REASONS FOR MOVING
Henry's rough and calloused hands were made to move, so worn he barely felt nicks and cuts. Only later, wiping blood against his ripped shirt or jeans did he notice he was hurt, not even smelling the coppery tang of his own blood. If he couldn't feel it, it didn't matter that much. Henry was an AC/heater repairman who understood twelve-hour workdays, Texas weather, sour sweat, oily Freon, the heat of a chemical burn, and mechanical things that he could put together or take apart with his battered hands. He didn't understand his wife's stillness. Samantha's hands were small and bloated, the nails were brittle and lined, showing early signs of diabetes; the ring he placed on her finger nineteen years earlier no longer fit her pinky.
They had met at a smoky-dark bar, Billy Bob's, in downtown Fort Worth where low lights and pulsing music competed with hundreds of bodies pushing together. Through the beer-tasted air, she caught his eye right away, despite the crowd, or perhaps because of it, as she raised her hands and her beer high to move forward through the crush. Her brown eyes lowered as she swayed, creating her own path to the dance floor, and as she lowered her beer to her lips, their eyes met and she smiled wider, showing slightly crooked, cream soda teeth. She would later tell her friends she liked his sky-blue eyes, the way he looked in cowboy boots and jeans, his Old Spice cologne barely hinted at beneath the smoke. They seemed to fit as they two-stepped, her head barely reaching his chin, his wide, clean hands tangled in her hair, though he kept stepping on her toes as they circled the dance floor with other couples. They had seemed to fit together.
They married six weeks later. She was six weeks pregnant. For their honeymoon, they waded through the cold smell of the HEB to buy groceries and prenatal vitamins. The wedding took place at Sam's brother's house; from where the couple stood before the minister, they could see a pool table in the other room with a Miller Lite lamp fixture hanging just above, a lamp Henry had hit his head on playing pool the night before.
They had their first fight about the cost of the crib, their second about Sam wanting to quit her job to be a full-time mother. Henry hadn't seen the point in either. After that, neither bothered to count. The first time he lied about working late, he missed their 4 year old daughter's dance recital. The wrist corsage he bought at Walmart stayed in his truck and withered in the sun. Purple carnations faded to lavender edged with pink, but his daughter had been happy to get it, even late, even faded, even half dead. The first time Henry knew he was falling out of love with his wife wasn't when he hit her, but when he didn't.
Sunday morning, restless and bored, Henry didn't put on his church slacks, didn't want to hold the wide, double glass doors of the church open, greeting members like greeters at the entrance of Wal-Mart. Didn't want to usher the gold spray-painted collection plate from row to row. Instead, he got out of his worn, faux suede easy chair, stepped onto the back porch to take a leak. The bathroom wasn't much farther away, about 30 steps; he counted one night when his back hurt and he couldn't sleep. But he felt free unzipping his pants outside in the breeze, knowing the cool wind came naturally, unaided, not from the AC unit he installed on the other side of the house.
His unused metal detector was propped against the wall. He decided to take it down to the ravine where the remains of the previous homestead still stood, at least the leftover foundation and part of a stone fence. They bought the five acres a few years back, and no one lived in the miles behind the house between the ravine and the highway. The deer grazed nearby when Henry wasn't using the dirt pile he bulldozed for target practice or shooting the empty, light green Freon tanks he used as targets; he intentionally left a little coolant inside and watched the drums shoot high in the air, weightless like balloons and then fall down, weighted like rain and bullets.
He trudged forward, silently kicking brush and weeds. The horse, Starsky, watched him through one brown eye, the other a useless blind, lime green. Henry needed to be careful; if a bridge had ever existed over the ravine, time and weather had washed it away. The previous owners had used the dry crevice as a dump for scavenged materials like rusted pipes and metals, barbed wire and old cans. But Henry cut himself daily, and he'd never had a tetanus shot, never went to the hospital, just suffered through and stitched himself.
The Texas sun simmered, but hadn't peaked, hadn't burned into the sky yet. As he pushed himself down one side of the ravine and hauled himself up the other, he figured he should start at the northeast foundation, where the backyard would have been. He turned his metal detector on and started swaying. When he listened to music, he listened to old Bruce Springsteen or George Strait, used his truck as one big stereo blasting anyone nearby. Now he hummed to himself about oceanfront property in Arizona.
