Bargains in the Real World

Bargains in the Real World

   Ernie wrote a letter to his wife on the computer, but the computer lost it, and as he tried to reconstruct what he had said, he found that he couldn't retrace the words. Mrs. Lamb from the next office came in to help him.

"Sometimes these things get a virus," said Mrs. Lamb. "Do you think your machine has a virus?" She spoke the word as though it had a foreign meaning.

"l don't think so." Ernie Bosch had just come back from having lunch with his son, Joel. He had told Joel that the divorce papers were complete, and that he planned to marry Rose in the fall. Rose was the woman he had been seeing for the past year.

"What about Mom?" Joel asked.

"She'll probably marry again too."

"You mean I'll have two sets of parents?" Joel spoke with a tinge of disgust, but his body sat like a fortress, private and wordless. He shared with his father an indisputable ability to concede, and though he didn't say it, he felt renounced.

Ernie saw this, and thought of all the times he had sat beside Joel and vowed to be different for him. If Ernie had to guess, he would say that his life now was due to his own ignorance about things. Ernie never blamed others for what happened, though he blamed himself doubly. His life was like a dress rehearsal, he expected it to not go well.

Mrs. Lamb pushed more buttons on the computer, trying to find the letter Ernie had written. She knew that Ernie and Janice were separated, but she never asked any questions.

Ernie had just turned fifty. He was short and slightly overweight. He had been bruised by the world but wasn't conscious of his bruises. His clothes had a ramshackle appearance, and for that reason looked too big for him. His hands lay flat and large like sycamore leaves, and since his divorce, his pant legs crept up above his ankles. People worried about him. He walked around in an uncollected state of mind.

"Look," Mrs. Lamb remarked, "Joel's here." Ernie looked up to see Joel in the doorway. And though Joel hadn't said anything, his face looked as if a brushfire had swept over it--bare and raw as burned ground.

"Lucas Wiley's gone," Joel said. Lucas was Joel's best friend. He always threatened to run away, and his parents spoke of these threats without believing them.

"What do you mean?" Ernie asked.

"He left. That's it. That's just what I mean." Joel sounded angry with his father, and Mrs. Lamb slipped quietly into her own office. Joel still had on his coat, and Ernie lifted his own from the coatrack. They walked to the car.

"I knew it when we were having lunch," said Joel. "I probably would have told you, but what you said about divorce made me forget. Then I got back to school and everybody was scared. Lucas left a note." He looked at his father. "Like a suicide or something. There was police and everybody asking questions. I didn't say what I knew, or even that I knew anything.

"Did anybody ask you?"

"No. Not police. Some people, though, said did I know. I said I didn't know where he went, and that part was true."

They arrived at the car and Joel waited for his father to unlock his side.

They got in. "You should say if you know anything."

"I know where he might be. I know he might be one of two places."

"Where's that?"

"He likes to go to a place way back in the woods, and he keeps beer there, sometimes whiskey, and he gets drunk sometimes, but it doesn't take much for him to get drunk. I think he just acts like it."

Ernie wondered if Joel did this too, but it wasn't the time to ask. He started the car and asked where this place was, and where Joel thought the other place was. Ernie said they would look in both places. He said Joel had to tell what he knew, because Lucas was the kind of boy who might hurt himself, and maybe they could protect him from it.

Ernie Bosch was not a man of action, but he was a man of principle. He found the will to act if there was a reason, and if the reason resulted in protecting someone. He left his marriage because he no longer loved his wife. He wanted to protect her from spending a bad life with him.

He made the decision to marry Rose because she needed him. She said she didn't know what would happen if he wasn't around. Ernie protected Joel in all the ways he knew, and now he would try to keep Lucas from performing something regretful. They drove five miles outside town to the edge of Barrow's Pond, and walked from there into the woods.

"He walk all this way?"

"He walks all this way all the time. His parents don't care."

The woods had the smell of rain. The ground around the pond was soggy, even with the dry spell that had come in September. Ernie tried to think of what they might encounter if they found Lucas. He tried to think how they would find him.

