I was driving home, though to anyone who cared I was just getting out of the city. My wife and I were fighting and I wasn’t happy. I missed flowers. I missed the smell of them outside the post office on the street corner west of my parents’ house. They drove me crazy. My memory was full of these smells. There was the smell of rain that fell from the mountains and drenched the country. In my grandparents’ barn there was the smell of chicken shit, and in the houses of all my aunts, the smell of coffee brewing. I smelled the cigarette smoke in my mother’s house and the Chef Boyardee pizza sauce in my father’s house. To tell you the truth, I thought I’d never get to go back again, so I just went.
I drove down country roads, tree limbs crisscrossing the telephone lines above me. I didn’t know what I was looking for, really. Some sign, I guess. I tried the radio once I crossed into West Virginia. FM was nothing but the same 90s songs played over and over again from one town to another. Sirius was out. I turned the radio off. I saw The Golden Arches, 99¢, exit 132, flashing before me. I didn’t pull over. As hungry as I was, I kept going. I listened to the purr of my engine and the silence of the mountains. Those were the most plangent sounds I’d ever heard, and I cried. I drove like this for several hours until the gas tank hit E. I pulled into a Sheetz and filled up the tank, then walked inside to the back wall of glass doors and grabbed a five-dollar bottle of Starbucks coffee, paid for everything, and got back in the car. When I put the coffee in the cup holder I sat there, bowled over, because there it was—my arrowhead. I’d found it as a boy in a cave my father had called the Indian Place. It’d traveled with me thirty-some years before I lost it. For a year or more I’d not seen it. Now there it sat in the sticky cup holder. Were it not for its sentimental value, I could’ve used it for hunting; its craftsmanship was flawless. Almost two inches long, the sides narrowed until they reached the tip, pencil thin and sharp. The right side was shaped with a precise curve to make removal from a kill easier.
I ran my finger along the thin arc of the blade and looked past the highway to the mountains. They were beautiful and distant, like a postcard of heaven. A person could love that view. I plunked the arrowhead into my pocket and drove on. A couple hours later I saw the sign advertising Mount Lookout. I knocked the turn signal then eased the car to a stop in my parents’ driveway a mile later. My father was sitting on the porch steps.
As I write I’m aware that my memory has made a lot out of very little. There was my old man sitting there, smoking like he did. He wasn’t altogether remarkable. Never went to school, worked in the coal mines his whole life. All his friends could sit on their heels in their old age while he just kept on working, and he did it by preference. He was sensible and well-meaning and always had a look of honesty about him. I believed at the time that my love of writing had been beamed down from space—it couldn’t possibly have come from him. He could barely put a sentence together, and, sure enough, although whip-smart, I thought he lacked a higher wisdom. And yet the compulsion arose to figure out what his thoughts were. Because the more attention I paid, the more I felt—for all his restlessness, endless silence and lack of humor—he was hiding a dark, alien sadness from me. Or was it from himself?
We had a particular way of addressing each other when we were happy to be talking. I doubt he’d remember most of our conversation that night. I told him I’d be visiting a few days, and he said why, and I said my wife and I were going through a hard time, and he said why, and I said, because we hate each other, and he said, I don’t think you hate each other. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, you don’t hate each other, as if that settled the matter. I said, how’re things down here, and he said, place ain’t changed since last time, and I said, and Mom? And he said, usual. He said, what’re you writin now? I told him nothing really, not at the moment. And he said, you write some of the prettiest things. The more we talked, the more things evened out. It surprised me how fast we went from awkward conversation to frank intimacy, and I thought how at peace he was with himself, such a change from when I was a kid.
He squeezed my shoulder again and took me to the extra room behind the kitchen, the one with the window that looked out at the woods. He rummaged through a closet, taking a small pink bag.
“This was your sister’s after she had lice when she was little, remember?”
“It’s not too late for me to get a room.”
“Hell, you’d have to drive to Summersville,” he said as he removed the inflatable Barbie bed from the bag and laid it on the floor. He turned on the pump and it throbbed and began to inflate.
“I forget—what’d you have on your bed when you was a kid?”
“You know what I mean. Cowboys or spaceships?”
He sat half-hunkered down in a vague and vulnerable way, watching me get ready for bed as if I were a boy again. When I told him I couldn’t remember that far back, he said, “There’s soap, shampoo, all that stuff, for in the morning.”
