That was the summer three years after we bought the small modular home and I was unexpectedly laid off from Curly’s Plumbing, where I had worked as an apprentice the previous four years, the summer we discovered Sarah was pregnant with our first child. But this story is more about my neighbor Jim, who hung himself in his barn, what happened to his two boys, and not so much about Sarah and me.
I first learned about it from my other neighbor Felix. Standing inside my garage, I watched Felix walk across our muddy country road through a grey rain that fell so gently it didn’t appear to fall at all – just hang in the air. Felix shook off the wetness clinging to his Army-issue parka and reached for a bottle of beer in the refrigerator beside the door that led to our kitchen; the bottle top psst when he twisted the cap off. When I first met Felix, I thought he was ex-military, but he told me he received the parka from his older brother, who gave it to him before being shipped to Iraq – figuring he wouldn’t need it in the desert.
Across the road, rain beaded on the hood of a New York State Trooper patrol car; the vehicle looked newly polished; the brilliant royal blue and yellow coloring appeared absurd beneath the lush maples and thick grass that needed mowing in Jim’s front yard. The patrol car sat alone. Nobody outside. This was when Felix told me what happened and what he saw. Felix discovered Jim’s body hanging from the barn rafters when he went to return a hacksaw earlier that morning.
Standing at the end of the garage where the concrete pad meets my gravel driveway, I questioned his story. “Jim?” I said. Jim’s weathered barn leaned to one side, not so much to appear teetering as to be pushing back against something; a sliver of light showed between a crack in the doors.
“It’s the most fucked up thing I ever seen.” Felix slammed the refrigerator door and gulped his beer.
“Jim?” I said again, as though it might be another Jim I didn’t know. “I just saw him the other day.”
“That smell. Jesus Christ. I smelled it when I first walked in. I thought, I don’t know, maybe he got a hog. Then I seen him hanging above my head. It’s true what they say. He shit his pants.
“Goddamn it. Goddamn it.” I was angry, like somebody had done this to Jim and he hadn’t done it to himself.
“I didn’t even know it was him at first. I couldn’t tell with the face all bloated and puffy.”
“Where are his boys?”
“I don’t know. I went inside, you know. Called out. But nobody’s there. That’s where I called from. That’s when I called the police.”
I knew the boys were there, or had been there. This was Jim’s weekend, and I saw Debra drop them off the day before. I watched his two boys, Kyle and Robby, four and six, cross the front lawn from Debra’s SUV, jump onto the dilapidated front porch, and go inside the house. That was the last I saw them.
Mid-July, but it felt like mid-May with a damp rain. A chill went through me. “I hope he didn’t do something stupid. I hope he didn’t.”
“I didn’t know it had gotten that bad,” Felix said. “You know, I didn’t know.”
Jim lost his job on the line at Rayovac two years ago. He and Debra separated last year. Jim hadn’t been working much since.
“You doing okay?” Felix said. He still hadn’t moved from beside the refrigerator. He stared at me as though just realizing my presence. “You and Sarah? You okay?”
His question puzzled me.
* * *
By early afternoon two more state trooper cars arrived along with a black sedan. Royal blue parkas hung from the shoulders of all the troopers, their hats wrapped in clear plastic. They moved about the property with assuredness. They’d done this all before and knew exactly what to do. An ambulance had come and gone, carrying away Jim’s body zipped up in a black bag.
My garage became a congregating point for neighbors. Bill and Lindy, who had two teenage children of their own, stood beside the push mower, as did Marvin, a sixty-something widower and ex-Army Ranger, who still had the broad shoulders of middle age, and who I believed knew countless ways to kill a man. Sarah stood with me now, too, holding her hands on the underside of her stomach as though cradling a watermelon. Felix sat in a folding chair drinking another beer he had taken from the refrigerator without asking. I didn’t care. I put my arm around Sarah’s shoulder and looked into her eyes – her eyes seemed almost pleading. I knew what she was thinking; it was what we were all thinking but didn’t dare to say.
As though to change the topic, Felix pointed and inquired about a sickle hanging with a collection of garden tools on my garage wall. I had forgotten where it came from, but then remembered I had borrowed it from Jim. Or more accurately, Jim dropped it off one evening after I mentioned I had some brush to clear out in the backyard. My idea was to chop down the tall grass to the point I could use the push mower, after which the plan had been to build a sandbox for the baby. I didn’t want to tell Felix we had no money to buy a weed eater, or that my plan had been put on hold after I lost my job. Instead, I mentioned Jim told me how they don’t make tools like that anymore, tools that last.
Lindy interrupted, reminding us of our worst fears. “If he did anything to those boys.”
