Rough wind, that moanest loud / Grief too sad for song; / Wild wind, when sullen cloud / Knells all the night long;
Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Dirge
By midnight on this Thursday night, the only patrons left in Brewer’s Pub are those who didn’t want to go out into the storm raging outside. It’s the strongest spring thunderstorm yet year. Hank Brewer’s mind briefly wonders whether Mayor Robertson is any futher along in the new flood control plan. Probably not.
“Another one,” Tom Willis says, pushing his shot glass towards you. He’s been showing up a lot since Peggy was buried last week. As if getting drunk might help him understand how Jackson Bennett killed his wife.
Part of Hank wants to offer the guy a mug of coffee instead of another belt of Maker’s Mark, but it’s difficult to find the words. Never lost anyone since his grandma on the Brewer side passed back in ‘93. Losing someone who had one foot in the grave, and ready to put the second in, ain’t like losing a wife to a drunk asshole. So, while Hank wants to say something weak like ‘you want to talk about it,’ or ‘Peggy was a good woman,’ he says, “Here you go, Tom,” instead.
Then, just to keep his mouth going in the right direction, “Awful storm for this time of year, huh?”
Tom nods, clears his throat, sips the whiskey. “Yeah. Mess out there. Probably a mess out on the roads.” It was the kind of comment anyone might make – there were always fender-benders and idiots who drive into standing water. If it got bad enough, Sheriff Bowman might come looking for help. But for Tom, it’s too close to the idea of Peggy who died on a night that was clear, a full moon, driving back from her night-shift at the hospital.
His initial thought is a selfish one, not to be spoken, nor hinted at, ‘Glad that bastard didn’t stumble-drunk out of my bar that night.’ He looks at Tom’s eyes, red-glazed and dark. Eyes that said, ‘What now?’ Hell, I got to say something to him. I mean, we’re both townies, right? Hank thinks. We’re supposed to be there for each other when the shit hits the fan.
“Hey, Tom, I can’t say I know how you’re feeling, and I guess you’ve heard ‘I’m sorry’ enough times to choke a horse.” He keeps going, talking along, trying to find a place to stop, trying to find a point. “And it ain’t like I don’t appreciate your company and business, but you want to talk about it?”
Tom closes his eyes and shakes his head fighting for words. Behind him, two other patrons pull on their raincoats. Jeff Walker raises a hand to Hank, who can see the $20.00 before he leaves it on the table. He’s been drinkng soda, so Hank knows he’ll get his brother home safe. That leaves Hank, Tom, and a guy at a table alone, bent over his drink. Hank’s eyes catch on him, and he tries to remember What is he drinking? When did he come in? But Tom is finally talking, and he distracts Hank before he can chase down the thought.
Hank briefly regrets sending Steve Anders home so early. ‘It’s getting bad out there, Steve. It’s dead in here. Why don’t you head on home,’ he had said. If he were still here, Hank could’ve had him check on that guy. Tom’s the important issue right now, nothing life threating about that patron.
Tom talks hesitantly at first, talks around things. How he met Peggy. How her mother hated him. How they wanted kids but couldn’t have them. Hank gets him to smile some, he can speak more easily. After half an hour Hank looks over his shoulder and realizes the stranger is standing at the front window, looking out.
Hank calls out from behind the bar, “Hey buddy, any chance of it clearing up out there?”
The stranger doesn’t move for a moment, then shakes his head without looking back at Hank. One heavy hand raises, and he starts to trace something in the condensation on the inside of the window. A farmboy once upon a time, Hank recognizes the shape immediately, the scythe, a blade curving away from the long handle. “No. Not yet,” he answers in something close to a growl.
Hank throws a glance to Tom, one that says, ‘What do you think?’ He knows he was cought up with Tom tonight, trying to get the stones to talk to him about Peggy. Hank doesn’t remember serving the stranger that much. “You sound a little thirsty, buddy. Got a mug of coffee here with your name on it, on the house.”
He turns to look at Hank. His face has a five o’clock shadow and pale skin. Dark circles surround his eyes. “Watch,” he says, “Harvest has begun.”
