We’re not so special after all.
When Sean Tower is alone in the dark with the gaminess of the prison muscling through his nostrils, he will contemplate the many atoms his body has swapped since that terrible spring when his father killed Rocket Davies. How many skins must one shed before there's nothing left? How many lives must be lived and how many lost? He closes his eyes and falls away from the hellish chasm of his cell and dreams of the electrons hemorrhaging from Rocket's eyes. He dreams of fishing trips with his grandfather. He dreams of mountains and the sea and the women he’s known. Dreams of his Aunt Abigail. Shorty and her brother. He dreams of Nessa.
Sean had assumed the loss of any sentimentality after those years on the force. He thought he’d hardened like his father and his uncle. Like the faces of the mob he saw on every shift. Tempered beyond tensile. Unmovable. Inescapable. The job misshaped him, twisted him like hot steel. Another skin molted away, another face peeled to reveal another.
Once the killings began, Sean could see the end of everything on the horizon as if it were some desert landmark, some odd shaped hill or teetering boulder where the scavengers wait for the weak and the hunted. What began as an effort to change the past became a supercharged echo of it. The cycle he endeavored to break proved monolithic and invincible but it trapped him with subtlety and patience until the thought of escape failed to cross his mind.
Three days after Sean Tower’s mother caught him lying about throwing plates from the second story window, lightning struck Rocket Davies. Sean Tower watched it happen. He was racing home through the wind and the sirens, the first bullet droplets strafing him as he made the corner in a sprint up the slope of lawn toward his front door. Rocket was across the street, securing his trash cans to a tree with a bungie cord. He had to hold his hat to his head like a ballerina as he waved to Sean and joked about the wind. Sean would remember and imagine it transformed into many things over the years. A white sword stroke. A blinding laser blast. An atomic anomaly. As time passed, Sean would wake from dreams of what it was supposed to have been, a jagged reaction one billion volts wide that never fell from the sky but rather it always originated inside Rocket and filled his eyes in the long frigid silence before the thunder, before it filled Sean’s eyes too.
Rocket lived or at least the shell everyone recognized as Rocket Davies was still animated. He still walked and talked and mowed his lawn and still bungied his cans to his tree but now he couldn’t complete a sentence without using fuck or goddamned or cunt and he was arrested for slapping his wife and he killed two of his neighbor’s cats. He drank now, picked fights with strangers, sat on his porch growling and hissing at the sky. Sean’s father would eventually shoot Rocket Davies to death in the alley behind the house. Sean would witness this as well but he would never dream about it.
Over the following decades, any recollection of his father firing those shots into the shadows behind the house were rare until Sean would open his eyes to the night blue ceiling of his jail cell in the creeping hours before dawn, before trial. Always a different perversion of the event, the memory would frustrate him to tears. He would wonder how his father—if he were still alive—would have remembered it. He would wonder if his father would remember the half-moon and the stillness. Would he remember the sound of the trees against the power lines in the alley? Would he remember the moisture in the air? The smell of rain?
At first, his mother grounded him from his bike and television for a month but her attitude softened after church the following day. The subject of Uncle Ned’s sermon that week was forgiveness. The moment they returned home, Samantha Tower told her son he could ride his bike but still no television for a week. The following conversation between his parents started while Sean was changing clothes, catching fleeting phrases of potential argument. He had already dashed through the screen door and was in the alley before his father reminded his mother that all boys are impulsive and their son was no different. She worried over symptoms of illness, a boiling mental defect. Kelly Tower told her that he had spent enough time working juvie that he could recognize mentally disturbed children and their son was perfectly and precociously normal. He hated to use the word average to describe his son but it always calmed Samantha.
