The calf’s black tongue hung from its muzzle, its white hide shining in the pale sunrise. Helen Farraley crouched high on the hillside, batted flies from its vacant opal eye. She’d gotten the call deep in the night, the old man’s wife jabbering in ragged English. Something about something in the field. Something about killing. Helen had imagined the worst, was disgusted to find she’d been awakened over a dead calf.
“Some animal get it?” she asked Moss Strussveld. The old farmer wore a straw hat, his collar buttoned at his throat. “Some dogs maybe?”
Moss raised a shaking finger to tap his dentures. “No bite.” His voice was thin and steeped in the motherland. “Animal will bite.”
Helen lay a palm to the calf’s throat, its meat still warm. The old man was right. No marks. “How about disease? Some illness?”
His eyes snapped to her. “My cows are well.”
“Ain’t it possible? The water what it was?”
“My cows are well,” he said, again.
A lone cow lingered, skittishly regarding her, the rest of the herd down below the flood line, where the grassy hillside became mangy ocher dirt. Helen eyed the cow, peered out over the valley. In the far distance, the brownstones of town were scratches in the shadowed land, the sun not yet risen above the hills to wake the lows. Three months since the flood and the world still reeked of silt.
Helen stood, hooked her thumbs on her gun belt. “Listen,” she said. “Got to call the vet. Not the police. Understand?”
The old man wagged his finger. “No vet,” he replied. “Marta say listen, Moss. I hear. Three nights I hear. Some messing been in my cows.”
Helen found herself unable to look at him. She eyed his place on the ridge, his perfect red barn and little stone house. “This ain’t my job,” she said. “I deal in people. People, not animals.”
The old man said nothing more. He clasped his hands behind his back and hobbled uphill toward his tractor. Helen watched him struggle to climb into the seat and thought to offer a hand. But she’d worked the flood, had learned there was a limit to the help some would suffer from others.
The wind buffeted the cruiser and Helen woke with a gasp, as if sleep had dragged her under water. The tension wires thrummed overhead. The wipers rattled against the windshield. She batted her eyes, and came to focus on the quarry pond far below, the dark water riffling. Out the side window, the high grass lashed the feet of the electrical
tower, its girders swaying, ever so slightly, against the weltering sky.
Thunder clapped and shook the earth and then the car was engulfed, rain thrashing the windows. By the dashboard clock, she’d slept two hours. Two hours in a blink. Two hours like nothing. Since the flood, Helen was always tired, as if the weeks of fighting water had spent years of energy.
Watching the rain assault the windows, she recalled standing beside Walt Freely in his store, the first of the flood sluicing down Elm Avenue, brown water purling over the tiled floor, over the tops of their shoes, rain pouring then no different from today.
“You fetch the animals,” Freely said, his old eyes somber. “I’ll set to building the ark.”
The storm passed quickly. The high sun pierced the wake of sheer clouds. Helen’s cell phone rang. She checked the number, saw it was Walt Freely, the town’s mayor and her boss. She let it go to voice mail, then, after a minute, listened to his message. Freely sounded perturbed, asking where she was, saying the power had been knocked
out in town.
Helen couldn’t see a way around it and drove off the quarry road and down into the flats, the asphalt tricked and buckled, ditch banks crumbled, houses crooked on their foundations with grime-splattered clapboards painted with slogans to warn off looters. The pavement steamed. Branches strewn everywhere. A power pole leaned out over
Elm Avenue, held up only by its wires.
Helen turned onto the strip. Folks congregated on the road between the three-story
brownstones that housed the diner and grocery, both shops dark, the grocery store’s front window gone, glass glittering on the walkway. Walt Freely, a gaunt old man in a nylon jacket that read Freely’sacross the breast, stood at her window before she could open the cruiser’s door.
“Where you been?” he snapped.
Helen squinted up through the window. He’d been this way since the flood. Helen just took it all.
Freely motioned at the little crowd. “These folks pay your salary.” His eyes strayed to the glass on the sidewalk, and for a moment Helen thought he might cry. Then he thumped the cruiser’s roof. “Do your job,” he barked, and stalked off toward his store.
Helen scanned the stolid faces. Ted Yoder and Leonard Bateman. Carol Murphy, who waited tables at the diner. A few guys from the Havesty Construction crew. None smiling, none giving her more than a glance.
Helen stayed in the car, dialed information to put her through to the power company. She worked her way through recorded messages and garbled music, was eventually told by a smoky-voiced woman the problem was a substation, the power out for most of the county. She couldn’t estimate how long it’d take to get it all back up and running, couldn’t say how soon they’d repair the power poles, though they’d surely start in more populated areas.
Helen called Mel Smith, a local handyman, and asked him to come right off to fix the storefront. She phoned the Pendelak twins, who were good ball players and popular in school, told them to come into town with a few classmates, saying the town was torn up again and everybody needed to pitch their part.
Sweat trickled down Helen’s ribs, a line of damp marking the shelf of her stomach. She left the car and crossed the road and the walkway of broken glass to enter the grocery.
The aisle closest to the window was littered with glass and wilted magazines blown from their racks. Passing the aisles, empty of people, sparsely stocked, Helen’s thoughts veered to the senior home where her mother lived, and she imagined her mother, who the day before had looked upon her like a stranger and refused to speak.
