I’m no Arkansas native. Still, I’ve seen my share of strange skies. After Anne and I were married, we left Texas so that I could attend forestry school in Oregon. From the balcony of our apartment just south of Eugene, we’d watch the black Pacific clouds roll into the Willamette valley and even the birds would go quiet. It was a West Coast thing, like an earthquake—eerie, breathtaking, sometimes terrifying, but usually short-lived—over before the real panic had time to set in. When I was a kid in the Texas panhandle, clouds were recreation. God’s truth, early one September the entire third grade skipped the afternoon half of school to follow a low nimbus across the scrub-grass field toward the creek bed. It was recess. Someone started walking and we all followed, cooling ourselves under the only outdoor shade we’d seen in months.
That was Texas. This is Arkansas.
Here in this valley, clear through to March, when on nights like tonight I sometimes sit on the porch in my parka, sipping whiskey and shivering and trying to find just the right prayer for the son I lost eleven years back, or the courage to call the one who’s alive but living hundreds of miles away, often even the clouds turn lethargic, and they sit, and they stay.
They stay in such a way that tonight, if you sat in your truck at the intersection of the mill road and Highway 10, where the company land ends and the Ozark National Forest stands like a frozen wall to the north, your wipers would groan as they raked sleet from the glass. The clouds would hunker down, blocking out the moon, but even with one headlight out you’d be sure to notice that they haven’t replaced the sign on the corner yet—it still reads 329 DAYS WITHOUT AN LTA. Lost time accident, that’s what they call it when someone saws through an arm or shears a hand in half with the planer. All it takes is a second of distraction, one turn of the head. One bad decision. When you spend a quarter of your life in the mill, you have to remember every second what the motors and blades are capable of. You don’t wear loose-fitting clothes and you don’t take a drink at lunch. You don’t work at a station before you’ve been trained and certified. When you’re on the line, you don’t think about your wife’s nice plump ass and you don’t worry about little Johnny’s grades. You concentrate. I did it for ten years before I made plant manager, still do it when I’m out in the yard. There’s rules and, as they say, you follow them so you can clock out and make your way home to play This Little Piggy with your babies without coming up short any piggies.
Something else you don’t do—you don’t clear sap buildup from between a pulley and belt when the conveyor is running. I’ve seen it tried and there’s only one possible outcome: the belt doesn’t slip and the pulley won’t stop and the pillow-block bearings won’t let loose of the shaft. It’s one shoulder socket versus a forty-horse motor and the arm is coming off. Period. Every time. No question and no excuse.
I didn’t know this Lonnie Neiman well, but I know what he didn’t know. There’s only one way to clean the debarker. That thing’s a bad SOB, a real widowmaker, and you’ve got to respect it. You disconnect the power line. You call the electrician and have him cut the juice completely. It’s something you’d expect everyone would know, but you’ve got to watch the new guys. They’ll sweat their rears off, they’ll yessir and nosir you to death, but when it comes down to it, they’re just too damn eager, too revved up to slow down and think. The boys say Lonnie was like that, a whole mound of red ants in his pants. It’s hard to believe, such a lack of common sense, such outright stupidity, but you can’t tell his mother that. You can’t say, I’m sorry something awful, ma’am, but the boy was just too dumb to stay alive. You can’t even say for certain what the hell he was doing in there, except you have to figure that, with a kid like Lonnie, less than a year out of Blue Mountain High and just three weeks on the job, he was probably trying to go the proverbial extra mile, trying to make an impression. Well, if you ask my line foreman, Big Red, the kid did just that.
So did the debarker.
Imagine a porcupine turned inside out, a big mother with three-foot-long steel quills. That’s what a debarking drum is like. An enormous pipe, fifteen feet in diameter and lined inside with hundreds of these quills. Load it with a dozen or so twenty-foot-tall, forty-year-old Arkansas pine trunks, turn that sucker on, get it rolling good, and thirty seconds later you’ve got naked trees, fresh and clean as an Eden stream. Step back, blow the bark and sap out the discharge vents, smell that rich, sappy-sweet smell, and keep on keepin’ on. Now, load that killer with one six-foot-tall, eighteen-year-old kid. Let’s say he’s a real green-ass, maybe he’s trying to suck up to the foreman, do some extra housekeeping before the shift ends—who knows? All the same, he’s in there when Big Red throws the switch to cycle the motor.
