Billy ends his marriage with a note that says it’s me, not you; you’re great, I’m not. He leaves it on the counter under a vanilla-scented candle along with his last paycheck. Then he waits across the street in his Dodge Dart until she comes home. When she spots him, he presses his palm against his window and takes off. He feels like he’s dropping off the lip of a quarry, streaming down, toes pointed, toward the waffled water. The impact comes later.
She was called Robyn even though her license said Mary Catherine. They lived near each other in a Tampa neighborhood bounded by auto dealerships, unregulated fabrication shops, and a spray of strip clubs that kept cars circulating in the streets 24/7. Robyn’s habitat since birth, the environmental jangle was her catalyst. Get up, get out, make it work. Billy, however, was a transplant. He had grown up inside an extended family of migrant harvesters, riding in the big combines and sleeping dorm-style in twenty-dollar-a-night motels. They moved with the weather until injury and exhaustion grounded his parents in Florida where they enrolled Billy in his first public school. The speed of moving objects and the density of human bodies felt to Billy like an angry thing. He didn’t like coming back to the same house every night. And there was never a spot where he could see straight ahead for more than an eighth of a mile.
Robyn’s suntan and creamy, extroverted smile felt to Billy like an unexpected gift. She was as sugary to him as canned peaches, and for reasons Billy never explored, she decided to hook herself to him. She taught him about sex, working through a menu of techniques from a book she said her mother had given to her. She told him what clothes to wear and steered him toward the easiest classes. Her attentions made Billy drowsy, dulling the edges so that nothing seemed dangerous.
When high school ran its course, Robyn announced their next step – marriage and a rental house in a less horrible neighborhood. It was then that Billy began to lose track of the horizon. Each ritual – engagement, bachelorette party, first apartment, salsa lessons – made Robyn stronger, more accomplished, more hopeful. Her expectations increased. It was like she was making their life into a how-to video with affirmations and crafty time-savers included at no extra cost. As she bloomed, Billy sagged, every day another brick in his backpack.
He found work at a dairy ten miles outside the city. He learned the big animals quickly. The cows seemed familiar to him, and the return to producing something with his hands was a relief. Billy could sense, however, that Robyn was not impressed. He watched her increase the pace of her extra-curricular activities, enrolling in classes and groups designed, she told him, to maximize her human potential.
“Honestly, Billy, what is it going to take?” she had said, turning both of her palms upwards on her thighs and blowing a bubble through her chewing gum. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, studying for her real estate exam.
“What is your life plan?” She pushed her chin in his direction, as if to jab him. It was not the first time for this conversation.
It was also not the first time he had no answer.
Six days later, Billy drives north on a state highway into Wisconsin. Without warning, he comes upon a two-story wooden dollhouse sitting in the middle of the road. The structure is so unexpected that it does not register as an obstacle until the moment of impact. Immediately, the air fills with brightly painted balsa wood. Something lands on the windshield like a punch in the face. It is a little cloth man from the dollhouse. He’s wearing a white shirt with a tie painted on the front. The line of ink that was his smile has gotten smudged so that it looks like he’s blowing smoke against the glass. He looks like he’s thinking about something far away.
The little man remains fixed to the windshield, pasted down by the wind. Then Billy turns on the wipers and flicks him into the wind. The remains of the dollhouse resettle on the road like a box of broken pasta. There are no other cars on either side of the road. He presses down on the accelerator and the car shimmies back up to eighty-five. Billy feels lighter, as if his sinuses have cleared and a bolt of fresh air has hit his brain.
An hour later, Billy spots a cardboard sign wired to a pole at the side of the road.
Farm Hand Wanted
Billy checks the rearview, pumps his brakes, and makes the turn. Soon he spots a replica of the sign hanging from an apple tree in the front yard of a small dairy farm. He pulls in and unfolds out of the car.
A man appears from behind the barn. His swollen chest makes him look like an upright bull calf.
