Peter Tyree Morrison Colwell
Two boys wait next to a white sassafras tree, naked but for cut-off jean shorts; their bare feet on red dirt. Sully’s white school bus climbs towards them, shucking powder blue haze that floats like tossed flour.
“Smokies’ll hide just about anything. Bury you right here, alongside Civil War shrapnel and Cherokee bones.” Sully dribbles whiskey iced tea down his chin; droplets stick to barbed stubble on his neck. Sully’s left hand cradles a black knob on the steering wheel; his right holds a Styrofoam cup. He squints and sees two figurines of blond, white, and blue—boys with gold-laced locks in knots; ridged brows over saltwater blues; finger-ribs rippling under taut skin, like herring wings wrapped in cellophane.
Sully presses the footbrake. Brake discs shrill. The bald bus tires blow red dust clouds over the boys’ feet. The bus stops. Sully pulls a metal lever next to the steering wheel. A door folds open in front of the boys.
Shea walks up the bus steps. Jeremiah trails him. Shea bends over and picks up a brown paper bag next to Sully’s right boot. He smells nubuck and manure.
Jeremiah stops on the top step and nods at Sully. He grabs a lunch bag and sits next to Shea on a green, vinyl bench behind the driver’s seat.
The boys place the brown paper bags in their laps, fold their hands, and close their eyes.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” The boys pray in unison. Each word and pause is well worn; the prayer is a cadenced hymn sewn on their tongues with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Sully stares at the windshield. Specks of brick-red dirt stick to the glass. He pulls down the bill of his royal blue baseball cap. Sunlight glints off a few silver hairs that sprout from the leathery skin on his right wrist. Sully removes a gold lighter and a pack of Marlboro Reds from the square pocket on his white t-shirt. He lifts a cigarette to his wide, chalky lips; rubs the lighter’s strike wheel with his calloused, right thumb. The lighter chimes and kicks a flame. Sully inhales smoke. His chest swells.
Sully delivers lunches to the boys for the summer, until the school cafeteria reopens in August. Grace Methodist Church packs the lunch bags on Sunday mornings after service. A bologna sandwich. A fruit cup. A milk carton. The boys have to eat on the bus, so that Sully can report to Pastor Lee that the boys ate the Church’s offering.
‘Have mercy on the sinners among us,’ Pastor Lee will preach on Sunday with his black hair slicked back, dripping Brylcreem on the lectern, while he raises a fruit cup grazed by lips bred in sin. Sully will sit in the last pew, red-faced, sweating bourbon, while he slurs to his daughter. ‘Lee ain’t been up there. He ain’t seen them. Food don’t absolve nothing. You can’t feed your guilt to nobody else.’
Sully exhales smoke through his nose. He curls his right arm over the back of his seat; watches the boys. The boys chew with their mouths closed, heads down, cheeks flushed; their fingers bloated by trapped, July heat. Their lips leave sweat rims on the white bread of their sandwiches. Sully opens a cooler next to his seat, reaches inside, and hands a cold fruit cup to each of the boys.
“The bus cools off when I put her in neutral; let her roll down Smokies with all her windows down. She gets up to fifty miles-per-hour, all on her own. You don’t feel like you’re falling, but you ain’t never fell so fast, boys.” Sully’s voice is unrushed and pillowed. His words carry a river’s breath. They pick up gravel in his throat, and then ease through ears to the chests they feed.
“Have I told you boys about our first night game?”
Shea shakes his head.
“It was a Saturday night; early December. Florida came to Knoxville, ranked third in the country. The paper said the Vols were underdogs by two touchdowns. The stadium just got lights; had bulbs brighter’n any star you’ll ever see. Lit up our boys, I think. Yep.” Sully tells the story at a downhill gaunt; its last play told before he gets there.
Jeremiah sees Neyland Stadium built from Sully’s words; placed before him. He sees a boy who looks like him, but grown up, tall. He wears a bleach-white helmet and sprints into the end zone, untouched. His black cleats float on a checkerboard of orange and white. Smokey the mascot raises his arms in parallel, next to his floppy ears. Brass horns lead a fight song. Then the song ends in Sully’s lungs.
The boys crumple their lunch bags into brown paper balls and hand them to Sully.
“Thank you, sir.”
