By Alyssa Lindley Kilzer
Richard & Elmer Junior
Richard got out of his car and leaned into the hot metal door as he surveyed the house and the valley beyond it.
The house was set up on posts on the hillside. The wood boards had the look of once being golden, but had become grayed by mildew and weather-beaten. The screened front door was torn and the gash billowed open. The porch jutted out crookedly from the house like it had already begun its slow descent into the river below. But it was the land Richard wanted.
The hillside behind the house rose into a valley wall. If he craned his neck, Richard could trace the mountain road winding up and over the top. No railings, and it was a tall drop over the edge. The river just below the house sat in the afternoon shadows of a small mountain rising steeply upwards on the other side. It crawled with forest. Richard could make out some of the valley floor from his view in the driveway—the hill where he stood tapered down to bottomland on the river. He could see a farmhouse there, a barn and neatly fenced pastures for cattle. Nice land for farming, Richard thought, with the river right there. Squares of golden hay lazily blinked in the August sun. And beyond that, more hills rose and fell one after another. Wooly green treetops gathered together on the faraway hills. The sunlight stretched across the forest and dipped into the shadows of the distant mountain ridges.
Richard marveled at the green-ness of this southern part of the state. It was so different from the suburbia he came from, where the farmland had been bought up and turned into tract housing back in the 50’s. These were the foothills of the Tennessee Appalachians, still pristine. The house looked as if it had existed long enough to be reconciled with the land, settled down at home there. That was what Richard wanted. To be at home with this whole valley. He felt open with the thought of the year ahead of him.
Richard turned and walked down the path to the house. He saw a shadow move behind the screened door before it swung open. A skinny guy, wearing a dark jacket and dark pants, held the door open with one arm.
“Elmer?” Richard said, and they both extended their hands. “Richard. Nice to meet you.”
From inside the house, Elmer Junior looked Richard up and down. He looked younger than Elmer was expecting, with a beard and wavy shoulder-length hair that wasn’t to Elmer’s liking. He was wearing torn blue jeans and cowboy boots. Elmer had to remind himself that he wasn’t in a position to be picky about a tenant. He’d only had one call about the ad he placed in the newspaper the month before.
He wasn’t surprised nobody had called. Elmer himself had dropped out of school at sixteen, high-tailed himself out of this God-forsaken valley and found his way to civilization. He didn’t see why somebody would want to rent the house, but it had been a year since his father died, and his wife Marge had been bugging him to earn some money on it. So he put out the advertisement, not expecting anybody to call. He didn’t like to come back to the house, and even though Richard didn’t look ideal, Elmer was hoping Richard would rent it so he didn’t have to show it to anybody else.
It was where he had grown up, and he had inherited the house when his father disappeared. Disappeared, that’s what Elmer called it privately. He knew what people thought: that his father had drowned himself in the river. In Elmer’s mind he had disappeared into the land that had been calling to him for years.
Elmer had seen his father become a hermit in that house. In the last few years his father had never left the valley, only surviving on fish from the river, vegetables he grew himself, and the casseroles Marge brought twice a month. In the previous year, his father had barely spoken when Elmer and Marge came to visit. The three of them would sit on the front porch, his father’s eyes filled up with the land. It was beautiful, all the hills and the light falling across them in the afternoons, Elmer understood that. He knew the old man felt and noticed everything around the house. He had spent half his life sitting on that front porch, listening to the birds, watching the shadows lengthen and the river run. Elmer knew his father could even feel the air change as he sat impossibly still and spoke fewer and fewer words.
But he didn’t understand how the last time they came he didn’t even turn his head to see the food Marge had brought for him. Elmer had doubted if his father would even see it sitting on the kitchen counter. He was also dirty, his gray hair overgrown in wisps and tangled, his jean overalls frayed and brown at the edges. When Elmer had embraced him there had been a smell that had turned Elmer’s stomach, something like bark and old sweat. There never had been running water in the house, but when Elmer was a kid they had bathed weekly. It’s his age, his wife Marge had said on the drive home, he needs help. He can’t take care of himself on his own. But there was something about it that Elmer knew Marge would never understand.
It hadn’t been easy for Elmer to move away. His whole life until sixteen was the sounds coming in through the boards of that house—the way a family of deer would slide through the brush beneath his window, and then freeze, listening to him listen to them. There was the pitter-patter of raccoon feet on the porch at night, and the way the house would complain as it swelled and shrank in the hot and cold. When he was younger he had the feeling that living out there made his hearing sharp and his reflexes fast. He could watch the clouds and the wind through the windows and know what weather was coming the next day. But then he started going to school in town, and he felt different. The other kids spoke loud and moved fast. He heard too much and sensed too much. He had to turn down his keen awareness to fit in. As he got older he told himself that it had to be one or the other. The slow, dependable rhythms of life out in the valley with his father, where all of his footsteps had been etched into the floorboards of their house and his mind shaped by the sounds of the land around them, or the bright life with the other kids, the fast opportunities life in the city might offer. He had felt guilty leaving his father behind, turning away from everything he knew. But at sixteen, there had also been everything he didn’t know outside the valley, and he decided that he wanted that. As soon as he left he realized there was so much more anywhere outside that valley. More opportunity, more money, more people. It seemed so obvious, once he had broken free, but it was like he had been in a trance when he lived out there.
