Monday, October 4, 2010

“Hannah home?”

That had been the start of it, Tom’s first words after he trudged up the driveway, his oily John Deere cap pulled so low over his forehead that shadow hid his face. He thrust his hands into his pockets and settled back on his heels. From the wooden rocker, Dusty shook his head.

“Nope. Working late.” He leaned sideways to spit over the rail. “Should be home around seven.”

Tom pulled off his cap. Deep grooves lined his cheeks. He stomped his feet as if to knock mud off his boots. “How’s the knee?”

Dusty rubbed his right leg. “Comes and goes.”

“How much longer you outta work?”

“Benefits end next month. Guess I’ll find something then.”

“Not much construction around.”


“I might could use a hand around the farm. Barn needs a roof, so forth.”

Dusty fought to extinguish the tiny ember smoldering in his gut. “I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks.”

He listened to the rocker creak beneath his weight. Tom kicked at a pebble, cleared his throat. “Need to talk to you, Dusty.”

“Thought we were talking.”

Tom looked over his shoulder toward the empty ribbon of road. Beyond it, the blue smudge of mountains shimmered in the haze. “You and Hannah, how’re you doing?”

“Excuse me?”

“Aw, hell. I’m sorry, Dusty. That didn’t come out right.” Tom yanked his cap onto his head, kicked again at the ground.

Dusty stood up. He winced at the pop in his knee. The rocker swung against the backs of his thighs. He hobbled to the top step. “Tom?”

“Look, Dusty. You n’ me, we go way back. Right?”
Dusty’s heart thumped against the wall of his chest.

“And anything I tell you, you know I’m just telling you on that account. If it was me, I’d want that. A friend, I mean. To tell me.”

“Tell me what, Tom?” Dusty’s voice sounded far away, distant as the mountains.

“Was up in Bartonsville yesterday. Had to pick up a new gasket. For the tractor. Was five by the time I finished.” He glanced over his shoulder. “So I called Margie to say I’d stop for some dinner at Jake’s. You know the place, Jake’s?” A pause for the confirming nod. “Well, when I got there, I looked over the bar and saw Hannah.”


“She was with some tall fella.” Tom slid his hat off his head. “They looked friendly.”

Dusty squeezed his arms around his chest. His fingers were iron bars against his ribs. “How do you mean?”

Tom raised his right hand as if taking an oath. “Look, it was probably nothing. They were old friends or something. It’s just they were sitting awful close. And he kissed her. Once. That I saw. So I left, and I thought about it all night, and I figured I had to come tell you.” He slapped his hat against his leg. “I’m sorry, Dusty. Maybe you should talk to her.”

Dusty felt a quiver behind his knees. “Thanks, Tom.” Voice from the mountains. Tom nodded. Turned. His feet crunched over the driveway’s crushed stones. Dusty watched until he reached the road.

Later, inside, Dusty stood at the bay window. The sky had turned a featureless gray. He squeezed his arms over his chest, felt his biceps bulge against his hands. The willow tree at the end of their driveway, a dark outline in the fading light, shivered in the breeze. The effect was liquid, tree turned fountain.

He heard a loon’s faint call, muted by the glass. Looked back over his shoulder to the dark corner where the end table stood. Beside it, the shadowy bulk of the armchair. He crossed the room and dragged the chair to the window, fell into the sagging cushion and pressed his forehead against the glass. He exhaled, watched the foggy circle appear and then fade like melting ice.

A sudden gust of wind whistled through the eaves. The willow tree swayed hard to one side. Dark spray of its branches. Dusty imagined himself lying beneath them, shutting his eyes as the branches whispered over his skin. Across the glittering stretch of road, the mountains had vanished entirely into the oncoming folds of night.

This was not his life. None of it—not the house, not the tree, not the road or the mountains or the traitor knee that even now throbbed with its low and menacing voice. This was a life hijacked, a life forced from its tracks more than a decade ago. One single moment when everything changed, one instant framed by sound, screeching breaks, thick metal crunch. By words: “You’ll never play again.” The surgeon’s pale and narrow face, his silver-framed glasses and jutting chin. “You’ll walk, in time. But your knee will be weak for the rest of your life.” And so, instead of in Miami or San Francisco or Washington, he’d wound up home. Home to classmates who had never left, who had read about him in papers and bragged to strangers in bars about being there as Dusty Bilden grew up. Home to a construction job that had further damaged his knee. Home to Hannah.

