HAWKINSVILLE, WYOMING—KING of nowhere—civilization’s intrusion into mesquite, cacti, sand, and rattlesnakes. I grew up here, never thought I’d return, yet here I am. I stretch out my legs, wriggle my prison-issue shoes to release the crimp on my heels, peer out the bus window at a man on the sidewalk. Sunlight bounces off a wine bottle—MD 20/20—cheap, nasty, buzz guaranteed. Between the man’s feet, a dog licks at a brown puddle. Vomit, I assume.
I make my way to the front and down the steps. The feed store butts up to the terminal, and the air smells musty as a compost pile. A settled-in smell, a going-nowhere odor, and it’s the same as the day I left.
The driver drags suitcases from the luggage compartment and sets them at his feet. I give him my claim ticket—Taz Chavis #650–569—and tell him the duffel bag is mine. I’m traveling light. Eight-day trip. Three days coming, two days here, three days going.
The driver hands me my bag, and I step around the man on the sidewalk. The dog shows his teeth, two rows of yellow canines, and I lash out with my foot. Miss. A snarl, and the dog sidles out of range.
“Stupid mutt,” I say.
* * *
I walk past the courthouse in the square, the barbershop on the corner, the Mercantile Bank next to Rexall Drugs. On a bench outside the Dollar Store, old men huddle like birds on a wire. A breeze, grittiness that abrades everything it touches, blows off the desert and down the streets.
Four blocks along I stop in front of Roy’s Tavern. I spent my evenings watching my father through these windows. Dressed in a hat, suspendered jeans, and unlaced tennis shoes, he played nine-ball seven nights a week. He wasn’t much of a drinker, sipped Pepsi from a frosted mug most of the time, traded it for the occasional beer but he never drank enough to get drunk. Probably a good thing. As many pills as he was taking, an addiction that began as a prescription for a nagging back, his heart would have quit working and he would have dropped dead on that wooden floor.
The saloon door, a refugee from an old-time establishment, had been jimmied so it swung inward; a concession to residents who complained about exiting drunks knocking sober citizens off their feet. That door . . . I hated that door and its physical imposition between me and my father. Some evenings I imagined it was my portal to manhood and in my dreams flung it open and exclaimed, “Pop, rack ’em up.” But I never did. I knew better than to bother my father when he was at the pool table.
* * *
Pop was county dogcatcher, and he drove a pickup that had a cage on the bed. At the pound it was his responsibility to kill unclaimed animals. He called the gas chamber Canine Auschwitz, and his tone was without humor. His job led him to the dope—my opinion—but my mother put his problems to hand-me-down blood, said his father got hooked on opium in San Francisco and to watch out or I’d wind up like both of them. She ran off with a ranch owner who sold out and had money to burn. She sent me Christmas presents from towns in Arizona, Maine, South Dakota, Michigan, and Colorado. I appreciated her effort, but the presents were coloring books and toy trucks, like she didn’t know I was growing up. Pop told me she died of ovarian cancer. Town rumor had her falling off a skyscraper or suffocating in a mine collapse in West Virginia. I settled for death by skyscraper. There was something romantic about plummeting through the air while the earth approached at an exponential rate.
* * *
“My father used to come here,” I say, noting the space the pool table once occupied. I’ve gone through two pitchers and started on my third. Maria, a barfly who wandered over soon as I pulled up a stool, murmurs appreciatively, something she’s done since I slid the first beer her way. Maria wears her hair away from her forehead. She has a broad face, brown as toast, wears a necklace made out of tiny turquoise stones. I look toward the window and think about my father. How did he feel about my nose always pressed to the pane? Mother said I had his hair, his eyes, his jaw. She said I had a Chavis jaw, strong like a bull. Did my father see himself in me? Did he brag about his boy?
Maria stuffs the bottom of her blouse into her jeans and limps, cowgirl boots scraping the floor, toward the jukebox. She plunks four of my quarters into the slot, pushes a button, and a dusty old song fills the room. I guzzle beer and listen to her stumble over lyrics about skinning bucks and running trot-lines. When she hits the part about surviving, I nudge her chair closer to mine. She sits, and I rest my hand on her thigh.
“Drink up,” I say.
