It had been Jake and his supervisor, Andy, in the manager’s trailer. The top three buttons of the manager’s flannel were undone. Jake could see his brow shiny in the light.
Jake heard murmurs among the men outside the thin-walled trailer.
“Like a watermelon.”
Andy looked at the manager.
“You should make that call, Al,” Andy said, putting his stickered helmet under his arm.
“I’m trying to think of what to say,” Al said, putting his palms to his ears and then going up with them into the air.
“You tell her there was an accident,” Andy said.
Jake looked at the typewriter on Al’s desk.
Andy moved towards Al’s desk.
Jake heard laughter outside.
No more Moe.
“Moe fell, Al,” Andy said. “Now make the call.” Andy looked down at the rotor phone.
Al picked up a pack of Winstons on his desk and pinched one out and put it to his lips and lit it. He picked up the receiver of the phone and began to leaf through the Rolodex on his desk.
Al looked up at Andy and Jake, the receiver to his ear.
“Could y’all give me a little space?”
Andy looked at Jake and nodded toward the door.
* * *
The sun had been set for almost two hours now, and thick fog lay out in front of the low beams of Jake’s Scout. The double yellow line led out from the fog and slipped beneath him as he passed over it. The yellow lines and the white line on the shoulder were his guard rails. He could stay between the lines but he could not keep some barrellassing trucker or spiffed-up hot rod from slipping across the lines and swiping him off the road. He wanted to get off the road. He rolled down the window. Cool air pushed in and brushed across his face, down his neck.
He wanted to see the river in the mid-morning, the low-hanging branches of the fat-leafed sycamores along the bank and the rocks that made good shade. Jake reached into the breast pocket of his flannel and took out his Camels. He shook one out and pressed the cigarette lighter in.
Jake tried to think about the river in the morning when the fog cleared, the sun higher and warmer, and the jelly-throated trout darting black among the smooth algaed rocks in the ribbing river. A different place on the river than the one where he had found Moe earlier that day.
Jake flicked his cigarette butt out the window, watched the orange cherry explode on the black road in the rearview mirror. He knew where there was a spring just off the road. He would stop there and take a few minutes before going on. He took out another cigarette and pushed in the lighter.
In the cool, still darkness, Jake followed the soft trickle of water down from where he parked on the shoulder of the road. The spring lay down off the road in the niche of a limestone outcropping.
The people who lived near the spring had laid down a few one-by-fours across some rocks on the lips of the spring so they could kneel and take the water. Jake felt around in the dark with the tip of his booted foot for the loose flop of the boards. When he felt them and knew he was sure, he squatted and dipped a cupped hand into the cold water and brought it up and splashed the water on his face. He did it again. He looked up but he could not see anything. It was very dark. Moe’s black hair was this kind of dark. It was thick, wet. Jake bent over and splashed a cupped hand into the spring and brought some water up and patted it on the back of his neck. He could feel a few cold drops roll over the hair on his neck and then stream slowly down his back. He was awake now.
* * *
One of the paramedics—a short man with a greasy crew cut and a black peach fuzz upper lip—said someone should go down and tie a line to Moe, and then they could pull him up from the bridge. The walls of the gorge were too steep and rocky, and somebody might get hurt trying to bring the body back up on a stretcher, the paramedic with the peach fuzz said. The other paramedic looked down at the ground and nodded.
Andy said he would go down.
Jake stepped forward.
Moe’s body was between two waist-high rocks. One of his legs, broken, hung over one of the rocks, and one of his hands lay in a shallow pool of water reddened by his blood.
“Go see if you can’t find his helmet somewhere,” Andy said, squatting down with a line to tie around Moe’s body.
Jake found Moe’s helmet a few yards away from his body, close to the edge of the river. It was covered entirely with stickers—Ironworker’s 301 and Mondale-Ferraro and Ironworkers Pack Big Tools. He brought it over to Andy.
Jake did not look at Moe’s face. He looked at Moe’s boots, saw scuffed leather, caked mud on the soles, melted rubber.
Andy looked up, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “GO!” After a few seconds, the line became taut and Moe’s body began to rise from between the two big rocks. Jake and Andy followed Moe’s ascending body with their eyes for a while, until it was just a silhouette on the sky above.
