He turned into the rutted lane and geared the truck down so he could take it in slow. The thin wheels of the old Ford jostled over the road and the ridges scraped against the axles, each jolt bringing a grimace that deepened the creases on Early’s leathered face. Leafless branches reached out to slap at his headlights, and a trail of dust flew up behind the truck, settling on the sawbriar bushes that burgeoned from the ditches on either side of the lane. A few black birds burst out of the brush and wheeled through the sky like a handful of flung gravel. According to the locals, it had not rained in over a month.
He wondered how much farther down the lane he had to go. The woman who’d called him didn’t sound confident giving directions, as if unsure where her own house was.
The farmhouse stood in forlorn solitude behind a sagging barbed wire fence strung from leaning, weathered posts. He pulled up and got out. Although badly in need of paint and several beads of caulk, the place was in better shape than most. It still had glass in the windows, even if a few showed cracks in the corners, and the wire strung from a pole to the gable told him they could afford the six dollars a month the power company charged to hook up to the grid. Through the thin clapboard walls of the house came the scratchy voice of a radio announcer. He slammed the door of his truck, but still no one came out. He stood for awhile at the bottom of the steps, hesitating before climbing up on the porch. He had been in this part of the country long enough to know that most farmers did not want you on their porches unless you were a relative or a neighbor. Trust, in these parts, had become a rare commodity.
Finally, he climbed up on the porch and knocked on the door. He caught bits and pieces of the voice on the radio … traveling at a speed … light years from earth … Hubble’s law … A woman in a thin cotton housedress opened the door and put a finger to her lips, signaling him to silence. “It’s The Science Hour,” she whispered and turned back to the radio.
He lifted his hat, wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve and stepped inside.
“Thus the planets move away from each other with a speed directly proportional to the distance between them,” said the static-laden voice. “The further away, the faster they move, which means the universe is expanding, accelerating toward oblivion.”
They listened awhile, then the woman turned the knob on the radio and lowered the voice to a mumble. “Isn’t it fascinating?” she said, and as she turned toward him, he noticed that her dress was torn at the shoulder seam. Faded to a dull gray, it might have been fashioned from an old curtain, but the tear looked fresh. “To think that we’re on this planet just speeding through the universe toward certain death. Of course we don’t have to worry. It’ll take thousands of years. But it’s inevitable. Someday, boom!” She clapped her hands together to imitate the collision. “It’ll all be gone.” She looked straight at him, straight into his eyes, but he got the feeling she didn’t see him, as if she were talking right through him.
Early didn’t know what to say. He was there to fix a well. That was what he did, fix things, any engine or pump ever made. He’d been an engineer before the depression. He didn’t know much about the universe or the planets, but he knew about all there was to know about machinery.
“My husband will be back in a minute. He’s out there fiddlin’ with the pump,” she said, her voice freighted with contempt. She turned and looked him over, seeing him for the first time, appraising him like a mule or a cow for possible purchase. “How old you think I am?”
Early looked down at his hat in his hands. She seemed a few years younger than he, about forty, but farm women generally looked older than they were. She was thin, maybe even frail, but there was toughness in her eyes and the curl of her lip. His customers always made him nervous; times were hard and most had to save some while in order to pay him. He made his living from other people’s troubles, but then so did lots of others, even doctors. Good and bad wasn’t always so cut and dried as you’d like to think.
She followed him back out to the porch. “So?” she said. “How old?”
“Lady, I’ve come to fix a pump. What kind do you have, and what’s wrong with it?”
“My husband, he’ll be back in a minute. He’ll know what all you need to find out. What I want to know is where you’re from. That accent ain’t from around here.” She gave him a half-smile and reached back to touch her hair in a gesture more suitable to a girl half her age.
He stepped off the porch and walked through the few feet of thistle and weeds that served as a lawn to the side of the house. “I’m from Kansas,” he called back, as he surveyed the property in a search for the well. There was a dilapidated barn in the back and a lean-to built up against the side of it. He guessed the lean-to sheltered the well.
“Ain’t there no pump work in Kansas?” she called down from the porch, sliding her hands down her hips to smooth her dress. “Or did your woman throw you out?”
“My wife died,” he said. His own words surprised him. He usually told people she passed on, as if she’d just picked up and moved to another place. To avoid the woman’s eyes, he looked past her at the peeling paint on the clapboard. Ruth had been a good wife and a good mother, and he’d never once, in their twenty years together, regretted marrying her.
