Book Club: Fourth of July Creek
Our Waterstones Book Club choice this week is Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson's dark and powerful debut novel set in the hardscrabble American heartlands.
"Pete Snow cares deeply about his work as a social worker. Dealing constantly with troubled families, his own close relationships are mirroring the situations he encounters on a daily basis. As his involvement with Benjamin and Jeremiah Pearl takes a hold on his life, we follow the breakdown of his family unit and the horrific results on the lives and future of all concerned.
A bleak and uncompromising tale of lives 'off the grid' in small town USA." - Val Browning at Waterstones Kings Lynn.
Fourth of July Creek
The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt-and-gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla. Through the dirty window, he spotted some blond hair falling, and he hiked in his gut, hoping that the woman in there would be something to have a look at. Which is to say he did not expect what got out: a guy in his late twenties, maybe thirty, pulling on a denim coat against the cold morning air blowing down the mountain, ducking back into the car for a moment, reemerging with paperwork. His brown corduroy pants faded out over his skinny ass, the knees too. He pulled that long hair behind his ears with his free hand and sauntered over.
“Name’s Pete,” the social worker said, tucking the clipboard and manila folder under his arm, shaking the cop’s hand. “We’re usually women,” he added, smiling with an openness that put the cop at ill ease.
The cop just replied with his own name—“Eugene”—took back his hand, and coughed into his fist. The social worker pointed at the cop’s badge with his chin, a seven-pointed nickel star with MONTANA chased inside it, mountains on the left, plains on the right, a sun, a river.
“Lookit mine,” Pete said, pulling out a flimsy laminate from his wal- let. “I keep telling them I need a badge that don’t look like it came out of a damn cereal box.”
The cop didn’t have a ready opinion about that. He burnished a smudge off his own shield with a plump red thumb and turned toward the house. It abutted a steep hill and was poorly maintained, if at all. Peeling paint, a porch swing dangling from one rusting chain, a missing windowpane taped over with torn cardboard. Couch cushions, half a blow-dryer, some lengths of phone cable, a plastic colander, and bro- ken crockery littered the yard. Pieces of clothing slung up in the cedar shrubs like crude scarecrows, and the grass erupted in tall disordered bunches, stalks shooting through the warped porch boards, at places window-high. The screen door hung open behind where the mother and her son sat.
“Shit,” Pete said. “You had to cuff them.” “That or they’s gonna kill each other.”
The mother called out to him—“Pete! Pete! ”—but he shook his head no, and she looked off, pissed and muttering. The son didn’t even glance up, but must’ve suggested something to her because she turned away from him and spat out some words. From where they were, Pete and the cop couldn’t hear what hateful thing she said, and they watched a minute to see if the bickering would flare up. It did not.
Pete affixed the open folder to the clipboard, clicked his pen, and started his incident report. The cop let out his pony-keg belly a little. They always relaxed when the social worker got involved, soothed by the scritching of his pen, relieved that Pete would be taking it from here.
“So what happened? ” Pete asked, pen aloft.
The cop snorted contemptuously, lit up another cigarette, and told him. They were at it again, and the neighbor’d finally had it with the two of them broadcasting to the whole row of houses precisely how they’d kill each other, what appendages would be hacked off, and into what orifices they would stick those dismembered parts. There were children about, the neighbor said, so he went over. He pounds on the door. No response. Cups his eyes to see in the window. Sounds like the argument has spilled out the back door of the house. The neighbor jogs around to the side gate, where the boy is standing with his air rifle. The two of them halt at the sight of one another. Then the kid starts cross- ing and uncrossing his eyes at the neighbor. To unnerve him or because he’d at last gone bonkers, who could say.
“Did he actually threaten the neighbor with the gun? ” The cop blew smoke out his nose.
“This guy, he knows a pellet gun when he sees it.” “Right.”
“But it ain’t like he pointed the gun at the guy or said anything threatening at him exactly. The neighbor says he was more worried about the kid going after the mother.”
