Billey didn't remember going to sleep, but daylight streamed through the cracks in the camper when he opened his eyes. Black Wolf panted and dabbed his tongue on Billey's neck, eager to get going. But Billey wasn't so sure he wanted to know what the world looked like today.
He cracked the door an inch and sucked a sharp breath of air when the hinge squeaked. He didn't get himself killed—or even whupped—so he nudged the door little by little until he could fit his head through it.
The sky came down in brilliant blue sheets, giving the shack a tinge of rustic nobility. The sun set it apart from the gravel and scrub with such clarity that it looked like a model of a shack that Tommy Lagocki might keep in his toy chest. A big old crow spread his wings near the top of the dead catalpa and looked around for food.
Billey crawled out of the camper and eased himself to the ground. He walked in a half-crouch, holding Black Wolf in check by the long hair on his neck, and sneaked around to the front of the shack. He saw Elwood's legs sticking out from behind the spool. Even with bad ears and a good distance, he could hear the ragged snoring that signaled safety. Billey's own breath came more freely.
Black Wolf expressed his relief in a different way. He shifted his weight to his haunches and barked as clear as a school bell.
"Ssshhh!" Billey tugged on the dog's thick hair. "Down, boy," he whispered in a voice suddenly hoarse with fear.
Elwood's legs jerked, smashing one knee against the spool. The heels of his boots clattered on the porch as he sat up.
"What the hell's that racket?" Billey saw one leathery hand grab the rim of the spool for balance. "Billey! ‘Sat you, Billey?"
Billey dashed around to the back of the house with Black Wolf yapping at his heels. The camper wouldn't be safe now, and there was too much open space to break for the creek. He pressed his shoulder blades against the building and turned his head to the sky. The sun washed over his face, drawing fine drops of sweat from his temples.
For a moment, the panic fell away and Billey saw the depth of the sky. He wondered how something as fat as a crow could fly without beating its wings, how dust formed a fragile blanket over the world. Black Wolf looked to Billey for the next move and Billey felt like the gear that pulled the can opener around the rim. For a moment, he felt unafraid.
Elwood's shadow crossed the boy's face, snapping him out of his dream.
"Shut your mouth ‘fore you swaller a fly, Billey." Elwood snorted, but he didn't take a swing at Billey. "I got me some work for you today."
Elwood made him pull up nearly every big weed in two acres. As Billey tugged at them and shook the dirt from their roots, Black Wolf scampered around on his stubby little legs. Billey heaped up the weeds about as far from the shack as you could get without going into the creek. A horse could have hidden behind the pile and nobody at the road would have been any wiser. But even Billey knew the weeds would bake down to nothing in a couple of days. Then you wouldn't be able to hide shit back there.
"Gonna get us a big one tonight," Elwood said, slapping small clouds of dust out of his jeans. "Fetch yourself some beans so you'll be ready for some real work."
Otis came over late that afternoon and the two men drove off in the pickup. Soon as they were out of sight, Billey sat on the porch and shook his head. He knew nothing of philosophy. He couldn't have defined the word, spelled it, or even repeated it three times without getting his tongue in a jumble. Avoiding Elwood and waiting for beans crowded his attention most of the time, so he never much looked at how the world fit together. But now it seemed like he spent his whole life either working or getting whupped. It seemed like there ought to be something in between the two things. Or maybe there ought to be a reason for either one of them.
Black Wolf didn't care. He didn't know the difference between working and fooling around. He was so fast and so low to the ground that Elwood didn't even bother trying to kick him anymore, much less whup him.
Billey lifted the dog onto the spool and spun it a couple of turns, but he felt too tired after pulling weeds all day. He sat in his daddy's chair with his feet on the spool, and with Black Wolf panting softly at his side. They watched the darkness come down from the top of the sky and listened to the crickets all around. Now and then, Billey's head fell forward, until he caught it with a start.
He bolted upright and Black Wolf set to barking when the pickup roared up the drive. The horn blared and Billey could see the shadow of Otis leaning out the window, pounding on his door. Lashed to the back of the truck was a giant yellow plastic tank. The truck looked like an ant hauling a big old grub back to the hill.
