I jerked out of sleep breathing hard, on a pillow so wet it was like laying my head on a mop. Sometimes after a jailhouse dream I'm not sure I'm not still locked up, but the bedroom was dark as a cave, and quiet. That's two things jail never was.
There was black where the alarm clock's red numbers ought to've been. When the electric company shuts you off a man comes out by day, not in the middle of the night. I almost woke Patty Jo to make sure she paid the power bill anyway, even if it meant another argument. After a jail dream it's good to hear a voice that ain't from inside.
Patty Jo and me had got into it before we went to bed. Lately the least little bit of drinking sets her off, and after work I had brought home a twelve pack of Budweiser. We hollered back and forth a while, her about the Bible and me about at least I ain't at a bar in town like some I could name. We yelled a long time but when Patty Jo said she was moving out in the morning, I run out of words.
Patty Jo's mama and daddy work at the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, and they'd told her she could get a job if she showed up quick. After Patty Jo said she meant to go, all I could think of was how ignorant I am at cooking and other things she does. And I thought about waking up from jail dreams with nobody on the other side of the bed.
It would've been good to sling the pillow onto the floor, hug the blankets and go back to sleep, but after one of them dreams I'm awake for a while. Besides which, I needed to pee. The terrier dog somebody gave Patty Jo while I was gone growled when I rolled out of bed.
Bitsy hates me.
Till every one of them goes out, you don't notice how many little lights are in your house, showing where things are if you get up at night. Instead of feeling my way to the bathroom I decided to pee off the back porch. There's not a neighbor closer than a quarter mile, and fresh air feels good after one of them dreams.
Outside I seen why the electricity was off. While we were sleeping an ice storm had hit us. The moon wasn't no bigger than a slice of fingernail but ice turned everything into a mirror. It was bright enough to see a big poplar tree had rolled out of the ground behind the cellar and was laying across the garage.
Limbs big around as my arm lay all over the driveway, but not a one hit the little car Patty Jo got while I was in jail. That'd be one more thing she could thank Jesus for when she got up and seen what was going on.
On the hills behind the house it sounded like a war. Trees close enough to hear when they hit the ground broke with a boom like a shotgun. Other ones, farther off, cracked like pistols as they come down.
After doing my business over the porch rail I went to the bedroom to fetch some cigarettes, moving slow. Getting around the house was a puzzle, and not just because of the dark. Patty Jo has got in the habit of moving every stick of furniture we own a couple times a month. About the time I figure out where things are, she changes them around.
Bitsy's claws clicked in front of me, and twice she got under my feet, tried to trip me. Now and then I wonder if that puny excuse for a dog spends what time it ain't asleep thinking out how to kill a grown man.
Soon as I found a pack of smokes and a pair of wool socks I carried the afghan Aunt Ruth made back outside. Wrapped up in all that wool it wasn't too cold. I settled onto the porch swing to study the ice storm.
After six months in lockup I started losing stuff out of my head. Without looking at a picture of Patty Jo taped to the wall it was hard to remember what she looked like, how she smelled or the sound of her voice. After a while I couldn't remember how real food tasted, what it was like to be in a quiet room. Now I pay more attention. It was a different world outside the back door, and I meant to keep the memory of it.
The air smelled like fresh turned dirt. That puzzled me till I saw what a big piece of ground that poplar tore up when it fell over. Once in a while, when it got quiet up on the hill, chimes by the back door caught enough wind to make a feeble sound that didn't seem real.
I dozed off and woke to full daylight, with my nose numb from cold and three doe deer standing where Patty Jo grows irises in warm weather. Maybe trees falling like God meant to clear-cut the hills scared the deer more than a man sleeping on a porch. None of them run till I reached for a cigarette.
Other animals had decided to get out of the woods for a while too. Five raccoons on top of the barn were still as stones till the deer run by. Then they crossed over the roof peak and I couldn't see them anymore. I smoked my cigarette and looked where trees at the edge of the woods were full of birds and squirrels.
