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"Fence Jumper".

I.

I used to hear about this couple. They lived on a little slice of land between our property and the Munro spread. They were sort of infamous. The man was a guy named Darwell. That's his last name, his first name I can't think of just now. Darwell wasn't well liked in town. He was a journeyman carpenter, but (according to Uncle Lynn) he never worked. Had a reputation for drinking. I never saw the dude, since I lived two hundred miles away, in Saint Louis, but Uncle Lynn described a lanky, shifty-eyed kid with a bad complexion and wild hair.

I can remember the girlfriend's first name but not her last: Sherene Something. People seemed to like Sherene pretty well--or anyway, she didn't have trouble with anybody, and that's practically the same thing. She worked part-time at a gas station on Highway 63, and part-time at the high school cafeteria. She was the den mother of the Summerglenn Girl Scout troupe. When the couple got written up in the West Plains newspaper, Uncle Lynn sent me a copy of the article. I was surprised by the grainy black-and-white photo they ran of Sherene. I mean, somehow I hadn't expected her to be pretty.

It happened on her daughter's birthday, when the whole Girl Scout troupe was at the house for an overnight. Darwell was drinking shots of whiskey, the newspaper claimed. Anyway, he began to frighten the girls: a few of them asked to call their parents, so that they could go home.

Darwell said, Forget it.

That's when Sherene got involved: I mean, that's when she told him to quit acting like a dickhead. Things escalated. I'm pretty sure he ended up hitting her. Bear in mind the Girl Scout troupe is watching all of this, not to mention Sherene's daughter. Eventually Sherene picks up the telephone and threatens to call the police. So Darwell took a bread knife out of the kitchen drawer and chased her outside.

This is where the story gets almost funny. While her friends scattered screaming into the woods, Sherene's daughter called 911. I seem to remember her name is Lacey, not that it matters, they are gone now. She must have been terrified, but she managed to give the dispatcher all the relevant details. Then she hung up and ran from the house, slamming shut the door.

I'm not sure if she meant to lock it behind her, since neither Lynn or the newspaper article said. All I know is that when the sheriffs showed up, Darwell was out in the front yard without a jacket, trying to jimmy the door open with the bread knife. By now he had lost interest in Sherene, who'd hidden in a derelict horse bam at the edge of their lot. This was end of October: far from warm in Missouri. He must have gotten cold.

After a while Sherene emerged from her hiding spot. I imagine she was upset. I wonder if she even noticed Darwell, handcuffed and penitent in the dead grass of their lawn. I wonder if she even looked his way when he called out to her, as the newspaper article claims: "Sherene, baby, I'm sorry!"

By then, the Girl Scout troupe would have been straggling in from the woods. Picture it: in the red-blue-red lights of the sirens, they must have looked like the orphaned waifs of some not-especially-far-off apocalypse. Sherene would not have found her daughter among them, because Lacey had run through about a mile of woods, all the way to Uncle Lynn's front door.

Lynn had been listening to the news that night. The president was on the radio, saying that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace.

2.

Those days, I talked to Lynn maybe twice a week. I was in my first year of college. I took it all pretty seriously. I did my homework weeks in advance. I was the treasurer of the photography club. I went to all the Students For Peace rallies. This is by way of telling you I was lonely, but almost too busy to notice.

I think Lynn was lonely that year, too. Up until then, my grandmother had lived with him on the farm, but now she was staying with my aunt Sheridan in Mountain View, the next town over. Gran was in her eighties and going on her third stroke: too old and too sick, anyway, to live in a house with a wood-burning stove and no plumbing. So Lynn and I kept each other company.

He had a new story just about every week: some grisly car wreck or fistfight, or the police had knocked down somebody's door. This one about Darwell pretty much beat all, though:

"So she come inside, says her momma and Darwell had a fight," Lynn explained, a day or two after it happened. "So I said, 'Don't you think we'd better to call them?' "She says, no, she's scared to call them. So I said, 'All right, but I think they might be wondering where you are.' And she says, 'Yeah, they probably are.' So I give her something to eat, then we drove over there. That's when I seen all the police."

