THE OA is proud to showcase an exclusive glimpse into Scott McClanahan's forthcoming book, Crapalachia: A Biography of A Place, a Two Dollar Radio title due to be released on March 19th. Our serial previews will be posted in monthly installments leading up to the book's publication! Click here for our interview with McClanahan. Pre-orders of Crapalachia are available now.
I was getting tired of playing checkers with Nathan. I even told him a couple of months earlier that I wasn’t going to play anymore because he was always beating me. But here I was playing checkers again for some reason.
I jumped one checker and then waited. He made a move and then I made another move. He made a move and pointed to the toy in front of his chair. It was a ceramic hog with these giant testicles hanging down in the back. There was a rubber frog and a plastic puppy and a small stuffed alligator, too, but he kept pointing at the hog balls. Then he pointed at his chest. I finally said, “Gosh, Nathan, I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to move my checker. I wish you’d quit pointing at the hawg nuts. This is part of the reason I don’t like playing.”
Then Nathan turned the hawg toward Ruby so she could see.
He pointed to the giant testicles and then to himself.
Ruby whispered “shit” beneath her breath and then, “Nathan, you quit talking filthy like that. Can’t believe you put that filthy stuff out there.”
Nathan laughed and pointed at the ceramic hawg and then back to himself, which meant: I got big hawg balls all right, Mother.
I made my move and he laughed again and pointed to the newspaper. Then he pointed to his finger. He was saying, I’m going to get me a woman out of the paper without a ring on her finger.
Then he spread his arms wide. I said, “Nathan you can’t place personal ads for a big fat woman. No woman would answer that.”
Nathan laughed and spread his arms real wide. Well if I’m going to get me a woman I want the biggest goddamn woman I can find. I want one so goddamn big I can’t even get my arms around her big ass. Ruby whispered “shit” beneath her breath and then he jumped my checker. He pointed to the newspaper again and then acted like he was writing. He was telling me that he was going to have me write to one after he beat me. Then I jumped one of his checkers and then another and then another.
I was winning. For the first time I was winning. “Maybe it was a good thing I took a couple of months off.”
I thought that it was because maybe he was bragging so much that he wasn’t paying attention. I jumped another checker and I said, “King me.” He kinged me. I started moving all over the checkerboard. He wasn’t even watching really.
My grandma told Nathan, “Well, you’re going to talk so much no one is going to believe what you say. It’s going to be just like Mary.”
THE STORY OF AUNT MARY
I never should have been on the ride. I begged but my aunt talked me into it. She was always saying, “When I was a size 2.” And then a few minutes later she said again, “When I was a size 2.” Then she would remind you later in the day. “Of course, I haven’t always been so big. I used to be size…” I knew all of this was a lie but I still got on the ride with her. I got on the ride and I sat on the right side of her. This was a mistake. The ride started up and my Aunt Mary was pulled by the G-forces to the right. I felt my hip bones rubbing together. My Aunt Mary was not a size 2 anymore. So therefore, I should warn everyone: If you’re ever at the West Virginia State Fair do not ride the Tunnel of Love with my Aunt Mary. I repeat. Do not ride the Tunnel of Love with my Aunt Mary.
YOU WILL REGRET IT!
Nathan threw his hands up in the air and then he pointed to his head.
Ruby said, “I know. I know. You’ll end up saying things no one believes. She almost crushed poor little Scott to death.”
Then Nathan made his move. I jumped him. He made another move. I jumped him. He made another move. I jumped him. Ruby sat in the corner talking to herself. “That’s how the world works. Just one thing after another and no plan about it at all. Then something happens and it don’t mean nothing.” Nathan made another move. I jumped him. He only had one checker left. He moved it around with his finger, but there was no place to go. He stopped moving it. Then I jumped him.
I won. I was just about to say, “I fucking won,” but then I saw that he was pointing at the personal ads in the newspaper and he wanted me to write a letter for him. He wanted me to say he had his own set of wheels. “Whatever,” I said. “I’m going to kick your ass again.”
So then he was putting the checkers back on the board and we were playing again. He jumped one of my checkers. I made a move. He jumped another one of my checkers. I made a move and then he jumped me. I wanted to tell him that this was the reason I hated playing checkers with him. I made a move and he jumped me. Then I saw him smile.
I saw his smile and I knew that he had let me win earlier. I sat and watched him jump my checkers, just like always, one by one. He pointed to his head with his finger. That meant he was smart.
“That’s right, little Nathan,” Ruby said. “You’re a smart feller. The world’s not smart but you are.”
Then I saw myself getting my ass kicked. He pointed to the newspaper and I saw myself writing a letter that started:
You mentioned in your ad that you are a full-figured woman and were looking for a man who appreciated a full-figured woman. Well I’m here to tell you that I like my women like I like my fried chicken—a little bit greasy and with plenty of fat around the edges.
I saw myself writing about how his balls were the size of hawg balls, and he was a tough motherfucker.
