UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2011
Behind him, light from the afternoon sun on the uncurtained window rode in on a tunnel of suspended
“James called,” he said. “He wants me to go out hunting with him tonight. He’s got a cabin up near Eagle Mountain.”
“James?” said Lacy. Looking at him across her shoulder, she turned from the sink where she was scrubbing a pot she’d used for lunch.
“Yeah. James Church. You met him, I think. Don’t know if you remember. Scar on his cheek, shaved head. He’s been mostly out of town the last couple years, hauling cattle around the state.”
Lacy turned back to the sink, lowered her head, hunched her shoulders, and kept scrubbing. In the living room, the old clock her grandmother had given her struck the hour, ten minutes late.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
Cory came up behind her and put his arms around her shoulders. Her dark hair smelled of fruity shampoo and he nibbled the back of her neck.
“Not now,” she said, shrugging him away.
He noticed her earrings, and he touched one of them, a small silver tassel. “What happened to the ones I gave you?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” she said, with some irritation. Her arm moved around the pot in quick, short strokes. Then she stopped and turned on the water and rinsed the pot and set it on the drain board, upside-down.
“The earrings. You know, the ones I gave you for Christmas. You haven’t worn them in a while. I thought you liked them.”
“Somebody stole them at the beach last week, where Carol took me for my birthday.”
“Both of them? They were expensive. You sure they were stolen?”
She picked up a dish towel and rubbed her hands hard, as though she wanted to rub away his questions as much as the water. “Yes I’m sure! Somebody stole them from the motel room.”
“Damn. They were nice. Did you check Carol’s…”
“Carol paid for the room!” she said, whirling to face him. “She didn’t steal them.”
“I was going to say ‘Carol’s car’. She drove, didn’t she?”
Lacy looked down. “They weren’t in her car.”
“Did you report it to the motel?”
“Yes. They couldn’t find them.”
“Well,” he said, shaking his head. “Damn. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Without answering, she turned away. He felt a pang of resentment against her, as if her very carelessness made her responsible. “Why don’t we go to town for supper tonight,” he said. Since he’d been out of work, there was little money to spare. Last month, the building contractor he’d worked for had gone bankrupt, and as a carpenter, he was only working sporadically now, picking up occasional odd jobs. But lately, he’d felt her pulling away, opening an emotional chasm between them, a gap he didn’t understand or desire. He watched her walk toward the living room, watched the way her well-washed jeans snugged her hips, and he knew he didn’t want her to leave.
“I told Carol I’d go to a movie with her,” she said, tossing back a stray lock of hair. Over the past year she’d been pestering him more and more about making money, something she hadn’t done when they’d first gotten married. “We need a new car,” she’d said. And “This old couch is awful. We need another one.” He wanted a new car too and couldn’t blame her for that, but there was only so much he could do. Maybe she’d come to that realization soon.
“Well,” said Cory. “You said you wanted us to spend more time together…”
“You said you were going hunting tonight.”
“No. I said James asked me to go. I’m asking you instead.”
Without stopping to look at him, Lacy disappeared into the living room and headed toward the bedroom. A moment later, her disembodied voice surfaced in weary, staccato tones: “Just go with James.”
About midnight, he and James were sitting inside a one-room cabin built on a triangle of flat ground atop a coned, wooded hill. The cabin was more than fifty years old, but Cory spent a couple of weekends fixing the roof and renovating the interior about five years ago. At the time he was working full-time, but it was before he’d met Lacy, so he and James used the cabin quite a bit. The last few years, with James on the road so much, he hadn’t been there at all.
Inside, flames flickered and smoked and snapped amid the glowing ashes in the fireplace.
“Starting to get hot,” said James. His beard was a two-day stubble, but his head was shaved slick. He was seated in the semi-shadows that intersected the bottom mattress of a bunk bed. He rose and glanced at the fire. “You hot?”
“A bit,” said Cory. “It’s not bad.” He was seated at a table with an uncapped bottle of Early Times in front of him. Two glasses flanked the bottle.