When I was done smoking I went in the house, heated a pan of water on the woodstove and shook instant coffee into a cup. Instant is better than no coffee at all, but not by much. Patty Jo came to the doorway, yawning and scratching her head as I settled at the kitchen table.
"What happened?" she asked>
"Ice storm," I told her.
Then she wanted to know when the power would come back on.
I wanted to ask, "How the hell would I know that?" but since she got religion the least little bit of cussing sends Patty Jo into a hissy fit. So I said, "Not for a while," and told her the lines were most likely down all over Hawkes county.
She made her own coffee and shuffled off to the stove room, Bitsy clicking along behind her. Patty Jo's put a computer in there, and the desk chair creaked as she set down to look at e-mail she got overnight. It was funny, her forgetting that without electricity a computer's useless as a rock, but I didn't let her hear me laugh. After a minute she come back to the kitchen and eased into a chair at the other end of the table.
"Is the phone working?" she asked.
"It runs off electricity too," I said. It's a cordless phone, just a kind of a radio. Cell phones don't work enough in these hills to make them worth the money, but one would've been nice to have right then.
After a minute or two of quiet Patty Jo wanted to know if I was going to work. The battery clock on the wall showed seven thirty so I was already an hour late. But nobody'd be at the saw mill after the ice storm.
"Ain't no way to get off this hill in a Toyota," I said. I used to have a four wheel drive Dodge pickup, but the bank repo'ed it even before I was sentenced. The Dodge could have got us to the highway, long as we took a chainsaw to cut trees laying across the road.
When I lit a cigarette, Patty Jo waved her hands like she was choking at her end of the table before the least bit of smoke was anywhere near her. Until she got churchy Patty Jo never paid no attention to smoke.
She set there a minute or two, not saying a word, staring into her coffee cup when she wasn't waving smoke away, not once looking in my direction. "I'm going to listen to the car radio," she said after a while.
Soon as the back door closed I spread the afghan back on the couch and put on clothes. When I got back to the kitchen, I looked out a window and seen Patty Jo in her Toyota. Bitsy was leaning on the dashboard, watching in case I tried to get in there with them. After I put three more sticks of wood in the stove I took a walk around the house.
White oak limbs hanging out over the roof were glassy with two or three inches of ice. Wasn't a thing I could do if they started to fall on the house. From the front yard I looked down the hill, to where US 60 runs across Hawkes County, crooked as a dog's leg. I watched a long while without seeing a single car or truck on the road.
Near the house, where trees thinned at the edge of the woods, their limbs had filled up with birds, way more than usual. While I watched the birds a big old possum climbed up the bank on the other side of the road and trotted off like he was in a hurry. I clapped my hands together once, just to see him fall over like he was dead. He was up and going again in half a minute, still in a hurry. After that I let him alone.
That ice storm made the woods a place where even wild things didn't want to be.
I looked again at Patty Jo in her little car, exhaust streaming out the same color as the sky. The clouds was thick enough the sun didn't throw enough light to cast shadows. "You won't make Bowling Green today, old girl," I said out loud. "Probably not tomorrow neither."
Patty Jo looked right at me but didn't roll the window down to hear what I said.
We been ignoring one another a lot since I got home. Evenings I sit in the living room and flip through a hundred and five channels without finding anything to look at, and she clicks away on her keyboard. When she sits in front of that computer it's like I ain't in the world.
After Patty Jo shut off the car and came in, we looked past each other like we were used to doing, only without a TV or computer to point our eyes at. Not talking felt natural. I was used to creeping through the house trying not to be noticed. Sometimes looking at Patty Jo was enough to get an argument going. Mostly I sat at the kitchen table smoking, looking out a window at the ice.
Patty Jo read a while, and paced a while, took her dog outside, read some more and paced some more. Being still didn't seem to be something she could do, and by and by she asked if I wanted something to eat.
