He never thought he would buy hay in July. Late September, sure, if he’d been too ambitious with the number of head and too generous with the bales he paid the boys in exchange for their time and equipment. Late August, maybe–it had happened once, thirty-four years earlier when television transmitted images of steamy jungles and screaming planes dropping napalm. He had wondered if his crew, kids who hadn’t been around to bale for him, were among those zipped into standard-issue body bags by medics who didn’t look old enough to drive, much less to be collecting fingers, toes and ears to accompany bodies into coffins. He hadn’t complained when he bought a few bales. It was a small expenditure compared to what some families had paid, coaxing rabbit ear antennae into position, lips muttering as if reciting prayers.
Gerald was only into mid-July, barely past sitting up nights with a garden hose and hoping sparks from bottle rockets would not settle on the barn. A nearly empty barn, but an investment and reminder that most years he’d had enough grass for grazing and baling. Enough rain. Enough money.
The barn had survived exploding dangers from kids who also risked blowing off body parts. The season’s casualties were limited to cats–an agriculture student at Vinita High School having been arrested on cruelty charges for igniting sparklers inside the creatures’ rectums. The animals were owned by the granddaughter of a state senator, a skinny student at Oklahoma University. According to the local news program, she was home volunteering–cataloguing dead fish and turtles in the area creeks, additional victims of the drought–when she found her bloody pets biting at themselves.
The segment about the girl and her cats preceded the weather, so Gerald watched as the girl stood outside the veterinarian clinic, an aluminum building coated by dust, and explained that one cat lost a rear leg, the other its bowel control. The girl’s face looked like an aged and dirty sheet. She said she hadn’t slept in days. When the news reporter asked the girl what should happen to the accused boy, her face smoothed, like a thin lacy veil falling over her head. “I’d love the honor of personally administering the same treatment to him,” she replied.
The girl’s face left the screen and Gerald attentively listened to the weather forecast. The meteorologist concluded with remarks about history-making records and offered a few predictions. Gerald thought about the biology girl and how different she was from girls he’d grown up knowing, with round cheeks and bottoms, all smiles and hellos waiting on him in the diner or bank. He wondered why someone in college, with a politician in the family, would spend the summer in mud, collecting stinking carcasses instead of going with boys and drinking spiked punch at parties. Perhaps parties and punch had dried up. Perhaps any tears from the biology girl had dried up too, her salty reserves already spent.
The newscast ended and he turned off the television. Seated at the kitchen table, he wrote a check to the girl and addressed the envelope in care of her grandfather. She might use the money for her cats or the campaign she was starting for tougher animal cruelty laws. He signed his name, Gerald Richter, before noting the ledger total.
He then reconsidered. Bracing his stub against the forefinger of his good right hand, he gripped the dry paper. He knew all about torn body parts–how they hurt and healed and never went right–and nobody had ever sent him a check. Then he remembered the girl’s crumpled face. He felt like a desert cowboy, emptying a leaking canteen into a dead horse’s mouth.
* * *
Years of familiarity with sale barns had not smoothed Gerald’s distaste for air imbedded with dust, moldy hay, fecal matter. He stood inside the sale barn office, four walls of sheetrock jointed into a concrete floor. A rubber-coated electric line tacked to the wall powered the fluorescent lighting, a telephone, fax machine, computer and depending on the season, a fan or space heater. While his eyes adjusted to the dim interior light, the sound of engaged whirring entered his ears. He imagined a swarm of grasshoppers, another plague. He blinked and sniffed, his lungs filled with musty air and he recognized Martha’s box fan circulating dry air around the room.
Martha was apple-shaped, with dyed blond hair hanging down her back like straw. She had smeared the same lipstick on her mouth for nearly thirty years and Gerald had never decided if her makeup looked more like Pepto-Bismol or pink cake batter. Either way, he liked the looks of her mouth. The pink paste reminded Gerald of how his mother kept his bedroom the same, even after he moved out to get married. “Too early for your spring calves, Gerald,” she said.
“No calves. I’ve got four heifers.”
“You got cullers? I can put you in touch with a packer, direct. Not a lot of buyers for cullers now.” Martha was helpful to the point of the sale barn’s disadvantage because her husband owned the business. She made it known she wanted to quit the cattle auction racket, quit the smelly task of shipping giant, doped beasts to feedlots and packing plants. Martha wouldn’t enter the sale barn, telling everyone the office was the closest she came to eating beef.
“No. These aren’t for rendering.”
“Oh,” Martha said. “You’ve got their papers?”
He produced livestock records of tagging, vaccinations and inseminations. All were healthy with properly sloping hindquarters and buyers should rate their frames highly. Gerald had been careful during loading, anticipating penalties buyers assessed for bruised stock. Loading had been successful, but labored, and his good arm ached. His shoulder was out of alignment, throbbing and preventing him from turning his neck. A handicap, but not the worst one he had ever dealt with.
“Jeannette with you?” Martha asked.
“No, she didn’t make it.”
Martha flipped through the papers. She may have wanted out of the business but she wasn’t going to be closed down by the Department of Agriculture for documentation citations. She hated the government and anyone who made a career working for it. Her son–one of the boys zipped into a bag and missing body parts.
“These are stockers?” Martha’s nose twitched as if she was ridding it of a nuisance.
“Hope so. Never dropped underweight calves.” Gerald folded his good hand over the stub.
“We’ve got more stockers coming in now than usual. Could depress things a bit, you know.”
“Yep.” Gerald thought of his dry fields, brown grass cropped so low his cattle were grazing dirt.
“How’s Jeannette doing?” Martha’s head tilted downward, stamping papers to accompany the sales.
Gerald felt as though he were explaining his tardiness to the school principal, explaining how he’d checked his trot lines before school. He’d never felt right letting fish hang on the hook through the afternoon. It was a hard thing for the principal to understand and Gerald had spent many hours in detention imagining exhausted gill-hooked fish at the end of his lines.
“She’s fine. She’s driving for herself now.”
“Tough job. White-line fever.”
“She’s got the cats. She keeps busy.”
“She’s always been a good girl. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times–“
He interrupted, “I know, I know.” While Martha was clever enough to pass remarks with double-meanings, he did not believe she was cruel. Still, her comment always irked him. You don’t need a son with a daughter like Jeannette.
Gerald turned toward the dusty unloading area, recalling the red circle marking the youngest heifer’s forehead. He would rub that spot before she was unloaded. The marking ran in the line: the females had red blotches running slightly left of center on the foreheads. His wife had owned the first cow, Betty, and had named its offspring Second Betty. Gerald had tagged his cattle numerically for years but guessed he was selling the twentieth or so Betty.
“You tell Jeannette I say hello,” Martha shouted after him.
“You bet,” Gerald mumbled, then tripped. When he looked at the ground, he saw only the bleached shale driveway, nothing to explain why he had lost his balance.
* * *
Vinita had no shortage of mystery. Peculiarity swirled around the town carved out of old Indian Territory, like intermittent flashes of a bright and swinging skirt.
Vinita was host of the Spooklight, a nocturnal incarnation rumored to represent the spirit of a white married woman killed by her jealous Indian lover. Teenagers crowded into cars and sat out late near the abandoned army base where conscripts had practiced before being shipped off to Normandy. The spectators drank cheap liquor and hoped to get lucky or to glimpse the ghost their parents and grandparents claimed to have seen.
A television program devoted to supernatural phenomena visited each year to update its story about the Spooklight. Twice, cameras captured multi-colored lights swooping over trees like bright jangling keys of invisible striding giants; once, the cameras caught shining white nodules flickering from the woods. Six other visits had produced nothing television-worthy, prompting the show host’s insinuation that his viewing audience lacked sufficient faith to be granted an appearance. “It’s not about whether the Spooklight exists,” he had said, facing the camera from inside a wood-paneled studio set. “It’s really about the willingness of everyone to believe.”
