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A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher

Read Online A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher Classics Book

Overview: Willy Cherrymill and his stepdaughter, Lacey, are deeply bruised by a past brimming with unanswered questions. It’s been thirty years since May DuBerry, Willy’s young wife and Lacey’s mother, abandoned them both, leaving Willy to raise Lacey alone.

Lacey Cherrymill is smart, stubborn, and focused. She’s also single mother to a young daughter recently diagnosed with a devastating illness. The last thing she needs to think about right now is the betrayal that rocked her childhood. Reluctantly, she has returned to her rural beginnings, a former dairy farm in the Maryland countryside, and to Willy, a man steeped in his own disappointments and all the guilt that goes with them.

Together they will pool their wobbly emotional resources to take care of Lacey’s daughter, Tasha, all the while trying to skirt the issue of May’s mysterious disappearance. But try as she might, Lacey can’t leave it alone. Just where is May DuBerry Cherrymill and why did she leave them, and how is it that they have never talked about the wreckage she left behind?

A Hand to Hold in Deep Water is a deeply felt narrative about mothers and daughters, the legacy of secrets, the way we make a family, and the love of those who walk us through our deepest pain. It is about the way we are tethered to one another and how we choose to wear those bindings. These are characters you won’t soon forget and, more so, won’t want to leave behind when you turn the last page.


Read Online A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher Book Chapter One Free. Find Hear Best Classics Books And Novel For Reading And Download.
A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher

Read Online A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher Book Chapter One

Chicken Farming
March
Willy hates chickens, has hated them as far back as he can remember, so the fact that here he is, nearly seventy years old, getting up to feed the chickens, well—it just doesn’t sit so good with him.
He pulls on his coveralls and shuffles down the hall to wash. There is no dignity in it—chicken farming. He’s selling eggs, for God’s sake. Turning on the spigot, he hangs his head over the bowl and waits. In his younger days he would have cupped his hands to puddle the first icy chokes of water, splashing his face until his eyes were wide and a forelock of hair hung dripping over his nose. Then he would have peeked in on Lacey, cracking her door just a bit so that it would make a small creak like old bones, always just a little taken aback to see her still sleeping through the clanking of pipes, before he headed up to the barn to start the chores.
But these days he is kinder to himself. He lets the water run warm before soaking a washrag and pressing it to his face, letting its warmth put a thaw to his knuckles beneath the rag. And he is alone now, no one to check on. No pressing chores other than those chickens.
“Damn chickens,” he mutters to himself just as he does every morning, but as much as he tries to muddle himself in gloom, he can’t deny that today is different. Today marks the beginning of Lacey and the girl’s visit.
He tries not to expect too much, not to want anything out of the visit, but it’s been nearly a year since he’s seen them both and he can’t deny that there’s some anticipation in the air. He hardly slept the night before, which is unusual for him. He’s never had any trouble with sleep, rising easily and rested at the first crack of dawn. But last night he had woken a number of times, not tossing and turning, but waking to the dark and lying still for lengths of time, noticing the way the shadows changed in the room each time he woke, leaving them slightly rearranged as if the dark itself was a shifting thing.
Fact is, he has to admit, he’s been missing the both of them. He’s seen Lacey and Tasha only a handful of times since Tasha was born. She is five now, but he can remember the first time Lacey came back to the farm with her. She had been just a baby, a bitty little thing, a newborn.
It had been a January day, one of the coldest on record, and while he had hoped to visit with her and the baby sooner, the weather along the Pennsylvania–Maryland line had been miserable, wet, and icy for weeks. He’d just lost his smallest banty—pretty little red hen, but lousy layer—a few days earlier. Found her frozen, like an oddly feathered rock, on the floor of the coop. Hens weren’t laying in the cold anyway, hunkered down and fluffed, blinking at him as if to say, What did you expect? He had tacked up more foil-sheathed insulation along the roofline, and they had clucked and grumbled at the disruption. That evening he had phoned Lacey, checking on her and the baby, and told Lacey to sit tight and he would come down to see her and the baby at the college where she taught, soon as the weather turned. She had told him not to come. The weather was just as bad down in southern Maryland. In fact, she had said, even the brackish river had frozen. She was looking out her window to it right now, she said, and the river was iced over deep and thick, cracking in places, and making ungodly creaks and shrieks as it did so. No, she had agreed, it was not a good time to travel. She was just going to hunker down with the baby and stay warm.
