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It was strange to approach the house and not see him, leaning all of his weight against the back of the wooden chair, shirtless with a tall can of Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette hanging loosely from his fingers in the other. It was a Tuesday morning. The church bells of our small town had woken me and I had pulled myself from the bed to take a walk through the late summer heat. By the time I reached his house I was sweating through my tee shirt. I took the warped wooden stairs up to his porch in quick steps. They creaked under my weight. The plywood bent up from the foundations, pulling up on the rusted nails. The whole house creaked really. It was an old shack with a tin roof and only two rooms, but it was charming with its blown glass windowpanes and copper doorknobs. I pressed the outer edges of my hands against the window and peered in but saw no movement; only ashtrays full of cigarettes and dinner plates in the sink. Moving to the front door I turned the handle and found that it was open; I pushed it and stepped in. The familiar smell of damp shag carpet and stagnant cigarette smoke came and I passed through it.
There was no response. I walked forward through the living room letting my palm graze the top of the plush navy chair. The door dividing the two rooms was open. I have never seen it left this way, exposing what I had come to think of as the personal part of the home. It was the bedroom. Red curtains hung over one window, the edges of the fabric browning and frayed. The sheets were pulled from the edges of the mattress and heaped in the middle of the bed. The dresser drawers were deep and bare except for empty packs of cigarettes and a few laminated prayer cards; Saint Anthony of Padua, Nicholas, and Francis of Assisi. The closet door was open and all of the clothes pulled from their wire hangers. I took the prayer cards from the dresser and pushed them into the back pocket of my denim shorts. I walked back to the kitchen and washed the dishes. When I finished, I dried my hands on a crusted tea towel. I folded a blanket and draped it over the recliner before going back out into the heat leaving the door open a crack.
I had met Jack on accident a few months before. I was renting a house on a large piece of property; a short-term rental, just for the summer. I had chosen the house for its isolation. I though it might prompt me to finish my doctorate as I had been in a bit of a rut. On my third night in the house and after three glasses of vodka over ice I had decided to take a walk across the field adjacent the house. I poured a tall glass before I walked out.
Once I reached the edge of the field I decided to go further. I climbed through the barbed wire, bending my body to avoid the thorns. The woods and thicket were tangled in a mess and forced me to walk in winding paths. I sipped on the vodka while I walked and it felt like it was moving through my bones and cooling me from the inside out. I felt nice, not drunk but a little light headed. My body felt light and my clothes loose. The sun was beginning to set. I wasn’t worried. I liked walking at night.
I listened to the tree frogs croak and the cicadas sing in their strange and elongated hums. The harmony of their songs filled my head with a buzz and lulled me into a slow walk, my feet moving one in front of the next without being told to do so.
I looked straight ahead as I walked. I walked until I saw a light. It flickered and danced just beyond the trees. It was the light from a fire, glowing in those shades of orange, gold, purple, and blue. I turned my step toward the firelight and found a clearing, four houses on one side, and another four facing those. All exactly the same, tin roofed, two room cabins with a little front porch. The fire burned in the middle of them all. It illuminated a small plot of summer crops and a man sitting with his legs crossed, smoke pouring out of his nostrils and mouth, beer cans rested beside him. I approached. The people in this town were friendly. He must have heard me before he saw me because he looked around him, not nervously but curiously. It took him a moment to find me but when he did his eyes stopped and his mouth opened into a smile missing many teeth. I just stood still and waited for him to speak.
He made his way over to me and held out his hand. His fingernails were black with dirt.
‘Who are you?’
‘Tabitha, Tab for short. I moved in at the Logan property for the summer. I’m doing research at the college a town over.’
‘Oh yeah, some one said they saw a car out there. I’m Jack.’
He invited me to have a beer with him. I did. I had a few. I rolled thin cigarettes with moist tobacco and handed them to him as he cracked open cans. He drank with large gulps while I sipped. Louisiana by way of California by way of New York he told me. He’d been here for eight years now living with his girlfriend. She was in their house watching television and he pointed to the second house in the north-facing row.
‘I don’t like watching television much, especially in the heat of the summer. I like the heat. Most people don’t but I like it. Sweating is good for you. Sweating keeps you healthy.’
‘My father used to tell me that.’
I didn’t have to tell him much about myself. He was able to fill the conversation all on his own as though I was just another reason for him to tell a story. Stories were what they were, a small fact hidden in an immense fiction. We sat up late that night. He told me about what he saw in the stars and I explained the constellations to him.
‘How do you know all of that about the sky?’
‘My mother taught me.’
I came back often after that night. I always took the same meandering path through the woods.
The more he told me the more I knew he was a liar. It made me like him more. His inventions brought me back to listen and to watch him weave them. His hands flew around him as we spoke swatting away questions that might reveal the holes in his narrative. The words that rolled from his mouth in relentless waves seemed to be exaggerated by his greasy, shoulder length, sand coloured hair and some poorly poked tattoos. He caught me staring at them one afternoon. The ink had bled to create undefined shapes.
‘Prison. That’s where I got ‘em.’ Just locked up for possession but that was years ago.’
I met his girlfriend Rita. She looked older than him and maybe she was. She hardly left the house. She preferred the air conditioning, a pack of cigarettes and cheap boxed wine. She didn’t seem to mind me.
