall flowers that I’d spent many evenings working over while Karen, when she was able, sat on the porch swing and watched. “You’ve made a beautiful garden, Paul,” she said. “I’m glad I got to see it.” “There was never a doubt,” I said, but when I looked at her, I saw that her eyes had filled. I looked away. “How are you feeling?” I asked, as casually as I could. “I’m a little tired. Maybe a little chilled.” I came back from the house a few moments later with the afghan my Aunt – my Father’s sister – had made for Rachel, and a pillow. She sat sideways on the swing, with the pillow behind her, her feet across my lap, and the afghan across her legs. She gripped my hand. “This sun feels good. This breeze feels good.” For a long time we held hands and swung gently back and forth, barely moving. We didn’t talk, pretending instead to watch Rachel, who ran for a while, stopping a moment beside each different kind of flower, as she had seen me do. Finally, after a failed cartwheel, she stopped altogether, and sat in the grass with her head tilted back to the sun. “I have to buy her a dress tomorrow.” I looked at Karen, who looked back at me as if to say ‘Why?’ “For the first day of school.” 91
“She has plenty of clothes,” she said, “clothes she hasn’t even worn yet.” “But this dress will be special,” I said, feeling the picture in my mind make my heart seem to swell. “It must be longish, below the knee, and smooth white, with small blue flowers on it that bring out the blue of her eyes.” “You’ve seen this dress, haven’t you,” she said, smiling at me. “Why does she have to have this special dress?” “Because she is as beautiful as you, and on the first day of school, she will meet a boy who will fall in love with her that day.” “Really?” “Really. It happens that way. He’ll fall in love with her, and regardless of whatever else happens to him, he’ll remember the way she looked on his first day of school for the rest of his life.” “Someone already has fallen in love with her,” she said, squeezing my hand. She laid back against the pillow and closed her eyes for a while. “Can we go in?” she said, finally. “I’m beginning to get cold.” It was colder. The wind had shifted to the north, and though the sky was still hard blue, the clouds were more numerous and dark. I helped her inside, and put on some music. Later, as she slept against my shoulder, I was aware that a steady rain had begun.
Is It a Hallmark?
Died of a broken heart, I guess you could say that, Brian thought, as he turned his BMW up the winding drive to the cottage they had shared, the place he was supposed to be going to recover from Darlene’s death. Actually, he was going to the secluded cottage to reconsummate his lust for Salome, and Darlene had died by driving her car into a big tree as fast as she could drive it. He was glad he hadn’t been home when she made that decision, otherwise she probably would have used his Beemer instead of her Buick. It went faster, and Darlene never did anything halfway. No one knew she had killed herself the night he announced to her that he was leaving her for another woman. He’d found the letter she’d left for her family, the letter that started, “After all I’ve done for him, that asshole is leaving me. I can’t face the humiliation. Everyone told me he was no good, it just took me too long to find out. Make sure he suffers. Make sure he pays. Fire him, Daddy, and make sure he never works in this town again. I’m sorry I’m doing this, but life is so empty. There is no other way out. Darlene” He pulled the crumpled letter from his pocket, smiling as he remembered the sympathy Darlene’s family had shown at the visitation and the funeral. More than one of them had been fooled by his show of grief, telling him how they hadn’t always trusted him, but that they knew now that they’d been mistaken about him. Part way up the twisting drive he lowered the window and tossed the letter into the brush. “It’s biodegradable,” was all he said. As he stopped his car in front of the cottage ... cottage, he called it, though he was proud to say it was far more showy, in an unostentatious way, than any cottage ... he saw that the door stood part way open, even though it was threatening to snow. Salome’s car wasn’t in sight, but that didn’t bother him. He had told her she could park it in the shed if she wanted to. The first thing he saw inside the door, though, was the vase of frozen flowers, wild flowers, well, dried weeds, actually, that stood on the little table in the hall. Leaning against it was an envelope, plain white, with “Darin” written on it in Salome’s unmistakable loopy, back-slanted writing. Darin. She was always getting his name 93
wrong. He closed the door behind him and picked up the envelope. The letter began, “Darin. It’s been fun. I mean, a girl needs to know that her legs are still good and the hairdresser is doing a good job on her blonde, all over blonde, I know you know what I mean. But leaving my husband is a bad idea. You told me you were rich. All you’ve got is a BMW that isn’t paid for, your modest little house that isn’t paid for, and this cabin, this crude cabin that probably isn’t paid for, either. Well, my husband is rich. He loves me, and forgives my little excursions. I won’t come crawling back to you. I know I told you you were the best I’ve ever had, but you weren’t. I can lie, too. Salome.” Brian stared at the letter, wanting to crumple it and throw it into the brush, too, but all he could focus on was that Salome didn’t love him, had never loved him, and was gone for good. This unexpected freedom, and nothing to spend it on. It hurt him in his heart. In fact, he could feel the pain, feel it build like a squeezing fist, and spread down his left arm. The letter dropped to the floor, fluttering down in slow motion like Autumn’s last leaf. Brian, on the other hand, dropped like a stone.
