Wild Honey

A little more than a year ago the ATLANTIC published “Man Overboard,” James Ballard’s first short story. Mr. Ballard studied at St. Johns College in Annapolis, served with the Strategic Air Command, and is now working for VISTA, fourteen miles up a dirt road in western Washington.

A Story by JAMES BALLARD

THE truck had broken down back in the woods. It would be fixed this afternoon, or he hoped it would. Bill Kirby was cutting timber with him, and Kirby was on his way to his own home to get a length of copper tubing to fix it with. Kirby was a good mechanic. He himself had come on to the house here instead of waiting around, to see if things were all right. He had stopped by a bee tree he knew of, but the coons had been there first, and all he got for his trouble was some bee stings.

“Jaxon? Can you get it fixed?” Sarah asked.

He ought to let her think he could. “Sure. Easy.”

“I hope so. I just hope so.”

“All right, I told you. Put some more of that soda on these things, OK?”

“Weil —if you really want me to. The thing is, it’s just enough left now to make some bread for supper. Do you want me to?”

“Never mind. It’s all right.” Maybe they would stop burning by themselves afterwhile. “Any sugar?”

“Now what do you want sugar for?”

“I want it to eat. What else would I want it for?”

That was the reason he had stopped by the bee tree. The kids would have liked to have some wild honey. He would himself. Any kind of sweetening.

“It’s not any here. I’m sorry, Jaxon, really and truly.”

“OK. That’s all right. What else arc we out of?”

“Jaxon, now it’s nothing to joke about. Listen. I’ve got twenty-five cents. I been saving it, sort of, but I’ll send Rafe to the store now, all right? He can get some soda, and some sugar too.”

“You been holding out a whole quarter on me? How long you had that quarter?”

“Jaxon, I’m trying to tell you, it’s not anything to joke about. Here. I’ll put the rest of this soda on. And then later on I can send Rafe to the store.”

“Have him buy a loaf of bread.”

“He won’t need to do that. I can make —”

“Have him buy a loaf. How many times have I got to say it?”

“All right. All right, he will, hear? You sit still now while I put this on. Tt won’t take long.”

He shouldn’t have sounded off at her. He did sit still, and she went ahead.

“Jaxon?”

And from her tone, he knew what was coming.

“Jaxon, you’re bound to do something. If you’d just go on and get a job in the lumberyard with Carroll Yesbick, you wouldn’t have to be doing all these things. Don’t you see? You’d get paid every week, when anything broke you wouldn’t lose anything, it wouldn’t cost you anything. You’d even get paid for fixing it. I heard in the store the other day that he wants somebody to work for him. I didn’t ask, now, I didn’t say a word, I just heard somebody say it. He hasn’t got anybody to replace Dan Johnson yet. And maybe you wouldn’t have to work right there in the lumberyard. Maybe Carroll Yesbick would let you — I mean, maybe you could still be working out in the woods. On one of the cutting gangs.”

He got up. “Let me tell you something, Sarah. Let’s don’t go through this again.” He was not talking loud. “Carroll Yesbick won’t be letting me do anything. Or not do anything. I’m not having anything to do with the sonofabitch, you know that? Neither is Kirby. Neither is anybody else that’s got the idiot notion he’s worth a damn. I’m not working for Yesbick, Anytime. For any kind of pay. Will you hush about it now? Going on at somebody, it gets on a person’s nerves.”

“It does, does it? What do you expect me to put on the table for supper this evening, tell me that? The same old thing, I suppose. What are you going to do when school starts, Jaxon Chancellor? School takes in again next month, have you thought of that?”

“I know when school takes in.”

“Then what are you going to do? Leslie needs — ” And now she was close to tears. “She’s too big to go barefooted to school, Jaxon. She’s twelve now; she asked me the other day if we could get her a pair of shoes maybe. They don’t have to be nice ones, Jaxon. Just so she can have some.”

“She’ll have some shoes.”

“How? How? And Nora needs things too. They both do.”

Right now, I don’t know. I’ll have to tell you that. You know I don’t. But she will have some.”

