Elmore Rogers stared in disbelief, through stinging tears.
A blurred, bloody mess at the end of his left hand made his heart thud. Numb with shock, he closed his eyes and exhaled a soundless cloud of white vapor into the cold late afternoon.
He straddled the ridge of a roof three stories above the earth.
Was any shock worse than a thumb brutally clubbed with a hammer? In freezing weather. On a steeply pitched roof. On a Friday. One hour before quitting time. Two days before Christmas.
Blood suddenly welled from the top and the bottom of Elmore’s thumbnail, a fast seep. It surged without stopping. Bright drops began to spatter the sticky black tar paper and Elmore’s surplus-store army boots.
Funny thing. It didn’t hurt yet. That would happen, Elmore knew – he dreaded – as soon as those frozen, banged-to-shock nerves surged back to life.
Now. Here it came. Mr. Pain.
Elmore bent, knees straddling the ridge of the monstrous house’s highest gable. He squeezed the bludgeoned thumb in his cloth carpenter’s apron and held the hurt tight against his belly like a caught little bird. He ignored the roofing tacks that spilled from his apron and wobbled drunkenly down the unfastened tarpaper, bound for the edge of the roof. Dark streaks of blood chased the tacks along the gleaming black felt.
If Elmore had been on the ground, on flat Alabama red clay, he’d surely have danced about, swinging his purple partner. Not here though. Not so dangerously high in the air on a slick unfinished roof with iron-hard, icy ground thirty feet below.
Oh JESUS! Now it hurt!
A hiss like frying bacon rose to high volume in Elmore’s ears. His thumb pulsed hot lightning strikes, a cymbal crash each heartbeat. Who knew? This time, this hurt, might last all the rest of his life.
Some hurts did.
“Hey! You! You up there!”
A bull-necked man, far below on the ground, stared fiercely up at Elmore. The man wore a big white hat. His heavy, white, fringed coat made him look something like a football player in shoulder pads. He clamped a short cigar in his jaws. A vast square-shouldered shadow fell in front of him over a sand pile, a mortar mixer, a puddle of rainwater. The man’s head was enormous, disproportionate, the head of a pit bull. A head too big for its body.
His hooded eyes burned.
“Mr. Plum! What’s that one’s name? Him up on the gable?”
“That’s Elmore Rogers, Mr. Wood.”
“He’s stopped working? Did you yell quittin’ time?”
Mr. Plum, the construction foreman, sounded meek, cowed.
“He does real good for us working up on the high places, Mr. Wood ...”
Mr. Wood’s angry voice flew to the roof and shot in some weird way straight down Elmore’s ear canal and down the length of the seared nerve in his arm. Elmore heard the shouts in his throbbing thumb.
“ROGERS! Tarpaper ain’t gonna nail itself down! Get a move on, you want to get home this afternoon with a check!”
Mr. Wood rarely appeared at a job site, even for the construction of his own vast mansion, but today he had showed up in person. He ostentatiously carried a two-inch-thick stack of pay envelopes, holiday red, bound with a fat green rubber band. He came to play Santa Claus, two afternoons before Christmas.
Just back from Europe, somebody told Elmore at lunch break, between chews of potted meat and soda crackers and a too-dry honey bun. Bet that booger went over there just to eat at some fancy restaurant. What do you reckon they eat in Europe, anyway? Snails and shit …
Mr. Wood was Mr. Big Shot.
Elmore Rogers didn’t care for people like that. Mr. Wood could have been satisfied with being a timber tycoon and land baron and poultry mogul and flying around that fancy jet. But now he’d decided to show off his fortune, be a mansion builder. A castle builder. That’s what people called this rising house: Wood Castle.
Mr. Wood was constructing his own modern palace right here on the west side of Lafayette, Alabama. On a little six-thousand-acre spread where Elmore used to ride his bike as a boy and play Confederates and Yankees with his neighborhood friends. Back when life seemed blue and gray, like an Alabama sky. Simple.
Mr. Wood didn’t call his house The Castle. He called it Sweet Comb. Sweet Comb, Alabama. Somebody told Elmore he had applied to get his own city incorporation. For one house and its sprawling property.
Sweet Comb, Alabama.
Lynyrd Skynyrd would advertise Mr. Wood’s little kingdom every time their song by nearly-that-same-name played on a radio.
The band ought to sue somebody.
Richest man in the whole South, folks said.
