Into the Web, Page 2Thomas H. Cook
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, me 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.
I had no particular destination in mind when I backed my car out of the driveway that morning. Very little had changed in the look and feel of Kingdom County since I’d left it. It was still crisscrossed by narrow, unpaved roads, dotted with small placid ponds, a rural world where only the occasional tipple of a coal mine gave any suggestion of modern industry. The woods were lush and green, and sunlight sparkled on the slender creeks that twisted through them. The air smelled of mountain laurel and honeysuckle, and children still picked blackberries as Archie and I
had done as boys, lugging them back to our mother in a metal bucket lined with burlap.
Don’t say nothing, Roy. A quick wink. I’ll see you in the blackberry patch. Those had been Archie’s last words to me, uttered as I’d reached the door of his prison cell.
Since that night I’d added other details I may or may not actually have noticed at the time, the play of Archie’s fingers in his lap, the shadow of the bars across his face, the plain white T-shirt beneath the orange jailhouse jumpsuit. Still, more than anything, it was his voice I remembered, quiet, calm, assuring me that somehow, in some other world, all the murderous terror of that snowy night on County Road would be put behind us.
He’s like a little puppy, Roy, so you have to keep an eye on him, my mother used to say. So he don’t run in front of a car or just trot off with a stranger.
Even as a boy I’d recognized Archie’s guileless nature and lack of foresight. I’d been so much the leader of our small pack that at times he’d seemed paralyzed without me. My father had stated the fact of the matter with his typical brutality: Murder was the only thing that boy ever done without you, Roy, a line that burned into my mind each time my father said it, made me see again the headlights of my old Chevy mount the hill at 1411 County Road, glint on the rear bumper of Archie’s black Ford as it rested beside the high green hedge, Archie hunched behind the wheel, tense, baffled, poised to act, but unable to do so, his question whispering always in my mind, Will you come with me, Roy?
I still knew a great many people in the area around Cantwell, of course, but the first person I recognized as I drove around that morning was Lonnie Porterfield, the son of the old sheriff who’d presided over Kingdom County like a medieval lord.
We’d been acquaintances in high school, Lonnie and I, then gone our separate ways, he for a tour in Vietnam, where he’d been wounded seriously enough to win a Purple Heart, then returned home the county’s conquering hero.
A few years after his return, Wallace Porterfield had retired as sheriff of Kingdom County with the clear understanding that Lonnie, who’d worked as his deputy until then, would take over the job. Even so, an election was necessary, and during the campaign Lonnie had used his military service to good advantage, run for the office as much on his war record as on whatever experience he’d gained working for the old sheriff. He’d been elected by a wide margin and had held the job ever since.
Normally, I wouldn’t have stopped at Lonnie’s house, but after three dreary weeks back in Kingdom County, the prospect of talking to someone other than my father-if our tense exchanges could be called talk at all-was too enticing to resist.
Lonnie was leaning back in a lawn chair in his front yard, when I pulled into his driveway. His black-and-white cruiser sat in the front yard, gleaming in the sunlight. A golden five-pointed star adorned the side doors.
“Roy Slater, well, I’ll be damned,” Lonnie said as I got out of my car. “I heard you were back in town.”
I noticed a red plastic bucket beside his chair, suds boiling up over the rim, a wet rag hung over the side.
“Washing the car on Sunday,” I scolded. “Isn’t there a law against that in Kingdom County?”
“I’m the law in Kingdom County,” Lonnie said, using the very words he’d no doubt heard his father say a thousand times. “Besides, Sunday’s the only time I got to do it. How long you been back, Roy?”
“Couple of weeks.”
“Have a seat. As you can see, I’m taking a break.”
I dropped into the chair beside him. “I can’t stay long.”
“I heard your daddy wasn’t doing too good.”
“He’s still able to get around, but I don’t know how much longer that will last. Doc Poole gave him about three months, but that was some time back. He has less now.”
“Hard thing, watching your daddy die,” Lonnie said.
I nodded, though it struck me as more inconvenient than hard.
“I dread facing it,” Lonnie added, then chuckled. “Of course, my old man’s just about indestructible.”
The image of Wallace Porterfield rose into my mind, his massive figure forever poised outside my brother’s cell, staring down at Archie as if he were a bug he could, at will, either squash or spare.
Lonnie cooled himself with a cardboard fan emblazoned with a picture of the Lawson Funeral Home, Kingdom City, W.V. “Hot as hell today. Bet you spent the morning like me, under that big shade tree in your front yard.”
“It’s not there anymore,” I said. “My father cut it down.”
