The sky reflected the sepia tint of Troy’s eyes as he unscrewed the cap of his flat pint whiskey bottle and ran it under his nose to smell the burn of fumes before knocking back a swallow. His granddaddy drank, he called it sweet nectar, and he reckoned bourbon or beer was how a man was meant to smell. He pulled on the bottle a few times, tears stung his eyes, as darkness fell over the farmhouse his wife now shared with Bobby Lee Phelps. The shade of a hem of evergreens on the hillside sheltered him as he gazed down on the Phelps spread. A thirsty dirt road with some gravel lay at the foot of the hill. On the other side of the rise he had parked his brand new GMC pickup on an abandoned farmer’s road fallen into disrepair with baked ruts and crisscrossed with narrow dogtrots and deer trails. He took out his jackknife and cleaned thin lines of black dirt from under his fingernails.
Sin, Troy thought. He was not altogether religious by nature, but she had made the same wedding vows. He knew Phelps’s first wife died in childbirth, but killing one woman alone was not enough for the old goat. He tried to tell himself he did not feel loss, only anger at Phelps for aiding and abetting his wife’s wanton nature. Phelps bragged more than once to the leering old men down at the tavern that he had a crooked dick. He couldn’t respect a man that talked that way. Scofield could accept Alisha with a nice country gentleman if he had to, but not a goddamn redneck more than twenty years older than her. Troy drained the bottle and threw it down on a flat piece of slate rock. He knew she was inside. He just knew it.
The sky seemed to buckle with clouds. The air whirling with vaporous black clusters, roiling and grumbling so low they seemed to be about to land on his head. Frogs were calling out from the lagoon back behind the house. Clothes hung hard on the line. Crickets were chirping in his alcohol- addled brain so that every time he turned his head to the left or right the world swam before him, blurred. Thirsty clay fissures and cracks ran about the land seeking moisture from the eroded farmland. Stalks of purple milkweed grew healthy-looking while even the honeysuckle lay withered under a layer of dust. He could smell and feel the electricity of an approaching storm in the improbably cool breeze. The violence of summer storms was what he loved best about this time of year. It had not done more than spit a couple of times this year and it seemed to those who depended on it most that clouds were only the taunting of an angry god. His face and arms were red with sunburn and mosquito bites from hours of sitting out amongst the weeds of the pasture across the gravel road watching Phelps as he worked on screening-in the front porch.
Get good and tired you big son of a bitch, Scofield thought.
A steady rain began to fall as if a heavenly spigot had just been turned on. He cursed and slipped down the muddy embankment until his pants were covered in the heavy red clay. He slid down to an electrified fence and kicked at one of the posts with the bottom of his boot until he could step over the fence and out into the yellow road in plain sight of Phelps. The old man’s leathery face turned red as his thick fingers bunched up. Then he seemed to recover himself, with great deliberation the stocky man unbuttoned the cuffs on his western-style shirt and rolled them up just past his elbows. The rain was coming down steadily and Phelps looked perplexed.
“Well, I be got-damned,” Phelps said. “I seen you watching me up there all day. You beat all I ever seen, son.”
“I want to talk to Alisha,” Scofield’s eyes were on the uneven floorboards of the porch.
“She don’t want to talk to you. Just look at you. Ain’t you got any dignity?”
“Dig-ni-nity,” Scofield said. “You damn right. How’d you like it if I took you out in your own yard, and whip your ass?”
“I don’t give a damn,” Phelps rose up to his full height.
Troy had known Phelps since he was a boy. Phelps and his daddy had been buddies since high school, both served over in Korea. Phelps had never had anything to say to Troy except to make fun of him for being puny which, when Phelps said it, implied he was somehow unmanly. Phelps was a big man with hard muscles from working at the Hybrid Corn Company. He had not been relegated to a paper pusher yet. Bobby Lee Phelps was one tough son of a gun. Hitting him would be like hitting a war monument or his own gravemarker. Phelps’s lips were stretched thinly against his teeth. Scofield noticed the liver marks on the man’s hands.
Phelps gathered up the smaller man’s shirt in one great fist and pulled him off his feet and tossed him backwards with more pity than intention. Troy landed in the muddy yard with a thud and he did not want to get up ever again. Phelps straddled him and slapped his face with an open hand; almost with the reluctance of a father discharging his paternal duty. Scofield did not see the blows but the whole time Phelps’s belt buckle was in full view. The belt buckle displayed a kicking stallion worked in silver and copper. Just like the one Alisha had given him for his birthday, the buckle he never wore nor could account for either.
“Get your ass up, young pup,” he said. “You ain’t worth it. Your old man was something, but the best part of you dribbled down your mama’s leg.”
Phelps stepped away to allow him space to get up. He was careful not to stand too close although Troy’s face was cut up on both sides from the raking his rings had given him.
Phelps turned on his heel and walked back toward the porch.
“Bobby,” Troy said.
Phelps turned and as he did his foot slipped in the red clay mud. He tried to recover his balance, but then both feet came out from under him and he landed hard on his back. Troy saw the genuine fear on the older man’s face. Had Phelps remained firm and indomitable maybe he could have regained his feet and his dignity, but Troy saw the fear. The smell of fear drove him down on Phelps and he clawed at the man’s face and neck like a madman. They grunted as they rolled in the mud each trying to find an advantage in the oozing clay. Phelps found purchase on a blackgum tree root poking out of the earth. He made one great effort and succeeded in throwing Troy’s body partially off his with nothing more than brute strength until he had rolled Troy onto his back and was holding him down by the neck with one hand and delivering hammering blows to his head until Troy’s hand slid into his pocket and fished out his jackknife, unfolded its blade from the red handle. Troy pushed upward with his legs, with all his strength, and when their momentum started forward again, Scofield’s hand started up, and much to his own surprise, pierced the older man’s abdomen. Phelps groaned, relaxing his grip as his hands went to attend the rust-colored fountain, Scofield dashed Phelps’s skull against one of the creek rock’s lining the driveway. Even after he had rendered Phelps insensible he continued to batter and worry the body. He felt like a terrified animal unconscious of its surroundings. He was angry and terrified all at the same time.
Finally he grew tired. Phelps’s face was bloody, his body was immobile and the air around them grew still. He heard someone hollering from far off. A hoarse growling caterwaul silenced the rain and the frogs and the darkness. Until he became aware that it was his own godforsaken crying. He had been calling out to Alisha for a quarterhour when it dawned on him she was not there. Had he watched the house all day for nothing? No, he had uncovered her sin. He succeeded in punishing her lover. He cleaned the jackknife off on Phelps’s shirt, folded the blade up, and tucked it back into his pocket. Phelps was unrecognizable save for his clothes, an accusing brown eye bulging from the socket–and that silver belt buckle. The belt leather had shrunk in the wet but he managed to unbuckle it. He slipped the buckle into his back pocket. His hands shook with adrenaline. He had gone too far but there was not way to undo it all now.
The screen door was slightly ajar. He looked over Phelps’s handiwork. The screens were almost all up. Scofield allowed he was on his way to doing a passable job so he kicked his boot through one of the screens nearest the door. The living room exuded a dark and musty odor, the furniture appeared grainy and yet the house itself stank of an as yet unknown threat. Immediately to his left, an old-fashioned wardrobe with a mirror which reflected his image back like in a funhouse at the State Fair in Sedalia. He opened the wardrobe door and inside sat three rifles, of various calibers, arrested as if in mid-sentence; an action considered but not taken as if these triune neighbors meant to comment on a loan a fellow citizen welshed on. In the top drawer he found an assortment of bullets and red shell casings. There were no closets to speak of because the house was built during a time when the owner paid a tax for every room and closets counted as rooms.
A second hand buffet took up one whole wall in a connecting room, the dark lacquered wood of the piece inflicted a dark sobriety over his mood. A pungent burnt grease smell came from the kitchen. He found a half-eaten blt on toasted white bread on a serving platter with a floral pattern sitting on the little red and white formica table. Wedding dishes, Scofield grunted. He stuffed the sandwich in his mouth until he felt his fingertips against his teeth.
“It ain’t so much,” he raised his head to the roof as if the house heard his voice. About like a hunting cabin on the inside. The red light on the silver and black coffee pot was on so he poured himself a cup in a yellow and brown earthenware mug and sat back down at the kitchen table. Through the warpy old-time glass in the window he could see the sunlight stretching, pushing away the shadows of the overhead clouds, and he took a sip of the strong bitter coffee. He picked at a stray coffee ground on the tip of his tongue. Scofield then folded his arms in front of him, laid down his head, and his body convulsed soundlessly.
