That he was no longer an embarrassment to anyone but himself hit Leon abruptly, without increments, much the way it might occur to a person of more conventional circumstances that he had aged twenty years over a string of weekends.
“Wish I had the energy for humiliation,” Sandy said. “Only thing I feel anymore is tired.” She moaned, maneuvering out of the water the tarp let in. “Did you know I smell nothing but wood smoke and kerosene? It’s in my head permanently, soaked through like an old waxing cloth. I can’t smell food. Are you cold yet?” She meant cold from the hard-freeze morning.
“No, I am okay,” he said to her without lying. His cold was not of the morning, but cold in a more profound sense, as in bleak and windswept to the soul.
The thought of cold terrified Sandy, who, frankly, was otherwise close and hard with her emotions lest they escape. As early as August, when it looked certain they would sleep out, she prepared for the cold as a smaller animal might. She collected so many scraps of cloth: pants sweaters, blankets; the pile grew into furniture they negotiated in bent-back shuffle.
She aimed to increase their body fat, shooting margarine from bottles on her food, and when she got the chance, on any other’s in range. All food: honey buns, noodles, Spam hunks, soup. A dead-eye, she squirted dollops of oleo onto their laps from distances never imagined by manufacturers. If she caught you not looking, she’d squeeze off a shot over the shoulder or beneath an arm. Since it did no good hoarding food, Sandy created caches in barrels, trailer beds, and in the hollows of tires whose locations she mapped on flakes of paper stuffed on her person. She told Leon, “A thing happens to me, start with the pockets.” Tales of her caches sprouted to legend in the same mean soil buried treasures of Depression widows grew.
Before the baby, Sandy took her coffee at Cattleman’s rather than the Nite Chief though she felt more comfortable in the bar. Stockmen congregated at Cattleman’s. She listened. Ranchers and farmers foretold weather shifts more accurately than a meteorologist. Unlike Leon she did not worry about running into people she knew; rather she favored it, not hesitant to ask for a dollar – an act proud Leon would never commit – and if the owner was not behind the register, go so far as ask if they were going to finish their toast.
Leon lay with Dori and her books in the wet sleeping bag with a broken zipper; Sandy and the baby in the blankets. Dori was a kicker, stretcher, and elbower when she slept. Leon spent a fitful night, jumping awake as he fell, trying to keep her still so they wouldn’t roll into the low spot where water settled. By lying easy and just so, their bodies built a pocket of warmth that fought the wet to quits. A thin cap of ice formed over the low spot. A finger broke it before Sandy saw it. Outside the tarp somebody stirred, tapped metal to something else metal, hawked and spat. Leon heard a groan before the sound of piss against hard ground.
“Take her with you today," Sandy said. The blankets bunched so nothing showed in the breathing hole. She spoke as if beneath ground. “She needs to be in school all she can,” said Leon, rising on a sore elbow. “She gets breakfast and lunch there.” He jostled Dori, and she kneed him hard in her sleep.
“Needs?” sounded Sandy. “We needs wood pallets to lie on. Get us up out of the wet. They stack them behind Bass Pro. Girl can help you lug them.” Leon thought a moment. “I might pick up cans today,“ he said rather than remind her that Aimless should not let the light of day or neon find them near Big East. “Don’t want Dori on the Crosstown.” Sandy snorted at that. “She’s nimble; you said she snatches up the silver jewels slicker than squirrels on nuts. Why she need school? Her life’s a series of lab experiments and social studies lessons as it is.”
Leon eased out of the bag, trying not to tear any of the books. The piss reminded him he needed to go. The urge hit him earlier, but he had conditioned himself. The trade-off between relief and crawling back in the bag to get warm all over again fetched a puny bargain.
“Isn’t this fine? mumbled Sandy. “The young couple shares the precious morning moments while the children doze? Discussing how they will spend their day? Making plans?”
Something’s cooking out there, isn’t it? Arnold’s got a fire going. Maybe he’ll share coffee? Is it bacon or hamburger meat? I can hear it. Just can’t smell.”
Leon concentrated, but his eyes burned from smoke and lack of sleep. To focus brought a searing pain at the top of his skull. He had bloat in his gut, pressure on his bladder, but he had to think carefully. He knew Sandy might leave them. She might go any time, no warning. It hurt to think, so he said, “Any word on Baldwin yet?”
