By Alyssa Lindley Kilzer
I didn’t expect to find anything in the house. Christ, when I moved in, there were still old clothes in the dresser drawers. There was hardly any furniture except that old sofa. It was the land around the house that I loved so much.
I liked to sit on the front porch. There was Chilhowee Mountain, right up in front of the house. That was cool—waking up in the morning, remembering all over again how tall and beautiful that mountain was. I’ve never lived anywhere like that since. Down the valley to my right was Franklin’s farm, with pastures for his cows, always grazing slowly left to right. There was also the hay, first growing and then we harvested it and stored it in his barn. Beyond that there were rolling hills that turned in late September. I liked to look out the windows at those trees and try to come up with names to describe the colors. I even wrote down some of them. Fire-engine red. Flaming yellow.
Sitting. Listening. I did a lot of that the first month. There were the sounds of my body and also of the land. The inside sound of a breath in, more of a feeling than a sound, the inflation of my ribs against my arms, and then the surprise of how loud the chair and boards of the porch creaked as I shifted, how loud the valley wind could be when it picked up, taking away any awareness of breathing as it brusquely swept over the outsides of my ears. There were also the bird calls—some short and high, mindless and building uncontrollably louder, until they were punctured and silenced by the occasional long and slow one.
Then the other birds would start up again. And the water in the river below the porch, bubbling up over a rock, or sometimes a fish jumping. I’d stand up to look closer, and it would already be gone, just the branches rustling against each other in the wind. It was what I thought was quiet, before I moved out there, but it could be deafening, pulling your mind this way and that. No end to it. The longer I listened the more I heard, and listening ate up time like nothing else.
At night there was this crack in my bedroom wall, just in front of where my head sat on the pillow. If I couldn’t sleep I would put one palm over my left eye and peer out the crack. I’d just be able to make out the fall of the land down to Franklin’s farm, if the moon was bright enough, and a wide dark mass of trees beyond it. At first the nights were so quiet, turning in bed seemed disruptive. But the longer I was out there, the harder it got to sleep. Unwilling, sleepless listening carried me through some nights until dawn, because the tiniest noises became so loud. I could hear the sheets rustling against each other like paper. An insect trapped in the room swelled until it was a gigantic animal bumping from wall to wall and looming over me. In October a light wind began to whistle through the cracks in the attic walls, playing games with me, becoming a person dancing all night long just to taunt my loneliness and fear.
I came out there to be free, but I wasn’t. At first I didn’t want to admit that I felt that way. I had this idea that when I graduated college I’d move out there, live off the land and get away from all the chaos of city life. I wanted there to be nothing. I was convinced of that. So I thought I was adjusting. But the truth was, I didn’t have enough to do. I had a vegetable garden, but you can only spend so much time watching vegetables grow. I started helping Franklin out, working on his farm. He taught me a good amount about working the land, and he helped me out too, with his tractor that we used for hauling wood down the logging roads. But there was a lot of empty time, the land pressing in on me inside that house.
It must’ve been in the second month when I started seeing things, out of the corner of my eye. I was nervous being there alone at night. There were bright sudden movements that would make me jump, my heart in my throat. When that happened I’d tell myself it was getting too late, I was tired, and I’d try to go to sleep. But I started having nightmares of this old man, standing over my bed like a demon. He wanted me to do something, but I could never remember exactly what it was. “Richard, Richard,” I could hear my mother’s voice, and then my father’s, calling me home. Their voices echoed all down the valley in my dreams but I was pinned inside that house. It felt so urgent, being stuck there. I’d wake up sweaty and alone, too afraid to stand up to turn on a light. I didn’t want to be one of those people that go out into the country on their own and completely lose it, so I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.
I think that’s one reason why I took Robert to swim at Oassie Falls when I did. I needed to get out of there, remember what it was like to drive and have space. The swim was good, except for the whole thing with the watch almost being stolen, and Robert beating those guys up. Looking back on it now, I almost wish he had just let them take it. Things might never have happened the way they did if he had let them take the watch.
I got home that night after dropping him off. It was pitch dark—I had missed the sunset for the first time. I flipped on a light and sank down into that sofa. I was exhausted and guilty.
