Lord, what are the sins
I have tried to leave behind me? The bad checks,
the workless days, the scotch bottles thrown across the fence
and into the woods, the cruelty of silence,
the cruelty of lies, the jealousy,
North of Damascus is where Daryl finally runs off the road, makes a sharp left turn across a lane empty of traffic and bumps onto the grassy shoulder and further, into a field of scrub and baby pines sticking up from the ground like someone took it into their head to plant a couple hundred green toilet brushes for reasons best known to themselves and God.
It's dusk. He takes the green part as read; color is theoretical. Color is an article of faith. The sky is a swatch of gray-blue. The trees stand black and ominous against the sky.
No, he does have evidence of the green. He blinks at the spill of headlights, whose beam provides the proof. The truck came to rest on a slight downward angle, and while his foot is off the gas and still pressing the brake, the engine continues to growl. It sounds exasperated with him, for which he doesn't blame it. It was his foot on the pedals and his hands on the wheel, and he supposes that makes him responsible for their behavior, though what impulse drove them to do what they did is as mysterious to him as the impulse to plant a toilet brush.
Impulses come and go without any particular justification. After the fact, you work out why things went down the way they did. He knows this.
He releases the brake and turns the key, and everything lapses into cicada-drone quiet.
He's off the road. Fuck knows how he's going to get back on it.
He's self-aware enough to grasp the irony in this.
For a moment or two he doesn't move. Then he reaches down beside him into the crack between the driver’s seat and the cupholders and retrieves the little bottle of Wild Turkey he's stashed down there, uncaps it and knocks it back. Because what the hell. What the hell, is a cop going to pull up and park and make his stolid way into the toilet brush field, tap on the window of the truck and ask him how he's doing this evening?
And he looks into the cop’s face, the black mirror insect-eyes of sunglasses in the last edges of the daylight, and says you’re probably wondering how I got into this situation.
Lifting the bottle in a salute. Which he does now, at the headlights, and drinks again.
What are these on the scale of sin
that they should follow me through the streets of Columbus,
the moon-streaked fields between Benevolence
and Cuthbert where dwarfed cotton sparkles like pearls
on the shoulders of the road. What are these
that they should find me half-lost,
sick and sleepless
behind the wheel of this U-Haul truck parked in a field
on Georgia 45
a few miles north of Damascus,
some makeshift rest stop for eighteen wheelers
where the long white arms of oaks slap across trailers
and headlights glare all night through a wall of pines?
Yeah, he was three sheets to the wind when he loaded up the U-Haul, which is probably why he started loading up the U-Haul in the first place. These impulses, these things you do and then later work out why you did them; looking back, he can make a kind of sense of the whole thing. As so many events in his life do and have always done, it began with the bourbon, but it also began with a fight, which itself began with shouting and quickly shifted gears into screaming and proceeded to the exchange of projectiles. He had it coming from two sides by the end, Merle and That Woman, and truth be told by that point he had forgotten what the fight was originally about.
Not like it mattered, but he does prefer to have a sense of the outlines of these things. An illusion of present coherence before the future arrives to sort things out, and anyway the future always overlooks certain vital bits of information. A bit like an insect-eyed cop, who doesn't give a shit about what actually happened and prefers to just haul everyone in.
It was his and Merle’s trailer. He does have that much straight. It has been for three months now—not owned but rented from some fat-ass biker with a swastika on his hairy belly, who's on the road a lot doing Christ knows what and so doesn't need to occupy it. They rented it fair and fucking square. It continued to be every bit as much of a dump as it was when they moved in, with fist-shaped holes in the walls in more than one place and a carpet the color of cat puke, and a sink that occasionally drained, but it was still theirs, and somehow he got it into his damn fool head that it meant something.
That it might mean something better.
No, he hasn't the faintest idea what better would have consisted of. It wasn't a clear picture so much as a distant light on the horizon, both smaller and dimmer than dawn. Yet a light it was, something to steer by, and he was stupid enough to turn toward it.
Ended up off the road in a fucking field.
He fumbles the driver’s side door open, kicks it wider, slides out. He has to steady himself against the side of the truck as he comes to rest; not only is he even less sober than he thought, but the ground is considerably less solid—springy little hillocks between the baby pines, mounds of damp dried grass that give under his weight. As he raises his head and blinks blearily into the twilight, he sees that he's left the headlights on.
He spends half a minute or so trying to determine how much of a shit he gives about a dead battery. At the end of that half minute or so he leans into the cab and turns the key all the way, plunging himself into near-darkness.
