“Behind every beautiful thing,
There’s been some kind of pain.”
—Bob Dylan, ‘Not Dark Yet,’ Time Out of Mind (1997)
I wake with a low, steady ache rolling through my skull. As I sit up, I feel a bloody clump of hair stick to the leather of Mark’s sofa. A few hairs yank out and stick to the arm of the couch as I right myself and attempt to quell the hammering in my head. In the kitchen, Mark is talking on his cell phone in hushed tones.
“Ok, I really appreciate it…Yeah….Ok…What’s the address again?”
Not wanting to eavesdrop on the conversation, I wander down the hall, pushing open doors until I find the bathroom. I hesitate before looking in the mirror, afraid of what kind of face might be staring back at me, but it’s not as bad as I had expected. I have a long cut on my left temple, but my eye isn’t too swollen.
My head on the other hand didn’t endure the melee quite as well as my face. I gingerly touch through my blood-matted hair and determine the size of the goose egg. As I try to reach my arm farther back, a searing pain shoots up my side. I lift my shirt to reveal a long, deep bruise, a little larger than a softball, right where Tyrian Collins had kicked me. I poke at the edges, trying to determine if a rib is broken, but I can’t tell.
I feel like I can take about 75% of a full breath, which I assume is a good sign.
I take a piss and walk back down the hall to find Mark sitting on the couch and smoking a cigarette. He holds up the pack in my direction, offering me a smoke. “No thanks,” I say, “breathing hurts bad enough right now without adding any extra impediments.”
Mark nods and ashes his burning cigarette as I sit carefully on the other end of the couch.
“Nasty bump,” he says, pointing to my head. “You gonna need stiches?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, “the bleeding has stopped and I don’t think the cut is that deep.”
Mark smiles broadly. “No big deal, bitches dig the scars anyway.”
I start to laugh, but a shooting pain puts me to an abrupt halt.
“You mind if I get a shower here?”
“Sure, help yourself. There’s clean towels in the closet in there.” Mark suddenly jumps up, and grabs his coat. “I’ve got to get going, though. I’ve got a little bit of business to take care of. We got good news though. I made a few calls, and there’s nothing to worry about from last night.” He shuffles from one foot to another as he tries to explain. “We’re good with the cops and everything, I mean.”
It occurs to me that this exchange only confirms my suspicions regarding Mark’s employment. There is only one guy in Culver County who could have taken care of a small problem with the local authorities inside of a few hours.
“Make yourself at home, man. You can crash here as long as you need.” Mark starts to reach for the door when I stop him.
“Mark, there’s something else.” He looks at me with a half-smile. “Look, man, I really appreciate the help. I mean you saved my ass last night, and you’re letting me crash, and I…”
He holds up his palm as I stumble on. “Just spit it out, alright.”
I smile and nod my head, grateful once again for Mark’s direct personality. “I need someone to get me a sit-down with Gil Grady.” Mark furrowed his brow in complete confusion. “I know it’s weird and fucked up. I get it, but I need to know if you can do it.”
He looks at me for a long time, slowly chewing on his bottom lip. “You really sure that’s what you want?” he asks. I meet his gaze and shake my head with firm resolve. “Ok, then. I’ll set it up. He’s gonna want to know why he’s talking to you, though. I’m not quite important enough in the organization to just demand his time, you know.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, I am.”
He holds up his hands to stop me. “Quit fucking apologizing and tell me what the hell this is about.”
“Just tell Grady that it involves a guy named Whistler, from up by Carlisle. Grady will know him. He’s some kind of distributor or something.”
Mark nods and opens the door. “Ok, man. No promises, but I’ll see what I can do.” He pauses before walking out and turns to me once more. “You’re sure about this, right?”
I nod deliberately and smile, even though every inch of my body aches. “Thanks, buddy. I appreciate it.”
“No worries,” he says. “I’ll catch you later tonight. I’ve got to run.” On the way out the door, he points back to the bathroom. “There’s some Vicodin in the cabinet back there. Looks like you could use them. Don’t take too many, though, that’s some serious shit.” He waves over his shoulder as he walks out the door, leaving me sitting in the quiet of the empty house.
