At one time, the landlord Jeffers had been a busy person, but not anymore. Now he had time to think, and he had recently decided that he was going to die. His stomach was no longer the taut paunch it had been. Food passed his tongue joylessly. He no longer lusted. His feet and legs often went numb, and he’d taken to massaging isopropyl alcohol on them to regain some feeling. The smoke from his pipe remained one of the only things that seemed right—perhaps the craving for vice was the last thing to leave a person. Just before his mother passed away she would only eat soft candies. Jeffers’ death wouldn’t be immediate: he wouldn’t pass away today or tomorrow. It just landed upon him, pressed upon him, that his own passing was imminent, and he had no idea what to expect in the afterward.
Alone on the front porch in a frayed and stretched lawn chair, eyes closed, he imagined funerals. His tenant’s wife had died a few days ago. He pictured her supine like all bodies he’d seen in a coffin—clenched eyes, somewhat enlarged nostrils, mouth gently closed as if asleep. Peaceful rest. He remembered the summer evening years before when he’d had a body removed from Ashcross. The renter’s daughter draped across her father’s swollen body, weeping “daddy… daddy.” Her little fists sinking into her father’s stomach, her fingers groping at his shirt. The mortician’s assistant, grinding his teeth, pulled the little girl off the body, rending the moist stitching around the shirt’s collar. The renter didn’t appear as if he slept. In the near-subterraneous light, gape-jawed with eyes half-closed and unfocused, his waxy face was constricted into a rictus articulating the ineffable of the beyond. Or perhaps the lack thereof. He didn’t look heaven-bound. If Jeffers had not gone when the rent stopped coming in, he wondered how long the kid would have stayed there, caring for her father’s corpse.
Jeffers envied those who had seen a person die. He believed they understood what he didn’t—what death brought. He asked the renter’s little girl what had happened when her father passed. Without a tear in her eye, she said she didn’t know. She hadn’t seen it.
This envy had taken root when his son, James, witnessed his mother pass away while Jeffers was out making a deal with a man named White who was ignorant enough to believe a handshake was still as good as a notarized contract. For James, watching his mother’s passing had been such a powerful thing he’d gone into the seminary. He now ran a church out of the storefront of an old third-rate grocery in the lower part of the state; its sanctuary still smelled of hoopcheese and day laborers. (Jeffers thought his son would have been better off re-opening the grocery.) But James had witnessed many of his parishioners die, some of old age, others from disease. Each time his son told him of another death, Jeffers’ resentment grew. He never asked his son what it was like, afraid he’d get an earful of capricious religious nonsense, a tangle of words that would make him feel stupid.
He opened his eyes to stop the images and looked at the clear plastic freezer bags filled with water and four pennies hanging from the upper porch railings. Craziest thing he’d ever heard—a suggestion from James, an article he’d sent Jeffers on how to ward off flies. It said to hang plastic freezer bags with pennies and water outside to keep flies away. It worked. But as the sunlight shot through them casting a liquid-copper glow, he thought of the coins once used to cover the eyes of the decease. He spat over the porch railing. He put his unlighted pipe in his mouth.
He tried to recover his mind, replacing contemplating death with what to do about the Ashcross property, in which—he’d been told—a set of kids were now squatting. He’d let the place go to seed since the renter died in it nearly three years ago. Its roof and plumbing leaked, its walls drilled out by all manner of nest-builders, but he couldn’t abide the squatting. But apathy or something like it had gotten hold of him; it had embraced him at the same time the numbness started creeping into his legs. In quiet times such as these, something in the boredom and the numbness and the nature of age drew back like a bow and twanged when he tried to move, and a misdirected laugh or, on occasion, a hiccup-like cry sprang from his mouth. He didn’t understand it. But it locked him in his chair, kept him from getting anything done.
He tapped a wooden, bald-headed match on the arm of the chair while trying not to look at the pennies. But images of edemas, time at work, wasting disease, null and vacant and quicklime-covered faces impinged upon his concentration. His pipe hung limply from his lips. He sucked on the raw tobacco packed inside it to get a hint of sweetness mixed with a burned residue.
