I could make things up on the spot, and it came out natural. I changed words around and added something of my own here and there. Nothing do or die, nothing really formulated, all major chord stuff, maybe a typical minor key. You could write twenty or more songs off that one melody by slightly altering it. I could slip in verses or lines from old spirituals and blues. What I usually did was start out with something, some kind of line written in stone and then turn it with another line—make it add up to something else than it originally was.”
—Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One
I: Black Dog
Jeremiah Burkhart walked along the Allentown Road. The mild winter’s wind swept over the brown winter fields in long, agitated swells. A shutter clacked against the sideboard of an abandoned house next to the road. A lone oak tree, standing stark against the horizon, creaked and moaned. Beyond the tree were fields, only fields, as far as the eye could see.
In the distance Jeremiah saw a large black dog emerge in the field from over a rise. The dog’s head rose and turned as it became aware of Jeremiah. The wind pushed past Jeremiah toward the animal, carrying his scent with it. For seconds the two creatures stood still and silent, observing one another. Jeremiah felt the animal’s knowing eyes upon him. Then the dog put its head down and continued on its course. Something about its lope seemed jerky, uncoordinated, as if it was sick or wounded. It disappeared beyond the same rise, into the ocean of denuded field beyond Jeremiah’s consciousness.
There were no cars on the road. Jeremiah walked on the crumbling asphalt. The leather sole on his right shoe was separating from the toe. He cursed the shoe. He cursed the world and the wind and the sky above. He cursed the Allentown Road.
He came to the bottom at Sills Creek. The water was turgid and brown from recent rain, the banks incised from erosion. Two girls washed clothes in a bucket with a metal washboard. One of the girls carried the water in a metal pail up the steep bank, pulling at roots and rocks for balance; the other scrubbed gray cotton cloth against the board. The thin cloth of their cotton dresses, wet with water and work, was translucent in the afternoon light.
Jeremiah stood with his hands on the wooden rails of the bridge watching them work. They were young girls, barely in their teens, their faces drawn and scowling, stick-like arms. He did not recognize them but recognized their type: children of the fields, children of toil, tired and hungry, sown in fields of poverty and watered with the rains of resentment.
“You girls better put some more clothes on,” he said. “It may be warm now but that wind will catch you a cold.”
The girl with the washboard looked up at him as if he was a phantom, as if he was hardly there. “We ain’t got no other clothes mister,” her voice flat and cold. She returned to her work. The other girl emerged at the top of the bank with her half-filled bucket. She did not turn her head his way.
He walked on. Twenty minutes later a brown truck appeared on the horizon. He stopped to watch its approach, watch its wake of dust and gravel flume into the gaping sky. The truck slowed then stopped. The window on the driver’s side, covered in dust, lowered, revealing his brother’s unkempt hair, then his forehead, his hooked nose, the thin spread of his pursed lips.
“What you doing, Jeremiah?”
“What does it look like I’m doing, Vernon? I’m walking to Allentown. That’s what I’m doing.”
“Momma’s sick.” It was at once a question and a statement. The man pushed strands of black oiled hair back over his head with a weathered hand.
“That’s right. I’m going to get her medicine. Wanna give me a ride?”
“I got to go slop Tolliver’s hogs. I got to make a living, don’t I?”
Jeremiah didn’t answer. He just spit a wet, phlegmy ball into the dirt next to Vernon’s truck. The ignition sputtered and coughed; Jeremiah refused to watch him drive away.
The clouds grew voluminous and gray. The stiff wind blew sand and gravel into his face as he walked. Its angry moan masked the sound of a car approaching him from behind. He turned, finally sensing the vehicle. The car was a make he recalled from childhood, a dark green sedan with sharp, angular lines and an oddly shaped trunk, curved and sweeping toward the ground. The man in the car was also ancient, with thick creases on his forehead and face, a clouded right eye. He addressed Jeremiah as “Boy.”
“You seen a dog?” He smiled as he spoke, revealing yellow, intermittent teeth. “A black dog?”
