Issue 62, Summer 1975
In the dark Edgar Haney walked from his truck and turned up the sidewalk to the cafe. It was an hour before light, and he shuddered inside his coat as the cold touched his flesh. And this is the thing that came to him. That in 1937, they had a black Mercury and his father had a heart attack and couldn’t call on his jobbers. So his mother drove. And in that black hot summer they had gone into Louisiana and spent a July day across the river in Vidalia, the first day. And when they worked as far as Villeplatte the Mercury broke down, and they stayed in a hotel that had ceiling fans and dragon flies in the rooms. He remembered walking out of the hotel in to the still street at noon and going with his father up to the agency building, and a woman behind the cashier’s in a beaded dress and red lips and short hair, and back to the room holding his father’s hand. The ceiling fan had covered over with grease that came out of the air, and over that a coating of fluffy dust, like a sycamore leaf. The whole time, the nine days they were in Villeplatte, he was afraid of the dragon flies and believed they would sting him.
He moved across in front of the cafe, in the lights, and felt no warmer there than in the dark.
Inside, Adolf Smith did not greet him, but ordered him breakfast and began.
“There’s a bunch, now, that Buck’s carrying in from Memphis,” he said softly. “And then two bone sawyers from St. Louis are driving over from Little Rock. I want you to take them.”
Edgar sat still in his chair, feeling the warm air close in around him.
“Now Buck said he saw a bunch of does jump that bar ditch. If you get back out before it’s good light, shoot you one and dress it out right there, and don’t tell nobody.”
Edgar sliced the round of ham into bits and cut the egg yolks, letting them drain, into the meat.
“Now did you look over there in the big reservoir like I told you to?” Adolf said, staring at him.
Edgar raised his head, avoiding Adolf’s eyes.
“I went over that little bridge you built, Tuesday. And there wasn’t no ducks in there.”
“They’re in that rest area then, sure as shittin. You know, straight back behind where you got that horse shoe stob there by your house?”
He nodded. A drop of perspiration inched down his temple.
“Go back through there this morning. Walk that little levee and take your doctors across in the boat. Hadn’t been anybody in there.”
Four men in chest-waders and heavy jackets rose from the table beside them and walked to the cash register. They dropped their pennies on the glass counter.
Adolf leaned forward on the table top.
Has Mr. Covington been down to check on you?” he said, his voice now lower than before.
Edgar put his coffee down and ran his tongue over the roof of his mouth. “He’ll come by there a couple of times a week,”he said considerately. “I see his green truck down where you go in at gate 1.1 think he thinks he’ll catch Buck down there with over the limit one of these times and arrest him. I go by there to the house, and he’ll be sitting there in his truck slumped over sleeping.”
“Now Covington stays drunked up, I’ll guarantee you that,” Adolf said.
“I think he just sleeps,” Edgar said, looking past Adolf at the huge square heater box that was forcing the same over-heated air back into the cafe.
“You better go on. One bunch go ahead of the other. I don’t want you shooting one another on my land.”
In the truck he began to think about Thibodaux where there had been a man named Gallitois who owned a wholesale house for food. And his mother parked the Mercury in the sun while his father walked up on the loading platform, his back bent, and into the man’s office to sell a boxcar of starch. In the car he sat with his mother and watched the tractor trailers pull away from the high dock in the heat. The seat covers were blue and white and felt and smelled like old straw. She opened all the windows and there was no cool breeze, except for the sweet smell of feed riding the hot air out of the warehouse, and over the tiny bleached seashells that covered the lot like gravel, so that everything was white. His mother drew a pencil diagram of where the gears were on the steering column, and there, while they were suffocating, he learned to drive.
Covington was a man who’d gone away and come back, but come back long before now, when he was a lot younger. They told a story that when he first came back from living in Los Angeles he came back a soak, drinking a gallon of red wine every day, from the cardboard cases he brought with him in a Uhaul and stored in the cyclone cellar of his house. He had a friend named Sales O. Neal who lived in town, and he and Covington would get in Covington’s house in the afternoons and drink up the wine and stay drunk for days at a time, never coming out of the house for anything .
