Monday
Feb142011

Miss Me When I'm Gone

By Philip Stephens



Plume
January 2011
320 pages
978-1101486238

 

  

The hog-eyed man returned to her. He arrived months after Ruth Harper tried to drag a bale of straw to her garden, but the straw was rain soaked, the twine rotten, and when she stopped to catch her breath, what she took to be a passing cloud threw a shadow at her feet, and the day went black.

At dusk she came to—thirsty, sunburnt—and got to her feet. Her head throbbed. Beyond the clothesline, redbuds had broken into blossom. " 'For the fashion of this world,' " she said, " ' passeth away,' " a sentiment her late husband had held from the pulpit but one Ruth now twisted into a curse. She kicked twice at the bale and limped to the house. Headaches crippled her after that, but her senses grew so acute that by the time petals fled from dogwoods along the bluff, she heard on the wind the voices of the dead in Dooley Cemetery. They said they knew her long-suppressed desires, which Ruth admitted she herself could not recall. Grape leaves hissed on the arbors north of the house, vines her husband had planted to try to make his fortune, selling communion grape juice to dry denominations— Nazarene, Holy Roller, and Baptist. Come the first humid days of summer, samaras broke from silver-maple branches and skittered across the road, and she asked the trees why. They said the winged seeds were scared for her life on the edge of a bluff overlooking a river whose current had been stifled for as long as they could remember. Ruth drew the shades in the back room and took to bed.

When at last the Dog Star rose before dawn, the hog-eyed man reappeared. Jorge, her hired hand, set two tomatoes from the garden on the kitchen counter, but when she turned to thank him, he was gone, and the hog-eyed man stood outside the wire gate facing the woods at the east edge of the yard. At first she took him for her youngest, Cyrus, returned from California. On the cabinet door beside the icebox, she'd taped a newspaper review of Cyrus's only album, which had arrived at her doorstep one day via book-rate mail, and beside it a Polaroid of him and Saro together on a rack-lit stage. Cyrus had tucked the fiddle to his chin, the bow a blur. Saro had lifted the guitar to the side as if tugging it from a stranger. An Electro-Voice microphone rose between them, and they leaned toward it, so close together it looked as though one had come to still waters to drink, the other no more than a reflection destined to vanish.

But the man outside wore a brown wool suit, matching derby, and mourning-dove-colored spats. His cordovan St. Louis flats were run over at the heels. A drummer, maybe, peddling Bibles or pots or vacuum cleaners with mail-order attachments. The days of drummers were long past, though, and the back of his neck was pink, his shoulders thick enough to haul away cotton bales with ease.

Ruth knew him well. He'd first come years ago, but she had spurned him, so he turned to her daughter. As Ruth recalled, he threw Saro from the bluff. More than sixty feet through limbs and off ledges to the shore of that dammed-up river she fell, and the hog-eyed man, along with the other hog-eyed men hidden behind black walnut and oak, had snickered.

Ruth stepped over the dozing dogs on the porch and down the walk until she was within arm's reach of him. His flats were scuffed. Old-gold and royal blue thread had frayed at his jacket cuffs, and the fabric at the elbows was shiny. "What do you want with me?" she said.

With his cleft hand he tipped his derby. His face was covered with coarse hairs; an outcropping of skull shaded his blood-black eyes. He wiggled his snout and commenced a jig, singing:

Sally's in the garden, siftin', siftin', Sally's in the garden, siftin' sand. Sally's in the garden, siftin', siftin', Sally's upstairs with a hog-eyed man.

"You'll not have me," Ruth said.

The hog-eyed man sighed. "Nothing's more tiresome than a reluctant woman."

"I ain't reluctant. I refuse you."

"I see," he said. "But remember? If you refuse me, Ruth, you refuse music. And if you refuse music, then you refuse the one last grace that, for now, might save you from your fate."

"Spare me," Ruth said.

"Precisely my point."

"I know what you're about."

"Is that so. Perhaps we might discuss my nature over a glass of ice tea, then."

"That'll be the day."

"That'll be the day," he mimicked. "Shall I finish that quaint little bromide for you, or just let it hang in the air between us?"

He plucked a honeysuckle blossom from the fence, popped it into his mouth, and swallowed. "So be it," he said, staring Ruth back up the walk and into the house, where she locked the door.

That day, as he grazed the honeysuckle vines clean, she raised the window shades and carted bedding to the pastry table in the middle of her kitchen; there, from its tin top, she kept her vigil.

 

Fall came and Indian summer followed, but the hog-eyed man stayed put at the gate until, one night, as rain thrummed on the roof, he toed the gravel as if to demarcate a boundary, then plucked his watch from his vest pocket and pinched it by the chain, catching what light was cast from the porch.

Ruth lay curled on the pastry table, watching. "Go on," she said. The gravel crunched as he shifted his weight. More and more hog-eyed men were crashing through the tall grass. She could not keep them back, and she could not keep on keeping watch.

Thumbtacked beneath the rotary phone on the wall was her elder son's realty card, though what good would Isaac's office number, or his mobile, as he called it, do her now? She pulled free the Polaroid of Cyrus and Saro—evidence of a reality she might have known—and carried it down the hall to the bathroom. They had given her the photo for Mother's Day, along with a Panasonic tape deck and a cassette recording of that performance passed to them by a university musicologist attempting a study of Ozark song. Ruth had hidden the photograph and player from Ott in the back of her stocking drawer, but after he was dead, she listened to the songs so often that the coating of rust on the tape began to shed, the blended voices of her youngest children distorting until one day the tape snapped and fed itself into the machine.

The rain let up. Clouds began to break. "I'll take care of you," she said to the darkness. From the medicine cabinet she took down prescriptions doctors had given her for years and screwed open the bottles, lining them on the edge of the sink. Behind her, the shower curtain stirred, plastic rings clicking on the rod. The shade of the hog-eyed man appeared in the cabinet mirror. He stepped over the lip of the tub and pressed his face to hers, resting one hand on her shoulder, the other on her hip. He smelled of mildew and fallen leaves. His blood-black eyes reflected what moonlight filtered through the window. He grinned, and his gums shone.

"Perhaps now it's time to make us some tea," he said.