STORY — Lanes eggs started to scorch and fill the kitchen with smoke. Lane scrapped the thick skin from the skillet but his sister Sheila had already wrinkled her nose. Were going to get it. From the cupboard she removed the brownish mugs that they always used for breakfast. Lane opened the window, allowing the cool morning to fill the room, but his sister muttered that nothing was going to help now. She poured the coffee and mixed in Uncle Rexs spoonfull of sugar. Lane stood in the middle of the floor, holding the pan of burnt scrambled eggs watching his sister rush around the room. He liked to watch how she closed a cupboard with the back of her head while she wrapped the flour bag with her hands. Come on, she said. Throw those out and start again. But Lane didnt move.
Its all right, if you cook something else, he wont notice.
Just as the eggs started to turn solid, Lane saw his Uncle Rex step out of the line of fir trees at the top of the pasture. Lane broke the eggs and started to scramble them. He glanced to the line of trees again. His uncle slid down the steep incline. Chunks of firewood rolled behind him. With one hand Uncle Rex clawed the muddy slope, pulling out balls of grass and with the other hand he tried to keep the wood to his chest. He failed to juggle them or to keep his balance and he rolled into the blackberry vines growing around the old hen house. A few pieces of whitish alder lay on the slope where he had disappeared.
The eggs blackened while Lane stared out the window and he felt a sharp crack on the back of his skull. His head burned for a second. Sheila stood behind him with a wooden spoon in her hand. She tapped on him on his nose. Now were going to get it. How are you going to hide two pans of burnt eggs?
Sorry, Lane mumbled and he scrapped the eggs. They arent burnt.
Whats that smell?
Thats the old smell.
Put the eggs on the plate. she sat at her place and drank her hot coffee in three big gulps, and then she poured herself another cup. Where do you think he is?
Lane didnt know if he should tell his sister that he had seen Uncle Rex fall. Lane took a sip of the sweet coffee. He thought about Uncle Rex laying at the base of the hill, his old blotchy skin steaming as he got madder and madder for having fallen and then for not being able to pull himself out of the damp grass. Lane leaned down to the bottom cupboard and pulled out the bag of sugar.
Youve had your three spoons.
Its not sweet enough.
It is. Sheila grabbed the bag out his hands and slammed the cupboard shut. Whats with you?
She opened the door and leaned in the doorjamb, cupping her hands around her coffee mug. Through the early morning light they could see the faint outlines of the mountains in the distance and the black gully of the Colville River at the edge of their land. Everything close to the house had just started to get light. Lane listened for the sounds of his Uncles swearing, but he didnt hear anything. If they found him in the vines, he would rise, grasping Lanes forearm. Lane would have to lean down into the mud and haul him to his feet. Later, theyd have to do some long, disgusting chore like clean out the hen house that was filled with old mattresses from the time Uncle Rex had planned to turn the building into a motel, and engine blocks he had stored their after he had given up on the motel, and finally decades of dung from the hen coop had kept in the building after he had given up on everything.
I dont see him, Sheila said. Lane looked at her standing in the doorway and noticed that a button had come undone on her shirt. Through the open fabric he saw the white curve of her bra covered breast. She let in the damp air smelling like the river and the stand of fir trees on the hill where Uncle Rex gathered firewood. I hope hes not planning on doing something stupid, she finally said and closed the door. Hes probably out there with a bottle of something and is just hanging out in the one of the old cars and if we dont get started on the chores soon, well get it.
Uncle Rexs father had parked scrapped trucks and cars over the ares of the farm. Uncle Rex had worn down his fair share of trucks as well. Dozens of vehicles now circled the old hen house. Blackberry bushes had sprung out and connected one car to the next, until they were all covered in one huge thicket, with the collapsing hen house in the middle. Rats lived in the old building. They survived on the garbage that Sheila and Lane threw into the dark rooms. At first they would walk through the long hallway where the chickens had been kept, tossing the sacks of garbage into a small closet at the back of the place, but now they only walked a few paces before they started to choke on the warm, rotting odor.
