The popular view of Appalachia is a land where every man is willing, at the drop of a proverbial overall strap, to shoot, fight, or fuck anything on hind legs. We’re men who buy half-pints of boot-legged liquor and throw the lids away in order to finish the whiskey in one laughing, brawling night, not caring where we wake or how far from home. Men alleged to eat spiders off the floor to display our strength, a downright ornery bunch.
The dirt truth is a hair different.
Chris Offutt, The Same River Twice
In the wrinkled, hardwood-draped hills of southern Kentucky, a few miles from the Cumberland River’s lazy meander into Tennessee, my wife and I turned off Highway 90 onto a dead-end road. It was mid-September 2010, the tail end of a drought-weary summer and more than three decades since my last visit. I was 41, Paula 45, and we’d recently moved to Wisconsin from out West, after she’d begun a new job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Driving down to Kentucky was part of rooting ourselves—a week to explore the center of the country, where I grew up, and to hike in a few parks such as Mammoth Cave. We’d also wanted to visit my father’s grave, located back up the highway about a half-hour. Here, along this dead-end road, was his birthplace.
I eased our Subaru up the shallow valley, lowered my window, leaned out to listen. Crows cawed in the windless treetops. A blue jay chattered nearby. A sun-bleached barn sat in an empty field where tobacco plants once grew over my head, their huge green leaves crowding a fender-rattling gravel lane. But now the road was paved and silent, leaving only a memory to fill my ears: Dad’s ‘73 Chevy Impala rolling over pebbles and potholes.
We continued driving with our windows down, the air smelling of dust and goldenrod and seed-heavy grasses leaning into the road. Hickories and oaks lined the low-slung ridges. The sky glowed with a cloudless haze.
“Is that it?” Paula asked, looking to our left. A thin yellow pool inched by.
“Yes,” I said, “I think so,” imagining my soaked jeans as a kid. And I imagined the little waterway in early summer, flowing fast and full over pink shale stones. Now, however, it hardly looked like a stream, more like a drainage ditch than a habitat. It was the dry season, I knew, but I was still disappointed. I had hoped to walk through its riffles.
We moved on a half-mile upstream, pausing beside a small, dilapidated, cream-colored house sitting close to the road in a yard overgrown with waist-high saplings and weedy grass. The porch brimmed with old tools and assorted plastic bottles, a navy blue recliner, a cabinet with a sink. The windows were cloudy, the curtains drawn. The place looked abandoned long ago.
“Aunt Ruby lived here,” I said, snapping a digital photo. “She was always sitting on that porch.”
Parking for a minute, I described my great aunt, her salt-and-pepper hair, thick calves, and rough hands, the way she sat on a couch on that drooping front porch, waving a fan to cool herself. Her hugs smelled like bacon, and she called me names like “punkin,” her twangy accent both frightening and fascinating. Back then I had no idea how old she was, and I still couldn’t remember her last name. All I knew was she was Dad’s favorite aunt—a mirror image of his father’s round face. “She’s kin,” Dad would say, “good people,” phrases I’d rarely hear up north.
The creek trickled behind the house through sycamores and cottonwoods, where a concrete culvert looked peculiar in the streambed. “That’s where I’d walk down to the water,” I nodded, “but it was a only tractor path, a few stones to hop across.” I recounted memories of a tall, red-and-white barn and smoke seeping through its walls and pooling in the air, how a farmer stoked small fires on the barn’s dirt floor to dry out the long leaves hanging from the rafters. “Makes it taste good,” Dad would say, a cigarette in his mouth—a Winston, his favorite brand.
The image lingered with me as Paula and I drove on to a fork in the pavement with two green street signs. One route crossed the stream and stopped in a leafy hollow, a distance of 200 or 300 yards. But straight ahead along the creek we could continue up the valley on a lane marked with my family name. “MUSE RD,” the sign read in white capital letters, and I felt pride, curiosity, regret. I felt emotions a man feels, I suppose.
