When the taxicab let old man Meecham out in the dusty roadbed by his mailbox the first thing he noticed was that someone was living in his house. There was a woman hanging out wash on the clothesline and a young girl sunning herself in a rickety lawn chair and an old dust-colored Plymouth with a flat tire parked in Meecham's driveway. All this so disoriented the old man that he dropped the cardboard suitcase he was holding and forgot about paying the cab driver. He thought for a dizzy moment that he had directed the driver to the wrong place: but there was the fading clapboard house and the warm umber roof of the barn bisected by the slope of ridge and on top of that the name abner meecham on the mailbox in his own halting brushstrokes.
Looks like you got company, the cab driver said.
Beyond the white corner of the house the woman stood holding a bedsheet up to the line and she was studying him transfixed with a clothespin in her mouth. She seemed frozen to the ground, motionless as statuary a sculptor in a whimsical mood might have wrought of a sharecropper's wife.
How much was it I owed you? Meecham asked, finally remembering. He fumbled out a wallet with a chain affixed to it and a clasp hooked to a belt and turned slightly to the side as an old man does when studying a wallet's contents.
Well. Twenty dollars. That seems like a lot but it's a right smart way from Linden.
And worth ever nickel of it, the old man said, selecting at length a bill and proffering it through the window. Twenty dollars' worth of distance from Linden, Tennessee, is fine with me. If I was a wealthy man I would of bought more of it.
Glad to of brought you, the driver said. You be careful in all this heat. Meecham raised a hand in farewell, dismissal. He was already forgetting the driver and was at picking up his luggage and preparing to investigate these folks making free with his property.
As he passed the lawn chair the girl casually tucked a pale breast into her halter top. Hidy. Do I know you? She removed a pair of plastic-framed sunglasses as if she might study him more closely.
You will here in a minute. He was a fierce-looking old man slightly stooped wearing dungarees and a blue chambray workshirt. The shirt was faded a pale blue from repeated laundering and he had the top button fastened against his Adam's apple. On his head he wore a canvas porkpie hat cocked over one bristling eyebrow and the hat and his washed-out blue eyes were almost the exact hue of his shirt. Who are you people and what are you doing here?
I'm Pamela Choat and I'm sunbathin, the girl said, misunderstanding or in the old man's view pretending to. I'm gettin me a tan. Mama's hangin out clothes and Daddy's around here somewhere.
I mean what are you even doin here? Why are you here?
The girl put her sunglasses back on and turned her oiled face to the weight of the sun. We live here, she said.
That can't be. I live here, this is my place.
You better talk to Mama, the girl said. Behind the opaque lenses of the sunglasses perhaps her eyes were closed. Meecham turned. The woman was crossing the yard toward him. He noticed with a proprietary air that the grass needed cutting. He'd been gone less than two months and already the place was going to seed.
Ain't you Mr. Meecham?
I certainly am, the old man said. He leaned on his walking stick. The stick was made to represent a snake and the curve he clasped was an asp's head. I don't believe I've made your acquaintance.
I'm Mrs. Choat, she said. Ludie Choat, Lonzo's wife. You remember Lonzo Choat.
Lord God, the old man said.
We rented this place from your boy.
The hell you say.
Why yes. We got a paper and everything. We thought you was in the old folk's home in Perry County.
I was. I ain't no more. I need to use the telephone.
We ain't got no telephone.
Of course there's a telephone. We always had a telephone.
The woman regarded him with a bland bovine patience, as if she were explaining something to a somewhat backward child. There was a curiously blank look about her, the look of the innocent or the deranged. There's one but it don't work. You can't talk on it. It ain't hooked up or somethin. You need to talk to Lonzo. He'll be up here directly.
I'm an old man, Meecham said. I may die directly. Where is he and I'll just go to him.
He's down there in the barn fixin a tire.
Choat was in the hall of the barn and he seemed locked in mortal combat with the flat tire. He was stripped to the waist and he was wringing wet with sweat. His belly looped slackly over the waistband of his trousers but his shoulders and back were knotted with muscle. He had a crowbar jammed between the tire and rim and was trying to pry it free. Then he held the crowbar in position with a foot and tried to break the tire loose from the rim with a splitting hammer. Meecham noticed with satisfaction that it showed no sign of giving.
When the old man's shadow fell across the chaff and straw and dried manure of the hall Choat looked up. Some dark emotion, dislike or hostility or simply annoyance, flickered across his face like summer lightning and was gone. Choat laid the splitting hammer aside and squatted in the earth. He wiped sweat out of his eyes and left a streak of greasy dirt in the wake of his hand. Meecham suddenly saw how like a hog Choat looked, his red porcine jowls and piggy little eyes, as if as time passed he had taken on the characteristics of his namesake.
You not got a spare?
This is the spare. I believe I know you. You're lawyer Meecham's daddy. We heard you was in a nursin home. What are you doin here?
I didn't take to nursin, Meecham said. Is it true that Paul rented you folks this place?
He damn sure did. A ninety-day lease with a option to buy.
The old man felt dizzy. He was almost apoplectic with rage. He felt he was going to have a seizure, a stroke, some kind of attack. The idea of Choat eating at his table, sleeping in his bed was bad enough; the idea that he might own it, call it his, was not to be borne.