Something about it didn't add up. Doesn't.

"What'd she go to you for?" I wondered.

"Hell if I know. I guess maybe 'cause them all'd been here before."

"Doing what?"

"Oh, being neighbors. Sherene needed a cup of sugar. An egg. I don't know what all. She come by, she bring the kid."

"Huh," I said. I asked Lynn was Darwell still outside when they pulled up.

"He sure was," Lynn cackled. "Crying like a baby."

I laughed, too: force of habit. Through my window I could see the big red arch of the college's brand-new field house, and I could see a wash where naked trees were leaning against the pitch of the slope. A smudge of gray-black clouds hung in the sky like a big Rorschach test. I saw a bull.

"Swear to God," I told Lynn. "That place is cursed."

3.

JT Evans was who rented that lot from Munro, before this business with the bread knife and the Girl Scout troupe.

I guess you could say JT was a "hired hand"--a doer of odd jobs. He did work for Munro, mostly, but sometimes for Lynn when he needed help: mending fence or cutting, tagging and feeding and whatever else. JT lived with his wife in a dilapidated little bungalow just off the highway: while JT worked, she stayed home. She got benefits from the government for (Lynn said) bipolar disorder. So it went until one day--nobody knew what happened, or why--JT Evans strangled her and then drove out to the Jacks Fork Bridge and jumped off.

It happened one summer, not long after I'd left Missouri and gone west again to live with my dad. The world was in chaos. Dad was like some kind of animal those days, or shaman. He had quit the law firm, and now he didn't do anything. Two nights a week, he went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One night a week, he attended a support group for single fathers. Our food came in microwaveable formats. This is by way of telling you I was lonely.

Nights I was alone, I'd call Uncle Lynn, and he would tell me the sorts of stories he told me six years later, when I was at college. How a man poisoned his whole family by putting antifreeze in their Pepsi. How a tornado in Mountain View had cut a woman cleanly in two. How a girl in Cold Spring had had a baby by her brother. One of those nights, as I ate my third ham-and-cheese Hot Pocket in a row, Uncle Lynn told me the story of JT Evans killing his wife.

4.

I liked JT--that's what made the news so strange. I had met him at the beginning of that crazy-ass summer: There was a hole in the fence, and he was fixing it. He had a big length of iron with him: "Spud bar" he called it, when I asked what it was. He had a tool like a pair of gardening trowels that scissored together: "Posthole digger" he called it, when I asked what it did. He had a spool of barbed wire and a dozen metal fence posts in the bed of his truck. His job, he said, was to dig out the wood posts and put the new metal ones in.

"What for?" I wanted to know.

"'Cause these wood ones are getting old," he explained. "Cow's liable to just tear through, she wants to."

I pointed toward the place where a few fat heifers had clustered, behind his truck: "Why don't they try now?"

He thrust his weight against one of the wooden posts. When it didn't budge, he kicked it with his boot. After a minute, panting, he said, "They're scared of me."

"How come?"

"Because they know how I like a steak rare."

In better moods my dad was a little like that: he could sneak a joke in, sometimes, without you even knowing it. I smiled, watching JT pry loose the wood posts one by one and then, when that was done, drive the metal posts in where the old ones had stood. It looked hard.

Even without the fence, you could tell where our land ended and Munro's began: My family's side was rocky and overgrown; Munro's was pasture, far as the eye could see. His cows looked better than ours, too: fatter, and solid black, and each with a blue chip in its ear.

"You Lynn's kid?" he said when he'd done, holding out his hand.

"Nephew," I explained. "I'm just visiting."

"Proud to meet you," he said, exactly like a cowboy. "I'm JT. I see you walking round out here."

I just shrugged: "There's no TV in the house."

"You ever want to watch TV, you come over to our place." JT laughed. "Goddamn thing is on all the time. Cass has got herself hooked on that junk: Days of Our Lives. Lord mercy."

