The truck edged off the road, grinding to a stop in front of the house. The dog, an indeterminate, mid-sized breed, barked from the westward-listing porch. Joe looked at the dog and half-grinned at its false ferocity before turning his attention back to the truck. As the dog quieted, Joe could hear music wafting from the driver-side window. It sounded like alt-country, Ray Wylie Hubbard, maybe. The driver kept his eyes ahead for a few seconds, listening. One hand clutched the steering wheel like he was scared if he let go, he might somehow drift away, land some place he couldn’t get back from. His other arm rested on the doorframe, elbow jutting toward Joe and the dog. After a long second or two, the driver leaned out the window a bit, toward Joe.
“What you doing?” he asked.
Joe cleared his throat and spit. “Waiting on something to happen,” he answered.
“Don’t know. Ain’t happened yet.”
The driver looked forward again, staring through the truck’s front glass as if something might be coming at him from a distance, his knuckles clutched white around the steering wheel. The driver’s name was Ansel, a sometimes acquaintance of Joe’s but more often, just the boy from Shelby who sold him weed when Patty got sick. Joe didn’t much care for Ansel. He had a way of acting like they were friends or something. They weren’t.
Ansel turned back toward Joe.
“You going?” he asked.
“Best go. It’s what you oughtta do. It’s only right.”
“I reckon,” Joe answered.
Ansel shook his head, put his other hand on the wheel, and again stared at the distance in front of him. After another long pause, he faced Joe again.
“You need anything? Kush? Northern Lights? I got a little Skunk left. It’ll help you get through.”
Joe reached over and scratched the cur’s ears and neck. The dog let out a half-groan, half-growl and cocked his head to one side, angling Joe’s hand into a more preferable spot. Joe stopped scratching and the dog whined, nuzzled the underside of Joe’s arm before giving up and resettling a few feet away on the porch.
“I don’t think so,” Joe said.
“Suit yourself. Might be gone next week.”
“I reckon it might.” Joe answered.
Ansel turned the radio louder, revved the truck’s engine twice.
“You best go. You’ll regret it later if you don’t,” he said, then dropped the truck in gear and pulled off without waiting for Joe to reply.
Joe watched until the horizon swallowed up the last sight of the truck, and then let his gaze linger a few seconds more. In the opposite direction, the sun etched below the tree line. Mid-fall, and the air, already with a telling edge, cooled even more as the shadow of the pines advanced across the porch. There was a time Joe would call this his favorite season. A time of year he felt… balanced, as if everything hung suspended, weightless and unencumbered. The blank sky above him its bluest, the earth beneath his feet it’s most solid. He felt a certainty he could not name, but was yet palpable. Real.
A slight breeze lifted and Joe smelled wood smoke. The Satterfield boys, setting up camp somewhere down the old fire road below his house, near the shallow creek. They’d sip Wilkes County moonshine then climb into their tents early. Before dawn, they’d rub their eyes and swear softly as they made their way in the darkness to tree stands. This year, Joe knew they’d not pass on the spike bucks, or even the does. Nearly two years out of work, benefits and unemployment checks only memories, a freezer full of meat was trophy enough. Everybody had their cross.
The dog raised his head and sniffed, the scent from the campfire stronger now. Joe thought of the fireplace in the cabin near Maggie Valley, how the flue was slow to draw at first. That same wood smoke smell filled the room, leached into his and Patty’s clothes, her hair. By the end of their week there, it became a part of Patty, and he breathed it in, breathed her in, for six uninterrupted days. They returned every year, and every year it was the same. He wondered if the cabin was empty this week. Their week. Patty’s parents owned the place, but rarely used it, preferring instead to rent it to vacationers. Joe sensed in them a reluctance in allowing him and their daughter a free week during peak season. Patty denied it, but Joe knew. He knew, just as he knew her parents had probably rented the cabin for the week.
The dog sniffed at the air once more. Joe patted his haunches, stood, and stretched his arms skyward. When he did, he lost his balance, the listing boards of the porch causing him to stumble slightly I’ll fix this porch, he thought. Replace the rotted corner posts with treated four-by-fours. Sure up the joist. Make the thing level again. Joe planned to go in and work a couple of hours in the morning, he’d start on it after that. Sunday, latest.
Joe went inside. Nights, with the house looming cavernous and incomplete and his sleep fitful and light, weren’t easily navigated. For nearly a year, he listened, listened through a veil of half slumber, half attention as if in hearing he might protect, he might ward off. He slotted night sounds into categories—usual sounds or sounds needing assessment and interpretation. Over the past year, Joe realized he had no category for silence.
The next morning, Joe scraped what was left of the eggs into the bowl, followed by the last two pieces of bacon. He filled his thermos with coffee and poured the last half of the pot down the sink. The steam rose in a column and he felt the heat moist on his face like a balm. He set the bowl of egg scraps and bacon on the porch, filled the bucket with fresh water, whistled for the dog, and left for work.
The Saturday shifts for manufacturing and assembly had been cut first, nearly two years ago, along with the third shift. Joe did what he could, his job in planning and scheduling allowed him to spread out the work orders enough to keep the second shift running piece meal for another eight months, but then they, too, had to be let go. Saturdays now, walking through the stilled shop, hearing only the echoes of his footfalls, reminded him of how things once were. Orders had picked up a little, but not enough that Joe had any real reason to be at work on a weekend. He managed his duties during a forty-hour week with time to spare, but he began going in for a few hours when Patty’s sister started coming over to sit with her on Saturday mornings. It had become habit. Joe turned on the lights in his office and began sifting through the job packets on his desk, the same as he did every morning.
Joe compared the printed routing sheets with those on the computer, making sure nothing had fallen behind schedule. It hadn’t and he knew it wouldn’t. The boys in the shop understood self-preservation and knew full-well how to stretch the runs just enough to make production without getting far enough ahead to create downtime. A man with nothing to do didn’t last long.
After he’d checked all the jobs in process and lined up the work orders for Monday, Joe opened his email. One new message, a calendar reminder. Memorial Celebration for Patricia: 3:00 pm, Saturday. Fairview Country Club (@ the Riverside Gazebo). He hesitated, the cursor’s accusatory finger pointed at the message. He thought of her parents, her brother and sister, wondered if her father and brother would get in eighteen at the club before the service. Joe saw them, joking in the mahoganied locker room, drinks at the bar, her father swirling his Scotch-rocks in the air as he droned on, replaying every hole, his index finger raised like an exclamation point above the drink. They invited Joe to join them at the Country Club, once. He enjoyed knocking it around the muni course as much as the next guy, and he shot in the mid-eighties, ten strokes better than Patty’s dad or her brother, but they couldn’t tell it that day. The course played easy, or should have, for Joe. More forgiving and shorter from the member tees than what he was used to, but he beat it around everywhere. Broke a hundred, but not by much. They asked him to play a few more times, but Joe knew the invitation only came at Patty’s insistence. He moved the cursor, checked the box, and hit delete.
Joe rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then walked into the plant. He went first through the stockroom, then the bar stock racks, following the flow of raw materials from blanks to finished components. He liked the oily smell of the machine coolant, the uniform stacks of material staged on one side of the CNC lathes and milling machines, appreciated the sharp glint of turned metal, the smoothed edges of cast iron arranged in the bins on the opposite of the machinery.
He stood near the final assembly lines, staring at the bins of components snaking back through the shop, the rows of assembled door closers stretching toward packaging and shipping. Joe realized he’d been standing there for some time when he heard a jangle of keys behind him. He turned toward the sound.
“Hey, Leon. I didn’t know you were here. Figured you’d be in a deer stand somewhere.” When the lay-offs started, Leon convinced management to keep him on by offering to take over the janitorial work for the plant. Leon agreed to a pay cut, which allowed them to cancel the outside service they’d been using and save some money. Before, he manned the forklift on a split shift, third and first. He gathered the overnight inventory pull sheets from the printer when he came in at four, and then spent the next eight hours delivering pallets of material throughout the shop. Joe liked him. Like most of the guys in the shop, Leon hunted, and every year, he always gave Joe a couple of venison steaks and bag of jerky.
“Coolant line broke on the Pfauter gear hob late yesterday. Had to put down four bags of Speedi-dri, wanted to get it up ‘fore Monday. Just looks bad, you know,” Leon answered. “Them deer’ll wait. Didn’t figure I’d see you here today, either, Joe.”
