Back Roads

by Michael Farris Smith

When Bobby was still alive and we cooked out in their backyard, Sarah walked around in those long, thin summer dresses with skinny straps draping her freckled shoulders, almost unaware of her beauty, like a full moon or rainbow. I watched Sarah, her playfulness with their seven-year old, and I stared at the curve of the small of her back, and she had me. Bobby knew it as soon as I did.

Last summer we were in the middle of the lake. We were the only boat out and the rods and reels had long been replaced with tallboys. An easy twilight hung over the water. It was the first day of our camping trip, and Bobby, after looking at me funny all day, asked flatly, “What is it with you and Sarah?”

I sat back a little. “What does that mean?”

“Don’t bullshit, Russell. I see it. See you. Have you slept with her?”

“No,” I said, staring at the top of my beer can. “I admire her is all. I can’t seem to stop looking at her, I know. But that’s it—looking.”

Bobby stood up. “Just keep your distance.”

“Listen, Bobby. There’s nothing to it.”

“Maybe not, but enough’s enough. You don’t think a woman knows when a man wants her? You think I can’t tell what you want?” he said and took a step towards me. The boat shifted slowly back and forth.

“Bobby, sit down. It’s okay. I get the point.”

He backed up, half tripping over a tackle box, and sat in the driver’s seat and cranked the boat. We didn’t speak again until we crossed the lake to our camping spot, and as I climbed out onto the bank he said he wanted to go check our lines in the cul-de-sac. I didn’t argue, just let him go.

I was pissed at myself and should have kept my mouth shut. I hadn’t lied to my little brother much in our life, but I thought I had done it well considering Sarah and I had been sleeping together for a couple of months. It first happened on a weekend when Bobby went golfing in Alabama with some buddies. Wendy was going swimming over at a friend’s house on Saturday and I had asked Sarah if she wanted to ride with me to Jackson to look at Chevrolets. It was the middle of the afternoon when we headed back, and we bought beer off the Terry Road exit. She had started with the confessions before we had the first one down.

“There’s just some things I don’t get about Bobby,” she’d said. “Sometimes he’s so bottled up. Has he always been like that? He’ll go for days without getting anywhere near me.”

“Okay, Sarah. That’s plenty,” I’d said. “I don’t want to hear about all that.”

“C’mon, Russell. We’re big boys and girls,” she’d said, and I acted like I wasn’t interested.

She talked more about her and Bobby and where they were and we drank until it was gone then bought some more. She had said he was losing his touch some and she liked being surprised and I acted like that was part of it, said me and Molly had the same problems. An hour later we crossed into Pike County and she had inched closer with each mile. We turned off the interstate onto the highway and our next turn was onto a dirt road marked No Trespassing with a black and orange sign. I had imagined being with her many times, somewhere different than where we were, but never any better.

We had worked past being awkward with one another in front of Bobby, stumbling through token smiles and bad chit-chat, and sliding off together in the afternoons became regular. I had justified it all by believing her complaints about Bobby’s coldness though I knew she was telling big tales to make herself feel better too. Greed replaced all else.

It was a couple of hours after dark when I looked up from the fire towards the sound of a boat, but it wasn’t ours coasting towards the bank, but instead a park ranger’s. Our bass boat had crashed onto shore next to the swimming area on the south end of the park, without a driver, and the rangers hoped that maybe the boat had gotten away from us here.

I got in with them and we went straight to the cul-de-sac. It took us until midnight to find Bobby in the black water. Leaving the cul-de-sac after dark, Bobby had hugged the bank too closely and a fallen tree caught him standing, busted his head open and he splashed limp into the water. He was long since dead by the time we pulled him out. Later, when I told Sarah what had happened, it sounded artificial, like a news report coming out of my mouth. I wanted to grieve, knew it was the thing to do, told myself that plenty of me fell into the water that night with my brother. That worked for a while. But I knew from the first second we found him that his death was somehow a release for me. I tried not to think that way, but it was always there.


