Chuck Lankford Jr., 61, recovered his voice after three days, but he didn’t feel like telling anyone, not even his fifth wife, Dr. Lucy Steele, Ph.D., whom he was fairly certain he still loved after seven years. He was more certain of his love for her than for anyone else he’d ever thought he’d loved, though he had no idea what he’d say if someone stuck a microphone under his nose and pressed him to prove it. Just now, as she entered the kitchen on her way to work, he was leaning against the sink, finishing his bowl of Crispix, still in his pajamas, dreaming out the window toward that place she liked to call his “la-la land.” He thought she looked nice. He thought: wouldn’t it make her happy for him to say so? He thought so. But wouldn’t saying so reveal his recovered voice and require further talk, which he was not, just now, up to performing? Yes. Yes, it would.
He worried that she was onto him. If she was onto him, he worried that she might mistake his silence as a statement directed at her, which was not what he intended, entirely. Whether she still loved him after seven years, he could not, with confidence, say. He certainly didn’t want to ask. He felt fairly sure that if a relationship reached a point where each party verbalized simultaneous doubts then it was probably dead in the water, to use a phrase his father used fifty years ago just before he blasted a hole in the kitchen ceiling with the shotgun he kept on the table beside his Early Times. His father had warned that he’d shoot as soon as another person made another sound, then Chuck’s beloved beagle, Clarence, yelped, and that was all it took for his dad to shoot his own ceiling. Which is when Chuck’s wrist got snatched by his mother, who pulled him out of that house (without Clarence!) and into her rusted Plymouth and down that North Carolina mountain road forever, leaving Chuck Sr. at the table with white ceiling-matter in his hair, bills from his auto rust-proofing business (dead in the water) stacked on the table, a scene Chuck was sorry he remembered so vividly after so long a time, though he could not remember now having shared this memory with anyone, not even Dr. Lucy, from whom he felt no need to hide anything, except for his recovered voice, temporarily.
Now, Dr. Lucy said, “I get to spend all morning dreading my afternoon meeting with the troglodytes, which amounts to another waste of another day in a life wasted on assholes. How is it that so many pre-verbal infantile men have remained in charge of our inept institutions for so long? Can you answer that? If things go badly, I’m prepared to tell them to shove my job straight up their asses and walk out. How would you feel about that, darling?”
Chuck wiped milk off his bottom lip. He nodded to show his support for taking whatever action she felt appropriate. He trusted her to make good choices. She had integrity, something he loved about her. Integrity and courage—those were words he’d think to use once the microphone moved away.
“I’m very tired,” she said. “I’m tired of meeting with Deans and Presidents who interrupt me so they can bicker like three year-olds. I’m also tired—I have to tell you—I’m tired of talking to myself around here, which wasn’t much different before you lost your voice, if you must know. It just seems more obvious now because you’re not talking to yourself anymore either. Something has to change, dear. Something has to change very soon, indeed.”
Chuck offered an expression that he hoped conveyed his understanding that something needed to change. She was skilled at reading non-verbals like this because she chaired the Speech and Communications Department at the state college. For five years, she’d talked of quitting so she would never endure another situation like the one she faced today, which Chuck had heard all about last night: her appeal of the firing of her best instructor, Doris Crane, a sixty year-old adjunct who allegedly insulted a baseball player who fell asleep during her lecture on the art of listening. The baseball player’s father, a donor, called the President to complain that his son had suffered emotional distress.
Chuck decided that when Lucy returned this afternoon, he would greet her at the door and start singing “Hell-o, Darling! Well, hell-o….” They’d celebrate his recovered voice over a special dinner he planned to cook. He’d listen while she talked about her day, which was destined to go badly, as most days did these days. He’d recommend resigning immediately so they could finally take their (her) nest egg to Costa Rica, where they (she) had long talked of moving in order to kill off the death-inducing day-to-day routine of the same dull place and be dropped into a beautiful new spot, which would be like being born again. “Let’s go!” he planned to say tonight. “I’m ready for a change.” And he would pound his fist on the table to demonstrate his eagerness.
She leaned against the doorframe and squinted. She said, “You look like you’re in pain.”
Chuck lifted his chin, pointed to his throat.
She walked downstairs and slammed the door with enough force to shake the walls.
