Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Tomorrow when the authorities find Timothy Manning's body, the 16 year old will be face down at the edge of a cornfield at the end of Corning Road. Aside from the bullet wound to his head and a scratch to his face caused in the fall, the body will be untouched, the animals will not have found it yet.
The Lapham family has been here since before the War. Jed had come back from France, the only of his brothers to do so. Some people said he came back a hero, having saved three men. But in the afternoons, after church, in the parlors and foyers of the big houses in town, some of the women and even more men would whisper that he had been a deserter. In the schoolyard boys taunted each other with dares to fetch his wooden leg or glass eye or metal hand. All things they had never seen, but had imagined him to have.
Jed Lapham never spoke of the War. He came into town only rarely, to the butcher, the general store, the mill or smith when his mule needed shod. He would slink though the place, always standing under his own shadow. He always came on foot, walking the miles from his farm. Sixty acres he had with his mother, fifty-nine of them tobacco, an endless reach of leaves and dryers.
His mother died in winter. She was foul and no one missed her. For months, no one saw Jed in town. In the spring he reappeared and married. The girl wasn't local and no one knew from where she came. She was a frail thing. Waifish and all but translucent. She hung on her feet, little more than a stand of clothes drying in the breeze. They had a baby and then another, both boys, Jed Jr. and Dennis, four years apart.
A day on the road in the wagon, Jed, his wife and their boys. They moved forward, a speck on the road, inching ahead. Dennis sat on his mother's lap, the pale skin of his knees turning pink through the holes in his pants. Jed held the reins while Jed Jr. walked along side, brandishing a stick and striking out at the rare beetle that dared cross his path.
On the far horizon another speck formed, something dark and lumbering coming toward them. Another wagon, a 10-horse team carrying logs. Two men drove the wagon, their dark skin shining under the noon sun, their wide brimmed hats bobbing as their team pulled them over the rutted earth.
Jed steered his mules to the side of the road as the larger team approached. Behind the logs, another length behind the first wagon, was a second. Jed thought he saw a family, their wagon filled with chairs and curios and all the other things he thought might make a home.
Jed Jr. looked up at the black men as they drove their horses. The wagon trundled on, its wheels creaking through the road. And then a tear, the sound of ripping, of ropes unbinding. The lengths of the logs shifted in the back. They slipped loose. Wood groaning with gravity. It started at the top, a sudden rolling, something underneath had given way. They fell slowly.
Jed looked on at the rolling logs, each one bouncing down the wagon's side. They thudded into the dirt of the road, orange dirt clouding up around them. They rolled to where Jed Jr. stood. They overtook him. They rolled over his small frame and he was gone.
His wife screamed, the loudest sound she had ever made. She stood halfway and clutched Dennis, still in her lap, even closer to her small breast. Jed sat, the reins stills in his hands, the logs still rolling down. When the last of them had come to rest at the wheels of his wagon, only then did Jed open his mouth. The log pile was silent.
The two black drivers hopped down. "Sorry," the taller one said. "Haulin' logs for the family," he said, nodding to the smaller wagon coming up the road. "Didn't mean to startle you, ma'am," said the shorter.
Jed found the strength to stand. "My boy," he said. He pointed to the roll of logs. "My boy, he's there. Under there." The two men looked at each other, slowly coming to understand.
"Run back and tell Mr. Manning," the taller said, and the shorter one took off. "Come on and help me," he said to Jed. He put himself at one end of the nearest log, and told Jed to take the other. He bent down, and wrapped his hands under the bark. He grunted and the tree lifted. At the other end Jed struggled to lift the tree. "Come on now," the man said, "give it everything you got."
They heaved again and the log rolled back, away from the pile. Jed stepped back. "It's too heavy. I can't lift them all." He ran a hand through his hair and leaned back against his wagon.
"I know they're heavy, sir, but you have to try," the driver said. "Only way your son has a chance is if we can move these right now." He wiped sweat from his brow. "Now, let's start with this smaller one. You get on that side and let's try."
Jed did as he was told, and as the driver counted they heaved and rolled back another of the logs. "Good job now," he said. "Just a couple more." They rolled another log and then another, till finally Jed stumbled back into the road.
"I can't." His chest was heaving and his shirt was soaked through, now just another translucent layer of skin. He reached back into the wagon and grabbed the brown bottle that sat half empty at his wife's feet. She was quiet and crying, her eyes closed, not wanting to see.
The second wagon was now upon them, and a tall man in shirt and boots stepped down. The taller driver stepped forward to explain. They huddled and whispered, each taking slow glances at the wagon, the pile, and the sobbing man taking long pulls from his bottle. When their conversation was finished, the tall man stepped forward and took off his hat.
