December evenings, his wife and daughter would linger at the kitchen window to watch the deer come down their switchbacks. There was a stand of chinkapins. The deer would prize the nuts from the urchin-shaped husks. He can see his wife leaning over the sink. His daughter on a stool beside her.
He once cherished this time of year. Days of red sumac and rime, days when the rock walls along the mountain parkway bared swags of gray ice. The rhododendron would curl up like tubes, near blue. Everything on the hillsides would be exposed, including the deer. He sees them standing there still, two images of each other across time, their red aprons on, matching bows at the back of their waists, watching the deer. Such a small, true pleasure, to watch something wild and vulnerable. He rides along the parkway, heading home, knowing his wife and daughter will not be there. He watches the roadbed for ice, for rocks that broke free in the first hard frost. It’s an old habit, the way a parent drives, wary of any threat.
Two years ago. They were at a church dinner. It was a week before Christmas. There was the smell of dinner rolls, cleaning supplies, and the vague mothball smell of that old building. The children ran in, their feet echoing, vibrating the folding tables. Some of them were screaming; some wore a stunned look of hilarity and guilt. Mainly they looked scared. The look conveyed the sudden need for the adult world to enter, to take over and make sense of something, to wipe away the horrible dream they had all just dreamed collectively, to say Good morning, to soothe the sweaty hair. He recalls especially one child laughing, his hand over his cupped mouth, laughing though his eyes welled with tears.
The adults arrived in the cemetery all at once. They outpaced the children who had led them. He was running, trying to understand what the kids had been saying. A tower fallen?
His eyes scanned the little heads in the group that had run out with them, but his daughter was not among them. Tyler, the youth pastor, had gotten there first and was running back the opposite way, screaming for the keys to the tractor they kept in a shed behind the fellowship hall.
The adults had formed a ring. A large granite obelisk, eight feet tall—it was the same one he had played on when he was a boy, base in games of tag. They would cling to it like ants. Now it was lying on its side, perfectly on its side. There was a big square of dank soil where it had stood, strewn with worm casings. For how long was it crumbling beneath, unseen, losing its stability, for centuries, for two centuries, and why this day, of all days? Why not when he was a child?
It lay so flat. There was nothing under there. Nothing to say she was under there, or anyone. Not even a bit of her green wool coat sticking out. Two men were trying to lift the obelisk from its point, and it was not happening. In the distance, the tractor throttled high. His wife ran from the fellowship hall door but stopped halfway, unable to come any closer. He should have gone to her; already—even in these earliest moments—he had failed at grief, to do it right. He was outside of grief, a place of undoing.
The children were gathered and hurried away. The tractor was close, the smell of diesel marred the air. He was aware that the men around him were talking about him, as if he were not there. The voices were arguing. He could not make out what they were saying. How perfectly the stone lay against the earth. That’s all he could think. And then he was pulled away, in the arms of two friends, men he would never speak with again, not out of spite or bitterness, but because he would fall so cleanly away from the life he had lived before this day.
He was fighting with these men, and somewhere in the place of his undoing he was strong. Before they dragged him off, he saw. The strange sight, as the stone was lifted from its peak by a harness on the end of the loader, the distorted caricature of his daughter there, the lush green coat still so bright, not even dirty, but containing nothing, it seemed, but a little image, without dimension, a forgery of her. Was it weakness in him that made him want to see, the part of him already ungrieving, wanwood, leafmeal? The part of him that would remain in disbelief, even years later?
It seemed, in those first few months after the accident, that he and his wife would remain with each other, if only to have the presence of their pain burn as brightly as it could—how they relished and needed it, in those early months. It was right to keep the fuel together, to let it burn in tandem. But they had to leave their house. It made them confused at each corner, they were lost in it. They left most of their furniture, their food, barely managed to get their clothes packed up. The playset, the swing, the backyard still littered with toys.
They left the cabin in Idlewild for a small apartment in Boone, over the little bookstore he had been so thrilled to see finally open. We finally have a bookstore, he remembered saying. Their apartment was a studio above the small town’s main street. It had a kerosene monitor heater in the corner and big windows where they would sit for hours, watching the students go by in their heavy coats, duck boots, so many of them truly beautiful, young, silly.
