I. The Legend of Mary and Ronnie
According to the legend, there’s a serpentine road in McConnelsville, Ohio that carves a hundred-acre wood into unequal halves. Mary used to walk the road often because it did not draw much traffic. She could walk the double yellow line around sharp corners and never fear what was on the other side. From start to finish, the road was a seven-mile trek through densely packed trees, alongside streams, up and down hills that were populated by deer and raccoons and hopping bunny rabbits. The animals ambled down the road without fearing trucks or tractors would careen over a hill and crush the cartilage in their bodies. About fifty or sixty feet below the road was a shallow creek filled with sharp, pointed stones. It’s been said that one tumble over the guardrail would fling you all the way down to the stream and cast you headfirst into the stones, shatter you like a glass bottle thrown onto cold asphalt.
On the side of the road opposite the steep drop was a series of bluffs too severe to climb, craggy-faced facades scratched out by dynamite explosions during construction, a wall of doom for any vehicle if it lost control. Even the paved road itself was dangerous walking, with its series of blind curves, but Mary still preferred to do it alone. On any given Saturday when she went walking she may have been the only one to traverse it in weeks, such was its reputation.
It was a Saturday morning the first time she met another person on the road. He was sitting upright on a wheelchair in a clump of shade, waving and nodding politely at her arrival. Mary’s face betrayed her surprise at encountering him, and the man must have sensed this, for he spoke first.
“Sorry to disturb your stroll, ma’am. I don’t imagine you see many folks out here.” She watched his face closely as he spoke. He was flushed a deep crimson, the color of physical exertion. His broad brow was saturated with sweat.
“Thing is,” he continued, not waiting for her to speak, “I’ve found myself in somewhat of a predicament, as I am quite lost and the clouds seem to suggest it’s about to storm.”
The fellow had a heart-shaped face with chiseled features: a long and shapely nose, pronounced cheekbones, a sharp chin, all balanced on a strong-looking, sinewy neck. Mary noticed how his eyebrows moved expressively while he talked.
“Also, I’m new to the area, so I don’t know which are the best places to take refuge. You wouldn’t happen to know any place a fellow like me might find a bed and a three squares, would you?”
“What’s your name?” Mary said. What a curious fellow this was!
“’Name’s Ronnie Stockton,” he said, “of the Zanesville Stocktons. Do you know of us?”
“Yes, I’ve heard the name,” Mary said. “I recall a Reverend Stockton from when I went to church on Maple Avenue…of course that was years ago.”
“Ah, my great-uncle, the minister! Died just recently, I’m sorry to say. And your name?”
“’Nice to meet you, Mary. What do you propose I do then, since you’re the local expert?”
Mary thought about it for a moment. “Honestly, the walk only gets worse from here. You’re already past the easy stretch, so most of what you’ve got left is uphill and winding.” She paused and looked up the hill, nearly swallowing her next question. “Now really, though, what were you thinking coming through here on a wheel chair? I’m amazed you even made it this far without tumbling over the guardrail!”
Ronnie laughed loudly. “Wouldn’t be the first time that happened to someone on these roads, I imagine.”
“No it wouldn’t,” Mary said. “Why don’t you just follow me back to my house, then? It’s a bit of a walk, but it’s the better of your two prospects right now…What do you say?”
Ronnie thought for a moment. “Alright then, Mary, so long as you wouldn’t be delayed on my account.”
“No delay at all. I ought to get back inside myself.”
“Well in that case, we ought to get started soon,” Ronnie said, “are you sure you don’t mind?”
It began to pour; Mary pushed Ronnie’s chair as fast as she could up the steep gravel driveway, her thighs and calves burning with complaint, her hair absorbing water like a dry sponge. Salty drops welled in their eyes as they scurried along. Ronnie parked his chair in the shed out back and bounded through the side yard on a pair of canes. They entered the kitchen soaking wet, bodies flinging water everywhere, panting for air.
“Woo!” Ronnie said, shaking his head vigorously.
“Woo, indeed!” Mary said. “You stay here. I’ll go get us some towels.”
The rubber soles of her walking shoes squeaked like bath toys on her way to the linen closet. She brought back two large towels and a hand towel for Ronnie’s canes.
“Dry those off well,” she said. “I don’t want you slipping on this tile. I have enough problems with it when I’m on my own two feet.”
Drying off, Mary watched the intermittent flashes of lightning firing up the clouds through the open window over the sink. Loud claps of thunder followed in the lightning’s stead. Her face assumed a faraway expression.
“Looks like an all-day storm,” Ronnie said, coming up behind her. Mary felt his warm breath on the back of her neck as he spoke. “That’s an awfully thick gray in the clouds right now. Good thing I didn’t try to go up that hill. I would have been in a bit of a fix.”
