Corn Hawkins points his flashlight further up the hill. He leans on his cane, while searching through the darkness for the landmark. His breaths are haggard. His health is in decline overall, though his GP cannot point to anything in particular beyond ‘getting up there in age.’ Moreover, he is not yet over that awful cold that had kept him in bed most of last week. In the back of his mind, though, he knows that his present weakness has more to do with depression than physical deterioration.
He misses her so much. On this day, he and his ‘Beautiful Rose’ would have been married forty-seven years, if she had not been defeated by pancreatic cancer almost a year ago. Like they had done always on their anniversary, they would have packed their picnic basket. He would have included the special edition cabernet that he had picked out from their private vineyard for this occasion. Then, hand in hand, they would have driven out to their spot alongside Wild Indian Creek.
When they were younger, they would have spent much of the day trying to make babies beneath the overhanging branch of a great elm. The sex drive never really left them, but it did diversify into a shared wanderlust for exploring the hidden paths beside the creek. They were hikers, lean, suntanned, more comfortable in their old jeans and sneakers than anything else. They were swimmers, too, especially those years when the old creek managed to rise about halfway up the ravine.
The thing about pancreatic cancer is that it comes out of nowhere. Rose had not slowed down appreciably. She simply did not have the appetite she used to have, and on occasion she would take a nap in the late afternoon. A routine trip to the GP led to a referral to a ‘specialist.’ A trip to the ‘specialist’ led to a blood test and a body scan. That, in turn, led to a diagnosis: Advanced inoperable pancreatic cancer. Rose had no more than a few months to live. Sure enough, by the time they drove home, Rose felt sick, took to their bed, and never left. It is as if the diagnosis itself gave that damned cancer free rein to tear down her flesh.
On their last anniversary together, Corn brought the picnic basket and the bottle of wine to their bed. They sat on the bed together, propped up on pillows, eating little and drinking less on account of Rose’s nausea. Mostly, they talked about the old times.
Towards the end, it is always about the past, because at a certain point a couple facing death simply cannot pretend anymore that there is a future for them. The truth cannot be avoided, no matter how many diversions they may entertain. This moment is when the grief really starts. Corn grieved the loss of his ‘Beautiful Rose’ weeks before she died. He always hid the tears from her, but she could see the dark pain in his eyes regardless. He saw the same in hers. They shared that pain together, as they had shared their lives together. Indeed, in a way, they were never more together than when they both had to confront the fact that they would be apart.
He found her dead one morning. He lay by her side, took her dead hand into his, and cried. The snow flurries beat hard against the bedroom window that morning, and at one point a howling gust shook the foundations of their old farmhouse. Corn did not move, though, not until he had shed the last of his tears for that day. Only then did he call for the GP, who in turn called for the coroner. Corn waited by her side, until they came and did what they had to do.
In his mind, he continues to be by her side. He still holds her dead hand in his, while the snow flurries beat against the window. This has become a recurring dream; and when he awakens with tears flowing down his face, he wonders if this last moment together has not deteriorated into a nightmare. He hates to think that way, and yet he cannot deny that holding onto his ‘Beautiful Rose’ has been ever more taxing for him. His sleepless nights, his depression, his loss of breath when doing the simplest tasks, all of his physical and emotional ailments seem to be tied to that last moment. The longer they are apart the more he seems to fade away.
That is how Corn feels this very moment, as he leans against his cane, and looks for the landmark further up the hill. Apart from his recent cold, he is not sick, so much as he is ‘fading away,’ which means that his lungs have to work that much harder now to keep him where he is. He senses that without all this exertion he would just vanish.
Corn finds the base of the great elm beside which his ‘Beautiful Rose’ is buried. He had chosen the spot, because the branch overhanging her tombstone resembled the one under which they had frolicked beside the creek. His tombstone is beside hers. He wishes to be beside her now; their dead hands finding each other under six feet of wet soil. He admits to himself that that is a rather macabre image; and yet, in a way, there is nothing more beautiful. He would forsake every sunrise still to come, if he could be in the earth beside the woman he loves more than life.
Corn pushes himself up the hill with his cane. It is a slow and grueling task that leaves him winded. Finally, he leans against the great elm tree. He points his flashlight at her stone: Rose Hawkins, b. May 29, 1943, d. November 5, 2015, ‘Forever Beautiful.’
Corn had wanted to bring with him the picnic basket and the bottle of wine. He had decided not to do so at the last minute. He sensed that he would barely make it up here without the added baggage. Based on his condition now, he had sensed correctly.
Therefore, the picnic basket and the bottle of wine are on the kitchen table at home. He will take their framed wedding photograph off the wall, place it next to the basket, and then eat and drink. Like the last time, he guesses that he will eat little and drink less. He just does not have the appetite, though the GP and the ‘specialist’ assure him that he is not dying of anything, except maybe a broken heart. That broken heart will mend, they assure him. Corn is not so sure; and deep down, he is not sure he wants his broken heart to mend, for his sadness keeps her near to him.
Sunrise sneaks up on him, while he is staring at his wife’s tombstone. He senses at some point that he no longer needs the flashlight. He also feels a cold wind snapping at his back. Rather than warming this small part of the earth, the sunlight is kicking a bit of life into the wind and the snow flurries. As a result, the heavy stillness that had prevailed the previous night gives way to a living, breathing, howling weather system. This is the kind of weather that rips open flesh and chills bones. It also tortures an old man’s mind, especially when he hears his wife’s laughter sifting in and out of the wind.
I love you, Rose, Corn says, as he sheds a tear. Wait for me at the creek. I’ve got a new trail I want to show you. I found it on a map. All these years, and it was right in front of our eyes the whole time. Funny how that is sometimes. Anyway, I’ve got to go.
Corn starts to walk down the hill. The air is getting too cold to breathe easily. It is only a matter of time before he passes out. As much as he wants to rest alongside his ‘Beautiful Rose,’ he is not suicidal. Perhaps, someday he will be; but at this point, his depression has yet to advance to the point that he actually thinks of taking his own life.
Corn stops about midway down that hill. He turns to face his wife’s tombstone.
Darling, I’m seeing Clifford this morning, Corn says. I’m going to renegotiate the bank notes. They’ll go along with it. So don’t you worry, Beautiful. I’ve got it handled.
Corn’s steps are slow and awkward. The snow flurries are coming down hard and fast. As a result, the graveyard soon resembles a snow white marsh punctuated by snow covered tombstones. It looks almost like Christmas, except that the trees spread about the landscape have shed their leaves. Instead of green furs rooted into the soil beneath the snow, Corn sees gnarled, thin, black elms without the cover of their brilliant leaves.
He hears the vicious snap of a pair of wings. He looks up. The morning sky looks like a bluish white glacier spread out from one horizon to the next. The sun is hidden somewhere behind this cloud cover. The wings are not similarly hidden, but they prove hard to see against this barren and cold backdrop.
Finally, he sees what looks like a black crow circling over him. Not a good sign; and yet not at all surprising, given how weak and disoriented he feels at that moment.
Corn continues to stagger with his cane towards the front entrance. His beat up Ford is parked just beyond the gate. Snow flurries already have covered his windshield.
* * *
Corn has to catch his breath again at the driver’s side door. He looks up, but this time does not see the black crow. In the distance, he sees the cemetery gardener going about his business. Corn’s relatives are all buried out here, and so he has had to come out this way for the last fifty years or so. As long as he can recall, the cemetery gardener has been the same old man hobbling about in the same old pair of wet boots. It is like some folks are born old and just stay that way.
Right now, while gasping for breath, Corn feels like he is one of those perpetual old timers. His memories of being young seem phony somehow, like they are the results of a perverse imagination trying to haunt him with a youth he never really had. Did he really make love to Rose all those times beneath the overhanging branch? Did they find that bear cave together? Did they pick blackberries together for Rose’s pies? Did they skinny dip beneath the rippling, gold light of a harvest moon?
Or is Rose the older woman dying of pancreatic cancer? A woman withering away with so much fear and sadness in her eyes? A woman who cannot speak at the very end?
Corn opens the truck door. He sits down, and starts up the engine.
He rubs his hands together in an attempt to warm them. The inside of the truck is like an ice box. He turns on the radio to distract himself from the burning cold. The only available station this far out features a small town hick reading off local high school football scores. If anything, then the poor excuse for a sportscaster just reinforces his sense of isolation. One moment, he is ‘fading away;’ the next moment, he is ‘freezing into himself,’ his own life like a small town, backwards, remote, stuck in a past that he cannot really believe anymore, and yet also unable to reach for the future. Without his Beautiful Rose by his side, life is limbo, cold, empty, dead.
Yes, ‘dead’ is the best word to describe how he feels right now. He is a corpse full of cold air, rubbing his hands together, and listening to football scores on the radio.
He puts the truck into drive, and heads down the two-lane rural highway towards Redwood Township. He passes by enormous fields much like his own; mostly wheat and corn as far as the eye can see during the Spring and Summer months; now, weeks after the harvest, flat squares of dead soil. Every farm is the same: The endless stretch of a white picket fence along the highway, a red barn with a painted hex sign off in the far distance, and a farmhouse beside an elm tree even further out yonder. The snow flurries are settling in for what promises to be a chillier and longer winter than normal. Surely, the effect is picturesque, especially in how the crystal clear sunlight reflects off of the sheets of snow, or in the contrast of the red barns with the white earth.
But it is bad for business. Most of these folks along the highway cannot afford a long winter that cuts too much into the growing season. They are one bad harvest away from defaulting on the Beverly Bank and Trust.
Corn is in even worse shape, because technically he has defaulted already. His harvest last month barely kept up with the bills. He could not pay anything on the bank notes; and ever since the Bush-Cheney fiasco several years back, the other banks have dropped ‘refinance’ from their vocabulary altogether.
Thank God Corn’s buddy, Clifford Hayes, sits upon the board of the Beverly Bank and Trust. Otherwise, the bank would have auctioned off his land by now.
And yet there are only so many times Clifford can kick the can down the road. It is only a matter of time before his peers call him on it. Whenever that happens, Corn will get his notice; and he will be forced to abandon his great-grandfather’s homestead for the county poor house. Cash in his chips, and finish off his years a ward of the state.
Worse, he will have to abandon the bed he shared with his Beautiful Rose…
And the hallway where she had hung all those framed photos from yesteryear…
And the kitchen counter where she baked those blackberry pies…
And the great elm out front where they buried her miscarriage…
Damned strange how the mind works, isn’t it? First, Corn is thinking about a big slice of her warm blackberry pie, and how he would have to use a toothpick afterwards to get those little seeds out of his teeth. Then, he is digging a hole in the snow, while his Beautiful Rose cradles John Hawkins in her arms. She wants John by the tree, so he can be close to his brothers and sisters when they are playing hide and seek or tag out front. As it turns out, John would have only one brother; and Charlie Hawkins never did play much in the front yard or with other children. Charlie kept to his books and dreamt of a job behind a desk in the City of Beverly. He got his wish. Indeed, most of the boys with any smarts did. The result is a rural community of old farts like Corn and dumb as bricks youngsters; not much reason for hope, even if he had not lost his Beautiful Rose.
Everything is pretty far from everything else in this part of the county, and so it takes awhile for the two-lane rural highway to leave the farms in the rearview mirror. The highway starts to snake through a dense forest, and at that point Corn loses even the one radio signal he had managed to pick up. He switches the static off of his radio, and then switches his truck into a lower gear. He needs to take the turns carefully, lest he end up at the bottom of a ditch.
Of course, there is something to be said about smashing through his windshield and into a ditch. ‘Freak Accidents’ very often get the end credits rolling. His burial spot is prepaid, which means an eternity beside his beloved. His only son, Charlie, would get the family farm before the bankers did. Sure, he would also inherit the debt; but Charlie should be smart and connected enough to figure out how to refinance those bank notes.
Much more likely, though, Charlie would just sell the family farm. He had never wanted the land before. Why would he now think differently? So the ‘freak accident’ is really not going to save the farm.
Moreover, the more Corn thinks about speeding up his truck, and missing one of the turns up ahead, the more he senses that this preoccupation with suffering a ‘freak accident’ is really suicidal. Perhaps, Corn is just too old school; but there is something about suicide that rubs him as a sell out. Also, he senses that if he does not check out, while struggling still to survive, then he will not find his beloved waiting for him at the creek. Beautiful Rose fought to the end, and so now Corn must fight to the end as well.
The highway straightens into what is called ‘Main Street.’ He is now driving into Redwood Township, a slice of Small Town Americana that emerged over a century ago as a bank and a brothel house for the lumberjacks in the area. With the exception of a longstanding country aristocracy, the town is solidly white and lower middle class. The ‘colored folk,’ as they are still called, mostly live in a shantytown beyond the boundary. There is a solid minority of Catholics, but the town leadership remains Fundamentalist. Around here, ‘Darwin’ is a four letter word; Obama is a Kenyan Monkey; and Jesus (The Big JC, Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!) loves NASCAR and football almost as much as an hour of Sunday Bible thumping.
On both sides of Main Street are storefronts straight out of a Norman Rockwell. American Flags are as abundant as storefront posters extolling the twin virtues of good old fashioned motherhood and apple pie. Pretty much every man drives a pickup with a patriotic bumper sticker. It would be viewed as sort of faggoty not to do so. The men are in overalls or work shirts and jeans. The ladies are either tomboys in jeans and shit boots, or little old ladies in floral dresses.
Almost every other week there is a dance at the local grange or a celebration in the town square. The celebrations always have something to do with Jesus or with the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. That means lots of patriotic bunting, Souza marches, and red, white, and blue confetti. Even the Jesus focused events come across more as July 4th celebrations than as Easter services. After all, everyone knows that Jesus is the First Son of the American Revolution and that the British soldiers wore red coats at the time because of their fidelity to Satan.
Apparently, according to the posters flapping in the wind over Main Street, the next big shindig will be in honor of Officer Weaver, a local policeman who served very honorably in Iraq and, even more importantly, scored the game winning touchdown for the Redwood Beavers many years ago. Apparently, he killed a lot of gooks in Allah Land. Is that the right word? Gooks? Or is it Towel-Heads? In Corn’s mind, the wars all jumble together. Still, a hero is a hero; and who is he to judge one man’s war from another’s?
Corn sees Deputy Craig walking his beat. Privately, he thinks that the young cop with the squeaky clean baby face is too much of a ‘Jesus Freak’ for his taste, but he is thankful that the man came all the way out to his home several times to pray for Rose.
Corn honks his horn, and then waves at the young man. Deputy Craig waves back, and waits for Corn to park his truck along the side of the street near Main and Kellogg.
Cornelius, good to see you, Deputy Craig says with a smile and a firm handshake.
Corn pats the young police officer on his back. The two of them walk over to the sidewalk. Deputy Craig sees that Corn is a little wobbly, even with the aid of his cane, and steadies the older man by lightly holding up one of his elbows.
It’s been awhile since you’ve been in town, Deputy Craig says.
Ticker isn’t what it used to be, Corn remarks pleasantly.
You should come back for the party, Deputy Craig says, while nodding towards one of the Officer Weaver posters. There will be plenty of good speeches, wholesome entertainment, family friendly fun…
Deputy Craig stops in midsentence. There is an awkward moment of silence. The howling wind kicks both men in their lower backs. The patriotic bunting overhead snaps viciously. Clearly, this is neither the time nor the place for a drawn out conversation, and yet both men feel the need to say something more.
How is your family life? Deputy Craig finally asks.
The day I buried Rose the light went out of my life, Corn says.
If I’m not mistaken, you have a son, Deputy Craig comments…
I don’t have a family anymore, Corn interrupts.
There is another awkward silence. Corn looks over Deputy Craig’s left shoulder and through the side window of Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner. He sees his buddy, Clifford, seated at their favorite booth. He thinks about wrapping his icy hands around a bubbling hot ‘Cup of Joe,’ and yet still there is something to be said.
I’m a part of a weekly prayer group, Deputy Craig says.
Reverend Lloyd Goober, Corn remarks with a hint of disdain.
Yes, Deputy Craig says with a bright smile. Do you know him?
Only by reputation, Corn says without much enthusiasm.
Either Deputy Craig does not note Corn’s mild disdain, or he chooses not to see.
My weekly prayer group would love to pay a visit, Deputy Craig offers. Our ladies bake the best darn casseroles in town. Better than anything the local Papists can bake.
I have no doubt, Corn mutters.
Our prayers are better than the Papist variety, too, Deputy Craig says. Ours are straight out of the King James.
Yes, of course, Corn mutters.
We’re also a fun group, Deputy Craig continues…
Listen, Corn interrupts. I know you mean well, and I very much appreciate what you did for Rose. I’m just not open to that right now.
Deputy Craig places a firm hand on Corn’s right shoulder. He looks at the older man squarely in the eyes. Corn senses that this is a maneuver that Deputy Craig and his fellow missionaries have practiced for situations like this one. Corn feels manipulated, like all of a sudden he is Deputy Craig’s ‘mission’ instead of an actual person. He wants to get inside the diner. He no longer tries to mask his impatience with the younger man.
You need Jesus most when you’re down, Deputy Craig says. Not when you’re up.
That’s enough, Corn says firmly.
Deputy Craig removes his hand, but he still looks at the older man with intensity.
Jesus is here for you, Deputy Craig says. He stands by your side…
No, Corn interrupts. Every night, when I close my eyes, Rose is by my side. Every night, she holds my hand in hers. That means that every morning, when I open my eyes, I am reminded of the fact that she is gone. Deputy, that is my reality. I cannot escape it. No amount of prayers or hallelujahs or holy roller bullshit is going to bring her back.
Deputy Craig stands back. He looks down in shame.
I’m sorry, Corn says. I know you mean well.
Call me when it gets bad, okay? Deputy Craig says.
Yes, Corn says with a forced smile. I promise.
The two men nod at each other and go their separate ways.
Corn sets his eyes on Clifford, who is now sipping a cup of coffee. It is really no surprise that Clifford got their first. Bankers always have been up before farmers, since a lot of what they do has to be done under the cloak of darkness. Even Clifford, a saint among thieves, rests at night knowing the average man has no clue how he does his job.
Ignorance is bliss, Corn thinks. That is, until the Tax Man or the Sheriff arrives.
With that thought in mind, Corn hobbles heavily upon his cane around the corner and into Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner. He takes in the scene before walking over to the booth. The diner is a warm and cozy homage to a simpler time. It is stuck somewhere in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement, the Hippies, and the Homos. All of the patrons are white farmers in overalls or local merchants in white shirts and trousers. A Patsy Cline oldie warbles on the jukebox. Flo and Linda make the rounds serving up the butter drenched hotcakes and greasy grits that harden arteries and shorten lifespans in these parts. Millie presides over the counter, where she pours hot coffee to the oldest of the old timers privileged enough to have their own stools up there. Millie is a portly, mannish woman with an endless supply of country humor in her otherwise addled brain. Her coffee stained dentures and smoker’s cough complete the package. Though likely suffering from all sorts of diabetes related health issues, Millie’s the kind of hard earth that sticks around long after the sand is swept away. She will be pouring coffee for the next generation of oldsters, no doubt, and the locals would not have it any other way.
Howdy, Corn, Millie calls out from across the diner. Long time…
Pleasure’s mine, Corn responds with an insincere smile.
Looking to score, old man? Millie asks with a sparkle in her eyes.
Yes, Corn says with the same smile plastered on his face. Send one of the girls over with a Cup of Joe. My old ticker needs a swift kick this morning.
Clifford gestures for Corn to come on over. Clifford is a taciturn New Englander with a pair of pastel suspenders over a starched, white shirt. His pince-nez seems to be glued to the edge of his nose; for it never moves, even when he cracks a smile (so rare as to be unsettling), clears his throat (more often), or sneezes (regular occurrence as a result of his endless list of allergies). His longstanding friendship with Corn appears at first glance to be an odd pairing, and yet the few things they had in common have been more important to the two of them than their differences. Though a big city banker on weekdays, the weekends often found Clifford and Corn fly fishing Wild Indian River for hours on end before drowning their troubles at the Wild Injun Tavern halfway up Route 11. Sometimes, they would go all the way to the top of the mountain, and explore the unique ecology along the shore of Wild Indian Lake (what some old timers cryptically call ‘The Oasis,’ for a reason Clifford and Corn never discovered). They were like little boys knee deep in cold water digging into rocks. On those occasions, they seldom spoke verbally, but a look or a nod could be a whole conversation between them.
Though Corn does not like to think about this now, there is another reason they have been so close over the years. Clifford loved Rose like a sister. Indeed, the two of them had been friends before Corn swept her off her feet, and they continued to be as if brother and sister to one another thereafter. Deep down, Corn always had suspicions about Clifford’s ‘manliness,’ so to speak, and so did not fear that Clifford and Rose ever could be anything more than friends.
I ordered your favorite hotcakes, Clifford says, when Corn sits across from him.
And blackberry jam, Corn says. Don’t forget that.
I ordered the jam, Clifford says.
Just like Rose used to make, Corn mutters.
Not that good, Clifford reminisces. Rose’s used to be a lot sweeter…
Yeah, Corn continues the thought. More like blackberry honey.
That’s right, Clifford says.
She knew how to pick ‘em, Corn continues. The blackberries…
Everything, Clifford says. Rose knew what to pick and what to leave behind.
Corn does not respond. He stares through his friend. He sees his Beautiful Rose walking in front of him along the Wild Indian Creek. She is picking blackberries for her next pie. She twists and drops them into her basket without apparently looking at any one of the berries; and yet, invariably, each berry will be picture perfect. She glances back at her beloved and smiles. Her eyes say ‘come, hither,’ like she is willing to drop the blackberries, to undress, and to run for the creek. All Corn has to do then is to nod.
Corn cannot tell if this is a real memory or a fancy. Regardless, he never seems to nod; for the vision repeats itself continually, like it is stuck in a loop. She wants him. She is giving him every opportunity. Why is he not responding? What is wrong with him?
Flo interrupts the vision. She places a ‘Cup of Joe’ in front of Corn, who looks at Flo and at the ‘Cup of Joe’ for a moment like he does not have a clue what is happening.
Gonna be a cruel winter, Clifford observes.
Corn remembers that his hands are cold. He wraps them around the ‘Cup of Joe.’
Already is, Corn observes. I went out to see Rose this morning. Damned flurries nearly knocked me down.
Clifford looks at his coffee. He does not want to make eye contact this moment.
Gonna be hard on the farmers, Clifford observes.
We’re all living too close to the harvest, Corn agrees.
I’m talking about the farmers already in default, Clifford says.
Corn sips his ‘Cup of Joe.’ It is piping hot, and he literally can feel the cobwebs burning away in his own mind. His head clears enough for him to make sense of Clifford’s comment. He sets his ‘Cup of Joe’ down, and folds his shaking arms in front of his chest.
So what’s the plan? Corn asks.
Send out notices in two weeks, Clifford says. Then, you’ll have thirty days either to pay the default or to vacate the premises. The Sheriff’s on board with new recruits to bust some balls. They’ll handcuff the defaults, and send ‘em to the poor house before the night is done. Then, next morning, they’ll send out a team to board up the windows.
Can’t you talk to Ross? Corn pleads.
Old Ross has signed off on the plan, Clifford says. They’re about to give him his golden parachute, and he wants to leave with a clean slate. Make sure no one’s got any reason to question his country club membership.
Sure, Corn mutters.
Clifford looks up. He wipes away a solitary tear. On Clifford’s normally blank and unassuming face, this emotion is so rare as to be bizarre. Is Clifford crying now for real? Or is this another trick of Corn’s overactive imagination?
I’m so sorry, Clifford says.
Corn sighs. He looks over his right shoulder across the diner. On the opposite end sits Paul ‘Something or Other.’ The youngster is a Greek or an Italian; one of those shit house ethnics with more vowels than consonants in his ridiculously long surname. Even worse, the assistant librarian is forever a shade of blue; a poster child for depression, if Corn ever saw one. It is hard enough this morning for Corn to hold back his own tears.
Corn faces Clifford again. Corn takes another sip of his ‘Cup of Joe,’ as the tears start to fall down his face. He does not even bother wiping them away with the back of his hand. He frankly does not care how he looks to the other folks in the diner just then.
The hardest part is that it is not supposed to have been this way, Corn remarks.
The economy’s been shit the better part of a decade, Clifford says. You should not be so hard on yourself. What could you have done?
I’m not speaking about the farm, Corn mutters.
Clifford looks back down at his cup of coffee. He does not know what to say. At this moment, there is probably nothing that can be said that will help his friend anyway.
She’s supposed to be sitting by my bedside when I kick that damned bucket, Corn explains. Womenfolk can handle widowhood better than we can.
There is an awkward silence. Corn glances again at the ethnic twenty-something across the diner. Corn notices how everybody pretty much avoids him. Like a sick dog, that boy needs to be put out of his misery, Corn thinks.
A man needs his guiding light, Corn explains. He’s a dumb, blind fool, otherwise. A man lost in the dark. I can’t make any sense of this world anymore. The bank auctions off my farm, my only son drops me, and all I can do is to stare out my window and cry.
* * *
Corn stares blankly at his own field. He is sitting on his rocking chair. The tired, old porch beneath his chair creaks whenever he rocks back and forth. There is the smell of mildew, which reminds him that he has not tended to the farmhouse for some time.
The sun set over an hour ago. The glacier blue sky gave way to an impenetrable black one. There are no stars because of the cloud cover; and the autumn moon, once a blood red goddess presiding over a sea of fields still to be harvested, has been taken off her throne. She is now no more than a feminine ‘Peeping Tom,’ an eye that pokes through a break in the cloud cover for only seconds at a time. Soon, she will be an ice glow in the dark sky; a reminder that the fate of a man who lives too long is to see his goddess as a remote, cold, dead thing. Had she veiled all along that cold and dead face waving him to his grave? Does she remove her veil near the end, so that he must die in the knowledge that her love for him had been a ruse; a trick of the mind meant to hide just how sad and lonely the last act will be? How honest had she been with him, when she had reigned over his life as a red hot harvest moon; a beautiful burgundy rose in an endless night sky? These are the questions whispered by a restless wind, which scatters the snow across his dead field and shakes the outer walls and windows of his farmhouse.
A pair of headlights rumbles up the gravel road that joins the farmhouse to the highway out yonder. It has been a long time since he has had a night visitor. Though he has nothing else planned for tonight, Corn is not so certain he appreciates the intrusion.
