Mark Powell is the author of Blood Kin, the winner of the Peter Taylor Prize, and Prodigals. He has just finished his third novel, The House of the Lord. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Breadloaf Writers Conference. A native of South Carolina, Powell teaches at Stetson University in Florida.
In the men’s room of the Pittsfield bus station he thought briefly of cutting himself. The mirror was spidered, and a sufficiently mean-looking shard had triangled itself into the corner, hooked and slim as the vein it would open. But it was only a thought, and only in a moment of fleeting terror and self-pity. Be done with it. Get it right this time, father. He stood there until the feeling passed, ran water over his hands and splashed his face, dry-swallowed an Oxycodone. His eyes gleamed and he felt a terrible fragility, a softness that leached into his bones. When he started sweating, he took a handful of brown paper towels and scratched at his neck, slid the page from his pocket and unfolded it. A glossy print of Grunewald’s Crucifixion. The doctors had taken his New Testament and his copy of Leon Bloy’s Pilgrim of the Absolute, but the image they had not found.
He put the print away and walked out, thought of calling Leigh Ann, then remembered his refusal to see her when she had last visited. That had been the end of things; even within the tented fog of the Hydrocodone he had known as much. Not that it mattered. Whatever small thing they had shared had withered the moment she entered the church, their slow ruin made sudden in the shadow of Jeb’s self-annihilation. That, after all, was his intent. Jesus said, Whoever is near me is near the fire.
The walls around the Greyhound ticket window had paled to the softest of blues; the posters were washed out, the beaches and mountains, the Golden Gate Bridge rusty and drained of color. A man in a gray work-shirt slumped behind a half-partition of glass and stared at photograph of Faneuil Hall. Behind him were boards marked with fares and disclaimers and routes, wiggling blue lines that stretched across the map with vascular density. He found Pittsfield then he found home. There were transfers in Amherst and D.C. and a sixteen-hour layover in Roanoke where he intended to see a friend. One hundred nine dollars plus tax. He thumbed over the money and waited while the man punched numbers. The waiting room smelled like flowery orange carpet-cleaning fluids, some violent detergent, vaguely cancerous. A machine sold Zero and Snickers bars, bags of pretzels and chips. He looked at the curling metal rods within then at an old woman who leaned into her walker, her smile cloudy and toothpicked. Beside her, a man slept with his fatigue jacket curled over a pair of Dickies coveralls and a little black and white POW/MIA pin.
He took his ticket and bag and walked through a glass door where he sat on a bench beside a woman and her kids. Hispanic girl, nineteen, maybe twenty, with bitten nails and plastic shoes. Mount loaded with bridgework. Tattooed on her left forearm, bright as jewel, beat the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A baby slept in a carrier beneath a blanket and a three year old sat in the floor. Her shirt had matted against one leaking breast in a damp oval. She took a pack of Salem Lights from her pocket, crimped the cellophane, watched the boy pool around her feet.
The PA system came on, loud and abrasive, but it wasn’t his bus. He wanted a drink but there was nothing in the station. Up the street, maybe. In D.C., or Roanoke if he could last that long. He had started last spring with red wine, a fruity Merlot, a good claret one of the women would bring by the parsonage. By fall he was drinking a gallon a day. Christ will return when he is no longer needed, he thought. A drink will appear when I am no longer thirsty. He imagined the long dry ride through the Shenandoah Valley, his forehead tipped against the cool glass, past him the world an ache of rolling pasture and Civil War battlefields. He prayed for thirst, something to undo the collapse of his throat.
The PA came on again, and the woman beside him gathered her children.
“Did they say Providence?” she asked.
Jeb nodded and the woman bit her lip and began to cry. When she stood she looked stunted, somehow diminished in the harsh fluorescent light.
“All right.” She pulled the boy up by his wrist and lifted the baby carrier. The child smelled like diesel. “This is us. Come on. Walk.”
The boy rose like a puppet.
“Move,” the woman said. “Walk."
He watched them until they disappeared up the steps.
They crossed the beltway and took I-66 past the concrete cloverleafs and rings of tract housing gone shabby with neglect. Twenty miles outside Washington there were new developments, pre-fab three-story mansions crowded in fields of snow and turned earth. I-81 was an endless string of historical markers and billboards. ALL-NUDE CAFÉ RISQUE. The Pottery Shack. BATTLEFIELD RELICS. Sonny’s Real Pit BBQ. Country Skillets with 18 oz. rib-eyes and baked potatoes for $9.99. ADULT VIDEOS AND TOYS. Forty miles north of the Blacksburg exit the highway was already lined with memorials gone gray in the sleet. WE LUV VA TECH. PRAY FOR THE HOKIES. Plastic petals floating in rainbows of rain and gasoline.
In Roanoke, he took a taxi from the station to the base of a single-lane unpaved road that wound up the ridge through a stand of tulip poplar before bending from sight, the road bed washed out and shaped in a broad alluvial fan of wet gravel. Jeb took his bags from the truck and started up. Jefferson’s house sat on the crown of the hill past a cattle guard and a line of barbed wire fence. The house was small and neglected with a wide front porch and a collapsing block stoop. Goats moved through a yard cluttered with junk, farm implements and an antique RC COLA drink cooler, bee boxes and trash, fishing line tangled in the low branches of a pine. Jeb shooed the goats and was almost to the steps before he noticed Jefferson in a rocking chair. A fire burned in a metal pit, the light playing on the round lenses of his glasses. Jeb stopped at the foot of the stairs, close enough to watch steam rise from newly-deposited goat shit.