I married Molly because she’s curvy and shines on your arm when you walk into a room, and I loved that once, that feeling you get when everybody looks at her, then looks at you and wonders what the hell you did for that. I knew some people whispered though, knew she had a reputation and flashed her smile at lots of pretty boys. Bobby tried to warn me off her, like I was some fool, but he was just jealous at the time, long before Sarah came along. And I don’t know how many others there have been and don’t care anymore about Molly’s escapades since we’ve been married. There never was a high seriousness between us anyway.

After a long night with some pals down at the Mallard, I awake on the sofa in my study in the back of our house. A couple of empty longnecks are on my desk. Molly stands over me naked, smooth and golden. I lift my head a little and look her up and down.

“So. Do you want me or not?” she asks.

Before I can answer she moves over me, kissing my neck and running her hands down my legs. She likes me after a binge because my senses are dulled and I’m good for a long time. I want to tell her to get off and bring me some water and aspirin, but Molly is a more entertaining remedy. It’s a fun ride as we smirk at each other like strangers, and this whole thing feels like an endless one-night stand.

After it was over in the old days we’d stretch out, gather our strength, and go again. Now she’s up and ready to leave.

“I’m going to New Orleans to shop today, Russell,” she says standing over me. “Do you need anything?”

I lay flat, headache coming back. “No. Not really. Are you coming home tonight or staying with what’s-her-name?”

“Don’t know. Just have to wait and see.” She kisses me lightly on the cheek and skips away.

I shower and grab some coffee at the Exxon before pulling into the office. I’m late, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all mine. It was a partnership, a contracting business shared by me and Bobby. We started building strong, interesting houses, making enough to keep everybody happy. The year before Bobby’s death we spent arguing over our direction. I wanted to get into subdivisions and throw up cut-out houses, cashing in on suburban America. Bobby wanted to keep it simple – build ten original houses a year, work less, pay the bills. I build twenty houses in six months now, romanticize old cow pastures with names like Turkey Ridge and Dogwood Estates, and only get dirt under my fingernails if I want to.

The money has increased Molly’s excursions to New Orleans, or Jackson, or Gulfport, or wherever she finds the best bargains. At first, she had her lies well-mapped – gave names and phone numbers of the friends she claimed to stay with, came home with shopping bags, even occasionally called to say she missed me. Now, the words “I’m going shopping” have become sufficient and I don’t even remember the last time she came home with as much as a new pair of socks. My affection for Sarah allowed Molly to drift away freely, minus consequences.

I drink my coffee and make a few calls to be sure my crews are where they are supposed to be, doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The secretary is out, somewhere I can’t remember, so before I have to answer the phone I leave and lock up, then drive over to see my dad.

He’s been living at the Manchester House, a home for Alzheimer’s patients, for a couple of years now. It’s a monstrous house with hardwood floors and tons of windows and a wrap-around porch. It’s renovated to provide about eight private rooms and baths, and is fully staffed with 24-hour care. Mom died years ago, so me and Bobby were left to decide what to do with dad when he deteriorated past the point of being able to function alone. He needed constant care, and we cringed at the thought of a nursing home, and by luck a local doctor opened the Manchester House right about the time something had to be done. It’s good because it’s homey, and nice women in soft white shoes cook his meals and change his sheets, and he can sit on the porch or stroll across the lawn and touch the sunflowers and roses, and safely imagine whatever he wants.

He’s sitting on the porch in a rocking chair when I pull into the driveway. I climb the stairs and sit down in a rocker next to him.

“Hi, there, old-timer,” I say.

“How are you, young man. Nice day out,” he answers like he’d answer any kind stranger. He’s still a handsome man, the same portrait of a father I’ve always known. He combs his gray hair straight back, and his wrinkles weave perfectly around those green eyes that always knew when I was lying. His flannel shirt is rolled up to his elbows, the same way it was whenever he split wood or wrestled with us in the backyard.

“Can I get you some coffee or anything?” I ask.