I saw him jump my checkers and I wouldn’t tell them about the feeding tube and how it smelled when there was nothing on his stomach. I knew that I wouldn’t write about how I was afraid of him when I was little. I thought he was a monster. I thought cerebral palsy was the name you gave to the monster in every family. I wouldn’t write about how he used to knock himself out to make me laugh. I wouldn’t write about how my uncles were babysitting me when I was small and they were wanting to get rid of me for a while so they could have sex with their girlfriends. They put me on the roof and I was too scared to jump off, but Nathan groaned and moaned until Grandma came to get me. I wouldn’t write about how people stared at him when I pushed him down the road. They stared and shook their heads. I knew there would be no letters sent in return.
I knew I would never write about Nathan’s light blue eyes—eyes as blue as Christmas tree lights.
I knew I would never write about his soft heart. The softest heart I have ever known.
I knew he believed in something that none of us ever do anymore. He believed in the nastiest word in the world. He believed in KINDNESS. Please tell me you remember kindness. Please tell me you remember kindness and joy, you cool motherfuckers.
So he started watching soap operas all the time. He thought soap operas could teach him something about women and love. Every day he went into the living room and leaned up against his little cushion and watched the women on the soap operas live their lives through story.
He watched the women on the soap operas start falling in love.
He watched the women on the soap operas hit their heads and get amnesia and run off and leave their families.
He watched the people getting in car chases and running out of burning buildings just before they exploded.
I used to sit and watch them too and wonder if he thought this was what the outside world was like—that each of us had an evil twin we didn’t know about, an evil twin that was out there somewhere trying to take over our lives and kill us.
Then one day we went to Beckley for Grandma’s foot doctor appointment. After the appointment, I pushed him through K-Mart and Nathan wanted to buy a copy of the movie South Pacific. I asked why in the hell he was wanting to buy a stupid musical. He kept pointing to the cover. Then he took his hands and put them to his chest like he was squeezing his breasts. There was a picture of a woman on the cover who was wearing this itty bitty bikini.
I told him, “Ah, shit, Nathan. This is not going to be a tittie movie. This is going to be a stupid ass musical.”
But the poor bastard didn’t listen. When he got home and put it into the VCR, instead of a woman in her itty bitty bikini, taking it off, and showing him her stuff, it was just a bunch of women in a G-rated movie, singing songs, completely clothed, about washing men right out of their hair.
So, SHIT! We went back to watching soap operas. We went back to watching the shows about women who were married and trapped by their psycho, maniac husbands.
He watched women having their children taken away by philandering husbands. The husbands made it look like the women went crazy and committed them to insane asylums.
But there was one woman in particular he was obsessed with. She was a woman who was the most beautiful woman on the show.
He even had a picture of her from TV Guide taped up on the paneling beside his bed in the hall.
I watched him during his nap and he used to stare at her for hours like she was the one he loved.
I sat at the table with him one day and he started pointing at the newspaper beneath his chair (Ruby always put newspapers down in case Nathan spilled something). He used to sit at the table and struggle to eat a spoonful of mashed up food, or drink from a bottle of 7UP. So now he struggled with the bottle and Ruby whispered, “Now, Nathan, don’t you get choked.”
So he drank and finally pointed again to the newspaper beneath his chair and giggled.
Then Ruby talked for him and told me what he was saying. “Old Nathan says he wants to get him a woman out of the personal ads.”
I sat and laughed at him and said: “Oh god, Nathan. There’s no sense in you looking for a woman. These women are all liberated today from what I hear.”
Nathan laughed at me and wagged his finger around and around his head like we were all crazy.
“I know you don’t want a crazy one.”
Ruby said, “No, he’s looking for a crazy one.”
Then he held his arms out wide. He wanted a big fat crazy woman.
I said, “Yeah, Nathan, you’re gonna have a hard time finding you a woman who’s gonna feed you let alone give you a bath.”
Ruby said: “He don’t care, just as long as he gets him one without a ring on her finger.”
I said, “Well, Nathan, I’m sorry to tell you but there’s probably not too many out there looking for a fifty-year-old man who still lives with his mother. They usually want a man who has his own place.”
Nathan giggled and pointed to his bedroom with a look on his face like—Oh, I have a place of my own.
I wrote to one of them in the personal ads. We waited for weeks. We waited another week.
She never wrote back.
The next month, Medicare gave him what he wanted though. Medicare sent over a home health nurse to help three days out of the week. Nathan had a look in his eyes that said, Thank god for fucking Medicare.
Her name was…
The first day she was there Rhonda walked by the table and Nathan smacked her on the butt.
Rhonda stopped and said: “Nathan you better keep your hands to yourself or I’m gonna tell your momma on you.”
And then Ruby laughed from her La-Z-Boy behind the table and said: “Yeah, old Nathan, he likes the women.”
Then he smiled and laughed and threw his head back, circling his long skinny finger around and around his noggin, which meant: You’re crazy. You’re crazy.