“Yeah, I saw a dog. A ways back.” Jeremiah pointed in the direction from which he had come. “About an hour ago.”
The man cursed, pulled the car in reverse. “Don’t get near it. Just leave it alone.”
“Is it sick?” He remembered the dog’s eyes on him, the odd way it walked; a chill shivered down his spine. “Is it rabid?”
The man peered at Jeremiah, his left eye wandering, leaving only the milk eye to regard him. “Nah, he ain’t rabid.” The car reversed into an awkward three-point turn. The tires spun dirt and sod into the air as the car vanished in the direction from which it came.
Jeremiah continued to walk down the road. The tops of the clouds turned orange, then pink, then purple. Evening was coming; the air grew cold. How had he so badly misjudged the time? He realized he would never make Allentown, not until the dead of night; he turned home. Mother would smile at him when he returned, the way one smiles at a memory. But then time collapsed and he remembered his mother was already gone, passed years ago. The road turned liquid and slippery, carrying him toward a familiar destination, a place whose name he could not quite form.
He came over a rise. The black dog was waiting for him in the road, eyes glowing like specters. It snarled like it was calling out his name.
Interlude: Frankie’s Gun
The turkey vulture soars low over the green field. The boy, his son, tracks the flight of the bird with the barrel of the toy gun. “Blam, blam,” the boy calls, slurring the words to mimic the explosion of a gun. Francis watches from the red clay road. “That’s right,” he says. “Nice shot.”
The boy returns to his father, carrying the rifle military-style on his shoulder. It is his treasure, a handmade gift from his grandfather, a replica flintlock, with wooden stock and barrel and brass fittings. Francis’s own toy, actually, carefully restored by his father and presented to the boy on his seventh Christmas with the reluctant approval of Francis’s wife, his childhood nickname, “Frankie,” stamped onto the brass plate on the stock.
“Did you see me? Did you see me shoot that bird?”
“I saw you. Come on, let’s keep walking. We might see some turkeys down the road.”
The child nods at this logic, though he prefers the thin coat of winter rye on the field to the hard-packed red clay of the road. They walk side by side yet yards apart, the boy engaged in some imaginary battle with the spirits of the field, Francis scanning the woods to the right for turkey.
A Saturday in mid-February, warm with a southwesterly breeze, a rain system moving in but the day still pleasant and dry, sky the color of light gray putty, dimensionless, flat, the light gentle and refracted in the late afternoon. A good day to get out of the house, where the boy has spent the day trapped by violent fantasies, firing the gun at the TV, at Francis, at his mother. “This is what I was worried about,” she says with a frustrated, knowing sigh. “I don’t like him playing with that gun all day.”
Francis nods in understanding at his wife’s concerns but thinks of his own childhood, the elaborate, violent fantasies of his own youth, wars and secret missions, epic gun battles in the dark corners of his imagination.
So Francis extricates the boy to this place, three hundred acres on the other side of the river. Not his farm, his land, but land he has use of on a warm winter’s day.
A rustling to his left, a flock of turkeys collected at the edge of the woods, near the road, just as he hoped. Francis freezes, hoping the birds are not yet aware, but it is too late. They scurry into the woods, the span of their tail feathers flashing white against the grey trees. “Look! Turkeys!” he exclaims in a soft voice.
The boy emerges from his fantasies to catch a glimpse of the excited, fleeing birds. He raises the rifle to his shoulder and pretends to fire.
II: The Carolinian
We were sitting on a bench at the station waiting for The Carolinian. It was night and, except for the station attendant inside, we were alone. The light was yellow and eerie.
Empty train stations make me feel uneasy, like the morning after a nuclear holocaust.
“Attention passengers. The Amtrak Carolinian, southbound for Charlotte, will be arriving on schedule. Please move to the boarding area.”
Who was he talking to? I looked at Delia, black eyes, hair a mess. Delia was looking northbound, up the tracks.
We were waiting for her sister, Roseanne. She was the kind of sister you didn’t know about until the day before she comes to town.
“She’ll be here for a few days,” Delia said. She was eating a bowl of Fruit Loops at the kitchen table in our apartment.
