Ch 1

Having posted the opening of WE ARE AN OLD TOWN in different drafts and different forms, below is the first chapter as of Oct. 8, 2011:

When Uncle Bob said, “you’re not going to understand this at first,” took a long drag from his cigarette, looked into the dark, to where he’d blow his smoke, and said, “but your great-grandad killed some men,” it wasn’t hard for Saul not to believe.

Uncle Bob was a bullshitter. As a kid, after each of Bob’s stories, Saul’s mother would sit Saul down and try to sift the Bob from the truth.

He was thrown out of school, but never stabbed. Was in a car wreck and a coma, but has never been farther than Ohio. He had been married but she’s not in jail. Yes, he stole that car.

Saul just shook his head and didn’t argue. They’d bury Bob’s dad tomorrow, he told himself.

“See, now you don’t believe me,” Bob said.

They were standing in a hollow, between Saul’s house and a knee-high drift, out of the wind and snow that had made it. Bob upended his beer into his mouth, tossed the can against the house, and fished another from his flannel coat.

“Had a drunk uncle,” Bob said. “Guess this is tradition – tell me he did it with his hands. Bare hands,” and held his out. He turned them palm-up, then made them fists. “Said he beat in the skulls of some 30-odd goddamn men like his hands were hammers.” Saul looked down to his own palms and fingers, the cigarette between. Used to be cooler, he thought, that Uncle Bob snuck him smokes. “I remember telling your dad about it as little shit birds. Used to dream up stories. One of us would play Grampa and chase the other through the woods.”

“What’s that mean?” Saul asked. Because it always started like this, bullshitted stories, smiles and jokes. But eventually the beer would pull Bob’s brows down, push his voice down into his throat, and Bob would begin to talk like Saul’s soft hands wouldn’t give off Kelley fingerprints. As if Saul’s distance from pickup trucks and chainsaws, deer rifles and motor oil had given him a different scent. Like a wolf pup pushed away.

“Don’t wanna say ya owe him nothing,” Bob said. “But your dad wouldn’t mind knowing what had really occurred. Just afraid this story went with your grandad.”

“Sounds like you know it,” Saul said.

Bob laughed like he was clearing his throat, then said, “You’re going to school to write, right? Wanna work for a big newspaper, write another ‘War and Peace.’ Tell me a story better than this, Saul. Tell me one that will mean more to you.” But, because it was the direction he knew Bob’s questions would go, Saul heard, Where were you when we cut winter wood? When we shingled my house? Why don’t you, just one goddamn time, do something to help your own family?

“What do you want me to do Bob? Want me to start making calls?” he asked. “Ask them, hey, has you or anyone you know ever been murdered by my great-grandad? My uncle’s trying to figure things out.”

And Bob leaned forward, his hand out and chopping air, and he said, “Hey man, you ain’t got to do nothing. You ain’t got to do a goddamn thing. But you’re even further than me away from figuring things out. And I’m sorry, but I thought maybe this could help you. But think about this. You don’t think this is in you? What my grampa did. You don’t think it was in Dad and your dad and got passed down to you? You got killer in your blood and you think it ain’t got nothing to do with you. You don’t know, Saul. And maybe you don’t have any goddamn idea who the fuck you are.”

Saul turned then, went to the side door, the glass on it etched in ice, and opened it.

“You’re full of shit, Bob,” Saul said without turning. Bob yelled, “Little prick,” but the door had already slammed shut and his words only muffled through it.

Saul walked in the kitchen, past a dozen dishes of pasta and casserole and meat condolences offered by the church, friends, and family, that now covered the counters because they had already filled the fridge. He walked in past his mother, asleep on the couch, tired out from it. And upstairs to his room, but not to sleep.

He would get into bed, but it was 9 o’clock then and like the 18 other years of his life, he would only lie with his eyes closed and turn in the dark until 9:30, when his father would open the front door, drop the bank bag from the shop to the tile there. And it would boom, big as thunder, up the ducts to Saul, to rattle the registers and fill his room.

He wouldn’t sleep for another hour after at least, until after the song played in reverse, the scuffing of the front door in its frame, the electric strain of the garage door, off into the night to the second job.

He learned to not even try to sleep before it. Instead, in those hours between, he started writing the story. The story about a boy who played second base so good his father didn’t have to work. Not ever again. Not during Little League games or even Pinewood Derbies.

And he turned it in for class, because he didn’t know what else to do with it. And Mrs. Black, invited his mother in to talk. The three of them. Pulled it out of her desk, like it was something she’d been holding onto and handed it to his mother. Mrs. Black sat patiently, hands near her mouth as his mother read, and looked to her when she’d finished. And they looked to each other with a dampness of their eyes that he read to say, that no other boy could have chosen these words, no other boy could have put them in this order, like they understood what he meant and could only answer in saline.

