YOU SAY YOU’D LIKE a story for the ages, but you should know we live a little outside of time out here. Out here is the Nebraska panhandle, leveled as immaculately by wind and the spin of the planet as if it’d been planed by a master carpenter. As if the raw materials of the earth had yet to be assembled into their most perfect arrangement of signs. We is me and my boy Avery. Will Grover and his girl Jenny are the nearest neighbors, in the last standing two-story sod house in the state, about a half-mile beyond our tree line to the west. This concerns them as well.
Myself, I never much took stories at face value. There’s the one about the hand of God interrupting the feast of Belshazzar—the one Laura and I argued about in the unbearably hot days of early July. Palace of sand-colored stone in the midst of a fertile alluvial plain, dark sky, glassless windows lit up by firelight. It’s early on the night Babylon falls to the Persians and everybody’s drunk, having a swinging old time when suddenly in the great hall five bluish white fingers shape themselves out of nothing, horrifying all the company, profaned goblets lifted halfway to their purple mouths as the hand writes across the wall, above the light of the candles so that everyone can see. The king trembles, his beard stained with wine. The gates of hell are opening before him, the next hour paved as neat and straight as a boulevard of ancient stones.
A story like this was easy for Laura to follow. It all happened years ago, she’d said. She turned to the globe on the bookshelf behind her and pointed to the exact place—these days just a tell of dust and human debris in the Iraqi desert between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. See, she’d said, there was a king, his palace wall, all of his guests, the hand of God, and the wise man—Daniel—to translate what the hand had written: doom was at hand and the days of glory and riot were numbered. Before midnight, the city had fallen and the skull of the irreverent king had been smashed to bits by his own subjects.
“The writing on the wall, Ben.” She sat on the edge of her desk. “That’s what they say.” It was the hottest summer on record in Box Butte County, and Avery’s eighth birthday. The earth shimmered in every distance. Crabapples baked on their branches and fell like green stones. The meadowlarks had disappeared and there were strange, low, whooping birdcalls. Grasshoppers collected by the hundreds in the bristling dead wheatgrass, blinking and trembling like a single body. Scarab beetles drew thin cuneiform inscriptions in dirt as fine and dry as mustard powder. Yellow dishes of lawn circled the base of each tree. At night we sucked on ice cubes on the porch and watched heat-lightning fan out behind the distant black cutouts of yellow western pine.
Laura held the Bible open in her lap. I looked out the window and across the road at a flat pan of dirt so hard and sere it glittered in the violent light. The tidiness with which she read made it easy to see how every person, word, and act in the Book of Daniel corresponded to something in our lives. The ancient barricaded city was our sleepy peeling white farmhouse tucked behind soft green bands of grassy fields. The quick and humiliating fall of the empire was the birth of our son. In both her biblical and Nebraskan versions, God was the same: an angry yet benevolent self living outside of us, whose messages we were to read in the wind and in the scattered wreckage of our lives so that we might navigate our miserable earthly days guided by the certain promise of something better. Of a new life. One we would all live later. Some other time.
“But what if this is the hand of God?” I’d said. “The house. The katydid in the pickle jar. Avery. You.”
“Avery the hand of God? Avery who can’t speak or think or remember to breathe is your hand of God?”
But Avery does speak. When from the bed he reaches up to touch the ends of his mother’s bright hair, that is a word. When he throws back his beautiful white-blonde head and looks up at the stars that I tell him are his cousins, that too is a word. His breath on the window glass. His fingerprints in the yellow grease in a pan of cold chicken broth. But I don’t say any of this. Instead I tell Laura the boy is as pure as children come. And that she knows it. And that he loves her.
She was dark around the eyes and in the hollows of her cheeks. “He doesn’t know what love is. He doesn’t know what his own hands are.” I looked down at my hands, turned them over before me.
No words on the matter were going to change her feeling that a judgment had been passed upon us—one that meant our lives would continue to diminish in happiness as Avery grew, eventually ending in the same deteriorating house on the same eroded and fruitless farm to which we’d moved with our books and notepads when we were young enough to believe that a hundred pages of verse a year were all we owed the world. We’d asked for nothing more in return than the space and time to write them. But in her mind Laura was an insulated woman, a complete system that took suffering as a warning that she should adjust her circumstances.
