Damn, it was hard to keep a secret from Maryanne. That woman was so confounded nosey. Asking this, asking that, her voice going all reed-thin like it always did when she didn’t believe a word I was saying.
“And you’re telling me that this time you gotta stay late and work on Mr. Redwine’s truck.” The racket the twins was making in the background pretnear drowned out her voice. “For Pete’s sake, you’re a carpenter, not a mechanic.”
One of ‘em—most likely Alex, he was the noisy one—let out a high-pitched squeal that stabbed my throbbing head like a rusty pitchfork. I yanked my cell away from my ear, whispering “holy shit” through gritted teeth.
Squawk, squawk, squawk spitted out of the phone. I lifted it back to my ear.
“—and we’re gonna talk about it when you get home. This’s been going on for months. Two or three evenings a week, something’s come up and you’ve been getting home late, dark or after. How you been driving nails in the dark, Hershel Thurman Patterson? Huh? You tell me. And your paycheck sure ain’t been getting any bigger.”
Lord-a-mercy, the lying was getting harder and harder to live with. “I…uh…the truck…” Good thing I didn’t have one of them there smartphones. I’d heard tell you could track a body if he had one on him.
“Are you…” I heard the little hitch in her voice, knew it meant she was fixing to cry.
Why had I let it go on like this? Why hadn’t I just told her the truth up front? It sure as hell would’ve saved us both a heap of misery. But I hadn’t wanted to tell her ‘cause the truth be told, I—
And she did it, asked the question I was feared she was going to: “Are you fooling around on me?”
“Aw, Maryanne, you know good and well I ain’t. I love you, baby.”
“That’s what they all say.” She laughed, a hoarse, croaky sound.
“Mama! Hungry, Mama!” Alex again. That boy had the roar of a pissed-off bear while little Angie, all big green eyes and black hair like her mama, was quiet as a church mouse.
“Baby, I’ll be home in along about three hours, and I’ll explain everything then. I should have a long time ago, but…well…you see…”
Then I was talking to nothing. The line was dead. Maryanne had hung up on me.
“Damn it to hell!” I snapped my cell closed a lot harder than I should of and crammed it inside my shirt pocket next to a pack of cigarettes—another lie. Maryanne thought I had quit four months ago on her thirtieth birthday. She told me then it was the best birthday present she’d ever got, that I was as skinny as a rail-fence ‘cause I smoked and didn’t eat. Was coughing my guts out and heading for an early grave too.
Reckoned they would go in the glove box before I got home, underneath papers and napkins and the king-size bag of the cinnamon candy I’d become pretty fond of here lately. Or mayhaps I’d just give ‘em a toss out the window before I got home.
I scraped the gear shift into reverse, eased up on the clutch, and backed out of my parking spot behind Redwine’s Construction. First, second, third, a left turn onto the main drag, then I was cruising down the highway in the opposite direction from home.
A couple of hours there—one last time—and I’d wrap things up and head home to Maryanne. Then I would tell her the truth of it, put it all right out there on the table. I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, that the whole thing could’ve stayed a secret and I’d keep on like before. But a body don’t always get what they want.
I made a right onto a dirt road that’d seen better days, and it was like driving from full noon into twilight the trees were so thick. Limbs heavy with summer-green leaves brushed against the truck. An occasional branch scraped hard along its side, adding a few new scratches to the ones already there.
Just knowing what was at the end of the road got me excited, anxious to lay my hands again on places that’d grown familiar. I stuck a contraband smoke between my lips, pushed in the lighter—antsy fingers drumming–and grabbed it the second it popped out. I touched the glowing tip to my cigarette and dragged deep. Lord-a-mercy, it sure tasted fine.
Probably have to give ‘em up again though. Just like I was gonna have to give up the secret.
The truck wallowed through a big-ass mud hole, then around a sharp bend, and the old house I’d spent countless hours inside the last few months came into view. I drove along the tracks I’d made through the knee-high weeds around to the back, and rolled to a stop in front of the porch.
Not much to look at on the outside but it was what was inside that counted, what I had fallen in love with, what I loved a tad bit more each time I left the place. And now that I was here, I couldn’t wait to get inside, get a gander of the beauty waiting for the touch of my hands.
I turned off the engine and opened the door, the July heat hitting me in the face like a used towel’s wet slap. Gonna be hotter than hell inside the house—no frosty AC like in the truck—but my time spent in there sweating like a hog was sure gonna be worth it, every damned second. I would just put the half-ass argument with Maryanne out of my mind and enjoy myself.
One last time before I went home in a little while and let that bristly old cat out of the bag.
I stepped down out of the cab, eased the door shut, and grabbed my toolbox from the truck bed. I dropped the cigarette and ground it out real good with my boot. Didn’t want to stink up the place. She wouldn’t like it.
Whistling like a damn fool and grinning like one too, I crossed the porch, being careful not to step where the boards had rotted, fished the shiny new key out of my jeans and fitted it into the equally new lock.
I pushed the door open and stepped inside the kitchen, getting a whiff of the glue I’d used laying down the Formica day before yesterday. Shit had made me higher than a kite. But it’d been raining and the wind blowing so I’d had to keep the windows shut.
I placed the dinged and dented red toolbox—a gift from Maryanne on our first anniversary—on top of the old wooden table setting all alone in the middle of the room, and began opening windows. Had to remember to close ‘em when I left. This time of year, no telling when a thunderstorm might decide to come rolling in.
