A Storyby David Bradley
For Robert Long
You are driving west across the state, at the insistence of the Commonwealth’s Department of Corrections, when you remember the pin mill.
Just a shape when you first saw it, through the windshield of the Goddamn Rambler: a vague but jagged blackness looming in the gray ahead. You turned to warn your mother, but in the predawn light you glimpsed the contours of her face and turned back, only then you saw Whatever It Was rising up and clawing with skeletal appendages at the pearlescent sky.
But then you realized: Whatever It Was wasn’t rising; the Goddamn Rambler was coming down a long, steep hill. So maybe Whatever It Was was sleeping and nothing would happen if you went by quietly. Only the Goddamn Rambler would not go quietly. The Goddamn Rambler coughed and sputtered, though you whispered, Shh, shh, shh. Then the Goddamn Rambler backfired, and you saw Whatever It Was turn.
But then you realized: it wasn’t turning; the road was, curving away. Maybe far enough away that Whatever It Was couldn’t hurt her, even if it did awake.
You remember when you learned its name: after a cough-and-sputter climb and a big door opening wide; after an old man with glinting glasses and a gray mustache, in bare feet and a bathrobe, helped her up a flight of winding, waxed wood stairs; after he came back down in blue suit pants and shiny slippers and said he was pleased to meet you and you didn’t need to call him sir, plain Grandpa would do fine; after he led you to a kitchen with two stoves in it and sat you down in what he said had been your Grandmother Godrester’s favorite chair, and put on a bib apron with magenta flowers on it and said he was going to fix you a real country breakfast.
Then he was doing something in the black stove with MAJESTIC in silver letters on the door, and you were rocking, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until you smelled smoke and heard a scream and leaped up and shouted, “Who’s that? Who’s that?” But he said, “Rest easy. Pay no mind. That’s just the whistle at the pin mill,” and his voice was calm and patient, so you tried, only you still heard it in your head and the chair went back-forth, back-forth.
Then he took you by the hand and pulled you out the kitchen door, across a swath of dew-damp grass, onto a broad, black rock, and you saw the empty air beyond and wondered if he’d throw you over for not resting easy. But he knelt, groaning, beside you, wrapped his arm around you, pointed over the edge, and said, “Look.”
And you looked over treetops and steeples and saw the rooftops of a miniature town, like at Wanamaker’s at Christmas, with gray paint streets, an Erector Set bridge over a blue paint river, and train tracks on the other side, only instead of Lionelville Station, there was a dark shape wreathed in smoke. “That’s the pin mill,” he said, and you realized: it all looked small only because you were high above.
He told you a mill was a factory, and pins were wooden screws that held insulators onto telephone poles, and insulators held the wires but were made lots of places; this was the only mill in the whole nation that made pins. And he said, “Some call this the hindend of the earth, but all the telephones, clean to the Pacific, depend on pins made in Raystown.”
Then he pointed to freight cars on a siding, and told you how logs came in on bulkhead flats and pins were trucked out in semis, and traced what he called the access road to where it connected with what he called root two twenty, and pointed to a tractor-trailer, bound for the ’Pike, he said, turning onto it and starting up a long, steep hill. But suddenly somehow you were coming down in the Goddamn Rambler, and you realized: the pin mill was what you’d seen maybe sleeping in the night. Only now it was awake.
Then treetops, steeples, rooftops vanished; the pin mill was all that you could see. You felt yourself lean toward it, felt yourself take a step. But then you felt your Grandpa’s arm, holding you and turning you, and then magenta flowers were all that you could see.
Now you remember ring-ring-ring, ring-ring-ring, and waking in a room a-clutter with dolls and teddy bears, thinking it was night until through a pink-curtained window you saw a porch awash with sunlight and your mother perched sideways on the rail.
Her head was lowered, chin-to-chest, so her hair hid her face, and her blouse was long sleeved, high collared, white—her neck looked like a swan’s—and her left arm hung languidly, a cigarette dangling from her fingers.
The ring-ring-ringing stopped. You heard your Grandpa say, “Hello? . . . Yes, Hal, she’s here,” and she raised the cigarette to her lips and winced, but the tip glowed bright. Then he said, in the calm, patient voice, “No, Hal; she does not wish to speak with you.”
Then he said, “No, Hal, I don’t intend to interfere between a man and his wife—” and then was quiet, listening, and she lowered the cigarette and you saw the filter, red, as if from lipstick, but no smoke.
Then he said, “Excuse me, Hal, but your wife is also my daughter. She is always welcome in my house, for as long she wishes.” Then you heard a ting and saw smoke plume silver and her lifting her chin, but her hair swung back and her cheek was like a plum about to burst and you had to close your eyes.
And you remember, when it was really night, hearing your Grandpa upstairs, telling her he didn’t know how that darned junker ever made the grade, and suddenly somehow you were in the Goddamn Rambler, with the blazing and bellowing coming from behind, and huge tires howling alongside, and then wind slapping right-left-right-left-right, and her wailing wordlessly. And she said, “It almost didn’t, Daddy. Daddy, I almost didn’t make it home.”
You remember eeoheeohchkchkchk, warm air wafting through the window, Raggedy Ann and Aunt Jemima, and a humpback trunk treasured with camphored quilts and a box of eight Crayolas, peeled and sharpened like she’d done with your box of sixty-four.
You remember the black telephone in the alcove in the hall, with no dial and no dial tone but ladies on it talking.
You remember the claw-footed, scaly-legged table in the dining room, and the straight-legged one in the kitchen with your Grandpa behind it, glasses on his forehead, fists crushing a thin newspaper, muttering about whipping horses and dogs, until he saw you and said to pay him no mind, he was just an old bear growling like he still had teeth.
You remember the sounds from the upstairs hall—click of lock, creak of hinge, footfalls, slow and heavy, rush of water in the pipes, footfalls going back, dull thud of closing door.
You remember the cold milk your Grandpa poured from a green glass jar—sweet milk, he called it—and the ham he had to simmer to get the salt out, he said, and the eggs he cracked one-handed, and the onions he sliced underwater so he wouldn’t cry, and that though the ham was salty anyway, the milk was sweet as sugar if you warmed it in your mouth.
You remember the porch—the veranda, he called it—that went all around the house, and the chair on chains he called a swing, though it wouldn’t go fast or high, and the tree, a-teem with birds, that towered at the forest’s edge. He said its name was Quercus Rubra and you, not thinking, said, “Trees don’t have names . . .” and stopped. But he just laughed and said this one did, and in the fall the birds, except the crows of course, held a convention there to decide where to spend the winter, and you could poll the factions because each kind of bird had a different song. And you said, Like Peter and the Wolf? but he said, No, these were real country birds; they didn’t sing opera.
Your remember the doors that slid into the walls, the green glow of bankers’ lamps, the big battered desk he said was older than he was, the dictionary—the Lexicon, he called it—so heavy it had its own desk—a lectern, he called it—and the shelves that bowed with books. You asked if you could read them, certain he’d say no, but he said to take a crack at anything you could reach.
You remember him at the black stove—the Majestic, he called it—stirring something steaming in a white-and-blue speckled pot. Broth, he said; good for what ailed you, and he lifted you to see the chicken rolling in the roiling water, and let you add peppercorns, parsley, and thyme.
