The darkness would have compelled any visitor to stand quietly for a moment and adjust to it before finally getting his bearings, after crossing the threshold of this cottage, if it were only just: More precisely, this was but a room of four rough-hewn paneled walls, unfinished, with a shed-style roof fashioned of standing-seam metal, and a crude board-and-batten exterior. Even on the sunniest of days, only a stingy streak of light filtered through the one small north-facing window of this beleaguered little structure, as if the firmament itself understood it deserved nothing more, marking the passing of time as it traveled across loose floorboards, here revealing the space left by a fragment splintered and missing, there illuminating for a fleeting moment the smooth head of a cut nail that had worked its way up incrementally through time, in an effort finally to free itself of the toil that hung everywhere here, one imagined.
In one corner squatted a small pot-bellied wood stove, and opposite it a low bed frame with a thin mattress whose ticking cover showed at the edges where the bedding had pulled loose. Next to this stood a washstand with a porcelain bowl on top, and a hinged mirror at the back with two small photos tucked up into a corner; the mirror’s silver had worn through in streaks so that the countenance gazing back at any person who stood before it was simply missing in places, as if rubbed out with a gum eraser. Opposite these weary appurtenances stood a small vernacular wood table with turned legs, and a pair of mismatched chairs, one pulled up to it and another pushed away by the man who’d been sitting there a while ago. On the table were two Mason jars, one serving as a container for a jumble of flatware, along with a short stack of shallow bowls, a trio of different-sized plates, and a disemboweled shotgun.
In the single remaining corner of the room lay a pile of rags that now served as a makeshift bed for a female dog of questionable parentage, but hound mainly; she had fussed over and arranged them to her liking in the hours leading up to this one, when she had whelped a small litter of pups. Five vied blindly and hungrily for a teat, another smaller one lay cold and still. Near the dog and her puppies were the remnants of her last dinner, taken the day before but now reduced to a pork bone with only a few bits of dried meat left clinging to it, and a wide-mouthed tin can half filled with water.
This scene would greet John Howell when he finally returned home from his bender, keeping company with a threesome of ne’er-do-wells much like himself, who tried to convinced him, while they passed a bottle between each other, that he was far better off without his woman anyway; he knew this was a lie. Josephine had been gone already now for several years, tiring of Howell’s proclivities (everyone, including Josephine, called him Howell and not John, but he called her Jo). At first, she stopped by from time to time with a child on her hip and a basket of cornbread, handed him the child and offered to help with washing and other chores. But time stretched longer between Josephine’s visits until they finally ceased entirely. It dawned on her as it had on so many others, that this man she once thought she loved was venomous to every person whose path he crossed, including her own, and thus she could not reconcile any amount of charity she might have thrown his way, nor any hardship a life alone imposed upon herself and this child, with that irrefutable notion.
That Howell had left behind his shotgun was the only grace on this occasion. He would stumble through the door and fall into his bed, and after sleeping away an afternoon, and a night, and most of the next morning, would finally stir, awakened by his own hunger and urgent pleas for sustenance from not a single beseeching mouth, but now six of them. He would lean over and carefully examine the spectacle before him, wary of a mother whose fearsome body language he well understood. In the coming days he would begin puzzling through this new quandary and would resolve in time to march up the hill and to the end of the long road and offer the gift of a pair of puppies to Claudia and her two children.