It turns out the headlights belong to a black Lexis. The driver does not park his automobile in front of the farmhouse. Instead, he lets the engine idle, like he does not want to be there any longer than he has to be. Smoke snakes out from his exhaust pipe and twirls lasciviously over the snow.
The driver is Charlie Hawkins, Rose and Corn’s only child, and the way he looks at his watch when bolting out of his Lexis suggests that he is an ‘important man’ whose time is better spent elsewhere. His starched shirt and vest are also much too good for this weather system, and so he bats away the snow flurries like a man beating back an angry swarm of bees. He hastens up the steps to the porch to get away from the snow.
What’s going on, pop? Charlie asks in exasperation.
First real snow of the season, Corn remarks while still looking blankly at his field.
Charlie faces the snow field. The disturbed look on his face says that he wishes the field would just blow up. He cannot understand why any grown man would want to look at such desolation. He turns his attention back to his old man, and lets out a sigh.
I spoke with Clifford this afternoon, Charlie says.
No more kicking the can down the road, Corn mutters.
You don’t have much time, Charlie says.
More accurate to say you don’t have much time, Corn snaps, while he still avoids eye contact with his son. I know what this is all about. You don’t want your inheritance to be sold on the courthouse steps for pennies on the dollar.
Don’t be ridiculous, pop, Charlie says.
You want me to sell the farm now, Corn continues. Try to get top dollar for this land. Pay off Uncle Sam, and then set aside the rest for you. Isn’t that how it all ends?
You can’t stay here, Charlie snarls. Sheriff Joe will carry you off that old rocking chair, if you test him. Kick you in the ass a few times for good measure.
Old Sheriff Joe’s an asshole, Corn grumbles. Was even back in high school.
Folks say the same of you, Charlie snaps back.
And where am I supposed to go? Corn grumbles. Sleep on your couch? Hide in the closet whenever you go fetch a whore?
I told you, pop, Charlie sighs. There’s a vacancy at Providence House. It’s one of their ‘Gold Standard’ units. That means you’re never more than a hundred yards from one of the the communal restrooms.
Gotta score a touchdown to take a piss, Corn mutters.
And Jesse Goober said he can list the farm within forty-eight hours, Charlie says.
Part of that nut clan, Corn mutters.
Reverend’s cousin, Charlie remarks.
Corn grabs a hold of his cane, and forces himself up from his rocking chair. Cold wind blows his hair every which way. He looks like a madman stooped over a cane, and yet his blue eyes practically glow with clarity.
What if I don’t sell? Corn asks.
Pop, that doesn’t make any sense, Charlie sighs.
What if I’m just not willing to let go anymore? Corn asks. What if I stand before God, and Jesus, and the fucking Tooth Fairy, and tell them all that I’m not letting go of her hand? Not giving her up to cancer? Not letting some stranger sleep in our master bedroom? Not letting them bury some other child next to John? We spend much of our life learning to let go; but, maybe, before the end, I’m going to hold on to what’s mine.
Pop, you’re losing it, Charlie moans, while flapping away unwanted snow flurries.
Corn turns his back on his son. He staggers over to the screen door. He is about to push the old door open, when he thinks of what to say next. He turns to face his son.
I’m already lost, Corn remarks. Without your mother I’m nothing but a dead man walking on borrowed time.
Pop, please, Charlie mutters…
And this house, this farm, the elm behind you, all this is hers as much as mine, Corn remarks. Now and then, I can catch a glimpse of her inside these walls. I can feel her sometimes, when I’m out there walking the field.
Corn pulls the screen door open. It creaks on exhausted hinges.
Corn steps inside, turns around, and lets the screen door shut on his tired face. He looks twenty years older behind that screen. It is easy to imagine him in an orange jump suit, finishing up his remarks, while an unseen guard prepares to pull him further inside a dark, mildewed prison. Still, his eyes say that he is right where he wants to be.
I’m not letting go this time, Corn concludes.
Charlie glances irritably at his watch. He runs back toward his idling, black Lexis.
* * *
Corn rests the back of his head on his pillow. He pulls his blanket up to his chin. He listens to the gathering snowstorm, while the antique lamp beside him flickers off and on. There is a slight sulfur smell in the bedroom, like a light bulb somewhere just fizzled out, or a corpse beneath his bedframe is starting to decompose. He notes that the first hint of death always smells the same, no matter if the dead thing is organic or mechanical. The first step into eternity smells like rotted eggs left too long in the sun.
He practically can feel his morbid ‘death smell’ thought twisting into something much darker. Now is the time for a distraction, unless he actually wants to endure that lingering nightmare that occasions his paths down the dark side. To that end, he listens to the snow flurries beating against the bedroom window; and he twitches in fear when the wind outside shakes the walls.
The cold sweat on his brow reminds him that, while he may look and feel like an old man, his fear of the dark suggests a five-year-old boy.
A five-year-old boy in desperate need of his mama…
And a heartbroken man sliding imperceptibly into sleep, while the bedroom walls creak around him, and the snow flurries etch ghoulish faces into the shivering window glass. The heartbroken man cannot tell where reality gives way to fantasy. For a brief moment, he is frightened by that fact; and then, as if consumed by a hypnotic spell, he no longer cares about the distinction…
For he is not alone…
Beautiful Rose, Corn whispers, while staring blankly at the flat ceiling above him.
There is no response. He fears that he may have frightened her off, but then he recalls that she could not speak towards the end.
Except with her eyes, that is. The dying and the dead speak volumes with their eyes. Invariably, there is an urgency and a clarity in the message seldom found in verbal speech; for the dying and the dead do not possess the luxury of subtlety. For the dying, there is not enough time. For the dead, there is no time.
The wind moans beneath the eaves. The lamp flickers off for the last time that night. The wall behind his headboard shakes, like there is a buzzing beehive back there.
And yet, that is not quite right. Corn feels the vibrating headboard and thinks of a dying person’s ‘death rattle.’ Had there been a ‘death rattle,’ just before Rose died?
He tries hard to answer his own question, and yet deep down he also knows that that is one of those mysteries that cannot be pulled aside like an old curtain. Rose had died already, when he came upon her, scooted over to her side, and took her hand into his. The walls and the window heard whatever noise, if any, she made at the very end.
Do you want to hear what noise she made?
The question does not appear in his mind, so much as it is felt in his heart. There is no voice, no sultry whisper, no ghostly moan. Instead, there is an awareness. It is as if his deepest desire has been unearthed from a grave and shown all along to have been a question. Actually, it is a set of two questions.
Do you want to hear what noise she made?
Do you want to see her last moment alive?
Corn does not answer these questions, but he does allow his eyes to move from the flat ceiling above him to the dark human form breathing heavily beside him. It is as if the scales have fallen from his eyes; for in this darkness, he sees finally what he has been feeling ever since he buried his Beautiful Rose.
He sees that she is beside him. He understands that he can hold her hand again, as he did their last hours together. He tells himself that he will not let go, not this time.
Take my hand into yours.
This time, Corn hears a voice in his mind. It is Rose’s voice.
No, that is not true. More accurate to say that it is meant to be Rose’s voice; for there is something about it that is just not right. The breathiness, the dialect, the pitch, each and every one of those qualities is spot on. What is wrong is an underlying feeling. This is the voice of a manipulator. This is the voice of someone trying to get Corn to do something wrong; not the mischievous, playful ‘wrong’ of making love under the cover of an elm branch; but rather, the kind of ‘wrong’ that will lead a man down a dark path if he is not extra careful.
Take my hand into yours.
Corn starts to move his left hand toward the dark human form. He intends to pull aside the blanket and to find the cold hand waiting for him there. He senses that that hand already is as clammy as it will be when she dies. The body shuts down in parts, it seems. By the time the heart stops kicking the rest of the body has been in eternity for awhile. One can smell the rotted eggs, even as the eyes continue to search for heaven.
Corn hesitates. What is wrong here is much too wrong. It is dark. It is witchery…
Does he hear the soft rustle of the blanket beside him?
Does he see the blanket slide down the dark human form?
Does he feel a clammy, cold hand reach out and touch him?
* * *
Corn jumps out from his sleep, screaming, sweating, recoiling from a dead hand that he still sees in his left peripheral vision. He grabs at his heart, like he has to stop it from beating through his old chest, and he stares wild eyed at the bedroom window.
There is a hint of silvery purple light bleeding through the window. Otherwise, the bedroom remains veiled in the cold and heavy darkness of an early winter. There is not really going to be an autumn this year. The stillborn harvest too soon gives way to a frozen farmhouse beside a dead dirt patch. The blanket does not manage to keep out the cold. Neither will the coffee that is downstairs in the kitchen, nor the buttered rum mix hidden away in the liquor cabinet. He wants to think that six feet of dirt pressed down on his bones might do the trick, but he is not so sure this morning. He still feels just how cold her hand had been in his. Will her hand be that cold when they are resting side by side beneath their tombstones?
Corn is very tired. He must not have slept well. He decides not to try to go back to sleep, though. Perhaps, the old farmer in him cannot abide sleeping longer than the sun. Perhaps, he is afraid that that cold hand will grab a hold of him again before long.
And with that thought in mind, he starts to cry. Never before has he feared her prematurely old and diseased hand. Never before has he recoiled from her cold touch.
She is slipping away faster frankly than he had anticipated. How much of Rose is left in that dark human form with the cold hand that he dreamt (or saw) the prior night? Does he still see Rose, when he removes a framed photograph from the hallway, or does he see his own sorrow, his own despair, his sadness creeping like a slug toward suicide?
Corn forces himself out of bed and into the shower.
He puts on his overalls and boots, though the snow is such that he probably will not be venturing outside today. He looks down and sees the faded shit stain still clinging to his overalls over his right knee. Rose had tried so hard to wipe out that stain. He can see her now reaching for the apple cider vinegar in the cupboard beside the stove. She always had this focused look on her face when grabbing for the vinegar, because vinegar meant there was a chore still to be done. He always saw the beauty in that focus; the look of a mama bear protecting her cub from all of that shit just outside the front door.
Corn walks down the steps. They seem to creak even more loudly than usual this morning. It is as if they resent the fact that he is still here, pressing down on them with his boot heels, and holding the rail like he is on the edge of a cliff. He wanders up and down these same steps nowadays as if a maudlin ghost in chains; and yet real ghosts do not press down on tired, old surfaces. The most they do is to darken the shadows or to flutter the curtains. This ‘ghost man’ in the shit stained overalls and boots, though, still walks in the slow and heavy manner of Sisyphus pushing up his boulder. Even when he is walking downstairs for his first cup of coffee, he is pushing up his boulder toward the unreachable summit. The more he pushes, the heavier are his boots on those old steps.
Corn takes one of the framed photographs off of the wall, before stepping off of the stairs and into the kitchen. That is his routine every morning. Take down one of the fading photographs, lean it against Rose’s potpourri bowl on the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee, and stare at her until the tears run dry. He hardly tastes the hot coffee, since he is so consumed with Rose leaning against a boulder beside Wild Indian Lake, or Rose in her yellow summer dress the year they did that road trip out to the Dakotas, or Rose cradling her newborn Charlie in her arms, or Rose on her knees in a sea of flowers…
The kitchen is much colder than normal. There is potpourri scattered across the table and the floor. Clearly, there is a draft from somewhere, which is strange since he remembers checking to see that all the windows had been shut before going to bed the previous night. Is there a new crack in the outer wall? Is the kitchen window starting to rattle out from its frame? Or is this the kind of chill a man drags out from his nightmares?
Corn looks at the framed photograph in his hand. This time, it is Rose in her jean shirt, jean shorts, and hiking shoes crouched on a branch of the elm out front. She has her hair in a bun, so it is out of the way. The mischievous smile on her face says that, at that moment anyway, she could be just as comfortable inside the body of a twelve- year-old boy; and yet there is a subtle sadness in her eyes. It is like she is forcing herself to have fun, since the alternative is a despair the mama bear cannot afford to indulge.
Corn notices that she is crouching directly above where John Hawkins had been buried a few years earlier. Someone might think that she was being disrespectful of a burial site, but Corn knows better. He knows that in Rose’s mind climbing the elm tree as John would have climbed it if he had lived is a sacred act. It is a kind of communion. Indeed, he recalls more than once seeing her up there whispering to a bird, or a branch, or to nothing in particular. He never heard her words, but he sensed that his Beautiful Rose was up there speaking with John. The mama bear never loses her cub, not totally. She will see him in the face of another boy, or in a place where he would have played; and she will feel his eternal soul in the sunlight, as she had felt his kicks in her womb.
Corn sheds a wistful tear. He leans the framed photograph against the potpourri bowl. He starts to gather up the potpourri, when he hears his front doorknob rattle. Of course, the howling wind outside may be the cause; and yet the hair shooting up on the back of his neck tells him that there is something else going on here. Is there someone at his door? More to the point, is there an asshole on the other side of that door trying to interfere with his morning coffee with Rose? Is there a shithead invading their space?
Hobbling towards the front door, Corn’s sadness turns to anger in a flash. He is exhausted much too quickly by his adrenaline rush, and so he grabs for his cane in the foyer. He has to lean heavily on the cane, and to catch his breath, before he unlatches the door. His face is a grimace of anger and pain. His heart throws punches at his chest.
There is a plump, blond, twenty-something woman on his doorstep. Her pudgy, red cheeks suggest a balloon that is about to explode. Much worse, though, is the self-righteous smirk on her face. This is a young lady whose shit apparently does not stink.
Do you have a minute for Jesus? The young lady asks.
Corn notes the yellow polka-dot dress in front of him. It is several sizes too small on this young lady, more sausage casing than clothing; and yet what stands out more so is the black leather bound Bible she holds by her thick, right thigh like a brick. His first thought is that he had better be careful how he responds, lest she pummel the top of his head with that blunt instrument. That thought just irritates him even more. Who is this fatso to threaten him on his doorstep? Does he not have a right to his own sadness? He knows deep down that the questions popping into his head just then are not all that charitable. He senses that he is seeing her more as a caricature than as a person, and yet he is so damned angry at the moment.
Not now, Corn growls.
Because if you do not have a minute for Him, you will get an eternity with Satan, the young lady continues her spiel without missing a beat.
I do not have time for this, Corn mutters, while starting to close the door on her.
Jesus has a special place; the young lady begins to say…
What do you know about Satan? Corn snaps back.
In His heart for widowers, the young lady continues. He knows your pain…
And what do you know about pain? Corn snaps back. About loneliness? The long nights? What in the hell do you know about anything, young lady? Answer me that, huh?
I know that God gave His only begotten Son; the young lady begins to say…
John 3:16, Corn snarls. Yes, I know that one. I watch football.
To the end that all who believe in Him should not suffer; the young lady persists…
Well, I guess the coroner removed Jesus along with my wife, Corn snarls. Because there has been nothing here but suffering, since I gave up and handed her over to him.
But Jesus won’t give up on you, the young lady counters.
Tell me something, Corn snarls. Is Jesus going to wipe the shit stain out of these overalls? Is Jesus going to know how many cubes of sugar to put in my coffee? Is Jesus going to listen to me bitch and moan about the bank? Is Jesus going to hold me close in bed? Is Jesus going to kiss me goodnight, and tell me that everything’s going to be okay?
I am a part of a prayer group; the young lady announces.
Reverend Goober’s Glee Club, Corn mutters.
‘Glee,’ the young lady snaps back. That’s that TV show with the lesbian. Satanic!
Corn smiles. He sees that he got under the young lady’s skin for a moment there.
We would like to pray with you, the young lady continues.
If you want to pray so damned much, then pray that I can get back what’s mine, Corn says with a trembling voice. I’ve been robbed, goddamn it.
John 10:10, the young lady says from memory. The thief comes only to steal, to kill, and to destroy…
Then, your God is the thief, Corn yells. He took her from me. I had stepped out no more than five minutes. Just enough time for your God to rip her hand out of mine…
The young lady tries to respond, but before she can do so Corn slams the door in her face. The wind howls with scorn, and so the young lady bows her head and departs.
* * *
Corn leans against the fencepost. He has to catch his breath again.
The wind is an iced cold dagger stabbing repeatedly at his bones. It screams like a petulant child in his ears; a baby who wants his mama to remove him from his lonely crib. It is as if the world is that crib, and the gusts snapping up from the ground desire to be freed finally from the heavy dampness that keeps them swirling close to the earth.
Corn imagines a baby in a crib with an iced cold dagger in his right fist. The baby stabs at the air, because there is no other way for him to defy his situation. He wants to get the hell out of there. Is that Baby John? Is that the face of his baby boy, if only he had survived in the womb and lived long enough to be trapped in a yellow polka-dot crib? Or does he see his reflection; an old man no more than a baby without his mama?
Corn grabs at his heart. He is not catching his breath as quickly as normal.
He drops the shovel he had been holding with his other hand. He hears it fall into the snow; or maybe that is the sound of his heart beating into his chest, while the wind screams defiance into his ears.
He leans more heavily against the fencepost, which is already a ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ on account of the snowstorms that have been rumbling through these parts the last several nights. If he does not regain his balance soon, then the post will fall to the earth; and he will fall with it. He imagines his face striking the snow and smashing into small pieces. It is a gruesome image; scary enough to kick some life back into his heart.
He staggers back from the post, before it falls to the ground.
He waits a moment for his breathing to return to normal. He bends down, picks up the shovel, and decides to head back. This fencepost will not survive the next storm, but he is in no condition now to do anything more about it. His helplessness angers and saddens him. His only solace at that moment is the thought of returning to his kitchen, heating up the kettle, and staring at the photograph leaning against the potpourri bowl.
Going home is a lot harder than leaving. Corn walks heavily, slowly, like an aged automaton about to freeze. He leans precariously on the shovel, which is his makeshift cane out here on the farm. He struggles to keep his old eyes fixated on his farmhouse up yonder. The simple house beside the elm looms in the distance as his own personal heaven; a sad, creaking, old building against the backdrop of a steel grey sky, but the one place where his memories still manage to take hold. He can find Rose there, not as much with every passing day, true, but what else does he have? What can he really call his own, when it seems his whole life is as much in default as the mortgage on his farm?
It must be later than he had thought, because the snow flurries are slapping his face now with the fury of an impending snowstorm. He stops to wipe the snow from his eyes. His whole body trembles from sheer exhaustion. He may not make it back today.
He is about to take another step forward, when something catches his eye. He is looking up at his bedroom window in the distance…
And Rose is staring back down at him.
He clutches at his heart. He inhales deeply the iced cold air, because he is afraid that otherwise he will hyperventilate. Sweat pours down his cheeks and off of his chin.
Is he having a heart attack?
Is that Rose? Is that possible?
Corn pushes forward. He has to find out, even if it kills him. He pants like an old dog, while kicking back the snow in his path. He does not even bother to wipe away the sweat, even though it is stinging his sad eyes. All that matters is that he gets up there.
Now, goddamn it, he needs to get up there now…
Before it is too late. Before God rips her hand out of his yet again…
He desperately wants to lean against the front door, when he gets there; but he knows that he does not have time. He tosses his shovel aside, opens his door, and goes straight for the staircase. He catches a glimpse of her photograph leaning upon the old potpourri bowl. Rose is in her summer dress. They are on a road trip in the Dakotas. If you look closely, then you can see an Indian Chief carved in a boulder in the background.
The memory hits him hard. It is like that Bible thumper from a few days ago has hit him on the head with that brick. Or was she carrying a Bible? Or maybe a Bible Brick?
Corn falls to his knees on the third step up the staircase. He grabs at his heart. He gasps for breath like a fish out of water. That makes sense, because this is not his world anymore. Without Rose, he is the trout pulled out from the river and tossed aside.
But what is this memory? What is hitting him so hard right now?
He and his Beautiful Rose are spending the night in a motel room. Somewhere in North Dakota. Nothing to see in every direction, and so the motel with the neon cowboy out front is a kind of desert oasis. They are in bed, holding each other, looking out at that neon cowboy. There is the smell of sex in the air, because they are young still; and when young people make love they leave plenty of evidence on bed sheets and woven rugs. There is a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray. Rose will kick that habit someday, quit cold turkey, but not that night. Until the sun breaks through the night, there will be the smell of sex sifting in and out of cigarette smoke; a taste of film noir somewhere out there in Cowboy Land.
And then, Rose turns to him. She stares longingly into his sleepy eyes, and says…
Well, what? What does she say? Nothing? Or has he forgotten?
And then, he is following her. They are no longer on their road trip. Now, she is walking in front of him along the Wild Indian Creek. She is picking blackberries for her next pie. She twists and drops them into her basket without apparently looking at any one of the berries; and yet, invariably, each berry will be picture perfect. She glances back at her beloved and smiles. Her eyes say ‘come, hither,’ like she is willing to drop the blackberries, to undress, and to run for the creek. All Corn has to do then is to nod.
Corn cannot tell if this is a real memory or a fancy. Regardless, he never seems to nod; for the vision repeats itself continually, like it is stuck in a loop. She wants him. She is giving him every opportunity. Why is he not responding? What is wrong with him?
Corn opens his eyes. He gasps for a breath of air. He reaches up, like it is possible literally to pull the air into his lungs. That seems to do the trick at least for the moment.
Where am I? Why is my back screaming in pain?
It takes sometime for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. That is another sign of old age. A young farmer can see as well in darkness as in light; most likely, because he spends so many hours working the farm before sunrise. An old farmer has to wait for all those scales to fall away from his eyes. He has to learn patience; not an easy task for a man who has learned over the years how to make life answer to him on his timetable.
Finally, he sees that he had passed out on the staircase. His back is screaming at him because, somehow, it is twisted at an odd angle against the wall. It is as if he had been on the losing end of a fight, and he is just now realizing the depth of his own folly.
He pulls himself up. He leans heavily on the rail, while he heaves one foot after another up the rest of the staircase. He hears the steps creak beneath his weight. The steps are resentful as always. They want him to fade away like all those memories he has been trying for the last year to hold in his heart. They want his unending sorrow to be no more substantial than one of his soiled, threadbare curtains fluttering in a draft.
He steps into the master bedroom. He had seen Rose in here earlier today. She had been staring back at him from the bedroom window…
Is that Rose lying beneath the blanket on their bed?
His heart skips a beat, as he switches on the light. There is something beneath the blanket on their bed, but it is not Rose. It is Rose’s pillow. The pillow is where Rose used to be when she had slept in his arms. There is a deep crease in the pillow, because Corn actually has been holding the pillow each night the same way he used to hold her.
He can smell the pillow from the doorway. Every night, before he slides beneath the blanket, he sprays the pillow with Rose’s favorite perfume. For the most part, Rose had been a tomboy; but she always went to bed a lady.
Corn walks over to the bedroom window. He looks out. He sees nothing, but total darkness. He can hear the snow flurries beating against the glass, but with the overcast night sky covering the moon he cannot see them. He wonders how he must have looked in her eyes, while he staggered up to the farmhouse with a shovel as a walking stick. It must not have been a pretty sight. An old farmer no longer looks good on his own land. He just looks tired, beaten, ready for the grave.
Corn should go back down and heat up some milk. Nothing puts him down faster than a glass of warm milk punctuated with a bit of rum. Folks around these parts call this blend ‘a country man’s sleep aid.’ Sure beats what the general store sells in town.
He should also take a long shower. The hot water will silence his screaming back.
He decides to skip the routine this time. His heart is too heavy.
He manages to kick off his boots, but does not bother with his overalls. As much as Rose is a lady in bed, he is a man. He turns off the light, and slides up to the pillow…
And then starts to cry. This is a pillow, goddamn it. This is not Rose.
Rose had been ripped from his hand, and buried beside an elm tree.
* * *
Corn wraps both hands around the coffee cup. There is no more warmth. He has been staring at the framed photograph leaning against the potpourri bowl for too long apparently, for his brew is as cold as the draft flowing into the kitchen from somewhere.
This time, Rose is kneeling beside Charlie. She is a healthy mommy in jeans and T-shirt. He is four or five in a cute sailor outfit. There are candy canes and snowflakes glued to the back screen, so this must be one of those department store photo studios set up to fleece the parents around Christmas time.
He is startled out of his doldrums by what sounds like a kettle whistling. Did he forget to turn off the stove? It is possible. The last few days his wits seem to have gone into hibernation for the winter. He cannot do much more than to wander downstairs in his overalls, remove a photograph from the wall, heat up some coffee, and stare. Most often, nothing happens. Sometimes, a disjointed memory bubbles up from nowhere and brings another tear to his eyes. The memories are sepia toned even in his own mind. It is only a matter of time before his memories are as thin and as brittle as kindling. Then, it will be all over for him, whether he takes his own life, or someone else takes it for him. He can see where this all ends. He can look at the framed photograph still, while a cold draft flows into the kitchen from a crack in a wall, but all he sees is hopelessness.
So what is that damned whistle sound? If it is not the Bible Thumpers showing up with ‘an urgent message from the Holy Bible,’ then it is something inside his farmhouse fizzling out or breaking down on account of all that bad weather outside. It is like God and the snowstorm are competing with one another to see which one first can drive him mad. Every time something distracts him from Beautiful Rose he feels his sanity leaking out from his mind like air from a balloon. He is fading away mentally, as much as he is physically; and the shell that is left behind is increasingly confused, morose, and ornery.
Fucking old age, Corn mutters. I’m supposed to go first. I give my life to the land, and in return I get to see her blue eyes looking down on me when I kick the fucking can. There’s justice in that. Man’s supposed to be waiting for his bride up at the altar, not the other way around. It’s like this is all a perversion, or something, and what the fuck?
The whistle is now the sound of an approaching engine. Some bastard is coming up his driveway. If he still had any balls, then he’d be going for his rifle just about now.
Instead, Corn grabs a hold of the cane, which he now keeps beside his stove. He almost fell the other day walking from the kitchen to the foyer, so he is going to keep his cane closer at hand from now on. Fucking old age robs a man of his dignity most of all. He cannot be the king of his own house, when he has to stagger around with a stick.
The vehicle is idling beside the giant elm by the time he arrives at the front door.
Corn unlatches the rickety door. He takes in a deep breath, and he opens it. He sees Old Sheriff Joe stepping out from his vehicle. The silver sheriff’s badge painted on the driver’s side door kicks his heart into high gear, as it is supposed to do. The old man in the tall Stetson is as imposing, though his slow and careful walk across the snow is a hint that he is not the rough house he used to be. His thousand-yard stare is as sharp as ever, though. His steel grey eyes are the same they had been back when Joe Clapper had been busting balls in high school. For all the disjointed memories fading fast within Corn’s mind, he remembers those steel greys as if he had been bullied yesterday. It is sad, but true, that we hold onto our horrors with greater tenacity than we do our loves.
