Three of McKinnon’s foreign cows were at the fence when Eli turned off the highway and into McKinnon’s lane. Great red beasts, shambling and shaggy, they looked like ruined carpets. They looked like buffaloes. But they weren’t buffaloes. McKinnon’s buffaloes were in one of his other pastures.
The animals stared through their fence at Eli as he passed. He waved at them. Eli waved at everyone. Up the rise to the house and barns, into the yard. The doctor’s car parked there. Eli pulled in beside it, stopped. Everywhere, McKinnon’s poultry: McKinnon’s barred rocks, McKinnon’s guinea fowl, McKinnon’s huge gray geese striding about like lords, with a lord’s height, a lord’s pride, a lord’s brains.
Eli parked his truck and stepped down into the yard. A goose whose head was level with his waist advanced menacingly on him, but Eli made a feint toward it, and the goose sheared off and let him be.
Wesley came out of the barn. He was wearing rubber boots knee-high and carrying a bucket of green mud. He nodded at Eli, joined him, and put his bucket down.
“What have you got there?” Eli asked.
“Goose shit,” said Wesley. “Swamping goose shit all morning. Worst job on the place, you know it? Worse than cows.”
“Good news is, we’ve got lots of it,” Wesley said. “Goose shit. We’ve got lots of goose shit. That’s the good news.”
“Right,” said Eli. “How’s Mac today?”
“How’s Mac today?” said Wesley. “Or how’s Mac, today?”
“Miserable,” said Wesley. “Hung over. Pissed off. Mean. How do you need him to be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Eli said. “Happy? Cheered up? Feeling good?”
“Came to the wrong shop, then, buddy, didn’t you?”
“Feeling generous?” Eli went on.
“Not today,” said Wesley. “Girlfriend moved out.”
“She did? When?”
“That was the young one? The nurse?” Eli asked.
“Nurse?” said Wesley. “That’s one word for it, I guess. Young? I don’t know if I’d call her young. She was out of high school. Said she was, anyway.”
“She didn’t last long, did she?” Eli asked.
“Long enough, it looks like,” said Wesley. “Boss is about worn down to the belts.”
“Well, I’ll go ahead, anyway.”
“I wouldn’t,” said Wesley. “I just told you: it ain’t a good day.”
“There is no good day, though, is there?”
“I’m just saying,” said Wesley. “You don’t want to do it today. If it’s about Billy.”
“I don’t want to do it any day,” Eli said. “Is Westcott with him? That’s Westcott’s rig.”
“Westcott? He’s been here an hour,” said Wesley. “He’ll be done shortly.”
Eli looked toward the house.
“Is this about Billy?” Wesley asked him. “This is about Billy, ain’t it?”
“What do you think?” Eli asked. He started for the house.
“Well, good luck,” said Wesley, and he bent to pick up his bucket.
Eli found Dr. Westcott washing his hands at McKinnon’s kitchen sink. No sign of McKinnon.
“Hullo, Eli,” said the doctor. “How have you been? Doing all right?”
“Sure,” Eli said. “You? How’s Mac?”
“Oh, bright as a new penny,” said Dr. Westcott. He picked up a dishtowel and dried his hands. “Bright as a new penny. Fit as a flea. You know Mac.”
“Wes said the housekeeper left.”
“So I heard,” said Westcott. “Too long a walk to church for her, I expect. Missed her mom. Missed her pony.”
“Can I see him?”
“I don’t know why not,” said Westcott, “if you want to. You’re about the only one who does.”
“Want to see Mac.”
“You see him.”
“I’m paid,” said Westcott.
Out of the kitchen and along the passage. Door to the right at the bottom of the unused stairs. McKinnon’s office, study, library, bedroom, where he had had them get him set up. McKinnon’s books, McKinnon’s pictures, McKinnon’s guns, now of no more use to him than the stairs. McKinnon’s deer head high up on the wall.
McKinnon’s books covered three walls and part of the fourth, floor to ceiling, dark, heavy shelves, dark, dusty books. Hundreds of books.
“You’ve read all these books, then, have you?” somebody had asked McKinnon.
“Hell, no,” said McKinnon.
“You going to read them?”
“Why have them, then?”
“They belonged to my father.”
“He read them all?”
“Hell, no,” said McKinnon.
“Why did he have them?”
“He didn’t say.”
