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Waylon Joseph crouched behind Mercury’s ballfield bleachers on the south end of town, smoking a cigarette and hiding from his wife.

A day moon hung in the June sky as a crop of boys played a baseball game beneath it. Tiny mitts waved in the air as the ball soared wide. The rest of the park stooped beyond the field—a moldering pond, a slanted gazebo. I-80 beckoned just down the road and past the cedar trees, and yet Way couldn’t hear even one truck’s sorry bellow as it sped past.

The air around him felt thick, like honey and longing.

Waylon tapped the edge of his Salem with his finger, and ash fluttered to the dirt. Today, he told himself. Today you have to tell her. He’d said the same thing yesterday. The day before, too. Every day since he’d visited the bank.

Marley appeared between the bleachers’ rusted planks—the burnt-orange patina slicing her right through her middle. In her pink coach’s ball cap and cutoff jeans, she didn’t look a day past eighteen, when Waylon had fallen in love with her. She’d been somebody else’s high school sweetheart back then. Now, her auburn hair tangled in the breeze as she hoisted her hand toward the sky, and a field of eight-year-old boys waited for her to speak.

“Look alive,” she called toward the outfield.

A crack split the air as the other team’s batter hit a pop-up. The center fielder snatched the ball, and the inning ended.

Way leaned his forehead against the bleacher’s hot metal. It had taken only two words from Marley’s mouth to snap the boys to attention. She had such sway, and she couldn’t even see it. In the last eight years, so much of their marriage had become about power—who had it, who gave it away. A slippery, constant leveling of the scales.

Marley cheered and took a nearby toddler from the crowd onto her hip, simple and sunny, as if life were one endless summer afternoon. Even her toes were painted hot pink. Waylon stank in his tar-spattered work clothes and boots. Other fathers, men Waylon went to high school with who had the balls to sit in the stands rather than cower behind them, clapped as Way’s son emerged from the dugout. Good eye, good eye, they cawed as the ump called two balls in a row, their eyes never leaving the jut of Marley’s hip in her shorts, the rise of her legs in the heat.

Vultures, Waylon thought. Every last one.

Unaware, Marley popped a fresh stick of spearmint gum into her mouth. She held a hopeful ember in her eye as her son took the batter’s box, as if he had every virtue Waylon lacked. And he did, their boy. Theo was freckled and adventurous like Marley, loyal without cause. He swung at bad pitches like his heart had never been broken, rounded the bases as if time would never run out. Just like Waylon had always wanted to be.

The field was still wet from yesterday’s rain. Theo tapped a metal bat against his cleats to clear dirt from the spikes, as Waylon used to do when he was young and itching to swing for these same fences. Back then, George Bush Sr. had been president and invaded the Middle East. Now it was 1999, and the president’s namesake had just announced his plan to run for office and finish the war his father had started. It was unsettling, how rituals like that passed from father to son.

Theo was now part of a long tradition in the Joseph family of children who had been disappointed by their fathers. Mick Joseph had never attended any of Waylon’s baseball games. He was too busy slapping a fresh coat of paint no one wanted on every picket fence in town and belting out the wrong lyrics to “Bad Moon Rising.” Now, though, Way wondered whether Mick had been there after all, lurking behind the bleachers like he was. Waylon once vowed Theo’s future would be different, with a dad who sang over him and rejoiced.

Funny, how those things never worked out.

A cloud passed over the sun, and a third strike shot past Theo’s ready bat and into the catcher’s mitt. He ran toward his mother. Marley whispered in his ear, bumped his fist with her own. As Waylon watched them, his heart felt dry and chapped. Theo looked just like Marley when he laughed, even if Way couldn’t remember the last time she’d done it.

He drew a hand down the length of his face and imagined the kind of family the two of them made while he was up on the roof. At twenty-six, he and Marley were still young enough to mend what they had torn. As he watched his wife run her palm against Theo’s cheek with such tenderness in her fingertips, he almost believed it to be true.

Way, she’d said a long time ago as they lay in bed together on a cold winter night, and he should have listened. I think you’re right to be scared.

Waylon was about to light a second Salem out of self-pity. Then he heard a stark trilling.

The pay phone behind him shivered through the quiet air, and the entire crowd looked toward it. A curious event: a pay phone ringing, like a snowfall in July. For Waylon, it was an omen. He knew it was his brother Baylor hunting him down, ready to demand he fix whatever their father had done now.

