Aiden was damn near starved to death when he inhaled the last half of his sausage biscuit in one gigantic bite. He balled up the Bojangles’ wrapper and shot it through the open window of his ’76 Ford Ranchero into the hospital parking lot. The front of his shirt was littered with crumbs and he picked one of the specks off his stomach, then brushed the rest into the floorboard. Shuffling in the seat, Aiden chewed that last morsel of food between his front teeth, a yellowed smile clacking on something too small to swallow.
If he’d had any money, he would’ve bought Thad something too. Of course, if he’d had more money, he would’ve bought a second biscuit himself. But aside from a few hundred dollars stashed away that he wouldn’t touch, all Aiden had was ninety-four cents to his name. He’d counted it while the acne-faced kid wrapped his order up and pushed the bag across the counter. That first sausage biscuit cost $1.22 after taxes, so Aiden just asked for a few extra packs of grape jelly, shook his head, and cussed his way through the door when the teenager told him that would cost him another fifty cents.
Aiden had always believed that as time moved on the world would open up, that life would get easier rather than harder. But as he closed in on his twenty-fifth birthday, things had just never turned the corner. Hard led to harder. Life had a way of wearing a man down into nothing. No matter what he did, it seemed some higher power had it out for him, and that kind of certainty comes to leave a man numb after a while. He ticked his teeth together even after there was nothing left to chew, him just staring off through the windshield onto memories.
Those years when they were boys, there were nights so still that as they paddled across the sky’s reflection on Balsam Lake, the borrowed canoe seemed to slice the moon in half. The world split in their silent wake and lapped back together in their passing.
The lake was just a ten-minute walk from Thad’s trailer and the state kept an Old Town canoe hidden in the crawl space of the game warden’s cabin. The warden was never there. He had his own house and family somewhere down in Cullowhee and only used the cabin at Balsam Lake as a last resort when nights drew long chasing bear poachers and folks shining deer. In spring and fall, the state stocked rainbow trout, brookies, and browns, and they advertised those dates on a bulletin board.
When the days came, Aiden and Thad would hide in the woods and watch as the truck pulled up to the lake and a man in coveralls scooped bucketfuls of trout in a giant net and catapulted the fish out over the water. Come nightfall, the boys would string a trotline from one end of the lake to the other and paddle that canoe around catching fish on corn niblets and red wrigglers. They’d smack those trout on the head with a Maglite, and by the end of the night the fishes’ quivering bodies would fill the boat to the brim. Aiden and Thad would eat good for weeks.
The older Aiden got, the more complicated the world had become, and so he preferred to live in the past, to relive those moments in his mind as often as he could. He believed that, given the right set of circumstances, he could re-create what had been before. With enough money and a fresh start, Aiden and Thad could set things right, but, as he waited in the hospital parking lot, that was about as far away as a man could dream.
When the housing bubble burst and the jobs dried up, Aiden thought it might last through the summer, maybe drag out a year at most, but sooner or later it would have to get rolling again. He was wrong and he’d been out of work ever since. Thad wasn’t around for the worst of it. He didn’t get to see job sites go from dozens of crews with contractors raking up dollar bills one day to abandoned, stick-house skeletons without so much as a roof to stop the rain the very next. Thad was on deployment in Afghanistan when the construction business went to pot.
Those years Thad was gone, Aiden was jealous he was the one who got to leave. It was partly Thad’s fault Aiden couldn’t. When the school resource officer and a K-9 unit swept through the hallways and parking lot one morning at Smoky Mountain High and found two ounces of pot in Aiden’s car, the truth was it was Thad’s bag. But it was Aiden’s ride and he kept his mouth shut. With a record filled with fistfights, him even stabbing a bus driver in the shoulder with a protractor once in middle school, Aiden fit the bill and administrators didn’t bat an eye. He took the blame and the suspension and the felony and the community service and the drug class. The reality was that he and Thad were just two punk kids smoking pot, but the state determined severity, and anything over an ounce and a half was a felony’s worth. That was the start of his adult rap sheet and that was the reason he couldn’t join the Army. But, looking at how Thad came back, Aiden wasn’t entirely sure who’d had it worse. They’d both had the rug yanked out from under them and now here they lay.
The Thad that ran off gung ho at eighteen years old ready to kill ragheads for flying planes into buildings wasn’t the same Thad that hobbled back into the holler four years later with a ruptured disk at the base of his spine. The physical scars were trumped only by mental ones, by the way he never averted his eyes from the ridgeline, or how his dreams sent him into a sweaty panic. Thad left Jackson County just a dumb-to-the-world kid and came back malformed and hardened by bitterness and anger. That was the Thad who busted through the hospital door with a score to settle.
Aiden grabbed a pack of USA Gold Full Flavors from the vinyl bench seat. He lit a cigarette and watched as an older nurse, a pissy-looking woman in teal scrubs with gray hair curled into a bun, followed Thad out the door. Aiden could hear her yelling, “Mr. Broom! Mr. Broom!” but Thad wasn’t paying her one bit of attention. Instead, Thad walked over to where a short wall of bricks, maybe a foot and a half high, held back a bed of monkey grass and pansies.
Thad bent over and settled his hands onto one of the loose bricks and rocked it back and forth until the mortar crumbled from the edges like ash. When he’d freed the brick from the wall, he held it over his shoulder and turned. The nurse crouched down with her hands over her face as Thad neared, as if he were going to kill her with it, but he didn’t. He walked right past and she looked up in confusion as he took a few long-strided hops and smashed the glass door.
