The Square Root of Bull Hollow

by Barry Simms

The woman on the Clairol Nice 'N Easy box stared at Wilkie from the bathroom counter. Her green eyes, cherry lips and bouncy ash-brown hair kept him from releasing. He stretched, tried to turn the box face down. It was out of reach. He closed his eyes for a moment, then reopened them. She was still gazing and smiling. Janell knocked at the bathroom door. That killed his concentration, which wasn't much. He pulled up his boxers and refastened his pants, frustrated.

"Are we going out for Marleigh's cheese steaks tonight?" Janell said.

Wilkie walked to his computer desk and said, "Why don't you just call two in?" He gingerly sat on his well-padded chair.

"Always staring at that monitor. If you'd loosen up maybe you could take a dump, Mr. Anal."

"You know my hemmies hurt."

"Have you ever wondered what makes them flare up?"

"What's that?"

"Your tight ass."

"That sounds like a compliment." He raised both hands and high-fived himself.

Janell picked up the cordless phone and said, "I'll just have some Chinese delivered."

"Don't bother ordering me anything, " Wilkie said. "That stuff doesn't agree with my stomach."

Calculus, a neutered and shiftless Welsh Terrier, loafed into the living room. When improving technology for the PNEX Phone Company became too intense, Calculus was there for Wilkie to pat. While reading cheap mystery novels, Janell would peek over the pages and growl at Calculus. He would scamper to Wilkie for protection.

Wilkie hollered, "I'm going to pick up some roughage and 'rhoid cream," to Janell, who was now in their bedroom watching old tapings of Miss America. A crown she had won in a teen pageant was enshrined under a glass case on a breakfront. Books concerning glint and glamour lined the shelves.

Janell yelled back, "Right now? You're going out now?"

"That's right."

She rolled out of bed and walked into the living room. "How are you going to feel if I invite the delivery man in and show him a good time while you're gone?"

Wilkie grabbed his leather jacket and walked to the front door. Calculus followed. "Don't get pregnant."

"Prick!" Janell snatched the car keys from his desk and slung them at him.

*

Wilkie parked his Lexus at the far end of the lot so as not to get his doors bashed by rude grocery shoppers. Calculus was left on a blanket to snuggle into it if he got a chill. The blanket also protected the passenger's seat from shedding dog hairs.

Wilkie spotted Range Layman through the electric sliding doors. A slender six-feet-five man, stocking cartons of cigarettes near the checkout counters. Range was a pet name given to him by his mother--he preferred it to his birth name, Sherrod.

Range was thirty-two and unemployed when he applied for a position as a bag boy at the Famished Herd Supermarket. That was five years ago. When he started working there, Wilkie noticed the ungainly man. The green smock looked clownish hanging just below his flat stomach. And his arms were so long it looked as if he could run the cash register from the end of the counter and bag groceries simultaneously. When Range wasn't asking customers whether they preferred paper or plastic, he swept and spot mopped the floor. His hard work was irrefutable, and Wilkie didn't let it go unnoticed. He sent a personal letter to Mr. Akbar Shah, the owner of Famished Herd, praising Range's hardy work ethic. Not three months after Wilkie sent the letter, Range was promoted to Assistant Cashier Manager.

One day Wilkie went through Range's checkout lane and told him that it was he who had sent the letter of recommendation. Range blushed and wanted to reward Wilkie for his kindhearted favor. Range inquired whether or not Wilkie had a sweetheart. He thought Range was propositioning him, but that matter was quickly resolved after Range explained that his roommate was single and female. Wilkie's first date with Janell was arranged two weeks later. He learned to love her shortly after they first met and still cared for her. They were more social then. They went to the mall to shop for knickknacks, visited record stores, bought Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane CDs and stopped by Sugar Flav's ice cream parlor for two scoops of black cherry.

