On the highway returning east, Rory kept looking through the rearview mirror at the wrecked car he was towing. The splintered windshield was bowed out in the shape of his son’s head and mile after mile, each shard of glass took on the grief of Rory’s own life, the loss of his own parents, the losses he saw in the war, the slow death of Irma, the million immediate tragedies of his children, and now this, the flash of one of their lives snuffed out.
He had reached Coeur D’Alene the day before, 2,903 miles from his house in the woods of Maine. When he arrived at the local police station, his knees were locked. His back, a stack of painful knots. His legs numb. What was happening didn’t seem real. He couldn’t catch his breath. It seemed so wrong to be eighty-six years old and have driven so far. The officer on duty, a thick, middle-aged man with gel-slicked hair and a coarse brown mustache, helped him fill out a stack of papers to claim the car and get a death certificate, then gave him directions to where James had been buried six days before. Rory was then led to the James’ Buick Skylark in the impound lot.
When he reached the grave he felt like he had accomplished something. Some tremendous distance traveled, but that feeling passed, and he was left only with the sadness of not being able to close that final distance to his son. Rory stood over the grave and tried to say a final prayer for his boy. He wished he could spill out some secret words that were in him for a time like this, but nothing that sounded right came. So he said a brief prayer, one he felt only a family member could give, and wished it were sufficient to put whatever unease had driven his son out west to rest.
That night, returning east, with James’ car in tow, Rory camped in a wooded area off a two-lane road. In the truck’s bed, he listened to the woods around him and lay there feeling alone in the world. Now that he’d made the long road trip, the return home seemed insurmountable. The night settled like a heavy sheet being dragged over him. He lay in the darkness with all but his face covered by his sleeping bag and writhed beneath the canopy of trees. He awoke in the night hot, sweating, and stiff from fever chills. He was gasping for breath. All his thoughts were disordered, and he tried to quell the panic. Fear, he told himself. Don’t gnaw on it. Let it go. But he felt the slow burn of a fever settle in, and for hours he was lost in that chasm between sleep and waking, some free-floating, embryonic state, where his thoughts were laid out and coiled into tangled masses.
He lay in the bed of his truck through the night and most of the next day. He knew waiting any longer would only make it harder to move, so Rory rolled from his sleeping bag and down to the ground. He stumbled over roots. Exhaustion pulled his body downward. He found a fallen maple tree and sat back down, which he felt was a mistake; he couldn’t imagine having the energy to get back up.
Six weeks after Rory had kicked James, his forty-two year old son, out of the house, Rory had come inside from setting his traps when the phone rang. The police officer on the line had a drab, solemn voice when he told Rory his son had died two weeks before.
“The next of kin could not be contacted in adequate time and the body had to be dealt with. Your son was buried in a local military cemetery two days ago, Sir.”
The officer left Rory not knowing what to do next.
“Was there someone to say the words over him?” Rory asked.
“Excuse me, Sir?”
“Did someone say prayers when they put him to rest?”
“I’m not sure, Sir.”
Rory was uncertain what the police officer told him next.
“Sir, there is also what to do with the car?”
“I’d like it,” he said. He could fix it and sell it and the money would help.
“The car’s fine, but it will expensive to ship.”
“I’ll come get it.”
“Sir, it’s pretty far—”
“I’ll come get it,” Rory said, cutting the man off. Someone had to say a prayer over his son. He had to say a prayer over his son.
When he hung up with the police officer, he called his son’s cellphone. No answer. He called again, angry that James wasn’t answering. He started pleading with his absent boy, trying to bargain with James to pick up, making promises in the empty kitchen that James could come back and live with him. He’d deed the house to him. Get James help again. If only he’d answer.