The falling-out began when he could not accept the triteness of the afterlife his wife believed their daughter was living. She was not waiting on them somewhere, he thought, not looking down on them—she was just gone, present only now in the paths she had shaped in his cortex, he thought. She lived now, slept now, as an invisible and silent code, an obverse stamped into his synapses, waiting to be passed over, a cascade of chemicals across the axons—memory, as it’s called—and then she would resurrect into his brain like a fire, and live, and then return into the sleep of code, as abstract. That’s where she was now.
They decided, though it was not so much through what was said but how they avoided the topic, how he said nothing when she said she wanted to be closer to family again, nearer to those who could support them—she meant her. But she had already left, he thought, the moment she began to visit that little church down the hill, and so what did it matter if he stayed alone in the little apartment, quit his job teaching biology at the high school, began working odd jobs, cycling through them as he cared to, trees in winter, farmwork and land clearing in summer, anything that would wear him out. He wanted to fall to whatever was at the bottom, to be under, out of sight, to not be counted.
It had been two years since his wife left when Aaron saw a man walking on the parkway. Aaron was on his way home from baling Christmas trees. The man had a broken right arm. Clean white cast.
If he had wanted a ride, Aaron thought, he wouldn’t have been walking that way, his head down, hand up on the strap of his soiled bookbag as though he were worried someone was going to snatch it. Migrant, Aaron thought. You broke that arm working trees, yes you did. But that was the only part that made any sense. Who walks on the parkway, especially anyone who wanted to get somewhere?
The broken arm. Aaron could see it all going down. It had, in fact, almost happened to him, and more than once, when he started first working trees. It’s like this: this man is on top of the trailer, loading the baled trees in piles. He is green, and no one has been kind, especially not the white hands, who look at him with misgiving. He leans over to catch a tree by the stump, but he is getting tired, his hands especially—and instead of grabbing the trunk, which is hard when your hands are numb and without feeling, he hooks a lower branch, which is what all new hands try to do when they get tired, get their wrist under a lower branch and give up on their hands altogether. But the problem. The branch breaks, and from then it’s all one equal and opposite reaction. The tree goes down on one side of the trailer, and the young man goes down on the other, eats it on the frozen yard, which has no forgiveness left in it, and worst yet, he puts an arm out to break the fall, like anyone might do on their first fall, instead of giving it the shoulder, and everyone hears the snap.
The fresh cast. The walking must have been bad. The wrist swelling up inside that white shell, throbbing there, pounding the ever-living hell out of him with every step along the parkway that afternoon.
And one can bet he didn’t get any drugs that afternoon at the ER; one can bet they treated him and set him straight, put him in that nice white cast, gave him a bill they knew he wouldn’t pay, and said See you in two months, and let him step outside into the bright new world of his pain, the pain playing inside that cast like a little symphony just getting started. But who knows? That night Aaron kept driving. When he got home, he heated soup on the stove and watched the students on the street below going out to their bars. A bright flurry of snow feathered across the dark, wet road.
He thought about the man as he tried to sleep, saw him falling off the truck. He thought about his first job after losing his daughter. A farmhand. Some days he got paid in firewood. He didn’t care. That day they were cutting a horse trail up on a ridge. They worked until the sun left the valley, and the owner invited him to come in for dinner. The man’s sister was in town, and she was interested in him, he could tell. She wanted to know what brought him to the area, how he got into this kind of work, why he quit teaching biology. She was nice-looking, a few years younger than he was, it seemed, though hard to tell. But he could only give her his impression of a person, and it was a bad impression. It was always like this—he couldn’t tell the truth, because telling the story would be like erasing something inside him, like translating the pain into something else. He wanted to keep the pain intact, undeciphered.
The next morning, Aaron let himself into Claude Pillard’s kitchen. Christmas trees had become half his yearly earnings, and he couldn’t say no to Claude. It all came down in just a few weeks at the end of the year. All in cash. And so he found himself wandering back over to Claude’s farm in the fall after the poplars got rusty, even though he said last season would be his last working trees.
Claude was downstairs, messing with his old furnace. A hollow banging rose through the kitchen floor. In the corner by the table stood a tower of empty pizza boxes. The table itself piled with empty boxes of Corona—the only thing Claude would drink—as though he’d inherited a lifetime supply of it. One of his sons, Tom, was sitting there near the table with a handle of Beam and a bottle of gas station Kool-Aid. He explained to Aaron why his truck no longer had a reverse gear, but how it wouldn’t be a problem, which Aaron didn’t comment on, seeing how all they do is back the trucks up to trailers and load them.
