On Friday Emory Means drove his pickup out to the Seneca reservation in upstate New York to buy a couple of cartons of cigarettes and a tank of cheap gas and then drove back to the Bull’s Head Hotel, where he lived and worked. He was forty-three years old, and he worked evenings, from three to eleven, behind the desk at the hotel, which was just two blocks from the south shore of Lake Ontario. The hotel was run-down. Emory liked to say it had a little dirt under its fingernails and a few fillings in its teeth.
He ate a late lunch in the hotel’s taproom, a local dish called “Dutch lettuce,” which is cabbage sautéed with onions and bacon and served with buttered rye toast. Afterward he went up to his room to get a book to read during his shift. The elevator was broken, so Emory had to climb five flights, and when he got there, he was tired. He poked his head out the window and smoked one of his Seneca cigarettes. His fingers smelled like gasoline. He watched a cement ship from Canada troll through the river and the drawbridge go up to let it through. The neighborhood was quiet and slow. He considered the three books he was currently reading: a study of the Christological nature of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John, a novel by D.H. Lawrence called Sons and Lovers, and a history of the eastern American forests. He decided on the novel, then picked up a carton of cigarettes and went downstairs.
At three o’clock he started his shift behind the desk. Business at the hotel was slow. Most of the rooms were rented long term and paid for with disability and Social Security checks. There was little turnover. Emory unwrapped two packs of cigarettes and shook them into an empty fishbowl behind the front desk so he could sell them to the taproom drunks for twenty-five cents apiece. He looked at the newspaper and then read his novel. At 8:30 the sun went down, and Emory stepped out in front of the hotel to have a smoke. It was June and that time of evening when everything was peaceful and lovely and the ordinary sounds seem somehow more gentle and comforting — even the men arguing in front of the off-track betting parlor up the street and the distant rumble of a train carrying film-developing chemicals into Kodak Park. A sea gull called from the docks. Emory thought the sky looked tender, as if it might bruise if you touched it. He thought about Renee.
Emory was falling in love with a woman named Renee Kelly, who worked from three to eleven at Kodak, a shift they called “the B trick.” On Friday nights she came into the taproom for drinks after work, and they often sat and talked, but nothing had happened between them. Emory had been married once, when he was twenty-two, but it had lasted only a hundred days. By his accounting, he had been in love exactly four times, and each time it had been like falling off a roof: there was a surprise at first, and then he was gone. This time with Renee seemed different, though. He had fallen in love slowly. It had been months, with every Friday night bringing a little something more, something bigger, wider.
When he went off his shift at eleven, Emory slipped his novel into a drawer and put a plate over the fishbowl to keep the smokes fresh. He bought a bottle of Genesee beer and a whiskey from Dick the bartender and paid for both with quarters from his cigarette sales. At about 11:30 Renee came in with three other women who worked at the Kodak plant. They were all dressed up as if going to the prom. Renee was wearing a cocktail dress and high-heeled shoes but still had her ID badge around her neck. She was tall, and her face reminded Emory of the lake at night.
She sat down next to him at the bar and ordered a Scotch and soda.
“What’s with the dresses?” he asked.
“We’re celebrating. Cathy got a new job.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Emory said. “How was work?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. I sat in the dark and watched film spool for seven hours. Did I tell you about the old Ukrainian man who works with us? He gets so bored he howls. You can hear him down the hall in the dark.”
He wanted to tell her not to worry. He wanted to tell her that her face reminded him of the lake at night. He wanted to put her in his truck and drive her someplace clean and new — Vancouver, maybe, though he had never been there. Although he didn’t show it, Emory was sentimental and sometimes saw beauty and romance where there wasn’t any. For example, he thought it was beautiful the way a woman smoked a cigarette, even though it was probably killing her. And when he’d drunk too much as a young man and couldn’t see or hear properly and everything seemed to be underwater, he’d thought that was beautiful too. And in a way perhaps it was.
Sometimes Emory thought violence was beautiful. Once, he came out of the taproom around midnight and walked right into a fight between two men. There was two feet of snow on the ground, and more was falling. The winter waves of the lake lapped against the icy shore a couple of blocks north. One of the men bled heavily from his mouth into the snow, but the blood didn’t look red, and the snow didn’t look white. Instead they were both different shades of blue, lit by the neon light of the beer sign in the window, and it was all beautiful.
Emory drank several glasses of beer and bought another drink for Renee. He was not much of a flirt, but Renee was quite good at it. She could almost always find something interesting to say or do. One night she sang the alphabet song backward without missing a beat. Another night she went on about how much she liked the name “Emory.” Other nights she talked about her two teenage sons and her divorce. She liked Fleetwood Mac and read poetry. She told him she had once taken a poetry class and that her favorite poet was Ted Kooser.
But on this night she seemed tired of flirting. She sat and drank and talked about her job a little. “It’s the darkest dark you’ve ever seen,” she said. “In the hallways there are these soft green lights, but otherwise it’s just pitch-black. People make funny noises so you’ll know where they are.”