Corn Hawkins, the Sheriff drawls, before spitting dark phlegm onto the doormat.
Sheriff, Corn mutters, while leaning heavily on his cane.
The Sheriff stops dead center on the doormat. He does not flinch. He just stares at Corn with the same cold look he had mastered in high school so many decades ago. His look says, ‘Say or do something stupid, asshole, and I’ll rip your head off your neck.’
Know why I’m here? The Sheriff asks after an awkward moment of silence.
Wish me a Happy Halloween, Corn scoffs.
Ain’t for a few weeks, the Sheriff says so straightforwardly he seems not to have noticed that Corn had been sarcastic.
Corn does not know what to say. He stands there wishing that he could sit down.
I’m here ‘cause I’m your angel, the Sheriff says with an evil grin.
Sprouting wings? Corn inquires.
Delivering a message, the Sheriff answers again without any apparent recognition of Corn’s sarcasm.
The Sheriff removes a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He unfolds it slowly. Corn notices that the old man’s fingers are arthritic. They may be having their standoff, but the two old cowboys are fading away. Corn imagines the OK Corral and decides the two of them will be long gone before either one reaches for his six shooter. Fucking old men cannot even go out in a blaze of glory, it seems.
The paper is a default notice from the bank. Corn has thirty days to pay the piper a lump sum he will never be able to find unless he robs a bank. When he does not pay, then his family farm goes on the auction block on the thirty-first day. The paper urges him to consult a lawyer, if he has not done so already. How nice of them to tell him his rights. It is like he has been Mirandized. All that’s missing are the handcuff on his wrists.
The Sheriff removes a hammer and a nail from his belt. Corn notices that there are a lot of nails lined up neatly side by side. They resemble those bullets that are fed into machine guns in gangster movies. Makes sense in a way, for nailing these default notices onto front doors is about the same as taking out a low level hood with a drive-by shooting. The debtor is supposed to feel like a hood. Sex shame has been thrown out the window with vinyl records and avocado green rotary phones; but money shame will remain alive and well, so long as there are greedy banks and bad harvests.
The Sheriff pushes Corn aside, and nails the default notice onto his opened front door. His fingers may be arthritic, but he nails the notice into the door with the rapid, confident movement of a man who has mastered the craft.
For good measure, the Sheriff blows air onto the head of the hammer, like he is blowing away the smoke from the muzzle of a six shooter. He snaps the hammer back onto his belt. He returns to the doormat, and he straightens his imposing Stetson, even though it has not moved once since he stepped out of his car and placed it on his head.
You’re not going to raise hell, the Sheriff remarks. Are you, Corn?
I’m going to keep what’s mine, Corn says.
This ain’t yours come Judgment Day, the Sheriff snaps back.
Corn does not respond. He swallows hard, though, since every ounce of his flesh and soul wants to knock the tall Stetson off of the bully standing square in front of him.
You ain’t a Bible man, are you Corn? The Sheriff asks after a moment of silence.
Hanging around Goober? Corn asks irritably.
The Sheriff spits more phlegm into Corn’s foyer. He wipes the residue on his shirt sleeve. There is a pained look in his steel grey eyes, if only for a second or two. Then, as always, that calm assurance reasserts itself; and he is the high school bully yet again.
Hell, no, the Sheriff snarls. Never met a man who didn’t lose his balls in church.
Corn takes in a deep breath. His ribs are trembling. He really must sit down soon.
But a Bible man doesn’t need a pastor and a pew, the Sheriff explains. Just needs a white man’s command of the English language.
Sure, Corn mutters.
And a head with some sense in it, the Sheriff continues.
I reckon, Corn mutters.
Our Lord says ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,’ the Sheriff remarks. Ever heard that one?
Corn does not respond. He holds his ribs with his free hand, and hopes that this conversation ceases sooner rather than later. He leans even more heavily upon his cane.
Come Judgment Day Caesar will be taking back this land, the Sheriff continues. It’s the way of the world. God will be coming for your soul next.
He has taken the best part of me already, Corn mutters.
Either the Sheriff does not hear him, or he does not know what to make of that comment. Regardless, he pushes forward with his statement like Corn is not even there.
Don’t resist, the Sheriff warns. I’ll take you down myself, if you try to give Caesar the back of your hand come Judgment Day.
Sure, Corn mutters.
And the Good Lord will rip your balls off if you try anything smart with His Father, the Sheriff concludes with a sadistic grin. You’d know that if you too were a Bible Man.
I reckon, Corn mutters.
The Sheriff stares deeply into Corn’s eyes. Whatever he sees apparently does not impress him. He straightens his rigid Stetson again, and starts to turn his back to Corn.
Sheriff, I wonder, Corn says. Why is it you nail these notices yourself? Don’t you have a woman for this sort of work?
This here notice is the law, the Sheriff explains. It’s what separates us from apes and niggers.
And you’re a lawman, Corn mutters.
Damned straight, the Sheriff remarks with a sadistic glint in his eyes. And you’ll realize the full force of what that means, if you aren’t out of here come Judgment Day.
Corn says nothing. He just watches the Sheriff return to his vehicle. The Sheriff’s steps are slow and stiff. There is a stoop in his shoulders. Regardless of his tough man bravado, his days too are numbered. Corn does not feel any satisfaction with that fact, though he loathes the old man as much now as he did back in high school. If anything, then he feels sad, for the old man’s infirmities mirror his own. They are two old soldiers meeting again on a battlefield that the rest of the world has left behind and forgotten.
Are Corn’s efforts to hold onto Rose as pitiful as his standoff just now with Old Sheriff Joe? If old age robs a man of his dignity, then does it also rob him of his majesty?
Corn closes the front door. He prepares to hobble back to the kitchen, but then stops to contemplate something. If things had happened as they were supposed to, and Rose had been sitting beside him when he died, then at that final moment Rose would have looked into his eyes and seen her man. He might have been a blithering idiot then, but in her eyes he would have been the same man she had married so many years ago. Something in her eyes would have reaffirmed his manhood, his dignity, his majesty; and he would have left this earth knowing that he had retained unto the end his underlying humanity. In a way, just by observing how she looked at him, he would have been able to snatch away from God that sick joy God must feel in robbing a man of his manhood.
But that is not the way it is going to happen. Someday, maybe soon, maybe not, Corn will be languishing on his dead bed. He may be alone, or he may be in the company of a nurse. Regardless, no one will look down on him then and reaffirm that indeed he is a man; a dying man, yes, but also a man who had harvested life out of a hard earth.
Corn hears the vehicle driving away from his land. He returns to his kitchen, sits beside the framed photograph of Rose and Charlie, and lets the tears fall one at a time.
* * *
If there is a little bit of Eden in every woman, Corn supposes, then Beautiful Rose stands apart as a kind of goddess. The trace of innocent life he sees in a woman’s smile, in how her hips sway playfully, or in the blush in her cheeks is a full canvas of light and color when he beholds his wife out in nature. She is Eden come back alive, when she is walking in front of him along the Wild Indian Creek. She is picking blackberries for her next pie. She twists and drops them into her basket without apparently looking at any one of the berries; and yet, invariably, each berry will be picture perfect. She glances back at her beloved and smiles. Her eyes say ‘come, hither,’ like she is willing to drop the blackberries, to undress, and to run for the creek. All Corn has to do then is to nod.
Corn cannot tell if this is a real memory or a fancy. Regardless, he never seems to nod; for the vision repeats itself continually, like it is stuck in a loop. She wants him. She is giving him every opportunity. Why is he not responding? What is wrong with him?
Corn shoots straight up in bed. He grasps at his heart. He is trying to hold it back from breaking through his chest. The sweat pouring down his face blinds him a moment.
And yet there is not much to see anyway. The vision is receding from his mind a bit more with every one of his deep breaths. It is giving way now to the dark bedroom…
Or is it? Perhaps, the moment he had had with his Beautiful Rose is not departing from him now as fast as usual. Perhaps, she is staying around even after he awakens to the shrieks from the snowstorm outside.
Wishful thinking? Most likely, and yet he cannot bury the thought that this time there is something different about that vision. He cannot view anything, even when he wipes the sweat from his eyes…
But he can hear, well, he is not sure what it is. He only senses that it is different from the screaming wind outside. It is different from how his walls creak in the storm. It is closer to the feathery sound that the snow flurries make when sweeping against his window; and yet it is not that, either. It is like when his mother used to check on him in his bedroom. He would pretend to sleep. She would close the bedroom door behind her. He would listen to the rustle of her dress, and count the number of footsteps from his bedroom door to hers. The steps were soft, almost ghostlike, for no matter her age or her station in life the lady of the house never stomps on the hardwood like a plumber or an electrician weighed down by his utility belt. It is as if, deep down, she knows she will be haunting this house many more years than she will live in it; and so she desires to make as little impression as possible. No matter what she wears, if anything, on her powdered feet, her receding steps sound like those made by an elderly lady in slippers.
That is what he hears. The receding steps of an elderly lady in slippers…
Rose had aged prematurely on account of her cancer.
Rose had worn slippers on her death bed.
Corn remembers pulling the slippers under her feet and over her ankles, so that they would fit snugly on her clammy skin. He wondered how her blood could circulate, but the look in her eyes told him that she preferred warm feet over blood circulation. A dying woman is always too cold, it seems. It does not matter how many blankets her husband retrieves from the closet. Heat escapes, and she starts to turn blue everywhere even before her heart finally gives up. Blue ice chiseled into the form of a dying woman; what had been so beautiful in the sun now shivering off flakes of ice beneath a blanket…
Yes, that is what I hear, Corn thinks. Rose is walking away from me. Even tonight, she is giving me yet another chance. Why am I not responding? What is wrong with me? Do I not realize that there is a chance still to save her from turning into a fucking icicle?
Do I really love her? Corn mumbles. Do I care enough to hold onto her this time?
Corn scrambles out of his bed. He is wearing his overalls and shit boots already. He cannot remember the last time he took off his clothes to go to bed. The pillow that passes for Rose does not seem to care one way or another. Ever since the first time, he and Rose always slept so easily together. Two peas in a pod, the old timers would say with that sly grin in their eyes that said that they too recalled the ladies they had loved.
Corn catches his breath at the open doorway. He reaches for his cane, which he recalls leaning against the wall beside the door. He does not recall if he closed the door to his bedroom before sliding beneath the sheets. If so, then the cold wind from outside swept through a hole and pushed open his bedroom door before he awakened just now…
Or Rose (mama) pushed open the door to make sure he tucked himself in tonight.
He listens intently. He hears the shrieking wind, the creaking walls, the feathery sound of snow flurries sweeping against his window. He even hears his heart beating in his inner ears. His heart is the sound of a fist beating into raw meat, like that famous scene in Rocky. He is being battered by his own heart; raped by his own flesh and blood.
He puts all that aside, for that is not the sound that matters to him now. Unless he is shown to have been mad, he will swear before God that he heard Rose just now. He heard her walking away from his bedroom, like his mother, yes, but likewise like his wife on that afternoon she glanced back at him with ‘come, hither’ singing in her eyes.
There are footsteps going down the staircase.
Corn leans heavily on his cane, while he starts down the staircase himself. Even though he knows these steps better than the back of his hand, he does not trust his own agility at this time. There are too many sounds, and thoughts, and feelings, any one of which could knock away his precarious balance.
There are footsteps creaking the kitchen floor.
Corn is losing her. He must quicken his pace, even if that means he falls flat onto his face. Goddamn his frozen joints screaming at him. He will push them to their limits, even if that means that they snap like faggots in the fire. Who the fuck cares if he ends up a pool of flesh and of blood at the bottom of these steps? What does it matter if he dies right then and there? Better to break his neck and to die than to lose her yet again.
Miraculously, he makes it to the bottom step in one piece.
Rose, wait, Corn says through his labored breaths. I am coming for you, Beautiful.
The front door bursts open. The hinges scream irritably, as the door snaps against the wall. Screaming winds toss snow onto the foyer floor, like when a petulant child in a highchair snaps back a spoonful of unwanted porridge. Guttural cries sift in and out of the maelstrom. These cries suggest something out there that is much more menacing than a snowstorm. Something barely concealed by the storm. Something that will snatch her away just before he catches up with her. Keep her hand away from his forevermore.
Corn hobbles to the open doorway. It takes every last bit of his strength just to stand there in all that weather. His old eyes still have not adjusted to the darkness. He stares out into the maelstrom as blind as a bat; his ears grasping for a small footstep in a fierce snowstorm; his heart a Conga drum beat inducing a frenzy of fears and of lusts.
Rose, wait! Corn screams into the snowstorm.
Did he hear something? He is not sure. He just knows that he will lose her forever, if he stands here in the open doorway. She is out there, somewhere, glancing back at him with ‘come, hither’ in her eyes. Why is he not responding? What is wrong with him?
Corn drops his chin to his chest. He braces himself the best he can for the fierce and debilitating cold outside his home. He feels his hand trembling on his cane, but he cannot stop that any more than he can slow down his heart. He has no choice but to go out there as a beaten, elderly man; a man driven by his despair more so than his reason.
He does not go very far; maybe, a half a dozen steps beyond his doormat. He is not sure where he is, or even if this is real. Maybe, he is being eaten alive by screaming snow flurries; but it seems just as likely that he is tossing and turning under his blankets.
Crying out for his mama…
Crying out for his Rose…
His Beautiful Rose…
His face smashes into the snow. He hears that guttural cry. It is coming for him. Coming from beneath the snow. Coming for his heart. Squeezing him blue and lifeless.
* * *
Corn opens his eyes. He expects to see nothing, but the dark snow into which he has fallen. His face feels numb, like it has been encased in ice for God knows how long. His eyes burn, like millions of miniscule daggers have been stabbing through his eyelids.
Instead, he opens his eyes to a dark room. Is he in his bedroom? The room feels foreign to him somehow, and yet that does not preclude the possibility that he is lying on his back and staring up at his home ceiling. Is it not the case, after all, that his old master bedroom, so full of memories, so marked everywhere by his hair and his sweat, has felt ‘foreign’ to him ever since they removed his Beautiful Rose? In a way, is he not a stranger to life itself; an outlaw on his own land; a sojourner lost where no one can help him anymore? All that may be true, and yet this room frankly feels foreign to him like it would feel foreign to anyone else who had never been here prior to this moment.
He lifts his head from his pillow. Maybe, when his eyes adjust, he will figure out for sure if he is lost or not. Not knowing seems worse; and for a moment, he imagines an old man slipping into dementia one morning without understanding how or why this new day seems so incongruent from all the previous ones. It is like he knows, but does not know. He is on the cusp of real awareness, and yet as mired in confusion as always.
There is a flicker of light in front of him. He determines that there is a light on the headboard behind him now reflected off of a pair of glasses. Well, that removes his bedroom from consideration, since there is no such light embedded into his headboard.
Don’t wake up too fast, the man with the glasses says.
Corn settles back into his pillow, but he does not close his eyes again. He feels bandages all over his face. There is an intravenous tube in his right forearm. There is a terrible itch where the tube enters into his flesh, but he is too weak now to scratch it.
Where am I? Corn asks.
Redwood General, the man answers.
Redwood, Corn mutters.
County Hospital was too far, the man explains. You’d have died.
Corn lifts his head again. He stares straight into those glasses. He cannot see the face of the man beside his bed. It is hidden in the darkness of this hospital room. Those glasses, though, stand out in the light. Are they not pince-nez perched on the edge of a small man’s nose? Is there not something cold and distant about those antique lenses?
Clifford, Corn whispers, while once more settling back into his pillow.
I waited for you at Millie’s, Clifford says. Longer than I should have. My instincts kept telling me to drive on out to your place. By the time I got out there you were near dead. Paramedics had to administer CPR. Your flesh was all blue from so much frostbite.
How long have I been here? Corn asks.
You’ve been asleep three days, Clifford answers.
Corn does not know what to say. He listens to the silence. He senses that, even now, he remains perilously close to the edge. Minutes may pass, or years may pass, and he is not sure he would be able to tell the difference. Near death is not being able to tell how much time has passed, or whether something is real or imagined, or if his pain is his own or some deeper anguish shared with everyone else. There is no comfort in so much uncertainty, and so the near dead person learns to switch off his mind and to let the world do with him as she pleases. The near dead person is resigned; not resilient to the end, not fighting for every last breath. He is just waiting for the mental confusion, the weakness, and the exhaustion to switch off, finally, like a light bulb ready to burn.
I’ve been so sad, Clifford remarks. I didn’t think you’d make it.
Corn does not respond. He hears someone walking down the hallway just outside his door. They are the fast and snappy footsteps of someone officious; probably, a head nurse with a binder tucked neatly beneath her right arm. He imagines Beautiful Rose, her hair in a bun and hidden behind one of those nurse’s caps, her eyes steely cold, as the role demands, and yet her lips curling into a mischievous smile. Rose is strong, truly a natural leader, but she is no ‘Nurse Ratched.’ There is too much life and love in her heart for her to play that role even in jest, or so Corn tries to tell himself at this time.
The truth is he does not know if she could be ‘Nurse Ratched’ or not. He simply does not remember. She is fading from him faster now than before; vanishing into that eternal night where even ghosts do not rattle chains to remind us of their former lives.
I’ve been thinking, Clifford says.
Try not to do too much of that, Corn reflects. It’ll put you in the loony bin before you kick the bucket.
There’s hope, Clifford comments.
Corn lifts his head again. He stares straight into Clifford’s pince-nez.
There’s also whiskey, Corn says with more than a hint of disdain. I’ll take a bottle of Jack over your hope any day. At least, that old whiskey burn down my throat is real.
Corn feels his lips burn from having moved them too much. He feels a tear about to drop from his left eye, but that too causes him considerable pain. He lies back, and he tries to remain as still as possible until the considerable pain subsides. As before, he cannot tell how much times passes. His one constant is that Clifford remains by his side.
Frostbite, huh? Corn whispers after awhile.
Yes, Clifford answers. Most everywhere, but especially your hands and your face.
There is another period of awkward silence.
There’s hope, Clifford repeats.
Oh, shit, leave it alone, Corn says irritably.
I can’t, Clifford says. I have to say this. I don’t know how I could live with myself, if I never gave you the opportunity…
Clifford stops midsentence. He does not seem to know how to continue. He grabs the hospital bedrail, like he would fall over otherwise. He breathes loudly. Is he scared of something? Is he afraid to say what is on his mind? If so, then why? Perhaps, Clifford is just overwhelmed by seeing so much of his friend wrapped in bandages. It is like he is talking to a sad eyed mummy. Will he ever again see the man with whom he had gone fly fishing so many years? Will they ever again gobble down those pancakes at Millie’s, or look out at nothing from Corn’s porch, while reminiscing about the times they shared?
All those times we explored Wild Indian Lake, Clifford remarks.
Top of the mountains, Corn says.
Like we can touch the sky, Clifford continues.
What are you? A poet? Corn asks.
I’ve always been at home with certainty, Clifford reflects. Numbers, regulations, assets and liabilities. A bank is just a casino without the glitz, and from my side of the counter everything’s a sure bet; an elaborate card shuffle where the house always wins.
Except for the weekends, Corn interjects.
Yes, Clifford agrees. That’s when I gave myself license to be on the other side of the counter. Casting my bait without a clue if I’d catch anything worthwhile. Stepping off the beaten track to see if there are any surprises left in this world. We found some, not often, but enough times to remind us that even when old, and set in our ways, we could be amazed now and then.
That’s before Rose left me, Corn says.
Yes, I know, Clifford says. It has been a tough year.
You don’t know, Corn snaps back with red hot anger.
Corn shuts his mouth before saying anything further. The burn on his lips is much too painful. He almost asks Clifford to go for the nurse, but then decides to remain still instead. He hears those officious footsteps yet again, and imagines Nurse Ratched with a sly grin on her otherwise granite face. He holds onto the image until the pain subsides.
I loved her, too, Clifford responds without losing his composure. You know that.
Corn remains silent. Deep down, he knows that Clifford loved Rose as a sister. It was a love that Corn envied, because so far as Corn knew the love that Rose and Clifford had shared with one another had been always so effortless. Clifford never had ‘to win’ Rose. He never had ‘to hold onto’ Rose. They were together as naturally as two flowers growing around each other’s stems. What unspoken secrets did Rose and Clifford share that never made it to Rose and Corn’s pillow talk? Did Rose tell Clifford about how she buried her first son, John, beside the old elm tree? Did Rose share everything with him?
True, Corn never had to worry about Clifford. He could not even imagine his best friend and his wife sharing a bed together. Still, he envied the love that they shared all those years. No, ‘envy’ is not a strong enough word. Truth is he hated their special love for one another. He feels that hatred even now as a hot lump deep inside of his bowels.
And I too have suffered, Clifford continues.
I know, Corn moans in resignation, as the hot lump in his bowels finally subsides.
I thought the suffering would never end, and indeed it hasn’t, Clifford continues. But the other day I decided to see if I could be amazed again, just like when we were a couple of old farts out there on the lake.
So you went fly fishing? Corn asks.
Clifford bends forward, so that his face is closer to Corn’s. Corn now can see his friend’s face illuminated by the headboard light. Clifford unleashes a smile that is way out of character. His eyes sparkle behind his pince-nez lenses. Corn senses at once that the sparkle in Clifford’s eyes has nothing to do with the headboard light. Clifford seems to have tapped into some great power. There is a slight tremble in his flesh that is both beautiful and scary at the same time. Corn does not know what to make of this; but he refuses to look away or to close his eyes, notwithstanding how unsettled he feels then.
Yes, Clifford says with open eyes that seem to be staring into eternity. You can say that. I took an unsecured risk, as my fellow bankers might say. I cast my line without a clue as to what I might find out there.
Okay, you have my interest, Corn says. What did you find?
In the lake? Nothing, Clifford answers with a sheepish grin.
Figures, Corn grunts.
So just before dusk I decided to take a walk around the lake, Clifford continues. As you know, there aren’t many folks left up there after the summer. I counted only a couple of lakeside homes with lights on; and the moment the sun sets, it’s as dark as a moonless night. Nothing to hear but the occasional whippoorwill. Nothing to see but an old porch light in the distance. The wind kicked up a bit, and I could feel the lake now and then grabbing for my ankles.
Got to be careful, Corn says. You’ll forget where you parked your car.
Oh, I know, I know, Clifford says with a boyish chuckle. That was the best part. I felt freer than I can remember, like a boy whose snuck out of his bedroom window to explore the night. I almost tossed my car keys and my wallet into the lake, because we never had those things back when we were children.
We are not children, Corn snarls. We are old men. Oh, sure, we can be all poetic and talk about ‘the winter of our years;’ but the reality is that we are decrepit, tired, and alone. Waiting for the big guy with the skull face and the scythe…
Okay, Clifford interrupts. I’ll concede that. But we can still be amazed, and that is what happened to me that very night.
There is an awkward silence. Clifford stands upright again. Corn hears those fast and snappy footsteps. The heels hit the floor with such precision as to call to his mind a well tuned metronome. Time ticks, no matter how much a man may be amazed; and that is the deeper reality that cannot be escaped no matter Clifford’s weird enthusiasm.
So what amazed you? Corn asks, in spite of his grave misgivings about all of this.
I saw a light up yonder that I had never seen before, Clifford says. Had someone built a new home along the lake? Not likely, I said to myself, since nothing’s been built up there for decades. Maybe, there’s another free spirit like me, except that that one’s decided to pitch a tent and to start up a campfire for the night. Maybe, it’s just a spark in my imagination. Regardless, I felt drawn toward that light. It spoke to me. Asked me in a voice that seemed to rise from deep inside my soul: Do you want to hear what noise she made? Do you want to see her last moment alive? So are you ready to be surprised?
Corn wants to shoot up to a sitting position. He is so amazed and frightened, and yet he is also too weak to do any such thing. Instead, he gasps audibly, which yet again causes his mouth to burn. He hears his heartbeat start to sprint towards the finish line.
Don’t say anything, Clifford urges.
What did you find? Corn whispers, in spite of his considerable pain at that time.
A surprise that knocked the boots off my feet, Clifford says.
Yes, Corn whispers. And?
And a reason to hope, Clifford answers. I know that I’m not making much sense. It’s just that I have to show you. It won’t be real for you, until you’ve seen what I’ve seen with your own two eyes. We just have to walk off the beaten path together. Just one more time we’ll be two old farts with our pants rolled over our knees; two old farts keeping time with the stars in the sky. We’ll see that light up yonder; the light that has never been there before. We’ll walk on up to it with the wonder and the courage of a couple of boys on the prowl. When all is done, and the sun sneaks back up from beneath the eastern sky, you’ll know that there is hope even in darkness. I can promise you that.
Corn wants to respond with a wisecrack; something about how Clifford obviously has been dipping into the whiskey without him. He holds his fire, though, for he cannot deny Clifford’s earnestness. He has never seen his friend be so excited, so overwhelmed by anything; and in spite of his own depression, he does not want to take that from him now. He will let Clifford hold onto that dream, or that fantasy, or whatever it is that is making him talk such rubbish. He will let Clifford be happy, while he lies there in pain.
* * *
Corn reaches for the bottle of Jack. It is next to the potpourri bowl. In the past, he would have had a framed photograph of his Beautiful Rose leaning against the bowl at that very same spot. He cannot do that anymore, though, because he starts to tear up the moment he removes one of the pictures from the wall. His tears then slide under his bandages and into his wounds. The pain invariably brings him to his knees before he can reach the kitchen table with the picture in his hand.
One time, he had been in so much pain that he flailed his arms, like a boy caught in his high chair. He smashed the frame against the stove. The picture inside the frame nearly caught on fire.
That was the first day since Rose left that he seriously contemplated suicide. He thought of the different ways that he could do it. He started to pen a suicide note; and he probably would have finished it, but for the fact that the act of holding and moving a pen hurt his right hand way too much. He thought of calling Clifford and dictating his suicide note over the telephone; but he knew deep down that Clifford would have been able to get the authorities there before he did anything irrevocable. He ended up going to bed with a heavy heart, just like every other night, and hoping that perhaps his old ticker would stop beating sometime before sunrise. He hoped, and then he hit himself in the chest for even hoping for that much. He of all people should know that there is no hope without Rose by his side. He should know that much, if he knows nothing else.
