For his ninth birthday Tom Hogue received a new tennis racquet from his mom. He’d never played before, but the cement driveway outside the combines shed made for even bounces. The flat metal door was the ideal opponent.
He learned forehands, backhands, and volleys. He played full matches and came back from love five in the third set to beat the reigning champ of Wimbledon. Nobody bothered him when he was playing tennis. No matter how long he stayed out there, the door never took breaks.
It was his brother Sam who placed the net. He came slowly out from the house, shoulders forward and head down, carrying his measure and electrician’s tape. Sam was twelve and had taken the brunt of it from their dad. His eyes tracked things in the distance Tom couldn’t see. He made an even line across the length of the door where a real net would have been. Then he went over the scoring and told Tom to strike each ball hard and flat. As Tom improved, the balls banged louder against the metal. Run down everything, Sam said as he turned back toward the house, even if your returns seem impossible.
Every afternoon, Tom put on a pair of shorts and a collared shirt like they wore in Wimbledon. Wally, their dog, followed him out and watched from a distance. He stood behind the service line Sam had made. At the beginning of each point, he imagined the chair ump calling the score – ‘Thirty-fifteen,’ or ‘Advantage, Hogue’ – before he served. Even if it rained, he reported to the shed for his next match. He’d run down his own drop shots and surprise himself with a hard overhead smash.
Once, he stopped playing and looked back at the house. As the sound of his last shot ricocheted across the farm, the curtains moved across his mom’s upstairs window. She rarely left her bedroom now. She didn’t come down for dinner. When Tom and Sam came home from school, their dad barely looked at them. He was trying to get their wheat to grow. He also liked to sit on the sofa with a bottle. Get out there and mow the lawn, he’d say. Not a lot of grass left, Sam explained – you had me mow it last week.
That’s when the hands came out. They brought Sam to his knees. Tom looked away. He watched the empty stairs and wished his mom would come down. When the hands finished, Sam wasn’t saying anything back. Move that irrigation pipe over to the north field, their dad said. His forehead was damp and he needed to sit down. Sam got up slowly and headed off to chase away the drought.
Tom only got assigned jobs like collecting apples from the ground. He did this as fast as he could. Load after load with the wheelbarrow, orchard to compost heap. After he was finished, he played tennis against the combines shed. He didn’t stop, not even after the sun dipped behind the house.
Then a shadow appeared across the service line. He looked up to see a man in a baseball cap standing on the gravel path. Behind him, a log truck idled on the side of the road.
‘Nice forehand,’ the man said.
‘Thanks,’ Tom said.
‘You been playing a long time?’
‘Just a few weeks. My brother Sam, he’s my manager. Right now I’m in the middle of the second set against John McEnroe. His serve’s tricky.’
The man looked over to the house. ‘Your dad around? Or your mom?’
‘Sort of. Can I help you with something?’
The man had a thick gray moustache and oil streaks down the legs of his jeans. He shifted his arms, and that was when Tom saw Wally. The dog’s head hung off the man’s wrists.
‘He jumped out of your yard before I could step on the brakes. I’m very sorry.’
‘He’ll be four years old in a few weeks,’ Tom said. He felt the whole of his face go numb. ‘You think he’s dead?’
Tom placed his racquet gently on the ground. He stared at the world between the strings. ‘Because Wally got really hot one day, and we thought he wouldn’t make it, but a few minutes later he was chasing birds.’
‘Did you say your mom or dad are here? I hate to just leave, but I got a delivery.’
Tom checked the north field. There wasn’t any movement under the power lines that stretched to the hills. Sam had been sent out with the moisture kit to check the soil. Their dad said wheat wouldn’t grow if the ground was dry.
‘Wait, please,’ Tom said to the man, and he ran to the barn. It was at the other end of their gravel road. Before he’d died, his grandpa said their lofts held a lifetime of hay.
At the bottom of the ladder, he called up to Uncle Nick. It was pretty dark. Way up in the garret, the shadows shifted. Some straw came drifting down the drop shaft and caught the only light.
‘What is it Tom?’
‘There’s a man here. He’s got Wally and says he’s dead.’
Uncle Nick started down the ladder in his nightshirt and army boots. After his discharge he didn’t do much besides read. His motorcycle lay on its side under the hay elevator. When he reached the bottom, his face looked pale beneath his beard. His hair stuck up on one side of his head, and on the other side it lay flat.
