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Sheldon Compton
The Bottom Field

At the end of Garden Road stood a garage. A block building with a set of double wooden doors swinging out for cars or chairs, depending on whether work needed to be done or sitting and drinking and getting high were the only tasks at hand. Strangely, Sunday was the day most of the work took place here, at the end of Garden Road. Other days, the doors were closed, tight as a nun’s knees. These days traffic sped down North Front Street that leads to the garage and to the trailer beside the old structure, gravel and dirt flying like split barrel ash, a dark thing flying through clean air. This is where folks from Calvary to Teller County would swing in to meet with Bill.

Bill’s brother, Stan, has been working on a 1998 Ford Ranger for more than four months at the garage, mostly Sundays, because the traffic to his brother’s trailer is too much for him or anybody to handle, really. He’s screamed away a few buyers, but mostly he had to walk back the quarter mile to his house and leave it alone. His brother helped locals with needs, but all Stan wanted was to get that Ranger running. Younger brothers and giving in and allowances kept his progress at a slow gate, a shoulder-slumped walk across the bottom that crosses Garden Road and led to Stan’s house across Route 122. From the front porch he can still keep an eye on the Ranger and how it tilts like a tired old man, the bumper at rest and easy going against the cherry picker.

“Stan! Phone!”

Stan shuffled his feet across the porch. His pant legs were stuffed inside the work boots. Grease coated the hard steel tips and sides. Up, he stretched from habit and eased into the living room. His wife, a stick woman he calls Eve but whose real name was Henry because she had a strange daddy, held the phone out like a dead cat.

“Who’s it?”

“Evan Meeks. Good company to keep, Dipshit.”
Stan called her Eve after the third date and she called him Dipshit, more often shortened to simply Dip, and it all worked just fine. Stan took the phone, pushed his boots off at the door and fell into the kitchen chair situated where the phone is attached to the wall. He pulled the tangles out of the cord.

“Yeah?” It’s more breathing outwardly than a greeting.

“Kevin been comin' over there to your brother’s?”

He’d seen Kevin Meeks come in and out a few times in the last few months. Young boy with a broken mama and Evan for an uncle. It made sense to Stan.

“I’ve seen him come by some. What can a person do? He’s got a car now, Evan.”

Stan waited with the phone hooked into his shoulder, putting bread in the toaster. A jar of apple butter sat in the middle of the table.

“He buying?”

Stan closed his eyes then opened them. Eve watched from the doorway. She seemed punier than yesterday. Everything did.

“I’d figure so, yeah. Bill don’t run a card game and he sure as shit don’t have a book club.”

The receiver went dead in his ear. Stan didn’t wait for the upcoming dial tone but handed the phone back to Eve.

“That what I think it’s about?” she asked. “That nephew of his. Kevin?”

She moved though the kitchen, her still nice body making a path behind her, hips and legs, the ivory arms bare from her pushed up sleeves, all weaving the air as she walked. She sat down at the table and opened the apple butter. Her hair was always sunshine, even in the most swallowing darkness. She pushed the jar to Stan. Her eyes watched him, that caring affection she hid so well held in check, but she pushed her hand across the table and he took it.

He didn’t answer her question about Kevin. He buttered the toast and walked to the window. Four cars were in Bill’s driveway, best he could tell. Two more were parked out in the bottom where the old man and woman once farmed, a long stretch that ran with the river’s edge and the train tracks beyond. No sign of Kevin’s Dodge Aspen. He’d check in a half hour or so for Evan walking up Garden Road. Until then, he’d check his shotgun, give it a good cleaning, make sure he had at two shells left from last season. Man needed to be prepared.

The broken sounds of Stan sleeping on the couch put Eve in a restless mood. She made some calls to her folks, worked to fix the porch swing, fed the dogs. But she was still restless. At last, she sat in the recliner and watched her husband sleep. He was a tall man and his socked feet lopped over the end of the couch arm. His pants, two sizes too big, were rolled at the cuffs.

Parts of his pallid shin were visible on one leg. The fall jacket she’d bought him two years ago was still zipped to the stubble of his double chin. He snorted, full and loudly, just as she was about to recall the jawline of his youth. She turned on the television, turned it off.