Jeffers saw the tenant who lived across the street walking up the driveway. As he walked, he smacked at the ash-brown leaves of the spent okra that framed one side of the property.
Jeffers dropped the unlighted match in his palm.
The tenant stopped at the porch steps. A scrawny man with brow-darkened eyes and a fresh crookedness barbing his face as if he’d been howling or banging his head against the wall.
“RD, what’s ailing you?”
“We buried LaRae this morning,” RD said, closing his eyes.
“I was sorry to hear about LaRae,” he said. He looked down at RD, who shifted his weight between his feet like a child needing to pee. He patted the porch railing, causing it to wobble. “It’s a hard thing to lose a wife,” Jeffers continued to fill in the silence. He pictured his two wives in his mind, pondered which one might meet him in heaven, if there was a heaven. Age had made him hopeful again that there was such a place. Experience made him doubtful. “I’ve lost two myself.”
RD nodded thoughtfully at the bottom of the porch steps. He shifted his weight and squinted at the pennies and water bags.
Jeffers studied RD. He knew little about him. Looked mid-thirties, but Jeffers had stopped believing he could guess a person’s age a long time ago. A quiet tenant—paid his rent. But RD had a bottom-of-the-litter look, runt-ish, forgotten. He looked given to schemes. He might have been the skinniest grown man Jeffers had ever seen—his shoulders angled like those on a starved child. He’d known scrounging for sure. RD and LaRae had come from Tennessee.
“She saw haints, you know,” RD said.
RD nodded and splashed a brown vein of spit into the grass. A wind buffeted his face, and he looked a slight better to Jeffers, who supposed the little man had come over just to talk out his sadness. Jeffers struck the match, sheltered its flame, and pressed it to the tobacco while making gentle, moist pops to pull the fire into the pipe.
“In that house of yourn,” RD said.
“What’s that?” Jeffers said.
“Haints in your house.”
“No, ourn. The one you lettin us have.”
Jeffers lowered the pipe and shook out the match. “Rent.”
“Yep. Haints in that house you lettin us rent.”
Jeffers leaned forward and looked across the porch where he could see through a stand of weather-broken pines the squat gables of the house RD rented. Below the boundary of trees, a graying neighborhood dog was working over road-kill flattened on the unlined blacktop that split the properties.
“I’ll be damn.” Jeffers looked back at RD, who had climbed the first step and was leaning toward the porch as if he wanted to come up. He was almost panting.
“Them haints killed LaRae.”
Jeffers leaned back in his chair and drew on his pipe. The spirit of the tobacco warmed his mouth as he considered his next words. RD climbed another step. He shuddered and proffered a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it glare. Behind the spindly man, the sun was low and the sky bloodied in a balsam light.
Jeffers took the pipe down: “I am sorry about LaRae. But what do you want me to do about a ghost? I cain’t charge it rent.”
“You could pay for LaRae’s buryin expense that’s what, since it was your haints that killed her.”
“How you figure they’re mine?”
“It was in your house.”
“Well, they could have come with you from Tennessee. I’ve had untold number of folks live in that house. Not one of them complained of ‘haints.’”
RD squinted, catching the sarcasm in Jeffers’ voice. He quivered.
“If there are haints in that house, as you say, RD, they must’ve come to roost the same time you did. And that house is only supposed to be occupied by two people. The way I see it, you might owe me money, housing your haints, when your lease says only two shall live there.” Jeffers drew on his pipe, satisfied with himself. He felt a pleasant jolt of blood and adrenaline shock his body.
“That house killed her.”
“House or haints?”
RD chewed the inside of his cheek. The broad outlines of his skull were visible. He reminded Jeffers of the half-fed prisoners who worked chain gang years ago.
“RD, how do you make money? You work?”
RD, leering, backed down a step.
Jeffers held his gaze wide-eyed until he squinted from the falling sun breaking from the clouds. If this was a scheme, Jeffers thought, it’s awfully weak.
