A weak rain fell and settled across Route 6 like a worn out bed sheet so that oil and grease left from the occasional car and several short-bed coal trucks rose back to the surface of the blacktop. The road would stay slick with the reborn oil until the rain picked up and washed it away. Until then, most of the vehicles slowed down, taking it easy through the horseshoe curve that hugged past Peaceful Murphy’s truck garage.
Most drivers, the ones leaning into the steering wheels of their cars and mini-vans, slowed down to a crawl through the curve. They knew the old oil mixed with the first sprinkles of new rain was worse than black ice. So they drove like it was midnight in December. The short-beds blew past Murphy’s loud and hard, spraying bits of coal the size of quarters from beneath loose tarps. Paid by the load, these drivers with call names like Spider, Grape Ape and Wild Bill didn’t care if the road ahead was coated in napalm.
When a rogue chunk of coal bounced across Route 6 and skipped to land at the tip of Hank Clayton’s boot, he picked it up and tossed it at a stray dog huddled near the edge of the garage.
“Hank! That anyway to treat a dog?”
It was his granddaddy, Burl, crossing Route 6 from his house atop the hill on Beauty Street, a short walk to the truck garage and adjacent building, which he owned.
Hank threw his hand up, formally, apologetically, and Burl waved him over to where he stood like a totem pole of flannel and khaki in front of the brick-broken building.
Checking the garage for Murphy or drivers and mechanics and finding it empty, Hank crossed the bramble thickets that separated Murphy’s and his granddaddy’s building by less than ten feet. When he made it over, Burl didn’t move his gaze from the sagging top of the building.
“We’ll need to start on the roof first,” Burl said and then looked to Hank. He adjusted his suspenders. “Gonna remodel this building. It’s about time, and I need your help. Particularly on the roof.”
Hank shielded his eyes from the sun with the back of his hand and studied the roof. The building was two stories and even from the ground he could see boards peeking up from the edge like driftwood, split and blackened, soft as sponge.
“I’m working over here for Murphy now, granddaddy,” Hank said, and motioned to the garage.
“What? With that bunch? That’s just tinkerin. What’s Peaceful got you doin?”
“Spraying down trucks and doing some repairs and so forth,” Hank answered.
“Doin some repairs, you say?” Burl went to the side of the building and placed his hand there, like a nervous father checking to see if his newborn was still breathing. “I shoulda taught you weldin,” he said after a time.
“Well, all the same, I don’t mind to help, but it’ll have to be on my days off,” Hank said. “I’m just working three days a week right now.”
“That gives us three other days to manage with, then,” Burl said.
“Four,” Hank corrected.
“Three. We don’t work Sundays.”
Like always, the rumbling crunch and hitch of his neighbor’s car grinding to start woke Hank at just after 7:00 a.m. Since renting the place more than a year ago, he had yet to use an alarm clock. Just went back to sleep on days off and got out of bed with the sound of the gutted car engine for days when there was work. Today there was work. Soggy boards to be pulled up and replaced and God only knew what else.
He went to the kitchen in the barely light of morning and poured a cup of coffee from half a pot left from yesterday. A microwave would be nice, he thought, gulping down the cold coffee quickly and cleaning out the cup at the sink. But then he should have just made a new pot, but granddaddy would be waiting at the building soon and he was a ten minute drive away.
Skipping a shower Hank dipped his head under the sink instead, wetting down the rat nests that had twirled into his hair during sleep. He toweled off with a dish rag and combed hurriedly with his fingers, thinking of the ladder, double extended to the roof, a dread settling into his stomach.
He’d never said a word of it aloud, but the building was pretty much a shit hole. At one time, there was a couple nice apartments upstairs and one downstairs, and a barber shop beside that. But that had been years and his granddaddy had bought it after all that was gone. Whatever plans he had, they were put on the shelf a long time ago. That was until yesterday.
Burl was there before Hank pulled in and work started right away. It was just after 7:30 a.m. When a light drizzle started just as they had the ladder positioned alongside the building, Hank secretly began to wonder if he might get a little money for helping. Some pay could go a long way in covering the rent and utilities and other debts he thought about less specifically, the ones that nagged him especially hard. Then the drizzle lifted off, back into the clouds, which moved away in a slow bulk across the ridge and dissipated like a swarm of colorless wasps.
