Under the De Soto, fiction by Barrett Hathcock

We had a roof­ing job in Eure­ka Springs. Stu­pid name for a town. It’s up in the top cor­ner of Arkansas, almost in Mis­souri, stuck in this Ozark gul­ley, every street a down­ward spi­ral. There are no grids in Eure­ka. It’s all very dis­ori­ent­ing. Fol­low­ing the Steel Cloud into town, I got lost right away.

I was back work­ing for Bil­ly. He’d moved up in the roof­ing world and was doing hotels, re-tar­ring and re-grav­el­ling, and we kept doing these lit­tle trips out from Dal­las. I’d go with him and we’d hire a bunch of hands wher­ev­er we end­ed up. We’d do a week in Galve­ston, two days back home, a week over in Bossier City, four days back home. He just kept com­ing up with the jobs, each building’s super let­ting us know about a bud­dy he had.

Back in Dal­las, Bil­ly had his old lady and a kid in school, though it didn’t seem to slow him down in the social depart­ment. I had Elise, who was always ask­ing how long I’d be gone, but it was only ever a few days. When roof­ing jobs dried up in the win­ter, I’d sub around the local mid­dle schools. Elise didn’t like it, the unpre­dictabil­i­ty, but it wasn’t like we ever went hun­gry.

We were there to re-tar this old hotel down­town. I’d got­ten lost but before long I saw the Steel Cloud parked in front of what I assumed was the hotel. It was the only build­ing tall enough to dis­ap­pear into the fog. I asked a bell-hop and he said they were on the roof giv­ing it the once over.

Up top was in bad shape, beyond patch­ing. Appar­ent­ly, it’d start­ed leak­ing all over a wed­ding par­ty in the ball­room in Sep­tem­ber and that was just it. Bil­ly was lay­ing it on Ralph, the day man­ag­er, even though the con­tract was already sewn up. Bil­ly marched off square footage, called me over and said, “This here is my lieu­tenant Mr. Thomas,” and gen­er­al­ly made tar sound com­plex. I played obe­di­ent sec­ond-in-com­mand, which was basi­cal­ly why he kept hir­ing me.

The good thing about the job was that they gave us rooms in the hotel—no more sleep­ing in the van. It was Octo­ber and slow. Bil­ly and I each had our own suite, which meant I had a lit­tle liv­ing room with a table and a couch and my own cof­fee mak­er and mini-fridge. Ralph said we could just charge what­ev­er to our rooms, but Bil­ly gave me the eye. He said he was off to find some hands and that we’d start tomor­row straight up like nor­mal and that I should go enjoy myself. But not too.

It was about six when we all got set­tled in. Bil­ly left me stand­ing there in front of the old hotel, dri­ving off in the Steel Cloud to god knows where. Ralph was shrug­ging into his rain jack­et, head­ing home, and saw the Porsche pull away.

Must be nice,” he said.

Don’t you know it,” I said back.

All that was left was for me to do was find some­where to eat. The weird moun­tain road slant­ed down under my feet. It was like I was back in geom­e­try class, but trapped inside some shape. The town was like a game of Tetris with the stag­gers. The roads split at strange angles, and spade-like sides of build­ings sud­den­ly came at you. There was a restau­rant up on the sec­ond floor, and I could hear laugh­ter and some­one play­ing the gui­tar and singing that Daniel song by what’s his name. The queer with the glass­es. Don’t have it.

I went walk­ing uphill on the main drag, and the side­walks were full of peo­ple, most­ly old couples—ladies pulling their hus­bands through the streets, all of them in white sneak­ers. I’d walk up to a restau­rant, look in the win­dow, but inside I’d see noth­ing but shoul­ders, so I kept walk­ing.

I decid­ed I need­ed more cig­a­rettes, so I hiked on down to the truck. On the way I passed by this piz­za place with an awning and an Arkansas flag and a lit­tle rain­bow flag. No one in there. Across the street was an Indi­an food place, but I’d only had Indi­an once before. I’d enjoyed it, but I didn’t know what any­thing was called. Elise had ordered every­thing for me. Lord knows when she’d become such an expert. Kept walk­ing down hill, feel­ing the grav­i­ty pull at my shins. A lit­tle moun­tain creek ran behind the shops to my right. I have to admit it was charm­ing in a way. There were ice creams shops and fudge shops every block or so. Lots of clum­si­ly hand-done signs and fly­ers every­where. Come see the Eure­ka Sings pro­duc­tion of The Lit­tle Fox­es! This Thurs­day! That type of thing. I passed a gui­tar shop, stopped and looked in the win­dow. The brown back­sides of acoustic gui­tars hung float­ing from the wall. The sign said closed but inside an old man with too much beard sat with a gui­tar, point­ing to the gui­tar of anoth­er man, telling him where to put his fin­gers. They start­ed strum­ming togeth­er and I walked on, not want­i­ng to inter­rupt with my star­ing.