Willy doesn’t travel much. Never had much use for it, doesn’t like traffic or icy roads or motels or staying in someone else’s place. Doesn’t like the smell of someone else’s sheets or the sound of unfamiliar night noises. But a few days later, just as the weather had started to warm a precious few degrees and the ice had slid down off the roof of the barn in heaving sheets, just when he thought it might be time to pack the truck and head on down to southern Maryland where Lacey lived and get a look at this new baby girl she had brung into the world, just around then she had done what she always did and beat him to it—in this case showing up loaded with not only the baby but diaper bags and portable baby contraptions. They were cumbersome things that folded in complicated ways and then unfolded to become something else altogether. Portable cribs and strollers and special places for changing diapers and such. What looked like one thing turned out to be another, and he watched in amazement as she unsnapped and unzipped and unbuckled to reveal a little muffin of a baby, pink-faced and squalling from the back of her car.
The baby wailed in a terrible way and then, once Lacey had settled herself into a kitchen chair, Lacey had startled him again by lifting her breast up out of her shirt to nurse the infant. That surprised him, the round fullness of it, the wide blue vein that ran through it, and the way the baby’s mouth bobbed first and then suctioned to the dark nipple. He had turned his head from her, started to rise from the chair he sat on across from her, maybe thinking he’d make some coffee, pop some bread in the toaster, or offer to scramble some eggs.
“Willy,” she said to him as he rummaged through the breadbox on the counter. “She’s got to eat, for crying out loud.”
Well, he knew that. That wasn’t the point. He’d raised dairy cattle for most of his life and certainly understood what was going on here. But the way she was, not caring for any privacy. And besides, he hadn’t even said anything about it.
But Lacey knew him. Over the next few days he could feel himself flush every time she opened her shirt, and then he’d get to squirming so, trying not to look, that he’d have to get up and pretend to need something from another room, or if she was set at the kitchen table he’d pace the floor behind her or fuss with a rag at the counter. But then—and he could have sworn she did it just to ruffle him—she’d get up, the baby still latched to her breast, and swing the chair around with her foot and then sit again so she’d be facing him still.
On her last morning before heading back with the baby, she had been sitting in the parlor, still in her flannel bathrobe with her bare feet resting on a small needle-pointed stool.
“You cold?” he asked. The baby was at her breast again, and he knelt down at the woodstove, his back to her, and opened the front of it, digging at the coals with the poker, and with some small satisfaction, stirring up a shimmer of sparks. He heard the tiniest smack-pop of the baby coming off the breast. “What kind of name is that—Anastasia?” he had asked Lacey. “Is that a Russian name?”
“You know it’s a Russian name, Willy,” she said, distracted. “Cold War is over, you know.” He turned around to see her wiping at her breast with the lapel of her bathrobe. “Her father teaches Russian history. I told you that.”
“He picked her name?”
“He picked her name,” she crooned, lifting the baby to her face and kissing her nose. “We picked her name,” she corrected herself. “And we think Anastasia is a beautiful name, don’t we, Anastasia?” The baby gurgled and pursed her tiny lips.
What he wanted to say, though he didn’t dare, was how could she let a man who hadn’t even married her name the baby. And where was he anyway? But Willy wouldn’t ask. There were always questions he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—ask. Questions he was afraid would come out of his mouth half-formed and end up meaning something altogether different from what he was thinking and so, better to stay away from them.
“It’s complicated, Willy,” she said. Lacey knew him, always seemed to know just what he was thinking.
“Huh?”
“It’s complicated. I told you this. We’ll get married. There are just things to work out.” She ran her finger along the baby’s cheek. “Besides, I’m thirty-one years old. I wanted this baby.”
“Thirty-one,” he mumbled. “Just ancient. Surprised you’re not dead yet.”
Lacey just smiled at him. “You know what I mean.”
But he didn’t, not really. “That baby needs a daddy.”
She lifted the baby over her shoulder as it spit up a dribble of milk that ran down the back of her robe.
“Uh-oh, sit tight,” he said. And he went to the kitchen and returned with a dishtowel. “Just a little spit-up.” He wiped at her back and then across her shoulder with it. “Got it.” He looked at the baby resting milk-drunk on Lacey’s shoulder. “I’m sure it will work out,” he said.
“Can you watch her for a bit, Willy? I need to get in the shower.” She lifted the baby from her shoulder up to Willy’s arms. “Here you go, Grandpa.” It was the first time she’d said that. Grandpa.
The baby hiccupped and settled into a long coo that trilled like a dove and then, even with her eyes closed, he could have sworn she smiled. The moment was all too brief, but in an instant that smile had changed everything about her little face, and Willy had felt his heart melt into a puddle.

