Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Ed Davis
“Wild, Wonderful West Virginia,” the sign halfway across the silver bridge read as I crossed the Ohio River. I hadn’t seen or heard from my old man in a dozen years. He’d called a couple of times after our ill-fated reunion at my ex-in-laws’ years ago, urging me to visit, but had finally gotten the message that I didn’t want to sleep in the same teepee where My-Dad-the-Traitor and his second wife Linda, the Cherokee squaw, had conceived my half-brother Latham.
My imagination had transformed my little brother into a beautiful boy with Linda’s awesome black eyes, olive complexion and straight black hair and Dad’s thick lips and large-boned build. Brother. The word rang hollow through my divorces, estrangement from my son and daughter (they never call even now), through surgery, chemo and Mom’s early death. The day came, though, when I said it in my shrink’s office, and it sounded different. I saw a boy almost a man, a boy about the age at which my father left us, his first family, for the squaw. I was old enough to be his father. But I already had a son.
As the land beside the road began to get hillier and rockier beside the corskscrew cowpath they called a road in Mason County, I knew I was almost there. Was I crazy? They’d probably long ago fled this place after the old man got rich from his settlement with the mining company. But no, something told me they’d still be around. Latham would be seventeen or eighteen by now, maybe even in college. My father would be white-headed, stooped and bent but no doubt still capable of enraging me with empty apologies. How had I ever let Walt Myers talk me into this Mission Impossible? I had to give the shrink credit; he was good.
Up ahead was the gas station the old man had said I’d see, only now it was a BP, not a Shell, and the dirt road beyond was worse than I’d imagined. After trying to do fifteen and getting my teeth nearly rattled out of my skull, I slowed to a crawl, still fearing that some of the larger stones protruding between the road’s two deep ruts might rip open the Miatta’s belly, trapping me here in the boonies. Brown dust clouds roiled around me as I approached what had to be their house.
Lack of repair was my main clue. The one-story clapboard was almost entirely paint-free. Porch supports had already succumbed to time and rot, leaning toward each other like winos, allowing the roof to sag sadly in the middle. An ancient Z-28, once blue but now mostly Bondo-brown, rode cinder blocks in the front yard. A freshly-painted fire-engine red mailbox with MacLawder scrawled in white kindergartner’s letters on the side leaned eagerly into the road as if waiting to devour welfare checks. At least no stricken Kelvinators or Hotpoints crowded the porch, only a lone canebottom chair. Nothing grew in the beat-down-dirt yard where I could easily envision pigs wallowing. Maybe Dad hadn’t gotten rich after all.
After parking as well off the narrow road as I could and stepping out carefully for fear of muddying my new white Nikes, I’d just slammed the car door and turned toward the gate by the mailbox when the short, quick report of a dog’s bark a few feet away reeled me backward, my left foot sliding into something soft.
“Shit!” I said accurately, freeing my no-longer-white Nike from the ooze, so furious I’d probably have bitten the bastard if he’d had the balls to attack just then. Steaming with rage, I noticed the lucky beast lurked inside the chickenwire fence: a Doberman, my least favorite creature in the universe. I could’ve sworn the SOB grinned at me as I ineffectually scraped my soiled shoe across the dirt. The animal continued to bark till the front door opened and a large figure loomed into view in the gathering dusk.
Linda had changed. Fifty pounds heavier, she seemed barely able to walk because of her bulk, but it was her face that most astonished me as I stared, the whole world hanging silent as she leaned forward, peering nearsightedly with the same snapping black eyes I recalled, undimmed by age. Most shocking was her hair. Beautiful silver-grey, it framed her face, hanging below her basketball breasts that were only somewhat obscured by a yellow, orange, blue and brown afghan draped around her shoulders.
“I’ve come to see my old man,” I said in as even a voice as I could muster.
“Fletcher’s dead,” she said, lowering her gaze for a moment, as if the full weight of it had just struck her. Then as she quickly looked up at me again, the last light of day illuminated her face, revealing down-turned mouth, webs and seams around eyes and furrows cut across her brow. My heart sputtered. I hadn’t foreseen that someone whose very name made my bowels burn could die without my knowing. My old man had croaked and not even had to the courtesy to let me know.