They found the man exactly where he’d been before. He was standing beside the combines shed, and he still had Wally in his arms. Uncle Nick shifted in his nightshirt as the man repeated what happened and said again how sorry he was.
‘Damn dog’s been running out in front of traffic lately,’ Uncle Nick said. ‘It’s not your fault.’
‘I’ve had dogs all my life,’ the man said. ‘I know how it is to lose one.’
Uncle Nick reached out and stroked Wally’s head. His hands were rough and his nails yellow. The man eased the dog into his arms.
‘You sure he’s dead?’ Tom circled them and tried not to look away. There wasn’t even any blood on the body. Wally’s coat had some leaves on it, but his paws were practically clean.
‘We’ll bury him in the apple orchard,’ Uncle Nick said. ‘Go get the wheelbarrow, Tom.’
The man who killed him didn’t say anything. Out on the road, his log truck was still running.
Late afternoon, the irrigation pipes made a grid of silver stripes against the field. Moving along the tree line that fronted Dirtwater Creek, Frank rolled the final length by its giant steel wheel. There were too many rocks. Each time the wheel snagged, he had to kick them clear. When he reached the marker he stopped, unfastened the coil and hoisted the pipe between his legs until it ran parallel with the others.
It was hot for October. He’d been going easier on the whisky but now it was pouring back out of him, making him shudder. It hadn’t rained for ten days, ever since Wally was killed, as if the heavens had decided that was that. He dropped the hand brake. He set the connector and walked back toward the road. In the distance the grain truck sat parked along the culvert.
Each day, operating out of nothing more than rote concern, he came to irrigate, moving and resetting pipes even as he felt like cursing the land and any grain that might come of it. The best farmers in Oregon were switching to grapes. The Californians had already made their incursions, buying up acre after acre, turning wheat into wine.
He reached the road and faced the setting sun. It had been a mistake, coming down from Portland to look after the farm when Jan’s parents died. What they’d found, here in Silt, was their own kind of death. The only going industries were lumber and preaching. Firefighting and believing, they were strictly volunteer.
At the cab of the grain truck, he reached inside for the crowbar. The sun made him squint. With the cold iron in his hand, the conversation he’d had with Jan that morning came back to him.
‘I don’t feel anything any longer,’ she’d told him. ‘I’m done.’
For months he’d been sleeping on the sofa to give her the time alone she said she needed. Every once in a while he came up to change. This time she was sitting on the corner of the bed in her panties and T-shirt. One of her bare feet rested on top of the other, and he had wanted to take it in his hand and kiss the underside, like he used to. She had to get out of Silt for a while, she said. And she wanted to go alone.
Frank had closed the bedroom door so they could talk in private. Down the hall, the boys were still asleep. He’d seen this moment coming for some time, at least a version of it. Now that it was here, he wasn’t prepared.
‘Don’t go,’ he said quietly.
‘I have to.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I can’t tell you. Because I don’t know, not for certain.’
It was her tone – the fact of her leaving seemed decided. He felt the anger rise, right in front of him, impossible to avoid. ‘Fucking. Selfish. Bitch. What am I supposed to do? On your family’s farm – when you’re gone?’
‘Try to be understanding,’ she said. ‘Try, Frank.’
‘Okay. Can you help with that?’
‘I don’t have a feeling left in my body. Not a single one. Those things I take . . .’ She waved at the end table, scattered with prescriptions. ‘It’s their fault.’
She looked up at him. Her eyes had no expression in them. He wasn’t even reflected. ‘Don’t you get it? I can’t cope. Not as a mother. Can you believe you’re the better parent?’
The therapist had said the meds would clear a space in her mind for calm decisions. As he stood in her room, Frank wondered if this was the first thing she’d decided in that new space – to get out of Silt, to leave him.
‘I’ve talked to Nick,’ Jan said. ‘He says he’ll try to help out.’
‘Fat chance. He’s been on a bender. For months.’
‘Please just take care of the boys until I figure things out. Tom hasn’t been doing well in math. Stay on top of him, make sure he does his homework.’
Frank took a long breath. In that breath was his whole life. Then the breath emptied out of his chest, and there wasn’t anything to replace it.
‘How long you going to be gone?’
