by Sheldon Lee Compton

Pancake gazes across his worktable. Pages lay broken, used up, hastily discarded — oversized egg shells, all promise of nourishment gone from within the boiled and watched over skin, the slow-pressure editing. The pure, untouched whiteness of it all flayed out over the battered surface of the worktable screams out into the air of his mostly empty room. He runs a close-clipped fingernail over a chipped out groove just to the left of his Underwood, thinks of what tool might have made this deep, fast mark. Pancake turns his thoughts to that of tools and making marks, and looks, again, away from the scattered papers, the mute, round-toothed gaze of the Underwood.

The room is actually a servant room, fitted with only a shower and a cot. Pancake decided the worktable should go just beneath the single, smudged window. The room is joined to a larger house belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Meade, large landholders in the Charlottesville area. The Meades rent out cottages along the golf course that sprawl over the soft hills along their property. Pancake works from time to time at the golf course, odd jobs that helps pay the rent for his room. But not today. Today it is feathers of blank pages waiting for words.

I don't write to make a living, Pancake once told a campus reporter. This was just after The Atlantic Monthly published his first short story. It was news through the university. To land a published piece while still a grad student in a writing program was news, this reporter said. He stopped the interview after Pancake told him he didn't write to make a living. Pancake went to church, then drank until he passed out, dreamed of the great waves of the Atlantic washing over him in foamy tides.

Pancake leans into the worktable, pushes the Underwood out of arms reach. In the corner is a battered, red camping cooler. Pancake pushes his chair back, stands and makes his way to it like an broken arrow to the target. He dips his hand in and sloshes out two cans of beers, these colder than the half-full can on the worktable. He pops the tab on one and drains half, walks to the worktable, sits down and drains the rest.

The words have been slow today, a few sentences, a paragraph, and then thrown away. Soon it will be midday. He will break at midday and fish. But for now it is time for elbows on the worktable. At least for a couple more hours. He pops the tab on the second beer.

By noon the pure white feathers have inked some. Four pages on a new story from notes he'd worked on for three weeks. It's four pages he'll spend the next four days reworking, rewriting, rehashing now that they're here, in the world.

But it's enough that he feels justified to break. In another corner of the room, about two feet from his military-style cot, leans an over-under shotgun, a fishing pole and a tackle box. He crisscrosses the room and with the pole, the tackle box and the red cooler balanced carefully, steps through his screen door into fresh air.

Outside, the circles of wind make him realize how warm it had been in the room. Pancake breathes in the wind and starts across the golf course. The Meades' house sits quietly, no one home, he supposes. Now would be a good time to visit the water trap on hole eight. It's a good walk, but that just gives him time to think about his work, write in his mind, his thoughts still with the story, always working. And, of course, he has his cooler. His characters keep him company as he passes each hole and keeps swallowing beer and fresh air.

After about an hour at the water trap, casting out again and again, ignoring the shouted complaints from golfers passing through, Pancake knows his break is stretching out longer than usual. The cooler is at his side with five inches of grimy water and a mix of about a half dozen dead flies and mosquitoes shifting about, sticking to the sides and then breaking loose to float to the bottom. It could be one or two in the afternoon. He could have been here an hour or two hours. Either way, he draws in his line and gathers everything together to start the walk back.

As he walks, he gauges how clear his head is after the drinking, and, even though he makes a jagged path through hole after hole of the course, the story is still there, safe in his head. His characters are sober and awaiting instructions.

Through the screen door, banging loudly this time first the fishing pole then the empty cooler, he falls into the room, drops his gear at once and sits cross-legged to remove his boots. The room, unbearably hot during summer months, is not so bad in the spring, especially in April. After opening the smudged window, it is a level and comfortable cool. Pancake clears the loose papers from the worktable, weights the four new pages with a sharpening stone from the tackle box and pulls the Underwood back to arms length. He writes for half an hour before thinking to check the time. It is 3:45. Much later than he thought. It was the walk out and back to hole eight that ate up his time. He will stop working at 5:00 and visit the newest tenant in the cottage across the orchard. The Meades say he's a golfer, but Pancake is sure he drinks. And after work, golfer or not, this is what Pancake will need. Someone to drink with. Someone to talk to.

