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He was presumptuous and loose-mouthed, not that I didn't like talking myself but believed it unseemly in a man, especially Horace Puckett. Horace Horsecollar I called him, that first name a mockery of the Latin poet, one of whose Sabine odes I'd translated during my senior year at St. Elizabeth's by the Sea.
Horace Horsecollar arrived to fix my furnace. I'd been left the house by my father, who for seventeen years and to the day he died served as chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Howell County, Virginia, a tobacco-growing region shaped like a teardrop dangling above central North Carolina. You couldn't throw a stone to the border, but you might've reached it with birdshot.
I was no prude. I'd been married to a slim, lovely man who made good money selling cemeteries through the pine-ragged region. Some would not consider that a lofty business, but the South reverences graveyards.
He'd drive to a small community, find fifty acres in an outlying districtoften sprouting pigweed, honeysuckle, thistlesand purchase the land to clear and seed it with fescue, pampas grass, and weeping willows. He'd next asphalt access roads. At the center he'd build a knoll on which to erect a concrete statue of Christ holding two sleeping lambs.
"Thumb rule is thirty people got to be planted before I come out whole on the deal," Henry had calculated, meaning that number needed to meet their Maker.
Course his own plot cost him nothing. As he sat at the table eating eggsover, link sausage, and grits, he looked at me as if about to ask a question. Words never emerged from his lips. He bowed to his plate in a close-eyed silent devotion.
I laid him out on the breakfast-room floor and called Dr. Belotte, though I saw by the distant set in Henry's china blue eyes the phone was no use. Country folk learn early the sight of death, which is as common as ticks, Jap beetles, and corn-house mice.
My Henry left me well fixed. I kept the business running till a man from Danville named MacMasters bought it. I then drove to the Planter's National Bank and got Carrington Epes, the president, to invest the money in stocks and bonds. Each quarter Carrington stopped by my house carrying a report. I saved more than I spent, which my father taught me, saying, "What you don't need, you won't miss; and what you won't miss, you don't need."
When my father died, I inherited his money and that house too, which had belonged in the family five generations. My Henry and I'd never had children, and sometimes I felt lonely. Men asked me out to dine, but I figured they were primarily chasing my dollars. People said I was too particular.
The house been built a piece at a time, a bedroom added here, a parlor there, as needed. Bricks baked of clay right on the place had been pocked by Yankee bullets, and horseshoe prints scarred the front stairs where a Connecticut captain had galloped his horse to the second floor to saber down a chandelier. Often the rooms were cold even during June.
I toured England, France, and Italy. Several times a year I drove my Buick to Raleigh or Winston-Salem to see a play and attend the opera. Mostly I enjoyed staying home keeping up my garden and collecting antique silver napkin rings. I owned one authenticated to have belonged to Dolly Madison.
The furnace gave trouble. It was old, ugly, a beast installed when every room had been used, an oil burner that circulated hot water. I phoned a Farmville heating contractor, who sent out a uniformed repairman driving a shiny red van that had on the side a coat of arms that resembled a golden commode seat surrounding two plumber's helpers rampant. He scratched his head, fingered a pocket calculator, and gave me a price for replacement that took my breath.
I gave to charity, never to foolishness. I solicited and received other bids, higher and lower, all outrageous. "They don't make them anymore," was a refrain that beat my ears. While I was having my hair done at the Little Ritz Hair Salon, Windy Belle, the ageless flame-headed proprietress, suggested Horace Puckett.
"He's good fixing," Windy said. "Saved the pump at the middle school. Would've cost county money set aside to paint the water tank."
I phoned the Dew Drop Inn where Horace reportedly checked by daily. He didn't own a line himself. I found that unpromising. Still I left word, and he appeared at the house on a damp, blowing Wednesday when my maid, Lucinda, took her half day off. He drove a poky. black Ford truck that must've been around when pickups were first hatched. It did appear clean and well maintained.
I expected a big man, but he was short, chunky, and you could've bounced a ball through those bowlegs. He had a bushy black mustache. He wore sagging gray coveralls, a leather jacket, and a billed blue cap that displayed a green largemouth bass leaping after a golden dragonfly.
