One Man Went to Mow
Although it was a cool fall morning, with the clouds feathered softly far up in the blue sky and the sun shining lemon pale, Jonathan knew it was going to be a bad day as soon as he saw his brother leaning up against the side of his tractor, waiting for him.
"I ought to just knock your teeth in right now," Freddy said. He took his cigarette from his lips and flicked it to the ground in an abrupt gesture copied, no doubt, from John Wayne in some late night shoot-em-up show. Freddy straightened up, pushing himself away from the tractor, and started to walk towards him.
"This is all your damn fault," Freddy said. "I ought to just knock your teeth in." As he walked closer, Jonathan saw that he was indeed angry, angrier than usual. His face was pale and his hands, as he knuckled one into the other, trembled. His red hair stood up wildly on end, as if he had slept badly on it and not bothered to look in a mirror. Jonathan had seen Freddy angry many times. But there was something else here that made him pause. A kind of fear behind the anger. A crack in his voice.
Jonathan sighed, tucked his thermos further under his arm, and went to meet him.
"Morning, Freddy," he said.
"Don't you morning me," he said, but he turned slightly aside to let Jonathan reach into the tractor and set his thermos down.
"What is it now, Freddy?" said Jonathan.
"I guess you know what it is," he said. "You think I didn't see you, last night?" He ran his hands through his hair, as much to try to control them as to smooth his hair.
Jonathan breathed in deeply, felt the cool morning air tickle his lungs, and let it out slow. "I guess you did, then," he said.
Freddy put his hand on Jonathan's arm, and Jonathan looked sharply at him, ready to knock it away. But Freddy just looked back at him, the cloth of the jacket gripped tight between his fingers, his eyebrows drawn together and his eyes bloodshot and tired. Jonathan put his hand on top of Freddy's and slowly pulled his jacket out of his grip.
"I ought to just knock your teeth in," Freddy said again, but both of them, now, knew that he wouldn't. He let his hand drop to his side. "She's mine," he said. "What kind of brother are you, anyways?"
Jonathan walked around to the other side of the tractor, checking the chains and connections to the mower. There was no way to talk any sense to Freddy while he was this way. He knew his brother. The best thing was to let him ride it out and wait until the white-hot rage had cooled, then slap him on the back and take him out for a beer. Besides, he had reason to be upset. He had loved her, after all.
Freddy followed him around the back of the mower, hanging close to him, just a step behind.
"This is all your fault," he said. "Why do you always have to ruin things? You always do. Ever since we were kids."
"Calm down, Freddy."
"I don't have to calm down," he said. "This isn't my fault. I have a right to be angry."
"All we did was talk a little, Freddy," Jonathan said. He pulled a half torn-up tree branch out from behind one of the wheels of the mower where it had stuck.
"Seems like if you wanted to talk, you could of done it right there in the bar," said Freddy. "Don't seem to me like there was no call to go home with her. Jesus, why'd you have to go home with her?" He ran his fingers through his hair again, making it stick up worse than ever. The morning sun turned his red hair to a cloud of gold around his face. His brother had always looked this way. Like a Titian angel. Then Jonathan saw that there were rims of black dirt under his fingernails, a scratch and the beginnings of a nasty bruise on his forehead.
"Oh, Lord," he said. "You've been fighting."
Freddy looked away, ducking his chin into his shoulder.
A cold chill ran down Jonathan's spine. "Cass," he said. "You didn't hit Cass." He took a step forward and put both his hands on Freddy's shoulders. "Tell me."
"I didn't hit her," said Freddy. He looked wildly up at Jonathan. "I saw you go home with her. I followed you there."
Jonathan looked sharply at him. "You were following?" he said. "She thought you were."
"I saw you go home with her," he said again.
"Then you know I left right away," Jonathan said. "You know I only stayed a few minutes."
"A lot can happen in a few minutes," he said.
"It didn't, though," said Jonathan. He took his hands off Freddy. "Not what you're thinking of, anyway."
Freddy turned red at that, looked away at the highway where the early morning traffic was beginning to build, whooshing past them with a noise like water over a dam. Then Freddy frowned, and straightened himself up. He pushed his hair back, and gingerly touched the bruise on his forehead.
"Let me ride with you today," he said. He was calmer, now, the anger fading. "I got no place else to be."
"Freddy," he said. "You know I'm not supposed to do that."
"Come on," Freddy said. "I could help you. It's not like I don't know the job."