In the next half hour, he found three old Budweiser cans and an assortment of screws, washers, nails, and barbed wire. Just as he was getting ready to quit, the metal detector beeped again. All the beeps sounded the same, the same level of excitement or urgency for an old can as for a crowbar or wheel rim, so he started digging until the shovel hit something flat and hard. Content that he hadn't found another beer can, he slowly lowered to one knee and sifted away dirt with his hands. After three feet, he found a square edge and tried several times to get a grip, finally succeeding in unearthing a gunmetal gray box, plain and unadorned. He tried to open its rusted hinges but didn't have any leverage. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his Swiss Army knife. Flicking it open, he jammed the tip up under the lid and jerked up. Inside he found a medal and a flattened penny, as well as a picture and letters held together with a blue ribbon. He untied the ribbon, looked at the sepia toned photograph, a dark-haired man and woman, each holding a child, a boy of about 6 and a girl about 4. He didn't open the letters; instead, he placed everything back into the box and headed back the way he came.
Back at home, he slowly typed the years of the coins into Google, trying to find their history and worth. Sam walked into the room, picked up the letters. She read quietly. Her small hands held the pages delicately. This silence felt different; she wasn't angry and trying to hold her tongue. The tears gathering in her eyes, the surprising softness had nothing to do with something he had done wrong.
"What do the letters say?" He asked as quietly as he could in his booming voice, so quietly he wasn't sure he'd actually said the words aloud.
When she looked up at him, he could tell she'd forgotten he was still in the room. She glanced at the letter again, flipped to the beginning and read:
My Dearest Jake,
My Dearest J,
I don't know if you've received these letters, or even if I want you to. Yes, I know I do. Remember the first
time we walked into our home? We thought we'd be there forever. But our home is gone, lost in fire. I've moved
in with my parents, the children are fine.
I've written other letters, but they've been returned to me, as if they can't find you, as if they never heard of
you. Please, let it be a mistake, let this letter find you. We will meet, exchange our good luck pennies and a
kiss. Write to me.
"The letters are all dated 1943, December through February. I wonder what happened to them," Sam clutched at the letters.
Henry turned to his computer; he knew Jake never had the chance to read the letters. He looked back at Sam, to tell her what probably happened, but her eyes said she could guess as easily as he did. The difference was she wanted to hope and he didn't seem to know how to.
"You see this flattened penny, the one I found in the box with the medal and letters? It's a 1943 copper penny minted in San Francisco."
"Oh, you mean their good luck penny."
"Obviously not that lucky. But it's worth a lot of money, like maybe 50, 000 dollars."
She looked at him and shivered. "We should rebury the box. Camille buried it for a reason."
"We can't, I mean this penny is worth some money."
"We have to."
The next morning, Henry's day started before sunrise, before alarm clocks; he left Sam asleep on the couch, accidentally or purposely, he didn't know, but he didn't plan to come home for lunch or return before dark. Next to her on the floor sat the metal box, opened, its letters and photos littered around. He reached down and took out the penny, glanced at Sam's sleeping form, then quickly left the house.
He ate breakfast at a local convenience store, Lucky Earlene's, with the cheapest diesel fuel around and a makeshift, almost up to health code, kitchen in the back. A wide width of gravel served as a parking lot. Henry's diesel truck, once white and new, now dirty and missing a rearview mirror lost to a mailbox somewhere. Henry took his place in a plastic booth near the front, his eyes burned from a combination of gasoline and cooking grease. The sticky plastic table melted underneath his elbows. He ordered his usual, opened the morning paper that had been tossed causally on the tabletop.
After taking Henry's order, Faye, the cook, smiled the kind of smile reserved for good old boys who helped old ladies light their pilots in winter without a service fee and walked into the kitchen, her white hair closely cropped to her head, a red apron with strawberries covering her small, bony body.
Dawn dimly lit the interior of the convenient store, but Henry knew he sat pushed up against the candy aisle; if he turned around, boxes of Baby Ruths and Snickers would be within his reach. From where he sat, he could smell the dark of processed chocolate, imagined the rustle of unwrapping tight foil packaging. A line of plastic booths sat along a wall of windows facing the parking lot leading towards the back wall where coolers held canned and bottled sodas, waters and orange juices which he often ‘checked on' during the summer to cool himself down after working outside. The store kept the beer closer to the counter to alleviate the temptation to steal. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Ten minutes later, Faye brought out a large plate of sausage, eggs, bacon, gravy, biscuits and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. He piled on Tabasco sauce, mixed it with gravy, spooned it on everything, and ate. He thought about the jobs he had today, the air conditioners he had to pull apart, coils he had to replace, units he had to kick into gear. He'd take his time, one job at a time, be late, simply work through what he needed to do.