When Andy and Jake got back up the ridge, they found two thick-necked deputies with their pens and notebooks out asking the other men what had happened. It was all the same story—one moment he was there, the next he wasn’t.
Andy said he got word from Al and told the men that they should take the next two days off, to come back bright and early Thursday.
* * *
The fog had not thinned. It washed over the road like wraiths. Jake turned on the dome light and squinted at his watch and saw it was coming on 8:30. He didn’t have to go anywhere, be anywhere. He did not stay anywhere, hadn’t stayed anywhere longer than the three weeks he stayed with his co-worker, Jean, a tight-lipped man from KEYBECK, the other men used to say, who was loose with his money and women. But, one day, it was too much for Jake living with Jean. Jake remembered sitting alone in Jean’s kitchen looking at the fluorescent light above the sink and hearing it buzz. And he closed his eyes and tried to remember the smell of the moss-covered rocks, the morning fog on the river. So he lived that summer in the back of his Scout on a thin and snaky tributary of the New River. It was a fine life there, he thought, but it was now getting into fall and the winter in the hollows could be hard and they were always cold. But for tonight he needed just to pull off the road and park and fall asleep.
* * *
Jake used to hear the other men say that Moe was Cherokee, but Jake never asked Moe and never heard him say so. But Jake thought he could tell by Moe’s long, shiny black hair, his strong, iron skin.
One day, after the men had finished a job in a coal mine, they went to a bar. They had only been there for an hour or so, and Moe was already hot-looking and watery-eyed. And when everybody was feeling warm and good and strong, Moe felt very strong and went and tried to talk to two women, and the other men cracked hard smiles and sipped from their bottles of Budweiser.
It ended very quickly when two men with thick hairy fists showed up and wanted to know what Moe was doing talking to their women. Jake craned his head up over the other men and saw Moe look down and push one of the men in the chest hard and take the other one in the neck with a hard left. That man gagged and grabbed his neck with both hands, and the other man came back and Moe plowed into him and took him down, and the fists went down hard and loud on the man’s face. The women screamed and put their hands over their ears. Jake and the other men rushed to the pile and took Moe—by collar and belt—to the door, the bartender saying that if that redskin came around again, he’d call the law. They told the bartender to fuck himself.
Jake helped Andy get Moe into Andy’s Scamp that was parked on the street just up from the bar. Moe was punching at nothing and spitting. His eyes and skin were very hot, and he was sweating.
“You better git, Jake.”
Jake nodded and skipped up the street to where his Scout was parked around the corner. He passed by the bar and saw the two men—one holding his neck, the other stooped and leaning against the wall of the bar—looking around wildly. They looked hungry.
* * *
Jake pushed in the cigarette lighter again and took another cigarette from his breast pocket and put it between his lips. He hadn’t noticed when, but the yellow lines and white shoulder line had vanished. The fog was still thick. The lighter popped out, and he lit his cigarette and rolled down the window. He wanted to get off the road. He slowed down and continued on, and after a mile or so, he saw a white mailbox on the right side of the road. He slowed and stopped at the driveway. He could not see anything up the gravel track but he reversed and pulled forward and drove up it slowly. The driveway led up to a two-story house with a hip roof and it looped around a cherry tree. Jake pulled just past the porch steps and parked.
Jake heard a dog barking as he walked up the stairs to the front door. He rang the doorbell, and the voice of a big woman asked who would be ringing the doorbell at this hour, and a man’s voice said that he’d find out. Jake looked down when he heard paws scratching a wood floor and the doorknob turning from the inside. Jake looked up when the door opened.
The man asked if he could help Jake.
He was a tall man with big red ears and a pocked nose and a crew cut. Jake could see the whites of his eyes behind some folds of skin.
Jake apologized for bothering them at such an hour, the dog—Jake reckoned for a Bluetick—stuck her head through the crack in the door. Jake said he had needed to get off the road because of the fog.
“Where’re ye headed, son?”
“Up towards Keeney Creek,” Jake said.
“You lookin’ for a place to stay?”
Jake said, “Not really,” that he could sleep in the back of his car and that he’d be on the road at dawn.
“What do ye do fer work?”
“I’m an ironworker.”
