“I’ll tell you one thing, though.
We ain’t gonna change much.
The sun still rises,
Even with the pain.”
—The Head and the Heart, ‘Another Story,’ Let’s Be Still (2013)
I’m trembling as I lie on my back and look up into my father’s face. Though I turn to throw up again, all I do is heave, having already spilled the last contents of my belly over the edge of the rift. Forgetting the zip ties, I start to stand up. Of course, I instantly wobble and fall back to the ground, nearly tumbling over the edge of the bluff a second time.
“Jesus Christ,” my father says. “Just sit a minute, will you? Let me cut you off this block before you roll your dumbass over the edge.” He pulls out a knife from his pocket and flips open the blade, the metal edge somehow reflecting a glint of light in the darkness. “I didn’t put in all this work just to have your stupid ass fall into that hole tied to this rock.” He begins to hack apart the ties binding my wrists and feet. “I’m sure as shit not diving in there after you.”
After a few seconds, he has freed me from the ties. Pushing myself back up onto firmer ground, I carefully plant myself in the weeds, far enough away from Louie’s body that I can no longer see his mangled face. I can feel my chest tightening as I begin to hyperventilate again. Only a few seconds ago, I was sure that I was going to die, which is entirely different than accepting the fact that you might die. This was cold, clear certainty. I was going to take a bullet to the back of the head and tumble down into that water. I was going to die. Absolute…cold…certainty.
I think about Tommy once again. The strength it must have taken to face the certainty of death for so long. For me, it all happened in a blur. He turned from healthy Tommy to that cancer-ridden live corpse over the course of a few months. I never thought about how long those months must have been for him. Starring back into the eyes of death for week after week. I had stared into the eyes of Gil Grady for fifteen minutes and I nearly pissed myself. How was he able to stare at death for so long without blinking?
My father reaches down and grabs my shoulder. “You’ve got to breathe,” he said. “You aren’t even breathing.” It strikes me that I’ve never heard so much empathy in his voice in my entire life. When I finally catch my breath, I look behind me, and I see Karl’s feet sticking out from some tall weeds. “Did you beat him with the cane, too?”
At first Marvin seems a little surprised by the question, but then he gets his bearings and glances back at Karl’s feet. “Nope,” he says casually. “I grabbed him from behind and cut his throat. I had to be quiet if I wanted to take that big bastard down. Had to crouch for a while over in the timber waiting for the right moment.” He flicks his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Louie’s stockpile of cadaver weights. “That big fuck Louie damned near stepped on me when he went in for the concrete. Guess I’m lucky the fatass couldn’t see out over his own belt.” When he finishes, he turns a spits a black wad of chew spit on Louie’s lifeless body, emphasizing his disgust.
Suddenly overwhelmed by the chaos of the last few minutes, I throw my hands up in the air and look around in complete confusion. “How did you get here? How did you even know? How…” My body begins to shake again, and the tightness threatens to return to my lungs.
Marvin comes over to me and puts his hand on my shoulder, crouching down to look me in the eyes. “Calm down,” he says. “You’re probably in shock. I don’t want you to hyperventilate again.”
As he stares into my face, I see something in his eyes that has been void for several decades. Some semblance of compassion and empathy. It’s hard to tell if those emotions are rising to the surface due to circumstance, or if they’ve been there all along. I’ve always thought of him as a crotchety old blind man.
Blind to the destruction he has caused in his life. Blind to the damage he’s left in his wake.
Looking at him now, it’s impossible to wonder which of the two of us was really blind.
“I came into the Piedmont not long after they took you upstairs.” He sits down and rests his back against the trunk of a dying maple tree. “It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on, considering you waltzing into Garrett’s the other night asking for a sit-down. I figured that all the secrecy meant that Grady had you locked away in one of the rooms upstairs.” He takes a pack of Parliments out of his shirt pocket and lights it. When he offers me one, he has to light it for me because my hands are shaking too badly. “When that dumbass Ricky came down and tried to keep me in the bar, I knew that you didn’t have much time left.” He nodded at the timber over his shoulder. “Been sittin back there waiting for almost an hour.”
“How did you know that they’d bring me here?”
“Didn’t,” he said. “Just took my best guess.”
Though I feel my stomach heave again, I manage to hold it down. “What happens now?” I ask.
“Well, we need to tie these two to a deadweight and drop ’em down into that water hole, and then you disappear.”
