Mrs. Tencher checks me up and down. She is
the lady that runs the place, and there is iron in her gaze. "Visiting hours is
over," she says. "You just come back another time during the day and we'll see
about letting you visit Mr. Potterfield." She don't like my looks any too much, that
I can tell. I am a big man and never have been real what you would call presentable. Plus
the ride over was hot and hard and I have sweated through my clothes under my arms and
down my back, and that never does do much for the way you look.
"I come a long way, Mrs. Tencher," I say to
her. She looks over my shoulder at where my old Dodge Dart is setting in the gravel drive.
If it was a nice new Buick out there, or some kind of a foreign job, she'd let me in, but
I know by the set of her mouth she don't like the primer paint or the places where the
chrome is dead-looking and milky, like an eye that has got a cataract.
There is a couple scruffy-looking banty hens
scratching near the car. As I watch, a little rooster with a tail like a feather duster
comes out from behind a shed and jumps one of them. She squabbles like hell, but he just
digs them sharp claws into her shoulder feathers and clips the back of her neck in his
short beak and pushes her into the ground while he services her. The one hen screeches and
tries to flap her pinned wings, loses a couple of feathers. The other hen has found a fat
grub or something in the dust a couple feet away and don't seem to notice at all.
"Hell of a hard ride over them mountains, if you
know what I mean," I say. I am still stiff from setting all that time. I work my
shoulders. Mrs. Tencher, she don't like the sound of that "hell" too much, and
her thick eyebrows knit together. She has been watching the birds out in the dirt of her
yard, and she looks at me now with her sharp dark eyes. She is a big lady, wide across the
shoulders and thick at the waist. She's got on a heavy canvas apron that's a mess down the
front, looks like she's been butchering hogs in there.
"He wrote me, asked me to come," I say, and
I hold the letter up, got my name on the front in Moon's hand - Grady Bell, Rural Route 4,
Gilchrist - and him begging me to get him out of there. I hold it up in front of me like
it is a writ or something. You got to get me out of here, Grady, the letter
says. What with the woman's food and her talk of God and keeping me all the time tied
in the chair so I don't fall out she is like to put an end to me. I have not got long to
go in this world without you should help, it says.
That's enough for me. I don't leave home a whole hell
of a lot, but that letter done it right there and got me going. So I stand where I am,
facing down Mrs. Tencher herself on the steps of Mrs. Tencher's Manor for Adults. She
don't look much like backing off, I am bound to admit.
An old man in a wheelchair rolls out on the porch
where we are. His hair is white and his cheeks are sunk in. He's got him a false top plate
that he keeps levering in and out of his mouth. Big yellow teeth, big square yellow fake
teeth he's got. He nearly runs the chair into Mrs. Tencher when he comes up on her,
wheeling it around pretty good with his skinny old arms. I see he is got one leg gone
where his hospital johnny just folds up neat there.
"Mrs. Tencher," he says, real excited. He
wheels the chair around her in a half-circle, and she turns to keep her eye on him, tries
not to lose sight of me too. The hard rubber tires on the chair rumble over the loose
boards of the porch. "Yo, Mrs. Tencher," he says, spinning the chair back toward
her with one hand. I still got that letter held out in front of me and she hasn't even
looked at it. I fold it in half, shove it back in my pocket.
"What is it, Colonel Combs?" she says to the
man in the chair, and I can tell from her tone that Colonel Combs won't be getting raisins
in his hot cereal for some time to come. He has pissed Mrs. Tencher off with bothering
her, and no lie about that.
"Can't you see that I am talking with
someone?" she says. She wedges a foot against the tire of old Combs's wheelchair to
keep him in one place. "Colonel Combs is a veteran of the First World War," she
says to me, like she needs to explain where his leg has gone, like I might think she took
it off or something.