Jake looked down at the saggy-titted dog that was nuzzling its head, tongue out, against the man’s leg.
“We can get ye fixed up inside here.”
Jake said that was okay, that he’d be fine outside.
Jake did not feel hungry, even though he had not eaten since he huffed a can of Heinz beans for breakfast.
“Hell,” the man said. “Come in ‘fore the old lady thinks I got somebody else out here.”
The man opened the door wide and held back the dog, and Jake looked down at his boots. A bit of clay had hardened on them from earlier that day.
Jake, now dirty-sock-footed, pet the dog—Princess, the man called it—and stepped into the house. The man gave his hand and introduced himself as Richard.
The men shook hands.
Richard moved further into the house, the dog behind him, toward the woman. She looked to be about Richard’s age. Her long gray hair was pulled back into a tight bun.
“This is Jake,” the man said. “He’s going to stop here for the night ‘cause of the fog.”
The woman rocked side-to-side, and she rose slowly from the couch, waved and said, “Good evening.” She said her name was Nancy.
Nancy said that Jake looked like he could eat and told him to come into the kitchen.
Nancy told Jake to have a seat at the table. She filled a glass with water from the faucet and set it down in front of Jake.
“‘Less you want somethin’ stronger.” She smiled.
Jake said water was fine, thank you.
Richard came into the kitchen, Princess with him, and sat at the table and asked Jake where he was working. The dog slinked under the table. Jake said he was working on a bridge south of here.
“He don’t want nothin’ stronger ‘n water, hon?”
“He said water was fine,” Nancy said, her wide back turned to them at the table, fixing a plate by the stove.
“Workin’ tomorrow?” Richard asked Jake.
“No, sir,” Jake said. He could feel Princess brush against his leg under the table. “I got the next few days off.”
“Hellfire, son,” Richard said and rose from the table. “You ought to have a drink then.”
“Leave him be, pa,” Nancy said, turning with gravied spoon. “He said he was fine.”
Richard left the kitchen, and Nancy brought a plate to the table and set it down with a fork.
It was two big squares of cornbread and a big spoonful of chip beef gravy.
“Sorry it ain’t so warm.”
Jake said it was fine, that it looked delicious. He thanked her and took a napkin from the metal holder next to the pressed glass butter dish and put it in his lap.
Nancy sat down at a chair catty-corner to Jake.
Jake put his hands together under the table, bowed his head and closed his eyes.
Princess was licking Jake’s folded hands under the table. He wiped them on his jeans and brought them up and took his fork.
As Jake was spreading some butter over a square of cornbread, Richard came back into the kitchen and sat down at the table with a Mason jar filled with a clear liquid and chunks of something orange.
Richard unscrewed the lid and smelled it.
“The peaches come from a tree of mine out back, but the magic was cooked up by a boy down the road.”
He handed the jar to Jake. Jake set his cornbread down.
“Would ye let the boy eat?”
“Food’s not goin’ nowhere, Nancy.”
Jake took the jar and sipped from it. It was sweet and very strong. He coughed a little.
“That’ll get it lit,” Richard said, reaching for the jar. Jake handed it back to Richard and cleared his throat. Richard smelled it again.
“Just like honey.”
“Would ye let the boy eat?”
Richard squinted and leaned close to Jake and said quietly they could see a little of this off after he ate. Jake smiled and took a bite from his cornbread.
After Jake took the first bite of cornbread, his stomach told him how hungry he was. He cleared his plate quickly and even took one swipe of some of the leftover gravy with a finger and licked it off. Nancy reached across the table, took his plate, and said, “Good job.”
“Where’re your folks?” she asked from the kitchen sink.
Jake said they were over in Virginia and folded his unused napkin and put it on the table.
“Where at?” Richard asked, tracing a finger around the brass lid of the jar.
“You know where Buena Vista is?” Jake said.
“Sure,” Richard said, and twisted the lid off the jar and handed it to Jake.
“Brothers and sisters?” Nancy asked, toweling her hands dry.
“Got a younger sister and older brother,” Jake said. “She’s still in school.”
“How old’s she?” Richard asked.
Jake sipped from the jar and coughed—“Seventeen.” He handed the jar back to Richard. This was the first time he had thought about his sister, or mother and father, in days.
