Read an Excerpt
Cracker’s Neck Holler
As the wind blows through our bedroom window, it sounds like a whistling teakettle. As I wake, for a split second, I forget where I am. As soon as I see our suitcases piled next to the closet door, in the exact place where we dropped them, I remember. Etta’s wedding, though it was just one week ago, already seems like a faraway dream.
When we drove up the road last night, our home in Cracker’s Neck Holler looked like a castle in the mist. The first days of autumn always bring the cold fog, which makes every twist and turn on these mountain roads treacherous. Etta used to call the September fog the Murky Murk. She told me, “I don’t like it when I can’t see the mountains, Mama.”
This morning they’re in plain view again. Since we’ve been gone, the mossy field out back has turned to brown velvet, and the woods beyond have a silver patina from the first frost. I take a deep breath.
In a way, it’s good to be home, where everything is in its place. The same beam of sunlight that comes over the mountain at dawn splits our house in two, one half drenched in brightness and the other in dark shadow. Shoo the Cat sleeps on the same embroidered pillow on the old rocker, as he has every night since he came to stay. Small, familiar comforts matter when everything is changing.
I pull on my robe. Before I leave the room, I tuck the quilt around my husband. He’s not waking up anytime soon; his breath is rhythmic and deep. I make my way through the stone house, and it feels so empty —as it did before there were children. I don’t know if there is a sound lonelier than the silence of everybody gone.
The first thing I do is measure the coffee into the old two-part pot Papa gave me from a shop in Schilpario. I put the pot on the stove, and blue gas flames shoot up when I turn the dial. It’s chilly, so I take a long, thin match from the box on the mantel and light the fire in the hearth. One of the things I love best about my husband is that he never leaves a fireplace barren. No matter what time of year, there’s a crisscross of dry logs on a bed of kindling and a neat newspaper bundle good to go. The paper crackles, and soon the logs catch and the flames leap up like laughter from a school yard.
There’s a note on the fridge from my friend Iva Lou: Welcome home. How was it? Call me. When I look inside, she’s stocked us for breakfast: a few of Faye Pobst’s rolls (I can tell by the shape of the tinfoil package), a jar of fresh jam, a crock of country butter, and a glass carafe of fresh cream, no doubt from her aunt’s farm down in Rose Hill. What would I do without Iva Lou? I really don’t like to think about it, but I do; in fact, I’ve been obsessed with loss lately. The past year brought my happy circus to an abrupt close—Spec died, Pearl moved to Boston, and I lost Etta to her new life in Italy. I don’t like change. I said that so much, Jack Mac finally said, “Get used to it.” Doesn’t make it one bit easier, though, not one bit.
There’s a deep stack of mail waiting for me on the table. Bills. Flyers. A letter from Saint Mary’s College requesting alumnae donations. An envelope for Jack from the United Mine Workers of America—another cut in benefits, no doubt. A puffy envelope from the home shopping channel containing a pair of earrings I bought for Fleeta’s birthday on back-order (took long enough). Underneath is a postcard from Schilpario, Italy, the town we’d just left a day ago. I flip it over quickly and read:
Dear Ave Maria,
By the time you get this, Etta will be married, you’ll be home, and I’ll be back in New York. This is a reminder. Start living your life for YOU. Got it? Love, Theodore.
I put the postcard from my best pal under a magnet on the door of the fridge. I’ll take any free advice I can get. Noticing the clutter on the door—all reminders of my daughter and her senior year of high school—I begin to take things down. Etta’s high school graduation schedule from last June is taped to a ribbon of photos she took in a booth at the Fort Henry Mall. She looks like a girl in the pictures. Her coppery hair in long braids makes her seem even younger. She is young, too young to be married, and too young to be so far from home. I close my eyes. Is it ever really possible for a mother to let go?
The coffee churns up into the cap of the pot, signaling it’s ready to be poured. I grab an oven mitt off its hook and pour the coffee into the mug. The delicious scent of a hickory fire and fresh-roasted coffee is the perfect welcome home.