“I didn’t even know you had a sister.”
She looked at me like I was stupid. “I told you about her. I told you about her a few weeks ago.” I could tell she was about to get mean. “Anyway, it’s my apartment.”
I just walked to the bedroom we shared, lay down in the bed we slept in together. When Delia was determined to have her way, she brought up the apartment. I wasn’t on the lease. Technically I didn’t pay rent. But I’d lived there for six months, ever since I met Delia.
So we were at the station, waiting on The Carolinian. Delia was on the phone to Roseanne, who wasn’t answering.
The train pulled into the station, screeching and huffing. I could not believe the size of it. I guess I never will. Yellow eyes peering out from a grimy silver face. Bizarre angular nose, cars of corrugated steel. It was funny the way people who got off the train looked up and down the tracks, like even they could not believe a train station could be so empty. Like they were expecting a brass band. Delia stood, looking for her sister.
“I thought you said she was on The Carolinian?” Secretly I was relieved.
“I did.” Delia was looking at her phone, texting something furiously.
The Carolinian pulled away, breaks blowing, wheels scraping on the track. I went to wait in the car while Delia talked to the attendant. Fifteen minutes later she came to the car. “She fell asleep. She missed her stop. We have to drive to Charlotte to get her.”
That meant I had to drive to Charlotte. Delia didn’t have a car. She never remembered that when she criticized me about the apartment, how I never paid my share. She never remembered I drove her all over this goddamn town.
The sky was clear out on the interstate. I forget how much I like to drive at night, the stars expanding into unfathomable horizons, the air brisk and clean in my nose. I like to watch the lights of planes streaking across the sky. I like to listen to low voices on the radio murmuring of serious and difficult things.
Roseanne was waiting for us at the Amtrak station in Charlotte. She was sitting in one of those plastic molded chairs, looking at something on her phone. “What took you so long?” she said, and I could tell she wasn’t kidding. Her hair was the same as Delia’s, same color, same cut. Her face and eyes were the same. But she weighed twice as much as Delia, with a thick roll of fat around her belly, fat pooling on her ankles and thighs.
I’m not going to lie to you. The first thing I thought about was whether Delia would look like that someday.
Roseanne was hungry, so we took her to IHOP. She ordered a stack of pancakes with strawberry topping; Delia ordered the same. I drank coffee. I wasn’t feeling hungry. Roseanne kept looking at me sourly. “What church do you go to?” she asked.
I waited for Delia to say something. She didn’t. “We don’t go to church,” I said.
“I go to church,” Delia said, even though she never did.
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Roseanne was shoveling pancakes into her mouth while she talked. Strawberry juice pooled on her plate like the blood of her savior.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I was getting ticked.
Roseanne looked at Delia. They exchanged something with their eyes.
We drove back to our apartment. While Roseanne was in the bathroom Delia handed me a pillow. “I think you should sleep on the sofa.”
“Tonight? Or as long as she’s here?”
She wouldn’t answer the question.
I lay down on the sofa; Roseanne and Delia stayed in our room. My room. I could hear them talking deep into the night. I went to sleep to the sound of their voices rising and falling in a familiar cadence, the sound of incantations.
When I woke Delia was looking down at me. “I think you should find somewhere else to stay for a while,” she said. She wasn’t even sorry about it.
“Don’t worry. I’m already gone.”
Later, after I packed everything into my duffel, after I drove around all day, and after I got drunk at Keegan’s, I thought of something my uncle used to say. “Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Stop this day and night with me and you shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books.”
It was something I wanted to say to Delia.
I didn’t know where to go so I ended up back at the station, watching the freights blow by. The night was empty, and I was alone. I felt uneasy. Somewhere, in the distance, The Carolinian moaned.
Interlude: Frankie’s Gun
That night he watches a movie with his wife until almost eleven. “Francis, come here,” she says as he is cleaning up the kitchen, preparing for bed. “Something’s happened.”