"He done it again, Mrs. Tencher," Combs
says. "He got loose and stood up out the chair and now he's down and can't get back
up. I figure might be he's busted his hip this time. All the noise he's making, awful
noise." This seems like the most exciting thing that has happened to Combs in a
while. I guess when you are as old as that and lost a leg to a war a long time ago, things
get solemn for pretty lengthy stretches at a time.
Mrs. Tencher turns back to me and like to kill me with
that look in her eye. I expect her to spit on me. "That'll be your Mr.
Potterfield," she says. "He is all the time doing that kind of thing, and it'll
be the end of him, him and me both," she says. She is already got that big body in
motion across the porch. She skirts around Combs and into the house, and the screen door
slams shut behind her. I hear her thumping on into the house and I am not sure just what I
For a couple of minutes then it is just me and old
Combs out there on the porch. I look at him and he looks at me. He is grinding that upper
plate in his mouth. He hasn't moved the chair since Mrs. Tencher put the block on him.
The evening is a warm one. There are tree frogs all
around the house, up there in the hills of Dwyer County, and they make a hell of a racket.
It is a good summer sound, them tree frogs. The rooster has moved on to the other hen now,
but she is quieter and gives in to him without a problem. The first hen has gone back to
"Well, Colonel Combs," I say, and I climb
onto the porch where he is. "I expect I'll just go in and see about Mr.
Old Combs don't have any argument with that. He is
just chewing that upper plate still. "He shouldn't ought to get out of the chair like
that," he says to me. "I bet he busted his hip this time," he says. His
eyes are bright blue in his weathered face. He looks at me like it is something real
important he wants to say but just can't manage to get it out somehow.
"Might could be," I say. I push past him.
The screen door is loose on its hinges and makes quite a noise as I go in. A spring slams
it shut behind me. Looking outside, I can see
Combs has rolled his chair to the steps, craned his
head so he can see out into the yard. Maybe it is the chickens that have got him so
Toward the back of the house I can hear Mrs. Tencher's
voice hectoring at somebody, and I figure that must be Moon. I hope he hasn't busted his
hip and got to listen to Mrs. Tencher too. The house is dark, like they are saving
electricity or maybe waiting for full night before they switch on.
I pass a room on the left and I can see it is a couple
of Mrs. Tencher's adults in there too, looking out at me, one in a single bed against the
wall, the other in a cane-back chair in the corner.
"Hey, O. John," the one in the bed says to
me as I go by. I lean into the room. "I ain't O. John," I say to the man. He is
holding one long arm out to me. "Sorry," I say. The one in the chair is a woman
with a basket in her lap. She is knitting, moving the needles back and forth, back and
forth in her crabbed old hands. I wonder how it is she can see to knit like that with the
room as dark as it is.
"Hey, O. John," the old man says to me
"Never mind him," the old woman in the chair
says, and her hands don't stop their shuttling, don't even let up for a minute. "He
don't know what he's saying. Don't know who he's saying it to neither."
"Come on in here, O John," the old man says.
His voice is like sandpaper on hardwood, just a buzz and a rasp in his throat. It is like
the ghost of a voice.
"Out of his head, huh," I say to the woman.
I'm not even sure the old man is looking at me, seems like he's looking over my shoulder
now, out into the empty hall, where it is all just shadows getting longer.
"He's got ears, though, don't he?" the woman
says. She stops knitting and stares hard at me, and I figure she is right. There is no
call to talk about people that way. "Sorry," I say again and duck out of the
I can still hear Mrs. Tencher in the back of the house
and I go toward where her voice is coming from. Having met some of the folks he is staying
with, I am more ready than ever to get old Moon out of this place. This is no place for a
man like Moon, that was a woodsman and a hunter as he was, with crazy old men that talk to
people that ain't even there and Mrs. Tencher on you all the time.
I go in the room where Mrs. Tencher is, and Moon is in
there too, setting in his own wheelchair and scowling at her. He has got the one light in
the room on, a standing lamp with a tasseled cloth cover. There is a little triangular
tear in the lampshade that throws a strong beam of light across his chest. He don't see me
yet. I look him over, see where he is rubbing a hand on his leg, but nothing looks like it
is busted. I am glad to see that.