“Before LaRae passed, she told me that you would take care of her funeral bill. She said it was your wives who told her that you’d cover it.”
Jeffers peered unblinkingly through white smoke.
“You going to pay?”
“What do you think?” Jeffers said.
“I think you will.”
For a brief moment he considered giving in before a surge of meanness rose up: “Get the hell off my porch ’fore I throw you off.”
RD stood up straight and a haughty tic ran through his shoulders. He turned and headed back in the direction he’d come from.
Jeffers called to RD when the little man was equidistant between the porch and the road: “If you see them haints, send them my way.”
RD didn’t respond. As he passed the old dog in the road, he stopped to stare at it, and then for no reason scared it off its tire-mangled dinner.
Jeffers spat a long slivery streak into his boxwoods. He relaxed and puffed, satisfied. But the reminder of LaRae’s passing made him think again about his own shortening time, of what was to come. He lowered the pipe and leaned once more to see the house across the road, looking for the little, dissatisfied man, angry with him for his audacity and privation and for his existence, which Jeffers suddenly considered unearned.
The little spat with his tenant left Jeffers wanting some more excitement and so he went to the Ashcross property to run the squatters out. He found no one there. They had trounced the weeds around the house creating a cowpath to a five-gallon bucket simmering with turds and urine. In the long-untended shade tree hung wispy catfish skins. Several catfish heads had been hammered into the tree’s trunk and their husky mouths and eyes gawked in bewilderment. Redneck trophies, Jeffers thought.
Standing on the Ashcross porch Jeffers recalled the last time he’d been inside the house, holding the little girl by the shoulder, quizzing her on his father’s death, and her dry-eyed answers. Her little fingernails had been chewed to the quick.
His remembrance was broken when he glimpsed a young pregnant woman walking down the road, her hair a freak of colors—yellow, red—her stomach full and hanging low. Jeffers thought for a moment she was the squatter, but she passed the weed-lined driveway as if she were headed elsewhere. And then Jeffers felt a twinge of lust, something he hadn’t felt in a while. He stifled a half-laugh. If asked what he thought of the young woman, he would have ranted over her hairstyle and clothes—he knew a slut when he saw one! But in truth she was lovely, and her pregnancy made her all the more so. What if she had been his squatter? Could he have thrown her out? He’d never felt sorry for squatters. One winter he had thrown a whole family out, and learned later that one of their children died of pneumonia. Still he thought he’d made the right decision. He was well off and thought it was because he’d made good decisions. These people had to earn their place; they couldn’t just take. Wanting something for nothing, that was the problem.
He still liked to brag that he once held over a million dollars in his hands. It had come from the sale of the White property, which he considered bad luck, seeing as how he got it the same day his first wife died. His second wife came with property but she died within a year of when they married. Her kids had taken her away from Jeffers, back to her home state, to care for her. He’d given all of her property to her children. It seemed the right thing to do. And after she passed, he sold off several large sections of his holdings. But he wished he had it all back now. It worried him how easily he’d accepted age, how he’d told himself he was getting old and selling off his properties was a good idea. At one time he’d owned twenty-one rental properties, most of them run-down farmhouses in which he installed young couples and hard-working hillbillies. Grief-pierced, he yearned to have it all back. Now he just had the house next his own to give him his pocket money, and the Ashcross place.
James wanted Ashcross to put a church on, and he wanted Jeffers to donate it. But there was promise still in the property and money to be made. He needed to get the squatters out, and install fresh tenants. It was also that his son wanted the plot so bad that Jeffers couldn’t let it go; he couldn’t let his son take the last of his holdings, leaving him with just the squat-gable home. In his imagination, Jeffers saw his son holding the hands of a dying parishioner, whispering that the man who had owned the property had donated it, just gave it up. The face of the imagined parishioner looked up with a wink and smirked. And Jeffers saw that this was where his son would bury him, too—under a light-grey headstone carved with his birth and death and ASHCROSS UNITED METHODIST CHURCH BENEFACTOR.
