“Shit,” Horace whispered, stepping out onto their small porch. He cursed infrequently and wanted to savor the profanity, hoped it would ease his anxiety a bit. Whispering was hardly providing the succor he sought, however, regardless of the word. He frowned.
It made little difference to Horace that Ginny was deaf; still he tiptoed around their small house as he always had. It was the waiting that made him so fidgety and anxious; he hated waiting. Patience had never been one of his virtues. But still he tiptoed. Practice and time had made habit, and habit and time had created this small prison of his mind that, Horace knew on many levels, he would carry with him in his steps ’til the day he died. Or the day she did.
At that realization, he had supposed, you’d think you could resolve yourself to a decision, and either accept the situation for what it was - not very comfortable - or get off your very quiet butt and get something done about it. In other words he ought to just say screw it and do Ginny in himself so least one of them could quit suffering, regardless of which one it was.
And yet. And yet…
He’d had that realization in March and it was late September now, and still Ginny lived, still Horace tiptoed needlessly and knowingly and could not force himself from the habit.
Some of it, much of it - he told himself - was just doubt. Doubt that he could kill her by himself, what with her so much bigger than him, even if she was deaf. There was the old shotgun but everyone including him said Ginny was the one who could shoot - shit, it was probably where half her hearing had went, to begin with. Doubt too that he could get away with it if he did do it, don’t forget none about that small matter. The television was full of fools who went off half-cocked and did some cockamamie thing without seeing the plain truth in front of them the whole time: that they was laying out a trail wide enough that to heck with a po-lice detective - Scooby and Shaggy on their most spliffed out day could catch the dummies they showed on the TV, was the way Horace saw it. He was not a man with illusions of grandeur regarding his own intelligence - if he jaywalked with intent that Hercules Poor-rowe would be putting the cuffs on him proper, mustache neat and all.
Well, least the local sheriff would. And Sheriff Wilton took great pride in his mustache.
Driving back from Harker’s Diner, where he had picked them both up good fried chicken that afternoon, Horace had seen the annual resurrection of the scarecrows on Ellsworth Billings’ land. The Billings farm and ranch acres comprised a healthy percentage of the county, and yearly old man Ellsworth himself sent his hands out in crews to spike old-fashioned scarecrows around the entire huge periphery of his plots. A celebration of fall, the rich, grimy old cowpoke called it. It seemed there was always enough for everywhere, no matter what new parcel Billings got his ever-loving hands on next. There would, in all cases, be a freshly dressed man of stuffing atop each iron spike. They creeped Horace out, always had.
Seeing them had put him in a dark mood.
To himself, in silence, he could admit this as sat down on the single step that led up to their modest porch. An only somewhat ancient Big Chief pocket knife was produced from one of the deep bib pockets of his overalls and he began to cut into an apple, just as he had when he was a boy. Why, his own pa had taught him to skin an apple the way he was doing now, not so long ago, really, and after he had taught young Horace - H.G. his old man had always called him, about the only person to do so in his life, a nickname he could not admit out loud he had a deep fondness for - well after H.G. had been taught how to skin an apple proper his old man had presented him with that knife right there, just the other day in…shit. He winced at the math.
Horace Greely Gimble was 67 years old, and that was all the damn math figuring he needed to do about it.
“Aw goddamnit,” he spat suddenly, loudly at last, as though he could jettison the shit in his life by guttural expectoration. Still, he was not accustomed to cussing aloud; he felt he did so too frequently in his thoughts. And may the good Lord forgive him for it. Foreign enough was the sound of his own vitriol so loud that he closed his eyes and turned somewhat violently in his microscopic burst of profanity.
Naturally, this small spasm came just as Ginny drifted toward the porch from inside, catching a good clear view of his lips. Nobody had known or even suspected she was a born lip reader until she was deaf - but then, they don’t make much by way of tests for some talents, Ginny supposed. She had come by it quickly when her ears went bad just as quickly, and overall, she found that the world muffled was, by and large, an improvement over the general state of things elseways, anyways. ’Sides, she could still talk just fine. Now, seeing her gangly bastard let himself have what she knew was a rare pleasure, she could not prevent herself from needling him as she had since they’d been kids together.
“You ought not take the Lord’s name in vain, ‘specially on his day,” she wheedled him, stepping out.
Horace stifled a potentially harsher phrasing as the blade of the Big Chief leapt from apple flesh to flesh of his hand. He kept the old blade sharp and damnit, Ginny might be the deaf one but she had plumb startled him. As was usual, when you got right down to it.