“See them often?” Nancy asked, coming to the table and pulling out a chair to sit down.
“Not since Easter.”
“Where you been staying?” Richard asked and took a good sip from the jar. He looked at Nancy and held up the jar. She waved it to her.
“In my car for the summer, ‘fore that I was at a friend’s from work,” Jake said.
Nancy swallowed her sip and passed it on to Jake.
“You been stayin’ in your car?” she said.
Jake looked down at his folded napkin on the table.
“It’s okay,” Jake said and sipped. It wasn’t so hard this time, and he didn’t cough. He felt his ears begin to get warm. He pushed the jar back to Richard.
“Do you have children yourself?” Jake asked.
Richard sipped from the jar. Nancy did not say anything.
“We have a son,” Richard started, putting down the jar and pushing it over to Nancy. “He’s a little older than you, I imagine. Left ‘bout two years ago to go to Louisville or Knoxville or somewhere.”
“Steve lives in Greenville, North Carolina,” Nancy said and sipped from the jar. She held onto it.
“Thank you very much for supper,” Jake said. “It was very good.”
Nancy and Richard were both down at the table with their eyes. But, soon, Nancy looked up and smiled at Jake and passed him the jar.
He took a big pull this time. It was very sharp. He was very warm now and felt very good.
“You want to wash up, son?” Richard asked, not looking up.
“Yes, sir,” Jake said.
Nancy pushed herself up from her seat and rose with strain.
After Jake had washed his face and hands and neck at the bathroom sink, he put his flannel shirt back on, buttoned it up and went out, turning out the light. He went into the living room.
Richard and Nancy were sitting on the couch laughing and talking quietly. They stopped and turned smiling to meet Jake.
“Lookin’ good, hon,” Nancy said, handing off the jar to Richard.
Jake ran his hand through his dampened hair and smiled.
“Got a date, son?” Richard said, pushing himself off away from the couch, struggling to rise to his feet.
“Mind if I smoke outside?” Jake asked.
“No problem,” Richard said, moving heavily to the door, the open jar in hand.
Jake took his pack from his breast pocket, flicked the bottom to free a few butts and offered them to Richard. Richard pinched his eyes shut and bowed his head and brushed them away with his jarred hand.
Jake bit one out, lit it and inhaled deeply.
Richard handed the jar to Jake.
“What’re ye goin’ do with yeself tomorrow?” Richard said.
Jake thought about the jelly-throated trout. Their pointed lips. Under the shade of the sycamores on the bank of the river.
“Fish,” Jake said.
Jake sipped and handed the jar back to Richard.
“Sure you goin’ to be all right out here?”
Jake said he would be fine.
Richard looked down at the jar. He frowned.
“Hellfire,” he said. “We done some good work.”
Jake nodded and said he agreed.
“The lady and I should be up early tomorrow, so ‘fore you leave, say goodbye,” Richard said.
Jake rubbed out his cherry and pocketed his butt.
Richard extended his hand to Jake. Jake took it and felt Richard take his hand hard.
“Sleep well, son,” Richard said, looking not directly at Jake because of the jar.
“Yes, sir,” Jake said and thanked Richard again and said, “Good night.”
Richard raised his nearly-emptied jar and turned and went inside. Jake was alone now in the dim light of the porch. He took off his socks and took his boots and went down the steps of the porch and to his Scout.
He opened the gate and scraped his toolbox and tool belt aside and unrolled his cushion and sleeping bag. He climbed inside his car and shut the gate. Jarbuzzed, he unzipped his sleeping bag a bit and wiggled into it. He felt good and warm. He put his left arm under his head and closed his eyes. The darkness came and so did the fatigue. He breathed through his nose and heard the lapping waters of the swirling current of the river between his ears.
* * *
His head throbbed, and his tongue was dry and swollen. He opened the back of his Scout and looked out. All around was the fog from the night before, and he could barely make out the steps that led up the Richard and Nancy’s house. The tree trunks in the yard were obscured black lines in the graymilk fog.
He tumbled out of the back and went to the front. He rummaged through his glove compartment and found a used envelope, and with his carpenter’s pencil, he wrote a short note to thank Richard and Nancy and said that if he ever passed by again, he would stop in and say, “Hello.” From inside the house, he heard the dog bark and he turned and skipped down the steps and hopped in his Scout.
