Authors: Matthew F Jones
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #FIC031000
“Moira know you’re here?” says John.
“Why don’t you ask her?”
“Do that, John. When you give Moira her bag of goodies, ask her if she knows Obie—that’s short for Obadiah—Cornish—that’s like the hen!” He sticks out a hand, which John doesn’t take. “No shit, John, we might actually be acquainted, seeing as how a number a’ years back old Obie Cornish spent many a day busting his ass for peanuts around and about that old mountain you’re on. Though I’ve moved on to a more lucrative line of work, I’ll never forget those days, or that terrain. Jesus Christ, steeper than a hard-on, it was!” He pulls back his hand, places it onto the butt of his pistol. “Yup. Back in town after a lot of years, only to find out not much has changed, ’cept I understand you and yours had a string of bad luck. Money must be pretty tight these days, huh, John?”
“I don’t recognize you from a clump of cow shit,” says John.
The man laughs.
John walks past him into the kitchen, then over to the front door, his feet crunching against the broken glass. In the bedroom, the woman, in a low, throaty voice, starts singing a lullaby.
John opens the door and steps into the night, quieter even
than when he’d stepped out half an hour before. “What about the bag, John?” asks the man. “Ain’t you gonna leave the bag?”
John doesn’t answer.
Descending the stairs, he has an odd feeling the man was never there. At the same time, he worries about being shot in the back. He glances in the bag and sees the meat and, beneath it, three rolls of cash, just as there had been.
The same dog starts barking again. This time, though, no one tells it to stop. A light breeze rustles the spruce trees; higher up, thin clouds blow across the moon. A pickup truck peels out from in front of the liquor store. John uses his key to open Moira’s car, then carefully wedges the bag beneath the accelerator, where Moira will be sure to find it.
N THE BACK
of the dead girl’s neck, at the base of her skull, is a star-shaped birthmark. Had he seen it when he first discovered her, prior to turning her over? Couldn’t be! She had a ponytail and was wearing a hat. The rest of the time, she lay on her back. So how does he know it’s there?
Her breasts are milky-colored and large, the consistency of a soft pudding, more those of a mature woman than of a teenager; their centers are blood-red bull’s-eyes with cuspate nipples that, when sucked on, pop up like bulbs. He had not! When had he?
She has the hard, muscular calves of an athlete. A bike rider maybe. Or a field-hockey player. Her left knee, marred by a four-inch butterfly scar like that on his own right elbow, has been surgically repaired. The tissue is raised and slightly swollen, as if the operation was recent. Impossible for him to know! He certainly hadn’t removed her jeans! Why, then, does he recall the smooth, lacquered feel of her thighs? Her neatly manicured pubic bush, emanating the smell of apple-essence shampoo? The wet, musky taste of her?
In his sleep, John thrashes out with an arm, pushes open the truck door, and, with several empty beer cans and a schnapps bottle, tumbles onto the dew-covered grass surrounding the trailer, now convinced that his crime is more atrocious, even, than murder. His head hurts. His vision is blurry, though clear enough to see that the truck sits in the center of his unmowed lawn, a few feet from the trailer’s front door. He has no memory of parking it there. He can’t recall driving it home.
A damp, dew-marred morning breathes an earthen, fresh smell, slightly tempered by the odor of just-spread cow shit. Sitting like a pillow on the valley, fog obliterates the world past a hundred yards. Nobies’ electric barn cleaner drones beneath the bone-white canopy. Their yellow, toothless hound howls. John wonders if following his discovery of the dead girl he went into a trance-like state during which he committed horrendous, unforgivable acts he can’t consciously recall. The thought is nearly unbearable. He picks up the schnapps bottle and knocks himself over the head with it. The bottle’s refusal to break infuriates him. He flings it at the pond. The splash starts the frogs croaking. Two ducks lift off.
