Merle Drown


 Newfound, N.H. 198-

  
 

CHAPTER 1

 

       More than once Lester Wilcox had decided he wanted his father dead.  Even if he couldn’t kill Pa, he could gladly bury him.  This thought never surprised Lester, though it made him wonder how much closer it brought him to Pa.  After all, Pa had killed a man.  For too many of his thirty-eight years Lester had struggled with Pa without believing Pa might die.  Could he snatch his father’s life?  Could anyone?  Much as Lester would clamp his jaw and imagine his hand reaching to tear the heart from Pa, he knew what it would mean—just to touch Pa.

       And what would it mean for Pa to be dead?

      The future scares the shit out of you, don’t it boy? Pa had told him years ago.  That’s the difference between you and me.

      We have the future to change the past, Lester had said. 

     That’s the tragedy of it, Pa’d said.  You can’t change the past.

      But Lester wasn’t convinced.  He still worried about the past.  It was bred into him.  It was bred into the whole Wilcox family.

      Out at The Corners, miles from Lester’s brick house in Newfound, the morning sun bluffed its way into the Wilcox cabin and baked the bedclothes.  In all her married life Ma had never woken Pa, nor was she about to this morning, even though last night he’d bragged he’d crack the floorboards leaping out of bed.  The bed with its metal tubes forming a kind of cage at each end—their playpen, Pa called it—squatted in the middle of the first floor, really one big room with a couple of half-height open cabinets standing to separate the kitchen from the bed. 

       Where Ma cooked for her family, they called the kitchen.  Where her family ate, they called the dining room, even if it was only a maple table and four maple chairs.  The stuffed chair on one side of the door and the love seat on the other they called the living room, not because Wilcoxes lived there but because Pa said,  Sometimes you have to do like other people just to keep them off guard.

       When Pa got his naked self up, he slipped from the bedcovers, as though trying to hide the pain he carried.  On his way to the chair where he usually dressed, he jerked to his left, the rough and reddened skin on his neck crinkling above the cloud-white flesh of his back.  The muscles of his buttocks wrinkled into a slantwise grimace.  His left leg turned to water and down he fell.  Ma had seen him lose his balance before, stumble, then favor his leg for up to a day after, though he wouldn’t mention it.  So she waited in the bed under the hot covers for him to rise as he always had.  He didn’t so much as quiver.  Before long Spike would tromp down the stairs to see his father lying on the floor naked as a side of beef.  She couldn’t allow that, no matter what Pa might say to her when she came to help him.

       His mouth, slack as if he’d been shot with novocaine, leaked saliva and drooled onto the floor.  Then he spoke words that weren’t speaking.  He couldn’t rise.  There was no up in him.  Try though he did, the whole left side of his body had gone dead on him. He couldn’t yard the left side of his body off the floor.  Words gurgled out of his mouth like beer from Spike’s lips when the boy was drunk.

       At least she could cover him.  Ma watched his pale blue eyes for anger or fear or frustration, but he might just as well have been staring at television, something he rarely did and then with his mind focused on some scheme. Tearing the quilt from the bed, she slung it over Pa before Spike had reached the downstairs.

     “What are we going to do?” Spike wailed, as helpless as he was strong.

     On the floor Pa flopped like a pickerel.  The quilt bunched.  “Nofing,” Pa said, his voice ragged.  “Nofing!  Nofing!” the sound of a rat tail file raked across metal flashing. 

     “Call the rescue squad,” Ma told Spike. She climbed the stairs to the attic where Mona still lay on her side of the clothesline hung sheet.

     “Ma,” asked Mona, rubbing the winkers from her large brown eyes, “is Pa sick?”  Even just waking, Mona was pretty, her oversize features all in proportion to one another.  “Is that why Pa’s saying bad things?”

     “Because he hates doctors and hospitals.”

     “But he needs them to cure him.”

     “That’s why he hates them.”

     “Is he taken with a fit?” Mona asked as she came down the stairs with Ma.

     Spike bent close to Pa and said, “Thrashing’s only going to pain you all the more.”  Pa’s right hand, weak but still usable, clutched Spike’s throat, nails digging into his flesh before Spike snatched the fingers away.  “Choked me!” Clumsily Spike tipped a long spindle-legged table.  A glass globe fell from the grip of a ceramic lion and splintered on the floor.

     “Ma,” Spike yelled, “bring the broom before Pa starts rolling in all this broken glass.”

     Seeing the broken globe on the wide floorboards, Mona said, “Oh, it’s my little world.”  When she bent over to pick up the delicate pieces, her robe, a heavy pink with shiny flowered borders, opened, revealing the white of her bra and panties.

     “Get dressed,” Ma said, “before those rescue men get here agaping at you instead of tending to Pa.  You don’t need to display all your beauty.”  She swept the fragments into a dustpan and slid them into a coffee can she kept at the sink.  A coffee can full was the most garbage she’d allow in the place at one time.

     The ambulance  appeared in the yard, no sirens, just blinking red lights.  Blue letters said GRANITE MOUNTAIN RESCUE SQUAD, with orange stripes all around.

     Pa lay quiet.

