Surface Level

It was Cecil Leemaster’s favorite time on the lake. He’d make his first excursion a few days after Thanksgiving, cruising his bass boat along the resurrected creek channel, following the route of old Highway 7. The late fall drawdown of Cedar Lake by the Corps of Engineers left the twelve mile Burgey’s Creek section revealed as patches of broken asphalt, rusted strands of guardrail, and scattered foundation stones of homes and businesses.

That first day out Cecil would navigate Burgey’s Creek end to end, from where Voncil Sturgill’s hay bottom would now lie, some eighty yards offshore of the Cedar Lake Marina, on up to just below the dam where that one buoy marked the most likely location where Ray Martin’s sawmill once stood.

Until the end of winter then, he’d go out as often as the weather would allow, traversing the length of each hollow, from Sawyer’s Branch to Poke Berry, from half-a-mile up Right Fork to three miles down Salt Lick and as far over as Haven.

Some days he just drifted along, using his trolling motor only enough to keep free of brush tangles and rocks, staying on the lake the whole of the short winter days with no other company than the few cardinals that flighted among the bare trees, or a grey fox that sometimes strayed after him along the banks, scavenging among the Styrofoam ice chests and bait buckets and other odd rubbish lost or thrown from the pontoon boats that made commotion of the lake each May to August.

He did have spells out there to himself, his mind taking its own wayward courses. He might fall into a daydream of planting corn or mowing hay, the smell of lake water transfiguring into that of upturned earth, cut stalks of ryegrass, a horse in harness. A whole day might return to him like a told story—that time they took and rode bicycles down along Grassy Creek and back along through Hackberry, her in her housedress still; her face shining red and sweaty like a kid’s, riding him in rings and laughing at his wobbling clumsiness, at the undone strap of his high-backs, at the loose laces of his brogans flapping the blacktop, snarling the wheel spokes. Or it might be just the barest shade of movement, like the muscles of her calves popping leanly in the tan between her socks and dress hem or the skin of her eyelid caught in some spasm of unspoken emotion.

She did him like that in memory. Dared him. Where’s your pencils at? Where’s your paper pad? He had used to try. He had caught her exactly hundreds of times. In graphite and charcoal. In ink. On every kind and weight of paper. On cotton fiber. On vellum. During one anguished night when freezing rain had him stranded to home, he had drunk a third of a bottle of some clear liquor and, stumbling and crying, raked ashes from the wood stove and on a strip of burlap smudged out a rough, wild sketch that bore her no likeness whatsoever. He had burned it before daylight.

Once and again he might venture onto the sand bars afoot and mark the remains of somebody’s homeplace—a pile of chimney stones, the roof beam of a barn, a single algae-blackened cinder-block. He saw more than manufactured function in these remnants. Find a lone sheet of corrugated roofing—off somebody’s outhouse, somebody’s chicken coop—see it now as a contorted relief of rust bubbles and jagged angles, reds, greys and browns blended in a way that spoke of something not even nameable.

No matter that only he might ever see these transfigurations. That a piece would not rate as a juried crafts-work made it no less a genuine conception of mind and method—the mind of nature divine, the method of sand and water and amending time. He cringed at the conceit of his own idle verse. These found pieces he hung at careful angles along the walls of the prefab, metal storage building he used as a workshop. They fought and mingled as he worked to unify them into a form he could not yet imagine.

This current day he nosed into the bank just beneath the Highway 15 overpass, tethering his boat against a blighted willow augured out over the water. The tree’s branches trailed down to the water’s surface, the thin tendrils stirring in motion with each disturbance of the lake’s surface. It was before Christmas still, and the before-noon sun was strong enough to warm his face and make a shimmer on the lake’s scant patches of ice.

He had just cracked open a Vienna sausage can and was lifting out the first little pink bite of formed meat when he saw the object fixed in among the willow’s exposed roots. When he leaned from the boat to see closer, the sausage dropped into the water with a plop, droplets of jelly floating outward on concentric rings of such exact pattern as to themselves want rendering.

