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THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN

The Last Death of Jack Harbin

Chapter 1

When I walk into Granger's Feed Store early Monday morning, Melvin Granger is up on a ladder shoving big sacks of dog food around. He pauses when he hears my boots on the wood floor and shoots me a look of pure aggravation. "I'll be right with you." The tone of his voice implies he'd just as soon I'd go to hell as be in his store. His old yellow dog, Dusty, is lying on his fluffy brown bed with a long-suffering gloom about him, as if he's been a target, too.

"Don't let me rush you." I'm as irritated as Melvin is.

He goes back to pushing sacks around with a hint of violence. It's hard to see exactly what he's aiming for. But what he gets is one of the sacks plummeting to the floor and breaking wide open. Pellets of dog food scatter everywhere. Dusty heaves himself to his feet with a big sigh, as if to say it's going to be a chore to clean up all that dog food, but he's going to give it his best shot.

"Goddammit! Dusty, get the hell away from that mess!" Melvin clatters down off the ladder, his feet crunching on the pellets. "What do you want?" he says to me.

I'm not taking any of this personally. The whole town is grumpy. For the first time in ten years the Jarrett Creek High School Panthers lost the homecoming football game to the Bobtail Bobcats last Friday night. Coach Eldridge was cursed every which way for keeping the first-string quarterback out of the game in the last ten minutes.

"I came in to get a case of cat food. Is that too much trouble?" In the grumpy department, I can give as good as I get.

Melvin narrows his eyes at me. "I don't know why anybody would keep a cat."

"Same reason you have that flea-bitten hound around here." We stare down at Dusty and he pauses from gobbling up dog food to sneak a nervous look at us.

"Get away from there!" Melvin hooks two fingers under Dusty's collar and hauls him over to his bed, then grabs a broom and starts cleaning up the mess.

I find Zelda's cat food and plunk a case onto the counter. It takes five minutes for Melvin to finish cleaning up the dog food. By then August Nachtway and his son have walked in, looking like they'd like to bite somebody. They nod to me, but don't offer any conversation.

"There's a lot of people don't have a bed as nice as that dog's," I say, while Melvin rings me up.

Dusty thumps his tail, and that's about all the friendliness I get out of the visit.

Back on the highway, I decide to stop by Town Café to listen to Jack Harbin rant about the game, which might be soothing in its own way. Jack was a star quarterback at Jarrett Creek High School and knows the game. His athletic days are over. He joined the army just in time to be swept up into the Gulf War. He was blinded and lost a leg. But he goes to the games every Friday and will talk football all day long, any day. Adversity has left Jack with an unpredictable disposition, but he never lacks for someone to talk to. Like most small towns in Texas, Jarrett Creek holds football in high regard.

Town Café has all the charm of a cow barn. A big tin Quonset hut, it's pockmarked on the outside, as if it was used for target practice in some past life. Bill Schroeder trucked it in about ten years ago and plopped it onto a lot near the railroad tracks. The place has knotty pine walls decorated with random signs advertising beer and farm equipment. Christmas lights are strung all over the place, year-round. But the food is good.

When I walk into the crowded café, Jack isn't at his usual table. Jack's dad, Bob Harbin, brings him to the cafe every morning from nine to eleven. You get used to certain rhythms in a small town. Jimmy Orozco standing over his barbeque pit outside his stand by seven o'clock every morning, the eight o'clock freight train lumbering down the tracks for twenty minutes. And Jack Harbin parked in the café by nine o'clock.

The waitress, Lurleen, whose droopy brown eyes suggest how hard her life is, says she hasn't heard from Jack, and she's worried. She's too busy with the breakfast crowd to call and find out where he is, so I say I'll do it. She gives me the number and I step into the café's little office to make the call. As I listen to the phone ring, I note that Lurleen knows the number by heart.

No one picks up at the Harbins'. I tell Lurleen that Bob and Jack are probably on their way over right now—most likely they overslept. She's got her hands full of plates of eggs and bacon that look pretty good to me, but her eyes are so anxious that I tell her I'll go over and look in on in them right now and see if everything's okay.

It's already a sultry day. Climbing into my truck I pause and look off to the west. A few puffy clouds are piling up on the horizon, as if deciding whether to collect into something more serious. We could use the rain and a break from the heat.

As I approach Jack's street, I hear a woman screaming, and arrive upon a dreadful sight. Jack Harbin's wheelchair is on its side, Jack spilled out onto the sidewalk, trying to pull himself upright. Bob Harbin lies still on the grass nearby. Their next-door neighbor, Becky Geisenslaw, is standing in her driveway dressed for work in her blue and white Dairy Queen uniform, hands to her cheeks, shrieking. I swerve to the curb and jump out onto the sidewalk so hard that my bad knee almost buckles.

Sprawled on the sidewalk, Jack looks pitiful, his face gaunt, and his shoulders poking out of his T-shirt as sharp as chicken wings. The left leg of his army fatigue pants is pinned up where it's empty. He tried out an artificial leg, but it never worked out. Some kind of chemical in the explosion that crippled him got into the wound and it won't heal properly.