Addition was an essential building block. A letter of recommendation plus a new acquaintance equaled a meeting, which led to a date, then several more dates, then marriage. It was romantic, Wilkie thought as he dropped a tube of Slick'em Up hemorrhoid cream onto a bundle of mustard greens. He pushed his buggy to the dairy aisle to get some ice cream for Janell.

On the way out he picked up some ultra-comfort condoms, just in case he and Janell were able to reconcile their spat. Range pinched Wilkie on the shoulder. He said, "Going to do a little 'toot, toot' tonight."

"Whoa," Wilkie said. "Don't be sneaking up on me."

"Easy Holmes, I'm just messing with you. Come up to the front and I'll check you out," Range said.

Range totaled up the bill and bagged the groceries. "There you go sailor, tell Janell I said hey."

"Will do," Wilkie said.

Calculus slumbered on the driver's side of the car. He was no longer on the blanket. Wilkie opened the door, scolded him, and brushed dog hairs off the seat. Calculus moped to the passenger's side and huddled into the blanket. Wilkie exhaled a deep breath and shuffled his hand through the bag of groceries. He pulled out a box of beef flavored dog biscuits, opened it and gave one to Calculus.

*

The hum of the car engine had driven Calculus back to sleep. Wilkie carried him, cradled his body like a small child's in one arm and held the bag of groceries in the other. Kitchen lights were on, and he heard a male voice utter the words "Miss Argentina" as he walked through the front door. Janell was watching reruns of the Miss Universe pageants. He laid Calculus on the sofa and covered him with the afghan that was draped across the rocker-recliner. The kitchen was spotless except on the table there were two Chinese delivery bags.

He peeped into the living room to see if Calculus was still asleep, then walked down the hall. The television glowed against the darkness. "Janell?" She sat on the bed forking noodles into her mouth. "Can you turn that down?" Wilkie said. She continued forking food. Wilkie couldn't find the remote; he turned the volume down manually.

"Did you get me anything?" She asked with a mouth full of chicken and vegetables.

"I brought ice cream."

"Black Cherry?"

"Of course." He moved closer to kiss her cheek. She opened her mouth and showed him the masticated food on her tongue.

"Yummy," Wilkie said. He kissed her neck. Janell started to laugh when she inadvertently sucked a piece of Chicken Chow Mien down her windpipe. She pushed him away, pointed at her throat and hammered at her chest. Wilkie yanked her from the bed and positioned himself behind her. He jerked upward on her diaphragm. The food wouldn't dislodge, and she began to fight against him. But soon she fell to the floor. He turned her body over and shoved his hand into her mouth, cutting his fingers on her teeth. He touched a small rubbery clump and tried to pinch it between his thumb and index fingers. He hoisted a half-chewed piece of chicken from her throat. But then he felt his wedding ring slip from his finger and into the depths of her esophagus. He dared not venture back into her mouth for the ring. He grabbed her ankles, lifted and shook her petite body. The ring clanked out onto the floor. He applied CPR, calculating the number of breaths per number of chest compressions. Janell's bluish face stared at him as he punched her chest in an attempt to jumpstart her heart.

The cordless phone in their bedroom was missing. He remembered seeing it on the kitchen table; he ran to get it. Next to the phone was the box of black cherry ice cream. He had forgotten to put it in the freezer. It was melting into a syrupy mess as he dialed 911.

*

Wilkie drummed his ink pen on a yellow note pad and listened to Range's voice on the phone.

"I just had a long discussion with the physical therapist, and he said maybe a year, maybe never. We both know it's been four months and Janell can't totally hold her head up straight. Can you hang on for a second?"

He heard incoherent moans on the other end of the line. "Sorry about that," Range said. "I have to go in a minute. Janell needs help changing her diaper. But I was thinking, my mother has a house for rent, and I can get you a good deal. It would be nice for Janell. I know she'll love living in the south. Evansburg is a great little town. Things are much slower down there."