Red’s been a crew chief for seven years, and if Red says there wasn’t any screaming I’ve got to believe him. Just a bump, he said, a liquid whistling sound. Something that didn’t ring right in his ears—that debarker is Red’s baby and he would know. Then he opens the discharge vents and a few minutes later the boys find him puking his guts up in the washroom.
That was three days ago. Tonight it’s history, the sign by the highway just doesn’t tell the story yet. 329 DAYS, it reads, WITHOUT AN LTA, like maybe Rita in the front office couldn’t stand to pull the numbers off the board and hang a zero in their place.
Usually, when I leave the sawmill for the night, I roll the truck windows down and breathe in deep through my nose. I take some of it home that way, some of the smell, some of the life that even a felled tree keeps holed up inside. It means something to me, makes clear the persistence, or maybe resistance, of the organic. Something dies—even a tree—it rarely goes willingly. It wants you to smell what it was in life, or what it could have been if you’d had the sense to let it go on living. It wants you to remember. Trees, like angry husbands and wives, always want the last word.
When I was ten, my father held me in front of him at Uncle Weldon’s processing house in Odessa. After Dad had me choose the calf, my cousin Frank loaded a bullet into a special sledgehammer, and when he swung there was a dead, dull sound—no resonance—like maybe he’d dropped a wrecking ball into quicksand. Later, with the calf hanging from a hook inside, my uncle pulled a knife up through the smooth hide of the animal’s underside and stepped back as the bulge of intestines slumped forward with a sucking sound and plopped onto the slick cement floor. What I remember most was Dad’s breathing, the way his chapped lips clamped shut below his wiry mustache, the way his nostrils flared as he inhaled, sucking the smell of the animal into his lungs, keeping it alive a while longer inside him.
Usually, for me, it’s the same with trees, but lately it doesn’t matter. The rain is freezing in midair and the stripped logs in the mill yard are sealed with skins of ice. It’s winter in Logan County, Arkansas, and you can’t smell a damn thing.
This evening, before Red and I took care of the smell in the debarking drum, on my way to Lonnie’s wake the clouds were gray slate, perfectly smooth, spitting pebbles of sleet down on the countryside. The trees beside the road stood coated with ice, polished skeletons with bark-brown marrow. My driver’s side headlight has been out for a week, and the dark and the ice on the road and the thought of coming face-to-face with Lonnie’s mother were all mixed up like frozen slush in my gut.
Dangerous as it was, I stomped on the gas and rolled the windows down, and for the ten-mile stretch of highway I sped cold and half-blind and sliding through turns toward town. I told myself that I just wanted it done, that I’d make my appearance at Wickman’s Funeral Home and get it over with so I could head to my house and pour a whiskey and have a seat on the back porch. But what I really wanted, I suppose, was what I’ve wanted all winter—to be normal, a forty-seven-year-old lumber boss with a son gone off to college in Texas and an ex-wife who runs a nursery in Abilene. To forget about this poor kid who got himself killed in my debarking machine. I wanted the clouds to clear so I could sit in the sun on top of Magazine Mountain. I wanted my oldest boy back, wanted him alive. And I wanted like hell to smell the sticky insides of trees.
Now, if you were there in that truck near the edge of town, with sleet stinging your face and the highway ice slapping against the fender wells, and you decided you’d had enough of this maniac driver you’d somehow become and did what I was tempted each mile to do—that is, turn the truck around and let Lonnie’s family and friends tend to his wake—you’d drive five miles east, just shy of halfway back to the mill on Highway 10, and then, near the foot of the mountain, on the other side of the road near a stand of pin oaks, you’d slow down, hang a right just after the yellow mailbox. From that point on, you could put it in neutral and coast all the way to the barn, half a mile, the grade just steep enough to pull you home, gravel dredged from the Petit Jean River crunching under your tires the entire way, and when a few hours later, after Lonnie’s wake and after a trip to the mill with Red, I made it home to join you on the porch for a drink, I’d give you the nickel tour and tell you how the place used to be a farm. Chickens and pigs mostly, and corn.