I doubt Jack can hear me over Becky's noise, so I put my hand on his shoulder to get his attention. "Jack, it's Samuel Craddock. I'm going to see about your daddy."

Jack's dark glasses have fallen onto the sidewalk. I pick them up and place them in his hands. It's the first time I've ever seen him without them. His brown eyes are clear, and you wouldn't know anything was wrong, except that the skin surrounding his eyes is pinched and riddled with tiny white scars.

"What's happened to Daddy? Where is he, Mr. Craddock? Daddy!" His voice is harsh with fear.

"Hold on, Jack, just give me a second. Everything's going to be okay." I say that even though a glance at Jack's father tells me I'm probably wrong. He's lying face down in the grass, his head cocked back in an odd way, arms flung out to his sides.

I gesture for Becky to get over here. She shakes her head and hustles to her car faster than a woman her size ought to be able to move.

Ed Hruska comes huffing up the sidewalk to the rescue. He's a burly guy. I ask him to help Jack back into his chair while I see about Bob.

I kneel down and turn Bob over. His face is a meaty color of purple, and his mouth is open as if he was gasping for a last breath. I don't believe he's even sixty, but it looks like a heart attack or a stroke felled him. I feel his carotid artery and there's no pulse, so I start pumping his chest. In the distance I hear a police siren. I hope whoever is on duty has a defibrillator in the car. It will take another twenty minutes for an ambulance to get here from Bobtail.

Ed manages to wrestle Jack into his chair. "I'm going to take you inside Jack," he says. "It's hot as blazes out here."

"What about Daddy? Why isn't he saying anything?" It's painful to watch Jack moving his head from side to side as if he thinks if he can just get in the right position, he'll be able to see for himself.

"Your daddy's unconscious. We'll get the ambulance here and sort things out." I nod for Ed to get Jack out of here.

Rodell Skinner, the town's police chief, pulls up across the street and lets the siren die. For once I'm glad to see him. We've had a reasonable truce since I let him take credit for nabbing a murderer a few months back, but we'll never be bosom buddies. As former police chief, I hold whoever fills the office to a high standard that Rodell stumbles under. He claims to have cut down on his drinking lately, and this early in the morning I'm hoping he'll be sober enough to carry out his duties. He takes his time climbing out of his car and ambling over to join me.

I squint up at him, panting. "You got a defib unit with you?"

He shakes his head. "It's in James Harley's car. You may as well save your energy."

I sigh and sit back on my heels and mop the sweat off my face with my handkerchief. Rodell crouches down and lays his hands on Bob's chest as if he thinks his touch can bring him back to life.

"Yep, he's dead all right." I never have understood Rodell. But he has his supporters—mostly men he drinks with.

When Rodell stands back up I tell him I'm going inside to talk to Jack, thinking he might want to join me. He sends a disinterested glance over in the direction of the house and says he'll wait for the ambulance. I ask him for a hand, it being hard to get up with my bum knee.

"When are you going to get that knee fixed?" he says.

"In my own good time."

I don't like the idea of Bob lying out in the hot sun, uncovered, so I root around in my truck for the blanket I carry around with me. I lay it over Bob, wishing it wasn't so stained.

In the house Ed Hruska is trying to calm Jack down, not always an easy task. When Jack gets a notion in his head, he's sometimes hard to divert.

"Jack, your daddy isn't looking too good," I say. "Rodell has called an ambulance. We need to get somebody in here to stay with you for a while. Do you have anybody in particular for me to call?"

"What do you mean he's not looking too good?" Jack is hyperventilating, with little moans in between breaths.

Ed raises his eyebrows at me and I shrug. I don't want to tell Jack about his daddy, but it doesn't seem right to lie to him. "Jack, I think maybe your daddy has had a heart attack."

"Oh, hellfire!" He beats his fist on the arm of his chair. "Daddy told me this morning he didn't feel good. I said we didn't have to go the cafe, but he said we ought to go because people would be talking about Friday's game. Goddamn Coach Eldridge!" As if the coach is to blame for Bob's heart attack in addition to losing the game. Jack fumbles in the side pocket of his wheelchair and brings out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. His hands are shaking so hard that I have to light it for him.

Jack directs me to a list of his friends taped on the refrigerator. Like the living room, the kitchen is spotless. I wonder if I could do what Bob did, turning my whole life over to the long-term care of a son who needs round-the-clock attention.

I reach a friend of Jack's named Walter Dunn. I've seen Dunn with Jack at the café on occasion. He says he'll be there in ten minutes.

Back outside I report to Rodell that Dunn will be here soon. Rodell looks toward Jack's house with a sneer ruffling his brushy mustache. "With his daddy gone, now Jack's really got something to whine about."

I hold back a rush of anger. "The boy's had the devil of a time and it's going to get harder."

Rodell tips the hat back off his forehead, which is slick with sweat. "I guess," he says. After that we stand there in a sour cloud of a mood.