It was just soup out of a can heated on the woodstove, but Patty Jo kept running to the kitchen, looking for different things to put in it. I never seen nobody fuss that much over canned soup. After we ate it she made a big thing of heating water to wash the few dishes we'd dirtied.
When that was done she stood by the table a minute, then asked, "You know where the old phone is? The one from before we got the cordless?"
When I shook my head, she went off to dig in closets. The old one will work without electricity, but after Patty Jo plugged it into the wall, the line was still dead. Watching her running around so nervous made me jumpy too, so I took five beers left from the night before to the front porch.
The sun had begun to burn through the clouds, warming things to the point I could've stayed out without a jacket and not been all that cold. Melting ice sounded like rain, but timber was still breaking on the hill. In the hollers there's places the sun don't touch more than an hour a day. It'd be a while before trees quit falling over.
Sitting on the porch while ice dripped and trees fell, everything inside my head turned in a big circle. It all come back to forgetting what Patty Jo looked like but not Mary Parton. Mary was who talked me into hauling some dope to Indiana for a man named Donnie Douglas. A cop with a sniffer dog was waiting not ten miles past the Ohio River Bridge.
They let me lay out my sentence in the county jail where I was arrested. Penitentiaries can't hold everybody they give time to. The jail was close enough Patty Jo could visit once a month. If they'd sent me to a real prison farther north she couldn't've done that.
It was two years before they let me out. Most of that time I was in a cell with a colored guy named TJ Watson, the smartest man I ever talked to. TJ got me to see how Donnie Douglas and Mary Parton set me up to get arrested.
He explained big time dope dealers like Donnie pay the law off, but once in a while let somebody get caught. He said it was a good thing I never told on Donnie, but the truth is nobody asked if the marijuana in the trunk of the car I was driving belonged to me, where I got it or much of anything else.
They appointed me a lawyer but we didn't talk much about what happened. He promised pleading guilty would get me a light sentence. I figured he meant sixty or ninety days right up till they told me three years. They let me out a year early for good behavior.
I didn't tell on Mary neither. She was driving another car ahead of me, and while the police pulled me over she got clear. Nobody said anything about her getting caught anyway, and her name never came up when the cops talked to me.
A white truck with orange flasher lights stopped on US 60. I hoped it was a power company truck instead of the phone company but electric trucks are yellow. A man got out and shinnied up a pole, and I watched till he climbed down and drove off.
I thought some more about how fine it was to be outside and not in a cell. Being able to go out anytime I wanted was the best part of them letting me loose. Drinking the third beer slow after slamming the first two, I thought about other stuff TJ told me.
Like having woman trouble when I got home. "While you're locked down your lady's learning to do without you," he said. "Might not be room in that house for the both of you when you get home."
I didn't need TJ to tell me Patty Jo was making changes. When she come to see me or when we talked on the phone, everything she said was about something changing.
She got herself a job as a housekeeper for the hospital, and after six months they paid for her to take computer classes at the college.
She started going to church for the first time since we got married. A guy in her Bible study class who was a car dealer sold her the Toyota on real low payments.
Somebody else at church bought a new computer and give Patty Jo their old one to practice on at home. By the time I got back she was spending the better part of every night laughing and typing at people all over the country.
None of that mattered till I got home.
Patty Jo got pissy when I wouldn't go to church, and I didn't have nothing to say to her new friends. It's hard to talk to somebody who knows you've been locked up. Most of them are afraid to mention it, but then they don't have anything else to say neither. Being jail is just too big to ignore. The ones who will talk ask stupid questions, or act like they know all about jail from spending a night in a DUI holding cell twenty years ago.
I just wanted to go to work, come home and drink some beer in front of the TV. At first Patty Jo yelled at me about the Bible. Then she yelled there was more to life than television and beer. Then she quit yelling anything. That was when we started ignoring one another.
