Black Water Sundays and Another Kind of Gone
They sent their youngest boy, Billy, outside to stand at the bottom of the drive along the edge of the dirt road that ran between the pasture and the barnboard shack they called a home. There he remained for the better part of that Sunday afternoon, wet-cold in his cousin’s denim jacket, legs apart, TV antenna held aloft, while inside, his mama, stepdaddy, and three broad-shouldered brothers with no two last names the same, watched the football game on a black and white TV. A voice from behind him calling, A little to the left! A bit to the right! Orders issued through the window, the only clear instructions he had ever known. By half-time, the home team down by seven, Billy’s neck and shoulder muscles twitching, he pretends he is made of stone. Sometimes he dreams the house is filling with black water, on its surface, a pair of hunting socks, a flashlight, milking bucket, box of engine parts, a rusty 55-gallon drum. Bobbing, swirling, some things drifting, some swept away. How bright and cold the world, he thinks. He gazes skyward, adds and subtracts whole numbers, counts the shingles on the shed. Inside, the family hoots and cheers, their tin plates piled high. He is hungry for blueberry pancakes. He would like to go inside now. He has seen enough of sky.
At twenty-two he has tripled in size, works split shift at the foundry, loads scrap metal into the furnace. This he does with a reluctant ease. He’s got a special understanding of the discarded and the cast aside, hard things that take up space but are worth nothing at all. Nights he climbs the stairs to sleep in his childhood bed. Mama walks in circles, pacing out the distance between dreams. It’s been this way for years. Ever since that Sunday, the Sunday after Billy got his driver’s licence, truck already strapped down with all his things, and a plan to set off for anywhere but here. It was the Sunday after New Year’s, roads piled high with dirty snow. The Sunday his oldest brother, wrapped in his camouflage coat, chose to loop his belt around a branch out back of the East Point Methodist church, the one sure way to leave this town. So now, two brothers banged up, another gone, most nights he wakes, cold-stung, to muffled noises, black water rising to his chest. Throat tight as a fist, he bends to take another hit from his bong, relief drawn briefly into his lungs. But the flame, too quickly flaring, fading, gone is not enough to warm him. He cannot find his blanket in the dark.
A decade on not much has changed. He fills the tub for Mama, takes out the trash, her empties rattling in the metal can. Crazy Eyes, she calls him, as if it were his name. Most days are like this now, Mama hissing, bare-legged in the kitchen, grey hair pulled tight. You got your daddy’s crazy eyes! He stacks the firewood, fixes himself with single malt and holds his tongue. There is nothing left to say. He has no recollection of his daddy or his eyes. Just the smell of oil and sweat, the hollow thunk of the boots he’d worn the last time Billy saw him, the day he’d gone out for a roll of chicken wire and never came home again. Billy learnt his daddy’d been stabbed to death in prison. Or so said Bucky Linton that Sunday night outside the American Legion. Sum’bitch had it comin’, he did, Bucky sniggered, lips twitching, a toothpick between his teeth. Fighting’s in the blood. Billy just shook his head and kept on walking, a hard knot in his chest. Truth is, Billy thought, he’d have knifed the bastard himself given half the chance.
Later, years later, when he is thirty-one or forty-three, when he has grown tired of treading water, tired of pushing the pieces of his life uphill to drier ground, a change will come. One day, perhaps another Sunday, maybe late in June, he will rise before dawn, zip up his jacket, pull on his boots and drive west to the abandoned lumberyard at the far end of 414 off Old Schoolhouse Road. There he’ll switch off the high beams of his beater Dodge and sit for a spell beneath the elms, engine idling, windows rolled down, while David Allen Coe croons on the 8-track about another kind of gone. He’ll light a Lucky Strike, cough once, cough twice, and with an air of thoughtless grace, he’ll flick the match still flaming into the dry field grass. Then, with one hand holding the cigarette, steering with the other, a little awkward on the clutch, he’ll turn back onto the blacktop, the blue-orange light filling his rear-view mirror, and head off in the direction of the rising sun.
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