The worst days after my brother’s accident, Jeremiah and I smoke Virginia Slims by the back steps. We drag and wheeze and talk shit because we both know what happened to Bobby and there’s no changing that. We smoke a lot of cigarettes. I mean, a lot. Like three packs between us.
We stand in the cold, rattling our jaws, me bundled in fake leather, Jeremiah in stonewashed denim, shivering and feeling like a couple of skeletons. Jeremiah acts like he’s hurting too, and, for all I know, he is. He tells me he went to school with Bobby back in the day. What I don’t know is how well you’ve got to know someone for your heart to break when they die. Is there a cutoff?
Jeremiah’s got long hair the way an Indian should. Pulling it back like a woman, he says, “You know, Rockhard–” He calls me Rockhard because he thinks I’ve fucked eighty women, which isn’t true. I’m not even sure there are eighty women my age on the reservation. “–I been thinking your sister-in-law needs comforting in this difficult time, if you know what I mean.”
I take the second-to-last Slim and offer the other to Jeremiah. He takes it and we light and drag, looking out at the Bermuda Grass dying yellow-brown at the yard’s edge. The ground beyond is peppered with unearthed coal, and dump truck tracks curve through the compacted soil. My cowboy boots are dusted black. You can’t live on the reservation without coal caking up everything you own.
The old hillside roars with strip mining crawlers. The machines scratch the topsoil and hatchet down, blades glinting between dust tornadoes. A dozen machines, rustbelt brown, two-storied, gears screeching, steel beams butterflied. They caterpillar on tank wheels, straddling the coal mounds.
“Maybe you ought to wait till this blows over.” I taste coal and spit. The gunk from my throat is bruised.
“Don’t think it’s ever blowing over, partner.” The cigarette parts Jeremiah’s lips, and I see where he’s had work done, front teeth patched as drywall. “Your brother’s dead, and that ain’t just going away.”
I don’t need Jeremiah to tell me that. Watching the crawlers, I imagine Bobby crushed under the massive tires. It was 8:30 a.m. when they found him. He wore his best shoes, slacks, a tie. He’d shaved his face, put Uncle Fulton’s feather in his hair. We followed his bootprints along the tire tracks that morning as the crawlers crowed.
A whistle sounds, signaling a full combine. A truck pulls underneath the beams, and a wave of coal dumps into the bed. The truck moves on. Another takes its place.
“Mama said you might have a problem with it.”
Jeremiah ain’t Mama’s son. She had two boys, and now I’m the only one. I feel like reminding him of that.
“No problem,” I say, looking him dead in the eye. “She ain’t nothing to me.”
What I don’t say is, Bobby and I grew up with Maggie. She’s hung around our house as long as I can remember.
“All I’m saying is, Maggie’s kind of fragile right now.”
“You know that’s right,” Jeremiah says, flicking his cigarette butt into the pile.
“You talked to Mama about it?”
“She said soon as you’re kicking dust, we’ll hitch the trailer.”
Mama’s labeled Maggie a “hitch” since she was little, expecting she would marry one of us. She was engaged to Bobby. Not much else to do with your life on the reservation. One reason I’m leaving.
“When you going, cowboy?”
I tamp out my Slim. “A week, maybe less. Saved up a bit at the shop. Got an apartment lined up in Denver. Not much, but a start.”
“Well shit, man. I wish you the best of luck.”
The crawlers stir a dust swell that rolls toward us.
“Thanks,” I say. “We’re all gonna need it.”
Every other night I walk to the place where Bobby died. It’s a ways from the yard, out where the crawlers mined before the accident. We call the spot Chuchip because deer cross between patches of woods the mining crews haven’t cleared. I wear the orange hunting jacket I bought second-hand. The sleeve is torn at the wrist, a wad of cotton feeling the breeze. You can’t be too careful coming out here, what with night hunters. Sometimes, I see their spotlights winking in the pines, hear their rifles cackling.
It must have been sunrise when Bobby dressed like he was going to church. We aren’t a church-going family. The reservation chapel leans with rot, and the preacher, a missionary from the South, upped and went home. He puts in a Sunday call to some of us, spreading the Word to clear his conscience, even offered once to marry Bobby and Maggie by telephone.
Maggie thought we’d better call him for Bobby’s services. But we didn’t go that far, not even for Bobby. Mama thought it best we didn’t do something we didn’t believe in just for the sake of doing it.