As a war vet and self-appointed mayor of Mercury, Mick Joseph was a living monument in town. Just yesterday, he lurched through the streets in his gray Astro van with a ladder dangling off the top, holding up traffic when he halted to fetch the glasses that had flown off his head and into the road. If it were only that, Waylon wouldn’t sweat it. But his father had built so many things in his life that he never bothered to take care of. Houses, marriages, sons. He made people laugh. He also took whatever he wanted. Mick was dapper, and devil-stained, and draining as hell.

Waylon wondered which neighborhood widow he’d horrified this time after penning her the same tired love note and banging on her door at four o’clock in the morning with a sad bouquet of geraniums he’d filched from his own lawn. What bill had he refused to pay—water, or gas? Had he interrupted the Presbyterian preacher again, by standing up in the middle of the sermon to slap his paws against the keys of an upright piano?

Everyone agreed he needed to be caged. No one but his three sons was expected to do it.

Waylon, brutally cursed ever since his mother christened him the “steady” one, knew the task would fall to him. He felt it in the weight of the small golden cross she’d hung around his neck when he was ten and that he hadn’t taken off since. Baylor—the tallest and oldest by thirteen months, the watchtower and lookout—had no such trinket from their mother. He knew how to signal trouble but never how to avoid it. And Shay Baby, the youngest at nineteen, was still his daddy’s best boy. Much like Theo, Shay held all his father’s wishes, and none of his regret.

This left Way to clean up the mess, just the way he had when he was a kid in Mick Joseph’s house, and Mick spilled a glass of milk without bothering to sop it up. Waylon hated it now as much as he’d hated it then. Yet Way, safe and sure, still itched to perform his part. He, out of all the brothers, would be the last to give up. The Joseph name still meant something to him, even if he was no longer certain what that something was.

Waylon ignored the pay phone as it jangled on its hook. Someone hit a line drive, the first baseman snagged it for the third out, and Marley’s team took the field again. Was it the fourth inning, or the fifth? Way couldn’t recall.

Marley turned toward the bleachers, and he ducked his head before she had the chance to spot him. From behind the stands, he could choose her over and over, even though she still thought he’d chosen someone else when it mattered most. Still looked at him with betrayal in her eyes. That was the truth of them: trading hearts and shifting loyalties. Trying to hold on, bare-gripped and barely there.

The pay phone halted its ring, only to begin again.

As a bear might pull himself from winter sleep, so Waylon stood and stretched before sauntering to the pay phone, the scorch of fifty pairs of eyes hot against his back. He picked up the phone mid-ring. For the first time, Baylor’s voice on the other end of the line didn’t mention their father at all.

Mick Joseph, who hadn’t had enough money to attend college so he read through a set of encyclopedias instead, liked to say that a man is proved a fool by what he doesn’t know. Yet a crueler outcome, in Waylon’s case, was to be proven a fool by what he thought he knew, but didn’t.

Way thought his own secrets were the worst in the Joseph family, but he was wrong.

* * *

Ten minutes later, Waylon met his older brother where he’d requested—at the entrance to the only Presbyterian church in town. Mercury had other denominations to offer—Methodist, Baptist, Catholic—but this was the only house of worship the Joseph family had devoted themselves to since 1970, when Mick returned from Vietnam. Baylor leaned into the doorframe, his black hair dipping into his eyes, his nails rimmed with tar from the jobsite at the Chinese restaurant two towns over. His skin never burned in the bright sun the way Waylon’s did, so he often went shirtless from May to October, musculature on full display, announcing to every woman between twenty-two and forty that he was untarnished and unattached.

He’d thrown on a T-shirt from his father’s business, navy blue with white block letters. JOSEPH & SONS ROOFING was plastered across the front of it. The company’s title always unsettled Way because of its untruth. The “sons” were the ones who showed up for work, and not Mick Joseph as the name promised.

Weak Waylon and Big Baylor. That was how Mick referred to his two oldest children when they worked together on a roof. All his life, Waylon had wondered whether it was true.

Baylor never paid those things any attention, just as he didn’t mind his boots tracking dirt through the house. He had a crowbar in one hand, a shovel in the other.

“Let’s get this over with,” Baylor groused as he held the door.

Together they walked into the cool dark of the church stairwell, where the interim pastor sat in his own sweat. He’d been stuck in Mercury since the last pastor had an affair and skipped town four years earlier. The term “interim” sounded like an indictment, as if the church couldn’t get anyone to come without the promise that they’d also get to leave. The last time Way had spoken to this man was the worst day of his life, and he didn’t care to remember it.