The war story Uncle Ned used in his sermon convinced Sean to forgive his friend Chip for misplacing one of the comic books he had loaned him. Ned had told the congregation how he volunteered for Vietnam. He told them how he spent part of his tour loading Howitzers in the dust and the din and the other part as an RTO carrying radios, targeting the artillery in a jungle that sizzled like hot grease. He described the fog on the morning his CO assigned him to a pair of Rangers whose uniforms lacked any distinction. No names. No stripes. He described the sunrise on the mountains as he followed them into the boonies, how they hiked well into the afternoon before either of them spoke to him. They ordered Ned to high ground, providing a wide survey of an open field where the shadow of the setting sun had already begun to slink. They told him to wait for the marker round that would fall near the field at a specified time then they turned and dissolved into the green obscurity below. Ned detailed the diminishing light as shapes of men began emerging from the wood line. He had never seen the enemy before and he would never see them again. Ned recalled how they moved like roaches, starting and stopping, darting and meandering. He noted the body of the group moving into the field, men carrying crates and sacks on their backs. When the marker round came screaming down, the silhouettes froze in the eternal moment before it landed. There was shouting. Whispering over the podium, Ned explained how, as the figures drained back into the wood line, he realized the shapes were not men carrying crates but women carrying children. There was screaming. He closed his eyes and whispered into the church that he relayed the adjusted coordinates into the radio and as if he had thrown a handful of pebbles into a pond, the ordinance fell upon the trees. Fire consumed the darkness. The earth trembled beneath his feet.
The silence of the church rose into the void. The hushed movement of clothing. Throat clearing in the upper pews. The flutter of pages. Ned told them he spent another year in Vietnam, broke his ankle and came home to become a police officer and then a pastor and he told them how he asked for God’s forgiveness every day, every single day for almost fifteen years and he never once felt his prayers could ever reconcile his redemption. Ned told them he was wrong. He told them an old seminary friend had recently invited him back to the peninsula and after some debate and discussion, Ned and his wife had flown to Vietnam and fallen in love with the country and the people. Ned soon felt sure he would find peace in his return. He had found a small church to sponsor and he reminded his members the name of the church and how to send gifts or donations. Ned described how he became particularly close to an elderly woman who spent most of her time volunteering and cooking for the congregation. He remembered how even in a country like Vietnam where they built everything smaller and shorter, she had to stand on boxes to reach ingredients in cabinets. One day, this woman confessed to him her visions of Jesus. She told Ned that she and an ethereal Christ would discuss the ways of the world late into the night. Ned recounted the two weeks he watched her cook and listened to her testimony of holy visitations until one sweltering night, he had finally heard enough. Aggravated, he told her that when Jesus came to her again, ask him what sin Pastor Tower committed in the war. She refused to believe that he could have sinned, not even in the war when everything was a sin. Ned assured her that he had sinned. He assured her (and the congregation) that everybody commits sin, every soul filled with it. Ned remembered the smile on her face when he arrived that next evening. He asked her if she had seen Jesus. Had Christ revealed the pastor’s sin? Ned stopped his sermon again. Silence filled the chapel again. Ned whispered that she had in fact asked Jesus about Pastor Tower. She whispered that Jesus knew Ned, of course. Polite laughter rose from the pews. She asked Jesus what sin Pastor Tower had committed during the war and Christ sat at the foot of her bed thinking about it for most of the night. Ned shrugged his shoulders at the people and told them he had to ask the question. Again. Had Christ revealed his sin? Ned shook his head and said she smiled at him and told him that Christ couldn’t remember.
If there’s a way home, I hope I miss the turn.
Months before Sean Tower sheds one of his skins by turning his back on Kelly Tower and walking out of his childhood, Coalition Forces begin the bombardment of Iraq. His peers salivate at the footage. They need their war. A generation overdue for their bloodbath. Sean considers volunteering. If anything, the military provides an education and he knows war accelerates advancement. He knows he can endure the military. His father and Billy Tower pressure him to enlist before he misses the fight. Billy hopes a war will clear his grandson’s path while Kelly wants Sean in the mix, out of his house. He wants Sean to be a voice on a phone, muddy with distance. By mid-February of 1991, Sean knows, whatever he decides, this war will end before it matters. With his lies behind him, Sean instead declares war on his fear.
That last year of desocializing at school, that last year of crushing honesty with his family, that year honed him for flight. He runs west into the desert. At first he hitchhikes. The experience soothes some of his more jaded assumptions about human nature. He finds his honesty an asset with strangers. Strangers crave honesty and when Sean provides it, he discovers an almost universal willingness to reciprocate. Following a protracted discussion with a pair of raggedy men in a rainy Denny’s parking lot, Sean discovers freight trains. Among the hobos and lost minds mingles a growing culture of wanderers, young and radical, bent on escaping the same institutions Sean had abandoned. It is on the trains where anarchist ideas about individual autonomy and disdain for authority lure Sean further and farther.