“May I come in?” I asked meekly. She’d said two words and I was already intimidated.
Mouth clamped shut, eyes lowered, she turned and disappeared inside, leaving the door open. Since the Doberman had retreated around back, I opened the gate and followed.
The house was much the same inside as outside: brown linoleum floor in the livingroom; sagging couch and leaning La-Z-boy. I followed Linda into the kitchen where she returned to washing dishes. Dropping onto a shaky wooden chair, I watched her broad back, her shoulders rippling slightly as she bent to her work, and tried to think of something to say. I wondered again why I’d come. (Oh, yeh: the shrink. Bastard.)
“How’d he die?” I finally asked.
After wiping her large, red, raw-knuckled hands, she sat heavily across from me.
“Fletcher did not win his suit against the company like he thought he would. They killed him.”
“What?” I sputtered.
“Not how you think. The company bought some fancy New York lawyers. Fletcher hired his cousin Delmer, a mealy-mouthed knucklehead from Charleston. Knucklehead wanted to settle out of court, but the company refused. At the trial, the company paid many witnesses to lie. Delmer made a fool of himself. Fletcher lost.”
“But you said they killed him?”
“It hurt Fletcher’s soul that the company, judge, lawyers and jury did not find him justice. Two months after the trial, his heart gave out.” She jerked a thumb. “Right back there in the bedroom.”
When she hung her head, I knew she’d loved him, and I found my guts glowing with envy. I recalled how she’d hung at his side, listened worshipfully as he spoke, supported him as he’d hobbled to the car that summer evening at my in-laws years ago when I broke his cane across my thigh and threw the pieces in the rose bushes. What had the bastard done to deserve this devoted woman’s love? Why hadn’t I been able to find a woman as loyal? When the going got rough in my marriages, they always ran. Linda must’ve been reading my mind.
“You didn’t know him, Nathan,” she said quietly, staring stonily, eyes shining. “but your daddy was a very good man.”
Her words flooded my heart with poison. Darkness settled on us like a palpable weight while we sat crouched in that dinky, coalstove-reeking kitchen, and my mouth began to quiver. Looking into her eyes, I knew that, though my father had given me nothing but his genes, he had given to others, had tried near the end to give to me—money, repentance, a brother—but I’d been too damn proud and angry to accept.
While Linda and I sat silently in my father’s rotting house, counting our losses, I became aware it was no longer light outside. We sat in darkness until the front door opened, boots clomped through the living room and the overhead light snapped on. I squinted to make out the tall, denim-clad figure leaning in the doorway, cigarette clenched between his teeth, smoke curling upward past long, brown oily hair, obscuring deep-set eyes. My brother was not so gorgeous after all. His skeletal body listed right as if a breeze would knock him over.
“Whose car?” he said to his mom, as if I were invisible.
“Your brother Nathan’s.”
“I ain’t got no brother.” His eyes became laser pinpoints for a moment, and I wondered if he were drugged or maybe even retarded—it would’ve been just like the old man not to tell me. He looked like he wanted to rip me apart, and while I thought I could hold my own against a skinny teenager, I wasn’t so sure about a drug-crazed loony with nothing to lose.
But he turned and clomped back outside.
“What’s with him?” I asked.
Her eyes had almost closed, and her whole body sagged as if any moment she’d slide out of her chair and sink onto the floor. It would take derricks and cranes to raise her.
“He has too much of my blood in him. He drinks, takes pills, quit school and does nothing of use. He’s very unhappy.”
“But what’d I do to him. He doesn’t even know me.”
That drew her first smile. “Fletcher talked and talked about his boy the engineer, who went to college, who’s so smart, who has such a beautiful wife and son. If you thought your father didn’t love you, think again.”
Couldn’t the old man love what he had? Here was Latham growing up under his nose and he yaps all day about his other son!
“Did they get along at all?” I asked, choking back anger.
She waved her fingers. “Fletch promised Latham to go fishing, hunting, buy motorcycles and ride to California . . . all lies.”
“So Latham hated him.”
“Nah. I don’t know.” Weariness seemed to overcome her again.