It’s a strange sense of unease, being alone in an unfamiliar house. A strange, apprehensive fear. I think it’s a reaction that’s hardwired somewhere deep in our brains. We’re genetically coded to be fearful of trespassing on another man’s property, instinctually aware of the danger inherent in being an interloper.
The thing is, I’ve felt that way one way or another for most of my life, like an interloper. When we were growing up, Mark and David were always telling me to relax, but I never really could, at least not like them. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a cloud of neurotic anxiety, trailing behind me wherever I go.
That’s precisely why Whistler spotted me right away for what I was, what I’ve always been. He took one look at me and recognized me for what I was, an observer. A passive watcher.
Where’s your white suit, Tom Wolfe?...You takin’ any notes?
After a quick shower, I walk out into the searing light of the morning. Though the Vicodin has helped, the combination of a decent hangover and the throbbing knot on the back of my head conspire to turn the pleasant morning air into an unbearable burden. Last night, the air had carried a bitter chill, but this morning’s sun has brought a warming breeze. Unfortunately, I can feel my bruised ribs with every step, and the bright rays of sunlight are only making my headache worse.
Though I had no idea where I was when I woke up, it only takes me a block and a half of walking before I know exactly where I’m heading. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of small town life. While Brisby, the town that surrounded Whitehaven, was large enough to get lost in, I knew every square inch of Drury by the time I was ten years old. Though I haven’t been to town in years, even the forgotten corners of this place have an air of familiarity.
I walk in the direction of the Black Dogg, instinctively checking my pockets for my keys.
As I round the corner and turn north, I realize that I’m only a few blocks from the elementary school. Thinking of that building is all it takes. As she has so many times over the year, she dominates my thoughts in an instant. I can see her corralling the children, shuffling them from her classroom down to the library or the cafeteria in single file lines, kneeling down to tie shoes or straighten a little girl’s hair.
Though it has been years since I have laid eyes upon her, she is vivid and tangible in my memories, her aura hanging in the background of every interaction I’ve had with another girl since I left. She is the one I left behind, and she is the one to which I compare all of the others.
I know it is selfish to want to see her. I have no right to cause her any disruption or pain, but I can’t help myself, drawn like an addict looking for an angry fix. Within a few minutes, I’m standing in front of the elementary school. I feel my heart sink when I come to the realization that there are no children running around outside.
What the hell was I thinking? Even if it had been recess, she probably wouldn’t have been outside. Weren’t there aides for that sort of thing? As I walk down the block, I can’t help but stare at the windows, hoping against hope for some glimpse of her.
I look up at the sky and breathe deeply, swallowing large gulps of the morning air. When we describe a place, we often talk only about what we can see—the buildings, popular landmarks, types of roads, but we rarely stop to describe the scent of our surroundings, the taste of the air. I suppose that sort of thing is hard to put into words, but as I swallow the warm air, the smell takes me back to my childhood. River water and towering Red Bud trees, maybe even the hint of a diesel engine of a tugboat as it pushes a barge up the stream. The smells drift through the air, and land on my tongue at the back of my throat, instantly casting me back to days when I didn’t have a single worry in the world.
I’ve spent years telling myself that Drury wasn’t home, years of convincing myself that I shouldn’t come back, but it’s so hard to deny those scents hanging on the breeze.
No matter how much we might hate to admit it, we all find comfort in the familiar.
When I finally reach my truck, I decide to head to Mamma Dee’s Café on the other side of town. Perhaps breakfast will chase away the lingering hangover.
After an order of biscuits and gravy, I feel marginally better. As I hand the waitress a ten dollar bill to cover the check, I stand and nod politely. She takes my money and smiles, but I can tell she’s apprehensive. Of course, it’s hard to blame her. She’s been standing directly over top of me on and off for the last fifteen minutes. Each time, she must have looked down at the bloody knot on the back of my head.