The letters to and from his mother were fewer and fewer after his father died. He grabs three at random from an Esquire shoeshine box and heads to an orchard that blooms out in patches of apple trees behind the apartment.

Already the day is dying, the sky is slow-moving charcoal, clouds just pen strokes overhead. He settles into the lawn chair at the corner of the field and feels the patchwork sink with his weight, hears the basket weave creak as he leans back and opens the first letter. He reads slowly and as he does he breathes in the grass and apples, the bark of the trees and the worn ground of the earth, the scent of things growing, organic and alive, smells from Milton, his old hometown prison.

His mother talks of work and his dead father in the letters and of home, all the familiar names, places and things branded into his skin and blood and bones like primitive scars, ceremonial rites of passage. Hunting, fishing, tracking the bluffs for arrowheads, the hardness of the land, the snowbanks along jagged ridges during deer season. She writes on and on and Pancake feels the guilt in his stomach and his heart, the tug from home a very tangible thing, the ancient ways, the customs. Her letters torment him, remind him of his desertion, the scrawled words work to punish him without mercy. He folds one letter and opens another.

At the far end of the orchard, a blue jay fights with a blue-black crow, spinning through branches full of fruit, dodging and hitting, hitting and dodging, before the crow wins out and splits fast to the ground, settles and centers its gaze on Pancake. It sits motionless, hardly different than collected blades of grass scorched full black and wrapped around hollow bones, until it blends away into the new darkness, hidden now while it continues spying through the trunks of the trees.

Pancake carefully refolds the letters and at last turns his attention again to the silent sky, a bruised purple blanket just thick enough to cover the stars that are surely there somewhere but still thin enough to see the flattened out clouds. When he stands and starts to the golfer's cottage, the crow at last takes to the air, gliding in the opposite direction, then doubles back and flies like a shadow, unnoticed at his side, all the way to the cottage door.

The door is shut tight, but unlocked. Pancake turns the knob and steps into the living room. He has two cans of beer, one in each back pocket, and he pulls one out, drains it standing beside the coat rack. His boots are mud-coated from the edges of the water trap and he slips them off then stands in place and examines the room.

Even in the evening light he can see it's a warm room, a lot of time spent in this one place. In the corner facing the front door is a thickly stuffed chair with an ottoman. Beside the chair is a magazine rack stuffed with newspapers and other things. A coffee table is positioned in the middle of the room, and everything is even and tidy, situated on a floral print area rug and frozen like objects in a shaded photograph lit only by the Meades' nearby porch light.

In socked feet Pancake starts to the chair, stops abruptly and turns to deposit the empty beer can into the bent brown tower of his upright boot. He opens the other beer on his way to the chair and then melts into the shadows and weak shafts of light, another object waiting in the gloom.

The snap-fast rattle of blinds against the front door wakes him and he clears his eyes with his knuckles, adjusting to the dimness. When the room is clear in his vision again, a girl is standing at the door staring at his boots like a stain on the rug. She's young and pretty, the roundness of her eyes like bright blue lights searching first the countertop in the kitchen, then, with a curve of thin hip, turning to survey the living room. Auburn hair like glints of burned down laps of flame in the quiet dark jump over her boney shoulders and then the thin features of her face, drawn down lips, blue searchlight eyes, goes slack. The rest of her body goes motionless, a swish-stop of a short white skirt against tanned thighs, and she drops a lumpy brown bag beside her feet. The bag clatters to the hardwood, cans of soup rolling slowly across the area rug, flatting out flowers leading to Pancake slumped in the chair.

Pancake rubs harder at his sore eyes and sees the room again, the figure facing him like a stone goddess in the opposite corner. She is a ghost hovering at the door, a beautiful siren, a demon sister from the mountains of his childhood, Indian bones summoned together from ancient burial grounds to follow him from Milton, tracking him to this dark room to gather him for return.

