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When Percy Harding, Goliath€™s most important citizen, is discovered dead by the railroad tracks outside town one perfect autumn afternoon, no one can quite believe it€™s really happened. Percy, the president of the town€™s world-renowned furniture company, had seemed invincible. Only Rosamond Rogers, Percy€™s secretary, may have had a glimpse of how and why this great man has fallen, and that glimpse tugs at her, urges her to find out more. Percy isn€™t the first person to leave Rosamond: everybody seems to, from her husband, Hatley, who walked out on her years ago; to her complicated daughter Agnes, whose girlhood bedroom was papered with maps of the places she wanted to escape to. The town itself is Rosamond€™s anchor, but it is beginning to quiver with the possibility of change. The high school girls are writing suicide poetry. The town€™s young, lumbering sidewalk preacher is courting Rosamond€™s daughter. A troubled teenaged boy p
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SUSAN WOODRING grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her previous publications are a first novel, The Traveling Disease, and Springtime On Mars: Stories. She has been published in Passages North and a variety of other literary publications. She won the 2006 Isotope Editor's Prize, has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and was a notable mention in Best American Short Stories 2010.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A teenage boy coming in from a morning of lighting fires along far-flung creeks was the one to find the body. He stopped shock-still, uncertain of what he saw splayed out there on the mud. But the clean white sunlight shone down on it same as it did on the bent weeds and the grass-and rock-stubble field leading up a hill, across a gravel path littered with junk parts and gutted automobiles set on cinder blocks, a white box of a house beyond. What he saw was true. A handful of blackbirds flung themselves up at the sky, crossed over in a shifting amoeba, and lit on a telephone wire, strung over the highway beyond the house. The boy stood looking down the set of silver railroad tracks glaringly bright in the sunshine. The sky above him was made of color so thick, it seemed he could plunge his open hand into its blueness.
He came back to himself and turned, hurrying across the field. The boy, Vincent Bailey, did not feel his feet move over the uneven earth and the bulging roots of old trees. All he could pay mind to was his heart thudding hard against his rib cage and the rush of air coming in and out through his lungs. He reached the house and stepped inside, the screen door clattering shut behind him. His father was in the living room, watching television with a plate of scrambled eggs balanced on his lap.
Vincent told him what he had found. “It’s Percy Harding,” he said.
His father set his plate aside, slow to believe. “Are you sure?”
Vincent was certain, and his father moved to the kitchen telephone to summon the police. They went out front to wait. His father did not speak, though he watched the boy in silhouette, then turned his eyes to the bend of road where the squad car would arrive. Vincent stared into the sun until it smeared purple when he blinked.
Some moments later, a patrol car and an ambulance sloped down the long gravel drive to where Vincent and his father stood. Neither vehicle had its siren turned on, and, to Vincent, it seemed the world had been sucked clean of true sound. Even when his father spoke to him, he just saw the movement of his father’s lips beneath his eyes squinting in the sun. The three men—Vincent’s father, the police chief of Goliath, and the coroner—nodded at one another and then turned to Vincent, who led them out to the field.
He worried the body would be gone, mysteriously up and left, but they came to it directly, and it was worse now, even more still, as if it were possible for a person to grow more dead in a half hour’s time. Though it was the beginning of October, the air felt as mild and new as on a spring day.
The boy stood back with his father, who folded his arms across his chest and leaned over to spit into the mud. The police chief, a patient, solid, grim-faced man who was slow in his movements, and the coroner, a pudgy fellow with a wide forehead that beaded with sweat despite the cool breeze riding across the trees, spoke quietly over the body. It was quickly determined that the deceased, struck by the train, was Percy Harding, just as Vincent had reported. His father stepped forward to hazard a closer look but kept his expression hard. Vincent, wanting the relief he had expected to feel when the situation was safely in the hands of the police, kept his eyes turned away from his father’s. He searched the sky for more blackbirds.
Later, after the body was taken away and the men had left, Vincent sat at the kitchen table with a supper of cornbread and beans, ladled off the stove by his mother. She and Vincent’s sisters had just returned from morning church services, and she was still dressed in pressed pink linen, a summer dress. She set the plate down and lingered a moment, her hand on his shoulder. The girls, all older than Vincent, fluttered about the kitchen, hoping to catch the details of what Vincent had found. Finally their mother shooed them away, and Vincent was left alone with his father, who sat across from him and looked from his own plate to his son to the window.
“It’s going to be a hard thing to forget,” he said. “What we saw today.”
Vincent didn’t answer. Outside, the clouds swept across the sky in quick-time, blossoming orange, then pink, then blue gray.
