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What They Left, Part One

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story, Writing on July 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

A.G. Harmon is a professor at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.  He received his J.D. from The University of Tennessee, his M.A. from The University of New Hampshire, and his Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America.  A nominee for The Pushcart Prize in the essay, he was a 1998-1999 Richard Weaver Graduate Fellow and winner of the 1995 Glen Writers Fellowship.  He received the 1994 Milton Center Postgraduate Writing Fellowship and was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2003. His novel A House All Stilled (The University of Tennessee Press, 2002) was awarded The Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel in 2002 and was nominated for the Virginia Literary Prize and the Pen-Hemingway Award. His novel Fortnight was the runner-up for The William Faulkner Prize for the Novel in 2007. His book on the law in Shakespeare, Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, was published by State University of New York Press in 2004.

The following story first appeared in The Bellingham Review, Volume XXIX, no. 1, Issue 57 (2006) and is reprinted with express permission from the author. 

What They Left

Each call stood out from the next: a soft moan, a low horn, rising. The man’s head lifted an inch. His eyes wrinkled at the corners. His tongue touched the top of his palate, as if he smelled fire.

There was nothing to keep him from his work except these sounds, and even they only made him pause for a moment—turn small, keen eyes toward the line of hills, colored black in the last orange light, from which the sounds seemed to come. Then he returned to his labor.

A pen-light hung from the raised hood of the car’s engine, where his hands—the knuckles scabbed and some bleeding—toiled inside the motor. His flesh was raw and cracked and chapped from too much wind, too much weather without gloves, too little idleness.

He had lived past his middle age at the end of this tree-lined road. He had cut the way himself, a narrow alley leading from his back door, through the rear of his property, and ending at his store on the highway. There he sold old things, used things, gathered together by function, then by size, then by cost. Besides him, the only people that used the road were those who abandoned things alongside it. He did not know when it had become a castaway point, but it had happened slowly, and he had noticed it, slowly. After a time, as he made his way home, he began to find iceboxes, dishwashers, gates, air conditioners, lengths of fence, rolls of barbed wire. In the end, weeds took them.

Sometimes he would stop to see if he wanted any of the discarded things for himself—to salvage, reclaim, sell. If anything could be saved, he would slip back at night with a pulley and tackle, winch it against a tree, then slide what he wanted up from the ditch. Sometimes people got there before him though, so he had to work fast. Other times people took back what they had left. Once, at his store, a man claimed a tiller that had taken three days to fix:

“This is mine,” the man had said, his eyes bright, sharp. “I can tell.”

He shook his head, widened his stance so that his body stood at an angle to the other.

“I found it on the road.”

“It’s mine.”

“Not now.”

The other had placed his hand on the plastic grip, leaned over the top of the thing, glared: “You stole it. Prove you didn’t.”

So he had learned. He had to be careful of what he touched. He had to change things, just enough.

This time, though, they had worked too quickly, had been interrupted. He himself might have surprised them, coming down the road. He was thin, but tall, so his feet hit the earth hard and loud as he walked, grinding in the chert. They could have heard him a long way off. Nothing else accounted for how much they had left. The stereo had been slipped out, and some of the engine broken free, but he could work with what remained. It lay, piece by piece, cupped inside his hands; cold and slick and greasy; with his tools, it could be made to tick and turn warm.

It was only a day or so there; not even that. It had come to his notice that morning, as he walked to work. He might have overlooked it, had not the first of the sun picked out lights in the black paint. The car had been left off the shoulder, down a bank and beside a stand of pines.

His wrench slid over a bolt deep beneath the battery plate. It was a tight fit, but it caught the bolt’s angles. After several yanks, the wrench fell into the familiar release and give of loosening. If all went well, the engine would start soon, with new plugs and a new fan for the radiator. He would have to decide what to do with it then, though. The law would come into play. He could not say how, but he would have to decide.

