words: Marla Cantrell
Levi says, “You can’t make this stuff up!” He’s talking about the arrest of several of our elected officials who’ve been accused of bribing folks for votes. Paying folks through favors or what-not to make sure they hit the right button at the poll booth.
Levi slaps his knee. “Government for the people. By the people.” He laughs. “Buy the people! Get it?”
I’m making dinner. Pork chops, cornbread, slabs of onion from our garden. I hate talking politics. If I had anything to say, which I don’t, it would be that power corrupts nearly everything it touches.
“You don’t never answer me,” Levi says, and I feel my shoulders crawl up to my ears. I’ve been dreaming about dropping off the face of the earth for a little while. Turning up someplace else after a bit. Tennessee, maybe, with all those green hills.
I blow a puff of air that lifts my bangs off my forehead. “What can I say, that you don’t already know?”
Levi hops off the barstool and reaches for my hand. “Tell me you love me, Lovey.”
Levi smiles like a kid. With the teeth he’s got, he should cover his mouth. He should be aware. But he’s not and never will be. Me, I’m concerned about every line that cuts across my face since I turned forty this spring. Every gray hair.
“You know I love you,” I say, kind of flat-like, and Levi kisses my hand and then my cheek, and after that he pinches my behind. All class, that one.
At midnight, with Levi asleep beside me, I grab my phone and look at places to live in Tennessee. There’s a town called Tracy City. On the main drag, there’s a gem called Dutch Maid Bakery that sells Moonshine Cakes, brownies the size of bricks, cookies big as saucers. I can almost taste the Moonshine Cake, vanilla and whiskey, sugar and butter. Whiskey. I stopped drinking wine a few months back when it started tasting like water. The thought makes me rise from bed, pour myself a Crown and Coke, a drink that makes your taste buds jump, that lets you know you’re still in the game.
Sitting on the couch, I take a sip and light up my phone again. In 2010, Tracy City elected a dead man to be their mayor. He wasn’t dead till the very end of the race, but still. I click on a picture of a middle-aged woman sitting beside one of the dead mayor’s campaign signs, clutching wildflowers to her chest.
Me and Levi have a boy who’s twenty-one. He’s not dead, but he’s not here either. He got into some pretty serious trouble when he was nineteen, and we laid the law down. Laid it down good. I remember being proud of Levi, who’d been mostly quiet on the subject of parenting until then. He seemed to grow a foot as he spoke, his index finger jabbing the air, telling Caleb how it was going to be. I thought he was saving our boy.
All he was doing was pushing him away.
Now, when I run into Caleb’s friends, hanging around the park where I walk, for example, they narrow their eyes, and their lips go tight. A rough crowd. It keeps me from asking where he is, although I know he’s not nearby. I would have seen him by now.
As far as I can tell, Caleb didn’t take much with him. His football trophy is missing. A week’s worth of clothes. His class ring. Our wedding album is gone too, but why would he take that?
He left his cell phone on his bed. It had been wiped clean. His room smelled like him: dirty socks and newly sawn lumber.
For a year, I stayed home nearly all the time, thinking he’d call. Imagining him showing up at the door, the Prodigal Son finding his way back to me. I’d listen for any sign of him; when a car backfired in the middle of the night, I’d be sure it was Caleb pounding on the door. But Easter passed, and then his birthday in August, and then Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the spot where my heart had been laid down and gave up the ghost.
On that New Year’s Day, me and Levi watched a travel show about Fredericksburg, Texas. “More fun than you have vacation days!” the announcer said, and I imagined myself there among the wildflowers, on the trails at Enchanted Rock, huffing and puffing my way up the granite hill.
“We should go,” Levi said when the show ended, but I didn’t want him along. “Maybe,” I said, and he saw something in me that made him shake his head and leave the room.
Caleb went to Tennessee once. With a school group. To Dollywood. To a cave where he had pictures taken beside a group of stalactites that looked like angel’s wings. Caleb has my dark hair and Levi’s sapphire eyes. He has a dimple, only one, and a birthmark that looks like a sailboat on his stomach.
When he left, he still had the face of a child. The hard edges hadn’t found their way to him yet.