Aaron headed out to throw the horses their half bale and see if the good truck would start. He saw the man then, standing there in the horse paddock, that cast not looking as bright as it had the day before. The man had the little mare’s head in his hands, petting the latch of her throat. Aaron stepped behind the corner of the shed and watched. What kind of person would walk onto a tree farm in December, unannounced, and then walk into a paddock to visit a horse before coming up to the house? A good way to get some birdshot dropped on you, he thought.
That morning had a low-hung slate sky, the mountaintops canceled. The stranger was in a faded navy hoodie, loose jeans and black sneakers, not nearly enough clothing for the time of year, the time when the mud underfoot crackled, tessellations of ice flowering in each shadow.
He was tender, it seemed, whoever this guy was, watching him with that animal.
“Something I can do for you?”
The man did not startle, just calmly turned, hesitating, as if reluctant to take his gaze off the horse.
“I’m looking for work,” he said. “No es nada fácil.”
He smiled, held up the arm.
“Yeah, I bet it’s not. What kind of work you do?”
“This is a good horse. I once had this kind of horse. Un caballito.”
“Yeah. She is a good one.”
Claude was coming down the rutted-out clay road. He was stepping over the ruts, watching where his feet were going. Aaron was not sure he had seen the man at all until Claude started talking, and it was clear he had. Claude had a way of putting people at ease; he was a good one for that.
“I got that horse off a dentist at gunpoint,” Claude began, his voice booming.
“Oh Lord God,” said Aaron.
The man lifted his face to Claude to show that he was ready for the story. Claude took a long pull on his coffee, letting the space breathe. Aaron had heard this one, at least a few times last season. The story goes that Will Stamey shows up at Claude’s house in the middle of the night and tells him that his cousin Skip won a horse somehow, on some drunk turkey shoot or something, and is riding it unshod all the way to Marion. This was back when Claude was still the local vet.
“So I meet him in Ashford, right where he was coming down those switchbacks, on the road, riding that horse on the road without shoes. It can’t be believed, the depths of stupidity we have up here.”
“Horrible,” the man said.
“That’s exactly goddamn right.”
Claude was getting fired up like it was happening all over again—Aaron has often wondered how this works, the way memory holds things, holds them so completely that we can fall back into them, be flooded again with them, the way cloth drinks water. But where does that memory live, all intact, self-sustaining, like the Chloroflexus cells that live in the total dark of El Tatio, without oxygen? Where within us do our loved ones exist when we are not thinking of them? Where is his little dear one logged away, in those brief moments, when he forgets her? Is she code, abstract, awaiting animation?
“I would even say it was evil, to do that to an animal,” Claude went on, “because it wants to do right by you, because that’s all it’s ever done.”
“You said it.”
Though Aaron had heard this story a thousand times, he had never heard it reach this philosophical pitch. Claude was enjoying this. Like the story was new again. He watched Claude get in his rifle stance for the climax.
“So, I meet him in Ashford, and he comes around that switchback, and I let him get a good look at my .270, and he knew exactly what it meant. He was off that poor animal and stumbling down the bank toward the laurel before I even got the gun leveled. And so there she is. It took me four months to get that horse right. Her legs were so concussed, she wouldn’t move. Just stood their planted like an ornament for weeks.”
“The coffin bones?” the man asked.
“That’s exactly right. Two fractures. Both on the front.”
Claude looked at Aaron. He had the look of a child who had unwrapped something special. Aaron thought Claude might even tear up—how lovely is the mind, the way it lives and turns in on itself, cherishes itself?
“Are we baling today? What are we in for?” Aaron felt he should change the subject. “He said he is looking for some work.”
“You’re looking for work?”
The man nodded.
Claude popped his hat on and off, rubbed his scarred, bald head. “All we got right now is baling what we cut yesterday, and getting it stood up under that netting. You ever worked trees? I don’t think you’re going to be much for it with that arm.”
“I will bale and carry them into the shade. No problem.”
Claude looked over at Aaron and took some more coffee.
“Son, you must be looking to break both of your arms. And also freeze to death. You ain’t got no coat?”
“It’s no problem.”
“It is a problem. You freezing to death up in that pass after it starts to sleet is gonna be my problem.”
The man looked again at the horse. He seemed to have all the time in the world, this man, standing there in that hoodie, his breath showing. The hand protruding out of the cast was cold, the grayish blue of fescue. He kept trying to get the hand into his pants pocket, but it wouldn’t go.