"I'm not supposed to let anybody ride with me," said Jonathan. "Especially not ex-employees who got fired for punching out the foreman."
"I didn't get fired," Freddy said. "I quit."
"Oh?" he said. "I didn't hear that. When exactly did you quit?"
"Right when I hit that son of a bitch foreman," Freddy said, and boosted himself up into the cab of the tractor.
Jonathan's job was to mow the grass along the state highway. He sat up high in the tractor with the long-armed blades stretching out on either side behind him, and drove it up and down the edges of the road. Some days another, smaller tractor would come along too, and cut the grasses in between the trees, the small, protected areas where Jonathan couldn't reach. But he liked it best when he was alone, with the sun high up in the sky and the light feeling alternately like a blow and a caress where it fell on his skin. His arms burned quickly, then tanned, where they were not protected by the roof of the tractor. His face stayed pale.
He liked it when there was a breeze, and the pollen from the wildflowers and the pine trees lifted up and floated down and dusted the metal of the tractor to gold. He liked it when the storm clouds gathered up against the edge of the ocean off to the east, stilled by the cold wet air and dumping their rain in torrents on the ground. The road steamed then, angry, seething, black. But the dirt and grasses along the sides of the road were quiet and dripping and wet.
He would look up at the sky, at the blue sky with a feathering of white clouds, or a sky streaked with purple and dark clouds humped up like elephants, and he would wonder if Cass was looking at the same sky, wondering about him.
Jonathan had only actually seen Freddy fighting once. It was years ago, when Freddy was nineteen, little more than a kid. They were out at Hank's, celebrating. Freddy was supposed to be leaving, the next morning, to join the Navy. He had signed up right out of high school. Freddy was full up to the brim with pride that night, talking loud and fast, bragging his way through stories. Most of the bar listened with half an ear, knowing Freddy too well to believe what he said, but liking him just the same. But there were two men at a nearby table who didn't like his talking. They were drunk, and Freddy was drunk, and when they asked him, none too politely, to shut up, Freddy laid into them. The fight was quick, Freddy holding his own for a while until the other two had him pinned against the bar.
The fight would probably have ended there, with everyone bruised and battered but really none the worse off, but Freddy was burning with that white-hot rage and he picked up a beer mug and smashed it down, hard, on the shorter guy's head. He slumped down onto the floor and didn't move. A thin trickle of blood dripped onto the floor. His friend felt his pulse, said that it was still going, and went to call an ambulance and the police.
Freddy looked around, bewildered. He saw his brother. "Jonathan," he said. He still held the shattered handle of the beer mug in his hand. He saw it, and dropped it to the floor where it landed with a dull thud. "Help me," he said.
"The police," he said. His hands started shaking. "Jonathan, the police are coming. I can't leave tomorrow if I'm in jail. Help me."
Jonathan couldn't let him screw this chance up. He might never have another one as good. This was his little brother, his pretty, crazy little brother, who stole rotten oranges off the orchard floor and chucked them at passing cars. Who sat between him and Cass at the movie theatre, grinning the whole time, knowing that Jonathan and she couldn't kiss while he was there. Who had failed English and Math his junior year, and who only passed Algebra in his senior year by two points, and a lot of help from Jonathan. He knew he would never, ever, have a chance like this again. So Jonathan sighed, and took Freddy by the hand, and led him to the bathroom. He got out of his clothes and made Freddy put them on. He put Freddy's clothes on himself. Jonathan finished tying up his boots just as they heard the police siren wailing in the distance, coming closer.
"Hit me," he said to Freddy.
"You have to hit me," he said. He beckoned impatiently. "Come on, Freddy, hit me. Hard, in the face, just where that big guy hit you."
"Come on, we don't have much time," Jonathan said. "Hit me."
Freddy did, and Jonathan fell to the floor, dazed and bleeding. When the police came in, they both swore that it had been Jonathan in the fight, not Freddy. The shorter of the two guys was half-blinded by concussion, and the other grew confused when the entire bar said that it had been Jonathan fighting, too. And Freddy left the next day to join the Navy, while Jonathan was held in jail on five hundred dollars bond, which he didn't have and couldn't pay. Cass finally scraped up the money after five days, and came down to get him out.
And three months later, Freddy was back, dishonorably discharged for Extreme Insubordination. He kept his mouth tightly closed whenever Jonathan asked what exactly it was that he had done.
