The three of them sat, legs dangling off the side of the old, abandoned railroad trestle, resting in the cool wind of the southern September night and passed between them a tall mason jar filled with clear liquid that tasted like apples and fire. It was the last night of their freedom, the last night they would be together like this. Below them the Cumberland gushed, her banks swollen from the onslaught of rain the parched valleys had been dying to receive. The General Jackson had long since passed them, filling the air with twangy guitars and devil-may-care fiddles; a bittersweet reminder of Dixie.
Another long draught and the eldest one, the smallest of the three, cleared his throat, “Well, boys…” Bill didn’t talk much, often felt no need when his actions did all his talking for him. But on a night like this, well, maybe it was time he said something. A long sigh, a wistful glance across the river and he slumped into himself.
“Yeah, well…” Aaron was wry man, with dry wit and the deepest blue eyes any girl had ever gazed into. People around town knew not to ask him too many questions, not to pry too much because the piece of his mind they were looking for, they weren’t keen on keeping. He thought little of the weaker sex, mostly because they were more headache than they were worth. He figured one day they’d all even out, with all their crazy hormones and stupid girly stuff. Maybe then he could settle down. But until that day, no, thank you sir. He’d best keep himself busy with work. And cars
“Remember when we used to come up here years ago, back when we was real little? Remember Kevin? He spent all day tyin’ up that tire swing just for it to snap when Jodie got on it….” Hunter trailed off, his mind far and away to a time when the men were just boys and girls were….well, just girls. Tow-headed Hunter was always chasing one girl or another, getting himself into trouble with this sheriff or that, but was always let off easy with a warning because of his daddy, the judge.
“That’s ’cause Jodie was the same size as your granny’s old dairy cow,” snorted Aaron, shaking his head at the memory.
Winking and smiling slyly, Hunter teased, “Not anymore.”
The guys had spent the better part of their lives in this small town that was nestled in the rolling, green hills between Highland Rim and the river. They’d spent their younger days in the beds of pick-ups, whipping around the windy, country back roads, working on one project car or another , and getting into far too much trouble with girls. Sweet, southern paradise – enough space to roam, Sunday dinner after church service, and ice-cold beer in the summer. That was all they ever thought they could need out of life. But those days were ending quick and here they sat, wondering where the time went.
“You don’t have to, Bill,” muttered Aaron, “Ain’t a person alive who’d blame you if you didn’t. No reason why you can’t just go on about your business and act like nothin’ ever happened.”
“But it did, though, and I know it did. Walkin’ away ain’t me,” Bill shot back.
“Are you sure ’bout this, though? Your mama, rest her soul, I think even she’d forgive you,” Hunter chimed in.
“Listen good, y’all. We ain’t gonna ruin our last night together by talkin’ ’bout things we can’t change. It’s done. I ain’t walkin’.”
“She don’t know how to act, Bill. She’s a damn child, an idiot runnin’ around, gettin’ herself into one mess or another. Now you’re marryin’ her and getting’ yourself stuck.”
“What kinda man walks away from this? Ain’t no kind, we know that. How many times have we seen them girls at church and shook our heads at the low-down, dirty mess them other idiots done made and run away from? Yeah, Sarah is a god-awful train wreck, and so is her whole family. A great big, fuckin’ mess. I can’t leave one more child to get raised by wild animals and be ‘nother leech on society. ‘Specially not my blood.”
A dense tension filled the space between the men and Hunter shifted uncomfortably on his seat . “These boards get harder and harder every time we come up here, boys,” he sighed, “When do you find out what you’re havin’?”
“Next Friday,” Bill’s eyes were fixed on the river flowing below.
“Hope it’s a boy,” Aaron mumbled.
“It’ll be whatever it’s gonna be.”
“If it’s a boy, we can take ‘im fishin’, Bill,” Hunter perked up.
“Yeah, if it’s a boy you don’t have to worry so much.”
“It really don’t matter what it is, Aaron. Boy, girl, still needs more direction than Sarah and her mess can give it. That’s all I really care about.”
Aaron took one last, long pull from the jar and brought his feet beneath him to stand. He stretched tall over the other two men, feeling his bones stretch and crack, the muscles strain as his arms reached toward the sky and then out, “I get it, Bill. I don’t wish what you’re doin’ on anybody and I’m sorry for you.”
Bill’s head whipped up so fast to look at Aaron that Hunter was sure it was gonna come clean off his neck, “D’you ever stop to think about what the hell you’re sayin’? Damn you, Aaron. Don’t be sorry for me!” Bill’s skin took a deep red color, anger filling his face.
“Calm down now, Bill,” the rough seriousness of his tone was threatening and cautious.
“You don’t know when to quit, do ya?! Good to know that if things ever got hard for you or didn’t go the way you wanted then you’d turn tail and run like a coward. God bless the woman whoever gets involved with you!” Bill was yelling now, his voice echoing in the valley. Hunter watched the two men, fully riled up, each waiting for the other to throw the first blow. He stood shakily, taking a full two steps back from the hell that was about to break loose.
“Hey guys, this ain’t worth fightin’ about right now. Let’s go on somewhere.”
“Go on, then, Hunter. Sounds like Bill has some ideas about me he needs to get out there. C’mon, Bill, what else ya got? You think I’m a coward ‘cause I won’t mess with no crazy whore woman and have a kid I won’t give a damn about? Seems the worst kinda man would lay down with crazy just ‘cause it’s there waitin’ for ‘im. You think I’m a coward? I think you’re a fuckin’ idiot for what you did,” Aaron’s fists were balled, clenched tight and white-knuckled, his whole body tense – wired for action.
Bill charged at Aaron, both men falling onto the trestle, fists flying into ribs, into soft bellies and square jaws. They rolled once toward the edge of the trestle, Aaron’s foot hanging off the edge, Bill’s gaze staring straight down at the Cumberland. The gravity of what the hell they were doing, where they were doing it, and why came crashing in at once.
“Get off ‘im, Bill,” Hunter threw a hand to his friend, helping him find his footing before helping Aaron to his feet. “Y’all done being stupid now? Did ya get it out of your system?” Hunter shook his head, “That ain’t what tonight was about. Just stop already.”
Bill eyed Aaron warily, “You ain’t got to like what I do, but I’m gonna do it anyway. If you ain’t gonna be my friend, then don’t bother with me no more. I ain’t got time for that.”
Aaron’s spine stiffened in that moment, the weight of Bill’s words settling into his gut and twisting in him worse than all the punches he’d ever taken. Southern pride was roiling and threatening to boil over, on principle Aaron knew a man was only as good as his word, but Bill was like a brother and better than a man’s word was his loyalty to family.
“Fine, Bill. Let’s get goin’, it’s getting’ late,” Aaron mumbled, gathering up the mostly empty mason jar and clapping his friend on the back. The men climbed down from the trestle and the Cumberland was alone, reflecting the stars in the Southern sky.