Buy? You wasn't ever nothin but a loafer. You never owned so much as a pair of pliers. That's my wreckin bar and splittin hammer right there. And if you think you can buy a farm this size with food stamps you're badly mistaken.
Choat just shook his head. He grinned. A drop of sweat beaded on the end of his nose, fell. Blackheads thick as freckles fanned out from his eyes and there were black crescents of dirt beneath his fingernails.
You still as contrary as you ever was. You remember the time I tried to rent that lit old tenant shack from you?
You wouldn't rent it to me. Ain't life funny?
I never rented that house to anybody. It was built too close to the main house to begin with and there wouldn't have been any privacy for either place. That must have been twenty-five years ago.
Ever how long it was I needed it and I didn't get it. And life is funny. We aim to buy this place. I got a boy in Memphis, he's a plumbin contractor. Does these big commercial jobs. He's aimin to buy and we're fixin to tend it. And you can forget about the food stamps. He makes plenty of money. He buys and sells lawyers like they was Kmart specials.
Well I ain't seen none of this famous money. And the fact of the matter is this place ain't Paul's to sell. It's my place and will be till I die. It may be Paul's then and he can do what he wants to with it. But after this I doubt it. In fact I'm pretty sure Paul's shot at this place just went up in smoke.
They fixed it up legal.
If I was you I'd be packin up my stuff.
We goddamn sure will. Where's that paper?
Choat got up. It's up to the house. We'll have to go up there.
Then let's be for goin, the old man said.
The old man sat on the doorstep of the tenant house in the shade for a while and thought about things. It was almost twelve miles back to Ackerman's Field, the nearest town and the one in which Paul did his lawyering. He had no telephone. He had no car; in actuality he owned a two-year-old Oldsmobile and a four-wheel-drive cream-colored Toyota pickup, but Paul had taken them to town for storage and he expected that by now they were somewhere in Mexico with the serial numbers eradicated. He had money, but nowhere to spend it. He had a neighbor across the ridge but he was too weary to walk over there now. Choat's car had a flat tire, but he had not even factored that into the equation. Folks in hell would be eating Eskimo Pies before Lonzo Choat hauled him anywhere.
Anyway he was home, and it was good to be here. He opened the suitcase and examined its contents. A change of clothing. A razor and a can of shaving cream. A bar of soap. A toothbrush and the sort of miniature tube of toothpaste you see in motel and hospital rooms. A tin of Vienna sausages and a cellophane-wrapped package of crackers he'd brought in case he got hungry on the cab ride. It occurred to him now that he hadn't eaten since breakfast at the nursing home.
He glanced toward the house. The woman was standing in the door watching him as if she'd learn his intentions, some quality of apprehension in her posture. He looked away and he heard the screen door fall to.
The day was waning. Beyond the frame farmhouse light was fleeing westward and bullbats came sheer and plumb out of the tops of the darkling trees as if they'd harry the dusk on. A whippoorwill called and some old nigh-lost emotion somewhere between exaltation and pain rose in him and twisted sharp as a knife. As if all his days had honed down to this lone whippoorwill calling out of the twilight.
The old man sat for a time just taking all this in. Whippoorwills had been in short supply in the nursing home and it was a blessing not to smell Lysol. He breathed in deeply and he could smell the trees still holding the day's heat and the evocative odor of honeysuckle and the cool citrusy smell of pine needles.
Well, I never held myself above tenant farmin, he said to himself.
At least the lights worked and he guessed Paul was still paying the light bill. He figured the first one to come due in Choat's name would be the last. The house was jammed with the accumulation of the years. He had used this place as a junkhouse and now Choat seemed to have toted everything he couldn't use or didn't want down from the main house. Boxes of pictures and memorabilia Ellen had saved. Now it was spilled and thrown about at random, and he was touched with a dull anger: his very past had been kicked about and discarded.
He set about arranging some kind of quarters. He carried boxes and chairs and garbage bags of clothing into the bedroom and set up Paul's old cot by the window for what breeze there was.
He sat for a time bemusedly studying snapshots. Dead husks of events that had once transpired. Strange to him now as if they'd happened on some other level of reality, in someone else's life. An entire envelope of photographs of dead folks. One of Ellen's father lying in his casket. His shock of black hair, great blade of a nose. Eighty years old and his hair black as a crow's wing. Another of Ellen standing by the old man's grave. He studied her face carefully. It looked ravaged, tearstained, swollen with grief.
He put them away. He had not even known they existed. He had no use for them then or now, and why anyone would need to be reminded of so sad a time was beyond his comprehension.
He fared better in an old brass-bound trunk. Choat had missed a bet here, if he knew he'd kick himself. He found Paul's old pistol wrapped in a piece of muslin. He unfolded the cloth. An enormous Buntline Special-looking pistol but it was really just a .22 caliber target pistol on a .45 frame. He fumbled around in the trunk but he couldn't find any shells.
He shuffled through a stack of 78 rpm records reading the labels. Old Bluebird records by the Carter Family, Victor records by Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. "Evening Sun Yodel," "Away Out on the Mountain." He could remember hearing these songs in his youth, singing them himself, he and Ellen playing these selfsame records on the Victrola. Jimmie Rodgers was a blues singer and he remembered that Ellen hadn't been too high on him but she had been fond of the Carter Family. Jimmie Rodgers, dead of TB and still a young man after all these years and even turning a dollar or two off that: and that graveyard sure is a lonesome place, they lay you on your back and throw the dirt down in your face.
