“The Last House in Picher” by Dylan Henderson

With a sigh, I leaned the cut boards against the toolshed and switched off the table saw. The motor’s high-pitch whine deepened as the blade slowed, and as it died, the sounds of the neighborhood began to reappear. I could hear the birds again and the locusts in the trees. Rubbing my hands, I fetched my iced tea from where I had left it in the grass and sat down beneath the pecan tree. The ice in my tea had melted, but the drink was still sweet, and I sipped it in the shade as I watched the squirrels run back and forth across the empty street.

It was Saturday, and the government crews never worked on the weekend. If I squinted, I could see the yellow of a bulldozer on the other side of the meadow, but progress had been slow, and I didn’t expect them to reach Second Street until sometime next year.

I leaned my head against the bark of the pecan tree and closed my eyes. No one baled the meadow anymore, and I could smell the wildflowers in the fields and hear the hum of bees as they meandered through the grass. I had intended to sand the boards I had cut, but I grew warm and sleepy in the dappled shade and soon fell asleep. When I awoke, I was lying in the grass, my clothes covered with a layer of white dust. As my mind cleared, I thought I could hear the rumbling of a truck somewhere in the distance.

I brushed off my jeans and, holding onto the tree for support, stood up. My glass had toppled over, and for the moment, I left it to the ants.

Just inside the toolshed, a pair of binoculars hung on a nail, and grabbing these, I spat on my thumb and began to wipe the dust off the lenses. Most of the houses along Emily and Francis had been torn down years ago, and standing on my back porch, I could see the vacant buildings over on Main Street, their brick storefronts silhouetted against the mound of chat that towered above them. Assuming that the truck was heading north along 69, I followed the route with my binoculars as far as Third Street. A thin cloud of dust still hovered over the road.

I frowned. The sun, nearing its zenith, was almost blinding, and I could feel the sweat beading above my eyebrows. I hesitated for a moment longer, and then I jerked open the backdoor, stomped through the house, and climbing atop a box of my son’s old toys, grabbed my shotgun from the top shelf of the closet.

I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I pushed open the front door. Through the dusty haze, I could see the vague outline of a man climbing out of a pickup truck. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely raise the gun to my shoulder, and when I saw the man’s familiar face break into a smile, I almost dropped the gun in surprise.

“Good Lord, Robert,” the man said, leaping onto the porch, “put that gun away.” He grabbed me by the elbow and helped me sit down on the porch steps. “Have things really gotten that bad?”

I leaned the shotgun against the railing and rested my back against the steps. My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t talk. The federal agent looked at me askance.

“Are you all right?” he asked, putting his hand on my shoulder. “For a moment there, I thought you were going to shoot me.”

I took a deep breath and, feeling my body relax, smiled. “It’s not loaded. I keep it to scare off looters.”

The agent stood up. “Well, what if I had been a looter, one who wasn’t afraid of an old man and his peashooter? What would you have done then?”

I shrugged my shoulders and, my joints stiff, tried to stand. “Why don’t you come inside the house? I just brewed some fresh tea.”

The man shook his head. “I just wanted to say goodbye, Robert.” The wind pulled at his tie, and he smoothed it flat as he talked. “I don’t know if you heard about the twister in Joplin, but that’s where I’m headed. God knows how long the job will take, but by the time I get back, this place might be no more than an empty stretch of highway.”

I stared out over the yard. The old water tower was still visible in the distance. “No, it’ll always be more than that,” I said. “Say, why don’t you drive us down to the restaurant? Joplin’s a long drive on an empty stomach. I have some beef patties in the freezer, and it won’t take long to warm up the grill.”

The man considered the proposal for a moment and then, shrugging his shoulders, spat in the dusty grass. “All right,” he said, “let’s go. You need to leave the house once in a while anyway.”

The man hummed as he drove, one hand resting on the steering wheel while the other fiddled with the radio. The stations out of Tulsa were little more than static out here, but the man appeared not to notice. The truck was new and equipped with air conditioning, and I leaned my head against the window and enjoyed the feeling of cool air on my skin. The restaurant was only a few blocks away on A Street, and I suppose neither of us felt like talking. Closing my eyes, I listened to the windshield wipers struggling to clear away the dust.

“I hate driving by the old Boys’ Club,” the agent muttered. “It’s depressing. I wish they’d tear it down already.”

“My son was a member,” I said without opening my eyes. “He couldn’t play sports, but he always liked it there.”

The truck turned off the highway, and I could hear the crunch of gravel beneath the tires. Yawning, I opened my eyes and climbed out of the truck. The restaurant was unchanged, the weekly specials, painted in the school’s colors, still visible through the dusty glass. A sign out front proclaimed the dangers of lead poisoning.