They talked about the weather, and Emory tried to tell her about the D.H. Lawrence novel. At one point Renee said something Emory couldn’t hear because the music was too loud.
“What did you say?” he asked.
She leaned in so close that her mouth was right in his ear. “I said, ‘I want to see your room.’ ”
They climbed the five flights but stopped on the third-floor landing so that Renee could slip off her heels. Her shoes were gold and sparkled and matched her handbag, and she carried them on the ends of two fingers.
“I like your shoes,” Emory said.
“Thanks,” she said, holding them up in the bleached glow of the fluorescent light. “I painted them myself.”
As Emory let them into his little studio apartment, he said a prayer. Please, please, he prayed. It was one of his favorite prayers. Another one was Love, love. And sometimes Jesus, Jesus.
He turned on a small lamp next to his bed and told Renee she could look anywhere she wanted; he wouldn’t say a word or try to stop her.
She smiled and seemed to think about this for a moment while Emory sat on the floor by the door. Renee put her heels back on and walked in a circle, then went into the bathroom. She looked in the medicine cabinet. She looked in the shower. She came out and walked across the room and looked at the little desk in the corner. She read the letter that Emory was writing to his brother and laughed at something he’d written.
Emory watched her bottom as she moved. He watched her feet and her high-heeled shoes and the way the heels made her bottom sway beneath her dress.
Renee didn’t look in his closet, but she did look under his bed. Emory closed his eyes and took a deep breath and tried to think what was under there.
Under the bed Renee found a stack of books Emory had borrowed from the library downtown, most of them overdue. There was one on the plight of the Seneca Indians during the Revolutionary War, and there was a book on local natural history and a giant guide to native trees and flowers and one of Peterson’s bird books. He had been trying to memorize the flight patterns and calls of the native birds and those that traveled south from Canada in the fall and would rest along the beach in Bull’s Head after crossing the lake. So far he knew the thrush and the wren and the sharp-shinned hawk. He knew the cedar waxwing and the golden finch. The gray jay and the mockingbird. The whippoorwill.
“I didn’t know you liked birds,” Renee said.
Emory nodded. “I can do some calls,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I can do some birdcalls. I’ve been practicing.” He made the call of the whippoorwill, since it was the easiest. “Whip-poor-wheel,” he whistled. “Whip-poor-wheel.”
Renee laughed out loud.
“Purple-rib,” he sang. “Purple-rib.”
Renee laughed again. The lipstick had marked one of her front teeth a pale pink. Emory liked the way she laughed. It was real. Much more so than his own laugh.
“They only make their call at night,” he said. “In the night woods. It’s a rolling call. Endless.”
“It’s really pretty,” she said, and this made Emory happy — that she had laughed at first, but that she also thought it was pretty.
“The real call actually sounds very sad,” he said.
“Why are you sitting all the way over there?” Renee said. “Why don’t you come over here and sit with me.”
Emory shrugged his shoulders and didn’t get up.
“What’s this?” she asked, and slowly she pulled out a black rifle case from under the bed.
“It’s a rifle,” Emory said. “A .30-30.”
“Why do you have it under here?”
“I don’t know. It’s mine.”
“Do you ever use it?”
“No,” Emory said.
Renee slowly unzipped the case, pulled out the Winchester, and held the gun in her hands. It seemed to suit her in a way: light and sleek with a dark-grained chestnut stock. Emory frowned at it. It needed to be cleaned. He hadn’t taken it out of the case in a long time.
“My father shot me with that gun,” he said.
Renee was quiet.
“Twice,” he said.
“That’s not true,” Renee said. As she examined the gun, her hair kept falling into her eyes, so she tied it into a knot on top of her head.
“Yes, it is,” he said. “That’s why I walk with a limp.”
“Why did he do that?”
“It was an accident,” Emory said. “Both times. Do you want to hear the story?”
Emory had written this story down once in his journal, but he had never actually told it to anyone before. He cleared his throat and began:
His father had been a grape farmer in Jerusalem, New York, which is in the hills above the Finger Lakes. There’s no real town there, just a long hillside with several grape farms on it. If you’d wanted to send Emory’s father a letter, you could have just written, “Means, Jerusalem, NY,” on an envelope, and it would have gotten there.
His father sold his grapes to Welch’s in the fall, and then the family had to live off that check all year. They would raise a cow and a few pigs, too. They called them “heifers” and “porkers.” They froze their summer vegetables. In November they shot deer and dressed them and froze the meat.
The first time Emory got shot, he was eighteen and walking slowly through one of the hedgerows, trying to flush a buck out of the brush and over the ridge, where his father was waiting. But the buck ran in the wrong direction, away from his father. Emory came up over the ridge instead. He had on a blaze-orange jacket and a red hat with earflaps, but his father shot him anyway. He got him right in the thigh.
“What did it feel like?” Renee asked.
“It felt hot,” Emory said. “Like if you’ve ever gotten burned with the cherry of a cigarette, only deeper and sharper and more intense. Like somebody had hit me with a hot little hatchet.”