Got to the van, pulled out my cig­a­rettes from the glove box. Van was most­ly emp­ty now that all the gear was on the roof. Just a sleep­ing bag and a lantern and a milk crate of parts. It looked like a box of met­al cor­ners. I began to walk back uphill the way I came, puff­ing along, mov­ing slow­er now. The day was heav­i­ly cloudy and all the build­ings in the town looked like cook­ie dough—beige and unfin­ished. But the col­ors of the shops stood out. There was anoth­er quilt shop with a lit­tle rain­bow flag. It was like the town would not be bat­tened down by weath­er or geog­ra­phy or noth­ing. I blamed this on the tourists, who appar­ent­ly was this town’s thing. The stu­dent was chop­ping reg­u­lar­ly away at his gui­tar when I came back by, though I couldn’t tell what song he was play­ing.

Elton John, that’s the guy.

I was com­ing back up the hill where I would turn to get back to the hotel, and there was the piz­za place and the Indi­an place. I went for the piz­za.

Inside was lots of green vinyl and tele­vi­sions. I sat down and start­ed look­ing over the menu, and went through it almost three times when I saw the lady up at the counter. She was look­ing at me, regard­ing me like an ani­mal.

You order­ing or just here for the TV?”

Order­ing,” I said.

Well come on up.”

I ordered a medi­um with pep­per­oni, black olives, and arti­choke hearts.

Mmm,” she said. “Yum­my. You must be from some place else.”

You could say that.”

That’ll be eight dol­lars. You want to drink? Which state?

Huh? Yeah, large Sprite.”

Which one?”

Oh, orig­i­nal­ly? Out west some­where. One of the boxy ones.”

She smiled. She was a tall gal, not that pret­ty, with a plain even­ly wrin­kled face and large teeth, the kind you’d keep inside your smile. She had long gray­ing blonde hair that she held in a low pony tail. She wore a T-shirt that said Eure­ka! It sure beats the shit out of Hot Springs.

Be about ten min­utes. You eat­ing here?”

Yeah,” I said, tak­ing my change. I pulled a paper from the stack near the reg­is­ter. I saw anoth­er lady spread­ing out my cheese, like she was sprin­kling dust. She took the piz­za board and walked over to a big met­al box, and pulled down one of the hor­i­zon­tal draw­ers and slid the piz­za in place. She was short­er, wide hipped with iron grey hair, cut high and tight like she was a fresh recruit, but it was hiply gelled into lit­tle frozen waves. She pulled a cig­a­rette from behind her ear and nod­ded at the lady who had tak­en my order and then dis­ap­peared in the back.

I sat down with my paper but couldn’t con­cen­trate from watch­ing the weath­er on TV. They were say­ing some big storm was on its way in, mov­ing over from Okla­homa going to hit Arkansas around eight. I had to remind myself what state I was in. Right as the weath­er­man was say­ing that the sta­tion had us cov­ered, a wind swept down­hill out­side the open door and the lights in the restau­rant hic­cupped. I checked my watch: 7:40. I went back up to the reg­is­ter. The tall one was stand­ing there with her paper tent­ed out in front of her. She fold­ed down a cor­ner at my approach.

Is there any way I can get that to go,” I asked.

Get it any way you want it,” she said.

Great, thanks.” She walked over to the oven, pulled on the thin door and peered in. “Three min­utes,” she said.

Cool.”

What brings you to Eure­ka?”

Roof­ing. I’m work­ing up at the hotel.”

Which one? The Cres­cent or the Basin Park.”

I don’t know. The tall one.”

Oh, the Basin Park. The one just up the hill.”

That’s it.”

Used to work there.”

Yeah?”

Oh yeah, everybody’s worked there. They come to town and work with at the Basin Park, or at the Cres­cent, or at the hos­pi­tal. Ain’t nowhere else to work in town.”

Yeah.”

Up until they quit and open up their own shop.”

Yeah? I noticed there were lots of shops around.”

The tourists love it. Ain’t nobody in this own actu­al­ly from this town.”

Where you from?”

From way they hell down in Hilo.”

What brought you here?”

Who can remem­ber? Peace of mind? Been here almost twelve years.”

There was some­thing about this woman. There was an open­ness to her that com­fort­ed me. It wasn’t sex­u­al. It wasn’t mater­nal. Occa­sion­al­ly, I find this rap­port with old­er women, women I don’t find attrac­tive nec­es­sar­i­ly and yet who I can talk with. And I enjoy talk­ing with them because our talk feels free, cleansed of the hor­mones that clog almost all my oth­er con­ver­sa­tions, not exclud­ing those with Elise.

This your lit­tle store?”

Yep. You got it. We been in busi­ness just over a year now.”

Right then the oth­er woman walked by the open door­way car­ry­ing a large plas­tic jug of some­thing. She didn’t stop.

Start­ed clean­ing rooms up at the hotel. Then worked the front desk, night man­ag­er, saved up enough and we bought this build­ing. Took a while to fig­ure out what we want­ed to do with it.”

You could have opened a fudge shop.”

Too much fudge in this town already,” she said smil­ing.

She went back to the oven and pulled open the door, and pulled out the disc of my piz­za. She slid it into a box with an aggres­sive, expert casu­al­ness.