She shrieked. “I stayed with him like a thousand years ago. He won’t be in the news.” Leon shrugged. “You can’t ignore a disturbance like that.” She laughed. “What disturbance?”
Days ago downtown boutiques and galleries staged a small, chic Autumn Fest with pop-up shops and umbrellas in the parkette between Wilkinson Tower and Variety Gardens. Word got out there was food – you’re not going to to keep a thing like that quiet – the Aimless wandered over, and things got out of hand. Shopkeepers grew nervous, the laws showed. No one thing started it. Someone lifted a t-shirt off a L’Enfant table. In Hartoon’s tent a lady said, a little too dramatically, that she loved the bracelet but couldn’t stand the smell long enough to have it wrapped. A college kid working the deWayne’s display scowled at Bowers, with the C.I.B. sewed on his jacket though it was sixty-four degrees. Somebody shoved, somebody else shoved back, and then out came the clubs.
Until Baldwin got hit, Leon took advantage of the commotion to snatch supper. While people screamed and tussled and ran, he grabbed strawberry crepes and zucchini soufflés to stuff his pockets. He’d squeezed in an onion bagel just as Jimmy Baldwin ran up behind, yelling, “Lookout!” a heartbeat before the law’s club made solid contact with his head. The sound put Leon off his appetite. He didn’t sicken easily. He’d seen broken bones sticking out of skin and rib cages split open with a knife until they looked like racks in the meat market. He’d seen two dead bodies: the man he was supposed to relieve on the Lexington library floor where the men who cut him left him in the reference section; and the other, a woman thirty-four days dead and soaking up septic tank juice, and he never got sick, but the sound of wood hitting skull bone brought up quiche and lemon drops to his tongue before he choked them down.
He bent for Baldwin. King Leopold stood over what was left of him crumpled between the kiosks of The Sentinel and The World. Leopold demanded help. Already Baldwin’s head was lopsided, and blood bubbled from a jagged gash down his temple into and puddling up in his ear like rusty water filling a chug hole. The little opera ended there. The laws put their sticks back on their belts. Two cops lost their lunch looking at Baldwin’s head. Merchants crawled from under tables without much fuss and began folding everything up and filing back indoors. Laws and Aimless wandered away, understanding that affairs would be left as is for the time being. Nobody went to jail, not even Bowers, who had a deputy’s neck in his grimy fingers, doing the Kandahar shuffle against Ulee’s window until two other laws jabbed him in the ribs. No ambulance came for Baldwin. They loaded him in a cruiser, but he was so bloody they sent into Urban Foods for a box of kitchen bags and spread the plastic down in the back before they laid him in. That was the last anyone heard of him. No name in the hospital admissions, no notice in the police notes. No article in The Sentinel; what riot?
The next few days King Leopold nosed around asking questions, but a person at one stop remembered out loud that his majesty hadn’t visited the state hospital in Vinita in some time. Maybe somebody ought to call up there and check on his status? That shut him down.
The baby yelped. Sandy moaned. The baby lurched and bucked. Sandy sat up in three painful stages. She spoke low to no one as she fumbled within the blankets and the many layers of clothing to find her breast. “Here’s your tit, kid. For all the good it’s going to do you.”
Dori woke with a start and a cry. She cried violently a few seconds, then stopped with an end as clipped and short of meaning as the beginning. Her mornings began this way, then for the rest of the day she remained mostly silent. When she spoke, she used her language. Leon
comprehended some of it like moab, meaning food, or having to do with food; vinner for rest or sleep; and placka which meant I like (something). She didn’t use placka much. Her matted brown hair brushed Leon’s nose. He tried to position her away, but she fought to remain close.
“We can leave,” said Sandy. “All we have to do is go. Nothing in the world keeping us.” Leon said, “This is my home town.” Sandy laughed. “Hah! People like us don’t have home towns. We could go to Texas.” Leon stood quickly. “We don’t know anybody in Texas,” and Sandy said right back, “We know plenty here. It’s warm in Texas. I might go. Ouch! It bit me.”