Half-way through my breakfast, I reached up and gingerly dabbed the area. When I brought my hand down, the tips of my fingers were lightly covered in blood. The poor waitress had to lean over my shoulder to hand me my plate, all the while staring at that weeping wound.
When I make it out to the curb, I realize that I have absolutely nowhere to go. I keep telling myself that the nagging fear that’s lingering in the back of my mind is nothing more than paranoia. Still, I can’t help feeling that I need to stay away from my father’s house. Beyond the simple fact that there is nothing besides awkward conversation waiting for me there, it might be dangerous.
He’s got bigger problems to worry about. More pressing matters.
In the end, telling myself not to worry is an act of futility. Logic and reason don’t always apply to all situations equally, and somewhere deep down, it’s hard for me to deny the truth. Bigger fish or not, I’ve seen the look in Whistler’s eyes when he wants revenge. That barely restrained rage.
Of course, he would have been offended by a petty term like revenge. He would have called it a reckoning, and he would have made sure to illustrate the difference.
If Whistler had sent someone after me, Marvin’s house would be the first place they would look. Of course, none of it made much difference anyway. The downside of living in a town where you can’t get lost is the fact that you’re also living in a town where there is no place to hide.
I get in the truck and drive out towards the river, and I spend the next two hours driving up and down the river road, following a few gravel lanes into the hollers, stopping for a glimpse of the water. Back in the day, we would come to these spots to drink on Friday night, or to make out with a girl. Back then, it all felt so fresh and dangerous, as if a local cop was going to come bursting from the bushes at any moment.
As I stand here now, so removed from those days, it all feels like a different life. It’s hard to even reconcile that boy with the face I see staring into the rearview mirror.
Eventually, I find myself pulling into the Shady Acres Cemetery. If I’m being honest with myself, showing up in this place was an inevitability. The ties that bind us to our past have a way of directing us back to where they want us to go, like a pebble held firm at the end of a slingshot. We can fight it all we want, hold firm against the tension, but the path of the release is as inevitable as the passage of time.
I guide the truck to a shady area on the southern edge of the cemetery. The spot sits on the edge of Sugar Creek, about a mile and a half from its confluence with the Illinois River. After Tommy died, I would sit here for hours, the sliding window of my old truck open as I blared a newly mixed CD from the dash stereo. I would meticulously choose the songs each night, then come to the cemetery and play the mix, loud enough so that it could be heard at Tommy’s grave.
His headstone sat less than thirty yards away, but I didn’t like sitting out there on the cold, damp ground. I preferred sitting on the tailgate of the truck, near the running water of the creek. Between songs, I could hear water lapping against the bank behind me.
Eventually, my mother got very concerned about my frequent trips to the cemetery. She wanted to send me to a psychiatrist to “work out my issues,” but I talked her out of it. In the end, I just started lying about where I was going. It was all easier that way, and she bought it. That’s another one of those little truths of the human condition. We all love to indulge our pleasant fictions.
I remember one afternoon when it started to rain. The first drops hit as I listened to “Good Vibrartions” by the Beach Boys, and the rain continued to build in intensity throughout Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” For a while, the giant sycamore hovering above had given me quite a lot of protection from the rain, but by the time Cobain was hitting the third chorus, my shirt was starting to soak through.
I was about to jump off the tailgate and move to the cab of the truck, when the cd switched to “Lightning Crahes” by Live. I’m not even sure why the song was on the CD. I don’t remember particularly liking the album, but that song spoke to me on some deeper level.
In any case, as I looked out over the cemetery, in the direction of Tommy’s grave and listening to this song about lightning, the storm seemed to take a turn for the worse. I could hear a distant thunder rolling, and the clouds were getting darker. Sheets of rain danced back and forth across the headstones like some kind of fancy fountain show.
Halfway through the song, the first bolt of lightning crackled across the sky. I sat in the driving rain watching the lights streak across the sky, in full violation of every rule I had ever been told about the danger of thunderstorms. There I was, perched on top of a bluff, very near a water source, resting beneath the tallest tree for miles, enjoying the sight of a powerful lightning storm.
