The headlights followed the ruts in the snow, bouncing down through the chute of hickory and dogwood, and then the woods opened and Vernon pumped the brakes, eased the truck to a stop. A crisp moon bulged above the clearing. Smoke trundled from the cabin’s chimney, ash blackening the roof’s snow. Vernon was weary from the day, had a mind to be alone. He wilted a bit seeing the shadow he knew was Johnny Nordgren splitting logs in the drive.
Vernon stepped down from the truck into snow to his knees. The splitter’s motor boomed through the hollow. Johnny pushed a lever and a wedge cleaved a log. He held up a hand to Vernon, tossed the splits onto a pile, shut down the machine. The hills seemed to gasp in the quiet, the wind rasping through the trees.
Vernon let down the tailgate. He strained lifting his footlocker from the bed, and shuffled up the drive. “Don’t cut no more, Johnny,” he hollered, with more of an edge than intended.
Johnny wore a hunter’s cap with the earflaps down, a VFW patch sewn on the front. He took a drag off a cigarette. “Don’t take it out on me, Vern,” he said. “I ain’t them town folk. I ain’t done shit to you.”
The wind made Vernon’s eyes water. He considered how to say it right. “Just won’t have nothing to do tomorrow. Figured I’d chop wood to keep from going crazy.”
Johnny scratched his graying beard. He tossed his cigarette into the snow, then stepped around the splitter and extended a hand towards the footlocker.
Vernon let Johnny take a handle, and together they kicked a path through the snow, on around to the cabin’s door.
Fifty years ago, Vernon’s father had built this cabin. For thirty-five years it’d been Vernon’s, legal deed and all, though he’d not lived here in all that time. Now he would again. They said they wanted him out as pastor and so he was leaving. Each night this week he’d been hauling loads, taking back roads, sneaking around in the dark as if a man could rob himself. Even with what he’d hauled, the cabin felt bare. The electric company had yet to switch on the power, and camp lanterns lit the rooms.
Vernon set his footlocker in what would be his bedroom, what had been his parent’s room when he was a boy. What had been his own room would be his study, and most of what he’d taken from the parsonage were his books and files and notebooks, things he couldn’t, even now that he would never again preach, throw away.
He stepped back into the main room, where Johnny stood beside the woodstove, frying steaks in a skillet. Vernon and Johnny had been boyhood pals, but had grown out of touch over the years, their lives so different despite proximity, like ruts side by side in the same field but never crossing.
Vernon sat at a little table and warmed his palms by the stove. Johnny poked at the steaks with a fork, checked his watch.
“The meeting over yet?” Johnny asked.
“Time is it?”
“Maybe it’ll come out different than you think.”
Vernon rubbed his hands together. “I left a letter with Henry Barker. Told him don’t read it till after the vote and all.” He regarded the bottle of whiskey across the table, the amber liquid in Johnny’s glass. “It’s a resignation of sorts. An apology, I suppose. Don’t know what to call it, but I’m done there.”
“Apology?” Johnny asked. “Your boy dies in the war, and them good Christian folk chase you off. Ain’t nothing to be sorry for.”
“That’s not how it went.”
“Sure how it looks.”
“I wasn’t doing any good. I couldn’t even finish the service last Sunday. I don’t know what to do about it, but I’m done.”
“They ought to take care of a man, you ask me.”
“Let’s not talk about it, Johnny.”
“I’m not talking. I’m just saying.” Johnny lifted a steak onto a plate, banged it down in front of Vernon. He poured more whiskey into the glass, slid it across the table.
Vernon stared at the glass. “I don’t want it.”
“Oh don’t start up that shit, Vern.”
“Don’t be a jerk, Johnny. Not tonight.”
“Asshole,” Johnny spat. “You ain’t a preacher no more. Call me an asshole like any fella would.”
“Asshole,” Vernon said, almost to himself.
Johnny stared down at him. “How’d that make you feel?”
Vernon pushed the whiskey back across. “Like a jerk.”
