I could make things up on the spot, and it came out natural. I changed words around and added something of my own here and there. Nothing do or die, nothing really formulated, all major chord stuff, maybe a typical minor key. You could write twenty or more songs off that one melody by slightly altering it. I could slip in verses or lines from old spirituals and blues. What I usually did was start out with something, some kind of line written in stone and then turn it with another line—make it add up to something else than it originally was.”
—Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One
I: Black Dog
Jeremiah Burkhart walked along the Allentown Road. The mild winter’s wind swept over the brown winter fields in long, agitated swells. A shutter clacked against the sideboard of an abandoned house next to the road. A lone oak tree, standing stark against the horizon, creaked and moaned. Beyond the tree were fields, only fields, as far as the eye could see.
In the distance Jeremiah saw a large black dog emerge in the field from over a rise. The dog’s head rose and turned as it became aware of Jeremiah. The wind pushed past Jeremiah toward the animal, carrying his scent with it. For seconds the two creatures stood still and silent, observing one another. Jeremiah felt the animal’s knowing eyes upon him. Then the dog put its head down and continued on its course. Something about its lope seemed jerky, uncoordinated, as if it was sick or wounded. It disappeared beyond the same rise, into the ocean of denuded field beyond Jeremiah’s consciousness.
There were no cars on the road. Jeremiah walked on the crumbling asphalt. The leather sole on his right shoe was separating from the toe. He cursed the shoe. He cursed the world and the wind and the sky above. He cursed the Allentown Road.
He came to the bottom at Sills Creek. The water was turgid and brown from recent rain, the banks incised from erosion. Two girls washed clothes in a bucket with a metal washboard. One of the girls carried the water in a metal pail up the steep bank, pulling at roots and rocks for balance; the other scrubbed gray cotton cloth against the board. The thin cloth of their cotton dresses, wet with water and work, was translucent in the afternoon light.
Jeremiah stood with his hands on the wooden rails of the bridge watching them work. They were young girls, barely in their teens, their faces drawn and scowling, stick-like arms. He did not recognize them but recognized their type: children of the fields, children of toil, tired and hungry, sown in fields of poverty and watered with the rains of resentment.
“You girls better put some more clothes on,” he said. “It may be warm now but that wind will catch you a cold.”
The girl with the washboard looked up at him as if he was a phantom, as if he was hardly there. “We ain’t got no other clothes mister,” her voice flat and cold. She returned to her work. The other girl emerged at the top of the bank with her half-filled bucket. She did not turn her head his way.
He walked on. Twenty minutes later a brown truck appeared on the horizon. He stopped to watch its approach, watch its wake of dust and gravel flume into the gaping sky. The truck slowed then stopped. The window on the driver’s side, covered in dust, lowered, revealing his brother’s unkempt hair, then his forehead, his hooked nose, the thin spread of his pursed lips.
“What you doing, Jeremiah?”
“What does it look like I’m doing, Vernon? I’m walking to Allentown. That’s what I’m doing.”
“Momma’s sick.” It was at once a question and a statement. The man pushed strands of black oiled hair back over his head with a weathered hand.
“That’s right. I’m going to get her medicine. Wanna give me a ride?”
“I got to go slop Tolliver’s hogs. I got to make a living, don’t I?”
Jeremiah didn’t answer. He just spit a wet, phlegmy ball into the dirt next to Vernon’s truck. The ignition sputtered and coughed; Jeremiah refused to watch him drive away.
The clouds grew voluminous and gray. The stiff wind blew sand and gravel into his face as he walked. Its angry moan masked the sound of a car approaching him from behind. He turned, finally sensing the vehicle. The car was a make he recalled from childhood, a dark green sedan with sharp, angular lines and an oddly shaped trunk, curved and sweeping toward the ground. The man in the car was also ancient, with thick creases on his forehead and face, a clouded right eye. He addressed Jeremiah as “Boy.”
“You seen a dog?” He smiled as he spoke, revealing yellow, intermittent teeth. “A black dog?”
“Yeah, I saw a dog. A ways back.” Jeremiah pointed in the direction from which he had come. “About an hour ago.”