Now Lacey is coming home for a visit. It’s spring break at the college where she teaches, and she and the girl will be arriving sometime today. Mac, the child’s father, has long since moved on—just as Willy suspected he would—and it’s just the two of them now, just Lacey and Tasha.
Willy had never gotten used to Mac anyway. There had been a few awkward visits from the three of them the first year or so after Tasha was born, and truth be told, Mac unnerved him, though he couldn’t exactly say why. Maybe it was the way he fussed in the kitchen, talking aloud like he was on some fancy cooking show. I’m thinking of julienning the carrots, he would say. Lace—how do you feel about me pureeing this gazpacho a bit more? Or maybe it was the way he was always draping an arm over Lacey’s shoulders whenever she held Tasha on her hip, clustering the three of them together and smiling up at Willy as if Willy was expected to take a damn picture. It seemed to Willy that he did it for Willy’s benefit, as if to say, Look at us, look at the three of us. And then there were his constant questions about the farm. What was the source of the TB outbreak? That was a question that rankled Willy to the bone. In all his years of farming he had maybe five calves come down with scours. It was a record to be proud of. He ran the cleanest barn for miles around the county and that was a fact. Mac then went on to explain to Willy, as if Willy didn’t already know this himself, that he understood bovine TB to be a zoonotic disease and were any farmhands—or Lacey—exposed?
Willy figured Mac had been doing a little research. They were sitting in the Adirondack chairs, out beside the pond, and Lacey had just gone into the house to put Tasha down for a nap. He explained with a measured tone that while his farm was found not to be the source, he was in fact the first to recognize the symptoms in one of his own cows. The heifer had a nasty swollen udder, oozing pus and crusting over, and he had separated her out from the herd. Doc Asher had administered a full spectrum of antibiotics and still she was no better, the udder turning hard, the heifer dropping weight, hanging her head listlessly, baying mournfully, refusing to eat. He, Willy, had been the one to ask for the TB test that would confirm his worst fears. In the telling of it to Mac, he worked to keep his voice even, concluding with the fact that of course all the people had all been tested. And everyone was fine—just fine.
Eventually, Mac had faded away, moving out of Lacey’s cottage and then taking a new teaching job in Virginia. But with Mac’s disappearance, Willy also can’t help noticing that the visits from Lacey and Tasha have become less frequent as well. It occurs to him that maybe Mac’s leaving left questions hanging like a bad smell in the air around Lacey. He knows he’ll never bring it up to her, never say, I told you so, but still, it’s there between them—all this leaving and all the holes filled with a stinking silence.
It’s been nearly a year since he last saw Lacey and Tasha. With so much time passing between visits, he isn’t sure Tasha will remember him. She’s always been shy with him at first.
Willy comes down the stairs now, slowly, easing to each step and knowing just which ones will creak with the weight of him. It will take a few minutes to work the kinks out of his knees. By the time he has jiggled the cord to the percolator to get the coffee brewing and slipped on his boots by the kitchen door he’s beginning to feel his joints come together in a familiar way.
He heads out the door to the coop. It’s late March, and the air feels thick in his lungs, full of rich, rotted odors. His boots crackle across paper-thin crusts of ice and then suck at the mud underneath.
He looks to the pastures, pastures that had once been tight and manicured by the herd. Now they are a tangle of overgrown brambles, black and wiry against the pale morning. A rough winter has tumbled many of the stones that fence the land.
Willy knows the stones, knows the sharp-edged heavy feel of particular ones that fall, year after year, and have to be lifted from the ground and placed again. There is less and less sense to it now, to the lifting and placing. Now he is a chicken farmer.
He lets himself into the chicken yard and the gate heaves on its hinges, setting the hens in the coop to murmuring, softly at first, almost politely, but as he reaches the coop, the sounds become more distinct, building to a fury of clucking and warbling with a jarring squawk rising out of the fray now and then.
He opens the door to the coop. Plywood, warped and insubstantial, not like the barn had been. The barn had been something to see. After the herd had to be destroyed, he’d still tended to it for a few years. But when he’d finally accepted the fact that there would not be another herd—well, it just hadn’t seemed so important to fix things right away. When the weather vane toppled and hung swinging in the rain, he had tried to go up to the roof and fix it, but he got dizzy and couldn’t get his breath. It hung that way for weeks, teasing him. Finally, a second storm moved in and it just gave up on him, disgusted, and flew off, ripping along the chicken yard and tangling in the chicken-wire fencing, which, of course, did have to be fixed. The weather vane rested now, defeated, in a pile of discarded tires and cinder blocks behind the chicken yard.