Sully shakes his Styrofoam cup. Ice chips rattle. He lifts the cup to his mouth and swallows the rest of his watered-down, whiskey tea. Jeremiah stands in the aisle; waits for Sully’s eyes.
Sully looks up from his cup. He turns to Jeremiah. Jeremiah breathes through his nose; his bare stomach looks like a warped, orange balloon about to pop from his belly button. He holds out his right hand; furrows his bronze brows. Sully extends his hand and leaves it limp; as tame as he presents it to his only daughter, before she rests it on her belly to feel for baby kicks.
Shea watches from the first bus step with his head tilted in confusion, as if Sully were a bearcat surrendering before a blind lamb. Jeremiah squeezes Sully’s hand as hard as he can, but Sully cannot feel it. The boy’s hand is as weightless as a dry cotton clove.
Jeremiah studies Sully’s eyes. The boy sees slippery brown marbles stuck in cracked caulk, beneath two tangled bundles of wire and hay brows. Sully withdraws his hand. He looks at the side mirror into his own eyes. ‘I’d swear they was green.’
“Can a man’s eyes change color?”
“A baby’s does.”
Jeremiah leans his chest back and nods. He gaits down the bus steps; his chin lifted in parade.
Sully watches the cousins step off the bus, pass the sassafras trees, and disappear into Smokies’s woods, stalked by spectral haze. He considers trailing the boys to see where they live; to hump Smokies’s gauntlet of shadows and smoke, guided by his ears and gut; to feel his life slip from his hands back to mercy’s, where it lay twenty years before in Vietnam.
Sully turns the ignition. The bus engine grumbles.
“Every July, it’s still 1965. Smokies don’t change. They limp along a circular route, wider than Neptune’s orbit, sometimes the furthest thing away from the sun.”
Sully cradles a polished black ball that caps the steel gear lever, shifts the transmission to neutral, and releases the emergency break. The bus rolls sluggish at first, but faster as it descends the foothills.
Lainey parks her off-white station wagon in a shaded cove of matted grass. Jeremiah runs to the driver’s side door. Lainey steps out of the car, hunches over, and hugs her boy. Jeremiah wraps his arms around Lainey’s waist. He presses his right cheek against her belly.
Lainey’s wheat-blond curls stream to a grapefruit-sized bun at the base of her neck. Her kneecaps look like ivory doorknobs holding up her cut-off shorts. Salty blue eyes and pink cheeks surround her petite nose. When she smiles at Jeremiah, Lainey looks a decade younger than her twenty-five years.
Jeremiah takes his mother’s left hand in his right. With the end of his thumb, he traces a crust of black blood that fills her palm.
“Hi, baby.” Lainey’s voice is faint; just above the pulse in Jeremiah’s temples.
“I helped Callie with another birth today, honey. She said after a couple more I’ll be able to do it on my own. I’m learning fast.”
“Emma had a baby boy. First boy I helped with. Pretty boy, too. But not near as pretty as you. You came out a blue-eyed mountain lion.”
Jeremiah ducks his chin. He bites his lip to trap his smile. He rubs the bloodstain on his mother’s palm; black flakes fall from her hand to the grass.
“Sully told me and Shea about a boy from New Orleans called ‘Manning.’ Said he’ll be the best quarterback Tennessee ever seen.”
Lainey holds her breath and a blink to isolate her ears for Jeremiah’s voice. The boy’s words chime with a tempered reverb. They remind Lainey of finger-brushed chords on a harp that accompanied her youth choir in Nashville, nine months before Jeremiah was born; and of the harpist. ‘He has your lips.’
“I’ll take you to a game one day, Mama. I promise.”
Lainey’s stomach barks; guilt bites her belly’s crown. ‘Please let him see it, Lord.’
Lainey opens her eyes. She looks at Jeremiah. The boy fixes his blues on hers.
“Don’t worry over me, honey. If you see it one day, I will too.”
Lainey kneels in matted grass next to the hood of her car. She bows her head. Sweat coats the back of her swan neck; spangles moonlight. Lainey’s hands are crossed, her fingers interlocked, her elbows pressed into the sides of her rib cage. She faces away from her car toward two ailanthus trees that lean into the night-swept woods.