She stayed on the corner of the bed, her head down. ‘It’s hard enough,’ she said, ‘to leave. It’s even harder not knowing how long.’ She looked up. ‘Promise me you won’t let yourself go, that you won’t use this as an excuse. Remember the other day, when you were particularly hard on Sam? Promise you won’t do that again.’
He’d wanted to hurt her. The impulse was very strong. It seemed inevitable – because what else could he do now, other than go down the road she most feared?
‘You must have had some sort of plan all along.’
‘No. It’s not true.’
There would come a time – he could feel it starting like rapids from a river mouth – when there would be nobody left, and all his anger would be turned on himself. Until then there were still lessons to conduct. She looked frightened of him, with her mouth open and her hands out to protect herself. He reached for her shoulders. He shook her hard until her head became a blur and the sound of her screams made him stop. Then he headed down the hall toward the boys’ rooms. He would wake them up. He would tell them exactly how selfish their mother was.
They were already awake – their light was on. The last time, Sam had come out in the hall to try and protect his mother. He wasn’t going to do that again.
‘Right.’ At their door, he jiggled the handle. ‘Who do you boys think worked all these years? Your mother, or me?’ There was only silence. ‘She’s in there crying – but who do you think’s paid for your clothes and food?’
Frank squinted in the sun. He took the crowbar from the truck and walked back down the culvert into the fields. Along the way he replayed it in his mind, as if to calm himself, how he’d stood there panting with the rage of an animal. It had taken everything he had, every bit of his self-control, not to break their door down, not to beat Sam in front of his mother for what she’d done.
At the water main he pried open the concrete cover with the crowbar. Then he turned the faucet. He could feel the vibrations, like a series of earthquakes, under his boots. A moment later the water came surging through the pipes. Up and down the field, the rotating sprinkler heads fired in sweeping arches. Rainbows were created, then destroyed.
Frank sat on his heels with the crowbar flat in his hands. Jan’s grandfather had engineered everything that lay in front of him. He’d pumped from Dirtwater Creek using buckets, pulleys and horses. Now it was so hot the water seemed to evaporate before it found the soil.
Recrossing the culvert, he headed straight for the nearest sprinkler. He was in charge, and he would end it. He would decapitate each one so that the inevitable arrived sooner. He planted his boots beneath the rotating head, drew back the crowbar and took aim.
A few miles down Dirtwater Creek, before the last turn for the dam, the water darkened and blackberry bushes grew thick along the banks. Tom went with Jimmy Brewster, who knew a place where you could jump off a tree and not touch bottom. He said it was near his house.
They got off the bus where Jimmy said to, and they broke through the trees. At the bottom of a dirt trail they reached the riverbank. Tom took off his shoes and his shirt, and so did Jimmy.
They shouted, ‘To hell with the cold!’ and jumped straight into the creek in their jeans. They took turns climbing the rope someone had tied to a tree, swung out over the water, and did cannonballs. Jimmy was right – no matter how high they got when they jumped, they never touched bottom.
The water felt freezing at first, but after a while Tom grew numb. He splashed around by the bank while Jimmy climbed the tree again to reach the rope. He didn’t want to go home. He wanted to stay in the creek all night and swim to school in the morning. There were frogs on the rocks and salamanders in the mud.
‘You think this swimming hole has leeches?’
‘Yeah. They suck all the blood out of you.’
Jimmy grabbed the knot on the rope with both hands and kicked off. He had long arms and legs, and he was taller than Tom. When he jumped he flew further, and flailed in the air like a giant spider. When he came up out of the water he was good enough to catch the end of the rope and swim it in.
Tom had become friends with Jimmy because they were in the same grade and rode the same bus to school. Jimmy was smart, but he couldn’t behave in class. Once the principal made him go home and change because he’d worn a T-shirt that said, ‘Who Farted?’
They played in the creek until it started to get dark. ‘Want to come over?’ Jimmy asked, as they climbed out and shook off the water. ‘You can have dinner at my place. My mom said.’
Tom sat on the bank and pulled on his shoes and socks. By the time he finally got dressed, Jimmy had his backpack loaded. ‘Sure,’ Tom said.
They scrambled through the brush and onto the road. There was still some daylight left, and they walked the whole way in the same irrigation ditch. A little later they came to Jimmy’s house. It was a small house just off the road. Jimmy came through a gate and closed it after Tom came through. His dad was under the hood of an old car, working on the engine.