He knocked at my front door. I realized I'd seen him around Tobaccoton, possibly standing under shade of the courthouse elm during fierce heat of our southside summers or maybe in front of the Dark Leaf Warehouse during market days when the auctioneer's chant made dollar music for the planters.
"Heard you having trouble firing up," he said, his voice deliberate and not to be hurried. His accent was southern, but not Howell County southern.
I sent him around back to the outside basement entrance because I wasn't in the habit of letting laborers come through the front door or the kitchen one either if it could be avoided. I assumed he didn't know better. I switched on the basement lights and raised my palm to indicate the furnace. He set on steel-rimmed glasses, whistled, tipped back his cap, grinned. His oversized teeth protruded, his top lip never quite covering them.
"A furnace is the heart of a house," he said. "Ain't she a beauty?"
"Some have called this one a monster," I said.
"They don't know. She's a Minnesota Maid. Built in Duluth and originally burned coal. One thing you got to say about Yankees is they can put together a gauldern furnace. She sick huh?"
"She provides only feeble heat," I said, thinking how absurd it was to be using gender when talking about a machine.
"She's poorly then. Working good, she'd have you opening windows and switching on fans. I'll get a tool or two and have a peek I will."
"I trust you know what you're doing."
"Won't cost you a cent to find out," he said and gazed at me out of eyes the color of chestnuts, a direct and penetrating scrutiny, causing me to lean back as if nudged.
With a rolling gait he left the basement and returned to his pickup. The heavy toolbox he carried back made him list to his right. Large steel wrenches he lifted from it looked as if they'd been not only wiped but polished.
When he started tugging, pounding, and grunting, I left. Inside the house, his work banged through the pipes and radiators. I phoned Carrington Epes.
"Never heard a complaint about his work," Carrington said. "Had a note here at the bank and paid it off on time. Pretty much sticks to himself. Owns his house."
"He's making infernal noises in my basement."
"Don't suppose you can work on a furnace quietly," Carrington said, and I realized he was being patient with a fussy widow woman. I hung up.
I sat in the kitchen where I kept the electric cook stove switched on to stay warm. I also wore my hat, wool coat, and gloves. More hammering and screeching of rusty fixtures. When I could endure the noise no longer, I walked down the inside steps. Parts lay all over the concrete floor.
"Mineral deposits," Horace said. "Water around here. Mostly limestone calcium. Clogged your pipes."
"I do not have pipes," I said.
"This old gal does. You shivering upstairs?"
"I can survive as long as I'm confident you'll have her-itfixed by dark. It's a cold house at the best of times."
"Doing my derndest," he said and winked. "Course my stomach's rubbing my backbone."
I fixed a ham sandwich and a bowl of bean soup, which I carried down to him. I didn't wait but left him eating standing up. When I again heard pipes clattering, I opened the basement door. He'd set his plate and bowl on the threshold.
At dark he was still working. I called my cousin Florence in Blackstone and asked could I come stay the night. Just as I finished packing a bag, all racket stopped, and the furnace hummed. I laid my hand on a radiator and felt heat seep into the iron conduits.
I went to the basement. Horace had gathered his tools and was sweeping. The furnace rumbled quietly. I looked at the water-pressure gauge as my Henry used to do. It read 20 psi, exactly what it was supposed to.
"She'll last if you care for her," Horace said. "Ought to have her gone over yearly. Clean her tubes."
"I'd like to contract with you to do that for me."
"Nope," he said, dumped his sweepings in the trash barrel, and put on his jacket and cap. "I work for people who think I'm good enough to be invited inside. You wouldn't even have me up to eat my soup and sandwich. I'm making out your bill here, which comes to forty dollars. It'd been less if you hadn't made me feel I smelled like a wet dog."
"I didn't mean to make you feel anything. I am a woman living alone."