     “We’ll need some history,” said the man in the blue shirt with a seal.  Below the seal, EMT-Doug.  Doug asked, “Has Mr. Wilcox had these before?”

     “Not big ones,” Ma said. Doug’s partner, a woman, opened her bag and kneeled beside Pa.  Ma told them Pa was over sixty, smoked a pipe, and drank beer.  She said his first name was Carole.

     “Is he physically active?”

      “Yes,” she said and almost laughed

      “He’s probably been having TIA’s for some time,” Doug said.  “Transient Ischemic Attacks, like a mini-stroke.”

     “This isn’t a TIA,” the woman EMT said, “This man needs to be in the hospital.” 

     Pa’s hand was at her throat, then shoved her away. 

      “We’re trying to help you,” she said, “Mr. Wilcox.”

     “Nobody ever helped me called me mister.”

       Doug said, “Mr. Wilcox, we don’t have a lot of time here. You’ve got a reduced flow of blood.  It could get worse.”

       “Take me to the hospital, I’ll increase your flow ,” said Pa more clearly. “Just lying cockwarts.”

       Spike stood and turned to Doug and said, “You’re making him crazy.  He’ll lose his mind if you take him to the hospital.”

     “Who is the president of the United States now, Mr. Wilcox?” Doug asked

     “He going to hospital?” Pa asked back.  He twisted on the floor.  Ma saw he couldn’t make progress.

     “Pa don’t care for the government,” Spike said.

     “What day is it?” Doug asked, focusing on Pa.

     “Get you  digital watches—tell you when to pick your nose,” Pa said.  “So cheap, they ain’t worth the stealing of one.”

       Sweat moistening the side of her face, Ma kneeled beside him.  Tears ran down the sides of her nose.  She whispered to Pa.

       “No,” he said.  “They ain’t locking me up.”

       Her dress falling in folds like a robe, she leaned back and wailed.  “Oh, he won’t go, he won’t go, and I can’t make him go.”  When had Ma ever seen Pa so vulnerable?  Or so stubborn.

       “Talk to him,” Doug urged, his eyes trying to push Spike toward the naked man who lay under the quilt.

        “It’s the other way around,” said Spike, twitching his eyes toward Pa.  “I don’t tell him what to do.”

       The woman EMT said, “Here’s the way it is.  We’ve got one more choice, and that’s to call the cops, which we don’t want to do because it’ll cause more anxiety.”  She put her hands on Ma’s shoulders as if she were petting a large dog.   “It’s the last resort, but we’ve run out of all the others.”

       Through the cabin’s open door, Ma saw her brother’s son, Artie Erff, the town cop, race the cruiser into the yard, blue lights flashing, headlights beaming on and off, and siren penetrating every square foot of silence. 

       As rushed ran inside, Doug told him, “You can drive him right into another stroke with all that commotion.  It’s already bad enough because you’ve got to arrest him, as a danger to himself, and put him into protective custody.”

     “His wife’s aunt to me,” said the cop.  “I heard on the scanner—”

     “We’re talking legality here,” Doug said, “and in about five minutes.” 

     “What d’you mean legal,” asked Spike. 

       “I mean the officer here has got to legally arrest your father because if he doesn’t, we can’t take him to the hospital, and there’s a damn fine chance he’ll die right here on the floor.”

     “Pa ain’t ever been arrested,” Artie Erff said.

     “He ain’t been dying before either,” Doug told him.

     Pa said, “Artie Erff, you come by for food or nookie?”

     “I got to arrest you, Carole.”  Artie talked official now.

     “For what?”

     “For your own good safety.”

       “Here, make it something worthwhile and respectable,” said Pa, whipping away the quilt with his right hand.  “Make it a case of decent exposure.”  Pa’s cock was big and swollen.  It stood up above his three balls. 

       The woman EMT backed away.  “My God,” she said, “he’s a triorchid.  I’ve never seen that.”

       Doug talked about Posey restraints and gangrene as he and the woman secured Pa to the stretcher.

     “It’s like wrestling an octopus,” Doug said.

     Ma wanted to screech.

     “I ain’t been arrested before, Artie,” Pa said.  “I ain’t been locked up, Spike.  You two remember.  For you own safety.  I’ll ’member—”  his words turned to dishwater rushing down the drain.  Then he howled like a wolf in a trap.

     He was still howling when they loaded the stretcher into the ambulance and drove off to the hospital.

Ma cried.  Then she yelled.  “Don’t die, Pa!  Don’t die!”

       How close Pa was to death this very moment Lester didn’t know because his brother Spike wouldn’t tell him.  Spike barely let Ma come to the phone to say how bad off Pa was.  From the background Lester heard Spike’s shout, “Awful!  Pa swears to slay me when he gets out of the hospital.”

       Then Spike said directly into the phone, “Sick as he is, they strapped him down head and foot like he was a bullcalf and they were going to cut him.”

       Though Pa had passed sixty, Spike still thought of him as a bull, a young bull.  All in all, Lester thought, Spike had more sense in him than people credited him with.

       It was Thursday, already Thursday.  Mrs. McKeever said, “I can do payroll this morning without you sliding your lean self out of your office  and hovering over my desk to see who pulled overtime and telling me who should earn a bonus.”