It was a sign, but not only. At its center was an oval shaped plastic inset containing a mercury thermostat. The lettering, almost all, was either muddied over or scoured away. What was traceable, though, was enough, the half-shape of a capital “C,” some partial lines of the double “t’s,” and the colors— vague shadings of red and blue clear enough still despite the overall splotching of rust.

Carter’s Little in fulsome cursive bordered the thermostat above. On the half of the sign still sunk in murk read Liver Pills. This was long ago when he was a child time beckoning. A sign exactly like this, maybe this sign exactly, had hung on the door of Inez Fugate’s general store. He made pause for the memory of it—the big, dark building constructed of rough lumber, one big room to function for everything, like a barn, like a church. And she and him children still, not hardly knowing each other outside of school or Sunday worship or the once and again encounter at Fugate’s.

In the summer her hair would be sun-bleached to where it was nearly white, her complexion so dappled with freckles and flecks that she looked all the time dirty-faced and wild. And he would get caught staring and be glowered at fiercely and would back himself against the wall of the store. The sensation of great rough wood splinters and risen nail heads catching at his shirt and skin was a close enough memory to cause him still yet to arch his shoulders and squirm.

Cecil rose onto his knees, meaning to grab for the artifact. Instead he off-balanced himself and fell painfully onto his side against the battered metal tackle box he kept in his boat for no reason but that he always had. He nudged the box from beneath him but didn’t sit up yet. The boat was unsettled still, its motion causing Cecil an odd blurriness. Below water, the entanglement of tree roots blurred as with an eddying motion. The sign alone showed clearly to him. He lay in such perfect immediacy to the sign that all he might need do to take it was reach out his arm a little, lean out a little, tip the boat a little more, roll himself just a little more to the lake surface and reach in.

The contact of his hand with the chilly water brought his mind clear again; he drew back into himself, rolled onto his back in the boat’s center and sat upright. He could not have reached far enough to touch the sign, he saw now. The refraction of light through water and root shadows had made it seem close up, but that was deception.

The willow’s exposed roots grew in a tangle below the lake surface. They were tied up in fishing line, bobbers of various sizes and colors hanging within the tangle like decoration. The roots grew matted about the sign, dark coils holding the dear object ensnared as with a will.

He had vague realization of the sun having passed from before him to behind. He lay splayed in the boat through the whole of the short afternoon and made an entertainment of watching the shadow of his raised arm lengthen toward the Carter’s Pills sign. It was falling dark, at the point he could no longer see letters or colors or at last even a shape, when Cecil pushed away from the bank, pulled the cord on his trolling motor and nosed around toward the lights of the marina boat ramp. He crossed in darkness so complete above and below that there was no orienting his mind as to his body’s location. His neck and the whole of his back tingled. He felt fingers pulling at him in the darkness and twice had to orient the prow of the boat back around to the dock lights. He felt the grief of mortal loss close about his heart and gave up his daylong fight against it.

***

It was a comforting sound—the slow, steady trickle of the carafe filling, the last little whoosh of steam. Lovens poured. Cecil held his mug close beneath his chin to breathe in the steam, the bitter flavor. He blew across the surface of the coffee. He sipped, and shivers ran through him, the coffee the least bit oily in its strength. It is no better comfort in the world than hot coffee, Cecil thought. No better pleasure than a fresh mug early of a cold morning and grey like it is.

Lovens sat staring at a laptop computer screen, one large hand resting on the keyboard, the other enclosing the mouse. His own mug of coffee sat steaming and untouched next to an unopened container of creamer and two sweetener packets. Lovens was in jacket and tie, his narrow shoulders hunched, the crease between his eyes deepening as he glared at the computer screen, his eyebrows like two grey-brown woolly worms brought into collision.