The second time had been when Emory was twenty. He’d climbed a tree stand that he and his father had built in an old locust grove. Locust trees are hard, and the wood doesn’t rot. Grape farmers often plant them because the young trees can be cut and used as stakes in the vineyard. Emory stood on a branch and rested his hands on a railing that was nailed up a little higher. His father asked him if he could see a buck.
“I can see a whole herd,” he said. “They’re in the hayfield.”
There were probably fifteen deer. One of them was what people call a “dandy buck,” and Emory’s father had been after it for weeks. The dandy buck was tall and proud. The does’ coats were dark brown, and they looked nervous. Emory liked to watch cows graze — it was peaceful and quiet, the heavy slips of the jaw working against the grass — but watching deer browse made him uneasy.
The sound of distant rifle shots came up from the valley. Somebody was either drunk or a terrible shot, because that gun went off seven or eight times. The deer in the hayfield pricked up their ears. Beyond the field the sun was starting to go down. It was getting too late in the day to kill the buck. By the time you cut it and bled it and dressed it and hauled it out of the field and up to the barn, you wouldn’t be able to see what you were doing. There were bands of light in the hills to the east: a pale gray, then a rose color, like blood mixed with water. And there was a deep violet. Emory stood up in the tree and thought about how night came on slow and steady, the way everything fades to a soft glow after your third or fourth drink.
That’s when his father’s gun went off and shot him right in the ass.
“He said later that he was trying to climb up the tree behind me, and the gun just went off,” Emory said. “That second time he was so close that the shot broke my hip. I blacked out, only it was more like everything went bright white, and my whole body seemed to sparkle, but there was also this heavy nausea. I was bleeding a lot, so they airlifted me to Rochester. I was going in and out of consciousness. I can remember looking out the window and watching the dusk sky turn to night and thinking maybe I was dying. I was in the hospital for a long time, and when I got out, I never went back to Jerusalem. My cousin got me a job up here in Rochester cleaning floors at night at Kodak.” Emory paused. “I worked in Building Twelve. Do you know which one that is?”
“But I got laid off a few years ago.” He cleared his throat. “My father’s dead now,” he said.
Renee’s eyes were glassy. Emory couldn’t tell if she was touched by his story or just tired. He believed that any kind of close relationship was basically a series of complicated trade-offs: parts of your life, of your self, for someone else’s. He felt that his father had taken some of the best parts of him and offered the worst of his own self in return. So Emory was leery of giving too much. With Renee, however, he wanted to give all of himself. He wasn’t sure what he wanted in return. Maybe nothing.
“Let me see your scar,” Renee said.
“Which one?” Emory asked.
He sat there for a long time and thought about whether to take off his pants. Renee didn’t seem to mind how long he took to think about it. She sat patiently in her cocktail dress and watched him, her eyes as big and black as the night. Finally Emory slipped off his boots and stood up with a sigh. He remembered what the Peterson’s guide called the whippoorwill: “A voice in the night.”
He took off his belt and wrapped it in a tight coil and set it on the table next to the bed. He peeled his jeans down over his thighs and then stepped out of each leg. He didn’t wear underwear.
Renee leaned back and rested her head on the bed and looked up at him. She touched his bare leg. Her hand was warm and dry, like a stone put near a fire. Emory could hear the sycamore trees moving out in the street below. He remembered a sycamore with the moon behind it in the D.H. Lawrence book.
“They say that sometimes birds sing to attract a mate,” he told Renee, “but often they sing just because they love it. They love the way it sounds and the way it makes them feel. It delights them.”
“Take the rest of your clothes off,” said Renee. “Please.”
The scar on Emory’s thigh was the size of his thumb. The skin looked tender.
Renee kissed him there. She put her lips right over where the bullet had gone in and pressed her tongue against the scar, kissing him long and deep. Her mouth was warm, and Emory closed his eyes and decided that this kiss was the most important thing that had ever happened to him. More important than getting shot in the first place.
Afterward Renee wouldn’t stay the night, so Emory called her a taxi and walked her down to the hotel lobby and out onto River Street, where the air was thick with a chalky fog that smelled like the river. It was late, and Emory felt as if his body were charged with static. He could smell the night and the sand and the lake and the sycamores, and he felt all these scents settle inside him, wet and dark. He shuddered. He wanted to go to bed, and he wanted to stay up all night. He wanted it to rain so he could swim in the lake in the rain. He wanted to swim from the river to the lake and out into the Saint Lawrence Seaway and then into the ocean. Renee told him she would call him on Sunday, and she kissed him on the cheek before she got into the taxi. She touched her warm, dry hand to his throat.
Back in his room Emory took off his boots and clothes and got into bed and thought about Renee for a long time. Then he promised himself he wouldn’t think about her anymore. He was afraid that if he thought about her too much, it might ruin everything. He flipped through his Bible. He flipped through the Gospels, and then the old stories in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. He flipped through Psalms and Kings. He liked it in Judges when an angel says to a man, “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful for you to understand.” Emory read the line over and over in his head and then read it out loud once and smiled.