Wilfred James owns eighty acres of farmland in Nebraska that have been in his family for generations. His wife, Arlette, owns an adjoining one hundred acres. She wants to sell her land but if she does, Wilfred will be forced to sell as well. James will do anything to hold onto his farm, and he'll get his son to go along.
Betrayal, murder, madness, rats, 1922 is a breathtaking exploration into the dark side of human nature from the great American storyteller Stephen King.
Related collections and offers
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:September 21, 1947
Place of Birth:Portland, Maine
Education:B.S., University of Maine at Orono, 1970
Read an Excerpt
I watched by the gate until our old truck disappeared into a ball of its own dust. There was a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow. I had a stupid but very strong premonition that I would never see him again. I suppose it’s something most parents feel the first time they see a child going away on his own and face the realization that if a child is old enough to be sent on errands without supervision, he’s not totally a child any longer. But I couldn’t spend too much time wallowing in my feelings; I had an important chore to do, and I’d sent Henry away so I could attend to it by myself. He would see what had happened to the cow, of course, and probably guess what had done it, but I thought I could still ease the knowledge for him a little.
I first checked on Achelois, who seemed listless but otherwise fine. Then I checked the pipe. It was still plugged, but I was under no illusions; it might take time, but eventually the rats would gnaw through the canvas. I had to do better. I took a bag of Portland cement around to the house-well and mixed up a batch in an old pail. Back in the barn, while I waited for it to thicken, I poked the swatch of canvas even deeper into the pipe. I got it in at least two feet, and those last two feet I packed with cement. By the time Henry got back (and in fine spirits; he had indeed taken Shannon, and they had shared an ice-cream soda bought with change from the errands), it had hardened. I suppose a few of the rats must have been out foraging, but I had no doubt I’d immured most of them—including the one that had savaged poor Achelois—down there in the dark. And down there in the dark they would die. If not of suffocation, then of starvation once their unspeakable pantry was exhausted.
So I thought then.
In the years between 1916 and 1922, even stupid Nebraska farmers prospered. Harlan Cotterie, being far from stupid, prospered more than most. His farm showed it. He added a barn and a silo in 1919, and in 1920 he put in a deep well that pumped an unbelievable six gallons per minute. A year later, he added indoor plumbing (although he sensibly kept the backyard privy). Then, three times a week, he and his womenfolk could enjoy what was an unbelievable luxury that far out in the country: hot baths and showers supplied not by pots of water heated on the kitchen stove but from pipes that first brought the water from the well and then carried it away to the sump. It was the showerbath that revealed the secret Shannon Cotterie had been keeping, although I suppose I already knew, and had since the day she said, He’s sparked me, all right—speaking in a flat, lusterless voice that was unlike her, and looking not at me but off at the silhouettes of her father’s harvester and the gleaners trudging behind it.
This was near the end of September, with the corn all picked for another year but plenty of garden-harvesting left to do. One Saturday afternoon, while Shannon was enjoying the showerbath, her mother came along the back hall with a load of laundry she’d taken in from the line early, because it was looking like rain. Shannon probably thought she had closed the bathroom door all the way—most ladies are private about their bathroom duties, and Shannon Cotterie had a special reason to feel that way as the summer of 1922 gave way to fall—but perhaps it came off the latch and swung open partway. Her mother happened to glance in, and although the old sheet that served as a shower-curtain was pulled all the way around on its U-shaped rail, the spray had rendered it translucent. There was no need for Sallie to see the girl herself; she saw the shape of the girl, for once without one of her voluminous Quaker-style dresses to hide it. That was all it took. The girl was five months along, or near to it; she probably could not have kept her secret much longer in any case.
Two days later, Henry came home from school (he now took the truck) looking frightened and guilty. “Shan hasn’t been there the last two days,” he said, “so I stopped by Cotteries’ to ask if she was all right. I thought she might have come down with the Spanish Flu. They wouldn’t let me in. Mrs. Cotterie just told me to get on, and said her husband would come to talk to you tonight, after his chores were done. I ast if I could do anything, and she said, ‘You’ve done enough, Henry.’”
Then I remembered what Shan had said. Henry put his face in his hands and said, “She’s pregnant, Poppa, and they found out. I know that’s it. We want to get married, but I’m afraid they won’t let us.”
“Never mind them,” I said, “I won’t let you.”
He looked at me from wounded, streaming eyes. “Why not?”
I thought: You saw what it came to between your mother and me and you even have to ask? But what I said was, “She’s 15 years old, and you won’t even be that for another two weeks.”
“But we love each other!”
O, that loonlike cry. That milksop hoot. My hands were clenched on the legs of my overalls, and I had to force them open and flat. Getting angry would serve no purpose. A boy needed a mother to discuss a thing like this with, but his was sitting at the bottom of a filled-in well, no doubt attended by a retinue of dead rats.
“I know you do, Henry—”
“Hank! And others get married that young!”
Once they had; not so much since the century turned and the frontiers closed. But this I didn’t say. What I said was that I had no money to give them a start. Maybe by ’25, if crops and prices stayed good, but now there was nothing. And with a baby on the way—
“There would be enough!” he said. “If you hadn’t been such a bugger about that hundred acres, there’d be plenty! She would’ve given me some of it! And she wouldn’t have talked to me this way!”
At first I was too shocked to say anything. It had been six weeks or more since Arlette’s name—or even the vague pronounal alias she—had passed between us.
He was looking at me defiantly. And then, far down our stub of road, I saw Harlan Cotterie on his way. I had always considered him my friend, but a daughter who turns up pregnant has a way of changing such things.
“No, she wouldn’t have talked to you this way,” I agreed, and made myself look him straight in the eye. “She would have talked to you worse. And laughed, likely as not. If you search your heart, Son, you’ll know it.”
“Your mother called Shannon a little baggage, and then told you to keep your willy in your pants. It was her last advice, and although it was as crude and hurtful as most of what she had to say, you should have followed it.”
Henry’s anger collapsed. “It was only after that... after that night... that we... Shan didn’t want to, but I talked her into it. And once we started, she liked it as much as I did. Once we started, she asked for it.” He said that with a strange, half-sick pride, then shook his head wearily. “Now that hundred acres just sits there sprouting weeds, and I’m in Dutch. If Momma was here, she’d help me fix it. Money fixes everything, that’s what he says.” Henry nodded at the approaching ball of dust.
“If you don’t remember how tight your momma was with a dollar, then you forget too fast for your own good,” I said. “And if you’ve forgotten how she slapped you across the mouth that time—”
“I ain’t,” he said sullenly. Then, more sullenly still: “I thought you’d help me.”
“I mean to try. Right now I want you to make yourself scarce. You being here when Shannon’s father turns up would be like waving a red rag in front of a bull. Let me see where we are—and how he is—and I may call you out on the porch.” I took his wrist. “I’m going to do my best for you, Son.”
He pulled his wrist out of my grasp. “You better.”
He went into the house, and just before Harlan pulled up in his new car (a Nash as green and gleaming under its coating of dust as a bottlefly’s back), I heard the screen door slam out back.
The Nash chugged, backfired, and died. Harlan got out, took off his duster, folded it, and laid it on the seat. He’d worn the duster because he was dressed for the occasion: white shirt, string tie, good Sunday pants held up by a belt with a silver buckle. He hitched at that, getting the pants set the way he wanted them just below his tidy little paunch. He’d always been good to me, and I’d always considered us not just friends but good friends, yet in that moment I hated him. Not because he’d come to tax me about my son; God knows I would have done the same, if our positions had been reversed. No, it was the brand-new shiny green Nash. It was the silver belt buckle made in the shape of a dolphin. It was the new silo, painted bright red, and the indoor plumbing. Most of all it was the plain-faced, biddable wife he’d left back at his farm, no doubt making supper in spite of her worry. The wife whose sweetly given reply in the face of any problem would be, Whatever you think is best, dear. Women, take note: a wife like that never needs to fear bubbling away the last of her life through a cut throat.
He strode to the porch steps. I stood and held out my hand, waiting to see if he’d take it or leave it. There was a hesitation while he considered the pros and cons, but in the end he gave it a brief squeeze before letting loose. “We’ve got a considerable problem here, Wilf,” he said.
“I know it. Henry just told me. Better late than never.”
“Better never at all,” he said grimly.
“Will you sit down?”
He considered this, too, before taking what had always been Arlette’s rocker. I knew he didn’t want to sit—a man who’s mad and upset doesn’t feel good about sitting—but he did, just the same.
“Would you want some iced tea? There’s no lemonade, Arlette was the lemonade expert, but—”
He waved me quiet with one pudgy hand. Pudgy but hard. Harlan was one of the richest farmers in Hemingford County, but he was no straw boss; when it came to haying or harvest, he was right out there with the hired help. “I want to get back before sundown. I don’t see worth a shit by those headlamps. My girl has got a bun in her oven, and I guess you know who did the damn cooking.”
“Would it help to say I’m sorry?”
“No.” His lips were pressed tight together, and I could see hot blood beating on both sides of his neck. “I’m madder than a hornet, and what makes it worse is that I’ve got no one to be mad at. I can’t be mad at the kids because they’re just kids, although if she wasn’t with child, I’d turn Shannon over my knee and paddle her for not doing better when she knew better. She was raised better and churched better, too.”
I wanted to ask him if he was saying Henry was raised wrong. I kept my mouth shut instead, and let him say all the things he’d been fuming about on his drive over here. He’d thought up a speech, and once he said it, he might be easier to deal with.
“I’d like to blame Sallie for not seeing the girl’s condition sooner, but first-timers usually carry high, everyone knows that... and my God, you know the sort of dresses Shan wears. That’s not a new thing, either. She’s been wearing those granny-go-to-meetin’ dresses since she was 12 and started getting her...”
He held his pudgy hands out in front of his chest. I nodded.
“And I’d like to blame you, because it seems like you skipped that talk fathers usually have with sons.” As if you’d know anything about raising sons, I thought. “The one about how he’s got a pistol in his pants and he should keep the safety on.” A sob caught in his throat and he cried, “My... little... girl... is too young to be a mother!”
Of course there was blame for me Harlan didn’t know about. If I hadn’t put Henry in a situation where he was desperate for a woman’s love, Shannon might not be in the fix she was in. I also could have asked if Harlan had maybe saved a little blame for himself while he was busy sharing it out. But I held quiet. Quiet never came naturally to me, but living with Arlette had given me plenty of practice.
“Only I can’t blame you, either, because your wife went and run off this spring, and it’s natural your attention would lapse at a time like that. So I went out back and chopped damn near half a cord of wood before I came over here, trying to get some of that mad out, and it must have worked. I shook your hand, didn’t I?”
The self-congratulation I heard in his voice made me itch to say, Unless it was rape, I think it still takes two to tango. But I just said, “Yes, you did,” and left it at that.
“Well, that brings us to what you’re going to do about it. You and that boy who sat at my table and ate the food my wife cooked for him.”
Some devil—the creature that comes into a fellow, I suppose, when the Conniving Man leaves—made me say, “Henry wants to marry her and give the baby a name.”
“That’s so God damned ridiculous I don’t want to hear it. I won’t say Henry doesn’t have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of—I know you’ve done right, Wilf, or as right as you can, but that’s the best I can say. These have been fat years, and you’re still only one step ahead of the bank. Where are you going to be when the years get lean again? And they always do. If you had the cash from that back hundred, then it might be different—cash cushions hard times, everyone knows that—but with Arlette gone, there they sit, like a constipated old maid on a chamberpot.”
For just a moment part of me tried to consider how things would have been if I had given in to Arlette about that fucking land, as I had about so many other things. I’d be living in stink, that’s how it would have been. I would have had to dig out the old spring for the cows, because cows won’t drink from a brook that’s got blood and pigs’ guts floating in it.
True. But I’d be living instead of just existing, Arlette would be living with me, and Henry wouldn’t be the sullen, anguished, difficult boy he had turned into. The boy who had gotten his friend since childhood into a peck of trouble.
“Well, what do you want to do?” I asked. “I doubt you made this trip with nothing in mind.”
He appeared not to have heard me. He was looking out across the fields to where his new silo stood on the horizon. His face was heavy and sad, but I’ve come too far and written too much to lie; that expression did not move me much. 1922 had been the worst year of my life, one where I’d turned into a man I no longer knew, and Harlan Cotterie was just another washout on a rocky and miserable stretch of road.
“She’s bright,” Harlan said. “Mrs. McReady at school says Shan’s the brightest pupil she’s taught in her whole career, and that stretches back almost 40 years. She’s good in English, and she’s even better in the maths, which Mrs. McReady says is rare in girls. She can do triggeronomy, Wilf. Did you know that? Mrs. McReady herself can’t do triggeronomy.”
No, I hadn’t known, but I knew how to say the word. I felt, however, that this might not be the time to correct my neighbor’s pronunciation.
“Sallie wanted to send her to the normal school in Omaha. They’ve taken girls as well as boys since 1918, although no females have graduated so far.” He gave me a look that was hard to take: mingled disgust and hostility. “The females always want to get married, you see. And have babies. Join Eastern Star and sweep the God damned floor.”
“Shan could be the first. She has the skills and she has the brains. You didn’t know that, did you?”
No, in truth I had not. I had simply made an assumption—one of many that I now know to have been wrong—that she was farm wife material, and no more.
“She might even teach college. We planned to send her to that school as soon as she turned 17.”
Sallie planned, is what you mean, I thought. Left to your own devices, such a crazy idea never would have crossed your farmer’s mind.
“Shan was willing, and the money was put aside. It was all arranged.” He turned to look at me, and I heard the tendons in his neck creak. “It’s still all arranged. But first—almost right away—she’s going to the St. Eusebia Catholic Home for Girls in Omaha. She doesn’t know it yet, but it’s going to happen. Sallie talked about sending her to Deland—Sal’s sister lives there—or to my aunt and uncle in Lyme Biska, but I don’t trust any of those people to carry through on what we’ve decided. Nor does a girl who causes this kind of problem deserve to go to people she knows and loves.”
“What is it you’ve decided, Harl? Besides sending your daughter to some kind of an... I don’t know... orphanage?”