You want pep­pers and shit?” she said.

No thanks.”

All right. You come back tomor­row after the storm, have a beer.”

Two slices down I walked into the hotel, and I was imme­di­ate­ly flagged down by the kid at the front desk. Hadn’t been there a day yet and already they knew me by sight. He said he had a mes­sage for me. So chew­ing on my third slice, I unfold­ed the pink piece of paper on top of the piz­za box as I rode the ele­va­tor up to my room. My plan was to buy two cokes from the machine and mix it with the bot­tle of Evan Williams I had in my bag, ride this storm out in style. The mes­sage was from Elise. The lit­tle “please call” box was checked and in the open, free response area it said, “You for­got your cell phone again.”

***

The storm front hit as soon as I got up to my room. Start­ed watch­ing some movie on the tele­vi­sion but the screen kept turn­ing jagged when­ev­er the wind picked up. I think it was one the Nation­al Lam­poon Vaca­tion ones. I nev­er under­stood why they were called that.

Final­ly, at about ten, after the storm had raged and set­tled and raged and set­tled, and I’d fin­ished the piz­za and one of the Cokes, I decid­ed to call Elise back.

Some peo­ple might be about to go to bed, you know,” she said.

Since when do you go to bed this ear­ly?”

Since when do you care what time I go to bed?”

Look, I’m sor­ry. I’ve been work­ing.”

At ten at night? It’s rain­ing over there. I know this. You didn’t go to Mars, you know.”

The red plan­et.”

So what you were out par­ty­ing with Bil­ly until all hours?”

Just din­ner.”

What did you have?”

What?”

What did you have?”

A steak.”

Mmm. Man­ly.”

I knew you’d say that.”

Don’t say it with such exhaus­tion.”

I’m not exhaust­ed.”

You sound exhaust­ed,” she said.

You sound exhaust­ed.”

Well I have a per­fect­ly good rea­son to be.”

I do, too.”

Look, are we going to talk like this all night?”

Just then the line stut­tered and went to dial tone. Even though I knew what was going on I kept call­ing her name Elise? Elise? Elise? over and over, though I also kept telling myself to just shut up and call her back.

You didn’t have to hang up on me,” she said.

I didn’t hang up. Some­thing with my …”

Calm down. It was just a joke.”

I don’t want to fight,” I said.

We’re not fight­ing. We’re just shak­ing it out.”

What does that mean?”

You know, like when ath­letes fin­ish doing some­thing, they shake their arms out? Shake shake shake.”

I’ve nev­er done that,” I said.

Like when we watched the Olympics. The run­ners?”

Okay, I remem­ber.”

See? No big deal.”

Well what do we have to shake out?” I said.

I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one that up and ran to Arkansas.”

I didn’t run. I just took a job with Bil­ly.”

You ran.”

I take jobs with Bil­ly all the time.”

Yes, but usu­al­ly there’s like a note or we talk or you know, you tell me before you split.”

I told you …”

Yeah, you like shout­ed it as the car was speed­ing away.”

I did not.”

Did too.”

Okay, look, how are things?”

Things are great. Things are preg­nant.”

What?”

Things thinks they are preg­nant. Things are grow­ing big and round and like Sat­urn.”

What? Wait, what did you just say to me?”

The pow­er stream shud­dered and dimmed, the cater­pil­lar of snow descend­ed diag­o­nal­ly across the screen of my tele­vi­sion, the entire room hic­cupped and my phone went dead again.

God­damn fuck­ing hick town,” I said when she picked up.

I’m preg­nant,” she said. “I’m preg­nant, Tom­my.”

How can you be preg­nant?”

Real­ly, they didn’t teach you this.”

No, I mean, you know what I mean.”

Look it hap­pens. It can hap­pen. It has hap­pened.”

But I thought you were on the pill.”

I am. Well, I was.”

You got off the pill? When? Weren’t you going to tell me?”

I got off yes­ter­day when I found out I was preg­nant.”

Why?”

Because if you stay on the pill when you’re preg­nant, you fuck them up. You give them like horns and shit.”

Real­ly?”

Oh, Jesus, Thomas, yes, real­ly.”

But before …”

Before I was on the pill. Remem­ber, every day. That lit­tle damn hock­ey disc.”

Then I mean, I under­stand, but how then did—”

I don’t know,” she said, sigh­ing into the phone, sound­ing gen­uine­ly con­fused by it all. “Maybe it was the antibi­otics a cou­ple of weeks ago.”

The anti what?” I said.

The antibi­otics I got for the sinus infec­tion.”

They can do this?”

Yeah, they can.”

But did we even?”

There’s no one else.”

I didn’t say that.”

Let’s just say I could feel where you were going.”

Alright sor­ry, jeez.”

I’m not feel­ing so well.”

I can tell.”

Sym­pa­thy, Thomas, what I need at this moment is a moun­tain of sym­pa­thy.”

Okay, sor­ry. What did the doc­tor say?”

I wait­ed for her to speak, and I kept wait­ing and noth­ing, and then I sud­den­ly real­ized that the phone was dead again.

