Every evening at this time, Hollis checks the perimeters of his property. He can do it on foot or in his truck, he can do it blindfolded, if need be. Like any poor relation, he knows precisely what belongs to him. Even those blueberries are his, although it gives him some deep, bitter pleasure to watch the squirrels and raccoons enjoy the fruit. They can eat their fill, as far as Hollis is concerned, without ever once having to beg, as he used to each and every day.
Hollis has long believed that the past can only hurt you if you let it. If you stop to consider all that was done and undone. Best not to dwell on what went wrong. Even better-don’ t think at all. There are days when Hollis actually manages to do so, relying instead on instinct and habit. Of course, there are evenings such as this, when he can’t stop thinking. He knows March Murray is coming back for the funeral; she may already be here, up in her old room where the shadows fall across the floor at this hour. At times when he can’t block out his thoughts, Hollis tries to rearrange his perspective. He goes over all he owns, which now includes not only all of Guardian Farm and Fox Hill, but most of Main Street as well. He has land down in Florida, along the west coast and in Orlando and down in the Keys. He is also co-owner of a racetrack outside of Fort Lauderdale, and the best part about all this is, he never even has to return to that state where he spent so much miserable time; he gets all his checks in the mail.
This year Hollis will be forty-two and he’s done all right for a beggar who looked so ragged that the Coopers’ care-taker threatened to call the police the first time he saw him. He’s done just fine for a boy who left Fox Hill with fifty-seven dollars in his pockets. All that he owns should be enough. Hollis has squared the debts owed him, he should be satisfied, but he’s not even close. He’s starving for something, and even though he forces himself to eat three meals a day, he keeps losing weight, as if he were devouring his own flesh.
He’s not going to think about what’s bothering him; he simply refuses to get farther inside his own head. Instead, he’ll see to the old pony that belonged to his son, which has come down with colic. There are the usual measures-keep the pony standing and feed it mineral oil-but Hollis always blows a little salt into each of the afflicted animal’s nostrils as well. It’s a trick he learned years ago at the tracks down in Florida, one of the few tactics he’d dare to reveal. An old wives’ tale, scoff the regulars down at the Lyon Cafe, but those who have tried Hollis’s salt remedy haven’t been unhappy with the results.
Well, nobody ever said Hollis was stupid. That’s never been the complaint. Still, his presence is something most men down at the Lyon would prefer to do without. Hollis is the richest man in town, and probably in the county as well; he contributes generously to the Policemen’s Association and the Firemen’s Fund, and a ward at St. Bridget’s Hospital has been named in his honor, but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to socialize with him, or that Hollis doesn’t notice that the town elders only court him when they need a new roof for the library or funds for a stoplight.
One thing wealth buys in a town this size is respect. Other men might flinch when Hollis joins them at their table, but they don’t dare suggest he find another seat. They talk to him courteously, all the while wondering why the hell he doesn’t just go home. He doesn’t even drink, he only sits there, with a Coke or a ginger ale, for reasons the regulars are still trying to figure out. Jack Harvey, who specializes in air-conditioning and heat installation, insists that Hollis’s motive, when he joins them at their table, is to ensure he’ll be ready to snatch up their souls if they have one drink too many. Whenever Hollis finally leaves, and a cold wind blasts through the door as it slams shut behind him, then his neighbors are brave enough to refer to him as the devil. Mr. Death, that’s what they call him when his back is turned, and they drink a toast to his departure.
It’s the women in town who turn to look when Hollis walks by. They pity him, they really do. He lost not only his wife but their boy, Coop, who was sick every day of his life, as weak as paste and in need of constant nursing from the start. It’s lonely for a man to live like that, and the women in town know who among them have gone home with Hollis over the years. They’re not always the prettiest or the youngest. They’re women who know the score, who won’t make demands, who may have a husband who works nights or a boyfriend in the next state. They’re the ones who know that Hollis isn’t about to give them anything they want or need, but who still can’t turn him down. He’s been hurt, that’s what the women who have slept with him say, and he needs someone. They don’t have to mention that getting older has only served to make Hollis even more handsome than he was back in high school, when they would never have had a chance with him, when he wouldn’t look at anyone but March Murray.