King Leopold said they would all have to move sooner or later, but Leon didn’t want to think about that either, satisfied only to plan for a day’s end, but he knew the talk. City wanted to make something of the ancient train depot in Big East. Clean it up, spray the historic stones, and make a museum honoring the railroad for gouging this bit of land from the native people. “Ward Three councilman said they’d have to sandblast the insides, too, to get our shit stink out the mortar,” Leopold explained to their tattered circle one night, the pinball eyes lighting up from the importance of his report. The others gave Leopold little credit beyond the general respect due a truly mad individual. Not so Leon. Leopold might be as touched as a pet possum and spend most of his days reading old papers on the molded benches lining Territory Avenue before the city jackhammered them because of overuse, but Leon respected his wisdom; for, unlike the rest, he knew Leopold was on the committed side of disheartenment.
When Leon struggled with the notion of stealing Sandy from the meth house the time she ran away, it was Leopold he went to. He hoped beyond all reality Leopold would speak cryptic sentences that would make his solution clear, but all he did was smile and nod. Yet, when the craziness in wanting her back overwhelmed him, and he hid Dori in a safe place while he made a move on the house, he flinched at a noise coming from the dark under the trestle and felt Leopold fall in beside him like a musketeer with a homemade pair of iron knuckles in one hand and an aluminum softball bat in the other.The night Leopold went on about the depot Sandy waited around with the others who listened for entertainment’s sake, but Leon drifted off, scared again all out of proportion, because he, alone, appreciated Leopold’s discernment.
Sandy came out of her covers with a shudder and jerked Dori to her. The child sat while her mother dressed her in a hoodie Leon found in a dumpster by Dollar General while going through the week-old vegetables. The zipper worked halfway. “Hold it together there,” instructed Sandy. She wrapped a quick turn of duct tape around the jacket. Sandy owned a stunning smile when she chose it, but more and more she opted otherwise. She possessed another, the brilliant beam’s sinister sister, a grin that was more grimace, just as pretty, but tight and pitiless. She let him have this one. “Leopold said ‘move us’ like we were a weighty relocation project, a part of urban renewal with a grant attached. ‘Run us off’ is what, though it won’t come to the authorities dirtying their hands. Not the laws this time. Word will sort of get out gradually that no one would mind if we were got out from under foot, or how, and a few carloads will come calling. And that, that will do for us.” She turned Dori hard to face him. “Tell you,” she said with an intensity that rocked him. “I pick up, move again, I’m gone to Texas.”
Argue now, he thought. Speak up, fool. Then he realized asking sensible questions like: How would we get there? How much could we take with us? might only serve to press her forward with the idea; worse, it might cause her to ask a question of her own, one that terrified him as much as the notion of cold scared her like: “Who said anything about ‘we?’”
He had to come up with a plan, and he had not been good with plans for some time. Whatever he came up with demanded drama; a surprise for her. Right then, he could not think what that might look like. He hastened Dori from the tarp. He braced for the hunch and shiver of stepping out into the morning chill. That it didn’t come only emphasized the worthlessness of the tarp. Dori ignored Leon’s caution to stay put. As he jogged to the wall to relieve himself, she route-stepped with him. In pain now, he sprinted, feeling stiffness in his ankle. Dori knocked his soles. He found a spot where reek of urine and feces did not suck breath from his lungs. “Stay back,” he said to Dori, but she remained close on him. “Turn, then,” he said.
Leon thought he knew to what degree others gave thought to the Aimless – not very damn much – but whether they feared, sympathized, detested, or relegated them to a protected and emotionless region of the brain, he bet the last thing they considered was the difficulty people like them had in finding places to relieve themselves. He’d bet if they thought of them at all with compassion, it was to wonder where they would sleep, how they would eat, when the more pressing daily worry folks like them faced was where they could crap. Nomads of such a narrow biome as they roamed soon wore out their welcome in the library and convenience stores. The mall housed public facilities near each of the anchor stores, but you couldn’t get to the restrooms without passing through the businesses. A Jovian space craft landing in the Boomer Mall parking lot Saturday had about as much chance going unnoticed as an Aimless slouching up Dillard’s lingerie aisle. Security – moonlighting city laws and deputies – knew how it went. Police were hard enough; don’t let a mall security grab you.