The deer went deep into the brush before it died. Its forelegs failed it suddenly, and it slid on one shoulder in the deepening snow. Neck outstretched, it came to rest with its head somewhat sheltered beneath a scrub conifer. Its breath came in great congealing clouds that slowed, became shallow and erratic, then ended with a last great shudder. Perhaps there was no pain, only a feeling of wrongness, then one of peace. I don’t know why I’m moved to write this letter, having written you only two days ago. I first started thinking about it on my way home this afternoon, with the snow starting to fall so the trees, which are that hard winter black, were obscured somewhat, and softened in their outline. When I got home, I spent the next forty-five minutes bringing in firewood from the shed. It’s all seasoned and split oak and some elm, and will make a good fire tonight, if I finish this letter before it gets too late. If I do, it will be a surprise because all the time I carried the wood I thought about what I wanted to say to you and never found an answer. Right now, I’m looking out the window of my study at the scrub woodlands on the north, or not at them, because the snow is falling so heavily that I can’t see them, couldn’t see them even if it was full day. I still don’t know what to say, but I know how it must start. I learned much of what I know from my father. Some of it he taught me consciously, like how to fish the branches of the White, and the Battenkill, how to use a fly rod and select and present the right fly. By the time I was twelve, I was as good with the rod as he was. He taught me the J-stroke, I think as much to make me feel important as to allow him to fish the shallows and shores of the ponds while I handled that old wooden canoe painted dark green that I’ve told you about. He taught me about trees and birds and bird calls, and about where foxes run and how to know the scream of an eastern bobcat. He took great pains to point those things out to me, as if they were of some great value. And you know, as hard as he tried, he couldn’t have taught me its value. I came to know it by knowing him. 95
I liked being with him, liked what we did, but there wasn’t anything special to it in spite of all he talked about it. It was when he didn’t talk that I began to realize that there was something he knew that I didn’t, something he saw that I was missing. I think the first time was when we were in the canoe – he was in the stern and I was fishing for a change. I remember I was working at dropping a streamer in the riffles where a stream fed into the pond we used to fish – and he whispered, not to me especially, “Hawk.” And I looked up. I’d seen hawks before, but this time was different. There was no pointing arm, only the sound of his voice, but there was something in that voice meant not for me, but for himself. The hawk – I can tell you it was a red-tailed hawk, and large – was sailing, wings spread wide, reminding me of when I would hold my hand out the car window in the summer, catching the air, except I had to make an effort to hold my hand in place and it looked like he made no effort at all. He didn’t seem to move a muscle, just tipped this way and that and rode in great circles on the currents of air that rose up from the warm spring woods. I remember that the air was clear deep blue that day, and I could feel the sun warm me the way it must have been warming him. It was a cool day, almost cold, and I could feel each breath of breeze cooling my cheek, and felt for the first time that there was a secret kinship between that hawk, free on the air, and my father, free for a short time on the water. I also knew instinctively that it wasn’t the freedom that drew his response, but something far larger than freedom. I think after that day, I tried to spend more time behind him just so I could watch him, watch how he breathed. He drank in days like I drink good water. Thinking of him these past weeks, remembering him, that moment is what always comes to me, how he was then, and how he was after my mother died. I don’t think I ever told you this because you never knew her. She would have been your grandmother, you know, but she became ill, wasted away to barely a stick, and finally went to her peace. When we buried her, we, all three of us, left something behind that day. My father, I don’t refer to him here as your grandfather because this was way before you were born, became something that is hard to define. He closed up, is the best way I can describe it. He did everything that he was supposed to do, fed us, made sure we had clean clothes, got us off to school every morning. And every morning he got into his truck and went off to build houses. 96