Lane and Sheila had their own hideouts in the wrecked cars in the thickets of blackberries. Sheila had found an old Victrola record player in the steep garret of the house, along with a stack of records, covered in a thin layer of blue mold. She hid the Victrola in the trunk of their favorite car, an old Dodge Dart, the only safe place from Uncle Rex. Sometimes he went through their bedroom, looking for comic books, candy wrappers, anything they werent allowed to have.
The Dodge dart glyph of triangles because Sheila and Lanes secret emblem. They pressed the flat of their palms into the old chrome until it left a deep red imprint. The curve of the chrome bumper, decorated with flowers and blooms of rust became their own place where Rex had no say. They played their favorite record, Youve got to be Modernistic, over and over again on the turn table. They cleared back the old sticker bushes, pushing up the mass of vines with sticks Uncle Rex had once used to prop the sunflowers. The blackberries twisted and arched over the car and in the summer; the greenish cave smelled of dusty grass and the ripe berries. They pressed their branded palms together and danced.
We better get started on the chores, or hes going to give it to us, Sheila said. She put a plate over her uncles breakfast and put it into the refrigerator.
As Lane finished the morning dishes and listened to Sheila in the washroom setting the battered machine going, he tried to work up enough courage to tell Sheila about Uncle Rex. He was afraid they would find him laying at the base of the hill fuming and angry. Uncle Rex had stopped moving for a long time once and when he started up again, the times when he smiled and told them, you two go off and have some fun; Im just going to sit here on the porch and drink some Lemon-aid, these times became rarer and rarer and after awhile didnt happen anymore.
Lane had sometimes sat with him on the shady porch and Uncle Rex had told him about being a Quartermaster during World War II, about quitting his desk job in Spokane and enlisting, about the return home to his fathers ranch where he had once said he would never return. These stories werent like the movies or books or anything Lane had ever heard before. Uncle Rexs stories had to do with the strange places hed been to in the United States, places the Army had occupied so long that generations of trees had grown into along straight lines, like a perpetual column of soldiers. Lane liked to listen to Uncle Rexs voice because Rexd just talk not stopping until he said something funny and Lane would laugh. Uncle Rex stopped and a smile curled just at the edge of his lips. He told a story about the time he had to clean out a storehouse in Fort Knox. The storehouse stood at the edge of the base. Doors hadnt been opened in forty years. It hadnt been touched since the War with Spain when it had been packed with c-rations and then the government had just left it there. It had cost plenty. Uncle Rex had to go through and tally up all those cans that were stored so well they didnt even have rust ringing their tops. When they were done, they closed the door behind them and its probably all still there, untouched. Uncle Rex poured himself another long glass of lemon-aid. Those cans were still in the same place. They say they keep gold in Fort Knox. Thats not all they keep. Nothing that has ever been done by the Army has ever been thrown away.
The fist time Uncle Rex had stopped moving he had just come in from mowing the lawn with the tractor. He had stepped into the house that smelled like ammonia and furniture polish. He had walked across the thin green living room carpet trailing long strands of chewed grass. Whatever he had been saying sputtered to a stop. He had pitched forward. His wrinkled fingers had skimmed the long, smooth arm of the stationary desk chair. He had landed on the rug, sitting with his butt flat on the floor and his arms hanging down between his legs like the doll thrown into the corner of Sheila and Lanes bedroom. Call, Sheila had said. Call an ambulance.
Lane had dialed the number and told the man who had answered the phone that his uncle was having a heart attack, I think. Hes sitting on the floor and his skins a strange color.