“Right,” Chuck announced to the kitchen. “It is time for a change.” He put his cereal bowl in the sink, ran no water into it, and looked out the window at a bright cardinal. He had decided, while Lucy was talking, effective immediately, that he would retire from auctioneering. He owed his lost voice—and his current mood—to last week’s auction, when he’d stood all day in the August sun, selling another tobacco farm, the scorched land, the broken equipment, the run-down house and all of its worn furniture, including the four chairs he sold right out from under the family who filled them in the puny shade of a dead pecan tree. By dusk, after selling a set of six handmade brooms for $1, his voice was shot. Three days later, when he tested his voice by saying good morning to the empty bedroom, he was sorry to hear himself. He had found that not hearing his own voice had been quite soothing. Silent monks were smart: silence was no sacrifice; it was a blessing. Words were like pennies: there were too many in circulation and they had lost their value. People repeated the same words too often for the same purposes: to share bad news, or to complain or to express anxiety or to manipulate. What was the word for using too many words? He knew, once. It was an ugly-sounding word, he remembered that much. Too many words had prolonged his four previous marriages. His own father taught Chuck that unsolicited noise could lead to a broken jaw, which was the injury his father administered a year before he shot his own ceiling, when Chuck passed gas (with excessive sound-effects) after being told to be absolutely still and silent. Words had done his mother no good either, especially in the final year of her life while she suffered from stroke complications, mumbling to tell Chuck something he never understood. Mostly, too many words came spewing too fast from too many people who had too many strong opinions to share, was Chuck’s opinion. Educators were the worse. He’d heard them at too many parties, each person waiting for the end of another person’s monologue so they could launch their own monologue on some unrelated subject that would show off a very different expertise. Prolix. That was the word that meant using too many words. And while people described him, generally, as “quiet,” no one ever accused any of his wife’s colleagues as being excessively, endlessly, and painfully “verbose,” which was another word he himself would never be heard to use.
Something was wrong with him. He wanted to talk to Dr. Lucy about it. He wanted to confess that he’d fallen into the habit of thinking too much about the shape of his shrinking life, such a common practice among people his age that this thought depressed him too. He’d wasted thirty years helping the wrong people (banks/developers) do the wrong things. And zero money at his age = failure! Dr. Lucy had the house, the IRA, the supplemental savings, the investments. He owned an old Studebaker truck that needed a new generator, a new muffler, and new tires.And as a father, he was a failure too. But he planned to change that. He hadn’t talked to his unemployed and recently-divorced son in a month or more, though he lived just thirty miles away. Shouldn’t he call him right this second, just to ask how he was coping? And to ask about his son’s one year-old daughter? Chuck hated to think of her growing up in this sorry world. Would some lunatic shoot her on a playground or in a movie theatre or in a classroom? Would she run out of water or food? Would she ever escape her loud city and enjoy the shrinking countryside? How long would he know her anyway, given the spot on his lung which his doctor, one month ago, wanted another doctor to look at—likely a product of his three-packs-a-day-for-forty-years habit, though he’d stopped five years ago (ample evidence that he could make a change, thank you!), spurred by Lucy’s ultimatum that he quit or get divorced. He hadn’t told her about the spot. But he would tonight, after dessert. Then he’d apologize for his lifeless libido, a condition that deepened his constant desire to drink. Every morning, his first thought was this: if I spend another full day thinking about not drinking, I’ll shoot myself in the ear. He’d been sober one year (still moreevidence that he could change), following a disastrous night that prompted another of Lucy’s ultimatums. His sobriety had only given him enough clarity to realize that he would likely die before he could create some meaningful and lasting good for someone he cared about, like his son, or his granddaughter, or Dr. Lucy, which made sobriety seem useless.
“It is time,” he announced again to the kitchen, “to snap out of it.”
He marched downstairs to the living room. He bent to his knees, and then lay on the floor, prepared to do ten pushups. His eyes went to his bookcase, where he saw his favorite film, Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).
At six o’clock, Dr. Lucy dropped an eraser board on his stomach. He was anchored in his recliner, still in his pajamas, the big toes of his splayed bare feet pointed east and west. His toenails needed trimming.
“Now,” she said. “You can express yourself. I took it from the college today after I resigned. If you feel so moved, you could write me a note supporting my bold action and declaring your love for me. Or you could write me a poem, ha-ha.”When she smiled, Chuck saw that she’d been crying. She’d been at the college twenty-five years, and she liked her job, mostly, and he knew that her quitting had been a courageous gesture performed largely on behalf of Doris Crane.
The room was all wrong to receive her. He had planned to take a shower and shave and open the curtains and be ready at the door to sing out to her. What she saw now, he knew, did not look good. It looked like he hadn’t moved all day, which was very close to the truth. Just before she barged in, he’d been following Harold Lloyd—a small-town boy trying to make it in the Big Apple—stumble up a skyscraper toward the clock-hanging climax in Safety Last (1923). He’d seen Harold survive before, but he still worried about him. The beauty of such films did not rely on resolution, they relied on the palpable emotion of single moments inside key scenes, when actors like Harold Lloyd jolted Chuck’s heart with reminders of what it felt like to be alive.
Lucy pushed a magic marker into Chuck’s palm and closed his fingers around it. She folded a small towel across the arm of his chair. She said, “Here’s your eraser.”
