Here We Go
Running in the rain this morning, I think about the choices we make or the ones we don’t, and how our shadow lives—the ones we might have had—go streaking past us, far beyond our reach, and we have no way of knowing what the outcomes might have been.
I grew up in southeastern Illinois in a land where gravel roads ran straight and intersected every mile in right angles that were true. A flat land. Fields of soybeans and corn and wheat. A land where I could always keep my eyes on the horizon and the tempting belief that something waited for me there where land met sky, something I couldn’t quite see, only sense in the heat waves that shimmered from the baked fields in summer, the ground fog that swirled in spring or autumn, or the blue haze of a winter’s twilight. Traveling those gravel roads was a manner both simple and predictable—go straight, turn right or left. Those were my choices. Or head toward the horizon and whatever waited beyond it. I came to see that this, too, could be a choice.
On an early November day in 1956, the shucking box on my father’s picker was filling up with corn. Without bothering to turn off the tractor’s power take-off, he reached into the shucking box to clear the corn, and the snapping rollers that were still spinning grabbed his right hand. When he put his left hand into the box to try to pull his right one free, the rollers caught it, too. I was barely a year old that day. My uncle told me later that it was after that time—after a surgeon amputated and my father wore prostheses the rest of his life—that he became a man of temper, a man who raged against whatever or whoever upset him, and often that whoever was me. Now I can’t help wondering whether he raged, too, against himself and the fact that his failure to follow safety procedures and turn off the power take-off, which would have stilled those revolving rollers and rendered them harmless, led to his accident. He could have saved his hands. He could have had a different life, one filled with sweetness and plenty. But that life only exists now in my desire—my wish that he could have known happiness all his days, my wish that I’d never suffered the lashes of his belt.
Sometimes I wonder how my mother—the sweetest, most compassionate person I ever knew—could stand by and watch my father whip me. I know she loved me long and hard, even at times when I didn’t deserve it, but I still wonder what it was like for her to see me curling up in a ball behind the fuel oil stove in our living room, trying to avoid my father’s blows.
When I run these days, I like to run long distances. I like to run so far that I forget myself. I forget regrets. I forget stupidity. I forget cowardice. I convince myself I can keep running into a new life, one that will erase all my missteps, all my missed chances, all injury taken and given, all memory of ugliness and sadness and loneliness. When I’m running, I disappear into my stride. I become muscle and bone and heart. I give myself over to motion. I don’t think about beginnings or ends. I’m all middle. I’m all now: this moment, this step, this exertion of breath and nerve and skin.
My father dreamed I’d be a farmer. The men in my family had always been farmers, nothing but. My great-great grandfather had acquired our eighty acres after he came home from the Civil War, and in the nearly one hundred years since, it had passed down to my grandfather and then my father, who was waiting to hand it over to me. I didn’t want it. My dreams had escaped the barbed wire around the fields, the right angles of those gravel roads, everything that contained me in that land. My mother had given me the gift of books, and those books had given me glimpses of possible lives lived away from that place, lives that would eventually take me from Illinois to Indiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Nebraska, Virginia, Texas, and back to Ohio. My mother invited me to fall in love with books, and though she probably didn’t know it—or, if I prefer to believe she did, why not?—she quietly, covertly, undermined my father’s dreams for me. In my version of things—in the life I want to write for my mother—she does this because she loves me, because she wants to see me get out, because beneath her timid exterior lies the strength of a woman who will do anything to save her child.
And she did save me. No matter what she allowed, or tolerated, when it came to my father’s punishment, she saved me over a span of years—continues to save me to this day, though she’s been gone now nearly as long as she was with me—with her kindness, her compassion, her endurance, and with how she taught me to love. I remember so well the way she used to sit on the edge of my bed at night when I was afraid of the dark, afraid to go to sleep, and she’d say to me in her soft voice, “Just think of all the good things in your life. Just think of all your blessings, and before you know it, you’ll be asleep.”
In the summer of 1982, she was seventy-two-years-old, and her health was failing. She was suffering small strokes, the transient ischemic attacks that served as warnings for a larger stroke to come. My father was sixty-nine. He’d survived his first heart attack three years earlier. I was twenty-six, married, an only child about to leave my parents alone in their old age. I’d been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Arkansas. My mother’s books had given me the dream of being a writer, and I was about to move ten hours away from her and my father to see where that dream might take me. The straight roads of Illinois gave way to the kinks and bends of the Ozarks. My wife and I made our first trip to Fayetteville in mid-July and found to our dismay the married student housing apartment where we planned to live to be in deplorable condition. My mother was in the hospital in Illinois. My father, who had always counted on her for so much, was somehow managing in the house alone. By this time in our lives, much of the anger between us had drained away, and when I saw the looks of that married housing apartment and felt how depressing it would be to live there, I ran into the excuse I must have been secretly looking for, a reason not to come to Fayetteville, and instead to stay close to my parents.
