He came out of the blackout to a miracle of trees with the truck yet moving through them. The music still blaring, wild and relentless, headlights raked across crowds of pines, red clouds of dust rose and fell away behind the taillights. He cornered badly, hit some more washboard, the back end buckled and broke loose again. He laughed at the insanity of it all. The half empty box of beers fell off the bench and into the passenger well, bottles shattering one against the other. The two good tires on the right side jackhammered the ragged edge where it went from road to straight down. He somehow coaxed it out of the skid, avoided the holler, and then barreling up and over, crested the final ridge.
The idea had been to take the fire-roads home from Carolina, a good twenty miles through national park forest, but the most direct route. He was racing against time as his body shut down from pure exhaustion. The clock on the dash read 2:48. The road started falling again, snaking a track into the valley as the truck punched out of the treeline. He got on the brake like meeting a long lost brother and crept through the moonlit back-acres of somebody’s farm. The moon was fairly blazing, but he knew that valley well enough. Forest surrendered to rolling fields, knobbed and rough-shouldered in the corners where limestone rubbed through. The road went from hardened mud track to ten year old crush-and-run. Cedars lined that stretch with hundred year old barbed wire buried in their necks. He rumbled over a cattle-grate bridge, crossing the wild creek that ran the length of the valley and then paused where the numberless track t-boned the county road. He’d made it home to Tennessee.
He turned the lights off and waited for sign of other travellers, Lawman or otherwise but none came, figured it was safe to leave the truck idling to go piss in the reeds by the creek, the only sound being that of water over stone.
He had no jacket, so he lit a cigarette for warmth. No longer the hammer-cold of deep winter, it was more the raw wet that tricks you into thinking it’s not that bad, but suddenly has crept into your very marrow. That cruel, spring variety of cold, he zipped up his exposed core behind jean fabric but it had already set to gnawing.
As usual, the old house was there across the road with tall, broken out window like ghost eyes overseeing all who passed that way. The roof shone purblind under moonlight. He figured he was maybe thirty miles out and desperately needing something to keep awake. Staggering around to the passenger side door, he rifled through the broken glass of the beer soaked box until he found one whole. Prizing the cap off with the butt end of his lighter levered across his thumb, he flung it into eternity. Climbing back into the driver’s seat, he cranked the heat full blast.
Back home Irises had pushed their pretty lavender heads up through cracks in the limestone that formed the stepped edge of the backyard garden as it climbed the hill. Much too early, their arrival just added to his frenzied sense of urgency. The plan was to finish the kitchen and then they would leave Tennessee right then and there. He installed checkerboard peel-n-stick over the asbestos flooring, shoehorned the most inoffensive countertop his wife could find into place and left the old steel cabinets alone. Removed the hand-crank flour mill. Ripped down a backsplash out of cheap beadboard plywood and glued it in place. She painted the whole thing “bone.” He had coffee for the day and pills and booze to keep him going after she went to bed with the kids. He had music, treacherous music. Late snow had come, wet and heavy and cleaved the stately boxwoods along the front of the house, split down the middle, and then melted away without ceremony.
He could not abide it. He packed whatever booze he had left, rolled the truck down the impossibly steep driveway before starting it, and took off into the mountains toward Asheville. He would run all night. The music wore a groove in his mind. The music was poison and he was well aware of it. After the third time through, at an empty highland crossroads, he decided to come home. Maybe it was the memory of a warm child sleeping in his embrace. More likely it was based on fear, fear that no amount of booze could kill. He always ran, but he always came back. There was no accounting for it.
The old house waited to see what he’d do. Clumps of pale yellow flowers, for which he’d forgotten the name, blossoming under the false light of a three-quarter moon, fooled into opening their idiot faces. Crocuses, maybe. He hated them as much as he hated the crumbling edge of the sagging porch. He’d passed it hundreds of times. Old folks gone leaving whoever was left unable to deal with the memories or each other or else couldn’t get the money right, so it waited to burn or fall over. He smoked and regarded it, watching for anything to move in those windows. He cracked the window to let the smoke fly out into the cold.
He got the idea this could be his place. He’d creep up the twin track drive, park around back and stay as long as he needed. He’d speak gently to whatever ghosts may come. He’d get his water from the creek. There was probably an old cot down in the basement. He’d find some blankets or wool curtains that smelled like an animal and sleep as long as he wanted. Sleep forever if need be. He wasn’t amounting to much of a father anyway. As he sat in the cab, and considered all of this, the world faded away once again.
He came out of it as the road dog legged around the stone foundation of a mill long gone. His body was no longer his own and the truck ran wide. Tires fell away into space as the whole thing dove into the ditch opposite side. Something down there big and hard sent everything in the cab airborne. He managed it back onto the roadway and made another curve before the whole rig suddenly pulled hard right, accompanied by the sudden acid fear in his gut that comes with big trouble. He fought with the wheel and slowed everything down.