Well why the hell not, he thought. He moved stacks of folded quilts, old newspapers off the Victrola and wiped the dust off. The machinery creaked when he cranked it and he doubted it would work.
It did though. The needle hissed on the record and there was Rodgers' distinctive guitar lick then a dead voice out of a dead time still holding the same smoky sardonic lilt: She's long, she's tall, she's six feet from the ground.
The old man was lost in the song and didn't hear the girl until she was in the room. He turned and she was crossing the threshold. She had a plate in one hand and a tumbler of iced tea in the other. Jimmie Rodgers was singing: I hate to see that evenin sun go down, cause it makes me think I'm on my last go-around.
He arose and lifted the tonearm off the record.
Mama sent this.
He hadn't anticipated anything approaching human kindness out of the Choat family and he didn't quite know how to handle it.
She said she bet you was hungry and hot as it was you needed somethin cold to drink.
He took the plate awkwardly and cleared a spot for it on the coffee table. She set the tea beside it.
Well. You tell her I'm much obliged. What'd Lonzo have to say about it?
He was down at the barn. What's that you're listenin to?
That's Jimmie Rodgers, the Singin Brakeman. Evenin Sun Yodel.
What is that, country? Sure is some weird-soundin shit. Where's he out of, Nashville?
Hell if he's out of anywhere. He's been dead and gone from here over fifty years.
Oh. Well, how do you know he's in hell?
If drinkin whiskey and runnin other folks' women'll put you there then that's where he's at. Anyway he's in the ground with the dirt throwed in his face. That sounds a right smart like hell to me.
Lord you'd cheer a person up. Are you always in this good a mood?
Just when I get rooted away from the trough, the old man said. He was studying the plate. He was of two minds about it. He mistrusted Ludie Choat's cooking and figured her none too clean in her personal habits but then you didn't know what was in Vienna sausage, either. All he had was the Viennas and besides there was okra rolled in meal and fried. It had been a long time since he had eaten fried okra. The plate also held garden tomatoes peeled and sliced and he figured if everything else proved inedible he could always eat the tomatoes.
What are you doin, movin in here?
Yes I am. I'll have it right homey before I'm through. Curtains on the windows, bouquets of flowers to smell the place up. I may get me a dog.
Daddy won't allow a dog on the place. He can't stand to hear them bark.
Mmm, the old man mused. Say he can't?
I got to get back to the house before Daddy turns up. Just set the dishes out on the porch in the mornin, all right?
All right, he said irritably, peering closely at the dishes. But if I ain't badly mistaken they're mine anyway.
At first light he was up as was his custom and in the dewy coolness he went up the slope behind the tenant house following the meandering line of an old rail fence he himself had built long ago. At the summit he paused to catch his breath and stood leaning on his walking stick peering back the way he'd come. The slope tended away in a stony tapestry and the valley lay spread out below him in a dreamy pastoral haze and mist rose out of the distant hollows blue as smoke. The sky was marvelously clear and on this July morning each sound seemed distinct and equidistant: he could hear cowbells on the other side of the woods, a truck laboring up a hill on some distant road. These sounds and sights reminded him of his childhood long ago in Alabama, and they caused a singing in his blood and a rise in his spirits, he could hear his heart hammering strong and fierce as when he was a boy. He was alive and the world alive with him and he had come back to it without either of them being changed.
He entered the cool dappled green of the woods going downhill now and when he came out of the trees into the light again he was in Thurl Chessor's pasture and approaching the barn and house. He went on past deceased tractors and rusting mowers and old mule-drawn planters like museum artifacts.
He was suddenly and against his will assailed by memory. It came to him that he was a repository of knowledge that was being lost, knowledge that no one even wanted anymore. The way the earth looked and smelled rolling off the gleaming point of a turning plow, the smell of the mule and the feel of the sweat-hardened harness and the way the thunderheads rolled up in the summer and lay over the hills like malignant tumors and thunder booming along the timberline and clouds unfolding in a fierce and violent coupling and seeding in the furrows a curious gift of ice that lay gleaming in the black loam like pearls.
He remembered laying out all night as a young man and trudging woodenly behind the mule the next day, sleep-robbed and weary, jerky as a puppet the mule was controlling with the plowlines.
He shook these thoughts out of his head and went on. He could see Thurl walking back toward the house from the pig lot with a feed bucket in his hand. Thurl was his contemporary and he had known him forty years but they had never been close. Thurl was not a very good farmer but he had managed to survive. Thurl did not have a head for business, an eye for the small detail. He was apt to leave a tractor out in the weather with the intake filling with rainwater and pine needles then curse the folks in Illinois or wherever that made it and wonder why it wouldn't start. On the other hand, Meecham thought ruefully, he was not living in a tenant shack with Lonzo Choat reared back in the main house like the lord of the manor.
Chessor put the bucket on a slab shelf and turned and studied Meecham with no surprise. Well, I see you're back. Run off, did you.
Are they after you?
After me? Hellfire. It was a old folks' home, not a chain gang. Why would they be after me?