I’d say that the old boy who sold it to me kept rambling on about the soil. “Uncommon dark for these parts,” he’d said, spitting tobacco through the gap of his teeth. So proud, he seemed, and sad to be selling, that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I hadn’t planned on farming. I’d just wanted a quiet place set back away from the highway, but my wife, Anne, she must have been listening to him, because before I got a fresh coat of paint on the place, she’d tilled up a patch of ground between the barn and the back porch.
The daughter of a toolpusher from Abilene, and the only sister of four older brothers, Anne was always at home in a world ruled by muscle and force. Lean and strong, she was a physical woman, forever in touch with her body, and luckily, I always thought, remarkably in touch with mine. She called making love “roughhousing,” and at times, especially early in our marriage, that seemed like an understatement. When angered, she was more likely to elbow you in the chest or smack you atop the head than resort to the silent treatment. She was a woman who spanked her children as soundly and shamelessly as she hugged them, who swung a hoe hard and took pride in her work, all the while wearing a dress. I can’t do it justice, I’m sure, but watching her at work in that garden, or driving nails into the side of the barn so she could hang her tools there, her calves taut and shining in the evening’s last hint of sun—well, let’s just say it made me do math. In my head. How many steps between us? How long to close the gap? How many seconds to get her up the stairs and out of that dress? How long could I keep her there beneath me? How long could I keep her?
Just the thought of that garden, I admit, fills me with something crackling and sharp, an electric kind of longing. It was quite a sight, something to come home to, something alive and green and ever-changing, especially in springtime when the sun was still out. I’d roll up in my old truck, beat down and dusty from a day at the mill, and Anne would be squatting in her garden in one of those short, flowery dresses, her toes curled up in the earth, the roots of her long blonde hair darkened with sweat. She’d spend hours out there babying those plants. So many that I used to tease her, claiming she loved them as much as she loved the boys, and for years after she left I thought for sure it was true, but that was anger talking, the kind that’s sometimes long-lived and almost always laced with self-pity. The kind that finds a man sitting nights on his porch in the dead of winter, sipping whiskey, wondering why he’s alone, the only one still living his life, the last one left in Arkansas.
Some nights, if the whiskey can’t find its way into my glass, and I can keep myself off that back porch and out of sight of where Anne’s garden used to be, when I think about her I can admit to myself that she loved our boys as much as any mother, and that, sure, she loved her garden, and that it doesn’t make any sense to compare the two. Lose a plant and you learn to respect the elements, to prepare for them. There’s no one to blame but yourself. Lose a child and, for a while, the only thing that can keep you sane and above ground and alive enough to hate yourself is the burn-off of rage you ignite by laying blame somewhere, on something or someone else, so you can keep it from burrowing inside you and living where deep down you believe it belongs.
Plants and children.
I was acting the fool to ever compare them, or to think that Anne ever had, but what I do accept is that all her affections grew from the same source. It was the raising she loved, the cause and effect of nurture and growth. When our firstborn, Nate, started walking, she tacked a cloth tape to the inside wall of our closet and measured his progress against the pencil marks she made on the wall. I remember his laughter, so high and happy, at being tucked away in that closed quiet space with his mother, the woman who cooed and praised him for every half-inch.
I remember Anne’s routine before she was pregnant with our second boy, Matty. She’d groan when I got out of bed and dragged myself to the shower, but by the time I’d dressed she’d have Nate’s food warming in a saucepan and mine sizzling on the griddle. When I’d leave for work, she’d be weeding in the garden, telling little stories to Nate, who’d be sitting in a white diaper between two rows of carrots. When I got home at night, the place would hold signs that life had gone on inside—dishes from lunch stacked in the sink, wash going in the utility room—but she’d usually be back in the garden, sometimes weeding, mostly watering. Always talking. She spoke to them—her son, her plants—as if they were somehow interchangeable. “A little water for you,” she’d say, and then she’d turn the hose to Nate’s feet, and he’d laugh and flap his arms and wiggle his toes while Anne said, “and a sprinkle for you, big boy. Just look how big we’re all getting.”