Sandy was discreet with her business. Leon had never seen her squat, nor seen her leavings, though he knew her spots had to be close by, just as his were. She hardly seemed gone a minute when she went. If Leon had to follow, he would not see that she had gone at all.
When he and Leopold risked their lives ripping her from the dope den, others said, “Boy, you act like that girl’s shit don’t stink.” Heck, maybe she didn’t even go like normal people.
Leopold walked up before Leon zipped his fly. “Got us work, Leeroy,” he said. In Leopold’s damaged mind, Leon had always been ‘Leeroy.’ “Make us thirty bucks,” he added. Instantly, Leon realized he had the plan. Just that quick, without knowing the work, he knew this would do. This was a fine idea. One dramatic enough, also. This would work for Sandy. Thirty dollars would do it. “Sounds good,” he said to Leopold.“ We be cutting wood,” Leopold said. “Man waiting on us.” Leon ran to the tarp. “Be a minute,” he called out, adrenaline already pumping. “Over to the truck, Leeroy,” yelled Leopold. “I try to hold him. He not a man like to wait, though. You remember him from before. Not the nicest person ever you worked. You’d best come, ‘less he choose these other gentlemen. Bring the child. She can carry.”
In the tarp, Leon snatched up garments and looked for his gloves. He told Sandy she didn’t have to go out today. “I’ll make money,” he said, trying not to give away his excitement. He didn’t tell her how much money. That would get her thinking too much. This must be his plan, his gift. His contribution to a future, no matter how limited. Sandy said, “How nice, then. I can loll about the home and take my pleasure, can’t I?” Leon said, “I thought you could take it easy, stay warm. Dori can rest, too. Or go to school.” “Take her,” Sandy said emphatically.
Leon, Dori, and Leopold huddled against the cab on the truck bed. Reaching the truck, Leon had boosted Dori up in his arms and turned the door handle on the passenger side, but the woodcutter, a big, lean-muscled, wolf-shanked man named Trammell, glared, shook his head and jerked his thumb at a Rottweiler and two chain saws on the seat. Turning by half and leaning toward each other, Leon and Leopold pressed hard against Dori to shield her from the wind. Leon barely felt the cold in his eagerness to get working. Cutting wood was demanding work – and Trammell, a low bastard with a cruel streak, had worked them hard before – but now that he had a plan he would not mind it. In fact, he would almost enjoy it. He had a fine plan and a good attitude. Attitude means a lot. Attitude can have a boy lifting a car off his grandpa, and it can turn a soldier with his legs blown off into a Paralympic champion. As he noodled the plan, the icy wind fazed his attitude but little. Thirty dollars was a lot of money. Thirty dollars meant a great surprise for Sandy. They had not seen that much money in quite a while. What thirty dollars meant was a room at the Black Hawk Motel for the night and a few dollars left over. He wouldn’t tell her; he’d just walk her down there and plop down the thirty at the desk. Then the family would go in the warm room with two beds.
He knew what Sandy would do first. She would head straight for the bathroom and run the tub full of the hottest water she could stand, and she would soak the cold from her bones. He would ache to get in the tub, too, wash away the smoke and dirt and funk from his body, his hair; but he would not hurry her. He’d let her stay in the tub as long as she wished, even letting the water out for her when it cooled and running new hot. While she soaked, he would slip out to Bottoms Up and buy a half pint, maybe a full pint of Old Charter, then to the Arrow for a sack of hot onion burgers. They would lay out the burgers on the table if the room had one, and he’d pour her a whiskey in a real glass. He might have one himself. Just the one. Dori and the baby would have a bed to themselves – he realized then the baby had never slept in a bed – and he and Sandy could sleep together. Without clothes. He hadn’t forgotten how nice that was, to feel her naked legs and hips against his bare skin. They slept with his arm around her with her nice bottom up to his chest. They would not leave the room at all until eleven the next day, and even then, they would force them to push them out. Thirty dollars was a lot of money. Sandy would quit thinking, for a little while anyway, about running to Texas, or worse, back to that house. Warm again, clean and rested, she would have renewed faith in him and their family. His confidence surged. He would work very hard for Trammell. Who knew, maybe if he worked extra hard, Trammell would pay him more than the thirty dollars? Probably not; the man was a bad one, but it didn’t hurt too much to hope. Leon squeezed Dori. “Getting warm, girl?” he asked, making the hugging motion with his arms.