He bristled. “It’s not an orphanage. It’s a clean, wholesome, and busy place. So I’ve been told. I’ve been on the exchange, and all the reports I get are good ones. She’ll have chores, she’ll have her schooling, and in another four months she’ll have her baby. When that’s done, the kid will be given up for adoption. The sisters at St. Eusebia will see to that. Then she can come home, and in another year and a half she can go to teachers’ college, just like Sallie wants. And me, of course. Sallie and me.”
“What’s my part in this? I assume I must have one.”
“Are you smarting on me, Wilf?? I know you’ve had a tough year, but I still won’t bear you smarting on me.”
“I’m not smarting on you, but you need to know you’re not the only one who’s mad and ashamed. Just tell me what you want, and maybe we can stay friends.”
The singularly cold little smile with which he greeted this—just a twitch of the lips and a momentary appearance of dimples at the corners of his mouth—said a great deal about how little hope he held out for that.
“I know you’re not rich, but you still need to step up and take your share of the responsibility. Her time at the home—the sisters call it pre-natal care—is going to cost me 300 dollars. Sister Camilla called it a donation when I talked to her on the phone, but I know a fee when I hear one.”
“If you’re going to ask me to split it with you—”
“I know you can’t lay your hands on 150 dollars, but you better be able to lay them on 75, because that’s what the tutor’s going to cost. The one who’s going to help her keep up with her lessons.”
“I can’t do that. Arlette cleaned me out when she left.” But for the first time I found myself wondering if she might’ve socked a little something away. That business about the 200 she was supposed to have taken when she ran off had been a pure lie, but even pin-and-ribbon money would help in this situation. I made a mental note to check the cupboards and the canisters in the kitchen.
“Take another shortie loan from the bank,” he said. “You paid the last one back, I hear.”
Of course he heard. Such things are supposed to be private, but men like Harlan Cotterie have long ears. I felt a fresh wave of dislike for him. He had loaned me the use of his corn harvester and only taken 20 dollars for the use of it? So what? He was asking for that and more, as though his precious daughter had never spread her legs and said come on in and paint the walls.
“I had crop money to pay it back with,” I said. “Now I don’t. I’ve got my land and my house and that’s pretty much it.”
“You find a way,” he said. “Mortgage the house, if that’s what it takes. 75 dollars is your share, and compared to having your boy changing didies at the age of 15, I think you’re getting off cheap.”
He stood up. I did, too. “And if I can’t find a way? What then, Harl? You send the Sheriff??”
His lips curled in an expression of contempt that turned my dislike of him to hate. It happened in an instant, and I still feel that hate today, when so many other feelings have been burned out of my heart. “I’d never go to law on a thing like this. But if you don’t take your share of the responsibility, you and me’s done.” He squinted into the declining daylight. “I’m going. Got to, if I want to get back before dark. I won’t need the 75 for a couple of weeks, so you got that long. And I won’t come dunning you for it. If you don’t, you don’t. Just don’t say you can’t, because I know better. You should have let her sell that acreage to Farrington, Wilf. If you’d done that, she’d still be here and you’d have some money in hand. And my daughter might not be in the fam’ly way.”
In my mind, I pushed him off the porch and jumped on his hard round belly with both feet when he tried to get up. Then I got my hand-scythe out of the barn and put it through one of his eyes. In reality, I stood with one hand on the railing and watched him trudge down the steps.
“Do you want to talk to Henry?” I asked. “I can call him. He feels as bad about this as I do.”
Harlan didn’t break stride. “She was clean and your boy filthied her up. If you hauled him out here, I might knock him down. I might not be able to help myself.”
I wondered about that. Henry was getting his growth, he was strong, and perhaps most important of all, he knew about murder. Harl Cotterie didn’t.
He didn’t need to crank the Nash but only push a button. Being prosperous was nice in all sorts of ways. “75 is what I need to close this business,” he called over the punch and blat of the engine. Then he whirled around the chopping block, sending George and his retinue flying, and headed back to his farm with its big generator and indoor plumbing.
When I turned around, Henry was standing beside me, looking sallow and furious. “They can’t send her away like that.”
So he had been listening. I can’t say I was surprised.
“Can and will,” I said. “And if you try something stupid and headstrong, you’ll only make a bad situation worse.”
“We could run away. We wouldn’t get caught. If we could get away with... with what we did... then I guess I could get away with eloping off to Colorado with my gal.”
“You couldn’t,” I said, “because you’d have no money. Money fixes everything, he says. Well, this is what I say: no money spoils everything. I know it, and Shannon will, too. She’s got her baby to watch out for now—”
“Not if they make her give it away!”
“That doesn’t change how a woman feels when she’s got the chap in her belly. A chap makes them wise in ways men don’t understand. I haven’t lost any respect for you or her just because she’s going to have a baby—you two aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last, even if Mr. High and Mighty had the idea she was only going to use what’s between her legs in the water-closet. But if you asked a five-months-pregnant girl to run off with you... and she agreed... I’d lose respect for both of you.”
“What do you know?” he asked with infinite contempt. “You couldn’t even cut a throat without making a mess of it.”
I was speechless. He saw it, and left me that way.
He went off to school the next day without any argument even though his sweetie was no longer there. Probably because I let him take the truck. A boy will take any excuse to drive a truck when driving’s new. But of course the new wears off. The new wears off everything, and it usually doesn’t take long. What’s beneath is gray and shabby, more often than not. Like a rat’s hide.
Once he was gone, I went into the kitchen. I poured the sugar, flour, and salt out of their tin canisters and stirred through them. There was nothing. I went into the bedroom and searched her clothes. There was nothing. I looked in her shoes and there was nothing. But each time I found nothing, I became more sure there was something.
I had chores in the garden, but instead of doing them, I went out back of the barn to where the old well had been. Weeds were growing on it now: witchgrass and scraggly fall goldenrod. Elphis was down there, and Arlette was, too. Arlette with her face cocked to the side. Arlette with her clown’s grin. Arlette in her snood.
“Where is it, you contrary bitch?” I asked her. “Where did you hide it?”
I tried to empty my mind, which was what my father advised me to do when I’d misplaced a tool or one of my few precious books. After a little while I went back into the house, back into the bedroom, back into the closet. There were two hatboxes on the top shelf. In the first one I found nothing but a hat—the white one she wore to church (when she could trouble herself to go, which was about once a month). The hat in the other box was red, and I’d never seen her wear it. It looked like a whore’s hat to me. Tucked into the satin inner band, folded into tiny squares no bigger than pills, were two 20-dollar bills. I tell you now, sitting here in this cheap hotel room and listening to the rats scuttering and scampering in the walls (yes, my old friends are here), that those two 20-dollar bills were the seal on my damnation.
Because they weren’t enough. You see that, don’t you? Of course you do. One doesn’t need to be an expert in triggeronomy to know that one needs to add 35 to 40 to make 75. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But in those days you could buy two months’ worth of groceries for 35 dollars, or a good used harness at Lars Olsen’s smithy. You could buy a train ticket all the way to Sacramento... which I sometimes wish I had done.
And sometimes when I lie in bed at night, I can actually see that number. It flashes red, like a warning not to cross a road because a train is coming. I tried to cross anyway, and the train ran me down. If each of us has a Conniving Man inside, each of us also has a Lunatic. And on those nights when I can’t sleep because the flashing number won’t let me sleep, my Lunatic says it was a conspiracy: that Cotterie, Stoppenhauser, and the Farrington shyster were all in it together. I know better, of course (at least in daylight). Cotterie and Mr. Attorney Lester might have had a talk with Stoppenhauser later on—after I did what I did—but it was surely innocent to begin with; Stoppenhauser was actually trying to help me out... and do a little business for Home Bank & Trust, of course. But when Harlan or Lester—or both of them together—saw an opportunity, they took it. The Conniving Man out-connived: how do you like that? By then I hardly cared, because by then I had lost my son, but do you know who I really blame?
Because it was she who left those two bills inside her red whore’s hat for me to find. And do you see how fiendishly clever she was? Because it wasn’t the 40 that did me in; it was the money between that and what Cotterie demanded for his pregnant daughter’s tutor; what he wanted so she could study Latin and keep up with her triggeronomy.
35, 35, 35.
I thought about the money he wanted for the tutor all the rest of that week, and over the weekend, too. Sometimes I took out those two bills—I had unfolded them but the creases still remained—and studied at them. On Sunday night I made my decision. I told Henry that he’d have to take the Model T to school on Monday; I had to go to Hemingford Home and see Mr. Stoppenhauser at the bank about a shortie loan. A small one. Just 35 dollars.
“What for?” Henry was sitting at the window and looking moodily out at the darkening West Field.
I told him. I thought it would start another argument about Shannon, and in a way, I wanted that. He’d said nothing about her all week, although I knew Shan was gone. Mert Donovan had told me when he came by for a load of seed corn. “Went off to some fancy school back in Omaha,” he said. “Well, more power to her, that’s what I think. If they’re gonna vote, they better learn. Although,” he added after a moment’s cogitation, “mine does what I tell her. She better, if she knows what’s good for her.”
If I knew she was gone, Henry also knew, and probably before I did—schoolchildren are enthusiastic gossips. But he had said nothing. I suppose I was trying to give him a reason to let out all the hurt and recrimination. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but in the long run it might be beneficial. Neither a sore on the forehead or in the brain behind the forehead should be allowed to fester. If they do, the infection is likely to spread.
But he only grunted at the news, so I decided to poke a little harder.
“You and I are going to split the payback,” I said. “It’s apt to come to no more than 38 dollars if we retire the loan by Christmas. That’s 19 apiece. I’ll take yours out of your choring money.”
Surely, I thought, this would result in a flood of anger... but it brought only another surly little grunt. He didn’t even argue about having to take the Model T to school, although he said the other kids made fun of it, calling it “Hank’s ass-breaker.”
“Are you all right?”
He turned to me and smiled—his lips moved around, at least. “I’m fine. Good luck at the bank tomorrow, Poppa. I’m going to bed.”
As he stood up, I said: “Will you give me a little kiss?”
He kissed my cheek. It was the last one.
He took the T to school and I drove the truck to Hemingford Home, where Mr. Stoppenhauser brought me into his office after a mere five-minute wait. I explained what I needed, but declined to say what I needed it for, only citing personal reasons. I thought for such a piddling amount I would not need to be more specific, and I was right. But when I’d finished, he folded his hands on his desk blotter and gave me a look of almost fatherly sternness. In the corner, the Regulator clock ticked away quiet slices of time. On the street—considerably louder—came the blat of an engine. It stopped, there was silence, and then another engine started up. Was that my son, first arriving in the Model T and then stealing my truck? There’s no way I can know for sure, but I think it was.
“Wilf,” Mr. Stoppenhauser said, “you’ve had a little time to get over your wife leaving the way she did—pardon me for bringing up a painful subject, but it seems pertinent, and besides, a banker’s office is a little like a priest’s confessional—so I’m going to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. Which is only fitting, since that’s where my mother and father came from.”
I had heard this one before—as had, I imagine, most visitors to that office—and I gave it the dutiful smile it was meant to elicit.
“Will Home Bank & Trust loan you 35 dollars? You bet. I’m tempted to put it on a man-to-man basis and do the deal out of my own wallet, except I never carry more than what it takes to pay for my lunch at the Splendid Diner and a shoe-shine at the barber shop. Too much money’s a constant temptation, even for a wily old cuss like me, and besides, business is business. But!” He raised his finger. “You don’t need 35 dollars.”
“Sad to say, I do.” I wondered if he knew why. He might have; he was indeed a wily old cuss. But so was Harl Cotterie, and Harl was also a shamed old cuss that fall.
“No; you don’t. You need 750, that’s what you need, and you could have it today. Either bank it or walk out with it in your pocket, all the same to me either way. You paid off the mortgage on your place 3 years ago. It’s free and clear. So there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t turn around and take out another mortgage. It’s done all the time, my boy, and by the best people. You’d be surprised at some of the paper we’re carrying. All the best people. Yessir.”
“I thank you very kindly, Mr. Stoppenhauser, but I don’t think so. That mortgage was like a gray cloud over my head the whole time it was in force, and—”
“Wilf, that’s the point!” The finger went up again. This time it wagged back and forth, like the pendulum of the Regulator. “That is exactly the rootin’-tootin’, cowboy-shootin’ point! It’s the fellows who take out a mortgage and then feel like they’re always walking around in sunshine who end up defaulting and losing their valuable property! Fellows like you, who carry that bank-paper like a barrowload of rocks on a gloomy day, are the fellows who always pay back! And do you want to tell me that there aren’t improvements you could make? A roof to fix? A little more livestock?” He gave me a sly and roguish look. “Maybe even indoor plumbing, like your neighbor down the road? Such things pay for themselves, you know. You could end up with improvements that far outweigh the cost of a mortgage. Value for money, Wilf! Value for money!”
I thought it over. At last I said, “I’m very tempted, sir. I won’t lie about that—”
“No need to. A banker’s office, the priest’s confessional—very little difference. The best men in this county have sat in that chair, Wilf. The very best.”
“But I only came in for a shortie loan—which you have kindly granted—and this new proposal needs a little thinking about.” A new idea occurred to me, one that was surprisingly pleasant. “And I ought to talk it over with my boy, Henry—Hank, as he likes to be called now. He’s getting to an age where he needs to be consulted, because what I’ve got will be his someday.”
“Understood, completely understood. But it’s the right thing to do, believe me.” He got to his feet and stuck out his hand. I got to mine and shook it. “You came in here to buy a fish, Wilf. I’m offering to sell you a pole. Much better deal.”
“Thank you.” And, leaving the bank, I thought: I’ll talk it over with my son. It was a good thought. A warm thought in a heart that had been chilly for months.
The mind is a funny thing, isn’t it? Preoccupied as I was by Mr. Stoppenhauser’s unsolicited offer of a mortgage, I never noticed that the vehicle I’d come in had been replaced by the one Henry had taken to school. I’m not sure I would have noticed right away even if I’d had less weighty matters on my mind. They were both familiar to me, after all; they were both mine. I only realized when I was leaning in to get the crank and saw a folded piece of paper, held down by a rock, on the driving seat.
I just stood there for a moment, half in and half out of the T, one hand on the side of the cab, the other reaching under the seat, which was where we kept the crank. I suppose I knew why Henry had left school and made this swap even before I pulled his note from beneath the makeshift paperweight and unfolded it. The truck was more reliable on a long trip. A trip to Omaha, for instance.
