Jackie comes home. Connor hears him before seeing him, the man’s heavy feet clumping off snow on the stoop of the carpenter’s workshop. Their rooms are above where the carpenter conducts his business; sometimes they hear the whirl of the sander or the crack of splintering timber. They don’t mind the smell of hot wood, pungent as leather, seeping into their home.
On rest days from the mine, Connor likes to lie in bed and listen to the industry occurring, invisibly, on the floor below. He imagines curls of sanded wood, gathering like hair, on the floor, billowing aside when a fella barges in with a job for the carpenter. These imagined curls, they seem to remind him of a brother, a baby, whom he had forgotten.
Now, Jackie opens a door at the rear of the workshop and strides up. He sniffs as he enters their rooms, a theatrical motion that makes Connor’s heart swing precariously in his chest – Jackie makes such a show of breathing in the scent of cooking meat, Connor knows, because he is pinched by guilt. Jackie cannot lie, is no good at it. He’s never been able to bite down and swallow his words, or let them spill out in ways that conceal the truth. Making such a show over nothing-special-beef, boiling on their one-ringed stove and giving off an earthy aroma, makes Connor feels ashamed for his man.
He watches now, from his perch on the sofa, as Jackie wades into the room, looking like a man weighed down by his bones, and pulls off his boots. Connor stays curled under a blanket, book in hand, not reading.
“That smells fine, Con,” Jackie says eventually, when the silence becomes too thick to ignore.
Then, restlessness pooling under his skin, Jackie strides over to their bed. He pulls aside the curtain and changes his shirt; in the reflection of the window opposite the couch, Connor sees him: bare-chested, scars down his left side, running from his armpit into his pants. Jackie had a rough father, too. There are more on his back, from a belt buckle. They’d been enough to make even Connor – with legs bowed like a barrel – clench his fists and feel hateful.
Some scars, though, that Jackie carried, were only a few years old. They’d been won, Jackie told Connor in the early days, when he’d misjudged a man or said something when it would be better to be quiet.
Jackie cannot bear quiet. That time when the mob at Gillymore broke his jaw and left him for Connor to find – it was the silence he had to keep as his bones knitted back together that hurt more than fists. He’d been lucky to be found in time, so the doc said, for his blood had gathered, treacherously, in his throat and lungs, and he might have drowned. “On land? We’re thousands of miles from the ocean,” Connor had spluttered, not understanding, and Jackie, too wounded and jaw wired shut, shook his head sadly. Later, when they holed up in Laker’s Park and slept under the stars, Jackie could not even read – reading should be sociable, he’d told Connor early on. Reading should be done out loud.
Connor remembers these things in the time it takes Jackie to change his shirt and sigh his way back to the sofa. Jackie sits down and, silence deepening, answers the unasked question. “Yes, I was with Frank.”
Connor closes his eyes briefly. Jackie isn’t like anyone he’s ever met. He thinks back to where they first met, on a farm in Oklahoma, hauling a wagon of manure across a field. Connor could not reach the top of the load, not with his legs, but the farmer took him on anyway, mainly on account of his upper body strength. Connor could lock his forearms around a steer and never let go – a handy trick at branding time. Even now, Connor feels pride in the power of his arms. He swings a pick at Stokeland’s mine with the best of them.
He’d worked the farm for a season before Jackie showed up, that day on field. Wiry, sporting a fresh black eye, voice like slow-moving water. Connor couldn’t stop looking at him.
“Bar fight,” Jackie had said. Later he let Connor hold a wet rag against his swollen eyebrow while the others disappeared for chow time. And that had been that. Jackie had caught his hand and pulled him close, and Connor remembered a tumbling sensation. A swooning in his stomach and a certainty that those odd, secret feelings he’d had ever since being a boy – “that sinful thing of yours,” one of his father’s girlfriends had once hissed – would never be squashed down again. Not with Jackie around.
“I saw Hettie,” Connor says, eventually. He has to blink away the memories and the yearning to reach out to touch his man. He remembers he is angry. “She said you’d told her Frank was at Shay’s Bar.”
“I did.” Jackie bows his head. “A lie. Yes, it was. I am ashamed.”
“But why? Why lie to her? What were you doing with Frank?” Connor holds himself still. Images of Jackie and Frank together hurt his throat and he swallows hard.
Jackie rubs his palms together, the sound dry and slippery. Outside it is dark. A bird makes a wracking shout and they hear the turn and settle of snow. Connor waits, knowing Jackie will answer.
He does. “Do you remember that time in Gillymore, when they broke my face?”
“Kicked one of them in the guts first, did I tell you? He squealed like a piglet.” Jackie smiles at the memory. “You found me. All busted up and flat on my back.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“Yes. Well, you found me. We dug out that hole in Laker’s Park and stayed there for a few weeks while I healed.”
Connor nodded and waited, again.
“I was going crazy, wasn’t I, not able to read to you? Jaw shattered to pieces, unable to talk.”
The stew on the stove pops and Connor wonders if it has burnt. He doesn’t get up.
“I told Frank about it at Ray Sullivan’s party. Don’t know why. J ust seemed to spill out. And he told me it happened to him once. Owed money and a couple of men beat him up. We were just talking.”
“I quit the mine early today. Not sure why. Just needed to find him. He was on the way to Shay’s but he stopped.”
“We talked, Connor, is all. He has this…” Jackie waves his land, coiled fingers wrapping around air. “He told me about this place he’s heard of. Somewhere people like us can be safe.”
“Quilaq?” Connor thinks of Ernest and the angry way Hettie turned on him. “It’s a story, Jack. Kind of thing you tell kids.”
“You’ve heard of it?” Jackie’s eyes are wide.
Connor shrugs. “It’s a fairy-tale. And, besides, we are safe here. Here we can eat, work. Kiss.”
Jackie is silent again and suddenly Connor feels panic. He wonders what kind of place Jackie is seeking – if it’s somewhere without him. Somewhere where Connor is not.
What is Jackie not saying?