Gerald opened his front door at dawn, wearing only a quickly drawn-on pair of jeans. His wife's four brothers stood in the ground fog that filtered along the ridge. The oldest brother had become family spokesman after the father's death, and Gerald waited for him to speak. The mother was still boss but everything had to filter through a man.
"It's Ory," the oldest one said. "He got shot and is in the hospital. Somebody's got to fetch him."
The brothers looked at Gerald from below their eyebrows. Going after Ory wasn't a chore anyone wanted, and Gerald was new to the family, married to Kay, the only sister. He still needed to prove his worth. If he brought Ory home, maybe they'd cut the barrier that kept him on the edge of things, like he was nothing but a third or fourth cousin.
"Where's he at?" Gerald said.
"Wahoo, Nebraska. Ory said it would take two days but was easy to find."
"My rig won't make it."
"You can take the old Ford. She'll run till doomsday."
"Who shot him?"
The oldest brother flashed him a mean look. The rest were back to looking down, as if they were carpenters gauging the amount of linoleum needed for a job.
"Some woman," the oldest brother said.
Kay began to cry. The brothers left and Gerald sat on the couch beside Kay. She hugged her knees and bit a thumbnail, gasping in a throaty way that reminded him of the sounds she made in bed. He reached for her. She shrugged from his hand, then allowed his touch.
"Him leaving never made sense," Kay said. "He hadn't done nothing and nobody was after him. He didn't tell a soul why. Just up and went. Be ten years come fall."
"I'll go get him," Gerald whispered.
"You don't care to?"
"For my brothers?"
She snuggled against him, her damp face pressed to his neck. She was tiny inside the robe. He opened the front and she pushed against his leg.
The next day he left in the black pickup. Gerald was thirty years old and had never been out of the county. He wore a suit that was snug in the shoulders, and short in the legs. It had belonged to his father, but he didn't figure anyone would notice. He wished he owned a tie. The dogwoods and redbuds had already lost their spring color. The air was hot. Four hours later he was in Indiana, where the land was flat as a playing card. There was nowhere to hide, no safety at all. Even the sun was too bright. He didn't understand how Ory could stand such open ground.
Illinois was equally flat but with less green to it. Gerald realized that he was driving through a season, watching spring in reverse. The Illinois dirt was black as manure and he pulled over to examine it. The earth was moist and rich. It smelled of life. He let it trickle between his fingers, thinking of the hard clay dirt at home. He decided to stop and get some of this good dirt on the way back.
He drove all day and crossed the Mississippi River at night. At a rest area, he unrolled a blanket and lay down. He was cold. Above him the stars were strewn across the sky. They seemed to be moving down, threatening to press him against the ground. Something bright cut across the night, and he thought someone had shot at him until he realized it was a shooting star. The hills at home blocked so much sky that he'd never seen one. He watched the vast prairie night until fading into sleep.
The eerie light of a flatland dawn woke him early. The sun wasn't visible and the world seemed to glow from within. There were no birds to hear. He could see his breath. He drove west and left the interstate at Wahoo and found the hospital easily. A nurse took him to a small room. Everything was white and the walls seemed to emit a low hum. He couldn't place the smell. A man came into the room wearing a white coat. He spoke with an accent.
"I am Dr. Gupte. You are with the family of Mr. Gowan?"
"You're the doctor?"
"Yes." He sighed and opened a manila folder. "I'm afraid Mr. Gowan has left us."
"Done out, huh. Where to?"
"I'm afraid that is not the circumstance."
"No, he had a pulmonary thromboembolism."
"Is that American?"
"I'm afraid you will excuse me."
Dr. Gupte left the room and Gerald wondered who the funny little man really was. He pulled open a drawer. Inside was a small mallet with a triangular head made of rubber, perfect for nothing. A cop came in the room, and Gerald slowly closed the drawer.
"I'm Sheriff Johnson. You the next of kin?"
They watched each other in the tiny room under the artificial light. Gerald didn't like cops. They got to carry a gun, drive fast, and fight. Anybody else got thrown in the pokey for doing the same thing.
