Randy Colburn shifts his case of beer from one hand to the other and tries not to pay attention to the children. The world is full of children. It must have always been this way, but he’s noticed it more lately. All he wants is his twelve-pack of Natural Ice and he ends up in line at the gas station behind a family of four.
“You heard your mama at the house, you ain’t gettin’ no cake,” the father says to a little redheaded girl who’s pointing at a rack of Hostess snacks.
Randy focuses on how good his Natty Ice will taste, how he’ll open one up in the truck and drive slow, enjoying it, the warm July night-wind coming in the window. He wonders whether he ought to buy a pack of Pall Malls. He’s not sure he wants cigarettes but he’s pretty positive he deserves them, and he’s thinking this conundrum over and stepping up to the counter when he smacks into something. He looks down to see the little redhead sprawled at his feet, crying. Her brother is a few steps behind her, looking from his sister to Randy and back again. Their father is in the doorway.
“Get up,” the father hollers, and then flicks his eyes up to Randy. “She never fucking looks where she’s going. Shawna, get over here.”
The girl is shrieking. Randy bends down toward her and she vaults away from him, looking back over her shoulder and fixing him with a sharp, hateful stare. Randy feels his heart fumble. He sets his beer on the counter and grabs two packs of Sno Ball cakes. “Hey,” he calls to the brother, who is the only one left in the store. “Give one of these to your sister, okay?” The boy takes the cakes and nods.
Randy is sliding his wallet into his pocket when the father comes back into the store with one Sno Ball in each hand, arms raised.
“What the fuck?” He juts his chin out and squeezes both packages until the plastic pops and pink coconut squishes between his fingers.
Randy picks up his beer. “I just thought after you bought cigarettes and beer and lotteries for yourself maybe your kids deserved a tiny little something too.”
The man drops the cakes into the trash and wipes his hands on the side of the bin, looking at Randy the whole time with crazy eyes. “You think I don’t know what’s right for my family?” He lunges toward Randy and rolls up onto his toes.
“Come on, let’s take this outside,” Randy says quietly.
They make it just outside the door of the quick stop. Randy hasn’t even finished setting his beer down when the man starts swinging at him. He ducks. This angers the man, and he tries to focus, but Randy dodges again and the man’s hand slams into the brick wall. Randy watches the pain travel up to the man’s face. His mouth gapes a little and his arm sags at his side. Randy twists the man’s other arm behind his back and looks around for his vehicle. On the far side of the gas pumps he spots a rusted Mazda with two little-kid faces in the window.
“Hey, man, let go of me,” the father protests.
Randy marches him to the Mazda, opens the driver side door and pushes him inside. The brother and sister are all big eyes and sad mouths in the back of the car. Randy turns away and sees that the cashier has come out to smoke and watch the scuffle. He nods as he walks past the pumps. She grins at him and he feels like a superhero all the way across the parking lot, but once he’s inside his truck he goes to set his beer in the back where the cops won’t spot it and there are two empty car seats staring up at him. He sets the beer in his son Caleb’s seat. It makes him feel achy and dirty inside. He’d planned on taking the beer back to the camper and having a few and then passing out, but now that stupid clown messed up his flow and he’s got a jittery adrenaline feeling on top of his normal exhaustion and he’s afraid he won’t be able to sleep.
They were building a house up on Flat Mountain, their very own dream home, with colored glass windows that Randy had salvaged from a tumbledown church.
He appreciates Donnie letting him stay in the camper back behind his house but there’s no electricity hooked to it so he can’t watch T. V. The camper smells like mouse piss and all there is inside is a sleeping bag and a Coleman stove for boiling coffee and hotdogs. At night while Randy is trying to sleep—trying to block out images of the derelicts he interviews each day on his new job at the disability office, trying to block out images of his wife Carlene screaming at him, and Audrey and Caleb, their little faces framed in the living room window as he drove away—sounds from Donnie’s house filter into the camper, Donnie’s wife singing hush-a-bye to Donnie’s daughters, and more often than not Randy cries himself to sleep, sobbing and stuffing the corner of the sleeping bag into his mouth.
