SWIMMING TO KENTUCKY
Uncle Ernie lived in a dilapidated two-story farmhouse near the bank of the Ohio River. Any paint that had once been on the house had peeled off or been scrubbed from the wood by the weather years ago. It had turned as gray as the mud-soup made up of river water and lifeless soil that surrounded it. He kept three large pigs in a pen in the front yard and an assortment of vehicles that were rusty junk heaps on both sides of the house. In the back yard a dead oak tree leaned sharply to the left, its bare branches sticking out from the decaying trunk like fingers grasping for a lifeline.
Inside the house, wind whistled through the boards in the walls. The yellowed wallpaper peeling from the walls was stained with streaks of green mold caused by rain and melted snow that leaked through holes in the roof. The glass in the window in one of the two upstairs bedrooms and in the dining room had been replaced with sheets of clear plastic that had been duct taped to the window frames and shook noisily during high winds and storms. The thin cotton curtains that hung from dropping rods had holes and their hems were frayed.
Most of the furniture in the house had been purchased secondhand to begin with. The kitchen and dining room chairs wobbled on repaired legs, stuffing stuck out of the living room chairs and sofa, and the wood in the coffee table, dressers and armoires had warped. The mattresses on the two beds smelled damp and the cloth on them had rotted, leaving gaping holes. The shades on the lamps were faded and the rugs on the floors were dirty and threadbare.
“You can't stay here anymore, Uncle Ernie,” I said. “This house is practically decomposing. You can come live with me.”
A tall, lanky man, thin to the point of looking emaciated, he leaned back, tilting the kitchen chair back on its two hind legs, and scratched the white stubble on his cheek.
“I've lived here nearly forty years,” he said. “The only other place I've lived was in Harlan County.”
He wrapped his long, boney fingers around the chipped porcelain coffee cup sitting on the kitchen table in front of him, raised the cup to his lips, and took a long sip of whiskey.
Hazy rays of sunlight coming through the dirty kitchen window lit his gaunt face.
“When I first moved here I was still a young man of thirty and I could swim across the river, hitch a ride all the way home, and come back a few days later, and swim back,” he said. “I can't swim it anymore, and as you know, all of our kin who lived in Harlan County are either dead or moved away.”
“Ruth and I have a spare room all set up for you,” I said.
“Your Ruth is a wonderful woman,” he said. “I was never much interested in getting married. Maybe this house would be in better condition if I had a wife.” He took another sip of whiskey. “I know I can't live here any longer.”
“So you'll come live with us?”
“I'll sleep on it.”
Somewhere in the house dripping water pinged as it fell on something tin.
The smell of mildew permeated the air in the bedroom. A large circular water stain was on the ceiling, surrounding a light fixture that hung precariously from several entwined wires. The dimly shining bulb cast shadows on the buckled wallpaper. Above the bed hung the only painting in the house, a pastoral scene of horses running across a meadow. The bottom part of the frame was missing and the canvas had a rip a few inches long along the top. The mirror attached to the top of the dresser had a hairline crack that ran from the top right corner to the lower left corner.
The springs under the mattress squeaked as I sat down on the edge of the bed and took out my cell phone and called Ruth.
“Were you asleep?” I said.
“No,” Ruth said. “How is Uncle Ernie?”
“Physically he seems okay. Even though I was here only a month ago I feel like I'm seeing for the first time how bad this house is,” I said. “I should have made him move in with us a long time ago.”
“Did you ask him to?” she said.
“Did he say he would?”
“He's thinking about it,” I said. “He told me the story again of when he used to swim to Kentucky. Dad always said he never understood why Uncle Ernie left Harlan County to begin with. He's missed it for as long as he's been away from it.”
“Well, bring him home with you this time even if you have to force him to come,” she said.
“I'm thinking I might take him on a quick trip to Harlan County, and then bring him home.”
“Good idea,” she said.
“Goodnight. I love you.
“I love you too.”
We hung up.
I went to the window and wiped away the years of built-up grime. Light from a crescent moon shone on the rapidly moving river currents. Upriver the water had jumped the bank carrying with it trees, fences, a few structures and some livestock that floated by in the moonlight. Across the river the yellow lights of a house glistened in the dark. The occasional oinking of one of the pigs reverberated from the shadows of their pen.
I returned to the bed and quickly fell asleep.
In the morning I knocked on Uncle Ernie's bedroom door and got no response. I looked in. He wasn't there. I went through the house looking for him.
I found a note from him on the kitchen table. It read, “I'm swimming to Kentucky.”