“Well I’m hot.” James went to the front door and swung it open. He was wearing a camouflage-colored t-shirt. On his right forearm was a tattoo of an eagle, on the left a complicated design that looked something like a castle. Cory felt the chilled autumn air snake across the floor. He wasn’t drunk, but the whiskey had given him an edge and the coolness felt good on his feet. Usually, he’d be ready and excited to start hunting the next morning, on this, his first hunt of the year. But tonight he felt distracted and unfocused, as if his mind were underwater, watching things in slow motion. He wondered about Lacy.
Outside, the hardwoods were still in transition, half-full of leaves, with plenty of bare branches. In the sky the moon was huge and round and hanging on the far side of a Sourwood Tree, as if following an invisible track up the trunk.
“Caribou moon,” said James, looking up.
“It’s a Caribou moon. That’s what my granddaddy used to call the first full moon of hunting season.”
Cory tried to see past James into the moon-yellowed darkness, impenetrable in the wash of firelight behind him. “There’s no Caribou here,” he said.
James faced around. “He grew up in Canada and hunted Caribou with his daddy. They used to wait for the first full moon to go hunting. He said they always got a big bull.”
“Always?” repeated Cory.
James shrugged. “That’s what he said. My granddaddy was prone to stretch things a bit. But he said it always worked.”
“Has it worked for you?”
James laughed. “Sometimes.”
Cory reached for his glass and poured a drink. The popping sound of the fire relaxed him. The chimney didn’t draw perfectly and he could detect escaping smoke. “Well, everybody needs luck. Maybe we’ll get a 12-pointer.”
James rubbed his hand over his unshaven head and looked at the fireplace. “Yeah, but that’s not the luck I need,” he said.
“You want to make some money?” asked James.
“Well… uh, sure.”
“You lost your job, right?”
“Yeah, when Amos went bankrupt,” said Cory.
James nodded. “Then you wouldn’t mind picking up a few bucks?”
“Long as I don’t have to rob a bank,” said Cory, chuckling. He poured some whiskey into his glass and took a drink.
James didn’t smile. “What about breaking into a house?” he said.
“What?” said Cory, thumping down his glass. “You’re not serious.”
“I am serious.”
“James, I heard a nasty rumor that stealing is illegal.”
“This isn’t stealing.”
“You want to break into somebody’s house, and you say it’s not stealing?”
“So the part of your ‘kind of’ that isn’t stealing, that’ll be my part.”
James came over to the table and sat down, taking up the bottle. He poured and drank. He leaned forward, eyes afire. “You remember Ella Mae,” he said. He shook his head, as if dredging up painful memories.
“I should,” said Cory. “I went to your wedding.”
“Well, when we got divorced, she kept all my tools. The table saw, the generator. Everything. You helped me pick them out, remember.”
Cory nodded, silent. He could see where this was going and he was far from being thrilled.
“She’s out of town the next few days. I plan to get it all back. Only my tools. Nothing that doesn’t belong to me.” The eagle wiggled, floating over the muscles on his forearm.
“If they belong to you why don’t you go in the front door, when she’s there? You can get the sheriff…”
“The court said I couldn’t take anything. Her Goddamn lawyer fucked me up good.”
“Well,” said Cory. “That sounds a little more serious than ‘kind of’ stealing to me.”
Still holding his empty glass, James stood and squinted at him. “Cory, I need your help, Buddy. I can’t haul all that stuff by myself. You can stay in the truck until I need you.”
“Well, that ought to be good for a day off my sentence, at least.”
“Hell, we’re not going to get caught.”
“I don’t see how you’re not going to get caught.” Cory got to his feet and surveyed the small room as if he were looking for something. He shuffled to the fireplace where the flames winked in diminishing strength. Pausing, he stared into the black and white ashes with their peek-a-boo fringe of red-orange lights. Then he turned and went outside and selected three pieces of dry wood from the stack by the door. The afternoon had been warm, and he was wearing a light t-shirt he’d bought at an Alan Jackson concert, but now the air was brisk and cool. He carried the wood in the crook of one arm and, once inside, closed the door with his free hand.