“You all hiring?” Billy’s voice is out of tune. He’s been chain-smoking straight through from Florida, trying to figure out what he is feeling.
“Just the one. You got experience?”
The man has gold, wire-rim glasses that cut into his cheeks. His eyes are grey-blue, but they are not synchronized. One drifts high and to the right. The other holds Billy in place like a hand to his throat.
“Most about all of it. I was at a commercial dairy in Florida.”
“We need another back,” the man says, listing closer to Billy. “I take care of the hay. Put up six thousand bails last season. The wife handles all the animals. That’s hers to tell.”
The man smells like licorice and tractor grease, and the tip of his tongue keeps showing, touching his upper lip as if to make sure it’s still there. He explains the salary and what else is included, which is a bed and three meals.
A woman appears on the porch of the house. She’s like an eclipse, blocking out the sun so that Billy feels the sudden urge to shut himself off completely and then start up again. He shakes himself, for a second. Her hair is trauma white, like it happened overnight. She opens a gap between her lips.
“I can do whatever,” Billy says.
In the silence, Billy watches a line of black birds follow each other down from the barn roof. They settle at the edge of the yard, watching.
“Okay. We’ll give it a go,” the man says, putting his hand out for Billy to shake. “She’ll show you where to be.”
The woman comes down off the porch. Billy picks up his duffle bag and follows her around the corner of the house to a tool shed set on concrete blocks. She takes the padlock from the hasp on the door and slips the metal tong into the waistband of her jeans. She opens the door and then stands aside, crossing her arms over her chest, and hitching one boot up against the wall.
“My name is Mitch.” It sounds to Billy like a name she’s just invented. She drops her arms and steps in front of him into the shed. She has a line of three black dots tattooed across the back of her neck.
Inside is a metal-frame cot with a cloth mattress and one blanket, a white plastic folding chair, a card table made of tin, and a bureau. An eighteen-pane window looks out over the laundry lines and back toward the house. It does not open. Etched on the walls with heavy black marker are the silhouettes of missing tools. Grass clippers, pruning shears, shovels, mallets and a perfect long row of wrenches in descending order by length. A column of dust floats up from the mattress.
“Thanks,” Billy says, setting his bag on the bed. Mitch presses her fingertips against the front of her thighs. There are vines on her silver belt buckle and she has a scar running across the back of her hand and on up her arm. It fades to a pink smear at her elbow.
“There’s a shower and a toilet over in the cow barn. That’ll be yours.”
The only breaths she takes are long slow pulls, like she’s drawing water up from the bottom of a well.
“Dinner’s at five-thirty so come on up just before,” she says. “And you should know, my husband, Thick, the one you just met. He doesn’t allow any smoking. Not anywhere.”
She stands in the doorway, drumming her fingers against the jam. Billy knows from the way her eyes flick from side to side that she hasn’t been following this rule.
“Okay. Got that.”
He watches her walk back over to the house, fixing the rhythm of her hips in his mind like a song.
II. House Rules
Billy sleeps until a spider crawls across the bridge of his nose and wakes him. He gets up and walks over to the hay barn. Thick is working at a bench, sharpening an individual knife from a cutter bar and sending a curtain of orange sparks onto the floor.
Above the bench–which stretches the entire length of the barn—are black and white photographs in flat wooden frames. All the photos are of shirtless young men, standing around in groups or sitting in rows on the link-belts of oversized army bulldozers. Even the ones who are smiling look lonely. In the backgrounds are droopy palm trees and great curls of barbed wire fencing. Billy feels assaulted by the faces and the shiny black pupils that appear to move as he moves. For some reason, Billy thinks these people don’t like it here on this barn wall.
“Korea. The DMZ. That’s where they put me,” Thick says. Billy flinches, surprised that Thick had even known he was standing there. Thick holds the cutter bar knife, a steel triangle with one sharp edge, and assesses his work with the ball of his left thumb.