"Dr. Gupte asked me to come in," the sheriff said.
"He really is a doctor?"
"He's from Pakistan."
"Run out of your own, huh."
"Look, Mr. Bolin. Your brother-in-law got a blood clot that went to his lung. He died from it."
Gerald cleared his throat, scanned the floor for somewhere to spit, then swallowed it. He rubbed his eyes.
"Say he's dead."
The sheriff nodded.
"That damn doctor ain't worth his hide, is he."
"There's some things to clear up."
The sheriff drove Gerald to his office, a small space with a desk and two chairs. A calendar hung from the wall. The room reminded Gerald of the hospital without the smell.
"Ory was on a tear," the sheriff said. "He was drinking and wrecked his car at his girlfriend's house. She wouldn't let him in and he broke the door open. They started arguing and she shot him."
"Then he got a blood clot."
The sheriff nodded.
"Did he not have a job?" Gerald said.
"No. And there's some money problems. He went through a fence and hit a light post. He owed back rent at a rooming house. Plus the hospital."
"Car bad hurt?"
"Did he own anything?"
"Clothes, a knife, suitcase, a little twenty-two pistol, a pair of boots, and a radio."
"What all does he owe?"
"Twelve hundred dollars."
Gerald walked to the window. He thought of his wife and all her family waiting for him. They'd given him a little money, but he'd need it for gas on the ride back.
"Can I see her?" he said.
"The woman that shot him."
The sheriff drove him a few blocks to a tan building made of stone. Near the eaves were narrow slits to let light in. They went through heavy doors into a common room with a TV set and a pay phone. Four cells formed one wall. A woman sat on a bunk in one of the cells, reading a magazine. She wore an orange jumpsuit that was too big for her.
"Melanie," the sheriff said. "You have a visitor. Ory's brother-in-law."
The sheriff left and Gerald stared through the bars. Her hair was dark purple. One side was long, the other shaved. Each ear had several small gold hoops in a row that reminded Gerald of a guide for a harness. A gold ring pierced her left nostril. She had a black eye. He wanted to watch her for a long time, but looked at his boots instead.
"Hidy," he said.
She rolled the magazine into a tube and held it to her good eye, looking at Gerald.
"I come for Ory," Gerald said, "but he's died on me. Just thought I'd talk to you a minute."
"I didn't kill him."
"I know it."
"I only shot him."
"A blood clot killed him."
"Do you want to screw me?"
Gerald shook his head, his face turning red. She seemed too young to talk that way, too young for jail, too young for Ory.
"Let me have a cigarette," she said.
He passed one through the bars and she took it without touching his hand. A chain was tattooed around her wrist. She inhaled twin lines of smoke from her mouth into her nose. The ash was long and red. She sucked at the filter, lifting her lips to prevent them from getting burned. She blew a smoke ring. Gerald had never seen anyone get so much out of a single cigarette.
"Wish it was menthol," she said. "Ory smoked menthol."
"What do you want," she said.
"I don't know. Nothing I don't guess."
"Me neither, except out of here."
"Don't reckon I can help you there."
"You talk just like Ory did."
"How come you to shoot him?"
"We had a fight, and he like, came over drunk. He wanted something he gave me and I wouldn't give it back. It was mine. He busted the lock and started tearing everything up, you know, looking for it. I had a little pistol in my vanity and I like, got it out."
Melanie finished the cigarette and he gave her another one, careful not to look at the ring in her nose. Behind her was a stainless steel toilet with a sink on top where the tank should be. When you washed your hands, it flushed the toilet. He thought of the jail at home with its putrid hole in the floor and no sink at all.
"What was it he was wanting so bad?"
"A wig," she said. "It was blond and he liked me to wear it. Sometimes I wore it in bed."
"You shot him over a wig."
"I was scared. He kept screaming, 'Give me back my wig.' So I, you know, shot him. Just once. If I knew he'd get that blood clot, I wouldn't have done it."
Gerald wondered how old she was but didn't want to insult her by asking. He felt sorry for her.
"He give you that eye?"
