For twenty-seven years my Uncle Peachy drove trailers of brand new automobiles from Detroit to everywhere else. He saw a thousand towns at twilight glimmering like stars dropped amid trees, but not a single person in a single house knew his name, nor he theirs. Wherever he stopped, a dog barked. The moon grew juicy, withered to a bow, rose over his shoulder, and kept her distance.
Peachy drove. His hands gnarled around the steering wheel. His bones rattled, resettled harder than before, and his eyes became flat as burnt coffee. He chewed over every joke, every good story, and tried to forget the voice of his first wife on the phone when suddenly his daughter was dying. “Shellie’s in the hospital. Where the hell are you?”
After his divorce he would fall asleep by remembering his mom’s hands putting pickled beets on his plate. He’d picture his dad planting corn after he went blind, knowing the field by feel, then mowing half of it down by accident. The old man cussed for an hour, then sat on the porch, his dog at his heel and his face turned toward the last splurge of July light.
During his second marriage, Peachy settled his wife Kendra and son Perry near where he grew up in West Virginia. He drove home on his way to Missouri just to hunt one morning with his son. Perry’s face seemed as guarded as a young man’s, but his piping voice told his correct age, six years. Peachy didn’t scold the boy when he cried because the pretty deer fell. He stopped himself from saying, “Eight point buck, kid.” Peachy held Perry and let him cry.
Later that year, near Hondo, Texas, Peachy was shooting pool and doing laundry at the Diesel Fried Chicken Truck Stop when he spotted a shriveled man sitting by the pay phone. Next to him the receiver dangled on its silver cord. The man stared through the green-tinged air at nothing. He’s smoke, Peachy thought when he touched the man’s hand, then called 911. I don’t want to turn into smoke.
“I’m staying,” he told his wife the next time he strode through the door.
“Good,” Kendra said, stirring spaghetti-os for Perry. “Now we can finish wallpapering the hallway.”
Peachy applied for janitor jobs at the grocery stores, Wal-Mart, Home Hardware, the paper factory, the lumber mill. He was 57, an Army veteran. Peachy gave every manager a handshake and a crooked grin, and said, “I want you to know, getting paid to push a broom will be easy street for me.”
Peachy got on the graveyard shift at the new Kroger’s. He claimed, “I wax them floors till they’re smoother than the highway to hell, or the driveway to the Governor’s mansion, same difference.” As late night Kroger shoppers rolled their carts down the aisles, Uncle Peachy maneuvered around them, hat over his eyes, chewing over an old joke or a new story he would tell someone tomorrow.
I was around my Uncle Peachy for a while when he first came back, the trucker settling down. He said, “I’m gonna feed my family. The world can go as crazy as it wants.” I thought his life wasn’t much to live for, compared to mine, because I was going to college soon. He’d been taught that as a man he fed his family, no whining. He’d decided that everything else was the craziness of the world.
Now, I’m decades past college, and it’s no small thing to get along day after day, year after year, and let the world be as crazy as it wants, with whatever miniscule difference I might make. Sometimes the craziness tears at me and reminds me of how a raccoon tore up my neighbor’s caged chicken, reaching its clawed hand in and pulling the chicken’s feathers and flesh through the wire little bit by bit. Sometimes late at night I think of Peachy driving the night roads, perched high up in the cab, the highway barreling through his heart, his heart a migratory bird, circling back toward home.
Laura Long’s first novel Out of Peel Tree is published by West Virginia University Press. She has published two poetry collections, The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems (2013) and Imagine a Door (2009). Her work appears in Shenandoah, Southern Review, and other magazines and she has received a James Michener Fellowship and other awards. She teaches at Lynchburg College in Virginia and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan.