Lost in the rhythm of slow hoe strokes and Hail Marys, the boy works and prays in the barren apple field alone at dusk. He’s humming the chaplet, sacred as a church hymn, even a motet. It’s cooling some, a welcome change after feeling he’d die from the throbbing mountain heat. And other maladies suffered in a motel and other places. Still, blunt wind sways adust pines on the horizon veiling the last light. Steel-toe boots protect his sweaty feet from the newly sharpened garden tool but not from the gadflies or guilt of his latest transgression. Earlier, he wiped clotted quail blood from the dull blade so Uncle Roy wouldn’t see and ask or suss what happened before taking it to the treadle grindstone.
“Maybe a better edge will help you work more efficiently, cut cleaner, faster,” he deep-voiced under a bridged nose and gray-streaked flowing beard the boy thought the spitting image of God. Plus, the long hair and mural muscles.
Another secret intact, the boy focuses his good eye, the lazy one like the rest of him Roy says lags to adjust. Sepia earth blurs limp, head-high apple saplings too young to bear fruit. Thousands bunch in rows. He has ten trees left to furrow, what Roy calls scraping dirt around bone-thin boles to bank water from the tanker truck. Then he can join the hired hands who complain about low, late wages after losing at cards in the next field under jeep headlights until the shift ends. Or the work is done. Or another last ditch to dig at the small makeshift clow, tapping the town’s water supply.
The boy’s prayers are football Hail Marys, heaving last-ditch efforts into heaven like the end zone hoping angels or better will catch them for a win. Or bat them to those in better position to receive, answering with mercy. It’s also his understanding of the poker hierarchy of God’s kingdom against evil. Even between decades, as though holding rosary beads instead of a hoe handle rough as a cypress Cross, from which he gets blisters and splinters, he begs, Mary, please! Who better suited to deal with or convince the son of God, the fruit of your womb, than his mom, the queen of heaven?
He chops at layers of parched earth and crumbles clay brittle as ancient pots. Eventually, he manages to bank five furrows. His stomach tightens, constricting with each strike, tug, and drag back.
Gonna get chiseled six-pack abs that way his uncle says of the act.
The boy is tall and lean with a lamb-like appeal. Soft, peach-fuzz-covered ear lobes. Tender lisp and bleat for a voice. His core – physical and personal – is developing; his schooled, rote faith in God challenged. To pass time, he drowns The Father and Mary’s silence and the fear of abandonment by talking about secrets.
Neither thing happened, he says convincingly. They were accidents. I didn’t mean it, them. It got in the way. Nothing bleeds, nothing hurts. Be tough, don’t be chicken, don’t fold. I didn’t stroke or touch it – it got in the way, too.
Then looking in the dark, he says, “Where did I drop it, leave it?” He touches his breast pocket, then the back one. Both are empty.
On the sixth furrow, a sideways glimmer. Face against a shoulder, gnashing a gnat that got in the way, he sees bouncing headlights entering the field. Hearing squeaks of joints, bushings, and the jostled rifle in the loose gun rack, he panics as though ambushed by Roy checking on the lack of progress. Afraid, he wants to hide and crouch like a baseball catcher, knowing the limp leaves still won’t cover.
The truck halts, road dust rear-ending the bumper. The door opens and a rusted hinge scrapes. “Jimmy” floats a soft Okie voice. A slim figure exits the driver’s seat. To his relief, it’s Aunt Doreen, good as an apparition. She silhouettes blonde curls and what Roy calls sugar curves in loose flannel and blue jeans, her signature attire. Plus, construction boots ribbed with white gummy soles that always look new. “Your uncle has new plans,” she says. “Leave the hoe, grab your flannel, hop in. We’re going back to the house. Shower quick, then put on yur Sunday clothes.”
Her warm tone leaves no doubt. He says it anyway; he likes to talk. He likes to talk to anyone who will listen. But to her especially. “There’s no Tuesday night mass or church.” Or confession, he thinks.
“What? No, we’re going into town for, um, late supper. And run an errand.”
Run an errand feels obligatory, a chore. His mental dyslexia associates it as an unearned run in baseball. Thoughts, like words on the page, ballet in his head before settling jumbled. He sees himself committing the fielding error, allowing the lead run to score. But an errand beats deserted at work in the field. He shrugs, wondering where it leads, says instead, “We had supper less than two hours ago.”
