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O C T O B E R 1 9 9 9
IX weeks after she left, he had seen her in a mall, coming out of a JCPenney. She had had her hair shorn away and what was left dyed a glossy black. She was slim and graceful, and she looked like the willowy child he had grown up with. He walked along beside her. Standing by a wishing pool where coins gleamed from the depths, and with a brick wall hard against her back, he kissed her mouth until she twisted her face away. Let me alone, she said. What are you trying to do?
He was still holding her. He could feel the delicate framework of bones beneath her flesh. Like a rabbit, a fawn, like something small. I'm trying to save our marriage, he said.
She shook her head. This marriage is shot, she said quietly. A team of paramedics couldn't save it. This marriage wound up roadkill on the life's highway.
On the life's highway, Raymer repeated in wonder. You've been helping Robbie with his country lyrics, haven't you?
She was pushing harder against him, but he was still holding her. His arms wouldn't release. When they finally did, they hung limply at his sides, like appendages he hadn't learned the use of. She was looking into his eyes. Was she about to cry? Maybe. Maybe not. She turned away, and he didn't follow.
Corrie lived in an apartment complex near the college where she was learning to be a nurse. He had been there a time or two before she took up with the country musician. Tonight her light was out. Early to bed, early to rise. Robbie owned an old green Camaro, and Raymer drove around the parking lot until he found it. Then he got back on the interstate and drove toward home.
T'S in a five-gallon vinegar jar," Mayfield said.
"What in the world would a person ever do with five gallons of vinegar?" Raymer said.
"They'd make a lot of pickles. Anyway, that's where it's at. I started out with fruit jars, but they were too hard to keep up with. I figured, keep all my eggs in one basket. If the weather clears up, we might do it this weekend. I believe it'd do you good to get your mind off that girl that quit you. We might fish a little. You get down on that river, you'll be all right."
"I never said I believed any of this tale. And I damn sure never said I'd do it."
"You never said you wouldn't. We'll split right down the middle, half and half. I'd even give you the even ten."
Raymer was sitting on Mayfield's porch, a porch stanchion against his back, drinking from a warming bottle of beer and watching rain string off the roof. A sudden squall had blown in from the southwest, and Mayfield had been standing there in the rain waiting for him before he had his ladders and tools stored away. Now Mayfield was rocking in the porch swing, and for some time he studied Raymer in silence.
"What you're doin' is draggin' this out way too far," he said. "You're a likely young feller. Not too bad-lookin'. You need to get over it. Get on to the next thing. You need some kind of closure."
"Closure?" Raymer was grinning. "Where did you hear that? Was relationship therapy part of the bootlegging trade when you followed it?"
"I heard it on TV. I got no way of gettin' out anywhere. I watch a lot of TV. Them talk shows -- them shrinks and social workers are always talkin' about closure. Closure this, closure that. I figure you need some. You need somethin' for sure. You got a look about you like you don't care whether you live or die, and maybe you'd a little rather die. I've seen that look on folks before, and I don't care for it. It ain't healthy."
Raymer was thinking that maybe the old man was right. He did need something, and closure was as good a word for it as anything else. Everything had just been so damned polite. She had not even raised her voice. Just I'm going, good-bye, don't leave the light on for me. If only she had done something irrevocable, something he couldn't forget, something so bad she couldn't take it back. Something that would cauterize the wound like a red-hot iron.
"Did it have a metal lid, this famous jug?"
"If it did, after twenty years in a wet cave the lid's rusted away and the money's just a mildewed mess of rotten goop. A biological stew of all the germs that came off all the people who ever handled it. Fermenting all these years."
"I never heard such rubbish. Anyway, I'm way ahead of you. The money's wrapped in plastic, and I melted paraffin in a cooker and sealed it with a couple of inches of that. Like women used to seal jelly."
This silenced Raymer, and he took a sip of beer and sat watching Mayfield bemusedly. After a while he set his bottle aside. He seemed to have made up his mind about something.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"Do what? Of course I do. Don't you?"
"Do you own a Bible?"
"I believe there's one in there somewhere."
"Go get it."
Mayfield was in the house for some time. Raymer watched staccato lightning flicker in the west out of tumorous storm clouds. Thunder rumbled like something heavy and ungainly rolling down an endless corridor, faint and fainter. When Mayfield came out, he had a worn Bible covered in black leatherette. He held it out to Raymer.
"Did you want to read a psalm or two?" he asked.
Raymer didn't take the Bible. "Do you swear you're telling me the truth about that money?" he asked.
The old man looked amused, as if he'd won some obscure point of honor. He laid the Bible in the seat of the lawn chair and placed his palm on it. "I swear I hid a vinegar jar with nineteen thousand seven hundred dollars in it in a cave down on the Tennessee River."
Raymer figured he might as well cover all the contingencies. "And as far as I know, it's still there," he said.
"And as far as I know, it's still there," Mayfield repeated.
T was never about money, Corrie had said, but Raymer thought perhaps it had been about money after all. Corrie had been happiest when they had money to spend, and she fell into long silences when it grew tight. The happiest he had seen her was when they bought an old farmhouse to remodel. But everything ate up money: mortgage payments, building materials. Anyway, what Corrie seemed to enjoy was the act of spending, not what she bought.