Tonight he’ll wait to go back to the camper until he can be sure that Donnie and his family are all asleep. He’ll wait until he is good and tired and a little drunk and then he’ll be able to fall blindly into dreams. For now he’ll park by the railroad tracks and drink. He opens his first Natty as he drives across town. It’s not as cold as he’d imagined but he sucks it down anyway and maneuvers his truck over the tracks and up under a willow tree. The branches brush the windshield and moonlight filters through the wispy leaves. Randy opens another can and rolls the window down. He can hear the river on the far side of the tracks and the night insects calling.
It was right along here somewhere that Blue died, seven years ago. Blue was one of the first things he lost on account of Carlene. If you asked her, though, she’d probably tell you that she’d lost more because of him than he had because of her. The reason he’s here right now, alone in his truck with a car seat full of beer, is all because she couldn’t stand what she claimed he’d taken from her. Those stupid fucking plants. He never should have said yes to those plants in the first place.
But then Blue might be here in this misery with him if Carlene hadn’t made him give the dog away. That was back when they first moved in together and all Randy could think of day and night was Carlene’s perky tits. She didn’t like Blue, though, said she didn’t understand why Randy kept him chained up all the time. She didn’t like the idea of a hunting dog. Randy tried to explain how you couldn’t let a coon dog, especially an expensive-ass coon dog you’ve trained yourself from a pup, run loose. But Carlene said it made her feel sad to see him chained in the yard all day, and she’d begged Randy to give him to a friend of hers who had some sort of dog-rescue program. The woman had let Blue run loose, and he was dead within a week, run down by a freight train while trying to cross these tracks.
If it weren’t for that, Blue might still be alive today, he’d be real old now but he’d be here, riding around with Randy. But maybe it was a stretch for Randy to trace his troubles all the way back to Blue. Truth was he’d been sad when Blue died, but he’d been okay with it too, it had felt like a trade almost, Blue for Carlene, and he’d been very happy with Carlene. She was pregnant then and they were building a house up on Flat Mountain, their very own dream home, with a spiral staircase in the center and colored glass windows that Randy had salvaged from a tumbledown church. The trouble had really started years later, with the recession and that stupid hippie man.
When the recession hit Randy had been working two jobs, part time as a guide over at Organ Cave, and part time as a carpenter on John Betheun’s crew. He’d always loved the cave job. That’s how he’d met Carlene. She’d come on one of his tours and they’d got to talking afterwards and she had invited him to one of her modern-dance performances over in Lewisville. But the cave-guide job was seasonal and never paid enough, so once Carlene got pregnant with Caleb, Randy started doing carpentry too. He’d worked for Betheun for almost seven years when the recession hit and Betheun went bankrupt and refused to cough up the back pay he owed. Randy and Carlene were desperate. At night Randy lay awake and he could feel himself falling, the weight of their situation filling his body until he tore down through the dark hours, the fear like a giant mouth ready to swallow him. He could not move and he could not breathe and the mortgage was still due.
What paralyzed him the most was all that he and Carlene had never talked about. He’d never met her folks. He knew she came from Boston—from a family she called heartless and antiseptic—but she’d never shared much more than that. And would they help? The question wedged itself in Randy’s throat and would not budge. His own parents lived on half an acre on the other side of Render, but their two-bedroom trailer could not fit Randy’s whole family.
For a while Carlene got a little gig modeling for some fine-arts group in Lewisville, and Randy was happy for the extra cash until she brought home one of the drawings. This was back in April. Randy had walked into the house after a long day at the cave and she’d held up a piece of paper for him to see. At first he’d expected it to be a drawing that Caleb or Audrey had done, but the lines were finer and as he focused he could make out a very familiar profile. He blinked and looked again and his heart socked up between his lungs. Those breasts, those hips. He’d had no idea she was modeling naked.
