Wyatt imagined the train’s sound before he heard it, the gathering roar like wind sweeping a mountain, like something elemental being born. Out his window, beyond the creek’s meandering fold, the approaching gleam began to collect itself over the most distant rise. White light splashed the low clouds, turned their undersides cottony and soft, condensed into a narrowing cone that sliced the dark and became a single round point as the oncoming train rounded the bend up from Dark Hollow. He heard the whistle’s blast, a faint hoot crescendoing as the train swept east along the embankment. The train’s impossible power sent a faint tremor through the bedframe, through the walls, through his bones. He closed his eyes as it thundered past on the ridge and in that instant before it entered the grove he allowed himself to imagine other noise—scream of air brakes, thunderous concussion, renting screech of steel wheels spinning free. But none of that again. Only the whistle’s warbling cry fading down the line.
Wyatt peered into his dusty yard. The brown cruiser was parked beside the apple tree, behind Wyatt’s rusting Chevy. “Deputy.”
“Had a call from the railroad,” Deputy Hammel said. “Something about an obstruction on the track last night. Right up there on the ridge behind your house.”
Deputy Hammel nodded. “Stacked branches, they said. Said it’s the third time in a month the same spot.”
“Ain’t that something.”
“You know anything about it?”
“You want to walk out there with me and take a look?”
“I’m trying to ask you nice, Wyatt.”
“You arresting me?”
Deputy Hammel sighed. “It ain’t got to be like this.”
Ain’t got to be like this. Like that was how the man talked. Like he’d lived here all his life, like he hadn’t grown up in the city and gone off to some fancy college and only five years ago moved out here to the country, like some damn missionary come to learn their ways. “Ain’t got to be like nothing at all.”
“Look. I know you’re not happy about them running those trains. Everybody and their cousin knows that. But there’s nothing else you can do to stop it, Wyatt. You tried and you lost, and now you got to let it go.” He paused as if he expected Wyatt to say something, then sighed. “If you’re messing with that rail line, you’re looking at some serious charges.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I’m trying to help you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, too.” Wyatt slammed shut the door.
He waited in the foyer until he heard a throaty engine roar to life, then slipped out onto the porch to watch the cruiser jounce down the rutted driveway and turn past the ragged line of cedars that screened his yard from Route 160, Blue Mountain Highway. Across it loomed the towering mass of Blue Mountain itself, like a pair of hunched shoulders. Glints of light dappled its forested slope, morning sun reflecting off the windows of the new chalets that zigzagged up two-thirds of its height. Wyatt shut the front door. His toast was already cold, but he ate it anyway.
It was almost four o’clock by the time he arrived at Dale’s. Wyatt pulled his sputtering pickup into the gravel parking lot, empty except for Dale’s green Jeep. The truck’s driver-side door hadn’t worked in years, ever since he’d sideswiped that telephone pole coming back home from Maude’s Bar, so Wyatt slid across the bench seat and plucked the toaster oven from the bed. Above the concrete steps hung Dale’s hand-painted sign: DALE’S EMPORIUM. An electric chime sounded as he pushed open the door. It smelled musty inside like always, like years of collected dust. The pine floorboards groaned beneath his boots.
“Dale?” he called.
Silence answered. The store was huge inside, a warehouse that had once upon a time served as the county co-op. This before everyone and their uncle had begun carving up their farms, selling them off by pieces or even outright to the armies of developers who’d been sprinkling every open spot of countryside with the townhome communities and country villages and manor estates that the invading ex-suburbanite army demanded. Here, by the entrance, was the furniture—dining sets, battered couches and ring-stained coffee tables, twin rows of old typing desks. An entire corner of rocking chairs. Cloth recliners that reeked of cigarette smoke, crockery cabinets and shelves lined with enough stacked dinner plates and bowls, coffee mugs and cups, wine glasses and tumblers to open a whole chain of restaurants. And knick-knacks, of course, perched in or on every available space: entire zoos of porcelain animals, bronzed baby shoes, candle holders and chipped flower vases and picture frames of all sorts and sizes. Rusted farm tools scavenged from bulldozed fields. Paintings, beer ads, road signs pierced with bullet holes. Decades worth of county flotsam washed up on this shore.