Cecil stared upward through the steam of his coffee in study of the wall behind Lovens’s desk. On the left hand hung a portrait of Jesus Christ—the Good Shepherd kneeling in a field of stone, his face uplifted to heaven, his form haloed in a shaft of holy light—the rendering illuminated by an accent lamp atop the picture’s frame. On the right hand was affixed a large gold-colored cross bearing the Redeemer’s crucified form, below that a mirror-like plaque etched with The Ten Commandments. On Lovens’s desk an oversize white Bible lay in place beside a statuette of praying hands. That these tawdry icons comforted Cecil was not something he would admit even to himself.

“The mortuary business, it’s ten percent dealing with the deceased, forty percent dealing with the family and fifty percent dealing with the paperwork,” Lovens said. He reached to prepare his coffee. He let out a long sigh, tore the sweetener packets open both together, peeled open the creamer container. Cecil watched, knowing how many times and in what direction Lovens would stir the coffee, knowing which side of the mug he would then tap the stir stick against. He anticipated the first long, over-loud slurp.

It was three years and seven months ago now, on the second day of visitation with her lying in the main parlor, that Cecil had come into the office and sat without asking in the armchair before Lovens’s desk. The man had done masterful work; the disfigurement of her last illness had been masked over so well that none could have told her suffering. Her cheeks were plumped out, her color darkened to a likeness almost of health. Her mouth had been set in an expression of something like contentment. Her face overall was so softened in appearance as to argue sleep. It is asleep she is and not spoiled, he had thought. It is rest and not death.

Lovens did not raise an eyebrow when Cecil came in his office that long ago day. Didn’t ask, “What can I do you for?” Didn’t ask anything. He poured them each a cup of coffee and there they sat, and have been sitting regular.

Cecil has always kept cautious talking to Lovens, his remarks kept as close to the weather as possible. He slipped his questions in roundabout, finding their suggestion in the passing talk he and Lovens made over their mugs. “Which percent’s the worst?” he asked.

Lovens didn’t answer at first. He sipped again from his mug, then once more, holding it before his mouth as he swallowed. His eyes flicked upward suddenly, but Cecil had looked away in time. He’d gotten caught once, leaning forward in expectancy of answer. What he had asked, his question that time, was “How do you do it?”

Something had passed across Lovens’s face in that moment, the kindliness darkening with some nature of bile before transmuting to wary solemnity. Do it? Lovens could be seen sorting through the varied implications of the question. Do what? He’d seemed to strain to make a reply, a light of slyness and dark knowing in his glowering eyes. As suddenly as he had tensed though, he relaxed, the warm-heartedness coming back flush into his face.

To this present question, he hardly blinked. But just shrugged a little and said, “Paper work. Death certificates, post-mortem reports, wills and pensions; forms for the Social Security Administration, for Veterans Affairs, tracking benefits—just paperwork on paperwork, on and on.”

He spread his large hands before the computer in a gesture almost of sanctifying. He was, in his function at least, part-ways clergy. Solace radiated from his form, visible in the way of air shimmering above a warming stove. His voice— deep when speaking, a clear tenor when singing—soothed the grief-stricken. Along with the funeral home calendar he sent out a CD of him singing “Amazing Grace,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Just a Little Walk with Jesus,” a few others.

Behind the funeral home building, and a little off to the side behind where the two vehicles were kept parked—a black Lincoln MKT funeral coach for transport of coffins and a blinding silver Cadillac XTS Limousine for families—sat a long rectangular structure, windowless with white siding to match the main building and dark-colored double doors that in direct sunlight looked like burnished metal.

Cecil had been through those doors in his thinking. He knew what was to be seen. He could close his eyes and conceive the entirety of the space, its furnishings, implements, and materials. Along this long wall, close by the industrial sink, the embalming table with a drain on one end and at the other plastic blocks to keep elevated the deceased’s head and torso; in that corner the embalming machine—like an artificial heart with two glass tubes on either side of the front, gauged like thermometers and filled with liquid that rose and fell in display of pressure; in the center of the room, in close proximity of the staging area, an autoclave for sterilizing tools; the trocar and suction pump; a biohazard garbage can and boxes and boxes of surgical gloves placed everywhere in reach.

The question that most grieved Cecil, that he felt he must ask with the devil driving, he did not know even the phrasing of. Speaking on the funerary arts, he might have begun, taking a person… taking a person’s dead body…remains…that has been ravaged…

Lovens spread his hands, the fluorescent lights making silver glints within his grey, brown sheep’s wool hair. “People don’t know,” he boomed. Then in a voice nearer to a whisper. “It’s a call to serve.”

Who they were. . .what they were. . .Cecil felt something almost like a migraine spark behind his eyes. There was not pain, but a powerful sensation of humming. He felt he might go blind for a moment. He felt an awful chest-bursting panic that he might begin weeping. To remake them.

“For the hour is coming,” Lovens said softly, “in which all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come forth.”

“A call to serve,” Cecil thought, the room a fusion of pulsing colors and unstable shapes.

***

The string tied across the open doorway measured the exact midpoint of the door jamb above and the floor below, cutting Cecil right center of the navel. He stood just shy of contact, as if the length of discolored twine might contain some deadliness not to be chanced—a lethal voltage, a razor sharpness.

The room was as she had kept it. To the far right, before the bricked up fireplace, sat the floral patterned armchair with the doily she had crocheted in the pattern of a fox leaping after grapes; cater-corner to that was the button-tufted settee, its fabric an odd yellowish green the shade of which Cecil had seen nowhere else in the natural or manufactured world; at the left wall was the cedar chest, the old-fashioned iron key still in the lock; alongside that the walnut wardrobe, the brass handles and knobs just barely distinct against the dark wood; the curio cabinet held place in the room’s center, next to the framed portrait picture of John Kennedy. It was as she had kept it to the last day.

The string even was of her doing. It had barred his intruding for so many years he could not see back beyond it. This one room she’d kept apart from every other in the house—floor scrubbed, walls washed, mantel piece and furniture polished, breakables carefully dusted—as to await some particular company not ever named. Cecil in his meanness had used to want to ask if it was Jesus she was keeping the room for and would he have to take off his sandals before he entered, shake out his robes.

From where he stood he could imagine, as in a painting, lines marking depth and proportion, tying together each shape and shadow, each space of color, lines progressing to meet and vanish at the center point of JFK’s princely head. If he stood long enough and stared long enough, let his vision go blurry, he could see the different aspects of the room disassemble, become just dots of color and geometric shapes.

Sometimes, out of all that undoing, would appear wavering forms that were oftentimes person-like, familiar in motion and dimension. He would turn himself so as only to view them sideways, lest they come too close to real. What he saw askance most often—her bent to her quilting frames, piecing together squares of cloth—caused him more upset than he could bear.

His hallucinations were of the hearing kind as well— scuffing sounds, taps, thuds—nothing not ordinary, nothing not like a person might make just in their everyday habits. Is it you, old woman? he’d whispered once, then never again.

The specters that haunted his yard were shadow-natured. They crouched of a nighttime amongst the collected debris of his yard. At his coming, they rose from seeming handiwork amongst fragmented butter churns, amongst moldboards and shares and the ossified leads of horse harness coiled helically in patterns both faultless and wild. Break up the ground. Lay it off. Words barely known to memory respoke themselves at his passing. Doubtful silhouettes moved beside him among the floodlit stacks of automobile tires and oil drums and scavenged tractor chassis.

A grasp of sourwood leaves and anvil dust. Drop it by hand. Their voices engendered the sifting of hoe blades through soil, of wind clattering amongst fodder shocks, of a metal bucket chiming within the void of a water well.