Cars and trucks kept coming to and from Bill’s trailer across the way, shifting up that gravel dust and banging shut the trailer door behind them. Ten minutes or so each one and then gravel and dust again and another crew. Eve put on her windbreaker, left the living room and sat on the swing, tested it for a few seconds, and then lit off down the porch steps. Crossing the bottom field she spotted two cars at one end of Bill’s then another when she rounded the corner to the porch. She knocked on the door and a stranger answered, shirtless and leaning. The stranger’s stomach was large and tight and shined full and round in the sunlight.

“Ain’t you a sight,” she said. “Where’s Bill?”

The stranger smacked his lips and stepped back from the doorway. “Bill!”

Eve flinched, but hid it well. She pulled her windbreaker around her and thrust her chin out.

The stranger turned left into the dimness of the trailer and soon her brother-in-law came through the living room.

He had always been smaller made than Stan. Narrow shoulders, tiny hands and short fingers.

When he was standing in the doorway, he scratched at one of two receding hair lines.

“Hey, Hen. What’s wrong?”

“Stan’s up there sleeping with a gun tucked in his arm,” she said. “Think that’s got anything to do with you, Bill? I’m just saying. Do you think?”

“What the hell? What’s he doing that for?”

Eve straightened her back, tiptoed into Bill’s face. “Somebody’s coming to see you soon. Probably more than just this guy Stan’s watching for.”

“What guy?”

“Hush it! She leaned back, looked away from Bill and his hurt face, out across the bottom field. That field hadn’t seen a tractor in twenty years. “You need to talk to your brother. I ain’t waking him up.”

Without giving Bill time to answer, Eve popped down the three small steps of the porch and turned the corner of the trailer so the bottom field was stretched out in front of her, a flat track of land and history leading away.

“I told him.”

“You what?” Stan tugged at the sleeve of his shirt.

“And I told him he needed to talk to you. That you two need to talk.”

He tugged the other sleeve and paced the kitchen. Midday warmed the field and the front porch. The frost from the morning was gone now. Stan looked to Bill’s trailer and then across the way to the garage and his Ranger.

“It’s warm enough now for me to get some work done on the truck without freezing my ass off,” he said. “I’ll deal with him at some point. Or he’ll deal with me. Or Evan Meeks will.”

Eve pulled him back into the kitchen as he was opening the door to leave out to the garage. Her fingers pushed into the muscles at the bend of his arm, her face a blank slab of wood. She pointed out the kitchen window.

A Dodge Aspen slid past the garage and kicked gravel as it maneuvered into a parked position. Kevin Meeks stepped out wearing a camouflage jacket, sweat pants and a baseball cap eased just over the top of his brow.

“Sonofabitch.”

Eve said nothing. Stan left the kitchen and returned with the shotgun. He knew Eve would pull at him again, and he’d let her stop him. The gun wasn’t for Kevin, after all. And when she did, he allowed her to take it and, holding it in her hands like a newborn, she placed it on the counter. He pulled his jacket together and stepped onto the porch.

The Aspen was a pile of junk metal, he thought, walking across the field. Out of habit, he sidestepped around Lafe Hill’s patch of garden. The only life left in the bottom field was Lafe’s sprinkle of lettuce and greens. Lafe and his wife picked about once a week, hunkered over without talking. Just picking and placing and then gone. The two of them were in better shape than the Aspen.

Kevin Meeks’ beat down Dodge was parked more or less sideways about four feet from Bill’s front porch. The motor ticked loudly. Stan tried to remember to mention that some oil should be added or changed. That ticking sound was no good. Even the Meeks deserved some advice on cars from time to time. He sucked in a deep breath and knocked on the door. When Kevin answered, Stan pointed back at the Aspen.

“You’re gonna need to add some oil or have it changed,” he said and watched the young man’s eyes grow just a bit wider, pupils pinpoints. Just a baby, really. Hardly one-fifty soaking wet after Thanksgiving dinner. “Just tell Bill I’m working on the Ranger if he needs me.”

