|John M. Cummings
During breakfast, our dog started barking. Then there was a rap on the door. Mom, Peg, and I looked at one another. Mom, wiping her hands on her apron, stood and went to the blinds. It was Skip Howell from her office, she said. She stood out on the porch with him for a few minutes, then came back in and waited at the window, watching him leave. With a perplexed look, she turned and said he had stopped by with a question about billing information.
More like to nose around, Peg said.
Mom said it wasnt like him, but still asked, Does he know Billy?
Billy was Pegs estranged husband. Estranged, ha. More like nuts. He had come at her with a pipe wrench three days ago. I wasnt scared of him. At 15, I was already two inches taller than him. I weighed more too. But Peg was scared and had been staying with us ever since. She was an old friend of the family. Mom knew her mother from way back.
She had no choice in leaving, Mom had been reassuring her every day. He was violent. What would have happened if she had stayed? Her children were safe with her mother-in-law for the time being. She would have her day in court. She already had an appointment with an attorney. Mom was running out of things to say.
As soon as she sat down, Black Spot started barking again. Mom, figuring it was Skip again, went to the window with less concern in her step.
Oh there he is! she cried out.
I got up and ran over just in time to see Billy Wilt sneaking past our house. He had his hands jammed in his pockets and his collar turned up, hiding his mean, ugly ears. As he passed, he was glancing over, trying to get a look at Peg.
Oh, that man, my mother said, anger shuddering through her voice. Kevin, now you stay back.
I stepped back and stood with Peg in the middle of the living room, while Mom went on looking out. He was going on up the alley, she said. In the same breath, she asked Peg if she thought he would be violent.
If hes been drinking, she said.
When I started upstairs, Mom called after me, wanting to know where I was going. I was looking for my bat, I called down. I thought I had left it near her rocker, but all I found was a yardstick in the corner.
As I was coming back down, we heard glass breaking behind the house. Mom, her face lined with fear, told us to stay put. She stepped out back and stood on the steps, then came back in moments later, saying that if he was out there, she sure couldnt see him. She didnt see anything broken, either. She re-bolted the back door, and three of us stood in the safest part of the house, wondering what we should do next. Mom said she ought to call the police.
Just then, Black Spot let out another terrific racket, Mom rushed to the window, and I followed. Billy Wilt was on our steps! He was already halfway up, and our dog was lunging down at him to the end of his chain, slobbering, half-choking himself. Peg, meanwhile, had gone to the other window, and when Billy saw her through the blinds, he went into a fit, swearing and jabbing his finger at her. That sent Black Spot into his own fit, but for all his noise, he did little good. Billy was still coming up, testing how far our mouthy dog could reach.
Mom, horrified by all his foul language, told us both to get back, but Peg, before either of us could stop her, opened the front door and stepped out. She stood on the top step with her arms crossedwhile he called her every name in the book. Mom covered her mouth. Then Billy spotted me looking over her shoulder.
Faggot! he hissed. Cocksucking faggot!
Mom let out a cry. I was scared, but I was also mesmerized. Until now I had never heard him say anything other than hello.
He went on spitting foul words, Black Spot went on trying to rip out his jugular, and Peg went on standing there, arms crossed, giving him a look that said she had married a perfectly ugly man. Meanwhile, our neighbors started gawking up at the commotion, and thank God, a police car turned up the hill at that moment. Billy saw it coming, backed down the steps with a few more threats, then hurried up the alley.
I darted out the back door, Mom calling out after me. I crossed the lot and came out near the Richmonds house. But he had disappeared, gone some other way. I checked the alley, the walk in front of the church, and the church parking lot. Nothing. I ran down the steps to Saber Street, looking from side to side.
He couldnt have gone far. I headed for the sandbars, thinking he would go there to brood. I did. Along the river, trees hung low, making it dark and shadowy under the limbs. I slowed to a walk in the deepening sand. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw himhe was standing on top of the mill ruins, glaring down at me.
