In memory of Fred W. Hurt
Coggins walked through an afternoon fog as soft and gray-white as his own hair. He had walked a half mile or so nearly every day for twenty years — at first on the advice of a doctor who had repaired his heart, and then later because it became his deepest habit, and broke the day. Over recent years he had come to fear that if he missed a day he would not be able to resume. Over those same years his vision had clouded, and his internal organs had become known to him. They seemed to have begun a slow, painful migration toward the surface of his moley skin, as if to escape the fragile cage of bone and skin that held them. His focus had lately been upon the pace at which his life was leaving him, upon the changes he made in response to that ebb. He bragged about his age when the chance arose — allowed himself that indulgence — and then later, in sleepless, elongated hours near dawn, reheard his words with an annoyance and shame that he remembered from earlier years, when he had boasted after drinking too much.
Anna, four years younger and still in full health, asked each day to go with him on his walk, and on more days than not, he relented. Today, already a quarter mile from home, he was alone, having overruled her strong objections founded in the cold and fog, the slippery walks, and the predictions of falling temperatures. The fog irritated him only because it existed as a reminder, a mirror, of the gauzy haze that roamed always over his eyes. His feet were sure on the concrete walk, and he could test a slippery-looking spot with the cane. He walked in a direction away from the house and the town behind it. The walk sloped easily down the hill toward the river.
After he had walked another two hundred paces he paused to rest. He stood just off the walk, on the meadow now browned with winter, and allowed his breathing to slow. He turned and looked behind him, as if to be sure that no one was following him, and looked quickly up into the sky — into the soft cold gray that hid the sky. As he looked up he squinted his eyes, the muscles still taut and at the service of the broken eyes. He was a small man, and though he stood straight, there was little left in proof that his was an athlete’s body. Only at the shoulders was there a hint — in the straight plank of bone that squared his coat across the back. And in his face were marks of the same feel of angle, of planes running from temple to jaw. The brim of his hat allowed vague shadows to draw across those planes, and to build in the hollows of his face. As he moved to look all about him on this winter’s day, the movement of his head and neck was like some much bigger animal’s — an elk perhaps — tensing its neck high in the air for distant, foreboding sound.
At the base of the hill Coggins left the walk and followed the footpath away from the town. His cane came back to him with a quiet sucking sound as he pulled it from the softened earth. The path sloped gently toward the river, which was one of the oldest in the world, and which flowed south toward the town where he was born. The river ran at the western edge of the valley, between two ridges of the Appalachians, and in its old age had created and wandered over a broad flood plain, on which the railroad and highway that followed it for miles had been built. This was the same river that had nearly taken his life when he was fourteen, and had accepted a bet to swim it at a spot between two cliffs, where it ran strong and deep. This was the same river that in his youth was crossed only by Bailey’s Ferry for thirty miles to either side of his home town. Now there were bridges up and down the river, many of which had been built in the thirties and forties and were now being gradually replaced as the highways that crossed them were widened.
The path ran along a ridge high above the river, and looked down not only onto the water, but also onto the tracks and the highway. The highway had once been the main artery between the northeast and the south. But for twenty years now, it had been in steady decline, shriveled by the Interstate. Coggins could not see the Interstate from where he stood, but he sensed its presence, its huge rumbling trucks, on the land. He had stopped driving just before the big highway had been cut, and so his recollections of good road and good travel were tied to the old highway just beyond the tracks, where on this afternoon a car passed only every few minutes. The highway had first been paved in the spring of the year when his oldest daughter had turned thirteen, and he had taken her out on the long straightaway and taught her how to drive on the fine new road.