His hair grows long. He starts smoking. He starts drinking. He learns how to eat from dumpsters. He composes short pieces of poetic graffiti on train cars and bathroom mirrors. He runs in the LA riots after the Rodney King beating. He throws rocks at cops in Seattle and Tijuana. He squats in Rocky Mountain ghost towns. He sees Canada from Vancouver Island to Cape Henrietta Maria. In a commune on Vancouver Island where he stays for a year, sleeping with a girl from New York, he learns to make moonshine and strawberry rhubarb pie. He washes dishes in a motel in Montana. He washes cars in Maine. He steals cars in Florida. He chases young, unwashed girls he meets in every new town. He follows a brunette from Vegas to Houston on a bet, a blonde from Houston to Hawaii, an Asian from Hawaii to L.A..
Though he avoids meaningful relationships, he enjoys hundreds of acquaintances. Regardless of his distance, he strikes people as personable. Twenty years later he will remember all their faces if not their names. He meets dreamers and realists, the seekers and the scorned. He meets drug dealers and murders and thieves, runaways, deserters, sociopaths and psychopaths, people in hiding, people who aren’t people anymore and people so bored they walked out of their homes one day never to set foot in a house again. He reads Bakunin and Proudhon, Abbey and Chomsky, Hoffman and Rubin. He travels south with migrants and north with punk bands. Where others struggle to sustain themselves, Sean endures. Within three years of leaving home, he has trashed the rest of his innocence and whipped the struggle of survival into a routine. Meanwhile, the fear endures and it hounds him through his memories and the flashes of dark faces in the deep shadows of the boxcars.
Sean took a moment to explain that Jesus wanted him to forgive Chip. If Sean had lost one of Chip’s comics, Sean would want Chip to forgive him. Chip called him a nerd and promised to replace it or Sean could take one from his disheveled pile, excluding a short stack of favorites that he set aside with authority. Sean chose one he had never seen, issue #1 of The Badger, the tales of a masked vigilante suffering from multiple personality disorder. Sean read it at the dining room table while his mother loaded the dishwasher. He read it again in the porch light right after sunset. He read it again in his bed by the dead gleam of static from his tiny portable black and white television. For the rest of the week, he would carry it with him, scanning the panels, reciting dialogue, his imagination willing the scenes into an insubstantial reality. Kelly Tower noticed Sean’s obsession and took the magazine from his sleeping son’s room one morning and read it at the kitchen counter. Samantha found him confused and unenthused when she woke to start breakfast. They spent the sunrise staring at their meals, arguing the ethics of sneaking into their children’s rooms. Kelly Tower finally checked his watch, buttoned the shoulder holster over his shirt and pushed the badge over his belt. He left Samantha responsible for returning the book.
In addition to being insane, The Badger was strong. Both a brute and an intellectual, he could engage in philosophical discussion while dispatching entire packs of muscle bound street thugs. He was a Vietnam vet suffering the horrors of a pencil drawn apocalypse buried deep within his mind. He was a sarcastic and corny jokester whose faults somehow served as scaffolds to his strengths. Although The Badger believed violence justified violence, mere rudeness might result in a bloody flurry of Shorin-Ryu. The Badger’s belief that his mission and code were gifts from a god—a badger god—provoked his zeal.
Billy Tower and his sons, Kelly the younger and Ned the older, adhered to a code not unlike The Badger’s. They too believed violence cured violence. They shared many of the same faults and strengths. Kelly went to Vietnam despite his wounded brother forcing a train ticket for Canada into his hand and he spent 1970 sitting on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Defying the memory of the anarchist, atheist father he had never known, Billy had joined the army in 1939 eventually recruited into AVG as a mechanic and found himself screaming at Japanese Zeros from the dorsal gun of a Douglas A-20 Havoc over Burma. The dark humor of cops populated their conversations. Rarely in agreement on any subject more than half the time, they experienced many nagging philosophical differences. However, the Towers were loyal and collectively strong, making them perfect cops. Revered by other members of the force, to Sean, they were gods.
