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"Then you'll do it?" Raymer asked. "I'll think about it," Corrie said. "It's a lot of money." She paused. "There's just one thing."
by William Gay
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Raymer hardly noticed him, for he was in more pain than he had thought possible. He could scarcely get through the day. He was amazed that hearts could actually ache, actually break. Secretly he suspected that his had been defective, already faulted, a secondhand or rebuilt heart, for it had certainly not held up as well as he had expected it to. Corrie, who had been his childhood sweetheart before she became his wife, had inserted the point of a chisel into the fault line and tapped it once lightly with a hammer, and that was the end of that.
By trade he was a painter, and some days he was conscious only of the aluminum extension ladder through his tennis shoes and the brush at the end of his extended arm, which leaned out, and out, as if gravity were just a bothersome rumor, as if he were leaning to paint the very void that yawned to engulf him.
When Raymer came down to move the ladder, the old man was waiting for him at the foot of it holding a glass of iced tea in his hand. He was a wizened little man who did not even come to Raymer's shoulder. He had washed-out eyes of the palest blue, and the tip of his nose looked as if, sometime long ago, it had been sliced off neatly with a pocket knife. He was wearing a canvas porkpie hat that had half a dozen trout flies hooked through the band, and he was dressed in flip-flops, faded blue jeans, and an old Twisted Sister T-shirt.
"My name's Mayfield. Drink this tea before you get too hot."
Raymer took the glass of tea as you'd take a pill a doctor ordered you to, and stood holding it as if he did not know what to do with it.
"Drink it up before that ice melts. You don't talk much, do you?"
"You don't have much to say."
"Well, I work by myself. Folks might think me peculiar if I was having long conversations."
"I mean you ain't very friendly. You don't exactly invite conversation."
"I just have all this work to do."
"Who do you work for?"
Raymer sipped the tea. It was sweet and strong, and the glass was full of shaved ice. A sprig of mint floated on top, and he crushed it between his teeth. "I work for myself," he said.
"I been watchin' you ever since you come out here. You're right agile on that ladder. Move around like you was on solid ground. How old a feller are you?"
"I'm twenty-four," Raymer said, chewing the mint, its taste as evocative as a hallucinogenic drug, reminding him of something but he could not have said what. "Where'd you get that T-shirt?"
"It was in some stuff that my daughter left when she married," Mayfield said. "You ever do any bluff-climbin'?"
"Bluff-climbin'. Climbin' around over these limestone bluffs down by the Tennessee River."
"I bet you could, though. I used to do it when I was a hell of a lot older than twenty-four. I can't do it now, though -- my joints has got stiff, and my bones are as brittle as glass."
"I'm sorry," Raymer said, feeling an obscure need to apologize for infirmities of age he hadn't caused. He was thinking of Corrie the last time he'd seen her, thinking of her hands pushing against his chest.
"It ain't your fault. Listen, I got somethin' I need a coat of paint on. You stop by when you knock off work this evenin', and I'll show it to you."
"Well, I don't know. I push myself pretty hard. I'm usually about worn out by the end of the day."
"It ain't much, and I ain't lookin' to get it done for nothin'. I'll pay you."
"If I'm not too tired."
"The main thing is I want to talk to you. I've got a business proposition for you."
Raymer drained the glass and handed it to the old man. He began repositioning the ladder. "I'll see at quitting time," he said.
He made it through the day, and when he was behind the apartment building, washing his brushes, he thought he might make it to his truck and escape without painting whatever it was the old man wanted painted. He wanted to go home to the empty house and sit in the dark and think about Corrie. But Mayfield was a wily old man and had anticipated him. He was leaning against the front of Raymer's truck when Raymer came around the building with his brushes in his hand. He had one flip-flop cocked on the bumper and was leaning against the grille with an elbow propped on the hood. He wasn't much taller than the hood of the truck. "I'll show you that thing now," he said. "It's over on the porch of my apartment."
Raymer didn't even know what it was. It appeared to be a sort of flattened-out concrete lion. Its paws were outstretched, and its eyes looked crossed or rolled back in its head. It looked like an animal on which something had fallen from an enormous height, flattening its back and leaving a rectangular cavity.
"What the hell is it?"
"It's a homemade planter, of course. It was my wife's. It's all I've got left after fifty years of marriage, all I have to remember her by."
Raymer gazed at the sorry-looking thing. It seemed precious little to have salvaged from fifty years of marriage, but he guessed it was more than he had.
"What color you want it? Paint won't stay on that concrete anyway, not out here in the weather."
"I ain't worried about the weather -- that thing'll be on this porch longer than I will. Paint it red, brighten things up around here."
While Raymer painted it red, the old man told him a tale.
"I was watchin' the way you get around on that ladder," he began. "You ain't got no fear of heights. That ladder must run out forty foot, and you never make a misstep. Course it wouldn't take but one, and that'd be all of you. I was thinkin' about them bluffs down on the Tennessee River. Down there below Clifton. I bet a young man like you wouldn't have no trouble climbin' up to some caves I know of on them bluffs."