She says, “Last supper of the day. I know you can eat again, growing boy. Especially dessert.”
He knows the tone of voice, knows she’s smiling in the dark, her affection fused with annoyance and anything else in the air.
“What about the trees and my shift?” His lisp makes it sound like shrift and whistles in the gelatin wind. “And the next field?”
“Pick up in the morning where you left off. The amigos know not to expect you tonight. Or for poker after in the barn, I hear.”
“They said it was okay.”
“Of course. Come on.”
He drops the hoe, limps to the truck fast as a shackled convict on the run.
“Your knee still hurt from playing catcher at Little League?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s puffed up again like before the doctor stuck the needle in, aspirating it. Feels like a nail in there now.”
She grimaces. “We’ll call up yur mama and deal with it.”
+ + +
They rollercoaster down the mountain like the ride Little League coach Earl took Jimmy on for his birthday when they stayed in a motel up the coast. Roy drives with abandon, sometimes steering with only a finger, the middle one, headlights discovering dark curves at the last moment. A cassette tape warbles Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. They lean forward in rhythm, slide side to side, dodging trunks of burled oaks. I hear the train a comin’...Reflective signs on poles caution of crossing wildlife with black pictorials of antlers and bear claws.
Johnny Cash is new to Jimmy. He likes him because Uncle Roy does. The rhythm is cowboy slow with a low deep voice but catchy with strong guitar chords – like playing the barbed-wire fence. Still, Jimmy desires his mother’s classical music albums, from the medieval period, even with the sound of evil in it. Like Elvis. Looking over a composition list on a back cover is where he saw the word motet. At first, he thought it said motel, but the artwork didn’t look like a motel. He looked in the dictionary – a sacred song, unaccompanied. It said other things he didn’t understand, like polyphonic, but wished he could sing like that. Unaccompanied. It was perfect. Elevated and soft. Sacred.
Inside the dust-covered coup blooms of soaps and shampoos. Roy and Jimmy, in white dress shirts and corduroys, also reek of Aqua Velva, though neither shaved. Smells like we did, Roy says. Smells like a man. Jimmy sees him looking into the rearview mirror at him. Doreen, in a soft chiffon summer dress and sand-colored sandals, applies make-up in the front passenger seat. Jimmy’s more interested in her perfume. Like smelling a rose.
“Not so fast, honey,” she says into the lit visor mirror beaded as a movie star’s. “Coast a little.” Roy takes his foot off the accelerator as Doreen uses a manual eyelash curler. Then she says, “One more little stroke of mascara.”
Scared, Jimmy wishes he’d said no to the first stroke in the motel. He feels and obsesses over the fielding error, allowing the unallowable.
In a moment, Doreen says, “There. Okay. Let her rip.”
Jimmy curls like on the rollercoaster, like on the motel bed, and holds on for dear life.
“Boy, how many furrows did you knock out?” Roy says, accelerating.
Jimmy tightens his stomach. “Half.”
“Any less would be a lie. Your mother said make a man out of you, not a liar.”
“Boy, do you sleep while pretending to work?”
“Roy!” Doreen says.
“Boy, you must be hungry again after that pretend work.”
“Roy!” she says again.
“Just don't eat all the cornbread again,” he says. “See what it got ya?”
Jimmy remembers the last time at the restaurant. The cornbread came hot from the oven, tall as birthday cake slices, tins of butter on the side. He slathered bite after bite almost chomping his fingers. Then, with permission, he finished Doreen’s portion. When the entrees arrived, he sighed, putting hands on a swollen belly.
“What’s the matter, Boy? Full?” Roy asked.
He nodded, getting up. “I’ll just ask for a doggie bag after I go pee.” Sitting on the toilet, he felt like a liar, performing the oft ablution of the oozing chancroid sores Earl gave him in the motel.
Returning from the restroom, hands washed twice, he asked the slim young waitress for a to-go container. At first, her name tag read Lie les. He did a double-take, and it became clear.
Curtly, Leslie said, “No.”
Wasting food is a sin, so he started eating again, feeling fat as a whale.
Roy and Doreen wailed with laughter. Eventually, Doreen said, “Honey, you can stop eating. Your uncle put her up to it.”
