By Robert Boisvert
Hoyle wondered if he should be worried. He stood in the
kitchen in the weak morning light seeping through the windows of the farmhouse
inherited from his father and into which he moved many years ago after
his divorce listening again to the message on his cell phone. The room
smelled of coffee and fried bacon and the dryer sheet spinning around with
a load of his clothes in the dryer in the mud room. A breeze from off the
mountains ballooned the yellowed curtains above the sink. As he gazed at
his old, orange cat crouched on the scuffed, wooden table and nibbling
at a plate of half-eaten food, he was trying to figure out what the message
meant, and whether he should do anything about it.
He'd noticed the message while eating breakfast, having
picked up his phone next to his keys on the table to check the time and
been surprised to see the two icons for a missed call and a message. The
call was from his twenty-one-year-old daughter, Christine, and came in
at 1:06 A.M. It contained only one word, "Daddy," followed by
thirty seconds or so of background noise in which he thought he heard passing
cars and people shouting before going dead. He didn't recognize the number,
and got no answer when he tried calling it. Was her voice plaintive? Exhausted?
Scared? Did she sound as if she was high? Drunk? Or maybe he was overreacting.
Maybe it was no big deal and she was just calling because she needed money
or a place to stay. He couldn't decide. Listening to the message a third
time, then grabbing his keys, he thought about phoning his ex-wife, thinking
she might be able to shed some light on the reason for the call, but decided
against it, considering how she felt about him.
Outside, where the air smelled like mud and something
stringent like a broken sapling, he carried a bucket filled with grain
from the small, timber frame barn about twenty yards from his house and
inside a paddock in the ten-acre field rimmed by trees below the three
mountains dubbed "The Skulls" by his father to three other buckets
toppled in the dirt. The fence around the paddock was worn of paint, but
sturdy and leaned outward only slightly as it disappeared into the woods.
Already, the two bay geldings and one gray gelding were circling around
him, snorting and making noises that sounded like raspy chuckles, the bays
jostling him, and stabbing their heads into the buckets even before he
finished pouring their grain. He waited a few moments until the bays were
settled, then fed the gray about ten yards away from them, but as usual
they abandoned their own feed and ran at the gray, heads down and necks
stretched forward, driving it away, and ignoring him when he said, "Now
you two get away from there. That ain't yours."
Hoyle remembered his father and how he interacted with
the few horses he kept, and how the animals seemed to obey his every command.
"They ain't the brightest of beasts," he heard his father say,
"and it may take a while, but eventually they figure out right from
wrong. Just keep at them."
Hoyle took hold of the gray by its halter and led it into
the barn where it smelled of warm wood and dust and old, brown hay and
poured a scoop of grain into another bucket, saying, "It's okay, boy.
Some day they'll learn some manners," and petted the gray on the shoulder.
"Eat up quick, now," he added before leaving
and securing the gate and climbing into his pickup which he'd loaded for
work the previous night.
Hoyle popped in a cassette tape of Eat a Peach by the
Allman Brothers. Turning off the gravel drive running straight from the
house about one hundred yards that bisected a much smaller field where
his father once raised corn and melons, and his mother planted her kitchen
garden, and onto NC 22 and accelerating toward the center of Krodel about
seven miles distance, Hoyle made a mental note to call a neighbor to borrow
his tractor and Bush Hog. The field lay fallow now. He'd allowed a few
trees to grow in it, but preferred to keep it mostly clear, liking the
feeling of not being penned in as he sat on the porch after work and drank
a beer or two after dinner before heading inside and nodding off in front
of the TV.
Krodel lay at the intersection of Route 251 which ran
south to Asheville and north across the border into Tennessee. Driving
on Main Street, and passing the Dollar General store, drug store, bank,
and old movie theater someone from Raleigh once tried to convert into an
art gallery and antiques emporium, Hoyle parked his truck in front of and
entered the Deluxe Diner, a sandwich shop owned and operated by Mary Koontz,
an elderly widow who local kids called Hairy Mary because of the downy
hairs that grew from her chin. The shop was empty except for Dan Sheradin,
a mechanic who sat at the counter reading a newspaper and talking to Mary.
"That's why they're going to win," Hoyle heard
him say as he poured himself a large coffee in a to-go cup and mixed in
half-and-half and lots of sugar.
"I mean, you read about it all the time," Dan
said, pointing a finger to the paper. "The Chinese don't care who
they kill. A hundred people in a mine accident. A hundred more in a chemical
spill. A couple thousand because of tainted milk. And that's only the stuff
they report. Imagine what the real number is."
Hoyle stepped up to the counter to pay for his coffee.
While pulling out his wallet, and extracting two dollar bills, he noticed
Mary wasn't wearing any shoes this morning, and that her white tube socks
were filthy, as if she'd been walking in mud.
"Oh, go to hell, Dan Sheradin. That's an awful thing
to say," she said.
Dan grinned and slapped his hand against the countertop.
"Ha! Because you know it's true. That's why."
"No, I mean it. That's awful," she said.
Dan swiveled his stool and turned to Hoyle. "You
tell me if I'm wrong, Hoyle."
"I mean it," Mary said. "I don't want to
hear any more of that talk."
"Let me just ask him," Dan said, still grinning.
"So Hoyle, I say America and China are eventually going to go to war,
and that the Chinese will win. And that's because they're the way we were
a hundred years ago. Ruthless and determined. They'll do anything to make
their country stronger and more advanced. Kill as many people as it takes."
Hoyle nodded his head, as if he were following Dan's train
of thought, but was really trying to figure out why Mary wasn't wearing
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