One winter, Rudy got an infection in his testicles while he lay out drunk on coal company land in a one-room shack that didn’t belong to him. When the corruption began to smell, he washed his balls with creek water and put some plantain on the infected place. He wrapped it up in duct tape, and kept the whiskey bottle by the bed. He lay on his bunk until his dick turned black and started bleeding out pus, at which time he found he could no longer walk. He couldn’t even get up to light the fire. When he started hallucinating, he knew he would die if he didn’t get up, so he forced his feet to find the floor, and he forced his body upright. He made it to the road, where he began, somehow, to walk. He knew his only hope was a ride. But it was the middle of the night, and it was February, and he was miles from town, and no one came by. Rudy would count out fifty paces and then collapse. Each time he passed out, he tried to do it in the middle of the road so that any car that came would have to stop for him. He kept himself moving like that most of the night. Finally a truck passed, some poachers coming back from a run. They pulled him up into the cab despite his odor, and they drove him the hour into town, speeding the whole way. He stank like he’d dug himself out of his own grave, shit and piss, the high smell of white worms and the paste of decay, and the hunters hauled him into the emergency room and left him there, and he fainted away on the floor.
“What happened then?” I asked my boyfriend, the night before he left me.
“They put Rudy in a hospital bed,” he said. “He was dead to the world for three whole days.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then? Well, I guess then he woke up,” my boyfriend said.
“But what happened after he woke up?” I asked. We were lying in our narrow camper bed, not touching, but maybe about to.
“Come on, Helen,” he said. “That’s not the point of the story.”
“What’s the point of the story?” I asked.
“The point is that I’m quitting,” he said. “I can’t take working for Rudy anymore. He’s crazy. He’s spent too much time alone. He’s a first-rate blowhard. He’s impossible. And besides that, he’s sexist. All women are his mother, sister, girlfriend rolled into one. Every waitress, he says she wants it. Ranks them one through ten, that sort of shit. Like I’m gay if I want to talk about anything besides tits and ass, if I consider women to be human beings. He hates women and he’s obsessed with them.”
“Are you sure you’re not being too sensitive?” I asked.
Oh yes, he was a fine man. And yes, I drove him away.
* * *
I met my boyfriend the week after my thirty-first birthday, when he hired me on to his landscaping crew in Seattle. Some people might have called him two-faced but when I met him I noticed his wavy hair and how he smiled at me all the time, whether or not he meant it. It annoyed me right up until I couldn’t do without it. He had ambition. I didn’t. I’d barely graduated college, never really got around to dating. He wanted to leave the city, to get some acres and live off the grid, not that a person could expect to buy land in the Northwest at those prices, not that he’d managed to save much money, not that he had any credit. After we’d fumbled around for a few months, he said, In the Southeast you can get land cheap. The Southeast? I asked. Appalachia, he said. Never been there, I said. He said, Didn’t your uncle leave you some money?
The only thing keeping me in Seattle was my aunt, who was walking dogs and selling vintage clothes online, barely making the mortgage, busy grieving my uncle. What was I busy doing? What I’d been doing since college: seasonal work, mostly outside, circling around the city hoping my uncle wouldn’t get sicker and now he was dead. I thought my aunt might want me to stay, but how she put it was, Thirty-one’s not old, but you might as well see if you can hold on to that man. I really didn’t know him that well. I still wasn’t sure what