At eleven years old, Sean knew nothing of anarchism or the murder of Fox Tower’s wife. He only knew that his great grandfather was an atheist, a word that could roll any Tower’s eyes. Billy and Imogene Tower met at Waylon Baptist University. They raised their two sons and two daughters in a Baptist home. Ned’s choice to join the Church of Christ was a break from his parents to an extent and it paved a smooth precedent for his siblings. One by one, Billy and Imogene watched their children grow up, leave home and leave the Baptist Church. Billy would stop attending church, blamed it on boredom. Yet, his disconnection would never sour his willingness to argue theology with his children. Apologetics with Ned. New-age evangelism with his youngest daughter, Lillian. With time and the recognition that at least half her children had proven far more devout than she, Imogene Tower relaxed on the issue.
Lillian had married her high school boyfriend who parlayed a short career racing motorcycles into a lucrative sales position at a global parts and accessories company. She had grown far wealthier than the other Tower children. This disparity chewed on Lillian’s brothers for years. When Lillian’s first daughter was born with muscular dystrophy and the denial and anger finally subsided, the couple gravitated to Born-Again Evangelism and its focus on divine intervention through the power of prayer. A cavernous rift opened in the family one Christmas Night when Ned cracked jokes as Lillian, her husband and several members of their church laid hands on the afflicted child and prayed in tongues over her incredulous, contorted face. By 3am, the following argument left Lillian crying in her bedroom, Kelly and Ned had raised their voices at Lillian’s husband, and Billy had finally stepped between them, his cool grin a reminder of the power he held over them all.
The stories Imogene would tell of Billy Tower after his death spanned the years in such a way that he would always seem youthful and energetic. She would recount yarns of his reckless days in the war when he drank and he cussed. Everyone knew she only told these stories in order to add his subsequent change when he came home, never uttering another vulgarity and only indulging an annual beer at Christmas. She told stories of his years on the force, paying in secret the parking tickets neighbors asked him to look into, of the dogs he rescued from abusive owners, the drunken husbands to whom he proselytized, the greasy young ruffians he took under his wing. Sean’s visit to Billy Tower’s hospital room the snowy night his heart failed would prove the only weak moment in Sean’s atheism.
On rare occasions, Sean would hear his grandfather compare some foolish individual and his errors to Fox Tower. Sean would hear his father compare Rocket Davies to Fox Tower. No one else in the Tower family talked about him. As teenagers, Sean and his younger sister would find artifacts in deep corners of their grandfather’s attic. A pocketknife bearing the initials FHT. A pair of highlaced, steel-toed boots. They would find odd shaped sepia photographs of a young Fox Tower driving logging trucks, working saws, drinking beer from a glass mug, standing next to a young woman holding an infant they would assume was Billy Tower. No one talked about her either.
In the future, Fox Tower would rule Sean from the grave. What neither Sean nor his family knew was how Fox ruled Billy as well. They all knew the woman in the picture on the wall in Billy and Imogene’s bedroom was his mother, her beauty evident in the imaginings of two generations of Tower daughters. With nothing ever spoken of her by the adults, young girls whispered tales of adventure and romance until Imogene quietly reminded them we don’t talk about that.
It was Billy’s estranged half-sister who would unveil Fox Tower’s missing history. Sean would accidentally meet her in Salt Lake City in his early twenties. She would show him the stained newspaper clippings she kept in a wooden box on a shelf in her closet. While living in Texarkana, a schoolteacher with whom Fox had been having an affair murdered his first wife while he was away logging in East Texas. She had snuck into the house during Baby Billy’s bath. When the child was asleep, Fox’s lover emerged from under the bed, stabbed her twelve times, and then the schoolteacher stabbed herself into a gruesome reflection of her victim. They died on the floor looking one another in the eyes. Billy Tower never forgave his father for his mother’s absence.
He loved harder than most people.
He just never got the chance.
In a clever hint at her lesbianism, Cecily Tower tells Sean she isn’t the marrying type. If Billy Tower’s sister had ever married, Sean wouldn’t have mentioned the coincidence in their last names and she wouldn’t reveal the monumental serendipity in their meeting. Sean is part of a small crew installing photovoltaic systems across the country this summer. Cecily Tower spends a large portion of her retirement from the Salt Lake City school system on enough solar modules, batteries, and power equipment to remove her suburban home from the electrical grid. Sean’s boss met Cecily Tower—Libertarian Party member, life-long NRA member—at a gun show in Oklahoma where he gave her brochures and catalogs for off-grid homes. Following a legal battle with the city, she not only won the right to detach from the grid but the brick walled perimeter with its armored gate, the roof turrets, and the escape tunnel all stayed. Sean jokes with her about paranoia and Cecily maintains everyone should be paranoid about something. She says anyone with a blunderbuss can prepare themselves for random crime but fending off the government is a tiger of all together different stripes.