Pitman Creek, Muse Road, my long-dead father—all of them flowed through me in that moment. We’d driven hundreds of miles south after looking at satellite photos, scrolling closer on my computer’s screen, pointing. “Dad was born here,” I’d told Paula as we surveyed the Google map from our home along the Mississippi in Wisconsin. Tracing the topography with my finger, I’d read aloud the place names, Kentucky like a hazy dream, yet vivid. “This was the wildest place I knew as a boy—thunderstorms, hidden caves, steamy woods. I hunted crawdads in this stream, pulling up flat rocks, then catching them in a coffee can pierced with nail holes.”
Now, some 30 years later, I was staring at that road sign with my name on it. The Muses were my kin and this was my father’s birthplace, but, really, what had lured us this far south? I let off the brake and began meandering upstream. It didn’t look like a wilderness, nor had Dad been much of a parent. All I knew was I needed to return. I needed to retrace my path and share it with Paula. And to be honest, I was looking for more than my father. That afternoon, alongside the creek, I sought something else.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” says Joan Didion, whose essays explore the elusive nature of truth telling. What actually happened, she might ask, and what’s interpretation? Is recollection just a remake of the past?
My mother says I’ve told stories all my life, mixing what really occurred with what I made up. These days I’m unsure of the stories I tell myself, especially when my father is the main character. I may be casting him in the role of a rural hero, though, growing up, I viewed him as the town fool. Where did the embarrassment I used to feel go? Did my change of heart come when he died at 54, or sooner when I’d walked a few steps in his shoes? Or am I recreating him—remaking him—as I write this, turning the father I had into the one I long wanted?
The thing is, if you had asked me to describe my father in my late teens, I likely would’ve muttered the bare minimum: he lives in Indianapolis, works at Chrysler, divorced my mother when I was eight. But inside my head I would’ve ranted with sarcasm.
Dad’s always been a drinker, I would’ve stewed. He likes to hang out at the Honky Tonk Tavern on Brookside Avenue. He wears a headband and cutoff jeans and flip-flop sandals, saying “look at them ‘maters” in his little garden. He owns a duplex with his chain-smoking mom next door. He keeps Papa Shaw’s Chevy pickup in his back-alley garage. He’s got two rototillers, three lawnmowers, who knows what else out there; he’s always buying tools, making deals, paying cash. And he likes to tell dirty jokes to his union buddies, guys like Big Bob and a stroke-impaired hard drinker named Shooter. They met years ago at the Chrysler plant on Indy’s east side, though since it closed Dad commutes to the transmission factory in Kokomo.
Now he stays weeknights in a trailer up there. A second girlfriend, more buddies, more drinking.
“If you’re going to spend time with him,” my brother Alan once warned me, “better drive your own car. That way you’re not trapped.” Sure enough, stopping by Dad’s house was like playing Russian roulette: you never knew how uncomfortable the situation would get. Crass humor, foul language, a fog of cigarette smoke. Friends who wandered in and dozed off. Everyone liked to hang out with our dad, it seemed. Having his sons around did nothing to slow the party.
Even worse were the times when Dad was alone, when our conversation turned toward his regrets. “Your mom is an amazing lady,” he’d say several times, jangling the ice cubes in a glass of rum and coke. “You better treat her with the respect she deserves. I blew it, that’s for sure. I fucking blew it.”
After Paula and I parked along the road about two miles up the valley, I walked up to an older man hammering on a rusty plow beside a mobile home. He wore a silver wristwatch and a ball cap with a corporate logo. Sweat circled the armpits of the t-shirt tucked into his jeans. His name was James Whitlow, he said, and I recognized him when a smile came over his round face. We’d met at Dad’s funeral in 1998, though I’d forgotten his name since our handshake that day.
“Ruby was my mother,” he explained. “I’m your cousin. I’ve lived here all my life.” As I shook his hand again, I motioned for Paula to join us, then we all settled into a picnic table under a shade tree.
James had recently helped his longtime employer, Dana Corporation, relocate its auto parts factory from Glasgow, Kentucky, to central Mexico. He mentioned how Dad’s brother—Uncle Stanley—had also worked there many years, “until cancer took him from us a while back.” James talked candidly about his troubles as if we’d always known him, saying he got laid off but learned a little Spanish during the process. “I spent a couple months down there training Mexicans to take my job. They were so thankful and kind, so happy for the work, it made it easier.”