5

I only met her once, if you can call it meeting at all. She had a face I could tell had been pretty not that long ago, that might be pretty still if the makeup wasn't caked on so thick. She was wearing a nightie, even though it was well after lunchtime, and her breasts swung and swayed when she stepped through the screen door and onto the porch where, years later, Darwell would try to jimmy the lock in the dark and the cold. In Cass Evans's spaced-out smile, I could see the teeth were outlined in brown.

"Hey, Lynn," she told my uncle. "Y'all are looking for JT?"

Yeah, Lynn told her. That was exactly who we were looking for.

I guess I should mention here that Lynn had a bad temper, just like my dad. One way or another, my summer had been governed by their moods, which were as volatile as the tornado-alley weather. I could see Lynn straining, trying to be polite. But when Cass Evans just smiled her dim smile ("He ain't here"), Lynn spat on the split boards of the porch and wiped his mouth and told her, "A bull jumped the fence and now he's over messing with the cows."

She was silent for what seemed like a long time. "Well," she answered slowly, "me and JT don't keep cows."

"I know that," Lynn said, "but Munro does. And I can guarantee you Munro is going to send JT to go fetch him."

"You're saying it's my husband's fault?"

"All's I'm saying is, I would like somebody please to come and fetch this fucking bull."

"No need to curse. Try Munro's," she told us, after a while.

Lynn grumbled something, and together we turned and made for his truck, parked in the overgrown drive. In a moment her voice drifted to us, feeble and sick-sounding: "Didn't know you had kids, Lynn," she called.

"I don't," Lynn answered, and got in the truck.

She leaned forward like somebody bracing against the wind, her stare holding me in place.

"I'm pleased to meet you," she called, and her eyes looked the way the sky does when there's nothing going to happen. "I'm Cassie Evans." She was dead not two months later.

6.

I had met Munro maybe a week or two before the day his bull jumped our fence. Gripping my hand in the grocery store, he had wondered, "Now who is this young man?" I remember he wore a black suede hat, like Kevin Costner in Wyatt Eaip. He had on great big work boots under his khakis and a freshly ironed, red-gingham shirt. He was thin, tall, blue-eyed, and square-jawed: good-looking in a way you couldn't argue with.

"This is Lee Junior," Gran told him, when I didn't speak. "This is Lee's boy. He's staying with me and Lynn this summer."

It was a Saturday, our town day. The three of us--Lynn, Gran, me--had driven into Summerglenn for that week's shopping.

"Lee's boy?" Munro repeated. In that land of well-water teeth, his bleach-white grin was a revelation. "I don't believe it: somebody tied him down? What do you think, LJ? You give the girlies a hard time?"

Gran didn't smile, me either. Even at that age, I knew enough to recognize the words for what they were: allusion to my dad's life before he left Missouri, before college and law school, before Mom. I told him, "I don't know."

"He doesn't know," Munro repeated. He was still smiling, but the smile had changed somehow. A tendon was throbbing his jaw. "I'm just messing you," he said after a while. "I'm pleased to meet you."

Nice to meet you, too would have been the polite thing to say. Munro looked up at Gran: "You see Sheridan, tell her she owes me a phone call."

Sheridan was Gran's daughter, my aunt, the one Gran went to live with after her stroke. My aunt would have been thirty-five or so by now. She worked in a bank in Mountain View. We saw her once a week for "Sunday supper." It was supper in Missouri, not dinner--here, "dinner" meant "lunch."

"I'll do that," Gran told him. "She's busy these days."

Munro nodded. I hoped he'd finished, but now he fixed his squint on me and shook his head: "Never thought I'd see the day Lee settled down." What people mean when they talk about an instinctive distrust: yeah, that was pretty much what I was feeling.

"You come over sometime, LJ," he said, before moving along down the bread aisle. "I've got satellite TV. And air-condition."

7.