I haven’t been to the doc­tor yet,” she said when I got her back on the phone.

What do you mean?”

I mean, I haven’t been yet. I did the stick.”

You peed on the stick?”

Yes.”

Well, then, I mean, I’m not try­ing to dis­cred­it you or any­thing, but we don’t real­ly know what we’re talk­ing about yet. You got to go to the doc­tor. You just did the lit­tle pee stick.”

I peed on three of them.”

Well, that fine. I’m not …”

Yes, you are. Yes, you are. You are say­ing …”

I’m not say­ing any­thing. I just think we need to con­firm.”

Con­firm what?”

Con­firm the preg­nan­cy. How many weeks along? Do you know that?”

I think three.”

Okay, that’s fine, but we need to con­firm every­thing. Why three?”

That’s just sort of my hunch.”

Well how late are you?”

Well tech­ni­cal­ly I’m not late yet.”

What do you mean ‘tech­ni­cal­ly’?”

I mean that I’m sup­posed to start tomor­row.”

You mean you’re not even late.”

Yes, tech­ni­cal­ly as of now I am not offi­cial­ly late. But the stick says.”

Well why did you even take the stick if that—”

I had a hunch okay? I had a hunch in my fuck­ing preg­nant bel­ly okay? Women just know.”

Just know.”

Women just—”

I know. I heard you. Okay.”

I had a feel­ing about the antibi­otics,” she said.

Why did you say any­thing before we—”

I for­got, okay?”

Jesus, don’t get hys­ter­i­cal.”

Do not use that word. What­ev­er you do, do not use that word around me ever again. Do I make myself clear?”

Roger.”

Do I?”

Roger.”

Now, I don’t like talk­ing about all this over the phone any more than you do, but what would you have me do?”

Well you could wait until I got home.”

And when is that going to be?”

My mind went numb. I was look­ing out the win­dow at the rain falling in the street light and the leaves of the trees shud­der­ing inter­mit­tent­ly into the light, like the branch­es were try­ing to shake off the rain. For a moment, I couldn’t get back to the room where I was. I had no idea how long it would take to do the roof upstairs.

It’s rain­ing here,” I said.

I already knew that part, Thomas.”

***

The next day it was still rain­ing, but one of those decep­tive sprin­kles, where you think it’s real­ly noth­ing but as soon as you get out in it, you seem to be cov­ered in nee­dles of water. The town was back alive, its tourist blood flow­ing. Old ladies hauled their hus­bands up and down the side­walks, the lit­tle rain­bow flags beck­oned, and the cute bub­bling stream from the day before now had real vio­lence too it. All around us grav­i­ty was hav­ing its way. The side­walks were moat­ed with rain­wa­ter, too fast and deep to walk through.

After cof­fee and a muf­fin from one of the cute spots down the street, I got up to the roof. The new hands were there, stand­ing sto­ical­ly in the rain and smok­ing, but there was not a thing to do, and Bil­ly was pissed. He paced around on his cell phone despite the rain. I wor­ried that he might get elec­tro­cut­ed but I wasn’t the type of per­son to say any­thing. Final­ly, after like an hour of this, he told me to go down­stairs and tell the man­ag­er the day was a bust.

I rode down the ele­va­tor next to a cou­ple of guests, drip­ping the whole time and try­ing not to look dan­ger­ous. Some­thing about con­struc­tion or repair just makes peo­ple ner­vous.

Ralph was easy. He seemed to like me for a rea­son I couldn’t fath­om.

Yeah, I fig­ured,” he said, sit­ting in his chair and play­ing on the com­put­er, its blue glow light­ing up his big glass­es. “We got­ta just hang on until this thing pass­es. Prob­a­bly tomor­row some­time. Look, there was some­thing I want­ed to dis­cuss with you. I mean I could talk about it with Bil­ly but it’s about this week­end.”

I had the feel­ing that Ralph dis­liked Bil­ly. Bil­ly was one of those peo­ple who unnerved some peo­ple. Well, most peo­ple real­ly. There was noth­ing vis­i­bly wrong with him, but he had a slick con­fi­dence that creeped peo­ple out. He could stand there and com­pli­ment your car, go on and on about it, and fill you with the notion that he was about to steal it with your wife inside.

Do y’all want cash or is a check okay?”

I answered with­out real­ly think­ing about it.

Cash, def­i­nite­ly. We need it to pay the hands. If we don’t pay them dai­ly, they’ll skip out on us. Then we’re back on square one, pick­ing up Mex­i­cans every morn­ing. Got to keep them faith­ful.”

I fig­ured as much. Okay, so y’all have today’s and then I was think­ing. I was think­ing of pay­ing the rest tomor­row before I split for the week­end.”

Don’t come back in on the week­ends?”

Not if I don’t need to. I’m sure you under­stand. And I sure as hell ain’t going to let Ken­ny have all that cash. You met Ken­ny?”

No.”

Yeah, well, you will this week­end. Sat­ur­day man­ag­er. Couldn’t wipe his ass with­out pulling a mus­cle.”

That’s fine. I’ll dou­ble check with Bil­ly.”