I don't know. I don't know anything about it. Where'd you sleep last night? Did Lonzo make you down a pallet on the floor?
That's mainly why I come down here. I need to use your telephone. I need to call Paul and see if I can't get this mess straightened out. I've got to get Choat out of there.
You'll play hell doin it. Or doin it quick anyway. He's got a foot in the door now. You get him evicted legal the law won't make him move for thirty days. They're not goin to throw him right out.
I need to use your telephone anyway. It's long distance but I got money.
That's all right. It's in the front room where it always was.
He spoke with a young woman who would make no commitment as to Paul's whereabouts. He was put on hold and treacly music began to play softly in the background. He was on hold for some time then she came back on the line. Mr. Meecham is engaged right at the moment, she said.
I'm fairly engaged myself, the old man said. You get him on here. I aim to clear this mess up and no mistake about it.
I'm sorry, sir. Mr. Meecham is tied up right now. His time is very valuable.
If I hadn't sold calves and pigs to send him through law school it wouldn't be worth fifteen cents. You get him on this phone.
There was the dawning of knowledge in the woman's voice. Are you Mr. Meecham's father by any chance?
There's rumors to that effect.
Well, I'm sorry, sir. I didn't understand. He's on his way to court but I'll have him paged. He has a beeper. Give me your number and I'll have him return your call in a moment.
Meecham read her the number and cradled the phone. Paul's got a beeper, he thought to himself. He was unsure exactly what a beeper was but he was vaguely impressed nonetheless. He tried to call Paul's face to mind but it was the child Paul had been that came swimming up from the depths of memory and the circles the adult Paul moved in were as strange to them both as some continent across the waters. He sat staring at the telephone as if he expected it to perform some bizarre and clever trick he had taught it.
He picked it up on the first ring.
So you got you a beeper, the old man said.
Dad, what is this about?
I want them folks out of the house and I want them out today.
That Choat bunch. Layin up there sleepin in your mama's bed and eatin out of her dishes. Looks like you'd be ashamed of yourself. I want em gone.
Where are you calling from?
Where do you think I'm callin from? Thurl Chessor's place, they've done broke my phone or somethin. Are you goin to get them out today or not?
There was a pause. What are you doing there? You're supposed to be in the nursing home in Linden.
Supposed to be? I'm supposed to be where I damn well please. Nobody tells me where I'm supposed to be, nobody ever did. What is this mess you've cooked up?
There was another pause, this one longer, and this time Paul's face did come to mind, like a slowly developing photographic plate, the thin face filled out with rich food and prosperity, perhaps tanned from the golf course, the pudgy fingers massaging his temples as if the old man was giving him a headache.
This is getting too complicated for me, Paul finally said. At any rate it's too complicated for the telephone. Use that phone to call a cab, and go back to the home. I'll come down there at -- a pause again and the old man knew Paul was looking at his watch -- five o'clock and explain everything about the sale.
Sale my ass. You can't sell what ain't yourn.
Well, obviously we need to discuss it, but as to what I can or can't do, I'm your legal guardian and the trustee of your estate. When you started acting erratic after Mama died I got worried about you. I figured you were a danger to yourself, and the court --
I'll be a danger to a whole hell of a lot more than myself unless you get your ass on the ball and unscramble this paperwork. I'll do it myself, I'm not penniless. Do you think you're the only lawyer that ever hit a golf ball?
Five o'clock, all right?
The old man slammed the phone so hard Chessor glanced at it sharply as if it might have broken. Meecham was lightheaded with rage. Black dots swam before his eyes like a swarm of gnats and he felt dizzy and strange, as if his very soul was packing up to flee his body. It seemed to him that he had scraped and cut corners and done without just to send Paul to an expensive school where he'd learned a trade that was doing him out of what he had taken a lifetime to accumulate.
He sat on the porch with Chessor drinking morning coffee and trying to think what to do. He had to formulate a plan.
Well? Chessor asked.
The old man sipped his coffee and sat staring across Chessor's yard toward the pear tree. The yard was littered with a motley of broken and discarded plunder, and dogs of varied and indeterminate breed lay about the yard like fey decorations some white-trash landscapist had positioned there with a critical eye.
He give me the runaround.
Ain't that the way of the world, Chessor said.
I got to have me a way of goin. You still got that old Falcon?
Yeah. It still runs but I had to quit drivin it. They took my license a while back cause I kept runnin into folks. I can't see like I used to.
What'll you take for it?
I don't know. I ain't got no use for it. Two hundred dollars? Would you give that?
Let's look at it.
He checked the oil and brake fluid. He checked the coolant level and listened to the engine idle with a critical ear. Thurl was apt to run an automobile without oil and use water for brake fluid and trust the radiator to take care of itself.
What was that place like?
It was all right.
All right. That's why you're livin in a sharecropper's cabin I reckon.
No, it was all right. They fed pretty good, nobody mistreated you. It was just...just a job to them, I guess. You had the feelin if you died in your sleep they'd just move you out and somebody else in and nobody would give much of a shit.
You want the car?
I guess. You throw in that lit old tan dog with one ear up and one ear down and I'll give you ten more bucks.
