CD Albin’s debut story collection Hard Toward Home is published by Press 53 (2016). His stories and poems have appeared in a number of journals, including Arkansas Review, Big Muddy, Cape Rock, Cave Region Review, Natural Bridge, Red Rock Review, and Roanoke Review. He teaches at Missouri State University – West Plains, where he edits Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.
Hard Toward Home
© CD Albin 2016
Excerpted from “The Price of Land”
Glen Green pressed his shoulders flat against the chair as April’s father glared at him from the head of the table. Glen hated the way the older man could make him feel as light and rootless as straw. If it weren’t for April he would have walked out ten minutes ago, but she’d found his hand beneath the table, and he could feel the tiny stone of her engagement ring grazing his knuckle. He squeezed her fingers, then looked straight at her father and held the man’s stare. “That place,” Glen said. “It’s what I’ve got left.”
John Lowe let out a long breath. His dessert plate was heaped with apple pie, but he pushed it away. “I named you a fair price.”
“I never asked for one.”
“Then what’ll you do for money?”
“I got a job. Forty hours a week.”
Lowe gripped the edge of the table as if he meant to overturn it. “You’ve got forty shares of nothing. Come December, you won’t make the taxes.”
Glen glanced at Mrs. Lowe, who had sealed her lips in a crease. Behind her the wind moved in the side yard, drifting dry leaves across the lawn. He released April’s hand. “It ain’t your worry,” he said.
Lowe struck the table so hard coffee leapt from his cup. “Somebody better worry. There’s a baby inside her.”
“I said I’d support her. The baby too.”
“Tell me how? You’re nineteen. You don’t even have a diploma.”
Glen felt April’s hand on his shoulder. He brushed it away and shoved himself from the table. When he turned back, her face was flushing. “Can’t you say anything?” he shouted. “What happens to you inside this house?”
She shrank away as if he’d struck her, then her eyes widened and he knew before he turned that John Lowe was rising. He tried to hold the man off, stiff-arming him in the chest, but Lowe was too strong. He hooked Glen around the neck and dragged him backward down the hall, through the front door and onto the porch. Glen struggled to brace himself before his head cracked against a porch column and Lowe’s forearm rammed beneath his chin, cutting off his air. “My house, you little tomcat,” Lowe shouted. “She lives in my house. Don’t you raise your voice to her.”
Glen tried to knee Lowe in the groin, but Lowe caught his leg and tumbled him over the railing into the flowerbed below. He landed badly and fire seized his spine like a jolt from a cattle prod. For several moments he lay still, staring at a blank strip of sky between the porch roof and the maple tree. Faint voices seemed to hover there, until one swooped down and burst inside his ear. “Let me go,” he heard April scream. “You hurt him. Let me go.”
The back of Glen’s neck had tightened like a vise, but he got to his feet and found the porch steps. Above him, April was straining to break her father’s grip while her mother stamped one foot and shouted, “April. April, listen to me.”
Glen started to charge the steps, but as he grabbed the railing he thought of the child April carried—the close quarters on the porch and the long drop to the ground. Lowe’s broad face was still fierce, the neck tendons taut, bulging. “Wait now,” Glen said. “Just let me talk to her.”
“I already heard how you talk to her.”
Glen took a deep breath, then straightened his shoulders and nodded. “Back there, that came out wrong.”
“You said what you meant.”
“No. I didn’t mean to yell. But April and me, we’ve got to talk.”
Glen held April’s gaze for a moment, then watched her twist in her father’s grasp and jerk one arm free, holding it in the air as if she might strike.
“You’re not leaving with him,” Lowe said to her.
“I’m not leaving with anybody. We’ll just walk to the end of the drive.” When Lowe hesitated, she stamped her foot like her mother. “His truck’s right here. We can’t run off.”
Lowe’s face darkened, but he gave in. “Twenty minutes,” he said to Glen. “You have her back.”
Glen nodded as April hurried down the steps to him. She slid her arm around his waist as if he needed support, and they walked a quarter of a mile without speaking, the only sound the crush of pea gravel beneath their feet. After they rounded the first long bend in the drive, April led him to a wrought-iron settee and made him sit so that she could rub his neck and shoulders. “You make him so angry,” she said.