So instead of the picture, he has the bottle. The one is not really a substitute for the other. The pictures had excited his memories, and had given free reign to his strong imagination. The whiskey dulls his memories. It is a liquid eraser that gives him a few hours of relief here and there by removing her from his mind. He senses that whatever is lost is lost irrevocably. Whiskey is a Faustian bargain, but without the courage or the wherewithal to commit suicide it is all he can do to manage the pain and the heartache.
Well, that’s not totally true. Besides his whiskey, he does have his prescription painkillers. He thinks he is addicted already, just like Rush Limbaugh had been several years back. He pops them like a fat man pops Tums. The medical professional naturally recommends swallowing them with water. He prefers a bottle of Jack and a shot glass. He senses that there are many others like him who swallow their painkillers like a man shows his ‘courage’ at the neighborhood bar. It all goes to the same old place anyway.
Corn slides the bottle of Jack closer to his shot glass. Even without lifting it from the kitchen table, he almost tips it over. Is he drunk already? Maybe, or maybe he is an old man with a tremble that seems to kick in at the worst moment…
Or maybe his goddamned hands are as shot as his face. They too are wrapped in bandages that a visiting nurse replaces every third day. They too scream out in burning pain whenever he moves a finger too much, just as his bandaged face feels like it has been dropped into a crackling bonfire every time he talks too much.
He pours the whiskey into his shot glass. He misses more than he hits the target, which seems to be one of the cardinal rules of old age.
He eyes the two painkillers. The capsules are the same yellow and black as those radiation signs we used to see back when we feared the A-bomb instead of towel headed suicide bombers. Indeed, they have the same shape as that ‘Fat Man’ bomb we dropped on the Japs. Even the painkillers call to mind severe radiation burns in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear exchange. Taking these two capsules is like watching an airplane disaster movie on a flight. Yes, the painkillers and the inflight movie technically do as they are supposed to do. They dull the pain, and they allow hours to pass as minutes. But why isn’t there someone somewhere in the chain of command who realizes that the remedy is worse than the injury, if it is administered without the human touch? Why is he going to be forced to die without his Beautiful Rose looking down on him? Why must he be denied the ‘human touch,’ when, finally, he breathes out for the very last time?
It does not matter what he thinks about. It all goes back to her. He cannot watch his Beautiful Rose all day, because of the tears; but his mind returns to her, regardless.
Corn throws the two painkillers into his mouth. There is a spasm of pain, because he has to open his mouth. The only time he can ingest anything without a spasm of pain is when he sucks hot soup through a straw.
Corn follows the painkillers with a shot of whiskey. He does not have the finesse of a real whiskey shooter. He had never been much of a drinker even in his younger and wilder days. His trembling hand does not help his cause now.
The only good news is that he is shitfaced within seconds. Even when drunk, he knows better than to lean forward. His face will scream holy hell the moment it comes into contact with the table. Instead, he grabs his cane, and then staggers out towards his living room. Rose never let him take naps on the sofa, and so he always feels a pang of guilt when he heads that way for that purpose. Nevertheless, he needs to sleep now; and he is too weak to go up and down the staircase more than once in a day. He tries to convince himself that, given the circumstances, his Beautiful Rose would understand.
The pillow is there from the last time he had slept on the sofa. Rose would have had a hissy fit. For all her tomboyish ways, Rose had been a grand dame in the making when it came to the living room. She collected antique furniture from garage sales over the years, refurbished them with her own hand, decided where they should be placed in the living room, and then proceeded to wrap them in plastic lest, God forbid, a speck of dust might find a home on a cushion or a table surface.
In so many ways, Rose held onto the past. She held onto that previous generation that insisted that living rooms were meant to showcase museum pieces, not provide an informal venue for people to watch television or to take naps in their underwear. She held onto her first son, conversing with him up in the elm tree, and lighting a candle in his memory every anniversary of the miscarriage. She held onto her early married years, framing photos of when they were young, and dusting the glass once a week. She held onto that joy she first experienced as a little girl in nature, wandering off the beaten track in search of wanderlust, and picking ripened berries along the way that she would bring home. She held onto her principles, her infectious laughs, her mischievous smiles…
But she did not hold onto Corn, and he did not hold onto her. Not at the very end when holding on was all that they could have done for each other. Not at the very end…
Corn loses his train of thought the moment his butt hits the sofa. Maybe, he had been consumed by a jolt of pain. Sometimes, especially when he is drunk, the pain will come and go without conscious awareness. Or maybe, he is about to fall asleep, and he knows deep down that he will be suffering through another nightmare if he does not at that moment put Rose out of his mind. The whiskey helps him to do that, which is why he senses already that he will be an alcoholic by the time he gives up his pathetic ghost.
He is asleep by the time his head hits the pillow…
Except that he is not, for he hears the front doorknob rattle.
Not another damned Jesus Freak, Corn mutters. I’d kill ‘em if I could.
But, of course, he can do no such thing. He is not sure he can get off that sofa.
He lies there facing the wood burning fireplace. It is as dark and as dead as pretty much everything else in this old farmhouse. Corn doubts he will ever again wander out to fetch logs, especially since the whiskey seems capable enough of keeping him warm.
The front door opens. Footsteps approach him.
Maybe, I should pay more attention to my uninvited guest than to my fireplace, Corn thinks. He could be one of those Jesus Freaks here to save my soul from the grease fire. He could be the Sheriff with a stopwatch here to remind me that time’s a ticking. He could be Ed McMahon here to award me a million dollars every week for the rest of my life from Publisher’s Clearing House. Problem with that great idea is that Ed’s dead.
Clifford walks up to the sofa. He stands beside the sofa and looks down, just as he had stood beside the hospital bed most nights until Corn fell asleep. Clifford is in his starched, white shirt and suspenders. His officious bowtie suggests that he came here directly from the bank. His pince-nez glasses look down on Corn, like Corn is a child not yet capable of maintaining his own checkbook. The only warmth, the only sign of that ‘human touch’ that had occupied Corn’s thoughts a few minutes ago, exists deep inside Clifford’s eyes. There is considerable mirth on those eyes. Or maybe, it is more accurate to say that there is considerable hope, although Corn washes out that idea with disdain.
Hello, friend, Clifford says with a hint of a smile that is just plain peculiar. How have you been doing with the outpatient nurse?
Corn looks up at Clifford with the kind of glassy eyes that suggests that he cannot really make any sense out of Clifford’s words. He can hear the words, and he still may be able to define each word separately from one another. The look in his eyes, though, suggests that he cannot put those words together in a meaningful way. He is lost in his own dullness. He is mentally asleep, even if his eyes insist on remaining awake for now.
Corn had been entertaining quite a few disparate thoughts just seconds earlier, but now it is as if the lamp has been switched off. Still, he stares at his friend. Maybe, deep down, there remains a part of him that wants to be hooked and reeled out from his doldrums.
Nurse Margaret, Clifford says. Isn’t that her name?
Corn does not respond. Clifford searches Corn’s eyes to see if he understands at all what he is saying. He seems to see enough recognition to press on with his objective.
I spoke with Doctor Teeter, Clifford continues. He thinks we are brothers, so he confides in me. Oh, don’t worry. Charlie doesn’t mind. He’s been especially busy with work these past few weeks. He is grateful that I can talk with the hospital on his behalf.
Clifford stops to see if any of this registers. Corn does not respond any more so than before. Clifford decides to press on with this one-sided conversation.
Anyway, the Good Doctor still is not sure if you’ll be approved for the skin graft, Clifford remarks. It’s not a Medicare issue, apparently. It’s just that some of the doctors on staff are not so sure you’re strong enough for surgery. They want you to be checked by a cardiologist in Beverly. I think his name is Doctor Christian, or something like that.
Clifford pauses. Again, Corn does not respond verbally or otherwise.
Clifford walks over to one of the antique chairs wrapped in plastic. He picks up the chair, returns to the side of the sofa, and sits beside his friend. He folds his hands on his lap. He looks like a quiet, bespectacled priest about to hear a confession, except of course that he is doing all of the talking at this time.
The doctor wants me to remind you to do everything he instructed about taking care of your bandages, Clifford remarks. That’s the most important thing. You’ll get an infection, if you’re not careful.
As if to demonstrate just how fragile the human body can be, Clifford grabs the handkerchief out from his shirt pocket and sneezes into it. He glances at the mucus on his cloth, and then he folds it neatly. He returns it to his starched pocket like it is clean.
So are you doing okay with the painkillers? Clifford asks. Try not to overuse them.
Clifford clears his throat. It is clear that he is dancing around what he intends to say. He looks around the living room. He sees that nothing seems to have been moved from where it normally is, even though the auction is supposed to happen in a few days.
Look, um, I spoke with Charlie last night, Clifford says haltingly. He insists that you agree to go to that old age home. He says that the bank will delay the sale, if you give him the green light to put your property on the market.
No! Corn says emphatically.
Corn’s eyes shiver with pain. He had moved his lips too much when he said ‘No.’
Clifford is so surprised by Corn’s comment that he nearly falls out of the antique chair. Perhaps, Corn had not been as far gone as he had seemed. Or perhaps, the idea of losing the old homestead switched on that lamp again. Regardless, Clifford is pleased to see Corn’s mental resilience, even if physically Corn appears now to be on the brink.
And that’s what I told him, Clifford remarks with a wide grin.
How many days ‘till the Sheriff arrives? Corn whispers weakly.
Clifford leans forward to emphasize what he is about to state.
It doesn’t matter, Clifford says.
What? Corn whispers in disbelief.
I spoke with Ross, Clifford explains. I informed him that I would be serving a term on the Membership Committee of the most prestigious country club around these parts.
Is that true? Corn whispers.
Ross thinks so, especially after a friend of mine at the club confirmed my story, Clifford continues. I told Ross everyone at the club would think he was a ‘swell guy,’ if he postponed the auction long enough for me to get my ducks in order.
I don’t understand, Corn whispers.
Here’s the plan, Clifford says with a mercurial twinkle in his eyes. You quitclaim the old homestead to me. I’ll get the money to pay off the default. Then, I’ve got three months to refinance. It’ll be tough, but I’ve got an underwriter friend in New York who thinks he can make it happen.
Corn lifts his head from his pillow. He stares Clifford straight in his eyes. He can feel the tears starting to fall. Even though the tears will seep into his wounds and cause him considerable pain, he does not try to restrain them. Is he allowing himself to hope? Or is he much too weak to try to restrain his tears? Corn senses that the answer to each of the questions is ‘yes.’ If that is the case, then what is he to make of the fact that he has conjured up hope from the abyss and, notwithstanding his prolonged depression, is not now able to restrain the emotions that come with it? Has he turned a small corner?
You’d do that for me? Corn whispers.
And for Rose, Clifford responds. But I want you to do something for me in return.
Corn slowly lowers his head to his pillow, while keeping his eyes fixated upon his friend’s. He senses what Clifford is about to say, for all at once he remembers in vivid detail that strange conversation he had had with Clifford back at the hospital. He trusts Clifford’s sincerity, and yet he cannot shake that there is an undercurrent of madness in him. He always has been able to rely on Clifford’s emotional restraint and skepticism, but when it comes to whatever happened up there at the lake Clifford appears to have abandoned his taciturn nature. Clifford reminds him of those Jesus Freaks, who rattle his front doorknob still from time to time, and that association scares Corn much more than he cares to admit.
I don’t know, Corn mutters as if Clifford already has told him what he wants him to do in return for his bailout.
You can do it, Clifford says. Just once is all I ask.
I don’t know, Corn repeats.
I’ll be by your side the whole time, Clifford says.
* * *
Corn unrolls the heated ski mask over his bandaged face. The pain is unbearable; and under any other circumstance he would remove the mask, toss it aside, and waddle back into his bedroom to grab a couple of painkillers off his bed stand. He cannot turn back from his promise. Therefore, all he can do is to try to keep his face from twitching into a grimace of pain, which would only fire up his wounds that much more. He focuses on keeping the face hidden beneath his bandages still, so that the pain can pass sooner rather than later. The mental focus drains him, and so he has to lean upon his counter.
Eventually, he is able to stand upright. He looks at himself in the mirror. He looks like one of those serial killers in a horror film. Besides the black ski mask over his face, he has bandages over both of his hands, and wears the overalls and the boots of an old fashioned farmer. Perhaps the strangest part of his outfit is the scarf that he proceeds to wrap tightly around his neck. All he needs to do is to grab a hold of a blood stained pitchfork and he could be the killer in a popular horror franchise.
He hardly feels like a killer, though. Instead, he is an exhausted, old man beaten down already this morning by considerable pain and fear. He knows that the pain will subside, once he takes a swig of whiskey and a couple of painkillers. He is not so sure about the fear. It has been spreading in him like a cancer ever since he agreed to go to Wild Indian Lake with Clifford. Can he carve it out from his soul? Should he ever bother?
He hears the car horn outside. Clifford has arrived already.
Corn grabs a hold of his cane, and waddles back into his bedroom. He takes four painkillers off of his bed stand, and stuffs them into his overalls pocket. He sees a bottle of Jack on the floor beside his bed. There is enough liquid gold in there still to make it worthwhile; and so he bends down, stuffs the bottle under his left armpit, straightens up as best as he can, and exits the bedroom.
He hears the car horn again, when he is about midway down the creaky staircase. He wants to speed up his pace, but he knows better. His balance is poor this morning, and the last thing he needs to do is to tumble the rest of the way into the cold kitchen.
The first floor is as cold as a meat locker. The draft from outside has been getting stronger the past few days. In the past, he would have taken care of this problem long ago; but ever since he failed to fix the fencepost, he has given up even the pretense of being a farmer. Clifford may have saved the land from the auction block, but he cannot turn it back into a working farm. Nor can he wave a magic wand and turn Corn into the strong and quiet farmer he used to be. Only Rose can do that, and she is forever gone.
Corn sees the long overcoat hanging beside the front door. He remembers vividly how Rose would stand by the door and hold up this same coat. On some days, depending on the wind chill outside, she would not let him leave, until he has acquiesced to wear the damned thing. If he hesitated at all, then she would give him ‘the look,’ and all at once he would be back in that one-room schoolhouse out yonder where he had learned ‘readin, writin, and rithmatic’ back in the day.
When husbands and wives really love one another over time, then they become fathers and mothers to one another, Corn thinks. The husband provides a father’s stern hand, and the wife provides a mother’s stern look. That way they can keep each other in line and on the righteous path. So sad then is the man who has lost his second mother.
Corn decides not to wear the overcoat, even though he knows how blistering cold it will be once he opens the front door. It just feels wrong to put it on without Rose by his side. In a way, this farmhouse will be a little less Rose’s than it is now, if he wears that coat today without acquiescing to ‘the look,’ and then proceeds to do so regularly.
Corn opens the front door. The wind chill slaps his face and his hands silly, even though he has taken precautions. He leans on his cane, and waits for the pain to subside.
Clifford waves him over from inside his Cadillac. Corn waves back, and staggers toward the car that is idling beside the elm tree. Corn appreciates the fact that Clifford did not get out of his car to escort him from the front door. Corn feels bad enough as it is without also suffering the indignity of being treated by his friend as an aged invalid.
Didn’t know I still had that much self-pride, Corn thinks. Maybe, it really means something when the homestead skips the auction block. Maybe, something still matters.
Corn has to rest a moment, when he gets to the passenger door. He looks around for as far as he eyes can see. The world has been veiled by white snow. The wind blows ripples across the surface here and there. The chill feels like something already inside his bones. It does not rattle him, so much as it chips away at the marrow. It will weaken him, slowly, surely, until he suddenly falls to the ground and shatters like fragile glass.
He is about to open the passenger side door, when he hears something fluttering well above his head. He looks up. Is that a black crow? It is hard to tell for sure, because the glare from the morning sun blinds him a moment.
And yet, deep down, he realizes that that is a black crow…
And that that same crow has circled over his head before…
Bullshit, Corn mutters, when his thoughts start to go down an especially dark and twisted trail. No such thing as a stalking bird, so get this shit out of your mind, old man.
Still, the thought lingers, like so many other bad things. Corn enters into the car, shuts the door, and leans heavily into his leather seat. He shuts his eyes without a word.
* * *
Corn opens his eyes. He sees the neon cowboy outside the motel room window. He can hear the low buzz of flashing neon overtaxing the electrical circuits. The intense sound reminds him of a beehive he disturbed when he was no more than five or six years old. The bees enveloped him with the collective, high pitched scream of mindless fury; and they continued to buzz in his imagination until his mother found him crying in the yard and carried him away.
Corn reaches for Rose. She is not beside him on the bed.
He looks at the bathroom door. It is shut. There is a light on in the bathroom.
He looks at the ashtray. Rose’s cigarette died hours ago, and yet he still smells sex and cigarettes everywhere.
He closes his eyes again. He can see her looking into his face. She has that post-coital look of sleepy satisfaction that strangely excites him even more than the orgasm. This is how she had looked a few hours ago, when they had relaxed arm in arm together for a few minutes before slipping into sleep.
In his memory, she is about to say something. Her eyes intimate this even before her lips move. He listens, intently, lovingly, open to anything that she might say, since the thrill of sex has not yet receded. She could ask him then to blow out his brains, and he would try to think where he could find a pistol so late at night and so far from home.
Anything for you, Beautiful Rose, he remembers thinking at that moment. All you have to do is to ask me.
And yet, he cannot remember what she said, if anything.
Hey, how long are you staying in there? Corn calls out to the bathroom door after too much time has passed.
There is no answer.
Corn looks back out at that neon cowboy. He and Rose have been burning gas on America’s highways for several weeks already. He has no idea that someday, when he is old and enfeebled, this trek will be ‘the road trip through the Dakotas.’ It will stand out as a one-time departure from the tried and the true; a period of youthful abandon for two young people more focused on lovemaking and on dreaming than on keeping up with daily chores. Oh sure, they will spend their fair share of lazy afternoons out on the banks of Wild Indian Creek, exploring trails deep into the woods, and making love under the protective branch of an elm tree. But never again will they have the time to drive aimlessly for several weeks, crooning Elvis tunes to one another, and laughing like kids at nothing in particular, while he steers them both off the beaten track.
Never again will either one of them really believe, deep down, that their life and their love together will continue without end. Unlike a two-lane road cutting through the Dakota desert, which seems to have neither a beginning nor an end, theirs will be a union eventually cut short by the heavy hand of mortality. Corn will not conceive of pancreatic cancer pulling his wife out of his hand; but after this trip, he will know that something is going to happen. He will fear that something more than anything else; and though he will mask that fear behind his long hours of work on the land and his strong, quiet, masculine hand at home, he will never defeat it. The fear will eat away at him, first digging lines into his face and his hands, then adding a tired stoop to his shoulders, and finally driving him out of their bedroom just minutes before Rose gives up her ghost.
Yes, Corn will step out of their bedroom, because he is afraid.
And that fear will start to metastasize the second time Corn takes a look at the bathroom door. The fear will take root at that time, and decades later it will drop him into the snow one night and scar his face and hands.
Corn turns away from the neon cowboy, and then stares awhile at the bathroom door. The light coming out from the bottom of the bathroom door does not move at all. That is too strange. Surely, if she were in there doing something or other, then the light would fade whenever she happened to pass by the light bulb. Moreover, he would hear something beside the neon buzzing outside; a footstep, maybe, or urine flowing into a toilet bowl. The bathroom is too still, too quiet, like what is left behind after a crime.
Honey, what are you doing in there? Corn asks with more urgency.
There is no answer.
Unable to set aside just how alarmed he really feels, Corn pulls the sheet aside, and walks over to the bathroom door. He can feel his own face squeeze and twist into the grimace of a frightened child. He hears the bees swarming around his head. Though he wants desperately to call out for his mother, he dares not to open his mouth, lest a swarm of bees fly inside and down his throat. He senses creeping claustrophobia, since both his mind and his flesh feel trapped inside of his own fear.
He rattles the locked door. As expected, there is no response; and so Corn starts to swing his fists erratically into the door. He looks like a toddler trying to fight his way out of a highchair. Where is his mama when he most needs her? Why does she abandon him? Can he make enough noise to force her to respond to him?
The bathroom door swings open. Corn covers his mouth so as not to scream aloud.
Rose is naked and crouching on the toilet seat lid. She has her bony knees up to her chin and her hands folded together in prayer. She teeters back and forth upon her heels. Her eyes are so clenched she appears as if a blind person.
What is most haunting, though, is how her lips move. She seems to be mumbling something or other. She seems at first to be offering up a prayer, and yet after awhile it is clear that she is speaking with someone. She crouches like a vulture or a black crow on a tree limb, while conversing with whatever she sees or imagines behind her eyelids.
Corn is frozen in place. He has no idea what to say or to do. He really wants to back out and to close the door, like he has seen something he should not have seen. His dumbfounded curiosity and concern are stronger than his fear, though, and so he stays right where he is. He watches Rose like she is one of the weirdoes in an old freak show.
Honey, come to bed, Corn finally says.
Rose seems not to hear him. She continues to teeter back and forth on her heels.
And to say something…
And yet, just like when she looked into his eyes earlier this same evening, he will not remember what she said, if anything. There will remain an impenetrable barrier; a plea for help to which he cannot or will not respond.
He will start to loosen his grip on her hand that very moment. He will loosen it a bit more with each passing day, until he drops her clammy hand entirely to step out of the master bedroom just before she releases her final breath. His fear will triumph over his love in the end; and as he stands in that doorway, and struggles to hold back a loud scream, the sinking sensation in his bowels already tells him that she will abandon him. He will let go finally, and she will abandon him; no, even more so, she will betray him.
Betray him to the lonely nights…
Betray him to the endless nightmare…
Like when a boy is swarmed by bees, and his mama then is nowhere to be found…
Rose opens her eyes suddenly, and stares at Corn. There is madness sparkling in both her pupils. The madness subsides, but not before it scares Corn back several steps.
Rose reaches out for him with her right hand. She flexes her fingers, like she is reaching for the rope that had been tossed into the turbulent ocean to try to save her.
Corn clenches his eyes shut. He does not want to see this. He cannot withstand how her apparent madness is strangling something about her; somehow making her less than she had been. She is still so young and beautiful, and yet for the first time he can see her grave. It is in the distance, true, but now it stands out from the horizon inside his mind in such a way as to make that damned six-foot hole in the ground unavoidable.
No, Corn moans, while still keeping his eyes shut. No! No! No!
His eyes are still closed, when finally Rose drops her right hand and wonders why on earth she is crouching on top of the toilet lid. He will not open his eyes the remainder of that night, even when she leads him back to bed and kisses him lovingly on his cheek.
* * *
Corn opens his eyes. He is not sure where he is. Perhaps, everything has been a dream since he first laid eyes on his Beautiful Rose. Life in retrospect seems to pass as if a strange dream. Both the good and the bad moments seem unreal, like a number of disjointed clips from different films. Corn wonders if he has been the lead in his life or a supporting character in someone else’s. Has his life really been his own? Can he take ownership of his loss? Or is there a sadness, a dark madness, that he never really could understand and that never really belonged to him in the first place?
The questions sweep by him like the tall trees outside the Cadillac window. It is impossible to grasp at any one of them, before they pass out of view, unanswered, and ultimately inscrutable. He thinks that at one point in his life he believed that when we die we float up to the Happy Hallowed Hinterland in the sky and behold the loved ones who had gone before us. There is Aunt Mildred, decrepit and hunched over at her death, but now a pretty blush of a girl no older than nineteen. Here is Uncle Buck, handsome in his suspenders, with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes and a virgin cigar in his mouth. They all greet him, one by one, while winged caterers spread out the plates on the park picnic tables. He obliges, but he keeps an eye out for the Beautiful Rose he hopes will sit beside him that lazy afternoon. There is a soft, moist breeze that sweeps aside one, large, low hanging elm branch. Is that Rose sitting on the cool grass beneath the branch?
Then, at some point, maybe the night he saw Rose crouched like a bird on top of a toilet seat, he stopped believing in any of that nonsense. He did not really give up on the afterlife, but he sensed that he would grab a hold of one of his past loves about as well as he can see one particular tree whisking by him now. They would be there, and then they would be gone, because, after all, who is he to them compared to the Mighty Lord on High (or whatever the heck those holy rollers call God)? If God is all that He is cracked up to be, then Rose is not thinking of him, like he is thinking of her. She is too busy being swept up by all His love, His light, and His fairy dust.
It does not take long for Corn to feel as depressed as the day he watched those bastards remove her lifeless body from their home. He is losing her everyday it seems; but no matter how much his cranky, old age spreads cobwebs in his mind, he is not able to shake his memories of that day. Nor can he shake the feeling that grabbed a hold of his heart then. The feeling is not always as visceral, but it is always there. Sadness is a cancer that may go into remission for periods of time, but cannot be removed from his soul entirely. Even when he leaves this life behind him, he suspects it will be there still if only to remind him that the Happy Hallowed Hinterland belongs in the same category of his mind where he has learned to relegate fairy tales.
I want to go back home, Corn grumbles.
I know, Clifford says.
But you’re not going to turn around, Corn says.
Nope, Clifford says. A promise is a promise.
Corn sighs, and sinks back into the passenger seat. He would like to fall asleep again, even though he suspects his dreams will be twisted and discomforting, but he is all too aware that that will not happen. Sadness is like caffeine. It keeps him awake, if only so that he can stare bleary eyed at nothing in particular, when the rest of his flesh and soul craves nothing but a pillow and a blanket.
He feels something beside his all too familiar sadness, though. He cannot put his finger on it, except to say that it is a vague foreboding. Something is going to happen; and notwithstanding Clifford’s enthusiasm, he is not so sure that that something will be good. Did he sense the same thing when he left Rose alone in their master bedroom? Is that the real reason he left her to die by herself?
The two old friends do not speak the rest of the trip. There is very little sound, except for the hum of the Cadillac motor and the occasional rattle of car windows being snapped by a cold gust. The tall trees lining Route 11 have surrendered already to this early winter. They shed their leaves to the winds, which proceed to smash them against the Cadillac windshield. Clifford pushes them off with his windshield wipers, but it is a losing effort on his part. The Cadillac will look as if it has motored through a maelstrom of snow covered leaves and mud by the time it reaches the lake up there in the clouds.
