Hickory and Joey Bags twitched in their lawn chairs, coming back to life. They’d been zonked on Canadian Ghost for twenty, thirty minutes, long enough that I was starting to get nervous. Nervous and impatient.
We were sitting behind Hickory’s trailer with our feet in the kiddie pool. The beer was running low, and glimpses of morning sun flashed through the trees. It was early, but I could already feel the air warming into another brutal July day, and there was one full cord of seasoned, split wood behind Teddy Whitfield’s place that needed moving. The sooner Hickory woke up to lend me his truck, the better. One cord meant an easy few hundred bucks this time of year, the tourists needing logs for their campfires. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to replace my mother’s Chrysler, but it wouldn’t be nothing, either. At least she’d know I was trying. I’d recently come to suspect the full extent of her disappointment. I suppose you could say I was eager to set things straight.
I kicked Hickory’s chair. He twitched again, finally opened his eyes. “Brinly?” His voiced cracked.
“You got it,” I said. “Still here.”
He scratched his beard and squinted, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. Joey Bags was still out, trembling like a sleeping dog.
Canadian Ghost, this new synthetic, was supposed to do some trippy, neural coupling proprioception thing, meaning whoever smoked from the same batch would be able to pick up on each other’s thoughts. “Minor-league telepathy,” Joey Bags called it. He’d brought it back from his monthly run across the border to Quebec. I was skeptical, but curious. Joey Bags had a way of getting his hands on some seriously weird shit. But he and Hickory wouldn’t share. They were still sore at me for using up all the month’s minutes and text messages. The three of us had gone in on a family plan to save money. “And we did save money,” I pointed out, but they didn’t care, because now our phones were useless till August. So they smoked the Ghost without me to get even. It seemed only to knock them out, but still, it would’ve been fun to try.
Hickory rubbed his eyes. “What are you doing here, Brinly? What do you want?”
I fished the last beer from the kiddie pool and asked with great patience, as I had earlier, after walking across town from my mother’s to find Hickory and Joey Bags behind Hickory’s trailer. They’d been hanging out all night, drinking, playing music, hadn’t slept, had meant to call me—had wanted to call me—but, “well—” Hickory had made a phone out of his thumb and pinky finger, held it to his face and shrugged.
“So Brinly wants my truck.” Hickory was savoring the words. “What for?”
“What kinda chores?”
“Yeah, what kinda chores?” Joey Bags said, springing up, all at once awake. He brushed back his dreadlocks and smoothed his T-shirt and crossed his legs at the knee. A flip-flop dangled from his big toe.
“Kind of chores that need doing,” I said. “Trust me, Hick. I’ll bring it back with a full tank.”
He and Joey Bags shared a look. I didn’t need any neural coupling to know what they were thinking. The three of us went way back.
I snapped the tab off my beer, flicked it into the kiddie pool. “Man, can I use your truck or not?”
Hickory kicked his feet out of the water and stood, wobbling a moment to find his bearings. “Not. I can’t be late for work. It’s my first day.” He crossed the backyard to his trailer. The screen door slammed shut.
I watched Joey Bags roll a cigarette and stick it behind his ear. Then it hit me. “Hick got a job? How’d he convince someone to hire him?”
Joey Bags tilted his face to the sky. The sun had just broken the tree line. He chewed thoughtfully on one of his dreads. “How does anyone?”
Hickory stepped back outside wearing khaki shorts, a brown Dunkin’
Donuts shirt and an orange ball cap. His socks matched; his shoes were tied. I hardly recognized him. Pills, powders, you name it, in the years since high school Hickory had taken on so many demons that I couldn’t always recall what he’d been like before. How he’d looked when we were kids, for instance, flipping over driftwood logs to hunt for crabs. All of us had caused trouble for our families, but Hickory had torn his to pieces. They were just waiting for him to get arrested for real and find some help. His little sister Annie blamed us. Annie was the worst. Joey Bags and I had run into her the week before, outside the Variety Store. We were having a smoke, keeping an eye out for teenagers who’d pay us to buy them beer, when she pulled up in her Dodge. She told us to do everyone a favor and jump off a bridge, drown ourselves in the Penobscot. She said that my brother, Kayton, would’ve been ashamed. “Pathetic,” she said. “Six years out of high school and you’re still acting like the world forgot it owes you something.” That really stuck with me. I remember thinking it was such a perfect description of Joey Bags. Later I recognized that she’d meant us both.
