The rolling hills of the Midwest undulate like the humps of the Midgard Serpent, locking the hard-pan clay together. Its scales are clusters of juniper and elm, erupting from sandstone bluffs. The forked tongue is a confluence of two mighty rivers, the legs, scars of railroad beds riveted to the land with iron, torn from its own belly. Johnathon remembers seeing the beast in the ancient lake that had been plowed by glaciers from the last Ice Age, or is it a recurring dream, he never quite figures that part out.
“Penny for your thoughts.” Gwyneth's silky soprano cuts through the static on the radio as John twists the radio dial in frustration.
“I can't find anything but country on this thing. Did Rock and Roll die and nobody tell me?”
Gwyn smiles recalling how many times John complains about the music back home. Having sold their place up North, this is soon to be home. The purr of the engine is interrupted by John Cougar's voice belting 'Jack and Diane.'
Johnathon wipes his forehead in triumph: “I guess this is classic rock now, huh? You were saying something about my thoughts.”
“I am wondering if you are ready for this.”
“No. I dreamed of retiring in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, yet here we are going backward.”
“It's the right thing to do. You always said you wouldn't let your Mom rot away in some nursing home.” Gwyneth taps her hand in time with the bouncing chorus of the acoustic guitar.
Green signs flow by on the interstate as John ruminates. With Dad gone five years now, he is the patriarch. This is his responsibility; keep the farm from the greedy lawyers at the hospital. She didn't ask, his Mom is proud and stubborn like all the folks around here. The kind of stubbornness that gives birth to hands that can build things, toil the land, and haul rocks from deep underground. The kind of stubbornness that forced him to pull up stakes all those years ago and head North, where jobs pay real wages, where rats race for all the cheese.
“Are you going to miss it?”
“The life we built together back home.” The question cuffs John across the cheek. He hasn't forgotten his wife is leaving her family behind to help care for his Mother.
“Yah, I mean of course. I didn't foresee this is how we would start our retirement.”
“Well with the girls out on their own, I guess it doesn't matter. Mom and Dad have a guest room. I can go back now and again to visit.”
A stiff silence swallows the interior of the sedan, punctured by old-school rock. In a few miles the turn-off onto the two-lane draws them toward rough county roads, where there is never enough tax revenue to keep all the potholes filled.
John counts the fence posts as their Lexus jostles down the gravel road. The eighty acres are jobbed out to a local grain farmer. The low brick ranch where he grew up comes into view. There is a new SUV in the driveway, next to Mom's dust-covered town car, parked years ago, with one tire flat.
“I don't recognize that vehicle, do you?” The shiny red land bus towers over a car with a young girl in scrubs getting out with a bag, waving to them as they pull off into the yard.
The house is covered in clay grime from the fields. Ragweed and shaggy grasses erupt around the foundation and broken rusty farm equipment. John's memories spring to life when he notices his old bicycle swallowed by fescue. They knock.
“Dear John.” A familiar, unwelcome face opens the noisy screen door and motions them in.
Johnathon follows his wife into a living room that is now a twenty-year-old time capsule, the crocheted afghan on the couch hasn't moved in a decade. He looks around for Mother, avoiding his Sister's smiling face.
“The nurse is here to give her a checkup. What brings you home?”
John's face twists in confusion: “I talked to Mom last month. She asked us to move back home and help her, and take care of the farm.” He notices a manila envelope in his Sister's hand, “What's that?”
“Oh, nothing, just some papers I needed Mom to sign.”
A sinking feeling blooms in Johnathon's gut. The nurse clasps her hands together and looks around, avoiding the awkwardness between the siblings.
“The nurse will get you up to date on Mom's condition. I'll see you in a few days.” With that his Sister walks out, leaving John and Gwyn in stunned silence.
“Let's sit down so we can discuss your Mother's situation, O.K.” John and his wife sit as the nurse pulls out a sheet of paper and looks over it before speaking, “Your Mom has end-stage Alzheimer's. We have called in hospice. Do you know anything about her condition?”