In the restaurant where they had eaten lunch two hours ago, Ernie had waited for Joel to walk from school. He sat in the queasy smell of long-cooked food and talked with the waitress whose name was Viola--though her name was spelled wrong on the tag she wore over her big left breast, and instead read Voila.

When Joel finally came into the restaurant and sat down, they ordered tuna cheese melts. Viola brought them Cokes.

"I have something to say," Ernie said, deciding to blurt it out. He couldn't think of what else to do. "I'm going to get married again."

Joel knew Rose, and he knew his father had been seeing her, but he didn't like her. He didn't like the way she smelled, like biscuit dough. "Why?" he asked.

"Well, we like each other a lot." Ernie scooted around in his chair. "I don't want anything to be different between us, though." His words sounded hollow, stupid.

"Is she gonna move in to your apartment?" Joel spent weekends with his dad, and wondered now what would happen to their weekends.

"No. But her house is big, and far enough out that we can hunt dove and even deer on the land out there."

Ernie fell in love with Rose at the beginning of the summer, though he had known her for seven years and knew her husband before he died. Rose took care of him in ways that Janice could never do, and she had a sweetness that almost never crossed him. He thought he could be around someone like that forever. It might even be easy.

"Did you tell your mother you were coming out here with me?" Ernie walked behind Joel, letting him lead the way into the woods.

"Yeah, I told her we might go looking for Lucas." He spoke as if Ernie had no right to ask anything about his mother.

There was a path that Joel was following, though at times the path turned into no path at all, then picked up again.

Ernie followed, but looked up to see a scattering of clouds, and sky moving away in every direction. He tried to get a picture in his head of how it might be when the distance burned away and he was left standing alone. He wondered sometimes if this had already happened.

"I hadn't been here since last summer," Joel said.

They were headed toward a specific place, and though Ernie had been in these woods before, he did not recognize landmarks today. He watched Joel's long strides, his small, wiry body carrying the burden of being thirteen.

They shifted through the brush and sticky branches, avoiding broken places in the ground until Ernie saw, and Joel pointed to, a shack leaning and almost fallen. Ernie opened the makeshift door carefully, because the whole structure looked as though it might collapse in moments. He didn't want to go inside, and told Joel not to.

"It's all right," Joel said. He was in a good mood now. "It's sturdier than it looks." He pushed the wall to show its sturdiness. The wall did not budge.

"He's not here." Joel spoke with disappointment, but then he saw a few school books and Lucas's book bag in the corner and said, "Maybe he is."

"You think he heard us coming?" Ernie asked.

Joel gazed around for other evidence of Lucas. "He won't like to have somebody else in here. Even me. He told me once I couldn't come back, because I brought another person with me. He said I broke the code. Anyhow, he won't let me back in. I haven't been here since summer."

Joel sat on the floor of the shed. In the corner lay a small pallet where Lucas sometimes slept. Sheets were tucked neatly around the pallet, and a crate beside it had a clock and a portable radio.

"Looks real homey," Ernie said to no one.

Ernie had to admit that in this shed there existed a dark, protective peace. He wanted to sit down and stay awhile. He wanted to see what was so simply felt. The floor was made of old wood boards, pink with dust and spangled with light that fell through the cracks. The rays of dust extenuated his feeling of shadowy peace. It was not a calmness. Instead, all his senses felt heightened, as fear does sometimes, or sickness. He felt alive, adrift, afire.

"What's the matter?" Joel asked. "You look funny."

"I'm just thinking," Ernie lied. "I'm just trying to figure out where Lucas might be. Maybe we should wait for him here."

"He's gonna be mad," Joel warned.

"I think we should wait." Ernie spoke with the authority of a father who knows just what to do in such situations.

The floor was swept clean with the dust of years settled on the boards, and Ernie let his hands rest in the softness of the wood. He had never felt like this before. He was afraid he might never feel this way again.