Light from police sirens fills the foyer of their house, bathing the woman in blue strobing light. She is standing at the front door, peering through the glass panes. The street is filled with police cars. Police cars blocking the intersection with Lee Street. A police car at the other end of the block, parked perpendicular, sealing the street.
The first thing he notices is a police officer wrapping yellow “Caution” tape through the crepe myrtle trees across the street. He works calmly, almost wearily.
“Look,” she says. “Do you think he’s dead?”
His eyes travel to where her voice leads him, the front porch of the tiny yellow cottage across the street. A large male body lays on it, palms up, head out of sight, pointing toward the door. Death emanates from it like infinity emanates from a star.
On her knees, leaning over the body, a young woman performs CPR. He first saw the young woman on the porch a few days before, the cottage home to an ever-revolving cast of itinerant young people. A man, her husband or boyfriend, stands above them, his back to the wall, watching her pump the dead man’s chest with a slack calm. Two police officers, a man and a woman, stand in the yard of the cottage on the concrete walk, watching the woman work.
“Do you think it’s that guy?”
He knows whom she means. The obese one. Of the house’s ever-changing inhabitants, he seems a constant, a benign, mild-mannered young man in his early twenties, unemployed. By his own admission, in his few brief conversations with Francis, he mostly spends his days playing video games.
“I don’t know.” The body on the porch looks more athletic, less rotund. But at this angle it is impossible to tell, his head hidden, the blue light painting everyone in shadows of blue and black. “Maybe.” He can easily imagine that young man having a heart attack. Less likely, though, that he would extricate himself from his video game to step onto the porch to die.
The question will go unanswered for now. They watch until an ambulance arrives, parking in the middle of the intersection, their street, their neighborhood, now a police state. The paramedics roll a stretcher up the walk, the watching police officers parting for it languidly. Only with the arrival of the paramedics does the young woman arise from her futile task, rushing to embrace the young man, who accepts her vaguely, almost indifferently. Only then, at the young woman’s moment of surrender and grief, does Francis feel voyeuristic and cheap.
“I’m going to go on up.” He starts to climb the stairs, his wife still at the glass, face half-lit blue.
“What about Alexander?” she says without taking her eyes away from the door. “What will we tell him in the morning?”
“I don’t know,” Francis admits. “We’ll have to see.”
He spent the winter at an old farm house on Buddy Hoffner’s farm in Millbridge, at the end of a dirt road. Just two rooms and a toilet. Hot plate and a kitchen sink. Wood stove that barely kept the place warm. At night you could hear the wind coming through the cracks in the walls, the coyotes calling to each other on distant fields.
It was the kind of place where it was OK to be lonely or alone. There wasn’t any TV. No other houses around for what seemed like miles. Some nights he listened to the Tar Heels on the radio. Some nights he drank and drifted in his dreams.
On a Tuesday evening in early March he went for a walk along the creek. The weather was unusually warm. Thunderheads ascended over the fields as he returned home, the air grown heavy and kinetic. Tiny raindrops pecked at his face. He returned to the house to cook his supper, franks and baked beans on the hot plate, his last bottle of cold Bud Light from the cooler on the porch. As he stirred the beans the thunder intensified, deep, agitated rumblings, distant collisions of explosive expansions of air.
Rain tapped at the roof, lightly at first, then louder, harder, as if in a rush to return to the earth. He put the beans on low and went to the front porch to watch the rain splash in the yard, sheets of it rolling in across the Technicolor green fields painted with winter rye.
The thunder descended, moved closer, as if seeking him, loud cracks shaking the thin window panes. Lightning reached down toward the horizon of fields, followed by a sharp, rattling crack. The rain was pounding, pounding on the yard, pounding on the tiny house, delicate with wear and age, pounding on the fields and the trees and the sky. Streams of water red from clay furrowed the yard. Great clouds of mist, the water overcoming the land, rose from the ground and took the shape of ghosts. Sharecroppers and baseball-capped farmers on tractors, Confederate soldiers, dust bowl drifters, all of them marching across the yard, passing through him as he watched them emerge and float through the mist.
A bolt of lightning struck an oak tree in the field. He watched the spindle split the sky, split the branches and the trunk with a fiery crack,the smell of burning wood already filling the air.