Then he pointed to the big ceramic hog on the table with the giant balls.
“What?” Rhonda said.
“Nathan says his man parts are like that hog’s,” I told her.
He tried smacking her on the butt again. So Rhonda twisted Nathan’s ear and went to put in a load of laundry. Then she did the next chore Ruby had lined up for her.
Over the next couple of years she started doing all kinds of things.
She cooked the dinner.
She washed the dishes.
She cleaned off all of Ruby’s knick-knacks.
She made the beds.
She ran the sweeper.
She moved the knick-knacks so Ruby could see ’em better.
She ran the sweeper.
She picked up the medicine over in Rainelle.
She stopped at Rogers’ grocery for Nathan’s bananas.
She came back and cooked supper.
She washed the dishes.
She cleaned the bathroom.
She pushed Nathan in front of the television.
She put him to bed.
She listened to me tell her how I wanted to go away. I wanted to go away to school. I wanted to be a famous writer.
But Rhonda was really there because of Nathan’s feeding tube. It was just a peg tube sticking out of his stomach and it was all pussy and nasty and sick-looking. It stunk too because you could smell the inside of his stomach. One time I was watching her feed him. He pointed down at the tube and complained about how it was stinking. Rhonda sat there getting ready to pour Nathan’s Ensure into the feeding tube.
She was feeding him strawberry bubblegum Ensure. She held the feeding tube and joked with him. “Boy, Nathan, this Ensure doesn’t smell too bad.”
Then she opened the Ensure and took a swig.
Nathan laughed and wiggled his finger around and around his head, before pointing at her: You’re crazy. You’re crazy.
Then he pointed at his feeding tube and held up six fingers, which meant he wanted a six-pack.
Rhonda laughed: “Oh gosh, Nathan—I’m not going to get you a six-pack. You’re about as bad as that man of mine.”
Then Rhonda started talking to him. She poured the Ensure in the tube and the tube sucked it down. The old tube gurgle-gurgled and gargled and gurgled it all down.
After they were done Nathan touched Rhonda’s leg and then he held Rhonda’s hand and listened to her talk.
“Yeah, Nathan, Sean’s been real mean here recently, drinking and hitting me.”
Nathan took his hand and threw it towards the door, and this meant: Well kick his ass out.
He pointed to his foot, which meant, I’ll kick his ass for you.
Rhonda smiled and said, “I know but where would I go?”
Nathan pointed to his bedroom.
Rhonda grinned and whispered, leaning forward: “And I could come in here and live with you? Is that what you’re saying?”
Nathan nodded his head.
I didn’t even think anything of it until a couple of months later when my Aunt Bernice came over and she was smoking her cigarettes.
She said: “Well I just hope everything works out all right.”
I was like, “What? What are you talking about?”
Aunt Bernice smoked her cigarette and then blew the cigarette smoke foooooo.
Then she said: “Well I think it is obvious. He’s in love with her. You can see it in his eyes. He’s in love with her.”
So I started paying closer attention. I realized it a couple of weeks later. I was sitting in the living room with Nathan, watching Walker, Texas Ranger, and then Benny Hinn. Then Rhonda came in and said: “Okay, Nathan. It’s time to go to bed.”
Nathan shook his head and pointed to the clock for more time.
Rhonda said: “Oh no, you’re the one who said you needed to be on a schedule. So we’re gonna put you on a schedule. It’s 9:30 and you know what that means?”
She stood him up and took off his sweatpants.
Then Rhonda put Nathan in the bed and started to tuck him in. Nathan just lay there and giggled and then he reached out and tried to touch her breasts. Now instead of moving like she usually did, Rhonda just sat there. Nathan reached out some more and touched her breasts again.
She said: “Nathan, you better not do that.”
Then she was quiet and grinned: “You’re rotten to your core.”
Nathan touched and then touched some more. They weren’t giggling anymore.
I went into the other room to leave them alone, but when I sat down on the couch, I could still see them saying goodnight.
Nathan sat up in his bed and Rhonda started doing the hand signals she used to help communicate with him. But now they were whispering to each other and I heard Rhonda say: “Okay, now. I gotta go.”
And then she pointed to her eye.
Then she pointed to her heart.
Then she pointed to Nathan.
Then Nathan was quiet and he did the same thing.
He pointed to his eye. I.
Then he pointed to his heart. Love.
Then he pointed to Rhonda. You.
Rhonda kissed him goodbye and said: “Well you just look at my picture, and I’ll be back in the morning.”
And so she left and Nathan just sat there and looked at Rhonda’s picture in the moonlight.
I tried talking to Nathan, but he was too busy looking at it.
And so he stared at the picture beside his bed.
It was a picture of Rhonda.
It was a picture of the woman he loved.
This went on until Ruby started getting jealous.
“He don’t need no woman. All he needs is me,” I heard Ruby say one day.
And then one evening Ruby told Rhonda right to her face: “Well you’re just a fat old thing. Big around as can be.”