The building was a shipwreck raised to the surface just off Route 6 and left alone, no treasure to speak of, no fine discoveries. From the roof, Hank could see into to what was once the top floor bedrooms, spyglassed through holes that looked as if they might have been the result of boulders falling from the nearby heavens of John Attic Ridge. There were more than ten of these busted out sections, the roof an opened mouthful of wooden cavities. And the rot inside was that much worse.
Hank lowered himself steadily through one of the holes during a break, mindful of rusty nails and countless other objects left in dangerous shards from the constant, pushing weight of weather and wind. Below was a bleached out dresser and he tested it with first one foot then the other until he was positioned solidly. He did the same with the floor of the old apartment until he was standing in a kaleidoscope of light from the outside world distilled through thousands of hidden cracks in the filmed over windows and plaster-curled walls.
People had certainly lived here. Families. In an area that served as a kitchen there were four chairs that seemed blown about the room. Two tilted against a far wall and the others sat upright but on opposite sides of the room. There were dishes in a cancerous sink.
Everywhere the floors were trap-door weak. Hank gazed up at the hole through which he had left the unfiltered sunlight behind as he made his way down a hallway running the length of the apartment. Not more than five steps in, he moved with caution through a doorway leading to what was once a bedroom. Claustrophobic in size, it was a child’s bedroom, he figured. A rectangle of cleaner hardwood suggested a place where a bed might have once been. In the corner he found odd toys, action figures, arms twisted and gnawed from where rats had rushed through and tested the items for food.
Hank stood for too long examining the toys. For a crazy moment he wished he might just stay in the room, sleep nights on the clean rectangle, the negative exposure his place of rest. At dawn he would arrange the toys in the room and sit quietly in the kitchen while the morning opened up the light show through the cracks in the walls.
“Hank! Let’s get back at it!”
The sound of his granddaddy’s voice ringing out from above, the shuffle of his boots overhead, muted but insistent, pulled him backwards from the bedroom. He went up through the broken section of roof and spent the next couple of hours forgetting the toys and kitchen chairs.
At lunch, they drove to the IGA for hot dogs with chili made from fresh hamburger and sloppy joe sauce. By dinner, Hank thought his granddaddy looked tired and finished, and with about an hour of daylight left, he called it a day. The ladder was retracted and tied to the back of the Datsun truck.
Of the thirty or so squares needed to repair the roof, they had stripped about four and replaced just two rotted boards. The work with his granddaddy had been uncustomary in its slowness, easy-going and a surprise to Hank. With the extra time and a decent well of energy left, he decided to drive straight to Jimmy Cole’s poker game on Thompson Fork Road.
He had stowed away twenty dollars for the buy-in and took the bill out of his shirt pocket as soon as he walked in the door to Jimmy’s tool shop, a rickety structure originally envisioned as a two-door garage which eventually became the poker room and general hideaway. He was greeted by familiars when he placed his twenty on the table in the center of the room.
“Sure Shot Clayton,” Jimmy said as Hank pulled up a chair. Hank’s dad had shot a man in the kneecap during a poker game once when the deed to somebody’s house was folded into a large pot in a no-limit hand. Since all these men had known his dad, Hank had inherited the name Sure Shot right off, the first night he played in the game.
“Who’s winning?” Hank said, counting chips out in four denominations of green, black, red and blue from a silver case on what would have been a fine, metal workbench. He had noticed Peaceful Murphy sitting in, but left it alone in his thoughts. This was poker. Not work.
“Thing’s already started,” Jimmy said.
“Okay if I take a hit on however many blinds and jump in?” Hank asked.
Jimmy looked at the others and they agreed by offering a silent disregard to the question. Murphy snorted lightly into the air.
The game usually went far into the morning with a tournament style Jimmy implemented after becoming a huge fan of the World Series of Poker on television a few months back. Before that it was straight money games and dealer’s choice. Now it was tournaments with timed blind increases and payouts to first and second place. And always no-limit hold ’em.
“This game’s the Cadillac of poker, boys,” Jimmy said, a cigarette hanging from his lip like some enormously long tooth busted loose but hanging on. He had just pulled in his third straight pot.
“Lucky tonight, Jim.”
