More on fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | December 1977
open the truck's door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I've looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop's dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.
"I see a concrete patch in the street. It's shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny's yearbook: 'We will live on mangoes and love.'"
by B. D'J. Pancake
I see a concrete patch in the street. It's shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny's yearbook: "We will live on mangoes and love." And she up and left without me—two years she's been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.
The place is empty, and I rest in the cooled air. Tinker Reilly's little sister pours my coffee. She has good hips. They are kind of like Ginny's and they slope nice curves to her legs. Hips and legs like that climb steps into airplanes. She goes to the counter end and scoffs down the rest of her sundae. I smile at her, but she's jailbait. Jailbait and black snakes are two things "Won't touch with a window pole. One time I used an old black snake for a bullwhip, snapped the sucker's head off, and Pop beat hell out of me with it. I think how Pop could make me pretty mad sometimes. I grin.
I think about last night when Ginny called. Her old man drove her down from the airport in Charleston. She was already bored. Can we get together? Sure. Maybe do some brew? Sure. Same old Colly. Same old Ginny. She talked through her beak. I wanted to tell her Pop had died, and Mom was on the warpath to sell the farm, but Ginny was talking through her beak. It gave me the creeps.
Just like the cups give me the creeps. I look at the cups hanging on pegs by the storefront. They're decal-named and covered with grease and dust. There's four of them, and one is Pop's, but that isn't what gives me the creeps. The cleanest one is Jim's. It's clean because he still uses it, but it hangs there with the rest. Through the window, I can see him crossing the street. His joints are cemented with arthritis. I think of how long it'll be before I croak, but Jim is old, and it gives me the creeps to see his cup hanging up there. I go to the door to help him in.
He says, "Tell the truth, now," and his old paw pinches my arm.
I say, "Can't do her." I help him to his stool.
I pull this globby rock from my pocket, and slap it on the counter in front of Jim. He turns it with his drawn hand, examines it. "Gastropod," he says. "Probably Permian. You buy again." I can't win with him. He knows them all.
"I still can't find a trilobite," I say.
"There are a few," he says. "Not many. Most of the outcrops around here are too late for them."
The girl brings Jim's coffee in his cup, and we watch her pump back to the kitchen. Good hips.
"You see that?" He jerks his head toward her.
I say, "Moundsville Molasses." I can spot jailbait by a mile.
"Hell, girl's age never stopped your dad and me in Michigan."
"Tell the truth."
"Sure. You got to time it so you nail the first freight out when your pants are up."
I look at the windowsill. It is speckled with the crisp skeletons of flies. "Why'd you and Pop leave Michigan?"
The crinkles around Jim's eyes go slack. He says, "The war," and sips his coffee.
I say, "He never made it back there."
"Me either—always wanted to—there or Germany—just to look around."
"Yeah, he promised to show me where you all buried that silverware and stuff during the war."
He says, "On the Elbe. Probably plowed up by now."
My eye socket reflects in my coffee, steam curls around my face, and I feel a headache coming on. I look up to ask Tinker's sister for an aspirin, but she is giggling in the kitchen.
"That's where he got that wound," Jim says. "Got it on the Elbe. He was out a long time. Cold, Jesus, it was cold. I had him for dead, but he came to. Says, 'I been all over the world'; says, 'China's so pretty, Jim.'"
"I don't know. I quit worrying about that stuff years ago."
Tinker's sister comes up with her coffeepot to make us for a tip. I ask her for an aspirin, and see she's got a pimple on her collarbone. I don't remember seeing pictures of China. I watch little sister's hips.
"Trent still wanting your place for that housing project?"
"Sure," I say. "Mom'll probably sell it, too. I can't run the place like Pop did. Cane looks bad as hell." I drain off my cup. I'm tired of talking about the farm. "Going out with Ginny tonight," I say.