Dori looked at him and nodded. Then she smiled. Only smiled. At the school a teacher hid behind a door so she could catch Leon, and ask if she could have Dori tested. Leon didn’t answer, but walked with Dori to the white board, where he handed her two markers, one black, one red. He nodded to Dori. She nodded back and looked at the teacher, who watched without a word. Dori faced the board, and with a marker in each hand, simultaneously she printed all of the Preamble to the Constitution with her left hand while she wrote The Raven, verse for verse in cursive, with her right. “My God!” said the teacher.
“She’s not stupid,” said Leon, handing over the markers. “She’s deaf.”
Leon jerked a thumb toward the cab. “He won’t feed us. So don’t count on it.” Leopold nodded. “That ice chest he got in there? I smell meatloaf sandwiches his mean old lady made him last night from leftovers. With beer to drink, He ain’t a man to share, though. Nope. What’s left over goes to the dog. But that’s okay,” added Leopold, smiling a devilish smile. “I got us lunch. Look here.” He unbuttoned the collar of his thin jacket. Out stuck the butt end of a long loaf of bread. “Up early by the Homeland, I beat the hogman some days. Ain’t beat him today, but this loaf fell out his truck like a miracle. Got us a can of sausages, too. We eat good today Leeroy.” He squeezed Dori’s hand. “We gon ‘moab’ today, little sister. Yessir.”
Deep in a sorry, thick tangle of blackjack, Trammell scowled and handed them chain saws. With a thin-handled splitting axe, he sliced through persimmon and bois d’arc saplings, indicating where they were to start. Leon felt good even before he sweat, embracing the cold more than ignoring it, setting his mind to his work. At the back of his mind, however, was always the plan and Sandy. He cocked himself a moment and watched the Rottweiler eye Dori. The dog was a thick, mottled monster weighing at least ninety pounds. A bully, the beast singled out the weakest creature in the clearing. He bounded from the truck and ran. He bumped her. He only sniffed her, but she fell to the ground. Leon picked up a big stick, but he needn’t. Dogs didn’t scare Dori. She bounced up and popped his nose. He licked her face, and she laughed. Leon couldn’t remember when last she laughed.
“Faster!” was all Trammell said by way of conversation as he split the fireplace-sized logs Leon and Kin Leopold cut and Dori carried to him. Leon was a strong man when he ate regular, but the woodcutter with his long muscles and wide shoulders, dwarfed him. His stroke with the axe was awesome to see. Holding the tool like a child’s toy in one enormous hand, he split the tough wood in one clean stroke, never requiring to pick the axe out and strike again.
“Make him think ‘faster,’” Leon said, as he smiled and winked at Leopold. “See if the bastard can keep up with me.” Leopold chuckled. “Go on. Work him.” Leon winked. “I will work him. Watch me.” Dori caught on to the spirit, too. In her thin, wiry arms she began to carry three of the logs at a time instead of two. The dog trailed her, back and forth. She hustled the logs to the block and dumped them at Trammell’s boots, then by the time she got back to Leon, he had another little pile built up for her. Trammell kept up with them, though, without seeming to exert himself, splitting the logs in an amazing rhythm that Leon would have loved to watch if he had not been so focused on his own work and how it would pay off. They knew it was time for lunch when Trammell lay the axe aside and went to the truck for his ice chest. He called his dog. He hadn’t spoken a word since “Faster!”
Leopold tore the long bread into three pieces, giving Dori the smallest. With a P-38 tied to a string around his neck, he opened the sausages. They took turns dipping their bread in the can. “You working good today, Leeroy,” said Leopold, his mouth full of bread and cheap meat.
“Yes, I am,” said Leon, rubbing through his sweat-soaked hair. “I am working strong.” He smiled at Trammell’s back. “I haven’t got to that fella, but I may yet.” He rubbed Dori’s shoulders. “This girl is working good today, too, isn’t she, Leopold?” Leopold said, “You right about that. Young lady a worker.” If Dori felt the praise, she did not show it. She sat slumped and flat on the ground, a book in one hand, the other clutching bread and sausage. She stared into the gloom. The asphalt gray sky spit pieces of ice. She scootched her bottom up against Leon.
