He’d set the foremost step of the frontstoop till day’s end. Masticating his molars sore. His stoic face angular for an adolescent, illumined by slats of sunlight carouseled off yon windpump once siphoned, now dry as his eyes fixed on the gravel farmroad receding round a copse of withered willow. He expected every hour his father’s Chevrolet to hiccup up in a gust of dust.
He recalled his father sallying forth from the heatwaves yesteryear. He awaited his return from an errand of many leagues.
Bill. Billy Boy, his mother called through the crooked flyscreen. There y’are. She stepped to the porch in a plaid autumnal-colored apron over a cotton sundress. Taciturn and back turned to her he handled a fresh statuette of pine, woodpulp fleshy. Coiled shavings lay around. I said ello Bill, she said. You c’n least have the courtesy to say it back.
He folded his pocketknife and pocketed it.
She eyed him solicitously. Likened to her father in mettle, she thought. Phlegmatic. Figurd I’d find ya out ere, she said. Atsa nice carving yer whittlin, darlin. Heckofa talent ya’ve got.
Its fer Papa. Once he get back.
Shore’s purty. Wasit sposta be?
A coyote, he said. He said it ki-yoat.
Lemme see it. She held out her hand for it and felt it. Her arthritic finger followed the striae of his pocketknife. She wondered aloud why he’d given it a hat. And he shrugged, I dunno.
At daybreak’s twilight Papa rose to tend to chores. The world awoke with him. Sunlight. Salmon-colored sunlight risen by degree in the window cresting a tenebrous hillscape eastward past the last pale fog of a descending woodland. The outermost horizonline left dusky, like a cowled cape.
Clothed in coveralls, he coddled his wife asleep or awake. He spoke to her reassuringly. Softly. Sunshine on the horizon, Sunshine, he’d say. S’a new day, May. She smiled in slumber and blanketed her head. Papa padded out, so as not to awaken the boy.
But Billy would wake anyway.
It was dark and still those mornings. No milk. No mail. The day seeming unsure whether it was darkling or enlivening. The cold moon a motionless cueball at a cornerpocket of sky. Dust settled anew like nightly dew on the few weeds in the sloped frontyard. Air hazy, riveted, raw, they breathed it in in unison.
Papa pumped water into a pail for the fowl in their pen. It sloshed over the bucket’s brim whence carried.
The lamefooted rooster didnt foretoken today with any customary cockadoodledoo. The bird hadnt a notion for the truer turnings of the world, being partially nearsighted.
Papa christened Jeremiah the rooster a retard.
Barefoot they collected eggs early to dawn. Fists in their eyesockets they yawned. Chickencoop gate opened they traipsed in and shooed swollenbreasted Jeremiah from the hen and the hen from her eggs then put the eggs to be poached in a wickerbasket with checkered cloth overlapped, like an offering.
They scattered dried cornfeed, and watered.
Bill spoke little of the ritual. Spoke not.
Papa asked was anything set on his mind but he said, No sur.
They’d done eating a meal of oats cooked in curdling goatmilk and three slabs each of marbled porkbelly and eggs poached as planned with Wild Rhett’s Texas Hotsauce, the best breakfast they’d had in months, when Papa passed to the parlor fireplace and took a castiron coffeepot off its hook and perked its remnants directly therein on coals prod open with a black steel stoker. He waited on his heels. The fire swelled to sparks in his eyes. He surveyed its demonstrations as the first flame of humanity. With oiled mitten he removed the pot to rest on the hearth before it might whistle steam and reawaken May.
Billy entered, smelt, and asked, C’n I have some?
The silent boy speaketh, Papa announced blithely.
Billy nodded. Well. Can I?
You wouldnt like it, Papa apprised. He poured it for hisself in a tincup warped rhomboidal.
How’ll I know if I ne’er trys it?
Getchya a cup. I’ill give ya a bit. But justa bit, mind you.
I swear not ta tell Mama; he helixed his forefinger and ringfinger in a promise.
You’se a good deal smartern you look, Bill, Papa chuckled.
Billy wobbled on a rickety chair to reach unto an uppermost cabinet for a ceramic cup the color of a robin’s egg with a shattered handle. Its bottom burnt black.
Papa poured him slow a modicum then tinctured his own with an unlabeled whiskey ambered as a squat sunset off the mantelshelf and admixed it with fingerwhirls. He asked, Whada’ya think? smackering his finger of the bootleg-whiskey’d coffee.
I aint tried it yet.
Take ya a small sip.
Billy did circumspectly. S’hot, he said, huffing out the heat and steam, tongue lolled. But it’s purty dern good.
It’s supposta be hot. Papa sipped it.
Kin’a bitter too. But I does like it.
