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What They Left, Part Two

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story, Writing on July 6, 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.

…continued from part one….

“You sell car parts—and shit like that?” the policeman had asked. He leaned against the iron post that held up the front porch.

“That’s right.”

“You own that junk stand? Up there on the road?

He was fat and sweaty and smelled of green after-shave. He chewed stick after stick of gum. Another policeman, bony, with a mustache as thin as a boy’s, sat on the front step. He dug dog shit from the soles of his patent leather shoes with a piece of tree bark.

“I sell parts,” he had answered.

“Must be doing pretty good, if you’re this busy,” the fat one said.

“It’s never too good.”

“Well, must be. You were there instead of here.”

He unwrapped the foil from a white stick of gum—spearmint—and shoved it into his full mouth. “Why’d you leave him, in the state he was in?”

“I have to work.”

The fat man frowned, squinted. “He stays—stayed—here while you were at work?”

“Yes.”

“You couldn’t get nobody to stay with him? In the state he’s in?”

“No.”

The man popped his gum. “How long did he stay alone?”

“‘Til I got done.”

“All day, then?”

“‘Til I got done.”

He looked over the policeman’s shoulder, through the open front door to the place where his father lay.

They had put newspapers over his face and crotch, the sheaves wilting from the damp. The rest of him lay in a puddle made from the bath water that dripped from his body. He seemed more twisted than he had when alive.

“Didn’t you think something might happen to him?”

“Nothing ever did.”

The man nodded. “Something always happens. Eventually.”

“Never did before.”

He grunted out a little laugh. “You left him in the bath water?”

“Yeah. Half of him didn’t work good, but he could move around for himself.”

“Well, not good enough. He couldn’t get out.”

“He always could before. He—”

“Well, he couldn’t this time.”

“Shit!” the other man yelled as his stick broke. He got up, stormed into the yard, and snapped a shoot from a tree branch. Then he came back, sat down, and began to dig again, scraping the brown paste off on the porch’s edge. The other watched for a while.

“You didn’t leave him any way to get in touch with you?” he continued. “You didn’t try to get in touch with him during the day?”

“I didn’t have anything to say to him. He didn’t have anything to say to me.”

“Well, I guess he did this time. Since he couldn’t get out.”

The man moved closer, jabbed him in the chest with his middle finger.

“You don’t seem to understand. You let him freeze.”

It took a moment to grasp.

“I didn’t.”

The fat man drew back with an amazed look on his face.

“Don’t see how you can very well say that. Don’t see nothing says otherwise. Just an old man, froze dead in his bath water.” He looked at the other man on the step. “You see anything else, Mitchell?”

The little man threw the stick, end over end, into the yard.

“All I see’s dog shit.”

                                                            ________________

He took the coveralls from her body and laid them out like a blanket. Then he lifted her on top of them, crossed her arms over her stomach, and placed his own arms beneath her shoulders and knees.

You could not be anywhere near them, he had thought to himself, time and again. But now, despite himself, he was made to. All he had wanted was the car.

He listened for a moment, to hear if his touch would make her speak.

If she spoke again— if she said that again—he would not be able to touch her.

His fingers moved around to find a ledge on her body.

They left it all up and down the road, whatever they could not burn or bury. Sometimes you could ignore them. But sometimes they left something you wanted. And once you reached and caught hold, you wound up drawing back more than you meant. From then on, it was hard to tell. You could speculate, guess—but not tell.

She was so light that he used too much heft to lift her from the ground. He nearly lost his grip as he rose. His fingers clutched tight, but he had to hold her so that she was practically square against his chest and stomach, hers pressed to his.

At the movement, she let out a long groan, a yowl. Her leg twisted at a wild angle, like a coat hanger bent by a mad child.

His shirt was wet from frost that lay over her in a spray. How could she be so wet, so soon?

He stumbled forward, without the hammer, without the light.

____________________

“Must not have liked him much,” the little man said, digging in the other sole now. He kept his gaze down.

“What difference does that make?”

“Unh-hunh. Didn’t then?”

“What do you care?” His voice was louder than he meant for it to be.

“Now. I see,” said the fat one. He stretched his gum in a web over his tongue. It was white and red, like a chicken’s skin.

“If it had’a been my Daddy—”

“Well, it wasn’t. It was mine.”

“Unh-hunh,” he smiled. “Didn’t mean much to you, then?”

He shook his head, again, too hard, too fast. “He meant what he meant. He—”

“Unh-hunh. Justa old man, then. Crippled?”

“No. My daddy. And—”

“There he was, calling—” the little one broke in, soft, as though he were in the presence of a sleeping child.

“You don’t know that.”

The fat man popped his gun.

“Neither do you. Seems to me you—”

“I didn’t. Why do you want to say that?”

“You might as well have.”

He stepped back, sideways to them both.

“I might as well have, seeing as how this is all gonna play out.”

The man smiled. “You don’t have any idea how it’s all gonna play out.”

He was going to answer that. He had meant to answer that.

_____________________

He made it to the end of the first field before stopping to rest. He would have to think how to get her over the fence. The wounds had frozen sealed, but if he dropped her over the top of the page wire, like a calf, her leg might split open, or her head might give way again.

He laid her on the ground beside the fence, then felt the cold air skate against his chest. She had kept it warm, though she had seemed very cold while he carried her.

His eyes used to the dark, he found where the wire joined the top post. Both were old, the wire and the post. His father had put them in: cedar, wire, staples. He used one hand to hold the top steady, the other to grip the wire. Then he scotched the bottom with his boot. After three good pulls, the staple came loose. He did the same all the way down the measure of the post, then placed his sole on the top of the wire and crushed it down with his foot. Once he had the girl in his arms again, across his chest, he stepped over into the field.

You could not run from them. And they never really threw anything away; not really. Nothing was done with, once and for all. If you fixed it, if you just brushed it with your skin…

The road was only a hundred yards away. But there should have been cows in this pasture—Holstein, with white patches that would glow on a starry night. He could not see or hear or smell them as he staggered across ground that crunched with a new coldness. Someone had changed what he remembered, too much for him to recognize it anymore. For a moment, he was unsure which way the road lay.

He stopped and turned his head about to feel with his face, to find a place that smelled of open asphalt. Finally. It was where it should have been.

He would be at the road soon, he thought, walking. He could set this down soon. But then something jerked at his mind, a rough hand inside his head.

Even if it looked right to him, who was to say it would look right to the next? It could take years explaining, years ending, if it ever ended at all, if it could ever be explained. He knew it could take that much. It had before.

He looked down at the girl, wrapped in his clothes.

Her head bobbed roughly as he walked through the field. She might have stirred in his grip. He thought she had, but his arms were asleep for the most part, and he could not tell if the throb he felt was the blood dying in his limbs or hers.

All at once he lurched forward. The field fell off at a low spot, and he began to stamp wildly about the pavement. The clapping sounds stung like pistol shots.

Feeling through the dark with his feet, he had not realized he was so close to the road. He had expected another fence, another thing to have to lift her over, but what he remembered had been pulled down. His back strained under the pressure as he stumbled about. He planted his steps wide, to keep his base, then tossed the girl up high on his chest. He stopped to catch his breath, his balance regained.

The pavement was silver and blue, somehow softer than the ground. He stared down one direction, then turned and stared down the other.

Should he wait here or keep walking? Which way, if he walked, should he go? If they looked behind what they saw, without someone to tell them what to see?

He edged to the right a few steps. But before he could get far, the crooks of his arms cramped, hitching for lack of blood.

She had become a shadow in his arms. She lifted her head, mumbled, but still a shadow. He could feel her voice coming from a shade within a shade.

When she spoke this time, sense would be strung through the words, threatening like a thing stirred from his own chest, harvested deep from his own throat.

“John.”

He looked at where her face would be.

“You say that again, and I’ll drop you in this road. You say that again, and the first car comes along, you go under it. You say that again—”

_________________

“John, ole buddy. Doesn’t look good. Gonna have to make a call.”

“Who to?”

The man had laughed. “You’ll see.”

“For what?”

“You’ll see. John, you don’t just let an old man—”

“I didn’t.”

“How you know you didn’t?”

He had stood there, staring.

“Well, there you go,” the man said.

_________________

“Who’re you talking to? Who’re you calling at?”

He was cold from sweat, surprised at how wet he felt. For all he knew, he was wet from her. In the dark, as he carried her, as she said what she said, the whole time she could have been dressing him in her blood.

He had meant to leave a mark, to show them how to see it. But instead, she had left one. And that would be the testimony. That was what they would see. Even if she were to say it again, even if she were saying it now, he would be unable to stop her.

His head felt light. He swallowed in a dry, spitless way.

It was too large to see, too large and dark to get your eyes around or through. You needed somebody else to say, from some high place, that he saw what you did. Otherwise, they might make up what they wanted: “How’d she get there? How’d you come across her? Can anybody account for where you were? What you said? What were you after, anyhow?”

Light approached, though he had not heard it coming down the long, straight way. He did not move aside, but stood firm on the earth, a vague flatness against which she held them.

The beams grew, separated. There came a deepening sound, like sand poured into a box.

With an odd sorrow, he understood the light would move to the side, pull next to him.

It slowed and stopped.

Beautiful. Black, smooth, purring with a hot, slick life. All he had meant to have.

With a screech that made him start, step back, look down at the girl, the window lowered. Glass squealed against the rubber guard. The silhouette of a man’s head.  His voice was rough.

“What happened?”
Happened? “I found her.”

“Where?”

He looked back toward the field. “Back there.”

“Is she alive?”

He gazed down at the black weight.

“She—right now, she is.”

The voice at the window talked to someone beside him. The two voices grew louder.

One wanted them, one wanted to send someone back. In the end, the man made a disgusted noise. He rose and struggled around to reach the back door latch, then pushed it open.

“Get in, then.”

There was no light to help him place her on the back seat, to lay her in a spot so narrow. A moment passed before he could pull his dead limbs loose from her body. As he released and drew back, he sensed how cold he would be.

“Oh no, you don’t. Get in. We’ve got to see about this.”

Somehow, he did not challenge the man. He could not challenge him. Instead, he slid onto the floorboard beside her and pulled the door closed.

The engine fell into gear, climbed into speed.

“Did you carry her far?” the other voice said, a woman’s—quiet, scared, fast.

“I don’t know.”

“Did you ask her what happened?”

“No.”

“Did you see it happen?”

“No.”

“Were you alone?”

“Yes.”

She stopped, turned in her seat. He could not tell if she was looking down on him or had turned away. He could not tell the direction in which she spoke.

“It’s good you came along, isn’t it?”

The girl lay above him, at the level of his eyes, as though on a shelf or a table—an offering of some dark function, weight, price.

Wind poured through the window that had not yet been raised—down his collar, across his raw skin. He pulled his knees close, crouched inside the tight shade, and listened to the motor surround him.

He felt the gears shift more and more thinly, the metal of the chassis shivering with change. It traveled against the cage of his hips, the span of his bones, each ball, each socket. The whole of the engine ticked and warmed beneath its own power, with him inside, riding above wheels that would travel beyond the limits of his sight.

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