Vashti read the bear policy posted at the start of the trail twice before she decided to walk with us. She made one command. "If we gone do this shit, y'all can't pull out no snacks, no water, no nothing. Ain't no bear bout to fuck with me. Y'all asses gone follow these policies."
I think she came along because she's curious about the nature of bears, but her fear is what drives us. She's almost ours in this place. In these mountains, so near where I hunted with my father as a boy. She's been our girl for the past couple of days. It's been nice. It’s a change. We've been her boys for such a long time. But now, on this mountain, things are right in the universe as long as she fears the bear.
I watch her wiggle her fingers through water trickling down the opening of the shallow cave. I'm bored. I want to climb. I watch her for a little while longer and then take a look at my wrist. We've been waiting for more than twenty minutes now, and it's starting to bother me that she won't go ahead.
"Tree cracking up there above your head, Vash," I say. "You probably ought to move away from that water. If a bear's on his way down here, I'm sure that's where he's heading." I try to sound concerned. A husband should be.
"Nuh, uh. You lying," she says, still crouching but turning her head to face me. The way she's twisting her face like a question makes me think about all the old photos hidden in a box in our garage. She almost looks beautiful. Young.
She captured me in a drunken and desperate one-night stand. I've been what she likes to call "hers" ever since. And she is content with things this way. She's okay with me not loving her. My cop money is like a gold mine to her. Our arrangement is not okay with me.
I turn my head. I want her to know I'm serious. There is a rustling above us. I can't be serious looking into her dark eyes. They're smooth and persuasive and demanding and bold. Got eyes like a time machine. They like to take me back to the party where we happened. The Tech party she didn't have no business being at. Guess I shouldn't have been there either. I wasn't a Tech student, but at least I was a student. I'd driven the road to Lubbock with a few guys from my own school in Kentucky. One of them had someone important at Texas Tech.
I wanted to impress the guys, so I had her. They all walked away from that weekend whole. Not me. I had to do the right thing.
I adjust the pack on my back and look at my watch again. I know she's watching me. I want her to know I'm watching my watch. I'm ready to hike—to climb. I was born for mountains. My father caught that early. That made him proud. We never missed a Tennessee deer season. That was before I could never go back home.
She finally stands up and drops the stick. She wipes something away from her legs and smacks her lips. "We ain't leaving him. You talking bout bears and shit. I'll be damned if I leave him down there. He ain't but thirteen, and he scary as shit," she says. She's gritting her teeth and spitting a little. I can tell she's trying hard not to be herself. She's so close to cursing me out I can hear the words in the back of her throat.
I want to sigh at the mention of her son Keylan, but I don't. She slapped me for calling her an enabler last month when I thought she was babying him. I didn't hit her back. I would never hit her back. My mother would rise from her grave if I ever considered it. My father would shake his head like I'm pitiful and hate me more than he already does. I remember he used to tell me before leaving for his own shift at the force, "Take care of your momma, or I'll take care of you."
Vashti slapped me hard enough to cause my face to turn red, and I'm blue-black. I try to understand that she comes from violence, but that gets hard. I feel bad for the man she's allowing—no making Keylan become. She's hindering his growth because she don't like where it's going. She's been doing that for a real long time. But it really got bad a few months ago when she caught him watching internet porn—gay porn. She didn't ask him how he found it. If it was by accident. She just blew up.
Now she swears up and down he's gay. Says she don't mind the boy watching porn, but Chicks with Dicks isn't the way she'll allow her boy to go.
The day she slapped me, she'd walked in the bathroom to put some towels from the laundry away, and Keylan was getting undressed to shower. Caught him off guard and he almost split his head wide open trying to hide behind the shower door. I guess she was pretty surprised by what she saw because she walked right out of the bathroom and slammed her hand over her mouth. Then she released the hand, smiling big and wide. "My baby got pubes and man-sized balls." Then her smile became a frown. She turned around and went right back into the bathroom.
Keylan started crying, begging her to leave, but she wanted to know what man he'd been showing his anatomy to. That's when I cut in and told her all her talking—her pushing the boy was inappropriate. She was being an enabler and she would stunt his growth to manhood. That's when she told me to mind my damn business. When she slapped me as hard as any man could.
Later that night, after we made what she likes to call love, after she told me she needed money for her hair and nails and a new outfit for job-hunting, she asked me what an enabler was. I just lay there for a while, trying to enjoy her head in the fold of my arm—in the fold of my arm where my woman should rest. I didn't want to ruin the moment—the peace. Her believing in me—that I had the key to open her up. Me believing in myself. So I lied.