Tonight, Hollis searches through the cabinets for the canister of salt, then reaches for his jacket, which is so worn the fabric is past repairing. The same is true of the house; it has begun to come apart, and this pleases Hollis. He hasn’t had the place painted in fifteen years, hasn’t repaired the roof, which leaks in twenty-six spots when the rain comes down hard. The destruction of the house which once belonged to the Coopers is a small, but enjoyable, satisfaction. Hollis likes to find cobwebs in the parlor where Mr. Cooper used to smoke his cigars. Annabeth Cooper’s perennial garden, of which she was always so proud, has been destroyed by Japanese beetles and mildew. In Richard Cooper’s bedroom you can hear the raccoons, who are living in the walls, and in Belinda’s old room the edges of the marble mantel have disintegrated into dust. The Wedgwood, so elegant at parties, is currently being used for the dogs and is now so chipped no one would imagine this china came from London in wooden crates, and that each bowl and plate had been wrapped in a swathe of white cotton.
Hollis slams through the side door, ignoring the sleepy red dogs, who all rise to their feet to follow, working out of instinct, just as surely as Hollis does. These dogs are strays, the ones people say are descended from mongrels abandoned to breed with foxes over a hundred years ago. Whatever their lineage, the dogs look evil, with their coarse coats and yellow eyes; their piercing yelps often frighten off deliverymen and letter carriers. The dogs are sensitive to Hollis, however. They know his moods, and when he pauses to take a deep breath and look at the sky, they push against each other and whine. They’re anxious when Hollis slows down, but Hollis is merely appreciating what’s around him. He’s always favored October, with its gloomy, cold core, and he can never get enough of looking over his land. Why shouldn’t he stop to appreciate all that he once envied and now owns? He gave up everything for this land, so he might as well stand here and feel that it’s his.
The year when Henry Murray brought Hollis home, there were more than fifty racehorses at Guardian Farm. Hollis had no interest in horses, and doesn’t to this day, but March was fascinated, not only with the Coopers’ horses but with their wealth. Her father gave most of what he earned away and much of the work he did after hours was pro bono. Even though Henry Murray was an esteemed member of the community, March had only one pair of new shoes a year whereas Susie Justice, for instance, had four or five. At that point, March cared more about shoes than she did about the welfare of the poor, and maybe that’s why she was interested in the Coopers’ horses: each one was worth more money than her father would ever manage to earn.
Hollis remembers that he and March hid on the far side of a stone wall so that March could count the horses. It was a hot, windy day and March had to keep grabbing at her long, dark hair so it wouldn’t fly into her eyes. The wind echoed, like a drumbeat or a warning, and everything smelled like grass. Mr. Cooper’s horses were hardly the same species as the bony haybags found in backyards along Route 22. These horses had run at Belmont and at Saratoga; they were so fast they could outrace the storm clouds that came down from Fox Hill.
As soon as Hollis married Belinda, he sold off nearly all the horses, and now there are only three in a barn large enough to house dozens: his son Coop’s lazy, old pony; the ancient workhorse, Geronimo, who used to pull bales of hay into the fields for the thoroughbreds; and Tarot, Belinda’s horse, who killed two of his riders before they took him off the track. Hollis hates them all. He hates the sound and smell of horses; he hates the stupid ones, who shy at garter snakes and pools of rainwater, and he hates the smart ones, like Tarot, even more. Right now, as he nears the barn, Hollis can hear the pony whimpering. It’s a faint, small sound, but it sets Hollis in mind of how horrible a horse’s scream is. Before he can stop himself from thinking, he sees a white horse fall to its knees. It falls like snow, like a drift which can cover you completely. Well, Hollis isn’t about to dwell on that. He turns off all consciousness when it comes to the years he was away. Some people might say three years isn’t that long to be gone, but Hollis knows it’s time enough to have a hole form inside you. It’s exactly the right amount of time to leave you empty, forever after, no matter who you once were or what you once might have been.
Tarot is in the first stall, which has been his home since the day he came to the Farm. A bay thoroughbred, dark as mahogany, he would have brought more at auction than any of the horses Hollis disposed of, if his reputation hadn’t been so notorious. Breeders up and down the East Coast still refer to Tarot when they want to call up a horse whose potential is chewed to pieces, a champion who went so haywire he might as well have been sold for dog food. Even though he would behave for Belinda, people in the village still talk about the times when Tarot escaped. Some of the shopkeepers-Sam Deveroux, who owns the hardware shop, for instance, and Mimi Frank, who styles hair at the Bon Bon-insist that Tarot breathed out fire when he ran through the town. They swear there was one warm evening in May when he singed all the lilacs on Main Street. To this day, the flowers that bloom on these bushes carry the scent of sulfur; they’ve been known to burn a child’s hand, if one is foolish enough to grab for a bunch of the blossoms.