There was a poetry inherent in that moment that I cannot explain, a merger of thought and experience that I had never experienced, and it has eluded me ever since. This was the very definition of one of Tommy’s ‘anthems.’ The perfect merger of sound, and lyrics, and place.
In one way or another, I’ve been chasing that moment ever since, looking for the kind of peace that I felt as I watched each individual bolt of lightning spark across the horizon. At the time, it felt like a clear message, Tommy reaching out from beyond the grave. I thought in that moment, that everything was going to be ok. That my world would eventually turn back to some kind of equilibrium. Unfortunately, God or fate or the cosmos or whatever you want to call it—they can be fickle and greedy.
Two weeks later my mother was dead. Whatever catharsis or closure I had been looking for in those daily trips to the cemetery, I never found it, not even in the midst of that thunderstorm. After Mom died, that fact was all too obvious.
As I sit here now, I half expect some other sign, another lightning bolt or message from the heavens that will finally bring the answers to light. Of course, nothing happens. The creek continues to flow, and the cluster flies continue to flitter through the air, and the seconds continue to tick away.
We come to these places seeking holy ground, but there is nothing here but dirt and decay. There are no grand mysteries to solve. I lay back in the bed of my truck, my feet dangling off the edge of the tailgate. Within a few minutes I drift off into a dreamless sleep.
When I wake up, I have a terrible crick in my neck, but the pounding pressure in my head has subsided a little bit. Judging by the light, I’ve been asleep for hours. A quick glance at my watch confirms that it’s almost five o’clock.
As I lower myself gingerly down off the tailgate, a sharp pain shoots down my abdomen. Though my afternoon nap slightly alleviated the throbbing pain in my skull, the hard steel bed of the truck only made the pain in my ribs worse.
As I drive back into town, I decide to take a stop at Sav-More Pharmacy to pick up some ibuprofen. I walk through the door, and I’m trailed by the metallic chime of a bell, the same sound I heard a thousand times as a child. In fact, aside from the new packaging of the products on the shelf, the whole place feels like a time warp. The décor that was out of style in 1984 has barely changed a lick, and if I didn’t know any better, I would say that old man behind the pharmacy counter was Old Ted Sommers.
Of course, I did know better. Ted Sommers quite famously killed himself when I was in junior high. His death sparked a white-hot series of gossip that consumed the town. Because Old Ted didn’t leave a note, it is hard to say what truly drove him over the edge, but most of the gossip seemed to center around his dubious sexuality. He had been married for twenty years, but when their only child marched off to school, Ted’s wife Marcy abruptly left out of the house for good.
The folks in town said it was because Ted had a male lover from over in Franklin. From there, the rumors grew exponentially. By the time it was all said and done, the story was that Marcy had walked in on Ted and his man doing all sorts of unmentionable acts, both of them dressed in drag and snorting cocaine.
Of course, this same time was the height of the paranoia surrounding the AIDS crisis, and the mere mention of the word gay was enough to send the average resident of Culver County into a complete tizzy. Like fashion, social change arrives in the small-town middle-west on at least a ten-year delay. By the time a fashion trend is stale on the east coast, it’s still a good decade away from gaining popularity in Culver County. Social change and bigoted viewpoints move at an even slower pace.
What isn’t up for debate as far as Ted Sommers is concerned is the manner of his suicide. Apparently, Ted was averse all of the normal means. Despite being a pharmacist, presumably with access to more than enough narcotics to quickly and easily take care of the job, Ted decided to go out a bit differently. It was my mother that wound up telling me the whole story. Though she was averse to gossip, in general, she really couldn’t stand false or malicious gossip, so she occasionally told Tommy and I factual recounts that balanced out the local rumor mill. Ted Sommers was one such story.