Rory was so anxious he went back outside and started gathering his animal traps. He’d been trapping opossums, raccoons, skunks, muskrat, and fishers. Sheriff Terry kept yelling at him for trapping in the drainage ditches that ran along the road bordering his property, but those were the best places for the critter-cages. Once he even caught a fox off county road CF. It had a slick orange and white coat. Rory shot it behind the ear with his .22 pistol and stuffed it in his taxidermy garage. He sold the animals to tourist shops near Acadia National Park, Rory assumed they hung them for decorations.
He still had a hard time believing it, but, if what the officer told Rory over the phone was true—that James was found dead in a rolled Buick sedan outside of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho—he wouldn’t have the energy to go traipsing around outside and didn’t want to leave some poor creature in a trap to starve. By the time he finished pulling all his traps, he was sweating and his lower back was locked from stiffness and arthritis.
Rory roused himself from the trunk of the Maple tree and got into his truck to start driving again. By the time he was approaching Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he felt like an essential element of his physical self had been sapped away. At a trucker’s gas station, he paid quarters to take a warm shower to loosen up his body. His skin hung off the bones of his arms and legs. Water puddled at his feet, dampening the deep, dry cracks in the webbing of his toes. With his bent big toe he traced out his son’s name in water on the tile floor.
Back in the car, driving for hours, he could no longer stomach glancing at the shattered glass. The indent in the shape of James’ skull sickened him. He pulled off to the side of the highway, and struggled into the bed of his truck. With cars and semis rushing past him and shaking the cab, he pulled a hammer out of his tool box. He stepped from the back of the truck bed onto the hood of the Buick, leaned his body over the hood, and brought the hammer down hard on the windshield. It smashed a small circle through the glass. Rory raised it again and swung. With each hit glass fell over the seat. He didn’t care that he would have to pick it all up later. He wanted that spider web ruptured, and out of his line of sight. When he brought the hammer down on the bulge, that portion of the glass shattered, leaving only the loose corner to be knocked away.
That night, well after he had grown tired of driving, Rory parked under a street lamp in a Kmart parking lot east of Sioux Falls. He sat in the backseat of James’s car with a bottle of modeling glue and a large piece of cardboard that he’d dug out of a dumpster in back of the store. He had swept the thick glass shards off the seats into a paper bag and was now gluing the pieces of glass together. He placed edges that fit next to each other and used the glue in thick gobs to fill in the spaces that didn’t fit, creating a glass mosaic on the cardboard. As the mosaic got bigger throughout the night, Rory started envisioning all the moments of James’s life he did and did not know about, as if the glass was some life mirror. It calmed him to have something to do with his hands. One piece of glass he pulled from the bag had a chunk of hair fused to it. He held it in front of his face, turned it slowly, and then glued it to the board.
He looked at his map and saw that if he pushed it, there was three more solid days of driving ahead of him. After that, he knew what was expected of him at his home: to whittle away his time until he too passed away in a year, five years, however long it would be now.
Before James left, he and Rory had spent night after night passing each other in the kitchen, only making the sounds of silverware falling into the aluminum sink, the pop of the old refrigerator’s seal.
They rarely talked. When they did, it was short.
“Can I get you something, son?”
“Can I do anything for you?”
Rory always felt like he should say something profound to help James get on with his life. Though, toward the end, James had become controlling of all the space in the house, and he dictated where Rory could and couldn’t go.
“Not in there. Not. In. There,” James has shouted when Rory walked into the den to get a book.
When the phone rang, James answered it, and if it was the girls calling to check on their father from their own distant lives they’d made in California, as far as they could get from their home, James wouldn’t let them speak with Rory.
When James first moved in after his awful divorce, Rory circled postings in the jobs section of the newspaper and left them out for James to find: surveyor, sanitation truck driver, bank teller. For each, Rory envisioned his son’s days doing those jobs. He would be good at all of them. There would be women to meet. Each seemed to offer some new start, the plowing ahead of hope. But the papers ended up in the trash, and James stayed in the house as months and seasons passed.