The young woman passed behind some trees. His lust abated, the numbness in his feet stretched out as if originating from inside the bones. The numbness, the age. There would be a time soon when he wouldn’t be able to care for himself. He wouldn’t be able to rise from a chair, wouldn’t be able to put himself to bed, wouldn’t be able to cook or attend to his own needs. Perhaps giving the land to his son would be a good thing, and then James would have no choice but to make it his duty to devote himself to Jeffers. But what he really wanted was someone who would care for him without demand. He would pay for that.
That night Jeffers dreamed of LaRae. He dreamed of going over to the little house with pockets full of cash. He found her there with a baby up to her breast while she smiled brightly at him. He looked down at the baby, its jaw fluttering, gnawing. Unhealthy, pallid, the child unmistakably RD’s: they shared the same sunken cheeks. LaRae draped a frayed copper-colored shawl over her chest and tugged the baby from her nipple as if to show Jeffers the infant, and the child gave out an insufferable squall, bile resembling doused ash dribbled from its mouth. Its cry wasn’t like any infant’s he’d heard before, and Jeffers woke to hear that the sound wasn’t the child’s at all but was coming from something else nearby. He sat up in bed, switched on the bedside lamp.
The painful howl went up again.
His feet and shins were numb as they often were when he woke. He slipped on his yard shoes and tried to stand. He sat down on the bed and then stood up again. It felt as though he was walking on peg legs. He stumbled across the room. Another wail went out. He forwent his pants. He went to the closet, held to the doorjamb, his legs muscles smarting and stinging. He pulled out his pistol. He tromped down the hall in his boxer shorts and undershirt; he said a prayer that his varicose legs wouldn’t give out and that he’d have sense enough to protect himself. He looked out the living room window and saw nothing. He eased his front door open, his pistol pointed in the direction he imagined the sound was coming from, his lips parted, ready to receive a breathe of cool air.
The outdoor lamp washed everything in a plaintive white or buried it in shadow. At the far end of his yard, a quaking silhouette crouched under a pecan tree. He walked slowly over to it—his face jutted trying to see what it was. His pistol lowered.
The old dog moaned as Jeffers approached. Its gut had been slit open. Blood adorned its fur in black blotches.
He heard rustling in the pine trees that flanked his property. He kept the pistol lowered and listened. He called for the cutthroat to come out. He called again. The base of the pine trees were bleached white from the lamp’s light and between their trunks Jeffers could see only darkness.
He looked down at the dog. One visible eye glinted in the sparse light. Jeffers looked back at the stand of pine trees before gripping the barrel of the pistol. He brought its handle down swiftly on the dog’s skull to avoid firing a bullet in the middle of the night, which would bring the curiosity and ire of neighbors. And there was the cost of the bullet to consider.
He hit it again—and then a third time. After each strike, he glanced back at the trees and saw only rib-white pine trunks and night. Jeffers peered down at the extinguished dog before limping back to the house, knowing the man in the pines was watching.
His sleep was chancy these days. Many nights he sat up, the vapors from the isopropyl alcohol rising from his feet, a subsuming numbness creeping further up his legs. He often mapped its assent, trying to sense the true direction of the numbness, what area would it covet next, whether it had or would enter his spine or some other territory. When would it be too late to ask for help? When would the numbness settle in his stomach and make it impossible to eat? Or would it skip his stomach and spine and ground itself with fresh purchase in his heart? And then what? Death.
But this night Jeffers sat at his kitchen table, puffing on his pipe, replaying the events. He figured it was RD who had gutted the dog. He imagined the two, both lean and dirty animals—RD with the upper hand only because he had sense to bait the scrawny thing and could wield a knife.
Just before light, he went out with a shovel to remove the dog from the yard. Taped to the door was a list of LaRae’s burial expenses written in an untrained hand. At the bottom, beneath the tally, was the message, “You O me that much RD”.
It was unlike Jeffers to befoul one of his properties and he wished he hadn’t. He knew he might suffer for the considerable effort it took to carry the animal up a ladder, but he was angry and dropping the dog’s gut-slung body down RD’s chimney made him feel young as if he were playing some outlandish prank. He knew the dog would get stuck in the flue and create an unbearable stink. But it had felt good, his legs felt strong.