       His secretary knew he looked at the figures, not to check on her work, but to reward the deserving.  She reminded him he had a meeting about buying half-interest in a honey wagon business, and he’d told her to cancel it.  He called his daughter Sharon to tell her he couldn’t take her to the movies later. Sharon would have to stay home in the brick house he’d built back when he’d first made money.

     Brick, Lester had told Pa, because it won’t burn.

       Not so many years ago, Lester thought, Pa’s dying would be going on right in Newfound where Lester lived, but since The Corners had wrangled a regional hospital, Spike and Ma had had Pa’s bones hauled there.  Lester was amazed that Spike, big as he was, with muscles like mounds of dirt piled on his skin, had shipped Pa to the hospital instead of driving him there himself.  Lester imagined Pa gasping in the heat of the cabin, while Spike waited through dozens of those grasping breaths, before he dared call the EMTs to come rescue his father.  Though Spike had turned thirty-five, Pa had kept him acting fifteen.

     Pa said, There are days when Spike can’t decide what to do with his own shadow.

       Lester switched on the air conditioning in his truck. Though it wasn’t yet ten o’clock, he had started to perspire.  Beads of sweat prickled in his moustache and along the edge of the thick gray hair at his temples.  His outstretched hand left a wet imprint on the leather upholstery.  He had equipped this three-quarter ton as comfortably as any car on the road, so that he could see his daughter ride and even drive it with pride instead of shame.  Lester had grown up bloated on shame.  Pa had seen to that.

       Nearly twenty years ago, when he had given a car to Pa,  Lester had felt too young to tell Pa why he hadn’t given him a truck.  He’d told his brother Anthony that a truck would have aided and abetted Pa’s stealing.

          Maybe if you’d run him over with that car, he’d’ve quit conniving, Anthony had told Lester.  Besides, it didn’t make him give up his old truck.

       Anthony, the youngest Wilcox son, often explained things about Pa Lester just couldn’t get a bite on. But Lester couldn’t say that Anthony understood everything about the old man because Pa had killed him. Anthony was buried up on Lester’s land above the Wilcox cabin, his fate warning enough that Pa was as dangerous a man as Lester knew.  Somehow, Pa could be dangerous even strapped to a hospital gurney.  Or dead  He could even leave danger behind for Wilcoxes to trip over and fall into.

        Wanting noise to ride him away from these thoughts, Lester plugged in a tape Sharon had bought him.  It featured 1960’s music popular when he had gone to school, only back then he had heard it on other kids’ radios. Now his daughter was a town kid with more radios than The Corners cabin he’d grown up in had rooms.  Money.  It was all money. Lester knew Spike had phoned him about Pa’s going to the hospital because Lester would have to pay the bill.  Lester didn’t need to worry about covering bills, either his own or Pa’s, though he probably would  because he had a side to him he called careful.  Pa called it woman-fussy.  That was okay.  After Pa died, Lester wouldn’t worry about anything Pa might call him.

       Mary Creed, Lester’s girlfriend, often told him, For a forward-looking businessman, you live too much in the past.  At least you waste too much time worrying about stuff you can’t change.

          They don’t install rear view mirrors for decoration, he said. He still worried that he’d never have the answer he wanted from Pa.

       Spike worried about leaving Mona back at the Wilcox cabin all  alone; thirty or not, her mind was stuck in grade school.  But he had to be in this shiny hospital because Ma would fracture herself if he wasn’t here.

          Goddamn money, Pa had shouted at him.

       Mostly Pa had cursed, curses aimed directly at Spike’s future.  For all the money the hospital cost, Spike thought, there wasn’t a thing in this waiting room worth stealing—the tables were veneer, the chairs boxwood, and the magazines old but not old enough. He told himself it oughtn’t be him feeling ashamed.  It ought to be the doctors and nurses and all the other high mucky-mucks that owned the hospital. 

       If he drove back to the cabin to check on Mona, he wouldn’t be here when Lester arrived. No matter how much Pa hated asking Lester for anything, Spike’d had to call him.  He’d told the woman behind the glass window that Lester would guarantee the bills.  She’d dialed her telephone and handed the receiver to Spike.  The wonder to Spike wasn’t that Lester agreed to pay the bills but that he was driving to the hospital to visit Pa.

       Asking Lester to help Pa was worse than trundling Pa into the hospital against his will.  Spike had no doubt Pa would punish him because he had no doubt that Pa would not only survive but prosper.

          Stroke, boy, he’d whispered at the hospital, nothing more than passing out after the last beer. 

       Only Spike had never seen Pa pass out, no matter how many bottles of beer he sucked down.

       “Don’t give up hope,” Ma told Spike.  “He’ll drag himself out of here like he was hopping off to a dance.”

       Spike had purposely sat beside Ma so that she couldn’t look directly at his face.  Spike believed Ma could read his heart.  She had always known when he was lying, but he wondered if she now knew what hope he had for Pa.   Spike felt words catching in his throat the way cockleburs caught at his sleeves when he’d been running away after breaking into someone’s cottage.  He had put Pa in the hospital like a dog in a pound. Pa would know Spike had taken over Pa’s life.  He would know Spike had called Lester.