They ate their steaks in silence. Then Vernon sat in a stupor, his head in his hands. Johnny had downed a few whiskeys and paced the room, rolling the empty glass against his eyes. Vernon felt somehow he was disappointing Johnny, as if he wasn’t holding up some end of a deal they’d never discussed.
“Haven’t had alcohol since—” Vernon said, thinking. “Well, I don’t know when. Maybe some wine years ago.”
“All from God’s green earth,” Johnny said, without a hint of humor.
Vernon watched Johnny set the glass on the table and grab up the bottle. “Pour me one,” he said.
Johnny didn’t smile like Vernon thought he would, but simply uncapped the bottle and poured a finger’s worth.
Vernon took it up, sniffed it.
“Best to just jump in,” Johnny urged.
Vernon downed it in one gulp. The heat in his throat was surprising. He coughed. He belched the smell of it and for a moment felt nauseous. Johnny stood before him, and it was like they were kids again, trying to out-tough one another. “Tell me a joke, Johnny,” Vernon said. “The kind fellas don’t say around preachers.”
For a long moment Johnny studied Vernon. Then he rubbed his beard, and said, “This guy and his wife’re having some marital problems. So they go to some kinky hotel to stoke the marital fires. They’re standing there in this room with a trapeze over this heart-shaped bed and all that shit, and the woman says, ‘You remember what you were thinking the first time you saw me naked, back on our wedding night?’ The man says, ‘Sure do. Was thinking I wanted to fuck your brains out.’ ‘And what you thinking now?’ the woman asks. The man says, ‘Seems I did a right good job.’”
Vernon didn’t laugh. He pushed back his chair, and his feet trod heavy as he crossed to the window. Moonlight tinted the clearing’s snow blue. Down in the valley, in town, the entire congregation, his closest friends, and those others, too, were all at Freely’s, probably talking about him, figuring who they’d bring in as the next pastor. That young guy from Haubstadt, Vernon guessed, the one with the messy hair, who wore pressed jeans and smiled while he preached.
“Martha said she was going tonight,” Vernon said, referring to his soon to be ex-wife. “I wonder if she voted against me.”
Suddenly, he felt on the verge of tears, and he turned and grabbed his coat off a peg by the door. Vernon stared at the wall’s unpainted planks, trying to breathe, trying to still his roil, and he recalled a sweltering day, long ago, him just a boy and his father pouring mud and straw between the walls and telling Vernon the house would stay cool as a cave though it never did.
“Going to chop some wood,” Vernon said.
“Vern,” Johnny said, softly. “You’re going to have to lighten up or won’t nobody want to be around you.”
Vernon swung the ax, but the wood was frozen and the ax-head bounced. He stood huffing, leaned the ax against his leg, flexed his hands to work the feeling back into them. Johnny stood by his truck, smoking. He walked to Vernon, eyed him like he was trying to guess his weight. Then he grabbed up the ax from Vernon and with a turn and grunt chucked it far off into the snow.
Then he turned to Vernon, pulled his cigarettes from his coat and smacked the box against the heel of his hand. “You ought to know,” he said, “it ain’t no thrill-a-minute to watch a fella chop wood.”
“Nobody asked you here.”
Johnny knocked a cigarette from the pack, lit it off the end of his old one. “Why you town-folk always such pricks?” Vernon saw Johnny relent the slightest crack of smile before he turned and headed for his truck. “Come on, Vern.”
“Where we going?”
They drove through the hills. The moon’s cold light glistened on the slopes of snow, the quarry pits’ ponds of black ice. No one lived out here. The limestone played out years ago, the big companies long gone. Mainly kids drove out here in summer to swim and park with their girls and not be bothered.
Vernon had taken Martha to one of these ponds, a couple years back, after their boy Wesley had gone off to Iraq, leaving them nothing but each other and the silence of the house. He’d thought it a playful venture, a return to a moony time when they were young and open as the sky. But Martha had stiffened in her seat, said she had cakes to ice for some bake sale, and Vernon drove them back home, disappointed, but sure the mood would pass.