The man cursed, pulled the car in reverse. “Don’t get near it. Just leave it alone.”
“Is it sick?” He remembered the dog’s eyes on him, the odd way it walked; a chill shivered down his spine. “Is it rabid?”
The man peered at Jeremiah, his left eye wandering, leaving only the milk eye to regard him. “Nah, he ain’t rabid.” The car reversed into an awkward three-point turn. The tires spun dirt and sod into the air as the car vanished in the direction from which it came.
Jeremiah continued to walk down the road. The tops of the clouds turned orange, then pink, then purple. Evening was coming; the air grew cold. How had he so badly misjudged the time? He realized he would never make Allentown, not until the dead of night; he turned home. Mother would smile at him when he returned, the way one smiles at a memory. But then time collapsed and he remembered his mother was already gone, passed years ago. The road turned liquid and slippery, carrying him toward a familiar destination, a place whose name he could not quite form.
He came over a rise. The black dog was waiting for him in the road, eyes glowing like specters. It snarled like it was calling out his name.
Interlude: Frankie’s Gun
The turkey vulture soars low over the green field. The boy, his son, tracks the flight of the bird with the barrel of the toy gun. “Blam, blam,” the boy calls, slurring the words to mimic the explosion of a gun. Francis watches from the red clay road. “That’s right,” he says. “Nice shot.”
The boy returns to his father, carrying the rifle military-style on his shoulder. It is his treasure, a handmade gift from his grandfather, a replica flintlock, with wooden stock and barrel and brass fittings. Francis’s own toy, actually, carefully restored by his father and presented to the boy on his seventh Christmas with the reluctant approval of Francis’s wife, his childhood nickname, “Frankie,” stamped onto the brass plate on the stock.
“Did you see me? Did you see me shoot that bird?”
“I saw you. Come on, let’s keep walking. We might see some turkeys down the road.”
The child nods at this logic, though he prefers the thin coat of winter rye on the field to the hard-packed red clay of the road. They walk side by side yet yards apart, the boy engaged in some imaginary battle with the spirits of the field, Francis scanning the woods to the right for turkey.
A Saturday in mid-February, warm with a southwesterly breeze, a rain system moving in but the day still pleasant and dry, sky the color of light gray putty, dimensionless, flat, the light gentle and refracted in the late afternoon. A good day to get out of the house, where the boy has spent the day trapped by violent fantasies, firing the gun at the TV, at Francis, at his mother. “This is what I was worried about,” she says with a frustrated, knowing sigh. “I don’t like him playing with that gun all day.”
Francis nods in understanding at his wife’s concerns but thinks of his own childhood, the elaborate, violent fantasies of his own youth, wars and secret missions, epic gun battles in the dark corners of his imagination.
So Francis extricates the boy to this place, three hundred acres on the other side of the river. Not his farm, his land, but land he has use of on a warm winter’s day.
A rustling to his left, a flock of turkeys collected at the edge of the woods, near the road, just as he hoped. Francis freezes, hoping the birds are not yet aware, but it is too late. They scurry into the woods, the span of their tail feathers flashing white against the grey trees. “Look! Turkeys!” he exclaims in a soft voice.
The boy emerges from his fantasies to catch a glimpse of the excited, fleeing birds. He raises the rifle to his shoulder and pretends to fire.
II: The Carolinian
We were sitting on a bench at the station waiting for The Carolinian. It was night and, except for the station attendant inside, we were alone. The light was yellow and eerie.
Empty train stations make me feel uneasy, like the morning after a nuclear holocaust.
“Attention passengers. The Amtrak Carolinian, southbound for Charlotte, will be arriving on schedule. Please move to the boarding area.”
Who was he talking to? I looked at Delia, black eyes, hair a mess. Delia was looking northbound, up the tracks.
We were waiting for her sister, Roseanne. She was the kind of sister you didn’t know about until the day before she comes to town.
“She’ll be here for a few days,” Delia said. She was eating a bowl of Fruit Loops at the kitchen table in our apartment.
“I didn’t even know you had a sister.”
She looked at me like I was stupid. “I told you about her. I told you about her a few weeks ago.” I could tell she was about to get mean. “Anyway, it’s my apartment.”