+ + +
A block from the restaurant, as Johnny Cash sings Busted, Roy pulls into a strip mall and parks in front of the brightly lit Libation Station liquor store with the plate glass window. “Boy, you got poker winnings?”
“I got a dollar,” Jimmy says from the back seat.
“Good enough for two packs. Go buy me cigarettes.”
“Roy!” Doreen says.
Jimmy says, “I’m too young to buy cigarettes.”
“The owner’ll see me smoking next to the car.”
Jimmy gets out hesitantly, then limps into the store. Hail Mary...At the counter, he stutters and lisps, “Please, my uncle wants two packs of Lucky Strikes.” He places the wrinkled bill on the counter.
“Menthol or regular?” the man asks behind the register. He’s broad-shouldered as a blue-shirted baseball ump in pads and a short-billed black cap back at little league.
“The ones with the filters.”
The man places them on the counter. Then he motions, says, “That him? And your aunt in the sports car?”
Jimmy nods yes.
“You’re not going to smoke these, are you?” he says.
“No, Sir.” He feels almost a liar.
Relieved and lucky not called out on strikes and given a free pass as though to first base, Jimmy limps out. He hands over the goods.
“Drop something?” Roy asks.
Jimmy turns and looks, recalls lifting a cigarette from the pack on the kitchen counter that dawn. He practiced dangling it in his mouth like Roy walking in the dew out to the field. He left the matches, only wanting the unlit tobacco smell and taste. But then he dropped it in the dirt saying a Hail Mary. “Damn.” He picked it up, wiping the cotton tip, and put it in his flannel pocket which he flung on the barbed-wire fence when the sun came up. Later, it wasn’t there.
Facing Roy, Jimmy says, “Not that I see.”
“Get in,” he says.
+ + +
At the restaurant, the smoke and smell of T-bones grilling. Also, slices of pies heap in the refrigerated display case next to the old-fashion register with worn keys. Jimmy spots chocolate mousse on crushed graham cracker crust fluffed with whipped cream, his favorite. But there’s lemon curd and his mouth waters. The elderly hostess in a knee-high skirt, tan nylons, and thick ankles greets with a gentle nod. She seats them in a red vinyl booth and splays the laminated menus like a card dealer, face down on the table. “Your waitress will be right with you.”
They slide menus, slowly lifting them like card sharks, leaning back for a peek.
“Anything new?” Doreen says. “I didn’t ask, is there a special?”
“Not that I see.” Roy sets the menu down and unwraps a pack of cigarettes, discards cellophane like a bad draw. Looking at Jimmy, he withdraws a stick as he calls it and taps the non-filtered end on the table, then strikes a match. He inhales with gusto. Exhaling a bluff of smoke, he hokes, “I’m in the mood for broiled quail cut and trimmed nicely with a little butter, lemon, and thyme. Heck, maybe we’ll get lucky.” Then he says, “Boy, what looks good?”
Jimmy can’t make eye contact, his tell; he has no poker face for guilt. His appetite evaporates. To save face, he says, “The prime rib” and thinks of Adam’s removed for Eve. The thought of blood nearly makes him vomit.
“Best cut of an animal there is. Your mama’s favorite. You must have a lot of poker winnings. Hands said you wiped them out.”
Jimmy stutters, “I spent my only dollar on cigarettes.” There are ten more under his bed pillow back at the house, but he’s not ready to volunteer that yet.
Scuff on the table, spin of Styrofoam. A white to-go container flushes out of nowhere like a winning hand before the five-card stud has started. “Thought I’d get it out of the way before you asked.”
They look up. Laughter erupts. Except for Jimmy.
Doreen says, “Just in time. Well, all be. Why it’s Leslie, what a surprise!”
“Hello, Leslie,” Roy says with a sideways grin.
Jimmy smiles. He likes her; he likes the way she looks like a pony-tailed ballerina in the dull gold waitress uniform in black flats. He likes the way she smiles and sassy talks and the sound of her raspy voice. He likes how nice she is in spite of being in cahoots with Roy. She’s almost as pretty as Doreen, who says, “Are there specials?”
Leslie shifts her weight from bony hip to the other, says, “Roasted quail and steamed vegetables with smash-potato rounds crisped in bacon fat.”