But he didn’t come out of himself, if you know what I mean, and maybe we never tried to reach in. There was this unmentioned line separating us that we weren’t allowed to or were afraid to cross. We were all in the same house, and each of us was alone. We never went fishing again. That green canoe stayed hoisted up in the shed. Our fishing gear, our fly rods, the old woven creel he had, the little tackle boxes with the flies he tied when he had time stayed in the cupboard there against the back wall. I think the part of him that I had studied so hard was closed in with it, or stored up under the rafters and forgotten. And your dad and I became quarrelsome, when we never had been. We were like that for a year and a half, or a bit more. Mother had died in the spring and it was early winter the next year when my father and I went hunting. In building, there are good times and not so good times. This was a not so good time, and there was even less work than there usually was in winter. I think his idea was to bring home a deer and take some pressure off what he spent on food. Before that, he had always hunted in early winter, and what he brought home was always a part of winter food, though he hadn’t hunted that previous winter. It snowed the day we went, the first of many snows that winter. It snowed thick, but with little wind, so as it piled, it piled on the limbs of the winter trees and made the brush look like white mounds. Sometimes we almost couldn’t see. We would walk a while, then stand still and wait, then walk again. He wasn’t fluid like he had been when we fished. He seemed stiff, awkward, seldom spoke, and only then in a whisper. He had told me that when we saw the deer, I was to take the shot. I was a good shot then, and I suppose I am now, though I haven’t fired a rifle in years. I didn’t know how I felt about it. I remember being proud that he thought of me that way, and I remember, equally, some reluctance at taking the life of such a creature. When we saw the deer, it was already late afternoon, almost time to end the hunt, which, by law ends each day of the season at sundown. He saw it and pointed me toward where it stood. The deer stood at the edge of a cleared area, a darker form against the white of the snow, perhaps seventy yards away, at the edge of the scrub woods. It presented a clear, and at that distance, an easy shot, except it was turned away from me, so I couldn’t shoot. I don’t remember how long I waited before it moved and 97
turned sideways. From one knee, I aimed at the spot just behind its shoulder and fired. The deer leaped sideways then leaped again, into the woods, and was gone. I said, ‘I must have missed,’ although I didn’t see how I could have, but my father said, ‘It was a good shot, Sonny. It won’t go far. We’ll find it.’ But it did go far, most of a quarter mile before it died at the base of a tree. It was snowing so hard and the light was failing so it was hard to track, but we found it. My father tagged the deer, then rolled up his sleeves to field dress it. I didn’t want to watch that, and I remember kneeling by its head, looking instead at its eyes with the light gone out of them. I started to cry. I think I said something about why did my mother die, and the next thing I knew, he had put his arms around me and started sobbing. I don’t know how long we stood there like that, but it was about as dark as it gets when it snows like that, with everything gone grey and white when we finally dragged that deer out of the woods. It was very late when we brought it home and hung it in the shed. In the morning my father didn’t wake me for church, and when I finally got up, the drive was cleaned, from the road to the shed, and the truck and the deer was gone. I don’t know where he took it, but it was gone. I have to say, though, that I began to notice a change in my father, though not right away so I could say to myself, ‘He’s different,’ but over the next few months, perhaps, it seemed to accumulate. Near the end of that winter when the days had gotten longer it was still light when we sat down to a dinner that I had put together. My father had taken a job, temporarily, he said, at the lumber yard. Dinner was simple, because that’s all I knew then, some pork chops, I think, and there would have been fried potatoes, and some kind of greens I could get from a can. I looked over at him because he had stopped eating and had paused with his fork halfway to his plate, looking off somewhere I couldn’t see. There was almost a smile on his face, and I couldn’t remember ever seeing that, not for a long time. I asked him if there was something wrong, and he looked over at me and said, ‘No, I was just thinking about your mother, what a beautiful person she was.’ There were two things in that statement that were of wonder to me at the time. It was the first time he had mentioned my mother since she had died. And he had spoken of her as a person. I had never seen her that way, I realized, as a person. She had always been an extension of me. She healed me when I was wounded, calmed me when 98
