by Jon R.C. Roller

Luke got out of the old pickup truck with an herbal cigarette hanging from his mouth and a cup of cappuccino warming in his hand. In front of him stood the farm house of his youth and a stretch of cow fields and corn going all the way up to the city from where he had just come. His black trench coat whipped around him as he sighed, “How gauche.”

His mother came around the other side of the truck with his bag. “Are you glad to be home?” she asked. Luke squashed his cigarette out in the gravel.

“No,” was all he said.

Inside his childhood’s rustic home Luke peered around at all the old familiar things. The glass case of porcelain dolls his mother collected, his dead father’s decaying set of “The Great Books of the Western World” and the old leather easy chair where his father had sat yelling at football games and political talk shows. Luke followed his mother upstairs to his old room. An ancient TV set he used to play video games on still sat right next to the door. The consoles and games were all still in their place alphabetically arranged on the shelf next to his bed. His mother placed the bag on his bed,.

“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I have some pinto beans and cornbread ready in the kitchen I can warm up.”

“Still eating like it’s the depression, I see.”

His mother laughed, “Now, I might be old but I sure don’t remember no Great Depression! How 'bout I bring your food up to you and you can set your computer up in here?”

Luke nodded and as she shuffled downstairs he looked out of his old window to the row of trees in front of his house and the barn at the end of the row. He thought of the time he had thrown a rope over one of the rafters and tied it around his neck, determined to free himself from his “rural hell” by any means necessary. He laughed and went downstairs.

“Don’t bother bringing the food up,” Luke said to his mother in the kitchen, “I’ll eat down here.”

“Well! Eating at the table! That’s a first.” exclaimed his mother. She went to set the table as Luke threw his coat on the living room couch and went up to the bookshelf. He pulled down an old but still immaculate copy of Marx. “You’ve probably never been read have you?” he questioned the book and put it back. He then fished through the pockets of his coat and produced a small, cheap paperback edition of Camus and went back to the kitchen.

“You always have to read while you eat, don’t you?” asked his mother. The tone of her voice was not chastisement, but pure observation.

“That’s what I like about you, Mom.” said Luke, “You notice things I never would.”

“Well, when you live out here you got to look for stuff to appreciate.”

“That is certainly quite true.”

A knock on the door and Luke had to lay Camus aside to answer it. He greeted a tall man who had a mustache and two days stubble growing over a greasy face, a green John Deere hat and a glazed look in his eyes.

“Is yer Ma here?” asked the man.

“Yes, who are you?”

“Yeah, I’m Coon Dog. This here’s my uncle Birdy.” Coon Dog pointed to a swaying older man behind him. The older man also had a John Deere hat, but was clean shaven and much more obviously drunk.

“Well, hello Coon Dog!” declared Luke’s mother as she approached the door. She explained to Luke that she knew these men and had worked with them stripping tobacco. They were all introduced and sat down on the living room sofa. There was an awkward moment of silence.

The men smelled of urine and beer to Luke and he was concerned that one or the other might accidentally defecate on the living room floor.

“You shor got a lotta books,” said Birdy. Luke looked around. Each wall had a floor to ceiling bookshelf. He had never thought of it before, but it was in fact a large collection, mostly his father's and mostly on subjects dealing with theology and Christian living. “I never bothered much with books,” Birdy continued, “Not much need for readin’ on the farm.”

“I see,” said Luke.

Coon Dog asked Luke to fetch some beer from their car. “But put a shirt over it when you bring it in,” whispered adding “Appearances.” He said it with a great deal of shame in his voice and regret as if he were talking of the dead.

Luke did as he was asked. Back inside he lay the case of beer on the couch next to Coon Dog who immediately took a can of beer out and offered it to Luke. Luke accepted out of politeness. Coon Dog popped open his beer and drank straight from the can. Luke went to the kitchen to get a glass.

“You play the gittar, boy?!” hollered Birdy.

“Yes sir,” said Luke.

“Well,” said Birdy leaping from his couch waving his finger in the air, “Go on and pick us out a tune thar!”

“Go ahead, you can do it!” agreed Coon Dog.