Harold Lloyd felt most alive when he was close to death, and Chuck felt alive empathizing with the clarity of that feeling. He’d been close to death a couple times himself, but not lately, which meant he hadn’t felt too alive at all, something he felt like apologizing for, especially to Dr. Lucy, who had little reason to have enjoyed his lifeless company of late. Just now, he saw her looking down at him as if he were a sick infant. He looked at Harold Lloyd dangle from the big arm of his clock, now pointed at 3, handy for hanging on.
Chuck lifted his hand to Lucy’s hand and squeezed it. He wanted to say, “I’m proud of you.” He peeked at Harold, still hanging on, then uncapped his magic marker, held the cap in his lips, and drew a smiley face on his new eraser board. He held the board beneath his unshaven chin and smiled above the smiley face, hoping it would make her smile. The long hand of Harold Lloyd’s clock started slipping toward six, with Harold still attached. Lucy smiled. She smoothed her hand across Chuck’s hair. He wanted to say, Thank you for being patient while I recuperate from this silly sadness. He wanted to say, Hang in there.
Dr. Lucy said, “Let’s celebrate. Light the grill!”
Chuck winced as if a needle had poked his brain.
Lucy pulled back her hand. She had called at noon and talked into the machine, asking Chuck to pick up please if he was there, so he did, saying nothing. She’d said, “How about grilling ribeyes for dinner? Sigh once for yes and twice for no.” He’d sighed. She’d said, “Go now and take them from the freezer so you won’t forget. Do you love me?” He sighed. He hung up and fell in love with Lillian Gish, again, in The Wind (1928), and after that he fell in love with William S. Hart in Hell’s Hinges (1916), and after that he fell in love with his acrobatic hero Buster Keaton as The General(1926), and after that he fell in love with Max Linder (who killed himself in 1941) in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). He drifted through the afternoon this way, forgetting time, until Harold Lloyd hung from his clock and kicked his legs while Dr. Lucy stared down at Chuck, her face dissolving into something too sad for words.
Chuck channeled Chaplin’s heartbroken face at the end of City Lights, when his lovely flowergirl’s restored vision condemns him as a tramp.
Dr. Lucy’s eyes held seven years worth of speeches that could catalogue moments like this. If she were making a speech to a room of young women contemplating marriage, Chuck thought she would do well to show a slide of him as he looked now. The women would laugh and clap and give knowing nods while Dr. Lucy smiled behind her podium and moved to her next slide, a blown-up picture of a sewn-up mouth. These slides made Chuck want to change the way she was looking at him. He watched Harold Lloyd kick from his clock while looking at the concrete far below. He wiped the towel across his smiley face. He wrote, “I’m sorry.”Lucy lifted her heels and frowned, a position Chuck imagined she held in front of her students when their prolonged silences unsettled her.
He drew a vertical line over the period, creating an exclamation mark.
She said, “Do you need to go to the emergency room?”
He underlined ‘sorry’ in “I’m sorry!”
“Do you need a psychiatrist?”
He raised his chin and touched his adam’s apple.
Dr. Lucy walked upstairs, punishing each step in a slow and tired climb.
Harold hung from his clock. He kicked his legs. When he looked down, Chuck’s heart grew large with fear. Harold held his heroic poise long enough to survive in a decisive split-second, then he felt more alive than ever, having awakened to a bright new world, which made Chuck feel alive-enough to lower the foot rest on his recliner and start upstairs to whisper his devotion to his wife and fix her something to eat, or go get her favorite dish and bring it back, or take her out to her restaurant of choice, though he’d have to shower first and find clean clothes.
A half-hour later, the phone rang. Chuck held his breath, dreading footsteps in his direction which might require an answer to an auction-related question that would deepen his desire for silence. But there were no footsteps, and he felt relieved.
Ten minutes later, someone knocked on the door. It was Sam, Chuck’s best friend, along with Sam’s third wife, Linda. Sam and Chuck had been drinking buddies for forty years, but last October, they’d agreed to get sober. They agreed to this following a night when the new owner of their favorite bar engaged them in a gun-control debate. The argument escalated to shouts and curses that led to the new bar-owner’s request that both men leave and never darken his door again, the same door they’d been entering for thirty years, whose original owner, Luke Jarvis, they had carried, with help from four other drunk pallbearers, to his grave. Hot with rage at the new bar-owner’s nerve, Chuck went to his truck and removed from his glove compartment the handgun he kept there for emergency purposes and returned to the bar to show the new bar-owner that he did in fact carry his very own revolver despite being opposed to the sale and distribution of fully automatic assault weapons, and to prove that the gun was real, Chuck fired a single shot into the ceiling. Point made, he left peacefully, apologizing to the bar patrons lying on the floor. He returned to his running truck, where Sam was waiting, and in the second part of his three-point turn, backed through the front window of Braun’s jewelry store. He was charged with a DWI, aggravated assault and possession of an unregistered firearm. When Linda and Lucy bailed them out, Dr. Lucy, speaking for Linda, told them if they wanted to avoid being divorced and homeless (again), they’d stop drinking immediately and forever.