I think about Bobby’s penny loafers. Since my boots are black and my jeans are soot-washed, my brother must have been ashen by the time he reached the crawlers. Those clothes were the only nice ones he owned. The blazer and slacks were so old they shed like a cat. He was going to wear that suit to marry Maggie.
The breeze whirls coal dust from the dunes, and I know Bobby walked through it too, inhaled it like cigar smoke, came out with heavy lungs, coughing, spitting.
I see Maggie from afar and I know it’s her. At first, I think I’m off a day. We’ve got this system where we visit alternating nights. This way we can both have our private time at the place. Nothing worse than being around other people when you’re mourning, thinking: Am I doing this right? I can’t cry, and everyone else is dripping tears like spigots. Maggie and I decided we didn’t want the pressure.
But it’s her. It’s her, on my night, barefoot in her nightgown, her hair pulled up with a clip, free locks dangling down her back. She hugs herself against the wind, like she did as a teenager when she snuck out her bedroom window to meet me.
“It’s my night,” I say, realizing afterward how insensitive it sounds.
She shifts her weight, the gown edging up her chapped knee. “Jeremiah’s still at the house.”
“He’s staying later and later.”
“There’s a midnight movie on channel six.”
She doesn’t face me. “I’d like to walk to Bobby’s place together. Can we do that? Will you walk with me?”
I take her hand and we walk a little ways to the six-by-six square roped off with rebar stakes and caution tape. The tape’s warning reads backward, as if Bobby could read it from inside.
Maggie drops my hand. “Mama’s changed her mind. She says I ought to marry him before you leave, so you can be here for the ceremony.”
It takes me a moment to realize she’s still talking about Jeremiah. I look through the dust. Beside a sentry wall of black dirt, a crawler’s metallic angles glint starlight. I make out its booms, hooks, chains, the wheels as tall as our house. The miners keep the crawlers away from the square, not so much out of respect as police orders, with the ongoing investigation into what happened. It’s something we’d all like to know.
“You’ll come, then?”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit soon? What do you know about Jeremiah, anyway?”
“He’s been on the reservation forever.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She fans dust from her face. “What do you want me to say? Your mama’s really taken to him. She practically raised me too, Caleb. We owe her something, right?”
She moves to touch my shoulder, but I step toward the tape. I close my eyes, take a chalky breath, open them, like maybe when I look back Maggie won’t be standing here on my night.
“We all need somebody.”
“And one person’s just as good as the next.”
“Will you at least come to the ceremony?”
“Sure. I can do that.”
I look inside the square at the perfect imprint of Bobby’s body, where the crawler’s wheel crushed him into the ground. The imprint is half a foot deep, and pockets of soot have collected along the curves of his arms and thighs.
“Do you remember the Catalpa trees that were near here when we were younger? We had so much fun back then. It wasn’t spooky out at night with you, not like when I went by myself.”
I remember plucking Catalpa worms from the leaves, looking at them under the moonlight. “I don’t know when we ever slept, talking all night.”
Maggie’s big eyes glimmer. “We did a lot more than talk.”
I resented Maggie and Bobby’s relationship when they got together. But it passed. And anyway, we were young, and it wasn’t real. She and I were foggy and trying to find something in each other, and it wasn’t real. But I think about it now and miss being alone with her.
Maggie takes my arm, rests her head on my shoulder, and we stare at Bobby’s imprint. “You know I loved him, Caleb,” she says after a while.
We’re walking for the house when I hear a herd of deer moving timidly toward the square. In the shrouded light, they look like wandering spirits.
“We weren’t going to get married,” Maggie whispers. “It was something we both decided not to do.”
The heard moves tightly, as if they’re protecting something. I see patches of dark fur between their legs. Whatever it is, it doesn’t follow their gate.
“Being in love, we stopped liking each other,” Maggie says. “I was going to move out.”
The herd divides around the square, turning their heads in odd motions, nervous for any sign of movement.
“We were going to break it to your mama the day the accident happened.”
The herd moves off, leaving behind the animal they were escorting. It lies in Bobby’s imprint, legs curled to its belly. It’s about the size of a young deer, its head round, disproportionate, the face smooth and white like a porcelain doll’s.
“What is it?” Maggie asks.
“I don’t know. Just don’t tell Mama,” I say. “Don’t tell Mama anything.”
