..... When Johnny came home he slept for three days and on the third he woke just long enough to sip some of Natalia’s soup. He saw his old man standing cocked in the doorway watching them both. Then Johnny’s eyes slammed shut again. He slept a good bit longer and when he woke, his old man was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor.
..... He had on a hat and some boots. He was a Texas man, which meant he was sad to be living in the middle of these here Cackalacky mountains. He’d done it for love, and he’d do so again. Had a streak of sentimentality in him that you could stir with a wooden paddle.
..... Johnny rubbed his eyes and hitched himself up against the pillows.
..... “Sometimes people need permission just to live,” his old man said. “Never understood it. If that’s you then I 'spect I’m going to be disappointed. But for the record? So we’re clear? You have my permission to have yourself a time for now. But come Monday, we got to put things to rights around here. Get things moving again. Get your life on track.”
..... “What day is it?” Johnny said.
..... His old man looked at Johnny across the blankets and smiled. Johnny thought he saw some tears in them eyes. The old man patted Johnny’s feet through the blanket and nodded his head.
..... “Whyn’t you get yourself cleaned up?”
..... After he left, Johnny lay back on the pillows trying to imagine the feeling of those hands touching his feet through the blanket.

When Johnny’s old man fell for the boy’s mother, there was nothing he could do to convince her to leave her people up in these hills. So he forsake the greatest state and bought himself a parcel in hers. Hundred acres covered in something the old man didn’t understand for the life of him: trees. He hired a couple of men to take care of the place for him as he was busy lawyering in town. They cleared a small piece of the lot behind the house and got to raising steer. On the side, they kept sawing that lumber up, sending it to town, where the tool shop sold slabs to the art folks, cabinetmakers and whatnot. After a bit, the old man got himself to appreciating a good board foot. Did himself some research and told the boys to start planting black walnuts, which is a fine lumber. Johnny and his sister grew up hearing how those trees would be sending their grandchildren to college one day.
..... That was the view Johnny saw right now through the window of the old man’s office. The cattle walking around becoming delicious, the old man’s precious trees and sawmill, and the blue peaks of the Smokies lording over them all.
..... Johnny’s old man looked regal sitting at his desk. White Panama hat. Bolo tie. A blotter and pen set with an image of those Texas longhorns etched into the leather. A letter opener with a steer’s head in brass poking out of his leather cup.
..... “You’d be correct in surmising things are different around here,” the old man said. “Your mother, God rest her, would be saddened to know her only daughter had taken up with a Virginian and seen fit to practice there.”
..... He looked like he’d bit on something sour. He detested Virginians, who thought themselves the lords of the South.
..... “But we’ll soldier on,” the old man continued. “I have no hope of you taking my footsteps as your own, so we can dispense with the expectations. If you would simply see to helping around here, with the mill and cattle, get your feet planted, we can take it slow and see where you might fit in at the firm. You stand up for me, I’ll stand up for you. Will you do that for me, son?”
..... Johnny sensed he was expected to make some form of assent, so he said, “Yes, sir, I’d like that.”
..... “You would?”
..... The man seemed anxious.
..... “Yes, sir, I think I would. I don’t know what I want to do right now. Just glad to be out is all.”
..... The old man shifted in his leather throne. Waved a thick palm at the boy. “No one’s pushing you into anything. God knows what you’ve been through. Making an effort is all I ask.” The old man seemed relieved now. Hitched his body up a bit and rooted around in his pocket. “Doctor says your head’s still touched. But he doesn’t foresee undue problems in the future. Pleased me to hear it.” The old man dangled keys at the end of his fingers. “I 'spect you’ll be wanting to go down the hill, see what’s what?”
..... Johnny shrugged. “Thought of it.”
..... His old man held out the keys but snatched them back when Johnny reached for them. “The city’s become a cesspool of sin, you ask me. Frankly don’t see what people see in it. If you must hie yourself over to its charms, I only ask one thing: Avoid her, son. Shun her. You’re done with her kind. Last I heard, she was fixing to marry a land developer out of Black Mountain. That pot’s been pissed in. Time to move on to greener pastures.”
..... “Yes sir,” Johnny said, “'Spect I will.”