“I think I’ll find out.” I stood up. “Where do you think he ran off to?”
“Barn out back. He made a small room in back.”
Outside, a full moon was climbing the sky, turning the surrounding mountains and trees blue beneath its brilliant glare. Stars gleamed around edges of clouds like eyes, making me feel watched. Remembering the Doberman, I tensed for a moment. As I did, though, a wave of power surged through my chest, warming me all over in the chill air. I could almost hear blood humming in my ears, fueling my heart. My body, so weak since my last surgery, felt as powerful and compact as a wolf's—effect of adrenaline, no doubt. Let the Doberman attack—I’d rip out his throat with my teeth!
But no animal stirred as I turned the corner of the house and strode toward the barn out back on the edge of a fallow field. Entering the blackness of the doorway, I saw a small light in the rear, so I tiptoed toward it, not wanting to scare the kid away. Drawing closer, I saw that some large sheets of plywood had been nailed up to the rafters, creating a crude partition. A door led inside the hutch, over which burlap hung, letting a lamp’s dim glow shine through.
As I was about to announce my presence, he hit me hard from behind. Much stronger than I’d imagined, he held me in check at first, so I could only halfway turn to catch glimpses of his shadowy, horribly-grinning face. My heart flip-flopped. He gripped the knife blade downward so he could plunge it in at leisure. Mind raging with competing emotions and images, I almost surrendered and bared my jugular. He could accomplish in an instant what I hadn’t been able to do with pills and whiskey. In seconds I’d be dead—a satisfactory, dramatic death to make my ex-wives and children shudder with pity and guilt. I had my brother right where I wanted him—he’d be my unwitting Cain.
But something wasn’t right. This trip down Memory Lane had not been conceived by Walt to give me an easy out. I could see the shrink’s head solemnly wagging, his eyes an uncompromising no. He’d know I cheated, know that I let this skinny kid lick me. So it wouldn’t be an honorable death after all. Besides, Latham was probably as pissed at the old man as I was. What a waste for him to go to Moundsville for killing me instead of Dad. I’d have to fight.
Though all my philosophizing had consumed only a few moments while we grappled, Latham could’ve easily done the job by now. He leered above me, losing his advantage and letting me regain my breath and wits. Utilizing every ounce of strength, I shifted my weight suddenly, turned onto my back and in the same motion shot my fist into the center of his face.
That’s all it took. As I rose and dusted myself off, I noticed that we’d wrestled in ancient cow-shit. Thus, my new Calvin Kleins had gone the way of my Nikes. I made a mental note to wear my crummiest clothes to West Virginia next time.
Latham lay quietly, propped on one elbow, nursing his nose. Then I noticed my left eye had swollen painfully shut. Little Cain had gotten his licks in after all, probably popping me with an elbow or finger when he’d fallen on top of me.
“You broke my fucking nose,” the kid whined as he compressed his tee-shirt to his face.
“And you’ve given me a hell of a shiner,” I roared back, “you little twit.”
In the pale glow, his eyes widened. I noticed the switchblade, lying halfway between us.
“Twit?” He asked in disbelief.
“Yeh, twit,” I replied, wondering if he was going to lunge for the knife. Dropping his shirt, letting blood drip off the end of his chin, the kid broke into screechy laughter, barely able to support himself on his arms, finally rolling onto his back.
I was grateful the fight seemed over, but his laughter eventually annoyed me. Striding over to where he lay, his face streaked with manure and blood, I cast my shadow hugely across his inert form. “What’s so damn funny?
“You break my face,” he gasped, sitting up with effort, “and then . . . then you call me a . . . a twit. You must be some kind of yuppie Yankee. Twit! Twit!”
Back onto the ground he rolled, shrieking and grasping his belly as if he’d been shot. Steamy with injured pride, I crossed my arms and waited. He was just a child! And he could’ve killed me. My anger had completely dissipated when at last my brother lay silent, the night around us so still that we heard crickets chirping beyond the old wooden walls. I sat on an upended tin bucket and fingered my eye gently, oddly pleased that my half-brother had given me the first shiner I’d had in decades. Reluctantly, I finally spoke.