Still stacking his chips even, Hank could tell it was Murphy’s voice offering Jimmy comment. Jimmy was one of Murphy’s drivers. The tone, sarcastic and accusatory, irked Hank, and he found himself wishing he would have went on home. This might not be work, but it was Murphy, and he couldn’t afford to toss away twenty dollars just for getting rattled at the table.
When Hank turned to the table with his chips balanced in both hands he saw Jimmy had already folded his buy-in with the rest, a wound tight roll of bills on a unvarnished table inches, always inches, from his elbow. He was in the game now whether he wanted to be or not.
“Drove by today and saw you and Burl on that old roof,” Murphy said as soon as Hank was in his seat.
Hank didn’t say much, just agreed, and the game went on in a ruffling of worn out cards and the clacking of clay chips. Jimmy was getting the best of it, but Hank had built a small stack, picking his spots and laying low.
When Murphy spoke to him again, it wasn’t about the game, no attempt to rattle him from his conservative, grind-it-out approach. But what Murphy said rattled him all the same.
“Tell Burl I’ll give him ten thousand for that buildin,” Murphy said in a bored voice, the voice he used when doing business. “As is. Not ten or twenty months from now after you all finish piddlin with it.”
It was Murphy’s deal and when Hank didn’t answer he stopped the rainbow movement of cards, placed the deck in his left hand and looked directly at Hank.
Hank had hoped to let the comment go, just idle talk he had no real stake in. Murphy’s continued stare told him that was not to be the case.
“It’s not mine to negotiate,” Hank said.
Murphy snorted again, resumed shuffling. “Who can talk to Burl about anything these days?”
Four hands later, Hank busted out and drove home thinking of how he should have checked kings on the river instead of pushing against a possible flush, thinking of how to mention ten thousand dollars to his granddaddy.
Alzheimer’s. Or Old Timer’s, as the old timers called it. Early onset, in his granddaddy’s case, but getting worse. And fast.
On the roof the next morning, Hank worked and thought of what it must feel like to lose memories. He imagined it would be better in some ways. But with his granddaddy, it only seemed to be recent memories that were gone. He remembered everything about his distant past, his days welding to build tipples or fixing machinery on contract at this mine or that mine. It was the daily things that were slipping. Mentioning Murphy’s offer was a daily thing, and Hank wondered how it would be handled. He decided to mention Murphy’s proposal as they loaded into the Datsun, eating their hotdogs as they went.
“Why would I want to do that? No sale,” Burl said, and pointed to a drop of chili on the seat between Hank’s knees. “Looks like that hotdog run straight through you.”
Hank wiped away the chili with the back of his sleeve. “That’s a good amount of money for a building that’s in bad shape,” he said. “You’ll spend more fixing it than Murphy’s offering to give.”
“I welded the gas line all across this ridge, all the way into Fischer County,” was the only response. “I even stayed in Fischer County, a town called Viper, through the week for more than a month. Came home on the weekends.”
The moment had passed. Until they arrived back at the building, the present moment was for his granddaddy what Hank imagined must have been a light sandstorm across a memorized landscape, like a room stirred in dust. A kaleidoscope where objects once sacred were left behind to be fought over by vermin.
The phone rang before he made it to the couch that evening. It was Angie. Her voice seemed distant and thick in the receiver. In the background, the muffled sound of drumming music told him she was somewhere with a live band. It was Saturday night and she was asking about child support.
“I’m behind. I know that,” Hank said tiredly, reclining onto the couch and closing his eyes. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Murphy pays Monday. I’ll send it to you then.”
Behind closed eyelids Pearl played in the front yard, washed out images almost gone in his mind except her smile and the way she held onto the handlebars so tight her knuckles were white as clean chips of porcelain. Her smile was his happiness, her fear the knot in his stomach. Behind closed eyelids he held gently to the small of her back, the tiny muscles tightened there, moving across the bumpy terrain of the overgrown yard, all bravery and joy. And then her laughter, soaking the outside world in beauty and purpose. Life in fading images, a scrapbook in his mind sharp at the edges with the shrapnel of his slow-beating heart, images fading not from overexposure to light, but from a dark so deep it glowed in places like the transparent skin of creatures that would never see a morning unfold, never feel a breeze across a summer yard, the clenched embrace of another living thing more important than their own buried existence.
“You there, Hank?” Angie asked, the drumming beat louder as he figured she was making her way back to the entrance of the bar.
