Two boys gape out the clouded back window of a station wagon, their noses swiping across the glass and leaving two slicks like snail tracks. May watches through the knothole in the wall as the car bounces over the rain ruts in the drive, climbing sluggishly past the barn toward the house. A loose strip of plastic trim slaps against the side panel. The car coughs a couple of times, then dies. A tall man with slow eyes climbs out from behind the wheel and stretches lazily. He walks around the car to where three makeshift tables—sheets of plywood resting on sawhorses and fruit crates—hold the scraps of May Aiken’s life.
“This must be it,” he says.
His wife turns sideways in the passenger seat and scowls at the sagging boards.
“Don’t we have enough junk of our own?”
“There’s treasures at these barn sales sometimes.” he says, picking an old rasp up off one of the tables. “Buried old treasures.”
The rasp handle is cracked from having been let dry out, and when he turns it over the blade falls out and sticks in the ground.
“Is that one of them?”
He bends down and picks the blade up, sets it back on the table without answering. May watches him touching her things, leaving who knows what all over them. She feels a vague ache in her foot and looks down. She doesn’t have any shoes on. If they see that, she thinks, it’ll just be more ammunition.
The two boys climb out through the back window, plop to the ground, and immediately start fighting over an old metal horse. May can see the horse clearly though the kids and the horse are a good twenty yards away—the black curls of its mane and tail, the sweep of neck turned faintly to the left as though it’s sniffing something on the air. Her sister left it behind when she moved away, married at seventeen. Her mother took it over then, kept it beside her own bed until the day she died. There are things that keep you tied to the world, May knows, things that have that kind of power.
She presses her eye to the knothole again, blinks twice to bring the little sphere back into focus—brown grass spreading into gray-blue sky—the uniform plainness making it difficult to tell where the ground ends and the sky begins.
“Look what you did,” one of the boys yells.
The other boy is holding the horse’s left hind leg in his hand, looking down helplessly at the broken edge.
“I didn’t. You did.”
“You’re the liar!”
“Shut up!” Their mother is out of the car now and planted thickly on the ground. “Both of you.” She stands like a boxer, her feet spread, balanced. A strand of hair has come loose from its metal clip and falls in a slant across her face. She twitches her head sharply and the strand falls back.
The boys fumble with the horse, pressing the leg back into place and letting go, willing it to stay, to heal. But it falls off again, bounces once on the table, and rings against the base of a singed oil lamp. The woman turns back to her husband.
“Your boys,” she says.
“Now they’re mine.”
“It’s all right,” a voice says from behind them. “No harm done.”
May shifts again until she can see Matt standing at the top of the steps, a cup of coffee steaming in one hand and a half-eaten piece of toast in the other.
“We’ll pay for it,” the woman says, with a hint of resentment. As though this is how it always is, as though one way or another they always end up paying.
“Never mind,” Matt says. “It was old.”
The husband laughs.
“That’s the idea, isn’t it?”
He holds out his hand as Matt comes down the steps. Matt fumbles the piece of toast into his left hand, wipes his right hand on his pant leg, and they shake. The pants are faded just the right amount, with worn patches on the knees and seat that approximate those made by work. Just the way he likes them. Now they’re probably stained.
“Lot of stuff,” the man says.
“Is it from around here? From on the place?”
“My mother-in-law’s, mostly. She grew up here.”
Matt glances toward the barn, and May draws back from the knothole. The sound of her own breathing seems impossibly loud as she presses herself against the wall. Back in the depths of the barn something skitters across the planks. She makes a shooing motion with her hands, then knots them up in her sweater again.
The man turns a trivet over in his hand.
“Sorry to hear. She passed on, huh?”
“No. No, she’s still—with us. It was just getting a little crowded.”
“Sure. You don’t have to tell me.”
At the end of the table, the man’s wife is looking at a metal plate partly hidden by a cast iron skillet. She picks it up and turns it over. It’s split down the middle, with a hinge on the back and bright silver clasps at either end. A price of $1.25 is marked in felt pen on a small sticker on its underside.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
Matt strolls over to where she’s standing.
“It says a dollar twenty-five,” she says. “For what?”
“You don’t have to buy it,” her husband says.
“I just want to know what it is they’re selling for a dollar twenty-five.”
Matt looks at it, turns it over once.
“You’d have to ask my wife.”
“If you don’t know what it is,” the husband says, “you don’t need it.”
“I’m just asking.”