Pete nodded and wrote some more. “So then what? ”
“So he says ‘fuckit’ and calls it in.”
“And the situation when you got here ? ”
The situation was a perfect fucking mess. The situation was the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight. Now the cop was about ready to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.
Then the situation got interesting. “The mother has the air rifle and—”
“No way,” Pete said.
“Yeah, fuckin way,” the cop said. “She shoot him? ”
“Before I get to her, yeah, she shoots. You can see the big old welt on his forearm.”
Pete started to write. “And then what? ”
Then the kid leaps off the carport just as the cop has taken the air rifle and ordered the woman inside, but the kid and his mother are already tearing at each other like two wet cats in a sack. Right in front of a goddamn cop, mind you. Like he ain’t even there. All the neighbors are out on their nice, normal lawns in their bathrobes clutched closed at the neck watching the cop trying to disentangle the two of them, taking it in like the fucking rodeo. And the bitch—“pardon my French” the cop at last says about all his cussing—won’t desist, and the kid won’t desist, so the cop wrangles the first one he can get a hand on—the woman it turns out—and wrestles her onto her belly and into the cuffs, but not before the kid makes a run to kick her in the face, which the cop just barely stops with his own body. And realizing he’s just kicked one seriously pissed-off police officer in the chest, the dumbshit turns tail and flees.
“And you ran him down,” Pete said.
Smoke leaked out the cop’s pale yellow smile. “See that pickup? ” he asked.
“So he’s looking back to see if I’m coming and he runs smack into the open tailgate.”
“I imagine that was satisfying.”
“Your words, brother.” The cop took a drag, and blew it at the ground. “Anyhow, by the time I get him up on the porch, she’s blubber- ing about how she has a social worker who knows the whole history of everything and would straighten them out. ‘Please, please, would I call the social worker,’ she says.”
Pete nodded and wrote. His arm was tired, so he bent to finish with the clipboard on his thigh. The cop said something.
“I’m sorry? ” Pete said.
“So what’s going on with these two? ” the cop asked again.
Pete scoffed, not at the question, but at the enormity of the answer. How to sketch it. Shorthand it. A great many things were going on with them. Went on and would keep going on.
The mother collected unemployment but her full-time occupation was self-pity. She slippered around the house in sweatpants and smoked a lot of weed and took speed and tugged her hair over her face in a shape pleasing and temporary and dumped forth her old bosom and smiled prettily for herself and discovered nothing in the mirror to recommend her to anybody for anything. Or so you could imagine, the way she mooned her eyes at you until you told her to knock it off, you wanted to talk about the children. She ventured out only to get her SSI check and visit her dealer somewhere up on the edge of the Yaak Wilderness. Sometimes to get cereal. She could be seen around town powdered white and made up in slashes of red around her mouth and blue around her eyes like an abstract of the American flag, some kind of commentary on her country, which of a sort she was. Mostly she cloaked her grand paranoia in aviator glasses and lavender feather boas and, when she was ripping high, imagined herself some kind of fairy, and when she was low, imagined herself some kind of persecuted witch.
Pete closed the manila folder.
“The mother’s a disaster. Most of her disability goes to speed.”
“I recognize the kid,” the cop said. “Got a good run of priors going.” The kid dangled his head between his knees. A recreational gas huffer, who smelled like gasoline, but with an undertone of minerals like a rotting pumpkin in hot dirt. Other times of Cheetos and semen. With that acne-potted skin, you initially felt sorry for him. He came and went but not to school or for long or for good. He owed restitution for an arson (equipment shed, track field), had a pending court date for burgling pickups.
“He’s about one infraction away from a stint at Pine Hills,” Pete said. “Like assaulting a cop.”
