Lavada rose to the iron dark and stepped barefoot across the cabin floor, pausing and placing her hand to the door to test the wind's new ache. To know it as her own. Touch told her she would need Mason’s coat. It hung on a nail next to the mantle. She took it in her hands and slipped her thin arms through the sleeves, wearing the weight of her man for a moment before she drew on his blistered boots and stepped into another day lacking him.
A rill of daylight cracked the ridge. She came around the side of the cabin to check the car for frost. Drew back her fist and smacked the door seam, overnight rime freeing. She climbed in and cranked the engine, revving it to open the thermostat. Went back to the cabin to get the old man up and ready for being left alone.
She tapped at his bedroom door and spoke his name. She could hear him stir, but he said nothing. She knocked again, harder, and heard the underlying hiss of his slippers. He would be out.
She snapped three eggs into a china bowl and whisked them together, dicing in onions and thawed peppers. Anything else would have been too hard on the old man’s teeth. The range ticked three times before the pilot light caught and the ring spat crenellated flame. The skillet talked as the eggs hit the surface. By the time she scraped them onto two small plates, Sam entered, dressed and cleanly shaven.
“Good morning, daughter,” he took his place at the kitchen table.
She set his plate before him and sat. How long had it been now since the convention of calling her as his kin had been confused with his actual belief in their blood relation?
“Good morning, Sam. Sleep well?”
“Ah,” he nodded.
His words failed him more these days. What was said and what he intended seemed to live in two different corners of the same room, never completely at odds and yet mislaid somewhere between thought and the saying.
“Do we have time to garden today, Daughter?”
She crossed the fork and knife on her plate.
“It’s winter, Sam. There’s nothing we can plant this time of year. Everything’s frozen. I’ve told you that.”
He released a sigh, shook his head, blue eyes seeking.
After scraping off the remains of windshield ice with a kitchen blade, Lavada climbed into the Honda and gunned it for the ridge line road. She liked the feeling of the hollow sinking behind her, the road opening up to the overlooks. Slip all tethers and give herself to momentum. The morning drive was a pleasure, a tight controlled movement along the shoulders of the mountains, the right-of-way ceding to her memory of so many drives in and out like this one. She did not consciously anticipate dips and curves, as much as feel herself forward, lean intelligently into the next bend and brake.
At Stubbs’s roadside stop above the county line, she pulled into the empty parking lot for her cigarettes. When she swung the door open, the cowbell banged against the glass and Mrs. Stubbs glared at her over the top of a Better Homes and Gardens.
“Help you?” she said in a tone bereft of sincerity. Her magazine a solid screen of overbold font, porticoes, English topiary.
“Yessum,” Lavada answered, awkward. “Can I get a pack of Kools?”
“What’s a Kools?”
“They’re cigarettes. Menthol cigarettes.”
“Never heard of them,” she said, sighting her down one ill eye.
“They’re in a green box. With stripes.”
The old woman found them, shoved the pack across, rang her up.
“How’s your husband? I’m used to seeing him in here.”
“Coughing up a lung,” the old woman said. “Come down with something, I guess. He’ll recover.”
Lavada turned to leave.
“Your man still up at the pen?”
The familiar disfavor, the judgment of a life reduced to what they wanted to see of her, what they wanted to make of her. She knew she would always remember the simple gift of their hate.
“Thanks for the cigarettes,” she clinked open the door.
“You’re still a young thing,” the old woman called. “There’s better out there than holing up with a father-in-law fit for the old folks’ home, you know.”
She had lit the first cigarette before the engine turned and finished it by the time she crossed the South Carolina state line. With the window cracked, the winter air danced in, making confusion of the hair loose at her temples. It stung.
Once she was coming down through the foothills, the road widened as it plunged through red banks and thickening pines. Roadhouses stood empty this time of morning. Fireworks stands were bright and antic with signs. Broad ply board proclaimed: BLACK CAT. NO DUDS GUARANTEED.
On to the town limits of Dry Gulch, a long stretch of green flats with a few small farms on either side, tractors asleep under tin roofs. Further on, the town proper began to assemble itself, newish brick ranches with big yards and cyclone fences surrendered to hundred year old stately colonials with scrolled balconies. Finally, the old downtown, a true main street, divided by occasional islands of rotary club flower beds, stubbled for the winter. Small poplar trees braced with metal poles to ensure perfect vertical growth. On each side broad sidewalks gave way to independent store fronts: a pair of barber shops, Lonney’s Hardware, a Purina feed store, Army/Navy surplus. Going out of business.
Lavada parked at the end of the sidewalk and stepped into Gillenwater’s. Inside, the grill sizzled with sausage patties and hash browns. She stepped behind the counter and poured a white mug full of coffee for herself. Gillenwater flipped the sausage and potatoes onto a plate and leaned back over the counter with a mostly clean fork. She poured him out a cup and set it down at his right hand. He fell to his breakfast.
“You’re in early,” he shaped out his words between bites.
She scanned the few tables and booths to make sure the morning prep work was done. The duty, automatic.
“Afraid of the weather. Thought it would be worse than it is.”
“You know I can always come out to get you in case it gets rough.”
“That’s too far, Dennis.”
“It’s just a drive, is all.”
He looked down at her boots, laced tight to her calves, the ends tucked in.
“Don’t those get hard on your feet? You look more sawmill pulper than waitress.”
Through the glass façade, she watched the empty street come into its regular midweek stride. As soon as the door swung open, she greeted her first customers, order pad tucked under her arm, pen notched above her ear.
“Now, Dennis,” she cocked her head and answered in her best Nancy Sinatra. “You know as well as I do these boot were made for working, And that’s just what I’ll do…”
She whistled off, leaving him grinning.