“I’m here,” he said.
“Just send the money to Mom’s address.”
He opened his eyes in the dark. “When can I see Pearl again?”
“When you get some groceries,” she said, and pushed a dial tone through his ear.
Murphy didn’t speak of his offer the next day at work. He was gone for most of the day. In and then out, but mostly out. Hank went about his business as usual, but noticed his granddaddy’s building more than before. No longer was it something his eye passed over. It loomed against the valley’s ridge line as jagged, still, as the bushy treetops in the backdrop. His granddaddy never wondered down from Beauty Street and so the building sat undisturbed and mute.
Hank let his thoughts wander during work about the building. He rekindled the image of the kitchen in his mind, remodeling it there with the Formica table top and only two chairs near the middle of the room just off from the sink, now a fine, shiny white with a silver-finished faucet and knobs . One for himself and one for Pearl. As metal clanked in first one tone then another, as air pressure released and the sharp barking of the metal and high hissing of the air mixed with other sounds emitting from the truck garage, Hank moved on to the bedroom.
Pink would burst loose here, onto the walls and then, a shade darker, along the crowning and trim. The clean rectangle was covered again with Pearl’s canopied day bed and pictures and designs adorned the walls, flowers and butterflies, clowns and kittens. But most of all Hank placed toys throughout the room. Stuffed animals and porcelain tea sets, dolls of all sizes, a vanity with a tiny chair for pretend preening, stacks of story books and more stacks of coloring books, an entire corner of the room devoted to these books, complete with a dandelion-colored bookshelf. The room would always smell of freshly washed hair, the aroma of a bubble bath perpetually lingering, an unseen misting of newness.
Hank rubbed grease across the knees of his pants and nodded to Spider as the trucker crossed the garage on his way to the front office, a shuffle and stomp of girth, his buzz cut hair slicing through the air before him like thousands of tiny razors. He returned quickly, swinging the connecting office door just hard enough for the hinges to stretch and give simultaneous pops before relaxing back into place.
“Not sure,” Hank answered. He pushed a truck tire upright and started wobble walking it to a short-bed parked sideways at the entrance.
“Goddamit,” Spider muttered. “Owes me money. I’ve held off on payday like this enough. He’ll have to ask somebody else next time. Just cause I ain’t got kids don’t mean I can always be the one he asks to hold off when things get tight. You tell him if you see him he owes me money.”
When things get tight? The comment surprised Hank. He eased the wheel to a stop and propped it against his side and turned to Spider.
“Murphy has money problems?” Hank asked.
Spider laughed at this and rubbed the top of his head. “It’s not exactly that kind of situation, even though I guess it might’ve sounded that way. Just tell him. He’ll know just what it is by exactly the way it sounds.”
Laughing again, this time more to himself than out loud, Spider started to the back of the truck where he had wedge-parked his own.
“What kind of situation is it, then?” Hank called to Spider, but the trucker was already climbing into his cab, cutting off an oncoming suburban as he pulled onto Route 6 and slow-geared away.
Hank rolled the wheel, standing about four feet high between his clutched hands, and leaned it against the parked short-bed. The driver was a man by name of Caudill, but everybody, like everybody else in turn, used their call names instead. Caudill’s call name was Torch. When Hank started on the wheel, Torch appeared from behind a stack of fuel barrels and called across the lot.
“Let Mackey do that, boy,” Torch said. He was waving his hand. “Murphy ain’t paying you no mechanic wages. Why in hell would you offer em up?” And then to some indistinct distance behind him he called out, “Mackey! Wheel’s ready!”
Mackey, a thin man with a patchy beard who had worked for Murphy for more than twenty years, in turn appeared from a corner of the garage. Hank saw Mackey throw a half-smoked joint into a pile of discarded metal fixings, rub his eyes and quicken his pace until it was just him and Hank standing beside the truck.
“Murphy gone for the day?” It was the first words Mackey had spoken to him in the three weeks Hank had worked at the garage. Usually he just finished his work, motioned his hand for another part, which Hank was always expected to intuitively know, and then returned behind the garage. He smoked joints the entire shift and was the only garage employee who could get by with such a thing. The drivers, it seemed to Hank, did whatever the hell they wanted on the road. Better for tracking along that napalm and getting another load. “Murphy gone for the day?” Mackey asked again, this time louder, upset at having to repeat himself.
