I’ve always had the same predicament. When I’m home, in Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I’m away, I’m homesick for a place that never was.
This is what I told Alma the night we met.
A grad student had thrown a party, and we’d both gone. I don’t know how long we’d been talking or how the conversation started, but I’d seen her watching me. That’s why I went over. She was watching me like I might try to steal something from her.
What does that mean, a place that never was? she said.
All around us, people were talking in groups of twos and threes. It was a house way out in the country, decorated in the way you’d expect of a grad student—someone with an overdeveloped sense of irony and curation, who also happened to be broke. Foreign film posters. A lamp made from antlers with a buckskin shade. Those chili pepper Christmas lights. We were standing in the pink glow of a Wurlitzer jukebox. In her right hand, she held a Solo cup and an unlit cigarette. Her long denim skirt was of the kind I associated with Pentecostals. On the other side of the Wurlitzer stood a life-sized cardboard cutout of Walt Whitman—the one where he’s got his hat cocked and his fist on his hip. I kept catching sight of him in my periphery and thinking it was another person standing there, eavesdropping.
I don’t know what I’m talking about, I said. I’m a little drunk.
I can tell, she said. She took a sip of her drink and slipped her bra strap back onto her shoulder. She looked around for a moment, sort of bobbing her head to the music, which was not coming from the jukebox, but from some other mysterious source. People were dancing in an attention-seeking way. She let her eyes pass over them briefly, then she turned back to me and shook her hair. It was all tangled and cut short in a kind of bob. The sort of dark hair that seemed red in a certain light—the light from the Wurlitzer, for instance.
I hail from Virginia myself, she said, putting on a phony accent.
Do you ever feel a sense of suffocation when you think about it? Like, you start to hyperventilate and sweat, and next thing you know, you’re completely overcome with this fear that if you go home, you’ll be trapped there and never be able to leave?
The question seemed to amuse her. No, she said.
Yeah, me neither, I said.
She laughed at this. I grew up in DC basically, she said. So, not the real Virginia. This is my first time in Kentucky.
Something like that. It’s not what I expected.
Did you expect all of us to play banjos and tie our pants with rope?
She laughed again. No, she said, I just thought it’d be—I don’t know. She gnawed on her lip and looked up at the ceiling, searching for the right word.
That isn’t the way I’d put it.
You go to the right places, you’ll find that. Where I grew up is like that.
And where is that?
I grew up in Melber, I said, but it’s not much more than a stop sign and a post office.
And it’s . . . under-resourced?
A flicker of memory: every Halloween of my childhood, a round bale of hay was soaked in kerosene, lit on fire, and rolled downhill on Melber’s main thoroughfare. People lined the street to watch as the bale jounced and tumbled, embers floating upward, bits of smoldering straw scattered in the road. I thought about this spectacle, and how no one ever explained to me why it was done, or for what purpose beyond entertainment and half-baked tradition. I remembered my dad’s heavy hands on my shoulders and the heat from the flames on my cheeks, how you could see the glimmer reflected in everyone’s eyes. And so, yes, in a town without a movie theater or a mall, where burning a bale of hay counted as entertainment, I thought it was safe to say that Melber was under-resourced.
I say I’m from Paducah, I told her. It’s the closest major town— if you can call it that. They sell these T-shirts that say paducah, kentucky: halfway between possum trot and monkey’s eyebrow. Then there’s a cartoon picture of a monkey and possum, hanging by their tails from separate trees, reaching out to each other, Sistine Chapel–style.
Wait, how is it between a monkey and a possum?
Geographically, I said. Those are the names of towns—Possum Trot and Monkey’s Eyebrow.
I could think of another word.
Well, she said, you’re not there anymore. She raised her beer to me. I didn’t have a drink at the moment, so I fist-bumped the Solo cup. She was closer to me than she needed to be, I thought—close enough that I could see the faint hairs on her upper lip and feel the heat from her body and her breath. I couldn’t place what it was about her that attracted me. Maybe some sense of shared understanding, real or imagined—that we were of a kind. Maybe it didn’t matter. I figured these sorts of things suffered from close scrutiny anyhow. She was a pretty girl at a party who seemed to enjoy talking with me, and with whom I wanted to be close. Better to leave it at that.
I’d probably feel differently about Virginia if I was born there, she said.
Where were you born?
She eyed me slyly for a moment, as if trying to discern whether I really cared. A country that no longer exists, she said.
Is this a riddle?
Her brows drew together almost imperceptibly. No, it’s not a riddle, she said. She took a drink. There were teeth impressions on the lip of the Solo cup where she’d been chewing on it.
What happened to the country?
I hope you find the right place, she said, not seeming to have heard my question. Maybe you’ll know it when you see it and you’ll feel at home. Then she touched my arm and said, I’m going to the porch to smoke. It was nice meeting you.
I gave her my name and she gave me hers—Alma, she said. Shaking her hand was like putting a letter in a mailbox, not knowing if you’d ever get a reply. You dropped the envelope and shut the metal hatch, and then you were empty-handed. Before she walked away, she asked me what I did—if I was a graduate student or TA or what. I told her I was a writer, but maybe my speech was slurred. She looked at me like I’d meant to say I was something else.
Someone took me home. I remember it was a pickup truck with eagles airbrushed in mid-flight on the doors against a backdrop of rippling stars and stripes. The image was ethereal, and I stood there in the driveway looking at it for a long time, mesmerized. Someone was standing in the yard, very drunk, naming off the cities of the world that would be underwater in the next fifty years. Houston, Dhaka, Miami, Mumbai. He was counting on his fingers. Alexandria, Rio, Atlantic City, New Orleans.