I look up another town in Tennessee. This one’s called Cleveland. The have an international cowpea festival there. I look up cowpea and find out they’re purple hull peas and the like. The city was once known for them. A train used to carry them away. They called it the Pea Train. A joke on rails.
The festival looks like a place you could forget your troubles. Lots of music and fried food. Lots of dancing, hips moving this way and that. I could be anybody in a town like that. I could sell tie-dyed t-shirts and let my hair go gray.
It is the beginning of summer, the neighborhood kids out of school. I can hear them driving by, the thrum, thrum, thrum of their music splitting the air. I can hear them laughing and hooting, trying to turn an ordinary night into something spectacular. Well, maybe they can.
Levi has woken up. Is in the bathroom, the faucet running. A year ago, six months ago, he would have come to find me. Now, he crawls back in our bed and lets me be.
I don’t mention Caleb to anybody who didn’t know him. Far as they know, I’ve never had a child. Old friends will ask after him, and I give them vague answers. He’s traveling, I say. Or he’s finding himself. For a while, I’d see him everywhere. At the park. Driving the city bus. Stepping from a curb to cross Main Street. But it was never really him. I was making him up. I was creating a son who wasn’t there anymore.
We filed a police report, but Caleb was grown. He could go where he wanted. He could do what he pleased.
I take the last drink of my Crown and Coke. I look at my phone; the battery is dying. I set it down and cover up with the afghan I crocheted years ago. It is turquoise and gray, all the rage now. I huddle beneath it. I stuff a throw pillow under my head. I dream I’m on a train, the rhythm of it a tranquilizer, a knock-out pill, salvation.
I wake with Levi perched on the edge of the couch. He hasn’t shaved yet. Somehow the stubble makes him look younger. I’m lying on my side, and his hand is on my thigh. “Do you ever get lonely?” he asks, and I notice the trembling at the corner of his mouth.
“Every minute of every day.”
“What do you do about it?”
I sit up, pulling my knees up, circling my arms around them. “I think about leaving.”
Levi runs his fingers through his hair. He is a man who will never go bald, will never lose enough hair for anyone to notice. His fingers are long and thin, a strange site on a man who’s nearly square. “Leaving me?” he asks.
I look at the TV. If we turned it on, we’d hear the morning news, story upon story of tragedy and sorrow. “I guess,” I say.
“We’re all we’ve got,” Levi says, hollow-eyed.
“We didn’t handle Caleb right. I thought we did at the time but getting tough with him ruined everything.”
Levi rests his head in his palms. “I know.” He breathes deep. “I hate it,” he says and his voice goes weak. “When you think about leaving, where do you go?”
“Somewhere in Tennessee.”
Levi lifts his head. “I had a great uncle that lived there. Sometimes he’d find bullets from the Civil War on his land. We visited him one summer when I was eleven. I walked with him to the crest of a hill. The valley below had a river running through it. All you could hear was the wind in the leaves and the birds calling back and forth across the way and that water swooshing. My uncle said, ‘God sure must have been in a good mood the day He made Tennessee.’”
“I wonder what God was thinking when He made me,” I say, and Levi looks at me for a long time. He says, “I imagine He thought you were a doozy, Lovey. Because you are.”
It isn’t yet seven, and already our next-door neighbor is mowing, the zoom of the machine sounding like a plane landing when he gets close.
“Leave if you’ve got to,” Levi says. “I don’t think you can run far enough away from your troubles, but I’ve been wrong before.”
“I thought Caleb might have gone there. To Tennessee. He hadn’t been many other places. It seemed possible.”
“Anything’s possible,” Levi says.
Our grandfather clock strikes seven, and Levi stands up. He goes to the kitchen where he starts breakfast. He is making biscuits from scratch, and gravy. When I go to get coffee, he wraps his arms around me.
“Stay for breakfast,” he says as if I’m leaving at this very minute.
What I’m thinking as he holds me is how each of us tears up our own lives at some point or tears up somebody else’s. I don’t know why but we do. But I’ve had enough destruction.
“I’ll stay,” I say, my voice a fountain, a brook, a downpour.
The sunlight of this June morning trembles against the kitchen window, pushing its way into the room that needs illumination. It lights up every curve and hollow, every dark and empty place. Me and Levi are surrounded by it, standing in this shimmer that chose us, even though I can’t say we did one thing to deserve it.