I have taken the truck. I guess you know where I am going. Leave me alone. I know you can send Sheriff Jones after me to bring me back, but if you do I will tell everything. You might think I’d change my mind because I am “just a kid,” BUT I WONT. Without Shan I dont care about nothing. I love you Poppa even if I don’t know why, since everything we did has brought me mizzery.
Your Loving Son,
Henry “Hank” James
I drove back to the farm in a daze. I think some people waved to me—I think even Sallie Cotterie, who was minding the Cotteries’ roadside vegetable stand, waved to me—and I probably waved back, but I’ve no memory of doing so. For the first time since Sheriff Jones had come out to the farm, asking his cheerful, no-answers-needed questions and looking at everything with his cold inquisitive eyes, the electric chair seemed like a real possibility to me, so real I could almost feel the buckles on my skin as the leather straps were tightened on my wrists and above my elbows.
He would be caught whether I kept my mouth shut or not. That seemed inevitable to me. He had no money, not even six bits to fill the truck’s gas tank, so he’d be walking long before he even got to Elkhorn. If he managed to steal some gas, he’d be caught when he approached the place where she was now living (Henry assumed as a prisoner; it had never crossed his unfinished mind that she might be a willing guest). Surely Harlan had given the person in charge—Sister Camilla—Henry’s description. Even if he hadn’t considered the possibility of the outraged swain making an appearance at the site of his lady-love’s durance vile, Sister Camilla would have. In her business, she had surely dealt with outraged swains before.
My only hope was that, once accosted by the authorities, Henry would keep silent long enough to realize that he’d been snared by his own foolishly romantic notions rather than by my interference. Hoping for a teenage boy to come to his senses is like betting on a long shot at the horse track, but what else did I have?
As I drove into the dooryard, a wild thought crossed my mind: leave the T running, pack a bag, and take off for Colorado. The idea lived for no more than two seconds. I had money—75 dollars, in fact—but the T would die long before I crossed the state line at Julesburg. And that wasn’t the important thing; if it had been, I could always have driven as far as Lincoln and then traded the T and 60 of my dollars for a reliable car. No, it was the place. The home place. My home place. I had murdered my wife to keep it, and I wasn’t going to leave it now because my foolish and immature accomplice had gotten it into his head to take off on a romantic quest. If I left the farm, it wouldn’t be for Colorado; it would be for state prison. And I would be taken there in chains.
That was Monday. There was no word on Tuesday or Wednesday. Sheriff Jones didn’t come to tell me Henry had been picked up hitch-hiking on the Lincoln-Omaha Highway, and Harl Cotterie didn’t come to tell me (with Puritanical satisfaction, no doubt) that the Omaha police had arrested Henry at Sister Camilla’s request, and he was currently sitting in the pokey, telling wild tales about knives and wells and burlap bags. All was quiet on the farm. I worked in the garden harvesting pantry-vegetables, I mended fence, I milked the cows, I fed the chickens—and I did it all in a daze. Part of me, and not a small part, either, believed that all of this was a long and terribly complex dream from which I would awake with Arlette snoring beside me and the sound of Henry chopping wood for the morning fire.
Then, on Thursday, Mrs. McReady—the dear and portly widow who taught academic subjects at Hemingford School—came by in her own Model T to ask me if Henry was all right. “There’s an... an intestinal distress going around,” she said. “I wondered if he caught it. He left very suddenly.”
“He’s distressed all right,” I said, “but it’s a love-bug instead of a stomach-bug. He’s run off, Mrs. McReady.” Unexpected tears, stinging and hot, rose in my eyes. I took the handkerchief from the pocket on the front of my biballs, but some of them ran down my cheeks before I could wipe them away.
When my vision was clear again, I saw that Mrs. McReady, who meant well by every child, even the difficult ones, was near tears herself. She must have known all along what kind of bug Henry was suffering from.
“He’ll be back, Mr. James. Don’t you fear. I’ve seen this before, and I expect to see it a time or two again before I retire, although that time’s not so far away as it once was.” She lowered her voice, as if she feared George the rooster or one of his feathered harem might be a spy. “The one you want to watch out for is her father. He’s a hard and unbending man. Not a bad man, but hard.”
“I know,” I said. “And I suppose you know where his daughter is now.”
She lowered her eyes. It was answer enough.
“Thank you for coming out, Mrs. McReady. Can I ask you to keep this to yourself??”
“Of course... but the children are already whispering.”
Yes. They would be.
“Are you on the exchange, Mr. James?” She looked for telephone wires. “I see you are not. Never mind. If I hear anything, I’ll come out and tell you.”
“You mean if you hear anything before Harlan Cotterie or Sheriff Jones.”
“God will take care of your son. Shannon, too. You know, they really were a lovely couple; everyone said so. Sometimes the fruit ripens too early, and a frost kills it. Such a shame. Such a sad, sad shame.”
She shook my hand—a man’s strong grip—and then drove away in her flivver. I don’t think she realized that, at the end, she had spoken of Shannon and my son in the past tense.
On Friday Sheriff Jones came out, driving the car with the gold star on the door. And he wasn’t alone. Following along behind was my truck. My heart leaped at the sight of it, then sank again when I saw who was behind the wheel: Lars Olsen.
I tried to wait quietly while Jones went through his Ritual of Arrival: belt-hitching, forehead-wiping (even though the day was chilly and overcast), hair-brushing. I couldn’t do it. “Is he all right? Did you find him?”
“No, nope, can’t say we did.” He mounted the porch steps. “Line-rider over east of Lyme Biska found the truck, but no sign of the kid. We might know better about the state of his health if you’d reported this when it happened. Wouldn’t we?”
“I was hoping he’d come back on his own,” I said dully. “He’s gone to Omaha. I don’t know how much I need to tell you, Sheriff—”
Lars Olsen had meandered into auditory range, ears all but flapping. “Go on back to my car, Olsen,” Jones said. “This is a private conversation.”
Lars, a meek soul, scurried off without demur. Jones turned back to me. He was far less cheerful than on his previous visit, and had dispensed with the bumbling persona, as well.
“I already know enough, don’t I? That your kid got Harl Cotterie’s daughter in the fam’ly way and has probably gone haring off to Omaha. He run the truck off the road into a field of high grass when he knew the tank was ’bout dry. That was smart. He get that kind of smart from you? Or from Arlette?”
I said nothing, but he’d given me an idea. Just a little one, but it might come in handy.
“I’ll tell you one thing he did that we’ll thank him for,” Jones said. “Might keep him out of jail, too. He yanked all the grass from under the truck before he went on his merry way. So the exhaust wouldn’t catch it afire, you know. Start a big prairie fire that burned a couple thousand acres, a jury might get a bit touchy, don’t you think? Even if the offender was only 15 or so?”
“Well, it didn’t happen, Sheriff—he did the right thing—so why are you going on about it?” I knew the answer, of course. Sheriff Jones might not give a hoot in a high wind for the likes of Andrew Lester, attorney-at-law, but he was good friends with Harl. They were both members of the newly formed Elks Lodge, and Harl had it in for my son.
“A little touchy, aren’t you?” He wiped his forehead again, then resettled his Stetson. “Well, I might be touchy, too, if it was my son. And you know what? If it was my son and Harl Cotterie was my neighbor—my good neighbor—I might’ve just taken a run down there and said, ‘Harl? You know what? I think my son might be going to try and see your daughter. You want to tell someone to be on the peep for him?’ But you didn’t do that, either, did you?”
The idea he’d given me was looking better and better, and it was almost time to spring it.
“He hasn’t shown up wherever she is, has he?”
“Not yet, no, he may still be looking for it.”
“I don’t think he ran away to see Shannon,” I said.
“Why, then? Do they have a better brand of ice cream there in Omaha? Because that’s the way he was headed, sure as your life.”
“I think he went looking for his mother. I think she may have gotten in touch with him.”
That stopped him for a good ten seconds, long enough for a wipe of the forehead and a brush of the hair. Then he said, “How would she do that?”
“A letter would be my best guess.” The Hemingford Home Grocery was also the post office, where all the general delivery went. “They would have given it to him when he went in for candy or a bag of peanuts, as he often does on his way back from school. I don’t know for sure, Sheriff, any more than I know why you came out here acting like I committed some kind of crime. I wasn’t the one who knocked her up.”
“You ought to hush that kind of talk about a nice girl!”
“Maybe yes and maybe no, but this was as much a surprise to me as it was to the Cotteries, and now my boy is gone. They at least know where their daughter is.”
Once again he was stumped. Then he took out a little notebook from his back pocket and jotted something in it. He put it back and asked, “You don’t know for sure that your wife got in touch with your kid, though—that’s what you’re telling me? It’s just a guess?”
“I know he talked a lot about his mother after she left, but then he stopped. And I know he hasn’t shown up at that home where Harlan and his wife stuck Shannon.” And on that score I was as surprised as Sheriff Jones... but awfully grateful. “Put the two things together, and what do you get?”
“I don’t know,” Jones said, frowning. “I truly don’t. I thought I had this figured out, but I’ve been wrong before, haven’t I? Yes, and will be again. ‘We are all bound in error,’ that’s what the Book says. But good God, kids make my life hard. If you hear from your son, Wilfred, I’d tell him to get his skinny ass home and stay away from Shannon Cotterie, if he knows where she is. She won’t want to see him, guarantee you that. Good news is no prairie fire, and we can’t arrest him for stealing his father’s truck.”
“No,” I said grimly, “you’d never get me to press charges on that one.”
“But.” He raised his finger, which reminded me of Mr. Stoppenhauser at the bank. “Three days ago, in Lyme Biska—not so far from where the rider found your truck—someone held up that grocery and ethyl station on the edge of town. The one with the Blue Bonnet Girl on the roof?? Took 23 dollars. I got the report sitting on my desk. It was a young fella dressed in old cowboy clothes, with a bandanna pulled up over his mouth and a plainsman hat slouched down over his eyes. The owner’s mother was tending the counter, and the fella menaced her with some sort of tool. She thought it might have been a crowbar or a pry-rod, but who knows? She’s pushing 80 and half-blind.”
It was my time to be silent. I was flabbergasted. At last I said, “Henry left from school, Sheriff, and so far as I can remember he was wearing a flannel shirt and corduroy trousers that day. He didn’t take any of his clothes, and in any case he doesn’t have any cowboy clothes, if you mean boots and all. Nor does he have a plainsman’s hat.”
“He could have stolen those things, too, couldn’t he?”
“If you don’t know anything more than what you just said, you ought to stop. I know you’re friends with Harlan—”
“Now, now, this has nothing to do with that.”
It did and we both knew it, but there was no reason to go any farther down that road. Maybe my 80 acres didn’t stack up very high against Harlan Cotterie’s 400, but I was still a landowner and a taxpayer, and I wasn’t going to be browbeaten. That was the point I was making, and Sheriff Jones had taken it.
“My son’s not a robber, and he doesn’t threaten women. That’s not how he acts and not the way he was raised.”
Not until just lately, anyway, a voice inside whispered.
“Probably just a drifter looking for a quick payday,” Jones said. “But I felt like I had to bring it up, and so I did. And we don’t know what people might say, do we? Talk gets around. Everybody talks, don’t they? Talk’s cheap. The subject’s closed as far as I’m concerned—let the Lyme County Sheriff worry about what goes on in Lyme Biska, that’s my motto—but you should know that the Omaha police are keeping an eye on the place where Shannon Cotterie’s at. Just in case your son gets in touch, you know.”
He brushed back his hair, then resettled his hat a final time.
“Maybe he’ll come back on his own, no harm done, and we can write this whole thing off as, I don’t know, a bad debt.”
“Fine. Just don’t call him a bad son, unless you’re willing to call Shannon Cotterie a bad daughter.”
The way his nostrils flared suggested he didn’t like that much, but he didn’t reply to it. What he said was, “If he comes back and says he’s seen his mother, let me know, would you? We’ve got her on the books as a missing person. Silly, I know, but the law is the law.”
“I’ll do that, of course.”
He nodded and went to his car. Lars had settled behind the wheel. Jones shooed him over—the sheriff was the kind of man who did his own driving. I thought about the young man who’d held up the store, and tried to tell myself that my Henry would never do such a thing, and even if he were driven to it, he wouldn’t be sly enough to put on clothes he’d stolen out of somebody’s barn or bunkhouse. But Henry was different now, and murderers learn slyness, don’t they? It’s a survival skill. I thought that maybe—
But no. I won’t say it that way. It’s too weak. This is my confession, my last word on everything, and if I can’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, what good is it? What good is anything?
It was him. It was Henry. I had seen by Sheriff Jones’s eyes that he only brought up that side-o’-the-road robbery because I wouldn’t kowtow to him the way he thought I should’ve, but I believed it. Because I knew more than Sheriff Jones. After helping your father to murder your mother, what was stealing some new clothes and waving a crowbar in an old granny’s face? No such much. And if he tried it once, he would try it again, once those 23 dollars were gone. Probably in Omaha. Where they would catch him. And then the whole thing might come out. Almost certainly would come out.
I climbed to the porch, sat down, and put my face in my hands.
Days went by. I don’t know how many, only that they were rainy. When the rain comes in the fall, outside chores have to wait, and I didn’t have enough livestock or outbuildings to fill the hours with inside chores. I tried to read, but the words wouldn’t seem to string together, although every now and then a single one would seem to leap off the page and scream. Murder. Guilt. Betrayal. Words like those.
Days I sat on the porch with a book in my lap, bundled into my sheepskin coat against the damp and the cold, watching the rainwater drip off the overhang. Nights I lay awake until the small hours of the morning, listening to the rain on the roof overhead. It sounded like timid fingers tapping for entry. I spent too much time thinking about Arlette in the well with Elphis. I began to fancy that she was still... not alive (I was under stress but not crazy), but somehow aware. Somehow watching developments from her makeshift grave, and with pleasure.
Do you like how things have turned out, Wilf? she’d ask if she could (and, in my imagination, did). Was it worth it? What do you say?
One night about a week after Sheriff Jones’s visit, as I sat trying to read The House of the Seven Gables, Arlette crept up behind me, reached around the side of my head, and tapped the bridge of my nose with one cold, wet finger.