Tom raises one eyebrow and Hank gives his head a slow cock to the side, matched with a glance towards the coffee machine behind the bar, hinting that he should come round behind the bar. Hoping that he won’t look like he’s trying to put distance between the stranger by getting a cup of coffee.
“That so now.” Hank tries to make it an offhand comment, but an edge creeps into it. Back at UCLA, a lifetime ago, a midnight jog had turned dangerous when a junkie tried to borrow money. He had looked like this kind of scary calm when he first walked up to Hank, just like this fella here. “Can’t see much good in a-reaping.” Maybe he can just keep him talking till he rides it out, “What kinda crop you see there?” Hank’s hand is just a short span away from the whiskey bottle.
Tom turns his shot-glass upside down on the bar and casually slips off the stool. He’s a lean man, average height, and not the sort to want to be caught between Hank and the stranger if things go south. “You got some sugar back there for the coffee?” he asks, and slips behind the bar. For a moment, Hank worries that he might linger too long, obviously too nervous, but he manages to set a mug down and lift the pot, ready to pour.
“I witness the thrashing of the wheat,” the man answers finally. He spreads his hands, and Hank notices that the knuckles of both hands are scraped, scabs forming. He’s not young enough to be some rabble-rouser from the university in Pullman, and his accent places as someone with at least some years somewhere south, Texas, or Oklahoma maybe. “You know the Millers?” he asks, almost conversationally. Hank has to think for a bit, before he calls up the face and name of Ted Miller, his wife Cheryl— a CPA and a school-teacher, their older child finishing up his first year at Washington State, their daughter a junior? a sophomore? at the high school. They’ve lived in Colfax a good 15 years, but to some they’d still be considered newcomers.
That “Children of the Corn” feeling was starting to creep into him. When Hank was young, not quite a teen, but feeling the tightness of that in-between year, he had ridden his bike to the next county to see the movie at the local drive-in. It had scared the bejeezus out of him, gave him nightmares for weeks. Hank had sworn off horror movies and anything written by Stephen King. This stranger, hell, he could be that Issac character all growed up. His vaguely religous talk and now the mention of the Millers-things were not good.
Hesitantly, “Yeah, I know ‘em. Good folk. You an acquaintance of theirs?” Hank didn’t really want to hear the answer. He had a frightening notion that this fella was going to say he brought them ‘Peace,’ like what those kids did to the adults in that movie.
“Acquaintance? No, I know Ted. Good folk. Yes, yes they were.” Behind him, beyond the front window, the storm seems to be calming, settling down into just a steady rain. He stands there for a moment or two, just looking at Hank, and then at Tom, who still stands with the coffee pot one hand and a heavy mug in the other. “I’m sorry about your wife,” he says quietly, then turns and heads for the front door.
“Tom?” That creepy feeling turned sour in Hank’s gut at the last statement by the strange man. He slowly turns his head, trying to see Tom in his peripheral vision and keeping his sight on the exiting stranger. “Tom,” I say again, catching his attention with a calm, serious, ‘It’s time to leave,’ voice. “Get the phone, call Sheriff Bowman, tell him he needs to get over to Ted Miller’s place like yesterday.”
Hank moves away from the bar, needing to keep the stranger in view. Sheriff will want a good description of the guy, maybe I can catch what he’s driving, the plate, too, if possible.
“What?” Tom stares after the stranger, who lets the front door swing shut behind him, and then snaps his eyes to Hank. He looks like he’s about to ask if he heard right, but then shakes his head and reaches for the phone, deftly dialing the number for the police station.
Hank crosses the floor to the front window quickly, and can see that the man is standing outside on the sidewalk, face upturned to the sky and eyes closed as he lets the rain fall on him. In the outside entrance light, he looks tired. Brown hair, Hank think, his eyes were – what? brown? blue? Other than the stubble, nothing particularly distinguishing about his face. But his size is noticeable – over 6’4”, heavily built, wearing a blue wind-breaker over a white collared shirt. Jeans, boots … Hank makes himself memorize everything he can before he opens his eyes and starts to move down the sidewalk.
He passes a street-lamp, and it flickers out.
Storyteller’s Note:* This photograph used under Creative Commons license.