Good. Got chickory innit. Ats why it’s so bitter to ya.
I does like it, Billy nodded. He cupped the mug close. He sat crosslegged on the sooty bricks of the hearth and drank to the dregs of speckled coffeegrounds.
Papa handcombed his greasy and hoary hair and smoothed his mustache with saliva in the dim reflect of a mottled ovalglass tintype portrait of his unsmiling father in a Sunday suit. He aligned himself to replicate the face on the otherside.
C’n I get more, Pa?
Thas anough fer you fer now. Papa aboutfaced to watch Billy.
Billy fingered the grounds up the cup and licked clean.
Howd’ya find the bacon?
I liked it consid’rably.
I’d say so. Y’ate it up in one great woof. Papa winked.
Who’d you buy it off of?
The man who sold it.
Billy smirked. Mr Henry wudnt it?
Why’id’ya ask if you done knowed.
Yessum. From old niggah Henry.
Mama says we aint to say that.
Yer Mama say you aint to says aint neither. S’improper.
I knows it. She says lotsa things I aint to say. He set the mug aside. Mama’s got lotsa words she dont care for.
Yahep. Reckon she do. Papa picked at his nostril hairs.
The freed oak woodsmoke made their mucus trickle thick.
How do they decide which pigs die?
How does Mr Henry decide whichuns?
He culls the fattest. I’id reckon.
Killt em witta gun?
We done took ya to a pigcue afore. Ya saw one a Quiño’s swine slaughtered. Papa flicked a fleck of dried phlegm off his finger to the fireplace. Sure as tomorra, he said.
Billy wriggled his toes.
Dont use no gun. Ya cut theirn throats. He made the motion upon his own throat. Collect thur blood inna bucket. Ats th’only proper way. Use alla the pig. Use erry last bit of it. Caint be no wastin atall.
Is it a big knife? Billy measured at the air.
Why you wanna know how big the knife is Bill?
Jus do s’all.
Reckon it so.
Billy scrawled a pig in hearth soot. Why aint we’ve a pig?
You knows why.
Joe Slatterly’s folks gotta pig.
Slatterly’s got moren just pigs.
You mean money.
I mean money. And Mr Henry he raise em from the piglet. That’s how he gets em all. He turned to the hissing flames as if for some kindling instructions. Erryone’s born into somethin boy.
Billy sniveled and wristed a gloppy rope of mucilage along his shirtsleeve and wiped it off his bluejeans. Is ol Mr Henry poor as us?
We each got our work, Bill, said his father, judging the whiskey. A man who dont make his own dollar aint no kina man.
Bill eyed Papa. Dustmotes danced around him like gnats.
Yahe, Bill told.
Good. Now go get yer boots and kiss yer Ma. His father pulled a prerolled cigarette from a snuffbox atop a family bible and lit it off an old charred coal, holding the cold extremity.
Yessur. Where’ll I tell her it is we’s gone?
Papa smoked. Yonder. Then further than that.
She aint goinna like me crackin wise on her.
She’ill say she wont but she will. Papa sucked at his cigarette more so. Tell her we gotsta see bout some bidness.
Mullah? Billy jargoned. But his Papa wouldnt affirm it.
Billy left the parlor.
Papa smoked, reflecting on his father. He handcombed his hair and matched his eyes to the deadeyes. They looked each like younger men. Then as now.
He placed wirerim spectacles of mottled silver overear but saw naught by them. He asked his father dead ten years hence, What’d’ya say. But the deadeyes gave multivalent meaning or none.
Thus spoken thus made. After farewell it is ghosts we greet.
The world is a graveyard, where the living commune like eternalized bums. On a desiccated plain. All must meet.
All must meet. Their maker is their brother. Like Cain.
The lifesong begins at its end, with a deathly refrain.
The lifesong begins as it ends, with a deathly refrain.
The world is a graveyard, whence spawn ambling carrion. Upon untold roads unto vanishing points wander ramblers.
The door which unlocks the key that secures.
All, according to Gospel, fly away to celestial shores.
At a pigsqueal Jacob Henry awoke in his chair and awoke the calico cat off his lap. Shirtless, he scratched his chest and got up and got one rifle amongst many by the backdoor of his shotgun house and squinted past the opened pigpens to an expanse of rabbit holed pastures pocked with sagebrush. Something scurried unto dun forestage thereby evinced and out of reckoning.
God damned coyotes, he spoke, shading his sight in a salute.
The halfdozen hogs huddled in a slop puddle blinked and twirled their tails. None squealed now. S’yall’s damn fault, too, Jacob Henry told. Dont none a ya play ina’cent.
He searched for spoor. He observed no prints save his own retraced thrice and scouted the forest deeper for sign but there weren’t any. Only a frayed patch of pant clung to a thorned bush.