“Few years ago. He said it blocked his view.”
“That doesn’t make much sense, Roy. Why does he do things like that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he just likes destroying things.”
“He’s a pisser, your old man,” Lonnie said with a short laugh. “You’ll miss him.”
The lie came effortlessly. “Yeah.”
Lonnie had quickly gone on to other subjects, and we’d been idly talking politics a few minutes later when Ezra Loggins pulled up in a dusty pickup.
“Morning, Sheriff,” Ezra said as he got out of his truck.
Ezra yanked a baseball cap from his head and raked back his long brown hair as he lumbered toward us. “I come up on something I think you ought to know about, Sheriff.”
Ezra balled the cap up in his large hands. “A body. Up near Jessup Creek.”
Lonnie’s eyes cut over to me. Then back to Ezra. “So, tell me more.”
“Well, I went over to it, of course. But the way it was fixed, I couldn’t see much. The face was pressed into the dirt. Couldn’t make out a thing ’cept it’s a man. I could tell that much from the clothes and the hair cut short. That’s all I can say.” He shrugged. “Looked like he maybe keeled over dead right there by the creek.”
“Was it an old man?” Lonnie asked.
“Didn’t look all that old. Didn’t notice no white hair or nothing.”
“See anybody else around?”
“Not a soul, far as I could tell.”
Lonnie leaned forward, thinking, rubbing his hands together. “You didn’t touch the body, did you, Ezra?” he asked.
Lonnie got to his feet. “All right. Let’s go see about it.” He looked at me. “Want to come along, Roy?”
It hadn’t occurred to me that Lonnie would ask, but anything seemed better than an early return to my father’s house, the thud of wrestlers on the mat, the smell of Vicks.
“When will we be back?” I asked.
“Why, you got something pressing?”
I’d told my father that I’d be back soon, but I recalled the way he’d dismissed my leaving.
“No, I don’t have any reason to get back right away,” I said.
Lonnie waved me forward. “Let’s go, then.”
We’d already started for the car when the screen door of the house screeched.
“Where you going, boy?”
He stood in the doorway like a huge gray stone, Wallace Porterfield in all his forbidding majesty.
As a child I’d seen him often, usually outside the sheriff’s office, his right hand resting on a pearl-handled pistol. He’d worn a large black hat in those days, with a white band and a small red feather. No man had ever looked more in command of other men. But it was only after the murders that I’d felt the heavy hand of Sheriff Porterfield’s presence in Kingdom County, the weight of his eyes as they followed me down the corridor to the cell that imprisoned my brother. More than twenty years had passed since then, but I had little doubt that the old sheriff still remembered Archie sitting dazed in his old Ford, a world of carnage behind the white polished door of the house on the hill above him.
“You finish washing the car, Lonnie?” he asked gruffly.
Lonnie seemed almost to shrink before his father’s towering fig
ure, wither beneath the hard light of his relentless gaze. “I didn’t quite finish it,” he said.
“When you planning to do it, then?”
“When I get back,” Lonnie replied.
Wallace Porterfield stepped onto the porch. The boards creaked softly beneath his weight. His hair had gone entirely white. It was cut short and stood on end, the crowning glory of a body that seemed to erupt, dark and volcanic, from the earth. “People don’t respect a lawman that drives a dirty car.”
“I know,” Lonnie answered. “But I’ve got to attend to something.”
“Some kind of trouble up around Waylord.”
Porterfield laughed, but there was no mirth in his laughter. “Hell, there’s always trouble in Waylord.”
“Looks like a fellow dropped dead over round Jessup Creek.”
Porterfield’s eyes suddenly cut over to me. “Do I know you?”
“Roy Slater,” I told him.
He said nothing, but I could see the grim pictures playing in his mind, a body tumbling down a flight of stairs, another curled into a corner.
“You arrested my brother, Archie,” I said.
As he turned back to Lonnie, he gave no hint that he’d ever heard of my brother. “You better plan on getting back before sundown. We ain’t popular up there in the hills.”
Not popular, no. In fact, I doubted that there’d ever been a man more hated by the people who occupied the hills surrounding Kingdom City. He’d ruled by terror and was said to have pocketed large sums given him by the mine owners or their agents, though it was hard for me to see where all that money could have gone, save into the large house he’d built about a mile from Cantwell.
Porterfield glanced at me again, as he might have glanced at a bird on a limb. Then he eased his enormous frame back toward the house. At the door he stopped, his huge head rotating on the thick folds of his neck until he looked me square in the eye. “You going up there too?” he asked.
He appeared indifferent to whether I went or stayed.