Two months later, Joe Quench died in mid-sentence. He and Alvin were collecting apples. Joe was at the top of the ladder, and Alvin was sitting out on a branch, passing back the fruit for the old man to drop into the yoke basket on his back.
“Don’t you lean out too far, boss-man,” Joe was saying. “You keep a good grip with your other hand. I don’t need to be telling your mama how you fell off and…”
And he stopped, suddenly, his eyes wide. He put one hand to his chest, quite gently, and stared at Alvin. Then his knees buckled and he slid down the ladder, his face rapping against every rung on the way down.
Alvin looked down at the old man crumpled at the foot of the tree, quite still but for the blood trickling from his nose and mouth. Harvested apples rolled from the yoke basket down the grassy incline towards the field. It was a ten foot drop to the ground – too far to jump – but Alvin didn’t want to climb down the ladder and have to step over Joe. So he sat there on the apple branch, watching the ghostly moon rise and take shape. At last, when it was dark, his mother came out to look for him.
Joe was buried under the flowering cherry at the edge of the orchard, as he’d always wanted. The preacher came and said some words, and then he and Alvin and Alvin’s parents went back to the house for poundcake and lemonade.
Later, when the preacher had left, Judd opened a beer and turned on the radio as Amy prepared the meal. Alvin sat in the armchair, feet slung over the side, trying to read a comic-book – but he was imagining Old Joe lying in a box under the ground out by the flowering cherry. He thought about how dark it must be in there, and cramped. He knew Joe was dressed in his good suit. Joe hated when he had to dress up like that – said it made him feel strapped-in and trapped. Alvin had mentioned this, and suggested that Old Joe would rather wear his overalls, but Alvin’s mother had said that that was no way to meet your Maker.
Judd kept the radio on during dinner, listening to Jack Benny and guffawing with his mouth full of corned-beef hash. Alvin just kept thinking about Old Joe, out there in the cold ground, maybe listening to the laughter from the house, feeling lonesome. As Amy cleared the plates from the table, she said, “It’ll be strange not having Joe around the place. Seems like he’s always been here.” She turned from the sink. “Lord, look at the time. You ‘bout ready for bed, Alvin?”
Judd poured the rest of his beer from the bottle to the glass. “Joe’ll still be around. When a man’s been close to a place a long time, he don’t just leave so easy.” He glanced at Alvin. “Guess we’ll feel Joe’s ghost about us. He’ll be right here, you’ll see.”
“Oh, Judd,” Amy said, glancing at Alvin’s wary face. “Don’t go putting ideas in the boy’s head.”
“Hey,” Judd protested, grinning slightly, “no point lying to the kid.” He turned to Alvin. “You never know when you might see Joe again. He could be waiting there on the stairway right now, ready to see you off to bed.”
Alvin looked at his mother, anxious. “That’s not true, is it, mom?”
“Sure it is,” Judd insisted. “Say, I bet Old Joe’s dug himself out of that grave, and come in through the wall, just to tuck you in, boy. You give him my regards when you see him, okay?”
“Judd, that’s enough,” Amy put in. “Don’t you pay any attention to your daddy, Alvin. Just get yourself upstairs to bed.”
Alvin looked from his father to his mother and back again. “Mom, will you come up with me?”
“Sure…” Amy began.
“No, she won’t,” Judd interrupted, holding a hand up to silence his wife. “You’re not a baby. If you’re scared, you gotta face it, understand? Don’t show no fear, boy.” He stood up, and pulled open the door to the stairs. He looked at Alvin. “Now – tell me you ain’t afraid.”
Alvin’s lip trembled. “Can’t I stay up a while longer, mom?”
“Don’t you defy me, boy!” Judd suddenly roared. “Tell me you ain’t afraid and then get your ass up those stairs to bed.”
Amy’s eyes flicked towards her husband as she wound the dish-towel between her hands. “Do as your daddy says, Alvin,” she said quietly.
Alvin slid down from his chair and walked slowly towards the door. He picked up a lit lantern from the kitchen dresser, and turned to his father. His eyes were brim-full and he was sucking rhythmically at his bottom lip.
“Daddy…” he managed.
