This Right Here Is God by Rachel Holbrook
The scenery whizzed by outside the tinted windows of his rented car and made him smile in spite of everything, especially the old barn set back from I-40 in a cow field. How many years had it been since he had seen the faded slogan painted on the roof? See Rock City. As a boy, he had always wanted to go. He had imagined an actual rock city—houses and churches and stores made out of rocks, inhabited by the rock eaters from The Neverending Story. Mama always said they’d go someday and see what all the fuss was about, but they never did. He rubbed his stubbled cheek up and down with the meaty palm of his hand. His eyes burned. He hadn’t slept more than an hour at a time in almost three days. Not even on the plane.
Jimmy had just reached his car after work four days prior when his phone buzzed in his uniform pocket. The caller ID had said “Alicia,” and his stomach immediately clenched. His sister texted him once or twice a week, but she never called. “Hey, Sis.”
“Jimmy, it’s mom,” she had said, barely getting the words out before she started sobbing. “She’s had a stroke. You need to come home as quick as you can. It’s bad.”
“What do you mean it’s bad? Like, how bad?”
“The doctor said she might not make it.” His sister bawled. “You need to come home.”
Jimmy’s mind raced as he walked his sister through the steps to call the Red Cross and ask them to send a message to his battalion commander—the quickest way to be granted emergency leave.
After they hung up, he got out of his car and walked back in the building. He quickly found his platoon sergeant, Sergeant Peele, and told him about the phone call. “Let’s find Top,” Peele said.
“I need a minute,” Jimmy muttered, and ducked into the men’s room. He went to the sink and turned on the water, letting it run as he stared at his pale face in the mirror. He was only twenty-five, but his brown hair was already starting to retreat from his forehead, which was beaded with sweat. He hadn’t had a panic attack in years, and he was determined not to have one now. He looked away from his own reflection, staring at the chart on the wall detailing what the color of your urine said about your level of hydration.
It was hard not to remember the day the company commander and the chaplain had found him, out in the field at Fort Leonard Wood, putting up a triple strand concertina wire fence in the stifling August heat. Jimmy had squinted against the brightness of the sun; it had been the hottest part of summer in Missouri. He had been guzzling water all day, trying to stay hydrated, but, even still, he got lightheaded and had to sit down when the commander delivered the news. His father had had a heart attack. He was already gone.
When Jimmy came out of the restroom a few minutes later, having splashed cold water on his face, Sergeant Peele was standing in the hallway with First Sergeant Guzzo, a large Italian man from New Jersey, hands big as baseball mitts and Frank Sinatra eyes. He put one of his big hands on Jimmy’s shoulder, and said, “I’m sorry to hear about your situation, Sergeant. We’re going to get you out of here as quick as we can.”
Jimmy felt like he was wading through water as First Sergeant walked him down the hall to the commander’s office. His boots felt like they weighed twenty pounds each. He didn’t remember saying anything more than “yes, sir” and “thank you, sir” to Lieutenant Colonel Blair as he filled out a request for leave while they waited on the Red Cross notification.
Afterward, Jimmy drove to the barracks, willing himself not to throw up. This was his worst fear when he got stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just outside Tacoma, Washington. He was so far from home. He had always worried something would happen to his mom and he would have a repeat of what happened with his dad.
The last three days at the hospital in Knoxville had been a blur. They had thought their mom was going to die, but then she didn’t. They thought she might remain in the coma, but then she didn’t. They thought there was no hope, but now there was. Jimmy wondered if the reason people called it an emotional rollercoaster was because of what it did to your guts. How it made you feel like your stomach was falling down out of you and then it was up in your throat. You couldn’t breathe and you needed to throw up. All at the same time. After today’s improvement, Alicia insisted Jimmy go to the house and sleep for a while. He hadn’t argued.
Driving west on I-40, Jimmy found the signs along the interstate comforting…Buttermilk Road…Gallagher Road . . . Kingston . . . Midtown. These were the same signs he saw as a boy from the backseat of his parents’ Mercury after a trip to West Town Mall for school shoes and later as a teenager after taking a date to the movie theater in Turkey Creek. Those signs in that order meant you were going home. The Midtown exit to Harriman, then Highway 27 through Bitter Creek and up the mountain. Right off of 27 onto the backroads that led to Coalfield. Home.