Why don't I just sell out lock, stock, and barrel and you move in here, Chessor said. Anyway that dog ain't worth ten dollars. That thing sets in barkin long about dark and don't let up till daylight.
He may just be a fifteen-dollar dog, Meecham said.
He named the dog Nipper and set about immediately training it to bark at his command. Showing a great deal of aptitude for this, the dog was a brilliant pupil and seemed to need little instruction. He rewarded its efforts with bits of tinned mackerel and in no time at all he could command, You hush, Nipper, and the dog would erupt into a fierce grating bark as annoying as a fingernail scraped endlessly across a blackboard, leaping and growling with its black little eyes bulging, ugly as something alien, something left on a beach by receding tides.
The old man had been to Ackerman's Field and laid in supplies and he was feeling fairly complacent. He had bought bread and milk and tinned soup and a gallon of orange juice and he bought a hot plate to warm the soup on. As an afterthought he bought a box of shells for the pistol. He expected this night to pass far more pleasantly than the previous one. Sitting on the porch watching the day wane with the rusty green Falcon parked in his driveway and Nipper dozing at his feet he felt quite the country esquire.
Of course Choat noticed the dog right away, he could hardly have avoided it. He ignored it until nightfall then came in his shambling graceless walk down the slope from the main house. White trash right down to the ground, the old man thought. He even walks like it.
Where'd you get that thing?
The old man was sitting on the stoop cradling the dog as you might a child. The dog watched Choat with its eyes shiny as bits of black glass.
It followed me home, Meecham said. I guess you could say I found it.
You better lose it then. I ain't puttin up with no dog on this place.
It's my dog and my place and I guess you'll like it or lump it. He don't bark much.
Yeah. I heard it not barkin much most of the goddamned day. It'll come up with its neck wrung and you may not fare much better.
He's a good boy. He don't bother nobody. You hush now, Nipper.
The dog began to bark ferociously at Choat and snap its fierce little teeth and strain against the fragile shelter of the old man's arms.
You learnt that little son of a bitch to do that, Choat said viciously. I don't know how you found out a barkin dog drives me up the wall but by God you did and it's goin to cost you.
The old man felt an uncontrollable grin trying to break out on his face but he swallowed hard and fought it down. Then something in Choat's face sobered him. Choat had raised a fist and he looked as if he was going to attack man or dog or both, his flat porcine face was flushed with anger.
You touch me and I'll have you in jail for assault before good dark, the old man said.
Choat lowered the fist, he turned toward the main house. You need put in the crazy house. And that's where you'll be before this is over.
You hush there, Nipper, Meecham told the dog.
He was abed early but he awoke at eleven o'clock the way he had planned to do and went barefoot with the dog onto the porch. Lace filigrees of moonlight fell through the leaves, the main house was locked in sleep.
He sat on the stoop and packed the bowl of his pipe with Prince Albert. He could feel the warmth of the dog against his thigh. When he had the pipe going and the fragrant blue smoke rolling he opened a tin of mackerels.
The dog began to bark.
He forked out a mackerel and fed it to the dog. It stopped barking and snapped up the fish and looked about for more. Now I've done fed you, the old man said. You behave yourself, now.
The dog began a frenzy of barking. After a while the porch light came on at the farmhouse and the door opened and Choat came out onto the porch wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. Gross and misshapen against the dark doorway. How about shuttin up some of that goddamned racket, he called.
I can't get him to hush, the old man yelled. I don't believe he's used to the place yet.
He's about as used to it as he's goin to get. You bring him up here and I believe I might manage to quieten him down some.
He'll be all right. I expect he'll hush by daylight anyway.
You contrary old bastard. I'm just going to let you be and outlive you. You're oldern Moses anyway. You'll be in the ground before the snow flies and I'll still be here layin up in your bed.
He went back in and pulled the door to and cut off the light. After a while the old man went back in with Nipper. Before he went to bed he got out the pistol and loaded it. He found a can of machine oil and oiled the action and when he spun the cylinder it whirled, clicking with a smooth lethal dexterity.
Some time past midnight he awoke to such bedlam that for a moment he was disoriented and thought he must have dozed off in a crazy house somewhere. Looking out the window into the moonlit yard did little to refute this view. What on earth, he asked himself. Choat was beating someone with what looked like a length of garden hose. His wife Ludie was swinging onto his arm and trying to wrest away the hose. He paused and turned and shoved her and she fell onto her back with all her limbs working like some insect trying frantically to right itself. All of them seemed to be screaming simultaneously at the top of their lungs. The hose made an explosive whopping sound each time it struck. You little slut, Choat was screaming. Then Meecham saw that it was the girl, such clothes as she had on torn away by the hose.
There was a car parked in the edge of the yard with the driver's-side door open and of a sudden someone streaked into Meecham's vision running full tilt toward it. A young man trying to haul up his pants and at the same time trying to avoid the hose that was falling with metronomic regularity.
Choat flung the girl aside and ran in pursuit of the fleeing boy. The boy had one hand behind him flailing about for the hose and the other hauling at his breeches and he was screaming Yow, Yow, every time the hose struck. He leapt into the car and slammed the door and cranked the engine. The hose was bonging hollowly on the roof when the engine caught and the car went spinning sideways wildly in the gravel. Glass broke when it glanced off the catalpa tree in the corner of the yard. It righted itself and one light came on as he shot off down the road.