..... The old man offered the keys again. “Take the truck, won’t you? If you must drink at the trough, don’t even think of coming back up this hill in that condition. Sleep it off. Law enforcement’s gotten a damn sight tougher than you recall.”
..... Johnny took the keys and headed out of the office.
..... His old man said, “John Nathan?”
..... The boy turned. Heard something catch in his old man’s throat. “You’re all I have now, boy. And I…”
..... Johnny waited.
..... “You run along now,” the old man said.

That old town had changed up some since he’d been away. They rerouted the area around Pack Square in such a way that confused him and sent him in circles for a bit. There were new bars on South Lex that hadn’t been there a while ago. They were crazy with people and music. He gave them a pass and made off for the old place on Buxton, in a part of town where you could still buy a lady after dark.
..... The place was still there and the bartender remembered him enough to say Johnny didn’t have to sign the book. On account of his medication Johnny wasn’t really supposed to drink. So he ordered a beer and sat sipping it and reading the captions on the big TV over the refrigerator case. It was some nature program about bugs and whatnot. He watched a spider catch a fly in its web. A moth. A bee. But it got hard to concentrate, reading them words, with the clacking of the billiard balls and the chatter and the music.
..... Delinda was laughing with some people near the cue rack and dartboards. A bunch of them waving bottles and carrying on under the spill of green light over the pool tables. She still looked good, packed in her jeans and moving like she wasn’t even trying  to get his attention. She was messing with those men, trying on each of their hats in turn. Couple of baseball caps. A porkpie. A sloppy old straw thing. She’d put it on, make a face or two, and give it back. Gave him a funny feeling to watch her so being gregarious with fellows who were five or so years younger than her.
..... He was getting another beer when she came over.
..... “Hey, Johnny,” she said.
..... Johnny watched the bartender pop the top off his can, which Johnny accepted gratefully. Held it to his lips as he spun on his stool.
..... “How you doin', pretty boy?” she said. “How’s that sister of yourn?”
..... He laughed. Every time his sister came home from college, Mr. Cheyney at the corner store would ask her something along those lines, only inquiring after her brother. Not exactly a compliment, Johnny thought, to be asked after in such a way. Peeved him to think of it. Johnny had a mind to stop by that store sometime, steal some cigarettes or candy.
..... Delinda was wearing some man’s cowboy hat, but she looked the same. Brown hair, brown eyes, nose sharp like a fox. Couple of old chicken pox scars along her chin that made Johnny’s blood swoon. He knew better than to let on.
..... “Shouldn’t wear strangers' hats,” he said. “Good way to catch something.”
..... “I know a worse way.” Her grin was crooked, like a Halloween pumpkin’s.
..... Johnny sipped his beer. Felt the blood thumping on his thigh.
..... “You stopped writing,” she said.
..... “Well, so did you.”
..... “Fuck you for stopping, then,” she said. “You never answered the question. Was it her turned you agin me?”
..... He said nothing.
..... “Was it?”
..... He shrugged. “Lady’s dead. Let bygones be.”
..... “It was him, then, wadn’t it?” she said. “Tell me the truth.”
..... He sniffed her and made a face. “That hat stinks. Cigarettes or something. He raise pigs?”
..... “Fuck you,” she said, loud enough to make the pool balls quit clacking. When folks stopped looking, she said in a lower voice, “Fuck you, John Nathan, for not doing right by me.”
..... He glanced over his shoulder. Pretended not to see the bartender watching him. He watched a spider on TV wrap a struggling dragonfly. He turned back to Delinda. She had her fingers in the tops of the pockets of her jeans. Waiting. Her arms looked hard and soft all at once.
..... “Want to go somewhere and talk about it?” he said.
..... He watched her lips move without making a sound. They were wet and a little swollen, like she was about to cry. “Gotta get my stuff,” she said. She plucked off the hat as she darted back to the pool table.
..... Johnny got the bartender to bring him a Wild Turkey. He gulped it and was settled up even before it began to burn.

The two of them got what they wanted in the extended cab of the old man’s truck, still parked out on Buxton. Her hair still smelled of another man’s hat; the rest of her was the same as Johnny remembered. She tasted like smeary butter and salt, and for a long time after, he just listened to the sound of her breathing as she lay stuck to him. Then she roused some and commenced with the questions.