“Don’t you cry, boy,” Judd warned, low and throaty, leaning forward and grabbing the child’s elbow. “Don’t you dare cry, or by God I’ll give you something to cry for.” He straightened up. “Now – tell me you ain’t afraid.”
“I’m…not afraid,” Alvin whispered, swallowing, blinking, his face pale.
“Then you won’t need no lantern,” Judd pointed out, taking it from him. “Get.” He put a hand on Alvin’s shoulder and guided him into the hallway. “Don’t you forget to give Old Joe my best,” he reminded the boy as he shut the door.
Alvin stood alone in the hallway, breathing shallowly. The radio in the kitchen was playing big band music, and a little light crept through the crack of the door - but just a few steps up the stairs it was pitch black. Alvin put his hand on the banister, and lifted one foot onto the first step, which creaked. Alvin could imagine Old Joe sitting in the dark on the blanket-chest by the bathroom, dozing, but opening his eyes as he heard that creaking stair. Alvin put his other foot – gently, gently – on the next step. Step by step, he made his way up the stairs, holding his breath, leaving the pencil of light from the kitchen behind him. As he reached the stair that brought his head level with the upstairs landing, he stood on his tiptoes, gulping, trying to see if Joe was there. The shadows and shapes of the furniture seemed to flow and coalesce into the form of an old man, and then, as smoothly, resolve themselves into familiar objects, motionless in the dark.
Alvin made it to the top step, and looked along the inky hallway to where he knew his bedroom door was.
“Joe?” he whispered, his voice quavering. “It’s me, Alvin.” He took a step or two along the hallway, past the bathroom. “Joe?”
Outside the window, a cloud slid from in front of the moon, and the light on the landing shifted – and there, slumped against the wall beside Alvin, was Old Joe in his good suit, his face smashed up and blood dripping from his nose. Alvin gasped and leapt back, pressing himself against the upstairs banister, his breath coming in sobs. But it wasn’t Joe - just the moonlight throwing shadows across the tallboy, and the curtain fluttering in the breeze from the yard.
Alvin whimpered and scurried to his darkened bedroom. His shoulder knocked against the rocking chair, making it clatter against the dresser. The boy squealed, and dived onto his bed. He scrambled under the blankets fully-clothed, chewing the knuckle of his thumb, wide-eyed, breathing loud and short.
Eventually, he fell asleep, images of Old Joe resurrected swirling in his head.
“Oh, God, Judd! Please…”
Alvin opened his eyes, woken, as he so often was, by his mother’s cries from next door. He listened, brow furrowed, his eyes moving left and right.
Alvin pulled the covers over his head. “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it…” he whispered into the blankets. “Stop it, stop it.”
There was a creak of wood. The rocking chair.
“You know what they’re doin’, boss-man, doncha?” came a wheezing, quiet voice.
Under the blankets, Alvin gasped, clenched his fists, stiffened. He stayed very, very still, listening. He heard the creak of the rocking chair again, and he could imagine Old Joe sitting there, looking at him, all dressed up in his best suit, but grubby with dirt where he’d dug himself out of the ground by the flowering cherry.
“You know what’s goin’ on in there, huh, boss-man?” The voice seemed close, like a whisper right by Alvin’s face. Like it was coming from everywhere. Almost like it was inside his head.
Trembling, Alvin whimpered and clamped his hands over his ears, the comforter gripped tightly in his fists. But still he could hear the rocker creak.
“Joe?” Alvin whimpered under the blankets. “Don’t hurt me. Please.”
“They’re gunna make a baby, boss-man. A little brother or sister for you. Man alive, I bet they’re just gunna love that little baby. Won’t have no time at all for you, Alvin.”
Alvin sobbed silently. The rocker creaked louder, and then banged back against the dresser, like it did when someone stood up and got out of it.
There was a tug on the comforter, like someone pulling at its bottom corner
“You know I’ve never lied to you, boss-man. Doncha?”
“Yes. Yes,” Alvin breathed, his fingers gripping the covers tightly.
“Oh my God! Yes, honey!”
The low throaty voice seemed even closer now. Alvin could smell pipe tobacco and wheatfield sweat.
“You think about what I’m tellin’ ya here, boss-man. Just you think about that.
Alvin nodded his head. “Yes,” he whispered. “I promise.”
And the covers went slack in his clenched fists, and he suddenly felt very alone.
Alvin shifted the knuckle of his thumb to his mouth and bit hard on it. He closed his eyes and saw Joe walking away across the orchard, back to his cold bed.
Next door, the shouting – the never-ending, terrible shouting – was getting louder.
“Judd, honey, give me a baby, give me a baby!”
Awake and alive there in the dark, Alvin knew that Old Joe had never lied to him.
The next morning, before his parents were awake, Alvin went downstairs, and out into the yard. The day was bright and clear - a blue mist on the hills, a heat haze shimmering already over the wheatfield beyond the brook.
Alvin wandered to the chicken-run, and checked the traps for foxes, just as he always used to. He liked this time of day, when only he was awake. He could almost make believe that nothing had changed, that the one-eyed man had never come to Ridgeback Farm, that his mommy was stirring alone in her bed, about to come down to the kitchen and make pancakes, before calling out to him that his milk was on the table and that he should come in and wash his hands.
Alvin went across the yard, past the barn, to the hogpen, and peered over the wall.
“Oh, wow,” he breathed.
The largest sow was lying on her side, five tiny piglets jostling and snuffling at her teats, tails up in the air.
“I din’t know you were going to have babies, you fat old hog,” Alvin said, smiling as he climbed up onto the wall. He drummed his sneakered heels against the brick as he sat there, watching the piglets shove each other from teat to teat, each squeaking as it was pushed out, before trotting around and barging in amongst its siblings again. One of the piglets had a black patch on its back, like a saddle, and Alvin decided to root for that little guy. “Don’t you let them push you around, piggie. You be sure to get your fair share, okay?”
From the house, Alvin could hear the clanking of pots and the chink of coffee-mugs. He looked over his shoulder, seeing his mother at the sink. She waved to him.
Alvin turned on the wall, and jumped down, looking forward to telling his mother about the new piglets.
In the kitchen, Judd slurped his morning coffee. “No point having a harvest dinner after all the work’s done – that’s what my daddy used to say. The crew need feeding up before they get to working.”
Amy scooped eggs from the skillet onto a plate, and put them in front of her husband.
“I remember him saying that, clear as day,” she agreed.
“The Millers’ve always thrown a harvest hog-roast first weekend in September – all the folks around here know it,” Judd went on. “It’s a tradition in these parts.”
“That’s right, honey. How’re your eggs?”
“Just fine,” Judd told her. He grinned. “How’re yours?”
Alvin stopped outside the kitchen window, listening. He was hoping that the one-eyed man would go back upstairs and leave his mother alone, so Alvin could come in and tell her the news.
“I’ll go into town today, get some provisions and put the word around ‘bout Saturday,” Judd mumbled through a mouthful of yolk and bread.
A shudder of relief skittered along Alvin’s spine. A whole day without his daddy about the place.
“Why don’t you take Alvin with you?” Amy suggested. “He loves a ride in the truck.”
“Guess I could. Where is that boy, anyways?”
A chair scraped on the kitchen floor, and Alvin turned to run down to the orchard – but his daddy’s head appeared around the door.
“What you doin’ there, son? Come eat your breakfast, then we’ll go into town.”
Alvin’s shoulders sagged. “I don’t wanna go,” he murmured.
Judd raised his eyebrows. “I ain’t asking you, boy. I’m tellin’ you. Now get in here and eat something.”
As Alvin pushed oatmeal around the bowl, and his mother wrote a list for Mr Leonard to fill, Judd went out to fetch the truck. Alvin waited until his daddy was out of sight and then put down his spoon.
“Do I havta go into town?” he asked.
“Well, sure, baby,” his mother said, looking up from the grocery list. “You like that.”
“I don’t,” Alvin said, shaking his head.
“Sure you do. You’ll get to ride in the truck, and daddy’ll buy you a soda at Mr Leonard’s. You haven’t been to town in a coon’s age.” She stood up and opened the cupboard, scanning the contents as she tapped the pencil against her pursed lips. “Did we use all that flour already?”