He hopped down and landed just feet from me. His face up close was a shockbony, pale, full of whiskersand his eyes were practically falling out they were so wet. Something popped out of his pocket when he landed and hit the large rock near us. We both looked down at the same time. It was his pipe. The curved part lay in a spot of sunlight, making a small shadow of itself on the stone. Around it in the sand lay several pens, one green, another blue. There was even a short yellow pencil with a metal compass attached to it. All this had come out of his pocket.
He cussed as he bent down to pick it all up. His pipe, he picked up last, and when he stood up, he tapped the bowl against his palm, emptying out the rest of the tobacco. I was taller, even with my shoes shifted down in the soft sand.
I know your father, boy, he said, pointing the mouth end of the pipe at me.
He said this as if it should mean something to me, or as if I ought to say something back. Then, the dirtiest, ugliest, trickiest grin broke over his face.
Here, he said, holding out his hand, I wanna shake your hand.
I stood close enough to see chewing tobacco in his teeth and white and gray whiskers all over his face. He was only in his late thirties, Mom said.
Take it, he said, sticking his hand closer.
I looked down at his hand as the obvious trap it was. It was filthy except for a wedding band, which was so golden it gleamed in the light. Only one other thing in town was so goldenthe steeple of St. Peters church. On the same finger was a grungy Band-aid.
When I refused to shake his hand, he looked at me with hateful, burnt-up eyes and tried his best to insult me, calling me a home wrecker, calling my mother and father home wreckers, all of us do-gooding bastards.
What the hell you all got against me? he said, falling back a step. What? I wanna know. His face lost all its hardness, and his voice started to whine.
I couldnt answer him. One look at himhis skinny, unshaven face, his dirty shirt, and his hair like a mop in oiland I knew none of my reasons was enough.
What, you all think youre better than me cause youre from town? he said.
If I was going to say anything to him, it would be to tell him to forget about Peg, to have some self-respect and move on.
Im an electricccian, he said, slurring the word. I worked at Colhouse.
Colhouse Industries was a big toaster and microwave plant across the state line in Maryland. He held up his hands for me to see. He was trained, he said. He wasnt no redneck. It was then I saw a half-finished bottle of beer on the log behind him, the foam filling up the top of the bottle. Nearby were a few empty bottles.
Look, he said, taking out his wallet. It was a black, ragged lump of leather, thick with sleeves and slots. When he tried to take out a single card, the whole grimy leather mess slipped out of his hands and cracked open in the sand. He reached down but stumbled, kicking sand all over it. When he finally got the tattered card out, he held it close to his eyes.
WV certified for electrical construction.
He sounded like a fourth grader reading. Then he held out the card out for me, but I wouldnt take it.
What the hell shed tell you about me? he said. That I dont work? He stood clutching the messy wallet in his fist, an accordion of family pictures dangling down. I work. He stepped closer.
I was on autopilot, not feeling, not reacting, blank-faced, motionless, tense inside and ready to back up if I had to.
Shes my wife!
He screamed this so hard he knocked himself off balance, and when he stepped to the side into the deepening sand, his shoes sank in, like mine. I was 15. He was at least 35, looked 55, but we were the same height and I probably weighed more. I could smell beer on his breath.
Shit, youre just a boy, he said, smiling suddenly.
He turned, stopped to reach down and grab his beer, then started staggering off, his big boots mashing holes in the sand.
Somebody should take your mother away, boy, he said over his shoulder. His plain blue mechanics shirt was pulled out in back. See how it feels.
Then he stopped, turned around, and came all the way back to me, beer bottle hooked over one finger, wallet crushed in his other fist, guts of pictures hanging down.
Im proud to be from the mountain, boy. Im proud to
He staggered off, and this time didnt stop.
I looked down. He had dropped his wallet. Stretched across the sand, like film yanked out of a camera, was an accordion of pictures in foggy plastic sleeves. I waited until he was out of sight, then hurried over. As I stooped down and picked up the stretched out mess of pictures, I felt I was saving something mutilated. With no effort, the unfolded pictures, following the creases in plastic sleeves, fell back into a stack. I glanced around to make sure he had left, then started looking at them, one by one.
