July started out at dawn and meant to get back before Malachi came calling for her. It didn’t seem late in the morning. It seemed she had only been out a couple of hours. Sitting on a huge rock in the center of the creek, she dangled her legs in the water. She leaned back, looking at mare’s tails in the sky. They always meant a change of weather and you never knew if it would be for bad or good.
The creek smelled like brine, and that plus the slimy weeds and rotting fish on the bank put a hum in her blood. Her skin began to burn, and that’s when she first thought she’d been gone too long. Malachi would worry about her. She ought to get some buttermilk in case the burned skin was worse than it looked. Maybe Malachi would drive into town to get her some, but she didn’t feel up to going with him. She watched light flash off rocks under the water, smooth round stones that were older than death. There was a broken tree limb lying just under the water, like a severed head, the leafy hair strung out, water running through its decaying strands. Annie would be sixteen now.
Maybe she would be one of those punk types. July wouldn’t care. Maybe she would have a boyfriend and this is how she would tell her mother about him: “He wears a black leather jacket with studs dancing on the back and collar and cuffs, and a little French cap, red, and he’s got his hair green on one side and shaved on the other, and a little pig’s tail down the back and one long silver earring brushing the top of his jacket collar, he is so hot hot hot. He walks cool, Mama, bounces along with his head touching the sky, he can bounce right up there to heaven if he wants, but he wants to stay right here on earth, where I can see him every day at school.”
She would be able to say things like that to her mother, because the agency would have chosen a woman who would be the kind of mama kids could talk to. July smiled. Sixteen. Lord.
Malachi took some bread and crackers down to the trees that circled the courthouse and sat on a bench to feed the little squirrels. They were tame and spoiled and ate from his hand. He wanted July to go there with him sometime. He imagined the two of them sitting there, laughing at the squirrels. He would say things to make her laugh. He imagined it so hard he laughed out loud himself, then looked around, embarrassed. No one but birds and squirrels had seen him make a fool of himself. But over by the east wing of the courthouse, where some new construction was going on and bright orange and black warning signs were posted, something was glittering fiercely, catching the morning sun’s rays and shooting them back out again.
He had a feeling then, like he was seeing something grand, some plan, some path laid out before him. He walked straight to it. Sticking out from some low matted junipers was the corner of a door, far from ordinary. The door was heavy, made of dark, solid wood, oak, and inlaid with panes of stained glass prettier than any he’d ever seen in a church. They were like jewels laid down in some foreign museum, jewels you had to pay to see.
He didn’t hang around gawking. He walked right to his truck. He backed up to the junipers, using a ramp for two of the wheels so as not to make too much of a mess on the courthouse lawn. He thought of what he’d say to a cop — “I thought if they were going to toss a good door like that, some citizen might as well have it,” or something like that. He’d be sure to say “Officer.” He thought of his outstanding parking tickets. He’d seen only two people on the street. It was early and even church people were still sleeping. Any fool could see that door was there by mistake or carelessness, but he felt pretty certain he was going to pull this off. He backed the truck right up to it.
He pulled up the junipers and lifted the door and pushed it into the back of the pickup. He had to push with all his strength, not allowing himself to worry about the finish, or even the glass, he just had to hurry, get it in the truck fast before someone came along. Later, his heart sank to see the damage he’d done to the top quarter, but right then he just crawled in with it and cushioned the underside of the glass sections with some old rags. His chest felt packed with grief and joy, the joy from anticipating the look on her face, the grief from her needing a door at all.
All the way up the canyon he thought about her. He hated that she would sleep that way, with no door. She’d been without one for three weeks, since the end of May, but it got cold in the mountains, even in summer. Every week she’d said, I’ll have the money in a week, I’ll buy me a good door, but she hadn’t yet. The old door had been loose on its hinges and she’d stuck rags in the cracks, then finally she’d kicked it down. Things like that made him think she had a temper.
The last quarter-mile to the cabin had to be on foot, coaxing and begging the door over rocks and tree limbs, pop cans and trickling streams. The door looked natural here, like it was a living thing sprung up in exactly the right place. Malachi stumbled and nearly dropped it twice because he couldn’t take his eyes off the iridescent blue and rose and green. There were only two spots of yellow — the sun and the moon. They drew the eye quickly, sent it out again to the more subtle colors, then drew it back again, mesmerizing.