"Look at this," he holds up the penny to Faye as he's paying his check, "looks like an ordinary penny doesn't?"
"Except that it's flat," she laughed, "and probably even more worthless because of it."
"You really think so?" Henry asked.
"Why would it be worth anything? It's ruined," she asked, turning away.
He held her hand, the first time they met, tight as a sailor's knot, as they danced the two-step. The first time he hit her, they had been drinking Coors Light on the red patio deck of their trailer house. The next day, another first, he bought her flowers, daisies dyed different spring colors.
After breakfast, Henry stopped at the post office where he kept a box as his business address. As he left, he heard the whistle of a train in the distance, stared across the street at the old railroad station, a red brick building declared a historical landmark years ago. Hurrying, he pulled out three pennies from his pocket and laid each flat on the tracks. Then he stood back and waited for the train to pass by.
Sam called him at noon asking him if he had taken it. He looked at the drink holder in his truck where four flattened pennies clustered together. He didn't answer. What was sentiment in the face of financial security for his family? She called twenty minutes later, and left a voice message telling him she wanted to bury the box when he got home.
At five o'clock, Henry added Freon to an AC unit; the cooling liquid burned his nose like candle flames as it poured from its puke-green plastic container. The ladder beneath him shook. He glanced down through the small square hole in the attic floor, which smelled like mothballs and mice feces. He tried to hold his breath. The rungs of the pullout laddered twisted and turned and felt loose under his feet. He should have gone back out to the truck to get his reinforced, heavy-duty ladder, but he was preoccupied and running behind. The ladder wobbled harder, like tires crossing railroad tracks; the threat was of stopping and straddling the front tires on one side and the back tires on the other.
"Hold it together just a little longer," he muttered, sliding on the last washer, grabbing the wrench to tighten the nut, then reaching for the unit cover. But the ladder gave away; the rung he stood on buckled under his 250 pounds. His hands jerked, grabbed for the attic floor to steady himself, but his hands slid over the splintered edge as if it were made out of air, as if his fingers weren't quite solid but a liquid, a gel to glide through leaving only the absence of his presence behind. He felt himself create wind with his flailing arms that stole his breath as his body fell, suffocating.
He hit the carpeted floor hard, a brown-mottled throwback to the 70's worn threadbare where feet had paced back and forth from the bathroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the bedroom. His head cracked and bounced twice before settling into the space of a hundred heel grooves where carpet had been worn away by shoes and dispersed in other areas like the kitchen or the yard. Motionless, he focused on relearning how to breathe; he thought he smelled strawberries, the air smelled like a milk shake. The popcorn ceiling annoyed him. Why did anyone need texture on a wall no one would ever feel? No one ran his hands along the ceiling and thought: I wish I were at the beach or at the movies.
Henry tried to get up, his mind told his body to struggle, demanded action, but his legs wouldn't move and his arms refused to be leverage. Tried yelling for help, but the Murphys who owned the house, old friends and clients of Henry's father-in-law, had flown to Florida. Henry knew where they kept the spare key, so when they called to say their AC was out and they would be out of town for a few days, he assured them he would get it up and running.
He was afraid, and he didn't fear much. If he couldn't move, if he was paralyzed, then he couldn't support his family. Sam retired early from her job as a social worker some six months past; she had wanted to quit for years, probably decades and he never understood this impulse, hadn't been able to see her misery. Perhaps, he hadn't wanted to. After she quit, he thought things would get better. He hadn't imagined they would get worse. Their daughter, Kate, still in college, didn't come home anymore. Suddenly, he wished things had turned out differently; he wanted to love his wife again even as he knew he couldn't. He thought of the love letters, of love that died at the beginning, that didn't have a chance to flame out. He wondered if all husbands grew to hate their wives, if all wives grew to resent their husbands. He wondered if it mattered in the grand scheme of things, after all, he and Sam were still married.