I kick the screen door open and go out on the porch to watch the sun take its place in the sky over Big Stone Gap. Autumn is my favorite time of year; it seems to say “Let go” with every leaf that turns and falls to the ground and every dingy cloud that rolls by overhead. Let go. (So hard to do when your nature tells you to hang on.)
At the edge of the woods, a spindly dead branch high in a treetop crackles under the weight of a blackbird, which flies off into the charcoal sky until it’s a speck in the distance. I have to remind Jack that the property line needs some attention. He’s always so busy fixing other people’s houses that our needs are last on the list. The wild raspberry bushes have taken over the far side of the field, a tangled mess of wires and vines. Pruning, composting, raking—all those chores will occupy us until the winter comes.
I hear more snapping coming from the woods, so I squint at the treetops, expecting more blackbirds, but there is no movement. The sound seems to be coming from the ground. I lean forward as I sit and study the woods. I hear more crackling. What is it? I wonder. Then something strange happens: I have a moment of fear. I know there’s nothing to be afraid of—the sun is up, Jack is inside, and there’s a working phone in the kitchen—but for some reason, I shudder.
As I stand to go back into the house, I see a figure in the woods. It looks like a man. A young man. With curly brown hair. I can see that much from my place on the porch, but not much else—his face is obscured behind the thick branches. I raise my hand to wave to him, and open my mouth to shout to him, but as soon as I do, he is gone. I close my eyes and listen for more footsteps. There is nothing but silence.
“What are you doing out here?” Jack says from the door. “It’s cold. Come inside.”
I follow him into the house. Once we’re in the kitchen, I throw my arms around him. “Honey, I saw something. Someone.”
“In the woods.”
“Right now. This second. He was walking along the property line. I saw him.”
“Well, it’s hunting season.”
“He wasn’t a hunter.”
“Maybe he’s hiking.”
“It was Joe.”
“Joe?” Jack Mac is confused—so confused, he sits. “Our Joe?”
“Jesus, Ave Maria. You know that’s impossible.”
“I know.” My eyes fill with tears. “But I think I’d know my son when I see him.”
Without hesitating, Jack takes his work jacket off the hook, pulls it on, and goes outside. I watch him as he walks across the field and into the woods. He surveys our property line, looking for the young man. Sometimes he takes a few steps into the woods and disappears. I don’t know why, but I’m relieved each time he reemerges. I stand at the window waiting as he checks the side yard and his wood shop. I half expect him to return with someone. With Joe. I hear the bang of the screen door.
“There’s no one there. It was a long trip. You’re tired. You’re imagining things. Really.” Jack takes off his jacket. “I didn’t see any footprints in the mud. Nothing.”
“I’m not making it up.”
Jack sits and pulls me onto his lap. “What did he look like?”
“He wasn’t four years old, like when he died, but older. Like twenty.”
“You know that can’t be.”
“I know.” I stand up. I go to the stove and pour a cup of coffee into a mug and hand it to him. I pull the rolls from the tinfoil and put them on a baking sheet. I slide them into the oven to warm them.
“It was someone else,” Jack says practically as he sorts the mail.
“Or it wasn’t anybody. My eyes played a trick on me. I hadn’t even had my coffee, and I’m half asleep here in my big fat empty nest. I miss Etta, and that always makes me miss Joe.” I pull the rolls from the oven.
“You’re not going to lose it on me, are you?”
“I’m not crazy.”
“Good.” Jack Mac smiles at me. “I can handle just about anything but a crazy woman.” He tosses the junk mail into the fire.
I slather the rolls with butter and jam. Jack studies a bill from the mail, so I feed him the roll. He takes a bite; I turn to get a plate. Jack grabs my hand and licks the jam off my finger. I look into his eyes and see the exact color of the morning sky. He looks at me in that way he never looks at anyone else. With all we’ve been through, that look still delights me. “What are you doing?” I ask him, but after nineteen years of marriage, I have a pretty good idea.
