When I was young, the bloody yolk of dawn rose each morning over the black mountain while I rinsed my face; and I’d turn from the attic sink to squint across the field’s furrows running miles off toward the black velvety crags; and I thought I could hear a siren far off where the oily road ribboned across the blond horizon, but the sound was just a memory, an insistent one, even then.
That’s where I situate, as I’m telling you about it now, the spring I dropped out of the eleventh grade.
Dry-heat spring. Boiling tar underneath me and tablecloth field surrounding me as each day warmed itself up and became light. I walked those five miles into town from the middle of the country because, of course, they’d taken away my driver’s license. So I hoofed it up the silent road. The mountain crouched to my right; the farmhouse where my parents slept shrank away to my left; and a white blameless sky soared over every little part of my standstill world. Walking, dogged days.
And where did I think I had to be so early, no classes and no job ten weeks into my penance? School. Still. And I’ll tell you why in just a little bit.
First, I’ll describe for you what the sheriff would have seen as he surveilled me skulking past the newly-ironic Welcome to Modesty Township sign: a rangy, whiskery thing with an off-beat in the cadence of my step—the vague limp that would vanish by the time I turned twenty.
A prize, really, compared to the darker spoils of my mistake.
The sheriff never bothered with me because on foot I was harmless. That snarling engine I once revved—now, diminished to labored huff-puffing across the matted, thirsty park; to stumbling over a wire sticking out from the chain link surrounding the baseball diamond. Serves you right.
At seven-thirty, Monday through Friday, I hiked to the crest of the hill where the campus perched, and watched the school buses trundle in. Aching, throbbing, pretending not to ache or throb—I flopped back under a sycamore on the scrubby brownish lawn behind the gradeschool building.
It’s not like there wasn’t any foot traffic up there—some people came up to walk their dogs—so no one yelled pervert at me. In fact, no one said a thing to me. Not even at the high school building I had to pass around first, where I brushed past opposite the fence and tried not to make eye contact. Or where I lingered, trying to make eye contact. I couldn’t make up my mind. But whenever I chose one, I ended up with the other.
I had a girlfriend before everything happened, and I saw her going up the high school’s front steps a few times, too; my throat going hot while I watched the quick turn of her collar, the curt heel of her shoe disappearing through the doors. My ex-girlfriend’s name was Matty, short for Matilda; she was pretty, with a yellow ponytail, thick calves, and nimble, cynical glances. She liked me because, even though I was objectively not remarkable in any clubs or academics, I could be bold as a shaft of sunlight on your pillow. When it came to teasing, I gave as good as I got. And I liked Matty for all the same reasons she liked me.
We were kind to each other. I liked her family, her little brother Sam. I liked helping babysit, liked driving my girlfriend and the little guy around in my truck, wherever they wanted to go. I would get deliriously happy and lob the lousiest jokes: switch Matilda and Samuel, call them Matthew and Samantha. And Sam was too young to find a girlish trait anything less than a grievous insult, so he’d crimson and whale on my sleeve, one click from losing his seatbelt; and Matty would hide her mouth behind her sleeve so Sam always understood she was on his side.
But after it all ended, I didn’t come by the school those dry spring mornings to see Matty. Not because I didn’t want to see her—I’d tried. I went to her house the one time, tried to ring the bell. She came out and got hysterical. Her dad had to intervene. Hatchet-mouthed, grim and close to my face once his daughter went inside, he said I was cruel to come by while his family was mourning. I think he was about to cry.
That said, now, I’m going to say this part quickly because I’d like to put it down now and be done with it. What happened was that one day I took Sam home and just forgot the car seat. And that’s really all it takes.
There, it’s out.
I thought about all of it while I lay back on my elbows in the grass behind the gradeschool building. Every morning—aching, throbbing—I let it overcome me while I waited. I think when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy, you can’t identify with words the exact emotions that surge up to grasp you. So even though I’m older now, I’ll let language aside and leave unaltered the membrane of the mute, wounded moment on the grass. I’ll look away and let the boy weep.
A pile of black cliffs wait off to the east. A white blind sky sifts overhead.
And that’s when the kindergarten bus arrives. Through my tears I’d watch the kids tumble out. When they blur together, they’re all the same shape, very small and very buoyant. Chirping. Handful after handful, two dozen. A bunch of little backpacks flocking indoors. And with the wet picture smeared this way—a nebulous, Impressionist mirage that welcomes interpretation—in my mind I could think of him shepherded, too, inside with the rest. And in that capsule, I sealed him up safely. Day and again.
Now, I think, you understand what the destination was. If it takes me some time to get to the nucleus of things, it’s because it’s still painful. Regret chalks a ring around you. And a good fresh rainfall washes chalk away. But I’m from an arid part of the country, so that’s what I’ll say about that.
There’s one more important thing.
Even though these days, when I think of my hometown, I think almost solely of that flatiron road which cleft the field from the mountain—that road rippling and animate with red siren squall—even still, I know there were other roads in and out of town that we explored together: me, Matty, and Sam. Roads I forget. Roads a soft, dusky tan, cool and mottled in the shadowy wooded places where duck blinds hid drowsing hunters; roads cracked and moss-furred; roads worn faithfully in silvery grooves. I forget the gentler home roads often, but now that I’m a man, I do better remembering each and every day. Somehow it helps to just drive again, and to drive new roads.