Mary kept staring out the window. “You wouldn’t have made it up that second gradient in your chair,” she said. “Too steep.” She began to chastise him but hesitated. Instead she looked him up and down again – he wasn’t all that tall, but he was broad and toned through the shoulders, and reasonably handsome. He had a nice melodic way of speaking, too, used more words than was necessary.
“I’ve climbed some fairly sizeable hills before,” Ronnie continued, “so I know I can do it. My arms are strong and tried if there’s anything true about me. That one was probably out of my league, though, you’re right.” He shifted his weight from the right cane to the left.
“How come you went down there all the way by yourself?” Mary asked.
“Same reason you did, I imagine. I like to walk in the woods.”
“By yourself? With no one around to find you if you get lost or maimed by an animal or take a tumble over the guardrail?”
“Isn’t that the appeal?” Ronnie asked with a serious look on his face. He held eye contact for an extra moment. “Isn’t that why you walk down there?”
Mary smirked. “I walk down there because there’s a handsome fellow at the gas station on the other side who likes to make chitchat with me.”
“I know who you mean,” Ronnie said. “I met that fellow when I first arrived into town. He gave me a ride over to SR 60. Drives like a crazy man, let me tell you. But even he doesn’t drive his truck down that road.” He paused. “Seems like you go there quite often, from the way you were able to give me a hand today.”
“Often enough,” Mary said. A breeze blew through the open window and gave her a chill. The shiver overtook her torso and spread out to her fingers and toes.
“You ought to take a warm bath so you don’t catch cold. If you stand there dripping wet in those clothes you’ll be sick by the end of the afternoon. Don’t let me keep you,” Ronnie said, “Go on ahead.”
“Are you timid or something?” Mary replied. “You’re my guest. You can draw a bath first. I’ll give you some of my father’s old clothes to wear while I dry yours.”
Ronnie’s eyes opened wide. “That’s awfully kind of you…You’ll have to pardon me asking this, Mary, but is your father still among the living?”
“Not currently,” Mary said.
“See, mine isn’t either, and I don’t wear his clothes precisely because he’s deceased. I wouldn’t want to impose on his condition. If you don’t mind,” he added.
“How about my husband’s, then?”
“Pardon me again for asking, but is he among the living? It’s just that I don’t sense there’s a living man in this house, if you don’t mind me saying, ma’am.”
“I don’t know how you know that, but you’re right. He passed away two summers ago,” Mary said. “Fell off the Morgan County water tower that you see when you come riding up through downtown McConnelsville.” A sad expression touched her brow, betraying a few fine wrinkles on her forehead. The clock above the refrigerator ticked loudly.
“Seems to me like your men just die and leave their clothes lying around the house,” Ronnie said in his best ironic tone. “Sounds just like a man.”
Mary laughed. “That’s a brave one to try on somebody you just met. You’re lucky I have my sense of humor.”
“It’s the best I can do given the circumstances, ma’am. I’ll just hang these clothes up and make do with what I brought. I wouldn’t want to impose myself upon you.”
“Oh, would you cut it out with that?” Mary said. “You’re not imposing anything. I’m the one that’s asking to help you.
“In that case, would you mind showing me up to the bath? I’m just about shaking from the cold.” He paused, letting two or three ticks pass on the clock. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
While Ronnie bathed, Mary changed into some dry clothes and began digging through some boxes in the guest bedroom to see if her brother had left any clothes behind before he’d moved out. She wanted to respect Ronnie’s disinclination to wear the clothing of the dead. She uncovered a dusty cardboard box that had “Box o’ Tricks” written in black marker on the side – she recognized it as her brother’s handwriting. She dug her nails into the cross-strips of tape and ripped open the flaps, sneezing twice at the dust that flitted into her nostrils. Among the tricks in the box was one of her brother’s short-sleeve button-downs from when he was sheriff. The Morgan County seal on the right sleeve was fraying at the edges, and the fabric itself smelled like mothballs, but it was the only men’s clothing she had that didn’t once belong to a dead man. She never saw her brother – or anyone else in her family, for that matter – but at least he was still among the living.
She heard the sound of water splashing and thought Ronnie must be getting out of the tub, so she collected the sheriff’s shirt and went into her father’s room to grab a pair of sweatpants. Ronnie wouldn’t know one way or the other who’d worn them when and whether he who’d worn them was still among the living. On her way back to her room, she tapped on the bathroom door. “I’ve got some clothes for you here, Ronnie.”
There was a splash of water and the sound of something hard and slick sliding across the tile.
“Uh oh, there went the soap!” Ronnie said, his voice muffled by the door.
“Is it alright if I bring these in there?” Mary asked. “I’ll respect your privacy, I promise.”
“I’m alright. You go on ahead, Mary.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Ronnie! I’ve seen more than my fair share of naked men in my life. There’s absolutely nothing in there that could surprise me.” She ran a hand through her still rain-soaked hair. “Do you want the clothes or not?”
