I couldn't help it. Coming back was always like this: something would vibrate inside me so furiously it would shake itself still.
Kilbey promised to pick me up and there he was waiting outside the small airport, khaki jump suit bleaching in the sunlight, arms crossed, leaning against his truck, and that grin of his, cut hungry across his face. He looked like a clever little lizard. Hey, he said, look at you. A prop-plane coughed through the sky behind him. Kilbey pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and offered me one. No thanks. I told him I had quit.
I put my bags in the truck bed, reluctantly, seeing how filthy it was, the edges crowded with beer cans and burger wrappers, large psoriatic patches of rust, grease and dried mud. This thing still runs? I kicked a tire and looked up and down the old Ford. Of course, Kilbey said. He opened the door and the sound echoed even in the empty parking lot. Built tough, man, indestructible.
We drove out through the airport, down the mile long stretch of used car dealerships, diners, motels, the rest of the boredom that decorates any post-airport area, and turned onto the expressway. Kilbey slumped over the steering wheel as if he had trouble seeing out the windshield, a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. I thought that he might be drunk. How are you, I asked, half hoping he'd say something simple, final, something that wouldn't require questions or comments.
Well, he choked out, a fist of smoke slung from his mouth. Ash flaked onto his lap, unnoticed. Goddam Clarice left me, Kilbey said. He pounded the wheel with a palm, more smoke, more ash. Left me, a whole lot about children, dogs, mortgages, and who knows what else. Kilbey shook his head, took one last drag and flicked his cigarette butt out the open window. But that's all done and done, man, keep on trucking. Right?
Too bad, I said, I thought she was good girl. Truthfully, I never knew a Clarice, nor an Angela or an oft-talked-about Isabella. As a matter of fact, I never knew any women, girls or whatever that would take a chance with Kilbey. It wasn't that his appearance, roughly made and bird-chested, limited him. That was just part of the package. You had to accept that Kilbey was loud and crude and sometimes smelled like dry cheese. Otherwise you would want to kill him.
Yeah, man, Kilbey said, I really thought I had that one bagged, you know, another Isabella. He turned to me. A frown stretched his face in craggy angles. He exhaled, letting his lips flutter dramatically. The scent of cheese filled the cab. Another smell too, almost sinister, like damp metal. He had certainly been drinking. I turned away and pretended to study the landscape.
So, I asked, what's the plan? Each time I fly home, Kilbey promises that things would be taken care of and insists on being secretive about it. Such a strange routine, seeing Kilbey, coming face to face with a part of myself and still not knowing what to expect. What we were going to do, where was I going to sleep, these were all mysteries to me.
Kilbey slumped back over the steering wheel and grinned. It's a surprise, he said and lit another cigarette.
Kilbey had an old friend who lived up the mountain. Known him way longer than I known you, he said. I had known Kilbey since grade school and I never believed, then or now, he had friends other than me.
We were driving down a narrow road flanked on both side by heavy trees. Kilbey reached under his seat and pulled out a can of beer. Are you sure about that, I asked. Kilbey cracked the can open. The truck hit a pothole and some beer spilt onto his lap. Shit, he said, you want one? I shrugged and held out my hand. Wait till you see this place, Kilbey said, it's nice, lots of land, no one around for miles. He reached back under his seat, found a beer and gave it to me. My friend, he said, is a cool guy, letting us stay up there, you’re gonna like him.
As we got further up on the mountain the trees became less plentiful, scrubby and anemic. Some completely dead, their skeletons half uprooted from the dirt. Crows, silent and cold as bullets, clung to the branches. When we passed, they watched us go. The sky, too, was turning, becoming heavier, more oppressive. The clouds hung low over the brown earth. I tried to focus on nothing. I tried to ignore how the trees slipped past the window.
When we came to a balding spot of field grass, what I figured must be the very top of the mountain, we turned off the road onto a gravel driveway. The truck swayed and bucked, rocks popped under the tires. Something vibrated angrily in the glove box. This guy is an A-plus, original mountain man, Kilbey said. His voice came out in a stutter, the ridged and pleated road shaking us so violently I pressed my hand to the ceiling to keep from hitting my head. Beer sprung from Kilbey’s can, shot out like sparks, ash sprinkled off his cigarette, peppering his clothes and the dash, but he didn't seem to mind. He just barreled down the driveway, jerking the wheel back and forth to dodge pits and ditches, grinning like a snake.
Kilbey brought the truck to a hard stop. The tires locked and skidded against the gravel. Pale rock smoke circled the truck and leaked into through the open windows. It tasted metallic and keen, but old and chalky like ground fossils. Kilbey crammed the drive lever into park and turned to me. Well, he said, what do you think, man? The smoke from his cigarette and the gravel dust hung casually in the cab. It swirled around him. The sunlight reflected off the cloud, made it glow yellow and gray. Kilbey’s face was almost hidden, but I could still make out his smile. The red eye of his cigarette seemed to float out from his buckled teeth.
You wait here, he said. Goodie Kilbey off the ignition and opened the door. The rusted jambs whined and when Kilbey slammed the door shut, there was a touch of scorn on his face. He leaned in the open window. This guy's a little shaky, you know, kind of a hole-in. I nodded without feeling but somewhere in the back of my mind was a vague sort of understanding.
I watched Kilbey walk up to the house, an old ranch, drying in the mountain air. He looked nervously around him. We parked close enough and I could see the dirty white paint crawling back from the clapboards. The windows were dark. In one a chewed and torn curtain. Two arthritic planks held up the small porch roof. Not much was out here: a dead lawn, an oil drum shot through and purpled with rust, a gray smear of charcoal where a fire must have been, a wind that snapped from the field. Up here, on perhaps the top of a mountain, and all I could see was the low sky and desolation.
Kilbey knocked on the front door. He waited for a few seconds, turned back to me, grinned, and then turned back to the door. I began to wonder how much planning Kilbey had actually done. The front door cracked open. I couldn't see anybody, but I could see Kilbey’s lips moving and I heard the faint gabble of speech. At first he was amiable, confident. Then, immediately, his face went blank, his smile straightened out. He started to move his hands around in beckoning gestures, he pointed to me and I waved at the pitch crack of the doorway. Who was I waving at?
Now Kilbey was frantic, flailing his arms in the air. A flash lit up the doorway, illuminating the lines of an old woman's face, a rifle blast. The crows scattered from the trees that surrounded the field. Kilbey stumbled back, gripping his upper thigh. He ran towards the truck as best he could, slinging the shot leg forward with his arms, and ripped open the passenger door. I slid quickly over to the driver's seat. Instinctually I gassed the truck to life and yanked it into gear. The tires spun, spat out gravel like loose teeth, gripped and pushed the truck into motion. We rocked down the driveway, bouncing out of our seats.
Kilbey reached in between the seats and brought out a stained rag. He wrapped it around his thigh with scary precision, a dark blot soaked through the cloth. Fuck, he said, wrong house, man. Kilbey patted both breast pockets of his jumpsuit for a cigarette, his bloody hands leaving red prints, like wings, across his chest.