Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
Where the Sun is Now
After the last day, whatsoever is not Heaven, is Hell; Hee that then shall be where the sun is now, (if he be not in heaven) shall be as farre from heaven as if hee were where the Center of the earth is now... .
— John Donne, Sermon No. 10
Zeno was trying to remember what the minister had said in church the week before. He was talking about Jesus, and what Jesus said about his neighbor, and if your neighbor asks for a coat to also give him your cloak.
And he wondered what a cloak was. And he wondered if his mom and little brother, George, were his neighbors because they lived closer to him and Eldred and Bobbie than anybody else. Or had lived closer to him. And he was still trying to reconcile that in his head with what he had heard Eldred say about the people that took drugs and drank too much liquor and camped at the river, that, “some people just needed killin’.” And he was thinking hard, but he couldn’t decide which was right between the two extremes of his mother deserving his coat because she was his neighbor or just needing killing because she was among those dopers who camped by the river. Part of him knew, realistically, that this was a moot question because she was dead now anyway, but part of him worried that wherever she was, she should have had a cloak, or at least his coat.
It was his eighth birthday, and it had been two weeks since his mother was hit by a driver who swore to the sheriff’s deputies, the numerous volunteer firemen, and the unnecessary EMTs, that one of the little boys who was with her had pushed her in front of his car. No one believed the driver, and Zeno, the little boy who had pushed her, wondered if the sound that her skull made when she hit the pavement about twenty feet in front of the car had been like the sound he heard when he crushed the possum’s head with a rock, (it was necessary—he couldn’t get the possum loose without getting bit), the hen’s feathers still clinging to the dried blood around its mouth from before it entrapped itself in the chicken wire. By the way his mother’s head looked, like the possum’s, he had known she was dead.
His eighth birthday went unnoticed both by himself as well as by the older man and woman with whom he lived, Eldred and Bobbie, the couple to whom his mother and father had swapped him for a sum of money he didn’t know. When he was absent from school, which was often, he spent his time working in the fields for Eldred and trying to figure out how much they gave for him. The day his mother died was one of the rare times he was out of school and not doing chores required by Eldred. If Zeno was not tagging the cattle’s ears to keep the flies and ticks off, or shoveling out stalls, or ploughing with the mule (but not allowed to use the tractor), or milking, then he was doing whatever Bobbie couldn’t get to in their several vegetable gardens and corn fields. Eldred and Bobbie worked every bit as hard as he did and harder, but they could never stay caught up, not with the store they had somebody run for them, and that on top of the farm. On the day his mother was struck by the car, he had listened to a conversation that Bobbie, standing on the porch steps, had with his mother out in the yard.
His mother gestured towards where he stood behind Bobbie. “Zeno’s needing to come with me... ‘cause Daddy’s been bad sick. I know you heard.” She stopped talking for a second, frowned, and swatted a mosquito clinging to a thin vein on her wrist, then continued, “They’s been hospice people in and out of the house and they stop in at yours and Dred’s store ever’ now and again to pick up paper towels and witch hazel —and that’s since June. They say it don’t look like he’ll get better.”
Bobbie’s responses varied between direct and curt or rambling and tangential. The tangent was always a list of what lay ahead of her. It came from her knowing that tasks came first. Her endless work was not a source of complaint for her, just a given. The given on this day was squeezed under her freckly left arm— a bushel basket, and in her right hand the straw hat, sweat stains creeping high up on its brim, that she always wore outside . “Afore supper, I’ll get two more bushels of Silver Queen, get them froze, and they’s still enough beans coming in that I might pickle us some beans and corn. The south pasture’s orchard still has some apples I might git ‘afore they rot. I reckon on my lonesome I can do it if I take a run and go at it. So’s you can take Zeno with ye and George down to see your daddy, but make sure Dred’s alright with it.”
She paused, and his mother opened her mouth, but Bobbie interrupted before she could speak. “Now I ain’t asking ye to tell me. But Eldred, he’ll need to know. He seen your car down to the pull off spot Friday night, and he wondered what you’d done with little George, so be ready for him to ask ye. Come to think of it, ye better offer him an answer afore he even asks.” She paused, then put her hat on. “He’s down to the store but said he’d be back in a few minutes.”