We’re naked in my bed when Maggie reaches over me and clicks Bobby’s old tape recorder. The recorder is the size of an answering machine, scuffed from when he took it to the shop. He’d record stuff that was on his mind. I’d press my ear to the break room door and hear Bobby mumble into the microphone as he bit into half a sandwich.
Over the tape hiss, Bobby says, “If I were any smarter, I wouldn’t be here.”
A few years back, a psychologist out of Colorado State conducted a mental health study on our reservation. Recording our thoughts was something she asked us to do. She provided the recorders, wanted us to mail the tapes on our dime. Most of us hocked the equipment, and Ed’s pawnshop still has a stack as tall as me. But Bobby, he was all about it. He mailed his tapes every Friday.
“I don’t know,” Maggie says. “It was in our room and I haven’t listened to it. We can do it together.” She presses her face to my cheek, and I remember her the way she used to be.
The window is cracked from where Maggie and I snuck in. The screwdriver from ten years ago was still on the sill, rusted to a pick. The glass trembled as I pried the frame, the sound like the rattle of bones. Our breath turns to smoke as I press my lips to Maggie’s. She kisses with experience I’ve never known her to have, and I hold her close and warm.
Bobby says, “If I belonged any other place, I wouldn’t be here.”
I’m gun-shy, nervous and cold and having trouble keeping an erection, and in Maggie’s eyes I see that she remembers. When we were teenagers, Maggie would cross her arms and stare at my limp dick and ask, “Am I not pretty?” She’d ask, “Am I not sexy?” But it was cold under those Catalpa trees, the grass bristling with frost. I trembled in my long-johns.
Maggie licks her palm, takes hold of my cock and squeezes. Her hands aren’t as soft as they used to be, and I like it that way.
Bobby says, “There are some things I’ll miss.”
I tell Maggie that I’ve missed her, and I’m pretty sure I mean it.
My cock stiffens and we roll over. Then we’re at it.
Afterward, I hear Jeremiah snoring on the couch and think about how he wishes he was in my place.
Bobby says, “Whatever I do, whatever happens here, this isn’t an apology.”
I don’t even know what time it is. I forgot to wind the clock before I went out, and the hands are stuck at nine-thirty. I run my hand along Maggie’s breast. Her bare feet are blackened, and she’s left footprints on the bedsheets. I want to kiss her again, but I don’t.
“You and Bobby were so different,” she says.
“In some ways,” I say.
“Bobby spoke up for you a lot, didn’t he?” Maggie asks. “He looked out for you.”
It was Bobby who told me to get off the reservation, said he didn’t want me dying with regrets. He said I was smart enough to make better somewhere else. Bobby told me to hop on his old Ducati and drive. Didn’t have to know where I was going, just drive. Don’t look back, he said. Don’t you dare look back.
We’re startled by a crash. Maggie is the first up, and she pulls on her gown before I get to my pants. She cracks the door.
I hobble to her, pants at my ankles. “Wait,” I say, leaning into the door, shutting it. “Wait. I’ll go out. You hang back a bit.”
She blinks like she just remembered Jeremiah.
“It’ll be safer if I check it out first.”
When I reach the dining room, Mama’s sunk upon herself at the table, wrapped in her housecoat. Her face is wrinkled, like she’s aged ten years in three weeks. Some parts of her are failing faster than others. The hacking cough reminds me that her lungs are black, but not from smoking. She picked that habit up just a couple years ago, said she might as well, with the coal dust.
Jeremiah paces in front of the sliding glass door. “It’s a bear or something.”
Outside, the animal mimics Jeremiah, padding back and forth with the grace of a long-legged cat. Jeremiah grits his teeth, clicks his jaw. The animal snarls. It resembles a bear, but it’s too agile, the legs too skinny. And it has spots along its back.
“It ran into the glass,” Mama says.
“We gotta do something. The thing’s trying to get in,” Jeremiah says. “There a gun in this house?”
“We don’t own one,” I say.
“Shit. You don’t hunt or nothin’?”
Mama lights up a Virginia Slim like she doesn’t care whether she dies today or tomorrow. “You ain’t shooting that poor creature. You hear?”
Jeremiah scuffs his foot on the linoleum, like if there were a rock in his path he’d kick it.
“Poor thing.” Mama says. “He’s just lost.” She puts her hand to the glass.