James said he stayed in a Marriott in a city of three million people, visited Acapulco, and met policemen fighting drug cartels. Paula followed his colorful tale with rapt interest, having visited Mexico several times to attend language schools. I paid attention the best that I could, but my mind raced with questions, with remorse: How had I not remembered that James lived along Pitman Creek, or that Whitlow was Aunt Ruby’s married name? And why hadn’t I gone to Uncle Stanley’s funeral? Where was I living at the time? Was I getting along with Dad? The questions, I knew, weren’t the kind to share aloud. Instead I focused on my cousin’s stories. I focused on his smile.
As I listened to James begin talking about my father, how they were born only six years apart, I was mesmerized by his vowel-heavy accent and the way his words fell together so melodically. “If you want to” came out “yunt-to” as he suggested where to look around. “Up there” was “up ‘ere” when he pointed to a hillside. And the word “holler” I remembered hearing as a boy: a wooded valley as narrow as cupped hands.
“Keith and I use to go squirrel hunting when he’d come down on the weekends,” James said. “He’d drive up with a trunk full of beer, grinning from ear to ear.” Paula and I laughed at his animation while telling the story, his hands mimicking a pull-tab, then tossing it aside.
Don’t get me wrong—James Whitlow is a smart man. He travels, knows business, follows the news. When I introduced him to Paula, he was charming and attentive, and I admired his politeness, his yes-sirs and no-ma’ams. Yet I was spellbound by his features and mannerisms, the way his speech unearthed another era. I could hear the curl of Dad’s tongue in his voice, and I found myself loosening my own. “I’m taking my wife for a little stroll down memory lane,” I said, “trying to relive my childhood a long, long time ago.” James nodded with pleasure, as did his own wife, Dora, who had joined us from inside the mobile home.
Paula looked enthralled as we all spoke affectionately, as if she were finally seeing my father in person. Like her, I felt a surprising sensation. It swelled, tingled, leaked out.
“Not much has changed here,” I said, looking down. I could feel my face blushing, my eyes watering, then blurring.
“The road’s paved,” James said, thumbing over his shoulder. “And they’re logging on the hill over yonder.”
But nobody grew tobacco anymore, he said. Mostly cows now, a few horses behind barbed wire fences. Still, people hunted upstream—the state forest land I’d seen on our map.
As we grew more comfortable with each other, James spoke in a serious tone. “You know, Jeff, I always looked up to your father.” Dora rocked in her seat, nodding in agreement. “But even when he was young, he was quite a drinker, Keith was. When he was 12 or 13, he had to have his stomach pumped. A bunch of older boys just left him on the front porch.”
I thought of my early road trips with Dad in the Impala, how he drank from a can or a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. In my mind’s eye, I could see it wedged between his legs. I could hear the bag crinkle as he tilted it toward his mouth.
“Keith had a heart of gold,” Dora said emphatically, trying to change the subject by speaking kindly of my father. “He had a way of checking on everybody, asking if they needed any help.” She trailed on, mentioning names I didn’t know.
I said he’d done the same for his friends back in Indianapolis, including a quiet man who’d moved in with him a year or two before his death. I thought of Dad’s house when I visited as a teenager—the cigarette smoke, the raspy voices, the dirty jokes.
“You’re right,” I said. “He was a good man.” And I missed him, sitting at that picnic table. We all did.
It’s difficult to sort out these feelings I have for my father, the way cigarette smoke or someone’s beer-soured breath can conjure him in my mind, in my heart, in unpredictably complicated ways. On one hand, such moments lead to nostalgia, but on the other, a reluctant longing, and melancholy, and confusion. I’ll remember the times he leaned over to kiss me goodbye, his black mustache scraping my forehead like gentle needles, a fleshy shadow that lingered in the long minutes after he was gone, after he had crossed the door’s threshold and driven away. Or I’ll remember years later when I was becoming a man myself, much bigger and taller than him, when he was sitting in his own living room or on his front porch in Indianapolis, drinking from that sweaty glass of rum and coke, its bottom dripping onto a glass end table flecked with ashes and tree pollen and the dust of city streets, and again I’d feel his mustache against my skin—grayer now, softer, but still prickly, still leaving a mark that lingered as I drove away.