Seated on his porch, a warm breeze eased him. Numbness slowly budded in his toes. Soon it would blossom up his legs, and then like vines it would gather around his waist and approach his back. Unrelieved numbness: faintly its tendrils would furl the base of his spine. He knew paralysis would take soon. He looked up at the bags of pennies and water. Such a simple measure, and a small cost to keep the flies at bay. With lips folded between teeth, he squelched a whimper.
As the numbness grew, he pondered over the list of expenses RD had tacked to his door. He thought of his own wives. One was buried in the city’s cemetery and the other was buried in North Carolina. Even though it had been almost a decade, he knew by the tally tacked to his door that he’d spent more, given more respect, to his wives than RD had to LaRae.
He saw RD coming up the driveway, gripping something nearly hidden in his hand.
“Ain’t you got business?” Jeffers blurted.
“I’m here on business. I’ve been to the funeral home.”
He gazed down at RD, who was dressed in a shirt Jeffers wouldn’t have used for a rag—threadbare in the chest as if it belonged to a man who itched a lot. He noticed that RD was petting a rabbit’s foot in his left hand, part of a keychain: “You bring that for luck?”
“Hell, I don’t need no luck.”
“You need something. You’ve eaten or buried the best part.”
“You get my note.”
“Yeah, I got your duns.”
“I told them at the Home you’ll pay for it.”
“You kill that dog?”
“LaRae said it was your wives that haunted her. Said you beat ‘em.”
“I never struck them.”
“That’s not what they said.”
“You kill that dog?” Jeffers asked again.
“Said you should have to pay.”
“You kill that dog?” Jeffers leaned forward, puffed smoke.
RD gnawed at the inside of his cheek: “Why don’t you give me a smoke and I’ll knock off a few dollars on that bill.”
“You kill that dog?”
“I know who did. I’ll tell you for ten dollars.”
“So you know it’s dead.”
“I know you been asking about a dead one, and that one’s been lately put out of its misery.”
Jeffers shot a gleaming stream of spit at the little man without hitting him: “I didn’t cause its misery.”
“But you killed it.”
“I put it down.”
“Then why are you ragging on me about killing a dog?”
“Cause you’re the one who gutted it to start with.”
“I don’t know about that,” RD said.
“You don’t know you gutted a dog?”
Jeffers was silent.
Looking at the spit webbed across the parched-green leaves of the boxwoods, RD said: “What’s that dog mean to you?”
“Nothing. Having it slaughtered on my property does mean something.”
“Well I’ll help you look for your dog-gutter if you pay for LaRae.”
Jeffers felt the slight palpation of his heart: “I’m not paying you for a goddamn thing.”
“Why do you think I’ll pay?”
“You want peace, don’t you?”
Jeffers legs were numb, up to his stomach. At that moment, he wanted more than anything to chase RD down and beat him senseless.
Slightly hunched, RD eased up onto the porch as if he sensed weakness. He stood up and reached for one of the Ziploc bags of pennies and plucked it down from its nail. Jeffers’ head twitched and he ground his teeth. There was no feeling whatsoever in his legs, as if he were dead from the waist down.
RD turned and walked down the steps.
“Hey,” Jeffers called. “Come get this.” Jeffers held up the funeral bill.
RD stood in the yard, with a big smile on his face, danced a burlesque and mocked masturbation and then spat a reddish-brown streak. He wiped his chin: “You can knock four cents off that bill,” he said. He turned and walked out of the yard, disappearing behind the trees.
His Sunday evening phone calls with James were little more than reminders—for James it reminded him that his father was still alive, and for Jeffers that his son was little more than a beggar, begging for a donation. Tonight James called asking about some article he’d sent Jeffers regarding blood circulation. Poor circulation: that was what was wrong with Jeffers’ according to James.