He remembered Bobbie’s nearly cropped black and grey hair was already glistening that morning from where she had been standing over huge pots of apples taken from the ones he had picked earlier in August and stored in bins in the cellar. She cooked them down into apple sauce or strained them into jellies, and sweat was now running down out of her scalp, causing her to wipe her eyes every few minutes. September was hot. His mother had her hand over her eyes to block the light, and in the shadow of her hand he could only see her nose and the hole that her mouth was without teeth, but her tongue was moving in it. The tongue was saying to Bobbie something about him.
“Zeno needs to go. Dred oughta understand about my daddy, and he done told me four or five times afore I ever let you take Zeno last year, he told me that if Zeno worked good, I might have him back every once in a while ... this is the first time since before daddy took sick that I asked.”
Bobbie adjusted the hat on her head. A long ago cast off of Dred’s, it was a little too big and slid over her damp hair to rest lightly on the tops of her ears. “I’m just saying it’d be smart to wait and ask Dred first. He’s got more to do than me, only stopped this morning because he was needing mineral oil. Two of the cows got in some Jimson weed just before you come up in the yard… so his frame of mind ain’t the best, and I wouldn’t cross him much myself.”
His mother frowned again, but then gave in. “Well, I need to go right now since I’m walking and hope to get there while daddy’s still awake. They say he does better mornings and I think he’s more hisself that time of day. Least he was last time I was there. I’ll leave Zeno since you think I ought to. I don’t want Eldred mad.”
Bobbie pushed the hat upwards with the back of her hand. “Just go on and take him. I’ll let Dred know what’s happening.”
Afterwards, as they walked towards the dirt road that turned off to where his grandfather lived, his mother’s trailer behind it that she’d fixed up some with the money Dred and Bobbie gave his parents when they traded Zeno, he thought about his mother and his four year old brother George still living down in that trailer without him, and Pudd’n’ or some other man’s stuff back in the room next to the bed where the pallet had been that he had once shared with George.
As they walked, George had told him, in his limited way, that he didn’t sleep on the pallet any more, that he slept on the couch now and got to watch the color TV all night while their mother was back in that room with Pudd’n’, maybe. Or when she was partying with somebody down at the river pulloff, maybe even with their father, Fermin, when he was back from the tunnels in Atlanta and not drunk in town or with the woman he stayed with sometimes. Their mother wasn’t listening to make any corrections, and George was often confused, but he conveyed enough to paint a picture that filled Zeno with longing, and then with feelings he didn’t recognize but that came up like tears and then like when he was sick at his stomach. But he didn’t cry or throw up.
George motioned towards the ditch they were walking alongside, “A dead dawg.”
Zeno looked down in the ditch filled with blackberry brambles that ran alongside the blind curves and short straights on the two-lane road. He could see a greyish shape down among them and made out not a dog, but a small coyote, road kill hit recently enough that there were still flies swarming over it. He thought about his mother getting paid for him, he thought about George watching TV all night while she was with the ones that just needed killin’ down at the river, and he thought about her giving in, being willing to leave him there to kneel by a cow on its side with its gutt swelled and Dred cussing at him to hold its head up and its mouth open so Dred could force the mineral oil down.
And he thought about the coolness of his grandfather’s living room, of the back porch under the deep shade of the oak, of the locked freezer that sometimes would be unlocked with a box of ice cream sandwiches in it on a little shelf above the brown wax paper packages marked “spare ribs” and “tenderloin” and “jowl,” that sometimes the blood had seeped through. He thought of fat, grubby George sitting on the back steps biting into an ice cream sandwich while his mama sat by her daddy and he, Zeno, had to help Dred move the cow to a dry stall and then move it again if it lived and shat all that poison out that the mineral oil was for, and whether it lived or died, he’d have to shovel up the shit and whatever else came out of it that could be everywhere.
He heard the car coming and could tell it was heading up the straight stretch, probably one of the summer people that always drove fast on the straights and then had to hit their brakes right in the middle of a curve. He thought about the coyote. He saw the blind shade on that part of the road, the kind where you’re unsuspecting because there’s no transition from the bright morning sunlight to the darkness that’s about to encompass you, and he saw George was looking down into the ditch for any dessicated blackberries that might still be clinging to their thorny stems.
Over her shoulder, his mother said to him, “Zeno, take ahold of George’s hand.”
And it was easy, with his natural bulk and the strength he was already building up from the work he did, it seemed, all the time that he wasn’t in school or sleeping, to shove his mother, always slight of build from smoking and natural wiriness, into the path of the car as it rounded the curve.