The television crew was scheduled to return in early August. Dry, hot weather promised clear skies and, providing the audience possessed enough faith, an appearance of the illuminated woman. To celebrate, the state senator had organized a barbecue to precede taping, inviting elected officials, ministers and farmers to fill the crowd. “To promote tourism,” the senator announced during a radio interview. “We’ll invite the people of this great nation to see the beauty of this mystery for themselves. What’s more, I’m organizing an auction to benefit farmers so desperately in need. We’ll have old-fashioned fun and fellowship and watch for the ghost.” The state senator paused to clear his throat. “And of course, we’ll pray.”
* * *
The senator’s constituents had suffered no shortage of prayer. But after four years of less than average rainfall, those who still prayed changed the tenor of their messages. Those who still prayed cast aside Sunday School instructions of humility, demanding proof of His divinity lest their allegiances should evaporate.
Those who still prayed crowded into churches, hoping for assurances that doubts about His grace would not push them into dark canyon with the faithless, doubters who whispered drought and forsaken as they shuffled into mortgage companies and pool halls.
Each day without rain, each month of falling creek levels, each winter of spitting snow that did not stick–those units of time translated into thin lines on topographic charts depicting the drilling depth to water. The longer the passage without rain, the closer the lines were drawn, reflecting a steeper negative elevation, hidden water shrinking in two dimensions.
Whispers scattered. Extreme dryness called for divination, the witching work of old Indians and carneys. Those who had lost faith in prayer swelled the rumor that Granny Hopper would travel from the Ozarks to divine water. Witching water faithful produced faded photographs of divined wells on their grandparents’ farms, testament to fidelity of old ways.
Gerald heard talk in the coffee shop, listened to acquaintances he’d known for fifty years speak to the possibility.
“There’s nothing to lose, far as I can see,” Gerald’s neighbor confessed after a breakfast of eggs, bacon and glasses of whole milk. The men in the brown, cracked vinyl booth had liver-spotted hands and lines cutting their faces, erosion from sun and wind. “I hear her granddaughter handles things. They’ve made a business out of it.”
“You’ve got to be out of your mind,” Gerald replied, thinking of the deposit and charge per foot of drilling.
“Yep, maybe so.” The neighbor placed his hand over his coffee. He waited for the waitress to refill the other men’s cups then released his words quickly. “But that doesn’t change the fact that old man Beauchamp called her in and she showed him where he could drill and by God there was water. A hundred and thirty feet down. I’ll take that bet and be called a crazy man.”
“You would be too,” Gerald spoke loudly, “if you think some shaker can find water with a tree branch. That’s the most goddamned ignorant idea I’ve heard in a while.”
“What about Beauchamp? You telling me that they didn’t find water on his place?”
“That water would be there whether she said so or not.”
“Not saying that. Only saying it took two tries. Two tries out of two hundred plus acres and they got water. You can spend a lot more than that getting some Army Corp survey done up for you. What have you got against the idea?”
“Nothing,” Gerald replied, then modified his declaration. “No, that’s not true. What I’ve got against it is what I’ve got against anything wasting time and money. I’m against fakers.”
“You against fakers in your own family, then?” Martha’s husband asked. Gerald knew the guy’s name, but he had always figured that “Martha’s husband” described him better than any name possibly could. Martha’s husband sat among the gathered men, a reedy fellow with knotty shoulders and arms who owned the sale barn. He looked at Gerald as he poured artificial sweetener in his coffee. Ten years ago Martha’s husband had given up sugar and drinking when his liver and kidneys were put on notice by his doctor. Now he ate wheat toast, scraped fake butter across the bread slowly, a habit formed of careful deprivation.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Gerald splashed his coffee, felt it pool in the declivity of his stub. He wiped hot liquid from the arm he thought of as abbreviated instead of incomplete.
“Fakers in your family. You’re so against them, then how do you feel about fakers in your family?”
“You better tell me what you mean.”
“I’ve buried my parents and my son. It all hurt. It all set me back. And you know the one thing I learned?” Martha’s husband leaned his head forward. Light slanted across his forehead, forming patterns from the stenciled letters on the diner’s plate glass window, separating his eyes from his nose in shadows that swelled with his words. A brown trickle of hardened sounds.
“Does this have anything to do with paying crazy ladies to wave a stick in your pasture?” Gerald asked.
“No. You can say I’m a hick with no education–and you’d be right. But I’ve learned that you can get over just about anything except being stupid.”
“You haven’t answered my question.” Gerald choked, the words pinched inside his mouth.
“Never mind, Gerald, never mind.” Martha’s husband stood, waved his right hand and left the diner with quick, jerky steps.
Gerald sat quietly, hoping the gray diner walls would crumble under a deluge so he could extend his legs past the collapsed barriers and look over a current of blue water washing heat and dust away.
* * *
No one talked about Jeannette Richter unless they thought she was too far away to hear it. A woman who drove her own tractor trailer rig, she was known for favorable opinions toward Democrats and organic, free-range beef. Jeannette played loud country music when she drove around the town square, acting as though she were a teenager. She attended church but never baked or helped clean up after luncheons. She joined the men outside, talking diesel fuel prices and incompetence at weigh stations.
Jeannette was built like a tall willow tree with erect posture and long arms and legs sprouting from her torso, falling sturdily toward the ground. Her eyes were dark gray and she had always resented her parents for their failure to pass along their own clear aqua eyes.
“I’m a mutant,” she had announced while studying biology in junior high school. “My amino acids didn’t assemble right. My chromosomes are mutated in the spot that makes eye color.”
“Your amino acids didn’t assemble correctly. Or you might say properly,” Maeve Richter instructed.
“Didn’t assemble correctly?” Jeannette had stared at her mother before she turned away, muttering. “I wonder whose fault that was.”
Jeannette came into womanhood early, developing hips and breasts before other girls and growing so tall she had to stoop to board the school bus. She attributed her physical curiosities to moral turpitude at the time of her conception. “You two must have done something really bad to get me, like this,” she had asserted the night of her senior prom when Gerald presented her with a corsage. “It ain’t everyone who gets the chance to drive to the prom without a date.”
Gerald had not spoken as his wife would have, correcting Jeannette’s grammar. He employed his good hand to pin the corsage to her pink dress, his daughter’s eyes level with his own. “You had offers.”
“The two boys who work for you? Not the kind of date I want.”
Jeannette grinned, white teeth flashing between her lips. She had used her mother’s old red lipstick, Gerald noticed, and her mother’s perfume. A scent that smelled like flowers drooping with rain.
“I think you are beautiful.”
“That’s because you have to, Dad,” she replied, leaving him to scratch scabs his stub formed from friction against baling twine. He watched his daughter leave the house and wished his wife were there to apply ointment to his flesh.
* * *
The moment Gerald met the woman who would become his wife, he imagined her death, how her skin would flake and drop in slow showers, like pushing a green sycamore through a wood chipper. Guilt, a sticky poison, ran through him–but did not stop him from courting and proposing to the elementary school teacher. Maeve had grown up surrounded by ranchers and wildcatters but had never mixed with them. The daughter of a dentist and a Welcome Wagon volunteer, Maeve was meant to live in air-conditioning, drive a new car every two years and enroll sandy-haired children in Christian day school.
There was nothing on the farm for Maeve.
Gerald married her anyway, the first girl with any prettiness who overlooked the abrupt ending to his left arm and the mortgage attached to his acreage. He had not been unattractive on their wedding day, his square face stretched by a stiff smile, his thick brown hair set in a permanent wave by drugstore hair potion. His wide-set eyes swept across guests in the church pews, compressing them into the small basket of life he had planned. It was the only time he would wear a tuxedo jacket, one sleeve empty at its cuff, and his veins had pulsed with the greediness of a boy opening his birthday present.