At that, she heard some shuffling and the door opened. Ronnie was standing by the tub, leaning against his canes. He already had a towel wrapped haphazardly around his waist.
“Now who said anything about seeing a naked man?” he said. “For goodness’s sake, Mary, I was trying to spare you of that this afternoon.”
Mary blushed and said, “Pardon me.” She set the clothes down in an empty laundry basket. Ronnie gave her a sideways look.
“A sheriff’s shirt? Was your father the sheriff? Mary, I hate to say it, but I just can’t –”
“These are my brother’s clothes,” Mary interrupted.
“Good grief!” Ronnie said. “He isn’t dead, too? What is it with these men who die and leave their clothes lying around your house?”
“No, Ronnie. My brother isn’t dead . He lives in Zanesville now with his wife and kids. These were the only clothes he left in his closet when he moved out. He used to be a sheriff in Morgan County.”
“Hmm,” Ronnie said, eyeing her skeptically.
“Take the clothes,” Mary said. And with that she left the bathroom
They’d each finished two large glasses of lemonade and a cup of instant coffee since the game had started. Mary really needed to urinate but couldn’t risk leaving the card table. Raindrops had been droning on the roof and windows all afternoon, but a recent break in the clouds had revealed a bit of pinkish sky through the window above the sink. Ronnie drummed his fingers on the tabletop and concentrated on his cards. The collar of the sheriff’s shirt fit a bit too tightly around his broad shoulders and neck.
“Looks like the weather is clearing up,” he said in a casual tone.
“Indeed it seems,” Mary said, keeping her eye on her cards. She had three aces and was waiting for the fourth to appear out of the drawing pile that lay facedown between them. If she drew the final ace before Ronnie, she’d have the sixty points she needed to break five hundred and beat him for the second game in a row.
“I ought to be going soon,” he said. “Which means good news for you because I am in the middle of staging a comeback.” He picked up a card from the discards pile and laid down a three-four-five-six of hearts. “Huh, look at that. Twenty more points for me.”
“You’re going to have to pick up the pace if you want to catch me. Haven’t you been tallying our points this game?” She gestured at the scratchpad on which several columns of numbers had been scribbled. Then she drew a king of clubs from the drawing pile and threw out a jack of the same suit.
“Yes, I’ve been keeping tally. When this round started you were eighty points away from five hundred. With that row of clubs you’ve got laid down now you’re sixty away. You’ve got four cards in your hand that you haven’t been moving much in the last five minutes, which means you’re either holding a fistful of aces or absolutely nothing.” He smirked at her and discarded a seven of spades.
“You think you know what I’m up to, but you don’t,” Mary bluffed. She drew another dud from the drawing pile and threw it out immediately.
“Please Mary, now don’t insult me. I am experienced . I let you win the first game.”
“You’re full of it,” Mary said.
“Let’s just say I might have rigged the deck before your best hand,” Ronnie said. “But that’s beside the point right now.”
He eyed the card she’d just thrown into the pile and picked it up, assimilating it with the others. Unable to restrain himself, he gave Mary another triumphant smirk.
“What is that dopey look on your face?” Mary said, half-exasperated. “Have you forgotten that you’re two hundred points behind me?”
With an overdramatic sweep of the arm, Ronnie laid down a five-card play that emptied his hand, a ten-jack-queen-king-ace of clubs. “Hope you weren’t looking for that ace of clubs! I’m out!”
Mary threw her cards at the table. “I knew you had it!” she screamed.
“No, you didn’t know I had it. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been holding on to the other three aces this whole time when you could have laid them down and ended the round. You were trying to beat me with a big play. Serves you right! Ha!”
Mary could feel her face getting red. Even though her bladder was practically bursting, she went and refilled her coffee mug as an excuse to leave the table. Ronnie tallied up the points for the round and announced them to the empty silence of the kitchen.
“Ronnie: plus ninety-five points. Mary: minus thirty-five. A one hundred and thirty point split. We’ve got ourselves a new game!”
When Ronnie left the house, the sun was in its evening position and the air was pungent with the aftertaste of rain. Mary fetched his chair from the shed and pushed it down the steep gravel driveway. Ronnie climbed on and strapped his canes to his lap. He wiggled his bottom into the most comfortable sitting position and set his posture upright.
“I appreciate the kindness you showed me this afternoon,” he said between thin, beaming lips. “If I come back through town again, I’ll stop by and see you sometime and we can break the tie.”
Mary didn’t say anything, instead bending down to hug him again. Her ashy blonde hair, layered with shocks of gray, fluttered in Ronnie’s face, a few threads of it sticking to his smiling lips as they embraced. Her small, low-set ears, which Mary had noticed Ronnie contemplating several times during their afternoon card games, peeked out between the strands.
