Devil’s Lake

Fall 2014 Issue

David Meischen: The Road Home

When he stopped at the blinker light in town, the temperature needle was edging close to the danger zone. Again. With a bit of luck, though, he’d be safe in bed before his father rose to shave. When he got to the turnoff, he’d darken the headlights. Between the moon and the county road’s pale caliche topping, he’d have no trouble navigating the last mile. He’d done this often, late nights with his buddies at the Triple Six. And five times since the first day of spring, Daniel leaving with him, driving aimless loops to a stop they knew was coming—a creek bottom, a thicket, a topped-out cornfield where no one might see them. His mother would be awake when he came in. She wouldn’t stir—not a word until she could walk into a room he couldn’t get out of, her eyes jumpy as blow flies. She wanted to open a wound in him, a place to hatch shame.

He passed the city limits sign and hit the gas, the town behind a scattering of lights, the road ahead drifting with fog he expected would be thick in the low places. Midnights after eight ball, a few beers passed around the gravel lot out front, had failed to ruffle his father. But his mother had more evidence to offer now—the wee hours she’d announced over supper and the liquor she’d smelled on his breath, the scandal of bloodshot eyes during a Sunday sermon, her certainty that a bastard child was coming. He’d encouraged her mistake, indulged his father’s fumbling advice about rubbers. He’d taken to carrying cigarettes, traded public wisecracks with a hometown girl who had that kind of reputation—useful camouflage while he did what he wanted and told himself not again.

Tonight he had put his mouth where he’d been certain he wouldn’t. His hands had been enough before—the cool of a zipper tab between thumb and forefinger, the flesh he freed. But then the moon—the promise it illuminated—and semen pulsing into his throat. He blamed the flask Daniel had slipped to him the first night they left the Triple Six together. He blamed the breaks they’d been taking outside, passing the rye between them.

He liked the way whiskey made him feel, shivers rippling along his ribcage, a floating, happy feeling with anger edging up beneath. After that first night, he’d driven to the county seat and bought a flask of his own, mothers and preachers be damned. Next time, though, it would be as he’d told himself in the beginning. Hands only, no kissing. That part they hadn’t done. Kissing. Three nights he’d felt Daniel’s mouth on him—nipples, navel, dick. He hadn’t known anything could feel so good. And now he’d done it—the taste of Daniel, the smell, a thickening in his nostrils, a memory at the back of his throat. He eased his foot off the accelerator, delay kindling desire, knowing how good it would feel this soon after, jerking off into his mother’s clean sheets.

He leaned across, flipped open the glove compartment, and pulled out his flask. Unstoppered it. Recklessness loose in him, he took a deep draught and let the whiskey burn.

Headlights glinted from behind—doubles, wide-spaced—a big car approaching fast and a wide curve coming, fog thickening where the bend dipped toward a slough. Twice going into the curve he tapped the brake pedal, thinking to slow the rushing driver. Instead, the double headlights flashed to high beam, glare flooding his windshield and dash, a blinding haze.

He eased up on the gas—let the pendejo cool his heels—and the big car’s horn ruptured the stillness. Then, closer, closer, the lights, the horn, the big car moving out and speeding up to pass him on the curve, beside him the crazy driver leaning, windows open between them, a face confronting him, an open nest of teeth. A shout, ragged-edged—Cocksucker! For a moment as the pursuing car moved ahead, he thought Someone knows.

Beyond the curve, a rise, and two miles left before his turnoff. He slowed, holding back, taillights on the car ahead getting smaller and smaller, his anger building against the fear he and Daniel had been seen. He gunned the engine, felt momentum pushing him back against the seat, a burst of elation, his foot at the dimmer switch, flashing bright-dim-bright-dim-bright. He came right up on the taillights and braked, approached and tapped the bumper, the other car speeding ahead now—he’d put a scare in somebody, adrenalin whispering Get the fucker.

He put the accelerator on the floor, the driver ahead doing the same, the last curve coming. Waiting, waiting, he stomped the brakes just before the danger point and watched the car ahead go off the curve and through the flimsy fence beyond. No crash, he thought—a swath of barbed-wire scratches, wrecked prickly pear.

Shaky now, he braked and looked back. High beams pierced a ghostly sliver of pastureland.

