November 2007

Matthew Null


Matthew Null This marks an author's first online publication Matthew Null is a West Virginia native who graduated from Washington & Lee University and now lives and writes in Raphine, Virginia. His short fiction has appeared in Shenandoah and is forthcoming from Gray's Sporting Journal.

Fallen Timber, Broken Stone

"I'm thinking about my grandson Wyatt when the boy tipped back the Old Crow, wiped his lips, and said, Do you know what it's like to wake up scared? It started out as a bad cold, he said, a cold that didn't know quit. Roll out of bed hacking and coughing, drowning in his lung. He said the fourth week he looked in the mirror and knew it weren't going nowhere. He socked the mirror so it couldn't read his face, broke it into a thousand faces. A thousand other ones holding onto sinks in little rooms, swirling their blood and mucus down the drain. He stuck a cigarette into his lips and said, Ron, do you know what it's like to be a pariah? An outcast?

"Or a cocksucker, I could've said.

"That's when I punched him in the mouth."

* * * * *

The Friday before rifle season, Lyle told them to knock off early. A blue smudge of storm appeared above the mountains, a mute threat on the horizon. He knew that the men were angry they'd spent a trip's worth of gas to work a half day, but Lyle was optimistic when it came to weather and weather only, ignoring the voice on 107.9 that warned an early trough of Arctic air was cascading into the valley. Faces red and windburnt, the men milled about dumbly, their fingers so drained of blood that even a slipped hammerblow registered no pain, only a purple crescent rising from the flesh. An inch of soft flakes pooled about the lumber pile and the folds of their clothes.

The men built log cabins for Lyle, a nickel-and-dime contractor whose wife ran a real-estate franchise in Anthem. In the fall she mortgaged their house to buy a hilltop farm in the folds of Kennison Mountain, carving it up into ten acre lots for "rustic vacation homes" to be advertised in the Washington Post. A sure thing, but for the help: Ron Carter, Tom Allison, and Chase Drennen, the boy among them.

Imagine the Lincoln Log houses of childhood, but on adult scale. In October they felled a stand of white pines and skidded them off the mountain with a dozer, carving out sap-rich beams and boards with a portable mill. Lyle kilned them dry, and they built a cinderblock foundation and stacked the six-by-twelve logs in earnest, dovetailing them with a Stihl so they locked together tightly and trued up at the corners. Two months later the second and final story was near completion, enough for the other men to toenail rafters in the big room perpendicular to Chase. The boy set about to mend the upper corner of the small room, all out of the plumb like a house in an Escher print—the slop work Tom Allison did the day he quit, the day he quit because of Chase. When you sink these twelve-inch bolts, Tom taught him, drive it hard all the way down, like you're hitting the bottom of a pussy. Chase nursed the drillbit onto a bolthead and pulled it hot and squealing from the pine. It dropped forty five feet and steamed in the snow. With a prybar he levered a dovetail into place and gave the outside corner of the beam a sound whack with a five-pound sledge, to bring it square. Nothing gave and he cursed, too hard. He began to cough and his eyes watered. His wrist brushed the level and the fresh bolts off the ledge and they rang out against the floor far below. His lungs summoned up a dark phlegm.

Chase worked over a void—the room had a cathedral ceiling, and there was nothing but air and a few scaffolds between himself and the ground. He straddled the logs to work, riding the wall like a hobby horse, legs swimming over either side. Each row of logs he placed brought a greater height and a greater threat to his work. Lyle worried over Chase ever since the boy's father called on the phone, drunk and raging. Lyle hollered, "Get off there, Chase! Time to pack it in. Hustle up or you won't make it over the mountain."

