Life in Little River, Tennessee can be a lot of things. Beautiful, for one. The heart of the town of Little River is nestled in a bend of the river it is named for, but it spreads out in each direction into the hills and valleys that stretch toward the Appalachian Mountains. No matter what part of town you live in, there is beauty, if you have the vision to see it. You might look out your window in the morning and see a field of green grass that reaches to the woods. Or you might see lovely, painstakingly restored Victorian architecture in the old part of town. Even the more run down areas of Little River have their charm. Nearly every house down by the river has a front porch where their occupants gather in the evenings, as the lightening bugs come out and the frogs begin to call to their mates. It’s a slow and peaceful life.
There is another, less beautiful view. It’s hidden on the inside. It is harsh and brutal. The sharp teeth behind the smile. It is being the youngest child in a damaged family. It is growing up with a mom who is not well, and a dead father who is a saintly memory. It is trying hard to be like brothers you don’t like. It is shepherding a fold through doubt and disillusionment. It is finding your voice in a place where no one wants to hear it. It is hateful and bigoted and precious in a way that disgusts you. It is, more than anything, all you know.
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Caleb Salt was eight years old when his dad died. He sometimes wondered who he would be now if he had a dad. Caleb had heard people say he reminded them of his dad. He looked more like him than his brothers did. Caleb never knew his father as a man…a separate entity from his family. He only knew him as his dad. A really good dad. Samuel Salt played football with his boys. He took them to baseball practice. Caleb remembered when he was really little his dad would call him “Little Man” and let him ride on his shoulders. His dad worked hard at the plant, and came home every night and kissed his Mama on the cheek. He would say, “How’re you, Mama?” She’d say, “I’m good now that you’re home, Sam.” Then he’d pat her on the butt, and she’d go back to the kitchen where she was making supper.
It happened just that way until one day Sam didn’t come home. Caleb wished he could remember that day perfectly. He wished he could remember what he was wearing, what his mom was cooking, and what the other boys were doing. It seemed to Caleb that some sort of photographic memory should have kicked in on the day everything changed. He was an eight-year-old boy, though, and people don’t always tell eight-year-old boys what’s going on.
Caleb did remember that his dad was late coming home, and his mom let them watch Scooby Doo while they ate. His Mamaw came over, and his mom was gone. He didn’t remember if he asked where she had went. He didn’t remember much of anything besides Scooby Doo. His Mamaw sent them to bed, and the next day their Uncle Titus was there. He told them that they were going to the hospital to see their dad. Caleb had been confused, because he didn’t know his dad was in the hospital. Uncle Titus said there had been a car accident. A train. Their dad wasn’t doing well.
When they got to the hospital, his dad was just lying on the bed with tubes in him. He didn’t open his eyes. Their mom was lying in the bed with him, her eyes red and swollen. She started crying when the boys came in, and their Uncle Titus whispered, “It’s going to be okay, Annie,” and rubbed her arm. Caleb and his brothers stood at the side of their father’s bed. Their mom told them they needed to say goodbye, and then she sobbed loudly against their father’s chest. Caleb looked hard to see if it was still moving up and down. He wanted her to get off of his dad, because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to breathe with her lying on him.
Caleb’s brothers were older than he was. Clay was thirteen, Josh was eleven, and Travis was ten. They all looked scared, and that scared Caleb. Travis cried, and Josh looked angry. Clay said, “I love you, Daddy.” Then he stared out the window. Travis and Josh both said, “Bye, Daddy.” And “I love you, Daddy.” Caleb couldn’t say anything. He just stood there with a million thoughts running through his head. He couldn’t picture life without his dad. He didn’t even know how to begin imagining it. He wanted to tell his dad something, but his feet were stuck to the floor and his tongue felt too big for his mouth. So he just stood there, and the next day his dad died.
There was a funeral, but Caleb didn’t remember much about it. He didn’t remember the graveside service, or the weeks after. It seemed to Caleb that he should remember those things, but he didn’t.
Caleb did remember going to school when summer was over, and telling his friends that his dad had died. They looked at Caleb funny for a while, but then they forgot about it. They had dads.
Caleb didn’t play baseball anymore after that. It made him too sad. He felt like his dad should be there every time, and he never was. His mom let him quit. She let the boys do whatever they wanted, most of the time. She called them her “brave, brave boys” and wanted to stroke their hair all the time. The other boys let her for a while, but then they got tired of it. Clay told her to stop acting like he was a little kid and started stealing their Papaw’s cigarettes. Josh got suspended for fighting at school, and Travis did anything Clay put him up to. So Caleb told his mom she was a brave, brave woman, and was doing a really great job. He told her that he liked making his own food anyway, and he didn’t mind if she went to bed early. He told her yes, he would always be her boy, and he sat by her on the couch and let her pat his leg and kiss his hair.
Uncle Titus started coming over a lot, and he would cook for them when he was there. At first, all the boys were really happy about it. Uncle Titus sometimes brought them presents. He made them ice cream sundaes and took them to McDonald’s. But then Clay got mad at him. He yelled at Uncle Titus and told him to stop being such a pussy and make their mom snap out of it.
Uncle Titus said, “And just how exactly am I supposed to do that, Clayton?”
Clay yelled, “I don’t know! Just do something. I’m sick of this crap. And I’m sick of you!”
Uncle Titus sat down and crossed his legs. He looked tired and sad. Clay stomped outside, and Travis and Josh followed him out. Caleb could hear Clay yell at them to leave him alone.
Caleb went to the refrigerator and got a can of his mom’s beer and took it to his uncle. Uncle Titus popped the top and said, “You’re a good boy, Caleb.”
Caleb picked up the t.v. remote and said, “She’s just real sad, Uncle Titus. She’ll get better soon. She just misses Daddy.”
Uncle Titus looked really sad, too, and said, “I know, Caleb. We all do.”
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and various other literary journals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.