Before I departed, though, as I passed through his front gate, I’d hear him whistle and call out, “Hey, boy! Don’t let your meat loaf!” Or some such nonsense. Even Dad’s goodbyes could be a kind of joke—funny, light-hearted, but always crass, and troubling in a way I couldn’t figure out. As I said, it’s complicated. It’s confusing.
Or am I merely imagining all of this, not only what happened but how it made me feel, how it still makes me feel as a grown man, a decade shy of Dad’s age when he died? Truth is, I was often embarrassed by my father, particularly during my teenage years and especially by his unusual name: he was born Wendell Muse in Dubre, Kentucky, a hillbilly haven in the sticks. Thank God, I thought, everyone called him by his middle name, Keith; Wendell was for hicks or hayseeds, or, as Dad liked to call himself, a redneck. Then again, anything I called him sounded like disappointment, if not anger or gut-gnawing dread. I hated holidays, the drunk phone calls, his excuses for being late. That is, if he showed up at all. I first felt it after the divorce in early 1978, when I would see that can or bottle between his legs on our drives to Dairy Queen. An hour or two every couple of weeks—that was our relationship. That and a few road trips to Kentucky.
Yet how could a child ever come to know his father, sharing the occasional Brazier burger and butterscotch malt? The scrape of Dad’s mustache was surely real, but all the rest? It’s a jumble. It’s elusive, like him.
Perhaps these memories are all that’s left when a son wants to forgive, or needs to, but even forgiveness has its own kind of compromise—a remaking of the people involved. Maybe Didion is right: I’m telling myself this story in order to live. To live with myself, I guess, and with Dad.
By my late twenties, though, not long before he died, my feelings for him had started changing for the better, for reasons that only now make any sense. A glimmer of forgiveness may have crept into my heart, or I simply stopped expecting anything from him. Peer pressure was a thing of the past; I’d told myself I didn’t care what anyone thought. And by then I had my own track record as a man, having moved away after college and come home browbeaten by setbacks. I’d experienced dead-end seasonal jobs and busted relationships. I’d made little money and had school loans hanging over my head. On both coasts I’d struggled to hang onto happiness, watching women walk away exhausted by my restlessness, my spirit.
Maybe Muse men are all alike, I began to think. Bound to struggle, fail, disappoint.
Of course, I didn’t drink back then—and rarely do now. I fear what alcohol does inside my veins. But is Dad’s drinking what troubles me, or something else? Is forgiveness the wrong word, the wrong intention? Instead, I think, I want to understand him. I want to know my father better and perhaps myself. Maybe that’s what lured Paula and me from Wisconsin, lured us down the Mississippi, east to Kentucky. My father was born along Pitman Creek. Was I?
Cumberland County in southern Kentucky is poor. Poor, rugged, and isolated. With a population of 6,856 people in 2010, about half the number of its 1940s heyday, more than a quarter of its residents live below the U.S. poverty line, the adults earning less than $12,000 per year. The biggest town in the county is Burkesville (pop. 1,521), established on the Cumberland River in 1846. It was a critical port during the bloodiest years of the Civil War, when soldiers fought along its banks wearing blue or gray.
To reach the community of Dubre, my father’s birthplace along Pitman Creek, you have to travel 10 miles up Marrowbone Creek, heading northwest from Burkesville. Along the way you’ll see slabs of iron-rich sedimentary rock, the ancient seabed that gives Kentucky its layer-cake character. My great-grandfather, Bedford Muse, may have taken this route in the early 1900s, when he cleared a patch of floodplain to farm tobacco. Bedford and Cenia, his wife, went on to have nine children, including Victor, my dad’s father, born in 1920. When “Vic” married Hazel Shaw, who would eventually become my grandmother, they moved into a shack about a quarter-mile downstream. That’s where my father was born in early June 1943, among many cousins with surnames from the British Isles.
Dad once showed me the house in the mid-1970s, though by then only skittering mice and snakes lived inside. The floor was littered with soiled clothes, rusted cans, faded newsprint, and a hornet’s nest loomed above the front porch. I asked him which of the two bedrooms might’ve been his. “All the kids slept on the same mattress,” he said. Even now I can’t help but wonder if Dad was pulling my leg. He was always teasing me, teasing everybody if he could.
