Darcy’s been alone long enough to get good at it. She’s the only woman in her family to have passed twenty-five without being married at least once. Men leave her alone. She figures this has to do with her looks. Darcy is six feet tall, broad-shouldered and long-limbed. She has short black hair and walnut eyes and a long-strided walk. She doesn’t smile unless she means it.
She has a good job, delivering mail to the rural routes out of Falling Rock, a job she almost likes even after six years. The mail takes her out on the back roads, into dark hollows where tarpaper shacks crouch ghost-blue in the morning fog. The air cupped in the valleys smells like woodsmoke and sewage and damp red earth. After a rain, the creeks are swollen and rust-colored. Mist piles up over the water and the clay turns to slime.
Half the roads are named after Stonewall Jackson. They’re one and a half cars wide, limestone gravel and red clay. They snake past woods and bottomland farms, churches and trailer parks, between plunging litter-filled ravines and cutaway cliffs with the coal veins exposed. Skid marks and scatterings of glass mark where people have missed the turns.
Darcy knows these roads the way her hands know a song. She follows them half daydreaming, only noticing when a new obstacle shows up — a landslide, a downed tree, a house trailer being inched over the crest of a hill. She carries jumper cables and a come-along and a guitar in the back of her Blazer.
Songs come to her best when she’s driving, bits of songs that she brings to Helen. They’re in a band with Darcy’s cousin Ray Jo and Helen’s husband Dean. They call themselves the Falling Rock Four until they think of a real name. Their stage is the barn behind Helen and Dean’s house. They have a field of junk cars where a crowd gathers on Saturday nights: mostly kids down from WVU, with kayaks and mountain bikes strapped to their jeeps.
It’s close to fall now. The radio calls for the first frost with every clear night, and the goldenrod drips over the roadbanks. The college kids have gone back to Morgantown. The Falling Rock Four will keep playing every week until the cold makes their hands too clumsy and stiff to play. Somebody will always show up. There’s nothing else to do.
The fog is clearing away when she reaches the top of Jackson Hill. A seven-foot plywood Jesus staked at the outside of the curve watches over the road with flat blue eyes. He holds a sign: REPENT. In smaller letters: BLACK CREEK CHURCH. SUNDAY SERVICES 10-12. PASTOR GERALD STARKEY. The sign is stuck with dead leaves from the property-line oak behind it. A peeling red blaze at eye level marks a boundary between farms that have long since gone back to woods.
The line comes to her from somewhere in the back of her mind: You trace your path in blood, leave a trail of unmarked graves.
“Yes!” Darcy slaps the steering wheel for emphasis. “Shit, yes.” She listens to it again in her mind, turning the words like rounded stones tumbling over each other at the bottom of the river; a low hard voice down among snarling bass notes. She doesn’t know what would come after it, but goddamn, what a line. Helen will love it.
She finishes the route in a new-song trance, that one line repeating itself over and over. But no more words have come by the time she finishes sorting her outgoing mail at the post office and heads for Helen and Dean’s place out past the river.
A car hood propped against a tree in the rutted yard announces: SATURDAY NIGHT CONCERTS $2. KIDS FREE. BYOB. Dean isn’t home, or at least his van isn’t there, but she can see Helen moving around through a window. The house is bleach-yellow and streaked with mildew. A little porch juts from under the doorway on railroad-tie legs, green plastic carpet over plywood that bows under Darcy’s feet. She doesn’t have to knock but she does anyway, rocking the guitar on the toe of her sneaker until Helen hollers for her to come in.
Janis Joplin wails from the stereo on the table, coming down through a clotheshanger antenna. Helen is wadding plastic bags into a bigger one for the recycle bin at Kroger. “Coffee.” She points with her chin at the stove, where steam rises from hot water and a jar of instant is balanced on the dish rack.
Darcy dumps the pooled water out of a mug and measures out coffee and water and half-sour milk, which dribbles onto her hand. She licks it from the webbing between her thumb and first finger.
“Isaac’s teacher called,” Helen says. “They’re gonna let him in third grade, he passes a test.”
“How hard’s the test?”
Helen punches the last handful of plastic into the softly bulging bag. “Same one the normal kids take.”
“Pretty hard for him.” Darcy sits down so she doesn’t loom over Helen like some awkward giant. Her height doesn’t usually bother her, but around Helen she feels clumsy.
“I don’t think this class could do him any more good,” Helen says. “I think he’s got all he can get from it.” Isaac is eleven and he’s been in the same class for three years. Nobody’s sure exactly what’s wrong with him, but it’s obvious there’s something.
“Where is he?”
“In the crick.” Helen waves at the window, where Darcy can see the top half of Isaac through a screen of goldenrod on the bank. “I give up tryna keep him out of there.”
“We played in it. Wasn’t much cleaner then,” Darcy says. “Or maybe you didn’t.” She can’t picture Helen wallowing in that rust-colored, sewage-smelling water.
Helen sighs. “I played in the crick,” she says. “I got in mud fights. I occasionally even stepped in cow shit.”
Darcy laughs and runs her fingers along the web of cracks in the wooden table. Helen’s been her best friend since Darcy forgave her for high school. Even where everybody grows up poor there are still different levels of poor, and Darcy was near the bottom. Sometimes people from a church they never went to would leave bags of food and clothes in the bed of her mother’s truck while her mother was inside mopping morning-after beer and vomit from the Dog Hair Inn floor. Helen was one of the kids who never let Darcy forget that. Darcy remembers being tripped down stairwells, hit with rocks and softballs and books. They always laughed. Sometimes she’d strike out with cornered-bobcat fury, swinging wildly at whoever was closest. It didn’t stop anything, but being attacked in revenge was better than being attacked for the usual reasons.
A few years after Darcy finished school, Helen showed up at her trailer with Isaac and said, “I know you got to hate me.”
There were a lot of things Darcy wanted to say. Most of them would have sent Helen back down the road. But she said, “Long time ago. I pretty much forgot about it.”
It took Helen a long time to realize how much of a lie that was, and by then Ray Jo had started taking Darcy to concerts, trying to get her to join the band. The first time she heard Helen sing, Darcy could see the notes: small brown birds rising up from a dark kudzu-tangled forest of sound. It made the muscles in her back shiver, the bottom drop out of her stomach, her arms loosen from her shoulders. When Helen sang, Darcy forgot about high school. She wanted to catch the fluttering birds and hold them cupped in her hands.