Originally published in Issue #13 June 2013
You’d kept your mind on music a long time, kicking at gravel on down-beats, stepping over cracks, imagining an electric in your hands, playing the fuzzed guitar part note for note, for your amazed biology classmates. But when you made it to your street, clapboard houses, straight driveways, more pickups than cars, you couldn’t avoid worrying about Friday night any longer. You knew your father would laugh and your mother would exaggerate. It was late afternoon, you were carrying your gear in your duffel, tired from track practice, trying to come up with a way you wouldn’t have to say anything at all. Early in the year when you’d told them you sat next to a girl in your driver’s ed class named Jenny Phillips and that she was pretty, your mother had said “Well! Do I detect a little crush?” putting her elbows on the kitchen counter to wait for more. Your dad had looked over at her from the table and said, “The hormones are about to kick in, Linda” in a high-pitched, cheerful way that made it sound like a joke. You didn’t really want to go to it at all. You felt stiff as a robot when you danced, even for a freshman you were skinny, and you knew some of the juniors and seniors would laugh at you. You walked up your front porch thinking, at least somebody asked me, even if it was Martha Tramwell. You didn’t know why it was called Sadie Hawkins. Maybe you didn’t have to tell your parents. You could act like you were just going to the drive-in and get it over without them making something embarrassing out of it.
You opened the front door and headed through the living room,
just don’t bring it up, just go on like normal, and you noticed she was asleep on the couch. Your mother was never asleep on the couch. She was always folding clothes or unbagging the groceries or studying the checkbook with the cancelled checks spread on the kitchen table, or, if it was bad, she was in bed with the door shut, but she’d been sleeping on the couch and was still not quite awake. You said, “Mom?” She opened her eyes, waved, said, “I miss you all too much in the bedroom. I’ll know you’re here even if I’m resting,” and closed her eyes again. You put your gear away and went over and sat at the table pretending to read the newspaper so you could listen to the quiet way she breathed. If this kept up for very many days, she’d be living at her mother’s house again, and you had no way to guess when she’d be back. You didn’t want to hear the vehicle driving up on the gravel, but at the same time, you wanted to hear it so it could be over, the El Camino, the hardware store vehicle, because it’s practical but rides like a car, he’d said. You didn’t want to hear the wheels stop and the tuned engine idle quietly, then turn off, or the driver’s door open and shut, the precise foot scuffs on the gravel, but you were hearing these things, and at least that would make them be over soon, and you knew this was wrong. What kind of a son were
you? He was your father, he provided the food you ate, the room you slept in, you knew you should be glad, you’d seen that on TV when the fathers came home, the boys running out onto the sidewalk, grinning, to hug him, and you were a fist in your thighs and chest. By the time he walked in the front door, your mother was up, moving slowly, putting something in the oven, not really frowning but her face squeezed tight like somebody who had been in bed for a long time and couldn’t completely wake up. You moved to the couch and turned on the TV. He looked exhausted coming in. He said “Hi son,” and went over and gave her a long hug, whispered something to her. She nodded and smiled, he smiled, sad and exhausted over her shoulder. It looked like a waltz without anybody moving. He didn’t let go for a while. Then he opened the refrigerator, got a glass of milk, kissed her on the cheek, and headed to the couch. In the back bedroom, Steve and his friend Jason from down the block were playing Hot Wheels. They’d kept their squabbling just above a whisper so that you’d hardly notice them until the sound became more of a buzz than a whisper. You were on one end of the couch facing the TV where horses stampeded across the screen. Your father sat down on the other end, put the milk on the floor, and put a hand on the armrest, then on his knee. You knew what the argument in the bedroom was about without being able to make out the words of it. The red car ran straight and fast, and the blue one’s wheels were crooked so it scraped against the sides of the track enough that
it couldn’t make the loop-the-loop half the time. They were mad back there, trying to keep it to a whisper, but it was louder now, a sound like confined bees.
After a while he jerked his head toward the bedroom, and yelled, “Hey,” just that one word. Silence, except for the soft gunfire. At least right now he wouldn’t ask you anything that made you have to talk about the dance. By the time commercials were on, you could hear them back there at it again. Your mother sat down at the kitchen table a while with her eyes closed. He turned his head toward her for a second, then snapped it toward the hall, and yelled, “Hey.” No break in the noise. “Hey,” he said again, unbelievably loud. “You better shut it up. I mean immediately. I better not have to
come in there.” Quiet again. There was no way he was going to ask you about girls. It took a while, the firing of rifles was over, the Cartwrights standing in a line, smiling in front of the ranch house in a dusty breeze, but the furious whispering came back all at once, and Steve yelled out above it, “I don’t give a crap if you’re company. Give me that! GIVE IT. GIVE IT, or I’m going to TAKE IT.” You could hear them wrestling, kicking and banging into the wall.