He came upon the faint access to an outbuilding with a narrow stretch of fields running behind that was bordered itself by treeline and mountain. He was going slow enough it didn’t take much to pause and back it off the road. Opening the door, he fell out onto a spare covering of gravel. Let us see what this is all about. Across the way a small rancher was set up on the hill and immediately upon opening the door hounds erupted there with great gales of noise and alarm. Discovered the tire sure enough flat alright, got back into the cab and shut the door. The dogs stopped right away. Lit a cigarette to figure out what next. Well I’m just gonna have to change the sombitch. Got out again and started the dogs right back at it. Fuck me running. They dogs said that was a fine idea. Kneeled down, more of a controlled fall really by the tailgate, found the spare underneath with no identifiable way to get it loose. No flashlight, he held the lighter till his thumb was well burnt. Some hateful mystery fastener that held the sucker in place, he cursed the Japanese. He didn’t even know where the jack was located, the truck only nine months old and him having yet to crash it. Back to the cab, with the door open and the dome light on, he located the jack and some sort of pole contraption stowed behind the seat. The virgin, grease-free manual was sure enough in the glovebox, but might as well have been in Greek. With the light on continually, the hounds went plumb out of their tiny little minds. There was a howling in his own head that formed a chorus of This is Bad This is Bad This is Bad. His gut, which could usually be relied on to not give a goddam, was in full agreement. Panic sat there, and no amount of booze and cigarettes could settle it. He was a wild animal, trapped. His eyes couldn’t fit the words of the manual together to where they made any sense. Decided the best option was to pass out in the truck and see what could be done with it in the morning. He closed the door finally, lay down on the bench, with the stink of beer and cigarettes and waste all around him and was gone in half a minute.
Thinking back on it later, he wondered if Lynn Lloyd saw him parked out there on his field while having a cup of coffee in his kitchen or if it was after he and his son let the dogs out and started off to hunt that morning. All he knew was he woke up to two men in insulated camouflage, with camouflage face masks and rifles, knocking on the window of his truck. He very nearly screamed.
“Oh Jesus Christ don’t shoot me please!” He couldn’t decide if it sounded more like a laugh or a wail. He left the window up.
The hunter said, “Hold on, nobody’s gonna shoot anybody. Are you okay in there?”
He rolled the window down, letting in the cold and blue morning light. He was certain a distillery smell billowed back at the man. “Yeah, I’m sorry, mister, I’m just drunk as all hell. Got a flat tire back up the road a piece. I know I ain’t supposed to be here, I’ll get off your property just as soon as I can.”
“It’s alright, son, just take it easy.” None of his fear was allayed by the fact that he couldn’t see the man’s face from the mask. All he could focus on was the large caliber rifle slung over his shoulder. “Me and my boy here are going hunting up along the ridge yonder, should be back in a couple of hours. We’ll help get you straight okay?” It was just then he noticed all the riot of hounds teaming all around the legs of the two men.
“Okay, thank you so much. I’m gonna go back to sleep for a while then.” He said. Any more conversation than that and he would be bawling.
“Yeah, that sounds best. You sleep for a bit.”
When they came back, the dogs were gone and the early morning blue had turned to grey with a fast moving cover of low clouds. He sprung right up, unafraid this time, got out of the truck and introduced himself. Lynn Lloyd was stocky and short with a black mustache well flecked with grey. Nobody mentioned the boy’s name. He had brought a bagel smothered in cream cheese and a humongous cup of coffee. There was no hangover yet, but he wasn’t so drunk anymore he couldn’t behave himself. Turned down the bagel but downed most of the coffee in two gulps, set the heavy cup on the hood of the truck. “Thanks but I can’t eat right now,” He said. The boy shrugged. After a minute, he began eating the bagel himself.
“You said you’re from Greeneville?” Lynn Lloyd said.
“What you doing way out here?”
“Got a wild hair last night, drove to Hot Springs, came back on the fire roads.” he said.
“You came over the mountain from Hot Springs last night? Through Paint Creek?” he asked. The boy just stared with his huge eyes, chewing slowly.
He paused then said, “There’s still snow up there, son. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah, I know it.” he said. It wasn’t the first time he’d been so informed. “Hey, do you mind if I go wash my face in the creek?”
Lynn Lloyd responded, “Not at all.”
He lurched down the access road to where it crossed into the fields. There was no bridge, just shallows, the water too high to be crossed. Pregnant with snowmelt, he knelt where the grass plunged into the creek and splashed water over his face. It was colder than anything he ever knew. The world snapped into focus.