Hazel would bear a girl and two more boys along Pitman Creek, though Welby, the son right after Dad, lived only one day. In time Vic took his family north to find work in Indianapolis, where Uncle Davey was born 15 years after my father. If my math is correct, they left the valley in 1957, after Dad had completed the eighth grade in Burkesville—the extent of his schooling, he once told me, after I’d asked him to help pay for my college tuition. Dad said he’d worked in a battery factory instead of going to high school, chased pretty girls like my mom, and drank beer with his buddies. Store-bought alcohol had been scarce back in southern Kentucky; Cumberland was, and still is, a dry county. But thanks to moonshine, my father liked to say, he learned how to hold his liquor, to handle “the hard stuff” as well as Pabst and Budweiser. Driving up Muse Road, I didn’t expect to hear a similar tale. I didn’t expect to meet James Whitlow, let alone share stories.
Sitting at my cousin’s picnic table, I described my recollections of Pitman Creek, how Dad and I would visit Aunt Ruby and then head upstream. Along the way he’d point at a shack half-hidden in summertime weeds, telling me he was born there during World War II. About that time he’d whistle at a man working in the yard of a nearby mobile home, then park the car, laugh, light a cigarette. From what I recall, I didn’t stick around for their conversation, instead hurrying across the lane to investigate the stream. But standing in the water, I could still hear my father’s voice. More cars pulled up. Men whistled. Men laughed.
I asked James if he remembered anything like this during one of our visits, if Dad and I had stopped by his place or somewhere nearby. “Well, sure,” he said matter-of-factly. “You always did, you know that. I watched you play in that creek right there, catching crawdads. Many times.”
I nodded in silence as my nose started tingling again, the memories like high water, like a flood. I imagined my soggy jeans, the dripping coffee can, the cool air, the way I’d tiptoed through the stream, searching for prey. I remembered how crayfish had darted backwards, leaving contrails of smoky dust, how the stones had felt on my fingertips—thin and smooth. Steady now, I’d told myself. Lift slowly, slowly. Lower the can. Watch out for those claws.
I saw Paula’s eyes tearing up as she watched mine do the same; she knew I’d spent two decades working on rivers. But until talking to my cousin, I hadn’t figured it out. I hadn’t realized how my career had started. How I started.
After college I’d been a camp counselor on Indiana’s Flat Rock River, and in New York I’d taught two seasons aboard a Hudson sailboat. I’d mapped wetlands in western Oregon and directed a learning center in Washington State, crossing a dam each day 400 feet above whitewater. Even that summer back in Wisconsin, where we’d moved for Paula’s job, I’d been teaching as a tour boat naturalist on the Mississippi River. In the backwaters I’d dip a net, occasionally catching a crawdad. It would wriggle in my muddy hand, then dart around my bucket. And though I’d always known that Kentucky is where I fell in love with nature, I hadn’t given Dad any credit, not a word of thanks. Yet if Pitman Creek is where all my wandering began—where my identity began, not just my career—it was my father, Wendell Keith Muse, who’d set me afloat.
“Right there,” James said, pointing. “Your dad and I watched you.”
On the day before Dad died in May 1998, a Saturday, I stood in a shallow, mud-bottomed stream northeast of Indianapolis, running a workshop as the coordinator of Hoosier Riverwatch, an environmental education program of the Department of Natural Resources. I taught schoolteachers and farmers and activists how to monitor creeks throughout Indiana—my home state, where I grew up, where I come from, and the place I’ve left behind on more than one occasion. I drove a white panel van with a decal of an adult mayfly on each side, its long tail curling toward the sky like a fly-fishing rod, always casting, casting, casting. I loved that image. I loved how it made me feel—part scientist, part explorer, a professional in hip boots.
Scientists call the order of mayflies Ephemeroptera, which in Latin means “short-lived wing,” and though there are some 2,000 species worldwide, they all have one thing in common: each dies quickly after emerging from the water. During their aquatic stages, they metamorphose from egg to nymph over many months, then they “hatch” as flying adults without functional mouths. At that point, instead of eating, they focus on finding a mate, making sure their fertilized eggs fall back into the water. Some species get a day or two to pass on their genes. Others, a few hours, or only minutes.