I was afraid, found me and pulled me back to the pathway when I had strayed too far from it. She was something that surrounded me, touching me only when I had needs. When he said ‘beautiful person,’ suddenly she was more than my loss. In my memory, she took a step back from me, or I did from her, and I began to guess what my father had lost. We sat at the table looking at each other, and I think both of us had wet eyes. We sat like that for a minute or so, but your father just kept his head down, looking at his plate and eating. After that, I quit being quarrelsome, or tried to anyway, but your father didn’t. He was sullen and obtuse at home. At school, he struggled, not with his work because he was bright enough that it came easy to him, but with the people around him. One day we were to learn that he was argumentative with his teachers, surly to his classmates, and he fought. Win or lose, he fought often. It was near the end of that school year the day we learned that. Our father had just come home from the lumber yard, where his job was no longer temporary, and your father was not yet home from school. Coming home late from school was a common occurrence for both of us, but this was unusually late. ‘Better go look for him,’ my father had said to me, and I would have except when I opened the door, he was coming up the walk with a young woman. He walked with his head down. She walked beside him with her hand on his shoulder. Given his way with people right then, that surprised me. My father saw me standing there and came to the door about the time they both came up the steps. I remember our father saying something like, ‘Franklyn, boy. What’s going on here? What’s this about?’ And your father looked up. There was crusted blood beneath his nose, one eye was puffy, and his lips were puffier yet. Then I looked at his clothes. They were muddied. The pocket on his shirt dangled to one side, and there was a hole in his blue jeans just above the knee. The woman said, ‘Mr. Fisher, my name is Miss Addams. I teach fourth grade and we need to talk.’ After what must have been only several seconds but seemed longer, my father told me to ‘Take him upstairs and clean him up, if you can. Be careful around his face. That might be tender, and put some clean clothes on him. Put the shirt in the trash. I don’t do sewing. Then go to your rooms and close the doors.’ 99
Your father, head down again, went up the stairs. I was behind him, taking my time because, of course, I wanted to know what this ‘was about.’ I heard Miss Addams say, ‘I’m concerned about Franklyn.’ I stopped to listen and saw my father watching me. He didn’t have to say a word. I went into the bathroom to work on my brother. I wasn’t all that careful around his face, but he didn’t flinch or say anything or cry. When we were done, we both went into my room. He sat on the bed, I sat at my desk. Neither of us said anything. Looking back, I think we sat there less than half an hour before we heard my father call, ‘Boys, come downstairs.’ So we did. He met us at the foot of the stairs and told us to set the dining room table, which now had a table cloth on it, something it hadn’t had in more than two years. Since my mother became ill and bedridden, we had eaten in the kitchen. ‘Set the usual places, me at this end, you at that end, Frank here, and set that place for Miss Addams. She is staying for dinner.’ That put my father next to the kitchen, where my mother had sat, me where my father had sat, Frank where he always sat, and Miss Addams where I always sat. So we had that first supper together that night. We started by holding hands and saying grace, something we hadn’t done since my mother became ill. We had what we called ‘Father’s Spaghetti’ because he sometimes made meatballs and spaghetti sauce one day, and served it the next. He had made the sauce the night before, the first time in several years, and it was a stroke of fate that Miss Addams happened to bring home a wounded warrior the next night. I kept quiet as we ate. Your father kept his head down and ate slowly, with proper manners, which was new and welcome. Miss Addams was Miss Addams to your father and me for a long time, but before dinner was over that night, she was Elise to my father, and my father was Will. She was about to leave to walk home when my father said, since it was already dark, he would drive her home. And when he came back, he would have a talk with Franklyn. ‘That probably won’t be necessary, will it, Franklyn?’ Miss Addams said. She put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up and sort of smiled, which seemed to me then to be the first time in a long time. He shook his head and blushed, then looked down at the floor. 100
‘We get along just fine, don’t we Franklyn,’ she said. I remember he looked up again with a real smile, nodded, and watched my father and Miss Addams walk to our old truck. They courted after that, and they married two years later. I was sixteen, and your father was twelve. My father had just turned forty, and Elise was thirty-three. Elise and I had become friends. She became as much a mother to me as anyone can be to a sixteen year old half-man, half-boy. I came to love her, but as a person, not as a mother. And I always felt she loved me back, half as a son, half as a person. But Franklyn, I can’t begin to describe how he loved her. And he did. She was the one who had brought him home. Your grandfather and grandmother never had children of their own, as you know. I don’t know why, except maybe because he had your father and me, and she had, over the years, so many, many children. Since that day in the woods, he didn’t hunt anymore, and he didn’t fish, I think because he couldn’t bear to be away from those he loved. He took up gardening when he wasn’t at the lumber yard, where he had become manager after a year. He still was a builder at heart, and manager or not, he hung doors for people, and replaced window units, sometimes, and laid hardwood floors. So, when she died so suddenly I expected my father to withdraw, but he didn’t. I didn’t expect him to last long, but he did, more than four years. I told you about the afternoon I came to visit and found him asleep in his chair, his cup of tea from morning cold on the table next to him, and him, colder. And at peace. The services are over, thank you for coming. I know how hard it must have been for the both of you to break off from your studies with semester finals coming, and get here in winter from the Midwest. I know you both said you never really got to know him. I have his ashes now, because he left instructions to be cremated, but I have no idea what to do with them. He didn’t tell me that. And I don’t want them on the mantle even though he was my father. Wichita, Kansas, where an aeronautical engineer like your father ends up, is a long way off from Vermont, but if you’d like, you could come to visit. You know we have room, and the girls are in and out anymore, so there is much emptiness around here 101
sometimes. I have taken up fly fishing again, from almost fifty years ago. The canoe is gone, and the old split bamboo fly rods are gone, left in the shed when my father and Elise finally moved while I was away for my senior year at Vermont. However, my nephews, I have learned to take graphite rod blanks, a bit of nylon thread, and some stainless steel guides and build fly rods some evenings. They are things of beauty, if I can claim that, although selling one for three-hundred fifty dollars might lend credence. We could fish, the three of us, or two of us if only one can come. We could fish the White and the Battenkill and the ponds I used to know. I expect to do that regardless. There is much there, much of me to reawaken. It’s where your grandfather went, and I went for a time, and your father never got to. If you come, will you get to know him from that? No, because even I couldn’t. But you will see the sun and the rivers flowing and the stillness of the ponds and the hawk and the otter and the deer. And if things are right, you will get to know you, and in the end, that’s all we can ever ask. Emily just called me, and dinner is ready. Yes, we will have a fire tonight. Hug my brother and hug your mother. Give our love to all, Uncle Evan
Billy Should Be Here