Johnny smoked in the driver’s seat, one arm on the door, a cigarette raised to the gap of lowered window. When they were kids, just thirteen or so, Johnny once poured gasoline in a pond and lit the water on fire. There were girls there, and Vernon had liked a little red-head and remembered thinking if he was to swim beneath the fire she just might kiss him. He thought of Martha, when they were dating, of kissing her in the front seat of his Chevy and how he was sunburned but still pressed himself against her. He wondered if Wesley had ever in his short life kissed a girl that way, had ever felt that good.
Vernon peered out at the dark land and told himself all that didn’t matter now, that this was a new life. But life had never felt new to Vernon. Some in church claimed he’d lost his faith after Wesley’s death, and that was why he couldn’t preach. But the truth was his fire had been dwindling for years, wary of sowing God’s words only to see nothing ever changed. The irony was not lost on him now that everything had changed, but as it was happening it was just life, and life in a day never felt like much.
Then Vernon longed for Henry Barker, or Tate Phillips, any of his friends from town, to whom he could express these things without feeling less a man. He realized he didn’t know Johnny, that growing up together meant something, but not enough.
Johnny flicked his cigarette out into the wind and rolled up the window. Vernon’s ears popped. He looked at Johnny, his old friend’s face creased and sagging.
“Johnny?” Vernon said. “How come you stayed out in these hills?”
Johnny sniffled, tilted his head toward the window. “You say that like I was wanted somewhere else.”
“Ever think about leaving?”
He pushed in the truck’s cigarette lighter. “I ain’t no different than you, Vern, if that’s what you mean.”
Vernon watched the wet road draw itself into the headlights. “I don’t have a license, Johnny. For hunting, I mean.”
The truck’s lighter clicked. “That don’t matter,” Johnny said, and lit another cigarette.
“I don’t have a gun.”
Johnny took a long drag on the cigarette, lowered his window to let out the smoke. “You’ll do just fine, Vern. Don’t you worry none.”
They rumbled along a road that was gravel beneath the snow. The road cut through a barren plain and came to a chained gate, which Johnny unlocked and raised. They idled down a path, the slope pitched towards an edge that spilled into the pit, steps of black land fringed with snow, boxes of yellow that were sleeping dump trucks and dozers, Cats of all types.
The moon shone clear, its light draining away as they took the road deeper. Then they trolled the canyon floor, Johnny knowing the mine the way a captain knows a river. Soon it was there before them, mounds of rubble flanking the hulking shadow that was a dragline the size of a hotel. They passed beneath the girders of its boom, its drag-bucket bigger than Vernon’s cabin.
“Meet Matilda,” Johnny said.
Vernon had to sit forward to see its top.
“All the girl I ever need,” Johnny whispered, then said, “She’s got heat, unlike your shithole.”
“We’re hunting here?”
“Nah,” Johnny said. “Ain’t that far, though. We’ll wait here till morning.”
“We’ll play cards. It’ll go by.”
“Oh, Johnny, I need some sleep.”
Johnny fumbled inside his jacket, pulled out a flask. “You weren’t gonna sleep none tonight, Vern.”
Vernon looked up at Matilda, her glass control booth holding the moonlight. It was true, he wouldn’t have slept—what with his mind such a mess—and Vernon felt a warm shame, like a boy who’d thought he was a man until his daddy kissed his cheek and tucked him into bed. Johnny held out the flask. Vernon took it from him, took a bump, and then another, before passing it back.
They played spades up in Matilda’s bridge, a small metal box in which Johnny set up a folding table and chairs. A space heater buzzed. On a wall, above framed licenses and schematics, hung a boar’s head, its tusks curled, its black marble eyes gazing down at Vernon. Beside this room was a smaller room with two seats bolted to the floor and the control panel and a wide window peering out into the darkness. Johnny tossed his cards on the table, stared out the window.
“Want a job?” he asked.