Jimmy had been home only twice since being stationed in Washington two and a half years ago. Between the high cost of air fare and spending time with his girlfriend, he had relied more on phone calls and texts to stay connected to his family. Thinking of it now made him feel like an asshole. He had missed so much. He pulled off the winding, country road onto a long driveway, more hard-packed dirt than gravel, and eased the Honda Civic over the ruts and through the woods to the clearing where his mom’s doublewide trailer sat. His parents had thought the doublewide was temporary. They were going to build a house someday.
Jimmy pulled his rucksack out of the trunk, and paused briefly to consider the garment bag. He had brought his dress uniform anticipating a funeral. He slammed the trunk with his uniform inside, and trudged up the porch steps, rooting around in the dirt of a potted plant until he found the hide-a-key. He let himself in, and looked around. Everything looked exactly the same as last time. He passed an 11x13 framed photo of himself in his dress blues, posing stiffly in front of an American flag. He had been fresh out of basic training when that photo was taken. Eighteen years old. He was barely even shaving.
He opened the door to his childhood bedroom, surprised to see the bed heaped with random junk. A laundry basket full of folded towels sat on the desk. An ironing board was set up in the middle of the room, one of his mother’s dresses draped over it. She hadn’t been planning on his arrival.
Jimmy awoke to the sound of voices in the living room. He sat up and reached for his phone. It was eight p.m. He had been sleeping for six hours. He had a missed call from Megan. A text from Alicia: Josh and the kids are on their way over. He’s bringing you dinner.
Jimmy had taken a shower and collapsed on the bed, and now he rummaged through his bag. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, tucking his dog tags down the collar against his chest. He opened the bedroom door, and was immediately greeted by three little kids racing toward him.
“Uncle Jimmy!” the oldest one, a boy, threw his arms around his waist.
“Hey, Nate.” Jimmy picked the boy up. He was eight, but small for his age. He tossed the boy over his shoulder and reached for the other kids. They squealed and ran away.
Josh, Alicia’s husband, stood in the kitchen with his hands shoved in the pockets of his baggy jeans, a baseball cap with the orange Vols logo was pulled low over his eyes.
“Hey, Josh,” Jimmy extended his hand.
His brother-in-law shook it. “Hey.”
Josh and Alicia had married right after high school graduation, already pregnant with their oldest girl. When Jimmy left for the Army after his own graduation, Alicia was pregnant with number three. Josh didn’t talk much, but Jimmy liked him.
“We brought you some dinner.” Josh nodded toward a Hardees bag on the kitchen counter.
“Thank you.” The thought of the greasy food made Jimmy feel sick again.
“You stayin’ the night?” Josh asked.
“Nah.” Jimmy shook his head. “I think I’m going to head back to the hospital. Let Alicia come home and get some sleep.”
Josh nodded, looking relieved at the thought of his wife coming home.
“You’ve been taking care of the girls and Nate?” Jimmy asked.
Again, Josh nodded. “Nate’s been real tore up. He don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t know what to tell him.”
Jimmy looked at his nephew who was currently shoving French fries in his mouth, barely chewing. He looked like his mom. He had her same blond hair. Same blue eyes.
“You have any idea where Shelby is?”
“Hell if I know.” Josh pulled off his hat and raked his fingers through his hair, causing it to stand on end. At thirty, he already had wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. “She was in jail, but I heard she’s out. We ain’t seen her, though. She may have called your mama, but, if she did, Cindy didn’t say nothin’.”
Jimmy just nodded, watching his nephew eat. He had to swallow several times to keep from throwing up.
Standing just outside his mother’s hospital room, Jimmy watched his sister. She sat in a large, blue vinyl chair next to the bed, her legs curled up beneath her. Her face was lit by the light from her phone’s screen. She looked exhausted. When he walked in the room, Alicia lifted her head. “Hey, Jimmy,” she said softly. “You look a little better.”
“Got some sleep.” Jimmy noticed the way his speech had already changed since he came home. He talked slower and used less words. He could hear the Tennessee twang he had tried to tame.
“The doctor came in a while ago,” Alicia said. “He says Mama’s got a long road ahead of her. Physical therapy. Speech therapy.” Her brown eyes filled with tears. “He said she’s going to need a lot of help. He said she either needs someone with her all the time or she’s going to have to go to a nursing home for a while.”
“She’d hate that,” Jimmy said.
“I know.” Alicia nodded. “She was awake when the doctor came. She shook her head and started to cry when he said that.” Alicia stood, and walked over to her brother, wrapping her thin arms around herself. “I can’t do that to her, Jimmy. She can’t even talk right now, but she was trying so hard. Her mouth hangs down on the right side, and she can’t make the words come out.”