The day after his mother died found Zeno sitting alone on the back porch. He knew he wasn’t a good enough reader to find the part in the Bible that would help him understand what the preacher meant. He also knew he didn’t want to get any extra attention by asking an adult—neither Dred nor Bobbie—about the neighbor and the coat in the King James Bible that Bobbie kept by her bed. He had only just really begun the impossible—trying to reconcile the minister’s sermon—the neighbor part and the coat part—with what he had done to his mother the day before, and he thought that if he could just remember what the minister actually said, at least most of it, then he could get back to the place he had once been before he came to live with Eldred and Bobbie—a place that, even if it had been confusing because he never knew exactly who would be staying in his home or how his mother would treat him, it was still better than where he was now because it was a place where he had sometimes had ice cream sandwiches on his grandfather’s back steps and once his mother had danced with him to The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Now She’s Gone” on somebody’s old eight track turned up in their car at a party down at the river when Puddin’ had to run throw up and she wasn’t yet tired of dancing. She had loved dancing. But she hated being cold, so even at that party on a July night she’d been wearing some drunk teenager’s letterman jacket over the short babydoll sundress that showed her legs that were as browned by the sun as river water after a hard rain. His mama had gotten cold easily, and it worried him that the funeral home was cold.
His mother, by all accounts but that of the accused, (who, by his own admission, had not been able to see well because of the intensity of the sun in that particular moment), had been hit and killed by the negligence of Carl Newman, a professor of Linguistics from Tallahassee who had just done the last bit of construction on what he’d intended to be his retirement home. Professor Newman had just finished the deck carefully around a tulip poplar, leaving it space to expand, as he had also hoped to do once he moved there permanently in two years’ time.
Zeno, alone out on the porch for several hours, was out of school again, although this time for a reason no truant officer would question. Dred had let him stay out without working him. It was Bobbie’s doing, who had argued that Zeno needed a day without chores so he could grieve, but she agreed that after the funeral, to be held the next day with a closed casket, it would be best if he was kept busy. Dred’s response had been to acquiesce. To Zeno, he’d said, “Get your grieving done today. Garden’s still coming in and we got haying to do.”
So Zeno had sat on the back porch most of the morning after the good breakfast of sausage, biscuits with butter and fresh applesauce, grits, eggs, and sometimes potatoes and cream corn that Bobbie had on the table by 4:30 a.m.. He sat full, tipped back in a ladderback chair, listening to the cows request that swollen udders be emptied. He heard Dred’s occasional “Goddamnye,” which, at least this morning, didn’t bother him because it wasn’t at him, and, when he could stop thinking about the sermon and whether or not his mother was cold in her casket, he wondered if their father would take George or if he’d go off with Social Services that used to come by and ask questions of their mother, then, after they bought Zeno, of Dred and Bobbie.
The women and the one man had stopped coming when Dred waited for them one afternoon in the scrubby yard in front of his mother’s singlewide and handed the man in his state car some dollar bills. Zeno had heard Bobbie and Dred talk about it. Zeno wondered if it was the same amount of money they’d given his parents, especially his mother, for him, and he wondered how many people would get paid for him to keep staying with Dred and Bobbie and doing whatever chores they set for him. But that brought him back to his mother, (and, to a lesser extent, his father, because some part of Zeno felt her betrayal more deeply), what she had received for him in cash money, what all she and his father and George and the people that needed killing had bought with that cash money, bought with his labor, bought when he had nothing, and whether or not she was his neighbor and therefore in need of something he should have given her but hadn’t.
His confusion was interrupted when Zeno heard a small engine pulling hard up the long steep driveway, but he stayed where he was because nobody except he and Mr. Newman, the first adult man Zeno had ever seen cry when he was sober, actually knew what had really happened. Zeno knew everybody expected him to be sad like George was, so he just imitated George’s dazed eyes and slack face that had so upset one of their father’s sisters when she came and collected him from the church parking lot where the police cars, pickups and ambulances had gathered. Zeno had stood there in one spot in the hot sun until Dred and Bobbie were called to come get him.
The sheriff had followed them up to the house, but he had talked more to Dred than to Zeno or Bobbie, asking Zeno only one time, “Now, son, can you tell me what happened?”
When Zeno answered, he again tried to imitate George’s look.
“ We was walkin’ down to grandpa’s ‘cause he’s sick, and Mama said take hold of George’s hand, and then the car come, and mama landed away on up the road.”