Choat did not even skip a beat in his flailing. He fetched Ludie a blow or two and turned his attention back to the girl. She was on her knees with her arms locked about her head and face and the old man could see by moonlight her naked back laced with thick red welts.
Hold it, Meecham yelled. He had the window raised and the pistol barrel resting on the sill. He raised it pointed into the yard.
Choat whirled, the hose hanging limply at the end of his arm. He looked confused for a moment, as if he couldn't fathom where he was or what he was doing with the hose or why somebody was pointing a two-foot pistol at him.
You nosy bastard. I might of knowed you'd put into this.
I'm tired of watchin you beat folks, Meecham said. That's a child there, not a dumb brute. You raise that hose one more time and if what passes for a brain in you is big enough to hit then I aim to lay a slug in it.
You ain't got the balls, Choat said.
Meecham lowered the pistol and fired and when the bullet thocked into the ground a little divot of earth flew and showered Choat's bare feet. Choat dropped the hose and stepped abruptly back.
I aim to law you too, first thing in the mornin. There's bound to be laws about beatin young girls with garden hoses.
Choat opened his mouth to speak. Then he closed it. Finally he said, You'll regret this, Meecham. You'll be sorry ever day of your life you shot towards me.
Meecham waved the pistol barrel. Get this circus out of my yard so a man can get some sleep.
The next day was a veritable beehive of activity on the Choat place. In the morning the old man drove into town. He was back before noon seated on a Coke crate in the shade of the catalpa like a spectator awaiting the onset of some bizarre show.
Shortly after noon a white service truck with south central bell on the side drove into the yard and a man with a toolbox got out and went into the house. Meecham guessed they were having the phone hooked up and he was pleased at this for once he was back in his own house he might have need for a telephone.
Then in midafternoon a dusty Plymouth from the sheriff's department pulled up and a deputy in cop's khaki got out with a folded paper in his hand. He went up the steps. Choat explaining, making expansive hand gestures. How this was all just some misunderstanding. All this in silent pantomime. Finally he gave up and got in the car and the deputy slammed the door and they drove away.
Almost immediately Ludie and the girl followed in the Choat car. None of them looked at him. It was quiet the balance of the day until just before dark when the Choat family returned. Choat himself was driving. He got out with a six-pack of beer under his arm. He unlocked the trunk and took out a red five-gallon can and lifting one-sided with its weight strode to the porch. When he set the can on the porch he turned and gave Meecham a look so malevolent the old man expected tree leaves to char and the grass around him to burst into flame. Choat turned and trudged on to the house.
Meecham that night had difficulty in falling asleep. He'd found an old man's sleep chancy at best but tonight he had begun thinking about Ellen and try as he might he could not get his mind off her. He remembered when they were young, when they couldn't keep their hands off each other and the nights were veined with heat. The way he wore Aqua Velva shaving lotion to this day because she had liked the smell of it when they were going together. Then the swift inevitable squandering of days and the last time he saw her alive.
It was on a Saturday and they were getting ready to go to town. He was in a hurry to get to a cattle sale and she kept dragging around. Trying to decide this dress, that dress, something. I just don't know which one to wear.
Well, you best be for wearin one of them, Meecham said. I'm goin out to the truck and if you're not there in five minutes I'm gone and you'll have the rest of the day to make up your mind.
He had laid his pocket watch in the seat beside him and when five minutes were gone he cranked the truck. He saw her hand pull aside the kitchen curtain, her face lean palely to the glass. Then he drove away.
He'd done such things a thousand times with no payoff but this time the cards fell wrong. When he returned she was dead on the kitchen floor with one glazed eye studying the linoleum as if there was some profound message encoded there.
When finally he slept he dreamed of her, strange tortured fever dreams a madman might have. He was in the undertaker's office and they were discussing arrangements. Backhoe fees, the price of caskets. They were sitting on opposite sides of a limed oak desk and the undertaker was backlit so starkly his vulpine face was in shadow, just the sinister suggestion of a face. The light gleamed off his brilliantined hair. Curving horns grew out of his skull like bull's horns and his yellow eyes seemed to be watching Meecham out of thick summer bracken.
Of course, there's an option we haven't considered, the undertaker said. We could animate her.
Of course. It's a fairly expensive process but it's done frequently. The motor functions would be somewhat impaired and the speech a little slurred, but it's immeasurably preferable to the grave. As I said, it's done regularly, mostly for decorative purposes.
Then animate her, Meecham cried. He was hit by a wave of joy, an exalted relief so strong it made him lightheaded. He would not have to give Ellen up at all, an animated Ellen was immeasurably preferable to the grave.
Then it's settled, the hollow voice said out of the bracken.
Meecham dreamed he turned over and his arm lay across the animated Ellen and he abruptly awoke.
Animate her, he was saying aloud. He was crying, tears were streaming down his cheeks, he could taste them hot and salty in his throat.
The dog was lying on the edge of the old man's pillow. Its fierce little teeth were bared and its eyes bulbous and its tongue swollen and distended. There was a piece of plowline knotted around its neck and the covers were tucked neatly about its chin.