He called again, louder. “Dale?”
“Wyatt? That you?” Dale limped into view at the far end of a long row of chifforobes and dressers, a red flyswatter clutched in his hand. “Hey, buddy, how you been?” He swung the flyswatter in a vicious arc above his head, then scowled at the mesh.
Wyatt held up the toaster oven. “Brought this for you.”
“Bring it on back and let’s take a look.”
The sales counter was a long glass display case stuffed to the gills with wristwatches, pocket knives, jewelry. Dale limped around the counter and draped his forearms over the register. Wyatt set down the toaster oven.
“So, how you been?” Dale asked as he picked up the toaster.
“Busy.” Wyatt could tell already that Dale was going to short him. “You know how it is.”
“Ella Kline was up yesterday. Said to pass on her regards.”
“How’s Mr. Kline doing?”
Ella’s husband had taught world history at Able County High; back in the day both Wyatt and Dale, like everybody else, had thought he was an asshole. But then as men they’d gotten to know him at the bowling alley and at Maude’s and he’d turned out to be not as bad as they remembered. He’d been ailing now for quite some time.
Dale shook his head. “Moved him into that new retirement home outside town. Sunrise Village or whatever. Old Timer’s, sounds like.”
“Hell. Think I’d rather die than go through that.”
“Amen, brother.” Dale hit a button on the register and the drawer clanged open. “I can give you five for it.”
“Five? Come on, it’s worth ten.”
Dale shook his head. “I’ll go six. Ain’t worth a penny more.”
“You’ll sell it for twenty and you know it.”
The electric chime sounded from the front of the store. A woman’s voice called out: “Hello?” Then, more hushed but urgent: “Janey! Emily! Stop running! You’ll break something!” Louder: “Is anyone here?”
“Back here, ma’am,” Dale called. “Welcome to the Emporium!” He pulled a crumpled pair of bills from the drawer and held them across the counter.
“Ain’t nothing but a thief,” Wyatt said, but he snatched the money and crammed it into his pocket. He passed the woman on his way out, a petite thing, her strawberry hair in a ponytail and her cheeks so full and round it was like they’d been molded from plastic. She ushered two wide-eyed girls before her, miniaturized copies of herself. All three gazed at Wyatt suspiciously as he squeezed past them in the narrow aisle. In the parking lot, Wyatt saw their car, one of those new crossovers made for people who couldn’t decide if they wanted a truck or sedan. Silver and spotless and gleaming in the sun. Wyatt slid across his truck’s seat and gunned the engine. He backed up, then yanked the truck around in a tight circle so that the back tires spun up a cloud of gravel and dust. So much for spotless, anyway.
“No,” Wyatt said. “Ring that up separate.”
Luanne nodded and set the beer aside. When she was finished, Wyatt handed her his assistance card. She swiped it without a word, then rang up the beer. Wyatt dug the six dollars out of his pocket and Luanne handed him back some loose change.
He was halfway through town already and so decided to take the interstate home. From Food Lion he drove through Old Town, up Main Street where half the stores now had orange CLOSED signs taped to their windows. Henrietta’s Pancake House, Smith’s Hardware, Nachman’s Shoes, a half-dozen others within a five-block stretch. Every one of them a casualty of the new strip malls and outlet stores springing up like weeds on the north side, out where the tourists and travelers could see them from the highway. The town was like an old, sick tree too dumb to know it was dying, adding more rings each year even as its core grew rotten and weak. Wyatt crept along with traffic, cursing the stoplights. The interstate’s on-ramp was just past the new Wal-Mart. He merged eastbound, drove ten minutes to the 160 exit and another five minutes beyond that as the road curled around Blue Mountain. Home, he unpacked his groceries. He set the soap on the table and then popped a can of Michelob.