Helen found Freely at the butcher counter. The old man peered into the case, at the neat piles of chops and steaks, mounds of sausages, catfish and perch laid on garnished beds of ice.
“It’s to be dark awhile,” Helen told him. Freely didn’t turn. His head slowly shook, his eyes trained on the meat. “It’ll go bad,” he said. “It’ll all go bad, won’t it?”
Helen held the door for a medic wheeling a woman out to an ambulance parked under the portico. In the senior home’s foyer, Helen passed a moonfaced man with long black braids inspecting an oxygen tank, a dozen or more tanks lined along the front window. In
the back of the room, away from the window’s heat, elderly men and women sat waiting in a row of metal chairs, each gripping an orange or red popsicle in an age-spotted
The halls were dark and nearly silent. Where doors were open, sunlight cut into the hall. Helen entered her mother’s room and found her mother sitting in a wheelchair. She was dressed in a pale-blue cardigan, her hands in her lap. Her face turned to Helen, but
she said nothing. Helen searched her mother’s eyes, which were unfocused in a way that made Helen wonder if she’d gone blind.
Helen wheeled her mother out. An exit in the back led onto a little patio overlooking a clover meadow. Higher aground, this area had been spared by the flood. Plastic pots marked the patio’s four corners, pansies wet and drooping, mud trails leaking from the bottoms.
Helen held her mother’s hand and more than anything wanted her mother to turn and see her, for them to talk as they once had. It’d been a year since Helen moved her to this home. A year of deterioration, her limbs weakening, her mind slipping. Helen’s heart
wrenched, overwhelmed by the guilt in hoping it’d all soon be over.
The door opened and out stepped Sally Winkowski, who ran the home, a woman just a few years older than Helen, her hair dyed the color of beets. In her hands she held a limp box of popsicles.
Sally pulled a popsicle from the box. “They’re gonna melt,” she said, offering it to Helen.
Helen took it, thanked her. “How’s things?”
Sally smiled. “We’re scrambling.”
“Anything I can do?”
Sally patted Helen’s shoulder. “We’re fine.” She pulled another popsicle from the box. “For Mama?”
Helen took it from Sally. She tore the paper. The popsicle was bright red and she worked her mother’s fingers to hold the stick. Her mother’s eyes drew onto her fist. Helen considered what it would mean to forget a life, the slate cleaned of all notions of good and bad. To be innocent again. Her mother’s arm lifted and Helen watched her lick the popsicle, her eyes widening like a child’s, her tongue lapping the sugar put onto her lips.
Sunlight bled through Helen’s eyelids. She’d parked in the electrical tower’s latticed shade, but now the sun had shifted. Helen lolled her head against the cruiser’s bright window, her eyes opened to power lines bowing tower to tower then vanishing over the rim of the hill only to reappear, far below, to span the quarry pond. Sunlight dully
flashed on the pond’s storm-stirred water. Trucks parked down there, kids come to swim.
Her cell phone rang. She checked to see it wasn’t Freely, then answered it.
“Sheriff?” It was a man’s voice, soft, hoarse.
Helen straightened herself. Gil Henderson was a marshal from the county seat, an old brand type who didn’t call for leisure. “How’s things, Gil?”
“That’s a song I know.”
“Well,” he said, “afraid I’m going to have to add to it. Got to come down there. Thought I’d phone ahead.”
“Appreciate it, Gil.”
“It’s a courtesy.”
“Appreciate it,” she said again.
“You know a Jorgen Delmore?”
Helen winced at the name. Her mother had taught the boy in 4-H, schooled him in taxidermy. He’d mounted a pheasant for her once, won a ribbon at the fair. Last she knew he’d enlisted in the army and was off in Iraq. “Yes, sir.”
The marshal explained Delmore had been arrested in the city on felony possession, got out on bail. Said he’d missed his court date and now there was a warrant for his arrest. “Got to hunt him out,” he said. “How’s this look from your end?”
Helen’s jaw tightened. She hadn’t heard Jorgen was home, hadn’t heard any of this. “Those Delmores,” she said, considering how much to tell. “Well, they just ain’t right.”
The marshal grunted. “How well you know the boy?”
“His family’s rough, but he ain’t bad.”
“Hell, he ain’t.”
“Got to bring him in.”
Helen’s cheeks flushed. “Yes, sir.”
“You help us out?”
“Go talk with him,” he said. “Smooth the road for us.”
Helen tapped a knuckle against the steering wheel. “All right.”
“It’s a tight leash, Helen.”
“Be there tomorrow, a.m.”
She heard a clicking on the line. “You help us or not, sister?”
Helen shut her eyes. “Sure, Gil,” she said, rubbing her brow. “I’ll do what I can.”
The cabins were circled like battlements against the overgrown woods. Kids played in the middle, stomping puddles, kicking about a green plastic bottle. Some barely out of diapers, boys and girls alike shirtless and filthy. They watched Helen as she trolled the circle, searching out the address Henderson gave her. A redheaded boy, twice as tall as the rest and nothing but legs, spat on the cruiser’s hood.