He looked up at the sheriff as he spoke, thinking of the possum, then the dead coyote, both creatures that nobody liked and, because of that, stirred his pity. He put his hands over his face and sobbed, and it was real, but he didn’t know if he was crying because of what he had done or because nobody cared about the dead coyote.
The sheriff turned to Dred. He looked tired.
“I reckon that’s all I need to ask the boy, Dred. I’ll talk to ye outside so Bobbie can take care of him.”
The only thing Zeno couldn’t control, besides his compulsion to remember a red letter phrase from the New Testament uttered by the Needmore Community Freewill Baptist Church preacher that would somehow make everything okay, was his appetite.
He’d eaten his usual two plates full at breakfast before Dred said, “I guess Zeno’s losin’ his mama ain’t goin’ to make him any skinnier.”
Bobbie gave Dred a look and he’d said nothing else, but Zeno was reminded that he needed to act different than usual for a little while, which was why he continued to sit in the back porch chair, straining to hear through the open windows and doors that let air move all the way through the house of the cool mornings before Bobbie closed up curtains on the southeast side. The whole house stayed cool all day, and in the evenings she took what was left of that noon’s dinner and set it on the table in the breezeway, where a ceiling fan helped move the breeze that came off the mountain as the sun went down. The whole house was her design, and he realized as he grew older how smart Bobbie was, and how good she tried to be.
From the conversation Zeno could make out, the person driving the small engine car was a girl. He had heard her and Bobbie come up on the porch, then the screen door opened and he heard them moving towards the kitchen, then Bobbie’s voice, clear.
“The boy ain’t in no way to talk to anybody right now, Miss Newman, but I’ll get you a cup of coffee and call in my husband if ye want.”
The girl’s voice had responded, a little shaky, “I know I can’t talk to the boy now, and I don’t mean to cause any problems for you, but do you think that later on in the week our attorney could? My father is the most cautious driver,” and here the voice broke and there was a long pause, then, “I can’t believe he wouldn’t have seen a person standing in the road, even if the sun... and maybe the little boy was playing, like kids do, and he didn’t mean... . My dad swears... .”
But Bobbie interrupted, “Dred—that’s my husband’s name—told me what your daddy said. He was shook up, we’ve all been blinded in that turn that time of morning, and Dred says anybody could see he wasn’t in his right mind. Dred talked to the sheriff while I was calling the boys’ aunt. Sheriff said it was pretty clear it’d be manslaughter. You need to know that and get yourself ready.”
He heard another pause as the girl digested Bobbie’s directness, followed by, “But my father... ,”and then he could tell it was Bobbie talking, this time in a firm tone, one both he and Dred knew. This was followed by the sound of weeping, then Bobbie’s matter of fact voice, “I’m awful sorry for your family, but not near as sorry as I am for Zeno’s mama and her boys.”
After this he’d heard the crying again, and then a chair pulled out at the table and coffee poured from the percolator. He couldn’t hear what was being said then, but afterwards the front screen door opened, and he guessed Bobbie had gone out to get Dred from the barn. He hoped the girl stopped crying before Dred got in the kitchen. But Bobbie came back without him, and she told the girl that Dred said Bobbie’d told her all he knew and they was no cause for her to ask him or Zeno questions. He heard the chair scrape back.
“Then I won’t bother you anymore, Mrs. Campbell.... ”
“Everbody calls me Bobbie.”
“... but our attorney’s name is Fletcher, and I know he’’ll need to talk to you or your husband. What can I tell him is the relationship between you and Zeno?”
“He’s lived with us since his family come on hard times. We’re neighbors. But I don’t believe a lawyer can learn more than what we’ve already told ye.”
Then the steps had gone out of the kitchen, out the door, and off the front porch. The car started and left, and he stayed where he was.
The day after, the day of the funeral, was a Saturday, and he’d again sat on the back porch after breakfast. The phone rang several times, but Bobbie was busy outside and so was Dred, and no one answered.