Trammell fed the last of his lunch to the dog. Leon jumped back into the woods with the saw. “Whoa, there, son,” Leopold said. “It’s a long day we got on us yet.” Leon roared and shook the saw over his head. “I’m strong today. I’m working good.” Leopold frowned. “Be careful. All I’m sayin.’ Leon immediately hurt himself. He cut a thick wait-a-minute vine to get at a tree. In a bind when the saw freed it, the vine sprang back at his face before he could blink and hit him flush on the eyeball. He went down as hard and fast as Baldwin from the night stick. At first he did not think himself hurt, merely stunned. He laughed loud at his clumsiness. But when Leopold helped him up, he felt his eye on fire and seeping liquid like a spring. A rush of nausea overwhelmed him, and he threw up his bread and sausage on the ground.
Leopold told him to lay down, but he shook his head and said he might not get back up. Leon said, “My eye still in there?” Leopold told him, “Jes barely. What I can see in all the mess. I help you down.” Leopold eased him down. Without his help, Leon would have fallen again. “Dori, child, sprinkle some water,” Leopold said, handing her a can of water they’d shared as a drinking cup, and demonstrating with his hand. “See can you get in there with tiny fingers, clean some of that mess up. There you go, now. That’s right. Uh huh.”
“Get to work over there,” Trammell yelled.
“Maybe if I stand a minute my head will clear up,” Leon said. Closed, his eye and his head throbbed; open, the pain was much worse. The spring in his eye had turned into a small waterfall in the corner of his head. With Leopold on one side and Dori on the other, he stood. He was still very dizzy and sick, but he had nothing else to throw up. Once more he tried opening his eye. The knifing pain almost sent him back down. He would not do that again. “I’m working.” Leon started the chain saw, and it snagged his pant leg, killing the saw. He set the saw down again, but the chain was still caught in his pants. “I’d best pick up for a spell,” he said to Leopold. “That a good idea,” said Leopold, looking scared. Leon took three very long, deep breaths as Dori freed the chain from his pant leg. He bent down and scooped logs into his arms. He found that holding his head bent with his chin on his breast relieved some of the pressure on his eye. He carried the logs to the block where Trammell leaned on the axe.
“You boys are slowing me down,” Trammell growled.
“I’m hurt some.” As soon as he said the words, Leon wished he had them back. To hell with this guy.
“You gonna quit on me?” Trammell said. “Be the last time you do.”
Leon did not answer. He was away scooping up logs. He tried to will the pain gone. He hadn’t will enough. Each time his toe hit the ground, his eye throbbed as if he were stepping on it. He’d have to have something else to help him. He found that thinking about Sandy and his plan helped some. Okay. He would make it through the long afternoon that way. What was she doing right now? Was she inside the tarp with the baby? Was she resting? He hoped she did not dream. At least not dreams of Texas or the meth house. Leopold cut, Leon carried, Dori scooped kindling. It did not take long to work through the stockpile of logs they’d built up before lunch. They could not keep Trammell in logs this way. He cursed in their direction. He glared at them, his thick forehead an anvil of spite. Leopold’s arms and wrists were about gone. “I’m give out, Leeroy,” he said into the whipping wind. He swayed. Leon feared he might topple. “Give me that thing,” Leon said, steadying Leopold and taking up the chain saw. “That’ll help if you can,” Leopold said, sounding relieved.
Leon fired the saw with one pull. Clinched his eyelid tightly, he nosed the blade into the trunk of a middling postoak. He saw double out of the good eye but discovered he could manage to see straight enough by concentrating on the middle ground. That tree fell in two seconds, he moved to another, it fell, and then he was back in a rhythm. “Stay back, Dori,” he yelled, making sure she saw his face. “Don’t come racing in.” By looking off with his good eye, and focusing hard on what he was cutting, he would not see double. His target was hazy, he held it with poor depth, but he cut. Leopold felled a tree and stepped back for a short rest, Leon cut the felled tree into logs, and Dori scooped and carried. They began to produce a steady supply of logs for Trammell. “Not working him like this morning, but we’re making him money,” Leon said. “Let’s go, then,” whispered Leopold. Though injured and drained, they found in working together an efficiency they lacked in the morning when they had been stronger. Push a tree over, cut cut cut, snatch away. Do it again. Leon did not forget his eye; he quit letting it bother him. Tree over, cut cut cut, snatch. The regular little lulls gave Leopold a second wind, and as he picked up speed, the trees fell faster. Leon not only kept up but would lay the saw by and help catch Dori up with armloads of logs. For the first time in the day, a pile of logs grew at the block. On the last load over, Leon heard Trammell breathing hard. “Getting him,” said Leon. “Work,” said Leopold.