          Lester, Pa had said more than once, tried to turn himself out of being a Wilcox. 

       Ma might feel wrong about sending Pa to the hospital, but, unlike Spike, she wasn’t afraid of Pa.

     “He’s a rough cutter,” Spike said.  He reached his arm around Ma’s shoulder.  “Most everything fears him.”  At least it ought to, he thought

     “It’s love, Spike.  Love Pa. Don’t fear him

     Ma’s hand closed on his knee as if she held a fat apple. Few wrinkles crossed her skin.  It was soft, soft as the fabric of his jeans.  “Don’t you give up hope, Spike, because that’s worse than dying.”

     Another couple sat in the waiting room. Their little boy had just been admitted.  Though it was before noon, the wife had on make-up and her hair was done.  The husband wore one of those suits with thin vertical stripes that looked like wallpaper.  Spike guessed them to be maybe twenty-eight or nine, a few years younger than he was, though he’d never been married, had no kids, and he’d never owned a suit.  He didn’t know their names.  They certainly weren’t anybody he had gone to school with.  He wondered if they were summer people.  Pa kept close tabs on news of any cottages being sold up to the lake.  Spike knew they weren’t the kind of people to speak to him.  Maybe to his brother.  Lester could mix with all kinds of high class people.  But so could Pa.  He sometimes counted up how alike Pa and Lester were and wondered whether they themselves knew it.

       “Accident or illness?” Ma asked them.

       The woman, whose short blond hair seemed shellacked, pressed her fingers to her head and began to cry.  Her husband said, “He was shocked, a big jolt from a 220 line.”  He looked to his wife as if she might disagree with him and slowly took her hands into his own.  “The doctor says he’ll be all right, just a scar on his cheek.”

     From her bag Ma took her pack of cigarettes, crinkled so much that Spike knew there couldn’t be more than one or two left.  “Take a smoke,” she told the woman.  “It always helps soothe my nerves.”

     “You shouldn’t smoke in here,” she told Ma, then rushed out the door.

     “She doesn’t smoke,” the man said to Ma, as if apologizing.  He stood but didn’t follow his wife.

     “Well, she could be decent to folks,” Spike reminded him.

     “In the accident,” the man said, “our little girl was killed.”

     “Ain’t it awful.  I know what it’s like to lose a child,” Ma said.  She went to the man.  “I’ve lost two and buried my heart both times.” Standing in the middle of the room, she clasped the man to her bosom.

     If Pa hadn’t fallen into this spell, he and Spike would right now be hauling their old rowboat down the back road.  Spike had figured out a way to hook an old and noble Chris Craft, all properly varnished hardwood and polished brass, docked at the lake.  It was a plan as neat as a vest pocket.  The owners had bragged about traveling to England for a month.  Just at sunset Spike would knot the Chris Craft’s painter to the big eye in their rowboat while Pa snapped the chains attaching the boat to the dock with his bolt cutters.  Then Spike, who could row the Wilcox cabin up the mountain sideways if he had oars long enough, would bull across the lake to the spot below some mossy rocks, where he’d figured he could winch the boat up onto the trailer and have the thing down to Fork Huckins before the water was dry on its keel.  Fork’d have to give Pa a couple of thousand, maybe even five, and guarantee to sell the thing at least as far south as New York City.

     Pa had told Spike people come after you for swiping that kind of treasure.  Pa didn’t want to steal the boat, but he had too many places for the money.  His grand-daughter had delivered her first child and was living with a seventeen year old husband, Leo Fesmire who was too lazy to work and too dumb to steal.  And  Ma needed dental work.  Pa’d said, I can’t steal fillins.  She didn’t whine about it because she knew how Pa felt about dentists and hospitals. But now Pa was in a hospital, leaving  The Chris Craft safe.  Spike knew better than to attempt that chore on his own.

     Ma stuck her last cigarette in the corner of her mouth and spun the wheel of her lighter. Her cigarette bobbled and danced on her lips.  Spike wished he could stop hoping Pa would die.  He was afraid.

     “You shouldn’t smoke in the hospital, Ma,” he said.

     As Lester stepped past the first set of glass doors in the hospital entryway, the image of his unlocked truck stole into this mind.  Stopped between in and out, his body seemed to stammer.  Not at home, not at work, not in downtown Newfound, he locked his truck only when he took Sharon to the Manchester mall.  But here in The Corners, parked by this new building surrounded by uncracked asphalt and hardwood trees, woods so thick that even in bare ass winter you could see neither house nor person, here he turned back and locked not only the truck doors but also the glove compartment, after stuffing the cassette tapes in on top of his registration and New Hampshire map. This close to Pa, Lester feared all the world was a thief.  I’ve stayed away from him, he thought, so that I could approach people without jamming one hand over my wallet and the other up against my heart.  Makes me feel like sister Pauline must have felt when I came home early that time when she had a leg up on the sink and nothing on but the washcloth she was scrubbing herself with.

     It wasn’t that you saw me like that, she had told him years later, it was that you kept looking

     I was sixteen, he’d answered.  What did you expect me to do? 

     Turn around, Pauline had told him.  I expected you to turn around.