After the funeral he was sent out in the later afternoon with a bucket, a hoe, and a burlap bushel bag to dig potatoes, a job he didn’t mind except for the heat of the day. He prayed that in the spot where they buried his mother that the sun was shining and she was warm down in the ground in her casket. He tried for a few frustrating moments to go back once more to the sermon that was always just out of his memory’s reach and just beyond his brain’s comprehension. He gave up and began to enjoy himself out with nobody but crows for company. He liked being alone in the field when the plants were past their prime on their little hills and beginning to die back. He liked the way the crows fussed at him from the break of white pines Dred had planted between the field and the river. And he even liked the way the tune of “Now She’s Gone” that had been there for days ran through his head without any words at all, saving him from worry this time. Most of all, he liked the way the potatoes that weren’t covered entirely with dirt were green to the sun, poisoned, Bobbie said, and he threw them towards the dense shade under the pines, carefully avoiding where ever the crows happened to be. He liked the easy way the good potatoes rolled up out of their moist, dark beds, and he liked how he occasionally sliced the edge of one with the hoe if he wasn’t careful, and the crisp, wet sound the hoe made when it’s edge cut through the potato. Dropping them in the bucket, then emptying the bucket in the sack, it was good work. When he’d finished the long row, the sack was full, and he knew it was about fifty pounds. He was only sorry Dred wouldn’t see him when he unloaded the sack off his back into one of the bins down in the cool root cellar, because he could always tell that it pleased Dred to see him getting stronger, even if Dred seldom said it.
In the coming week, they didn’t hear from Mr. Fletcher, the attorney, nor did Zeno hear the girl’s voice anymore, although he heard Bobbie and Dred talk about a meeting Dred had out in town with that Florida lawyer and the sheriff. Weeks later, he heard them talk about the man, Mr. Newman, getting too light a sentence, and Zeno thought more about when he might see George again after hearing that their grandpa’s illness had finally killed him and that Fermin, his and George’s daddy, was going to be staying around for a while, and that he and George were living in the same trailer they all used to live in on their grandpa’s property.
It wasn’t until almost three years later when he was looking for several hogs that had gotten loose when Dred was loading them to take to the slaughter house over in Franklin, and Zeno was almost eleven, that he again heard the voice of Miss Newman. Or, rather, he heard first the flute she was playing on the deck of her father’s mostly vacant retirement home.
Zeno had been calling the hogs after finding signs of their rooting and their loose piles of excrement, when he heard a pileated woodpecker’s wild cry and looked up to see if he could find it. He had spotted the one, then another had flown over, and he was listening to the sounds the pileateds made for each other, when he also heard music coming from the house that sat a ways above him and just below the ridge. He knew whose house it was, had heard people say Mr. Newman’s children, a son and the daughter he had heard that day talking to Bobbie, had stubbornly painted and landscaped the house for when their father was released from prison, and the daughter had been coming at least once every summer from her college way up north. He had never seen her, but when he heard the music he knew who it had to be. Since Dred wasn’t expecting Zeno back any time soon, he walked further up the slope. Coyotes had made distinct paths, and except where they went under rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets to watch their prey from hiding, they made the going easy, about all Dred said they were good for.
When he got to a place where he could see the house, Zeno stopped and leaned on a huge sycamore that someone had missed when this mountain was logged eighty or more years ago, one with its roots running down into a branch that he knew soon went underground, down into a series of caverns and holes and crawl spaces with serpentine roots from unknown trees, and rocks whose edges were sharp, unlike the rounded ones that were worn down by movement of waters from the river’s uncountable floodings and where Dred had his cornfields. Hundreds and thousands of fist and gutt sized rocks, Zeno had picked them up every spring for three springs of living with Bobbie and Dred and hauled them to the edges of ploughed fields in a wheelbarrow because Dred wouldn’t drive the truck onto the fields and didn’t trust Zeno with the small front end loader.
He couldn’t make out much about the person sitting up on the deck to his left and above him, but the deck had a tree running right through its center, providing slender shade for the person sitting there. He could see the figure was slight, but what held his attention was the sound of her flute. There had often been music when he lived with his mother and George. Besides the song that always haunted him, and the .38 Special, Allman Brothers, and Alabama albums that were the soundtrack to his mother’s life, there was also his grandfather’s mandolin that they could hear from the trailer, though he didn’t know much beyond how to do a chop. Still, Zeno liked the sounds it made, sometimes preferring the few clear and simple notes to the violence of the driving electric guitars and the gritty blues backgrounds that offered no respite from Zeno’s constant bewilderment, but only reinforced it. He wondered what had happened to the mandolin when his grandfather died, but his father’s sister had moved George with her to another town, and he hadn’t seen his father since the funeral, so he had no one to ask.