He breathed, watched the condensation bloom and melt. Checked his watch. Seven-thirty.

And then, finally. Splash of headlights on the road, the ghostly cast of willow branches over glass. Dusty hurried to the kitchen. He flicked on the light and pressed his palms against the counter. Eyed the cutting board, the toaster, the thick block of knives. A brief rattle of keys in the front door, the soft creak of hinges. Then Hannah’s voice, bell-like, an echo of the cheerleader she’d once been: “Dusty? I’m home!”

His voice, gravelly in return: “I’m here.”

Her heels clicked over the parquet flooring he’d installed after her months of complaints about peeling linoleum. “Why didn’t you turn on the porch light? Is everything okay?”

“Just forgot,” he said. Did not turn. “Get all your work done?”

Two small taps as she toed off her shoes. Soft shuffling as she crossed the floor in her hose. Her small hands spread against his back. “Almost. Had to revise some reports Ron needed. I’ll finish up the last bits tomorrow.” Slight pressure from her fingers urged him around. Dusty slid his hands into his pockets, turned to look down at her still-youthful face, those brown, deer-like eyes. The fruity scent of her shampoo—something citrus—filled his nostrils. His eyes caught a sharp gold stab of light off her watch. Her birthday present from him, what? Six years ago? Seven?

“You’re working late a lot.” His voice sounded fake, like some actor speaking lines on a dim and distant stage. “You need to be careful. He might start taking advantage.”

Hannah laughed. She swatted him across the chest. “Yeah, Ron. Taking advantage.” She stood on her tiptoes to peck a light kiss on the corner of his mouth. “I need a shower. Wanna order pizza?”

Dusty felt ice creep up his throat. His stomach felt solid. He nodded. “Sure.”

Hannah undid the clasp that held up her thick tresses. She shook out her hair with both hands, and the familiar motion slid home a sharp knife of grief. She bent to retrieve her shoes, then hesitated at the door. “Honey? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Dusty said. Then: “Tom came by today.”

“Oh?” One eyebrow raised, a thin arching line. “Anything interesting?”

“You know Tom. You sure everything’s OK?”

Hannah’s eyes slipped shut. “Honey? Please? Could we try to have a nice evening?”

“I always try.”

Hannah set her shoes on the counter. She shook her head. “No. You don’t. It’s like the doctor says. You have to think positive, baby.”

Dusty nodded.

“Will you order?”

Dusty nodded. Hannah walked out. He listened to the steady wooden creaks as she ascended the stairs. To the soft click of the bedroom door. A few minutes later, at the groan of pipes overhead, he returned to the living room and retrieved the gun from the end table.

Overhead, the faint whine of the hair drier. Dusty sat at the kitchen table and twirled the gun. He thought about that day he’d left. His words to Hannah. A long distance relationship won’t work. You’ll meet some other guy. I know you will. What he’d meant: I’m leaving, you’re not.

The doorbell rang. He hid the gun beneath the sink, behind the mop bucket, and shuffled to the front door. By the time he had the pie in the kitchen, Hannah had come downstairs. She wore her blue terrycloth robe tied loosely around her waist. “Smells good,” she said. She slid into one of the sagging wicker chairs.

They ate a while in silence. Dusty chewed mechanically through one tasteless slice, then another. Hannah flipped through the day’s mail. Halfway on her third trip through the pile, she sighed. She dropped her slice onto the cardboard box with a wet splat. “Dusty, are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or do I need to guess?”

Dusty chewed. “Nothing’s going on.”

Hannah rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand. Dusty wondered if she might be close to crying. “You’re working late a lot, is all,” he said.

“We talked about this. It’s a law office. There are late days.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be working there.”

“Oh my God. Are we here again?” Hannah’s eyes, wide and unblinking. She stood up and stomped to the sink. Dusty felt a moment of stupid panic, but she only turned to face him. “You know your disability isn’t enough for us. You know that. And it’s not going to last forever. We talked about this.”

“I know what we talked about.”

“Well, I’m working late again tomorrow. So you might as well go and get all pissy about that, too.”

“You have to work late again tomorrow?”

“Yes, I do. Ron needs me at a meeting. With some new clients. In Matlinburg. It’s at four, so we’ll probably just grab dinner there. I’ll be home around eight or nine.”

“Eight or nine.”

“Yeah, Dusty. Eight or nine.”

“And what if I say no? What if I say you can’t?”

Her face hardened. Dusty heard each second’s tick from the sun-shaped clock over the door. He wondered if he’d said too much, gone too far. He listened to her feet stomp up the stairs, to the bedroom door slam. He shoved away the pizza box. It slid across the table, scattered the stacked mail, fell upside down onto the floor. Sauce exploded across the shiny fake wood.

She was asleep when he finally went up. In the silvery light, he could just make out her curved form beneath the flimsy bedsheet. He crept into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. Listened to her breathe.

Ten years. The thought it, a wasteland of time like trackless sand in a desert. His life, unlived. Childless. His lip curled at the thought. Hannah’s own traitorous body, the miscarriage so severe the doctor had warned off any further attempts. She had wanted to adopt, to fly off to China or some such nonsense and bring home a baby at any price, but to what purpose? It would not have been his child. Another false note in a false life.

Tired. He felt bone tired, more exhausted than he’d ever been. He padded barefoot to the bathroom, brushed his teeth in the dark. Slipped beneath the covers and slid close enough to her that his arm grazed the swell of her thigh. She did not stir. His weariness seeped from him as though through a sieve. He lay awake until the soft gray of morning filled the room.


He left the house early, as the first slants of sun set Tom’s cornfields ablaze with gold light. Hannah had still slept when he rose to shower, though she’d been awake after, as he pulled on his jeans and flannel shirt, his work boots and heavy belt. He watched in their dresser mirror as she sat up. The sheet puddled in her lap. “Where are you going?” she asked.


“What about your knee?”

“It’s all right.” He bent his knee to demonstrate. She couldn’t hear the pops. “Got that new development going up on the south side. I can get a few hours there.”

“But your disability check. You’re not supposed to be working.”

“I’ll worry about that later.”


“I’m going.”

Hannah lay back. She pulled the sheet to her chin. “I’ll grab some breakfast on the way,” Dusty said. “I’ll see you tonight. What’d you say, nine?”

Hannah’s eyes stayed on the ceiling. “Eight or nine.”

He drove his aging Chevy to the north side of town, to the lonesome trailer with peeling yellow paint that was Artie Strong’s Hertz dealership. It opened at eight; by eight-thirty Dusty was driving again, this time a cramped beige compact that cost almost sixty dollars. By quarter to nine, he’d arrived at the cracked and potholed Hardees’s lot that lay across the street from the strip mall. The green awning of Ronald Koernig, Esq., hung between an iron-barred pawnshop and a red-curtained Chinese restaurant.

Ron arrived at nine. He drove a spotless silver Lexus. Probably washed it every day. Dusty watched him unfold his tall, lanky frame from the car, watched him adjust the gold-rimmed glasses that perched high on the bridge of his beak-like nose. Minutes later, Hannah arrived. She parked her rusty Honda in the space beside Ron’s car. Dusty slid low in his seat, bent into the steering wheel. When he dared peek over the dashboard, Hannah had vanished inside.

Hours passed. The inactivity gnawed at Dusty. A steady stream of images floated, like exploding bubbles of acid, to the surface of his mind. Hannah, undressed, lying back on a desk. Hannah, smiling, lifting the hem of her skirt. Hannah, flushed, a man’s fingers wrapped in her hair. Dusty forced himself to wait, to ignore the churning bile in his stomach, the fluttery tightness in his chest.

At two-thirty they emerged. Side by side, they crossed the parking lot. Hannah shook her head. Smiled. Ron dropped his hand on her shoulder. He opened the passenger door of his Lexus and waited as she sat inside. Dusty turned the key. The engine sputtered to life. The Lexus rolled across the parking lot, turned onto the street. Dusty followed. Careful to keep his distance. He drove out west on Highway 40, the direction of Matlinburg, and he felt a small glimmer of hope. But halfway there the Lexus turned into the gravel parking lot of a small roadside motel. A low, L-shaped building. Red tile roof. Anonymous green doors. Dusty pulled to the side of the road, cut the engine. He clenched the steering wheel. Knuckles, white. He watched Ron walk to the office door, watched Hannah stand in the parking lot and shake out her hair. Watched Ron walk to her, glinting key in hand. Watched them embrace, watched Ron’s hands roam her back. Watched them kiss in the doorway. Watched the door swing shut.