He had already walked much farther than he usually did, and he was still heading away from home. He paused again, looking far across the highway at the outline of an old motel. It had been built in the late forties, to accommodate the out-of-state travelers. They came from Maryland and Pennsylvania and New York and Ohio, and stopped at the cottage motels that grew up along the highway as quickly as summer weeds when the war had ended. He stared across at the remains of a motel, gaunt and naked in the fog. The disintegration of his vision had left him with this one odd and wondrous ability — to see far far away much more clearly than close up. He kept this a secret even from Anna, as if it were a last gift from God. An untended stand of willows had grown to great heights behind the row of matching buildings, and branches hung down through the rotted roofs. Had there been no branches, Coggins would have been able to look through the buildings, as the boards that had once covered the windows were now gone too. In front, on the lot, the macadam was broken into chunks that sat at mild angles to the ground. Several of his friends had been pushed to early retirement and even to death by the slash of the Interstate and the effects it had brought to the old highway, and to the valley as a whole. He held the Interstate in an unreasoned, instinctive distaste that had now been untested for twenty years. He knew it was not fair to hate it fully when he had never driven on it. As he considered this, he allowed himself to remember that he had once hated the highway, as well, when it had first stolen the commerce away from the river. First, the barges had stopped moving up and down, and soon after that, as the bridges were built with FDR’s money, the ferries died one by one, stealing away the pace of life for the communities on either side of the river, leaving them with less reason to exist. As the river had gathered the villages, so the highway at first seemed to scatter things — to pull people apart and give them too wide a space to move in. Coggins had watched as his uncle gave up his ferry business and moved away to Ohio.
A short distance down the old highway from the motel, as he continued his slow walk in parallel with the road, were the remains of another fruit of the prime of the road. A tall metal skeleton reached perhaps a hundred feet into the air. The white-board face of the screen had long since fallen in rotten chunks to the ground, so that there were huge holes for the fog to move through. On the slope up and away from the screen, a few speaker posts stood at cocked angles. Bushes as tall as a boy covered the lot that had once crackled with the sound of tires on rocks on a hot summer night. Coggins had once hated the drive-in as well, when his middle and youngest daughters were young and cars were fast and dangerous in the hands of young men. The broken screen had changed both the daughters, it seemed to Coggins, had pulled them away from long walks and long stories out into the night — and changed their eyes from wonder-laden to furtive, almost overnight.
His steps into the cold fog were small and sure, but had by now carried him farther than he had walked for several years. He knew that Anna would be worried by now, but within him the need to go on was stronger. In earlier years he had often left her for longer than she had wanted to be left, as if to heighten the effect of his return. When he had come home to her after the armistice he had first walked around the town, as if to build an even greater tension between them before he saw her. Even in their days of courtship he was accused of perversity, of a mean streak that had no place in a man about to marry. There were times when he had disappeared for days at a time, traveling with a baseball team that gave him money and meals to catch fly balls in the little towns along the edge of the mountains. For the first time in many years he felt that strength, that need to assert his own sense of himself. He moved on, perhaps slightly more quickly than before, with pieces of his own past springing from within as he moved into the fog.
Beyond the highway now moved a coal train. He could not see it well enough to be sure whether or not the train was full, but the slow movement, the heavy sound and the northward direction indicated to him that it was a load of new coal moving up the valley from the mines at the southwest end of the state. Before the Great War he had ridden the slow freights in the valley. When he rode north to visit Anna in the coal-hollow town just into the mountains, he rode with coal on its way north to the cities on the eastern seaboard. Sometimes when he reached her he was covered with a thin fine dusting of coal. At night, as he congratulated himself on having seen her and avoided her father, he hopped the slow freight back home. These cars, running to the south, were new and cleaner than the coal cars that ran in the other direction. And they were closed up, so that he could not see what was coming back in return for the coal.
After he had watched the train he paused again, but only for a moment. It was as if the need to rest were an old man’s need, a need he had allowed to be built into himself over the years. He forced himself to move on, starting down the rocky path toward the river that had spawned him. He tested several rocks with the cane to be sure that they were not carrying a frozen surface. He was surprised at his ease in reaching the grassy walk just above the level of the water. Now his cane did not sink and suck, and beneath his feet the earth felt smooth and firm, as if in welcome. The river, broad and rippled, sent up tiny wisps of fog, as if to help build the fuller fog above. Coggins watched the river and listened to the quiet lap of the water against the banks. He had not been this close to the river in perhaps twenty-five years, and beside it he was not old. The time from his boyhood swims until this walk was no more than a moment in the life of the wide proud river.