The trailer was his and it was Merle’s. He repeats this silently as he takes a step forward and then another, bottle clutched in one hand and sloshing against his palm. It was his and it was Merle’s, and no, neither of them had a job, but money was coming in all the same because money always finds a way that do that, and for a while life was almost good. Then a month ago there was That Woman, brought home early one cruddy-eyed morning after a nearly two-day bender, and Merle fucked her with great vigor and no disregard for his brother trying to sleep in the next room, and then she kind of just never went home after that.
He levels a boot at one of the mini-pines. Kicks. Aims poorly and almost falls on his ass.
She was bleach-blond and big-lipped and heavily tattooed, and it was pretty clear pretty damn quick that Merle was ass-over-teakettle in love with her, to the extent that Merle can be in love with anyone. Merle’s love is a peevish sort of thing, petty and needy in a way that tries to obscure its neediness, and it's not a nice phenomenon to witness. Merle falls in love with women like his dick falls into their pussies, which is to say with a single-minded and ultimately selfish intensity. His love is not about them, and he will not call it love in any respect.
Merle has said I love you to Daryl more than he's said it to women, as far as his brother has been able to determine. And he's said it to Daryl all of twice in their entire lives.
But he did love this one. Lord, did he ever. So she never left. And in fact Daryl didn't particularly want her to leave. She was a little much at first, loud and constantly smoking and spilling cigarette ash all over the place—not that it did any part of that fucking trailer a single disservice—but she wasn't mean, and she liked Daryl, and she didn't like him in a way that was at all oriented toward getting in his pants, which was frankly a nice change.
Then she started covering part of the rent here and there, though where she got the money remained obscure. Which was also good. No one threw the word girlfriend around at all, but it was there even if it was unsaid, and there was a weird normality about the whole situation that Daryl found as appealing as it was confusing.
Cramped, dirty, raucous, but they made it work.
Until it all went to shit, because it always does.
What was I thinking, Lord?
That for once I'd be in the driver's seat, a firm grip
He slowly becomes aware that he's making his way further and further from the truck, further and further into the field and toward the jagged black line of the trees. He's also slowly aware that he left the keys in the U-Haul, and someone could just come the fuck along, slide behind the wheel, take off with all his worldly possessions. Another swig from the bottle; maybe he should stop these long sweeping back-and-forth trajectories and return, at least take the keys with him this time.
But the oncoming night is like two hands closing around his wrists, cool and smooth, gently coaxing, and he doesn't turn. He's not exactly heading for the woods. He's not sure where he's heading.
Okay, let's go back while we’re not going much of anywhere. Let's be that insect-eyed cop, only slightly more conscientious, and take stock of things, sort them out. What’s all this, then?
That Woman had a name, though since Daryl furiously loaded up the U-Haul and got out of dodge he hasn't said it to himself. It's become a kind of talisman for everything that went wrong, though none of it was her fault. She's the X factor, the disruptive variable. Before she was there things were all right—though they weren't—and after she was there everything was bad—though it wasn't—and he knows that he's scraping together correlation and causation and oh fucking well.
She was there. She was, to some extent, at the root of all this, though not the deepest roots. Merle called her Cupcake, though that wasn't her name; Daryl was never confident that Merle knew her name, which was Kimberly. And in truth, when she told it to Daryl it felt like a confession in a fit of drunken honesty, something she wasn't supposed to be saying.
She wasn't literally looking over her shoulder when she said it, sitting out in the trash-strewn yard on a couple of lawn chairs and chain-smoking stale Camels. But she was.
She was always looking.
Story there. One she never told. He believed he might know some of it anyway.
Kimberly. She talked to him. She talked to him like she didn't talk to Merle; she was fucking Merle, she was partying with Merle, but she and Merle didn't talk, and when neither of those former things were going on, more and more frequently she was doing the latter, with Daryl. Who kept his mouth shut and listened, and she appeared to like that.
She didn't tell some stories. But she told others. Familiar ones, nothing remarkable. String of shit-paying jobs. One brief marriage that fell apart for any number of reasons, the primary one being that they never liked each other to begin with. Ill-advised year spent out west with a hippie biker gang wherein she expected to find her deeper essence at the feet of a self-styled guru who had a lot to say on the subject of tantric sex. Back home to Georgia and more of the same. Went on meth, got off it. Marginal improvement. Here we are. Raising her beer can in a salute, which he has just now unconsciously imitated.
Here we are, right? Here we fuckin’ are.
Took him a couple of weeks to realize that he liked when she talked. He liked to listen. Didn't like it so much when she and Merle got into it, which was happening more and more often. Didn't like that at all. Tensed up his shoulders, made him feel like he was anticipating a sucker punch that never came.