He felt the heart of the storm move over and through him. He went back inside the house and turned on the radio, seeking news of the storm. Bobby Hebb sang “Sunny” on the local AM station. He twisted the dial as lightning sizzled and sparked around the house. Static and conjunto music, ads for improved stamina, angry men talking of politics and hate.
Angry energy formed in the distance. The rain lessened, then stopped. He returned to the porch, drawn by a drop in pressure that filled him with strange fear. Tendrils of black clouds swirled and twisted in the sky. Thunder cracked in the distance.
The light turned from gray to yellow-green. Silence consumed the landscape, as if God was inhaling all sound and oxygen, and he felt it before he heard it, the twister, rumbling across the earth.
He returned to the radio, irrationally seeking denial of what his heart knew. Only static and Conway Twitty as he twisted the dial, then the power died.
The twister was coming closer. From the porch he watched the funnel, trees and dust churning in its wake. At some point the world became timeless and he realized the great beast was moving faster than it appeared, realized he was in the path of it, the awareness slowly turning from fear to reverence to awe. A high-pitched hum slowly differentiated into the sound of wood and debris colliding at high speeds. The funnel roiled closer. As he stepped in the house the pressure of the wind pressed against the window panes, the front wall bowed inward. He crouched in the floor of house’s sole closet as the wind became deafening.
He huddled there, arms wrapped around his head. “Dear Lord,” he moaned. “Dear Lord.” The house began to disintegrate in the force of the wind. Siding ripped from the wall. Shingles blew away like tiny seeds. He felt the floor rise into the air, then come back down. The roof blew apart, and the wind, twirling and twisting, a vision of God, angry and alive, vengeful, a great, sentient, swirling smoke eye, was above him. “Oh Lord. Oh Lord,” he cried. “Oh Lord. Oh Lord.”
He woke to a vision of stars, a great expanse of diamond light shimmering beyond all comprehension and knowledge. The night was quiet and still. A passenger jet crawled across the sky, its unblinking red eye staring down silently at the abstract of dark devastation below. The crescendo chirp of spring peepers rose from the stream bed.
He lay in a bed of shattered siding and two-by-fours. He was woozy, humbled by the power of his vision and grateful for the mercy of God. After what must have been hours he realized no one was coming for him. Even in this realization he lacked the power to move. The night burned from black to deep, somber blue; stars twisted across the sky in a slow, translucent arc. He watched them while he dreamed.
By morning the sky was cloudy, the air once more cold. Dried blood was caked to the side of his head, smeared over a large gash in his skull. He crawled away from the wreckage of the house, pushing board and chunks of drywall aside until he reached bare ground, like a castaway crawling through the surf to the salvation of shore. Wearily but with a heart full of gratitude and mercy and awe, he pushed himself to his feet, praising the sanctity of solid ground. A black dog appeared in the field on the horizon; the animal watched him impassively over the distance. The sight of it filled him with sudden apprehension, as if the twister had returned in specter form to survey its devastation. He walked toward the Allentown Road, casting furtive glances over his shoulder toward the dog. The animal followed at a distance.
IV: Birds and Blood
Isabel lived in a tiny duplex north of town, a few blocks from City Park. That’s where I met her, on the north meadow where no one ever goes except for flocks of starlings and Canada geese. I was sitting on a bench there, watching leaves float in the creek, and Isabel was sitting next to me, smiling.
Something about that smile. Not innocence. Not purity. But warmth. Acceptance. The promise of understanding. She was easy. She gave herself away with her smile. Yes, easy in a sexual way. But also the easiness of a soul that didn’t make demands or impose expectations.
She invited me back to her duplex for a cup of tea and then we made love on the duvet in her bedroom. Afterward we drank cheap red wine and talked of places we wished we could travel, talked about our favorite times of year.
She wasn’t a classic beauty, not your bombshell type. She was delicate, with long, graceful arms and legs, a long neck, flat chest, a sharp, too-long nose. She was delicate like a long-limbed bird. Long wisps of finespun brown hair that floated and fluttered in the slightest breeze, then returned to rest atop her head like spent gossamer. Crooked teeth. A deep, genuine laugh. Clear and empty eyes.