Alvin picked up his spoon again, paddling it in the lukewarm oatmeal, his chin rested on his free hand, elbow on the table.
“What if I get scared?”
Amy turned her head and looked at the boy, frowning a little. “How do you mean, scared, honey?”
Alvin kept his eyes fixed firmly on the congealing oatmeal. “…of Daddy,” he said.
Amy paused a moment. Then she walked over to the table, and crouched down beside Alvin, putting a hand to his face and turning his head so that his eyes met hers.
“Alvin,” she said, low and firm. “You mustn’t be scared of your daddy. Understand?”
“You listen to me.” She took Alvin’s hand in hers. “Some terrible, terrible things happened to Daddy while he was away. Things you don’t want to know about. Things that’ve…” Her eyes flicked around the room, searching. “Things that’ve changed him. But he’s still the same deep down, Alvin. You understand me?”
Alvin said nothing – just looked into his mother’s clear green eyes and listened to his own breathing.
“He’s still the same, Alvin,” she said again. She squeezed the boy’s hand hard, and he winced a little. “He is. I know that. I know that for sure.”
She stood and went back to the cupboard, picking up her grocery list from the counter.
“Everything’s just like it was,” she said briskly, as she moved cans and packets around on the shelves. “And that’s the way we’re going to keep it – just normal and regular. And no one’s going to be scared of anyone.” She put her hands on her hips. “Lord, I swear I don’t know how we get through so much sugar.”
Alvin slumped back in his chair, defeated. His stomach rumbled, and he put his hand on it, thinking about rice.
“’Bout ready to hit the road, boy?” asked Judd, coming in from the yard.
“Here’s the list,” Amy said. “Oh, wait. I have another one – some things I need for my sewing.” She rummaged in the letter rack on the dresser.
“Hell, I gotta ask Jackson for women’s stuff?” Judd chuckled. “She’s gonna shame us in front of the whole town, huh, Alvin?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Alvin muttered.
“Hey, Judd. How y’doing?” asked Mr Leonard, as they walked into the store. “How’s things up at Ridgeback?”
Alvin wandered over to the stool at the soda fountain and looked at the syrups as his father and Mr Leonard talked about the weather and the crops. He rested his chin on the counter-top and drummed his heels against the hoop of the stool, bored.
Judd asked Mr Leonard to spread the word about the hog-roast – “Just tell ‘em to show up with a jug o’hooch, and we’ll do the rest.” – and the storekeeper filled boxes with the provisions on the grocery list.
“Hey, Jackson,” Judd said, pulling a second scrap of paper from the back pocket of his blue jeans. “I almost forgot. Need some crap for Amy too. Hell – I’m damned if I know what it all means. Women’s stuff, right?”
Alvin was thinking about raspberry soda. Lately, he’d been coming to the conclusion that raspberry was his favourite.
“Gonna havta order that bolt of cloth,” Mr Leonard said, looking at the list. “I’ll have it for you next week. Blue thread – yeah, I have that right here.” He walked along the counter towards the soda fountain, and took down a spool from the shelf.
“That’s not right, Mr Leonard,” Alvin said, glancing across. “Mom’ll want the light blue. Same as she used for the new drapes.”
Mr Leonard smiled. “Guess you know best, Alvin…” he began.
“Whatchoo say, boy?” Judd interrupted, sharply. “What kinda queer shit is that?”
Alvin tensed and paled, shrinking back from his father’s glare. “But Mom always…”
Flushed with anger, the one-eyed man strode over to Alvin and pulled him off the stool by his arm. “Go get your pantywaist ass in the truck, dammit.” He shoved Alvin towards the door, and the boy stumbled, falling to his knees and hands on the sawdust-covered floor.
“Get up on your feet!” his father roared. “Stand up like a man, you goddamn little freak!”
Alvin fled to street, tears hot in his eyes, and clambered into the truck, where he sat and gulped back sobs. He clenched his fists and pressed them into his eye-sockets, trying to stop the tears from coming – knowing that his father wouldn’t allow him to cry.
“You see how much he hates you, boss-man?” said a low, throaty voice.