The thing was, Pete suspected the onset of something diagnosable, a condition or combination of disorders that a good therapist would home in on. But Pete could never get the fifteen-year-old to an appointment, either because of the boy or his insane mother. He told them there was a new drug called Ritalin in the literature. Regretted saying the word the moment it slipped out of his mouth and they looked at him like he’d broken out in French. Literature. What drugs and literature in the houses in and around Tenmile, Montana. Louis L’Amour and James Michener, and comic books, furled and foxed Penthouses, some marijuana. Popular Mechanics and some truckers’ speed. The Bible, if you were lucky. Good God, what this dotty bitch and the punkinhead son would make of Revelations. It’d look like something painted on the side of a van. The cranks and drunks up here took to Jesus (in jail, if it pleases the court) and worried creases into the spine of the good book, consulting it like the I Ching or a Ouija board. For a good five or six months, they’d follow the Ten Commandments and hand out Jack Chick tracts like they were lucky pennies or rabbits’ feet. But soon they were chipping, they were sneaking a drink or a joint or some uppers on the sly, thumbing the thin pages for answers to the little questions as if following the better part of God’s law was achieved by divining from Leviticus what to have for supper or what color socks to wear.
“He could maybe do all right in a stable environment,” Pete said. “Maybe not.”
On the porch, the mother and son sensed things approaching a head. Their social worker had his clipboard under his armpit and he and the cop were talking. The mother watched, read the men’s body language, a language with which she had some fluency from previous arrests, other times she was made to wait. In court. At the SSI office, signing up for disability security. She chinned herself toward them trying to hear, but the kid was untroubled, mute and deviceless as a glass of lukewarm water.
“So do you feel like throwing a mom and her son in jail today? ” Pete asked.
“I surely do not. But these two are full idiots.” The cop dropped the butt and mashed it neatly with the point of his boot. “I thought the mama was plumb full of shit.”
“You. Dispatch didn’t even know if we had a Department of Family
Services in town.”
“My office is in the basement of the courthouse,” Pete said amiably. “Next to Records.”
“So whaddya usually do with them? ”
“There’s no usual. What can I say? The kid’s got priors. I’d like to keep him out of Pine Hills. There gonna be any charges? ”
“I dunno. Resisting, I guess. Assault if you wanna go there.” “Do you? ”
“What I don’t want is to come back.” The cop pressed closed a nos- tril with his finger and leaned over and blew furiously out of it.
“Let ’em off with a warning? ”
The cop nodded, wiping his nose with the back of his index finger. “Okay. But let me talk to the girl first,” Pete said, bending to look in the squad car. “The girl? ”
There was no girl in the squad car. Pete had assumed there would be, but there wasn’t.
“What girl? ” the cop asked.
Pete ignored him and charged through the yard and up the steps. The mother leaned over whining at him, but he stepped around her and she fell over—“Hey! ” she said—but he was past her and into the house. The light laddering through the blinds was morning light, cleaner and brighter. Not that what it shone on was much worth seeing. Styrofoam cups and paper bags and dirty clothes in the windrows of their comings and goings. Ashtrays on the gnawn armrests of the couch were filled to overflowing with butts. A dark jar of liquid sat on the coffee table atop a stack of unopened mail.
“Katie ? ” he called. The catch in his throat surprised him. Sweet Christ, he really gave a shit. The way he charged up in here. That he was here at all.
“Kate, it’s me, Pete.”
He set down his clipboard and stepped into a small cloud of fruit flies off the kitchen and waved them away from his face, his eyes. Into the narrow hall. Bed sheets with rust-colored stains and rectangles of particleboard rode along the wall. A pacifier. A Happy Meal box filled with twine. Sacks of sand and cans of open paint. A hammer and a stack of eight-track tapes.
“Katie ? ”
There were families you helped because this was your job, and you helped them get into work programs or you set up an action plan and checked in on them or you gave them a ride to the goddamn doctor’s office to have that infection looked at. You just did. Because no one else was going to. And then there were the people who were reasons for you to do your job. Katie. Why.
Fuck why. She just was.
