when I was a boy, we lived in a shotgun house — bright white paint, green shutters — on a little street near the Riverbend in New Orleans. The area is “improved” now. Tourists know it because of Cooter Brown’s, the Camellia Grill, and the streetcar line. But then it was very quiet, just average families like ours and the slow days by the river in the heat.
I played across the street on the River Road and the railroad tracks. I assume my fascination with trains was fairly typical. There was nothing I liked better than to stage an imaginary battle on the tracks, or to charge from the trees at the sound of an approaching train, up and over the levee, blazing away at the engineer with my cap gun.
My family didn’t travel much, and the tracks represented for me all that was mysterious, dangerous, and far away. I manufactured elaborate daydreams of hopping trains on hot afternoons, riding coal cars in the starlight, nestling into a bedroll in some hobo jungle outside a small Western town.
Again, these fantasies were probably not unusual, but I entertained them long past the age when most boys move on to other interests. I read fanatically about the railroad — books about train robbers’ daring heists and the great railroad barons with their monumental schemes and the drifters whose lives were centered around the tracks. Later I steered my interest onto more conventional paths. I became a history major in college and went about getting my degree in a more or less normal way, although I had a tendency to write excitably about events that didn’t arouse much feeling among my professors. After college, I got married and went to graduate school at Tulane. But somehow, in the back of my mind, there were always the tracks, and the desire to be somewhere else, and the belief that I was destined to arrive at some defining moment in my life, when I would achieve fulfillment.
So when my wife, Hannah, told me, during my last semester of grad school, that she was pregnant, it was not particularly welcome news. I felt that fate was being short-circuited somehow, that an insurmountable obstacle had been raised in my path. At the very least, I imagined the baby’s arrival would be a drain on my time and energy.
Then Seth was born, and my mind changed completely. Fatherhood stirred in me a powerful response I could never have foreseen. Hannah held Seth’s little hand as if it were exactly what she’d been waiting to do all her life, but I had only skimmed the child-care books, had pouted away the previous nine months in secret misery. Now I was stunned by the shape of his tiny red feet. I stood taut and speechless in the interval between each of his fragile breaths. I wanted to breathe for him, if I could. From that point on, only Seth mattered to me.
my decision to leave New Orleans was unexpected, even to me. I was driving through the Quarter one afternoon. I’d made the mistake of meeting a friend for drinks at the Napoleon House and was now caught in rush-hour traffic, trying to make a left from St. Louis onto Dauphine. This was in the seedier part of the Quarter, beyond Bourbon Street, where tourists were warned not to venture. On the corner was an old bar that had become part of the drug scene, and stretched out in front of it on the sidewalk, maybe ten feet away from me when I reached the stop sign, was the body of a man — a street person, judging by his clothes. He was on his back, and little streams of blood meandered from the side of his head down the cobblestones into the gutter. It was a hot day — Seth was born in June, so this would have been late July — and the blood already looked sticky. Flies buzzed around, landing on the bloody sidewalk or the man’s wound, and the pigeons strutted around the body with growing curiosity.
Two policemen stood on the sidewalk a few feet away, smoking. One of them puffed on his cigarette, then held it between his fingers as his hand pointed west and zigzagged, presumably indicating the direction in which the suspect had escaped. I couldn’t hear what he said (my windows were rolled up), but the other cop grinned, and his fat belly jiggled.
Even through the closed windows and over the soft hum of the radio, I could hear sirens on Dauphine Street: the ambulance was having trouble getting through. Traffic was backed up all the way from Canal. The cars on Dauphine were stationary for the most part, moving slowly forward only when a light changed up ahead. The streets in the Quarter are very narrow, but no one attempted to pull up on the curb, or into the few restricted spaces between the parked cars, to get out of the way. None of the emergency-response team bothered to leave the ambulance and walk to the scene. As I said, it was hot out.
The sirens wailed purposelessly. Cars behind me began to honk, urging me to wedge my way onto Dauphine Street, but I stayed put. Before the ambulance arrived and pulled up on the sidewalk, blocking my view of the body, I had several minutes to think. I thought about how the dead man on the street had once been someone’s son. Though he lay dead in the gutter, he had once been held in someone’s arms. Where was this man’s father? How had he let his son come to this, lying dead among strangers?