It seemed like a magic he’d gotten over them and he wanted to reproduce it. Because he could feel it too, an excitement and a warmth in him. And so he would write for little girls with curly hair who could only respond by blushing and running away; and wrote about knives and guttings, that made his friends hold their stomachs, say, “ew,” and keep reading.

The story Mrs. Black had saved wasn’t very good, he understood now, but it was why he went to college, to write. And when he halfway fixed it up for class, made it about a boy who failed out and started stealing to pay his father back, for all he’d given him and he hadn’t earned, the kids in class told him it was good enough for the big contest at the college. The big, annual cash prize. They thought he could win.

Because that summer before he left, Drunk Uncle Bob said he’d save a spot for him at his press at the mill; because they were brothers and it was his money, he knew at least part of his dad thought the same, some Carhart conscience he never expressed; because of it, when they told him about the contest and he realized what it could do, Saul just let the rest go. Gamble that first semester, he thought, and fix the story.

Because he could give them the story and they could read every word, but neither Uncle Bob, not even his dad, would understand. Not like his mom, not like Mrs. Black. Like they were men with only one eye and he had written it in three dimensions, and he didn’t blame them. But the contest was big enough and winning was big enough that they’d have to understand. That this was what he was supposed to do. That this was, the way he could write, as practical as pushing metal or changing oil. Big enough Uncle Bob would pat his back and call him Stephen King.

And Dad, quiet as always, would just smile.

But as he lay in bed, he could hear them, from just that night before, read the names again: “Michael Davis’ ‘The Warm Dead,’ for the Walters’ Award for short fiction”; “Elizabeth Fry’s ‘Hearts of August’ for the Kenison award for romance.” And they walked to the podium in their suit coats and jeans, boxy glasses to show they’re creative – they didn’t look like anyone he had ever read – and as they began to run out of awards, his friends leaned in and said, “Yours is the big one. They’re saving the big one for you.”

And they read the name for the big one and it wasn’t his.

With his eyes still closed then, he was in front of Uncle Bob again. Uncle Bob said, “Don’t wanna say you owe him nothing.” Louder but he didn’t have to move his mouth. His teeth were stained and notched and set as he spoke.

Saul pushed his hands deep into his coat pockets and they grew to hammers. And when they did, he pulled them out and moved them toward the slouched drunk. He brought them down, alternated them like pistons, his bare hands like hammers, and they tore him like flesh was like paper. Bob unraveled and everything inside of him that had been wrapped up fell to a pile, heavy enough to boom.

Boom.

When he opened his eyes, it was still rattling in the registers. He could feel it in his chest, around his heart.

He held his breath just as he did when it was 9:30 when he was 6 and 10 and 5 months ago and listened to the whoosh of the sink, his father splashing water to his face, the click of the can’s cap and the hiss of deodorant.

One more shift before they’d bury his father, Saul thought.

So much work. Forty years worth pressed into 20. And Saul couldn’t keep up with a semester.

How much did he have left? he wondered. What had he left aside? It was the end of the term but, maybe just a test or two, one at noon Monday, for sure.

But he worked through the whole catalog, the fiction classes he liked and the calculus he didn’t, and remembered soon the independent study. The one he’d meant to forget. A profile, a biography, one hundred pages of truth about someone.

A hundred pages and he had none. Not even an interview.

He held his breath and heard only his heart.

He couldn’t do it. It felt like lifting a train. A hundred pages of writing and all the interviews before. It felt like running a hundred miles.

It was due Monday and he tried to remember now how he’d let it slide this long. He ran the plan through his mind and remembered now. He hadn’t planned on Grandpa dying. Maybe he should have.

The professor had said Wednesday, Christmas Eve, that’s the drop dead date. Nothing after.

Four days, a hundred pages.

He shook his head and tried to inhale. His chest was already full.

He was too tired. Or too depressed.

Then he heard the rattle of the front door, the garage door strain, and said to himself, over the last 20 years, weren’t you tired? Just once? Weren’t you depressed?

x x x

Saul would look in on his grandfather, his face smoother than life. Just above his eyes, especially, where it’d never been. His brows not pulled together. To add figures or disagree. No dirt or grease.

He would lean in. Wanting to say something. Probably, “I’ll miss you, Grampa,” because he would. But he would linger. He would whisper, “Is it in you?” and not know why. He wouldn’t know if he meant the story or violence of his great-grandfather.