     Pa wouldn’t turn around for anybody.  He stared straight through cars, clothes, wallets, to people’s naked hearts.

     Inside the hospital Lester caught his reflection in the mirror above the receptionist’s head.  He seldom looked in mirrors; that had been Anthony’s occasional dessert, staring into mirrors. 

   Only because women expect me to look good, Anthony had said.

    How could Pa doubt Anthony for his son?

     Now Lester could almost see Anthony in the mirror, except the face that looked back was nearly twenty years older than Anthony would ever be, and Anthony had stood six foot one to Lester’s five eleven.  And Anthony lay up the hill from the Wilcox cabin six feet deep in Lester’s land.

    Just this morning when Sharon had picked out a shirt to go with Lester’s suit, she had said, You look like pictures of Uncle Anthony.  He knew she was trying to make him happy.  She teased Lester, saying that no one wore leisure suits any more. He’d said he wouldn’t embarrass her by wearing it to the movies with her later. Besides, it wasn’t really a leisure suit, but it was the only suit he had.  And he had a business meeting today.

     Then, she’d said, only wear the jacket, and for God’s sakes don’t tuck your shirt collar outside the jacket. 

     He’d dressed as she’d suggested, then had asked, Do I have to get a haircut?

     He had grown up with few haircuts  because Pa couldn’t figure out a way to steal them.  Ma would trim his hair, sometimes Pauline.  They wanted him looking good.  These days Mary Creed made appointments for him at the hair stylist every two weeks.

     After Lester had confirmed that he would be financially responsible for Pa, the hospital cashier directed him to a waiting room on the second floor. Looking for the stairs, he walked down a corridor that passed the small cafeteria.  He turned through a pair of swinging doors which brought him to another corridor, this one lined with windowless doors, whose only identification was a number and a letter—1A, 2A, 3A, then 1B, 2B, 3B, and so on.  He guessed they were patients’ rooms, which made him feel uncomfortable, ashamed, as he had felt one time when he had gone with Pa to steal from one of the big houses out at the lake.  It had been a year-round home with a huge living room.  Lester had stood by the fireplace watching his father wrestle a television from a wood cabinet until Pa had said, Give me hand with this or we will be here until daylight just like you’re worried about. 

     Lester had been scared because though still in high school, he was eighteen,  and he knew they could put him in jail.

     Jail, Pa had scoffed, I ain’t ever been to jail in my life, and I even once killed a man.

     Pa said it as if he believed Lester should take comfort in it.  He hadn’t.

     The corridor ended at a door with no number.  Lester opened it.  On a long table lay a man whose heart had just been removed from his chest. The organ dangled in mid-air, as though the doctor had plucked a prize.  Back went the gloved hand to retrieve intestine or liver.

     Don’t throw out the good parts with the guts, Pa had warned Lester when they were hurriedly cleaning a deer they had jacked. 

     When Lester had split with his wife Janille, Pa had taunted him,  Didn’t I teach you not to throw out the liver with the lights.

     The man on the table wore no mask, no nurse stood by to hand tools to the doctor, no machinery linked the patient to the medical technology Lester had read was the pride of this new hospital.  The door slammed, closing off the view from the corridor.  Then the door opened just a crack, affording no view but the doctor’s face.

     “Are you well?” the man asked, his voice soothing, syrupy.

     “I’m looking for the intensive care unit,” Lester said, “the waiting room for the intensive care unit.”

     “This is autopsy,” said the man.  “For I.C. you have to go back to the lobby and take the elevator.  You can’t get there from here.”  His gloved hand covered his grinning mouth, not quite touching it.

     But you can get here from there.  Had the doctor said that?  No.  Lester had told himself that.

     Retracing his way to the elevator, Lester worried that Pa might have already died while he had wandered into that place of no return.  Would Pa look alive?  Lester had been fooled by the dead man on the slab. Could he be fooled into thinking Pa was dead while Pa struggled from breath to breath not to show any sign of life?  Pa had fooled Lester before.  Pa had so fooled him with Janille the wonder of it was that Lester had let the old man live long enough for them to build this hospital for him to come and die in.  He figured to pork me good, Lester’d told Anthony, in the worse way he’d ever been done..

     “Lester Wilcox.”  A man wearing green twill pants, work boots, and a hospital workers T-shirt,  came half-way out of the cafeteria.  He extended a hand which Lester thought was offered as handshake.  Instead the man grabbed his arm and pulled him inside the door as if he were yanking the leash of an unruly dog.  “I heard your father was admitted.”  Though he gave no clue as to his identity, his knowledge of Wilcoxes marked him as a man from The Corners.  “I see Spike and your mother here, but not Mona.”

     “They left her to home,” Lester said.  “They had enough trouble getting Pa here.”

     Lester got a Coke from the self-service dispenser and bought a coffee for the man, who was a little older than Lester, certainly in his forties, a little taller, probably six foot.  His black hair showed erratic lines of gray as if a clumsy worker had dropped a paintbrush on his head.  His hands shook when  he brought the coffee cup to his puffy face.

     “Ten cups a day,” he said, “but that’s all I drink now.  Call it prison benefits.”