She lifts her beer, takes a healthy swallow, puts the mug on the bar. “You’re a little skinny. You sure you don’t have AIDS or something?”
“Prison food, it’ll starve a man to death.”
“Three hots and a cot,” she says.
I pour her a full one and listen to her tell about life back in Fort Redshire. I tell her I’ve never heard of that town and she says it’s too small for the map. She says she grew up there.
“One time,” she says, “I fell and broke my arm when I was riding my pony. Snap, just like that. One snap is all it took. . . . You may not believe it to look at me, but I have fragile bones.”
“Life’s a bitch.”
“What are you talking about?” she says.
She looks down at my hand.
“That won’t do me any good,” she says. “Feeling my leg like that.”
I withdraw and return to my beer. Cunt. Or maybe I’ve lost my touch. I don’t know which, and don’t care. Maria raps her leg, a solid sound.
“Walnut,” she says. “Motorcycle accident down in Tulsa. Would have killed me if I didn’t have my helmet on.”
I move my hand to the other leg. It’s warmer and softer and I’m damned drunk to have rubbed a wooden leg. The door, the one I have despised for so long, swings inward and the man from the bus terminal falls through the sunlit opening onto the floor.
“I’m thinking of getting a room,” I say.
“We could go down to the Mesquite Motel. You know that one? It’s got vibrating beds and pink wallpaper. Nicest in town.”
“Did you say you knew my father?”
“I didn’t catch his name, sweetie.”
“Wesley Chavis. Friends called him Wes for short.”
“Wes?” she says.
“Wes Chavis. He used to come in here when I was a kid.”
“Oh, sure. I knew Wes. Everybody knew Wes.”
Her tone makes me think she’s lying, but I don’t care. If she wants to get naked it’s okay with me. We get up, and I take one last look around.
“Did you know my father?” I say.
“You already asked me that, sweetie.”
“I’m fucking plastered,” I say.
“Me too, sweetie.”
We step around the man, open the door, and shuffle into the afternoon sunlight. She drapes her arm around my waist, and we lean on each other—walk up to where the dog sits on the sidewalk and pants like he’s at the end of a long run. I tell Maria to wait a minute and I go into the bar and buy three pickled eggs. I come back and drop the eggs in front of the dog and he eats them in three gulps. “Let’s go,” I say to her. We walk up the street, and I don’t look back.
* * *
In prison, I envied the guys who could sleep fourteen hours a day. Tony Dobson was one of those guys. One morning, while we dressed for breakfast, he asked how I wound up in the joint. We were in prison blues, buttoning our shirts, backs to each other in the six-by-twelve cell. I told him I was doing a year for dealing.
“Sold bootleg jeans out of a van, had a coke business on the side. DA dropped the bootleg charges but sent me up on the coke. I was getting by, you know?”
“Bastards gave me nine years for raping my secretary.”
That was our first real conversation. Most of the time he slept, while I stared at the walls, picked at food, and tried to stay on good terms with the guards. I read books about the Appalachian Trail and imagined I was out in the wild instead of surrounded by bars. If I thought hard enough, I could transport myself to the mountains and spend hours a day with an imaginary pack on my back and an open trail in front of me.
Toward the end of my stretch I received a letter. I knew without looking it wasn’t from anyone I’d met on the East Coast. I’d lived in Atlanta for seven years, and I’d met a lot of people. Few who would write me a letter. On the street, friends were like Styrofoam cups. Some got crushed, others blew out of sight. Nothing was permanent. A guy went to prison and a week later he never existed.
Roxie Scarborough, the girl I was living with before I got sent up, didn’t even send me a letter. Not that I expected differently. Roxie moved through life so fast she was not about to put things on hold for a lover behind bars.
That night, as I lay in my cell bunk, I spent my time thinking about what was inside the envelope. Whenever I slid my hand under the pillow and picked at the flap, I felt buoyant—a man floating into a new day—someone with places to go and things to see. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I lit a match and read under a flickering flame. My father was dead. There was a will. I had papers to sign—formalities—could I please come to Hawkinsville when released? Tony heard me cussing and asked what’s the matter.
“Nothing,” I said. “Burnt my fingers on this damn match.”
I tucked the letter in the envelope and put my hands behind my head. Hawkinsville. I hadn’t thought about that town in years.
