It’s been a while since I’ve added an entry like this–it’s a short story I wrote in college (21 years ago now, SHEESH!). I’ve reworked it a little today. It was always a piece that I was really proud of, but reading it today reminded me that what we think is great when we’re twenty doesn’t always have staying power. There are still some cringe-worthy uses of language, but I think it reflects a more seasoned critical eye now. Enjoy, and be gentle as you laugh at my angst-ridden youth. Also, though it was written before I ever read Gurney Norman, I’ve come to think of it as an homage to one of his stories, Night Ride.
And I’m driving. It’s one of those night when the blood seems to slowly flow through the veins. Where the streets look too familiar, but I’m still lost. Tonight, it’s not just 9.8 meters per second per second that’s pulling down on me because even dreaming of touching the sky is impossible tonight. I am pulled spiraling back to the farm on rural route three, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, USA. The earth. This is back home. Here I feel every bump in the road as it turns from gravel to old blacktop to highway and back again. It makes my blood real tonight.
I am home.
Down Bunker Hill Road, hidden beneath the autumn foliage and asking to be briefly noticed by passersby, stands a brick chimney, long abandoned by its home. Dad always pointed it out.
“It hardly reaches above the trees anymore, but I remember going down there to see Uncle Joe when we was kids,” Dad would tell me at times like this, when he and I were the only ones at home–kings castled by the night.
And home is where the heart is. Tonight my heart burns. The car stops, but the burn reaches my head. I open the gate at the cattleguard and stand, looking at the sky, wishing I could reach it. I’m standing on gravel, feeling the rocks sting me through the worn down cork soles of my sandals. In my head, I’m raging against the sky, silently shouting.
As if the sky were keeping me down. It’s just gravity.
But it’s like the sky shoves me out, presses down on my heart, makes it want to explode. As if the touch of the earth is the touch of death. Tonight, only driving comes close to escaping the pull. I take my place behind the wheel.
Dad got up for a moment, went to his room, and returned with an old, hand-carved wooden toy. I immediately recognized it from the mantle. The mantle in my mom and dad’s room served as a sort of mishmash monument to two bloodlines. A still life family reunion: cousins, aunts and uncles, my dad’s favorite dog Babe all gathered above the abandoned fireplace. Upon the iron door covering the fireplace is an engraving of Artemis, goddess of the moon, her arrow drawn, head turned upward, facing the night sky. Right beside my baby picture, a place was reserved for the to I now held–a little boat with a little stick man holding two little stick paddles. On the bottom was carved:
Old Man of Sea. For Billy Wayne
Love, Uncle Joe
“What kind of wood is this?” my dad asked. A test.
“Smell it, then.”
It only smelled like burning.
And my thoughts go a million miles an hour now, perhaps because I still only trust myself to take these roads at about 45. The curves come up quickly in the dark, and now I see the old stone fences built by settlers and slaves as they came through this old hunting ground. Fencing in the pure blood, pushing out what doesn’t quite make the grade. Thoroughbreds or Gentry, it’s all the same talk of blood.
I remember the preacher at the old Baptist church screaming for us to be “Washed in the blood! Washed in the blood!” and my eyes grow heavier, so I take each curve more deliberately. Don’t want to leave the pull of gravity and end up crushed against the jags of the old stone fences, washing some softhearted passerby in my blood.
“Your Uncle Joe was a carpenter,” Dad said. “He had this carpentry shop right beside his house. Real little place. He built chairs and tables, cabinets and things like that. He was real good. He built stuff real good.”
I turned the Old Man of Sea in my hands, examining the smooth whittling done by Uncle Joe. The slight details of the stickman’s face had faded after years of handling. I looked into wooden face and saw only the enigma that was Uncle Joe. That’s how stories go in my family. Not always complete, like fragments. Apocrypha.
My eyes burned.
But driving is good for the soul, right? When my body is tired but not my mind, I can move while sitting still, watching the stone turn to wood, the small town become country, the light become stars.
I can move. Back in time, almost. Looking for something.
“There was this one time when your Uncle Joe, your granddaddy, and some other men were working in Uncle Joe’s shop. This little boy was fooling around with stuff and cut himself real bad. He was starting to bleed and he ws real scared. So uncle Joe come up to him and lay his hands on the boy.”
The bleeding stopped.
“Now, I don’t know,”Dad continued. “He probably just knew which vein to push where, but I wasn’t there. All I know is your granddaddy swears by it. He says it was a miracle.”
And it’s a miracle I made it out here. The road is so narrow, so dark. It feels almost futureless–you figure you’ll make it to the end and find yourself staring at nothing but your soul. But it never seems to end, only bleed into darkness. As you move straight on, the now begins to come into better view with each step, even in the dark. I pull over. I’ve arrived. I take my first step so the now comes faster and faster. I lose sight of my little car as I walk up the hill. New now after new now. The mind and body are at last moving together. The blood is flowing.
