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Vol. 5, No. 2

The Last One Left in Arkansas
by Bruce Machart

~

The town paper made the dogs out as heroes, but Anne couldn’t look at them, wouldn’t let them in the house anymore.
    The night after the funeral I found her sitting alone in the barn. “How could they?” she said. “How could they save Matty and leave Nate for dead?”
    “Honey, they just know. It’s animal instinct. They can smell the difference.”
    “You don’t know he was dead.”
    “Anne, the doctors said.”
    “You don’t know, Tom,” she said, her bloodshot eyes swimming deep in their sockets, looking for something to blame, and rather than sympathy, what I felt that night was rage. She didn’t know either, couldn’t know, and that’s what was gnawing at her. She hadn’t seen it coming, hadn’t been able to hear it in the wind the way she could hear the next day’s rain, but what frightened me most was my conviction that, in Anne’s mind, the wrong boy had been taken from her. Something welled up in me, molten and slow. The dogs were whining, scratching at the back door, and our surviving son was alone in his bed upstairs.
    “Dogs know, Anne. I don’t, you’re right, but dogs do. What did you want, huh? For them to let the crippled one die?”
    Since she left, I’ve spent hours on the porch, subjecting myself to the cold, mulling that night over and wondering how I could have said what I did. And when I’m brave with whiskey and honest with myself, I begin to suspect the ugliest possible answer, that I deserved the stab of her stare and have earned, in that one fit of rage, these biting nights I’ve endured, even nights like tonight, when the blame in Lonnie’s mother’s eyes was as sharp and cold as Anne’s had been. That it was me, not Anne, who wanted Nate back so badly. No matter the cost.

 

~

We kept Matty home from school for a week after the accident. At night, the dogs howled at the door, and Anne grew more and more remote, sinking so far into herself that I prayed she’d slam a door or throw something or beat me with her fists, anything so I could recognize her as the woman I’d taken as my wife.
    Afternoons, I’d load Matty up in the truck and haul him up to the top of Magazine Mountain. A fire had crowned up there in the sixties, the regrowth was sparse and low to the ground, and we’d walk around up there, staring out at the waves of clouds that rolled out in all directions below us. His ribs were taped, his good leg now stiff and clumsy in its cast, but he never much complained. He’d hobble around in his old arm braces, which he preferred to the wooden crutches they’d given him at the hospital, and when he moved there was an unhurried calm about him. Weeks later, when the cast came off, he walked with his head up and his shoulders squared, confident and almost proud of the hitch in his step, and I realized then that, in a way, Matty had embraced his limp as a reminder, as a way of mourning.
    Back home, more and more, Anne was coming undone. The dogs, now deprived of their warm and huddled sleep at the foot of Matty’s bed, spent the nights scratching and sniffing at the back door, whining to be let in. It drove her crazy, Anne said. She couldn’t sleep.
    One morning, while Matty and I were eating breakfast before our ride to the mountain, she emerged from the bedroom. If you’d been there, you might have wondered just what had become of this woman. Her shoulders slumped forward, some invisible burden pressing hard on her, and her eyes were cast down and away, as if inspecting the baseboards for dust. “Mommy,” Matty said, but Anne held up a hand. She’d woken me four times the night before, muttering and climbing from bed and pacing in and out of the bedroom, slapping her hands over her ears when the dogs launched a new, vocal assault on the door. Now she poured a cup of coffee and stood facing the sink, and when from out on the porch the dogs bellowed, her body jolted, something electric pulsing through her, and her hands shook violently enough that coffee splashed over the rim of the cup and onto her hands.
    “Shut up,” she screamed, stomping her way toward the utility room and the back door. “Enough. That’s enough out there. Just shut up.”
    From my chair at the table, I heard the deadbolt snap back and the door swing open. “Anne,” I said.
    Matty’s eyes were on me, his fork frozen above his plate, and the dogs were howling.
    “No,” Anne said, “stay.” And then the door slammed shut, or nearly shut, and the house shook and there was that same hollow sound I’d heard all those years back at Uncle Weldon’s slaughterhouse in Texas, that sledgehammer coming down, making contact, that calf dropping limp into the dust, and I kicked my chair back just as Anne started ranting.
    “You’re not allowed,” she said. “You’re not allowed inside. Oh, Jesus, you know that.”
    When I made it around to the door, Anne was standing there, her hands knotted up in her nightgown, her hair limp and dirty as the dog lying at her feet. It was Luke, her shiny red coat now dulled and tangled from all the days out-of-doors. She was still wedged between the heavy oak door and the doorjamb, her head dented in at the temples. “She was trying to get in,” Anne said. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it, but she wouldn’t stop.”
    Matty rounded the corner, fork still in hand, and when he looked down at his dog and then up at me, he seemed older somehow, already a man, shrunken and beaten down by years of misfortune. “Daddy,” he said, and I took his hand and pulled him past Anne and onto the back porch. “She’s still breathing,” I told him, pulling the dog from the doorway. “Let’s get her in the truck. We’ll take her over to Dr. Mason’s.”
    Anne stood crying on the porch, watching us load the dog into the cab. Whether determined to accompany her sister or terrified by the prospect of staying behind, or both, the other dog, Bo, leaped into the bed of the truck, and when we climbed in and slammed the doors, Luke opened her eyes. “She’s okay,” Matty said, and I nodded, forcing a smile, but the dog’s eyes were deep pools of black, dilated so that only the faintest rim of white was left visible. Before we made it out to the highway, the dog jerked, her muscles seizing up so that her legs shot forward, her nails scratching across the dash of the truck, and what I remember most is not the sound of the dog’s jaw snapping shut, or the way the last rush of breath pushed from the poor thing’s flared nostrils, or the way Bo was whining in the back, her nose pressed hard into the glass of the cab. Not even the way Matty leaned forward, covering the dog’s body with his own. No, what I remember most is the sight of Anne out there on the porch before we drove away, the way she just stood there, her legs and arms pale from all her time indoors, her lips moving in whispered thoughts I’d never be able to hear. She was my wife, and I’d cursed her as I put the truck in gear, and then she’d turned back toward the house. She wiped her feet on the mat before she went in, and I knew she was leaving.