Lucas Wiley's parents were not real parents. They owned a big house in a section of town reserved for the very rich. Joel visited Lucas there and met Mrs. Wiley, a lawyer--thin, her face dimmed by a miserable spirit. He met Mr. Wiley, who served on the city council and sold real estate. Lucas's real parents died in a car wreck four years earlier. The Wileys' adopted him out of pity, and out of their own wish for a child. They expected Lucas to be grateful. They did not expect him to cause the kind of trouble that he caused regularly.

Ernie knew about Lucas. He had studied his case, even before Joel grew to be his friend. Ernie worked at the Board of Education as special assistant to the superintendent. His promotion a few years ago was due to a speech he wrote, called "The Ten Tenets of Education." And though the speech was without much imagination, it was simple and direct enough to hit the hearts of school officials. Ernie traveled around the state to deliver his speech, and once the speech was photocopied and sent out to superintendents in other states. Now Ernie couldn't remember even one of the tenets that had made him so famous.

Joel hadn't said anything for several minutes, then he spoke. "Dad, are you really gonna get married?"


"Mom came to school and brought me my gym shorts, and when I told her about you she didn't know anything about it." He spoke as though this statement might nullify Ernie's plan to marry Rose.

"No, she didn't know. I wanted to tell her myself. I forgot to tell you I wanted to say it myself."

"Well, she knows now. But she thinks maybe you're just thinking about getting married, and that probably you won't do it at all."

Ernie wondered if Janice could be right. She was often right about such things. He would have to speak to her about Rose, and the prospect of this meeting made him depressed. He dreaded hearing her reproaches. He wanted to tell Janice that he was sorry, and to say that Rose was the one he loved.

The door swung open and a huge yellow dog came barreling in, stumbling and barking at these strangers. The dog's head was larger than any Ernie had ever seen on a dog. Not exactly his head, but his face. His face was larger than normal.

Lucas came in behind the dog. He carried a gun and a rabbit he had shot, and a bag of food from McDonald's.

"Hey, Lucas!" Joel spoke quickly and with such friendliness that Lucas was caught off guard and didn't see, at first, Ernie standing behind Joel. "We thought you were gone."

Lucas saw Ernie. "What are you here for, Mr. Bosch?" He pretended that nothing was wrong.

"Everybody's worried about you," Ernie said. "They found your note."

"So what?"

"So, they don't know where you are."

"So I'm here." He was surly, not polite at all. "What're you going to do?"

"We're not going to do anything," Joel said. "We're just seeing where you are."

Theirs was one of those friendships, anyone could see, where one boy thinks the world of the other, and the other hardly notices the one who worships him. The dog had been shooed out but came back now, and the shed was suddenly and irrevocably crowded. The dead rabbit lay in the corner next to the book bag, and the dog went for it, growling as though the rabbit might still be alive. Lucas and Joel yelled, and pounded the dead animal away from the dog's mouth.

"Get outa here, Galilee," Lucas yelled. Galilee went just outside the door to lie down. "He nearly tore it to pieces." Lucas held up the bloody rabbit. "I might as well give it to him now." He threw the rabbit out the door, and Galilee carried it into the woods to feast.

"You want some of this food?" They sat down in a circle and Lucas opened the white McDonald's bag. Ernie wanted to mention that he should wash his hands first, but nothing seemed appropriate in a usual way, so they each took whatever sandwich Lucas gave. They ate, sharing one large drink. Ernie refused a few sips. He praised the shed, and Lucas could tell that everything Mr. Bosch said, he meant.

While they were sitting there, something incredible happened. The sun was going down, so there was no reason for there to be so much light. But for what seemed a full minute, a light came in from an angle higher than where the sun was. Spangles of light flew all around them, moving and jerking like some oldtime ballroom dance floor. And the effect was one of intense movement or a jerky movie, so that nothing seemed real, except for the moment.

The experience was like a dream Ernie sometimes had: when the mind would light on an image for a longer than usual time. And in the dream a shimmer surrounded the moment, so that when Ernie woke he could remember the shimmer but couldn't describe it very well. Now, in the shed, the same kind of dopey motion came in. And while the light was so furious around them, they stayed quiet, attentive, as if they could hear a voice speak. Galilee entered and stood very still, not barking. His yellow presence sealed the experience for them. They felt balanced by his full head.

