As housecoats go, it was comely and well crafted. The thing had piping and placket pockets, astylish drape and a scalloped hem. The collar of it was sufficiently stiff to stand up against a chill, and the belt ran through three loops and had been whipstitched into place. The fabric was fleecy and gray with scarlet laurel blossoms in the weave along with a manner of foliage Elvin identified as burdock, though I was doubtful that even a shabby robe would come festooned with a weed.
Through Elvin’s office window, we could see Erlene out in the cow lot where she served as a housecoat model while she flung corn to her hens. Once Elvin had cataloged for me the sundry virtues of her robe, he brought to my notice a trundle bed in the corner by his sheet stove, had me to know that Erlene sometimes popped inside and loved him up and thereby blunted and salved for Elvin the grinding strain of cattle keeping.
Elvin rose from his chair to show me how Erlene would shuck her robe, lay it back anyway on her shoulders and present herself for congress without having to guard against the stray migration of her belt which, Elvin took pains to remind me, had been whipstitched into place. Then he sat back down and plundered through the shoe box on his desk until he’d found the receipt for that bathrobe and the ticket for the gas he’d required to carry him down and back from Roanoke where he’d bought it.
As was my custom, I refrained from a pronouncement straightaway and occupied myself instead with study of Elvin’s documentation. I saw on the register tape that Erlene’s robe had cost upwards of forty dollars, had been purchased in August at half past noon with cash and for exact change while Elvin hadn’t bought his Roanoke gas until December which I hardly felt cause to trouble him to give an accounting about.
Instead I favored Elvin with the slight and colicky smile I’m prone to and shook my head to convey that Erlene’s robe was not a deductible item which, naturally, served to render the cost of the gas a personal expense too.
For his part, Elvin shot from his chair and raged about his office. He paused before the lone window and mounted a profane bid to raise the sash, but it was stuck in the slides and resolutely humidified into place. So Elvin put his face to the three-inch slot between the bottom rail and the sill and acquainted Erlene with the news that godless craven sons of bitches had up and taken this nation over and were running it anymore.
By way of response, Erlene flung a fistful of corn in Elvin’s direction, and he retired from the sill as the kernels clattered like shot against the panes.
Elvin stalked over to his trundle bed and gave the frame a kick. Then he toured the entire office while he sputtered and he swore which, truth be told, was not so terribly much of an excursion since Elvin had framed and built that office where a cow stall used to be. The room was only four strides deep and maybe three strides wide, so Elvin invariably met a wall just as he’d hit prime stalking speed.
I sat and waited him out, occupied myself with perusal of Elvin’s decor which was firmly in the local upland workspace tradition—a fair dose, that is to say, of grimy indiscriminate clutter leavened with gaudy religious artifacts and soft-core pornography. The place was littered with ear tags for cows and sacks of galvanized fence staples, half-empty jugs of fly balm and greasy cast- off coveralls. The walls were hung with a decoupaged Bible verse on a slab of varnished cedar, a porcelain likeness of Our Savior with a clock where his sternum should be, a glossy picture of a brunette selling pouch chew with her cleavage and a calendar photo of a leggy bronze thing in a macramé bikini posed before a clump of sea oats with a reciprocating saw.
“Got a good mind not to file. Let the bastards come and get me.”
That was pretty much Elvin’s quarterly refrain, so I just sat and waited for Elvin to spend sufficient of his ire to see his way clear to drop into his desk chair once again. He was a while, however, in winding down, had a talent for tirades and lurched about for a bit while unfreighting himself of seditious commentary.
I had a handful of clients given to Elvin’s strain of indignation, and, like him, they none of them paid any taxes to speak of, earned only enough to qualify for exclusions and subsidies. While his stint as a cattle keeper may have seemed a career to Elvin, year in and year out he was usually on the hairy edge of a hobby. So Elvin didn’t really need to deduct a fleecy robe with a whipstitched belt but could have stood instead to have shown a bit more in the way of a going concern.
A cow came to hand as Elvin passed his open office doorway. His herd had to go through the barn to get from the pasture to the springhead, and a heifer paused to look in and discover, I guess, what the storming around was about. Elvin took the opportunity to deride and blaspheme cattle as a species, and, since she was handy for it, he smacked that heifer on the snout, snatched off his cap and popped her which she tolerated well. She rubbed the side of her head on the door frame and indulged in a rumbling bovine necknoise before laying her ropy tongue on the floor and swabbing clean a plank.