 

~

When we got to the mill, Red and I ran the hoses and cranked up the power washer, and out there in the night, with the clouds and the cold and the silence working a number on us, we stood at the infeed side of the debarker drum, spraying the insides clean with a hot mix of ammonia and water. The smell, Red had told me at the funeral home, had gotten worse each day, so he’d called an old buddy of his, Henderson, the line foreman at our sister plant in Silsbee, Texas, for advice.
    “They had possums,” Red said, “a whole family of them nesting nights. Henderson said they fired up one morning and debarked at least a half dozen of the little bastards. Said the only thing that made a dent in the stench was a good hose down and a couple drumloads of cedar.”
    So we worked. We sprayed and vapor rose from the water to join the clouds and soon enough the drum was steaming like a kiln, but the smell was still there, rank and sour, swirling out of that drum into the air. I couldn’t shake it, it hung in my nostrils, but not once did I think, That’s a man. That’s a man I’m smelling.
    At the time, all I could think about was Matty’s dog, Luke, whom I’d buried that day, in anger and disbelief, beneath the plot of ground where Anne had always made her garden. I’d bent my back and shoveled for an hour, digging down deep while Matty sat on the porch, holding Bo’s head in his hands to keep her quiet, and by the time I’d finished Anne had packed the car with her clothes and some groceries for the trip. She was going back to Texas, she said. To her mother’s. I slid the dog into the hole, and the solid sound it made hitting bottom kicked the air from my lungs. I turned to Matty on the porch, a boy holding fast to his dog, a boy too frightened to cry, and when my breath came back to me I boiled over. I told Anne to go on, then, if that’s what she wanted, if she wanted to leave her family behind, if she thought she could just hop in the car and drive away from her life. “Just go the hell on,” I said, and then I packed the earth back over that dog.
    Now Red was feeling better. Sobering up some, he said. He could drive. And though I shouldn’t have allowed it, I knew that, for Red, this job would never be done if he couldn’t see it through personally. He’d flipped the switch, and as crazy and insensitive and downright impossible as it sounds, by the unspoken rules of the mill, this was his wrong to right. So while he was on the cherry picker, rolling out past the fence to the raw-materials yard for the cedar, I fired up the infeed conveyor. The belt was riding high on one side of its idlers, so I worked a wrench on the take-ups to train it back straight, and when Red drove up with the first of the logs, I stepped down to the debarker’s control panel and fired the thing up. Once released, the logs crashed down, bouncing on the impact idlers before the belt shot them forward into the drum, and then I engaged the drive shaft. Red was just sitting there on the cherry picker smoking a cigarette, and I was eleven years back and five miles away, in my backyard with Matty, who was balanced on one of his braces, pointing to where his dog was digging. It was Bo, hunkered in a hole of her own making, tunneling down to where two weeks before I’d buried Luke. “She remembers,” Matty said, and his braces rattled while he sobbed. “She wants Luke back.”