“Daryl Felch,” Lester said.  Pa had sent him to prison.

     “You didn’t know who I was?  Christ, you liked to poison us, you Wilcoxes,” Daryl said.  “Tell me, who was it siphoned our fuel oil into our well?”

     Pa had  ruined the Felch well and drained their winter oil tank in one move after Janille had moved to town. “Wilcoxes didn’t ruin your well,” Lester said.

     Daryl threw his cup straight at Lester. “Liar,” Daryl said.  Hot, sticky coffee ran down Lester’s shirt front, burning his chest. “We always knew it was Wilcoxes ruined our well.  Now we’re going to get your old man and any of the rest of you fuckers we can.”

     As Daryl Felch strode out of the cafeteria, people stared at Lester, sitting with a half-finished Coke in his hand and his white shirt stained the color of baby shit.  I hope I never get so foolish—even after Pa dies—as to wonder why I left The Corners, Lester said to himself.  Or even to think of coming back for anything other than to see Ma.

     Off the lobby was a men’s room, its shiny faucets and ceramic tiles a glimpse of the future, Lester thought.  The Corners’ people had started to move trailers onto their property.  They let pigs run in and out of the shacks that they had lived in and ignored the old privies until the weathered boards collapsed in on themselves, leaving rotted wood over a hole half-filled with human dung.  He’d offered to buy Ma and Pa a trailer several years back—offered Ma really, since he couldn’t speak to his father without feeling the heat of both their rages—but nothing ever came of it.  He might as well have offered to send Mona to college or Spike to etiquette class as to have fetched his mind on changing Pa. 

     Lester saw in the wide mirror that with his jacket buttoned, most of the stain would be hidden.  He could tease Sharon that the wide-lapeled suit jacket had served a purpose after all.  Anyway, he wasn’t about to drive back to town now for  a change of clothes.  He had long ago resigned himself to being at some disadvantage in every encounter with Pa, even if it amounted only to wearing a stained shirt. 

     Ramona, called Mona, stood at the sink of the Wilcox cabin wondering what Pa had against hospitals.  For her they were no different from church or school, places where people who knew more than you did tried to help you and usually couldn’t.  But they smiled.  Mona remembered them always smiling, just as Pa always smiled at her. Pa ought to like them.  It was strange to her that smiling people couldn’t all like one another and get along, though she knew they didn’t.  She swirled her hands in the cold water, white detergent, brown beans, red catsup, moving full of  color like a river at flood.  Had Spike heated the water?  She was glad their water was on the inside, not like sister Pauline’s place, where you had to drag it in from the well, even if Pauline did live in a trailer.  Spike had said to do the dishes, but he hadn’t heated the water for her and Ma had been crying, almost as loud as Pa, when the rescue people had taken him out on the stretcher.  Only his eyes and mouth had moved, both of them swearing at the rescue people, and at Spike and Artie Erff, and his eyes more than swearing and meaning it too.  And that was why she hadn’t said anything about the poor dead dog, Blacky, their black Lab.

     The ambulance might have done it.  Or her cousin Artie Erff and his shiny police car.  Why didn’t Blacky hear the cars coming down the long driveway?

     A long driveway, Pa had told her, so’s you know someone’s coming before they know you know.  Gives you time to set out another plate, put on the coffee, load your 12 gauge, hide, or just throw roofing nails in the yard. 

     Blacky wasn’t dead because he wasn’t where she had first seen him by Anthony’s car. Mona found Blacky, his hind quarters run over.  He was still alive.  “Blacky,” Mona said, sliding her hands under the sticky, wet haunches.  “Blacky.”  Her voice held the dog’s name in a slow embrace, letting the sounds go slowly.  She watched the red seep onto the thick black fur, blood-staining her skin.  The dog growled low in his throat, but his lip stayed uncurled.  His eyes seemed to Mona only to reflect her own fear.  She laid him under the tall ash tree.  As she went to the kitchen for water, she hoped Blacky would feel better in the shade.  She hoped his blood would stop leaking out of him.  She wished she could nurse him better.  When she returned to the tree, blood had soaked the dust.  She would have to bury Blacky.

     Behind the barn was a patch of wood chips and sawdust from years of chainsawing firewood.  There Mona carried Blacky, his weight lapping over her arms, his blood still spilling out, no matter how carefully she held him.  She spaded a hole in the soft earth. She blanketed Blacky with soft, mealy dirt mixed with gold and black wood, and told him, “Goodnight and sleep tight.”

     Back in the cabin, she needed to make something pretty.  She looked outside.  Between the cabin and the privy, lay a gray squirrel with its head cocked toward the window where Mona watched him.  Drying her hands on her dress, she went to the drawer where Pa kept her crayons, big fat ones with nice waxy colors, and sheets of big, coarse paper.  Pushing things aside on the table was hard because sometimes something would fall off the other end and break.  She had pushed things out of her way three days ago, knocking off Ma’s mug that Anthony had given her, and Ma had yelled at her, Pick up, don’t shove, pick up.  Then you won’t break everything. 

     Pa had said, Wa’n’t so long ago she’d’ve plunked paper and all right into the butter.  Give her credit.  That’s the only way to help her.        