Raymer was barely listening. While he was painting the lion, he was replaying a loop of tape in his head of Corrie telling him about the emptiness in her life. What's the matter? he had asked, but whatever was the matter was so evasive and intangible that it couldn't be pinned down with a word. No word was precise or subtle enough to explain it. We never have enough money, but it's not really about money, she had said. He had dropped out of college so that Corrie could finish nursing school. She had dropped out of his life, and the bottom had dropped out of everything. My life is empty, she said, before she packed her bags and rented an apartment in Maury County. He didn't know what kind of emptiness, or what had been removed to cause it, but the space must have been sizable, because she had found a six-foot-four guitarist in a country band to fill it. The guitarist's name was Robbie, and he had a wild mane of curly red hair and a predatory, foxlike face.
"Hell, he's not even good-looking," Raymer had told her. "He looks like a Goddamned fox."
"Like a what?"
"Like a fox. A red fox. That sharp nose, all that red fur. Hair. Hell, I'm better-looking than he is."
"You're very good-looking, Buddy. You're a lot better-looking than he is -- but life's not always about looks, is it?"
"You a married man?" Mayfield asked.
"She quit me," Raymer said, putting the finishing touches on the lion.
"I bet ten thousand dollars would put things in a whole other light," Mayfield said.
"It wasn't really about money."
"It's never about money, but still, a few thousand dollars would fix a lot of things right up. Smooth things over, round off a lot of sharp corners. She got another man?"
Raymer was growing uncomfortable talking about it. Thinking about it. "Not until after she left," he said carefully.
"I bet she had him picked out beforehand, though."
Raymer laid the brush aside. "You do? What the hell do you know about it? What is it to you anyway?"
"I know I'm seventy-five years old, and I ain't went through life blindfolded. I know you're pretty down in the mouth, and I know there's nearly twenty thousand dollars in that cave I was tellin' you about. I put it there myself, a long time ago. You can't even get to it from the top, from the bluff side. You got to get up to it from the river. A little over nineteen thousand dollars, to be exact."
"A little over nineteen thousand is not exact," Raymer said.
"Nineteen thousand seven hundred something, then," Mayfield said. "At that time Alabama was dry for beer. Dry as a chip. I lived right across the state line then. I had two coolers on my back porch and didn't sell nothin' but tallboy Bud. Sunday afternoons in the summertime you could stand in my front yard and look up the highway and the line of cars windin' around my house looked like it went on forever. You'd wonder where all them cars come from. Where they went. I had a beer truck comin' from Tennessee twice a week. I was payin' off everybody from county judges to dogcatchers, and still I was hooked up to a money machine. I didn't drink, like most bootleggers. I didn't gamble. What was I goin' to do with all that money? Put it in the bank? Mail it to the IRS? I was makin' money faster than I could spend it, and I was never a slacker when it come to spendin' money. We had a daughter in a finishin' school in Atlanta, Georgia, and we was drivin' matchin' Lincoln Continentals. I was accumulatin' it in fruit jars, paper sacks. The money kept growin' all the time."
"Why didn't you just bury it?" Raymer asked, as if he believed any of this.
"I did, but folks was always slippin' around and tryin' to dig it up. They took to watchin' me in shifts. They knew I had money. I had to get it somewheres nobody prowled around. I was thinkin' in terms of a sort of retirement fund. Then I come in this part of the country and found that cave. You can barely see it from the river, much less get into it. Nobody had been in there in a hell of a time. Some skeletons were in there, and old guns. Swords. I've got one of them I'll show you. It was a old Civil War cave."
"Let's see it," Raymer said, interested in spite of himself.
The sword was wrapped in what looked like an old tablecloth. The old man unfolded the oilcloth and held up the sword for Raymer to see. Raymer was expecting something polished and lethal, but the steel had a dull patina of time, and it seemed to draw light into itself instead of reflecting it.
"It's one of them old CSA officer's swords, ain't it?" the man said.
"I really wouldn't know one from a meat cleaver, but I guess it is if you say it is. It's certainly some kind of sword. What else was in there?"
"Belt buckles. Rusty guns. Bones, like I said. Further back there was different kinds of bones, arrowheads, and clay pots. That place was old. I ain't no zoologist or nothin', but them was Indian bones."
"Hellfire," Raymer said. "I thought you needed someplace nobody knew about. It sounds like folks were just tripping over each other to get into your cave. It must have been the Grand Central Station of caves."
The old man took the sword back and folded its shroud around it. "Nobody's interested in that kind of stuff anymore," he said. "Everybody's forgot about it. When I was in there, I guess I was the first in seventy-five years. Nobody's been there since -- I'd bet on it."
"If you left nineteen thousand dollars in there, you bet pretty high," Raymer observed. "I thought you said you didn't gamble."
Mayfield had not yet turned on the lights in his living room, and behind him the door loomed dark and silent. Raymer thought of his own still house, where he must go.
"I've got to get on," he said. "What happened to your nose?"
"I had plastic surgery. I wanted it this way. I picked this nose out of a book."
"Were you in an accident?"
"No, he did it on purpose. I was in a beer joint over on the Wayne County line. Goblin's Knob. This big farmer off of Beech Creek set on me and held me down and cut the end off of it with a pocket knife."
"No, he was a Pulley. He disappeared right after that. Nobody ever knew what became of him. I believe he's in a dry cistern with his throat cut and rocks piled down on him. What do you think?"
"I think I can feel you pulling on my leg again."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
Illustrations by Steve Carver.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.