He raised his head. Through the window he watched the wind lash the door to the outhouse, open and closed, making a slamming sound each time. A weathercock over the barn spun wildly like a roulette wheel. Dark clouds rumbled in and blue veins of lightning shot across the sky. The static electricity made him feel more alive as it always did with these storms whirling in from the plains.
Above the ancient Frigidaire sat a carton of Lucky Strikes. Scofield slid out a pack and began steadily beating a staccato rhythm against the palm of his hand. When he was finished, he unwrapped the cellophane from the pack, shook one out, lit it with the lighter on the table and inhaled deeply. It felt good to be smoking Phelps’s cigarettes. He wanted to smoke them all. Eat everything of his in the fridge. Even drink all the water out of the well if he could. He felt ravenous, but even if he wolfed down all of the leftovers, even the corn growing out back, it wouldn’t be enough to sate his appetite.
I will kill her, he thought.
In the bedroom he recognized the floral pattern of Alisha’s house dress draped at the foot of the bed lying wrinkled on the disheveled bedspread. A chiffonier, her chest of drawers, rested awkwardly on the tilting floorboards as if it knew it did not belong.
In the bathroom he stood relieving himself when his mind began to clear. Hanging on the shower rod were her stockings, undergarments, and he touched them lightly as if to assure himself of their existence. Alisha’s personals were left like clues to the existence of a being ephemeral and impenetrable. He could detect the faint odor of her drugstore perfume, not only that but he could have sworn he detected the fragrance of her skin was still in the air like heavy incense settling over the congregation at St. Brendan’s like the presence of God–he flushed the toilet.
Scofield wanted to talk to his old man, but the way he used to be before the alcohol destroyed him, his firmness of conviction. The daily visits became weekly ones, and now he sometimes went to the asylum to see his daddy sitting quietly in what appeared to be a wooden high chair for adults. His daddy would look at the institutional chair and proclaim that he could make one better. The old man’s hands shook as they clutched the chair arms blue-veined and wrinkled papery skin a little lighter than the withered tobacco plants he had once farmed and dried in the barn after harvest. If it weren’t for the uniforms Scofield could not tell the attendants from the patients. Once he hoped his daddy would leave again, but the whiskey had done its worst, a familial elixir father and son could not escape.
Scofield felt abandoned. All the old folks were dying or already dead. Great Grandpa August only just passed the previous year. The constellations were falling from heaven. Events were pinwheeling out of control. Heaven’s ceiling pressed down upon his head until all he wanted was to lie down in a shallow grave amidst the creeper vines and green incandescent moss and listen to night sounds for the better part of eternity. When it was time, he would rise up for judgment.
Once the Scofields had owned all this land. It was too full of clay to yield good crops. The back forty had been sold off to a clay mining operation. Land well off to the north seemed of an entirely different makeup as if two worlds collided, it was used for coal mining. He remembered Grandpa Auggie telling him not to play out in the woods, beyond the east pasture, because there were tunnels. The old man liked to say the tunnels were from the Civil War, but the truth was less romantic and perhaps more destructive to the land. When he was a boy he would go to those forbidden woods and carefully watch as he placed one foot in front of the other, feeling for sinkholes but nothing ever came from it. The earth never swallowed him up but he could not help imagining the sensation although it was a familiar one, like falling in dreams when he would jerk awake, as if the earth had spun off its axis.
Phelps was moving on the porch. His boots scraped and bumped feebly against the wood. He moaned and cried like a coyote. Troy felt a sickening fear welled up from his stomach creating a knot like a green apple in his throat. He went out to the porch, but did not look directly at Phelps lying in the dark lacquer that had been his life and now was pooling on the porchboards.
“Shut up.” He looked at Phelps as he lay their breathing heavily and moaning. He had stepped in some of the blood and he made attempts at wiping his boots on the Persian rug in the living room. He picked up a floor lamp with conical shades of green, yellow, and maroon and hurled it through the window. An overstuffed chair was kicked over. He found kerosene oil for the heater on the screened-in mudroom and dumped it out over the threadbare rug, the sofa, coffee table, and battered television.
“Don’t do this, Troy,” Phelps slobbered with his good eye tightly shut.