“I told you. I’m not selling him my land.”
“You could listen at least. He wouldn’t get so mad if he thought you were listening.”
“Then why don’t he listen to me? Rachel got the house. The land’s the only thing in my name.”
“But he can do something with it, Glen.”
“You don’t think I can?”
She didn’t answer. Her hands left his shoulders and she slumped beside him, pouting the way she did when she wanted to be someplace else. He reached down and pried a half-buried walnut from the ground. The hard shell felt good on his fingertips as he rolled it back and forth. “If my sister won’t sell the house, I’ll get us a trailer,” he said. “We can set it out there by the creek.”
She stayed silent. The wind lifted, sending leaves streaming from the trees. “Out there under that big sycamore,” he said. “You remember?”
“I’ve not said I’ll do that.”
Glen stood, walked away from the bench. A lone dogwood fronted the rest of the woods. He fired the walnut into a clump of ocher leaves. “You too good for a trailer?”
“We can do better than that.”
“If I sell, you mean.”
She slapped both knees hard. “We can get a house in town, Glen. Or out in Lake Haven. It’s pretty there.”
He retraced his steps until he could see around the bend. Her father’s house loomed on the hilltop, white columns lined like sentries before a brick façade. “You’re spending money I ain’t got.”
“You can get it. Most of it. Daddy’ll help with the rest.”
He shook his head. “We can’t afford anything in Lake Haven. And we’re sure not taking money from him.”
The wind gusted again. She held her hair back from her face. “You better think about your baby.”
“That’s exactly who I’m thinking about.”
Glen jammed both hands into his pockets and made a fist around his keys. “I wonder what you meant when you said yes to me.”
* * *
He was surprised to see his sister’s beat-up Cavalier parked near the porch when he arrived home. He stared at the plates for a moment, trying to guess why she hadn’t moved farther away than Texas. When their mother left, she caught a bus in Jonesboro and rode all the way to California.
The light was on in the kitchen, where he found Rachel at the table with a cup of coffee. She wore a tight Hard Rock T-shirt and faded jeans. “Didn’t know you were coming,” he said.
“You never turn on the machine.”
She reached out to hug him. He leaned down and let her squeeze him, briefly resting his chin on her shoulder. In the refrigerator, he found she’d stocked new lunch meat, soda, a six-pack of Lone Star beer. Popping one of the cans, he downed half before shutting the refrigerator and looking at her. “Your tires are worn,” he said. “You need to rotate them.”
“You sound like Daddy.”
He studied her face, which was fuller now that she was in her twenties. Her hair was fuller too, dyed a harsh shade of gold that reminded him of Dallas, where she now lived. In May he’d spent a week at her apartment and never made peace with the bright, foreign glare of the Texas sun or the shining glass buildings he’d seen when he first arrived. He’d searched all week for a view that would rest his eyes, and when he drove out of the city, he wondered how she could stay there and not miss the close, wooded hills of the Ozarks. “How come you’re back?” he asked.
She went to the sink and poured out her coffee. A tattoo of intertwining roses climbed one wrist. “I got a call,” she said. “John Lowe.”
Glen tensed. “The land’s mine. I can do what I want.”
His sister gave him a look of disbelief. “That’s your biggest worry? That’s the first thing you think about?”
“Sell me this house,” he said, the words coming far sooner than he intended.
“What are you talking about?”
“Sell it to me. I’ll borrow against the land.”
Rachel laced both hands on top of her head. “God, how far along is she?”
He shook his head. “Four months. I figured he told you.”
For a moment she studied him, then dropped her hands and turned to the window. Her face sagged, and Glen caught a vision of her profile at forty. Suddenly the room seemed too small. He slung open the screen door and went to the end of the porch. The sun was sinking, the sky above the barn going red and gold. In a few hours he’d be stuck at ArkMo, stamping bottle caps all night.
The door springs creaked and Rachel stepped out, letting the door clap against the casing. She lit a cigarette and rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand.