“I didn’t really know him,” Bill said. “I bought some raspberries off him last summer.”
“And what was that all about?” Lindy said.
“I don’t know. They were good berries though. A little small.”
Marvin puffed on a cigarette at the corner of the garage. “Used to be a berry farm a long time ago,” he said. “It was the Collins farm then. Used to sell berries down at the market. Course, all the berries have gone wild now. You can’t much cultivate wild berries, least not to make a living off them.”
Last summer Sarah and me crossed the road to Jim’s front yard where he had constructed a small stand made of two-by-fours and plywood. Above hung a sign: The Berry Man – They’re Berry Good. It was the first time we met Jim, who looked ten years older than us. If anything came off as odd, it was perhaps how he told us right then that he and Debra had separated and he’d lost his job but was starting a berry farm, something he’d dabbled in for years. Seemed a lot of personal information all at once.
After that first meeting, Jim said we could take as many berries as we wanted, so long as we picked them ourselves. Maybe once a week we crossed the road to walk the paths and pick berries. It never seemed to matter the time or day of the week, but we often found Jim working, usually swinging that sickle to cut brush or pulling out weeds by hand. The berries were never very large or plentiful, so we limited ourselves, taking only just enough, and we always put money in the coffee can at the roadside stand, even though Jim said it wasn’t necessary. Back at our house, Sarah baked raspberry and blackberry pies, giving one of each to Jim. Sunday mornings I made blueberry pancakes and delivered them to Sarah in bed.
Across the road, a half dozen state troopers draped in rain parkas fanned out around Jim’s house. I watched one make his way up the hill toward the tree line. “They’re searching,” Bill said.
“That’s a lot of land back there,” Marvin said. “Forty-acres and then a thousand plus acres of state land.”
“I’m thinking we should go help,” Bill said.
Lindy spun toward her husband then turned toward Sarah and me, her eyes like wild goblins. “I think that’s a great idea. We should go help. Those boys might have run off scared into the woods. They wouldn’t know.”
Sarah grabbed my arm and leaned her body against mine.
“I don’t know,” Felix said. “You should’ve seen it.”
“I’ll go,” Marvin said. “I hunt those woods.”
“Should we say something,” Bill said, “to the troopers?”
“We’re here to help,” Lindy said. “They can’t cover all those woods by themselves. You going?”
Lindy stared at me, waiting. I looked at Sarah, who pressed her lips tight together, giving a subtle nod. “I’ll stay here,” she said.
Marvin crunched out his cigarette on the wet ground and started down my driveway. “I’ll talk to the troopers,” he said.
“How about you, Felix?” Lindy said.
He shook the empty beer bottle in his hand and set it on the concrete floor. Sarah asked about his wife Maria, and Felix said she was in Binghamton with the kids visiting her mom and that she’d be back before dark. Sarah said he could wait here, but Felix looked toward Bill and Lindy, who had turned their backs on us, and said, no, he’d go.
* * *
The rain changed from a misty, floating kind of rain to a heavier teardrop kind of rain, the droplets sounding like pebbles flicking against the hood of my rain jacket. The trooper, no older than me, but taller, explained a stagger line to us, and then we spread out in a straight line with about thirty feet between each of us and moved as a group through the open field, up the hill, and into the woods.
Felix walked twenty paces on my right. He didn’t want to be far from me. “Fan out,” I said, waving him away.
“Why are we doing this? I don’t want to find them. I know what I’ll find when I do.”
I snapped, “Knock it off, will you.” I knew what he meant. But we had to try, had to hope for the best. We called out their names, different voices from varying depths in the woods. “Kyle! Robby!”
I climbed over a fallen tree, the trunk covered with lime-colored moss. The rain brought the humidity. A musty smell hung in the woods like how our basement smells every spring. Under the rain jacket I basted in my own sweat.
What would they have thought if they found their father hanging from the rafters in the barn? Would they run into the woods? I didn’t believe so. They would have called their mother. Or maybe run to a neighbor. Even me, though I didn’t know them well. But if they were hiding, they would’ve come out and shown themselves by now. Should we be looking up in the trees for evidence or for something buried underground? The thought nauseated me.
We crested the hill and descended the other side before reaching a gulley where a small stream ran swift and dark around grey speckled stones. It was mid-afternoon with plenty of daylight remaining, but the light seemed distant as though wanting to creep away and hide behind the clouds and thick forest canopy. Standing in this gulley, the day seemed closer to dusk than mid-afternoon.
I crossed the stream, balancing myself on one then two rocks. Felix came up on my right again. “Anything?” he said.
I shook my head.
