On Thursday morning, after a honeymoon of white sand and sun and day sex on every square inch of carpet and upholstery in their island hotel room, the wife led the way out of Nashville in her blue Camry, back seat stacked so high with clothes and shoeboxes and lampshades she couldn’t see the husband following in the rearview, driving the U-Haul packed with their wedding gifts and chain-smoking with the windows down as he watched her car for any sign she might be nodding off or that the two-month-old Weimaraner his parents had bought him for a college graduation present might need to relieve himself along one of the two interstates they took through Gordonsville and Cookeville, over the Cumberland Plateau and down into the fog hanging heavy in the valleys around Harriman, before lurching into Knoxville four hours later with heavy traffic, exhaust and heat, where they stopped off for lunch at an Arby’s and went over the directions again until the wife rolled her eyes and recited them to the husband through a mouthful of curly fries, the same directions she failed to follow once she led the way up Tennessee Highway 33 and into the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, the jagged peaks in the distance so green they looked blue, ears popping, speeding around cars and semis and slowing to let the chugging U-Haul keep up, taking a wrong turn and failing to notice the U-Haul’s flashing lights or hear its horn until somewhere in southeastern Kentucky, idling at a stop sign across from an abandoned gas station leaning toward a small stream, where three men, boots hanging off the bank, watched the tips of their poles twitch with the current before turning to see the husband approach across the gravel lot to ask for directions, something he would have avoided months ago when he and his wife were a dating couple, but now, despite his fear of the men and the area whose wild rawness seemed to press down on him, his wife looking on, her hair in a pony tail, one hand on the steering wheel, one on the puppy’s neck, he walked right up to the men like he thought his father would do and stood there with his chest out, toeing the earth and spitting into the river while they gave him directions to Middlesboro, the tiny town where he would pay back his school loans by teaching mountain kids and where she would look for front desk work at a bank or dentist’s office, and a road named Happy Hollow Lane that led to the house they had chosen earlier in the summer, a white World War II era rancher with blue shutters, a little overgrown yard and an oak tree, a rope unraveling from one gnarled branch.
While the wife wiped bologna sandwich crumbs from their $99 kitchen table, the husband burst through the front door with the leashed puppy, stomping and stripping off his tennis shoes and jeans, looking for the yellow jackets that had buzzed up his pants legs and revealing white thighs and calves covered with burning red welts that she kissed before dabbing with Calamine lotion in the bathroom, where she let him have her on the sink, the countertop cold, his body hot from the stings and adrenaline, which caused him to finish quickly but just in time for her to walk into the empty living room, tying her loose sweat pants, and see their mothers in the driveway dragging suitcases away from the van and his father dropping a pink twin-sized mattress from his shoulders to fall against the concrete, tearing one of its corners.
They took the spare bedrooms and let the newlyweds take the master bedroom, where they shared his boyhood mattress and made quiet love while their parents snored in the other rooms and the puppy whined, and the next morning the boy and his father spent three hours unloading the truck, carrying furniture and boxes into the house, putting them where the wife, flanked by her mother and mother-in-law, wanted, and then they cut the grass together, like they did years ago—the boy push mowing, his father weed-eating around the house’s foundation, pausing to point out the high spots his son had missed.
They spent the rest of that day and the next putting up a fence, driving the aluminum posts into the soft ground and stretching wire from them while the women hung new drapes and cleaned carpet, shined the sink with steel wool and scrubbed around the stove’s eyes with a toothbrush, their voices audible outside between the ring of the sledgehammer against the posts, the wife’s scream audible over the ring when while laying laminate in the cabinets she found an onion which turned out to be a shell that crumbled into cockroaches when she grabbed it.
As his parents and mother-in-law drove away and the puppy dug a hole in his new pen, the husband leaned against one corner of the fence, looking off into the hollow behind the house where dogwoods bloomed white in the shadows until he quit crying.
She stood at the window and cried, too, but didn’t hide it, and watching her cry made him strong and determined to always be good to her.
Now they lay on their backs in bed on Sunday night, the puppy asleep between them.
“You did a wonderful job picking out furniture,” he said. “The living room looks like it’s straight out of a magazine. And the kitchen, you can’t beat those colors.”
“The fence,” she said. “I bet that was hard work.”
“My hands are blistered, but he’ll like the pen.” He patted the dog’s belly.
She started to say something and then went silent. He did the same, and they lay awake for an hour. Outside a car rumbled by, a brief wave of headlights illuminating the old room.
“Look at us,” she said. “A puppy, this house, five hundred miles from home.”
“I know,” he said, “Who would’ve thought.”
Matthew Brock holds an MFA in creative writing from The University of Mississippi. He has published fiction in The Chattahoochee Review, Stories from the Blue Moon Café III, and The Alumni Grill. He currently lives in Knoxville with his wife Amber and is at work on a novel titled The Path between Two Lands.