“So why ain’t you fixin’ pumps in Kansas?”
“Where’s your husband, lady? I got cash jobs waiting for me down the highway.”
“You walk out back, you’ll find him. I just can’t figure why anyone would come down here from somewheres else.”
“I follow the droughts, lady.”
As he disappeared around the side of the house toward the lean-to, he heard the door slam on the porch. Sure enough, the well was there, a circular hole with a cast iron spout. The metal cover containing the pump and housing had been detached from the pipe and stood tilted on the edge of the well head. He didn’t see the farmer anywhere. Then he glanced down into the well and saw what looked to be a carcass of some sort, man or animal, half submerged in the water. It was a good twenty feet down, but the sun was close enough to its zenith so that it was only half in shadow, and he could make out a dark shape. It looked human, and almost certainly dead. Flies were already swarming around it.
He plodded back to the house wondering how to break the news to the woman. It was not the sort of thing a person would want to hear from a stranger. If she had a phone maybe she could call a lady friend. Glancing up, he spotted her in the window, probably standing at the kitchen sink, watching him come down the path. He expected her to meet him on the porch, to ask what the problem was that he was coming back so soon, but the porch was empty when he climbed the steps, so he knocked on the door.
When she came to the door he asked if she had a phone, and she looked at him sharply. “What you want to know that for?”
He told her what had happened and asked her if she had a lady friend she wanted to call.
“Ain’t got no phone,” she said, sounding more irritated than concerned. “Nearest one is in the store on the highway.” She smoothed out her hair with her hand, her fingers lingering on the strands.
At the store he called the sheriff and waited. He followed the deputies back to the farmhouse and explained how he’d found the body. The two deputies stood staring down into the well, while the sheriff scanned the property, looking at the barn, the fields, the house, even the sky. Early followed his gaze, wondering what he was looking for, and caught a glimpse of the woman watching them from the window.
The next day he repaired six engines, saving little farms from turning to sand. At least one person on each farm asked if he was the one who’d found the dead man, and when he’d admitted, yeah, that was him, each one backed away and let him work alone. Late in the afternoon, he was working on an irrigation pump, heating the engine head in his portable forge, watching the hue to judge the temperature for brazing, waiting for a bright orange color to ripen on the metal to seal the crack. A wizened half-breed farmer watched him like a chicken hawk, his arms folded across a tattered denim shirt. “Ain’t nobody that can figure how Collins fell down that well. He wasn’t a drinkin’ man, and he was sure-footed as a mule.” He cocked his head and watched Early seal the crack with a clean sweep of molten brass. “If it don’t work, you may as well pack up and go back where you came from,” he said.
Early threw him a curious look, and the farmer said, “Stranger finds a dead man, that’s bad luck.”
“Ain’t it better I found him than his wife?”
“Don’t see it makes much difference. Ain’t much that’d rattle that woman.”
Near nightfall, when Early pulled the flywheel and the engine coughed and sputtered to life, spurting an arc of sunset-tinged water into the field, the farmer cracked a smile. “Guess you can stay around awhile.”
He was staying in a place called the Arbuckle Tourist Court—although he hadn’t seen anyone who looked like a tourist, either coming or going—a cluster of stucco cabins lining the highway next to a café that doubled as an office. It was nearly nine when he got back to his cabin, and he was too tired to eat. He washed his hands and face and sat outside on a hardback chair and stared at the sky. A shooting star streaked through the glitter and disappeared. There’d been a time when shooting stars made him think of Ruth, of her up there in the heavens looking down on him. But that notion had lost its luster with the years.
He studied the sky for some time but couldn’t detect any movement as the man on the radio had suggested. Only a few points of light in the abyss. He wondered if it were true, if the universe was rushing headlong into oblivion.
Across the highway, a freight train rattled by, its whistle shrill as a stuck pig. Beyond the rail lines lay yet another dirt farm, maybe ten acres, punctuated by a tin roof shack. The dead man’s wife didn’t even have children to keep her mind off her loneliness. At least he had that. He’d married young and raised two sons. But he didn’t see them much anymore. Roy had lit out for California when his mom died, and Adam was in the Army in Texas. Sometimes he wished he had a daughter. Daughters kept in touch more, or so people said.