When it was over Lucas said, "Did you hear anything?" and Ernie said he didn't, but he wouldn't have been surprised if he had. Joel didn't answer, then Lucas said he had heard something and it was like a voice, but not outside his head. He said he heard it speak.

"What'd it say?" Joel asked him.

"It said to bury something." Lucas looked slightly weary when he said this. Weary and puzzled. "It said, 'Bury the bones. Find the bones and bury them.'" And he got up as if he might be ready to do such a thing.

"What bones?" Joel asked him, not completely surprised.

"I don't know."

Ernie thought how strange this was, and he thought, too, that maybe Lucas had been drinking, but he didn't smell any liquor. "So what do you think, then?" Ernie asked.

"We have to find bones somewhere," Lucas said. He included all of them in his plan.

Joel stood up. "We do?"

"Yeah, because when I heard it, I saw the place in my mind. It's near the edge of the pond on the other side."

Ernie decided to play along, though he also felt he believed Lucas completely. As they walked toward the pond, Joel said, "I heard it too."

Ernie did not believe Joel but said nothing.

"I did," said Joel. "I heard it and know exactly where we're going."

And at that moment Ernie realized that he, too, had a picture of where they were headed, though he had not been on this side of the pond before. This side of the pond belonged to the Johnsons' nephews, and they had posted "No Trespassing" signs everywhere. The Johnsons did not approve of hunting, so hunters avoided the Johnson side of the pond. Still, Ernie knew what the place looked like, but he didn't admit his knowledge. He wanted to see if the picture in his head would match up to the real thing.

Galilee tagged along, but as they moved onto the Johnsons' land, he loped ahead and came upon a small clearing that was exactly what Ernie had pictured, and Joel said, "That's it."

Lucas nodded. The clearing had tall, thin trees surrounding it, and in the middle they could see where a large tree had been cut down, leaving a space about the size of a small room. Grass had begun to sprout on the forest floor.

There were bones on the ground, and Ernie, when he saw them, felt amazed. "What do you know about this?" Ernie spoke as though he planned to interrogate both boys.

"Nothing," Lucas said. "I came here because of what just happened in the shed." There was nothing frantic or untrue in his voice, so Ernie turned to Joel.

"And you?"

"I never even been here before. Not to this place. I been all over everywhere else, though." The bones lay at their feet and Ernie lifted one. It felt dry and brittle in his hands.

Galilee walked around the bones, then wandered off to find a small piece of cloth stuck to a man's glove, and brought it to them. The glove was intact, but the cloth was covered with muddy leaves and small white bugs.

Lucas grew excited. He stuck his hand inside the glove, so that one hand looked like a clown's. "Let's bury the glove too," he said. "No telling whose this was." He put it on the ground beside the bones.

"These bones look like a deer or a cow, or something," said Ernie, "but I guess we should report it, don't you? I mean, since we're burying them, we should say something. I'm just wondering how we'll say we found it. How will we tell it?"

"Say Galilee found it!" Joel suggested. "Say he came and got us and made us come here. Say he barked and went crazy till we did." Joel's voice grew excited with possibilities. Lucas didn't deny that they should say this. He didn't mind using Galilee for an excuse. They needed a reason other than the spangles of light.

Lucas folded the cloth into a soft wad. His eyes had the meekness of someone in love.

"Let's get to work." Ernie spoke with authority, but Lucas and Joel had already begun to dig a hole with their hands.

Lucas had been adopted several months after his family was killed by a truck crashing into their car. They were returning home from a visit to his uncle in Comer, Georgia, when Lucas was ten years old. The truck driver believed that everyone in the car was dead when he went to get help, but Lucas had crawled out the back window, alive. He had seen his family scattered and unrecognizable.

Lucas did not go to the funeral, or to the graveside service. He had refused to see his family in so many coffins, wanting instead to keep them in his mind as they were before they were buried, but his unfortunate decision had made it impossible to let them go.

