Highland Park, that's where the first had been, so long ago, in a narrow concrete tunnel that had been built to let residents walk under the railroad tracks safely, just up a ways from Avenue 45 by the Southwest Museum. He could still smell the stale air, the dusty rot of leaves and bugs, too dry for mold. There. Now it would come flooding up to meet him, right?
He waited. The breeze lifted slightly, rustling corn leaves together, jostling the branches of a line of cottonwoods up ahead a little. Nothing else.
Pushing a little harder, trying to bring something out to struggle with, he reconstructed the moment he'd looked down, wiping the spit-diluted blood from his lower lip, straightening and breathing hard from the mixture of strain and adrenaline. He remembered hoping the next person through there was a gang banger later that night, that the discovery didn't await the first kid trying to get to school the next morning. That was it; the rest of the night was a blur, and not because it was a traumatic event, but because almost two decades of blood washed out the obscure and mundane, leaving only tiny glints of memory like gold dust in a prospector's pan.
The battle, if there ever was to be one, wasn't for here and now. He kicked some gravel over the snake, a shallow grave indeed, but it blotted out the death nonetheless. He'd come out for a walk, and a walk was what he was going to get.
The skipper rock was tight in his palm, still warm to the touch. He looked up now, back over his shoulder at the farmhouse, squinting against the oncoming rays of the late afternoon sun. The place had seen better days, to be sure, but it had been on its way to much worse when he'd first visited. The realtor, who lived in a similar house on a similar hilltop, with its small court of outbuildings, had looked at him like he was crazy. Charlie, his name was, had expected that whoever bought the place would shove the buildings over, maybe keep the machine shed to park equipment overnight, but the house was a waste of good farmland, maybe fifteen, twenty bushels of soybeans a year.
"It's none of my business," he'd started, "but you certainly don't look like the farming type. What'd you do, win a lottery and decide you didn't want to leave any to the kids?"
He'd responded that he didn't have any kids. Wasn't good at picking up on jokes, never had been, not like his older brother, who never gave up trying to force some sort of sense of humor down his throat.
His grip tightened harder on the rock. He didn't really hate his brother. Surely spending most of two decades living with him on and off had shown that. It was more what his brother represented, he supposed. Milt was always cool with the lifestyle, liked working only a few hours a month, believing in how bad he was, never denying a good story when he heard it. It wasn't Milt's business at first, he'd followed Steve in, not the other way around, but he took to it, thrived on it, became one with it.
When he told his brother he was getting out, the big oaf had tried to talk him out of it, saying sure he could get another partner but not another brother, saying he was just going through a rough patch and should probably just take a year off, buy his stupid farmhouse, go sit out there and go loony by himself, come crawling back. He couldn't promise that he could take him back, now (of course he would, though), but he'd try.
The smooth stone was starting to become one with his hand. Despite his being bathed in sweat, the sun-baked warmth still felt good in his palm. Maybe he'd take it home, start a pile of nice, flat rocks. He'd have to see what it would take to push some dirt across that creek that ran through the field behind his house, the one he had no intention of cultivating. Make him a little pond, so that he could learn to skip rocks. He'd had a good arm, so that coach in high school had told him, but Milt had told him he was stupid if he thought he could make a career off of a kid's game. Milt had taken him down the 110 to a couple of Dodger games once he'd gotten his license and an old beater '73 Catalina with the funny-looking nose in its grille. He told him to look at the dugout, count the players sitting in there. Do the math. There's a quarter billion people in this country, and there's only 600 or so people who get paid a decent living to play baseball.
It was the only time Milt had used numbers to make an argument.
With a little movement of his nimble digits, he shifted the stone around so his pointer finger curled around the smooth edge (a snake, like a snake would), wound up, and let it go, submarine style. It caught air, spinning flat like a clay pigeon, seemingly sailing twice as far as a human could throw a rock. He watched it all the way, three or four seconds that seemed like forever, marveling in the power of the throw, until the projectile glided to the top of the corn, shearing off a couple of tassels before finally disappearing in a slashing whisper of leaves.
