There is no older story than the return of the native, and I'd always believed that had Adam returned to Eden to walk in middle age the ruined garden once again, he might have felt an odd nostalgia for his fall. And yet I felt no such nostalgia for Kingdom County. In fact, after leaving it, I'd never expected to live there again, see the suspicious look in Sheriff Porterfield's eyes each time I'd met him on the streets of Kingdom City. He'd never said a word to me, but I'd guessed his thoughts:
I know you were there.
The old sheriff had been standing on the corner only a few yards away when I'd climbed onto a bus headed for California a few days after the murders. He'd had that same accusatory look in his eyes, but he'd added a knowing grin as the bus pulled away.
I know what you did.
I'd just turned nineteen that year, a boy on his way to college, armed with a scholarship, seeking only to escape a bloody act, build a life far away from Kingdom County and in every way different from the one I'd lived there. If I'd had one determination as I'd taken my seat in the bus that day, it was that I would never again live in Kingdom County, never again endure its poverty and blighted hope, and certainly not the dark suspicions of Sheriff Wallace Porterfield.
But when my father fell ill, I had no choice but move back. With both my mother and my brother Archie gone, there was no one left to care for him. And although I had nothing in common with my father, nor even so much as a tender childhood memory of him, I couldn't let him die alone.
The fact that he was dying was not in doubt. Doc Poole had made that clear as I sat in his office a few days after my return.
"I want to know exactly what his condition is," I said.
Doc Poole leaned back in his chair. "He won't make it through the summer, Roy."
It was a stifling summer afternoon, and even as Doc Poole spoke, the two of us facing each other across his old wooden desk, I knew that a few miles away my father had already retired to his sweltering bedroom, its door sternly closed, as it always had been, my father secluded not only within that steaming space but within himself as well, a chamber just as airless and overheated as the room in which he lay.
"In the last stage of liver cancer there's really nothing to be done," Doc Poole added. "So I wouldn't waste any time on false hope."
"I never have," I said casually.
"What did Jesse tell you about his situation?"
"Just that he had cancer. He didn't say he was in the last stage of anything. He didn't even ask me to come home."
"Well, I'm glad you did," Doc Poole told me. "You can help him stay comfortable."
"I'll do what I can," I said crisply.
Keep him comfortable, that was my sole purpose in coming home, simply to care for my father's most immediate needs, nothing more. I had not come home to reconcile with him, win his approval, or confess anything. As far as I was concerned my father was a crude and ignorant man who took a bullish pride in his crudity and ignorance, wore them like badges of honor. So much so that he often seemed determined to offend me, forever sprawled in his musty, littered bedroom, wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, his legs spread wide, a cigarette burning down to the nub in his soiled fingers. At dinner he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and noisily gulped the last swallow of iced tea, defiantly staring at me when he set down the glass. Day and night, he watched one mindless TV comedy after another, seemingly as amused by the commercials as by the programs themselves. Even in sleep he seemed bent upon disturbing me, twisting about violently as he muttered my brother's name, Archie, Archie, as if to make it clear that my dead brother was the one he would have preferred beside him in his last days.
I might have attributed all of this spitefulness to the simple fact that my father was dying and, therefore, unhappy. But he'd always been unhappy. I couldn't remember a time when a rancorous misery hadn't afflicted him. Nor did it surprise me that in his final weeks on earth this unquiet ghost continued to goad him mercilessly, giving no quarter, determined to pursue him to the grave. There were even times when I thought I could hear it hissing through the air around him, a voice as dry as the sound of wind through fields of long-dead corn.
The origin of my father's unhappiness remained a mystery, however. He'd never spoken of his life, nor offered me the slightest entry into his shrouded past. And so I'd finally concluded that his unhappiness was like my own, something that flowed from the choices I'd made. And although our choices had been complete opposites, they'd landed us pretty much in the same boat. My father had made a bad marriage. I had chosen not to marry. He had sired two sons, and in one way or another, lost them both. I'd had no children. In both our lives, the dream of family had soured, leaving us tied cheerlessly to each other, my father yearning only for death, I yearning only to escape once again from the very place I'd fled so many years before.
But as I realized a few days after returning to Kingdom County, my yearning to escape it was even deeper now, a need, once and for all, to put its gory legacy behind me. For by then I'd learned how violence clings to whatever it touches. You can wash the blood away but not the memory of blood, not whose it was or how it had been spilled. Innocence is fragile, and violence shatters it. A simple pair of scissors once tagged Exhibit A can never cut kite string again.
The merest glance into my childhood bedroom, the sight of Archie's battered guitar still propped up in the corner, could instantly evoke the sound of gunfire, clouds of blue smoke.
My brother and I had shared that tiny room from earliest boyhood until his last night at home. We had crammed it with big plans, usually of escape, first to Kingdom City and from there to parts unknown. It was in that room I'd first determined to go to college, then later filled out the necessary application. I'd read the letter of acceptance, one that had been accompanied by the offer of a scholarship, in a kind of wild reverie, leaping onto the bed and jumping up and down while Archie looked on silently.
It was also in that room that Archie had first mentioned Gloria, and where, sometime later, he'd told me that he was in love with her. Later still, he'd mused about how the two of them would one day get married, move to Nashville, find an apartment, attend the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night. The little metal box he'd used as a bank still rested on the small wooden table by the window. I could hear the soft tinkle of coins as he counted out his savings each night, trying to calculate, in that confused and uncertain way of his, just how much money they would need to get to Nashville and survive there until he made it as a country singer.