He jerked his hands up off his knees, stood to unbuckle his belt, and you slipped off of the couch and back to your room. You eased the door to your room shut. You wanted not to hear him walk down the hall ever again, but if you had to, you knew it would be better to
be hearing him right now, the precise footfalls, deliberate but not too loud, to get it over with. You knew you couldn’t be a Christian if you felt that way, couldn’t be saved. You would learn not to feel that way. You would learn to feel no way at all if it helped you to be a decent son and a Christian who could be saved. Now you could get the low tones of your father telling Jason to go home over with, and then the front door shutting loudly behind him as Jason walked out into the sun. You could get your father’s instructions to Steve over with. “Stand here, I mean it. Stand here. Move your hand or I’m going to whip it too,” and Steve’s frantic interruptions, “I’m sorry, I gave it back, I won’t do it anymore, I won’t, I promise,” and the crack of the blows in the middle of Steve’s high-pitched crying that he’d shaped into words. Now you could get his quiet crying alone over with as your father walked in his measured way back to the couch and sat back down. In a while you could hear Steve get the wood-burning set out of the top of the closet and then you could smell the burning wood and hear him talking to himself and singing a little. Even after a whipping Steve knew how to get his heart right for his own father, who’d done nothing at all to you, not even look over from Bonanza and ask you something embarrassing about the dance, and you still couldn’t get yourself right toward him in your room with the door closed and the headphones on now, waiting out the song for the place where the guitar soared up over the chords on its own. The smell of the wood-burning set kept going a good while, until your
mother came into the hall and said, cheerfully, tired-sounding, “Len, Steve, supper’s ready. Get washed up.” You got up off the bed and took the headphones off and didn’t open your door until Steve went into the bathroom ahead of you. You listened for him to run the water and leave and head toward the dining room and then you went in, washed your hands without looking in the mirror. There were bowls of mashed potatoes and mustard greens, a platter of
pork chops. Your mother was setting down the last glass of tea and taking her seat at one end of the table, your father at the other. Steve sat across from where you sat down. His face was red, but he looked soft. You seemed to live mostly down in at the bottom of your throat in a hard ball or fist. Your father bowed his head and then everyone did. “Lord, we thank you for this food, for this house, for Linda and all she does for us, may she get well and be strong again, if it be your will, and we thank you for these boys. We thank you for your word and ask that you help us live by it. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” He took the potatoes and dished himself a serving, handed the bowl to Steve, who smiled right at him and said, “Thanks, Daddy.” You put some greens on your plate and didn’t look up when you handed the bowl to your father. You could afford to grit your teeth, but you couldn’t let anything flash in your eyes, not for even a second, so you looked only at his hands and then back to your plate. You couldn’t let down in your muscles and nerves. If you couldn’t get your heart right toward him, you still needed to lay low, stay out
of the way. Maybe at least he wouldn’t think to ask you anything about girls. He picked up the bowl of greens, dished some out, looked over at your brother and said, his voice calm, a guiding sort of voice, interested, ready to help or praise, “Steve, tell us what you’re doing with your wood-burning set.” Your mother was listening, a kind look on her face. These were your parents who fed and sheltered and loved you, you should not live in a ball or fist down in your throat, a son with the least decency would appreciate them, these were the most important people you had in the world, these were Christians. Steve was smiling with red eyes. “I’m doing a rope that spells my name in cursive. You should see it. I got a crate from the grocery store, I was going to put polished rocks in it, but I got an idea to burn in a rope in the shape of my name. First I drew it, braided like a real rope, it loops one time and turns into my name. Then I burned it in, I’ve got it all done except for the ‘e’. Daddy could I bring it in here?” Steve was smiling, his cheeks were still red, his eyes looked like they were asking for something, you knew he had his heart right toward his own father, who said, “After dinner, son,” and smiled with his top lip covering the bottom one, an approving, proud smile, his elbows on the table, his hands folded together up over his food. You looked back at your plate and finished what was there. If you didn’t look up, maybe they wouldn’t pay you any attention, maybe they wouldn’t ask you. Your mother said, “Len, do you want some more potatoes?” and you said no thanks. She was your mother. She was kind to you, she was sick with something you’d never heard of, but you knew it was bad, really bad, Lupus, people said, her face grayer or whiter or some other color you didn’t have a word for. She seemed sorry for the whole thing, sorry that Steve had done wrong and had to be whipped, sorry he’d pushed Jason into the closet door
and bent the hinges and that would be expensive to fix, sorry to be sick and letting the family down, and now everybody just needed to love and forgive each other, and you were a fist at the bottom of your own throat, what kind of a son were you? You were something there were no words for. You thought maybe if you just didn’t go out with girls no one would ever embarrass you, maybe if you could stay unnoticed at the table for even five more minutes, if you kept your thighs tight enough and your head down a little but not too much, you would be able to get back into your room without being asked
anything and get the door closed and the headphones on and let the music soak into you so you could rest.
