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"The first time I ever saw Harley, he was wearing my pants. I knew they were mine—they were the ones with the ink stain on the back pocket." -Jake Mahaffey
Jake started keeping a journal at the age of thirty-two precisely because of what happened that day at the picnic. Somehow it seemed important. It all began at the annual fried chicken and potato salad affair held by Sutter’s Cross Community Church at the old pavilion down by the Elder River. Jake was standing by the tea table talking to Orde Wingo and filling a plastic cup from a jug marked Sweet Tea, when Orde spotted what appeared to be a homeless person in the buffet line. He peered over his glasses, nudged Jake, and pointed with his eyes.
"Friend of yours?"
Jake followed Orde’s stare to the lanky intruder standing with his back to them, waiting in line with a paper plate in his hand.
"Nope, never seen him before. I would have figured him for one of your kinfolks if he didn’t have so much hair," he said, and glanced sidelong at Orde’s new toupee, the latest attempt to cover what had been the target of jokes for years; kids called him "Orde the Gourd" behind his back. "He’s probably just a hiker passing through."
"I don’t think so," Orde said. "I mean, look at him."
He had a point. The man stood out like a horsefly in a punch bowl. He came out of nowhere and showed up at the buffet table with a wild mop of dark hair, a week’s growth of whiskers on his face, ill-fitting clothes, and without a trace of khaki. His boots were old and scuffed and muddy. They were work boots, definitely not L.L.Bean.
"Last time I saw something like that, it was living under an expressway bridge down in Atlanta," Orde muttered.
"I’ll go talk to him," Jake said. He was something of an outsider himself, having moved into the valley only ten years before, after marrying Lori. He figured he’d better do something before Orde did.
"Well, if you’re going to tell him to hit the bricks, do it quietly, Jake. We don’t want a scene."
Jake shook his head. "I don’t think we should run him off. If he’s hungry, I say let him eat. There’s plenty of food, and he’s not bothering anybody." He sipped his tea and stared at the ink stain. "I just want to know why he’s wearing my pants."
He was ten feet away before he heard Orde’s startled reaction: "Your what?"
Jake took a paper plate and fell in line behind his jeans. He expected to encounter a wave of body odor but he didn’t; all he smelled was fried chicken.
"Excuse me," he said. "I’m Jake Mahaffey. I don’t believe we’ve met."
The stranger turned. His hair, flecked with leaf matter and infringing on his face, had the same dull chaotic quality Jake had seen in his retriever’s coat right before it died. The man’s face was a twisted geography of misfortune and abuse: a faint purple-and-yellow bruise tinged the left jaw from ear to chin, and a dry but unsutured cut zigged like a black lightning bolt across his cheekbone. Oddest of all, his face looked warped, reminding Jake of an old pine board. He held his chin way over to the right, Popeye style, which made him appear belligerent. Or stupid. Or both.
But he held Jake for a moment with calm gray eyes, long enough for Jake to see something. His eyes smiled a little at the corners but they didn’t laugh—definitely not the eyes of a dull mind. Already, in those first few seconds, Jake had begun to sense a quiet, transcendent awareness.
The stranger fumbled the plate to his left hand so he could shake with his right. The beginnings of a smile parted his lips for a second, then he winced and the smile went away. The sinewy strength of his hand told Jake he wasn’t a bum or an accountant, but someone acquainted with hard work. He still hadn’t spoken, and Jake was beginning to wonder if he could.
"Do you have a name?" Jake asked gently. He half expected the man to answer in sign language.
The stranger looked at his plate, then his gaze wandered away beyond the rocks, down to the river. The pavilion stood on a low rocky promontory that jutted out into a horseshoe bend where the Elder River ran slow and deep and green, undercutting the steep ridge on the far side and gathering itself for a thundering leap over the falls half a mile downstream. Children loved to pick their way down to the little stretch of beach on the point and play in the numbing cold water while their mothers sat on the rocks hugging their knees, fretting, ever conscious of the current with the falls so near, where the river plummeted two hundred feet into a rocky gorge. The man stared for nearly a minute at the deepest part of the pool down near the falls, as if he’d entirely forgotten the question. Then his features lifted slightly.
"Harley," he finally announced, turning back to Jake and pronouncing the name with a nod and an air of satisfaction. Tumbling from the side of his mouth as it did, his deep voice sounded like a third-rate Elvis impersonation.
"Nice to meet you, Harley. You live around here?"
He hesitated, then nodded slowly, eyes drifting downward. Without another word he picked up his plastic fork and his napkin, turned away, and wandered off toward an empty table.
Built in the 1920s, the pavilion’s great polished pine logs had been hand-fitted and pegged together in intricate joints so tight a piece of paper wouldn’t fit between them. Even someone lacking Jake’s appreciation of the finer points of carpentry could see—or feel—the unity, the monolithic solidity of the structure. The floor was a mosaic of granite slabs cut from a local quarry. A magnificent stone fireplace buttressed one end of the building, a fireplace big enough to barbecue a whole hog, which it had done on many occasions. Despite its age, the pavilion was so well designed that it required no maintenance apart from the occasional replacement of a few cedar shakes on the roof. The building was wide enough to accommodate four picnic tables jammed end to end the short way across the floor, and at times like this, when the crowd didn’t fill half of the tables, people congregated near the end with the fireplace. Harley went directly to an empty table just clear of the crowd and sat with his back to them.
Jake felt the need for reinforcements, but Lori was sitting at a packed table listening to Nell Prudhomme, nodding politely, and he couldn’t get her attention. Even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered; once Nell locked on, she wouldn’t let go until it thundered. Lori was too polite to excuse herself in the middle of a sentence, and Nell ended every sentence with "and, ah ..."