Joe shrugged. “I come in most Saturdays.”
“I know, but today… I mean, Mrs. Patty’s memorial…” Leon shifted his weight, jingled his keys again, and glanced away from Joe for a second or two.
Joe could see Leon felt bad about bringing it up, and he hated it for him, but what could he do? “Hell, Leon, town this size… history calls the shots.”
“I didn’t mean no disrespect, I just—“
“Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t.” Joe shrugged again, looked out across the shop then smiled at Leon. “Yeah. Well, I should let you get back at it. Don’t work too long, now, you hear? Find some time to get in that tree stand, I’m about out of jerky.” Joe waved and walked toward the door.
It was late morning. Joe spotted the knot of blaze orange caps in the parking lot of Hawfields General Store. Hawfields sat at the crossroads near his house and the store served as the big game check-in station for the area. Joe knew from the circle of hats around the pickup’s bed they were sizing up a kill from the morning. He slowed to make the right turn past the store, toward home. At the far end of the parking lot, he saw the Satterfield boys. They stood by the bed of their truck, too, but it didn’t look as if they’d had any luck. He recognized Randy and Hank, but not the younger boy standing with them. He threw up his hand. Randy waved back, half-hearted. Hank and the boy looked into the bed of their truck instead.
Joe pulled into his drive and stared at his front porch with the truck still running. When they built the house, Joe had the contractor clear the front yard of most of the trees, mainly to make best use of the south facing exposure. The rest he left, and now the oaks and maples framing the house created a stark red and yellow backdrop of leaves. The road they lived on was a dead end with few houses, their house the last. He and Patty watched the seasons change from that front porch, an unplanned benefit of clearing the front yard. When he remodeled the original steps and added the ramp to the porch, it had somehow weakened the structure, causing it to list. Joe kept promising to fix it, but it became less and less of a priority as the months passed. But now, what excuse did he have? In his mind, Joe calculated footage, listed materials. Tear the ramp off, replace the corner post. Probably be best to replace the lower joist, too, fasten it to the corner post with lag bolts. He checked his watch. He’d fix some lunch, then drive to Builders Supply, get started on the porch that afternoon. It needed doing, no sense putting it off any longer. The ramp was… it needed to come off and the wet weather of the fast-approaching winter would send the porch to rot before spring. He didn’t have anything productive to do for the afternoon, anyway.
After lunch, Joe grabbed a couple extra tie-downs from the shed and tossed them in the bed of his pickup. He counted again the number of deck boards he’d have to replace. As he started climbing into the cab, the Satterfield’s truck pulled in behind him. Randy sat in the driver’s seat, and now he looked past the young boy, who sat in the middle of the bench seat, toward Hank. Randy jerked his head, motioning for Hank to get out. Hank said something, first to Randy then to the boy. Finally, all three of them edged out of the truck and came up to Joe’s truck. The brothers both leaned on the bed of the pickup. So did Joe. The boy stood a few feet behind them, between the two trucks, shifting his weight while he toed the ground as if he hoped to unearth something of interest or distraction.
The Satterfield boys both spoke and Joe answered. Randy looked skyward and drew in two quick breaths, like an animal would scent the air. Without thinking, Joe breathed in, too. He caught a hint of wood smoke again. The boy shuffled, the bill of his orange cap tilted up only enough for him to cut his eyes toward the men, before he returned to troubling the ground by his boot. Hank cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything more. It didn’t surprise Joe, the brothers weren’t known to be very talkative, but he sensed they had something to say now.
“What can I do for you boys?” He asked. “I was fixing to go to town. Gonna rebuild the porch, put the steps back on.”
“We was of a mind to catch you ‘fore you went to the Memorial,” Hank said. Joe remembered he was the older brother. “Randy said we ought wait, but…”
“You caught me.”
“Yeah,” Hank said. “I see we did.” He propped his right foot on the truck bumper, leaned into it as he looked at Randy. Randy looked at the boy. Joe studied the brothers, noticed Hank trying to urge Randy to speak by squinting his eyes at him just so. For a second, Joe found it amusing, but then the feeling that the boys needed to say something important gripped him again.