Eli rapped on the doorframe. McKinnon was at his desk. His back was to the door. He turned in his chair. His dog, Lulu, a black retriever gone gray about the muzzle and paws and stiff in the joints, lay beside his chair. She raised her head from her paws when Eli knocked, wagged her tail once, thump, and went back to sleep.
“Don’t even get started,” said McKinnon. “Save your breath. It’s no. The answer is no.”
“What’s the question?” Eli asked him.
“Billy,” said McKinnon. “This is about Billy, isn’t it?”
“What makes you think so?”
“What makes me think so?” said McKinnon. “Knowing Billy for, what, fifty years? Closer to sixty? Makes me think so. Knowing Wes’s cousin gave Billy an estimate makes me think so. I don’t know why he gave it to Billy, though, come to think of it. I don’t know why he didn’t just bring it right here.”
“What was the estimate?” Eli asked McKinnon.
“Wes didn’t say.”
“Fifteen K,” said McKinnon.
“Like Billy ever had that together in one place in his life.”
“What have I been telling you?” McKinnon asked.
Eli stepped over the sleeping dog and came around to the front of McKinnon’s desk. McKinnon shifted in his chair to face Eli. He let out a cry and put his hand to his left lower back, twisting in pain.
“What’s the matter?” Eli asked him.
“Back,” said McKinnon. “Again.” He winced. “Jesus,” he said. “Here, stick this in behind me.” He took an old-fashioned leather cushion from the floor and handed it to Eli, then he leaned stiffly forward in his chair, and Eli placed the cushion behind him and to his left.
“Not there, god damn it, over. Over,” McKinnon said. Eli moved the cushion. McKinnon sat back with a little sigh. “Jesus,” he said.
“I thought you got that fixed,” Eli said.
“That was different,” said McKinnon. “This is a disc, they say. Popped a disc. Hurts like a bastard.”
“What does Westcott say?”
“He says a brace might help,” said McKinnon. “I told him I’ve got a whole closet full of braces up there, he can take his pick. None of them ever did me a god damned thing. No more braces.”
“Well,” said Eli, “at least get him to give you something for the pain, can’t you?”
“Won’t do it,” said McKinnon. “Says I’m already taking way too many pain meds, he won’t write me up for any more. He’s right about the meds. Go on in the bathroom there and see what all drugs I got in there. I’m better than Saturday night in Vegas.”
“What’s one more, then?” asked Eli.
“That’s what I asked Westcott,” said McKinnon. “Everybody else’s doctor, hell, you pay them enough, they’ll get you whatever you want. Not mine. No, sir. I got to have a real doctor. My lucking fuck, you know?”
Eli shook his head.
“I’m thinking about cutting them all out,” said McKinnon. “All the meds, all the drugs. Just flush them down the head. Start fresh. I’d try it, too. Westcott says I’d better not.”
“Says if I did I’d probably die,” said McKinnon. “How is Billy, anyway?”
“You mean aside from being up to his neck in his own shit?” Eli asked. “Aside from that, I guess he’s okay.”
“Well,” said McKinnon, “what does he expect, living out there, Waldo’s? That’s nothing more than a camp, never was. A trailer’s better. I’m surprised he even has a toilet. I’m surprised he has running water at all.”
“He put it in some years back,” Eli said. “I helped him. Dug it all with pick and shovel.”
“You don’t say? I didn’t know Billy had that kind of get up and go, you know?”
“He had incentive,” said Eli. “Couple of winters back and forth to the two-holer in the yard? Four feet of snow? It gets you motivated.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said McKinnon.
“’Course,” Eli went on, “pick and shovel, we did it on the run. Pick and shovel, you can’t put in a proper field, for example. We pretty much just ran the pipe out under the yard, off the bank, there, and knocked off.”
“Sure, you did,” said McKinnon.
“So, after, what, ten years?” said Eli. “It’s got to go somewhere. Somebody complains, most likely those Campbells, down the road, have the goats?”
“Toggenburgs,” said McKinnon. “I know the place. They’re from New York.”
“Massachusetts,” said Eli. “They’re from Mass somewhere. Name’s Campbell. Probably it was them made a call, and pretty soon here’s somebody knocking on Billy’s door from the state health.”
“Oh, fuck me,” said McKinnon.