A young couple from Long Island had bought the remains of the barn and hauled it away piece by piece. They were going to build an addition to their home, authentic post-and-beam construction, they told him, with reclaimed materials, whatever the hell that meant. He wasn’t sure, but it sounded illegal, like they were taking back something that was never really theirs in the first place.
They’d sent a crew of six men to dismantle it, and Willy had watched from a distance, grateful that Lacey wasn’t around to witness the tearing down. He’d watched the destruction from his second, smaller barn, more of a large, freestanding garage, aluminum over concrete, where he now kept his tractor, chicken feed, his tools—the ones he imagined he couldn’t do without—and the old ’66 Ford F100, good for salvage parts and some memories.
All the farmers, the few that remained, have moved to aluminum barns. Course it’s easier, less upkeep, goes up in a day and doesn’t require the help of neighbors to raise. But Willy hates to call it a barn. It’s a garage as far as he is concerned. Lacey always called it the loud barn because of the way her voice bounced off the cavernous inside of it, ricocheting off the metal walls.
The old barn, built by Willy’s daddy, a few Amish boys, and a handful of neighbors, actually was post-and-beam construction and had been meant to stand the test of time. The beams locked together and petrified into place in a way that made Willy a little proud as he watched the men shout to one another as to the best way to go about bringing it down.
The husband and wife had come to supervise, and the husband couldn’t help but reach out at each barn board that passed by him, having to touch it and marvel at the hand-hewn timbers and the richness of aged oak and hemlock.
When the crew finally slammed the doors on the bed of the semi and fell about to lighting their cigarettes and spitting over the splintered debris, the wife had stood over the stone foundation and clapped her hands like a child and Willy knew Lacey would have found her foolish.
Willy cursed the damn TB that had robbed him of his herd. Five local herds had had to be destroyed that year, but Willy was the only one too old to rebuild. The government had paid him a pittance on each head, but he’d never been much of a spender, so he could get by. He’d taken to tending the chickens instead. He turns a small profit on the eggs, which surprises him some, given his heart isn’t in it, but his eggs are good, and people even asked for them by name at the local market. Mr. Willy’s eggs, they call them.
Now he swats gently—because that is just his nature, and maybe because he is far too aware of just how much he doesn’t like them—at the fattest hen to get at her egg. Their cackle and dander irritate him. And their eyes, bright little beady things that he’s never gotten used to. He shuffles through a confetti of feathers and holds his breath. He always holds his breath as long as he can in the coop. He’s never gotten used to the smell.
Lacey never minded it. The chickens had been her idea anyway. She was soon to turn six that year, six years old and alone with Willy. He’d married her mother only a year before, but May had run off and left him with Lacey.
He kept tending to her, in a daze, just as if she’d been part of the herd, until it occurred to him that she was his for keeps. May wasn’t coming back. Lacey was staying. At least, that’s what he thought then. In the end, it seemed that Lacey also left—not all at once, but over time. The chickens stayed.

He is wiping the eggs in the sink when he hears the car pull in the drive. It isn’t even eight o’clock yet and he isn’t near ready. Not that he has any solid idea of what he should have done to prepare for her visit, but he knows somehow, just knows, that there are things he should have done—laundered sheets, for instance, or picked up something special at the grocer. Towels, maybe, he should have laundered the towels. Lacey could manage to use two, three at a time. That had always confounded him, the way she went through the towels as a teenager. And the last time she and Tasha had visited, he must have recovered five or six hanging from bedposts and doorknobs after they left. He should have laundered towels.
He goes out the back door and down the stoop to the gravel drive where her car sits, the engine still humming.
“I left really early this morning,” she says through the open window. She tips her head back against the headrest. “God, I’m beat.” She turns off the engine, and the car gives a small rattle before completely surrendering, like stones in a can. She comes up out of the car in one long fluid step and then stands in front of him, with her hands at her waist, arches her back, and then reaches her arms up over her head. “Hey, Willy.” She smiles and tosses her arms around him. “I look like hell, I know,” she says.
He steps back from her, looks her up and down. “Nah,” he says. “You look nice.” And then he leans in and hugs her again, not knowing if she expects it or not, but he couldn’t have stopped himself if he wanted to. It is always a little awkward between the two of them at first. Sometimes it’s hard for Willy to know what is expected of him. She holds on to him a little longer than he would have thought, and he notices that she smells of coffee and maybe of cigarette smoke. He spies a mounded knot of blankets on the back seat and sidesteps Lacey to peer through the back window. Tasha is asleep in a booster seat, her head flopped to her shoulder in a way that makes Willy’s own neck hurt. He looks expectantly to Lacey.