She snatches the plate back and slams it down on the table. It lets out a ringing that drifts across the yard. The two boys look up as it passes them. May draws in a quick breath and holds it. If she goes out there, she knows, they’ll see her and remember. If she stays in the barn they might forget all about her. But the fixit’s out there.
Matt and the others turn to watch as she crosses the dry yard, ignoring the pops and clicks coming from her knees and hip and the quick stabs of the dried grass on the soles of her feet. Matt holds out his hands reflexively, but she continues on past him, snatches up the plate and clutches it to her chest.
“What do you think you’re doing? These are my things.”
Matt flicks an embarrassed smile toward the man and woman.
“We’ve been over this, May. We can’t keep it all. There’s no room.”
“There’s a whole barn.”
He looks helplessly at the barn, then down at May, at her mottled skin beneath the wisps of gun-gray hair. Then up toward the house, hoping Eve will appear.
“If you’ve got any questions about anything,” he says at last, “feel free to ask.”
“We just did,” the woman says.
“Prices are negotiable, of course.”
“Sure thing,” the man says.
May shuffles backward a few careful steps into the shade of the walnut tree. The woman watches her, eyes narrowed. The man takes her by the elbow to turn her away, but she jerks her arm free and squares up to him.
“Come on, Lee,” he says. “Come on. Okay?”
She breathes through her nose. May can see her nostrils widening and narrowing like an animal’s. When she finally turns away, May relaxes her grip slightly on the plate. Matt brings a chair over for her, and when she’s sure the woman has moved off she sits down. She sets the plate in her lap and looks at her hand. The metal edge has left a crease in the skin. She opens and closes her hand, watches the scar fill slowly again with blood.
On the little hill behind the house a woodpecker has started working on the fire-hollowed trunk of the oak. A month after her mother died, the tree caught fire in the middle of the night with no lightning or anything else to set it off. It smoldered for almost a week. Kids came from all over the area to watch the big tree turn slowly into a black husk, burning from the inside out. Her daddy kept his own vigil, coming in very late at night for a beer and a meager supper. May would hear him downstairs talking to nobody as he dug through the refrigerator or heated some leftovers on the stove. He was like Loft in the way he saw judgments and trials in misfortune, and he saw the fire as another visitation, a further example of god singling him out.
When May came down one of those nights to help him, to keep him from burning the pan or himself, the plate was there on the counter. It shimmered with an otherworldly shine and threw reflected light in miraculous patterns across the walls and ceiling. She picked it up carefully. The clasps were undone and the two halves gaped apart. She pressed them together and fastened the clasps, feeling something pass through her as she clicked them into place. The house gathering itself, a certain heaviness lifting. She wiped some of the soot away and the plate shined brighter than the fire that had brought it forth.
Her daddy said that somebody had probably stashed it in the tree, one of the McCutcheon kids most likely. She didn’t know if he was lying or if he just didn’t know any better, but she didn’t hold it against him. It was up to her to wield it anyway, she knew that instinctively.
Matt squats beside her and rests his hand on the back of her chair. He won’t sit, she knows. Not here, not right on the ground.
“May,” he says, but she doesn’t look at him.
He sighs and drums his fingers on the back of the chair.
“You know about the barn. You know it’s got to come down.”
Beyond the fence a new development is going in. Huge houses with little squares of bare land around them. Each with a garage as big as her and Loft’s first house, but not a single barn among them.
“You’ve got no right,” she says. “They’re my things.”
Matt sighs again and stands up. He walks over to a row of old field lugs stacked on the ground and starts unloading them, lining their contents up on the plank tables.
They’ve kept some things back, but the things they’ve kept are worthless things that May could have thrown away without a second thought. Books she’s already read they think might be worth something someday, knickknacks and china plates. Old pictures, grainy, unrecognizable likenesses of what was supposed to be her—when she was a girl, a newlywed, a mother. Studio pictures with no life in them. The real pictures, the ones she and her daddy took and developed, are all in the albums in her room. But they’re not interested in those, all they see is empty fields and woods and sky in them—they can’t see the bird hidden in the clump of grass, or her daddy whistling beside her as she aims the camera. There’s so much they don’t understand that she doesn’t know where to start.
A little hand-carved whistle rolls off the table onto the ground. Loft carved it for Evie when she was just a little thing. Hair falling into her eyes, her dress dusty and wrinkled from rolling with the dog in the pasture. She should have stayed that way; small and sweet and untainted. May laughs to herself. That’s one of Loft’s words, she thinks. Untainted. One of his righteous words.