Except for the one time when they drove in Covington’s old green truck outside of town and sneaked into Tindall Matthews’ pond. And when they got all ready to fish Covington found he couldn’t hold onto his worm and swung around with his pole and hooked Sales in the throat with a #3 bass hook. And when Sales fell over gasping, Covington thought he was having some kind of seizure and got on top of him and held him down, giving him artificial respiration by the Holger Nielsen Method while Sales suffocated out through the gap in his windpipe. Tindall Matthews said that when he came down there late in the afternoon Covington was still trying to stretch Sales’ elbows forward in spite of rigor mortis having already begun. And he said that Covington just got mad at Sales when he found out he was dead. But after that Covington poured out all the wine, went.to Little Rock for a year, and came back a game warden.
Edgar passed the turn-off at number 1. He slowed and looked long through his closed window into the dimness, into and partly through the scraggly weeds. But he could not see the shine of car metal or the color green or the outline of a man sleeping.
In the summer they were in Lake Charles, and in the lobby of he Bently Hotel his mother took him to the duck pond and told him that in 1923 General Pershing came and gave a speech standing on the gold mosaic border of the pond, with men teeming in the lobby, smoking cigars. And in the street troopers from Camp Polk formed up in their lines to listen and be led by him back down the highway to the camp limits. The general spoke for a long time, his words being carried outside by loud speakers, and when he walked out under the porte cochere to take command, the men were mostly passed out from the heat, and some were sitting on the hot macadam crying because they had let him down and because they were homesick.
The truck bounced like a box of pots and pans across the low-log bridge over Lagrue Creek a mile from his house.
He stopped past the bridge and shut it off, and walked out on the wet ground beside the slough, shivering in the cold, and stood still. And after a time of standing, there was a moment, by himself, when he heard everything, all the cracked and breaking sounds that the ice makes in the limbs, and the sound of the wind that he couldn’t feel blowing, and the sound of something alive in the leaves on the ground that he couldn’t see, and the sound that the truck made behind him, ticking inside the motor, settling.
And in that moment far up the slough, where it wasn’t even a slough but a shallow lake in the woods, he could hear the sound of the ducks conniving like a thousand ragged women, hidden far back, moiling the black water and scudding over the top of it so that it churned under them and tossed them like boats. And he could see their fragile white pin feathers floating in the slough at the bridge where he was, softly through trees without a sound.
He snapped the cigarette off his fingers, skimming off against the logs and losing its fire.
The house sat frozen in the dark, backed by the woods. A smallish low house hunkering unlighted in the half-circle of plowed fields that bordered the road along its circumference line and swung back toward the woods and Lagrue Creek for 80 yards.
Edgar pulled the truck behind the house and his headlamps shown on the horse-shoe stob and on the first frozen lespedeza stalks of the field.
Standing in the chilled air he heard the ducks quarreling in the trees where he couldn’t see, but where he could hear them, sounding nearer now, more throaty and strident than before, more severe, like an old man with the grippe.
On the seawall at New Orleans there was a picture that his father took of him sitting with his mother on the white concrete wall, with the Gulf of Mexico behind them. And when the picture was taken his father came up, and they all sat on the wall facing the water and ate pralines. He had worn brown tennis shoes and when he began to take them off to wade in the ocean, one of them fell in the water and went out of sight immediately. And his mother got him and held him so tight he thought he would stop breathing.
In the kitchen he lit the oven and set water on the gas ring, and stood rinsing mugs under the cold tap and setting them in a line on the counter, each with a spoon in it. And he then sat for a while, at the white table, beneath the hanging bulb.
In the first season for deer in October, when sometimes by noon it was 85 degrees after the early morning when it had been just above freezing, men would drive from all over, even from Dallas, Texas, to shoot them. And you’d see those Lincoln Continentals, with Texas tags and silver six-shooters for hood ornaments, running down Highway. 67 each with a big buck stretched across the front with its tongue sticking out the side of its mouth. And when they got to the state line at Texarkana the highway police had put up a wood barricade. And off beside it on the side of the road there was a big stack of de-antlered deer carcasses, all stretched out in that sun. Some of the men had come a long way with their deer, some from near Memphis, and the heat of their big cars mixed with the heat of the growing day had turned their deer bad, and there was a law that wouldn’t let you take rancid meat across the line. And so they had to leave them there, bleeding in the suck-weeds.