When I got home, Hannah was breast-feeding Seth on the sofa. “I don’t think this is a good place to raise children,” I told her.
it took a year to find a job in what I thought would be a safer place. We moved to a small town in northern Idaho, and I became a junior-high-school history teacher. The town was situated on a large lake, but we lived on its far outskirts, several miles from the water, the small downtown, and the seasonal tourists. Our house sat a couple of hundred yards back from an old dirt road. We bought it from the original owner, who’d built it himself, and he was a pretty good carpenter, apparently. It was a rustic A-frame, white pine, the natural color of the wood. There were no architectural flourishes other than the small upstairs balcony attached to Seth’s room. But every time it rained and the roof didn’t leak, or it snowed and the cold wind didn’t whistle in around the windows, I thought to myself, Pretty good carpenter, apparently.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the first five years we lived there. Seth grew up putting puzzles together on the living-room floor and learning to scale the split-rail fence in the backyard while I stood by to catch him if he fell.
The summer of his sixth birthday he discovered the railroad tracks. They had been there all the time, just a few hundred yards across the weedy field beyond our fence, and the trains came twice a day, at 3 P.M. and midnight, their slow thrum vibrating our floors. But only that summer did Seth discover the magic of the tracks, begin to feel the rhythm of iron and wood.
Every afternoon, after I’d washed the dishes from lunch, Seth would grab his blue duffel bag and his baseball gear (that was his other obsession at the time — he had already graduated to a real ball and glove and a small wooden bat), and we’d head for the railroad tracks. Sometimes on days when Hannah wasn’t on duty at the hospital, or hadn’t worked the graveyard shift the night before, she’d come along, but usually it was just me and Seth and his springer spaniel, Ted.
We walked across the dusty field, where grasshoppers whirred away from us on their yellow wings. It was a hot, parched summer, and they were everywhere. The hills and woods beyond the tracks shimmered with the heat. A few houses dotted the edges of the open field, and I wondered if my neighbors ever watched us walk the tracks, and what they thought of our routine. I didn’t know my neighbors, had always used the fence and the field as a shield against them, and they seemed somehow sinister to me, staring from the dark of their kitchens.
We walked up the tracks. It was the middle of the afternoon, the sun still high overhead, and the heat waves surrounded us so that, looking around, you could believe none of it was real. Seth walked the rails, teetering along, his shirt off already, grimy, sweating, just like I was at that age. He liked to pick up rusty spikes and broken tools and put them in his bag. Most days it would weigh so much on the return trip that I’d have to carry it. Ted scoured the underbrush on the far side of the tracks for quail, or loped along the ditch gathering cockleburs in his fur. He was a rebellious dog, high-strung, apt to disappear for minutes at a time, would never come when you called.
The baseball field had just wavered into sight up ahead when I heard the three o’clock train. Seth had been nattering at me, asking questions I only half listened to, my mind on some worry, as it always was back then. I used to imagine horrific circumstances that Seth and I might find ourselves in: Seth would get his foot wedged under a tie as the train approached, and I would kneel there, calming him, convincing him not to scream and writhe, but to quietly, calmly twist his foot a little this way . . . Maybe I would ease his foot from under the tie, or maybe it still wouldn’t come clear, and I would untie his shoe with swift dexterity and lift him from the tracks just in time, rolling with him in my arms down the rocky bank. Sometimes I couldn’t get his foot loose, and at the last second I would throw my arms around him and wait for the impact of the train.
Seth followed our regular procedure, stepping carefully on the ties and over the rail and down through the field to stand at a safe distance. “How does it stay on the tracks, Dad?” he asked.
I was looking at the train, which had just come into sight up ahead. “Well, the wheels are designed to fit the rails.” I scanned the area for Ted, who I always doubted was smart enough not to run in front of an oncoming train.
“But doesn’t the train ever fall off?”