Helen found cabin 17. The yard was a mess, a tricycle with no front wheel, a sandbox steeped in weeds and brown water. Garbage bags covered the windows. The kids followed the car. She opened the door and told them to go home, but they didn’t.
She walked a path of flat stones around to the door. She was just here to talk, tried to put on a smile, look at ease. She heard movement inside, a woman shouting.
As Helen stepped onto the stoop, a door banged at the back of the house. She heard quarreling, voices. Instinct told her to move, and she hurried around to find a bald man in jeans and no shirt, his muscled back riddled with cuts, trying to run while another man
tugged his arm to keep him in the house. But the bald man tore free and dashed into the woods, the other giving chase and calling, “Jorgen, goddammit.”
Helen shouted after Jorgen, too, then a shadow cast itself over her, and she spun to face a large bearded man in a red shirt. His fist struck the base of her throat. She crumpled as if her legs had lost their bones, her face hitting the ground.
Sparks hissed across Helen’s vision, blood in her mouth. She tried to take her feet, couldn’t catch her breath. Gasping, she bear-crawled toward the cruiser. The muddy feet of children blocked her way. She reached to push them aside, then, groaning, her lungs bucking, pulled herself up the cruiser. She opened the door, fell into the driver’s seat. Helen shut the door. Kids pressed their faces to her window, laughing. She started the motor and switched on the siren. Breathing came strained as she slipped the car into gear, rolling slowly away so as not to crush the children.
Helen gathered herself in a turnout a quarter mile down the road. Her lip was bloodied, a front tooth loose. When she inhaled, her breastbone burned. Everything that was Helen that was not her body told her to drive away, to just tell Gil Henderson she’d tried but couldn’t find the boy. But her muscle and blood wanted to clutch something and not let go.
She swung the car around, drove in without slowing, the kids chasing her like dogs. She drew her pistol and strode around the cabin, avoiding the front. Mosquitoes swarmed the back door. Gun poised, she turned the knob, crept inside.
A short dark hall entered onto the main room, lit by a bare-bulbed lamp set on the floor. A young woman lounged on a couch. Dressed in a long black T-shirt, a silver-hoop ring in her nose, she hollered, “Gert!”
The bearded man stepped out from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a little towel. Helen trained the gun on him, screamed for him to get on the ground. The young woman shouted, cursing. The big man didn’t obey. The young woman rose, arms flailing, and again Helen yelled for the man to get on the ground. He stepped hard toward her and she fired.
The man dropped to a knee, gripping his arm. He pulled his hand away and looked at it. No blood. The young woman shrieked and Helen yelled for her to shut up, then shouted at the man to lie on the ground. He did as told, his hands over his head like he’d done this before.
Helen drove a knee between his shoulders and with one hand slapped on a cuff. She holstered her pistol, wrenched his other arm and cuffed it, too. Then Helen jumped off like he was ablaze and redrew her pistol.
With one hand, she helped the man to his feet. His face was scrunched tight, drenched in sweat. The young woman shouted, “I’m calling Daddy Fay. I’m gonna.”
Daddy Fay was Faylon Delmore, Jorgen’s father. Helen knew it was a threat. “You shut your mouth,” Helen told her, and shoved the big man out the back.
“I’ll call him,” the girl cried, as Helen stepped back out into the daylight and mosquitoes. “Don’t you worry, Gert.”
The kids were still around front, jumping up and down, the redheaded teen perched on the cruiser’s hood. To Helen’s surprise, the bearded man hollered, “Get off the lady’s car, Casey.”
The boy hopped off with a gangly dance, flipping the bird with both middle fingers. Helen opened the door to the cruiser, held the man’s head so he wouldn’t bump it on the roof, and ushered him down into the seat.
Helen drove the long way, south of town, to avoid the main drag. The road flanked the Big Squirrel River, its current muddy and frothing, then the new development where all the old houses had been demolished and streets of identical felt-papered frames were erected on the floodplain. Then came the old Victorians, the entire row of houses under repair, their yards planted with fresh sod and saplings.
Soon she turned into the alley behind the brownstone that was the grocery on the bottom floor, the sheriff’s office on the second, her own apartment on top. She stepped out to the scent of grilled meat, and through the side alley saw people gathered in the strip.
Helen escorted Gert, who’d declared nothing beyond his right to say nothing, up into the office. The room was long and spare, the new drywall unpainted, the only two furnishings a desk and two chairs. At the back of the room was a dented metal door, the only thing salvaged from the flood. Gert balked at the jail’s doorway, complained he couldn’t go in when there weren’t no lights. Helen told him to be a big boy and sat him on the cot, the cuffs left on, and closed the door.
Then Helen went down and around into the strip. She stayed tight to the building and slipped into the grocery. Plywood covered the storefront, and she struggled to see, had to hold a soggy magazine to the door to see a grinning hunter on its cover. Down a different aisle, she found scented candles in little glass jars. She sniffed the jars, picked one that smelled like lavender. She found matches behind the cigarette counter, then put the magazine and the candle in a plastic bag, and returned to the jail.
