The odometer clicked over to 200,000 miles as Dean Cooper crossed the state line into Minnesota. He celebrated the milestone with a swig of coffee and a mouthful of greasy hamburger. He was back home, after all these years, but he was only passing through.
Dean reached up and scratched a spot behind his ear, under the red knit cap O’Malley’s wife had made for him years ago, decades ago. She’d worked so hard on it during that in-between time after he and O’Malley had returned from Vietnam, when Dean had spent a couple of weeks living in their guest room. The cap was old now, faded, stained. Still rough and itchy, but still warm.
He needed that warmth today, even with the hot air pumping out of the truck’s vents. It was spring, technically, but apparently no one had informed Minnesota of that yet. The sky was grey, the wind was blowing, and the puddles beside the highway were coated in thin sheets of ice, the kind that Dean and his friends had loved to throw rocks through when they were kids, or pick up in big, clear sheets and toss up into the air so they shattered on the ground.
Did kids still do that these days, or were they all too busy inside playing on their computers? If Dean had ever had kids, he wouldn’t have given them computers. Of course, to have kids he would’ve had to settle down, and it was much too late for that. He was too used to racking up miles in his truck. He’d crossed too many state lines. He was just too restless. The constant movement was what kept his heart going, kept him warm. Settling down meant sitting still, and if he sat still Dean knew he would soon get cold and tired and frozen-over like those little ponds he was driving by. So he kept moving, kept looking for his destination, didn’t get too attached to any one place.
Last week he’d been a carpenter in Bismarck, North Dakota. In the fall he’d spent some time as a landscaper in Seattle. Summer had seen him working as a farmhand to bring in the Montana wheat harvest.
Now there was a job waiting for him in Wisconsin. He was going to drive a logging truck up and down the mountains, delivering timber to the mills. It seemed right up his alley, but he knew it wouldn’t last. Nothing ever lasted. In a month, or two months, or three, he’d quit and go searching for something new. Maybe he’d try Milwaukee, or Des Moines, or swing back through Montana again, maybe continue on to Boise.
Or maybe there’d be something here in Minnesota. It might be nice to spend some time back around his old haunts, where he’d grown up with the trees and the snow, the mountains and the lakes. The fresh, clean air and the down-to-earth, simple people of the Minnesota countryside would be a nice change from the noise and busyness of the cities and the rough-and-tumble backwoods atmosphere of the lumber camps.
It was an option. Anything was an option. Dean knew he’d probably feel differently about things in a month or two. He’d make his mind up later, go where the wind carried him. If it brought him back to Minnesota, fine.
In the meantime, Dean decided to take the scenic route. He turned off onto Route 10.
The miles flew by under his tires, carrying him closer to his long-forgotten home. Dean stuffed the last bite of his hamburger into his mouth and wadded up the wrapper and the bag. He rolled down his window so he could toss the garbage out, but before he made the throw he saw three young boys trooping along in the grass by the trees, dragging long sticks behind them and looking up at his truck as he drove by.
He had been one of those boys once, dragging those sticks, imagining them to be a sword or a spear or a flagpole. And he’d watched the men in their trucks come driving by, and wondered where they were going, and seen them toss their trash out their windows, making a mess of his pristine playground.
Dean rolled the window back up. People didn’t throw trash on the road around here. It wasn’t how he’d been raised, at least, and no matter where he’d been, this was where he’d come from. No one would know it anymore, to look at him—he’d become someone very different from the nineteen-year-old he’d been when he left for ‘Nam—but there was still some piece of that Minnesota boy deep down inside him. He still treasured these trees, these mountains, these lakes. If he had ever settled down anywhere, it would’ve been here.
The highway rolled up around a bend and the trees opened up, revealing the broad grey waters of Boyer Lake rippling gently in the wind. Though it had been at least 30 years since he’d last driven this road, Dean knew exactly where he would’ve found that old rope swing he used to jump off of into the icy cold water, following through on some dare or trying to impress a girl. It would’ve been right… there.
And there it was, much to Dean’s surprise. It wasn’t quite the same—the rope had been replaced, and there was a wooden seat at the bottom instead of just a knot to stand on—but it was in the same place, hanging from the same tree, dangling over the water like it always had.
Dean pushed the red knit cap up over his forehead, scratched at his receding hairline, and smiled. Who would’ve ever thought it would still be there? Some things really never changed. Seeing that swing brought back so many memories, so many familiar faces. He had been young then, and innocent. He’d known the answers to all the important questions, and whenever he’d felt that familiar restlessness he’d just gone off on an adventure, knowing he’d have a soft bed and a warm house to come home to when he’d seen it through.