“You killed your ownself,” Scofield said to worry him.
The hands on the clockface were turning rapidly. Time moved with passion, import. Raindrops were beginning to spit against the windows, but it would not be enough to save Phelps. There was no turning back from this thing that was an abomination to him, but inevitable as well. He willed his mind to rest so that he would not lose his resolve. He became aware that there was a second Troy in his body that had taken over the Pavement of his limbs. The first Troy had fallen silent like a child quaking in a corner and this other was now in possession of his arms and legs. It was him and it was not him at the same time.
The Army had taught him to act without questioning, now he drew on his remembrance of basic training: Mouths under hats shouting orders, reiterating contradictory orders, and then the running, crawling, and shooting. The release of mental anguish came from relinquishing worry and command of events to a higher power. His Mother granted her permission, allowing him to enlist when he was seventeen, his brothers and friends had all gone. Everyone said he was one of the lucky ones. He was back in the states by 1966 just as Vietnam was beginning to intensify and he had only just turned 21.
He remembered an instance from the wedding when Phelps and Alisha were dancing together. Alisha was laughing at something the old man said. It hadn’t sat right with him that Phelps danced with her right after his own father and now he knew Phelps had made a joke at his expense. The rage boiled up in his blood again at this imagined insult. After emptying the kerosene in the house he went to the front door and flipped open his Zippo, knelt down to the threshold and flicked the flint wheel with his thumb. The flame ran through the house like an obedient dog. There was a satisfaction building in his heart as he watched the fire consume the house. His feet shuffled as he backed away. He bumped against a tire suspended in the air by an old hemp rope. He crawled onto the tire and began to swing lazily like a pendulum as he watched the fire’s progress. The heat of the fire made him think of the kilns at Harbison-Walker where he worked making fire bricks most days. He leaned down and gathered up Phelps legs by his boots and drug him a far piece from the house.
Smoke billowed from a line just below the roof. Gingerly he climbed off the tire and walked around to a white barn. He turned loose a paint saddlebred horse with the most disturbing blue eyes he had ever seen on an animal before–those eyes were almost human and seemed to accuse him. An appaloosa mare darted out of her stall and out the barn door without a backward glance. The horses, about a dozen, ran as far from the burning house as they could get which was about sixty acres away beyond the rusted tractors from the past seventy years the Phelps and the Scofields had managed to collect, an old wagon with its tongue wedged in the earth, threshing machines, castoff haymowers, twin hulls of a Chalmier and a hupmobile, combine, and various outbuildings including three barns. The second oldest barn was peeling red paint with just a faint memory of a white circle with a star in the center to ward off evil and bad luck.
The old roan horse stayed in the corral of the white barn with his head hung over the top railing as if he were chosen for jury duty at the courthouse. Both of his large brown eyes were milky and covered with cataracts. The old horse neighed softly in his throat as if by way of questioning this strange event. Scofield picked a Granny apple off a tree and held it under the horse’s velvety muzzle, threw his arm over the equine neck as the flames licked the sideboards of the house, smoke belched from the windows: A sepia tableaux in the evening sun as the clouds began to break up.
The fire began to snap as the house boards groaned like gunshots in the night. The flexions of the fire blazed over the yard and despite the heat he felt cold inside and every so often he would lift his hands toward the house as if to warm them but the heat caused him to back away. Phelps lay where he left him under the big pin oak in the front yard. Phelps was still alive he knew. Occasionally he tried to turn over, his legs in the air like a smashed insect. There was a solemnity that made Scofield sob with disbelief at what he had done. As if he were watching Phelps and the fire and he tried to feature what kind of person would do such a thing, but he knew he had done it–and would do it again too. It was not regret exactly, no not that at all.
The fierce clouds rumbled and passed. The evening sky darkened into midnight blue as the stars lit the cowpaths along the pond as a serenade from whippoorwills began. Wailing sirens interrupted the sounds of twilight. A lone figure enveloped in red mud staggered through the horseweed as bramble vines and cockleburs seized his cuffed pantslegs. Over his shoulder he glanced back at the house engulfed in a roaring fireball. Now he could see the first fire engine approaching, the truck’s lights whirring against the scrub pines, its siren misplaced in the rolling hills and ducking hollows. Coyotes were yipping and lamenting this latest intrusion into their paradise.