Gert sat where she’d left him. She lit the candle and set it on the floor, tossed the magazine at his feet. “I’ll uncuff you if you behave,” Helen told him. “Move wrong and I’ll Mace you.”
She showed him the spray, and he nodded.
Uncuffed, he stretched his arms and rubbed his wrists.
“Hungry?” Helen asked.
“Fuck yourself,” he said.
She locked him in the cell, then went back down into the road. Much of the town was here, milling and gabbing. At one end of the strip was a horseshoe of grills, with Freely down there cooking burgers and steaks and chicken and fish, long tables in the street covered with buns and chips and sodas. A sign by the grills read lights-out special: $5.
Helen nodded at folks she passed, afraid they’d noticed her swollen lip, worried someone would ask who she had up in the jail. Freely smiled as she approached, hollered at a teen manning a grill to pick the best steak for his sheriff. The old man wobbled over, his arms thrown wide, and though he’d never been much of a drinker Helen could smell the liquor on him.
Freely hugged her. “Sorry about earlier,” he muttered.
Helen nodded, glancing up at the second-floor window, at the salt-white flood line near the roof. She asked the teen for a burger, too, and filled the plates with chips and potato salad and grabbed two sodas, the load precarious as she walked up the road.
Back in the office, she set her plate at her desk, then knocked on the jail and hollered she had food and that he should move to the back unless he wanted to get Maced. She opened the door. Gert stood at the back wall, barely visible in the candle’s light. She set the burger and chips and soda on the floor, asked if he was okay. He said
nothing, so again she locked the door.
Helen ate at her desk, chewing steak in the watery light from the windows overlooking the road. She knew there’d be a trial and she thought about the report she’d have to write. She’d fired her gun. It’d been an impulse, and it worried her now, not because it’d be deemed unjustified, but because she was uncertain she’d meant to miss.
Then she wasn’t hungry and sat listening to the people down in the strip, Harriet Meyers singing church songs like love songs. Helen crossed to the window and gazed over the scene. Teens lounged in truck beds. Kids ran with sparklers. Men threw horseshoes in the empty lot where the SuperAmerica once stood. Others talked in the
road, and though Helen had once been one of them, she was no longer sure what they said to each other, these people who saw each other day after day, week after week, until they died.
Her cell phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, thought about letting it go to voice mail, but answered at the last moment.
“Helen?” a woman’s voice asked.
Jorgen’s mother had been a Henderson before she married Delmore, and long ago she and Helen had been in the same class at school. “Been a while, Winnie.”
“Well,” she said, “seems we got a little mess here, Helen. Think we ought to get together and chat?”
“I’d surely like that, Winnie.”
Helen followed Winnie’s directions out into the knobs, down a snaking dirt road, and over hills bunched with sumac and sassafras. Then the road was blocked by a chain drawn taut between two trees. Helen shut down the car. For a long minute, she held her pistol in her lap. I’m just here to chat with an old friend, she thought. She set the gun inside the glove box. But then she felt all the more afraid, and retrieved the gun and snapped it back into her holster.
Helen stepped over the chain and onto a sloping dirt path. Dusky light feebly lit the canopy. The path soon opened onto a grouping of low tattered buildings. Boxes that were beehives filled the yard. A long porch fronted the house, and a portly young man in dead-leaf camos called through a window for his mother.
Helen waited in the yard, eyeing a group of men off in a corrugated shack who stared down into an aluminum crate Helen guessed was an old freezer. Then Winnie Delmore was there, drying her hands on an apron and stepping off the porch.
Helen shook Winnie’s rough hand and they smiled at one another. There’d been a time they’d run in the same circles, swimming at the quarry, hunting mushrooms, drinking gin and Fanta in the Indian caves. Winnie’s face had gone fuller through the cheeks, but her blue eyes, her snaggled smile, were just as Helen remembered.
“How long’s it been?” Winnie asked.
“Too long,” Helen said, and meant it.
Helen followed Winnie into the porch’s shade and through a screen door. The house smelled of kerosene. The electricity was off here, too, and they passed down a long dark hall into a parlor with windows facing west. The sunset leached amber light over everything. Helen sat in an armchair facing Winnie and two young women, one being the
girl in black from Jorgen’s cabin. Two others sat back in the shadows, ancient creatures slumped on a love seat, an afghan smoothed across their laps.
Winnie asked about friends she hadn’t seen in a while, smiling, talking about the old days, how things seemed simpler back then. “That’s getting old for you, though, ain’t it?” she said. “Always thinking things were simpler.”
She asked about Helen’s mother.
“Got her over in that Quail Ridge senior home.”
“You put your mama there?”
Helen peeked at the women on the love seat, skeletal and unmoving, one woman’s blond wig crooked on her ashen skull. “Mama don’t know where she’s at. Doesn’t even know me on sight.” Helen forced a grin. “Part of life, I suppose.”
The boy from the porch carried in a silver tray with china cups and a teapot. He set the tray on a delicate little table by Winnie’s chair. Winnie patted his arm. “Tell Daddy Fay he ain’t needed here,” she quietly told him. “He can get to his own business now.”