Ginny plopped her heavy bottom down on the one porch chair they had, a big construction of metal salvaged from some curb or another years before. Horace found the seat decidedly uncomfortable on his pancake butt, but Ginny didn’t seem to mind. And, more importantly, it held her - the girl had, as Horace thought of it, a limitation of choices.
Ginny raised an eyebrow at Horace’s glare and sparked a strike-anywhere with her thumb, taking a long drag from a menthol cigarette as the tobacco caught the matchflame.
“Made me cut my dang hand, Gin,” Horace sulked.
She smiled as she also had at him since they’d been young - though he’d always be the younger, she reminded him then and now. Sometimes, in the now, when she did the reminding, she wondered which of them exactly she was taunting. But fuck it, she figured.
“Well you ought to be more careful with that play pretty o’your’n. Land’s sakes, I walk in on you shavin’ someday and oop, there goes Horace’s head, now ain’t that a shame…” she trailed off, cigarette smoke floating up in a drift around her like a movie star from the 1940s.
With her eyes she pretended to follow the slow roll of an imaginary Horace-head bumping down the step and onto the lawn. She watched with a smile, and didn’t break until she saw Horace sigh, exasperated to defeat once again in their lazy little war of attrition.
“You’re a mean one, you know that? You was mean when we was in school and you’re a mean old woman now.”
She saw every word, for amongst his unexpected virtues as someone who had done little to enhance his education past a high school diploma he suffered out six years for, Horace was a strong over-annunciator when he spoke to others.
In reply she grinned and stuck her tongue out at him.
He frowned - to avoid a grin of his own, she was sure - and cut off a slice of apple, tossing it into his mouth without offering her any. It was alright. Enough decades with anyone and a person begins to know what to expect and not to expect.
Ginny took a drag from her menthol.
“Hell of a sermon preacher gave this mornin’,” she said, reflective in her tone.
“Yep,” Horace agreed, decidedly without reflection or even much by way of tone.
She looked at him.
“Horace, I ask you something?”
He spoke through a mouthful of apple.
“Go ‘head, shoot,” he mumbled, masticated fruit and spittle flying.
“Do you reckon you ever liked me much?”
If he was surprised by the question he didn’t show it. In a way it surprised her, less that she asked than that she cared. Which, she realized rather all at once - she did. If the thought had ever occurred to her before; she couldn’t remember. It would have been a long time ago. She had to have wondered that at some point, hadn’t she?
Ginny realized she would be goddamned if she could remember.
Neither gave much of a thought to the silence that followed though. Silences were common in their life, always had been. It was part of their symbiosis, this existence in the same place on the same plane in silence with another person. Long before she had gone deaf there were days at a stretch when neither spoke to the other, or anyone else for that matter. Ginny had always liked that about them.
Finally Horace tossed the core of his apple out to the grass for the birds and the squirrels, maybe the raccoons if it lasted that long. He let the tip of the knife almost bounce in the soft wood of the old step. It was moist still from the rain. Another season or two and it’d be time to replace it again, he figured. Maybe he wouldn’t have to bother with it; he didn’t know yet. He looked up, finally spoke.
“Aw heck Gin, why’dya have to go and ask a hard question like that?”
She frowned at him. She knew it didn’t seem it, but Ginny had known a lot of people in her life. Leave it to this jackalope to out-dumb a dumb question, she thought to herself. Occasionally, as now, she considered strangling Horace, suspecting it’d be easy to do by virtue of his scrawny neck. Truly, he was on the Social Security same as her, and truth be told with her pension she did better than him anyway. What would be missing?
And yet. And yet…
Here they sat with fall upon them, even though she had been aware of this empirical fact since at least the spring.
“How in the hell is that a hard goddamn question,” she demanded.
The irony of her chastising his own blasphemies was not lost on Horace, but judging from her look he had other things to deal with first. And somehow she had managed to get louder since going deaf. How this feat was possible Horace did not know.
“Well…wellwellwell, y’know…a fellow can get all mixed up,” he spluttered.
She knew it was a bit cruel, her fascination with seeing him reach for words. But it was a fascinating thing to see, for it was so simply honest: his eyes seemed to search the very air in front of him, as though this were a test and his hastily scribbled cheat sheet would be visible if somehow he squinted correctly at just the right angle. To anyone who hadn’t witnessed it before, Horace Gimble at a loss for words looked very much like a very drunken, very animated scarecrow himself. She’d seen Billing’s straw men on their way to church that morning, in the distance towards town, knew Horace would be peculiar after seeing them on the road to and from the diner. She found the buzzardly things nasty, to be sure. Horace’s fear and hatred for them was a palpable dread though, one random superstition she was able to find reasonable enough never to goad him about. Especially now, waiting on what they were waiting on.