“Billy needs a modern system, the fellow says. He needs to get himself up to code. He needs to get scooped out, cleaned up, drained. He needs a tank, a pump, a mound. Matter of public health. Septic remediation. Billy needs septic remediation.”
“For fifteen K?” McKinnon said. “For fifteen K, he can go back to the two-holer.”
“No, he can’t,” said Eli. “You know he can’t. Shape he’s in, he couldn’t manage it any more than you could.”
“Portable, then,” said McKinnon. “Let him get in a portable, like at the firehouse fair.”
Eli looked at him.
“I suppose that’s a rental, though, isn’t it?” asked McKinnon.
“I suppose it is,” said Eli.
“I don’t suppose Billy would be able to cover that,” said McKinnon.
“I don’t suppose he would,” said Eli.
“Remediation,” said McKinnon. “On Wes’s cousin’s estimate, then, that’s about three thousand bucks a syllable.”
“Nothing,” said McKinnon. “So, for the record, here, what is it you want me to do?”
“Cut a check.”
“You wouldn’t even have to do the whole fifteen,” said Eli. “Not close: Campbells are willing to take some of the action. They like Billy. And plus, they’re having a good year, they say. Goats are up.”
“No chance,” said McKinnon.
Eli bent and scratched the old dog’s ears. She sighed and wagged her tail twice: thump, thump.
“How’s Lulu?” Eli asked.
“You asking her, or me?”
“You see what it is,” said McKinnon. “I don’t like Billy. Billy doesn’t like me. That’s all it is. Dislike. Mutual. Old. Ancient history. You know this.”
Eli nodded. “I do,” he said. He stood and looked down at McKinnon in his chair. He waited for McKinnon to go on.
“Ancient history,” McKinnon said again. “All when we were kids, Billy was that much older, bigger, tougher. He made my life miserable. Just miserable. I was the rich kid, you know? The sissy. Lord Fauntleroy. Hell, my father worked harder than any of theirs. Worked himself to death, didn’t he? Didn’t matter. Billy and those big kids—Larry, Wes, all them—they beat the shit out of me after school on a regular basis. Called me a faggot. I didn’t know what that was. I doubt they did. Didn’t matter, either. Faggot. Fairy. Made my life miserable, they did.”
Eli leaned back against the windowsill. He listened to McKinnon.
“I didn’t care that they beat me up,” said McKinnon. “I didn’t care what they called me. All I wanted was to be in with them. Be part of what they were doing. Why did I want that? I don’t know why. They looked like they were having fun, I guess. Well, they were. Like, one time we were all over at Johnson’s, that big barn he had. Billy and them let me tag along that day, I thought, Oh, boy. It was spring, and Johnson had this enormous manure pile at the back of the barn. All those cows he had? I mean, a mountain of shit. And Billy and Wes and them, and I, were up in the loft, and they grabbed me, one had my belt and one had my legs, and they swung me back and forth, and just pitched me out the door and into the air. Just pitched me. I kind of flew out of the loft and down and into the manure pile, plop. Just about sank. Just about drowned in it. Came up looking like the Tar Baby. Looking like him, but not smelling like him. Billy and Wes and the rest were cracking up. Loving it. When I got home, my mother cried and my father laughed at me.”
“And now look at where you all are,” said Eli.
“Where are we?” asked McKinnon. “Where am I?”
“I meant, you’re clean and dry, and it’s Billy’s in the shit,” said Eli.
“So it is,” said McKinnon. “So it is. And so here you come to me and you tell me Billy’s up to his neck in it and needs my help, and I say to you our God is a just god, and Billy can go fuck himself.”
“That was a long time ago,” said Eli.
“That was yesterday,” said McKinnon.
On the floor beside McKinnon’s chair, Lulu, the retriever, got to her feet. She shook herself and reached with a hind leg to scratch her underparts. Then she looked at McKinnon, then at Eli. Then she turned and walked out of the room.
“No, it wasn’t,” said Eli. “It wasn’t either yesterday. Listen,” he went on, “I know Billy as well as you do. Better. I know what he was like. I know what he’s still like. So does everybody else. Nobody says you owe Billy anything. But, here is Billy. Here is Billy’s situation. Here is you. Billy’s your neighbor. He’s your friend. You don’t like him? So what? He doesn’t like you? So what? Who says you have to like your friends? Who says they have to like you?”