His cap made his head hot. He pulled his hands out of the body and pushed his hat’s bill back from his brow. He thought for a moment and ran his fingers over whiskers, three days grown. He raked them back and forth. The bite warmed his face.

There was more to do, but not now. In the morning, then.

It was a small climb up from the stash of trees back to the road. He picked up a bucket of greasy tools, held the light between his teeth, and clawed at the grass with his free hand to keep his purchase. Once there, he took the light from his mouth and shined it in the direction he would take. The beam bobbed before him as he walked—a soft, collapsing tunnel through the dark. The tools jangled in the bucket.

The sounds returned: Two. Three. Silence.

He marched on through three more calls, and rests, and calls, before he stopped and spun toward them, swiveling on his down heel. He stared into the woods for a moment—a gray, ashen blue—then commenced to walk. He kept up the same stride as before, but with the hills facing.

There was no point going on until his mind was free. They might have come back—keys in hand. And he would not surrender his work to theirs. It was no more theirs than his.

He stopped to glance back at the car, then slowly ran his light down its length, fender to bumper, marking the body.

It was almost lost in the dark, now. It would take a man with a light, now.

To find the sounds he would have to crawl down the opposite bank, which fell off at a stiff grade. The light and the bucket together would be too much to carry. He would need a free hand to compensate, so he set the bucket down and drew out a hammer by its claw. He hefted it twice, then once more—once for each sound he had heard—and sat himself on the bank’s edge. He went belly first, sliding, the damp ground pressing through his clothes, kissing at his skin.

Now, the only dealings he had with men were with those who came for reclaimed things, gathered by function, size, cost. They found what they wanted, paid or refused the price, then went their way. If he could have left a jar for them to put the money in, he would not have walked down the road every day to watch it happen. But that much, the press of their money on his hand, he had to take.

Five years stood between him and his father’s death, the last man he had to take more from or of. Twisted by strokes, his body hunched to the side, one arm useless, the old man had died in his own bath water and been buried in land filled with strangers. He had thought at the time that dying was the last of a man’s cost. He knew better now.

His grip tightened around the hammer.

The last man he had lived with he had seen dead; and now the next he would see living, he would make dead.

Near the bottom of the bank, he turned onto his back, took to his feet, brushed himself off. Ahead were shallow woods, and on the other side of the woods, a field. The light was not as strong as it had been, so he snapped off the switch to save the battery. His eyes adjusted for a moment, then he felt through the dark by the violet paper sky.

The sounds, three, came again as he edged onward; he could tell their direction better. He was not afraid.

On the other side, a field of harvested corn stretched before him, running half a mile toward the hills. Months had passed since the picker had been here; the place looked raked and ripped, the shorn stalks rotten from rain, wind. He held the hammer against the back of his right thigh and shined the light along the corn, looking for what he expected.

Water, or dew, or blood, glistened along the girl’s legs. He could not tell if she had lost part of one limb from the knee down, since only her left side was visible. The right leg might be tucked beneath her. He craned his neck to get a better view, but could see only a thrashed-out spot in the stalks, a place lain in so long that it had become a trap.

Dragged herself from the woods, he decided. They had dumped her there, then returned to her car at the road. Little by little, she had crawled, passing out and coming to.

The girl made the sounds again, low moans into the earth beneath her face. That had caused her cries to sound as they had. Other than this, there was no noise. No one else was there.

He eased the light about her body in an arc. But as the beam reached her head, she began to turn in his direction, as if he had spoken. Her lips made a dry, smacking noise.

“John,” she murmured, her eyes bleary. It might have been a question.

Before she could say it again, he pressed through the ragged corn, clattering about him like a demon’s laughter.

He drew his boot back and drove the steel toe up beneath her ribs. She gave, her body lifting, then sinking onto the top of his foot. He paused, set to do it again, but she fell quiet and still. He yanked his boot from beneath her settling weight.

Night was full on him; in the few moments it had taken to see and know what she was, the sky had darkened. It was not entirely black. There would be stars. But the air was sharp. It had grown darts and picked at his skin and lungs.