“Can get you on as a runner,” he said. “Drive around, deliver things here and there. Pay’s bad, but it’ll get you in with the union.”
Vernon hadn’t thought about a new job. He’d only considered fixing up the cabin, living a while without strings. “Thanks, Johnny,” he said. “I’ll sure think on it.”
Johnny’s eyes drew hard focus on Vernon. “Got ten men who’d give their nuts for that job.” He looked like he might say more, but then he sighed, and roughly rubbed his face. “Vern?”
“You know how I know what’s right?”
Johnny tapped his breastbone with two thick fingers. “By how it feels. How it feels.”
Vernon closed his fan of cards. “Why am I here, Johnny?”
“No, no,” Johnny said, and wagged a finger.
“I’d like you to take me home.”
Johnny chuckled, sadly. “You think we’re not very much alike, don’t you?”
Vernon said nothing, set his cards on the table.
“We once were, though.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“We’re brothers, Vern.”
Vernon turned to the window. Snow was falling, flakes lit by the control room lights drifting down in luminous clumps. “You were always so sure about things,” he said. “I always admired that.”
Johnny smoothed his mustache. “You don’t know shit about me, Vern. You don’t know shit from shinola, do you?”
Vernon nodded. “There’s no need to be an asshole about it.”
Johnny roughly gathered all the cards to him. “Ain’t that the first right thing you’ve said all night.”
Footsteps clanged up the metal stairs, and Vernon stood when they came through the door. The first, a round faced woman in huge red glasses and pink parka, stopped smiling to look at him, then smiled once more and extended a hand. “Beverly Spencer,” she said.
Vernon looked to Johnny for explanation, but Johnny only shuffled the cards. Vernon shook the woman’s hand, then two others were in the room, a younger man with thinning hair and a blue checkered flannel, who said his name was Terry, and a large old man in Carhartts who didn’t say his name at all.
Finally, Johnny said, “This is Vernon, an old friend of mine. He’s lost his boy.”
The words struck like a punch. Vernon’s cheeks flushed hot. His skull buzzed. He glanced from face to face, looking to understand.
“How’d he die?” Beverly asked.
“In the war,” Johnny told them, not looking at Vernon. “Roadside bomb or something. Wasn’t that it?”
Johnny looked to Vernon, waiting. Vernon felt brittle, as if he might at any moment shatter. The younger man dumped ice into a cooler. The old man stared at Vernon, his ruddy face tilted like a dog might watch a stranger through a fence.
“You that preacher?” he asked.
Vernon said nothing.
“Damn, if you ain’t.” He pointed a crooked finger. “I been in your church. Little Eddie’s wedding. Eddie Franklin’s my nephew.”
“Oh,” Vernon managed. “I know Eddie.”
“That’s what I’m telling you,” the old man said.
Vernon nodded. Then the younger man was holding out a can of beer. Vernon stared as if it were something to be deciphered.
“Ain’t that cold yet,” the youth said. “Cheaper when you buy it warm.”
Vernon took the can. “Thank you.”
“Vern’s our new runner,” Johnny announced. “Just hired him on.”
Beverly smiled brightly. “Well, blessed be,” she said. “It’ll be good to have some new blood round here. Man of the cloth, no less.” Again, she reached out her hand, and again Vernon shook it.
The old man wiped his big red nose on his cuff. “You saying you ain’t the preacher from town?”
“I am,” Vernon said. “I was.”
“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it was you.”
“He staying for everything?” Beverly asked Johnny.
Johnny glanced sideways at Vernon. “That’s right.”
Beverly’s eyes brightened behind their lenses. “Welcome then, Vernon. Welcome, indeed, good sir.”
The young man unfolded three more chairs and they sat at the table. Vernon sat, too, and held the unopened beer in his lap. Beverly brought out a cardboard box of poker chips, passed out stacks of blues and whites and reds. Johnny shuffled the cards, and without a word began to deal.
Vernon steadied himself to ask, “What exactly we playing?”
The youth let out a laugh. “What all you tell him, Johnny?”