Dusty drove home.

A car passed out on the road. Its headlights swept over the asphalt, and Dusty felt a small thrill of adrenaline in his veins. But the car drove on past the house, as had the others before it. The red squares of its taillights vanished from view. Dusty checked his watch for the hundredth time. Eight thirty-eight. He pressed his forehead against the glass, felt its coolness on his skin. He watched his breath appear and melt. The willow tree flowed in the breeze.

The room’s silence felt alive. Above it only the noise of the house itself: quiet creaks and earthy moans, wood settling into itself. He used the windowsill to push to his feet, winced at the pop in his knee. Metallic weight shifted against his thigh. He dug into his pocket and ran his fingers over the gun’s crosshatched grip. It seemed ridiculously small in his hand, a toy. A relic from his past. How long since he’d even thought of it? Ten years? More? His father’s gun. The one he’d stolen from the safe the day after he’d come home, the day after his release from those long weeks of physical therapy. After the matter of his future gameplay had been settled once and for all. That evening much like this one, wind blowing toward the mountains, carrying with it the faintest trace of coming rain. Dusty had loaded the gun and carried it out to the carport, had sat for an hour with his back to the thin aluminum wall. Ashamed at how his body trembled. He had pressed the barrel against his temple, curled his finger around the stiff trigger. Pulled with the barest hint of force. Felt the stiff, mechanical resistance. Pulled harder, then harder still. His eyes shut, he had pictured a linesman crouched, tense and ready to explode into action. But then a noise inside, a light in the kitchen. His fumbling to hide the gun behind his back. Just needed some air, Ma. Couldn’t sleep. And Hannah had come to visit the next day. When his father died, Dusty had taken the gun. But he’d hidden it. Put it away to be forever forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.

But nothing worked that way. In the end, the gun had been no more truly disappeared than the mountains outside. Shrouded now by the cloak of night, they would be there come sunrise.

A stronger gust of wind shook the house, startled Dusty from his thoughts. He crossed the living room to the front door. Outside, on the porch, he filled his lungs with cool night air. He stepped down to the driveway. His feet crunched over gravel. At the road, he peered in the direction of town. Nothing, only the distant glow of Tom’s house, yellow windows in the night. The willow tree swished. Dusty faced it, studied its infinite movement. He stepped beneath it, reached up to pluck the elastic energy of the nearest branch. A live wire pinched between his fingers. It twisted and pulled as if it wanted escape. Dusty walked further beneath the tree, stared up into its cascading height and saw there no sky, no stars, only the watery spray of dark against dark.

An engine in the distance. Dusty sat down. The ground was hard beneath him, lumpy and uneven with rocks and roots. He lay back and stared up into the shifting dark. A yellow splash of light moved over him, the tree, the ground beyond. Dusty lay still. He breathed with the wind as Hannah’s car ground up the driveway. The engine stopped. The door creaked open. Dusty heard two light steps on the stones, heard heels thump over the porch. Heard her faint voice in the foyer: “Dusty?”

Dusty shut his eyes. He could picture it now, the foyer light clicking on. Hannah would hang her keys on the hook, shake out her hair, check her makeup in the hallway mirror. Would walk up the stairs, her head tilted as she listened for any trace of sound from the bedroom. She would walk to the door, ease it open while whispering his name.

The wind breathed through the trailing branches. Dusty breathed with it. Metallic resistance against his finger. Dusty pulled, pulled, pulled against it. Pulled toward that single moment, that sharp crack against the cadence of the night. Toward the mountains, and the silence, and the breeze.


Pete Pazmino

Pete Pazmino

Pete Pazmino is a graduate of the MA in Writing (fiction) program at Johns Hopkins University. His work has previously been published in Monkeybicycle, JMWW, Menda City Review, A Cappella Zoo, You Must Be This Tall to Ride, and elsewhere, and his short story “Crawl” is forthcoming in The Meadowland Review. He was a finalist in both the 2007 fiction contest hosted by the Black Warrior Review and the 2006 competition hosted by the Iowa Review, and was nominated for the 2009 storySouth Million Writers Award. He blogs, occasionally, at, and lives and writes in Manassas, VA.

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In memory of Kurt Brown

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