Louie Land '12
We used to drive up into the mountains every weekend to set off fireworks and M80s and look at the stars. We were maybe thirty strong, though only about half were ever there at once. We loaded cases of Coors and Busch into the backs of the trucks and drove deeper into the woods, out to this hunting cabin that Charlie’s family owned. We lit big campfires, small enough for us to control but big enough to push it. The crowd was always changing. You wouldn’t see somebody for a month or two, he’d have a girl or something, and then he’d show up one weekend at the cabin and all was forgiven and no questions asked.
For me and the guys I grew up with, heading up to the cabin started with Charlie’s oldest brother, who took us there when Charlie and me and all our friends were just sixteen. Then the middle brother and his buddies. We were always close to him, felt like he was as much our big brother as Charlie’s. He brought us up almost every weekend and when he headed out to Pittsburgh running after high-paying welding jobs and maybe a real degree, the cabin came to us.
We had all sorts. There were older guys, guys who were twenty-five, twenty-six, friends of Charlie’s oldest brother who still hung around the area and liked having a good time, and guys who hung with us while the middle brother was still around, and then guys from our high school class who we’d known since kindergarten and who hadn’t been school smart and who didn’t go to college. Some folks stopped showing up, but none of us went anywhere. The work was here. We had no reason to leave and no reason to stop going up to the cabin.
There wasn’t a logic to it. We came from all over the valley. Leck Kill guys, Dornsife guys, Greenbrier guys, Red Cross guys. Nobody knew where the lines were, but everybody knew there was a difference. Not in the lay of the land, since you could get from one end of Red Cross to the other end of Dornsife and pass through everything in between in ten minutes, but in the people you knew when you were growing up. The borders were hard to see, but when you were a little kid, you knew who the Dornsife boys were, the Leck Kill boys. By the time we got to high school we were all the same, one big group, but back then those pockets of guys were the guys you shot BB with and the guys you tore up the fields on your four-wheeler with. The gangs just got bigger as you got older, they came together. We spread across the length of the valley. We were everywhere, and the cabin was ours.
Then this girl showed up and fucked the whole thing over. We’d been out of school four years, maybe five and one weekend Charlie just stopped coming.
Charlie and I rode up together sometimes and I waited for him until about seven at night, when the sky started to get dark, and then I climbed into the truck and headed for the hills. I kicked on the high school football game until I lost signal for the trees. Though it was his place, Charlie didn’t run the show, so that weekend we all just showed up and made do without him and we didn’t think nothing of it.
Then he wasn’t at the next weekend and the next. He missed a solid month. It felt like the whole world went to hell all at once. I got cut back to part-time at the body shop, the high school boys went on a four-game losing streak and the pipes at the cabin burst with the first freeze. Then like a goddamn saint, the next weekend Charlie shows up early morning Saturday, hand in hand with this blonde.
It couldn’t have been earlier than nine o’clock in the morning that Saturday. We were all standing around the ashes of the fire from the night before, trying to breathe life back into it. We had our knives out, shaving pieces of bark off of dried out branches, while a few guys were snapping up twigs and piling them up near the coals. Mac was on his hands and knees, blowing on the embers. We had smoke and we could hear crackling but we didn’t have flames yet. Charlie came strolling over with this girl like nothing ever changed. He had his red flannel on, the one with all the holes in it and all grease stains that we hung up out in the porch when we went inside because it stunk up the cabin, and his steel-toe boots. He had a dip of tobacco in his lip and an empty beer bottle in his right hand that he spit the juice into.
Charlie got to the fire and Mac blew on the twigs and all of a sudden it blazed up real fast. We knew it was coincidence, but not missing an opportunity, we clapped him on the back and thanked him for showing up and said we didn’t know what to do without him.
“You missed me?” Charlie said, pretending to get all doe-eyed. He wiped them like he was trying out for a role as John Wayne’s kid sidekick. Jerry hit him in the arm.
Charlie introduced his girl as Theresa Mae. She wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t a whole lot to look at, either. Blonde hair tied back, small hands, brown eyes. Just a real plain country girl. But goddamn, she was dumb as a brick. None of us were professors, but we knew a way of life and we knew how to think. As my old man always put it, “I’m not a very well-educated man, but I can tell my head from my ass.” I don’t know that Theresa Mae could say the same. The first thing she did was point to the smokehouse and ask if it were an outhouse. And maybe it looked like one. But one of the guys walked over to it and opened up the door and showed her the hooks where we hung the meat and where we stoked the fire and she still didn’t get it. She said, “But where do you go to the bathroom in here?” I looked at Charlie but he was watching her and didn’t catch my eye.
Jerry said, “We don’t have running water. That’s a luxury.”
We pissed the rest of the day away, throwing knives at the big oak, playing poker and euchre, wandering into the woods to grab more wood and splitting it down real fine, and throwing our cigarettes into the fire. Lou had brought his beagle Jack Daniels up again and we threw sticks into the creek and watched Jack Daniels bound after them. We were living. There was nobody to answer to back home and nothing serious that had to be done. You could mow the lawn on Sunday night when we got back from the cabin, before you crawled into bed for work the next morning. Theresa Mae hung all over Charlie all day, staying out of the way, though she didn’t redeem herself, either. I was sitting around playing cards with Lou and Tony and Charlie, a hand of hold ‘em. Theresa Mae sat next to Charlie with her arms around him and her head nuzzled against his side. All of us brought girls up to the cabin now and again, but this girl, Charlie paid her extra attention. Usually a girl turned into one of the guys. She smoked, she drank, she cussed, and whoever brought her up didn’t treat her special until it was time to go to bed, when they’d wander away from the firelight and off into the woods or into the bunkroom early or out to the trucks and they’d drive away for a little while. Charlie treated Theresa Mae different. He had his arm around her the whole time and kept leaning down and kissing her forehead. It slowed the game down.