Stan had been trying to get a rebuilt motor dropped in the Ranger the past couple weeks. The hoist rocked above him while he pushed against the body of the motor. The thin, metal legs swayed and bent to breaking. Stan let a grunt gush out of him and stood back, took a chunk of cut wood and wedged it hard into a space just in front of the radiator. The truck rocked from his pushing, but nothing gave way. From the corner of his eye, he ignored the fact that Bill and Kevin stood on the front porch watching.

He dropped back into the plastic lawn chair at the mouth of the garage and rubbed his hands. The pressure had left dents in the palms of his hands and he thought of Manny, the dog he and Bill had when they were young. Hauling it out to the tree line beside the river at the far end of the field, he and Bill both had those same kinds of dents afterwards.

They had cradled the bloated Lab in a potato sack, each of them holding a wrung up end until it seemed that rough cloth was going to push straight on through the skin and hit bone from the weight. Bill dropped his end three or four times and the scent of that bloat and death would come up at them and they’d gag and complain until the old man would yell in from the field and tell them to keep it moving.

Once to the tree line, both dropped the Lab, really a mixed breed mutt more than anything, and those dents from where the cloth had bitten into the skin were pink and deep on both their hands. Bill forgot the shovel and voted to toss the dog over the embankment instead of doing through all the burying, saying his hands hurt. What Stan thought about sitting in the plastic lawn chair and watching him talk shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Meeks was how he walked back that morning to get the shovel and had buried the old Lab himself. It got his ass out of the chair, and the motor was soon rocking again, shifting the Ranger around like a strong wind. He wore himself out and had just sat down for a second time when the corner of his eye watched Kevin go back into his brother’s trailer. Bill stood for half a beat on the porch and then started over to Stan.

When he was few feet out, he stopped.

“So Evan Meeks gonna show up today, huh?” Bill said. He looked back to his trailer and then again at Stan. “Hen said I should talk to you. Not sure she meant about that, but I figured as much. She’s the one told me about Evan, and said you had your shotgun shelled up and ready earlier. There’s some trouble coming you think.”

“I think.”

Stan opened the driver’s door on the Ranger and took a seat, glanced at the wobbling hoist and then got out and shut the door easily. The latch went into place with hardly a sound. He backed away slowly. His eyes were glazed, mouth slack. “There’s not much I can do about who comes here. They come or they don’t. I know you don’t agree, but it’s the damn truth.”

Having Bill cuss at him didn’t hit Stan’s ear just right. “That boy over there ain’t just started driving. He’s sixteen and got a uncle that’ll blow a hole through everything in the southern end of the county, including Garden Road. Most especially Garden Road.”

Stan imagined Kevin slanted on the couch in Bill’s living room or tilted against the wall in the kitchen. Wasn’t a soul in the county didn’t know how close Evan Meeks held his nephew to his torn heart. Evan came back from Michigan about a decade ago after two years working at a factory there. He showed up twenty pounds lighter and older in the face after he told folks two men mugged and beat him into the hospital. Few knew for sure, but Evan talked around town about how he got rolled for drug money up in Michigan and how druggies and dealers should burn. More than once Stan himself was in the diner when Evan would proclaim how more than half the county should probably burn.

Bill shrugged it off when Stan reminded him, the same way he had disregarded it before. The same way he disregarded most everything since being hooked became being a supplier. Blindfolded and high. Might as well be dead already.

“Boy could be in there with his eyes rolled back in head or foaming at the mouth right now and you’d be a world of shit,” Stan said. He had started back on rocking the motor from side to side. He quit and took the piece of cut wood again and began wiggling it into a place for some leverage.

Before Bill answered, a state cruiser pulled into the driveway. The driveway was a turnabout drive and troopers had been down and made a U-turn a few times in the past couple of months but nothing else. Bill turned and gave the cruiser a wave that seemed to say he care if they wanted to turn in his driveway, he could care less, have a nice day.

But instead of turning, the cruiser parked beside the Aspen. A state boy Bill didn’t recognize, a young man likely fresh from academy, stepped out, nodded, and went to the Aspen’s license plate. He bent just a little, checked a small slip of paper in his hand.