He stepped past the boy’s room and called for her again. She wasn’t in her room. Just a mattress on the floor and a thin sleeping bag and a cup of water. Pink nude dolls. He stepped over a crushed cardboard box and pulled on the cord to a bare bulb. Her small clothes lay on the floor. The cop’s shadow passed by the window. Shit, she might have run away and into the woods out back.
The sliding closet door rattled on its track. There. “Katie, it’s Pete.”
The door slid open. His heart was actually pounding. She stepped out into the room, slight and shy and stinted. Hair nearly white, and scared white too.
He knelt. “Hey,” he said.
She turned her head away.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
She put her head down and charged at him and threw her arms around his neck. He gasped, and her hair sucked into his mouth with his breath, and her heart thrummed in her little birdcage chest, the little pumping bird that raced in there. His own racing too. He could feel the relief behind his eyeballs, his face, shuddering in his body like exhaustion.
“So she was in here,” the cop said from the doorway.
Katie pressed her head tight against his, and he tried to unclutch her, but she closed her eyes against him, grabbed one of his ears, gripped his neck, and squeezed as hard as she could. Pete stood, the girl affixed to him. The cop scratched himself.
“It’s okay,” Pete said to the girl and then again, louder to the cop who departed, nodding sheepishly.
“Katie,” he said. “The policeman is gone.”
She looked to see if it was true, not at the door but at him. A skinny blond thing so small in his arms. She put her hands inside his coat.
“This was scary, wasn’t it? ” She didn’t move.
“The policeman came, didn’t he ? Because your mom and Cecil were fighting, right? ”
She murmured yes.
“It was scary, wasn’t it? I’d be scared. Not knowing what your mom is going to do to your brother or what your brother is going to do to your mom? Did you see the policeman? ”
“And is that when you hid in your room? ” She nodded against his chest.
“It’s okay now. That was a good thing to have happened, because the policeman called me. And I’m here now and we’re gonna get this all straightened out, okay? ”
She wasn’t ready to straighten out anything. She needed him to hold her. He rubbed her back, the laced bones of her spine. She shuddered out a terrific sigh. He wondered what she was thinking. He wondered did she wish he would take her away. Did she wonder what his house was like. What kinds of food he had. What he would play with her. What kind of father could he be.
He knew what kind of father he was.
But he knew too that it’s nice right here to hold a small frightened girl and be strong and necessary. Times he took children from a bad home when it was almost worse on him than the child. Times they crushed up against him like this and he thought the work all came down to sheer rescue.
He carried her through the house and to the porch. The sun was full up, and the birds were out making their singsong rounds. The cop was talking to the mother and Cecil and he acknowledged Pete with a nod, looked under his fingernails, and kept talking to them.
“Now, I could put both of ya’s in jail. I oughta should.” He winked at Pete. “But, uh—”
“—Pete here says you’re good folks having a spot of trouble is all, and I should be lenient.”
He uncuffed them, the mother first. The boy rubbed his wrists. The shamed woman’s chin quivered, but she didn’t say anything.
“I don’t wanna come back, you hear? If I do, somebody’s going to jail. And I mean if I come back tomorrow, or next week or next month. I don’t ever want to come back, you understand? ”
The woman nodded. Cecil seemed transfixed by the indentures on his wrists.
“You all right here ? ” the cop asked Pete. “Yeah. Thanks, Eugene.”
The cop tipped his hat, and walked to his car, lighting another cigarette. When he left, a thick cloud of dust bore up from the road and washed over the porch and enveloped them. Pete covered the girl’s face and went inside.
Pete had come up from Missoula to work in Tenmile a little over a year before, in the fall of 1979. Most of the people he actually knew in the town and in the region were his clients. In Tenmile everybody knew everybody else or at least one of their kin or where they liked to get good and peppered on a Friday night. Thus far, Pete had maintained a low profile. Anyone who met him outside of work knew only that he had an office at the courthouse, maybe something to do with easements or water rights. Some kind of comptrollery that went on in the basement.
