He recognized the majestic figure of an elk grazing next to the road, shrouded in a veil of mist, and he slowed in case it foolishly decided to leap in front of the truck. The elk kept munching and didn't bother to look up. The man could smell its damp hide as he drove by, along with the grassy tang of fresh urine. Further down the road he went past ghostly workmen replacing a damaged electrical line, and the bent figure of a boy fishing from a bridge. Seeing the boy reminded him of his son, and he felt a heavy cloud drift in and weigh over his heart. He pushed the truck over the speed limit, and took the curves too roughly, until the road straightened out and dipped towards the yellow wash of town.
The medications were making him feel tired again, and he fought off the urge to turn off and sleep. He bought a cup of coffee to go and parked outside the post office. The hot liquid felt good traveling down inside and he felt his skin flush comfortably. People drove up next to mail-drop boxes and fed them envelopes. A woman in a car with a dog riding beside her waved at him before pulling away. He waved back but didn't recognize who she was. Maybe she'd only done it to disarm him of his vacant stare.
Loneliness was edging in, like the strains of distant music. The man missed his wife's company. She understood him, knew how he needed his solitude in order to recover. Going to his father's house had been her idea, and so was bringing the ginger cat for company. Being closer to nature would open him up again so the old wounds could heal back properly. It had worked the last time. He'd spent a month living with his father, helped re-shingle the roof and took breaks to hike up in the woods to fish.
Brief sorties across his dark inner landscape would sometimes cause him to withdraw for days, but overall he'd managed a happy family life. This changed when his son was sent to Iraq, and the anxiety simply ate away at him. He'd been plagued by nightmares of roadside bombs in which he found himself staggering along a smoldering dirt road, frantically retrieving body parts. The nightmares soon bled into his waking life. Instead of being there for his son, he'd become paralyzed by fear and shame.
For three months now he'd been receiving disability benefits and seeing a country therapist every other week. His wife had visited him twice. The phone in his father's house had not been reconnected for over a decade, and he couldn't imagine owning a cell phone. If there was an emergency, his wife would call the Gordon's across the street. He frequently poured his soul into his letters to her. He found that writing was more rewarding than talking, at least for now. With writing he could excavate freely, down past the roots of things. He'd even written to his son. It had been the most difficult thing he'd ever done in his life.
Several letters ago, his wife had written that their son was coming home soon. He hated to see her pinning her hopes on something they couldn't control. They'd had their hopes ruined before, and when his son's tour was lengthened again without warning, it finally broke him.
He remembered the week after he returned from his own war. It was in the summer of '72, and he was sprawled out near the roaring Pacific, brutally sunburned from head to toe. He'd finished drinking the biggest jug of red wine he could buy. When he realized he wasn't going to pass out, but was still too drunk to walk back to the store to buy another, he'd sat up and began digging a hole to bury the empty one in. Rage spiced his breath, and he could smell it trapped inside the bottle before he screwed back the lid. Some children gathered at a safe distance to watch him dig. They'd asked him if he had family and he lied and told them they were all dead. To this day he thinks about what has become of the jug, whether it has been thoroughly crushed and ground down to fine green sand, carried away in the guts of migratory seabirds and shit around the world.
He headed back home with two letters lying next to him. One was from his wife; the other was the letter he'd mailed to his son, with Return to Sender stamped across the envelope in cold red letters. He wondered what it meant: had his son been reassigned to another post, or did this mean he was on his way home? It seemed like it could be a bad omen. Fear of something worse kept him from opening his wife's letter before he got home.
The cat's food dish was empty, but the cat wasn't around. The fog had lifted, and a hot sky was busy with crows. He called out to the cat, left the door propped open while he changed clothes. When he finished, he went out to the backyard to see if he could find her. The last place he checked was under the shed. He'd recalled a spot she'd recently discovered. He got down on his side in the high wet grass and pushed his arm through a spider-web-scarved hole at the bottom. Feeling around with finger tips, his knuckles grazed something warm, and when he turned his hand, teeth snatched his forefinger and gnawed tenderly. Her belly was full. As he stroked the cat's back, he could hear her purr rise out from under the shed.
The lake was under patrol by dragonflies. Wasps claimed the muddy shore while frenetic clouds of gnats drifted with the wind. Flowering honeysuckle climbed up in the far reaches of pine. His wife's letter still remained folded in his shirt pocket. He couldn't open it. Not yet.
With eyes closed, he pushed his back into a sun-warmed rock, asking it for wisdom and steadfastness. Gradually, he lost the man next to the rock and found himself everywhere. When he opened his eyes he stared into the sea-green lake. There were mirror images of tall firs and the trail that cut dark switch-backs into the steep bank. On the tree-hidden portions of trail, there were shadows moving and sudden flickers of color. He raised his eyes from the lake and saw, emerging from a dense stand of fir, the figures of his wife and son making the journey down.
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