Only the cruel Uncle Rex emerged from the stroke. He would pace through the house, cursing the time Lane left the potatoes in the refrigerator so long they had grown into grey mold. Uncle Rex had cleaned out his bedroom, having Lane cart out boxes of tattered paperback novels, worn clothes, fifty years of odds and ends gathered from supermarket check-out lines and a few trips to Seattle. He polished the big dresser he kept in the open closet in the upstairs hallway. He had stored a horde of male nick-knacks on the battered wood of his chest-of-drawers. In the top drawer he had kept piles of ancient nickels, shrunken heads, carved faces from the South Seas, Swiss Army knives, and postcards of monuments and naked women. Ointments, lotions, shaving cream had emitted a musk like the arm pits of his work jacket, a smell that had brushed Lanes face like a wool plaid sleeve. After Uncle Rex had cleaned it, the top drawer was always locked. A faint odor of furniture polish was all that remained in the hallway.
They spent the day doing the chores they knew that Uncle Rex had planned for them. Lane worked in the potatoes, churning them over, and tossing the fresh ones out onto the lawn beside the house. He didn’t see Sheila until she came outside with the plastic hampers full of laundry to hang on the clothes-tree. She kept looking into line of fir. She caught Lane watching at her and snarled, Get back to your work. He’s probably out there waiting for us to slack off and then he’ll kick our butts.
Lane’s back ached and he hunched beside the pile of potatoes looking into the blackberries. Sheila grabbed him by the arm. Start working.
Lane jerked away from her. Rex’s dead, he said. Rex is dead. Rex is dead.
Shut up. He’ll hear us. Her voice sounded hoarse.
Lane ran up the hill and she chased after him. In the muddy slope, he could see the ruts where Uncle Rex had rolled into the berries. At the edge of the blackberries they could see one of his hands, orange and knotted around his knuckles. Sheila stopped. They stood on the hill. Beyond the field of vines, and the fields, a few car windshields glinted on the highway toward Colville and Spokane.
Sheila stared for a long time at Lane. How did you know he’d be here?
I saw him fall this morning.
You didn’t tell me.
I was afraid that if we came out here and he was OK, he’d say something. And then he’d be mad at us that he’d fallen. Is he really dead?
He could be faking.
They stood on the slope, looking at the deep bites where Rex had rolled. You look, Lane said.
I do everything. She slid down the slope and leaned into the bushes. She kicked him in the side and jumped back. Hes dead I think.
Uncle Rex wore his denim jacket covered with a white powder of sawdust from the soft alder trees he cut for firewood. His face was still locked in a scowl, and his eyes were open, staring down his nose, up into the sky.
Lane tried to drag him up the hill, but Lanes arms kept turning to water. Sheila pushed back up the hill and hulled Uncle Rex up the slope. Her hair slipped out of the rubber bands she used to hold it back and fell over her face. With each step she grunted. She picked up speed she moved closer to the house until she ran. Uncle Rex’s feet bounced over the yard. She held his body up to her waist, kicked the kitchen door open, and rolled him under the kitchen table.
Lane closed the kitchen door behind them, looking toward the highway. Nothing moved out there. Sheila held Rexs wallet, cool and dented in one end like a leather heart. She sucked in her upper lip when she pulled out the crisp, tobacco smelling one hundred dollar bills. They knew that Rex kept them folded into his wallet because when the three of them went to town on the first Monday of every month, Rex always paid for the groceries with hundred dollar bills. The stiff paper didn’t seem real. Real dollar bills were as worn as the patches of cloth they used to sew patches into their work clothes. Rex handed the money to the cashier who licked her fingers, tapped the money on top of the register, flipped them under the tray of smaller bills, counted out the change, and streamed the receipt into Rex’s spotted hands. Now, the stack of hundred dollar bills didn’t belong to anyone, now.
Sheila fell into the kitchen table chair, the one where Rex normally sat while drinking his coffee and reading The Spokane Tribune. The morning sounds of birds in the row of poplars by the river began to drown out the rush of Lanes heart beat. A dead man who had just been their uncle Rex sprawled under the table where he had been eating yesterday. Sheila shook his car keys. The silvery rattle caused Lane’s gums to ache. Stop spacing out, she said. Here’s your share. She set the green bills on the worn kitchen table. She jumped back on the sink counter. She looked out the window and turned and smiled into her reflection when Lane slipped his fingers over the bills.