Rhonda told Ruby she didn’t have any room to talk. But then Rhonda started crying. She left. This went on for months.
After that Ruby started complaining about how Rhonda kept coming in late and how one night Rhonda didn’t show up at all. Then one night Ruby told her not to come. Rhonda left crying again, and Nathan lay in the bed and didn’t say anything. PISSED OFF.
The next day I went into Nathan’s bedroom and he was still in bed.
I said: “How are you doing, Nathan?”
He didn’t say anything.
I asked him how he was doing again.
He still didn’t say anything.
I twisted his ear.
He didn’t even act like I was there.
He turned over in his bed, staring at Rhonda’s picture.
He started watching soap operas again, but then it happened. One day, in the soap opera, the actress he loved was walking across the street, and her husband’s crazy ex-wife hit the gas and ran her over. Her husband was there and held her in his arms as she died.
And so I imagine that Nathan just sat there unable to do anything, listening to her whisper, “I love you. I’m so sorry I didn’t do more to love you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
And then … “I’ll love you forever.”
So Nathan watched her die and whispered inside his head, I love you too.
And now it wasn’t an actress he watched on TV anymore, but a beautiful woman he had loved for a long time.
So nobody really knows what happened. I was outside when I heard Ruby scream.
I came running inside. There was a drawer on the floor and newspapers. Ruby said, “I was in the back room and when I came back the poor thing was like this.”
There was a set of knives on the counter beside the sink. He was in front of his chair. The chair was turned over. His legs were beneath the table. He was on his back. There was a steak knife sticking straight out of his chest.
There was an ambulance. Lights were flashing around and around.
There was a stretcher … ambulance guys … bringing Nathan out on a stretcher.
And then the back of the ambulance.
He tried to take his own life, but he survived. He didn’t die.
So after Nathan’s knife wound, he didn’t do much of anything but sit around at the kitchen table and watch it all go by.
One day I was sitting at the table with him, and he leaned over on his elbow and started rolling his 7 UP bottle back and forth like he was bored.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
He breathed a soft sigh and batted his eyelids.
He had movie star blue eyes.
So he sat and I wondered if he was thinking about the fact that he was the one who stayed. He was the one who sat watching his younger brothers when they were little boys, and then watching them leave the house when they were grown men.
He was the one who stayed because he had to stay. He was the one who was sitting at the table now, where he was always sitting, remembering how his brothers returned with their young wives, all pink and pretty, and pretty and pink, and pink and pretty, and pretty and pink and pink and pink and with accents from faraway places.
And then a few years later, returning once more with pink children of their own.
So I felt his muscle and laughed, trying to make the quiet go away.
But he was quiet now because he knew he would never have any of this. I saw what he saw sitting there—that there would be no brides or babies. There would be none of this. He blinked and breathed another soft sigh with a look on his face, like—Oh shit I’m trapped in my body.
Oh shit I’m trapped in my body.
And so there was no more Rhonda.
There was no more Rhonda until after Nathan died.
After the wake was over, and the funeral was over too, and everybody was walking away, I went back to pick up something, or help my aunt walk back through the mud.
I looked up, and when I did, all the way in the back of the crowd of people was a woman.
It was a woman all by herself.
It was Rhonda.
She was crying so hard that I thought she was going to fall down.
She was crying and her chest was going up and down, up and down, and she was trying to walk back to her car.
A couple of months later, on a bright evening, just before the sunset, I went by the grave. It was fall and there was this glow over everything, and it was so bright. And it was all still there—the gravestone and the old tree, and the old flowers were there too. But now there was something new in front of Nathan’s gravestone. It was a little teddy bear covered in fur and there was a little note beside it. So I opened it up and saw a picture of a heart, and beneath the heart was a note that said, “I love you, and I’ll always love you Nathan.” It was just like in the soap opera. And then beside the heart was a single name. It said:
I have decided to stop for a moment.
I want to stop for a moment before they die. I am not ready yet.
I want to stop and remember them for a moment as they were, when we were all together, when they were still alive. I want to remember Ruby’s food and Ruby’s table and Nathan’s laugh.
On Sunday I sat and smelled the chicken and gravy, bubbling up all brown and beautiful. I stood and dusted all the JFK commemorative pop bottles—and spoons from the fifty states—and a bird clock chirp-chirping the time. It was a bird clock that chirped a cardinal at two o’clock and then an Eastern Woodlands oriole at four o’clock. So if you were outside and heard a robin chirp you were fucked up the whole day thinking it was three o’clock.
Then I dusted the plastic frogs going ribbet ribbet every time I walked by.
I dusted the pictures of Jesus and footprints in the sand.
I dusted a bread bowl glazed stiff for decoration and a shotgun sitting up behind the door.
I walked around the recliner and the radio playing radio preachers and gospel music.
So Ruby stood at the stove and I asked: “Grandma, where’d you get these flowers?”