Most nights Jack and I sat on his porch. I rested on the edge with my legs dangling off and he sat in his wooden chair above me and talked. He talked about his mama, about music, about the women he dated and living in California during the seventies.
He showed me things. Old photographs of the cars he owned. Photographs of a younger man who still had all of his teeth. One night he asked me to walk with him across the clearing. He took me near where the fire had burned on the first night.
‘See that over there?’
‘Know what it is?’
His vagueness was intentional. He led me over to the thing—a bust of a woman or what was a woman missing her eyes and her hair, but with plump lips—and told me about her. She was from another planet. She’d been exiled and that’s why she was here in this clearing. She could see the stars here. He took a drag of his cigarette and leaned down to her face. He pursed his lips and blew the smoke through one of her eye sockets. For a moment the smoke vanished, then reappeared, drifting out from the other eye. He smiled his big toothy grin, ‘Ophelia, Tabitha. Tabitha, Ophelia.’
Jack had planted flowers around her. At night the deer came out from the woods to eat the blossoms.
‘How long has she been here?’
‘Longer than me or you.’
Jack didn’t drive. He called me from their house one Sunday morning and asked me if I had plans for the day. I didn’t. He asked me to come over and to bring my truck. When I arrived he stood in the yard, cut off jeans and no shirt. He carried with him a cooler, which he slung into the bed of the truck before he climbed into the passenger seat. There was already a lit cigarette hanging from his dry lips. He reached for the crank to roll down the window.
‘I’m gonna take you somewhere special.’
We drove down country roads.
‘Make a right just past that old church there. Alright, then a left when you see the cow pasture.’
Tall brown power lines flashed passed in perfect succession. The black tar on the road could have bubbled and the heat rising from it made the horizon blurred and oily. We passed houses long abandoned; the grasping, creeping vines came through, and out of the broken windows, almost entirely covering the façade. Donkeys grazed in small fields unbothered by the warmth, their ears and tails flicking lazily at flies.
‘Pull into that gas station there.’
We were about forty minutes out of town. He got the cooler from the back end and carried it in. When he came out ten minutes later I could tell it was heavier, his arms strained to keep it at waist level.
‘Beers,’ he said through the open passenger window. ‘You can’t buy them in Moss county on Sunday but you can buy ‘em in Laurel. The Lords day and such.’
He tuned the radio to a blues station once he was back in the passenger seat.
‘Is that where you wanted to take me?’
‘No, go on and make a left out of this parking lot. We’re getting there.’
Past pine forests and dried up creeks. Past cotton fields and exposed orange and red clay canyons that seemed to drop for miles back down into the earth.
‘We’re getting close.’
‘Will you tell me where we’re going?’
‘I call ‘em the Red Rocks.’
When we pulled up I understood. A prodigious lake, the same bright blue as the sky, covered everything for miles, its edges marked by enormous red sand stone. The heat of the red against the kindness of the blue made it seem surreal.
‘It looks like a Dali painting.’
‘Never mind. What’s the lake called?’
‘I didn’t bring my suit.’
‘You got shorts don’t you?’
‘Come on then.’
I followed him stumbling down the sandy slope to the edge of the water.
‘Aren’t you going to swim?’
‘Nah, I don’t float right, some people do but I don’t.’
He opened the cooler to retrieve a beer. I walked to the edge and let the water lap at my feet. I waded forward, first to my knees, then my thighs, then my waist. The water seeped into my denim shorts and weighed me down. It was warm. I ran my hands across the surface and leaned backward, letting myself fall into the water. I floated there for a while. I let the water move me and watched the clouds move too. When I looked up I had floated from shore. I swam back in and pulled a beer from the melting ice. Jack was laid out flat on the sand, the sun darkening his already brown skin.
‘I can’t believe I’ve never been here.’
‘Not many folks know about this place.’
‘It’s magic. That’s the thing about this place. The water, it’s magic, it makes you live long.’
‘I’m serious. There is something about the water. It moves through the creeks and into the lakes and into use when we drink it.’
I wanted to believe him.
I sipped on my beer and listened to the wind bend the pines behind us. I listened to Jack hum unmeasured tunes and closed my eyes. The sand stuck to my damp clothes but I did not mind.
I drove us home hours later and after a few more beers. Jack kept drinking in the car, the beer cans held between his knees. By the time we reached the cabins the sun had set. I stayed in the car while Jack unloaded himself and then his belongings. I watched him stumble up to the edge of the porch where he turned, leaned, and waved goodbye to me. I drove home and slept well into the next afternoon. When I woke I called him and thanked him for the day before.
‘No problem darlin.’
I did not go to the cabin that night. The following morning was the day I found it empty.
When I walked out the door, leaving it just a little bit open, I went straight to Ophelia. I wondered if he had taken her too, but she was still there, looking up to nothing. To no one. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the prayer cards. I propped two against her chest. For the first few weeks after Jack left I checked on Ophelia. I made sure her flowers were looked after. One morning I didn’t go to water the flowers. I just stopped after that.
I heard lots of stories about Jack after he was gone. I heard a story that he been on a chain gang and rolled from the bed of a truck to escape, that the police had got wind of him and were on their way. I heard that he was a not from New York but really he was from Mexico. I heard that he had learned how to build houses when he worked as a missionary. It didn’t matter which ones were true. They were all just stories.
At the end of the summer I moved off the Logan property and went back to graduate school and my doctorate. I keep Saint Anthony pinned above my desk.