“She slept the whole way,” Lacey says.
He peers through the window again but catches his own reflection in the glass and becomes suddenly aware of how he looks. He takes off his cap and stuffs it in his front pocket, raking back his hair with the fingers of his other hand.
“Want to get her up?” he says, nodding to the window. Lacey is looking around the place. He sees her eyes rest on the raw spot in the earth where the barn once stood and feels something ooze in his heart, his shoulders curling around his chest. It’s been nearly three years since the barn came down, and still, watching her look at it again makes it hurt like an old sore scratched fresh.
“Want some coffee?” he offers.
“I’ve had enough coffee to wire Manhattan,” she says.
He doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes there are gullies between the two of them that he just doesn’t know how to get over.
He looks at her now. She doesn’t look so different from the last time, skinnier maybe, but he knows she likes herself skinny. Her curly hair—that wild hair that used to make her cuss like a sailor on Friday nights and had been responsible for at least one hairbrush sent sailing through an open bathroom window many years ago—is as long and wild as it has ever been, but now she wears it with the front pulled back smoothly and the rest winding down her shoulders, as if she and her hair have come to a reconciliation of sorts.
“Uh-oh,” Lacey says. “Here comes trouble.” She nods behind Willy.
Tasha has climbed out of her booster seat and is pressing her face up against the window from inside the car, studying Willy. She unlatches the door, scrambles from the car, and moves quickly to Lacey’s side, wraps her arms around Lacey’s thigh. Lacey puts her hand gently to the back of the child’s head. “Say hello, Tasha.”
“Hello, Tasha,” she mimics her mother and giggles, turning to bury her face in Lacey’s side and then rolling back to look up at Willy.
She doesn’t look like Lacey. She is fair, her skin nearly translucent, her hair so blonde and—unlike Lacey’s—corn-silk straight, cheekbones that sit too high on her face for a child. But when she peers up at Willy and breaks into a bashful smile, there is something in the bow of her lips and the way her cheeks blossom that is sweet and familiar.
Lacey had been sending pictures of the girl in between visits. But of course, it wasn’t the same as really seeing her. She’s changed so much in the past year. He watches her eyes dart from Willy to Lacey and back again, sees the way her hand plays at Lacey’s thigh, the fingers splayed and then curling into a ball. Nope, you couldn’t see that sort of thing in a photograph.
Tasha untangles herself from Lacey and runs ahead to the house. Lacey nods to Willy. “Let the games begin,” she says.
“How’s the college work?” he asks.
“The college work sucks,” Lacey says, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her sweater pocket and shooing Tasha up the back stoop and then following her through the door.
Lacey sits down at the kitchen table, kicks out a second chair, and spreads her legs across it. She runs her fingers down the length of a cigarette before sliding it back in the pack.
“Don’t worry,” she says to him. “I don’t smoke in the car with her.”
Willy just shrugs his shoulders. “I didn’t say nothing,” he says, turning his back to her to finish up with the eggs he left at the sink.
How does she do that? How does she always seem to know just what he is thinking?
He remembers the first time she surprised him like that. He’d been a young man then, just pushing up against the brink of forty, but still a young man, not feeling the gravel in his joints too much, not thinking so much about the way his skin fit over his bones.
He’d only married May six months earlier and he was still getting used to having a five-year-old around. She was bold for such a young thing, piping in with her opinions—boys are stupid, green beans give me headaches, some of the farmhands smell funny. And she was forever scampering between the cows in the stanchions, no matter how many times he told her it was a fine way to get herself crushed to death. It spooked him some, the way she would barge into the bathroom while he sat on the toilet and not even notice the compromising position he was finding himself in. Just popping in to tell him hurry on up in here ’cause Momma says supper is ready and what’s taking so long.
On one particular evening, he had just finished up with the herd and was sitting on the back stoop preparing to light his pipe. She came meandering down from the barn and nudged him with her knees before sitting down beside him. He scratched the match across the cinder block, and she watched him draw the flame into the bowl. He felt her watching him and he sucked hard at the stem, drawing the flame down into the bowl and letting it rise again, amusing her, he was certain. He had thoughts weighing on his mind, but he tried to clear them away, focus on the girl. She’d been under his feet all day, following him through the barn, stooping down and peering with him at one of the heifer’s damaged teats as if she had something to say about it, clambering up the paddock gate and riding it as he tried to lock up for the night. He’d even caught her sticking her little fingers into one of the heifer’s cavernous nostrils. Couldn’t explain why she’d do such a thing. Just said matter-of-factly that she felt like it.
