Read an Excerpt
By Alan Heathcock
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2011 Alan Heathcock
All rights reserved.
THE STAYING FREIGHT
Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he'd reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done. Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.
Winslow simply didn't see his boy running across the field. He didn't see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn't see Rodney's boot slide off the hitch.
Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he'd plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.
Winslow leapt from the tractor, ran to his son. With his belt, he cinched a gash in the boy's leg. He pressed his palm to Rodney's neck. Blood purled between his fingers. Winslow cradled his son in his lap and watched the tractor roll on, tilling a fading arc of dust toward the freight rail tracks that marked the northern end of all that was his.
Lights flashed and bells dinged. Winslow stopped his truck at the crossing. A freight engine emerged from the woods, shuddered around the bend. Winslow eyed the train's iron wheels, eyed the hillside beyond the tracks, his old clapboard house, round-roofed barn, grain silos perched above the barley. The train chugged nearer. It'd take twenty minutes to pass. Winslow had thirty-seven acres to swath, had lost so much time with his boy's death, with the funeral and relatives, with long hours holding his wife, Sadie, so many tears she'd cried, so much water in one woman.
The crossing shook. The freight horn shrieked, wailing louder, nearer. Winslow stomped the accelerator. The truck lurched onto the tracks and the engine's nose filled his window. He jerked the wheel and the pickup swerved, rocked, but stayed on the road. He sped up the hill, boxcars flashing in his rearview mirror, train brakes screeching and freight joints howling as the line clawed to a halt.
From high in his combine, Winslow eyed the dormant train, the engine far to the west, the coal cars deep into the eastern woods. An hour had passed and there it sat. Winslow's nerves were frayed. He turned his gaze to the reels cutting under the barley. Blackbirds burst from the field. From the corner of his eye, Winslow noticed a flash of white in the crop, then a crouching man sprang and dashed in front of the harrower.
Winslow yanked the brake, struck his head against the back window. His pulse thumped in his throat as he shut down the combine.
Then someone was pounding on the cab, and there stood a man, out of breath, in a white dress shirt under soiled gray coveralls. Winslow threw open the door, hopped down into the field.
"What the hell you doing, mister?" Winslow shouted.
The man pressed nose to nose with Winslow. His eyes were flushed as if from weeping, his hair white as the moon, and a scar split his lips and curled like a pig's tail onto his cheek.
"Could've killed you," he lisped.
Winslow glanced at the combine. "I could've killed you."
"You son of a bitch," the man barked. "I'm giving you a taste of your own."
"Watch your mouth, mister," Winslow said. "You don't know me from Adam."
The man took Winslow by his overall straps and slung him to the ground. He stood over Winslow, noon sun glinting off sweat in the curl of his scar. "Ain't gonna do it no more," the train man said, pointing down in Winslow's face. "So you just go to hell."
The wind blew the man's hair up into white flames. Winslow set his jaw, thought the man would strike him. Instead, the freight man stood tall, raised the zipper of his coveralls, and took off running.
Winslow watched him sprint up the slope, away from the tracks, away from his train. He ran high-kneed through the barley, past Winslow's house, past the barn and silos, never stopping, never looking back. Soon he was a speck on the horizon, and, as if slipping through a pinhole in the sky, the freight man was over the ridge and gone.
For a long time, Winslow sat in the barley, determined to finish his work. But then, his hands shaking, eyes pulsing, he was overcome by a fever. It'd taken all his will just to return to the house.
Now Winslow gathered himself in the foyer. He slumped against a wall, listening to the squeak of a chair. In the front parlor, a woodpaneled room that was dark despite bay windows, Sadie worked needlepoint, yarn draping the sofa, purples and reds and golds unfurled about her rocking chair.
"Taking a break," Winslow called, and hurried back to the kitchen. His eyes burned. His temples throbbed. He pulled open the freezer door and out tumbled frozen peas. Winslow slid down the fridge to the tile floor. He held the peas to his face.
"Hungry, Win?" Sadie asked from the hall, her footsteps approaching, and then she was in the kitchen. "Win?"
Winslow closed his eyes, could feel her at his side, her hot hand on his neck, the other on his forehead.
"Oh, Win," she said. "You're burning up."
Sadie was a furnace blasted over him. Her fingers seared his cheeks, his throat. He pleaded, "Leave me be," then "Please, hon," but she wouldn't move, and the heat rose up in him, his shoulders quaking, his arms.
Winslow thrust his hands against Sadie. She tripped, fell hard against the kitchen table, tumbled to the floor. She lay under the table, clutching her skull.
Winslow rushed to her. "Hon," he said, afraid to touch her. "I'm so sorry, hon."
Sadie turned a cheek against the tile, pulled her hand from her hair. Blood streaked her palm.
Winslow lay awake, aware of his muscles, of his heavy breathing, the groan of the bedsprings. The doctor had given Sadie painkillers and she slept soundly beside him. A swath of her hair had been shaved, her stitches stained orange from the iodine.
Now and forever I'll be the man what killed his boy. A man what shoved his wife. Winslow wanted to wake Sadie and apologize again and again. He was so riled. He rolled gently out of bed and fumbled in the darkness with his overalls and boots.
Winslow bumped down the hall to a door they now kept locked. As a drunk warns himself from a tavern, he'd warned himself from this room. He set his forehead against the door, trying to remember Rodney's face. But only the freight man came to mind, that white hair, the man running, receding through the barley.
Sweat beaded upon Winslow's brow. He hurried into the bathroom and splashed cold water over his face. Again he recalled the freight man shrinking on the ridge, vanishing.
Winslow stepped to the doorway. Moonlight from the parlor trailed up the stairs. He crossed the hall, peered down into the glow. Sadie had removed all the photos of Rodney from the stairwell, and as Winslow descended he traced his fingertips over the nails on which they'd hung.
The front parlor was washed in moonlight. Winslow stepped to the bay window. The land outside was bright. He let his eyes drift far down the slope of barley. At the field's base crouched the wall of train, a lampblack silhouette, a driverless freight.
Why hadn't they come for it? Wouldn't someone miss it by now? Blood ticked in Winslow's skull. The train man's scarred cheek bristled in his mind. That man just ran away. He just left.
Winslow hurried to the kitchen and rummaged through drawers for a notepad and pen. He didn't know what to write. He scribbled: Took a walk. Be back soon.
Winslow read it once, considered its meaning. He had no plan. Just to walk. To settle himself a bit. Winslow folded the paper. He held it to his lips then left it on the kitchen table.
Winslow kicked through the barley. Hill after hill he hiked, eyes always on the next knob. At the edge of his field, he allowed himself to glance back over his shoulder. He'd trod a path of shadow through the crop. Only the silver dome of his silo was visible above the ridge.
He hopped a ditch and pushed between rows of chest-high corn. Atop a bald knob, Winslow found the brightest light on the horizon, what he thought was from a radio tower, but was actually Venus low in the night, and decided he'd only rest when it burned directly overhead.
He crossed a reeking field of mint, a cow pasture, slogged through a muddy pea field. Hours of steady travel found him passing homes of people he'd never met.
On and on he went until, walking through the ropy branches in a grove of willow trees, speckles of dawn's half-light warmed his face. Winslow rubbed his thighs, considered turning back. But I'll snap, he thought. Hurt Sadie again. I'll just take a day to get my head right. Sadie'll understand. It's for her. For us.
Winslow needed wilderness, needed solitude. But wherever he turned there was a dirt road, the whir of a sewage treatment plant, a bait store's roof winking in the sun. By noon he stood on a bluff above the wide river that marked the state line. He sidetracked an hour before a rusty trestle gave passage to the other side. Winslow peered between rotting ties as he crossed over the churning brown water, clutching girders until safely aground again.
His ankles were swollen, the balls of his feet blistered. He rested beneath the bridge, stuffed grass into his boot heels and tightened his laces. He hobbled along the berm until pawpaw smothered the shore and the hills seemed untouched. Winslow bulled through overgrowth, limbs scraping his cheeks, burrs biting his socks, his neck and forearms barked by brambles.
Deep in the interior, he rested atop a hardwood knob overlooking a thread of brook. Sunlight bucked on the water. Though his body was still, his mind reeled in flashes: a child's boot upright in a rut; a nurse cutting away Sadie's bloody hair; a man's crooked finger in his face.
Dusk descended and the moon crawled into the trees. Winslow crouched in nightshade, his pocketknife drawn. He figured Sadie had called the neighbors looking for him, possibly called the police, and imagined her working needlepoint and listening for footsteps on the porch. He wept and listened to the woods come to life and didn't sleep.
Dawn bloomed gray green, thunderheads shrouding the hills. It was time to go home, but Winslow's feet were very sore, the walk back so far.
What'll I tell Sadie? he wondered. That I didn't trust you to understand my tears? That I thought you'd see me as weak for the rest of our goddamn lives if I wept just a little? His tiredness was a ballast around his neck, and Winslow tucked his arms into his bibs, eyes closed, and stood that way atop the wooded hill.
Drizzle tapped his eyelids. The rain quickened to a downpour and Winslow scrambled beneath a sandstone ledge. Rain stung sideways, the hill's grass blown flat. The brook slowly swelled, roiling into whitecaps. Mud crept up the slope. When the sun finally burned through the clouds, Winslow was famished. He searched the woods and found bushes overspread with opal berries. He greedily ate them, couldn't swallow them fast enough.
Soon his stomach seized. He vomited. Once again, he shivered with fever. His skin steamed. Winslow stripped naked and, holding an exposed tree root, allowed his body to drag in the cold brook. The gap was lost in shadow, and clutching the root, brown water rushing about his chin, he saw a figure atop the hill, the train man backlit by dusk.
The man stood away from the tree, held up a hand, and waved down. Winslow felt as if something giving chase had finally caught him. He shut his eyes and waited for a hand to pull him from the water and drag him back home. Winslow refused to open his eyes. On and on he waited, but the expected pull never came.
Winslow woke covered in mud. It was a new morning, the sun scorching, the brook receding into its banks. Winslow climbed the hill, found no footprints, no evidence at all of the train man's visit. But the feeling of being pursued remained. He quickly dressed and fled south. At the base of each ridge he thought of Sadie and felt he should backtrack, should begin the long walk home. But then his weary knees lifted, and he stepped up one rock, and then the next.
Deep in the night, after walking all day and on through the evening without a bite to eat, he came upon a yellow tent beside a white truck. Winslow shooed raccoons from a picnic table, devoured stale hot dog buns. Someone moved in the tent, and Winslow stuffed his pockets with pretzel twists, ran clutching a red box of graham crackers.
He raced without direction through the woods, then the trees opened and he crossed a highway, headlights covering him, brake lights flashing, and the land changed again as he dashed headlong into a dark treeless canyon.
Weeks he wandered, awake day and night, eating berries and cress, beetles and worms, an occasional fish, a groundhog caught with his bare hands. Though Winslow's mind hadn't reconciled, his body had evolved. At first he'd always been tired, but now he walked vigorously, all day and without pain. His limbs grew sleek, stomach ribbed with granite, beard and hair tangled and sunbleached, skin baked into a russet hide.
The first leaves began to turn and Winslow wondered if maybe his grief would fade with the season. Sunburn no longer affected him, and as the autumn air cooled he did not shiver, and therefore believed he'd tapped some vein man had long since lost beneath quilts and down comforters.
Not a day went by he didn't consider going home. Some days he'd backtrack a mile, sometimes longer, before a quake of anguish turned him away again.
One tin-skied day, the rain upon hollyhock conjured the scent of Sadie's perfume. Winslow ran weeping in the direction he believed led home, ran all afternoon and into the night, stopping only when confronted by a wall of peaks. There was no way around; the first time through had taken two full days to scale and descend.
Winslow dropped to his knees. In his periphery he glimpsed a presence, and believed the train man had again found him. But when he turned he saw only a scraggly pine rising from the rock.
Winslow hurled stones at the little tree. Wrung its trunk as if it were a throat. He flailed and throttled the sapling to the ground. Winslow hugged its limbs and tried to weep, but was, at last, dry of tears. Under a pale moon, Winslow knew he no longer belonged to the world of men and would forever roam the woods as a lost son of the civil.
Winslow trailed loons to a stumpy lake and sat on a log, watching the shallows and plotting to catch his supper. The setting sun nestled in the treetops. Beyond the loons, packs of pintails and canvasbacks bobbed on red-tinged water.
A flurry of ducks took wing. They flew toward the sun and banked high above. A shotgun fired upshore. A duck dropped from the chevron, tumbling down and down to thud in the cattails at Winslow's feet. Its head shimmered like green metal, one wing broken beneath its body. He lifted the bird, its neck flopped over his fingers, body still warm, tail feathers damp.
Quickly came a breaking in the reeds and a hound had Winslow's arm in its teeth. The dog thrashed its head. Winslow dropped the duck, yanked the dog up into a bear hug. The hound snapped at Winslow's face and Winslow squeezed and the dog yelped.
Orange flashed from the reeds. A hunter swung his rifle, its stock exploding against Winslow's jaw. Then Winslow was on his back, his vision blurred. He rose to flee. He staggered, his legs failing as cattails rushed at his face.
Winslow woke to sparks in his vision. Searing pain spiked his eyes. He lay in the hull of a metal boat, his hands and feet bound with fishing line, his jaw so swollen he couldn't lift his head.
Clouds slid passing, the sky graying to night. Soon came cypress branches draped with moss, a dock's haloed light. The hull scraped the shore. The hunter dragged the boat onto land, each tug a sledge to the spike in Winslow's skull.
Solitary minutes passed, but the pain in his face kept Winslow from trying to move. Then three men stood over him. One at each elbow, the other at his boots, they lifted him from the boat and carried him to a truck bed stinking of fish.
They drove slowly, but the road was rutted and Winslow moaned against the jostling. They hauled him into a tiny stone building, onto a cot in a cell with metal bars.
They cut his bindings. Winslow didn't struggle. The men retreated to folding chairs outside the bars. The man in hunter's orange was rotund and horse-faced, his cheeks ruddy and whiskerless. Beside him, a man sat cross-legged, dark gouges for eyes, dressed head to toe in lawman's tan. The third, his old flesh the same color as his smoke-stained dentures, said slowly and loudly, "This — is — Barclay — County."
Winslow tried to speak, to say who he was, but his jaw was destroyed, his words gibberish.
"See them eyes?" the old man said to the others. "That boy's wild as the wind."
A gaunt man with pomaded hair carried in a black satchel and stood beside Winslow's cot. The lawman was there, too. He used his pistol to part the beard on Winslow's chin. The doctor squinted over Winslow. "It's busted terrible," he said to the lawman. "Hand me my bag."
Winslow searched the man's eyes for intent.
"Easy now, fella," the doctor said down to him, like calming a mule. Winslow felt alcohol cool his biceps. A needle jabbed him.
Excerpted from Volt by Alan Heathcock. Copyright © 2011 Alan Heathcock. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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