You heard the El Camino pull in on the gravel, footsteps, the front door opening, and he was inside, shutting the door hard against the sandstorm, saying in his high-pitched voice “Hey folks,” to your grandparents who had come in for a few days and were watching TV. You’d laid the headphones to the side of your open chemistry book.
“Let me wash my hands and try to get the hair back on my head and I’ll get some lunch together for us. I guess Len’s in his room?”
“Believe so,” your grandfather said.
“Okay,” he said brightly. His crisp footsteps were in the hall. It was only a few steps. He opened your door, about to say something, but he’d seen your shirt, a T-shirt rolled up at the sleeves. You’ d been taking Weight Training at college. It was a black shirt featuring a black man playing an electric guitar upside-down, left-handed.
He said, “You’re going to change the shirt.” You said “No,” just that. You stood up, the same height as him. It occurred to you that you were stronger than him now, maybe a lot stronger. He stepped all the way in, shut the door behind him, spoke just above a whisper. “You’re in my house. Change the shirt.” You said, “I’m nineteen years old. I think I ought to decide how to dress myself.” Some sensation was climbing your throat into your jaw. It wasn’t fear. He said, “Your mother’s in the bedroom. Keep your voice down or I’ll shut it down.”
You said, “No, you won’t.” You were unbelievably alert. He had his right hand clenched in a fist. His arm seemed to have its own
mind, the man himself just able to keep the arm cocked in back of him like a bowler’s, trembling back there where you could see it but he couldn’t. His eyes were amped. He said, “I expect some respect.”
You leaned a quarter inch toward him. Square your shoulders, he’ d said, holding your wrist until your hand was white. You said, “What do you know about respect?” Don’t dance, the more you dance the worse it will be.
Your mouth was full of blood. Take it like a man, you remembered,
the seething quiet of it, a man, like a man, like a man. Voltages were coming into you, your hands inflated and hot, your iron jaw. His breath was on your face. “You’ll do what I say as long as I’m paying
your bills.” You shook your head. “No, that’s over. You’re done. I’m taking it from here.” He said, “What’s over is your attitude,” the skin of his face tight, his lips a bloodless line. You offered your chin. Hit me. Neither of you spoke. Hit me you hypocrite, I’ll shove your head through the wall, I’ ll break your jaw into gravel, I’ll rupture your spleen, they’ ll have to airlift you out of this place if you touch me.
A few seconds of quiet took a long time. Hit me here’s my chin go
ahead hit me now that you’re the one in danger you pathetic shrunken coward. He stood with his fist shaking behind him, his arm tight against his side. “Your grandparents are here.” He gestured toward the living room with his head, not taking his eyes off of you. “Be here tonight when I get off work.” He opened the door, stopped, turned back around. “I had better not see that shirt.” He paused a second to let you see the whites of his eyes. Shortly you could hear the lavatory faucet. He walked on to the bedroom where your
mother was, stopping a minute in there. Then he was down the hall. In his high voice he said to your grandparents, “It’s good to see you, but I don’t know why you had to bring this wind with you,” and they laughed. You heard lunch dishes clinking, the scrapes of chairs on linoleum, low pleasant voices. In a half hour, he said goodbye to them and then your mother. When you heard him pull out of the gravel drive, you stuffed everything you’d brought home in your duffel, went in to see your mother lying in bed with the blinds pulled. Her face was cool to the touch. She said, “Maybe I should get up,” propped up on pillows in her floral robe, and you said, “No, Mom, go back to sleep.” She told you she loved you, and you told her the same.
You carried the duffel from your room out to the big Chevrolet, not saying anything to your grandparents, and drove the two hours back to Shawnee. The next week you got the ditch work job that would carry you through the spring and summer. When that played out in the fall, you took a full-time janitorial night job, cut your load to two classes. You had the tuition bills sent to your college box.
Thanksgiving, you drove back to Ardmore for the first time. You wore the T-shirt under your unzipped jacket. Your father opened the door, looking pained. He said, “Hi son. Come in. Come in,” in his high voice. He asked about classes, work, your friends. He talked about the hardware store, about Steve, who was running high school track, same event you’d run, the 220. He didn’t mention the shirt. You ate tensely with them, your mother grayer than ever, your father bent a little more, Steve taller and leaner. There wasn’t a word about what you should or shouldn’t do. On Sunday, when you were packed and at the door, your mother hugged you a long time. Steve saluted and grinned. Your father said, “Bye son. I have no doubts about you.” He looked you in the eye, shook your hand the way he did the hands of contractors at the store. You didn’t know what to say. Standing in a ditch all summer with a shovel in your hands, in the winter office
foyer with your broom, finishing up at three a.m., the work was what it had cost to be your own man. It had been worth it. You’d never have imagined him changing as well. You drove back to Shawnee, the music high, solo guitar soaring up over the chords. There was no one luckier. You were grown, you’d earned your right to your life, you could do anything. The Chevrolet eating up all the road your headlights could reach.