“I don’t believe. Why don’t you get yourself a little?”

“I’m fine. Just had a cup. My name’s Russ,” I say and extend my hand. He shakes it and his fingers are cold.

“James Mitchell,” he says. “Good to see you.”

And then we get to know each other. He tells me he was in the service, he used to have a little farm, his wife’s name is Rebecca. I tell him I build houses and he’s interested, wants to know if I’m good at it, or if I screw people. I’m an honest fellow, I say, and he’s pleased with that. He’ll figure out in a minute who I am, be glad to see me, but I don’t rush it on him. I let him find his own way. He’ll recognize me, squint like he’s reading small print, and smile slightly. Then we’ll talk more, he might ask about Molly, or if I’m eating good. And then he’ll ask about Bobby and I’ll say he’s fine, working hard taking care of that little girl and wife of his, and dad’ll be proud and look across the neighborhood and imagine us all together.

I told him about Bobby when it happenend and he bit his lip and shook his head, said life ain’t fair sometimes. But that moment came and went quickly and I don’t feel the need to remind him each time I visit. He’s happier believing Bobby is being a good father and husband and I don’t want to ruin that.

After I leave my dad I drive over to Sarah’s. It’s a neat, wood-framed three bedroom with green shutters. Bobby’s truck is parked on the left side of the carport, unmoved in the six months since the accident. Sarah is on her hands and knees in the front yard digging in the flower bed. I park in the driveway and walk over to her.

“What happened to the red one?” she remarks, looking past me at the new silver Ford I traded for yesterday.

“Guess I got kinda tired of it. You like that one?”

She shrugs. Her auburn hair is pinned up and sweat shines on the back of her neck. Dirt is smeared on her cheeks. Surrounding her are trays of petunias and periwinkles—purple, red, and white blossoms.

“Glad you pulled up,” she says. “I’m due for a break.” I help her to her feet and she wipes her dirty hands on my jeans.

“Now you’ve got to wash them,” I say.

I sit at the kitchen table and watch Sarah pour two glasses of Coke – the shift of her hips, the glide of her hands, the open and close of her eyelids when she concentrates on the fizz. She turns on a small radio on top of the microwave, grabs the glasses, and sits down with me.

“The yard is looking nice,” I say.

“Yeah. It needed some attention. Plus, Wendy likes to help me with it so we get some fresh air together.”

“How much longer does she have in school?”

“They’re out in a couple of weeks. But she doesn’t really care. She’s one of those weird kids that likes school,” Sarah says, then looks towards the radio. “I used to love that song.”

An old George Jones ballad fills the kitchen. A memory forms in her eyes. I stand up and extend my hand.

“Might I have this dance?” I ask.

Sarah smiles and places her fingertips in my palm. With her close I smell her, the yard and dried sweat, and feel her shirt moist on her back. We sway quietly, and she hums along, and as George whines deeper, we dance closer. She places her head on my chest, and I wrap both my arms around her waist. When the song ends, replaced by a quicker rhythm, she picks her head up and says, “Wendy won’t be home for a few hours.”

“Are you sure?”

She walks me to the bedroom and we take care not to rush. It’s not much different than it was the first time—we’re not sure we’re really here, tangled up together. But it’s more natural, more certain, more like this is the way the story goes. She moves like she’s in slow motion—a world of her own.


Molly is gone again the next weekend, and I spend the night with Sarah while Wendy is at a slumber party. We grill steaks and drink screwdrivers, play Scrabble, and at Sarah’s request, sleep in the living room floor on a pile of blankets. She lets me rearrange the furniture and pop up a tent with a yellow-striped sheet.

The next morning we sip coffee and I make some banana pancakes we use to soak up the vodka floating around in our blood. The kitchen windows face the backyard. It’s a perfect spring morning, sunlight sparkling off the thick grass. Two squirrels chase each other around a maple tree.

“I’d better get going. Wendy will be here any minute,” I say after we clean up the kitchen and fold the blankets and quilts.