He dumped the raw meat into a skillet and set a half pot of water to boil, poured the green beans into one pot and the sauce into another and set them both to warm. He finished his second beer while everything cooked and popped a third when dinner was ready. He ate on the front porch, his plate perched on his knees as the sun slipped low enough behind Blue Mountain to backlight the evergreens that bristled its highest ridge.
He was on his fifth beer by the time he set his empty plate on the railing. The sky had gone deep navy, an uninterrupted canvas save the moon’s bright crescent and the glittering point of Venus at its tip. Wyatt watched the highway, floating pairs of brake lights and headlights passing one another through the trees.
As the first glimmering stars began to appear, his eyes traveled the slope of Blue Mountain, a dark wall now in the gathering night punctured here and there by houselights. How many homes on its slope now? A couple dozen at least, a gated mountain suburb of pre-fab chalets featuring glorious views of the sunrise. Nobody who lived there had grown up in the mountain’s shadow; nobody’s father had taken him hunting there for deer and black bear and turkey. Nobody had camped high on the mountain’s west slope and watched the lowering sun set the landscape afire, those endless huddled mountains that rolled on and on in their parallel lines like so many rumples in a vast sheet of cloth.
He was drunk but didn’t care. He finished his beer and flung the empty can into the yard, listened to it clatter over stone. He thought about Deputy Hammel. If you’re messing with that rail line, you’re looking at some serious charges. Well, they’d see about that. Wyatt popped the last can and stood up too fast. He swayed for a moment before he found his balance, then descended the porch steps and rounded the house. He walked briskly down the hill toward the creek where he crossed the makeshift bridge, a pair of two-by-fours with plywood nailed atop them, then plodded up the long slope beyond it.
He was breathing hard by the time he reached the top of the wide embankment. He stood on the track and closed his eyes as the night’s breeze traced his skin. When he looked back at his house, the square yellow light of his kitchen window seemed something small and unimportant, a square hole floating in space. He walked toward the grove, his feet crunching downed branches, and set about gathering up what he could. He didn’t stop stacking until the barrier was as high as his knee. He drained the rest of his beer and set the can atop the pile. Back in the house he dreamt of crashing steel and fire.
“Coming!” he bellowed. He flushed the toilet, grabbed his robe from the hook. At the front door, he paused to tie shut the waist and parted the side window’s gauzy curtain with the back of his hand. There were two cruisers parked behind his truck.
“Shit,” he muttered.
Deputy Hammel was on the porch. Beside him stood a thick-chested black deputy with a moustache and name tag that read JENKINS. His right hand rested on the butt of his revolver. “Morning, Wyatt,” Deputy Hammel said. “Afraid you’ll have to come with us.”
Wyatt’s dinner plate from last night, still perched atop the railing, was crawling now with flies.
“The hell for?”
“Tampering with a railroad,” Deputy Hammel said. “They put a camera up there, Wyatt. On the embankment. Got you on film.”
“Like hell they did.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” Deputy Hammel said. “Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney…”
“How the hell am I supposed to afford an attorney?”
Deputy Jenkins produced a pair of handcuffs. “Sir, you need to turn around and place your hands behind your back.”
Deputy Hammel continued. “If you cannot afford an attorney, one shall be appointed to represent you free of charge. Do you understand these rights?”
Wyatt felt the steel click into place on his wrists. “Can I get dressed, at least? Or you boys want to take me in naked?”
“Do you understand your rights?” Deputy Hammel asked.
“I understand, dammit. I ain’t stupid. Now can I get dressed?”
“Tell me what you want and where to find it,” Deputy Hammel said. “I’ll bring it down for you.”
“You ain’t going in. Just take me like this.”
Deputy Hammel sighed. “It don’t got to be like this, Wyatt.”
Wyatt glared at him. He tasted bile at the back of his throat and what he wanted to do was spit in Deputy Hammel’s face. But he knew how that would end and so he turned his head aside and spat over the porch rail instead.
“Yeah,” he said. “It got to.”