Elvin finally wandered over and dropped back into his chair, the one he’d salvaged from the landfill and had proposed to depreciate. It was held together with angle irons and sixteen-penny nails, rode on four scrounged lawn-mower wheels instead of castors. As was his custom, Elvin groaned the way that Atlas probably would were he to ever know occasion to shift the world off of his shoulders, to unkink his achy lumbar and to smoke.
“I don’t know,” Elvin told me. “I just don’t know.”
Then he dredged a little phlegm in a fashion that, for Elvin, was reliably punctuational, indicated he was prepared to stray entirely off of taxes and touch, for variety’s sake, upon some topic otherwise.
“How’s old Stoney?” Elvin asked me.
Now I was acquainted at that time with a couple of Stoneys and had to pause to settle on which one Elvin might be asking after. Professionally, I knew a Stoney who was an exotic dancer in Raphine. She had part interest in a lounge off the interstate that catered to truckers chiefly. She operated a triple-X Web site, sold sex aids through the mail and owned outright a slummy little apartment house in Stuarts Draft.
That Stoney had authentic income and legitimate business expenses, hair about the color of blush wine and surgically cantilevered breasts. She wore around her neck a filigreed locket she’d opened for me once to reveal a tiny photograph of young Sal Mineo sweaty and stripped to the waist.
I decided she was hardly the sort who Elvin was likely to know—a racy female, that is to say, in the 36 percent tax bracket—so I fixed on my fallback Stoney, a neighbor of mine across the road. I was living in a rental on maybe forty acres that cozied up to the national forest, and those evenings I’d stand on the porch to take my Dickel with mountain air, I could sometimes see that Stoney down the swale beyond my drive where he was usually shifting tools out of his van or mucking around in his yard.
As he was a quarter mile or more away, I’d just hear him on occasion, most particularly when one of his cats had made of Stoney sporting use, had sprung out at him and plunged its claws clean through his trouser leg when Stoney would yelp and Stoney would reach to disengage that feline, when Stoney would visit upon it a few choice words of scalding abuse as prelude to flinging that creature overhand across the yard when I’d often meet with occasion to hear the cat a little as well.
I’d made Stoney’s acquaintance the day I moved in. He’d dropped by with his mattock in hand both to tell me, “Hey here,” and seek my permission to hack at a stump in my yard. Stoney had decided somehow that stump was the remnant of a lightered pine, and he was hopeful of laying a chunk in for the winter. I recall he kindly offered to hack me off a piece as well of what turned out to be weathered white oak with no pitch to speak of in it which Stoney flatly declined to embrace as an authentic fact as Stoney was poorly equipped to retreat from a conviction.
That was the trouble with him chiefly. You couldn’t trust anything he said, but not because Stoney was given to mendacity and deceit. He was merely doggedly loyal to his uninformed misconceptions and couldn’t be steered with stark unimpeachable proof away from a belief. Stoney had come by the notion that pitted prunes were toxic to most vermin, and he routinely broadcast the things in his ditch to serve as groundhog bait. He was persuaded the framers had troubled themselves to enshrine in the Constitution the right of a fellow who owned more than fourteen acres to urinate in his yard.
Stoney had grown convinced that charcoal insoles improved liver function. He let on to have private reasons to think poorly of the pope, and Stoney claimed to have seen once a science show on public television devoted to the miraculous healing powers of topical kerosene which he had taken to making use of as a balm and an emollient. Stoney, accordingly, tended to be our shiniest citizen about and, with his musk and fossil fuel bouquet, smelled like a flammable collie.
I knew the odd occasion to chat with Stoney when I’d check for mail in my box. We’d yammer at each other back and forth across the roadway, touch usually upon the weather and the prospects of the Braves, and Stoney would favor me now and again with a fresh article of faith. He’d shout out how he’d come by word that fox dander killed head lice or the lieutenant governor’s brother had, in fact, been a woman once, but I was rarely tempted to wander across the road for an enlargement which had as much to do with the rotting prunes in the ditch as the strain of talk.
There in Elvin’s office I recalled that I had caught a glimpse of Stoney as he’d detached a cat and hurled it just the afternoon before, so I felt reasonably fit to inform Elvin, “I guess Stoney’s doing all right.”
“ALL RIGHT!” And suddenly Elvin was up again and stalking. “If it’d been me or you, they’d have carried us off in a bucket.”
Elvin noticed for some reason that his calendar was two months out of date. He plucked the thing off its rusty nail, flipped the pages over to March and admired for a moment a lithe young strawberry blonde in a translucent thong who was holding an air wrench and draped in compressor hose.