“Willy,” she had said, nudging her shoulder into his where they sat on the stoop together, her voice small and papery, like it might blow away. “I don’t think my momma likes it here no more.”
“Now, girl,” he said, patting her knee, “what makes you say such things?” But his heart had already tightened in his chest because he’d been thinking the same thing, the very same thing. May wasn’t happy, and it didn’t seem right seeing as he had thought for sure she would be. He had been so proud to bring her home on their wedding day, and after that first night with her, feeling so good, he couldn’t imagine she would feel any different from him.
That was just the thing that confounded him—that he could feel one way and she could feel another. Of late, when he touched her, she just lay still, not saying no to him, but like she’d taken out her heart and set it aside. And just last night, when he’d lifted his head from the sweet-salty crook of her neck, she lay wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling, and he couldn’t go on.
It was a terrible thing, to feel connected to a woman and then find out you weren’t really touching her at all. Something like that made a man start asking questions that he didn’t want to know the answers to.
But even then, at that moment, with Lacey tucked against his shoulder and his hand patting her knee, he couldn’t have possibly imagined that May would disappear the way she did, that she could just quit the life they had like it meant nothing, leaving him and little Lacey without even so much as a so long and see ya later. Gone. Like a breath that’s been inhaled and exhaled and done with.

Tasha prances over to the sink now and stands on her toes to look in the basin. “Did all those eggs come from Mommy’s chickens?”
Lacey’s chickens. Now some memories are hazy and hard to bring back, like the way May felt to him on that first night, after her bath, the way her skin was still bathwater-warm and soft and giving in places. He hadn’t known a woman’s skin could yield to him like that. He was always trying to bring the feeling back, even years later, but it all felt so faded and cool, like the sheets, and he knew he couldn’t be remembering it right because his imagination had to keep working at it harder every time.
But, Lacey’s chickens. He can remember that.
She was turning six and her hair was a tangle of ringlets that made her look like something out of an old Tarzan movie from his own childhood. It had been a few months since May had disappeared, and he was just starting to see Lacey differently, thinking maybe he ought to figure out how to manage that mop of hair and not let her head off to school with a scab of jelly drying around her mouth and her socks unmatched. He was prideful of her, too, and his pride was unshakeable, but May had done all the tending to her and without May, there was that gully between the two of them now.
It was October, and the school had called him in to discuss her disruptive behavior. She was smart enough, they assured him, but he knew that already. He wanted to explain that she just had her own way of doing things and didn’t much care for instruction of any sort. And he wanted to tell them that she was a whole lot better off if you just let her figure things out on her own—she was that kind of child. But the teacher, a pretty young thing with no children of her own and a disturbing way of looking at him without blinking, went on to explain that Lacey always seemed distracted, couldn’t sit still in her seat, and just that morning had had to be reprimanded—repeatedly—for spitting in the school yard. Willy didn’t see as this was a behavioral problem, but he didn’t say anything, just made a mental note to explain to Lacey that it was fine for the farmhands to spit but it was not something a little lady should be doing in public. He didn’t tell the pretty teacher that he wasn’t her father, and he didn’t tell her about May—not exactly. “It’s just the two of us now,” he had said. She said she was sorry to hear that.
“I don’t want to go to school anyhow,” Lacey told him later that night.
“You got to go to school, Lacey.”
“You know what I want for my birthday?” she said. “I want chickens, baby chickens.”
“Now what are you gonna do with chickens? Chickens is the dumbest thing I ever heard of for a birthday present.”
She began to fidget with her fingers, pulling at them the way she had for a long time after May vanished, wrapping one around the other and twisting.
“I don’t want any dumb chickens anymore,” she said. “I was just teasing you, Willy. I don’t want dumb chickens.”
He tugged at one of her curls and watched it spring back to her cheek. “Not so dumb,” he said. He ran a finger over her brow. “Not so dumb.”
For her birthday he brought home three chicks in a cardboard box, and she named them Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The next day he bought a Polaroid camera.
Now, so many years later, standing at the sink with Tasha bouncing on her toes beside him, he remembers that the chickens didn’t bother him so much when he had the herd. They didn’t matter then.
With Tasha peering into the sink beside him, he says to Lacey over his shoulder, “I’m thinking of getting rid of the chickens.”
“What would you do around here?”
“Plenty to do,” he mumbles, but he knows it isn’t so. “I could hay the upper fields.”
“Can I see the chickens, Willy?” asks Tasha. “I like chickens.” She peers up at him expectantly. He looks down to her beside him and notices gray circles beneath her eyes, like soft pale bruises.