“I’ve been thinking,” the man said as I unlocked the door. “If you’re really that worried about looters, you need to leave. You know I’ve never pressured you to take the money, but if you’re that scared… it’s time to go.”

The door swung open. “They don’t bother me,” I said, plucking my apron from behind the counter. “They’re mostly kids anyway, looking for souvenirs, but a couple of weeks ago, someone burned down John Morton’s house, and that bothered me. Do you remember it by any chance? It was over on Columbus.” I switched on the grill and, fetching my stool from the pantry, waited for it to warm up. “An unusual house,” I mused. “John designed it himself. The creek ran through the yard, and you had to cross a little bridge to reach the door. He didn’t go down in the mines, but he was a decent man. My wife and I used to visit him every now and then. My son thought he was a genius.” I shrugged. “Maybe he was. I always liked to hear his opinion.”

The agent was leaning against the counter, watching me. “Why don’t you listen to my opinion? I’ve seen a lot more of the world than you have. Or driven through it anyway. Look, you don’t want to live in one place too long, or you’ll start thinking that it’s the only place that matters. You forget how much is out there.”

I slapped the hamburger on the grill and watched it sizzle, the familiar smell filling the restaurant. “My son used to talk about leaving. He hung a map of the United States on his wall, and he used to push thumbtacks into every place he wanted to go. By the time he was in high school, the map was riddled with pins. I never discouraged him because the mines were shutting down, and I knew he’d have to leave at some point anyway. But it was different for me. There’s not a house on Francis Street that I haven’t visited on a sunny afternoon. At one time or another, my wife and I sat at every table. A man is his home. I couldn’t move away and stay myself.”

The man shrugged. He fingered his tie as he talked. “Other people did it. And they made new homes—nice homes—for themselves.”

I looked up from the grill. “Where you here when the school closed?” I asked. “I can’t remember. Principal Braxton spoke. I’ll always remember that. He had been an English teacher when my son was little. He was always a quiet man, but he talked about the town being a little piece of each of us. All towns are, I guess, but they’re usually so big no one notices. Each person makes up too little of the whole to really count for anything.” I flipped the two patties and pressed them into the grill with my spatula. “It’s different here,” I said softly. “When George Read took the buyout and closed the pharmacy, we all missed him. It was like he had died. We knew we’d never see him again.”

I fetched two plates from the rack and two bottles of Coke from the refrigerator. I pulled my stool up to the counter and sat down across from the agent. The smell of grilled hamburger, warm and inviting, permeated the diner.

For a while, neither of us spoke. I ate slowly and watched the highway through the window. There was a fox across the road, his black mask barely visible through the tangle of brush growing in the ditch, and we stared at one another as I ate.

“Do you get many customers?” the agent asked as he wiped the ketchup off his chin. “I heard you closed this place down.”

The fox, his eyes never leaving my face, crept out of the brush and then darted across the highway.

“Not many,” I said absentmindedly. “Sometimes the demolition crews want lunch. A few truckers still take the highway to Kansas City.”

“They’re going to close it soon,” the man said, “this stretch anyway.”

I nodded without saying anything.

The man munched on his burger. “They’re going to cart away the chat, too,” he said between mouthfuls. “There won’t be anything left but the city streets.”

I was too tired to eat. Standing up, I dropped my plate in the sink and turned on the hot water. The dishes could soak overnight. I could always finish them on Monday. “I’ll miss the chat,” I said as I watched the sink fill up. “I hate to see it go.”

The agent stared at me. “Are you kidding?” he asked, putting down his hamburger. “Good God, the chat’s to blame for this whole mess. Those damn tailings have poisoned everyone in this whole town, and you hate to see them go?”

The man handed me his plate, and I scraped the leftovers into the trash. “I always liked looking at them,” I said. “We used to say they were the tallest mountains in the Ozarks. They probably are.”

The man shook his head. “Sometimes, I don’t understand you, Robert. Everyone in this whole goddamn country looks at that creek, that trail of tar trickling out of the mines, and feels sick. They blame the mining companies. They blame Blue Eagle, but really, I blame you sometimes. You watched the creeks turn color, and you didn’t do a damn thing. You all could have dumped the tailings outside of town, but you dumped them two blocks from your own house. Could’ve packed up your family, your son, and moved to Vinita or Baxter Springs, but you chose to stay here, surrounded by the toxic waste you helped dig out of the ground.”

