FICTION WINNER-<span class="Apple-converted-space"> </span>First Stones
This is the winning story in the Hook's 2007 short story contest. Announced in January and judged by none other than top novelist John Grisham, the contest drew well over 100 entries. The winning author received a check for $700 at the opening ceremony for the Virginia Festival of the Book at the main library downtown on March 21. The second- and third-place winners received checks for $200 and $100 respectively, and the Hook will publish their stories later this spring. –editor.
I should have left her there. Just fired up the old flatbed and stormed on off to Connecticut. Find a new helper, get on the job, which I was three weeks and half a dozen states late for as it was. We didn't get into each other's private lives. Just walk away, MacBain.
How many times had I sworn never to work with a woman? Couldn't remember. Not that a woman can't be a good stonemason. No, that wasn't... But what the hell had she gotten herself into this time?
And could she get out of it? Well, I wasn't her keeper. I was just an old guy who slammed stones around, and I'd hired a girl– one with baggage, too. Anybody'd say I was crazy. And hell, I never denied it.
But I was really past caring about stereotypes: I'd work with a damn chimp if I could train one. Anyway, most people figured Hannie was my daughter, when we'd show up for a job.
She had this thing– magnetism, maybe– not sexy, exactly– that drew men. Usually the wrong kind of men. In the couple of years we'd worked together all over the country, I'd seen her go off with a long-sideburn biker, a construction stiff who looked like a young Tom Selleck, a stranded surf bum, a psychotic bartender, an out-of-work tattoo artist and some others. What the hell she saw in them I'll never know.
Hanson Blair. Helluva name. Old man probably wanted a boy. Two years– more– ago I'd taken a chance on hiring her. But hey, I'm an equal-opportunity redneck: don't hold anything against anybody just on account of her plumbing. I gave her the conditions: show up on time, do the work, don't bring your problems to the job. Portajohn's over there. Any questions?
"Maybe," she said. "How long does it take for the average dumb broad to get to be a stonemason?"
I looked her up and down. Hands hard, good body, some of it muscle. Jeans fit right, and they were worn, not pre-faded. Nice up front, too, but that wasn't supposed to matter. Hell, she was here to lay stone.
"Average dumb broads don't get to be masons. You show any aptitude, work your butt off, couple of years you may have it. Some people never do."
"Fair enough. You got any questions?"
I gave her a quick once-over again. Blue eyes, mouth a little grim till she smiled. Been around. And why the hell not? Debutantes don't want to be stonemasons.
"Who the hell ever named you Hanson?"
"Who the hell ever named you Theophilous? Now, you want that truck unloaded or not?"
And dammit, I couldn't really have left her; I'd gotten so used to her, you know? I liked seeing her in the mornings, looked forward to hearing her voice. Liked the way she pulled her own weight, didn't complain. Past year, I'd stopped telling people she was my helper. She was the other stonemason, scrap the sexist stereotype. Earned it. She was tough, and a lot sharper than the guys she hung with, for sure.
This Steve Havelock had come on easy, from what she'd let drop. Real sensitive guy, and I could tell she needed that. We'd been on this Virginia job a month, with maybe two to go. Big rocks from over the Blue Ridge for a major dry-stack wall. I'd rented a Bobcat loader by the week, and the work was coming along. She'd met Steve when he'd come over to see the owner. Worked in some kind of computer business with him. Big guy. Drove a BMW.
Well, Hannie lighted up with Steve around. Catch her humming along at work. She was always doing thoughtful things anyway, like icing up the water jug or bringing donuts, but now she was being downright sweet, lighting up the place with that smile. Well, good. The social life she'd been able to snatch, the way we worked, hadn't been all that great, I knew. You ain't got much to offer, after heaving rocks all day. And lately she'd sort of gotten off the losers, seemed like.
So now I began to figure: couple months maybe, and she'd be gone, with any luck to be Mrs. Steve. And yeah, I'd miss her, I guessed. Well, two and a half years was about average, in my experience. Last guy lasted eight months, then figured he knew it all. Wanted to go partners. Little snot: in 30 years he may make it on his own, if he's lucky.
