B. H. Fairchild reads
The Gray Man
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We are cutting weeds and sunflowers on the shoulder, the gray man and I, red dust coiling up around us, muddying our sweat-smeared mugs, clogging our hair, the iron heel of an August Kansas sun pushing down on the scythes we raise against it and swing down in an almost homicidal rage and drunken weariness. And I keep my distance. He’s a new hire just off the highway, a hitchhiker sick to death of hunger, the cruelties of the road, and our boss hates poverty just enough to hire it, even this old man, a dead, leaden pall upon his skin so vile it makes you pull away, the gray trousers and state-issue black prison boots, the bloodless, grim, unmoving lips, and the eyes set in concrete, dark hallways that lead to darker rooms down somewhere in the basement of the soul’s despair. Two weeks. He hasn’t said a word. He’s a goddamned ghost, I tell my father. Light flashes from his scythe as he decapitates big clumps of yellow blooms, a flailing, brutal war against the lords of labor, I suppose, against the state, the world, himself, who knows. When we break, I watch the canteen’s water bleed from the corners of his mouth, a spreading wound across his shirt, the way he spits into the swollen pile of bluestem and rank bindweed as if he hates it and everything that grows, a hatred that has roots and thickens, twisting, snarled around itself. A lizard wanders into sunlight, and he hacks at it, chopping clods until dust clouds rise like mist around him, and then he speaks in a kind of shattering of glass cutting through the hot wind’s sigh, the fear: Love thine enemy. He says it to the weeks or maybe what they stand for. Then, knees buckling, with a rasping, gutted sob as if drowning in that slough of dirty air, he begins, trembling, to cry. I was a boy. The plains’ wind leaned against the uncut weeds. High wires hummed with human voices in their travail. And the highway I had worked but never traveled lay across the fields and vanished in that distant gray where day meets night.