I shouldn’t have taken the parkway back to town, the road was too curvy for my buzz and the rental car was shit. Mid-sized sedan, the guy had said, as I’d folded myself into the front seat, the dash board mashed against my reconstructed knee, my head scraping the roof. Wonderful. I was a sneeze away from popping the doors off the hinges.
The beer helped the knee but not my driving, and as the ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains dipped and danced under the sun I coasted back to town, taking my time. There were only a few assholes on motorcycles, some families taking in the overlooks. I stopped a few times to piss, realizing how much I’d missed the mountains.
I took in the scenery. Pulled in some of that crisp, mountain fresh air then got back on the road. There was no rush, not now, no reason to mash the gas but that I liked the way the tires grabbed the twists and turns that curled through the range.
On the way up Tommy had given me a hard time about the cooler in the back. But that’s just because he was an irritable little prick when he was hungover. Come to think of it he’d given me a hard time, long before the wake or the funeral and damn near for the past twenty years come to think of it. I sipped the last of the beer, my pants spotted from the wet bottle, cold from the cooler water. I could cuss Tommy all I wanted, but he was still one of the only people I trusted, a list that had just grown smaller as we’d buried his Dad.
When Tommy was done preaching he took a nap, and when he woke up it was back to his all his important phone calls and emails. Most of what needed to be said we’d washed out last night, when he’d succumbed to the drink as we’d sorted through the memories, passing pictures with one hand and a bottle of Makers in the other. He’d gotten sentimental with each pull on the bottle, sappy even, looking to me with moist eyes as that sagging storage box balanced on his knobby knees. Tommy handled all the legal issues of Dad’s death, but last night it had been more about us.
“What you said yesterday, it meant a lot to Mom and me,” he’d said, meaning what I said at the funeral. His eyes were sloppy, without their usual boyish gleam as they fell back to the box. His red hair was a mess and so was he. A smear of sweat or spit on his upper lip. For once he actually looked off-the-clock, no tie or goofball Polo shirt tucked into jeans, just shorts and a t-shirt. He looked alright.
He smiled at a curled photo. “Hey, remember this?”
It was faded and creased down the middle, but I knew it well. Two uneven rows of kids, divided by a heavy crease down the center. The group was anchored by the coaches, Coach Ryan on one side, with his casual smile and cut off shorts. Coach Taylor on the other, his large forearms crossed and that famous scowl carved into his fleshy face. Tommy handed it to me, I passed the bottle.
On the back, written in pen, it read: Blue Ridge Thunder – 1980.
In the pic, Tommy and I were crouched near Coach Ryan’s end, one knee on the ground, a hand on our battered helmets. I stared at the youthful faces in the worn photo, mostly at my own. I could smell the grass and earth, see chunks of it clogged in my face mask. I could still hear the whistle.
“Here’s one of the two of you at the draft,” Tommy said, and I tossed my picture into the pile. This one was in a frame. Me in an oxford shirt and with a navy blue blazer, a sharp, Atlanta Falcons hat angled crookedly on my head. Coach Ryan stood next to me, his arm around my shoulder a mile long grin on his face.
“He was so proud,” Tommy continued, staring at the picture, “I’ve never seen him so worked up.”
“How he paced a path in the carpet,” I laughed. “He was more nervous than I was.”
We polished off the bottle, laughing and crying then forgetting which one we were supposed to be doing. I’d almost had to carry him to bed when he’d stumbled up the stairs. After that it had gotten too quiet and I’d gone for a spin. I wasn’t drunk enough to deal with the ghosts in that old house.
That old house. That old town. I’d sworn never to come back home. But that’s what it was, home. That’s why I was back in Blue Ridge County. For a funeral, for a house, but mostly for what was left of my adopted family.
But shit, all those stares. Part of me was thinking about splitting. I could tell Tommy that I wasn’t up for fixing up the old house, getting it ready to sell. I wasn’t ready for all of those disappointed faces around town. The pity. The wonder, the head shaking about how I’d thrown away a hall of fame career. I’d seen nothing but judgement in their eyes yesterday when I got up there. But I’d said what I had to say, the rest I could say in private. To Tommy and Linda, because they were all that was left. All that mattered.
I drained the beer and tossed it to the floorboard, hit the exit and left that orange ribbon of trees on a mid-October afternoon. I cranked up the stereo–the speakers weren’t all that bad, and Led Zeppelin banged into Custard Pie as I hit the gas and scooted up the straightaway laid out in front of me, racing a river full of memories running alongside the road.
I’d need to stop for more beer though, coming home always made me thirsty.