After their first AA meeting, they went to a bar to discuss what to do in place of meetings. They decided to meet every afternoon at Dale’s Diner, the place they’d been visiting since they were sixteen, when it was Dale’s Drive-In. They met at 4:30, so they’d be in the diner at 5, the official start of the drinking day. After an hour of coffee, they promised each other they’d go home and kiss their wives with coffee-breath. They’d express gratitude for the homes they shared with their grateful wives. Gratitude was important, they’d learned in their only AA meeting. And it worked. It worked if you worked it. It had been working for the past ten months, including holidays. They said, “One motherfucking day at a goddamned time, sweet Jesus.”
For the last three days, Chuck had listened to Sam, who talked enough for both of them. Today, when Sam called at 4:35 and spoke into the machine, wondering just where the hell Chuck was (“you better not be bellied up to any watering hole without me next to you”) Chuck picked up the phone and whispered the truth, that he didn’t trust himself to leave the house. Sam said he understood. He said he’d see him tomorrow.
But here he was, blasting through the door in his regular outfit—red sneakers without socks, baggy shorts to the knees and a white t-shirt. Lucy took Linda upstairs with the bottle of wine Linda brought along, and Sam went to the living room, stood beside Chuck’s chair.
Sam said, “I was worried about you.” He looked at Fatty Arbuckle carrying a bucket, and shook his head. He turned off the movie and changed the channel to a boxing match. Then he pointed to Chuck’s I’m sorry! sign and laughed so hard he started coughing. He pulled the eraser board from Chuck’s lap and placed it across his chest.
He said, “What we need is to get you some string so you can hang it around your neck. Then you can point to it every time she comes into a room or you go into a room. Hell, what we ought to do is make up about a hundred signs just like this, add some string and sell the sons of bitches for ten bucks a-pop to every hen-pecked sorry bastard in the county.”
Chuck heard the women laughing loudly upstairs, no doubt sharing stories about the sorry state of men, which Chuck was happy to hear, sincerely, knowing Lucy hadn’t laughed much lately, even though he suspected the loudest laughter came at his expense.
He pointed a finger to the ceiling. He said, “She doesn’t know I got my voice back.”
“Yes, she does.” I told her on the phone what you told me, that you were feeling down and didn’t trust yourself to leave the house. You should have told me if you wanted that to be a secret. Sometimes you don’t communicate too well, Chuck, I’ll be honest with you.”
Chuck leaned his cheek against his left fist. Sam placed Chuck’s I’m sorry sign back onto his lap. He said, “You’ll need this.” And he laughed again, too loudly.Chuck had planned to announce his recovered voice in bed, before they went to sleep. He had planned to wake up next to her and say, “Good Morning!” He had imagined that she’d be pleased to hear his voice, which meant the rest of the morning, maybe the entire day (the rest of their lives?) would be full of happy sounds.
Sam provided expert commentary over the voices of the boxing experts. He said, “That guy in the red needs to change tactics. He can’t stand toe to toe with that big man. He’s got to jab and dance, jab and dance, jab and dance.” At the end of that fight, the boxers hugged. Sam said, “I never have understood how you could hug somebody who was trying to kill you. Do you understand that? I’ve never understood that. Like they’re saying, hey, sorry about all that brain injury, you know I love you, right?”
Three fights later, Linda came downstairs with Dr. Lucy to say it was time to go. Sam hugged Dr. Lucy and Chuck hugged Linda. Chuck closed the door, happy to be alone with Lucy in their quiet home. He put a hand on her shoulder, bent to kiss her. She ducked, staggered, righted herself against the closed door, and pressed her index finger against his lips.
She said, “Chuck? We need to talk.”
He stuck his hands in his armpits and looked into her eyes.
Then she went upstairs and down the hall to their bedroom and softly closed the door.
He stayed in Sam’s mildewed basement, slept on a thrift-store mattress. He came and went as quietly as he could, but Linda had sided with Lucy and she didn’t like the idea of sheltering him. Above him, the arguments between Sam and Linda grew louder, and he knew he was the cause. For money, he auctioned off a foreclosed home, and he filled in once for the old man who normally worked the cattle auction, but he’d had to replace his truck’s generator, then its radiator, which left scarce money for gas and food. He went to Dale’s Diner for breakfast, returned for lunch, then went back at four-thirty for coffee with Sam, which he followed with dinner after Sam went home to Linda. Dale had agreed to give him a line of credit Chuck swore he’d pay at the end of the month.
One week later, a Friday at four-thirty, Chuck walked in and waved at Dale, who stood in his white uniform in the kitchen, as he had for fifty years, then he greeted an elderly couple and claimed his regular table at the window, which held a dust-covered “For Sale” sign. Edna, the eighty year-old hostess, cashier, waitress, and wife of Dale, sat at the next table, reading Sam’s weekly newspaper.