The last leg of the road trip is a particularly steep slope. The slippery two lane highway does not help matters. Clifford and Corn eye each other like two soldiers about to jump out of the old trench and into no man’s land. The Cadillac rises to the occasion, though, and the brief anxiety quickly enough transitions into a familiar calm. Everything is peaceful atop the mountain. Indeed, the peace is almost unreal, like time has stopped or slowed down considerably to allow for nature’s smaller details to be observed in all their glory. Up here, the clouds seem close enough to touch; and the world below is as if a corpse buried far beneath the wet grass and lost to time.
Wild Indian Lake is actually a water filled crater nestled between four mountain tops. The peaks ascend majestically into the clouds; and though the lake is as large as a small sea, the closeness of these peaks to one another seems to confine the universe into a tranquil cocoon. The large cabins spread about the lake feel stuck somewhere in the 1920s. One can imagine a Model T chugging down the dirt road that circumnavigates the dark blue lake. Or maybe a flapper staggering drunkenly down the side of the same dirt road in search of the next party. Those strange spurts of imagination are fleeting, though, for the far greater feeling up there is of old people and things standing still on the banks of heaven. There may be the distant sound of wind chimes singing in a breeze, or of mailbox doors creaking open and shut when the winds pick up after sunset; but, for the most part, the stillness prevails. It presses down upon everything up there with the weight of eternity, a comfort for those who need to be released from the frenetic energy of life below the mountain peaks, but a creeping horror for those who live beside the lake full time. For the few old timers who call Wild Indian Lake their home, eternity can be oppressive. It stoops the shoulders. It chills the bones. It lures them to their sad and lonely graves with the soft sounds of whippoorwills fluttering atop the lake surface or of owls hooting into the night.
Before this trip to Wild Indian Lake, Corn had been one of those ‘out of towners’ escaping the life of a late twentieth century farmer. He would not have been counted among the ‘city folk,’ but his life would have been viewed as much more frenetic than those living out their last years up here fishing for trout or tending small gardens. Now, he feels the dead weight, the strange claustrophobic pressure, of bygone years trapped between four mountain peaks. The scenery remains as beautiful as he remembers; but this time it seems as if doused by greyness, oldness, more like he is taking a trip to an ancient cemetery on a cold and wintry day. Perhaps, he has colored the scene that he sees before him with his own sadness; but, deep down, he does not believe that this is entirely the case. He is depressed, yes, but there is also something about this oasis up above the sky that is sad and sick on its own.
Clifford parks the Cadillac along a familiar stretch of the lake. Out here, the old cabins cannot be seen. The lake starts to flow into a river, and the movement of water is ideal for fly fishing. With no distraction but the soft rustle of moving water, a sound that calls to mind the crackle of an old lady’s dress, the hours can pass as minutes; and the mind can settle back into the wanderlust of boyhood. This is where so often Clifford and Corn rolled their pants up to their knees and explored for the creepy crawlies that are as valuable as gold for little boys. This is where they often spoke without speaking…
But not this time. They picnic along the banks, as they had so many times before. They wade into the water and cast their lines, like they are old hands at the sport. They sense in the breeze where the trout will be, like these rational, modern men somehow have tapped into the mind of the savage. All of this is as before, and yet this time they do not speak with one another. There is an impenetrable wall between them. Corn can only wonder if he has closed himself off to his friend’s energy, or if there is something about this place that has separated them from one another. He stands close to his friend the whole time, even though this means they are competing for the same trout, but he feels like he is alone. There is not going to be any release from the doldrums this day; and if that had been Clifford’s real purpose for taking him out here, then his friend has failed miserably. Corn is about to say something along these lines when Clifford speaks.
It is getting dark, Clifford remarks. We need to go.
Sunset remains several hours away, and yet the clouds overhead have darkened the world to a menacing purplish grey that portends bad weather. The wind has picked up, and the mask that Corn wears over his face and hands seems much too weak a shield from all that weather yet to come. Moreover, he is exhausted and wants his damn cane.
Help me back to the car, Corn grumbles.
No, Clifford says, though he takes his friend by the arm. We are going for a walk.
I know you mean well, Corn pleads. But I’m spent…
We have to walk, Clifford says. I don’t know why. It’s just that I know that we’ll never find the place, if we try to drive there.
What do you mean? Corn snaps irritably. The road goes around the lake. There is no way we can miss it.
You’ll have to trust me, Clifford answers. Don’t worry. We can take our time. As we get closer you’ll notice that the walking gets easier. It’ll feel like we are boys again.
Oh, Christ, Corn snaps. What are you? Fucking Peter Pan?
Clifford thinks about the question. His eyes sparkle behind his pince-nez. A small, sly grin forms on his lips. He looks like a boy about to unwrap a Christmas present. His youthful enthusiasm is infectious; and as tired and cranky as Corn feels just then, he is not able to resist his friend’s charm at that moment. Corn relents, even though he can hear his bones already screaming at him for having stayed outside too long in this wind.
Yes, Clifford says. I suppose I am.
Clifford helps Corn out of the lake. They return the picnic basket and the fishing gear to the Cadillac. Corn retrieves his cane, even though Clifford has made it clear he will carry him if necessary to wherever it is they are going.
They start to stagger down the side of the lake. Clifford remains beside his friend the whole time, even though he has so much enthusiasm he often has to restrain himself from running ahead. Corn keeps his face down and away from the wind as best he can. It does not make any difference. His face and hands are screaming in pain pretty much the whole time. He presses his weight over his cane so much he feels like he is going to stumble into a somersault. He thinks he really may die out here, and hopes that he will.
* * *
Corn does not die, but he does stumble to his knees at one point. Clifford helps him over to a boulder. Corn leans against the boulder, while his knees throb mercilessly.
I can’t go on anymore, Corn mutters.
Clifford studies the sky. There is too much cloud cover to know for sure, but the dark purple coloring over the western mountain peak suggests that the sun is about to set. No doubt, the first stars would be seen over the eastern peak just now but for the approaching storm. He looks down the lake. He does not yet see that twinkling light in the distance that had drawn him into itself, and yet he can feel deep in his bones that they are near. The light will appear, if they continue along this path. It will come out from nowhere, like something that floats out from the primordial darkness and can be sensed in dreams before seen with eyes. Walk another twenty or fifty paces, maybe a hundred, and then it will be there, like it had been there all along. Clifford would bet his life on that fact, though Corn’s heavy breathing suggests that he is the one actually putting his life on the line at the moment.
We are close, Clifford says.
No more, Corn mutters. I can’t go on…
You can make it, Clifford says.
No, Corn insists. Not without her. Never without her…
Clifford steps away from his friend. He stares down the lake. He still sees nothing but darkness down that way, and yet he knows what he needs to say next. It is like the questions he had heard in his head the first time he walked down this path. He decides to say what he has been told to say. He feels a great calm overcome him at that moment and interprets that as a sign that indeed he is doing what he should do. All he can do is to hope that his friend feels the same calm assurance before his weariness defeats him.
What exactly do you want? Clifford asks.
Rose, Corn says. I want Rose. I want her alive.
Clifford turns and faces his friend. He smiles like a man about to impart a secret.
Then come with me, Clifford says. No more than a hundred steps. If you are not convinced by then, then you can wait along the side of the road, while I go back for the car. Is that a deal?
Corn nods in resignation. He steadies himself on his cane, and then starts to walk down the side of the lake. He lets the tears flow into his mask, even though the pain is excruciating. He does not care about the pain. All that matters is that he wants Rose. He has to hold her hand, to look into her eyes, and to know that she is alive once more. Alive for him, because he cannot bear to be without her anymore, and because life is a dark and painful torture when a man knows he will die without seeing his beloved beside him. Is that selfish? Yes, he admits that it is; but the loss is too much for him otherwise.
Give her back to me, Corn mutters. Whatever the cost let me have her. My Rose!
At that very moment, a rose colored light appears in the distance. It is no more than a soft twinkle, a dreamy mirage that floats in and out of the darkness, and yet the light pulls both men. It quickens their step. It straightens their torsos. It frees their old and tired minds from all that hopelessness that drags men into graves.
Admittedly, Corn does not move as quickly as his friend. He still uses his cane, if only as a precaution at this point. Nevertheless, he joins with his friend in splashing his feet in the cold lake water. He even chuckles when he senses how mad his mother will be the moment she sees the mud on his legs. He knows it is not right to make her mad, but he relishes his mischief. It frees him from all that moral responsibility that weighs down shoulders. It gives him a reason to smile.
Yes, Corn smiles, as he splashes through the cold lake water towards that light. Clifford cannot see the smile on account of the dark mask, but he senses clearly enough the change in his friend’s mood. Clifford chuckles, and urges Corn to keep up with him.
* * *
The rose colored light is little more than an unreachable twinkle for some time; and then, miraculously, it consumes the entire world. Corn can feel the cold lake water at his feet, but he sees nothing around him but a soft and dreamy light. What remains of his rational mind urges caution. It is not as if he just staggered into a fog bank, after all. Clearly, this light is an illusion; or it is the kind of dark magic he has spent much of his adult life insisting is not real. Either way, this world in which he finds himself should give him enough pause for him to call out for his friend and to turn back toward reality.
Corn hears his rational mind, but he chooses not to heed her. The light feels so damned good, and he cannot recall the last time he felt good, youthful, physically and emotionally rejuvenated. He still uses his cane, but right now that seems to be more of a habit than a necessity. His easy breaths, his straightened back, everything about his body and soul tells him that this path is blessed and should be continued to the end. If he stumbles into an unforeseen misfortune when the light dissipates, then at least these last few minutes of his life will be such that he dies with a smile beneath his dark mask.
Moreover, he can feel Rose in this blinding light. It is like she is just one or two steps beyond his vision. She is picking berries, while looking back now and then to make sure that he is following her. He is certain of that fact, though he cannot make out even her retreating shadow in all this light. He is just as certain that if he saw her face then, stared deeply into her eyes, he would see that she is his for the taking. She is his, body and soul, and all he has to do now is to catch up to her and to grab a hold of her hand.
I’m coming for you Rose, Corn mutters into his dark mask, while tears continue to flow into his facial wounds. Just a few more steps…
The light dissipates as soon as he mutters those words. As much as Corn indulges in his own exhilaration, his rational mind takes note of the fact that the light dissipated when he said he was coming for Rose. Does he control this light? Does any of this make any sense? Should he not turn around with or without his friend, before it is all too late?
No, Corn mutters in response to his own questions. I’m not fucking up twice. The bastards took her away once. Not again. Never again…
And, anyway, what is the point of going back? Rose is not back there. She is not now waiting for him at the boulder, or leaning against Clifford’s Cadillac, or heating up warm milk in the kitchen. Everything else about this time and this place may be veiled in mystery, indeed may be a trap, but the fact that Rose is not back there is inarguable.
The light does not vanish completely. Instead, it reveals itself to be a candle in the front window of what Corn identifies as a ‘hippie shack.’ Apart from the flickering, scented, rose colored candlelight, the shack is entirely dark and cold. Indeed, it seems more like an ancient ruin overtaken by centuries of rainfall and wind; a dead place for the longest time almost beaten back into the earth completely by untold memories lost and hopes vanquished. The chill is palpable, and Corn vaguely recalls feeling the same way he does now when, as a little boy barely able to stand upright on his own, he went with his family to the cemetery. The ghosts whispered to him then as the chill does this very moment, and yet again he hears his rational mind urging him to escape from here.
Why had he been so exhilarated? How is it he sensed so much life in a dead place?
Corn does not know what to make of this place, and yet he still senses that Rose is nearer than she has been since the day she died. Should he attribute that fact to his overactive imagination? Maybe. He is beyond tired and likely in much worse shape than he realizes, and a taxed mind can indulge all sorts of fantasies to obscure its imminent demise. Nevertheless, how can he justify stepping away now when Rose feels closer to him than she has for so long? Must he succumb yet again to fear? Must he step away yet again when she most needs for him to be by her side? If he is not going to stick around for her, then realistically can he expect her to be there for him?
Therefore, rather than turn around and leave, Corn tries to figure out what it is about this place that reminds him of a ‘hippie shack.’ The overall impression cannot be denied, and yet it takes him a while to finger exactly why he came to that conclusion. His first clue is a moldy smell that immediately brings to mind mulch mixed with semen. Soil, sex, and cigarettes sift in and out of his nostrils; and though he never even thought of going to Woodstock back in the day, he imagines carefree hippies sliding in and out of each other on rain soaked earth. This is the smell of irresponsibility, the very taste of indulgence; a lazy night in a cowboy motel with Beautiful Rose settling into his arms.
In keeping with the mold and the mulch, Corn notes that the roof appears to be slowly collapsing over the edges of the four walls. The roof looks vaguely like an upside down mushroom. He half expects the Cheshire cat to materialize in the night air above the roof. That does not happen, and yet does he not smell the scented smoke rings that that mischievous feline offers up to the gods on high? Does he not smell the deranged mirth of a trickster?
Before he answers his own questions, he sees how the candlelight suddenly grows strong enough to illuminate the front door and the porch. It is an azure blue door, like something a clown might jump through as part of his routine, and painted on the door at eye level is a crescent moon in a sea of sparkling stars.
Corn steps onto the porch to take a closer look. There is a hand painted sign on a banner above the door. The script looks like something a third grader might draw with a blood red crayon. Indeed, at first glance, it looks like a blood smear; but Corn stares long and hard enough to mouth out these strange words: Shangri-La. We finance hopes.
Corn is about to turn his head to look for Clifford, when he hears the door open.
He steps into what seems to be a dark and moldy showroom. The candlelight only illuminates the front part of the space, but he believes he sees one table after another going down the two sides of a center aisle. The aisle seems improbably long, like it just keeps stretching into eternity, though he tries to tell himself that that is an illusion on account of the fact that he cannot see the wall opposite him. Still, how is it really that the showroom can be even that long, when from the outside the little ‘hippie shack’ on the side of the lake had appeared much smaller?
There are evenly spaced display trays on the tables. Corn walks up to the closest one. The moment he stands in front of the tray a light bulb switches on overhead, and he sees clearly a blue baby bonnet and a pacifier. The pacifier is wet and sticky, like it had been sucked on just a few seconds prior, and yet he does not hear a baby crying or sleeping nearby. Indeed, the only sound he hears is the drumroll of his heart inside his ears. He is excited, like when a child is opening up one gift after another on Christmas.
The next tray displays a soiled diaper. It is the washable kind. He has a short and vague memory of his mother washing this same diaper in a basin, while he stands beside her with his thumb in his mouth.
Surely, this is not the same diaper; and yet it looks vintage. Strangely, from the looks of it, the diaper seems not to have frayed in the years since; and the poop smells like it had been plopped just a few seconds prior. Maybe the same baby who sucked on that pacifier also dropped his doodie into this diaper. He still cannot hear the baby, but logic tells him that the tyke cannot be too far from here; maybe even still in this shack.
The next tray displays a baby rattle. There is a white angel painted on the handle that reminds him of the angel that used to watch over him when he slept in his crib. Of course, that is not a true memory. That must be something he conjured up from a long ago dream; and yet he recalls her name like it had been a real name of a real life entity. Her name had been Tara. He had known her name before he had learned that his mom’s real name was something other than ‘mama.’ Is it not amazing how our fantasies over time can seem so real to us? Corn reminds himself that there is no such thing as angels…
Yes, there is. Angels are real. Tara had been an angel…
Tara also had been the name of his grandmother. She had scared him, when his mama first placed him in her arms. Unlike the Tara who watched over his crib at night, this Tara had a wrinkly, mad face, and smelled of what he would later learn is Ben-Gay. How interesting that something so beautiful and also something so scary could both go by the name of ‘Tara.’ Is there a lesson in that? Is there a curse hidden in every blessing, and a blessing in every curse? For that matter, are the two ‘Taras’ really two different persons? Maybe, the angel is what we see in a person that makes us love them, and the witch is what we see in a person that makes us fear them. Now, surely, this is not the insight of a baby boy, or is it? Maybe, babies are wise, since they have not yet forgotten.
Corn continues to stroll from one tray to the next, while taxing his addled brain with one fantasy (no, they are memories, and deep down you know that that is true) or question after another. How is it that he sees his first crayon coloring book? It is a book called ‘Old Western Days’ and features Davy Crockett. Maybe that is a coincidence. No doubt, there had been more than one ‘Old Western Days’ coloring book published even back then. But why is this one dog-eared? Does he remember his mama bending the top of the fifth page just so? Well, does he? Or is that just another fantasy…
Wait a minute. Is that the rose he picked out of the garden and gave to his mama for her birthday? How could it be? It does not seem to have aged at all since that balmy day so long ago. Moreover, the stem has the same indent from when she used it as her Bible bookmark.
And there is the Bible. He learned to read out of that book. Youngsters did way back then. He is pretty sure today it is just a book of fairy tales, but at least he learned right from wrong at an early age. Now, if he opens the leather bound book how much does he want to bet that he finds Great Uncle Walt’s signature right next to the smudge?
What is going on here? Corn whispers.
Do you like the merchandise? An old lady cackles from behind him.
Corn, startled, turns around to confront the lady. He grasps at his own heart. He is afraid that old ticker is going to stop on him suddenly; and he does not want to die, not at this very moment anyway.
The old lady steps out from the darkness. She is illumined by the overhead light.
Barely rising above Corn’s waistline, the diminutive lady looks up at him through oversized owl glasses perched on a button nose. Her wrinkly round face calls to mind a Cabbage Patch Kid. The way she has her long, white hair gathered into a bun suggests a schoolmarm from the pioneer days. Most conspicuous is her voice. It is high and grating and reminds Corn of the short psychic in Poltergeist.
Her ill fitting blouse and skirt remind him of the gypsies he had seen as a young man when the circus came. The gypsies had their own tent on the outskirts. For a price they taught many young men the wilder arts; and the rumor at the time was that they never left for the next county without snatching a little nigger boy for their gypsy stew.
Long gold chains drape her torso. They sparkle in the light. She looks like a living retail display stand. Corn thinks that if he looks closely enough, then he will find price tags on each of those gold chains. There is even a pencil in her hair, in case she needs to write down a larger order at a moment’s notice. This old lady is never going to lose a sale for being unprepared, that is for sure.
I don’t understand, Corn mutters.
Oh, the spirit is willing, the old lady remarks with a sly grin. It’s the flesh that’s weak, especially the flesh between the ears.
Corn sees the Indian Chief headdress in the next tray. He used to run around the house with that thing on his head. He never really mastered the Indian War Cry that he heard on the radio. His version sounded more like what Arsenio Hall would do decades later (Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!). He never quit, until his mama finally told him to stop.
The next tray has a piping hot bowl of porridge. He views the perfect square of butter. It is just starting to melt into the brown sugar. He almost hears his mama in the kitchen calling for him to put his headdress back in the chest and to eat some porridge.
Tell me what’s going on, Corn pleads.
The old lady walks up to where he is now. Her old lady shoes squeak on the floor.
I’ve been in the trades a long time; the old lady says. Learned a little something about buying and selling. Folks always want what they’ve lost more than anything else.
This doesn’t make any sense, Corn mutters.
Neither does the stock exchange, the old lady says. That doesn’t stop folks from stepping into one of those Wall Street banks and putting every last cent on the roulette wheel. ‘Fifteen Black’ makes about as much sense as a fifteen-year adjustable rate loan when you step back and think about it.
But you’ve got everything, Corn says, while staring down the aisle into eternity.
Well, not everything, the old lady snarls. I’ve had to cut back on my inventory. Focus on specialty items. Otherwise, I can’t compete with online retail. Those bastards!
The old lady gestures toward the unseen opposite wall. She looks up at Corn, and smiles. Her eyes sparkle.
But I’ve got everything you’ll ever want, the old lady says.
You don’t have Rose, Corn remarks sadly.
The old lady widens her smile. She looks like a cartoon cat that has just eaten a pretty bird. The mischief in her eyes intoxicates Corn, and he has to lean heavily on his cane until a wave of exhilaration passes through his flesh and soul. Is this how he felt out there in that light? Had he been sensing this old lady’s dark powers the whole time?
And, indeed, her powers are dark. For all his excitement at seeing his past unfold before his old eyes, he cannot deny how dark and sordid her powers feel. She could sell a Corvair to Ralph Nader, but she cannot quite sell herself as a clean lady with nothing to hide. Indeed, the more he thinks about her the more he smells mold.
The old lady tilts her head toward the unseen wall. There may be something very wrong with her, but does that necessarily invalidate the gold at the end of the rainbow?
Corn hobbles at breakneck speed down the aisle. He probably could run forward like a younger man; but he leans on his cane still, much as a boy clutches onto his baby blanket long after graduating from a crib to a bed. Old habits die hard. Moreover, there remains an undercurrent of faithlessness. Perhaps, the boogeyman still exists. If that is the case, then the baby blanket may be needed to keep that ghoul inside the closet all night. Similarly, old age may still exist; and if that is the case, then it may creep into Corn’s knees at any moment.
Corn passes what must be tens of thousands of sale items, including live dogs on leashes that each give him a friendly bark, an old buddy who had died tragically when still in his twenties, a fine harvester he named ‘Bessie’ that served him well for decades and that he reluctantly sold off to pay an old debt. There are so many reasons to stop and to take a look, so many enticements meant to separate the old man from his cash, and yet he presses forward with only one thought in mind.
It feels like a lifetime has passed, since Corn first saw that pacifier in the sales tray. Who knows how much time has passed outside these black walls? Hours? Minutes?
The answer does not really matter, at least not to Corn. He has only one focus, only one question that is repeatedly incessantly in his ears: Is his Beautiful Rose in here?
Well, is she? Goddamn it. Is he going to find her here along with everything else?
He stops himself just before smashing head first into the opposite wall. There is another azure blue door there. It is an exact replica of the front entrance, except that it is illuminated from behind. Corn does not see the light this time, so much as he feels it warm up his wounded flesh. He smells roses, moist mulch, semen soiled bed sheets, lazy cigarette smoke, all the smells of youthful lust and decadence. He smells the time he first made love to his Beautiful Rose. He smells the moment she turned in his arms, looked into his eyes, and said…
What did she say? What the fuck did she say? He needs to know, since that was the last time she spoke to him before he discovered her naked and crouched like a bird on top of the toilet seat. He needs to know that as much as he needs to know what she said and did when she died. Those are two pivotal times in her life, the moments before she revealed herself to be ‘a little sick in the head’ and then ‘a little dead.’ Those are the times he needs to preserve, to hold fast, so that she does not fall off the edge and leave him alone.
So, again, what did she say? What the fuck did she say? Goddamn, what the fuck?
Corn starts to bang on the door. He repeats these questions, notwithstanding all the pain he feels beneath his face mask on account of moving his lips so much. He has to know, and he will keep banging at this door until he does even if the effort kills him.
He is not going to die, not here anyway. After all, the old lady does not want to clean up the mess; and so with a slight flick of her wrist, Corn stops beating at the door like a madman. Instead, he rests his forehead on the door, and bawls like a little baby.
He hears the squeaking shoes. That is enough to snap him out of his crying fit for now. He steps back from the heated door and turns around to face the old shopkeeper.
Is Rose in there? Corn asks.
In there is where I keep my high end merchandise, the old lady says with a smile. Never met a man who had enough nickels on him to pay for what’s in there outright. If he wants it enough, then we agree to exchange for something just as valuable to me; a clean off the books barter. What business used to be before Uncle Sam started to hire a bunch of Jew accountants to keep us in line. Think of it as a throwback to a simpler time, a heroic time, a time when a man would do anything to retrieve what he had lost.
What do you want? Corn asks.
The old lady chuckles. She looks up at him with big owl eyes.
I’ve been in the trades too long to make the mistake of starting negotiations, the old lady states. Everyone knows that the first one who speaks loses.
Please, tell me what you want, Corn begs.
Come back when you’re ready to make me an offer, the old lady responds. Until then, take off that silly mask and try to put a smile on your lips. After all, now you can hope, for you’ve seen with your own eyes that there’s gold at the end of the rainbow.
I’ve seen nothing but a locked door, Corn says.
You know what’s on the other side, the old lady says. You know what you’ve lost.
How do I know any of this is real? Corn asks.
Everything’s desire, until we’ve paid for it, the old lady remarks. Then, and only then, it’s as real as the stoop in our shoulders and the pain in our lower backs. Which reminds me that the hour is late. I am about to switch the sign to ‘CLOSED’ and to prop my feet up in front of the Zenith. Tonight’s the ‘Matlock Marathon,’ and I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for Andy Griffith.
How is it I’ve been coming up here for years, and I’ve never seen your shop? Corn asks. And why do you have a shop so far off the beaten track anyway? It makes no sense.
Desire is seldom rational, the old lady remarks. I’ve been peddling hope for folks from Transylvania to Pensacola. Setting up shop where the wind blows, then moving on when the wind settles down. It’s the way of my trade, for desire is the strongest wind. It’ll blow you to the edge and back, until finally we agree on terms. So, as I said, come back when you’re ready. My sign will always be ‘OPEN’ for you no matter the late hour.
The old lady takes Corn by the hand and starts to lead him back down the aisle. Her hand is pudgy and wet. It is as if she is as moldy as the walls of this ‘hippie shack.’
Corn does not resist. He shuffles toward the front door without even bothering to look at the various items for sale. Nothing matters but the big prize behind that door.
He manages to lift himself out of his doldrums just long enough to ask her a final question before opening the front door. He stares deeply into her big owl eyes a while.
What is your name? Corn asks. I realize that I should’ve asked before now, but…
For now, feel free to call me Rose Hawkins, the old lady interrupts. Maybe, I am a pale substitute in your eyes; but it’s the name most likely to entice you back. Agreed?
Corn is speechless. Nevertheless, he manages a slight nod, while bracing for the cold rain outside. He wishes he were back in bed. He wonders if that is where he is. He would not be surprised to wake up the next morning and to discover that this is a dream.
* * *
Corn covers his eyes, as soon as he passes through the doorway. The light outside blinds him. It seems even more intense than when he had approached earlier. It is like the rose colored light is trying to push him the heck out of here. Of course, that does not make any sense logically; but, then again, nothing about this experience does. All that matters for Corn at that moment is getting out of this maelstrom of light and rain.
Corn steps off the porch and into the lake. Now, that is strange. He did not walk through the lake to get to the porch; or maybe he did, and he just does not remember. So much of this experience already seems unreal to him, like he is not stepping out of a ‘hippie shack’ so much as a dream.
