A small distant sound - -the hollow resonation of tires rolling over gravel- - stops Roy Carter where he stands. His fingers are wrapped around the screen door latch, and in another ten seconds he'd have been in the house. But wondering who's driving up the hill after ten o'clock of a Friday evening is enough to settle Roy back into the porch glider.
He wonders if an ambulance is fighting the steep grade from the highway. Elmer and Rosie Glover live farther down the road Elmer's got heart trouble and Rosie's so frail it's over six months since anybody saw her in town. More than a few people assume she's died. There's no siren though, no chaos of flashing red beacons, just headlights.
Their full glare sweeps across the porch as a vehicle pulls into Roy's driveway. When the lights go out there's a black hole of an after-image in Roy's vision. He recognizes the shape of a Ford pickup, but the driver stands in indistinct darkness.
At the words "Hey, buddy," spoken out of the night, Roy relaxes. He's surprised how much he tensed up, listening to the truck's approach.
"Hey yourself," he answers, and Johnny Ellis moves through the light spilling from the living room windows. Johnny climbs the porch steps, shifts a chair at the end of the glider so it points toward Roy, then folds his long angular self into it. "Wasn't sure if you'd be up or not."
Roy smells whiskey all the way across the porch. "Want a beer?"
Johnny shakes his head. "Nah. Want a taste of this?"
Roy's not sure where the pint bottle comes from. It wasn't in Johnny's hand when he climbed the steps. Roy studies the bottle a moment before leaning forward to take it. He hasn't had a dozen shots of whiskey in four or five years. Hard liquor can put him in a mean state of mind; he mostly gave it up a long time ago.
Roy doesn't bother looking at the label as he lifts the bottle, tilts it and lets cheap bourbon flow to the core of his being. Closing his eyes, he focuses on the sweet after-taste, the ebb of the sharp burn in his belly to friendly warmth. If he weren't afraid of whiskey, Roy'd drink it every night.
Johnny takes a much longer swallow, and a deep breath behind it. "I figure you had something to do with me getting hired on with Charlie Sturgill," he says. "Might be a little late, but I wanted to tell you I appreciate it."
"Didn't do much," Roy says.
In fact, he had not a thing to do with Johnny Ellis getting a job with Charlie.
Not that it matters now.
Ten hours ago, right before the Friday noon break, Johnny got fired.
Roy isn't sure what to call it.
Johnny asks, "You won't get in any trouble over what happened will you?"
As Roy shakes his head, there's a shift in the light spilling from inside the house. Janine stands in the doorway, arms folded to keep her housecoat closed. "You coming to bed?" she asks. Johnny clears his throat, and Roy imagines the blush spreading across his wife's face.
"I didn't know there was anybody else here," Janine says. She comes outside, settles into the glider beside Roy, and scowls subtle disapproval. The change in Janine's expression would be missed by most people, but Roy sees it. Any wife would frown, finding her husband with Johnny Ellis.
"You remember Johnny," Roy says to Janine. "I told you about him coming to work with us."
A month ago, Charlie Sturgill, the contractor who's been Roy's boss for ten years, told the crew a new guy was starting Monday. When Charlie asked if any of them knew Johnny Ellis, Roy admitted they'd gone to school together. That's all he said, that they'd gone to the same school.
Truth is Roy and Johnny used to be best friends.
But that was a long time ago.
Charlie partnered them up until Johnny learned the job's routine. Working together was the first time Roy and Johnny talked in better than ten years. Sitting on Roy's darkened porch is the first time they've seen one another outside the job.
When Johnny offers the bottle again, Roy hesitates, not sure how Janine will act if she sees him drinking whiskey. He takes it anyway, pretends he doesn't notice her grimace.
"Nice house," Johnny says, after the bottle's in his hand again.
Roy feels better when the pint disappears back to wherever it came from. "Built it right after we got married."
If Johnny's disappointed at not being asked inside for a tour, it doesn't show. "Man oh man," he murmurs as wind carries a redolence of fresh mown grass to the porch. "That is a sweet smell of an evening."