“I don’t know if anybody ever told you this, you were probably too young . . . but Uncle Joe had this son who moved down to Florida and headed up shooting a priest.”
Dad paused, expecting me to be shocked. I wasn’t.
“I don’t know. You hear things about priests. . .It could’ve been about anything. He was in jail there in Florida and nobody hard from him, not even Uncle Joe. Then one day, we heard he escaped and that he might be on his way back up here.”
The chimney is gone. A Pile of a few bricks remains. Strange how the one monument that I remember from my childhood could disappear in a matter of months. Eighteen years at home and three semesters away, it remains the same. But then after the fourth, when I want to find my way there, only fragments. Gravity had at last overcome the axis mundi. Revolutions of my universe killed at the rate of 9.8 meters per second per second. Blood on the ground.
Is it mine? I wonder. Is Uncle Joe’s blood mine, too?
“Anyway, about the same time Uncle Joe’s son come back, there was this couple renting a trailer we had on the back of the farm. The man got drunk one night and drove the car through the fence out back. I fixed it up alright, but I sent them a bill for the barbed wire. The wife came up here cussin’ and complainin’.”
Dad grinned. There was more.
“They had been running stories in the paper about Uncle Joe’s boy coming back here, to watch out for him and all. Course, his name was Murphy, like ours. So I looked at this woman and told her I was one of them bad Murphys you read about in the paper.
“I got my money.”
We laughed a little. Dad got serious again.
“His boy did show up and wanted Uncle Joe to hide him, or give him money or something. The county sheriff had already been out there to check out the place. they were watching Uncle Joe pretty close. He was his daddy, after all. So Uncle Joe told him no, and wouldn’t give him nothing. He might have told him to turn himself in, that would be like Uncle Joe to do something like that. His son got mad. That night, somebody burned the house down. Uncle Joe died in the fire, and they found his boy not too far away. He shot himself.”
So there’s blood on this ground. That’s what my grandfather would say about this place. The carpenter who worked and healed on this hill died here, too. Just three generations ago, we knew how to stop the bleeding, to defy gravity. Now I can’t even see past the new now.
It’s so dark. Dark enough the bricks have disappeared.
Dad and I sat in the sunroom. Nodding off occasionally, he watched T.V. I watched the moon rise through the trees outside. He didn’t tell me that he missed my being around. I didn’t tell him that I was glad to be home. He only asked me if I knew what time my mother would be home. But of course, I didn’t.
I thought about telling him that I knew what it meant to burn and bleed and catch sight of the new now. What it meant to change so much that twenty felt old. How we only have five billion or so years left. How God is as dead as Uncle Joe, and I helped do the killing. How Hart Crane couldn’t see the stars anymore so he threw himself off the side of a boat.
Most of all, I wanted to the him how the acceleration of gravity was too strong, that no one could jump at a rate higher than 9.8 meters per second per second for long enough. It keeps us down. But I couldn’t.
He would’ve done the calculation in his head and said, “Of course it does.”
I would’ve loved him for saying that. He could always do the math in his head, even if he didn’t know how to lay hands on a man to heal a bleeding wound. No words passed, but I sat, loving my father regardless.
When I looked to see if he had more to say, he was asleep–nighttime cup of coffee growing cold beside him. Even caffeine can’t stop gravity, I snorted to myself. It’s that strong.
I stood up. I needed to go for a drive.
I felt the need to be alone more when I came home. When I left for school, every missed birthday, missed milestone, every “What? When did that happen?” became more like folklore than fact. Bloodline without blood. More mere apocrypha. An Axis Mundi shattered and scattered into pieces so fine, it was like sand spilt upon the floor. Nine-point-eight.
I could only go backward, so I drove beyond the back of my memory, chasing the story of my Uncle Joe. Maybe I could find that place at the beginning of the world, a place where we once stood, touching the base of the axis, touching the sky, forgetting gravity. A place for healing wounds, for stopping the bleeding.
There’s nothing for me here. White care on the side of the road, broken chimney on the ground, my face cold in the night air. It’s time to begin again. I climb into my car and feel a chill in my blood. I am tired. I lock the doors of the car, lean my seat back, and I am still.
I am still here.
The sun wakes me. Another car is driving a cautious 35 around the curves and crosses the median to avoid the left side of my car, which is jutting out onto the pike.
Still here, I think. Still here.
I check for traffic and get out, turn my face toward the sun, let it paint everything. Alone, I am not afraid of being seen stretching my body awake, pushing against the sun’s pull. Here I am still, and still touching the earth, though I feel the gravity of the sun provide tension as I stretch outward and back. Awake and asleep. Near and afar.
Uncle Joe is gone, the axis is gone, the past is gone, but I am still here. Uncle Joe’s touch moves the blood through this small plot of land, through my imagination, through my own veins. And the past still reaches for me, pulling me back to where I can trace the map of my own bloodline in a handful of relics and photographs, dreaming of restoring something, the sky, maybe–with my hand on the axis. But for once, I am still. And the bleeding seems to have stopped.