People in town wonder why Hollis bothers to keep a worthless old racehorse around. The women like to think it’s a mark of respect for Belinda, who loved the horse so, but the men joke it’s simply because Hollis refuses to take a low price for his property. Neither assessment is correct. Hollis retains the horse because he is a waste, just as Hollis himself is. Every night they face off, and each time they do, they despise each other a little more. This feud doesn’t mean that Hollis would ever get rid of Tarot. All in all, you don’t take the only creature mean enough to be your equal out behind the barn so you can shoot him in the head.
“Hey, buddy,” Hollis whispers as he approaches Tarot’s stall. As usual, the thoroughbred looks right through him. “Fuck you too.” Hollis is always astounded by how damned haughty a horse can be. “Double fuck you.”
On that day when he and March first came here, they were caught by Jimmy Parrish, who now uses a cane and spends all his evenings at the Lyon Cafe, spouting racetrack statistics and boring people silly. Back then, Jim was the foreman at Guardian Farm, and he took his job seriously. It was a dog who gave them away, one of Annabeth Cooper’s stupid poodles, who yapped like crazy and led Jimmy Parrish right to the stone wall where they were hiding.
The Coopers weren’t friendly with people in the village and No Trespassing signs lined the perimeters of their property. Even their parties, given all summer long, had guests imported from New York and Boston, although local people were always well aware when Annabeth Cooper threw one of her bashes. Truckloads of roses would be delivered from Boston, and so much champagne was served that the bees got drunk and wandered into houses all over the village, buzzing like crazy, but too giddy and confused to sting.
Hollis and March knew they weren’t wanted at the Coopers’, but they came to count horses anyway. Hollis can still hear the wind the way it was on the day they were caught. He hears it in his dreams, and when he walks across the pastures he now owns. It was impossible to make out what March was saying over the roar of the wind, but Hollis could see her foot was caught between two stones. Annabeth Cooper’s poodle was snapping; it had surprisingly large teeth for a dog of its type, and it must have struck flesh, because March’s hand was bleeding.
“I’m phoning the police,” Jimmy Parrish had shouted, loud enough for them to hear.
March was wearing a white shirt which billowed out like a flag in the wind. She knew that Hollis had had several run-ins with the police. He’d been caught taking some magazines he couldn’t afford at the pharmacy, and the owner of the liquor store had ratted on him when he tried to buy a six-pack of beer. He was a city boy, brought to Fox Hill with his city ways intact, and March didn’t hold it against him. Still, one more strike and he might just be out.
“Go,” March mouthed to him. “Go on,” she insisted.
Afraid of the police, spooked by the wind, Hollis turned and ran. Hollis was a good runner, but there’s not a day that goes by when he doesn’t wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t been so fast, if he’d been caught, or if he’d simply stayed where he was. What if he and March had spent that day up at Olive Tree Lake instead of spying at the Farm? Is this how fates are made and futures cast? An idle choice, a windy day, a dog that can’t mind its own business?
Some people know the exact moment when they’ve lost everything. They can look back and see it plain as day and for the life of them they can’t understand why they didn’t spot the situation as it was happening. Why didn’t Hollis stop running? Why didn’t he stay by her side? He waited for March for what seemed like forever, on the rutted back road which led from the Farm to Fox Hill. As the afternoon went on the wind died down, but the blood rushing in Hollis’s own head had replaced the sound. His head was pounding, and the more time that passed, the worse his headache became. Finally, the sky turned inky. The peepers were calling and the moon was climbing into the sky by the time March appeared.