“So, what are we going to do?” Jimmy asked. “I’ve only got a few more days of leave. I have to be back on base by Sunday night.”
“We can take her to my house,” Alicia said. “Or I can stay with her at her house. Josh’s mama can help with the kids. She always does.”
“What about Nate?” Jimmy felt like his guts were being twisted. He unconsciously pressed his hand into his belly.
Alicia looked at him straight in the eyes. “I can take care of Mama, or I can take care of Nate. I can’t do both.”
After Alicia left, Jimmy settled into her place by his mother’s bed, thinking about his hushed conversation with his sister. Their mother was Nate’s legal guardian, now unable to care for him. Nate’s mom, Shelby, was their older sister. She had lost custody of Nate when he was three and she left him in her car outside her dealer’s house overnight. A neighbor had seen the little boy the next morning, asleep in his car seat, and called the cops. He had been with their mother ever since.
For a while, Shelby had insisted she was going to get Nate back. She said she was going to rehab. But after meth infiltrated Morgan County, her son never seemed to cross her mind. She was in and out of jail on drug charges, living with whoever would let her sleep on their couch. Or in their bed. It made Jimmy mad to even think of Shelby. So, he usually didn’t.
He looked at the text from Megan, but decided not to answer it just now. He didn’t know how to tell her how he was doing except that he felt awful.
Jimmy pulled out his phone and looked at his texts. Megan had called him on his way to the hospital and asked after his mom. His girlfriend was currently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and he wanted to join her soon. They had been doing the long-distance thing for a while, and Jimmy was hoping to get stationed with her again. He thought maybe proximity to Megan would help him decide whether or not to take the plunge and buy her a ring.
But, now, Fort Hood seemed like it might be a bad idea. He was supposed to give his list of preferred duty stations to the battalion retention NCO next week. He had planned to list Fort Hood as his first choice and Fort Shafter in Honolulu as his second, but, with what Alicia had proposed a few minutes ago, he didn’t know what to do.
He looked at the text from Megan, but decided not to answer it just now. He didn’t know how to tell her how he was doing except that he felt awful. Instead of responding to Megan, he walked out into the hallway and scrolled through his contacts until he saw the number for Sergeant First Class, Eddie Bailey. Sgt. Bailey had been his platoon sergeant when he was first stationed at JBLM, but had later transferred to the battalion headquarters to serve as the battalion retention NCO. Not only was he Jimmy’s friend, but he was also the guy in charge of helping Jimmy re-enlist next month.
Sgt. Bailey answered on the second ring. “Hey, man. How are you? I just heard about your mom. I was going to call you.”
“I’ve been better,” Jimmy replied, leaning against the dingy wall. “I need some advice.”
Jimmy quickly filled his friend in on his conversation with his sister. Bailey already knew about the situation with Shelby and Nate. They had talked before. “Alicia wants me to take Nate. Like, full guardianship.”
“Whoah.” Bailey took a deep breath before saying, “That’s a lot to take on.”
“I know.” Jimmy sighed. “There’s no one else to do it, though. Josh and Alicia already have three little kids and now Mom. Shelby is not an option and probably never will be. Mom may never be able to take care of him again. The only other person we’ve got is Papaw, and he can’t take care of a kid. He’s in his eighties. It’s me or…I don’t know what.”
“How can I help?” Bailey asked.
“Can it even work?” Jimmy rubbed his pounding temple. “If I got guardianship of Nate, could I stay in the Army?”
“Well, yeah,” Bailey responded. “It wouldn’t be easy, but, sure, you could make it work. You would have to make sure you have childcare for him during the day. Make arrangements when you’re in the field. You would need a family readiness plan in case you get deployed. It’s hard to raise a kid as a single parent, but soldiers do it all the time.”
“Yeah,” was all Jimmy said.
“What about Megan?” Bailey sounded tentative, like he was afraid to broach the subject. “Are you still hoping for Fort Hood?”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said. He slid down the wall and hugged his knees with his free arm, resting his head on his forearm. “Megan doesn’t want kids. She’s hoping to go to nursing school and get a direct commission.”
“I don’t know.” Jimmy felt tears pricking his eyes, making him feel ashamed. “I always wanted a family, but I want Megan, too. And I don’t really want to raise my nephew, but I don’t want to not step up for him either. I’m pretty sure if I take Nate, I’ll lose Megan. I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man.” Bailey said. “This is hard. I think you’ll do the right thing, though. You’re a good guy, Jimmy.”