Alvin opened his eyes and turned – then immediately jumped back, flattening himself against the door of the truck, his spine pressed hard into the handle. There in the driving seat sat Old Joe – smiling, but pale as the moon. Dried blood flaked on his upper lip and around his mouth. His suit was smeared with dirt, and when he lifted his hand to smear away the blood from his nose, his fingers and nails were encrusted with mud and blades of grass
“No need to be afraid, boss-man,” Old Joe said, winking. “You know I’m your friend – always have been. Ain’t that right?”
Alvin nodded slowly, still wide-eyed. “I guess so.”
“Sure.” Joe’s voice was soft and close – right in Alvin’s ear, like a whisper, though the old man was an arm’s length away.
“It was better before, huh, boss-man? Before your daddy came home.”
“Yes. It was,” Alvin agreed, relaxing a little, sliding back into the seat. “Just you and me and mom.”
The old man nodded. “Be good to get back to that, huh?”
Alvin nodded again. “Yuh-huh.”
“That’s right,” Old Joe agreed. “Maybe we can work something out.”
The bell over the shop door jangled, and Alvin turned around to see the one-eyed man coming out carrying boxes, followed by Mr Leonard who was bringing some more.
“It’s my daddy…” Alvin hissed, turning back to Joe. But the old man was gone.
The journey home to Ridgeback was wordless. The one-eyed man drove, tight-jawed, his grip white on the steering wheel. Alvin tried to be small and inconspicuous, staring out of the window, attempting to sniff noiselessly.
When they arrived at the farm, Alvin’s daddy growled, “You wait right here in the truck, boy,” and he stalked off towards the hogpen, slamming the truckdoor behind him.
Alvin waited. He could see his daddy ushering one of the pigs from the pen to the barn – it trotted obediently, all waddle and curiosity as it disappeared through the big doors, Judd following. Alvin heard squealing – loud, childlike screeches from the fat hog - and the clanking of chains. The boy clenched his fists and bit his lip – not knowing what was happening in there, but not liking it, whatever it was.
Then Judd emerged from the barn and called out to Alvin.
“Come here, boy.” He was scowling and impatient. “Gunna make you a man if it kills me,” he said, as Alvin climbed out of the truck and trudged reluctantly across the yard.
Judd gestured the boy into the cool dark of the barn – and there Alvin saw the hog suspended by its hind legs from the traction rail that was used to swing machinery around. The animal was writhing and screaming indignantly, its head a few feet above an aluminum tub.
Alvin’s daddy pushed the boy forward, until he was standing in front of the panic-stricken pig.
“Time to do some man’s work around here,” he said – and he lifted Alvin’s wrist and closed his fingers around the handle of a gleaming, curved machete. Alvin whimpered, his eyes tearful, flicking from the blade to the stubbly, inverted face of the squealing pig.
“One cut – right there on the critter’s throat – that’s the way. No foolin’, no hesitation. Just cut right through clean.”
Alvin felt his tears brim over and run down his cheeks.
“No,” he said, in a whispering sob. “I don’t wanna… Please, daddy. Don’t make me.”
He felt his daddy grab his wrist again, and lift it high.
“Be a man, you little queer-boy. Do it. Do it.”
“No! I can’t! Don’t make me,” Alvin pleaded. He turned his head and looked up at the flushed, thin-lipped face of the one-eyed man. “I’m scared!” he wailed.
“You ain’t scared!” Alvin’s daddy roared, and he swung the child’s arm around in an arc – and Alvin, eyes tight shut, felt the blade of the machete jar in his hand; felt it slice through soft flesh; heard the hog’s truncated squawk. A hot, thick splash hit Alvin’s face – and another; and another, drenching him in steaming pulses, soaking through his cotton shirt, sticky on his skin. Alvin could taste warm, viscous salt on his lips – blood and tears.
He tore his arm from the grip of the one-eyed man, and ran, blinded by crimson, out of the barn towards the orchard, where he flung himself down in the long grass under the old apple tree and sobbed, breathless, as the pig’s fresh blood cooled and coagulated on his dark lashes and in his ruffled hair.
Despite Amy’s pleading, her husband was adamant that their son didn’t deserve to be part of the harvest hog-roast party.