Less than a year later, Gerald saw hay bales, bags of seed and cloying clumps of cow manure wearing down his wife. He watched her grimace at dirt on the kitchen linoleum; saw her red eyes when she returned from a trip to her parents’ three-story brick home; watched how the birth of their daughter brought only fatigue and money worries.
Rescuing Maeve would have been like relocating deep tree roots to the shifting ocean floor. Gerald could not have spared her for a return to life where fish swam in tanks and not in the live well, waiting to be filleted for dinner. So Maeve had ushered their daughter through the bleeding ritual of womanhood and then acquired colon cancer and a colostomy bag. Gerald believed if anyone had ever contracted cancer because of wishing, it was his wife. Maeve was of rigid Protestant stock for whom the only acceptable way of quitting on a family was dying.
“We consume too much flesh. That is the reason I’m sick.” In her last week, Maeve reclined against bed pillows and sipped a puree of carrots a visiting nurse had prepared. “I believe it’s a curse haunting us. The way we live rots in us. Oh, we deserve this.”
Gerald covered his stub with his good hand. The wicker chair was uncomfortable, its unwrapping straws a prickly indicators of household neglect. He would repair the chair when Maeve did not require tending, when time was free to rectify broken fixtures. Guilt settled within him, borne from anticipation of their marital mistake.
“It was eating all that meat.” Maeve had moaned and thrown her dish against the painted silver wall, a color she had chosen because she believed other colors showed too much dirt. “It is a judgment on this whole used-up land. You should eat of everything you do and then you can feel like I’m feeling.”
Maeve’s arms folded across her breasts, two flaps of skin Gerald helped her wash. She excluded her daughter from the business of dying, Gerald believed, because Jeannette was a disappointment. Maeve had decided her daughter should be denied any comfort of conscience.
Gerald’s mind turned the same thought, hundreds of revolutions in a single setting. He could gain nothing by intervening between his wife and daughter. Their burden was a smooth and deep pool that should remain untouched, lest it spill and drown all of them. He sat under the single exposed bedroom light bulb, wishing the room was large enough to accommodate two beds.
Until Maeve’s illness they had shared the bed. Afterward, he slept on the couch to avoid disturbing her. Each night, after she drifted to chemically-induced unconsciousness, he walked the fifteen feet of hallway to the living room. He drank two or three beers before pulling the quilt his mother had stitched for him across his body, reminding himself to doze lightly in the way children slept the night before Christmas, listening for noises in the house.
They developed a system for night emergencies. Maeve would place her hand on the cow bell resting on a night stand. If she was too weak to shake the clapper, she was to shove the copper casing. Her husband would run, summoned by the sound of the herder’s tool falling against the floor planks, his thudding footfalls overpowering noises of crying regrets.
* * *
As Gerald drove home from the diner, the late July sun was gathering strength. Driving over bumpy county roads made him thankful for being born on a farm and being allowed to obtain his full license at fifteen, only a few months before the baling accident. Since then, he’d had only to pass the eyesight exam to renew his driver’s license. Every three years he waited in line at the DMV to have his picture made with the empty sleeve hanging, the office workers ignoring or overlooking his impairment.
Gerald followed his long gravel driveway, past the short house and stopped in front of the stone well house. He filled five-gallon buckets with the garden hose drawing from the well, taking care not to overfill them. Grasping the handles with his good hand and bracing the bottoms of the receptacles with his stub, he shoved the buckets on the truck bed, four wide, five deep.
The old model truck handled smoothly in the packed dirt pasture tracks. Gerald closed the first aluminum gate behind him but left other gates separating his network of pastures open. He had no fields closed for growing because he needed the entire acreage for grazing. Driving past the three empty ponds, he saw cracked bottom mud, the water long evaporated. If rain returned, he would dredge the ponds to deepen capacity. If rain returned, he would dump loamy loads of soil and seed the banks with fescue and clover, inviting growth of crawling strawberry briars. He would recreate lush grounds, the pretty property that had convinced his wife to take a chance on pastoral life.
Thirty-three head followed the truck, conditioned to understand results of a passing engine: water filling the troughs, hay filling the feeders, salt and mineral blocks falling under the hickory stand. Early in the summer, Gerald had hauled watering troughs to the south pasture where the stock could rest under hickory shade. Despite the drought, the hickory trees were leafing. The oldest drew enough water to support a full presentation; the youngest sprouted more sparsely, supporting fewer branches.
Gerald stood on the tailgate, pouring water into the tanks. Cows ushered their calves to the troughs slowly, imbued with trust that each would receive sufficient watering. Located on the small stretch of ground between the trees and the south pasture fence, the troughs were shallow and long so even the smallest calves could drink. The mother of the recently sold spotted heifer dipped her head, was the first to shake and clear her nostrils. The Betty looked poor, suffering from missing green grass and fresh rainwater. Still, she had dropped a healthy male in late spring and nursed him nearly to normal weight, her udder’s bounty, no doubt, stealing flesh from her chest and haunches. When Gerald remembered, he brought carrots and scattered them, as Jeannette had done as a girl. The heifer sniffed and rolled orange vegetables into her pink lips, eyes blinking, watching him, as though Gerald might take her treats as he had done with her male offspring.
After he watered the stock, Gerald started digging post holes for his south pasture fence. He thought of boys he had hired to take Jeannette’s place, teenagers who asked for breaks from tasks she had performed without fatigue. Digging fence post holes was the hardest part of the business and he remembered how he started holes for his child, breaking through the rocky ground. At twelve, Jeannette had been strong enough to break the ground by herself. She drove the open steel jaws downward and closed the clamp, grabbing rocks, weedy roots and red earth. Lifting the digger, she emptied its contents into the wheelbarrow and dumped the rocks into a pile, insisting someday she would build a stone fence.
But Jeannette had announced a boycott of all farm activities, even bottle-feeding calves, after Maeve took to her sick bed.
“I don’t think it’s right to send them away to get killed. Raising them here is certain death.” Pushing away the white plate with yellow flowers painted in the center, Jeannette pointed to the dinner meatloaf. “This here is the product of death.”
“This here,” Maeve uttered, flatly. “It’s a disgrace that my fourteen year-old educated daughter talks like an illiterate cracker.”
“Whatever. You know what I meant. The disgrace is eating animals we raise like pets. We should give them a good kick every day, so they understand that we don’t love them, that we hate them. That way, they won’t leave this farm thinking they’ve been betrayed. They’ll get shipped to the slaughterhouse happy.”
“You’re the only beast that deserves to be kicked.” Maeve dragged the platter of meatloaf away from her daughter. “You forage for your own food from now on, or eat hay so you’ll have a better idea about what I should make this family for dinner.”
Gerald had not intervened. He understood his failings as a blind person understands imperfections of his lover’s skin, palpable markers connecting unknowable flesh tones, notions of shade and color buried inside the consciousness of a man who can only trace distances between shapes of distress. He had sat silently, estimating the cost to hire someone to help him, estimating the working hours to compensate for Jeannette’s lost labor.
Jeannette had borne blisters ripping her skin, seed ticks settling in private places, chiggers crawling up her legs. But she had not been able to adopt the farm ethic to nurture calves for slaughter. She quit working for Gerald and took a clerk’s job in the feed store. She had ridden her bicycle eight miles each way, pedaling past her pile of stones and Gerald, who would not stop working to wave.
Gerald picked through the remains of his daughter’s old stone pile and tossed rocks to shore up the new posts, finished for the day. The sun’s low rays angled into his eyes. The day’s heat was passing, but he would sweat through the night. He drank hot water from his jug but took no comfort from the liquid.
* * *
The dark was creeping from east to west when he drove to the house. Lights shone through the kitchen windows, meaning Jeannette had returned from a trip. Likely, he would find a hot supper inside. Jeannette was a decent cook but only prepared food she enjoyed: roasted vegetables and pastas, simmering fish stews, rice flavored with tiny portions of meat.
