In the back room, Jess arranges nails by length. Counts and recounts metal after metal prong, keeps an inventory. Never uses them.
“Save the long ones for my coffin,” I say.
He shoots his pale brown eyes at me.
I slam the jars I’m holding onto the counter. The cucumbers I’ve been pickling turned purple. I’m tired of the inadequacy of the recommended organic products, the ambiguity of natural ingredients.
Jess appears at the pantry door. His fists clenched, cheeks red. He stomps his left foot. I raise my eyebrows. He storms out the door to the middle of the yard, drops to his knees and pounds the ground. He’s pounding too hard. I run to his side and grab his arms. He bruises easily. His hands turn blue from the blows. He closes his eyes.
“Let’s walk,” I say.
I yank him to his feet and we walk, through the corn, to the side of the unpaved road horses pull carriages on. We spot a man with a beard, blue trousers, shirt and black, wide-rimmed hat. He’s standing in a field across the road, gazing at the sky. Jess points to him. I tell him it’s not polite to point. He glares at me and I apologize. We communicate the only way we know how.
The man turns his head and sees us. Jess takes a step back. The man smiles, walks to the edge of the road and we look at each other. He glances behind him, then back at us and waves. Jess hides behind me, grips my hips with his blue hands. I wave back. The man grabs his hat and runs into the field, keeps running until we can’t see him anymore. Jess teeters on the side of the road. Strains his eyes. He looks up at me.
“He had to go,” I say.
Jess takes my hand and we walk home.
In the back room the nails are scattered across the floor. Jess’s logbook of numbers is torn and scrunched into a ball. He peers over my shoulder and rings his hands. I gather the mess and place the nails in a red tool box I bought for other things. He doesn’t attest to the mixing of the nails. He’s washed his hands of them.
I dig through the cupboards, find crayons and an old sketch book that I used to write recipes in. I could never draw. I hand them to Jess. He drops to his knees on the kitchen floor. I wash the dishes. The sun sets over the pond I had drained to save his life. My stomach grumbles. I want to eat out, steak, baked potato, sour cream.
The school bus stops at the end of our driveway. The red lights bounce off the windows. Jess bats his eyes to the rhythm. He loves the colour red. told him if he behaves himself, I’ll get him a fire truck. He doesn’t like fire. I look back at the pond, the sky. The sun’s setting too soon. School kids lumber down the road and into their homes.
“Jess, I want to move to the city.”
He pounds his fist on the linoleum. I shove my foot under it. He lunges to his feet and opens his mouth like a lion. It’s perfectly round, a toothy full moon. Wide but silent. I lead him to the couch, turn on the TV. Through the window I watch a man get out of a small silver car and cut branches from a fir tree. His lips are moving. Jess’s eyes close. I turn up the volume on the TV, the buzz puts him to sleep. His head drops to his chest. He sputters as he snores.
The evening air is cool. I button my cardigan, shove my hands into my pant pockets, tuck my hair behind my ears. The man’s suit is neatly pressed, car gleaming. His hair is a little longer in the back, around the ears, wavy. It looks like chocolate.
“Are they for a girl?” I ask.
He jumps and turns around, drops the trimmings onto the gravel shoulder of our newly paved road.
“You scared me.’
“No.I don’t know.”
I kneel down and pick up the branches, I can see my reflection in his shoes. My eyes are sparkling and my lips are fuller than I thought. He’s tall. I reach up to him and hand him his cuttings. It’s not my tree so I don’t care what he’s done. It’s the earth’s tree, let’s see how it handles him. There’s a suitcase on the backseat of the car.
“If you add red branches to the fir, it looks pretty. I can get you some, come out back with me.”
“This is good.”
“Just give me a minute, I’ll get you some.”
When I run up the driveway, I hear his car pull away. There’s no point in watching him go. Jess is not on the couch. The TV’s turned upside down. A stream of smoke drifts out its back. I unplug it and put my back to the wall. I listen for footsteps, heavy breathing. In the mirror I notice the back door flapping in the wind. I race to the door. The clouds are brewing over my head, conspiring, telling secrets, spreading rumours.
“It’s not true,” I scream.
There’s no sign of Jess, nothing, no moans or sobs loping out of the tree house he built twenty years ago for a son that never happened. He was so industrious then, but doesn’t hide in his handy work. I run through the corn fields. I don’t like it when things tower over me. Jess is small and I prefer small men. I can’t tell if it’s my breath or the corn’s heaving in my ears. The husks are proud of themselves. I’m not oblivious to their remarks. I hear their whispers but can’t make out what they’re saying through the thunder of my steel-toed boots on the hard ground. When I find him — that’s it. The corn and the clouds are eyeing me in the way women eye each other.
I can hear snorting, the clip clop against asphalt.
The wide-rimmed hat that sat on the nice man’s head lay upon the road. He is nowhere in sight. The tail-end of a horse disappears over the hill. In my bare feet I run across the road after it. My gut’s screaming, telling me there’s a problem, a big problem and the horse and the hatless man are not happy. When I reach the top of the hill there is nothing but dust in front of me. That man should never have waved to me across the road, he should have kept his eyes averted. Jess does not react well to another male’s presence. I think of the man in the silver car, and the over turned television. The sun stretches across the opaque sky. In the clouds I can see the backs of angels.
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