“But how? Jaxon, please.”

He waited a little. “Sarah. I got to get on back now.”

She didn’t say anything.

Yesbick was a timber operator. He owned power saws and trucks and tractors, a sawmill and planing mill and lumberyard, a side business in hardware, paint, and building supplies. He sold the pine his crews cut to the big furniture mills in High Point, North Carolina, to plywood plants in Radford and Richmond, to the paper mill in Covington. Most of the people in this section, the Benediction community, worked for him. A good many of them lived in houses that belonged to him, and the rent came out of their pay before they were paid. He had put up a double row of dwellings, one room wide and three rooms long, back of his main sawmill, and it was said that he wanted people working for him to live in them. He owned various tracts of land, and he had also leased timber rights all through Benediction County and the next county over. When Benediction County was paving some of its roads after the war, it built two new ones, and paved them, to points that had been hard to get into and where he had timber cutting going. This summer, surveying had started for a new state highway, to connect Radford on one side of the mountains and Bluefield on the other. The Benediction section was in a pocket to itself, not on the shortest or easiest route for the new road, but the new one would swing down to Benediction and then north again. His trucks would make better time then, with less wear and tear, than they could now.

That was all very well, but it didn’t much interest Jaxon. He went his way. For his logging he had a secondhand truck, six years old now, and some saws and chains and axes. Bill Kirby had some saws, and he was good at repairing the truck. Each of them owned a few acres, and although the land was too steep for anything besides timber to grow on, they did own it.

Jaxon’s timber — and also Kirby’s — was mostly oak and cedar. The town of Liberty, fourteen miles away, had a small furniture shop that specialized in handmade chests and tables, and it wanted hard woods instead of pine and poplar. Outside Roanoke, there was a veneering plant that when it needed an extra number of walnut logs, bought from them. Between the veneering plant and the furniture shop, he and Kirby had a market. With Kirby, he could have cut and hauled half as much again as he actually did, if he had had some place to sell it. As things were, his income was only a now-and-then matter. But the alternatives were to pick up and move away, or if he stayed here, go to work for Yesbick. Many people already had left. In the section generally, there were only live or six smalltime loggers now, jackleggers, besides himself and Kirby. He was staying. And he was going to keep on working for himself.

HE GOR GOT back to the truck a few minutes before Bill Kirby did. Kirby had gone home to get some copper tubing. The oil line to the engine had started leaking. The truck was already loaded, with walnut logs, and they had been on their way out of the woods to Roanoke and the veneering mill when the oil pressure dropped and the engine began overheating. Kirby stopped and located the trouble.

The repairing was simple. It involved cutting the pipe and fitting the new piece in and tightening the clamps. They already had oil to replace what had leaked out, since they kept an extra gallon in a can. The engine used a lot of oil anyway. And with the line mended and new oil in, they could get under way again.

“Think we ought to try for it?” Kirby said.

It was a question. They would need to do some tall driving. The office at the veneering plant closed at five thirty, and they couldn’t get paid unless they got there before it closed. It was after four now. A fifty-mile trip, with a bad hill to get over, Jack’s Mountain, and an overloaded truck. Both rear tires were smooth. The front tires were slick. They would be squeezing the truck and the engine for maybe more than it could give. Kirby wanted him to do the deciding. And if he did, and they ruined the truck, that meant the responsibility would be on him.

“Let’s roll. Not getting nowhere staying here.”

Kirby smiled. “That’s what I wanted you to say. Couldn’t work myself up to it, I guess. Just hope we’ll make it, though.”

“Let’s go. We’ll make it.”

They checked the load again. They had the logs lengthways on the truck, with chains over the top, and the ends of the chains hooked to the sides, and extra stakes along the sides. It looked secure. They got in.

They were at the veneering mill before the office closed, and they got the logs unloaded and weighed in. The foreman gave them a purchase voucher, and they went to the office. A bonanza. The voucher read $87.00, and that came to $43.50 for each of them. Shoes. Groceries. New pants and a shirt for Rafe, new ones for Sonny. Candy. Soap. Kirby’s baby was sick. He had a two-year-old girl, and a boy about Rafe’s age. Now he could carry her to a doctor. Forty-three dollars and fifty cents.