My workshop took place in Anderson, Indiana, a town still reeling from the closure of its General Motors plant, and it made me think of the decades Dad had worked for Chrysler, building cars under boom-and-bust circumstances. That afternoon he was an hour north in Kokomo, returning to his trailer after a surgery; a polyp-filled segment of his colon had been removed, requiring an incision more painful than he’d expected. When Alan and I visited him in the hospital earlier that week, Dad was agitated, sitting upright in his gown. A row of staples pierced his stomach—he wasn’t smiling. His body craved alcohol. We all knew it.
“I can come by on Sunday,” I told him, “to buy groceries, whatever you need.” Dad said a neighbor, Dino, would give him a ride home. I could bring some things from my job, I said, describing my collection of aquatic insects—mayflies and other creatures from all over the state.
“Sure, son,” my father grimaced. “Bring your bugs.”
On Saturday night, when he was back in his trailer, I called Dad to remind him of my visit, and again he was irritable—his pain pills weren’t helping. The Pacers were in the playoffs, I said. “We could watch it together if you want to. They’re playing Michael Jordan and the Bulls. You like the NBA?”
All he did was grumble, mentioning Dino, the neighbor I hadn’t met. “He’ll give me a ride,” Dad said. “The market’s close.” I got angry, raising my voice, telling him to stay put for the night, that I’d be there by nine the next day, ready to shop.
When we hung up the phone that evening, neither of us knew it’d be our last conversation. It didn’t even sound like my father—cranky, sober. And so when I arrived at his trailer on Sunday, later than I’d intended, his door was locked and he didn’t answer when I rapped on the metal. I sat on his wooden stoop as the heat and humidity came on, and thought about watching that basketball game, how I deserved to relax. It was a child’s reflex, thinking he’d failed me again, that he’d driven off with a buddy—another damn nickname. Why else would the door be locked? His place in Indianapolis was always open. I waited and brooded, watching cars pass by. I knew nothing about Dino. The same bullshit. Same as always. Dad’s life was a mystery to me. Mystery and farce.
Today, leaving my business card in his doorframe seems so arrogant, so callous. Like my DNR uniform, it made me feel important. I wrote a note on the back: “Where are you? I waited until 11. Give me a call.” Later, when I told my mother, she thought nothing of it. “Jeffrey,” she said, “that’s just the way he is.”
But why didn’t I worry at all when I heard nothing that afternoon? Why didn’t I try to call him? Did I even care? There may be enough reasons to fill a lifetime of second-guessing, but all I know for certain is that it was habit. Dad’s habit, my habit, the habit of our family. And honestly, as much as I hate saying it, losing him had never crossed my mind. I’d spent years dreading whenever we did talk on the phone. Liquored up, his drawl was raspier, more Southern, more redneck. “Hey, young’n,” he might say. “How’s it hanging?”
Maybe I didn’t call for that reason—the dread behind the habit. What I do remember, the only truth I know, is the Pacers lost.
And I know that on Monday morning I was back at the State Capitol in my department, wearing a tie, khakis, and dress shoes for a meeting with my boss. Then the phone in my cubicle rang, its red light blinking, blinking, blinking, and on the other end of line was the Howard County sheriff’s office. “Sir, an ambulance has been dispatched to your father’s residence.”
How strange, I thought, to hear such words and not know what a son should do, though the dispatcher told me that was all she could say, that I should call the hospital. My coworkers could hear me dialing the phone, standing up, raising my voice, and then swearing at useless answers after useless questions. “Has Keith Muse been admitted?” I asked. “No? Where the hell is he? Your hospital’s only a few miles from his goddamn trailer!” I slammed the receiver down, glancing at the entry of my cramped workspace. Three men stood there watching me, all in ties.
After my third try with the emergency room, my light blinked with an incoming call. “Mr. Muse,” a male voice said, “I’m the Howard County coroner. I don’t typically do this over the phone, but I realize you deserve answers. I’m sorry to say this: your father has passed away.”
I stood in silence as my coworkers watched.
The coroner said Dad had died in his trailer from what appeared to be natural causes, that he’d passed away sometime the previous day. A neighbor had found him, he explained, by using a hide-a-key above the front door. “I’m calling you because I have your business card. When did you arrive there?”
I told him it was later than I’d planned—“10 a.m., maybe 10:30”—and that I’d sat on the stoop for a half-hour, probably less. I drove my own car, I could’ve said. I wasn’t trapped. I could leave. “Our relationship was…” My voice cracked. “It’s hard to explain.”