They sat in silence, Jeffers listening to his son’s breath and the hum of foreign ambience at the other end of the line. He yawned. He flicked off the lamp beside the chair and sat in the dark so he could see through the window to the little, unlighted house across the road. He opened his shirt and put a hand to his chest, his heart. His feet were cold in his bedroom shoes.
“Any more thought given to what you’re going to do with the Ashcross place?”
“Some,” Jeffers said.
“I spoke to the United Methodist Ministries. They said if I could get the land, they’d help me with the church.”
James called it a perfect little hill to build a church upon. For Jeffers property had to be earned. He had earned it, bought with monies he got paid from other lands, which he bought with monies he earned originally from labor in a dust-filthy mill. Everything he owned he’d earned. He wanted his son to earn it. James prated on about church, but Jeffers couldn’t listen to him. He was angry with RD, angry with himself. He was going to have to get rid of the little man, evict him.
“Anything else going on up there?” James asked.
“Did you get the squatters out the house?”
“You can’t do anything with the place until you get them out.”
Jeffers let out a meek huh, which his son didn’t respond to. He flicked the light back on and saw himself in the blacken window with a hand across his chest as if he were taking a pledge. His face was sullen. He smiled at himself, mirthless, false. When he stopped smiling the leaden expression returned. His son wasn’t speaking. Who was his confidant, Jeffers wondered.
“Don’t make any decision about that place before talking to me,” James said.
Jeffers didn’t respond.
James sighed on the other end and told his father goodnight.
Jeffers got up the next morning surprised he’d had a good night’s sleep. His feet were warm and when he stood he could feel them—he could feel the coolness of the floor. He was still angry, but he felt good and up to running off squatters. He would have to deal with RD soon and getting Ashcross taken care of would be one less thing to worry about. He’d foregone calling the police. In years past, just telling the squatters to leave did the trick. Sometimes he’d flash his pistol.
When he got to Ashcross he knocked on the front door and a young woman with a gaudy bloom of red- and yellow-dyed hair answered. She was very pregnant, and she smiled so brightly that Jeffers couldn’t help thinking of a flower he wished he could pick. The young woman said her name was Lucinda, but that everyone called her Panky.
He didn’t mention that he’d seen her before. He began by telling her that she was a squatter and that the property belonged to him. If she didn’t clear out immediately, he would have her arrested for trespassing and demand back-rent by garnering future earnings.
The young woman stood quietly as Jeffers finished speaking. After a few moments she spoke: “Someone told me and Toby it was empty and we could just stay a while until Toby got a job.”
“I am the landlord. I charge rent on the people who live here.”
“But it’s been empty for a long time.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“But we have nowheres to go.”
He’d never felt sorry for squatters or tenants, but Panky’s festival hair, spray of freckles across her nose—her belly—released an unexpected shock of tenderness in his chest. He looked away, toward the trees and the catfish heads, as she continued to talk about their plucky intentions to stay briefly, have the baby, find a job for herself, find a better place. She just needed a little more time.
He hustled his pants around his haunchless hips. The weight of the pistol tugged on his trousers. His feet were going numb.
She was silent for a moment, and he looked back to see why she’d stopped talking. Then she said: “We could do some repairs on the house. Toby’s good with that. Let us stay here and we’ll fix it.”
He hustled his pants again. He felt squirmy. His legs were being subsumed. His mind snarled with untethered thoughts. The woman before him, unpleasantly steady, continued to plead for more time. Her words became senseless in his ears.
He needed her. Or someone like her. This sudden upstroke of clarity frightened him. He needed someone to relieve him of the unrelenting loneliness of the last few years, someone to care for him. He was going to need care. He was dying and she was about to give life. She couldn’t help it. Panky carried it inside her freely. He saw that.
Jeffers’ mouth palsied inward before he stammered: “Do I look sick to you?”
Panky took a step back: “Maybe a little.”
Jeffers stumbled forward: “How little?”
“What about my face?” He took another, cautious step forward.
She parried his gaze and reached back for the doorknob.