Keeping this in mind but lacking a simpler way to ask a simple question she finally just shook her head at him, waving her hands at him; give up.
“You could get mixed up about a straight line, H.G.”
Well, okay. Dad, and sometimes Gin. It had been a long time since she’d called him that.
“How come you called me that? Just now?” He asked her.
“H.G. You ain’t called me that in…long time.”
She pondered it a moment, in one of those still yet comfortable silences.
“I reckon I got to keep on reminding you.”
“Reminding me? Of what, my initials?”
Ginny grinned, lit another cigarette from the cherry of her first.
“That I can still surprise you,” she said.
The first thunderclap of a distant storm, just coming into their part of the county, could be heard a scant few miles off. Horace was looking at her.
“Yeah, Ginny, I like you. Heck, I’ve always liked you, you know that. But sometimes it’s sure hard to not hate you too.”
Well shit. Sometimes he could still hit her where she lived herself. It was nice to know he had some fire left in him.
They were motionless as they watched the distant sky together. Slowly then quicker the pale blue of the afternoon’s open sky appeared to be swallowed by an airborne kingdom of billowy dark grey, coming on quick, with no end in sight.
Ginny spoke, quieter than she had been in months, though not a whisper by any stretch.
“You know, some days I wonder what it’d be like, to squeeze the life out of that scrawny neck of your’n. Wondering if maybe it’d just snap before I could even get the job finished.”
The tip of the Big Chief bobbed up and down on the step, a lazy metal woodpecker controlled by a human arm that belonged to a human whose eyes were turning from the darkening sky back to the old woman behind him. She was getting under his skin good, and she knew it.
“Sometimes I think about whether I should use buckshot or slug on you and then I remember, when I finally do it’ll be whatever the H-E-double-L I can get out the dang cabinet first!”
She gave him her surliest sneer.
“Asshole,” Ginny said.
“Hag,” responded Horace.
Ginny surveyed the area around them, plucking a loose thread from the hem of her XXL housedress. The thing was a violently cheerful mess of geometric shapes at random, all colors of the rainbow, constructed of fairly endless yards from something that resided in the general neighborhood of cotton. Perhaps something one suburb over from cotton. It was ugly as sin and she loved it. It had been $8.99 at the dollar store the summer before. She could still hear a little back then. And they weren’t waiting on nothing then, neither.
“Say, that fella,” she began.
“What fellow?” Horace asked, cutting her off.
“Don’t be a jackass you know what fella.”
He hesitated, then slowly nodded.
“Oh. Yeah. That fellow,” he said, a statement without any real purpose if he had ever said one, “What about him?”
“You sure he said he was going to call first thing Monday?”
Not for the first time Horace sighed loudly and was mindful enough to fully enjoy it, knowing that Ginny might see it but she couldn’t hear it.
“No, for the last crying out loud time!” He shouted, facing her, “The man said he’d call once he got the test results back, which should be sometime Monday morning! My word woman, is your memory going ‘long with your ears?”
Ginny sat back, nodding slightly, his reprimands paid no mind to.
“Well, that’s still tomorrow morning. Ain’t no time at all, hardly.”
“Yeah. Minutes just flying by, yep.”
“You could maybe have you a little glass of whiskey. Didn’t that young fella say…”
“Young fellow?” He asked, genuinely confused this time.
“Oh for Chrissakes, your young city doctor, you jackass! The same god-blasted young fella, Horace, goddamnit!”
Both said nothing in the wake of her double-blaspheme. Until, finally, Horace:
“Right. Same fellow then.”
Ginny grimaced and chugged the smoke of her cigarette at the same time, wincing at his response.
“We may be Baptist but may the saints fuckin’ preserve me living here with you, you know that old man? Now - did he or did he not say your miserable old ass could have a glass or two of whiskey if you want? Least ’til we know more?”
This was true. Horace had been keeping a sealed bottle of Old Grandad in one kitchen cupboard a very long while now.
Twenty-eight years without a drop of alcohol. Why break a good streak?
“I don’t want a whiskey,” he said, quietly but in that same wide faced sort of way she could read so well. She hardly even needed lips with Horace.
“You’re worried,” she said. It was matter of fact, blatant if not blunt.
“Well last I checked I wasn’t crazy yet so I’d reckon that follows pretty natural.”
After some consideration Ginny acquiesced her agreement with a dip of the head.
“Yeah, yeah I suppose that tracks.”
