When one of the summer hands let a bucket of roofing nails get away—not yet learned enough to yell out as it hissed down the rake and disappeared over the collar beam—Bates was standing directly beneath, thinking about his sperm count and how he might get his wife to move back in.
The impact brought him down hard to his knees and left the taste of iron in his mouth. He moved his fingers gently up his bald scalp, creeping along the gash. It started at the very top of his head and widened in the center as it slanted towards his right eye. He brought the hand back in front of his face and rubbed the blood between his thumb and forefinger like he would anti-freeze, testing the viscosity. The blood went thin with sweat and ran off the tip of his nose into the dust where each drop formed a small crater between his knees. Bates wondered if he could form his initials. He aimed the drops into the dirt with one eye closed, sighting off the end of his nose. He formed the L quickly, almost effortlessly, but found the B more difficult. The curves, they would be harder to get right.
Slowly, imperceptibly, Bates had grown to love his work. After twelve years he now woke in the morning with an ache in his chest that didn’t leave until that first moment when his feet hit the dirt of the construction yard and he knew who he was. The owner of a roofing company.
His wife Ellen Louise had only been in Woodruff a year when they met, back when Bates was spraying herbicide for the Norfolk Southern Railway. She was known around town as the girl who sold makeup from her car. Bates approached her the very first time he saw her. She was standing behind her car in the vacant parking lot beside the tanning salon, fleshy arms flushed pink with the summer heat. She was wearing a white skirt with a slit halfway up the back. As Bates watched her from his truck window he felt the skin on the back of his neck flush and grow warm, as though the mid-day sun were resting on it.
“You ever seen a truck like that fore?” he started in. She turned with her hair falling across her face, some strips plastered to her forehead.
“That truck over there, the white one, with the gear on the front? You ever seen a truck like that fore?”
“Am I not supposed to park here?” she asked. Bates suddenly found himself feeling sorry for her. It was her exhaustion, maybe, her tired trunk piled with boxes of make up.
“That ain’t no tow truck, girl. That’s a railway truck. Ain’t you seen a railway truck fore?”
Bates spent the next few minutes telling her about the truck’s features. She listened patiently, relieved that her car would not be towed because she didn’t have the money to get it off the impound lot. He spent a few minutes more describing all the things he saw riding the truck at work. How good it felt to be away from the roads and traffic lights, out in the middle of nowhere, riding over bridges, crossing summer fields, the two parallel tracks gleaming in an endless convergence both before and behind. And somewhere in the midst of talking a change slinked across Ellen’s face. She seemed to see him the way he might like to be seen by a woman: as someone who knew something about the world and how to get something out of it. The conception that Bates formed of himself in that moment, seeing himself that way through her eyes, was powerful. He fell in love with himself. They were married eight months later.
Their marriage, in time, came to hang on a subtle problem of semantics. What Bates referred to as a Pyramid Scheme Ellen tenderly called an In-Home Marketing Career. He would come home from work to find her on the phone, reading prompts from a notebook, winning devotees, and he drank more than usual to drown out the sound of her in the living room, talking to people about coupons and how she would change their life if they would but give her the chance.
They’d stopped trying to have a baby and neither would go to the doctor. One night, Bates overheard Ellen whispering on the phone to her mother. “Herbicide. With the railroad. No, I don’t think he even knows. For like, four years. I know. Iknow”
Bates had never considered this before. He lay in bed remembering the jolting service truck, the concentrated herbicide spilling onto his bare arms and hands, falling over onto his shoes, soaking his socks. He remembered the thick gloves that seemed pointless as the chemicals swirled in the up draft of air behind the truck, a light mist falling down on him, a sticky residue on the back of his neck.
“Ellen, it’s either me or that goddamn pyramid scheme,” Bates said one evening, pushing the pamphlets off the edge of the table. They landed atop her feet in a pile. She stepped back from the table and kicked them against the base of the refrigerator and tromped off toward her bedroom and started packing her things. Soon she was gone, living again with her mother in a trailer somewhere outside Woodruff.
Bates found himself horribly distracted the week after Ellen’s leaving. He would be in the middle of a joist measurement, counting rolls of underlayment, vaguely wondering about the herbicide. The thought would sneak up on him amidst other thoughts, appearing out of the most unrelated details—the square footage of the flashing, the pitch of the rake and the framing mistakes that would need to be accounted for, the half inch here, the full inch from that twist to that hanger—and present itself shamefully until he forgot where he was. The flash of trees, the sight of parallel tracks gleaming, and then Ellen, a big round belly, turning in a room painted pink and blue.