You remember his calm, patient voice lulling you to sleep with the tale of Indian Eve, who was kidnapped by the Mohawks, indentured by the British, but crossed four hundred miles of wilderness on foot to bring her son home safe to Raystown.
Now you remember the Patrician, your Grandpa’s Prussian-blue Packard sedan, with the chrome grille and headlight mounts like his mustache and glasses, and an arch-necked bird on the hood, dropping like a roller coaster past big houses of gray stone; and him, in the whole suit and a white shirt and blue tie and black shoes with pinholes in the toes, with one foot on the brake because, he said, it was a 15 percent grade.
And he said this was Juliana Street, and you were in Juliana Heights, and you asked was it named for your mother? and he said he’d told her so when she was your age, but in fact it was for William Penn’s daughter-in-law, did you know who Penn was? and you did, and that sylvania meant woods, and he said you were a smart fella, and the street at the bottom of the grade was Richard, for one of Penn’s sons, and lots of Raystown’s streets were named for Penns, because the Old Settlers thought sycophancy would forestall a whiskey tax, and you said you knew what whiskey was, but he didn’t call you a smart fella again; he just coughed.
Richard Street was like a highway, with a double yellow line and lots of cars and trucks, and a semi made a machine gun sound when your Grandpa pulled out in front of it, but he said pay it no mind, he had the right-of-way. Then the line disappeared and Richard Street was like a tunnel, roofed by leaves, sided by thick-trunked trees, and behind them were sidewalks and houses of red-orange brick, and in front of one you saw a statue of a monkey in white pants, a red jacket, and a red cap, holding a lantern, only then you realized: it wasn’t a monkey—just a man with a brown face. Then you saw another statue: a man with a gray face in a long gray coat, holding a rifle, but he was on a pillar in the middle of the street.
And he said that was the Monument, and now you were in the Public Squares, where respectable lawyers had offices—him too, until he got elected and had chambers in the Courthouse, which was over there, but now he only had the study because he’d retired from everything except the Board of the First National and the Generally Board. And you saw boys running on broad, grassy lawns and climbing on two big black cannons—and then a building white as chalk, with tall columns and wide steps, and a blue-and-orange Rexall and a red-and-gold G. C. Murphy, and then the Patrician stopped and you looked through the windshield and saw a red light and beyond it the Erector Set bridge.
And he was saying how, if you went left you’d be on Forbes Road, which, past the Fairgrounds, turned into Route 30, which was how he went to Pittsburgh, but if you went right you’d be on River Road, which went out the East End and through the Narrows, then ran along the Raystown Branch for fifteen miles to Juniata Crossing before it turned into Route 30, and how River Road had been a famous scenic route before the Doggone Democrats built the ’Pike, and even nowadays some folks got off at the Raystown Interchange to drive—and you said, “It’s straight ahead.”
And he said, “Why, yes, Richard turns into Route 220 and goes straight up to the ’Pike. You are a smart fella,” only that wasn’t what you meant but when the light turned green he stuck his arm straight out the window and went left.
You remember the red-striped pole, the scents of cloves, bay rum, and talc, the trout and whitetail leaping on dog-eared magazines, the slap-swish of razor on strop, the chair like the La-Z-Boy, only it was your Grandpa in it, and his face creamed with lather, and wishing you had whiskers too.
You remember the restaurant wrapped in tinfoil and shaped like a coffee pot, and the men on stools along the counter, and the lady with orange hair behind it who poured coffee into a mug with HIZZONER on it when your Grandpa walked in. He told them you were his grandboy and a real smart fella, and asked the lady to make you a black cow, and she brought you a glass of root beer with vanilla ice cream in it and a thin, long-handled metal spoon, and you ate while the men growled about horsewhipping the Doggone Democrats.
You remember Cohen’s Emporium, where a clerk in a black skullcap piled up underwear, socks, shirts in pastel colors with alligators on the pocket, and pants—trousers, your Grandpa called them—of khaki and gabardine, and blue jeans, which he called dungarees, and a blue sweatshirt with NITANNY LIONS in white letters on the chest, and a heavy purple-and-gray plaid jacket he called a mackinaw.
Then the clerk said to put your feet in a machine and, right through your sneakers, you could see your toes in green, but the clerk said you shouldn’t be wearing Red Ball Jets because your arch was weak; you needed P. F. Flyers with the Magic Wedge. Your Grandpa said you’d need brogans too, for when you went exploring in the woods, and you liked the high-topped leather shoes with thongs instead of laces, but felt sorry for your old sneakers and hoped he wouldn’t make you go.
Then the clerk brought out gray fuzzy shoes with no laces he called Hush Puppies and said were the Latest Thing for the Young Man, but your Grandpa called them loafers so you asked for shoes like his, but the clerk said he only carried wingtips for mature gentlemen, and your Grandpa said, “You mean old geezers, don’t you?” and the clerk said he only meant . . . and stopped. But your Grandpa just laughed and said send the bill.
And you remember how, when you thanked him for the presents, he said, Oh these were just a few things you’d need since you’d be staying in Raystown, and you realized: you hadn’t thought of staying anywhere except away.
You remember swinging back-and-forth through the hot bright days, listening to birds flittering and tittering in Quercus Rubra, reading books from lower shelves, learning to pay no mind at noon and quitting time.
You remember bedtime tales: of Alliquippa, Queen of the Seneca, who sent her braves to save George Washington from the French; of James Smith and his Brave Fellows, who dressed up like Indians and ran the Redcoats out of Raystown while those Sons of Liberty in Boston were still drinking tea; of Jacob Dibert, who found the Lost Children of the Alleghenies; of Davy Lewis, who stole gold from gunrunners, gave it to poor widows to pay taxes, then stole it from the tax collector, and who stopped to visit his mother, though the sheriff was in hot pursuit, and, with just his horse for company, hid out in these very woods in a cave that nobody’d ever found.
You remember the ring, ring, ringing, the chuff, chuff, chuffing of his slippers on the stairs, his voice saying, “Yes, Hal . . . Who else, this time of night? . . . Hal, this is a party line so don’t say anything you don’t want half the town to hear and the rest to know about by noon.”
You remember waking to a stench of vinegar, ammonia, and stale tobacco smoke and seeing your mother in a nightgown, moving gingerly around the room. She clutched her right arm to her side, like she was holding something in, but reached out with her left hand to caress each doll and teddy bear. Watching with half-closed eyes, you envied them her touch, but when she turned her face toward you, you closed them all the way.
You remember the path, warded by briar and thorn, that led from Quercus Rubra into the darkling forest.
You remember the broad, black rock your Grandpa said was part of the Appalachian Bedrock and called the Lookout because Queen Alliquippa’s braves kept watch from there, and seeing him, at sunset, keeping watch there too.
You remember the Majestic and the tools he used to tend it: spring-handled lid-lifter, wiry scraper, poker hooked and pointed like a halberd. He showed you how to rouse the fire—to shake the ashes from the embers, set the draft and damper, add a little kindling, and wait patiently for flame—and you shouldn’t try it yet, but one day you’d need to know.