Jesus Christ, Meecham said. He jerked backward, forgetting the cot was scooted against the wall, and slammed the back of his head against the window frame. He sat rubbing his head for a moment then he crawled over the foot of the bed and fumbled his pocketknife out of his pants.
He cut the plowline and sat massaging the dog's chest. The body was still warm and limp but it quickly became obvious the dog was not going to take another breath. Meecham was seized with enormous sorrow. He had killed the dog as surely as if he had knotted the plowline himself. If he had left well enough alone the dog would still be fighting over scraps in Thurl Chessor's front yard.
He laid the dog on the floor and got the pistol out of the night table and cocked it and went through the house making sure Choat was not hidden somewhere watching. Hoping all the time that he was. The house was empty. By the time he had replaced the pistol and made his morning coffee on the hot plate he had come to see things in a different light. He was still going to make Choat pay but he had come to see Nipper as more than a dog. Nipper was a sacrificed pawn in a game that he and Choat were playing, and Choat had simply upped the ante.
There was no taxidermist in Ackerman's Field that Meecham could locate but he heard of one in Waynesboro and so drove there. As deer season was still months away this was a slow season for taxidermy, but the process was more involved than he had thought and he had to stay overnight in a motel. The bill for preparing and mounting the dog was one hundred and seventy-five dollars but the old man counted it out with a willing hand. He knew he was spending money like a furloughed sailor but he figured every nickel he threw away would be a nickel that Paul could not get his pale manicured hands on. In fact the old man wished that Paul could have been with him. He would love to tell Paul that he had paid a taxidermist a hundred and seventy-five dollars to stuff a ten-dollar dog for no other reason than to aggravate Lonzo Choat.
The taxidermist was gifted in his art and this new and improved Nipper transcended lifelike: he had been lent a dignity he had not possessed in life. His mouth was closed, his little glass eyes thoughtful and intelligent. The expression on his face was exactly as if he was thinking over some philosophical remark that had been made and was preparing in his mind a rebuttal.
Meecham drove back to Ackerman's Field with Nipper in the passenger seat across from him. He'd positioned the dog so that Nipper's little agate eyes faced the window.
Wish I could of got some kind of barker put in you, he said. Maybe I'll get you a beeper.
Nipper sat motionless watching the scenery slide by the glass, ripe summer fields fading slowly into autumn.
When Choat glanced up from the circular he had taken from the mailbox and saw the old man and the dog on the porch his left foot seemed to forget it was in the process of taking a step and he stumbled and almost fell. He did an almost comical double take, then his face took on a look of studied disinterest and he went back to reading the circular.
When he glanced up again Meecham was tossing sticks into the yard. Fetch, boy, he was saying.
I wouldn't hold my breath till he brought that stick back, Choat said.
He's a slow study, Meecham agreed. I believe he's got some Choat in his family tree somewhere.
You smartmouthed old bastard. If I could buy you for what you're worth and sell you for what you think you're worth I'd retire. I'd never hit another lick at nothin.
You ain't hit that first lick yet, Meecham pointed out.
Choat was looking closely at the dog. I bet that little son of a bitch is a light eater, he said.
He don't eat much but he's a hell of a watchdog, Meecham said. Lays right across my feet and never shuts his eyes all night. One of these nights the fellow that tied that plowline will come easin through the door and I'll make him a date with the undertaker.
When the black Lexus stopped in the yard of the tenant house the front door of the main house opened and Choat came out onto the porch with a can of beer. He sat down in the swing and propped his feet against a porch stanchion.
The car gleaming in the packed earth before the tacky sharecropper's shack looked out of place, as if somewhere there was some mistake, some curious breakdown in the proper placement of things. Then the door opened and Paul got out. He smoothed down the blond wing of his hair. He took off his sunglasses and folded the earpieces down and tucked them into the pocket of his sport shirt.
I was wonderin when you'd show up. Come up and get a seat.
Paul came over to the edge of the porch and brushed invisible dust off the boards with a hand and pulled up the cuffs of his trousers and seated himself. How you making it, Dad?
I'm makin it fine.
That's not what I'm hearing. I was talking to Alonzo Choat this morning. He tells me you're cutting a pretty wide swath around here.
Well. I was never one to let things slide.
No. You never were that.
Did you come out here to straighten this mess out?
In a way. I came out here to pick you up and drive you back to the nursing home.
Then you've wasted gas and a good bit of your valuable time drivin out here. It'll be a cold day in hell when you guile me into that place again. I get mad ever time I think about it.
Dad, it's just till we get this straightened out. I've signed a lease and it has to run its course. When the ninety days are up I'll get out of the sale and you can move back in. If we need a practical nurse to look after you then I'll hire one.
The old man was silent a time. He marveled at how different they were, how wide and varied the gulfs between them. It saddened him that he no longer had the energy or even the inclination to try and broach them. But it amused him that Paul had not improved much in his ability to lie. Being unable to lie convincingly to a jury must be a severe handicap in the lawyer trade.
I don't need a nurse, he finally said.
Perhaps not. You need something though. Shooting a pistol at a man. Having him arrested so that his family has to go bail him out. Setting dead dogs around the porch like flower pots. For God's sake, Dad.
Well, I can't say I didn't do it. But you got the wrong slant on it. I'm not goin to argue with you, arguin with you was always a waste of time. You'd just lie out of it. Do you think I don't know you? Do you think I can't see through your skin to ever lie you ever told?