“They’re social animals,” Jefferson said. “You can’t keep just one. It’s cruel.”
“Can I come up?”
“I never got any letter.”
Jeb climbed the stairs.
“Well, I sent one. Sent two, actually.”
“Don’t I assume I read them.”
Jefferson looked up at him from his rocker, rough hands pink and folded in his lap, fingers curled as if scalded. He wore a desert fatigue jacket and an olive scarf, jeans and tennis shoes. His beard was as short and uneven as his hair. Jeb had known him in seminary as the smartest person in a class of very smart people, every semester taking a full load then sitting in on four or five classes in Philosophy and Russian Studies. He had been ordained in the Southern Baptist Church and joined the Navy as a chaplain where he’d deployed with the Marines. Last Jeb heard he had been chaptered out on a psych discharge.
“Pull one of those chairs up,” he said. “Have a seat."
“It’s freezing out here.”
“You’ll get used to it in a minute.”
The fire was burning down, sparking and charring several beer cans thrown in with the kindling.
“You see me in the alumni news?” Jefferson took a fifth of Evan Williams from between his thighs, swallowed, and passed it to Jeb. “They poisoned me. Anthrax vaccine.”
“I never heard.”
He took the bottle back and drank.
“You look fucked up enough for both of us,” he said.
“I had a bad run. Kind of lost it for a while.”
They passed the bottle between them and watched the fire die. A goat settled into a scratch of grass, legs folded beneath it like a dog.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Jefferson said. “All that shit they fed us. Barth and Rahner and Heiddegger. And never once the mention of the symbology of Christ, the idea that we all end up bound to the cross, killed by the oppressor, and that right there is the meaning of everything: that no goddamn cup passes. The meaning of life is that it ends.”
“Kafka,” Jeb said.
Jefferson held out one hand and rubbed his thumb against his fingertips. “Pass that back.”
They drank into the bright chill of afternoon then moved inside. Jefferson banked the wood stove then tore several pages from a paperback and thrust those in as well. Jeb sat on a bench seat taken from a mini-van, seatbelt receptacles dangling, while Jefferson dragged his rocking chair inside and positioned it between several columns of stacked books. Two marijuana plants wilted beneath a heat lamp on the kitchen table.
Jeb slept for a while then woke to find Jefferson eating sardines from a tin.
“I thought maybe with Derrida I might have stumbled across some foundation.” He spoke while chewing, back to Jeb. “I thought there might be something there, but let me tell you, cousin: there wasn’t shit.”
Jeb sat up. “What happened in Haditha?”
“What happened is they poisoned me, filled me full of venom, and I was on to it. The anthrax is what happened. I had 60 ccs and entered a heightened state of awareness. I could think the future, see everything. I stopped holding services and had them start bringing me everyone they rounded up, men, boys, anyone. I smelled their hair and could see into their heads, know the crimes they were going to commit. I saw the entire insurgency bloom from first to last and started naming who would live and who would die. We lost a platoon leader and I had them shoot take two hajjis down to the river.”
Night fell to the soft accompaniment of bells, goats seeking warmth, curling into sleep. The fire died and the room began to freeze. Jeb lay on bench seat and stared into the disintegrating light. In the bathroom he found a leather-bound copy of the Corpus Hermeticum. Painted on the beadboard walls were the names of the ten sefirot and several dismembered stick figures.
He woke sometime before dawn. Jefferson had pulled the rocking chair to the edge of the bench seat, close enough that his knees brushed the fabric. Jeb raised his head.
“What are you doing?”
“Go back to sleep.”
He was close enough that Jeb felt his sour warmth, the body odor and fish that crowded his open mouth. He hugged his chest and blew a ghost of white breathe into the air.
“Why are you sitting there?”
“Sleep,” Jefferson said.
Jeb woke again in the half-light of dawn, the room dusky and soft, every object dematerialized. Jefferson was asleep in the chair, his head wrenched back as if his neck were broken. A length of parachute cord circled one fist; a large filet knife balanced on his thighs. Jeb took his bags and slipped out the front door, pulled it shut behind him and started down the stairs. The goats lifted their heads but did not rise. Halfway to town he caught a ride to the bus station where he showered and changed.
He came out clean and tired and carried his bag to the Denny’s across the street. The parking lot was full of pickups and mini-vans with American flag decals, looped ribbons for the troops, the NYPD, firefighters. The wind whipped and cracked ice lay along windshields and in the flowerbeds outside the door. He stomped his feet on the soggy doormat. March.