"The cops did. They think me and Ory sell dope but we don't, not really. Nothing heavy. Just to, like, friends."
"Why do you do that?" he said.
"No. Cut your hair and stick that thing in your nose."
"Shut up," she said. She began yelling. "I don't need you. Get away from me. Get out of here!"
The sheriff came into the common room and took Gerald outside. The sky was dark with the smell of rain. He wanted to stand there until the storm swept over him, rinsing him of the jail. He underwent a sudden sense of vertigo, and for a moment he didn't know where he was, only that he was two days from anything familiar. He didn't even know where his truck was.
"She's a hard one," the sheriff said.
"I don't want no charges pressed against her."
"That's not up to you."
"She didn't kill him."
"I don't know about Kentucky," the sheriff said, "but in Nebraska, shooting people's a crime. Look, there's been a big wreck on Ninety-two and five people are coming to the hospital. They need the space. We got to get your brother-in-law to a funeral home."
"Can't afford it."
"The hospital's worse. It charges by the day."
"What in case I take his stuff and leave."
"The county'll bury him."
"That'll run you how much?"
"About a thousand."
"That's a lot of money."
The sheriff nodded.
"Tell you what," Gerald said. "I'll sell you his car for one dollar. You can use it to pay off what all he owes. There's that radio and stuff. Plus I'll throw in a hundred cash."
"You can't buy a body."
"It ain't yours to sell or mine to buy. I just want to get him home. Family wants him."
"I don't know if it's legal."
"He ain't the first person to die somewhere else. My cousin's aunt came in on a train after getting killed in a wreck. They set her off at the Rocksalt station. She was in a box."
The sheriff puffed his cheeks and blew air. He went to his office and dialed the courthouse and asked for a notary public. Half an hour later the car belonged to the city of Wahoo. It was a Chevelle and for a moment Gerald wondered if he'd made a mistake. They were pretty good cars.
The sheriff drove them to the hospital. Gerald pulled the money out and started counting.
"Keep it," the sheriff said.
"Give it to Melanie. She wants menthol cigarettes."
"You and Ory aren't a whole lot alike, are you."
"I never knew him that good."
"The only man I saw give money away was my daddy."
"Was he rich?"
"No," said the sheriff, "Daddy was a farmer."
"You all worked this flat land?"
"It worked him right back into it."
Gerald followed the sheriff into the hospital and signed several forms. An orderly wheeled in a gurney with the body on it, covered with a white cloth. He pushed it to an exit beside the emergency room. Three ambulances drove into the lot and paramedics began moving the injured people into the hospital. The orderlies left the gurney and went to help. A state police car stopped behind the ambulances.
"I have to talk to them," the sheriff said. "Then I'll get an ambulance to drop the body down at the train station."
The sheriff left the car and walked to the state trooper. Nobody was looking at Gerald. He pushed the gurney into the lot and along the side of the building. A breeze rippled the cloth that covered Ory. Gerald held it down with one hand but the gurney went crooked. He let go of the cloth and righted the gurney and the wind blew the cloth away. Ory was stretched out naked with a hole in his side. He didn't look dead, but Gerald didn't think he looked too good either. He looked like a man with a bad hangover that he might shake by dinner.
Gerald dropped the tailgate of his pickup and dragged Ory into the truck. He threw his blanket over him and weighted the corners with tire tools, the spare, and a coal shovel. He drove the rest of the day. In Illinois, he stopped and lay down beside the truck. Without the blanket he was cold, but he didn't feel right about taking it back from Ory. Gerald thought about Ory asking Melanie to wear the blond wig. He wondered if it made a difference when they were in bed.
He woke with frost on him. A buzzard circled high above the truck. He drove into the rising sun, thinking that he'd done everything backward. No matter when he drove, he was always aimed at the sun. Mist lifted above the land as the frost gave way. At the next exit, Gerald left the interstate for a farm road and parked beside a plowed field.