The front door creaks open, and Eve steps out into the sunlight, shading her eyes with her hand. When she sees them, she waves and trots down the steps. She comes to May first and kisses her on the cheek.
“Beautiful day, hmm Mom?” She smells like artificial flowers. May feels a soreness in her chest. She remembers a story on the news once about a little girl who fell into a well. She feels the same thing now, the same tightness. That clench of something about to slip away. But they brought that little girl back.
“Morning,” Eve says to Matt. Then to both of them: “How’s it going?”
Matt looks at May without saying anything, and Eve’s eyes swivel back to her.
“Mom. Are you being good?”
May is looking at her reflection in the plate and doesn’t answer. Eve’s shoulders slump.
“Oh no. Not that thing again.”
She tries to take it, and is surprised at her mother’s strength.
The plate’s surface is covered with little dimples that scatter May’s features like puzzle pieces shaken out onto a table. She is suddenly terrified of what might happen to the pieces if she lets go. She knows she couldn’t collect them all.
Out of the corner of her eye, Eve sees the man and his wife watching them. She lets go of the plate, straightens up and brushes the wrinkles out of her skirt.
“There’s some interesting things,” the man says. “We’re enjoying ourselves.”
The two boys have found some metal soldiers and are forming them up in skirmish lines in her flower bed. One of them blitzes across a row of pansies and Eve grits her teeth. She looks up at their mother, hoping she’ll see Eve’s expression and stop them. Instead the woman squints across at May.
“What is that?” she asks.
“Hmm?” Eve says.
“That thing, that plate. Is it something?”
“No. It’s nothing.”
The woman steps around the table.
“Lee,” her husband says, holding up a boot scraper with the bristles worn away. “Look at this,” but the woman keeps coming, her legs rubbing against each other with a shrill insect sound. She’s still young, May can see, but not for long. Her face is puffed and neglected, the eyes receding back into bruised folds of skin. Her mouth is a red, crooked line like a cut. Her thick shadow falls over May where she sits in the folding chair, wanting suddenly to be up and gone, back in the barn, behind the knothole again.
“What you got there?” she asks, bending close to May’s face. “That a prize?”
May forces herself to look at the woman. She notices a small scar beside her left eye and wonders what made it. She touches her own face alongside her eye out of reflex and the woman straightens.
“Cat got your tongue?” she says, and laughs. “Kitty-cat got your tonguey-wung?”
She waits for the others to laugh too.
“It’s a fixit,” May says at last.
“Oh god,” Eve says.
The woman blinks down at her.
“What’s a fixit, when it’s at home?”
“Just what it says.”
“What, like a doctor or a repairman or something?”
She points toward the station wagon with a finger girdled with yellow stains. “Can it fix that old piece of junk?”
“It won’t help you,” May says, pulling the plate closer. “Go away.”
The woman tenses. Her husband shuffles over and touches her arm lightly.
“Lee,” he says, but she doesn’t seem to notice him.
“Why not me?” she snarls down at May. “There something wrong with me?”
May holds the plate out toward her so she can see her reflection. The woman’s face fills with a sudden, bursting red.
“You’re a rude old woman. You’re a crazy old bitch!”
Matt steps between them and holds out his hand.
“Thanks for coming up. Sorry you couldn’t find anything.”
The woman glares past him at May. Her husband reaches his hand carefully around and shakes Matt’s hesitantly.
“Thanks for the look-see. There’s some interesting things.” His smile is tight and close to breaking. He shrugs and touches his wife’s shoulder.
“Come on, Lee.”
“I want that,” she says, pointing to the plate. “We’ve got a dollar twenty-five, don’t we? We aren’t that broke.”
“You don’t want that.”
“Don’t tell me what I want.”
May grips the plate tighter. Eve looks at her, then back at the woman.
“We said it was for sale, so it’s for sale.”
The woman slaps her husband on the chest.
“Give me the money.”
“Can’t you forget it?”
Her hand remains extended, unwavering. May looks closely at Eve. She’s tried to tell her before, but she doesn’t understand.
“It’s got powers.”
“It kept all this here. It kept us together.”
“Are you kidding? Who? They’re all gone, mom—James, dad. It didn’t fix them.”
“That’s not how it works, you know that.”