* * *
Maria and I come to a tavern and go inside. Same as the first: country music, cheap beer on tap, a couple of regulars humped over the bar. I’ve decided to see the lawyer today instead of tomorrow, so I’m sipping coffee, doing my best to sober up. Maria drinks beer and nibbles pretzels. We’re at a table next to the window and through the grime I see that dog nosing the sidewalk.
“That dog,” I say.
“That dog, it followed us.”
“I’m worn out,” she says. “I can’t walk any farther.”
Maria rolls up a pant leg. “Doctors wanted to give me one of those titanium thingies, but I wanted one made out of wood.”
“Looks heavy,” I say, and pour cream into my coffee. I sip, add more cream. Overhead, suspended from a mayonnaise-colored ceiling, a fan turns slow circles.
“Do you want some meth?” Maria asks. “I can get us some meth, cheap too.”
“That dog, he’d be looking at the gas chamber if my father was alive.”
“They don’t do that anymore.”
“What?” I say.
“They use drugs and a needle to put them to sleep.”
I buy a bag of potato chips and take it outside. I say to the dog, “You are one lucky dog,” then pour chips on the sidewalk.
* * *
Pop’s sobrieties began January 1st and usually lasted a week. Sometimes two. He flushed his pills down the toilet and did sit-ups and push-ups every morning. His eyes cleared and he stopped nodding off when he came home from shooting pool. When I was six, he lasted almost eight months. My mother danced to rock and roll records, and I jumped up and down like my legs had Superman springs. My father brought home soda and peanuts, and the three of us curled up on the sofa and watched TV. Whenever one of them got up, like to pee or get more ice, I felt warm on one side and cold on the other.
One Saturday—this was one of those times when Pop was off the dope—he drove me into the desert to see wild horses. He knew a spring where the herd watered twice a day. Once in the morning. Once in the evening. We went in the evening because Pop liked to sleep late when he wasn’t chasing dogs. We stood on the downwind side, in a sandy patch behind waist-high mesquite. Pop whispered.
“Watch when they come in,” he said. “The stallions, watch the stallions. Always keep your nose in the wind, boy. Always be on the lookout.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t much interested in horses. I wanted a puppy, something I could pet and feed and let lick my face if it wanted.
After what seemed like forever, the herd browsed up and over a rise while two stallions circled toward the spring. One stallion was black, the other was chestnut. They stomped sand and tossed their heads up and down.
“Watch,” my father said. “See how they’ve got their noses to the wind. See that? They’re looking for danger.”
“Shush, you’ll scare them away.”
“I want a puppy!”
My father’s hand, a backhanded blur, connected with my cheek and I tumbled onto the sand. I got up but stood off to the side. Later, on the way home, he bought me a soda and I put my head on his shoulder. He tousled my hair and called me a good boy.
Looking back, I suppose he was explaining his troubles. But then, he might have been telling about horses.
* * *
“Can you believe this?” I say, and show Maria the check. We’re outside the lawyer’s office, and she sits on the curb with her leg extended like she dares someone to run over it. An ice cream truck turns the corner and comes up the opposite lane. The dog squats ten feet away, gaze on my face.
“That’s a ton of money,” Maria says. “With money like that we could buy a car and drive to California. We could open an orange juice stand and sell fresh-squeezed orange juice. All you can drink. We’d make a million, I bet.”
“That dog’s watching me.”
“Scat!” she says.
A ratty tail beats the sidewalk.
“It’s like he knows what I’m thinking.”
“They’re smarter than people.”
“Dogs,” I say.
“This leg, it gets so heavy sometimes I wish I had a grocery cart. I’d put it in there and hop around behind it. Everyone would say, ‘Here comes Maria the bunny hopper.’ You never know what people will say. I’m on disability, did I tell you? Nine hundred a month. I got a room up on Roundtree Avenue, but the landlady, she don’t allow any male visitors.”
A man in a suit comes out of the lawyer’s office and gets into a pickup. He drives off, hood ornament flashing like a mirror turned toward the sun. Down the way, a Mexican comes out of a clapboard shack and sits on the sidewalk. It’s unusually warm for February, and it feels like spring is coming early this year. Whatever snow fell at this elevation is long gone.