The hallway contained no windows, but Henry imaged the sun lowering as the sky darkened from blue to purple then to black. And still, he couldn't move. He inhaled and exhaled quickly, his eyes darting back and forth from one motionless hand to the other. He nails were creased with dirt, his hands layered by cuts and scrapes he didn't feel as he hammered, scraped, and kicked whatever machine he was working on.
He and Sam had fought last Tuesday when he came home that night. He had described to her how a mouse had screwed up an AC unit by chewing wires and electrocuting itself, driven by hunger and an intense need to move forward. The mouse's journey cost the homeowners an entire new unit and three hours of his labor. Henry had reached behind to the cabinet he leaned against to scratch his ass through the hole in his jeans. As he walked away to scrounge in the fridge for something to eat, Sam's eyes had grown big; she seemed transfixed on the dark residue left behind by his grimy hands.
"Look at that," she had said, pointing to the cabinet. "Did you even notice how white it was, and now it is all smudged with dirty, grease prints from your hands. Christ, why can't you wash your hands?"
Henry had sighed, his anger building; he had washed his hands. He didn't bother to mention this to his wife; he knew she wouldn't believe him, but the grease and grime was a part of his hands like the calluses and the ridge details that made up his fingerprints. It was impossible to escape from any of it.
"I paid for the cabinets, I paid for the white paint," Henry had turned red, "and if I smudge what I paid for, who cares?"
"That's it, isn't it? You just allow me to live here. This is your house just because you make the payments!" Sam had yelled and walked away.
Different day, same argument.
The first time they kissed, still at the bar, still tight and two-stepping, cigarette smoke swirled and she swayed as if lightheaded. She looked up to see his eyes and then down to see his hands. The first time she accused him of having an affair, just after their second anniversary, he didn't deny it.
Back flat against the hallway floor, Henry groaned and took this grunt for a good sign that at least he could still move his lips. He smelled strawberries, wondered if it was a sign of brain damage. He thought about praying—a religious man, he went to church every Sunday. But he never prayed for himself. Funny, he hadn't prayed for his wife in a long while; his anger and hers always too fresh. He wondered if Jake prayed for himself or his wife. Perhaps imagining your wife's pain was worse than seeing it every day. Either way, a man got used to it, acclimated, learned to un-see it. Henry's toe moved, then his foot, and he managed to roll his massive body to one side. He came face to face with a Glade plug-in, berry scented. He shook his head, relieved he hadn't lost his mind, and that this whole incident would be over soon. From there he used leftover bits of the ladder to pull himself into a sitting position. He exhaled slowly, his breath heavy and forced, tapped the ladder twice with his palm because he couldn't feel the splintered rung beneath his hand; he wanted to make sure he really had a hold of it. One knee against the ground, then the other, and finally, he gained his feet. Henry rolled the ladder back into place as quickly as he could and closed the crawl space door to the attic. One hand against the wall, his forehead rested briefly, smelling gasoline and grease from a previous job, he stared at the bruising rainbow of colors beneath his fingernails, as he flexed his knees one at a time and then limped outside.
Henry came home two house calls later. As he drove down their gravel, pot-holed driveway, he focused on steering his work truck with his knee, his hands still a little numb. Used parts littered the yard, scrap metal he meant to sell sitting on the porch next to the swing he bought Sam's birthday last year, the swing he still hadn't hung. The horse didn't lift his head, indifferent, knowing Henry never stopped to scratch or feed him, although he always bought his feed. The security lamp and the barking dogs gave the house the feel of a junkyard; Henry couldn't see the flowerbeds Sam had planted, the colorful pots she laced the porch with to camouflage the junk piling up. These attempts slacked off as the years continued. She had tried to create a home but the 1970s foundation periodically shifted, groaning and sinking into old age. Doors leaned away from hinges, unable to fully close, caulking separated from doorways and windowpanes. Glass windows cracked under the weight of the ceiling and sun, fissures appeared through whatever fresh coat of paint Sam rolled or sponged into place. Nothing could be fixed until Henry repaired the foundation. Yet he put off fixing it for years because in his mind it couldn't be that bad if the house hadn't fallen down yet.