“Yes,” I said. “Sometimes the track gets warped, and sometimes bad kids put things, like logs, across the tracks, and then the train can fall, and people might get killed. It’s really very sad.” Seth was quiet, and I could see the scene take shape in his head — the screeching wheels, the tumbling boxcars. But he could only guess at tragedy; that’s the way it is with children. He looked down at the ground and shuffled his feet.
When the train drew near, Seth motioned up and down with his arm, and the engineer smiled and let out a blast on the whistle. Just before the train cut off my view of the woods on the opposite side, I saw a covey of quail explode from the bushes, and I knew Ted was over there. Then the cars were rolling by, thock-thocking hypnotically along the rails. Seth and I watched from the edge of the field. The caboose swayed past, and the last of the train’s hot breeze, and I could feel the silence widen and then shrink back again, the grasshoppers whining in the weeds. Looking up the tracks, I thought I saw movement in the trees.
We walked on. Seth was talking about baseball, and we were looking forward to our little game, when we heard Ted bark: two sharp, eager barks coming from the woods. As we got closer, we heard what sounded like a whimper. And then a voice, a command. Seth looked up at me — who was out there in the woods?
Seth veered toward the trees and picked up his pace. He dropped his duffel bag in the grass, but he held on to his bat. I followed, walking faster but still not giving in to any sense of urgency. “Seth,” I yelled, “slow down!” Ted barked at the sound of my voice. Seth stopped and waited for me at the edge of the trees.
The underbrush was scratchy and wild. I led the way, holding on to skinny branches and twigs so they wouldn’t snap back on Seth. We reached a little clearing, and there was Ted, sitting on a patch of moss beneath a cedar tree. A man was sitting cross-legged next to him, holding his collar in one hand, rummaging through an old beat-up backpack with the other. I stopped short and grabbed Seth’s shoulder. The man brought out a cigarette, and then a lighter. He lit up, looked our way, and smiled. He had a way of smiling that put you at ease. Every time he smiled that day, I felt a brief calm, as if everything were going to be all right.
In the cool shade, the sweat was starting to dry on my forehead and under my shirt. On through the trees was a little creek, and I could hear the water gurgle over stones. Sunlight filtered through the high canopy of birch leaves and cedar branches and danced across the patch of moss where Ted and the man sat resting. He barely held Ted’s collar at all. Ted seemed content, now that we were near, to simply lie there and pant.
“Nice day for a game,” the man said, seeing the bat in Seth’s hand. “Hot days like this — perfect for baseball. That’s just how you’ll remember it years from now. Dust and sweat and grass and sunshine.” He looked away, back through the trees toward the sound of the creek. He was always doing that, too: looking away into the distance, at some place I couldn’t see, past the mountains and the trees.
“Yep,” I said, “my son’s a big baseball fan. Isn’t that right, Seth?”
Neither Seth nor the man said anything. I took a good look at the man then, while he sat there staring toward nothing in particular. He had convinced me with his small talk that he posed no threat; I didn’t think instruments of fate came discussing baseball. I studied him out of my old interest in transience — he had obviously jumped from the opposite side of a train as it passed, to loiter in the shade awhile, and no doubt planned to move on soon. I wanted to remember him.
“Well,” I said casually, “if you and Ted are through visiting, we’d better hit the road. Or the tracks, I guess.” . . . I called Ted again, and again the dog lurched toward us, and again the man held him back. . . . “You can talk to me all you want,” he said, “but I’m not going to give your dog back.”
My eyes were drawn to an unusual tattoo. It stretched from the tip of his right shoulder blade to the middle of his biceps, and wrapped almost all the way around his arm. The picture was remarkably well done; the artist had a good eye for depth, especially. In the foreground was a street sign with black letters reading, Primrose Lane. Behind it was a picket fence that stretched around the arm, and bright red roses weaved their way through its interstices. Behind the fence was a row of identical houses sketched in black ink — two-story Victorian models with windows and doors arranged to look like faces. From behind the houses, a set of railroad tracks emerged, snaking up to the top of a distant peak, where they were lost in a bright orange sun. Above the sun, in an arc across the shoulder, was a red banner with the inscription “Life’s a Holiday.”