Chuck said, “Edna? You know a place in town where I can get a cup of coffee?”
She licked her finger and turned a page. She said, “If you don’t know by now, they ain’t much hope for you.”
He went behind the counter, lifted a cup from a tray of cups, poured his own coffee, and returned to his table.
He said, “Don’t you ever get sick of this place?”
“I’ve been sick of it since I was taking your order on roller-skates. You tipped me then about what you tip me now, matter-a-fact.”
“Let’s make a change,” Chuck said. “You want to run off together?”
She licked her finger and turned another page. She said, “Shit. You can’t make a change.” Then she said, “Aw, hell, Henry Church died. Lung cancer, about your age.”
In the voice of a child, Chuck said, “I can too make a change.” He looked out at the chicken plant across the street where five hundred workers had recently been laid off and conceived a brand new plan.
He said, “Edna, does that payphone on the back wall work? The one next to the jukebox that doesn’t work?”
“It works when you put a quarter in it.”
“Can I borrow a quarter?”
She shook her head and looked up at the door, which Sam was just now bursting through, box beneath one arm. He went straight for the coffee, greeted the old-timer regulars, gave a shout to Dale, and a “Hello, pretty lady” to Edna, and dropped his box on Chuck’s table. He sipped his coffee and opened the box, pulled out a white t-shirt and held it beneath his chin. Printed boldly across the shirt in all-caps were the words I’M SORRY. He removed another shirt and tossed it to Chuck. He said, “Look here, Edna.”
Edna looked. She said, “Why would you advertise the obvious?”
Sam said, “Edna, we’d like to make amends to you for all the many years of mistreatment you have endured at the expense of men like me and Chuck, especially Chuck. I hope you’ll find it in your big heart to forgive us.” Sam looked more sincere and humble than Chuck had ever seen him.
Edna said, “Y’all plan on eating, or you just taking up a table?”
Sam said, “I’m going to my Rotary meeting, where I plan to preach the gospel of gratitude, forgiveness, and free-enterprise, then I’m going to sell this box of t-shirts, which is going to put me late getting home, but I’ll wear one in the door, see if Linda notices.”
“Give me a quarter,” Chuck said.Sam pulled a quarter from his pocket and put it on the table. Chuck flung his t-shirt over his shoulder, and took the quarter to the payphone. He pulled a piece of paper from his wallet and dialed the number written on it. A thin voice answered on the first ring. The hello? sounded like a pitiful question ready to receive bad news.
“Charlie?” Chuck said. “This is your father. I’m coming to pick you up so you can help me do this thing I want to do.” In the background, a loud television was on.
Charlie paused. He said, “Now?”
“You remember where I live?”
“Of course I do.”
“And your truck’s going to make it up the mountain?”
“I’ll see you in a half-hour.”Chuck went back to his table, reached into Sam’s box and pulled out two more shirts. He said, “Put these on my tab.”
Sam said, “Tell Edna you’re sorry for not leaving a tip.”“
I love you, Edna,” Chuck said. He had made a serious effort to sound sincere, but he wasn’t sure it came across. He said, “Edna, I’m being sincere.”
Fuck off,” she answered.
“That’s my girl,” Sam said.
He started the steep climb up the mountain from Wilkes County to Boone, four and a half cylinders clacking and wheezing, sunburned arm propped out of his window, tractor-trailers blaring past him on the left. On the way, he tried to think of what he wanted to tell his son. Charlie had graduated last year (a Math major?), but he hadn’t found a job and he’d continued drinking, then the baby came too soon, as they do, so his wife took the child to Tennessee to live with her parents, claiming it was temporary. Chuck wanted to cheer up his son. He wanted to tell him that resilience was the most valuable asset one could own. Then he’d spread his arms and say “Just look at me.” And they might laugh, and the mood would turn, and Chuck would start to feel—for the first time in a long time—useful. An hour later, he knocked on doors in his son’s apartment complex. Three college students shrugged and apologized. The fifth door he came to had a piece of paper stuck to it—a notice from the electric company that power would be disconnected in three days unless a payment was rendered. Chuck knocked. A soft voice said, “Come in?” Chuck stepped into a living room that held only a recliner and a television. Gunfire came from men on galloping horses. Charlie occupied the recliner, wearing only underwear, bare feet pointed east and west. Beside his recliner, a pizza box held spent cigarettes and crushed beer cans.
“Shit,” Chuck said. “She took everything?”
“Not everything.” Charlie pointed toward the television, which sat on the floor.
“How can you buy cigarettes, beer, pizza, and cable when you can’t pay the light bill?”
Chuck pulled the remote from his son’s hand and turned off the television. He pointed toward a fist-sized hole in the white plastered-wall. “What happened here?”
“A fist,” Charlie said.
“Spread some flat newspaper in there and cover it with spackling, you might get your security deposit back.” He tossed a shirt into his son’s lap. “Put this on and find some pants.”