Johnny looked up from his dealing. “Just check your cards, Terry.” He turned to Vernon, eyes somber. “Don’t let the preacher shit fool you,” he said. “He’s just like anybody.”
Vernon had never been much of a gambler, but he loved cards, and had many a night played bridge well into the night. This gang played Texas Hold ‘Em. The first hand Vernon was a bit lost, imitating the others, betting as they bet. He was out in twenty minutes, then sat nursing his beer, watching until Beverly had cleaned them all out.
They began a second round right away. Vernon folded the first few hands, folded on junk, then on a pair of tens that would’ve won. His first betting hand was a suited king and queen, and by the river’s end he won the pot with a flush of hearts.
They hardly talked, nobody giving so much as a nod. The wind whistled through the bridge’s stairs. Cigarette smoke fogged the room. Vernon drank as he played, and after two beers his teeth felt hollow. But he was no longer tired, energized as the others went all-in, then out, and his pile of chips mounted.
Then it was only him and the old man. The two of them balked for several hands. Then Vernon drew a pair of queens, added another on the turn, along with a pair of jacks. The old man went all-in, and Vernon knew by the man’s eyes that he’d just run out of patience, had nothing but jacks. Vernon matched the pot. The old man stood behind his seat, flipped his cards. Vernon flipped his, too, and then Johnny shouted, “That’s my boy,” and clapped Vernon on the back. Beverly and Lenny shook Vernon’s hand, and he stood, his hamstrings tight, back stiff.
“Beginner’s luck,” Vernon told the old man.
“Fuck sake,” he said. “If you’re a beginner, I’m George-fucking-Washington.”
“You’re old as George Washington,” Terry laughed, crinkling an empty beer can.
“Fucking bean-pole,” the old man spat at Terry. “Still sleepin’ in your mama’s bed?”
“Boys,” Beverly shouted, as if maybe she’d once been a teacher. “You’ll foul the air with that bickering. That what you want?”
The room fell still.
“Shake hands,” Beverly demanded.
Terry and the old man sheepishly did as told.
“Now, I’m going to the Porta-John,” Beverly said, her voice stern. “Then we’ll get started, if that’s all right with everyone?”
“Yes, ma’am, ” Johnny said, then the others said it, too.
Beverly looked square at Vernon. “And you?”
Her eyes were piercing slits behind her large red frames. Vernon didn’t want trouble. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and Beverly adjusted her glasses and stalked a huff out of the room.
Once back, Beverly lit several little white candles, turned off the lights. Then they all sat around the table watching her. She closed her eyes, held a little glass bell in her palm. Vernon watched the others’ faces, trying to make eye contact with Johnny, trying to comprehend what was happening. Beverly’s lips began to move, but he heard no words. It might’ve been a prayer. Then she chimed the bell.
“Who’d like to start?” she asked.
Vernon shifted in his seat, watched the young man raise a hand and Beverly nod at him.
“Had a good week,” Terry said, quietly. “Didn’t look at the pictures as much, like you said,” he told Beverly. “Just did other things, you know. But I did go into her room once. Just once, though. Looked in her closet, at her little clothes, you know.” He crossed a finger over his heart. “I swear I was just there for just a minute or two.” He smiled, sheepish. “It’s been a good week, I think.”
Beverly smiled warmly. “Good, Terry. That’s just great.”
Terry shook his head. “But I don’t know what to do about the dog,” he said. “Got that dog about the time she was born. Every time I look at it I think of her out throwing sticks for it. That dog’s always there, always at my feet. Jenny says to give it to her mama, and I guess maybe I will.”
“It’s a good dog, ain’t it?” Beverly asked.
Terry sniffled, nodded.
“Good dog’s hard to come by.”
“She’s a fine birder,” Terry agreed.
“Well, then,” Beverly said.
Terry gazed at the floor. “Alright.”