He stayed out of it, but you can never really stay out of those things.
Then three hours ago Merle lost it and punched her in the face, and he understands: That's why he's here.
So the jon boat muscled up the ramp,
the Johnson outboard, the bent frame of the wrecked Harley
chained for so long to the back fence,
the scarred desk, the bookcases and books,
the mattress and box springs,
a broken turntable, a Pioneer amp, a pair
of three-way speakers, everything mine
I intended to keep. Everything else abandon.
He staggers around and gazes at the U-Haul, now nothing more than a black hulk in the dark. All his worldly possessions. Such as they are. He doesn't have shit. He didn't need the U-Haul. A fucking compact car would have done just fine. He did take the mattress but that was pure pique; he doesn't need it and indeed now he's vaguely annoyed at himself for bothering with it.
In fact he's reasonably sure that there's more than one thing in the back of the truck that isn't even technically his. Some unwashed pots, porno mags, clothes, records he hates. Those lawn chairs. By the end he was throwing stuff into it, beating Merle off, screaming obscenities at him, not looking at what he was grabbing. It was a haze of violent kleptomania. He was removing items with intent to injure. Tired of throwing actual punches, this seemed like a good enough alternative. Yet he feels somehow that it is all his, that he's collected on what's owed him, and that he didn't truly take anything he had no right to.
Fuck, did he take Merle’s hog? He can't remember. He'd rather not go back and look.
Surely Merle would have killed him if he had attempted that. Surely he wouldn't now be standing here.
Cupcake Kimberly was screaming at him too, and she wasn't on his side. Couldn't comprehend that. Blood streaming down her face from her smashed nose, and she was howling at him to keep the fuck out of shit that wasn't his business, she didn't need him to defend her, she didn't want him defending her, just get the fuck away from her. Initially he was stung by it, reeling—and yet wasn't it perfectly recognizable? Doesn't he know this story?
Doesn't he know how it ends?
The U-Haul was theirs too, purchased from some random asshole for five hundred dollars. Said asshole probably purchased it from someone else. It smells like archeological time-scales of Big Macs. Only the blackest comedy that it happened to be the nearest vehicle to hand aside from the bike.
All that shit, all those relics, now sitting in this pine field.
He's so tempted to just leave them here.
Has Merle come after him since then? Is he searching? Does he care? Did he leave Cupcake Kimberly behind to process the wreckage? Is she by herself now, and does she regard that as improvement?
Is she drunk?
Is she smoking in bed?
He yells wordlessly at the sky, badly startling himself. It's a ragged sound, angry and strained and more than a little desperate. The emotion in it is also startling. He doesn't feel those things. He's pissed off, absolutely, and tired and pretty much lost as to what to do next, but he isn't gripped by that level of bestial anguish.
This is such cosmic levels of bullshit.
But on the road from one state
to another, what is left behind nags back through the distance,
a last word rising to a scream, a salad bowl
shattering against a kitchen cabinet, china barbs
spiking my heel, blood trailed across the cream linoleum
like the bedsheet that morning long ago
just before I watched the future miscarried.
Moving with a new determination the source of which he can't identify, he stumbles over the hillocks and around the pines, back toward the road. The outskirts of Damascus aren’t that far back. He remembers passing a roadhouse less than ten minutes ago. Can't be too long to walk it.
Maybe a quarter mile down the blacktop, he hurls the empty bourbon bottle as far as he can, and listens to it shatter some unseen distance away, perhaps the hint of a cascade of glitter in the headlights of an oncoming eighteen wheeler. The wind buffets him as it hurtles past, rocks him on his feet and pulls at his hair. He moves further onto the shoulder, which isn't wide enough for comfort.
Whatever. Not like he would be comfortable anyway.
Merle. It would have been good, maybe, to fling that bottle at Merle. Bloody his nose to match the one he broke. Even things up, introduce a messy kind of symmetry.
No. He wouldn't have done that.
He didn't want to do any of this.
Jesus, could the irony be
that suffering forms a stronger bond than love?
He's halfway to the roadhouse when the rain starts.
So that's ideal.
He doesn't recall the clouds rolling in. Last time he glanced up the sky was clear. The rain comes on hard and summery, warm and tasting of minerals and metal, faintly of oil. He doesn't stop, doesn't speed up, but he tilts his head back and lets it wash into his mouth, and he appreciates the flavor, which is unlike anything else but itself.
The roadhouse parking lot is crammed with more eighteen wheelers, more than a few bikes, pickups, ancient cars thick with rusting Detroit iron and perversely gleaming chrome. He looks at it and feels like it might be a port in a literal storm.