After thanking the coroner, I dialed the phone, reaching Alan, my big brother. “Dad’s dead,” I told him, stunned. “In Kokomo. In his trailer.” Alan didn’t know how to react either—useless questions, useless answers—as I explained what I could from the coroner, staring at my desk. Little jars of insects lined the wall, each filled with formaldehyde and a specimen. The mayflies were my favorite—such long tails. I remembered how Dad had loved to fish, how he’d taken me as a boy in Kentucky. We caught bluegill, bass, catfish. We fished all day.
Sometimes I feel like Pitman Creek—empty, waiting for rain. Sometimes laughter feels forced. Sometimes life does. Sometimes I think I envy my dad, his silly jokes and all his buddies, the way he smiles in the photographs he left behind. Despite his flaws as a father, I think of him fondly nowadays. He was a rousing ringleader of gravel-voiced men. And it’s not unusual, I know, for an alcoholic’s son to turn out jaded, if not a bit somber or stubbornly sober. I tend to expect the worst in most situations and prepare to rise above it, or I brace myself, knowing I’ll survive. Then again, I’m like my father in the way I often cope with loss, though I retreat into wild places instead of beer. He drank. I wander. Shame is a territory, an internal landscape. We’ve both walked though it in our own way.
James Whitlow’s kind face made me want to tell the whole story, to piece it together, not only how Dad had died but how guilty I’d felt. And returning to Pitman Creek, in which my father must’ve played as a boy, made me feel more understanding and perhaps understood. I felt Dad’s presence. I felt like I could talk to him.
A few days after his funeral, Alan and I cleaned out his trailer. It was the first time either of us had been inside. There were Budweiser cans on the coffee table, along with get-well cards from several friends. A skillet on the stove was layered with grease. Ashtrays overflowed. The black tennis shoes he wore on the assembly line sat next to his couch, side by side—a reminder of his care and tidiness with tools and work clothes. But like the times I’d visited Dad as a boy, I held his belongings at an uncomfortable distance, never knowing them intimately as I had my mother’s. What do you call that sensation—part craving, part repulsion? Do other sons feel it? Do other men? I felt it especially in the hallway, kneeling where Dad had died, lying on his back, where he’d fallen across the bathroom’s threshold, his torso outward. I pressed my hand in the bloody circle where his head had lain upright, and I looked at dried vomit, spattered and sprawling. It appeared to trail from the toilet to the white vinyl to the gold carpet, turning from a nearly clear film to something brown. At that point Dad was on his back, only three feet from his outdoor stoop: all that separated us when I’d sat there was a flimsy front door. A piece of shit, I’d thought, when I’d banged and banged on it.
Did my father die while I brooded there, or could I have saved him had I shown up sooner? The doctor who performed his autopsy said, “No, unlikely.” He explained that Dad’s surgery wounds hadn’t ruptured from his vomiting, nor had he asphyxiated, throwing up on his back. Instead, the doctor said, arrhythmia was the cause of death. His heart broke from an irregular beat—that’s how Alan and I took it. As for what caused the arrhythmia, that’s where habit, or addiction, comes in. Dad died with a blood alcohol level of 0.18. “Fatal,” the doctor said, “when you’re taking pain meds.”
I wanted to share all of this with James as we stood along Pitman Creek, but when I worked up the courage to talk about it, a logging truck eased by. The diesel engine drowned out our conversation, the exhaust shimmering against the trees and sky, which made the scenery look like a mirage, I thought, or maybe a sign. Was it was time to let things lie, to lighten up? Besides, James’s cell phone had been ringing—neighbors who’d seen our car. “Keith Muse’s boy,” he would answer. “Jeff, his youngest.” Then one of them pulled up on the heels of the tractor-trailer. I was intrigued by the four-wheeler he sat on, its collection of tools: a rifle and fishing pole, a chainsaw, a cooler in the front basket.