“Where we going?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.” Chuck regretted saying this. It reminded him of what his own father had said the few times he took him somewhere, which usually ended up being a bar, where he’d say, “Wait in the car while I go see somebody about some money.”
Charlie unfolded the shirt and looked at it. He said, “You want me to wear this?”
“I have one too.” Chuck pulled off the old t-shirt he was wearing, then pulled on his ‘I’m Sorry!’ shirt. It was too small. He said, “What size do you have?”
Charlie looked at the tag. “Small,” he said. “Why are we sorry?”
Chuck scratched his cheek. He puckered his lips. He said, “I’ll tell you on the way.”
But the loud truck made talking difficult—they kept the windows down because the air conditioner didn’t work, and the old engine and the bad muffler sounded like a train. The trip wouldn’t be long enough to cover as much history as Chuck needed to cover, and still, he didn’t know where to start. Charlie wasn’t eager to talk anyway. He lit his second cigarette and stared at his phone.
He drove beyond Boone into Vilas and pointed down Linville Creek Rd. He said he had a great friend from many years ago who lived down there that he should pay a visit to. Charlie stared at his phone. In ten more miles, Chuck turned up a narrow road that wound up and around a series of tight curves that continued uphill past three cows, a donkey, a llama, an old tractor with a metal seat parked outside a collapsed barn. The asphalt turned to gravel and the gravel turned to dirt, and the road narrowed and kept going up and around and up and around until the road stopped in front of a tin-roofed shack rusted so deeply it looked burnt. The house sloped toward the right front corner, as if the foundation there had crumbled. Occupying the center of the sagging porch was a long-bearded man in a wheelchair who was pointing a shotgun toward Chuck’s advancing head.
“What the fuck?” Charlie said. “Stop.”
Chuck kept going. He went twenty more yards, close enough to look down the barrel into the old man’s squinted eye.
Charlie raised both hands inside the cab. He yelled, “Don’t shoot.” To his father, he whispered, “Back up. Back up slowly.”
“He won’t shoot,” Chuck said. “He thinks we’re the IRS or the FBI or lost revenuers.”
The gun sounded like a bazooka. Gravel and dirt kicked up in front of the truck and splattered the grill.
Charlie hit the floorboard. He said, “Haul ass, man. Hit it. Retreat!”
“Ha.” Chuck pushed his head out of his window. He said, “My name’s Chuck Langford.”
The old man kept his gun raised. He said, “Who wants to know?”
Chuck opened his door and stepped out. He held the shirt by his side and stood still, feeling brave and curious and alive.
“You’re crazy,” Charlie said. “I’m not getting out.”
“He won’t shoot again.” Toward the old man, he shouted, “I’m Chuck Langford Junior. That makes me your son.”
The second shot blew a patch of grass and dirt onto the tops of Chuck’s shoes.
“Holy fucking shit,” Charlie said. “Are you hit?”
“Very nice,” Chuck said. He took two steps forward. He said, “I’m your son, Chuck T. Langford Jr. This is your grandson.” He pointed his thumb behind him, then turned to see an empty cab. Chuck said, “Charlie, sit up so your grandfather can see you.”
“Fuck that,” Charlie said.
Chuck Sr. said, “You got a cigarette? I’ll trade you a beer for a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke,” Chuck said. “I quit. You should too.”
“I’ve got a cigarette!” Charlie raised a cigarette out his window and held it high.
Chuck Sr. lowered his gun. He said, “Y’all come on ahead.”
Chuck and Charlie walked uphill toward the porch. The woods on three sides made the same nest of the house that Chuck remembered, but the woods seemed thinner now, and dry. Just in front of the woods, his father’s 1960 Studebaker truck was melting into the earth. Weeds grew through the hoodless engine block and through the space where the windshield had been. The cab’s roof was rusted the color of red clay. Three chickens pecked around a propane tank. Torn sheets of plastic hung from two front windows.
When Chuck and Charlie got to the porch, they each propped a foot on the wheelchair ramp, two pieces of warped plywood supported by cinderblocks, speckled with chicken shit. His father’s right leg was gone. Above the untrimmed beard that grew high on his cheeks, his dim blue eyes were filmy, probably cataracts. His father reached for the cigarette Charlie extended toward him, put it in his mouth and let Charlie light it for him. He inhaled, blew smoke back out, picked at something on his tongue.
“Goddamn menthol,” he said. But he raised the cigarette again and squinted at his son. He gave him the kind of look Chuck had seen from too many men in bars who administered the quick-study read of a face’s fighting history—the wins and defeats and knockouts and the size of the neck and head which measured the kind of punch a man could take. Chuck lifted his shoulders and straightened his spine and squinted back at his father, but his father had already looked away, toward Charlie, whose small head was hanging by a thin neck, eyes pointed toward the ground, skinny arm propped on skinny thigh, looking like he’d already lost a fight as recently as this morning. He was too thin, maybe 140 pounds.