I dropped the book on the braided sitting room rug, screamed, and leaped to my feet. When I did, the cold fingertip ran down to the corner of my mouth. Then it touched me again, on top of my head, where the hair was getting thin. This time I laughed—a shaky, angry laugh—and bent to pick up my book. As I did, the finger tapped a third time, this one on the nape of the neck, as if my dead wife were saying, Have I got your attention yet, Wilf? I stepped away—so the fourth tap wouldn’t be in the eye—and looked up. The ceiling overhead was discolored and dripping. The plaster hadn’t started to bulge yet, but if the rain continued, it would. It might even dissolve and come down in chunks. The leak was above my special reading-place. Of course it was. The rest of the ceiling looked fine, at least so far.
I thought of Stoppenhauser saying, Do you want to tell me there aren’t improvements you could make? A roof to fix? And that sly look. As if he had known. As if he and Arlette were in on it together.
Don’t be getting such things in your head, I told myself. Bad enough that you keep thinking of her, down there. Have the worms gotten her eyes yet, I wonder? Have the bugs eaten away her sharp tongue, or at least blunted it?
I went to the table in the far corner of the room, got the bottle that stood there, and poured myself a good-sized hooker of brown whiskey. My hand trembled, but only a little. I downed it in two swallows. I knew it would be a bad business to turn such drinking into a habit, but it’s not every night that a man feels his dead wife tap him on the nose. And the hooch made me feel better. More in control of myself. I didn’t need to take on a 750-dollar mortgage to fix my roof, I could patch it with scrap lumber when the rain stopped. But it would be an ugly fix; would make the place look like what my mother would have called trash-poor. Nor was that the point. Fixing a leak would take only a day or two. I needed work that would keep me through the winter. Hard labor would drive out thoughts of Arlette on her dirt throne, Arlette in her burlap snood. I needed home improvement projects that would send me to bed so tired that I’d sleep right through, and not lie there listening to the rain and wondering if Henry was out in it, maybe coughing from the grippe. Sometimes work is the only thing, the only answer.
The next day I drove to town in my truck and did what I never would have thought of doing if I hadn’t needed to borrow 35 dollars: I took out a mortgage for 750. In the end we are all caught in devices of our own making. I believe that. In the end we are all caught.
In Omaha that same week, a young man wearing a plainsman’s hat walked into a pawnshop on Dodge Street and bought a nickel-plated .32 caliber pistol. He paid with 5 dollars that had no doubt been handed to him, under duress, by a half-blind old woman who did business beneath the sign of the Blue Bonnet Girl. The next day, a young man wearing a flat cap on his head and a red bandanna over his mouth and nose walked into the Omaha branch of the First Agricultural Bank, pointed a gun at a pretty young teller named Rhoda Penmark, and demanded all the money in her drawer. She passed over about 200 dollars, mostly in ones and fives—the grimy kind farmers carry rolled up in the pockets of their bib overalls.
As he left, stuffing the money into his pants with one hand (clearly nervous, he dropped several bills on the floor), the portly guard—a retired policeman—said: “Son, you don’t want to do this.”
The young man fired his .32 into the air. Several people screamed. “I don’t want to shoot you, either,” the young man said from behind his bandanna, “but I will if I have to. Fall back against that post, sir, and stay there if you know what’s good for you. I’ve got a friend outside watching the door.”
The young man ran out, already stripping the bandanna from his face. The guard waited for a minute or so, then went out with his hands raised (he had no sidearm), just in case there really was a friend. There wasn’t, of course. Hank James had no friends in Omaha except for the one with his baby growing in her belly.
I took 200 dollars of my mortgage money in cash and left the rest in Mr. Stoppenhauser’s bank. I went shopping at the hardware, the lumberyard, and the grocery store where Henry might have gotten a letter from his mother... if she were still alive to write one. I drove out of town in a drizzle that had turned to slashing rain by the time I got home. I unloaded my newly purchased lumber and shingles, did the feeding and milking, then put away my groceries—mostly dry goods and staples that were running low without Arlette to ride herd on the kitchen. With that chore done, I put water on the woodstove to heat for a bath and stripped off my damp clothes. I pulled the wad of money out of the right front pocket of my crumpled biballs, counted it, and saw I still had just shy of 160 dollars. Why had I taken so much in cash? Because my mind had been elsewhere. Where elsewhere, pray? On Arlette and Henry, of course. Not to mention Henry and Arlette. They were pretty much all I thought about on those rainy days.
I knew it wasn’t a good idea to have so much cash money around. It would have to go back to the bank, where it could earn a little interest (although not nearly enough to equal the interest on the loan) while I was thinking about how best to put it to work. But in the meantime, I should lay it by someplace safe.
The box with the red whore’s hat in it came to mind. It was where she’d stashed her own money, and it had been safe there for God knew how long. There was too much in my wad to fit in the band, so I thought I’d put it in the hat itself. It would only be there until I found an excuse to go back to town.
I went into the bedroom, stark naked, and opened the closet door. I shoved aside the box with her white church-hat in it, then reached for the other one. I’d pushed it all the way to the back of the shelf and had to stand on tiptoe to reach it. There was an elastic cord around it. I hooked my finger under it to pull it forward, was momentarily aware that the hatbox felt much too heavy—as though there were a brick inside it instead of a bonnet—and then there was a strange freezing sensation, as though my hand had been doused in icewater. A moment later the freeze turned to fire. It was a pain so intense that it locked all the muscles in my arm. I stumbled backwards, roaring in surprise and agony and dropping money everywhere. My finger was still hooked into the elastic, and the hatbox came tumbling out. Crouched on top of it was a Norway rat that looked all too familiar.
You might say to me, “Wilf, one rat looks like another,” and ordinarily you’d be right, but I knew this one; hadn’t I seen it running away from me with a cow’s teat jutting from its mouth like the butt of a cigar?
The hatbox came free of my bleeding hand, and the rat tumbled to the floor. If I had taken time to think, it would have gotten away again, but conscious thinking had been canceled by pain, surprise, and the horror I suppose almost any man feels when he sees blood pouring from a part of his body that was whole only seconds before. I didn’t even remember that I was as naked as the day I was born, just brought my right foot down on the rat. I heard its bones crunch and felt its guts squash. Blood and liquefied intestines squirted from beneath its tail and doused my left ankle with warmth. It tried to twist around and bite me again; I could see its large front teeth gnashing, but it couldn’t quite reach me. Not, that was, as long as I kept my foot on it. So I did. I pushed harder, holding my wounded hand against my chest, feeling the warm blood mat the thick pelt that grew there. The rat twisted and flopped. Its tail first lashed my calf, then wrapped around it like a grass snake. Blood gushed from its mouth. Its black eyes bulged like marbles.
I stood there with my foot on the dying rat for a long time. It was smashed to pieces inside, its innards reduced to gruel, and still it thrashed and tried to bite. Finally it stopped moving. I stood on it for another minute, wanting to make sure it wasn’t just playing possum (a rat playing possum—ha!), and when I was sure it was dead, I limped into the kitchen, leaving bloody footprints and thinking in a confused way of the oracle warning Pelias to beware of a man wearing just one sandal. But I was no Jason; I was a farmer half-mad with pain and amazement, a farmer who seemed condemned to foul his sleeping-place with blood.
As I held my hand under the pump and froze it with cold water, I could hear someone saying, “No more, no more, no more.” It was me, I knew it was, but it sounded like an old man. One who had been reduced to beggary.
I can remember the rest of that night, but it’s like looking at old photographs in a mildewy album. The rat had bitten all the way through the webbing between my left thumb and forefinger—a terrible bite, but in a way, lucky. If it had seized on the finger I’d hooked under that elastic cord, it might have bitten the finger entirely off. I realized that when I went back into the bedroom and picked up my adversary by the tail (using my right hand; the left was too stiff and painful to flex). It was two feet long, a six-pounder, at least.
Then it wasn’t the same rat that escaped into the pipe, I hear you saying. It couldn’t have been. But it was, I tell you it was. There was no identifying mark—no white patch of fur or conveniently memorable chewed ear—but I knew it was the one that had savaged Achelois. Just as I knew it hadn’t been crouched up there by accident.
I carried it into the kitchen by the tail and dumped it in the ash bucket. This I took out to our swill-pit. I was naked in the pouring rain, but hardly aware of it. What I was mostly aware of was my left hand, throbbing with a pain so intense it threatened to obliterate all thought.
I took my duster from the hook in the mudroom (it was all I could manage), shrugged into it, and went out again, this time into the barn. I smeared my wounded hand with Rawleigh Salve. It had kept Achelois’s udder from infecting, and might do the same for my hand. I started to leave, then remembered how the rat had escaped me last time. The pipe! I went to it and bent over, expecting to see the cement plug either chewed to pieces or completely gone, but it was intact. Of course it was. Even six-pound rats with oversized teeth can’t chew through concrete. That the idea had even crossed my mind shows the state I was in. For a moment I seemed to see myself as if from outside: a man naked except for an unbuttoned duster, his body-hair matted with blood all the way to the groin, his torn left hand glistening under a thick snotlike coating of cow-salve, his eyes bugging out of his head. The way the rat’s had bugged out, when I stepped on it.
It wasn’t the same rat, I told myself. The one that bit Achelois is either lying dead in the pipe or in Arlette’s lap.
But I knew it was. I knew it then and I know it now.
Back in the bedroom, I got down on my knees and picked up the bloodstained money. It was slow work with only one hand. Once I bumped my torn hand on the side of the bed and howled with pain. I could see fresh blood staining the salve, turning it pink. I put the cash on the dresser, not even bothering to cover it with a book or one of Arlette’s damned ornamental plates. I couldn’t even remember why it had seemed so important to hide the bills in the first place. The red hatbox I kicked into the closet, and then slammed the door. It could stay there until the end of time, for all of me.
Anyone who’s ever owned a farm or worked on one will tell you that accidents are commonplace, and precautions must be taken. I had a big roll of bandage in the chest beside the kitchen pump—the chest Arlette had always called the “hurt-locker.” I started to get the roll out, but then the big pot steaming on the stove caught my eye. The water I’d put on for a bath when I was still whole and when such monstrous pain as that which seemed to be consuming me was only theoretical. It occurred to me that hot soapy water might be just the thing for my hand. The wound couldn’t hurt any worse, I reasoned, and the immersion would cleanse it. I was wrong on both counts, but how was I to know? All these years later, it still seems like a reasonable idea. I suppose it might even have worked, if I had been bitten by an ordinary rat.
I used my good right hand to ladle hot water into a basin (the idea of tilting the pot and pouring from it was out of the question), then added a cake of Arlette’s coarse brown washing soap. The last cake, as it turned out; there are so many supplies a man neglects to lay in when he’s not used to doing it. I added a rag, then went into the bedroom, got down on my knees again, and began mopping up the blood and guts. All the time remembering (of course) the last time I had cleaned blood from the floor in that damned bedroom. That time at least Henry had been with me to share the horror. Doing it alone, and in pain, was a terrible job. My shadow bumped and flitted on the wall, making me think of Quasimodo in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.
With the job almost finished, I stopped and cocked my head, breath held, eyes wide, my heart seeming to thud in my bitten left hand. I heard a scuttering sound, and it seemed to come from everywhere. The sound of running rats. In that moment I was sure of it. The rats from the well. Her loyal courtiers. They had found another way out. The one crouched on top of the red hatbox had only been the first and the boldest. They had infiltrated the house, they were in the walls, and soon they would come out and overwhelm me. She would have her revenge. I would hear her laughing as they tore me to pieces.
The wind gusted hard enough to shake the house and shriek briefly along the eaves. The scuttering sound intensified, then faded a bit when the wind died. The relief that filled me was so intense it overwhelmed the pain (for a few seconds, at least). It wasn’t rats; it was sleet. With the coming of dark, the temperature had fallen and the rain had become semi-solid. I went back to scrubbing away the remains.
When I was done, I dumped the bloody wash-water over the porch rail, then went back to the barn to apply a fresh coating of salve to my hand. With the wound completely cleansed, I could see that the webbing between my thumb and forefinger was torn open in three slashes that looked like a sergeant’s stripes. My left thumb hung askew, as if the rat’s teeth had severed some important cable between it and the rest of my left hand. I applied the cow-goop and then plodded back to the house, thinking, It hurts but at least it’s clean. Achelois was all right; I’ll be all right, too. Everything’s fine. I tried to imagine my body’s defenses mobilizing and arriving at the scene of the bite like tiny firemen in red hats and long canvas coats.
At the bottom of the hurt-locker, wrapped in a torn piece of silk that might once have been part of a lady’s slip, I found a bottle of pills from the Hemingford Home Drug Store. Fountain-penned on the label in neat capital letters was ARLETTE JAMES Take 1 or 2 at Bed-Time for Monthly Pain. I took three, with a large shot of whiskey. I don’t know what was in those pills—morphia, I suppose—but they did the trick. The pain was still there, but it seemed to belong to a Wilfred James currently existing on some other level of reality. My head swam; the ceiling began to turn gently above me; the image of tiny firemen arriving to douse the blaze of infection before it could take hold grew clearer. The wind was strengthening, and to my half-dreaming mind, the constant low rattle of sleet against the house sounded more like rats than ever, but I knew better. I think I even said so aloud: “I know better, Arlette, you don’t fool me.”
As consciousness dwindled and I began to slip away, I realized that I might be going for good: that the combination of shock, booze, and morphine might end my life. I would be found in a cold farmhouse, my skin blue-gray, my torn hand resting on my belly. The idea did not frighten me; on the contrary, it comforted me.
While I slept, the sleet turned to snow.
When I woke at dawn the following morning, the house was as chilly as a tomb and my hand had swelled up to twice its ordinary size. The flesh around the bite was ashy gray but the first three fingers had gone a dull pink that would be red by the end of the day. Touching anywhere on that hand except for the pinky caused excruciating pain. Nevertheless, I wrapped it as tightly as I could, and that reduced the throbbing. I got a fire started in the kitchen stove—one-handed it was a long job, but I managed—and then drew up close, trying to get warm. All of me except for the bitten hand, that was; that part of me was warm already. Warm and pulsing like a glove with a rat hiding inside it.
By midafternoon I was feverish, and my hand had swelled so tightly against the bandages that I had to loosen them. Just doing that made me cry out. I needed doctoring, but it was snowing harder than ever, and I wouldn’t be able to get as far as Cotteries’, let alone all the way to Hemingford Home. Even if the day had been clear and bright and dry, how would I ever have managed to crank the truck or the T with just one hand? I sat in the kitchen, feeding the stove until it roared like a dragon, pouring sweat and shaking with cold, holding my bandaged club of a hand to my chest, and remembering the way kindly Mrs. McReady had surveyed my cluttered, not-particularly-prosperous dooryard. Are you on the exchange, Mr. James? I see you are not.