He got up and walked over to his truck. He ran his hand over the side of the truck bed, loaded with tools to dismantle, weld and forge almost anything but the weather. It had done good by him, that old truck. He was poor, but not as poor as most, beaten down and ruined inside like many of the people he’d met in this part of the country. At least he could get around and meet new people, who either made him sad or happy when it was time to leave, depending.
In the morning he headed out for his next job under a sheet metal sky warming to a hazy blue. He pulled up to a farm house, and a short man with a droopy mustache came out from behind the building cursing at the ground. Early tipped his hat, and the man spat at his feet. He’d never seen a place where the people were so inhospitable. The little farmer told him to drive into the field behind the farmhouse. “My McCormack won’t spark,” he said.
Climbing into the Ford, he spotted, about two hundred yards off, the top of someone’s head moving above the weeds of a fallow field. It looked like a woman. He poked his head out the window of the cab. “Who’s that?” he said.
The farmer craned his neck and squinted in the direction of the figure then shrugged.
“Damned if I know,” he said. “But any woman with nothing better to do than walk around like that is looking for trouble.” He jabbed his finger at Early. “Now get to work.”
The day turned hot as a furnace, and the sweat dripped off his forehead as he bent over machine after machine, tractors and flatbeds and irrigation pumps. By noon his clothes were drenched through and his back ached, but he’d fixed three machines within a mile of each other. His jobs took him back and forth past the same farms, and after awhile they all looked alike. He was in a field of stunted corn finishing with a balky International when he spotted a woman walking along the embankment of the railroad tracks carrying a basket in the crook of her arm. It was the dead man’s wife. He waited until she got closer then looked up at her. She met his look dead on, her eyes the color of dull metal.
She walked up to him and set her basket on top of his tool box. She was wearing a different dress, just as faded and worn as the other, but not torn at the sleeve. “You ready to eat?” she asked, as though they’d arranged to meet here in this field.
“Where’d you come from?”
“My place ain’t far. Just on the other side of this field.”
There was no shelter from the sun where they stood, so she led him a ways through the corn field to a dry creek bed where she knelt down in the dappled shade of a desiccated, half dead willow. “Used to be water here,” she said, opening the basket. She glanced up at the web of leafless branches above her. “This tree was green then.”
The creek bed had dried to a barren gulley strewn with smooth, round pebbles left by the departed water. There was a forlorn look to the gulley, as if it ached for moisture.
The woman lifted the triangular edges of a cloth folded neatly over the top of the basket to reveal an apple and two sandwiches wrapped in cellophane. She withdrew a sandwich then waited while he wiped his hands on a work rag before handing it to him.
“I’m sorry about your husband,” he said.
She shrugged. “Truth be told, I’m better off. Now I can sell that ole heap a boards and get out of here.”
They ate in silence for awhile, the only sounds the occasional buzz of a fly and the less frequent grumble of a car on a distant gravel road.
“You think I’m heartless, don’t you?”
“I don’t think anything. I don’t know about your circumstances.”
“He wasn’t no good,” she said. “He probably wouldn’t even a paid you, so maybe you’re better off too.” She gave another one of her half-smiles.
“I don’t know. I don’t wish ill of no man. We all just live and die. Ain’t no mystery to it.”
“That’s a strange thing to say, ‘ain’t no mystery’. Seems to me all there is is mystery. They say we live at the center of a great big empty space that stretches out … forever, I guess, to infinity.”
He hadn’t meant it the way she’d took it. “It was just a figure of speech,” he said, but she continued as if she hadn’t heard. “But I don’t know what infinity means, do you? I mean don’t everything have to end somewhere? But then you think what kind of end could it have? A brick wall? But what’s on the other side of the wall, and if you think about it long enough it makes you dizzy. They said today on The Science Hour that we humans are the greatest mystery of all. How we’re the only species that has a language, and we can reflect on our own thoughts. They had this psychologist that talked about consciousness, how no one really knows what it is. Is it just the brain throwing out thoughts like a machine, or is it something apart from the body? Nobody knows.”
“You’re really into this stuff, ain’t you?”
“I like to know about things. Why we’re here, what it all means.”
“What about a god?” he said. “A loving god?” Ruth had always talked about a loving God. She said she wasn’t afraid of dying because she was in the hands of a loving God.
