He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, “Ottie.” It is what he has been called, and he says again, “Ottie.” Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus’s voice from a far-off time, I’m going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus’s Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the long wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For one day, he comes back.
This hill-country valley is not his place: it belongs to Sheila, to her parents, to her Cousin Buster. Ottie first came from outside the valley, from the welfare house at Pruntytown; and the Gerlocks raised him here a foster child, sent him out when the money-crop of welfare was spent. He sees their droughty valley, cannot understand—the hills to either side can call down rain. Jolting along the pike, he looks at withered fields, corn tassling out at three feet, the high places worse with yellowish leaves. August seems early for the hills to rust with dying trees, early for embankments to show patches of pale clay between milkweed and thistle. All is ripe for fire.
At a wide berm near the farmhouse, he edges his tractor truck over, and the ignition bell rings out until the engine sputters, dies. He picks up his grip, swings out on the ladder, and steps down. Heat burns through his T-shirt under a sky of white sun; a flattened green snake turns light blue against the blacktop.
The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door.
Inside smells of ages and chicken fried in deep fat and he smiles to think of all his truckstop pie and coffee. In the kitchen, Sheila and her mother work at the stove, but they stop of a sudden. They look at him, and he stands still.
The old woman says, “Law, it’s you.” Sunken, dim, she totters to him. “Where on earth, where on earth?”
He takes the weak hand she offers and speaks over her shoulder to Sheila. “Milwaukee. Got to get a tank trailer of molasses from the mill. Just stopped by—didn't mean to barge your sociable.”
“Aw, stay,” Sheila says. She comes to him and kisses his cheek. “I got all your letters and I saved ever one.”
He stares at her. She is too skinny, and her face is peeling from sunburn with flecks of brown still sticking to her cheek, and along her stomach and beneath her breasts, lines of sweat stain her blouse. He laughs. “You might of answered a few of them letters.”
The old woman jumps between them. “Otto, Buster’s awful bad off. He’s in a wheelchair with two of them bags in him to catch his business.”
Sheila goes to the stove. “Ottie don’t need none of that, Mom. He just got here. Let him rest.”
Ottie thinks of the abutment, the wear on his face. “It’s them steel plates. They don’t never get any better with them plates in their heads.”
Old woman Gerlock’s eyes rim red. “But hush. Take your old room—go on now—you can table with us.”
Sheila smiles up at him, a sideways smile.
* * *
Upstairs, he washes and shaves. Combing out his hair, he sees how thin it has gone, how his jaw caves in where teeth are missing. He stares at the knotted purple glow along the curve of his jaw—the wreck-scar—and knows what the Gerlocks will think, wonders why it matters. No breaks are his; no breaks for foster kids, for scab truckers.
He sits on the edge of the bed, the door half open, and hears talk of the ugly accident creep from the kitchen up the stairs. Ottie knows Old Gerlock’s voice, and thinks back to how the old man screamed for Bus, how his raspy yells were muffled by saws cutting into twisted metal.
As he tries to find the first thing to turn them all this way, the pieces of broken life fall into his mind, and they fall without the days or nights to mend them. He opens a window, walks back to his low table. Those things are still there: dried insects, Sheila’s mussel shells from Two-Mile Creek’s shoals, arrowheads, a plaster angel. All things he saved.
He picks up the angel, likes its quiet sadness. A time ago, it peeked through flowers when he came to himself in the hospital, and the old woman prayed by his bed while he scratched the bandage-itch. He hears children shouting. When he was a child, he held a beagle puppy, looked into the trunk of a hollow tree: on the soft inner loam was the perfect skeleton of a mouse, but grabbing for it, his hand brought up a mangle of bones and wet wood. He puts the angel on the table, and looking into the yard, he sees no such tree. show you something
In the hot yard, Gerlocks unfold their tables, and their laughter hurts him. They are double-knit flatlanders long spread to cities: a people of name, not past. He has been in their cities, and has jockeyed his semi through their quiet streets seeing their fine houses. But always from the phone book to the street he went, and never to a doorstep. Fancy outside is fancy inside, and he never needs to look. He knows why they come back—a little more fancy.