Gerald did not complain or ask for fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn bread. He knew he was thinner than he’d been in the thirty years since his wife died–mostly Jeannette’s doing. Even when she went on the road she left healthy, frozen casseroles with non-fat cheeses for her father. They consumed without commentary, never acknowledging deviation from Maeve’s kitchen habits.
Jeannette’s rig was parked to the side of the gravel driveway, considerately leaving enough space for Gerald’s truck to pass. Radio music hit his ears first, then he saw her through the open driver side door. She wore a straw cowboy hat and red tennis shoes, like those she had worn as a child, when she had washed his truck and squirted him with water from the hose.
“What’s that music? Anything good?” Her music was a curiosity to him, a sad undertaking, as if she had emptied her feelings on a river, floating for anyone to retrieve.
“It’s good,” Jeannette grunted, then seemed to relent. “It’s Hank.”
“Doesn’t sound like Hank.” Gerald listened closely for a lonesome twang in the noisy competition between the singer and the instruments.
“It’s Hank III. Grandson of Hank. He covers some of his granddaddy’s stuff.”
“Never heard of him.”
“That’s the way he likes it. He’s a rockabilly, kick-Nashville-in-its-teeth kind of guy.” Jeannette brought a cigarette to her lips, drew inward and exhaled. Smoke seeped from her mouth to join an invisible river.
A faint ammonia odor of cat urine emanated from under the bench seat that could be converted to a bed. Jeannette traveled with three cats, maybe more. The cats ate from a pink ceramic dish Maeve had used to set out fruit on a table, fruit which no one ever ate and was always discarded. Gerald imagined the cats curled in balls on Jeannette’s chest when she pulled off the road to sleep.
“Since when do you smoke?” he asked.
“I’m forty-five years old, Dad. I’m allowed to smoke.”
“Didn’t say you weren’t.”
“You didn’t have to say anything.”
“Any reason why you started now?”
“I’ve been started for a while and I only smoke one a day. It’s my indulgence. I won’t get cancer.”
“They’re your lungs.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Night smells mixed with cigarette smoke and cat litter. His daughter was wearing perfume. The scent glided past Gerald, a familiar scent with a name he could not remember or may have never known. Air and silence between them, like dark layered earth disguising pockets of water.
“I’m going to call an outfit in here to dig a well in the south forty. I can’t keep hauling water. House pump isn’t strong enough and it’s running dry.”
“I know somebody.” Jeannette snuffed her cigarette in the ash tray and slid the metal door closed. “I can make a call.”
“Outfit about ten miles south. They’ll give us a rate. I handle long runs for the owner. They’ll probably do it on installment if you need.”
“I sold four heifers–I’m not too old to manage my money.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying the owner will cut us a rate.” Jeannette stretched her arms in front of her.
“What’s this guy’s name?”
“It’s not a guy. It’s a woman.”
Gerald hesitated. “What’s this woman’s name?”
“Can you give her a call for me? Sooner the better.”
“Sure thing.” Jeannette yawned and snapped fingers on both hands. “Kitty, kitty. Time to go to bed.”
A cat’s tail appeared from under Jeannette’s seat, switching.
“How many have you got now?”
“I like being the crazy cat lady, Dad. It’s one of those clichés.”
“You hear about the girl on the news and what happened to her cats?”
“You ever worry about things out on the road? You know, a lot of those guys don’t like cats–or women.”
“I should know Dad. I’m the one who’s been driving for fifteen years.”
“Well, aren’t you worried?”
“Why do you care now? My career is not a new development. Your concern seems to be.”
“I’ve always been concerned.”
“Ok.” Jeannette switched off the radio. “I think I’ll sleep in the cab tonight, Dad. No offense.” Inside the house, her bedroom was decorated with the fading pink curtains and wallpaper Maeve had chosen.
“No, no offense. You’ll call about the drilling?”
“Said I would, didn’t I?”
“Thank you.” There was no reason for him to continue but he remembered the skinny girl, crying. “I thought you would want to know. I sold a Betty.”
“Oh.” Jeannette’s single syllable fell out of her mouth, tumbling toward him, her breath supporting smooth undertones of accusation. “Which one?”
“Not sure, I’ve been numbering them so long. Somewhere in the twenties.”
“I’m too old to change, Jeannette. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times–“
Jeannette interrupted, placing both hands against her father’s head. Her fingers were soft despite hours of clinging to a plastic steering wheel. “I know Dad. That’s what they’re for.“
Turning away from her, Gerald saw the kitchen’s light unblocked by movement or shadow. A few steps beyond his daughter’s truck, he tripped, catching himself with his good hand against hard-packed gravel. He did not know if Jeannette watched him continue, worn boot soles flapping, as he covered ground separating her from the house.
* * *
The next morning, Gerald woke with the sun burning his bald scalp. His bedroom window faced east and he thought of the years he had worked without wearing sunscreen, slowly killing his skin. Sticking his head out, the sun hit his face and he knew, without hearing the forecast, how high the day’s temperature was likely to climb.
He left the room, leaving the door open to circulate any breeze. A note lay on the kitchen counter, next to coffee pot. Jeannette wrote that she would be on a round-trip haul to Omaha but she had contacted the drilling outfit. The drillers were due to arrive on the first day of August, early in the morning. She had negotiated a good rate, she wrote, owing to “my friendship with the owner.”
Gerald was at a time in his life when he was done thinking he would ever understand people, but his resignation did not preclude curiosity. Gerald was curious about where Jeannette spent nights she was not on the road and he was curious about the people she spent them with; curious why she had gotten tattoos around each wrist, green circles with jagged points like barbed wire; curious if his daughter would miss him when he joined his severed hand in the family plot.
Using his good hand, he poured a cup of coffee, unsure why he had not heard her engine. His mind was less willing to be roused by foreign noises, he decided, either a blessing of old age or a nagging infirmity.
The previous day’s newspaper lay on the counter, open to the community events page. Red ink circled a block of text. His eyes focused, shutting out sloping fences and cattle gathered at the first gate, anxious for the truck.
The sun came through the east window. Smothering heat crept over his head and shoulders. Jeannette had written “see you there” next to a picture of the heifer to be offered at the Spooklight auction.
* * *
The first day of August, Gerald woke early, before the sun splayed color across the pasture sloping downward to his house. He drove upward toward the hickory stand, hauling two round bales he’d bought from the son of the neighbor who had wanted to hire a diviner.
“Didn’t let the old man do it,” the son had said. “He’s got this crazy idea but I told him it was a snowball’s chance, if you know what I mean.” The son admitted that during firecracker week, he had hoped his barn would burn. “I’m insured, for now,” the son had mumbled, looking at the ground. “And the insurance company’s too smart for an accident. Anyways, you’re welcome to the hay. I’m sending my old man’s head straight to Martha. It’s the best way.”
“Yes, I guess so,” Gerald had replied.
Driving in the south pasture, he noticed his three watering tanks were half-empty. The sun was level with the easternmost tree tops. Light singed his forehead and Gerald pulled his cap lower as he worked from the back of his truck, feeding the expectant cattle.
The feeders were large steel rings standing three feet off the ground with edges punctuated by iron teeth every eighteen circular inches to create a natural feeding system, requiring each heifer to make room for the others. If Gerald had help, he would have pushed the bales into the feeders. His weight was insufficient, so he raked hay into the feeders with a pitchfork, losing strands to the wind with every toss.
The wind also carried rumbling, like ghosts of cowboys moving up from Texas, slowly, to keep weight on their stock. The sounds changed, pulsing like the stamping noise of penned cattle waiting to enter the slaughterhouse. Gerald stuck his pitchfork through a bale and crouched, carefully bracing against the tailgate before allowing his feet to swing down. His good arm ached, shocked by each step across the acre of distance to the road where a steam shovel with a drilling bit sat on top of a tractor trailer rig.
“Mr. Richter, I’m Sheila Lundy. Jeannette tells me you need some water.” The woman extended her right hand over the barbed wire. Behind her, another woman sat in the driver’s seat of the red double-cab rig. Still kicking up dust, a black sedan idled by the ditch.