"Matt Sparks was cutting hay till just a little while ago," Roy says. "You could hear his tractor on the other side of the hill way after dark."
"Maridell Sparks' daddy?" Johnny breathes deep, like he's hungry for the smell of cut hay. Where he's been, a man would miss hay. And a lot of other things besides. "Who'd Maridell marry anyway?"
Roy lifts his legs, props them on the porch rail. "I don't reckon I ever heard. She moved to Louisville, and after that I don't know. Seen her in town a couple years ago, visiting."
"She still a good looking thing?" Johnny asks.
Roy thinks it's a rude question to put to a married man, with his wife sitting right there. "She hasn't changed a whole lot," he offers, remembering Maridell was someone Johnny chased around with in the old days.
Johnny takes another long breath. "One time I stood in a barn where a thousand pounds of stuff was hanging, like it was tobacco curing. It didn't smell a whole lot different than that hay." He empties his lungs in a loud sigh. "That was the smell of big money."
A couple of weeks before coming to work for Charlie Sturgill, Johnny Ellis walked out of La Grange Prison, after seven years of hard time lock up. Other people in the county have been arrested for growing pot, but Roy never knew any of them. He can't really say he knows Johnny Ellis, but he did, once upon a time.
Thirty seconds of silence stretch all the way to discomfort. Roy turns toward Janine, tells her, "Johnny's the reason I'm a carpenter."
Johnny laughs. "How you figure that, hoss?"
Roy directs his answer to Janine. "Back when we were kids, me and Johnny were friends. By the time we got to be fifteen I was failing school and figured I'd put one more year in and quit."
Roy explains how Johnny talked him into changing from college prep stuff to vocational classes. Roy's mother pitched a fit, but he was a whole lot happier. Instead of being mystified by algebra questions that didn't make sense, he worked shop math problems that did. In a woodworking class Roy discovered how naturally tools filled his hands, found he liked building things. The class carried him into carpentry and construction.
"If you hadn't said I belonged in trade school I don't know what would have happened to me," Roy says at the end, turning to face Johnny again.
"What did you do after high school?" Janine's question sounds accusatory.
There's not enough light from the windows for Roy to tell if Johnny's smile is the hard grin he aims at people at work who ask about prison. Johnny never answers their questions, and nobody voices them twice.
"Berea College," Johnny says. "Majored in pot and parties. Came home and had a few good years."
Johnny shifts in the rocking chair, the whiskey bottle comes out again, and he takes a long hit. He laughs, but not like anything's funny. "Maybe I ought to've gone to trade school too. Wound up in the same place Roy did, and he didn't have to move all the way to Berea to get there."
"How do you like working for Charlie?" Janine asks.
"Liked it fine till that fat fuck Fraley got on my ass today." Johnny laughs again, and this time something is funny. "Now I got to find another job."
Janine falls quiet, and Roy wonders if it's because of the rough language or a sense she may've taken the talk into a place it ought not to have gone. In a moment she gets up and goes in the house, rigid with righteous offense.
"Sorry, man," Johnny says. "Sometimes I forget there's women around."
Roy lifts a dismissive hand at the apology. "Call Delbert up tomorrow or Sunday," he tells Johnny after the door slaps shut behind Janine. "Maybe he'll get over what happened."
Roy knows he's telling a lie.
Delbert Fraley's their foreman, and that afternoon, for a few seconds Johnny put fear into Delbert's eyes, easy to read as words on a billboard. Nobody on the crew missed it. Their knowing Delbert was afraid means Johnny's not coming back to work. Delbert can't keep a man he's afraid of on the crew.
Johnny puts the whiskey away. Roy still can't tell where the bottle goes. "Maybe if I hadn't slung that hammer."
"You're lucky it missed Delbert's head," Roy tells him.
Johnny stands up, and Roy notices he puts a hand on the porch rail to steady himself. "Gotta go," he says. "Things to see, people to do, stuff like that."