“I’ll have that,” Roy says. “With black coffee.”
“Me too,” Doreen says. “But just water with a lemon slice.”
“Prime rib,” Jimmy says.
“Iced tea?” Leslie says. “And extra cornbread and butter?”
“Yes, please.” Then he says, “Could you sit and eat with us?”
She puts her arm around him and kisses the top of his mop head the way Earl did in the motel.
“Boy,” Roy says, flapping a lit cigarette between his lips and reaching for the glass ashtray. “Don’t bother her, she’s working.”
“You bothered her while she was working to trick me.”
“But while she was working. Took three seconds, not the time of a whole meal.”
“Two men fighting over me. Who’d have thought?”
Roy says, “He just wants to talk. He doesn’t even like girls.”
Before Jimmy answers, Doreen says, “Leslie, we need help from above to settle this one. Go on but leave the container. I’m sure we’ll need it.”
+ + +
Jimmy bows his head, wishing the burn under his lap would go away. He mumbles Grace quietly. Bless us O Lord, for these thy gifts…Please, Lord, don’t let me die.
“You asleep, boy? Supper hasn’t even arrived.”
“Roy!” Doreen admonishes, shushes. “I heard him praying.”
Jimmy takes solace but then feels the energy of anger. Grudgingly, gluttonously, when the food arrives, he eats everything in sight. The extra cornbread, the prime rib and fat cap. Including Roy and Doreen’s barely touched roasted quail. He even dunks their broccoli stems in the last of the horseradish sauce. Smashed crispy potato rounds are the first to go.
“Guess we didn’t need the to-go container after all,” Doreen says.
Stuffed, Jimmy says, “What about dessert?”
“We’ll get a slice to go,” she says, “at the register when we pay. Already got the container.”
On the way out, Jimmy sneaks a hug from Leslie. Her ponytail smells of hamburger grease and coconut shampoo. She rasps a laugh and kisses him again. Roy shakes his head.
In the parking lot, Roy tears the filter off and smokes a cigarette next to the driver-side door. Doreen, on the passenger side, checks her tiny wristwatch, tapping a sandaled foot on the blacktop. Jimmy stands in front of the car, container of pie in hand, waits for the cue to get in.
They drive farther into town, then to the other side. The paved road is deserted, dusk seems ages ago. Johnny Cash’s Long Black Veil plays as blackness veils everything. The air conditioner blows but it’s still hot and stuffy. Jimmy’s sure the whipped cream is melting, spoiling the pie.
He remains lost and quiet like with Earl going to an unknown place. They pass a neon-signed motel that makes him shiver. Then he sees a lit-up marquee of a gentleman's club, thinks of a card room, how he’d club a straight. He says, “Aren’t we going home?”
Roy says, “We still have the errand.”
“I thought we did that already.” He worries the whipped cream is spoiling.
Doreen says, “The cigarettes? That was just a pit stop.”
Roy says, “The main event lies ahead.”
Jimmy says, “You said lies. You said no lies.”
“What? No,” he says slowly. “Not the same thing. We’re paying the bank manager a visit at his home.”
To Jimmy, paying sounds like money exchanging hands after an IOU at cards. They fly under lateral, low-lying branches. Jimmy ducks.
Roy says, “Boy, once inside don’t talk.”
It smacks of Earl: don’t tell your mother about the motel, don’t talk...It's our secret.
Jimmy almost vomits.
+ + +
The cobbled driveway narrows as a row of unending apple trees. It blurs of bluestone and flaky mica under the rocking, glittering headlights. When Roy parks, Jimmy sees the house, rustic and neat as a Christmas manger. Corner logs, bark intact, arc a wood roof and eves of plate glass.
Stepping out of the car, Jimmy balks, cheeks already full of wind reeking of cattle dung. He holds his breath standing at the oak front door that rounds as a tabernacle. He wonders if it will slide open. After a wait akin to the Second Coming and losing his breath, it hinges inward. A bald heavy-set man, clean-shaven and pink as a friendly pig, opens the door on crutches. He’s wearing a white dress shirt, slack Bolo tie, dark wool slacks, and one black alligator dress shoe. The other pant leg hangs empty. Jimmy thinks it’s a gruesome carnival spectacle, a trick. He double takes, focusing both eyes. He nearly waves a hand under the creased cuff to make sure there’s no foot and wonders if a gator got it.