Drinking coffee later at the kitchen table, he consciously summons her face and finds it lacking in particularities, those individual nuances that make a person unique. This strikes him as being as sad almost as her death itself. He feels intimate with her, a closeness beyond his ability to understand. A familiarity that has nothing to do with sex. The coffee tastes bitter to him. He throws it out and opens his first beer of the day. He picks up a deck of cards, aimlessly shuffles them,
starts playing solitaire. At the very least, he thinks, he owes her loyalty, which requires that in his memory she be forever preserved as the person she truly was and not as he dreams her. The implications of this are muddled and horrible.
The phone rings six times and stops.
The deck screen door creaks open. Something enters. The door bangs shut. Mutt, the three-colored stray that lives at John’s when it feels like it, shoves its wet nose in his lap. “Where you been, Mutt?”
Mutt wags its tail.
John stands up, walks to the refrigerator, pulls out leftover spaghetti, dumps it with milk in Mutt’s bowl. Mutt greedily gulps the food. Idly scratching the dog’s burr-impacted neck, John gazes down the valley at the slowly rising fog while mentally trying to reconstruct the previous evening, which in response to his thoughts roils like a quagmire of ambiguities. He remembers Obadiah Cornish openly referring to John’s poaching and, later—had he been dreaming?—the dead girl’s transmogrifying body and his orgasmic spasm entering it like a gunshot.
The phone rings again. This time he answers it. It’s Cecil Nobie wanting John to come down and give him a hand pulling a heifer out of the muck.
“Anne and the kids is to her sister’s for the day’s why I troubled ya.” Nobie spits, then shakes his head, too large for his bandy-legged little body that’s wearing fishing waders. The cow’s in up to the tops of its legs in a quag at the rear side of the barn where runoff from the meadow and mountain pools.
“What happened the fence?”
“Power went dead.”
“And she walked right through her?”
“Like muck was molasses.”
“As a tongueless Polack. Figured we didn’t get a rope round her pretty quick, she’d be clear to China.”
Standing at the edge of the quag, John grips Nobie’s left hand while he wanders as far as he can into the slime before tossing the looped rope he’s holding at the cow. He tries unsuccessfully several times to lasso the animal, which lows, exhales phlegm, and sinks deeper. With each failure, Nobie’s ruddy, sun-chapped face gets redder. In John’s injured shoulder, the burn intensifies.
“Widen the goddamn loop, Cecil.”
“She’s wider’n a whore’s legs a’ready. She’s so covered with muck, though, I can’t toss her straight!”
When finally he gets the rope around the cow, it slips down onto her neck, so pulling on it would strangle her. “Now I can’t reach the friggin’ thing to get it off, John.”
“Let me run get a pitchfork. We’ll get a prong into that loop, then run it back over her ass.”
“Just don’t leave me here in the goddamn quag, John. I might not be here when ye get back.”
After yanking Nobie from the muck, John gets a pitchfork from the barn. Ten minutes later, the loop surrounds the cow, though only her head and the upper third of her torso are still above the muck. Nobie and John are slime-covered. The pitchfork is lost to the quag. When the two men pull on the rope, the cow doesn’t budge.
“I better run get the John Deere.”
“I wouldn’t spend much time talkin’ ’bout it,” says John.
Nobie runs for the barn, his waders making wet, sloshing sounds.
Kneeling by the quag’s edge, John, watching fog patches move like ghosts over the damp meadow, talks softly to the cow. Working to break through the haze, the sun tinges the grass gold. The organic smell of that world is an opiate to John’s frayed nerves. He daydreams being fifteen years old and working, not with Cecil Nobie, but with his father.
As Nobie backs the John Deere up to the quag, half his herd gathers round. John ties the loose end of the rope to the tractor’s drawbar. He pulls the rope until the loop closes tightly around the cow. “Ease her forward till she’s taut, Cecil. I’ll sit down on her. Maybe keep her from jumping.”
Nobie drives the tractor ahead until the rope is like a tightwire over the slime. Feeling the loop’s pressure, the cow moos protestingly. Still gripping the rope, John sits down on it. “Steady she goes, Cecil.”
Nobie gives the tractor a little gas.
“Don’t jerk her, now.”