“And if I didn’t say so already,” Ronnie said, noticing, perhaps, the attractive flush of her face as she released him from the hug, “I do appreciate you lending me your brother’s clothes. That was nice of you to find those for me.”
Mary nodded and patted Ronnie on the shoulder. Her hand lingered for an extra moment so that she could give it a reassuring squeeze. He gave a resolute nod and turned out onto SR 60, hugging the shoulder as he moved onward. Mary watched him go, into the breeze, the hem of her long cotton dress brushing against her smooth kneecaps. When he was a hundred yards or more down the road, Ronnie looked back at her, at her slender white figure set against the dimming sky, and shot his arm in the air in a wave. Mary leapt a few inches off the ground as she waved back, as if this extra emphasis would send her warm wishes across the empty space between them. Ronnie caught her wave and took it with him, fading into the vanishing point on Mary’s evening horizon. She followed him as far as her eye and the dimming sunlight would allow, watching him as he turned right onto the hidden road where they’d met that morning.
II. Origin of a Legend
To guide the reading of this piece, allow me to digress into its history. This is my own retelling of Ronnie’s ambiguous fate, reconstructed from the dozen or so versions my mother narrated to me over the years. I wanted to retell it because I suspect that Ronnie is my great-grandfather, the father of Mary’s unplanned only child. In making this claim I am also assuming that Ronnie and Mary “spent the afternoon together,” if you will, something entirely contrary to the warm baths and idle chitchat disclosed to the reader.
As I will explain, it would have been a poor choice on my part to share any of these speculations with my dear mother. Her whole life she thought her grandfather was the man who fell from the Morgan County water tower in a tragic working accident, not some flyby fellow who never came back to visit her grandmother or the town of McConnelsville ever again. I understand her need to believe the legend when I think of the gaping wounds in our family structure. My great-grandmother essentially raised my mother inside of my grandmother’s household, which is to say that my mother’s relationship with my grandmother was much less important than her love for my great-grandmother. My grandfather, the one whom I believe was Ronnie’s child, died in my mother’s infancy, leaving all his clothes behind for the women to sort. His death marked the end of my grandmother’s life, for anything she did thereafter cannot be considered real living. Mary, on the other hand, was already accustomed to death and widowhood. She rededicated herself to her fracturing family and raised my mother as her own child. She was, in the realest sense one can be, my mother’s “mother.”
Sometimes I wonder if I could have made my mother remember Ronnie’s true identity organically, if somehow there was a way she could have crafted the story herself and turned my great-grandmother’s elusive language into a more solid interpretation. Once I watched her remember how my great-grandmother said that Ronnie had thick, callused fingers, like a carpenter’s. It was the fourth or fifth time she’d told me about Ronnie, although she’d never included this detail before. It was strange the way she recovered something so minute and embellished it to such a degree, interrupting her fragmented narration as if this were the recollection that changed everything. She scrunched her eyes shut and made fists with her hands, adopting this constipated thinking pose like it was the most natural way of summoning a memory. Then she took the index and middle fingers of her right hand and began rubbing the furrowed skin between her eyebrows, loosening the knot of her thoughts. She sat like this for a minute or two, kneading her brow, suffering, it seemed, from the exertion of remembering. I waited patiently for her, imagining that she was extracting a long, silken thread from her mind and weaving it into something with form.
“Ronnie had thick fingers,” she said. “Real callused. Like a carpenter’s.”
I tried to listen compassionately. “Are you sure about that?”
My mother sighed and slumped in her chair. Her countenance assumed a pained expression and once again I lost her to her thoughts. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute.
“Thick fingers with calluses, like a carpenter’s,” she said. “Mary told me about the fingers. She emphasized them. He was a nail-biter too, because his fingernails had that stubby, chewed-up look when he held the playing cards. Yes, I recall her mentioning the nails.”
“What else? Didn’t you say that he carried a cap with him? I thought you told me once that he had a green newsboy cap, that he left it behind for Mary.”
“No, there’s nothing about a cap,” she said assertively. “I don’t know where you got that from.” She fell silent again and I could tell this version of Ronnie’s tale was finished.
When my mother passed away (the doctors said she thought too hard about things and it eventually killed her), so passed the last “source” accounts of Ronnie Stockton, that peculiar, amiable fellow who ambled down abandoned roads in a wheelchair (which, I might add, is not without interest, it being one of the more emphasized details in the story).
Now I, my mother’s only child, remain to inherit the burden of retelling. I’ve been meaning for a good while to record Ronnie’s story, more in homage to my mother than to my great-grandmother, who I never had the chance to meet. It has been a matter of much personal conflict whether I ought to include my belief that Mary and Ronnie conceived a child that afternoon. I’ve decided to absent it from my story, and instead include it here as speculation. If I am correct, the “legend” itself might very well be Mary’s allusion to the truth of my grandfather’s birth.