You remember the wood in a hodgepodge pile outside the kitchen door—bark-scabbed slabs, skewed oblongs, out-of-kilter cones with broken screw threads at the ends. Chunks of pin-mill scrap, your Grandpa said, cut to stove-length so nothing went to waste, and he showed you how to carry them: elbows at right angles and tight to your sides, palms up, fingers crooked. Then he said, “Let’s load you up,” and began laying chunks across your arms. He said, Say When, but you didn’t know what Say When meant, and when he stopped loading you up the weight seemed more than you could bear. But he said, Take it step-by-step, and went beside you, steadying, and then ahead to do the opening and closing, and then he took the weight from you, chunk by chunk by chunk.
You remember going up the winding, waxed wood stairs, balancing a bowl of steaming broth on a silver tray, setting it gently on the table outside her bedroom door, knocking softly, only once, and going down again.
And you remember following him, at sunset, onto the Lookout, feeling it was wrong to let him keep watch alone. Only then you realized: maybe he wasn’t, because you saw his lips moving, like he was talking to someone, though he wasn’t making any sound. He laid his hand lightly on your head but didn’t look at you until the lowering sun touched the mountains to the west. Then he coughed and said, “See the river?”
And you looked and saw a stream of gold flowing through the town and disappearing into the mountain to the east. And he said, “Rivers are lazy. Even famous rivers—the Euphrates, the Nile, the Congo, of course, but even the Mississippi; they all take the easy way. But not the Raystown Branch.”
Then he told you how, a billion years ago, Africa encroached on North America and though the Appalachian Bedrock was the hardest rock on earth, it was forced to fold up into ranges of mountains, with ridges running north and south and sheer slopes facing east.
“Geologists call it the Allegheny Front,” he said. “Two hundred miles long, two thousand feet high. When the first Europeans crossed the Susquehanna they saw it and called it the Great Wall and said there was no sense in going further. But some heard a Voice calling from beyond and looked for a way through.
“The river’d made it for them. Instead of flowing north or south between the ranges, the Raystown Branch cut what geologists call water gaps, right through solid rock. It took a hundred million years, but the river got through.
“Some Europeans came west through those gaps; a hundred miles against strong current. The gaps were there, but every passage was perilous, all boulders and whitewater, and somebody was always saying there was no sense in going further. But some still listened to the Voice and went on, and gradually they stopped being Europeans and became Americans, and eventually they reached the final gap.
“That’s it, where the river disappears. They called it the Narrows because the banks were sheer and close. Some died trying to make that passage. Most didn’t even try. But a few got through.
“And they found a beloved country, rich with game and fish and timber, and coal and hematite, and springs of healing water. So they cleared land and sowed crops, and built a town and a fort, and fought off the Indians and the French and the British, and put a scare into the Federals too.
“Those were the Old Settlers. My ancestors, and your Grandmother’s, and your mother’s . . . and yours. They took their spirit from that river that went the hard way for a hundred million years. We take ours from them. And we’ll, by God, get through.”
Now you remember your mother coming barefoot down the stairs, in her nightgown, hair a-tangle, shouting it should be her taking you, and stumbling, and your Grandpa catching her and saying, in his calm voice, Rest easy, he guessed he still had pull enough to get a boy into fifth grade, she should stay in until she was feeling better. Then she said, “You mean looking, don’t you?” and pushed him away and knelt to tuck your alligator shirt into your khakis, and told you to be brave but all you looked at were black wingtips, gray Hush Puppies, and her pale pink toes.
You remember your Grandpa parking the Patrician beneath a flap, flap, flapping flag, and telling you your ancestors were Old Settlers so you belonged in Raystown and didn’t have to give account to anybody. “It’s nothing you need be ashamed of,” he said, “but folks here love to mind other folk’s business, especially People Like Us.” Then suddenly somehow you were in the Goddamn Rambler, waking to a toll booth’s glare, hearing a man say, “Two dollars,” and your mother saying she didn’t have any money, but she’d see he got it later. And he said, “Who do you think you are?” and she said, Please, and a man’s name, and he said her name, like a question, and she said, Yes, but turned her head when he leaned down to look, and he wouldn’t raise the gate until she let him see her face.
You remember the peppermint-breathed principal who kept calling your Grandpa Your Honor, and the white-capped nurse who poked your hair with a toothpick because she said there was no telling where you’d been, and waiting beside Smokey Bear, who said ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES, until a teacher with hair like Brillo took you to her classroom, asking questions as you went, and the boys who laughed at your Hush Puppies and the girls who giggled, at what, you never knew, and hotdogs dipped in ketchup for lunch, which they called dinner, and getting picked last at recess, and being called a liar when you said you’d seen the ocean, and the teacher telling you not to brag, even if it was true, and pretending not to know answers already, and the beep they called a bell, and your Grandpa in the Patrician, parked beneath the flapping flag.
You remember him waiting every day, glasses propped up on his forehead and a book in hand, or head drooping, but not sleeping, just resting his eyes, he said. Some days he’d say he needed you to help him run errands, and you’d walk together past the house where George Washington had slept and the church that was where the jail Davy Lewis escaped from twice used to be, to the Post Office, where you’d look at WANTED posters while he got mail from the box, and to the First National, where he’d sign papers while a lady who looked old but wasn’t would ply you with horehound slugs and questions until you’d get mad and go make the revolving door go whupwhupwhup, and to the graveyard where the Old Settlers were buried, and your Grandmother too, God rest her.
Other days he’d drive south on Richard, past Juliana and the Inn at Anderson’s Springs to where it turned into Route 220, and tell you how, way back when, he’d had a Buick roadster—canary yellow, black rag top, rumble seat, ninety horses—that went like a bat out of . . . a cave, and when he was courting your Grandmother he’d drive her out this way because the road ran straight and near-level all the way to Mason & Dixon’s Line so he could open ’er up, and she loved the speed, even though she wouldn’t learn to drive, but she’d pretend she didn’t like the top down because the wind blew her hair all wild, but eventually she’d throw her head back and close her eyes and let the wind have its way. Then he’d say, “Let’s see what she’ll do,” and the white line would blur solid, and the Patrician would come up from behind semis and whip around so fast you’d barely hear the bellowing.
Other days he’d go left on Forbes Road and when it turned into Route 30, he’d tell you how Forbes didn’t have a thing to do with it, George Washington either, it was the Old Settlers who transformed an old Indian trail into a road for caissons and Conestogas so Colonel Armstrong could run the French out of Pittsburgh and pioneers could reach Ohio, and Republicans who named it the Lincoln Highway and paved it so it could carry Tin Lizzies across the Plains and the Rockies and clean to the Pacific, only then the Doggone Democrats gave the highways numbers, and the people too.
Then you’d feel the land rise beneath you, and the arch-necked bird would fly, and you’d see the hotel shaped like a ship on the mountain’s brow. He’d give you nickels for the telescope so you could get the lay of the land and SEE 3 STATES AND 7 COUNTIES and the ridges like ocean waves, their hues modulating in the distance—green, green-blue, cadet blue—and blending into periwinkle sky.
