I was raised to believe good men stand and fight when the wolves come to their door; that any adversity can be overcome by family, friends and faith. That makes this the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write.
I’m sitting in a sweat box little motel somewhere off I-20. Putting time and road between here and home’s helped clear my head some-taken the edge of the rawness of it all.
Now all that’s left is this gap, this hole where you’re meant to be. I keep reaching over to the other side of the bed, thinking you’re there. My little shadow. All I grab is air, air, and pain. So I roll back over, curl up, and watch the flies climb the walls; I watch their spindly legs, their fat bodies, their improbable wings. I watch them putter and jump and fuck and feed and puke and I envy them. I find myself jealous of what they have. No conscience, no consequence.
Then I realize that I’m grasping for an excuse, a way to live with what I did, and I look away. I pull myself out of my little fantasy and focus on the stains on the carpet. The blood and sweat and cum of transient scum. I meditate on that until those images are burnt into my retinas. I can still see them when I close my eyes, then I dream of them.
In my dream I flow like piss from the bed and mingle on the floor with my new family. I say hello to new motes of DNA, wave to the ketchup, smell the damp. It’s more than I deserve.
And there I go again. Wallowing in self-pity, letting myself get lost in the grief I brought on myself. I’m sorry. That’s not what this is about. If I’m honest, I don’t know why I’m writing all this down. I guess I just want you to understand what’s in my head. Why I had to leave, in my own words. The truth. I owe you that much.
I’m feeling better after a night of sleep. More level. Less emotional. Ready to pull my jacket on and get moving again. It’s all I can do. More time, more distance, maybe it gets easier. Less painful. Maybe then I can stop dancing around and say what I need to say. Maybe I’ll never get there.
I kick the bike into life, pull on my leathers and check my map. I know where I’m going better than I know my own face in the mirror but it’s become like a ritual, a comfort. There’s a big red X a thousand miles ahead, and I’m thinking if I can just make it there this’ll all start to make sense, for all of us. So I strap my helmet on, pull down the visor and take off, hitting the interstate with malicious intent. Nothing to stop me now. Nothing but more road and more time, more motels, more flies, more stains, and more regret.
It’s three before I decide I’ve had enough and need to get out of the midday sun. Louisiana in August is a quagmire, an airborne swamp, sliding down your throat and behind your eyes until all you feel is sweat and you swear you’re drowning.
It’s a little gas station and diner, quaint, quiet, southern as all hell. I strip off my ride suit and wring it out, caking my hands in salt water and highway grime. I clock the attendant and tell him to fill up the Harley then head inside. I slump into a booth and wave off the waitress. I can’t stomach anything. I haven’t eaten since I left, how long ago now? Days? Weeks? It all blends into one.
You have to believe me when I say this — what happened, I didn’t see it coming. I’m not gonna try to convince you I’m some sort of boy scout. I’m not. I’ve made mistakes — I’m making mistakes. I’ve told lies: to you, to your mom, to myself. I tried to convince myself that I’d put the past behind me. I served my time, paid my dues. I moved on, left everything behind, started a new life. I’m sorry. This isn’t my first rodeo. I thought I’d been careful enough, smart enough. I thought we were safe. I thought…
The waitress comes back, sets a glass of sweet tea and a burger down next to me. I’m so dazed I jump near out of my skin.
‘You look like you need this.’
She smiles at me, small and subtle, knowing. I look from her, to the meal and back again. She’s young. Too young, honestly. Redhead. Slim. I swear this is true: she was wearing a gingham dress and a little apron that ties around the waist. A real slice of American history in the heart of the Bayou-a ruby in the mud.
‘What’s your name?’
She points to her nametag. ‘Ruby.’
Of course she’s fucking called Ruby. Everything’s bleeding into one now. I can’t trust my own thoughts. Even my brain wants out. Thankfully, for now, my body’s still on board. My mask doesn’t slip. I snap out it and give her a winning smile. ‘Well, Ruby. Thank you.’
She smiles back, broader now. ‘Welcome.’ I watch her leave, hips swaying, heels on point, and I picture our lives together. I imagine our wedding, our kids, our house, growing old together, rocking chairs on porches, doctors’ appointments, how much it hurts me when she dies before me and I’m left alone again. I look back at the plate. There’s a phone number scrawled in girlish hand on a napkin that says Gregory’s — Finest Fritters This Side of the Mississippi. I ball it up and toss it into the empty seat opposite me and demolish the food.