In public, Mary claimed throughout her life that my grandfather’s father was the man who fell from the Morgan County water tower about two years before she met Ronnie. For five years following that fellow’s death, no one, not even Mary’s blood family, knew anything about her. If there were a child mentioned in any of the accounts given to me by my mother, the reader would certainly find it in my retelling. Yet Mary told my mother she lived alone when she met Ronnie, and my mother never questioned her.
The reader may well imagine the fervor with which this question compels me– a third generation only child, now a twenty-something orphan, who wanders alone in the world with few friends or family to call his own. This “I” who writes to you now was carefully raised by his mother so as to believe that his life was destined to arrive at a particular place at a particular time. I was taught that familial love brings order to the chaos of living, that it’s important to remember one’s inheritance. Yet the older I grow, the more estranged my family connections become. If there was one mishap, even three generations back, it throws everything, including my own destiny, into jeopardy. If my great-grandmother fabricated even one detail, this notion I’ve carried on that there’s such a thing as legitimate life is ruined to me forever.
III. The Hidden Road
The story of how the legend came to be heard – or “read,” I suppose one could say – is strange and convoluted. Essentially it goes like this:
One night I was walking on the Ohio State University’s main academic quad after a long day of reading when a fellow in a long black coat approached me from the rear and kidnapped me at knifepoint. I recognized the fellow immediately: he was a petty affairs lawyer I often saw at a coffeehouse on High Street. He talked to me once or twice a week and often invited me to exotic restaurants across the city, invitations I always politely declined. Once in awhile I would get a strange feeling from him when he insisted a little too adamantly on taking me to dinner, but I wasn’t in the habit of thinking about such things once I left the coffeehouse. It’s quite unsettling to me now when I think that he might have been planning to kidnap me the whole time.
His was the most straightforward kidnapping one can imagine: he simply approached me from the rear, declared his purpose, made a gesture with his knife, and, before I knew it, I was following him to the garage where he’d left his car. We even talked a little along the way. The conversation lulled when we first got into the car, but after we hit the highway and started heading southeast away from the city, I found myself, rather organically, relating to him Ronnie and Mary’s story. He’d seen me laboring over it once, which might explain why telling him the story felt like the most natural thing to do in that situation.
He took an interest in the tale immediately and interrupted me several times to clarify the details. He was particularly taken by the setting of the story, especially the hidden road where Ronnie and Mary met for the first time. Often he would take his eyes off the road to stare at me as I narrated the various episodes, a habit that made me very anxious as his passenger. Penetrating deeper and deeper into the darkness of that lonesome highway, I felt that he and I were the only living souls who could be awake at such an hour, although it wasn’t yet midnight. If there were other cars among us, I don’t recall having seen them.
Our destination was a large cabin tucked in the heart of a thick forest. By the time we arrived, I’d completely lost track of time and place. The ride made me feel disorientated, and the stress I was experiencing seemed to increase proportionally with our distance from the city. The lawyer fellow invited me inside and led me on a tour of the cabin (that is, if you can call what he gave me a tour; his knife was poking me in the side the whole time), and showed me the hammock outside where I’d be sleeping.
Most of the details of the evening of the kidnapping have now since escaped me, so I’ve done my best to record what I can. The next few episodes I remember much more clearly, beginning with when I woke up the following afternoon. What follows is an account of everything that happened after I awoke:
I must have been awake for several minutes before I fully regained my mental faculties. I could sense the lawyer fellow hovering above me, his bony legs dangling over a balcony ledge like streamers. His hand rocked the hammock idly – taunting me, it would seem, with the risk of falling.
“Hey, good afternoon!” he said. “I hope you slept well?”
I must not have replied right away because he continued talking. “Hey! Why don’t you pick up where you left off with the legend of Ronnie and Mary? Things were getting pretty interesting before you trailed off last night.” He cleared his phlegmy throat and kept rocking the hammock. “I have to say though, your story is all broken up.”
Ignoring his commentary, I glanced again at the emptiness that floated between me and the ground, then at the slender tree trunk around which one end of my hammock was questionably fastened. The other knot was tied to the balcony support, so that I hung suspended in midair between the balcony and that tree, about thirty feet above a downward sloping hill, cradled precariously by the hammock. The fellow who’d kidnapped me rocked me back and forth, forth and back, staring off into the blank blue patches of November sky that peeked through the trees.
“That’s really all I can remember,” I said.
“But how can that be?” he said. “I don’t see how you can tell me the cards in their hands and not the true ending of Ronnie’s story. I’m no novelist, but I do make my living telling stories. If I tried to get away with something like that in a courtroom, I’d never have won a case. The ending is the most important part. The details are either fabricated or forgotten. Trivialities,” he mumbled.