Luke reluctantly took his acoustic guitar from its tattered old box and played a Bach piece that he could only half-remember, adding little jazz improvisations to cover his mistakes.

“You know any Hank Williams!?!” blurted out Birdy.

Luke had actually just listened to an old Hank Williams LP the night before. For good measure he had listened to a recording of the High Mass right afterwards for a proper musical balance before sleeping.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said to Birdy and started into “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Birdy cut him short.

“Naw! Now, that ain’t it! Here let me sing it and you jump in.” Thus proceeded an out of tune cacophony of slurred lyrics and cracked notes. Birdy complained that the guitar was out of tune. Luke made an honest attempt to fix it, but found the instrument perfectly harmonized. He threw the D string flat on purpose, then back into tune to satisfy the drunk man.

“Good! Now, that’s better!” said Birdie.

Coon Dog spoke up. “Now, Lorraine,” he said to Luke’s mother “You don’t mind us drinking in here do ya?”

“Well, now I don’t believe in myself, and I’ve never touched it, but I don’t mind if y'all drink. Just don’t go getting too crazy, now.”

Coon Dog looked ashamed. Luke put his guitar away and finished his beer.

Birdy grabbed Luke by the arm. “You know what makes good music dontcha, boy?”

“What?” said Luke.

“Prison! All of them good singers were in jail! Wrote their best songs in the hooskow! Johnny Cash, Hank Williams–all of ‘em! Prison! That’s the way to go! You keep at that guitar pickin’ you won't go nowhere till you been in jail a couple times.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for prison just, yet.”

“Well, why do you keep playing then? Y'ever thought about going down to Nashville and making some money offa that thing?”

“No,” said Luke. Birdy was silent for a minute.

“Y'all wanna see my scar?!” said Birdy and before anyone could stop him he pulled up his shirt.

His stomach had been badly stapled together over the navel and gray hairs grew from the crease in his flesh.

“Got that in Vietnam!” said Birdy. “I been declared dead five times! But the good Lord done seen fit to bring me back each time! God’s got me here for a reason, for sure.”

He nodded his head slowly up and down. Luke cast a desperate look to his mother.

Coon Dog chastised his uncle, “Uncle Birdy you know you don’t need to be talkin’ 'bout God when your drunk. It’s disrespectful.”

Birdy apologized and said that he would keep quiet.

“How long were you in the war?” Luke asked him.

“Two tours! Shot up every which way before they sent me home! Then I come back here and these damn niggers is burnin’ flags and callin’ us baby-killers.”

“But you went over there to fight for freedom, right?” asked Luke.

“Well, yeah!”

“So why complain about people using that freedom?”

“I don’t follow you, boy.”

“I mean, people have a right to speak their minds. If they wanna burn a flag to express their anger, well this is America. We have the freedom to do that don’t we?”

Birdy’s face became red, “I didn’t get shot up so no uppity college boy could tell me what for!”

He slapped Luke across the head. Luke fell into the television and nearly knocked it over, but his mother caught him.

“I think it’s time for y'all to go!” she said.

“I ain’t leavin’ till this boy realizes!” said Birdy. Coon Dog stood up and told him to go outside.

“Fine! We’ll take it outside then!” He grabbed Luke by the collar and drug him out the front door. His mother yelled, “What do you think you’re doing! Come back with my son, right now!” Coon Dog stopped her, “Let them settle it like men,” he said.

Outside Birdy dropped Luke into the gravel. Luke got his bearings and slugged Birdy across the jaw, “Back off, mother fucker!” Birdy stumbled back then lunged for Luke. Luke stuck his fist out and caught the old man right in the stomach. He could feel the old man’s wound open and his fist sliding deep into the old man’s gut. Birdy choked and spat blood and vomit onto the gravel. Coon Dog ran to his uncle’s side, “Call an ambulance!” Luke stood over them.

Birdy spluttered through the blood in his mouth, “Do you realize, now boy? Do you realize!?!?!?!?!” The sun had set and Luke looked up toward a starless black sky.

“No,” he said and walked back inside to wash the blood off of his hands.