They drove the Chevy unto eastern hills like the humpback of a beast buried remissly. The sky a bucket of livid clouds full of holes. Carmine rays shone starkly through the claret gloom. Luminal lights of paradise connected columnar to geysered beams of hell. Off highway onto a countrylane they spoke of black dust.
So far’s I know tha’s a load a hokum, Papa said.
Bill looked slantwise yon plainscape.
You know who this propety belongs ta?
They were many miles beyond Billy’s lore of the land.
Jus take a wild guess.
Bill remarked. He espied an elevated road offshot the tiretracked caliche they jostled upon leading jagged until a long hillock obscuring a Victorian house with a white portico. Atop it wind spun a weathervane cock westerly.
I’ill give ya a notion. O K.
Him a traiteur, Papa hinted.
A traitor? Who’d he betra...
Ats Cajun talk fer faith healer. Comed over from Loo-si-ane.
I know what Loosiana is. Atsa state. I meant a faith healer.
Means he puts hands to people. Cures em.
A sorta magic, Billy awed.
They sawed along an escarpment of shalerock downward, aside a burbling brook polluted kaleidoscopically.
He’s a doctor. Basic’ly the same idear.
Oh. Bill snapped. Doctor Johnson. Yahe?
They leveled following the foul bourn then climbed another hill, the last. The Chevy lurched at the downshift.
It’s good fer you to know whose lands yer on, Papa added.
Why then aint we gone upta his house? Aint it proper to get permission? othawise it’s trespassin?
Atop the plateau, Papa nodded. You’ill see why. We gotsta help him with sumpthin first.
Below them lay a vale of rowed tree, onward dwindling, unto the curvature of horizon. That flaxen sunrise.
Papa grinned crookedly as a bent boxnail.
They came into the rivered vale tween eroded and parallel ridges of loose siltrock till forest became individualized tree. Papa parked unevenly upon a fanned swale of buffalo grass got out and chocked the truck and gathered a short-barreled shotgun from the rumbleseat and slung the thin leatherthong overshoulder and motioned for them to take a game-tracked path toward the squared line of blackjack oak. A hundred yards, yet.
Cornfields’re yonder. He indicated southwards where lay fields formed neatly at a slight slope. Granpa useta pick dere. When himsa boy bout yer age the field was jammed fulla farmhands. Cottonpickers, mostly.
Granpa pickt cotton?
Shore nough. Lotsa locals did. Pickt errythin there was to pick. He went on with an exhaustive list of cashcrops. He spoke of circular nature. Circular time. They ‘ventually had less want for workfolk, he concluded, but did not elucidate.
They walked eastward amongst post oak. There was white oak clustered therein. A transplant to the county from elsewhere. Sunshine cut bands through their branches. The woods got wilder above and bleaker below. The canopy eclipsed the shade enveloped.
Yahe, Papa added unasked, brandspankin new bidness and all. He told Bill of his father’s work. Of the shack he had built. All by hisself, Papa prided. How once there were only the hands of men and how machines were a paradoxical good. Mention of problems beyond the scope of Billy and for that matter most men. Him too. He didnt understand the motivations but there they were.
Billy searched the treelines as if some sequestered shack lurked low, just beyond the brush. I aint seein nuthin, said Billy, crestfallen. His expectations yet unmet.
Dont wanna be. Dont want nobody peekin through them winders.
Watch yer step. Coyotes leave droppins all over these trails. He indicated the earth trampled by pawprint and bootsole and a five-toed foot and a human hand which neither noticed. Back ere, Papa pointed as a bloodhound.
Billy thought wild thoughts, thoughts void of any reasoning.
They trekked northeasterly an arid stream and passed hither a whorl of rock with one weatherworn boulder set centrally like a seat. A perennial place for convening. They continued their trekk though the boy had questions about the stones which his father said he couldnt answer. Not honestly. That, as far as he could tell, they’d laid so since time itself.
Billy asked about Injuns, if they built.
Some, Papa answered. Why you wanna know?
Could it’ve been the Injuns who done it?
His Papa answered fairly. He didnt know.
Heard Caddo lived round here, said Bill.
Papa agreed to the probability. He told Bill someday he would tell him the story of Falling Rock. Bill asked why not now. Because now was not the time for such fantasies, his Pa answered.
An arch of intertwined limbs evidenced the entrance. The shack was camouflaged upon a knoll encircled taughtly by identical trees of which it was erected. An oakum insulated cabin with gunmetal smokestack grayed, planks worn and unadorned outwardly under bony oak and loblolly pine. The boughs like splayed fingers scratching at the corrugated and corroded roofing, aslant. Slumped wood. Not yet asunder but deteriorating.