And then I looked around…
At the brand new Formica, creamy white with little red flecks dotting it that were the same shade as the cabinets I had put in ‘round about a month ago and painted Maryanne’s favorite color: dusty rose. To me, it looked like a washed-out red, but she liked it and that was all that mattered. Before that, I’d paneled the walls halfway up, then papered the rest, the pattern white-and-black striped. I picked that on my own, figuring she could get either black or white appliances—either color would look real nice. All I had left to do in the kitchen was putting down the linoleum. Hadn’t decided on it yet, but since I’d be telling Maryanne about the house when I got home in a little while, I reckoned she could pick it out. It wouldn’t be a secret no more what I had been doing with pretnear all my spare time for the past six months.
I left the kitchen and wandered from room to room, looking over all I had done to the old house since I’d bought it for taxes owed almost a year ago, pleased as punch at how nice it looked: clean, freshly-painted walls and shiny parquet floors. All done by yours truly. I’d planned on being plumb done with the inside before telling Maryanne, but now that wasn’t gonna happen. I couldn’t have her believe I was getting some on the side. Since marrying her right out of high school ten years ago, I’d never so much as looked at another gal, least ways, not the way I looked at her. She was beautiful, inside and out, and deserved nothing but the best. And now I could give her the best, move her and the twins out of that itty-bitty duplex and into a house that had ten acres to go along with it.
Well, time to quit wool-gathering and get on with it. I had a couple more doors to hang and then—
What the hell? Was that what I thought it was?
I made my way from the doorway to the corner of the back bedroom, the big one meant for Maryanne and me, and eyed the ceiling there. Just as I thought: a frickin’ wet spot. Well, shit…looked like I better crawl up into the attic and see where water was getting in. I had put a new roof on the place, but the storm that’d moved through about a week ago might’ve torn loose some shingles—least ways, I hoped that was all it amounted to.
I fetched the ladder out of the kitchen and set it up in the hallway underneath the cutout in the ceiling that led up into the attic. I crawled through the square hole and up amongst the rafters. Careful to stay on the two-by-sixes—didn’t wanna go falling through the ceiling—I edged along a beam that’d take me above mine and Maryanne’s future bedroom. Knowing what was gonna be going on in that room in a couple of months, I grinned ear to ear. Mayhaps something that would make a little brother or sister for the twins. Oh, that Maryanne, she sure could—
I heard a noise akin to a snapping tree branch, then there was nothing under me and I was going down, a sandpaper-roughness scraping the length of my front and back, ripping at my clothes and skin.
My boots hit bottom, jarring every bone in my body.
What the hell…?
A bit of gray light filtered down from above, enough to see bare boards staring me right in the face. Something hard pressed right up against me from behind. My arms were twisted above my head, and they burned and stung like holy hell, but seemed to be alright. Nothing felt broken.
I must’ve taken a misstep, came down through the ceiling, and…oh, lord-a-mercy, not the ceiling. If I had fell through the ceiling, I’d be in a room. But I wasn’t in no room. I was between rooms. That was why I couldn’t move. I was wedged tighter than Dick’s hatband between two walls.
I reckon I must’ve lost it then. I started yelling and squirming and scrabbling with my hands, trying to get hold of something. Anything. But I got nothing but a sore throat, and fingernails that felt like spikes had been driven under them. A warm, wetness trickled down my arms, and knew before I felt the first plops in my hair that my hands were bleeding something awful. That kind of brought me back around, made me realize I wasn’t helping myself none by having a conniption fit.
Time to suck it up and take stock of the situation, figure out what I had to do. Maryanne had always told me I was good at that: thinking things through and making a plan.
Maybe if I could get a foot up on the wall just so, I could give a little push…
And I tried…tried with all my might to bend a leg so I could get purchase on the wall with my boot, but there wasn’t no room. I couldn’t even bend my knee enough to touch the wall with the sole.
I tried again with my hands. Though they hurt like a sonofabitch, I felt around as much as I was able, searching for a handhold, a finger-hold, any little crook or crevice to give me a tad-bit of leverage. All I got was more splinters.
All the fight drained out of me then. All the fear too. This whole situation was my own damn fault. First off, I hadn’t replaced all the beams like I should of; if they looked in good shape, I left them be. And it wasn’t like I was a dumbass ‘cause I knew all about dry rot. I’d cut corners to save money and that was my first mistake. The second was not telling no one what I’d been doing out here. No one. Not one single person. No one would know when—
My cell rang. I tried to twist my arm and hand down and around to reach it, but there was no getting to it. It rang and it rang, angels strumming their harps. Maryanne had set the ringtone ‘cause I wasn’t no good with gadgets. It wasn’t no manly sound, but she liked it so I’d left it be.
Bit by bit, it grows darker here between the walls. Now it’s pitch black. And from time to time, the angels play their harps for me, Hershel Thurman Patterson, a man as good as dead. No one is gonna find me here ‘cause nobody knows I’m here. Except for the banker at the First National over in Martinsville, nobody knows I own this place. And by the time Maryanne finds out, I’ll be well on my way to becoming nothing but a sack of bones.
I never was feared of dying and going to hell, and I ain’t feared of it now. But my sweet Maryanne is gonna think I left her for some other woman, gonna think I don’t love her no more. It kills me that she would think such of me. And if that ain’t hell, I don’t know what is.
The angels are playing their harps again.
They play and I cry.