"Ain't it some kind of thanks," my grandfather said as he latched up the back of the truck, the mules inside jostling to get their footing, and Orphan's long ear had swiveled back at the sound of his voice. The best of them brought three or four cents a pound as dog meat; some of them would merely be heaved six deep into a trench that would be filled in with dirt by men on tractors. The hollow report of hooves on the truck bed echoed even after the truck had pulled onto the road and turned out of sight. The exact same sound could be heard all through the county, all across the hills of Tennessee and up through Kentucky, across Missouri and Kansas, and all the way out West, even, you could hear it. The mules' job, it was finished.
When the back of the truck is finally shut, my father is high above, hiding in the hayloft. At church the pale-haired girl had pulled him into the center aisle just before the service and told him her news, the news of me. All through the sermon his mind had flipped like a fish, and he had stared hard at the back of Eula's neck, trying to still that fish. In the hayloft he thinks of this moment as he listens to the shouts of the truck driver and the engine backfiring once before the mules are pulled away, but he doesn't come to the edge, he doesn't look down for one last glimpse of Orphan Lad.
Late that night my father creeps to the Victrola in the living room and carefully opens the top of the cabinet. He slides a record onto the turntable and turns the crank, then sets his eraser and needle between his teeth and presses it to the first groove. A fiddle plays, is joined by a guitar, and then a high lonesome voice starts in about heartbreak. Every time he listens to his records like this, the first notes take him by surprise. When the music starts to fill his head, he can't believe it is coming from the record on the turntable and not from a place within himself. He closes his eyes and imagines Eula Parker is in the room, dancing behind him in a dark red dress. He moves his face across the record, following the groove with the needle, and spit collects in the pockets of his cheeks. Eula, Eula, Eula. He lets her name roll around in his head until it is unclear, too, whether this sound is coming from the record on the turntable, or from the deepest hollows of his heart.
Three weeks after the last load of mules goes, a tractor overturns on a hill down by the river and nearly kills one of the hands. It is not an unexpected tragedy. My grandfather is the only one with the man, and he pulls him out from underneath the seat and searches through the grass for three scattered fingers while the engine continues to choke and whir. He drives the man to the hospital in Nashville and doesn't return until late that night. His trip home is held up by an accident at the bridge that takes nearly an hour to be cleared away. When he finally arrives back, his son is waiting on the porch to tell him about the pale-haired girl.
My father has rehearsed what he will say dozens of times to the fence posts and icebox, but when he sees his father's brown, blood-caked forearms and hands, he is startled enough to forget what it was. Weary and white in the face, my grandfather sits down next to him on the top step and touches his shoulder.
"Son," he says, "you're gonna see a future I can't even stretch my mind around. Not any of it. I can't even begin to imagine."Report Typo/Error
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