The woman pursed her lips in thought. “A loving god?” she said, her eyes widening as if he’d just hit on a novel idea. “That would be wonderful.”
He took a bite of the sandwich. It was dry and tough, and his teeth had a hard time tearing the meat. He wondered if she’d fed her man any better. “What about your husband?” he said. “Was he the wondering type too?”
She flicked at her dress, as if at a piece of lint, and frowned. “Naw. He never thought past food and fucking.”
The word fucking shocked him. He’d never heard a woman say it before. “People say they don’t understand how he fell down that well,” he said. “If he stumbled, he could have grabbed the edge. He was a strong man.”
“Maybe. I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
“How’d you tear your dress?”
She looked down at it. “It ain’t torn.”
“I mean the other one. The one you had on yesterday.”
“Was it torn? I didn’t notice.” She lifted her chin in a brazen stare and withdrew a knife from the basket. She sliced the apple in two and handed him half. The apple was better than the sandwich, cool and juicy, and he chewed it slowly, savoring it.
“Must be nice to just pick up and go whenever you want,” she said. “Bet you’ve seen a lot of places. Met a lot of people.”
“I’ve met my share. Some good, some bad. Most just like everybody else.”
“Still, I’d like to do that, travel around.” She stared off into the distance, as if she could see herself somewhere else. She bit into her apple, and a trickle of juice escaped into the corner of her mouth. She wiped it away with the back of her hand without ever taking her eyes off the horizon. “It’s so boring here, each day just like the last. After a while you wonder if there’s any point in getting up in the morning.”
“You can wonder that anywhere.”
She threw the apple core into the gulley, stretched out her long legs on the dried earth and smoothed out her dress. Then she turned and put her hand on his arm, running it down his sleeve.
He stared at her, looked her up and down, making no effort to conceal his scrutiny. He had to admit she was a good-looking woman.
“You can kiss me if you want.”
He looked around. He wasn’t used to kissing in broad daylight. Or in any light, for that matter, since Ruth had died. Her lips were softer than he’d expected, and her hair smelled like flowers, as if she’d just washed it with some fragrant shampoo. Which maybe she had. She wrapped her arms around him and let her weight drag them both to the ground, and in that instant the world went vague, dreamlike. He caught glimpses of corn stalks twinkling in the sunlight as if covered in sequins, and the weeds turned soft as meadow grass. Even the sun seemed to lift its torrid glare a distance from the earth, and all he felt was the woman’s body soft and supple beneath him.
He heard her say, just before he fell asleep, “take me with you,” and he awoke sometime later with those words in his head. She was sitting up, her back against the willow, looking at him. He picked himself up and took a few steps toward his truck, thinking she’d follow. When she didn’t, he turned and said, “I can’t take you with me.” He didn’t offer any explanation, because he didn’t have any. He didn’t know why he didn’t want her to come. She may or may not have killed her husband, but that wasn’t it. It just didn’t feel right.
He expected her to cry, or at least get angry, but all she did was lift herself from the ground, retrieve her basket and walk off through the corn field toward her house.
The sun was back in full force, and when he got to his truck and bent to pick up his tool box, the handle burned his fingers. He shook his hand and picked up the work rag he’d left on the ground. He dropped the rag over the handle of the tool box and hoisted it into the back of his truck.
Driving down the rutted lane toward the road, he thought about Ruth, if she was in heaven watching him, if she’d seen him with the woman. Or if she wasn’t anywhere, if she’d turned to dust, leaving nothing but bones to rot in the earth. That was the hell of it, nobody knew. All the scientists and statesmen and experts in the world didn’t know one single thing that mattered. One man can fix an engine and another can calculate the space between the stars, but neither of them knows anything. Not a damn thing.
Paul Byall is the recipient of the 2019 Writers@Work Fiction Award, the 2011 Porter Fleming Short Story Award, the 2010 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and the 2009 New South Fiction Award. His first published story, written while a student at the University of California, received mention as a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories anthology. His short story, “The Genie at Low Tide,” published by Ploughshares, has been anthologized in Ploughshares Solos Omnibus 2. Paul grew up in Ohio and received degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and the University of California. He lived in Barcelona, Spain for six years and in New York City for ten years before moving to Savannah, Georgia, where he now writes full time.