“I can get a loan,” Glen said.
“I don’t think that’ll work.”
“There’s eighty acres in my name. They’ll lend me money.”
With a fierce flick she sent the cigarette over the porch rail. “I’ve already got a buyer. He’ll pay me twice, three times what you can borrow.”
Glen felt his blood rush. He clamped her by the arm, shaking her. “What are you trying to do to me?”
Rachel stepped back and jarred him as she brought a hand across the bridge of his nose. “You prick. Daddy left this to me.”
Glen blinked back the moisture that came with the pain. “Not if he’d known, he wouldn’t have.”
“I never said to hide it. Anyway, I’m quitting.”
His mind flashed on her tiny apartment in Dallas, the strung-out strippers who swung by at any hour. From what he’d seen, they had been her only friends. “Who you promising?” he said.
She scowled at him. “Me, maybe. Surely not you.”
She started back in, but stopped. “Why do you want this place, anyway? It’s about to fall down.”
“What do you care?”
“Just tell me.”
He could feel the porch railing against his hips, reminding him of the fall at Lowe’s. “She don’t want a trailer,” he said. “I need something more.”
“And you think she’ll stay here? For a week, maybe.”
“She’ll stay with me.”
“God, Glen. Wake up.”
He felt his face flush, a warm tingling that spread from his ears to the back of his neck. “What do you know about staying? How many of those cowboys stuck with you?”
She came close and poked a stiff finger in his chest. “I know this. You can ruin yourself before you get started. I’ve seen that plenty.”
“I bet you have.”
She nodded to him. “You’d win that one.”
He waited until she left the porch and shut herself in her room before he went back in and made himself a sandwich. He barely finished half, then threw it away and stretched on the couch, where he tossed fitfully till time came to start for ArkMo.
* * *
At eight o’clock the next morning, Glen left the plant with the rest of the third shift and squinted against the sunlight, brooding that Lowe had offered Rachel so much money for the house. He drove straight to the Super 8 Motel and parked on the west side of the lot, where he watched a backhoe bite into a ridge on the far side of the bypass. The machine shaved off the crown and a clump of volunteer saplings, while at the base of the ridge two dump trucks hauled crushed limestone from John Lowe’s new gravel pit. The land joined Glen’s at the south end, and he imagined a layer of dust settling like soot all over his property.
On the way home he rubbed his emotions raw by telling himself Rachel had betrayed him, but when he pulled into the drive her Cavalier was gone. Instead of going in, he followed the unpaved farm road through two empty, weed-choked pastures and finally stopped beside the creek. Even his eyeballs felt tired, so he hung his legs out the door and tried to sleep in the cab, but the sun was too bright. Annoyed, he propped his weight on one elbow and stared over the dash. The sycamore loomed in front of him, ashy-white and nearly bare of leaves. He ran his eyes up to the strange vee where a twister had torn the top out years ago. A new lead branch had formed, but the sycamore would never be a pretty tree.
Staring into the broken canopy, Glen wondered why he had urged this place on April. The ground was flat enough for a trailer, and when the tree was in leaf there would be good shade, but for most of the year the creek was nothing but a long spill of gravel that snaked across the farm. Back in high school he’d trained for cross country by chasing the dry bed, but he hadn’t run in over a year. He’d quit the day the principal and a highway patrolman called him out of class and told him his father had been crushed by a semi. That same morning Glen had braked at the end of the drive and glanced toward the barn, catching a glimpse of his father as he passed in profile, a feed sack hunched over his near shoulder. The Cardinals cap had been visible, but not his face as he disappeared into the barn. For nights after, Glen lay awake and thought of the lank body stepping through, the red cap never quite swallowed in darkness.
Now he eyed the misshapen sycamore and wished the twister had taken it whole. He knew Lowe would cut that tree, raze the house and barn, anything that said a Green once held title to the place. Eighty acres was too much land for a mall, but Lowe owned quarries and gravel pits all over north Arkansas. If he ever got hold of the farm, it wouldn’t be worth seeing again.