It was not made for moonshining, it being walled, but repurposed to it with metal mushroom-like spores for ventilation. Upon the beveled edge of the porch’s eavestrough were words in illegible script. Sanguine characters of elsewhere, as well as the white oak. Papa told it was built before The War.
Which war, Billy asked.
The War, Papa said. He stated all war was metaphor anyway so it didnt matter which and left it at that. Bill asked what a metaphor was. Sumpthin it aint, Papa responded.
Their voices resounded.
It affected Bill with fear like a heavy air. War. Secrecy. He asked his Papa if the war he’d fought was in truth the last war. If he himself would have to fight someday as his father had.
Woodrow said so. So no.
I’m glad you come back.
Othawise I never would’ve been borned would I of?
I reckon not. But mayhap.
Papa punched a filterless smoke from the blue Bull Durham 10 count pack in his coverall breastpocket and lit it off the flickering flame of a matchhead and sucked at it fiercely.
Yer gointa help me out today, Bill, Papa said, scraping mud off the deep-lugging of one boot onto a porchslat. Help yer Mama. He slid the shotgun strap overhead and handed Billy it stock first and said, You know howta use it. I showed ya. He smoked more so then threw the cigarette and squashed it with a bootheel.
Billy eyed the sights and swung past Papa so Papa pushed the barreling further to demonstrate a safer angling. Careful with that. It aint no toy. Keep it slanted. Up or down.
I knows it. Billy earthed the gun to a fireant pyramid full of unreckonable labors.
Well then you knows moren you show. You jus set the porch and watch them woods. N dont shoot nothin but walks on all fours.
Bill’s eyes dilated. Papa pointed to a wicker rockingchair recently stained sat at the leftmost cornerpost.
I’m serious, boy. He took a rusted turnkey from his pocket and fidgeted the doorlock’s internal teeth till it unlocked.
Caint I come in?
No boy. It’s dang’rous. He footed the door in and stood in a dust-haze filtering finely out. We’s makin moonshine whiskey out ere. Of the topmost qual’ty.
What’so dang’rous bout it?
Y’ever eard the espression forewarned’s forearmed?
Well it’s true to say, and true to do. You is my eyes today.
I mean yessur.
O K then.
He left Bill on the porch with the gun. No winds rustled up.
Billy rocked in the chair and reconnected the few fragments Papa had narrated about his wartime. Of terrible trembles that jellified men’s spines likened to the quake that occurred in Cooley County when Billy was a kid. Of doubling darkness populated by flares arcing over his grimly masked comrades like the Fourth of July. Of artillery shells spreading some mustardy plague named LOST that hadnt comparable condition in present day.
Bill heard his father overset the shack but at a turn saw it remained rightside. He decided that was what happens to men after war. The innersides invert yet the outersides show no sign.
He scanned the jangled rows of tree, judging the blackened knots on lined beech trees as sets of vertical eyes. Unblinking.
Dim Darrow turned a wheelbarrow into a cart
And made a start for Santa Fe
But he never made it
There were works yet
He helped blast the mountain asunder
Before only God could move mountains
But God made man in his image
And Man made god in his image
And Man made men in the image
Dim Darrow turned the mountain into rubble
The mountain miraged a man’s face, ancient
Chief Falling Rock
The mountain crumbled and killed Mr Darrow
The trees oscillated oddly the truer Billy examined them. He heard his head hammering his heartbeat. Time seemed slowed or sped. He set the shotgun across his lap then began a handwhistle. Hands cupped and clasped he called out. He used his pinkie and ringfinger to augment the tune. The coyote call, his father called it. The full-moon tune. His father called for him to stop whistling, adding again and again that he needed no explanations.
You’ill wake these whole damnt woods, boy. So shut yer hole.
Bored, Billy began to bring the barrel before his eye scanning the treelanes north, east, south. Tracing trunks unto canopy. Eyes closed he saw no thing but redness behind his eyes. He aimed at nothing. His finger urged by boredom or by Papa’s admonition that forewarned is forearmed, Bill fired. Scattershot. The load ricocheted sound and leadshot off of bark in a booming split. Papa’s boot flung open the door.
The hell’re you doin, boy. Said...
Thought I saw’d sumpthin, he lied.
Whur? Papa scanned the forestlane.
Thur. Bill pointed with the gunmuzzle to someplace.
I musta jus spooked it off.
You set and be quiet. Y’aint spooked nothing but me. Maybe a coonie’s all it was.
Yessur I’m sorry.
I wouldnt be surprised if the Doctor come down hisself after hearin that damned rucus.
Billy apologized again and waited for his father to reenter the moonshinery then padded quietly off the porch. Back to the whorl of stone. What he wondered tautened his innards.