He wiped his hand as best he could against his overalls before offering it to the tiny woman. “Nice to meet you ma’am. You should call me Gerald.”
“There’s no need to worry about things like that with me.” She gripped his hand tightly then pointed to her laced work boots. “I plan on getting dirty myself.”
Sheila Lundy looked like a hundred-pound yellow bird, her short blonde hair cut into bangs covering her forehead. As she talked, her neck swiveled, affording her blinking eyes a complete view of the pasture. She seemed to be counting the head, assessing the scope of Gerald’s operation.
“We need to cut your fence here, take out a couple of posts. Can’t get the rig through that gate near the house.” Sheila had a roll of paper tucked under her right arm. It bulged with muscles exposed by her white tank top.
“That a map of my farm?”
“Yep. We already did a title search. Gerald, you should be satisfied to know you possess rightful deed to this land. With your authorization, I can drill on it. We also verified there are no other wells out here,” the woman pointed to the open pasture, “that anyone knows about.”
“You mind me asking, Sheila, how much this will cost me?” Memories of his previous exertion floated past. They were going to take out the new posts, erasing his labor like swells covering muddy footprints.
“I’m waiving the deposit, so assuming we get to one hundred feet and hit nothing–and you want to stop–then I’m out a day’s work and gas and you don’t owe me anything. After a hundred feet, it’s twenty bucks per foot, including the first hundred feet, plus parts. Steel pipe, drill bits, tubing. And anything else we need. I’ve got my own survey system, but you’re free to pay for someone to come here to give you the best idea where to drill. Of course, that’s going to cost you, oh, probably six weeks of time. Those guys keep busy.”
The black car’s engine shut off and a woman who looked as though she could be Sheila’s daughter emerged from the driver’s door. The rig’s driver also emerged, climbing onto the trailer to unhook steel cables holding the equipment in place. Next to steel tubes buckled to the trailer, the female driver looked like a feathery wisp that might be taken aloft and set down under mountains where no wind could pass.
“Gerald, one more thing and it’s a little delicate.”
Sheila placed her hand on Gerald’s good arm. Her skin was smooth and he wondered how women with rough jobs, women who might drive tanks or lug ammunition belts if needed, kept skin so smooth. He wished for Maeve, wished to clasp her hands because he could not remember how his dead wife’s skin had felt against his own. If she had been soft and yielding after baking pies and grilling steaks. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Now if my crew was a bunch of guys, I’d never ask, but–“
Gerald interrupted, “I’ll help carry the heavy stuff. I see you ladies don’t have a man here.”
“No, you misunderstand me.” Sheila laughed, pointing to the sedan. A hunched woman relying on a cane emerged, lifting her feet carefully as she stepped across the ditch. A bent piece of metal stowed in the old woman’s free left hand flickered. “What I need to ask you is, since things with us are a little different, if we might be allowed to use your house facilities.”
“Of course,” Gerald nodded, twisting his good hand over the stub. “Of course. Just don’t mind the place. I’m a widower, you know.”
“I know,” Sheila said, placing her smooth hand over his left arm’s ending. A blue vein popped from her wrist, hidden life revealed by her motion. “I know.”
* * *
The morning after the drilling crew arrived, Gerald discovered a pain in his lower left back he could not massage with his stub. He could only press the stub into the sore spot, angry with limitations he usually forgot.
The sun came through the window directly, indicating he had slept late. His good hand throbbed, connecting with his back pain. Shuffling to the bathroom, he extracted three tablets of aspirin from a container the pharmacy clerk had opened for him. He splashed water on his face, shutting his eyes to avoid the mirror. He knew stubble sprouted from his nose and ears, the sort of hair he had laughed at on old men when he hadn’t been one. Noise from the drilling hummed through the open window, the cadence dipping and rising with changing gears, reminding him of the foolishness he had allowed on his property.
He clumsily fastened both straps of his overalls and fumbled to locate a clean white shirt from the pile inside the wooden wardrobe his father had helped him carry inside nearly fifty years earlier. Even then, with his youth and strong muscles, he’d needed help with bulky pieces and was never comfortable asking anyone outside of family to assist him without offering payment. The wardrobe, along with everything else in the house would be sold, he assumed, when Jeannette was ready. Gerald guessed she would tidy the small rooms and then offer the keys to a realtor, glad to be rid of one more impairment.
Opening the bedroom door, smells of coffee and toasting bread reached him, repudiating Maeve’s breakfasts, all steak and eggs, sausages and fried potatoes. His wife would stand in the kitchen, switching her head from side to side, reluctantly inhabiting the farmhouse even when she was alive. Perhaps, he thought, Maeve had become a ghost, a spirit warning Jeannette away in whispers. It would explain his daughter’s absence, her stretches of solitude and careful attention to privacy, as if she were responsible for hiding a treasure.
Reaching the kitchen, he squinted. Heat sucked moisture from his lips, forming canals in his cracked skin. “You never told me they was going to be witching for water.” Gerald extended his stub. He had never gotten out of the habit of pointing with missing fingers.
“Good morning, Dad, I missed you too. I’m glad to be safely back home.” Jeannette ripped the plastic seal on a bag of cat food and poured contents into the pink dish. Cats skittered across the floor. “I’m feeling fine. Hope you can say the same.”
“What about this witching? What about the damn crazy women I got running around outside?” Lowering his arm hurt. Movement hurt, stretching his tolerance.
“What about them?” Jeannette’s wrist flicked, snapped a dish towel and then wiped crumbs from the countertop into her left palm encircled by long, cupped fingers.
“Don’t play stupid with me. I’m too old for that.” Gerald sat, heavily, in his seat at the kitchen table. He looked past the fence line, sighting the rig that appeared opposite cattle hunkered in the shadeless north pasture.
“You don’t like them?”
“I like them fine. They would probably bake great pies. But I got a ninety year-old Granny out there shaking a stick around and I’m paying for it!” His daughter set a mug of coffee in front of him and he reached for it. Under the table, he felt one of the cats rub against his legs, shocking him with static sparks. The animal ran from him, disappearing down the hallway.
“You don’t pay until they hit one hundred feet and chances are you strike water way before then.”
“We hit a hundred and nineteen yesterday. Of course, Granny tells me she’s feeling it.” Gerald raised his cup but a spasm shook his hand and the liquid spilled over his wrist, bubbling into his skin. “Damn it! Granny says she’s feeling as good as she’s ever felt before about finding water.”
His daughter swiped the white towel, blotting it wet and brown. “She’s Sheila’s grandmother. The other one’s Sheila’s sister.” She paused, twisting the towel. “The young one’s Sheila’s daughter.”
“You didn’t have to tell me that. They’re all birds out of the same loony bin.”
“You didn’t have to keep them. They would have left, you wouldn’t have owed anything.”
“That’s true, except I need the water. Bad. The pump’s about gone and when it goes, I’ve got thirty-three dead cattle. I can’t risk sending them girls away.”
“What did Sheila say?”
“She told me how far she got and that they’d be back this morning.”
Gerald stood up, pointing to the newspaper, still open to the heifer’s picture. “You going tonight?” he asked.
“Maybe.” Jeannette’s eyelids dropped, partially obscuring her pupils.
“I’m going. I want to see what kind of trick they plan on pulling.”
“You took me there all the time when I was a kid. I know you said you saw it.”
“I never saw it.” The sounds from his throat felt like moments sliding out of him, escaping his failing grip on time. Opportunities, dried and blighted leaves, were sliding past, disappearing into cracked kitchen tiles.
“You said Mom saw it too.”