“What will you do the rest of the day?” she asks as we stand in the doorway.

“Don’t know. I kinda need to ride around and check out some of my sites. Do you want to ride along?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “Probably not. I think me and Wendy will just hang out.”

“Do you think there’s a chance we might get rid of Wendy again next weekend?”

She looks at me sideways. “I know, I’m being selfish. Just can’t help it.”

“We’ll see.”

“I enjoyed last night.”

“Me too,” she answers, and closes the door.

I ride the back roads all afternoon, a twelve-pack at my side, ignoring the building sites. Colors are everywhere, the pale blue sky, the green of the pastures and forests, wildflowers exploding along the sides of the road. Every so often I meet another car and as we pass, I wonder if they’re doing the same thing as me, riding and drinking.

My dad always told me I was supposed to look out for my little brother. I had kept an eye out for him on the playground, taught him to spit between his teeth so he’d look tougher, even loaned him money when I knew it would be pissed away on rims for his Ford or a new 12-gauge. I took pride in believing I helped mold the man he was, and felt like a big shot whenever I’d come home after moving out and me and dad would sit around the living room and talk about Bobby while he was out racing up and down the roads. Dad made me believe Bobby was a joint project and my name would roll high in the credits.

Somewhere along the way all that got lost.

And wanting Sarah became first. There’s something about having a person in your thoughts from the time you wake up until the time you drift asleep, something about imagining a conversation you might have, or guessing what that person is doing when the clock reads 8:45, or 12:31, or 5:55, or whenever. Sarah found her way into storm clouds, into stop signs, into my office, an image hovering just beyond whatever I touch or see. And I’m sure this is the real thing, not a hunch or a gut feeling like I get about a good-looking point spread. There’s an honesty in my moments with her, something that speaks for itself. Maybe things happened the way they were supposed to, maybe Bobby was a hurdle to clear before I, we, could find the right spot to be in.

I’ve decided I’m cutting Molly loose, though it’s going to cost me plenty. I can’t move forward with Sarah while I’m stuck in this. No more pretend, no more bull shit. She can shop for the rest of her life for all I care.


“Is Wendy gonna call you Uncle Daddy?” is Molly’s first remark when I tell her I want to end this legally. We’re having dinner at the Dixie Springs Cafe on a Friday night. But with this comment I suddenly wish we were at home, so I could cuss and spit and throw things.

“Whatever, Molly.”

“Just what the hell are you doing?” she asks and lights a cigarette. “What, you and Sarah got big plans?”

“Molly, Jesus. This is only about us. This has been a joke for a long time and you know it.”

“Didn’t seem to care before Sarah gave in,” she snaps.

“Why do you care, anyway? You’re all over the place.”

Molly leans forward, her burgundy lips bigger. “What I do is one thing. What you’re doing is another. It’s weird and sick and you’ve got a lot of nerve.”

“I don’t give a shit what you think, Molly. We’re done here, have been.”

The waiter makes a round but my glare chases him off.

“What would your father say?” she asks, and her face falls blank.

I clench my jaw. “Don’t you even, Molly.”

“One of his boys dead and the other making a profit out of it. Enough to disgust any father, I’d say.”

I bang my fist down on the table and silverware and glasses and plates bounce in unison, and the thud and clanging draws attention from the people around us, people we know. Molly is expressionless, smoking her cigarette slowly. She flips her hand at the waiter for another drink.

And then Sarah walks in with Jason Cothern.

“I’ll be damned,” Molly says, and I turn around and see Sarah in a long white dress with no sleeves. Jason is walking with her, a half-step behind, his fingertips on her elbow. They walk past our table and Sarah keeps her eyes high and away from us, and they sit down at a table for two in the back of the restaurant. I forget I’m mad at Molly.

“What’s she doing with him?” Molly says. Jason is a name from a long time ago, an old boyfriend that me and Bobby used to ride around and look for because he wouldn’t stop knocking on Sarah’s door even after she had told Bobby yes. She had encouraged us to kick his ass if we ever saw him.