He may or may not have screamed words like whore and pornography. He may or may not have torn the drawing up. Carlene had most definitely laughed at him, slapped him across the face and told him he didn’t own her body. He’d slept on the couch that night. The hippie man had shown up later that week.
Through the drooping willow branches Randy sees a pair of headlights, and at first he thinks it’s a train coming, but then the headlights switch off and a single light progresses toward him. He has just enough time to set his beer down between his feet before Sergeant Snedeger’s face appears in the window. There are five empty cans from the night before in the passenger floorboard, but Randy hopes Snedeger can’t see them.
“Randy?” Snedeger says. He’s got his flashlight angled so it hits Randy’s face and almost blinds him.
“Evenin’,” Randy says. He knows his breath is beery so he keeps his mouth away from the open window.
“I heard your old lady’s got you in the dog house.”
Randy bristles at the phrase “old lady.” He knows Carlene hates to be referred to like that, but then why is he even wasting his time thinking about what Carlene likes or hates?
“Worse than that,” he says. “I tried sleeping in my own toolshed and she wouldn’t let me. Won’t allow me on the property.”
“Woooo-boy!” Snedeger slaps his leg. “What’d you do to deserve that?”
Randy muffles a laugh. He can’t believe he’s sitting here talking to a cop about this. He wishes he could record this conversation and play it for Carlene, prove to her what he’s told her time and again, that this town is too damn small to pull a fast one, everybody knows everybody else’s business.
“For real, man, what’d you do? Fuck her sister?”
Randy looks at Snedeger’s sharp little ferret face. The man looks the same as he did in high school, and acts mostly the same too. A part of him wants to say, You know what happened? My wife wanted to do something real illegal but I put a stop to it and now she’s pissed. A part of him actually wants Snedeger to go snooping up around their house—all the evidence is gone now, and it might do Carlene some good to see that he was right. She might take him back if she could see just how wrong she’d been all along.
He can’t do it, though, so he says, “No, man, I just pissed her off, you know how it goes.”
“All this and you didn’t even get to fuck her sister?”
Randy’s starting to get tired of Snedeger talking about fucking Carlene’s sister, though Carlene doesn’t even have a sister as far as Randy knows.
Snedeger must see the annoyance on Randy’s face. He changes his mood. “Well, you can’t sleep out here,” he says. “In fact you can’t even park out here. It’s called loitering.”
Randy knows that isn’t entirely true, but he’d rather not argue. He nods and turns the ignition on. “ ’Night,” he says and watches in the rearview until Snedeger pulls the cruiser out so he can back his truck up and turn it around.
At first he’s driving just to show Snedeger that he’s listening to him but then Snedeger turns off on Front Street and Randy’s still driving, sipping his beer now and continuing on down River Road then turning right onto Route 63 toward Organ Cave. It seems like good a place as any to go right now—he can’t bring himself to head to the mouse-piss trailer yet, and even he knows better than to listen to the little voice in his ear that’s whispering at him to drive up to his own house and make sure Carlene doesn’t have company. No, Organ Cave’s as good a place as any. He misses the cave. Carlene’s the reason he lost his job there too, or else it’s the hippie man’s fault, whichever way you want to look at it.
The hippie man came to town in mid-April and started talking to folks about growing mary jane. Carlene’s friend, the same one who got Blue killed, sent the hippie man to talk to Carlene. He said that all Carlene and Randy had to do was cultivate the plants he gave them, grow them up in a little clearing in their forest until they had nice juicy buds, and then the hippie man would come back and harvest and share his profits. A minimum of five thousand dollars, he said, minimum.
Randy was suspicious but Carlene said it was perfect. This way Randy could keep working at Organ Cave and she could keep teaching her little kids’ dance class twice a week, but neither of them would have to work soul-sucking jobs, and they could use their spare time to garden and play with the kids. Randy had pointed out that if they were caught they’d go to prison and the kids would end up in foster homes, but Carlene had scoffed at him. They weren’t gonna be growing that much, she said.
