the heart you carry home
There were few streetlights in town, and the army duffle, crammed with Becca’s clothes, kept sliding from the handlebars of her bicycle. Still, she knew these roads well enough to take them blind. Here were the doublewides, flimsy as Monopoly pieces; the gardens dotted with plaster birdbaths; and the harried-looking lawns scattered with dirt bikes and abandoned Barbies. This was her beloved, unbeautiful Dry Hills, Tennessee. She pushed past the town limits and pedaled on. Damn Ben for taking her old Cadillac. Only a month after their wedding and he had turned into someone else, like any other man around here — gotten drunk, disappeared, forced her to flee into the night. The foggy August air grew thick with droplets of moisture large enough to catch on the tongue. Becca stopped and looked around. Where was she? Out in the alfalfa fields, a glittering barn wavered like a mirage. And there was Ben, a distant apparition, playing the fiddle tune he’d written for her. “It’s a loooove song,” he’d crooned the night before his deployment. “I’m going to play it at the wedding and embarrass the hell out of you.” It was one of the few promises he’d kept, and Becca’s cheeks flushed again at the memory. Since then, there had been no love songs. Nothing except fighting and silence.
After another fifteen minutes of hard pedaling, she came to a crossroads. Her father’s house was to the left. Right and straight meant farmland for miles. Becca had never dropped in on King uninvited, and it was after midnight. But what choice did she have? Her mother was holed up in a Colorado commune, and the girls she knew in town were asleep next to their husbands and newborns. With a queasy feeling, she looked around, as though a third road might suddenly appear. Get on with it! she ordered herself and pushed on.
Twenty minutes later, King’s house appeared behind a bulwark of trees. The large picture window in front was dark, indifferent, like a person looking the other way. As Becca climbed off the bike, a ring of pain ignited around her waist, belly to back. She checked under her shirt. The bruises were dark, multicolored splotches, and she registered them with detachment; they matched a painting she’d made in last semester’s art class. She dropped her shirt, hoisted Ben’s duffle onto her shoulder, and climbed her father’s steps. Then she sucked in a breath, and knocked. From inside came a cough, followed by heavy steps, clomping fee-fi-fo-fum. A voice growled, “Who’s there?” Becca stated her name and heard the metallic chinks of many locks sliding open. King lived beside a cow pasture, but he’d fortified the house as though awaiting a full-on assault, perhaps from a rogue government force or maybe just the government. She’d never figured out who his enemies were.
The door swung back to reveal his hulking figure. Despite the hour, he was fully dressed: black jeans and a Sturgis Rally T-shirt, steel-wool hair pulled into a ponytail. His jowls sagged with a mastiff’s despondent frown. Becca’s father was sixty years old, but he looked closer to seventy. When he noticed the army duffle, his thick lips sank. “Can I come in?” She considered throwing a Dad onto the end of this sentence, but the word wouldn’t come, not even as guilt ammunition. She waited, trying to breathe steady. He was going to send her away. But he held the door open and stepped aside. Becca followed him into the kitchen and sat down at the table. This room usually indicated King’s physical and mental state. Many times she’d arrive and immediately take up arms against the roaches, mildewed towels, and weeks of frying-pan grease. The fridge was generally a bright electric wasteland. It was a wonder her father survived out here on his own. At present, however, the room was spotless. King made coffee and, smiling, put two mugs on the table. The coffee tasted like dirt, but Becca would have accepted a mug of lighter fluid from her father had he offered it with a smile.
“What’s going on?” King asked, sitting heavily across from her.
“We had a fight.” Becca pressed her molars together, determined to keep renegade tears at bay. She needed to convince King that things were bad enough for her to be here but not so bad that he’d grow agitated, take action.
“What kind of fight?”
Becca met her father’s eyes, then looked away.
“Becca, what kind of fight?” he repeated.
“I biked all the way out here.”
King drew in a quick breath and patted her hand. It had taken many months for him to show even this much affection. He gave her a paper towel from the roll she’d bought at Costco the last time she’d gone shopping for his necessities; King did not like crowded public places. Becca blew her nose, a brash, earsplitting honk. According to her mother, this was the single trait that father and daughter shared: a propensity to sneeze and blow like storm systems.
“Usually you’d be welcome here,” King said, “but the thing is . . .”
Becca swallowed. Of course their détente of the past few months couldn’t last. He was going to send her away. Her mind spun into the uncertain future. Where to go?
“Thing is,” he continued, “I’m leaving on a trip tomorrow.
But —” His gray eyes brightened. “I’m stopping at Kath’s on the way.”