After they hung up, Jimmy stepped back into the room. His mother’s eyes were open, and he quickly moved to her side. “Hey, Mama.”
Her eyes filled with tears, and she lifted her left hand to wipe them away. She tried to say something, but Jimmy couldn’t make it out. He helped her get a drink of water, and wiped what ran out of the drooping right side of her mouth with a washcloth.
She tried again to speak, and this time Jimmy understood her garbled words. She said, “I’m sorry.”
“No, Mama,” Jimmy bent over her, pressing his forehead to hers. “Don’t say that. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. We’re going to take care of you, and you’re going to get better. Don’t worry about anything. We’ve got this.”
On Wednesday night, Jimmy was driving home from the hospital—he had returned the rental and started driving his mother’s silver Buick—when he passed her church. This wasn’t the church he had grown up attending. They hadn’t been an overly religious family, but they had occasionally gone to a little Baptist church in Wartburg. After his father’s death, his mother had started going to church every week. Seeing the full parking lot for Wednesday night prayer meeting, part of Jimmy wished he had a church family to lean on. Glancing in his rearview mirror, he was struck by the silhouette of the cross on the steeple over a brilliant, orange sunset.
It reminded Jimmy of the only time he had ever felt God. It was the previous summer when they were in the field on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They had been bivouacked in the woods up on a mountain for two weeks doing maneuvers. They had one final night in the field, a Sunday, and the chaplain had ridden up the mountain with a couple of trucks bringing hot chow—the first hot meal in two weeks—to have a service for the soldiers. They had walked out of the woods and into a meadow at the top of the mountain. They stood together, facing the chaplain, while he strummed his guitar and led them in an old hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Jimmy wasn’t a singer, but he liked to listen to everyone else. His buddy, Sgt. Polaski, a lapsed Catholic with a dark sense of humor stood beside him making wisecracks. He had just whispered, “What is this, the fucking Sound of Music?” and Jimmy had told him to shut up. He had laughed and suggested they sneak off before all the good chow was gone. When Jimmy just shook his head, Polaski said, “More for me,” and walked off toward the trucks.
With his loudmouth friend gone, Jimmy gazed out over the field, listening to the soldiers’ singing as the sun was setting. The sky was ablaze in orange and pink, and he could see Mt. Rainier in the distance. The scent of pine was thick in the air. Maybe it was because he was so worn out after two weeks in the field, but there was something about the combination of the chaplain’s guitar and the soldiers’ singing, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in Thee,” something about the sunset and the mountain and the pine woods smell that made Jimmy think, This right here is God.
Jimmy wished he knew how to get that feeling back. If he thought he could get it by turning around and going back to his mom’s church, he would turn right around and do it, but he knew he wasn’t going to get it there. He kept on driving.
The next morning, Jimmy awoke early. The house was eerily quiet with no one home but him. He walked to the kitchen in nothing but his boxer shorts and made a cup of coffee. He thought about calling Megan, but, with the time difference, it was only five a.m. in Texas. He drained the coffee cup, and rummaged through his mom’s junk drawer looking for Rolaids. The coffee made his stomach hurt. He didn’t find the antacids, but he did find a paper hand, cut out of blue construction paper, with “Jesus loves Nate” written on it in black marker.
Jimmy carried the craft project across the room and sat down in his underwear at the kitchen table. He laid his hand over the cut-out of Nate’s. His hand completely obscured the little boy’s like an eclipse. He lifted his hand, and read the words again. He thought of his nephew sitting in Sunday School learning that Jesus loved him. Jimmy’s mom was doing something different with the second boy she had to raise. She was taking him to the little white church-house where they taught him that he was loved by God. Jimmy wondered what Nate thought about his lack of a father and his meth-head mom. Did he understand what a bum deal he had been given?
On Friday afternoon, after he had booked a flight back to Washington, Jimmy drove out of the holler and up to his sister’s house. Josh’s mom was sitting on the front porch swing when he got there, watching the kids play in the yard. They were expecting Jimmy’s arrival, and Nate was across the yard and climbing into the car before Jimmy had put it in park. He rolled down the window and waved to Josh’s mom. She waved back, and Jimmy headed back down the driveway.
“Hey, Uncle Jimmy,” Nate said.
“Hey, buddy.” They drove in silence for a few minutes, the boy staring out the window, before Jimmy asked, “Do you like to hike?”