She shows him the box of clippings and the few scrap books. There are photos of Billy Tower as a baby. Clippings of dead men in streets. There are pictures of different women from different eras, smiling, not smiling, vacant. There’s a picture of an eighteen year-old Fox Tower, recently escaped from his family’s mundane Kansas farm, standing in front of a steamship in New York City. For reasons Cecily can’t clarify, her father had gone to Russia to join the revolution. During his voyage, the revolution had become a civil war and through a harrowing series of events (a murder aboard ship, an encounter with the cook’s daughter, his flight across Turkey and the Black Sea) Fox landed in the Free Territory of Ukraine where Nestor Makhno’s Black Army protected the Ukrainian peasants as they conducted their ill-fated experiment in communal anarchism.
After the Bolsheviks defeated the Black Army, Fox emerged in East Texas where he and his immigrant wife, Oxanna, ran a logging business until her murder. Cecily shows him the slanted newspaper articles concerning the grisly deaths of Oxanna and the school teacher. Cecily tells Sean that certain politicians leapt at the chance the accuse Fox—a known anarchist—of the crime. He ran to Tennessee where his mother’s sister raised Billy until he joined the army. Contrary to Fox’s original intention, he left for West Virginia to fight at the Battle of Blair Mountain within weeks.
Now law enforcement had genuine reason to hunt him down. In turn, Fox Tower became the vicious outlaw they envisioned. He appeared on wanted posters for robberies and terrorism against the coal companies. The requisite underworld connections brought Fox to marry Cecily’s mother, the daughter of a mobster captain overseeing movement of liquor through the South. She says her mother always told her that Oxanna was Fox’s true love and that he probably died thinking if her. Cecily feels sure Billy would have turned out another way had Oxanna lived. Sean points out that if she had lived, Cecily wouldn’t exist to tell the story.
The day after they throw the switch on Cecily’s home, her inverter humming, her row of security monitors flickering, Sean hops freight trains to West Virginia and Tennessee where he scours the hills for what remains of Fox Tower. He spends hours in libraries and town halls and county annexes, sleeps on the slopes of the Appalachians in hobo camps and caves. He finds dozens of seniors who describe childhood recollections of the chiseled face they know as Tower. They talk about the meetings where Tower convinced their parents to fight the companies. They talk about fleeing in the dark and the sounds of rifles in the woods. People who disappeared. Graves in the mist. A woman with cancer who lives in a horse trailer tells him about Fox and the Barker brothers, three brothers from New York fleeing the Palmer Raids, dedicated to lives of illegalism.
Sean goes to Chicago where he sleeps with a woman who, while researching a sociology thesis, recorded an interview with her grandfather. On the recording, the old man recounts his correspondence with the Barkers and how his family sent food and weapons, investing in propaganda of the deed. While sitting on a porch so close to a railway, potted flowers vibrate across the window sill long before any train passes, Sean listens to another old man say that although Tower faced blowback from religious leaders for some of his more violent acts, he retained the support of the workers till the end. The Barkers and Fox killed company men and destroyed company property while the coal families waited for the tales of their exploits, akin to Merry Men around Sherwood campfires.
On the first page of the first issue of The Badger, a wizard cuts a young boy’s throat for the blood that powers his magic. This scene shaped Kelly Tower’s opinion of the book, the scene Sean was admiring when Rocket Davies knocked over a gumball machine as he entered the drugstore. On trips home from school, Sean had been stopping there, rapt with anticipation for a second issue, drawn to the remaining first issue which he kept nestled behind a Green Arrow and a Scrooge McDuck, two comics no one would touch. He didn’t dare take his copy to school. Sean hadn’t seen Rocket Davies in weeks. He hadn’t seen him since the fire truck and the ambulance had arrived howling in the worst moments of the storm. All Sean could see when he stared at his filthy neighbor, drunk, sprawled on the floor, shouting at the store manager from the chaotic constellation of spilled gumballs, was all the electricity, all the heat and lumina. When the manager at last dragged him through the exit, Rocket’s loopy eyes found Sean hung with fear. Rocket’s expression changed from raging embarrassment to accusatory realization.