Once, when Lucas was suspended from school for running away, Mrs. Wiley brought him to the superintendent's office, but they went to Ernie's office first. When Lucas tried to defend himself to Mr. Bosch, Mrs. Wiley said, "You don't live in the real world, Lucas."

Lucas thought he knew the real world better than anyone. He had seen it. He had stood for a long while looking at his family before anyone came. "You're not my real mother," Lucas said back to her.

Ernie and Joel dug a hole with sharp rocks and scooped dirt with their hands. They placed the bones into the hole, then the glove, and Lucas made a cross with two sticks. He wrapped the sticks with a vine to make the shape of the cross sturdy. Ernie helped build a mound so the place would resemble a grave, and Joel put leaves and sections of moss on top. It seemed to Ernie that the boys had done this kind of thing before. They worked together in away that looked practiced.

"It's probably an animal of some kind," Ernie said, but now Lucas and Joel enjoyed the pretense that it might be a person.

"There," said Lucas. "I guess we should pray or something."

"I guess so." Joel put the last of the dirt onto the bones. He placed the piece of cloth at the foot of the grave. "Who's gonna do it?"

Ernie didn't offer. He had not prayed for anything in a long time.

"I will," said Lucas, surprising everyone. They bowed their heads, and Lucas shifted his feet into a sure place on the ground.

"Oh Lord," he began, knowing how to begin, "there has been somebody here that you know, and that we have buried. We think it is some man, or woman. So now, if you take them up with you, and if you wish their souls to come from the ground, then we will be glad to have participated in this thing. And we don't know how to explain what has happened. So if you can tell us how to say it, and what to do, then people will know we've done what's right. Because we will not ever forget this place and how it all came to pass here. And now we hope nothing bad happens again, not to anyone we know, or don't know. And when we go home please make us heroes in the town so that people will say our names," and he added, "on the radio."

They held their silence, and could smell the cool odor of earth. When they looked up, Galilee stood with his head still bowed. He was chewing on the cross.

When they got back to town, the time was past six o'clock. They went straight to Sheriff Munsy's office--a hot, airless room off Seventh Street. They told how they had come across bones in the woods, and buried them. Their voices sounded haggard and proud as they told it, and the sheriff listened, along with two other men in the office.

"Did you see anybody else out there?"

"No, sir."

"Well, I mean, what made you go out to the Johnsons' land? It was posted, right?"

"We were looking for Lucas," Ernie explained, but he didn't mention the shed or the spangled light. "Joel and I went looking for him in the woods. We saw Galilee first, then we saw Lucas. He'd been hunting rabbits out there."

"You think he had anything to do with this?" Sheriff Munsy asked the question to Ernie, but looked toward Lucas.

"No, sir. We ran across the bones coming back. Just saw them spread out on the ground." Ernie's lie came as a shock to himself, as well as to Joel and Lucas.

The sheriff spoke thoughtfully, "What kind of bones?"

"Animal," said Ernie. "Some kind of animal."

Then Joel said how he and Lucas hunted out there all the time. He said they had seen old cow bones before.

Sheriff Munsy noticed a piece of fabric hanging from Lucas's back pocket.

"What's that?" he asked and reached to lift it out. As he took the piece of cloth, Lucas's thin face grew so pained that even the sheriff knew this was nothing but a private treasure. A look of tender desperation, the face of a child who has had a favorite toy taken away. The sheriff shook the fabric over the trash can and handed it back, watching Lucas's body relax into a regular position.

"You boys stay away from the Johnson land," the sheriff warned.

Ernie and the two boys stood together like tired soldiers, as if they were making a silent bargain with the world.

"What made you run off like that, boy?" the sheriff asked.

Lucas didn't answer. He smiled, not a real one--a smile more learned than felt.

"You nearly scared us to death." Sheriff Munsy touched Lucas's shoulder. "Come on. I'll drive you home."

"No thanks, Sheriff," Ernie said. "We got Galilee outside. Anyway, I have to take Joel to his mama's. Lucas can ride with me."

