A Simple Plan
By Scott Smith
All right reserved.
My parents died in an automobile accident the year after I was married. They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle. My father was killed instantly in the wreck, decapitated by the hood of his car, but my mother, miraculously, survived. She lived for a day and a half more, hooked up to machines in the Delphia Municipal Hospital, her neck and back broken, her heart leaking blood into her chest.
The semi driver came through it all with only a few minor bruises. His truck had caught fire, though, barbecuing the cattle, and after my mother died he sued my parents' estate for damages. He won the suit but got no material satisfaction from it: my father had mortgaged his farm to the hilt and was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when he died.
My wife Sarah's pet theory was that he'd committed suicide, driven to it by the embarrassing proliferation of his debts. I argued with her at the time, though not very wholeheartedly. In hindsight, you see, it seems that he may've made certain preparations. A week before the accident, he came by my house in his pickup, its truck bed packed with furniture. Sarah and I had no use for any of it, but he was insistent, threatening to head straight for the dump if we didn't accept the entire load, so I helped him carry it, piece by piece, down to the basement. After he left us, he drove over to mybrother Jacob's apartment and gave him the pickup.
There was also his will, the first clause of which was an injunction upon Jacob and me that we swear orally, in each other's presence, to visit his grave every year, without fail, on his birthday. It continued from there, a bizarrely elaborate document, pages and pages, going through the old farmhouse room by room, bequeathing each object to us by name, no matter how trivial or inconsequential--a shaving kit, a broom, and an old Bible for Jacob; a broken blender, a pair of work boots, and a black stone paperweight in the shape of a crow for me. It was pointless, of course, wasted effort. We had to sell everything of any value to pay the debts he'd left behind, and the things of no value we had no use for. We had to sell the farm, too, our boyhood home. A neighbor bought it, grafting it to his own land, absorbing it like a giant amoeba. He knocked down the house, filled in the basement, and planted a soybean field on the lot.
My brother and I had never been close, not even as children, and the gap between us only grew wider as we got older. By the time of the accident, we had very little except our parents left in common, and their sudden deaths eased whatever weight this might've normally held.
Jacob, older than I by three years, had dropped out of high school and lived alone in a small apartment above the hardware store in Ashenville, the town in which we were raised, a tiny crossroads marked with a flashing yellow light, as rural as rural gets in northern Ohio. He worked on a construction crew in the summer and survived off unemployment benefits through the winter.
I'd gone to college, the first in my family to do so, graduating from the University of Toledo with a bachelor's degree in business administration. I'd married Sarah, a classmate of mine, and moved to Delphia, thirty miles east of Ashenville, just outside of Toledo. There we bought a three-bedroom, unabashedly suburban house--dark green aluminum siding and black shutters, a two-car garage, cable TV, a microwave, the Toledo Blade delivered with a soft thump to our doorstep every evening at dusk. I commuted back to Ashenville each weekday, to the feedstore there, where I worked as assistant manager and head accountant.
There was no animosity between Jacob and me, no bad blood, we simply weren't comfortable around each other, had difficulty finding things to say, and made little attempt to hide it. More than once, coming out onto the street after work, I saw him dodge into a doorway to avoid meeting me, and each time I felt more relief than pain.
The one tie we did have, after our parents' accident, was the keeping of our promise to our father. Year after year on his birthday we'd repair to the cemetery and stand in stiff, awkward silence beside the grave site, each waiting for the other to suggest that a proper amount of time had passed, so that we could part and slip back into our separate lives. It was a depressing way to spend an afternoon, and we probably would've given it up after the very first time had we both not felt that we'd be punished somehow if we did, cursed from beyond the grave for our failure to stand by our word.
Our father's birthday was December 31, the last day of the year, and the visit gradually took on a ritualized aspect, like any other event during the holiday season, a final hurdle to cross before reaching the new year. It became, essentially, our chief time to interact. We'd catch up on each other's lives, talk about our parents or our childhood, make vague promises to see each other more often, and leave the cemetery with the clean feeling of having rather painlessly fulfilled an unpleasant duty.