He walks through the ankle deep lake water. He hopes he is going in the general direction of the shoreline. He wonders why Clifford had not accompanied him into the store, but of course the answer is obvious enough. Clifford’s task had been to get him there. He was supposed to enter into the store himself. The saleswoman would want to make her pitch to the rube one on one. Even if Clifford had been silent the whole time, just him being there would have been an unwanted distraction for the saleswoman. Did Clifford get a referral fee for getting him there? What is his interest in all this anyway?
Corn hears the questions in his mind, but he is too tired to answer them. All of a sudden his youthful vigor is gone. His cane is no longer a habit but a necessity. He just wants to go to bed and resents being out here in this storm.
Cliff, Corn calls out. Where the hell are you?
Just then, he feels a hand grab a hold of his left arm, and direct him towards the shoreline. He is led over to a boulder on the banks, where he can rest for a short time.
The light vanishes as soon as he catches his breath…
So does the Shangri-La and, presumably, the old lady and the merchandise inside.
What the hell just happened? Corn asks.
Hope, Clifford says with big, open eyes. You just saw hope with your own eyes.
I saw a merchant, Corn snarls. An old school peddler…
Oh, sure, hope comes with a price, Clifford interrupts. But so does everything with any value.
So a banker would say, Corn mutters.
Come, Clifford urges. Let’s get out of the rain. I know where you can rest under an elm tree, while I go and fetch the Caddy.
Clifford helps Corn get to an elm tree alongside the road that encircles the lake. There is a large overhanging branch that provides ample protection from the wind and the rain. Corn leans against the tree, and closes his eyes. He thinks of Beautiful Rose, while Clifford fetches the vehicle, and is asleep by the time Clifford returns much later.
* * *
Corn opens his eyes. He stares at the ceiling above his bed. His growling bowels tell him that it is time to get up, if only to hobble over to the bathroom; but he is not sure he can move, let alone get out of bed.
His whole body has been screaming in pain since he returned from the lake three days ago. He had been standing up and walking way too long, and his knees in particular feel like kindling about to snap in a bonfire. Even worse, he has had a cold since coming back home. His plugged up nose feels like it is going to burst mucus. He eyes drop tears onto his facial wounds, and his face contorts into a grimace of pain so bad that he has scared himself when glancing into a mirror.
His life is hell. He wants to die.
And he cannot get his Beautiful Rose out of his mind…
He is pretty sure that he hallucinated the visit with that old lady in the ‘hippie shack,’ though when Clifford dropped by yesterday to give him a cold remedy that he had bought for him he tried then to convince him that the visit had been ‘one-hundred percent real.’ Corn almost believed him then. The earnest look in Clifford’s eyes had intoxicated him a moment; but the cold blue chill and the overcast sky since then have convinced him that the visit never happened. Not in the real world, anyway; and that means that unless somehow Clifford experienced the same hallucination or dream, his best friend is lying to him. Why would Clifford do that? What does he have to gain from convincing Corn that he had met with a witch who can bring back Rose from her grave?
Does Clifford want to drive Corn mad? Does he prefer dropping off cold remedies for him at the local funny farm?
Of course, if Corn is mad, and taken away by a couple of guys in white jackets, then Clifford can move into this house. Clifford owns the property, after all. He saved it from the auction block, and technically Corn has been residing here since then as his guest. But since when has Clifford aspired to be a farmer? The idea of the bespectacled banker trading in his bowtie for a pair of overalls is laughable, or is it? Maybe, there is a reason that Corn has felt betrayed somehow since that hallucination the other night.
The bowels are no longer growling. Instead, they feel like they are being stabbed from the inside repeatedly. Corn had better get over to the bathroom quickly, or else he will be changing his bed sheets.
Corn forces himself to roll to the side of the bed. His body erupts in pain, and he screams aloud. He waits a moment for the pain to subside a little, and then he reaches for his cane. He uses the cane to push himself out of bed and onto his bare feet. He has to stand there, stooped over his cane, and crying tears into his facial wounds, until the master bedroom stops spinning on its side. He pees into his underwear during that time.
Shit, Corn snarls. What the goddamned fuck!
His anger at having peed into his own underwear spurs him forward. He does not need to use the toilet anymore, but he goes there anyway. Anything is better than just standing in his own lukewarm puddle.
He glances out the bedroom window on his way to the bathroom. There is a thick sheet of ice on the window that prevents him from seeing just how bleak and cold it is outside. That is fine with him. He is tired of seeing the winter wasteland. He especially does not want to observe where the heavy snowfall has broken the perimeter fence. No doubt, there is much damage; but he also knows he will never again have the strength to do anything about it. That is the real reason he does not want to see the larger world beyond these walls. He will be reminded that he cannot do anything about anything. A man unable to put up his own fence anymore is not really a man.
Corn sits on the toilet bowl for God knows how long. The seat is like an iced cube with teeth burrowing into his ass. The pain is excruciating, and yet Corn needs to rest.
He probably would have remained there the rest of the morning, except that he hears an approaching motor vehicle in the distance. He would not have heard the motor if the snow flurries had been beating against his walls. The world outside must be still, like both the sky and the earth are ice sculptures reaching from one horizon to another.
Goddamn intruders, Corn snarls. Can’t they read the fucking sign?
Of course, the wind could have blown away the ‘No Trespassing’ sign a long time ago. Still, no one has been invited; and the only person who has a legal right to be here is Clifford. Corn is pretty sure that Clifford is at the bank counting money at this hour, and so he is beyond pissed thinking about the intruder.
Probably another fucking Jesus Freak, Corn thinks. Why don’t they leave me the hell alone? I’m not interested in what they’re peddling.
Corn forces himself off the toilet bowl and over to his frayed bathroom. He does not have time to dress properly; and right now, he does not care to do so. The intruder, whoever he or she is, does not deserve any hospitality on his part, thank you very much.
Corn feels raw anger flowing through his veins. The anger revitalizes him. It feels good, though he knows that the fall after this high will be worse than if he had stayed in bed and slept the day away. That is no longer an option, especially as he can hear a motor vehicle coming to a stop in front of his house.
Tying the bathrobe around his waist, and again grabbing for his cane, Corn starts to descend the staircase. Notwithstanding his anger, there is no way for him to go down these steps faster than an old man’s crawl. He either slows down, or he ends up faced down upon the kitchen floor with a puddle of blood spreading out from his broken nose.
He hears footsteps on the ice outside his front door. That shit for brains outside is persistent. He or she is looking for a licking, Corn thinks, while hobbling to the door.
Corn is in no condition to beat anyone at anything, but his raw anger tells him a different tale. His hand trembles, as he grasps the doorknob. His face is a mask of rage.
I can’t see Rose anymore, but I can see these fucking intruders, Corn thinks. One shit for brains after another. Well, not this time, no fucking way…
Corn opens his front door to reveal a plump, blond, red cheeked bitch in her mid twenties. She is squeezed inside of a yellow polka-dot dress. Her fatso boobs look like they are lactating milk through her dress. Most offensive is the smarmy smirk on her fat lips. She looks like she just ate the canary and is enjoying the prospect of torturing the little bird in her mouth with her teeth and saliva. She does not just gorge food; she rips it into shreds, like what a serial killer does to a victim.
Corn glances down and sees the leather bound Bible she holds by her left thigh. It looks like a black brick in her pudgy hand. Some gals carry mace to fend off the guys. Apparently, this one carries her Bible, though Corn cannot imagine a man trying to get too close to her.
Do you have a minute for Jesus? The blond bitch says, like she has turned on an audiotape inside her head.
Get the fuck out of here, Corn growls.
Because if you don’t have a minute for Jesus, you’ll get an eternity with Satan, the blond bitch recites from memory.
Them’s fighting words, so far as Corn is concerned. He holds himself upright by bracing one hand on his door. With his other hand, he lifts his cane, and then thrusts it repeatedly into her stomach.
The blond bitch steps backward to avoid the cane. She is frightened a moment, but then bristles red hot with anger. She lifts her Bible over her head with the obvious intention of swinging it downward. She eyes the cane with the disgust of any righteous woman observing an erect penis for the first time.
By the Power of Jesus! The blond bitch cries out, as she swings down the Bible.
Corn quickly grabs the cane by both hands, so that she is less likely to knock it out of his hand. He knocks the Bible sideways, just as she makes contact, and the Bible flies out of her sweaty fingers.
Help! Rapist! The blond bitch screams while stumbling backward on the cold ice.
You wish, Corn snarls. Now, get out of here!
He thrusts his cane once more. She steps back, slips on the ice, and cracks open the back of her head. The impact sound is like a large branch snapping off in the course of a snowstorm. Everything about this woman is big, apparently, even the sound that is made when her head cracks open.
Corn stands over the woman, as she convulses into death. He leans heavily upon his cane, and struggles to recapture his breaths, but the whole time he keeps his eyes fastened on hers. She is no longer the ‘blond bitch.’ She is a woman, actually no more than a girl in his mind; and when she gives up her ghost, she will be a big, blond corpse.
Oh, my God! Corn whispers.
The woman does not close her eyes. Instead, she stares back into his eyes; and when she dies, she stares into eternity. Her face seems to shrink slightly into her skull. Her red hot cheeks turn cold blue. Her lips remain open; like she had been trying at the end to suck in air through an invisible straw.
Corn falls to his knees, when he sees the subtle transformation from life to death take place before his eyes. He tosses his cane aside, and grabs a hold of her dead left hand. Her hand is cold and clammy, probably more from the weather than from death at this point. He cries out uncontrollably, as his anger gives way to fear and to sadness.
* * *
The snow beats against the window with such fury that Corn wonders if the glass is going to smash into the hospital room. No doubt, some of the glass shards would fall onto his legs; and that should be a reason to fear. He is not frightened, though. He does not care if his legs turn out as scarred as his face and hands. If he is lucky, then maybe the glass will puncture enough veins in his legs that he slowly bleeds to death. He will prop himself up on his pillows and watch the blood sprinkle out from his legs, until the room spins, and the passes out. He will inhale deeply, so as to take in the coppery smell of blood. Yes, he will enjoy the smell of his own blood, like a fat man enjoys the smell of baking bread. That will twist his lips into a grin, before he finally gives up his ghost.
But the window does not break. That makes sense, really, for Corn is languishing in a dark small room in the medical ward of the county jail. There are two iron bars on the outside of the window, so Corn presumes that the glass is bulletproof. Indeed, every little detail of this place is protected, clean, even antiseptic, like the warden fears that even germs might somehow help one of the orange suited inmates to escape from inside these plain white walls.
Corn loses interest in the blizzard outside. It is not going to free him, and deep down he is not sure he wants to be freed. His attorney thinks the D.A. is going to drop all charges. The evidence at the scene only proves that the decedent had been walking backward when she slipped and hit the back of her head on the ice. There are no other physical marks, for the cane never actually made any contact with her. The police did find her Bible, and it looked as if it had been tossed off to the side. On the other hand, she may have dropped it when falling, and the wind carried it away. Apparently, it had not been as much of a brick as it had appeared in her clenched hand. Not really much of a case for the D.A., and Corn has been smart enough not to say one word to anyone since he called for the police to come to his home.
Indeed, ‘smart’ is not the right word; for Corn is not exercising his constitutional right to remain silent as a means of escaping punishment. He has been silent, because he has made a conscious decision to shut himself off from the world. The hope has been vanquished, like when a cold winter breeze snuffs out the weak flame on a candlestick; and the only viable option in Corn’s slow, tired mind is to embrace his imminent death.
Death is not the cessation of the physical body. Rather, it is total separation; the state of being shut away and forgotten. Corn is not forgotten yet. His attorney has an obligation under the law to pay attention to his case so many minutes each weekday. His guards have to check in on him every twenty minutes to make sure he is not about to commit suicide. He has heard from his attorney that his son is trying to convince the D.A. to drop all charges and to release him to Providence House for further evaluation. Goddamn fucker is still trying to get his ass in that old folks’ home, but at the very least this shows that Corn remains on Charlie Hawkins’ radar screen for now. Corn supposes he is on the mind of the decedent’s family, as well as her extended family at Reverend Goober’s church, but he has not heard anything about those people one way or another. So, no, Corn is not forgotten; but he has been shut away. Everything about county jail life, even inside the medical ward, serves to remind the quiet inmate that he is cut off.
And so Corn is not so sure he wants to leave…
Actually, Corn is sure. He does not want to leave. He wants to stay here in this hospital bed with his right wrist handcuffed to the side rail. He wants to languish in his orange suit. He wants to stare menacingly at the nurse, when she force-feeds him three times each day and checks on his hydration. But mostly he just wants to stay away from the world, because the world took Rose from him, and the world drove that fat woman to try to save his soul. If he had to describe the world in one word, then he would say ‘betrayal.’ The world betrays. The world rejects. The world abandons.
And old men like Corn Hawkins have to feel the weight of that betrayal on their weak knees and in their stooped shoulders. That is why old men embrace death, before they blow out air for the last time. Corn had sensed this truth about old age since the first time he saw Rose slip into madness. Now, this truth is unavoidable, like the mushy hospital food force-fed down his throat by the grim nurse in the squeaky, old lady shoes.
Thinking of betrayal, Corn cannot help but to note that Clifford has never visited him. He can have visitors under supervision and for only short periods of time, so this is not the ideal place for friendly chitchat admittedly. Nevertheless, given how much time Clifford had spent by his bedside in the hospital, he had thought that his only real friend would have come out here, too. For the first few weeks of his incarceration, he had tried to excuse Clifford’s no show. Visiting hours are during the day, and Clifford is still working regular hours at the bank. Unlike the hospital, the county jail is way out in the boondocks; and Clifford would not want to drive his Cadillac out this way. None of these excuses felt true, though; and now, having had ample time to see the betrayal for what it really is, Corn acknowledges that Clifford is a no show for the simple reason that he has no more need to see him. Clifford managed to get him out to that old lady’s store, and that means Clifford can go into that back room and get what he most wants. It was all a backroom deal, an under the table transaction; banking before a bunch of do-gooders regulated the industry.
But I thought that ‘hippie shack’ had been a figment of my imagination all along, Corn thinks. How many times have I told myself that that encounter had been a dream?
Apparently, not enough times; for one of the results of Corn’s silent incarceration these past few weeks is his inability now to believe that the brick wall is not there when he keeps smashing his face against the surface. He understands why monks take to their cells sometimes for years at a time. The silence haunts them at first; but if they manage to withstand the screams that they hear in their heads in the middle of the night, then the silence begins to free them. Without the distractions even of their own thoughtless routines, they shed the lies and the half-truths. The walls in their minds start to tumble down in proportion to the quiet impenetrability of the walls outside their minds. There are no dreams, the monk realizes. There is just reality: What is real in his head as real as what is real outside his head. The betrayal, the heartbreak, the loss, all these tragic conditions in life burn the soul just as much if they happen inside as outside the mind.
So the ‘hippie shack’ beside the lake is very real…
The old lady’s openness to an offer is very real…
And Clifford’s betrayal is very real, too.
Corn hears the bolt lock to the hospital room door snap open. The noise is almost deafening in this silent hell. It kicks him out of his morbid thoughts, if only for a while.
He expects one of the guards to step inside. The guards always switch on a huge industrial strength flashlight when they enter into the dark room. Corn does not know why they do not just switch on the overhead light. Surely, these brown shirts care not for waking him up every twenty minutes. Indeed, they would love to see how fast Corn would fry as a result of sleep deprivation. Corn imagines them taking bets as to how he will fare when awakened every twenty minutes by a buzzing neon light above his eyes. No, empathy is not on display here. Perhaps, the guards are not switching on the light overhead, because they are under orders to use as little electricity as possible. Perhaps, they do a cursory search by flashlight, because deep down the warden does not care if his hospitalized inmates commit suicide. What a guard never sees never makes it into his report. If betrayal is the dominant characteristic of the world, then willful blindness is a close second.
This time, the guard steps inside, but then stands at attention by the open door. He switches on his flashlight, and he points it toward the hospital bed, so as to create a path of light for the man who steps inside on his heels.
Corn cannot see the second man at first, because he is blinded momentarily by the flashlight. Nevertheless, he can tell from the slow shuffle of loafers on the concrete floor that his attorney is paying him a visit. Corn does not want to see his attorney. He has not spoken to him either, and he is tired of his attorney trying to coax words out of him. His attorney is just another cog in an elaborate infrastructure meant to crush the life out of people like Corn. This may not be a charitable way to think of the man who is trying to free him, but Corn has learned of late to eschew charity for cold hard reality.
Merry Christmas, the attorney says, after laying his briefcase on the floor beside the hospital bed.
Corn looks into the middle aged man’s eyes. The eyes are cold, distant, almost inhuman. The long, gnomish face has aged prematurely; no doubt, the lot of most men in the state bar who are overworked and underpaid for too many years. The bowtie is just too perfect. Bowties are supposed to look slightly disheveled, and so a perfect one suggests that the man wearing it is a bit more robot than human. Corn imagines now an overworked and underpaid robot in a suit who moonlights as the mortician after hours.
The attorney does not wait for Corn to respond. He has grown used to these one-sided conversations.
The D.A. decided to drop all charges for lack of evidence, the attorney says with a hint of a smile. Judge Moore signed off on their request just a few hours ago. The one condition is that you spend thirty days at Providence House. Your son has convinced the court that you might be suicidal.
Corn looks away in disgust. He knows deep down that he is suicidal. After all, he no longer has to wear a ski mask on his face; but his face is permanently scarred. He is more Freddy Krueger than Corn Hawkins. He will be shunned, not only because his face and his hands look like they have been disfigured for Halloween, but because nearly all the townspeople blame him for the fat woman’s death. So in all honesty he cannot be disgusted that the court finds him to be a suicide risk. What disgusts him is that his son won. Charlie wanted him in Providence House, and that is where he will remain for the rest of his life. With all the money Charlie will be paying Providence House, it is almost inconceivable that the doctors there will determine that he is no longer a suicide risk. Doctors know the hand that feeds them as much as any whore knows. The doctors will keep Corn away from the world, and Charlie will be freed to make a deal with Clifford for ownership of the land after Clifford dies. In the end, it all comes down to the land.
Try to stay out of trouble, the attorney says, while picking up his briefcase. Okay?
The attorney waits a moment to see if Corn will respond. Corn refuses to oblige, and so the attorney turns around and shuffles out the hospital room. The guard follows him. He bolts the hospital room door shut once more, for Corn technically remains one of the inmates, until the warden sends someone to take care of his transfer to the old folks’ home. That probably will not happen for a few more hours, and so Corn settles into his pillows for a bit of shut eye before the move. He listens to the blizzard outside, and he feels the darkness reeling him into herself.
He senses Beautiful Rose. She is ahead of him, somewhere in the darkness, near, and yet too far to touch. She is there to remind him that he is alone and that the world in which he still clings to life is hopeless. Though he cannot see her, he knows that she is looking back at him now. She opens her mouth. She is about to say something to him.
What does Rose say? Corn struggles to hear her words. He strains to catch a hold of her thoughts. He is still reaching out to her, when, finally, he falls into a deep sleep.
* * *
Corn feels sick to his stomach. He does not remember the nurse in the squeaky, old lady shoes coming into his hospital room and injecting him with a sedative. Is that routine when they transfer one of their inmates to the old folks’ home? He had been in a deep sleep already, so what are they trying to do? Give him just enough of a push that his heart gives up?
His heart does not stop, but he feels sick to his stomach from whatever the nurse put into his vein. He is opening his eyes, slowly, fearfully. He is trying to make sense of his surroundings, if only so as to be aware of where he is when the Grim Reaper reaches out of the darkness and grabs a hold of his soul.
He feels like he is moving. That could be his stomach, but deep down he senses that he is in a moving vehicle. Is he in the back of an ambulance being transferred over to Providence House? If so, then why could they not wait until the morning, since it is so damned dark and cold outside?
He forces his eyes to open wide. It is a terrible struggle, but he has to see what is happening around him. Indeed, he is in the back of a moving ambulance. He can see the swivel doors clutched together. He looks to his side, and he sees an IV bag swinging side to side on a pole. It seems to be moving too wildly…
Everything in the back of the ambulance swings to the left, and then to the right, like the entire vehicle is skidding side to side on black ice…
And then the swivel doors snap open, and Corn watches in horror as the two lane highway swerves out of view. He sees that they are starting to roll down a steep hill off the side of the road, when the swivel doors snap shut again.
Corn shuts his eyes before the inevitable impact. He never feels it. Instead, he slips back into unconsciousness.
* * *
Corn is startled fully awake by a howling gust that sweeps into the back of the ambulance. He trembles from the cold air. He hears the right swivel door creaking open and shut in the wind. It seems the left swivel door had disconnected entirely when the ambulance crashed into something or other on the side of the hill; and as a result, the wind carrying black ice and leaves from the highway up above is able to sweep into the back of the ambulance with no obstruction.
The ambulance is leaning against a tree or a boulder at a forty-five degree angle. As such, everything in the back has smashed up against the cabin, including the back of Corn’s head. He can feel blood leaking out from there. The wound does not feel fatal, at least not at this point, but the blow flow is enough that he can smell it. Earlier this same evening, he had imagined that that smell would bring a grin to his lips; but in fact it does not. Maybe, he wants to live still, if only to accomplish one more task. Maybe, he has no conscious will to live, but his instinct to live is proving more powerful frankly than he had thought. Regardless, the smell of blood inspires a determination to get the hell out of this wrecked vehicle before too much of that cold wind freezes him to death.
Corn grabs for his intravenous line, but it had disconnected upon impact. The IV bag had fallen off the pole and torn open on his chest.
Corn rolls off the side of the busted hospital bed. He lands on the floor and starts to crawl up towards where the left swivel door used to be. There is plenty of snow and ice already inside the ambulance, and it is hard for him to get any traction. His knees scream out in pain from the cold, hard surface up which he is crawling; and yet his will or his instinct pushes him out of the ambulance and onto the snow covered hill outside.
He collapses into the snow. A voice in the back of his mind reminds him that the last time this happened he suffered horrible frostbite. Nevertheless, the adrenaline is gone; and his old age has caught up with him.
He is about to lose consciousness, perhaps for the last time, when a hand reaches down and grabs his hair. It is a small and clammy hand, but it is much stronger than its diminutive size would suggest. The hand pulls his face up from the snow.
Corn’s eyes flicker open. He pushes himself up to his knees, and looks up at the small woman who had saved his face and hands from another round of frostbite. She is vaguely recognizable as the nurse in those squeaky, old lady shoes who has been force-feeding him for the past few weeks, and yet she is also different. Her face is older and rounder. Her hair is whiter. Unlike the nurse, this lady is wearing thick owl glasses that make her look like a smarmy schoolmarm.
It is very hard for Corn to put the puzzle pieces together in his mind. Still, he is pretty sure he has seen this woman before tonight…
Before, had she not been dressed like an old fashioned shopkeeper? Did she not have a pencil in her bun, in case she had to write down an order? Did she not wear gold necklaces that rattled over her plump tummy? Did she not say something about Matlock?
The questions come and go unanswered. Corn does not even attempt to focus in on any one of them. Instead, he accepts that he knows her somehow. Either in his mind or in the real world, it does not matter. For him, she is real; and the way she holds up his head and looks into his bleary eyes, she is also unavoidable. She is the saleswoman who will not go away, until he makes her an offer she cannot refuse. She may not start negotiations, as she made clear back at her shop; but she is always ‘closing’ the deal, even before the other side knows that there is anything firm on the table. Though Corn does not totally grasp that fact yet, he does sense vaguely that he is screwed already.
You should thank me for the sedative, the old lady remarks with a forced smile.
Corn is trying still to put the puzzle pieces together. He opens his mouth like he may speak; but then he shuts it again, when he inhales a punch of cold air. He nods in the slow and clueless manner of a man who is not sure if he is agreeing or disagreeing.
Unconscious folks are more likely to survive car crashes; the old lady explains. It takes resistance out of the equation; and we both know that resistance breaks the flesh as much as the soul.
Corn reaches for the back of his head. He dabs some of the blood onto his right index and middle fingers; and he looks at it up close, like he is peering at a specimen under a microscope.
Nothing to say, huh? The old lady says irritably. Not even a thank you? Did your mother not teach you any manners?
Corn looks back at the old lady. He is mesmerized by her big owl eyes. They are almost cartoonish, and yet there is nothing amusing about them. On the contrary, those eyes frighten him now more than anything else he has seen before this moment. He has an urge to scream, and he even opens his lips to do so; but he does not make any noise.
No matter, the old lady continues. I suppose business nowadays does not demand the pleasantries of yesteryear. Anyway, start crawling up the hill, unless you choose to freeze out here. I’m pretty strong for my age, but I can’t hold you up forever. Frankly, don’t have a mind to do so, even if I could. So start putting your one knee after another!
Corn looks up toward the highway. He sees his pickup truck idling along the side of the road. It is illuminated in moonlight, as if nature wants to make sure that he sees it up there. It makes no sense that it should be there, but of course it makes no sense that the shopkeeper has been holding his head out of the snow. He wonders if he is now dreaming, and then he reminds himself that that simply does not matter. For him, this is as real as the moment the world took his Beautiful Rose away. For him, the decision he makes matters; and so with that understanding he chooses to crawl toward his truck.
Go home, the old lady calls out to him, as he crawls up toward his truck. Decide what offer you are going to make. Then, come and see me. I am always open for you, day or night, rain or shine. That is my personal commitment to my very best customers.
There is a powerful gust of wind, and the old lady is gone. Corn looks back where she had been. He is not sure if the wind swallowed her up, or if she wandered back into the forest. He can feel that she is near, though; ready to offer him a helping hand if he needs one. That old wench will not give up on him, until he makes her an offer with his hat in hand. He looks back down at his scarred hands and sobs, for he knows all too well that he will find salvation as much as ruin behind that back door in her ‘hippie shack.’ There is a blessing in every curse, and a curse in every blessing, and so the world turns.
* * *
Corn swerves off the highway. As he turns onto a country road, he almost crashes into a ditch. This is his third near miss in the last half hour or so. Trying to drive in this blizzard would be precarious under any circumstances, but the drive is that much worse given his weakened state of mind. He cannot quite make sense of what he is doing at any given time, and the rational part of his mind wishes he would be pulled over by the cops for drunk driving. Primitive fear pushes down on the gas pedal, though; fear that he will lose his one chance at getting Rose back, if he does not do exactly what the old lady said. He is on the edge. His sane mind had been lost in this horrible snowstorm at least a half hour ago. Still, even if he cannot focus on much of anything else, he senses Rose just round the bend, or just up the road a little further; and that keeps him pushing upon the gas and sliding deeper into his own personal madness.