Eve’s hand shoots out suddenly and snatches the plate away.
“No, I don’t know. I never have known. As far as I can tell, it’s done just the opposite.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? … Come on, show me some magic. Bring James back, how about that? “ She looks around theatrically, arms slashing the air. “Where is he? Why isn’t he here?”
May looks involuntarily toward the crossing out of sight beyond the trees. It was abandoned some time ago, the trains don’t use it anymore.
“He was too broken, Evie.”
Eve’s teeth clench, the lines of her cheeks showing sharp as knife edges.
“This is going to stop.”
The man has the money out, his hand extended uncertainly. The bill is crumpled and dirty, the green ink almost black. The quarter, in contrast, gleams from frequent rubbing. Eve reaches for the money, but Matt steps forward and bats the man’s hand away. The bill flutters to the ground. The quarter sails high and spins against the sun, flashing on and off, off and on.
“Let her keep it,” Matt says. “For god’s sake, what difference does it make?”
The quarter whirls and flashes. It won’t ever come down. It has broken away from the earth.
May didn’t understand herself at first how it worked, when she gave it that silly name—but she was just a little girl. She thought it was like some kind of magic glue, that it could heal all things sundered. She tried it on broken toys, a gash on her leg, even on a dead magpie, but she saw it couldn’t put things back once they’d come apart. All it could do was hold them where they were for a little while, keep them from flying all the way apart. Maybe not forever, but for a little while, a little bit longer. It was like the chemical she and her daddy used after a picture was developed in the little darkroom off the kitchen—that’s where she got the name, from a bottle in there. It fixed things like that, in time. As long as she kept it open, it slowed life just enough to catch up.
Loft didn’t believe any of it, of course, he thought it was a kind of blasphemy even. He waved it in her face one day, the air singing off it and the light bending.
“See there,” he said. “Right there? That says “Mexico”. You think god’s gonna put “Mexico” on one of his creations?”
“He did on Mexico.”
“Damn it, May.”
“I never said it was god.”
“Well who, then?”
“I don’t know.”
And she didn’t. But it wasn’t any harder to believe for that. Maybe it worked off her dreams, or the light running through the farm and the woods, she didn’t know. And she didn’t really care. It gave back to her the same as she gave to it.
She heard Loft flip the clasps open before she could stop him. She turned in time to see him clap the two halves together.
“Look,” he said, holding it up. “A silver taco.”
He laughed, but May didn’t. She stood there, her heart broken, watching her husband and their life together hurtling away.
At the barn, the man has to turn around. He carves a clumsy Y, and at the leg of the Y he backs the station wagon hard into the corner of it. A length of siding hangs in the bumper. He lays on the gas until the board finally snaps, a ragged piece still wedged against the taillight.
He steps out of the car, stares down at the deep V in his bumper, at the splintered red board jutting out, pointing like a finger. With some effort, he finally frees the board, holds it up helplessly. He starts toward Matt, holding the board like a dead pet, but Matt waves him off. He hesitates, then leans the board against the corner of the barn. He shrugs an apology and gets back in his car. In the passenger seat, his wife glares at the barn, then at Matt, then at May. They have all conspired, she knows.
When the car’s dust trail finally dissipates, Eve goes into the house. She comes out a moment later with a suitcase and sets it down by the car. She goes back in and comes out with another one. Matt has given the plate back to May, and she holds onto it tightly, rocking slowly in the lawn chair.
“Are you going to help?” Eve calls.
Matt looks briefly at May, then turns away and goes into the house.
When May and Loft first moved back into her daddy’s house, she’d take the fixit out sometimes and study its shifting surface while Loft listened to his television preachers scolding him like a child. Downstairs James and Evie played their music and laughed at jokes she didn’t understand, their quick lives a secret from her already. Later, at dinner, they would be briefly a family before the kids dumped their dishes in the sink and darted off. When they made it back every night from wherever it was they went, it was another little miracle she credited to the fixit.
It drove Loft crazy—until later when he started to lose track and mix things up and believed in even wilder things. When he heard the voice of god coming from the television and would stare rapt at the screen while Vanna White turned letters over, holding his breath, thinking the answers to his deepest questions were about to be spelled out for him. He puzzled over the words and phrases for hours afterward, repeating them out loud until they were just sounds, getting angrier as meaning drifted farther and farther away. When the shows were all over and the sun was long gone he’d kneel by the bed and say his prayers like a little boy, and once in a while he’d try to coax May down there with him.