This went on for seven years.
On the eighth year, December 31, 1987, Jacob picked me up at my house. He came around three-thirty, a half hour late, with his dog and his friend Lou in his truck. They'd been ice fishing together, their chief activity in the winter, and we had to drop Lou off on the other side of Ashenville before proceeding to the cemetery.
I never liked Lou, and I don't think he ever liked me. He used to call me Mr. Accountant, saying it in a way which seemed to imply that I ought to be embarrassed by my occupation, ashamed of its conventionality and stability. I was peculiarly intimidated by him, though I could never discern exactly why. It certainly wasn't his physical presence. He was a short, balding man, forty-five years old, just beginning to put on weight in the gut. His blond hair was thin, wispy, so that you could see his scalp beneath it, pink and chapped looking. He had crooked teeth, and they gave him a slightly comical quality, a mock toughness, making him look like some two-dimensional disreputable character out of a boy's adventure book--an old boxer, a street thug, an ex-con.
As I came down the walk, he climbed out of the pickup to greet me, so that I'd have to sit in the middle of the seat.
"Howdy, Hank," he said, grinning. Jacob smiled at me from behind the wheel. His dog, a big, overgrown mutt, mostly German shepherd, but with some Labrador thrown in on top, was in the back. It was a male dog, but Jacob had named him Mary Beth, after a girl he'd dated in high school, his first and only girlfriend. He referred to him as a "she," too, as if the dog's name had blinded him to his gender.
I climbed in, Lou pulled himself up behind me, and we backed our way down my driveway to the street.
My house was in a small subdivision called Fort Ottowa, after a frontier outpost whose inhabitants had frozen to death in a blizzard sometime before the start of the Revolution. It was farmland, unrelentingly flat but made over to look like it wasn't. The roads curved around imaginary obstacles, and people constructed little hills in their front yards, like burial mounds, covering them with shrubbery. The houses up and down the street were tiny, each one built right up against the next--starter houses, the realtor had called them--full of newly married couples on their way up in the world, or retirees on their way down, the former planning careers and babies and moves to nicer neighborhoods, the latter wait- ing for their savings to disappear, their health to suddenly worsen, their children to send them away to old-age homes. It was a way station, a rung near the bottom of the ladder.
Sarah and I, of course, belonged to the first group. We had a nest egg, an account gathering interest in the Ashenville Savings Bank. Someday soon we were going to move away, take a step up in the world, the first of many. That was the plan, at least.
Once beyond my neighborhood, we headed west, away from Delphia, and as we did the curving streets, the clustered groupings of two-story houses with circular driveways and swing sets and picnic tables rapidly dissolved away behind us. The roads straightened themselves, becoming narrower in the process. Snow blew across them in places, moving snakelike, in long, thin, dusty lines, piling up along their edges. Houses strayed from one another, separated by whole fields now rather than simple squares of grass. Trees disappeared, the horizon widened, and the view took on a windswept look, a white-gray barrenness. We passed fewer and fewer cars.
It was an uncomfortable ride. Jacob's truck was eleven years old, and there was nothing about it that did not show its age. At one time it had been painted a bright tomato red, my brother's favorite color, but it was faded now to a scab- like burgundy, its sides pockmarked with rust. Its shocks were shot, its heater erratic. The rear window was missing, replaced by a sheet of plastic. The radio was broken, the windshield wipers torn off, and there was a hole the size of a baseball in the floor. A steady stream of cold air blew in through this, shooting straight up my right pant leg.
Jacob and Lou talked about the weather as we drove, how cold it had been lately, when it would snow next, whether or not it had rained on the previous New Year's Eve. I kept silent, listening. Whereas I normally felt merely awkward alone with Jacob, when I was with him and Lou together I felt both awkward and excluded. They had an aggressively private way of interacting; their language was coded, intimate, their humor schoolboyish and obscure. Lou would say "pineapple," with an extra stress on the "pine," or Jacob would moo like a cow, and they'd both immediately tumble into laughter. It was bewildering--I could never escape the feeling that they were constantly making fun of me.