But his anonymity would not last for long, he knew that. The past Saturday night he’d seen both the boy and the mother out and up to no good, Cecil in the bed of a pickup with a broken baseball bat, and Debbie on a stool at the Dirty Shame bar in an open-backed top that exposed her razorous shoulder blades and a dense constellation of moles. He’d managed to avoid speaking to either of them, but Tenmile shrank with every case.
Debbie followed him inside the house, dropped onto the couch, and commenced quietly sobbing. Pete sat on a wooden chair by the door. The room stale with the smell of flat soda and body odor. The mother glanced at him in intervals. Pity me. Poor me. Angling for his sympathy.
Let her dangle a minute. Let her see how well that works.
He got up and carried Katie into the kitchen, still nuzzled to his chest. He didn’t even know if her eyes were open. He tried to catch their reflection in the window, but couldn’t make her out. Five years old and light as a toddler. He might have been holding a long doll for all she moved or weighed.
“You hungry? ”
She nodded against his chest. Plates crusted with dried mustard and mayo and ketchup crowded the countertops like discarded palettes. Fruit flies teemed over a bowl of old fruit, fruit he might’ve brought two weeks ago. Jesus, it was the fruit he’d brought. For fucksake. You try and help and she doesn’t even give them the fruit. She doesn’t even pretend. You put the fruit in the bowl for her and you say to her to make the kids eat it and she nods vigorously like she learned to in school, in detention, at what few jobs she’s had, she’s only ever learned to nod and say yes. Fucksake. You could picture her getting pregnant that way. Yeah, sure, it’s not my time of the month, don’t worry about it, I ain’t getting pregnant. I do too much speed. My ovaries are broke.
There was cold pasta in the sink that looked halfway fresh. He touched it and it was still moist. It smelled okay. He set the girl on a plastic lawn chair by the table. She watched him fetch a bowl from the stack of dirty ones and wash it with hot water and a bar of soap from the windowsill. He washed a fork the same way, grinning at her. He sniffed the noodles again, and then forked the stiff spaghetti, but it came out of the colander like a halved basketball, and so he rinsed it and pulled it apart with his hands into a saucepan. He searched the cupboards and fridge and at last simply emptied a ketchup bottle over the pasta, and put the red mess on the electric stove. The girl tucked her knees up under her armpits, gazing at him as he turned the noodles in the heat. When the pasta sizzled, he carried her and the steaming bowl out to the living room. On his lap she blew on it, ate, and was otherwise silent.
The mother had ceased crying and stared at him grimly. “I just can’t get you all off my back,” she said.
“I’m not on your back, Debbie. You told the cop to call me.” He covered the girl’s ears. “I’m nowhere near your damn back.”
He could feel the girl chewing under his palms.
“You let things get so out of hand, the cops come ? Jesus, Debbie.” Her chin crumpled like a can again. He uncovered Katie’s ears and
whispered he needed to talk privately to her mother, and she nodded and blew on her food. Lovely girl. He’d take her. He would. He covered her ears again.
“I know. I know. Just nothing works out for me.” She picked through the junk on and around the coffee table for something—a cigarette probably—and knocked a metal pipe to the floor.
“We talked about that.”
She nudged the pipe under the couch with her foot.
“About self-pity,” he said. “Not the pipe you’re trying to hide.”
“You said you’d help me,” she said, searching the cluttered table with roving hands.
“What do you think I just did with that cop? That’s helping. That’s exactly helping,” he said.
She found an empty pack, and crushed it, sighing hugely. “Not enough it ain’t.”
She looked at the cuff-welts on her wrists and started in crying again. Katie twisted spaghetti around her fork.
“Debbie. You’re not the only one to ever fuck up. Everybody’s got their troubles.” Pete kissed Katie’s hair. “Even me. I got problems just like you do. I mean, hell, I’m only up here in Tenmile because I needed to get away from some bullshit where I was at.”
