The young widower was well drunk by the time he stopped his truck on the side of the hill. He leaned his temple against the steering wheel and looked out at the property – the rutted front yard, the trail now overgrown, stretching through the birch and box elder on its way to the river, the trailer, sagging on its hip under the weight of dead wet leaves and acorn nuts. Its back was pressed against a parapet of limestone and shale, a billion years of forest crushed beneath itself and dissected by rain and rain and rain.
He took easy steps through the mud, steadied himself on the rear-view mirror, pulled his dad’s army rucksack to the ground and dragged it to the stoop. The plastic windows in the front door were all punched out, and he released the deadbolt from the inside. When the door swung open a yellow sheet of dust kicked up from the carpet and shuffled in a front across the living room and fell over a different section of the house and over a tarp that covered a fish tank on the back wall. The tank was black, molded, covered inside with algae or bugs or both. The young man coughed and almost threw up and put his dad’s rucksack on the floor.
He spent the evening slowly shaking his head to dislodge the intoxication and turning the trailer into a respectable place to die. He flicked chicken bones out the window and picked dog fur out of the carpet. He set the t.v. up on a wicker chair, its cracked blue screen toward the corner. An old, awful mattress stood on its long side against the wall in a back bedroom and he dragged it out and let it flop onto the floor and so he had a place to sleep. The windowsill in the kitchen was cluttered with brown and green beer bottles and a potato plant grown out of another potato. He would cook with a camp stove. He would read with a battery-powered lantern. He would piss in the yard.
Unpacking his gear in the living room floor, he saw the divots left in the carpet by a couch, still planted deep, and he looked above him and saw a nicotine stain in the ceiling tiles the size and shape of a flat tire. He unfolded a newspaper that he found on top of the toilet and laid out his toothbrush and toothpaste and a bar of soap. He hadn’t bothered with a razor. He hadn’t bothered with very many things. The newspaper was from nineteen ninety-three and its front page was a picture of Hillary Clinton shaking hands with someone from somewhere else.
That night he sat on the porch and sipped at a warm beer that he’d stuffed in the side pouch of the rucksack. He thought he could hear traffic on Interstate 64, headed east toward Lewisburg or west toward California, and the clicking song of what he’d always called cicadas but knew couldn’t be. A hundred million stars flickered between naked branches over the house and an airplane’s beacon light wove quietly through the connect the dots of old fires burning quietly out.
He woke up in the night to screaming in the trees. His fingers crisscrossed the floor, sweeping for his glasses, while wolves were fighting or an abandoned baby was rolling toward the river or a young girl was being stabbed. He came through the dirty brown air of the early morning and flicked open the door, scanned the woods for a murderer or a body. The wind crawled along the forest floor and through the hair on his legs. He came out onto the porch and looked down the road he’d come in on, thought he saw motion down the way. When the screaming started again he saw its shape – a screech owl, bigger than a ten year old boy, clinging to a maple branch and wailing into nothing, calling to her lover to come back with food for their children. He thought how she might wait for hours for him to come back, might wait all night, might still be unsatisfied when he got there.He choked back a mouthful of dry air and said to the owl, “It may or may not work out.” He went back inside and laid on the filthy mattress.
In the morning the southern sun burned through to the ground, twined through the kudzu, wrapped around tree trunks and flipped sparks up and over the lapping waves of the riverbank where he sat. He held his head halfway between his legs, rubbing the balls of his bare feet through the silt at the water’s edge, and ate the only banana that hadn’t died blackened at the bottom of his pack. He’d slept little that night after the owl, had focused instead for hours on a white dot on the floor beside his mattress, lit by a sliver of moonlight stealing inside through a crack between the wall and the window frame. It was a human tooth and he knew it was a human tooth but he wasn’t bothered, not at first. He wondered whose it might have been. He hadn’t thought that someone had been there before him. Of course, it had to be true, but who would leave their teeth in the floor?
For lunch he cooked brown beans on the camp stove and drank the leftovers of his beer, flat from sitting on the kitchen counter overnight. He ate with one hand and loaded his pistol with the other, a .44 that had belonged to his grandfather and had eventually ended his grandfather’s life. After lunch he would walk the woods, back down to the river and around its bank a few miles toward the fire tower left abandoned and dangerous by the Forest Service in the forties. He could climb back up the hill and look out from the tower and be back to the trailer before sundown.