It is the best thing about him, though. He has lost
weight since he come up here, a lot of weight, and his skin has gone yellow. I don't like
that at all. His mouth is pinched and looks mean, and she has got his hair cut back to
nothing, like he is a recruit in the military. His ears stand out from his head like they
do on the boys they got up on the farm at Huttonsville or in the maximum security at
"To control body vermin" is what he told me
in one letter, and I known that was just the way she tried to sell it to him. I could see
from the way the handwriting slanted across the page in big dark letters that it made him
mad as hell to have to sit still for something like that.
"You horn-headed bitch," Moon says, and I
never heard him talk to a woman like that before. "Why is it you are all the time
messing with me?" His voice is soft, like he can't even draw the breath to shout at
her. I think, this is the man that used to shout from one holler to another, used to call
the hogs in a voice so strong and loud you'd think it was some kind of a church organ, all
"You got to stay in your chair, Mr.
Potterfield," she says to him, sounding real reasonable. She has wrestled him back
into his seat, no busted bones and no trouble. She don't see me behind her either, don't
seem to be thinking of me at all.
"You got no use of them legs, so you got to sit.
You can understand that. That's why we keep you tied in there, so you don't slip
down." I can see where they got the johnny laced into the chair in back. It drives
Moon crazy, I know, makes him work at it and worry it till he finally gets it loose.
I move into the room, and Mrs. Tencher rares back, she
is so surprised to see me. "Hey Moon," I say. "I'm here to get you." I
come right out with it, no use to beat around the issue. I figure maybe we can get this
thing over with and get out of here soon, tonight. Looking at the way Mrs. Tencher has got
her jaw set, though, I am not so sure it will be as easy as all that. She has still got
that greasy canvas apron on, and it makes her look like she means serious business.
"Grady," he says. "Grady, goddamn,
Grady." It is not much of a greeting, but I know what he means. He is glad to see me,
but he never really expected to. It hurts me in a way that he did not expect me all along.
He reaches up a hand and I take it. His flesh is cool and thin on the bones, hardly
cushions them at all. Still, the bow-hunting calluses are there, rough and hard as a wood
knot. I remember them calluses like they was on my own hands.
When I was a kid, Moon taught me all about the bow,
how to stand quiet among the trees and pull back to full draw without quivering. He taught
me the stance, the release, he showed me. Moon could put a shaft through the pumps of a
whitetail at seventy yards, a perfect center-shot, and track the deer to wherever it might
go down, across shale slides, through streams, up viney wooded grades. He come as close to
being a Shawnee tracker as a white man is like to get. He was something to see, him and
his shiny black bow, the one glove on his right hand with the palm cut out.
He was with me when I broke the back on my first
decent buck, watched me put the four-bladed broadhead right into the spine at the withers.
He clapped me on the back with that hand, full of strength and steady as you could want. I
recall how that deer smelled when I knelt down next to it, the great warm body on that
cold, cold day, and Moon standing beside me. I was just nothing but a young kid then. He
pointed the fleas out to me where they were leaving the corpse, headed to who knows where,
some other deer, maybe, that they could live on.
"Just like the frigging Marines," Moon says
to me, licking his dry lips, not looking at Mrs. Tencher. "I known you wasn't just
throwing them letters away. I known you was gonna come." It ain't the truth. He
didn't know I was going to show up. The way he said that to Mrs. Tencher -
"horn-headed bitch" - he was like a man that is fighting for his life, trying to
hang on to something. Not much like a man that figures he is about to be rescued.
"You bet," I say.
Mrs. Tencher is right up behind me now. "I
thought I told you, it ain't visiting hours," she says into the back of my neck.