So, if the rope swing was still there, what about the house? He hadn’t thought about that house since his father had died. In his mind, the two had always been connected: his father had built the house with his own two hands, and never slept a night outside of it for the rest of his life. When he had died, as far as Dean was concerned, the house had died. His mom must’ve felt the same way, because she’d sold the place and moved in with some friends in Minneapolis. The house had faded into Dean’s past.
But wouldn’t it be something if…?
Dean made the turn out of decades-old habit, crunching over the gravel down under the shadows of the trees. The road was smoother now than it had once been, gravel where there used to be just dirt. The naked branches of the trees were denser overhead, crowding down on either side like reaching fingers. A cat slunk out of the way as Dean rolled past.
There was the driveway, wooden posts standing on either side. There’d been a hand-carved sign at the top of one of those posts all those years ago, proclaiming “COOPER” to no one’s benefit, since anyone who came down that road already knew who they were there to visit. But Dad had been proud of that sign. “If you own something,” he’d always said, “you gotta put your name on it.”
There was no sign now, just a rusty mailbox with illegible white numbers painted onto the side, smeared by age. A wire fence stretched out to either side of the driveway, and it, too, was rusted and sagging. Maybe no one lived here anymore.
He’d already come this far, so Dean decided to find out. Something was telling him to stop, to turn around, to get back on the highway so he wouldn’t have to see what his father’s pride and joy had become, in case it had fallen into ruin, but he turned into the driveway anyways and bumped slowly through the potholes and the puddles until he emerged into the clearing.
And there it was.
It was old, it was worn, it was sagging here and there, but it still stood. The walls had been painted a faded light green, the roof was patched over in a few places with shingles that didn’t quite match the rest, and the truck out front was a little black Ford with a stained canopy instead of an old crew-cab Chevy, but the house was still here, and smoke was curling up out of the chimney.
And now that Dean was here…
He never did this kind of thing, but he found himself pulling up beside the little Ford, getting out of his truck, climbing the three stairs onto the front porch, and reaching for the door handle. He caught himself before he turned it. He couldn’t just walk in; he didn’t live here anymore, and neither did his father. How strange the ways that some things never change, and yet they never stay the same.
He raised his hand and knocked, not really knowing why he was doing it, or what he was going to say. He heard footsteps coming to the door and pulled off his red knit cap, tucking it into his jacket pocket. Dad had never let him wear hats inside the house.
A woman answered the door, and Dean’s first reaction was to wonder why she looked so little like his mother. Mom had always been short, plump, and rosy-cheeked, with bright eyes and a bounce in her step. This woman was thin, almost gaunt, and might have been taller if she hadn’t stood with so much of a slouch. There were dark circles around her eyes, and her skin was too powdery, too blotchy, like she was wearing a thick mask of makeup.
“Hello?” said the woman.
“Hi,” said Dean. “This is, well… It’s kind of strange, I guess, but I used to live here when I was a kid, and I was just driving by…”
The woman’s eyes brightened just a little, and she tried to smile. “Isn’t that nice?” she said. “You want to see what’s become of the old place?”
“Yeah, I guess. I’m not really sure what made me come to the door like this, to be honest.”
“I’m glad you did. Come in,” said the woman, eagerly, even hungrily. “I’ll show you around.”
Dean accepted the invitation, stepped inside, and pulled off his shoes—another one of the old habits. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he said.
“No, no, nothing,” said the woman. “So tell me, which bedroom used to be yours?”
“Upstairs,” said Dean.
“Let’s go take a look,” said the woman. “You can tell me what it used to be like. I’m sure plenty has changed.”
As they climbed the stairs, Dean asked, “Do you live here alone?”
“No,” said the woman, “my husband and I have lived here for about eight years now.” She quickly added, “But he isn’t home right now.” She opened the door to Dean’s old bedroom and he stepped inside. It was a sewing room now, piled high with shelves of fabric and various storage boxes. A dresser stood in the corner, one drawer open and overflowing with hand-sewn blouses and dresses.
“My bed was along this wall,” said Dean, pointing. “There used to be a tree outside the window. I climbed down it more than a few times to get out without my parents knowing. I guess it’s gone now.”
“Someone who lived here before us must have cut it down,” said the woman. “Would you like to see the rest of the house?”
“Sure, why not?” said Dean.
The woman led him through the house, showing him what she had done with each room. Dean told her what the rooms had used to be, and shared a few stories from his past life. He surprised himself with how many things he could remember, even from so long ago.
“Well,” said the woman, when they had been through most of the house, “that’s about everywhere.” She seemed disappointed that the tour was over. “We could take a quick walk around outside, if you’d like.”