“Things just go his way, don’t they? Wasn’t even his goddamn car.”
I didn’t have any earthly idea what Elvin was talking about. “Something happen to Stoney?” I asked him, and Elvin wheeled to gaze upon me as if I’d vented a dose of intolerable wind or poleaxed the merciful Christ.
“You ain’t heard!?”
I dropped my head and shook it, allowed I hadn’t.
At that time I rarely saw anybody much except for my clients about who had their tax liabilities and simmering civic resentments to occupy them. With no personal taste for country music or NASCAR qualifying, I wasn’t ever tempted to ferret out local news on the AM dial, and I’d wearied of the county paper after only a month or two because it was largely given over to grocery ads, undignified birthday announcements, church-league softball scores and forensic descriptions of bridal attire.
From my TV I could come by what was happening down in Roanoke and up in Harrisonburg, watched enough of the nightly network news to gain a sense of the world at large while Peggy, the girl who cut my hair, took such a slew of magazines that every two weeks I enjoyed occasion to refresh my native suspicion that I lived in a country I didn’t care to know awfully much about.
I’d hear the sirens, of course, see the funeral processions, the odd plume of smoke above the trees, was aware in a general way of calamities unfolding around me, but I tended to get stale details of them by sheer happenstance and well after the locals had shifted on to fresher miseries.
A year or so previously, I think it was, a pair of gentlemen from town had gotten into an actual gunfight over a woman. They were both of them, to her misfortune, in her kitchen at the time. She was a client of mine. I’d helped her tidy up her late husband’s estate and retrench from a few of his more lethargic investments, and she’d never, I’ll confess, impressed me as potential gunplay bait.
She was seventy maybe with a taste for embroidered sweaters and treacly gardenia perfume, wore corrective sneakers and trifocal glasses with powder-blue oversized frames. She looked to me the sort of creature far more likely to back her Buick into a fellow in the shopping plaza lot than tempt him to fish his rusty revolver out of his bedside drawer and fetch up in her kitchen to trade live fire with a rival.
And it wasn’t like those two suitors were the sorts of local hotheads given by nature to settling their personal grievances with guns. One of them, as it turned out, was retired from the ministry while the other was a lifelong buddy of his who’d been a concrete hauler and who’d traveled with that preacher to poverty-plagued parts of this world to build churches and schools and resurface roadways by way of advertisement for their Lord. To have, then, the pair of them shooting up a local widow’s kitchen must have made more of a dramatic sensation than your standard firefight might.
Even still, I heard no breath of news about that episode until probably a half year later when the widow herself touched on it. Since no one was killed or wounded, it never made the TV news, and it turned out I wasn’t chummy enough with anybody about to get conscripted into the sort of exchange that had to be common at the time. There must have been feverish local speculation as to what had set those two off, a couple of godly sorts with wives both in the Presbyterian churchyard and long personal histories of sober upstanding behavior, but I wasn’t privy to even the meagerest scrap of pertinent talk until I’d inadvertently prompted the widow to favor me with an account.
We were slogging through her medical expenses for the year, and I’d gotten up to make myself some coffee as she was one of those females who’d sworn off cooking of every conceivable sort. So when she’d offer me a snack or a beverage and I’d see fit to accept, she’d stay where she was and point towards the suitable cupboard or the icebox, proved entirely content as a hostess to feature this stripe of self-service alone.
She only ever had decaffeinated off-brand freeze-dried crystal coffee, that sort that tends to taste in the cup like molten galvanized tin, so I was up from the table primarily for relief from that woman’s scent and meant to linger before her stove until my head had cleared of gardenias. I plucked a saucepan off a hook on her wall and ran it half full of water, was shifting it towards a burner eye as it drained onto my shoes through a jagged hole in the bottom about the size of a thumbtack head.
That widow pointed out a dishtowel I could swab the floor tiles with and told me by way of explanation, “I guess you got the shot one.”
So only then did I hear about the gunfight in that woman’s kitchen, long after most everybody else had probably dissected the thing half to death. And I remember my surprise was leavened with a touch of nagging melancholy, sadness over the fact I’d succeeded a little too well at living apart.
“Wasn’t much left but the bumpers,” Elvin told me as he flopped back into his chair.
“My Stoney?” I asked him, and I’ll confess I was pricked and stung and shaken since I’d never, where it came to the company of men, been aiming for unmoored. I’d hoped only to go so far as private, cordial but retiring.
Elvin sucked spit through a tooth gap and nodded. Elvin assured me, “Him.”