The animal looks up at Mama, face winter pale, features soft and rounded, eyes reflective. I see flat teeth, the teeth of a herbivore.
Mama flings open the door. Jeremiah and I move to snatch her, but the animal slides under her arm. It gives me a lonesome look, then nuzzles Mama, sniffs her long hair. She strokes it, hinting at a smile.
My bedroom door creaks open. I hear Bobby breathing into the recorder, then Maggie rounds the corner, tripping over herself.
“You’re sweating,” Jeremiah says, steadying her.
Bobby says, “This isn’t an apology.”
“Maggie, look at his face.” Mama hugs the animal. “It’s Bobby,” she says. “He’s come home.”
Jeremiah sometimes talks like he’s never been in love. He meets me on the front stoop as I come in from work. His face is red, his breath smokey, his tone biting with disrespect. “Mama’s nuts,” he says.
My hands are slick with motor oil, my forearms scraped and bloody. I spent the workday pulling a starter from an ’82 Starlet. It was really a two man job. “Tell me something I don’t already know,” I say.
He takes my arm, long fingernails pinching through my canvas shirt. “I mean it, Rockhard. She’s talking crazy about keeping that critter.”
Dirty and tired and in no mood, I fumble the doorknob, push past him into the living room.
Maggie’s stretched out on the couch, reading the same book she’s been reading for eight years, squinting with determination. Our tenth grade teacher, Miss Beckman, assigned our class the book because we could get it pretty cheap second-hand or what have you. If Maggie finishes it, she’ll be the first.
The house smells like home again. I peel off my shirt, toss it on the couch. “Mama cooking?”
Mama hasn’t cooked since the accident. She used to make squash every Friday to celebrate the week behind us. She bought a lot of vegetables from the backs of pick-up trucks because Bobby liked them fresh. My brother ate vegetables like a horse, but he didn’t care for meat, didn’t say much about why, didn’t get on anyone’s case about eating it.
“Enough to feed an army.” Maggie adjusts her camisole, eyeing the door.
Jeremiah steps in. “What’re we doing about this?” He tries to snatch Maggie’s book. “Just gonna read that book while Mama loses her mind?”
I step in front of him. “We’re going to eat,” I say. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Jeremiah puts his hands up in surrender.
I nudge open the kitchen door. Mama’s at the stove, stirring the iron frying pan. Her hair shines from showering, sops against her blouse. The animal is curled at her feet, rotund head on its paws. Its fur is ragged with minor scabs, and I wonder if it has fleas.
“He wouldn’t let me bathe him. As stubborn as when he was a child.” Mama scratches behind its ears with her big toe. “He’s been so sleepy. Hope he hasn’t taken sick from the weather.” She draws the wooden spoon from the pan. “Tell me if they’re ready.”
It feels like old times. Mama’s got her color back, and her wrinkles have eased.
I chew the squash. “Needs a few more minutes,” I say, heavy seasoning aching my jaw. “What’s all this for?”
The animal kind of grins, twitching its nose.
“Don’t be silly!” She shoos me out with a hand towel. “Get showered for supper. Wear something nice.”
It takes me a good hour to scrub the oil off me. I put on a flannel shirt.
The pot steams on the coffee table. Despite having a proper table, we always eat in the living room with the television tuned to the local news. The volume is so low the reporters sound sore over footage of highway accidents, crime scenes, police lights.
“That thing is eating from the goddamn floor.” Jeremiah’s voice cracks, like his heart is breaking for the first time.
“Don’t make a deal of it,” Maggie says. “Mama’s feeling like herself again.”
The seating arrangement used to be Bobby and Maggie sat on the couch with Mama. I sat in the recliner. After supper, I’d fall asleep to the buzz of the television. In my waking dreams, I’d see ghosts of people I thought I knew and I’d ball up like when I was picked on in school. Back in school, Bobby got in a lot of fistfights for me.
The animal and Jeremiah race for the spot next to Mama. The animal wins, hops on the couch as if it’s done it a hundred times, and Mama feeds it frybread. Jeremiah settles for the couch arm.
For a sacred while, we all eat. Maggie halfway reads, and Jeremiah’s nervous leg shakes his plate. The animal eats three pieces of bread and a fair helping of squash.
“Since the thing now has run of the place,” Jeremiah says, picking food from his teeth, “Supposing it needs a name.”