He left the mattress inflating and walked to the door. I looked out the window and could smell grass and manure. There was a radio on the floor in the corner; I plugged it in and put on a country song, a woman singing about a man leaving on a quest and how she waited years for his return. I reached into my pocket past my keys, fumbling for the arrowhead. The stone was cold against my skin. I looked back and saw my dad standing in the doorway. He took a few hesitant steps down the hallway, waving at me as if waving could pull me home.
When we drove into town the next day, I wished I hadn’t come back. Most of the old places I remembered had been torn down and replaced with look-a-like fast food chains, gas stations, and department stores, all run by white people. It wasn’t completely a working town anymore, but it wasn’t set up for locals looking for good food either. Eventually we landed on Maloney’s Sports Bar. I took my dad as a thank you for letting me sleep at his house. We both ordered steak; my dad had a ribeye and I had the New York strip. Never had a better steak in my life. It was so tender I actually took time to thank the cow for being such a pussy.
We ordered a bottle of Wild Turkey and shared it. My dad put his left hand to his cheek and looked wistful; then he began to shake his head and said, “Well, what’re you writin’ now?” I sighed and said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “Well, you must be writin’ somethin’,” and I said, “I don’t know; I still can’t figure this place out.” Then he said, “Why do you think your wife hates you,” and I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “Well, you must know somethin’.” I told him it was like that John Prine song about love being like a Christmas card. I told him I thought I loved another woman, a better woman. He tried to explain that a different woman is still a woman—and therefore not so different from a wife. Even in my drunken state I thought this was bullshit. He said, “Sometimes women are real trouble—they make you want to give up.” Then he said, “But that’s how things have to be: they’re the ones who give birth. They should be in charge,” he said. “They know best,” he added. Insofar as that was the truth, I still thought how sad it was.
My dad knew this from experience. Or so I assumed. I had no idea, actually, how he and my mother operated. But I don’t want to talk about the ache I used to get every time I imagined him being dragged down by her. Her multiple sclerosis limited her to short walks, and, like a dog bound by a chain, she stuck around the house most of the time. She’d been getting weak for years. There were noticeable signs (which were alarming because I couldn’t imagine her getting old). At the start there was muscle twitching and cramping. She’d wake up and have difficulty moving then be tired throughout the day. Illness wasn’t the first assumption; no matter how much of a realist she was, it would’ve never been the first assumption. Now her hands shook with a constant palsy. She developed a kind of tired lag in her speech. Words came slowly, in awkward bursts and dodging ways. Twice or three times a day she felt the need to run cold water in the shower and cool off. She noticed she was losing control of her mind, her emotions. Finally, she stopped dreaming altogether, which is what scared me most of all. When she first got sick my dad kind of knew she was really sick, that something was really wrong. He had, at one point, I imagine, truly loved her.
Here’s a story they used to tell and laugh about: once, when they were newlyweds, they had dinner at a nice place in Charleston. Afterward, they took a ride around downtown in a taxi, something neither of them had ever done. Their food had been expensive, the ride seemed silly, and yet, Mom glowed with gratitude, her eyes full of life and fun. She was happy, giving off warmth that Dad soaked up as he wrapped his arm around her. I doubt they’d’ve thought embellishing this part was quite as good as what actually happened. Anyway, he used to enjoy it, just being next to her. This was where he’d gotten his strength. Now she’d turned into a shut-in. Her face had lost all joy, all hope. Her dead spirit had taken over her very body. I don’t mean to imply that he resented her. I didn’t believe that, though at times I wondered.
“What about Mom?” I said plaintively.
He looked over at me, his eyes shining. Since he’d spent the past few years dodging this moment, you’d’ve thought I asked him the question at gunpoint. I’d never seen him show such solicitude and I can still picture, all too clearly, how he looked.
“She keeps me sensible.”
We sat quietly for a long time. The place was packed and there were too many faces. My Dad raised his head. “What’s goin’ on? The Pope here or somethin’?”
“If it’s too crowded we can go somewhere else,” I said.
“No, it’s fine,” he said. “You still got your arrowhead?”
I pulled the arrowhead from my pocket.
“I can’t believe you still have it.”
“I always wondered what it pointed to.”
“Maybe the search for whatever it’s pointin’ to is better than whatever it’s pointin’ to.”
I thought for a long while. I downed the Wild Turkey then sat the empty glass down and basked in that moment of thought. I decided he was wrong, that there was no use searching, no use having an arrow to point you somewhere if there wasn’t something worth finding at the end. It might’ve been the bourbon that made me dwell on this just a hair too long because I said I needed to be reminded of why it wasn’t a mistake to leave West Virginia in the first place.