“That’s right. We kept her clean, by god.” Thick explains how his company was responsible for keeping the jungle out of the no-man’s land between the north and the south. The heat was blast furnace hot and they had to keep the bulldozers working 24/7. The only reason he had to come home was that he took a bullet through his shoulder, and it got infected. He sets the knife on the bench in a line with several others.
“These were my boys. My men.”
Billy steps in closer to a cluster of smaller photos, each a portrait of one man. Thick advances suddenly, moving at a speed not consistent with his size, and sets himself between Billy and the photographs.
“These ones here. These are the ones that didn’t make it,” he says. A sour smell from Thick’s mouth hangs in the space between them. Thick presses his finger into the base of Billy’s throat, just below the Adam’s apple. Billy feels a blood-flush through his head. He can’t remember anyone touching him in this spot before.
“These aren’t decorations. These are for real.”
“Ah—” Billy tries to swallow, but Thick’s finger makes him gag.
Billy steps back, detaching. “I do.”
“Well some don’t. And that’s a big fucking problem.”
Thick takes a piece of cheesecloth from the front pocket of his overhauls and begins to clean the glass on the photographs. A smile spreads slowly across his face, and he continues to clean. Billy waits, unable to stop staring.
III. Fish on the Line
Nothing cuts through the smell of cow shit like smoke from a Marlboro Red. Billy knows. It has been one month now at the farm, but this is the first time he’s smelled it. He is mucking out. The smoke moves quickly through the barn and the cows pick up their heads, one-by-one down the line.
Billy follows the smell to Mitch, standing in a spot off the end of the barn, where the angle of the building and the height of the manure pile should have blocked the smell. Billy arrives just as she expels a great, grey cloud of smoke into the air above her head. She is swaying slightly from side to side.
“No shit. You want one?”
She lights his off the end of hers and then slides her free hand in behind her belt buckle. She is completely comfortable staring at him. She sucks on her cigarette, and the tobacco pops from the sudden rush of heat. After a long moment, she lets the smoke drift back out of her mouth.
“How you doing?” he asks. He’s not sure he wants to know.
She gives him the bones of her story. Mother dies early. Father gets violent. Younger sisters run away. Enter Thick Barston.
“Well—” she says, lighting up a second cigarette and sitting down in the short grass. He was twelve years her senior and had already been to Korea and back. He came to her house, a farm only fifteen miles from this one, with a load of firewood. He had not grown up in their town.
“I never saw a man move so gently. He stacked that wood like every stick was made of glass.”
“You’re talking about Thick?”
“Yeah. I know. Not now, but then. The thing of it was, you could tell he was holding back on something. Something awfully powerful.” She pulls again on the cigarette, closing her right eye against the smoke.
“My father said anyone with a name like Thick was a direct agent from hell. I was ready for a ticket to anywhere, if you know what I mean. A month after my not-so-sweet seventeen I married him at the county courthouse. Thick put on his uniform. We looked good.”
She flicks her cigarette butt high up over the crest of the manure pile – landing it on the backside in the slurry where Thick will not see it. She stands up and gives Billy her hand.
They go to Billy’s shed, and she pushes him onto the cot. Billy keeps one eye open, enough to see how Mitch pulls off her boots and pushes her jeans down to the floor. Her legs are forested with dark freckles, and her underwear is black. She smiles and frees herself from her shirt like it’s been bothering her all day.
“He’s gone to a swap meet,” she says, moving onto the bed and straddling his legs with hers. She pins his shoulders in place with her palms, digging her fingertips into the muscle tissue like she is wedging clay. He feels the skin of her thighs hugging his hips, her warm breath on the top of his head. She hangs her breasts over his eyes, blocking out the light. Her skin smells like cedar. She asks him if he wants to stop only after he is already inside her, and his fingers are locked around her shoulder blades. They breathe in sequence, trading off the stale oxygen in the shed, grinding against one another in bursts. She takes his face in her hands and steadies both of their heads, not breathing, moving only her hips and legs until everything washes together for Billy, and he lets go and slams the back of both hands against the plywood wall. When his eyes refocus, he sees the sweat on her chest and her dark nipples and the smooth line of her chin as she arches against him, holding it. Then she rocks forward and presses her face onto the sheet. Billy listens, trying to separate the cricket-roar outside from the buzzing inside his head that he thinks may be the feeling of not being alone.
