Lee drove down the gravel road. Corps of Engineers woods on the left. Houses now and then on the right: an abandoned shack; a battered rancher with a deer fence around its garden patch; a bungalow with an American flag made of seashells on the roof; a riding school called Saddles, three horses in its pasture. At last a green sign with white lettering: Roadside Cleanup Supported by the Carrow Family.
“They’ve practically hidden it down here,” he said.
“What’s it matter, Dad?” Ward asked.
“The idea is people see it.”
“I’m glad they won’t.”
They walked along picking up plastic bottles, beer cans, scraps of paper and cardboard. Ward wanted to throw a toilet seat lid deeper into the Corps’ woods.
“Absolutely not,” Lee said. “Give it to me.”
“When’s next time?”
“Let’s say a month. There’s almost no traffic here to litter things up.”
“Just don’t pay for more signs where there is traffic.”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Dad, no one talks about him anymore.”
“This isn’t for him. This is for us.”
Lee went to the county building to pay for two more signs, one placed in proximity to Nettles Regional, where he taught history and civics, the other placed within a few blocks of his home on Taylor Avenue.
The clerk said, “Sorry, but it’s one to a resident.”
“There’s an ordinance saying that?”
“No, sir, just how we do it. I take it you’re related to—”
Lee cut him off. “Yes, he’s my older brother.”
“Did he end up marrying the woman?”
“How about we stay focused on these signs?”
That night he said to his wife, Emmy. “I should teach a class about this.”
“Please, your signs are enough. Think of Al’s poor girls.”
Al moved across the state line to the Virginia coal and opioid country. He bought a farm with a neglected red brick manor house on a hill and forty acres of overgrown fields. The locals called the farm “No Shortcut,” referring to the sign he posted to keep hunters from crossing his property to the game lands on the other side. Not everyone disliked him. Some tradesmen made good money working on the house. But when a painter played his boom box too loud after being warned, Al canned him. He also fired a wallpaper hanger for minuscule wrinkles and a mason quit because he didn’t like Al looking over his shoulder all the time. During the first winter, he lived in the kitchen in the heat of a gas oven, its door left open. Once he had his coffee, the high point of the day was over. Drinking too much bourbon didn’t bring it back. Migrating geese visited his weedy fire pond in November and again in March. No one else stopped by.
One afternoon he saw a young woman walking along the road with an infant in a pouch on her chest and a pack on her back. He offered her a ride. She said no thanks.
“Hey, it’s three miles to town, if that’s where you’re going.”
“That is where I’m going.”
“Well, come on in, make it easier on yourself.”
Her name was Martha. The baby’s name was Mikey. The father had disappeared. She lived with her parents and couldn’t bear the way her mother looked at her or her father’s complaints about his dumb daughter.
“He’s right, I’m dumb, but I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving.”
Mikey cried as they spoke, but she was so eager to talk with someone she wouldn’t let him get in the way. Al parked by the World War I cannon across from the hardware store.
“When are you leaving?”
“We’re out of here after I take him to the nurse to look at his bottom—it’s a wreck.”
“Where are you going?”
“Bristol’s a long way. You were hardly moving when I stopped for you.”
“I don’t have any energy.”
“You’ll need lots of energy to take care of him out on the road.”
“I’ve thought of that, believe me, Mr…?”
“Carrow. Call me Al.”
“You own No Shortcut?”
“Well, having a kid is no short cut either. Do you have any?”
“Two girls with their mother in North Carolina.”
“It’s in process.”
“While they were still babies or were you there?”
“I was there.”
“Don’t you miss them?”
“All the time. If anyone’s dumb, it’s me.”
He was still parked by the cannon when she left the clinic. She slept most of the first day at his house. She could sleep even while Mikey nursed.
After school Ward walked along the streets his family was pledged to keep litter free. His cousin Polly, same age, same middle school, joined him.
“I should be doing this by myself. He’s my father,” she said.
“Have you heard from him?”
“I asked if I could visit, and he said his house was a mess. I’m supposed to wait.”
“Does he talk to Aunt Maggie?”
“Through the lawyer.”
“What does Ellie think?”
“Who knows what a three-year-old thinks? My mother says she was a mistake.”
“I hope Ellie never hears her say that.”
“She said she meant her mistake not leaving my father long ago. Probably before me, too, I guess. I said I’d run away and take Ellie with me if it would make her feel better.”
They didn’t find much trash after they left the school zone with its empty juice boxes, foil packs, candy wrappers, and condoms. Polly gestured toward the football field.
“Do you think they fuck under the bleachers?”
“They probably fuck in the car somewhere else and throw these things out the window to mess with the school.”
They sheltered under the glass roof of a bus stop watching the rain. Silent or talking, they were comfortable with each other. They would take turns eating the same sandwich. They used to shower together naked on beach vacations and still would if they all went to the beach anymore.