Aunt Kathy. Her house, teetering on the peak of a mountain overlooking the Buffalo River Valley, had been Becca’s childhood refuge when the home front turned nasty. When she was old enough to think about it, Becca couldn’t believe her mother had put a six-year-old on a bus alone, but the frequent trips had taught her self-reliance. Now, secreting herself away with Kath seemed like the perfect solution. She’d be an Ozark girl for the rest of the summer. And after she’d erased the past few years from her memory, she’d continue west. Like a pioneer on the Oregon Trail, she would make her own manifest destiny. She’d take hold of her new opportunity. One that nobody — not even Ben — knew about.
“If it’s not too much trouble, Dad,” Becca said, finally looking
King in the eye, “I’d love to come with you.”
“Just to Kath’s,” King said.
“Of course.” Becca nodded.
Despite its being the middle of the night, King retreated to his work shed. Becca was exhausted, but she was also sticky with dried sweat and, beneath that, a grimy heartsickness that she hoped a blast of hot water might dissolve. She tiptoed into the monk’s cell that was King’s bedroom, searching for a towel. Her father’s dresser displayed the barest signs of life: a tattered spy novel, a pack of American Spirits, and a couple of photos in drugstore frames. But there, unexpectedly, was her high-school graduation portrait: her hair long and blond, like some hippie girl’s. Becca had chopped it off just hours after receiving her diploma. She’d been drunk, reveling in her newfound freedom, flinging fistfuls of hair out her bedroom window. In the backyard, her fellow graduates had shouted, “Rebecca, Rebecca, let down your hair!” King hadn’t been at her graduation and she hadn’t expected him. He’d been MIA for many years by that point. So where had this picture come from? Certainly not from her mother, who never missed a chance to remind Becca how much she hated her ex-husband. Another puzzle, but not one that Becca had an ounce of energy to solve.
In the bathroom, she stripped off her clothes and ducked behind the shower curtain, avoiding the mirror. Letting the tears, salt, and snot flow into the drain, she washed herself gingerly where the skin around her midsection was tender. Then she turned off the water and stood naked and dripping in the tub. The heartsick feeling had hardened inside of her, like a shell. Back in the kitchen, a towel around her, Becca discovered a small, wiry man rooting around in the fridge. Reno, a friend of her father but a man she despised.
“Your old man doesn’t have anything decent to drink,” he said, not bothering to look up.
“You know King doesn’t keep booze here.”
Reno stood upright and flashed his metallic smile. He had three gold caps, two on his top incisors and one on the bottom left canine. “I meant all this diet crap. I don’t drink around your daddy.” He nodded at the soda in his fist. “Jesus, girl.”
Becca rolled her eyes. Reno was a fixture. Just two years her father’s junior, he’d been in King’s unit in Vietnam, and her father had called him a crazy son of a bitch who’d run into live fire like he was the fucking god of war incarnate. It was one of the few pieces of information King had volunteered about the war. He’s a good doobie, King had added. Heart of gold.
Reno eyed her critically. “Are you okay?”
Becca scowled and pulled the towel higher around her chest. Her clothes were in the duffle bag beside the table. “What are you doing here, Reno?”
“Is that any way to welcome a weary traveler? I’ve been riding half the night and my ass is screamin’.” Reno snapped open the soda. “We got a trip coming up. King didn’t tell you?”
Becca deflated. Even two days in Reno’s company was too much. “My dad’s in his shed,” she said. “Go bother him, okay?” Without waiting for a response, she grabbed the duffle and turned on her heel. When she heard the back door slam, she dressed and lay down on the lumpy couch. The pillows reeked of cigarette smoke, so she stuffed Ben’s duffle under her head. The fabric was rough and had its own peculiar mustiness. When she closed her eyes, she saw a thousand duffles crammed into army trucks rumbling through faraway deserts. She saw Ben trudging among blown-out buildings. So many nights she’d made mental lists of the places he’d been, the names of the people in his unit, the objects that made up his sixty-plus pounds of body armor. She’d hoped these thoughts would bring him close to her — a kind of intraplanetary mind meld. No such luck.
Finally alone and still, Becca clenched her teeth until her face turned red, and hot tears burned in her eyes. She was a twenty-one-year-old woman throwing a tantrum, however silent. But who gave a damn? As a child, she’d lashed out over every affront. Kick as hard as you like, but you can’t crack the earth, her mother would say after she’d been called to pick up Becca early from school. Nothing had changed. Then, as now, her rage felt like all she had. Becca forced herself to breathe slowly in and out like her first running coach had taught her. She thought about her well-tested strategy for winning long-distance races. First, gain momentum from a fierce burst of energy. Next, fall into a steady rhythm. And finally, when you felt confident in your movement and your breath, hit your stride. Momentum, rhythm, stride. Becca repeated the mantra in her mind. Momentum [breath], rhythm [breath], stride [breath]. She felt her body calm and her heavy eyes close. You have options, she reminded herself. You’re free now. Hit your stride and you can outrun anything.