Four hours ago I reported him missing. On my mountain the temperature drops uncomfortably when the sun goes down, even in the summer. Professionals, volunteers, and busybodies gather around their four-by-fours and ATVs, sip black coffee from plastic cups wrapped in paper napkins, look at the ground while they chitchat. They know not to stare at me. I keep myself together, wrapped in a blanket provided by the paramedics.
Sheriff’s deputy moseys over, takes off his hat, shines his cow eyes in my direction. Are you okay, he says, your fella had his share of history and oftentimes folks just up and go. I’m fine, I say, right now I’m thinking about everything he’s done for me.
* * *
Grace’s house rested on pilings embedded in the mountainside. Beyond a gate, down alternating flagstone landings and stairs, huddled a guest cottage converted into a rental. This crumbling stone heap, cool and dank as a grotto, seduced William with its promise of solitude. Grace’s bootlegger ancestors established the willow- and aspen-shaded compound, but the toxic byproducts of lead-soldered copper still pipes demolished the illicit empire and scattered her family.
Grace stayed on her side of the gate and William kept to his until the afternoon she asked him to come up and destroy the wasp nests behind her shutters. He’d fired up his chainsaw and there she was in the blue haze, waving a can of insect spray, her words smothered by noise. William killed the engine. “Show me,” he said.
Afterwards, a task almost daily. Split a cord of firewood. Drag the wrought iron bench across her deck to catch more sun. Move the bench back to get out of the sun. Clear deadfall and rocks from the eighth-mile-long zigzag driveway. Reattach the bowl of the birdbath in her neglected herb garden. Grace would loiter, arms crossed, pretending not to watch William work, a cigarette drooping from her lips.
The afternoon he accidentally plunged a screwdriver through the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger, she didn’t blink, or ask if he was okay. Rusty bloodstains dappled the deck boards.
Rumors shrouded the mountain; stories about Grace’s groin-punchingly generous annuity, funds whose existence defied all of the government’s attempts at seizure. Despite the supposed wealth, Grace and her property wore gray every day.
* * *
I don’t believe in bad luck. A hurtful situation happens on its own and no one can control it. What you call “good luck” applies to positive outcomes, not beginnings. I mean, if you fall down an old abandoned well, you have a chance. Broken ankle, cracked ribs, peed yourself, the whole deal; just wait and rescuers will race your shock or hypothermia and probably win. You can slide your truck off the logging road and be pinned unconscious at the bottom of a ravine, but your phone broadcasts the location, plus or minus one yard. You’re not unlucky until you’re dead.
* * *
“How did you learn to do so much stuff?” Grace asked William one unusually muggy morning.
Brine flowed down his forehead and left shiny dots on Grace’s mower. He abandoned his struggle with the carburetor adjustment screw.
“From doing. Nobody ever taught me anything. I just figure it out.”
“So, is that the way you became a chef?” She stared at him now. “You couldn’t make a peanut butter sandwich and then one day you just…cooked?”
Her eyes belonged to fish nestled in shaved ice. William couldn’t recall telling her about his career in the restaurant business.
“Nope. You’ve busted me. I graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. An exception to the rule, I guess.”
“You went to a fancy-sounding school. Was it hard?”
“Not really. Instructors just yell at you and lecture how to make soup stock from leftover hotdog water.”
William grinned. Grace responded with cough spasms instead of laughter.
* * *
Search parties and heroes and satellites are fine but don’t go far enough. They won’t find you if someone smashes the back of your head, ties you with clothesline, and holds you beneath the cold lake water until your insides fill with what’s outside. Soon, soon, buoyancy must surrender to piled-up rotten logs. No matter if the lake drains, not this year, could be later in the future, when the mud goes all sky-bleached and split open, a hiker finds your scattered bones, and the particulars of your ending will still baffle the experts. For just long enough, as I imagine it.
* * *
“I don’t have any skills,” she said when the coughing fit passed.
“You’re better than you think you are. All human beings possess at least one talent — a capability they’ve learned, or a gift.”
“Me? Nothing worth much. Maybe I’m an expert at watching TV. It’s all I do.”
“Okay, okay.” He gathered his hand tools. “Listen, you can borrow my mower. You have hardly any grass to worry about.”
Grace dropped a smouldering butt onto the flagstone, swivelled her sandal, and left a black smudge. She drew another cigarette from the threadbare, floral-printed pouch she carried everywhere.
“Why’d you quit being a chef? Didn’t want to do it anymore?”
“Wasn’t my decision. We don’t always get to choose, right?”
“Yeah. Why are you so nice to me?”
His toolbox weighed a thousand pounds. “So many questions.” He bit his lip and shrugged. “Hey, we’re neighbors and I’m just a decent guy.”
William trudged downhill toward the shed behind his cottage. With his free hand he wiped sweat from his eyes. Two-shower days were the part of early retirement no one mentioned. They didn’t warn him about the giant mosquitoes up here, either. He’d resumed shaving, which he also didn’t anticipate.
He rolled out his mower and inserted a dump can nozzle. He’d get his landlady going again even though she’d never offer to repay him: no discount on his rent, no cash, no gas, not a glass of iced tea. A man of his means, subsidizing a woman of hers. William chuckled. He’d end up mowing her yard.
He made a farty-motorboat sound with his mouth and shook his head. You don’t sear flank or brisket and serve them as if they’re tenderloin. Tough cuts go low and slow. He glanced back up at Grace’s house and she’d not left her spot beneath a scraggly weeping willow. He smirked. Hungry people, forever the same. She stooped to pick up something from the ground before turning away. The cicadas hushed and dampness fled the air.
* * *
On the way from the shed to his cottage, William looked up at me. Did he smile or was it a frown? Do facial expressions reveal a person’s thoughts? Lots of emotions are lies. People tell you to have a nice day; they imagine they’re suggesting a great idea you were too stupid to stumble upon on your own. As if you’re the only one who has a say in it. Desire for money or influence runs deep. Above all, flesh wants flesh.
He disappeared inside the cottage. I tried to poke my thoughts past the walls, the roof. Doesn’t always work when I want it to. This time the day turned bright with truth. My lungs stopped; nothing rattled in or out. Feet and hands went numb, quick-frozen. Within seconds the high-pitched tone in my ears quieted and I could breathe again. On the ground lay my grandmother’s cigarette pouch. I grabbed it and lit a smoke. I suspected I knew where her old picnic basket was put up and I had to find it before lunch.
* * *
Crisscrossed lights, a cat’s cradle of beams; half of them point upward, as if the searchers expect to find my tenant atop one of these trees and he’s a songbird or a Christmas angel. Flashlight tag was one of my favorite childhood games. No matter where I hid or how fast I ran, the other kids lit me up and I was “it.” One night I broke my eldest stepbrother’s nose — I used both hands to swing our big black aluminum flashlight. Later my stepmother told me if nobody’d pulled me off of David I could’ve pounded his nasal bones through his brain. What he said or did to provoke me, I can’t recall, unlike the sound his face made as I smashed it into tomato soup and croutons.
The sheriff is here now, the Old Man himself, talks on his two-way for a minute, listens, and hobbles over to me. Puts on his mask of concern. He’s another phony. I light a cigarette. Sheriff removes his hat and begins a speech about staying strong, and when the sun’s up and the fog burns off we’ll get the chopper from Telluride in here to cover more territory. Be patient, he says, although it can’t be easy for you. Were the two of you close? I tell him thanks, you and your team are trying so hard. I won’t give up, I say.
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