Jeremiah sits on the grass next to his mother. His back rests against the driver’s side door. He looks at the moon. It looks like a grain sickle struck by fluorescent stars. Jeremiah listens to his mother pray; her words alone but for cricket chirps.
Lainey pronounces each prayed word with painstaking diction, as if she were reading the prayer for the first time from a scroll inside her eyelids. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” Jeremiah pictures his mother’s words as a flock of Tanagers perched on Smokies’s crest; flap, hover, dip, land. Jeremiah trusts that, like the stages of flight, his mother’s words serve a worthy purpose that he cannot understand.
Lainey shuffles on her kneecaps in front Jeremiah; sits on her calves. She lifts her left hand to Jeremiah’s face and sweeps his bangs behind his right ear with the tips of her fore and middle fingers. Lainey places her cool, right wrist against his sticky forehead, and looks in his eyes—his pupils hold flecks of moonlight.
Lainey takes her son’s hand and stands up. She leads the boy behind her station wagon and opens the lift-gate. Jeremiah climbs inside the rear compartment. He sprawls on a red sleeping bag. Lainey cups her hand behind her boy’s neck and rests his head on a pillow. She spreads a white sheet over his body, from his feet to his chin. She climbs into the car next to Jeremiah; her back faces the open door. Jeremiah shuts his eyes.
The gorge pool is pink. It holds run-off from strawberry fields that line Little River’s banks. Jeremiah can’t see his reflection in the water. He wears black Converse sneakers laced up to his ankles, cuffed blue jeans, and a white t-shirt. Rust-orange dirt paints his fingernails. A waterfall spills into the gorge pool. It glows red in a patch of sun. The light blanks Jeremiah’s eyes. He blinks. His blues withdraw into shadows under his eyebrows.
Jeremiah hikes to the top of Little River Gorge; stands on its slate rock edge. He watches pink water roll over rocks in a stream below him; a hush and a drop, then gone. Jeremiah climbs down to the stream. He walks along the riverbed under the shade of hickory trees. He follows the pink water, without regard for time.
Jeremiah looks away from the water. He is several miles from Little River Gorge. The sun is overhead. The foothills are behind him. A brick rancher sits off the road to Jeremiah’s left. A boy with buzzed, dark brown hair stands in a field of cut grass next to the house. The boy wears a white jersey with orange stitching; “Gatlinburg” across his chest; “Porter” between his shoulder blades; “7” on his belly and back. The jersey is tucked into orange mesh shorts that cover Porter’s knees. His feet are in black, high-top shoes with rubber cleats. Porter tosses a leather football up in the air, straight above his head. His eyes don’t leave the ball until it returns to his hands.
Jeremiah walks toward the field, stops ten yards in front of Porter, and stands on the edge of a paved road. Jeremiah holds out his arms. He upturns his palms. Porter looks at Jeremiah, glances back at his house, and throws the football to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah catches the ball against his stomach. He closes his eyes, recalls Sully’s stories, opens his eyes, spreads his fingers over the white laces, lifts the ball behind his right ear, extends his left arm, opens his palm toward the sky; throws the football back to Porter. The ball spins in a neat spiral; it flies along a shallow arc. Porter watches the ball. Then he looks away. His green eyes widen. The nose of the football hits Porter’s chest. The ball falls to the ground.
Dirt rustles. Metal rattles. Jeremiah turns his head and looks at the road coming out of Smokies. The pavement shivers.
Sully drops his Styrofoam cup. He pulls the emergency brake next to his seat with his right hand; lurches the steering wheel counter-clockwise with his left. The bus flips. Sully’s body slams the ceiling of the driver’s cabin. The bus rolls over six times before it rests on its roof, twenty feet in front of Porter.
Sully’s body is numb. His eyes are closed. He smells fumes in pairs: whiskey with smoke, oil with gasoline, copper with iron. He tastes salt and metal. Sully opens his eyes. His pupils inflame to black dimes when he looks out the windshield, around webbed, white cracks, and wet, scarlet dots. Jeremiah lay still.
About the Author: Peter Tyree Morrison Colwell grew up in rural Maryland, by way of Northern California. He now lives in Virginia and works in Washington, D.C. Peter’s creative writing appeared in past issues of Thrice Fiction Magazine and Word Riot. Twitter: @PeterTMColwell