Before long Walter Dunn and another man roar up on motorcycles. The two men are about Jack's age, and dressed like Jack in ratty army fatigues, boots, and T-shirts. Dunn wears his hair in a buzz, while the other man's is in a long ponytail, like Jack's. His faded T-shirt says Hell on Wheels.

Dunn walks over, taking off his helmet, and looks down at the covered body. He's a good two inches taller than me, at least six feet four inches, and muscled. His face is rough from a bad case of acne, and his features don't quite come together, with big, flabby lips and little ears. But his blue eyes burn intensely, and I'll bet that's what most people end up remembering about him. He cocks his head at me. "You're Mr. Craddock?"

I nod and we shake hands.

"I appreciate your calling. I guess we'll get on inside to be with Jack. He knows his daddy is dead?"

"I just told him I thought Bob had a heart attack. I felt like it would be better if he had some friends with him when he found out the worst."

Dunn winces and says, "We'll work it out with him."

Rodell watches the men enter Jack's place. "Something tells me they ain't going to wait on Jack hand and foot the way Bob did."

* * *

Loretta Singletary's place is right down the street from mine. It's a fine old two-story house, with wood siding painted a handsome gray with white trim. Loretta's a gardener, and this time of year the plants threaten to smother the house. There are hydrangeas with blossoms as big as your head, bushes of purple flowers, and a climbing rose up to the roof. Bees are thick in the air.

I almost don't see Loretta because she's dwarfed by a stand of sunflowers. She's wearing a big hat and sunglasses and carrying a pair of clippers. The midmorning sun is so bright she has to shade her eyes with her hand to see me. She breaks into a smile and picks her way through the garden to the gate.

"Samuel, I'm glad to see you. It gives me an excuse to get out of this sun. Come on inside and let's have some tea."

She bounds up the steps as if her sixtyish years mean nothing. I feel a nip of envy because I've aggravated my knee with the morning's business, and I'm a little slower following her up the steps.

I'm not one for air-conditioning most of the time, but it feels good right now. My eyes have to adjust to the dim light inside, and I grope my way through her living room back to the kitchen. "What brings you over here?"

I tell her about Bob Harbin. She puts a hand to her neck. "That's a terrible thing! I guess without Bob, Jack will have to go to a veteran's home."

"I don't know what he's going to do. But I was hoping you could get some of the ladies to help him until his situation gets worked out."

She blinks a couple of times and looks toward her telephone, frowning. "There aren't many women who will put up with Jack, so I'll have to get some men. Including you." She jabs a finger at me.

"What about some church ladies who like to do good?"

She smiles. It's a shared joke. Some of the Baptist ladies in town seem hell-bent to get to heaven by good works. "The way that boy carries on, I don't think the Baptist ladies are going to be inclined. I wonder if Marybeth can help?"

"I'll call her, but I doubt if she'll be able to do much."

I'm one of the few people in town who keeps up with Marybeth Harbin, Jack's mother. I feel sorry for her. A year after Jack got home in such bad shape, Marybeth had a nervous collapse and had to spend some time in the hospital. After she got out, she went to live in Bryan-College Station, near enough to visit occasionally. Plenty of folks think badly of her for not being there to help Bob, but they can't blame her any more than she blames herself.

* * *

Back home I make a call to the office where Marybeth works and ask to speak to her supervisor. I'd like to tell her what happened to Bob myself, but I don't think it ought to be done on the phone, and she should be told right away. She works as a secretary for some research outfit associated with Texas A&M. The man I talk to sounds a little muddle-headed, but he says he'll break the news to her. I tell him to have her call me if she needs anything.

To settle myself down, I spend some time looking at my Wolf Kahn pastel. If anybody had told me when I was a boy that I would end up with a fine art collection, I would have thought they were crazy. But my wife, Jeanne, grew up with a mother who loved art, and when we were married Jeanne started buying a few pieces, and she dragged me into it. I ended up enjoying it almost as much as she did. Since she died, the pictures we bought together have meant even more to me. I've even bought a couple of new pieces that I think she would have liked.

After a while I make the telephone call I've been putting off, to make an appointment with a surgeon at Texas Orthopedic Hospital in Houston. Rodell hit the nail on the head this morning when he asked when I was going to have my knee fixed. I've been hobbling around ever since one of my heifers accidentally knocked me down and stepped on it. On my last visit, my doc said, "You're going to have to let somebody go in there and put it to rights. Within a few months, you'll be good as new." Months. I don't like the sound of that.

And then there's the question of who's going to take me to the hospital in Houston and bring me back. Loretta will insist, and I'd as soon ride in a car with Jack Harbin at the wheel as Loretta.

The cheerful receptionist makes me an appointment for a couple of weeks off. She apologizes for not being able to fit me in sooner, but later is better than sooner as far as I'm concerned.

Zelda rounds the corner from wherever she's been napping and fixes me with a resentful eye as she meows her way to her dish. "That's two of us feeling sorry for ourselves," I tell her.

© Terry Shames


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