No. I was not. I was by myself on the farm I had killed for, with no means of summoning help. I could see the flesh beginning to turn red beyond where the bandages stopped: at the wrist, full of veins that would carry the poison all through my body. The firemen had failed. I thought of tying the wrist off with elastics—of killing my left hand in an effort to save the rest of me—and even of amputating it with the hatchet we used to chop up kindling and behead the occasional chicken. Both ideas seemed perfectly plausible, but they also seemed like too much work. In the end I did nothing except hobble back to the hurt-locker for more of Arlette’s pills. I took three more, this time with cold water—my throat was burning—and then resumed my seat by the fire. I was going to die of the bite. I was sure of it and resigned to it. Death from bites and infections was as common as dirt on the plains. If the pain became more than I could bear, I would swallow all the remaining pain-pills at once. What kept me from doing it right away—apart from the fear of death, which I suppose afflicts all of us, to a greater or lesser degree—was the possibility that someone might come: Harlan, or Sheriff Jones, or kindly Mrs. McReady. It was even possible that Attorney Lester might show up to hector me some more about those god damned 100 acres.
But what I hoped most of all was that Henry might return. He didn’t, though.
It was Arlette who came.
You may have wondered how I know about the gun Henry bought in the Dodge Street pawnshop, and the bank robbery in Jefferson Square. If you did, you probably said to yourself, Well, it’s a lot of time between 1922 and 1930; enough to fill in plenty of details at a library stocked with back issues of the Omaha World-Herald.
I did go to the newspapers, of course. And I wrote to people who met my son and his pregnant girlfriend on their short, disastrous course from Nebraska to Nevada. Most of those people wrote back, willing enough to supply details. That sort of investigative work makes sense, and no doubt satisfies you. But those investigations came years later, after I left the farm, and only confirmed what I already knew.
Already? you ask, and I answer simply: Yes Already. And I knew it not just as it happened, but at least part of it before it happened The last part of it.
How? The answer is simple. My dead wife told me.
You disbelieve, of course. I understand that. Any rational person would. All I can do is reiterate that this is my confession, my last words on earth, and I’ve put nothing in it I don’t know to be true.
I woke from a doze in front of the stove the following night (or the next; as the fever settled in, I lost track of time) and heard the rustling, scuttering sounds again. At first I assumed it had recommenced sleeting, but when I got up to tear a chunk of bread from the hardening loaf on the counter, I saw a thin orange sunset-streak on the horizon and Venus glowing in the sky. The storm was over, but the scuttering sounds were louder than ever. They weren’t coming from the walls, however, but from the back porch.
The door-latch began moving. At first it only trembled, as if the hand trying to operate it was too weak to lift it entirely clear of the notch. The movement ceased, and I had just decided I hadn’t seen it at all—that it was a delusion born of the fever—when it went all the way up with a little clack sound and the door swung open on a cold breath of wind. Standing on the porch was my wife. She was still wearing her burlap snood, now flecked with snow; it must have been a slow and painful journey from what should have been her final resting place. Her face was slack with decay, the lower half slewed to one side, her grin wider than ever. It was a knowing grin, and why not? The dead understand everything.
She was surrounded by her loyal court. It was they that had somehow gotten her out of the well. It was they that were holding her up. Without them, she would have been no more than a ghost, malevolent but helpless. But they had animated her. She was their queen; she was also their puppet. She came into the kitchen, moving with a horribly boneless gait that had nothing to do with walking. The rats scurried all around her, some looking up at her with love, some at me with hate. She swayed all the way around the kitchen, touring what had been her domain as clods fell from the skirt of her dress (there was no sign of the quilt or the counterpane) and her head bobbed and rolled on her cut throat. Once it tilted back all the way to her shoulder blades before snapping forward again with a low and fleshy smacking sound.
When she at last turned her cloudy eyes on me, I backed into the corner where the woodbox stood, now almost empty. “Leave me alone,” I whispered. “You aren’t even here. You’re in the well and you can’t get out even if you’re not dead.”
She made a gurgling noise—it sounded like someone choking on thick gravy—and kept coming, real enough to cast a shadow. And I could smell her decaying flesh, this woman who had sometimes put her tongue in my mouth during the throes of her passion. She was there. She was real. So was her royal retinue. I could feel them scurrying back and forth over my feet and tickling my ankles with their whiskers as they sniffed at the bottoms of my longjohn trousers.
My heels struck the woodbox, and when I tried to bend away from the approaching corpse, I overbalanced and sat down in it. I banged my swollen and infected hand, but hardly registered the pain. She was bending over me, and her face... dangled. The flesh had come loose from the bones and her face hung down like a face drawn on a child’s balloon. A rat climbed the side of the woodbox, plopped onto my belly, ran up my chest, and sniffed at the underside of my chin. I could feel others scurrying around beneath my bent knees. But they didn’t bite me. That particular task had already been accomplished.
She bent closer. The smell of her was overwhelming, and her cocked ear-to-ear grin... I can see it now, as I write. I told myself to die, but my heart kept pounding. Her hanging face slid alongside mine. I could feel my beard-stubble pulling off tiny bits of her skin; could hear her broken jaw grinding like a branch with ice on it. Then her cold lips were pressed against the burning, feverish cup of my ear, and she began whispering secrets that only a dead woman could know. I shrieked. I promised to kill myself and take her place in Hell if she would only stop. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. The dead don’t stop.
That’s what I know now.
After fleeing the First Agricultural Bank with 200 dollars stuffed into his pocket (or probably more like 150 dollars; some of it went on the floor, remember), Henry disappeared for a little while. He “laid low,” in the criminal parlance. I say this with a certain pride. I thought he would be caught almost immediately after he got to the city, but he proved me wrong. He was in love, he was desperate, he was still burning with guilt and horror over the crime he and I had committed... but in spite of those distractions (those infections), my son demonstrated bravery and cleverness, even a certain sad nobility. The thought of that last is the worst. It still fills me with melancholy for his wasted life (three wasted lives; I mustn’t forget poor pregnant Shannon Cotterie) and shame for the ruination to which I led him, like a calf with a rope around its neck.
Arlette showed me the shack where he went to ground, and the bicycle stashed out back—that bicycle was the first thing he purchased with his stolen cash. I couldn’t have told you then exactly where his hideout was, but in the years since I have located it and even visited it; just a side-o’-the-road lean-to with a fading Royal Crown Cola advertisement painted on the side. It was a few miles beyond Omaha’s western outskirts and within sight of Boys Town, which had begun operating the year before. One room, a single glassless window, and no stove. He covered the bicycle with hay and weeds and laid his plans. Then, a week or so after robbing the First Agricultural Bank—by then police interest in a very minor robbery would have died down—he began making bicycle trips into Omaha.
A thick boy would have gone directly to the St. Eusebia Catholic Home and been snared by the Omaha cops (as Sheriff Jones had no doubt expected he would be), but Henry Freeman James was smarter than that. He sussed out the Home’s location, but didn’t approach it. Instead, he looked for the nearest candy store and soda fountain. He correctly assumed that the girls would frequent it whenever they could (which was whenever their behavior merited a free afternoon and they had a little money in their bags), and although the St. Eusebia girls weren’t required to wear uniforms, they were easy enough to pick out by their dowdy dresses, downcast eyes, and their behavior—alternately flirty and skittish. Those with big bellies and no wedding rings would have been particularly conspicuous.
A thick boy would have attempted to strike up a conversation with one of these unfortunate daughters of Eve right there at the soda fountain, thus attracting attention. Henry took up a position outside, at the mouth of an alley running between the candy store and the notions shoppe next to it, sitting on a crate and reading the newspaper with his bike leaning against the brick next to him. He was waiting for a girl a little more adventurous than those content simply to sip their ice-cream sodas and then scuttle back to the sisters. That meant a girl who smoked. On his third afternoon in the alley, such a girl arrived.
I have found her since, and talked with her. There wasn’t much detective work involved. I’m sure Omaha seemed like a metropolis to Henry and Shannon, but in 1922 it was really just a larger-than-average Midwestern town with city pretensions. Victoria Hallett is a respectable married woman with three children now, but in the fall of 1922, she was Victoria Stevenson: young, curious, rebellious, six months pregnant, and very fond of Sweet Caporals. She was happy enough to take one of Henry’s when he offered her the pack.
“Take another couple for later,” he invited.
She laughed. “I’d have to be a ding-dong to do that! The sisters search our bags and pull our pockets inside-out when we come back. I’ll have to chew three sticks of Black Jack just to get the smell of this one fag off my breath.” She patted her bulging tummy with amusement and defiance. “I’m in trouble, as I guess you can see. Bad girl! And my sweetie ran off. Bad boy, but the world don’t care about that! So then the dapper stuck me in a jail with penguins for guards—”
“I don’t get you.”
“Jeez! The dapper’s my dad! And penguins is what we call the sisters!” She laughed. “You’re some country palooka, all right! And how! Anyway, the jail where I’m doing time’s called—”
“Now you’re cooking with gas, Jackson.” She puffed her cig, narrowed her eyes. “Say, I bet I know who you are—Shan Cotterie’s boyfriend.”
“Give that girl a Kewpie doll,” Hank said.
“Well, I wouldn’t get within two blocks of our place, that’s my advice. The cops have got your description.” She laughed cheerily. “Yours and half a dozen other Lonesome Lennies, but none of ’em green-eyed clodhoppers like you, and none with gals as good-looking as Shannon. She’s a real Sheba! Yow!”
“Why do you think I’m here instead of there?”
“I’ll bite—why are you here?”
“I want to get in touch, but I don’t want to get caught doing it. I’ll give you 2 bucks to take a note to her.”
Victoria’s eyes went wide. “Buddy, for a 2-spot, I’d tuck a bugle under my arm and take a message to Garcia—that’s how tapped out I am. Hand it over!”
“And another 2 if you keep your mouth shut about it. Now and later.”
“For that you don’t have to pay extra,” she said. “I love pulling the business on those holier-than-thou bitches. Why, they smack your hand if you try to take an extra dinner roll! It’s like Gulliver Twist!”
He gave her the note, and Victoria gave it to Shannon. It was in her little bag of things when the police finally caught up with her and Henry in Elko, Nevada, and I have seen a police photograph of it. But Arlette told me what it said long before then, and the actual item matched word for word.
I’ll wait from midnight to dawn behind yr place every night for 2 weeks, the note said. If you don’t show up, I’ll know it’s over between us & go back to Hemingford & never bother you again even tho’ I will go on loving you forever. We are young but we could lie about our ages & start a good life in another place (California). I have some money & know how to get more. Victoria knows how to find me if you want to send me a note, but only once. More would not be safe.
I suppose Harlan and Sallie Cotterie might have that note. If so, they have seen that my son signed his name in a heart. I wonder if that was what convinced Shannon. I wonder if she even needed convincing. It’s possible that all she wanted on earth was to keep (and legitimize) a baby she had already fallen in love with. That’s a question Arlette’s terrible whispering voice never addressed. Probably she didn’t care one way or the other.
Henry returned to the mouth of the alley every day after that meeting. I’m sure he knew that the cops might arrive instead of Victoria, but felt he had no choice. On the third day of his vigil, she came. “Shan wrote back right away, but I couldn’t get out any sooner,” she said. “Some goofy-weed showed up in that hole they have the nerve to call a music room, and the penguins have been on the warpath ever since.”
Henry held out his hand for the note, which Victoria gave over in exchange for a Sweet Caporal. There were only four words: Tomorrow morning. 2 o’clock.
Henry threw his arms around Victoria and kissed her. She laughed with excitement, eyes sparkling. “Gosh! Some girls get all the luck.”
They undoubtedly do. But when you consider that Victoria ended up with a husband, three kids, and a nice home on Maple Street in the best part of Omaha, and Shannon Cotterie didn’t live out that curse of a year... which of them would you say struck lucky?
I have some money & know how to get more, Henry had written, and he did. Only hours after kissing the saucy Victoria (who took the message He says he’ll be there with bells on back to Shannon), a young man with a flat cap pulled low on his forehead and a bandanna over his mouth and nose robbed the First National Bank of Omaha. This time the robber got 800 dollars, which was a fine haul. But the guard was younger and more enthusiastic about his responsibilities, which was not so fine. The thief had to shoot him in the thigh in order to effect his escape, and although Charles Griner lived, an infection set in (I could sympathize), and he lost the leg. When I met with him at his parents’ house in the spring of 1925, Griner was philosophical about it.
“I’m lucky to be alive at all,” he said. “By the time they got a tourniquet on my leg, I was lying in a pool of blood damn near an inch deep. I bet it took a whole box of Dreft to get that mess up.”
When I tried to apologize for my son, he waved it away.
“I never should have approached him. The cap was pulled low and the bandanna was yanked high, but I could see his eyes all right. I should have known he wasn’t going to stop unless he was shot down, and I never had a chance to pull my gun. It was in his eyes, see. But I was young myself. I’m older now. Older’s something your son never got a chance to get. I’m sorry for your loss.”
After that job, Henry had more than enough money to buy a car—a nice one, a tourer—but he knew better. (Writing that, I again feel that sense of pride: low but undeniable.) A kid who looked like he only started shaving a week or two before, waving around enough wampum to buy an almost-new Olds? That would have brought John Law down on him for sure.
So instead of buying a car, he stole one. Not a touring car, either; he plumped for a nice, nondescript Ford coupe. That was the car he parked behind St. Eusebia’s, and that was the one Shannon climbed into, after sneaking out of her room, creeping downstairs with her traveling bag in her hand, and wriggling through the window of the washroom adjacent to the kitchen. They had time to exchange a single kiss—Arlette didn’t say so, but I still have my imagination—and then Henry pointed the Ford west. By dawn they were on the Omaha-Lincoln Highway. They must have passed close to his old home—and hers—around 3 that afternoon. They might have looked in that direction, but I doubt if Henry slowed; he would not want to stop for the night in an area where they might be recognized.
Their life as fugitives had begun.