Splashing across the pitted blacktop to the door, inside, sure he must smell like wet dog and having it confirmed when that's what first hits him in the sinuses. Then smoke, rail shots, leather. Dim light, lots of bodies. Coarse voices and coarser laughter. He knows this terrain, can navigate it; he shoulders his way up to the bar and catches the attention of the grizzled bartender, orders more Wild Turkey, because why change horses midstream.
He had been sobering up. Now he's getting determinedly drunk again. He's not driving, has no intentions of doing so. Maybe he'll go back to the pines and the U-Haul. Maybe he won't. Maybe he’ll attempt to get it out of there. Maybe he won't. Maybe he’ll put together a plan. Maybe he won't.
Maybe he'll make sense of this.
Maybe he can't.
Turning away from the bar, watching the people indiscriminately and wetly seethe. Fumbling in his pocket for his smokes, which are damp, and his lighter, which won't light. He flicks it irritably a couple of times, considers asking someone else for the use of theirs, gives up. Drinks more. He doesn't exactly feel good, but he's caring less and less.
Movement on the other side of the room. There's a little stage there, and someone is climbing onto it, straightening the mic on its stand. He catches a glimpse of blond hair, gleam of a guitar’s glossy wood. The girl, when she speaks, has a soft and melodic voice, though she's not singing yet. He turns more toward her, manages to focus, does so well enough to see that she's pretty and young—very young, looks perhaps too young to be in a place like this. But she doesn't seem uncomfortable. She's smiling. She's tuning up, and people are quieting down, which mildly surprises him. He gets the sense then, very strongly, that this is not her first time here, that more than a few of these people expected her to be here and in fact might even be present for her.
Odd. This didn't strike him as that kind of place.
Then she's singing, and he forgets everything else.
It doesn't happen quickly. It sneaks up on him, like water turned gradually up to boiling, and he only gets it once he's deep in it. What she's singing is completely incongruous with the setting; it's as soft as her voice was, pretty as she is, lilting and with a mischievous edge. It's a song that winks at you, and standing there in the rain-soaked crush of human bodies with his hair plastered against his face and a drink disregarded in his hand, he listens to it and disregards way more than the drink.
This is nothing remotely like anything on those records he threw into the back of the U-Haul.
He can't make out lyrics; he might be too drunk to do so. The syllables melt pleasantly into each other, become a kind of dancing wordless chant. She transitions smoothly from one song to the next, this one a little sadder and a little slower, and he hears the room release a collective sigh, as if remembering something they didn't want to and yet don't resent the recollection. Something aching, bittersweet like he's never enountered the term.
What captivates his attention leaps from one thing to the next. Her hair. Her moving lips. Her eyes, half closed, the shadows of her lashes lying against her cheeks. Flashes of her fingers between two sets of shoulders, the deft way she handles the strings.
She shouldn't be here, and she is. She doesn't belong here, and she does.
What he's recalling: that it did indeed use to be good, or what he can consider good in his own experience. Things were working out. He didn't want to leave. Why he did, he thinks, isn't that he was too pissed at them both to stay, and it's not that he's mad about the essential injustice of getting shit from a side he was trying to help.
He left because something he was starting to believe in reared up and bit him, and he gets why, but he also doesn't. At all.
And if it did it once, it'll do it again.
And she could be smoking in bed, and he was starting to get the distinct suspicion that she wouldn't let him take the fucking cigarette from between her fingers, and there are only so many times he's equipped to do that.
You take everything. You go.
Could have gone before. Should have. Didn't. Too late now, except maybe part of him felt like it wasn't.
She's singing, and he sets the glass down and swipes a hand across his face, and it comes away wet and he doesn't think it's rain, and he's fucking furious. This isn't a port. This is just another storm. Rain drumming on the roof and he's tired of standing out there in it, no one ever letting him come inside.
That's when her eyes—clear, blue, keen—seem to lock onto his, and his spine turns to water and as she flicks her gaze away he wonders if he might simply collapse.
She knows. She fucking knows.
She knows what?
Hell if he knows.
So then he's back outside.
Now the sun
streaks the windshield with yellow and orange, heavy beads
of light drawing highways in the dew-cover.
I roll down the window and breathe the pine-air,
the after-scent of rain, and the far-off smell
of asphalt and diesel fumes.
But mostly pine and rain
as though the world really could be clean again.
He's standing on the road and looking into the field. The U-Haul is right where he left it, gone milky white now in the starlight. The rain blew away fast as it came and now the sky is very clear, and everything appears somehow purified, edges smoothed, crookedness straightened, angles curved.