Chase drew himself up and stood pigeon-toed on the wall, only six inches wide, and walked the perimeter of the void. Only when he reached the ladder did he realize he'd been holding his breath. Heights scared him shitless, but he couldn't seem weak in front of the men. Young and limber, he was sent to scale the building with a chainsaw to doctor the logs, scurrying up the boards like the spider-monkeys on ESPN Timbersports. It had gotten harder this past week, his body in decline. Some days every cell in his lungs ached, as if the strands of DNA were unraveling inside him. When he coughed, his insides hammered against the cage of his ribs.

The other men trumped him by at least a quarter century, and the jagged edges of his twang have been rounded by a college education, the voice not lisping but sonorous, the way a pearl forms around grit. He was Lyle's nephew from three counties over, burying himself in the obscurity of manual labor. Chase began to pick up Ron in the mornings after that third DUI on Labor Day, and the two had become close, an easy familiarity creeping into their work and making it sounder. Thorny as Tom was, he learned to like the boy as well. Until Wednesday, of course, when what Lyle called "The Fag Incident" occurred.

Ron tossed his claw hammer to the floor and began the climb down with a mouthful of nails. The scaffolding, made of old pipe they soldered in the shop, gathered a hard rime of frost as the temperature dropped. Thirty feet up Ron's foot slipped and he nearly swallowed the nails. His knee struck iron and set the whole structure singing strange metallic notes and he let out a string of curses, creative variations of the term motherfucker. Lyle shook his head. OSHA or the union would've shut this operation down weeks ago. Ron's knee began to feel hot under his longjohns.

"Goddamn," he said, letting himself down from the scaffolding. A russet, kidney-shaped stain welled through his Carhartts. He looked at the others. "Icy as witch's tits up there," he said. "You got hush money for me, Lyle?"

"Hangovers are the main cause of accidents in the workplace," Lyle said. "I can't afford any workman's comp on account of the bourbonitis."

"Lyle Martin, friend of the working man!" Chase called out, setting tarps over the lumber. "Putting felons and faggots to work since 1982, according to Tom Allison."

Splintering open, falling apart. Ron colored.

Chase said, "Hurry up, Ron. You could've fallen harder and rode home in an ambulance, rather than a queer's truck. This queer likes to be home on time for supper."

Lyle shook his head. Never, ever hire kin. They wrapped the cords on the power tools and set them in the bed of Lyle's truck. Ron and Chase climbed into the Dakota. The fine grit of snow became great white moths fluttering about, the wind whipping them into fury. The trip over the mountain promised to be an ass-puckering experience. He should have let them off sooner. Should have fired them all and started a-fresh.

* * * * *

"Best job I ever had I was seventeen, what they call the tally. Working for Coastal Timber when they logged out Kennison Mountain. They'd give me a topo map, and I'd take a walk out on a point and sit on a log with a clipboard on my knee, marking timber. The others wandered around in the deep woods, hollering out, "Cherry! Twenty-two inches, three logs!" Take my pen and write up a little sheet like the scorecard at the bowling alley. I learned more about the woods than the rest of my life put together. That's the last job I had I really liked. I'm fifty-seven this year.

"I been a stonemason, a bouncer at the Whiskey Corner, all kinds of carpenter jobs, welder at the Green Valley Mine, and I poured runways at Dulles Airport for two years when they were a-building it. Tell you what, lot of good-looking black women up in Arlington, Virginia, living off of Wilson Boulevard. People around here would shit if I said that, cause they think I'm country. I lived with one. Swear on the bible, stuck it out eight months. Monique. Surely she's dead by now. Sometimes at night I think about going to Arlington and bringing her back here.

"Ha. Can you imagine the look on their faces? That'd be the biggest thing in Frost since the Civil War. Boy laughed his head off when I told him about them black women. He said, That's rather liberal of you, Ron. You sneak in a ballot for Kerry, too?

"He went to college, that's why he talks like that. He asked about my kids, but I only tell him about Darla and Wyatt. Wyatt hung the moon, that's grandpa's boy right there. Except the other day I heard him say blow it out your ass to his momma and I clapped him in the mouth. Five is young for that. From that wrestling program he watches, I guess. Or maybe that fucking boyfriend. I'd like to rip out his spine.

"I got two others by my first wife I don't speak of. One's in Mount Olive Penitentiary and the other I don't know. I remembered her birthday today for the first time in years. Thirty-two. I didn't tell Chase that. I thought he was a hell of a guy, despite the obvious. Still do. We were setting cabins for D.C. yuppies. Lot of wood, lot of stone, lot of money being made that won't find its way into my pocket. All the people come by to admire our work—makes Lyle real proud—and he said, We would've had these places sold a hundred times over if anybody local had money.

"I took the boy under my wing. Lyle said his folks aren't in the picture. Guess I was making up for past sins. He was living in a little rotten shack on Dry Fork. I been there. You have to stoop to walk around. There's a fireplace and chairs.

"When he came to work, Lyle told him, The university made you fluent in Latin, but ole Ron here's going to make you fluent in mud and stone, well-versed with hammer and trowel. Granddad was a stonemason and learned me the trade, so I reckoned I'd learn the boy. First he slopped on too much mortar or dumped too much creekwater in the wheelbarrow, but he got the hang of it. Back September we built a hearth and a chimney and prettied up the cinderblock foundation by mortaring river rock all over it, so you can't see the ugly underneath.

"He can work, I give him that. He pried all that rock out of the Cheat and busted it with a sledge. One day I saw a great red mark on a stone, and I said, What is it? Paint? I bent and wetted two fingers, brought them to my eye.

"He said, Don't touch that!

"What? I said.

"I bled all over it. I mashed my fingers setting a keystone. Go wash yourself.

"I wiped it on my pants. Aw, little blood never hurt nobody. What you got AIDS or something?

"His mouth started twitching. Jesus Fucking Christ. I poured gasoline from the chainsaw onto my hands and scrubbed for twenty minutes. I thought about lighting them afire. And he was watching me. Fixing to cry. What do you say to a person like that?

"I shouldn't of told Tom. Got drunk with him Tuesday night and blabbed. God, what a blow up. Came in Wednesday saying faggot this, faggot that, as in I ain't working with no. Lyle should've fired me on the spot. But he couldn't afford to. He's got to sell this cabin to keep the bank off him. He'll just make it."

* * * * *

Some nights the wood burned poorly and he had to mind the fire like a child. The hearth brimmed with cold ash and he cleaned it out with a coffee can. Some nights he lit a fire just to keep himself company. He'd run out of good logs and the rotten bark crumbled wetly against his hand. He wiped it on his jeans. Nothing but birch, a poor spongy wood, and odds and ends of cherry. Newsprint burned and yesterday's headlines disappeared as they do in life. He cribbed up a nice bed of hot orange coals from cherry and kindling, then laid the half-rotten birch into the fire, turning the good dry heart against the coals. The wet logs hissed and popped in the fire, a yellow steam rising. The birch's leathery skin had a peculiar smell, like the burning of hog fat. The fieldstone of the fireplace, crosshatched with ancient adze marks, grew hot to the touch. He smiled; he would be warm tonight. These were the small victories, the things to cherish. He had quit the doctors, quit the hospital. The fire was his nurse. He felt alive.

* * * * *

"I regret it. Man to man, I mean that."

Chase rolled the dial over his voice, blasting the fiddle and keen of the country station, some jingoistic hymn. He gripped the wheel and concentrated on the vanishing road. A white-out, the black dead trunks of pines flashing in and out like television static. He dropped the clutch into first and skated the curves by feel. Ten blind miles to Ron's house. He turned onto the scant gravel road of Whitehorse Run. The tires spun and he feathered the brake, looking for traction but finding none. The truck began to speed and fishtail down the mountain like a greased sled, Ron yelling to steer away from the gorge yawning to their right. The truck nicked an oak on the roadside and they turned broadside and skittered over the ice. Chase overcompensated and nearly rolled the truck. The brakes caught and they high-centered in the ditch, the driver's door flush with the hillside, mirror torn off. He gunned the engine again and again, tires singing in the slush and finding no road beneath. Finally Ron pulled the keys from the ignition, saying, "That's enough. I'll tolerate a lot of things, but I won't let you ruin a good engine in front of me."