Her plants and her son. They grew up together, heard the same encouraging words whispered, rooted in those same rows of soil. Then Anne started growing, and by the time Matty came into our world, the garden was four years in the making, the same age as Nate.
Anne had a knack for knowing things early. She could tell by nightfall whether the next day would bring rain—said she could hear it in the wind, that it sounded like a seashell tide—and her garden was rarely overwatered. In the spring, she never brushed the soil back from the tops of the carrots. She knew by the shape of the greens how long to wait. And two months before he was born, Anne knew something was wrong with Matty.
“It’s not right,” she said one night, climbing into bed. “It feels like everything’s all mixed up inside.”
She brushed her thumb over my lips and her face folded into furrows. With my finger, I traced the darkening line that ran from her distended belly button to her panty line. “We’ve seen the ultrasound,” I said. “Doctor says everything looks fine.”
“I know, Tom.” Her eyes were wide. She took hold of my ears and leaned in close. “But I feel it,” she whispered, “and it’s all wrong.”
Looking back, and knowing how this has all turned out—with her in Abilene and me still out here in the valley alone—it might sound naïve, but I was a man who trusted his wife. I believed in her body’s warnings the way I believe a green sky during tornado season, so when nine weeks later I was called from the waiting room and found Anne upright in bed, holding our baby to her breast, such a charge of relief rolled through me that I took hold of the bed railing to keep my balance. I must have been grinning to beat all, and Anne smiled too. A slight, exhausted smile. Her hair hung in wet, matted ropes at her neck and tiny beads of sweat clung to her forehead. She pulled back the blanket and there he was, our Matty, sleeping and sucking softly. Anne looked up at me, then her eyes dropped down to her child and she pressed her lips so tightly together that her chin began to quiver. Pulling the blanket back farther, she uncovered Matty’s twisted foot. It was tiny, pink, dimpled like a new potato, and I remember tilting my head like a puzzled dog, thinking it might all make sense if I could just get the right perspective, but it was no use. I leaned closer, praying I’d find toes, and I must have looked ridiculous, a grown man all twisted up around himself, so obviously keeping his distance from the freak object of his curiosity. A man frightened by his own son, afraid to hold the tiny foot in his palm and raise it to his cheek, or warm it with his breath.
Anne didn’t look up at me. She kept her eyes down and stroked Matty’s head with the backs of her fingers. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I remember wanting the comfort of Anne’s eyes on me, wanting her to know we’d be okay the way she knew about the weather, wanting her to know it so surely that I would too. But more than that, I wanted her to share the awkward silence somehow, even if her look was unknowing, or piercing, or fierce.
I must have sat there for an hour, maybe longer, a solid block of fear in my stomach. And when I left the hospital, carrying a nauseating uncertainty out to my truck with me, I didn’t know what to do next. Before that day and since, I’ve heard parents tell guilt-riddled stories about forgetting their children—maybe starting the car and backing onto High Street before realizing the baby’s still sitting in his stroller on the sidewalk, being an hour late to pick a child up after Little League, that sort of thing—and all I can say is that sometimes, no matter how long they’ve been toddling underfoot, you surface from somewhere in the undertow of your thoughts to the sudden and crashing realization that you’re a parent. That afternoon, I must have driven the back roads for half an hour, and only after gunning the engine on the downhill stretch of Highway 10 and circling around our land on the gravel farm road did I remember Nate. I veered off at the fork and headed toward our neighbor Mrs. Janson’s place, where I’d left him that morning.
I found Nate out back, perched on the iron seat of an antique tractor. His hands gripped the wheel and his head was thrown back, his lips sputtering with the sounds of imaginary harvest.
“You’ve got a brother,” I told him, wiping some of his engine slobber from the corner of his mouth. “A baby brother.”
His eyes focused in on me with a serious precision that looked artificial on the face of a child. “Okay, Daddy,” he said, raising his arms to be picked up. “Let’s go see.”