“It’s not as if we’ve accumulated so much wealth and live so riotously that we have to be humbled,” I told her.
“This is supposed to make me feel better?”
“What exactly is it you think we’re being punished for?”
She closed the Bible carefully, set it beside her and stood up. “For this,” she said. She threw all the drafts and paper on her desk toward me. The space between us erupted in white. She threw Emily Dickinson’s collected works and they spat a powder of dried flowers when they hit the wall beyond which Avery was napping. “And for this,” she said, throwing John Crowe Ransom, the sonnets of Shakespeare and Donne.
I left to check on Avery, as clean and pretty as a boy carved out of freckled marble in his little blue bed. I kissed his forehead. I kissed his chin. I found Laura in the kitchen, crying in a heap on the cracked linoleum. “You can quit,” I told her. “You can do something else.”
Her breaking point came the next day. It was a hundred and six degrees. Ragged cowbirds perched on the rusting spools of fence wire like harbingers of a slow brown death. The house windows and metal gutters blazed with white light. Laura and I were out near the road spraying shipping containers with the ceramic coating they needed before they’d be ready to resell. In the back, in the shade, Avery peeled off all his clothes and underwear and sat on a huge pile of sand, liquid with red ants. He must have simply sensed that Being—if you took your clothes off in the daylight—burned from the inside out. We found him riveted to the earth, howling. Laura was furious. By the middle of the month the heat broke. Cool rains restored the grasses and iridescent blue prairie violets. All the familiar birds came back, and Laura left.
There was a place in Lincoln where Avery could go, she said. She might return—though never geographically, never to Nebraska—if we sent him there. Avery, who was to be our shining little cowboy, in a complex of urban hospital buildings and tended by strangers and swallowed up by a sad little envelope of mute and pale-faced children. They’d schedule his playtime. They’d give him TV.
The mistake in this story, the one I’m telling you now, began when I stopped my car out where all our mailboxes line up on a single block of the boundless west Nebraskan grid. Wayne and Millie Hargraves were giving away mutt pups out of the back of their station wagon, and I took two of them—free as rain—for Avery. Something to fill the space his mother left when she went to seek her fortune, as it were. Every night since she’d gone I’d checked the boy in his sleep—checked him for breath—at ten pm and four in the morning. Too often I found him awake, bewildered, blankets kicked off as though he’d been betrayed by their softness and comfort, as though in his sleep he suddenly realized they were no help at all. On the wall beside him shadows of leaves rising and falling with the slow pulsing breeze. The little case of his ribs rising and falling with the shadows of the leaves.
The puppies’ bellies were slick and pink and radiated heat, their little teeth razor sharp. They cried like baby seals and their breath stank softly of warm skunk spray. They climbed all over the boy. They puked on his skinny Wranglers. He stared at them with rapt joy, fondling them and pulling them back again and again into his lap. Because we weren’t expecting puppies, I unloaded the groceries and tore up a few slices of white bread and pieces of bologna for Avery to hand feed them under the hickory tree. He was all teeth and gums, his stone-blue eyes rolling up into the tree leaves and to one puppy, then the next, then up again. Eyelashes thick and white as caked sand. I joined him there, with cold chicken and early garden cucumbers. Lemonade for him, a can of beer for me. It was—all things considered—a day full and perfect. Avery laughed, and laughed. I was thinking we’d make a summer of picnics and the weaselly pups. Tomatoes in a few weeks. Corn when that came up.
The mistake completed itself when I set up the puppies in the old punched-in potato barn for the night, walled them in with wood crates and old fence boards and loose field stones. Sometime around eleven the coyotes found them. I will not describe to you what I heard. By the time I got out there barefoot in my pajama pants and swinging a rake, it was over. I cleaned up what was left, the full moon pouring its watery sheets of light through the broken boards. The world was warm and thick and soft. The grass was lavender green and the trees were blue, finely calligraphed with shadow. The million-noted crickets lit up the ten thousand corners of the yard. It was the most beautiful night of the summer. For the first time in weeks, Avery slept like the dead. So now, I thought, laying myself down alone in my marriage bed, now the boy will make his headlong spin into loss. And I’ll tell you something: I hoped for it. If it was terrible enough, it might register in him some sense of his own suffering. It might wake him up. By ten he’d have the mind of a toddler. By thirty he’d be reading in earnest. These terrible pictures we dream.