"I know what you are and who I am," he said. He pinched a pencil stub from behind an ear and wrote on a pad pulled from a jacket pocket. He presented the bill. He had a nice hand, the printing precise and level across the page. "I wouldn't've come in your house. I just expected to be treated respectful."
"I'm sorry," "I said. I don't like hurting anyone's feelings."
"I have yet to mark your bill paid," he said. "No credit."
I gave him my check, stood at a parlor window, and watched him drive off. What bothered me more than his ridiculous feelings was the likelihood I'd need him again during the winter to tend the brute.
He'd displayed a certain countrified dignity and obviously possessed a talent with machinery, which he thought of as female, but I wasn't really sorry I'd not allowed him in my house. After all on leaving, he'd smelled strongly of tobacco, fuel oil, and sweat.
I didn't see Horace Horsecollar again till summer, a July scorcher, the roadside dust swirling and abrasive, the birds too heat-smitten to move off the tree limbs or the power lines. I'd driven to downtown Tobaccoton for my dental appointment, and as I was leaving Dr. Moss's office over the Acme Drugstore a man at the curb called out, "Long live the queen."
Horace didn't just remove his cap. As he bowed he swept it almost to the gritty sidewalk. The gesture unbalanced him, and he staggered drunk. He began attempting to unbutton his coveralls. A pale, stooped man wearing paint-spattered Levi's and a sleeveless T-shirt walked from the drugstore and righted him.
"Got no coat," Horace said. "Need to spread something on the ground so Queenie don't dirty her shoes."
"Sorry, lady," the man said. He supported Horace and moved him away along the sidewalk. People watched and whispered.
"Disgusting," I said to Carl Pickney, the town policeman. "You're not going to arrest him?"
"Hate to do that," Carl said, his face ruddy, his meaty thumbs hooked over the thick black leather belt of his gray uniform. "Had a daughter who died."
I felt shame, though at the moment there was nothing I could do. The pale stooped man helped Horace on down the street. Horace still attempted to unbutton his coveralls. I drove home, stewed, and called Ike St. Clair. Ike was Tobaccoton's mayor and the John Deere tractor dealer. He knew everything about everybody in town and around Howell County.
"Car wreck," he said. "A year ago while you were in Europe. Killed the girl. Pretty little sixteen-year-old, her Honda rammed by a logging truck. Horace awarded a court judgment, but the truck owner carried no insurance. Horace had big bills to meet at the Farmville hospital."
"Not natives of the county," I said. "Otherwise I'd have heard."
"From the Tennessee hills. Not much formal education but a proud man. Wife already dead. Stayed around to work and pay the bills. Got into Howell County helping install the heating plant at the high school. Been here since. Went on a fling remembering the girl's birthday. Those mountain folks keep to their own code."
"He's talented with furnaces," I said.
"Word is he can fix everything but a broken heart," Ike said.
So I naturally felt terrible, yet didn't know how to show contrition. I couldn't send flowers to a man. I sat at my rosewood Queen Anne secretary and wrote him a note, explaining I'd just heard of his misfortune and wanted to express my sympathy. I asked whether he had a favorite charity I might contribute to.
I received no acknowledgement. Perhaps I shouldn't have expected any. Men didn't answer notes, at least his kind wouldn't. At September's first chill, I nervously switched on the creature, but it, she, worked perfectly. I felt benign vibrations through my heart-of-pine floors, and the crystal quivered faintly in my china cabinet.
The ferociously cruel winter didn't strike till mid-January, and then it seemed the wind intended to scythe Howell County off the face of the earth. Ice storms followed by swirling snows battered us. Everywhere branches broke from trees, fracturing a thousand limbs.
Electric lines snapped. The fiend couldn't run without power, and despite Lucinda and I toting wood to fireplaces till we became frazzled, radiators in the upstairs bedrooms froze. When heat did clank back on, they burst, and my house became flooded with cascades of water. Then arctic cold assaulted us a second time, and icicles hung from the parlor ceiling.