Eventually, though, she lifted her head and said, “Charlie showed me where you all grew up.”
I shuffled the cards and dealt after Lou and Charlie laid out the blinds.
“Charlie took me to his house, too,” she said. I didn’t look up from the cards. Jack Daniels chewed on a stick underneath the table. “Do you eat all of that corn?”
I stopped mid-deal. “What?”
“The big field in front of Charlie’s house.”
The field was feed corn. It was cheaper and was meant for animals to eat, not people. Charlie’s family, like most of us, had acres and acres of property and nothing to do with it, so they leased it out to the Wehry farm, who planted feed corn to feed their pigs and cattle. The Wehry’s farmed tens of thousands of acres, which was a big deal around home. Everyone with extra property leased it to the Wehry’s. It was an easy was to pick up an extra buck.
“Yeah,” Lou said. I finished the deal and he looked at his cards. “You should see them boys when it’s time to harvest. You go to Charlie’s house October to April, you eat corn. Corn on the cob, off the cob, corn bread, soups, whatever.”
Tony laughed. “His mama’s incredible at making corn dinners stay new for six months,” he said.
Theresa Mae nodded. “Oh.”
I rolled my eyes as we started betting. Theresa Mae stood up and kissed Charlie on the cheek.
“I’m going inside for a minute,” she said. “Little girl’s room.” She walked away. Charlie watched her.
“Jesus H. Christ,” I said. “Where the hell did you get her?”
“She’s not from around here,” Charlie said.
“No kidding,” Tony said. “I’m surprised she didn’t go over to the smokehouse instead of inside. Who fucking told her we had running water?”
Jack Daniels moaned. Lou reached under the table and scratched his ears. “Well, she’s all right to keep around for a short while. I guess.”
“I don’t know,” Charlie said. “I’ve never felt like this about a girl before.”
We didn’t want to ask what that meant.
It was one of those October nights that when it got dark, it got cold. We pulled on our Carhardts. Built the fire up big and got to the end of a slat of firewood, which we busted up and threw on too, screws and all. Then we all just sat around and drank more beer and told the war stories, not because they needed to be told, but because remembering them made them feel not so far away. Pumped up with beer and pride we felt like we could still suit up in our football uniforms and rally late in the fourth to score fourteen unanswered points and take the conference title, or pull on our graduation gowns with nothing underneath and leave the back of the gown undone so our asses were showing as we walked across the auditorium stage to get our diplomas.
Theresa Mae wore Charlie’s jacket. She was tiny and she swam in the thing. She sat on his lap near the fire while he nursed a Coors. He was just there in his flannel but didn’t complain. I kept my eye on them from across the flames. Lou and Jack Daniels sat next to me. Mac pulled up a lawn chair on my other side and handed me a Busch. I cracked it and drank deeply, letting the alcohol slide down my throat.
“You think it’s for real?” Lou asked. “You think he’s in love with her?”
“Christ,” I said, “I hope not, for his sake. She just don’t know this place.”
“His business,” Mac said. He cracked open a Coors and drank. “Good for him, I guess.”
“He said he feels different though,” I said. “He gonna get married? He just met her.”
“My parents dated senior year of high school, January,” Mac said, “got married in August of that year, and they’ve been happy for the past thirty-five years. It happens, man. Accept it.”
“Eh.” Lou reached down and scratched Jack Daniels’s ears. The beagle groaned and his tail wagged. “I think Jack Daniels is all a man really needs.”
I laughed. “I’ll drink to that.”
Charlie and Theresa Mae were engaged within a little over two months. He proposed to her at Christmas. They didn’t get married for more than a year after that, because they wanted to get things together. Buy a house, figure things out. I don’t know what it was. For about a year between when they got engaged and when they got married, we all kept going up to the cabin on weekends but Charlie was never the same. They only came up on Saturday morning, while all of us were still hung over or asleep, and left Saturday night. Once in a blue moon, they came up for the whole weekend, but Charlie didn’t drink as much, didn’t smoke as much, and he quit chewing tobacco all together. One day he showed up chomping on nicotine gum instead.
And then they just stopped coming. Charlie and Theresa Mae bought a house in Greenbrier and moved in together. That was when we cut back. In the months before their marriage, the old crew got together every couple of weeks at the cabin. We knew we were allowed to use it, that wasn’t the issue, but it didn’t feel right. He didn’t have to be there. Nobody specific ever had to be there. But it was his place and when he stopped showing up and it seemed like he wasn’t coming back, we stopped going, too. We quit altogether the weekend before they got married. Didn’t even throw a bachelor party for him. Our whole lives before Theresa Mae had been a bachelor party, and the party had kept going while he’d been engaged. Why would we throw him one just before his wedding?
In the first year they were married, the gang went up twice, once for the opening of bear season, once for the opening of deer season. The next year we went up for deer. The next we didn’t go up at all. We saw Charlie around but it wasn’t like we used to. Last we heard, he had a kid. A son. I guess him and Theresa Mae and his son used the cabin for camping trips and vacation. I don’t know. Fuck him.
published in Unwound Magazine