Tightest man in the whole world, another construction worker mentioned to Elmore that very morning as they monkeyed up a scaffold and onto the frost-slick roof. Ass squeaks when he walks.
Tarpaper ain’t gonna nail itself down, Elmore mocked in his thoughts, rocking unconsciously in pain, thumb clutched to his body. Well, Mr. Big Shot, least I’m up here in freezing cold working to earn my paycheck. I never stepped on anybody’s head to get where I am.
Elmore Rogers’s spite boiled over like bubbling pitch. From the high stone walls of a real castle, his hot anger could have poured over the parapets and scalded to death the stump-legged bulldog of a figure below. Elmore hated that preposterous white hat and that white leather coat, all that silly fringe.
A coat with fringe on the arms? What was that? Elvis meets Dan’l Boone?
Elmore’s spite spiked to a new level, as Mr. Wood wheeled to leave, the heels of his five-thousand-dollar Austin-made cowboy boots stabbing the red clay of what would soon be his vast new back yard. That back yard would be so big, rumor held, that it would hold three full golf courses, with two hundred two-story houses (and swimming pools for guests) around them … and not one of the houses would stand close enough for the owners to even see the Castle.
Boiling pitch would have missed Mr. Wood by a dozen yards.
Elmore needed a catapult now.
He could see the moving white figure below clearly enough to despise the man, even through a winter wind and tears of pain and a nose running violently in the cold.
Spite or not, Elmore shouldn’t have raised from his crouch and tried to stand on his feet to shout something defiant.
But he did.
And when he did, a black mouth opened wide in front of his eyes. A monster mouth. Midnight on hinges.
It opened wide to swallow him.
Elmore had battled a problem all his life. Something about seeing blood leave his own body left him … helpless.
This problem now came home to roost. It had something to do with red drops from his own smashed thumb spattering his torn boots.
The midnight mouth laughed wickedly at Elmore, and he struggled not to tumble down its black middle.
“Hey!” Elmore yelled, fighting the vertigo. “Hey, Mr. Big …”
Elmore Rogers felt his legs go wobbly. He felt like Gumby. The roof rushed up at him, tarpaper black, then blacker.
He banged his face. He rolled, then rolled again, tumbling down the tarpaper over his spilled roofing tacks.
He fell. A silver rainfall of tacks showered down behind him.
Elmore’s cloth nail apron snagged on an eave and ripped away. It dangled like a bloody flag in the Christmas wind.
He landed hard – whump! – thirty feet down. He hit with a sound like two dozen heavy bundles of roofing shingles.
The fall might have killed another man.
It didn’t kill Elmore Rogers.
But he did, briefly, wish he’d died.
And not for the first time.
Elmore saw an explosion. Fire and flesh. He felt desert sun. He saw a white hand reach down from the blue sky. Then he recognized the faces of soldiers, and his good friend Neeley dragging him, the violent sun flaring over his helmet.
Elmore this day in Alabama stared up grimly from flat on his back. He blinked into the gray winter afternoon. Stars were out too early to be stars. Stars burst among migrating blackbirds, stars speckled pot-bellied clouds, stars popped out like a pale acne on the sun’s winter face.
Would he ever breathe, ever take a breath again?
Would he? Ever?
Elmore saw a vision.
His beheld two beautiful kids, Mary and Will.
His twins. His two reasons to live.
He took a deep, magnificent gasp of air.
He breathed. His ribs nearly killed him, but he breathed.
A busted lip, a gashed scalp. Elmore’s ribs stabbed hard. He felt his spine turned into sharp rubble. Or was that some broken brick left by the team of masons after their third week of work?
Elmore’s smashed thumb screamed at him.
At least he could feel.
He would choose pain, if there was nothing else to feel.
Elmore could hear too. Shouts. The heavy, scary sounds of grown men running. Grown men only run when something bad happens.
Elmore somehow rolled himself from his back onto his stunned left side. But then he collapsed back again.
So many things hurt him.
He closed his eyes.
Safe. Safe in there.
The water in the bucket still held ice, even after all day out in the weak December sun.
Elmore felt numb, shocked, but vividly awake.
Two black day laborers, Dawsy and Oscar, stood over him. Oscar held the dripping galvanized bucket.
Mr. Wood magically reappeared.
Elmore dimly made out the blocky figure as he stalked up, the broad Stetson cocked at a silly angle by the gusting wind. Mr. Wood pushed his head into the open window of an idling pick-up truck a few feet in front of Elmore.