Jonathan and Freddy rode together, down the side of the highway. Jonathan whistled as he drove, a tune he remembered their mother had lullabyed them to sleep with when they were little. One man went to mow, he whistled. Went to mow a meadow, one man and his dog . . .
"Stop that," said Freddy. He turned from looking out the window and stared at Jonathan.
"Stop what?" said Jonathan. He started whistling again. One man went to mow, went to mow . . .
"That song," said Freddy. "I always hated that godamn song."
"I'll whistle whatever I want," he said. "This is my tractor."
Freddy scowled at him, but then seemed to shrug it off. He reached up to pick a postcard down from where it was pinned above the rearview mirror. "What's this?" he said.
It was a postcard that Cass had sent to him from North Carolina, the first time she left him. It was a picture of a mountaintop, with a road wrapped around the side of it like a dark ribbon. She told him later that she had been standing on the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway, on a damp and chilly morning in early June, with the mist rising from the valley floor and seeping down from the hilltops so that everything was wreathed in white and muted, all hard edges smoothed away. And then she had seen the kudzu, a darker green seen through the fog, and it too seemed to twist and writhe through the air, wrapping itself around every living thing. She said she had stood there in the fog, shivering and wet, goose-bumps rising on her bare legs, watching the kudzu move through the mist, or the mist through the kudzu, until she forgot which was which, until it didn't matter, until the sun rose above the dark valleys and burned away the mist and all that was left was the kudzu, still and unmoving.
Later, when she told him that, she had cried, and when he reached his arms out to hold her, she shoved them away and told him, over and over: you don't understand, you don't understand, you don't.
"Leave that," Jonathan said, and grabbed for Freddy's hand. The tractor swerved sharply, and Freddy fell against the door.
"Jesus," he said. "Watch where you're going. Keep your eyes on the road." He reached up for the postcard again.
"Leave it," said Jonathan, but he kept his hands on the wheel.
Freddy pulled down the card. "Maybe I should drive," he said. "I could sure as hell handle this machine a lot better than you're doing right now." He read the back of the card.
The green that covers over everything,
Under the shadow of that great green god,
Drops away to fall where there once was spring.
He looked at Jonathan. "This from Cass?" he said.
Jonathan didn't answer. He kept his eyes focused on the long grass ahead of them. He kept driving steady and straight onward.
"What's this mean?" he said. "What's this mean, this great green god shit? Huh?"
"Nothing," said Jonathan. "Nothing. It's an old card, from before. When Cass and I were . . ." He stopped.
"I want to know what this shit means," said Freddy. He slammed the heel of his hand hard into the dash. "Tell me."
But the truth was that Jonathan didn't know, hadn't ever known, what Cass meant. Not about anything. He understood her as a prickle along his spine, a chill against his skin, a shiver when she walked across a room or smiled at him. He never understood her in the bone-deep, age-old way that he imagined lasting love must be. But then he and Cass had never been meant to last, had they?
"Nothing," said Jonathan. "It's just a poem, the first verse of a poem, that's all. Calm down."
"Don't tell me to calm down," Freddy said, and slammed his hand into the dash again. "Don't tell me to calm down when you've got a card from my girlfriend tacked up in your cab." He looked at the card again, then tore it in half, and half again.
"It's an old card," said Jonathan. "Check the date. She sent it a long time ago."
Freddy stared out the side of the tractor, at a meadow of purple wildflowers that were hung about with the remnants of last night's fog. His hands moved over the quartered postcard on his lap. His voice, when he spoke, was flat. "I know," he said.
He sat in silence for a minute while the tractor droned onward and the blades roared and clicked behind them. He brushed the torn pieces from his lap to the floor of the cab. Then he turned to look at Jonathan.
"But what's it mean?" he said. "That great green god shit, does it mean something?"
"Nothing," said Jonathan. "If it does, I don't know."
"It's probably about me," Freddy said, and returned to staring moodily out at the fields of flowers. He started whistling, slowly, quietly, one note at a time.
One man went to mow,
Went to mow a meadow.