Before I know it I’m cruising through Georgia and I’m ashamed to say I feel good. Ruby’s three days dead and our life’s faded from memory. Louisiana’s given way to a clean to an Alabama highway I ditched the helmet. It felt dishonest. I hit 100 and the wind rushes through my hair and blocks out all the noise in my head. I can’t even hear the engine, I just feel the throb throb throb of it stroking away somewhere below me as I take bend after bend, the tarmac melting away until I’m flying, righteous as angels, at one with everything.
When he showed up I was terrified. I knew nothing good could come of it. We barely knew each other back in the day as it was, but I knew him by reputation. I knew he wasn’t a man to be fucked with. I knew it meant he was out of options. I couldn’t have been easy to find. I tried to reason with him, to persuade him, convince him I was a changed man, that I left all that behind when I killed my old life. He saw through that. He knew as well as I do that a change of scenery isn’t the same as a change of heart. When I refused the Wolf I knew there’d be blood. I just expected it to be mine.
I cross the border into South Carolina and the nostalgia hits me like nausea, a yawning pit in the bottom of my stomach. The fear and disgust are still there but muted now, replaced with trepidation at what’s to come. I pat my saddlebag and feel the weight there, both comforted and repelled by it. I know what needs to be done. I know this place, this port I used to call home is the place to do it. Doesn’t mean I relish the prospect. So I focus on what’s in front of me. I bear down on the bike and grind the tires into the gravel, hoping the grip will help me get to the end of the road, the end of all of this faster.
When I was a kid, my dad used to take me hunting. He wasn’t much of a marksman, truth be told he could barely hit the broadside of a barn with a fully loaded assault rifle, but he loved the thrill of it. We’d stalk the deer for hours, waiting for the perfect moment, only to blow it every single goddamned time. Eventually I got sick of it and just came out with it.
‘Old man, why do you bother with this bullshit?’
‘Language.’ He rubbed the stubble on his chin, straightened his little deerstalker hat and pointed through the trees. ‘Look.’
I rolled my cynical teenage eyes and looked. Through the trees I could just about make out a little clearing about 50 yards ahead, shaded, hidden from view. I squinted, trying to make out what the crazy old bastard saw in the half-light, then I saw it. A doe and two fawns, dozing peacefully, batting away the occasional pest with an idle ear, the picture of peace and tranquillity.
I raised my gun. My dad shook his head and pulled the barrel down. ‘Who are we to muscle in on that, boy? To break up that happy family? Over the years we’ve watched that little group grow. We’ve seen suitors come and go, children come and go…what right do we have to mess with what they’ve built?’
He lit a cigarette, and sat down, back against a great redwood, twisting his mouth at me. ‘I see the anger in you, son. I’ve tried, in my way, to help you…give you some sort of outlet for it. That’s why we come here. I thought you saw what I saw. We could’ve blown these things to hell and back a thousand times, but we didn’t. I thought you knew. I thought I knew you.’ He stubbed out his cigarette, stood and started to walk away from me. ‘I guess I was wrong.’
I could tell you I left because staying would only make things more painful for you and your mother, but it’d be lip service. More lies. More bullshit heaped on top of the pile I’ve already left steaming behind me. I left because every time I looked at you, it reminded me how badly I failed you. That’s not on you. That’s all mine to hold. I want to be as clear as I can be without fucking things up even more: I left because I’m weak. I’m weaker than anyone around us realizes. I lost my faith.
I compromised my family. I couldn’t fight. No, that’s a lie too. I could have. I was scared to. Scared of what it meant to open that old scar, to admit to myself I’m not the man I made myself out to be. But now you know. No more secrets, no more lies. I’m a fabrication, a lie. But the lie’s dead now. I’m just sorry it took this for me to come clean to you.
Florence. End of the road. I poured her ashes out at the national cemetery where they buried the only man who ever gave a damn about me. The only man that ever tried to save me. I couldn’t save your sister. The Wolf needed to feed, to fill the hole my betrayal left. But maybe, just maybe, by letting you go I can stop the Coyote and the Bear from taking what’s left of what I love.
I love you, son. More than you’ll ever know. More than I can ever say. I’m sorry I won’t be there to watch you take your first steps, your first day at school, your first crush, my grandkids…but at the same time, I’m happy. I know you’ll be fine. And you should know I will be, too. Enough time and enough road cures even the deepest wounds.