He found Sam sitting in front of the TV. She didn't look up. He walked past her, and became a temporary barrier between her and the TV, then headed into the kitchen to grab something for dinner. The white cabinets were stained black by the perpetual grime of his hands. He never tried to clean the cabinets; he was what he was. The dishes piled up, the trash bag sat open on the floor as if in the first stages of taking itself outside to the curb, as if the smell had been too much even for itself. Hooking his fingers under the curved handle, he opened the fridge and found it empty but for some cheese, dated milk and condiments, so he opted for dry cereal and slightly soured milk. He took his bowl back into the living room, and sat down beside Sam on the couch making a ripple in the fabric. He started to crunch.
"Shh… it's Deal or No Deal. This man might win a million dollars." She didn't looked away from the television screen. The glare illuminated her face, her hand perfectly still on the remote control.
He took this time to look at her; he couldn't remember the last time he just watched her. She looked nothing like the vibrant woman he married. A hundred extra pounds weighed down her once thin frame, and her brown eyes that could look so light were heavy and dark. He didn't understand how she could be so still. Even on Sundays he needed to work, and if he wasn't working, he would be outside in the yard mowing or shooting or waling with his metal detector. Before the metal box and letters, he had only found three dollars or so in loose change, mostly pennies. He joked about finding buried treasure, something dropped and forgotten, but he liked the possibility, the moving and digging as the beeping grew stronger, the feel of the handle beneath his fingers.
Since his fall, feeling in his hands hadn't completely returned, and the spoon kept slipping from his grasp without warning like holding on to an icicle too long when the cold burning fades and is replaced with numbness. Sam didn't notice. He flexed his hands, tried to make a fist. Nothing. He couldn't feel the spoon, although his fingers were wrapped around it as tightly as he could manage at the moment. He knew it wasn't tight enough.
"What happened?" He hadn't meant to speak aloud.
"He's trying to decide which number to choose. Everything rides on this one moment." She hadn't noticed he wasn't asking about the show.
It happened slowly. She began to hate herself by minute degrees that he couldn't track, as he began to hate her through the anger and stillness. But it didn't seem to matter anymore. Some days she worked in her garden, fed the horse, seemed almost happy, but he knew like changes in the weather it wouldn't last. Like a farmer's almanac, he could only predict roughly the changing seasons, only try to predict how to keep everything surviving through rain or snow or sunshine, elements of nature, not elements of the psyche. There would always be casualties. And, he didn't seem to care, didn't try to please her, to make her happy, just always treated her same. He would pay the bills.
He got up to put his bowl in the sink, not bothering to wash it, and looked back once at his wife. Almost two decades and he couldn't stand to look at her. He brown hair was dirty, her skin freckled by the sun. But her age didn't bother him. She was a beauty when she smiled, especially with her eyes. She had been wearing the same t-shirt and pajama pants for days. He knew filth, but his grime came from duty, from working and moving from one job to the next all day long earning a living and supporting his family. Her stains, from stillness, oozed from inside, some ache turned illness that she tried to sweat out, to wait out. Her eyes always tired not from physical work but some mental terror, nothing he understood.
"Alright," he said standing in the living room doorway, he reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the fake pennies. "Here it is. Let's bury it." She finally looked up and smiled, perhaps for the first time that day.
The evening light faded as Sam gathered rocks and wildflowers beside the hole Henry hadn't filled in the day before. The dandelions glowed against the dirt, picked up the yellow-orange of dusk. Sam had cleaned the metal box so that it shined. She had added a lock as well; it would take more than a pocketknife to open the box again. After she placed the box into the hole, she created a layer of rocks and slowly covered everything with dirt. She stood, looked at Henry, gestured with her hand. He supposed she wanted him to say something, but he didn't know what, everything felt too little, too late. Instead, they stood in silence.
They went back inside and sat on the couch. Sam fell asleep. Henry crept silently to bed not disturbing the sounds of HGTV re-runs. His shoulders burned and his knees felt like he had been kneeling for hours. 4 am came early. He hoped the daylight and the work it brought came soon, though he couldn't pick up the coins that dropped from his pockets as he shuffled off his pants. But hours later he still couldn't sleep, couldn't stop thinking about Jack and that damn penny. He got up and walked quietly past Sam. Outside he took a shovel and unburied what they had buried the night before, took out the fake penny, and replaced it with the real thing, recreated Sam's memorial.
In the garage, he drilled a hole through the fake flattened penny, left it hooked through a chain necklace on the floor next to where Sam still slept, then left the house and went to work.