Jonathan remembered the fall of her hair across her forehead, and the way that she smelled like apples, like apples in a town that was wreathed in the scent of orange pulp. She wore a pair of flat-heeled, black scratched boots with everything. She wrapped her arms around her like a shawl. She had a book, which she called her "Book of the Dead." In it, she made a mark every time she saw an animal dead by the side of the road. She wrote what kind of animal it was, if she could tell. When the numbers reached one hundred, she wrote to the governor of Florida, enclosing a copy of the list so he could see what was happening. She decided she was going to go to school, learn how to be a veterinary assistant. When it reached five hundred, she sent it to all the local papers. She decided to change her major, and learn how to write better, become a journalist, maybe. When it reached a thousand, on a black overcast day driving back from Miami, when you could see the rain coming down like bullets when the lightning lit it up, she burst into sudden tears. She looked down at her knees the rest of the way home. I can't look out, she'd said. I can't.
Freddy leaned his head out the window of the tractor, listening back for the sound of the blades as they tore through the grasses. He pulled his head back in.
"How high you got them set?" he said.
"Eight inches," said Jonathan.
Freddy shook his head. "It's too high," he said. "Ought to be set no more than six. Preferably four. It's in the rules, if you'd read them."
"Four?" said Jonathan. "Do you know what kind of stuff gets torn up if you set it to four? Soda bottles, branches, dead animals, whatever. You set it to eight, it runs right over that shit."
"Six maximum," said Freddy. "Those are the rules."
"Screw the rules."
"Well," said Jonathan, "I'm not lowering these blades."
"It's built for it," he said. "These blades are built to run right over that shit, as you put it, and chew it up." Freddy reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flask. He took a swallow from it and offered it to Jonathan. "You should take some pointers from me," he said.
"Freddy," said Jonathan. "The last pointer you tried to give me, you ended up to your ass in cow shit. Remember?" "I'm serious, now," said Freddy. "Let me drive. I'll show you just how serious I am."
"I can't let you drive," he said. "I could get fired. It's against all the regulations."
"I can drive this bitch," he said.
"I can't let you, Freddy."
"You think I can't do it?" Freddy slammed his fist into the dash. "Godammit, I remember how to drive this thing. I was doing it before you were. I remember."
"Freddy," said Jonathan. He sighed. Maybe he could let him drive. For a little while. Nobody would know.
"I remember," Freddy said again. "I remember a lot of things."
Jonathan looked at him. His face was tense again, his jaw tight, his fists clenched to stop them shaking. He turned to look back at Jonathan. "I remember you always getting whatever you wanted." He spoke calmly, even detachedly, but Jonathan could hear the anger creeping back into his voice. "That's what I remember. You always getting whatever the hell you wanted. Me getting shit."
Jonathan sighed. He knew what this was about.
"Tell me what's going on," Freddy said.
Jonathan shook his head. "You need to talk to her," he said. "I can't tell you anything."
Freddy seemed to accept that. He stopped frowning. "It's just the way she is," he said. "I should've know that. It's just the way you are, too. The both of you. God knows, I could see it clear enough when she was with you. But then, when she gets close to me, I forget." He closed his eyes.
"She's just a girl, Freddy," Jonathan said. "Don't make her anything more than that."
"Call her whatever you like," he said. "Bitch, whore, whatever. There's worse that would fit."
"Don't," said Jonathan.
Freddy opened his eyes. Jonathan noticed the way his hands shook, fluttering along the tops of his legs, and that his red-rimmed eyes darted from place to place, glancing off everything but never stopping to look.
"You're my brother," he said. "I should trust you."
"You should," said Jonathan.
"It's just that I loved her," he said.
Freddy turned back to the window, and Jonathan could hear him, a few seconds later, sniffing loudly. He handed him Kleenex.
"Did you talk to Cass last night?" Jonathan said. "After I left, did you go in to talk to her?" Freddy didn't say anything. He fumbled with the Kleenex and blew his nose again. He looked out the window so Jonathan couldn't see his eyes. Finally he coughed.
"No," he said. "I didn't talk to her at all last night." He turned back to look at Jonathan. "Let me drive. Let me take over this thing now. I can drive it."
Jonathan slowed the tractor down, and shoved the stick into neutral. "Okay," he said. "Just for a little while, you drive. But if you get into any trouble, I'm taking right back over, you understand?"
"I can handle trouble," said Freddy. "I'm telling you, I can drive this thing."
"I've heard that before," he said, but he slipped out of the cab and walked around to the other door, while Freddy slid across to the driver's side. Freddy slid the tractor into gear without grinding anything, and then they were moving again.
"But I'm not lowering the blades," said Jonathan.
Freddy waved him away with a flap of his hand. "Later," he said.