It took concentration not to hurry, to try and ignore the prickle of fine hairs rising on his neck and arms. He had not ever learned to whistle and he was as toneless humming as singing. He made conversation though, with his trailing visions, calling agreement to their uncertain statements. Render out the lard for the old fashioned of it. Yes, that’s right. The smoke’s a goin’ to the ground. Yes, uh huh, yes. Oh eat this. This is good. Eat it. Eat it. Eat it. Eat it.

The chain that held the workshop door was old metal, an ancient logging chain eroded from the hillside above his house. The links were wasted thin with rust and it hung more as a kind of charm than for any physical security. He unwound it gently, receiving the powdery rust on this hands in the way of a cleansing before entering the dedicated work space.

The studio lights were of a kind to simulate the sun shining. There were no shadows or even dimness. The convex walls were painted an uncorrupted white, unspattered by any color otherwise, though canvases stretched on wooden frames leaned at precise angles half of the building’s length, some vividly hued, others tinted in muddied and somber opposition.

Unsorted piles of medium obstructed the near end of the building—blocks of wood, metal pipes and rods, knotted heaps of electrical wire, flattened cardboard boxes bundled with twine, large blocks of molded Styrofoam, unmatched shoes, doll parts. Out of keeping with the whole lay dozens of disassembled computers with motherboards and CPUs and batteries all exposed in grisly tangles.

He unfolded and set the ten-foot stepladder. At four rungs he had climbed above the level of the craftwork—chairs and stools bottomed with woven birch bark, walking sticks carved as reared up blacksnakes and winding copperheads, dulcimers with heart-shaped sound-holes—these sold steadily at the sidewalk fairs and craft markets, all he cared to make, knickknacks that for all the time spent in crafting cost Cecil not even a fart’s worth of remorse to part with.

He could never see his masterwork as a whole. The disarray overwhelmed. Auto-body filler on molding-wire textured the three panels of four-by-eight plywood. The layering was nowhere smooth, though long stretches of it seemed as such in contrast to the severe deeps and rises that made a vista of cratered, rutted background.

The most meaningful of his found objects compiled the overlay. The viewer’s eye followed an uncertain vector amongst the blades of garden hoes, the disassembled workings of old car motors, a washboard, a crumpled-up tub, and endless bits and shards of plastic, glass, wood, metal, fabric and stone. He had aimed on one panel to suggest the shimmering star, on another the saw tooth, on a third the drunkard’s path, though nothing of what he had rendered came very near a true quilter’s pattern.

There was neither equilibrium nor harmony in the composition. To stare and study was to fight drunkenness. He had fallen or nearly fallen from the ladder’s fourth rung often enough that he had taken to layering the floor space below with salvaged strips of insulation.

If he held on, though, allowed the blending of surfaces and colors and objects, some suspicion of design would arise in his mind. She was in there, she was in there, amongst the abstraction of recovered trash and junk—not her form, not her features, but her, her.

He would go to work then, no less mindful of the windy murmur of voices at the shed walls—the sorrel tree blooms angel fingers—but not so much afraid of them now.

He spent the night reaching tools and artifacts high above his head, his neck locked into a painfully obtuse angle that gave him such a slanted and hazy viewpoint that finally he closed his eyes so as to better realize the vision of his fingertips. In the early dawn he climbed down and turned away. Look not behind thee, lest thou be consumed. He thought the verse and murmured it as he made his way, so crippled he could not walk but in a stoop. He came almost to the door before he was compelled to turn.

***

He sat with the newspaper laid open on the kitchen table, his shoulders and neck so rigid still that it pained him just to turn the pages. He was too bleary-eyed actually to read. He stared at the bold print headlines until they lifted from the page and made impression on his half-conscious mind—Asher Mining Cuts 200 Workers, Judge Disallows Hearings on Status of Disability Checks, Baptist Church Ladies Get Together to Make Peanut Butter Balls. The news-sheets crackled as he turned them, the sound distorted almost painfully by his powerful tiredness of mind and by the otherwise quiet of the kitchen.