Hickory slapped the hood of his truck. “Let’s go. I’ll drive you guys—”
Before he could finish, Joey Bags was already up and out of his chair, saying great, he had some business to attend to. He peeled off his T-shirt, dunked it in the kiddie pool, wrapped it around his head like a turban, and hopped into Hickory’s truck.
I waved them off. “I’ll kick it poolside.”
I needed time to chew things over, reconfigure my plan to get at Whitfield’s woodpile, and without getting caught. The last thing I wanted was another runaround with the police. I’d been through that rigmarole too many times now, always for harmless, petty stuff—trespassing, disorderly, open container, possession, operating an unregistered vehicle without a license—but that minor stuff starts adding up. A little bad luck, too many wrong places at too many wrong times, and one day you’re suddenly a guy with a record who can’t catch a break. The latest—“disturbing the peace,” or, put differently, “singing enthusiastically downtown after the bars closed”—got me three months’ probation and twenty hours’ community service. I was fine with that—picking up cans on the side of Route 1 in an orange vest was better than jail—but then the judge started in on my mother, who was sitting in the back of the courtroom. He lectured her to stop enabling me and so on until I couldn’t not stick up for her, just like I knew Kayton would’ve done. The only difference was that Kayton would’ve known how to go about it diplomatically, without earning himself an extra month probation and another ten hours picking up cans.
“Suit yourself,” Hickory said, and locked his front door. He and Joey Bags drove off. The throb of the truck’s engine spiked as it turned onto the North Road, then faded.
I checked the back door, out of curiosity. Windows too. Hickory had locked his trailer up tight. I rummaged around the bushes for the beers I’d stashed while he and Joey Bags were zonked. The cans were sweating, still cool. I chugged one to lighten my load, tossed the empty in the kiddie pool, and headed for the tracks.
The North Road was best to avoid in the summer, especially when traveling by foot. It was the most direct route from Hickory’s to town, but because it hugged the coast, there was the traffic to consider, all the tourists fighting for parking spots by the beaches, the exhaust, the hot pavement, the cops. I preferred the tracks. They curved through the woods where it was quiet, just my footsteps on the loose gravel, the dry whine of the cicadas. Tall birches and pines lined the embankment, good for morning and afternoon shade. If something needed to be thought over, the tracks were a better place than most. I’d walked them plenty. Deer and wild turkeys sometimes did too. A few times I’d come across a moose. Once, a black bear, and although you’re supposed to clap and yell to scare bears off, this was the spring after Kayton fell through the ice, when I’d developed a particular devotion to doing the opposite of what I was supposed to. Also, I’d never heard of a bear sighting so close to the coast. Maybe a hundred years ago, but not anymore with all the new development, so I guess I wanted to appreciate the weirdness of the moment. I just stared that bear in the eyes, wondering if he was sick or bored or lost or what, and he went on staring right back. For all I knew, he was wondering the same about me.
I downed Hickory’s beers one after another, landing my steps on the wooden ties. I knew I should’ve been saving the empties to redeem at the Variety Store, and I hated to litter, but the urge to bend the cans like horseshoes over the rails was too great. Ever since we were kids, the itch to leave stuff on the tracks to be flattened and smashed and cut in two by the trains was one that needed scratching. Pennies, bottle caps, fluorescent tube lights. Joey Bags, when we were in middle school, left a dead skunk. Tracks reeked for days.
I stopped to pee, marking a railroad tie with my initials. Up ahead the tracks cut sharply to the right. They would straighten out for a stretch after that, curve left, cross a tidal creek, then arrive in town. I knew the route well. What I didn’t know was how to move a full cord of wood without Hickory’s truck. My chest tightened a little at the thought of losing out on what I’d assumed to be easy money. I knew that tightness. Unchecked, it would make me either give up completely or do something stupid. If I wanted to pay my mother back and keep things from becoming worse than they already were, I had to keep a level head. But I didn’t have forever. Last time I’d scoped out Whitfield’s, there was a realty sign at the foot of the driveway. I yanked it out of the ground and chucked it into the woods, but it was only a temporary solution. Whitfield’s was a pretty piece of property; any day now it would be crawling with tourists looking for a summer home.