She was holding a handful of roses cut from Annabeth Cooper’s own garden; Unity and Double Delight and Peace were all clutched to her chest as she ran toward him. That’s what Hollis saw first, pink roses in the dark night. All at once he felt like crying, and he might have done so, if March hadn’t started talking right away. It wasn’t that he was listening to what she said-certainty he didn’t want to hear how smart Richard Cooper was, or that his sister, Belinda, was so kindhearted she kept an opossum as a pet, feeding it bread softened in warm milk. allowing it to sleep on the quilt at the foot of her bed, even though Mrs. Cooper had forbade any animals but her poodles in the house. No, he didn’t need to hear those details, because he knew what had happened from the look on March’s face. In a single afternoon, all because of a stupid dog and a stone wall, it had happened. He had lost her.
As soon as Guardian Farm legally became his, Hollis cut down all of Annabeth Cooper’s roses. They used to grow by the split-rail fence, and they’re a lot more stubborn than Hollis would have imagined. Every year or so he has to take a sickle and hack away at the branches which insist on growing back. This past spring he found a red rose on the ground beneath the fence, and it was just as startling to him as a pool of blood would have been. He kicked the flower beneath a hedge of evergreens, and yet he continued to see it from the comer of his eye. He saw that rose long after it had already wilted, and died.
Tonight, however, it’s not roses he’s thinking of. It’s revenge. Once you get a taste of getting back at someone, it sticks with you. It makes you count up all your assets and your enemy’s losses, again and again, even though the figures have remained the same for years. Of course, it’s hardest to calculate the worth of a human being. Hollis’s adopted nephew, Hank, for instance, is usually an asset, but tonight he’s a total loss. He was supposed to make certain Coop’s pony stayed on its feet, but he’s fallen asleep in a rocking chair, and the pony is down on its knees, moaning in a pile of hay.
“Good nap?” Hollis says.
Hank immediately gets up, stumbling over one of his own boots. He’s grown more than six inches in the past year; he’s six three and still growing and he always feels clumsy and much too tall. His coloring is fair, like his father, Alan’s, with hair the color of straw and a ruddiness that rises into his face whenever he’s embarrassed.
“Shit,” Hank says, although there’s no need for him to curse himself. Hollis will do that for him.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Hollis asks. “Or have you given up thinking?”
“Sorry,” Hank says, for all the good it will do. He never does anything right, at least not in Hollis’s eyes.
Hank has been thrown off all day; he’s been thinking, all right, but what’s on his mind is Judith Dale, who used to take care of him and Coop. She used to cook dinner every evening after Belinda died; she fixed corn fritters and curried turkey soup, pumpkin custard and wild grape pie. You simply couldn’t stop eating when Mrs. Dale made you something; you wished for a triple stomach, like that of a cow, so you could keep on shoveling it in and asking for more. Now, Hank and Hollis mostly have bologna-and-cheese sandwiches and things out of cans-soups and chilies that don’t taste like much unless you add half a shaker of salt. Mrs. Dale wouldn’t have tolerated a diet like that. She believed in homemade things. Every year, on Hank’s birthday, she would bake a chocolate cake. Even after Coop died, when Hollis told her they didn’t need her anymore and she went back to live in the house on Fox Hill, she sent Hank a chocolate cake once a year, and he always ate every bit.
In the past few years, Hank has made certain to stop by Fox Hill every few weeks and check on Mrs. Dale. Just ten days ago, he’d gone over and cleaned out her gutters, even though she insisted she could easily hire Ken Helm from the village to do the job. Afterward, she’d given Hank a piece of cranberry-orange pie at her kitchen table. No one could turn down one of Mrs. Dale’s desserts, and she often brought pies out to the old house in the Marshes, the one people said was built by the town founder, Aaron Jenkins. She carted bags of groceries out to the Marshes as well, and heavy woolen blankets and clean gloves and socks. She brought out matches and soap, and sweaters she found at the rummage sale held once a month at Town Hall.
She saw to just about every item a person might need to exist in this world, at least when it came to physical matters. But she never trod on emotional territory, and wouldn’t think to give counsel unless directly asked. She never, for instance, suggested that Hank go out to the Marshes himself. She never said, “Go see your father.” She may have thought about it, she may have even been convinced that unless Hank went out to that ramshackle place, where the reeds were taller than a full-grown man, his life would forever be lacking, but she never said more than “Lemon or milk?” after she’d poured his tea, and she always hugged him close when it came time for him to leave.
Hank didn’t even know Judith Dale had passed on until this afternoon. He had stopped at the hardware store on Main Street and was standing in the pet department, looking for mineral oil for Coop’s ailing pony, when he overheard someone in the next aisle discussing Judith Dale’s funeral. Immediately, Hank felt something behind his eyes go all hot, but he didn’t cry. He stood there in the pet department until he didn’t feel dizzy anymore; then he went to the register, paid, and left.