But ten hours of highways can give a man ample time to think. As I drove back to Illinois, I thought about chances and how to know when to take them and how to know when to play it safe. I’ve always been an “all my ducks in a row” kind of guy. I’ve always needed to know what I’m moving toward, how I’m going to get there, and how I’ll feel when I finally arrive. The problem is how I’ll feel when I arrive. That’s nearly impossible to determine, and for better or worse, the impossibility has sometimes kept me frozen, unable to grab an opportunity when it’s there for the taking. Unlike my father, who failed to shut down the tractor’s power take-off, I’ve always been a cautious man.
When I was about to turn eight years-old, my father moved our family to Oak Forest, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago. My mother had taken a teaching position there, and in later years she would tell me that my father had insisted that we needed the extra income. She said, “I thought we would have been all right, but he wanted to make the move.” So she left southeastern Illinois, the only home she’d ever known, and moved north. Just like that, the gravel roads that defined my world turned into Illinois Route 49 and stretched five hours of driving time toward a place where I’m not sure any of us ever felt truly at home.
The first time we left the farm and drove north, we made the trip at night. From the backseat, I could see the glow of the car’s dashboard lights. My father’s keys dangled from the ignition switch and in the dim light, something on that key ring, some token or perhaps the key to our farmhouse, began to look to me like the figure of a boy, a boy like Tom Thumb who could squirrel himself away inside the ear of a horse or curl up to sleep between the petals of a rose. I felt small and scared as we moved through the night. The world was suddenly too big for me. I didn’t know it, then, and I’m sure my father didn’t either, but, when he moved us north—when he broke free from the geometric grid of those gravel roads—he made it possible for me to one day do the same.
Ever since that first drive north in the middle of the night, I’ve been looking for home. I’ve lived in twelve cities; I’ve turned down opportunities to live in two others. Recently, I put myself in a situation where I wasn’t sure where home was: an extended stay hotel, a cousin’s guest room, a writers’ conference where I was teaching, an apartment I sometimes occupy when I’m not visiting friends. After nearly thirty-nine years of marriage, I’m by myself. I come and go; this is now my transient life.
Home is wherever love resides. An only child, I’m still learning, at age 58, how to connect with the world. I’m learning how to accept the kindness of others. Not long ago, the daughter of a friend called to say her car had broken down along I-57 two hours from home. She and her family were stranded. Before I knew it, my friend and I were in my car, speeding down a two-lane country blacktop on our way to I-64. How did I get to this point? I jumped. It’s as simple as that. I jumped into air where there were no roads, no predictable routes, only space through which I tumbled. I’m tumbling still, though the landing place is becoming more visible each day. It takes a good deal of faith and courage to leave one life and to turn toward another. My father tried to rake corn from a clogged shucking box and ended up losing his hands. In an instant, his life changed, but he was lucky: my mother was a woman of faith and endurance; she stayed.
The night I sped down that two-lane blacktop with my friend, it was dusk and we were anxious to travel the distance as quickly as we could. I noticed the intersection and the stop sign ahead when it was too late. I couldn’t stop. “Goddamn,” I said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” And with that chant, I gave myself over to whatever lay ahead. I moved into the intersection. I took a quick glance in both directions of the road I wouldn’t take and saw nothing. Then I turned my gaze to the west. I kept my eyes straight ahead. I said, “Here we go.” And we did. No time to look back. No time to wonder what might have been. Just the coming dark and the road stretching on before us. All of our past lives—all of our might-have-been lives—coming together, at last, as one.
LEE MARTIN is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; Break the Skin, River of Heaven; and Quakertown. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life; and a short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. He teaches in the MFA program at The Ohio State University, where he is a past winner of the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award.
His favorite road literature is William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. He has a fondness for the back roads, and his favorite one to travel is the County Line Road that separates Richland and Lawrence Counties in southeastern Illinois. It’s the gravel road that takes him down to what used to be his family’s farm. He couldn’t wait to escape it when he was younger; now, he goes back to it again and again, trying to step inside something that was precious to him, but he was just too young to know it.