“I courted your mother there. We never saw it. Except maybe once and it might have been someone’s headlights or someone playing a joke with a flashlight.” More memories slid past, white night lights, his daughter’s dark hair in pigtails and wide gray eyes, her pink elbows braced on the dashboard as she strained to see through the windshield. Colors seeped out, emptying him. Brown and gray work of pitching hay, stepping through cow manure and scraping dead fungus from the empty water tank appeared. Sweat seeped out too, the sun sucking his skin’s moisture, like a greedy baby working a bottle’s nipple. Pain sprouted from the knotted black seed in his back and spread up his spine.
“Dad, please, for a minute.” Jeannette’s tall form sank to the kitchen table, her head bending. “I want to know what it was like. The divination. I’ve never seen one.”
“I wouldn’t expect you would care.”
“What was it like? Sheila has never let me see one . . .”
Dead earth swirled in the kitchen, illuminated by a backdrop of red and gold light. Gerald saw patterns, squares and triangles assemble and then, blown by the energy of movement, disengage. Topsoil had blown all summer, coating furniture and floors with a translucent coat that, although delicate, reproduced and reappeared within hours of being chased by a dust rag or mop. Topsoil that had once kept cattle in tall, green grass and sweet-smelling hay settled in his house, a nuisance to be swept away.
Gray soil had dusted the old woman after her flashing wire cutters clipped a wide swath in the fence. She walked through the opening, assisted only by her forked wooden cane. When the south wind gained force, dirt under the hickory stand rose up, bearing down on the figure with white tufts of hair sticking from beneath a white hat. Dressed in a yellow sleeveless shift, she had not stopped walking through the dirt storm. Gerald reached her, offered his good arm to the figure with crooked shoulders and fingers curled against her palms, common disfigurements of arthritis. Shrugging him away, the woman had tilted her head, smiled and revealed two perfect rows of teeth and green eyes the color of trout teeming in a year of plentiful rain.
“I’m here to find your water.” The old woman pushed each sound as though the heat of words burned the fleshy meat of her mouth. “I’d be grateful if you moved those cattle so we can work undisturbed.” She had turned, bending each leg above dead weeds, keeping time with the wind’s trajectory. She pushed against her cane, driving the forked wooden stick into soil. Every three steps she created a new hole, punctuating the hill with a trail of tiny dots. From the north pasture, Gerald had raked hay from the truck. He paused when his arm tired and stared at the women setting up equipment on the hill top. The old woman’s dress flapped, like a flag caught in a gale.
“Dad, what was it like?”
The pause of Jeannette’s breaths fell inside his ear, her exhaled curiosity tumbled past his lungs to his belly, where it burned and twisted. He lost patterns in the light. The sun had shifted, pitching shadow across daughter’s eyes.
“I spent the rest of the day moving cattle. I didn’t see what she did.”
“Oh. I thought you might have been curious.”
“No. Wasn’t curious.” Gerald had hauled an empty tank to the north pasture. He had only been able to fill the tank halfway. The pump whined and afraid of blowing it out, he had shut it down. “No more curious than I am about a stupid ghost.” The water would last only through the day.
“I’m going to town today, do some errands and then I’m going out there. Maybe I can give them a hand.” Jeannette rose. “Maybe I’ll see you tonight.”
Two steps from the door, she turned and, though her body was competent and lean in her denim jeans and short-sleeved blouse, Gerald saw lines cut into her cheeks and around her eyes. Her lips tightened, twitching as though she might speak. The door to the kitchen opened and he saw her truck. Unhitched from its trailer, the rig could be easily turned to navigate the tight corner separating Gerald’s driveway from the main road.
“Jeannette,” he held his arms apart, reopening the throb of messages carried to cavities of his brain. “Jeannette, I’ll see you tonight,” he called after her, listening for the departing engine.
* * *
Spooklight sightings traditionally occurred an hour after dusk, when lower light provided more favorable viewing conditions. Sometimes, the ghost walked over dark patches of velvet sky picking her way through invisible molecules, climbing astral steps. Sometimes, she tumbled toward the ground like an adolescent gymnast. No one could predict how the ghost would reveal herself, but old-timers, grandsons of land rushers and fence-cutting ranchers claimed she would always come back.
When Gerald arrived, the fiddle and banjo were rolling, greeting him as his truck bounced against the unpaved road. The notes swooped, settling in his ears before giving over to the next chords of mountain music and three-part harmony. The Chamber of Commerce had raised a plastic, printed banner above the stage, welcoming the television show back to Vinita. A cherry-wood podium had been erected on the stage and the state senator was seated at a small table behind it. The senator’s face appeared on a large screen supported by metal scaffolding. The senator smiled and nodded as one of his constituents was interviewed.
“She likes music,” a bearded fiddler said to a reporter holding a microphone, “and my Granddad used to tell me how he’d ride his mule out here before there was a road or a fort and he’d sit and blow on his harmonica and watch her dance.”
“Why do you think the ghost has returned here for so many years?” the blond man with the microphone asked, pronouncing words energetically, without skipping syllables.
“Because it’s the only thing she knows. The ghost don’t know this place is done with her. So she stays, keeps on haunting the only place she knows how to haunt.”
“Thank you. Well, if she doesn’t make an appearance tonight, it certainly isn’t because of the quality of music.” The newsman finished and twisted his lips into a crooked line. “Now, stay tuned for tomorrow’s weather forecast.”
Women crowded around tables filled with coleslaw, pickles, potato chips and baked beans, scooping food onto donated plastic plates bearing a superstore’s logo. Children stretched across tables to select hot dogs, hamburgers or ribs from hot platters. The women’s auxiliary group members dipped large plastic cups into coolers of ice, offering soft drinks and juices. Twenty yards behind the group, next to the tree line, young and middle-aged men had gathered around a keg, tilting cups to cut through foam. Two sheriff’s deputies assigned to the event overlooked the alcohol, acknowledged the county commissioners and judges in the group.
Around the smoking roasting pit, men wearing tall white chefs hats and greasy aprons took turns carving the roasting pig. Crisp skin harboring white flesh fell away from the skeleton. The pig’s nose, ears and the eye sockets remained intact, although the pig’s head had been severed from the body and rested on a side table, its exposed throat steaming in the air.
Gerald passed the barbecuing men, shaking his head at a plate of steaming meat. Heat and smoke drifted, settled in his ears and eyes and he coughed, moving as quickly as his body would allow. Pain navigated the concavity of his back, circling his torso to rest in his chest.
“Oh, I’ll take two,” he replied, extending his hand to the man pumping the keg.
“It’s been that kind off day, right?” The man pouring beer was young, no older, perhaps, than twenty-five, both hands unscarred with clean fingernails.
“Suppose so,” Gerald said, bracing one plastic cup in the crook of his stub, holding the other in his good hand and drinking from it in long swallows. The spotted heifer was staked ten feet from the smoking pit. He drank two beers then extended his stub and good hand for two more.
Gerald recognized the girl scratching the Betty’s ears. The biology girl, skinny as she had looked on television, held a blue cooler to the animal’s mouth as it drank. The girl was like a walking stick disguised by the thin wood of a young tree. She matched the animal’s curved lines and markings with her beige skin and brownish hair disappearing behind her head. The cow’s red spot was bright, like the last spit of a roadside flare, a small spark lingering improbably, for too long and across too much distance. Gerald walked past the heifer but the skinny girl did not notice him. He remembered the difficulty of ripping her check in half with only one hand–dexterity had eluded him. Instead he had crumpled the draft and tossed it into the trash.
Past the Betty’s stake, plastic carts were filled with metal lighting poles and tripods. Young people wearing plastic identification cards clipped to chains around their necks unloaded the items, positioning some lights against concrete blocks remaining from the foundation of the army fort. Other lights were placed closer to the tree line, to illuminate the crowd’s reaction should the ghost appear above the heads of those finishing barbecue suppers on picnic blankets. Speakers stacked on the stage broadcast music but Gerald guessed the microphone hanging from the scaffolding was for the auctioneer.
Martha sat at picnic table in front of the stage, hunched over a slice of apple pie. Gerald sat next to her, swallowing the last of his beer.