According to my mother, Ted’s father had been a well-known and wealthy farmer when she was little. In fact, Ted was supposed to be the fourth or fifth generation in charge of Sommers Farms. Unfortunately for the Sommers Farms lineage, Ted never took to the family business. He was drawn instead to music. Needless to say, Ted’s musical aspirations were more than a little limited in Culver County. So, one way or another, Pharmacy school became Ted’s compromise, while his little sister, Annie, took his place on the family farm.
When Ted decided to punch his own ticket, he decided to go out with a grand gesture at the family farm. He walked into a large pole barn that sat a few hundred yards from the home he was raised in. The barn held the family collection of old farm implements, a collection purchased and harbored over several generations. Ted walked into the barn and turned over the engine on a Massey Ferguson Combine that had been built in the first half of the twentieth century. Ted started the header on the harvester, and jacked up the throttle as fast as it would go. With the combine head twirling at full speed, Ted hurled himself into the blades. To this day, the story fills me with a kind of sickly awe. I wonder how long he stood there, watching the spinning augurs. Suicidal or not, it takes a special kind of devotion to work up the nerve to hurl yourself head-first into that kind of demise.
Though my mother’s description stopped there, I gleaned more gory details from the kids at school, elaborate tales of Ted’s severed limbs and vivid descriptions of the blood-soaked harvester cab. Of course, it is hard to say how much truth there was in any of these stories, but we wallowed in every gritty tidbit. In a place where the local police beat is rarely filled with anything more than a traffic ticket and the occasional out of hand drunk, even a hint of violence is enough to set the town ablaze.
For a while, Ted’s death was a big mystery. With no note, how could anyone be sure it was suicide? Why wouldn’t he have just taken some pills? What if there was more to the story?
No matter how much we wanted the soap opera to continue, there was nothing there but a little smoke and a few mirrors. Ted either refused to leave a note to spite everyone he was leaving behind, or he simply forgot to do it in his depressed mindset. Either way, there was nothing else to know. The simplest truth is usually the easiest, and Ted probably saw his grisly merger with his Grandaddy’s combine as some sort of closure with his father, the resolution to their decades-long feud. After all, Ted’s suicide occurred just a few days shy of the three-year anniversary of his father’s sudden heart attack. It’s hard not to assume that the two events weren’t related.
That’s just how things tend to go between fathers and sons. There’s almost always something left unresolved.
I looked back at the man behind the pharmacy counter and shuddered at his resemblance to Ted. Surely, this man must know the story. I would imagine the every old timer who walked through the ringing door had something to say about the resemblance. It’s uncanny…they’d say…has anyone ever told you…
It must be a strange burden to burden to bear, the shadow of the county’s most bizarre death. The living reminder of pure gore.
Lost in my thoughts about Ted Sommers and his doppelganger, I purchase a large bottle of ibuprofen and head to the cash register. I consider asking Ted’s twin how many of these I can safely take, but I’m afraid of sounding silly or calling attention to the gaping wound on the back of my skull.
The girl behind the counter is young and impossibly cute, her short blond hair and stylish clothes are a jarring juxtaposition to the drab surroundings. The girl smiles as she hands me my change, her hand lingering for a moment on mine as she drops the coins into my palm.
I’ve always been a sucker for moments like these, able to convince myself on a whim that this girl’s smile is something more than a friendly, courteous gesture. I will see a girl like this, look into her eyes, and—for a moment—fall madly in love.
Of course, I’ve rarely had the stones to do anything about it or act on my instincts. Instead, I quickly retreat back into self-reproach and doubt. I walk away and let the tiny, momentary tryst fade away like an aroma on a stiff breeze.
I’m still thinking about the blond cashier and her smile as I walk out the door, and I nearly run into her face-first. We both stop and take a step back, staring at each other for a motionless eternity. Earlier in the day, I had walked past her school, just hoping to catch a glimpse, and now she’s standing here, directly in front of me. Aimee…my Aimee.
I know it’s completely bizarre and fucked up that I still think of her as “my” Aimee. She’s been married to my childhood friend for over five years, yet I still think of her as being intrinsically connected to me. One of those ‘unresolved loose ends’ staring right back into my eyes.