In November, when he came from Kansas, Covington told him that Buck was bad off drinking. That 10 years ago Adolf Smith had got hold of the land and gnawed every tree of it with his own teeth and got it set up to be a farm and moved himself to Little Rock into a good hotel and fallen in love with the lady who owned the hotel and ten more like it in Memphis and Kansas City and Austin, Texas, and whose husband had drowned at Hot Springs in 1948. And before long he had married her and moved up to her suite on the eleventh floor, eating baskets of fruit and running the bell boys up and down the elevator, and carrying all his friends and hers too, out to the farm to hunt ducks and everything else there was out there. And getting mad and raising hell with everybody because they drove too fast on his gravel road that he’d graded himself, and raising hell when Ruthie’s friends killed Suzies instead of Greenheads, and refusing to let the wrecker use his road when Ruthie’s friends drove off in the bar ditch, and running her friends and his too off the property when he caught them hunting without his being there, and carrying his old steel grey Sweet 16 laid across the back seat of his car as a convincer.
And Covington told him that it didn’t seem like but a minute went by that Ruthie had him divorced and herself married to a little Polock named Worzibock who was 15 years younger than she was and who wore his suits with no cuffs, and who Adolf took out to the farm two times before it all happened to him, and Worzibock was just a little interior decorator hired to redo Ruthie’s hotels.
After that Adolf moved out of the hotel and back to Hazen where he had his rooms and could go to the farm when he wanted to and drive his old road grader along the side of the bar ditch and run off the country people that sneaked in to fish in his big reservoir.
And Covington said he thought Adolf used the farm to get back at Ruthie, by not inviting anybody she ever knew or that he ever knew when he knew her to hunt, and by paying old Buck, who was hard on his luck and drinking, to carry people from out of town in there for a hundred dollars a duck season, without their having to even buy a government stamp.
Covington said Buck was only good now from 4 AM to noon, and after that he got off in his little house and drank whiskey all day and half the night.
Edgar got up and lit the fire under the water pot. He closed the oven door and got a jar of powdered coffee out of the empty cabinet and set it in front of the line of mugs.
He stood then at the door, looked out through the glass and snapped on the flood light. His pick-up sat in the yard, its windows clouded and a layer of soft dew rising on the hood. He looked beyond the perimeter of the light toward the woods, but he could not see the trees.
He remembered that on Peter’s Island on the Arkansas River, old man Jim Tipton had been 83 years old and ten years too stove-up to walk out of the dirt yard in front of the old hunting house he had built up on stilts against the flood. And still every morning when the men were all there he came down off the porch an hour before the first light, when the men were putting their guns in the trunks, and stood in the flood-lit dirt waving his old teak-wood cane and telling the Mexicans driving the trucks where to put this man and that, and threatening everybody who could hear him against shooting his wild turkeys that he protected, and against shooting the quail that were out of season, and against every other possible infraction that would violate his sense about what was just and right to do in the woods.
A pair of lights swung out across the field from the road, and Edgar listened for the mutterings of the engine, standing Grey faced behind the glass.
But when he was 85 the old man seemed to take a turn, and while he couldn’t get around any better and probably could get around worse, he said he felt better and said he thought he had a lot of time left in the world, and within a month of saying it, got married to a widow from West Memphis who was 53 years old and who had served with him for 19 years on the state dog racing commission.
Edgar stood inside while the car rolled clumsily into the yard, pitching and swaying over the uneven ground.
And he waited until the inside lights blinked and the motor was quiet before he opened the door. “Where’s Buck,” the man inside bellowed, his head momentarily gone below the window level.
Edgar unlatched the screen, keeping hold of the cold latch nail.
The man who appeared around the car was 60 years old, fat and short and wearing heavy chest waders that interfered with his movement and forced him to drag his feet splayed and stiff-kneed in the grass. A thick strand of white hair had come loose from the rest and fallen across the man’s right temple, covering his eye and causing him to screw that side of his face into a blind squint.
The man jabbed out his hand, and in that motion clutched a paper sack up under his left arm.
“I’m Armstrong,” he said. “Where’s old Buck. Buck, you shit ass, come out here. I brought you a present!”