At this, Debbie looked at him.
“Just take him away.” She tried to work up some tears. “He’s an ungovernable.”
“You can parent him, Debbie.”
“I got a note from his school that he ain’t been for weeks.”
“We can deal with that. Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on here at home.”
She rubbed her face. She was coming off of whatever she’d been on and her spindly hands worked her head like they were trying to dig into her skull. Her legs quietly pistoned.
“You know what all goes on. He’s crazy.”
“I’ve made numerous appointments to get him in to see the psychiatrist in Kalispell—”
“He won’t go! What am I supposed to do? He’s biggern me! ” “You can hold your own, Debbie—”
“He hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you.”
He hates her, Pete thought. I hate her.
She balled her fists and crushed them into her eyes. For several moments.
“Okay, Deb. Why don’t you take it easy on your head there ? ”
“Your head. You’re digging into it.” She set her jaw and shook her head. “Take him. Just take him.”
“Where ? Where am I supposed to take him, Debbie ? ” His hands had slipped off Katie’s ears.
“Wherever you take kids when you take them. Ain’t that your job? I’m asking you to take him. Do your fuckin job. I’m a taxpayer.”
Katie twisted around to see him, alarmed. A touch of want in them too. Would he take her away. Take her with him.
“Nobody is going anywhere.” He put his hands back over her ears. “I don’t know what you think I do, but let me tell you, the world is not filled with people waiting to raise your children.”
“His uncle then.”
Just then, Cecil entered. Air rifle in hand. Pete shunted the girl into the recliner and stood. The boy leaned the air rifle onto the couch. He wore a backpack and was expressionless and heavy-lidded and it occurred to Pete that Debbie was probably a raging drunk when she was pregnant with him. Had to name him Cecil of all things. And now this mess of a person.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “You can forget about me.” “Hold on—” Pete started.
“Go already! ” Debbie screamed, outsized for the situation. “Just leave me! Leave me here with no man in the house! ”
“Debbie . . . ,” Pete said.
“You ungrateful piece of shit! ”
“Fuck you! ” Cecil roared, and he slipped by Pete and had his mother by the hair. Both of them shouting, Debbie kicked him in the groin, and he let out a low moan, released her, and fell to his knees.
“All right, all right, enough! ” Pete hollered, but the boy quickly stood and punched her in the face. She wheeled backward arms flailing, and tripped into the television, which fell onto the corner of the flagstone fireplace and cracked open like an egg. A snotty tendril of smoke rose out of the picture tube. The boy lunged, but Pete pushed him down and pressed his knee into the middle of his back.
“Get out! ” he yelled at Debbie. “Go! ”
She cupped her eye as though the pain had at last occurred and further enraged her. She stepped back to take a run at kicking her son in the head. Pete grabbed at her leg, but she skipped out of range. Pete pointed toward the rear of the house.
“Get out, goddamnit, or I’m calling the cops.” “You piece of shit! ”
“Debbie! Go or the cops again! Your choice.”
She wasn’t listening. Cecil struggled and yelled, and Pete jammed his knee in harder—but then Katie gathered her mother’s long fingers and tugged on her, and Debbie followed her out of the room calling Cecil a sonofabitch, sonofabitch, holding her crying eye.
It wasn’t yet noon and no one was much about on the square in Tenmile or around the Rimrock County Courthouse or the shops. The only person they saw as they drove across the tracks and then the river was a man pumping gas at the station on the way out of town. They were soon in a narrow alley of serried pines that gave way to mowed pastures. Pete turned onto an unsurfaced road that was shortly a ruck of graded dirt and vibrated them silly in their seats until they pulled in front of a white ranch house. Their flesh and ears buzzed in the sudden stillness. Out of sight atop the flagpole before them snapped an American flag in the wind.
The ugly pumpknot on Cecil’s head glowed like an ember. His nose whistled. He gripped the air rifle. Pete had agreed to let him take it, just to get him out of the house.