I zipped my fly, stretched, and yawned. I hadn’t slept well the night before. Angus, my mother’s new boyfriend, had locked me out of the house again. I’d slept on the porch. Mosquitoes were awful. Angus told me to come back once I could reimburse my mother in full. Angus didn’t like me. I wasn’t a big fan of him either. I could tolerate Joey Bags and Hickory busting my balls, but Angus was doing one worse: trying to convince my mother to cut me off. Of course I was going to replace her car. Whitfield’s woodpile was my big first step. I just needed to close my eyes. A little rest, then I’d be able to think straight.
I scrambled up the embankment, found a flat rock overlooking the tracks, and stretched out. The sun was more or less overhead when I woke to the smell of cigarette smoke.
I thought at first that I’d been dreaming, my mind playing nicotine tricks—I’d recently quit to save money—but then I heard the clatter of footsteps on railroad gravel. I crawled to the lip of the rock. There, walking the tracks, was Russell Kenney.
Russell Kenney, last I’d heard, had enlisted out of high school. He’d bulked up in the years since, exchanged ten or twenty pounds of baby fat for muscles that looked like sharp cuts of beef. He wore a gray T-shirt tucked into fatigues, and big shit-kicking boots. His head was shaved down to a fuzz. He’d been
Kayton’s year, a freshman when I was a senior. We crossed paths between classes, but never had reason to be much closer than that. When I thought of Russell, I remembered a quiet, friendly kid. Maybe that was why I felt so unusually happy to see him again.
I got ready to jump down and shout hello, but right then he stopped, took a long drag from his cigarette, and exhaled in one loud sigh, almost like a moan. The sound was unnatural, and made me pause. I watched him stare intently into the woods, as if he’d heard an animal, but there was nothing, just trees and more trees.
The only thing more embarrassing than witnessing another guy having a moment like that to himself is to let it go on and risk getting caught in the act. So I let out a loud Tarzan yell, beat my chest and leapt down to the gravel.
Russell responded by dropping his cigarette and pulling a gun from his
waistband. A revolver, polished chrome, handsome but absurdly big, like
something out of a Western.
“Russ, chill—it’s me, Brinly!”
I raised my hands, thinking for a moment that I’d made a huge mistake, that this wasn’t Russell Kenney. His voice was deeper than I recalled. But then something relaxed in him.
“Brinly? Brinly Croy?” He tilted the gun and flicked his wrist, popping out the cylinder. A fat brass round fell into his palm. He pocketed it, spun the cylinder, and flicked his wrist again, neatly snapping the cylinder back into place. The revolver went under his belt at the small of his back. Then he bent to pluck his cigarette from the gravel and strode over, smiling warmly, hand extended. For all he’d changed, Russell Kenney was just as friendly as I’d remembered.
We sat on a rail, catching up, Russell’s pack of cigarettes between us. I’d smoked one and my hands were still trembling, so I helped myself to a second. I asked how the Army had been treating him, and he told me he wasn’t in the Army but the Air Force Reserves. They’d sent him to Afghanistan. Three tours. He’d spent all his R&R overseas. He told me about traveling Germany, seeing the sights. This was his first time home in three years.
“Back-to-back tours?” I asked.
“Back-to-back-to-back. Gearing up for a fourth.”
“Why would you keep signing up for a thing like that?” I really did want to know. “Good money?”
“But not bad money.”
He coughed into his hand. “Sure. Better than no money.”
I watched the smoke from my cigarette spiral into the sky. “Get shot
“Any folks die?”
He cracked his knuckles. “Course folks died. It’s war.”
“I thought the war was done with.”
“You’re thinking Iraq.”
“Did we win that one?”
He tossed a chunk of railroad gravel in the air and tried to peg it with a second chunk. It went wide. “You sure ask a hell of a lot of questions, Brinly. You writing a book?”
I laughed him off like I would Hickory or Joey Bags. We talked some more. Once it felt as though we’d caught up, I asked if he had a truck I could borrow.
“Used to. My brother sold it.” He ashed his cigarette on the rail with a delicacy I found myself imitating. Then he asked about Kayton.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He honestly had no idea.
I couldn’t blame him for not knowing; bad things happen all the time. “Orono,” I said, which would’ve been the truth. “Forest ecology. Graduates next year.”
Russell nodded, as though he’d expected no less. You never felt shy assuming Kayton’d do smart things; you could say so and know he wouldn’t let you down.
Russell and I sat and smoked. I asked if I could shoot his gun. He ignored me, or pretended not to hear. He threw more gravel in the air.
“I’ll tell you, Brinly, I did some shooting, but mostly it was runway construction. Construction, demolition. Learned my way around all kinds of explosives. Moved some wicked earth. All said and done, boredom’s likelier to kill you overseas than bad guys. Spent more time with a pickax in my hands than anything.”
