Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail: A Novel

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9781439175613: Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail: A Novel
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“With echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, and Raymond Carver” (A.M. Homes), this singular psychological tale of murder unfolds against the backdrop of one of America’s most breathtaking landscapes.

In the vast wilderness of the Appalachian Trail, three hikers are searching for answers. Taz Chavis, just released from prison, sees the thru-hike as his path to salvation and a way to distance himself from a toxic relationship. Simone Decker, a young scientist with a dark secret, is desperate to quell her demons. Richard Nelson, a Blackfoot Indian, seeks a final adventure before taking over the family business back home. As they battle hunger, thirst, and loneliness, and traverse the rugged terrain, their paths begin to intersect, and it soon becomes clear that surviving the elements may be the least of their concerns. Hikers are dying along the trail, their broken bodies splayed on the rocks below. Are these falls accidental, the result of carelessness, or is something more sinister at work?

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About the Author:

T.J. Forrester is the author of the novel Miracles, Inc., and his work has appeared in numerous literary journals. An avid long distance hiker, he has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail in consecutive years. To learn more, visit TJForrester.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

HAWKINSVILLE, WYOMING—KING of nowhere—civilization’s intrusion into mesquite, cacti, sand, and rattlesnakes. I grew up here, never thought I’d return, yet here I am. I stretch out my legs, wriggle my prison-issue shoes to release the crimp on my heels, peer out the bus window at a man on the sidewalk. Sunlight bounces off a wine bottle—MD 20/20—cheap, nasty, buzz guaranteed. Between the man’s feet, a dog licks at a brown puddle. Vomit, I assume.

I make my way to the front and down the steps. The feed store butts up to the terminal, and the air smells musty as a compost pile. A settled-in smell, a going-nowhere odor, and it’s the same as the day I left.

The driver drags suitcases from the luggage compartment and sets them at his feet. I give him my claim ticket—Taz Chavis #650–569—and tell him the duffel bag is mine. I’m traveling light. Eight-day trip. Three days coming, two days here, three days going.

The driver hands me my bag, and I step around the man on the sidewalk. The dog shows his teeth, two rows of yellow canines, and I lash out with my foot. Miss. A snarl, and the dog sidles out of range.

“Stupid mutt,” I say.

* * *

I walk past the courthouse in the square, the barbershop on the corner, the Mercantile Bank next to Rexall Drugs. On a bench outside the Dollar Store, old men huddle like birds on a wire. A breeze, grittiness that abrades everything it touches, blows off the desert and down the streets.

Four blocks along I stop in front of Roy’s Tavern. I spent my evenings watching my father through these windows. Dressed in a hat, suspendered jeans, and unlaced tennis shoes, he played nine-ball seven nights a week. He wasn’t much of a drinker, sipped Pepsi from a frosted mug most of the time, traded it for the occasional beer but he never drank enough to get drunk. Probably a good thing. As many pills as he was taking, an addiction that began as a prescription for a nagging back, his heart would have quit working and he would have dropped dead on that wooden floor.

The saloon door, a refugee from an old-time establishment, had been jimmied so it swung inward; a concession to residents who complained about exiting drunks knocking sober citizens off their feet. That door . . . I hated that door and its physical imposition between me and my father. Some evenings I imagined it was my portal to manhood and in my dreams flung it open and exclaimed, “Pop, rack ’em up.” But I never did. I knew better than to bother my father when he was at the pool table.

* * *

Pop was county dogcatcher, and he drove a pickup that had a cage on the bed. At the pound it was his responsibility to kill unclaimed animals. He called the gas chamber Canine Auschwitz, and his tone was without humor. His job led him to the dope—my opinion—but my mother put his problems to hand-me-down blood, said his father got hooked on opium in San Francisco and to watch out or I’d wind up like both of them. She ran off with a ranch owner who sold out and had money to burn. She sent me Christmas presents from towns in Arizona, Maine, South Dakota, Michigan, and Colorado. I appreciated her effort, but the presents were coloring books and toy trucks, like she didn’t know I was growing up. Pop told me she died of ovarian cancer. Town rumor had her falling off a skyscraper or suffocating in a mine collapse in West Virginia. I settled for death by skyscraper. There was something romantic about plummeting through the air while the earth approached at an exponential rate.

* * *

“My father used to come here,” I say, noting the space the pool table once occupied. I’ve gone through two pitchers and started on my third. Maria, a barfly who wandered over soon as I pulled up a stool, murmurs appreciatively, something she’s done since I slid the first beer her way. Maria wears her hair away from her forehead. She has a broad face, brown as toast, wears a necklace made out of tiny turquoise stones. I look toward the window and think about my father. How did he feel about my nose always pressed to the pane? Mother said I had his hair, his eyes, his jaw. She said I had a Chavis jaw, strong like a bull. Did my father see himself in me? Did he brag about his boy?