Vernon’s mouth was dry, but he didn’t want beer. He wanted to clear his head. He couldn’t make sense of this. He wanted tea. A hot cup of tea with honey. He wanted to be home by the fire with a book in his hand. His mind was hazed, but he didn’t want whatever this was. Johnny wouldn’t look his way. Then Beverly smiled and nodded at the old man, the candlelight quaking in her eyeglass lenses.
The old man straightened his back. “July, 15th,” he said. “Bill turned ten. Dressed him up like a superhero, put him in some torn-up jeans and rubbed his mama’s green eye-shadow all over. Kid growled, made muscles in the mirror. We walked the neighborhood, talking to folks, climbing trees. Bill took his Daisy and we shot some bottles.” The old man looked around at all of them, like he wanted their approval. “I ain’t the laughing kind. But that was a fun day we had. I had some laughs that day.”
“Good,” Beverly said. “Bill was a lovely child.”
The old man nodded. “Boy was good for a laugh. But why’d it happen?” The old man looked at Vernon. “Why god take such a little boy? You tell me that, preacher? A child what never done nothing to no one?”
Like a slap, Vernon understood what this was. A vein throbbed in his neck. Sweat bled down his ribs. Then he was standing. He didn’t move towards the door, though he wanted to.
Beverly smiled at him, held up both hands. “It’s all right, hon,” she said. She motioned for him to sit. “You’re all right here.”
Vernon sat. He stared at the table, at a candle’s flickering flame. Then Johnny was talking, his voice slurred and pliant in a way Vernon had never heard.
“Vendella,” he said. “She weren’t much a nurse to me. Couple years back, I was sick a few days. Hard sick, you know. Not like she was sick, but hard for regular sick. Couldn’t swallow, couldn’t get out of bed to piss. Well, about day three of this, she comes to the end of the bed, and just starts shouting at me, saying how she can’t do everything herself and how I needed to get up and shake it off.” Vernon glanced at Johnny. Their eyes met, and Johnny grinned. “That’s just how she was. But by God if I didn’t get out bed, and get dressed, and then it was done. I just got better.” Johnny was smiling, but then his face fell and he tugged off his cap and slapped it on the table. “That’s not what I wanted to say.” He sounded flustered, desperate. “I wanted to say something else, not that.”
“Go ahead, hon,” Beverly said. “We’ll listen.”
“Go on, Johnny,” the young man added.
“Wanted to say how she cared for things, and I told it wrong.”
“It’s all right,” Beverly soothed. “Just go on and say what you need.”
Johnny rubbed his eyes. “You all remember that hen we had?”
Vernon watched the other three all nod. The young man said, “Remember that Christmas card with that hen dressed up in them outfits.”
Johnny turned his eyes to Vernon. “Vendella,” he said. “She made little outfits for this hen we kept. Made it up like a soldier and a hunter and such.” He shook his head, pounded the table once. “That ain’t what I want to say. It ain’t about that.”
“It’s all right, Johnny,” Beverly said. “Just get settled now, hon. Take your time and get it right.”
Johnny tipped back his head, exhaled a long breath. “We got that hen,” he said, “thinking we’d get some eggs from it, save a few bucks. I built this little house and put it on the back stoop, a little heat lamp in it and all. But the damned thing never put out nothing. Not one egg. So Vendella gets the idea it’s too scared, or sad, or whatnot, and she brung that little house inside where it was warm. She carried that hen around like some lap cat or something. Made a roost for it, let it watch TV with us. She was crazy for it,” he said. “But it didn’t lay no eggs, and I could see it really getting to Vendella. So,” he said, his voice straining. Johnny’s lips tightened. “So,” he began again, “I start getting up real early each morning, like four in the morning or so. I’d act like I was going to the toilet, then sneak down to the basement where I hid some grocery store eggs in a cooler. Then I’d put a couple of them eggs in the straw of that hen house.” Johnny rubbed his beard. “First time she saw them eggs I thought she’d fly off into the sky. Came running into me, holding up them eggs like they was grandkids.” Johnny picked up his hat, turned it in his hands. “She’d of made a fine mama.” He turned to Vernon. “She was younger than me. But she didn’t act young. You and her were a lot alike, I think.”