They planted the little starts at the end of April, the hippie man showing them how to space and water them. Randy watched Carlene watch the hippie man. Both the hair on his head and his beard were dreaded into thick knots that looked like the turds a coyote shits out after eating a rabbit. He said he’d be back in October to harvest, and then he left and Carlene started tending the plants and Randy started worrying. He could feel the worry like a small rodent burrowing into the back of his skull, gnawing its way in while he tried to sleep, tried to work. He’d worry all day, his stomach heavy with a dull ache, then drive too fast all the way home, only to find the house empty. His heart would start slamming as he pictured Carlene behind bars and Audrey and Caleb in an office with some smug DHHR woman. He’d run out the back door and up the hill through the woods until he saw them, there in the patch of jewel-bright marijuana: Carlene with her sandy hair falling down across her tan shoulders as she tipped the watering can and tow-headed Caleb and curly-haired Audrey just a few steps behind her.
They fought constantly about Carlene bringing the kids up to the patch. She said that just because the federal government called it illegal didn’t mean that she needed to teach her own kids that is was evil. But Randy thought of Caleb and Audrey’s big curious blue eyes—they were less than a year apart and so close in size that most people mistook them for twins—and he thought of all the ways they could accidentally implicate Carlene and Randy: while visiting with Randy’s own parents, or playing with other kids at the river park.
The worry kept chewing at Randy, and he started drinking more to soften it, started drinking a little during the day, on the job even. He took to carrying a flask of vodka. But hell, he knew that cave like he knew his own land. It wasn’t like he was gonna get lost. And when something finally did happen it wasn’t even that bad. He never would have gotten fired if Mrs. Bennett hadn’t already been all stressed out about those organ robbers.
The cows look up and chew and watch him moving beer-dreamy toward the vaulted dome of the whitewashed bathhouse.
The last stop on the cave tour, the grand finale of the whole shebang, was the organ. A glittering white eighteen-foot-long stalactite with a series of hollow conical tubes. It was in front of this very formation that Randy and Carlene had been married six years ago. Randy loved to tell people on the tours he gave how he and Carlene had worn coveralls and rubber boots to the back of the cave and then stripped them off and stood, both dressed all in white, next to the shimmering organ. The preacher had played “Here Comes the Bride” by hitting various parts of the organ with a stick and then they’d said their vows.
Weddings were Randy’s favorite cave events. People came from all over the U. S., and even Canada once, to have their ceremonies there. Randy loved leading them back through the cool dark to the glimmering frozen waterfall of the organ formation. But a year after Randy’s own wedding, the first complaint came. A couple from San Diego were visiting the cave before their ceremony. The man turned to Randy with angry eyes. False advertising, he said, the organ didn’t look like the photos on the website. It looked like a decaying tooth, he said, and pointed out where it had darkened at the top, streaks of red-brown marring the shimmer, there where it met the roof. Randy was shocked. It felt like having some stranger point out that your own toe was falling off, he thought he’d known the organ that well. He called in Mrs. Bennett, who owned the cave and gift shop and campground. He told her they ought to get someone in there to take a look at it and see what was going wrong, but Mrs. Bennett downplayed it. Wedding were the most profitable cave events, and without the organ there would be no more weddings.
The moon makes a watery light across the road and fields and Randy slows the truck, opens a fresh can of beer. He knows he can’t actually go to Organ Cave, what with all the security equipment they’ve got set up there—and the fact that when Mrs. Bennett fired him she told him never to set foot on the property again—but still, he likes driving out this way. The valley is beautiful and wide here. Off to the left a huddle of Holsteins graze, the moonlight making their splotched hides glow. It’s always struck Randy as funny to think about cows grazing at night, but of course that’s the beauty of them, they’re too simple to think about when’s the right time for something.
Up ahead the shadowy ruins of the old sulphur springs bathhouse appear, Greek columns and corniced roof, looking just about as out of place as an alien spaceship. Randy parks the truck and stuffs an unopened beer in his back pocket. He gets out, steps over the ditch and bends the barbed wire out of his way. The thick grass hush-shushes around him and a warm river-tinged wind scuttles little fluffs of cloud across the sky. The cows look up and chew and watch him moving beer-dreamy toward the vaulted dome of the whitewashed bathhouse.