My back ached, and I leaned against the sink. I wanted to leave, but I didn’t want to offend the man. “You’re right,” I said, staring at the linoleum floor. “You know, when you first came here and started offering people money to leave, I said the same thing. What did we do to earn the government’s money? We’re miners. We knew there’d be danger even if we didn’t know it would come at us like this. Shouldn’t we be the ones to face it? My neighbors and I dug that lead out of the ground, and we accepted a paycheck for it, and I’m proud of what we did. That lead won the war, or the war couldn’t have been won without it anyway. When every able-bodied man in the county left for the war, we stayed behind because the war needed us here.” I paused, uncertain how to continue. “The government wants us to undo what we did,” I said slowly, “but we are what we did, and I won’t say anything against the people I used to call my friends and neighbors.”

The man scoffed. “Do what you want,” he said, scraping the dirt off his loafers with a napkin. “The money won’t be available forever. People elsewhere need it. Their children need it. So take the offer or don’t take it. Doesn’t make any difference to me.”

I heard the man push his stool back and stand up, and he waited in the truck while I locked up. A ragged strip of cloud dimmed the sun, and the wind, fiercer now, was sweeping down the Blue Eagle mound and infusing the air with the subtle taste of metal.

I looked out the window as the man drove. The high school, aside from a few broken windows, was still untouched, and I wondered how long it would be before the crews reached it. I remembered the happy days I had spent there when I was a boy and the troubled times my son had endured. The mines had begun to close when he was a toddler, and by the time he was in high school, only the Blue Eagle remained. Sometimes the mine would close for days at a time, and I would meet my son at the baseball field after school, and we would walk home together. Even with me beside him, the other children still taunted him. I could hear them, whispering on their front porches and laughing. On Saturdays, we would follow the railroad tracks into the woods northwest of town. We talked about opening a restaurant when the mine closed, and I made a promise to myself to never ask him about school on Saturdays, not on those days when we talked about the restaurant.

The man, a toothpick dangling from his lips, shifted gears. We passed the football field, now lost to a sinkhole, and the row of old mining offices, which spanned Cornell Street. A block over, the concrete remains of an ancient smelter jutted up through the weeds. The Harrell mound, its chalky ridges eroded by the wind and rain, towered above it all. More than a hundred more, large and small, loomed on every side.

“Do you ever play Hearts?” I asked, looking at my reflection in the glass.

The man’s answer was curt. “Never played it. Don’t know how to play it.”

“It’s not a complicated game,” I said, the remains of the town streaking by as we sped down Main Street. “I even taught my son how to play. It’s kind of like the opposite of Bridge. You try to avoid taking tricks, and whoever has the lowest number of points wins. You have to watch out for the Queen of Spades, though. She’s worth half the points in the game, and if you have her, you have to pass her off to someone else as soon as you can. Sometimes even the best player can’t get rid of her. You watch the whole game go by, and you wait and wait, but the opportunity never comes up.”

The man looked over at me but said nothing.

“I know people feel sorry for me,” I said, staring at the crumbling foundations on either side of the road. “They read about the drinking water in the paper, and they see pictures of the chat piles on the news, and when they hear that I want to stay, they all think I’m holding the Queen of Spades.” I closed my eyes, the glass window cool where it touched my skin. “But let me tell you this: I was dealt the best hand in the game. I really was. And the day the Blue Eagle shut down was the saddest day of my life.”

The man nodded, and whether he understood me or not, I couldn’t say. He dropped me off at my home, the house I had inherited from my mother and father, and I climbed the steps alone as I listened to his truck shift on the highway, and leaving my repairs for another day, I sat down in my armchair by the window. The sun had returned, and sitting in its square patch of light, I closed my eyes and felt its familiar warmth on my face. People often ask me if I’m lonely, but what they don’t understand is that I’m never alone. Indeed, I’m surrounded by more people than I’ve ever been. I know that when I open my eyes I’ll see William Hooper’s boys sledding down the Blue Eagle mound and little Arthur Middleton swimming in the mill pond and my own son, lying on his stomach before the window, reading comic books, the hiss of pork chops frying just audible over the radio in the kitchen, and as long as I can still picture his face, I don’t think—no matter how sick I may become—that I will ever leave.

Dylan HendersonBorn in a trailer parked on a gravel quarry, Dylan Henderson has lived his whole life within the borders of the Cherokee Nation. After dropping out of school at sixteen, he enrolled at the local community college, eventually earning advanced degrees in history, literature, and library science. He now lives on the outskirts of Radium Town, an abandoned settlement once famous for its “radium cures.” The last remaining bath house is visible from his upstairs window.