It’s unsettling sometimes, how the roles of father and son get jumbled, how much security a four-year-old can offer a man, but Nate’s raised arms and the matter-of-fact look on his face set me at ease, and I remember actually whistling while driving us back to town.
“Mommy,” Nate said when we came into the room. “Is that one ours?”
Anne nodded. “Come see,” she whispered, pulling back the blanket.
Matty was sleeping and dreaming and sucking at air. Nate pressed his palms to the new pink skin of his brother’s chest, and something about the solemn and gentle look on his face reminded me of a holy man, a preacher, and as Nate laid hands on Matty his lips moved with half-whispered thoughts that resembled prayer. He froze when he saw the foot, but one look at his mother and her smiling nod was all the reassurance he needed. He took Matty’s shriveled foot in his little brown hands and held on to it.
Anne raised her eyebrows and winked at me. She held out her hand, the corners of her lips curled into a sad smile, and when I went to her I realized that I’d come for them all. I couldn’t wait to carry them home, all three of them, to pile them into the truck and drive them out of town, back down the hill through the shadow of the mountain and into our valley.
From that first day, Nate took possession of his brother, and when Matty turned two, Nate decided that he should walk. Nate stood facing his baby brother and pulled him up by the arms, holding him steady while Matty forced his first uneven steps toward the encouraging face of his teacher. For Nate, this was serious business, and Matty walked. Two years later, when the mill’s insurance finally agreed to pay for prosthetics, Matty followed Nate everywhere, even into the bathroom. He’d walk slowly, his arms tense at his sides, his face scrunched up like he’d licked a lime.
“What’s wrong with him?” I said. “He need to go number two or something?”
Anne laughed and rolled her eyes. “He’s trying to walk like Nate,” she said. I turned to watch him creeping behind his brother into the kitchen. “Without the limp.”
Nate was determined that Matty be normal; looking the part was never enough. The first day of second grade, Matty cried out from the boys’ bedroom that he couldn’t find his arm braces. By that time he was walking fine without them, only a slight limp, but he tired easily. He’d already made a habit of spending hours alone, playing quietly indoors or reading in his room, and he grew more impatient and irritable the longer he was on his feet.
“I’ll help him,” Nate said, now a cool, burr-headed sixth grader, and minutes later they emerged from the back hall together, Nate with a hand on Matty’s shoulder. Anne was flipping pancakes onto plates, we all sat down to breakfast, and later Matty walked to school without his braces, his older brother at his side.
This past August, while Matty was packing his things for his move to college, I did some rooting around in the attic. I was digging through a hope chest, trying to find the brass cigarette lighter my grandfather had gotten as standard issue while serving in World War I. He’d given it to my father, who gave it to me, and even though my son and I don’t smoke, it was the only family heirloom I’d ever had, and I wanted to press it into Matty’s palm before he left me for college. Crawling out of the attic, I saw one of Matty’s old braces sticking out of a box, and I took it down with the lighter.
“You remember the day you quit using these?” I asked, and Matty smiled, his eyes bright.
“You mean the day Nate hid them from me?” Matty said. He raised his eyebrows and nodded at the old lighter in my hand. “What else you got there?”
In the years since Nate’s death, nothing I asked of Matty had come free of charge. A few days after the funeral, I’d sat the boy down and pressed him for details about the accident. I wanted to know if he’d seen Nate after the crash, if my oldest had moved, or spoken, or if Matty had seen him breathing. Anything. But Matty just sat there, his fingers drumming the kitchen table. “I’m hungry,” he said, so I took him to town and bought us a pizza. A small gesture, I thought. Hardly a bribe. His favorite dinner for an hour of conversation. At first, I thought it a harmless exercise. After all, Matty had shared a bedroom with Nate, had walked to the bus stop with him on school days, had seen him and talked with him and laughed and joked with him for hours each day while I tended to business at the mill. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted these stories. I wanted the time I had missed, and over the years I found myself engaging in all kinds of bargains, buying Matty’s memories of his brother. Paying for bits and pieces of Nate’s history.