For the remainder of the winter, I moved in with cousin Florence. She owned a modern brick housesmall, tight, confining. I was accustomed to space and lived in a frenzy of worry about my possessions. I had brought along my silver napkin rings, jewelry, and a photograph of Henry. The grim winter seemed endless, fraught with sleet, freezing rain, and evil winds till April. There were days I believed the sun and warmth would never again bless this earth.
When I returned to Tobaccoton, I could find no one to fix my house. Our entire populace suffered repair problems. Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers were all spoken for. The few who came just to take a look at my trouble shook their heads. Too big a job, they said. The old houses were difficult to deal with at the best of times.
I thought of Horace. "Fix everything but a broken heart." I remembered you reached him at the Dew Drop Inn. I called and left my number.
I heard nothing. I was now staying at the Farmville Motel, my lodging paid for through homeowner's coverage. I again phoned Ike at the mayor's office. He gave me Horace's address.
I drove north of town, crossed Rosemary Creek, and found the house at the end of a dirt roadtiny, white clapboard, yet neat, freshly painted, storm windows, no mess, the yard growing grass that had been mowed and raked. A tire swing hung by a rope from the limb of a hackberry. Nobody answered my knock. To his door I pinned a note pleading desperation. I underlined the word Please.
Horace surprised me Saturday afternoon. I didn't hear him drive up in the same ancient pickup. Lucinda was washing windows and I working in my garden planting a row of snap beans. We'd been keeping house the best we could, but it had taken on an abandoned, forlorn appearance. Nothing seemed in order.
Once the garden had been my refuge, but now the soil betrayed me and felt hard, unyielding, the enemy. I pounded my hoe against hateful jagged clods. The blows jarred my arms, causing a shoulder to ache so badly I couldn't sleep on that side.
"Clay," Horace said behind me. "You ought to cover her with cow droppings and lime, plow her under, let her rest a year, and then plow her again."
"You're kind to come," I said, thinking gardens like machinery possessed female gender. "I'm very sorry about the losses in your family."
"Well I reckon I'm sorry about the way I behaved downtown," he said. "Don't usually act the fool. Likely you're wanting me to fix up your house."
"I'd be obliged if you'd look and tell me what you're able to do."
"I expect this is one time you'll have to let me through the door," he said.
I thought it best to let the remark pass. He entered with me from the back porch. He put on his glasses and stayed less than five minutes strolling through rooms, his hands clasped behind him. When he left by way of the kitchen, I waited for him to spit as most men do before making decisions, even some well-bred ones. Horace didn't.
"Can and will do the work," he said.
"About the price," I said, noticing his coveralls were creased and his mustache had been trimmed. He undoubtedly believed in order.
"Won't charge you more than anyone else," he said.
I hesitated. I wanted numbers written down. Still I remembered his reputation for honest work, and I was so desperate I would've agreed to most anything except selling my napkin rings.
"That's satisfactory," I said. "I'll pay your bill."
He reset his cap, walked to his pickup, and backed it to the house. Using those long-handled wrenches that were so immaculate he began freeing the burst radiators. Because they were extremely heavy, he drove into town and returned with a black man named Ben Randolph to help carry the radiators out. When Horace quit that night, he hauled them off.
He went at the house full tilt, arriving mornings just at daybreak, working till noon, and taking twenty minutes for lunch. He ate sandwiches he carried in a paper sack and drank coffee from his thermos while sitting under shade of the pecan tree in the back yard. He obviously didn't expect me to feed him.
When town water was cut on and Lucinda and I were able to use my kitchen, I offered him a chicken leg and slice of my brown sugar pie. I made a point of inviting him to come through the kitchen door, and he accepted. I seated him not in the kitchen but at the breakfast-room table. He removed his cap and with bowed head gave a silent, lip-moving thanks. It was pleasant once again to feed a man.
"He work a mule into the grave," Lucinda said. A white cloth tied about her head, she moved slowly but steadily. Her children clipped my hedges, raked my leaves, and gathered blackberries that grew around the pond in the low ground.
Horace did seem to know how to do everything. He tore down plaster, replaced wiring, and installed new lathing. I occasionally stopped my work to watch him. He had short, stubby fingers, yet as they soldered copper joints or mitered strips of molding, they appeared artistic too, so surely placed and seeming to possess instinct and knowledge without specific direction from him.