Maria stuffs the bottom of her blouse into her jeans and limps, cowgirl boots scraping the floor, toward the jukebox. She plunks four of my quarters into the slot, pushes a button, and a dusty old song fills the room. I guzzle beer and listen to her stumble over lyrics about skinning bucks and running trot-lines. When she hits the part about surviving, I nudge her chair closer to mine. She sits, and I rest my hand on her thigh.

“Drink up,” I say.

She lifts her beer, takes a healthy swallow, puts the mug on the bar. “You’re a little skinny. You sure you don’t have AIDS or something?”

“Prison food, it’ll starve a man to death.”

“Three hots and a cot,” she says.

I pour her a full one and listen to her tell about life back in Fort Redshire. I tell her I’ve never heard of that town and she says it’s too small for the map. She says she grew up there.

“One time,” she says, “I fell and broke my arm when I was riding my pony. Snap, just like that. One snap is all it took. . . . You may not believe it to look at me, but I have fragile bones.”

“Life’s a bitch.”

“What are you talking about?” she says.

“I’m drunk.”

“Me too.”

She looks down at my hand.

“That won’t do me any good,” she says. “Feeling my leg like that.”

I withdraw and return to my beer. Cunt. Or maybe I’ve lost my touch. I don’t know which, and don’t care. Maria raps her leg, a solid sound.

“Walnut,” she says. “Motorcycle accident down in Tulsa. Would have killed me if I didn’t have my helmet on.”

I move my hand to the other leg. It’s warmer and softer and I’m damned drunk to have rubbed a wooden leg. The door, the one I have despised for so long, swings inward and the man from the bus terminal falls through the sunlit opening onto the floor.

“I’m thinking of getting a room,” I say.

“We could go down to the Mesquite Motel. You know that one? It’s got vibrating beds and pink wallpaper. Nicest in town.”

“Did you say you knew my father?”

“I didn’t catch his name, sweetie.”

“Wesley Chavis. Friends called him Wes for short.”

“Wes?” she says.

“Wes Chavis. He used to come in here when I was a kid.”

“Oh, sure. I knew Wes. Everybody knew Wes.”

Her tone makes me think she’s lying, but I don’t care. If she wants to get naked it’s okay with me. We get up, and I take one last look around.

“Did you know my father?” I say.

“You already asked me that, sweetie.”

“I’m fucking plastered,” I say.

“Me too, sweetie.”

We step around the man, open the door, and shuffle into the afternoon sunlight. She drapes her arm around my waist, and we lean on each other—walk up to where the dog sits on the sidewalk and pants like he’s at the end of a long run. I tell Maria to wait a minute and I go into the bar and buy three pickled eggs. I come back and drop the eggs in front of the dog and he eats them in three gulps. “Let’s go,” I say to her. We walk up the street, and I don’t look back.

* * *

In prison, I envied the guys who could sleep fourteen hours a day. Tony Dobson was one of those guys. One morning, while we dressed for breakfast, he asked how I wound up in the joint. We were in prison blues, buttoning our shirts, backs to each other in the six-by-twelve cell. I told him I was doing a year for dealing.

“Sold bootleg jeans out of a van, had a coke business on the side. DA dropped the bootleg charges but sent me up on the coke. I was getting by, you know?”

“Bastards gave me nine years for raping my secretary.”

That was our first real conversation. Most of the time he slept, while I stared at the walls, picked at food, and tried to stay on good terms with the guards. I read books about the Appalachian Trail and imagined I was out in the wild instead of surrounded by bars. If I thought hard enough, I could transport myself to the mountains and spend hours a day with an imaginary pack on my back and an open trail in front of me.

Toward the end of my stretch I received a letter. I knew without looking it wasn’t from anyone I’d met on the East Coast. I’d lived in Atlanta for seven years, and I’d met a lot of people. Few who would write me a letter. On the street, friends were like Styrofoam cups. Some got crushed, others blew out of sight. Nothing was permanent. A guy went to prison and a week later he never existed.

Roxie Scarborough, the girl I was living with before I got sent up, didn’t even send me a letter. Not that I expected differently. Roxie moved through life so fast she was not about to put things on hold for a lover behind bars.

That night, as I lay in my cell bunk, I spent my time thinking about what was inside the envelope. Whenever I slid my hand under the pillow and picked at the flap, I felt buoyant—a man floating into a new day—someone with places to go and things to see. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I lit a match and read under a flickering flame. My father was dead. There was a will. I had papers to sign—formalities—could I please come to Hawkinsville when released? Tony heard me cussing and asked what’s the matter.

“Nothing,” I said. “Burnt my fingers on this damn match.”

I tucked the letter in the envelope and put my hands behind my head. Hawkinsville. I hadn’t thought about that town in years.

* * *

Maria and I come to a tavern and go inside. Same as the first: country music, cheap beer on tap, a couple of regulars humped over the bar. I’ve decided to see the lawyer today instead of tomorrow, so I’m sipping coffee, doing my best to sober up. Maria drinks beer and nibbles pretzels. We’re at a table next to the window and through the grime I see that dog nosing the sidewalk.

“That dog,” I say.

“Christ.”

“That dog, it followed us.”