‘This is where he lifts,’ Jimmy said. He pointed at the weight set on the porch.
For a moment they stood there in front of the iron weights, neatly stacked like bricks. Then they hurried into the house. It was a clean place with everything put away. Jimmy reached behind the TV and took out a plastic box overflowing with video games. He was an only child, and Tom couldn’t believe that all the games were his.
‘Where’s your mom?’ Tom asked. He looked into the kitchen.
‘She works,’ Jimmy said.
‘I don’t know. Some office. She’ll be back soon.’
Tom hadn’t seen many video games. They sat on the carpet in front of the TV and played a kind of space combat in which laser guns exploded your body into bits. Later, Jimmy’s mom came home and served them strawberry ice cream. She was tall with high heels and lots of jewelry. After changing her clothes she went back into the kitchen and started cooking. The sun had gone down, but Jimmy kept restarting their game.
‘I should go,’ Tom said. He felt guilty because he’d never stayed away so long after school. Sam would be alone with their dad, and their mom still hadn’t left her room. ‘I should go,’ he said again.
Jimmy stayed cross-legged in front of the TV. Tom stood up and took his ice cream bowl into the kitchen. Mrs Brewster was at the counter. He stood back a little with the bowl in his hands.
‘Stay for dinner Tom,’ she said.
He looked around. Mrs Brewster had a pie baking in the oven, a chicken in the broiler, and a big bowl of steaming potatoes ready to be mashed. ‘Thanks, but I’ve got a tennis match.’
Mrs Brewster just stared at him. ‘You do? Where?’
He shrugged. ‘At home.’
‘Stay, Tom. Your mom called and asked.’
‘My mom called?’ He came in further and put his empty bowl on the counter.
Mrs Brewster nodded. Tom tried to imagine them talking to each other on the phone. He didn’t know they were friends. He wanted to wrap his arms around her waist and not let go. ‘Thanks again,’ he said, ‘but I can’t default on my match. My opponent always shows up, no matter what.’
A week later it finally rained. The wheat fields were black and the grass lawns gleamed. At night Frank waited with the gasoline beside the compost heap. Jan’s clothes lay on top. He’d thrown in his wedding ring, all the photos of her he could find, and everything, including the books, she’d given the boys for birthdays and Christmas.
It was late. On the other side of the fence, the neighbors’ lights were off. Across the farm only the garret of the barn was illuminated. Nick was still on his bender – he hadn’t shown his face in days. There weren’t even any stars in the sky. The clouds from the day’s rain lingered without any wind to move them on.
Frank had Jan’s letter in his hand, the one he’d received that afternoon. In it she said she was down in Phoenix for the foreseeable future. She also said she was with Neil Hackett. Neil was her high school boyfriend.
The screen door squeaked and banged shut. A little later the boys came around the corner of the house. They were carrying the mattress from her room, like they were told. It still had her sheets on it.
‘Lay that on top,’ he said, and they did. Sam wasn’t about to argue any more tonight. Earlier, when one of his mother’s shoes had rolled onto the grass, he’d even chucked it back.
Frank circled the pile and soaked it with gasoline. The boys stood there without moving. He would read them her letter, word for word. They would learn from this what they would need to know for the rest of their lives – that their mother was a whore who had no love for them, no love for anyone but herself. It was the kind of knowledge that would serve them well, Frank decided, as they went about choosing potential wives.
He started to light a match when Tom made for the house. He was still upset because of his tennis racquet, which lay in the pile awaiting the flames.
‘Don’t you go anywhere,’ Frank said, and Tom stopped.
‘I don’t want to watch it.’
‘I don’t care what you want. That whore, that bitch gave you that racquet. You think you’re going to play tennis against that shed every day, just to remind me?’
Tom stared angrily at the ground. In the boy’s expression, Frank could see a kind of competition going on. Or maybe it was himself he saw reflected at the river mouth, before the rapids took him.
‘Come over here Tom,’ Sam said.
Tom walked slowly over to join his brother. They stood so close they might have been holding hands.
Frank struck a match and flicked it onto the pile. Nothing happened – it just died in the air. He threw a few more until finally one of Jan’s blouses caught. It was a white one. It rose in the air like a ghost and fell back down in burning fragments. Then the mattress went up, and they had a real bonfire going.
Image © David Prasad