It was three, four weeks from finishing– the customer had added a set of steps and a rock-lined pool–when I saw the bruise on her forearm.
"Rock get you?" Sometimes I'm dense as the rocks I work with.
"Yeah. Rolled on my arm. Big one. Little sore, but it'll be okay."
"Hope so. Call me when you need help with the big ones, remember?"
She didn't smile much that day, but hell, stonework with a bruised arm.... Later, Steve showed up with a bunch of roses to pick her up. She left her S-10 pickup on the job. Flashed me that big smile as she got into the Beamer.
Like I said, it didn't register, but maybe it should have. I drove over to Dirty John's for a cool one before heading for the cheap motel and café where I had a room by the week. Grab a bite, do some reading, I guessed. Hannie was staying with friends of a friend– houseful of girls, some at the state university.
"Hey, Theo," Rusty greeted me from behind the bar. She's forty-four, too much makeup, but a helluva bartender. "When are you gonna take me away from all this?" Sometimes I wished she'd get a new line.
"Soon's I'm rich and famous, Baby."
"Hell, you're already famous. Saw that magazine article on you. Heard about other stuff. Master mason: hot stuff."
"All bullshit, girl. That an' a dollar'll get you a cuppa coffee an' a donut. And not a very good donut."
She set a frosted mug of draft on the bar. It was August, and dry outside. One long swallow cooled my baked insides. Rusty wasn't bad looking, but she had a truck-driving husband who was jealous. Well, I was hands-off, anyway: Got my own marriage wrecked by a walking medical ego, and wouldn't wreck another one. Besides, I liked her guy.
"When's Frank due in?"
"Saturday, he said. On a run from Toronto down to Florida somewhere an' back."
"Tell him I'm ready to go fishin', when he stops shakin' from drivin' that rig."
"Now, Theo, I got a long honey-do list for that man. Why'nt you take Hannie fishin'?"
"Oh, she's thick with that guy Steve, in the Beamer. Good thing, too. Got no business off with a sour old man drownin' fishin' worms."
"Worms? You don't fool me, Theo MacBain. I happen to know you're one of them dry-fly fishermen. Wouldn't have a can of nightcrawlers anywhere near you. Worsen' Frank."
"Maybe so, Rusty, maybe so. Water's too warm now, anyway, except ‘way up some of those spring creeks. Say, why don't you put Frank to work and you'n me'll slip off on our own..."
"Don't tempt me. But you're pullin' my leg. You need y'self a good woman, Theo. God knows I've tried to fix you up often enough."
"Rollin' stone, Rust. It's what I do for a livin' and what I am. Besides, that nurse friend of yours... Jennie? She told me she had this thing for a dermatologist. That did it for me. Been there; done that; don't wanta go back."
"I guess so. How long's it been now, Theo?"
"Fifteen damn years, and I'm still pissed about it. Not fit company for a woman. Some days I bite Hannie's head off just ‘cause she's female."
"Now, I doubt that. Girl thinks the world of you. Wasn't for that Steve, she'd corner you one day. Get you up against one of your stone walls."
"Hell, Rusty, I'm fifty-seven. Got a son her age. She's a sweet girl, though. Glad for her and Steve. I really am."
Yeah, I really was.
But the next week there was a blue bruise on her neck, eyes red, and a heavy scratch on one arm. This time bells went off.
"Sit over here, Hannie. We'll have us a company conference to start with."
"Now, Theo, I don't want to talk about it..."
"Wasn't a rock last time, was it? And didn't a rock hit you on the neck. Talk to me."
She hesitated. I knew she needed to spill it. Hell, I wasn't just the boss; I was her friend– I thought. Then her mouth went into that straight line.
"We don't bring stuff to the job, remember?"
"We do when we need to. And hell, we can shut down the job for a while. Tell me."
She looked me eye-on for a space. Weighing how this would change things. Work? Maybe, and just how we'd got to be with each other, however that was.
"No. Thanks, Theo, but I'll handle it. Let's lay stone."