Our house in Colorado was nice, smallish but well kept up, pretty much ideal for a family of three. Mom called it a "century Victorian," which meant the lights often went out, and twice in my lifetime the pipes had burst. There was no air-conditioning, not even on the second floor where it could get hotter than hell in the summer. Our tiny TV received the major networks and the local PBS station (sometimes) thanks to an antenna on the roof.

Television was one of the things Mike did not believe in. In addition to television, Mike did not believe in flushing the toilet if there was only pee inside. "Brown, down," he used to say, "yellow, mellow." Mike didn't believe in buying food that wasn't organic, either. Mom kept a big Clinton-Gore sign in the front yard, but Mike didn't believe in voting for Bill Clinton: "We need," he used to say, "to escape the two-party paradigm."

Like my father, Mike did not believe it would be good for me to stay in Colorado that summer.

"Look," he had said, in the spring, sitting at the table that had been a wedding gift from my mother's uncle, "the way I see it, this is nature. The kid's gotta fledge, Pamela."

Mom, who was "Pam" to everybody else, protested: "But you haven't seen this place, Mike. They're really out there. Off the grid, I mean. The nearest emergency room is thirty miles away. They didn't get a telephone until last year, Christ's sake."

Mike was the chair of the Anthropology department at the university where Mom taught. He had a way of arching his eyebrows and making you feel dumb.

"Pamela," he said, "am I the only one who thinks it might be better for LJ to get some distance from this environment? I'm sorry to put it like that. But."

The year my parents split up is a crazy, gray blur, and there is a lot I still don't understand. I don't understand why Mom got to keep the house, when it was her stepping out on Dad. I don't understand why Dad paid alimony, on top of that. I don't understand why Mom never kicked Mike out--how it was him who left her, eventually.

Now Mike said, "Look, it's been a hard year for everyone. We're talking serious trauma here. Shock. Who knows. Maybe this stuff with the, uh--"

Don't say it, I begged him, silently. Please, please don't say it.

"The nighttime accidents. Who knows. Maybe getting out of here for a while might help with that."

One other thing I guess I should explain. I'd become pretty much a chronic bed wetter.

8.

It had started around the time Dad moved out, the winter before. And though I hated to admit it, Mike had been right: two months in Missouri, and I hadn't wet the bed once. I'm not sure why. Living on the farm was to live a little like an animal: I got tired when the sun went down, woke up when it came up. I ate when food was set down in front of me. I bathed once a week, in a crooked elbow of the Jacks Fork River. When I went back to Colorado, middle of August, I had a mouth chock-full of cavities.

9.

Anyway, though, about that bull.

Our place was a cow farm; Munro's was a cattle ranch. It was a business. It wasn't fifty skinny heifers on an eighty-acre plot grown over with junk-trees and poison ivy. I couldn't say for sure how many cattle Munro had in his herd but at least a few thousand. The property itself is huge, sprawling: it borders Shannon County in the south, Highway 63 in the west, and the Jacks Fork River in the north. I guess that means when he jumped, JT Evans must have been looking at Munro's land.

The barn was huge and apple-red with a white trim. The house itself had a fresh coat of white paint. There was none of that crazy-hungry riot of woods: except for a windbreak of poplars on the north side of the house, the land had been cleared for pasture. There were no billy goats, and there weren't any half-feral dogs snapping at the tires of the truck as we drove up.

By now Lynn was tired from all the driving and running around, and he had that pinched, red look that meant a headache was coming on. Within a few years, the doctors at the VA clinic would be shaking their heads at him, telling him he had to eat better, quit smoking, lay off the coffee. But back then he was still strong enough to chuck thirty-pound hay bales across a barn. Angry, he could move snake-quick.

Now he slapped his palm against the door one, two, three times. We heard the air-conditioning kick on at the far side of the pretty house. Cicadas singing. Lynn knocked again. Now came footsteps, the door swung open. On the other side of the screen stood a taller, thinner, younger version of Munro. He wore blue jeans, a white oxford shirt, and the exact same black Stetson that Munro had worn that day at the grocery store.

