He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, “Ottie.” It is what he has been called, and he says again, “Ottie.” Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus’s voice from a far-off time, I’m going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus’s Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the long wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For one day, he comes back.
This hill-country valley is not his place: it belongs to Sheila, to her parents, to her Cousin Buster. Ottie first came from outside the valley, from the welfare house at Pruntytown; and the Gerlocks raised him here a foster child, sent him out when the money-crop of welfare was spent. He sees their droughty valley, cannot understand—the hills to either side can call down rain. Jolting along the pike, he looks at withered fields, corn tassling out at three feet, the high places worse with yellowish leaves. August seems early for the hills to rust with dying trees, early for embankments to show patches of pale clay between milkweed and thistle. All is ripe for fire.
At a wide berm near the farmhouse, he edges his tractor truck over, and the ignition bell rings out until the engine sputters, dies. He picks up his grip, swings out on the ladder, and steps down. Heat burns through his T-shirt under a sky of white sun; a flattened green snake turns light blue against the blacktop.
The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door.
Inside smells of ages and chicken fried in deep fat and he smiles to think of all his truckstop pie and coffee. In the kitchen, Sheila and her mother work at the stove, but they stop of a sudden. They look at him, and he stands still.
The old woman says, “Law, it’s you.” Sunken, dim, she totters to him. “Where on earth, where on earth?”
He takes the weak hand she offers and speaks over her shoulder to Sheila. “Milwaukee. Got to get a tank trailer of molasses from the mill. Just stopped by—didn’t mean to barge your sociable.”
“Aw, stay,” Sheila says. She comes to him and kisses his cheek. “I got all your letters and I saved ever one.”
He stares at her. She is too skinny, and her face is peeling from sunburn with flecks of brown still sticking to her cheek, and along her stomach and beneath her breasts, lines of sweat stain her blouse. He laughs. “You might of answered a few of them letters.”
The old woman jumps between them. “Otto, Buster’s awful bad off. He’s in a wheelchair with two of them bags in him to catch his business.”
Sheila goes to the stove. “Ottie don’t need none of that, Mom. He just got here. Let him rest.”
Ottie thinks of the abutment, the wear on his face. “It’s them steel plates. They don’t never get any better with them plates in their heads.”
Old woman Gerlock’s eyes rim red. “But hush. Take your old room—go on now—you can table with us.”
Sheila smiles up at him, a sideways smile.
* * *
Upstairs, he washes and shaves. Combing out his hair, he sees how thin it has gone, how his jaw caves in where teeth are missing. He stares at the knotted purple glow along the curve of his jaw—the wreck-scar—and knows what the Gerlocks will think, wonders why it matters. No breaks are his; no breaks for foster kids, for scab truckers.
He sits on the edge of the bed, the door half open, and hears talk of the ugly accident creep from the kitchen up the stairs. Ottie knows Old Gerlock’s voice, and thinks back to how the old man screamed for Bus, how his raspy yells were muffled by saws cutting into twisted metal.
As he tries to find the first thing to turn them all this way, the pieces of broken life fall into his mind, and they fall without the days or nights to mend them. He opens a window, walks back to his low table. Those things are still there: dried insects, Sheila’s mussel shells from Two-Mile Creek’s shoals, arrowheads, a plaster angel. All things he saved.