There was grass under the fast water, waving in the current. The grey boarded outbuilding rose above him, metal roof a bruised purple-red, holes stove in the side, still standing mostly out of habit. It was punctuated around the base by the same blue irises he had back home. Behind it the land rose, sprouted trees and eventually gathered itself into a mountain. With two hands together he cupped some of the creek water to his mouth and drank, sending an electric current of cold through his chest.
Lynn, hands in pockets, was examining the flat when he returned, “Yep, you’ve surely killed that one,” he said. “Might even have bent the rim.” The boy standing behind him examined everything with huge mantis eyes. Not quite full grown, he must have been a tall fourteen. His too-long neck gave it away, all spindly, muscle and no meat. He already stood half a foot over his dad.
“I couldn’t figure how to get the spare off last night, and the dogs kept going hog wild every time I opened the door. I figured I’d better hunker down until daylight and lessen my chances of getting shot.”
“Shit, the dogs go crazy over anything. I’m amazed his momma ain’t took off on me by now. This is a Toyota, right?” He pointed at a small hole just above the license plate. “Stick your jack-wrench in that hole and twist, that’s what lowers the spare.“
“Dammit if I don’t think I’d never have figured that one out.”
“Yeah I used to have one the same way. Flummoxed me to the point where I nearly traded it with a flat tire.”
Hunkered in the grass, he inserted the rod deep inside the frame it bedded into something that turned easily when he tried it. He twisted and peeked under, which set the world to reeling. The tire lowered slowly with a greased mechanical precision that would have been nowhere to be found on his old Ford. “I don’t know about this grass, it’s awful wet. Might have a hard time getting her in the air with this little jack. “
“Yeah, the foot on that thing ain’t but about eight inches across. You want me to call you a tow truck?”
“Naw, I got something in the back that might work. “ The tire bottomed out finally. Lynn pointed and told the boy git under there, and the boy hurried onto his stomach and scooched up under the truck. Near as they could tell, the tire was held in place by a cup-shaped contraption dangling from a length of cable. The boy tried twisting the cup sideways and slid it easily through a notch in the hub. From there the two of them manhandled the tire out into morning.
The grass was of the ancient mossy variety, slow growing and sparse. After the jack made contact with the frame, it was pushed straight into the earth, clear water bubbling around it’s foot. It was as if the whole world was filled with water. He got onto his feet, waited for the dizziness to ease then dropped the tailgate and hopped up into the bed, boots crunching through half-melted slush. Fished a ring of small utility keys from his pocket and opened up the dented cross-box he’d salvaged from the Ford. Rummaging around elbow deep in tools he dug out a bottle jack, fireplug red and heavy as a stone.
“Lucky me. Just so happens I've been tearing out rotted sill plates in Jonesborough lately.”
“What’s your trade?” Lynn asked.
“You work for yourself?”
“Mostly. I’ll hire on with a contractor ever now and then.”
“You got any kids?”
“Yessir I got a four-year-old boy. Just had a little girl about three months ago.”
“Hm.” Lynn Lloyd said. “You got a lot on you.” His mouth had a grim turn to it.
Hopping down from the back, the jack pulling hard on one arm, he set it on the tailgate. “I get nerves real bad, drink too much and do stupid shit like rabbit off Hot Springs in the middle of the night.” Making eye contact with the man, it occurred to him that Lynn Lloyd might have spent a night or two sleeping in a truck himself.
“You were on your way home when you broke down?”
“Guess I was. Don’t guess the dogs would let me stay with them?”
Lynn Lloyd chuckled and smiled “Nope. The old lady would put us all out for sure.”
Lynn and the boy headed off to the house to search for scrap lumber to put under the jacks and left him there to smoke on the tailgate and watch the swollen creek. The skies were low and overcast but the water caught the glint of what little sunlight there was and shone. The sound of it eased the smoking ruin of his mind. He decided, in all his weariness and calamity of spirit, that the little creek nearly jumping its banks, and its cousin the tobacco barn were an image of heaven, if there happened to be such a place. Bright water rushing with turquoise undulations of grass caught inside, fast and cold and pure.
After a minute an older man appeared in the field across the road in tan and black coveralls. Well, one might say black but rather a patina made up of streaks of grease, oil and dirt that resulted in black. He did not respond to being waved at, nor did he spoke until he got to the truck. He had a lean angular face beneath a long grey beard and a look in his eye of undiluted Tennessee sonofabitch.
“I’m Lynn’s uncle Bobby.” He said, “He asked me to come watch after you.”
“Oh. You been hunting with them this morning?”
“No. I was by myself over on that far ridge. Trailing this bear that’s been chewing our fuckin’ hounds up.”
“Really?” What were you gonna shoot him with?”
The man reached into his grease-stained coveralls and pulled out a pistol with a barrel the length of his forearm. “This here.”
“Oh. That’d likely do the job.”
Bobby tucked the gun back into his coveralls, pulled out a bag of chewing tobacco and commenced to load up. He smelled like a wood stove.