A shiver pulses up from Billy’s ankles and travels through his butt, bouncing Mitch. She laughs and blows a deep breath against the edge of his ear.
“Still with us?” she says, sitting up, her hands flat on his chest.
Billy wants to say something to make her laugh, to show some mastery, but he can’t get his face to do anything other than smile. It’s as if he is ferociously drunk. She kisses him in the center of his forehead, like an old friend, and then rolls off and puts herself back together. She makes no effort to hide the process. Billy cannot think of anything he’d rather watch for the rest of his life. He puts his hands behind his head and relaxes the muscles in his shoulders and stomach and thighs in a way that feels entirely unfamiliar.
“Nice,” Mitch says, snapping the snap on her jeans. When she opens the shed door, the light explodes in her white hair like a flashbulb.
IV. No Worries
Mostly, Billy does not see the fights. But on this day, the last day of August when it feels as if the sun has not set for a week and the cows are so hot that Billy has given them a spray-down as they left the barn, he comes upon the scene in progress.
As he pulls open the screen door, he sees that the kitchen has been scrambled. Broken glass and dishes. Food sprawled over the linoleum. The overhead light, stripped of its shade, still swinging. The kitchen table is already turtled, legs in the air. The chairs stand by as awkward witnesses. Everything has come to rest in the place it should not be.
Thick raises his coffee mug, growling. He’s got it centered in his fleshy palm. The cords stand up on his neck. Mitch’s shoulders rise, shrinking the length of her neck. Thick fires, spitting as his arm rotates, and the cup explodes as a dark stain on the wall to the left of Mitch’s skull.
She does not move. Neither does Billy. Not until Thick whirls and plants both his hands on Billy’s chest, reversing him back out through the door and landing him butt down on the gravel path. There is a cut at the top of Thick’s cheek that looks like a coin slot.
Billy watches from the dirt as Thick swipes his left forearm backwards across Mitch’s face, bashing her toward the wall and out of Billy’s view. He drops his head onto ground. A sound like two fast trains passing in opposite directions boxes his ears. It is Thick, slamming the kitchen door and pounding by on his way to the barn.
When the ringing stops and the white spots leave his eyes, Billy stands and goes back into the kitchen. There is no one there. It’s just the wreckage, the part that Billy has seen before. He rebuilds what’s been undone. As he washes the wall with a wet rag, blending the stain in with the others, Billy fights with the image of Thick’s cocked arm and the low rumble of dumb animal pain still bouncing around the room. He feels it as he turns the overturned table back onto its legs. As he tucks in the chairs. As he gets a cup of coffee for himself and sits down to listen to his own breathing and see about the cut on the base of his palm.
Mitch reappears, tracing her fingers through her hair. Already there are bruises along her jawline. Dirty little clouds. She looks from point to point around the room.
“You get any breakfast,” she asks, pulling open the refrigerator door. Her voice is scratchy.
“I’m good. No worries,” Billy says, watching the dot dot dot on her neck.
“I’m not worried.”
The sliver of Billy that is not drugged by Mitch, the tiny part of him that still knows how to function without her forehead pressed against his or her fingers locked around his neck, is trying to send a message. There’s something to be done, something to learn. But then he feels it fade, dissolving away like a face in a dream that was so clear only moments ago.
V. Into the Woods
In mid-September, Thick leaves them overnight, saying that he will drive to a tractor fair outside Des Moines and then come back the next day. His announcement, made at the table during a silent dinner, produces a generalized bolt of static energy and fixes Billy’s eyes to his plate.
“That alright?” Thick says, drawing air in through his nose for an impossible number of seconds.