There's a low drumming sound in his ears and he sits upright in the chair. He has the sense of mind to grab his beer as he bounds past the coffee table, swerves across the room and snatching his boots from inside a hovering circle of sweet perfume before falling out the half-open door. He looks back once while walking fast down the dirt path to his upstairs room and is finally able to stop holding his breath when he sees nothing behind him but the cottage as still and warm as he found it. Sending up a small prayer of thanks, he takes the steps to his room three at a time, the empty beer can rattling inside his boot, his heart rattling inside the birdcage fixture of his breastbone.

Mrs. Meade's footsteps are careful and slow up the steps to the front door of the servant room. Pancake lays sideways on his cot, his body jerks with each knock at the door. Mrs. Meade, a timid and kind woman, denies herself this description with knock after hard knock at the door. There has been a call to the police, she says. This poor girl is saying you broke into their cottage, Mr. Pancake. Is that true? What's going on? Are you in there? The police are coming, she says.

When he is alone again, he forces himself to stand, arm reaching out in habit to the over-under shotgun at the foot of the cot, then makes his way across the room. From his door he sees no one. The path to the orchard is clear and Pancake is soon at the lawn chair, sitting with a deliberate ease, the shotgun pointing skyward from between his knees, its beaded sight a speck amid the pocked craters of the moon.

For the briefest moment, silence settles over all the world the eye can see, the hushed pause of the slow-moving earth just before an ambush, the false notion of the hopelessly hunted. There is the oiled click of the shotgun rising and falling against the armrest of the lawn chair as Pancake leans forward and then reclines again, unknowingly sighting in the indifferent moon. This brief moment, and the orchard is full of sound, the blasted cry of a misplaced native tangled and lost from his sacred mountains, the memories of his land as fathomless and unforgiving as the locked gates of heaven, his headdress bright as a cardinal's wing.

Sheldon Lee Compton on Pancake and Process:

'Intruder' came to me as a story after completing my critical thesis as an MFA student at Spalding University.  I had been introduced to Breece Pancake's only collection of stories, his only book of any kind and this published after his death, by a writer teaching in the program.  I immediately saw the precision with which this native West Virginian wrote sentences, constructed scenes and characters to create a perfectly pitched story that was at once both regional and also foreign and unique in perspective.  In short, I had an instant admiration for this writer.

Of course, much of the cult appeal with Pancake was his early demise and the way in which it came about.  This meticulous writer who so painstakingly honed his craft and seemed to care very little about publication killed himself just as his star was rising, shortly after publishing a breakthrough story, 'Trilobites', in The Atlantic Monthly.  My awe of his work and curiosity about his short life led me to write my thesis on both his work and life.

'Intruder' came after this academic look into Pancake's life and work.  I continued to speculate on his last day, the moments before he walked into the orchard behind the apartment he rented at the time with a shotgun in the bend of his arm.  I saw that moment clearly in my mind, Pancake settled into the lawn chair beneath an apple tree.  I could hear the click of metal, smell the oil.  I could feel something else, a loneliness for place and a guilt of some kind I couldn't exactly figure out.  This story started into full swing, though, after I read again Ray Carver's 'Errand', Carver's take on Chekov's last day.  I wanted to give Pancake this same gift, so to speak, a story that worked as best as it could to give readers a glimpse into the last moments of a writer's writer.

Follow this link for more information about Pancake and his work:

This link to Pancake's Wikipedia page will offer Exernal Links and information on how to purchase his collection.  Most notably in the External Links section is a stunning essay on Pancake by Cynthia Kadohata that ran in the Mississippi Review, full texts of four of his stories, including his opus, 'Trilobites', and a review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Joyce Carol Oates that appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

– Sheldon Lee Compton

Sheldon Lee Compton survives in Kentucky. His work has appeared in places such as Emprise Review, Monkeybicycle, Pank, Keyhole, Staccato Fiction and some 60 other journals.

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