The sun makes long light-bars on the floor; walking through them, he thinks of the wire grill bolted to his window at Pruntytown, so far from this valley, and he wonders what became of all the boys waiting for homes. From the closet he takes an old white shirt, its shoulders tan with coat-hanger rust, with years. He puts it on, strains to button it across his chest. He wore this same shirt to church back then, sat alone, saw the fancy way Bus and Sheila dressed. This time he knows himself better, stronger, and it is good to wear the shirt.
On the closet shelf is a box of old photographs of distant Gerlock kin, people from a time so far that names have been forgotten. Years ago, wet winters kept him in, and he laid out pictures, made up lives for these people, and made them his kin and history. He felt himself part of each face, each person, and reached into their days for all he could imagine. Now they seem only pictures, and he carries the box downstairs to the porch.
The back porch catches a breeze, and he lets it slip between the buttons of his shirt, sits in the swing, and listens to the first dead water maple leaves chattering across the hard-packed path. His hand shuffles through old photographs, some cardboard, some tin. They show the brown and gray faces of Gerlock boys: men he almost knew, old men, all dead. The women are dressed in long skirts; only half-pretty women too soon gone old. He wonders about the colors of their world: flour-sack print dresses, dark wool suits; a bluer sky by day, a blacker night. Now days and nights blur, and the old clothes are barn-rags, brown with tractor grease. He puts the box on the floor, watches the Gerlock families.
* * *
The families walk the fields to see how neatly generations laid out this farm. Ottie knows the good way it all fits: hill pasture, an orchard with a fenced cemetery, bottoms for money-crops. He can see what bad seasons have done to warp barn siding, to sag fences he drew tight, to hide posts with weeds.
Wasps swarm under the porch’s eave. Warming in the late sun, they hover, dip, rise again, and their wings fight to cool the air around their nest. Beyond the hills, where the landline ends, he sees the woods creeping back, taking over with burdock, ironweed, and sassafras. A day forgotten comes to him.
On the spring day he spent with Sheila, they caught a green-gold bass, and watched it dangle as the light sprinkled on it.
Sheila said, “I think the belly’s the prettiest part.”
Ottie grabbed her, laughed. “All that color and you pick the white?”
Sheila giggled and they held each other, fighting for breath, and leaned against the spotted bark of a sycamore. Then the fish flopped from the hook, and slipped into black water. They sat on roots, rested, listened to their breathing. With his fingers laced under her breasts, Ottie felt her blood pumping.
One wasp reels, circles, butts beaded ceiling, and Ottie watches the brown wings flash over bright yellow bands, and knows he can pack his grip, be in Columbus by midnight. He lights another cigarette, wonders if being with Sheila that day has turned them.
The old woman’s voice tunnels through the hall to the porch, a soft cry: “It’s for disgrace you want Bus here.”
“Done nothing like it,” the old man yells. “He’s a part of us. He’s got a right if the murderous devil yonder has got a right.”
Hearing Sheila calm them, he breathes out smoke, rubs fingers along the fine stubble near his scar.
Old Gerlock comes out. Sheila and her yellow dog behind him; Ottie stands to shake hands, looks again at the old man's stiff face. He sees eyes straining from hard years, and there are lines and wrinkles set long ago by the generations trying to build a place.
Old Gerlock says, “Otto.”
“Good to see you, sir.” He feels heavy, stupid, and bends to pet Sheila’s dog.
“That’s a sugar-dog,” Old Gerlock says. “Worthless mutt.”
Ottie hears Sheila laugh, but deeper than he remembers. Her laugh was high then, and the old woman worried them around the porch, saying, “Please don’t, honey. A thing alive can feel.” But Sheila held her paper cone torch to another nest, careful to keep flames and falling wasps from her hand. She balanced on the banister, held the brace, and he saw the curve of a beginning breast crease her shirt. Then he looked to Bus, knew Bus had seen it too. He stops petting Sheila’s dog, and straightens.