Vernon watched Johnny close, watched him wipe his eyes on his sleeve, pull his cap back onto his head. He wanted to know more, to say something, but he sat stilled, afraid to think at all, and then their eyes were on him.
Screws tightened inside Vernon’s skull.
“You don’t have to share,” Beverly told him
“I didn’t know,” Vernon said. He looked at Johnny. “I didn’t know.”
“You don’t have to share,” Beverly assured, once more. “If you do, won’t nobody talk about it outside this room.”
“That’s right,” the young man said.
Vernon’s hands trembled, and he closed them into fists. He glanced at the door, at the boar peering down from the wall. The room began to blur, and then Wesley was there, his hair mussed, wearing a high school ball jersey and a wry smile, like the picture Vernon had kept in his office, and then Vernon felt as if he were made of sand and losing his form, and he burst from his seat, stumbling away from the table, feeling his way along the wall.
He banged out the door. The wind outside was brisk, and he hurried to the rail and it all came up, the steak and whiskey and beer. He wretched again, still dizzy, clutching the handrails. As quickly as he could, he staggered his way down, then, his lungs heaving and the taste of bile in his throat, he stalked past Johnny’s truck on off through the dark mine canyon.
A voice called after him, but he didn’t turn. Then Johnny’s arms were around him, holding him with great strength. Vernon tried to push away, but Johnny stayed with him, wrestled him to a halt.
Vernon lay his head back against Johnny’s shoulder, tried to catch his breath. Johnny kept tight hold of him, asked if he was going to run again. Vernon said he wouldn’t. Johnny let him loose, and they stood facing each other, their breaths pluming between them.
“I didn’t know,” Vernon said.
“Wouldn’t of come if I told you.”
“I mean,” Vernon said. “Never knew you had a wife.”
Johnny nodded, peered up into the night.
Vernon gazed into the darkness, too, shreds of clouds against the frozen tin of stars. An odd feeling tugged at him, as if were he to jump he’d find himself shackled to the earth. Then Johnny slapped his shoulder, walked back to the truck. He grabbed his rifle from the gun rack, then waved to Vernon and called, “Sun’ll be up soon.”
The others were there, too, in their jackets and caps. Vernon fell in with them as they walked past the dragline, deeper into the mine, then up a rise. Soon they stood at the mine’s end, gentle knobs unfurled before them, white and untouched. They marched into the milky night, the crust of snow breaking beneath their boots. The wind stung Vernon’s nostrils. Beverly took his arm as they trudged through a lightless stand of woods. Then they climbed up and out onto a ridge above a moonlit valley. The valley was small, covered mostly by a quarry lake with water that riffled dully like a vast stirring of coins.
Vernon scrabbled, hands and feet, down the bouldered slope. His pants soaked through, his legs stung from the cold. Then they crunched, high-kneed and huffing, through a broom-sedge prairie, out towards a large oak by the lake.
As they grew nearer, Vernon noticed a house up in the tree. No bigger than Vernon’s cabin, the house was perched, slightly tilted, in its high branches. A house with windows, a chimney pipe. Scant remnants of paint on its clapboards.
“What is it?” Vernon asked.
“Flood put her up there,” Johnny said.
“An old whore used to use it,” the old man said. “I been up there a time or two.”
A rope ladder hung stiff from a hole in the little house’s floor. Terry hurried beneath the tree and scampered up the rope and disappeared through the hole in the floor. Beverly was next, then the old man. Johnny shouldered his rifle and climbed. Then it was Vernon’s turn, and his arms and knees strained as he worked his way up the icy rope. At the top, Johnny and Terry grabbed Vernon’s wrists and pulled him up into the little house.
The plank floor was surprisingly stable. Vernon could not see much, though he knew it was all one room, glassless windows on three walls, a woodstove in the corner. Vernon crawled to one of the windows. The view through the branches looked out over the lake and the dark swag of hills beyond.