A feeling welled up in him, sometimes, when he came through the front door. The house’s constancy lulled him and made him sentimental. In that instant, it seemed so simple, to move back out there, get away from everything and help his father. Elmer couldn’t deny it, there were pressures in the city, his job, his wife, one day she would want kids…the house made him remember that. Its not simple out here, he had to remind himself. No. Sometimes he had to say it out loud to the house, to push it away. So he didn’t like to come back too often.
The last time Elmer had seen his father he had realized how far gone he really was. They had been sitting together on the porch, looking out at the mountainside. Then Elmer had thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a dark blur where his father had been, a sudden movement, like he was smudging into the wind and the shadows of the mountain. But when he had turned suddenly to look again, there he sat, perfectly still.
When he thought of that, Elmer told himself that there was nothing he could’ve done to prevent the disappearance. He was with the land in a way Elmer never knew. But he felt guilty renting the house out to anybody else, knowing what it could do to you.
Richard had been hearing from his friends about communes, places up North in Vermont and New York, where people were self-sufficient, away from the ties of society. He wanted to try it out for himself and that’s why he was moving out to the country. He had spent some time camping as a teenager and in college. He liked to drive through the forest in places like Bledsoe and Lone Mountain, sometimes camping out for days or even a week with his friends. He thought he had what it took to make it out there, but the truth was, he didn’t know a lot of country people. There was something in Elmer’s voice when they had talked on the phone, a loose accent, that had Richard thinking he was a farmer, someone more rough around the edges and living off the land. He had been imagining Elmer could teach him a thing or two about growing food once Richard moved in. But there was another car in the driveway, and the way Elmer was dressed in that dark jacket, Richard had a feeling he wasn’t a farmer.
Richard released Elmer’s hand, stepped inside of the house. The door slapped shut behind him. There was a pause between them.
“Well, this here’s the kitchen,” Elmer said, turning away from him and into the house.
The two of them stood between a large porcelain sink to the right, and a stovetop and oven to the left. The sink vaguely reminded Richard of his father’s relatives, farmers out in the West of the state, cotton country. He hated visiting those relatives as a kid, thought it was so boring out there with nothing to do but sit around on their front porch. He pushed it to the back of his mind, though, as he looked around the room.
“Alright,” Richard said. It was one big room, the faded wood floor running from the kitchen to a beat-up old sofa and a rag rug in the middle of the room. It was the kind of wood floor that was worn down into grooves in familiar spots and stained dark in others. The hillside below might even be visible through the knots in the wood here and there. But the windows. The whole room was lined in rectangular windows that dragged Richard’s eyes outside. The room opened up to the valley.
Richard strode across the room, his boots knocking on the floorboards. He looked out at the farm below, the unrestrained forest, and the unusually steep hills. The sun was low in the sky and cast a warm glow through the air.
“Beautiful land here, huh?” Richard asked.
“Yeah,” Elmer said, nodding.
“What mountain is that?” Richard asked, peering up through another window.
“That there, that’s Chilhowee Mountain,” Elmer said, “Rises up real fast on top of the house, doesn’t it?”
Richard laughed. “Yeah, it does. Did you…live here?” He asked, looking around the room and back at Elmer.
“It was my father’s house.” Elmer said.
“Oh,” Richard said. He looked back out the window. He felt excited for the emptiness of everything he would leave behind when he moved out here on his own. College was finished, finally, after semesters off and changing majors. His parents thought he was getting a job but he was pretty sure he could make it out here on his own. He had a little money saved up, and he didn’t see how you’d need anything more than some food and firewood. It seemed so simple; he didn’t understand why everyone didn’t do this kind of thing. He had plans to start a winter vegetable garden, to take hikes through the foothills. There was a wood stove in the corner, a little black thing with a crooked pipe going up to the roof. Elmer saw him looking at it.
“There’s no heating,” Elmer said. “But the wood stove gets real hot in the winter. Real hot.”
“I’ll take it,” Richard said. “I’ll take the house.”
“Oh,” Elmer said. “Do you…do you want to see the bedroom?”
“Oh sure,” Richard said, but there was already a release between them, with the uncertainty gone, and Elmer seemed more relaxed as he stood at the foot of the bed, half-smiling.
The bed had one old quilt on it. There was a small window looking out onto the valley and a dresser for clothes. He reminded himself, like always, that he wasn’t going to bring much out here. He was giving all that up. He’d been working up to this over the last year, boxing up all the clothes and possessions he didn’t need. Simplifying. He made lists in his head, what he could sell, what he could give away to friends, what he would need to bring. Just the basics, a few necessary items.
“We’re putting in a bathroom, too,” Elmer said. “There’s a kid up the hill, Robert, he’s going to start work on it come September. Carpenter’s kid. He’ll do a real good job.”
“Okay,” Richard said, nodding along. “Okay.”
Richard gave Elmer a check for rent before leaving. They made plans for him to move into the house in a few weeks’ time. As Elmer locked up Richard got into his car and looked out at the sun as it lowered down behind the roof of the house. He tried to soak it all in before making his way home to Chattanooga—the roof of the house, a shadow against the orange sunset, the view of the far-reaching land beyond it. He felt happy and relaxed. He told himself that things were finally falling into place. “That is my house,” he whispered to nobody in particular. “My house.” He looked forward to the leisurely drive back on the wide highway, with the image of the house still in the front of his mind.