It is a dark and stormy night. Billy should be here. Sitting where I am on the porch that encircles the old house I can tell the moon is full, or nearly so. Only the brightest stars are visible. The wind is no more that the caress of a single, gentle finger against my cheek. Aside from Billy, it is the gentlest touch I’ve know in more than fifteen years. The dark and the storms are here, though, the darkness within my home, and the storms within me. The porch swing where I sit is far back on the broad porch so the moon shadows cover me. The road doesn’t run close to the house, but even if it did and you passed by I doubt you could see me, my legs tucked under my white shift against the white of the porch swing and the white, always white, of the old house. I feel almost invisible, as if my being, whatever it is, has passed away. I’ve sat here many nights, sometimes even slept here. At first, I sought its peace. The deep porch provides protection unless the physical weather is severe, and depending upon where I choose to sit, I can watch the moonrise or moonset or just the sky and the trees, the live oaks that surround the house, at a comfortable distance, on all sides. Now I know its peace is an illusion, like the eye of a storm. For years, now, more like the eye of a hurricane. Always, before dawn, I’ve gone back inside, but I don’t think I will tonight. Do you know there are storms and rages even when you can’t see them? I know, because I’ve lived with the eddies and the currents of the storms for eighteen years. I became aware of them not long after I married Bill. I met Bill at a Friday night keg party off the University campus. When I first saw him he struck me as pleasant looking enough, but what attracted me was that he seemed so happy, and so determined to be happy. Under normal circumstances, a keg party was an opportunity to let out the frustrations and perhaps tensions that had grown over a week of classes, and perhaps to meet someone and drink enough to have regrets on Saturday morning. But this party happened on a night in the same week that there had 103
been an anti-war bombing at the ROTC building on the campus itself, a bombing that had killed someone who had been working late in the building. A party could usually rise above even an event like that except there was a young man at the party who was close to someone who wasn’t at the party because she was engaged to the man who was killed in the bombing. The young man was drunk, I remember, and he sat in a corner drinking beer from an embossed stein that was so large it had a handle on both sides. From time to time, he lit a joint and shared it with whoever was with him. He cursed the bombing, of course, but what about it was never clear because it changed with whomever he talked to. He talked long and loud, and effectively spread depression over the party. Then Bill, as I learned his name was, came in wearing a smile that seemed to radiate good humor and warmth. From the vantage point that time has given me it seems now, that he sensed the foreignness of the tension the young man had created by introducing realities none of us was ready to face at our age and inexperience, and the void the intrusion of these realities made. Bill seemed to fill that void, talking with good humor to everyone, even to the nearly comatose man in the corner, who brightened the party shortly afterward by passing out. Eventually, he talked to me, smiling at me as he balanced a cup of beer that he sipped. His cultured southern accent charmed me. I was impressed when he said that we couldn’t change what happened and that our job was to go on with our lives, make of them what we could, but be happy. As Bill took me home that night I realized I was ready to be happy, why more then than at any other time in my life, I don’t know, but I was ready. Madison is my home town, and of course I was a town student. At nearly three in the morning, my home was dark, and I had had more beer than I should have, but he took no advantage. He only asked if he could call me and got my phone number. After our first date, he sent me flowers. After my junior year, we were married. After I finished my Masters, we moved, first to New York, and later to this antebellum house some way from Hattiesburg, a place he inherited from an Aunt, along with enough money that he could begin to conduct business, as he called it, from a place as remote as this. That old house on the narrow road east of Palmer’s Crossing was reputed to be a stop on the underground railway, in this Deep South, a first stop on the way to freedom, 104