"I'm gonna stay with you at your house tonight," Joel said. He didn't usually spend weeknights at his dad's, so the suggestion felt like a promise.

They told the sheriff good night.

Mrs. Wiley held her cat to her chest as she opened the door to see Lucas, Ernie, and Joel. Her arms looked long in her widesleeved robe. "Where have you been?" She spoke like a ventriloquist and stepped toward Lucas. Mr. Wiley stood back from everyone, as though he couldn't be touched.

Ernie told them everything, but nothing about the shed of light. There was only one world to live in, though there were many to experience. He spoke from the world they lived in, and never tried to explain the other.

He made what they had done sound heroic, but on the way home in the car Joel asked his father, "If we'd told them what happened in the shed, would they've believed it?"

"I don't think so."

"Lucas's parents sure looked surprised to see him," Joel said. "His mother looked sick."

Ernie looked off over the dark fields. He felt like a man leaving mountains that had always been familiar to him--not turning to see them again but not able to forget their shape at his back.

They pulled up to Ernie's old house, where Janice and Joel lived now. Joel went in to get his pajamas and schoolbooks. When Janice came to the door, Ernie told her that Joel would be staying with him for the night. He told her, too, that he would marry Rose in the spring.

Later, when he tucked Joel into bed, Ernie said, "If you need anything, call out. I'll leave the door open so I can hear."

"Okay, Dad." Then he said, "Listen--"


"It's all right if you marry that Rose person. I mean, it'd be good, you know? I could come out there and hunt. We'd have fun."

"Sure." Ernie patted Joel's arm. He could feel the warmth of skin through his pajamas.

"Do you think we'll get our names in the paper?" Joel asked.

"Maybe "

"Will it be on the radio, like Lucas said?"

"It might." Ernie leaned to turn off the light. "Joel, why did Lucas keep that dirty piece of cloth? Why'd he have it with him? I didn't see him pick it up, did you?"

"Whenever he finds something," said Joel, turning on his side, "he likes to pretend it belongs to his family. Like it's his mama's or something. One time he found a comb, and kept that too."

"Oh." Ernie raised his head in understanding.

"He's buried bones before," Joel confessed. "I think he does it all the time, maybe." Joel sat up in bed. "And you know that rabbit he shot? I bet he buries those bones tomorrow. I mean, if Mrs. Wiley ever lets him out of the house again." He lay back down. "I think he shoots things just to bury them. He just keeps burying and burying." Joel waited a few moments before he said, "And sometimes he lets me bury them with him." It sounded like a secret. "But mostly he does it alone." Joel's eyes went into a remembering mode. "He has little graves all over those woods. Like he's putting his family down everywhere, over and over."

Ernie pushed his fingers through Joel's hair.

"How long you think he'll keep doing that?" Joel asked the question as if he hoped it wouldn't go on much longer.

Ernie stood, nodding. "I don't know," he said, "but it seems, to me, a pretty good thing to do." He started to close the door. "Joel, do you know what Lucas wrote in that note? The one at school? Did you see it?"

Joel's voice came from the bed. "He wrote his name, I mean, his real name. He wrote: My name is not Wiley." When Joel said this, he underlined the air with his finger. "It said: My name is Lucas Sanford, and I'm hungry for luck."

Thinking of Lucas--his face in the woods, picturing him digging for luck--was like the difference between seeing a reflection in a window and then seeing through it. So for the rest of that night Ernie tried to understand the mad proportion of their experience. He thought of all the arbitrary forces acting together in the world, and the algebra of other worlds. Of bones underground spread out like a fortune-teller's prediction, of Lucas in a strange house, Joel in bed, and the unsleeping that went on in the dark woods.

Then Ernie closed his eyes, but before he slept he turned his head sideways, trying to bring back that shed of light, and he bargained silently for an answer. And for many nights beyond this one, Ernie wondered if it was lunacy to try and rid anybody of their old life.

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
Excerpted from Bargains in the Real World by Elizabeth Cox. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Cox. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.