Beech Hill, Tennessee
One of the guys Jana brought down from Culleoka walks off up the hill and comes back later with his pants soaked through to the hip. He’s been eating pills and can’t say exactly where he’s been. The stars shift around but hold their shape between the bare branches of overhanging trees, beyond the campfire light. Out in the open pasture a donkey brays, waits for an answer, and calls again. The Culleoka boy finally breaks his silence, shouts, Hello! Hello! Hello! The night is very still a moment. His voice echoes back to greet us.
They cook up the hollow in the house without a floor. My father talks about it sometimes, the house. He and his mother each had a bedroom but no bathroom. They didn’t even have an outhouse. Imagine being that poor, he says to me. Find stones lying in the grass near the thickest of the trees. That’s where we went. He knows they’re in the house now, nothing but walls and a few strips of tin left overhead. One of them he taught high school history, and the other comes to church. He calls the sheriff’s department but they act like they’re already in on it. He says they might as well go until they burn it down. What little’s left they’ll catch most the flames themselves.
Lights round the bedroom walls as cars pass. Creak of floorboards and whispers. They ran the Interstate a mile down the creek valley but didn’t bother with an exit. Semis roar in and out. There’s no escape without crossing a hill. Every so often a winter of ice and freezing rain traps everyone for days, powerless when tree limbs pull down the electric lines. Traffic still passing through the middle of us on the salted and scraped four-lane. Those voices start shifting about in the rooms. They grow a little louder but never quite come clear.
In the barn behind the old general store they trade horses and sell dope, back up trailers filled with stolen junk. Furniture, fenceposts, saddles, collections of coins and crystal and baseball cards. They’re emptying out. Over the hill and off the tar-chip lightning bugs swim up from the grass. They call back to empty fields and the flooding creek, silent and unbroken night. They call an inquest or a truce, for revival or an end to it all. I almost can read the dip and flicker in their lights. I open my mouth to speak and they fly right into me.
My grandmother sits flipping through the vinyl photo album we keep on the shelf beneath the VHS tapes. Every now and then she pauses over one old black-and-white shot or another and announces either she remembers it or she doesn’t. More often than not it’s someone standing on a porch or beside a car—my father by a banged-up Fairlane, her and his father perched against a Studebaker’s hood long before that. Cousins and uncles and aunts holding pudgy babies, squinting against the sun. It runs together, she tells us, the days and faces and everything pulled out a piece at a time. It doesn’t come back. We try to get her to write their names on the back of each picture, tell us who everyone is. She fingers the pen a moment and then lays it down and flips on.
We’ve been in Illinois a month and a half when the power fails. We gather as a family in the den to watch black clouds cross our neighbors’ cornfields. The wind pushes through the stalks, across grass and trees, opens strange strips of daylight. Our father empties his beer and starts another, says he better get them drunk before they go warm. He laughs. Our mother tells the story of the tornado she swears passed over our old home without touching down. The rest of us asleep, her in the dark. It’s a train like on the tracks, she says, but I’d always imagined the whistle before that. My brother and I run outside ahead of the rain, pretend to let the wind sweep us away past the tall living room windows. They watch us, laughing, until the first few well-spaced drops snap hard, cold against our skin. We rush back in, huddle to watch the storm lance down into the prairie. Thunder rolls, Dad croons, and Mom tries to shush us so she can listen. The house rattles around us and the world howls, but somewhere beneath that it’s very quiet.
Some boy down the road gets a dirt bike for his birthday and rides it up and down the pavement hour after hour each day. His bright green helmet flashes against the less-green landscape, warns us. We see him on our way to the market, cutting through people’s yards, bouncing high off his seat through the ditch and over the raised concrete of driveways, dodging us, the occasional traffic. One afternoon an ambulance passes our house, lights flashing but siren off, and the bike disappears. We never actually hear anything so figure it’s mostly all right. Finally my wife spots him in his family’s driveway, arm in a cast fixed in an elbow-bent wave, as he crawls from the backseat of his mother’s minivan. Just think, she says, how stupid you have to be. I agree. We drive our cars a little slower, leave a few more lights on at night. We’re up so much, always going, and when we finally come to bed we start playing music, washing ourselves with just enough noise to trick us into sleeping. Gentle thunderstorms, crashing waves. I think about the poorly chosen path of a rumbling combustion engine and its sudden halt. We hit the brakes and the road slips on ahead without us.
Header photo by AlivePhoto, courtesy Shutterstock.