They had a better bonanza than they thought. Or they would have one, since the manager in the veneering office gave them another order for logs while they were there. Another truckload. They could bring it in any day this week. Tomorrow, or the day after, or any day.

It would need to be the day after, since it would take that long to get another load cut and delivered. On the strength of the new order, when they went on into Roanoke they bought two new tires at the Acme Tire Market, and a recap for a spare. Kirby also got new spark plugs and a set of points for his car. He had an old Studebaker, but he didn’t use it any more than he had to. Usually he walked out to the woods, even when it was raining. Since he would be taking his kid to Liberty tomorrow, to the doctor, he wanted his car to be in shape.

From the Acme, they went to a Piggly Wiggly store and loaded up. Flour, oatmeal, canned milk, dried peaches, coffee, sugar and dried beans and hamburger meat. Supplies were cheaper here than out at Hube’s Store. Jaxon got a ten-pound bag of sugar. It was sugar he had been wanting, and he got candy besides, chocolate and licorice and cinnamon rocks, although most of that would be for the children. Kirby got a bottle of lotion for his wife. She liked lotions and those things, when he could get any for her. “This here cosmetic crap,” Kirby said, and he made it clear that he personally, being practical-minded, didn’t put any stock in it. Jaxon was interested. He got three bottles of lotion, small ones, for Sarah and Leslie and Nora. Leslie would have new shoes now, for school. And Nora would.

It was dark by the time they started home. They only had a few dollars left. That was all right. Day after tomorrow they would get paid again. They were used to having to spend most of their money. All of it, but this time they had come out ahead. The truck rolled along. Engine running cool, the headlights steady and bright, the moonlight gray and quiet over the fields. Heavy dew. In the headlights, grass by the road glittered from the dew.

“Goddamn,” Kirby said. “Sometimes I like everybody in the world. You know that?”

Jaxon smiled a little. He hadn’t had any supper. Both of them had overlooked getting any. That was OK. He would get supper when he got to the house. Half an hour now, forty-five minutes. He pushed down on the gas pedal. The engine answered, and Kirby sort of laughed. “Want to get home, don’t you, buddy?”

THEY got another load cut the next day, on Kirby’s land this time, and loaded it the following morning. Another fifty-mile trip, but this time they could go slow and still be back before the turn of the afternoon. However, on the way up Jack’s Mountain, they had a blowout. A rear tire, the right rear. One of the new ones. The old rear tires were on the front wheels now. Jaxon was driving. The truck lurched. He kept control of it. He was stopping and pulling over when the truck lurched again, and the whole rear end of it dropped. It kept moving, scraping and grinding, for long enough to get off the paving, and that was as far as it went.

When they got out, they found that the rear axle was broken in two. What with the blowout and the load of logs, the axle had snapped. Tire and tube gone, the right wheel ruined, part of the rim flattened, two spokes broken. Oil was flowing out over the differential case and spreading over the ground. The differential was pulled apart. The more they looked, the worse things got. Probably a bearing shot in that wheel. The drive shaft probably bent.

They were six miles from Benediction. Four miles from Kirby’s house. Jaxon’s idea was for them to walk back to Kirby’s and get his car, and get on then to the veneering mill. Maybe they could arrange for one of the mill’s trucks to be sent out to here. He didn’t know anybody personally at the mill, and it was only a possibility that the mill foreman would agree to anything like that, but it was worth trying.

Kirby had another idea. A man he knew in Roanoke, Owen Marron, used to be his nearest neighbor. Jaxon knew him slightly, since Marron used to be a jackleg logger when he lived out here. He had moved to Roanoke last summer after he got fired from Yesbick’s. The point was that Marron had a truck, and he would let them use it.

It was nearly two o’clock when they got to Kirby’s house. They didn’t want anything much to eat, but since Jaxon was company, Mrs. Kirby insisted on doing something that would at least look like making him welcome. She set plates, and fried eggs and pancakes for them. By the time they were finished, he was glad she had insisted. The hot dinner was worth having.