“Here, you can have mine.” Martha slid her plastic cup toward him. “I have a six pack under the table. I’m not on the wagon, like some people. I can have fun.”
Gerald laughed, lifting the cup to his lips, thinking how Maeve had only met Martha twice. Maeve had disliked Martha’s tight pink skirts and high-heeled shoes.
“Any particular reason you picked one of mine to donate?”
Martha’s face was shadowed, the lines of age forgiven in the quiet pause between day and night. “She’s the prettiest . . . it was a shame to send her to the packers.”
“They weren’t cullers, Martha.”
She exhaled, a long wisp from accumulated disappointments. “We got no other bids. Guess you didn’t look at the paperwork I sent you.”
“Your check was for too much then.”
She said nothing, jerking her head at the men gathered around the keg. Her husband stood there, sipping from a bottle of water.
“I made him. I liked the looks of that heifer.”
“It’s not right.” The insinuation of his need crept through him, digging rivulets in his forehead.
“I’ve seen too much of it, this summer, every summer. Haven’t you seen too much?” Martha reached under the table. Her hands reappeared, each holding a can of beer.
“That’s what they’re for.” Crowd members ambled, leaving each other laughing and insulted, tired and hopeful, young propositioning young, the old reaching to each other, scratching the tired, rough surface of habitual apprehension. Tightness twisted in his chest but the pain smoothed, flattening with each drink.
“I don’t mean that. What I mean is that it’s wrong to keep doing what we’re doing when it’s not good for any of us. The land’s dried up and we keep on going, pushing it. What are we going to do?”
Martha finished her beer, then produced a flask. They passed it between them, leaning into each other and the thud disappeared from Gerald’s chest. People in the crowd reclined on blankets spread across dead grass. The minister on stage asked for prayer. Gerald did not close his eyes or move his lips. He stared at the heifer and girl, fifty feet from his table. Behind them the sun tucked under the arm of the horizon, emitting a final flash. Gerald knew the red spot on the animal shone in relief of the retreating sun. The blazing dot multiplied, bursting like sparks. His heart beat quickly and he tried to push back the swell threatening his balance.
He did not hear the prayer end but felt Martha’s hand, pushing his head toward the television monitor. The senator thanked the sale barn for donating the unusually marked heifer but the voice was muted, as if Gerald’s ears had smuggled the words to ricochet inside his chest. He clutched his good arm across his torso. Martha leaned toward him, her eyes wrinkled and a small black cavity formed from concern separated her lips. Men held their fingers up, bidding in five dollar increments. This was not, Gerald understood, an auction like those at the sale barn, measured in cents per pound, and the notion people were bidding on a Betty too poor, even, for the packers, made him laugh. He knew men and women were staring, shaking their heads, blaming his plastic cup and Martha with her smeared pink lipstick. He laughed so long and loud that bidding stopped. The senator’s stern chin was replaced on the screen by his granddaughter holding a sign in front of her thin body. Large letters, formed by running splotches, read Animals are Your Neighbors. Love Them as You Love Yourselves.
The girl’s body incorporated the breadth of the camera but in a few sliding moments a camera operator opened the lens. She and her grandfather’s image were cast opposite each other, unmoving except for their lips. Hers, quivering and glowing with a faint pink sheen, chewed and bruised. His, tight and unrelenting, tucked inside his mouth as if he was devouring them. They shared this pause with the crowd, the intimacy of common disappointments. There was no relenting between them. The auction continued with the girl’s white face disappearing from the screen, confrontation pushed aside by breaths of resumed bidding.
And Gerald knew if he could summon water from the sky, an indulgence of gods or ghosts who walked the heavens, he would stand in the floodplain, to have dry dust coating his heart consumed by roaring water. He would throw his arms around the skinny girl and give her the keys to his house, tell her to occupy his bereft land and he would wave to her as the water bore him away, filling his lungs with promises of numbing relief in the mouth of an estuary. The river would carry him south, overpowering low-built bridges until he would find rest in the meeting of river mud and coral sand.
Laughter flowed again from the rumble of Gerald’s stomach and his shoulders shook, heaving painfully. His torso doubled, he fell from the bench, feeling sharp pressure against his knees. Hands surrounded him, touched him, and he knew Martha’s arms wrapped around his chest. Her hands clasped his shoulders to the warm small spot of her heart.
Gerald vomited under the table, releasing a flood of sour mash on the packed earth. He stood, grasped his stub and walked away from the stage. The noises receded and faces were blank and fixed, tracking the walking incarnation of an old man. They saw a spirit of ritual suffering rising, repetition of fattening and bloodletting collapsing. Instability of the earth, fickle bounty of the land floated, beyond the reach of the price per pound of flesh and he knew their fear was honest, driving them across barren lands from misplaced trust, misplaced faith. His chest tightened. He walked away, lifting his eyes when he recognized Jeannette’s red sneakers. Her hands were raised in bidding, signaling against men and women. She, like the others, stood aside for the exodus of the limping man, his face reflected in broken light.
Moments slid past Gerald. Pain crawled to his skull. Bidding continued. The girl’s sign was raised high and the Betty shuffled, agitated by her caretaker’s absence. The skinny girl’s fingers pierced the air, signaling her bid and Gerald stumbled past the thin flesh, speculating what sum of money a twenty year-old girl possessed to bid on a poor heifer, what treasures she held in her chest. A man raised his hand and nodded. The girl’s head shook and she lowered her arm. Jeannette raised both hands, indicating her commitment but the man nodded again, keeping his hands high. There were no counter bids and the girls’ arms and Jeannette’s arms tumbled, relinquishing their claims to gravity.
Gerald crossed the dirt road, hearing applause and the senator’s voice. Bracing his stub against the truck, he struggled for balance, struggled to anchor himself to familiar objects. He strained against the thrust emanating from the ground, a push on his slight flesh that might send him aloft.
Beside his truck, Jeannette stood with her arms crossed and her feet anchored apart, appearing impenetrable to erosion or wind. White light swirled over the tree tops, enlarged, engorging on spectators’ shrills. Gerald looked to his daughter’s face, dark in front of the moon’s silver outline. If she saw the ghost she did not acknowledge it and his head fell against her chest, pain driving holes through him, loosening his claim on infertile earth.
His head tilted to catch a lift of wind, his tears caught in the moving atmosphere’s course. Blinded by crying, by a sting of silent professions, he climbed into his pickup, ignoring exaltations from people he had passed by.
* * *
Noise from the third day of drilling woke him; the clock on the nightstand read 11:30, later than he had slept since the day after Maeve’s funeral, when he had been unwilling to rise from the cocoon of unconscious relief.
He moved his head, testing for a hangover. Angry nerves confirmed his punishment, his tongue felt like a dirty sock and pressure pulsed in his skull and chest. Remembering the girl’s white face, her small round mouth, Gerald ran to the toilet, releasing the night’s mistakes. He skipped a shower, thinking of the groaning pump and instead, ran a small towel under the faucet, wiping necessary places of his body.
Wheat toast rested on a white plate next to the pot of coffee. It was too hot, he thought, to drink bitter liquid and his stomach would not cooperate. He found a note from Sheila written with strange block letters, as if she were trying to disguise her handwriting. The crew had reached two hundred feet the night before. If you want to stop let us know. The note had been signed at six a.m. and he had no memory of being roused by sounds of women entering his house. The continuing failure of his faculties frightened him.
The rig hummed and cattle strained against the fence separating them from the shade. There would be no water left in the tank. How long could they last in the heat, he wondered, until they fell on their sides, tongues distended and swollen, eyes bulging and infested with flies? How long would they all last, he wondered, and retched over the kitchen sink, feeling his body shake.