“What else does Aunt Maggie say?”
“She says I have to watch out because we’re thirteen now and you’re old enough to interfere.”
“She really said interfere?”
“‘He’s never tried to interfere with you, has he?’”
When they stopped laughing, Ward said. “My dad wants me to be perfect at school and sports, but he doesn’t want me to turn out like Uncle Al.”
“Oversexed, vain, and self-centered, my mother says.”
“He’s not that bad.”
“I miss him.”
“I do, too.”
Al tried to explain himself to Martha when she woke up. He said he had been a defense attorney, and then he became district attorney as a step into politics and was caught up in rumors about having an affair with a woman who alleged her husband tried to burn down their house as revenge. There was no proof the husband was the arsonist, only her allegation, but the story was too exciting for Nettles, North Carolina, to let go. Al decided he had to resign, accept his own divorce, stop practicing law for a while, maybe permanently, and move away. Martha had a hard time making sense of him. He had a liquor-burned face, graying black hair that needed cutting, and a slight paunch. He wore the same blue jeans and work shirt every day, or else he had a lot of blue jeans and work shirts. Something about him felt naked, though, or maybe just raw.
“Were the rumors true?”
“Why’d you do that?
“She was fascinating.”
“It wasn’t just sex?”
“I didn’t need to become involved with her for sex. There were others.”
“Women you were dealing with as district attorney?”
“No, when I was a defense attorney.”
“That’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. You’re not the only one dumb around here.”
She felt a reciprocal urge to confess some of her worse mistakes, but he already knew she had no father for her kid and no money. What else mattered? Her fat belly and splotchy face?
She removed Mikey to display her breast. “Nursing him so much keeps him quiet, but look, my nipple is in worse shape than his bottom was. I’m treating myself with the same ointment I used on him, but he’s sucking it right off.”
“I’ve been wondering if you should take care of him at home.”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“Sure, they do. The guys you’ve got working here talk, believe me, and I’ll bet your whole life is on the internet. I’d like to look at that myself.”
“It’s a fallacious idea that you can get an entire life on the internet.”
She smiled at his use of an impressive word. “Maybe a whole life isn’t all it takes to bring you down. A little bit of gossip goes a long way.”
He had placed her in the bedroom with the best afternoon sun. It slanted between them. She was in the shadow and so was he.
“Great, and I came here to cut myself off from everyone.”
“That’s what your sign says, but meanwhile you’re killing yourself. You know you drink too much?”
“Then slow down.”
“Slow down yourself.”
“How could I go any slower? All I do is lay around and want to die.”
Emmy tried to make Lee let it go. She asked who remembered the district attorney before Al. “No one, that’s who. People forget. Now that you’ve put up your signs, your point is made. Not all the Carrows are in the gutter.”
“He was never ever in the gutter until this.”
“No, you put him on a pedestal, and it hurts when your hero lets you down.”
“He had money, those girls, that house, his life was a dream.”
“He got everything good he ever wanted his entire life, so he became interested in getting something bad.”
“I wonder if people think the same of me.”
“What people think is that picking up litter is exactly who you are. You pick up litter in the school hallways, you pick up litter on the playground, why wouldn’t you be cleaning up the rest of the world in your spare time?”
“I actually enjoy walking on that stupid gravel road.”
“It’s too bad Ward doesn’t enjoy his route as much.”
“It’s good for him. He’ll be a Carrow a lot longer than I will.”
“If you want to put it that way.”
“But sometimes I feel so bad for Al I want to cry. What has he done to himself?”
“Stop worrying about Al and go to sleep.”
During spring break Ward and Polly decided they would take a bus to Bristol and call from there, not beforehand. If they called beforehand, he’d stop them, but if they already were in Bristol, he’d have to come get them.
The first bus took them to Roanoke, the next one to Bristol. It was nine at night when they arrived. Al told Polly he wouldn’t come get them.
“But, Daddy, why not?”
“Because we’re tearing the place apart. I told you that. Catch the next bus home.”
Ward got on the phone. “Don’t blame Polly, Uncle Al. It was my idea, not hers.”
“What did your father say about it?”
“I didn’t tell him.”
“Why not? Because he wouldn’t let you?”
“He’d be right then.”
Polly got on the phone again. “Who is this ‘we’ who is tearing the place apart?”
“Me and the guys working for me. Look, it’s sixty miles to Bristol and all back roads. Get a hotel and go home tomorrow if there aren’t any buses tonight.”
“Have you been drinking? Is that why you won’t get us?”
“Never mind what I’ve been doing.”
“Isn’t there anyone one else there who could drive?”
“Just get a hotel.”
“We’re minors. They wouldn’t give us a room. You’ve got to come get us.”
Martha reached for the phone. Al pulled it away. She persisted.