His gaze turned back towards the sky and the broken shafts of sunlight that penetrated the canopy of naked branches above us. There were no birds or wind, just silence and the echo of dead leaves and sticks crunching beneath the hooves of distant, invisible deer. The smell of burning wood emanated from the scenery, though nothing around us was burning. A discomforting pain pinched at my lower back and kidneys, probably from lying in this hammock for so many consecutive hours without relieving myself. He hadn’t moved me since last night, and my leg muscles felt like they’d atrophied, as if I’d been positioned here for weeks unmoving. Every one of my senses felt exaggerated. The few blue shards of sky pierced my vision with such clarity that my eyes felt detached from my face. A constant stream of snot in my nostrils reminded me of the singularity of my nose. A chilly fever recalled to me my skin, peppering me with goosebumps. The fear I had of this fellow and the lucidness of my senses isolated me so much from my surroundings that had it not been for the lack of feeling in my legs, I may not have noticed the hammock – hardly more than a tremulous web of threads – that supported my hanging body.
This barrage of sensations was interrupted by a question.
“You want some coffee?” the fellow asked. It was the first thing he’d offered me since bringing me to the cabin yesterday evening.
“Coffee?” I repeated.
“Yeah, coffee. I’m getting bored sitting out here. I had to watch you last night to make sure you didn’t wiggle around too much and hurt yourself, so I’m a little tired myself. I could really use a cup of coffee.”
I considered this for a moment. I doubted that this was my chance to escape, and I didn’t know what would happen to me if I refused. I knew from the kidnapping that he at least had a knife, probably a gun somewhere, too. “Sure, coffee’s good,” I said.
“Then roll over on your stomach. Carefully,” he grunted.
Measuring each movement against the gentle rocking of the hammock, I shifted my weight onto my side and then onto my stomach. My back protested, but the fellow held the hammock steady for me and helped me into the right position.
“Okay, now you need to grab my hands. Don’t move too quickly.”
I inched a little closer to the balcony and offered up my shaky hands. He bent over with amazing dexterity and took them in his and held them tightly. His palms were moist with nervous sweat.
“Good, I’ve got you. Now we need to time this just right. Don’t use the hammock as a support or it will flip right out from under your legs. Just leave them limp and I’ll pull you up over the ledge. You’re light enough that I shouldn’t need your help.”
Since I couldn’t feel my legs anyway, this was the easiest part. All I did was hold on to his sweaty palms and let him drag my body up and out of the hammock. He let go of me as I crossed over to his side of the railing, letting me spill like a sack of bones onto the surface of the deck. An airy groan shot out from my throat as if I’d been deflated, and I involuntarily curled my frame into a fetal position. The fellow nudged me with the toe of his boot.
“Need some help getting up?”
“I can’t feel my legs,” I said.
“I’ll take that as an affirmative.” He bent his knees deeply, again with a dexterity that impressed me, and threw my left arm over his shoulder. With a forceful thrust upward he raised me to a standing position and caught his own balance. “How’s that?” he asked.
I just stood there for about fifteen seconds, trying to extract words from the lightheaded randomness of my thoughts. I felt a bit of blood rush back down to my legs, followed by a peculiar sensation of warmth. My legs were coming back to me.
“I think I’m good,” I said. “Just don’t let go of me and I can do most of the walking myself.”
He did as I requested, and together we limped across the deck and entered the cabin through the kitchen door.
The kitchen walls were splashed with a deep red paint, glowing warm against the lamplight. There was a window above the sink that looked out to the balcony from where we’d just come. A stubby, square table sat adjacent to the stove, with bookend chairs. Every furnishing item was lacquered wood or stainless steel, a successful lawyer’s kitchen. I broke away from the fellow and hobbled over to the table and dropped down in a chair. My muscles still needed a moment to stop complaining. I also noted the pulsing headache that pressed against the backs of my eyes, reaffirming my suspicion that they had disconnected from the sockets. My neck wobbled around like a spinning top.
“Coffee coming right up,” he said, assembling the supplies. Once he got the coffee brewing the whole kitchen filled with the aroma of the grounds. Then he approached me with the can.
“You want to sniff the grounds?” he asked. “Take a real good sniff and it’ll make you wake up a bit.” He lowered the can beneath my nostrils.
The aroma emanating from the can was so intense that I could already smell it without inhaling deeply. Still, I didn’t want to feel the point of his knife against my side again, or be relinquished back to the hammock, so I did as I was told. I took a deep, full breath, letting the severity of the sensation penetrate my nose and throat. The potency of the coffee caused me to sputter and cough into the open bag. At that, he retracted the bag with a smirk and put it back in the refrigerator. “Cough-ee,” he said, making quotation marks with his fingers.