Other days he’d drive on rough, recondite roads—Pinchots, he called them—that snaked through gloomed forests before bursting into sunlit coves. Sometimes he’d stop at farms cacophonous with bark and squawk to haggle with white-capped women for scrapple, head cheese, and liver pudding, or at stores sided with rusty signs—HIRES, NEHI, UPPER 10—in slumberous five-house towns, to growl about the Doggone Democrats with gaunt, knob-knuckled men. But generally on those days he just drove, past cattle-clotted pastures, close-filed fields, red tractors, black barns billboarded blue-white-yellow CHEW MAIL POUCH, white churches flanked by gray gravestones. And he taught you the names of every kind of kine and swine and crop, and told you who owned what and always voted how, but said since you weren’t running for anything yet, you didn’t need to know where the bodies were buried.
And some days he’d go right at the light and out the East End, past the trailer park, the junkyard, the blue-and-white Scenicruisers parked aslant beside the Greyhound Post House, the green combines ranked before the John Deere dealership, and then you’d see the river on your left, frothed by rocky confrontations before disappearing into the mountain ahead.
Then it would seem the mountain parted and on either side you’d see sinusoid stripes—brown, tan, purple, pink, the insides of the earth. Then the road would swing out into the empty air, but you’d hear his voice telling you how engineers, smart fellas out in Pittsburgh, invented a new kind of bridge to get a highway through the Narrows, and rest easy.
After that the road descended to the river’s bank, and through a green gauze of weeping willows you’d see the river again, tranquil now, its surface only occasionally V’d by hidden obstructions, and he’d drive slow and talk about how your Grandmother, God rest her, loved River Road, and how he should have brought her here more often, and how he hoped that when you got to be a man you wouldn’t always be rushing no place good for no good reason, and then wouldn’t say another word all the way to Juniata Crossing. And you’d long to tell him, in that silence, how you’d failed your mother, but you knew he’d tell you it was nothing you need be ashamed of. Only it was.
But you remember the day you came through the kitchen door and saw her at the white electric range, stirring something steaming in the white-and-blue speckled pot. You saw her face, lumpish, yellow-green, but made your eyes stay open, and when she smiled at you with her mangled mouth you made your mouth smile back. Then your Grandpa came in behind you and she said supper would be boeuf sans bourguignon and he said pork made better stew and the range ran up his light bill and she said, “Quit growling, you old bear,” and he just laughed.
You remember your mother stowing dolls and teddy bears in the humpbacked trunk and saying she’d make you new curtains; this was your room now.
You remember cheer-upcheer-a-leecheer-ee-o and a robin redbreast hopping on the lawn.
You remember asking could you walk to school like the other boys and your Grandpa saying he didn’t see why not, it was all downhill, mostly.
You remember doing homework at the kitchen table, and her checking your grammar and spelling and him your arithmetic.
You remember her reading to you like she did when you were little—tales of ladies and their knights, in French, with consecutive interpretation.
You remember boys with a football in the Public Squares, and your Grandpa telling you, Go play, he didn’t need help running errands every day, and you said, “You’ll still need help some days, won’t you?” and he ruffled your hair and gave you fifty cents walking-around money.
You remember the rules of what they called Rough Touch: two hands below the shoulders, no tackling, but shoving was okay. Some boys said you shoved too hard, but when they chose up for another game you got picked third.
You remember your mother saying you had to learn to use the Lexicon because words were both tools and weapons and the difference between the right one and the almost-right one was like lightning and a lightning bug, and when you said the lectern was higher than you could reach she showed you the step stool hidden underneath.
You remember tying up your brogans, braving briar and thorn and entering the forest, going step-by-step along the path until it forked. Then you turned back because by then you knew the Lost Children got found dead.
And you remember birds flocking by hundreds in Quercus Rubra’s limbs, chattering sunrise to sunset, sometimes after dark. Stump speeches and midnight caucuses, your Grandpa said; the prothonotary warblers advocating Costa Rica, the robins lobbying for Lauderdale, the orioles proposing Mexico. Your mother said one day you’d look and they’d be gone, and it would mean the end of summer and always made her sad, but you kept watch and saw it when they rose and flew away together, and it didn’t seem sad at all.
Now you remember the dump truck. Just a sound when you first heard it, like the Goddamn Rambler’s cough and sputter, only in a lower register. You were at the woodpile, loading yourself up, and looked and saw it as it inched over the crest: white grille pitted with raw sienna rust, pewter air horn tarnished brown, red cab splotched with gray, steel dump bed battered, spattered, corroded to huelessness.
It shuddered, screeched to a stop, sat wheezing awhile, then clanked, coughed, and backed its corrugated hindend wearily into the driveway, stopping only feet from you. Then the cab door opened and a man jumped down.
He wore a kind of uniform—cap, shirt, trousers of forest green—brogans of Indian red, gray gloves that flared at the wrist. His face was brown and rough, like a walnut. His jaw bulged as he chewed—on what, you dared not wonder. He unchained the tailgate, pulled down a blue handle, then said, without looking at you, “You wanta move from there.”
You moved; meanwhile he worked a thin red lever, the dump bed rose in fits and starts, and then the tailgate lifted, and chunks came tumbling out. In a minute it was over; he got back into the cab, the truck eased forward, and the tailgate swung-and-banged, swung-and-banged. Then he got out again and worked the red lever and the dump bed stuttered down.
He pushed up the blue handle, rechained the tailgate, then strode past you to the kitchen door, smelling of sweat and Juicyfruit. He knocked twice, and still without looking at you said, “You live here now?” and you said, “This is my Grandpa’s house,” and he said, “That, I know.”
Then your Grandpa was in the doorway saying, “Thanks, Joe. Same price?” and the man said, “For now, Judge, but it’s gonna go up soon. You want another load beforehand? I pick up Saturdays, forenoon,” and your Grandpa said, “Well, I don’t . . .” and then your mother came slipping past him with a dip of shoulder and twirl of hip.
Her steps were like a dancer’s, swift and light, and she wore makeup that almost hid the bruises, and her voice was like a singer’s when she said, “Hello, Joe. Whadaya know?” Then she held out her hand. And he said, “Jewels,” and pulled off his glove and took her hand in his, but they didn’t shake, they just smiled until your Grandpa stepped between them with money in his hand.
You remember asking, over supper, who that man was, and your Grandpa saying he was just a colored fella who hauled sand, gravel, chunks, and manure, most likely, in a third-hand piece of truck, and your mother putting her fork down and saying his name was Joe Wisdom, and they’d been friends in high school. And you asked, “Was he your boyfriend?” and your Grandpa choked on his Salisbury steak.
But later, when he came to check your long division, he said he’d meant no disrespect to Joe Wisdom, who worked hard and stayed sober and came from respectable folk. Then he told you how, way back when, colored people came over from Africa to be free, but below Mason & Dixon’s Line white men made them slaves, only one white man, named Wisdom, went camping and caught Methodism and wanted to let his colored people go for fear of boils and blains, but other white men wouldn’t let him unless he sent them back to Africa. Then Wisdom came to take the waters at Anderson’s Springs and found out about Raytown, and bought twelve hundred acres eight miles west and sent his colored people there, and they all took his last name, and called it Wisdom’s Notch. Then other colored people started running away from slavery and coming north across the Line, and folks in Raystown would send them to Wisdom’s Notch, where they could hide and be safe until Abe Lincoln freed them.
You liked that story so you asked if one day he’d drive to Wisdom’s Notch, and he said, “We’ll see,” and you heard your mother cough, and later, when you were in bed, say, “Daddy, if you’re going to tell him stories, tell him the whole story,” and he said, “Are you sure you want him hearing the whole story?” and you knew he did leave things out sometimes, so when she came to tuck you in you asked what the whole story was.