“I’m worn out,” she says. “I can’t walk any farther.”

Maria rolls up a pant leg. “Doctors wanted to give me one of those titanium thingies, but I wanted one made out of wood.”

“Looks heavy,” I say, and pour cream into my coffee. I sip, add more cream. Overhead, suspended from a mayonnaise-colored ceiling, a fan turns slow circles.

“Do you want some meth?” Maria asks. “I can get us some meth, cheap too.”

“That dog, he’d be looking at the gas chamber if my father was alive.”

“They don’t do that anymore.”

“What?” I say.

“They use drugs and a needle to put them to sleep.”

I buy a bag of potato chips and take it outside. I say to the dog, “You are one lucky dog,” then pour chips on the sidewalk.

* * *

Pop’s sobrieties began January 1st and usually lasted a week. Sometimes two. He flushed his pills down the toilet and did sit-ups and push-ups every morning. His eyes cleared and he stopped nodding off when he came home from shooting pool. When I was six, he lasted almost eight months. My mother danced to rock and roll records, and I jumped up and down like my legs had Superman springs. My father brought home soda and peanuts, and the three of us curled up on the sofa and watched TV. Whenever one of them got up, like to pee or get more ice, I felt warm on one side and cold on the other.

One Saturday—this was one of those times when Pop was off the dope—he drove me into the desert to see wild horses. He knew a spring where the herd watered twice a day. Once in the morning. Once in the evening. We went in the evening because Pop liked to sleep late when he wasn’t chasing dogs. We stood on the downwind side, in a sandy patch behind waist-high mesquite. Pop whispered.

“Watch when they come in,” he said. “The stallions, watch the stallions. Always keep your nose in the wind, boy. Always be on the lookout.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t much interested in horses. I wanted a puppy, something I could pet and feed and let lick my face if it wanted.

After what seemed like forever, the herd browsed up and over a rise while two stallions circled toward the spring. One stallion was black, the other was chestnut. They stomped sand and tossed their heads up and down.

“Watch,” my father said. “See how they’ve got their noses to the wind. See that? They’re looking for danger.”

“Stupid horses.”

“Shush, you’ll scare them away.”

“I want a puppy!”

My father’s hand, a backhanded blur, connected with my cheek and I tumbled onto the sand. I got up but stood off to the side. Later, on the way home, he bought me a soda and I put my head on his shoulder. He tousled my hair and called me a good boy.

Looking back, I suppose he was explaining his troubles. But then, he might have been telling about horses.

* * *

“Can you believe this?” I say, and show Maria the check. We’re outside the lawyer’s office, and she sits on the curb with her leg extended like she dares someone to run over it. An ice cream truck turns the corner and comes up the opposite lane. The dog squats ten feet away, gaze on my face.

“That’s a ton of money,” Maria says. “With money like that we could buy a car and drive to California. We could open an orange juice stand and sell fresh-squeezed orange juice. All you can drink. We’d make a million, I bet.”

“That dog’s watching me.”

“Scat!” she says.

A ratty tail beats the sidewalk.

“It’s like he knows what I’m thinking.”

“They’re smarter than people.”

“Dogs,” I say.

“This leg, it gets so heavy sometimes I wish I had a grocery cart. I’d put it in there and hop around behind it. Everyone would say, ‘Here comes Maria the bunny hopper.’ You never know what people will say. I’m on disability, did I tell you? Nine hundred a month. I got a room up on Roundtree Avenue, but the landlady, she don’t allow any male visitors.”

A man in a suit comes out of the lawyer’s office and gets into a pickup. He drives off, hood ornament flashing like a mirror turned toward the sun. Down the way, a Mexican comes out of a clapboard shack and sits on the sidewalk. It’s unusually warm for February, and it feels like spring is coming early this year. Whatever snow fell at this elevation is long gone.

“The lawyer gave me a letter,” I say. “From my father.”

“Open it.”

“I did already.”

“Oh.”

“It says,” and I skim the letter. “It says. . . . This is what he wrote—it says if he could do it over again, he’d never touch a single pill—he says he hoped I turned out all right—he says to do something good with the money.”

“You look to me like you turned out all right.”

“I’m all right,” I say. “I’m doing all right. Got money I didn’t have an hour ago.”

“We’re stinking rich.”

I stare at her leg, nudge it with my foot. No way in hell she’s getting any of this money.

“You’re the first one-legged woman I’ve seen,” I say. “There was a one-armed Mexican back in Atlanta but I didn’t know her very well.”

“Give it a rest, sweetie.”

I stuff the letter in my pocket. “My father would have killed that dog.”

“He hated dogs?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I really don’t know.”

“You’re not an ax murderer or anything like that? You wouldn’t rape me and chop me into little bits?”

“That’s a stupid question.”

“Never mind,” she says. . . . “You can carve your initials into my leg if you want.”

We walk down the sidewalk. My duffel bag is gone, and I can’t remember where I left it. Maria asks if she can lean on my shoulder, and I tell her okay long as she doe...

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