Mason lifted his arm, thumb rigid in the air, hearing big tires and a quick engine coming on. He had not bothered with the thin sounds of passenger cars, knowing they were a waste of effort, but the big trucks were driven by men long on the road, empty of good caution. They would welcome him, a curiosity to entertain the lonesome hours ahead. When he heard the grinding downshift and the engine catching high, he dropped his hand, eased one shoulder strap of the ruck from his shoulder and turned toward the asphalt, waiting to be let on and taken the rest of the way home.
He climbed up into the cab and stowed the back pack on the floor in front of him, all his ready possessions riding against his shins, bouncing softly as the truck gathered speed.
The driver grunted his name and Mason gave his as well and then they were on to the ritual exchange, the swapping of stories that ate up so much of the common life of the highway. As the hours drew on, his own voice became an easy song in the throat, a steadiness that passed between both men while his mind could slip away to watch the long green of the free world roll out on either side of the road, the borderless ground like some kind of materially realized echo, a cracking sound wave of all that limitless choice.
As they came into the foothills and later the mountains, the trees nudged in closer, attending him, constricting the passage into some form he could reasonably suffer. So different than the unfamiliar world of the piedmont, a place that was crushed, dimensionless. Here there was grip and hold, a country with legacies not easily slipped. This place held no guesses, no deceptions of promise, only the fate of knowing what others who had ridden these same roads and byways knew, that the world of bluff, creek and gorge was without parallel, that the grim and the beautiful were locked together and that the men and women were owned by it in equal measure, released by nothing so simple as God given will.
He got out at the head of the Narrow Spoke crossroads, footing it back toward the glum windings of the gravel road leading in to the family property, singlewides up on naked blocks with clapboard additions tipping against the prefab, rude ideas of improvement realized by increments. Shepherds and terriers barked. Security lights popped on in the twilight.
Ray Ray met him on the deck of his trailer, automatic pistol palmed but loose, a simple piece of iron, no threat between peaceable kin.
“You look like shit, Cousin,” Ray Ray smiled.
“The way of the world.”
Ray Ray laughed his easy laugh.
“Bring your sorry ass up here.”
Mason slipped the ruck and met an embrace. Ray Ray shoved him back a second later and stared hard into his face.
“Same old Buddy,” Ray Ray said finally, falling to Mason’s childhood nickname. “Sit down. I’ll get us a little cold beer.”
Mason pulled up one of the metal folding chairs and trained it around so he could see the length of the valley he’d trudged up. On the other side of the far ridgeline the tourists had moved in and bought up all the scenic views, sticking pasteboard mansions to it so they could feel good about themselves for looking across at all the stubborn trailer trash who refused their bribes. The homes’ huge glass fronts were ablaze with electric light. Big yellow light pouring out so they could be seen watching those who watched them back, maybe wondering if it was enough to stir envy and hate in those poor misbegottens. Hoping it did. The sight of it all made Mason itch for a few satchels of dynamite.
Ray Ray came back with two popped tall boys, tears of condensation running. Mason laid one to his temple for a moment, then drank deep.
“I guess you figured out Lavada didn’t come and see me,” he said. “Two years, and not once.”
An old diesel train engine hauled a short freight out towards the river bed. The sound of its progress clacked on, a spike of useless noise in the useless distance.
“Buddy, she’s been looking after your Daddy real good. That has to count for something.”
They emptied their cans.
“She’s my woman, and she abandoned me. That sure as hell counts for something all right.”
There was little easy room to be had when it was time to settle in for the night. The couch and an old boy scout sleeping bag were all Ray Ray could apportion. The beer had taken its toll on Mason, and he suffered a tiredness that threatened to carry him into a scaling and dreamless oblivion. But before he would let himself be broken and dragged down, he ground his fists into his eyes and turned his head toward the long window and the valley beyond. Darkness and mountains reared in an enormous force over everything his eye could take in. A frozen breakwater, a great avalanche of stone poised to descend.
He swung his feet to the floor and steadied himself, listening to Ray Ray snoring in the back bedroom. The night made things somehow strange, derelict. The shape of old lamps, chairs and end tables released their accustomed lines, and objects inert managed to live, to feel. The sadness of this place suddenly broke over him, tumbled in a mute chaos of things remembered and imagined. Confused grief beaded in his eye. He did not know what sorrow he was weeping for. He feared, above all, that it was not his own.
One more beer. A rickety shuffle to the humming fridge and an Ice House torn from the plastic ring. Drinking like there was an undiscovered world in the next swallow. Knowing it all was about her, always had been. Even his hatred was a kind of love. He knew she made him suffer a brand of madness, an epilepsy of need, and regret too. One element seemed to sharpen the others, grinding down whatever remained of him in the process.
He eased out to the porch where his ruck was leaned against the far railing and carefully drew the weight of it onto his back. Staggering, he braced his free hand to the corner post and stepped out into the starlit yard, moving under the constellations, feeling as ancient and marooned as those splinters of galactic time. Overhead sketchings of cardinal direction and decision. He sucked back the rest of the beer, pitched the aluminum husk beside the road and walked straight out of the old family place, pursuing the stranger course of what lay before him.
Charles Dodd White was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1976. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina where he teaches writing and Literature at South College. He has been a Marine, a flyfishing guide and a newspaper journalist. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Night Train, North Carolina Literary Review, PANK, Word Riot and several others. His novel Lambs of Men, a story of a Marine Corps veteran of World War I in Western North Carolina, was published by Casperian Books, and his story collections Sinners of Sanction County by Bottom Dog Press He is currently at work on another novel.