Maggie glances at her book cover. “How about Moll?”
Mama folds her hands too neatly on her lap.
I know better than to speak. I mouth at Maggie to hush, but she’s clueless.
“Moll Flanders,” Maggie says.
“I like the sound of that,” Jeremiah says, rocking to his feet. “It does look muddy. Right, Rockhard?”
I shake my head. “What?”
“Mudfingers has a ring to it.”
Maggie crosses her arms. “That’s not what I said.”
“Rockhard and me can build Mudfingers a kennel out back.”
I lock eyes with the animal. For a moment, it looks human, eyes brown and wet with fear. I remember in the weeks before Bobby took his life, he didn’t look like himself in the eyes, somehow foreign, hollow, a ghost in a shell.
“You’ll do no such thing,” Mama says, springing from the couch.
“Animals belong outside,” Jeremiah says.
“Maybe so, but my son does not.”
Jeremiah juts a thumb at the animal. “That critter is not your son.”
“I heard you earlier,” Mama says. All hands, she swats an empty plate to the floor, slaps the pan over. A heap of squash splatters half on the plate, half on the carpet. “You’d have my Bobby eat off the floor?” She tops it off with frybread. “You first.”
“I’m gonna shove that animal’s fucking face in it,” Jeremiah says.
The animal’s fur stands on end, and it bares blunt teeth.
“Don’t hurt it,” Maggie says.
“Easy, partner,” I say, taking Jeremiah’s arm.
Mama points in his face. “You lay a hand on my son and I’ll get you thrown off the reservation.”
“Wouldn’t miss the place any more than Rockhard will. Right, Rockhard?”
“You’d better leave,” I say, jerking him back, “before you do something you’ll regret.”
Jeremiah snatches away, kicks through the scraps. Halfway out the door, he turns to Maggie. “I walk out this door and I ain’t coming back.”
“You won’t need to,” Maggie says. “The wedding’s off.”
That night, I go to Maggie’s room and find the door ajar. I want to see how she’s holding up after the goings-on earlier. Maybe I want to put my eye to the crack and see her head in her hands, the moonlight in her hair. Maybe a little crying would do us all a lot of good.
Maybe feeling anything recognizable would be a start.
She’s straddling the window sill, her nightgown hiked up. “I was going out to the catalpa trees,” she says. “In case Jeremiah came wanting in.”
I don’t say anything. I just watch Maggie bent over the window sill, half in, half out, between this and that. The lace curtains bubble. Her dolls stare at one another.
“I was kind of hoping you had the same idea,” she says.
“Something like that.”
I kick over her nightstand helping her out the window. Maggie helps me out and we walk. Her toes dig into the cold dirt. Seems like she’s always barefoot.
We walk along the rim of mining land. People’s lawns meet the scraped earth, and we talk about nothing really. Maggie asks me what I think of the animal. I say anything that helps Mama cope is a good thing, and Maggie looks away. We hold hands like schoolchildren.
A set of bootprints winds toward where the trees used to be, and I squat down to get a better look. Large boots, two or three sizes bigger than mine. Beside them is another set of tracks, faint heels and toes. Maggie stands in the footprints, and her feet fit perfectly.
“You and Bobby came out here, didn’t you?”
“It was the last time we made love.” Dry grass sprinkles from her hair.
I’m somehow jealous that Maggie brought him here. Jealous of my dead brother.
Maggie squeezes my hand. “It still feels like he’s here sometimes. He always will be, I think.”
The catalpa trees are now ground-level stumps. Dead roots jut from the soil, and Maggie and I hold one another between the tendrils. A crawler track circles us, the machine sleeping not far away, its metal arms slung out like branches. Hooks and chains make birdsong in the breeze. A beacon blinks in florescent time.
“This is the spot,” Maggie says.
I see handprints, a partial imprint of Maggie’s body.
“Did he know?”
She touches my face. “He wanted to put himself in your place. I told him it was the past. The trees weren’t even here anymore.”
That sounded right, like Bobby.
Pretty soon I’m kissing her. Then she’s kissing me back. We go down on the dirt, Maggie crossing her legs over mine. We just kiss a while, strangely awkward. I’m unbuttoning her nightgown when she takes my head in her hands, pulls me close so our eyes meet.
“I don’t want to do this if you’re going away too.”
I try to kiss her again.
She pushes me back. “I mean it, Caleb.”
