“(Be) of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.”
Martha knew she’d outdone herself. Felt it in the other women’s too wide smiles. Heard it in their insincere congratulations.
They’d be talking about this for the next few months.
“And why shouldn’t they?” she told herself. “A body works hard, and sometimes, it deserves to be recognized.”
She fingered the fabric of the blue ribbon. Martha loved the smoothness of it. She didn’t know how regal should feel, but this feeling seemed pretty close. First prize. Largest pumpkin on record.
Martha almost wished her doubting, late husband could see her now. But then again, he’d done his part already.
He’d just finished washing his plate and setting in the rack to dry, when he heard a car coming down his rutted drive. The clock said it was ten to seven. The sun had already dipped past the pointed tops of the thick row of jack pines between his place and the neighbour’s, entombing him in shadows.
The car kept moved slow down the winding path. Headlights swept out, and then stopped, pointing directly at the house. He’d moved to the screened-in porch by now, watching the car come, pushing his past and everything he’d run from, ahead of it.
It was one of those nights where the world would always be soaked through. You’d change out of your wet clothes, towel off and you’d still feel damp inside. A stiff drink might push the feeling back, but only just long enough for your to walk across the room and fix another.
Nights like this are endless. They just go on forever. You imagine growing old, clothes wet, bones sodden, moss growing in your joints. Sometimes it feels like the sun will never rise again.
Darkness. Wet, heavy, inescapable darkness, something like living in the bottom of a deep well.
While his wife was bathing the kids and getting them to bed, Elk stepped out on the back porch. “I’ll call the dog in,” he’d said, after scraping the plates into its bowl and stacking them next to the sink.
Outside, the sun set behind him, the porch already dark. He gave a loud whistle, and lit a cigarette. The shadow of the house marched out across the field, looking something like a sharpened blade. Sudden movement to the right of the tip, moving fast and low. That damn dog, trying to outrun the darkness.
“Aren’t we all,” he thought.
“What’s the big idea threatening me like that?”
“It was a joke. Settle down.”
“Some joke. You see anyone laughing? I don’t. Not even a smile.”
“Fine. How about you drop it.”
The two men stared at their glasses, the rings on condensation on the bar. The bottles against the back wall. The baseball game on the television up in the corner.
“You should watch it.”
“Your mouth. You keep talking that way, it’ll get you into trouble.”
“Thanks for the advice. I mean it. I’ll take it to heart.”
The bartender dried a glass.
Her husband’s dinner, vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, sat on the kitchen table. She picked and nibbled throughout the day, and was never very hungry when he arrived from work.
Here it was half-past five and there was still no sign of him.
Worrying and wondering would get her nowhere, so she set on cleaning the kitchen. When a car drove by, she would look up, hoping it was her husband, and uncertain whether she would be angry or just relieved. She tore the sandwich in half and fed it to the dog.
The soup grew cold.
Dzinski was almost halfway across the bridge, driving slow, with an almost empty bottle held between his knees, listening to a man croon about lost love on the radio. Bright lights, squealing brakes. Then the impact. He fell against the steering wheel.
He woke up. Taste of blood. Sharp pain in his chest. Everything was bright. Unnatural. He slid out, wincing, and moved on shaking legs back towards the other car, shielding his eyes with one hand, as the other rolled comfortably into a fist.
It was empty. He turned away, stunned just as something big hit the river below.
What he liked to do, most of all, really, was pull on a thick pair of socks, and climb into the heavy sweater given to him by his grandfather and sit out on the back porch in the autumn morning, and read. Between chapters he smoked and thought about the words, rolling them on his tongue, letting them escape through his fingers as he moved them against the imaginary keys. In perfect moments of complete silence, rare as they were, he liked to imagine someday, he’d be on the other end, his words inspiring these soulful moments in a stranger.
“You see that sign?” the gnome asked, head tilted at the runic writing on the wall. “It says by appointment only.”
He look up at the two, dumbfounded boys and then pushed his way between them to stare at his garden. He walked up the row and hollered over his shoulder. “I’m surprised you big galoots didn’t trample the plants.”
Shoving past them once again, he sat in the doorway. The gnome dug a match from his pocket, and worked it in his ear.
“Well, you’re here,” he said. “You must want something.”
“We found something of yours,” Owl said.