The driver of the airbrushed truck materialized finally and told me to get in. I’d seen him at the party but hadn’t spoken to him. Every time I’d gone to fetch a beer in the kitchen, he’d been leaning against the avocado fridge, talking about John Ashbery.
I’m gonna roll down the window in case you need to be sick, he said, and so I rode in the passenger seat with the wind drying my eyes, high beams unfurling the road ahead of us. He asked my permission to smoke and I said, Of course, as if we were old friends and I was offended he’d even asked. I’ll take one too if you don’t mind, I said.
This is my last one, he said. There was a long pause. We can float it though, if you want.
That’s okay, I said, and though I meant that it was fine for him to smoke it alone, he went ahead and passed it to me. This guy, the driver, was wearing a PBS T-shirt and a ratty red sock hat. Whose truck is this? I said, suddenly aware that it couldn’t be his.
My older brother’s.
I took a drag and passed the cigarette back to him. It’s nice, I said, for some reason. I didn’t really have an opinion about the truck.
The woods opened out onto a big pasture, rows of mown hay in a wash of moonlight. A clapboard house stood against the tree line, with a gambrel barn beside it, and in the lighted window of the house, I saw a man and woman embracing. They seemed to be standing in a kitchen. There were plates on the table. Maybe they’d just eaten, though it was very late. Regardless, they were having a moment. They didn’t know I could see them, passing by, as I was, in the dark.
I met a girl, I said.
I saw that, he said, amused. That’s the visiting writer, you know. She got the big fellowship.
We had a vibe, I said, though I wasn’t sure if I even believed this.
No, you didn’t.
I’m telling you, man.
She’s with someone, I think. Now, where am I taking you?
Home, I said.
Home was a cracker box house on the south edge of Louisville with kudzu branching along the walls and an elaborate, jury-rigged tangle of antennae on the roof. It was my grandfather’s house, and I lived there with him and my uncle Cort in a basement room. I’d been there since returning from Colorado a few weeks earlier, where I’d worked for a year with the city forestry division of Aurora. I’d been laid off from the forestry job, failed to make rent, and slept in my car for two months. Having no place else to go, and not wanting to live with either of my divorced parents in western Kentucky, I moved into my grandfather’s house, where I could stay rent-free till I “got back on my feet.” I got a job as a groundskeeper for Ashby College, a small private school of some renown in the foothills an hour from the city. Anybody that worked for the college could attend exactly one class for free, and my motive in accepting the job was that I could take a writing workshop. This is what led me to the grad student’s party in the country. It was a welcome party, for all the new and returning students. I was supposed to start work on Monday, and my first class was Monday evening. It was Saturday then—or early Sunday morning, technically. I’d have to take an Uber back and retrieve Pop’s truck sometime in the morning.
So are you TAing? the driver wanted to know.
No, I said. He had the heated seat on. I was slouched down, feeling very sleepy and comfortable in its warmth.
He cracked the window, flicked out the cigarette filter. You don’t get a stipend, then? he said.
I’m just taking classes.
I TAed for the first time last semester, he said, shaking his head wearily. Creative nonfiction. I had these grand ideas that I’d teach them about selfhood and identity and the personal essay as a process of self-disclosure and all that. But I had to spend most classes explaining the difference between past and present tense. They switch between the two willy-nilly. And all they want to write about is dead grandparents. It’s the only tragedy any of them have encountered. I swear to God, if I read one more dying grandfather story, I’m gonna blow my brains out.
We slung around a curve, headlights panning the trees, and when the road straightened, a creature appeared in the middle, straddling the dashed line—a large bird. He stomped the brake. The car shook violently as the antilock mechanism kicked in. We came to a halt a few feet from it, and in the bluish light of the halogen beams, I saw that it was a peacock—iridescent and stately, oil-sheen feathers trailing like a bridal train. The bird looked at us with small red eyes.
Holy shit, the driver said.
For a long time, the bird stared, undaunted.
Maybe it escaped, he said.
Escaped from what?
He didn’t answer. Finally, the peacock waddled to the other side, twitching its plumes, pecking casually at insects on the ground. We drove on and did not speak the rest of the way, apart from my perfunctory Thanks for the ride. He merely nodded, all the color blanched from his face. He looked like he’d seen his doppelgänger in a dream and now knew his death was imminent. Maybe I looked the same. My heart was still thumping as I pelted up the gravel drive to Pop’s house.
In the basement, I stretched my legs on the tweed couch and opened my notebook. I wrote down what I remembered. My conversation with Alma. The truck with the airbrushed eagles. The peacock. When I’d recounted everything, I wrote a description of the present moment:
I’ve got my bare legs stretched out on the tweed couch. I’m drunk. The couch is itchy. Through the casement window, I can see a birch tree. It reminds me of a Japanese painting. A string of threadbare flags is draped from the tree. The neighbor put them up. They’re called prayer flags, I think. Further on there’s a church steeple. Lilac sky. Birds are beginning to sing, so I guess it’s dawn.
It’s dim in the basement and the air feels like a root cellar’s—cool and damp. All of Pop’s antiques and old tools are down here, too many to name, but here’s what I can see on or near the workbench:
A rust-speckled Pepsi sign.
Purple Heart in a glass case.
I thought for a minute, trying to decide if I’d forgotten anything important about the night. I wrote: Cardboard cutout of Walt Whitman at the party, and closed the notebook.
I found it hard to fall asleep without the television playing. I’d been watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance earlier and it was still paused. Pop had a big bookshelf of VHS tapes next to the basement TV. A lot of John Ford westerns. Billy Wilder. Hitchcock. The films were taped from television and included commercials for food processors and obsolete technologies, but I didn’t mind so much.