“Hah,” said McKinnon. “I won’t argue that one with you.”
“You want to get technical,” said Eli, “Billy’s your cousin.”
“The hell he is.”
“The hell he isn’t,” said Eli. “Mine, too. Waldo? Waldo’s first wife was Billy’s uncle’s aunt. Wasn’t she? Or great-aunt, I guess. You’re cousins.”
“Give me a break,” said McKinnon. “Waldo’s uncle’s aunt’s ass. You want to go that far, I’m cousins with the whole town. So are you.”
“Exactly,” said Eli.
“What of it?”
“What of it is, it depends on you,” said Eli. “Not on what Billy deserves from you or doesn’t because of what he did or didn’t do. Billy doesn’t even come into it. You do. It’s on you. Do you want people to say you let Billy go down? With all you are? With all you have? This great, big place? Beautiful place? These pastures, all fenced, gated. Woods, mowings, Christmas trees. Land. All this land you own. The help? Wes, the others. All those chickens, those geese, those other birds, the Morgans, the sheep, the buffaloes, the cows—all that stock you’ve got that nobody has yet even tried to figure out a real use for? What it all must cost? And you can’t cut Billy a break, you’re too busy bitching about your back and rolling around with that young girl.”
“She’s an aide,” said McKinnon. “She works here, like the others.”
“Not exactly like the others,” said Eli.
“Sure,” said McKinnon. “She’s got her own room. She’s on the books. She was. She’s gone.”
“Wes said. Where’s she gone?”
“Nursing school,” said McKinnon. “She said. Left yesterday.”
“You going to replace her?” Eli asked.
“Going to have to, aren’t I?” said McKinnon. “I can’t do for myself. You want the job?”
“I don’t think I’ve got the qualifications she had,” said Eli.
“I don’t think so, either,” said McKinnon. He smiled. “I knew she wasn’t here for long, though,” he said. “First day or two she’d moved in, I wanted a bath. We’d had the shower all set up for it, the seat, the rails, the mat, so forth. And I was in there under the shower, and she commences to get out of her clothes and come in, too. And I said, ‘Hey.’ And she said, ‘You want to get clean, or don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. How clean do I have to be?’ I kind of gave her a wink. And she said, ‘Let’s you keep your eye on the ball, here, Mr. McKinnon.’ She’s sharp. Was. ‘Keep your eye on the ball, Mr. McKinnon.’” McKinnon smiled again and shook his head. “Took off,” he said. “Too bad. Lulu’s the only bitch on the place now.”
“Not for long, knowing you,” said Eli. “There will be another one along, soon enough. There always is, isn’t there? With you? There’s always another. You’re predictable, you know that? Just like Billy.”
“Enough of Billy,” said McKinnon.
“Well, okay,” said Eli. “Okay. Enough of Billy. But do you really want people to say, ‘There’s old Mac, up there, couple of thousand acres, every kind of livestock, big payroll, big bank account, big house full of rooms, books, shower baths, housekeepers, aides, nurses—and he can’t help out poor Billy by writing a check for a lousy ten grand.”
“Fifteen,” said McKinnon.
“Ten. Less. I told you: Campbells are good for part.”
“No chance,” said McKinnon. “No Campbells. None of them. None of their charity. It’s the whole shot or nothing.”
“Whatever you say.”
Moving slowly, McKinnon hitched his chair up to his desk. He opened a drawer and took out a large, leather-bound checkbook and a fountain pen. He opened the checkbook and uncapped the pen. He fixed Eli with a look.
“I’m not making this out to Billy, you know,” he said.
“’Course not,” said Eli. “Make it to Wes’s cousin: Burbee Excavating.”
McKinnon wrote out the check. He tore it from the book and waved it in the air to dry the ink. He capped his pen. He laid the check on the desk, face down. Eli stepped to the desk, took the check, folded it once without looking at it, and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
“Will that be all, today?” McKinnon asked him.
“You bet,” said Eli. “I’m obliged to you.”
“Billy’s obliged to me.”
“Billy, too. We all are. You did the right thing here. I knew you would. I knew you’d come up to it.”
“I know you knew.”
Eli nodded and started for the door. Then he stopped and turned back to McKinnon.
“Maybe she won’t like nursing school,” he said. “Maybe she’ll flunk out.”
“Beat it, Eli,” said McKinnon.