There was a page of nursing home news—Betty Ann Lee is doing well, Carrie Combs is doing better after hip replacement, Mary Lou Sizemore is doing well, Kathy Ritchie is having good days and bad days. Cecil swam through the scattered information, not grabbing hold of any one piece. The last items he registered before dropping his head onto his crossed arms were a brief homily among the obituaries—The Devil is the king of Pride / There is Praise in knowing where your Soul is going / After your Life on earth is Extinguished—and the Walmart and Food World ads on the back page.

He dreamt vividly. He was with her in the kitchen. They were canning. Glass jars lined the long table and bushel baskets sat stacked to the ceiling, spilling over with peas, corn, beets, green beans. A great pot sat boiling on the stove, the filled jars inside singing as tendrils of steam coiled upward in snakelike shapes. He worked to twist the lid ring onto a jar of bread and butter pickles. His hands would not work right though; the ring and lid kept flying off and juices spilled from the jar. And because he could not put the lid and ring onto the jar, she rose up from the table and left her knife—the blade covered with corn kernels and with shreds of cabbage—and went out the door. For a while then in his dream he ran, chased by some worrying form he could not see and could not get free of. He fought intruders in his house, the pain in his neck and shoulders transmuting to subconscious injury. At the end he fought sleep, fought it smothering and choking until he came awake enough to know of a certain that he was no longer dying.

He was dry mouthed and chilled with sweat. The newspaper had been creased under his fretful hands and he balled the loose sheets and tore them and threw them toward the sink where they disassembled into shreds and wads and single crimped pages. Ought to be some better way of saying about Kathie Ritchie’s good and bad days, he thought. Ought to be some more true words available than “disallowed” and “status.”

He stared for a moment at his hands. They were filthy. Black grime was caked beneath his ragged fingernails and within the lines and creases of his palms. His wedding band was no longer a white gold color. It had been scraped and dulled to a dull shade of pewter. Did hers still keep its polish?

His mind was cottony still as he left the house. He drove with no thought to his actions, the truck maneuvering over the rutted and broken roadway as with its own intent. The road took the same winding course as the creek that ran beside it. Trailer homes stood wherever a wide enough space opened back from the road; houses with barns and sheds took up the larger stretches of flat land on the far side of the creek. Brown and broken corn stalks still stood in many of the garden patches, the fallow dirt otherwise taken by scattered patches of chickweed and deadnettle, here and there the purple blooms of henbit.

Cecil felt a confusion traveling the road. When he came around a turn and passed a wide spot where should have stood a poplar log supporting a basketball rim on a backboard of mismatched lumber pieces, he saw instead a cluster of garbage containers—big, welded-together steel boxes with heavy lids to keep out stray dogs—each with a house number adhered to it and little rows of reflector lights. House numbers, as strange and unfitting as the green street signs that read Possum Trot Lane or Marrowbone Circle.

The drivers of cars he met waved to him, and he waved back, though he was not always certain of the faces; they had the semblance of people he knew, but they appeared to him in an odd, wavering manner—some with the faded aspects of old portrait pictures, others with features that were just varied enough from the familiar that he could not quite say their names.

By the time he was on the lake it was past noontime, and the sunlight, weak as it was through the winter overcast, had burned away the lake water mist. The way through and around the deeps and shallows was as plain as a paved road, and he guided the boat full-out over the glass-smooth surface. He kept his gaze in a straight line above the boat’s prow so as not to see directly the shades and specters come to people the sandbars and risen patches of asphalt and eroded house seats.

A wind gust came up, rippling the lake surface, rattling the bare tree branches along the far lakeshore. It made a voice-like sound, a singing. Cecil cut the motor and listened, but the water stilled and the sound faded, leaving no sure impression. He did not move to start the motor right away. The boat moved just slightly, turning on the faint current.