"You getting me out of here?" Moon says. It
looks to me like there are tears in the corners of his eyes, and I don't want to see the
old man cry. He has been through enough up here
that he shouldn't have to weep like some woman out in
the open, in front of me and Mrs. Tencher and all. It makes me ashamed for him, like I had
seen the man piss his pants or something.
It is strange to feel that about Moon Potterfield,
that is a man I have looked up to all my life and learned a hell of a lot from, more than
I ever learned in school. It is a lesson to me in what the years can bring a man to. He is
fragile and sick, and suddenly it comes to me that maybe this is where he needs to be
after all, maybe he needs the care that some home like this can give him. Too late for
that kind of thinking, though. After I told him about getting out.
"Come to take you with me," I say.
"You ain't going to do any such thing," Mrs.
Tencher says. She is standing her ground between me and the door, got her arms folded
across her chest. "He ain't going to do any such thing," she says to Moon. Then
she gets back to me. "What are you that you come in here and think you can do like
this? This here's my place," she says.
I figure Moon is worth some dollars to her every
month, some from his daughter in Memphis that found this place when his legs went bad and
put him in it, some from the state. Mrs. Tencher must figure she is entitled to that
money. She probably takes Moon's little railroad pension that he gets every month too,
come to that.
"I tried calling you, Grady," Moon says.
"I got on the horn and tried to get you, but it wasn't no use." He looks at Mrs.
Tencher. "She kept all the time stopping me."
"The fee don't include long distance phone
charges," Mrs. Tencher says. "If I just let somebody run up their bills on the
phone all the time, then where'd I be? He didn't pay for no phone privileges," she
says, pointing at Moon.
"It wouldn't of mattered, Moon," I say.
"I got no phone up at the camp now anyway. They took it out."
Mrs. Tencher laughs like everything she has thought
about me all along has just been proved. "A man that don't even have a phone,"
"He's my boy," Moon says to her in that
quiet, wore-out voice. He don't mean that I am his son, because I am not, but just someone
that grew up near him and learned from him. It is strange to hear that, thirty-four years
old and still boy to this old man in the chair.
"Is he now," she says, and her eyes narrow.
"I didn't know nothing about a boy. Your son, you say?"
Neither of us says anything back to her, and she don't
get out of the doorway. I can see someone moving in the hall behind her. It is a girl
moving out there in the dark house, coming from the kitchen. She steps past Mrs. Tencher
into the room, and I see she has got on one of them thick aprons too, with gore down the
front and on her chest. I think, What the Christ are they up to in there?
The girl is young, in her teens maybe, and a pretty
soft blonde. Behind the apron - she has got it tied tight at the waist - I can see that
her body is awful ripe, the kind of ripe that makes a man look twice, think twice. She
holds something out toward me, a tiny little body with no hair, like something out of a
dream. At first I think that it is a baby.
"We got rabbit, Mr. Potterfield," she says
to Moon, and I see she is not looking at me at all. She holds the skinned rabbit out for
Moon to see. "I know you like game meat, Mr. Potterfield. You always told me that you
liked it. You wasn't lying to me, Mr. Potterfield."
"You get back in the kitchen, Ellen," Mrs.
Tencher says to her. "This is between Mr. Potterfield and me," she says.
"A boy snared them and come around selling them.
Your friend could stay to supper too if he wanted," Ellen says but still she don t
look at me "We got plenty of them rabbits back in there."
I can picture her flaying a rabbit, with the sharp
slender skinning knife tight in her hand. Even doing that she looks good to me, this soft
little girl with the blood down her front. It gives me a tight feeling in my throat, how
round her face is, how clean her hair looks tucked back behind her ears. I wonder what she
is doing way back in these hills with all these old people in the dark. She should be
somewhere else, that I know, but where it is exactly and how she might get there I
"She's a pretty, ain't she, Grady?" Moon
says to me. He knows what I am thinking. Has always known, seems like. "I guess
that's all I'll miss about this place, Grady, is Ellen and her sweet behind." It
embarrasses me to hear Moon talk like that about a woman that is in the room with us, but
she just smiles at him like it is an old joke between them.
g "His friend won't be staying," Mrs. Tencher
says to Ellen. "You got that right," I say. I push against Moon's wheelchair,
try to shove it toward the door, but it won't roll. The rubber tires screech against the
wooden floor. Moon reaches a hand down, unlocks the wheels. I roll the chair toward Mrs.
Tencher, and at first she don't move. I think I am going to have to go over her or through
her or something to get out of here. Last minute, she backs out of the way. Ellen moves
"You ain't going nowhere," Mrs. Tencher
says. She tugs at the back of my shirt, but we are past her now, headed toward the front
of the house. As we pass that first room, I can hear the constant click, click, click of
the old lady's knitting needles. "O. John," the old man says, but I know he is
not talking to anybody that is nearby.
"That's O. John and his mother in there,"
Moon says. "He's all right."
"His mother," I say. "Shoot, I thought
they was both around a hundred years old."
"You never can tell," Moon says. "She
don't even need to be in here. She's just here to look after O. John."
Then I bang Moon's chair through the front door and we
come out into the evening air, out where we can hear the tree frogs singing. "Good
boy," Moon says to me. Looking down, I can see his scalp through the brush-cut hair,
as yellow and unhealthy as the rest of him. "How do you like that, Tencher, you old
whore," he says back over his shoulder, and it is the loudest thing I heard him say
"You are killing that old man, sure as the
day," Mrs. Tencher says behind me. Old Combs, sitting out on the porch all this time,
wheels his chair around to face me and Moon. He looks at us and his face is long.
"Going somewheres?" he asks.
"Getting out," Moon says. "Getting the
"Shoot," Combs says. "I wish you
luck," he says. I stop the chair so that he can talk, and Mrs. Tencher slows up
behind us, breathing hard. Combs looks at the floorboards. "You ain't going to get
much of anywhere, I would say, but I sure do wish you luck."
"You always was a cheerful son of a bitch,"
Moon says. He bangs on the arms of the chair. "Get this chariot rolling, Grady,"
It takes me a minute to manhandle Moon's chair down
the uneven porch steps. Having Mrs. Tencher right behind me like that makes me nervous.
One of the steps gives a little and I am scared that I will pitch down on top of him,
knock him out of the chair. Up on the porch Combs is looking after us, fondling the stump
of his leg.
Mrs. Tencher is still coming after us, past Combs,
down the stairs. "Get Colonel Combs inside," she says to Ellen, who comes after
her. Ellen just stands on the top step, watching. She has still got the rabbit in her
hand, holding it by the hind legs.
"You going to give him his pills?" Mrs.
Tencher says to me. "Who's going to give that man his pills? Not you, that's
who," she says. "Eight different kinds of pills he's got to have, the doctor
says, four different times of day. You going to do that for him?"
I don't say anything back, just keep the chair rolling
toward the car. I don't want to get in a wrestling match with her. "Coot," Moon
says back to her. "Bunch of coots," he says again, softer.
"Hush," I say. "Let me get us out of
"Help me get in the car," Moon says. "I
got no use of my legs. You got to lift me in."
"What about them pills, Moon?" I say. It
strikes me as something to think about.
"I don't need no pills," he says. "Get
me in the car."
"No pills," Mrs. Tencher says. "Stone
dead inside of a fortnight, a week, is what. Dead and mortifying. You watch."
I untie the hospital johnny, lift Moon up out of the
chair. He is light as a girl, and his head is heavy on his neck, I can see. There is no
strength or weight to him. His flesh is dry and cool, like the skin of a snake. It is not
easy to open the car door, but I get it done, put Moon in the passenger seat. He slumps
down, and I belt him in as tight as I can to keep him sitting up. "Hell of a
job," he says to me. "Keep it up." I shut the car door.
"It'll be on your head," she says.
"When he grabs his chest and coughs up blood, that'll weigh on you. You'll carry that
crime before Almighty God," she says.