He stood there long enough to wrestle a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his jeans and light a smoke. He was in no hurry as he strolled to the car with his jaw cocked out and puffs of cigarette smoke marking every two or three steps. Aiden already had the Ranchero running when Thad slammed the door. Thad situated himself in the seat, ashed his cigarette into the floorboard, and gave Aiden a look like, What the hell are you waiting for? The nurse stood dumbstruck as they passed, and Aiden found himself thinking that they were leaving that place no different than they’d found it, that most everything that came through the front door of the VA was broke all to shit.
The needle on the gas gauge teetered just left of half a tank and Aiden wasn’t sure they had enough to make it home. There was an hour between Asheville and Jackson County, at least another forty-five minutes from the county line to wind their way from Sylva to Little Canada. The bottom of the tank always burned up faster than the top, and Aiden figured best case they’d coast in on fumes, but he didn’t say anything. He steered down the ramp that led to I-40 and waited till Thad flicked that first cigarette into the wind before he spoke.
“What the hell happened back there?” Aiden asked.
“Same shit as always, Aid.” Thad jostled against the passenger-side door and slid his billfold from his back pocket. “They give me an appointment to see a doctor, then that doctor tells me I need to see a specialist, and then that specialist takes six months to tell me he’s going to need me to get an MRI and then I go to get an MRI and they tell me it’s going to be another few months before the specialist can work me back in.” Thad leafed through the few bills in his wallet slowly, then perused them a second and third time as if it might yield better results. “I told that bitch that the VA benefits and that VA hospital ain’t worth a fuck. I’m on IRR for two more years and she tells me to calm down and I tell her that I ain’t about to calm down, that it’s been two goddamn years they’ve been dicking around and my back’s still broke all to shit. That’s when she ran me out of there and that’s when I broke her fucking door. We’ll just see if those benefits cover glass.”
Aiden felt around on the bench seat for his pack of cigarettes and shook one into his lips once he’d found them. He slapped around the seat for his lighter, then traded hands on the steering wheel to pat his pants pockets, but came up empty.
“Here,” Thad said, holding his own lighter across the cab. He leaned to put his wallet back into his pocket, winced for a second as the pain seemed to run up his spine like current. “Says an awful lot about a country that’d rather cut a man a disability check than fix him up so he can go find a job.”
Aiden steered the Ranchero with his knee and cupped the fire from the wind. When the cigarette was lit he passed the lighter back to Thad and said, “There ain’t no jobs anyway.”
“Still don’t make it right,” Thad said.
They rode along and did not speak for some time, just the sound of the world blowing past through the open windows. A mile ahead I-26 joined 40. There was much more movement here on the outskirts of Asheville than where the boys were headed. Off the highway over a line of trees, a crane swung a crossbeam into place on a three-story steel skeleton where welding arcs burned white as stars in the daylight.
“One thing’s for sure,” Aiden said. “There’s a lot more jobs to be had over here.”
Thad glanced toward the construction and nodded.
“We could probably find something if we left.”
“I ain’t ever leaving the mountains,” Thad said.
“I’m not talking about leaving the mountains. Hell, I don’t want to leave the mountains, Thad. I’m talking about leaving Jackson County.”
“And going where?”
“Here. Asheville. Maybe Hendersonville. Shit, they’re putting up buildings every day. It’d be easy for a man to find a decent job, and we wouldn’t even have to move that far to find it.”
“I don’t have no interest in moving to Asheville.”
“Why the hell not? You said you want a job, and I’m telling you they’re here. Right here. So why not move to Asheville?”
“I ain’t moving to Asheville.” Thad shifted irritably in his seat, his frustration evident in his voice. “I ain’t leaving Little Canada.”
“And why the fuck not?” Aiden looked over to Thad, who was rubbing his palms up and down his thighs nervously. He took a final drag from his cigarette and flicked the butt through the open window.
“Because there ain’t but two places that’ll ever make sense to me, and one of them is a place I can’t ever go back to.”
At the Sylva ABC store, Aiden waited in the car while Thad went inside to buy whatever whiskey was cheapest. Aiden was starved and he hoped the job that night might ease things for a while, might get them enough cash to last a month.
When the market fell to pieces, Aiden turned to stripping the same houses he’d helped build. Thad was right about how the world seemed backward, how it was easier to eke out a living than to hold an honest-to-God job. A man could put in a half night’s work for a full week’s pay and never pay a dime in taxes. On top of that, the smart ones caught checks for unemployment or disability. So outlawing gets in a man’s blood in such a way that even if there comes a day when he wants out, even if he gets tired of scraping by and wants to go honest, there isn’t much of a demand.
In that way, this day was no different from any day that had come before, and that was part of what kept Aiden up at night: the cyclical nature of it all. For his entire life everything had been a continuous whirling of disappointment, the circle seeming to tighten and become just a little more certain with each passing year. Small arrest led to small arrest, and rap sheets became résumés. Three-day sentences turned to ten and ten days turned to thirty, and in a place like Jackson County, second chances were given but third and fourth chances never happened. Aiden’s reputation preceded him and he was too broke to leave. Too broke to leave is what gets a man to do it again and again, and before he knows it he’s right back where he started. That’s just the way the world turns. Every place has a backside and that was all he’d ever known. In a county where 99 percent were hardworking, god-fearing people who’d do anything for one another, folks like Aiden and Thad were walking, talking prayer requests.
At this point, even if the market turned around and the jobs came back, Aiden was out of favors. The only thing he could hope for was to save up enough money to move away. For months, he’d been setting aside whatever little bit he could, nothing more than a few hundred dollars stashed in a hide at the house. He didn’t want to leave the mountains. He would never leave the mountains. Flat land made him anxious, like the world was just too big. But he needed to get out of Jackson County, and a place like Asheville, where there were more people and more money and more jobs, made the most sense. That’s where they needed to be.