“What about this room?” asked Dean. “This is the master bedroom, isn’t it?” He put his hand on the door handle, but the woman stepped over quickly and held the door closed.
“Yes, it’s our bedroom,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind if I keep that room private. It’s… very messy right now.”
“Okay,” said Dean. “I understand.” He turned away from the room reluctantly. Thinking of his parents’ bedroom had stirred up some powerful memories of his childhood, crawling under the covers for story time or bursting in on Christmas morning with his stocking in hand, marvelling that it had magically been filled.
When they had only taken a few steps towards the front door, Dean heard the door of the master bedroom creak open behind him. He looked back to see a man standing in the open door with his plaid shirt half-buttoned and his belt buckle open. The man’s cheeks were rough and red, his nose was broad and dimpled, and his eyes were watery.
“Who are you?” sneered the man.
“Whatever you’re selling,” the man’s words were slurred, “we’re not buying any.”
“I’m not—” began Dean.
“And if you’re looking to buy, we’re not selling, neither. This is our house.”
“Time for you to leave,” said the man, stepping up and poking a finger into Dean’s chest. “I don’t much care what you’re here for. I don’t like strangers wandering through my house.” He glared at the woman. “What were you thinking letting him in here, Tracy? Tryin’ to fool around behind my back? Is that what this is about?” The man gave Dean a shove, pushing him back a couple of steps. “That’s it, isn’t it? I see what’s going on.” He leaned in towards Dean and growled, “Get out before I throw you out.” His breath reeked of alcohol.
Dean backed up and turned around to go. He knew it had been a mistake to come here. “I thought you said your husband wasn’t home,” he remarked to the woman as he made his way back to the front door and began pulling on his shoes.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman. “I’m so sorry. Please, don’t go. I—”
“You what?” snarled her husband. “You like his company better than mine? I can see right through you, woman. Don’t you ever bring another man around here again!”
Dean’s blood was beginning to boil. The man’s voice was setting off all kinds of triggers inside him, but he was decades removed from being the reckless soldier boy out looking for a fight. He tied his shoes, stood, pulled his red knit cap over his head, and shoved through the front door onto the porch.
He was halfway to his truck when he heard the smack and the yelp. It was the last thing he needed to hear.
Turning on his heel, Dean stormed back up onto the porch and into the house. The man was standing over his cowering wife, raising his hand for another blow, and Dean barrelled into him like a bull. The man was slow to react and tumbled down onto the floor but came up swinging. He caught Dean with a thump to the side of the head, but Dean put a fist into his gut and knocked the air out of his lungs.
The man stumbled backwards towards the fireplace and reached for the fire poker.
The woman screamed, “No, Keith, don’t!”
“Shut your hole, mouse!” the man snarled. He lifted the poker like a club and rushed at Dean, swinging it over his head.
His movements were clumsy and sluggish, and though aging and diet hadn’t been especially kind to Dean, he had still spent the last 30 years working with his hands. He pivoted out of the way of the man’s charge and kicked at the man’s ankles. The man went crashing to the floor.
Dean pounced and wrestled the fire poker away, then pinned the man’s arms to the floor under his knees. He landed a solid punch to the man’s jaw, then another for good measure. “You’ll respect a woman in my father’s house!”
“This ain’t your daddy’s house,” said the man, wriggling as he tried to get free. “This is my house, and she’s my wife. I’ll do what I please!”
Dean shook his head. “Not if I can help it.” He reached back and pulled the man’s belt out of his pants, then grabbed the man’s wrists and wrapped the belt around them. The man fought and squirmed but was soon helpless. Dean yanked him to his feet and shoved him towards the front door.
“Where are you taking him?” asked the woman. “What are you going to do?”
“Just a little old-fashioned country justice,” said Dean. “I don’t know what’s happened to people around here, but I’m not going to leave things the way I found them. You can call the cops, if you want. Doesn’t bother me either way.” He marched the man to his truck, tied his ankles with a bit of rope he had lying around, and threw him in the back. Then he started up the engine and headed towards the lake.
When it was done, Dean sat shivering in his truck, wringing the water out of his pant legs and massaging some life back into his frozen feet. This kind of thing had been so much easier to recover from when he was young and his heart was strong.
“Let me down!” the man was shouting as he dangled upside-down over the water, his ankles tied to the old rope swing. “Take me down, you coward! I’ll see you rotting in jail for this!”
“Maybe we can share a cell,” retorted Dean. “Anyways, you’d best quit making all those threats, or maybe someone’ll come out there and hang you right side up.”
Dean pulled the door of his truck shut, snugged his red knit cap down tight around his years to block out the man’s hollering, started up the engine, and hit the road. It was time, again, to be moving on.