They climbed out the passenger-side and the wind chewed their faces. They walked a mile through the snow to Ron's trailer, smoke curling from a stove pipe. Ron directed him to the phone, through the squalor of the living room. Chase tapped the receiver. Nothing. The lines were down. "I've got to get out of here," he said, his voice empty. "I'm walking back to Dry Fork."

"You're going no place tonight but that couch. A wrecker'll have to pull that truck."

"I'm not staying here."

"Sit down, you're shaking. You got to calm down."

The boy paced around the room. He noticed the garish cover of a Stephen King novel atop the clutter. Sweeping away crusted pots and dishes, Ron took a whiskey bottle off the kitchen counter and fetched two jelly glasses. "I could use something strong after that. I'm just starting to unpucker my ass. You take a drop?"

Chase nodded. A sleepy brindled hound nosed around him.

"That's more like it. The weather don't stop Friday night, eh? Throw some hickory on that fire and I'll pour."

* * * * *

"You can't leave them alone these days. When I was eight, my daddy said, Son, take that twenty-two rifle and a lawnchair down to the creek and occupy yourself. Don't come back till you got ten-foot's worth of watersnakes. Things ain't like that now. Darla had a low-rent boyfriend. Phone rings at four a.m. from Fairmont. Turns out he's been fooling around with Wyatt on the side. The boy had to show the social worker on a doll what he done to him. He's got all kinds of trouble now. Something happened the other day with another boy he was playing with. I didn't get the specifics. Didn't want to.

"That man got ten years, five suspended. He lost five years of his life and Wyatt lost his childhood. The system don't work. It fails children. Chase was nodding, agreeing with me.

"We'd gone through three-quarters of the Old Crow and I was kindling the fire. In my last days, he said, I wanted to do something real, something I could see and build with my own two hands. I got brave and asked him how he picked it up. He said, Over spring break we went down to Charleston, South Carolina, and we got a hotel suite and three hookers. We'd never had any women between us—well, except Mike—so we finished up pretty fast. Still had my socks on. Ha. We'd bought them all night so we kept going. Doing everything, swapping them around every which way.

"Mike must be his suck toy. Sounds like a hell of a time to me, I said.

"That's what we thought. We got back to school, to our apartment. Then Mike gets a cold he can't shake. Then it's pneumonia, then it's...

"He talked and talked and I thought of Wyatt and that faggot boyfriend. I should've done better. I'm pretty damn tolerant for a red-ass redneck, registered Democrat all my life. But drunk drunk drunk. He was telling me this whore's tale but I know he's lying, putting on a show. The boy is queer as a three-dollar bill. You catch him doing a flit at the end of a long day when he's too wore out to catch himself. The room was spinning, the window and the fire going around around. He drooped forward and touched my knee and that's when I started hitting him. He just put up his hands, wouldn't fight.

"I threw him out in the snow and poured peroxide on my hands, cut up as they were. Lyle'll have to hire new blood to finish the cabins. He don't got a choice. I can't show my face around there.

"I can't talk no more, not about nothing."

* * * * *

See the shell of a cabin standing on a Saturday morning, calm as Sabbath and wearing a skirt of snow. We build of fallen timber and broken stone, wrestling shelter out of the earth. He trails his fingers over the grain of the pine, the dark curl of its knots, the flaws that give the inner walls beauty and shine. To be loved by a rich man and a rich woman, and the women of rich men are most beautiful. He douses the pine with gasoline.

Their work lights the mountainside like the Host returning to West Virginia.




Matthew Null: Fiction
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 37The Cortland Review