Yeah. Okay. I guess that’ll be fine,” he said. “Tell him I’ll have the mon­ey tomor­row after­noon. Y’all be tar­ring by then?”

Yeah, if this stu­pid weath­er coop­er­ates.”

***

What did he say?” Bil­ly asked when I got back upstairs.

He says cool. Get to it when we get to it.”

Yeah? Want his mon­ey back?”

Huh, no. Noth­ing about that.”

Cool. He say any­thing else?”

Nah, he was busy. Cool with all of it.”

Bil­ly smiled for the first time that day, almost invis­i­ble under all that rain and his ball cap. “Cool deal,” he said.

After grab­bing a cig­a­rette from the com­mu­nal pack we’d kept in the shed, he called the Mex­i­cans still stand­ing still in the rain over toward the edge of the roof.

Hola, viejos. Aqui venido. We’re com­ple­to hoy. Sies­ta all day, com­prende? Mañana morn­ing, bright and ear­ly. Bring a friend, mas o manos? Ami­ga de la roofer? Com­prende?”

The Mex­i­cans nod­ded in uni­son, and Bil­ly slid one of them a fold of mon­ey. He looked at it for a sec­ond, made some mute ges­ture toward his friend, and they trudged away.

I got enough for one more day of that,” he said.

It’ll let up. I watched the weath­er this morn­ing.”

Since when did you become mis­ter weath­er­man?”

Since you brought me out to the Big Rock Can­dy Moun­tain, sir.”

He laughed and lit his cig­a­rette, and said, “Well that set­tles it.”

Yeah?”

I’m head­ing to Lit­tle Rock.”

Yeah?”

Got some busi­ness there.”

Yeah, more tars jobs?”

Tar pit more like it.”

Huh?”

Fig­ure it out.”

Yeah?”

I’ll be back Sun­day.”

Sun­day, what I’ll do until?”

You know what to do.”

Well—”

Do you know what to do? You know how to do this? That’s why I brought you, right?”

Yeah, I know what to do. I know how to roof.”

Good. That Ralph off this week­end, right?”

Yeah, some week­ender is com­ing in. Ken­ny.”

Right, good. You just keep your nose straight. Don’t drink too much. Hire anoth­er hand if you need to but no more than four. Five would be just greedy. Here.”

He reached back in his coat and pulled out the rest of his cash, tight­ened up in one his daughter’s hair bands, hand­ed it over to me.

You make that work, how­ev­er pos­si­ble. I don’t want any calls from you beg­ging.”

Hey, we’re set. Weather’ll clear out this after­noon. You come back Sun­day we’ll be pack­ing up and load­ing out Mon­day by lunch with cash in hand.”

Good. I com­prende that.”

You lin­ing up some work down in Lit­tle Rock?” I don’t know why I was press­ing him that morn­ing.

Let’s just say I’ve got a solo gig there for the time being,” he said. And with that he blew out smoke that got caught between us in the rain. And he looked at me from under the brow of his cap with a plain male frank­ness. I hate to say that, but there was some­thing male about it. It was some kind of straight-on pre­ver­bal male com­mu­nion, out there in the smoke and rain. It was a look that said, shut up with your god­damn ques­tions.

So I shut up.

***

The rest of the day was like my own per­son­al vaca­tion in Eure­ka. I went for an ear­ly lunch at the piz­za place. The tall blonde was there again, and she sat down and ate across from me. Said was bet­ter to eat ear­ly before the nurs­es came. Her name was Ser­e­na. Said every Fri­day was Nurse Day and all the ones from the hos­pi­tal would twad­dle on down. Her part­ner came by lat­er, her name was Tra­cy, and it final­ly dawned on me that they were togeth­er. I’m cool with that. I nev­er wor­ried about what oth­er peo­ple did to each oth­er, but I didn’t see it at first. Any­way, they told me that if I had the day I real­ly should dri­ve around and look at the scenery. They said stay away from all the old lady shops unless I need­ed a quilt for my lady back home. But I said no thanks. We’re all full up on quilts. I asked them about the gui­tar shop, and they said yeah that was Tex and he was legit, been there longer than any­one.

Is he a native?”

Heck no. He’s from Ver­mont.”

They said after that come back for din­ner. It was lasagna night.

Y’all do lasagna?”

We’re not just a piz­za joint,” Tra­cy said.

What if I want to see some of the oth­er nightlife in your fine town?”

Well that’s fine, they said, but don’t go drink­ing on an emp­ty stom­ach.

And so I trouped on down to the van. I passed by the gui­tar shop but it was closed with a lit­tle clock that said he’d be back at 2:20. I bought a car­ton of cig­a­rettes to share with the hands (one of Billy’s secrets). It was still rain­ing a lit­tle but I man­aged to find my way out of the gul­ly and got on the Pig Trail, which turned out to be real­ly High­way 23. I rode for a lit­tle while with the hori­zon jump­ing up and down.