Arlette whispered more about that life than I wished to know, and I don’t have the heart to put more than the bare details down here. If you want to know more, write to the Omaha Public Library. For a fee, they will send you hectograph copies of stories having to do with the Sweetheart Bandits, as they became known (and as they called themselves). You may even be able to find stories from your own paper, if you do not live in Omaha; the conclusion of the tale was deemed heartrending enough to warrant national coverage.
Handsome Hank and Sweet Shannon, the World-Herald called them. In the photographs, they looked impossibly young. (And of course they were.) I didn’t want to look at those photographs, but I did. There’s more than one way to be bitten by rats, isn’t there?
The stolen car blew a tire in Nebraska’s sandhill country. Two men came walking up just as Henry was mounting the spare. One drew a shotgun from a sling setup he had under his coat—what was called a bandit hammerclaw back in the Wild West days—and pointed it at the runaway lovers. Henry had no chance at all to get his own gun; it was in his coat pocket, and if he’d tried for it, he almost certainly would have been killed. So the robber was robbed. Henry and Shannon walked hand-in-hand to a nearby farmer’s house under a cold autumn sky, and when the farmer came to the door to ask how he could help, Henry pointed his gun at the man’s chest and said he wanted his car and all his cash.
The girl with him, the farmer told a reporter, stood on the porch looking away. The farmer said he thought she was crying. He said he felt sorry for her, because she was no bigger than a minute, just as pregnant as the old woman who lived in a shoe, and traveling with a young desperado bound for a bad end.
Did she try to stop him? the reporter asked. Try to talk him out of it?
No, the farmer said. Just stood with her back turned, like she thought that if she didn’t see it, it wasn’t happening. The farmer’s old rattletrap Reo was found abandoned near the McCook train depot, with a note on the seat: Here is your car back, we will send the money we stole when we can. We only took from you because we were in a scrape. Very truly yours, “The Sweetheart Bandits.” Whose idea was that name? Shannon’s, probably; the note was in her handwriting. They only used it because they didn’t want to give their names, but of such things legends are made.
A day or two later, there was a hold-up in the tiny Frontier Bank of Arapahoe, Colorado. The thief—wearing a flat cap yanked low and a bandanna yanked high—was alone. He got less than $100 and drove off in a Hupmobile that had been reported stolen in McCook. The next day, in The First Bank of Cheyenne Wells (which was the only bank of Cheyenne Wells), the young man was joined by a young woman. She disguised her face with a bandanna of her own, but it was impossible to disguise her pregnant state. They made off with $400 and drove out of town at high speed, headed west. A roadblock was set up on the road to Denver, but Henry played it smart and stayed lucky. They turned south not long after leaving Cheyenne Wells, picking their way along dirt roads and cattle tracks.
A week later, a young couple calling themselves Harry and Susan Freeman boarded the train for San Francisco in Colorado Springs. Why they suddenly got off in Grand Junction I don’t know and Arlette didn’t say—saw something that put their wind up, I suppose. All I know is that they robbed a bank there, and another in Ogden, Utah. Their version of saving up money for their new life, maybe. And in Ogden, when a man tried to stop Henry outside the bank, Henry shot him in the chest. The man grappled with Henry anyway, and Shannon pushed him down the granite steps. They got away. The man Henry shot died in the hospital two days later. The Sweetheart Bandits had become murderers. In Utah, convicted murderers got the rope.
By then it was near Thanksgiving, although which side of it I don’t know. The police west of the Rockies had their descriptions and were on the lookout. I had been bitten by the rat hiding in the closet—I think—or was about to be. Arlette told me they were dead, but they weren’t; not when she and her royal court came to visit me, that was. She either lied or prophesied. To me they are both the same.
Their next-to-last stop was Deeth, Nevada. It was a bitterly cold day in late November or early December, the sky white and beginning to spit snow. They only wanted eggs and coffee at the town’s only diner, but their luck was almost all gone. The counterman was from Elkhorn, Nebraska, and although he hadn’t been home in years, his mother still faithfully sent him issues of the World-Herald in large bundles. He had received just such a bundle a few days before, and he recognized the Omaha Sweetheart Bandits sitting in one of the booths.
Instead of ringing the police (or pit security at the nearby copper mine, which would have been quicker and more efficient), he decided to make a citizen’s arrest. He took a rusty old cowboy pistol from under the counter, pointed it at them, and told them—in the finest Western tradition—to throw up their hands. Henry did no such thing. He slid out of the booth and walked toward the fellow, saying: “Don’t do that, my friend, we mean you no harm, we’ll just pay up and go.”
The counterman pulled the trigger and the old pistol misfired. Henry took it out of his hand, broke it, looked at the cylinder, and laughed. “Good news!” he told Shannon. “These bullets have been in there so long they’re green.”
He put 2 dollars on the counter—for their food—and then made a terrible mistake. To this day I believe things would have ended badly for them no matter what, yet still I wish I could call to him across the years: Don’t put that gun down still loaded Don’t do that, son! Green or not, put those bullets in your pocket! But only the dead can call across time; I know that now, and from personal experience.
As they were leaving (hand-in-hand, Arlette whispered in my burning ear), the counterman snatched that old horse-pistol off the counter, held it in both hands, and pulled the trigger again. This time it fired, and although he probably thought he was aiming at Henry, the bullet struck Shannon Cotterie in the lower back. She screamed and stumbled forward out the door into the blowing snow. Henry caught her before she could fall and helped her into their last stolen car, another Ford. The counterman tried to shoot him through the window, and that time the old gun blew up in his hands. A piece of metal took out his left eye. I have never been sorry. I am not as forgiving as Charles Griner.
Seriously wounded—perhaps dying already—Shannon went into labor as Henry drove through thickening snow toward Elko, thirty miles to the southwest, perhaps thinking he might find a doctor there. I don’t know if there was a doctor or not, but there was certainly a police station, and the counterman rang it with the remains of his eye-ball still drying on his cheek. Two local cops and four members of the Nevada State Patrol were waiting for Henry and Shannon at the edge of town, but Henry and Shannon never saw them. It’s 30 miles between Deeth and Elko, and Henry made only 28 of them.
Just inside the town limits (but still well beyond the edge of the village), the last of Henry’s luck let go. With Shannon screaming and holding her belly as she bled all over the seat, he must have been driving fast—too fast. Or maybe he just hit a pothole in the road. However it was, the Ford skidded into the ditch and stalled. There they sat in that high-desert emptiness while a strengthening wind blew snow all around them, and what was Henry thinking? That what he and I had done in Nebraska had led him and the girl he loved to that place in Nevada. Arlette didn’t tell me that, but she didn’t have to. I knew.
He spied the ghost of a building through the thickening snow, and got Shannon out of the car. She managed a few steps into the wind, then could manage no more. The girl who could do triggeronomy and might have been the first female graduate of the normal school in Omaha laid her head on her young man’s shoulder and said, “I can’t go any farther, honey, put me on the ground.”
“What about the baby?” he asked her.
“The baby is dead, and I want to die, too,” she said. “I can’t stand the pain. It’s terrible. I love you, honey, but put me on the ground.”
He carried her to that ghost of a building instead, which turned out to be a line shack not much different from the shanty near Boys Town, the one with the faded bottle of Royal Crown Cola painted on the side. There was a stove, but no wood. He went out and scrounged a few pieces of scrap lumber before the snow could cover them, and when he went back inside, Shannon was unconscious. Henry lit the stove, then put her head on his lap. Shannon Cotterie was dead before the little fire he’d made burned down to embers, and then there was only Henry, sitting on a mean line shack cot where a dozen dirty cowboys had lain themselves down before him, drunk more often than sober. He sat there and stroked Shannon’s hair while the wind shrieked outside and the shack’s tin roof shivered.
All these things Arlette told me on a day when those two doomed children were still alive. All these things she told me while the rats crawled around me and her stink filled my nose and my infected, swollen hand ached like fire.
I begged her to kill me, to open my throat as I had opened hers, and she wouldn’t.
That was her revenge.
It might have been two days later when my visitor arrived at the farm, or even three, but I don’t think so. I think it was only one. I don’t believe I could have lasted two or three more days without help. I had stopped eating and almost stopped drinking. Still, I managed to get out of bed and stagger to the door when the hammering on it commenced. Part of me thought it might be Henry, because part of me still dared hope that Arlette’s visit had been a delusion hatched in delirium... and even if it had been real, that she had lied.
It was Sheriff Jones. My knees loosened when I saw him, and I pitched forward. If he hadn’t caught me, I would have gone tumbling out onto the porch. I tried to tell him about Henry and Shannon—that Shannon was going to be shot, that they were going to end up in a line shack on the outskirts of Elko, that he, Sheriff Jones, had to call somebody and stop it before it happened. All that came out was a garble, but he caught the names.
“He’s run off with her, all right,” Jones said. “But if Harl came down and told you that, why’d he leave you like this? What bit you?”
“Rat,” I managed.
He got an arm around me and half-carried me down the porch steps and toward his car. George the rooster was lying frozen to the ground beside the woodpile, and the cows were lowing. When had I last fed them? I couldn’t remember.
“Sheriff, you have to—”
But he cut me off. He thought I was raving, and why not? He could feel the fever baking off me and see it glowing in my face. It must have been like carrying an oven. “You need to save your strength. And you need to be grateful to Arlette, because I never would have come out here if not for her.”
“Dead,” I managed.
“Yes. She’s dead, all right.”
So then I told him I’d killed her, and oh, the relief. A plugged pipe inside my head had magically opened, and the infected ghost which had been trapped in there was finally gone.
He slung me into his car like a bag of meal. “We’ll talk about Arlette, but right now I’m taking you to Angels of Mercy, and I’ll thank you not to upchuck in my car.”
As he drove out of the dooryard, leaving the dead rooster and lowing cows behind (and the rats! don’t forget them! Ha!), I tried to tell him again that it might not be too late for Henry and Shannon, that it still might be possible to save them. I heard myself saying these are things that may be, as if I were the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come in the Dickens story. Then I passed out. When I woke up, it was the second of December, and the Western newspapers were reporting “SWEETHEART BANDITS” ELUDE ELKO POLICE, ESCAPE AGAIN. They hadn’t, but no one knew that yet. Except Arlette, of course. And me.
The doctor thought the gangrene hadn’t advanced up my forearm, and gambled my life by amputating only my left hand. That was a gamble he won. Five days after being carried into Hemingford City’s Angels of Mercy Hospital by Sheriff Jones, I lay wan and ghostly in a hospital bed, twenty-five pounds lighter and minus my left hand, but alive.
Jones came to see me, his face grave. I waited for him to tell me he was arresting me for the murder of my wife, and then handcuff my remaining hand to the hospital bedpost. But that never happened. Instead, he told me how sorry he was for my loss. My loss! What did that idiot know about loss?
Why am I sitting in this mean hotel room (but not alone!) instead of lying in a murderer’s grave? I’ll tell you in two words: my mother.
Like Sheriff Jones, she had a habit of peppering her conversation with rhetorical questions. With him it was a conversational device he’d picked up during a lifetime in law enforcement—he asked his silly little questions, then observed the person he was talking to for any guilty reaction: a wince, a frown, a small shift of the eyes. With my mother, it was only a habit of speech she had picked up from her own mother, who was English, and passed on to me. I’ve lost any faint British accent I might once have had, but never lost my mother’s way of turning statements into questions. You’d better come in now, hadn’t you? she’d say. Or Your father forgot his lunch again; you’ll have to take it to him, won’t you? Even observations about the weather came couched as questions: Another rainy day, isn’t it?
Although I was feverish and very ill when Sheriff Jones came to the door on that late November day, I wasn’t delirious. I remember our conversation clearly, the way a man or woman may remember images from a particularly vivid nightmare.
You need to be grateful to Arlette, because I never would have come out here if not for her, he said.
Dead, I replied.
Sheriff Jones: She’s dead, all right.
And then, speaking as I had learned to speak at my mother’s knee: I killed her, didn’t I?
Sheriff Jones took my mother’s rhetorical device (and his own, don’t forget) as a real question. Years later—it was in the factory where I found work after I lost the farm—I heard a foreman berating a clerk for sending an order to Des Moines instead of Davenport before the clerk had gotten the shipping form from the front office. But we always send the Wednesday orders to Des Moines, the soon-to-be-fired clerk protested. I simply assumed—
Assume makes an ass out of you and me, the foreman replied. An old saying, I suppose, but that was the first time I heard it. And is it any wonder that I thought of Sheriff Frank Jones when I did? My mother’s habit of turning statements into questions saved me from the electric chair. I was never tried by a jury for the murder of my wife.
Until now, that is.
They’re here with me, a lot more than twelve, lined up along the baseboard all the way around the room, watching me with their oily eyes. If a maid came in with fresh sheets and saw those furry jurors, she would run, shrieking, but no maid will come; I hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door two days ago, and it’s been there ever since. I haven’t been out. I could order food sent up from the restaurant down the street, I suppose, but I suspect food would set them off. I’m not hungry, anyway, so it’s no great sacrifice. They have been patient so far, my jurors, but I suspect they won’t be for much longer. Like any jury, they’re anxious for the testimony to be done so they can render a verdict, receive their token fee (in this case to be paid in flesh), and go home to their families. So I must finish. It won’t take long. The hard work is done.
What Sheriff Jones said when he sat down beside my hospital bed was, “You saw it in my eyes, I guess. Isn’t that right?”
I was still a very sick man, but enough recovered to be cautious. “Saw what, Sheriff??”
“What I’d come to tell you. You don’t remember, do you? Well, I’m not surprised. You were one sick American, Wilf. I was pretty sure you were going to die, and I thought you might do it before I got you back to town. I guess God’s not done with you yet, is he?”
Something wasn’t done with me, but I doubted if it was God.
“Was it Henry? Did you come out to tell me something about Henry?”
“No,” he said, “it was Arlette I came about. It’s bad news, the worst, but you can’t blame yourself. It’s not like you beat her out of the house with a stick.” He leaned forward. “You might have got the idea that I don’t like you, Wilf, but that’s not true. There’s some in these parts who don’t—and we know who they are, don’t we?—but don’t put me in with them just because I have to take their interests into account. You’ve irritated me a time or two, and I believe that you’d still be friends with Harl Cotterie if you’d kept your boy on a tighter rein, but I’ve always respected you.”
I doubted it, but kept my lip buttoned.
“As for what happened to Arlette, I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating: you can’t blame yourself.”