He had given her a $300 leather jacket for her twenty-second birthday, and she had left it in a Taco Bell and not even checked on it for a week. Naturally, it was gone. They probably made a lot of others just like it, she said. Somewhere someone Raymer didn't know was wearing his $300.
E cut the motor and let the boat drift the last few feet toward shore, rocking slightly on the choppy water. He took a line up from the stern and tossed it over a sweet-gum branch. He drew it around and tied it off and just stood for a moment, staring up the face of the bluff. The cliff rose in a sheer vertical that he judged to be almost 200 feet. The opening he was looking at was perhaps thirty feet from the top.
"You went up that thing?"
"I damn sure did. With a five-gallon vinegar jug of money."
"The hell you did."
"The hell I didn't. It's not as steep as it looks."
"It better not be. If it is, Spiderman couldn't get up it with suction cups on his hands and feet. Are you sure it's the right one?"
"I'm almost positive," Mayfield said. He had opened a tackle box and sat with an air of concentration, inspecting its contents. At length he selected a fly and began to tie it to the nylon line on the fishing rod he was holding.
It was ten o'clock on a balmy Saturday morning. They had already been inside several inlets where the river backwatered and had inspected the bluffs for caves. They had seen two openings that could have been caves, but the openings had not looked right to the old man. Mayfield had brought a cooler of beer and Coca-Colas, a picnic basket filled with sandwiches, his tackle box, a creel, and two fly rods. Raymer had brought only a heavy-duty flashlight and a 200-foot coil of nylon rope, and he was disgusted. "If we had one of those striped umbrellas, we could lollygag on the beach," he said. "If we had a beach."
He began a winding course up the bluff. It was cut with ledges that narrowed as the bluff ascended, and sometimes he was forced to progress from ledge to ledge by wedging his boots in vertical crevices and pushing himself laboriously upward. From time to time he came upon stunted cedars growing out of the fissured rock, but he didn't trust them to hold his weight.
Halfway up, the ledges ceased to be anything more than sloping footholds on the rock face, and he could go no farther. He stood on a narrow ledge not much wider than his shoe soles, hugging the bluff and glancing up. The rest of the bluff looked as sheer and smooth as an enormous section of window glass. "The hell with this," he said. He worked himself down to a wider outcropping and hunkered there with his back against the limestone and his eyes closed. He could feel the hot sun on his eyelids. When he opened them, the world was spread out in a panorama of such magnitude that his head reeled, and for a moment he did not think of Corrie at all.
Everything below him was diminished -- a tiny boat with a tiny man casting a line, the inlet joining the rolling river where it gleamed like hammered metal in the sun. Far upstream, toward the ferry, a barge drifted with a load of new cars, their glass and chrome flashing in the sun like a heliograph. Mayfield glanced up to check his progress and waved an encouraging hand. Raymer was seized with an intense loathing, a maniacal urge to throttle the old man and wedge his body under a rock somewhere.
When he reached the base of the cliff, he was wringing wet with sweat. He waded out into the shallow water and got the coil of rope. Mayfield was unhooking a small channel cat and dropping it into his creel.
"What's the trouble?" he said.
Raymer shook his head and did not reply. He lined up the mouth of the cave with a lightning-struck cypress on the white dome of the bluff and went up the riverbank looking for easier climbing. He entered a hollow, topped out on a ridge, and then angled back toward the river looking for the cypress. Finding it seemed to take forever. When he did find it, he tied the end of the rope around its base and dropped the coil over the bluff. Then he hauled thirty or forty feet of rope back up and began to fashion a rough safety line. The idea of swinging back and forth, pendulumlike, across the face of the bluff, dependent on an old man with a fishing pole to rescue him, did not appeal to him, but he tied the rope off anyway. He felt like a fool to the tenth power, and in his heart of hearts he knew he wouldn't find any money.
His feet reached the opening first, and for a dizzy moment they were climbing on nothingness, pedaling desperately for purchase, until the bottom of the opening connected with his shoes. When he was sure he was safe on solid rock, he unclipped the flashlight from his belt and shone it into the opening. This could not be it. Here was no huge room like the one the old man had described, no dead soldiers or guns, no money. It was not even a proper cave -- just cannular limestone walls thick with bat guano, sloping inward toward the dead end of a rock wall. He rested for a time and then clicked off the light and went hand over hand back up the face of the bluff.
When Raymer waded out to the boat and tossed in the rope and the light, Mayfield did not seem concerned. "Likely it's another bluff," he said. "All these sloughs get to lookin' the same, and it's been upwards of twenty years since I was here. I used to fish all these backwaters when I first come up from Alabama. Now I think on it, it seems the mouth of that cave was just about hid by a cedar. That's why I picked it to begin with. I never would have found it if I hadn't been watchin' a hawk through some field glasses."
"Then you just deposited your twenty thousand and sat back waiting for the interest to add up."
"I told you, I didn't need it. I'd tip a waitress a dollar for a fifty-cent hamburger. I never cared for money."
"I guess you were just in the bootlegging trade for the service you could render humanity."
"I wish I had sense like other folks," Raymer said. "Why does everybody think I just fell off the hay truck?"
"You've got that red neck and that slack-jawed country look," Mayfield said placidly. "And a fool is such a hard thing to resist."
Illustrations by Stever Carver.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.