Final­ly, I just pulled the car over at this lit­tle look­out point and I got out and lit a cig­a­rette and stood for a while. It was more than beau­ti­ful, the way the trees all ran up and down the hills in their fall col­ors. I was above every­thing, look­ing down on the hill­tops and down there it looked like some great crum­bled rusty machine, all quilt­ed togeth­er. The rain had stopped and there was a pleas­ant chill to the air, a cold­ness brought in on the storm’s heels. I could tell it would clear up the next day and that we’d have three days of hard work ahead of us with­out Bil­ly to make peo­ple ner­vous. I fin­ished my cig­a­rette and start­ed anoth­er. There was nowhere to sit down so I just kept stand­ing but didn’t seem to mind. The wind was free and light like it was final­ly done with sum­mer, and it pushed me gen­tly to the edge, and the crum­ple quilt­ed sur­face of the tree­tops bowl­ing out below me made me feel like I could fall into them. I thought about lasagna night and hav­ing a beer with Ser­e­na and Tra­cy. It was so won­der­ful in that moment feel­ing that I had nowhere to be, no one I was sup­posed to call. The next cig­a­rette was already gone, so quick, and it seemed waste­ful to start anoth­er right away. I couldn’t chain smoke like I was 20 any­more. I stood out there just breath­ing for anoth­er five min­utes before I got self-con­scious.

I drove back into town and found my hotel park­ing lot and began to trudge back up the hill. The gui­tar guy was back in the store, stand­ing at the reg­is­ter read­ing a Thomas Har­ris book, and I came in and said, can you give me a les­son?

A cow­bell clunked to announce my entrance.

You buy a gui­tar, I’ll give you a les­son,” he said.

I don’t want a gui­tar.”

Well then.”

You know Tra­cy and Ser­e­na up at the piz­za place? They’re old friends of mine. I’m new to town and they said you were the man to see.”

That a fact?”

You bet,” I said.

Well,” he said, slid­ing a gui­tar pick inside his paper­back to mark his place, “let’s go pick you out some­thing.”

And we spent the next hour hud­dled togeth­er, each on stools as he tried to teach me an E chord and then a G chord. We start­ed on D but then his next les­son came. My fin­ger­tips were sting­ing raw, like they’d each been indi­vid­u­al­ly scorched. But I didn’t want to leave. There was some­thing about strum­ming out that E that felt so good despite the pain, like a big twang­ing exhale.

You come back tomor­row I’ll teach you ‘Mar­gar­i­taville’,” Tex said.

I need to buy a gui­tar?”

We’ll work on that.”

Back at the piz­za place that night, I had lasagna, and I told Tra­cy and Ser­e­na about my day. They were right proud, and I was proud telling them. It was strange being so proud in front of them. Tra­cy would get up and tend to the ovens while I was talk­ing. A bowl­ing league had come through and set up in the restau­rant, all wear­ing iden­ti­cal pink shirts, snap but­tons with short sleeves. They must have won because they were loud and kept tot­ing pitch­ers out to the tables, two at the time. I was eat­ing up near the reg­is­ter, almost like the help.

Tourists,” Ser­e­na said. “From Lit­tle Rock.”

My boss is in Lit­tle Rock,” I said.

Every­one is in Lit­tle Rock. It’s where every­one wants to be.”

Not me.”

Well you’re the first. Where do you want to be, then?”

I didn’t know but I was on my sec­ond plate of lasagna and third beer, and my bel­ly had this radi­at­ing, warm full­ness to it, and I just want­ed to bring every­one togeth­er, the bowlers, Ser­e­na and Tra­cy, and make a giant gui­tar out of them and strum them over and over.

Then I went back to the hotel and stayed up watch­ing Law and Order reruns until Elise called at ten-thir­ty.

I’m not preg­nant.”

What?”

I’m not preg­nant.”

What do you mean you’re not preg­nant?”

Just what I said. It’s a no go. I’m with­out child.”

But yes­ter­day.”

I know, I know. I went to the doc­tor.”

Already?”

Yes, already. What, now you’re mad I went to the doc­tor too fast? Yes­ter­day you were all go to the doc­tor.”

It’s just I didn’t think …”

What?”

I thought maybe you’d wait until I got back home.”

Well sor­ry to dis­ap­point you.”

I’m not dis­ap­point­ed, it’s just—”

You’re not dis­ap­point I’m with­out child.”

No, I’m dis­ap­point­ed it’s just—”

This—”

This—it’s hap­pened so fast.”

Tell me about it. So when are you com­ing home?”

I don’t know.”

You have a ball­park?”

Ball­park four days.”

Four day ball­park.”

Can you live with that?”

I guess. What’s your next job?”

Don’t have one yet. Billy’s scout­ing work in Lit­tle Rock.”

Great. What’s with all this Arkansas work?”

I don’t know. He’s got a thing for Arkansas.”

Thing. Fling’s more like it. You alone in there?”

Just me and the mini-fridge and Law and Order.

Good boy.”

Thanks.”

Come home soon.”

I will.”

Soon soon.”

I will.”

I want to have a baby now.”

I under­stand that.”

I don’t think you do, but that’s okay. I don’t need you to under­stand.”

You just need me to like donate.”

Yes. But there are oth­er rea­sons I need you too.”