Most of the music he heard until he was seven was from the albums his mother had lined up on the sagging shelf next to her stereo, its speakers as big as the kitchen chairs. Bobbie and Dred had no music, although there was a small cassette player that Zeno had seen in the capacious kitchen drawer where Bobbie stored junk.
Nothing Zeno had ever heard could compare to what he was hearing now, even though the flute was an instrument played by those children at his school who participated in the band, an offering he would have liked but did not see as a possibility and so never asked. He sat down on one of the sycamore’s raised roots, almost large enough to be a bench, and he narrowed his eyes to better see the young woman sitting far above him, the notes he could hear mixing with the jungle calls of pileated woodpeckers and breezes moving through the dry leaves of late fall.
When the flute stopped and the figure went inside, he rose from his root bench and made his way up the coyote path that went directly under the deck, beneath which there were massed piles of sawbriars someone had been clearing, and he seated himself on a bare patch of ground large enough for his sturdy bulk. He thought about the coyotes watching the unknowing woman, and he wondered, as she sat on the deck with her music, just what the listening coyotes had in their heads while their keen eyes watched for grouse and rodents and turkeys and small, parasitic dogs. And then, urged by a feeling almost as strong as the one that had come uninvited on the day he pushed his mother, Zeno wept.
After he finished crying, Zeno continued to sit. When the girl reemerged onto the deck with a plate of food and a glass, he forgot about looking for the hogs but remained where he was, unmoving and silent. He heard the scrape of the chair on the wooden boards above him as she sat down again, this time to eat, and he listened to the sounds of her eating her solitary supper, heard the chair again as she stood, and only then, when he heard a door above him shut, did he begin to go back down the trail to tell Dred he had failed to find even one of the hogs. As Zeno came to a bend in the coyotes’ path, he turned and raised his hand to no one, and his eyes again filled. He knew the house would soon be indivisible from the thick trees in the coming dusk.
Almost seven years later, Zeno nudged the back of his father’s balding head with the toe of his large boot, pushing his face a fraction of an inch deeper in the still part of the branch that ran down through a dark hollow and joined the creek that eventually emptied into the Little Tennessee, near a little sandy beach where rednecks still liked to party. He had noticed about a week ago when it started to rain before he finished ploughing that the fronts of his feet got a little wet, and he could see now that the toes of his cheap boots were pulling away from the soles.
He hadn’t had this pair three months, and he hated to buy new boots or anything to do with work, although he had saved some money over the years after Bobbie had begun sometimes paying him for the extra jobs he did for her, like building her a canning house or putting down a stone walkway out to the chicken coops. He figured when he was eighteen, which Bobbie told him was likely sometime soon, he might do something else besides live in the little room behind the kitchen in Dred and Bobbie’s house. Or maybe he would just stay there. It wasn’t really bad once he’d grown used to the bargain they’d made, and he always knew what to expect from both Eldred ad Bobbie. Dred had had bad bouts with gout in the last couple of years, and when he was laid up, Zeno enjoyed the trust placed in him to do the work with the livestock and in the fields, even if it was doubled.
His room was far enough away from Dred and Bobbie’s that he could listen late at night to the cassettes that he bought at the store after Dred learned tourists and truck drivers would spend money on music from a countertop display. His favorite, and the first he had bought, was one that had been intended for another music display in a distant city but had been mistakenly unpacked along with the Led Zeppelin, Loretta Lynn, and Charley Pride. Zeno had bought it when he saw the flute on its cardboard cover, and the cassette included a Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto, a Concerto for Horns, and a Clarinet Concerto, all wonders to him. The flute reminded him of the girl and her sounds above him on a distant fall evening, and sometimes the music still made him weep.
A few times Zeno had talked about joining the army, but Dred had laughed and told him he was “too damn fat for the army but pert’ near the right size for farmwork.” Zeno knew this might be as close as Dred could come to kindness, and he accepted and was grateful, responding with a brand of loyalty that only a stray dog could have understood.
On the Saturday morning that Zeno drowned his father, he had left the room where he slept early via the back porch, the first day of spring turkey season. It was now late morning, and there had been a pretty mist rising from the river as Zeno walked along the edge of the road looking for turkeys with his Remington 12-gauge autoloader, a gun that he’d earned by trading his labor, busting rock at a local quarry on any days when Dred didn’t need him during the winter. A cold sledgehammer on a cold rock was a high price, but Zeno still thought it was worth it.