He carried the shovel over a wire fence. The dirt was loose and easy to take. It would make a fine garden at home. His body took over, grateful for the labor after three days of driving. A pair of redwing blackbirds sat on a power line, courting each other, and Gerald wondered how birds knew to go with their own kind. Maybe Ory knew he was in the wrong tree and that's why he wanted Melanie to wear a wig. Gerald tried to imagine her with blond hair. He suddenly understood that he wanted her, had wanted her at the jailhouse. He couldn't figure why. It bothered him that he had so much desire for a woman he didn't consider attractive.
He climbed in the back and mounded the dirt to balance the load. As he traveled south, he reentered spring. The buds of softwood trees turned pale green. Flocks of starlings moved over him in a dark cloud, heading north. By nightfall, he crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. In four hours he'd be home. He was getting sleepy, but coffee had stopped doing him any good. He slid into a zone of the road, letting the rhythm of motion enter his body. A loud noise made him jerk upright. He thought he'd had a flat until he saw that he'd drifted across the breakdown lane and onto the edge of the median. He parked and lay down in the bench seat. He was lucky not to have been killed. The law would have a hard time with that -- two dead men, one naked and already stiff, and a load of dirt.
When he woke, it was light and he felt tired already. At a gas station he stared at the rest room mirror, thinking that he looked like the third day of a three-day drunk. The suit was ruined. He combed his hair with water and stepped into the sun. A dog was in the back of his pickup, digging. Gerald yelled, looking for something to grab. The dog saw him and jumped off the truck and loped away. Gerald shoved dirt over Ory's exposed hand. A man came behind him.
"Shoo-eee," the man said. "You waited long enough didn't you."
Gerald grunted. He was smoothing the dirt, replacing the weights along the blanket's edge. The man spoke again.
"Had to take one to the renderers myself last week. Got some kind of bug that killed it in three days. Vet said it was a new one on him."
"A new one."
"I put mine in a garbage bag. Keeps the smell in better than dirt."
"Did yours up and not eat, then lay down and start breathing hard?"
"More or less."
"It's the same thing. A malady, the vet called it."
Gerald got in the truck and decided not to stop until he was home. The stench was bad and getting worse. He wondered if breathing a bad smell made your lungs stink. The land started to roll, the crests rising higher as he traveled east. The sun was very hot. It seemed to him as if summer had arrived while he was gone. He'd been to winter and back.
Deep in the hills, he left the interstate for a blacktop road that turned to dirt, following the twists of a creek. He stopped at the foot of his wife's home hill. Kay would be up there, at her mom's house with all her family. They would feed him, give him whiskey, wait for him to tell what happened. He brushed off his suit and thought about the events, collecting them in sequence. He told the story in his head. He thought some more, then practiced again. Ory had quit drinking and taken a good job as manager of a department store. He'd gotten engaged to a woman he'd met at church, but had held off telling the family until he could bring her home. She was nice as pie, blond headed. He was teaching her to shoot a pistol and it went off by accident. She was tore all to pieces about it. He'd never seen anyone in such bad shape. All she did was cry. It was a malady.
Gerald drove slowly up the hill. Later, he could tell the truth to the oldest brother, who'd tell the rest. They'd appreciate his public lie and he'd be in with the family. He parked in the yard beside his mother-in-law's house. Dogs ran toward the truck, then kids. Adults stepped onto the porch and Gerald could see them looking for Ory in the cab. Kay came out of the house. She smiled at him, the same small smile that she always used, and he wondered how she'd look in a wig.
He got out of the truck and waited. Everything was the same -- the house, the trees, the people. He recognized the leaves and the outline of the branches against the sky. He knew how the light would fall, where the shadows would go. The smell of the woods was familiar. It would be this way forever. Abruptly, as if doused by water, he knew why Ory had left.
Copyright © 1999 by Chris Offutt
Out of the Woods
The eight new stories in Out of the Woods mark Offutt's return to the form in which he first displayed his astonishing talent. Offutt, who "draws landscape and constructs dialogue with the eyes and ears of a native son" (The Miami Herald), is on strong home turf here, capturing those who have left the Kentucky hills and long to return. These are stories of gravediggers and drifters, gamblers and truck drivers a long way from home, tales that are so full of hard edges they can't help but tell some hard truths.