The Senator called on a night when the mercury dipped to fourteen below and the toilet pipes in Bob and Doreen’s double-wide finally froze up for the winter. The three of them—Bob’s younger brother Dougie was living with them, just until he got his construction job back, or so he said—took turns pissing through a sawed-out hole in the bench above a trench in the former rabbit pen. Naturally, this arrangement put Doreen in a foul mood. When the phone rang, she yelled out from the kitchenette area: “Don’t answer that. It’s just another fucking telemarketer.”
Some instinct told Bob otherwise.
“The wife fires up the Rumford every time her toes get cold,” the Senator said by way of greeting. “I tell her to just turn up the thermostat, that’s what it’s there for, but she’s on a crusade about global warming or some such bullshit. Now I’ve got nothing but a few sticks left in my woodpile.” He paused to wheeze out a cough. “Robert, I’m telling you, I’m too old for this crap. I should be in Boca Raton. Next year I’ll just let Kevin Eleven take the job, he wants it so bad. I freeze my ass off in February in Vermont for what?”
“I couldn’t say, Senator. Your civic duty?”
The Senator chortled. “I never can tell when you’re being sarcastic, Robert. Must be a Yankee thing. Sure. I’d say to save the good voters of this county from the likes of Kevin Eleven. I’ll pay you $400 cash for your driest load. That’s twice as much as you’d get from anyone else, even this time of year.”
“I’d like to, Senator, but I’m flat out.”
“That is a shame, Robert.” He paused. “Of course, that’s what you told me last year, too.”
“We didn’t get to skid out all we’d hope to last fall.”
“And then you managed to come up with a couple of cords just the same, how about that?“ the Senator went on cheerfully as if he hadn’t heard what Bob had said. He lowered his voice to a dolorous, more intimate tone. “Katie and I would be awfully grateful.”
After a few seconds the Senator spoke again. “Are you there, Robert? I said Katie and I …”
“Yeah, okay, Senator. I’ll scrape up what I can scrape up.”
“All right, then, you do that. And Robert? I don’t want fresh leaves dangling off those logs, understand? That smoky shit brings back Katie’s asthma.”
* * *
After Bob hung up, he turned thoughtful and stroked his stubble. A phone call from the Senator was a rare event, never to be lightly dismissed. Bob considered living down the road from such a personage an unexpected stroke of luck. He harbored a secret belief that it was bound to pay off in ways not yet foreseeable.
The Senator and his young wife—39 years his junior—had moved into their midst after the Bragg parcel along Cloud Road was foreclosed on by the bank. Daniel Bragg couldn’t farm worth a damn but he had sixty acres of the sweetest land west of the Connecticut River. The Senator bought it all up and installed a gentleman’s farm, raising Morgan horses and Black Angus beef cattle with the help of a crew of illegal Guatemalans, and built a two-story post-and-beam mansion where the rickety Bragg homestead used to sit. Of course the Senator wasn’t the Senator back then either. He was Jeremiah Spaulding, Esquire, a 70-year-old millionaire retired Hartford lawyer with a head of patchy white hair and an ample paunch who ran for office so he could, as he put it, return some “genuine Yankee Republican values back into the statehouse in Montpelier.” His opponent was a local Pomfret boy, Kevin Morse, who got his nickname, Kevin Eleven, because of the number of times it supposedly took him to pass the bar exam.
“It’s that Count Rumford of his, isn’t it?” said Dougie. He was sprawled out on the sofa in the living area like he owned the place, his long denim-clad legs and mud-spattered Dunham boots stretched out onto the coffee table. He was pawing through last month’s copy of Mother Jones. “You’d think a rich man like him would know better than to buy an inefficient piece of crap like that.”
“Yeah, well I’m sure you know more about his business than he does,” said Bob.
“I’m serious. I read about those things on Wikopedia. That Rumford’s just a fancy fireplace, a wood hog,” said Dougie. “All the heat goes right up the flue. It’s just for show. It was designed by a Count, an 18th-century English aristocrat who fancied himself some kind of eccentric engineer. I bet he didn’t worry much about his heating bills.” He yawned and ran a hand lazily through his curly black hair. “Besides, there’s nothing to scrape up. Like you told the man, we’re plumb out.”
“Shut up!” Bob growled. He went out the trailer door to the rabbit pen before Dougie, momentarily stunned and open-mouthed and staring at him, could reply.
* * *
The world outside was of a different order at fourteen below. The cold produced a peculiar stillness, and the air was hurtful to breathe. Tiny crystals formed on Bob’s mustache and beard. Everything had slowed. The smoke from the chimneys from down the hill in the center of town rose in stately columns. The trees ground together in the chill wind and moaned as if in pain. The sound of his boots on the snow crunched loudly in his ears.