The man’s name was Odie Turner, and he stopped by for only a few minutes. “I’m heading up the creek,” he said, “to squirrel hunt with my son.” There were handshakes all around, talk about our travels and living out West. Odie said he’d always lived nearby, that he’d grown up with Dad. Yet he didn’t say much more than that—he seemed like the quiet type—though by then I was spent emotionally and pleased to stand still. But I smiled at Odie warmly, and he smiled back in a sleeveless t-shirt. He was muscular. His hair was gray, as was his mustache.
“What’s that above your handlebars?” Paula asked, leaning toward the four-wheeler. A golf club was turned upside down, fastened with duct tape.
“Spider web catcher,” Odie said, squinting and ducking his head. He winked at Paula, flirting. Flirting the way Dad would have.
I laughed but kept staring. My gaze was fixed on Odie. His tan, thick arms. The lines on his face. He reminded me of my father, of course, how his teasing came so naturally, and when he rode off minutes later, I wanted to go with him. The four-wheeler disappeared through the trees, echoing up Pitman Creek, leaving dust to settle around us, along with silence.
“Cousin,” I said to James. “It’s getting late. We should go too.” I felt Paula’s hand reach for mine, and held on tight.
After we said goodbye to James and Dora and drove north on Highway 90, Paula and I stopped by the cemetery again to visit Dad’s grave. Grandma Hazel lay to one side, her site newer, its grass thin, and to the other lay tiny Welby and Grandpa Vic. I thought about the week of Dad’s death, how my brother and I had struggled to make sense of things, how we’d ended up with a time capsule as we filled his casket. We dressed him in a dark gray suit like the one he wore in a picture from my college graduation, and around his arms and shoulders we set everyday things. There were cutoff jeans and a headband—his favorite, red, white, and blue—and three ball caps with dirty jokes on the front—gifts from his friends. And in the coffin’s drawer above Dad’s waist, I slid an envelope with a crushed beer can, along with a note expressing forgiveness and asking for it. We set more, much more in his casket, as if trying to make him feel at home: a pack of Winstons, toothpicks, nail clippers, things he always carried. Before putting him in the ground, we inscribed his tombstone with an epigraph. “A Stranger to No Man,” it read. Ironic, I know.
What I don’t know is if we did the right thing, filling his casket with so many items, trying to replace years of awkwardness with sudden appreciation. But standing at his grave with Paula, knowing Dad lay a few feet below us, I wanted to squeeze something else inside, something serious. If I could’ve given him a shard of shale, a pink rock from Pitman Creek, I would’ve felt certain that he knew I did love him. That I love him still. That I think I understand. I understand that all men are riddled with flaws.
On the other hand, if I know my father, he would’ve preferred something light-hearted. Odie’s spider web catcher, for instance. Better yet, Odie’s cooler. I imagine Dad laughing at the prospect, cracking jokes, teasing us all. Maybe the drinking made him like that. I no longer care. I only wish I could pick up the phone right now and hear his voice.
Yet I know this story can’t end on forgiveness, or longing, or even love. It’s about more than that, I realize now. Always has been. It’s about truth, elusive truth, including my own flaws. And the truth is I’m 44. It’s taken me three years to make up this story, three years of looking at photographs, three years of maps. Three more years of working on rivers, in the Mississippi’s muddy backwaters, still admiring mayflies, still catching crawdads. I wish I could say it’s “a dream job,” as I often hear during cruises, when I’m teaching with a turtle shell in my hands, or a bird wing, or a beaver pelt. “Sure is,” I’ll reply, smiling, or trying to smile, saying that I also teach in town at the state university. A part-time position, I rarely admit. Not much pay.
And I’ll try to sort out these feelings about who I am, who I’ve become—a man always wandering, searching, struggling. Always expecting the worst. Always restless. And I’ll think of Pitman Creek, whether I was born there decades ago, if not in the stream itself than in those circumstances. I’ll remember Dad’s drawl, his bloodshot eyes and cigarette smoke, how the odor gave way to creek air, cool and damp. Was I stepping away from him or toward the water? I can’t tell anymore. Maybe I never could.
Then I’ll think of my wife, a park ranger I met out West—Dad would’ve been proud of my marriage, how I’ve lived my life. He used to call me Indiana Jones, after the movies starring Harrison Ford, and in his trailer I found a photo of me hiking in the mountains. In it my eyes are bright. My face is tan. I’m grinning. I once mailed it to him in a Christmas card across thousands of miles.