He was dark-skinned, but you couldn’t tell how much of it was from the sun. His black hair was long and kinky and hit him around his shoulders in an even line, a touch of gray at the temples. His cheeks were freckled, or mottled in some way. He had one dark brown eye, almost black, like a widened pupil; the other eye was a washed-out blue. He was thin, but his muscles were cord tight. He looked slinky and powerful. He wore a faded blue tank top, baggy gym shorts, black socks rolled down to his ankles, and what looked like brand-new black Reeboks. He was dirty, but what could you expect?
Demetrius Herrera (I still puzzle over that name) had no criminal record to speak of, just a few shoplifting charges, vagrancies, a teenage auto theft that landed him in a boys’ home. I learned this afterward, from the police. Later, on my own, I found out a little more — that he’d lived all over the map, had a daughter in Houston he’d never met. This information came from a sister I tracked down in Oakland. This was all I learned; either she wasn’t interested in telling me more about her brother, or she didn’t remember him well.
“I see you found our dog,” I said. I snapped my fingers. “Here, Ted.”
Ted lurched to his feet, but the man gripped his collar tight. “Or he found me,” he said.
“You let go of my dog,” Seth told him. He knew better than I did from the start.
“Hold on, Seth,” I said. I laughed. “He just wants to pet him.”
The man stared at Seth then, not at me, as if they were already having a separate conversation.
“You can pet him a minute,” I said, “but then we’ll have to get going. Big game planned and all, you know.” I winked. I ruffled Seth’s hair. Seth pushed my hand away silently.
The man laughed.
“What?” I asked him.
“You talk to me like I was a child,” he said.
I apologized and told him I had a habit of doing that, probably because I spent most of my time with Seth.
“Your dog’s friendly,” he said. On cue, Ted got to his feet and began wagging his stump of a tail. He jerked his head around and licked the man’s wrist. Then he tried to pull away and come to us.
“Come on, Ted,” Seth said.
But the man held him firm. “Is he a purebred springer?” he asked, as if there were nothing unusual going on.
“No,” I lied. “His father was a mutt.”
“He looks purebred,” he said.
“No,” I said again, “he’s no show dog.” I tried to laugh. “But he’s a good pet for my son.” I reached for Seth’s hair again, but stopped myself. The birds were chirping in the trees.
“I’m sure he is,” the man said, putting out his cigarette and starting to scratch behind Ted’s ears. That was Ted’s favorite spot. “The ‘better’ the breeding, the less intelligent the dog, generally speaking.”
What a sight he was there under the trees. His weird skin, those eyes that seemed to belong in two different heads. He looked utterly wild. I decided he was crazy. This helped me deny that he had any firm intentions.
“Well,” I said casually, “if you and Ted are through visiting, we’d better hit the road. Or the tracks, I guess.” I laughed and sort of waved. If he was crazy, I thought it best to be polite. I called Ted again, and again the dog lurched toward us, and again the man held him back. He stared at me, and I tried to decide which eye to look into.
“You can talk to me all you want,” he said, “but I’m not going to give your dog back.” He looked at Seth.
I found I had nothing to say. The creek went on babbling. I heard an airplane passing overhead.
“You’re not keeping my dog!” Seth shouted, so loud that I think it frightened even him.
The man pulled Ted closer and looked as if he was deciding whether or not to stand.
I took a few moments to try to regain my composure and consider the situation I was in. Probably the man was only trying to scare us, make me look bad in front of Seth, for whatever reason. If I remained calm, he would relent. If not, Ted would probably get away on his own and bolt back toward the house. He was a hard dog to hang on to.
Now the man was speaking directly to Seth, looking at him earnestly. “I had my own dog for years, but he got hit by a train. You can get another dog.”
“You get another dog!” Seth yelled. He was crying. “You get another goddamn dog!”
I put my arm around Seth and started to pull him close, but my hand shook and I felt cold all over with drying sweat, so I let him go.
“Unfortunately,” the man said, still looking kindly at Seth, “I’ve become fond of this one.”
Seth broke down completely — big, jerking sobs that hurt to listen to.