Last night, at Hank's Bar, Cass had walked across the room towards him and smiled. He had seen Freddy sitting at the bar, drinking whiskey with one hand and Coke with another, but it didn't matter. He had seen Freddy reach out with one hand to grab her as she walked by, seen her twist lightly out of his grip and laugh at him, walking by. He had seen the stubborn set of Freddy's jaw, and known that there would be trouble, but it didn't matter. She looked so good to him, walking across that room with her hair pulled back off her face and wearing an old red dress that he remembered had once belonged to her mother, that nothing else mattered.
"Hi," she'd said.
She smiled at him again and sat down. "Buy me a drink, sailor?" she said.
Then he remembered that it was his brother sitting at the bar. "You need to watch it," he said. "You should have Freddy buy your drinks for you."
"Freddy," she said, "will only be buying drinks for himself tonight. He either has too little money, or too great a thirst, to buy one for me."
"He told you that?"
"He didn't have to."
She smiled at him once more, but this time it didn't reach her eyes.
"You look good," she said.
"So do you," he said. "Put on a little weight, too, I see."
She flushed, and looked away. "Now, sailor," she said. "You're not supposed to mention that a girl's put on weight. You should just say that she looks very healthy."
"You look perfectly healthy," he said. "Perfectly."
She stared down at the napkin in front of her. She traced a circle on it with her finger.
"How's your Momma?" he said.
"Fine." She stopped making circles on the napkin and started on triangles instead.
"Is everything okay?" he said.
She looked up at him, and he could see the beginnings of desperation in her face.
"Jonathan," she said. "Can I talk to you?"
"Of course," he said, but he kept his tone light and unconcerned. He wasn't sure he wanted anymore of her desperation.
"In private?" she said. "Come with me to my house?"
"Cass," he said. He looked over at the bar where Freddy was hunched over a whiskey glass, looking back at them. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," he said.
"Please," she said. She reached across the table and touched his hand, lightly, with her finger. And because she looked so good to him with her hair pulled back and wearing her mother's dress, and because she smelled like apples in a stink of orange fog, and because Freddy at the bar made no move to stop them, in fact didn't even look up from his drink to watch them go, he left with her.
The summer when Jonathan had been fourteen, and Freddy was twelve, when the frogs were everywhere and their chirping filled the night air, that was when Cass came. She arrived that summer in a U-Haul truck with her mother, and moved into a trailer on the empty lot behind the orange grove. Jonathan and Freddy were finishing building the tree house in the live oak by the creek, and they had stopped their hammering to watch Cass, then twelve but looking younger, jump out of the truck cab and look around. Her glance took in the rows of orange trees lined up away into the distance. She stretched, dug the toes of her boot into the dung-colored mud, and, with the unerring instinct of the young, walked over to their live oak tree and stopped beneath it. She looked up into the tall branches, and Freddy and Jonathan looked down at her.
"Hi," she said. "Who're you?"
"We live here," said Freddy, scowling at her. He dropped the hammer and lunged for it, missed, and almost fell out of the tree. Cass stepped aside as the hammer buried itself head first in the mud. She grinned up at them.
"You trying to kill me already?" she said.
They would have done anything for her then. When Freddy fell out of the tree house, on a starlit summer night after Cass's mother had forbidden her to have anything further to do with the boys, Jonathan covered for them. Even though it had been Freddy up there with her that night, even though he himself had been nowhere near the place. He stood facing Cass's mother, and explained that it had been him and Freddy only in the tree that night, that they hadn't seen Cass in weeks, and that she had only come out of the trailer when she heard Freddy screaming. That she was covered in mud because she had slipped in the yard outside the trailer, coming to meet them.
"That's true, Momma," she said, looking up wide-eyed and brushing her hair back from her yellow mud-stained face.
"I didn't hear no screaming," said her mother, but that was as far as it went. Cass wasn't punished, and neither was Freddy.
Jonathan was, for not looking out for his younger brother. He took the blows in silence, trying not to think about what Freddy might have been doing there with her that night, alone, high up in the dark branches with the wind moving them like a ship at sea, with the starlit sky spread out above them and the scent of orange blossoms everywhere.
Jonathan kept his eye on the stand of pine trees that they were approaching. They were set too close together to mow between them, so Freddy would have to go around them altogether. They would send the small mower out to finish up later, to mow between the trees and keep the grass beneath them smooth and even. It looked cool underneath the trees, in the shadows of the tall trees.