The door opens and Janine comes back outside. Roy's surprised she'd so obviously eavesdrop at the open window, then come onto the porch like she's afraid Roy might drive off into the night with a drunk ex-convict.
Johnny smiles at her. "'Scuse my language a while ago."
Janine doesn't say anything, just stands by the door, watching.
"You okay to drive?" Roy asks. "I can take you anywhere you need to go."
Johnny shakes his head. "I don't reckon there's a place in Tyler County I can't drive to blindfolded." He moves to the first porch step. "And drunk besides."
Once on the ground, Johnny reaches for the hidden bourbon. "You're right though. I had enough of this." He places the bottle on the porch rail like he's afraid it might jump off, then goes to his truck, his pace the deliberate march of the very intoxicated.
Roy watches the pickup back out of the driveway. Lights don't come on until Johnny's found first gear and started off the hill. Roy hopes the state police aren't setting up check-points. He's pretty sure people just out of prison aren't allowed to drink, and anybody who gets within three yards of Johnny Ellis will know he's spent the evening looking for the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
Roy reaches for the pint, still warm from wherever it was hidden. "Don't get started," he warns Janine. Since he stopped making church more than one Sunday in three Janine's quick to ride him about drinking. He holds the bottle up to the light. It's about a quarter full.
"Shouldn't have let him drive off like that," Janine mutters.
Roy figures she's talking to herself as much as to him. "Couldn't have stopped him."
"How come he threw a hammer at Delbert?" she asks.
"He didn't throw it at him," Roy says. "They were arguing and Johnny kind of tossed it into the air."
"What were they arguing over?" Janine presses.
"A window," Roy tells her. "Johnny got himself fired over a little girl's window."
Then he tells Janine what happened.
Right before the noon break, Delbert Fraley left to make sure the lumber yard would deliver roof trusses that afternoon. If the crew didn't have trusses waiting to be set Monday morning, they'd all have an unpaid day off.
After the foreman drove away the half dozen men in the house leaned on walls and talked weekend plans. The married ones traded opinions about whether or not it was too hot to go fishing. Single men talked about beer joints and the women they'd find there.
Thirty, forty minutes after Delbert left, a familiar blue Dodge mini-van pulled onto the job site. Ruthie Harrison, half of the couple whose house they were building, had come one more time to see their progress. From the day the walls were raised on her new house, Ruthie's shown up maybe once a week. Nobody minds.
Roy tells Janine home-owners-to-be are most of the time a nuisance. They have less than a glimmer of a notion how a house is put together, and when they're not asking stupid questions, they stand where they're most in the way.
She usually comes late in the day, after picking her three kids up from day care. The kids play in the woods behind the new house, and Ruthie doesn't come inside unless she has a plate of cookies or a cake for the crew. She does that a lot, brings something she's baked. Not even Delbert Fraley minds Ruthie Harrison coming around.
This time she showed up around ten thirty. With the crew goofing off the job was quiet. Roy tells Janine the quiet is probably why Ruthie left her car, walked into what will be her living room, and commenced a slow dreamy stroll through the skeleton of her house.
Roy doesn't tell Janine every man on the crew watched Ruthie, trying not to be too obvious about looking. She's the kind of trim, slim head turner who wouldn't be out of place in one of those magazines under the counter at the Readi-Mart. When she's around it's easy to think about seeing her naked like the women in those magazines. Wrapped up in imagining her house, Ruthie acted like the didn't care who watched her, or how closely.
Anytime the crew kicks back, Johnny Ellis goes off by himself, finds a place to lean against a wall stud, and reads. He always has a book in the back pocket of his jeans. Ruthie Harrison, wandering through her day dream, found him in a back bedroom. That's how she wound up speaking to Johnny, instead of somebody who would have told her it was too late to change the window.
When Roy realized Ruthie and Johnny'd been talking a whole lot longer than it takes to say "Hello," or "How's it going?", he moved close enough to listen. Roy doesn't tell his wife he was a little worried about what a man seven years in prison might say to Ruthie Harrison.