“Don’t you think we should…”
He holds up the palm of his hand to stop me mid-sentence. “There’s no thinking here,” he says. “Jesus god, kid. You sound just like your mother.” Before I could react, he held his palms up towards me in a gesture of humility. “I’m not sayin’ that’s a bad thing. God knows you boys wouldn’t have survived with me at the helm…” For a second he trailed off and looked somewhere over my shoulder, as if there were some hidden peculiarity on the horizon that only he could see. Of course, I knew exactly what was going through his mind because I did it all the time myself.
All it takes is one word, or one image. Something that reminds you of the past, and that’s it. Your mind jumps there. Tommy…Mom. One word or sound is enough, like a powerful magnet drawn to a metallic surface.
He shook his head and leveled his eyes back in my direction once again. “What I’m sayin’ is that your mother would always consider the options and do what’s right,” he takes a deep breath and talks slowly, like a teacher to a child, “but there’s no considering to be done in this situation. There’s just a single course of action, and that’s it.” He pointed at the hulking corpse lying on the ground at my feet. “It was decided the moment I came out to these woods. Hell, you ask me, it was decided long before that.” He takes a long drag off the cigarette and puffs out a long plume of smoke. “I’m not one for religion or any of that hocus pocus bullshit, but I do know that every man has a path. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all pretty much decided anyway. One way or another.” As if he had just settled all of life’s mysteries with that single thought, he took a deep breath and hopped to his feet.
“Are you feeling a little more steady know?” he asks. “Cause I’m sure as hell going to need help, especially with the big one.” Walking over to Louie’s body, he pulls the knife back out of his pocket. “We’ll drop him in first. Believe it or not, the bigger they are, the more likely they are to rise up to the surface.” With all of the formality of a butcher hacking at a piece of meat, my father walks over to Louie’s body, rolls onto his back and starts stabbing him in the chest over and over again.
“Jesus! What the fuck are you doing?” I shout. “Haven’t you done enough to him.”
He stops with the knife still plunged handle-deep into one Louie’s fat rolls. Still hovering over the enormous corpse, he turns to look back at me, the cigarette dangling from his bottom lip. “Look,” he said. “I know that you’ve always considered me a fuck-up, but over the years there’s one or two talents that I’ve acquired.” As he pulls the knife from Louie’s body, I can hear a wet slurping sound. “God knows that you’ve always been smarter than me, but in the dumping bodies into the river department, I think I’ve got you beat.” Apparently finished with his work, he flicked the knife down at the ground, the blade sinking into the mud with a dull plop. “If we want him to stay down, we got to puncture the lungs,” he says. “It’ll help the big fucker to sink. Now are you going to help me roll him in, or not?”
We tie Louie’s hands to the concrete block that he had retrieved for me, and after four or five heaves, we manage to roll him over the edge and down into the sinkhole.
After a few minutes of wading through the weeds I stub my toe on one of the spare weights. By the time I heave the block back, my father has drug Karl’s body out to the edge of the cliff.
“Compared to the other one, this one’s light as a bird,” he says, dropping Karl’s legs and lighting another cigarette.
After we’ve secured his hands to the block, I begin rummaging through Karl’s pockets. “I’m not really one to stand on ceremony,” my father says, “but it’s not really proper to rob a dead man like that.” I stop for a moment and ponder the idea of Marvin Kauffman’s dead body etiquette. I suppose his arbitrary rules shouldn’t surprise me. He’s more-or-less made up his own rules for his entire life.
“I’m not robbing him,” I say, “but I’ve got to get something…Ok, I’m ready.”
I pick up the concrete block and heave it over the face of the bluff as my father rolls the body over the edge. Though I hear the splash below, I see only black. “How do you know that they’ll get sucked down there?” I ask.
“Because they always do,” he says, flicking the butt of his cigarette into the dark abyss.
We hike a good mile through the timber before we reach my father’s truck on the side of Highway 12. When we plop down in the cab, he pulls out a bottle of Gentleman Jack from under his seat. Judging by the like of light in the sky, I estimate the time to be somewhere around three or four in the morning, and the horizon shows absolutely no signs of the impending dawn.
“What are you going to do now?” my father asks.
I think for the moment about the question, then sigh deeply. “I have absolutely no idea.”
In the darkness, I see him nodding slowly. “Whatever you do, it has be far away from Culver County,” he says. “Won’t take long for Grady to figure out that Louie’s missing.”