As he urinated, Bob thought of Alice Thibeault, pictured her with her unkempt blonde curls shivering over half of her thin pale face, smoking a cigarette with a trembling hand and never looking him in the eye. He’d had a little hankering for her back in high school, though he mostly felt sorry for her even then. Her father was in jail for drug dealing and her mother drank too much, or so he’d heard. Alice had run around and had somehow accumulated four kids with three different fathers by the time she was 21. One of her children, a boy named Stephen, had drowned the previous fall chasing minnows in a stream in the woods behind Alice’s house.
She also had what remained of three cords of prime seasoned rock maple, birch and cherry that Bob had dropped off outside her tarpaper shack in West Pomfret the previous fall and had never been paid for. It was too bad about her son, drowning that way, but in the end none of that had anything to do with the money she owed him, did it? He wasn’t a charity. She’d bounced a check on him a week before her boy drowned. He’d been planning to retrieve her wood when the news came over the radio. He ripped up the check in a spasm of pity. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. But things take a turn, he thought now. Times are hard all over; they aren’t just hard for Alice Thibeault, dead son or no dead son. He had the job at the feed store, and Doreen took house-cleaning jobs but it wasn’t paying the bills. They were all just sort of dawdling until he could find money to fix his tractor so he and Dougie could go back up into the woods and skid out more logs. The Senator’s $400 would just about do it. As he zipped up his snow pants, he made up his mind what he had to do.
* * *
Doreen and Dougie were yelling at each other when he re-entered the trailer.
“You expect us to go out there with a pickaxe in February?” Dougie was saying. “The ground’s frozen solid! It would take a jackhammer to reach those pipes!”
“You’re such a mechanical genius, you figure it out.” Her dark red hair was flying out from under her hair-band, and her face was flushed. She was wearing her brown corduroy winter over-alls and a checkered flannel shirt, one of his shirts, actually—an outfit that Bob secretly believed she wore because it was so unflattering on her, completely masked her beauty, he thought dismally—a form of silent protest against him personally for all his shortcomings as a husband and provider.
“That’s ridiculous!” Dougie yelled back.
“Then I’ll do it myself! Because I refuse to put up with this, not until spring!” Doreen’s voice rose in pitch to a near scream by the end of her sentence. “I’m already sick of pissing through a hole!” She grabbed her down vest and the roll of toilet paper and flashed Bob a murderous look on her way out to the rabbit pen.
“Get your coat, Dougie,” said Bob after she departed.
“I’ll tell you about it in the truck.”
Inside the cab wasn’t much better than outside the cab. The thin ribbon of warmth from the heater had to go to the defroster. Even so, Bob had to keep his window cracked so the windshield wouldn’t fog up and freeze. He kept a can of de-icer and a rag soggy with blue wiper fluid on the seat between him and Dougie.
The old Ford labored up Cloud Road. The engine hitched going up hills, the empty truckbed rattled, slewed over frozen tire tracks. The trees came right up to the road, thick pines heavy with snow and bare trees with limbs webbed together above the truck against the black sky. No stars shone, and no moon.
Dougie said, “Gonna go out there to her shed and take it, just like that.”
“Well, count me out.”
Bob gave his brother a quick glance. Dougie’s arms were folded across his dark grey parka, his mouth set in an expression Bob remembered well from earliest childhood. He shook his head. “You’re coming all the way out here with me and you ain’t helping?”
“It’s not right what you’re doing.”
“You’re gonna sit in the truck?”
“I just want to see for myself that you aim to do it.”
“Oh, I aim to do it. You don’t have to ride all this way to find that out.”
“That my own brother would steal the wood from under a woman whose son just drowned, and sell it to a rich man who doesn’t even need it.”
Bob banged the steering wheel with a gloved hand. “Christ, Dougie, it ain’t her wood, so it ain’t stealing. Why do I got to suffer for her misfortune?”
“It’s not a misfortune. It’s a tragedy. If you had any feelings, you’d just leave her in peace to grieve.”
“And while she’s grieving, she’s burning up that wood she ain’t paid for.”
[Then why’d you rip up her check?”
“It’s a worthless check, so what’s it matter? And she wrote it before her kid drowned.”
“One has nothing to do with the other.”
“Maybe not. Except, added up, she’s not a responsible woman. If I wait any longer, she’ll burn it all.”
Dougie stared at Bob before speaking. “You don’t know that.”
“It’s February, ain’t it?”
“I mean you don’t know she’s the one responsible for the kid being drowned. You have no right to say that. The boy wandered off by himself and fell in a creek.”
“Why wasn’t she minding him?”
“Maybe she was busy with her others.”