I’d suspected Robert of stealing the watch before I realized the opposite was true. Of course Robert didn’t know, but I had a heavy conscience. He’d gotten all beat up for it, poor kid, while I’d suspected the worst of him. I was really working myself up thinking that the right thing to do was to give him the watch, even though my father had given it to me. I told myself I was selfish to not give it to Robert. What’s a kid like that ever got? I asked myself. I’d seen his house that night, dropping him off, and it looked really run down. I had a feeling his dad didn’t make much of a living. Meanwhile I’d grown up with both my parents working, got a good education. I had plenty of stuff stored back in my parent’s garage, stuff I’d told myself I would donate or throw away, in the spirit of moving out to the country and becoming a hippy. The truth was that I was too attached to get rid of any of it, and I hated that about myself. So I guess the watch thing was tied up in that too, my guilt of being so materialistic. Really I just wasn’t ready to be living out there on my own with nothing tying me down, but I was too young to see that. That night I wanted to prove something to myself, by giving the watch to Robert.
He deserved it, I thought. I had my right hand in my pocket touching the watch’s glass face. There were the sounds of my breathing and the house creaking in the cold. There was a gnawing part of me aching because I was lonely and restless and fed up with myself, but I shoved it down deeper beneath my thoughts and told myself I had to finish what I started, that I couldn’t move home before the year was up.
And then all I did was place my left hand down beside me, in the crevice between the cushions. I wouldn’t even remember doing it except that my hand rested right down on a wad of cash.
As soon as I touched it I thought: money. It had the feel of dollar bills. I pulled it out of the crack between the cushions and the first thing I did was put it to my face and smell it. There was a faraway smell of paper, but it didn’t smell like money. It smelled like it had absorbed the smell of the house for many years. There was the smell of dust and dry wood and on the surface the mustiness of the sofa cushions. There was a thick red rubber band keeping all of the bills together. I looked at it closely, the rubber all dry and stretched so tight it was covered with little white cracks like you find in dried up mud out West.
I didn’t know what to think. I looked around the room as if it could tell me what to do next. Counting the money seemed like the right thing to do but I had no desire to count it. Instead I focused very hard on what I saw around me, really noticing the house for the first time. In the corner was a woodstove, its chimney wrapped part way in tin foil that had been balled up and then smoothed out again. The wall just above the stove was greasy black. There wasn’t much else in the room but a rag rug, woven from different colored strips of cotton worn gray and brown along the edges. It looked like it had never been washed and could’ve been there ten years or more. The floor was also dirty, the ceiling light showing the patches where the wax was completely worn off and the floor collecting dirt. Looking around the room I didn’t recognize what I saw. I hadn’t chosen the house, I had chosen the land. I wanted to say that out loud, I felt it so strong. I didn’t choose this. Yet there I was, spending my nights in the house, haunted by its noises and the ways it let the land in. I wanted the house to take the money back. But that was crazy; I couldn’t ask the house to take it back. It was like it knew I didn’t want the money, I remember thinking that. It did it on purpose. Why, I wanted to ask, why.
I don’t remember doing it but my hands then must’ve unwrapped that rubber band and counted out the bills on my lap, because I knew afterwards that there was 30,000 dollars in fifty and one hundred bills in my left pocket.
I walked over to the windows. Instead of seeing the land all I could see was my own soft reflection, distorted by the old glass. I had one hand on the money and the other on the watch. Christ, I thought, I came out here to get away from these kinds of problems. Money and a job and all of that. And now this. I jiggled the watch in my right hand. God, I was angry. And then I swear, staring at my reflection in the window, I saw something behind me. It was a dark shadow blurring past, the size of a man but faster. As black as smoke but denser than any smoke I’d ever seen. When I turned it was gone, and my whole body went cold.
I went straight into my bedroom, took my clothes off and got into bed. I put my watch on the bedside table but left the money in the pocket of my jeans on the floor. I tried to sleep but I was nervous and shivering beneath the blanket. The next morning I was due to harvest hay with Franklin at the farm and I wanted to get some rest. I turned on my side and looked out the crack in the wall. The moon wasn’t full so I couldn’t see anything. I closed my eyes but heard a ringing in my ears. Then on top of that, I started to hear a beating, like a heart, but not my own. I tried to force myself to sleep, but my dreams made it worse. There was the wind in the attic, and with my eyes closed I thought the smoky blur had slid up there and was stomping on the ceiling. Then I convinced myself it was the money beating, throbbing on the floor. I was sure of it. In my dreams I saw the bundle swelling behind my eyelids, until it was large enough to fill the bedroom. I dreamt that it was a pulsing red creature, shattering the windows and slipping outside, spreading itself thin down the valley floor.
My shallow dreams left me feeling worn and thin the next day. The hay harvesting had grated away any small amount of rest, and I could still hear the sound of raking in my ears. The scrape of metal across hay, like fingers through hair. In the morning there had been the feeling of looking at the field ahead, and seeing all the work to do. There had been an ache in my body that made me want to give up, while there were still hours ahead and Franklin needed my help. I had also worn the jeans and kept the money in my pocket, because it seemed careless to leave it at home. It sounds crazy, but I really felt like someone was watching me in that house. I didn’t want to leave the money sitting around. So there was that, heavy as a rock in my pocket.
