Authors: Brad Smith
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For Gibby and Hawk
It was fall when they let him out. The first frost was a week gone, and the air was at once sharp and clean with the passing of summer and cool and gray with the promise of the season to come. The soybeans in Holden County were mostly harvested, a poor crop due to the long, wet spring and the short, dry summer, and the farmers were trying to get the corn off before the November rains. It was either that or wait until freeze-up, run the combines in the ice and the snow.
Ray Dokes shed his orange prison overalls like a copperhead sheds its skin, walked out of the detention center in Niagara into sunlight, the day cold and clear, the sky bluer outside the fence than within, the air cleaner, somehow worthier even of breath. He stood on the steps outside, the sun on his face and this new morning before him.
He lit a cigarette and found the blue Ford pickup across the lot.
Pete Culpepper was behind the wheel of the truck, smoking a Marlboro nonfilter and listening to the country music station out of Toronto. Or at least what was passed off as country these daysâpop singers looking more like lap dancers and fashion models than real country. If old Hank hadn't died in the back of that limo, he'd have shot himself after a hard look and a short listen to this bunch.
Pete pushed back his Stetson with his thumb and nodded at Rayâwho tossed his bag in the back and climbed inâas if maybe Ray had been gone a couple days instead of a couple years; then Pete popped the truck into low gear and started off. Ray reached over and turned the radio off and rolled down the window, hung his right arm out over the door of the truck, flicked the ash from his smoke.
“How are you, Pete?”
“I'm all right. What about you?”
They took Route 20 west, through familiar ground, farm country interrupted by small towns and hamlets, the odd strip mall marring the landscape, speaking to what some would refer to as progress. There were new houses, gas stations, co-ops. Seems there'd been some prosperity after all, although you'd never know it reading the papers inside.
They entered Holden County outside of Middleburg. Ray glanced over to see the old Texan watching him instead of the road.
“You feel like the prodigal?”
“Not one bit,” Ray said.
“Good thing,” Pete said. “I wasn't fixin' to kill no calf anyhow.”
They drove through the hamlet of Cook's Station. Ray watched as Pete double-clutched and punched the truck into second gear, checking his West Coast mirrors as he did. Pete liked to drive the pickup as if it was an eighteen-wheeler.
“You got some gray in your hair,” Pete said.
“So have you.”
“I'm supposed to. I'm old. What're youâforty?”
“Not yet, Pete. But I'm getting there.”
They took the turnoff at the town line, headed north on the paved road. Ray turned and had a good look as they passed Homer Parr's place. There was a blue sedan in the driveway, and the grass needed cutting. The flag was up on the mailbox.
“She's still there,” Pete said as they passed.
Ray nodded at the information. He wasn't going to ask about her, but he was glad to have heard just the same.
They topped the crest of the road a mile short of their destination. From that height Ray could see a series of subdivisions, like a nasty urban rash, scattered across the landscape to the west.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“That's Guelph,” Pete told him.
“Yup. Civilization crowdin' me.”
Ray looked at the rows of houses in the distance, their roof lines identical right down to the color of the shingles, stretched across the horizon like dominoes.
“What else have I missed?”
Pete reached over and turned the radio back on, punched a button, and got Lightfoot lamenting on some early morning precipitation. A lucky breakâanother of those pretty boys, and Ray might have pressed him for an answer.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It was noon when they reached Pete's farm. The field in front of the barn was cut, the hay lying in thin windrows, as sparse as a spinster's prospects.
“You baling hay this time of year?” Ray asked.
“Third cut,” Pete said. “First two were so bad I had no choice.”
“This one don't look like a world beater.”
The house sat back a good two hundred yards from the road. Left and to the rear was a machinery shed of steel siding fading red to gray under a ribbed galvanized roof. The main barn was across the yard to the right; the building was large and hip-roofed, in decent repair although its walls and roof aspired to no color at all save that of pine planking and cedar shingles weathered by decades of just plain being there. There was a split-rail corral off the east end of the barn. The corral was empty, although Ray, when he got out of the truck, knew there were horses on the premises. He couldn't hear them, but he could smell them and somehow he could feel them.
The smokehouse was still standing, although the door was gone completely and it had been a lot of years since anyone had cured a ham inside. The building was constructed of red brick, and when Ray looked closely he could still make out the faint outline on the wallâa roughly painted figure of a right-handed batter with a rectangle alongside that represented the strike zone. Pete Culpepper had painted the wall when Ray was fourteen, after Ray had broken most of the boards out of the end of the barn. Now Ray looked at the faded batter and thought about the countless balls he'd fired at the wall. Fastballs inside and breaking stuff away, the balls growing soft as pulp from the constant pounding on the brick.