Nobie eases out the clutch. The rear wheels briefly spin, then take hold. The cow groans. It lifts up some, comes forward a foot or so, lifts up higher, then, bellowing, falls on one side in the muck and is pulled free. “Whoooa!” yells John.
Nobie stops the tractor. He lets it roll back a little. With the clutch in, he guns the engine victoriously.
John jumps from the rope, pulls the loop from the muck-encrusted heifer, then stands back as the animal scrabbles to
its feet. Blowing its nose, shitting and pissing at the same time, it angrily charges toward the pasture, while John, watching it go, thinks if only he’d had a similar chance to save the dead girl.
Stinking to high heaven, they stand in the back yard of the house John grew up in, while the last of the fog lifts.
“Got ye any work, John?”
“Just chopped up that old lightning-struck oak.”
“Any a’ the paying kind?”
“That’ll pay me something come fall when I can sell her.”
“Thought you was doing some blacktopping.”
Nobie strips off his waders, then, in his skivvies, leans back against the porch railing and starts scratching different parts of his wiry, hair-covered self. “My oldest boy, Eban, he’s done with school come spring. Already got hisself into college. Place in Rochester.”
“Good for him.”
“Got hisself some smarts from his mother, I guess. Wants to do something with computers—make ’em think or something.”
“Never used one myself.”
“He thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Says I ought to have one for the farm. Keep all my records on it.”
“Maybe ya ought to.”
“I got me an old shoe box works plenty good enough.” Nobie hunches forward, pulls his dick out of his underwear,
and starts pissing into the yard. “Once he goes to Rochester, John, I don’t expect we’ll be seeing much of him ’cept Christmas and summertime, when, if we’re lucky, he might help bring the hay in. I’m proud as can be a’ that boy, John, but he ain’t never took to farming and I can’t say his sister do neither. Guess I don’t blame ’em. World out there looks pretty exciting these days and, for sure, there’s no money in farming.” He puts his dick away, then turns toward John. Out on the hollow road an approaching vehicle whines. “We never had us a need for a full-time man before, John, but when Eban goes, it ain’t right his mother should have to take up the slack.”
John throws the last of the coffee he’d been drinking onto the lawn. He hears the vehicle downshift as it heads into the J-curve parallel to Nobies’, then a basso growl as it starts the long ascent up to Ira Hollenbach’s old place.
“If you could see your way round it, John, I’m offering you a job.”
John doesn’t answer.
“A good job. Long-term.”
John nods his head, just to show he’s heard. Nobie’s a fine farmer and, unlike John’s father, a good businessman too. To buy the Moon place, he’d sold, for plenty more than it was worth, the hilly, rock-infested one hundred fifty acres on Briar Hollow he’d grown up on to a real-estate developer who’d put up town houses. He kept John’s parents’ place looking as good or better than when they’d been alive. But work for him? As a hired hand? No way, thinks John. He’d as soon lay blacktop.
“Ain’t that a persistent sumbitch,” says Nobie, nodding at the road several hundred yards above his place.
“That one nosin’ round Hollenbachs’.” He points a quarter of the way up the hill, beyond the thick foliage, where, glimmering like a beetle in the unobscured sun, a black Chevy Blazer climbs. John’s stomach rolls over. He feels like that heifer, neck deep in the quag. “Second time I seen it go by in twenty-four hours.”
John looks down at the coffee-soaked patch of sunburned grass at his feet, thinking how, from the single pull of a shotgun’s trigger, the world’s turned upside down.
“Maybe after five years somebody’s finally looking to buy the place. Got to be from out the area, though. Wouldn’t ya say, John?”
“Hell yes! Nobody local, ’specially ones that remember Old Ira and Molly, gon’ move into that place knowing its history. Be like walkin’ on their grave! You believe in ghosts, John?”
“As much as I don’t.”
“Sure. Me too.” Nobie starts stripping off his skivvies. “Course it’s a nice piece a’ land and I s’pose somebody might buy it, tear the house down, and put up a new one, but I don’t think that somebody’d be me.” Naked, holding his underpants in one hand, he nods toward the garden hose. “How ’bout we hose some this muck off, John?”