"Hey, Lynn," he said, grinning, waving us inside. "Long time, no see. Come on in."

"How you doing, Jodey?" Lynn mumbled.

We stepped through the door, and I shivered: I was sweat-soaked by now, and my shirt froze fast to the small of my back. Air-condition.

"Y'all looking for Daddy?" asked Munro's son.

"I am," Lynn said. "We had a bull jumped the fence here a little while ago."

"One of ours?"

"Can't think of who else's."

"Well, shoot." Jodey scratched the back of his neck, shuffling and awkward. "Y'all ask at JT's?"

"Yeah," said Lynn. "We looked there."

"Okay," said Jodey. "Lemme get Daddy."

Standing there waiting for Munro, I studied the big kitchen. He had the same kind of thing they kept at Gran and Lynn's place, but Munro's looked like it had been bought at an antique store: a tin of Saltines, a 7UP placard, a cuckoo clock. Somebody--Munro's wife, I guessed--had done a stitch work: "Home Is The Place They Can't Kick You Out." It hung in a dark wood frame right above the window. Outside I could see Uncle Lynn's truck: patchwork, mud-flecked, seeming to lean to one side.

After a while Munro appeared--"strode in," I mean--and announced in his big voice, "Well if it isn't the Cryders as I live and breathe." He shook Lynn's hand and wondered: "How long's it been since you seen Jodey?"

Lynn shrugged. "Couldn't say."

"Been two years since he come up from the Gulf. May's wedding. Iddinit, Jo?"

He turned around to grin at his son, who was standing at the threshold of the kitchen with a smile in his eyes. I got the feeling they knew something we didn't, but I never figured out what it was.

"Two years," Jodey said. "I believe it might be that."

Uncle Lynn had taken on the air of an adolescent at a dinner party, surrounded by relatives who remember him as a cute kid. He set his big hands in his pockets and said, "Well, if it is or isn't. I don't know what Jodey told you, but we've got one of your bulls over on our side."

"One of ours?" Munro wondered.

"Who else?"

Munro didn't answer for a while: "Well, we were just sitting down to supper. You seen JT out there?"

"We tried to fetch him up at his place."

"I don't know what to tell you," Munro answered with a shrug. "JT has the truck and the trailer. Not much we can do till he comes back."

"Yeah," said Lynn, shrugging too. "Well."

I had expected him to explode, to fume. I had expected his rage to boil over. But that's how it ended. Lynn shrugged--Yeah. Well--and we stood there awhile. Maybe he felt as embarrassed as I did, to find myself in that fine house.

"I told him and told him," Munro went on after a while. "I know just the spot it happened, too: down by the wash. I said, 'Bull's liable just to tear clear through that thing, we don't do something about these old posts.'"

"Well, you were right about that," said Lynn. And then, smiling for reasons I didn't quite understand: "Poor JT got enough to worry about."

"That's right," Munro echoed, laughing. "Poor JT."

"Poor JT," Jodey agreed gravely, shaking his head.

10.

I can remember waking up in half-dark, and wet. The thin cotton sheets were heavy with it, and under moonlight I could see where the pinstripes of the old feather mattress showed through. An oscillating fan stirred the rank air but just a little. The night was as still as a thing waiting to pounce. The stain was huge, colossal, nearly as big as I was. I stripped out of my underwear and held them out the open window, wringing them out. In the crab grass below, it was the sound of rain splattering. When it was gone, there was just the sound of the fan again, doing nothing.

In the dark on the far side of the room, I found the dresser. I took out a fresh pair and hung the dirty pair on the windowsill to dry. I wiped myself off with a dry corner of sheet, knowing there was nothing to be done about the stench: in a few hours, the sun would slam in through the window and bake the room, sealing the stink into the very walls. The quilt at the foot of the bed was still dry, and I pulled it off and, wrapping myself inside, lay down on the wood floor. Far off toward the highway, I heard a semi rumble its way east. There was this delicious moment, swaddled and dry, as if nothing had happened, at all.