Of course the potato barn was the first place he ran after I dressed him in the morning. I set myself in an aluminum lawn chair at the rotten mouth of the long skinny barn and he went in. It’s a narrow building, like a tiny house stretched improbably backward in space, designed so trucks could back way into it, dump a load of potatoes, and continue filling it from the rear, one load at a time. The roof is mostly fallen in and weeds and grass have cracked apart the stone foundation. The clapboard is split and whitened by sun and wind, nails orange with rust. It’s hard to imagine it clean-lined and filled to the blonde rafters with fat white potatoes. The last of its vertebrae are cracked and separating slowly into a rubbish of metal, stone, and wood. I probably ought to have it razed. Avery came out minutes later, face blank, and stood before me.
“Coyotes,” I told him. “I’m sorry.” I lifted my empty hands and my eyes filled with heat. I took his hands, his wrists, elbows, shoulders, head. I held his ears and kissed his mouth. “It’s the price we pay for being in these bodies.” He stared at me. “They’re gone,” I said.
“Gone,” I said again.
He went back into the barn and I went into the basement for my old hardhat and leather gloves from road crew when Avery was a baby. I found the boy in the barn on his hands and knees, his pale hair in a shaft of light. He was feeling around in the shadows for puppy. I gave him the hardhat and helped him pull on the gloves for sifting through the splintered wood and rusted nails. He would have to wear himself out to understand that what had once been puppies had become looking for puppies, which wasn’t nearly as glorious or interesting a way to spend the last weeks of summer.
We spent the whole day out there, my boy alone in the ruins of the weird, elongated nightmare house and me in the lawn chair staring into its grainy blue shadows. I wanted to be right outside the door when he came out, when he gave up. I wanted to check his face for some glimmer of recognition, for surrender, for grief, for confusion. For any sign at all. Plovers and black-throated sparrows circled the dirt around my chair looking for millet, leaving faint patterns of interlocking feet in the dust. Four dozen times Avery approached me and raised up his gloves, palms out, and spread his legs to mirror his hands in a nonsense rhyme. A meaningless gesture. A capital X. Then he ducked back into the dark. Did he even remember what he was looking for?
I should have stopped him. Hauled him out of there. Put a hotdog in his hand. Put him in the car and taken him out for an ice cream. But I sat in that chair, still as wood, eyes pointed at the doorway. In the morning, we’d stop. I’d drive him into Alliance. We’d spend the day on the highway, eat cheeseburgers, walk across the derelict farms. Stop at the pawn store in the tiny town pinned to the prairie by lampposts and a Shell station sign. But I didn’t move from the chair. The sun made a low arc across the sky. The planet spun. We ate nothing. Drank nothing. Found nothing in the barn. Avery wet his pants. A cold breeze washed through the trees in late afternoon and by evening gentle fingers of rain were brushing through the wooly fabric of dry earth and grass. We took baths and Avery slept in the hardhat.
I was prepared to spend another day, the rest of the month, the next forty years of my life waiting in the lawn chair for Avery, but the following morning I watched, baffled, as he emerged carrying a shining red apple, cupped like an egg in the big dirty work gloves. His face broke open as wide and as happy as if he’d found his puppies, or as if it’d been an apple he was seeking all along. It kept him busy all morning. He set it on the windowsill.
“Yes,” I said. “Balance.”
He set it on the ground.
“Earth,” I said.
He pressed it to his cheek, rubbed his lips over it, licked it, pushed it into his pants.
“I know,” I told him. “I know.” We drove to Alliance anyway and he held the apple out the window, turning it in the rushing wind. “Speed,” I said. He handed it to me. “Father,” I said. “I’m your father.” We sat outside at the burger stand that had been Laura’s favorite and I ordered vanilla malts and double-hand-battered onion rings—her favorite—but Avery wanted the apple. He gnawed on it. Held it out before his face to examine. Gnawed on it. “You’re consuming it,” I told him. “You’re turning yourself into a bright little apple.”