“Clever,” I said.
The pot beeped when it was finished and he poured us two mugs of black coffee. He didn’t ask if I wanted cream or sugar. “Drink,” was all he said, so I did as I was told. While I drank, I watched him sip indifferently out of his own mug. He waited as long as two minutes between sips until he finally neglected it altogether.
“Do you remember any more of the story?” he asked distractedly, rising out of the chair. He retrieved a small glass and a half-empty flask of scotch from a cupboard and brought them back to the table.
“I told you the whole tale,” I said, taking a swig of coffee.
“So you said.” He filled the bottom of the glass with scotch and swallowed it in one gulp. “Interesting.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, just how you mentioned about Ronnie turning onto the road at the very end. Makes the whole thing seem suspicious if you ask me.”
I nodded. “The whole thing is suspicious,” I said. “It’s more symbolic than real. My great-grandmother may have kept telling it as a clue to us that there was something secretive about my grandfather’s birth.”
He smiled at this. “You know, I handle this kind of work. People arguing over paternity tests, divorce cases, child support. I make my living from my clients’ need to keep secrets. I find your great-grandmother’s story to be of personal interest.”
He poured, gulped and lowered his glass. I let him continue talking.
“You know, your great-grandmother – please don’t take this as an insult – probably wasn’t smart enough to cover her tracks legally with this paternity issue. I could research all of this and clear the whole thing up in one morning at the office. Then you’d know for sure. It’d answer all your lingering questions, and I’d do it for free. It’s what I do.”
He got up and retrieved the coffee pot and refilled my mug.
“Thanks,” I said, for the coffee.
He grunted and sat back down. “I made a whole pot and I don’t want it to go to waste, so I’m just going to have you finish it,” he said.
“Just keep emptying mugs and I’ll keep refilling you until the pot is empty. No bathroom breaks either. We’ll talk until you’re done. Here,” he said, handing his half-empty cup to me. “Finish mine first.”
About an hour later I was on my fourth cup of coffee, and the caffeine was beginning to take effect. My hands shook each time I raised the mug to my lips, my nostrils inhaling the steam in slippery, wet wisps. I desperately needed to urinate, but there were probably two mugs’ worth left in the pot, so I drank slowly, surprised that this fellow hadn’t yet lost interest. He talked idly about his work and matched each new mug of coffee I drank with a small glass of scotch. His speech was beginning to slur, his questions growing stranger and more precise. He was still concerned about Ronnie’s story, and he felt compelled from time to time to offer me his legal interpretation.
“My offer still stands,” he said with an alcohol-saturated exhalation. “I can find this guy, or just find your grandfather’s birth certificate, free of charge. It would clear the whole mess up for you.”
I crossed my legs to ease the distress of my bladder and sighed. “Don’t you think I’ve already considered that?” I said. “I think about hiring a lawyer or one of those inheritance agents all the time to see if there are any affairs left hanging. But what’s the point? I’m the only one left.”
Wincing, I downed the last gulp of mug number four. I felt something warm and liquidy pulsating near my temples. My heart thumped speedily, distributing blood at random. The lawyer fellow got up and brought the pot back for my fifth round. There were shiny oil slicks congealing on the placid surface of the liquid, and I could see a dark reflection of myself that appeared to sink to the bottom of the mug. The lawyer fellow matched my coffee with another round of scotch, his fifth drink in just over an hour.
“You have an only child complex,” he began, sputtering and slurring. “A real good one. One of the best I’ve ever seen. You are at the lonely center of a world that tries to isolate you even more and yet you won’t even let yourself be liberated.” His voice trailed off.
“Liberated from what?” I asked.
He didn’t reply. The fifth glass of scotch was clearly making him dizzy. He was impersonating an alcoholic about as well as I was impersonating a coffee addict. I kept my eyes on his hands, readying myself for a violent outburst or something. Instead, he looked up at me, his expression approaching tenderness, a half-smile exposing his yellowing teeth.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked me.
“No idea,” I said. “All I know is that you kidnapped me outside the main quad at Ohio State sometime yesterday night and drove me to wherever we are now. I told you Ronnie and Mary’s story. I wasn’t conscious enough to watch the road signs.”
“Well, you should have. We’re near the Wayne National Forest, just outside Nelsonville,” he said. “If we took 78 East out of town, I’m guessing we’d be in McConnelsville in less than an hour. What do you think, man?”
“I think you’re too drunk to drive,” I said.
“You’d obviously be driving.”
“I think I’m too buzzed to drive. You made me drink all this coffee. My hands would shake if I tried to hold the wheel.” I risked the assumption that his reasoning wasn’t working efficiently enough to outwit me. “Why do you want to go to McConnelsville, anyway? Have you ever been there? There’s not much happening this time of the evening. By the time we get there everyone will be asleep.”