Well that’s com­fort­ing,” I said.

***

            The next day we were back at work, and I was play­ing fore­man. The hands brought somebody’s broth­er and the three of them made quick work of the scrap­ing, and by ten they were heat­ing tar and get­ting every­thing ready. The smell was already thick in my nose. I was in the read­just­ment peri­od where the smell comes back at you and takes over every thought. After a day or so it just becomes back­ground, but there is always the first day of hav­ing to stom­ach it once again. I was pre-embar­rassed about lunch, what Ser­e­na and Tra­cy would think with me com­ing down the hill smelling like turd.

And that got me to think­ing. Why was I embar­rassed about what they thought of me? I hard­ly knew these peo­ple. But as the morn­ing wore on, and I stood there and smoked, I couldn’t shake it, this sud­den car­ing about how I smelled and know­ing that I smelled worse the longer I stood up there. Sud­den­ly every­thing seemed too tight, from the cig­a­rettes to the tar to the cov­er­alls I was wear­ing.

I decid­ed to go down­stairs and check on the mon­ey. I hollered at the hands, who kept on pour­ing, and rode the ele­va­tor down to the lob­by. The whole way I could feel peo­ple lean­ing away from me, the smell push­ing them, dis­gust­ing. I was dis­gust­ed myself for the first time I could remem­ber.

Here you go,” Ralph said.

Thanks for this.”

Hey, sure. Makes it eas­i­er on me. Now I don’t have to wor­ry about Ken­ny screw­ing things up. He’ll be around this after­noon. I’m prob­a­bly about to cut out myself. Y’all got every­thing you need?”

Oh yeah. No wor­ries. We’re pour­ing steady now.”

Bil­ly being cool?”

Cool as a cucum­ber.”

Good. I didn’t see him out this morn­ing, won­dered if he maybe had too much to drink.”

Nah. He was up there. Maybe had cof­fee in his room. We’ve got suites,” I said, stu­pid­ly.

Prob­a­bly right. So lis­ten, y’all be care­ful.”

Sure thing. Them hands are tight.”

Those peo­ple up there spee­ka da Eng­lish?”

They do all right.”

I stood there too long. The con­ver­sa­tion was over and I knew it, could feel it, but for some rea­son I stayed still, like I want­ed him to bless me or some­thing. Maybe it was the lying about Bil­ly, though I don’t know why that would have caught me up. Bil­ly was just Bil­ly. Who cared if he wasn’t around. Though if he was around, let’s be hon­est, I wouldn’t have done what I did. Maybe I was feel­ing some pre-guilt. I swear I hadn’t even thought of it yet but maybe my body could feel it, could smell the crime com­ing off of me like that tar.

Because what hap­pened was I rode the ele­va­tor back up to the roof, the fat enve­lope of cash in my inside pock­et, and I got out to the shed and lit anoth­er cig­a­rette. The Mex­i­cans were still at it. It was com­ing up on lunch break, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back to the piz­za place smelling like tar. And I couldn’t stand there for the rest of the day pre­tend­ing to be the boss. And what was most fright­en­ing was that I real­ized that I couldn’t talk to Elise again. The thought of hav­ing to talk to her on the phone again that night and the night after and deal with her spas­tic charm—I couldn’t do it. And to go back home and hash out all of that crap with the preg­nan­cy, to fig­ure out if she was preg­nant or not, or if she was fak­ing and why, and did she real­ly want to have a child and when did this come up, when did she real­ize this. I knew what she would say any­way.

I don’t know. It struck me right as I was telling you that I wasn’t preg­nant. I real­ized that I actu­al­ly did want to be preg­nant.”

Which was fine for her, but it wasn’t fine with me. I could see that. The tar was spread­ing and set­tling, cool­ing steadi­ly, and the roof on this old hotel would be like new in two days, ready for anoth­er twen­ty years of rain­fall. And that’s how I start­ed to think of my own life at that moment, that after so many years of one thing, a man had to make changes, a man had to revis­it the sur­face of his life and check for leaks.

And so I knew what to do. I took out the cash Bil­ly had giv­en me and stuffed it in the com­mu­nal cig­a­rette car­ton. That still left Ralph’s enve­lope com­plete­ly untouched. Screw Bil­ly. He would do the same to me, I thought. I waved over to the Mex­i­cans, indi­cat­ed I was going to take a piss. They’d find their mon­ey. That was nev­er a prob­lem.

And then I rode down the ele­va­tor, swung by my room and got out of my jump suit and back into my reg­u­lar Wran­glers. Threw my shit into my bag and took the stairs down. No sight of Ralph. I walked quick­ly down the street, the fat enve­lope of mon­ey in my coat pock­et, heavy and grimy. I passed the piz­za place, just now open­ing up for lunch. I want­ed to stop in and tell them good­bye, tell them every­thing, but I knew bet­ter. It was bet­ter to dis­ap­pear sud­den­ly from their view. Besides, I couldn’t set­tle there. I need­ed to find my own some­where new.