Sitting in a booth he felt the people staring at him, the infinitesimal silver scars that checked his throat like runes or bird tracks. He wore jeans and a gray SAINT FRANCIS HOSPITAL sweatshirt over two thermal shirts, an Adidas jacket, good Tony Lama boots his brother had sent. He picked up the laminated menu and held it before him. They looked at him then back to their plates. He had achieved brief fame, a grainy cell phone photo traveling from the internet to the cable networks, and he imagined them driving away with their plastic flags and silent prayers, the low heat of contempt filling their stomachs. Let them hate me if that’s what they need, he thought. We are all dogs in this war.
He drank his coffee. His parish church had been constructed from slate, a gabled roof and dormers, a two-hundred year old fortress folded among the dense hardwoods and walls of fieldstone that tangle and snake through the Berkshires. He rode his bicycle to a main street of boutiques and patisseries, a downtown of ocher brick and delicate filigreed balconies. There were gaslights and second-hand bookshops and good hand-churned ice cream. The men were equities traders and retired diplomats; the women were tan and fit and talking of their kids up at Williams or Middlebury.
There would be no more of that.
His sausage and hash browns came out and he bent to smell them. It was an old scent, long-buried and burdened with associations, a presentiment of continuity: the king is dead, long live the king. He was not returning to his parish; he had no parish. He was headed home to the old man, to the church suppers in the low thrum of mosquito heat, the snotty noses, the pickups and potato salad. Evenings, he had sat in Leigh Ann’s living room and listened to the snow piling, the steady contraction of the boards. They drank their wine while her son watched television, and to this there would be no return. That world was cooling; the sun dying.
He ate his breakfast and used the pay phone outside a package store to leave his brother Dallas another message, his voice a whispery slish as he watched eighteen-wheelers rattle east along a span of overpass. He hung up but didn’t let go of the phone. There was still prayer, eyes closed; there was still the leaning into the presence, the mystery.
He dialed Leigh Ann’s cell.
“Please tell me you aren’t coming here.” She sounded underwater. He could hear her hand over the phone. “I don’t want you coming here.”
“That didn’t sound right. It’s just that I don’t want you around Will is the thing.”
“I’m not coming. I’ve left.”
He watched the aluminum guardrail clatter like the hands of the old drunks, the Parkinson shakes. Their noses wired with burst capillaries. Little shelves of swollen livers notched on their sides.
“You left?” she said. “So that’s it, then? You just go?”
“I thought that would be better.”
“Better for who? For you?”
He knew her hand was off the phone now, out of the latex gloves and pushing the hair from her eyes. He thought of her outside whatever building she was cleaning that day, the parking lot edged with scabs of snow holding rigid brittle reeds. The wind would blow and they would not bend. Her fingers would smell like disinfectant; he could see them flying about her face. She would be dressed in scrubs and then undressed by the gathering morning light. When he had begun to organize protests against the war she had been among the first to attend, eschewing the Episcopalian Christ for something more carnal, the greasy-haired socialist, the peasant from Nazareth. When the congregation’s liberal conscience had been assuaged she had stayed; she had stayed when he was coming apart, first privately, and then publicly; she had stayed until he had fixed his eyes on the Grunewald; she had stayed when he chose to become it.
“Better for everyone,” he said. “You, Will.”
“You sound drunk.”
He laughed. “Give it time.” He felt his eyes begin to tear. “That was a joke, Leigh Ann.”
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t…I think I should go.”
“I’ll call you later.”
“I need to go, Jeb.”
“I can call you.”
“I should just—”
“It’s all right. We can talk later.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t, I mean, if you think—”
“I think just don’t call, Jeb, all right?” she said. “Just…please don’t, OK?”
Inside, he bought a pint of Canadian Mist, put the bottle in his waistband, and crossed to the Circle K where a black Tahoe with Georgia plates idled in the parking lot.
An old man in a Fairfield Feed & Seed hat stood behind the counter and fingered an open box of Tagament. Beside the register was a glass buffet case full of fried chicken, cream corn, mashed potatoes, and collared greens. The glass steamed and streaked with condensation. The ham looked greasy and marbled with fat.
“What kind of machine is that?” the man asked.
Jeb took a bottle of water from the wall cooler and started filling a fountain cup with ice and Coke.
The man nodded toward the Tahoe. “Your big rig there.”
“That isn’t mine,” Jeb said.
The man nodded. “I’ll bet she’s hell on gas.”
Taped on the wall by photos of men hoisting bass and the heads of white tail deer was a newspaper clipping of the president on a campaign visit to Radford.
Jeb put the water and Coke on the counter along with a pack of BC headache powders and three MET-RX protein bars.
“Y’all get any snow down your way?” The man coughed and spat into a handkerchief. His skin was pleated and ashen. “Last year we didn’t even have no winter and no here’s it’s gone and got cold again.”
Jeb looked at the rack of Fritos and reached for his wallet.
“This all for you?” The man lifted a bag of corn chips. “You like these?"
“Them Mexicans don’t buy nothing but Miller Lite and corn chips. Every last one of em lives in the same damn trailer over by the lumberyard.”
In the parking lot he poured out half of the Coke and refilled the cup with Canadian Mist, dumped in two headache powders then fitted the top and tossed away the empty bottle and wrappers. The Tahoe was gone and wind lifted the plastic Budweiser pennants strung along the package store. He put his hands in his pockets. He couldn’t feel his face.