“Mr. Spitzer,” Roy says entering the house of Persian rugs and walnut-framed Dutch oil paintings. “Les, you know my wife, Doreen.”
“Of course, of course. What a surprise,” he says, repositioning on the crutches, doing a cowboy one-step instead of two. He waves with a free hand.
Jimmy breathes in the welcome scent of burning candles and melting wax from inside like at church.
Les Spitzer says, “Please come in. Sorry I took so long answering. I’d just removed my prosthesis or deadwood as I call it after they cleaved my leg off. You know, first the toes, then the foot. I feared the next.”
Neck, Jimmy thinks involuntarily and then regretfully.
“They stopped just above the knee.” He sighs. “You know, I was a placekicker in college, could launch a football higher and farther than a Hail Mary.” He sighs again. Heavily.
“Sorry to bother so late,” Doreen says, bowing. There’s incidental cleavage. “Maybe we should come back another day.”
“Nonsense. Come in, come in. I did tell Roy to come any time.”
“We wanted to follow up on our meeting. Well, yours and Roy’s.”
“Indeed,” Les Spitzer says. Then he turns and says, “My, who’s this gentle young man staring at my diabetic lack of foot like Thomas the apostle Jesus’ hip wound?”
“My nephew,” Roy says. “He’s a champ but doesn’t talk. We’re keeping watch after his father – my brother – died. His Hispanic mother, sacred as an old Catholic church, has three older other boys and a girl to raise in San Diego.”
“Catholic, you say?”
“Yes, Sir. She’s not seeking a handout or anything low handed. Nobody is. We thought we’d do the right thing as guardians. He’s sort of on loan to us. Maybe we’ll adopt him, raise him as our own, the right way with right values. Steer him, give direction, establish a relationship. It’ll pay off for everybody.”
Les Spitzer says, “I see.” He crutches into the living room, the sound of rubber ferrules on the hardwood floor. He sets them aside and sits in a large mission armchair fit for a king. Doreen and Roy sit on the felt sofa, red as apples. Then Les Spitzer says, “Where are my manners? Young man, the kitchen is through there. Help yourself to anything. I mean it.”
“Sir,” Roy says with a grin. “That boy could eat you and your bank out of house and home.”
“Nonsense,” he says. Then he says to Jimmy, “When you come back, bring us each a beer to celebrate. But take your time. We have a thing to discuss.”
Jimmy nods like the altar boy he is back home at Church and limps through.
“Please close the door behind you,” Les Spitzer says.
Jimmy yields to the hierarchy of adults but wonders why he can’t hear or talk. He wants to poke his head back in. Do as you are told, he knows. There are rules like poker and the Catholic Church, follow them.
A kitchen of polished walnut cupboards, iron latches everywhere. Above the gas stove, hanging copper pans gleam like stars. On the counter, a ceramic cookie jar. He lifts the heavy lid, peeks inside. It’s empty except for crumbs. But not the wicker basket aside holding the biggest red apples ever. He wonders what tree they came from and how big its furrow. A mote, he decides. There are ripe bananas spotted as leopards, small oranges, and fuzzy fruits or vegetables he doesn’t recognize.
In a cupboard, packages of Fig Newtons. In another, assorted cans of tomato sauce, tuna packed in oil, and water chestnuts. Stacks of dry pasta. The list grows; he checks all compartments. Two or more of every foodstuff almost like Noah’s Ark.
Nothing appeals. He turns, sees the wood rosary hanging from the fridge door handle like at home. A reminder, his mother says, when opening the door to pray in thanksgiving. “Well, Hello Mary,” he says like Roy and Doreen to Leslie.
Looking in the refrigerator, thinking celebration, he seeks chocolate cake with candy-striped candles waiting to be lit. Instead, he sees a head of iceberg lettuce in ribbed clingfilm, vined tomatoes in a bowl, an open cardboard carton of multicolored eggs – brown, yellow, orange, white. Also, there are plastic containers of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup. Logs of wrapped salted butter. Then he sees the six-pack – half the size of normal bottles, half the ounces and calories. His stomach flexes halfway. The brand is familiar, the only one his mother drinks with a twist-off cap.