“Finish that mug of coffee and we’ll get going. You and me are going to look for that road.”
“But it may not even exist,” I said.
“Even better,” he said. “I love a futile exercise.”
Once I reached a certain age I never suspected that the hidden road actually existed. I thought it was just another creation of my great-grandmother’s, a pretense that allowed her to poeticize the randomness of Ronnie’s appearance in her life. Now I was actually going to look for it in the company of a drunk petty affairs lawyer who was unfamiliar with the serpentine backroads of Morgan County, in a Mercedes Benz that was not my own, on a Saturday night. I contemplated the imminent failure of our mission and hoped we’d get pulled over by the Morgan County sheriff.
He was at least right about the length of the drive. Once we picked up 78 East in Nelsonville the roads were clear and smooth, and in a few minutes I started seeing signs directing us to McConnelsville. The headlights on his Mercedes carved through the darkness like a knife through a pumpkin. From above we must have looked like an orb floating through empty space or an illuminated, mystical animal maneuvering an obstacle course. My head throbbed as I tried to keep my hands steady on the wheel. The speed my heart was pounding made me feel my body was moving twice as fast as the car.
The lawyer fellow sobered up as we drew nearer to our destination. To make sure I didn’t try to drive to the police station, he kept the tip of his switchblade poked into the fleshy area just above my hip. He insisted that I drive at exactly three miles per hour above the speed limit, paying close attention to road signs and intersection crossings. 78 East eventually became Main Street, and we found ourselves driving through a lamplit downtown, well after most businesses had closed up. We followed Main Street out of town until it became SR 60, where my great-grandmother used to live.
“This is where we ought to start looking for it,” I said. “Keep an eye on the road signs, though there’s a chance it’s not marked.”
He retracted the knife and sat up in his chair. He pressed his whole face against the window like a child would do, his breath pooling in a foggy cloud on the glass. I slowed down to thirty-five and took the curves at a snail’s pace. Once we were about five miles out of town, I saw a sign that said there was a hidden outlet coming up on the left side of the road. I pressed the brakes instinctively and both our bodies lurched forward, heads whipping back against the headrests at the recoil.
“What are you doing?” he snapped from the passenger’s seat.
“I saw an outlet sign,” I said, applying a little pressure to the accelerator. “God, this thing has ridiculous pick-up.”
“Of course it does. It’s a Mercedes . Now do you think it’s the right one? Don’t get us lost out here.”
“How am I supposed to know? It’s not like I venture out here casually. I’m not even sure this road actually exists.” I raised my left index finger to my mouth and began chewing it vigorously.
Up ahead, just before a sharp leftward bend, there was an opening in the dense treeline that hugged the side of the road. Since no one was behind us, I brought the car to a complete stop next to the turnoff. It was pitch black and unmarked, a hidden road if I ever saw one. I rolled down the driver’s side window, squinting for about thirty seconds.
“Do you think this is it?” he asked.
“How should – ” I would have finished my question had it not been for the tip of the switchblade poking me in the ribs.
“ Turn,” he said. “We’re going exploring.”
I hesitated. “Don’t you remember the story?” I asked. “If this is the right road, it’s too dangerous to drive.”
“Fine,” he said. “Let me take the wheel.” He unbuckled my seatbelt and shoved me, causing my head to hit against the window. Then, in an even more violent gesture, he shook the knife at my face as if it were a magic wand capable of firing curses. “Get out of the car!” he screamed.
I fell out of the driver-side door and rolled onto the pavement, hitting my elbow hard on the asphalt. I dragged myself onto my feet and waited for the next instruction from the lawyer fellow. From the passenger’s seat he crawled over the cupholders and wiggled his bottom into the driver’s seat. Then he slammed the door shut, putting a solid metal barrier between us. Straddling the double-yellow line, I looked ahead and behind me, noticing the scenery for the first time. The Mercedes’ headlights shone brightly in front of me, hitting the apex of the upcoming bend in the road and projecting dusty light into the barren woods. Behind me the moonlight struck the ground in oblique shafts, pouring down from some invisible source. Both directions were illuminated, and the impulse to run surged hotly inside me. The car started to move, rotating towards the outlet, and I jumped out of the way to avoid being hit. Commanding the wheel, the lawyer fellow turned the car until it was aligned with the mouth of the road. The moonlight was so lucid in those moments that I could count each revolution of the tires as he pressed on the gas and accelerated the vehicle across the hidden threshold. I heard a hum from the engine, then a barely audible squeal of tires, then I watched as the car penetrated the woods and disappeared around a corner. I stared into the tunnel of trees and guardrails, standing on my tiptoes and stretching my neck forward to listen. Standing alone at the mouth of the hidden road, I did not hear anything but the brittle sound of twigs crackling as they fell from the branches of the irradiated trees around me.