..... She wanted to know what was up with his sister, and why she wadn’t coming back. Did he ever see her Carhartt jacket round the house, the one she got off her brother and maybe left behind? Her brother paid a lot for that jacket. Did his old man still run that vanity mill out back, and who did he think he was kidding? She wanted to know how much Natalia got paid and if Johnny thought that lady and his daddy ever got it on. Her words shocked Johnny some, and she laughed. Why was Johnny so quiet, and what all happened to him while he was inside?  Asked him what them doctors had said about him. He told her that in their expert opinion they felt he was missing his two, three and four.
..... “Normal folks like you, you don’t get mad right away. There’s stages. Someone says something that puts you out, you go from one to two. You state your opinion right back at them and if they do it again, you’re up to three. Then four. That’s how normal folks get mad. Me, I just go from one to five. Just like that.”
..... She stroked his chest some and told him, “Oh, poor baby, you lost something inside, didn’t you? But you know, you don’t seem so bad now.”
..... He shrugged. “Well, sure, I’m fine now. Who wouldn’t be?”
..... She smiled and tossed her hair around some, trying to get comfortable. Man, he thought, he could sit here all night in these tight quarters just to get a handful of her.
..... “How you gonna get over missing your numbers, honey?”
..... “Talking mostly, and the drugs.”
..... “They any good?”
..... “Real good,” he said. “Too good, you’d almost say.”
..... He would have gone on, but she said it was incumbent upon her to point out that he was ready for another, so he threw himself into it. For just a second there, before the squish and heat whirled up and drove away his sense, he recollected as how he probably should have taken one of them pills a while ago.

He had never really learned how to make that country girl happy. The next morning he spent the last of the money his old man gave him buying her breakfast at the Waffle House on Tunnel Road. Stack of pancakes and potatoes smothered, covered, chunked and capped, washed down with coffee. He took her back to Buxton to reclaim her vehicle and was thinking that that would be the end of it. But she got him to agree to let her follow him up the hill so’s she could look for that jacket which he couldn’t recollect ever seeing her in.
..... The house was empty on Sundays anyway so he didn’t think it would be a problem. Natalia and the hired men had off, and the old man would be at church til later. She put on a pot of coffee like she knew the place and suggested she maybe take a shower, get herself cleaned up after what he done to her.
..... Smiling at him like it was all his fault.
..... All the way up them stairs, her hand on the small of his back felt like it was burning through his dungaree shirt. “Sometimes I wish I would of gone with you, John Nathan. So’s I wouldn’t have had to go so long without the taste of you. You think they would have let me in there with you?”
..... Johnny knew them doctors and trusties would do no such thing. He couldn’t rightly focus on her chatter because he had his own concerns just then, trying to remember what he was supposed to do if he missed a dose. Take the next pill alone, or take two? Natalia would have told him but she was off on account of the Lord’s Day. He didn’t relish the thought of asking his old man.
..... “We might could run away, John Nathan,” she told him. “Take what all we can get our hands on and just lit out.”
..... “We might could,” he told her.
..... But she didn’t exactly behave as though she was hightailing it. She led them to the master bedroom and messed with the deceased lady’s intimate cabinets, trying on jewelry, pawing through the clothes Johnny’s daddy hadn’t gotten around to giving up yet. After a bit, Delinda stripped down — she was little biddy thing, really — and drew herself a bath.
..... Johnny brought her more coffee and knelt outside the door, thinking about how good she looked in there, her body slick and wet and shining in the morning light.
..... “Or we might could just stay here, John Nathan,” she told him. “Just you and me, we can be living right here in the lap of luxury. Wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe we could have words to that effect with your old man when he comes home?”
..... Johnny was feeling beat, like maybe he needed four whole days sleeping, not just the three. He tried like hell to remember his daddy’s hands on his feet through them blankets, but he could not. All he got was the taste of that girl in his mouth and the thrum of his heartbeat.
..... “We might could,” Johnny said.

They were in kitchen poking through the fridge when Johnny heard footsteps on the stone foyer.
..... “John Nathan! What is that woman’s car doing in the driveway? John Nathan, are you hearing me, son?” Johnny fell out into the hallway, panting, to find his old man dressed in his Sunday best. “John Nathan,” the old man said when he saw him. “Are we having to have another talk, son?”