He’d heard at the store there was supposed to be a big party down at the river that weekend, although he was not invited. He was never invited, but he wouldn’t have gone in any case since he mostly agreed with Dred that those were the people that were shiftless and just needed killing. As he rounded the curve above the wide pulloff where they all parked, and where he had danced once with the mother whose face was now less familiar than the inked portraits of various composers on the booklets that came with his cassettes, he recognized the only vehicle left was Femin’s beaten and bondoed F-250, although no one was in it. After stepping down onto the little beach where Miller Lite cans and Boone’s Farm bottles surrounded charred wood that smelled like its fires had been put out with urine, Zeno had wondered if his father had gone home with some sad woman, and he was preparing to continue walking and looking for turkey sign when he heard the sound of retching coming from above the culvert where the creek ran under the road. He walked up and saw Fermin on his hands and knees.
After Zeno had carefully leaned his shotgun against the back of an oak on the side away from the road, he wrapped his hands over the ribs under his father’s reeking armpits and easily pulled him to an upright position. He steadied him there, feeling Fermin’s heart slowly thumping under his own large fingers. At seventeen, Zeno was strong from years of work and Bobbie’s cooking, and Fermin’s body was slight compared to his own squat 200 plus pound bulk. His father was too drunk and too sick to acknowledge him, if he even recognized him, and so they stood there silently, Fermin leaning first to one side and then another until Zeno had moved around to stand beside him and then had propped him up as he moved him further up the wet, leaf covered trail that ran up the hollow and along the creek that became little more than a branch the higher one climbed and, finally, little more than seeps and sink holes from which issued airs that were fragrant and fresh and moist.
When they were deep enough in the woods that they couldn’t be seen from the road, his father started to heave again, and Zeno had gently lowered him so he could kneel next to the branch. After his father had heaved for a minute or so, he dropped, exhausted, to his stomach, then turned his face to the side and out of the water that barely covered the decaying leaves just below its surface. Zeno had watched him then from where he still stood between his father and the trail. He had stepped back to be sure his feet didn’t sink down in the leaves and mud along the edge of the branch next to which Fermin lay nearly perpendicular, and then he had squatted and looked at his father closely. After a moment, Zeno stood, moved slowly to the edge of the branch to stand on a rock, and knelt beside him again, putting his hand on the back of his head, Zeno’s fingers firmly in place just behind the ears, and then he had tenderly turned Fermin’s head just enough that his face was in the water and leaves and silt, formed from a thousand thousand years of rains and worn down rocks, and he held his father’s face there until the liquid, choking sounds stopped.
Even afterwards, Zeno continued to press his hand firmly against the head, feeling the hardness of the skull just beneath the mix of greying and dull brown hair and smooth scalp. When he saw there was no movement of the chest, he still remained where he was yet a moment longer. There were strings of vomit lying atop the oak leaves that were barely covered with water. The good smell of humus and wet moss and hidden caverns had risen in Zeno’s nostrils, almost masking the rich stink of his father’s unwashed clothes and the sour smell of puke and liquor. He decided to push his face a little deeper then, but since he’d already wiped his hands against his pants, he used the toe of his boot, at that point noticing that it had split enough to let in water.
He looked regretfully at his feet.
“New boots is going to cost me at least thirty dollars. Even if I git ‘em cheap.”
Then he’d moved back down the trail, picked up his gun, and looked up and down the road before stepping out and admiring the mist that was still coming off the coolness of the river even as the April morning turned into a warm noon.
Zeno thought as he walked about how easy that had been. Bobbie hated drunkenness, and she had told Fermin just a few days before when he’d been getting a drink at the outdoor spigot that his drunkenness was going to lead to nowhere good, and Zeno had to agree with her. He didn’t know what his father had been drinking or smoking on this particular binge, although he knew Fermin often came to camp and party with others who spent their weekends on the river in the same way. He had seen a good bit of his father in the last few year, more than he wanted, since tunnel work was no longer available. Dred had hired Fermin a few times in these early weeks of spring to help with the spring ploughing and planting, and while Dred had Zeno doing his usual grunt work of clearing the cornfields of the inexorable rocks, Zeno sometimes came up to the house with the other men to eat the lunch he packed for himself with the ham and loaf bread and sweet gherkins or sometimes leftovers that Bobbie had out to pack for Dred. She never commented on his size or how much Zeno ate, and since Dred was not in the kitchen from breakfast until dinner, packing a lunch was among the activities that Zeno really enjoyed.