He could not keep the car now. The simple news came all of a piece, unquestioned, unimpeachable. She belonged to the car, and whatever they had done to her, it had not been enough. If he finished the work he had started, the law would figure further than he could see to the end of.

He shined his light down at the hammer: black and blue and cold: an old hammer: his father’s hammer. The wood was bleached from the sun—from hand oil—from years of fixing things.

If he left the car where it was, they might find it, then find her, then find him. He was the only man anywhere near this place. And, too, he had touched the car. He had doctored it just enough, so that someone could tell. They had left too much.

The girl stirred, her shoulder blades twitching. With a turn of his light, he took her length.

She had both legs after all. One was only crumpled beneath the other, not lost. Still, it was broken. A blue-white bruise swelled from below and behind the knee. By her even skin, he could see she was young—fifteen—sixteen. But she was not dressed for the weather, in a short, black jacket, a white skirt hiked up around the top of her thighs. She bled from somewhere around her waist. A dried rivulet ran along her broken leg.

He moved the light to her head. Her short hair was both blonde and black and was pushed toward her face. Another rivulet ran across her temple and bloodied her cheek. He stepped closer, squatted, and shined the beam onto the top of her head. A wedge had been rent in her scalp, parting the hair in a zigzag.

He cut the light off and sat back on the ground.

If he picked her up? She might die on the way. He could not carry the light and the hammer and the girl. He looked across the field.

A fence separated it from another stretch of land—one his father had grown tobacco on, and shot a man’s hog on—a slug through the belly, so it would drag itself home to die. The road lay beyond that.

She might die before he got her there, or even then, before a car came along. If he left her and went to the road himself, she might also die. It was too cold now, and would be colder yet; too cold to live with a wedge cut out of her head and bleeding from the waist. She should not have lived as long as she had.

He closed his eyes.

What would the law say, with him standing on a road in the night, holding a dead girl, her car nearly fixed? Nothing came to him. He could not see that far.

He switched on the light again, its beam falling before his eyes—a stepping-down color, setting and settling, warmer as it died—more gold than yellow. The glow would not last long enough for him to make up his mind.

It was better to leave some mark, to show that he had tried. Something had to be left, to testify. He placed the light on the ground, aimed away from her eyes so that he could see, but not wake her. He stood again, unzipped his coveralls and pulled the legs over his boots. Now he was only in his pants and shirt, and the cold crept up his spine and down his collar.

He sank to his knees and crawled towards the girl. With the light aimed at her shoulders, he laid the coveralls, warm from his own heat, on top of her. The cloth spread from one bone cap to the other, with enough to lie on the ground at both sides.

How small she was; how small. She could not be this small and live in this cold dark.

He placed the rest on top of her waist, her hips, her thighs, her calves—his body matching hers, overwhelming hers. Finished, he rocked back on his knees.

She had not moaned or moved in a long while. A cold, quiet moment passed as he felt for the light. Slowly, he shined what was left of its power into her face.

Her teeth glistened first, then the sparks in her open eyes. She watched him with a long, fathomless look. There was warmth behind it, not the abandoned gape of his father, slumped dead in his bath. Her lips quivered.

He scrambled back like a crab.

“Hey,” he said and nudged her thigh with his foot. “Hey.”

She would not answer. Her lids were shut partly, but the wits were now asleep again.

She could not have seen him; not his face, at least. It was too dark. And the light had been in her eyes. She was too dazed to recall him, even if she had seen.

Still. Still. And she had said what she had said. And he had done what he had done.

They were leaving more and more, like a bad trick. The car, then her, and now her memory. If he left her, she might come to altogether. After all, his father had, many times, come back. Maybe she would come to, stumble up, walk to the road; she might never see the marks he had left. She might remember only his face and nothing more. The last thing is always what you remember.

He would have to give her some other thing to remember last. He could see that far.

…to continue in part two, which will appear here tomorrow…

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