..... “No sir,” Johnny said. “Don’t see the point—”
..... Johnny stopped because he saw his old man’s jaw drop. The old man said one word: You.
..... Johnny looked over his shoulder. Delinda had glided out into the front foyer, carrying a coffee mug and a cold slice of country ham. She wore nothing but his mama’s bathrobe, his mama’s bath towel on her head, and a string of Johnny’s dead mama’s pearls round her neck.
..... The old man stared that girl up and down. “John Nathan,” he said, after a bit. “I am disappointed. I am disappointed. Chief Gantt will hear of this.”
..... He stalked off.
..... Johnny watch him go, rooted to the spot. Delinda darted after the man, waving her coffee mug ahead of her as if it were the totem of a hillbilly curse.
..... They disappeared into the old man’s office.
..... Johnny held his temples in his hands. Listened to the two of them fighting. Her calling the old man names, saying how he never cared for Johnny the way he loved that uppity daughter of his.
..... “I told you years ago to leave him be. He can’t be bothered with women of your kind.”
..... “Just what kind is that?”
..... A desk drawer slammed. “I prefer not to utter that word with the lips I just used to sing the good Lord’s praises.”
..... Then the old man’s voice dropped to a whisper.
..... Johnny figured that he’d said the word after all, quiet-like.
..... Somewhere in the office, ceramic smashed.
..... “Oh, settle down now. So melodramatic. You put that back, you hear me? You put that down right now.”
..... Johnny heard a lamp crash, and the loud pop of a bulb. And then a yelp like the sound of a wounded hound.
..... Johnny ran.
..... Burst in the door of the study.
..... His old man teetered over his office chair, bright blooms of scarlet bursting from his crisp, cream-colored shirt. He cupped his hands to his breast, trying to hold in the blood, all the while ignoring the letter opener in his throat.
..... The girl had already run and was cowering over by the bar.
..... Johnny ran to his old man. At the boy’s touch, the Texan crumpled into the chair, eyes wild, his voice gurgling in his throat.
..... His hands pawed at Johnny’s. Patted them.
..... Johnny dropped to his knees in front of the chair. “Papa,” he said.
..... The old man just stared at him, the brass longhorns emerging from his throat, bolo tie turning redder by the second.
..... Johnny watch the air go out of the man.
..... He heard the tinkle of glass. The girl stood behind the old man and sipped at a glass of Kentucky bourbon like a kitten and checked her mouth where the old man must have slapped her.
..... “You listen to me, John Nathan," she said after a bit. “It had to be. You see that, don’t you? He wadn’t going to listen to reason. Set his heart and mind and whole self against us from the beginning.”
..... “Just shut up,” Johnny said, still kneeling. “Got to think now.”
..... “You never could do nothing fast, now could you?” she said. “We got to get his wallet. His keys. That ring off his hand.”
..... “Won’t come off,” Johnny said. “We tried when we was kids. It’s growed on tight.”
..... She set the glass down on the desk and plucked the hat off the old man’s head. Spun it a bit and put it on her own. Johnny could tell her hands were still shaking, but she was playing like everything was cool. She looked out the windows, across the pasture where the steer were swishing their tails and eating turf.
..... “John Nathan,” she said. “You look me in the eyes, boy.”
..... He was still kneeling at his father’s feet. He looked at her. Saw a scared little girl with damp hair and the old man’s hat on her head.
..... “That shed out back. You get the Bobcat and drive it over. I’m gonna go get myself dressed. Out back in the woodshed? I’ll get that ring off.”
..... “You’ll do no such thing,” Johnny said.
..... She drained the bourbon and went back for more. He heard the clinking.
..... He scootched himself over to get at the right side of the old man’s desk. Pulled out the middle drawer. He pushed aside some papers, touched the drawer bottom and felt the spring pop. He reached into the space under the wooden lid and pulled out the revolver. Big, black, cold. He didn’t check it. Didn’t need to. He tucked it in the small of his back and draped his shirt over it.
..... “John Nathan, honey,” he heard her say. “We ain’t got all day. You can’t be hiding down there, boy. What on earth are you doing?”
..... Johnny wiped his eyes. Levered his knees upright. “Hold your horses,” he said. “I’m just standing up.”