Jackie isn’t home and Connor is twisted up inside, though he can’t quite work out why. It’s a rippling, rendering feel in his stomach, and it makes him think of Shawnee, Oklahoma, when the dust came and so, too, the men with pitchforks. Years ago, it happened – he isn’t sure exactly when, just as he can’t remember when they first came north, but Connor remembers Shawnee all right. Jackie had seen the posse first, through a crack in the barn where they’d taken shelter.
A fist of men, swollen with hunger and no work, and keen to put their fury somewhere – they marched towards the barn. Jackie yelled they were coming and they should be ready to scarper. And, even though he shouted, Jackie hadn’t sounded surprised; famine and ruined farms made targets of men like he and Connor.
There’d been similar incidents in Lincoln Country. Occasionally the moment overtook them, and Connor and Jackie were not as discreet as they could have been. In Shawnee, someone had seen them in a bar – not even doing anything, but sitting together in a way that other men didn’t. Later that night, they’d just about made it out of the barn before the door was beaten down – Jackie had run, tugging Connor and his sideways gait along with him. All the while, as his feet pounded, Connor felt his belly shake with fear. It was a feeling he had never been able to forget, despite the miles they put between them.
And the feeling in his stomach is back now, even though they are far away from dust and Shawnee, Oklahoma. Connor leans against the window of their little room above the carpenter’s, looking out over the snow flattening Stokeland, and tries to calm himself. But he cannot forget the dust clouds. He cannot forget the grit that seeped through clothes and burrowed into the corners of eyes. At night, if ever he had the privacy to undress – and a quiet space in a bunkhouse was as rare as a job itself – Connor used to find sand in his underwear. It got everywhere; causing his feet to rub painfully in boots too large for him, drying up his throat so it felt like days before he could swallow properly. After Jackie had taught him to read, he read about a man who fell asleep on his porch in Broken Arrow with his mouth open, and suffocated to death in a sudden gale. For a long time after, even when they made it to Stokeland, Connor carried a fear of sleeping outside.
He watches the dark settle on the fields around the town and his legs sing. Twelve hours is a long time to squat down a zinc mine, even for Connor who was shaped for the work after his father helpfully broke his legs as a child. He wishes Jackie was around to see to him. Jackie always seemed to have a knack of working out the knots and lumps that appeared in the flesh around Connor’s knees; he knew how to rub them away and relax his friend’s body.
He isn’t sure where Jackie is. He should have been down the mine still, by rights, but, if Hettie is to be believed, he’d been at the store. Connor thinks of Hettie. How angry she was, shaking in her long dress. And how that strange child, Ernest, clung to her. Her love for the boy made her fierce – that Connor could see – and, though her coarseness frightened him (for she is, after all, a tall woman and he is a broken, small man), it is a coarseness he can understand. He understands that such anger comes from love, the kind that makes you crazy.
He stopped by the slaughterhouse on the tramp home and bought an off-cut of beef. Or horse, who knows? Connor takes it from his coat pocket and lays it on the table. Not much red meat, mostly gristle. The flesh is threaded with white, fat running through the piece. He will have to boil it for a few hours to soften it up. There might be an onion somewhere, and maybe a beer or two. He shrugs off his coat and thinks about preparing the meal, trying to calm his churning stomach. He loves Jackie so much – the idea of him being with another man makes his skin blush with sorrow.
He pulls out a pan from a cupboard, each motion a blur of pain. This pan – was Jackie thinking about Frank when he put it away? He steps over the piles of books fortressing the sofa. Does Jackie read to Frank, the way he does to Connor? Connor cannot see for a second and steadies himself against the table. Jackie has a voice like honey. The long drawl, the slow roll of words over his tongue. Connor closes his eyes and remembers the stories Jackie read to him, how the man devoured books. Even before Roosevelt’s New Deal and the planting of all those trees to stop dust clouds gathering again, when there wasn’t food to be found in the huddle of a storm, Jackie had a tattered copy of Jack London and read passages aloud to Connor.
Now, Connor hacks at an onion and thinks what he might do, if he were to meet Frank right now – right now – when he has a knife in his hand. The fella might have been at Ray Sullivan’s party, the one he threw to celebrate divorcing Wanda, though Connor can’t quite remember. Truth was, Connor had drunk too much himself that night. He’d not wanted to go – the thought of throwing a party to celebrate a love now gone saddened him. He’d made a point of avoiding Ray and stayed in the background when the man grew leery and smashed a glass. Cruden Shay was a big man and he’d seen how Ray quaked when the bar owner demanded Ray calm the fuck down.
He can’t remember if Jackie stayed beside him all night in the bar, either. They left together, for sure – Connor woke with Jackie’s arm thrown over his thigh in the tangle of their bed.
But though he hasn’t seen him for days, he knows Frank, does Connor. He has been mesmerised like others in Shay’s Bar, by the tales the man tells; of dragons and little men from Ireland, and women with long red hair and dresses up to their thighs. Frank has a honeyed tongue, too, just like Jackie, and spins his stories of other worlds and other lands as easily as silk. Men become caught up in them, twisted by the lilt and sway of the magic man.
The frying onion stings his eyes and Connor brings a shaking hand to his face. He imagines a drawing together of the storyteller and his lover. On the inside of his eyelids he sees how Jackie would be desperate to hear all about a land in the clouds. How it might be just the thing that would make him lie to Hettie.
Where are Frank and Jackie?