She said you shouldn’t eavesdrop, and the whole story was that she and Joe took French together in high school, but only for half a year; then she went away to boarding school and hadn’t seen him again, or even thought of him, until today. Then you asked why your Grandpa didn’t like him, and she said, “Sweetie, try to understand. In Raystown, different kinds of people are supposed to be happy with different things—” and you said, “Colored people?” and she said, “Other kinds of people too. They’re all supposed to want what they’re supposed to have, and settle for it. Only, Joe wouldn’t settle. He didn’t care how hard he had to work for what he wanted, but if anybody told him he shouldn’t want it in the first place, he’d make a fuss. Your Grandpa hates fuss.”
You asked, Did he want money? and she said, “Joe never cared about money. Joe wanted . . . things to be different. Joe wanted the County Library to have books by colored writers, and gave the librarian a list. Joe wanted the School Board to hire a colored teacher, and gave them a list of colored colleges where they could find one. Joe wanted to take French instead of Industrial Arts. The principal said no, Joe would take shop like he was told to, because no . . . body from Wisdom’s Notch was going to Paris. Joe sent a letter to the newspaper that quoted the principal word for word, with copies to the governor and the NAACP. The paper wouldn’t print it, but the School Board said Joe could take French.
“Joe made people nervous, wanting things he wasn’t supposed, even some people in Wisdom’s Notch. Finally he wanted one thing too much. Some men were going to teach him a lesson, but the sheriff arrested him first, and your Grandpa was the judge and sent Joe to the army instead of jail. It was wartime, but colored men weren’t supposed to fight; the army taught Joe to drive trucks.
“Only Joe wanted to fight. So he made a fuss, and eventually the army taught him to him to drive tanks and sent him to Europe, and he fought for General Patton and won a medal and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he stayed in France. He’d send letters to the principal postmarked Paris—long letters, all in French.” She gave a little laugh. “I guess I was as bad as that principal; Joe and I had talked about Paris, and I expected I’d see it someday, but I never thought Joe . . . Only there he was, living on the Left Bank. He could have stayed; a lot of colored soldiers did. But Joe wanted to live in Wisdom’s Notch. And he was a hero, so eventually your Grandpa had to let him come back.”
You asked, So he’d settled? but she said Joe would never settle, but loved Wisdom’s Notch more than . . . anything. So you asked, What was the one thing too much? and she said, “Oh, Sweetie, that’s ancient history,” but you wondered if it was, and if one of the other kinds of people was People Like Us.
You remember cool air billowing blue curtains, but being warm beneath a quilt your Grandmother, God rest her, made.
You remember your mother holding the round box with the white man in the black hat on it, in one hand, and the square box with the colored man in the white hat on it, in the other, asking, Oatmeal or cream of wheat?
You remember ring, ring, ringing, and hearing not his voice but hers saying, “Hello, Hal . . .” and holding your breath until she said, “I still don’t. But it’s time I told you myself.”
You remember the teacher with the gray crew cut saying he’d heard you liked to mix it up, you should come out for Pop Warner. Your mother said football was too rough but your Grandpa told her he’d buy you one of those new-fangled plastic helmets with the bar to protect your nose, and he did, and a jock strap with a cup and clacking shoulder pads.
You remember trading belly punches to see who was in shape, and doing push-ups, sit-ups, leg-ups, wind sprints, and after, going to the fountain at the Rexall, where a skinny teen with pimples would add cherry syrup to your nickel Coke, no extra charge, and give boys who didn’t have a nickel plain soda water, free.
But now you remember coming out of the Rexall, jibing and shoulder-jabbing, and seeing the dump truck parked in the alley and Joe Wisdom at the top of the First National’s steps, and hearing the door whupwhupwhupwhupping behind him.
He had on his brogans and green trousers, but his shirt was white, and he wore a lemon-yellow tie with a turquoise-and-cranberry parrot on it. You called out to him, singsong, like your mother had: “Hello, Joe. Whadaya . . .” and stopping, because his face looked like a picture on a WANTED poster.
And he said, “What did you say?” and the other boys stopped laughing. Then he said, “What did you call me?” and the other boys ran away. Then he came down the steps and said, “Get your hindend in the truck.”
You remember cowering in the corner of the cab, watching his fist jam the gearshift left and right, hearing the engine cough-sputter-roar, the brakes screech, the air horn blare. Then you felt his fingers digging into your biceps as he carried you at arm’s length across the lawn, shouting, “Somebody come get this boy.” Then he deposited you on the veranda and you heard your Grandpa’s calm voice say, “Now, Joe, what’s he done?” and he shouted, “He called me by my Christian name, right on the street,” and your Grandpa said, “Well, I don’t find that sufficient cause to scare the piss out of him.”
Then your mother was hugging you, wet pants and all, saying, “Joe, he’s sorry, he doesn’t understand—” and he said, “Then explain it to him, Jewels.” Then your Grandpa said, “Joe, tell you what. Why don’t you haul us up another load of chunks come Saturday, whatever your price is now.”
You felt your mother hug you tighter, and looked and saw Joe Wisdom staring at your Grandpa and your Grandpa staring back. Finally Joe Wisdom said, “Sorry, Your Honor, but I’m afraid my third-hand, insufficient-collateral truck would bust a gasket tryin’ to make that grade again.” Then he yanked off his necktie.
You remember wailing to your mother, as she helped you clean up, that you weren’t sorry because you did not call him a name, but she said, “Sweetie, you called him by his first name; he felt you weren’t showing respect,” and your Grandpa growled, “Your friend Joe wants too doggone much respect, if you ask me,” and she said, “He’s proud of his ancestors, like others I could name,” and your Grandpa went into his study and pulled the doors out of the walls.
Then she said, “Sweetie, you have to understand. In Raystown, if you live like people think you should—if you work hard, pay your debts, don’t talk about your troubles, don’t take charity, things like that—people say you’re respectable. No matter what kind of people you are, you can be respectable, and other people are supposed to show you respect. That means . . . all kinds of things. They’ll bill you later. They’ll take your word. They’ll call you Mr. or Mrs. if they see you on the street. But if you’re not respectable, people say you’re trash. Then it’s cash before carry, nobody will believe a word you say, and you’re lucky if they speak to you at all.
“Only it’s not just about you. People might not even know you. But they know your people, going back however many generations. In Raystown, your people stand for you. If your people are trash, you’re trash until you prove otherwise—that can take years. If your people are respectable, you’re respectable. But you still have to live like people think you should, because what you do reflects on your people. They stand for you, but you stand for them too, and even the most respectable people are just a scandal or two away from trash. In Raystown, you never stand for just you.
“Joe’s proud—too proud, some say. But he’s not proud of himself, he’s proud of Wisdom’s Notch; of people who have been respectable for seven generations. Only Joe—Mr. Wisdom—thinks they’ve never gotten the respect they’re due. And if he thinks he’s been denied respect he gets angry not just for himself, but on behalf of all seven generations.
