Duncan Coakes stood as they shut brother Dan’s grave. Just him and Pastor Tom up at Hatton Creek. Tom said a few words but Duncan didn’t hear them. Only heard the winch creak lowering his brother under the unruly East Kentucky hills. It made his hands into balls of arthritis and lines by his bulging middle. The space under his ribs felt dry and empty and chill as this November.
Deputy Schillens showed up on Duncan’s way back to the Rambler. Duncan paid Schillens no look, as that was what he was worth.
“Missed our chance getting Dan for when you done in Sheriff Garver back in the day.”
“Missed out on me too. That trial’s been had.”
“Got your boy now, though. Attempted vehicular manslaughter of a peace officer.” Schillens’ sneer floated in the brown sauce of Skoal. “Maybe we can’t stick it to you, but we’s sure going to stick it to him.”
“I’ll show you where to stick it.” It angered Duncan most that Schillens was right on all counts.
Duncan pushed aside the tin-foil covered casserole dishes to make space in the Rambler’s trunk for Dan’s folded flag. He got the flag from the Corps on account of Dan’s stretch in Vietnam, the dishes from the old girls up at Stonegate Church on account of Jan being in the hospital.
Duncanhadn’t checked them, but he smelled turkey. That’d be for hot browns after he drove into Lexington to see his wife up at Saint Josephs East. The thought of both at once got the oyster-sized sear in his stomach going.
Pastor Tom came up and patted him on the shoulder. “How you holding up, Dunc?”
“Seems the season for it.”
“How’s Jan doing?”
“We get test results back today. Doctor’s a damn idiot, though, to’ve missed spotting the cancer when she was first in for her heart attack.”
“And your boy Frank?”
“Still inside. Sentencing’s coming up. He’s looking at a long stretch given his priors.”
Tom looked at the hills’ horizon instead of Duncan: Slim green trees singing out sunbeams like a choir. He smiled at it.
“Whatever happens, Dunc, you just got to know it’s God’s grace.”
No answer was the right answer to that, soDuncanjust shut the Rambler on his brother’s flag and got in and keyed it.
Pastor Tom didn’t know about being locked by his Pa in the cellar for days on end, sleeping and waking and sleeping and waking again to the same darkness and rat teeth and cold hunger. Tom didn’t know the electric fist of adrenaline punching your throat during a stick-up—how the tellers’ eyes would go wide and wanton as a woman’s, all the cash in the world shivering at the sweep of Duncan’s Mossberg barrel.
If Pastor Tom didn’t know about those things, Duncan thought, he didn’t know a damn about God’s world.
Duncan made sure Jan woke up with her hand held in his. He leaned his egg-shaped form over hers and put a kiss on her veined brow. Worked up a smile for her, though there wasn’t much to smile about. Jan’s skin had gone the color of her blond hair and her hair had gone pale and thin as spider web. It was like God was taking an eraser to all his wife was.
“You been smoking again, Dunc.”
“You caught me.”
“I always do.”
“I know your hands’ smell well enough to tell any change.”
The chill in his chest and the burn in his belly came back. But it had been twenty years since Jan smelled strange pussy on his fingers. Silence and the support of the church had put days of Acting Out behind them.
He straightened her crucifix in the sink of her neck bones.
“It’s bad, then, isn’t it?” Jan said.
“We get you back home by Thanksgiving.”
“How long I got?”
“Two months, maybe. Doctor said it spread all over.”
Duncan rubbed the fat cone of Jan’s thigh as she stared lagoons at the ceiling. He thought of that leg and the magic it had to it, glowing golden on the beach that summer on Chickateague. Thought of petting it as Jan busied around each of the eighteen homes they’d fled through over the years. Thought of how waking with it pressed to his made cellar damp and rat bites seem a whole other universe.
Duncan thought of losing it, losing all of her, as Jan’s tears escaped onto the yellow of her cheeks.
“Home,” Jan said to up high. “I want to go home.”
“We’ll get you home.”
Hard as they clasped, both their hands shook. But that was alright.
