Vultures circled over the cornfield. A small group, four or five, pushed their wings in slow flaps to ride the dry, stillborn air. Anne saw them from her house. She was sick, off from work for the first time in months. Her nose ran as her head tilted up to watch the birds and she wiped the mucus from her lips. She stood in her side yard, barefoot, watching those grungy beasts soar with weightless grace over their next meal. Their circle cut a hole in the sky for her to gaze into.
Anne shook her head but her clogged sinuses applied even more pressure. She could go back into her house and wait for the day to end. She could.
“Because I’m the one who found him. I found him there.”
“What was your name again?”
“Alright, Anne. Give me a minute.”
They sat in a private consulting room in the bank. Sound-insulated and painfully clean. The woman speaking to Anne rested her forehead in her palms. Her breathing slowed and with it her grey flannel coat rose and fell so discreetly it resembled the ebb and flow of a tide. Anne waited.
The woman raised her head. She had a face hardened from years of customer service smiles and expressions. “Are you sure you know why you came here? It’s been only one day and everybody’s in shock still. People have only been saying nice things. You’re the first one to do differently.”
“I know exactly why I came here. I didn’t want to say anything in the lobby to avoid attention. I asked for privacy first so I can ask in a better place. I know it’s hard, but yes, I want to know.”
“The police interviewed us all afternoon yesterday. They wanted to know every detail. But you see it’s been years. He quit here long enough ago that half of the current staff never worked with him.”
“Yeah, the police questioned me all morning yesterday. And I never met him. Please, I-I it’s drilling a hole in my heart that I can’t know him. Can’t learn anything. It feels wrong. Like knowing someone’s secrets but not knowing the person.” Anne reached over the table and tugged gently at the woman’s sleeves. Anne had a softer, rounder face with a small nose. Her husband called her “cutie” because of it.
The woman’s voice lost all of its edge. “I think I can understand. It must be horrible for you because you’ve got nothing about him to hold onto. What is it you want to know? I can only provide so much.”
“I want—how did he have such an impact? I can hear it in your voice. I felt it in the lobby out there, like a rain cloud inside this whole place. How could he get us two here, hurting, trying so hard to cope?”
“He was a sweet guy. But I know it’s more than that. We called him the Gentle Giant; he wasn’t that big of a guy. Talked and smiled a lot.” The woman wet her lips. “Sometimes he looked you in the eye for no reason. We wouldn’t be talking or doing anything. Completely unprovoked. But that kind of silent eye contact was more than talking. It’s like you just share a moment together, not out of coincidence or awkwardness, not out of anything else, you only share the passage of time.” The woman blinked in a frenzy to lift the gleam from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she let out a dry smile. “Nobody ever did that. They all thought he was weird, like overly observant. To me it was like a way of connecting to each other that we’ve lost and he found it again. Sorry, since I heard the news I’ve only been able to think about him. Oh, hell, I missed him when he quit our branch and moved away. I can’t stop missing him now.”
Anne rested her hand on the woman’s sleeve. The woman looked out the window at the nearly empty parking lot of a dull weekday morning.
“I read his note,” Anne said.
“The police asked and I told them there were no warning signs. Once he quit he never came back. Not to this branch. None of us saw him again.”
“No, I read his note. It was crushed into the dirt like he had stepped on it. It was handwritten in blue ink.”
“What did he say?”
Anne leaned farther forward, elbows sliding on the desk. “Something beautiful. I can’t remember exactly. The police took it. I read it once. When I had the chance, I wrote down as much as I could but it didn’t come out the same way. Something about what time dwells on, like time is an entity and we must pay attention to this. Or through each other we can pay attention—I think I missed some important parts and it’s not coming together.”
“What did he look like when you found him?”
“How did he look?”
“Fine. I mean as much as fine can be in death. He looked relieved. Like all his stress had finally left him alone.”
“So, was it in the chest? That’s what people were saying.”
“In the heart. Directly.”
The vultures circled farther in the cornfield than Anne guessed. She had her shoes on now, walking as briskly as she could in the dense rows of green that towered above her head. One arm she held out in front to part the leaves. Their cascading rustle combed her body and the wave-like pressure reminded her of how small she was, merely a bump in the wind to these giant cornstalks. Whatever dead animal dozed on the floor of this miniature forest would have to wait a bit longer because she couldn’t run through the dense rows.
She could easily have lost her way in here and spent hours choking on the ceaseless leaves if the vultures weren’t there to guide her. A tall man might have a chance on his own if he jumped for a glimpse of a house or barn.
Anne had to find out what kind of animal could die in a cornfield, especially one big enough to attract vultures. Nothing ever dies in a cornfield.
“Did you know him?” the woman asked.
“Sort of. I discovered him,” Anne replied. “In the cornfield.”
The woman kicked loose gravel over the parking lot. The setting sun breached the bushes behind her and threw a shadow over the potholes and filler blacktop. “What did you come out here for? How did you track me down?”
Anne cleared her throat and kept several feet away from the pacing woman. “He was different wasn’t he? Some odd kind of special.”
“He’s hard to forget. You a journalist? Going for some article online? You could be making it up that you found him.”
“Don’t think I’m here to exploit him. I want nothing more than to remember him. And as best I can. I would like for you to help me, please. Do you get to talk about him with other people around here?”
“He didn’t stay long enough for people to really know him. He just worked at that golf course for a season. Stayed true to his words and left when the place closed for the winter. Out here, high up in the west, too much snow to golf in the winter.”
“Yes,” Anne said. She glanced at the diner behind her. “I told you I’ll pay for supper. I already ate but I’m fine with just getting coffee. You can say whatever you want about him. I’ll listen.”