“The lawyer gave me a letter,” I say. “From my father.”
“I did already.”
“It says,” and I skim the letter. “It says. . . . This is what he wrote—it says if he could do it over again, he’d never touch a single pill—he says he hoped I turned out all right—he says to do something good with the money.”
“You look to me like you turned out all right.”
“I’m all right,” I say. “I’m doing all right. Got money I didn’t have an hour ago.”
“We’re stinking rich.”
I stare at her leg, nudge it with my foot. No way in hell she’s getting any of this money.
“You’re the first one-legged woman I’ve seen,” I say. “There was a one-armed Mexican back in Atlanta but I didn’t know her very well.”
“Give it a rest, sweetie.”
I stuff the letter in my pocket. “My father would have killed that dog.”
“He hated dogs?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “I really don’t know.”
“You’re not an ax murderer or anything like that? You wouldn’t rape me and chop me into little bits?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Never mind,” she says. . . . “You can carve your initials into my leg if you want.”
We walk down the sidewalk. My duffel bag is gone, and I can’t remember where I left it. Maria asks if she can lean on my shoulder, and I tell her okay long as she doesn’t step on my feet. The dog walks a foot behind my heels, close enough for me to smell his road-kill odor.
“Einstein,” I say.
“That’s his name.”
“Einstein?” she says.
“That dog’s one smart dog.”
“I think he likes you.”
“You think so?”
Her eyes are big and round and soft. “I think he’d follow you anywhere.”
* * *
In eighth grade, I started huffing shoe polish. No big thing. I did it three times a day: on the way to school, during lunch break, and later behind the gym while the other kids played sports in the grassy field. When my grades dropped, the counselor called me and Pop for a meeting. Pop was still high from the pills I’d seen him swallow that morning, and his eyes were so droopy it was all he could do to force them open. The counselor, this creep who wore bow ties every Monday, suggested therapy. I stared at a bobble-head Elvis on his desk. Then pushed the head and watched it bobble. I giggled like crazy. Like I couldn’t stop. I giggled until my stomach hurt, and my throat burned.
On the way home, my father drove the pickup harder than normal. On the bed, the cage slid toward the cab when he braked, slid toward the tailgate when he accelerated. He had his hat off, and the pink spot where his hair was thinning gleamed with sweat.
“The counselor said we needed to spend more time together. Said your mother leaving and all that screwed you up in the head.”
“NA meets every Wednesday,” I said. “Down at the Methodist church. We could sit together and cry big fat tears.”
“Don’t be a smart ass.”
He braked at a stop sign and waved an old woman across. She had her head down, and she pushed a cart filled with grocery bags.
“Paper or plastic,” I said.
“I’m thinking of getting a job. Down at Green’s Grocery, maybe bagging—”
“Nope,” he said. “I already got you a job. Come Monday, you get out of school you walk your sorry ass down to the pound.”
From that point on, Monday through Friday I fed and watered dogs, cleaned the cages with a hose I coiled in the corner when I was done. Every other Friday I herded dogs down a hallway and into the gas chamber. Some dogs went with tails between their legs, others growled and snapped. My father shut the door, turned knobs, and stood in front of the porthole. I stood to the side and watched him reflect the struggle behind the glass. It was like watching a slideshow where one picture fades into the next. The first few seconds he was the man who left the house after eating cereal for breakfast, a man in a hat and untied shoes headed for his everyday job. As time progressed—time that felt like hours but was only a few stretched-out minutes—his body stiffened like he was resisting a strong wind. The skin on his face stretched and his jaw melded into something cold, hard, and immovable. I looked at him for as long as I could, then looked away, understanding that no amount of narcotics could blur what he was watching. When it was over, I saw another man altogether. But this was someone I recognized. His voice was brittle, his eyes held defiant shame. His movement, when he lifted carcasses and dropped them into the wheelbarrow, was slow and shaky. Someone needed to put their arm around him and tell him it was okay, but we didn’t have that kind of relationship.
One Friday, he walked up while I huffed paint out of a paper bag during my break. It was a hot, clear day and I was sitting on the picnic table behind the pound and dreaming about anywhere but there. Mostly I thought about jumping a freight car and going wherever it took me. I never dreamed about what I would do when I got to where I was going. My dreams were leaving dreams.