“Hurry,” said Dori. “Hurry,” she said again.
Hearing this, both men straightened from their crouches. Leopold stared at her, Leon reached his hand out. Even the dog, who’d left a faint path in the leaves where he ran behind her every trip to the stump and back, stopped a moment and cocked his massive head at her. Dori was away at her job, scurrying over the ticket floor scooping up logs and running with them like nothing new and fascinating had occurred . Trammell propped the axe on the stump while he gasped and rested. He stared at Dori like he was seeing her for the first time, only now acknowledging her existence. This startled her. She dropped a log. It landed hard on the toe of his boot. He only kicked it away. The pellets of sleet nicking Leon’s face felt like jailhouse needles on his hot, ruddy skin. An icy crust covered the wound, and soothed the hurt in his eye and head. The relief was incredible. He almost wept, but he realized if he did, he would be frozen completely blind. He thought of frost bite, but it was a trifling concern up against other worries. He cut a log and turned his face into the wind. The ice peppered the crust and felt good. He cut again, facing the sleet. The water stopped flowing: a spring frozen solid. He didn’t know if the swollen and matted mass had frozen closed or open. He knew only that the searing pain was now a dull pressure.
“Him now,” Leopold cackled. “Look.” Leon angled his good eye to the block where Trammell sat sucking air like a catfish up on the bank. Dori heaved another load of logs to the pile. “Hold,” cried Trammell. “Enough for today. Help me stack this we got.”
Leon, Leopold, and Dori shared a smile. The storm grew as they stacked the wood on the truck. Ice pelted the ground and bounced. What little light could normally coax its way into the Cross Timbers canopy was now blocked without a chance by the bumpy, leaden clouds. Leon listened to the wind hammer the wood line. He hoped Sandy and the baby were deep in blankets in the tarp. He stacked furiously. “Let’s move,” he shouted.
In the truck they pressed together between the ricks of wood, yet the wind and ice reached them. In less than a mile, a crackling, silver layer of sleet covered them. Several times the truck fishtailed on the slick road. Logs tumbled on them. They made no move to push them away. “Feel good to earn money,” Leopold said. Leon nodded. “Even when you’re tired and cold.” Leopold said, “And hurt. You best take some of that money you got coming, get something for that eye.” Leon bristled. “I told you where that money goes.” He felt Leopold’s scrawny shoulder against his own. Guilt stabbed him. “You could stay with us. In a corner,” he said. “Naw.” Leopold saying this a little too quickly. “Spoil me for the street. Thanks, though. I stay warm enough. Tonight I buy me a little taste to keep me good. Be fine.” Leon felt relieved, immensely so, and this shamed him further. He did not want anyone but the family in the room. Not even dood Leopold. He started to insist, but Leopold was right; it would spoil him for the street. An old guy like that, been out so long, might make him sick, mess with his resistance. Leon urged the truck faster but knew Trammell didn’t dare; the road so bad they were the only vehicle on it. He knew Sandy was terrified in the tarp with the ice pelting the sides, and he hated that, but in a way that was okay, because it would make the surprise even more meaningful. A thought almost panicked Leon. The Black Hawk had only so many cheap rooms, and what if other Aimless had the same idea? Then he relaxed a bit; how many of the others had themselves thirty dollars like he had? “You think he’ll pay something for Dori helping out?” asked Leon, talking to take the edge off his nervousness. “Oh, sure, he ought to,” Leopold said. “Any man would do that.”