He displayed his palms, calloused and rough. Angus was always doing this, showing off his hands, comparing them to mine. He made being a logger sound as if he were Paul Bunyan, taming the Maine wilderness with nothing but a handsaw and an axe, when in fact all he did was sit on his ass in the air-conditioned cab of a diesel-powered John Deere skidder. Same as how he’d set a bucket of stale donuts in the woods for bait, climb into a tree blind with his AR-15, and call it hunting. Kayton would’ve had plenty to say about Angus.
“What about you, Brinly?” Russell asked. “What’ve you been up to?”
I sucked up a long string of spit that I’d been dangling between my knees. “Aw, man, come on.” But then I realized he was asking sincerely, as if I actually had something to tell him. So I crushed out my cigarette and said, “Got engaged last spring to a girl from Augusta,” starting with something believable, then adding, for flourish, “Augusta by way of Virginia.”
“Southern girl.” Russell grunted, as though he couldn’t agree more.
“That’s right. Sweet as a pea.” I was on a roll. “Probably we’ll stay in Waldo County, so I can keep on with the fire department. Did I mention I was doing that, volunteering? And coaching Little League, too. Plus I’m—”
Russell cut me off. “What’s your record?”
“Your team. What’s your record?”
I whipped a chunk of gravel sidearm into the woods. “Honestly, Russ, we’re in the middle of a pretty big losing streak. But I tell them, ’Fellas, don’t get so down on yourselves— there’s always the next game.’ And you know what? Those kids have heart.”
“That’s great,” Russell said. “Really, Brinly, it’s really, really great.”
His third really came off a little overenthusiastic. I couldn’t tell if he actually believed me or if he just wanted to, out of pity. I tried to appreciate it either way; it felt nice to let my mind wander. At the same time, it wasn’t right that such an ordinary, pleasant life should require such imagination. I felt again the kick of my mother’s disappointment, and in that moment I had the terrible thought that if I didn’t set things straight with her soon, nothing good would ever come to either of us.
Russell asked me something else, but I flipped it back on him. I was done talking about my life, real or imagined. “I’m thankful guys like you are out there, Russ. Stick around next time you make it home, OK?” I slapped him hard on the back.
He winced, dug into his pocket, and held up a pill bottle. Sunshine glowed through the orange like light through stained glass. He shook out two fat white Pez pieces: Percocet, at a glance.
There’d been a period after Kayton in which I became friendly with Percocet and its many relatives. Unlike Hickory and Joey Bags, I’d made a clean break, at least from the worst of it (those two had never even attempted, and with them gobbling down everything, I’d always believed I deserved more credit for my self-control). But the way my plans were jackknifing today, I granted myself a one-time exemption.
“Allergies?” I asked.
Russell tossed one into his mouth, swallowed. “Percocet. Pain meds.” He massaged the back of his neck. “Backhoe shovel knocked me ass over teakettle.”
I rubbed my knee. “Don’t I know it. Foul ball. Clipped me at batting practice last week. Couldn’t walk for days. Doc wrote me a prescription. Which of course I lost.” I laughed for effect.
Russell dropped a pill into my hand.
I casually inspected the tablet while my heart wept and cursed with joy.
That old buttery warmth bloomed forth. Russell and I sat on the tracks, staring into the woods, smoking and yakking. Kayton and I used to do the same thing, discussing whatever randomness popped into our heads. Russell didn’t have half as much to say as Kayton, but he was willing to hear me out and chime in, which was more than I could expect from Hickory or Joey Bags. I wondered out loud whether mosquitoes ever die of old age, mosquitoes who avoid getting swatted, or caught in spider webs, or starved from lack of blood, mosquitoes who simply live out their happy mosquito lives from beginning to end. Russell figured at least half of all mosquitoes probably did, on account of there being so many. He used his thumbnail to crack a Percocet in two for us to split. We had another cigarette each, and then I got onto the subject of patron saints. It suddenly struck me as curious that there exist patron saints for musicians and waitresses, ice skaters and undertakers, lumberjacks and forest rangers, for practically everything under the sun, yet not a patron saint for the patron saints themselves. Who were they supposed to pray to? Who the hell was looking after them?
Russell scratched his chin. “Maybe there is someone, only she doesn’t run around advertising herself.”
“What makes you so sure it’s a she?”