We passed a frozen pond, with skaters on it, children in bright jackets shooting back and forth. Dark, weathered barns dotted the horizon. It never ceased to surprise me: we were ten minutes away from my house and already surrounded by farms.
We drove south of Ashenville, skirting the town, keeping it just out of sight beyond the horizon, taking State High- way 17, ruler straight, until we hit Burnt Road. We turned right there, heading north, then left onto Anders Park Road. We crossed a long, low cement bridge over Anders Creek, plowed snow piled thickly over its railings, making it look fake, like something from a Christmas story, a cookie-dough bridge.
Beyond the creek was Anders Nature Preserve, a thickly wooded square of land that hovered at the right-hand edge of the road for the next two miles. It was a park, run by the county. There was a small pond at its very center, stocked with fish and surrounded by a mown field. People came out from Toledo during the summer to picnic there and play games, to throw Frisbees and fly kites.
The place had originally been the private estate of Bernard C. Anders, an early automobile magnate from Detroit. He'd bought the land in the 1920s and built a large summer house on it, the stone foundations of which were still visible beside the pond. When he died, during the Depression, the estate passed to his wife. She moved into the house year-round and lived there for the next four decades, finally leaving it only to be buried. She and Bernard had produced no children, so she chose to bequeath the land to the county, on the condition that they make it into a nature preserve and name it after her husband. It was an unusual place for a park, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on four sides by working farms, but the county, with an eye on state tax credits for parkland, accepted. The house was razed, picnic tables carted in, hiking trails cut, and Anders Nature Preserve was created.
We'd gone about a mile past the bridge, halfway down the southern edge of the park, when a fox sprinted in front of us.
It all happened very quickly. I saw a flash of movement off to the left, coming out of the snow-covered field, had just enough time to focus in on it, see that it was a fox, a large, reddish one, sleek and healthy, a dead chicken hanging from its jaws, and it was in front of us, shooting across the road, its body taut, hugging the ground, as if it thought it might sneak by unseen. Jacob slammed on the brakes, too hard, and the truck went into a skid, its rear end coming out to the left, its front bumper sliding right, digging with a loud, raking sound into the snow at the edge of the road. There was the crystalline popping sound of a headlight shattering; then the truck slammed to a stop. We were thrown forward, and the dog came flying in through the plastic rear window, tearing it, his legs scrambling in panic. He was there in the cab for just a moment--I felt his fur, cold against the back of my neck--then he was gone, back out the hole he had made, over the side of the truck, and into the woods after the fox.
Jacob was the first to speak. "Fuck," he said softly. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Lou giggled a little at that and pushed open his door. We climbed out onto the road. The imploded headlight was the only damage, and we stared at it for a bit, forming a semicircle around the front of the truck.
Jacob tried calling the dog. "Mary Beth!" he yelled. He whistled shrilly.
No one seeing us standing there would've ever recognized us as brothers. Jacob took after our father, while I took after our mother, and the difference was dramatic. I'm brown haired, brown eyed, of medium height and build. Jacob was several inches taller than me, blue eyed, with sandy blond hair. He was also a fat, fat man, immensely, even grotesquely overweight, like a caricature of obesity. He had big hands, big feet, big teeth, thick glasses, and pale, doughy skin.
We could hear the dog barking. He was getting farther and farther away.
"Mary Beth!" Jacob yelled.
The trees were fairly thick here, standing close together--maples, oaks, buckeyes, sycamores--but there was relatively little undergrowth. I could see the fox's tracks winding their way in and around the trunks, disappearing into the distance. Mary Beth's paw prints ran parallel to them, a little darker in the snow, wider and rounder, like a trail of hockey pucks beneath the trees. The ground was perfectly flat.
We listened to the dog's barking grow fainter and fainter.
On the other side of the road was a field, smooth with snow. I could see tracks there, too, coming toward us from the far horizon, perfectly straight, as if the fox had been walking along one of the field's furrows, masked from view by the snow.
Excerpted from A Simple Plan
by Scott Smith Excerpted by permission.
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