"Well, this is unfortunate." He extended his hand, his face waxen and taut. "Ezra Manning. These are my wife Delores and our boy Peter." He nodded back to the woman sitting at the wagon's front under a parasol and the boy asleep in its back. His face relaxed as he scanned the road in each direction. "Heartbreaking. An act of God, this is." He wiped his brow with the kerchief from his breast pocket. "Terribly upsetting, I can only imagine."
"Joseph, Willam." The drivers came forward. "You work on clearing these logs." Ezra turned to face Jed directly, put his arm on his shoulder, turning him away from the mess. "These logs were being moved for our store. We plan to build out on the old tram road."
Jed stared at the man, tried to listen to his words, to comprehend. "My boy," he began to speak.
"Yes, Joseph said you believe your boy might have been struck in the fall. Well," Ezra said, "obviously this a terrible accident. You must be in shock. Come and let me help you."
He guided Jed to the rear of his wagon and fished out a bottle that he palmed into Jed's unfeeling hand. "Nothing wrong with it at a time like this. Some for the missus, as well, God bless her."
Jed said thank you, but he wasn't sure why.
"Now tell me your name, sir," Ezra said.
Jed told the man his name, and answered the rest of his questions: where he lived and what he did.
"Right," Ezra said, "Corning Road, I know it." Jed couldn't tell if the man was now smiling or squinting from the sun. "Now please listen to me, Mr. Lapham," Ezra said, looking into his eyes. Jed tried to shift his gaze elsewhere, but found it impossible to look anywhere but at the man or his son, now sitting up in the wagon. "It'll be a few months yet before we get our store open for business, but when we do, I want you to please accept this." He took a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket. "That is five dollars credit for you and the missus. It'll help get you back on the right foot from this." He shoved the paper into Jed's hand, and again Jed said thank you.
"None necessary," Ezra said, and he walked Jed back to his own wagon. "We help one another in times of suffering. You would do the same." He tipped his hat to Jed's wife, now staring silently out across the fields. "Now let me get on to town. As soon as we arrive I can have more of my men come out to help with the logs."
He reached out his hand, and when Jed's didn't rise to meet it, he leaned in and shook it where it hung limply at his side. Ezra turned to walk back to his wagon. "God be with you," he said, and his horses stepped forward.
Peter Manning inherited the store on Highway 165. He opened every morning but Sunday at eight, parking his Bel Air just off the side of the building, where it would catch the morning sun and transform into a dream for every short bed owner for three counties. It was summer and his son Robert was in the corner, two dolls and an empty whisky box keeping him occupied. He was eight, that tender age when the first wisps of understanding begin to take hold. He sat there in the corner, a doll in each hand, the navy of his button-down reflecting in the linoleum floor.
Peter kept his place at the register. Outside a rusting truck pulled into the lot, expelling a tall thing of a man, tattered and worn. The bell above the door sounded and the stranger entered and stepped to the counter.
"Morning. What can I do for you?" Peter said.
The man propped himself against the counter, eyes dull. "Seagrams. A fifth."
Peter scanned him. Knew him. "A fifth. Four dollars."
"God-fuck, four dollars!" the man stammered, still holding onto the counter. "It was three seventy-five last Friday!"
Robert put down the dolls, eyed the exchange from the corner.
"Well, it's four dollars today," Peter said. "If you don't like it, try Davidson's up the road."
The man stepped back and shook his head, his tumble of hair falling down over his face. "No. No. It's fine. Just put it on my credit."
Robert watched the man, his weight shifting from leg to leg, like he couldn't decide at what moment he should run for the door.
"Alright, what's your name?" Peter took his debt records from beneath the counter, the leather-bound notebook coming to rest just inches from where the man held onto the counter.
"Dennis. Dennis Lapham." He was sweating.
"Right, yes. Your Tom, he's in my Robbie's class at school, I think." Peter flipped through the pages. Dennis didn't answer.
Robert knew Thomas, the boy who sat at the back of the class. He didn't have shoes.
"Well, Dennis, I have here that your credit is already at thirty dollars. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that until you pay . . ."
"Well," the man interrupted, "you see, I just got back from Seoul." He was shaking now. "Work's a little slow right now."
"Well, certainly, I understand, but — "
"I was injured, see." The man hooked down the collar of his shirt that maybe once had been white to show a red rippling of skin across his shoulder. "Shrapnel. See?" He held out a hand to brace the counter but fell short and tipped forward. Peter stepped back, his finger never leaving the man's name in his records. "Fine. Fine. I'm fine."
"Would you like some water," Peter said. He was in the cloud of musk the man had brought with him. "There's a spigot round back."
"Please," the man said, spittle ejecting into the hairs of his mustache, "just the Seagram's. A pint? A half?" He struggled into his pocket, and showed a jangle of coins. "I have enough for that — three seventy-five."