Then Saul would shake the rough hands of the oldest codgers from the mill, Grampa’s only living brother, and the worn out waitress who served him coffee every morning since Grandma died; he would lay his head on the padded shoulder of his father’s only suit coat and not open his eyes till his father moved; and would open them only to see Bob slip in. Bob in black button-down and black jeans, faded both the same in the corners of stress. Picking his teeth and nodding to Saul.

He would wipe the back of his hand across his eyes and bring it back wet. He would turn to his mother, then back to his father, and remind them of all the work he had and leave before the cemetery, before the burial, before Bob could say a thing.

x x x

But as he drove, he thought about the work. All the work. And wished the drive to the city was another hour. Another day. To keep him from it.

If you were a writing a major you had to do it. Freshman or sophomore year. They called it Writing Lives. They said, pick someone you don’t know. Maybe someone who’s had it hard. That’ll give it arch.

One hundred pages. A semester long.

Saul had picked a subject, but that’s it. A black man with hair like a leaning plateau who shook a cup full of change outside the sandwich shop where he worked.

“Gotta pay,” the man said. “Ain’t gonna talk to Jimi’s cousin for free.”

Saul thought he was perfect. Not because he was related to Hendrix, and not that Saul believed he was. Saul didn’t care about that.

But because he wasn’t a farmer and he wasn’t a mill hunkie. They didn’t write about those things here. Or anywhere. They didn’t write about anything from where Saul was from.

That’s why.

He made the man a sandwich and gave it to him when he locked up for the night.

The man put it under his arm. He shook his head, said, “nah, man. Not what I’m talking about,” and walked off.

Saul went to the ATM that night, took everything it’d give him, wasn’t much, and the next day before work, went to find him. But he wasn’t where he’d been, and he wasn’t in the circles Saul made around the shop.

And if he made it back to the city, that’s what he’d have to do. Circles and circles around Pittsburgh.

Was he ready to ask the other homeless? he asked himself. Walk up to the man in the sombrero, the man with the boombox, and ask, where’d Jimi’s Cousin go?

Would he check the shelters? Check under the 100 bridges?

Probably not, he admitted, and shook his head.

But, less than an hour from the city, that’s what he had to decide.

So he started mapping out the route he’d have to take, concentric circles out from the sandwich shop. And only got a block out, no further than he’d gone before, his nails deep into the wheel. And he was staring up the road, across the northbound lane, frozen white and bleached by salt, to the outlet mall that perched there, a huge, porcelain centipede stretched out parallel and almost up against the road.

And the car turned itself toward the exit, like one side of a magnet inside him pushing him away from Pittsburgh and the other pulling him toward the ramp, because he had been there before. His mother had taken him when it first opened. So far from home. But he remembered it. Not the mall. But further. And before.

First time he was old enough to hold a gun. Overgrown gamelands his dad called the Kelley homestead.

Where Grandpa was born before he died, and where Great-grandpa would have done whatever Bob said he did.

x x x

It was all woods until he got to the top of the hill, where the road dropped off in a sharp slope into town, like it was meant to go somewhere else but couldn’t manage. Where the trees stopped and a little town began, the déjà vu was strong.

And it only grew as he coasted down to the stop sign at the bottom and onto Main Street proper.

Just a little bit of traffic. Mostly at central intersections. And a couple pedestrians. Chain gas stations at opposite ends and in between a handful of empty storefronts, dark inside with dusty windows, alternating with ones full and painted bright, making up for the others. No different than where he’d grown up.

He gawked around and in between, to the the gaping abscesses where the steel plants and tube plants and other mills were, from where they were pulled, and drove out the other end. Because he hadn’t come for that.

He crossed a little bridge where the Mahoning was skinniest and just hoped the magnet in his head would draw him to where he needed to be.

He took a side road, found a pull-off for the gamelands and parked there; followed a path knocked down by hunters, through a band of trees between the road and a field of brush, dry branches bending against his jacket and slapping against his arms. There was a cover of snow on everything that made a crust on the brush and on the trees, patchy from where sections fell off, but what hung on, hung on like it had grown there.

He walked into the clear strip, wide enough for a tractor, between the strip of woods and the field of red grass – red like hair’s red – poking through the snow. And stopped at the edge, scanned the brush, hoping to remember this place, and stared into a skinny deer path in the brush, because he remembered the gray of a rabbit coat slashing through. It was running lateral toward the other edge, parallel to the woods. He shouldered his gun and shot before it disappeared.

And they ran to it, he and his father, and found it laying on its side, looking up at them. He had winged it, half the beebees bouncing before its haunches and the others digging in. It tried to, with its front feet, move, but its strength was getting thin.