The true sun shone through the stained glass, quickening the images. It shone through hummingbirds in shimmering violet and lime. It shone through emerald green leaves, deep blue morning glories, and flowers he thought were white morning glories. He’d seen flowers like that before, opening in the blaze of a full yellow moon. He was a boy then, and the sight of flowers blooming in moonlight caught on a sharp place in his mind. Now here was that same delight, and he promptly took it to be a sign.
He was out of breath when he got to the cabin. He set the door against it and went into the dark interior, saying, “Next thing, I’ll get you a window,” but she wasn’t there. There were some potato peelings on the small wooden table, and a paring knife, and a slim olive jar with little purple flowers in it. It was so dark he couldn’t see anything past the flowers, except the dark bulkiness of the bed in the back of the room. He had half a mind to go buy a damn window right then and get that and the door put in by Tuesday.
Today was Sunday. They had started doing things together on Sunday, or so he’d understood. It was late. Where was she?
The sun was straight over her head and she was three miles from home. Malachi would be wondering where the hell she was. Well, this thing with them would be coming to a fork in the road. She could see signs.
A year ago, when she’d packed up everything she owned and headed for the Smokies, Malachi had just lost a wife of thirty years. The cabin July rented was a couple of miles north of Malachi’s house, and she would see him out walking several times a week, usually toward sundown, chin nearly touching his chest. They started nodding and saying hello, and gradually his chin got higher, and one day he introduced himself. Another day they sat by a stream and got to talking and finally she asked him in for rhubarb pie. She’d bought it at the Shop ’n’ Gas, where she worked in town. It was cold because she didn’t have an oven, but she’d made good coffee on a hot plate. Their friendship kept building up like that — bit by bit, with cups of steaming coffee and cold store-bought pies — and over a year’s time they got to be good friends, all without any fooling around.
Malachi was older, not old enough to be her father, but old enough and smart enough to know you could be a friend to a woman, and that might be as far as it would go. But she’d seen him staring — like when she was pulling the coffeepot off the burner or setting out petunias. It wasn’t an ordinary stare — no, that wouldn’t be a stare at all, it would be a look. This was a stare, and it made all the difference.
He could tell she was barely making out when he first met her. She was on food stamps, she’d told him, but not for long. She wrote poetry and was going to win some big contest. He felt sorry for her then, and even wondered if she wasn’t a little simple, and decided he’d do what he could. He was fifteen years older than she was; he’d just lost a lifetime love and didn’t feel like any hanky-panky.
He had been a friend. He’d done for her and then some. He’d seen her be as happy as a child and he’d seen her moan around, miserable and self-pitying. He’d gotten used to her moods and started, little by little, to think he loved her. Maybe she picked up on that, he thought. Maybe that’s exactly why she wasn’t here this morning. Actually, it was straight up noon. Well, she was a grown woman. He wasn’t her keeper. Maybe he didn’t even love her. Probably didn’t.
He kicked the doorway hard, cursed, and then got down to work. The door was too wide. He spent most of the afternoon making it fit. He didn’t dare take it to the lumberyard to be cut, in case it had been reported stolen. He had to cut it with a handsaw and sand it down and stain it. The stain he had with the junk in his truck wasn’t dark enough, but it was close, and he was anxious to get the thing finished. He did leave just once, to drive over to his place and get some old hinges that were still good. When he stepped into his toolshed, he was swamped by a hundred smells and sights and the sound of a long absence. He hadn’t been in the shed since Ellie died. He was glad to get back to the cabin.
He stood back a few feet and looked at his work when it was done. The door made the old cabin beautiful, like a neglected woman suddenly loved.
July is sitting in the bathtub. She’s nineteen. Annie’s two weeks old and belongs to somebody else now. The baby’s real father is a boy of seventeen who’s left the state. July doesn’t care. She’s been through hell but she’s got one eye on tomorrow. She’s trying. She’s up on all fours, leaning forward to unplug the drain. She looks down and sees her stomach hanging down. Like an old sow’s. Like she’s just given birth to a passel of whales.
July went to a plastic surgeon and paid him fifty dollars to tell her the only solution was a “tummy-tuck” and three thousand dollars, thereabouts. She said it might as well be three million. She asked if insurance would pay, not that she had any, and he said not for elective surgery, and he was sure sorry.
She knew right then that a man would have to actually love her to want her. But how could anyone get to that, these days, without fooling around? So fooling around was unthinkable. Simple as that. Except that it was all she ever thought about. And she got from nineteen to thirty-five like that.