"Give her that for me," he says. He takes a poke at my whang. I don't like it when he talks about her like that. He sees I don't like it, and his grin slips. "Found a lot of gas for her old man. One hell of a guy before his wife pulled out."
I wheel on my stool, clap his weak old shoulder. l thnk of Pop, and try to joke. "You stink so bad the undertaker's following you."
He laughs. "You were the ugliest baby ever born, you know that?"
I grin, and start out the door. I can hear him shout to little sister: "Come on over here, honey, I got a joke for you."
he sky has a film. Its heat burns through the salt on my skin, draws it tight. I start the truck, drive west along the highway built on the dry bed of the Teays. There's wide bottoms, and the hills on either side have yellowy billows the sun can't burn off. I pass an iron sign put up by the WPA: "Surveyed by George Washington, the Teays River Pike." I see fields and cattle where buildings stand, picture them from some long-off time.
I turn off the main road to our house. Clouds make the sunshine blink light and dark in the yard. I look again at the spot of ground where Pop fell. He had lain spread-eagled in the thick grass after a sliver of metal from his old wound passed to his brain. I remember thinking how beaten his face looked with prints in it from the grass.
I reach the high barn, and start my tractor, then drive to the knob at the end of our land and stop. I sit there, smoke, look again at the cane. The rows curve tight, but around them is a sort of scar of clay, and the leaves have a purplish blight. I don't wonder about the blight. I know the cane is too far gone to worry about the blight. Far off, somebody chops wood, and the ax-bites echo back to me. The hillsides are baked here and have heat-ghosts. Our cattle move to the wind gap, and birds hide in caps of trees where we never cut the timber for pasture. I look at the wrinkly old boundary post. Pop set it when the hobo and soldier days were over. It is a locust-tree post, and will be there a long time. A few dead morning glories cling to it.
"I'm just not no good at it," I say. "It just don't do to work your ass off at something you're not no good at."
The chopping stops. I listen to the beat of grasshopper wings, and strain to spot blight on the far side of the bottoms.
I say, "Yessir, Colly, you couldn't grow pole beans in a pile of horseshit."
I squash my cigarette against the floor plate. I don't want a fire. I press the starter, and bump around the fields, then down to the ford of the drying creek, and up the other side. Turkles fall from logs into stagnant pools. I stop my machine. The cane here is just as bad. I rub a sunburn into the back of my neck.
I say, "Shot to hell, Gin. Can't do nothing right."
I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.
I take up my sack and gaff for a turkle. Some quick chubs flash under the bank. In the moss-dapples, I see rings spread where a turkle ducked under. This sucker is mine. The pool smells like rot, and the sun is a hardish brown.
I wade in. He goes for the roots of a log. I shove around, and feel my gaff twitch. This is a smart turkle, but still a sucker. I bet he could pull liver off a hook for the rest of his days, but he is a sucker for the roots that hold him while I work my gaff. I pull him up, and see he is a snapper. He's got his stubby neck curved round, biting at the gaff. I lay him on the sand, and take out Pop's knife. I step on the shell, and press hard. That fat neck gets skinny quick, and sticks way out. A little blood oozes from the gaff wound into the grit, but when I slice, a puddle forms.
A voice says, "Get a dragon, Colly?"
I shiver a little, and look up. It's only the loansman standing on the creekbank in his tan suit. His face is splotched pink, and the sun is turning his glasses black.
"I crave them now and again," I say. I go on slitting gristle, skinning back the shell.
"Aw, your daddy loved turtle meat," the guy says.
I listen to scratching cane leaves in the late sun. I dump the tripes into the pool, bag the rest, and head up the ford. I say, "What can I do for you?"
This guy starts up: "I saw you from the road—just came down to see about my offer."
"I told you yesterday, Mr. Trent. It ain't mine to sell." I tone it down. I don't want hard feelings. "You got to talk to Mom."
Blood drips from the poke to the dust. It makes dark paste. Trent pockets his hands, looks over the cane. A cloud blocks the sun, and my crop glows greenish in the shade.