Freddy reached in his pocket and took out a cigarette. He kept one hand on the wheel. His hands were shaking as he tried to light it, and it took him a couple of attempts. He exhaled with a ragged, uneven breath.
"I was much too good for her, you know," he said.
Jonathan kept quiet.
"Hell, she's not anything special," Freddy said. "I thought her poetry sucked."
"Freddy," said Jonathan. "Don't talk like that. You need to go see her, straighten this out."
"I don't think I can," said Freddy. "I don't think it can be straightened out." He inhaled on his cigarette, and then let out his breath with a sound that was half cough, half laugh. "I think it's too late for that."
Jonathan sighed. "Well," he said. "I know she needs to talk to you."
He looked over at Freddy, who was staring at the stand of tall pines just ahead of them. Their trunks cast shadows on the grass, shadows that stretched away long and dark, now that the sun was halfway up in the sky. Freddy wiped his hand over his forehead, wiping away the beads of sweat that had gathered there in the growing heat of the morning. His hands were clenched around the steering wheel, the knuckles standing out white and taut. The sky was clear blue and the sun burned white and fierce now. Jonathan unscrewed the top of his thermos with one hand and lifted it to his lips, then offered it to Freddy. Freddy didn't move to take it. He stared straight ahead as they moved toward the trees. Freddy pulled out the flask and finished it, then flipped it out the door. He wiped his forehead again.
It looked cool and shady beneath the stand of pine trees. The ground there, what he could see of it, was pooled with shadow. Freddy was looking into the shadows beneath the trees, too. He sat up straight, and mowed toward the trees.
"What are you doing?" Jonathan said.
Freddy glanced at him.
"What are you doing?" he said again.
"Mowing," Freddy said.
"No, no, you have to go around, mow around the trees," he said. "There's not enough room between them."
"Yes there is," said Freddy. "There's plenty of room."
"There's not," said Jonathan. "The tractor won't fit."
"I can mow between them."
"I'm telling you, there's not enough room."
"There is," he said. "Just enough room. I'm doing it."
Jonathan sighed, and slumped back into his seat. "Okay, okay," he said. "Try it, then."
Freddy gripped the wheel even tighter as he maneuvered the tractor between the first of the trees. There was enough room, just, and the tractor pushed through with a squeak of pine branches against metal.
With Cass again last night, he had remembered what had been once between them. He remembered how she'd sit propped up in the bed in their apartment, naked, cross-legged, with her hair falling down in front of her face an old notebook propped on her knees. J, she'd say. Listen to this. Something she'd wrote or something she'd read somewhere and liked, and stolen. She'd read him the poem that was written, now, on the card that Freddy had ripped into quarters. Listen, she'd said.
I'd thought that when I really loved something
I'd let it stay. But now you see you've had
The green that covers over everything,
Drops away to fall where there once was spring.
With her in the house, last night, he had remembered. He sat on the very edge of her new couch and watched her move about the room, turning on a lamp, straightening a pillow, her hands afraid to keep still. He watched her, drinking her in until he was full up with her, satiated with stored pictures of her.
"What is it?" he said.
She stopped moving, then. She came and sat next to him on the couch. He could hear the frogs singing in the trees outside. He could hear the scratching of a moth as it bumped against the screen of the open window behind them.
"I'm pregnant," she said.
"Oh, Cass," he said. He placed his hand over hers.
She pushed her hair off her face with her other hand. "Don't worry," she said.
"Is it Freddy's?" he said.
She jerked her hand away. "Of course it is, you asshole," she said.
"Yes. Of course it is."
"It's just . . ."
Her face crumpled. She closed her eyes.
"It's just," she said, "that I wish it was you."
She leaned her head against him, and he let her stay like that. He breathed in the apple-scent of her hair and he wished that it was him too. She put her arms around his neck and lifted up her face, eyes still closed.
"Cass," he said.
"I don't care," she said. "Let's try again." She opened her eyes. "Whatever went wrong between us wasn't so bad that we can't try again." She pulled him down toward her so that they half-lay backwards on the couch. He stroked her cheek. She bent her head and kissed him, a quick fluttering kiss along the line of his jaw.
"Cass," he said. "It's Freddy's baby."
"I don't care," she said. She kissed him twice more, moving slowly towards his mouth. "I want you instead," she said. "We wouldn't even have to tell Freddy it was his. It could be yours."
"This is wrong," he said.
"I don't care," she said. "I don't care. I wish it was you."