Wilkie sketched a three-dimensional drawing on the pad of paper. "I'm not sure we can just pick up and leave. Calculus has imprinted on this place. I would hate to upset him."

"Calculus is a great dog," Range said, "but we're talking about your sweet little Nelly. Your wife. Don't you want her back?"

Wilkie put the pen down and placed a tighter grip on the phone, "The question is, does she want me?" He didn't give Range a chance to answer before hanging up.

Wilkie went to the bathroom, took one of Janell's hairbrushes. He returned to the living room where Calculus lay on the sofa and brushed his curly dog hair.

*

The night Janell was choking on the chicken chunk (and his wedding ring), Wilkie hadn't given up. After he called the emergency operator and told him that his wife was in need of medical assistance, he had returned to her. And despite her look of a wilted floweret on the cold parquet floor, he proceeded to seal his lips over hers and breathe into her mouth. Before the paramedics rang the doorbell he had placed his ear against her breast and listened. He heard the returned beat of her heart.

During recovery in the hospital, her first garbled words to him were, "Why didn't you let me die?" Her lasting beauty was replaced by partial paralysis. She suffered from horrendous headaches and was prescribed methysergide. The drug sometimes caused mild euphoria. Wilkie convinced himself that her death wish was drug induced. But when Dr. Hembree agreed to release her, she refused to go home. She stayed in her hospital room for three more days before deciding to live with Range. Wilkie resisted at first, but to ease his mind he paid Range two hundred dollars a week for taking care of her.

*

Wilkie's PNEX supervisor faxed recommendation papers to Evansburg where he and Janell would be moving. Their house now stood empty. Calculus appeared confused, sniffed the floor where the sofa had been. His barks echoed through the empty rooms. Wilkie picked him up and they departed the house for the last time.

He pulled into the West Hills Apartment Complex as Range appeared on his second floor balcony. "Come on up," Range said.

Wilkie collected Calculus and ascended the metal staircase. He pushed open the sliding door. Calculus squirmed. Wilkie dropped him, and he pitter-pattered his paws to Range's green vinyl couch and laid down on it. It had been weeks since Wilkie had seen his wife. Her arm lifted as if waving, but it was just a muscle spasm.

"I made some hot chocolate," Range said. "Want some?"

"No thanks, " Wilkie said.

"Why are you here?" Janell said with a slur.

"Today's the day," Wilkie said.

"The day for what?" Janell asked. "Range, what's he talking about?"

"Just a minute Nelly. I want to show Wilkie something," Range said. "Here's your hot chocolate." He placed the mug into the wheelchair cup-holder. Steam rose from the hot liquid.

"I'm thinking of putting new wallpaper in my bathroom. Come in here Wilkie, I want your opinion."

Janell sipped from her mug. The two men visited the bathroom. Range shut the door behind them. "I haven't told her yet Wilkie. She doesn't know you're taking her to Evansburg. But don't worry, I dropped some sleeping pills into her hot chocolate. She'll be out at least until you reach Virginia."

"That's sick," Wilkie said. "Are you crazy?"

"When you arrive, my mother will settle you in. She promised to help with Janell if you need it. You'll probably need it."

"You told me she was excited about the move. You lied to me."

"Listen, you two are like cereal and milk. You're kind of dry and she's a little pale and sour. My mother is sweet as sugar and she is going to help."

"What are you talking about?" Wilkie said.

"Ok, forget that. If it doesn't work out, I'll come down to my old hometown and bring Janell back here to live with me."

There was a scratch at the door. Range reached his unusually long arm to open it. Calculus stared in at them. Wilkie pushed by Range and picked Calculus up from the floor. In the living room Janell had somehow gotten out of her wheelchair and onto Range's couch. She rested peacefully.

"All right Sherrod--"

"You know I hate that name."

"Sorry. Range, grab her luggage."

"I'll have it sent down to Evansburg. Just go before you change your mind."