Johnny sat beneath the window, his back to the wall. Vernon sat beside him. Beverly took a bottle of water from her coat. They all sat quietly passing the water around the room.
By the moment, the sky seemed to lighten. As the room took form, Vernon became aware this had once been a house, in a time when homes were smaller and people clung together in the cold of night. This brought Vernon back to the mornings of his youth, waking before daybreak to fetch wood for the stove, feeding whatever stock they were fattening for slaughter. He remembered his mother baking biscuits in the woodstove’s glow. Remembered his father filling a thermos with coffee, driving out through the trees. Remembered that bright morning when his father leaned trembling at his bedroom window, another man’s blood on his shirt.
A lonesome ache tore through Vernon’s heart, as if these things had only just happened, for time meant nothing to the mind, he knew, and then he saw the face of his ex-wife, Martha, head on a pillow, eyes drawn, as he’d seen her so many mornings but would never see again.
He thought of all those in town, still in their beds, Henry Barker and Tate Phillips, the other deacons, members of the congregation, who’d soon rise in the cold to brew coffee and fry eggs, to shower and shave and shake the wrinkles from their pants. They’ll all sit in the sunlit chapel. Willard Hurstenberg will play the organ and that young pastor from Haubstadt will step into the pulpit and preach about a world of pain he’d only but read about.
Then Vernon allowed himself to think of Wesley, of the last evening he’d seen his son alive, Wesley going out with friends the night before he deployed, in too much of a hurry to sit for dinner, grabbing a hunk of meatloaf in his bare hand, switching it from palm to palm because it was hot from the oven, Wesley laughing, wildly grinning, urging them not to wait up.
A pale shim of sunlight crept down the back wall. The stove pipe, coated in frost, brimmed a spectral glow. Vernon saw the stain from the flood’s high-water mark halfway up the wall. Beverly turned onto her knees, quietly raised up to peek out a window. Terry followed suit, then the old man stood, mid-room, peering outside at something on the ground.
Johnny drew two cartridges from his coat pocket, loaded them into his rifle. He pushed himself to his knees, rose to the window. Vernon watched Johnny’s eyes narrow in the new light, watched him rest the barrel on the sill, sight the scope on something below.
Vernon crouched to see out the window. Beyond the oak’s limbs, the undersides of clouds blazed. Then they were there; at first he regarded them as a trick of the light, reflections off the woods, but they were real, deer emerging into the sunlight, stepping delicately across the ice to where the lake opened onto water. Bending their necks they drank, their breaths smoking, the whites of their throats brighter than the snow.
Vernon glanced back to Johnny. A tear, glistening like ice, tracked down Johnny’s cheek and into his beard. His jaw clenched. His sight-eye closed, his body shuddering. The deer pranced out across the ice, does and fawns, twenty, maybe thirty, in all. Light saturated everything, their tawny hides, the mist draping the water.
Abruptly, Johnny shouldered the stock. In a pang of horror Vernon thought he’d fire into the deer, but then Johnny raised the muzzle and fired at the molten orb of sun. Pumped the lever, fired again. Vernon flinched at the blasts, fell backwards into the room. Johnny pumped the lever and the spent round clattered to the floor. Vernon scrambled to his feet and to the window. The deer had vanished, scattered like dreams into daylight.
“Wonderful, Johnny,” Beverly said. “Just wonderful.”
Vernon turned to Johnny, who eyed the gold gleaming cartridges on the floor, then slumped against the wall, his nose pinched between two fingers.
“I know it’s awful, boys,” Beverly said. “The more you hate something, the closer it gets. But the same’s true for love. That’s the plain truth. You got to believe in that, too.”
Vernon gazed about the room, Johnny sobbing like a child, the old man’s forehead leaned against the frosted stove-pipe, Beverly holding Terry in her arms, his face lost in her shoulder. From Vernon’s cracked and broken heart gushed a great swelling of joy, for a man could go a lifetime without finding his people. He stood tall, cleared his throat. He raised a hand to the sunlight and softly he began to pray.