"Cass," he said again, and his voice cracked, and he knew then that he had lost. He kissed her back, remembering the feel and taste of her. Remembering the thousands of days and nights that had passed between them, remembering the clean bright smell of her. Remembering, too, the night when she had thrown a whiskey bottle at him, and then screamed and screamed until her throat was raw and all she could do was croak. Remembering the day when she wouldn't get out of bed and lay there, all day and all night, rocking back and forth and crying. Remembering that he had loved her for years, since she was a child, and would continue to do so even when it was no longer possible.
She was like that. She always broke down. She would continue to do so.
He stopped her. He pushed her arms down, but gently. He stood up from the couch and her arms fell back into her lap. She looked up at him, puzzled.
"What is it?" she said.
"I can't do it this way," he said. "You have to tell Freddy. Talk to him, tell him it's over."
Cass opened her mouth to protest, then shut it again. She looked down at the floor, scuffing the toe of her shoe across the wooden boards. "You could talk to him," she said. She looked up at him. "You talk to him, please. I don't want him to get angry with me. I don't like him when he's angry."
Jonathan laughed. "I don't like him any better," he said. "Besides, he's liable to belt me one. He wouldn't want to hurt you."
"No," said Cass, staring at the floor again. "I know he wouldn't."
"Talk to him," he said. "Say whatever you have to, and then when it's done, call me." He bent down and kissed the top of her head. "Call me, and I'll be here right away."
He straightened up. "We'll try again, if that's what you want," he said. "We'll try it one more time, Cass."
She was sitting on the couch still, looking after him, when he left. Which was the way she wanted it, after all.
Freddy slowed the tractor down, and drove carefully between the trees. Jonathan sat up straight, tense, and looked out at the nearby branches. The coolness was a relief after the sun.
"Don't worry," said Jonathan. "I don't think you scratched anything. Yet."
Freddy didn't answer. He fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette, and dropped it. He reached for another but didn't light it, just kept rolling it between his fingers. His forehead was glassy with beads of sweat, but he made no move to wipe it. He kept staring straight ahead.
"Almost there," he said.
"Yes," said Jonathan. "You're almost done."
He looked forward, to see how much more Freddy had to mow. He thought that he would take over the driving again once they got out of the trees. Freddy had shown him, had proved himself, but now it was time for Jonathan to take over again.
He saw, then, that there was a roll of carpet, or blanket, lying on the grass in front of them.
"Shit," he said, under his breath. Now he would have to get out and move it. "See?" Jonathan said. "If the blades were just a little higher, you could mow right over that."
Freddy didn't say anything.
"I'm just kidding," Jonathan said. "Jesus. I'm going to move it. Stop the tractor."
Freddy hesitated, and then he cut the motor of the tractor. Jonathan opened the door and jumped down from the cab. The traffic on the freeway sounded far-off and fleeting, droning like a hive of drowsy bees.
Jonathan's boots made a swishing noise as he walked through the long grass. The ground was uneven under his feet. There were rocks, bumps and hillocks. Perhaps the old bones of long-dead creatures. Funny, but he didn't notice that when he was sitting up in the cab of the tractor. The bundle in front of him was wrapped in a white and blue blanket and tied up with duct tape. And then, suddenly, he knew what it was. He knew that blanket. His heart started in his chest with a sudden rush of blood, and his hands were damp and cold. He turned back to look at Freddy in the tractor.
Freddy was leaning out of the tractor window, watching him. Watching the bundle. Even from a distance, Jonathan could see his hands shaking.
"Jesus, Freddy," he said.
He turned back to the blanket. He had to make sure. Make sure it wasn't a mistake. But he was already sure. He got down on one knee. He put his hand out, and grasped a corner of the blanket between his finger and thumb, and started to pull it back. The first thing he saw was her hair, her beautiful hair, tangled and matted down with blood on one side. He pulled the blanket down further. Her face was pale and freckled with blood. But it was cool here, under the shadowed trees, and there were no flies, no blackened bloating you can expect from the Florida sun, very little smell. She looked almost as she had last night, watching him as he left.
He put his hand over his mouth, squeezed his eyes shut.
He had touched that hair, run his fingers through it, buried his face in it.
He had kissed her, there, on her mouth. Just a little while ago he was kissing those lips.
Her face. Her skin. He had touched her cheek, run his finger down the line of her jaw.
