The Way Home by W.A.Smith

by W.A.Smith

Laura was sitting up, looking down at him. The blue sheet was pulled to her waist, her breasts rising with her breath. “Good morning, Sweet.”

He squinted and smiled, reaching up to touch her face, whispering, “Mornin’.”

“Beautiful day for the picnic,” she said. “Saturdays are miraculous.”

“You are,” closing his eyes, rubbing them with his hands. “Jesus, what a dream.”

She turned away and gazed down at the bedspread. “Bad?” she asked.

“No,” he said, sorry he’d mentioned it. “More strange than bad.’ His hand moved under cover along her thigh. “It was mostly a new one,” curving his palm to fit her warm knee. ‘You were there ‘ I think we were in my dad’s old Cadillac.” A powder blue convertible with the top down, riding through the jungle like it was Sunday after church. The sky burning. Something else too.

Her voice grew. “Oh yeah ‘ the Blue Throb. That backseat went on forever as I recall.”

“We did.”

“Did what?”

“Went on forever.”

She slipped down in the bed and put her head on his chest. She began to circle one of his nipples with her finger, slowly at first. He felt her eyelash and her breath, and was equally aware of his own left tit hardening under her expert attention. “There was a baby too,” he whispered. “You were holding it while I drove.”

She looked into his eyes now, reaching to comb back his hair with her fingers.

“I keep thinking about when you got pregnant. I was scared as hell. Wasn’t ready.”

“God, who was ready?” Her hand moved to her stomach. “You’d just been inducted.”

‘Inducted, deducted, fuckted,’ he said, which made her laugh. “I sure’s hell wasn’t much help,” smiling because she was.

“You were fine,” crossing her arms over her belly. “We were awful young, Danny.”

He glanced at the window. A finger of white light found the slender opening between the drapes. He watched it cut across the bed.
Laura lifted her foot from beneath the sheet and moved it into the stripe of sunlight. “You were always there, stronger than you think.” She raised her head to look at him. “Now we are ready. We’ll keep trying,’ lowering to a whisper. ‘Just needs time.”

“Been trying.”

“Four months is nothing. And the practice has been nice. A little patience,” slipping her hand between his legs. “That was you back in sixty-eight, I’m sure of it.”

“Sixty-eight.”

She leaned over to whisper again, dark nipple skating up his arm. “We were at the quarry the first time we made love.”

‘No kiddin’. I remember.’ He pulled her closer to him. “Speakin’ of scared.”

. . .

He dipped the razor in the bathroom sink, rinsed it off, heard her in the kitchen fixing breakfast. She was humming an unidentifiable selection, sounded slightly deranged: inspired yet way off-key. The scent of bacon made its way to him.

He leaned into the mirror to shave and for the hundredth time imagined holding his child ‘ him or her, didn’t matter ‘ tossing the kid into the air, as his father had done: losing each other for that piece of a second, the child’s eyes filling with familiar fear, pure, delighted ‘ a scream of joy, arms reaching back for him.

Boy or girl, he’d tell every bit of it. No secrets about when you get older. He nicked the edge of his jaw, blood instantly eddying in the lather. “Damn,” niggling at the cut with his finger, the red stream pinking the foam. He stared at himself in the steamed mirror, getting the vague cold burn again in his groin, the odd pressure, a shadow between his legs. He pressed a piece of toilet paper against the cut. He had written to Laura that he was lucky, praying for his fortune to hold. Sanchez and Monroe crouching side by side, one looking left, the other right ‘ he didn’t remember an explosion. They disappeared. Flesh and bone: everything can be separated.

His brown eyes blinked and looked back at him. He lifted the soaked tissue from his neck. You look fine, boy, clean as a whistle…but you’re wreckage like the rest of them. Jason Brown finding out his right arm was gone: Hell, I can still dance. Then last year he held a pistol in his left hand and made his last decision: a small perfect bullet-shaped hole, clear through.

Nothing perfect happened over there.

Most people probably thought Jason had done it because one of his sleeves was empty. Laura called, “Danny boy, soup’s on!” He heard her put two plates on the kitchen table, splashing some water on his face. “In a second,” he said, watching his lips move in the mirror.

. . .

He drove. They were quiet, watching the asphalt surface give way to the hard, dry clay of Eagle Creek. The same sweetgum and maple had always lined this road. He’d passed them when he was ten, coming to swim at the quarry for the first time. The town houses seemed proud of their recent paint. Soon the screened porches and sharp lawns fell behind and the familiar shacks and roadside dives sprung up along the highway clear to Highland County. Some of these places had been here forever. He was moved by the bending trees and the run-down buildings. It was right that these things did not change.

He glanced at Laura. She had rolled the window down partway, her hair dancing as she kept a lookout for the unmarked turn-off that led to the quarry. Somehow she had grown older without aging: her oval green eyes were larger, held more; her skin was the same smooth, except just there at the edges of her eyes. Her hands were small and perfect. Some-thing jagged ‘ some kind of sorrow ‘ turned in his chest, rolled and grabbed. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

Jason said he’d take point, he wanted to get there ahead of everybody and see if he could meet any single women. He always offered an absurd justification for his courage. The village appeared to be abandoned ‘ you could just hear the automatic weapons to the north, crackling like an old radio in another room. Then the baby crying, a piercing wail, a line without arc or pause: the line they were walking. Jason said, Jesus, the kid has lungs.

He blinked and focused on the road ahead. “Turnoff should be up on the right pretty soon,” he said.

“We’re almost there,” she said, her hand on his shoulder, moving along the back of his neck. The fingers of a blind girl memorizing boundaries. “Danny, Lord ‘ these muscles are hard as rocks.”