He filled his plate and made his way to Harley’s table, stoking his resolve. Harley didn’t say anything when Jake sat down across from him. Instead, he glanced over his shoulder at the crowd, then flashed the merest suggestion of a wry smile, as if he had been expecting somebody to come question him and he was faintly amused by it.
Jake inspected a chicken leg, hesitating, then made his move.
"You’re wearing my pants." He said it mostly to the chicken leg.
Dark eyebrows furrowed for a moment while Harley worried a deviled egg down to clear the way for words to form in his twisted maw.
"I paid for ’em," he finally drawled.
He was serious.
Jake wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew what Harley meant. Two days earlier he had cut a blown-down red oak into firewood lengths and left it there, intending to come back later to split and stack it. When he came home the next afternoon the wood was all split and neatly stacked in the woodshed, nearly a cord of it. He had no idea who had done it until now.
"And the box said Goodwill," Harley added.
Jake hadn’t seen the jeans for a couple of weeks, but he figured they had gotten lost in the Laundry Triangle. Shirts had been known to disappear for as long as three months before turning up again in the closet. He would have a word with Lori later about consigning his best old Saturday jeans to the Goodwill box in the garage without his consent or at least an opportunity to say good-bye. He recognized the T-shirt, too. Though he was a little concerned about a stranger rummaging around in his garage, it didn’t really matter. Harley could have the clothes as far as Jake was concerned, but he had to know why a man would steal a pair of jeans.
"It’s all right," he said, "but why did you take them?"
Harley tilted his head and stared, as if to question Jake’s sanity. "I was cold," he said.
"But where were your pants?" Jake was flipping through mental images, picturing a strange man arriving at his house—six miles from the nearest town and twenty from the next—without his pants.
"Long story," Harley said, and tried to smile again.
So much for resolve.
Jake watched him eat. He was eating potato salad, a whole big plateful of it, taking small bites and chewing deliberately. Apart from a few deviled eggs, there was nothing else on his plate. Jake decided to take a different tack.
"You like potato salad?"
Harley winced and shuddered, contorting his bent face as he shook his head.
The man was nuts. Jake gave up and settled into his dinner. He thought maybe Harley would open up on his own if he was patient, but after a while it became clear that he had no such intention. Harley seemed perfectly content to sit here taking dainty bites of potato salad and shuddering in silence. Reluctantly Jake decided to make a gesture.
"Look, if you need help, maybe we could do something for you. You know, if you need clothes, a bus ticket ..."
Harley wasn’t listening. Fork frozen halfway to his mouth, head turned, neck craned, he stared across the chattering heads toward where Lori sat, as if he had heard his name called and wasn’t sure who had done it.
Jake followed the direction of his gaze but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Everybody was eating, laughing, talking—not one face showing the slightest concern.
Harley dropped his fork, swung his legs out from under the picnic table, stood up, and took one long stride toward the next row of tables before his arms sprang up and his body followed. A size eleven work boot smashed down on a crowded tabletop, and Penny Thorson, seated on the other side, caught the contents of a blue plastic teacup full in her petrified face. A basket of dinner rolls pinwheeled through the air behind Harley as he vaulted to the next row. He leaped from the second row of tables, landed short of the third, and skidded up behind Miss Agnes Dewberry, who was bent curiously low over her plate. His momentum carried him crashing into Miss Agnes’s back, where in one swift motion he braced a leg under the bench, wrapped his arms about her rib cage, then heaved her backward, up and clear of her seat.
Dunbar Thornton was sitting next to Miss Agnes, when Harley snatched her up. Dun was a soft-spoken man in his early fifties, humane and gentle. But when he saw the seventy-three-year-old widow jerked up like a rag doll by a berserk hobo, Dun went animal. Harley double-clutched Miss Agnes twice in a deathly bear hug before Dun lunged from the bench and smashed a fist into his jaw.
People screamed and scuttled out of the way. Others cowered in their seats, gaping, paralyzed by indecision. Still others rushed into the fray. Jake fought his way through in time to see Lori scrambling across the tabletop, scattering plates and cups in a clearly insane move to get between the two deranged men.
When Dun hit him, Harley dropped Miss Agnes as quickly as he had grabbed her. Hands caught her before she fell to the stones; other hands swept a table clear and laid her out on it while a separate mob tackled Harley aside, pinning him to the floor. Lori ended up kneeling beside Harley. She cradled his head in her lap, shielding him.
Dunbar Thornton bucked against the two men who restrained him, his face tight with rage.
Lori’s voice rose above the din. "She was CHOKING!"
The clamor of voices died. Lori brushed a shock of red hair back from her face and, just like that, composed herself.
"Nobody saw," she said. "She was sitting right in front of me, and even I didn’t see. She was laughing, and then she bent over. I couldn’t see her face. When he grabbed her up she was blue. This came out of her." She held out her fist toward Dunbar Thornton and opened it to reveal a half-chewed chunk of fried chicken the size of her thumb.
Dun’s face sagged as understanding rolled over him. He turned then and went to see about Miss Agnes. She could be heard coughing, mumbling. She would be okay.
As soon as Dun turned away, Lori’s eyes found Jake. She was still breathing hard, but he could see anger and fear subsiding from her flushed face, replaced by something else—a question, burning so bright he could feel it.
How did he know?
Harley made no attempt to get up. He lay pale and sweating with his head in Lori’s lap, his eyes closed, brow deeply furrowed, a trickle of dark blood running into his ear from the cut on his cheek. A shiver ran down him.
"His jaw’s broken," Lori said, "and from the looks of it, I’d say it was broken before Dun hit him. He needs to go to the hospital."
Jake wondered how he could have missed it. A broken jaw would explain the potato salad, and maybe the hospital could learn the rest.
Sutter's Cross by W. Dale Cramer
Copyright © 2002, W. Dale Cramer
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.