"This is about the last real farm left around here," Trent says.
"Blight'll get what the dry left," I say. I shift the sack to my free hand. I see I'm giving in. I'm letting this guy go and push me around.
"How's your mother getting along?" he says. I see no eyes behind his smoky glasses.
"Pretty good," I say. "She's wanting to move to Akron." I swing the sack a little toward Ohio, and
spray some blood on Trent's pants. "Sorry," I say.
"It'll come out," he says, but I hope not. I grin and watch the turkle's mouth gape on the sand. "Well, why Akron?" he says. "Family there?"
I nod. "Hers," I say "She'll take you up on the offer." This hot shadow saps me, and my voice is a whisper. I throw the sack to the floor plate, climb up to grind the starter. I feel better in a way I've never known. The hot metal seat burns through my jeans.
"Saw Ginny at the post office," this guy shouts. "She sure is a pretty."
I wave, almost smile, as I gear to lumber up the dirt road. I pass Trent's dusty Lincoln, move away from my bitten cane. It can go now; the stale seed, the drought, the blight—it can go when she signs the papers. I know I will always be to blame, but it can't just be my fault. "What about you?" I say. "Your side hurt all that morning, but you wouldn't see no doctor. Nosir, you had to see that your dumb boy got the crop put proper in the ground." I shut my trap to keep from talking like a fool.
stop my tractor on the terraced road to the barn, and look back across the cane to the creekbed.
Yesterday, Trent said the bottoms would be filled with dirt. That will put the houses above flood,
but it'll raise the flood line. Under all those houses, my turkles will turn to stone. Our Herefords make rusty patches on the hill. I see Pop's grave, and wonder if the new high waters will get over it.
I watch the cattle play. A rain must be coming. A rain is always coming when cattle play. Sometimes
they play for snow, but mostly it is rain. After Pop whipped the daylights out of me with that black snake, he hung it on a fence. But it didn't rain. The cattle weren't playing, and it didn't rain, but I kept my mouth shut. The snake was bad enough, I didn't want the belt too.
I look a long time at that hill. My first time with Ginny was in the tree-cap of that hill. I think of how close we could be then, and maybe even now, I don't know. I'd like to go with Ginny, fluff her hair in any other field. But I can see her in the post office. I bet she was sending postcards to some guy in Florida.
I drive on to the barn, stop under the shed. I wipe sweat from my face with my sleeve, and see how the seams have slipped from my shoulders. If I sit rigid, I can fill them again. The turkle is moving in the sack, and it gives me the creeps to hear his shell clinking against the gaff. I take the poke to the spigot to clean the game. Pop always liked turkle in a mulligan. He talked a lot about mulligan and the jungles just an hour before I found him.
I wonder what it will be like when Ginny comes by. I hope she's not talking through her beak. Maybe she'll take me to her house this time. If her momma had been anybody but Pop's cousin, her old man would let me go to her house. Screw him. But I can talk to Ginny. I wonder if she remembers the plans we made for the farm. And we wanted kids. She always nagged about a peacock. I will get her one.
I smile as I dump the sack into the rusty sink, but the barn smell—the hay, the cattle, the gasoline—it reminds me. Me and Pop built this barn. I look at every nail with the same dull pain.
I clean the meat, and lay it out on a piece of cloth torn from an old bed sheet. I fold the corners, walk to the house.
The air is hot, but it sort of churns, and the set screens in the kitchen window rattle. From inside, I can hear Mom and Trent talking on the front porch, and I leave the window up. It is the same come-on he gave me yesterday, and I bet Mom is eating it up. She probably thinks about tea parties with her cousins in Akron. She never listens to what anybody says. She just says all right to anything anybody but me or Pop ever said. She even voted for Hoover before they got married. I throw the turkle meat into a skillet, get a beer. Trent softens her up with me; I prick my ears.