He stood up and stumbled a few steps away, then vomited into the grass.
Cass. Oh, Cass.
He looked back at the tractor. Freddy was still sitting there, gripping the doorframe so hard that his knuckles stood out, white and bloodless, staring at him, or the blanket, or both. Then he ducked his head, and Jonathan heard the jangling of his keys, and then the engine roared to life again. Jonathan straightened up and walked toward the tractor. As he grew nearer, Freddy's hands began to shake again, and he gripped the wheel tighter. Jonathan looked at him as he walked across the ground between them.
"You son of a bitch," he said. And then louder, so that Freddy could hear him over the engine. "You son of a bitch."
Jonathan looked at his brother, his red face contorted and twisted, his hair starting out wildly all over his head. He looked distorted, wavering behind the windshield glass.
"I loved her," Jonathan said. "You son of a bitch, I loved her."
Freddy put the tractor in gear. It started moving toward Jonathan, slowly. Freddy yelled down at him. "I loved her too," he said. "I loved her a hell of a lot more. A whole hell of a lot."
"You son of a bitch." Jonathan stepped to the side, out of the path of the mower, but Freddy turned the wheel and pointed it at him again.
"Freddy," he said. "You can't run me down with that thing."
"This is all your fault," he said.
"You better just turn off the engine," Jonathan said. "You can't run me down." He stepped back in the other direction, and Freddy turned the wheel again. Then Jonathan took three steps forward, jumped to the side of the tractor, and reached out with one hand to grab the door handle. He yanked the door open, and Freddy let out a high pitched scream, of frustration, surprise, shame perhaps. Jonathan reached down and shoved the gearshift into neutral.
Freddy slid across the seat, out from behind the wheel, away from him. "This is all your fucking fault," he said. He slumped down against the door, his head tucked into his chest. "Just leave me alone. This is all your fault."
"You son of a bitch," said Jonathan. He took a step down, back out of the cab.
Freddy lifted his head and tilted it back. He looked directly at Jonathan for a moment, and then closed his eyes. He was lost, blind, seeking. "I don't care," he said. "I don't care. I wish it was you."
Jonathan stopped. He had heard those words before.
Cass. Oh, Cass.
Freddy opened his eyes and looked up at him. He looked so tired, so lost. "Help me," he said. His bottom lip trembled, but he tried to smile. "Help me," he said.
"Jesus," said Jonathan.
His smile grew, strengthened. "It's your fault," he said. "You know it is. Help me."
Jonathan looked at him. This was his brother before him. Whatever else passed between them, there was also the passage of blood. There was Cass's blood, too, but there was nothing he could do about that now. There was the long passage of time holding them together, the memories of holidays, rivers swum, footballs tossed, and also tree houses and the smell of orange blossoms and the thick bars of a jail and a girl with black hair that smelled like apples.
I don't care, I don't care, I wish it was you.
Cass, and the breeze from the open window blowing a curl of hair into her eyes so she has to brush it back, impatient.
"Jesus, Freddy," Jonathan said.
Freddy blew his nose on his sleeve, and straightened up. Jonathan took a deep breath, looked down at the bundle on the ground in front of them and walked to the back of the tractor, brushing away with his hands some of the pine needles which had fallen on the metal of the mower.
He knew that she would never have given up.
He lowered the blades to four inches.
He knew that she had given up already more times than he could count.
He walked back to the front of the tractor and climbed in.
He could never predict what she would do, but he never was surprised when she did it.
He didn't look at Freddy as he turned the key in the ignition and started the engine.
There wasn't anything he didn't know about her, but he didn't know how those, the parts, added up into a coherent whole, a person, a Cass. Unless perhaps it was just that, a part here that was real, that loved him, and another part, there, that loved Freddy, and yet another part, separate from them both, that watched the mist and the kudzu on a misty June dawn, and tried to write it down, to say the words that would call it back to what it was.
And he had said it was nothing, it was about nothing.
The blades whirled into life, cutting, destroying. He pointed the wheels at the bundle in front of them.
"Jesus," he said, again. But it was more, now, like a prayer.
He took a deep breath, thinking about how things were always so right just before they started to go wrong, and then they stayed wrong for a long, long time. Then he put the tractor in gear and started mowing toward her through the long grass, cut down by his passage. Forgive this. Cass, forgive this. Let this go easily. Let it be forgotten. Let the grass come again here, thicker than before. Let it grow tall and green. The green that covers over everything.