"I don't know," I said. "I just made it up." And in that moment, I lit up her world. She rose from the fold, smiling and kissed me with as much passion as was ever between us.
My squad partner, Chavis, says I should leave her. Says to hell with her and her son, but I think Chavis is wrong. My father taught me that men don't leave. We sacrifice because we're supposed to see what's coming. "Men are prophets," he once told me. "Every single one of them got the power to see and cast out demons before they can touch us." I was supposed to see that Vashti was who she is. I failed.
My father. I'll respect him and his Kentucky Church of Christ spirit for as long as I live. Still, I know he'll never forgive me. All his preachy ways about men and what they're supposed to do and be. He thinks I'm a demon. A sodomite. He never tried to help me understand my manhood but penalized me when I tried to explore it. I asked him about sex when I was still in middle school, and his tongue sent me to hell. After his verbal rebuke, we kneeled in front of the white Jesus painting in our basement for days, praying that demon out of me. After that, we pretended to forget that I had ever said anything.
We both tried to make me right. Each in our own way. My father gave me God, and God gave me Alvin White. When my father caught us sleeping—cuddled up close and naked— in the same bed my senior year of high school, he stopped speaking to me altogether. It was the only time I'd ever been intimate with anyone, and my father gave up on me forever. Told me when I left for college he never wanted to see me again. But still, I try. I married Vashti for right. For my father and Jesus. Neither one of them speaks to me anymore.
I turn my head toward Vashti and can't help but smile. Her struggle for femininity is funny to me. She's so tall and filled out in those calf-length tights. Like a big man would be. Her belly button is smiling at me on purpose. Her tank-top is too short. It shouldn't be, but she likes it that way. Her stomach jiggles when she moves, but she does that. Wears clothes that no one can mistake are feminine and false nails so long they curve. Reminds me of mothers who glue bows on the heads of bald baby girls so strangers don't mistake them for boys. I wish she knew that her womanhood is unmistakable. That she's nothing like a man. And that I've really tried to love her.
We both hear limbs breaking this time and her eyes widen as she reaches her arms out to grab at me. The trail that winds up this mountain is narrow and two miles long. The trees are a canopy above us, creating a green darkness that I have missed over the years. Fear sparkles in Vasti's eyes at the cracking of every limb or the chirping of every bird. She's not used to this. She's from a flat land. Dust storms and tornados are common for her. She'll stand in the eye of one of those storms. She's not home in my mountains. We are only a quarter of the way up and I hope this hike lasts forever. I place my hand on her shoulder to steady her nervous movement.
"We need to go back," she says once she's safe in my arms. "Which way is it moving, Sonny?" she asks in a childish voice that I like. She's never really been submissive or nothing like that. Vashti always knows what she wants and when she wants it.
"Sounds like it’s moving down. We should go up. It'll have moved down, near the base, by the time we hike back down," I say.
"You out of your head. Keylan down there. Shit, I'm tired of you treating him like he ain't yours," she says. She's frowning and her eyes appear to have forgotten that she's helpless in my mountains. That this is where she needs me to guide her.
I want to tell her how unfair it is for her to say those things. That I love Keylan like he’s my own son. But most of all, I want to remind her that she is in my mountains. That she is woman and I am man. "It's not like that, Vashti. It's really not. And I'm talking about the base. Keylan's on the trail. The bear won't go down the trail. Keylan will b—"
"Why in the hell did he go back for anyway, Sonny? We climbing a fucking mountain. Me and my baby don't know shit about no woods. We from East Park," she says like I don't already know. Like I don't know where the night at the Tech party has led me. Like I didn't find out that, with her friends, she'd crashed the party from her raunchy neighborhood. Like I've forgotten that I quit school and moved to her town when she called and claimed pregnant. Like I can forget that there is no green there. That it's flat and mountains only live in my dreams there.
"Why would your dumb ass let him go back?" She twists her head out of my arms and looks around. "Shit, I don't even know what to do." Her eyes are blaming me for her confusion when the tree over our heads begins to wiggle.
"Move," I say, waving her back down the mountain. "He's coming down this way."