11.

A few days after JT Evans came over to collect Munro's bull, I was walking with Aunt Sheridan. She was over for Sunday supper. After the four of us had finished eating, me and Sheridan usually walked down to the far edge of the property, where the lane fizzled out into briar and cow pond. When we came to the woods, the canopy so thick it was half-night already, fireflies flamed and danced and danced and flamed. The days, you almost didn't notice, were getting shorter.

"Talked to Pam," said Sheridan, unexpectedly.

I walked on, daring myself not to say, "Oh yeah?" There was something I didn't like about the idea of Aunt Sherry talking to my mom. In two months on the farm, she had never, not once, been mentioned. I missed her, sure. But there is missing someone, and then there is needing them. I didn't know I needed her then. I had promised to call my mother once a week, and I had, but our conversations were quick, and mumbled. The most I'd done by way of communicating was a postcard with a picture of the Merrimac Caves on it: It's really hot here, I wrote. Love you. See you in August. Lee Junior

"What did she want?"

"Wanted to hear about you." Sheridan shrugged. "You know, we talked a little while. We sort of decided, maybe it's better you come live with me until it's time to go home."

"Why?" I wondered--knowing, but not caring, that I sounded rude.

Sheridan lay a cool dry hand against my neck: "I've got air-condition," she teased. "I've got TV at my place."

I scoffed. I knew damn well my mom didn't want me inside all summer, watching soaps in climate-controlled comfort. She wanted-maybe I don't know quite how to explain it--to shape things, to shape me. She wanted control. She wanted not to feel like I was drifting away, for good.

"I think she's thinking about emergencies," Sheridan explained, after a while.

I shrugged, knowing it must be settled already: I would go to Aunt Sheridan's house, in town, and I would live out the summer there. A wave of cicada song came now, up and up and up before crashing down.

"And she asked about the accidents, too," Sheridan went on, as something in me sank like a stone.

"What do you mean?"

"Your bed accidents," Sheridan said.

I turned to look at her, explain myself: I don't have those anymore. But something had caught her eye. I followed her gaze past the strung wire, past the propane tank and a junked Ford where, one morning in July, Gran had found a copperhead coiled up on the driver's seat. Past that truck stood Uncle Lynn's Chevy and then another Ford: cobalt blue, shining like a blade in the end-of-summer sun.

"Well, look who's come to visit," she laughed.

12.

Inside, Gran was doing the washing up. Lynn sat at the table. Opposite him sat Munro, his black hat laid on the blue formica next to a half-finished slice of pie. Aunt Sheridan bent to kiss him on the cheek, and he smiled, watching her sit down. When he twisted around in his chair to offer his hand, I just looked at it a moment before taking it.

"How do, LJ?" he wondered.

"Hi."

I couldn't think where to sit. The table was so small that, no matter where I went, I'd be beside Munro. Finally Gran tapped me on the shoulder and, handing me a slice of pie, nodded to the seat at his left. Munro said, "Well goll, he don't look a thing like his daddy." And the table laughed.

While I ate, the rest of them talked. They talked about how hot it had been lately, and they talked about the cost of hay. They talked about the farms of their neighbors, going belly-up one by one by one.

"Bank closed on Kyle Marsh's place," Sheridan said.

"Heard." Munro nodded. "Petersons're in trouble, too." He thumbed his jaw, thinking aloud: "Problem is, it's hard to get help like you used to do. Boy, JT: I about bit his head off about that bull."

It had taken JT two days to come for Munro's bull, and in the meantime the bull had managed to get half the herd pregnant. Winter would come soon and dry up all the green. By spring Lynn would mortgage the farm to buy hay to feed the calves. He'd put us in the jackpot.

"JT's got his own cross to bear," Sheridan said, neutrally.

"We all got a cross to bear," Munro laughed. "Just I never married mine."

Now Gran spoke up, from the washbasin: "No," she said, "you married right."