“Sweetie, I can call him Joe because we’ve known each other a long time and he knows I respect him. Your Grandpa can call him Joe because . . . well, because he can. But Joe doesn’t know you. He can’t know what you think. All he knows is, he’s a man and you’re just a boy, and you called him by his first name, like you would another boy. So he heard you saying, underneath, that you didn’t respect him, or Wisdom’s Notch. And it wasn’t only you he heard, because in Raystown, you don’t just stand for you. Do you see?”
You said you did, but didn’t . . . until sunset. Then you saw your Grandpa on the Lookout and thought about him standing like a statue on the veranda and Joe Wisdom standing like a statue on the lawn, and you knew what you’d have to do.
You remember waiting after practice, at the traffic light, hoping he’d pass by and maybe have to stop. But he didn’t the first day, nor the next day, nor the next, and that was Friday and you knew where you’d have to go.
You remember winding the alarm clock but not sleeping anyway, and listening to poor, poorwill and whowhowho until you couldn’t wait anymore, and dressing by touch and climbing out the window and going tiptoe onto the lawn. You felt lost in darkness; you saw no lights, no moon, no stars. But then you felt the lay of the land and let gravity guide you down the grade.
You remember walking through the silent town, where fog haloed streetlights, shrouded statues, and transformed the traffic light into a pulsing ruby wrapped in cotton.
You remember waiting on the bridge, the river sluicing sibilantly below, you trying out words—short ones, long ones—wondering which would be only almost-right. Then the fog was sheered to airy thinness by a sudden breeze, and light lanced through the Narrows, raying the sky crimson, vermillion, rose, and you knew why your Grandpa called it the crack of dawn.
You remember going step-by-step along the access road, eyes on your P. F. Flyers, expecting the whistle yet flinching when it sounded. Then you looked and saw the pin mill, and realized: it was cloaked not with smoke, but dust, and wasn’t black, or even dark, but an almost gay patchwork of orange, green, and blue, though every patch was streaked with rust the color of dried blood.
You remember crouching beneath a bulkhead flat, watching huge hooks descend and grapple logs and hoist them dangerously aloft, listening to conveyors clank, cables twang, saws whine and ching, wondering if the white shirt meant he didn’t pick up on Saturday anymore. But then you saw the dump truck trundling along the access road and pulling up beside the pin mill, beneath a metal chute, and Joe Wisdom leaning out of the cab and pumping his fist in the direction of a window in the mill. Then you heard a rumble that swelled into a roar, and chunks came cascading down, making the truck rock side-to-side, then settle on its springs.
You walked toward it, watching chunks coming down into the dump bed and a few bouncing back out onto the ground. Then a lot started bouncing out and Joe Wisdom drew his hand like a knife across his throat and the chunks stopped coming, and you realized: he was loaded up, and you began to run. But then he jumped down from the cab, pulling on his gloves, and bent and started picking up fallen chunks and tossing them back into the bed.
He didn’t look up, so you thought he didn’t see you, but when you got close he yelled, “What do you want?” and you thought he was angry but then you realized: he had to yell on account of the pin mill’s din, and that the long words wouldn’t work, so you just yelled back, “I’m sorry, Mr. Wisdom. I meant no disrespect.”
He tossed another chunk and yelled, “She tell you to say that?” and you yelled, “No, sir. My Grandpa either,” and he yelled, “That, I believe,” and tossed another chunk. Then he straightened up, looked around, and yelled, “How’d you get here?” and you yelled, “I walked.” And he yelled, “That’s two miles,” and you yelled, “It’s all downhill, mostly.” He gave you a cockeyed look, then yelled, “You wait till I’m loaded up ’cause it’s all uphill from here.” Then he bent and started tossing chunks again.
But it felt wrong to wait while he worked alone, so you picked up a fallen chunk and tried to throw it into the bed. Only you didn’t get it high enough and it banged off the side, and you heard him shout a bad word. But you tried again, this time doing it as he had—bending low, swinging your arm back before the throw, following through after—and the chunk went up and over. That felt right, so you tossed another, and another. Then you heard him yell again, calling you by name.
And you looked and saw him holding out another pair of gloves. You took them, pulled them on, and realized: they weren’t that much too big. You nodded. He nodded. Then you worked together until the ground was clear.
You remember riding high beside him in the cab, over the river and through the town, wishing, hoping he’d just drive, maybe all the way to Wisdom’s Notch. But he braked approaching Juliana, so you thanked him and told him you’d walk up so he wouldn’t bust a gasket, and he gave you that cockeyed look again, but pulled over. Then you said, “Mr. Wisdom? Are you still my mother’s friend?”
And you thought you’d done something wrong because instead of answering, he shifted to neutral, set the brake, and said, “What did she tell you?” And you said, “The whole story. She said it was ancient history but I think she needs friends now.” And he said, “She don’t need me; she’s got you.”
Then it all came up, like vomit: how you’d found hiding places big enough for you, but not her too; how when you realized it only happened to her, even if it was you who did whatever made him mad, part of you was glad; how you’d made believe it was TV, or people in the street, and in the morning got yourself dressed and off to school, never knocking on her door to see was she okay; how in daydreams you lifted her, up, up, and away, but in nightmares you dropped her and flew on alone; how when she lifted you and carried you away, you couldn’t keep watch and fell asleep and let her face the blazing and bellowing alone; how you’d closed your eyes because you didn’t want to see.
He let you say it—all of it. Then he was quiet awhile. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Maybe you did more than you know. She always talked about the son she hoped she’d have one day and how he’d grow up to be a different kind of man. You didn’t want to see, but maybe she didn’t want you to have to see. Maybe she left because she didn’t want you to grow up thinking that’s how things ought to be. Maybe she wanted to save you enough to save herself. But you’ve got to save her now.
“Raystown’s short on sympathy. They say, ‘You made your bed, lie in it.’ Especially if the sheets are silk.” He was staring through the windshield, as if at something distant, and his voice too seemed far away. “A High Church wedding. Reception at the Inn. Caterer from Philadelphia. Champagne, caviar, hors d’oeuvres—food folks here couldn’t even pronounce. So now they’ll say they’re sorry to hear, but they’ll be glad to listen, and whisper about richer or poorer and better or worse, and pray for her so they can gossip with God.”
Then he looked at you again. “They’ll hurt her,” he said. “They always could. But they could never make her change her mind. What could is if she thought Raytown was hurting you.
“Whenever we’d talk about coming home I’d say Raystown was too crooked. But she’d say, ‘Raystown’s straight, it’s just not true.’ Straight, to her, meant following rules. True meant doing what’s right. True was what she cared about, so that’s what you’ve gotta be. But you’ve gotta be straight too, so those party-line biddies won’t have dirt to throw in her face. Be straight for them, true for her; maybe then she’ll stay here where she’s safe, and what you coulda done but didn’t will be ancient history.”
Then he looked through the windshield again and said, in that far-off voice, “She was right. Raystown is straight. Trouble is, it leans. Nobody notices because we all lean the same way. If you’re born here, you grow up at an angle. If you leave, you can look back and see it’s out-of-kilter, but if you wanta come back, you’ve gotta learn to lean again. But comes a time you’ve gotta square up.” He looked at you again, and, for the first time, smiled. “Leaning’s a man’s problem,” he said. “You just worry about straight and true.”
And you remember what he said before you left the truck: “I’ll always be your mother’s friend. If she needs help, pick up the phone and tell the operator, eight-three-nine-R-four. If I don’t answer, somebody will; that whole line is Wisdom’s Notch.”
