His father came in the front door and went directly to the picture window as if he couldn’t decide whether he belonged inside or out. He stayed there a long time, studying the county highway that ran past their farm. Whenever a car grumbled by, he took a step back and tugged at the curtain, ready to drag it shut. Night was coming, but he snapped off the lamps in the living room.
He didn’t say hello to Hawkin when the boy hugged his leg but he absently patted his head. And he didn’t respond to Hawkin’s mother when she called from the kitchen, “Henry? Where in the hell have you been?”
His father locked the door and walked over to the shelving unit where his mother kept her books and teapots and porcelain figures. He dug into his pocket and then stared at something cupped in his hand. He pulled down the Bible and hurried through its pages, sometimes pausing as if to take in a certain passage. He glanced back at Hawkin, said, “What?” and then returned the Bible to its shelf. He paced in a circle and turned on the television, but with the volume down. Its shifting light and color made the room an uncertain space. The news played. Something about the historic meteor shower expected that evening, the beginning of a light show that could span several days. Hawkin’s teacher, Mrs. B., had talked about it. The fourth-graders could keep a sky journal for extra credit.
His father was balding but kept his hair long enough to comb over and spray stiffly in place. Right now several clumps of it stood upright and revealed the pale dome of his head. His eyes were red-rimmed and his cheeks unshaven and he hadn’t changed his clothes since yesterday, when he’d driven off in the pickup and said he was going to make them some money.
These days he was always seeing about a job, trying to catch a break. A few years ago he had sold their horses and their ATV and their fishing boat, and when Hawkin asked why, he said he was retiring. Hawkin knew he was too young for that. The only people who were retired in north-central Minnesota spent their days slumped in wheelchairs. You worked until you couldn’t. You could be white-haired and wormed with veins and still put in your ten-hour shift as a waitress or bank teller or hairdresser. Retired might as well mean near dead.
In fact, his father and hundreds of others had lost their jobs at Frontier Metals after the federal government shut down the mining lease on over a hundred thousand acres of land. Northfall was located at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and Hawkin’s parents and their friends complained constantly about the forest service and the BLM and the damned hippie vegan environmentalists who thought the land belonged to the owls and walleye. “These are the same sort of people that think you’re killing a carrot when you eat it,” his father would say. “I look at a tree, I see a house. I look at a deer, I see venison sausage. I look at a hill packed with iron, I see a skyscraper and a fleet of fighter jets and a club-cab pickup with a chrome nut sack hanging from the hitch.”
Hawkin heard his parents arguing through the walls at night. About money mostly. About his father spending it on nonsense or blowing it on pipe dreams or throwing it away at the poker table until the bank account emptied. “Why can’t you get a job?” Hawkin’s mother asked and he said, “Where? Where are the jobs? You want me to serve cheeseburgers at the McDonald’s?” There were a lot of men like him in town. Loggers and miners who didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves except crack a beer and shake their heads and lament what had become of this place, this life.
His family discussed selling the land off as well, but only lakefront property was worth anything up here, and these four hundred acres of maples had not only been in the Gunderson family for three generations but made money for them every spring as a source of syrup. Which also qualified them for the cheaper ag-land tax rate. Gunderson Woods, the locals called it. “My sweet little sugar bush,” his father called it and talked about the day he might install a pump and a web of tap lines instead of tapping over six hundred trees and hauling buckets as they dripped full.
Hawkin’s mother worked as a clerk at the Farm and Fleet and smoked menthol cigarettes and had bottle-blond hair and pink fingernails and rhinestone-butted blue jeans. She spent Wednesday nights and the whole of her Sundays at the Trinity Lutheran leading Bible studies and ushering, but she was always reading books on Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, the Rajneeshees, the Church Universal and Triumphant. She believed there was something else out there, even if she didn’t know exactly what. When Hawkin asked how she could be so certain, she pointed a lit cigarette at him and said, “Because that’s the nature of faith. Besides, this can’t be it.” Here she traced the air with her cigarette, as if drawing a smoky map of the world around her. “The thought’s just too goddamn depressing.”
She was cooking dinner now. Burgers on the range and frozen French fries in the oven. Hawkin was helping put dishes away, but only in the areas he could reach, the cabinets below and the lower shelves above. He was a whole head shorter than his classmates, smaller than he should be. Sicker too. He missed school so often that the students in the fourth grade forgot his name. He’d had pneumonia seven times and wheezed when he ran. His mother blamed it on the chemical runoff in the water and all the years of beer swirling around inside Hawkin’s father, which no doubt compromised his seed. “You’ll get stronger when you grow up and get out of this godforsaken place,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ve been praying on it.”
Now Hawkin set a pan on a shelf, tucked a cutting board beneath the range, and tried to dodge out of the way of his mother, who didn’t always see him underfoot. When his father entered the kitchen and picked up the wall telephone and listened to the dial tone before setting it in its cradle and then unplugging the cord, his mother said, “What’s your deal?”
“I want quiet. That’s all.”
Hawkin’s mother swatted at the air with her spatula. “All you ever do is make noise and suddenly you’re Mr. Quiet? Something’s gotten into you.”
“Don’t tell me it’s nothing when it’s obviously something.”
His father was breathing too hard and his eyes couldn’t seem to settle on anything. When he headed back into the living room, Hawkin’s mother followed, her voice rising in pitch and volume as she asked him what stupid-son-of-a-bitch thing he’d gone and done now.
“I’ve got it under control. Okay? If I play my cards right, we might come out of this with a pile of money.”
“Cards? This is about cards?”
“It was a metaphor, woma...