Whether it was the look on Matty’s face—something between a smile and a smirk—or whether my sudden bitterness rose from the fact that he was leaving me, from the sight of all his belongings boxed up and ready to move, something started sparking in my guts, a crackle of resentment for this game we’d been playing for years. I’d brought the lighter down as a gift, by damn, not a payment.
“This,” I said, slipping it into my pocket, “this is mine.”
Matty nodded and I knew that this too would have a price. If he remembered some pact between kids, he’d want to keep Nate’s secret, hold on to a sacred bond with the brother he’d lost. That way, he’d have a memory of Nate that was his alone, and as much as I wanted that for Matty, or as much as I should have wanted it, the thought tripped a mine of jealousy in me. Dammit, I thought, I shouldn’t have to pay for it. Shouldn’t have to pay a red cent. He’s mine. Nate’s my son. “Where’d he hide them,” I said, “the braces.”
Matty turned back to his boxes. He was leaving me. He already had. “I don’t remember,” he said. “Somewhere.”
The year Matty left his crutches at home, two weeks before Christmas, Anne and I had it out over the dogs and the dirt bike. She was peeling potatoes at the kitchen table, her hands working furiously, independently of her eyes, which were locked on mine, keeping me from the evening paper.
“Matty can’t take care of a dog,” I said. “Much less two. He’s too young.”
“But Nate’s old enough for a motorbike? Christ, Tom. At least the dogs are free. Mrs. Burke says they’re housebroken and gentle and good with kids. And Matty needs them. They’ll get him out of the house more often. He’s the palest seven-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
“Get Matty the dogs,” Nate said, walking in from the back hallway. He stood with a hand on the refrigerator door. “I’ll help take care of them.”
Anne gave him a little wink. “See there,” she said, “Nate will help out,” as if that settled it.
Here’s a confession you don’t hear too often: even parents have favorites, one child that pulls at our heart or bolsters our pride or simply reminds us the least of the things we despise in ourselves. For Anne, that child was Nate, and though she loved Matty, loved him as any mother loves a son, crippled or otherwise, it was Nate who found her eyes the heaviest and most often upon him. Perhaps because each time she saw Matty limp or pull off his prosthetic foot, it cracked her heart a little wider. Or maybe it had nothing to do with Matty. Perhaps her love for Nate was simply four years older, but I don’t believe it. I never have. By the time Matty was five or six, if he had his socks and shoes off, he couldn’t have limped around the room fast enough to catch up with Anne’s averted eyes. Anne would protect him fiercely, from other kids, from the unkind word, even from his brother, but when it came down to it, I have to believe she favored Nate. He had grown up right, and strong, and whole, the way Anne had known he would.
That night, after our argument in the kitchen, she joined me under the quilts, put her head on my chest, and let out a moan I’d come to know. “Oh, yeah?” I said. “Somebody need a little roughhousing?” Beneath the sheets, she cupped me and gave me a playful squeeze. “Now,” she said, “you going to agree to the dogs or do I have to use force?”
Her hands were cold, and her hold on me sent an electric chill arcing through me from tailbone to temples. “We do the dogs,” I said, “we’ve got to get the dirt bike, too. Nate heard everything we said, you can bet on that. The dogs, the bike, the whole shebang. That kid’s sly, probably stuck up for Matty just to increase his own odds.”
Anne loosened her grip a bit and turned her head, propping her chin up on my ribs while she thought it over. “Touché,” she said, rolling onto me. “You’ve got a deal, mister.”
Tonight at the wake, Lonnie’s mother shook my hand, then stared me dead while I offered my condolences. She didn’t say a word, and I was surprised and almost disappointed by her restraint, by her ability to keep the blame in check, to stay cool and quiet with all that grief sizzling away inside. The casket was polished and shining and closed, and while I stood against the back wall, wondering how soon I could leave without showing any disrespect, Big Red leaned next to me and exhaled hard, the gin heavy on his breath. He was wearing a suit, his tie in one of those enormous Windsor knots, but his trademark red beard was scraggly as always.
“Oh, man,” he said. “You meet the mother yet?”
I nodded, and he shook his head, his eyes rolling drunk and loose in their sockets. “What gets me, Tom, is there’s nothing in that box. Nothing left of him, you know? There can’t be.”