With no further thought about it, he continued his route, the gravel making soft, crushing sounds under the soles of his shoes, noisy. The feeling of being able to make so much noise as he walked lifted whatever passed for his soul.
The sun was still well established in the sky when he got back to the house, but it was most definitely on its way down. It had cooled somewhat, and though it had only been a week, Steve was already wise enough to know he'd either need to get inside or douse himself in bug spray. The trees that stood guard around the perimeter of the homestead cast long shadows, providing the shelter from the sun that the mosquitoes craved almost as much as blood. He'd start to hear that annoying whine, feel the tickles on random parts of exposed skin, and occasionally a faint yet sharp pain of the tiny needle entering his flesh. It had always made his skin crawl, and soon he started feeling phantom insects all over his body, little twinges that would disappear the second you looked at them.
He paused for a second in his yard, in a patch of oblique sunlight that fell on a thin layer of gravel, hands behind his head, a medium-height, lean silhouette visible from the road. Looking from left to right he surveyed his outbuildings, first a small wood toolshed with a doorknob on the door, white paint coming off the gray wood in long, jagged flakes. Around through weeds that were already starting to get too deep to the barn, which still held some iron implements and some decrepit horse tack that had been passed over in the auction that inevitably followed the previous owner's death. A corrugated metal shed, rust peeking through faint zinc coating, right by that; little more than a giant carport where equipment had once been parked.
There was a gap between the big shed and one final wooden building that might have served as a granary or chicken coop. It was here that he'd told his brother, as they were digging a rough hole in the fresh weeds, that he was hopping off the train. Done. No, he didn't need a break, didn't need a vacation, wasn't cracking up, he was just done. He tried to replay the argument in his head; it wouldn't come. He didn't fear it; it was just . . . he couldn't get his mind to be interested in it. Why do I really need to deal with it? he thought.
He stood for another moment, hoping something inside would answer, but all he had was the heavy afternoon air, the whirring of insects, clicking and bleating call of birds, slightest whisper of a breeze.
Turning away, for there was nothing more for him out here, he decided to retreat inside, away from the mosquitoes that were starting to make cautious forays into his patch of fading light. Four wooden steps led up to the back door entrance into the kitchen. Not that there was anything wrong with using the front door; there it was, facing the road, actually a little closer to him when he had approached near the end of his walk. But it just didn't seem like the right way to enter the house. That's where the guests entered, was through the front door. This was his house. Like the man who'd last owned it, who had died in an old-folks home while the son who had last visited three months before was still at 30,000 feet. Only those intimate with the house came and went through the back door.
He pulled on the frail screen door and turned the knob inside. The rest of the back door shuddered to his push, creaking loudly on black metal hinges, the small pane of glass wiggling around in its loose frame. How many times had that old farmer, and his father and probably grandfather before him, ascended those same steps, pushed that same door? Where did they find joy in life, or were theirs as bereft of such things as his? At least they didn't know death.
That wasn't true, he was learning; they did know death, though certainly not on the same terms as he did. Through the loss of an old cow when the temperature and humidity got unbearable. By looking across a bludgeoned, flattened field of corn laid over by a microburst or shredded to jagged stalks by a hail storm. By hearing the coyotes through an open window on a summer night, howling as a group before falling on hapless prey. But it was all God's death; it came because it had to, not because a man willed it then made it so, or, more intimately to him, because a man willed it but lacked the nerve to make it so himself.
But then, maybe even that fallback position wasn't as accurate as he'd hoped. Maybe the old guy had a wife who fixed chicken for dinner from time to time, took a healthy bird from that nondescript, unpainted wooden building behind his house, walked it to a stump, and decapitated it with a hatchet. He closed his eyes, standing now in the dry, still air of his kitchen, picturing her sitting on those four steps, pulling out handfuls of white feathers, delicately spotted with red.
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