I rolled my eyes toward the sky, but she'd already turned away. The next hour I envisioned big Steve, the young exec, man on the way up, slapping my girl around. Old story: Guy can't measure up for some reason, maybe back when he was a kid, and he takes it out on women. Somebody who won't fight back. Happens too often. Wives, girlfriends beaten: won't turn the bastards in. Don't want to lose what they've got, little as it is. Intimidated. And other people mistakenly think they're enjoying it, asking for it. Sick.
I remembered the time the owner introduced Steve. He'd thought it would be fun to clamp down on my hand when we shook. Now I been gripping a three-pound stone hammer for thirty years, so I thought, sure, why not? I smiled, crunched bone, and watched the disbelief and pain on his face. Childish, like a couple of dogs pissing on trees.
But hell, Hannie could walk away from this. Sure she was what– 31? But that wasn't the end of life. She could get a life. Thinking about it, I was glad to have the rocks to beat on.
Lunch was strained, and quiet. I had the sandwiches the cook at the café fixed me, while Hannie had something she and the girls at the house cooked up the night before, probably. I caught her eye. She shook her head.
"No, Theo. I'm a big girl."
"Just let me know, lady, and he's history." Dogs again, but I meant it.
"Thanks. You're a friend." End of discussion.
But while we were putting the tools away, she suddenly turned to me.
"Tonight's the night, Theo. I'm telling him if he ever lays a hand on me again, I'm out of there. I mean it."
"Good girl. You don't need this, Hannie. You don't have to be anybody's punching bag."
"I know it. It's just... Oh, you know how empty life can get. You probably know it a lot more than I do. Then somebody comes along... and it was so... right, you know, Theo? Haven't you met somebody like that? All these years?" The blue eyes were troubled: she reminded me of my daughter, just then.
"No, afraid not. But hey, I'm a crusty old Scots mountain man. I don't get over things easy. I've wanted to kill that doctor for fifteen years. Thank God my daughter's husband treats her right."
Then she gave me this quick hug. Surprised hell out of me.
"You're a good man, MacBain." And she was gone.
She was all smiles after that. Work hummed along as the job neared completion. I figured Havelock had come to his senses when she'd laid the law down. I didn't like him any better, but hey, it wasn't my call. Damn guy worked out all the time– tough dude in a suit. Then he slammed women around. Screw loose somewhere. And I was pretty sure things would blow again.
Not my call– I don't know how many times I said that to myself. Enough that now the job was almost done, I'd about written Hannie off. I doubted she'd travel up to Connecticut for almost a year's job, leave her man... No, be time to find another man– helper– mason. Whatever. I started going over the list of guys I knew, see who might be available. There was a mason up near there, Bob Mojedski; I'd worked with him before. If I could get him, we could maybe get a lot done before winter, when we'd have to lay off awhile.
Okay, last day on the job. Hannie and I'd thrash it out by noon: see how the cards lay. Was she, or wasn't she? I placed the last few drystack stones, raked the last mortar joints in the stone steps, wire-brushed some spots. Misted it all down with water: makes it look good. Lichens on the stones turn green, and the new wall looks like it's been there forever. Owners loved it: paid me. Rental place would pick up the Bobcat later.
Only Hannie hadn't showed. Okay, lots of reasons. Old S-10 finally crapped out, probably. I don't have a cell phone; they're a pain in the ass: most places I work you can't get service, and too damn many buttons to push. But she could've called the owners. Or Steve could've brought her, or one of the girls.
Part of me didn't want to know. Let her marry the guy, take her chances. Not my call. Maybe they'd run off already. Maybe– and I definitely didn't want to know this– he'd snapped, beat up on her, and she was ashamed to let me see her.
Or- and I was loading my tools– she's in no shape to move. That made me stop. Nah, she's tough. He might slap her around a little, but... He was a big guy. He could really hurt her.
Not my call. No way was this is any of my business... The old flatbed rumbled to life. I had my final check for the job. Connecticut was waiting. Not my call. I let the diesel warm up, which it didn't need in this weather, while I looked around the jobsite one last time, thinking.
Wouldn't hurt to check by. Probably on their honeymoon by now, anyway. But hell, I did have to pay her. Stop by, settle up at the motel, get my stuff first. Few clothes, fly rod and vest, waders. I travel light.