if not for many, then for some. I found it interesting and I studied it for a time. The conduct of business did not interest me, because by then it seemed to have become Bill’s single focus. It seems anathema to me now that when we first married, I wanted to be like him, never to be hurt, always happy. After all, that’s what attracted me to him in the first place, and that’s why I married him. I first sensed that this kind of behavior wasn’t natural when we moved to New York, and I found that though I smiled, I was lonely. Then, when I miscarried almost before I learned I was pregnant he wouldn’t let me tell my mother. Such news would interfere with her happiness, he said, and her attentions would prolong my own recovery. I began to understand hurt when my father died suddenly, and learned more about hurt when my mother died a year and a half later, I believe from grief. I wasn’t allowed grief. I wasn’t allowed to mourn. I wasn’t allowed to hug my knees to my chest and rock back and forth, moaning for the people who raised me. Instead, Bill told me that death was a natural end to life for all of us, and our job was to be happy in the time we have. Grief and pain, he said, had no place in life, and were to be shut out in favor of happiness. I tried. The culmination of my second pregnancy with the birth of William Frederick Allen, II, not junior, gave me a time of peace, if not happiness. By then I knew that happiness is a myth, an illusion. Peace is what we make with the fearful forces that pass through our lives, sometimes clashing above and about us. Billy gave me a focus that Bill had denied me when he demanded that I stop teaching at the University. Billy needed my care and attention, and giving it allowed me to ignore the pressure that I had begun to recognize as coming from Bill and his imprisoning philosophy. For a time, I was happy, at least to some extent, and usually at peace. But Billy grew, of course, and entered stages of life where there were established norms and measurable performance. Bill was there with his personal measuring stick. As a mother, I recognized the anxiety we all feel when we compare our children against the norm, whatever that is, praying for them to not be found wanting. As Billy’s mother,
I learned what it meant when we, Billy and I, only measured up to the norm. I learned it wasn’t enough to insure happiness, especially Bill’s happiness. Billy and I learned to secure our happiness by rising above the norm in Bill’s eyes. When we succeeded, as we usually did, because Billy was bright, and blessed with abundant energy and curiosity, we escaped Bill’s rages. When we didn’t, we suffered them. If you saw one of his rages, you wouldn’t recognize it as such, for all he did was pace the floor before the windows in the library, and speak in a soft voice, usually not looking at either of us, but when he did, fixing us with that same smile that was supposed to show happiness. If you lived through one of these rages, you would recognize them for what they were. A lecture, on the face of it, would not appear to be a rage except that, with Bill, there was a tension in his posture, a thinness to his smile, and his eyes seemed fiercely bright and hard. We weren’t allowed to walk away from these lectures, nor was our attention allowed to flag. And just the same, his often repeated lecture that equated achievement and ability to succeed in business with the opportunity to be happy would not appear to be brutality, but it was. These things brought nightmares. Billy, as he grew, experienced Bill’s smiling, soft-spoken dissatisfaction to such an extent that he would awaken in the night, crying aloud. When I went to him those nights he’d be trembling from some unnamed fear, and comfort would be long in coming. I think it was by accident that I brought him to the porch swing one stifling night. It may have been the change of light and smells outside that oppressive house, or it may have been the motion that brought him peace. We began to seek refuge in the comforting sway of the porch swing. I would hold him to me, humming or singing sometimes, keeping the swing going with gentle pushes of one foot, until he reached untroubled sleep. I would stroke his fair hair and touch the smoothness of his cheek, usually carrying him gently to his bed in the small hours. He grew, of course, and the trip to the bedroom eventually required that I awaken him and lead him by the hand. In the last few years Billy had seemed to outgrow the nightmares, at the same time that the night restlessness became mine. We had formed a bond, though, and Billy spent many nights on this porch, on this porch swing, stroking my hair and my cheek, allaying my fears and tremblings.