I roll over and try to see the stars. “I can’t stay. Bobby knew that,” I say. “Now I know it too.”
“And what about your mama? She would’ve had Bobby to look after her. What now?”
“I’m glad the animal came,” I say.
“It can’t last, her thinking it’s Bobby.”
“Maybe it can, and you could come with me.”
She fumbles to button her gown. “I’m not as eager as you are to cut up my roots.”
“Bobby wanted to leave too. You heard the tape.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Maggie says. “I should have said you and Bobby.”
“What would you’ve done if Bobby left?”
She cries. “Last time I checked Bobby did leave.”
The crawler’s chains clank, the bell-sound a far away homecoming.
“I look around and all I see is death.”
“Now you really sound like him.”
“Bobby told me to go, Maggie. You see what being here did to him.”
“Then you go. Just go,” she says. “I’ll stay right here and take care of your mama. That’s the sacrifice Bobby was going to make for you. If you think being here hurt him so bad, then you should consider what that did to him.” She starts back the way we came, calling out to me. “For you, Caleb.”
Light rays prism through dust outside the shop. The sun settles overhead, seems to swell, and I sweat under the musty heat. Sundays are eternal, listing on and on, time stopped at its apex. Nowhere to go, nothing worth doing. When I’m busy, the pain is just an illusion.
Sundays when I was young, I’d barefoot down the shaded rows of pulpwood pines behind our house. Pine sap tacked to my feet, I tiptoed through the briars, cut up my knees. Way out in a quiet clearing with the trees swaying and dropping needles, I screamed so loud my chest ached. The echo went on and on between the tree trunks.
I think about that echo, how far it traveled. I haven’t screamed since the crawlers took the pines, haven’t felt the breathless ache in a long time. What I feel these days is more like the sensation of falling.
A month of Sundays and I still haven’t plugged the water leak on my old Ford. Leaning under the hood, I hear a car rumbling down the drive. I recognize the squeal of those belts, the revolver sound of the engine. I see the back window duct-tapped with garbage bags. Jeremiah’s Buick. He spins next to my pickup, creaks open the car door, steps into the sunlight, all torn-up in stonewashed denim.
He has strange eyes, ghosted with resentment, bobbing a tire iron in one hand. He slaps the bent end against his thigh, red in the face, Indian hair split over his shoulders.
I hope he didn’t see me see him. The tarpaulin I’ve draped for shade casts the ground blue, and the sun burns square on my back. I turn the wrench a quarter, act like nobody’s looking. But I hear the tire iron slapping, slapping.
“I been to Mama’s today,” he says, cracking rocks under his boots.
“Jeremiah?” I almost drop my wrench. “That you?”
“Sure is, partner.”
“What’re you doing with that tire iron?”
“Busted up the last of the drawing room at the Halwood place, didn’t know what the hell to do next.”
A man like Jeremiah, pulling down temporary work here and there, has a whole lot of free time on his hands. Most days, he circles the reservation in that Buick like a buzzard, goes out to the ravine and tosses bottles, busts up furniture at the old Halwood place. The Halwood’s ashes are scattered at the homestead. Teenagers go out there just to kick them up.
“So I decided wasn’t nothing else in this world but to get Maggie back. Wasted twenty bucks on a batch of heart-shaped chocolates. Your house was locked up, and what did I see?” Jeremiah slaps the tire iron, doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Mama hanging flowers on a wireframe arch, and Maggie in white, practicing walking in heels.”
I lay the wrench down and face him. “In the house?”
“That fucking animal was in the recliner, just watching them.” He squeezes my shoulder, presses the warm tire iron against my stomach. “I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear wedding bells.” I go to speak and Jeremiah stops me. “There’s only one man left who’d snatch up Maggie, the other being six foot under ground.”
“It isn’t me.”
Jeremiah looks me over. “Sure it is.”
I make a show of snatching the wrench off the radiator. “I’m getting the hell off the reservation. You think I want more strings?”
He curls his lip, takes the bait. “True enough.”
“I have a hunch,” I say. “Since it’s neither one of us.”
Jeremiah glances at his snakeskin boots, looks up with epiphany. “You do something about it, Rockhard. I ain’t goin’ within a hundred yards of that shit. Some things is too much for a man to stomach.”
I close the hood. Even broken, the Ford’s the best I can do.
“You’ll need this.” Jeremiah tosses me the tire iron.
