My father’s ghost sits next to me on the porch of the old hunting cabin as the last day of summer seeps into the dry ground. The muggy air is thick with mosquitoes and the sickly-sweet stench of vegetable rot unique to Appalachia in summer.
Inside the cabin, it’s always the past, always a great time to be a man. Out here however, I am forty years old, overweight, and balding. My wedding ring lies beneath a pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket of my sweat-soaked work shirt. I’m sure I can feel the metal pressing against my chest with each beat of my heart, but that’s probably just another of my bittersweet poetic delusions. Or maybe I’m just drunk.
I fish the last bottle of beer out of the cardboard six-pack beside my chair and open it using the rusty opener nailed to porch rail.
The yard is overgrown—waist high and brambly in places—and stinks of wild onion. Even the wide gravel driveway is almost lost to the forest. And then there’s the kudzu. It eats everything. It swarms over the rusted shell of the old F-100, climbs the rails of the porch, shrouds the roof of the cabin, and creeps in the windows. The weed is relentless, tenacious, inexorable, and, in its own perverse way, beautiful.
My father lights another cigarette. He’s maybe forty-five, heavy around the middle, and not quite a decade from the heart attack that will put him in his grave, but the hands are the same as they were the first time they held me: hard, rough, and strong, the jagged nails yellowed by nicotine.
“A man’s got to have his own place,” he says quietly, almost as if talking to himself.
I stand and my back cracks just the way my father’s used to. I toss my cigarette into the brown weeds at the end of the porch. I can smell rain in the air and, somewhere beyond the valley, thunder rumbles.
“Does it hurt?” I ask my father’s ghost.
He looks at me for a long time, his face all but lost in shadow. Finally, he nods almost imperceptibly. “We don’t talk about things like that—especially in a place like this.”
I smile. My dad, possibly fearing his own restless potential, usually talked only sports and Louis L’Amour novels. They were safe subjects and he knew them well.
In the darkness, I can’t see the smoke at the end of the porch where the cigarette smolders in the dead grass, but I can smell it.
Holding onto the leaning, splintery rail, I ease my way to the overgrown gravel driveway. You’d need a 4x4 to drive all the way up to the cabin now so my little convertible—probably the only thing I’ll get in the divorce—is parked up by the highway. It’s a long walk in the dark, but, already, there is light behind me, flickering, dancing, lighting my way.