* * *
The Baileys lived in a ripple of wooded hills threaded with county roads a few miles west of the town of Goliath, where Percy Harding had lived and presided over Harding Furniture Company and where Vincent Bailey, riding the county school bus, had just begun attending high school. There in town it had been a blessedly ordinary summer of modest white nuptials and giant insects and bloated afternoons spent in kiddie pools and backyards, the neighborhoods of Goliath filling with the greasy smells of charred meat and bug repellent. During these months, the heat saturated Goliath and the people sat behind electric fans set on front porches, the ladies’ hair tied back in bandannas. They passed around garden tomatoes, which grew heavy and red on their vines all the way through the end of September.
They weren’t prepared for the sad news when Vincent Bailey found it on the first Sunday of October, the weather just beginning to cool. The sorrow of it went out in glittering gusts like the old-fashioned purple and pink insecticide clouds sprayed through the streets in years past. There was a sheen to a tragedy this grave, this mysterious. It began with Clyde Winston, the soon-to-retire police chief, going out to inform the widow.
Clyde left the Baileys’ house after the body was removed and drove into Goliath, passing the two-pump gas station, the huge gray rectangle of the Harding Furniture Factory, the railroad tracks, the downtown shops, the post office, and the great white Baptist church. Beyond the church, the roads split into narrow neighborhood streets with cracked sidewalks and gray and blue houses hunched over splintered front porches.
The Harding house was a monstrous brick structure sitting atop a hill looking over the residential end of Main Street. The gentle slopes of the Goliath Cemetery—just a few graves shy of full capacity—lay across the street. The house was reached by a private graveled avenue labeled Redemption Lane. A long driveway led up the sparsely treed hill and came to a semicircle a few steps from the heavy wood door, flanked on both sides by intricate stained glass, vine- and leaf-patterned. Years ago, factory workers, called there by Martha Harding, the namer of the private lane and the factory president’s wife during the post–World War II years, had stood waiting in that same spot. They had been called there for a prayer meeting, which Martha herself administered from her leather chesterfield inside.
Lela Harding, Percy’s wife, opened the door clutching a glass of amber-colored liquid, slender ice cubes floating on top. She was a petite woman with glossy black hair and a powdery-white complexion. Clyde Winston pronounced the news, disclosing as few details as possible. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “No.” She stood motionless for a moment, then turned and stepped into the house, and Clyde, after a moment’s hesitation, followed her.
“I was just about to take the car out,” she said.
Clyde was unsure of what to do or say to console her. They sat without speaking a space apart on a thickly upholstered sofa in a room made of shining brass and gleaming old furniture. She drank and touched her face with her fingertips. Her husband had been the most powerful and the most beloved man in town, but Lela had mostly kept to herself. Few knew her well. The music, a far-off radio, changed from song to song, back to the announcer, back to song. When her glass was empty, Lela held it up to Clyde to refill, gesturing to an unlocked cabinet where he found the bourbon. Returning her refreshed glass, he sat next to her on the couch and she bent a tiny bit closer to him. He thought of Martha Harding, whom he had seen only at her viewing—she was hollow-looking, carefully embalmed. It was the first dead person young Clyde, then fifteen years old, had ever seen.
“It’s too big. It’s like driving a bus.”
She looked at him. “He must have left early,” she said. “I was still asleep.”
The elevator music continued, interrupted again by the announcer’s lilting voice. Clyde did not argue with Lela, but instead let her sit there and come to understanding. She closed her eyes, and he began to move his hand up and down her back. At another time the gesture might have seemed too familiar. Now, though, in the moment of her stark grief, her drinking, the awful, shapeless music, this seemed the only thing for Clyde to do. He was a widower, ten years on his own now, and was unpracticed in the art of offering sympathy. His palm moved slowly against the small knots of vertebrae and Lela Harding seemed more fragile with each passing.
She touched her temples. “I wish we’d get some rain.”
Clyde left after dark, the radio still playing, and unwilling to return home, looped the streets of town and the outlying county roads until dawn. He drove past his son’s trailer, in the woods behind the school, past his neighbors’ houses, past the factory. The downtown shops were silent and dark except for the soft buzzing of the streetlights and the perennial blue glow of the Pepsi fountain inside the Tuesday Diner.
* * *
The body was brought to Thompson’s Funeral Home, and in the morning, Holland Thompson, the undertaker, set about preparing it for internment. Holland was a slow, methodical man who would have been a surgeon except he preferred a cleaner, more exact succession of tasks. He worked alone in a room furnished with only the table and his instruments, the cabinet, the industrial sink, and a portable radio tuned to a station that played covers of old p...
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Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2012. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0312675011
Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2012. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110312675011
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