"I would wager on Colly's agreement," he says. I can still hear a hill twang in his voice.
"I told him Sam'd put him on at Goodrich," she says. "They'd teach him a trade."
"And there are a good many young people in Akron. You know he'd be happier." I think how his voice sounds like a damn TV.
"Well, he's awful good to keep me company. Don't go out none since Ginny took off to that college."
I lean against the sink, rub my hands across my face. The smell of turkie has soaked between my fingers. It's the same smell as the pools.
Through the door to the living room, I see the rock case Pop built for me. The white labels show up behind the dark gloss of glass. Ginny helped me find over half of those. If I did study in a college, I could come back and take Jim's place at the gas wells. I like to hold little stones that lived so long ago. But geology doesn't mean lick to me. I can't even find a trilobite.
I stir the meat, listen for noise or talk on the porch, but there is none. I look out. A lightning flash peels shadows from the yard, and leaves a dark strip under the eave of the barn. I feel a scum on my skin in the still air. I take my supper to the porch.
I look down the valley to where bison used to graze before the first rails were put down. Now those rails are covered with a highway, and cars rush back and forth in the wind. I watch Trent's car back out, heading east into town. I'm afraid to ask right off if he got what he wanted.
I stick my plate under Mom's nose, but she waves it off. I sit in Pop's old rocker, watch the storm come. Dust devils puff around on the berm, and maple sprigs land in the yard with their white bellies up. Across the road, our windbreak bends, rows of cedars furling every which way at once.
"Coming a big one?" I say.
Mom says nothing and fans herself with the funeral home fan. The wind layers her hair, but she keeps that cardboard picture of Jesus bobbing like crazy. Her face changes. I know what she thinks. She thinks how she isn't the girl in the picture on the mantel. She isn't standing with Pop's garrison cap cocked on her head.
"I wish you'd of come out while he's here," she says. She stares across the road to the windbreak.
"I heard him yesterday," I say.
"It ain't that at all," she says, and I watch her brow come down a little. "It's like when Jim called us askin' if we wanted some beans an' I had to tell him to leave 'em in the truck at church. I swan how folks talk when men come 'round a widow."
I know Jim talks like a dumb old fart, but it isn't like he'd rape her or anything. I don't want to argue with her. "Well," I say, "who owns this place?"
"We still do. Don't have to sign nothin' till tomorrow."
She quits bobbing Jesus to look at me. She starts up: "You'll like Akron. Law, I bet Marcy's youngest girl'd love to meet you. She's a regular rock hound too. 'Sides, your father always said we'd move there when you got big enough to run the farm."
I know she has to say it. I just keep my mouth shut. The rain comes, ringing the roof tin. I watch the high wind snap branches from the trees. Pale splinters of light shoot down behind the far hills. We are just brushed by this storm.
inny's sports car hisses east on the road, honking as it passes, but I know she will be back.
"Just like her momma," Mom says, "racin' the devil for the beer joints."
"She never knew her momma," I say. I set my plate on the floor. I'm glad Ginny thought to honk.
"What if I's to run off with some foreman from the wells?"
"You wouldn't do that, Mom."
"That's right," she says, and watches the cars roll by. "Shot her in Chicago. Shot hisself too."
I look beyond the hills and time. There is red hair clouding the pillow, blood-splattered by the slug. Another body lies rumpled and warm at the bed foot.
"Folks said he done it cause she wouldn't marry him. Found two weddin' bands in his pocket. Feisty little I-taliun."
I see police and reporters in the tiny room. Mumbles spill into the hallway, but nobody really looks at the dead woman's face.
"Well," Mom says, "at least they was still wearin' their clothes."
The rain slows, and for a long time I sit watching the blue chicory swaying beside the road. I think of all the people I know who left these hills. Only Jim and Pop came back to the land, worked it.
"Lookee at the willow wisps." Mom points to the hills.