Adjusting his hat, he turned and started toward the garage.

“Hellfire,” Bill whispered.

“Gentlemen,” the state boy said and gave his hat a goofy tip. “This car belong to Kevin Meeks?”

Stan sat back in the chair and stared harder than he might should have to Bill. The state boy kept his eyes on Bill. Smiling, Bill stood up and stretched, scratched his bald spot and sifted his fingers through the tufts along the sides of his head.

“I guess it must be, officer,” Bill said. “You need to see him? Showed up here out of the blue about a half hour ago. I can get him for you.”

The trooper smiled fake and wide, all teeth and screw you. “I’ll just have a look.”

“Not without a warrant, officer,” Bill shot back evenly.

Stan stood up and walked to the trooper, stuck out his hand. “I’m Stan Hall, officer. This is my garage here and my old trap of a Ranger. I’ll get the boy if you’d like.”

Stan tried to hide that he was holding his breath and waited.

The officer looked to the trailer and then back to Bill, squinted his eyes, and then removed his hat. “I suppose there’s no harm in going about it that way, guys. I’ve just got a few questions for him. Get him out here and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Fine and good. Fine and good,” Stan said. “Bill, see if you can get anywhere on scotching the legs on that cherry picker and I’ll be right back.”

Bill cocked his head to the right, the way a dog might when confused, snorted once and went to the front of the truck. Stan started to the trailer and the trooper followed behind him. He was worried the fresh state boy was going to follow him in anyway but he stopped at the front of his cruiser and adjusted the butt of his service pistol just an inch or two then leaned against the fender.

The trailer was little more than a storage building. What furniture there existed sat more in piles than any other arrangement. A metal folding chair was discarded across the couch and in one corner of the living room were boxes, mostly opened, but some duct-taped closed. The only thing that gave the place a feeling that a human had been there recently was a new flat-screen television situated somehow on the wall. Stan pinched his nose shut through the kitchen and found Kevin in the first bedroom on the left down the long hallway.

The boy lay across a mattress in the floor. Beside him was a dinner plate with pill powder still stuck to sections, covering part of one petal from the design of hearts and roses. It was one of their mother’s plates. Many suppers off that plate and now this. The thought of it ran over Stan and he charged the bed and shook the boy by the shoulders, his head whipping back and then forward, powder flying from his nostrils as he came to and opened his eyes.

He mumbled awake and Stan took no time trying to decipher any of it as it hardly mattered. He also felt no need to warn Kevin Meeks that the leather backseat of a state cruiser would be the next thing he smelled once they made it back through the kitchen. He simply took him under the arms and lifted to a standing position and made his way back through the trailer, stopping at the front door long enough to shake him some more so the boy could stand on his own.

The state boy was still leaning against the fender when the he guided Kevin onto the porch then came out himself, sidestepping around him and down the steps. Kevin was wobbling in the weak sunlight, a limp version of Evan Meeks’ nephew, confused and tired. The trooper moved toward the porch.

“That’s private property there, officer.” It was Bill. He had at some point left the garage and stood behind the cruiser. “From the looks of it, he’ll fall right on down to you if you stand just about where you are.”

Stan hushed him with a glare and took the boy’s elbow, asking the trooper to step back until he could make his way down. As soon as they were both on the ground, the trooper stepped close to Kevin. He leaned in close and must have spotted the powder around the boy’s nose because he spun him quickly and popped handcuffs from his belt in one fluid motion. Kevin was arrested between gusts of fast wind, it happened so quickly. The trooper loaded him into the back of the cruiser without a word, tipped his round brim again in Stan’s direction and left, easing out of the gravel driveway, slower than necessary.

Stan and Eve lived in the old home place. The rooms were few but large. Black and white photographs framed in ornate wood hanged from the walls. Stan studied the photograph outside the bathroom of his parents. It was taken when corn still stood tall and tomatoes and lettuce made green and red the field. In the photograph, it’s easy to see the wind is blowing with the tree branches bent westward, his mother caught in mid-stride some five feet or so behind his father, staring away from the camera, and his father fully facing the camera. Stan leaned close and noticed again how it seemed his old man’s mouth was twisted just enough to be able to tell he was saying something, his leather arm sweeping out as if telling whoever was taking the photograph to move along, get away, nothing to see here. His face was severe. His mother’s face was regal, chin tilted, the look of a sharecropper hanging onto pride with every bit of energy she could muster.

