A SCENE FROM BREAKDOWN AT CLEAR RIVER~~ELIOT WALKER
CULLEN PEERED INSIDE the trunk lid. The collection of works by John Steinbeck and the notebooks full of notes and freewriting exercises for his summer class lay in a disheveled pile near the back of the trunk. Cullen slammed the lid shut. He stepped away from the car, a Honda Accord he’d borrowed from his friend and teammate Mike Ochoa, and looked at the trailer. A few plastic chairs lay scattered in the yard, surrounded by small tables underneath a sagging blue tarp. The land, enclosed on two sides by steep ravines, had grassy pasturelands planted with alfalfa, trefoil, and timothy. The morning fog was thick, so the treetops merged with the gray sky. Cullen hated the weather in mid-August. The topography of the Monroe County hardscrabble farmland trapped the trailer in a cocoon of humid heat. Cullen took a deep breath, his emotions oscillating like they always did at home. He felt an aching in his bones he couldn’t explain. Was it worthlessness? Vulnerability? All he knew for sure was that after a two-day visit, he was ready to leave. He needed to go back into the house one more time to make sure he had all of his belongings. Cullen stepped onto the frontward-leaning wooden deck. The deck absorbed his weight and bowed slightly in the middle. He looked up and noticed that the siding was smudged with mildew. He opened the front door and entered the living room, dimly lit and wallpaper yellowing with age. From the back room came sounds of his father stirring. Cullen frantically dug into his pockets to make sure he hadn’t locked the car keys inside the Honda Accord. It had happened before. He grinned when he heard the keys jingle in his pocket. He quickly ran through his mind the list of everything he needed: clean clothes, clean football uniform, shoulder pads, money, backpack, and Kroger’s groceries. Cullen gave one quick look around the room. The odor, which he hadn’t noticed earlier in the weekend, now left Cullen a bit nauseated. The room smelled like someone had holed up in it with dirty clothes and rotting food. Cigarette butts filled every ashtray. Flecks of ash were sprinkled here and there on the stained carpet. Cullen turned to leave. A droplet of blood slid onto his arm. He looked down and dabbed it with a finger. He caressed his swollen lip with the back of the same hand, and felt a slight sticking pain course through his mouth. He curled his lips and placed a hand on the screen door. “Where you going, son?” Cullen froze. He straightened his back and spoke into the screen. “Back to school, Dad. I told you on Friday, I could only stay for a couple days. Coach Miles needs me back to show the new freshmen around a little more.” “I was hoping you’d stay longer.” Cullen let out a long breath. “I’m just lucky Coach gave us a couple of days off.” Cullen turned around to face his father. Wendell Brewer, fairly thickset, had creases running across his round face. A mop of brown hair, tinged with gray, jutted from his head in various directions, a wisp hanging low on his forehead. His small eyes and fleshy lips were open. Cullen waited for his father to say something. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend enough time together this weekend, you know, as father and son.” “Save it, Dad. I came home to check on you. Where were you on Friday? At Maggie’s Bar in Union? The only thing you did was leave me the past-due bill notices on the kitchen table.” Cullen felt his lip pulsing in pain, although the bleeding had stopped. Wendell stepped back, his mouth trembling. “I didn’t want you to worry about those.” Cullen set his shoulders. “You really don’t remember what happened when you came home, do you?” Wendell raised an open palm at Cullen. “Son, I had been drinking a little…and…” “You staggered through the front door around 4:00 a.m. and went straight for the fridge looking for another beer. You saw the bills lying on the table and began screaming at me. You wanted to know why the bills hadn’t been paid. I told you I didn’t have any money to pay them right now. You went off! You picked up dirty plates from the sink and threw them at me. One of the plates broke against the wall and a piece cut my lip!” Cullen pointed at his mouth for emphasis. “Then it happened again on Saturday night; sleep all day, drink all night, with a little bit of fist-fighting-your-son thrown in.” Wendell looked down at the floor. “…I don’t remember.” “Because you blacked out! When I tried to calm you down, you took a swing at me and told me that I was a disgrace and an embarrassment. You said you wished I had been the one to die from cancer and not Mom. Do you know how that makes me feel? Do you know how it makes me feel to see you like this every time I come ‘home’ for a visit?” “Don’t you talk to me like that!” Wendell demanded. “You never come back here anymore to visit…not at Thanksgiving, Christmas, nothing. When you do, it’s usually because you want something or need something. It’s okay for you to ignore your old man most of the time, but it’s funny how you come back when something’s wrong.” Cullen folded his arms and shook his head. “You can’t be serious. I never come home, Dad, because it kills me to see what you’ve become. The dad from Friday and Saturday night is all I remember anymore. I want the dad that watched me play football since I was eight, the dad who raised all of that money for our high school team at James Monroe so we could get new uniforms. That dad is gone. Now, I’m stuck with a drunk. I swear I don’t know how Mom put up with it as long as she did.” Wendell’s eyes blazed. He knocked off a small lamp resting on a table near the wall with one swipe. The lamp cracked into two pieces as it hit the wall. He kicked it over the table. Cullen felt every muscle in his body tighten. He stepped back, bracing himself against the door. “You watch your mouth boy! You know nothing about your mother and me. I loved her and she loved me. Do you have any idea what it’s like to lose your job and your wife in the same year? No, no you don’t.” Cullen lowered his voice. “That was five years ago. Mom died and you got fired from the state park because of your drinking. And yes, I know what it’s like…I loved Mom. She meant everything to me. Instead of us helping each other, you became even more of a lush than ever before.” He reached back and pressed the latch on the screen door. “Look at you. No job, no family that wants to be with you, and soon you are going to lose the farm. Well, I’m done. I’m not going to be your punching bag anymore, just like Mom got tired of it.” Wendell charged at Cullen, but Cullen slipped out the door, leaped down the deck steps and tossed himself into the car. He managed to get the key inserted in the ignition and throw the car in reverse as Wendell tried to pounce on the hood. Cullen flushed the pedal to the floor of the car, kicking up pieces of gravel and rock as he climbed the driveway. He refused to look back at the trailer, but he did cast a look back at the farm, which grew smaller until it disappeared into the fog. He climbed the ravine and guided the car onto West Virginia Route 12. Cullen settled back into the seat and began to sob. He gripped the steering wheel, unsure whether to be angry or sad about his dad and their relationship. Cullen sped through a stop sign just outside of Peterstown. A beige van slammed on brakes as a horn sounded. Cullen nearly leaped out of his seat and waved apologetically at the female driver, then buckled himself in. He knew the route from Lindside to Beaumont quite well. In fact, he had the trip memorized. West Virginia Route 12 would become U.S. Route 219. The route then headed north through Peterstown and entered rural southwest Monroe County. Passing through Cashmere, Ballard, and Red Sulphur Springs, Route 12 met West Virginia Route 122. The highway paralleled the Greenbrier River and passed Big Bend Mountain before it joined West Virginia Route 3. The route then wound northeast along the river to Barnettown before heading north through another mountainous area, eventually leading onto Interstate 64. Thinking"