She won't want you to interfere, I told myself, and I knew that was right. Just drive by, see if his car's there. Workday. Well, maybe her truck's there...
Was, at the girls' house. I parked, knocked. Cindy, a university student, came to the door. I'd met her before. Freckled kid, looked about twelve.
"Got Hannie's check," I told her. "She was supposed to be at work today, last day. She here?"
"Gee, no. Went out with Steve last night, and I guess she maybe stayed over, y'know. Maybe she's still there."
"Yeah, maybe. I'll check by." My mind was going so fast I forgot to leave the check.
The Beamer was in his drive. It was just past one. Street was empty. Well, maybe they flew somewhere. No, she'd have gotten word to me. Or not. Man who says he understands women is a liar.
I knocked. Heard a scuffle inside, and Hannie's muffled cry, cut short. Havelock's, angry. And the unmistakable sound of a fist hitting flesh. Oh, damn: she was hurt. Then silence. I pounded on the door. Nothing.
And like I said, I shoulda maybe walked away, right then. Not my call. Their business, even if it was twisted, crazy... No, hell no. This wasn't Hannie; this was all sadistic Steve. She didn't... and right then something short-circuited in my head.
Things started happening, and I was the one started it. I didn't walk away. I couldn't. No time to think clearly, but a thousand things were racing through my head. That cry... Half-image of my own daughter.
The quaint cottage had a Victorian front door, paneled, not heavy. I put a steel-toed boot into it, just under the lock, and it splintered. Went in low and hard, in time to see Havelock lunge through a bedroom doorway, nothing on but a pair of boxers, blood running from scratches on his face, arms. I caught a flash of Hannie behind him, tied to the bed, bloody, bruised.
"You get outta here, you old fool!" Havelock roared at me, coming fast. His eyes were wild. Drunk? On drugs? God, he was big. I knew I could never let him get close to me, or I was dead. I feigned a punch and let a boot fly for his groin. He was expecting it, turned partially and took it on the thigh. The force put him off balance, though, and he staggered. I somehow found a chair in my hands– I don't know where it came from– and swung it at his head.
That was a weird split second. He was off-balance, half falling, but reaching out to protect his head. Reaching so slow, though, and the chair– one of those oak antique things– moving just a little faster, but still slow. I was thinking, I'm not really here; this isn't real; I'm watching this happen. Slow-motion, other-world place. I felt the muscles in my arms do their thing, bring the weight of that chair over and down, like it was dragging a boulder behind it. Just a fraction before he could get his hand up.
Then it smashed over his head like it was cannon-balling on its own. He went down. Strong chair. His arms were sort of waving, out of control. Couldn't let him up, get his hands on me... Boot to the side of his head. Blood. He tried to rise. I kicked him in the face, hard.
And I guess I shoulda left it alone, then. Walked away. I didn't belong here, but I'd just let myself get outta hand, bent this dude. But those crazy eyes– what would he do to her next? Besides, I was mad as hell, and ‘way crazy myself. I jerked his head up by the ears and slammed it onto the floor. Three times. More. I couldn't stop. Blood flew. Then I used the chair on him again.
He wouldn't move for a while. My adrenaline was screaming. I really didn't give a damn if he was dead.
Hannie had a sock stuffed into her mouth, bruises all over, cuts. No bones broken, I hoped. I got her loose, got a wet towel. Started cleaning her up. She was still shaking. One eye was swelled shut. Steve was in a pool of blood, but he was breathing. Bastard. We got her dressed, got out the door, which I propped back in place.
Well, I guessed, this wraps up Virginia. Hannie didn't want to go to a hospital or to the cops; she just wanted gone. And I figured Havelock wouldn't go to them, either: have it all come out. We went by her house, got her things. Freckled Cindy'd left by then.
"What about your truck?"
"Leave it. I'll give it to one of the girls. Here, put the keys in it." I could tell it hurt her mouth to talk.
We got her bedded down in the extended-cab space behind me on a camping mattress, full of painkillers.
The old truck ain't fast, but it'll roll. We rolled. North. Toward Connecticut, and whatever was supposed to come next.