Starting up the opposite hill, I began thinking of my grandfather, who died of lung cancer years ago. A Marine, he fought in World War Two in the Pacific. He told me the names of the islands – Guam, Guadalcanal – but he never spoke of the war or what he did. I imagined now maybe it was something like this – trudging up a steep hill in a dark, wet forest. I wondered if he was scared. I wondered if that’s why he never talked about it.
At the crest of the next hill we each moved fifty yards to our left and began our return. The voices in the woods began to sound more desperate, pleading.
After I crossed the stream and reached the hill overlooking Jim’s house, I heard crying – a distant hysterical crying that at first sounded like a gaggle of geese. As I crossed the open field with Felix now close behind me, I saw Debra in the driveway. An older man attempted to put his arm around her shoulder, but she pushed him away, flapping her arms like swatting a swarm of bees.
I learned the troopers hadn’t found anything new, and we hadn’t found anything. They only told her what Jim did to himself and that the boys were missing, and she was probably thinking now the same thing we were all thinking.
* * *
That night, as Sarah and I lay naked under the covers, her round belly pressed against mine, I felt the beating of my son’s heart between us. “Feel it?” she said, and even in the darkness I saw her smile, appearing girlish and innocent, as though this baby was some glorious secret known only by us. I pressed Sarah closer to me, kissed her, and held her head in my arms.
We used to lie like this in bed and watch television, but with money tight, we cancelled our satellite. We were making do on some savings, and Sarah still had her job as a graphic designer at a print shop in town. But the money wasn’t great, and the owner didn’t provide health insurance. When it came time for the baby to be born, we’d suddenly have childcare and medical expenses and daycare to consider. I wasn’t sure how we’d manage. Her parents had given us money and so had mine, but I didn’t like accepting it. I told them we’d pay them back.
I looked for work, but with the housing crash, few jobs existed for builders or contractors, let alone plumbers. I picked up odd contracting jobs from time to time, but they were small, few, and far between. I learned a lot about plumbing during my time at Curly’s. I started taking a residential wiring class at the adult continuing education center. I’m a decent carpenter. When it came to the house, I could do most anything good enough to keep things working. I’d cob jobs together with leftover copper and scrap wood. I’m good that way, getting us by with what we have. But I didn’t have many other skills that brought in any income.
After Sarah fell asleep, I eased her head onto the pillow, slipped quietly out of bed, dressed, and stood in the dining room looking out the back patio door to a full moon high over the cornfield. The clouds having moved out, I could see clearly into the backyard – to the tall grass crowding around a cluster of sumac trees. I decided then to go outside with the sickle and began slashing at the tall grass. I moved through the small field swinging the sickle from side to side like a pendulum. Clumps of cut grass, still wet with rain, clung to the blade. I know this sounds foolish, but doing this cleared my mind and helped me think.
I thought of Felix and how scared he looked the day before standing in my garage in that Army-issue parka given to him by his brother. His brother was back home now with a steel rod in his lower spine. A sergeant, he fought in Fallujah and made it through the building by building fighting, only to be standing in the middle of the road one day with his squad interviewing a Shiite when he noticed the street emptied out.
“He knew then he was in trouble,” Felix told me. “Then he felt something hit his lower back right above his asshole – just like somebody punched him there. Then he felt this warm wetness down his leg and he thought he pissed his pants. He collapsed to the ground. A sniper had shattered his tailbone.”
“I bet that smarted,” Marvin said, the day Felix told us the story.
Marvin is a tough S.O.B. and still looks like he could jump from a plane. Part of an elite unit in Vietnam, he still talked as if he had actual knowledge of what was taking place in Afghanistan. “It’s the Rangers killing bad guys over there,” he said. “You don’t hear their names mentioned on the news. But they’re the ones on the front lines, hunting in the mountains.”
My first fall after we bought the house I hunted the state forest behind Jim’s house and came upon Marvin squatting against a tree, decked out in camouflage. Even his face was painted. I didn’t know he was there until he said something. “Don’t move.”
Startled, I stumbled backwards through dry leaves, almost tumbling down the bank. His rifle discharged. I smelled the gunpowder. Not a hundred yards from me a spiked horn bounded down the hill. We tracked the blood trail and found him dead by the stream in the gulley between the two hillsides. A few days later, Marvin delivered venison steaks to our house.
I’m not much of a hunter. In fact, I got skunked again that fall. I wish I were a better hunter. I wish we had had more venison steaks in our freezer.
It hardly took any time at all to cut down the tall grass – short enough now to mow with a push mower. I felt ridiculous having completed the task, especially since I had no money to buy materials to build a sandbox, at least the way I wanted – with a covered roof to shelter the baby from the sun.