It was hard for him to drive with the headache, and he almost got sick once as he drove through the fog. And now the sun was burning through the fog with its yellow, warming light.
It was fifteen minutes or ten miles. Jake didn’t know. But he came to a gas station and filled up with premium and went in to pay.
Inside, he could smell sizzling bacon and frying hashbrowns in the dinner attached to the station.
Jake sat at the diner counter, his hands palms-down. An old timer with a trucker cap sat at the far end of the counter holding a coffee cup with both hands. Jake ran his hands over his own face, felt his bristly stubble.
“You want coffee, hon?” a woman said.
He opened his eyes, tried to focus. A fast-moving lightning storm passed between his ears. He looked at the cup in front of him.
“Please,” he said and turned over the mug with a shaky hand.
The server poured coffee from the glass pot and slipped him the menu.
“I’ll give you a second,” she said and went down the counter to the old timer.
He didn’t know what to do with the menu. Not a single organized thought came into his mind. The lightning storm had sparked a brush fire, torched the withered flora between his ears. All he saw on the menu was letters, no words.
The server came back, her pen and notepad out.
“Eggs,” Jake said. “Bacon. Hashbrowns. Toast.”
“You want your hashbrowns smothered?”
The two words—hashbrowns smothered—made no sense to him at the moment and so he said: “No.”
“How you want your eggs?”
“Over easy, please.”
“Coffee doing the trick?” The server smiled.
He looked at the brown liquid in the white mug.
“I hope so.”
The server snorted and left and went to the kitchen window.
Jake reached for a newspaper there on the counter and looked at the front page. Big letters. No words. But, in the lower left-hand corner of the page, he saw the semi-bold letters: IRONWORKER DIES IN FALL. He pushed the newspaper away. He rubbed his eyes.
“The coffee’s got legs,” he heard the old timer say. “Watch it don’t run away from ye.”
Jake turned and saw the old timer grinning at him. It was mostly gums and a few bad teeth.
From the kitchen window he heard a voice call out: “Order up, Emily.”
The server brought two plates—a big one for the eggs, bacon and potatoes, a smaller one for the wedges of buttered white toast.
“More coffee, hon?”
It all went down very fast after the first bite of wet egg. The brush fire was abated. He sopped up the liquids with the toast. As he chewed his last bite, he watched the server making quick marks with a pen on a piece of paper. He swallowed.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She turned her head and looked at him, then went back to marking the paper.
“Can I see?” Jake wiped his lips with his napkin.
She gave him another quick glance and squinted at him, then looked at her work again. She moved slowly down the counter toward him with her paper. She held the paper delicately.
“It’s not much,” she said and handed the paper to Jake.
He saw that her hands were light pink and soft and powdery.
The drawing was what he considered to be the usual constituents of a still life—a few apples, a pear and a cluster of grapes all in a shallow bowl on a rustic table. The light came from somewhere out of frame. It was good work, he thought. She had paid close attention to the grapes. He ran his fingers over the drawing, felt the crosshatching in blue ink.
“This is good,” Jake said.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“I think it’s very good.”
He looked at her. Her neck was soft and white in the fluorescent light. Her age he reckoned was early twenties.
He handed her drawing back to her.
“She’s good,” the old timer grinned. It was mostly all gum. One weak tooth hung on like a stalactite.
“Are you in school?”
The server blinked and turned from Jake and went back to the cash register.
Jake felt sorry that he had asked. He finished his coffee and went to the register.
“Two dollars, fifty-six cents,” she said, not looking up at him.
“How much do you want for the drawing?” Jake asked.
“Yes, how much?”
“I wasn’t going to sell it,” she looked up at him now.
Jake pulled out a ten-dollar bill from his wallet.
“How’s this for the breakfast and the drawing?” he said and leafed through his wallet again and pulled out two more dollars.
Back in the gas station, he paid the attendant for a pint-sized Styrofoam cup filled with nightcrawlers and potting soil. The attendant made slits in the cup’s lid with a pocket knife and taped it down. Jake bought a six pack of Coors and a pack of Camels.
Now, the sun had burned through the graymilk fog and it was golden light and the trees looked alive and full and the dark parts of the thick forest were very dark.