“I’m here at county,” he told the recording. “They got me in front of the judge this afternoon. I need you to come get me out. I’ll pay you back, I swear.”
At the arraignment, the judge set his bail at $500 and wouldn’t hear a single word otherwise.
In his cell, Wyatt lay on the uncomfortable cot and watched as the lone high window grew dark. After a while, he understood that Dale wasn’t coming today. The Friday night drunks began to arrive. First was a bleary-eyed kid with tattoos encircling his arms, then a wiry old man with wrists as thin as sticks who’d no sooner stepped into the cell than he lay down on his cot and curled into a ball. They put the third man, a stout, barrel-chested biker type with his graying hair tied back into a ponytail, in an adjoining cell. After about ten minutes of standing in the middle of the floor, swaying precariously, he tilted back his head and shouted: “A drink for the commodore!” Then again: A drink for the commodore! On and on, shouting at no one at all: A drink for the commodore! A drink for the commodore! A drink for the commodore!
“Shut up!” the tattooed kid yelled.
But the man kept shouting, on and on, uselessly, even as the buzzing overhead fluorescents went dark.
“Shut up! Shut up!” the kid yelled.
“A drink for the commodore!” the man yelled once more, defiantly, and then he fell silent.
Wyatt suspected he’d finally passed out.
The guards brought breakfast in the morning—a half pint of orange juice, powdered eggs, and toast arranged on a blue tray. Dale showed up an hour later.
“Thanks for getting me out,” Wyatt said when they were outside in the Jeep.
Dale shook his head as he started the engine. “The hell were you thinking? That cost me $50 up front and now I’m on the hook for the rest.”
“I know. I’ll pay you back.”
“With what? You ain’t got $50.”
“I got plenty of stuff to fix up. Barn full of stuff.”
“I don’t need any more of your junk.” Dale swerved away from the curb. “Hell, most of what you brought me these past few months is still sitting on the shelves.”
“Ain’t true,” Wyatt said.
Dale stayed quiet as he steered through thickening traffic toward the interstate. Saturday morning, big for tourists. As they passed the Wal-Mart, Wyatt said, “You got to tell me something.”
“Is all this mess still about Laura?”
The question was like a gut punch. Wyatt listened to the thrummy buzz of the Jeep’s tires accelerating up the on-ramp.
“Hell of a thing to ask.”
“Well, is it or ain’t it?”
“Come on. All you done this past year is sell me trash. You ain’t taking care of yourself at all, any fool can see that. Hell, you look like you ain’t showered in a week.”
“I showered yesterday. I spent the night in jail, remember?”
“I’ll tell you what, Wyatt. You’re turning into one of them crazy hillbillies we used to make fun of back when we was kids. And now you’re messing with the trains?”
“Ain’t right.” Wyatt folded his hands into his lap to keep them from curling into fists. “Ain’t right them running those passenger trains on my land.”
Dale smacked the steering wheel with his palm. “It ain’t your land, dammit! Rail company’s had that right-of-way since before our daddies were in school.”
“Freight line had it.”
“And they sold the rights to the passenger line. Wyatt, you got to let this go. You been fighting this fight for nearly two years and what the hell you got to show for it? When’s the last time you worked at something besides fixing trash?”
“God dammit, you got to have money to be retired.”
“I got money. I got the house.”
“The house don’t put food on the table. The house don’t pay for gas.” Dale sighed. “It’s been almost a year since she died, Wyatt. You got to move on from this.”
“I told you it wasn’t about her.”
But of course she’d been the one to start this whole mess, her petitions, her meetings. Wyatt could still hear her voice, could still picture her slapping the newspaper onto the kitchen table in disgust. Three trains each morning, two more at night? That’s five trains a day on top of the freight. It’s not right, Wyatt. We need to do something. It was a blessing she’d died before the ruling. A blessing.
They rode in silence until the green exit sign appeared. “How long’s it been since you went to see her?” Dale asked as he merged onto the ramp.
Wyatt bit his lip as he stared out the window. There was Blue Mountain in the distance, its rounded peaks like twin islands in a rolling sea of trees.