Chuck Sr. said, “Y’all ‘bout got yourselves shot. They’s been some crackheads around here stealing anything ain’t nailed down. Cocksuckers stole my rooster.”
Chuck looked into the open house—there was no door—and saw a knee-deep trail of clothes and shoes, box-lids and newspapers that led to the kitchen where a chainsaw sat on top of the stove next to a jar of pigs feet. A chicken walked out of the hall and disappeared into the kitchen. All the wallpaper had peeled away, and black mold ran along the baseboards. Even from the porch, Chuck smelled mildew and garbage, strong as a decaying corpse.
Charlie said, “How ‘bout that beer, gramps?”
Chuck said, “Last time I saw you, you were shooting guns inside the house, came close to killing me then too.”
“If I’da meant to kill you, you’d be dead.” He brought the cigarette to his lips again, blew smoke. He said, “You come here looking to inherit my fortune? Or you come here to tell me something? Something you need to tell me before I die?”
Charlie said, “I could use that beer. I’ll get it if you don’t want to get up.”
Chuck looked inside again. He’d missed it before because of all the junk on top of it, including the front door, which leaned against it, but there against the near wall in the same spot was the upright piano his mother had taught him to play. The round swivel stool was pushed beneath it, legs wrapped in thick spider webs. She had sworn he had great talent, and she had talked for many years of wishing she could go back and get it, but she’d been too afraid that the man in front of him now would hurt someone.
Chuck Sr. said, “I’m surprised you didn’t have to bring your mother with you.”
“She died ten years ago. She died a slow and painful death after having a hard life you had a lot to do with.”
Chuck Sr. squinted above his son’s head back toward the road. He said, “Well.”
“Is that beer in the fridge?” Charlie said.
Chuck tossed the shirt onto his father’s lap. “I brought this for you. In case you can’t stand to say the words and just want to hold it up. That’d be enough for me.”
Chuck Sr. held it up and looked it over, front and back. He squinted toward the shirts Charlie and Chuck Jr. wore. He said, “I’m half-blind and can’t see to find my glasses. What’s it supposed to say?”
“Says I’m sorry,’” Chuck Jr. said.
“I’m sorry,” he shouted.
Sr. nodded, apparently pleased. He paused. He said, “Now then. Was that so hard?”
Chuck laughed. At first, it was a single “ha,” then the laugh caught fire and felt good—it was the first good laugh he’d had in a good long time, and it filled the air and the valley below and echoed all around them—an epic laugh stored fifty years, fueled by all the times he thought he’d seen his father coming or going through town or standing at the rear of one of his auction crowds, though it was always someone else, or no one.
Charlie said, “Who needs a beer?”
Chuck Sr. said, “They ain’t no beer, son. I ran out this morning. I lied about that to get this lousy cigarette. You ought not to trust every stranger you meet. Maybe your Daddy never taught you that, but mine did. That’s about all he taught me, but it was enough. What you ought to do is run fetch us a carton of cigarettes and a case of beer. You come back first of the month, I’ll get the next round. My last wife left me last December. I can’t keep a woman. Judging by the hang-dog looks of you, I’m betting you’ns have the same luck.”
Chuck and Charlie looked up at the old man who was now scratching his beard and looking above their heads toward the road, squinting. He licked his lips, scratched his beard again, seemed to be thinking something serious. He lifted the t-shirt from his lap, balled it up and threw it back at his son. The shirt hit Chuck in the face and fell down to his stomach where he caught it.
“It don’t fit,” Chuck Sr. said.
They stared at each other, saying nothing.
Chuck Sr. said, “Y’all want to bring a proper peace offering, bring some cigarettes and beer. Hell-fire, you come back with groceries, I’ll invite you inside.”
Chuck hung the shirt over the porch railing so the words faced the road. He said, “I’ve hated you a long time, but it never did me any good. I carried that hatred around like dead weight, turned it in on myself too, which led to too much drinking and lots of mistakes, but I should’ve blamed myself for all that a long time ago instead of you. I’m sorry I haven’t forgiven you sooner. It would’ve helped me be a better father, which is something else I’m sorry for—being a bad father.” He turned to Charlie. He said, “Son, I’m sorry I’ve been a bad father.”
Charlie shrugged. He said, “I haven’t been the greatest son in the world.”
Chuck Sr. said, “I tell you what. Go get us a carton of smokes and a case of beer, and I’ll let you sit around and apologize all day. ”
Chuck Jr. looked inside again. He wondered how long it would take to clean the floor, patch the walls, replace the rotten boards around the windowsills and on the porch.
He turned to Charlie. He said, “Let’s go.”
They turned and walked. After ten steps, the shotgun went off behind them. Charlie jumped, then ducked, then turned and raised his arms over his head and walked backwards. Chuck Jr. didn’t flinch. He said, “He’s not aiming for flesh.”