Robert stood up, moved down the aisle, past the scissors, aluminum foil, writing tablets. He carried a doll in one hand, a bulbous thing, oversized head and eyes. The plastic face was both a baby's and a creature's. Auburn curls hung down, crossing its forehead.
"No," said Peter, his voice hard and grey. "Dennis, I think it's time you head on home." Dennis flashed and jerked. The coins in his hands rained down onto the tile. He leapt up, reaching over the counter to the shelf of glass bottles on the wall. He missed and landed half on the counter, his face hungry and fearless. He lashed out again, knocking over cans of soup, which came banging down the aisle to Robert's feet. Peter tore around the counter and grabbed the man in a great bear hug, pinning his arms to his side, while he still writhed and squirmed for the bottles.
Robert stared at the men. He had never seen his father as anything but a doting parent. But now, as his father wrestled the man though the door and out into the parking lot, he saw all the power of a man and all the danger that comes with power, and everything that he had the potential to be.
Peter pushed the man out and into his truck. Told him to leave. To never come back until he had the money to pay. Dennis reached into the seat beside him and lobbed one of the empty bottles out the window. It sailed pitifully into the grass, missing Peter, the Bel Air, everything else. The rusty truck trundled onto the road, a steady stream of curses wafting in its wake. Rubber burned as the trucked swerved before finally settling into a single lane.
The Lapham house at the end of Corning Road had no neighbors for a mile in any direction, save a tessellation of rice and soy and cornrows. Samantha lived at the back of the house, her window overlooking a steady plateau of corn stalks that ran until the pine and cypress bumped up into the riverbank. It had been her grandfather's and her grandfather's father's before that.
Now she sulked alone in her room, a corner tucked into a part of her family history that had not been forgotten, but ignored. The house was small enough that, even had the walls not been almost gossamer thin, she would have heard her parents.
They were shouting again. The same words, or maybe different words, she couldn't remember. As they always were. Their voices rising and falling. The familiar thud of skin, a scream, a slammed door, the subtle clink of a glass bottle. She looked out her window. Her mother climbed into her truck, eye already blackening, and disappeared into two red beams of light.
"Sam," he called. "Get in here!"
She came, shuffling. "What?"
He was studying the place where his shoes met the floor. "Your mom..." He wobbled.
"I know," she said.
"She'll be back." The last word slurring into itself. His eyes were still down. She stared at the top of his head, freckled and half seeded with brindle hairs. They stood there, in the same space, four feet and the smell of spilt whiskey between them.
"Okay." She turned and left him, locking herself back into her corner. She idled the sunlight away, watching as the disk of the sun dipped under the horizon, slipping deeper into the soil where her family began.
When the sky bloomed with stars she heard the gentle rattle of her window. Timothy standing just outside. She opened it and kissed him through the space, pulling him up and into the room. They toppled onto her bed. They had been dating for four months, and in love for three.
"Shhh," she said. Timothy knew to be quiet. He had seen her father's truck in the drive, knew that her parents weren't like his.
He bit her lip and drew her into him. The bed bounced under their weight. Not since Samantha was four and her mother had slept there had there been two bodies in it. It groaned under them, sighing them into it, into themselves.
They lay together, arms and limbs intertwining. She told him her mother had gone again.
"When do you think she'll be back?"
"A few hours," she said. "She doesn't have anywhere to go but here." She didn't say "none of us do." She didn't have to. Her life had been decided before she knew she had it.
"Where would you go?" he asked. She looked at him blankly. "Really, where would you go, if you did have somewhere to go?"
"What are you asking me?"
"I'm just saying. I have a truck, a little money. Maybe you could . . . find some money from your dad. We could make it to Memphis or Little Rock. Probably even New Orleans if gas is cheap enough."
"Tim ..." She didn't want to stop him, but she had never liked to play pretend. "We have a history test tomorrow."
He slipped his hand into hers. "History's the same, no matter where you learn it."
They lay there, breathing together, getting lost in separate futures, both of them orbiting back onto the bed. Finally, when the river shone white with moonlight, he left her, sliding again out of the window. Telling her he loved her and that tomorrow they would run away. She smiled and said okay, knowing that instead they would go to school and then back to here.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said. It was a question and a fact.
"Yeah," she said, more to agree than to answer. She closed the window and turned back into her room.
In the kitchen Thomas sets his glass down on the table. Moonglow casting yellow across the table, across his face. He hears a rustle in the field. Not the brief flurry of the breeze, but the steady beating of limbs on leaves. The deer again. They've been ransacking the field all summer. He takes his rifle from the closet and steps onto the porch. His thumb flexes and the spark catches thunder across the delta. The gun rocks against his shoulder. In the distance he hears a satisfying thud and a crash of branches. He'll take care of the deer in the morning, or maybe the next day. He takes a drink. Probably the next.
Seth Eli Barlow is a native of Rison, who now lives in Little Rock. This is his first published story.
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