Deep underneath him the channels of Organ Cave spread, honeycombed limestone dripping into mineral formations. Randy remembers learning the ways of the cave. He never knew the world was so big until he went down inside there and started thinking how the surface of the earth was only the beginning.
After the San Diego couple had complained, Mrs. Bennett told Randy to build a wooden box to encase the top of the organ. He painted it white and at first no one noticed. They had seven weddings the next year and the preacher doubled his repertoire by learning to play “Amazing Grace.” But after the wedding parties left, Randy would pull the wood aside and stare at the decay, veining down in spidery seams. It made him shiver. He felt the chill of it on him long after he left the cave and climbed back out into the daylight. He did not tell Carlene about it. He felt that somehow it would darken their own wedding day.
Carlene had been so happy that day; her face, her eyes, her whole body giving off a glow like candlelight back there in the dark of the cave. That glow, it was something Randy had never seen anyone else’s body do before he met her. When he first saw her, on the cave tour, he’d thought she was cute and funny, but it wasn’t until he watched her dance that he fell in love. She’d invited him and he’d driven into Lewisville and gone up to the dance studio above the bakery in that old brick building, wondering the whole time what in the hell he was doing. These were just the sort of people he hated spending time around, the hippie-dippy holier-than-thou vegetarian types who were all the time going around like they held the secret to eternal life. But there had been something special about Carlene, so Randy balled his fists up and went into the dance studio and slid along the wall with his head down until he could find a spot in the far back. Then the music started, something with violin and piano, and there she was, moving in a way that was so full of joy but had nothing to do with anything so simple as a smile. She seemed each moment to be surprised and delighted by her own body, the way a child might be. And when you were around Carlene and she was in a mood like that, it rubbed off. It seemed to Randy that everything, even his own very ordinary days, carried with them that burnished gold glow once he’d met her. It wasn’t like he’d never had delight in his life before, but he’d never lived as if he deserved it, as if that was the way life ought to feel.
Now that she is gone, though, his days have not returned to their simple pre-Carlene neutrality, but have been dashed down into something far darker. What hurts Randy worse than thinking about never seeing the inside of Organ Cave again is the thought of the robbers who are slowly trucking the organ itself away, piece by piece.
It began soon after the last wedding, when the brown decay had leached down so much that they could no longer hide it. Mrs. Bennett had finally called in some scientists, who said the organ was dying. It had been altered through the alchemy of human contact—so many wondering tourists wanting to put their hands on it—and was no longer a living stalactite. No one was allowed to touch it anymore. The formation had seemed to stabilize, until about three months later, when pieces of it started to disappear, big chunks from the bottom of the organ, the part that rested on the cavern floor and held the great tubular channels in place. The entrance to the cave was outfitted with motion detectors, floodlights, and cameras, but the robbing continued. Mrs. Bennett figured it must be locals who knew the various hidden side-channel routes into the main cavern. They were selling pieces of the organ to collectors on the black market, she said, and she put out a two-thousand-dollar cash reward for any information about them.
This was all happening about the same time that Carlene was heavy into tending her weed and Randy’s drinking had spiked. One afternoon he led a group of family-reunion attendees back toward the organ. One of the kids must have pulled the bear gate closed, because when they turned around to walk out, it was locked. It was a big metal gate put in place to keep hibernating bears from wandering too far back into the cave, and it was never used during the summer season, but, just in case, each guide was given a key to carry on the tour. That key was their safety net—cell phones wouldn’t work underground, so once you went in you were on your own. Only problem was, Randy couldn’t find his. No big deal, he told the family reunion folks, another guide would most certainly be down within the hour. Randy even tried to keep spirits up by telling jokes (“You know where the word spelunking comes from? It’s the sound you hear when you drop your one and only flashlight into a deep pool of water: spe-lunk!”) but when the family realized that they were trapped underground, with no way to communicate with anyone up above, they kind of rioted. One middle-aged woman had a full-blown panic attack, her face blanching white, then slick red, and her breath coming in and out in little sips. Randy tried to offer her a drink from his flask to calm her down, but she wouldn’t take him up on it, and when the group made it out, forty-five minutes later, they headed straight to the main office. By the time Randy got there he no longer had a job.