The Ford overheats a mile from the house, and I walk the rest of the way. I swing the tire iron in the cool afternoon. My bones ache, and I’m heartsore. It’s been a long time since I’ve walked the main road, and the potholes and cracks seem new. The house rises from the mining land, crooked in its age, singles peeled back, siding missing, twenty year paint green with fungus. One of the windows is busted, and we covered it with plastic a year ago.
The front door is locked. I shove it with my full weight, pound on it, and wait. Crawlers behind the house screech to a stop as the shift whistle sounds. Workers yell. Truck doors slam. I wipe the living room window with my forearm, but some of the dust is so old it won’t clean off.
The furniture is pushed to the wall. Bobby’s recorder is on coffee table, beside a rose bouquet. Mama’s in a summer dress I’ve never seen her wear, and Maggie holds a bouquet of chrysanthemums. I tap the window, knowing they must hear me. The animal is hunched in the recliner, fur looking like it was combed with a wire brush. Mama switches on the tape recorder, and Bobby’s voice sounds over the hiss.
Bobby says, “I’ve waited too long. Too long.”
Mama sets up the speakerphone like when the preacher calls.
Bobby says, “Here and now, I’m working this out.”
The preacher’s voice is deep and hollow over the speaker. “Today, we bring these two together in holy matrimony.”
I go at the door handle with the tire iron. I hit the lock like I’ve never hit anything before, put my back into it.
Bobby says, “I want it for real this time. I do.”
I miss a couple times, splinter the wood, finally make contact. The tire iron pings against brass. The handle clacks down the steps, and I kick the door. It’s chained from the inside.
The preacher says, “Do you, Bobby, take this woman to be your wife?”
I rattle the door, slamming my shoulder into it.
Bobby says, “I do. I do. I really do.”
“And do you, Maggie, take this man to be your husband?”
“Stop!” I yell, breaking in.
The animal sits up on its haunches, wearing a blue necktie, and the tie is mine. Maggie’s got this look on her face like she’s seeing ghosts. Her cheeks are washed in makeup the color of funeral lilies, her hair done up with plastic flowers. She’s wearing the eggshell white dress from high school prom, when she went with Bobby instead of me.
The only fight Bobby and I ever had was after that prom. I punched him in the gut, and I’ll never forget it. It was the first time I’d ever punched anyone.
The speakerphone crackles. “Do I hear an objection?”
“Please, Caleb.” Mama has tears in her eyes. “It’s all they ever wanted.”
“Stay out of this,” Maggie says, petting the animal. “Just stay out of it.”
“This isn’t Bobby,” I say. “Preacher, you’ve been tricked.”
The phone line goes dead.
Mama lifts the animal and runs outside. “It’s all ruined,” she cries.
Maggie catches my arm. “You’ve done enough.”
“This crazy business,” I say.
“It wouldn’t have been legal.”
“She could’ve been the way she used to be.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“I’m trying to help.”
“Then don’t make it any worse.”
I take Bobby’s motorcycle out to his spot. A swell blows through, leaving clear dusk behind, and Mama sits in Bobby’s imprint, shivering in her yellow sundress. She holds the animal to her breast and rocks. The crawlers are empty and motionless, and Mama stares at them like she did that day, as though they are monsters.
I kill the engine, roll to a stop.
Deer search for grazing land between the crawlers’ tires. Seeing Mama, they encircle the square, sniff and lick the animal, nudge it with the flat of their heads. The animal struggles from Mama’s arms and joins the herd as they migrate toward a stretch of forest. Mama lies down where Bobby took his last breath, gazing at the animal retreating in the dust.
I kickstart the motorcycle, and I don’t look back.
Frank Ard is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and current student in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. His work has appeared in Suspense Magazine, Kaleidotrope, Birmingham Arts Journal, Fantastique Unfettered, The Future Fire, and the recent Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring ’20s anthology. He’s working on a short story collection about animals and a novel about machines. He blogs unreliably at frankrayard.wordpress.com. He says:
I’m quite obsessed with the idea of home as a character catalyst. There is no other place in our wide world which evokes such nostalgic, yet mixed, emotions to those who’ve stayed anyplace long enough to grow roots.
I set out out to explore the notion of home as simultaneously vital and fallow, to tangle setting, character, and plot like a windblown braid, such that the three storytelling strands are inextricable.