He was ready when she came into view, expecting her. She stood next to a black, crooked little tree on a close-by patch of risen ground. She wore a baseball cap, a dark jacket, and jeans stuffed into high boots that were caked in mud almost to the ankles. He could not comprehend the outfit. It was in no way similar to what she had used to wear. He thought for a second it was some stranger-woman he was seeing. She was in no way ghostly. But then she smiled and raised her hand to wave, and he knew her for sure.

She was speaking. He could hear her voice, but her words broke apart before they came to him. He raised his hand and waved back. “I have put myself to it,” he yelled. “I have.”

After a while she shrugged her shoulders and slipped her hands into her jacket pockets. She turned and walked across the risen ground and into the lake, her boots sinking hardly at all into the water as she trod shoreward.

He kept waving until she was gone, and then he pulled the cord on his trolling motor and steered back around toward the far bank where the corkscrewed willow stood tangled in fishing line. In a few minutes he was close enough to sling a rope around the willow’s trunk and pull the boat into shore and tie up.

The water was murky up against the bank, and at first Cecil could see hardly anything beyond the still flotsam of leaves and pine needles. He rolled up his shirt-sleeve, leaned out of the boat, and dipped in his bare arm. He made a stirring motion, trying both to search with his fingertips and to clear away the floating muck. He began to skim the surface water with his hand, flicking the slimy stuff into the boat. As the blackish matter dispersed, underwater shapes began to show—the coiled roots of the willow, the up thrust butt of a log, a ledge of the cliff face that met the lake on that side.

Finally, the contoured top edge of the Carter’s Pills sign appeared. It looked to be settled deeper than he remembered, tilted different. In the slightly rippling water it seemed almost to move, as if being worked by slow force.

Cecil rested. The day was chilly, but not past bearing. He cracked open a can of potted meat and dipped the substance out on the corner of a cracker. The taste was a comfort, salty and tangy. He ate the potted meat and crackers and drank orange pop while he studied. When he finished Cecil tied his trash inside a plastic grocery bag and pinned it beneath the tackle box so it would not be taken by the wind.

He hauled his boat a little closer to shoreward then, until he could touch the cliff face where it rose above the water. Cecil searched the flat of his hand across the worn sandstone and found a crevice he could hold to. He slid out of the boat and slowly into the water until his feet touched the ledge. From there he could reach his free hand down to touch the metal edge of the store sign.

He grasped the lip of the sign and pulled. It kept caught for many long minutes, not in the least budging, then with a vigorous suddenness it came free, leaping from the water like a fish that Cecil had to catch and hold from escaping. He clutched it to his breast until he could calm and breathe easy, then he looked it over. Free of the water it did not gleam or waver. It was just a rectangular shape of painted metal, maybe eighteen inches by nine, so eaten through with rust it barely held together in his hands, the lettering stained and faded, the thermostat at its center brittle and loose-fitting.

He tried to think of his mural with this one piece added but could bring to mind only a confused scattering of shapes and objects. Tiny bits of matter floated in his vision, taking color as they gathered. Fragments of bright blue, of red, and dull yellow clumped together, making first the vibrant forms of clouds and then the semblance of a pieced quilt and then a strange muddied topography that was almost without color. There was nothing added to his understanding. There was nothing made alive.

“Nobody knows your heart.” He heard her words then, what she had been trying to call to him across the water, through the wind. “Only you, you have to stand on it.”

He crimped the edge of the sign with his fingers, the corroded metal folding like paper. He rapped the sign against the side of the boat. Rust shook loose into the air. The cursive lettering cracked, and fissures ran through what remained of the painted surface. The thermometer fell loose and floated like a fishing bobber, on end in the water. Cecil dropped what remained of the ruined sign into the boat, though he had no more thought for its use.

Chris Holbrook, a native of Knott County, Kentucky, is the author of the short story collections Upheaval and Hell and Ohio: Stories of Southern Appalachia, which received the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Holbrook is associate professor of English at Morehead State University.

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