“I want to cook Thanksgiving, Dunc.”
Duncan walked to the edge of his lawn before lighting the Marlboro. He’d spent the night making the house ready for Jan. Smoking on the property felt as wrong as sleeping without her.
His bulldog, Brutus, did his business by the curb as Duncan pet his head with one hand and watched smoke somersault from the other. Blood-orange dawn birthed from the belly of the mountains.Stantonseemed like such a lovely home.
He’d vacuumed, dusted and cleaned the counters for the first time in his life. The woman’s work had taken him awhile. Every so often, Duncan would find himself staring at the trio of wooden samplers Jan had up in the den, each with a word: Faith. Family. Love.
Duncan dusted the plaques twice. Took down the family photos from behind the gallery of Maker’s Mark bottles on the mantle, dusted them. Sprayed and wiped the well-stocked glass gun case.
The cleaning done, he set down and wrote out Christmas cards to their kids—yellow stock paper with a gold cross for Andy, cursive and cartoon angels for Ginny, a plain postcard for Frank. Only Frank would reply, but Duncan signed each with X’s and O’s.
The phone rang a lot before dawn. Duncan would check the numbers and let the threats, the taunting, the anonymous laughter go to voicemail.
A week before, he’d picked up, yelled at the line, “That trooper my boy hit was as drunk as he was! They were both drinking together, and it was the cop’s own fucking fault he got into that crash!”
The caller just hung up. The next call came an hour later. They hadn’t stopped since and Duncan hadn’t answered.Stantonwas having enough fun at Frank’s expense without having any at his.
Down on his haunches, bagging Brutus’ mess, Duncan thought to pray. He made a steeple of his inked fingers, opened what warmth was in his chest and spoke to God for Jan. His knees popped fit to steal his breath, but they were getting used to this hourly exercise.
The phone rang again as Duncan was coaxing Brutus inside. ALexingtonnumber—Duncan took the call.
The call took his knees out from under him.
When he found his feet again, he dashed to the Rambler with Brutus barking on the lawn.
Duncan sat outside Jan’s room with his pulse drumming his ribs. Shifted his bulk in the small plastic spoon of the chair. Waited for the doctors on the other side of the door to quit their whispering and come out.
His fingertips tapped the sequence of blue letters tattooed between the knuckles: F. U. C. K. Y. O. U. !. F. U. C. K. Y. O. U. !. Jan had wanted him to get rid of them.
They held many good memories for Duncan. He thought of them wrapped about her throat their first time knowing each other. Jan, a doe-legged fifteen, under the mound of his thirty-year-old body. She’d breathed words so hot over those blue letters that he still felt the steam in the ink.
“Use me up,” Jan had said, eyes and legs wide as can be.
Duncan figured he’d done just that. Made an honest woman out of her that year. Stolen her away on a fugitive road and cored three children from her along the way. Brought her to Stanton and to the kind of home where she could hang plaques and trade casserole dishes with the girls at church every Sunday.
And now to this. The door of Jan’s room opened and Duncan shot up and shouldered by the doctor.
Duncan’s hand bit into hers to take as much warm from it as he could find.
“I love you, Jan.” He didn’t care that he was crying when he said it.
“I love you too, Dunc. They say I can go home.”
“That’s right. We start treatments next week. Don’t even have to do chemo.”
Their joined hands pressed her heart through the paper gown and rolled on its beat.
“Maybe I’ll even stand by Andy at his hearing tomorrow.”
“You just leave that to me.” Duncan smiled.
After they’d prayed in thanks, Duncan went down to buy more flowers for the occasion. The six yellow roses he found were the last they had. He brought them up to Jan as the nurses unbound her from the tubes and wires, doing a final check. The aromas of rose and balloon vinyl and the Chanel perfume he’d put on Jan quilted over the antiseptic smell.
“Can you call up Ginny?”
“Calling her right now, Jan.”
It rang through to voice mail. Duncan hung up and sent the call again. A drawn-face doctor came up to whisper at him.