In between she waited tables, washed cars, soldered electronics parts, took some classes at the junior college, and started writing poetry. When she was thirty-two she published two poems, and that made her think she could live the rest of her life.
She admitted to herself that she often thought about Malachi in a lustful way, but she knew it was courting heartache to think like that. Maybe she ought to stay away all day today, just to make sure no impossible things between them would have a chance to start up.
She went down toward town, toward the Shop ’n’ Gas, to get a Pepsi and a sandwich. She passed a jungle of wild ginseng — “sang,” her mama’s mama always called it. She hadn’t seen any in a long while and thought she’d come back next weekend and dig it up and dry it for winter, which led her to think about how bad a winter would be without Malachi if they were ever to part ways.
Damn, she thought. Once one of you, or even both, wanted to change a friendship into something a little more friendly, why, the friendship itself was ruined. Some people did it. She’d known some who had. But, she thought, the chances of this particular friendship surviving were slim, maybe diddly squat.
She sat down where she was, it could have been a pile of red ants, it didn’t matter. She cried her guts out and found herself enjoying crying over a man, for once, instead of a lost baby. She wondered if it would even be possible — Malachi and her; maybe, in the dark.
It wouldn’t work for long. She got up and continued on until she got to the Shop ’n’ Gas. She kept her face down at the counter, not that she knew the young man clerking that day, but because she knew her face would be red and swollen enough that even a stranger might ask what was wrong.
Malachi needed bread for supper, so he drove into town, straight to the Shop ’n’ Gas. July was coming out. Her face was salt-streaked, her eyes red and lumpy.
“July, what’s wrong? July?”
“I need to be alone, all right? I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” she said.
He pulled her elbow and she jerked away, as though he’d insulted her, but it was all false, because he knew he’d pulled it in a caring way, and she knew it too. He stared at her. She walked off. He bought his bread and some bologna and a six-pack of beer.
On the highway he almost passed her, did pass her in fact, but pulled in right in front of her on the dirt shoulder.
She thought about throwing a hissie-fit, just stomping around, maybe saying, “Didn’t I tell you I needed to be alone?” but her feet hurt.
They drove in silence for twenty minutes, then the cyclone came bursting out her mouth. It took ten minutes to tell him what had been bleeding her dry for sixteen years. She made sure he couldn’t misunderstand. These were not simple stretch marks, like even a football player could get. Her belly was a god-awful mess, she said, loose skin and odd knots and scars. She didn’t cry.
He listened until she was finished. “Looks don’t mean so much to me now,” he said. He looked at her like he didn’t know what to say next. “Look at this.” He opened his shirt halfway to his waist. “Old. Look here.” He pointed to his throat. He let the truck veer over the center line of the road and pulled it back. “Bags on my neck. Scrawny chest, silver hairs. I’m no Hercules.” Still, she didn’t say a word. “There’s more to a person, July. You know what I mean?” She looked away. She felt dead. He tried and tried to talk with her. She wouldn’t. “Jesus, July, your heart must be clamped shut.” That’s how her jaw was.
Finally, he pulled up to her mailbox at the side of a dirt road off the highway, and let her out. “Seems to me like you’ve got the inside scars mixed up with the outside ones,” he said. She thought he snarled. “Come around when you can make some sense,” he said. She watched him drive off.
She climbed the little trail to her cabin, her mind weary, each step pulling at her energy. But the sight of the door took her breath away. Something filled her, swept through her body singing. She went toward it slowly, then ran her two hands over every inch. She could have been in front of Chartres, or Notre Dame, alone, without anyone to witness her rapture. She laughed and jumped, uninhibited. Where did he get it? She sat down on the ground and stared up at it. He’d spent the whole day doing this, and the day had ended so poorly.
She ate her supper on a stool outside, in front of the door, so she could see the glass better in the twilight. She went to bed at nine. She woke at midnight to the white moon piercing through the glass in the door. She followed its light over the flowers and birds, over the morning glories first, and then over those moon flowers, like her granny used to have every summer. Some of the moon flowers were in full bloom, their petals spread wide with abandon, and some not yet open, little buds wound tight around themselves.
She slipped her hand down under the covers and fingered the loose, crepey skin. She slid her arms under the cool pillow and kept her face toward the moonlight. She thought of him working on that door for the whole of Sunday, sawing and planing and whatever else he’d had to do. She thought how the sunlight had teased and glanced off the silver hairs on his chest that afternoon, as though light were some conspiratorial friend of his.