The boy left and Winnie served the tea. Helen took her cup and saucer as Winnie poured for the others. The room was decorated in pale-blue carpet and flowered wallpaper, a menagerie of taxidermied beasts, a bobcat, a beaver, a turkey with its breast puffed out. Then the women all stared at her, and Helen wasn’t sure if they meant for
her to talk.
At last, Winnie said, “Jorgen’s a good boy.”
Helen nodded. “Always liked him.”
“But let me just say a few things. Things you may not understand,” Winnie said. “’Cause our Jorgen’s the best of all of us, my opinion. I know a mother shouldn’t have favorites that way, but he’s always been special.” She sipped her tea, glanced off at the parlor’s doorway. “Some different than them others. That’s Jeremiah out on the porch. He’s tame enough, but don’t have much a mind. Different from my oldest. You knew Harlan?”
Helen nodded. Harlan was a known felon, served twice in the state prison for battery and drugs.
“Harlan was hell to raise.” Winnie chewed her lip. “Past few days I been thinking about a coon dog Harlan once kept,” she said. “Skittish blue, would tuck its tail whenever Harlan come around it. Well, Harlan didn’t care for it so skittish, so he beat that dog. To toughen it up, you know. Lots of folks do dogs that way, I suppose. But them beatings just made it cower all the more, which made Harlan all the madder. The more he beat it, the more it shook. Till he took a wrench and broke its skull. Was but fifteen then, still a boy.” Winnie set aside her teacup. “Never been more ashamed of one
of my children, the way he done that dog.”
She touched her own cheek, her eyes turned into the window’s light. “You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone’s baby, suckling the teat like anybody. Then something puts a volt in ’em and they ain’t the same no more. You might think a man like Harlan don’t care much what his mama thinks. But I shunned him and he couldn’t never shake it.” Winnie’s eyes dropped and she crossed her legs, seemed to fold in on herself. Then she looked up, rolled back her shoulders. “You got children?” she asked Helen.
“Never got around to it.”
Winnie nodded. “Didn’t imagine so,” she said. “You was never one took to affection, as I recall.”
Helen eyed her, knowing she’d meant malice.
Winnie glanced at the young woman beside her. “Sheila,” she said, and nodded at a big girl with green-streaked hair that spilled down her shoulders. “Sheila was Harlan’s wife. Is his widow now. Widow come three days.”
Helen watched the girl’s blank expression, trying to understand what she was being told.
“Was Jorgen what killed her husband,” Winnie said, her jaw set firm. “What killed his own brother.” She motioned to the girl Helen saw at the cabin. “Beside Sheila sits Luanne. She’s Jorgen’s girl. Was meant to be married the fourteenth of October. Ain’t that so?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl squeaked.
“Never much cared for autumn weddings myself,” Winnie said, sadly, staring hard at Helen. “You see them there beside each other? With what’s between them, sitting there like sisters?”
Helen clutched her saucer and cup, watched them intently.
“This is Delmores,” Winnie said. “We ain’t the savages some say we is. Sometime things go crooked, but good or bad we get it straight. Nothing to concern the law, what with so much else to bother with.”
The light outside was fading. Helen could no longer see Winnie’s eyes. “You say Harlan’s dead?”
Winnie’s head cocked to one side. “Why you’re here, ain’t it?”
“No, it ain’t.”
Winnie inhaled deeply, uncrossed her legs.
“Jorgen missed a court date. Up in the city. Drug charge.”
“Well,” Winnie sighed, “damn.” Her head swung to the side, her gaze settling over the younger girls. “We talk to them boys about not getting junked over. Fay’s hard on that, says he catches them boys junked he’ll put ’em under hisself. Harlan was weak on that, running days so junked you could smell it on him. Had to wash him three four times ’fore the smell come off him to be buried.” She raised a long finger. “But not Jorgen. Drugs? No, that ain’t right.” She eyed Jorgen’s girl. “You know about this?”
She fingered her nose ring, shrugged. “Weren’t his.”
“Harlan’s?” Winnie asked.
The girl sniffled, said nothing.
Winnie clasped her hands together, her head bowed like she might pray. “Jorgen had this dog, you see. White pup no bigger than a squirrel. Carried that dog like it was made of eggs. Didn’t want it wandering the woods or getting into nothing, so he kept it tied to the porch, right close to the house. Then Harlan come driving in here all junked over. Damn near hit the porch. Come on up to the house like weren’t nothing happened. Asked if I’d make him fried chicken.” Winnie shook a finger, then her hand became a fist. “Fried chicken. Thought of killing him myself. Ain’t ashamed to say it, that dog beneath that truck, just as broken as a thing could be.”
The tremor in Winnie’s voice unnerved Helen. Gently, she set her cup on the floor and settled her weight on the balls of her feet.
Winnie slowly stood, the room dark but for a shim of twilight across the ceiling. “Ain’t no law can touch what’s been done here,” she said. “You go on now, Helen. Go on and leave us be.”
Helen’s eye twitched and she tried to still her fear, patted the air with her hands. “Just here to talk, Winnie. That’s all. Can’t we sit back down, work this out.”
