Old Carlos squinted into the sun and grinned. “Come in,” he said and swung the door open and stepped aside, tilting his head slightly. The atmosphere in the dimly lit rooms was heavy with tobacco, chilies, and past meals.
Jack Sawyer caught a glimpse of Carlos’s diminutive wife Marguerite stealing across a hallway into the kitchen, as Carlos led him into his workshop adjacent to the kitchen. Wood chips curled yellow on the workbench and floor under the light of a bare bulb. Hanging askew in a cheap black frame on the wall above the workbench was a fading photograph of Carlos when he was a young man, grinning at the camera with three friends, one of whom was Jack’s father. They were all holding shotguns and pheasants. The photo had been there, just as crooked, for as long as Jack could remember.
“Your father was younger in that picture than you are now,” Carlos pointed out. That had been true for some time, and he had pointed it out before. He blew invisible dust off the figure of a horse that he had carved out of wood and handed it to Jack, who turned it this way and that in the light. He had painted the horse Chinese red, and its ornate saddle and other details in gold.
“This is fine,” Jack said, not taking his eyes off it. “She’ll like this. How much?”
Carlos waved the question away. “Nothing. It is a gift from me. And my wife.” Jack noted a certain formality in the way he said this. Negotiations had begun.
“No, Carlos. It’s a gift from me. And my wife. How much?”
“Please. Just take it. It was my pleasure. I’ve known her since she was a child.”
“She’s still a child, Carlos.”
Carlos neither agreed nor disagreed. A moth fluttered softly around the bulb above his head.
Jack set the carving on the bench between them. “You are robbing me,” he said.
Carlos grinned. “I am robbing you by giving it to you for free?”
“Yes. Now, how much? I’m serious, Carlos.”
Carlos shrugged. “Twenty dollars?”
“That won’t do. I couldn’t possibly pay you less than sixty for this fine work.”
“Sixty? That is out of the question! Now, you are trying to rob me. She’s a beautiful girl, your Elizabeth, and I’ve loved her since she was born. I remember the day.”
The two men frowned at the carved red horse sitting on the bench between them. Cooking smells began to permeate the air from the kitchen on the other side of the wall.
“I’d accept thirty,” Carlos said at last.
“Fifty. And not one penny less.”
Jack stood up as if to go.
“Alright. Forty. But I don’t like it one bit.” Carlos waved in annoyance at the moth, which fled to the shadows.
Jack produced his wallet. Once the money changed hands, the tension between the two men dissipated. Carlos pulled a nearly empty half pint of scotch and two shot glasses from his tool cabinet, and dribbled a tiny measure for each of them.
“To Elizabeth,” Carlos said. “A beautiful girl.” They held the scotch in their mouths for a thoughtful moment, eyes half closed. The smells of cooking had turned to smells of burning. Carlos seemed not to notice. “Now, just so you don’t rob me completely blind, let me at least give her this.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a pair of wooden combs, carved and inlaid with tortoise shell. He set them beside the horse.
Jack nodded appreciatively. “Thank you, Carlos. I’ll see that she gets them.”
They heard a thump and a muffled clang from the kitchen.
“You will, of course, stay for dinner.”
Jack sniffed discreetly. “No. I will not. I need to get home. I’m grillin’ tonight”
A flicker of amusement showed on Carlos’s face. “Well. Next time, then.”
“Yes. Next time.”
The oak forest shrouding the Cookson Hills had turned copper with the season, and now glowed like coals in the evening sun behind and above the abandoned storefronts of Rainwater, Oklahoma.
“We’re out of limes, Jack. Mr. Sawyer.”
He looked sideways at her. “Well, that’s a problem.”
“He said to tell you to order something simple.”
“I thought I had.”
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and looked across the empty brick street at nothing. “Because he’s tired,” she added.
“If he’s so tired, tell him to come out here and join me in the fresh air.”
“He don’t like it out here.”
“Would bourbon and water be simple enough?”
He sat at a wobbly wrought iron table in a corner of the bar patio and studied the coppered hills. There were shadowed folds in those hills. Some he knew well, some he would never know. He remembered cutting firewood up there with his father near the cabin that his father and uncles had built. Their own fathers and grandfathers, and men like them, had laid out the streets of the town, and built the stores and banks and the railroad station.
He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old. They’d spent the day, the two of them, working, relaxing, and working some more. At midday his father built a fire from hickory deadfall, in a small, bright clearing, and grilled hamburgers, which they ate between slices of white bread that soaked up the smoky juices, accompanied by cups of ice-cold milk that he poured from a glass bottle. At the end of the day they stacked half of the firewood on the cabin porch and loaded the rest in the back of the pickup. They stood together on the porch and watched rain dimple the skin of the lake cradled among the darkening gray hills.
As they drove down out of the hills in the dark and rain, he noticed his father’s sighs and asked him if he was tired. “Yes, but it’s a good tired. Tired from a hard day’s work, instead of a hard day’s worry. We’ll sleep good tonight. You were a big help today.” He still remembered how pleased that had made him feel.
As he remembered that day, it occurred to him that the work of building the world had already been done before he was born. The stones had already been stacked, the pipes had been laid, and the planks set side by side. He only occupied the spaces vacated by the men who had done the work. His own work, if it could be called that, was managing the inheritance his father left behind and maintaining properties. Sometimes, it seemed, he mostly answered phones.
His reverie was interrupted by a young couple on horseback in from the country, riding side by side down the brick street. The young woman was sitting very erect, in the same way Alice had, back when they’d had horses, and she looked fine and proud as they passed. The echo of the horses’ hooves made them sound farther away than they were. As if he was hearing only the echo and not the thing itself. The air began to stir and chill.
It had been cloudless, like this, but also blustery, the wind laced with cold, on the day Elizabeth was born. Everyone’s darling. That’s what Alice calls her, although never in her presence. Abruptly, he stood and set money on the table, under his emptied glass.
“Mr. Sawyer.” The busboy, about sixteen, and twisting his hands in his stained apron, had instantly appeared when he’d stood. “Tell Elizabeth that Danny says happy birthday.”
“Yes, sir. She’ll know.” He held Jack’s gaze.
The steak was marinating in a plate on the counter. Alice stood at the stove in their cheerfully lit kitchen, stirring fried potatoes and onions in a cast iron skillet with her right hand and reading from a paperback novel in her left hand. She looked over her glasses at him.
“That took a while,” she said. The potatoes sizzled and hissed.
“Carlos wanted to talk. Where’s Elizabeth?”
“You’re going to want to get that grill fired up pronto or I’ll have to fry that steak in the skillet. Don’t think I won’t.”
He sat at the table. “Okay. Where’s Elizabeth?”
Alice set the book facedown on the counter, turned the fire down under the potatoes and put a lid on the skillet. “She’s in Tahlequah with her friends. Did you bring it?” She sat across the table.
“Which friends? It’s almost dark.”
“Just a couple of her girlfriends. They’re practicing cheers. Then they’re going out to eat. Where is it?”
“She’ll be fine, Jack. She’s not a child anymore.”
“Apparently, that’s a matter of opinion.”
She smiled at him. “You’re a good daddy. Now, let me see it.”
He pulled the carved horse and the combs out of his jacket pocket and set them on the table. She picked up the horse and turned it this way and that in the light, as he had done. He liked looking at her hands, her nimble fingers, her chipped red nails. When she finished examining the horse, she studied one of the combs.
“Beautiful,” she said. He could see that she was pleased.
“The combs are a gift from Carlos and Marguerite.”
“Everyone’s darling. Looks like we’re all ready for tomorrow night. This was the last thing. I’ll get these wrapped up while you’re grilling. You’re going to get on that, now, right? How much did you pay?”
“Fifty,” he lied. “Hey, let’s go up to the old cabin next weekend. Just you and me.”
“Fifty? For this? He robbed you, Jack.”
“I know. But I think she’ll like it.”
“Yes. She’ll love it.” She looked at him then, and continued looking at him.
“Alright, alright, I’m going,” he said. They rose and she went back to the stove, turned off the fire, lifted the lid to a burst of aromatic steam, and stirred the potatoes and onions one last time.
“Why do you want to go up to the old cabin?” she asked, with her back to him.
He took his hand from the door knob. “I don’t know. I just remembered how nice it is up there this time of year.”
She tapped the spatula twice on the rim of the skillet and put the lid back on. She turned to him. “Just the two of us?”
“Won’t you be worried about Elizabeth?” she teased.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been up there. We’ll have to clean it up.” He saw a light of anticipation in her eyes.
“Yes, I know.” He wanted to clean it up with her, sweep the cobwebs out of the corners, sweep up the mouse droppings, wash dust off the countertops with hot, soapy water. He wanted to do these things and more to pay penance. For what, exactly, he couldn’t have said.
Once the cabin was clean and orderly, he would gather firewood while she prepared a meal. After they’d eaten, he’d build a fire in the fireplace and roll the squeaky bed into the main room. They would make it up with fresh linens and blankets from town. And then they would take each other to bed.
“Are you going to light that grill or aren’t you?” Alice asked. She picked up the carved horse and combs from the table. Jack stepped out into the dark.
Originally published in This Land: Spring 2016