As I swallowed the last of the third beer, the old phone Patty Jo had left plugged in rang. It's a cheap thing and doesn't make much sound, but I heard it even with trees cracking and water dripping. And I heard other things.
Maybe it was because all the machines, the refrigerator and the woodstove fan and every other electric thing was dead, or because there wasn't much noise from the highway. I heard Patty Jo walk into the bedroom, heard the closet door slide open. The fourth beer was empty when she opened the front door, holding a suitcase.
"I'm going to walk down to the highway," she said. "Some people from church are picking me up. I'll stay with them until I can come and get the car."
Patty Jo put the suitcase down and stepped back in the house, leaving the door open. "Take that rat of a dog with you," I hollered. When I went inside Patty Jo had Bitsy on a leash that wouldn't hold a real dog but suited six pounds of terrier. She went by without looking in my direction.
While I looked up Toby Reynold's phone number I wished I could call TJ Watson. Maybe I could've, if I took the time to call long distance information to get the number to the jail. They might've let me talk to him. But I called Toby instead.
Toby sounded drunker than me but after I offered to buy us a case of Bud he said he'd come and fetch me at the foot of the hill. I filled the stove with as much wood as would fit and turned the damper low so the fire would last. Then I went out the door Patty Jo never had closed.
Slammed it behind me too.
She wasn't so far ahead that it took even a minute to catch up. "Where are you going?" she wanted to know.
"I got friends too," I said, and slowed down to walk beside her.
TJ Watson was smart enough he could've told me some words that would have got us turned around and headed back to the house. He would've known words to keep Patty Jo from leaving. I almost walked back to try that jailhouse call but instead put one foot in front of the other, having to work at it. Walking on ice ain't easy when you're sober. Five beers will make it a lot harder.
I kept my eyes on the first curve in the road. Past there the grade's not so steep and walking would get easier. We were almost at the curve when Bitsy went nuts.
A terrier's head ain't big enough to hold a whole brain is what I think. Bitsy barked and carried on like she was full bore mad, running toward the woods till the leash snatched her back, then jerking her head around to snap at the strip of leather holding her. She made another run and about broke her neck at the end of that strap. When Patty Jo bent over to pick the dog up it turned on her, snapped at her fingers and growled. That scared Patty Jo.
Scared me too. I would've bet whatever anybody cared to name that dog would no more bite my wife than it would kiss me. Then I hollered at Bitsy, and instead of flinching like she usually did the dog paid me no more mind than it would a loud radio.
Patty Jo whispered "Willford?" like she was about to cry. "Willford!" she said again, and she was crying.
When I turned to look the same place she was, something looked back at me, something that didn't belong on a hill by a road in Hawkes County. It'd fit in a nightmare or a movie maybe, but not on our road.
There's been tales about mountain lions in these hollers as long as I can remember. Not many believed them till five or six years ago. That was when one walked out of the woods near a school and laid down in a patch of sunshine. It stayed there long enough all the schoolkids got to file by a window to see. The one at the edge of the woods had caught one of them deer that was trying to get away from falling trees. Bitsy had smelled blood, the cat, or both.
"Get moving," I said to Patty Jo, pushing on her back when she didn't step out. "Don't run, and don't turn to look, just keep walking." A good sized oak had come down on the side of the road opposite the cat, and I picked up a broken limb, big around as a ball bat but twice as long. It was hard walking with a belly full of beer. Doing it backwards to keep an eye on the cat made me feel like I was fixing to get to the bottom of the hill a whole lot faster than I wanted. The lion looked at me once, then put its bloody face back on the deer. It didn't seem to care a thing about us once Patty Jo got far enough away that Bitsy hushed.
Not till Patty Jo seen her church people waiting and whooped, "Crawford! Mary Alice!" so loud I jumped. That cat didn't like Patty Jo's yelling. I turned to tell her to hush and she was moving fast as anybody could on ice, almost running.