“You’re a nice boy. Your father will get you another dog.”
“No,” I said. I held myself straight, tried to strike an authoritative tone. “No, I won’t, because you’re not keeping this one.”
But he wasn’t listening to me. “I know it doesn’t seem right,” he said to Seth, or maybe to himself. “But I miss having a dog with me. My dog was a good dog. His name was Luck.” He put his hand on Ted’s back. “When he headed for the tracks, I ran after him, but I stopped. I don’t know why.” Now he was running his hand down Ted’s back. He didn’t seem to be anywhere at all.
“You’re not keeping the dog,” I said. He didn’t seem to understand, but with those eyes, it was hard to tell. The dark one was like a tough root buried deep in his skull, the blue one like delicate glass. “What you’re doing is cruel.” Seth’s face was smudged with dirt and tears, his eyes red and puffy. “Anyone can see how cruel it is.”
Nothing in the man’s expression changed. I switched my gaze from one eye to the other and back again. He lit another cigarette. We were just standing there, listening to the water and the breeze through the trees, to Ted’s panting and Seth’s hard breaths.
“You know,” he said, “I was reading in the paper.” He held Ted’s paw in his hand and began picking at a cocklebur. Ted licked his hand again. “There’s some scientist now who says he’s got a formula to explain the whole history of the universe. He says you can take this formula and explain everything that ever happened by simple cause and effect.” He pulled the cocklebur loose and rolled it between his fingers. “I don’t think that’s very interesting,” he said. “Do you think it’s very interesting?”
It seemed a strange question, and I assumed he was trying to belittle me in some way. I didn’t think I should answer at all, but the silence was awkward, and I gave in. “No, I guess not,” I said, in what I hoped was a disgusted tone. “You know, a dog isn’t something you can just steal from somebody. Seth had to learn how to feed Ted, he —”
“I don’t think it’s interesting at all,” he said. “The real question is always what’s going to happen next.” He looked at me with his blue eye closed.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen next,” I said. I kept my voice steady. “You’re going to give my son’s dog back — right this instant if you know what’s good for you.”
“What are you?” he said. “A schoolteacher?” He took a drag on his cigarette.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m not surprised. Elementary school?”
“Junior high,” I mumbled.
Seth groaned, sucked in a deep breath. “Dad,” he said, “do something!”
I felt my muscles go slack. I wanted to put my arm around Seth’s shoulder, but I couldn’t seem to get it to move, as if I’d slept on it all night long. “All right,” I managed to say. “All right, I am doing something.” I tingled right up through my scalp. “I’m calling the police.” I said it again, a bit louder. “I’m calling the police — and if you’re as smart as you seem to think you are, you’ll let the dog go so he can follow us. I’m going home to call the police.”
“No, Dad,” Seth insisted. “He’ll leave.”
I grabbed Seth roughly by the shoulder, turned him around in front of me, and started crashing back through the bushes. When we came out into the open, the sun half blinded me. I heard the man’s voice drift up from the clearing: “Please don’t do that.” His tone was polite, as if he were sitting in a cool parlor and asking me to take my feet off a coffee table.
Seth was running before he hit the tracks, his bat in one hand, his duffel bag in the other. The bag banged against his knee. My legs were shaky, making it hard to keep up, and I suddenly needed to urinate. “Seth,” I shouted, “try to stay calm!” He continued to run along the tracks. Then the bag caught between his feet, and he fell. He was crying again. I lifted him in my arms, and he cried into my shoulder, still clinging to his bat and his bag. I trotted as fast as I could, repeating to myself a simple phrase: Violence never solves anything. Violence never solves anything.
the police were slow in responding, and when they finally got there, they weren’t nearly outraged enough to suit me. The walk down the tracks took forever — there was nothing that could make the one fat cop hurry — and of course there was no sign of Ted or the man when we reached the scene of the crime. The cops took the information they needed to file a report, commiserated with Seth, and gave him a fake badge and a real whistle, which he seemed to appreciate more than any of my efforts. Then they left, promising to follow up as best they could. They would alert the railroad. They would patrol the crossings.