On the Thursday before his father drowned, the Thursday Bobbie warned Fermin about the drinking, Zeno was glad Bobbie had turned the attention away from himself. For a few moments, it had been only Zeno and Fermin sitting on the edge of the porch eating, and Zeno, noticing that his father only had a pack of Lance Toast Chee crackers, offered him his second tenderloin sandwich and some of the leftover applesauce cake Bobbie had out on the counter that morning. Fermin had just said “Thank ye,” and was about to say something more, when Dred drove into the yard. Zeno could see the scowl on his face as he was getting out of the truck, and so he was already putting some of his food back into the padded vinyl lunch bag he carried.
Dred stood next to the open door of his truck. “That’s right, Zeno. You pack up all that feed ye got in ye travelin’ trough, cause, son, we ain’t got time to sit on our asses all day a-eatin’.”
Fermin had laughed, and, Dred, encouraged, continued.”I betchee got half the Frigidaire in that sack, Zeno. Let’s see what all ye mooched while Bobbie wasn’t looking.”
Zeno’s father laughed again. “You wouldn’t believe what all he’s got in ‘ere. He ain’t too choicey either, asking me for some of my crackers even after he ate dang near a whole hog.”
“If I hadn’t seen him work like a mule, I’d have said myself a feller his size would be triflin’. Still, I have to watch him—always a-tarrying’ over his food like any goddamn no-count.” But then Dred had added, “But nowhere near as no’count as his daddy that’s sitting there next to him.”
And this time Fermin didn’t laugh at all.
Nor did Zeno, who was still digesting Fermin’s blatant lie and Dred’s comparison.
And then, Fermin had dusted his hands on the legs of his jeans and walked over to the spigot to get a drink. Just then Bobbie had stepped outside to see if Dred needed anything, and seeing Fermin there, had placed her hands on her hips and had made one of her few forays into the business of others. “Now that’s what a working man needs to be a drinking, Fermin Cull. Look at yourself. You’re wasting down to nothing because ye don’t eat and you’re drinking hard liquor every day. It ain’t going to get ye nowhere good.”
Then Dred had laughed, and Fermin looked sheepish for the second time in five minutes. Zeno had packed up the rest of his lunch and walked over to set his bag on the freezer in the breezeway, and no one had noticed the look on his face that revealed his feelings before he could mask them with one that was unreadable.
And now, walking along the Little Tennessee without noticing the lightest of spring breezes that ruffled the water in the eddies, he had the same look as he remembered being grouped in any way with his father, with the ilk that needed killing, with those that were no man’s neighbor. He thought Dred was not fair to him at that moment because he, Zeno, had never partied with that crew his father ran with, unless you counted that one dance when he was a little boy. But now his face settled into something like peace when he thought about how long it might take people to find Fermin’s body, and how, when he was finally found, days or weeks or even months later, that Bobbie would say to Dred that drinking never did anybody any good, and Dred would respond that he wasn’t surprised one bit that Fermin Cull drowned in a half inch of water.
Zeno gripped his beautiful twelve-gauge a little tighter as the road left the river and he stepped down onto the uneven ground. He would need to stay down along the river if he was to find any sign now, since the gobblers roosted down in the trees along the edges of the rich bottoms. He knew the house would be quiet all afternoon, no one needing him to do anything. Dred was again laid up with gout, Bobbie was at church and would be there a while since they were starting to plan early for Decoration, and Zeno was planning to buy headphones soon so he could listen to his music during the day with his door closed even if Dred was in the house.
After listening to the one Mozart cassette for years, he had asked the delivery truck driver if he had more music like that, and so had begun buying music directly from him and listening to a variety of composers. Sometimes, inside the cassette cases, there were little booklets about the instruments and the musicians. Zeno’s reading was poor, but he had learned about a few composers and knew now that music went far beyond what his mother had known. He looked forward to the music truck’s arrival a few times a year, and he spent the same money as willingly on the cassettes as he did on the Remington autoloader, the same money that he would only grudgingly allot to buying more cheap boots.
And while Zeno never had remembered the sermon that he thought would give him peace after his mother’s death, he’d listened to enough Freewill Baptist preachers over the years to be convinced that where his mother was now, it was plenty warm. She wouldn’t be needing a coat from anybody.