As dusk fell, Alvin sat by the window of his bedroom and watched the townsfolk laughing and filling their plates and topping up their glasses under the lights strung out on a wire across the yard. He could see his mother ferrying bowls of potato salad and steaming corn-cobs from the kitchen, and his father sitting on the old tree stump, surrounded by the fellas from Leonard’s, all swigging beer and listening to stories of the war.
Alvin reached for one of the sandwiches that had been left for him – Monterey Jack and ketchup – and tore a hunk off. He chewed and watched, tearless, twisting one finger in the buttonhole of his flannel pajamas.
By the time the moon was high and pale, all the people had left and Alvin’s mother was collecting the glasses and plates to take back inside. Alvin could hear her piling the china in the kitchen, and he could hear his father’s voice, a low murmur punctuated by hooting guffaws. The moon skimmed the top of the old apple tree.
“Guess you’re going to have to run away, boss-man.”
Alvin turned to see Joe rocking in the chair at the end of the bed. He was paler than ever – and grimier. His Sunday suit was stiff with orchard dirt.
“But then – where would you run away to?” he asked.
“Dunno,” Alvin admitted.
“Don’t matter none where you run to. Your daddy wouldn’t miss you. And – well, guess your momma’s just gonna go along with whatever your daddy says.”
Alvin nodded. “She doesn’t pay me any mind now he’s here.”
“You got that right,” Joe agreed, pressing tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. “Say – that was no fun, slaughtering that hog, huh, boss-man?”
“But – you know whut?” Joe sucked on the pipe as he held a match to its bowl. “Sure died quick. You notice that?”
Again, Alvin nodded.
“Yep,” Joe continued, blowing out a stream of smoke over his bottom lip. “God’s creatures just die real quick if you do it right. No coming back from that – that’s for sure.”
Alvin looked down at his feet swinging above the rug as he sat on the windowsill.
“People too?” he murmured.
“People too,” Joe said, checking how the tobacco was smouldering in his pipe. He paused, and looked up at Alvin, his black-ringed eyes steady and unblinking. “Just need to do it right.”
Outside, the moon slid behind a lazy grey cloud, and Joe’s face melded with the shadows.
“My mommy likes my daddy,” Alvin said quietly, as he slipped down from the windowsill and clambered up onto his bed, dragging the quilt over himself.
Joe gave a coughing chuckle in the darkness.
“You think?” he asked – and Alvin, eyelids heavy, could just make out the gleam of the old man’s yellow teeth against the black of the warm, still night.
The moon was bright again when Alvin was woken by Joe’s cold, calloused hand on his shoulder. Alvin could smell tobacco and soil, and something like sweet spices.
“Come see, boss-man,” the old man rasped.
Joe led Alvin by the hand out along the landing. From the big bedroom emerged panting shrieks and a regular, whistling swish. Alvin looked up at Joe, quizzical.
The old man put one finger to his blood-encrusted lips, and then pushed the door of the bedroom open, just a fraction.
“Look,” he mouthed, gesturing Alvin forward with a tilt of the head.
Alvin tiptoed forward and peered through the crack of the door. His mother was face down on the bed, naked, splayed. And the one-eyed man, still in his bib-overalls and work boots, was bringing a switch down across her back, measuredly, calmly – face blank, but his one eye bright and alive.
“Ahh! God, Judd… Jesus God,” Amy breathed, gritting her teeth.
The one-eyed man leaned forward, close to his wife’s ear. “Who did you go with when I was away? Huh? How many?”
“None! No one! I swear…”
The switch came down again, hard across Amy’s buttocks. Alvin caught his breath, about to cry out, but Old Joe clamped a hand across the boy’s mouth.
“Wanted to, though – dincha?” his father insisted.
Amy twisted her head around. Her bangs were sticky on her forehead, and her cheeks were flushed. “Yes. I thought about it. I did. I’m bad.”
“Yes – bad girl…”
As the one-eyed man raised the switch once more, Old Joe pulled the door closed, and looked down at Alvin, who was standing rigid, wide-eyed, every infant muscle tense.
“You think she likes him for that, boss-man?” he asked, smiling his wise, familiar smile.