But for all the big talk, the plan had remained fuzzy, the money scant, so that I'd never taken it seriously, nor felt any real alarm. And yet, in the end, he'd done it, or at least tried to do it, trudging from the house on a snowy December night, prowling the roads for hours, relentlessly screwing up his courage before finally pulling up beside the tall, dark hedge at 1411 County Road. Even when I imagined all that had happened after that, I made sure to keep it at a distance, like something seen from a great height. Only the mailbox returned to me as it had actually appeared that night, decked with plastic holly, green leaves, and small red berries, snow still half obscuring the family name that had been painted so ornately on its black metal side.
As for Archie, I most often saw him as a boy, eternally clothed in jeans and a white T-shirt, strumming his guitar and crooning country songs. In memory, he was everywhere. Sitting on the steps of the porch or at the kitchen table. Sometimes I glimpsed him on his bed, sitting in his underwear, idly flipping through a comic book. At other times I recalled him at seventeen, standing at the rear door, peering out into our littered backyard, his hands sunk into the pockets of his jeans, thinking no doubt of Gloria, love like a whip snapping in his mind.
I saw my dead mother in the old house too, but always as a figure crouched beside her bed, bare knees on the bare floor, hands clasped before tightly closed eyes, dreaming of a cup that could be passed, sins that could be forgiven, the salvation of good thieves.
But now, in the house where my mother died, I saw only reminders of what could not be undone. The little drawer where my father had kept his pistol. The cheap plastic frame that had once held Gloria's picture. Archie's baseball bat propped up against my father's bed. Scooter's collar nestled among the clutter at the bottom of the closet. Everything bore the mark of our family's affliction, all we'd run from, spread, the things we'd suffered and the suffering we'd caused.
And so, even during these last days of my father's life, I found myself fleeing him and the house he'd hated but never left, darting from it at every opportunity just as I had when I was a boy.
That boy seemed even further from me now than my mother or Archie. I never envisioned him in my old room, never saw him sitting reading a book on the orange sofa, dreaming of college, of moving "up north" or "out west," becoming a teacher, having a wife and children, finding a simple happiness. If I thought of him at all, it was as the ten-year-old child who'd once drawn Archie into a scheme of escape, repeatedly hammered at him about how easily we could do it--We could leave at night, get to Saddle Rock, sleep there till morning, then go on to Kingdom City, hop a train from there--so that I'd finally convinced him to join me in the effort.
That dream of escape was the one hope I'd realized from my boyhood. And so, for the last twenty years I'd lived in a small town in northern California, where I taught English at a little boarding school that rested, jewellike, by the sea. In that idyllic world I taught Chaucer and Shakespeare to the state's most privileged sons and daughters, "snot-nosed rich kids" according to my father, but whom I labored to invest with the refinements my own childhood had so sorely lacked.
I'd visited my father only rarely since moving to California, usually around Christmas, when my own loneliness overwhelmed me and any family connection seemed better than none. Once we'd actually erected a scrawny Christmas tree, strung it with a few colored lights and wads of tinsel. It had still been standing, dry and brown, when I'd returned the following spring. That was when I'd realized how desperately my father was waiting to die.
The sense of welcomed death curled all around him now, a white mist that seemed to boil up from the smoldering center of all that had gone wrong, the wife he'd never loved, the son who'd died, and me.
It was in order to flee that mist that I often left the house and drove into Cantwell, the tiny hamlet close to our house. It was little more than a few dilapidated stores set on a rural crossroads, but a place where I could linger for a time, if only on the pretext of buying supplies. "I have to pick up a few things, Dad," I'd say, then rush out the door, returning later with a cabbage or a box of cereal, ready to hear my father's usual rebuke, You went all the way into Cantwell for no more'n that?
But on that particular afternoon--the one that changed everything--I made no excuse for leaving my father.
I popped my head just inside his room, sniffed the Vicks VapoRub he habitually smeared across his chest and shoulders, and said simply, "I'm going out, Dad."
He gave no indication that he'd heard me, but merely sat, motionless as a granite headstone before the flickering light of the television.
He'd thrown open the room's unwashed curtains, and beyond the window a blinding summer light fell over a parched yard where bedraggled clumps of crabgrass withered in the heat.
"You need anything before I go?" I asked.
He continued to stare at the television I'd lugged into his room a few days before, watching as one wrestler slammed another to the mat.
"It's all fake, you know," I said.
"What ain't?" my father replied with a wave of his hand. "Stay gone as long as you want, Roy. I don't need you."
Never had and never would, he meant.
"I'll be back in an hour or so," I told him.
Once outside, I drew a deep restorative breath, let my face bake in the gleaming sunlight as if light and heat might be sufficient to burn away the toxic residue left by my father, along with the memory of those final sullen evenings when we'd sat in stony silence, Archie dead, my mother curled up in her bed, I set to leave for a California college in only a few days, certain that once I'd left I would miss no one but my mountain girl, return to Kingdom County only to marry her, then take both of us out of it again, out of it forever without so much as a backward glance.
Inside the house I could hear the drone of the television, the thud of heavy muscular bodies hitting the mat, the high, hysterical voice of the announcer calling out the holds, the blows.
When I reached the car, I looked back toward the house. A gray light flickered in the old man's room, faint as whatever dream of happiness he might once have had. As for me, I had only one dream left. To be through with this last remnant of my family, and with him the bloody act with which our name had so long been joined.