I couldn’t? I thought that was an odd conclusion to draw even for a lawman who would never be confused with Sherlock Holmes.
“Henry’s in trouble, if some of the reports I’m getting are true,” he said heavily, “and he’s dragged Shan Cotterie into the hot water with him. They’ll likely boil in it. That’s enough for you to handle without claiming responsibility for your wife’s death, as well. You don’t have to—”
“Just tell me,” I said.
Two days previous to his visit—perhaps the day the rat bit me, perhaps not, but around that time—a farmer headed into Lyme Biska with the last of his produce had spied a trio of coydogs fighting over something about twenty yards north of the road. He might have gone on if he hadn’t also spied a scuffed ladies’ patent leather shoe and a pair of pink step-ins lying in the ditch. He stopped, fired his rifle to scare off the coys, and advanced into the field to inspect their prize. What he found was a woman’s skeleton with the rags of a dress and a few bits of flesh still hanging from it. What remained of her hair was a listless brown, the color to which Arlette’s rich auburn might have gone after months out in the elements.
“Two of the back teeth were gone,” Jones said. “Was Arlette missing a couple of back teeth?”
“Yes,” I lied. “Lost them from a gum infection.”
“When I came out that day just after she ran off, your boy said she took her good jewelry.”
“Yes.” The jewelry that was now in the well.
“When I asked if she could have laid her hands on any money, you mentioned 200 dollars. Isn’t that right?”
Ah yes. The fictional money Arlette had supposedly taken from my dresser. “That’s right.”
He was nodding. “Well, there you go, there you go. Some jewelry and some money. That explains everything, wouldn’t you say?”
“I don’t see—”
“Because you’re not looking at it from a lawman’s point of view. She was robbed on the road, that’s all. Some bad egg spied a woman hitch-hiking between Hemingford and Lyme Biska, picked her up, killed her, robbed her of her money and her jewelry, then carried her body far enough into the nearest field so it couldn’t be seen from the road.” From his long face I could see he was thinking she had probably been raped as well as robbed, and that it was probably a good thing that there wasn’t enough of her left to tell for sure.
“That’s probably it, then,” I said, and somehow I was able to keep a straight face until he was gone. Then I turned over, and although I thumped my stump in doing so, I began to laugh. I buried my face in my pillow, but not even that would stifle the sound. When the nurse—an ugly old battle-axe—came in and saw the tears streaking my face, she assumed (which makes an ass out of you and me) that I had been crying. She softened, a thing I would have thought impossible, and gave me an extra morphine pill. I was, after all, the grieving husband and bereft father. I deserved comfort.
And do you know why I was laughing? Was it Jones’s well-meaning stupidity? The fortuitous appearance of a dead female hobo who might have been killed by her male traveling companion while they were drunk? It was both of those things, but mostly it was the shoe. The farmer had only stopped to investigate what the coydogs were fighting over because he’d seen a ladies’ patent leather shoe in the ditch. But when Sheriff Jones had asked about footwear that day at the house the previous summer, I’d told him Arlette’s canvas shoes were the ones that were gone. The idiot had forgotten.
And he never remembered.
When I got back to the farm, almost all my livestock was dead. The only survivor was Achelois, who looked at me with reproachful, starveling eyes and lowed plaintively. I fed her as lovingly as you might feed a pet, and really, that was all she was. What else would you call an animal that can no longer contribute to a family’s livelihood?
There was a time when Harlan, assisted by his wife, would have taken care of my place while I was in the hospital; it’s how we neighbored out in the middle. But even after the mournful blat of my dying cows started drifting across the fields to him while he sat down to his supper, he stayed away. If I’d been in his place, I might have done the same. In Harl Cotterie’s view (and the world’s), my son hadn’t been content just to ruin his daughter; he’d followed her to what should have been a place of refuge, stolen her away, and forced her into a life of crime. How that “Sweetheart Bandits” stuff must have eaten into her father! Like acid! Ha!
The following week—around the time the Christmas decorations were going up in farmhouses and along Main Street in Hemingford Home—Sheriff Jones came out to the farm again. One look at his face told me what his news was, and I began to shake my head. “No. No more. I won’t have it. I can’t have it. Go away.”
I went back in the house and tried to bar the door against him, but I was both weak and one-handed, and he forced his way in easily enough. “Take hold, Wilf,” he said. “You’ll get through this.” As if he knew what he was talking about.
He looked in the cabinet with the decorative ceramic beer stein on top of it, found my sadly depleted bottle of whiskey, poured the last finger into the stein, and handed it to me. “Doctor wouldn’t approve,” he said, “but he’s not here and you’re going to need it.”
The Sweetheart Bandits had been discovered in their final hideout, Shannon dead of the counterman’s bullet, Henry of one he had put into his own brain. The bodies had been taken to the Elko mortuary, pending instructions. Harlan Cotterie would see to his daughter, but would have nothing to do with my son. Of course not. I did that myself. Henry arrived in Hemingford by train on the eighteenth of December, and I was at the depot, along with a black funeral hack from Castings Brothers. My picture was taken repeatedly. I was asked questions which I didn’t even try to answer. The headlines in both the World-Herald and the much humbler Hemingford Weekly featured the phrase GRIEVING FATHER.
If the reporters had seen me at the funeral home, however, when the cheap pine box was opened, they would have seen real grief; they could have featured the phrase SCREAMING FATHER. The bullet my son fired into his temple as he sat with Shannon’s head on his lap had mushroomed as it crossed his brain and taken out a large chunk of his skull on the left side. But that wasn’t the worst. His eyes were gone. His lower lip was chewed away so that his teeth jutted in a grim grin. All that remained of his nose was a red stub. Before some cop or sheriff’s deputy had discovered the bodies, the rats had made a merry meal of my son and his dear love.
“Fix him up,” I told Herbert Castings when I could talk rationally again.
“Mr. James... sir... the damage is...”
“I see what the damage is. Fix him up. And get him out of that shitting box. Put him in the finest coffin you have. I don’t care what it costs. I have money.” I bent and kissed his torn cheek. No father should have to kiss his son for the last time, but if any father ever deserved such a fate, it was I.
Shannon and Henry were both buried out of the Hemingford Glory of God Methodist Church, Shannon on the twenty-second and Henry on Christmas Eve. The church was full for Shannon, and the weeping was almost loud enough to raise the roof. I know, because I was there, at least for a little while. I stood in the back, unnoticed, then slunk out halfway through Reverend Thursby’s eulogy. Rev. Thursby also presided at Henry’s funeral, but I hardly need tell you that the attendance was much smaller. Thursby saw only one, but there was another. Arlette was there, too, sitting next to me, unseen and smiling. Whispering in my ear.
Do you like how things have turned out, Wilf? Was it worth it?
Adding in the funeral cost, the burial expenses, the mortuary expenses, and the cost of shipping the body home, the disposal of my son’s earthly remains cost just over $300. I paid out of the mortgage money. What else did I have? When the funeral was finished, I went home to an empty house. But first I bought a fresh bottle of whiskey.
1922 had one more trick left in its bag. The day after Christmas, a huge blizzard roared out of the Rockies, socking us with a foot of snow and gale-force winds. As dark came down, the snow turned first to sleet and then to driving rain. Around midnight, as I sat in the darkened parlor, doctoring my bellowing stump with little sips of whiskey, a grinding, rending sound came from the back of the house. It was the roof coming down on that side—the part I’d taken out the mortgage, at least in part, to fix. I toasted it with my glass, then had another sip. When the cold wind began to blow in around my shoulders, I took my coat from its hook in the mudroom, put it on, then sat back down and drank a little more whiskey. At some point I dozed. Another of those grinding crashes woke me around three o’clock. This time it was the front half of the barn that had collapsed. Achelois survived yet again, and the next night I took her into the house with me. Why? you might ask me, and my answer would be, Why not? Just why the hell not? We were the survivors. We were the survivors.
On Christmas morning (which I spent sipping whiskey in my cold sitting room, with my surviving cow for company), I counted what was left of the mortgage money, and realized it would not begin to cover the damage done by the storm. I didn’t much care, because I had lost my taste for the farming life, but the thought of the Farrington Company putting up a hog butchery and polluting the stream still made me grind my teeth in rage. Especially after the high cost I had paid for keeping those triple-goddamned 100 acres out of the company’s hands.
It suddenly struck home to me that, with Arlette officially dead instead of missing, those acres were mine. So two days later I swallowed my pride and went to see Harlan Cotterie.
The man who answered my knock had fared better than I, but that year’s shocks had taken their toll, just the same. He had lost weight, he had lost hair, and his shirt was wrinkled—although not as wrinkled as his face, and the shirt, at least, would iron out. He looked sixty-five instead of forty-five.
“Don’t hit me,” I said when I saw him ball his fists. “Hear me out.”
“I wouldn’t hit a man with only one hand,” he said, “but I’ll thank you to keep it short. And we’ll have to talk out here on the stoop, because you are never going to set foot inside my house again.”
“That’s fine,” I said. I had lost weight myself—plenty—and I was shivering, but the cold air felt good on my stump, and on the invisible hand that still seemed to exist below it. “I want to sell you 100 acres of good land, Harl. The hundred Arlette was so determined to sell to the Farrington Company.”
He smiled at that, and his eyes sparkled in their new deep hollows. “Fallen on hard times, haven’t you? Half your house and half your barn caved in. Hermie Gordon says you’ve got a cow living in there with you.” Hermie Gordon was the rural route mailman, and a notorious gossip.
I named a price so low that Harl’s mouth fell open and his eyebrows shot up. It was then that I noticed a smell wafting out of the neat and well-appointed Cotterie farmhouse that seemed entirely alien to that place: burnt fried food. Sallie Cotterie was apparently not doing the cooking. Once I might have been interested in such a thing, but that time had passed. All I cared about right then was getting shed of the 100 acres. It only seemed right to sell them cheap, since they had cost me so dear.
“That’s pennies on the dollar,” he said. Then, with evident satisfaction: “Arlette would roll in her grave.”
She’s done more than just roll in it, I thought.
“What are you smiling about, Wilf??”
“Nothing. Except for one thing, I don’t care about that land anymore. The one thing I do care about is keeping that god damned Farrington slaughter-mill off it.”
“Even if you lose your own place?” He nodded as if I’d asked a question. “I know about the mortgage you took out. No secrets in a small town.”
“Even if I do,” I agreed. “Take the offer, Harl. You’d be crazy not to. That stream they’ll be filling up with blood and hair and hog intestines—that’s your stream, too.”
“No,” he said.
I stared at him, too surprised to say anything. But again he nodded as if I’d asked a question.
“You think you know what you’ve done to me, but you don’t know all of it. Sallie’s left me. She’s gone to stay with her folks down McCook. She says she may be back, says she’ll think things over, but I don’t think she will be. So that puts you and me in the same old broke wagon, doesn’t it? We’re two men who started the year with wives and are ending it without them. We’re two men who started the year with living children and are ending it with dead ones. The only difference I can see is that I didn’t lose half my house and most of my barn in a storm.” He thought about it. “And I’ve still got both hands. There’s that, I suppose. When it comes to pulling my peter—should I ever feel the urge to—I’d have a choice of which one to use.”
“What... why would she—”
“Oh, use your head. She blames me as well as you for Shannon’s death. She said that if I hadn’t gotten on my high horse and sent Shan away, she’d still be alive and living with Henry at your farm just down the road instead of lying frozen in a box underground. She says she’d have a grandchild. She called me a self-righteous fool, and she’s right.”
I reached for him with my remaining hand. He slapped it away.
“Don’t touch me, Wilf. A single warning on that is all you get.”
I put my hand back at my side.
“One thing I know for sure,” he said. “If I took you up on that offer, tasty as it is, I’d regret it. Because that land is cursed. We may not agree on everything, but I bet we would on that. If you want to sell it, sell it to the bank. You’ll get your mortgage paper back, and some cash besides.”
“They’d just turn around and sell it to Farrington!”
“Tough titty said the kitty” was his final word on it as he closed the door in my face.
On the last day of the year, I drove to Hemingford Home and saw Mr. Stoppenhauser at the bank. I told him that I’d decided I could no longer live on the farm. I told him I would like to sell Arlette’s acreage to the bank and use the balance of the proceeds to retire the mortgage. Like Harlan Cotterie, he said no. For a moment or two I just sat in the chair facing his desk, not able to believe what I had heard.
“Why not? That’s good land!”
He told me that he worked for a bank, and a bank was not a real estate agency. He addressed me as Mr. James. My days of being Wilf in that office were over.
“That’s just...” Ridiculous was the word that came to mind, but I didn’t want to risk offending him if there was even a chance he might change his mind. Once I had made the decision to sell the land (and the cow, I would have to find a buyer for Achelois, too, possibly a stranger with a bag of magic beans to trade), the idea had taken hold of me with the force of an obsession. So I kept my voice low and spoke calmly.
“That’s not exactly true, Mr. Stoppenhauser. The bank bought the Rideout place last summer when it came up for auction. The Triple M, as well.”
“Those were different situations. We hold a mortgage on your original 80, and we’re content with that. What you do with that hundred acres of pasturage is of no interest to us.”
“Who’s been in to see you?” I asked, then realized I didn’t have to. “It was Lester, wasn’t it? Cole Farrington’s dogsbody.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Stoppenhauser said, but I saw the flicker in his eyes. “I think your grief and your... your injury... have temporarily damaged your ability to think clearly.”
“Oh no,” I said, and began to laugh. It was a dangerously unbalanced sound, even to my own ears. “I’ve never thought more clearly in my life, sir. He came to see you—him or another, I’m sure Cole Farrington can afford to retain all the shysters he wants—and you made a deal. You c-c-colluded!” I was laughing harder than ever.
“Mr. James, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Maybe you had it all planned out beforehand,” I said. “Maybe that’s why you were so anxious to talk me into the god damned mortgage in the first place. Or maybe when Lester heard about my son, he saw a golden opportunity to take advantage of my misfortune and came running to you. Maybe he sat right in this chair and said, ‘This is going to work out for both of us, Stoppie—you get the farm, my client gets the land by the crick, and Wilf James can go to Hell.’ Isn’t that pretty much how it went?”