Though unstable, he has not lost his instinctual compass altogether. He can sense where his home is in this vast white countrywide, even though he hardly sees through the snow cover on his windshield. He barely hears the chatter on his radio, but he can hear enough to know that the ambulance has been found. Apparently, the vehicle had been driving too fast on black ice. It skidded off of the highway and into a tall elm tree about a hundred yards down a steep slope. Had Corn really crawled a hundred yards up a hill in his poor condition? Adrenaline can count for much, but had he been assisted in his efforts? He remembers being yanked up out of the snow, but had he also been pulled somehow the rest of the way? He cannot tell for sure, except that everything about this experience feels out of his control. It is like he is a pawn, and an invisible hand now is moving him from place to place for a purpose that evades him.
He does not care what the fates have in store for him. He just wants his Rose. It is unfair that the world took her from him. It is unfair that he has to suffer even now in this horrible blizzard. If there is any justice left in this bleak overcast countryside, then he will get back what had been taken from him. Damn the world if that does not happen.
He turns onto his own driveway. It is a long dirt road that cuts through his farm. He sees out of the corner of his eye that the fence is gone. He is not surprised. Clifford never really had the blood of a farmer in his veins. It is amazing that the farmhouse up yonder has not caved inward as a result of Clifford’s gross inattention to such matters.
No, Clifford did not betray him to get his hands on the farm…
He betrayed him to get his hands on Rose…
He loved Rose. Maybe, it had been a platonic love all along. Maybe, it had been more than Corn ever had wanted to acknowledge. Regardless, Clifford connived the old farmhouse from Corn, because Clifford wants and expects Rose to come home to him. This time, he will be the one to greet her at the door. This time, he will be the one to take her hand into his and to lead her into the master bedroom. He can close the door behind them, turn off the lights, and draw her into himself. Under the blanket together, the blizzard outside beating against the window and the walls, the night will be endless.
Corn comes to this wild conclusion while bumping down the driveway. It is all so very ridiculous, a savage excess of imagination, and yet what else can explain Clifford’s betrayal? Clifford never loved Rose enough for Rose to have been behind that back door when Clifford visited the ‘hippie shack,’ but he must have deduced that Rose would be there if and when he convinced Corn to bargain with the old lady instead. Clifford is a banker, after all. He understands what men value; what interest they are willing to pay to get what they desire. To what lengths men will go to close escrow on their dreams…
Yes, tonight is the night I close escrow, Corn thinks. It is Christmas Eve, but for me the shop is open; and that old moneychanger has an order sheet and pencil in hand.
Corn screeches to a halt before the elm tree. He leans on his steering wheel, as the old motor idles. He is too exhausted to open his door and to venture out into that howling snowstorm. He hears about the ambulance crash on the radio. The signal is not very clear way out here, but he makes out that the paramedics have been found dead inside the cabin of the vehicle. There is no sign of the patient, but he is presumed dead.
I am dead, Corn mutters. But I’ve got one more task.
He looks up. His windshield wipers knock away just enough snow for him to see the front door. The door is ajar, and Clifford is standing in the doorway staring back at him. Clifford is wearing a dapper smoking jacket and trousers. He is drinking a glass of brandy. His pince-nez glare back at Corn like another pair of eyes perched on the tip of his nose. The look on Clifford’s face is one of absolute contempt, and yet Corn realizes that that is a mask. Clifford is afraid. Clifford is not sure he can handle what he has set into motion. Though Corn is the man stuck out here in the cold, he senses that Clifford is as sick and as frightened as he is. Both men are damned, and the look that they share with one another at that moment confirms as such. Neither of them can turn back now.
Clifford steps back. He takes one more long look at his former friend, and then he closes the front door. Corn cannot hear anything but the howling snowstorm and the weak radio signal; but he imagines the clang of that door closing, like it is the door to a jail in the bowels of hell. He senses that the imprisonment is as much in there as out here. He hates that he has been betrayed, and yet he feels sadness for his friend, too.
Corn sits upright. He puts the pickup truck into reverse, backs away from the old elm tree, turns back onto the driveway, and speeds toward the country road ahead. He listens for the call of the wild out there in that storm, while turning toward the unseen mountains off in the distance. He wipes away his tears, and thinks of his Beautiful Rose.
* * *
Corn nearly swerves off Route 11 several times, while making the long drive up the mountain and into the water filled crater known as Wild Indian Lake. He sees little of the road beyond his snow drenched windshield, and his mind continually floats from the here and the now to disjointed memories of Rose. He is losing her with each passing minute. The memories seem less real, more obviously constructs of his imagination, no matter that he tries still to differentiate reality from fantasy. He grows that much more anxious as a result; and though the anxiety disorients him, it also acts as a kind of raw adrenaline push that keeps his foot on the accelerator. He has little time. It is like he hears the tick-tock of time running out. He makes his offer before sunrise, or all is lost.
He sees the lake glistening in the moonlight, as he turns off the highway and onto the country road that circumnavigates the water. It is a sight that would have relaxed him in the past; but now, with so little time remaining, he dreads the wide expanse of the lake. The cabins spread about the lake are fast asleep. There is no lamplight shining through the glass of a second floor bedroom window, no Christmas lights sparkling on a roof, no light whatsoever but what is reflected off of a cold, blue moon already passed the high point of her journey.
So where is that rose sparkle that had lured him into her radiance? Where is that light out yonder that is going to draw him to the ‘hippie shack,’ where no doubt there is an ‘open’ sign beside the front door?
And where is that old lady? She feels close enough to be sitting in the passenger seat beside him, and yet she is also as elusive as when Rose had been drawing him ever deeper into the forest. He imagines pulling aside a low hanging elm tree branch. There is Rose, naked, ready to receive him into her arms…
And then Rose is the old lady, wrinkled and plump, her low hanging breasts just now flapping in a breeze like Dumbo’s ears…
Corn screams in fear, and he momentarily lifts his hands from the steering wheel, so as to swat that horrible image out of his mind. His pickup truck swerves to the right, and it knocks away the old mailbox that used to belong to Grace Temple. The house is dark and dormant, since Grace died sometime ago; and so it will be awhile before the man responsible for the upkeep of the property finds and reassembles the old mailbox.
Corn turns back onto the road, and he accelerates through a very slippery patch of ice. He loses control; though this time, instead of swerving off the road once more, he plows through a snowdrift. The front tires kick rocks and ice shards back into the undercarriage; and, almost immediately, the pickup starts to twitch and to tremble like an old man in a death spasm.
Unable to control his vehicle any longer, Corn slides over to the right side of the country road. He wants to idle there, while trying in vain to collect his thoughts; but a loose snow hill over there gives way to the weight of his truck. He rolls down a slippery bank, and smashes his hood into a boulder alongside the lake.
The impact knocks Corn into the steering wheel. He snaps into a dream of Rose…
And then opens his eyes the moment he hears the driver’s side door squeak open.
A cold wind snaps against his left cheek, and he turns toward the open door. He sees the old lady. She is dressed as she had been when he discovered her ‘hippie shack.’ There is a forced smile on her face. Her eyes sparkle rose colored light, and somehow he senses that she is the source of that soft illumination. She is not reflecting light. She is generating it. Except hers is a kind of infernal energy; a light that does not shine, so much as it distracts and unsettles.
Merry Christmas, the old lady says.
Corn breaks down and cries. To some extent the tears relieve the pressure that he has endured since the ambulance crashed; but, much more so, the tears reflect the fact that now is the moment for which he has been waiting since he discovered his Rose dead in their bed. Somehow, in the back of his mind, he has been struggling for a way to get her back. He felt sorrow for his loss, but he also felt weak and unworthy to the task of retrieving what had been stolen from him. That objective never made sense to his rational mind, of course, except on those few occasions that he fantasized how he could dig up her corpse and return what is left of her to their bed. In his heart, though, he has had no other purpose than to outsmart God, to force His hand, and then to find his reward waiting for him in their bed with gratitude in her eyes and love on her lips.
Get out of the truck, and follow me, the old lady says with a hint of irritation. I am too old fashioned. It sickens me to see a grown man blubber like a little nigger baby.
Corn starts to step out of the truck. His knees tremble. They are obviously in no shape right now to stagger across the ice and into the shack about fifty yards up yonder.
Not much of a Boy Scout, are you? The old lady snarls. Don’t you know their line? ‘Always Be Prepared.’ It is a wonder you kept your farm in the black as long as you did.
Corn looks back at her with his sad eyes. The old lady returns the gaze, and sighs.
The old lady bends down, and she pushes aside the snow between her black shoes and the pickup truck. She retrieves a cane with a gold handle. It looks brand new, like she had buried it there just a moment prior. That makes no sense, and yet what about the old lady does? It is as if reality itself twists into dark fantasy wherever the old lady happens to be at any one time.
You can buy this from me inside, the old lady says, when handing the cane with the gold handle to Corn. I’ll discount the price twenty percent. It is Christmas morning, after all, and I am a sucker for yuletide. ‘Jingle Bells Always Sells,’ now isn’t that true?
Corn nods in the affirmative, as he steps onto the snow, and leans into the cane.
Unlike the prior time, there is no blinding light; and the steps do not get easier. Corn has to struggle with every step not to lose his balance, and his breaths sound so haggard that on several occasions the old lady looks back to see if he is still on her heel.
The ‘hippie shack’ on the side of the lake smells even worse this time. The odor calls to mind rotten flesh churned in a soupy marsh. The mildewed roof seems to hang even heavier on the flimsy walls. The shack creaks in a cold breeze, while rippling lake water now and then snaps against the back wall. As before, the structure seems much too small to house the long aisle of merchandise inside; and Corn wonders again if this is not all a strange dream. He tries to think that he can force himself awake, and then view his Beautiful Rose sleeping soundly by his side; but the cold sadness of this place blocks that thought. There will be no basis for hope, no mental diversions from his all consuming depression, unless he makes the old shopkeeper an offer she cannot refuse.
The old lady steps onto the porch. A dormant candle beside the front window on its own flares back into life. The flame is small and fragile, but that rose colored light that had enchanted him the last time illuminates the ‘open’ side by the door. Indeed, though well passed midnight on Christmas morning, the shack remains open for him to step inside and to conduct the business at hand.
Opening the door, and stepping into a room of ghoulish shadows cast by the one flickering candle, the old lady turns around and waves her customer inside. Though she attempts another smile, the effort only manages to scare the doddering, old man then stepping onto the porch. Hers is the broad grin of a demented Jack-o’-lantern; scary on its face so as to mask the conniving intelligence behind her eyes. It is impossible really to read her, but the energy is unmistakably dark. The old lady has no other passion but the sale; and as she gets closer to scribbling an order, her owl eyes flare, her lips grin, and the long, gold chains hanging around her neck glitter. Even the witchy hair that she keeps in a bun seems to glow with an infernal radiance. The overall effect is as if Satan had been transfigured instead of Christ Jesus; and for Corn anyway, the result is a deep and abiding despair. The old lady may be waving him inside, like he has the free will to turn back, but in fact he is trapped already. There is no real choice for Corn but to step into the hall of ghoulish shadows and to imagine Rose waiting for him in that back room.
Corn steps into the shop. He makes out the tables extending down the two sides of the center aisle, but this time there is no merchandise. Indeed, the space smells and feels like it has not been occupied for years.
Corn walks up to the closest table. He leans on the surface, and he starts to cry aloud. The emptiness overwhelms him. The smell of death everywhere reminds him of his Beautiful Rose, alone, cold, buried beneath six feet of soil and snow in a graveyard.
No! Corn cries out. No! No!
What is wrong? The old lady asks.
I did not come out here for nothing, Corn sobs.
Don’t be fooled by the empty tables, the old lady says. I keep my shop stocked with what my customers desire the most, especially on this most holy day of gift giving!
Corn stares into her owl eyes. The rose colored candlelight flickers off her glasses in a way that calls to mind the cozy warmth of a Christmas morning, when the logs are crackling in a fireplace. The image inspires just enough hope for Corn to break out from his doldrums. He looks down the aisle, and thinks he sees the azure blue door beckoning him. Is Rose actually back there? Is it possible?
Why don’t you take a look? The old lady asks.
Corn looks back at the old lady. He studies her face, her big owl eyes, but there is nothing to read. Whatever may be her secrets, she masks them much better than he senses them. He will have to go to that azure blue door without any certainty what may be behind it. He will have to make a leap of faith, and suffer the consequences himself if it turns out she is not there.
Corn turns back toward the door, and then he starts to hobble down there as fast as he can. Tears flow from his face. His broken heart feels like it is beating through his flesh. He nearly hyperventilates from an adrenaline rush now shooting through his veins.
Rose! Corn sobs. Please! Please! Be back there!
He smashes against the back door. He twists and turns the doorknob every which way. He pounds on the door with both of his hands. He kicks the door with his left foot.
Rose! Corn sobs. Are you in there? Please, answer me!
He leans his forehead against the door, and he lets the tears flow in silence. The adrenaline rush is gone. It takes every last bit of his strength just to breathe in and out.
He hears the squeaky shoes slowly approaching from the other side of the shop. He stands upright, wipes away his tears, and watches the old lady. What is left of his rational mind tries to tell him that he should not be able to see anything. They are both far from the candlelight, after all. Nevertheless, there is a rose colored aura emanating out from the old lady’s flesh. It illuminates wherever she happens to be; and as a result, Corn realizes that he cannot hide his weakness in the darkness. She can see his defeat, as much as he can see it in himself. The sly grin on her face means that she enjoys his predicament, or at least sees a business advantage in it, and so Corn gives up the fight.
You’re at the very end of your rope, the old lady observes. That means the price is going up. Better make me an offer, before the price surpasses the value of your soul.
The old lady stands close to her customer. She looks up at his face, and wags her right index finger as if a schoolmarm disciplining a naughty pupil. Her gold chains rattle.
So don’t you offer me all the tea in China, or all the rum in Jamaica, for at this point there’s only one thing you can give me that’s going to be enough; only one offer that won’t make me laugh at your weak condition.
Corn looks down. He nods his head meekly, and he wipes wet snot from his nose.
So what’s your offer, old man? The old lady growls.
My life, my soul, just to see Rose alive again, Corn mutters.
Well, well, nice to hear a serious offer, the old lady says with an insincere smile. I accept it. Let’s shake on it, and proceed then with our business.
The old lady reaches out with her right hand. Corn hesitates, and then shakes it. Her hand feels cold and clammy, like when he had held Rose’s hand after she had died.
You should try the door again; the old lady says.
Corn slowly grabs a hold of the doorknob. He feels a terrible weight added to his shoulders, as if they are not stooped enough. His knees ache from the pressure. He is a good ten or fifteen years older in his mind; a walking corpse about to turn back to dust.
In spite of all that pain, though, he turns the doorknob; and he steps into a small showroom. There is a table in the center. A spotlight overhanging the table illuminates a pair of hiking shoes with socks, a pair of trousers, and a white shirt. The clothes seem to have been laundered and folded. There is a faint smell of a babbling brook by a lush elm tree. Even more subtle, maybe imagined, is the smell of sex sifting in and out of a breeze. There is the sound of a very young woman giggling. Is that Rose? Is it really her?
Where is she? Corn asks.
Where you first fell in love with her, the old lady responds.
Corn leans on the table. He is too tired to stand upright. He searches his memory.
Wild Indian Creek, Corn mutters. The first time we made love.
Hidden beneath the branch of an elm tree, the old lady snarls. A couple of rabbits in heat. You were not as discreet as you thought. A little boy saw you. Gave him ideas…
What? Corn asks.
Oh, it does not matter, the old lady says. That little boy never reappears in your life story. What does matter is that you decided that afternoon to give your life to Rose. Sex will do that to a young man, just as a home cooked meal will do that to an old man.
And these are the clothes I wore that afternoon, Corn says.
Get out of your prison clothes, the old lady says. Put on these, and you will feel like the man you were back then; young, strong, the whole world yours for the taking. You’ll find her there today hiding beneath the elm, waiting to take your hand into hers.
Corn grabs a hold of the shirt. He sheds another tear. He is not sure if he is now frightened or relieved. What is certain is that his life belongs to the old lady glaring at him from behind. He has made his deal, but she will be cashing in the chips at the end.
Stop your bawling, the old lady snaps. And don’t forget your new cane. I’m going to add twenty dollars to your invoice; still a discount when you consider how much gold is in the handle. Now, I am ready for my night cap, so you’ll show yourself out the door.
Corn looks at her. He does not know what to say.
Oh, and don’t worry about your truck, the old lady remarks. You’ll find it back on the road and ready to go. The radio won’t work, but an old gal can only do so much.
* * *
Corn opens his eyes. He looks around the inside of his pickup truck. Although he had slept undeterred for several hours, he is exhausted, confused, unable to remember why he had fallen asleep in the first place inside his cold truck on the side of the road. His forehead hurts; and when he looks at his reflection in the rearview mirror, he sees that it is bruised. At first glance, the bruise looks like a third eye upon his scarred face. Apparently, while sleeping, he had pressed his forehead against his hard steering wheel.
He looks out his passenger side window, and he sees that he is parked alongside Wild Indian Creek. The water flow is sluggish, for much of the creek has been frozen a while. The white snow covers every inch of earth between the edge of the highway and the creek. The trees lost their leaves weeks ago, and now look like wiry, stooped beasts trembling in fear of the howling winter gusts.
Corn grabs a hold of the cane beside him. He opens the door. He winces in pain due to the iced cold wind that snaps at his face. He nevertheless pushes himself out of the pickup truck, stabs his cane into the snow, and searches for the path that leads to the creek. In the old days, there had been a sign marking the spot; but, like his fence back home, the sign is a casualty of this horrible winter. He tries to recall a landmark, which if found would lead him to the top of that path; but his mind now is as worn out as his flesh. Therefore, unable to find the easy route, he slides down the hill where he is. He tumbles head over heel midway down, and he lands hard on his back by the creek.
* * *
Corn opens his eyes. He faces an overcast sky. Snowflakes twirl down from that sky like white flies descending upon a corpse. He wipes snow off of his eyes and cheeks, and that allows him to see the heavens much more clearly.
There is a black crow encircling him. It seems to be flying just beneath the thick clouds. Corn hears or imagines its wings flapping in the cold air. The sound knocks cold fear into his veins; and as a result, he sits up on his knees and looks away from the sky.
The elm tree is directly across the creek. It lost its leaves just like all the other trees, but the wind has not yet knocked away its low hanging branch. At most, the wind sways that branch side to side, so that its tip draws a line in the snow. The branch drops clumps of snow onto the ground whenever it trembles. Although without leaves at this time of year, there are enough smaller branches growing out from the larger one, such that the person crouching beneath the branch is partially shielded…
Wait! Is that really a person?
Is that Rose? Is it really her?
Corn grabs his cane, and he pushes himself back to his feet. He stares in silence at what looks like a young woman in a white dress crouching beneath the branch. Hers is the glowing face of an angel. Her hair is as white as the snow, which is incongruent with the youthful face and figure. Her hair snaps every which way in the howling winds.
Corn zeroes in on her eyes. They are so dark it is as if they have been ripped out from her sockets, and he is staring into the dark space left behind. When she blinks, it is clear that indeed she has eyes, except that hers are a black film or a black lens fitted over her sockets. But for the eyes and the hair, she is the same as when he first made love to her so many decades ago.
Rose? Corn cries out. Rose? Is that you?
Without waiting for an answer, Corn staggers across the ankle deep water. It is fiercely cold, and he almost hyperventilates as a result. Nevertheless, he never drops his gaze from hers, as he splashes through the water and the ice like a boy running for his one and only gift under the Christmas tree.
Corn slips and falls onto his face, before he reaches the tree on the other side. He does not fall unconscious, though he smells and feels blood sliming out of his nose, for he is much too excited now to lose the moment. He pushes himself up to his knees.
The woman in the white dress pulls the branch aside, so that she can view Corn more clearly. She tilts her head slightly, like she is sizing him up, or trying to remember.
Then, a single tear of blood slides out from her left eye. It slides down the left side of her nose and into her mouth. The expression on her face suggests sadness much more so than pain just then.
What did you do? The woman whispers. Why am I here?
Rose! Corn cries out with as much fear as elation. Oh, my God!
Why did you do this to me? The woman whispers.
Corn shoves the branch aside, and starts to crawl into the small space in between the branch and the tree. The woman in the white dress recoils. She lifts her right palm, so that he will not get any closer to her. More blood tears slither out from her left eye.
No! The woman screams.
Corn stops at once. He clutches at his heart.
I don’t understand, Corn mutters.
Why am I back here? The woman asks angrily. Why did you awaken me from my sleep? I had been at peace, finally freed, but now…
Rose! Corn cries out. Please!
The woman in the white dress smacks the side of Corn’s face with her right hand. Her strength is incredible, and Corn falls onto his side and loses consciousness at once.
* * *
This time, Corn does not open his eyes, so much as he sifts in and out of his own darkness. Once or twice, he thinks he sees her standing over him. The wind has picked up; and as a result, her white dress snaps off to one side like a sail. Her white hair flows in the same direction as her dress. She folds her arms before her chest, and glares down at him with cold contempt.
You selfish bastard, the woman snarls. You robbed me of my peace, my eternal rest, and for no other reason than you want me to be looking down on you when you go to your reward. You’re a fucking douche, an ass wipe, a cunt cleaner.
The woman in the white dress steps over to Corn’s face. She places her bare feet on both sides of his face, lifts her dress, and pees blood onto his forehead. The vaginal blood splatters everywhere. It clogs up Corn’s eyes and nose. It splashes into his mouth.
The woman tenses like she is trying to push something out of her womb. She lifts her dress all the way up to her midsection, so that the fabric does not get in the way. Both of her legs are blood smeared posts sinking into the blood puddle she has created in the snow. She will need to step out of this puddle before long, and yet she holds her place over Corn’s face as broken and bloodied baby parts slide down her inner legs. The clammy clumps of flesh slither off her lower legs. The baby parts tremble, like they are clinging still to the life that they had had when inside her womb. The last of the mushy discharge is an infant head. The eyes remain clenched as if frightened at the moment of death. The mouth is open. Had he screamed at the end? Did anyone hear him at the moment he transitioned from fetal life to death? Or did he slide into death totally alone?
The head falls onto Corn’s neck. It sounds like when a melon is dropped from a window to a sidewalk. It is followed at once by a release of placental fluid. Corn nearly drowns beneath a waterfall of uterine stink and grime.
The woman releases her blood soaked dress. She stares at the mess beneath her through her dead black eyes.
I had cradled John in my arms over there, the woman says. Our heavenly hearts had beat side by side, while we slept together in bliss. Here, John is a miscarriage; an unwelcomed secret hidden in the snow.
Corn twists and turns. Is this a nightmare? Can he awaken from it before it kills him? Deep down does he want to survive, or does he want to suffocate under the refuse? Is he moving this way in order to escape, or is he trying to swallow enough of the baby grime to choke on what little remains of their firstborn?
So you want to die in your bed, huh? The woman says after she steps aside. You want me to be sitting there at that time, stroking your hands, and weeping for my loss.
Corn does not respond. He just moves his face from side to side, like he is caught in an electrical death grip and, therefore, no longer in control of his own flesh and soul.
I’ll make sure that happens, the woman says. After all, the good wife obeys, no?
Corn feels the death grip release. He has been spared for God knows what reason.
Corn lifts his head, so that he can spit out the blood that landed on the back of his throat. He tries to open his eyes, but to no avail. It is as if the woman standing over him does not want him to awaken completely, lest he be able to see her more clearly. The result is that she seems much more dreamlike than real, and he cannot be certain that, indeed, he has been reunited with his Beautiful Rose.
First, she had been veiled by the low hanging branch.
Then, she had been veiled by his mental drowsiness.
Now, she is gone, like she never had been there; and Corn is left alone upon the snow with no comfort but his own tears. He falls asleep, while snowflakes fall onto him.
The snow washes away the blood, and reburies the baby parts. Soon, there is no sign of what had happened here, except for the cries of a whippoorwill in the distance.
* * *
The black Lexis roars down the middle of the two-lane highway. Except for the occasional red barn in the distance, there is nothing on either side of the road but miles of snow white pastures. There has not been another car on this stretch of nothingness for at least twenty minutes, and so Charlie Hawkins sees no particular reason to remain on his side of the road.
Anyway, it is better for his vehicle, if he drives over the broken yellow line; since otherwise his right tires will kick up the slush along the side. If there is any oil or mud in that slush, then it will mark up the right side of his car; and that will mean another twenty fucking dollars the next time he goes to the carwash. Fucking Arabs charge extra for every speck of dirt that the automated carwash does not manage to clean. The sick little camel jockeys know damned well that he has to pay, since what good is he if his chick magnet is not as immaculately cleaned as his suits are pressed?
Charlie tells the man on the other end of his cellular phone that he can go fuck himself, if he thinks that he is going to pay his outrageous legal bill. Jew lawyers are as bad as the Arabs, Charlie thinks, before wishing his Jew lawyer a ‘Merry Christmas’ and tossing his phone aside.
Charlie fiddles with the satellite radio. It seems like every channel is playing his least favorite Christmas songs. He settles on Mannheim Steamroller. He recalls hearing them for the first time on Rush Limbaugh.
What the fuck? Charlie mutters, while slamming on the brakes.
The black Lexis screeches to a halt within inches of a strange woman in a blood stained dress. How is it possible that he had not seen her up ahead before now? It is not as if there are any distractions out here, except for his own thoughts…
Charlie presses hard on his horn. It does not matter that he has been lost in his own thoughts, Charlie thinks. That white haired bitch should not be standing in his way.
Get off the highway, cunt! Charlie bellows after opening his driver’s side window.
The woman folds her arms before her chest. Otherwise, she does not move.
Charlie sees how she glares at him. He is about to volley another insult, when he notices that her eyes do not have any pupils. Indeed, they do not appear to be eyes, so much as black holes. Is the hole on the left side leaking blood?
Charlie is frightened. He drops his hands from his steering wheel.
His cellular phone rings. The Bluetooth interrupts Mannheim Steamroller, and he looks at the satellite radio screen on his dashboard. He blinks wildly. He cannot believe his eyes. Goddamn it, this makes no damned sense.
The Caller ID flashes MOM.
MOM. MOM. MOM. MOM. MOM.
Charlie presses the ‘answer phone’ icon on his screen, before the call goes to his voicemail. He tries to swallow the spit in the back of his throat, but he cannot seem to do so. His lips open and tremble. His nostrils flare. His heart skips a beat; maybe, stops.