Something uncoiled itself within his body. For a moment, he believed he might have pissed himself, and he patted his crotch, checking for dampness. He took another step toward Panky. He murmured—he wasn’t sure what he had intended to say. He reached for his crotch, still not convinced that he hadn’t soiled his trousers. He felt his mouth gape inexplicably. Panky blurted: “Mister, I don’t know what you want.” He stumbled forward and clasped his hand on her shoulder. She smacked at his hand. His thumb bit into the meat between her collarbone and ribcage. Panky grimaced and threw Jeffers’ hand away.
He lurched forward: “I want you to tell me what I look like.”
“You look sick. Like an old man,” she said, swatting his hand as it reached out again.
“I am sick.”
“Do you need me to get help?”
“Yes. Yes.” He then turned and left the porch—Panky already behind the door. Jeffers heard scraping as if heavy furnishings were being drawn to block entry.
He cranked the truck and drove out of the pea-gravel drive. He wanted to howl or squall. He sensed he was running out of something. He gripped the steering wheel so tightly he felt the rubber give loose of the wheel inside the tubing.
He clenched his jaw until his partial denture bit into his gums and he could taste blood. He belched a laugh, or maybe it was a cry. He was stunned by how empty he felt. His crotch wasn’t wet, but the numbness swarmed his legs and was advancing upward, a gripping numbness combined with a pressure that seemed to gnaw at the bone. He could no longer sense how deeply he pressed the accelerator or the brake. He let out a yowl and then wondered for a half second if there was someone else in the pickup with him. And then he did it again.
When he got home, RD was on his porch steps, smoking a pipe.
He pulled his truck into the yard, coming as close to the porch as he could, got out, with the pistol in his hand, and walked slowly, purposefully, painfully the few steps to where RD sat, puffing, his lips drawn into a mirthful grin. All the bags of pennies were gone.
“That yours?” Jeffers asked, snatching the pipe out of RD’s mouth.
“Just smoking a little. There’s a God awful smell over there and just wanted to smell something sweet for a little bit.” RD cocked his head at the pistol: “That’s a nice one.”
“Maybe it’s that haint of yours stinking up the place. Is it house trained?”
“Where you been, landlord? You do some shooting?”
“What do you want, RD?”
“Call it what you like. It’s all the same to me.”
Jeffers collapsed in his porch chair, put the pistol across his lap, and cleaned RD’s spit off the mouthpiece of the pipe with a handkerchief.
“Smells like something died over there, Jeffers.”
“Well, she did.” Jeffers swatted at a fly that had landed on his arm.
RD looked at him darkly. “Something new.”
“Maybe you ought to clear out then, RD. Maybe it’s that haint. Or it might be my wives wanting the house for themselves. Maybe they’re tired of your laying about.”
“Maybe.” RD turned to leave. He spat a brown streak of spit in the yard. “When you’re ready to settle up, you know where I live.”
When RD was behind the pines, Jeffers exhaled a short strangled laugh, and then another, but it was more like a gasp. He placed the pistol on the little table beside him. His right leg twitched, his left crackled as if its very veins and capillaries were bursting. He rapped the pipe on the porch railing to clean out the tobacco RD had been smoking. He took out his pocketknife and scrapped the chamber clean; he lighted a match and burned the mouthpiece a little. He sighed and let his body rest for a few moments.
He reached under the chair where he kept a pack of tobacco. Its weight was wrong—too light. Jeffers spread the bag open. Dust, ash, dirt? He wasn’t sure. He leaned over and poured out the contents. Teeth fell out. Fragments of bone. The dog’s? LaRea’s? Another copy of the funeral bill lined the bottom of the tobacco bag. A small deduction had been made for the tobacco RD had smoked and the pennies.
A fly landed on his hand.
By the time he walked to the squat-gable house, he was sweating and quaking with a chill. The numbness in his legs scoured him bone to flesh. He didn’t know why he hadn’t driven the short distance. Impatient with RD’s games, he’d gotten out the lawn chair and shoved his pistol in his right front pocket and descended the porch steps half blind with anger.
