“I thought you’d quit that.” He tried to spit but his mouth was too dry. He watched her exhale through her nose.
“I did for a while. I decided I didn’t need to quit forever.”
He turned toward the neighbors’ house to see if they were out in their yard, and when he looked back she was holding the joint up in front of her face, examining it like it was a bug she’d never seen before.
“Don’t you just love the shit out of Rose?” she said.
She nodded, clenching the joint between her teeth, squatting to get the weed box cradled up in her arms. “Her son sends it to her from San Diego.” Her head was tilted back to keep the smoke out of her eyes and she lurched forward, kicking out with her feet until she hit the wheelbarrow. She dropped the box in just as the bottom came apart.
“I can’t hear you when you’ve got something in your mouth.”
She cupped the joint in her left hand, bending the hand forward to rub at her eyes with the back of her wrist. When she was done she said, “It helps with Rose’s glaucoma.”
A hummingbird hovered for an instant between them, its wings buzzing as it banked away, and the sudden lack of sound produced the effect of a greater silence. Then a dog barked, a car passed in the street, someone started a lawn mower down the block.
They both stood watching the hummingbird arc back over the house, returning to a border of marigolds.
She took another hit, holding the smoke in, pointing back at the wheelbarrow. “Could I get you to empty that for me?”
He stepped past the tomato plants starting up lush and bushy in their wire cages, and carefully over the deep green peppers, lifting the handles and pushing the wheelbarrow through the soft dirt to the northwest corner of the garden, where he’d dug a compost pit in the spring. He turned it up, tilting it over onto the heap of decomposing weeds and kitchen waste. The wheel was caked with mud and spun slowly in the air, and the bottle flies rose from the soggy mulch in a high-pitched drone.
“You hungry?” she called. She held the screen door open but hadn’t yet stepped up onto the porch.
“I’m good for now,” he said. “But maybe after I take my drive.”
KENNETH FINISHED clearing the table and when he had the oilcloth sponged clean he joined McEban at the sink. He shook a dishtowel out and dried the plates already washed and leaned up edgewise in the rack, and then they shelved them away in the cupboards and slotted the silverware back in the drawer. They left the pans to air-dry, tilted so they’d drain. It’s how they clean up every evening, and the boy will be eleven this winter and they never have treated each other like father and son, they’ve always managed better than that.
He pushed their chairs in at the table, draping the towel over the backladder of a chair. The screen door to the mudroom stood open but the outside door was still closed against the day’s heat.
“It’ll go quicker with both of us,” McEban said.
The boy glanced down the hallway, where they could hear water running in the bathroom. “It’s your turn,” he said. “I got to go to town with her this morning.” He smiled. “Anyway, she’s just my mom.”
McEban stripped off his yellow Playtex gloves, hanging them over the edge of the dishrack, and opened the window above the sink. He leaned back against the counter, looking down the hallway himself. “I don’t need to see her tonight. I can spend all day tomorrow with her.”
They heard the water shut off and the pipes knock behind the wallboards and stop, leaving only an argument among the grackles in the windbreak, the distant lowing of cattle.
“She might not be here tomorrow,” the boy told him.
McEban nodded, digging his pocketknife out of his jeans. He cleaned a thumbnail, slipping the knife back into the pocket. “I guess you’ve always known more about it than I have,” he said.
The boy moved to the mudroom and sat down on the bench to pull a pair of hip waders on over his boots. The waders were faded a blotchy gray and patched and too big for him and he had to cuff the tops down twice. When he stood in the doorway he looked like a shrunken and shoddy musketeer.
“I should get used to changing the water by myself,” he said, then shrugged as if to underscore the obvious. “So I know I can.”
He drew the door shut against its broken spring, his features clouded by the screen. McEban thought it made him appear younger than he was, and wondered if they even made waders for kids. He thought he’d have a look in the Cabela’s catalog later on. “Have it your way,” he said, “but be careful at that headgate.”
The boy turned away, waving like there was a chance he’d be gone longer than the irrigating required, and McEban watched him go down the drive kicking a rock ahead of him through the loose gravel, a shovel slung over his shoulder. At the edge of the pasture he bent through the fence and, when he was clear of the wires, slapped the blade of the shovel into the ditch, a spray of water fanning up before him, sparkling in the sunlight. For a moment McEban felt a jolt of contentment, something akin to a boy’s decent happiness.
He popped a handful of ice cubes loose from a tray, filled a glass with the cubes and quartered a lime.
Then he lifted the bottle of tequila down from a cupboard, easing the glass stopper out and holding it under his nose. Roses, cinnamon, vanilla. At three hundred dollars a bottle he’d come to imagine it as the scent of an exotic perfume. The ice cracked when he filled the glass. “Herradura Seleccion Suprema.” He liked to pronounce the name out loud. He’d done the same thing the first time he ordered a bottle on the Internet with Paul leaning over his shoulder, eating an apple while he studied the screen.
“Jesus Christ,” Paul had said. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure it’s the right kind. I heard her say it once.” He turned in the chair. “That it was the best. Can I have a bite of that?”
Paul handed him the apple, reached around to the mouse and scrolled down the screen. “Creamy to the palate,” he read aloud, then stood away. “I guess it better be.” And then: “It’s your money. You want to spend it on my sister, that’s fine by me. The rest of that apple’s yours too.”
He waited until Paul left the room before clicking on the BUY IT NOW button.
McEban carried the glass down the hallway, setting it on the floor to pull his boots off. He stood them to the side of the door, and when he smelled the sour odor of his socks he pulled them off too, then knocked on the door.
“Come in.” She managed to make the two words sound like lyrics from a song.
He closed the door behind him and handed the glass down to her, and she held it balanced on the edge of the tub. He lowered the toilet seat and sat, watching as she pushed her feet against the foot of the tub to slide herself upright, closing her eyes as she sipped from the glass. Her shoulders and breasts were foamy with bath bubbles.
“Oh, that’s perfect. Won’t you try it, Barnum? Just once?”
“Just a taste. I want you to know what a sweet thing it is you’re doing.” She held the glass out to him, her arm dripping on the bathmat.
He leaned over and took the glass from her and she slid back into the water, her knees folding up out of the bubbles. He took a sip, holding it in the back of his mouth, wondering if Kenneth was having trouble with the dams.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Her face was turned toward him, watching as he swallowed.
“I thought it might be better.”
“It’s not a crime to enjoy yourself.” She turned the hot-water faucet with a foot, until it started drizzling. “If you’re done you can set it there on the floor.”
He placed the glass on the bathmat, the sides already slick with condensation.
“The ranch looks better than I remember,” she said.
“You were only gone three weeks.”