Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 518 - Allen Kopp

UNTOUCHED BY MORNING - ALLEN KOPP

Tillman sat beside her bed all night long, hardly moving. In the minutes before the sun came up, as the birds were starting to sing in the trees outside the window, she took her final expiring breath and was dead. He stood up slowly and stretched his cramped body. He went to the window and pulled back the curtain that she had made with her own hands and looked out. It was a beautiful morning in early summer and for that he was glad; she didn’t like the cold—he would have hated to see her go into her grave when the ground was frozen and the trees bare.

He went downstairs and cooked his own breakfast and sat long over it with a cup of strong tea in front of the window. When he saw Windsor, the hired man, moving about in the space between the house and barn, he went out and told him that she had died in the night. He asked him to go to the barn and get the coffin they had been keeping for her and bring it upstairs to her room.

Windsor grunted slightly to show that he understood but, not being the kind to express condolences, said nothing. He finished what he was doing and went straight to the barn and took the coffin off the blocks and, with much noise, carried it up the stairs and set it alongside the bed and took off the lid. He picked her up in his arms as if she were no heavier than a load of wood and put her gently into the box. He was going to nail the lid shut but Tillman stopped him. Word had been sent to her son and, more than likely, he would be coming home and would want to see her one last time.

After Windsor left to go to the little cemetery on the side of the hill to open the grave that had been set aside for her, Tillman went to his room and stripped himself naked and washed from head to toe and put on his good clothes. When he was finished dressing, he went out and sat on the front porch and waited with his feet up on the railing. He held his rifle across his knees but it wasn’t loaded.

In a little while, he saw Peck coming toward the house on the road. He knew it was Peck from a long way off because he walked with a little limp from when he had his leg broken as a child. When Peck came to the gate, he let himself in and came up the walk to the porch and sat down heavily on the top step and blew out his breath.

“It’s a sad day,” Tillman said.

“Is she for sure dead?” Peck asked.

“As dead as the dodo bird,” Tillman said.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, each thinking his own thoughts. Peck chewed on his thumbnail and looked off into the distance. A large gray striped tomcat, stepping delicately in the damp grass, came around the side of the house and up the steps and lay down in the sun on the end of the porch and went to sleep.

After a while, they stood up, the two of them, and went up to her room, their boots sounding very loud on the stairs. Tillman went quietly to her door, as though she might only be asleep, and paused and looked over his shoulder at Peck. He thought perhaps he should say something to prepare Peck for the way she looked, but he couldn’t think of anything to say, so he opened the door and both of them went into the room.

Windsor’s strange wife with the white eyes had been in and taken some pains with the body, so she looked better now. She had smoothed her hair out with a brush and put her hands over her stomach and washed her face and put some powder or something on her face to keep her from looking quite so pale.

Peck approached the coffin and knelt beside it and removed his hat while Tillman stood behind him.

“Do you want me to leave you alone with her?” Tillman asked.

Peck didn’t answer so Tillman stayed where he was. After a couple of minutes, Peck stood up and put his hat back on and said, “Do you have a drink in the house?”

They went downstairs to the kitchen. Peck sat down at the table and Tillman got the bottle of brandy he kept on hand for guests. He poured some of it into a glass for Peck and a cup of tea for himself.

“My condolences,” Tillman said, as though proposing a toast. “In spite of your differences, she was your mother and you her son.”

“We were never very friendly,” Peck said. “I believe there were many times she would have cheerfully killed me if she could have done so without consequences.”

“She would have killed me, too, I think, for a good enough reason,” Tillman said.

“Was there a will?” Peck asked.

“Yes, I believe there was,” Tillman said.

He went to the old roll-top desk in the otherwise empty downstairs bedroom and opened the drawer and took out a folded-up piece of paper and went back into the kitchen with it and placed it on the table in front of Peck.

Peck read the will and then refolded it and handed it across the table to Tillman.

“Don’t you think she might have remembered her only son?” he asked quietly.

“You would have had to ask her about that,” Tillman said.

“Why did you ever marry her?” Peck asked. “Was it so you could get her property after she died?”

Tillman laughed. “The place wasn’t worth much when I first came here,” he said. “She was drowning in debt, about to lose everything.”

“So you just happened to come along and, in spite of her being twenty years older than you, you married her out of the goodness of your heart.”

“She would have lost the place for sure if it hadn’t been for me. And she was seventeen years older than me. Not twenty.”

“What did you get out of it?”

“I don’t know. A home. Somebody to talk to. A place to lay my head at night.”

“I heard you married her because you would have gone to jail if you hadn’t.”

“People wag their tongues. You hear anything. Just because people say it doesn’t make it true.”