“I need you inside,” he said.
“I hate this.”
He sat across from me and took off his hat, ran a finger around the brim. “They’re just dogs, better off dead than running the streets.”
“You hate it Pop, I can tell. You hate the living hell out of this job.”
He went inside, and I huffed until that weightless feeling rushed over me and my mind felt like a cloud in the jet stream—fast moving and light—vapor held together by the weakest of bonds. The door to the pound swung open and smacked into the wall, a crack that made me jump, and Pop appeared in the opening and crossed his arms. His hat was squished down on his head, a look that would have been comical if it hadn’t reflected his frustration. I got up and spoke in a voice too boyish for the moment.
“I’m outta here.”
“Put that shit away and get your ass back to work.”
I stared him down—took in his gray pants, the blood-stained gloves, how his collar was turned up to keep the sun off his neck, the firmness he always had above his eyes when he ordered me around—tried to think of a reason to stay. My gaze met his, and his forehead softened, a fluidity that seemed to slide down his cheeks toward his chin, and I think that’s when he realized this might be the last time we would see each other. When he spoke, his voice held a fuzziness I had not heard since I was a child.
“Do you have any money?” he said. “Do you have enough to get by?”
I nodded and he took off his gloves and we shook hands. He tried to say something and the words caught in his throat. I turned and walked away, spoke over my shoulder when I got to the street.
“See ya, Pop.”
I headed to Piper’s Truck Stop, where I caught a ride with a trucker headed east. Those were the last words I spoke to my father. There was nothing left to say.
* * *
“There’s a whole lot we could do with the money,” Maria says. “It wouldn’t hurt to dream a little. We could go on a cruise to Alaska, see some whales, maybe feed some sea lions.”
The motel room is exactly as she described. Vibrating mattress and pink wallpaper. Her leg is propped against the wall within easy reach of the bed. She’s showered, and her wet hair fans across the pillow. She wears bra and panties, both green, a floral pattern of tiny roses embedded in cotton. Einstein, outside on the sidewalk, scratches the door. I look from her to the door, at her, at the door. We pass a whiskey bottle back and forth.
“Listen to that retard,” I say.
“We could fly out to Seattle and get on a ship. That’s where those Alaska cruises start, right there in Seattle.”
“I’m thinking about going for a long hike, maybe walk the Appalachian Trail end to—”
“Or we could go to the Bahamas. I happen to know they have some great cruising down that way.”
I look at her stump, then stare at the wooden leg, tilt my head so I see it from different angles. Disconnected, the leg looks lonely.
“Hey,” I say.
“If we had a shipwreck we could use your leg as a life preserver.”
“That’s my sweetie,” she says. “Now you’re thinking.”
“I think I’m going to give Einstein a bath. Buy some flea powder and give him a good dusting.” I take my shirt off and sling it over a chair.
“We need us some meth. Something to get us revved up. I can fuck all night long on meth.”
“Shut up about the meth,” I say.
“Quarter’s only forty—”
“Shut up!” I raise my hand like I’m going to backhand her. It’s a bluff. I never hit a woman who didn’t hit me first.
“You smack me around and you’ll wake up tomorrow without a dick.”
Taz Chavis walking around without a dick strikes us as funny and we laugh. When we settle down I tell her dope put me in jail and damned if I was going back.
“No dope. Got it?”
The softness leaves her eyes and annoyance takes its place. I’m no idiot. She offered love hoping I’d get her high, and now she’s mad for wasting her time. Tough luck is what I think.
We lie on the bed without talking, then I remember about giving Einstein a bath. I coax him and his road-kill odor inside, to the bathroom, where I set him in the tub, wet him down, and work motel shampoo into his fur. He’s angles and knobs, skin stretched over backbone and shoulders.
“Hold still,” I say.