“You want me to take you?” Dale asked. “Cemetery’s right down the road. I don’t got nothing today beside the flea market.”
Wyatt pressed his forehead against the window’s cool glass. “Just take me home.”
He tore open the soap, stacking each naked bar in the center of the table as he dropped its useless box onto a growing pile at his feet. Ten in all. He tore off a square of plastic wrap and laid it carefully on the table in front of him, smoothing it flat with his hands. He picked up the closest bar of soap and studied it. Pure white, a springy smell. The word IVORY was carved onto its surface, underscored by two curling lines, and he frowned at this annoyance. The store brand he usually bought had been out of stock; he should have been more careful in selecting a replacement. He retrieved his paring knife from the cabinet drawer and set about carefully slicing away the lettering. Curls of soap sprinkled to the table. When the letters were gone, Wyatt wet his fingers in the sink and wiped at the bar until its surface was smooth. He set it aside to dry and went to work on the others. Finished, he wrapped each bar in plastic, then dropped them into a grocery bag and carried them outside to his truck.
It was almost 3:00 by the time he reached the flea market, barely an hour before it closed. Wyatt pulled into the parking lot beside the parade ground and parked his truck as close as he could to the tables. About half were occupied by the regular crew—farmers selling fruits and vegetables, store owners like Dale, locals and pretend locals who’d decided to move their yard sales into town. Artists, too, a scattering of them showing off their blotchy watercolors or wood carvings or crappy “Indian inspired” bead work. As if there were any damn Indians left in the county.
He saw Dale’s Jeep parked one row over, but he did not see the white Caddy that belonged to fat old Joe Thorn, who owned the grounds and charged a daily fee of $40 per table to sell there. Highway robbery, nothing less. Wyatt exited the truck and retrieved the bag of soap from the bed. He dropped the tailgate and slid out the square of plywood he’d painted a month ago when the idea had first struck him. Wyatt’s Soap, Local Made, $5/Bar. Black letters on a green background, real nice. He propped the sign against the truck’s bumper and arranged the bars across the tailgate, then leaned against the bumper’s corner to wait.
He sold three within the first half hour, two of them to an elderly couple, the other to a youngish, pony-tailed woman dressed like she was on her way to the gym. She had been carrying a paper bag filled with “fresh vegetables” that the vendors had probably bought that morning at the Food Lion, and at first she’d been concerned that she didn’t have enough money. Wyatt watched as she dug through her purse to produce three crumpled bills and a handful of loose change.
“Four-twenty-five is all that I have,” she said apologetically. “Would you give me seventy-five cents off?”
“Deal,” Wyatt said. “Just make sure to buy two from me next time.” As if he would ever see her again.
The man with the blue fanny pack showed up ten minutes later. The vendors had already begun to break down their tables; while the flea market didn’t actually close until 4:00, nobody ever stayed until the end. The man was short, pudgy, balding. He wore glasses with no frames. He carried a plastic bag stretched around a carton of eggs. He stopped to peer at Wyatt’s sign, then touched his hand to his chin. Wyatt loathed him immediately.
“How long you been at it?” the man asked.
The man swung his eggs toward the tailgate. “Making soap.”
“Oh. Been a hobby for a while now. Few, maybe ten years.”
The man set his bag down on the tailgate and picked up one of the bars. “You live ‘round these parts?”
Live ‘round these parts. The balding faggot probably thought he sounded local. What was it about these city folk that made them imagine they could talk country after forty-five minutes on the interstate?
“Whole life,” Wyatt said.
“Been coming out for the mountains and orchards since I was a little kid,” the man said. “Try to get out here as much as I can nowadays. Can’t do it as much as I’d like, though.” He barked a quick laugh. “Life gets in the way, you know?”
“Guess it does.”
“It’s the most beautiful country in the world, though. The land, the scenery, the people. I’ve always thought that.”
“Guess it is.”
“That all probably sounds pretty silly to you.”