He entered the front door with his own key and limped into the tiny living room, bare except for a tattered recliner and an empty TV stand with a midden of chicken bones and stale French fries littered across it. The smell of the dog was monstrous.
In the kitchen, empty bean cans lined the counter and most of the cabinet doors hung open. A spoon, crusted and unpolished, reclined in the sink. Jeffers could hear RD moving around in the back of the house. He listened for a few moments before continuing down the hall. He passed a slender closet, empty except for a lone, bent coathanger. He passed the bathroom, darkened and faintly urinous.
When he reached the bedroom, he was surprised by the vision of RD seized in a blade of dust-speckled sunlight—shirtless, his bones seemingly lifted to just under his skin. It was as if Famine itself stood before Jeffers in a swirl of ash and red-brown light. RD smiled at him.
As if heat lightning passed through the little house, he glimpsed a future and past. He re-imagined the death-rictus of his Ashcross renter long ago. His first wife’s closed coffin. He saw his own death—the paralysis, the absolute loss of modesty. His son, robed, offering up thanks to heaven for his Father and for land. Jeffers removed the pistol from his pocket, pointed it at RD and pulled the trigger. The little man snapped up in the dusty air and landed on his back.
He looked down upon the little man gasping, observed his twitching, witnessed a tiny spring of blood bubble up and then flow. RD grasped at his chest, his breath already shortening.
“What do you see?” Jeffers demanded
“What?” RD spat.
Jeffers crouched over RD and moved in close enough to feel the other’s moist breath: “What do you see?”
A half-smile, half-grimace palsied RD’s face, “I see you.” He rolled over and tried to stand.
Jeffers shoved RD back to the floor. He stepped to the window and drew the copper-colored curtains.
“You goin to get me some help?”
Jeffers turned from the window and in the cheap light raised the pistol and shot RD again. A shallow splatter of blood leapt from RD’s chest, a near-inaudible grunt left his mouth. Jeffers resumed his position over RD’s face.
“And now, do you see anything?”
RD squinted. “You got to help me.”
“What do you see?” Jeffers roared.
“You don’t have to pay that bill.”
Jeffers stepped away from the spread of blood. He pointed the pistol at RD again, but then didn’t shoot. He thought he saw some change in the little man: “What do you see?”
“You,” RD gasped. “I see you. Help me.”
Jeffers asked him again and again what he was seeing, but it didn’t change. Jeffers was in disbelief that he was awaiting a man so given to lies as RD to tell him the truth. RD tried to crawl. Jeffers struck him, and then again, thrashing like a man at labor. The little man curled tighter and clutched his head after each blow.
Finally both men were still. Jeffers leaned in. He turned RD’s head and held his crumpled cheek tenderly as a nurse might do. “What’s there? What do you see?”
There was no answer. RD was dead.
Jeffers sat for a spell in the recliner. With his index finger he pushed at the pile of dry chicken bones and withered fries. He could no longer smell the stench of the dog rotting in the chimney. He could feel his legs and feet, but knew it wouldn’t last long. He could sense the numbness creeping in again and he removed his shoes and socks so he could rub his toes. We are perched atop nothingness, Jeffers thought, we make up heavens, but we are atop nothing. He didn’t want to go home. He called his son.
They took his pistol, his belt, and the laces of his shoes, and put in the back of the patrol car. His son was running his mouth to the police. He couldn’t hear what was being said. He wanted his pipe, which still rested on the porch railing where he’d left it.
He was numb up to his waist.
As Jeffers began to close his eyes, the glimpse of a specter stopped him. In the distance, crouched between pine trees he saw something beautiful. She was unmistakable with an ornate flourish of hair, her round pregnant belly. She had come to his house, had come to see him, to help him. Jeffers stared at her, hoping that she would turn and look his way, see him behind the glass, give some forgiveness. He needed that gift. But she looked past him, watching James and the police. He wept dryly, knowing that he had earned nothing today. She turned to walk back into the pines. Jeffers watched the disappearing carnival of hair and the bubble of a cry burst from his lips.