“Yeah.” Nate nodded. “I like to go squirrel hunting with Uncle Josh.”
“He let you shoot them?”
“No.” Nate shook his head. “Not yet. I just go get ‘em after he shoots ‘em.”
It only took a few minutes for them to reach Jimmy’s mom’s house. They climbed out of the car, and Jimmy started walking toward the back of the property. He was caught off guard when Nate caught his swinging hand and held it. His little hand felt warm and sticky in Jimmy’s.
Holding the boy’s hand, they went into the woods and climbed up to the ridgeline. Jimmy had spent countless hours in these woods as a boy. On the other side of the ridge, a creek ran through the holler, making a faint, musical sound as the water slipped over the rocks. They walked the ridgeline, hand in hand, until they reached their destination.
“Cool!” Nate exclaimed.
They were standing on a rocky bluff that jutted out over the holler. Below them, past the trees, was a field full of cows, and, beyond that, more woods. They couldn’t see the doublewide from where they were, but it wasn’t far away. They sat down, and, for a while, they just watched the cows, tiny black dots in the green pasture, graze in the bright sunshine. The strong scents of cedar and leaf rot and, underneath, the faint scent of honeysuckle wafted in the warm breeze.
“I like it here,” Nate said.
“I do, too.” Jimmy took a deep breath before saying, “I want to talk to you about something.”
“Is it about Mamaw?” Nate asked.
“Partly,” Jimmy answered. “And partly about you. And me.”
Nate shifted his body and looked up at his uncle. He had his mother’s eyes, but they were different, too. A lighter shade of blue, the color of the sky when the rain has passed and the sun has come out.
Jimmy did his best to explain to the boy about the stroke and the long road to recovery his grandmother faced. “She’s not going to be able to take care of you anymore,” he said. “Not for a long time. Maybe not ever again.”
“Who’s going to take care of her then?” Nate asked.
“Aunt Alicia and Uncle Josh are going to take care of her,” Jimmy answered.
“Okay.” Nate nodded. He spit on the rock where he was sitting, and rubbed his finger in it. He used the wet to make an N on the rock.
Jimmy watched the boy gather a small pile of dirt and twigs and rake them into a deep crevice, like a narrow wound in the rock face. He thought, Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in Thee.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Nate finally asked. “If Mamaw can’t take care of me, where do I go? To my mom?”
“No!” Jimmy said quickly. “No. That wouldn’t be good for you.”
“Then where?” Nate studied his uncle’s face.
“What about with me?” Jimmy looked back at the boy with mirrored intensity.
“To the Army?” Nate’s eyes widened.
“Yeah.” Jimmy felt like he was asking a girl on a date.
“Far, far away?”
“Well, maybe,” Jimmy answered. “It’s time for me to PCS—that means move to a new place—and I could ask them to send me to Fort Campbell. It’s just the other side of Nashville. Or maybe to Fort Knox in Kentucky. Neither one is too far away. We would still be close enough to Mamaw and Aunt Alicia to come see them on the weekends sometimes.”
“Okay.” Nate nodded.
“I don’t know for sure, though,” Jimmy couched. “It’s the Army. They send soldiers where they want us to go. I don’t get to decide. If they send me far away, do you want to go with me?”
“I don’t know?” Nate looked less sure than before.
“I don’t know what will happen, but, if you go with me, I promise to take care of you. No matter where the Army sends me. We will be a team.” Jimmy studied the boy’s face.
Nate took a deep breath, and then blew it out. “Okay.”
“Yeah?” Jimmy felt his shoulders relax, sending a tingle down his arms. “Okay?”
Nate nodded. “Okay.”
“There will be some stuff to take care of first,” Jimmy explained. “You’ll keep staying with Aunt Alicia while we get things worked out, but then you’ll come live with me.”
“Will I be an Army guy, too?” Nate asked.
Jimmy laughed. “Sure, you will. We can even go to Clothing Sales and get you a uniform, just like mine.”
After returning his nephew to his sister’s house, Jimmy headed back to the hospital to relieve his sister. The doctor was going to release their mom the next day. He hoped it would be before he had to leave for the airport.
As he drove east on I-40, he saw the familiar exit signs. Kingston. Gallagher Road. Buttermilk Road. He passed the field with the barn and the See Rock City sign. Nate would like that, he thought, and he decided then and there they were going to go. He and Nate and Alicia and their mom. They were going to go someday and see what all the fuss was about. The rock eaters and the houses and churches and stores made of rock.