    And what do you say to that? Yes, she does, son. She surely does. Something as simple and stupid and inadequate as that, and then you just stand there, holding on to your boy while he cries, watching while the dog slings soil, digging deeper. You’re not thinking about decay, about the smell of rot. You’re thinking about the son you have left and the son who died because of a dirt bike you bought him and the wife who told you so, who told you so when she turned to go. That dog, the one underground, it’s the last thing on your mind, until it hits you, a stench so bad your boy rears back on his braces, a smell so dead you grab the digging dog and wrench her by the collar out of that hole, because this isn’t right, not with the boy here it isn’t, because he’s had enough lessons like this for a lifetime, you think, and that’s when you send him inside. That’s when you head for the barn, grab the bags of Ready-Crete you keep for setting new fence posts, and dam that hole up for good. And then it’s done.
     “That ought to do it,” Red shouted. “I think that’ll do it, Tom.”
    I shut the debarker down and the logs rolled loud like summer thunder to a stop inside. Red stepped down from the cherry picker and stood beside me at the controls. And then I kicked on the pneumatics and opened the discharge vents. I’m forty-seven years old, I’ve been in lumber mills half my life, but when those vents sprung clear and that bark dust flew, I nearly went teary with relief. It came in gusts, wafting toward us, wave after wave of cedar so sharp and clean and loud that it left your sinuses ringing.
    “Jesus God,” Red said. “Oh Lord, that’s better.”
    I killed the pneumatics and we stood there together, taking it in, our breath steaming. “I think that did it,” Red said. “I think it’s all right now.” He was breathing hard, his cheeks flushed with the gin or the cold or both.
    You were drunk at a man’s wake, I thought. Whatever guilt you’ve got worming around in you, this won’t get rid of it.
    He looked at me, his a tired smile. The man was still wearing his tie. He pulled my lighter from his pocket, lit a cigarette, and handed the thing back to me. I turned it in my hand, gave the flint wheel a turn and the flame came to life. I flipped it shut and looked up to find Red smiling, his face lit up with relief, and I knew then that I’d go home and have one last drink on the porch, that I’d sit and sip my whiskey out there, and then I’d take my sad, shivering ass back into the house and call my son. I’d call my son and when he answered I’d tell him I was mailing him a package, the old lighter I’d refused him before—that and some pocket change—and when he asked me what I wanted, I’d tell him. Nothing, I’d say. Nothing, son. I don’t want anything at all. There would be something like silence, a static hiss, our breath crackling inside hundreds of miles of frozen telephone lines. He wouldn’t say thank you. I didn’t expect he’d say anything at all, but then I’d change my mind. There is something, I’d say. How you doing out there anyway. How’s school, I mean. Tell me about you, son. I want to hear about you.     
    “Yes, sir,” Red said, still breathing deep through his nose, “that’s a whole shitpot better.”
    In every way a man can know something—from experience, from his gut, from the sound of the wind, from the smell of pine trees and from the voice he sometimes hears in his head when he prays—in all those ways I knew Red was wrong, that it would take more than one night of work out in the cold to bring him relief. And still I wanted to believe. I wanted it to be true, for it to be over. For both of us.
    “Let’s do this right,” I said, nodding toward the cherry picker, then out beyond the fence to where the cedar was stacked. “One more load, just to be sure. Then I’ve got to get home.”

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