The old man paws his shoulder. “Otto, you always got a place here, but when Buster comes, you help make him feel at home.”
“Yessir.” Bus’s face comes back to Ottie: a rage gone beyond fear—the thought almost makes him know. “I hadn’t figured he’d be here.”
“Soon enough. You don’t recollect nothing of what happened?”
“Nosir. Just me and Sheila fishing and Bus’s coming to say he wants me to ride with him and listen for a noise.”
“Not even after all these years?”
Sheila hugs the old man with one arm. “Dad, time just makes it go inside. Ottie won’t ever know.”
Old Gerlock shuffles and pshaws: “I just figured …”
The old woman comes out, a dish towel in her hand, and Ottie watches her gasp to keep down sobs. “Otto, don’t you take no disgrace at Bus’s coming here. Wickedness brung him. Pure-T devilment.”
The old man looks hard at her, then to Sheila and Ottie, and his face goes gray-blue with blood. “Sheila take him yonder to see my new dog—only don’t be sugaring over her, for now, you can’t do such to a hunting dog.”
Sheila and Ottie go down the steps, take the clay path to the barn. Ottie squints in the coarse sun. Along low slopes of parched hills, fingers of green twist into gullies where water still hides. Looking back, he sees the old man go inside, but the old woman stands alone, hands over her eyes.
“This is a hell of a game,” Sheila says. “They wasn’t going to bring Bus. Then Dad hears you’re here—up and calls them, says, ‘Bring Buster hell or high water.’”
“Don’t matter. Just makes me feel tired, sort of.”
She takes his hand. “Why’d you never come in before?”
“Never been back this way. Had to get out sooner or later. I don’t see what made you stay.”
“No place to go but here. You changed, Ottie. You used to be rough as a damn cob, but you’re quiet. Moody quiet the way Bus was.” He squints harder. “What about you?”
“Nothing much happens here. Lots happens to you with all your shifting around. Don’t that ever bother you?”
He laughs short and low. “You-all pity me my ways, don’t you? Only I’m better off—ain’t a thing here to change a one of you.”
“Ain’t nothing to make us any worse off, if that’s what you’re after.”
She looks away from him, and her frizzy hair, faded with the long years, hides her face. At sixteen she was nothing to look at, and he has always dreamed her as looking better. Now he sees her an old maid in a little town, and knows her bitterness.
“This is my last haul anyplace,” he says, waits until she looks at him. “I’m getting me a regular job with regular guys. I’m blacklisted, so I can’t drive union, but I know a place in Chicago that rebuilds rigs …”
“You won’t stick, Ottie. You don’t know what it is to stay in a place, and there ain’t any place you’ll stick.”
He has half hoped, kept the hope just a picture of thought, a thought of sending Sheila the fare and working regular hours. Now he puts it away, seeing too soon how dim it gets.
He looks into the pen. Old Gerlock’s dog is a square-headed hound, and Ottie knows to pet her means nothing. She stares at them blankly, beats her tail in the dusty shadow of her house. Blue-green flies hum her, but she does not snap them the way Beagle had. got something, something to show
When they were boys, he and Bus chopped brush along the fence all that day. Toward dusk, with chimney swifts clouding the sky, they cut into the scattered bones of a white-tailed buck—the yellowed ribs still patchy with leathered meat. Bleached antlers clung to the skull.
Bus up and grabbed the skull as Ottie leaned for it. “Lookee, I bet it was killed by Injuns.”
Ottie pulled at an antler until Bus let loose, then chucked the skull into thick green woods. “Hell, them’s common as sin.” He hooked brush again, stood straight only to watch when Beagle scared up a rabbit, set a sight-chase. He saw Bus far behind him, staring into meshed underbrush. The woods were already dark.
Bus was half crying. “I would of made me a collection like yours.”
“Beagle jumped another one,” Ottie said. He went back to work, heard Bus whipping with his sickle to catch the pace.
Bus said, “I don’t like Beagle.”
A bottle fly buzzes Ottie’s eyes, and he fans it away, watches Sheila’s dog sniff the wire-edged pen. The dog tries to jump over, and Sheila catches his collar.
Ottie says, “Boy and a girl.”
“Not this one. He’s been fixed.”
“Yeah, but they still know what to do.” He looks at ridges made brown fire by sun, and thinks back to a boy with mouse bones, a hollow tree, a beagle puppy.
* * *
A triangle rings up from the back yard, and Ottie goes with Sheila around the barn; but looking up, he sees them wheel Bus into the shade of a catalpa. Sheila gives Ottie a hasty, worrisome glance, and Ottie walks slowly to Bus, tries to see each day of the hidden time; but only sees the way Bus is now. Bus sits crooked to one side, his hands bone-bunches in his lap, head bending. He is pale, limp, and his face is plaster-quiet. Ottie smells a stink, and knows it is from the bags hanging on the chair. “Here’s Ottie,” says Bus’s mother. She leans over the chair. “You know Ottie.”
Bus looks up at her, and his face wrenches tight. He rocks side to side in his chair. “Cig’ret’.” In the shadow of the tree, blue veins show through his skin. A tube runs yellow from his crotch, and he lifts it, drains it into its bag.
“Oh, honey, you smoke so much.” She looks at Ottie. “His Uncle George wants him to stop, but it’s the only thing he gets any pleasure from.”
Ottie squats, sticks out his hand. “Hey, Bus.”
Bus takes the hand, then growls up at his mother. “Cig’ret’.” He shows his teeth.
Ottie gives him a Pall Mall, lights it. A curl of smoke wisps Bus’s eyes, and he blinks once, slowly. Pieces of tobacco cling to his gray lips, and he spits weakly at them. The woman’s bare hand wipes her boy’s chin. Ottie glances from the grass to Bus’s face, but all the days of waiting are not there, only a calm boy-smile. Ottie scratches at his scar, and his hand smells of Bus’s—the smell of baby powder and bed-sore salve.
“Buster, it’s Ottie,” she says again.
“Otto.” On the porch, the old man holds his Bible against his chest, one finger parting the leaves.
Ottie stands. “Yessir?”
“Get the plow from the tool shed yonder.”
On the path to the shed, a strangeness creeps through him: he remembers walking this way—nights, years ago—and Bus yelling, “I’m going to show you something, Ottie.” Bus grinned, made Beagle dance on his hind legs by holding back the collar. Then Bus shoved hard with his sickle blade, and Beagle stumbled, coughing, into a corner. First his bandy legs folded, then he fell to his side, did not breathe, and his flanks filled, swelled. Ottie found no blood, only the pink-lipped wound in one dimple of Beagle’s chest. Then he carried the dog toward dark hills.
In the hot shed, he gathers himself and finds the plow. With its handles and traces rotted away, the blade seems something from an unreal time, and his fingers track warm metal now pitted with rust. The Gerlocks always tell that this plow was first to break the bottoms of their valley, and Ottie wonders what it means or if they just made it up.
Sawdust falls into his eyes, and he steps back, looks to the ceiling; a bumblebee drills the rafters. The joists are spotted where Old Gerlock has daubed other holes with axle grease. Still, the bee drills. Ottie dwells on Sheila’s laugh, a laugh high and happy at burning wasps. He remembers the nest in her hand, the fresh smile on her face, and the wasp worms popping from their paper cells under her fingertips.
He carries the single-blade to the porch, puts it on the banister, and brushes at the rusty streaks on his good shirt, smears brownish dust into the threads. He goes to the yard’s edge, away. Sheila comes to stand with him, and he feels her eyes on him from the side, feels her fingers pressing inside his forearm.
On the porch, the old man preaches from his Bible, and his voice is a wind and whisper; the words of his god have the forgotten colors of another time. As the gathered families listen, Ottie watches them, their clothes fitting so well, and he knows the old man is the only Bible-beater among them. He hears false power in the preacher’s voice, sees outsiders pretending. Old fool, he thinks, new fools are here to take your place.
Old Gerlock shouts to the hills: “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?”