She looks great, her hair is short and I can see the slightest hints of age in her cheeks, but she seems vibrant and full of energy. I have to fight the strong urge to reach out and grab her immediately. After a few seconds, we share meek hellos and then embrace, but the hug is brief and courteous, almost professional.
When I first saw her, after I got over the initial surprise, I could sense something raw and powerful between us. Some tiny glimmer in her eyes, followed by something else. Shock? Pity? Over the last few years, I’ve just grown accustomed to the morose face staring back at me in the mirror, but something in her eyes showed surprise. A barely perceptible grimace.
Eventually, I manage to break the awkward silence. “it’s really great to see you.”
“David told me that he saw you,” she says, throwing me a smile that makes me ache all over. “I’m glad you’re back, I…” She stops rather abruptly, and bites her lower lip. In spite of the tremble in her voice, I almost laugh when she bites her lip. When we were dating, she would do that all of the time. If she was frustrated, or thinking really hard. I would tease her all the time because it always made her feel a bit self-conscious. I couldn’t ever see why, though. Too me, it was probably the most adorable thing in the world. “I’m worried about you, Travis. You’ve been gone for, I mean, where have you been?”
Though she means the question as an accusation, it sounds almost desperate. I struggle to find an answer that doesn’t sound like a cop-out, or make me look like a complete shit. The truth is, nothing I say is going to make any sense, and it’s impossible to avoid looking like an asshole. I am an asshole. I loved her, and I know she loved me, and one day, five years ago, I left and never really looked back.
I can blame it on Tommy or my Mom, or I can rationalize it instead, claim that she’s better off with David than she would have been with me. All of that is probably even true, but truth and reality don’t always add up to equal sums. Sometimes the reality of a moment is completely at odds with whatever failed logic we can conjure.
“I’m sorry,” I say. The words fall out with weight, like a formal pronouncement or a surrender to defeat after a long battle. “I should have called, I should have written,” I can feel tears welling in the corners of my eyes as I fumble for words. “I didn’t even come to the wedding, but I…”
She reaches out and grabs hold of my arm. I swear that I feel bolts of energy tingle up my arm and through my chest when she touches me. I wonder if she feels it too, the pull of that forgotten intimacy, left dormant for so long. “I don’t care about all that. It’s done. I just want to know that you are alright now.”
As her hand drifts down my arm and off my elbow, I look into her eyes and smile. Part of me wants to tell her everything that’s happened. I want to admit to her that I’m sacred shitless that someone might come after me, petrified that the sins of my recent past are barreling down the road and headed this direction. Even though there is nothing she can do about any of it, I can’t shake the notion that she would somehow make it better. After all, that’s what she always managed to do. Alleviate my pain, erase my stress.
Even thinking those words I realize that I don’t have the right to ask her anything else. I was selfish then, and to say anything more now would be beyond unfair. Besides, if Whistler truly is going to send someone after me, I might even be putting her in danger.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ve come back to clean things up and start over. It’s all going to be fine.”
She stares at me for a long time. I can’t tell if she’s bought it, or if she’s just buying into the fiction, but either way she smiles, content to let it lie, at least for now. “You need to come by the house,” she says finally. “I’ll cook us all supper, and we can catch up.”
“I’d like that,” I say. She smiles and grabs my arm one last time. “I’ve got to go. Olivia has the flu, and I’ve got…” she glances at her watch. “Oh, I’ve got to go.” She reaches up, grabs my shoulder and gives me a kiss on the cheek. I watch her as she turns and walks into the drugstore, each step in a kind of slow motion.
When the door slams shut behind her, I’m left standing like a beggar, alone on the sidewalk with my arms stretched out towards her. I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket.
When I pull out the phone, I see that it’s a text from Mark.
…Sit-down with Grady is on. Meet me at the Black Dogg at 6:30…
I close the message and check the time—5:07. Though I still have an hour and a half before I meet with Mark, I decide to head to the bar immediately.
I’m going to need a drink for this…