In the morning Avery came out of the potato barn with a big silver hubcap in his hands. It was a hubcap I recognized. I started keeping an eye out in the rising tide of slough grass, but there was no one.
It was a day of hubcap and light, Avery’s new discovery flashing like a heliograph in the sun, like an unblinking metal eye, a miniature UFO. He threw the hubcap and it rolled and spun like a giant coin. “Geometry,” I told him. “Circles. Wheels. Rotation. Silver. Daylight. Mirror. Spin.” He didn’t even look up.
The hickory trees, the wild petunias and the den of kit foxes across the road and the hollow dripping music of the mourning doves. The down of tall grasses and green bursts of dropseed. On a bad day they are symbols. The puddled rain, my boy and our filthy sneakers and the splintered ribs of the hay barn exist someplace else—in a parallel world of pure insight—as lines on a page. They are a tissue of poetic fragments to be collected, read, and finally understood. On such days I look upon my presence here with Avery and I look upon forgiving Laura as private possessions, with real weight and a certain heat and which I keep in my front shirt pocket beside my bit of pencil. I take the shape of an expectant man who will be rewarded in this life or the next for decoding this confusion of languages. In leaves of dying pin oaks that rust and cling to their iron-limbed branches, in the script of tire tracks pressed into mud, in earthworms dried and flattened into hieroglyphs on the flagstone patio when sudden sun follows hard rain, in every detail of the natural world I discover a cipher, a temporarily insoluble riddle, and so I must memorize them and store them away for the moment when some Being who has been observing my life as if it really were a story finally asks me the consummative question about…what? The maps of raised green veins on the backs of new leaves? The fine white roots of dead hostas that run through garden soil like human nerves? Because of a lifetime of dutiful cataloging, the answer will rise to the surface of my brain, and because of a lifetime of dutiful reading, I will have only the most exquisite language with which to explain myself.
Thus have I sometimes considered the world. It’s a much trickier business, expecting nothing. Glimpsing then sustaining the awesome recognition that there is no one and nothing out there keeping track of accumulated merit. That there is nothing to read. That Avery’s words—the hubcap pressed to his bare belly in the sun, the apple deliberately carried out and set in the rain—have the quickness and heat for which my imagination is always reaching, reaching, reaching but which is forever set a hairsbreadth out of imagination’s grasp.
I went out early to watch the fields, to see who’d come. What they might bring. The last of the white stars faded and the day slowly absorbed the paper face of the moon like a soft blue cloth soaking up a small white spill. The potato barn was half silver in wet grass and dew. Barn swallows shifted in their cupped nests of mud. I watched Grover’s girl coming from a quarter mile away, straight through the soaking grass and through the collapsing rail fence. She’s a head shorter than Avery and perhaps not quite so beautiful. Smart. A year or two older. She was carrying a lump in her arms. I crept through the last film of dark toward the house and left her to her business.
I woke and dressed Avery and in the kitchen I fried bananas and toasted bread and poured cold milk and we ate. I helped him with his gloves and hardhat and got to the dishes, watching from the window as he carried his next discovery out of the potato barn and into the daylight: an exhaust manifold from the same 1964 Ford Galaxy as the hubcap. The old parts car had been corroding in the weeds beside Grover’s shop since before Laura and I had discovered our little hermitage. Avery set the exhaust manifold beside the hubcap and howled until I figured out he wanted his apple. I brought him one from the refrigerator, but it was green and he refused it. He sat blank-faced between the exhaust manifold and the hubcap in the dirt beneath the hickory tree as if he could sense they were all a part of something. As if he knew he was missing something essential. The apple would reoccur to him and he would start in howling all over again. Why the apple and not his mother? The apple and not the puppies? At noon, I called Grover.
“She’s going to clear my yard of this rubbish once and for all,” he laughed. “Long as she has incentive.”
“I’ll give that some thought.”
“I’ll tell her to bring over another apple.”
I thanked him. I didn’t think Avery would understand that he was an apple behind.