“You can’t bring that here with you,” Pete said. Cecil stared straight ahead.
“Now look,” Pete said. “This isn’t permanent. You’re going back home.”
“You mother is your mother.”
“I’ll cut her cunt out. How’s that sound? ” Cecil asked. Pete rubbed his face.
“It sounds damn awful, Cecil. You can’t talk like that. Not here.”
“Like what? ”
“Like a psycho.”
“I ain’t a psycho.”
“All right, look. Look at me.” Cecil turned. “I need to know that you’ll be good to these people. They don’t want no trouble and I don’t want to bring them any. They wanna help.”
“Just drop me off on the highway.”
“You know I can’t do that. Let’s just get you and Mom apart for a little while, and see if we can’t get things figured out when everybody’s cooled off a little bit.”
Cecil raised his palm. Whatever. Fuck you, Pete.
Pete got out. The house was set back from the fence and the flag- pole, and in back were outbuildings and beyond them an empty pasture. Cecil stayed put. Pete went through the gate and then up the path through a trellis to the house. A regal old hound brayed responsibly at his approach but didn’t get up from inside the doghouse. Pete was almost to the front door when an older man came out of the garage, wiping his hands with a red rag, which he stuffed in his back pocket before he pumped Pete’s outstretched hand. The man’s great white mustache twisted out like longhorns. He and Pete exchanged greetings and were now looking over at the boy.
“Thanks for this,” Pete said. “Not a problem.”
The aproned missus stuck her head out the front door, ruddy and cheerful as a gnome, and said howdy and that she couldn’t come out, they were just about to pour the jam into the jars, but would Pete want one. Pete said of course, and turned back to Cloninger.
“There he is there in the car,” Pete said. “We looking at a shy fella or a tough guy? ”
“Around grown men, he’s pretty docile. But him and his mom are in a bad way.”
Cloninger laced his fingers together, hung them below his belt, and tilted his ashen head at Pete.
“He’s got priors, but they’re sneaky priors. Arson. Breaking and entering. He was with those kids that were busting into pickups outside the basketball game last spring,” Pete said. “He’s older and bigger than that Rossignol kid you took in last time, but I think he’s more bark than bite. That said, you never know. He might could be a handful,” Pete said.
“Really, I just don’t know how he’ll act in a different environment. Probably quiet for a few days and then we’ll just have to play it by ear? ”
“They Christian? ” “Not even close.” Cloninger nodded.
“I hate to ask this, but what’s the longest you can have him? ” Pete asked.
Cloninger unlaced his hands and pulled out a small black calendar and a small pencil from his shirt pocket. He thumbed through the little book to the place he needed. He squinted without his glasses.
“We’re going to Plains in two weeks. Marta’s sister. If he gets along, he can certainly come with.”
“Nah. I’ll get something sorted out before then. There’s an uncle. I
just didn’t have time.”
“Okee-dokee,” Cloninger said, putting back his calendar and pencil. “Let’s get him set up.”
“One thing,” Pete said, touching Cloninger’s elbow. “Obviously, he isn’t going to be grateful for your hospitality. But please do accept my gratitude.”
Cloninger clapped Pete on the shoulder. “We’ll feed and shelter him, body and spirit.”
From the car, Cecil observed the man holding Pete’s shoulder and bending his head at him, like they were praying with one another. Then Pete and the man were at the car and opening the door, Cecil going along with it, handing Pete his air rifle, shaking the man’s hand, and then already in his house which was a cloud of sweet moisture and the dog was sniffing his groin, and the mother squeezed his hand, and their children lined up to greet him too, and this was really happening. Pete was already out the door with a jar of jam, and Cecil was shown a spare bed and where to put his things. Then they were sitting down to eat. He was just in time for lunch, they said like it was pure kismet, and the dog would not quit sniffing his pant legs under the table even though he moved his feet and tried to shoo him with his hand.
After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face-to-face with the boy's disturbed father, Jeremiah. Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.