But Ma’d answered back, It’s ‘cause it was from Anthony that you’re so calm.

Anthony?  Pa had said, who’s Anthony?

     Pa never howled at Mona no matter how stupid she did. She knew she was more stupid than any one else in the family.   Once Spike had told her, she was stupid.

     Lester’d said, Spike would eat the can and throw away the beans if Ma didn’t spoon ‘em out on his plate.

     Eat the can was funny.  Mona had sung it around Spike, Eat the can.  Eat the can, until he’d slapped her with his big hand, knocking her right into the cabinets, and Pa had hit him in the arm with a stick of kindling wood.  Then Mona had said that Lester had told her that, making Pa even madder though she didn’t know why.

     That was years ago.  Spike had never slapped her again.  He’d even said, Sorry.

     There, Pa had said, Spike can be stronger than he looks.

     On the paper appeared first the smile, then, slowly surrounding the smile, the rest of the squirrel.  Mona’s tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth and curled.  Concentrating her lips on her tongue stilled her mind so she could draw the little animal.  Making no outline, she worked from the smile out, sketching the haunches, feathering the tail, even detailing the tiny toes with their claws.  Soon the smiling squirrel covered the paper, leaving only a little room for Mona to draw in trees for the background, including one tree for his family.  She made the nest by coloring a dark splotch in a branch.  If she could have spelled “family” exactly right, she would have written out the word, but she could remember for sure only that it began with an “f,” which she made next to the nest with the orange crayon because she hadn’t had a chance to use that color in the rest of the picture.

     Mona wanted to take her picture to Pa right away, before Spike saw it and said it didn’t look right because the squirrel’s fur was more gray in real life.  Too much brown in her picture, he might say, shit brown,  making her embarrassed to give it to Pa.  She knew the picture would make Pa happy. Spike had shouted and hollered and called those rescue people when Pa had fallen down. Pa had been so mad at him that she had seen the things coming out of Pa’s eyes.  She pitied Spike when Pa came home because it wouldn’t just be one whack with kindling wood.

     She gripped her tongue with her twisted mouth and on the paper printed RAMONA WILCOX in green.  She liked the green.  She liked the red too.  It  reminded her of Saint Valentine’s Days in school when she had cut hearts out of red construction paper and pasted them onto the shiny white sheets the teacher had given her.  With the red crayon she printed, again her tongue clenched between her lips, the letters forming along the side of the squirrel—LOVE PA.

     With her usual neatness she put each crayon back in the box and returned them where they slept in the drawer with her paper.  Under the sink was the box of filmy paper Ma used to cover open cans and sometimes sandwiches.  Mona pulled a strip out and pressed it along the little teeth at the edge of the carton, tearing it and the flesh of her fingers.  She had to suck the blood off two of them before she could cover her coloring.  She smoothed the film to make it stick to the coloring without tape or glue or anything.  And that was something she had never seen the teacher at Central School do.

     Maybe if she set the water on to heat, it would be all warm for the dishes when she got back.  She was afraid of the kerosene side of the cook stove, and Spike had told her, If you fool with that, you’ll blow your head the other side of your asshole.  He was  always saying wild things like that, and some of them were true.

     Mona lifted the burner with the curved iron handle that fit into the slot, stuffed crumpled paper inside the dark cavity, and tossed in a lighted wooden match.  She liked these matches with their fat blue and red heads because they always went off.  A rush of air set the paper roaring before she could find any wood to add.  Then she remembered Ma usually put the wood in before touching flame to the paper.  If she set the stovelid back on the opening, the poor flames would smother in there.  (At school once the boys had closed her in the closet and warned her if she screamed they’d do something so dirty with her that she’d never be able to tell a soul.  That’s why she would never smother anything.)  She wouldn’t put the lid on.  She liked the colors they made, some blue-green, almost melting, from some shiny paper Pa said they paid people to put on car windshields. Mona knew she ought to get some wood. 

     Outside, beside the Chevy that Anthony had bought, she got the splitting ax and knocked a couple of pieces of round oak into kindling, this time without lip-locking her tongue but just setting the wood on the stump as if she were lining dolls on the windowsill.  Anthony’s Chevy, all green, was the newest car they’d ever owned except for the one Lester had bought for Pa years ago.  She tried to open the car door, but the wood bundled in her arms got in the way so that she had to drop it right there at her feet to get into the car.  The car smelled hot like an old haybarn and like something plastic, like the steering wheel or seat covers.  It had sat here unused ever since Anthony had died.

     Pa had said, Might’s well give it to Mona because not I nor Spike will even so much as drive it to the dump.

     But she never thought of it as her car, though once she got some green paint to put on the funny white design on the door, painting over the letters which had identified the car as what Pa had called an official vehicle.

     Now that Anthony owns it, he had said, it’s an unofficial vehicle, just like Anthony himself, who is an unofficial person. 

     She turned the knobs and pushed the little black plastic buttons on the radio Anthony had put into the car, though no music came.  When Anthony was first dead, she had been able to get music from the radio, music that Spike liked but made her keep low with the window open so he could split wood and hear the sound without Pa noticing.  Mona wondered if Spike was afraid of Pa because he’d done something bad.  Mona wasn’t ever afraid of Pa.  Pa protected her.