Billy and Mitch go to a park where the red pines are packed in so tight that they make for perpetual twilight at ground level. Mitch brings cold chicken, a block of cheese, and a six-pack. They go at each other once on the way and once in the needles under the blanket. Billy knows she prefers short, airless frenzies that drive everything out of his body and leave him flushed red. He tries to keep a hand on some part of her body as much as he possibly can.
They sit at the edge of the brook that runs through the center of the park. Her bare feet twitch in the water. Billy lays behind her, his legs wrapped up around her waist and his head on the ground. He is trying to see the sky. He can hear Mitch snapping twigs.
“Did you ever have a kid?” Billy asks. He regrets the question immediately.
“I had one that I lost. Late. Everything got fucked up.”
Billy comes up on one elbow and puts his hand on the middle of her back, his fingers split across the ridge of her spine.
“The hospital out here wasn’t ready for it, and they made some mistakes. They flew me to Chicago, but it was no use.”
She pulls her feet out of the water and twists around until she is lying next to him, talking into his chest.
“They said it wouldn’t be safe to try again.”
She has her hand on her belly, the veins showing through her skin. Billy knows she is telling him more than she wants to tell him. She rolls to her other side and Billy pins himself up against her back.
“Thick came to get me in the truck the next day. They wouldn’t let him on the helicopter.”
“I watched the doctor explain it to him in the hall. I swear, it was like the guy was having his own fucking surgery.” She kicks one leg out straight, knocking gravel into the stream.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s when he really went away.”
“He took it personally. It was not about me having my junk turned inside out. It was not about our kid. It was about the world having its last fucking laugh at poor old Thick. He never came into the room. He just waited in the hall until I was dressed.”
She arches her back and pushes up closer to him. Billy wraps one arm around her rib cage, his palm stretched across the griddle of her bones, and props his head up with the other. He works through all the things that he knows would be useless to say.
Then she tells him about the heart attacks, the first one coming less than a week after they came home from Chicago and before Mitch could even get up out of bed. Thick seized up on his tractor as he was coming into the yard. He slumped to the left and the big 6100 went to the right, peeling the porch completely off the house. Mitch popped her stitches at the sound.
“Now we’re up to six. In five years.”
“Jesus. How does he keep going?”
“Fear and meanness. The usual.”
Billy falls asleep with his hand cupped between her breast and the pine needles. When he wakes, it is nearly full dark. His wrist and shoulder throb from being clam-shelled on the ground. Mitch sits in the car with the doors open, smoking. Billy shivers from the cold. It’s the first time he’s done that since he arrived in Wisconsin.
VI. Just Do It
Billy comes awake like a pot getting dropped. He sits up on his single mattress and looks out the fixed-pane window of the shed. Through the glass, he sees Mitch lighting a cigarette. She cups the match against the wind with her boy-hands and then goes back to hanging the laundry, pinching the cigarette between her lips as she snaps sheets out into the wind.
The sun fills Billy’s shed more than it should and he knows he has overslept the milking. He also knows that if Mitch is smoking in the open air than Thick is gone. For the last week, since Thick came back from the tractor show towing a new mover-conditioner, Mitch has not visited him in his shed. Her smell in his blankets is getting weaker. Billy feels his stomach tighten in a familiar way.
He pulls on his jeans and a t-shirt and steps out of the shed. A white wall of sheets blocks his view of the house. He knocks his boots together to chase out the sac spiders, then pulls them on and goes up to the kitchen.
“He wants you to go up top and strip some old cutter bar that’s laying there in the weeds,” she tells him. She does not turn to look at him. She is working the stove. Eggs and bacon and fried toast in one pan. She has her hair pulled up in a halftwist. Her dot dot dot tattoo looks as if the black ink has been refreshed overnight.
“What is it?” he asks, but she does not reply.
He sits down and begins to ladle sugar into a cup of coffee he finds on the table. On this day, the kitchen feels unfamiliar to him, as if somehow the dimensions have been changed. She forks the food onto a paper plate and hands it to him, pinching out a smile that looks more like a reaction to a soft punch than anything inviting.
“You milked already?”
“Yeah. I was up.”
“Appreciate that. Sorry.”
She sits down with him and begins to sweep the table cover with the edge of her palm, brushing salt and sugar onto the floor.
“Just get to it, Billy. It’s not a good day. Better to just get it done.”
She drops her hand on his forearm and squeezes very hard. Then she pushes herself up from the table and walks out of the room. She has left the gas on under her pan. Billy turns it off. There are four angry ovals and a red smear on his arm.
Billy goes across the dooryard to the open-mouthed hay barn and finds the wrench and the mallet and an empty jumbo coffee can. He adds oil to the can. As he gathers his tools, he can feel the faces of the young men looking out at him from Thick’s army pictures. Billy has not noticed until now, examining each picture, that Thick himself is not in any of them. Up close, the faces of these boys show something that Billy reads as nausea, almost as if they know that they won’t want to be reminded, at some point in the future, that this was their life. In several shots, more than one guy is giving the finger to the camera. They all look like they are sixteen and sixty-six at the same time. He wonders if maybe it was actually one of these boys that put that bullet through Thick’s shoulder.
VII. Lucky Seven
Billy’s shirt is wet through and pasted to his stomach. He strips it off along with his boots before going into the shed and lying down on the cot like something that doesn’t care. He reviews his day. Worked in the weeds by the side of the road. Produced a pile of rusted nuts and cutter bar blades. They are badly pitted and no amount of Thick’s grinding wheel will ever bring them to true again. Billy has cut his knuckles and the back of his hands so many times that when he laces his fingers together and rests them on his bare chest, they stick together without Billy even trying.
He falls asleep almost immediately and dreams he is lying flat in a grave. It is nighttime and the earth is cool on his back. Mitch is kneeling on his chest and he can smell her sex. Her cropped white hair traps the moonlight. Just above them, at ground level, Thick sits in a folding chair eating mashed potatoes from the blade of a shovel. Robyn appears in pink shorts and a halter-top tied up in cheerleader form, tight under her breasts.
Robyn says seriously Billy?
Then Thick is talking to her, his hand on the back of her thigh. He has trouble learning a thing, don’t he?
Billy wants to say something to Mitch, but her face is hidden by the moon glare, and he doesn’t know what to say. He feels the edge of a question that has something to do with love and sacrifice, but it won’t turn into words that he can say out loud.
And then it is Thick on top of him, spread-eagled in a pattern that matches his own. Now, Thick’s face and belly and limbs are pressing down on Billy. He can only breathe short, careful breaths through his nostrils. All he can see are the soles of Mitch’s boots. They flash each time she knocks them together. She’s yelling lucky seven, lucky seven, lucky fucking seven.
VIII. The Call
Billy wakes up feeling misaligned, like something has been pulled out of him unevenly. Five-thirty now by his watch. The light outside is still bright, but the angle has shifted into something softer. He gets up, puts on a new shirt, and leaves the shed.
He finishes the evening milking and then crosses back to the kitchen where he finds only cold coffee. He takes down a pan from the rack on the wall and pours in the coffee, then lights the stove. He sits down at the table and waits.
The sound comes to him after the coffee is hot and he has fixed it with condensed milk. It comes to him like smoke from under a doorsill, a high-pitched grind that brings up the hairs on his arms. Billy hears it as either the tearing of metal or the choking of a small animal. Either way, it sounds to him like something that should only be heard right before death.
Billy follows the sound, walking into the front hallway. He has never been anywhere in the house other than the kitchen. He steps forward, anticipating an alarm. The sound stutters for a moment and then begins again. Billy feels it like a rod snapped against the back of his knees.
At the end of the hall, to the left, is a partially open door. When he gets to the door he looks in and sees Thick sitting naked on the side of the bed. The hair on his legs and thighs is as red as the rust on the cutter bar. He is holding his face in his hands and leaking a continuous stream of sound. His body casts a shadow on the floor that runs out the bedroom door and stops under Billy’s feet.