“I’m tired,” he said. “If we’re getting up early, I need to get some sleep.”
“Cory, I’ll make it worth your while. Five hundred, that all right? I’d do it for you.”
Cory laid two pieces of dry wood in the fireplace, setting the third one cross-wise on top. While he watched, the fire flattened, as if squashed, then blossomed up into a pinchers movement, encircling the wood.
“James,” he said. “I need to think about this. When were you thinking about… about doing all this?”
The flames quivered and brightened, spreading the elastic borders of firelight across the floor to the bed. Cory could feel the heat rise. “Tomorrow night. I’ve got to do it tomorrow night. She’ll be back the next day. We’ll use my truck. I only need you to help me move it.” Try as he might, Cory could see nothing good coming from this, but he was reluctant to refuse altogether. Too many times they’d helped each other, like the time James had dropped a load of cattle he was delivering to South Carolina in an empty pasture in order to use his truck to help Cory move his furniture when the sheriff evicted him for not paying rent.
As he stood there in the expanding light, Cory spotted a metallic glint under the lip of the bed. Glad for the distraction, he dropped to his haunches and peered underneath. There, curled upon itself was a single gold earring, a wide spiral with a tiny pearl inside. It looked like the ones he’d bought Lacy for Christmas. Cory turned the earring over, inspecting each side. No doubt. It was exactly the same. Reaching his hand further under the bed, he wondered if a second one might be there, where he couldn’t see it. He found nothing but dust bunnies.
“What’s that?” said James, pouring himself another drink.
“I don’t know. I thought you found something.”
Cory closed the earring in his hand and held it tight, his mind churning. Keeping his fingers clenched, he slipped the earring into his pocket. “Just a dime. I saw it in the light. You want it?”
“Keep it,” said James, turning up his glass. “Take it as a down payment.”
By the time Cory got back home, a cool breeze was stirring the reddish leaves still clinging to a Pin Oak growing along the driveway. He stopped his truck under it and stepped outside, leaving his rifle in the gun rack. The air smelled of rain. Lacy’s car was parked in her usual place next to the well pump.
They’d gotten up before daylight, and Cory sat huddled in his old camouflage jacket for more than three hours, crouched in a deer stand high among a sea of crooked, mostly naked hardwood branches, feeling the morning cold claim the movement in his joints, feet, and fingers. His breath pulsed in regular, smoking beats. During that time he saw one deer, a small doe.
“See you tonight?” asked James, leaning against his truck as they were ready to leave. He looked expectant, almost pained.
James half smiled, relaxing. “Eight. My place.”
“I’ll call you about noon. Let you know then,” said Cory.
James looked disturbed. “Noon’s the latest, Cory. If you don’t want to make any money, I’ll need time to find somebody who does.”
“Get anything?” asked Lacy as he entered the house. She was sitting in an old blue bathrobe in the corner of the living room, holding a cup of coffee. The tv was running, but the cordless phone was in her lap.
“Not a thing. I’m going up to take a shower.” He sniffed his shoulder with an exaggerated flourish. “I need one.”
“Too bad,” she said. “I like venison.”
Upstairs, he entered the bedroom and took off his jacket and shirt, dropping them on the floor. Then he stopped and looked at the dresser in the corner, near the window. Sliding open the top drawer, he ran his eyes across a jumbled collection bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. With his forefinger he stirred them apart. Nothing.
As he was about to close the drawer, he noticed a folded, red scarf in the upper right corner. Underneath was a single gold earring with a tiny pearl inside a wide spiral. Just one.
He pulled the earring from his pocket and laid the two together in his palm. Perfect match. He sighed.