You remember quitting the comfort of the quilt and going tiptoe sockfoot to rouse the fire so the kitchen would be warm when she came down.
You remember the County Library where you’d check out Real Books About so you could explain things to her—Indians, helicopters, birds, the sea—while she washed and you dried.
You remember ring, ring, ringing and hearing her say, “Never, when you’re like this,” and, “Hal, don’t lie. I can practically smell it through the phone.”
You remember the forking of the path. One way, rocky and indefinite, went switchback uphill; the other, worn to smooth certainty, ran straight and almost level. You set your brogans on the upward way, thinking of the Old Settlers, but step-by-step that path grew fainter and finally disappeared. You stopped, thinking of the Lost Children, but then you looked and saw a mark emblazoned on an oak, higher than you could reach, and then another further on, and you followed the blazes on up to the ridge.
You remember hearing your Grandpa tell her, her friend Joe was making a fuss and was going to be persona non grata, and looking it up in the Lexicon and wondering if your Grandpa still had pull enough to send Joe Wisdom back to France.
You remember learning to assume the three-point stance—head up, tail down, weight balanced on staggered feet and the knuckles of one hand—ready to fire out low and hard when you heard the snap count.
You remember offering to buy Cokes for boys who didn’t have walking-around money, and they said it was white of you but wouldn’t take charity.
You remember hearing your Grandpa tell her, her friend Joe had hired a Semite shyster from Pittsburgh, and her saying, Wasn’t that what judges wanted people to do, hire lawyers instead of taking matters into their own hands?
You remember learning to not jump offsides, to clutch your jersey with your fists so you to wouldn’t hold, to hit your man in the numbers so you wouldn’t clip, to get your shoulder into him and always keep your legs driving, to focus all your feelings—hate, rage, shame, fear, frustration, pain, even love—into five seconds of furious contact.
You remember hearing her say, “Hal, it’s two a.m., he’s ten years old. Where do you think he is? . . . You demand to speak to your son? Call before closing time.”
You remember the bruises on your shoulders, chest, and arms, and the awed looks in the locker room, and your Grandpa’s smile when you said they didn’t hurt, and how he took you to the Rexall and bought you Absorbine Jr. and to the Coffee Pot and told the men you were one tough customer, and asking him for long-sleeved shirts so she wouldn’t have to see.
You remember hearing him tell her, her friend Joe needed reminding he was colored, and her saying, “What does that mean, exactly?” and him saying, “It means his children won’t be white, no matter who their mother is.”
You remember hearing his voice shout your name when you ran onto the field, and it didn’t matter that she was sorry, Sweetie, she just couldn’t face Raystown yet, because you were standing for her.
And you remember realizing: what you craved was not the contact, but the instant before; when, balanced in your three-point stance, you knew exactly what to do: drive and keep on driving, until the whistle blew.
Now you remember how the forest flared and the mountains looked like quilts, and the town grew fat with tourists come for the Foliage Festival, and the Public Squares were chockablock with booths selling cob corn brushed with butter, fried dough dusted with sugar, funnel cakes, pickled eggs, friendship bread, blood sausages, slabs of shoofly pie.
You remember the Patrician descending from the Heights, your mother at the wheel, smelling of Jergens and White Rain. And her mouth was straight and her cheek was smooth and her hair was pinned up high, and she looked as lovely as the lady on the soap she used.
You remember her holding your hand tight as you pulled her toward the crowd, and squeezing tighter when some ladies saw her and whispered to each other. But then an old man spoke her name and she spoke his, and an old lady patted her arm and said it was good to see her home, and she didn’t squeeze so tight.
Then you walked together, hand in hand, and she spoke to people, and some spoke back but some didn’t and she said they must be hard of seeing, and she bought you a mug of hot spiced cider and, because she said you had to take sour with sweet, some pickled watermelon rind. A group of men was making music on a violin, banjo, bass, and sideways guitar, going fast and taking turns with the melody, and she let go of your hand to clap her hands in time. Some people were grumbling that it wasn’t real country, but she said, Pay them no mind, it was bluegrass and they’d like it once they got used to it. Then you saw Joe Wisdom.
He had three girls with him, one holding each hand, one riding on his shoulders, and a tall woman with high caramel cheeks and long black braids. You said, “Hello, Mr. Wisdom,” and your mother stopped clapping and took your hand again and said, “Hello, Joe,” but there was no music in it.
He said, “Jewels. You remember Margo,” and the woman said, “Juliana,” and your mother said, “Why, yes. Margo, from Home Ec. What sweet little girls!” Then she pulled you in front of her and said, “This is my son.”
The woman gave Joe Wisdom a cockeyed look, then knelt and looked you in the eye, and hers were deep and black, but soft. And she said, “I hear you’re a man who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty,” and you said, “Yes ma’am, I mean, no ma’am, I mean, I’m just a boy,” and your face got hot and she smiled but didn’t laugh, and you realized: she was as lovely as your mother.
But now you remember your mother on the veranda, bundled in your Grandpa’s overcoat, arms crossed across her chest like she was holding something in. Silver plumed before her face and you thought she was smoking again, but then you realized: she was breathing hard. And you wanted to tell her to pay no mind, that you’d been straight and true, but then the ring, ring, ringing started, and she left the veranda, and you heard her say, “Yes, Hal, I suppose it is time we talked.”
Now you remember caw, caw, caw, and cold air slashing between sash and sill, and dead leaves raked into crackling piles, and gray smoke defiling the air, and her saying, over supper, your father had a new job, a better job, and your Grandpa asking, Better than the ones he’d got fired from or the ones he couldn’t get?
You remember guns booming in the forest and your Grandpa saying not to go exploring, it was hunting season, but going anyway, forsaking paths and trailmarks because nobody’d ever found it, only you had to because if there was room for Davy and his horse there’d be room for both of you.
You remember him telling her, her friend Joe had settled out of court.
You remember her asking, as she tucked you in, Didn’t you miss your room, your bunkbed? and wondering if she’d forgotten scooping you out of it, whispering, Shh shh, shh, going tiptoe barefoot past the La-Z-Boy, the shivaree of snore and static, the stink of whiskey and cigarettes. Then you realized: she didn’t want to see.
And you remember the Patrician parked beneath the flag and your Grandpa waiting, but not reading or resting his eyes or saying anything.
Now you remember the Thunderbird—blank faced, boxy, Doeskin Beige over Colonial White, the bird flattened on the hood—and your father’s big-voiced brags of Cruise-O-Matic, Master Guide, dual headlights, dual horns, dual everything, and his demonstrations of the push-in cigarette lighter on the central console, and the lever that made the electric turn signals go tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick—no more horse-and-buggy, hand-out-the-window jazz, he said. And he said they called it The Car Everyone Would Love to Own, and when your Grandpa said he’d liked the roadster better, he said, “Well, Dad, as usual, you’re a few model-years behind.”
You remember your Grandmother’s handmade tablecloth above and dragon legs below, and your mother asking was there too much lemon in the aspic, was the roast too done, did he want more of this or that, and jumping up to get it before he could say yes or no, and how when he said, “Julie, sit down and shut up,” your Grandpa left the table, but part of you was glad.