While I watched him thread and precisely fit a pipe into a T-coupling, those hands caused me to undergo a sensual experience, a feeling very much as if his fingers had touched my bare breasts. Quickly I turned away. The incident was ridiculous and embarrassing. I never told anybody, not even my cousin Florence or my closest friend Emily Baskerville.
I offered to pay Horace the Saturday afternoon of each week. He did turn over to me the invoices from Birdsong Brothers Building & Supply but never asked for wages.
"Just as soon hold off till I complete the job," he said, using his limp cap to wipe sweat from his porous forehead. The summer continued hot and dry, the air woolly, flaying, the dust never settling. Often Horace seemed at the center of that dust.
"You must need money," I said, a bit uneasy. I liked to know exactly where I stood with any undertaking. Still I was very pleased with his work.
"No'm, I don't. Maybe I look poorboy, but they glad to see me down at the bank. Besides you might not be altogether satisfied with the work I'm doing around your place."
"I can tell you right here and now such won't be the case," I said and smiled. He simply stared, those unblinking chestnut eyes again making me feel I'd been nudged.
I was picking up my life in the community. I played cards twice a week and took part in the St. Matthew's Summer Bazaar where I sold cakes, pies, and favors. I gave a bridal party for the daughter of Elvira Lilly, another dear friend. Truth is many people looked to me socially because both my father and my Henry had been so prominent in Tobaccoton. I was certainly the best bridge player and the only lady who'd ever been to an inaugural ball at the governor's mansion.
By summer's end, Horace had nearly completed his work. I was again able to live in my house. He still had to refinish floors and weld the old dragon's boiler, which had split a seam. When all was done, I intended to give a party.
Finally, the second week in September, a chilly rainy day, he turned on heat. I sat upstairs in my bedroom but sensed a slight tremor through the house. I crossed to a front window and laid my fingers on the radiator. Within minutes I felt warmth.
I hurried down the steps to the back porch. He was carrying tools from the basement to his truck. He looked dirty, weary, the cold drizzle streaking black smudges down his face. I smiled at his bowlegged gait, careful not to let him see.
"'Bout done all I can 'round here," he said.
"Come in the kitchen while I get my checkbook," I said. I'd really grown rather fond of him. Nobody could've been more devoted to a job. I again had my house well and whole.
"Don't need your checkbook," he said and wiped rain from his face as he stood at the foot of the steps. He peered up at me, his wet mustache drooping.
"You'll catch your death out here," I said. "Are you telling me you need time to tote up your bill?"
"Nope I don't."
"What then?" I asked and felt a twinge of alarm. I wished he weren't standing in the mean drizzle.
"You sure you pleased with your house?"
"Indeed I am. I've bragged on you to all the ladies. Do you need pencil and paper? I have them in the kitchen."
"No'm, though I may need a new shirt."
"You tore your shirt?" I asked, puzzled because he wore only coveralls, each pair clean and pressed at the days' beginnings.
"No'm. What I'd like is to accompany you to church next Sunday. Regular service. Hope for you to take my arm going up and down the steps. I want to sit beside you and share a hymnbook. Afterwards be nice for you to introduce me around so I can shake a few hands."
"I don't see how you can expect me to agree to that," I said when I had control of my voice. I thought of Emily Baskerville, Elvira Lilly, Mary Louise Vassour, and Bernice Boatwright. I saw them seeing me enter St. Matthew's on the arm of Horace Puckett. The very idea was too ridiculous for words.
"That's my price," he said, dripping. "You told me you'd pay it. I took your word."
"I want to give you money," I said. "Any court in the world would say all I owe is money."
"Won't be a court. Either you pay or you don't. You're old enough to have learned money don't buy everything."
He turned and carried the last of his tools to his truck. I entered the house both shocked and suppressing laughter. His bill was so absurd as to be idiotic. I stopped. There I stood in my warm and mended house. I thought of his fingers' grace and the beauty they'd restored. But to take him to St. Matthew's when if he belonged to any denomination at all it had to be to some evangelical, wailing sect of rednecks. A new shirt. I would simply send him a check.