He was in the parking lot. He doesn't remember what he was doing there, or how much later it was; he only remembers that she stepped out into the last dribbles of rain with her guitar case in her hand, a swell of noise and light dying away as the door swung closed behind her. He saw her, shivered and turned away, and he was hoping so much that she would pass him by and go to whichever car is hers, get out of here, get out of his life, take her songs with her to where they can't hurt him anymore.
Of course she stopped. Of course she turned to him, and of course she spoke, because all the world is against him now.
He grunted. Made a head-bob that might have been a nod.
She sounded concerned, though not in an overbearing kind of way, and he wondered what signals he might have been sending that would lead her into such a thing, how evident his not-okayness must be. Never had a poker face. Never could bluff worth a damn.
Fuck, he hates being himself.
She persisted. “You need a ride or somethin’?”
And here's where everything split in half. Because Daryl never so much as finished high school, shouldn’t know shit about anything more than what he needs in his day-to-day, but his dirty little secret is that he does; he knows a lot about a lot, soaks up information like the proverbial sponge, takes note of everything and keeps it close as if his day-to-day might abruptly change and he might find himself in need of facts he never used before. Facts Merle would give him no end of shit for knowing, things he in fact barely understands but has nevertheless retained, as if for the potential of future understanding.
He once came across the notion of branching parallel universes, the idea that every choice taken generates an alternate possible choice, and a corresponding world in which that alternate choice was made. So he believes that maybe, just maybe, there's a world in which he said that yes, in fact he does need a ride, and she smiled at him and he found the courage to follow her to her car and the further courage to get into it, and swinging out of the lot and onto the road it branched yet again, and in one world she drove him back to the U-Haul but in another they went somewhere entirely other, a different place altogether, or places, a spreading tree of branching possibility consisting of he knows not what.
In other worlds all those things happened. They must have. He went with her and he went somewhere new, and he can't imagine what happened to him after that.
He is not in those worlds.
He said no. Tried to be polite about it. And she hesitated, then shrugged and tipped him a smile smaller than the one she gave him in the world where he said yes, and she walked away from him and into the parking lot and made her way to her car—old though not so old as the others, big though not so big as the others—and she put the guitar case into the back, got in, rear lights flickered into being and her headlights lit up scattered raindrops, and she drove.
And he didn't see her anymore.
Somewhere behind me,
miles behind me on a two-lane that streaks across
west Georgia, light is falling
through the windows of my half-empty house.
Lord, why am I thinking about this? And why should I care
so long after everything has fallen
to pain that the woman sleeping there should be sleeping alone?
In this world, he went back to the road when the rain stopped, and he turned in the opposite direction from the one she took. In this world he walked through the empty dark, no traffic passing him, and he stopped when he reached the U-Haul, and now he stands here staring at it, feeling his hands hanging loose at his sides, the absence of the bottle, the absence of anything, the jingle of keys and the drone of an engine echoing in his head.
Here the world branches again. In one, he gets in and lurches this wretched vehicle back onto the road. Again, a branch: He turns left and continues north, away from Damascus and toward the Carolinas and whatever lies beyond, yet another unknown and unknowable set of worlds within which he might find anything at all.
Freedom, and terror.
But one through line in all of these branches is the existence of those two things.
In the other branch, he turns right and he goes south and back. He goes back to Merle and That Woman, Cupcake Kimberly, and he's faced with a number of methods of reconciliation, or not. He has to reckon with them, and he's afraid of the results of that reckoning, and he's afraid of not knowing what they might have been. The bewildering maze of loving people and liking them, of caring and not caring, of not knowing what you feel, of not knowing what you should be feeling. Unlike bars and roadhouses, it's terrain he’s never been able to navigate, for which he's never had the map.
He wishes he did.
But come back, back to the U-Haul and the branch he's facing there. Because he might get into it and go, yes. But there's one more world, one he holds in his empty hands and weighs, considers its dimensions. In this world he doesn't get into the U-Haul. He opens the driver’s side door and leans in and grabs the keys, whirls, and he throws them away, harder than he threw the bottle—throws them far from any hope of ever finding them.
Then he walks away from it, away from everything, toward the road, toward the trees and into the starlit night, following a beacon only he can see, or might not see at all. Polaris or magnetic north or better; there are elements inside him that might respond to a gentle tug, and be led.
A sound, perhaps. A voice.
Could I be just another sinner who needs to be blinded
before he can see? Lord, is it possible to fall
toward grace? Could I be moved
to believe in new beginnings? Could I be moved?