Carlene wasn’t nearly as angry as Randy had expected her to be. “Thank God we’ve got the weed,” she said, and then Randy tried to explain how it was the weed and all his worrying about it that had got them into this situation in the first place, but she wasn’t really listening. Randy lay in bed all that night, nauseous and sweaty, and at the first light of dawn he got up and headed out back. When Carlene came into the clearing, humming a tune and carrying a watering can in each hand, he was pulling up the last two plants. She stopped at the edge of the field and then she opened her mouth. The sound that came out still reverberates inside Randy: a wounded-animal scream, as if an arrow had gashed and torn her deep.
It is in these fields here that the robbers enter the cave, through some little crevice whose exact location has been passed down through family stories. Randy cracks a fresh can of beer and stares out across the pasture. Mrs. Bennett told him once how Union soldiers wrote in their journals about Confederate men who disappeared in broad daylight as they pursued them down this valley. Ghost soldiers, they called them. Randy used to talk about them on his tours. The Union knew nothing of the cave until late in the war, even though it was right under the sulphur springs bathhouse they had seized from the Confederate aristocracy.
Randy looks up at the bathhouse: the arched plaster, bright white against the dark sky, and the field beyond, lush with grass turned blue by the moon. He feels the alcohol inside him and if it is not true joy he is experiencing in this moment, then at least it is something very close to it. He thinks of all the rich Confederates who came here back before the war, traveling from spa to spa, trying out the different sulphur springs and enjoying the local scenery. They’d taken tours of Organ Cave by torchlight. General Robert E. Lee had found his famous horse Traveller while on a health excursion in this valley. Now the pipes to the bathhouses were mostly rusted out.
Randy sucks down the last of his can and throws it aside. He spreads his arms out and then curtsies the way he imagines those old-fashioned belles did. He walks closer to the bathhouse and curtsies again. He curtsies to the cows. He curtsies to the moon. He picks up his petticoats and flounces up the steps and under the arch of the bathhouse. He hears music swell, violin and piano, a little like something Carlene might dance to. Why, thank you! He grasps an imaginary hand. Don’t mind if I do. He curtsies again and spins and he is laughing. Thank you! Thank you! His body is light and beautiful and he is being passed from hand to hand around the circle, the faces of the other dancers all smiling at him. He leaps and lands and there is a cracking sound. Something jolts. His legs buckle and then he is falling.
His ass hits first. A shock travels up his spine and then his head smacks against stone. It is very dark and very quiet. Randy’s right leg throbs, pulsing with its own separate heartbeat. High above him the bathhouse roof is visible in a circle of paler dark.
“Fuck,” he says but the pain’s got a pretty good grip on his throat, and not much sound comes out.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Randy lifts his arms. They both seem okay, just a little scraped, but his right leg is twisted underneath him and that is the epicenter of the pain. He takes a deep breath and pats his hands along his leg. It is too dark to see but he prays he won’t feel anything like bone. And he doesn’t, it seems, but the pain has not changed and his hands are wet now, with blood? or water? or mud?
“Heyyyy, help!” he screams.
He pictures the cows lifting their heads, chewing thoughtfully and then dropping them again. Fuck. Someone will eventually see his truck and start to wonder, but out here it could sit for days before anybody bothers to investigate, and even then, will they look down inside the old bathhouse? Why would they ever think he’d be down in here? Why is he down in here?
“AAAAHH!” Randy screams, but the effort it takes to scream makes the pain in his leg worse. How many days, he wonders, can a person survive with a mangled leg and no food and no water?