I sat at my secretary, calculated the number of weeks he'd worked, and phoned the bank to ask Carrington Epes the going hourly rate for carpenters. I then multiplied, licked an envelope, and dropped the check in the mail.
It wasn't cashed. Each month when my bank statement arrived I frowned at the entries. I didn't know what to do next. I thought of writing a second check. There was no more reason to believe he would cash it than the first. I phoned the Dew Drop Inn and left word for Horace to call. He did not.
Howell County suffered through another dreadful winter. The snowfall and early freeze set records, yet the furnace purred like a contented tigeror tigress. Only when the electricity shut off for a few hours did I feel fright. I was able to entertain my bridge club and have Father Buford, our pastor at St. Matthew's, to dinner. Mornings as I drank hot tea, I watched icicles beneath the house's eaves lengthen and glitter. They became rainbow spectra in the sunlight.
With the flowering of dogwood blooms and the four-note plaints of mourning doves, a bad conscience continued to nag me. Horace had still not banked my check. I considered leaving cash on his doorstep, but that was foolish, the amount much too large, and anybody could pick it up. I thought perhaps he'd fled town, yet Saturday on my way to the Little Ritz I passed him in his truck. Though I raised my hand, he didn't appear to see me.
I spoke to Father Buford after Easter services. He was a slender young man who wore tweedy jackets with his clerical collars. Though only a few years out of the seminary and modern in many ways, I liked him but didn't care for his face squinching up in laughter when I mentioned my dilemma.
"You shrink from bringing a sheep into God's flock?" he asked. "You think we should allow only Howell County's finest to sit in our pews? Please, Flora, whom did Our Savior come to serve?"
I left the church ladened with guilt, drove across the rain-swollen Rosemary Creek, and stopped before Horace's house. He sat on his little porch smoking a cigarette and reading the Farmville Herald. He wore a clean undershirt and khaki trousers but was barefooted. I'd scarcely ever seen my Henry's long, bony feet. Horace stood for me.
"If you'll call for me next Sunday at ten forty-five, I'll be ready," I said. "Are we to go in your pickup?"
"She don't buck," he said, no change of expression.
I lived the rest of the week in dread. I started to call the ladies, yet how to explain? I imagined their carryings-on behind my back. Phone lines would sizzle. I'd simply have to hold my head high and endure.
Horace arrived on time. Rather than let him come through the front door, I met him on the porch. He wore a dark stiff suit, a vest, a white shirt, and a brown tie. He doffed a gray fedora. His shoes were boxy and thickly soled. I suspected all his clothes were new.
"We might take my car," I offered.
"Nope," he said.
I could've worn a white dress. The interior of the pickup gleamed. He must've scoured every inch of itor her. As we climbed the steps to the church, I obediently took his arm. I felt his firm strength. I intercepted amused glances from members of the congregation and held my eyes steady. Father Buford preached on "The Least of These." He grinned when he laid the host upon my tongue.
Afterwards I introduced Horace to those who stopped by my pew. Many men apparently knew him and seemed genuinely glad to have him at St. Matthew's. A few ladies simpered, but Emily and Elvira squeezed my hand.
Horace drove me home and accompanied me up to the front porch. The phone was ringing. I wondered which of the ladies would be first to call. Horace hesitated, no doubt waiting to be invited in.
I smiled, told him I expected him to cash my check, and turned to the door. He set his hat on squarely and without a word marched down the steps. As he walked toward his pickup, I saw that rigid pride and hurt dignity in his stride. He'd been a gentleman after his fashion. He was surely no horsecollar. I again remembered his hands, those fingers so full of assurance, tenderness, and repair.
I called to him. Lucinda's buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken were in the refrigerator. He returned toward the house, and when he climbed the steps, I started to direct him to wipe his feet on the mat but caught myself and merely opened the front door wide enough for us both to enter.