She wasn’t a prostitute. Far from it. But I wanted to do things for her. Fix things. Buy her things. Lighten her load. Sometimes I would bring her groceries. She always smiled easily, glowingly, like my offerings were an unexpected gift, even if we both knew that wasn’t true.
I always knew she had other men. Their signs were everywhere: a new kitchen faucet here, a repaired floorboard there. Venison in the freezer. Screen door on a shiny new hinge. One time I arrived at her place to find a flat-screen TV expertly mounted on the wall. She didn’t have cable, though, or even a DVD player, so we stared in amusement at the empty silver-brown screen.
The only thing I didn’t like about being at Isabel’s was the bird, a large silver parrot Isabel told me was an African Grey. The parrot was always nervously prancing around an undersized cage muttering “Pretty Polly” and “Pretty Bird.” Something about that bird was unnatural and strange, the way it was always watching Isabel, the way Isabel, in the back of her mind, was always watching that bird.
“Why don’t you get rid of that thing,” I said one evening. “It makes me nervous.”
“Somebody gave it to me,” she said. “They’re supposed to live fifty to seventy years. I guess we’ll be together forever.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I mean, who would want to spend their whole life with a creepy bird? Who liked contemplating eternity?
But then again, who was I to complain, the way I indulged in Isabel? I loved to whisper her name while we were making love. “Isabel. Isabel. Isabel,” the sound of it like some ancient incantation. “Oh Isabel.”
Once when I was leaving Isabel’s house there was a man sitting inside a white car across the street. The car looked grimy and outdated, five years past its prime. He had his window down and he watched me as I walked away. He was the kind of man with red, faraway eyes, like he hadn’t slept in years. He spoke to me as I passed: “I don’t want you staying with Polly. Don’t come back to Polly’s, you hear?”
It wasn’t that there was menace in the voice. Far from it. That voice held only sad desperation, like a condemned man. At first I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Who was Polly? Was he talking about the bird?
Maybe I should’ve been concerned. Maybe I should’ve confronted him, or gone back to Isabel’s house to warn her there was some creep outside her house.
But I didn’t. The guy looked too sad and washed out to be dangerous. Or maybe I was in a rush. Maybe I just didn’t want to get involved in another part of Isabel’s life, the part that wasn’t easy.
I watched the police cars collect at the north meadow of City Park a few days later and I knew, I just knew, they were there for Isabel. They found her body in the creek. According to the newspaper story, she’d been dead for three days, her long graceful neck sliced open with a kitchen knife, her body stashed in the culvert running under the street until it was flushed into the creek by spring storms.
The paper said her name was Polly Murphy, that she’d grown up in the children’s home in Rockwell, that she had no family, no next of kin. I guess she gave herself the name “Isabel.”
I almost called the police to tell them what I’d seen. But I never did. I thought about Isabel, how a young woman with nothing, no family, no roots, could seek those things in the men who desired her. How her isolation opened her to the world, her freedom made her something men desired because it was something they once knew inside themselves. I thought about the man in the car with the red-rimmed eyes and the lost, hopeless look on his face. I thought how, in another time, another life, that man could’ve been me. How an easy abandon like Isabel’s only fills some men with blood and rage.
And what was the point? It wouldn’t bring Isabel back. She died as she lived, giving herself away, requiring only adoration and sustenance in return, like a bird in an undersized cage. A creature like that is too delicate to live very long. I still like to say her name. “Isabel. Oh Isabel.” I still think of her when I am drinking tea or when I am watching birds alight upon an empty field.
Interlude: Frankie’s Gun
The front promised on Saturday moves in on Sunday, cold, with cold, misting rain. A remnant knot of police tape is still tied around a crepe myrtle as Francis recovers the Sunday paper from the sidewalk in the gray rain. Otherwise the street is empty, silent, as it was before, without trace of death.