“I heard that the money you had rightfully belonged to your brother. When he tried to get it back, you had him murdered.”

“That’s not true.”

“That’s when my mother made her deal with the devil. Because she was a landowner, she pulled some strings with the sheriff to get the charges against you dropped. Your brother’s death was ruled an accident, even though any fool could see otherwise.”

“I think you’ve said enough.”

“After you were free, the two of you got married. I don’t know how my mother was able to stand such an arrangement. She had your brother’s blood on her hands as much as you did.”

“That’s not what happened.”

Windsor came into the kitchen just then, so they stopped talking. He went to the sink and got a drink of water and then he turned to Tillman.

“We’re all ready,” he said.

He had brought the wagon around to the door. His wife held the horses while he and Tillman and Peck went upstairs and brought the coffin down and loaded it into the wagon.

Tillman and Peck rode in the wagon carrying the coffin, while Windsor and his wife rode behind in another wagon. When they came to the cemetery, Tillman pulled the wagon as close to the open grave as he could get so they wouldn’t have to carry the coffin very far.

They lowered the coffin with ropes and then Windsor’s wife read a few verses from the Bible. Tillman asked Peck if he wanted to say anything and Peck shook his head. They all stood looking down into the grave for a silent minute and then it was over. Windsor started filling in the grave and Tillman and Peck got back in the wagon and headed back toward the house.

Peck lit a cigar and began humming a tune he liked that he had heard in a barroom.

“You don’t seem very grieved,” Tillman said.

“It doesn’t make much difference to me if she’s alive or dead,” Peck said. He leaned over the side of the wagon and spit and stoked his cigar. “When I was fourteen or fifteen,” he said, “she used to lock me in the shed to keep me from going into town to meet my friends. There was a cot in there and a little wood stove—very cozy. She would leave me in there all night and come and unlock the door in the morning and find me sleeping like an angel. What she didn’t know was that I had a way of getting out and then back in without her knowing about it. I stayed away all night and came back just in time before she was likely to unlock the door. She never caught on.”

“You don’t have much sentiment, do you?” Tillman asked.

“What’s that?”

They came to a place in the road where there was a little clearing for turning around. Tillman pulled the team into the clearing and stopped. The two of them dismounted and walked the thirty yards to the river, which was high and swift due to the spring rains. They sat on a little rise and watched the limbs and debris floating past.

“I need money,” Peck said after a little while.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Tillman said.

“Now that she’s gone, I was hoping you would sell the place and give me half the money. I’d settle for one-third.”

“You’ll settle for nothing. I’m not selling. I plan on staying here for as long as I live.”

“Not everybody lives so long.”

“Meaning what?”

“Nothing. I’m just saying.”

“It sounded like a threat to me.”

“You’re just overly sensitive, with the strain of your wife’s death and all.”

“If I were to give you money, how do I know you wouldn’t just throw it away? How do I know you wouldn’t be back for more?”

“It’s not like that. I want it for a legitimate business investment.”

“Which is what?”

“My partner and I want to open a restaurant and a sort of hotel.”

“Who is this partner?”

“You don’t know him.”

“How much money do you figure on needing?”

“At least ten or twenty thousand.”

“That’s a lot of money.”

“You could easily get that amount by mortgaging the property.”

“And spend the rest of my life paying it back to the bank.”

“I believe I could live with that.”

“I’m not going to do it.”

“I have in my possession a letter.”

“What are you talking about? What letter?”

“Not long after my mother married you, she wrote me a letter. She felt guilty about the part she played in freeing you in your brother’s death. She was afraid she would burn in hell for it. She said in the letter that you had admitted to killing your brother but that you claimed it was self-defense.”

“That’s not true! There is no such letter!”

“She said she wanted me to know the truth about you, but she made me promise I would keep this knowledge to myself until such time as I might need it.”

“If you have such a letter, let me see it!”

“Do you think I’m stupid?”

“I think you’re a liar! Your mother never wrote a letter in her life. She could barely read and write.”

“She was a lot more educated than you thought.”

Not knowing what else to say, Tillman went back to the wagon. He wanted to get back home, indoors and out of sight. He was just about to pull away in the wagon, not caring if he left Peck behind or not, when Peck jumped up on the seat next to him.

When they returned to the house, Tillman left the wagon in the open space in front of the barn for Windsor to put away later. He and Peck went through the back door into the kitchen. Peck sat down at the table and poured another shot of the brandy and drank it down. Tillman pulled out a chair and sat down across from him.

“If I were to raise ten thousand dollars,” he said, “would you give me the letter if such a letter exists?”

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” Peck said.

“I need some time to think. Come back in two or three days and we’ll talk about it.”