James had served in the first Gulf War as a Green Beret until he blew out his knee repelling from a helicopter. After that, he stayed on repairing C-150 airplanes. While there, all his hair fell out from something the Army was giving him or some sort of gas that was released near his compound, leaving him baby’s-ass bald. Though he could never prove it, James and Rory were both convinced that whatever it was that made him shed his hair had also led to his tumor-riddled body years later, including the chestnut sized one the VA hospital surgeon found leaning against the frontal lobe of his brain.
James’s surgery to remove the tumor at the VA was successful but it changed his personality. He was quick to anger, controlling, lost all patience, and distanced himself from everyone.
“They sure didn’t cut out the part that made him an asshole,” Rachel, his ex-wife, had told Rory when she visited him a year after James’ surgery.
When Rachel had finally had enough of James and he ran out of money, James settled at Rory’s, where he worked around the clock doing research on the internet to prove his health issues were the product of “Gulf War Syndrome.” Eventually, James got himself declared disabled so he wouldn’t have to work again.
“Giving him unlimited free time and government checks sounds like a recipe for a drug addict to me,” Rachel had said.
Rory remembered those conversations as he finished packing his bags to drive to Idaho. The police said there were no drugs or alcohol involved in the crash, but James had been driving at extremely high speeds on an open road when he veered off the pavement. Rory had no idea his son had gone west and couldn’t imagine where he was headed—what new life he must have tried escaping to.
Rory stopped at a rest stop to use the bathroom and eat a late dinner. After eating, he walked back to his truck and heard a woman trying to calm her child. He looked and saw the mother and her crying boy standing next to a rusted two-door sedan with steam billowing from the hood. The woman’s son climbed in the sedan’s back seat while and she leaned against the car and started chewing on her fingernails. Rory watched her for a moment. She stood amongst the other bent travelers shifting around the parking lot. He walked to the woman’s car. There was a twelve-inch plastic Jesus doll glued on the dashboard with little red beads of wax blood coming from the wax skin under the thorns.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” Rory asked.
She pointed to the smoking hood and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Well, let me take a look.” Rory reached in and popped the hood. He let the steam rise up and clear until he saw the dime-sized hole in the radiator. “We’ll let this cool off for a bit and then I’ll patch it up enough until you get somewhere where you can get a new radiator.”
“You are nice to help,” the woman said. He smiled at her, and didn’t mention how much he wanted to work on her car now, to have something productive to do, even some menial task to focus on. When the car cooled off, he used duct and Gorilla tape from his truck to patch the hole, and he bought her a new gallon of engine coolant. He had her drive around the parking lot a few times to make sure the patch was holding, and when he was sure it was, he waved her on as she pulled out of the rest area back onto the highway.
Rory’s northern Maine property was not a land to love, but he loved it—had always loved it—even though he hadn’t slowed down to think about more than a dozen times throughout his life. There were screech owls in the trees, wind pushed on the old house, and the baseboards shifted and creaked. There was a hunting blind deep in the woods at the intersection of several creeks that fed a natural pond. Next to the house was an open field where he’d built a playground and a basketball court that he flooded to make a hockey rink for his kids in the winter. There were also three dead cars he mined for parts, and the shell of an old fixed wing, King-Air jet. He could reach through the dark tree line for all the memories of the kids playing in the yard. He had done everything he knew to do on the property to raise James.
Rory had always gone to the local junkyard and dump, which he called the ‘town mall,’ because the rich ocean front landowners would dump good furniture and odds-and-ends that they no longer wanted. He’d brought home most of the furniture in his house—barbecue grills, old cars, old tools, metal, lumber, dollhouses, toys, baseball gloves, and every other matter of trash he could make use of, refurbish, or sell.
Once, he brought home a length of new muffler piping and made a telescope for James using the tube, slices of a jig-sawed mirror, and round cuts of glass, and all summer they watched the stars. Another time, Rory’s friend at the dump called him up because there was something Rory might be interested in, and Rory hooked his home made trailer to the Chevy and went to retrieve it.