The rain trickles, and as it seeps in to cool the ground, a fog rises. The fog curls little ghosts into the branches and gullies. The sun tries to sift through this mist, but is only a tarnished brown splotch in the pinkish sky. Wherever the fog is, the light is a burnished orange.
"Can't recall the name Pop gave it," I say.
The colors shift, trade tones.
'He had some funny names all right. Called a tomcat a 'pussy scat.'"
I think back. "Cornflakes were 'pone-rakes,' and a chicken was a 'sick-un.'"
'Well," she says, "he'll always be a part of us."
The glommy paint on the chair arm packs under my fingernails. I think how she could foul up a free lunch.
I stand up to go in, but I hold the screen, look for something to say.
'I ain't going to live in Akron," I say.
'An' just where you gonna live, Mister?"
"I don't know."
She starts up with her fan again.
'Me and Ginny's going low-riding," I say.
She won't look at me. "Get in early. Mr. Trent don't keep no late hours for no beer drinkers."
The house is quiet, and I can hear her out there sniffling. But what to hell can I do about it? I hurry to wash the smell of turkle from my hands. I shake all over while the water flows down. I talked back. I've never talked back. I'm scared, but I stop shaking. Ginny can't see me shaking. I just walk out to the road without ever looking back to the porch.
I climb in the car, let Ginny kiss my cheek. She looks different. I've never seen these clothes, and she wears too much jewelry.
"You look great," she says. "Haven't changed a bit"
'We drive west along the Pike.
"Where we going?"
She says, "Let's park for old times' sake. How's the depot?"
I say, "Sure." I reach back for a can of Falls City. "You let your hair grow."
We drive. I look at the tinged fog, the colors changing hue.
She says, "Sort of an eerie evening, huh?" It all comes from her beak.
"Pop always called it a fool's fire or something."
We pull in beside the old depot. It's mostly boarded up. We drink, watch the colors slip to gray dusk in the sky.
"You ever look in your yearbook?" I gulp down the rest of my City.
She goes crazy laughing. "You know," she says, "I don't even know where I put that thing."
I feel way too mean to say anything. I look across the railroad to a field sown in timothy. There are wells there, pumps to suck the ancient gases. The gas burns blue, and I wonder if the ancient sun was blue. The tracks run on till they're a dot in the brown haze. They give off clicks from their switches. Some tankers wait on the spur. Their wheels are rusting to the tracks. I wonder what to hell I ever wanted with trilobites.
"Big night in Rock Camp," I say. I watch Ginny drink. Her skin is so white it glows yellowish, and the last light makes sparks in her red hair.
She says, "Daddy would raise hell. Me this close to the wells."
"You're a big girl now. C'mon, let's walk."
We get out, and she up and grabs my arm. Her fingers feel like ribbons on the veins of my hand.
"How long you in for?" I say.
"Just a week here, then a week with Daddy in New York. I can't wait to get back. It's great."
"You got a guy?"
She looks at me with this funny smile of hers. "Yeah, I got a guy. He's doing plankton research."
Ever since I talked back, I've been afraid, but now I hurt again. We come to the tankers, and she takes hold on a ladder, steps up.
"This right?" She looks funny, all crouched in like she's just nailed a drag on the fly. I laugh.
"Nail the end nearest the engine. If you slip, you get throwed clear. Way you are a drag on the fiy'd suck you under. 'Sides, nobody'd ride a tanker."
She steps down, but doesn't take my hand. "He taught you everything. What killed him?"
"Little shell fragment. Been in him since the war. Got in his blood . . ." I snap my fingers. I want to talk, but the picture won't become words. I see myself scattered, every cell miles from the others. I pull them back and kneel in the dark grass. I roll the body faceup, and look in the eyes a long time before I shut them. "You never talk about your momma," I say.
She says, "1 don't want to," and goes running to an open window in the depot. She peeks in, turns to me. "Can we go in?"
"Why? Nothing in there but old freight scales."