Seth went up to his room and refused to come down for dinner. I could hear an occasional bang and a few muffled words, probably shouted into a pillow. I called Hannah at work. She said she had an emergency right then, but she’d be home as soon as possible. She insisted that I let the police deal with the matter. I told her they’d already tried. She said that I should call them again, tell them to get back out there and keep looking; he couldn’t have gone far. That kind of thing couldn’t happen, she said; you couldn’t just take a boy’s dog and get away with it.
The whole time she was talking, I could hear a man moaning in pain in the background and a woman’s voice frantically saying the same thing over and over: “Hurry! Jesus Christ, can’t you hurry?” I resented Hannah for being able to respond to crises and not lose her head. All day she could do this, if necessary, then come home and eat dinner and talk to Seth and laugh and watch TV.
I sat staring at the phone awhile, but I didn’t call the police. Seth’s sobs floated down from the bedroom. I could feel myself giving up. I was getting angry that Seth and Hannah cared so much about the dog in the first place. What was so great about Ted? Why couldn’t Seth quit crying? We could get another dog, or something better — something that stayed in the house, like a hamster. Why couldn’t Hannah see it that way? And yet I knew it was not just the dog I stood in danger of losing.
I got up and walked aimlessly to the sliding glass doors at the back of the house, pulled open the curtains, and looked out toward the woods. I was not that surprised at what I saw. There he was, just on the other side of the wooden fence, fifty yards or so away, sitting peacefully with Ted. He was eating a sandwich and drinking a Pepsi. Ted lay at his feet, happy as ever, eating his own sandwich. I thought again how the dog wasn’t worth the fuss.
I opened the door and walked out onto the sun deck. The man looked my way, then continued to eat his sandwich. Seth’s duffel bag was by the back steps, and as I started down to the lawn, I reached in and grabbed the small wooden bat. In no time I was standing before him without a thought in my head.
He’d tied Ted to a leash and looped it over a fence post. “I don’t know why you called the cops,” he said, not looking up from his sandwich. “You must have known they wouldn’t do anything. Or are cops here different than the ones everywhere else?”
“You gave me no choice,” I said, and as I said it, I recognized that it wasn’t so.
He finished the last bite of his sandwich and lit a cigarette. “Really, it’s just a dog,” he said. “Right?”
I looked at him as steadily as I could, taking in both eyes at once, and tried to get past whatever it was that stood in the way of our understanding one another. “It’s my son, don’t you see? It’s everything to him. It’s his dog. I’m his father.”
He nodded and smiled at me. Again, he put me at ease. I could tell that I had finally aroused some sympathy in him, and at that moment I wanted nothing more than to sit down on the grass and talk. I wanted to forget about Ted, about Seth crying in his room. I wanted to sit there and talk peacefully. I wanted to ask him what it was like to hop trains. But at the end of any imagined conversation, I knew, I would have to leave with Ted, and I couldn’t relax until he agreed to untie that rope. So I stood there and regarded him coolly.
“I do see,” he said. “But it doesn’t change matters.”
“Why?” I said. “Why doesn’t it change matters?” I looked down at the ground and rubbed my forehead. Ted had started straining at the leash, whining and choking. “Does it matter to you,” I asked him, “that it obviously bothers the dog?” I looked at his strange kinky hair, his mottled skin, his bright tattoo. “Can’t you at least sympathize with the dog?”
“That’s the thing about dogs,” he said. “They adapt.” He stared into the woods.
I dug the end of Seth’s bat into the dirt. “So let me get this straight,” I said. “I called the police, so that means you have to come here to my house and taunt me. Right? As if it were the rule to some game?”
“No,” he said. “Rules, maybe. But no game.”
“OK, then, let’s talk about rules,” I said. I had to squint at him, because the sun had crept down just above the trees. “Rules imply a certain measure of fairness.” I pointed at him with the bat. “What you’re doing is unfair by any standard.”
“Why is that?”
“Why? Because it’s his dog!” I shouted. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “It’s his dog!” I blurted out again.
The man stroked Ted’s back absently. “Where are you from?” he asked. “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
I shook my head, as if to say, What kind of question is that? It was impossible to make any headway with him, with his talk of newspaper articles and hometowns.