No sooner than I speak the words, a black bear pushes dirt and grass over the ridge above us. Vashti sees the same claws I see and I have to remind her with a finger against my lips to stay quiet. I mouth to her not to run. To walk back slowly, but I stand there and watch as the bear makes his way down to the hiker's trail and then to the small cave I'd warned Vashti about. I step back, keeping a safe distance between myself and the bear. He has deposited himself on the trail. He sits between me and the top of the mountain and moves with slowness and certainty, like he owns the trail and the mountain and the small cave. On all fours, he laps the falling water and I can see a bald patch on his back. He drinks and ignores me, but I know he knows I'm here. I look behind me to make sure Vashti is safe, but she's gone.
I want to worry about her, but I don't have time. I haven’t been this close to a bear in years, and I know he'll soon disappear into the mountain. He reminds me of my father. Large and comfortable and avoiding my eyes. My father loved the mountains. Said they were the original homes of men. He stopped taking me when I was sixteen. When I stopped being a man. I wonder if he still hikes them. If he's seen this bear.
I want to capture the bear. To have this memory of my father trapped in time. I remember that Vashti has the Nikon in her pack. I back away from the drinking bear to get it. When I meet her about sixty feet down the trail, she is standing with Keylan and another group of hikers. She's warning them about the bear—telling them it's not safe, but they ready their cameras and smile. They know this small mountain. Keylan smiles too.
"I want to see it, Sonny," he says, and his hopeful eyes remind me that I must be a better father than the one Vashti originally chose for him.
I smile at him and beckon him over with a wave. "Get the camera from your mom."
"I know you don't think I'm about to let him go back up there for no bear. You trying to kill this boy today, ain't you, Sonny?" she asks, grabbing Keylan's growing bicep to hold him near her.
Keylan rolls his eyes and lets out a loud huff. He shifts the weight of his slender, near six foot frame to one leg. He has grown so much since I met him eight years ago. He was a disturbed kindergartener then. Hiding under classroom desks, thinking that the same cops who arrested his father would get him. He was sensitive; Vashti called him a crybaby. He was just one of those kids who stayed to himself. The quiet kind of kid who didn't get into much trouble. Took him a while to warm up to me since I was a cop, but it didn't take me long to realize that Keylan was a good kid. Vashti is still hard on him. Says he's always been a little too soft. But Keylan really is a good kid.
When Keylan's father was released from prison three years ago, we had trouble. Vashti let the alleged father talk her into spending time with Keylan. I've run into trouble with him and Vashti since his release, but marriage is forever. That's what I keep telling myself. Didn't take long for his presence to start coming out in Keylan.
I was angry with Keylan at first. I had put a lot into that kid, and he was blowing it away to be like his alleged father. He was pulling stunts like experimenting with cigarettes, skipping school with his little friends, and even cursing when he thought we couldn't hear him. He even went to sagging his pants and trying to act tough. I took the belt to him when he called me a pig. He didn't tell his mother about the belt, but it hurt my relationship with him.
I began rallying for a kid of my own. Reminding my wife that I married her under false pretenses. She claimed to have lost the baby after we were married. I don't know if I believe she was ever pregnant—if I ever really cared. My father needed to see me be a man. He needed to see me with a woman. So I took Vashti as my wife. My father still won't see the man in me though.
Vashti ignored my requests for a kid. Said I better be happy with Keylan. And I am…until she reminds me that he's not my son. Those days—days like the day she slapped me—I want a son of my own. A little me to teach to be me one day. I'd teach my boy to be a man. I'd forget my father and teach him to be a man the best way I know how.
When I found out what Keylan's father did to him—what he thought he was doing for him, I felt bad—somehow responsible. I was sick for days and my wife didn't understand. It was no big deal to her. It was what he needed. It was the cure. I wanted to vomit and spit and laugh in her face. I wanted to tell her she was supposed to be my cure.
It was after I'd belted him—after I'd judged him—that I found out. It was a Saturday, so Vashti was on one of her all day trips to the beauty salon. I'd been working on the lawn all day. The lawn is the only place where I ever find peace in her town. I've taken on the characteristics of a mound builder and constructed a small mountain on our front lawn. With the grass starting to spring up all over the giant pile of red dirt, I feel that I am rebuilding. Like I have recreated the Appalachians or the Smokies. Reminds me of what I lost.
On that Saturday, when I came back into the house to wash my hands, I heard soft cries coming from the hall bathroom. When I tapped on the door, the cries quieted. I tapped again. This time Keylan answered with a shaky yes.