The old pump was still there too, atop the drilled well. The pump was coincidentally located sixty feet from the smokehouse. Ray had built a pitching mound alongside, and it was mostly gone now, worn away by the years. The pump had a broken hockey stick for a handle, and the water, when pumped, fell into an ancient clawfoot bathtub.
The house itself was a fieldstone story and a half built in the late 1800s and in need of some cosmetic attention. The wooden sashes of the windows were cracked, the paint flaking away to nothing, and the porch roof had a dip in it that resembled a swayback horse. There were a couple of ladder-back chairs on the porch and a red refrigerator, which Ray had last seen in the kitchen. Pete's Walker hound was stretched out between the fridge and the chairs, and he raised his head and blinked sleepily as they approached.
They went into the house, the old hound at their heels. In the kitchen Ray leaned down to rub the dog's ears, the animal groaning with pleasure at the attention; then he headed to the rear staircaseâthere were two in the houseâand carried his bag upstairs to his room.
The bed was made, and the room had been cleanedâat least as much as a crusty old man with little interest in housecleaning could manage. Ray tossed his bag on the bed and looked out the window. There was a bush lot at the back of the farm, and between the house and the bush the fields were planted with corn. The hardwoods in the bush were just beginning to turn color, a flash of red or yellow dispersed indiscriminately among the green.
Ray's ball glove and Detroit Tigers' cap were on a shelf where he'd left them. He set the cap on his head and went back downstairs.
“You wanna beer?” Pete asked when Ray walked into the kitchen. He'd already opened two bottles of Old Vienna. “All I got is this Canadian stuff.”
“Imagine that, us being in Canada and all.”
Pete sat across the table, flopped his hat in the chair beside, and took a long drink of beer. Ray sipped at his and adjusted the ball cap on his head. Cold beer was one of the things he'd dreamed about these past two years, that and firm breasts, smooth buttocks, thick steaks, clam chowder, Scotch on the rocks. The beer in his hand was all right, but just all right. Like everything else as you got older, the getting never seemed to measure up to the anticipating.
“So how was it?” Pete asked, like Ray knew he would.
“Jail?” Ray asked, and he considered the question. “Well, it was like jail. It was exactly like jail.”
“Anybody give you a hard time in there?”
“Not like they gave me out here.”
Pete drank his beer, half gone already, looked at the younger man across the table, the table they'd sat at a thousand times before. A thousand beers like these, a thousand silences like this, a million words in between.
“Where'd you get the scar?” he asked.
“Defending my honor,” Ray told him, and he looked out the window and saw the years settle on the farm like darkness settles on a long and honest day.
Etta stopped on her way out of town and bought the largest take-out coffee that Tim Horton's would sell her without a prescription. Even with the caffeine kick, her eyes were heavy as she drove. It had been a slow night at the hospital, and she found that the shifts when she sat around doing nothing were more wearying than the hectic nights when there were babies to birth, drunks to stitch, crazies to inject.
She drank the coffee and concentrated on the meandering center line. It wasn't as if she could go home and flop into bed like a normal person. But then, Etta had long ago abandoned any hope of living a normal life. In truth, it wasn't something she aspired to or desired.
It was a cold fall morningâshe'd seen her breath in the air as she walked across the hospital parking lotâand she drove with the odd combination of the heater on to keep her warm, and the window down to keep her awake. It was cold enough that the chimneys of the farmhouses on her road trailed wood smoke in the early morning air. Cold enough that the sheep on the McKellar place were bunched together in the lee of the pine grove of the pasture field.
And too cold for her father to be sitting on the side porch in his underwear. But that's where she found him.
He didn't seem to notice the chattering of his own teeth as she led him into the kitchen and sat him down. He was cranky and looking for a fight, glaring across the room as Etta took her coat off and hung it on the hook inside the door.
“Where the hell you been all night?”
Etta looked down at her scrubs. “Ballroom dancing,” she told him. “Want some breakfast?”
She went up to his room and brought down pants and a shirt and socks and forced him into them, and then she made coffee and gave him a cup while she scrambled eggs and fried some leftover ham from the night before.
“Did Jim do the milking?” he asked while she cooked.
She glanced over; he was sipping the coffee with an unsteady hand, watching out the window toward the barn. Jim had been their hired hand when Etta was growing up. He'd been dead now maybe ten years.
“Yeah, Jim did the milking,” she told him, setting his breakfast in front of him.