“Shouldn’t have had any, ask me, let alone four. Twenty-one years old, for Christ’s sake. Born for welfare, all of ’em. Underfoot. Bunch of rug rats. I almost dumped the wood on one. You could just tell something would go wrong.”
“So what if she owes it to you a while longer?”
“Owes it to me! I’ve got expenses. Big expenses and nothing coming in right now. Doreen wants babies. You just got you to worry about.”
“Don’t worry about me anymore.”
“I’ll move back in with Mama for a while. I’d rather do that than work for a hard-hearted son of a bitch who’d do a thing like this.”
“Well then what if I was to kick your ass out of this truck right here? I’ll give you a head start.”
“You would, too, you bastard, on a night like this!”
They rode in silence for a while. Their heated breaths fogged the windshield and iced it up. Bob sprayed the de-icer and the thin crust of ice broke up and ran down the glass in rivulets. The cab reeked of ether.
“That’s prime wood she’s burning and never paid for. The stuff we skidded out last spring, you and me.” Bob’s voice was passionate. ”There’s a lot of folks wanting wood that dry, and we ain’t got anymore.”
“The Senator doesn’t even need it! He heats with oil!”
“He’s got a stove.”
“That thing’s just for show! It can’t even heat up a bathroom.”
“What do I care what he does with it? It’s cash money to me.”
“Her kids’ll freeze to death if you take that wood. What about that?”
“They’ll get by. They always do, those types.”
“Mama was right about you. You’ve got a fucking dollar sign for a heart.”
”You just shut your fucking trap.”
“I bet you voted for that son of a bitch, too, didn’t you?”
“You’re damn right I did.”
“Jesus, I knew it! That’s so fucking typical of you!” He threw his hands up in exasperation. “At least Kevin Morse looks out for the little guy. The Senator just looks out for himself and all the big corporate interests that are wrecking this state! Don’t you know anything?”
“All I know is that you read too much fucking Karl Marx when you were in college.”
“Well, I hope you’re proud to be the Senator’s personal errand boy!”
“Well, fuck you too.”
* * *
The tarpaper house was dark except for flickering pale candlelight through the windows. A thin stream of smoke emerged from the chimney. A string of unlit Christmas bulbs, a torn Santa and sleigh decorated the tarpaper wall.
“Christ, Christmas was two months ago,” Bob muttered. He backed the truck up to the pile in the front yard. “Like I said, wood’s half gone anyway.” He put he truck in neutral and pulled on the emergency brake, letting the engine idle and opened the door. “You coming?”
But Dougie said nothing. He stared straight ahead with his arms folded.
“I guess not.” Bob slammed the door, hard.
The yard was littered with plastic toys, old tires, bags of trash, churned-up snow, including a base for what might have been a snowman or a snow fort.
He walked over to the woodpile and grabbed a log. It resisted him. He grabbed another and yanked it from the pile and tossed it into the truckbed. The log hit the metal floor with an enormous clanging boom. It ricocheted around, coming to a rest against the back of the cab. He noticed Dougie’s back to him in the window, unmoving. Bob picked up another log, heavy with ice and snow, and tossed it in, another boom, and then again and again, boom, boom, each heavy as a hammerblow, shaking the truck. He went on like that for five more minutes, and the bed started to fill up but it felt endless. The work didn’t warm him up; the cold wormed into him until his gloved hands felt like frozen blocks.
He finally noticed Alice Thibeault in the open doorway wearing a faded blue parka and smoking a cigarette. Her long dark-blonde hair obscured her face. He walked over to her. “I’ve come for the wood,” he said. His voice sounded heavy and dark and terrible in his own ears.
She looked at him. Her eyes were bloodshot. “I can see that.” She rubbed her forehead with one hand and stumbled slightly against the doorway. She looked old and wasted away. Bob remembered his little hankering for her, once. He felt ashamed by it now.
“Unless you can pay me what you owe.”
She stared at a spot at his feet. ”How much is it, anyways? I can’t remember.” A faint scent of liquor.
“Two hundred and seventy-five dollars.”
“Well, I don’t got that. Nowhere near it.”
“You got anything?”
“I got food stamps.”
“I’m expecting a check next Friday, though.”
“Yeah, you’ve said that before.”
They were silent, and then her face crumpled, and her eyes watered up. “You know I been hard up. You know it ain’t been easy. I lost my little boy, my Stevie.”
He looked away into the frigid black of night. “I know that,” he said stoically, jaw set.
“He was playing in the woods, and he lost his way, and now he’s with Jesus.” She dropped her cigarette into the snow, covered her face with her hands and started to cry.
“I know that, I know that. I’m sorry about that,” he mumbled just to say something.
She wiped away her tears with the backs of her small white, ungloved hands. Now she looked like she was 12 years old. She said, “Some people have been forgiving about things.”
He didn’t reply.