How much was there?
You have half, she said. The sun edged through the pasture across the river, a line of rich yellow. The hills beyond the river were dark. Lane slid the money off the table and counted the four bills. He folded them until he had a little square. We should bury him. He’s the last of our family. He stood to stuff the folded money into his small front change pocket. His pants, too tight, too small, rode well above his ankles.
Sheila kicked Rex’s feet. They flopped a couple of inches and then just lay still. She pushed the table. It lifted and tilted up against the side of the wall, exposing Rex’s face. Wrinkled and relaxed, Lane realized that he had never seen him asleep. When he came downstairs in the morning, his eyes glittered in the folds of his wrinkles and eyelids. He didn’t say anything until breakfast had been eaten. In that silence, Sheila and Lane knew that Rex was preparing the days chores, preparing to tell how much they had to do, and how behind they were from the day before. Now, Rex’s brow hung slack over his eyes. Light fell through the open kitchen door, across his silver whiskers.
They put Uncle Rex’s body into two garbage bags, and then they put two more garbage bags around him. Use some more, Sheila told Lane. He used the entire box. They carried him outside and carried him into the hen-house. They carried him through the front room, where the piles of the kitchen garbage sat. The room felt warm and smelled thickly chemical. Sunlight fell through the rotted holes of the roof filling the room with a dim glow. They carried him into the narrow hall once occupied with hen coops. Mattresses lined the walls. They left his body at the end of the hall, and turned a mattress over it.
As soon as they came outside they started to run. They ran into the house, and into the kitchen. Sheila yelled and screamed. She stripped off her clothes. We are free, she yelled. As she pulled off her shirt she danced with Lane. He felt strangely giddy. He danced with her, and pulled of his shirt. She opened the cupboard where Rex had kept his bottles of whiskey. Sheila grabbed a bottle and ran up the stairs. She threw her pants down the stairs. We need to wash his dead butt off our bodies, she yelled. In the absence of Uncle Rexs austere presence, Lane felt like everything was suddenly possible, but he also felt like he did at the top of the maple tree in the winter, with cold air rushing around him, just him and the gray branches and all that space down to the frozen ground.
Lane woke sick in the middle of the night. He looked out into the dark pasture at the hen-house, and he thought he saw people dancing on the roof. As he watched he realized that they were really the rats. They swarmed over the hen house like yellow jackets on a broken hive.
Getting out of bed he almost tripped over Sheila. She lay in a fetal position. He slipped around her and then he stood in the middle of her room, the floorboards threatening to creak; each board felt loose in the floor and sighed pressed the ball of his foot against it. In the hallway he stood in front of the open closet where Rex kept his chest-of-drawers. The drawers had confined his costumes, his dress clothes, his work clothes, his Sunday clothes. It confined his put-on smells. Everything that was left of him now that he lay in the hen house. He used a pair of scissors to break open the lock. The top drawer smelled like charcoal. It was empty, shelled, and smelt *faintly* of gasoline.
He drew the drawer completely out, and felt the inside. His hands coated with a thin layer of soft, burnt wood.
Lane climbed into his own bed and fell asleep hoping that in the morning things would be back too normal. He pulled the blankets over his head and couldnt sleep because he needed a drink of water but was too dizzy to stand again.
Wake up, Sheila said. Her hair had been pulled back into a long pony tail and she wore her work overalls, hand-me downs from Rex. Get downstairs and eat some cereal. We’ve got the chores to get through. She jumped down the stairs, shaking the house. Lane lay in bed. He looked in the clock and saw that he still had five minutes to get downstairs, eat breakfast, and begin to work, confident that in the silence of breakfast Sheila would think of the things that he had to do.