Armstrong paused on the steps and looked grinning out towards both corners of the house which were outside the dominion of the flood light and nearly hidden in the shadows.
Inside he set the sack down on the table j and smoothed his thick fingers through his hair, still grinning and gaping all around the room as if someone was hiding from him and planning at any moment to burst out and wrestle with him.
“What’s your name, son?” Armstrong said loudly, still turning round in the room.
“Edgar Haney,” he said softly, turning toward the hot stove.
“Listen here, is old Buck still bringing them in?” Armstrong said, groping in his crotch while he let himself down on the chair.
“He’ ll be out here,” Edgar said.
“He’s a pistol,” Armstrong said. “You know it?”
It would infuriate old man Tipton’s young wife, whose name was Mary Elizabeth, that he would go down to Peter’s Island and stay for a month at a time, even though he told her that she could go down with him and be the first woman to get asked on the island since his family had owned it, and direct the cooking.
And at first she said she’d never go down there. But then after they’d been married for two years and Mr. Jim was getting around worse and worse and sometimes getting down there and forgetting where he was and who all the people were, she relented and came down with him for the first season in October. She had actually tried to get him not to go down at all, but his son, Louis Guy, wouldn’t have that and said he’d take his father down to the island on a portable death came to that, since things wouldn’t be the same without the old man there to give everybody instructions and wave his cane.
So she went. And stayed a week and a half, and acted like she enjoyed herself, taking long walks in the woods in the afternoons when the men were in for the day, since Mr. Jim wouldn’t allow hunting after lunch.
And after a week and a half she went home, leaving the old man down there, bald-headed and stumbling around in the yard. He told them all what a sport she was and how next year maybe there could be women, if they all acted like Mary Elizabeth. And he seemed to feel better after that, and stayed down there until after Christmas.
Edgar set the mug on the table with a plastic sugar bowl and a carton of milk, the spoon still standing up over the top.
“Are you a Hazen boy?” Armstrong said, grinding the sugar in the bottom of his mug.
“I was.” Edgar said.
Armstrong looked up at him.
’’ I was in Wichita eleven years,’’ Edgar said, and rested back up against the front of the stove.
“The hell you were,” Armstrong said.
“My wife’s still there.”
“You’re legally separated from her then?’’ Armstrong said, catching him with his small blue eyes.
“No I’m not. I’m just working down here for a while.’’ He felt for the warm knobs behind him.
“You just come to visit, then?” Armstrong said, smiling.
“She might come down here except this house don’t heat good.”
Armstrong tipped back in his chair, drawing the waders smooth over his belly.
“Well, I’ll tell you something. If I ever get where I can set enough money by to live on like I want to, I’m moving straight back to the farm,” Armstrong said.
Edgar looked at him in the eyes for the first time.
“I m a farm person,’’ Armstrong said. ’’ Raised in LaFarge,Illinois, out of Joliet.Two miles from the arsenal and one mile from the prison. They got a big Army arsenal at Joliet.”
Edgar nodded, holding the stove knobs and continuing to stare at him.
“My dad farmed so I could go to medical college. And I want to tell you son, I’ve been right down there in all the shit just like you have. And I hadn’t forgotten the taste of pig shit either.”
Edgar looked away.
Except when the old man got home Mary Elizabeth had started proceedings to have him declared incompetent, and at the same time made a contract with a lumber company in Memphis to come and cut the first growth timber off the island to sell to a pulp mill in Camden.
Louis Guy, of course, tried to have everything stopped, except that he didn’t have any legal interest, and it was true that Mr. Jim was as incompetent as he could be, so everything Louis Guy tried to do didn’t help.
Mary Elizabeth acted like nothing was the matter, fixing lunch for Mr. Jim every day and bringing it to his room where he had begun to stay since he found out everything that was happening to him.
Until one day, two days after the incompetency hearing where the old man had been declared unable to take care of his own business, and Mary Elizabeth had been appointed his executrix, she came in with his tray and he wasn’t there.
“What do you do back here, farm?” Armstrong said. “I noticed you got the ground torn up.”
“Mr. Smith had that harrowed to keep ducks out,” Edgar said. "He had his beans in there last year, and ducks eat beans if you let them do it.”