Wilkie carried his wife's doped body to the car, eased her onto the back seat. Range whispered a good-bye to Janell and gave Wilkie a friendship kiss on the forehead.

"I appreciate the sentiment," Wilkie said, "but that was very distressing."

"You know, you should grow yourself a heavy beard."

"I don't think so," Wilkie said. He thanked Range again for all his hospitality. Range pulled a book from his back pocket and said, "Oh, don't forget this. It's one of her favorites.

At the apartment's exit, he waited to join the stream of traffic, looked down at the book in his hand, The Woman in White. He pitched it to the back floorboard and drove away.

*

The pills made Janell comatose for three hours. She woke up trembling and highly agitated, slurred the words "set me up, set me up!" She finally shifted herself into a sitting position. Calculus barked and started to crawl over the back seat. Janell smacked his snout and sent him dazed to the front. Wilkie pulled over to the side of the highway, rubbed Calculus' nose, and explained to Janell that they, all three, were on their way to their new home in Evansburg. She was about to cry. In between spells of involuntary dry weeping, she cursed Wilkie and Calculus. He thought about taking her back but didn't. He turned on the emergency blinkers, left the drivers seat and joined her in the back. She tried to move away from him, but her body wouldn't cooperate. He tried relaxing her with a leg massage. She looked down at his hand and told him that she couldn't feel it. At that moment it seemed as if there was nothing he could do to console her.

A motorcycle cop pulled behind them. He motioned for Wilkie to roll down his window, asked if they were in need of assistance. Wilkie read the silver metal name pin on his shirt--Officer Sean Schnaper. He told the officer that everything was fine. Both of them sitting in the back seat was questionable, and Janell's crying looked suspicious. Officer Schnaper asked her if she was all right. She forced her head to nod up and down. The officer gave a disappointed grin. Since they didn't have a good reason for being parked on the side of the highway, he told them to find a better place for a chat. Wilkie didn't stop much after that.

*

They had driven so deep into rural country that the atlas had become useless. A roadside sign read Tabernacle Fruit & Vegetable Stand: A Little Taste of Heaven. It was a good place to stop and ask for directions. Dust boiled up as they pulled into the gravel parking lot. Wilkie cringed when it settled onto the car. A couple in their forties could be seen through the windshield. They rested on wooden stools with a small table between them and were playing a game of Connect Four. Because the spring heat felt more like summer, Wilkie left the car running and air conditioner blowing. He passed a pile of ripe tomatoes as he approached the man who was wearing a green polo shirt and black pants. The woman wore a blouse printed with pastel baby ducks, culottes, and a straw hat that shaded her eyes from the afternoon sun.

"Hello there," the man said, "interested in some of the Lycopersicon esculentum fruit?"

"Excuse me?" Wilkie said.

"Tomatoes" the woman said, and dropped a red checker into the slot to prevent her opponent from connecting four. "You'll have to excuse Bill, he's a retired botanist. He can't seem to shake the technical names."

"I don't want to shake the technical names," Bill said. "But I've been trying to utilize user friendly terms for our customers. Old habits don't die easy I suppose."

"Not a problem," Wilkie said. "I can relate, being in a technical business myself."

"Really," Bill said, "what kind of business would that be?"

"I'm an engineer. A mechanical engineer." Wilkie felt proud to say mechanical.

"That is nifty," Bill said, "a fellow scientist."

Wilkie looked back at the car. Calculus was licking the window. "I'm looking for a Ms. Layman's residence." He took out a note pad and flipped through the pages. "I believe it's on a road called Flatcreek. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes I do," the woman said, "I know Fay Layman. Are you the one who is renting the house from her?"

"My wife needed an environment change. I was happy living in Trenton, but I suppose marriage is give and take."

"This place can give a lot," Bill said. "When Pauline suggested that we move here from Cincinnati, I wasn't keen on the idea because I had always been a city boy. But sure as shootin', I was wrong. We bought this little business from some Church of God people. I think you'll love the area and the folks here."

Pauline gave Wilkie a hand-drawn map. He showed his gratitude by buying a bag of cucumbers.

Bill said, "Enjoy those Cucumis sativus."

"Will do," Wilkie said.

*

A snow shower of fallen dogwood blooms stuck to the driveway's asphalt. Twenty or thirty barn-shaped birdhouses rested on wood-stained poles, created an aviary fence line leading to Fay Layman's cabin home. In the yard, a wicker swing was stretched between two silver maples. Fay pushed against the ground with her sandaled feet, causing the swing to slightly sway. She didn't bother to stand when the Collins trio parked just outside her garage.

Janell was pale as a marshmallow and in need of a diaper change. Calculus was eager to jump out of the car and sniff a clean place to do his doggy business. Wilkie inadvertently tooted the car horn with his elbow and startled Fay from her trance. She came gracefully off the swing and glided over to greet her guests. A silky leopard print dress and long, long black hair fluttered behind her as she came closer to Wilkie with extended arms.

"Oh dear," she said in a voice that resembled Marilyn Monroe's, "please forgive my inattentiveness. I enjoy absorbing the intrinsic splendors. Pardon my manners. You must be my boy Range's friend, Mr. Collins."

"Wilkie, please."

Fay wrapped her arms around his torso. "That's such a playful name," she said releasing her hug. "Who else do we have in the car?" Wilkie opened the door and Calculus came leaping out. "What a winning dog" she said with a mousy squeal. "And who do we have back here?" Janell locked the back door.

"That's my wife, Janell. She's feeling a bit road weary."

"Darling," Fay said "is this the same Janell as Janell Ogle?"

"That was her maiden name," Wilkie said.

Fay tapped on the window with her fingers. "Sweetie, Janell, honey, it's Fay. Now I know you recognize my voice. I want to see your pretty face."

Fay's hypnotic praises led to the lock being popped. Janell cracked the door open and gave a lopsided smile when she saw it was truly Range's mother. Fay reached down, gave Janell a warm embrace. "You haven't changed a bit," Fay said. "You are the exquisite débutante I remember. " Janell blushed in the back seat. "Let's take you inside, freshen up, and have something to eat. I have tea cakes."

Wilkie unloaded the wheelchair from the trunk. Janell scooted out of the car and bounced onto the chair. Wilkie followed as Fay pushed Janell toward the cabin. A kennel housed Fay's hounds around back. Calculus stayed outside and sniffed around their pen.

Gothic decor contrasted with the house's beauteous exterior. Sculptured archangels held candles by the stone fireplace. A small electric statue of a warlock sat in the middle of the living room, spat a river of red dye into a trough. Wilkie stood mystified at the gargoyle head that was carved into the walnut coffee table. Fay rested on her bronze throne.

"I have a perfectly comfortable bedroom for you," Fay said. "We can stay up all night discussing The Moonstone and drink martinis. You're welcome to stay too Wilkie."

"No," he said, "I figured that Janell and I would spend the first night in our new home together." Janell turned her eyes away from his stare.

"But it's been so long, at least eight years since the time we all went to the Witter Town Nightclub. Range was doing his slinky dance on the floor and accidentally tripped a Jezebel in a green dress. Her boyfriend was about to make waves, but I clocked him right in the face with my beer mug. Janell was so embarrassed, weren't you?"

"That was so much fun, " Janell said. "I think I will stay here tonight, if the offer's still open?"

"Of course," Fay said.

"I'd like to be shown the house now," Wilkie said. "Would you mind taking me there?"

"Yes, yes," Fay said.

*

A rustic two-story house stood like an antiquated confederate soldier atop the hill. Near the house, Fay pointed to a ravine that separated her cabin and Wilkie's rental home. "That is Bull Hollow," she said. "Some forty or so years ago a young farmer by the name of Wee Eddy owned thirty of these surrounding acres. One night, he and his Coonhounds were tracking a rabid opossum that had been eating his bantam roosters for dinner. When they came upon this ravine, Wee Eddy saw what he thought were the opossum's eyes reflecting the lantern's light. But two more eyes appeared beside the others. The two sets of orangish peepers grew into two full sized raging bulls. They galloped and lunged at each other in a display of violent dancing. Their bellows frightened the hounds away, leaving their aghast master to ward off the demonic bulls himself. Don't you find that story simply amazing?"

"Honestly," Wilkie said, "it sounds like a bunch of bull. Pardon the pun."

"Your lack of imagination has ushered disharmony into your life. You should be more open to fantasy and pretend," Fay said.

"As a kid, I used to make-believe when I watched PBS. Then I grew up. I went to a fine university, graduated, now I develop some of the most sophisticated telephone equipment in the world. And it works, a person can actually make use of it, unlike a cockamamie story about bulls pirouetting in the woods. "

"Ah ha," Fay said, "I knew you had a way with words."

"How's that?"

"I'm just saying that there is hope."

"Hope?" Wilkie said.

"For you and Janell and a chance at a happy marriage." Fay rubbed Wilkie's shoulder and said, "if you're interested you can join us at Bull Hollow sometime."

"Join who?" Wilkie said.

"Some friends of mine and I'll be there too. We build fires, share tales and enjoy the mystique of the place. It's just fun."

She kissed his cheek and began the return trek to her cabin. Calculus started to follow her, but Wilkie called him back.

The hollow's mouth smiled--invited its new neighbors inside its vegetated throat. Mimosas jutted out of the bank, pink blossoms sat on limbs like feathery hats. Past the subtropical trees were a barricade of unfriendly vines and toothy briars. But near the center of Bull Hollow was an unusual conformation of towering elms. Six large elms held hands, limb to limb in the shape of a hexagon. They must've been planted years ago, Wilkie figured, by the man who supposedly saw the ghost bulls. He didn't believe that six seeds could've landed perfectly into fertile soil and grow to be giants on their own. It eased his mind to think that the tree hexagon was man-crafted. Calculus led Wilkie away from the hollow and toward the house.

The heavy door screeched when he pushed it open. The ceiling was high and the walls were a sterile white. Calculus sniffed out the sofa that was pressed against the hearthstone. Wilkie wandered into the kitchen. It was white and cold except for a yellow border that added a tinge of color. Cobwebs were suspended in corners like specters. He found a crusted wishbone in the dish cabinet. It looked as if it could've been placed there as a charm ten years earlier--he made a mental note to dispose of it later. He opened the refrigerator and found a plate of homemade oatmeal cookies inside. A white paper note lay on top of the plate. The cookies were from Fay. He took one and ate it as he left the kitchen.

Purple sunrays filtered through an upstairs stained-glass window. The master bedroom was dark, but he could see his box springs and mattress propped against the closet doors. He laid the mattress down, then his tired body on the mattress for a nap before heading in to town for groceries.

*

In the late morning hours he tried but couldn't measure the circumference of the most recent circle he had traveled. It wasn't a perfect one, but it was definitely circular. Range and Fay were two incalculable equations. It even seemed beyond the farthest reaches of Isaac Newton's innovative mind.

He made pancakes for breakfast but couldn't eat them. Calculus gladly wolfed them down.

They left the house's confines for a walk in the thick mid-morning air. A dull overcast fought against the new day, and Wilkie gazed at the grayness overhead and the woodlands that looped around them. A hawk swooped down from the trees. It held a helpless squirrel by its arms with its sharp talons, resembling a tiny man dangling from a glider. Calculus never noticed the two animals flying above them. Wilkie watched as the bird lit on a scrub-pine branch, ripping at its prey.