At the corner of our house, I stood staring at Jim’s grey barn. The sickle hung to my side, and I thought about returning it. The barn roof looked like polished silver in the moonlight. To the side, the berry patch, still wet, glistened, almost sparkled, magically. Even the hills behind shone brightly. Not a sound on the road or in the hills. But the barn, with its dark boards, and slightly leaning to one side, appeared an ominous black figure on the landscape, like the center of a vortex that sucked in all light and sound. The barn, or better, what happened in there, scared me, but for some reason I felt compelled to confront it.
Inside, the barn smelled of hay, though the loft remained empty. I even smelled horses, though I know Jim kept none. Scents seemed to stagnate here, captured in time. Moonlight shone down through the hayloft, enough to illuminate the interior to the point I recognized the hand-sewn rafters etched with ax markings. I imagined for a moment Jim’s body hanging from the rafter and thought of his boys discovering him. The thought made me nauseous and dizzy again.
On the wall next to the stable I hung the sickle where I thought Jim might have hung it. Next to it I saw the pick-ax Jim borrowed the same day he brought me the sickle. I forgot about that, too. I inspected it closer. Dry, brown mud was caked to the pick, except at the tip, where the mud remained darker and damp because it hadn’t yet dried. The barn seemed to take a deep breath then and I felt myself almost lifted off my feet, as though the barn tried to suck me into those rafters. I heard what sounded like a sickening yawn, and the barn doors began to close.
I ran, slamming against and flinging open the barn doors, leaving the sickle and pick-ax behind. Back inside my house, I took a deep drink of water from the kitchen faucet to calm my breathing. It wasn’t real. What took hold of me in that barn – a haunting desperation. That’s what I told myself. After a long moment, I walked down the hallway toward the bedroom and got undressed.
In bed, Sarah cuddled next to me, never realizing I’d been gone. I combed her hair with my fingers. Her silky hair comforted me. She cooed and I kissed her forehead – her skin the smell of lavender. Except for her round, hard belly, physically she hadn’t changed. Maybe it’s true, though; maybe the skin of a pregnant woman takes on a certain luster. Or maybe it was just the moonlight shining across the bed through the lace curtains.
Without opening her eyes, Sarah reached below the covers and began stroking my erection, rubbing the tip in the warm crevice between her legs. This was some of our best lovemaking – waking in the middle of the night with neither one of us saying a word. She rolled over and tucked her knees under her belly. I knelt behind and slipped myself inside her. At this stage of the pregnancy, Sarah found this position the most comfortable and pleasurable. I made love to her the way she liked. I made love to her thinking this was at least one thing I could still do for her. I made love to her as though only good existed in the world and that nothing could ever hurt us. When we finished, she curled next to me, appearing never to have awakened. Her breathing became patient and relaxed, void of worry, as though she believed there wasn’t a care in the world.
* * *
The next morning was Sunday and I stood in my garage with Felix drinking coffee, looking across the road to a news van with a satellite dish on the roof. Search dogs barked in the woods on the hill. The clouds had returned, but it wasn’t raining. Everything smelled moldy.
I asked Felix, “How’s your brother?”
For a long moment, he didn’t answer as if somehow he forgot he had a brother.
“Good,” he said.
“I mean, he’s alright. He’s doing alright now.”
“Sure. I guess. He went back to school.”
“That’s good,” I said, staring into a muddy puddle in the driveway like I was trying to see what was at the bottom.
When I saw a trooper standing next to his car, I finished my coffee and set the cup on a shelf next to some leftover paint cans we used to paint the baby’s room. Felix asked where I was going, and I told him I needed to tell the trooper something.
The trooper was the same man who explained a stagger line to us the day before. I admired his uniform, the way he held himself: confident, self-assured, like he knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing. I told him about returning the sickle, and then told him about the pick-ax, the damp mud I found on the tip. It was that moment the thought first occurred to me. “The berry patch,” I said.
He left with another trooper, but I returned home. I didn’t want to go with him. I knew what they would find. I’d learn later, along with everybody else, what they found – freshly turned soil, one grave, with two little bodies.
Later that night, I mentioned to Sarah for the first time my idea of enlisting in the Army. “I’ll learn a trade, and we’ll have income and health insurance,” I told her. She dismissed the idea as just a rambling thought, even a joke, but when she noticed I was serious, she told me no, that’s not an option. I didn’t press the subject. I didn’t want to upset her. Not now. In a month, we’d have a healthy baby boy and her understanding of my idea would change. For now, she wanted to know what would make a man do what Jim did. I said I didn’t know, and I didn’t, except adding, “Sometimes, men think they have no alternative, and they’ll do the craziest thing.”