“I’ll give you twenty dollars to clean my house before my grandchildren show up this afternoon. Where you from?”
“You talk like you’ve been somewhere a bit farther off than Atlanta. There ain’t much horse work in Atlanta. Where did you learn horses?”
“San Pedro Sula.” He pulled out his wallet, turning a few pictures into the light for them. He flipped past a picture of a girl who looked about three. She was wearing a pleated slip dress, the kind with the crenulated fabric across the chest. She had her arms behind her back and was leaning against a pitted cinder block wall, looking very sassy for her age. Then the man showed them another photo. A horse.
“Back home, in San Pedro Sula,” he said.
But Aaron was hung up on the girl; she looked about the same age as his daughter. His daughter even had a dress like that—a summer dress, his wife had called it. He could suddenly feel her small, warm back through that elastic-laced fabric, felt it like a ghost limb. The memory charged down out of his head and into his arm and hand, a fuse burning.
Claude was holding the man’s wallet now, checking out the horse. “Beautiful,” he said. “I like the roan on him. Did you ride him?”
Another photo. This time the man was on horseback, beside a sign that read Rancho Barrio Dorcas. Aaron wanted to ask about the picture of the girl but thought better of it.
“Well, let’s get after it. What’s your name?”
“Alright, Ayusso. Let me show you where the cleaning stuff’s at.”
“You got cleaning stuff?” Aaron asked.
Claude’s hounds were going off like an alarm behind the house. In the kitchen, Tom was leaning against the doorframe, taking in the sight of them, his eyes falling on that broken arm.
“We got two pity cases now?” Tom was staring them down, though Ayusso had the right instinct to ignore him. Tom was the kind of guy who seemed to always speak in soliloquy, to air his thoughts so he could decide what he was thinking without having to be responsible for what he said.
“You can burn all this out back.” Claude was passing by the piles of pizza and beer boxes stacked on the kitchen table. “There’s the dishes. You can start with those. Then the bathroom upstairs and the kids’ rooms. Then sweeping the floors.”
The floors had a layer of dirt on them so thick the boards were only visible in the narrow paths Claude’s slippers had carved along his accustomed routes, which did not enter the living or dining room, or even the hall bathroom.
“Forty for all this.”
Claude looked about the house, as if he had not seen it in years.
“What happened to that arm?” Tom was asking.
“Why don’t you get started, and see how much gets done by lunch, and then we will talk about another twenty.”
Ayusso nodded. “Until lunch, and then another twenty.”
“We’ll see how you do before lunch.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Tom. “Where did this broke-arm bastard come from? Out of the fucking pity-case woodwork?”
Claude moved off to get what Ayusso would need. Aaron could feel the opportunity for Tom to move in, which he did, as though on cue.
“You fell off a trailer, didn’t you? You look like the kind of dumb fuck who would fall off a trailer.”
Tom was leaning against the counter beside the sink. Ayusso was looking for a sponge, or rag, or anything. He began just using his hand and some soap.
“Combine,” said Ayusso. “Mecánico.”
“It ain’t cover-crop season. Why the hell would someone be working on a combine?”
Ayusso shrugged, though he had turned his head a bit, as if by instinct. Tom had become something to keep an eye on.
“That’s all you damn pity cases do? Shrug your shoulders. Slump your shoulders, come around like titty pups, sad all the goddamn time with your sad-ass shoulders, coming to get what doesn’t belong to you.” Tom was talking to both of them now. “Combine. Bullshit. You fell off a damn trailer. I bet you were over at Pittman’s. Does that ring a bell, hombre? Pittman’s? Licklog road? ¿No hablo? ¿No hablo?”
Ayusso put one clean dish on a towel beside the sink. He began to dry his hands. Something was happening. “Hay los cementerios que son solos,” he said, “sepulcros por completo de los huesos que no hacen un sonido.”
Tom was stepping forward when Claude came in carrying a broom that looked like it had shed half its straw, or been made by a child in the woods. Aaron was surprised he’d found a broom at all. Tom didn’t seem to notice Claude. He had taken Ayusso by the back of his hoodie and was trying to walk him toward the kitchen door, but Ayusso wasn’t moving much.
“Fucker talking shit to me. We don’t need no fucking help today.”
“Tom,” said Claude.