Later, I followed Red outside and stood under the front awning while he smoked a cigarette. He’d run out of matches, so I handed him the lighter I’d been carrying with me since I’d retrieved it from the attic. I’d polished it, replaced the flint and wick, and filled it with fuel.
Red flipped it open, lit his cigarette, and blew smoke from his nose. “Do me a favor?” he said.
“Come up to the mill with me. I’m a little sauced to be running the debarker alone.”
On Christmas morning, when we led the boys out to the barn, Anne teased them with the latch, saying it was stuck, letting them squirm a while with excitement before swinging the doors open. Inside, the two dogs were curled up under Nate’s new blue Honda CR80. They were full grown—half Lab, half Golden—one with copper fur that seemed to shine even in the dim dawn light of the barn, the other a dull yellow thing with huge drooping eyes. Both were female, but Matty insisted on naming them Bo and Luke after his favorite TV characters.
“That’s stupid,” Nate told him, rolling his eyes. “Those are guy names.”
“I know,” Matty said, using Luke’s long red tail like a whip to swat his brother. “But they like it. They’re tomboys.”
Within a month, Matty and the dogs were inseparable. They walked him to the bus stop in the morning, announced his return with a melody of mismatched howls in the afternoon, and slept huddled together at the foot of his bed each night. And as Nate became a better rider and began letting Matty ride behind him on the Honda, the dogs would trail them, running and barking all the way up to the forest’s edge at the Petit Jean River. Weekends, I’d pay the boys with gas money for washing my truck. Inspecting their work, I’d squat down beside the rear fender wells and point out the missed spots that I pretended to see. “I don’t know, boys,” I’d say. “You may have to do this quarter panel all over again.”
“Come on, Dad,” they’d say. “You promised.”
I never let them off easy. I wanted to have those minutes with them before they rode off to the woods. Today, if I could have them back, I’d keep them there in that driveway, scrubbing that truck indefinitely. And though in time they would recognize the injustice, and call me on it, and surely come to hate me for it, still I would persist, but in those days, when to my mind lost time could be counted in hours or days, I had little to lose by letting them go. “All right,” I’d say, handing them each a dollar. “Just be careful.”
Late that winter the clouds stretched solid and low from horizon to horizon and the pine branches hanging over the highway sagged under the weight of their ice-laden bark. At the mill, the workers huddled around propane heaters, and the planers had to be honed daily to prevent them from biting jagged chunks out of the frozen logs the men pushed through the blades.
Just before the five o’clock shift change, Anne called. Her voice was quaking, panicked in a way that sent my blood to drumming in my ears. “The boys,” she said. “They took the bike out, Tom. I told them not to, but I was working in the kitchen and I didn’t hear them. Jesus, Tom, they’ve been gone for hours.”
“What do you mean, hours?”
“Hours, Tom. God, I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Call the sheriff,” I said. “The ranger station.”
“I thought they’d come right back.”
“Anne, just call.”
I remember concentrating on the road. Sheets of ice kept blowing from the trees and slapping against the windshield. In the dark of winter dusk, the night seemed to narrow in on me, and as I roared down the hills into the valley ahead it swallowed the light of my headlamps.
The police found them the next morning near the bank of the Petit Jean, and later, at the station, a bearded deputy with deep-set eyes slid the pictures from the accident report one by one across an unfinished pine desk. The Honda was on its side, bent and buried in the brush near where a washed-out trail met the water. Nate hadn’t flown far. He was twisted under the towering oak that had stopped him cold, his head snapped forward under his chest, his arms barely distinguishable from the tangle of roots at the base of the trunk.
There were no pictures of Matty. They had found him first, followed the high-pitched whining of the dogs right to him. He’d flown farther than Nate, to the water’s edge at a bend in the river. He’d shattered a kneecap and cracked two ribs in the fall, but it was the cold that would have killed him.
“Dipped into the digits last night,” said the officer who met us at the hospital. “And him laid out like that on the frozen river bank, it’s a wonder, it surely is, but when we pulled those dogs off him he wasn’t even shivering.”
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.”