“I don’t know,” Hank replied. He didn’t like Mackey’s tone. “How am I supposed to know?”
Mackey stared at him hard for four or five uncomfortable seconds and then laughed hard and started on the wheel, motioning with his hand when this or that was needed and Hank complied without comment until Mackey finally settled back and, peering about the lot, took a joint from his shirt pocket and held it lovingly beneath the orange flame of an ageless Zippo lighter.
Hank settled beside him, sitting directly on the ground even though Mackey had made the changed and busted tire his own personal recliner.
“Why would Spider think Murphy is having money problems?” Hank finally asked. He waited patiently, watching Mackey take a long drag on the joint, hold it for so long when he exhaled there was nothing in the air but air.
“The hell you talkin bout?” Mackey said breathlessly.
“Spider said he was tired of waiting on his paycheck. Said Murphy shouldn’t always stick him short when the money was tight,” Hank said.
Mackey laughed hard again, raising his legs into the air and wiggling his filthy boots, the tongues flapping without the benefit of laces.
“What, shit,” Mackey said. “I forget you’re green, what a month into the job? I guess I forget because of your Papaw and all. Burl could weld and do electric like nobody.” He stopped and took another long drag and then said again, “Like. Nobody.”
Just as he was expected to know instinctively what tool or part Mackey might need next, Hank felt that something was coming, a further explanation. He waited for the harmless old burnout to finish. But there was a long silence and Hank stared evenly at Mackey, watched him take a last draw from the joint and crush it carefully underfoot. The old mechanic looked first at Hank and then around the lot again. Still nobody around.
“This might be some information useful to you, now that I think of it,” Mackey said after the long pause. “Old Spidey’s woman, Charlene, she’s a whore. You might get in a lick or two for the right price. I’ve had a shot or two when times were, you know, rough, like you got.”
Hank stood up, dusting off the back of his pants, feeling metal shavings peel into the palms of his hands. The metal shavings might have slipped beneath his very skin and made him invisible. The thought of pulling good timing Mackey off his rubber recliner and knocking him around some passed through his mind, a fleeting fantasy, a daydream, the place he’d been most of the day anyway. Instead he lazily shook his head and started back to the face of the garage.
“Bullshit,” he said, resting himself now in the dankness of the garage.
Mackey smiled and grabbed a variety of tools, turning back to the wheel for a beat or two and then turned back to Hank.
“Don’t believe me? Call her up then, greenhorn. Number’s in the book under Michael and Charlene Hall. That’s Spider’s real name. Michael.”
Dusk settled across the house slowly and Hank watched it fall across the kitchen and then the couch and then the living room floor until he sat in near total darkness. He was satisfied to see the darkness overtake the room. The room, the dormant items within the room, brought pain like he’d never felt. A blue and pink trimmed toy playpen for dolls, Pearl’s dolls, in the corner, now obscured by the dying dusk, was an open nerve in the daylight. In the daylight he watched over and over again Pearl leaning carefully over the edge and placing her dolls in, tucking them so gently and then pulling them out again to feed and fuss over them, rock them in her skinny, motherly arms, smiling at her gentleness and care.
Ten thousand dollars would bring Pearl back.
Angie would take the money and let him have Pearl. She didn’t want her anyway, and her parents were tired and old and couldn’t care for a child. They’d be happy to see either of parents take her in. Angie would go for it. Ten thousand dollars would be the shining light of God across this dying room of dusk and pain. Ten thousand dollars would be his salvation.
Draped across the couch, Hank rubbed his forehead, hoping it wasn’t the pain and hurt making him think crazy. He looked again, squinting now through the full darkness to make out the toy playpen across the room. All of Pearl’s toys were still in their place since the last time she came, more than a month ago. A stuffed animal, a dog she had named Spotty, a toy purse and a pair of princess slippers, a purple plastic microphone left dead across the coffee table. He picked up the phone and, instead of turning on a light, flicked his lighter, brought a cigarette to life and then flipped open the phone book. He found Murphy’s number and dialed quickly. He focused on the open nerves, driving him forward in the dark.
Sheldon Lee Compton survives in Kentucky. His work has appeared in Emprise Review, >kill author, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Metazen and elsewhere.
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