Now he was sitting close to her in candlelight. He looked the same, slick black hair and one thick eyebrow. He didn’t look nervous as they talked, and neither did Sarah.

I wave at the waiter for a fresh whiskey and water.

“What now?” Molly says, and I’m not sure.

When the waiter brings the drink, I ask him to go ahead and bring another. I look to their table and Jason is getting up and he walks towards the men’s room. When the door closes behind him, I walk over to Sarah.

“What are you doing, Sarah?”

“Hi, Russell,” she answers and looks me in the nose.

Hi, Russell?” I say, trying to keep my voice low. “What’s going on here? Jason Cothern?”

“I don’t know. He called me up and asked me out and here we are.” She picks up her fork and taps it on the table. “Am I not supposed to?”

“I guess I thought you wouldn’t want to. My God, I’m over here telling Molly I want a divorce and here you walk in with this jackass.” I bend over and get closer to her. “Sarah, it’s me and you, right?”

She looks past me and I turn around and Jason is walking back to the table.

“Right?” I say again.

“Call me tomorrow and I’ll explain,” she says quickly. I stand up straight and Jason and I pass each other without a glance.

“Change your mind yet,” Molly says when I sit back down.

I shake my head and two fresh drinks sit beside my plate. I down them and say, “Let’s go.”

She ashes out her cigarette, then stands. “Looks like we’ll just keep things the way they are,” she says, smiling like a good wife.


I sometimes take dad for rides on the weekends, when he knows who I am. Saturday is gorgeous, yellow flashes off everything, and after a few minutes of sitting on the porch of the Manchester House, he calls me Russell and we get into the truck and cruise.

I take him by the old sawmill on the east side of town where he worked as a teenager. I drive past the elementary school where he dropped us off at 7:45 every morning. And I drive to Edgewood Park and we circle around the lake, and he wants to know if we can stop and get out. “Sure,” I say.

We park next to a dogwood and walk down to the edge of the water. I hold his arm when we move down the slight incline but he pushes me off, says he’s old but not dead. At the lake’s edge the water slaps the grassy bank, sounds like cupped hands clapping.

“This ain’t the lake where Bobby got killed, is it?” he asks. I can’t answer right away.

“Is it?” he asks again.

“No, dad. We were over at Lake Walthall camping.”

Dad hasn’t mentioned a recent memory in months. Not a name, not a place, nothing. Maybe he’s having a good day, though I thought those were over for him a long time ago.

“You miss him?” he says, and I feel eleven-years-old again, and he’s asking me if I was with those other boys that got in trouble throwing rocks at cars on Highway 51, though he already knew I was and wanted to see what kind of boy I was and what kind of man I might grow up to be, and I ignored the sweat under my arms and the frog in my throat, and stared him straight and said, No, dad, I wasn’t there. And his eyes looked heavy and he turned away and didn’t speak to me for days. Now we were there again, and it didn’t matter that he wouldn’t remember this conversation in a few hours, or even a few minutes, only whether or not I told the truth.

“No. I don’t,” I answer and they don’t feel like my words but like somebody behind me said it, and it scares me, but I don’t stop. “I don’t because I’m selfish and want his wife and I’ve wanted her for a long time. I’m sure that one day I’ll miss him because I’ll be old and remember growing up and all we did and learned together, but right now I don’t care that he’s gone. I’ve tried to miss him, I just can’t.”

Dad bends down and picks a tall weed from the grass, tears it into small pieces and tosses them one by one into the breeze that blows from our left to right. I feel there’s something else to say, some further explaining to do.

“I’m sorry, dad,” I offer.

He turns around and looks at the truck, then glances past me and back out across the water. I wonder what he sees. Who he sees. When he looks back at me his jaw is tight. “Take me home,” he says. “You don’t owe me any more time.”

It’s a quiet ride back to the Manchester House, and when I walk dad to the front door, he shakes my hand and says, “Thanks, young man.”