“You’re pissed at me because you’re pissed at him—for talking about me all the time. I hated the old man, too, hated him with all my heart, mind and soul at times. But y’know what?”
Silence. Crickets. Silence. “What?”
“I’m sorry he’s gone. He’s left us to try to make sense of things, like if we somehow understand and accept, we’ll understand ourselves. Know what I mean?”
Silence. Moon listening, stars watching. “Sorta.”
Bittersweet scent of blood and old manure, shadow and light, white laced fingers, dull throbbing eye.
“How’s your nose?” I finally asked.
“Okay,” he answered from far off. “It ain’t really broken. Sorry ‘bout jumping you. I wasn’t gonna kill you, only cut you a little.”
We let it go for a while. When I thought he’d maybe drifted off to sleep, he spoke loudly.
“Man, all he did was ask you to come for a visit, just one little visit—and you wouldn’t! He didn’t ask you to plow or build a fence or fix the roof or lend us a hundred bucks. He just invited you to come home, and you wouldn’t.”
All became silence outside, and his words hung in the air, making me long to feel the knife blade. I devised and discarded a thousand answers all boiling down to one point—he abandoned us before I ever abandoned him—but that was ancient history. Lathan had never known my mother. He’d known he had a brother—a rich Yankee who was too good to come see him. It was a long time before he spoke again.
“You think Daddy never did nothing for you. Well, didja ever think how you didn’t do nothing for him, either?”
For some reason my anger dissipated into the night air, and all that past just didn’t matter. What mattered was us, here, licking our wounds in an old barn.
“How about coming up to Columbus for a while?”
I sure didn’t anticipate his response. His face lit up, his eyes lost their glazed, angry sheen and he got a huge grin on his pale face. “Are you kidding? Do you mean it? That’d be far-out.”
I grinned, too. I had no idea what I’d do with him, but I would by God find something.
“Maybe we could find you a job. Got any skills?”
I shook my head. “Yankees who need that skill already know how. Anything else?”
“Cars,” he said. “Anything I don’t know ain’t worth knowing.”
I cut my eyes toward the door. “The Z-28 yours?”
“Yep. Carburetor’s rebuilt, new tranny—all it needs is tires and it’ll burn the blacktop here to hell and back.”
I walked over and squeezed his shoulder. “Get some sleep and take care of that nose. We’ll leave after breakfast in the morning.”
I was almost out the door, when the voice came from behind me. “Thanks, brother.” I lifted my hand and stepped out into cool darkness.
The night lay more somber than it had earlier, though fewer clouds rode the sky, letting stars glint like spangles on a dancer’s costume leaving mysterious, hazy auras around them. But the heavens seemed sad, drained of their former promise, the night reminding me of a grim two o’clock Sunday morning bar after last call has come and gone.
Creeping past the open kitchen window, I got ambushed again. Linda still sat at the table, but her head lay in her hands and the night resounded with her sobbing: sharp gasps punctuated by high-pitched groans. It stopped me. If this rock-like woman who had borne my father’s ways could be so crushed, for what could the rest of us hope? But the longer I stood listening, the more I felt that Linda’s weakness was her strength. If she could cry, she was alive. And if she could feel, she could love. And if she could love, she could raise a boy to be a better man than either his father or his brother (I’d lost the half). That’s what Linda’s tears told me that night before I collapsed in the Miatta and passed out.
Next morning, I woke up aching and unfolded myself from the tiny car into fog as thick as rainclouds to find a large piece of notebook paper under the windshield wiper: “Sorry, Nathan, but we better leave things where their at. Your a leaver, I’m a stayer and you’re wrong: I love my father. Have a good trip home.”
I found an old bank deposit envelope in the glovebox, wrote a check for two hundred and stuck it into that hungry-looking mailbox. On the memo line I wrote for tires. If I’d found my way out, he could, too.
By the time I got to the BP, the truth barreled out of the fog like a semi from hell. No, if I ever wanted to see Latham again, I’d have to come back here. I slammed my fist against the steering wheel and floored it, roaring onto the two-lane, hoping to beat anyone coming at me blind. Like a brother. Like a son.