He pictures Carlene’s face and he pictures the light going out of her eyes when she hears what happened to him. That image makes the pain lessen a little, but then he sees something else. He pictures the hippie man coming back for his plants and he pictures the hippie man and Carlene out there in the clearing where the plants had once grown. Carlene is yelling about her stupid husband who ripped up all the plants and then the hippie man is taking Carlene’s clothes off and she’s down on all fours and he’s giving it to her good, his little coyote-shit beard-dreads quivering with each thrust.
Last time he saw her, in the McDonald’s parking lot where they met up to chat about the kids, he’d felt sure she was waiting for him to do something, anything, to keep her there.
“NOOOOOO!” Randy bellows, and his anger is so strong he grips and drags his body a few feet up toward the top of the hole. Then, just as suddenly, his strength is gone. He crumples back to the floor. The pain in his leg is fresh and thick. He tries humming a little to distract himself, and then he tries breathing the way that Carlene always talks about, focusing on long deep breaths. In and out and in and out. He thinks of their land up on Flat Mountain and that first vegetable garden the two of them planted, back when she was pregnant and happy. That evening, after they’d got the seeds in, a rain came. Carlene pulled him out onto the porch to watch the wall of water marching toward them across the blue valley, and the scent of the freshly wet earth rose up around them, and it smelled to Randy almost as good as that smell that lingers after great sex.
Last time he saw her, in the McDonald’s parking lot where they met up to chat about the kids, he’d felt sure she was waiting for him to do something, anything, to keep her there. They stood side by side, leaned against her van, watching the cars in the drive-through, and Randy could feel her drifting farther from him and it reminded him of how he nearly lost her during Caleb’s birth.
They’d fought all throughout the pregnancy about the home-birth idea. Carlene didn’t want to consider any other options; she wanted a midwife, she wanted to labor there in her own bedroom. Randy was terrified. He wanted her in a hospital with every possible life-saving device right on hand. Carlene pointed out that Randy’s own mother had given birth to him at home, and Randy pointed out that it had been out of pure necessity. His parents couldn’t afford the hospital bill. If they could have, Randy said, he was sure they would have chosen the ease and peace of mind of modern medicine. Carlene said she doubted that. They went back and forth like this for nine months. Progress, Randy said. Tradition, Carlene retorted. Safety, Randy said. Autonomy, Carlene retorted. And then the night arrived.
It was January and so cold that Randy couldn’t keep the wood stove stocked enough to fight the chill out of the house. Carlene’s water broke around supper time and she called the midwife—a frizzy-haired, bespectacled woman Randy referred to (in his own mind only) as the Witch. Hours passed. Carlene paced from the bedroom to the living room to the bedroom. Randy wanted to call the Witch again but Carlene said no, she was on her way, and so Randy hauled in extra firewood. More hours passed and the Witch still had not arrived. Randy called and the phone rang and rang and rang. “We’re going to the hospital,” Randy said. “No, I’m fine,” Carlene told him, but her face was pinched with pain. Randy went for more firewood, and when he came back in, Carlene’s shoulders were shaking and her legs were striped with blood. “We’re going to the hospital now,” Randy shouted, but as he was warming up the car, the Witch arrived. She made stupid excuses about bad roads, but Carlene looked at her like she was the mother of God descended straight from Heaven. Randy could not hide his anger and maybe, just maybe, he called her a witch to her face; anyhow, Carlene said she didn’t want his negative vibes in the birth room.
He paced and he poked at the fire and he thought of how his brother, Markus, had told him that he shouldn’t marry someone so different from himself. “But we’re not so different,” he’d said to Markus, and he repeated that to himself now as Carlene hummed and moaned and finally cried out for him. When he came into the bedroom the baby’s head was already out.