Billey ran around the shack and watched the truck speed over the rough field to the heap of weeds down by the creek. The headlights circled the spot three times, then came back toward him without stopping.
The truck—top-heavy with its cargo—veered so sharply to dodge the potholes, engine blocks and tree stumps that Billey thought it would tip over. Otis and Elwood's chorus of obscenities served as counterpoint to the engine and the horn, unbridled by any need beyond filling the night. The truck jerked to a stop.
Billey stood bewildered in the headlights as the two men staggered out.
"Yer daddy done pretty good," Otis said, waving his flask at the truck, "for a man what ain't got no more peter than he has."
"Otis, yer so full o'shit you'd pop if you ever shut yer mouth for two minutes." Elwood circled around the truck and reached for the bottle.
"Don't listen to him, Billey boy. I heard yer daddy and Pierce sayin' they's gonna draw straws to see who gets my peter when I die."
"Said we was gonna draw a picture of a peter so's you'd know it if you ever saw one."
"You gonna make Billey boy grow up to be a liar if you keep talkin' like that." Otis tried to grab the bottle back but he lost balance and wound up on the ground, staring into the sky. "I'm awright. I'm awright," he said, as if anyone cared. Then he broke into laughter that fed on itself until Elwood kicked dirt in his face.
"What do you think this is, Billey?" Elwood asked, drumming the bottom of his fist against the tank.
"Ain't you never seen a gas tank? Swear I don't know how you got to be so stupid. Sometimes I think Otis musta been yer daddy." He spat and shook his head. "'Cept he ain't got no peter."
Otis wobbled upright and rubbed his eyes. "Shut yer mouth afore I put somethin' in it."
Elwood pounded the tank, nodding at the deep sound he produced. "They bury these mothahs under gas stations, Billey. Fill one up and you got gas for life. Never have to worry ‘bout shit again."
He walked around the back of the truck, admiring his prize from every angle. "Ever seen anything like it?"
"Well, I know for a fact you ain't, so don't get on your high horse with me." Elwood slapped the tank hard. "I seen where you come from, Billey Elwood. I know ever'thing ‘bout you. Fact is, I know stuff ‘bout you that you don't even know you don't know. So don't you try tellin' me you don't know when I know you ain't. Unnerstand?"
Billey thought a moment. He watched Otis rocking back and forth with the bottle clutched tight to his belly. "I guess so," he lied.
Come daybreak, Elwood pounded the camper. "Wake up, Billey. You gotta helluva lotta work to do."
Elwood had rolled the tank off the truck behind the pile of dead weeds during the night. Now he handed Billey a spade. "You know why we gotta bury this, Billey?"
Billey looked at the hard ground and the tank that towered over him and wondered that very thing. When he looked at his daddy, his mind raced behind his searching, fearful eyes. "I guess so."
Elwood's eyes narrowed. "That right, Billey? S'pose you just tell me why then."
Billey thought harder and time seemed to crawl like a snail up a stem. "So if it catches fire, it'll just burn underground," he said at last.
"Fire? Fires don't burn underground. They need air, Billey. We ain't never gonna have no fires here." He shook his head sadly. Then he spread his arms and lifted his voice. "We gotta bury it so's nobody comes and takes it away. Whatever you got, they want. Just you remember that."
"'Cause I'm your daddy, that's why." He scraped the ground with his shovel, moving no more dirt than a bird would. "You start diggin' there and I'll start here. We'll meet in the middle."
Elwood lasted maybe fifteen minutes. "I gotta take care of some things, Billey. You keep diggin' till I get back." He propped his shovel against the tank and walked back across the field, rubbing his palms together. He looked over his shoulder once and saw Billey watching him. "Don't you wait for me, Billey. Just keep a'diggin'."
Elwood seemed to get smaller and smaller the closer he got to the shack until he looked no bigger than a bug.
Without anyone near it, Elwood's shovel slid to the ground, startling Billey. When he saw what had happened, he started scratching the earth again. The dirt made harsh sounds against his spade. It didn't give way any more than rock would.
Billey's hands already felt a little sore from the work. A tiny river of sweat found its way along his spine, right down to his butt. Pretty soon he wouldn't be able to fit in the shadow of the weeds anymore. Billey kicked a rock out of the way.
It was going to be a long day.
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