The newspaper tells the story. Anthony “Bonedaddy” Dupree, age 23, was shot in self-defense by a resident at 923 N. Lee Street as he attempted to rob the home. Dupree fled the house and died on the porch of the home across the street from Francis’s as he sought help for his wound. Dupree, the story says, was well known to local authorities, with an extensive criminal record.
He doesn’t speak as he hands the paper to his wife. She reads the story silently, then says, “It’s sad.”
“Sounds like he had it coming.”
She only nods, distracted by the sound of their son’s feet pattering on the wood floor upstairs.
“At least they took down all the police tape.”
She puts her index finger to her lips. Be quiet, she tells him with her eyes, do not discuss this in front of the child.
Later they prepare to go out for lunch, a Sunday ritual, looking for shoes and putting up toys and transferring freshly washed sheets to the dryer. Francis, reading in the living room as he waits for his family, hears voices on the street outside. He peers out the window and through the misting rain at two women, one white and one black, standing in the yard across the street. They are distraught, disconsolate. Grievers of a dead young man. The inhabitants of the house, the man and woman from the night before, the obese video game addict, stand lined up on the porch watching their grief impassively like a silent chorus.
The boy and his mother come into the living room. “We’re ready, Dad,” the child says brightly.
“I think we should wait a few more minutes.” He points with his eyes out the window. The women are now on the sidewalk, consoling one another, less than ten feet away from Francis’s parked car.
His wife perceives the situation. “Come on, honey,” she says to the boy. “Let’s pick up your room a little more before we go.”
The boy accepts this deception as he accepts all random adult behavior, with benign good will. Five minutes later the women are gone, the muted neighbors returned inside their home, the street once more empty. “Come on,” Francis calls up the stairs where the woman and child are still at work. “I’m ready to eat.” The boy, ecstatic to be done with his chore, runs down the stairs to his waiting father.
V: Delia’s Gone
When was the last time I saw Delia? It was at that bar, Three Fifteen. Remember? Down by the railroad tracks across from the Cheerwine Building. I hadn’t seen or heard from her in months, since I moved out of her apartment, but I ran into her earlier that day at the JCPenney. I ducked in for some new socks and there she was, working in the men’s section. She looked good in her polyester pants and bright blue blouse, hair grown long, falling down around her shoulders, a little lipstick on her lips, a little makeup on her face. That was the thing about Delia, she could blow you away when she tried.
I was headed down to Three Fifteen later that night anyway and thought I’d just mention it, see if she wanted to come along. By then I’d forgotten why I was so mad at her anyway. She gave me that look like she was sizing me up, black eyes smoldering. Said she had some other plans but she might drop by.
Well, I tried not to think about it. Three Fifteen was dead that night, just the regular drunks pretending they weren’t alone. I was shooting pool with a guy named Jones but neither one of us gave a damn. We were just wasting time.
Then Delia walks in with Cooney Houston. She was wearing a mini-skirt and black leather boots, leather jacket over a tight t-shirt. She put a charge in that place, I can tell you that. She put a charge in me.
I’d heard she’d been running around with Cooney, but sure didn’t think she’d invite him along on our date. She pranced over to my table and said “Hi Jeremiah” like it was all just a big coincidence, me and her and Cooney. Cooney didn’t say anything.
They got their own table and she was prancing around it, shaking her ass at every fool in the place. But it seemed like she was shaking it at me. Delia sure could drive me crazy. Maybe that was love, and I was just too foolish to recognize it. Maybe it was something else. I still don’t know. But I could tell she was putting old Cooney on edge, too. He wouldn’t get himself a drink, just kind of slumped there against the wall watching Delia put on her show.
Here’s the thing. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to make me jealous of Cooney, or Cooney jealous of me. I thought about that question for years and finally came up with the answer. Want to know? She was just creating jealousy, building it like a carpenter builds a house or a baker bakes a cake. Didn’t matter which way, long as she was at the center of it, riding it like an electric charge. Finally I got so mad I just threw my cue down on the table and walked out of the bar. Didn’t even pay my tab. Never went back there again. She’d ruined it for me, like she ruined so many things.