“They smell,” says Willy.
“Chickens don’t smell, do they, Mommy?”
Maybe it’s their eyes he takes issue with, their cold little stupid eyes.
“Well, do they?” she asks again, putting her hands on her hips and flipping her head with a sharp nod.
Lacey reaches out and wraps her hands around Tasha’s waist, pulling her to herself, smashing a mother’s kiss on her forehead before Tasha can twirl out of her arms.
“You need a haircut,” Lacey says to Willy. “You want me to cut your hair?”
“I get it done in town now,” he says. “Been awful busy.”
“Who cuts it? God, Willy, it looks like you’ve been doing it yourself.”
“Young fella, don’t remember his name.”
“Let me do it. I always did a good job for you.” She comes up behind him and tugs at the ends, forking her fingers and running them through the ends over his ear.
“Okay, Lacey.” He should have cut it before she came. “That’d be fine. Meantime, me and the princess is gonna do some chicken farming.”

Tasha runs ahead, scattering the few chickens that a moment earlier had clucked and drifted aimlessly in the chicken yard. Now they run from her, their wings lifted to their sides and flapping futilely, their tail feathers up and fanned, bobbing their heads and squawking at the indignity of it all.
“Here, chicky, chicky,” she calls. “Willy, they won’t come to me.”
“Course not,” he says.
“Why don’t they like me?”
“Ain’t you. Chickens don’t like nobody.” But he remembers the way the first three chicks had followed Lacey around the yard. He has pictures of it. They lined up right behind her and followed her all over the place, along the edges of the pond, even into the kitchen some days, and when she walked along the top of the stone fences they’d cheep and hop at the stones as if they’d rather dash themselves to death than lose sight of her. “Except when they’re bitty chicks,” he says.
He opens the door to the coop, and she walks in ahead of him. The hens snap their heads up and down as she walks the length of their laying boxes. She stops suddenly at the smallest red banty, her scabbed head sunken deep in a fluff of feathers. “Oh, look,” she says, leaning into the hen. “Her head is all pecked to bits.”
“It’s called pecking order.” He’d had to explain it once to Lacey, too. He watches her small finger reach out to touch the hen who only snugs her head in deeper and blinks, but lets Tasha touch her fluffed breast feathers.
“Poor little thing,” she croons, tilting her head and peering closer. He looks at the hen now and realizes it is worse than he thought, now that he’s really seeing it. The scabbing concerns him. It’s always best to let the hens work out the order on their own, but once blood is shed things can take a quick turn for the worse.
“I got some ointment,” he says. “We can tend to that later.” He is thinking he’s going to have to remove the big apricot, the one whose shackles are fluffed even now as she skirts around Tasha’s ankles and squawks. The bird’s a good layer and generally keeps order in the house, but he can’t have her bullying to the extent that blood is drawn. He shoos her away from Tasha, who hardly seems to notice, and she clumsily flaps to heft herself to a low perch a few feet away. The air is thicker and dustier from her attempted flight, and he pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, moves it once in front of his face to clear the air, puts it to his nose, and blows. Then he wads it up and sticks it in his back pocket.
“Mommy wouldn’t like that,” she says. “Shouldn’t blow your nose in your banana. Now you can’t wear it on your head, ’cause you went and blew your nose in it.”
“In my what?” He pulls it out of his pocket and studies. “In my ban-dan-a,” he says. He lets loose with a wild hard laugh that surprises him some. “It’s called a ban-dan-a.”
“That’s what I said,” she says, narrowing her eyes and walking out of the coop.
He follows her out, taking a moment to secure the yard with a length of chain. “But that’s what it’s for.” He struggles with the task of having to make it right with her, getting angry with himself for wanting her to like him.
“You know what the Easter Bunny is bringing me?” she says.
“Nope,” he says, feeling fairly certain he’s been pardoned.
“A bunny.”
“Is that so? Now what makes you think that?”
“I just know, that’s all. ’Cause rabbits are my favorite thing and ’cause that’s what I want.”
“That don’t make no difference—what you want.” But she is skipping ahead now and he’s glad she hasn’t heard him. “A chocolate bunny, maybe,” he calls to her.
“A real one!” She stops, turns, crosses her arms, and watches him, dragging one toe back and forth across the grass in front of her, and then considers him a moment before wandering back to him. “I can go slow if you want. Mommy says old people are slower than regular people.”
“Is that so?”
Willy follows her through the kitchen door just in time to hear her tell Lacey, “Chickens do stink, Mommy.”
