Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Chapter Twelve

In the open and unfiltered light Jacob could see things about the pastor that the old photograph had betrayed. His face was angled and split like a slab of broken sidewalk. Deep lines climbed from his jawbone across his cheeks and settled into a furrow on his brow, and his aging eyelids had become swollen and too heavy for themselves. He had kept his shape, was stiff and tall as the oldest tree and when he moved the air around him trailed about slowly, as it will over a beaten highway or out from the steel skin of a burning furnace. He gave Jefferson his hat and drew a pockmarked cigarette case from the waistband of his trousers and Jacob noticed that his shirtsleeves were fastened with blood-red cufflinks. He tapped the bottom of a cigarette on the case, a wealthy man's move, and rolled its filter between his lips before lighting it. Drew in and exhaled the heavy smoke across the room toward the painting of Christ. He searched around for a place to tip his ash. Jefferson handed him the cup from which he'd been drinking. Thorne sat on the edge of the bed and looked down into the cup, a leftover swallow of cool coffee and the gray crumbs of burnt tobacco gliding along it. When he ashed into it he rested the cigarette on its lip and waited a beat, anticipating, before he flicked the filter and listened to the sizzle. Smoky air ambled up to the light bulb and circled round it like the birth of a storm.
     His lips were thin and white, those of a thirsty man and with flecks of dried skin scratching against themselves when he spoke. “What a hell of a thing here,” he said, pulling one leg up across the other. He drew on his cigarette and dropped what was left into the cup. “A hell of a thing. What you say, Jefferson, this feller fell out of the sky, that right?”
     “So to speak,” said Jefferson. His arms were tight around Suzanne's waist. She was quiet; Jacob hadn't realized she'd been behind him.
     Thorne turned to regard Jacob, the pitiful thing, confused, fingers gripping and releasing the bedclothes. “Good thing those boys come along when they did,” he said.
     “I'm grateful,” said Jacob.
     “Oh, I'd say I would be, too.” Thorne turned back to face out toward the room and held his hands out flat in front of himself. “If God didn't have His hand in it, may I be struck dead where I stand.” He chuckled. “Sit. Stand. You get me. Anyhow. We heard you hollering the other night from clear across to here. Horrible thing to have to listen to.”
     Jacob lifted his legs and made to swing them over the other edge of the bed. “Like I say, I'm grateful, Pastor. These two folks have been nothing but good to me. I'll go back and get -” He grunted sharply when Thorne's hand came down on his shoulder and pulled him back onto the mattress.
     “Stick around for a bit,” Thorne said. “One more night, get you some breakfast, let Suzanne draw you up a bath in the morning. Seems to me you still got a problem worth fixing. You're eating on a porch that ain't yours, sleeping in a house that ain't yours. Those are things desperate men do. You leave here like this you'll just go on and be a desperate man somewhere else.”
     Jacob's neck quivered where Thorne's thumb had gripped it. When the pastor released him, Jacob stood quickly, wheeled around, his heartbeat quickening and his head warming through with anger.
     “You're curious, ain't you, son?” said Thorne, swinging his legs onto the bed and crossing his boots at the foot of it. He flashed half a smile. “Why are we tucked back out here?” He locked his dusty fingers into themselves and laid them on his chest and closed his eyes. “You want to know more about my daughter, don't you, Jacob?”
     Jacob let his hands come down to his sides. “I hardly even know your daughter,” he said.
     “Oh, you know her, son,” said Thorne. “You know her. My daughter is your middle school sweetheart, she's the ghost of your grandmother, she's your dead wife. She's the reason your world goes round.” He opened his eyes. “That damned girl is proof of God and of the Devil himself.”
     He got up and motioned toward the bed. “Rest,” he said. “Tomorrow is not a bottomless well. I'll come up to Pop's place around four, four thirty. We'll walk to church together.”
     Jacob drew in a chestful of shabby air and didn't exhale until Thorne had said his goodnights to Jefferson and Suzanne and the screen door had banged shut behind him. The pastor went across the front yard whistling.

     Suzanne came into the bedroom some time after Thorne had gone with a stack of washed sheets, a blanket, a fresh pillowcase. “These are yours,” she said. It was the first time Jacob had heard her speak. Her voice was soft and shaking. She had a wire crucifix strung between her breasts on a length of black fishing line.
     When Jacob stood she stripped the bed quickly and threw the old blankets in the corner of the room. He helped her stretch the sheets across the mattress and held the pillowcase open for her. When they were done she put her hands on the hips of her apron and blew air out of the corner of her mouth toward the stray hairs falling over her forehead. She didn't pick up her feet when she came across to him, but stood on her tiptoes and stretched her neck to reach the side of his face. “The most disgusting man that ever lived just wiped his boots on this bed,” she whispered. “It was me, I'd consider sleeping on the floor.”

     Jacob lay still in the bed as the dark of the night turned over into the next day. He could make out animals coming awake in the blue morning. The joints in the house slowly warming, spreading themselves. Before the sun was full out, he heard what he knew were Suzanne's tiny feet moving in the kitchen beyond the door. He heard the hinges of the oven. He heard Jefferson out on the porch, thought he might be stretching out legs that were still sleeping and coughing up the remnants of a wet night in the mountains. Liam and Emily Grace were up with the sunlight and their energy came full shortly after it. He heard Suzanne trying to quiet them without speaking loudly herself and he told himself to thank her, thank her for quietly saving his life, before he left her house that morning and drove his truck out of the woods.

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