I go home and call Sarah. We don’t talk long, but plan to take a picnic on Sunday afternoon.

At eleven o’clock the next morning I meet Sarah and Wendy on the elementary school playground. We spread a blanket on the grass next to some swing sets and a shiny silver slide. Peanut butter sticks to the top of my mouth after I chomp down a couple of sandwiches. Sarah and Wendy have Kool-Aid mustaches.

“Watch, momma!” Wendy yells before she goes headfirst down the slide. Her bare elbows and knees cause her to stick about halfway down, so she crawls, then belly flops into the sandpit at the bottom.

“You need to grease up,” Sarah tells her. Wendy gets in a swing and needs our attention less.

“You remember me telling you I’ve told Molly I want us to get towards splitting up,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s what you said. It kinda surprised me.”

“She wasn’t real cheery about it, either.”

Sarah drinks some Kool-Aid and looks towards the Little League field where some kids are practicing.

“I think she’ll come around but it’ll take some time,” I continue, placing my hand on Sarah’s knee. “Molly’s just strange.”

Sarah gets up, walks a little circle, then sits back down. “Don’t you think you should work things out with her?”

“Not a helluva lot to work out. You know the story.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean maybe you guys couldn’t fix it,” she says.

“Look, momma!” Wendy yells and Sarah looks around me.

“Sarah,” I say, begging her attention. “What’s going on here? Why were you out with Jason?”

“Momma, look!” Wendy screams like she’s being branded.

“Be careful, Wendy!” Sarah hops up and goes over to her. I turn around and watch her hold Wendy’s legs as she tries standing on her head.

I get up and sit in a swing, my knees bent inward the seat is so low to the ground. I barely rock, like the wind is blowing me. Wendy comes close to knocking Sarah out a couple of times as she wobbles, her legs twirling and spinning out of control. Sarah gets a grip on her ankles, steadies her, and Wendy screams, “Hold me there!” and she looks like a post-hole digger Sarah’s ready to drive into the ground.

After struggling through this routine a couple of times, Sarah makes Wendy turn right-side up because her face is blood-red. Wendy climbs back on the slide and Sarah takes the swing next to me. She looks at me and the sun has come out and is full in her face.Wendy yells for Sarah’s attention again but she stays focused on me.

“Sarah,” I say. “I think maybe I should tell you something. Something about me and Bobby. He knew. He called me on it during the camping trip, right before—”

“I don’t care,” she interrupts, then moves her head in little shakes, like a moth is fluttering around her head. “There’s nothing I want to know about that.”

“Okay, Sarah. That’s fine. But what I’m saying is I’m ready for everybody to know. I don’t want to hide it anymore. That’s why I’m ready to finish it off with Molly.”

She looks back to the playground and Wendy is attempting cartwheels. Her lips are moving, words trying to form. When she looks at me again, something is gone.

“You’ve helped me a lot, Russell. All the way,” she says. “Before. After. You took me away from what was normal. Then when Bobby died, even though we weren’t going right—I don’t know—that odd quiet in the house set me back, and Wendy, she still looks around like she’s waiting for him to walk in. Things were better with you around. But there’s not such an empty space anymore. It’s kinda closing up. And I don’t know how much more help I need now. Maybe it’s time to get back to the way life really is. Just move along myself.”

I answer by staring at my shoes.

“Momma!” Wendy yells.

“I don’t want to lose you,” she continues and I look up at her but she’s watching a family unload a mini-van on the other side of the playground.

“Momma!” Wendy keeps yelling and Sarah squirms out of the swing, runs her hand across my head, and says, “Thanks, Russell.” She walks over to Wendy and the mom from the mini-van knows her, waves, and Sarah waves back, then the woman looks at me and I don’t know what to do.

MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH’s debut novel Rivers will be released in September 2013 from Simon & Schuster. Rivers is set on the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast and follows the acclaimed publication of his Paris novella, The Hands of Strangers. Smith has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction, and twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters.