1976—the bear attack
Walker came home weary from two months of shows. It wasn’t raining, but it should have been. The RTS streamliner glided past a desolate park on the riverfront and coughed into the Little Rock depot. A cadre of hung over, homesick band mates who had spent every waking moment together for the past sixty days departed the bus without a word and found their own lone roads back, hoping home was still the way they left it.
Wind tumbled under electric clouds that followed Walker out of the city. He rolled down the window of his brown Eldorado and the pressure of the air bore through the pinprick in his damaged ear, sending a high-pitched siren straight to his brain. He drove the winding roads squinting one eye shut and struggling to keep the wheel straight until he pulled into his driveway. The wind blew debris across the lawn. When he came in through the downstairs, the house radiated stillness, all the more fragile by the anticipation of it being ruined. The walls in the corridor tilted and wavered, a sick feeling rose from his waist. Walker teetered on the bottom stair, suitcase and bag in hand, worried by what awaited him. He peeked into the nursery at Malcolm and Jordan before he went into the bedroom, where his wife Mercy stood by the far side of their bed.
“Leave ’em packed,” she said, eyeing his bags. Her black hair flowed around the knit of a charcoal shawl, voice worn from anger slowly turning into sorrow. Neither possessed the energy to plead, whether it was Mercy demanding repentance or Walker begging for forgiveness. He knew why she was upset. He could not convince her of what he had not done—change. To fight would only further insult her, and he kept his mouth shut. She suspected a girl he had in Atlanta, and she was right. They had played two shows through Georgia and Walker hadn’t call home for the better part of that week. What Mercy did not know was how the girl rode with them all the way to D.C., how they spent their time together getting high and lying strikingly still, not speaking or moving. She was backstage, in the bus, and rarely left his side. It was one of those things Walker could never say, because to say it was to be condemned.
Mercy knew Walker’s father Maurel was planning to bring him and Jacob on their annual hunting trip. The time away would give Mercy space to think and she told Walker that he should use the time to decide where he would go upon his return. They looked at each other, so far apart, farther than the dimensions of the room could have allowed.
“I love you, Mercy. You have to know that.” He fought his indefensible position as she turned away and cried. He looked down in shame, both bags still clutched in his hands. He hadn’t even set them down.
The barrel of his hunting rifle stuck through the trees. Walker waited until the deer was so close he could see her hair twitch. The fawn searched around before lowering her nose in the grass, that was when Walker fired. The missed shot sent the skinny fawn bounding from sight. Jacob and Maurel poked fun at Walker for missing at close range. An hour later, Jacob hit a two point buck from over a hundred and fifty yards through cover. “Don’t worry,” Jacob taunted his brother. “I’ll let you dress it.”
Sheets of meat separated from knotted cartilage and rigid clefts of bone. Walker struggled through slippery viscous to make even cuts in the sinew. He got out the best meat first, hind legs and breast, stabbing into the body with a quiet jealously that he hid from Jacob and his father as they reclined on a felled log, smoking. He skinned the fine-haired pelt with precision, removed the last of the vitals, and tossed the sack in the dirt for the coyotes. He went down to the water and washed his bloody arms in a nearby creek.
Walker moped around the campsite, worried sick about losing Mercy forever. He did not say a word through dinner. Sloughing off his camp chair he sat in the dirt, sipping off a bottle and staring into the fire. Maurel took a seat behind him, patted his shoulder and told him, in a matter-of-fact way, to do everything possible in order to save the marriage.
“If you are stubborn,” Maurel said, “let it go. Whatever it is it’s doomed, anyhow. Chances are virtue ain’t on your side, so tell her she’s right. Even if she ain’t, tell her a thousand times. Ain’t nothing worth defending in this life. You’ll end up with all that pride, alone. If it’s your ways you’re worried about, change every last one of them. They’re not worth shit in the end.”
Walker kept his eye on the folding flames. Maurel pulled off the bottle and handed it back to his son, his expression dropping to the depths of his own painful past. “I never did that with your mother,” he said. “I could have talked more, only I never knew what to say. Still, I should have stayed and worked through it with her, would have been fairer to you and your brother. Instead, I left her at the first sign of struggle. Had to learn each lesson the hard way, I guess. Pretty soon, all’s that’s left is the truth staring you in the face, but it’s too late to fix what you done wrong, anyhow. Don’t take the path I did, son. Bring hell on yourself a hundred fold what anybody else could ever cause you.”
The deer and potatoes were softened by the whiskey. Maurel wished Walker a good night and Jacob turned in soon after that. Despite his drunken reverie, Walker stumbled to his feet and felt his way through the darkness to the shallow side of the river. He removed his boots and waded in until his jeans flooded with a cold swirl of water. The paper glow of his skin disappeared below the surface. He let the best and worst of him flow in the gentle current. He wished the convoluted way of things would peel from his skin and float discarded downstream. He prayed to God for a chance to start over. Black water below, black sky above. Walker floated in the weightless repetition of prayer until a scream came pouring over the hill. Walker swam to shore and ran up the bank soaking wet to discover Jacob frantic and the campsite torn apart.
He charged past the smoldering fire and debris and approached Maurel’s tent. The green fabric had been shredded and long strips of it dangled in the wind. Blood pooled in pockets and began to seep out. Jacob was on his knees fishing through the deflated folds of the tent. “God damn it, Walker, get over here and help me,” he yelled. Walker kneeled next to him, pulling back layers of nylon as Jacob crawled into the tent on his stomach and came out with Maurel writhing on his back, moaning and gasping for air.