My grandma said: “Oh Larry sent ’em to me. He sent me some to give to Mae too but I liked her flowers better so I just kept them both.”
She was always doing stuff like this.
A Story About Ruby Taking Stuff
One day we went over to Aunt Shirley’s and Shirley had just put this new mirror on the wall. Grandma said it was pretty. Ruby walked over and took it off the wall because she wanted it for herself.
Shirley said: “Ruby, you can’t take that with you. That’s mine.”
Ruby said: “Oh but you have so much stuff.” Then she put it under her arm and we left. Aunt Shirley just stood there.
I looked at Ruby now and I saw all of the things she knew.
She knew how to do all kinds of things no one else knew how to do.
She knew how to render lard and make soap.
She knew how to make biscuits from scratch and slaughter a hog if she had to. And she knew how to do things that are all forgotten now—how to make things that people from Ohio buy because it says "homemade" on the tag. I looked at the quilt she was working on. The quilt wasn’t a fucking symbol of anything. It was something she made to keep her children warm. Remember that. Fuck symbols.
Then she said: “Okay, I think it’s ready.”
We all sat down and started eating the chicken and gravy and I did it like this. I took a giant spoon and started scooping out all kinds of gravy all over my plate and plopped out a spoonful of mashed potatoes. Then I grabbed myself a chicken leg and got to it. I sat and first started eating all the gravy with a spoon. Then I looked out across the table, and there were cucumbers in vinegar, and homemade biscuits, mayonnaise salad, green beans, pickles, fried chicken, chocolate cake, angel food cake, chicken, brown beans, peas in butter, chicken, more biscuits, and gravy, gravy, gravy. Then Grandma started telling us about how my father was born on the kitchen table and how the doctor was drunk.
Ruby told us about how the doctor was really a dentist but would deliver babies. She told us how she gave birth to him on the kitchen table. After he was born he was so pretty and shining and new. She just held him in her arms—the prettiest baby you’ve ever saw, the prettiest baby she had. He was so pretty that the doctor offered to give her twenty dollars for him or trade him for another baby he had out in his truck. But she didn’t trade him. She just held him close to her heart and listened to him whimper. We listened to the story and ate our chicken and gravy. Then I skimmed the bowl and got out a couple more bites and it was all gone.
So after dinner was over I watched Grandma gather up all the dishes and put them in the sink.
Then Grandma said: “Well, Todd, you sure didn’t eat much. You’re just a skinny thing—look sickly.”
But I didn’t say anything about Todd not being my name.
She wouldn’t listen anyway because she was on to something else now.
I started washing the dishes and then she started going on about how I didn’t need to throw away the Styrofoam plates because she could use them again.
I said: “Well you can’t wash Styrofoam plates and use them again. It’s not healthy. You can’t get them clean.”
But Ruby just told me to wash them and said: “Well that’s all right. That’s the reason I got something.”
After dinner I took a nap and I dreamed a dream about the future and in this future I was dreaming a dream about the past. But in my dreams I’m always back at Ruby’s house, and back at Ruby’s table. It’s always Sunday again and we’re all just sitting around the table like we always did. Nathan’s on one side and I’m on the other and my grandma’s on the left. And just like always she’s fixed chicken and gravy and we’re all so hungry and passing the plates—the biscuits, the mayonnaise salad, the cucumbers in vinegar—and I think to myself, even now, that this will be what the final moments of oxygen escaping from my brain will be like. It’ll be like a Sunday so long ago with all of the dead stuffing themselves full of food cooked with lard, and gravy that will once again clog their arteries and kill their hearts. It will be the feast of death and it will taste so delicious.
Then I dreamed that she was gone and yet, even now there’s still something about me that believes I can bring her back from the dead. There’s something in me that wants them to rise from the grave and go back there. There’s something about me that wishes I could see them again.
But wait! There’s still something that makes sense.
There’s still the recipe for chicken and gravy. There may still be something of Ruby inside of it. So here’s the recipe.
1 (3 pound) frying chicken, cut up
2 cups of buttermilk
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 teaspoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Wash chicken and pat dry. In a large bowl, stir together buttermilk, garlic powder, onion powder, flour and butter. Place chicken in buttermilk mixture and refrigerate.
In a large cast iron frying pan, heat oil to 325 degrees F. Drain chicken in a colander to remove excess buttermilk. Place flour and butter in a large paper bag. Add chicken. Close top and gently shake bag to coat chicken with batter mix. Remove chicken and fry, turning pieces over after 3 minutes. Continue to fry, turning until brown on all sides.
And if you’re reading this—you can go into your kitchen and try making it right now. And even if you don’t know how to cook, wherever you are, and far away into the future, maybe you can make this chicken and gravy and we can bring these zombies back to life again.