+ + +
After finishing the Fig Newtons, he limps into the living room with beers on a silver serving tray. He stumbles on the area rug.
“Steady, Boy,” Roy says.
Doreen says, “Roy, can’t you see he’s limping?”
Jimmy takes solace, places the tray on the mahogany coffee table. He allocates to the right – coasters first, napkins, then bottles.
Roy says, “Boy, what’s the deal? Who’s the fourth beer for?”
Jimmy, eyebrows raised, looks at Les Spitzer who smiles, says, “Well, I did say help yourself to anything. It’s not as though I said don’t eat of the tree of knowledge.”
Doreen says, “Jimmy would your mother approve?”
Les Spitzer says, “Son, your mother like beer?”
Jimmy nods yes.
Les says, “Mine too. She ever have more than one in an evening?”
Jimmy shakes his head no, vehemently.
“Good mother, good boy.” Les deems. Then he says, “Let this be our secret little banquet. My boy, don’t tell a soul, not even at shrift.”
Jimmy looks, almost thinks he’s making fun of his lisp, and the way he says shift. His eyebrows scramble into angry question marks.
“My apologies, before your time. Shrift is an old word for confession to a priest. Check the dictionary at home.”
Jimmy nods, agreeably, and will.
Then Les Spitzer says, “Bottoms up.”
Jimmy pauses; it was Earl said minus the “s” behind him on the motel bed.
Jimmy, still unable to confess any of that, swallows the squat bottle as though a soda after a Little League game. He burps quietly as Les Spitzer says to Roy and Doreen, “Come to the bank first thing in the morning to sign. We can’t have ranch projects and payroll interrupted. The soldiers in the apple garden won’t stand for that. Now,” he wheezes, “I need to rest my throbbing non-foot. Good night. Please see yourselves out.”
+ + +
In the car, speeding up the mountain, Roy says, “Boy!”
Doreen ejects Johnny Cash while he’s playing the harmonica, says, “Now he’s asleep.”
“How can you tell?”
“Hear our Orange Blossom Special?”
Roy says, “How does he stay awake for poker?” Looking into the rearview mirror, he swerves the car a little, then a lot.
Jimmy repositions in the back seat, snoring like a content pig that swallowed Johnny's harmonica.
+ + +
Jimmy wakes to the blaring alarm clock. He doesn’t remember getting into bed and dons work clothes for the morning shift. No one else is up. Entering the kitchen, he flicks the light switch to eye shock and opens the lit fridge. Happily, the lazy eye shut, he finds the to-go container. Thank God, he says, then devours the velvety chocolate pie with a spoon, whipped cream melted down, congealed, cold, and more than satisfying. He deposits the container in the trash under the sink. Then, with the same spoon, he eats cereal with raisins and milk, not as satisfying. He thinks what is and knows where the cigarettes are, the beer too. Leaving both, he scrubby-pads the bowl and the spoon with dish soap and hot water, leaves them to air-dry in the sink rack. Then he fastens his ropy boot laces and stumbles out of the ranch house. He looks back to see if anyone saw and the kitchen light comes back on.
He limps down the hill on the bulldozed road to the field. He opens and closes the flimsy wire fence, pinching and scraping the middle finger on the hasp or latch – he doesn’t know which. “Pinche,” he mutters – it’s what the Hispanic hires say, middle fingers raised from folded hands and dead cards.
He shakes the bird out, as Roy says, to relieve the sting, then passes the dismembered quail chick he cairned in a furrow. At the hedgerow, knowing he should have stood the hoe against the fence, he kneels with difficulty. It’s the longest days of the year, the slight light begins as stars fade. He prays, Hail Mary, full of grace, guide me. He fingers the wrinkled bed of dank dirt in between the infant trees, reaching, finding and grabbing the handle like a blind man a cane. Or a boy something else in the soiled sheets and shadows of a motel room. And the sepia memory without end.
He stands, staggered with piercing knee pain. Slowly, he half recites, half hums: Hail Mary. Don’t talk, don’t tell, hoeing to a new trinity motet rhythm.
Later, when the sun rises with gadflies, he checks for blood on the sharpened blade and remembers to keep both eyes on things asunder and underfoot. And the shrift to come.