Edgar stood at the door looking out, seeing the sky turning pale Grey, and the imprint of the trees against it.
“You and Buck kill enough to live on?” Armstrong looked at his back, snuffing air through his huge round nostrils. “I know old Buck don’t take much solid food, does he?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Edgar said. ” Quick as you finish your coffee we’ll get your stuff out of the trunk.”
He snapped the flood light off and on again.
“Buck still got that freezer on his back porch?’’ Armstrong said, tipping back again in his chair, easing the folds in his waders.
“I don’t know,” Edgar said.
“I know he used to keep a great big old steel bar stuck through the handle,” Armstrong said. “Great big old Yale padlock hung on it. I walked out there one day about ten o’clock and said, ’Son, what have you got in this thing,’ cause you know he’s not married. And he said, ’Oh Dr. Armstrong I just got some Hershey bars in there.’ ”
Armstrong’s mouth twisted into a huge, gaping grin, and the twig of white hair fell across his eye again.
“So I said, 'Let’s take a look.’ And I think he must’ve thought I was the game warden, because his face got pale as this table. And he opened that thing up and it was full up to the top with deer steaks. And I said, 'why Buck, what’re you doing with all this venison?’ And he said, you know how he talks: ’Oh Dr. Armstrong I keep all that in there in case I get sick and can’t do for myself.’
“And he got this grin on his old red face big as a split. So Haines, what I want to say to you is that you take care of yourself. If you two were to get laid up very long at the same time, there wouldn’t be any deer left in the whole damn state.”
Armstrong burst out laughing, snuffing up air through his nose.
And Edgar remembered that Mary Elizabeth got the yard man to get the car, and the two of them drove off down the river from town to the island.
The yardman, whose name was T.V.A. Landrieu, said you could see the smoke 15 miles away, grey and sweet-smelling. And when they tried to get over to it they found that the wood bridge had been the first to burn and was just hanging there by cinders and chars.
The island burned for three days, and burned up, houses and everything.
On the second day they got over to it, and got Mr. Jim and the Mexicans off, although it was too late to save anything.
In Biloxi he and his mother had gone to the Edgewater Beach and stayed a week across the highway from the Gulf while his father worked in town selling starch. And the hotel had wide galleries in the front and painted-white wicker chairs and red tile and deep blotches of green shade. On the first day they went across to the beach and swam where the water was coffee colored and muddy to where it was over his head. And afterwards they fished for crabs with nets and slices of salted pork rind off the Edgewater pier until it was dark. And that night he swam in the lighted salt-water pool and went to bed itching. And in the morning there were 11 fat boils on his chest and his face and on the upper part of his legs so that his mother refused to let him leave the tiny airless room for a week, until the boils were gone and by then they had gone to Hattiesburg.
Armstrong went out into the door-yard ahead of him, dragging his feet through the frozen grass. Another pair of lights swung across the field from the road.
“Which one is he going to let us shoot?” Armstrong said, leaning over into the trunk of his car, his mouth puffing clouds of steam.
“He said to take you to the rest area,” Edgar said flatly, holding his shotgun on his arm and looking at the trees.
“That old shit-ass. It’s about damn time.’’ Armstrong said, and slammed the trunk lid down.
The second car’s lights caught Armstrong for an instant, like a possum in the road, and he squinted and grinned into the beams.
And Edgar knew that in the summer a lot of things look different than they do, or than they had, in the first cold days of autumn. He could remember, then, their first winter in Kansas had been so bare and dry-cold that the county reservoir froze eleven feet down. And everybody who was poor then was scared and suffering. Except that in June it was different, and they took a day and ate chicken sandwiches by the lake in the flat bed of his black truck, and drank water out of a thermos. And the sound of the water in the thermos and the way the cork smelled and the way it tasted when he held it in his teeth had lingered all this time, eleven years, and came to him now and replaced the sour taste of coffee. And the three of them started from the yard, straight across the clod field from where the horse shoe stob had been driven into the ground, toward the printed woods.
And he remembered finally that the old man seemed to be in good spirits when they drove him back from the island, and didn’t seem to be mad at Mary Elizabeth, who didn’t talk to him the whole way back. Except that when they got in the house she told him she was going to get a divorce, and he said that was all right, and in about a week he died in the front yard.