Russell looked at me like I was an idiot, and we laughed together.
We might’ve gone back and forth like that all day, but then came a whistle through the trees. The rails hummed beneath us.
“Incoming,” I said.
Russell didn’t budge. He closed his eyes, crossed his legs at the ankles, and shifted his weight, as if settling into a La-Z-Boy. I laughed, nudging him. It was like trying to move a pallet of cinder blocks. The sounds of the train were growing louder.
“Russ,” I said, a little wildly, “quit messing around!”
I kicked his boots, hard. That brought him back. He heaved himself to his feet, and we scrambled down the embankment. Another whistle, then the train bombed around the bend and thundered by, a blur of rust and steel. I could’ve watched it forever. Russell bent to collect a handful of gravel, and clanged the chunks off the passing cars.
The train left behind a heavy mass of empty space and silence that gave me the fidgety feeling of wearing a suit in church: hot and stuffy, irritable and not sure why. I glared at Russell. He’d sidetracked my entire morning. I could hear Angus lecturing me on all the skills and trades I could’ve picked up since high school and had not. Angus treated life like one big never-ending project: either you were improving yourself, working toward a goal, or you were a waste of space. I decided then to get Russell drunk and hit him up for a loan.
“Let’s go, man.” I started off toward town.
I’d been so fixated on Whitfield’s woodpile that I’d overlooked the obvious solution right next to me this whole time. If Russell had been overseas too long to hear about Kayton, he wouldn’t know any better when it came to me.
He fell into step behind me, no questions asked. I took it as a good sign; he was hungry for orders.
The sharp scent of creosote, the clack of our boots on the gravel, the rill of the tidal creek beneath the railroad trestle. The walk was pleasant, but increasingly slow-going. Russell’s spasming back required attention from his bottle, and then my bum knee would need assistance as well. The sun was ruthless, forcing us into the shade of the woods every so often, where we had to smoke to keep away the mosquitoes.
One of these breaks, Russell insisted I take his last cigarette. With reluctance, I did. His generosity was killing me. I nearly reconsidered involving him in my financial troubles, and honestly might have decided against it if not for the spooling memory of the night I banged up my mother’s Chrysler, when I’d expected her to be happy—happy I wasn’t hurt, happy I’d been sober enough to know to refuse the Breathalyzer, happy I’d avoided jail. And maybe her being quiet was a kind of relieved happiness, but I didn’t see it like that right away. “Look on the bright side, Ma,” I said: “You’ve still got one son.”
Her eyes watered, and she asked Angus to stay the night.
I apologized straightaway. It’d been a dumb, drunk thing for me to say.
I promised to buy her a new car (a new used car), to which she replied, “That’s sweet of you, Brinly.”
But I was serious. I had a plan: I’d call every relative, even my father’s side, and explain that my mother’s car had totaled and without wheels she couldn’t make her shift at the Dinner Horn. I’d heard her say, on more than one occasion, that she’d invite the devil to dinner before ever again talking to my father’s side of the family. So I’d call them for her; of course they’d pitch in. But as I burned through all our family-plan minutes for the month of July, and then all our texts, I found out my mother had already called every cousin, aunt, and uncle. Not to ask them for money, but to warn them against lending money to me. Even my father. She’d even called him.
Angus could go on all he wanted about how I needed to cut my hair and shave and quit polluting my body and get a job. This thing with my relatives, on the other hand, really shook me. My mother had seen something in me, and long before I crashed her car.
I made my pitch when we reached the Route 41 crossing. “Estimating by the position of the sun, Russ, I’d say JP’s is now open for business.” I leaned an elbow on his shoulder. “Thirsty?”
“If you’re buying I am.”
“Wish I could. I’m broke.”
I didn’t believe it. “Three tours for Uncle Sam and you come home with empty pockets?”
“I came home with plenty in my pockets. Then I spent it.”
He untucked his T-shirt to hide his fancy revolver. A gun like that couldn’t be cheap, I knew, but still. “I thought you just got back last week?”
“That’s right. I’ve been unwinding.”
I stood deflated at the sandy shoulder of the road and leered into the glint of cars zipping by, the tourists from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut. They trawled our coast every summer, hopping from antique shop to saltwater taffy store to clam shack, searching for whatever it was our little town could give them that their ordinary lives could not. I caught the glimmer of their BMW whites and Escalade blacks, and I could practically catch the scent of money as it passed me by—unlike Whitfield’s woodpile, stacked neatly behind the garage, still waiting patiently for me to cart it away.