I can remember Franklin and I bent over in the hay field, our rakes moving toward and away from each other, constant movement. But Franklin was far away from me that day. My thoughts were on the money, what I could do with it. Bent over like that, looking down at the ground, I started to think that maybe I would bury it. If I buried it under Franklin’s field one night, he would never even know it was there. Winter would come and it would freeze over, and then spring rain would help it rot. I also thought of scattering the bills one by one in the river—the water would dissolve them—but decided that was too risky, because Franklin might find them downriver. Finally, I thought about burning them in the wood stove. I didn’t want to give the house that satisfaction, of letting it see me burn it.
By the end of the day, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t want to keep the money. I had come out to the country for a reason, I told myself, and it wasn’t to get rich. I had plenty—a family, an education. I could easily get a job if money was what I needed. But I didn’t need it. All I needed was some land to live on and a strong body. Why couldn’t that just be enough? That made me angry. There was a small part of me, though, that thought about how the money could just be my secret, like how it was then, in my pocket with nobody knowing. I wouldn’t ever have to worry again. But I knew it would consume me if I kept it. I wanted it off my body.
After the day of hay harvesting, we stood on the front porch of Franklin’s farmhouse. Autumn sun, low in the sky. The damp hay smelled sweet and left particles floating in the golden sheen of evening air. From the porch we could see the winnows, the flat sheets of raked hay, flashes of silver and copper. The next day we would roll it into bales and put it in his barn but it had to dry first.
Standing there on the porch with Franklin I let my fingers roam across the folded bills in my pocket. For a moment I thought about what my father would do. He would think I was crazy to give it away or scatter it in the river, having worked his whole life for what we had. But the money felt stolen, and he would never keep something stolen. It also felt like somebody was challenging me, and he would never turn away from a challenge.
Franklin looked up the hill to the south at my house. It was so old it seemed to slump into the hillside and trees and valley past it. But there on the westward facing side of the house was a scar. The pile of tools and lumber and a structure sticking out from the house made of pale pine boards. The light color of it highlighted the worn gray around it.
“Carpenter’s kid is putting up a bathroom,” I said. The bathroom being put in, it bothered me. I was fine with the outhouse in the back, falling apart as it was. It seemed wrong that they were changing that just because I’d moved in. But it all seemed a small issue then, with the money in my pocket. I could just see Robert atop the structure, bent over on hands and knees, hammering down some boards.
“Carpenter’s a drunk,” Franklin said, with a kind of malice I’d never heard in his voice before. He took a sip of his beer, turned toward me. “You ever seen his place up there? Dump. Trash all over the front lawn. Their truck is sitting half-way down the hill.” I didn’t say anything for a few minutes. I had seen it, just the night before, driving Robert home. I didn’t want to get into it though, having to explain to Franklin the swimming trip, the watch, what Robert did. And about the money. I never could explain the money to Franklin. Especially because I had just started to think I should give it all to Robert. I felt my eyes sharpen and my mind begin to speed up, against the exhaustion, or maybe driven by it.
I continued to stare at the bathroom on the side of the house, Robert laboring within it. “Kid seems pretty nice,” was all I could manage to say. My thoughts were building one upon another with delirious frenzy. I was thinking about how this money could do something good for Robert, give him all the things I’d been lucky enough to have. I was thinking about all the boxes I had left behind in my parent’s garage, and what it would mean if I could give the money away. The money doesn’t mean anything to me, I told myself, but it could be everything to Robert. I could feel the air getting cooler on my skin and the nighttime coming. I wanted to give him the money that night, before it got dark. I didn’t want the money in my bedroom again, beating like a drum until dawn. My whole body was filled with an urgency I didn’t want to reveal to Franklin.
“Carpenter always been a drunk?” I asked, trying to keep my eyes still on the house and Robert working
“Past few years.” Franklin said. “Now he’s one of those don’t-know-how-he-makes-it types. Now he’s got the kid doing his work, too.” He turned away and looked out at the valley, where the sun was just getting lower in the sky. “It’s getting colder,” he said. “Got to start chopping some wood.”