A short silence. There was almost a note of apology in his eyes.
“Does no good to look back, what choices we make, they’re gone now.”
“I thought about moving back down here.”
“This is serious shit, Russ. You don’t want to wade through it. You have a good woman and a life. This place’ll suck you down faster than quicksand in one of them old Tarzan movies.” He stubbed out his cigarette and exhaled smoke. “You’re not always gonna be happy,” he said, and poured another glass. “But when you feel like you can’t do nothin’ for yourself,” lighting another cigarette, “that’s when you know how it feels to be a good man.”
His response was both mild and fated and sounded like the tone that he would use to calm a crying child. He smoked his cigarette, which gave his silence an omniscient air that I found especially peculiar. But the gravity only went so far.
“Remember that time those girls believed…what was it you told em’—really had em’ goin’—that if you all ran naked through the football field? That thing. I forget.”
“Hell, I don’t remember,” I laughed.
We drank more. I talked about girls I’d fucked in college and we listened to loud music until we couldn’t even hear each other talking anymore. We were talking very loudly and laughing, and the people near us were laughing though they couldn’t’ve known what we were talking about because the bar was so loud all they could probably hear was the laughter.
He told me we should streak down the street like I did on that football field with the girls, so we stripped off our clothes and ran down Main Street, our pasty white bodies as jarring a sight as one living in West Virginia could expect to see. My dad ran ahead of me, eyes closed, laughing the whole way. He stopped laughing but kept running, like Wile E. Coyote running along a tree limb that ended in thin air.
Later that night I woke on the floor of my childhood bedroom. I felt very drunk, like a TV with the mute button stuck. After we streaked and ran back to my dad’s SUV, I slipped into the door and smashed my eye on the side mirror. It’s really easy to misjudge how high you have to step up on those things, even if you aren’t shitfaced. It hurt, and there was a little blood, so I thought I’d check the damage in the bathroom.
I walked to the end of the trailer and stepped into the bathroom. I leaned over the edge of the sink and checked myself in the mirror. My eye looked like a hardboiled egg covered in crusted chocolate syrup. I wondered how I could see through the scabs, through all that blood. I stood there gathering my thoughts, trying to decide whether to go to the emergency room or simply wash my face. What had it all meant, I wondered—the arrowhead, the father-son bonding, the chummy streak through my old hometown, and all the talk of women?
Behind me, I heard the sound of my dad clearing his throat.
It occurred to me that I had walked into my parents’ bathroom. I whirled around and saw both my father and mother sitting on the lip of the tub. My dad had a razor and a can of shaving cream in his hand. My mom’s legs were covered with shaving cream. My dad took the razor and ran it down the length of her calf. The razor was so full of gunk I could practically hear the scrabbling sound it made against the stubble of her hair. It was so violating that I didn’t have the capacity to do anything but stand there. My dad pressed the razor deeper and the blade stuck to a rough place. I saw the dark line of blood and gunk trickle down her calf. There was something suddenly tender and kind in the tableau. Embarrassed, I closed my eyes.
I decided there was no point in sticking around. I backed out slowly, as if I’d crossed an imaginary line, but almost reluctantly, which I think surprised me even more. They didn’t come out of their room that night. I know because I waited. I waited in front of the TV and ate an entire box of strawberry Pop Tarts and chased it down with milk, watching an Andy Griffith marathon on TBS. I had some time to think about the whole thing. It was one of those times when I could almost fool myself into thinking that things weren’t all that bad with my wife. It felt good to be alone and thinking of her, of how the things we think we want most in life are so rarely what we actually need that when we get them we seldom believe it, and without knowing, sometimes let them go. I rinsed my glass out in the sink and went to bed.
The next morning I got up early to leave before my parents woke. I’d made my mind up. I’d try to take care of things with my wife. Sacrifices are made, but not in vain. Going into the living room I stopped in front of my parents’ room and leaned in with my ear, but I heard nothing. I reached for the arrowhead in my pocket, but it wasn’t there. I figured I’d lost it when I hit my head the night before. I continued into the kitchen, making no effort to keep the floor from creaking. My dad had left a note lying on the kitchen table:
We’ll glad you came to visit & we wish you the Best in Life. Tell your
wife we said hi. Always Remember Time is Spend Together & enjoy each other.
I still have that note. I saved it in my wallet.