Kirby drove fast. They were in Roanoke by four. But it took them another half hour to find Marron’s house. They located the street first. It didn’t have any pavement or sidewalk. The houses were close to the street and close together. Jaxon had only known Marron slightly, but he hadn’t figured he would be living in a house like one of these. He asked Kirby where Marron worked.

“Got on at the pants factory here in town. Something in the shipping department, what my wife said. His wife’s the one told her.”

When they got to Marron’s house, it was empty. They had the right address, but the front door had a padlock on it, and the windows didn’t have any curtains or shades, and the rooms didn’t have any furniture. Some of the windowpanes were out.

They sat in the car. “Something must have happened to Owen,” Kirby said.

The house to the left of Marron’s, a woman was looking out a front window. She came onto the porch and called at them. “You folks trying to find somebody or something?”

Kirby got out of the car, but when he did, she moved back to the door. He stopped then, and only called at her, to ask her if she knew of an Owen Marron that used to live here.

Marron had moved, last month. She thought they had gone to Bluefield, but she didn’t know for sure. “Mr. Marron got out of work, see, and from what she said, I gathered that’s where they meant to go. But I don’t think the poor thing knew for certain. Why? You all want to see him or something?”

“Wanted to see him about his truck,” Kirby said.

“Mister, he didn’t have any truck. Now he did have one, you’re right about that, used to park it just where you all are now, but that was back when they were first living here. Seems to me he sold it or something. I couldn’t say for sure, but I know he didn’t have no truck when they left here.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Kirby said, talking to himself, “he’s moved already. Don’t have a truck even if he did live here.” He got back in. In a minute he started the engine.

“Let’s stick around here for a while,” Jaxon said.

“How’s that? What for?”

“Nothing, I guess. Hell with it.”

“Let’s get out of here, man. Quick as we can.”

IN THE Liberty Cafe, Jaxon asked the waitress for another cup of coffee. He didn’t need to get any more, since three or four people were at the counter only loafing, not buying anything, and he could be one of them. But some more coffee would be something to do. Or anyway, something not to do. And it only cost a nickel in this place.

He had been to the bank this afternoon. To try and make a loan from the Liberty National Bank. That was his last try, he knew before he made it, and now that he had, he was glad to have it out of the way. A mortgage, on the sixty acres he owned. Nothing came of it. The man in the bank did go so far as to ask him how much land he had and where it was located. Then he shook his head and sort of smiled. I don’t think we’d be interested in that, Jaxon. At first, the man said Mr. Chancellor. Then just Chancellor, and then just Jaxon. When he was leaving, two of the clerks that worked in the bank noticed him, and looked at each other. They almost smiled too, the way the man back in the office had.

People stood out more than they usually did. It had been like this since yesterday. They were clearer to see. Brighter. The waitress here, for example. The coffee she had put in front of him. Something was probably out of order, if things looked like this, but no matter. It made another way to fill up the time. He had time now to sit around. He couldn’t remember when he had felt so free and easy.

Kirby had a job two miles north of town. He was working in a filling station, a little place that somebody kin to his wife was running. He was good with cars and trucks, and he started there yesterday. Kirby had acted ashamed, telling him. What bothered Kirby was that they could possibly have sold his Studebaker and arranged that way to get the truck running, or maybe traded the Studebaker for a truck. Instead, Kirby got the filling station job, and he had to have the car to get to work.

“It’s just that it looks like I’m running out on you,” Kirby said.

So he told Kirby not to feel that way about it, since there wasn’t any reason to. He said that because it was what Kirby wanted him to say, but as soon as he had, it was also what he meant.