Silence returned, the darkness of the storm ever closer. Less and less of the opalescent blue was visible, and soon it would disappear entirely, from the sky above them and behind as well. For at least a little while, the world of day was about to be night and would, seemingly, return to a state it had last known who knew how many eons ago, as it would seem a world under water, the pelting of the rain the surging of the deepest ocean currents. In this way Ginny felt she had swum the waters of the world, although she had never physically seen or felt an ocean. She knew she never would in this life. Horace saw time chasing time as the clouds eclipsed the sky. The great sweeping curtain of clouds was the past, last year, last month, the last hour, the last breath taken - and he knew the clouds would never devour enough sky of the future to be sated, just as eternity could never quite catch up to what was just about to happen next. It would be difficult to say either view was entirely wrong.
He turned towards her again.
“You remember, when we was young? What I’d used to call you? You remember that?”
“What? Ginny the…ginger, wasn’t it some shit like that?”
“Yeah! Yeah,” he confirmed, laughing, “Ginny the ginger. Oh, that was a good one.”
She flicked the stub of the second cigarette past his shoulder and into the lawn, as it seemed their respite from rainy weather was about to be cut short.
“I was a brunette, jerk,” she reminded him. She said it past tense intently, well aware her hair, thick though still full and thick, had a battleship iron grey hue to it now. She had never been the type to go in for dyed hair. A vanity, was all that was.
“It was still funny.”
The clouds had almost reached them now.
“What made you think of that?” Ginny asked.
“Oh. You. Calling me H.G. I guess. That was all.”
It was her turn to sigh this time, and while she only felt it at this point, Horace could hear the sound. He looked up at her again. Above him the clarity of the sky began to fade behind the scrim of the coming storm. At one point he would glance up and in that glance, would have sworn he could see the exact divide between cloud and sky - and that there appeared to be something in-between.
“We’re going to be fine, Horace. You’re gonna’ be fine.”
He looked from the sky back to her face.
“Storms’ here, Gin,” he said, even as the first fat drop, laden it seemed with forebodings of an early winter to come, plunked coolly down onto his forehead.
She stood, heaving up her considerable bulk, not offering him assistance. Things expected and unexpected, it just takes time. He seemingly had to unfold himself from the sitting position he’d been in, and for a moment Ginny wondered if that was from his age or…anything else. Oh well. Monday morning was no time at all away.
Still, it was a thought that nagged at her: soon she might offer a hand, whether it was expected or not. It would be needed.
The rain continued into and through much of the night, heavy, steady; a churning deluge that would account for a significant portion of the record month they were on track to have for the state.
Horace lay in bed, unable to sleep. Finally he stood, clad in his pajama outfit such as it had been for many decades now, boxer shorts and an undershirt, and walked to stand near Ginny’s bed - unexpectedly he thought he saw the glint of her eyes reflecting some minute light in the darkness, and dumbly asked:
“Are you awake?”
She apparently was because even in the dark he could tell she frowned at him; he could feel it. Her hand reached out, pulled the cord of her nightstand lamp.
“If you’re going to talk to me in the middle of the night at least don’t do it in the dark!”
“Oh. Yeah. That’s fair I guess.”
This late - or early, depending how one looked at it, Ginny supposed - silence of any length was too much for either of them to put up with. Horace seemed content to simply regain a catatonic-like state while standing. The short walk had made him drowsy, at long last.
“Huh?” He said groggily, blinking rapidly.
“What do you want, you damn old coot?” She nearly screamed.
“Hm? Oh. I…” he snapped awake but then trailed off again, reaching for that invisible cheat sheet that was always just beyond his field of vision. Someday he’d catch sight of it good
and clear, but not tonight.
“Spit it out!” She did scream.
And so he did.
“I said I say I wanted to say I’m glad I have you in my life, damnit!”
Both accepted the quiet that followed, though this time Horace did not doze.
“Anyway. Doctor fellow, tomorrow,” he re-stated, a man having to remind himself that an idea was in fact real.
“Few hours from now, should be, yeah,” she agreed.
“Well. Goodnight, Ginny.”
That night, as the storm continues to beat its staccato rhythm on the house’s tin roof; Horace does finally sleep, and he dreams, not of darkness swallowing the world, but almost as Ginny does, of a world fluid and swirling together as though part of the rain, part of the ocean. In this midnight ocean, all things seem eternal, and in this eternity, Horace Greely Gimble rests.
A native of the New Orleans area, Charles Pineda first worked in film and theatre for over a decade before turning to writing full-time. He is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Boise State University. Charles recommends contributing to the Humane Society.