“Sounds like it’s true.” Wyatt was growing impatient. “So you want that bar? Give you a dollar off since you come out here so regular.”
The man did not reply. He squinted at the bar of soap, holding it close to his face, turning it in the light. “Why’s it all flat on top like this?”
Wyatt shrugged, tried to look casual. “Just how I make it.”
“Looks like there was something written on it. Right here, where the plastic’s all rumpled.”
Wyatt snatched away the bar of soap and tossed it into the truck’s bed. “No, it don’t.”
The man grabbed another bar from the tailgate before Wyatt could stop him. “Right there!” he cried. He danced backward out of Wyatt’s reach and stabbed at the bar with his finger. “That right there’s the top of an I! This is Ivory soap! Say it isn’t.”
“Look mister, what kind of scam are you trying to pull?”
The sudden blare of a car horn interrupted. Wyatt spun around and saw Joe Thorn’s white Caddy cruising by, Joe Thorn himself leaning across the seat to glare daggers out the passenger window.
“God dammit.” Wyatt lunged for the soap, but the man danced away. “Give it here if you ain’t buying it.”
“I think you’re perpetrating a fraud here, sir. I think I ought to call the po-”
The side of the man’s face was surprisingly hard. Wyatt felt a shock of pain flare in his knuckles and up his wrist. The man yelped like a girl and collapsed in a blubbery heap, his knees drawn up to his chest and his hands over his face. Wyatt flung his sign into the truck’s bed, then slammed shut the tailgate. It took three tries for the engine to catch, and by that time Joe Thorn had pulled in behind him and was stepping out of the Caddy. Wyatt threw the truck into drive and floored it. He slammed over the barrier and across the spit of sidewalk and grass. A chorus of horns sounded as he swerved over the curb and onto the street. He saw Joe Thorn in his mirror, bellowing something and shaking his fist, and he held his middle finger out the window.
Lou McCabe’s Chevron was closest, out on old Calvary Road, just two pumps perched on a single island of chipped concrete and peeling paint. Wyatt pulled up beside them and cut the engine. He dug into his pocket and fingered the bills and loose change. Fourteen dollars and twenty-five cents. He crossed the parking lot and a bell chimed as he pushed open the door.
“Well, God damn!”
Lou McCabe looked up from where he sat hunched over the counter between two cigarette stands. He had been working a crossword and dropped the pencil onto the folded paper as he pushed his thick glasses higher up his nose. He wore his gray hair tied back in a braid that made him look a little like Willie Nelson.
“Wyatt, that you? God damn, I ain’t seen you in…hell, how long’s it been?”
“Couple years, maybe,” Wyatt said.
“What you doing all the way down here?”
“Just driving. You know.”
Lou nodded as if he did. His expression grew somber. “Hey, look buddy,” he said, and Wyatt knew exactly what was coming next, felt that familiar squeeze in his chest. “I just got to tell you, I’m sorry as hell about Laura. I heard it was a real fine funeral. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.”
“Appreciate it,” Wyatt said.
“How you doing? OK?”
Wyatt nodded. He had to search a moment for something to say. “Been thinking about moving.”
“Moving? To where?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Somewhere else, I guess.”
“Wow.” Lou shook his head as he considered this news. “Guess I can understand a man wanting a change of scenery.”
“Ain’t just that,” Wyatt said. There was a glass refrigerator at the back of the store and he saw with satisfaction that there was a six-pack of Michelob inside it. “Everything’s changing, you know? You even seen Blue Mountain lately?”
“Bah.” Lou waved away the notion. “That’s the north county. You ought to move down here, that’s what you ought to do. Hey, you still tight with Dale Prescott?”
“Sure. Just saw him this morning.”
“Tell him I said hello. And tell him he still owes me ten bucks off our last card game.”
“I’ll tell him.” Wyatt motioned with his chin toward the refrigerator. “So how much for the Michelob? I need some gas, too, but I’m a little strapped right now.”
“How much you got?”
“Well, why don’t you take that in gas and owe me for the beer.”
“That’s mighty kind of you.”