He didn’t know what to do, just looked from the crippled animal to his father and back and forth.

Shooting it again, that close, would be brutal. But only watching half its body squirm, he could feel the bile climb his throat.

His father scooped it in one hand, and cradling its chest and facing it away from him, with the other, chopped at the back of its neck.

Thwack. Its ribs still flexing. Thwack. Like a bone heart.

And there was no other noise. Thwack. No wind or traffic. Thwack. Just a sound like punching furniture. And, because he hadn’t exhaled. Thwack. In between, Saul was sure he could still hear it breathe.

His father was pale, save for the ball of red in his cheeks, bleeding toward his eyes and throat.

Was that it? Saul thought. Was that Great-grampa?

He just shook his head.

His dad had never said, but Saul knew. He just wanted to break its neck so its life could get out. Compassion is something awkward to talk about.

They took plastic bread bags; his dad showed him how to pull off the skin and slice it so the guts dropped out, before dropping it into one. He told Saul to turn around and slid the bag into a big pocket in the back of his game vest.

They walked with their guns into the woods, father before son, and the warmth of it soaked through, into his back. A sickly heat. Like flu in the back of his throat.

The mouth of the bag hung out of the pocket and Saul pretended to itch his side. He caught the lip of it between his fingers. Then slid it out, just inches at a time from the weight, coughed and let it fall.

He couldn’t imagine eating it. Not raw or even cooked and hidden in some pie. Not after the low thumps of his father’s hands into the the bones of its neck. The wet peeling of its skin.

He walked the same way now, the path made by and following the river. The sun to his back and walking further away from where he was supposed to be: From the city and his school, even his home and family.

The grass was thick and dead. He pushed his foot through where it had knotted over itself, hoping to kick out the bones of the rabbit’s head, the plastic bag skin, some artifact of him being there.

He turned and walked backwards, looking into the field. He understood that’s why he was here. The Kelley homestead was there, his father told him, the only proof now the mound of earth that ramped up to where the barn would have been and a hand-pump well, swallowed up now by the overgrown fencerow.

Not even a forgotten shutter. No family photos in spider-webbed frames or journals of sorrow or regret. No leftover scraps of its lumber, no blood trail, not his great-grandfather’s grave.

He walked until the sky was pink in the mesh of limbs above him, that magnet pushing and repelling him again, away from the car, and was finally where the creek had cut into a hill and left a wall before dropping off, interrupted as a waterfall.

It had frozen to knuckles where it began to fall and his eyes traced it till it disappeared into the dark of the woods.

Has to feed into the Mahoning, he thought. His side was impassable, but the other was a soft slope past the falls. Probably pulls into the Ohio. And if he walked in it, against its current, he could walk right into the city.

He thought he could jump. Backed up and ran at it. Pulled his feet under himself. Was in the air long enough to look down. How white and smooth it had frozen. He knew he wasn’t going to make it.

If I lay down in it, he thought, it’d just take me to where I need to go.

He stomped down through. The ice collapsed around his leg, and the cold, heavy water splashed up around the rest of him.

The water was nearly to his knee. He held his left foot above and out of the creek and teetered on the right, on the bed beneath. He flailed and lunged and leaned and got the other to the other side. He hopped and fell and rolled in the hard mud to his back, breathed deeply there, his chest lifting to where it felt like hinging. He rolled to his side to free his shoe, from the soft earth it had found, then back onto his back. He felt like he’d been running all day. He was cold and the water was soaking in. The sky was purple and his pants were freezing to his leg.

He ran.

x x x

And when he started the car, the clock on the dash said it was almost 8.

“How the fuck did that happen?” he yelled. It was well dark.

He turned the heat to high but it only blew cold.

He flexed his jaw to keep his mouth from chattering and his teeth made the sound of rocks scraping together.

He knew he wouldn’t be warm until the engine was. He drove.

It’d be after 9 before he got into the city; 9:30 to his apartment; 10 o’clock before he got the mud off him, the cold out of him. A final in 14 hours and a hundred pages due in 96 more.

He banged the dash.

“So fucking stupid,” he yelled. “If you wanted to do this, ask around town. What good’s fucking around in the woods going to do?”

He hammered the wheel with his fist. He felt colder.

He pushed the accelerator. Against the floor. And that’s when the road curved against the creek. It was too dark and he couldn’t tell until all he could do was stomp on the brake.

The back end slid out. It felt like falling. In a dream. Then the aluminum-can crunch of the ditch.

He yanked it into reverse, but the tires just spun. He threw it into drive. The car lurched for a moment and then the tires would only spin. He tried to rock it. Yank the wheel. Yell and curse but only blew a patch of fog on the glass.

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