Silence clicked along. Munro put his hand over his hat, stared at the half-eaten pie. He said, "I sure did. I miss her every day."

And I can tell you that he didn't fool me for a second. I thought of his phony-ass smile, the one he'd flashed at Lynn in his kitchen. I pictured Munro sitting alone on his porch, recognizing Aunt Sheridan's car when it came down the lane for Sunday supper. He must have waited awhile, then gotten in his shining new truck and driven over. Chasing tail. Why not, I guess. Maybe there was nothing evil in it. Maybe he was just human.

13.

When he finally got in his truck and drove home, it was well past dark. I was yawning as I packed my bag: the toothbrush I hardly used, the blue jeans I never wore, since it was too hot for anything but shorts. I packed the fancy, white-red-and-black Air Jordans, now stained the rusty orange of the soil. Then I went downstairs and hugged Gran and Lynn.

I said, "See you next Sunday."

Gran said, "See you next Sunday."

Lynn said, "See you in a week, cowboy."

And then me and Sheridan got in her car and made for the lights of town.

14.

Daniel, that's it. Daniel Darwell.

The week before Daniel Darwell was arraigned, the president gave a speech in Prague, at the NATO summit. I remember Vaclav Havel introduced him. The speech was televised in the student union hall, where I was sitting, alone, eating a sandwich and going over the Photography Club's budget. The president was talking about Saddam Hussein again. He was saying he hoped America's friends would help her to defend freedom globally. I remember Vaclav Havel shifting in his seat. I remember some dignitary or other, standing behind the two of them in a white uniform with gold epaulettes, swinging his head suddenly to the left, distracted by something off camera.

Lynn, who still had metal in him from Vietnam, cursed into the telephone that night: "Goddamn cotton-picking fence-jumping lying son of a bitch." A new Vietnam, he kept saying. He talked about the price of oil, the military-industrial thing.

I was like, "Yeah, I know."

Maybe a piece of me was thinking I didn't have to worry about any of that. The war wasn't going to be fought by people like me. It'd be kids from East Saint Louis, and it'd be kids from the Five Points in Denver. It'd be hillbillies. Or else it'd be people like Jodey Munro, whose national guard unit got called up that spring. I guess I should explain that he died out there, a while later. In Iraq, I mean: shot himself in his barracks.

15.

A couple weeks later, when Dad picked me up at the airport, the vibe in the car was weird: a low-grade but definite hostility. Dad had quit trying to quit smoking. But he didn't like to smoke in the condo, so he spent a lot of time out on the porch, where the harsh mountain air scraped against his skin. He looked aged all of a sudden, taking a big old drag from his Marb wide and exhaling: "Just so you know, your momma thinks you're spending Christmas with her."

I didn't like the idea, even though I knew the year had been unkind to her, even though I knew Mike wouldn't be there. Six months earlier, he had announced his retirement and moved out of the house he'd shared with my mother for those six years. He was in love, he told her. The woman was one of his former graduate students. Mike and his girlfriend were living in Berkeley now, where she was an associate professor of anthropology at the university there.

"Yeah," I told Dad. "Well."

"Yeah, well, what?"

"Yeah, well, okay," I said, deciding not to fight it. "What are you going to do?"

He was silent a while. Finally he said, "I don't know."

And that was how we left it. I asked him to roll up the window. He gave me a brutal look, flicked the cig out onto I-70, but wheeled the window closed.

16.

Christmas Eve, we got in Dad's car and drove south. It was a warm day, and we had the windows cracked, so the air slamming in through the gap made conversation impossible. When we turned off at her exit, not ten minutes after we'd left Dad's house, I got a weird sensation. Maybe it was plain nerves, but somehow I think it was more that that. For one thing, I'd never realized how close my parents actually lived to one another. All this while, the distance had seemed expansive: miles of train tracks and junked cars, an entire world rusting under the interstate. But no. We'd barely covered ten miles.