"Because it's spooky and neat and I want to." She runs back, kisses me on the cheek. "I'm bored with this glum look. Smile!"
I give up, and walk to the depot. I drag a rotten bench under the broken window, and climb in. I take Ginny's hand to help her. A blade of glass slices her forearm. The cut path is shallow, but I take off my T-shirt to wrap it. The blood blots purple on the cloth.
I watch a mud dauber land on the glass blade. Its metal-blue wings flick as it walks the edge. It sucks what the glass has scraped from her skin. I hear them working in the walls.
Ginny is at the other window, and she peers through a knothole in the plywood.
I say, "See that light green spot on the second hill?"
"That's the copper on your-all's roof."
She turns, stares at me.
"I come here lots," I say. I breathe the musty air. I turn away from her, and look out the window to Company Hill, but I can feel her stare. Company Hill looks bigger in the dusk, and I think of all the hills around town I've never set foot on. Ginny comes up behind me, and there's a glass-crunch with her steps. The hurt arm goes around me, the tiny spot of blood cold against my back.
"What is it, Colly? Why can't we have any fun?"
"When I was a young punk, I tried to run away from home. I was walking through this meadow on the other side of the Hill, and this shadow passed over me. I honest to god thought it was a pterodactyl. It was a damned airplane. I was so damn mad, I came home." I peel chips of paint from the window frame, wait for her to talk. She leans against me, and I kiss her real deep. Her waist bunches in my hands. The skin of her neck is almost too white in the faded evening. I know she doesn't understand.
I slide her to the floor. Her scent rises to me, and I shove crates aside to make room. I don't wait. She isn't making love, she's getting laid. All right, I think, all right. Get laid. I pull her pants around her ankles, rut her. I think of Tinker's sister. Ginny isn't here. Tinker's sister is under me. A wash of blue light passes over me. I open my eyes to the floor, smell that tang of rain-
wet wood. Black snakes. It was the only time he had to whip me.
"Let me go with you," I say. I want to be sorry, but I can't.
"Colly, please. . ." She shoves me back. Her head is rolling in splinters of paint and glass.
I look a long time at the hollow shadows hiding her eyes. She is somebody I met a long time ago. I can't remember her name for a minute, then it comes back to me. I sit against the wall and my spine aches. I listen to the mud daubers building nests, and trace a finger along her throat.
She says, "I want to go. My arm hurts." Her voice comes from someplace deep in her chest.
We climb out. A yellow light burns on the crossties, and the switches click. Far away, I hear a train. She gives me my shirt, and gets in her car. I stand there looking at the blood spots on the cloth. I feel old as hell. When I look up, her taillights are reddish blurs in the fog.
I walk around to the platform, slump on the bench. The evening cools my eyelids. I think of how that one time was the only airplane that ever passed over me.
I picture my father—a young hobo with the Michigan sunset making him squint, the lake behind him. His face is hard from all the days and places he fought to live in, and of a sudden, I know his mistake was coming back here to set that locust-tree post on the knob.
"Ever notice how only blue lightning bugs come out after a rain? Green ones almost never do."
I hear the train coming. She is highballing all right. No stiffs in that blind baggage.
"Well, you know the Teays must of been a big river. Just stand on Company Hill, and look across the bottoms. You'll see."
My skin is heavy with her noise. Her light cuts a wide slice in the fog. No stiff in his right mind could try this one on the fly. She's hell-bent for election.
"Jim said it flowed west by northwest—all the way up to the old St. Lawrence Drain. Had garfish—ten, maybe twenty foot long. Said they're still in there."
Good old Jim'll probably croak on a lie like that. I watch her beat by. A worn-out tie belches mud with her weight. She's just too fast to jump. Plain and simple.
I get up. I'll spend tonight at home. I've got eyes to shut in Michigan—maybe even Germany or China, I don't know yet. I walk, but I'm not scared. I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1977; Trilobites; Volume 240, No. 6; 77-84.