Heads bow to the prayer, the unfixed wish, the hope offered up, and every head turns to Bus.
“Godspeed the plow,” they say.
A line forms for supper, and Ottie sees the folding table set for Bus, a special table alone, and he knows Bus has no right—nobody has any right. They should all eat alone, all with no past, no life here. On another table sit foods long forgotten: pinto beans, fried tomatoes, chowchow relish. He is hungry and keeps close behind Sheila, fills his plate, sits with her where he can see Bus. Old Gerlock wanders to their table, rests skinny arms by his plate as he prays to himself. Sheila elbows Ottie, jerks her head toward father, and her mouth stretches out to a grin. Ottie shrugs, eats, watches Bus’s mother strip chicken and spoon it to her boy.
The old man looks up, blends his food. “Is it a good life, the way you live?”
Ottie puts down his fork the way the old woman taught him. “It keeps me busy enough.”
“Must help you forget, I figure.”
“Yessir. There’s mistreatment galore from you I don’t recollect.”
Sheila takes Ottie’s hand. “Stop it, you two.”
The old man’s lips go pale with a smile. “Just what happened to wreck that car, Otto?”
A dull flash passes over him; a sickness and a pain streaming from his neck down his back. Beyond the old man sits Bus—Bus with eyes of hard sadness. Ottie knows. “We been through that before.”
Sheila squeezes his hand. “Goddamn, let it alone.”
The old man draws to hit her, and her head turns.
Ottie yells, “Hit me.”
Old Gerlock drops his hand. “No, you have got your suffering—just like her.” He eats, does not look up.
Bus’s eyes fix Ottie with a helpless gaze, but his lips skin back in rage. He sits straight in his chair, one hand waving away the spoon of chicken. He moans, “Ot’ie.”
Sheila takes Ottie’s arm. “C’mon, that’s enough.”
He shakes her off, walks under the waning shade of the catalpa, and bends over Bus. He draws his face close, and smells the smoked oil of Bus’s skin.
Bus cries, shakes his head, “Ot’ie.”
He whispers, tries to hiss, “Bus.”
With the lumped knuckles of Bus’s hand, he saw far-hidden minutes of racing along the pike. He saw Bus’s face go stiff to fight, saw the sneer before that hand twisted the wheel a full turn, and metal scraped and warped against bridge-sides. show you, you got some Ottie looks to the hills: in their hollows were outcrops, shallow caves where he hid with leaf-bed and fire pit, where he waited out the night beside Beagle’s cool carcass.
He squats, puts his hand on Bus’s shoulder. “Bus?”
Bus blinks, bows his head.
Standing, Ottie sees the families staring, and he from the yard into open, brown bottoms. Sheila follows, catches his hand to slow him. He curves uphill to the orchard, stops at its crest. Far below are black splotches of Two-Mile Creek showing between patches of trees, the only green spreading slowly out from the marshy banks.
He remembers standing in that creek with Old Gerlock. He almost knew again the cool sweep against his knees, felt the hand cover his face, then the dipping into a sudden rush. Only that once he prayed; asked to stay, always live here. Sheila’s arms go around his waist.
The ground is thick with fruit: some ripe, some rotten, some blown by yellow jackets. Ottie pulls a knotted apple, bites into dry meal. Even the pulp has no taste, and he sees the trees need pruning. He tosses the fruit away. “We used to cut props for the branches.”
“Mom worked me all week making apple butter, but it’s been a while.” She snorts a small laugh, holds the back of her hand to her forehead, mocks: “Oh, dear. What shall we do in the dry?”
“Blow away, I guess.”
“Yes,” she says, pulls on him. “Asses to asses and bust to bust.”
Ottie feels too close, lets go, and watches as she picks up something, holds it out to him. It is the pale blue half of a robin’s egg left from the spring.
He says, “They throw it out if it don’t hatch.”
“You told me that before. I thought you saved such stuff.”
He thinks of the low table in his room, the arrowheads, the plaster angel. Again he saw the buck-skull sailing, turning through the branches, shattering. His falls away. “No, I quit saving stuff.”