As he walked on, content to follow the soft plain as far as it took him, Coggins was aware that the fog had become a fine misty rain. He pulled his hat down more tightly on his head and forced himself to be more careful with his steps. He watched as drops formed on the brim of the hat and then fell before him. He thought about the fact that the river was flowing against the direction of his walk, and this thought, taken with the rain, sent one quick quiver of caution through him. He was too far from home, and going further. He had not admitted this to himself, but he held the admission for only a moment, before turning again to the reach of the grass in front of him. He would follow it, as he had when he was a boy, until he found something that made him want to stop, or turn around. If you were already wet and late you might as well stay out and take advantage of it; there as no hurry to get home to receive a scolding. As he walked he was aware of a vague sense of being near to some familiar place, though he could not think what it was. His heartbeat quickened with this realization. He moved toward a stand of trees at a bend in the river. He knew this bend, knew the sound of the rush of the water over a group of large rocks. He walked to the edge of the trees, still unable to picture what he would see when he emerged on the far side of them.
His recollection of what it was occurred at the precise moment when he saw it. A backstop of chicken wire and bare wood poles stood with its back to the river and the trees, rising high into the misty rain as it stood guard over a broad and smooth expanse of red clay infield. The fan of orange-red gave way to a wide reach of grass that was still green, as if carrying summer on into the winter. The backstop and the diamond, in the suddenness of their appearance before him out of the rain, took his breath away. When he had regained it, he walked to the third-base edge of the field. Faint chalk lines, left from the last game of the summer, tinted the clay in perfect angles away from the inner poles of the backstop. The mound, with a moon-shaped puddle just to the plate side of the rubber, rose in perfect, gentle slope from the rest of the infield. At each base, where men had slid for scores of years, were broader puddles, carrying the shape of a perfect slide. At the plate there was a deeper puddle in the right hand batter’s box than the left. And in the outfield, where Coggins had once been the fastest in the three-county semi-pro league around the town of Cauthen, the ruts were more defined in left and right than in center. This was to be expected, Coggins knew. The left and right field positions were filled by hitters in need of a place to be tucked away on defense. The center fielder, ranging far and deep to either side, had no time to wear a hole in any one spot on the field. He was too light, too quick, too gliding. He was the soul of the game, the essence of its purity and skill. Coggins walked across the soft infield, his shoes picking up mud, and out onto the outfield grass, as if to verify that there was no puddle in center, as if to assure himself that the traditions of the center fielder had been upheld in the years since he’d played ball on this diamond next to the river. And when he had made sure that it was so, he knew that it was time to sit down and rest. He turned and moved slowly — more slowly than at any time since he had begun his walk — back across the outfield. He walked toward the infield as if on his way in after making the catch for the last out of the inning. Around him now he heard the barking of a dog, and a boy called out to him what a nice catch it had been. Pretty grab, Danny Coggins, pretty grab. With the sound of applause in his ears, Coggins reached up and touched his hat. In the old wooden grandstand along the first base line Anna Wheelock sat perfectly still, her hands folded on her lap as she watched, afraid that if she clapped someone might notice her, and allow word to get back to her father that she was out watching a baseball game being played on a Sunday afternoon. Around Anna and the shouting boy were perhaps twenty or thirty others, some standing and talking about the catch in deep center, pointing at the spot where the fielder had caught up with the ball. The distance between center field and the third base bench was short, but as Coggins made his way it grew to an immeasurable reach. He was poised now, for a length of time that he could not estimate, between the last sweet moment of the run and catch, and the change of the rain to a fine silent snow that would cover him as he sat on the bench and allowed the night to draw softly down upon him.