“I love it here,” says Lacey to Willy. “I really do.” She is looking out the window over the sink to where the barn had stood. The tumbled stone foundation is jagged and crumbling. The concrete floor, visible through the places where the foundation has completely fallen away, sprouts spindly twisted saplings, mulberries most likely, that have straggled through cracks in the last few years. Under a damp gray sky, it all looks like an ancient ruin. The pair of rust-blotched paddock gates dipping down where the two come together, straining against their hinges, skeletal vines clambering up over the iron bars. The fields beyond lie fallow, damp and beiged by a long winter. The pond, a pool of cold obsidian framed in brambles, is perfectly still, not a ripple to be seen.
“It’s changed a lot.”
“Not so much. More the same than different,” she says, letting the curtain fall and turning to him.
“Oh, not sure about that,” he says.
She is quiet but looking right at him, and there is something hopeful in her face that he can’t quite read, something that makes her cross her arms and breathe deeply. But then she drops her arms. “I’m sorry, Willy,” she says. “I’m sorry I haven’t been back much.”
He waves her off. “Aw, well.”
“It’s just that—I don’t know.”
There isn’t any explaining it. He knows that. Things change; wives run off, herds get sick, chickens lay eggs, barns come down.
She shifts on her feet and stands up straighter. With a fresh voice she asks, “Where do you keep the shears? I couldn’t find them in the mending box.”
Willy gets the shears and a thin black comb from the medicine cabinet and carries them down the stairs the same way he had taught Lacey to carry them, pointed down and with his hands wrapped well around the closed blades.
When he gets back to the kitchen Lacey is at the open kitchen door. “No farther than the fence, Tasha!” she yells. “Stay away from the pond—okay?”
She shuts the door and turns to Willy. “That child is way too comfortable around water,” she says. “She can’t really swim yet,” she explains to Willy. “But she sure doesn’t have any fear of the water.” She motions to a chair and Willy dutifully hands her the comb and scissors and sets himself down. She flips a dishtowel around his neck, goes to the sink and runs the comb under the spigot, comes back to him and begins to drag the wet comb through his hair. “Tasha like my chickens?”
“They do stink,” he whispers.
She laughs. “I know, Willy.”
He sits up a little straighter for her and feels the gentle tug of his hair running through the teeth of the comb, a trickle of water trailing down his neck.
“There’s something I wanted to ask you,” she says. “And you can say no if you want. I’ll understand.”
He never could say no to her. She knows that about him. Oh, he could be mad at her, wonder about her, but he can never say no.
“I’m not teaching this summer. God, I need a break from the SOBs, Willy. Sometimes I think they don’t give a rat’s ass about what I’m teaching. That’s the thing that gets me.” She snips over his ear, leans down a bit, and snips again. “You wouldn’t believe the papers they turn in. Crap, all crap.” She puts her hand under his chin and lifts it. “I need some time off, so I told David—that’s my department head—I said, ‘David, you can get some other fool to teach your remedial English flunkies this summer.’ That’s exactly what I told him.”
Willy knows he is expected to say something, but nothing comes to him. “Is that so?” he finally says.
“This is the thing.” He can hear her take a deep breath at his back. “Willy, could Tasha and I stay here for the summer? There are some things we need to do—no big deal, really.” She gently places her hand to the top of the back of his head and he bows it, tucking his chin. A pane of sunlight spreads to the kitchen floor only inches from his feet, a splash of summer. He imagines it would be warm if he slid his foot into it.
“It would be good for us,” she is saying. “For both of us. And Tasha likes it here, likes you, and the chickens, of course.”
He is thinking about what a colorless day it has been, how flat the sky had seemed, and now, well, now the sun is inching its way across the floor.
He knows he shouldn’t answer right away, that he should offer to think about it. Maybe he should have some conditions, reasonable ones, of course. After all, she should know he’d gotten pretty used to living by himself, set in his ways and all.
“That’d be fine, Lacey,” he hears himself say.
Suddenly, he can hardly sit still thinking about it all, imagining how things will be. He’ll whitewash the coop for sure. And it isn’t too late to plant the timothy. He can get at least one good cutting. It might be a little thin the first year, but by the following summer—
“Willy,” she says, laying her hand over his shoulder, knowing him again the way she does. “It’s only for the summer.”
There is a rap at the door’s window, and he looks up to see the girl’s lips and tongue pressed against it. She waves quickly and runs from the window, leaving only a moist round impression and a steamy spill of breath.
“Probably just for the summer,” she says. “Okay?”
“Sure,” he says, but his voice is tangled in his heart so that it rattles some. “Sure,” he says. “I know that.”

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