Winnie put her face in her hands, heaved deep quaking breaths. “I’m sorry, Helen. I’m just so sorry,” she sobbed. “I’ve buried my firstborn, and now my most precious child is out there like an animal. Just found him ourselves yesterday. Out there running the woods, eating bugs, taking after livestock. I’m afraid he’s broke.” Her body shook as she began to cry. “He come home from that war and it weren’t him no more. Oh,” she moaned, “I miss him. Miss him when he’s right there in the same room. Even when he’s in my arms he ain’t there.” She pounded a fist against her thigh. “My precious baby and
now he’s broke. Broke and running wild and my heart’s broke and there ain’t no goddamn law to put that right.”
Helen stepped to Winnie, grabbed her wrists. “I can help.”
Winnie shook her head. “You can’t.”
“I can find him. I know where he’ll be.”
Winnie’s eyes rose up searing. “Then what? Put him away like you done your mama?”
Helen flinched at the words.
“Help how?” Winnie’s eyes bulged in the darkness. “Shoot at him? Lock him up like you done his cousin? His cousin what only come to look after a wounded soul just a little.”
Fury overtook Winnie’s face. She yanked her hands free and slapped Helen stiff across the cheek. Helen stumbled a step backward, touched her stinging jaw. Then she felt a collapsing, a weight in her chest, the gravity of her swollen heart. Her nostrils quivered. Her eyes melted. She couldn’t let them see her cry. Helen pushed past Winnie, tears slicking her cheeks as she dashed down the lightless hall and banged out the screen door.
She leapt off the porch, landing hard and falling, then rising and racing through the beehives and into the dark chute through the woods and down the drive.
At the end of the drive, Helen stepped over the chain, rushed to her car. The windows were shattered, the tires slashed. The dashboard was a mess of wires, the radio gone. Struck sober, weeping, Helen pulled out her cell phone. She stared long at the glowing numbers, but couldn’t figure who to call.
Winnie howled from back in the darkness, yelling Helen’s name. Helen closed the phone, wiped her eyes. Her cheek burned to the touch. Winnie called again, closer now, and Helen briefly read the stars to get her bearings, then broke into the trees.
Helen ran through the woods, glancing back, again and again, into black briar and boles. The stars were blocked by trees and she navigated the hollows by memories made in daylight. She figured if she just kept going she’d find it, and then she did, the swath in the woods cut long ago, a gully cleared for power wires.
The wires bowed silent above her as she followed their path. Soon the wires flanked a field. Helen walked a fallow corrugate at the field’s edge, the wires split off to wooden poles and then to a dark house atop a little rise. Helen kept her distance, crossed a rusted
metal plank over the irrigation ditch, stayed with the wires through Gunnar Stovelund’s low field of wheat. Behind Mavis Lott’s place, llamas waggled their ears, their long necks bent as Helen rested against a tarred wooden pole.
Tower to tower she trod, down through flood-ravaged woods, fingers of moonlight fanning through leafless trees, clothes and feed sacks in the jigging branches, a shower curtain swaying like a spirit. Trees uprooted left sodden bunkers, roots thick as thighs corkscrewing out through the darkness. Debris everywhere, an orange traffic barrel,
a picnic table overturned, plastic shopping bags rustling in the briar.
Helen waved away mosquitoes, climbed a slope with the urgency of knowing where she was, hooking her elbows around trunks, hauling herself up. Soon she stood on a ridge, out of breath against the leg of a power tower, a single cloud covering the moon, a blush of light from a window of the stone farmhouse on a far hilltop the only light that was not stars.
Helen emerged from the stand of hickory and into the pasture. Cows stood silent as she climbed through them, asleep on their feet as the history in their blood instructed. At the edge of the yard, Helen paused, steadying her heart, quieting her lungs, then scurried past a birdbath and a beneath a crabapple tree to stand against the house.
Like a thief, she slid behind a hedgerow and crouched under the window. Helen peeked over the sill. Candles lit the room. She could see old Moss Strussveld on the sofa, his arm dangled over the armrest, his fingers nearly touching the floor. He still wore his shirt buttoned at his throat, his straw hat tipped over his face. Helen could see his wife there beside him, a stout woman in a dark patterned dress, reading aloud from a book.
Though the window was open Helen could not hear the woman’s voice. For a hushed minute, she watched. Then, with great care, Helen lowered herself to the dirt. Moonlight glazed the house’s stones. Power wires stretched from the roof and out into the night. Helen’s face ached, her sternum throbbed, her eyes straining to stay
open as she settled in for the wait.
Helen stirred upon hearing a scuttle in the pasture. She’d sat for a long time. Pain tore through her tender chest as she turned onto a knee to stand. Through the window she saw the room in the house was now dark. She heard the cows lowing, bawling, and Helen stepped out from the hedgerow and crossed the yard to the edge of the hill.
The moon was well past meridian, bright and full, and down there, bathed in its light, ran a shadow, cows scattering, a figure throwing itself onto a cow’s back. The cow cried, bucking. The figure was thrown, then rose again, chasing down another, planting his heels and twisting a calf’s neck until it fell. Helen stood transfixed, cows rearing, grunting, the figure charging into their necks, shoving their heads, mounting one and riding it until it dropped, the man heaving, then staggering as if drunk to clutch the next about the neck, letting it drag him up the hill. Then the man’s grip gave and he flopped to the ground and didn’t rise. The cows lowed, trotting to gather in the darkness near the woods.
