The inside of Henry's head was like a cavernous, hollow bell. A noisy place where echoes and voices mixed and muddled together in an uneasy stew. Sometimes he could hear the words clearly but most days not so much. The words confused Henry.
William also lived inside of Henry.
A long time ago he had been William before bad things happened. When Henry remembered being William, his head hurt.
William stood in front, back to the whiteboard, speaking words to a room full of young students. Henry could say the words out loud if he remembered the dream.
Then: a throng of students rushing to their next classes, a convergence of wet tile floors, rain. Head banging steps four times.
Henry couldn't remember exactly, and he didn't like it. It was better being Henry. Henry's needs were met if he could find things to eat and stay warm when it got cold. Henry could eat anything. Some things made him sick, garbage things, dead things. He would throw up or shit for days but he'd be okay again. He tried to recall what made him sick but it would get lost in the swamp of his head.
The truck rattled along the mud hole of a road, bouncing, and shaking me inside the cab like popcorn. The ruts gouged by previous trucks were deep enough to cause both differential cases to drag along the dirt like broken legs. The furrows snaked along the ridge until they ended in a flat patch of bare earth sliced through the tree line to make space for the gas wells.
Well maintenance isn't astrophysics or brain surgery but it's not simple either. It is fitting work for a man who is more comfortable with the solitude of his own thoughts rather than conversations of people. It suited me at this crossroad in my life. Cheryl walked away from ten years together on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. It started as the kind of day with bright blue sky and puffy clouds that makes you think nothing can go wrong and ended with me staring at a blank TV screen through the night. I thought I adjusted to the changes but with two years gone, I was still grieving for what might have been. The jury wasn't in yet on whether working alone was a good or bad thing for me. I was buried in a rut and wasn't ready to move on yet.
Natural gas lurks beneath the hills of Wetzel county but the methane wealth isn't for those who live here. The adjoining counties might as well be as far away as Russia or Mars to those who make their homes along the packed dirt and gravel roads. Those towns bordering the county are places far distant and foreign, not understood and not trusted. The company's well work kept me coming back here, blowing through like a wind from the south, holding still for a few moments and moving past. I never stayed long but after a couple of months, I learned to slow the truck on the way up to the wells, give a small wave of the hand or nod as I pass by the taciturn people at the foot of the hill. Next time through, stop long enough to say, “Nice day” or “How is it going?”
In the passing of a year I learned names and histories.
The county is rural by any definition. Houses are scrappy, thrown together patchwork things of worn boards, shingles, and rusted metal. Some started as trailers, towed up a dirt road and set in place with a porch added later across the front and covered with roll shingles.
The topography of the land enforces a separation of houses by awkward distances and placement. The infrastructure of half paved roads are victims of budget cuts and a worn out economy. Shuttered coal mines left families with no income and no way to leave. They eke out solitary lives grasping for independence like a drowning swimmer reaching for a branch. They hold on to the land—it's all they have. With little to be said, conversation devolves to a nod or wave at the grocery store or gas station.
Henry Smith lived in an exhausted tar paper shack along the naked ridge. A hundred years of clear cut timbering left the shack sitting in the midst of a lunar landscape of stumps and dirt where the rutted well road cut through the ridge like a half-healed scar. The flattened hilltop hovered over and gazed down on a long valley of twists and turns snaking through the bottom of the hills. Henry's shack stood like a dark eye rising up above and fifty yards from the road. As I passed by the shack early in the morning Henry was sitting on a bucket on the porch, his head leaning back against the wall, shotgun resting across his lap. When I navigated the return from the well, he was sitting in the same position.
I stopped the truck.
Henry didn't move.
I walked toward him up to the porch. Flies buzzed around his head. Henry was dead.
Eighteen months ago when I first saw Henry, he waved from the upper bank of the road as if signaling me to stop and then slid down the dirt path on to the road. “Got gloves?” he asked. I reached for a pair on the seat, and handed them through the window. He took the gloves, walked around the rear of the truck eyeing the tool bins as he slipped along the mud. A blink and his reflection disappeared from the mirror up the bank on a smudge of a path.
Those isolated well sites are like the mouth of a strange vortex pulling in misanthropic residue from rural societies. They haunt the sites like lost wraiths, but Henry was one very odd ball even among that kind. No way to describe Henry without the words, weird, and scary. Everyone I met related a bizarre story about him. He ate dogs and cats. He kept skunks as pets. He stole chickens. How he survived up there, especially in winter was a mystery to everyone. He was uniquely without history—came out of nowhere and began living on the ridge. Henry interacted with people when he was in need of something. Look up from a chore and you might spy him sauntering down road, across the field or lawn with a peculiar robot-like, stiff, erect gait. Henry's movements were linear and purposeful if a house had what he needed. Mothers pulled children and dogs inside.
The first time anyone in the county met Henry, Henry had been looking for building supplies. “I need a saw and hammer and some nails. Give me some boards.” People offered to help him. Henry didn't seem to understand how to put things together, but eventually he made the scraps into a box and patched it enough to keep the rain out. When the weather turned cold they said Henry tried to build a fire inside the box but almost killed himself. He put a hole in the roof to let the smoke out and found an old barrel to contain the fire. He ate from garbage piles during the first year, residue from people’s porches, yards, and barns. He learned to kill things, birds, stray cats and rabbits. It was a long time before he learned to cook them over a fire.