“The truck slid to a stop on a frontage road three miles from downtown. Trammell’s turn off; he the kind of man might drive three miles to find them, but once they had done for him, well, hell with taking them all the way back. They would ride no closer. Unwinding, they shoved the logs off themselves and tried to brush the ice away. Leon jumped down on the road ice and helped Leopold and Dori down.
Taking a fat wallet out of his coveralls, Trammell gave six five-dollar bills to Leopold and four to Leon. Leon waited. “You didn’t cut full time,” said Trammell, stuffing the wallet away.
“I made up for it,” said Leon, trying without much luck to stay calm. He couldn’t believe this. “What about this girl? She helped out.”
“She helped you,” Trammell said, then turned his back on them. “Ain’t needed no kid.”
“You said thirty dollars.” Leon yelled, panic in his voice. Leon felt the hope of his plan flow from his heart like blood from a mortal wound. Sandy would not last in this vicious storm in a tarp and dirty blankets. “You said thirty dollars, you son-of-a-bitch!”
“What’s that?” Trammell said, turning. “Piece of shit.” He balled his fist. “I was thinking about using you bums more, but I ain’t putting up with crap. None of you want to make anything but trouble of yourself.”
The heat of Leon’s fury melted the remaining ice from his eye. He saw two of the man. Stepping up, he split the difference. “No, Leeroy,” cried Leopold. “I loan you the ten.”
“Better listen to the NEE-gro, LEE-roy,” Trammell sneered. “I know you been in the joint. You’ll be glad to be back in jail I get through with your sorry ass.”
Leon looked in his hand at the splitting axe. He didn’t remember picking it up. Then he felt Dori’s small, cold hands close his own over the handle. “He said thirty dollars, Leopold,” was all he managed to say. In a silly, winter wonderland waltz, two cars slid out of control on the interstate, headlights playing weak and wild against the human figures, casting shadows on the truck. Trammell raised his fist. The Rottweiler’s head pounded dully against the cab glass. Leon lifted the axe over his head.
“What the hell do you mean, punk?”said Trammell.
“I mean to get my thirty dollars. I believe I will cut your head off to get it.”
“Leeroy, don’t do a crazy thing,” Leopold shouted into the wind.
A siren yowled, and a deputy sheriff’s car flashed its high beams on them. “Trouble there?” came a voice behind a spotlight.
“None here, officer,” Trammell yelled. “I catch you out sometime,” he hissed at Leon.
“It’s okay, Leeroy, you go on,” Leopold said, leaning against a building, breathless after a hard mile trotting. “Child stay with me. Promise I won’t buy a taste ‘til we catch you up.”
“No,” Leon said, unwilling to look at his friend. “She stays with me. Go on get you a taste.” He hooked Dori’s elbow, and with bent heads, they jogged away. The ice, now three inches thick on the surfaces, made the running easier because they didn’t have to lift their feet; they sort of shuffled and slid along. They careened on empty streets; the patrol car the last vehicle about. Warm houses tucked away families. “Almost there,” Leon cried.
He did not see at first through the filtered neon-blue light round the depot. Nearer, he saw uneven, ragged lumps pressed to the blacktop by layers of ice where before their pitiful bivouac of boxes and lean-tos stood. The tarp? Hammered with spikes against the depot’s fence, the tarp framed an unmistakable declaration dabbed with black and red paint.
He ran. He fell hard and broke his hand but popped right up. He realized he was dragging Dori. She did not fall. She did not cry. A thousand book pages quivered in the squall. Leon heard a scream and realized it came from him. He hit the fence with his shattered fist, and did not feel two knuckles give way. Only wind moved over the nightmare ground. He turned his injured eye into the wind and ice. He clutched the tiny hardness of Dori’s fingers. “Move, girl,” he said. “Move south.”
About the Author:
Fresh from war, Stanley Beesley did what he thought a writer should do: he took himself to Paris to write the great America novel. After a year of producing a one thousand-page, unreadable doorstop and having learned many truths about the craft of writing; he hastened home to raise a family and continue stringing sentences together. He is author of the book Vietnam: The Heartland Remembers, and is a writer, teacher, football coach, and athletic director. The Sunday Oklahoman said this about his stories ... “Beesley is a strong, talented, witty writer whose work is likely to show up in anthologies or future textbooks.”