He listened as Ruthie explained the room she and Johnny were in would be her five year old daughter's bedroom. Then Johnny Ellis talked about his daughter, said she was nine and he sure did understand how happy Ruthie's little girl would be to have her own room.
Roy vaguely remembers Johnny being married for a while to one of the Simpson sisters. Renee, he thinks it was. Roy's pretty sure they're divorced.
Janine interrupts, says Johnny Ellis wasn't married to Renee Simpson, it was Renee's sister Robin, but that Roy's right about the divorce. Not long before Johnny went to prison Robin married a guy in the Navy and moved to San Diego.
Roy nods and goes back to the story of what happened that afternoon.
Johnny didn't talk to Ruthie Harrison like he had an ex-wife and daughter half a continent away. He made it sound like his family was right there in Tyler County, and he'd see them soon as he got off work. Roy tells Janine that was why he didn't interfere. He didn't know if he'd be able to look Johnny in the eye, interrupting such a whopper of a lie.
Ruthie went to stand in front of a window facing the woods. It wasn't a real window yet, just the shape of one, outlined by raw lumber and Celotex. Ruthie said her girl Casey would spend a lot of time perched on a chair, looking outside. After a while she wondered if the window could be lowered, if Johnny might fix it so a small child could see outside without climbing onto something.
Roy couldn't believe it when Johnny said he'd change the window himself, right then and there if Ruthie wanted to stay and watch.
It didn't take more than half an hour to modify the wall so the window was a couple feet lower, even with Roy following Johnny, trying to talk him out of what he was doing. Roy kept talking while Johnny built a new header out of an eight foot two by ten, cut new jacks and cripples from a couple of studs to reframe the space.
Talking low enough Ruthie Harrison wouldn't hear, Roy reminded Johnny that Delbert Fraley would pitch a fit, and not just over wasting lumber. There were four other windows in the wall. Dropping one of them two feet would throw the look of the whole house off.
Roy tells Janine that Johnny said he wasn't worried about Fraley getting mad.
But that wasn't what Johnny said, or how he said it.
What he really said was "Fuck Delbert Fraley. If a person wants to do something nice for their little girl, they ought to do it. This ain't Delbert Fraley's house, it's her house and I'm just fixing a window the way she wants it."
And Johnny said "Fucking people so fucking tight-assed about fucking windows lining up oughta find something else to fucking bitch about."
The more he talked about it the more excited Johnny got. The madder he got, really, so Roy backed off. "You don't crowd a man who's pissed off and holding a framing hammer," he tells Janine.
Nobody on the crew said anything, but there wasn't a pair of eyes in that shell of a house not watching Johnny Ellis storm through the business of reframing the little girl's window. Ruthie Harrison's eyes were happy and excited, and the crew was happy in a whole other way. There'd be a show when Delbert Fraley saw what Johnny had done. Moving the window was just the first act, and the crew was looking forward to the rest.
Roy didn't want to see any kind of a show. Johnny was making trouble for himself, for no good reason, like he always had. Watching him nail the header and jacks in place Roy remembered things he hadn't thought about in years.
How Johnny one time gave the finger to Paulie Conley, on a day they'd skipped school to fish the Weaver Hole. Paulie was a deputy sheriff, looking for shade where he could park his cruiser for an afternoon nap. He'd have left them alone if Johnny hadn't raised his right arm straight up in the air, middle digit extended, grinning like a monkey. Paulie chased them for an hour.
The deputy must have weighed more than three hundred pounds, and no fat man can catch two thirteen year olds, even with them carrying rods and reels and a tackle box. They got away, but it didn't matter. The deputy knew who they were, and went to both their houses and told their folks the boys were truant.
Watching Johnny swing his hammer - -swing it a whole lot harder than he needed to- - Roy remembered a morning Johnny called Mrs. Reed, their history teacher, a bitch right to her face, and got himself kicked out of school for three days.
There was that time in high school, right before Roy changed to vo-tech classes. Walking out of a boys' bathroom after an illicit cigarette, Johnny emptied a chest full of smoke in the face of the assistant principal everybody called "Hose Nose."