“No, I...talked to her last month, she asked us to move back and help with the farm.”
“That was one of the last times she was lucid. She has been bedridden for the last three weeks. We don't expect her to make it for more than a few days. At this point, all we can do is keep her comfortable and administer pain medication as needed.”
John remembers back to their conversation, she sounded so perky and alive. Glancing over to Gwyneth he sees the brooding look and frustration planted on her face. They busied themselves with selling their home and arranging storage for their things until they found a house to purchase, his Sister didn't tell them anything, not even a phone call.
“We will have someone here around the clock as long as we are needed. Would you like to see your Mom?”
The nurse leads them into the spare bedroom. The hospital bed in the center of the room is alone. Mother lays there, her thin gray hair sprouts from ashen skin, her mouth is open as she sleeps, still as a stone.
John is confused. He wants to walk over and kiss her on the forehead, but the thing in the bed is not his Mother, not the woman that cooked grand meals for innumerable relatives on countless holidays and helped raise several cousins. The distance he put between himself and his family yawns into a chasm. His feelings of familiarity evaporate. He feels like a stranger looking in on a dream he can't remember.
“Let's just go John. We can get a hotel.” Gwyn grabs her husband's hand and turns to lead him away, and hopes later they can try to make sense of it all.
Driving away from his childhood home, John wrestles with the present. He is adrift like a cloud, untethered from his past. There is a Day's Inn a half hour from the farm. Feeling the need for a stiff drink, Johnathon pulls into a gas station with beer signs lining the highway.
“Do you want anything?” John looks at Gwyn, she knows why he's here and just shakes her head no.
Walking up to the glass doors, he arrives in tandem with a man in bib overalls. He notices the man glance at his gray sedan. The man reaches a pudgy paw for the handle and waves an arm at him. “Go right ahead, sir.”
John feels insecurity grip him, his polished leather wing tips scuff the worn tiles. The logo on the front of his pique polo might as well be a patch with the words 'city slicker' on it. The counter is surrounded by packs of cigarettes and scratch-off lottery tickets.
There is a young woman behind the counter puffing on a Marlboro light, staring at the screen of her cell phone.
“Can I get a pint of bourbon?”
“Do you want Jim or Jack?”
“Jack Daniels is fine.”
“That'll be eleven dollars and thirty-eight cents.”
John flips out his plastic and slips it into the card reader. The machine buzzes a warning.
“Sorry hon, we don't take American Express.”
John digs a twenty from under his driver's license and unfolds it. Dropping the change into the slash pocket on his chinos, John curls his hand around the brown paper sack and nods thank you to the cashier, and passes the man, now sitting at a small table sipping black coffee and staring at a newspaper.
“Are you going to open that now, or can you wait till we get to our room?”
John hands the bottle to his wife, knowing she would rather him not drink in the car. An uncomfortable silence blossoms again. Neither says a word until their shoes are off and the suitcase is on the table of their single-bed hotel room.
“That bitch.” John manages to distill his anger and betrayal into two words.
“What do you think is going on?” Gwyn knows he and his Sister don't get along. They haven't spoken kind words to each other in years.
“I'm the oldest. These should be my decisions. I guarantee she had power of attorney papers signed in that folder. That's why she was smiling.” John peels the screw-off cap from the plastic bottle and takes a swig.
Gwyn turns on the television for a distraction. John stares out the window, past dingy olive curtains that have hidden layers of sin and madness. John Goodman stares back out of the screen trying to tone down the anger of the world with humor. The John sitting on the bed isn't buying it. There is not anything funny about what is happening.
“We're going back to the farm tomorrow. I don't know what Sis is up to, but I have a legal obligation to my Mother, my family.”
“Don't take the pistol, please.” Gwyn's mind is already churning out heady, disturbing scenarios.
“I hadn't even thought of that yet. Should I kill her?”