Mitch is there too, kneeling on the bed. She has one hand on her freckled thigh and the other on the center of Thick’s back. Her gray camisole is one that Billy has never seen. She is moving her hand very slowly over Thick’s skin. In the bedroom, her hair looks more blond than white. She is humming, one anchoring note that lives down below the cry coming from Thick.
When she looks up and sees Billy in the hallway, she does not seem surprised. She does not change the pattern of her hand or part her lips or stop humming. Instead, she looks at Billy in the same way she has when they have been tangled together on his cot, when they were straining into each other, and what Billy knows at that exact moment, widening his gaze to take in the both of them–blond-topped Mitch cupped around the red mass of Thick–is that they are a completed thing, an organism that doesn’t need–that doesn’t want–anything else.
Billy retreats back up the hallway, through the kitchen, and out the door. In the dooryard near the apple tree, Billy feels a new electrical current inside his body, as if a detached wire had just been soldered back onto its contact. The black birds, pecking at stones, take off as a group and resettle on ridgeline of the hay barn.
Billy drives the Dart fourteen hundred miles from Wisconsin to Florida, staying awake on an unbroken stream of coffee, chocolate bars and off-brand cigarettes. When he turns the engine off in Tampa, it ticks and pops.
At the dairy, the owners agree to take him back. They know he’s good with the cows. The guys on the line tell him that production fell after he left. That the farm manager was pissed and that they had to start pushing more grain and leaving the lights on for an extra hour to keep the volume up.
“That’s not how it’s done,” Billy says. They tease him like he’s the old guy, snapping his ass with their wet cow rags.
He finds a three-room cabin for rent. It sits as close as it can to the swamp in Lettuce Lake Park. The back porch is big enough for one person and a pair of boots. Billy can sit out there in the evening on a metal chair and smoke.
Billy goes to the bank and opens a savings account. He knows the woman who works the desk but he can’t remember if she and Robyn were friends or enemies. She has a dark spray of freckles across the tops of her cheeks that make her look like she’s wearing a veil. And that she knows things. The plaque on her desk says Ms. Lucy Block.
“You’re back?” she says, handing him the paperwork. She is smiling in an open-ended way and sitting up close to the edge of her desk. She has three gold bangles looped around her wrist.
“Ah, yeah. That’s right.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m out by the swamp.”
“It’s pretty out there,” Lucy says, leaning forward and looking at him. She laughs, quietly, then pushes a strand of her hair up off her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“Okay. Make sure to reset your password at the ATM. And you have my card, in the folder, if you have any questions. Or whatnot.”
“I do.” Billy takes in a big breath and smiles at Lucy Block. “Thank you.”
“Yeah. Absolutely. It’s nice to see you.”
Billy goes out into the sun and starts up the Dart. He holds the gas pedal to the floor and floods the carburetor with gas, imagining the chunks of soot being vaporized off the cylinder walls. Billy waits a moment for the car to calm down and then backs out into the street, puncturing the smog. He offers an apology, acknowledgement through the glass to no one in particular, his fingers in pistol formation, and heads on back to his swamp house with the radio up loud.
Now, Billy likes to sit on his back porch. Sometimes the herons come out of the swamp in pairs. They land on the tin roof over his head and pace around for a few beats. Billy listens to whatever they have to say. Then they take off, one behind the other, pushing into the sky with a slow flex of their blue-grey wings.
Charlie Watts was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up on the campus of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, and a family farm in Freedom, NH. He earned both his BFA (1986) and MFA (1992) from Brown University in Providence, RI. Charlie, who returned to writing in 2013 after a long detour into communications consulting, has published work in Clerestory Journal and Carve magazine. He also has work forthcoming on The Drum, an online audio journal, and Narrative magazine. His story, Arrangements, won the 2015 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Charlie was also a finalist in the 2016 Hemingway Shorts contest sponsored by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. He and his wife, a chaplain, have three grown children and live in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.