“All the more reason,” Tom said.


The boy said, “I want to go.”

“That’d be all right,” Tom said, “but you know, I think this time I’d like for just me and Deel to go. When I was a kid, he taught me about them woods, and I’d like to go with him, for old time’s sake. That all right with you, Winston?”

Winston didn’t act like it was all right, but he said, “I guess.”

THAT NIGHT DEEL LAY beside Mary Lou and said, “I like Tom, but I was thinkin’ maybe we could somehow get it so he don’t come around so much.”

“Oh?”

“I know Winston looks up to him, and I don’t mind that, but I need to get to know Winston again…Hell, I didn’t ever know him. And I need to get to know you…I owe you some time, Mary Lou. The right kind of time.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Deel. The right kind of time?”

Deel thought for a while, tried to find the right phrasing. He knew what he felt, but saying it was a different matter. “I know you ended up with me because I seemed better than some was askin’. Turned out I wasn’t quite the catch you thought. But we got to find what we need, Mary Lou.”

“What we need?”

“Love. We ain’t never found love.”

She lay silent.

“I just think,” Deel said, “we ought to have our own time together before we start havin’ Tom around so much. You understand what I’m sayin’, right?”

“I guess so.”

“I don’t even feel like I’m proper home yet. I ain’t been to town or told nobody I’m back.”

“Who you missin’?”

Deel thought about that for a long time. “Ain’t nobody but you and Winston that I missed, but I need to get some things back to normal…I need to make connections so I can set up some credit at the store, maybe some farm trade for things we need next year. But mostly, I just want to be here with you so we can talk. You and Tom talk a lot. I wish we could talk like that. We need to learn how to talk.”

“Tom’s easy to talk to. He’s a talker. He can talk about anything and make it seem like somethin’, but when he’s through, he ain’t said nothin’…You never was a talker before, Deel, so why now?”

“I want to hear what you got to say, and I want you to hear what I got to say, even if we ain’t talkin’ about nothin’ but seed catalogs or pass the beans, or I need some more firewood or stop snoring. Most anything that’s got normal about it. So, thing is, I don’t want Tom around so much. I want us to have some time with just you and me and Winston, that’s all I’m sayin’.”

Deel felt the bed move. He turned to look, and in the dark he saw that Mary Lou was pulling her gown up above her br**sts. Her pubic hair looked thick in the dark and her br**sts were full and round and inviting.

She said, “Maybe tonight we could get started on knowing each other better.”

His mouth was dry. All he could say was, “All right.”

His hands trembled as he unbuttoned his union suit at the crotch and she spread her legs and he climbed on top of her. It only took a moment before he exploded.

“Oh, God,” he said, and collapsed on her, trying to support his weight on his elbows.

“How was that?” she said. “I feel all right?”

“Fine, but I got done too quick. Oh, girl, it’s been so long. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right. It don’t mean nothin’.” She patted him stiffly on the back and then twisted a little so that he’d know she wanted him off her.

“I could do better,” he said.

“Tomorrow night.”

“Me and Tom, we’re huntin’ tomorrow night. He’s bringin’ a dog, and we’re gettin’ a possum.”

“That’s right…Night after.”

“All right, then,” Deel said. “All right, then.”

He lay back on the bed and buttoned himself up and tried to decide if he felt better or worse. There had been relief, but no fire. She might as well have been a hole in the mattress.

TOM BROUGHT A BITCH dog with him and a .22 rifle and a croaker sack. Deel gathered up his double barrel from out of the closet and took it out of its leather sheath coated in oil and found it to be in very good condition. He brought it and a sling bag of shells outside. The shells were old, but he had no cause to doubt their ability. They had been stored along with the gun, dry and contained.

The sky was clear and the stars were out and the moon looked like a carved chunk of fresh lye soap, but it was bright, so bright you could see the ground clearly. The boy was in bed, and Deel and Tom and Mary Lou stood out in front of the house and looked at the night.

Mary Lou said to Tom, “You watch after him, Tom.”

“I will,” Tom said.

“Make sure he’s taken care of,” she said.

“I’ll take care of him.”

Deel and Tom had just started walking toward the woods when they were distracted by a shadow. An owl came diving down toward the field. They saw the bird scoop up a fat mouse and fly away with it. The dog chased the owl’s shadow as it cruised along the ground.

As they watched the owl climb into the bright sky and fly toward the woods, Tom said, “Ain’t nothin’ certain in life, is it?”

“Especially if you’re a mouse,” Deel said.

“Life can be cruel,” Tom said.

“Wasn’t no cruelty in that,” Deel said. “That was survival. The owl was hungry. Men ain’t like that. They ain’t like other things, ’cept maybe ants.”

“Ants?”

“Ants and man make war ’cause they can. Man makes all kinds of proclamations and speeches and gives reasons and such, but at the bottom of it, we just do it ’cause we want to and can.”

“That’s a hard way to talk,” Tom said.

“Man ain’t happy till he kills everything in his path and cuts down everything that grows. He sees something wild and beautiful and wants to hold it down and stab it, punish it ’cause it’s wild. Beauty draws him to it, and then he kills it.”

“Deel, you got some strange thinkin’,” Tom said.

“Reckon I do.”

“We’re gonna kill so as to have somethin’ to eat, but unlike the owl, we ain’t eatin’ no mouse. We’re having us a big, fat possum and we’re gonna cook it with sweet potatoes.”

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