Sean’s mother had developed an sympathetic relationship with Rocket after his wife stole away with his children several months before the accident. Rocket worked nights in a warehouse which made him available to peek at leaky pipes or carry groceries, kill a wasp, anything she felt might keep him busy if she caught him staring into the vacant space above his yard as he had grown accustomed after his family disappeared. In due course, Rocket misinterpreted Samantha Tower’s little chores and adorable appreciations. She would bare traces of the guilt for the rest of her life.
Kelly Tower reprimanded Rocket Davies for speeding down their street. The tattered truck had painted a black minor arc of rubber into the driveway. Exhibition of acceleration was particular peeve of Kelly’s even though his days as a patrolman were far behind him. Kelly caught him losing his temper with lawn equipment and talking his way through midnight stupors in his yard. Rocket had lost his job. The worst of it for Kelly was the staring, Rocket always recording the Towers’ activity, stopping in mid-stride or mid-task to watch their coming-and-going, the dark beam of his yellow gaze always tracking them. Kelly once heard enough of an insult faintly translated across the width of the street between them that he stepped onto Rocket’s lawn and pointed a finger in his face. Rocket would file a complaint with the city, claiming Kelly Tower was wearing his badge when he threatened him. The complaint evaporated. At night, after the television fell silent, Sean listened to his parents discuss Rocket with concern and pain. They talked about guns and telephone numbers. They talked about locks on doors and windows. They talked about the safety of Sean and his sister. Kelly raged over Samantha’s mistake, allowing Rocket into the house while she and the kids were alone. Sean lay prone on the floor with his ear cocked toward the gash of light at the bottom of his bedroom door where even the softest conversations in the living room traveled some chance architecture in the stairs to arrive amplified. Sometimes their discussions tapered and disappeared. Other times, they ended with his mother crying or his father reviving the television.
Sean and Chip had already agonized over The Badger’s bi-monthly publication schedule—twice as long as they were accustomed to waiting for a comic—but according to an editor’s note, their wait would be two extra months. Unknown to Sean was how the absence of a second issue cooled his father’s concern, although not before he consulted his brother on the book’s occult material. Kelly’s periodic gullibility had shaped the Tower brothers’ childhood. Ned rarely let pass an opportunity to prank him, once shaving a lion’s mane and tail on the family collie just to frighten Kelly who had recently discovered Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. They were older now and even though Ned knew satanic cults were uncommon, if not completely fictitious, he restrained his instincts. According to Ned, Kelly he had nothing to worry about. He reminded him how their mother fidgeted and complained when Ned and his gang would close thirteen year-old Kelly in the trunk of his Dodge Dart and go to the drive-in for biker films and horror movies. Ned recalled their father’s reaction to Kelly’s brief obsession with Billy Jack movies. Billy Tower had torn a flat-brimmed hat with a beaded band off Kelly’s head one night. He slapped him around the back patio with it until Kelly was almost in tears.
In the course of retelling the yarn that had already seen years of mileage, a sentimental reminiscence of their more able father found them in the dusty afternoon light shattering in the upper trusses of the church. Their father had smacked Kelly around the back of that house in 1972. Ned had just entered seminary. Sean was a newborn, Kelly a month past his discharge. Billy Tower was fifty-one years old. They remembered the physicality the old man retained until a car accident anchored him to a shattered hip in ‘81. Once the stubborn Billy Tower accepted that his ruined hip had sparked sympathy from his family, he used it to his advantage. He needed Ned to help him finish building a garage onto the cabin in New Mexico where they discussed Ned’s charities and the church’s obligation to the force. He needed Lillian to drive him to his see his banker and his attorney then during a late lunch, they compared her daughter’s newest treatments. The gravity of his injury had reversed his family’s slow detachment.