He followed the riverbed. He checked overshoulder for his father. Numerous times. The sound of swaying leaves attracted his ear, always near but never locatable. He knew better than believe something was always watching. But his bones believed it.
Whence he entered the convening place he squatted on the central stone of the whorl and began to handwhistle to fight the insurmisable fright he felt. The woodlands smelt smoky and stale.
A twig snapped. He swiveled on the stone the direction he’d come. His finger edged the triggerguard. Bill’s throat squeezed. He aimed at a man ambling hesitantly as a whipped dog with his back arched lowly.
The man moved across his gunsight, sniffing air. He wore uneven striped pants, one pantleg torn, of tattered cotton. A leg abraded by the elements. A moth-eaten shirt the color of mud. A man begrimed, once white. His black lard-matted hair caped round his shoulders to the ground. One eye white as a marble with a defect of duplexed pupula. As he sniffed his rump raised, hands gnarled into fists situated on their second knuckles. Locomotions like a caterpillar’s, stretching and scrunching his spinal column. A man indenomitable. Constantly kowtowing, bowing.
Stop. Stop right thur.
The man dropped, contorted to an elbow like one unlearnt of human posture. He watched Bill through splayed fingertips.
The man cocked his head, ear jutting through his hair. His eartip cowtagged with a yellowed piece of triangular plastic.
The man bent from his toes to knees with arms akimboed and head down. Like a heretic under the grim eye of some new god. He muttered unintelligibly.
You unnerstand me?
The man blinked coppery eyes.
You unnerstand American?
But the man stared on undeviating, doltish.
Bill forewarned him that his father entrusted him to fell any thing which walked upon four legs and did he wish to die but the man only whimpered and lay prostrate and silent. He didnt understand anything said. Perhaps not even death. Bill knew he knew he could not murder him. The man’s motivations unknown seemed pure beyond insight. He appeared docile if dirty. This ragged man bent before Billy. But Billy yet kept the barrel situated on him to temporize. Why’re you walkin like that, Bill asked, approaching at a tentative pace.
The man slunk sideways a halfstep then skittered off like a wounded jackrabbit. Billy saw the blackened soles of his feet, bloodied and muddied but hardied.
Hey. Bill followed him for thirty steps. Come back here. Lowering the gun he said, I aint gonna hurt ya.
The man had vanished.
I aint gonna hurt ya.
Billy returned to the moonshine shack. And knocked upon the door.
Yahe Bill? His father replied irritable as a billygoat. Billy tried the knob but it was padlocked on the other side.
He heard his father’s hands fidget at the lock then the door chinked and half his face appeared. Sallowed.
Hurry. Lemme in.
His father’s hand and foot held it shut as if Billy were an intruder. What in damnation? What in Sam Hell’re ya hollrin fer?
I saw somethin. A man, Billy quieted.
His father’s face furrowed deep in shadow and sun. In some consideration. He chewed on his lips. Boy, you e’er eard the story bout the boy who cried coyote. Aint yer Mama told you that.
Billy shook his head. That aint that, Pa. I seen’d sumpthin.
So says the boy, Papa parabled. I aint any time fer yer fantasies, Bill. You see a coyote or whatever it was again you shoot it dead and bring it. Otherwise watch them woods. That’s what I done brought you out ere fer. Papa receded into the shack.
Was a man. On four legs. Werent no fantasy.
Forearmed is forewarned, Papa muffled. ‘Member? Now if you see Sheriff Raddock, you holler. Him one truer blue trouble. Papa padlocked the door once more.
But I seen’d him, Bill said but remainded unheeded. He sat motionless and speechless on the windless porch watching out.
In a recurrent dream Bill saw his father magnified as many more forefathers with hands supine. Supplicants in aligned mirrors. The faces fading from the forefront unto familial genesis. They began to look like no one.
He awoke with a band of pain cinched round his skull. Like some intractable hand tightening and loosening a lasso. He tossed and cursed and tried to draw out the pains with his hands. He clinched his eyes so hard shut they would lacrimate.
He called Father.
Unsure as to whether he had awoken, he was alivened by pain.
He called Mama.
She came. She entered by a bar of light. Without saying why she left and returned in darkness with tapwater and a damp cloth for his forehead to soothe him and told him in sooth pain does not last forever although it seemed so sometimes.
I am rightly sorry Bill, she said, helpless to help him.
Fatigued and irritable, Bill felt she should be sorrier.
Another spasm locked his jaw. He fought it and plighted to God that if he were free of said pain he’d never again break any of His commandments. He made open promises which pain would not allow him to recall to keep. He knew he did not believe in God, but did that matter. God was nowhere and everywhere. Its loci like the pain in, on, and of his brain. Thoughts madly tranquil of merciful death. When he remembered the man in the woods he wondered whether it would’ve been the merciful kind of a killing.