When I looked back again, the mountain lion had stood up, tracking Patty Jo, yellow eyes bright and fearless, big head moving to keep her in sight. "Don't run," I yelled at Patty Jo. I wanted to turn around, see if she was listening to me but it seemed like my watching it was the only thing keeping the cat where it was.
When it dropped into a crouch I knew Patty Jo hadn't slowed down. I thought about that thing getting hold of her and went even crazier than Bitsy.
I yelled loud as I could.
I waved my club.
I picked up a stick and threw it. It landed a foot or two short of the cat, which didn't pay any attention to it.
I cussed, called that animal things Patty Jo never heard me say before, as loud as I could.
Right before it goes for a bird, a house cat's rear end wiggles. That lion done the same thing and I went really crazy. There ain't nothing else to call running toward a thing like that. It quit watching Patty Jo, turned its eyes toward me and I stopped. Not even a crazy man could run toward those eyes. But I kept on yelling.
It opened its mouth and howled. I expected a roar like in a movie, but the noise was closer to a scream, cat jaws open wide enough to count teeth. I called the lion more names, waved my club and expected to see them teeth close up.
Instead the horrid thing turned and faded into the trees, quiet as wind. It ghosted uphill for a hundred feet, and I couldn't see it any more. Soon as the cat was gone it felt like I'd lost the bones out of my legs. If it hadn't've been for that piece of oak branch to lean on, I couldn't've stood up.
Looking down the hill I seen Patty Jo standing by a red mini-van with two people from her church. Parked past them, Toby Reynolds was slouched on the fender of his beat up Pontiac. All of them were looking up the hill at me.
Took a while to get down the hill. My legs were rubber and I kept turning to see if the lion had come back. As I went past Patty Jo to get to Toby's junker of a car, she watched me, but didn't say nothing.
Toby had his car started by the time I got in. "You okay to drive?" I asked, smelling whiskey.
"I come to get you without wrecking," Toby answered. Then he wanted to know, "You still got that beer money?" He grinned when I tossed a twenty on the dashboard. "Maybe we oughta get a twelve pack and a fifth of some kind of liquor," Toby said.
"I don't care what we get," I told him. I only wanted to be drunk enough to stop thinking about Patty Jo going to Bowling Green, drunk enough to forget yellow eyes and teeth. And jailhouse dreams. Whether the being drunk come from beer or whiskey didn't matter.
"What was you yelling at back there?" Toby asked.
When I told about the lion, he laughed and said, "Bullshit, Willford. Them things don't come where people live."
"This one did," I said. And I asked, "Couldn't you see it?"
Toby said he only seen me standing at the curve yelling up at the woods. "I heard you pretty good though," he said.
"It was a lion," I said again.
"Should've seen the look on the faces of them people waiting for Patty Jo, when you hollered 'run, you motherfucking cocksucker,'" Toby said.
He got to giggling and it set me off too. We laughed most of the way to town. But my hands started shaking so bad I had to put them in my pockets so Toby wouldn't see.
We stopped at the first liquor store at the edge of town. The van carrying Patty Jo passed by right after Toby went in with my money. The shaking moved from my hands to all over, like I was freezing without feeling cold.
I stayed in the car, shivering, thinking about what would've happened if that cat got hold of Patty Jo. Closing my eyes didn't make my legs quit vibrating or stop me wondering what I could do to keep my wife from running off.
When the door to the back seat opened, I figured Toby was putting beer in the back until Patty Jo said, "Do you reckon Toby would take us to the Motel 6 out by the interstate? I got enough money for a couple of nights. By then this ice will have melted and we can get back home."
When I nodded, Patty Jo said, "What it is, I got to thinking."
"About what?" I asked.
"There's not another person in this world who'd stand between me and a lion," she said. "And Bowling Green is a long ways from home."
At the motel, Patty Jo led me to the room after she paid for it, holding my hand like I was a kid. It felt good to be led.
I let Toby keep the beer and whiskey.
~ end ~