Wipe the spit off your chin, Charles, the familiar voice on the other end demands.
Mom? Charlie whispers incredulously.
Charlie wipes the spit off his chin with the back of his hand. He tries to shut his mouth, but he is unable to do so.
You’re not putting your dad in that old folks’ home, the familiar voice continues.
Charlie looks at the woman in front of his car. Her face is recognizable, come to think of it, except for those soulless eyes. The hair is different, too. It had never been white back when she had been packing his lunchbox and telling him to put on his jacket.
He wants to die at home, she continues. And if you have your way, that’s never going to happen.
What? Charlie whispers.
He blinks, and the woman in front of his car is gone. Howling winds sweep snow across the highway, like she never had been there.
There is static on the phone, and Charlie glances at the screen to see if the call has failed. Before he can read what is on the screen, her voice breaks through the car speakers and slaps him on the face.
You were always too willful, Charles, she snarls. If there had been any decency in the world, you would have been the miscarriage.
The driver’s side window smashes inward, and a blood splattered hand reaches into the cabin. It clutches Charlie’s throat, before he can turn fast enough to see what has happened.
Out of the corner of his left eye, Charlie sees the woman who is strangling him. Her face is a contorted snarl. Her white hair snaps wildly in the wind as if each strand is a snake hissing vitriol. Blood gushes out of her left eye and onto his driver’s side door.
The cellular phone hangs up. Mannheim Steamroller returns to the car speakers.
The woman’s fingertips puncture Charlie’s throat aorta. He catches a glimpse of his hot blood spraying out from his open neck and onto the windshield. He blinks several times, because some of that blood lands in his own eyes and stings like a motherfucker.
* * *
Clifford Hayes stares out the window beside the front door. He has been sipping Corn’s brandy for hours. He does not like how the liquor makes him feel, but he realizes that he would be much too anxious to stand here otherwise.
He finishes his glass. He eyes the bottle on the floor by his right foot. It is empty. Time to go back into the kitchen to find something else, and yet he cannot move from his watch. His gut tells him that this is the night. Rose will be back any minute now. He has been waiting for this moment since that old shopkeeper showed him that, indeed, he could have what deep down he has wanted since he first saw Rose. The price is huge: His best friend for his secret love. Nevertheless, as a banker, he knows more than most men that the higher the price the greater the value; and there is no greater value than love. In a way, this is especially true because he and his Rose never consummated their love for one another during her lifetime. They kept up the façade of platonic friendship; and that allowed the love burning in their bosoms to remain that much more innocent, that much more brilliant, like a gem growing in size and in beauty precisely because it has not been excavated from its dark, subterranean womb and beaten down by sunlight.
This evening, that gem will be unearthed. Snow and soil will be swept aside. The coffin door will open, and the lustrous beauty of their hidden love will breathe life into that lost treasure. There will be a new lease for Rose, a kind of refinance of her soul, and she will realize then that the quiet and unassuming friend forever hiding behind his antique pince-nez and his dour expressions is responsible. She will understand that that good friend, not her husband, neither her son, nor anyone else from her past, had made the deal with the old shopkeeper. It is the taciturn banker in the suspenders and bowtie who had followed through with his end of the bargain by getting Corn to go to that same shop. It is the little man with the sweaty handkerchiefs who is responsible for her best Christmas gift of all: Her escape from the tomb, her freedom from the snares of death, which gives her a chance finally to make love to the man whom she should have married.
Clifford leans his face against the window. He looks like a boy gawking at toys in a Christmas storefront. There is only one prize he wants. In comparison, everything else on that display is as if an endless expanse of snow covered land. Even the giant elm out front does not catch his attention. It is a shriveled shadow of what it will be again next year, a trembling giant shedding whole branches whenever the wind howls loud enough, and yet it may as well be gone altogether. It is a dead thing, especially in contrast with the vivid fantasies with which he has been toying since first contemplating the return of his secret love. Rose is a Siren in his dreams at night; an extra beat of his heart when going about his business all day. Is anything else really alive, but the butterflies in his stomach and the sweet nothings whispered in his mind?
Lost in his infatuation, Clifford does not notice the black Lexis screaming down the driveway until it is midway between the highway and the farmhouse. He does not believe his eyes at first. Who drops in uninvited on Christmas day? Who has the gall to disturb a man on the day we set aside to celebrate virginal life? Is there nothing sacred?
The black Lexis stops before the elm tree.
Is that Charlie Hawkins? Who else drives a Lexis around these parts?
There is too much snow on the windshield for Clifford to see the driver. Even if the windshield wipers had been operable, which apparently they are not, Clifford would not be able to see anything because of the glare from the high beams. All that he can say for sure is that there is a black Lexis idling beneath a branch that may fall upon its roof at any moment.
Surely, Charlie knows better than to stay there. He is normally so careful about his luxury vehicle; so, perhaps, that is not Charlie out there. Perhaps, someone else has taken it upon himself to visit with him this afternoon…
Or, perhaps, that is Rose. Who is to say that she must descend from on high, or pop out of nowhere like Samantha in Bewitched, or arrive in a bubble like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz? Reality can be stranger than fiction; but from his many years working in the financial industry, Clifford can attest that more often what is real is common, even blasé. People pay their mortgages each month. They file their tax returns every April…
And they return home from long journeys abroad in automobiles. Yes, the great homecoming may unearth deep emotions. It may inspire the most awkward comments imaginable. There may be stories to tell that keep the lovers up all night beside a warm and cozy fireplace. Nevertheless, more often than not, the mode of transportation will be a car or a van. The traveler will be tired, and she will want a hand with her luggage…
Do the dead come back with luggage? Is that the reason why Rose has not stepped out of her idling car? Is she waiting to see if Clifford is gentlemanly enough to fetch her suitcase from the trunk? Is she frustrated by the fact that he is still leaning against the window like a lovesick schoolboy too damned frightened to greet the girl of his dreams?
What is wrong with me? Clifford mutters.
Yes, Clifford is a lovesick schoolboy; but deep down he senses something else is wrong. That idling car out there is not right. He cannot say why, but neither can he set aside the intense feeling of dread clutching at his bowels. The whiskey is no match for the anxiety now tormenting his flesh and darkening his emotions. His nervous stream of consciousness about luggage, vehicles, warm and cozy fireplaces, none of that mental chatter can knock aside that cold fear. The result is a small and weak man fogging up the window beside the front door, while an idling car shines high beams into his glasses.
The wind screams holy hell outside. It shakes the door beside Clifford…
And rips the branch off of the elm tree.
Clifford is startled out of his fear. He cannot see the branch striking the roof of the black Lexis, but he hears the terrible impact. It is like a two-ton aluminum can has been crunched into the ground.
Does he hear someone screaming from inside of that car? Or is that just the wind?
Clifford remains as scared as before, and yet he simply cannot stand there, and do nothing. That may be Rose screaming for help. She may be on the verge of a second death, if that is even possible. She may be sliding back into that dark nothingness that he believes to be the abode of the dead. There may be only seconds left for him to act.
Clifford opens the front door. He is blinded by the high beams, which apparently had not been damaged by the falling branch. He shakes as much from fear as from wind.
And then he closes the front door. It is just too dangerous out there. He may get himself killed wandering into that blizzard. Moreover, he really cannot say one-hundred percent that that is Rose out there. It may be, but it may be another visitor, or a man asking for directions, or a goddamn Amway salesman, for Christ’s sake. Did he not hear once that Amway salesmen knock on doors even on Christmas day? It makes sense when you think upon it. People are likely to be home, and they are likely to be in a pleasant mood. Yes, that’s right, all full of merry and eggnog; prime candidates for a sales pitch.
Also, Clifford thinks, did I not sense that there is something dreadful about that car out there? Like it is a trap, or something? Better to stay indoors and to call the cops.
Clifford steps back. He wrings his hands nervously. He removes his handkerchief and dabs the sweat on his brow. He folds his handkerchief neatly, but he is too anxious to return it to his jacket pocket. Instead, he drops it on the floor, and he curses himself.
Clifford hurries into the kitchen. He hopes that the storm has not taken out the landline. He feels his heart about to explode, when he lifts the receiver to his right ear.
On the other end he hears a woman moaning. She is about to have an orgasm. It will knock the roof off when it happens. The fast slaps in the background suggest a man with the tenacity of the Energizer Bunny doing double time with her pussy. There is an ugly fart sound, too, since sometimes a man cannot hold it in when he gets too excited.
Cliffy! Oh, Cliffy! You’re just so big! The woman cries out in ecstasy.
Rose? Clifford whispers, as he drops the receiver onto the hard floor.
Oh, God, you’re so hot! The woman moans. So hot! So hot! So hot!
Except this time that familiar voice comes from inside the kitchen.
Clifford turns around and views a woman in a white, blood stained dress coming up from behind at a fast pace. He sees that her dark eyes have no pupils. There is blood gushing out from the left eye. Is that Rose’s face otherwise? What happens next happens so fast he simply cannot tell.
The woman reaches into his trousers. She squeezes his flaccid cock, and yanks it off his flesh. There is a horrible ripping sound followed by the sensation of warm blood gushing down inner thighs. The pain is red hot, like an electrical current burning flesh.
I’ve wanted your cock for so long, the woman says in a breathy ‘fuck me’ voice.
The woman stuffs the cock into the jacket pocket where the folded handkerchief had been. She holds up her trembling and screaming lover with her other bloodied hand.
Oh, God, you’re so hot! The woman cries out, while yanking Clifford to the stove.
She slams Clifford’s face and turns up the heat. He screams that much more, as the flames tear into his flesh. He cannot push himself back on account of her incredible strength. His velvet jacket catches fire, and soon enough he is a ghoul writhing in hell.
* * *
Corn is barely able to keep his eyes open. He hears over the radio that the police have yet to find his body anywhere near the crash site. Old Sheriff Joe says that he may be alive and wandering about the countryside on foot. Given Corn’s mental state, the Sheriff advises his fellow citizens that Corn may be ‘dangerous.’ So much for helping a crash victim who is likely near death in this inclement weather.
The news story hardly registers. It takes every last bit of energy for Corn to stay awake and on the road. His flesh is trembling from the cold air inside the cabin of his pickup truck. Even more so, he is trembling from fear that that mad woman may hurt or kill someone. Surely, that woman is not Rose. Surely, she is a demon or a witch, yes?
Corn cannot say for sure. He is still not sure he believes in all that black magic, notwithstanding what he experienced in that shop and out by the creek. Regardless, he cannot shake the feeling inside that, indeed, that had been his dead wife. Whether or not demons and witches exist, Rose exists, or so he fears; and if that is the case, then his fear will turn into the worst sadness before the night is done. Indeed, even now, he senses despair creeping into his thoughts and emotions. It is as if his broken heart is in the process already of preparing him for the realization that Rose is the mad woman on the prowl, not some demon or witch, nor a beast conjured up from his own nightmares.
His intuition remains as capable as before, and so he turns onto his long and snow covered driveway, even though he really cannot see much beyond his windshield in this blizzard. He wipes cold sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, and he screeches to a halt before slamming into the black Lexis parked under the tree.
Corn grabs a hold of his cane. He thinks a moment, and then he opens his glove compartment, and gets his flashlight. There is no light on in the house, and with all the cloud cover, there is no light outside, either. It is as if he is stepping into a dark closet the size of the universe. There are snowflakes dancing inside this closet, but otherwise there are no distractions from the cold dread in his heart.
His heart sinks even more the very moment he steps outside and switches on the flashlight. That is Charlie’s black Lexis up ahead. The roof has been smashed inward by a branch. Is that the same branch on which Rose would commune with John? Impossible to tell for sure, of course, but Corn cannot shake that suspicion. Perhaps, in a way that defies reason, everything about Rose’s past has come back alive with the intent of doing harm to the man who refused to let a sleeping dog lie.
Corn recalls upsetting that beehive back when he was a child. His mother fetched him that time. There is no one here and now to fill those shoes.
Corn staggers over to the driver’s side door. It is impossible to open the door due to the branch smashing in the roof. The window is broken, and so he holds his breath, and directs his feeble light into the car interior. As feared, he finds Charlie’s bloodied remains sitting upright in the driver’s seat. Charlie would be staring through his broken windshield now, except that his head is on the passenger seat beside his cellular phone.
Corn leans forward. He nearly faints from fear and sadness. He is startled back into consciousness, when he hears Charlie’s cellular phone ringing all of a sudden. He points his flashlight at the small device. The Caller ID indicates that the caller is MOM.
Oh, God! Corn shrieks.
The Lexis battery died sometime ago, and so the vehicle is nothing more than a smashed tomb opened to the inclement weather. Soon, Charlie will be buried beneath the snow and the ice that the wind is depositing inside the cabin. Like where his brother John is buried, Charlie will spend eternity in a dark, frozen spot beneath an elm branch. Oh sure, the police will discover this scene eventually; and they will remove Charlie to a proper burial plot; but this very spot will remain his eternity. Corn realizes just then that that is an unavoidable fact of death. A corpse may be moved, even revived, but it is as impossible to wipe clean that black place where a man met his end as to reverse time. Christ Jesus may have resurrected from the dead, or so the church folks say; but Corn senses that even He feels a chill go down His spine when He thinks about Golgotha.
Corn staggers around the black Lexis to the passenger side window. That window had smashed outward, when the branch pushed the roof down, and so Corn reaches in and retrieves the cellular phone. He winces when his hand brushes up against Charlie’s head. He wipes Charlie’s blood onto his trousers, and he steps back from the dark tomb.
The cellular phone screen says that there is ‘1 New Voicemail.’
Corn lifts the phone to his ear, hesitates a second, and presses for the voicemail.
Come on upstairs and hold my hand, a familiar voice says. Please, keep me warm.
Corn breaks into tears. That is Rose. There is no denying her voice anymore. His Beautiful Rose is upstairs, as he has wanted since she died, and she wants him to come to her. She wants him to take a hold of her hand and to keep her warm this long night…
And yet that is the same Beautiful Rose, who no doubt killed their son, and who nearly killed him. She is a blessing, but she is also a curse.
Corn tosses the cellular phone aside, and he staggers toward the front door. He points his flashlight at the door. It is open and swinging in the wind. Snow and ice are flowing into the foyer, like the farmhouse is an abandoned place given over long ago to this harsh and unforgiving winter. Corn senses that there is no life inside. There is only the past, and the past is decomposing. It is only a matter of time before the slush covers over everything inside. The creaking walls will cave inward, and the trembling roof will collapse to the foundation. Maybe tonight, maybe next year, but the end is inescapable.
Corn steps into the foyer. It is as cold as a meat locker inside…
And is that the smell of dead flesh? Like a sick, little lamb slaughtered and burnt?
Corn shoots his flashlight toward the kitchen. He sees a burnt mass bent over the stove. Burn stains spread across the kitchen floor suggest that the fire nearly engulfed the entire kitchen.
Corn walks into the kitchen. The fire must have happened some hours ago, since the corpse and the stove are as cold as everything else. He picks up a pair of pince-nez glasses. The burnt antique snaps in two in his fingers, and so he drops the glasses to the floor. Notwithstanding Clifford’s betrayal at the end, Corn then cries aloud for him too.
There is nowhere else to go now but up the staircase. He tries to brace himself for what is next, but his emotions fly every which way as much as the snow and the ice now swirling into the farmhouse. The past is dead, but it is also a icy cauldron of dreams dashed and fears unconquered. The past without the future is loss without redemption; a weight that stoops the shoulders and weakens the knees that can never be removed…
Not by an old shopkeeper, anyway…
Perhaps, not even by the Good Lord Himself…
With that thought in mind, Corn grips his flashlight as tightly as possible, and he staggers up the creaky steps. He hears how the blizzard beats against the walls. He sees out of the corner of his left eye how the framed photographs shake. One of these days, perhaps this very night, the howling gusts outside will be so mighty that the photographs will fall to the steps. The glass frames will smash, and the yellowed pictures of the past will be carried away by those same gusts. There will be nothing left then to rekindle an old memory or two; nothing to keep alive in the imagination what had been taken away.
Corn pushes the bedroom door open. The door shrieks on its rusted hinges. That horrible death smell is even more pungent up here.
Hold my hand tonight, a familiar voice says from the other side of the bed. And I’ll hold yours when it’s your time.
No, Corn mutters. This is all wrong.
What’s wrong? The familiar voice asks. Don’t you want me?
* * *
He and his Beautiful Rose are spending the night in a motel room. Somewhere in North Dakota. Nothing to see in every direction, and so the motel with the neon cowboy out front is a kind of desert oasis. They are in bed, holding each other, looking out at that neon cowboy. There is the smell of sex in the air, because they are young still; and when young people make love they leave plenty of evidence on bed sheets and woven rugs. There is a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray. Rose will kick that habit someday, quit cold turkey, but not that night. Until the sun breaks through the night, there will be the smell of sex sifting in and out of cigarette smoke; a taste of film noir somewhere out there in Cowboy Land.
And then, Rose turns to him. She stares longingly into his sleepy eyes, and says…
Well, what? What does she say? Nothing? Or has he forgotten?
* * *
Corn steps backward. He is overtaken by the memory of that long ago night out there in Cowboy Land. Indeed, he had forgotten what she had said to him. The madness he had witnessed later that same warm night had wiped those words from his memory.
But, now, he remembers exactly what Rose had said to him then. He hears every one of her words in his mind, like she is still there staring longingly into his sleepy eyes.
What’s wrong? Rose had asked. Don’t you want me?
It is true that Corn had tired of sex at that moment, but Rose had sensed a much deeper division creaking open between them.
Corn had sensed it, too. He did not answer her questions, and never again would she ask him anything like that so directly. They had edged up to a chasm that they had not known until then was there. They each chose in their own way to separate the grip that they had had on each other, just a bit at first, more so over the many years, lest too much intimacy blind them to the danger of that chasm. Over time, they learned to exchange some of their closeness for the conventions of married life, because within a devoted, though conventional, marriage certain questions are never asked and certain topics are never broached. In the end, even death is denied; covered up by selfish love.
Why do you not respond to me? The familiar voice asks. What is wrong with you?
* * *
And then, he is following her. They are no longer on their road trip. Now, she is walking in front of him along the Wild Indian Creek. She is picking blackberries for her next pie. She twists and drops them into her basket without apparently looking at any one of the berries; and yet, invariably, each berry will be picture perfect. She glances back at her beloved and smiles. Her eyes say ‘come, hither,’ like she is willing to drop the blackberries, to undress, and to run for the creek. All Corn has to do then is to nod.
* * *
Because this is all wrong, Corn mutters, while taking yet another step backwards.
Stop speaking such nonsense, the familiar voice insists. I have taken care of the two men who conspired to keep you away from here. I have given you the opportunity to die in your own bed with me by your side…
Two men? Corn asks angrily. One of those ‘two men’ was your son. The other was like a brother to you. So do you not remember how you loved them? How you loved me?
There is no answer. Corn trembles with indignation. He starts to hyperventilate.
You’re an abomination! Corn cries aloud. This is an abomination!
* * *
He points his flashlight toward the headboard. He sees Rose propped up on her pillows. Her face is as prematurely old and weathered as when she had died. Her white hair drapes her shoulders like a death shroud. Her dress is terribly bloodstained, for she has been coughing up blood and bile, since he stepped out of the master bedroom. Her breaths are uneven and shallow. Her eyes have pupils now, and those pupils are starting to roll back into her head, like maybe she is trying to look at the headboard behind her.
Baby John, Rose whispers. Baby…
Rose inhales, but does not exhale.
Her pupils slide back to the center of her eyes, so that she stares straight at Corn at the moment her flesh surrenders to eternity. It is also the same moment that he falls over the top step, and begins to roll down the staircase towards the kitchen floor below.
Corn drops both his cane and his flashlight, while tumbling head over heels down the steps. He hears his head break open upon the floor. It sounds like when a melon is dropped from a window to a sidewalk.
As Corn settles into darkness for the last time, he feels cold and clammy fingers stroking the back of his hands. He senses a pair of eyes staring at his scarred face. Does he sense love? Well, does he? What does he feel? What does he take with him? Anything?
* * *
Old Sheriff Joe drives up to the farmhouse just before dawn. He is followed by a couple of deputies in another vehicle. Notwithstanding the Sheriff’s statement to the press the previous day, most of his peers thought that they would find Corn’s corpse no more than a half mile from the crash site. They would find him once the blizzard ended, and some of the snow melted away. Only the old man thought that Corn might be much further away; maybe even still alive. He knew him back in the old days to be a damned tough and resourceful son of a bitch. Who else but a survivor could have made a living on that remote farm as long as Corn did?
So Old Sheriff Joe had not been surprised, when he heard from one of his men that an eyewitness had spotted Corn’s pickup truck driving in the area. There had been little traffic all Christmas Day, so pretty much anything driven on the back roads then had stood out. Moreover, the pickup truck had been driven erratically enough for the eyewitness to conclude that the driver was drunk or kooky; hence, a precautionary call to the county sheriff’s office.
The Sheriff screeches to a halt behind the black Lexis. He waves his deputies to the busted vehicle. He is investigating the headless corpse inside by the time his men catch up to him. The corpse is frozen in ice and already buried up to its chest in snow. There is so much snow piled on the passenger seat that the Sheriff and his deputies do not see the head at first. They identify the man by running a check on the license plate.
They find Clifford’s charred corpse next. The first hint of sunrise breaks through the kitchen window at that moment.
The Sheriff is poking the burnt remains, when a deputy calls him over to Corn’s dead body. Corn already is turning blue. His eyes are clenched shut, like he had been frightened by something. His hands are folded together. Given that Corn obviously had tumbled down the staircase, that seems to be a strange position for his hands. Perhaps, before he died, he had folded them together to offer up a prayer. Perhaps, some other person had put his hands together, stroking them as he died, and therefore offering him a bit of peace at the end. The Sheriff has seen dead hands folded this way on hospital beds, and almost always it is because the patient had been praying or a loved one or a nurse had been holding them. If that is the case, though, then where is this other man or woman? Assuming Corn is responsible for the death of his son and his closest friend, which is an assumption that Old Sheriff Joe makes as soon as he finds the dead bodies, that means someone else had been here when Corn had stumbled down that staircase.
They never find this phantom person. Indeed, apart from how those dead hands are folded, there is no other evidence that another person had been in the house. The official story is that Corn escaped from the crash site, somehow got a hold of his truck, drove back home, and went ape shit on his son and friend. There are huge holes in this official story, of course, such as the question of how he gets a hold of his truck. Had he been helped in escaping the crash site? Does that mean the ambulance had been forced off the road by someone? There are a lot of questions, actually, but the Sheriff decides not to ask them; and in remote counties such as this one, the Sheriff can and too often does get away with that. As a result, the case is closed within days; and so the executor of Clifford’s will can proceed with his duties without having to wait for law enforcement to do what it does. Everyone is happy to push the matter forward, and Old Sheriff Joe can focus instead on whether or not to pursue another four years as the county lawman.
* * *
An old lady in a granny dress and squeaky shoes stands under the elm tree. Her arms are crossed before her chest. Her white hair is in a bun, and it glistens in the cool spring sun. Most conspicuous are the oversized glasses perched on the end of her piggy nose. She looks like an owl through those lenses; and the workmen fixing the roof sense that she can see everything they are doing, even when she is not facing them head on.
The lady removes a pencil from her hair bun. She removes a pad of paper from in between her flabby breasts. There is so much tissue paper lodged in there that she never has to worry about the pad falling down the inside of her dress. Old ladies know how to keep things handy. The closer things are to them the less they have to hobble from one place to another; and on this cool afternoon, this particular old lady does not want to hobble around more than necessary. Her hips have been cranky the past week or so. The next time she does a deal she will bargain for something that really gets rid of all these damned aches and pains.
She makes some notes in her pad, and then returns the pencil and the paper to their proper places. The roof is coming along nicely; so is that back wall that caved in during the last great storm of the season. The farmhouse needs another coat of paint, though, especially if she is going to get top dollar from a tenant. There is no doubt in her mind that the farmhouse and the accompanying land will make a great destination point for folks looking for a bit of rest and relaxation in the countryside. She envisions a bed and breakfast with an English garden, hiking trails, even ponies for the kiddies. It will pay the monthly bills, while she moves her unique curio shop from place to place.
The lady senses Baby John buried beneath her feet. She could have him exhumed and reburied elsewhere, but why bother? Indeed, she senses how the baby haunts the farmhouse to this day. Like most men, Corn had been oblivious; but Rose had felt him from the start. She had learned over time how to commune with her baby; and though Corn had not sensed the baby’s ghost, he had sensed the divided love on the part of his wife. Devotion to a ghost is a kind of infidelity, and is it not natural for a husband then to respond to infidelity with selfish possessiveness? The lady standing beneath the elm tree thinks so, which is why she had to do little more than to push the first domino for everything else to fall apart as it did.
Actually, it was not that easy. She had to persuade Clifford not only to bring his best friend to her shop, but also to name her as the beneficiary in his will. She had to convince Clifford that that was his idea. After all, bankers pride themselves on selling the sweet snake oil with an adjustable interest rate added on for good measure, not on drinking the damned stuff and suffering the consequences. It helped that he had been all his life a confused and closeted queer. It helped that he envisioned a night with Rose as a kind of ‘solution’ to that problem. The smart negotiator intuits the weak division in the line, and she offers up the ‘solution’ to that weakness. If the rube walks off with the thought in his mind that he has been helped by the person on the other side of the negotiating table, then he will agree to the deal, and not fret all those ‘minor details.’
Corn and Charlie had to go, of course, since if Clifford had died before them they would have contested his will. After all, notwithstanding the name on the deed, Corn never really accepted Clifford as the owner of his old farm; and Clifford had convinced Charlie that, indeed, he was the named beneficiary. Now, take those two farts out of the equation; and everything proceeds like a well oiled machine. Often enough, that is how life is. The game may appear quite daunting; but remove a few of the pawns from the chessboard, and all of a sudden, it is just a pleasant, little diversion with old friends.
The lady remembers something. She hobbles up to the doormat. Though her hips are screaming right now, she bends forward, lifts the doormat, and finds a crisp twenty- dollar bill. That covers the cane with the golden handle. She had been a bit too generous with her discount; but it had been Christmas morning, as she recalls, and she had dipped already into her eggnog.
She will make it up in her next transaction. She always does.
* * *