Tom had pulled the hoodie tight into Ayusso’s neck and had managed to get Ayusso back from the sink, up on his toes, and that’s when the cast came up to Tom’s face, and the lurid sound of cartilage bursting. Tom stepped back, his nose turned unreasonably to the side, the interior of both nostrils already growing dark with blood. Tom looked surprised, though what was he expecting? He grabbed a heavy pair of channel locks from the kitchen counter, swung them once as Ayusso rolled his head back like a boxer. Aaron grabbed the arm that held the channel locks. He had to use both hands. Claude was coming in too.
Tom turned to Aaron now and began punching with his free arm, getting in a few good ones in his ear until Claude got him wrapped up, but only for a moment, and then Tom was free again and after Ayusso. The rest of it was just a pile, all four men falling into the counter. The blood from Tom’s nose was everywhere. He had an arm around Ayusso’s neck. Claude got Tom around the chest finally. Though old, Claude was not a small man. He slung his own son clear across the kitchen, where he landed on the table in a pile of pizza boxes and fell over the side near the window.
“Damn it,” Claude said. “Just goddamn it.”
Tom crawled out from under the boxes and headed for the front door.
“Fuck you, and fuck you, and fuck you and you, sad motherfucker pity cases.” Tom’s face already looked bad. The nose dripping and still turned off center. “I see you again, you’re dead.” He pointed to Ayusso and then to Aaron.
Soon he was burning up his truck motor down the busted road, loud bangs where his suspension bottomed out.
“Well, shit,” Claude said. “Goddamn it. Aaron, you alright?”
The morning, which Aaron had found strangely light—something about the way Ayusso spoke to the horse—now had an oscillation, a lost center, which was the way, he realized now, most of his days felt. It was like that sometimes; you feel like it means something, give us this day and all that, and then suddenly it is indiscriminate, unwilling to bend the rules that lie at the heart of life, that each cell is just wanting what it wants, and can’t care about what lies outside it, beyond the lysosome. Chaos again. But that vision of Ayusso, talking to the horse—it had made him feel alright for a minute. Give us this day.
Claude was picking up the plates that had fallen off the edge of the counter in the shuffle, including the one Ayusso had cleaned. “I need to let y’all go for a few days. Aaron, I’ll pay you for the last three weeks.” He laid the pieces of plate down on the counter.
Ayusso had picked up the broom again. He was covered in Tom’s blood.
“Just leave it.” He offered Ayusso a twenty from his wallet. Ayusso just turned and walked out into the dirt yard beside the garage, the hounds going off again, echoing across the valley.
Aaron didn’t have anything to say. What was there to say? He watched Claude count the twenties into his palm from an envelope he kept inside his coat pocket. Sixty of them. Claude never liked hundreds. Aaron would normally complain about all the bills, but today he just divided the wad into two separate pockets and turned to head out.
“Hold on,” Claude said, heading down the hall to the bedroom. He came back with a fresh gray sweater in a knit pattern, a T-shirt, a Carhartt barn coat.
Aaron caught Ayusso on the road. He was not one to hurry, it seemed, this fella, or be troubled easily. He was strolling like a man in a field of tall grass. Perhaps Tom was a very small thing to him, probably nothing to him, he who had come through more, just getting himself up here, much more.
“Here,” Aaron said. “You got blood all on you.”
Ayusso stripped out of his shirt and hoodie. It was awkward with the cast, all one-handed. With his shirt up around his head, Aaron could see his tight gray belly, scars on his lower stomach as though he had been clawed, faded tattoos across his pectorals that Aaron couldn’t make out. Ayusso wiped his face with the old T-shirt and put on the clean stuff. He left the dirty clothes right there in the road.
“Well, what do you think? Now what?”
Ayusso motioned down the road and started walking the way he had come only an hour or so before.
“There’s nothing down that road within two hours of walking.”
Though of course Ayusso knew this, he realized after he had already started talking, but how else to make this offer? “Come on,” Aaron motioned and leaned across the truck to push the door open.
They passed down the road toward Stamey Branch, the slopes of the mountains between Plumbtree and Altamont blue with firs of all sizes, some tree farms with neat rows, like little machined ornaments. Other farms gone nearly wild, the trees untrimmed and bushy, dead burnt trees like rust spots here and there in the tall grass.
“I’m sorry about that.” Aaron offered Ayusso a cigarette. Ayusso shook his hand no thank you. “Anyway. It’s a shame how those boys turned out.”
“There are many here like that.”
Aaron couldn’t tell if it was a question, the way he said it, with a strange tone.