That Thursday and for the first time since he could remember, Bates cut out early to go to a doctor’s appointment. A small red-headed nurse at the desk watched him stomping his boots outside on a rug that was too small, then dragging his heavy shadow across the tile floor. The nurse gave him a clipboard and a small plastic cup with a white threaded cap and led him to a bathroom down the hall.
It took Bates an unbearably long time to ejaculate. He occasionally looked down at the empty cup as he sat on the toilet inside the sterile bathroom, holding himself in one hand and the cup in the other. His arm shook as he tried to rouse himself, as if he were guiding a piece of grounding wire through a conduit. His mind continually fell away from him, spilling down through all kinds of absurdity. He tried to think about a girl he touched once between the legs during a movie in high school, tried to think about her a few years older, meeting her in a bar maybe and picking up where they left off and suddenly he could only remember the most vivid scenes from the movie itself. Then he thought about Clint Eastwood and the small cigars he always smoked and the way his upper lip would rise to a snarl as he moved the cigar into the corner of his mouth. Then he turned three shades of red and had to start all over again. Twenty-five minutes had gone by and Bates was sweating profusely, the back of his thighs wet on the lid of the toilet seat. He had almost given up and was preparing in his mind to just leave when the nurse knocked on the door to ask him if he needed anything. The embarrassment of the question was enough. He quickly snatched the cup, which was sitting on the edge of the sink, and bent himself down into it. “No’m,” he quivered.
That evening Bates stood in front of his kitchen window watching as the cars passed by on 86, watching the heat crinkle the air over the asphalt and feeling the beer he’d been drinking make his lips numb. The cicadas droned in the yard outside the window as he leaned his forehead against the pane.
In the garage he found a bag of frozen chicken breasts in the storage freezer and brought it snugly up against his chest. He rested his head against the frozen chicken and rocked it back and forth, intuitively shifting his weight between his feet. He applied only the smallest amounts of pressure to the freezer bag. He understood its weight, as if he were intimately familiar with it, as if he had picked it up a thousand times a day.
He closed his eyes and began to sing softly beneath his breath, bobbing the bag up and down in his arms as he made small orbits on the floor of the garage. He liked how his feet made soft tacky sounds in rhythm.Crows in the garden pullin up the corn. Gardner asleep in the shade of the barn. Wake him, wake him, tickle him and shake him. Crows in the garden pullin up the corn.
An hour later Bates and the bag of frozen chicken were asleep together in the imitation Barcalounger. They stayed in that position all night long while on the TV an infomercial about a collapsible ladder cast a strange wavelength of blue over the couple. The light fell on Bates’ face and made his skin pale and sickly. It fell into his open mouth and made his lips appear purple and his teeth glow green. It produced an oblique square in the glass eye of an eight-point buck that was mounted with great pomp over the fireplace mantle.
In the morning Bates woke with the thawed chicken tucked carefully in the cleft of his shoulder, the TV in a state of strange derision. The freezer bag was leaking a good bit by then and the fatty chicken water had run down, soaking his armpit, his side, and his lower back, pooling beneath him in the leather recesses of the chair. Bates walked with it against his chest into the garage and then used both hands to carefully lower the chicken into the large freezer, positioning it between a flank of deer venison and a few bags of peas. He changed his shirt, which smelled of sweat and chicken fat and when he left the house for work the freezer lid in the garage was propped open with a spent shot gun shell to ensure that the light would stay on inside.
Later that morning Bates' phone rang as he was yelling at a summer hand, the same hand who would let the nail bucket go without warning.
"Who laid this corner of flashing?" Bates barked. The boy didn't answer. He had a bright piece of flashing in his hand and was trimming it out to fit a drain vent. He shrugged, as it to say, who could ever know such things, such mysteries? Bates shook his head at the boy.
The number of the fertility clinic blinked on his cell phone. It was still early in the day and light was just rising up through the hardwoods. His senses seemed suddenly clarified and deepened, like his ears had popped and he could hear again. Bates flipped open the phone and envisioned the nurse smiling as she told him; his sample was fine. There was nothing wrong with him.
One of the other full-timers heard the summer hand on the roof shouting for someone to retrieve the nail pack. He quit the circular saw in the middle of a long piece of plywood and walked around to the back of the house. It was there that he found Bates, on his knees with his head sunk, dripping someone's name into the sand.