“Yeah. I was going to go up the hill,” I said. This is it, this is it, I thought. I looked out at the land, wanting some kind of a sign to show me I was right. If this is it, do something, show me something. I scanned the river and the fields for a bird taking flight, the wind blowing harder, anything. But then I remembered where I was, and saw Franklin giving me a strange look. For a second I wondered if he knew and it felt like a secret I had to preciously guard, or else the money could be taken from Robert. I wondered if Franklin could somehow have known about this money in the house. I hadn’t even thought about that, I realized, that somebody else might know that this money existed.
But Franklin said, “You can’t just go anywhere up the hill. There’s bears and snakes and all kinds of crazy things up there.” He was talking about chopping wood. I held back a sigh of relief.
“Okay,” I said.
“Let’s go tomorrow afternoon, I’ll take you up the logging road with the tractor.”
“Okay,” I said, “Tomorrow.” I started to walk off the porch. “See you tomorrow,” I said.
“Hey thanks for your help,” Franklin said with a wave, “Thanks a lot.”
I strode home after that, my far away thoughts fueling my long strides past the cows and up the hill. If somebody knew about the money, I decided, they would have taken it themselves. I didn’t want it. Robert could go to college with that money, get away from his father and out of the valley, I kept repeating that, over and over in my head. I thought about what he had done when he saw the watch being stolen, how he had taken a beating for it and now he was back building the bathroom just two days later. He’s a good kid, I thought. I waved to him as I walked past the construction.
“How’s it going?” I called out.
“It’s good,” he said. I nodded and went around the back of the house, energized with the feeling that I was about to change his life. As I came around the corner, I froze. There in front of me, was a deer, wide eyed, ears twitching and nostrils flared, but otherwise perfectly still. It had been eating the bushes that grew alongside the house.
A feeling of pure euphoria bloomed in my chest, but I stayed perfectly still, not wanting the deer to charge me. This is a sign, I thought, and I was completely convinced of it in that moment. I slowly backed away from the deer and it bounded up the hill and disappeared into the woods, its cotton ball tail flashing. I rushed into the house.
Soon I heard Robert gathering up the materials behind the house as I stood on the edge of my porch and watched the sun going down. He came around to the front door and knocked. I went inside.
“How’s your face?” I asked. He turned to one side, showing how the bruise on his cheekbone had turned green.
“It’s alright,” he said. “Sore.”
“So you’re finished out there?” I asked. The anticipation was making me giddy.
“Almost. Still gotta do the water hook up and the bathtub.”
“Well,” I said, reaching into my pocket for the money, “I wanted to give you this. For everything.”
He looked confused. “Elmer’s going to pay me.” He said. “Oh.” He looked down at the money in my hand. “I can’t take it.” He said. “Not for the watch. It’s too much.” He didn’t reach for the money but I was still full and happy with my generosity.
“Take it,” I said, “I want you to have it.” But his face was confused and I couldn’t find the words to explain the many hours of thoughts that had built up to this decision, each circle of thought entwined with the last and so dependent upon why I had moved out here in the first place. I could hear the sound of the raking in my ears, the smell of the day’s work was on me, I could see the frozen expression of the deer, its soft, sleek body, and that ringing was back, beneath it all. I didn’t want to have to explain. He looked disconcerted and I was becoming irritated. “Listen,” I said, “You could go to college. I hear…I heard things aren’t so good at home. I want you to have it. I don’t want it.” Robert looked at me with wide eyes. I hoped he wasn’t considering saying no because all of a sudden I realized that I couldn’t stand having the money another day. I didn’t know what I would do with it if he didn’t take the money. Then he reached out and lifted the money from my hand.
There it was in his hand, the rubber band stretched so tight with its little cracks, holding all the bills that would change his life.
He looked up at me, his eyes the color of green reeds, his right still bloodshot from the fight. “Thank you.” He said, and then more quietly, “I wanna go to college.”
“Good.” I said, “You’re welcome.”
He put the money in his pocket. I felt like I wanted to say something else, about what he should do with the money, but he was already walking away before I could come up with anything. He is very young, I thought, watching him walk up the driveway and make his way home, with the one hand still in his pocket touching the cash. He walked away quickly, but that didn’t seem strange to me at the time.
I sat down on the sofa and gazed out the windows, where the sun had set, leaving behind one huge streak of orange. A cold shiver went from my feet up my legs. With the money gone, the frenzy of my thoughts had dissipated. I couldn’t get that money back, I realized. It no longer belonged to me. I looked around the room, not sure where the last twenty-four hours had taken me. It hit me that I wasn’t sure if it had been the right decision. Show me something, I thought, Show me something. But the wood stove in the corner, the windows in their frames, the floor boards without their wax, they all looked back at me blankly.
“Are you happy?” I asked, my voice sounding bitter and foreign to my own ears. But there was nobody there to answer me.