Chuck Sr. said, “I just wanted to see you jump one time. Y’all bring me back a couple boxes of .12 gauge shells too. Those crackheads will be wandering around after dark, looking to take advantage of a blind old cripple who’s all alone.”Chuck Jr. didn’t answer. He got into his truck and performed a deliberate three-point turn, then slowly moved ahead. Charlie sat beside him, silent, but Chuck could tell already that in the space between them now there lived the beginning of a new story they’d tell for a long time to come.
Charlie lit a cigarette. He said, “You’re telling me I’ve lived in the same town with my grandfather all this time and never knew it?”
“Looks that way,” Chuck said.
Charlie shook his head. “Anything else I can help you with that might get me shot?”
Chuck scratched his cheek. He said, “I’d like to visit your mother.”
Charlie laughed at this. He laughed a little too loudly and a little too long. “No,” Charlie said. “That’s three hours away, and she’s not—”
“I know how far it is.”
“She’s not exactly—”
“You have anything else to do?” Chuck said. “Any pressing engagements?”
“No, but I’m warning you, she’s not—”
“Alright then,” Chuck said. “That’ll give us time to talk. I’ll tell you all about my dad and all the years we spent not talking. I’ll tell you what happened the last time I saw him, when he blew a hole in the kitchen ceiling. I’ll tell you about the time he broke my jaw. I’ll tell you about the time he broke my mother’s jaw. I’ll tell you—I wonder how he lost that leg. I bet he shot himself, don’t you? Probably shot himself while he was drunk. I’ll tell you about your grandmother too—you knew her a little bit, but there was a lot you didn’t know about all the shit she endured for too long. There’s a lot to talk about, but we have a long way to go, so that’s good, and I have a big life-changing plan I’d like to share with you. You hungry?”
“What?” Charlie said.
Chuck leaned his son’s way, spoke more loudly. “We’ll go visit your mother, and then in a few days or a week or so, we’ll visit your grandfather again. I think there’s something he still wants to tell me. We’ll give him another chance. I’d kind of like to fix up that house. What would you think of that? We could fix up that house and maybe even move in. You any good with carpentry? I’m not. I never learned anything from him, and you never learned anything from me, but how hard could it be to nail a new tin roof over the old tin roof and replace some rotten boards and scrub down the place? I thought about asking him if we could auction off the house and the land and then all move into town, but he wouldn’t want that, and I got to looking around there and thought, why not save the old homeplace and have a peaceful spot to live? We both need somewhere to live, right? We’ll save that house. In three more months, I’ll be on the government gravy train, so that’ll help. We could make it work. You know? Why not? You have any better ideas? It’s a good start, which is all anybody can ask for—a good start. I think he was on the verge of an apology. Did you see that? I think he was softening up a bit. With any luck, he’ll croak soon and leave me the estate, which I’ll leave to you, which you can leave to your daughter. See how that works? That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Once we get it fixed up, we’ll go get your daughter and bring her here for a visit. She’ll like it so much she’ll want to stay. I’ll help you raise her. I’d be a goddamn good grandpa.”
Charlie leaned over, looking toward the gauges. He said, “You got any gas money?”
“It doesn’t take any gas to get down the mountain. But we’d better scare up a little money for later. Let’s go down Linville Creek Rd., see if my old friends are home. Finest people you’ll ever want to meet. I can’t remember the last time I saw them.”
“You remember where they live?”
“Of course I do.”He would recognize the house when he saw it. Then he wondered if he owed them an apology for some bad thing he may have done during his heavy drinking days. Probably. He planned a proactive approach. He’d simply point to his shirt and smile. And they’d laugh and give him a hug and greet his son and usher them inside and offer them a drink, which Chuck would politely decline, citing his sobriety, which they would congratulate him for. They might insist that he and Charlie stay for dinner, an invitation he’d accept with the sincerest gratitude. Otherwise, they’d have to drive all the way back to Dale’s Diner, where he’d have to ask Dale if he could charge his food and his son’s food. And Dale would say okay, but only after he gave Chuck the same look he’d given him last time, which said there shouldn’t be too many more charges before a little something was applied to what was owed.
“Yes,” Charlie said now. “I’m hungry.”
“I know,” Chuck said. “We’ll fix that.”
If he couldn’t find their house—which was seeming more a possibility (wasn’t it Linville Creek they lived on?)—he’d knock on a stranger’s door and someone would kindly point the way. Strangers were generally eager to help. That’s the thing he planned to teach his son. Most strangers were nicer than most family members was his experience, so long as you disclosed your honest intentions and didn’t ask for too much and didn’t overstay your welcome and could share a simple good word about the weather and could look into another person’s eyes with the clarity of knowing your first and last words should be an apology. That’s all it took to survive like a king in the company of strangers.