Helen looked behind her at the little stone house. The old man stood there in the window. She wasn’t sure he could see her and didn’t wave, merely turned and sidestepped down the hill.
For some time, she watched from just beyond the boy’s reach, his face pressed into the hillside, his head below his boots, his body quaking ragged breaths. Helen said his name, but he didn’t budge. She walked to his side, stood over him, his back slashed with scars, dotted with bruises, a gash along the base of his shaved head.
Helen sat on the ground beside him. The boy moaned, his breathing deep and lurching. She lay a hand between his shoulder blades. His skin burned and Helen let her palm take his heat.
Jorgen Delmore turned to Helen’s touch. He lay his head in her lap, whimpering, his skin seeming to vibrate as she caressed his back, blood crackling through her own throbbing veins, and in a blink she drew up her eyes to see the lights, guttering in the distance far below, the electric lights of town shining in the darkness.
Delmore went without struggle, and together they plodded down the pasture hill. They followed the trail of power wires, skirted an algae-scummed pond, followed a stream that gurgled beneath an old stone bridge that shouldered the road. Once on the road to town, the parched breeze wafting the scent of fertilizer, Delmore asked, “Ain’t
you got a car?”
“It’s broke,” Helen said.
The road split fields planted so late with corn the stalks were no higher than a crotch. Seeing over the fields to the houses, lights bright here and there, the world seemed small.
“You missed your trial,” Helen said.
“The marshal’s to take you in. Be here at sunup.”
The boy nodded. With his head shaved, he looked ancient. He smelled like turned earth. They walked side by side, down the crumbled asphalt and between the sleeping homes. A light was on in Henry Jamison’s front parlor. Helen could see flowers out on the dinner table, a china cabinet against the wall. A light shone behind lace curtains in the Bressons’ kitchen window, a light on in Treet Haskell’s garage. They passed the Baptist church, its roof wrapped in tar paper, scaffolding surrounding the frame of its new steeple. The road sloped and banked, then flattened. The Old Fox Tavern lay dormant,
its windows and doors boarded over. A raccoon trotted out of the gravel lot and crossed the road. Then Helen could see the lights from the brownstones.
They walked up the strip, the trash barrels brimming, cans and bottles lining one curb, the barbeques hunkered down at the far end. The diner’s roof sign was burning red. The grocery’s lights were on, too, light pouring onto the walkway through its glass door, slashes showing at the edges of the plywood filling the window. Helen had the keys to the store, asked Jorgen if he wanted anything.
“Could use a beer.”
Helen entered the store and wove back to the beverage cooler. The freezers had switched on, the fans humming behind the glass. She grabbed a six-pack of Bud, saw the ice cream down the way. She looked a moment, took up a box that displayed a rainbow of popsicles. It’d been a while since she’d smoked, but she pocketed a pack of menthols from behind the register, put the rest in a paper sack, then shut off the lights and locked up the store.
Delmore sat on the curb, a little tabby cat nuzzling his fingers. She handed him a beer and he thanked her. They crossed to the side alley and took the stairs up into the sheriff’s office, the door thrown wide, the lights left on. The jail door lay on the floor, broken off its hinges. Light from the cell softened the shadows of the main room. The place smelled like lavender.
Helen pulled her desk chair around to the window, pulled another chair for Delmore, and they sat looking out at the diner’s red sign tinting the rooftop across the road. Helen got herself a popsicle, gave one to Delmore. It’d melted and refrozen and it took a while to pick the paper clean. She lit a cigarette and took a long draw, then licked the popsicle, and that seemed about perfect.
Delmore bit his popsicle, too, and in the room’s light she could see just how filthy he was, smeared in muck, grass stains on his forearms, cuts across his sunburned forehead. Helen licked her popsicle again, was suddenly exhausted. She sobbed once, then felt as
if she were shriveling, like a stabbed tire leaking air. She tried to breathe, gritted her teeth to stifle it all. Delmore stared out the window. Helen drew long on the cigarette, breathed, drew again, then snuffed the cigarette on her boot heel.
She slowly released the smoke, said, “Sorry.”
He bit his blue popsicle, said nothing.
Helen wiped her eyes on her shoulder, watched Delmore suck on a chunk of ice. “You remember my mama?” she asked him.
He turned his eyes to her.
“She ain’t well. Not at all.”
“I liked her.”
“I ain’t well, neither,” Helen said. “Maybe none of us are.”
She looked out at the night, studied their reflections in the window’s glass, two figures lost in the stars, the moon not the moon but a white globe of light hung above their heads. Jorgen held the beer in one hand, the popsicle in the other. He drank from the beer, rested the can on his knee.
“Back in the army,” he said, “had this sergeant who was kind of a squeaky type. Had these little round glasses. Always trying to get me to read this or that. Nice fella. Everybody liked him, I guess. One day we had some shit go down. A sniper. Lost three of our own, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Then we was all just sitting around, getting drunk. Sarge comes up in the bunch of us, says there’s two worlds. One world was like it was back home, where folks ate cheeseburgers and kids had sleepovers and ball games and people went to work and got angry over stupid shit that didn’t matter.
Like their TV ain’t no good, or they ain’t got the right sneakers. Some shit like that.” He held his popsicle stick to his lips. “But then there’s another world, where folks ain’t got a goddamn thing, and these motherfuckers’ll try any damn thing to blow your ass to
dust. Sarge says it was up to us to keep them worlds apart, and if we thought shit that happened over there wouldn’t make it back to some little girl’s sleepover then we had our heads full-way up our asses.”
Jorgen bit the popsicle stick, then eyed the tooth marks in the wood. His face sagged. “Supposed to rally us, I guess.” He shook his head, stared at the top of his beer. “But then I had to go back out that next day and the next and all I come to think on was how I ain’t never had no sleepovers or ball games or none of that shit, and didn’t none of it make a damn lick of sense.”
Popsicle juice dripped down Helen’s hand. She licked the heel of her palm, tossed the popsicle in the wastebasket. Then she rose and stepped to the window. She leaned her shoulder against the glass, glanced back at Delmore. His head hung low, his lips blue from the ice. He was just a boy, should be swimming in the quarry, smooching girls out in the Indian caves.
“My mama showed you how to mount a bird proper. That’s something you had.”
He rubbed his cheek. “Forgot about that.”
“I still have that pheasant somewhere.”
“Was a long time ago.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
Delmore chewed the popsicle stick, rested his chin on his hand.
“Mama used to work three jobs,” Helen said, maybe not even talking to Delmore. “Gave more time to others than her own. Raised myself mostly. When she was home, she’d be feeding the animals or baking something, hoeing the sweet corn. I thought she was crazy.” Helen looked at her hands, callused and bruised. “Back when I was just a teen and full of piss I was mad at her about something or another. I remember her darning a pair of stockings and I says to her, ‘Why don’t you ever take a goddamn break? Enjoy life for a while?’ Her eyes were sleepy and she barely looked at me, says, ‘Can’t go around with holes in your stockings.’ So I says to her, ‘What the hell’s it matter? Keep your shoes on won’t nobody know there’s a hole in your stocking.’” Helen grunted a sad laugh. “She had this look you didn’t want to get and I got it then, and she says, ‘That the kind of woman you gonna be, Helen-Marie? The kind what walks around knowing they’s holes in her stocking?’”
Delmore took the stick from his mouth, swigged his beer. He rubbed a hand over his sweating scalp, then stood and crossed to the window. He set his forearm against the glass, leaned his head against his arm. The night was waning, his eyes drawn to a welt of pastel light on the eastern hills.
“You got a shower I could use?” he asked quietly. “Clean myself up some ’fore that fella gets here?
Helen considered the boy in his stance, and the storm clouds in the near distance, their undersides lit pink. “All right then.”
Helen kept the lights off in her apartment, ashamed of its unfinished walls, the milk crates holding her things, the mattress on the plywood floor. Delmore needed a shirt, so she gave him the baggy gray T-shirt she slept in. She gave him a pair of tube socks fresh from the pack. Gave him a towel and washcloth, a bar of soap, told him he could use the razor by the tub.
The bathroom window looked out over the fire escape, the grassy lot below strewn with lumber and broken bricks and colorful swatches of refuse she couldn’t discern. Helen drew down the shade, used a wrench to turn on the water since the new fixture hadn’t been installed.
Then she turned to him, the light dingy but his eyes a striking blue. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Delmore stilled his eyes, nodded.
Then Helen went out and lay on her little mattress. Wrapped in a yellow bedsheet, she gazed out the window, listening to the water from the shower. Morning had risen dark, the sky a sheet of tufted iron. Light throbbed in the folds of clouds.
The shower ran for ten minutes, fifteen. The dust of the world rose and the rain was a smell before the first drop splattered against the window. The rain fell steady and the sounds from outside and the shower fell into a cadence. Then there was only water.
Three months back, the flood nearly covered this building, this room soaked brown and buckled. Helen imagined the water rising again, slowly filling the grocery, and then the office one floor down, the jail cot floating until waterlogged, then sinking, the water seeping between floors, through drywall and insulation, through plywood and nails.
Twenty minutes passed, the shower still going. Helen pictured the boy bounding through the high wet grass toward the woods, her nightshirt soaked, his scars washed clean. But she couldn’t make herself get up to check the bathroom.
I just need a little rest, she told herself. Just a few minutes to gather myself. Then she imagined God in Heaven just as weary, slouched on his golden throne and deciding to try a smaller flood or two just to see if we’d save ourselves and spare him the effort.
Helen was by no means devout, but she knew the Bible, knew the story of God drowning the wicked world. As a breeze misted in through the window, she hugged herself in her thin sheet and pondered what she’ll do if this rain keeps on and the people cry their end, the sun choked, the power towers submerged, and God’s thunderous
voice pierces the gray dome, charging a volt into that sacred truth behind her eyes. Will she think herself crazy? Cower and weep? Or will she rise from her damp mattress, hold stiff her trembling chin, and be the one?
© Alan Heathcock
This electronic version of "Volt" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the author's collection VOLT published by Graywolf Press, 2011. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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