Eve stepped behind him and placed a hand at his elbow. “I always liked that picture, Dip.”

“Yeah. Me, too.” He kept his eyes on the photograph.

“See you got the shotgun again.”

The over-under shotgun leaned against the wall in front of Stan. Two shells slept inside the chambers. He picked the gun up and, touching Eve lightly than he had in years, walked slowly down the hall and into the kitchen. Scents of breakfast nearly pulled him out of the place he’d fallen since Kevin Meeks had been arrested less than an hour ago, but is passed and he went to the window. From here he could see the turn off from Route 122 onto Garden Road and the entirety of that road until it ended at the block garage and his pitiful Ranger still tilting from the weight of the immovable engine stuck half in and half out of its body.

Then he saw him. Evan Meeks, always walking from always being hammered drunk, staggered down the incline of road. He had already turned onto Garden Road and moved faster than Stan would have expected. He didn’t see a gun on him, but then he probably wouldn’t. It’d be a pistol tucked away in his pants or in the armpit of his jacket. It was there, no doubt about it. A .38 maybe or, best case, a .22.

Just as Stan readied the gun, still looking from the window, keeping his eyes on Evan Meeks, he saw him duck into Terry Kimper’s house at the turn in the road. Stan scanned the stretch of land from his house to Bill’s trailer and Lafe Hill caught his eye, bent over his patch of lettuce, white hair bobbing in the middle of all that green like a swinging light bulb. Stan hated to put Lafe in the middle of something, but he didn’t tell him to go pick late season lettuce today.

“Don’t, Dipshit.” Eve didn’t look as puny now as before. It was her eyes, on fire and full of that gamey way she had about her when the world was still young for both of them. But everything was still good old Eve – arms crossed, hair pulled into a eyebrow-pulled ponytail, thin lips set firm.

Stan kissed her full in the lips and they didn’t move against his. He lingered on her bottom lip, holding his kiss there for longer than he had in many years. The over-under was cold in his hand, heavy and ready. He stepped out the door and Eve said nothing more. When he was off the porch and about to start across the bottom field, Stan looked back once and saw her in the window. Her arms were not crossed like before. One arm was now dangling at her side and the other was raised, a hand with fingers extended along the side of her face. He waved once and started toward Bill’s trailer.

He meant to pass by Lafe with nothing more than a nod. Lafe was good people and wouldn’t think much about the shotgun, but old man stopped him, pulling up from his stooped position and smiled.

“It’s a fine batch, right. Look at that?”

A door slammed down the road, Terry Kimper’s door. Evan dropped back onto the road, headed faster than before toward Bill’s trailer.

The over-under felt heavier now. Lafe was brushing his hand across the leaves of lettuce.

“Let me know if you and Hen want some. I’ll pick extra. Man can only eat so much. No use in wasting, right?”

Stan’s eyes didn’t move from Evan, and Bill was likely back inside asleep or stoned. Lafe came up beside him. Stan saw he was watching Evan, too. “No use in wasting, but I could use some help here, Stan.”

A chain link fence ran along the side of Lafe’s patch, a lot where a singlewide once sat years before. He leaned the shotgun against the fence with care and took Lafe by the shoulder, squeezed it gently.

“What can I do? Where do you want me?”

Lafe smiled again and pointed to a section where the lettuce was thickest, near the middle, and Stan moved to the spot. Lafe’s hands working beside him could have been his old man’s, tending the crops even when he could hardly bend his fingers to button his shirt.

Stan didn’t notice when Evan Meeks passed them and disappeared around the corner of the trailer. He asked Lafe about his old man, and his father’s old friend told a story from years ago when all the land was ripe with crops and Stan allowed history to swallow up the present, working what was left from that time quietly.

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection, The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Chaffin Award.  His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well.  He was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still: Journal Fiction Award.  He survives in eastern Kentucky.

 

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