The boss fixed a scalding eye on Plum, his rabbit-faced foreman, who shrank back of the wheel.
“Looks like they might be starting the holidays a little early here, Plum!”
“I said,” Mr. Wood growled, “that when they’re already so drunk they’re falling off the roof at four in the afternoon, you got a quality control problem, Mr. Plum. Do you think you might have a quality control problem here?”
Every one of the 50 or so construction workers who looked on, some from the roof, others from unfinished house windows, many at odd jobs far out in the lot, would later remember how mild Mr. Plum, a church-going man who rarely raised his voice, showed Mr. Wood a little backbone.
“Elmore Rogers ain’t a drunk, sir. He can’t drink a lick. He got some of his insides messed up in Iraq. His liver don’t tolerate…”
“You don’t contradict ME!” yelled Mr. Wood. “I know a drunk falling off a roof when I see one!”
The bossman’s big face blackened, those strange shark eyes unblinking. To Elmore, Mr. Wood looked something like a Saturday morning cartoon monster. Would his eyeballs suddenly pop out on stems and his tongue lasso Mr. Plum around the neck and choke him purple?
“You think I don’t know a damned drunk when I see one fall off a house, Plum?”
Mr. Plum held his peace. The pickup’s motor rumbled.
“Now get this Elway, or whatever the hell his name is, off my job site. And tell him his Christmas check pays for the emergency room. AND tell him not to bother showing back up here on Monday or any other day. This house of mine ain’t to be constructed by drunkards.”
More than one of the construction workers stared sheepishly down at his work boots following those words.
Dawsy and Oscar gingerly rolled Elmore onto a sheet of plywood. They lifted it like a stretcher up to the bed of Plum’s pick-up truck. It was a ten-minute drive to the emergency room at Lafayette General if they ran the lights. The black men crouched silently on either side of Elmore.
Plum wheeled the Dodge away fast, bouncing it over the plowed rows of an old field. Elmore rattled in the flatbed like an epileptic. The truck’s bumper noisily snagged a nest of rusted barbed wire and dragged it from in a blackberry thicket.
Mr. Wood waved his white hat in the air, his voice fading behind.
“Git that drunk the hell outta here!”
The developer turned his back on the disappearing pickup.
Dozens of faces, black and white and brown, all male, all grim, stared at him. They watched from framed window openings and unfinished doorways of the vast 100,000-square-foot antebellum-styled main house. Further back, more working men gazed on, barnacled here and there to the sides and roof of a gigantic carriage house and garage that rose behind the main structure.
Mr. Wood’s new residence would be the largest private home built in Alabama state history. It would dwarf Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina. It would cost more than San Simeon.
“Hey! Listen up!” yelled Mr. Wood. “Clown show’s over!”
His echo rang back to him off his future home.
“Drunk’s on his way to be sewed up and pumped out! Now get back to work. You’ll hear it from me, when it’s quittin’ time. Hop to it!”
The crews hopped to it.
The shrill of skill saws and the gunshot tattoo of air guns and the staccato blows of framing hammers instantly drowned out any other commands Mr. Wood might have shouted.
One hour to Christmas holiday.
A working man could endure anything for an hour.
Minutes later, like a movie miracle, snow began to descend from those fleecy gray clouds over central Alabama.
In this Deep South state, even in cold December, a snowfall felt rare as fire and brimstone.
Snow fell on everybody, though. Not just the sinners.
Flat on his back in the cruelly bouncing bed of Mr. Plum’s Dodge, Elmore Rogers stared up without blinking. The sky looked weird. Gray cotton. Gray cotton with a flashlight behind it where a sun bravely shone.
Elmore tasted blood.
He licked his lips. His tongue found a broken piece of bottom front tooth and a red crumb of Anglian Rustic brick.
What were his two younguns gonna think about their daddy now? What kind of snaggle-toothed, busted-up, flat broke Santa Claus is Elmore Rogers about to be this Christmas?
Light snow blessed Elmore’s bruised face as the truck slowed at an intersection in Lafayette. He heard – or imagined he heard – the ringing of Salvation Army bells.
Cool white flakes, soft as bandages, soft as angel feathers, settled over his bloody clothes.
I love you, Will and Mary, he whispered to himself.
I love you more than living.
I’ll give you a Merry Christmas. I will.