That was yesterday. Day before yesterday was the time they were in Roanoke. Coming back, they saw the veneering foreman about using one of the mill trucks. The foreman wouldn’t hear of it. The mill was just closing down for the day, and he said nothing doing for tomorrow either. If they couldn’t get an order delivered, that was too bad. That night, they went to Deal’s Good Deal Garage, where Kirby had got his car, to try and get the parts they needed, but Roy Deal said he couldn’t be selling to them on credit. They went to a junkyard, but the junkyard owner took the same position as Roy Deal. They had a little over six dollars between them. They could get one part, but one wouldn’t matter without all the others. A list of parts: wheel, drive shaft, differential, differential case, axle, bearing. The next morning, which was now yesterday morning, the roads department had the truck towed to the county vehicle yard. They owed the county a fine now, for the towing.

Afterwhile, he left the cafe. He would need to see about getting back to Benediction. It was a fourteen-mile trip from here. He sat in the square, on a bench. He understood now why he didn’t want to leave places. It was to postpone having to see Yesbick. A delay might give time for something to happen. For things to have a chance to shift and happen a different way.

He still had two dollars left. At the house, the kitchen had a fair supply of groceries. From the buying he had done the other night. It seemed like a long time ago. Sarah had got a few more things the next day, at Hube’s. It was a treat for her to get to go to a store. Enough in the house for three or four days ahead. He could wait another full day, and another one after that.

You want to see me about something, Chancellor?” Yesbick said. “Not looking for a job by any chance, are you?”

“It’s what I’m doing.”

He hadn’t realized how big the lumberyard was. Yesbick wouldn’t need to worry about what people like him and Kirby might do. Yesbick never had, of course, but he wouldn’t even need to know about it. Long sheds, a brick and concrete building for the power saws and shapers and planers, an unloading dock, another dock up at the far end for the worked lumber to be loaded. A sawdust pile. A long hill of sawdust. He had seen that before, over the tops of the trees. The place was quiet now. Working hours were over, and it was shut down. He had made it out here from town just in time. One of the night watchmen had shown him where Yesbick’s office was. They were standing now outside his office.

“What you’re doing, huh. Well, let’s see now. Fact is, I’m not actually taking on anybody right at the present time.”

Jaxon was looking at a drinker’s face. Yesbick was a heavy man. He must have been a bruiser once. There was probably a way to ask for a job. To tell the man how much you had to have one, how much you’d appreciate it if he could see a way. The county was dry. It was understood that Yesbick wanted it to be dry.

“But I guess I could find something for you to do. I know I don’t need anybody out at the logging, though. Think you could help out around the yard here? Never worked much with machinery, did you?”

“Swinging an ax. Snaking logs out.”

“Uh. Little bit different from equipment. Right much different. Could use a man that knows equipment. Maintenance. Or I guess I could.”

It sounded like Yesbick was going to hire him. For if not, he wouldn’t be talking about it. He was talking like he might not, but that was only for principle maybe. It was all over, then. It was finished.

“Well, I don’t know, though. We could try you out on it, see how you work out. When you thinking about starting? Think you could start in the morning?”

It didn’t have to be all over. There was still time to tell the man he’d only been asking to be asking. “Tomorrow morning? Sure.”

Yesbick looked at him. “Understand you had a little accident with your truck. Sorry to hear about that.”

He wondered how Yesbick had heard. Maybe from his brother-in-law. His brother-in-law was supervisor of the county roads department.

“You live over on Benediction Run, don’t you, Chancellor? Guess you might as well stay on there, then. Right at the start, anyway.”

“How’s that?” Because he hadn’t thought of not staying there. He would be walking to work, but the mill was less than two miles from his house. He saw then what Yesbick was thinking of. The row of little houses over beyond the sawdust pile. Yesbick kept pressing him to move into one of them.

Yesbick was looking at him. “Well? You want to go to work here, Chancellor, or don’t you? Don’t have all day.”

He knew what he needed to say. There was a way to ask, all right. And the tone of voice to say it in. He did if he needed the job.

“Yessir. Yessir, sure do, Mr. Yesbick. Thank you, too.”

“Don’t thank me, son. Thank the good Lord it’s jobs for anybody to work at. You be here tomorrow morning, then. Seven thirty’s the time . . . Well?”

“Yessir. You bet, Mr. Yesbick. I’ll be here.”