It’s jus this demon dehydration, she said. No water for weeks. That’s what it is, she said, miserably hopeful. She used the word Providence interchangeably for Lord and their town. She said it wasnt a false borne coincidence. Rainclouds’ll come Bill.
Outside his drawn window the stridulations of crickets crescendoed to a white noise maddening him. An onomatopoeia.
Cricket. Cricket. Cricket. Crickets. Cricket. Crickets.
His Mama fractured the prolonged silence with a promise to sit with him until the insufferable tension on his temples subsided. That the Lord would see them through. She bid him drink more of the brackish water. He complied and supped and laid up in the dark with blankets swaddling him. The water given was never enough to cessate his dehydrated state. He thought she’d sit there forever for her promising.
She stroked his spine and said his luck would turn. Someday soon all our rotten luck will only seem sour. If the agony were not so unpredictable he’d think it rehearsed. She left to call Doc Uly. He asked again for his father. His voice atremble as his body. He moaned reproof. An hour later his door chinked but it wasnt Mama. Horrific. One slate, purified to befoul another.
She used the nextdoor neighbor’s phone to call Doc Johnson. Missy obliged warily by the dismay noted in May’s voice.
S’yer boy unwell? She asked at the door. She looked over May’s shoulder at her youngest son yanking the last of the buffalo grass from their frontyard in rooty clumps.
I think he’s gotta case of TB, said May. She rathered not admit to this. It seemed somehow doubly fatal.
Missy Houston dusted herself and showed her to the telephone then hovered over the sink and scoured her hands with tallow soap and crossed herself that God would see her through too. That she and her sons might avoid the plague. She expected at any minute to witness an augury fulfilled. Frogs falling from the heavens. Locust swarms. A white-eyed devil to come aknockin. The abduction of her firstborn son. The blackness blotting light.
In the anteroom on the telephone May rotaried an operator and asked for connection with severe elocution to Doctor U Johnson please. She pleaded, Please.
The operator told her to wait two ticks and the receiver switched and clanged thrice then Ulysses’ gravely voice answered.
They halloed without introduction. They knew by the breaths.
Billy’s very sickly.
How serious is it?
Missy eavesdropped at the corner of the hall wringing her hands tight and white.
I think he’s got T B, Uly. The dust pneumony.
A prolonged pause.
His phlegm bloody?
Missy clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her breathing.
No blood. But he’s hottern hades. Hacks up somethin awful night and day. Voice shakes like a derned rattlesnake.
I’ill be over. O K. But listen Mrs Clarendon. May. You caint go inside. S’only a likelihood to make matters worse if you do. Just lemme take a look at him. You stay put where you is.
Any word from Franklin?
None to tell.
And you? How you holdin up.
This aint about me, Uly.
I unnerstand that yet...
Nor the time.
I’ill see to Billy. He listened to her begin to say what else but broke in and said not to worry about such now. That she was right by him, and he might hope the same of her, forevermore.
Each hung up in turn.
May Clarendon cradled the phone and her baby belly squaring herself against the wall and squatted glancing sidelong at Mrs Houston wielding a singleshot pistol, quavering the nickelplated grip. I’m truly sorry May but ya caint stay.
You gointa shoot me Missy? May cackled.
You boy is sick. I really regret the sitiation but there t’is. Means you might have it in yer lungs and not even know it. You knows it and I knows it. I cant risk naught fer both my boys.
May straddled up the wall and pushed herself then lumbered down the hall clutching her belly then spat spittle on the floor.
You aint never welcome here again. Missy clutched at the pistol across her breasts. Now git.
May stepped outside into dry heat with the Houston’s youngest son clawing up clumps of caliche. He stacked them and stuck blades of grass around the cone. She halloed Charley.
Hiya, Charley responded, rubby-faced, and bloated as a tick.
You fixin to eat that grass?
No mayam. He let loose the grass which scattered.
From the doorway Missy called Git gone May.
She told Charley his Mama was a good woman.
He said his Mama werent well lately he did not think.
I knows it.
Maybelle. Missy leveled the pistol gleaming. Git aways. Charley. Dont you say another word to Mrs May. O K? You ears me?
Charley continued plucking at the sickly strands of grass then by the fistful began to masticate them, verdant drool drawing in bifurcated rivulets down his chin whence May waddled away into an eerily gray and windless noon.
The sun, salmoncolored overhead, by and by blackened in indenominate billows massing madly. She prayed as she walked. An atonement hung aloft, for some universal misdeeds. And for what? For forty days there were indications of rain but none came. All bonedry. Boundaryless thence lawless drought. She directed west, walking hither and thither the desiccated barditches.