Half a dozen events slipped into Roy's consciousness as he watched Johnny with the window, things he hadn't thought about in forever, all of them about Johnny making trouble for himself.
When Johnny was done reworking the little girl's window, Ruthie hollered five year old Casey out of the woods and had her stand there to show it was just at the right height for a child to look into the trees.
Then Ruthie Harrison did something that surprised all of them: she hugged Johnny, right in front of the little girl. It wasn't an out of place hug, not even close to what the single men would get at a bar that night, after slow dancing with some saloon cutie, but still. There wasn't any light showing between them for a second or two.
Everybody took turns trading glances over that hug while Ruthie herded the kids into her minivan and drove off. The dust hadn't yet settled from her leaving when they heard Delbert Fraley's old Chevy rumbling down the county road outside the housing development. Delbert's pickup needed a new muffler, and its engine roar carried half a mile.
By the time the foreman got his Chevy parked a pair of saws were running, and anyone who wasn't sawing found a place that needed a nail or two, fire blocks to put in place, whatever would keep their hands busy. All the work happened in places where it was easy to watch Delbert stalk across the littered yard and pause, take a long look at the wall where one window was two feet lower than the others.
The only one not even a little bit interested in Delbert was Johnny Ellis, leaned up against his wall. That book was still open in front of him, like he might get in another few pages before the foreman had him for lunch.
Delbert Fraley stomped into the house and didn't look at anybody except Johnny, and stopped right in front of him. When the foreman put a hand out, like he was going to snatch the book away, Johnny aimed a gaze over the pages and Delbert's hand stopped in mid-air.
"What in the merry hell is that?" Delbert demanded, pointing at the lowered hole in the wall.
His voice calm and easy, like he was explaining something to an idiot child instead of a pissed off foreman who outweighed him by seventy pounds, Johnny told Delbert how Ruthie wanted the window lowered for her little girl. And never dropped his book even an inch.
Roy tells Janine if Delbert Fraley looked at him the way he looked at Johnny Ellis, he'd want a whole lot more than a book to hold, but Johnny stood there like he couldn't wait for Delbert to hush so he could get back to an interesting part.
Delbert did a lot of shouting and carrying on, without crowding any closer to Johnny. He said when Charlie Sturgill by God heard about that window foolishness, Johnny'd be looking for a new job, and it wouldn't surprise Delbert a bit if Charlie docked whatever pay Johnny had coming, for the lumber he'd wasted.
Somewhere in there the fear came onto Delbert. It was a shifty looking anywhere but Johnny's face. It was staying a pace and a half back that told them all Delbert was afraid of the smaller man.
The foreman would have problems for a while as others tested to see if they could put the same furtive look in Delbert's eyes. And none of them had known Delbert couldn't fire them, that firing was a decision reserved for Charlie Sturgill.
The foreman didn't stop talking so much as he seemed to run out of heat and words. He stood there quiet for a while, like he was reaching down inside himself for something else to say and not finding anything.
"You done?" Johnny asked when Delbert was quiet for maybe ten seconds
"Fuck you, Ellis," Delbert said. "I'm gonna have your job."
"Keep your silly ass job," Johnny told him in that smooth voice.
Walking away, Johnny pulled the framing hammer from his tool belt and heaved it into the air. If the roof had been in place the tool would have bounced back down among the crew, but it sailed thirty, thirty five feet above the roofless house before starting down.
Delbert Fraley watched the hammer at the top of its arc like he was the only one there who didn't know it was about to split his head wide open. At the last second the foreman jerked forward a single step, and the tool fell to the plywood subfloor behind him, bounced twice, and was still.
Roy tells Janine it wasn't till he let his breath out he realized how long he'd been holding it, and it sounded like some other people did the same thing.
"Then what happened?" Janine asks.
"Not much." Roy stretches his legs out, but slouching on the glider is uncomfortable, and he straightens himself after a few seconds. "Johnny drove off and the rest of us set down and ate our dinner. Then we went back to work." Roy uncaps the pint bottle and swallows what's left of the bourbon.