“There’s an issue with the billing, Mr. Coakes. Your insurance won’t cover her treatments.”
Duncan waved him off. The phone was ringing.
“We need to work out payment in advance, Mr. Coakes.”
Duncan waved him off and the doctor left. It took five calls to Ginny before Duncan left a message. He cradled the phone, frowned that Andy wouldn’t give them his number, and went over to Jan.
The nurses spread out and opened their smiles as he took Jan’s hand.
“I’ll call her back when you’re home.”
“I been thinking about the turkey,Duncan.”
“Bet you have.”
“Don’t think I’ll be deep-frying it this year.”
“I’ll get by.”
Jan smiled, teeth long but gleaming like the crucifix below. He puckered for a kiss. She lifted up for it.
Her smile went way too wide for the muscle. Her hand clasped too tight for the joints. Duncan felt something pop in them—something burst in her.
Jan twisted like a pair of giant hands were shaking her. Flab bounced the bed, gown paper ripping. Her bowels voided loud and sour.
Duncan grabbed her. She only shook more. Her cheek was greasy against his and everything stank and heaved.
“I’m sorry, Dunc.” Jan’s eye bloated to almost touch his. “I love you but I’m dying.”
It was the most certain Duncan had ever heard a person. He shook his head but Jan shook more.
When the nurses and doctors pulled him off her, Jan had fingernail marks on her throat and only fight left in her body.
Duncan leaned against the wall where he’d thrown his Marlboros into the bin. His phone rang a Stanton number. The doctor was saying something at him and Duncan tried to listen but there was only the hiss of the automatic doors opening and closing, the ringing of the phone, the throbbing burn in his stomach.
“I don’t understand,”Duncan said. “She was still fighting when I left.”
“Her heart just gave out.”
“But she was still fighting.”
“The stents collapsed. The heart gave out. There was nothing we can do.”
The call joined the other twenty voice mails. It rang five seconds later.
“She was still fighting when I left her.”
“We did all we could do.”
“That’s what we all say. Ain’t ever enough.”
Andy’s sentencing hearing was at 9am. Duncan parked in the Powell County Courthouse lot at 9:40. Adrenaline already prickled his palms with ice sweats as he picked up his To Do List, looked it over.
He’d dumped the rest of Brutus’ chow into the bowl and filled his water. Made his bed with Jan’s side turned down. Dusted the plaques another time and kept the lamps shining on them.
Duncan got out of the Rambler, rubbed his palms to keep them from frosting, fetched up Don’s folded flag from the passenger seat.
He’d called Ginny for one more voice mail. Dropped the holiday cards in the post box. Hung up on Pastor Tom.
Duncan considered if he’d done wrong not making peace with the man. He had no words for the Lord, though. Save that he was tired of living under God’s floorboards.
He made arrangements for Jan’s service. Got the flag.
Got to the courthouse to find Schillens waiting for him on the steps.
Schillens spat a brown clot near Duncan’s Timberlines. He hooked a sneer just as sticky. Duncan gripped the rim of the flag with both hands.
“You come to say your goodbyes to your boy as a free man, Coakes, you’re too late. You got his whole life to talk to him behind bars, though.”
Duncan slid his .357 out of the flag, right hand’s blue letters blazing on the pale around its grip, and aimed for the badge. He put two in Schillens’ chest. The .357 wasn’t like the .44 he and Don used to snuff that pushy chickenshit, Sheriff Garver. It did the trick, though.
Schillens was dead before his hat hit the steps.
Then it hit Duncan—fresh blue electric as ever—the adrenaline giving him its four cold knuckles in the pit of his throat, over and over again, over and over: The old feeling, his heart bucking astride the sweating thoroughbred of it, his old meat alive and smoking with his gun. With a feeling like that, Duncan thought, a man had no need for praying.
There was no use to praying anyhow.
Duncan climbed, knees aching, past where Schillens’ blood froze to rubber in the cold, wondering how many others he might take under with him before he turned the gun on himself.