“I just wondered,” he said.
“I’m from New Orleans,” I told him. “Though I don’t see the point in asking.”
“New Orleans,” he said. “Interesting town.”
He sat there nodding, and in spite of myself I started to wonder where he was from, what his life had been like, and along with this wondering came the memory of trains. I could see him hunched down in a rail yard, waiting secretly for the trains to move, or seated inside the empty shell of a boxcar, watching the earth rush by.
“You’ve been there?” I said.
“Been everywhere,” he said. “Done everything.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“We were talking about you.” A bumblebee zoomed by, made a haphazard about-face, buzzed over to him, and bumped against his chest. He watched it casually until it left him and sped toward me, angling toward my face. I ducked and swatted at it, and it flew into my yard and settled in the clover. When I turned to him, he regarded me with some amusement. “What did you come out here for?” he said. “Peace and quiet? Get away from it all?”
“More or less,” I told him. A trail of ants was going to work on the crust of his sandwich.
“Do you like it here?” he asked. “How are the neighbors?” He glanced around at the other houses dotting the fields, each surrounded by its own little fence.
“Fine, I suppose,” I said. “I’m not exactly on a first-name basis with any of them.” It occurred to me that making small talk with him wasn’t a bad idea, that it lessened the tension. But I was also becoming anxious that Hannah might arrive, and I knew she wouldn’t be in the mood for conversation.
“What do they call you, then?” he said.
I shrugged, turned the bat with my wrist. “Mr. Jordan.”
He smiled to himself about something. “They call you Mr. Jordan,” he said. He placed his hand on Ted’s back again. “You like them to call you that?”
I was looking at his hand, the way he moved it down Ted’s back so smoothly. “I guess so,” I said.
He paused and cocked his head to one side, then turned and stared off at the mountains, or maybe at the thin line of tracks at the far edge of the field. “You’re scared of nearly everything,” he said, and he nodded slowly.
The mention of fear brought on the feeling itself. I seemed to grasp the situation once again, the impossibility of leaving things as they were, the necessity of finding some solution before Hannah got home; the possibilities did frighten me. “Maybe.”
There was almost nothing in his eyes, of either color, except a kind of disinterested recognition. He did not “look right through me,” as the saying goes, but right at me, as if he held me in his unwavering gaze and did not find anything remarkable there.
“You asked about me,” he said, and his hand traced Ted’s spine, his fingers making long rows in the fur. “You probably know a lot already,” he said.
I didn’t, and I wondered what made him say so; perhaps he was simply being generous with me.
“I’m not a schoolteacher,” he continued. “I don’t have a house. I don’t have a son.” I saw him watching me from the corner of his dark eye, though his gaze appeared fixed on the mountains. “What you don’t know about me is that I’m not afraid of anything,” he said. “Especially people. Not anymore.” He looked at the cigarette in his left hand. It had ashed itself out while he talked, and he twisted it into the ground with two fingers. “And when you’re not afraid of people, I’ve found it’s best not to be around them.”
I had the impression that he wanted me to say something comforting, that he was seeking some response that would help to ease his mind, but before I could find the right words, he went on.
“So, you with the things you have, and me with the things I don’t,” he said, “we do the same thing, essentially: try to avoid people.” Ted had fallen asleep, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his belly moving in and out rapidly. “And yet here we are,” he said. “It’s not so hard to see how the two of us got to this place.”
I felt like sitting down. The sun and his talk were making me almost sleepy there in the Idaho heat, dry and thin and dissipating. The afternoon felt like a dream. “You’re obviously not trying very hard to avoid me,” I said.
“I like this place,” he said. “I like your house.” He stared up toward Seth’s bedroom. Maybe he’d seen movement behind the curtains there. “I like your boy.”