You remember your Grandpa on the Lookout, staring across the valley to the mountain opposite, where head- and taillights on the Turnpike moved swiftly east and west. And he said, “This is Appalachian Bedrock. It’s been here a billion years. It’ll always be here, any time you need it,” and you knew what he meant. But you heard him saying, underneath, that he didn’t intend to interfere, and you despised him for it.
And you remember waiting there, in your mackinaw and brogans, looking over treetops, steeples, rooftops, and smelling tobacco smoke and hearing your father say, “Well, don’t you look like Dan’l Boone. Kilt you a b’ar yet?” And you, not thinking, said, “That’s Davy Crockett . . .” and stopped.
He stepped out onto the rock beside you, took a drag on his cigarette. Then he said, “You’re confused. Your mother brought you here, and you’ve had her all to yourself. Your grandfather buys you anything you want; you’re the son he couldn’t have. Now you don’t want to leave.
“Well, let me unconfuse you. It doesn’t matter what you want. What matters is, I’m your father, and I demand respect. You will go where I say, when I say. You will look at me when I speak to you, and say sir when you speak to me. And don’t you dare ever correct me again. Do you understand?” And you said, “Yes, sir.”
Then he stepped closer to the edge, looked down and said, “Man, this truly is the ass end of the earth.” And then he flicked his cigarette butt into the empty air.
You watched it trace a glowing arc toward the bare treetops and thought, Only you can prevent, and dropped into your three-point stance, knowing but not caring that you’d go over too. You waited for him to turn, not to follow any rule, but so he’d see it coming when you fired out low and hard, and you felt it inside you: the blazing and the bellowing.
Only then you realized: the bellowing was outside too. And you looked and saw a dump truck appear at the crest: cab and bed of forest green, bumper and grille of polished steel, twin air horns chromed and radiant, silver bulldog statant on the hood.
It paused beside the Thunderbird, snorted once and hissed. Then it backed, grumbling, into the driveway, stopping at the woodpile, and magically the bed rose up on a thick, oily piston, and the tailgate lifted, and chunks came avalanching down, filling the air with dust and thunder.
You straightened and went toward it, seeing your Grandpa, then your mother, coming out the kitchen door, and still the chunks came roaring down, covering the old wood with new, piling higher than you could reach. Then they stopped. The bed subsided. Joe Wisdom climbed down from the cab.
Your Grandpa said, “Well, Joe, that Mack does haul quite a payload. I expect the price is double.” But Joe Wisdom said, “No charge, Judge. This boy earned one last load for you.” And he looked at you said, “God keep you, son.” Then he looked at your mother and said, “Au revoir, Jewels. Un baiser de benediction.”
But then you realized: you’d failed her again, because your father stepped from behind you and said, “Who the hell do you think you are, speaking to my wife like that? And he’s not your son, he’s mine.”
Only, you realized: you still had a chance. Because if you said what you wanted, what you wished, that would make it happen, and not to her—to you. And maybe if she saw she’d stop making believe, and maybe if he saw, your Grandpa would interfere.
But then you realized: you couldn’t. Because Joe Wisdom would surely interfere, but what might most matter, afterward, was that he wasn’t People Like Us, and you couldn’t trust your Grandpa to be true instead of straight, and maybe not your mother either. And then you realized: you couldn’t let them stand for you.
So you stepped in front of your father. You held out your hand. And you said, “Thank you, Mr. Wisdom, sir. Thank you for the wood.”
They’re gone now. First your mother, of manner and cause detailed in the trial transcript; then your Grandpa, of grief, some said, and, you’d hoped, guilt, but probably just too many real country breakfasts; now your father, the twenty having turned out to be longer than the life.
That should have ended it. But the Department of Corrections, while willing to cremate, insisted you come in person to perform the rites you requested. So you set out at the crack of dawn for the Western Penitentiary to receive the ashes, dump them in a toilet, urinate, and flush.
With three hundred horses under the Firebird’s hood, you figured to get from the Delaware to the Ohio and back by supper, but after you crossed the Susquehanna you saw the Allegheny Front and could almost hear your Grandpa cribbing Kipling, and between Blue Mountain and Kittatinny you remembered the pin mill. Now you see the sign for Juniata Crossing, and without thinking, downshift, slip between jake-braking semis, take the off-ramp, pay the toll.
Juniata Crossing is not as you remember: two off-brand gas stations, one greasy spoon, one ten-cabin motor lodge. Now it’s a junction of the Turnpike with a north-south Interstate, and Route 30 is a four-lane lined with outlets of every oil company, fast-food franchise, and cheap motel chain known to man.
But a mile west two-lane asphalt reappears, ascending sharply then descending in switchbacks through a green profusion of pine, oak, and sugar maple, to where River Road still runs along the north bank of the Raystown Branch, brown and swollen from recent rains. The valley spreads in herded pastures and husbanded fields, and you can almost hear your Grandpa naming the strains: Yorkshire, Berkshire, Poland China; Guernsey, Jersey, Holstein, Black Angus; timothy, alfalfa, black medick, white Dutch, yellow dent, Tuscarora white. The Firebird grumbles in third gear, but you feel yourself resting easy, recalling how, here, forward, backward, left, and right mean less than up and down. Too soon you see the fresh green of weeping willows, the mountain rearing ahead.
But instead of swinging into empty air to bridge the Narrows, the road suddenly ascends through a raw cut blasted through the mountain, then widens into an expressway on a high embankment. The river and the town must be below and to your left, but all you can see are treetops and no sign for an exit.
You shift the Firebird into top gear, thinking it’s better this way; you don’t really want to see what’s faded out, fallen in, been modernized to charmlessness or tarted up for tourists. Still, you find yourself looking up, hoping to glimpse the houses on the Heights. But suddenly somehow you are in the Thunderbird, looking through the rear window at your Grandpa on the veranda, then through the windshield at the statues, brown and gray, the bank, drugstore, and five-and-dime, the traffic light turning red. You see your father’s hand pushing in the lighter and picking up his Camels from the center console. You see his lips sucking a cigarette out of the pack. You hear tock-tick, tock-tick, and your mother saying, “No, go straight . . .” and stopping.
You remember part of you was glad. Because it was going to happen sooner or later, so let it happen here, where half the town would see and the rest would hear by noon, where you could tell the operator eight-three-nine-R-four.
But it didn’t happen then or there. Instead, you heard him telling her things were going to be different, that they’d start by taking that scenic route the old man was always going on about. Then you heard the lighter twang and smelled tobacco burning.
Only now you remember something more: him holding out the cigarette and her accepting it, inhaling deeply and exhaling, then leaning, stretching, twisting, contorting her whole body across the console to place the cigarette precisely between his lips. And you realize: there was nothing you could have done to save her.
And now you see it, through the windshield: spanning frame sagging, guy wires snapped, gantries fallen, catwalks dangling like broken arms. Now you’re past it and see a sign warning of the expressway’s end, then another, offering a connector to the ’Pike. You double-clutch downshift, flick the lever, hear tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick.
But suddenly somehow you realize: you’re rushing no place good for no good reason, when the road you’re on will get you where you need to go. And before that it will lift you to a summit from where the land looks like the sea, and after, it could take you anywhere—the Plains, the Rockies, clean to the Pacific.