He eased off the brake pedal, switched his lights out just in case—the turnoff coming a quarter-mile ahead—and pressed the accelerator. Nothing happened—a static, strangely muted rumble coming from under the hood. Goddamn water pump. Engine overheated. Again. He pulled off and set the brake. Hell to pay otherwise—Daddy spilling bile for weeks, Momma reading aloud from Luke 15, talking about prodigal this and prodigal that. Maybe he’d answer with Genesis 19, claim the condemned cities as his own. The words alone would turn her into solid salt.

He got out of the car and closed the door—a faint thump, no one to hear it but him—and took off running. He had lungs and legs for speed, but not the footwear. Topsiders, no socks. Still, he made it to the turnoff and ran a few yards down the county road, caliche beneath his feet now, larger rocks in the mix just waiting to turn an ankle. He stopped to breathe and held his wrist to check the time—patchy moonlight, mostly fog, an unlit dial, a mile to go. His father getting up at five, that look on his face, the urge to wipe it off with truth. He knew which words would do the trick.

Behind, out on the highway, milky headlights coming up the rise from the curve, slowing, stopping where he had pulled over. Muffled noises, a muffled voice, a trunk lid shutting.

He stepped carefully to the side of the road—no rocks to crunch beneath his footsteps—and walked fast toward home. He could barely make out the roadway beside him, his jean cuffs dripping with dew from grass in the bar ditch, moving, moving—no way to mark the distance he had covered—until he walked into a clump of yuccas. Perfect aim too. A point from one of the blades punctured his knee like a hypodermic.

Ahead, his father would be waking. He pictured him at the mudroom sink, lathered up, razor poised. There’s a lesson here, his father would say. And his mother, relishing the shame, wrapping herself in it. A phase, his father would say. Their son would outgrow late nights and liquor. He’d marry and make grandchildren. That’s what sons do.

He got back into the roadway and ran, limping, the blisters swelling on his heels and toes. His buddies at the Triple Six would laugh, drugstore cowboys in their fancy boots—and Daniel among them, leaning over the pool table, eyes glinting down the sightline of a perfectly aimed cue.

He’d made half—he hoped more—of the mile home when hooves converged from the pasture alongside. He stopped, a tremor running up his spine, gooseflesh spreading at his hairline. He knew about fog, knew how it both swaddled and amplified sound, making echoes that multiplied cattle running in the night. Beyond the fence, behind the scrim of not-seeing, one of his father’s bulls snorted, and so clear was his certainty that the Shorthorn was pawing the hardpan he heard the arced scraping of hooves. The fence was sturdy, but a fractious bull might breach barbed wire.

The night was socked in now, the vague pallor of caliche his only guide. Then, from behind, footsteps. His heart leaping, he remembered the insult loosed into the night.

His legs went crazy beneath him. He was lungs and pulse and a push saying faster, faster, when the toe edge of his shoe clipped an eroded edge and he went down, his punctured knee slamming the poured cement of the low water crossing. He jumped up dancing with the pain, a cheekbone, an elbow, scraped and throbbing, the hurt in his knee spiking up his leg and into his groin.

He held still, listening. The night was silent, no footfall coming after. He took a few steps and stopped, moved on and stopped again. It was the fog at work, echoing his own footsteps. Or someone playing cat and mouse, someone bent on retribution. This was the word that came to him. Retribution. Like subtracting a sermon to its bones.

A tire iron clanked against cement—he knew that sound. A single wordless shout—whoever was back there had fallen too. More silence. An oath laden with hurt. Cocksucker. You better run.

Out of memory, as if in answer, a line of psalm. Keep me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked. The words came to him in the preacher’s voice, the congregation’s voice, his mother’s, though his hands were the hands of the wicked. His hands, what he had done with them. And he would do it again.

He turned and made his legs move on, the light at the window where his father stood shaving a crazy hope, a pledge at his lips—to counter the vengeance threatened by the voice on the road behind. I promise, I promise, he whispered, a metallic tang spreading along the roof of his mouth as if he had tongued the tire iron coming after him, tasted rust there. Tasted blood. And then he knew what he had promised. Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee. The promise Jonathan made David, what he had promised when he put his mouth on Daniel. A covenant. How long, though? How long could he live like this, running?

DAVID MEISCHEN has short stories in The Gettysburg Review, Bellingham Review, The Evansville Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Meischen's poetry has appeared in The Southern Review and Southern Poetry Review, among others. Coeditor of Wingbeats and Wingbeats II, poetry-writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press, he won the 2011 Writers' League of Texas Manuscript Contest in Mainstream Fiction and the 2012 Talking Writing Fiction Contest. More from this issue >