     All the paper in the stove had burned away and left only the little crumbled bits of black that Mona stirred with her finger until she found a hot one.  That was good because sometimes a fire could die out and leave no heat at all.  This time she put extra paper into the dark hole, adding the smaller bits of kindling before tossing in the wooden match.  When the flames filled the hole, she jammed a split oak piece the length of her forearm into the heat.  That would give her enough fuel for the kettle of water she set on the back burner.  She didn’t use the stove often, only when Ma told her.  To give the fire plenty of air, she let the lid stay off the front burner.  As she walked down her driveway to Parade Road, she wished she could drive Anthony’s car because not only would she get her smiling squirrel picture to Pa sooner, but then Anthony’s car really would be Mona’s car.  It would officially be Mona’s car, Mona’s official car.

     Down the road she walked, a nice figure, not as full as sister Pauline, or Ma, though she expected one day she would have a baby.  Maybe having babies helped it along, having babies and getting older put the weight on so that you got rounder like Pauline and Ma.

     Pa’d said, You, Ma, your sister, your beauty is a blessing to the earth.

     Light slanted a little through the narrow branches  of the pines that lined the road, reminding Mona it was getting after noon, so she’d better hurry to the hospital.

     Ma’d sit beside him on the downstairs bed.  Pauline would hop on behind him on her knees and knead his muscular shoulders and the back of his neck as if she were softening clay.

     By now Mona had turned off Parade Road down by the banks where Pa had found the clay.  Spike had dug out hunks of it and carried them back to the cabin for her.  Anthony had figured out to wrap the funny film around it so it wouldn’t lose its life, though he’d said the secret was just to add water.  Anthony was so smart.

     But Pa was clever too. 

     Mona walked faster down to the river, where she cut to a path through a meadow of pigweed and witchgrass, avoiding the cockleburs.  This was a  shortcut that went over past the Felches’ place.  It was damp down here, damp on her body as well, a slimy feeling that smelled, a sensation she’d never got used to, never accepted as part of her, any more that she had gotten used to the blood that came from where she peed.

     She knew the river would be shallow enough by the fallen tree so that she could balance along its length, then just jump to the dead tree that lay in the river.   Usually, she wouldn’t care if she fell in, the water cleansing her sweat and twisting her about like a dancer when she pulled her feet up from the bottom, but this time she had Pa’s picture with her.

     The subject of the picture lay dead on the lawn.  The squirrel’s neck had been broken when one of the barn cats had dragged it along the ground and Spike had stepped on it.  Not out of meanness, but to put it out of its misery, he had told himself.  No smile spread on the squirrel’s face.  Yellowjackets from a nearby hole in the ground had found its open belly, flying in and out of the fur, sacking the guts.  Its eyes, open and as yet untouched, didn’t see the red and yellow flickering in the cabin, its nose didn’t smell the change in odor as things other than kindling began to burn, nor did its body feel the heat of the fire.  If it had, it might have smiled.

     No one came up Parade Road.  No one stopped to read Pa’s sign at the foot of his long driveway.  Black block letters on a white  background named destinations and distances like an official highway marker.

     Concord-----40 miles

     Newfound----20 miles

     Heaven------1,000,000 miles

     Hell--------5 miles

     Felches------5 miles

     From the distance of the Felch house you might have mistaken the Wilcox place for a farm.  Beyond the barn lay a rising field of some thirty acres, grass and thistle, lupine and daisies and the bright heads of other sprightly wildflowers all growing in the June sun, which reflected off the granite headstone of Anthony Wilcox, long dead.  But along the perimeter grew trees, which, with the slow and silent steps of trespassers, encroached on the open space, sending scrub pine and poplar into the field as if to return it to the wilderness.  Above the field an old logging road slogged through woods to the remains of an upper field.  No one, not even a Felch, was close enough that morning to have seen the fire.

     People in The Corners mouthed over whether Pa was wild or crafty.  Though they knew him to be generous, they didn’t always know he had protected people, including Ma and Janille Felch and Pauline.  They certainly didn’t know the ripping, biting devastation it had wreaked in his guts, like a wild animal driven by fresh-tuned 350 V-8.  Neighbors argued over Pa, never reaching agreement as to his deepest motives.  None of them took him lightly, and they all knew on any given day, warm or cold, Pa could astound them.  The amazing thing, said one of the Felchs, is that no one’s even seen him work.  But Felchs never did see half the amazing things about Pa.

      
Copyright  ©  2014 Merle Drown

 

A native of Northern New England, Merle Drown has published short stories, flash fiction, essays, reviews, and two novels, Plowing Up A Snake (The Dial Press) and The Suburbs Of Heaven (Soho Press, 2000), trade paperback (Berkley Press, 2001). Along with John Cawelti he edited Meteor in the Madhouse, the posthumous novellas of Leon Forrest, published by Northwestern University Press in 2001.  The Suburbs of Heaven, chosen by Barnes and Noble for its Discover Great New Writers series, has been reviewed by the New York Times, Newsday and other media.  He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the NH Arts Council.
 
He teaches in Southern New Hampshire University’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing.