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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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“What else you want me to say?”

“I don't know,” she said in a small voice. “Say ‘All right' again and that'll be enough.”

“All right.”

A silence opened through the line.

“Just think about that,” he said, “and them shower baths.”

“God,” she said, moaning. “You're going to make me come.”

“I'll be there,” he said, wanting to get out.

“Robard?”

“Huh.”

“Is something the matter with you?”

“Nothing is,” he said. He folded the letter with one hand and stuffed it in his shirt pocket on top of the Butterfinger wrapper.

“I thought something was the matter,” she said.

“Everything's wonderful,” he said.

“It is,” she said. “Don't you think everything's wonderful?”

“Yes, hon, I do.”

“I do,” she said sweetly. “Now that you're here, I do. Everything's been so awful.”

“I'm hurrying,” he said, unable to get his breath again.

“Oh, good God,” she said, and hung up.

11

He stopped in Hazen to buy cigarettes and walked toward where the old man kept his rooms. Hazen was fifty miles from Little Rock, a rice prairie town along the Rock Island, a white stone grain elevator by the tracks, a few cages and poultry houses catering to duck hunters, and a smatter of houses and mobile homes in the oaks and crape myrtles, and all the rest save a pecan orchard given up to the rice, planted in tawny, dented fields to the next town, twenty miles in all directions.

By the time he had come up from Helena eleven years ago and gone to work for Rudolph, watching his sluice gates in the summer and sitting out winters in the little shotgun house the old man had built as a warming house for the duck hunters, Rudolph's troubles were all over with and there wasn't anything left for the old man to do but sit up nights and wonder about it.

He crossed the Rock Island tracks and walked down the right of way through the suck weeds and across the gravel path to where he could see the white plank house with the old man's rooms recessed in the dark corner under the south eave. He could remember the old man slumped on the broken shingle of his mattress,
his undershirt catching the pale light in the room, coughing and snorting and staring across the empty floor, trying to think of something to say by way of important instructions, before he sent him back to the pump house to tend the gates. He could hear the landlady downstairs, rattling the tiny trays she used to coddle the old man's eggs, while Rudolph rested his belly on his thighs, drifting in and out of sleep, waiting for the word to come into his head that he could give and that might make sense to somebody. Finally he would murmur something low out of the cavity of his chest, some gate to close or spillway to wind open for an hour or a ditch to inspect for seepage, anything to keep the help moving water from place to place. The old man would stop and snort and gaze out in the dark, and he would slip down the stairs, through the hot kitchen, and take out across the cold fields. Like that.

When he had first come up from Helena there had been, he remembered, a man named Buck Bennett who had worked for old man Rudolph, hired to run local fishermen off the reservoirs, patrol the roads, and see over the property when he wasn't too drunk to find the deputy's badge the old man paid for, or too drunk to keep his old jeep out of the bar ditches, where the old man promised it would remain, since he wouldn't let a wrecker come on the property to pull him out, though he said Buck could come and look at his jeep whenever he wanted to if he had any doubts about its still being there.

Buck would come down late in the evening, drink a pint of whiskey, and sit on the one claw-toed chair the pump cabin had and talk about the old man.

Buck said that the old man had come down sometime in 1941, from Republican City, Nebraska, had sold his half of his father's pig farm to his brother Wolfgang and moved himself and two steamer trunks on the train to Little Rock and put himself up in a commercial hotel at the foot of the Main Street bridge and bought himself a Buick coupe and drove all over the country between Little Rock and Memphis looking for cheap land. And after not very long, Buck said, he bought eight hundred acres of swamp fifteen miles back out of Hazen, land that no farmer had
even thought to abandon, much less cultivate, since La Fourche Creek ran straight through the middle of it and flooded every spring, leaving a solid counterpane of silt and randy water on top of the entire parcel so that even the rice farmers had given up on it and just kept it for duck hunting. He said that Rudolph, who was in his thirties and strong as a bulldog, had gotten hold of the land and practically gnawed every tree on it with his own teeth and built up a maze of bar ditches and ramparts and iron sluice gates to channel the water out of the lows and into an old dead-tree reservoir he dug out with three World War I scoopers. In a year's time he had gotten the land set up to be a farm, built a two-story shingle house and a metal windmill, and transported an Austrian man and his family down from Republican City to live on it and run the farm, and promptly moved himself out of the commercial hotel and into the R. E. Lee on Markham Street and fell in love with the lady who owned it and six more like it in Memphis and Shreveport, and whose husband had been drowned falling out of an inner tube on Lake Nimrod, leaving it all to her.

Buck said that before very long Rudolph had communicated his feelings to the lady, a small wiry red-haired woman named Edwina, and that they were married in the hotel lobby with a bang, and that right away Rudolph moved up to her suite on the eleventh floor and started ordering baskets of fruit and cases of whiskey and running the bellboys up and down the elevators bringing him one thing after another, until Edwina had to tell him the hotel was for other things than just to make him happy.

When the farm started making more money than he could count (though not more than he could save), Rudolph began carrying Edwina's friends to shoot ducks on the big reservoir or back in the woods where he had left the water standing in the winter. Though, Buck said, every time he did it he arranged to get mad and raise hell with everybody for driving too fast on the gravel roads that he had graded personally, or for killing suzies instead of greenheads, or for some infraction of the rules that he was making up as he went along, and finally ran all her friends off entirely when they wouldn't do things the way he wanted them
done, though Buck said it was hard to figure out just how that was. He began carrying an old steel-barrel 12-gauge across the seat of his car as a convincer when he came on somebody he didn't like or wanted to run off. And all the time living in Little Rock like a caliph and staying up in the suite drinking Evan Williams and eating fruit and ordering people around including Edwina, and making everybody wish they had never seen him.

Buck said it didn't seem like any time until Edwina had him divorced and married herself off to an Italian named Tarquini who was fifteen years younger than she was and wore his suits halfway up his asshole, and whom Rudolph had taken out to the farm two separate times before he found out what was happening on the days he stayed at the farm by himself and left Edwina to her own devices. Buck said Tarquini was just some interior decorator from Chicago that Edwina had hired to re-deluxe her hotels, but couldn't resist getting in the sack with since she and Rudolph weren't seeing things eye to eye.

In the settlement Rudolph made Edwina donate him a room in the R. E. Lee for life and one free meal a day, and when it was over he went back down to Hazen, where he could go to the farm when he wanted to and drive his old grader down the roads and along the bar ditches and run everybody off he didn't like and spend time figuring out just what had happened to him.

Buck said he guessed the old man probably used the farm to get back at Edwina by just never inviting anybody she ever knew or that he ever knew when he knew her to hunt with him, and by paying him, Buck, to take people in and out all winter for a thousand dollars a season and letting that information get back to Edwina by mentioning it to the waiters in the dining room when he came into town to eat his free meal and stay in his free room.

He said the old man would come down to the cabin late at night and have a bottle of Williams and an old R. E. Lee Hotel glass and pour Buck a level and watch him drink it, then sit back and cry like a baby. Buck said he had to just keep on drinking until it was gone, because he couldn't stand listening to the old man
cry and tell the story over and over again. Finally, he said, he'd tell Rudolph his was just a clear case of bad timing, and then go to sleep. The old man sat there, he said, staring out the screen door into his rice fields not able to sleep because he had a problem he couldn't understand. And Buck said that he never would have drunk so much if it hadn't been for all those nights.

He walked around to the side of the house and knocked on the door, thinking he could ask what had happened to the old man and go on. The old woman came to the screen and smiled as if she recognized him, and said Rudolph still had his rooms.

He thought he ought to forget it and go back. He smiled at the woman and she pushed open the screen and he got inside before he knew it and she pointed up the narrow hallway to the upstairs, and he went up. He felt like he was making a mistake acting like he wanted to see the old man when he didn't want to at all, and was disappointed to know he was alive still, when he shouldn't have been alive at all. The door at the top was closed, and a thin pane of light radiated over the sill. He could hear the woman reading her newspaper out loud in the kitchen and the sound of her chair groaning.

He knocked and the old man said to come in, standing in the middle of the room under a hanging bulb, wearing poplin pants and no shirt, staring wild-eyed as if he were getting ready to make a charge. He looked heavy-chested and bent to one side, his white hair stuck up in tussocks over his ears. He regretted ever coming inside.

The room was sour. The old man looked at him intently, as if he thought he recognized him, the way the old woman did, but couldn't be sure.

“See Minor,” he said suddenly, “about the work. Don't see me.”

“No sir,” he said, and pressed back against the molding of the door, thinking about getting out.

“Who is that?” Rudolph said, and stepped up under the bulb.

“Hewes,” he said. “I used to work on number two.”

The old man got a step closer. “Took off without saying whoop-dee-doo, too,” the old man shouted, like it had happened last night. “I come out a week later wonderin where in the shit you was, and there was my house wide open, lights burning, propane still in the pipes.” He took a step back and humped down beside his desk table. “What do you say about that?”

“I had to leave of a sudden,” he said, fixing his eyes on the single closed window behind the old man's head.

“Well, there ain't no more house!”

“What come of it?” he said.

The old man squinted as if he had just decided he was really somebody else. “Remember Buck Bennett?”

“Yes sir.”

“Buck Bennett was a crazy son-of-a-bitch. You remember that?” The old man smiled companionably as if he could see Buck at that very moment drunk and falling down.

“I guess,” he said.

“He was a drunk, now.” The old man reached down and jerked his white sock up and plowed at his nose. “He took five bone sawyers from New Orleans back in there on two, forgot to light the jet after he'd turned it on. The bone sawyers got there drunk, and they all sat down to wait for shooting time, and every one of them went to sleep and didn't wake up. They found Mr. Buck's cadaver on the bed with a doughnut in his hand. He musta eat that doughnut and went to sleep, and all the rest of them just sat out there at the table and put their heads down. They didn't even get a doughnut.” The old man pawed his face and gawked as if it had been a great inconvenience.

“When did that happen?” he said, trying to envision Buck's old face, and unable to work it back out.

“December, six years ago,” he said quickly. “I didn't see the bastard for two or three days. He didn't come to get my instructions. So I figured he was drunk, and went out to his house and there they all six of 'em was, and the place smelled like hell. There wasn't no way to get it out of the boards. So I went out, after they had carried them all off, with a gallon of gasoline and put a match
to the son-of-a-bitch, and burnt it down and plowed it under.” He smiled. “So there ain't no more house. I put soybeans in there right where you lived.”

“What do you do with the hunters?” he said, still trying to fathom up Buck's face.

“Put 'em in Minor's house. He's got sense to keep a fire lit. I don't employ no more drunks.” The old man's tiny blue eyes seemed to hold tears in them.

“Buck said he wouldn'ta drunk so much if you hadn't brought him the whiskey,” he said.

“He's a goddamn liar,” the old man shouted, rising out of his chair, his eyes snapping. He grabbed the backing on the chair and squeezed it until the cane cracked. “Buck was on the goddamned hooch the first day I seen the bastard, and it was hooch that killed him by muddying his goddamned mind so he couldn't even remember to light a goddamned pilot.”

“He figured you give it to him so he couldn't do anything else and so you wouldn't have to pay him nothing. He couldn't do nothin about it, Mr. Rudolph, but he knew it.”

“Buck went to California—you know that, don't you?”

He watched the old man's face twist out of one angry expression into another one.

“He went out there and learned how to be a soak and come back here and tried to turn it into a skilled trade,” the old man said.

“Some people ain't lucky,” he said, watching the old man grow madder and madder, and feeling better.

BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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