Tonight. while he should have been taking care of the pony, he was thinking instead of the look on Judith Dale’s face when she told him that Coop had died. It was a winter night, cold and filled with ashy starlight. Hank was out feeding the dogs; as he walked back to the house he could hear his own footsteps on the frozen earth. Judith Dale was waiting for him, holding the screen door open, and a stream of yellow light swept across the ground. She put her hand on Hank’s shoulder, and to his great surprise he saw that she had to reach up to do so. “We’ve lost him,” Mrs. Dale said, and in that instant Hank realized he had never before seen real grief.
This is the reason he’s forgotten his chores now, all these years later-an oversight not usually in his nature. He’s been too preoccupied with wondering what happens when you lose someone. His mother, for instance, who died when he was so young he doesn’t even remember her. His father, as well, whom he d prefer not to remember. Hollis and Belinda’s son, Coop, who died at the age of twelve, and never found out what happened at the end of Treasure Island, the book Mrs Dale had been reading to him in the last month of his life.
Hollis is slipping a rope around the pony’s neck, doing Hank’s job himself, and although the pony is stubborn and rolls its eyes, it gets to its feet when the rope is tugged. Hollis spills out some salt into the palm of his hand, then blows it into the pony’s nostrils. The single character trait shared by father and son was their dislike of horses. Coop was allergic to animals and broke out in hives if he got close to anything with a tail. It was Belinda who insisted the boy needed a pony, and it’s Hank who’s set on keeping this pathetic creature in memory of the boy.
“Sorry about falling asleep,” Hank says. “It won’t happen again.”
“Give me one good reason, and I’ll get rid of this thing,” Hollis says of the pony.
Hank nods. He knows Hollis means what he says. Hank keeps his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself, as he always has. He’s used to Hollis’s ways, just as Hollis is used to him, after all these years.
“You heard about Mrs. Dale?” Hollis asks now.
Hank nods again. You’ve got to tread carefully with Hollis. You’ve got to watch what you say.
They’ve walked outside together, into a starry night that’s unusually clear and cold for this time of year. All that rain which fell earlier will freeze tonight, so that the ground will give them some trouble tomorrow when they go to bury Judith Dale. Mrs. Dale was a good woman, Hollis will grant her that. A busybody and a pain in the neck, but she never judged what she didn’t understand and that, Hollis knows, is rare. Unlike Alan and the boys in the village, she treated him fairly, but that doesn’t mean he has to moan and bellyache down at the funeral parlor. Ashes to ashes, that’s all there is. If you can’t change a fact of life, then be smart enough to walk away from it, that’s always been Hollis’s motto. Walk away fast.
“If you want to go to the funeral, that’s your business,” Hollis tells his nephew.
“Thanks,” Hank says. “I might.”
If Hollis did go to the service it would be for one reason alone. March Murray. Instead, he’s going to wait for her to come to him. It will happen, he knows that much. He’s gotten everything else that was ever denied him, all that’s left now is March. He has never loved anyone else, and he never will. He thought he couldn’t live without her, and in a way he was right. It’s a half life he’s been living, one where you go through the motions without any of it mattering. He simply has to give it more time, that’s all. People who think you can’t will certain things into being with the power of your pride are fools, plain as that. She’s already back in town. It’s only a matter of time before she’s back with him, and for that, Hollis can wait a while longer.
Tonight, he’ll go to bed in the spare room off the kitchen, since he can’t stand to enter the bedroom where he slept when he was married. In the morning, while people in town are getting dressed for the funeral service, while March Murray is brushing her long dark hair, Hollis will fix himself black coffee, as always. He’ll begin the chores he does routinely-paying the bills, speaking with his lawyer, making certain rents are collected and debts are paid. At noon, when his neighbors have left the chapel to gather at the cemetery beyond the golf course, off Route 22, he’ll walk the boundaries of his property to make certain none of the fences are down and no one has trespassed. He’ll do this, as he does every single day, and he won’t stop until he’s completely exhausted, knowing full well that if he ever did stop, if he ever really looked around him, every single inch of this acreage he owns would serve to remind him of all that went wrong.