The way I feel tonight, Billy should be here, but he won’t be, ever. This last year had been a quiet one, even as I writhed in the dark and storms of our lives. Billy’s quiet was not peace, but submission. Billy hanged himself sometime before dawn on Wednesday. He was seventeen by just a month. I didn’t know this could happen. I knew that Billy had formed an almost desperate love for the land and growing things, and gloried in the small woods and farms the city hasn’t yet overtaken. I knew that he wanted to study agriculture, that something about the continuous cycles of nature might have healed him. I also knew that Bill, to the extent that he could control it, wouldn’t allow it. Bill and his omniscience. Bill, who knew that only the study of business, its eventual pursuit, and the accumulation of wealth in a gentleman’s manner could lead to true happiness. In this quiet battle, I could only stand to one side and watch. Billy struggled. Bill controlled. What was to be his final pronouncement was that Bill would make no contribution to studies that weren’t directed to business. To credit the Devil, I don’t think Bill knew, either. Bill, the orchestrator of eternal happiness, composed the score and directed Billy’s discordant symphony until Billy no longer knew what happiness was. In the end, I think Billy despaired of ever being happy, despaired even of peace. I saw to it that he was buried in hallowed ground in a country cemetery, a place his father disapproved of, but could offer no rational argument against. The cemetery is a pretty enough place on a hill overlooking the Bowie River, north of Palmer’s Crossing. This will not be the family burial ground, for I bought Billy the last plot on the highest part, and there he will find his peace. I was thankful that there were no other plots. I wanted to be sure that Bill could never be buried next to Billy and disturb that peace. Why was I allowed to make the arrangements? It’s simple. In the only show of weakness I’ve ever seen from Bill, he began to drink as soon as the Sheriff left, from a nearly full bottle of some one hundred proof Bourbon that he prefers. He took a halftumbler full in several gulps, and retired to his library. Later, I noticed the bottle was gone, and late the next day, he managed to drive to Palmer’s Crossing for more bottles. He did not communicate with me, with anyone that I know of after the Sheriff came, and we learned of Billy’s death. I did not believe I could witness such incredible 107
physical strength, and at the same time, such incredible emotional weakness in one person. He stood erect, didn’t sway, and looked as normal as circumstances would allow. His emotional weakness betrayed him, at least to me. His perpetual smile was a rictus grin, and his eyes were those of cattle first smelling the slaughterhouse. The service was at the graveside, and there were many mourners. Most of them were children, Billy’s classmates, who wore their sorrow and their disbelief on their faces. Not many of them could find any words, and those that did were clumsy with them, but their grief was genuine. The adult mourners were few, and out of politeness, for we have no friends. Many people welcomed us when we first came here, but all have drifted away, recognizing and unable to tolerate Bill’s mania. When we came home from the service, Bill closed himself in his library with all the bottles of Bourbon that remained. His library holds his life, both business life and personal life, if he ever knew one, and his tools, his computers, his reference books, his charts, his fax machine, and his revolver. The single gunshot was deafening, and left me trembling. It left Bill with his brain spread against the dark paneled wall at the far side of his desk. The bottles are on the floor at the right side of his chair, all empty. No one ever calls here anymore. It will be a long time before someone finds Bill’s body in the locked library in this old house. There will be no reason to look for other entrances to his library, and no reason for a verdict other than suicide. If there are some who actually remember him, what he was like, they may comment on the sham of his existence and perhaps find justice in his end. Whatever their conclusion, there is no more danger from Bill’s philosophy. As for me, I’ll leave here as soon as there is enough light to gather the few things that I’ll take with me. I’ve been on this swing since before dark, and I won’t go in until I’m certain that the day’s light is larger and stronger inside the house, than the darkness. And once I leave, I won’t return, even in death. I’ll drive in my car through Hattiesburg to Jackson, and I’ll take Interstate 55 north to Blytheville, Arkansas. I’ll be there by nightfall, and stay in the Holiday Inn. This coming night I’ll take off my mask. I’ll put away the smile that for so long has hidden my face. The grief the mask has hidden for years, and all its lines and hollows will show, and my grief for Billy will flare like a Nova.
There is pressure now for the tears to flow for all the pains I have collected that no one ever knew of, that no one ever touched my hand or held me close to make better. This pressure grows, but it will wait until dark this coming night, a warmer, friendlier dark than I have ever known. I’ll leave Blytheville as soon as I am able and drive up I-55, and then up through the center of Illinois. From Blytheville, it’s a day’s drive to Madison, no more than that. The landscape will change as I will change. As I approach my old home, the trees will be bare. Late October does that. Regardless of appearances, last summer’s life is gone. What does that leave, that barren aspect of naked trees? It’s not a sad view, I know, for the trees always shrink back in winter, hardening their summer growth with dense, winter wood, preparing for renewal in spring. I will do the same, except my winter may be longer. But there will be a spring for me. There will.
To find out more about Frederick A. Lierman and Philistine Press visit www.philistinepress.com.
Bittersweet tales about love, life and death.