He reached over and rummaged in his backpack. His arm glistened with sweat, and it was then that I really noticed the tattoo: the cozy houses, the tracks snaking up behind them to the mountains. I could almost see Demetrius Herrera making his way down those tracks, coming closer and closer on his journey home. And I wished for his sake that he did have a house like mine, wished it with that same dull longing I’d always felt to hop a train. And out of this momentary kinship, this sense that our desires were somehow the same, I found myself moving, dreamlike, toward the fence. Almost before I knew it, I had unlooped the leash from the fence post. Ted simply sat and stared up at me, his tongue hanging to one side. This seemed perfectly natural; there didn’t seem to be any tension in the moment at all, and somehow I expected no resistance.
But when I looked back at the man, I saw that he held a knife — an ordinary steak knife with a serrated edge, but his fingers gripped the handle tight. For once, his eyes were easy to read: he was confused, as if he weren’t sure what had just happened. His other hand was still in the backpack, searching.
Later, when the police searched his backpack in front of me, the first item the officer found was a block of cheese, the serrated marks of the knife along one edge. I looked at it a long time, thinking of that other hand, the one that didn’t hold the knife, until I began to worry that the cop would start to ask questions. Finally, he put the block of cheese aside and went through the other things: a wadded-up pair of dirty jeans, a yellow T-shirt, clean and folded, a jar of peanut butter, a carton of cigarettes, a savings-account book from a bank in Oakland, a crude pencil sketch of a naked woman on the back of an envelope, a tattered copy of Leaves of Grass, inscribed on the inside cover “With Love, from Anastasia,” two Penthouse magazines, three golf balls, and a folded-up magazine photo of Willie Mays.
Demetrius Herrera held the knife in his right hand, and his left hand emerged from the backpack empty. Slowly he began to rise to his feet. I took a step back, let go of the leash, and raised the bat. Then he was standing, and our eyes met, and he smiled at what he saw in my face. He transferred the knife to his left hand and then back again, the blade waving slowly, threateningly, catching a white spot of sunlight.
It didn’t seem real to me. I couldn’t believe in the moment at all. Yet my thoughts raced ahead to what would come next — him holding the knife in front of him and coming forward, me planting my feet hard, strangling the bat handle and telling myself to keep my weight back till just the right split second, then letting my hands slide through, the way I’d taught Seth to swing. As I saw the picture, my feet did plant themselves, left foot ahead of the right. I held the bat in both hands. There was fear, yes, but also a tense excitement, as though I’d waited for this a long time.
His head hunched forward; his strange eyes looked directly into mine. I adjusted my feet, edged a little closer, raised the bat up into position to swing. We seemed stuck there in the sun, immobile as two figures in a photograph. I heard the grasshoppers whir, and I saw the tracks behind him, and the mountains, and the trees. And I could feel the house there behind me, as if I stood balanced between him and everything I’d made of my life. A little breeze cooled us for a second. Ted began to whine. Then I heard Seth on the balcony. “Dad?” he called out. Then, more urgently, “Daddy!”
Demetrius Herrera glanced up, then brought the knife in front of him and rushed toward me. I had to squint into the sun. I saw him in silhouette, the sunlight shining around him.
“I’m here!” I shouted to the sky. I swung my son’s bat with all my strength at the head of the figure before me.
it never rained that summer, or not that I can recall. The weeds beyond the fence where Demetrius Herrera fell turned a dull yellow. When the wind blew, the long grass bent with a sibilant rush that sounded like someone speaking. Dust rose from the road and the dry field in ever-growing plumes. The house groaned and creaked with the dryness and the heat, and the airborne dirt drifted in through open doors and windows and left a gritty film on the floors and the chairs and our skin.
It was some time before Seth and I resumed our walks, and we were always quiet climbing the fence and moving through the weeds. It stayed with us, the memory of that afternoon. We walked the tracks in the evening, when the day had cooled and the sun shone scarlet in the haze. We kept our heads down, moving slowly along the ties, and I tried to tell Seth that men sometimes did bad things, even good men, but I could never get the words to come out right, and we lapsed into silence, coughing from the dust in our throats. But Seth was a child, after all, and soon he stopped speaking about what had happened and proceeded with the business of growing older. He had his own dreams. Sometimes when he spoke of them, I looked at his sun blond hair and reached to touch it with my hand. And with a light, unconscious tilt of his head, he would move my hand away.