Billy consistently needed Sean for fishing trips. They rarely caught much more than a meal over a campfire but Sean devoured stories of his grandfather’s childhood and he would relive them as he slept in his bag under the dark hush of the pines. The reoccurring themes of endurance and self-reliance struck Sean as superhuman qualities only the Towers possessed. Billy Tower saved his logging wages for two years to pay for a trailer loaded with all the parts to a Model-T Ford. It took three more months of experimenting before the car finally cranked to life. He spent the first part of his life picking cotton from dawn to sunset on his aunt’s farm. Sean imagined the blisters on his own hands as Billy sang him the songs the niggers taught him to keep his mind off the pain. In one of Sean’s favorite tales, Billy was sixteen and had just begun driving logging trucks when a mudslide nearly killed three men. Billy heard the earth belch and he leaned across the cab to see the flow moving down the slope above him. He could feel the doom of it shaking his truck from the rubber in the ruts to the chains gripping the timber. The great glob of mud and boulders and trees split to their bright yellow cores oozed onto the road. The three trucks disappeared behind him and then, as if he had taken a sharp turn, Billy felt the rear of his rig tip toward the fall. He scrambled through the passenger window as the cab rolled and he leapt to the road where he watched his truck pushed free of the slide path. It tumbled into the gap, dumping the full load of timber against the slope in a manner seeming almost designed. After the whole mess came to a stop, Billy blacked out, not a single recollection until he was down in the twisted roots and wreckage struggling the loggers from their misshapen cabs. Billy told Sean he felt as if something had reached inside him to switch off his fear. After he had gathered together the three busted drivers—not one fit enough to walk much less climb out of the ravine—Billy scanned the drop he had traversed to reach them, only then realizing the scale of their predicament. The two conscious men insisted he climb back up and walk the fifteen miles to camp for help. Billy could hear the hill grumbling like an old man waking from a nap. Then they heard thunder. Billy refused to leave them. The thunder could have shaken everything down on them. A flood could have barreled through there and drown them. He cut a section of rope and dragged each man up the slope to the road then he lashed an A-framed sled from a mangle of limbs he gathered from the muddy dragon tail of earth stretching up and down the hill. After he wrestled the shocked men onto the sled, Billy Tower dragged them twelve miles in a rainstorm before discovered by fellow loggers who had finally set out the next morning to investigate. Billy would make Sean giggle by diminishing the whole affair, reminding him it was downhill the whole way.
I’m too tired to cry about this.
Sean’s sister, Casey, calls him in Atlanta where he is staying with an acquaintance who sells weed and alcohol to minors from a university dorm room. Overhearing the phone call, the dealer gives Sean money to fly home to see his dying grandfather. When Kelly Tower picks him up at the airport, Sean senses his father’s diminished power. This compels him to stay after the funeral. He hopes there might be some cathartic discussion between them, some moment of vulnerability, some loosening in the laces on Kelly’s armor but the old cop questions his hair style, complains about his body odor and grills him on his lifestyle to which Sean answers with his robotic honesty countered by Kelly’s sarcasm and acrimony.
Kelly’s second wife, Diana—the trainee—hasn’t left him yet and she and Sean become familiar over the month he stays with them. Diana notices the stark polarities between Sean and his father and she mentions them time after time to both of them. She proves shallow and ignorant, fostering too much fear of Kelly Tower to be much of a conversationalist. Sean soon loses interest in her. Three years later, both Sean and Diana will miss Kelly Tower’s funeral.
In a great, creeping phalanx of midnight blue uniforms, badges glinting gray reflections of the overcast sky into one another’s eyes, the force will put Kelly Tower in the ground. White glove will grip white glove and the ceremony will bring them into formation before the grave, the tombstones riding the green hills across the cemetery into a hazy distance where the color of the grass and the ash of the stones becomes one color, one obscurity. Ned Tower will give a eulogy only cops can suffer then the gathering will dissolve and drift like dark ocean sand through the cemetery gates. Two men in a prison labor program will work the shovels over the grave, taking turns looking out and pissing on the casket.
A mere month at home with his family and scattered childhood friends, carves a rut around him so he packs his bag after his last visit with his mother and sister and drops in on his aunt Abigail. Following her divorce from Ned, she found an administrative position in an exclusive nursing home. She claims it the happiest time of her life. She and Sean sit on the balcony outside her office discussing Sean’s adventures, her eyes never averting from his eyes, her hand never leaving his hand. She wants to know his plans. Sean tells her plans seem futile in a world where every individual plan is either dependent on or in conflict with every other plan and all those plans don’t mean anything under the weight of the chaos. She hopes he might find some purpose, invoking his lack of higher education and his empathetic nature. She can’t bear to think of him realizing one heavy evening in the distant future that he wandered through life, neglecting his potential.