I kneaded Russell’s shoulders. “You’re a strong SOB, aren’t you?”
He stared ahead. The seagrass played against the cuffs of his fatigues. A car drove by, tires hissing on the pavement.
“Russ, you OK?”
He turned slowly, his eyes glassy. I remembered the feeling, fresh to the world of opiates, everything peaceful cobweb and fog.
“Right,” he said. “I suppose I am.”
A parked car sat at the top of Whitfield’s driveway. We hung back in the woods, slaughtering mosquitoes, waiting for whoever was inside the house to leave. Russell was confused.
“It’s simple,” I said. “We sell the wood to Ernie at the Variety Store, then we split the profits fifty-fifty, minus my finder’s fee.”
“What about Whitfield? What’s he want?”
“Whitfield doesn’t want anything. He’s dead.”
Russell looked at me, unblinking. He slapped a mosquito on his neck.
“Seriously, Russ? I don’t know, Whitfield owed me, OK? He said I could have the wood if he kicked the bucket before he paid me back. It’s all in the will. How’s that? He’s dead. What’s it matter? We’re not hurting anyone.”
Russell glanced at the house. He couldn’t let it go. “If it’s all in the will, why are we hiding?”
“Now who’s writing a book?”
A woman appeared in the doorway. We grew quiet. She stepped outside, looked back at the house, scribbled some notes on a clipboard. An appraiser or a realtor. When she drove away, we got to work.
The wheelbarrow was still in the garage. I’d made note of it during my previous visit, after coming across Whitfield’s obituary in the Republican Journal. I told Russell to roll it around back. Just to leave no stone unturned, I checked the front door, the back door, the basement bulkhead, the windows. All locked. It would’ve been a simple break-in, but that was one line I didn’t want to cross, the home of a dead man. Plus, I’d already peered through the windows, done an appraisal of my own. Not much worth taking.
Russell hollered for me. He’d found a second wheelbarrow behind a
gardening shed. I ran around to join him at the woodpile. We peeled off the tarp. The sweet smell of mulch and chainsaw grease bellowed out, and there it sat: one beautiful, sturdy row, waist-high, stretching across the length of the back of the garage.
We started picking away, log by log, flinging them into our wheelbarrows, working steadily and quietly. The logs made hollow clok sounds as they landed on one another. The wheelbarrows creaked, settling. I began attempting neat, no-look, behind-the-back tosses, and got a little carried away. One log went wide just as Russell bent over. Unfortunate timing.
He stood, puzzled. Then his wound opened. He brought a hand to his scalp, examined the blood, and fainted.
“Russ!” I rolled him onto his back and slapped his face like they do on TV. When he wouldn’t wake up, I grabbed my phone to call Hickory, then remembered we were out of minutes, and anyway, Hickory was stuck behind a Dunkin’ Donuts counter, useless.
I examined his injury. It wasn’t so bad, a flap of skin no bigger than a nickel. I peeled off my T-shirt, soaked it under a spigot, and pressed it to his head to slow the bleeding. After a minute or two, I wet my shirt again and wrung it over him. Water ran pink down his temples and face. He sputtered, blinked, propped himself up.
“Man, you just faded. Lucky I was here.”
“That’ll happen,” he said. He wasn’t surprised; low blood pressure ran in his family.
He drank from the spigot, washed himself best he could. I guess he was too loaded on pills to piece together exactly what had happened, and I didn’t see what could be gained in reminding him.
We returned to the job. Soon our wheelbarrows were full. The bad news was that the dent we’d made wasn’t so inspiring. The Variety Store was a good half mile away; by my calculation it would take three or four trips to move the full cord.
Russell must’ve read the expression on my face. “Best not think about it,” he said, and lifted the handles of his wheelbarrow.
We rolled our loads down the driveway and onto the road. I had to stop and rest every few steps. The heat was stifling, even in the shade. I grew lightheaded, dizzy. Sweat stung my eyes. I’d eaten nothing but beer and pills all day. My wheelbarrow was overloaded, difficult to balance, especially when I needed to slap a mosquito, or when we plowed into the woods to hide from cars, which I’d insisted we do as a precaution. I looked back over my shoulder. The realty sign they’d replaced at the foot of Whitfield’s driveway was still in sight.