Mom was already out on the porch, and my heart sank when I realized she must have been waiting for us. I saw her sitting at the window, peering through the curtains, nibbling at her thumb like she does when she gets nervous. I made up my mind then to be sweet to her.

Her tobacco-colored hair had been yanked into a bun, and her eyelids were beginning to encroach on her coal-black eyes. Her hands twisted nervously in front of her before they dragged me into a hug. She'd lost weight, which didn't surprise me. Dad had gotten skinny as hell, too.

"Here's my good-looking boy," she said.

When she let me go, she turned to Dad. Dad was standing behind me, smiling a little, with nothing but a faint puzzlement in his eyes, like he was wondering how he'd gotten here.

"Hey, Pam," he said.

"Hey, Lee."

I let out a sigh of relief when they hugged, not bothering to remember the last time they were so good to one another. Turning toward our house, Mom wondered, "Now who wants a cup of coffee?"

"Boy," said Dad, "I'd about kill for one."

17.

It felt just like what it was, I guess: two exes meeting to discuss their lives over coffee. I was just sort of there, listening, thinking about how carefully they wandered around what they must actually be thinking. Dad knew about Mike Clark and the graduate student (I'd told him), but he didn't mention it. Mom knew that Dad had recently started seeing a lady from the store where he was working those days (I'd told her), but she didn't mention it. They talked about Mom's job instead, and then Dad's. When there was nothing more to say about that, Mom asked about her former in-laws.

"Sherry still seeing that older guy?" she wondered. "What was his name?"

"Who, Munro?" Dad shook his head. "Naw, that fizzled out pretty quick. She's still single. They got her so busy at work, I don't think she's got time for much else."

"Strange she never had kids," my mom said. "I always thought she'd make a good mom."

"Yeah," Dad agreed. "Go figure, I guess."

Mom walked to the kitchen and grabbed the pot from its place on the counter. She took her time mopping up something with a paper towel, then came back to my father and poured him another coffee. It was then I realized she was glad to see him.

"How about Lynn?" she wondered. "How about your mother?"

"Getting old." He shrugged. "I guess LJ told you about the stroke. And Lynn's lonesome out there, I think. Matter of fact--" He set down his coffee and reached into the pocket of his jacket for his cell phone. "They're supposed to call me in a second here."

Mom gaped: "You got a cell phone?"

"Never thought you'd see the day, huh?" Dad laughed, holding up the mug of coffee. "I guess I'll just drink this and skedaddle--"

But when his phone started buzzing and chirping a few minutes later, Dad was still laughing and chatting with Mom. Glancing quickly at the number, he tossed the phone to me: "You go first, LJ," he told me. "I'm just going to set here and visit a while longer."

I walked outside, where the sun was still burning bright in a bluebird sky.

"Hello?"

"That you, LJ?"

"Yeah," I told him. "Dad's talking to somebody."

"How's the weather there?" Lynn wondered. "We're about to get ten inches."

"We had that a couple days ago," I told him. "It's sunny here. Not much of a Christmas Eve. What's new with you all?"

"Nothing much," Lynn said, "fust Dan Darwell's trial. Charging him with attempted murder. Two counts."

"Two?" I wondered.

"Two," Lynn said, "on account of it turned out Sherene was pregnant."

And that was when I knew, knew for sure: it's some kind of voodoo curse that hangs over that place, rotting it from the outside in. What I'm trying to say here: Cassie Evans had been pregnant, too. She was twelve weeks gone, which, in case you didn't know, is about as long as it takes to start showing.

I never got around to asking the details about Dan Darwell's case: An insanity plea? How much time will he do? My father came through the front door, holding out his hand for the telephone: "Guess I'm gone hit the trail, cowboy," he said. I could see he was sorry to be leaving. I guess this must be what people mean by time healing all wounds. Barely six years it'd been, and already he seemed to have forgotten.
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Article Details
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Author:Gritton, J.P.
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Mar 22, 2017
Words:7842
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Next Article:Clipped.
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