“What the hell happened?” Walker asked.
Jacob leered as he held firm the bleeding side of Maurel’s head. “A bear,” he gasped. “Somebody left out the dinner scraps and wandered off. Where the hell were you?”
“I was swimming in the creek,” he said.
“You stupid son of a bitch. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Shut up,” said Walker, a pit prying open his stomach. “What should we do?”
“The truck is two miles back that way.” Jacob waved his arm in what could have been any direction in the hills at night. “We’re going to have to carry him.”
They lifted him out of the tent and laid him on the ground. Walker pulled back torn clothing sopped with blood and did his best to identify his father’s wounds. He found deep cuts on his arms and abdomen and doused them with whiskey. Walker pried open Maurel’s teeth to let a stream of alcohol down his gullet. Maurel flailed one of his balled fists in an effort to hit Jacob. They managed to hold him still and bandage his wounded arm to the front of his chest with a ripped T-shirt. Jacob brandished a buck knife and cut swatches from the tent large enough to hold Maurel. He folded each tent pole in half and threaded them through slits he made in the fabric. grabbed their packs and Jacob slung the gun across his back. Then, they lifted together. Maurel’s weight sagged in the nylon strung between the two poles. Walker struggled to consult the compass that hung from his neck and set them on the path north, hoping they would come out somewhere near the truck.
The forest was uncompromisingly dark. Branches snapped at their arms. Trunks of pine wider than bodies emerged as though the darkness itself had created them. Maurel shifted erratically in his makeshift stretcher and tossed them off balance. They almost dropped him twice. Walker and Jacob tripped over rocks and lost footing on the soft ground, but they stayed on course.
Maurel flopped his head violently and groaned until he collapsed back into wayward unconsciousness. Maurel went in and out, from the blurred sway of Jacob’s back to the jungles of San Lo, carrying his companyman Billy Goat on a stretcher in the very same fashion. His unit was reversing their position from a bunker back to the deserted beachhead that had served as their landing point so PFC Herl could catch a medevac home. Herl never made it off that beach, and Maurel reckoned he would not make it out of those woods alive.
Walker heard his father’s muttering and thought either the shock was wearing off or that a far worse condition was beginning to take hold. His arms had grown tired. He counted the rhythm of their steps to occupy his mind and returned to Maurel’s confessionary words earlier by the campfire. Never would he have believed that his father harbored any remorse for his upbringing or for the years of attrition to which he subjected their mother. He may not have raised them right, but by hell he raised them. There they were carrying him through the woods. That was more than some could say. He spoke a prayer in his head. Whether or not he and Mercy saw this through, he prayed that his infant sons would do for him what he was doing now for his father. In a lot of ways, that would be enough.
His heart sank at the reminder of what he was going home to, leaving Mercy the way he had. He deserved to suffer her ire as long as it meant that he still had a chance. Walker avoided looking at his dear father torn open before him and railed against the unthinkable conspiracy between chance and fate, born of his own stupidity, trailing off in search of one lousy moment to himself. Well, he sure found it, he cursed. The walk took longer than either of them had hoped. Faced with the possibility that Maurel might not survive, Walker admitted that mending the wreckage with Mercy and truly being there for the boys might be the only chance he had left at a family. Walker let a sob escape, one he regretted as Jacob turned his head.
“Enough,” Jacob snapped. “Already before I hear you crying I can feel your end back there sagging under the weight. Pick it up, God damn it. You’ve got the rest of your life to be sad.”
They trudged over an embankment that brought them up to level ground. Walker guessed they were clear of the deep woods and after a few hundred yards Jacob’s sweaty head was refreshed by a draft of wind that barreled up the clearing of a desolate road. When the silhouette of Jacob’s Bronco emerged on the shoulder, they quickened their pace. It took more than an hour to drive the path out of the hills through the valley, the nearest hospital another forty minutes beyond that. Walker climbed in the backseat to hold Maurel as he contorted in pain. He had lost a lot of blood, his pale skin cold to Walker’s touch. He held Maurel’s hand and felt his grip grow loose. He yelled up to Jacob that the situation was not looking too good. Jacob hunched over the wheel and drove as fast as he could.
They were ten minutes from the highway when Maurel seized. Walker watched the road from the back when the bones in his fingers were smashed together in his father’s last desperate grasp. His jeaned legs kicked against glass and steel. Jacob kept the wheel straight as his seat bucked from behind. He yelled for Walker to do something, so Walker reached into the backseat and held Maurel’s head and tilted back his chin so he wouldn’t choke. He was certain if he stuck his fingers in past gnashing teeth he would lose them. He held Maurel and kept him from falling off the seat when, just like that, a switch was flipped. Maurel stopped fighting and relaxed back onto the seat, every joint and muscle letting go all at once. The urgency to make it to the hospital expired with Walker’s last hope that his father would survive. The least he could do for his father, he reasoned, was provide one final act of mercy. “Don’t go to the hospital,” he told Jacob. “Just go home.”
Walker climbed on top of his father’s twisted body. Maurel’s eyes bulged through the ceiling of the truck and Walker caressed the side of his face, humming a song. The singing soothed him and he glared around, sure the music was coming from another world. Walker hushed him and continued singing as he tightened his grip until the veins in his neck grew thick and desperate. Maurel arched his ribs, heaving under the weight. Walker pressed harder until the last tremors shook through his limbs, then sat back, breathing heavily. As the truck sped towards civilization, Walker gathered himself, then slid both lids over his father’s eyes and whispered goodbye.