YOU CAN’T PUT YOUR ARMS AROUND A RECIPE
I had to take Nathan to the bathroom. It had already been a horrible day. That morning, on the way over to the doctor's office, my grandma kept going on about Nathan grabbing the steering wheel and killing us all. I had just got my license and Nathan was sitting in the passenger seat. Ruby was full of anxiety in the back and then she said it again: "Now, Nathan, don't you grab the steering wheel and wreck and make us crash over the mountain and kill us all." Nathan just shook his head like: Fuck. Do you seriously think I'm going to grab the wheel and wreck us? Do you really think that?
Then he circled his finger around and around his head and told her she was crazy.
I said, "He's not psychotic, Grandma. He just needs a wheelchair."
Then we had to wait a couple of hours before the foot doctor could cut Grandma's toenails. Now here we were eating at Captain D's and Nathan had this look on his face. That look meant one thing: He had to go to the bathroom. He had to go to the bathroom BAD.
So I got up from the booth and took hold of his wheelchair when Ruby stopped us. She reached into her giant purse and pulled out his pee bottle inside a plastic bag. Then she handed it to me. I just laughed and said, "Well, Grandma, you don't have to show off the pee bottle to everyone." Nathan just waved his finger and stomped his foot, which meant: I don't even need the pee bottle. I need to go the other thing.
Ruby told us we might need it. You never know. Then I put the pee bottle on Nathan's lap and started pushing his wheelchair to the bathroom when she thought of something else. "Little Nathan, you need these too." Then she pulled out a fresh pair of boxer shorts she kept in her purse. Nathan lowered his head.
I took the pair of boxers and put them in my back pocket. I tried to make a joke about it to make it less uncomfortable. "Shit, Nathan, you're like a superhero. I need to start carrying around my own change of underwear."
Nathan didn't say anything and just held the pee bottle on his lap. We passed the other people, who were sitting in their booths. They looked up from their greasy fish and watched us pass. They were staring at Nathan and his pee bottle. Nathan stared back and held his pee bottle. I tried making another joke: "Hey, Nathan. You ever drink beer out of that pee bottle before? If we get lost on the way back home we can use it as a canteen."
But he didn't laugh.
He needed to go to the bathroom.
So I stopped in front of the men's bathroom and tried to open the door, but it was locked. SHIT. I told Nathan that someone must be inside. Nathan tapped his foot against the ground. He needed to go to the bathroom. I couldn't stop talking. "You know, it probably looks funny, two guys going to the bathroom together. This is the kind of place where two guys going to the bathroom together could get their asses kicked."
Nathan didn't laugh. He tapped his foot and we waited. Then a Captain D's employee said something. So I walked over to her and left Nathan in front of the door. She said, "That bathroom is out of order. You're going to have to use the ladies' room."
I nodded my head and walked back to Nathan who had a new look on his face. It was a look that said: I need to use the bathroom. I need to use the bathroom. I need to use the bathroom.
I told Nathan we were going to have to use the ladies' room. I started to move him towards the bathroom, but then I saw an old woman out of the corner of my eye. "Ma'am," I said, but it was too late. She was already inside.
The door lock popped.
Nathan lowered his head.
SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT.
"It's okay," I said. "Just hold it a little while longer. Just a little while longer."
I bent over and whispered into his ear. "It's going to be even weirder now. Two guys going to the ladies' room together."
I rested my foot against the back of the wheelchair and we waited. "Just a little while longer," I said.
The toilet flushed. The old woman came out.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the old woman said.
I smiled and nodded my head. Then I smelled it. It was too late.
So I kept the door open with my foot and pushed him inside. I took the boxer shorts out of my back pocket and put them on the sink. Then I took off his Velcro tennis shoes and put them in the corner. I took his white tube socks off and put them in his Velcro tennis shoes. I looked at the bathroom wall. It had a box that said: "Sanitary napkin disposal bags."
"Do you have any tampons or maxi pads that you need to throw away?" Nathan still wasn't laughing. He wasn't laughing at anything now.
I took his sweatpants off and looked at them. "It's okay, Nathan. There's nothing on them. We're okay."
Then I folded them and put them on the side of the sink. I took out about thirty paper towels and I put about half of them beneath the faucet and made them wet. Then I turned to Nathan. He was looking away.
I said, "Do you think if I stand you up you can lean against my shoulder?" Nathan moved his hand, which meant yes. I took hold of his arms and picked him up. He leaned against my shoulder. A piece of crap fell out of the leg of his shorts and hit the ground. Nathan groaned. "It's okay," I said. I took one of the wet towels and picked it up and dropped it in the toilet. Then I took his boxer shorts and slid them down.
"Okay, lift your leg," I said. I slipped them off.
I was sweating now.
Then he lifted his other foot and I slipped them off and threw the underwear away.
I felt Nathan getting wobbly, so I stood up.
He grunted ughhh. I threw my arms around him and held him up. He was breathing heavy. I was trying to keep him up, but he went down on his knees and then on his side. "Okay. Okay," I said and tried to help him down. "I know it's hard for you to stand like that."
Ughhh, he grunted and pointed at the paper towels.