“I’m afraid that’s true. I’m afraid there’s not much going on in this place but Christmas trees and Black Angus—most of the good kids got more sense than to stay here.”
They finally hit the blacktop and the truck hummed into high gear, the pink marcescent beech trees flashing by along the banks of the creeks, flashes of bright falling water, the blue cold curling of rhododendron, the colors of the new winter.
“So where you need to be? There’s nothing out here but Crossnore, and it’s not much of a place to wander around in.”
“You got it.”
Aaron would have driven him three counties over if he had asked, anything to keep from heading home alone this early, home into the malaise. He could see his empty apartment; he kept it tidy, like a hotel room, to remind him it was not a home. When the place got messy, he began to imagine toys and clothing strewn about, and then he began to hear the silence, the voices gone.
They rode wordlessly, the truck just starting to put out some heat. Ayusso had his blue hands up by the vents, opening the fingers. His knuckles were twice the size they should be. They looked like they hurt.
Before they rolled up to the laundromat, Aaron stopped at the gas station and got them a case of tallboys and some other singles, the high-gravity stuff. He had all those stupid twenties and was nervous about the long day of nothing ahead of him, the work he had planned on doing like a vibration in his body, his chest. Ayusso came in and got a couple of Blow Pops, which Aaron thought strange, though he would recall it later, more tenderness, more and more of it from this fella. The meek inheriting the world. A world full of brightly painted horses needing tending, sheep needing feeding—was that Ayusso’s world? He wished it was. He stood behind Aaron, and Aaron motioned for him to put the candy up on the counter with the beer.
“You want something else? On me.”
Ayusso got some more beer and a few cured sausage and cheese sticks and put them up on the counter.
“Para los niños,” he said, showing the suckers to Aaron when they were back on the road.
“Nice. Yeah. Those are pretty good.”
At the laundromat, a young woman came up to Ayusso from the side, leaned her head into his shoulder gently, and held it there like she had been waiting a long time for him to come around again. The children, three of them, came right up and began digging in his pants pockets for the suckers.
“Has llegado temprano.”
Ayusso shrugged. The work, no good. He said this to both her and Aaron. He was trying to include Aaron, involve him in the question as though they had both been asked.
“Otro gringo loco.”
“¿Este maje?” She pointed to Aaron.
“No.” And then Ayusso waved his hand in the air, the way someone does who doesn’t want to get into it, is already tired of it. “This is Maria,” he said.
It occurred to Aaron that this morning, which had seemed eventful to him, a story at least, was not a story for Ayusso, was in fact on the level of the mundane. To be harassed by a white man worrying about sharing the work he has declined or failed to do. This was all quite run-of-the-mill.
Aaron put his hand out and smiled. She took it loosely and then went and returned to the pile of clothes she was folding. This woman was not the woman he had seen in the pictures. And so Ayusso was not her husband, or the father of these children, but they had found each other on this side of things.
She ran a laundry service of some kind. There were bags, last names written on gaff tape in black marker. Some were the names of local families, old families he had known and done work for. Blackburn. Price. Hodges. Aaron sat down looking at the tags, opened a beer, and watched the children talking and gesturing with their suckers bulging in the corners of their mouths, so big they looked as if they would burst through their cheeks, cheeks that had grown paler where the skin stretched.
Aaron handed Ayusso a beer, and they both made it through two of them quickly. Aaron could feel the low buzz building, the tightness in his chest easing. He felt alright here, watching the children crawl on their hands and knees across the shaking dryers.
“I fell off a truck,” Ayusso said, raising the cast, a slow semaphore.
“It happens to all of us,” Aaron said. The beer made his tongue feel malleable. “Trees will get you one way or another, especially that first season. Last year I got my foot crushed under the Bobcat, couldn’t walk for two weeks.”
“Bob Cat?” Ayusso asked.
“Tractor,” Aaron said.
“No no no,” Ayusso said. “No no.” He was shaking his head, and making a pained look, laughing now. Jesus, Aaron thought, they were both laughing.
“I lost a daughter,” Aaron said suddenly, without meaning to. Just four words. He thought he would never accomplish them. Yet here, in this place, they slid out of him like a clip from a gun. He did not feel self-pity or sadness, nor did he expect pity. He felt as though he had simply said his name.
“An accident?” Ayusso asked.
Ayusso nodded. As if to say, Yes, it is true. I see it.
When they finished the beer, it was certain something between them, within them, should be kept going, the thing they had made together of their strange day.