Russell waited for me to catch up. His T-shirt was soaked around the pits, but otherwise he looked unfazed. He shook another Percocet from his bottle—the last, judging by the pitch of the rattle—and dropped it into my cupped hands. I held it on my tongue, then swallowed it dry.
“Come on, Brinly, come on, Brinly,” he chanted. His eyes were wide and as glazed as honeyed hams. “I’m not letting you quit, bro. Return with honor.”
In my weakened, troubled state, I was sure Russell had entered my mind. When he put his thick hands on my shoulders and we locked eyes, nobody could’ve have convinced me otherwise. I knew that he knew. He knew how badly I needed this money, not how folks usually need money, but in a specific, desperate way that mattered so much more. He knew I couldn’t return to my mother till I’d set things straight. He knew about Kayton, and the years since Kayton, and how no amount of hard, honest labor or good intentions could turn back that clock. He knew I was ready to start figuring out ways to rise to the challenge of living right. And he knew that I knew he knew. It was like we’d smoked from the same batch of Canadian Ghost. We looked at each other, and I felt my eyes widen and glisten like his. Then he glanced over my shoulder, and his eyes grew wider.
There wasn’t time to ditch the wheelbarrows. Russell hurdled over a stone wall. I dragged myself behind a tree. The downshifting of gears, the squeal of brakes. If it was the cops, they’d see the wheelbarrows, the wood, and we’d have to run.
I poked my head around the tree. It wasn’t the cops. It was Hickory.
I crashed out of the woods, hollering, waving. The brake lights flashed red and then the holy-heaven-white of the reverse lights. The engine whined, backing up. The emergency brake cranked. The door opened. Helixes of smoke curled out. Hickory, wearing his Dunkin’ Donuts uniform, stepped from his truck.
I threw my arms around him and explained everything in one long breath: why I was soaked through in sweat, my T-shirt stained in swirls of rusty brown, why Russell Kenney—remember him, Hick?—was lumbering out of the woods, his T-shirt ruined with blood, the wheelbarrows, the wood, and so on.
Hickory nodded and picked at his shirt collar, as though he regularly
encountered such situations while driving the back roads. I thought at first that he was doing what Angus did, letting me list everything I’d done over the course of a day in order to make me feel shitty for messing around while he’d been working. But then—just as I was in fact starting to feel shitty—Hickory said, “I’ve been driving around forever looking for everybody. You guys need a hand or what?” and everything became clear. I recognized his look as one of my own: poor Hick was only a little stoned, and feeling left out.
Ernie, who owned the Variety Store, offered fifty bucks for the truckload. He said he knew the wood was stolen. The three of us tried to act like we’d been wrongly accused, but I suppose we didn’t put enough heart into it. Then Ernie looked around and said, “Sixty if you unload it on the double.”
He threw in a sixer of High Life as a bonus for a job well done. I cracked open three and passed them around as Hickory steered us onto the road.
“Cheers,” I said, and drained my can in one long go, trying to keep down the image of Ernie selling Whitfield’s wood to the tourists at five dollars per shrink-wrapped bundle. He’d make a killing. I rested the back of my head against the seat and closed my eyes, tuning out Hickory and Russell, who were talking earnestly about professional golf. By the time we pulled into the gravel lot behind JP’s, I’d committed to putting a positive spin on things. Twenty bucks was better than zero bucks. Rather than a few big risky steps toward paying my mother back, I’d make lots of little steps. Lots of little steps would be more manageable, safer, keep me out of trouble. Tonight, for instance, I’d buy one drink to relax, then save the rest of my money. One step at a time.
We grabbed three stools. Hickory smoothed his twenty-dollar bill on the bar, the same way they pay out at the casino in Bangor. He bowed his head and did a take on his usual prayer.
“Lord bless Mom, Pop, Annie, Brinly and Brinly’s family, Kayton, Russell and Russell’s family, JP and JP’s family.”
His voice ebbed and warbled along with Springsteen’s from the jukebox. He held up three fingers, and like a dream, JP appeared. Cold beers, whiskeys, a basket of fries. I picked up the next round. Russell got the one after. Minutes and hours melted together. The jukebox wouldn’t quit, as though it were feeding itself.