When he got downstairs she was not to be seen, although he heard the washing machine start with a grinding, unbalanced noise that he’d heard for the first time last week. Something else ready to be repaired or replaced. More money he didn’t have.
“Cory,” she said, appearing in the doorway, wearing the same blue bathrobe. She was smoking a cigarette. She walked over to a shell-shaped ashtray on the coffee table and tapped out a thin cylinder of ash. “I talked to a lawyer yesterday. I’m filing for divorce.”
He didn’t answer, but just stared at her. “Why?” he said finally.
“I’m taking the house. You can have the truck, all your stuff.”
“You seeing somebody else? Is that why?”
She shook her head, letting out a stream of smoke. “I don’t want to live with you anymore,” she said. “You just don’t have any ambition, any guts.”
“I know it’s hard right now. That money’s tight. But don’t you think we can salvage this thing. That we can make it work, despite everything?”
“It’ll never work, because of everything,” she said.
At noon, he dialed James on the phone. “I’m in,” he said.
On the line he could hear James release his breath. “Okay. Good. See you at eight then.”
“Yeah. See you at eight.”
“Five hundred?” said Cory.
“Five hundred,” said James.
At seven forty-five, Cory walked into Jerry’s Bar and Pool Hall, a small tavern located near the state highway. On most Saturday nights, there would be one or two poker games in the back room, although it had been almost a year since Cory had had enough money to join them. Men would sometimes travel the twenty miles from town just to throw their dollars into the pot. Tonight, the bar was almost empty.
He ordered a draft beer and sat at the bar with his hands cupping the glass, watching the bubbles rise. At eight he took a big swallow and fished around in his pants pocket for loose change. He went toward the bathroom in the back, but stopped at the pay phone on the wall.
“James,” he said.
“I hope you’re on the way. There’s a lot of stuff to haul and we’ve got to take it to one of those storage units I rented out by the lake.”
“Well, I won’t be able to make it…”
“It’s too risky, James.”
“It’s eight o’clock, Goddamn it.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Time just slipped up on me, that’s all.”
“Sorry? Do you know the bind you just put me in?”
Cory shuffled his feet and leaned against the wall. A man with a white Stetson tilted to the side passed him, going into the bathroom. He smelled of cologne. When the man opened the door, Cory smelled stale urine.
“What is it? You trying to up the price on me? That it?”
“That’s not it, James. It’s just too risky.”
“Goddamn. Well shit. I can’t believe you, all that I’ve done for you.”
“Yeah. I know,” said Cory. “I’ve considered that.”
Ten minutes later he walked into his house. Lacy was on the phone in the living room and she looked up quickly. “You’re kidding,” she said.
Cory crossed to the far side and turned on the tv, flipping the dial. He settled on a sit com he thought he’d already seen.
“No,” she said, then fell silent. She shot Cory another look and headed into the kitchen. “Can’t you get somebody…”
He sat on the sofa without watching the screen. He got up and went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator and poked around, looking for a beer. There was one left, stuck in the back, behind a plastic container of potato salad. She turned her back to him and hunched forward.
“Jesus,” she said. “I don’t…” She went back into the living room.
He snapped open the beer and followed her. When he got there, the tv was off and she was starting up the stairs.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“Carol,” she said, her voice sounding raspy and abrupt. “She needs help moving something, and I’m going out to help her.”
“You coming back tonight?” he asked.
She whirled around to face him. “Of course I’m coming back. I live here, remember.”
Cory turned the tv back on, and sat on the sofa nursing his beer. At nine o’clock he rose and picked up the phone. He stood there looking at the dark wall for a while, then dialed.
“Police department,” said the voice.
“I’d like to report a robbery in progress,” he said.
Afterward, he walked outside and stared at the sky, drawing in the crisp, fresh air. He looked at the dark outlines of the trees and shrubs, and in the east, a huge yellow moon just mounting the jagged horizon.
“Caribou Moon,” he whispered to himself. Turning away, he walked slowly into the house, feeling emptiness stirring in his gut.
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