The dust had come, and with it the kick of life within her. May Clarendon struggled in a shuffle homewards. The Doctor be damned, she thought. Her life was devoted to life, not new death.
The road Ulysses took was not populated. He took the long way north to pass through Providence. He passed three nameable farmsteads without sight of a soul. He wanted to witness someone somewhere unaware of what befell their normality. There was nothing near save the remnants of hasty departures. He wondered whether the same would be true at the Clarendon place. If too little of May’s boy was left to salvage. If he had passed beyond.
All life resided in an afterlife. Ulysses Johnson decided that long ago. At the wheel of his black Terraplane K he held to the deepest ruts of road. He gritted his incisors together.
A dead coyote lay in a parched swale of sagebrush, roadside. Roadkill. Its gutted belly swarming with flies. Maggots. He expected buzzards to be positioned aloft like an aerial signpost. None he saw. They’d flocked west as well probably. Dire prophecy.
The bobbed wire fencing marking the Matheson tract was skewed, as if the bovine therein made an attempt en masse at an absconder. Their bones. There was a jagged rent in the road as if from flood erosion but there was no recent rainwater as cause.
He turned westward for the town, turned about at the hills run latitudinally. He rolled the southerwesterly blacktop. The Downtown solidified from suspended dust. He slowed to first gear.
WELCOME TO PROVIDENCE.
What came to him was motionless madness. Dolls left propped downtown after the migration to Californ. Lifesized. Lifelike. Whitewood. He had removed them once. New ones took the places. The hand that made them remained. Somewhere. Them in their rocking chairs, behind the counter at the hardware store, leaning upon woodenbrooms still sweeping up the hay which lay of their own personages. Living out vicarious lives. He kept what replicas he’d collected over bygone months in his barn. For fuel if it came to it. Visions of an effigy of Providence’s townfolk. Dead already. And dead anew. A pyre to summon home living ghosts temporarily tramping elsewhere, Doctor Ulysses Johnson justified.
At the end of town outside the Methodist church sat a white Chevy belonging, or which belonged to, Frank Clarendon. Ulysses slowed at the sight of it and held his hand to his forehead, swearing Christ.
He kept an ornate metal flask of moonshine whiskey at his knees and twisted the cap between a downshifting slightly uphill.
Out of town with the white Chevy fading in his rearview he drank to the dregs. Damned how good it was. He wristed the whiskey from his lips. He damned Frank Clarendon for leaving an indellible sin upon him. That Sweet Sunny South Moonshine. His thoughts to Frank. The warm winter’s noon yesteryear when Frank had shown with the boy and two bottles. They traded and talked. The boy looked shook and was silent. Ulysses took candy from his pocket and handed it to Bill and said, There is a good young man.
The boy went out. And the men talked of what was to be done.
Frank had a word on his mind he could not utter in front of his son. Nor behind Bill’s back. Franklin said he’d return in however many days for a fortnight. Ulysses traded tonic to help May, and the newborn brewing in her belly.
Then Frank dissapeared with the word.
Ulysses guessed at it. One name only.
The name of a man who made the dolls.
A yellowed piece of triangular plastic nailed in an earlobe. A pair of striped pants. Ulysses upended the empty flask, swearing and swerving. Like the wheel it seemed out of his hands. The wintertime past. The last drop of spring. The chaotic cosmos.
He drank to the thought.
Ulysses’ wife remarked caustically earlier that day if he’d sold what he drank instead they’d be rich thrice over.
His wife was rotgut. A toxic byproduct of his habits. His good name be damned. All this he thought. Of his heart split unevenly on a woodblock between whiskey and his wife and May. Which way would each piece fall. One in fire, two untraceable. Perhaps someday he would take those dolls from the barn crazy in his senility and prepare the maxim that it took a whole village. Doctor Ulysses pitied hisself his responsibility. His conscience.
He rolled up the road to the house on a hill. Stopped short, he gathered his medicine bag of bubbled black leather. He got out his vehicle and inspected the conditions of the Clarendon farm. He no longer pitied himself. It reminded the onlooker of some war, which history deemed lost.
Against whom. Against humanity.
Nothing won, without some loss.
He sallied forth to the frontporch whereupon he knelt and ran his finger through a pile of sawdust. He took a mask from his medicine bag and snapped it on. He breathed through the dust.
He sat the frontporch wondering where Frank Clarendon had gone. If he had done what Ulysses could never stomach. Run off. Abandon those whom needed him most in this their hour of despair. It was impossible. The evidence was there. The dolls and a Chevy.