At some point a young couple wandered in. Pastel pants, polo shirts, boat shoes: they were in the wrong place. Not to seem rude, I guess, they sat down anyway, putting a few empty stools between themselves and us. Beer for him, cosmo for her. JP struggled with that—a couple ice cubes, vodka nearly to the rim, a squeeze of lime, a jigger of cranberry juice like a splash of blood. The woman took one sip, smiled flatly. She had a rock on her finger the size of a gumdrop. Yet I was so committed to remaining positive that I did not once think of cutting off her finger, nor did I contemplate the many obvious ways her diamond could change my life. And when the man caught me eyeing his woman, did I tell him to fuck off? I did not. Happy thoughts. Instead, I clapped Russell on the shoulder and shouted down the bar: “Russ here just got back from Iraq. Third tour, gearing up for his fourth.”
The man raised his beer. “We appreciate your service. Next round’s on us.”
Russell jabbed a thumb at Hickory and me. “What about my pals? They just enlisted.”
The man took in Russell’s slurring words, our bloody shirts, my beard, Hickory’s shaggy hair. He nodded to JP. “Whatever these fellas are drinking.” He quickly paid, shook Russell’s hand, and he and the woman left.
JP brought us our drinks. Russell snickered to himself.
Hickory clinked his bottle against mine. “Goddamn! Our rewards keep multiplying. This is better than the Bible, man—wine into more wine.”
I cupped my hands around my beer, cooling them. My palms were hot and raw from handling the wood. Scraps of bark clung to my pants. My back and arms ached. Walking over all that sharp railroad gravel had left my feet sore. Wasn’t this what Angus was always talking about—the virtues of a hard day’s work? I tried to feel good about it. I tried to feel grateful like Hickory, or slaphappy like Russell. But when I saw the young couple’s unfinished drinks sweating on the bar, it brought me back to the happy life I’d spun for Russell—coaching Little League, volunteering for the fire department, returning home to my sweet-as-a-pea Southern wife. I thought of Kayton studying. I wondered how my mother’s life would’ve been without Katyon’s accident. Without me. I saw all the possibilities for everyone stretch out in every direction. The hardest to believe in was the one looking back at me in the mirror behind the bar.
Then Joey Bags appeared. His sandals flopped loudly as he joined us at the bar. He did a double take. “Russell Kenney?”
Russell grinned sleepily. I put him one beer from conking out.
Joey Bags squeezed Russell’s bicep. “Kid! You’re freaking huge!”
Russell gave a thumbs-up, leaned his head against my shoulder, closed
“Russell Kenney, wow.” Joey Bags stared at Russell as if he were trying to remember something important. Then he said, “Someone buy me a beer. I come bearing good news.”
I reached into my pocket, but only out of show. I’d spent all my twenty
dollars, just as I’d known I would the moment I told myself I wouldn’t.
Hickory slid his beer over. Joey Bags took a swig, smacked his lips, then explained how he’d swapped a bag of Canadian Ghost to a Penobscot Indian for a map to a secret matsutake patch. He slapped the map on the bar. It was drawn on the back of an envelope in shaky red ink.
Hickory held the map to the light. “A matsutake patch?”
Joey Bags draped his left arm over Hickory, his right arm over me. Russell stirred on my shoulder.
“Matsutakes, my dear amigos, are a very rare, very valuable wild mushroom. If this thing’s for real, we’ll be minor-league rich.”
He took the stool on the other side of Hickory, and they entered into one of their frantic, hushed conversations. I knew they’d let me in when all the details were ironed out. But I didn’t want anything to do with another plan.
I was sick of plans, sick of everything. I scratched the label off my beer, dropped the soggy bits into the bottle, swirled them around.
“Russ,” I said quietly, “you’re not looking so sturdy. Think you’ll be OK
“Don’t worry, Brinly,” he said without raising his head. “You can crash on my couch. Long as you need till you get back on your feet.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, but then I realized it probably was what I’d meant, at least in part.
“Hey,” I said in a low voice, just between the two of us, “what were you doing on the tracks this morning?”
I wasn’t dumb; Russell’s drawn-out moan, his gun with that one fat brass round, his dragging ass on the rails, train bearing down. My mind went back to the spring after Kayton died, my freak staring contest with the black bear. It ended when the bear turned and lumbered off into the woods. I’d won, but a small, bitter part of me felt let down.
“Well, I always told myself I’d walk the tracks if I made it home,” Russell said. “It’s real quiet out there. Takes you back, know what I’m saying?”
Nick Fuller Googins has published stories in Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Oxford American, NPR’s All Things Considered, and elsewhere. He received an MFA from Rutgers University-Newark and now lives in Venice Beach, where he works as a tutor and a mentor for We Are Not Numbers, helping to develop young Palestinian writers.