Someone had dropped off a 1964 Fixed Wing, King-Air jet with its wings taken off that had hardly any parts of the motor left and no propellers, but the body of it was intact and the tail fin was there; it looked like a dirty piece of paper that had been peppered with large bore buckshot. Flaps of sheet metal peeled off and hung down like rotten cherry skin. Both wings, which Rory reattached to the body of the plane, were punctured as if chewed on by a bear. Of the four windows on each side, two still had glass panes. But of all the gifts he’d dragged from the dumps and junkyards for his children, this was the biggest success of them all. James, who always wanted to fly, was waiting halfway down the driveway and escorted Rory and the trailer to the back of the house while reaching a hand out to touch the plane to make sure it was real. For years, James ran through the plane and imagined it had been shot up and he was preparing for a crash landing. As deep night filtered through the Finger Lakes, Rory remembered the child’s perpetual tailspin.
That morning, Rory heard what sounded like a dog circus in a Kmart parking lot—a growing chorus of shrill voices and barking. It was still dark as he got out of his truck. The parking lot lights lit the blacktop enough that he could see a commotion of people walking every breed of dog he could imagine no more than a hundred yards away. He walked toward the crowd and saw at its center a fifteen-passenger Chevy van. A woman was calling out names and pulling dogs from a stack of cages in the back. Congo. Bandit. Teva. Each time she said a name, there was another half-panicked dog pulled out of a crate and given to someone who walked it around the parking lot.
“That’s all. See you next month,” the woman said. She got in her van and pulled away. The people walking dogs were cooing to the animals before loading the dogs into their own cars and driving off.
“What is this?” Rory asked an older man walking a Great Pyrenees that looked like a nervous polar bear.
“It’s the mercy train,” he said. “These dogs are transported from kill-shelter states to people who will try to adopt them out. You want this guy?” the man asked, holding out a leash.
Rory looked at the lopping giant of a dog. “I think I’m too old to keep anything,” Rory said. He stood in the parking lot until all the dogs were eventually loaded up and he was left alone in the white glow of the stores big neon sign.
Rory sat in the open door of his cab and watched the first hazy gray-blue of morning working its way up over the trees at the end of the parking lot. When fingers of light filtered through the thickness of the forest and puddled on the pavement, he pulled the truck around the back to the delivery entrance. He parked by the dumpsters where a wooded gulch dropped down behind the building. When he stepped from the truck, he inhaled the fresh spring air mixed with rain-rotted cardboard and moldering food from the trash bins. Behind the dumpster, the gulch dipped below the parking lot at a slow grade to a small stream. Down the slope, where he was sure no one could see, he hung the rubber bladder of his camping shower from a tree branch and undressed beneath it. He washed the sleep from his eyes and lathered with shampoo, then used the rest of the water to rinse clean. The water ran down his body into a puddle on the mulched forest floor. The dark chips of bark on his feet made his skin look paler over his crooked and bulging veins. He used his hand to squeegee water from his stomach, then used a towel to dry the rest of his body.
As he dressed in the woods, he thought of the van driving further east, hysterically barking its way toward New England. He’d follow it, like a confused animal after a disaster, looking for some direction in a world full of lives being saved and lost.
By the last section of the drive, Rory felt all of his eighty-six years, and he knew that there was no direction for him other than straight into the gathering arms of his final days. At the edge of his property, the woods felt as if they were made of electricity—everything humming with such vivid and compelling force that he wondered if he were dying at that moment. The idea was not unpleasant. He kept his foot on the gas pedal over the last of the dirt driveway where the electric flow of the world began to fade, and he saw clearly how he would continue to piddle around his days, setting out with his trailer and his traps, collecting the best of what this last stretch could offer.
Devin Murphy’s recent fiction appears in Glimmer Train, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Shenandoah, The Cimarron Review, as well as over fifty other literary journals and anthologies. He’s been a winner of The Atlantic Monthly’s 2009 and 2010 Student Writing Contests, holds an MFA from Colorado State University, a Creative Writing PhD from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.