The Game

He hefted the maul again, then let its edge fall across the log’s crosscut rings. It thudded and stuck, but the weathered wood hinted splitting. He twisted the handle, freeing the heavy wedge from its failure, and swung again. The log popped in half, and hues of autumn honey akin to ruby fruit burst from the wood’s fresh inside. He split these into quarters and stacked them on the covered porch.

It was Sunday. Late November. Already cold – he was running out of time. Dad had died, and Mom was old. The weather was turning. On the leeward side of the house, a dented minivan on cinderblocks grimaced in its growling hive of briars. In the backyard, Dad’s beagle danced on her rusty length of chain, begging to charge into the taunting woods. He ignored her, focused on the task at hand.

Swing, thud.
Swing, split.
Swing, split,
             stack.

Like children who don’t know they’re old, dead oak leaves skipped and swirled in the windblown warnings of smoke from his neighbor’s chimney. A floating piece of ash could just as well be snow.

       Swing,
split. Swing,
thud.  Swing,
miss.
     Cuss.

Across the valley, cracking echoes of father-sons sighting in guns. Grass on the overgrown lawn still desperately green.  The trees were pulling inward from their chilling limbs right on cue for the cold, DSC03965but for him the hack of his maul only chipped at the crack in the drum time leaked through. He was always too slow.

As the sun set, the pile of warm-colored wood grew. In his neighbor’s window the blue tempting glow of the game came on. He imagined the pressure released when a beer twisted open. Then

swing, split.
Swing, split.
Swing, split.
             Stack.

The beagle watched from her straw-lined barrel, bleary-eyed and bored, given up. Since Dad died, she hadn’t been taken out to hunt. But sometimes she broke loose and crashed, howling, through the underbrush for hours, doing what she was born to.

Light, grey.

The wall clock stopped at 4:27, minutes before something was about to happen. It’s stuck that way, like a child’s hands wanting to touch a forbidden heirloom, frozen in the moment before.

She lies in bed below it, no longer thinking that the cold linoleum stings her sore feet when she stands. The window she faces, in sharp locked squares, crops the sky into stills of eternal overcast, alternating evening and night. Cars passing on the state highway crescendo and fade. Sometimes the phone still rings.

The nurse comes, rolls her on her side to change the sheets. She knows there’s something like blood without looking, but the woman is kind and cleans her anonymously, not mentioning anything beyond her control. A crow flies by. It’s cold outside, she says.

Any minute now, he’ll be home, stripping off his greasy overalls, kicking off his boots in the mud room, showering. Will it have been a bad day or good? The weather couldn’t always tell.  But if the soft-harsh clouds parted outside the window, even for a second she was hopeful.

She speaks to her while bags drain on the pole. Supposed to snow, she says, gonna be the worst in thirty years, they say. Outside a siren whizzes by. The sun invisibly sets and rises. The nurse leaves and arrives, her tires crunching gravel beneath the window.

Won’t be long, his morning alarm will rouse them both, like plants in a pot sharing water. From the sagging mattress’s center, their limbs will unentangle. She coughs and something falls from her mouth in the dark.

Tomorrow, the nurse strokes her light grey hair, tells her about her children. She never asks about her husband. The shadows have been lengthening forever, and outside the snow falls until it shows on the sill. Three minutes she’ll be waiting for the horror of her love to arrive or leave, the normal glory each day has in store withheld between chimes, whether stubborn or barren.

When they continue, the heavy-dark cobwebs will fall. She’ll touch the kitchen again. Until then, wind roars over the eves. Drifts sharpen their sharkfin edges. A nurse stares into the dark flurry, worrying.

 

 

The Lines Drawn

It was the shortest distance between two points. He didn’t disbelieve it. But every time he ducked beneath that fence, the land rebelled, rising up in waves of broken green to swallow that small definition. Time slowed, and his senses sharpened, though the heifers, casually grazing, rarely lifted their necks to acknowledge him. And he too was more focused on the task at hand, slipping through the half-brambled pasture, wary of the dark, still shadows watching from the farmhouse windows.

Cutting through this plot meant he didn’t have to walk around the outer edge of the quarry, though he usually did. The old farmer had been long dead, his land leased out by his reclusive wife to some immense dairy aggregate, but the apprehension of trespassing here strangely never diminished.  Strewn with sinking corpses of pickups, stiff twisted trailer frames, and flipped-over farm equipment, overgrown in places with multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle, the pasture was a battlefield which offered ample cover, the danger in this seemingly protective gesture being that around any corner he could come suddenly upon his enemy, the cold snout of an old shotgun tying him to the will of this neighbor who preferred that proximity meant remaining strangers.

Like passing from water into a fluid more thick and viscous, it was a shortcut which stretched space and time in his perception, such that usually the jaunt around the quarry rim proved more advantageous. But today he hurried, not along the seams between the patches of land, but across them – a mouse which, in a frantic moment, dashes across the abandoned kitchen from its path along the wall, braced for the heelfall of a steel-toed boot, knowing full well there is no danger without believing.

 

Hello – the question.

He stepped inside and shut the door against the late autumn wind. The warmth inside felt the same, but the air was different, tinged, he noticed, with the dull edge of decay, hovering stagnantly between him and everything which hadn’t changed. A slanted sunbeam burst through the filthy window as the large hull of a cloud passed, and, as the room brightened, floating pieces of dust seemed caught naked in its sudden panic. The smell had gotten stronger of pillbottle plastic and adult diapers, but he closed his eyes and shook this into the dark neglected back of his mind.

Hello? he called. The afghan was crinkled on the couch’s curled cushions, but Grandpa wasn’t there, with his bald head propped on the worn armrest. Neither was Grandma in her electric recliner. Near the door stood her walker, the TV remote and a pair of reading glasses caught in its wire basket. A row of antique pull-toys stared up from the dark hearth beneath the chipped paint and dirt of having been loved, wooden ducks, dented Tonka trucks, and crippled sheep, and he thought of junkyard cars lined up, fenced in and cut off by that hillbilly Harold, who would only allow a handful of kindred souls inside to touch his rust empire.

Hello? No answer.  He looked through the kitchen to the family room where a second empty recliner crouched beneath a lamp next to the window. The furnace kicked on. He coughed in the upturned dust, then peeled off his boots on the rug, stepping on the back of each muddy heel. Maybe Grandma was in the bathroom, or asleep, or…

Another thought to be shaken toward that dark corner. On the kitchen table, a shiny array of home medical instruments and bright white childproof pill bottles, like the organized chaos of a city skyline jutting heavenward, sprawled, spilling over their tray’s stainless steel edge. Antique tins, once full of candy and cookies, sounded the empty echoes of drums as he tapped them, except one. Inside, pretzels. He took one and bit it. Stale, but ate it anyway.

Hello? No one was home. He walked through the rooms just to be sure, where the same furniture sat in the same places. A maid still came once a week to vacuum around their wood and metal feet. Outside, around the cracked brick corners of the house, the gusts of wind brushed. He laced his boots up again, zipped his jacket, and stepped out, pulling the door behind him until it clicked. They ought to at least lock it, he always thought.