Lou waved away that notion, too. “Don’t think nothing of it. Hey, we ought to go fishing sometime. Browntown Lake, something.”
“Yeah.” Wyatt walked to the refrigerator and pulled out the six-pack. “Yeah, let’s do that for sure.” He pulled the two fives from his pocket and slid them onto the counter. “Was really good seeing you, Lou.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” Lou said, and Wyatt went out.
Part of him wanted to drive through town, cruise the parade ground, but he thought that was probably a bad idea. The flea market would be long shut by now, of course, but who could know what might be waiting for him there. Between Joe Thorn and the man Wyatt had punched in the face, it seemed likely that every deputy in the county was out looking for him.
So he turned onto 160 instead, skirted the south edge of town, drove past Dale’s Emporium, which was closed. But parked out front, alone in the lot, was Dale’s Jeep. Wyatt pulled his truck to the shoulder and sat there for a time as traffic breezed past. He imagined what Dale would say if he went inside. Is all this mess about Laura? He shifted the truck into gear and pulled onto the road.
The sun was behind Blue Mountain by the time Wyatt pulled into his driveway, the zig-zag line of houses ascending it no more than distant lit windows and porch lights floating in the trees. He parked beside the apple tree and slid across the seat, grabbed the six-pack from the floorboard. There was no food inside the house and so he dropped himself into one of the plastic chairs on the porch and popped the first can. He felt tired and sore; his knuckles and wrist ached. By the time he’d finished the second beer, the stars had come out and the cars on 160 were a line of brake lights and headlights strobing through the trees. He popped the third can and propped his feet on the railing.
Deputy Hammel would come first thing in the morning, of that much he was sure. Hell, he’d probably swung by the house once or twice already. He understood that the inevitability of it all should have felt like some great weight on his shoulders, a gnawing hole in his gut, but it didn’t. Not at all. He popped the fourth beer, then plucked the last two by their mesh. He rounded the house and descended the slope to the bridge, then puffed his way up to the embankment.
He had emptied the can by the time he reached the railroad and he hurled it into the dark, then popped the fifth can and squatted on the rail to drink. Far to the north, across the fields and bright line of the interstate, he could see the new developments that had gone up there, acres upon acres of houses swimming in gauzy light. Fields that had once been full of corn, grazing cattle, soybean, now cul-de-sacs.
You can’t be so angry all the time. Laura had said that, near the end, her body wasted and thin, utterly consumed by the cancer that had swept over her like wildfire. She had started one fight but then lost to another that had taken them both by surprise. Now she was gone, vanished from this vanishing place except for a single cold headstone in a lonely high plot. And what more was there to say than that.
Wyatt chugged the rest of the beer and dropped the empty can at his feet. He popped the last one, and as he slurped the foam he thought about what Deputy Hammel had said that morning. They got you on film. A pile of bullshit, probably, but he peered over his shoulder anyway to see if he might spy some tell-tale pinpoint of light. But, nothing. Only the stars and the cars and the houses, all so far away. He thrust his middle finger at the moonless sky, then pushed up with a grunt and staggered to the grove.
It wasn’t far to the scatter of branches he’d stacked last night. They were strewn on either side of the railroad, splintered and smashed like so much kindling. The wood crunched underfoot. He kicked at the wreckage for a time, spreading it even further, then found amidst the ruin a single unbroken branch, almost as tall as he was and thick around as his arm. He squatted over it for a time, sipping at his beer as he ran his hand over the coarse wood. Then he set the can by his feet and curled the branch to his chest. It was heavier than he’d thought it would be. He stumbled with it toward the railroad, then dropped it across the tracks.
Tomorrow was Sunday. There would be no commuter line, nothing but the late afternoon freight. But what did that matter, in the end? He returned to his can, almost knocked it over on his first try to pick it up, then stood there swaying in the dark. The crescent moon appeared from behind a wisp of cloud and at the sudden sight of it, Wyatt laughed and raised his can to the sky. “A drink for the commodore!” he cried, and he threw back what remained.