Wilkie and Calculus then walked to the hollow's edge and heard the snapping of branches. Seeing past the thick brush wasn't easy, and they were so focused on the noise, they didn't notice Fay pushing Janell in her wheelchair up the walkway. Fay said, "What do you see?" Calculus gave a startled bark.

"We came out for some fresh air," Wilkie said. "Thought I heard something in the woods over here."

"You probably heard my friends. They're decorating the woods."

"Some friends of yours are decorating the woods, huh?"

"Remember? The get-together I told you about yesterday?" Fay said.

"I remember," Wilkie said. "Did you two have a nice time last night?"

Janell looked up at Fay. They shared a laugh. Wilkie squatted down and hugged Calculus. "Yes we did," Fay said.

"We had loads of fun and then some," Janell said. "You should try it sometime."

"I've been working on a gum sensor," Wilkie said. "It automatically unclogs pay phones."

"Lovely," Fay said. "Well now, I need to get in the woods and do my do. I hope you straightened your house and made a comfortable place for Janell."

"We'll be fine," Wilkie said. He replaced Fay behind the wheelchair and pushed her inside the house. Fay strolled to a broad weeping willow and broke off several of its drooping branches. Before he closed the door, he watched Fay contort the branches into a crown. She placed it on her head and disappeared into the woods.

*

He worked for hours in front of his computer. His new employer was a small technological company, Appalachian Connection. The gum sensor project was giving him problems. The heating unit was leaving the metal too hot and burned customers' fingers when they dropped the change in.

He used to explain his job complications to Janell, and she would say something off the wall that sparked his imagination. Wilkie threw problems at her, and she would bounce them back, created an alternating current between them.

He hadn't eaten and his eyes and head ached from staring at the computer screen. He pulled back the curtains and looked out the northern window. Fay's cabin didn't appear real on the other side of the ravine. It was a loaf of cinnamon bread floating on an ocean of green lawn. Wilkie closed the dusty curtains and returned to the dim hue of the monitor. He saved the program on a zip disk and turned on the screensaver. Downstairs Janell was sitting by the sofa stroking Calculus' ears.

"It's good therapy isn't it?" Wilkie said, "petting him, I mean. It always makes me feel better."

"Why didn't you want kids?"

"I didn't think you wanted a pregnancy marring your post-pageant body. We have Calculus."

"No, no don't pack that off on me. I wanted kids and now I can't have them."

"Is this why you wouldn't come home? Is this the reason you're still so hostile toward me? Talk to me, I can't stand this weirdness."

"This weirdness," Janell said, "forget it, I don't want to talk about it."

"Tell me," Wilkie said. "It was an accident. And I can't help what happened."

"What has happened between us has a lot more to do with the way you've become and still are. I'm a new person because I have to be. You're the same, driven by triviality day after day."

"What?" Wilkie said, "Who's filled your head with that bunk? Range? Fay?"

"You never hear what I'm saying. Take a wrench and loosen the bolts around your neck. What's it going to take with you?" Janell tipped back into her chair and watched the ceiling fan blades chase each other.

Wilkie looked past Janell through the window behind her. Fay was walking toward the house. She held two handfuls of orchids and green vines draped around her neck. She pecked at the front door with her fingernails.

"Hello Fay," Wilkie said.

"I brought some flowers, thought they might chic up the place," Fay said.

Janell perked up and said, "Let's put them in a vase here in the living room." Wilkie took the flowers from Fay's hands and went into the kitchen for a vase. He didn't find one, so he placed the flowers inside a large drinking glass. He thought he heard whispers, but they had ceased when he reentered the living room.

"You know," Fay said, "if you drop an aspirin in, it'll keep them from wilting so quickly."

"All out of aspirin," Wilkie said.

"We're meeting in the hollow tonight." Fay looked at Wilkie then Janell. "It'll be delicious."

"I want to go," Janell said. She looked at Wilkie.

"I'll stay here," he said.

Janell motioned for Fay to roll her out of the house." Think about it. It'll be a lot of fun," Fay said.

After they left, Wilkie was alone again, except for Calculus.

*

Dusk settled around the house. Wilkie relaxed on the sofa eating kumquats and feeding Calculus a bag of popcorn. He took the phone from its base and dialed random numbers just to hear human voices. Some people said "hello" three or four times and hung up. Some cursed him because he wouldn't say anything. One woman quoted Bible scriptures to him. After each one hung up, he would dial again and listen.

The scent of burning timber and children's cheery voices seeped through the worn window seals. Wilkie put the phone down and opened the front door. A group of shadows were somersaulting like monkeys. Indistinct bodies small and large walked through his yard. Silhouettes of top hats and bonnets stood on their heads. A lone tallish man resembling Range twirled a cane. They all descended into Bull Hollow. Calculus stuck his head through Wilkie's legs and watched the intruders pass by. A whiff of acidulous smoke caused Wilkie to sneeze, bringing the attention of a young woman holding a furry animal. She dropped the mass to the ground. It looked like a large rodent, and it hissed and spun when the woman gave it hand-signals to do so. Calculus ran outside to greet what turned out to be a spirited opossum. It reared onto its hind feet and batted its claws at Calculus. He ran back to Wilkie, and the opossum crawled up the woman's leg and perched on her shoulder. She continued toward the flickering light that was in the hollow.

Wilkie closed the door, ran to his bedroom and looked out the northern window. The trees' thick leaves prevented him from seeing past them, but he thought he heard laughter. He snatched a navy blue sweater from his closet and put it on. Downstairs Calculus was still visibly shaken from the clawing incident. Wilkie petted him, calmed him down before they left the safety of the house.

They made their own path down an embankment and ran into a sticky patch of blackberry vines. Wilkie cut his hands on the briars but shielded Calculus from them. They pushed forward to a clearing and caught their first glimpse of the festivities. Tremendous logs were stacked in the shape of a fiery teepee. The people's puritan garb didn't match their actions. Heathenish tribesmen hooted as they danced around the fire. Women held their arms in the air and waved their hands. Hounds snarled at an opossum that played dead, and children tossed handfuls of acorns like magic beads. There was a wonderful pattern, a method that Wilkie found oddly satisfying.

Fay sprang from behind a pine thicket wearing overalls, a pair of clogs, and rested a single barrel shotgun against her shoulder. Wilkie held Calculus tight and perspired as he continued to watch. Fay stuck two fingers inside her mouth, whistled for the hounds and pretended to hunt for something. Her hair was tied back into a long ponytail; she methodically swung it around like a black snake. The tribesmen chanted and swayed their hips until the women ran to them, pulled them into the dark recesses of the elm hexagon. Fay hunkered near the ground, alone with her shotgun and hounds. Then the tallish man, the one Wilkie had seen twirling a cane emerged, pushed in front of him an angelic Janell in her wheelchair. Her solid white dress radiated like a flare of goodness. She was fresh and vibrant, neither of her sides slouched. It was a return to something that she had lost. Wilkie thought that she looked like the débutante he had forgotten--failed to see. His bedazzled eyes didn't notice Fay pointing her gun in his direction. The barrel jumped upward when she pulled the trigger. Bark and branches rained down onto Wilkie's head. Calculus jerked forward, caused them both to tumble down the hill. The women and tribesmen came out of their dark hiding places and encircled Wilkie. Fay parted the crowd and helped Wilkie to his feet. Calculus and an amiable hound ran off to join the other hounds that were deviling the opossum. Among the faces, Wilkie recognized Bill and Pauline's from the fruit and vegetable stand. Bill was wearing a leafy sash around his waist.

Janell rolled to him in her chair. Wilkie's muscles stiffened. He ripped his sweater from his body and tried to yell. The believers stomped their feet in a dead march as if to say, go to her.

2002 by Barry Simms. All rights reserved.

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