She crushes the shell in her palm, makes it blue-white paste. “I ain’t never been loved.”
“Bullshit, Sheila. Buster loved you.”
“Bus?” Her hand shades her eyes against the last sun.
“He thought we was making it down at the creek.”
She clasps her hands around his neck, smiles again. “I ain’t never even had a man, but I wanted both of you. Didn’t you ever want to?”
He shakes his head.
She squints, and her hands slip from around his neck; she backs away, turns, hurries toward the house. Watching her go through timothy and trees, he hopes she will not look back, and hopes she will be lost to him in the crowded yard.
* * *
He sits against the cemetery’s fence, scratches up dead moss with a stick, and feels the back of his shirt ripping on ribbed bars. The sun makes an ivory scar in the sky behind the hills; from the creek, a killdeer cries flying from marshes into the line of sun. A blue-brown light creeps up from the ground, and the leaves make patterns against a shadowy sky.
One by one, he picks up the fallen leaves nearest him, gathers them to himself with the years of hurried life. Feeling the crinkled edges of a scorched leaf, he sees, in the last of light, colors still splotching its skin. Everything is so far away, so buried, and he knows more than any buck-skull turned them all.
He walks the darkening fields alone. Heat lightning flashes, and he hears the slow drone of locusts cooling in the trees. He wonders how many deer have died in all the winter snows, how many mice have become the dirt. Walking the fencerow, Ottie knows Bus owns this farm, and has sealed it off in time where he can live it every day. And Ottie sees them together a last time: a rying dog and two useless children, forever ghosts, they can neither scream nor play; even dead, they fight over bones.
The cars leave the dusky yard, bound for cities and years far into the night. He stands until the farmhouse lights go out, then walks back through the yard, up to the porch.
“You’ll be heading out tomorrow?” Old Gerlock sits hidden away in the shadows.
“Stick around and help to strip tobacco.”
Ottie grins. “Cutting knife don’t fit my hand.”
“Can’t you tell the truth about Buster?”
He shrugs, rubs his hand across his face, but smells no salve or powder; only the dust of leaves. “I reckon Bus was trying to … I guess it was accidental.”
The old man goes to the door, holds it open, then spits over the banister. “God forgive my wore-out soul, but I hope you burn in hell.” Old Gerlock goes inside.
Ottie sits in the swing, thinks of the bars on his window at Pruntytown, and laughs. They never needed bars. They had always been safe from him. do what in the dry
His voice is smoky: “Blow away.”
Rustling metal leaves of tintypes, he takes a cardboard picture from the shoe box, lights it, sees the photograph crinkle into orange, blue, and purple against the night. He lights another, makes flames eat the long-forgotten faces. blow away The third he wants to hold to the wasp nest, wants to make singed insects fall through colored flames, wants to see worms bubble and the rough edges of their paper nest smolder. It is not his way of doing. He shakes his head, waves out the fire. He stands until the last spark glows, rises, burns out.
Inside is close, and it sucks the air from him. The scent of chicken seeps into the walls, and already it is becoming the smell of old times. He takes the stairs quietly, sees no light under Old Gerlock’s door, but a film clings to his skin the closer he comes to the landing.
Going down the hall to his old room, he passes Sheila’s door, looks up. He sees her standing naked in the doorway; gray, waiting. He stops, waiting; he listens to her breathing. Slowly, he moves up his hand, touches her face, and he feels the sweat of her cheek mingle with the dust of his palm. He knows her better, and he knows her way of doing.
He steps into his room, strips off the white rag, and leaves it lying on the bed. He packs his grip with a razor, soap, and comb, all things he brought. Pulling on a clean T-shirt, he zips shut the grip, and carries it into the hall. Sheila’s door is closed, and Ottie knows what turned them all will spin them forever.
Outside, the yard is empty, dark. He climbs the ladder into his semi’s cab, and tries to remember a wide spot by the mill, a place to pull over. The ignition bell rings out, and gears—ten through forward— strain to whine into another night, an awful noise.
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