“The others, they all think it was my fault. They don’t say it to my face. But that’s what they’re thinking, the way they look at you.”
“Nobody thinks that,” he said.
“They do so! You don’t know!” Her voice suddenly forceful. “That old lady in Parker’s Store, the one with her gray hair rolled up on her head all the time, behind the counter. She has this little smirk every time I come in now.”
“C’mon, she don’t think that.”
“And all the girls at the bank. The tellers. They just look at me so cold, like.”
“You don’t know.”
“I just want to tell them,” her voice atremble and slowly rising, “want to tell them it was just an accident. He wasn’t supposed to play … he liked to chase squirrels, see, like the older boys. Chase them into the woods and throw rocks, just for fun, see. He did everything they did. Everything. And just this one day … this one day … I didn’t know which way he was headed! I didn’t know where he went! He was just a little boy! He was my little boy!” This last came out as a prolonged wail, her face contorted as she began to sob.
“People say mean things,” he said and his tone became a plea. “They don’t mean them. People say things they don’t mean all the time. They don’t think, they don’t mean what they say.”
She fell into him in the doorway and his arms enfolded her awkwardly. Jesus. She’s tiny as a bird, he thought.
She sobbed into his chest for a few seconds then pulled herself away. She wiped her eyes again. “But you never struck me as that type. Mean like that.” She looked at his feet. Then she lifted her gaze to the middle of his chest. She presented a small crooked smile. “You can come in if you want to. They shut off the electricity but it’s warm and toasty by the fire. I’ve got some whiskey, too.”
He stared at her. There was a silence.
Her gaze remained fixed on his chest, the broken smile still in place. “Well, come on in now, if you’re going to, or don’t if you don’t want to,” she finally murmured in a strange, distracted, little girl’s sing-song voice, like she was talking to a stray dog that had happened by.
“I’m …” he started and pointed his thumb behind him back to the driveway.
Her fragile smile wavered, then collapsed. She glanced up at his face once and then quickly back down again. Her jaw quivered. “Well, okay. Just take it, then. Been nice talking to you.” She stepped back inside the hallway and slammed the door shut.
He stared at the wooden door for a long time before he remembered where he was.
He walked stiffly back over to the woodpile. His limbs felt heavy and slow yet strangely brittle as he crunched across the driveway. He grabbed at another frozen log. But he couldn’t gain purchase, no matter how hard he tried. He struggled with the log until he began to pant. Rage pulsed through him.
He trudged over to the passenger side of the truck’s cab and yanked open the door. It screeched loudly. He grabbed Dougie by the arm and pulled him hard out of the cab and down onto the ground. “You help me, you sonofabitch,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “You fucking help me with this, or I’ll kill you.” Dougie grabbed him around the legs and capsized him and they began to wrestle in the driveway. They rolled around, throwing air punches, cursing each other, the words muffled in each other’s parkas. After a few minutes, Bob, who was slightly bigger, slightly stronger, who had never stopped hard outdoor work year round while his brother went skylarking off to college, pinned Dougie’s shoulders with his knees and slugged him in the face. “You gonna help me now? You gonna help?” he screamed.
Dougie said nothing. Blood trickled out of one of his nostrils.
Bob rolled off of him and stood up and looked toward the house. Five feet away were the triangular faces of Alice’s three children staring at him through a window in the tarpaper shack. Their faces were backlit by the dim candlelight from the shack’s interior, their gazes were curious and gleeful. He felt deep shame, as if caught in an obscene act.
He looked up into the black firmament and raised his arms and screamed wordlessly into the darkness. Once, twice, and he kicked the snow all around him, banged his fists against his head and yelled a string of swear words until the cloud of steam from his exhalations completely enveloped his head. He fell to his knees by his brother’s prone body, panting. “Can you talk?“ he croaked into his brother’s ear.
Dougie groaned and Bob helped him sit up. “Jesus, you nailed me,” Dougie said. His voice was nasal and sniffling and querulous, and Bob was reminded once again of when they were very young boys. “What the hell is wrong with you, man?”
Bob just shook his head until he caught his breath. “I can’t do this,” he said finally and let out a short incredulous laugh. “I can’t do this,” he said again.
Dougie said, “Then let’s go home.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. He felt a sudden violent urge to start laughing uncontrollably. Instead he said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
It took less than ten minutes to unload the back. Then the empty truck rattled down Alice Thibeault’s driveway, and Bob took one look back in the mirror at the tarpaper shack and wondered briefly why Doreen would be so hell-bent on bringing more children into such a cold and pitiless world. Dim candlelight still glowed through the window, illuminated the shadowy forms of the woodpile, the detritus of a Christmas long past, the smoke from the stovepipe chimney that rose slowly, slowly into a thin graceful line up into a velveteen black sky.