“Joe, you know we appreciate you letting us hunt on the bottom land,” Randy finally said.
“Not a problem.” Joe looked toward the porch, jangled his keys. “You know, I—“
“This here’s our nephew, Sarah’s boy, Sammy. It’s his first year hunting with us.” Hank said. He turned around and grabbed the boy by the shoulder, gave him a stern guide toward Joe. The boy glanced up, made eye contact as he shook hands, but he just as quickly looked back at the ground. Sammy’s got something to tell you,” Hank said. “Go ahead, boy, tell him.”
The young boy looked back at Hank, then Randy, before turning to face Joe. “Well… I…” He shifted his weight, looked at Hank and Randy again, his eyes pleading.
“Tell him,” Hank said.
“I thought… I mean I saw it, but I didn’t see it good and I know I shoulda waited, shoulda made sure…”
“It’s the boy’s first time deer hunting, Joe. You know how it is, buck fever and all,” Randy offered.
“What?” Joe asked them. Something had happened, he knew that, but he couldn’t imagine what it might be. The feeling of it, the dread, he knew, remembered from the time he and Patty sat in the doctor’s office. The weight of the room closed in on him that day. He felt it in his chest, in his stomach. Wiped his palms on his pant legs. Wiped them again and again until finally, Patty had taken his right hand in hers and squeezed it ever so lightly and for an instant he imagined, no, felt a light breeze blowing around them and on it, the scent of ripening apples. Just as quickly the scent disappeared, replaced by a rank smell and Joe felt as if they were lost deep in the woods, rotting leaves wet around their feet, the ground beneath the leaves shifting and unstable. Joe shook his head. “What?” he repeated.
Randy and Hank turned away from Joe and started toward the bed of their truck, pushing the boy ahead of them. Joe hesitated, then followed them. A tarp covered the bed and Joe saw that something lie beneath it. He looked at Randy, Hank, then the boy. The boy met his stare for a second, his eyes now wild, frightened. Joe noticed the boy’s lower lip quivering slightly. Joe glanced at the tarp, back at the men. “Damn it,” he said. “What?”
Hank reached in and threw back a corner of the blue tarp, revealing Joe’s dog, it’s eyes frozen open and sightless, it’s mouth gaped as if, as the thirty-aught-six slug rifled through it’s bowels, the dog suddenly gained language and wanted to speak, to tell of something right and beautiful it had found as it romped through the orange and red leaves drifting in slow circles toward the earth.
“It’s your dog, ain’t it?” Randy asked.
Joe didn’t answer for several seconds, then turned away and looked across the trees.
“Sammy thought it was a deer,” Hank started. “He didn’t know, shot too quick, that’s all.”
“We hate this, Joe,” Randy told him. “I know it couldn’t have happened on a worse day for you.”
“We’ll pay you for him, for your trouble,” Hank said. “Do whatever you say.”
Finally, Joe answered. “He’s a stray. Wandered up soon after Patty got sick,” he paused, then turned to look at the three of them. Randy and Hank looked him eye to eye, unwavering but apologetic. The boy stared at the dog, crying hard now, snot bubbling from his nostrils and his breath coming in wet, sucking sounds. “An accident,” Joe said. “First time hunting. An accident.”
The boy nodded and sobbed something unintelligible. Joe sighed.
“I need to get to Builders Supply, pick up the lumber for the porch ‘fore they close. I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave him wrapped in the tarp around behind the house. I’ll bury him later.”
“We figured the least Sammy could do was bury him for you,” Randy said. The boy nodded his head in agreement and wiped at his nose with his shirtsleeve.
“No call for that,” Joe said. “Mistake’s all it was. Looks as if Sammy’s punishing himself enough as it is. Leave him yonder.” Joe turned and climbed in his truck. Hank and Randy carried the tarp past him, the boy stumbled along a step or two behind them as if he were lost, unsure of his role at this point. They nodded as they returned to their truck and then backed out of the drive. Joe sat for a minute longer, staring at the tarp, before putting his Ford in reverse and driving away, too.