“No, we’ll talk about it now.”

“Your mother had some jewelry,” Tillman said. “I don’t know how much it’s worth, but I think it is of great value. You can take it with you when you go. I think you could get a good price for it if from a dealer who knows his gems.”

“That’s more like it!” Peck said, breaking into a broad smile. For him, the tension had gone out of the room. “She had a diamond necklace when I was a small boy,” he said. “She would take it out about once a year and look at it and show it to all of us. I wonder if that’s in with the other stuff you’re talking about.”

“I think it is,” Tillman said. “We can go upstairs to her room and take a look if you want.”

They went upstairs, Peck first, with Tillman following close behind. When they came to her room, Peck pushed the door open and went in as if he belonged there. He was smiling now, happy. When he turned around and opened his mouth to speak, Tillman hit him in the side of the head with the small hatchet he was carrying concealed against his leg.

Peck staggered, grabbing onto the bed. He looked levelly at Tillman, confused, holding his hand to his head, surprised that there was so much blood. “No letter,” he said. “I made it all up.”

Tillman approached him and hit him in the head again, knocking him to the floor. When he started to get up, Tillman pulled a pillow off the bed and, straddling Peck’s chest, held it over his face. Peck struggled and kicked out his legs and flailed his arms about—to no effect—and then he was dead.

Tillman lay on top of Peck for several minutes and then he stood up. He took some towels and wrapped them around Peck’s head to contain the blood. He took the coverlet off the bed and wrapped it around Peck’s body, tying it at the neck and ankles.

When he had Peck’s body wrapped up the best he could manage, he went to the window and looked out. Windsor and his wife hadn’t returned yet. He was sure they would take a good long time tending to the grave.

He picked Peck’s body up and slung it over his shoulder, thinking how fortunate it was that Peck was not a very big man and not difficult to carry. He carried him down the stairs and out the door and put him in the back of the wagon, covering him with a piece of canvas that was used when it rained.

He knew of a place a mile and a half back in the hills, an old homestead where nobody had lived for seventy-five years. There was an abandoned well there that was covered over with rotting timber. It was rumored to be hundreds of feet deep.

The old homestead was just as he remembered it—the foundation of an old house on a little rise back in the trees, with the well only a few feet away from what would have been the front door. He pulled the wagon as close to the well as he could get.

Before dismounting, he sat quietly for a few minutes and looked all around, as though contemplating the silence and solitude. Satisfied that he was not being observed, he dismounted and removed the body from the wagon and carried it to the well and pulled aside the rotting timbers.

“Goodbye, Peck,” he said. “Sorry it had to be this way. Say hello to your mother for me.”

He pushed the body into the well, imagining it plunging down, down into the darkness until it came to rest on the unimaginable bottom. After saying a silent prayer for the acceptance of Peck’s spirit into heaven, he replaced the timbers of the well, making them appear undisturbed.

Driving home, he began to feel a twinge of sadness. He had been hoping that Peck would come and live with him on the old place. He had been going to ask him when the time was right. They would have got along very well living under the same roof; they were really very much alike. Close together in age and temperament, the older stepfather and the slightly younger stepson. They could have made life easier for each other. They could have eased each other’s loneliness.

When he returned home, he was tired and went upstairs to his room and locked himself in. He took off his boots and lay on his back on the bed and watched the play of afternoon light on the ceiling. He went to sleep and awoke with a jolt, remembering what he had done.

In the early evening, Windsor came and tapped lightly on the door. His wife had fixed a special funeral supper, he said, and the food was ready to eat. Tillman mumbled in a strained voice through the door that he was sick and wasn’t taking any supper. When he heard Windsor’s footsteps going back down the stairs, he rolled over on his side and faced the wall, knowing that he had, somehow, to get through the long lonely night that stretched before him.

BIO: Allen Kopp is a technical writer and lives in St. Louis. His work has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Temenos, The Legendary, Danse Macabre, Bartleby-Snopes, Skive Magazine, Hoi-Polloi, Conceit Magazine, and Dark and Dreary Magazine. Future work will appear in Sunken Lines, The Storyteller, and The Bracelet Charm. Allen was a contest finalist in the Bartleby-Snopes dialogue-writing contest and a 2009 Pushcart Prize nominee for the story “Hermaphrodite Ward.”

2 comments:

Al Tucher said...

Rural noir has a special kind of bleakness, and this is an excellent example.

ajhayes2 said...

Thing is, this sucks you along slow and easy, like a southern river and then, when you see the falls coming, the current is too strong for you to escape. The last paragraphs are so achingly lonely you just don't know how to feel. I think if Faulkner and Raymond Carver had ever collaborated on a story it would have sounded much like this.