He doesn’t answer; instead, he kisses my neck and loosens the belt on my robe, which conveniently drops to the floor—I say “conveniently” because I’m still holding the roll, which I lob into the sink like a fly ball. As Jack kisses me, my mind begins to race, never a good idea when you’re making love—the whole point is to stay in the moment— but I’m in my memory bank, trying to recall if we’ve ever made love in the kitchen. Pale blue ribbons of smoke are curling up from plastic windows on the junk mail; I watch until flames engulf the envelopes entirely and turn them to black flakes that float up the flue. I sit on the kitchen table and pull my husband close. The very idea of this makes me feel like laughing, but I don’t. I feel his heart racing with mine, and I think, This is what’s good about being married—knowing everything about someone and yet still being surprised before breakfast.
I hold Jack’s face, then I slide my hands down his neck and outline his broad shoulders, down his arms, muscular from all that construction work. He is drenched in sweat, so I pull him away from the fire. He smiles and takes in deep gulps of air. I listen to his heart, which beats loud and clear and true and, in an instant, too fast.
“I have to sit,” Jack whispers. I help him to the rocker by the hearth. He sits down and leans back in it, closing his eyes.
“Are you okay?” I go to the sink and run a glass of water and take it to him.
“No, you’re not. If you’re old then I’m old, and I’m not old.”
“Dream on.” He smiles.
I put my head to his chest. “Wait here,” I tell him.
I go to the hall closet and reach up to the high shelf and pull down Spec’s emergency kit from the Rescue Squad. Leola, Spec’s widow, gave it to me when he died. I’ve never opened it. Every time I go into the closet, it glares at me from the shelf, hand-painted by Spec in Day- Glo prison orange. I even remember the day he painted it. I was in his office, and he sat at his desk, which was covered in newspaper, and painted the tin box with a tiny brush like it was a Monet. I take it into the kitchen.
Jack is standing by the sink. “What are you doing?”
“Sit down. I’m going to take your blood pressure.”
Jack sits down in the chair. I open Spec’s emergency kit reverently. He always took such good care of the Rescue Squad equipment—the ambulance always gleamed, the sheets for the stretcher were always bleached a pristine white, his own vest was always pressed; he was very particular. The blood pressure gauge and cuff are nestled neatly among boxes of bandages, iodine, small bottles of tinctures, and tins of salves. I lift it out.
“Give me your arm,” I say. I strap the band around his arm. I pump until the numbers spin around like a betting wheel: 170/110. “Honey, you need to go to the doctor.” I loosen the band and try not to panic.
“You’re off the charts.”
“I feel fine.” He pulls me close. “You’re so good you almost killed me.”
“Not funny. How’s your vision? Blurry?”
“It’s normal,” Jack promises.
“I knew something was different. It sounds like an arrhythmia.” I put my ear to his chest again. My days on the Rescue Squad taught me a few things—Spec and I dealt with plenty of heart patients—and numbers like Jack’s are a pretty good sign that something is very wrong.
“Yoo-hoo!” Iva Lou calls from the front door.
“Just a second,” I holler back. I grab my robe and hand Jack his clothes. Jack makes a beeline for the downstairs bedroom and closes the door behind him. I sit down at the breakfast table. “Come on in!”
Iva Lou comes into the kitchen and puts her navy blue patent-leather purse down on the bench. She wears a navy blue suit with a slim skirt and peplum jacket, nipped at the waist by a matching belt with ruby- red grommets. Her high-heeled pumps are navy-and-white-striped with flat red patent-leather bows. Her blond hair is blown straight to her shoulders. If you didn’t know Iva Lou by her voice, you’d know her by her perfume. It’s not just one perfume either. It’s a grab bag—always strong but never too loud. Today she smells like vanilla and peaches with a whoosh of amber.