I'm not leaving here without you. You're a danger to yourself and you're a danger to other people. Goddamn it. Why do you have to do everything the hard way? Can't you see you've played this string out as far as it will go? You know that if you don't go with me voluntarily I'll have to get papers and send people out here after you. Is that what you want?
The old man was suddenly seized with weariness, a weight of torpor bearing down on him as if all the things he'd done and all the things he'd said and all the things he'd heard in all the years he'd lived had suddenly come due all at once. It took an enormous effort to reply, just to breathe. He sat packing the bowl of his pipe and staring at the red kerosene can on Choat's porch.
Goodbye, Paul, he said at last. You take care of yourself.
I'll tell you what he did do one time, Thurl Chessor said. He was in Long's grocer store and when they wasn't nobody watchin him he poked a mouse down into a Co-Cola bottle and acted like he drunk off of it. Oh he cut a shine. Spittin and gaggin. He throwed such a fit with Long and the bottlin company they give him a world of cold drinks just to shut him up. Cases and cases of em, they drunk on em all summer. That bunch like to foundered theirselves on Co-Colas.
But do you reckon he'd burn a man out?
I wouldn't think so. I never heard tell of him doin anybody any real harm. He'll steal anything ain't tied down or on fire but he's too triflin and lazy to make much effort.
Well. He said he was goin to. He said that tenant house would go up like a stack of kindlin and me with it. I may have leaned a little hard on him, shootin at him and all. Anyway I believe he'll try it. He strangled that dog.
You ought to get the law then. Tell the high sheriff.
Choat would just deny it. He's tryin to make Paul believe I'm crazy. All I want you to do is just speak up if anything does happen. You go tell the law I told you ahead of time he threatened to do it. Will you do that?
Yeah. I'll do that.
I wouldn't want him to get clean away with it.
No. You can have another one of them pups if you want it.
No I believe I'll pass, the old man said. I'm a little hard on dogs. Besides, I've still got the other one.
Maybe, Chessor said tentatively. Maybe it would be the best all the way around if you just went back. You said it was all right.
I lied, the old man grinned. It's a factory where they make dead folks and I ain't workin there no more.
Chessor was silent a time. As if he was considering his own bleak future as well as Meecham's. We all got to work somewhere, he finally said.
Meecham drove back and sat on the porch smoking his pipe and waiting for full dark so that he could steal the kerosene can. At last the day began to fail. Dark rising out of the earth like vapors. Against the sky the main house looked black and depthless as a stage prop. Beyond the Rorschach trees the heavens were burnished with metallic rose so bright it seemed to pulse. As if all the light there was was pooling there and draining off the rim of the world like quicksilver.
He worked very fast. He figured if he faltered he'd quit, give it up, let Paul be a daddy to him. He upended a box of photographs and threw on old newspapers and lit it all with a kitchen match and when the photographs began to burn with thin blue flames he picked up the can and began to pour kerosene around the room.
Except when he threw it the fire leapt toward him like something he'd summoned by dark invocation and even as he hurled the can from him he was thinking how like Choat it was to keep lawn mower gas in a can clearly labeled kerosene. His lashes and eyebrows were singed away and he could feel his hair burning and when the can blew the room filled up with liquid fire. The walls were flaming and on the foot of the burning bed Nipper watched him calmly out of the smoke with his glass eyes orange with refracted fire.
Meecham covered his face with his hands and fell to the floor. Far off he could hear somebody screaming Help me, help me, and then he realized it was he himself.
When he came to he was lying on his back staring upward into the stars. His body seemed to be absorbing the heat from the wheeling constellations, he rocked on a sea of molten lava. He could hear a voice and an ambulance wailing and after a while he figured out the voice was Lonzo Choat's.
He's damn lucky these houses is so close or I never would of heard him. Beats the hell out of me what he thought he was doin. He's been actin funny, I believe his mainspring may have busted. I reckon he thought it was winter and he was just buildin a fire.
That's a hell of a brave thing you did, Choat, another voice said. Let's go with him, Ray.
Then the stars were gone and he was rocking down the sleek wall of the night. He could feel the ambulance beneath him wild and fierce as a beast, the heavy shocks taking stockgap and curve, then there was a sharp pain in his wrist and a voice was saying, Lay back, old-timer, this'll cool you off.
He was in a cold glacial world of wind-formed ice, ice the exact blue of frozen Aqua Velva, a world so arctic and alien life was not even rumored and he struggled up to see.
Help me hold him, Ray, he's trying to get up.
But the frieze of night was familiar. Why I believe we've crossed over into Alabama, he said to himself in wonder, and in truth they were descending into a landscape sculpted by memory. The ambulance rocked on past pastoral farmhouses whose residents' dust these sixty years still dreamed their simple dreams behind darkened windows, past curving lazy creeks he had fished and waded as a boy, past surreal cotton fields white as snow in the moonlight.
He pressed his face to the glass as a child might and watched the irrevocable slide of scenery, tree and field and sleeping farmhouse, studying each object as it hove into view and went slipstreaming off the dark glass as if it might have something to tell him, might give him some intimation as to his destination.
I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down: Collected Stories