And Jake arrived at his spot on the river; the place he had been staying since the spring. Everything—his tarp fly, chairs, table and chuck box, his lanterns and footlocker—was the same way he had left it all the previous morning. He knew the people on that stretch of the river and had become from friendly with them that summer.
Jake used a patch of the river that belonged to a widowed doctor who lived on the other side of the road from the river. That tract of land, and river access, the doctor had told Jake when they first met, had belonged to the doctor’s family for almost two hundred years, when the doctor’s family had homesteaded from Northern Ireland. Once the doctor had shown Jake a very old portrait of serious looking people, who the doctor said were his great-great grandparents from Antrim. All Jake did to earn his keep on the river was help the doctor fix his roof that summer and watch his two spaniels when the doctor went traveling. It was a good deal, Jake reckoned. And sometimes the doctor would come down with his dogs to Jake’s spot, and they fished and drank and ate together. The other folks mostly kept to themselves but were always nice to Jake and he to them.
Jake took some plastic wrap from his chuck box and tore off two pieces and put the server’s drawing between the two pieces of the wrap. He flattened out the plastic and heated a metal spoon with his lighter and tamped down the edges of the plastic wrap to seal the drawing in it. He tacked the drawing to the chuck box.
He set a fire and filled his percolator with river water to boil. He smoked and looked at the loamy earth as he waited for his coffee. After he drank a cup of coffee and smoked another cigarette, then he stripped and changed into his jean cut-offs and a t-shirt. He had the same pair of Chuck Taylor’s since he had graduated high school—almost ten years ago.
Out on the river in the sunlight, it was warm, and the smooth river rocks were bright in the sun. Jake wore his welding goggles to protect his eyes. He picked his usual wide, flat rock that was his fishing perch and sat and opened the Styrofoam cup. Inside was a slimy spaghetti of wriggling worms in black earth. The pink and ribbed worms tangled with each other. He pinched one out and stretched it. It was as long as his hand. He impaled it on his hook. The worm’s black earthjuice seeped from the wounds. The creature writhed. Jake rose and cast his line out to a cluster of rocks—where he thought the trout would be in the slow pool. He reeled the line in slowly. The line made oblong ripples in the water as it sliced the surface. Again, he brought the rod back over his shoulder and cast it out toward the pool. And again, he reeled the line in slowly. Off somewhere in the forest he heard the hammering of a woodpecker. Soon he felt a tug and he gave the rod a light snap and he reeled in more quickly. He felt the strong weight. But soon it vanished in a small spasm. There was only a short link of the worm still hanging on the hook. He pinched off the wormlink and pulled another worm from the cup. This one was longer, thicker, sturdier. He spiked it on the hook and cast it out toward the rocks. Soon, there was a good tug, and he snapped the rod back and reeled the line in quickly. It was a good weight, felt heavy. It was a big, beautiful fish—a hand-and-a-half long. Its throat, soft. Its sides, rainbowed and spotted. The hook punched clean through the fish’s sharp, pointed beak. Jake unhooked the trout and put it in his cooler he had filled with river water.
Jake caught two more big trout and put them in the cooler. He laid down his rod and lay out on the rock. The rock’s warmth passed through his t-shirt to his back. The clouds in the clear sky drifted lazily way above the ground.
Jake shut his eyes and clenched them tight. He made fists and clenched them tight, too. He could feel his eyes fill with tears. His nails dug into his palms. He took off his googles and looked at the sky again. It was very blue and it hurt his eyes and the tears came heavier now and they rolled down the sides of his face and wet his short sideburns.
He sat up and pressed the heels of his palms to his wet eyes. His eyelids squeezed out more tears. He took off his shirt and peeled out of his cut-offs and rose naked. At the ledge of the flat rock, he curled his toes over and pushed off and dove into the water.
He kicked and stroked with his eyes closed. He went deeper and he could feel it in his ears. When it became too much he stopped and opened his eyes. It was dark, and he looked up.
The trout darted black against the shimmering light of the sun on the surface.
Dominic Desmond is from Middlebrook, Virginia. He writes short stories, essays and journalism and is also writing a novel. His short story “Funeral” appeared in Whurk in May 2016. He now lives in Queens, New York with his wife and son.