“Honey, our life is sitting in storage, our girls are waiting to hear from us. Don't even let yourself go there. We will stop at the diner for breakfast and coffee in the morning. It's going to be alright.”
John holds up the half-empty bottle and sighs laying his head in his hands. He should have come sooner. Pain shoots through his chest as he pictures his Mother laying, contorted in the hospital bed. Time slips by as his thoughts ricochet from the present to his childhood. Mother always encouraged him to fly, 'Spread your wings and fly far and wide son.' The feeling he is leaving something undone, dangling like bait on a hook makes him shudder.
Gwyn walks over and sits next to him on the bed, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, sliding her hand down, and scratching his back with her manicured fingernails. Her lips turn into a nervous smile. It feels like some vile wound is trying to close. She wants to help him past it, yet his expression says he can't let go. The shows on the screen grind on, after showers they hold each other, the silence carving into them.
“Just get some sleep.” Gwyn kisses his forehead, her nose turning from the liquor on his breath.
John twists the pillow into his chest, eyes open and watering. Sleep crawls in, and a black blanket of sadness wraps its arms around him.
* * *
“John. Wake up. It's time to get ready.” John opens his eyes, the sun boring into him.
The light powers him, he pulls on silk boxers and fitted dress socks. He shaves his face with gel lotion and a new multi-blade razor, brushing his coif and checking his eyebrows. Buttoning his shirt, he pulls the tie around his neck and flips the knot in his hands, fastening the collar down with buttons. Putting on black slacks, he tucks his shirt tails and tightens the leather belt through the belt loops.
“You look amazing.” Gwyneth's smile cracks his melancholy.
The drive to the diner is decorated with tractors towing mowers and plump people on scooters. John opens the door to the diner for Gywn, a ritual that always makes her blush and smile. A young woman with an arm tattoo leads them to a two-top and hands them a greasy menu to share.
“Eggs over easy, toast and bacon.”
“I knew that, I don't know why I ask.” Gwyn knows the routine. She hands him the salt and pepper after offering cream and sugar for his coffee. He grunts and nods. She knows shaking off the brain fog from the night before takes time.
Eating in silence would be nice, but a screaming toddler kicks the table next to them, shrieking and flinging bits of pancake. The grandpa laughs as the grandma grabs their arm and ends the tirade with a stern look.
The eggs are runny and cold, and the toast is stale, Gwyn chews her waffles topped with canned blueberries. The inked arm tilts the coffee carafe into their stoneware mugs with a wink. They finish their food without speaking.
Waving off another refill on the java, they wipe with cheap paper napkins and John lays a fiver down for a tip. The cook rings them at the register. They smile and say 'Thanks' just glad to be fed, and walk out.
“What are you going to do John?”
“I'm going to drive back out to the farm and confront my Sister.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I'm going to tell her that she is selfish and we as a family can do better for Mom's sake.”
“Just don't make a scene, it's not worth it.”
The drive back peels at the layers of familial dysfunction. John thinks about all the times he was too busy with work and his daughters to come home.
Pulling up to the long driveway, John furrows his brow. A county cop car is idling at the entrance with the lights oscillating. He slows down, stops, and steps out, walking up to the deputy who is standing with his hands on his gun belt.
“Chris? I haven't seen you since high school.” John is startled to recognize him.
“John, I'm sorry to tell you this, but you can't go past this checkpoint.”
“Well, your Mom is gone. You have cousins coming out of the woodwork. Your Sister doesn't want anyone near the farm, she says anyone coming on the property will be considered trespassers.”
The reality sinks into John. His Mom is gone. He reaches out and shakes the deputy's hand. It is the closest thing to closure he is going to get.
John hops into his Lexus and pulls out toward the two-lane, heading for the interstate. Gwyn reaches over and grips his forearm as he accelerates into the hills.
“Where are we going?” Gwyneth searches for answers.
“Why don't you punch in the coordinates for Pigeon Forge? Didn't we say we wanted to live in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains?”