"I'm going as fast as I can," I whispered. I took the wet towels and I wiped him. Then I threw them in the trash. Then I took the dry towels and wiped him some more. I picked up his fresh pair of boxer shorts and put them on him. They were all bunched under his hip because of the cold floor. Then I took his sweatpants and socks and shoes and put them on too. I helped him sit back up. Then I turned to lift him. My arms were too tired.
Ughh, Nathan said.
I stood up and tried to catch my breath. "Okay, just give me a second." Then I put my arms underneath his armpits and heaved him up into the wheelchair.
In the end I just stood there and caught my breath. I threw away the rest of the paper towels. I patted Nathan on the back, but his head was bowed.
I twisted his nose like I always did, but he didn't smile.
He took his finger and pointed it to himself and then pointed it to me.
"What did you say?"
So he took his finger again and pointed it at himself and pulled the trigger.
I knew what he was saying.
"You're wanting me to shoot you?" I said.
He nodded his head yes.
He was wanting me to shoot him.
I giggled but then I stopped.
He wasn't joking.
So I pushed him out of the bathroom.
His eyes were saying, You should be staring at me. I'm beautiful.
His eyes were saying, Life is not short. Life is way way way way way way way way way way too long.
I was over at Little Bill's when the phone rang. It was my uncle Stanley. He said they had to rush Nathan to the emergency room.
I borrowed Little Bill's car and I drove all the way back through the dark mountains until I came to the interstate, and then I turned my high beams on and sped towards the hospital, thinking to myself, Please don't let him die yet.
I flipped my high beams off because there was a tractor-trailer passing in the other lane.
He passed, so I flipped them back on again and whispered, "Please don't let him die until I get there."
I wanted to see him die.
He wasn't dead yet. He was on the third floor of Appalachian Regional Hospital and my Uncle Stanley was standing in the corner of his room. So I walked over to his bed and stood beside Stanley. Nathan's eyes were closed. There were tubes coming out of his nose and tubes coming out of his mouth. There was a shit smell in the room because the nurse had just changed his pants from where he shat himself. His breath was heavy. Every time he breathed—huh—it sounded like somebody was knocking the wind out of him—huh—every time he breathed.
It scared me—huh—the way he breathed like that. HUH. So I just stood and listened to Nathan breathe his booming breaths—huh. I thought that everything I thought about death was wrong.
I shook my head and followed Stanley into the waiting room, where we sat and waited for something to happen.
And then we went back and forth, back and forth. At the end of the hallway there was a crazy old woman who didn't even know where she was and she kept shouting, "Louise! Louise!"
The nurse came over and said, "There's no Louise here, honey."
Then the nurse said, "Why don't you help fold these quilts for your babies."
The old woman picked up these hospital towels and started folding them.
The nurse said, "Yeah, you're doing a good job folding these quilts for your babies."
I thought, This world is crazy.
We walked around for another three or four hours going back to Nathan's room every fifteen minutes or so.
And then the last time I went into his room before we left, Aunt Mary was leaning over him crying and telling him, "You just fight, Nathan. You just fight."
I stood at the foot of the bed and told him inside my head, No, Nathan. You go ahead and die.
Nathan just kept breathing his booming breaths: HUH, HUH.
Then Stanley said, "Well, we might as well go." So about 4 o'clock that morning we left the hospital and drove all the way back to Danese.
I drove behind my uncle's truck and saw a dead deer on the side of the road. At the bottom of Sandstone Mountain I saw an old guy walking through the darkness with a backpack. He turned towards me and lowered his thumb and it looked like Nathan, traveling somewhere. I shook my head and drove all the way back home trying to stay awake. When we finally got home we hadn't so much as walked through the door when the phone rang.
My uncle picked it up and said, "He did. Okay. Thank you."
Then he hung up and his voice was all choked up and full of tears. "That was the hospital. He died. I'll have to tell mother."
I went "Oh" and Uncle Stanley walked outside.
So that morning I started planning for Nathan's wake. I asked Ruby what she wanted him buried in. She told me she wanted him buried in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, just like he always wore.
She said, "He never liked those suits and ties—awful things."
So I went over to Wal-Mart and bought him a white sweatshirt and a pair of white sweatpants.
And then I took them up to the cashier, who said, "Did you find everything?" thinking I was just a guy buying a sweatshirt and sweatpants.
She didn't know I was a guy who was shopping for clothes to bury his uncle. That afternoon, when I took the clothes down to Bob Wallace, I said, "I need to get him a t-shirt too so that he won't get cold." The funeral home guy just looked at me.
Then I laughed because he was just a dead body now and it didn't matter if he was cold or not.
So all of the children and all of the grandchildren and all of the great-grandchildren and all of the mothers and all of the uncles' uncles and all of the cousins and all of the cousins' cousins—they all came in and we had a wake. That night we walked into the wake, where the casket was.
And then I walked up to the coffin, too, and looked down at Nathan. I whispered, "What are you now?"