He forced some light into his voice. “You know how many times I’ve missed this turn-off?” reaching for his sunglasses on the dashboard. “You’d be tight too, pal.”

He felt her studying his profile. Then she looked out at the road. She left her hand on his shoulder, coaxing the tight cords of muscle with deep strokes.

. . .

They unpacked the car and carried everything to their favorite spot near the western rim, where the sun would come down. From there they could easily get to the water. Everything looked the same to him. The intermittent breeze carried pine.

They set up the small tables, Laura spread out the tablecloths. She left the salad and fried chicken in the covered baskets and paired up the plastic forks and knives in a row on one table. He got them each a beer from the cooler and watched her arranging things. She’d rather do it herself, a certain way.

When she was through they took a walk, now and then looking back at the grassy place where everybody would park. They held hands. The sun was pale and relentless, he felt the beads of perspiration growing. He took off his shirt and cinched the sleeves around his waist.

His first day at the quarry, not long after the county had filled the old pit with water, everybody had come. He heard kids churning the water, uncomplicated howling in the air, flashing hands lifting and fanning the blue beads of water above their heads, a momentary splash, the younger voices high-up above him, Roy and Bill goading from a rock ledge: “Come on, dive in! You’re a dork if you don’t!”

The children in country rarely spoke. The ones he saw never cried. Their eyes were frozen old in their faces, finished with sight. Not like any kids he knew. He tracked the rim of the quarry. How could you possibly be a father?

She squeezed his hand. “What do you think?”

“What?” pulling back to find her face. “Oh, it’s something.”

She stopped walking and turned to face him. “You haven’t heard a word. I knew something was wrong ‘ I knew it.”

He looked back at the picnic baskets.

“Tell me right now, Danny. Please don’t leave me here by myself.”

“Sit down a minute,” he said.

“I feel like it used to be. You already left.”

“I’m right here,” he said. He sat and crossed his legs in front of him.

Laura looked down at him, lowered herself beside him, watching his eyes.

He coughed to fill his throat. “I’m sterile,” he told her. His voice was frail as ash. “They’re all dead.”

“God,” taking his hand. “Did the V.A. call?”

He took his hand back and folded his arms. His head drooped until his chin touched his chest, but he lifted it quickly and found the opposite wall of the quarry. “I can tell,” he said. “I know.”

“This is just a feeling, you mean?’ She squinted at him. ‘Today’s a good day for a little tragedy, is that what you’re saying?”

He took her hand. “When you got pregnant you knew right away. You didn’t need anyone to tell you.” He looked down at their hands in his lap. “It’s Agent Orange or it’s something else. What I did to stay alive over there didn’t work.”

She followed his eyes to their hands. “Where did all this come from all of a sudden?” Her voice was stretched thin, as if she were falling from a high ledge, leaving parts behind. She looked up at him. “We’ve been okay, everything’s all right.” Then she said, “It was the dream. Listen, I have no idea if what you’re saying is right, but even if it is, there’re still other things we can do.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I know. That’s right.”

Each in turn looked over at the place where the picnic was going to be.

He scanned the perimeter of the quarry, following fifteen or twenty yards behind Jason, walking toward the sound of the crying baby, holding their rifles in both hands, watching the trees; others in the patrol were coming into the village, appearing at the edge of the jungle. Boys with green faces. The baby was nearby but invisible. Jason spotted an old coat near the corner of a hut, started toward it, faster, calling over his shoulder, “Couldn’t be more than a few months old,” switching his rifle to his left hand, bending over to uncover the baby. “Hi there, Sweetheart.” The crying stopped when he touched it, the booby trap exploded as the tiny body left the ground: Jason was lifted and pitched against the hut: his right arm, his weapon and the child vanished. Blue smoke drifted from the burning sleeve.

He turned to look at Laura, wanted to say something. What was it?

The second time, the cry sounded exactly the same. It was more surely a baby this time than before. He stops in his tracks, drops to one knee, lifts the solution to his shoulder, aims.

Even if you can have a child, he thought, what the hell difference would the truth make? He whispered, “I’m full of ghosts. What should have happened to me, has. I’d forgotten. The years slipped by, we have a home, friends’ ”

“The years haven’t slipped by,” she broke in. “We’ve worked our way through every single one. There used to be nightmares any time you closed your eyes, remember?” She took her hand away. “You haven’t forgotten anything. What’s happened has happened to me too, Danny. This is our life.”

He lifted his eyes. He was tired, not sleepy. White clouds scudded through the murky blue. “We painted the extra room,” he said.

A quick, sharp horn made them jump, their heads turned together.

“Roy and Barbara,” she said.

“We’ll talk about fishing and money and the heat,’ he said.

‘And children,’ she said.

Another car pulled in behind the first, and another, all of them for a moment as promising as the clouds.

He used one of the shirt sleeves dangling from his waist to dry the sweat from his face.

“Will you come with me?” she asked him.

“I’ll be right there.”

She touched his cheek and stood up. He watched her walk away toward the tables. Her hair was almost to her waist. Beyond her, in the distinct distance, the corners of the tablecloths lifted and shivered like flags awakened by an affectionate breeze.

He walked to the edge of the quarry and looked down at the dark water, trying to remember how deep it was in the middle. He’d known as a boy, but now it was new territory.

He heard a car door close ‘ Roy’s quick, solid laughter reminded him of Mike Lazarus. What age would Lazarus’ daughter be now? Does she ask about her father? What are her questions?

The water below him was smooth. Nothing moving. Cast-off bits of light lay still against the surface like markings on a homemade map.

“I remember,” he said. “I remember everything.”

He stared for a moment longer, searching the fiery shapes below him for movement. Then he turned to follow the invisible line back to the voices.

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