"Can he get his job back?" Janine looks away as Roy drinks the whiskey, but doesn't say anything.
"I don't think so," Roy says.
Roy doesn't like the sound of Janine's voice. It's like she doesn't think it's too bad at all, and he feels himself get angry. "Johnny's a good guy."
"Sounds a little crazy to me."
"He ain't no more crazy than I am."
Roy lifts his arm, pitches the bourbon bottle overhand into the yard, hard as he can throw it. It bounces across the grass a few times without breaking. He'll have to go pick the bottle up before he goes to bed, but throwing it felt good. "There's not a lot of difference between Johnny and me."
Janine snickers. "You're not a thing like Johnny Ellis."
There's a six pack of MGD in the refrigerator, and Roy wishes it was close enough he could stick out his hand and find a cold beer to grip. "When Johnny started growing dope he asked me to help him."
Janine grins like she's waiting for a punch line to a joke, and when there isn't one, moves to lean against the porch rail so she's looking straight at Roy. "You never told me that."
"He almost talked me into it," Roy admits. "That was when we were wanting to build this house. I figured a year or two with Johnny and I could almost have it paid off, instead of carrying a mortgage."
Tired of wishing the beer was closer, Roy gets up, stomps into the house, and carries the six pack back to the porch. The cans are already sweating as he pops the first top. "If I'd've done it Johnny might not have got caught."
"How's that?" Janine doesn't look at the beer, keeps her gaze fixed on Roy's face. He can almost feel the intensity of her stare, faint heat on his skin.
"It was because of that old four wheel drive Dodge I had when we got married that Johnny asked me. He had him a pot patch the hell and gone off in the National Forest, at the end of an old logging road too rough for whatever he was driving back then."
Roy lifts the beer and empties half the can in a single draw. "The Dodge could take him right to where he needed to go, but since all he had was some old car he had to fetch and carry things half a mile into the woods. That's how he got caught, toting five gallon buckets of water to them plants. Somebody noticed what he was doing and turned him in."
When Roy sighs, the breath leaving his body carries away some of the anger - -or whatever it is- - churning his belly. He empties the beer, snaps open another, past caring what Janine thinks.
"We're not a whole lot different, Johnny and me," he says.
Roy sits quiet for a while, not sure what he wants to say to his wife, let alone how to say it.
The first time he told Janine he loved her, they were seventeen, wrestling around in his old Dodge truck, parked on a Forest Service fire trail. After he muttered the words against her feverish neck, Janine took her blouse off. Roy did love her, as far as a teenaged boy can love anyone, but he's not sure he would have said the words, except for the blouse.
They've been together a long time, and Roy can't imagine a life without Janine, knows he's a better man for having her with him.
But words like "love" are no easier to say out loud than when Roy and Janine were just beginning.
"Renee, Robin, whatever his wife's name was, she was running around on him. Johnny didn't have a reason not to grow dope and make big money for a while." Roy looks at Janine a long time. "You were my reason. You wouldn't stand for it, and I wanted things to work out for us."
Roy shakes his head, pissed at the unfairness of it all. Pissed at something anyway. "Johnny never in this life had nothing at all to care about working out."
"Well." Janine stands away from the porch rail, puts a hand on Roy's shoulder and squeezes. "People like that can be dangerous to be around, don't you think?"
Roy opens a third beer. The alcohol buzz reaching from his head all the way to his legs feels good. He hears Janine go into the house, and knows he'll follow before too much longer. She'll be in their bed, and they probably won't make love because Janine hates the smell of beer.
But she'll lay her head on his shoulder, and they'll slip off to sleep, still touching.
Tomorrow Roy will call Charlie Sturgill, see if he's got enough clout with the contractor to get Johnny's job back. It might mean Delbert Fraley quitting, but maybe Charlie'll go along with it.
One more beer and Roy will go to bed.
But first he'll walk out and pick up that empty whiskey bottle.
~ end ~