His body resisted the walk to the south pasture. Gerald watched the terrain, staring inches ahead for dangerous footing like a pioneer exploring a new country without benefit of compass or chart. Moving his body across the earth slowly, he knew there could be no other pace toward the hill where they drilled. The land had its own pace, calibrated to rhythms unseen and buried, circulating air and water at secret tempos as unpredictable as when the bounty would cease to nourish dependent, palpitating recipients.
He climbed halfway up the hill, carefully, because the contractions of breathing hurt his chest. Oxygen, he thought, was becoming scarce. Only the impenetrable pile of stones and hickory trees, indomitable after years of drought, would continue unharmed. Those trees would grow toward the sky, he imagined, spreading branches and reproducing until the entire pasture was shaded, the sun blocked from its exertions against the land.
Nestled halfway up the swell, the drill churned and throttled past layers of earth compressed by millions of tons of glacial weight. The continent had once been a frozen arctic mass not beholden to winds or sun but sealed and protected by solid, pure water. The woman operating the drill raised one hand, confident in her ability to control the machine with the other. Three fingers appeared, acknowledging him, and then resumed guiding and prompting gauges.
Jeannette stood next to Sheila. Jeannette was smiling, her lips slightly open and her fingers bracing the blond woman as though Sheila were a bird on one of her branches. Jeannette wore white cotton slacks cropped close below her knees and a pale shirt with an oval cut below her throat. The sleeves of her blouse puffed with each gust of hot air. Her cheeks were white, she had protected her skin from the sun and the paleness of his daughter’s flesh reminded him of white starlight, unaccompanied by the moon’s illumination. She was tall enough, he thought, to sway like a tree in the wind, but her constitution was too stiff, unyielding.
“What do you expect for today?” Gerald’s voice came to him slowly, dredged from places hidden from his tongue. Jeannette’s hand slid to Sheila’s elbow and he saw pale, blond hairs, like tufts of baby grass sprouting from the smaller woman’s pores. The old woman stood ten feet away at the top of the hill, leaning against her cane and clutching a sprig of freshly plucked hickory leaves. The lines trespassing the leaves’ surfaces were slick and glistening.
Sheila answered, though Gerald had been looking to Jeannette. “Little past three hundred feet now. If we don’t hit water, we’ll get to four hundred before the day is over. Assuming we don’t break down.”
“And if you don’t hit water?
“Then we keep going or call it off. Your choice.”
“We’ll keep going.” Jeannette’s voice intervened, squeezing Sheila’s hand. “I’m taking responsibility, Dad. Sheila can keep going.”
“What if I don’t want to keep going? I think it’s time to stop, time to send all those stupid, skinny cows to slaughter. Make some dog food anyway.”
“It’s not just your decision.” Jeannette swept her arm above her, creating an arch above her head, a perfect and airy gateway to the sagging fence row behind her. “You’ve been hanging on here too long and I’ve had to hang on here too.”
“Sometimes,” he said, more harshly than he intended, raspy on air that he should have conserved. “You hang around sometimes.”
“That gives you no right.”
“My rights have got nothing to do with living here, Dad.”
Pressure, like anticipation, bulged, then escaped his mouth and nose, leaking blood and spit to dry, grasping wind. Like the single time he had worn a formal jacket and tiny black tie, he wished to be invisible, so the woman walking toward him could not see his weaknesses. Jeannette offered him a small towel but he waved it away with his stub, flinching at the sight of his crippled arm. Noises from drilling continued, the sun’s heat continued. Cattle pressed against the fence, straining for relief. Gerald’s heart skipped, jarring organs he had manipulated without thought for when he might be called to account for their care. “You have it your way. See how you like hauling off thirty thousand pounds of dead carcass.”
“I’ll take responsibility for that.” Jeannette’s hands clenched, unclasped and then opened, relaxing the muscles of her palms. “You don’t have to worry.”
Walking toward the old woman cost Gerald. His breathing attenuated, his legs responded reluctantly. He wanted to kneel, to brace his stub against the earth and hold his good hand to his heart to test for fidelity. But knowledge that flesh more frail than his own occupied the highest point of his property pushed him on. Less than a foot separated him from the old woman before he paused, retaking energy lost to the rising land.
“This how you run your business, taking orders from someone that don’t own the place? That’s what I want to know. I don’t tell people how to run their business.” His breath broke over the words, but he continued. “I may look like an old man to those women, maybe I look like a cripple, but it hasn’t kept me from running this place for longer than they’ve been alive. Your crew down there is acting without my permission.”
“Mr. Richter, don’t you want water?” The leaves in the old woman’s hands twirled, catching light like batons in the hands of adolescents. “Or maybe there is something else bothering you?”
“There’s nothing I can’t do with this.” Gerald held his stub out to her, brushing leaves tangled in her fingers.
“Our infirmities are not always obvious,” the old woman answered. The fresh leaves cast a green hue against her skin, green shadows flitted from the recently broken foliage, green shadows darting on her hands, her face, against the white scarf covering her head. The bright, fresh light hurt Gerald’s eyes. He blinked like a small boy searching the current’s surface for red-spotted bobbers indicating where the catch would be suspended, caught under cold fresh water carrying five-point leaves away from weeping green branches.
The sun would not relent and he turned his back to the woman and walked down the hill to the pile of stones culled from his land’s interior. The stone pile, nearly his own height, cast no shadow at the high hour, offered no respite but Gerald squatted and braced his back against it. He breathed dead soil and thought he should cross the few acres to the north pasture, where his stock was thirsting, some already capsized to the ground, others standing stoic and ignorant of the capriciousness of bounty but ignorant, also, of the long grip of despair. The old woman walked toward the stand of trees surrounding the crown of the swell. She did not totter with an old woman’s pace but extended her legs from under her white dress purposefully, as though she were a bride inspecting her property. Though he was too far to see, he knew the blue veins on her legs were popping, stretching the elasticity of that ancient skin, and that deep rivulets cut her face, marking to hidden depths. But these signs of her decades were hidden from him by distance and his own failing eyesight.
Heat shimmered in waves, rising off the road and from the piled stones. Waves crossed his face and he tried to lift his hands, to signal that he was being carried away. Gerald’s tongue swelled, his face burned and the cattle strained against the flimsy fence of his creation. His body lay under the sun, surrendering its moisture.
* * *
Gerald did not feel himself rise, as he had always believed he would when his time came. He had expected his old flesh to fall from his skeleton, cast-off detritus of human foibles. Instead, his lungs compressed and in the collapse, the earth unwrapped like a ball of dry brown yarn, rolling toward his flat and fixed body.
From his prone perspective, the ground heaved as though an army of low-sighted moles were tunneling, pushing the earth upward, rising to meet the sun with pointed, blind faces, shredding their burials. His perspective widened and more ground turned upward. Thick layers of dirt separating him from the planet’s belly were flung outward, roots and rocks, volcanic fires and glowing elements careened into the vacuum of space. Deep water too, a hidden beauty, streamed away from the flat earth in a fury of blue and white waves, dissipating energy gathered from the sea.
There was no air, no gravity left to the flat world. His lungs, involuntary bellows, squeezed and his dusty body slid through empty riverbeds. Heat choked him and ridges and clefts formed in the flesh of his mouth, hardening and drying, convincing him the end of all things was reunion with heat from creation, low fires from the belly of birth.
The sun subsided, a reprieve for the heat-cracked topography. Gerald recognized his daughter’s shadow, her body blocking the sun. The shadow knelt and he felt his head raised from its nest against the rocks. A soft, wet cloth traveled across his forehead and the buttons of his shirt loosened, rushing air traveled across his throat and chest, ghostly white fingers tickled his flesh. The outline of Jeannette’s right arm curled around his body and she held a hollow yellow gourd, like an oversized fruit plucked from a flowering vine. Drilling noise subsided, the earth stopped sliding and he occupied moments of quiet recognition, forgiveness spread across the mouths of stern faced women, their eyes pouring rivers to irrigate seared, needy flesh.
“Drink from this,” Jeannette whispered. “We’ve broken through.”