The pastor’s name was Lennox, and he looked up at the sound of them.

“I know we should have fixed the roof long ago,” he said. “I know.”

Lennox led them into the sanctuary, and they passed the carved baptismal font that Mick had built, a woven tapestry of the Apostles’ Creed embroidered and hung by Waylon’s neighbor. This church had preachers come and go, but it survived because it had the people of Mercury’s guts in it. Folks in town scrubbed it, decorated it, patched it, married their sweethearts in it, baptized their children in it. The building stood for a spark of the eternal in an ending world, though Waylon never felt his own mortality more than he did when he sat in these pews.

Lennox explained what had happened.

Earlier that day, the church mothers were teaching summertime Bible lessons in the chapel when cold sludge began to drip from the ceiling. Clumps of plaster fell on the children’s laps with a splat. Rainwater had leaked from the steeple above them, casting a deep bruise across the saintly white ceiling of the sanctuary.

“Why is it so … purple?” Baylor asked, as drops dribbled onto the crushed velvet pews. They’d need to be steam-cleaned before Sunday, the musky stench strained from the air.

“We’ll fix it,” Waylon promised, without first seeing the leak itself, which he knew his brother would hate. Their father loved making guarantees, too-good-to-be-trues. It was painted on the side of his Astro van:


His boys had been brought up to see this promise through.

“Don’t expect a discount,” Big Baylor spat, “just because you’re a church.”

He grabbed the side of his neck and squeezed, which Way knew he only did when he felt anxious, as in—hardly ever. A pale, hook-shaped scar lay just below his ear, the only part of his body that didn’t tan. Bay was itching to get up in that attic. Get his hands dirty. Ruin it so he could make it right.

So Waylon got to work.

Inside the sanctuary, the purple wave continued to spread. Outside against the brick facade, Way mounted his steel ladder, with no one to mind the base.

“Be careful, son,” Lennox called from the open window.

Once astride the roof, Way scampered up the slick slope to a flat patch just below the steeple that rose into an ornate bell tower. Sure enough, a puddle had formed below a bit of copper flashing that had been stapled to the roof. Way ran his hands through it, pushed the water till it slid down the incline. He could see the water seeping beneath the slim metal toward the steeple joists, felt how the wood beneath it had gone soft. All of it would need to be torn out and replaced.

He scaled down the ladder and peeked his head through the sanctuary window.

“You should have let us fix this ten years ago when we told you it was time,” Baylor was lecturing Lennox, even though Lennox hadn’t yet lived in Mercury back then. Baylor, whose usual interface with customers was little more than an adenoidal growl. He stood on a ladder of his own and nosed the stain with the curve of his crowbar.

“It’s the flashing,” Way called. “It leaked.”

Baylor smirked.

“See for yourself,” Way said.

And just like that, the brothers switched. But this time, Way stood back to look at the vast room before him. As high as this ceiling was, the base of the steeple reached even higher. The answer to his question lay in the space between the ceiling and the roof.

“What’s up there?” he asked Lennox, even though he knew Lennox wouldn’t know.

He took the crowbar to the back of the sanctuary and opened the tiny door that led to the counting room where the weekly offering was kept. He looked up and found the same purple swirl on the low ceiling, with a hatch. A hatch like that meant an upper room waited beyond it.

The opening had been painted shut years ago. Specks of dried paint hit Waylon’s face as he took the crowbar to the edge and pried open the lip. Bay yelled something to him from the other side of the wall that Waylon couldn’t hear. He felt a sudden breeze.

Way believed in haunted places, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a roofer. His whole business was revealing stories untold, ones that hid until they began to leak.

A collapsing ladder unfolded before him, and Waylon boosted himself into the crawl space. Then he took his Zippo from the back pocket of his jeans, next to his cigarettes. Flicked it. That’s when he saw them—one, then two, then ten bats fled into the sanctuary. Way fell from the hole and landed with a smack on the floor.

“Should I get a BB gun?” Lennox asked, curls of silver hair falling in his eyes.

“No,” both Waylon and Baylor said as Bay appeared and pulled Waylon to his feet.

“Easy as shit to get rid of those bats,” Baylor lied. “Leave the windows open tonight and they’ll do the rest.”

But then a leaking burst forth. A burbling stream of dark liquid shot out from the hatch and onto the floor. At this, even Lennox cursed.

Copyright © 2023 by Amy Jo Burns

by by Amy Jo Burns

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250908566
  • ISBN-13: 9781250908568