“It’s coming fast,” the Witch said, “now, just—” but she didn’t finish her sentence. She was moving about frantically. Randy rushed to Carlene to grab her hand, wipe her sweaty face, but the Witch called to him. “Randall, I need you down here.” And the baby did come fast, startlingly fast, and Carlene was quiet now, and the Witch passed the baby to Randy. He was small and warm and wiggling. He lay in Randy’s arms and cried a little, his chest rising and falling. The skin over his little ribs was mapped with tiny blue veins.
But something was wrong with Carlene, there was blood and blood and more blood coming. The Witch was talking to her about pushing out the placenta but Carlene wasn’t moving anymore. She just lay there leaking blood, quiet, too quiet. Her face was pale and shiny with sweat and her eyelids were quivering. She hadn’t even asked about the baby. Randy was still holding the baby but he didn’t want to be holding the baby anymore, he wanted to be holding Carlene. The Witch was using a blood pressure cuff and she was talking a lot but her words sounded different, short and gruff. Carlene’s head drooped to the side and Randy thought of how her body had looked when she danced, tumbling out energy all around her. He felt a wave of fear reach up to meet him and it pushed him down, down, down, until the Witch was shaking him. “Let’s go, come on, get the car started,” she shouted.
The Witch carried baby Caleb who was not even baby Caleb yet but just the baby, and Randy carried Carlene, who dripped a long trail of blood across the fresh snow. As he laid her in the backseat her eyes blinked but her focus was drifting. “I love you,” Randy said, “please don’t go.”
There are voices. Footsteps. Randy feels his leg. He is here in the well again, the pain thud-thudding. He pushes away the image of Carlene and listens. Voices. Holy shit! Voices!
“HEYYYY, help!” He tilts his head back so his voice will travel up the shaft of the well. “Hey, over here, HELP!”
“HEYYYYY!” Randy grips the slippery stones and pushes himself up a little. He pictures his voice going up, up, up, and out. “Help me!”
There are more footsteps now, beams of light against the arch of the bathhouse far above. Randy lets go of the stones and falls back, breathless, the pain spikes but he hardly notices it, except that he is crying now, shaking and snivel-breathing. “Here, here, I’m right here,” he says quietly.
A light is traveling down and onto him and he is bathing in it, smiling up at it, trying to slow his frantic breath. As soon as he gets out of here, he’ll go tell Carlene—no, no, better to wait till morning—first thing in the morning, he’ll go tell Carlene she’s right, she’s always right, she’s the light of his life, nothing else matters.
“What in the hell?”
“Shiiit, what the fuck?” There are two flashlights on him now.
“Hey, hey,” Randy says but it is more like panting than saying anything.
“Dude, what are you doing down there?”
Randy tilts his head back and he fancies he can feel the warmth of those lights on him and it feels delicious. “Fell,” he says, and he can taste the salt of his tears and snot on his upper lip.
The lights disappear and the voices grow a little fainter, he can’t understand them now.
“Hey, gimme a hand!” he shouts, but even he can see the well is too deep for them to literally give him a hand.
“—reward’s worth more than that,” one of the voices says.
“You call them then, it’s your phone,” says the other.
Randy is giddy now; he is laughing. He’s not gonna die down here and he can taste those last two Nattys he’s got left in the truck, cold and refreshing. Hell, maybe these nice fellows can go fetch them and toss them down to him to drink while he’s waiting for the emergency crew. He’s just about to holler up and ask if they might do that for him when he hears:
“Uh, yessir, that’s where we’re calling from, uh-huh. And, uh, sir, ain’t that woman who owns the cave got some kinda cash reward for whoever can find who it is has been breaking her organ?”
Randy focuses. Until this moment he didn’t question where his guardian angels had come from and what they were doing out there in the dead of the night in the middle of this cow field. He sits up a little taller now, though, holds his breath and listens.
“Yessir, I’ve got reason to believe he was,” the voice says. “Well, see, there’s a backpack up here at the rim of the well with a big old piece of white rock in it, looks like it must of come from inside that cave.”
The flashlights glow at the mouth of the well and Randy watches but it is all so distant now. He is dropping away again—down, down, down—but this time there is nothing at all that can break his fall.