“Okay,” Ayusso said, brushing his pant leg off with his good hand, as though it were dusty. “Let’s take these kids so Maria is happy with me, you know?” He winked and shot that bright smile of his.
Ayusso picked up the smallest boy and headed for the door, the boy looking back at his siblings, brushing hair from his face. The little girl eyed Aaron suspiciously and held her brother’s hand as they followed Ayusso out onto the sidewalk.
Across the street was the Red Rooster, a bar with some games and good burgers. Aaron followed the four of them into the median of the road. It was odd, he thought then, standing in the middle of the road with these new friends. The passing drivers gave them looks, as if to say, How did you come to be here, in the middle of this road today? He was a little drunk, and when they all scurried across during a break in the traffic toward the Red Rooster, he felt good about it, and the heat inside the building was like an embrace, and the lights were dim, and there were tap handles and a jukebox, and peace was the dream’s name, Peace, peace, to him who is far off, thought Aaron, something he had read from who, Levinas? Back in the day when he still read books, that old self cropping up now and again.
Skee-Ball and pinball machines were in one corner, and the children were already there waiting by the change machine as though they couldn’t hold it any longer, their furious need to make the machines hum and chime and light up. Aaron put one of his twenties in the change machine and stepped back as the shower of coins came down and the little hands plunged like claws into the basin at the bottom. They did not care to divide the coins evenly, there were so many. They each had heavy pockets, even the little one. And the machines, all of them at once, came to life.
Aaron and Ayusso sat at the bar and ordered their beers and watched as the children focused on the Skee-Ball, the oldest boy, with his long jean shorts and stub legs, making practice rolls before letting the balls fly up the ramp, a dark hollow sound inside the back of the game.
It would have been heaven, but a woman from Aaron’s old church came in just with her two kids—the kids looking older now, so much taller, it was hard to imagine that they had kept growing. His daughter locked in time, in amber, in sepia. Aaron knew the husband, an old friend of his, a very good man, caring, all that, was out parking the car and would be in soon. God, he thought. Jesus, he thought. He could not stand to think of them coming over to say hello, he could not do And how are you? and whatever else they would say to step around the big hole, the loss between them.
And then it happened: Ayusso nudged Aaron, who had pulled the bill of his ball cap down and was pretending to watch the basketball game on the screens behind the bar.
“They want us for the game,” he said.
It was a basketball game. The girl was already taking Aaron’s hand.
“Juegue conmigo,” she said.
Aaron turned to follow when the woman came over, had already spotted him. She waved on her way over, and Aaron waved back with a look he hoped said, Yeah, hey, good to see ya. Take care.
“Okay,” Ayusso said, lifting the boy up before the basketball machine, pressing him against it so he could reach the balls. The girl stood before the machine waiting to be lifted, her arms out to her sides like a dancer, looking at Aaron.
Then the woman appeared beside him.
“Aaron,” she said, “it’s good to see you. Really good.” She said it real sweet.
“How are y’all?” said Aaron.
“We’re fine,” she said. Fine. That was her being polite. “Kids are in school now. So that’s nice.” She laughed and seemed suddenly ashamed to have said what she did. She was blushing. This is why you shouldn’t have come over here, Aaron thought. Oh God, he thought.
“Who are these guys?” She looked at the kids, also Ayusso.
“Friends,” said Aaron.
“Okay. So good to see you. We’ll be just over here.”
Aaron lifted up the little girl from under the arms. Put out his knee so she could sit on it as she leaned over for the balls. The boy shouted, “¡Ya vamos! ¡Ya vamos!,” and the balls came rolling down, the smell of dust and rubber, smell of childhood dodgeball games and four square.
Aaron held the girl around the waist as she went for it, throwing the balls up granny-style. Making a few. The children laughed and screamed to one another in a language he did not know, racing against the clock, the goals moving back and forth. Her hair smelled oily and sweet. The lights from the machine laid a blue and red radiance on their bodies. If his friends had looked up then, they would have seen him there, raising up the girl, not letting her fall, the lights on him glowing, a man standing in a fire, not being burned.
Nathan Jordan Poole is the author of two books of fiction: Father Brother Keeper, a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the Mary McCarthy Prize, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the Quarterly West Novella Contest. He is a recipient of the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship at Seattle Pacific University, a Joan Beebe Fellowship at Warren Wilson College, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at Sewanee School of Letters, and a North Carolina Artist Fellowship. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Blue Ridge, South Carolina.