On a stump beside the door to the potato barn the next morning I left Laura’s old illustrated copy of Huck Finn. It was gone before breakfast, after which Avery came out with a new apple and a small black cone. It was the ignition coil from the Galaxy. He set his loot in the dirt with the hubcap and the exhaust manifold and tipped his head back, mouth hanging open, gulping the morning. Inside the coil, in a car that works, electricity pulses through spiraling copper wire. The circuit is broken again and again between points in the distributor as the coil’s electromagnetic field collapses and surges through a mile’s worth of infinitely fine wire. Twenty-five thousand turns of it. Enough to keep a Ford Galaxy running. From the outside the coil is only a little black cylinder, four inches long, an inch and a half wide and tapered down into a nozzle. In Avery’s world beneath the hickory tree, it rests on the middle of the hubcap, the apple balanced on top of it. “Center,” I told him, and stopped. Electricity. Distance. Heat. Metal. Varnish. Restore. Rainstorm. Heartache. Innermost. Worms. He picked up the apple and set it down again thirty, forty, fifty times in an hour. He circled the little pile with the exhaust manifold in his hands, uncertain.
On the stump I left the Odyssey and one of the bookmarks Laura made with a dozen skinny braided ribbons—a long-term investment for Jenny Grover. I left a thin gold bracelet Laura forgot beneath the bathroom sink, strung with clear blue beads. The day Jenny delivered the entire—and heavy—driver’s seat from the Galaxy, Avery and I drove into town and I bought a liter of brown whiskey for Grover, left it on the stump beside a cowgirl hat pinned with an artificial sunflower which Laura used to wear when she gardened. In the basement I found the spade she used to turn over earth, the hand claw she used to aerate, a handful of bulbs she never planted—they’d be appropriate for Grover’s girl in September and perhaps a forgotten surprise the following spring. I found a broken kite with a rainbow-striped tail and a needle and spool of poultry thread that would fix it. I made a little pile, and as it shrank, Avery’s grew.
By the middle of August Avery had assembled a tower of car parts facing the driver’s seat. I watched him from the front where I was sanding steel siding to prep another container for paint, Avery’s bright head as soft and white as whorled milkweed against the grass. He would sit in the seat, gaze upon the tower, stand, move the muffler out an inch from behind the steering column, and seat himself again. He had favorites, I could tell. He set the exhaust manifold on its metal legs and stroked it like a giant rust-bitten spider. Tenderness, I didn’t say. Contact.
The rocker arms went to bed with him every night, no matter what place they took in the tower at the end of the day. He would carefully disassemble until he could get to them. Every evening I watched him carry this beloved part over the lawn, over the long bars of tree shadows pointing nowhere. In a car that runs as it should, the rocker arms—lifted by pushrods pushed by lifters—open valves that allow fuel into the cylinders. Sparkplugs ignite the fuel and the explosion forces the pistons to move, which rotates the crankshaft, which turns the camshaft, which pushes the lifters, which lifts the pushrods, which allow the rocker arms to open the valve…. Though most of these parts are unattached, they gently propel each other in a perfect mechanical circle of power and motion. In our life the rocker arms were—analogous to something? Synonymous? Anagogical? They looked like a dozen giant finger bones—or more vertebrae—all lined up in a row. They looked like the smooth mettle of a huge piano. In my ridiculousness and in my despair I’m sure I gave them every consideration, saw them in every possible light except the last light of day. On his way up the stairs one evening Avery played them like a soft clicking instrument, as if he were the fire that makes engines run, tires spin, matter drive itself over the earth at ten and forty and eighty and a hundred miles per hour. That puts wind in girls’ hair. I selected a dead silver wristwatch from Laura’s pile and brought it to the stump. It only needed a battery. Jenny could wear it to school.
We had a terrific thunderstorm the last Sunday afternoon in August. It came in on a cold wind and rent open the sky, stripped the smaller trees of their leaves and loosed boards from the barn that lifted and spun away in the distance like helicopter seeds. As fast as the storm came it disappeared, trailing a gauze of clouds. Avery and I went outside among the puddles and earthworms and I could see beyond Grover’s tree line a colored speck of kite whipping in the blown light.
There is no new matter in our game, only new arrangements. The book on the girl’s nightstand instead of in Laura’s old office. The rocker arms supporting a dead field mouse in a small cloth sack on Monday, the apple on Tuesday, and set clumsily beneath the hubcap on Wednesday. The weight of our story in your hands.
This story was selected for Best Stories from the Midwest 2012.