I kept walk­ing down the hill, spot­ting the van in the dis­tance. Bil­ly could get anoth­er for cheap. It wasn’t like I was steal­ing his lit­tle Porsche. I stopped for a moment, won­der­ing if I was real­ly about to do this, all the com­pli­ca­tions it would bring. Would Bil­ly come after me for nine grand and an old Volk­swa­gen van with 200 plus miles on it? I was stand­ing in front of the gui­tar store. Inside Tex was lean­ing into the counter, almost done now with that Thomas Har­ris nov­el. The cow­bell on the door clunked as I entered.

Back for more, eh,” he said, not look­ing up.

Back for that gui­tar,” I said.

***

            I sped down the Pig Trail, the wave of the hori­zon whoosh­ing by, and I made my way through the Ozark Nation­al For­est as fast as I could. I just knew that I was about to see some patrol­men peek over the hill behind me and flip his lights. But instead it was just me and all that grav­i­ty, all those irreg­u­lar lines. As soon as I got up any speed, I was brak­ing hard to keep it on the black­top. All the van’s ingre­di­ents shift­ed with every turn, the sleep­ing bag rolling like a tum­ble­weed, the milk crate of met­al cor­ners slid­ing back and forth. To keep my gui­tar from get­ting hurt, I sat it upright in the passenger’s seat and strapped the seat­belt across its big bel­ly. I made it to the inter­state and got through Lit­tle Rock with­out too much think­ing, even though Bil­ly was there some­where in its hills, hump­ing some­one, the Steel Cloud parked out front. Real­ly more than any­thing he would prob­a­bly be proud of me. He’d write it off, insur­ance would pick it up. I was ashamed of what Ralph would think, but this seemed like wor­ry­ing about Ser­e­na not lik­ing my tar smell. Since when do I care what these peo­ple think? These strangers? What about what I think of myself?

After Lit­tle Rock, I fell into silence and sim­ply drove, mak­ing sure not to speed. I was going to be fine. I stayed this way until I hit Mem­phis. It was the bridge that did it. As I came up its incline, the illu­mi­nat­ed M-of its lights shook; I’d some­how caught up to that front that had come through Eure­ka. The wind descend­ed and shook the van as I slow­ly made my way up the bridge. I could see the out­line of down­town in the dis­tance but only as a dense rec­tan­gu­lar shad­ow in the gray half-light. It was some­where around din­ner­time. My plan was to get all the way to Chat­tanooga before set­tling in.

I got up under that glow of the De Soto Bridge, under its arc of light bulbs, and all that light made me feel a bit more safe—a bit more like I wasn’t about to get flung off into the riv­er for what I’d done. And it was just then, under that light that I saw the sign across the riv­er, the red elec­tron­ic sign stuck on some build­ing down­town: The Birth­place of Rock and Roll. And that’s what broke me down, made me see what I was real­ly doing to Elise.

It had all hap­pened by now: the Mex­i­cans would have dis­cov­ered their mon­ey, rifling for the cig­a­rettes after lunch. By now Ken­ny the idiot week­ender would have fig­ured out that I’d flaked, when all the noise from the roof had stopped hours too ear­ly. By now he would have called Ralph and Ralph would have called Bil­ly, and Billy—emerging from God knows what scenario—would have called my cell phone, which was sit­ting on the kitchen counter back in Dal­las, right where I’d left it on pur­pose. I was tired of talk­ing to Elise even before I’d left for the job. I wasn’t plan­ning on leav­ing her. I had nev­er thought about it before, but then there you go.

By now she knew. Only six hours ago every­thing was nor­mal, but by now she had to know. She would have picked up my cell phone, and Bil­ly and her would have had the strangest con­ver­sa­tion. Full of con­fu­sion and expla­na­tion. It prob­a­bly took them a half an hour to fig­ure out what I’d done.

And what exact­ly had I done? Only what every man has a right to do, at least two or three times in his life, and that’s start over. Find a new spot on the map and make him­self up from scratch. I didn’t know that then. In fact, run­ning across that bridge and see­ing that sign, it felt like a true Sign—like God had come down to let me know that Elise real­ly was preg­nant.

***

There was some mean­der­ing before I got all the way to the coast. Some false starts. I stayed around east Ten­nessee and the Car­oli­nas for six months, just bounc­ing around, work­ing day labor. I turned myself back into a hand, tak­ing dai­ly bits of cash and cig­a­rettes, mak­ing friends with the Mex­i­cans where I could find them, speak­ing their lan­guage, help­ing them find the work that was out there. I’d stay a week in the same place but no longer. I was lay­ing low until I felt the fog had cleared.

No one came for me. That’s how I knew she wasn’t real­ly preg­nant. If that was the case, she would have real­ly found me. If it were true, she would have gone hys­ter­i­cal.

Now, all this time lat­er, I’m not proud I did it, but I under­stand why. You’ve got to pro­tect your­self. That’s what I learned in Eure­ka. You’ve got to clear out a new space for your­self, not box your­self in, patch your leaks, find your true home. That’s what Ser­e­na and Tra­cy had done, prob­a­bly what Tex had done too. Everybody’s got that right. You’ve got it, too, if you want it.

 

 

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