“Good thing you broke down here“, he said fitting the plug into his mouth “About a quarter mile back and you would have wound up on Copperhead’s place.” He had the same grim smile Lynn had, a few small random stalks poking out from his beard. His eyes didn’t have the same kindness as his nephew. “Things might not have worked out so well for you there.”
“You mean that old place up by the bend in the road?” An old bungalow next to a country store long boarded up complete with multiple vehicles sitting on blocks and disemboweled, innards strewn about in the dirt. Not one but two confederate battle flags waved over the muddy porch.
“Yeah, used to be Miller’s store.”
“Well thank God I didn’t roll up on that man there in the dead of night. Does he own the store too?”
“Yes he does. Place goes back five generations of his people. His momma and her sister kept it going till they died off, and then he promptly let everything fall to shit.”
“Across the road from there is an old foundation by the creek. Was that an old mill?”
“Yes it was. It burned before my time. They used to grind for the whole valley.”
“Wow,” he said and left it at that. He figured on shutting-up for the time being and lit another cigarette. Watching the smoke rise and he tried to imagine what the valley might have looked like once upon a time. Whatever loopy, still-drunk feeling he had left was ebbing quickly to be replaced by a dull throbbing behind his eyes. He rubbed them and tried not to think about home. His head full of snakes, the greyness of the morning solidified into three crows perched on the ridgeline of the barn. They chided him bitterly. The creek sang it’s forever song. Bobby leaned, elbows on the sidewalls of the bed of the truck and punctuated what the creek said by spitting occasionally into the grass.
Lynn and the boy eventually showed back up, “You two getting along alright?” he asked.
“Famously.“ Bobby growled.
They had brought an armful each of various scraps of two-by-eight, cut on an angle, each about two foot long, wrapped in cobwebs. He figured them to be drop-offs from old rafter tails and he hated dropping them into the mud, the sides rough-hewn and brown as tobacco.
He set to it, crawling under the truck and positioning the two jacks. Lynne’s boy stayed out and minded the crank on the little one until he located a flat on the axle where the cherry-bomb could get a good bite. It took a minute, even with the wide boards. The weight and the mud kept sliding everything out of plumb. The boy got his end straight first, started cranking a few times with the twist rod, and then waited. Eventually they got both jacks to come around and the back end of the truck began to rise when Bobby commanded “Hey, come out from under there.” Fearing that he’d done something terribly wrong, something worse even than everything he’d already done, he obliged the old man.
“Try breaking those lug nuts loose while you still got some weight on the wheel. It’ll be a heck of a lot easier than once she’s ass-up in the air.”
He was stunned. “How I managed to walk this earth thirty-four years without somebody telling me that before today.”
The kid laughed. Lynn Lloyd said “Stick around this world a little longer, you’ll be amazed at what you might learn.”
They all stood there and let him get into the wet and wrestle the tire around, the cold grass on his knees felt like a blessing. The sky above behaved itself and did not turn to rain. He could tell the old man was scrutinizing him, judging how he worked, the way his hands moved. Just to make conversation, he got them to describe how far back their land went under the darkened tree line before it crept up the mountain. They told how many generations had been on it, what all they had farmed. There were only a few cows anymore. The rest they just mowed or let the goats eat. “Reefer turns a good crop,” said Bobby. Everybody laughed but nobody thought he was joking.
“You ever thought about selling it off?” he asked, twisting each nut finger-tight.
“Nope.” Said Lynn Lloyd.
“You know, sometimes I work for a contractor who’d pay good money for that old barn over yonder. He takes ‘em down and re-assembles them for log cabins up in Cashiers. Rich folks love them.”
“Yeah,” Lynn chuckled, “he’s stopped by here a couple times.”
“What are y’all gonna do with it?”
“We’re gonna let it stand there as long as it wants to.” He said.
“I’d rather the coons, possums and rabbits have it than some rich fucker up there in Nantahala.” Bobby added.
“Yeah, I guess you gotta keep the reefer somewhere huh?” He said, but nobody laughed at this.
He stood on the wrench for the last turn, putting all his weight on each lug-nut. He got up from a crouch and faced them. It was time to go. Three generations fixed the same look on him with eyes the color of the creek. It was neither a look of meanness nor particularly of welcome either.
“Good luck getting home.” Lynn Lloyd said. “Or rather, good luck when you get there.”
“Yeah. She might have finally packed the kids up and headed off to her mom’s house.”
“She’ll be there.” Bobby said. “Just keep it between the lines from here on.”
He thanked them as graciously as he was able, apologized for having rooting everything into mud and eased it back on the road. Pointed it toward home and whatever he would find there. Fierceness, he decided, finally. It was the look of fierceness. The boy waved and called out.
“Y’all be good.”