It occurs to me that it also won’t be hard for Grady to figure out that I didn’t overpower and bludgeon a four-hundred pound man and his companion all by myself. “What are you going to do?” I ask. “You need to get out, too.”
He lights another cigarette, the orange glow illuminating his face in the dark cab of the truck. “Naw,” he says. “There won’t be any running for me. Too old for that.” He exhales a puff of smoke and then takes a long, deep breath, exhaling the air in a low, long groan. “Besides, there won’t be any hiding from Grady, anyway, at least not from me.” He taps gently on the steering wheel, as if he were keeping the beat to a silent tune. “Grady and I are heading for a reckoning. There’s no denying that. No sense in prolonging the inevitable.”
I shake my head somberly. I know that I should feel a profound gratitude. There’s no denying that’s he saved my life. Still, twenty years of anger and resentment is not something you can wish away in a blink. It hangs on my shoulders and covers my skin like a greasy filth that I can’t quite scrub away.
“You remember that story about the Indian that your Grandad used to tell?”
I could think of at least a dozen stories that my grandfather told me, but no Indian stories jumped immediately to mind. I shrugged my shoulders, and Marvin nodded.
“It was about a young Indian boy. He had to go out into the woods and stay there all night to prove he was a man.” It was strange to hear him waxing philosophic, the way my grandfather had so many times. Though the mood didn’t come as naturally to him as it had to Grandad, I saw, maybe for the first time in my life, a keen resemblance between the two men. “Well, as this little injun boy sat there all piss-scared and listening to the sounds of the forest…” He looked over to see if I was listening, so I shook my head. “The boy listens to the sounds of the forest, and he can hardly contain himself. Every sound makes him want to jump right out of his skin.” He looks out the window, staring back towards the hidden river behind the trees. “But he wants to prove that he’s a man, so he just endures. He takes it all.” He turns back to look me in the eyes and he finishes. “Then as the sun comes up, just as the first light of dawn breaks over the ridge, he can see this shape, right? And he’s afraid as hell because this thing is big, and it’s scary, and it’s close…”
I lean back against the seat. Though he’s nowhere near the story teller that my grandfather was, I can’t get over the similarities between them. The slow drawl, the deliberate pace.
“…and when the sun finally break over the tip of that horizon, the boy sees his dad, sitting there in the woods with him, even though the boy couldn’t see him in the dark. He’s been there all along.”
I nod my head, but I don’t say anything. It’s hard to reconcile the last twenty years with the man sitting next to me in the truck. It’s more words in a row than he’s said to me since I was a child, maybe ever. It’s easy to see that I had no small part in the rift between us, but it’s just as clear that this man sitting next to me is a stranger, a mutated version of the person I have known for all of these years.
“I was a shitty father,” he said. “I told your mother that when we first got together…”
It is even stranger to hear him talk about her, about their lives together. I had viewed them as opposites for so long, that it was hard to even consider them as existing in a space where they were not locked in conflict, let alone young and in love.
“I did love her, but only as much as I’m capable of. Do you understand what I mean?”
Unfortunately, I know exactly what he means. I’ve hated him for more years than I can remember for walking out, but how much different was I. Didn’t I walk out on Aimee? Didn’t I shove Caroline away? It was different, of course. I wasn’t walking out on kids. No matter how shitty he was as a father, he still owed us something. Something of himself.
“I loved you guys, too, but I didn’t know what to do about that. Especially after Tommy…”
It’s easy to see where he’s heading, of course. You don’t understand. I did this all for you.
The thought pisses me off, but I can’t help but notice the irony. Those words are stunningly similar to what I said to Caroline just before she left. I said that, and so much more.
“I was shit, that’s all I wanted to say.” He shuts down his cathartic speech with a violent, abrupt halt. The whole conversation materialized from nowhere, and it ends just as quickly. The change in tone leaves me dizzy and confused.
We wait for several awkward moments in the musty silence inside the truck. “Well,” I say. “I’m just glad you came out to the woods tonight, even if I’ve been waiting twenty years or so.”
He nods, rolls down the window a bit, and throws the cigarette butt out the crack. Whatever weight our rocky past has left on his chest is gone now. In the blink of an eye, he is back to business.
“So, where are you heading now,” he asked.
I pull out the bounty that I fished from Karl’s pocket and held them up, the pale blue light of the instrument panel flashing off the aluminum of the car keys as they twirled in my hand. “Take me to the turnout down the road,” I say. “I’ve got a ride waiting there.”