He had pushed a button on his desk, and now the door opened. It was just a little bank, too small to employ a security guard, but the teller who leaned in was a beefy lad. One of the Rohrbacher family, from the look of him; I’d gone to school with his father, and Henry would have gone with his younger sister, Mandy.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Stoppenhauser?” he asked.
“Not if Mr. James leaves now,” he said. “Won’t you see him out, Kevin?”
Kevin came in, and when I was slow to rise, he clamped a hand just above my left elbow. He was dressed like a banker, right down to the suspenders and the bow tie, but it was a farmer’s hand, hard and callused. My still-healing stump gave a warning throb.
“Come along, sir,” he said.
“Don’t pull me,” I said. “It hurts where my hand used to be.”
“Then come along.”
“I went to school with your father. He sat beside me and used to cheat off my paper during Spring Testing Week.”
He pulled me out of the chair where I had once been addressed as Wilf. Good old Wilf, who would be a fool not to take out a mortgage. The chair almost fell over.
“Happy New Year, Mr. James,” Stoppenhauser said.
“And to you, you cozening fuck,” I replied. Seeing the shocked expression on his face may have been the last good thing to happen to me in my life. I have sat here for five minutes, chewing on the end of my pen and trying to think of one since—a good book, a good meal, a pleasant afternoon in the park—and I can’t.
Kevin Rohrbacher accompanied me across the lobby. I suppose that is the correct verb; it wasn’t quite dragging. The floor was marble, and our footfalls echoed. The walls were dark oak. At the high tellers’ windows, two women served a little group of year-end customers. One of the tellers was young and one was old, but their big-eyed expressions were identical. Yet it wasn’t their horrified, almost prurient interest that took my own eye; it was captivated by something else entirely. A burled oak rail three inches wide ran above the tellers’ windows, and scurrying busily along it—
“Ware that rat!” I cried, and pointed.
The young teller voiced a little scream, looked up, then exchanged a glance with her older counterpart. There was no rat, only the passing shadow of the ceiling fan. And now everyone was looking at me.
“Stare all you want!” I told them. “Look your fill! Look until your God damned eyes fall out!”
Then I was in the street, and puffing out cold winter air that looked like cigarette smoke. “Don’t come back unless you have business to do,” Kevin said. “And unless you can keep a civil tongue.”
“Your father was the biggest God damned cheater I ever went to school with,” I told him. I wanted him to hit me, but he only went back inside and left me alone on the sidewalk, standing in front of my saggy old truck. And that was how Wilfred Leland James spent his visit to town on the last day of 1922.
When I got home, Achelois was no longer in the house. She was in the yard, lying on her side and puffing her own clouds of white vapor. I could see the snow-scuffs where she’d gone galloping off the porch, and the bigger one where she had landed badly and broken both front legs. Not even a blameless cow could survive around me, it seemed.
I went into the mudroom to get my gun, then into the house, wanting to see—if I could—what had frightened her so badly that she’d left her new shelter at a full gallop. It was rats, of course. Three of them sitting on Arlette’s treasured sideboard, looking at me with their black and solemn eyes.
“Go back and tell her to leave me alone,” I told them. “Tell her she’s done damage enough. For God’s sake tell her to let me be.”
They only sat looking at me with their tails curled around their plump black-gray bodies. So I lifted my varmint rifle and shot the one in the middle. The bullet tore it apart and splattered its leavings all over the wallpaper Arlette had picked out with such care 9 or 10 years before. When Henry was still just a little ’un and things among the three of us were fine.
The other two fled. Back to their secret way underground, I have no doubt. Back to their rotting queen. What they left behind on my dead wife’s sideboard were little piles of rat-shit and three or four bits of the burlap sack Henry fetched from the barn on that early summer night in 1922. The rats had come to kill my last cow and bring me little pieces of Arlette’s snood.
I went outside and patted Achelois on the head. She stretched her neck up and lowed plaintively. Make it stop. You’re the master, you’re the god of my world, so make it stop.
Happy New Year.
That was the end of 1922, and that is the end of my story; all the rest is epilogue. The emissaries crowded around this room—how the manager of this fine old hotel would scream if he saw them!—will not have to wait much longer to render their verdict. She is the judge, they are the jury, but I’ll be my own executioner.
I lost the farm, of course. Nobody, including the Farrington Company, would buy those 100 acres until the home place was gone, and when the hog-butchers finally swooped in, I was forced to sell at an insanely low price. Lester’s plan worked perfectly. I’m sure it was his, and I’m sure he got a bonus.
Oh, well; I would have lost my little toehold in Hemingford County even if I’d had financial resources to fall back on, and there is a perverse sort of comfort in that. They say this depression we are in started on Black Friday of last year, but people in states like Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska know it started in 1923, when the crops that survived the terrible storms that spring were killed in the drought that followed, a drought that lasted for 2 years. The few crops that did find their way to the big city markets and the small city agricultural exchanges brought a beggar’s price. Harlan Cotterie hung on until 1925 or so, and then the bank took his farm. I happened on that news while perusing the Bank Sales items in the World-Herald. By 1925, such items sometimes took up whole pages in the newspaper. The small farms had begun to go, and I believe that in a hundred years—maybe only 75—they’ll all be gone. Come 2030 (if there is such a year), all Nebraska west of Omaha will be one big farm. Probably it will be owned by the Farrington Company, and those unfortunate enough to live on that land will pass their existence under dirty yellow skies and wear gas masks to keep from choking on the stench of dead hogs. And every stream will run red with the blood of slaughter.
Come 2030, only the rats will be happy.
That’s pennies on the dollar, Harlan said on the day I offered to sell him Arlette’s land, and eventually I was forced to sell to Cole Farrington for even fewer on the dollar. Andrew Lester, attorney-at-law, brought the papers to the Hemingford City rooming house where I was then living, and he smiled as I signed them. Of course he did. The big boys always win. I was a fool to think it could ever be any different. I was a fool, and everyone I ever loved paid the price. I sometimes wonder if Sallie Cotterie ever came back to Harlan, or if he went to her in McCook after he lost the farm. I don’t know, but I think Shannon’s death probably ended that previously happy marriage. Poison spreads like ink in water.
Meanwhile, the rats have begun to move in from the baseboards of this room. What was a square has become a closing circle. They know that this is just the after, and nothing that comes after an irrevocable act matters much. Yet I will finish. And they won’t have me while I’m alive; the final small victory will be mine. My old brown jacket is hung on the back of the chair I’m sitting in. The pistol is in the pocket. When I’ve finished the last few pages of this confession, I’ll use it. They say suicides and murderers go to Hell. If so, I will know my way around, because I’ve been there for the last eight years.
I went to Omaha, and if it is indeed a city of fools, as I used to claim, then I was at first a model citizen. I set to work drinking up Arlette’s 100 acres, and even at pennies on the dollar, it took 2 years. When I wasn’t drinking, I visited the places Henry had been during the last months of his life: the grocery and gasoline station in Lyme Biska with the Blue Bonnet Girl on the roof (by then closed with a sign on the boarded-up door reading FOR SALE BY BANK), the pawnshop on Dodge Street (where I emulated my son and bought the pistol now in my jacket pocket), the Omaha branch of the First Agricultural. The pretty young teller still worked there, although her last name was no longer Penmark.
“When I passed him the money, he said thank you,” she told me. “Maybe he went wrong, but somebody raised him right. Did you know him?”
“No,” I said, “but I knew his family.”
Of course I went to St. Eusebia’s, but made no attempt to go in and inquire about Shannon Cotterie to the governess or matron or whatever her title may have been. It was a cold and forbidding hulk of a building, its thick stone and slit windows expressing perfectly how the papist hierarchy seems to feel in their hearts about women. Watching the few pregnant girls who slunk out with downcast eyes and hunched shoulders told me everything I needed to know about why Shan had been so willing to leave it.
Oddly enough, I felt closest to my son in an alley. It was the one next to the Gallatin Street Drug Store & Soda Fountain (Schrafft’s Candy & Best Homemade Fudge Our Specialty), two blocks from St. Eusebia’s. There was a crate there, probably too new to be the one Henry sat on while waiting for a girl adventurous enough to trade information for cigarettes, but I could pretend, and I did. Such pretense was easier when I was drunk, and most days when I turned up on Gallatin Street, I was very drunk indeed. Sometimes I pretended it was 1922 again and it was I who was waiting for Victoria Stevenson. If she came, I would trade her a whole carton of cigarettes to take one message: When a young man who calls himself Hank turns up here, asking about Shan Cotterie, tell him to get lost. To take his jazz elsewhere. Tell him his father needs him back on the farm, that maybe with two of them working together, they can save it.
But that girl was beyond my reach. The only Victoria I met was the later version, the one with the three comely children and the respectable title of Mrs. Hallett. I had stopped drinking by then, I had a job at the Bilt-Rite Clothing factory, and had reacquainted myself with razor blade and shaving soap. Given this veneer of respectability, she received me willingly enough. I told her who I was only because—if I am to be honest to the end—lying was not an option. I could see in the slight widening of her eyes that she had noted the resemblance.
“Gee, but he was sweet,” she said. “And so crazy in love. I’m sorry for Shan, too. She was a great gal. It’s like a tragedy out of Shakespeare, isn’t it?”
Only she said it trad-a-gee, and after that I didn’t go back to the Gallatin Street alley anymore, because for me Arlette’s murder had poisoned even this blameless young Omaha matron’s attempt at kindness. She thought Henry and Shannon’s deaths were like a trad-a-gee out of Shakespeare. She thought it was romantic. Would she still have thought so, I wonder, if she had heard my wife screaming her last from inside a blood-sodden burlap sack? Or glimpsed my son’s eyeless, lipless face?
I held two jobs during my years in the Gateway City, also known as the City of Fools. You will say of course I held jobs; I would have been living on the street otherwise. But men more honest than I have continued drinking even when they want to stop, and men more decent than I have ended up sleeping in doorways. I suppose I could say that after my lost years, I made one more effort to live an actual life. There were times when I actually believed that, but lying in bed at night (and listening to the rats scampering in the walls—they have been my constant companions), I always knew the truth: I was still trying to win. Even after Henry’s and Shannon’s deaths, even after losing the farm, I was trying to beat the corpse in the well. She and her minions.
John Hanrahan was the storage foreman at the Bilt-Rite factory. He didn’t want to hire a man with only one hand, but I begged for a trial, and when I proved to him that I could pull a pallet fully loaded with shirts or overalls as well as any man on his payroll, he took me on. I hauled those pallets for 14 months, and often limped back to the boardinghouse where I was staying with my back and stump on fire. But I never complained, and I even found time to learn sewing. This I did on my lunch hour (which was actually 15 minutes long), and during my afternoon break. While the other men were out back on the loading dock, smoking and telling dirty jokes, I was teaching myself to sew seams, first in the burlap shipping bags we used, and then in the overalls that were the company’s main stock-in-trade. I turned out to have a knack for it; I could even lay in a zipper, which is no mean skill on a garment assembly line. I’d press my stump on the garment to hold it in place as my foot ran the electric treadle.
Sewing paid better than hauling, and it was easier on my back, but the Sewing Floor was dark and cavernous, and after four months or so I began to see rats on the mountains of freshly blued denim and hunkering in the shadows beneath the hand-trucks that first brought in the piecework and then rolled it out again.
On several occasions I called the attention of my co-workers to these vermin. They claimed not to see them. Perhaps they really did not. I think it far more likely that they were afraid the Sewing Floor might be temporarily closed down so the ratcatchers could come in and do their work. The sewing crew might have lost three days’ wages, or even a week. For men and women with families, that would have been catastrophic. It was easier for them to tell Mr. Hanrahan that I was seeing things. I understood. And when they began to call me Crazy Wilf?? I understood that, too. It wasn’t why I quit.
I quit because the rats kept moving in.
I had been putting a little money away, and was prepared to live on it while I looked for another job, but I didn’t have to. Only three days after leaving Bilt-Rite, I saw an ad in the paper for a librarian at the Omaha Public Library—must have references or a degree. I had no degree, but I have been a reader my whole life, and if the events of 1922 taught me anything, it was how to deceive. I forged references from public libraries in Kansas City and Springfield, Missouri, and got the job. I felt sure Mr. Quarles would check the references and discover they were false, so I worked at becoming the best librarian in America, and I worked fast. When my new boss confronted me with my deception, I would simply throw myself on his mercy and hope for the best. But there was no confrontation. I held my job at the Omaha Public Library for four years. Technically speaking, I suppose I still hold it now, although I haven’t been there in a week and have not ’phoned in sick.
The rats, you see. They found me there, too. I began to see them crouched on piles of old books in the Binding Room, or scuttering along the highest shelves in the stacks, peering down at me knowingly. Last week, in the Reference Room, I pulled out a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for an elderly patron (it was Ra-St, which no doubt contains an entry for Rattus norvegicus, not to mention slaughterhouse) and saw a hungry gray-black face staring out at me from the vacant slot. It was the rat that bit off poor Achelois’s teat. I don’t know how that could be—I’m sure I killed it—but there was no doubt. I recognized it. How could I not? There was a scrap of burlap, bloodstained burlap, caught in its whiskers.
I brought the volume of Britannica to the old lady who had requested it (she wore an ermine stole, and the thing’s little black eyes regarded me bleakly). Then I simply walked out. I wandered the streets for hours, and eventually came here, to the Magnolia Hotel. And here I have been ever since, spending the money I have saved as a librarian—which doesn’t matter any longer—and writing my confession, which does. I—
One of them just nipped me on the ankle. As if to say Get on with it, time’s almost up. A little blood has begun to stain my sock. It doesn’t disturb me, not in the slightest. I have seen more blood in my time; in 1922 there was a room filled with it.
And now I think I hear... is it my imagination?
Someone has come visiting.
I plugged the pipe, but the rats still escaped. I filled in the well, but she also found her way out. And this time I don’t think she’s alone. I think I hear two sets of shuffling feet, not just one. Or—
Three? Is it three? Is the girl who would have been my daughter-in-law in a better world with them as well?
I think she is. Three corpses shuffling up the hall, their faces (what remains of them) disfigured by rat-bites, Arlette’s cocked to one side as well... by the kick of a dying cow.
Another bite on the ankle.
How the management would—
Ow! Another. But they won’t have me. And my visitors won’t, either, although now I can see the doorknob turning and I can smell them, the remaining flesh hanging on their bones giving off the stench of slaughtered
god where is the
OH MAKE THEM STOP BITING M