People invariably gave Henry what he asked for. Sam Evans, recalled a time when he was hoeing weeds in his garden. Henry waded across the small creek, climbed the bank. He stood by the fence until Sam felt Henry's eyes boring into his back.
“I need the hoe,” he said. Sam walked to the fence and handed it over to Henry. He said water squished out of Henry’s boots but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Blade was pretty worn down anyway,” he said, telling the story. “Kept a newer one stored in the shed but wasn't about to give him that one.”
A great, long rusted machete dangled from a sheath on one side of his belt while on his right side hung a vicious pair of nail pulling pliers and a serrated military style knife. The jaws of the nail pullers appeared to be crusted with bits of hair and blood rusted stains. Other days, he toted a pump shotgun cradled across his arms like an infant. Guns were part of life in Wetzel county, everyone owned two or more, typically a shotgun and a rifle and yet when he was seen toting his, a nervous wariness welled up in the belly.
Martha Jean kept two dogs, Yellow Dog and aptly named Squirrely who was prone to fits of running at non-existent spooks in and about the yard. Both were mutts who strayed into her yard and hung around for table scraps. She came out of her front door, one afternoon when the dogs were making a peculiar fuss. The flavor of their barks changed to something frantic and warning. She saw him in the garden and knew instantly it was Henry. He was pulling tomato plants up by the roots and stuffing them into a sack at his feet. She was afraid of Henry; although no one ever spoke of a violent encounter with him, a frightening breath of it seethed below the surface of his skin. It was in the way he looked at a person. You just knew. She reached in behind the door and grabbed the .410 she kept there. She shoved a round in and called out, “Henry. What you doin' in my garden. Go on get out of there. She pointed the gun in his direction. Henry went on as if she didn't exist and tugged up another plant. It broke off near the ground but the plant held four, fresh ripe tomatoes. She shouted again. This time he looked over his shoulder. The look of malevolence in his eye shook her to the core. She swore to herself she would put two rounds in him if he even took two steps toward her. Martha Jean was good for her word. She killed a Momma black bear rummaging through the trash from the same front porch. It took three shots with the deer rifle to bring her down even as close as she was.
But Henry turned his back to her and undid his pants and proceeded to piss all over the cabbage plants. He then pulled his pants back up, kicked down the posts holding up the fence around the garden and purposefully walked up the valley, through the creek and up toward the ridge. He never looked back.
People held their breath so as not to inhale when near him or stepped back turning their heads away. The ripe odor of a man who had not bathed in years cloaked Henry like a thick molasses bubble. His face and hands were cracked sidewalks of crusty dirt. Bugs ducked in and out of his stringy hair and beard. His hair was never past his shoulders so he hacked it off in some manner but the beard was a wild mass like tangled and rusted steel wool. He wore straight leg canvas work pants for all the years people remembered him walking the local roads, sometimes even talking or singing to himself. Jim Hitchens, hoeing around the tomato plants could hear snatches, errant syllables floating down through the summer pollen.
The once tan pants, were now coated thick with a membrane of black grime and were cinched around his waist with an ancient piece of leather scavenged from the drive belt of an abandoned tractor.
Jim Hitchens owned a small plot of land down in the valley from the ridge at the fork where the gravel road met the asphalt two-lane. A leaning barn marks the entry to Jim's place. The rear of an old IH tractor projects from the half-broken door like a mole on the face. Jim said his Dad told him Henry was a Viet Nam vet. Others disagreed. Martha Jean Myers, who lived about a mile from the substation in the valley says Henry was born out of wedlock to a retarded girl who was raped by her daddy. She built the cabin on the ridge by herself and gave birth to Henry who lived up there ever since. No one knew for sure and no one was going to ask Henry.
No one set foot in Henry's cabin until after he died. I was the first one in, accompanied by Sheriff Benington. My penance for reporting his death. The cabin was the size of a large bedroom. About twelve by twelve feet if the measurement included extra dimension of the porch. A stove of haphazardly stacked bricks and stone surrounded a 50-gallon drum. A rough opening was chiseled in the front of the drum to make a door for loading logs. A smaller hole in the lid connects to a flue pipe extending up through the roof. The space between the upright boards forming the walls were stuffed with discarded papers and rags for insulation. The bed was raised up by two locust tree stumps on one end and a cinder block and a small metal box on the opposite side. A bed consisted of boards serving as slats covered over with an ancient stained and discolored straw-filled mattress. Martha Jean remembered seeing him drag it away from her garbage and up the hill.
The original cabin, the first few years Henry lived in it, had a dirt floor. Time ultimately resulted in a scrap wood floor, rotted in places to a soft, crumbly paper texture, from the moisture crawling into the wood from the ground.
I’m told that inside the box, the Sheriff found papers and a book, the misfired memories of both Henry and William locked up inside a rotting house.
R. Gene Turchin recently retired after years of teaching electronic engineering technology and mechatronics. He is currently working on a science fiction novel and comic book scripts. Most recent published works can be found in VerseWrights, 365 Tomorrows, With Painted Words, Aurora Wolf, Literary Hatchet,The Ginger Collect and Eye To The Telescope.