He quivers but his legs are stiff like he wants to run but has made up his mind to endure. I ask him if he wants some Wild Turkey, we have half a bottle in the other room, tell him to stay clear of the meth-head with the wooden leg. I tell him today is my last fling and tomorrow I’m flying straight. I tell him I have the money to fulfill a dream, and I’m not going to fuck up and go back to prison. I tell him Pop never dreamed, that he was an addict who killed dogs. I tell him the lawyer said Pop was high when he hid in his closet and shot himself in the head. I tell him Pop’s better off, wherever he is. The dog cocks his head and lifts his ears. His eyes are wary, and I wonder if he feels like he’s looking in a mirror. I scrub until the water swirling the drain turns clear. He shakes and droplets fly. I call into the other room.
“I think I’m going to order a pizza, something with meat on it. I bet he likes hamburger.”
I look around the door. Maria’s eyes are shut, and a rhythmic hum comes from her nose. I wipe off my hands, walk to the TV and turn it on loud enough to drown her out. The dog, smelling like fresh-picked blackberries, sidles to my side of the bed, curls around three times, and settles on the carpet. I call the front desk and ask if anyone still delivers pizza in this town, write down the number, make the call, and order a large with extra hamburger. I can afford the extravagance.
* * *
It’s morning and my head hurts. I don’t remember much about last night. Maria’s gone and so is her leg. She took fifty bucks out of my wallet. That leaves me with change and the check. I suppose, if she thought she could get away with it, she would have stolen it too.
Einstein and I leave the motel room. The sky is gray, slow to wake after a night’s sleep, but in the east flame crawls across the horizon. I’ve forgotten about desert sunrises, how they begin so far away and seem so alive.
I ask Einstein if he’s hungry and consider his wag an enthusiastic yes. I have a hungry dog and a $9,000 check in my wallet. I have a headache and a cottony tongue—
In my peripheral vision, a fist appears. A punch that catches me by surprise. It’s a wide loop that misses my chin and spins my ambusher in a circle. I smell sour breath, cheap wine, unwashed clothes. I see a head matted with dirty hair and recognize the man at the terminal. Maria, wearing a twisted smile, stands behind him.
“Told you,” she says. “I told you he was stealing your dog.”
“That’s my dog,” the man says.
Maria’s eyes are twitchy, and she chews her lip. She’s high, tweaking on my fifty.
“It’s my dog,” I say.
“Liar.” The man raises his fist.
I remove change from my pocket and hold the coins palm up. It’s enough for a bottle of MD 20/20.
“Have one on me,” I say.
“He’ll pay more,” Maria says. “He’ll pay a thousand dollars for this dog. He loves this dog.”
The man throws another punch, a lazy arc. I duck and then I have him by the throat. Coins fall to the ground and Maria kneels and paws at the dirt. My words are flat and hard. “Do you know how many dogs I’ve killed?”
The man’s eyes are unfocused, but Maria glares up at me.
“Seventy-seven,” I say. “Do you understand? We gassed them. You ever seen a gassed dog?”
I release my grip and point toward the ground at my feet. I tell them that’s all the money they’re getting.
“Don’t fuck with me,” I say.
Einstein and I walk across the parking lot to a street that curves around a gas station and heads east. At an intersection that leads down a street to the house I grew up in, I jam my hands in my pockets and lean against a weathered light pole. The lawyer said the house is up for sale and I’ll reap the proceeds if a buyer comes forth, but not to look forward to it anytime soon. One part of me wants to revisit my youth and one part of me says that’s where my father blew off his head and I have no desire to see blood-spattered walls.
I turn away and take a road that crosses the city limits, where I step over a sand-clogged gutter and arrive at the cemetery. I shield my eyes, trying to see the bone-white headstones. The sun is over the horizon, and the desert is on fire. It’s burning up. The dog trots back into town, and I follow him for a block—watch him turn into an alley without a backward glance. I don’t blame him, know I’m not worth taking a chance on.
Instead of going after him, I think about the last time I was in this town. Back then, my dreams were all about leaving. It didn’t matter where I ended up or what happened when I got there, so long as it was anywhere but here. Now, I’m leaving with a dream that has substance and direction, a dream that began while I was behind bars. I promised myself then, and I’m promising myself now: I will walk the Appalachian Trail end to end. Or die trying.
It feels good to have a long-range goal, my first ever, and my feet feel lighter as they contact pavement. For the first time since I can remember I have a reason to get up in the morning.
Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail
- Simon & Schuster |
- 208 pages |
- ISBN 9781439175613 |
- October 2012