“It troubles me that you don’t believe,” he’d say. “I worry about you.”
She never understood what he meant. How he could think she didn’t believe.
“Time to go, Mom,” Eve says.
May can tell without looking at her that she’s been crying. She suspects it’s her job to comfort her, but she doesn’t feel inclined at the moment.
“I know you’ll like it,” Eve says. “You’ll make friends.”
“I had friends already.” May says. She can’t bring herself to look at her daughter, at the blunt woman’s face that had swallowed the child.
After a moment, Eve draws her hand away.
May is alone then, and she doesn’t mind it so much. She sits in the chair and listens to the grasshoppers clicking in the grass, the faint wind up in the walnut rattling the leaves and making the branches creak like rusty machinery. There are possibly the voices of people mixed in too, people she’d known, but she can’t be sure. She thinks she hears her mother and Loft arguing—which is impossible, since her mother died long before Loft came along. A squirrel starts up in the tree and James enters quietly, as he always did. She tries to push him out, but he won’t go. He’s the troublemaker again, standing in the doorway at the far end of her room snapping the fixit open and closed. Mocking her. He winks at her and she slams her eyes shut. When she opens them again, he’s gone and there’s just a faint impression where he was, like a wind matting down the grass.
Her thoughts aren’t as clear as they once were, she knows that, and it troubles her. The edges of things have lost some of their distinction, and she’s not as sure of herself. She wonders if her ideas about the fixit and its powers have always been there, or if it’s something new, a drift into foolishness like Loft seeing god on the Wheel of Fortune. Time does seem sometimes to be loosing its grip on her.
Matt leans against the loaded van, raises his hand in a tired wave. May waves back, then takes the plate in one hand and with the other pushes herself up from the chair. She rocks a little on her feet; the massive spread of the walnut dwarfs her, makes her lose herself for a moment. She takes three short steps, four, lets her meager weight gather, lifts her feet higher and starts to run. Her knees pump, the tendons and ligaments creak inside her like an old harness. She can feel time tugging against her like a fish ticking the drag.
She runs through the open barn door, past the workbench and the tack room and on into the black body of the barn. The darkness closes in around her, brushes up against her. She stands still and listens for sounds of pursuit, but there’s only her own strained breathing and the hiss of blood in her ears. Maybe they won’t follow her. They’re afraid, she knows, of so many things. Then the car door slams and they begin calling like children at the end of a game.
She clutches the fixit to her chest and rubs it in quick circles. She feels heat rising from it, hears its hum like far-off crickets. The barn begins to creak around her. Old cans filled with bolts and washers rattle on the shelves. A cloud of hay chaff descends to her, glittering like gold dust. Far back in the barn, a hinge creaks, and a line of light stretches out beside her. She follows it back through old shadows and bits of chewed leather to the muck-out chute she’d forgotten all about, a low door in the back wall that Loft had nailed shut years ago. She has to crawl to get through it, like she did when she was little. The ground is soft with dried manure that’s been ground to dust, the smell familiar and purposeful.
As she starts up the little hill behind the house, the barn collapses on itself like a paper foldout. The walls fall away, the roof hangs in the air for a moment then splits in two and flutters to the ground. It all happens in silence, the noise only coming after, rushing into the vacuum left by the barn’s absence. She is halfway up the hill by then and feels the wind from it, but she doesn’t turn around to look. Loft’s Wife, she thinks, and laughs. Gone to salt.
Down below, Matt and Eve rush to the wreckage of the barn and begin throwing boards aside, calling her name. She should wave or yell back, she knows, let them know she’s all right, but she doesn’t. She brushes a film of dust from the plate and buffs the pale metal with the sleeve of her dress. Her face is multiplied many times across its surface—her tiny, wrinkled mouth, her eyes like olive pits. She takes a stray bundle of hair between her fingers and tucks it behind her ear, then climbs the rest of the way to the top of the hill. She undoes the two clasps and gently folds the plate. There is a sound like a string breaking, quiet and very far off.
She sets the plate at the base of the burnt oak and takes a step back, laces her fingers the way she’d seen Loft do and whispers a little prayer in his honor:
“I’d like to buy a vowel.”
Then she continues on down the other side of the hill toward the creek and the last remaining pasture. There’s no rush. It’s a nice enough day—the end of summer, not unbearably hot. It’s the kind of day that, in her time, they would have sooner died than waste.