Plates and silverware rattled and clanked in a broken symphony.
“OK, Anne. Not sure why you’re up here. He got to you, somehow. Or you needed somebody to get to you. Well he got to me. Don’t know why he seemed pretty educated, and like he thought a lot to himself and I’m just a lowly clerk.” The woman tucked her blond hair behind her ear. “So how did you find me? Most people around here still don’t know he’s dead.” She bit into a handful of French fries.
“He used to work at a bank near where I found him. At the bank they said how, before working there, he worked at a golf course near a park. They gave me more specifics and I found it, drove here, asked the employees and they said to talk with you about him.”
“Did he leave a note behind?”
“Yes. I don’t know what it said. That’s part of what I was here for. Are there things he liked to talk about? Did he ever talk about life or other big things or have some kind of message? Little nuggets of truth?”
The waitress approached Anne and the woman. The woman asked for a refill of her pop. Anne leaned closer to her when the background volume of the diner seemed to rise.
“I’m not sure if I can answer those. But we met at the golf course, really the driving range. We talked I don’t know what about. The next week I came back and he was still working there. Asked me to go to the park with him.” The woman punctuated her sentences with gulps of her drink. “I thought sure, he was polite and I could tell he wasn’t from around here and I was tired of the local boys asking me so I went with him. There’s a trail in the park, it’s hidden at the back of a parking lot, the Treehouse Trail. It’s not a loop like the other trails, it is one curvy line and at the end there’s this treehouse that kids built years ago. He said he wanted to go to that. I’d never heard of it, he told me its history.”
“You weren’t afraid?”
“Afraid of what?”
“It sounded like he wanted to seclude you on a first date before you knew him.”
“I guess I’m a little more trusting than you are.”
The woman sucked down some more pop. Anne realized she still held the coffee cup in her hand. It had cooled to a lukewarm heat radiating to her fingers.
“The treehouse had rotted wood; pieces of it flaked off when we climbed the pieces nailed into the trunk. He said the trail was cleared after the treehouse was built so people could get to it easier. And I figured out why. It overlooks this huge field overgrown with grassland and bushes with all this flat ground. It’s a crappy treehouse with nothing but a frame for walls and treated lumber lying over it for a roof and we had to squat or sit so we wouldn’t bump our heads. Once we settled in he told me about this game he thought of. We would look at each other, right in the eyes, until we couldn’t anymore then we’d look at the field and just keep doing that.”
Anne looked down at her coffee and back up at the woman and tried to imagine him staring this woman in the eyes like she was doing. Faded brown eyes and creases tracing the arch of her cheeks. Thin lips and a strong chin and facial tics that said this bothered her more than she let on.
“How did those games go?”
“First we couldn’t do it for long and switched to looking at the field a lot. It’s really hard to sit there and watch somebody. For me it was the damn concentration if you don’t mind my cussing. My mind wanted to think about other stuff. I had to focus on him. We went back there a few times and got better. It’s weird what goes on then. Did you ever do anything like that?”
“No. Never.” Not even with her husband.
“I wondered about his life. I wondered what he thought of me and my looks and if I was doing it right. And then I wondered what he thought of himself. What made him so interested in this? It became about him and what . . .”
“—is behind the pupils?”
“Yeah but that doesn’t answer your question. We didn’t talk much.”
Anne’s heart raced. “Did he mention time? How to pay attention to it?”
“No. Uh, well, this is even harder to explain.” She put down her pop and went back to the decimated side of fries. “In the treehouse, when I was focused on him, and his face doesn’t change and it gets boring, time slows down. Pay attention? I don’t know about that. I sure focused on him, and I could see out on the edges of my sight how the field’s swaying—cause it was windy on those days—went in slow motion. No person has ever gotten me to do that. Didn’t think I could. I don’t feel that he’s dead. He felt more like a good dream that sat in my memory.”
“Yeah.” Anne leaned back. Prolonged eye contact. In silence, and time slows. The practice seemed to put a mark on everyone who lived it.
Anne found the body lying face up in the ditch between two rows of corn. He had a gory hole in the left side of his chest where blood had sprayed around him, and the cornstalks’ green were dotted a glassy red. The leaves around him had wept in red tears.
Anne didn’t touch him. His eyes, dry and out of focus, stared up at the circle of vultures cutting that hole in the sky directly overhead. Though his lips were closed his jaw had lowered because all of the tension had evaporated from the muscles that held it shut. It probably happened before he killed himself, before everything went stiff in death. She could imagine him here, standing in the night and the cornstalks are black and indistinguishable from each other in the wind, fluid walls of a tattered maze, the gun pointed at his chest and his face serene in the moonlight.
Anne sat in the treehouse at the end of the trail. The wood sagged where no branches below supported it. No breeze came to sway the tall grasses in the field. The time as Anne tracked it in her head did not change. She had to rely on her thoughts; on windy nights time would be easy to tell from the waving of the seedpods crowning the wild grass. That’s why he brought the woman out here—to watch time slow with somebody else. Anne wondered if he waited for the corn’s rustling to slow on his last night. Did he try to picture someone there, in front of him and staring back? Or to calm himself did he see this field, from this treehouse, and someone there to take part in that kind of time-conquering connection?
It was risky to speculate that far into his mind. Anne still couldn’t recall the suicide note. But the woman at the diner had asked her how far she wanted to pursue this and Anne told her she had already taken off for the rest of the week. Before he worked at the golf course he lived in Wisconsin, the woman said, on a farm that he worked at. She had a full tank of gas in her car and the GPS set to that farm.