I pay her no attention, even though she is shouting it
in my ear. For a minute I am confused what to do with the wheelchair. I see that it folds
up and wonder about putting it in the trunk.
"Don't you even think about that," Mrs.
Tencher says. "You take the old man if you want him, but that wheelchair belongs to
me. Didn't nobody pay me for that wheelchair." I leave the chair where it sets.
"Don't you worry, Mrs. Tencher," I say to
her. With Moon out of the picture and not cussing her for a minute, I figure to calm her
down somewhat. "He'll be all right."
"I ain't worried," she says, and her face is
contorted and ugly, she is so angry. The cords on her neck stand out. "You're the one
that's got to be worried. You're the one that's killing him."
I get in the driver's side, crank the car up. Mrs.
Tencher stands next to her wheelchair, staring at me and Moon in the car. I can smell him
in the seat next to me. No matter how a man tries, he can never keep real clean in a place
like that, with not being able to take a real bath and all. He smells like sick-sweat and
alcohol rub. Smells like a vet's waiting room.
As I back the car around, I see Ellen still up on the
porch, next to Colonel Combs. He is rocking his chair back and forth like with nerves,
tapping that one foot. Ellen is as angry as Mrs. Tencher now that she sees she isn't going
to be able to keep us, now that she knows we are going to get away with it. I am surprised
to see that, such a pretty girl and so mad. She shakes her head, scowling. We will not eat
her game meat that she has taken such pains over.
She underhands the skinned rabbit at the car, and it
smacks the windshield right in front of my face, sounds like a softball. It bounces off,
lays in the gravel next to the car, pale against the rocks. A couple busted bones poke out
of the flesh. There is juice on the windshield where it hit.
"Jesus Christ," I say, shoving the Dodge
into drive. "That's a crazy thing to do."
The left rear tire goes over something small,
something that makes a crunch. Mrs. Tencher cries out. For a second I am sure it is her
foot that I have run over. She slams a fist down on the rear quarter-panel of the car.
Looking in the rearview, I see her bent over the
feathers, the bright tailfeathers of the banty rooster. I put the wheel right over him
without even meaning to. I can see where a small breeze shivers the feathers as Mrs.
Tencher cries over them. I am surprised to see the tears on her face. I put on the brakes,
start to get out of the car.
"You crazy?" Moon says to me. "You
don't want to go back there. She'll kill you. She loved that goddamn chicken."
"Yeah," I say. He is right about that. As we
pull out of the yard, onto the nine-foot blacktop, I see that Mrs. Tencher has
straightened up, is shaking that fist after us, shouting. I can't hear what it is she
"Shoot," Moon says. He is laughing. He has
seen it all, and sick as he is, he is laughing to bust a gut.
"What is it!" I say. "Christ, I don't
see what's so funny." I turn on the windshield wipers to try and get the rabbit blood
off the windshield, but it just smears and makes it worse.
"Goddamn," he says. He is wiping at his eyes
and it is good to see him this happy, even if I am not sure what is funny. Looking behind
us, I can see Ellen wheeling Combs back into the Manor. Mrs. Tencher is down on the
ground, got her hand in the little pile of feathers, not even looking after us anymore. I
set the car straight on the road and grind all the speed out of it that I can get.
"I don't know about you killing this old
man," Moon says, and he is still laughing, "but you sure as hell did leave that
woman's yard full of little dead animals, didn't you?"
He settles his head back against the seat like he is
going to sleep. Looking at him, with his sunken eyes and skin parched like a mummy, I get
the image of what he will look like when he is dead. The road stretches out ahead of me,
all the way across the mountains and the big level to the camp on the Jackson.
What then, I want to ask Moon, but he is shaking a
little like he is laughing inside. What about when we get back to the camp, I want to say,
but there is no good answer he could give me. That is a question that I will have to
answer somehow myself, some other time. And I think, right now it is some driving I have
got to do.