Joe checked his watch as he left the loading dock at Builders Supply. Two-Fifty-Five, probably not enough light left to get much done on the porch today. The weight of the lumber in the back of the truck forced him to keep his speed down, brake sooner. At the edge of town, he slowed even more as he approached the entrance to the Country Club. He had no intention of stopping. What point would it serve? He had things to do, things now complicated further by the Satterfield boys. The Memorial was her parents’ idea, not his. It’s the thing to do, they’d said. Our daughter would want something like this, they’d said. Only a year past and already they were turning her memory into a fundraiser.
Joe shook his head and drove past the entrance.
After unloading the two-by-ten joists and corner posts, Joe stacked the decking a few feet in front of the existing porch, using two-by-fours he’d found in the shed as standards between each row. He placed each board exactly so, uniform, each row repeating the last. He then went back to the shed and found his mattock and shovel, which he carried to the edge of the trees in back of the house, and leaned them against a white oak. He went for the tarp, trying to lift it gently, but the dog’s body had now grown stiff and cumbersome, forcing him to drag the tarp the short distance to the oak tree. Joe grabbed the mattock and paused, studying the ground in front of him before taking it in both hands and raising it over his shoulder, pushing himself onto his toes as he brought the mattock up and over his head, his entire body flexing with the motion as he brought it downward, sinking the blade into the dirt up to the hickory handle. He felt the shock of blade to ground vibrate through bone and muscle. He worked the mattock free and swung again, again, and again. His muscles warming, loosening, his heart pushing the blood along his veins, quicker, stronger, with each arc of the tool. The earth opened, the gash growing methodically each time Joe brought the mattock down. Again and again and again and the breeze lifted and the leaves fell around him and the afternoon spiraled into evening and the evening to night and night to day.
Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native, where he now lives, writes, and teaches. Winchester won the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award. His short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat, was published in 2009. Other work has appeared in Gulf Coast Literary Journal, Barrel House, Story South, Dead Mule and the anthology Everything But the Baby. His creative non-fiction has appeared in the anthology Making Notes: Music in the Carolinas, Tin House and a variety of other publications. Winchester is also a songwriter and bass player with the folk-rock band, Flatland Tourists, whose latest release spent two months in the Top Ten of the Roots Music Charts.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The piece originated from a line in a Shovels and Rope song called “Keeper.” The song is about a man who works away from his wife, on an oil rig, and how he spends passes the time before he sees her again. The line in particular is “waiting on around on something hadn’t happened yet.” That line fixed itself in my mind and I kept thinking about the character who might utter that line in that way. I had no idea of story, only the character and that line. As I wrote, I began to realize what, exactly, the character was “waiting on,” and from there, the story formed. Most of my work unfolds that way—I don’t know my character’s story when I began, but this story surprised me in how completely it was revealed to me during the first revision. While I tinkered a lot with language, the story itself changed very little after the first draft. That doesn’t happen often for me.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Elissa Schappell always told me, “just make the work.” Many English teachers through the years had created this notion in me that writing fiction (or poetry, or songs) was something magical, something that came as an occasional gift from the muses or as a revelation from some spirit being. Elissa’s statement, while maybe not “advice” in the traditional sense, helped me to realize what a crock that notion was. It helped me realize that writing was work—you show up, sit down, and make the work, every day. And yes, I’ve always tried to follow that advice.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Only three to five? That’s tough, but I’ll give it a shot. First, I have to mention Jack London’s Call of the Wild. There’s nothing that remarkable about the book, or London as a writer, but it was the first book I read that made me realize that 1) books—and by books I mean writing, reading, literature in general—could take me anywhere and everywhere; and 2) it was the first time I read something that made me think, I’d like to write a book like this one day. Again, so many others, but worth mentioning are Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, John Hawkes, and most of the absurdist / dark comedians of the sixties and seventies—Vonnegut, Pynchon, Barthe, Keller, etc. More recently, Ron Rash. I suppose that’s a start.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I cannot write in public at all. I’ve tried on a couple of occasions. Didn’t like it and didn’t produce anything worthwhile. Most of my writing is done in my “office” at home, which is nothing more than a large closet with a desk, computer, and bookshelves. Sometimes, if I feel a change of scenery or location might provide a little motivation, I will go into work very early and write in my office there.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, April 2013, Volume 37. We are happy to give the story new life online in Prime Number Magazine.