“Hi, I’m Martha. You’re right, he’s had too much to drink to come get you, but I can.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Al said, grabbing at the phone again.
“It isn’t,” Martha said, holding onto the phone. “I’ve been driving since I was fourteen.”
Polly and Ward listened to them arguing. They heard again about the house being a wreck, the bad roads, and then talk about a baby.
“But they’re there and she’s your daughter,” Martha said.
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
“So, stop pushing her away. I’ve had enough of that.” Martha redirected herself to the phone. “Stay put as best you can. I’ll be there very early in the morning to get you with or without him.”
The night was like being locked in a vault. They walked outside the bus terminal and the vault came, too. They found an all-night diner and the booth became the vault. It seemed as if the night would never end, and the vault would never open. Who was Martha? What baby? Whose baby?
Polly went straight to the kitchen to warm cinnamon buns she had bought in a vending machine at the bus station, six big ones individually wrapped. Al listened as she told him about Ellie.
“Everything is let’s pretend. You can’t talk to her like she’s herself anymore. She’s always someone else.”
“She’s a witch a lot. She can make things disappear with her magic wand.”
“Meaning me who disappeared?”
“She never says that. If she could, she’d bring you back. Why don’t you come back?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a year. When are you going to know?”
“I don’t know that, either. What do you think of the house?”
“It’s like you’re planning to never come back.”
“He’s making it really nice,” Martha said.
“I guess I should say I’m glad,” Polly said. “The one thing I really hate is calling it No Shortcut. What kind of name is that?”
“It’s not a name. It’s an advisory—don’t cut through to go hunting,” Al said.
“But still, it is what people call it,” Martha said.
They took the cinnamon buns and coffee to the sunny front room directly under Martha’s bedroom and sat on the floor. Ward told about the litter signs. “My brother,” Al muttered. Martha changed the subject and talked about her predicament. She said the father was gone before the birth. So, Mikey wasn’t her brother, Polly told herself, but the way Martha looked at Al said maybe they were more than housemates, maybe they were lovers, maybe Al would be taking care of Mikey instead of Ellie.
Al felt Polly’s anger. He asked if he could take a moment to try to explain himself, not defend, explain. “Before I went to law school, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer, but I went ahead with it. That was my first big mistake. To be a lawyer, a defense lawyer, you have to pump yourself up, and it becomes something like a condition. You’re on adrenalin most of the time. You have to be.”
“But you were good at it,” Polly said.
“Maybe I was, but after a point, I stopped being so good. I wasn’t being thorough, I started winging it, and I knew I had to get out before I began embarrassing myself. That’s why I ran for district attorney, but we know what that led to. Everyone got hurt, not just me.”
“Okay, but can’t we let that go?” Ward asked.
“Has your father let it go?”
“No, but what does holding onto it get him?”
“Maybe you’re all just scared things if things go bad, they could get worse” Martha said. “I know I am.”
“So am I,” Polly said.
Lee would be arriving soon to drive Ward and Polly back to Nettles. Polly suggested they all walk down to the gate and remove the sign before he got there and made fun of it.
“Even if it’s true?” Al joked. “No Shortcuts has a ring to it.”
“I just don’t want it to be true,” Polly said. “I want all this to be over.”
“So do I,” Martha said.
“You do?” Al asked.
“Mikey and I can’t hole up here forever. If we can find a shortcut out, we’re taking it.”
Al was sad to hear Martha say that. Polly saw it in his expression, the slack in his eyelids, the loose lifeless creases around his mouth.
The driveway was lined with dry yellow grasses. It bent sharply around a huge oak tree. Then the descent was steep and rutted. Martha carried Mikey. Ward and Polly walked side-by-side as if they had come all this way to be together, not to see Al. Al trailed them. When they reached the gate, he gestured for Polly to pull off the sign.
“Since you’re the one who objects to it the most.”
Polly pried off the white board with its unfriendly black lettering and put it under her arm.
“Now what do we do? Stand here and wait for my dad?” Ward asked.
“You go back up,” Al said. “I’ll wave him in.”
“Daddy,” Polly said.
“Go on. It’s too cold for you out here.”
They resettled in the sunny front room and finished the cinnamon buns. Martha showed Polly her sore nipple before she began nursing Mikey. Ward tried not to look but did. The sound of tires slowing to a stop on the gravel in front of the house drew them to the window. Al and Lee sat in the car. Didn’t get out.
“What are they talking about?” Polly said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Martha said.
Ward and Polly glanced at her at the same time.
“Why not?” Ward asked
“Just doesn’t,” Martha said. “Whatever it is, it’s what they’ve got to say.”
They sat down. Dust motes floated in the sunlight . The house creaked and ticked now and then. The baby drifted into sleep. When Ward started to get up and look out the window again, Polly tugged at his wrist to hold him back.