Ulysses pulled the door out and pushed the flyscreen in. He entered. The main hall lined with family portraits. He passed into the parlor. Upon the mantleplace a bottle of the Sweet Sunny South. He levied his need of it into his hipflask then called Billy. Bill. It’s...
By the smell of purtrefaction his words were squandered. He sat in the parlor and drank a dram then another then another until he was adequately drunk. He tightened the teal medical mask made special for airborne bacterium and lumbered up to Bill.
The room stank. Not of dying but of death. He went to Bill and laid his hands upon him through the woolen blanket brought to the boy’s chin and began to enunciate the old nine day Novena.
Noticing the necrotic eyes open he tried to touch them to closure but they wouldnt budge. The boy was wooden. Petrified. Ulysses shuddered but held his hands there for nine seconds awaiting some miracle to occur until he felt goosebumps bristle his back and he turned and saw another doll in the waiting chair behind him in the likeness of Mr Franklin Clarendon and upon closer inspection a small figurine of pine whittled into the likeness of a wolf or a coyote donning a tophat. Ulysses removed himself from the room and went back to the parlor and prepared himself another dram. He damned himself. His inability to see that which God so supremely laid before him. Uly hadnt the nerve.
Missy Houston brought her two boys into the parlor room as dust shellacked them. The house shook its head of its shingled hair. Suddenly the front door blew in by dust or another force. Missy Houston asked for her husband but no answer was given. That you Lar? The boys asked if it was but she shushed them and sat quiet.
With pistol in hand she went to the corner of the parlor and peered toward the frontdoor opened in and smashing against the wall. She called again for Larry. The droning whistle of the wind dumbing her screams.
Mama, asked Charley.
You boys stay right whur ya are, she told and turned around.
A man appeared behind her on all fours. She dropped the pistol and backpeddaled into the dustwall outside which took her then flung her across the frontyard and out of sight. The door shut and the house sat still before the next storm.
May Clarendon fell into her house by a gust of dust. She flounced forward calling for Ulysses.
He strolled into the hall and told her she shouldnt be here.
I got nowhere else.
There’s everywhere else. Listen. May. Yer puttin yerself and the youngin...
My brother, she interrupted, arms bowed, hands on her knees.
Yahe. I thought you said you’d tooken care of him.
I thought we had an agreement. You and Frank’s arrangement.
Whatever it is yer referencin was unspoken on all accounts.
You know what the fuck I’m talkin about.
I aint a murderer, May.
You know it wouldnt be.
I dunno what you mean.
I mean it aint murder.
Ulysses acquiesced to the proposition, but declined comment.
Your barn? He been in your barn fer two months?
In a manner of speakin.
Dont manner of speanin me. Was he there or not?
No he wasnt or no you dont know?
He broke outta my barn.
I want you to end this.
It aint a charade, May.
May clutched her belly.
Baby’s comin. Aint it?
May nodded. What about my Billy.
Ulysses shook his head and said he was rightly sorry for it.
God damn you.
Ulysses looked at her and admitted his damnation. Before all else he thought he’d done a right thing. Now he knew naught. All he knew was that they together should burn the bodies in the barn for the closure.
Are you insane?
It’s all that’s left of them. He looked at his hands as if they had betrayed him.
That bring you a kinda comfort? She left to look at her son.
She went to the room without a word inside and Ulysses answered, No.
May and Uly trundled through the storm’s remainder unable to see the blacktop melded with the blackened air with bodies in the back covered in blankets and Uly said he had to head by the town.
Thas fi’teen minutes out the way. Yer crazy. In this?
No we aint got ta. Aint nothin left. Think. Fer all we know that first one was only a start and there’s more a-comin.
Ulysses conceded. I cant see nothin, he said. Not a thang.
Ulysses shortcutted home and up to his grandiloquent house on the hilltop and glanced at the skeletal remains of his home and at the shattered windowpanes for sign of his wife.
Lucille’s fine, May foretold.
Ulysses said naught and drove unto the slanted barn and got out and unloaded the bodies in their wool blankets while May waited in the Terraplane and watched him drag them through the dust that covered all even his clothes. He laid the bodies before him and opened the doors then dragged them through and shut the doors behind him.
May waited. For what seemed the entirety of a dusk unending.
That night if night it was she saw his silhouette even darker appear, stood twixt the opened barndoors. An overturned flask in his fingers. Flames gathered beyond him licking up all which was left behind. She swung the passenger side cardoor out and cried Ulysses then saw something squat and silhouette race upon all fours from the dusty blackness for the barndoors and past Ulysses’ outstretched arms. It entered, and everyone burned.
Ulysses turned, then shut the barndoors behind him to join in.
May swigged a bitter tonic and wept wishing she knew naught.