I heard Mother calling, but I didn’t answer. I lay in the scattered hay and stared at the afternoon sunbeams angling through the big bay doors of the barn. Against the wall were damp, moldy bales that had been in the same place for over a year. They smelled more of wet dirt and decay than anything fresh-cut. Two sheets of tin had blown off the roof during the winter and the place was rotting. There was too much to do now. Mother and I couldn’t keep up.
I rolled over and faced my dog, Joe. He lifted his chin and nosed the chewed-up stick lying in front of him.
“Not right now,” I said.
Joe rested his chin on the ground again. He was patient.
“Foster!” Mother called again.
I stood and walked into the sunbeams with Joe following. I stopped just outside and looked across the yard at her. She’d known where I was, but she wouldn’t come after me. She didn’t like the barn now.
She said there was nothing we could do about it.
“Dax’s here!” she called. “Come get washed up before dinner!”
I looked over the rail fence at the pasture beyond. The cows had been gone for several months, sold to the farmer behind us. Johnsongrass grew waist-high, looking like something that would be a giant briar patch in another year. Daddy’s farm truck and Kubota tractor sat under the shed. The place had grown still and quiet and lifeless. There was nothing we could do about any of it.
* * *
I left Joe waiting at the back door and stepped into the kitchen. Mother was pulling a baked chicken from the oven and I smelled her perfume over the roasted meat. I never knew her to wear perfume until Dax Ganey started coming around. The smell of it made me queasy.
He leaned against the sink, working a can of old Milwaukee beer like it was hinged on his hand, watching her. It seemed he was always leaning on something, skinny and hungry-looking. He wore his blue work pants and white button-down shirt that said RIVIERA UTILITIES on the pocket. He was nearly five years younger than her and wore his hair long in the back, sometimes pulling it into a ponytail.
Mother said she’d met him about two months before when he was surveying an underground power line in front of our house. The first time she’d had him over to eat I thought he was as cool and smooth as a movie star. Gradually I came to realize how he really was when Mother wasn’t looking. The only thing I liked about Dax was that he worked most evenings during the week. Since Mother worked at the post office during the day, Saturdays and Sundays were about the only time I had to see him.
Dax flicked the last swallow of beer into the sink and dropped the empty into the trash. Then he turned to me and studied me until I looked away. He wouldn’t smile unless Mother was watching him.
“How you doin’, Foster?” he said.
I started past him. “Fine,” I said.
I heard the oven door shut and sensed Mother’s eyes on me. “Shake his hand, Foster,” she said.
I stopped next to him and held out my hand without looking at him. He had a snake tattoo on the bottom of his wrist. I didn’t like shaking his hand. I didn’t mind the tattoo, but his fingers were strong like cables and he usually squeezed my knuckles until it hurt, like he wanted to warn me of something.
This time his hand was limp and clammy.
“Look a man in the eyes when you shake his hand, son,” he said cheerfully.
I didn’t. I pulled away and started to my room.
“What’d I do?” I heard him say.
“You didn’t do anything, Dax.” Mother sighed.
I went into my room, shut the door, and rubbed my hand. I could still hear them.
“Why’s he hang out in the barn?”
“I don’t know,” she said, like she was tired of thinking about it.
I stood in the middle of the floor, holding a clean shirt, staring at my closet.
“Maybe I’ll take him fishin’ with me. Might snap him out of it.”
I changed shirts and stood before my mirror, still listening, but wishing I wasn’t.
“I need to get him off this farm,” she said. “Get him in a neighborhood with other kids. We’ve got to sell this place.”
“Where does that leave me, sweetie?” he said smoothly.
“Stop that, Dax.”
“You know what. Go in there and watch television and give me time to get this together.”
I waited until I heard another beer can snap, then I forced myself into the bathroom to wash my hands.
* * *
I walked into the kitchen and Mother turned from the sink and inspected me.
“I wish you’d put on some clean trousers.”
“He didn’t change.”
She turned back to the sink. I noticed where her apron parted in the back that she had on a dress I’d only seen her wear on Sundays when we used to go to church.
“Okay,” I said.
“Thank you for doing that,” she replied. “And I’d like it if you’d go sit in the living room with Mr. Ganey and keep him company.”
After I put on clean pants I went into the living room and sat in the club chair across from him. He didn’t look at me or say anything. He was more interested in a rerun of Walker, Texas Ranger. I took the opportunity to study the side of his face. He reminded me of a goat. A smooth-shaved goat. Restless and jumpy with eyes that blinked too much, like whatever went on inside his head was too fast for the face that held it. He shot a look at me and I glanced away.
“You like Chuck Norris?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
In my periphery I saw him turn back to the television.
“What do you do out in the barn?” he asked.
Neither of us said anything for a minute.
“What’s wrong with that dog of yours?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him.”
“I about had to kick the crap out of it last time I came over here.”
I didn’t answer him.
“You need to put him on a rope.”
“He never bit anybody.”
“He about started on me.”
I didn’t respond.
“Your momma says you been givin’ her trouble.”
I stared at my hands.
“Says you been gettin’ in fights at school.”
I looked at him. I couldn’t believe she’d told him about it. He turned to me again and I looked away at the television. Then he was chuckling to himself. “Kid needs to get in a few fights. Get over the fear of it early. You don’t wanna grow up and be a pansy-ass, do you?”
I shook my head. I just wanted him to stop talking.
“But let me tell you somethin’,” he said.
Mother walked in before he could tell me anything and I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“Dinner is served, you two,” she said proudly.
I got up quickly and started for the dining room table. I didn’t like being alone with him. Dax scared me in a way that I didn’t understand. In a way that I’d never felt. Like somebody I’d find standing over my bed at night, closing those fingers around my throat.
Copyright © 2012 by Albert Watkins Key, Jr.