"Open the door," I said firmly. I was surprised when he actually did.
His eyes were red and tissue was stuck to his face from where he had tried to wipe. I asked him if I could come in, and after some hesitation, he opened the door. I walked over to the toilet and took a seat. He stood by the door with his eyes focused on his shoes.
"What's with the weepy eyes?" I asked, crossing one of my legs over the other.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I'm alright."
"Keylan," I called in a stern voice. "What is it?" I sat there and waited. When he realized I was staying put, he sighed.
"I won't never be no man," he said.
"Why would you say a thing like that, Keylan?" I asked.
"I didn't like it. Maybe I'm soft like Momma say," he said, pointing to his chest. His voice was shaky and it made me sad for him.
"What didn't you like?" I asked.
"He said something wrong cause I didn't want her. He said he gone break the faggot in me."
I felt my mouth open and fall into an "o". "Your dad?" I asked, but I already knew. He nodded.
"He bought me a woman—one of his customers. It made me sick. I didn't want her. I tried to and didn't," he said, before sliding down to the floor like a puddle of sadness and opening his cries to the world.
I stood up from the toilet and kneeled beside him. I offered him all the comfort I had in me. I rubbed his back and told him the story of how I lost home. Told him he'd be okay. And before leaving his defeated body on the bathroom floor, I told him, "Loving a woman has nothing to do with being man, son."
"Mom," Keylan says. "I can handle myself. Sonny bought me this." He holds up the wooden Swiss Army knife I found at the mountain general store last night. I couldn't find one with his name, so I had to settle for one engraved with a "K." That knife is why Keylan went back down the mountain. He'd dropped it and refused to go on without it once he realized it was gone. His mother had been examining the drop on the side of the mountain when he whispered to me that he needed to go back for it. I let him go. I was proud that he even wanted to.
"Where you get that from, boy?" Vashti asks. "You gave my baby a knife?" she asks, eyeing me.
I hadn't told Vashti about the knife. She had spent her time in the store asking the clerk about the Eastern Tennessee fascination with taffy and fudge. She hadn't paid me and the boy much attention. It was a private exchange. We understood that. Not in a hiding kind of way. But in way that meant we understood that this was an important moment, and it made us both something more to each other than we already were. We had these exchanges often, especially after that day on the bathroom floor. When I talked to him about what his father had done—what mine thought of me. When I told him that we would get through that. When I explained that his confusion had to do with his age. He'd been too young for what his father given him.
His eyes are begging me to climb—to see the bear, and as the strangers that had been huddled listening to Vashti's story begin to pass us, I want to share my climb with him.
"Vashti," I begin. "He'll be fine. You go on back down, and we'll meet you at the car. I just want him to see the waterfall at the top. Just this once. Trust me. Let me take him with me," I say. I'm begging her for this. To allow both of us to be men the best way we know how. To allow us this climb. To allow us this freedom to be one with this mountain. To see the beauty in what she fears.
"No," she says, placing her hands on her hips. "He can't go. Both of y'all need to get back to the car. I done let you play Jungle George long enough. Drop this mountain shit and let's go."
I sigh. "Is it the bear, Vashti? Is that it?" I ask. "The bear is like… He's like John the Baptist. He eats locusts and honey. Not people…," I say, letting my words trail off. I'm trying to be gentle and firm with her. But then, I'm tired of watching my tongue. "Not you. He doesn't want food… like you." I finish and feel a growl in my voice.
Her eyes widen and her black lips part to say something. She's rolling her neck and spitting curse words and fire and nails, but I don't hear her. My eyes are pinned on the dark beads that are her son's eyes. I want to save him from her. I want to protect him from becoming me, but defeat is all I've shown him. I cannot save him. Not like this. I'm lost. I've lost.
I nod in the boy's direction. I cut through his mother's words, "Take care of your mother." And then I adjust the pack on my back. A tear rolls down his face, but he nods back and tries to smile. Vashti's curses slice through the silence. She tells me that I can't leave her. I'm weak. I'm not a man. She's still cursing me when I turn my back and set my eyes on the winding trail that is the side of the mountain. Her screams grow louder as I hike away. After a while, those screams become cries, and then they cease altogether.
The sun beams down on the side of the mountain as it prepares to rest for the night. I trek sweaty with no sunglasses. I want to live the mountain. Although I want to see it, I do not pass the bear again. And I realize there is no rush. I'll wait for the bear. I'll wait for as long as it takes.