A few months later I heard Freightliner was transferring Cooney to Shelby, and I guess he asked Delia to come with him. They got married and had two kids. Delia got fat and mean, just like her sister. At least that’s what Cooney told me when I ran into him a few years ago. Said she got to talking about Jesus all the time and making him feel so guilty for his sinful ways he couldn’t take it no more. They got divorced and, according to him, she married the preacher at some fundamentalist church. Far as I know, she’s still down there, helping him preach the gospel of her vengeful lord.
I guess I always figured that was pretty much what would happen. I guess I count myself lucky in some ways.
Here’s the thing I always remember about Delia. It was back after we first got together, when we used to talk about all the places we wanted to go. We’d talk about moving to Paris or Spain. Sometimes Australia. You know, crazy ass places like that. But we were young, and the talk was real. We liked to dream together.
One time she got invited to use her cousin’s cabin in Maine. Her cousin had married a plumber, and they moved up north chasing work. Guess he must’ve done pretty good because he had a nice cabin way back in the woods.
I wasn’t working and Delia didn’t care so we just hopped in my car, like leaving for Maine or Paris or Spain at a moment’s notice was something we’d always be able to do. Didn’t take long to get there either. Just two days, not as long as you’d think for a place so far away.
The cabin was way back in the woods. Maybe there was a Walmart a few miles away, but you wouldn’t know it, not the way we went, along mountain roads where all you ever saw was logging trucks and forest. We finally got there at the end of that second day. Like I said, the place was real nice, a log cabin with a big fireplace and a porch that looked out over the mountains. In the back of the house was a big meadow that somebody must’ve kept mowed.
There wasn’t much to do there except make love and cook out on the grill. I’d a been happy just reading on that porch, but Delia wasn’t much of a reader, so we went exploring down through the woods, found us a creek where Delia sunned herself in her tangerine bikini and I tried to catch trout with a bait reel and a can of corn.
In the top of a closet we found a toy that was like a Frisbee, except it was hollow in the middle, like a flat, plastic doughnut. You threw it kind of like a Frisbee, but if you got it right, it would fly forever, as far as that meadow was long.
Delia and I got pretty good throwing that Frisbee. We got so we could throw it just right, with a little lift and loft, so you’d have to run and run under it, judge it just right so you would be under it when it finally floated back to the ground. There was something thrilling about that toy, I tell you. A feeling of accomplishment and joy when it finally floated down and landed softly into your outstretched hand, how you could just run and run, your eyes peeled upward at it, soaring against that clear blue Maine sky, knowing that if you just kept running, it would eventually come back to you.
I remember us in that meadow, running and laughing and just as happy as we could be. That’s what I like to think about when I think about Delia. I wonder if she ever thinks about that meadow, too.
But Delia’s gone now. Hey bartender, how about another round for me and my old friend? Yes sir, Delia’s gone.
Epilogue: Frankie’s Gun
They return on the red clay farm road to where Francis parked. The boy is weary and ill-tempered. “Forty-one,” he says. “Forty-two.” They walk in silence for a few moments, then hear two more gunshots cracking. “Forty-three. Forty-four.”
“You don’t need to count every one.” The shooting began as they reached the bottom, where the river met the land. The shots are loud but not close, across the river, out of range, yet the sound distresses the boy.
“Let’s go,” the boy complained as the shots continued. “I’m scared.”
Francis assured him they were not in danger but the boy would not be consoled. “What are they shooting at?”
“Just shooting. Probably target practice.”
Now the child trudges wearily back toward the truck, keeping count of each shot, the toy gun hanging loosely from his hand. Several times Francis chastises him for letting the barrel drag the ground.
At the truck they are both frustrated; the shooting has spoiled the fun of their imaginary hunt. “Put the gun in the back,” Francis commands, then adds, “Carefully.”
The boy lays the weapon down emphatically in the bed of the truck, as if he is glad to be through with it, as if the gunfire and the fields and the birds are part of some distasteful alien landscape to which he hopes never to return, as if he is done with the violence of this world.