There were half a dozen Sears family photos, everyone grouped together, dressed up, and smiling. I hardly recognized them, they looked so young and thin. His daughter Terri, my age, actually looked pretty in one. There was one of Billy Junior in little green coveralls and a cap. It reminded me of Moms baby pictures on the pie safe at home. The fake blue sky made them all seem so happy.
There was even a picture of just Billy and Peg. He had his arm around her, and his eyes werent black and burnt up. With his shorter beard, I could see how a woman might find him handsome. There were more and more pictures of the kids. They kept unfolding and stretching out like a treasure he had been collecting all his life. I stood flipping through them all until I felt a smile curving higher and higher through my cheeks.
At the beginning of all these pictures was an old black-and-white photograph of a woman. She looked familiar. Her hair was balled up on top, and she looked as glamorous as a movie star. Written on back was Arlingdale Academy for the Arts, Fort Washington, MD. 1947.
I started going through the slots in his wallet. The leather felt as grimy inside as outside. There was an Elk Hunting Lodge parking pass, an AA code of ethics card, bits of paper with names and numbers written on them, a Mobile gas card, and a business card for Angies Florist. There was also a Saber Hill Public Library card. I wanted to laugh. I had one, too, and never used it. On his social security card was his full name, William Ernest Wilt, his signature, which looked fancy for a man, and his birth date, 4/13/65. He was exactly 20 years and three months older than me. There was no drivers license or money.
I stood holding the wallet, wondering what to do with it. I thought about leaving it on the sand. Then something caught me eye. I would wish it hadnt. It was a sheet of lined notebook paper folded over and over until it was so small it fit wedged into the tiny inner slot of the wallet. I knew it was something secret as I pulled it out and unfolded it. It was a letter that read:
Dr. Williams says I have a mouth cancer. I am going to see a specialist in Winchester the first of the month. Mom is going to drive me since the truck tires are too bad to go that far.
Do not feel sorry for me! I am writing because I WANT to make amends. I love you and always will!! I know I am not the best man for you. You said it best when you said that people on the mountain put themselves down. I finally figured out I put myself down by drinking. My counselor at AA tells me the same thing. He is encouraging me to get my GED. His name is Ed, and guess what?he knew Marg Baker when she lived up here.
I know you do not owe me anything, but for the sake of the children, please come back home and do not divorce me now. If I loose you, I will have nothing to go on for. You always said I never showed my feelings. You were right. But I still remember the good old days when I was working full-time and prey to God that we can have those days again. I will start going to church again if you want.
Do NOT tell mom about this letter!! You know how she is.
Your loving husband,
P.S. I have started work on the back kitchen, as you always wanted.
I didnt know if he was more ridiculous than he was pathetic, and for that reason, part of me wanted to throw both wallet and letter into the river. Instead I reread it, stopped in places by his sloppy cursive. Then I folded it up, put it back in its hiding place, and started glancing back through the pictures, looking for one in particular. He was much younger. If I didnt know who he was, I would say he was a normal person. What could have gone wrong? It seemed he had so much to be proud of.
I started back to town. In the parking lot, I found a brown souvenir bag pretty much unwrinkled. I put the wallet in it and folded the edges of the bag around it, the way a clerk would. When I got home, I managed to hide the bag behind my back while Mom asked me where I had gone and what had happened. I found Peg upstairs.
Billy dropped this, I said, handing her the bag.
The way I said his name was spooky to her. Her face got crossed up with ten different expressions, and as she looked inside the bag, she seemed to expect anything from a tarantula to The Hope Diamond.
When she saw his wallet, she was full of questions. I answered all to her satisfaction, except one.
Whatd you two talk about?
It was obvious I was hiding something, but I kept shrugging and saying nothing until she gave up. Then she closed the bag without taking the wallet out or even touching it.
Arent you going to look in it? I said.
Lines shot down her forehead. What for? She held the bag out for me to give to my mother to drop off at the post office. They would mail it to him. Theres nothing in it anyway. Then she laughed bitterly. Thats always been the problem.