The coffin was so full of stuffed animals that Uncle Stanley said, "Need to tell people to quit putting stuffed animals in there. It's gonna be so full of stuffed animals they're not gonna be able to see the body."
I giggled and looked at Nathan. I looked at his plastic-looking skin, and I looked at his lipstick-red lips, and I looked at his cheeks painted rouge red.
"They've turned you into a cross-dresser, Nathan. They put lipstick on you."
I thought, You're the deadest-looking body I've ever seen.
So everybody passed the body and said goodbye. Ruby balanced herself on her wheelchair and stooped to kiss his face. There were people in the corner sharing recipes and there were people telling jokes. There were people crying in the corner. There were people saying that God has a plan for all of us. I said, "People are meant to have cancer or find out that their child is a serial killer? That's a pretty shitty plan."
People gave me dirty looks.
There was this little girl who was taking violin lessons. She stood up and was going to play us a song.
One of the old women said, "Oh, look at that little girl. She's so cute. And she's gonna play us a pretty little song."
So the little girl took out her bow and her violin and everybody listened as she drew back her bow across the strings: eeek—squeak. Then she brought it back: eeek—squeak. And she was playing the worst sound you've ever heard. It made your stomach hurt, it sounded so bad. It made you want to die.
Then just a few minutes before the wake was supposed to end, Uncle Terry came in. He'd flown in all the way from San Francisco. His wife was pregnant and she was getting ready to have a baby. He was upset because he wanted Nathan to be able to hold his first child. So he came in at the end of the wake holding something in his hands. He walked up to the coffin and put something in Nathan's hand. Then he patted the dead hand and walked away. It was an ultrasound picture of his baby, who wouldn't be born for another four months. But Nathan was holding his baby now. Nathan was buried with a baby in his hands.
The next day at the funeral they put Nathan in the ground. It was cold and rainy and the ambulance brought Ruby out on a stretcher. She was all covered in quilts and her head was wrapped in blankets so she wouldn't get cold. She was back away from the coffin, propped up on the stretcher, and the preacher stood at the grave shouting loud so she could hear. I stood, watching and listening to it all. Before long I wasn't listening to him anymore. I was looking out over the graves and watching my cousin Bonnie walking with her little boy Paul and showing him all the graves. This was his great-grandmother. This was Paul's great-grandfather. This was the one thing we shared with everyone. This was the story of generations and they begat and begat and begat. Death.
And so the preacher prayed and preached and prayed some more. Then after the preaching was done Wallace brought over this white box full of doves and the preacher said, "We'll now release this white dove, which is a symbol of the dearly departed's soul."
The preacher pulled off the top of the box and the white dove shot out and over all of us and then high up into the cold gray sky and then even over the old home place, where it circled twice before flying away.
Then Preacher Steve raised his arms and shouted, "He's flying home to heaven, Ruby! His soul is flying home to heaven!"
Ruby said, "Oh lordie, yes. Little Nathan is flying home to heaven."
Preacher Steve shouted, "Hallelujah, Ruby!"
Ruby raised her arms too and shouted, "Hallelujah!" as the white dove disappeared into the sky.
And then everybody started walking back towards the trucks to go home. I looked in front and saw the little girl from the night before with her evil violin. She was putting her violin beneath her chin and getting ready to play us one of her monster songs. So we rolled our eyes and shrugged our shoulders like, Oh god, not again.
I imagined myself choking the little girl to death, beating her to death with her violin.
Then Stanley bent over and put a five-dollar bill into her case like he was hoping that would stop her. But it didn't. She just took her bow and started moving it across the strings until it squeaked—eeek. And then eeeked squeak. And then squeaked eeek. And we covered our ears. But then she slowly moved the bow once more and suddenly she wasn't the horrible little girl playing her horrible violin, but the greatest musician you've ever heard, playing the most beautiful song in the world.
Then I shut the book and looked at the dark mountains. It wasn't my blood or face or nerves. It was dirt and rocks and the smells of skin. I looked out at the purple mountaintops and laughed because I'd stood on these mountaintops, but then I felt the meanness. I felt myself hating because I had been in the darkness of what was between the mountains. I saw the crazy-ass god of the old-book people who made his story. They made him the way they made him because they lived next to a crazy river. I saw the people of the desert smile because of the Nile. Then I saw these mountains and chunks of mountains smile and I knew one thing.
I felt darkness because I had been deep in the hollers, and I knew glory because I had stood on top of the beautiful mountaintops. More mountaintops, please. More mountaintops.
This is a lie I was told as a child, but it's still true: the New River is one of the only two rivers that flows directly north. The other one is a river called the Nile. Those rivers are inside of me. I have a river inside my heart. You have a river inside your heart. There are diamonds inside of both of us. We are all flowing north.
I understood that Nathan was gone. And I knew that I was in a different time of my life. This was the time when the hero was to go out into the world and encounter the people he would meet along the way. This was the part that would come after the first part. This was the part called . . .