Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008
On the property where my parents lived when I was born, where my father now lives once more after many years away, and where my mother will never set foot again, there still stands a tall, thin birch tree that my father climbed when I was very young—me on his shoulders, my bare feet in his shirt pockets and my hands clenched tightly to his ears. My father moved smoothly from branch to branch, not slowed by my weight. He was lean and wiry then and could easily climb up to where the branches grew spindly and thin. With every few feet he climbed higher, he turned his face to mine and, with the smell of stale beer sweet on his breath, he asked, “Are you scared yet, Johnny?” and I shook my head and he continued until the branches became nearly too weak to hold our weight. When a small branch cracked beneath my father’s foot, I gasped and dug my fingers in deeper, but my father only laughed and climbed higher until the branches he reached for snapped off in his hands and we could go no further. There my father stopped and there we stayed. In the fading, late-summer light, we rocked with the soft breezes that arrived with the setting of the sun to shake the green, waxy leaves and bring the coolness of night. Beyond the trees and down the hill, I could see headlights on the distant highway burn through the twilight. I could see my grandfather’s farmhouse across the shallow valley: a red barn, a brown house, three white dormers. I could see the path the creek cut through the woods and the power lines that ran back along the main road, up and over the bare and black-faced mountain that stood above the state highway. Below I saw the trailer that was our home, where my mother sat unaware, not knowing where we were or what we were up to, spending a calm moment alone, thumbing through her Reader’s Digest before the silence of our absence called her to the door and she looked up to see us far above her. She screamed to my father that he was a crazy drunk. “Peter, come down here. Right now,” she demanded. (‘Right now,’ my father mocked. ‘Right now,’ in a tiny, singsong voice.) I know now that my mother was the rational one, that it was my father that was crazy and reckless but looking down on her then she seemed the wild one, the unreasonable, her face red, her arms flailing, running up the grassy hill toward us, as if chased by a swarm of bees no one could see. As my father hugged the smooth, white trunk, creaking as it gently swayed, and as my mother stood below, hugging herself against the cold, stomping her feet in anger, yelling and screaming at my father, I closed my eyes, leaned forward and pressed my cheek against his already balding head, smooth and oily and smelling of sweat and cigarettes, and though I was old enough to understand the distance we stood above the ground and the danger of falling, even as I imagined the two of us dropping through the branches and the leaves and landing in a heap on the bare ground beneath us, I felt as safe then as I could ever imagine feeling now. High above the earth, on my father’s shoulders, hearing him hum something low and sweet over my mother’s shrieking demands, feeling the cold creep out of the valley and reach up through my thin T-shirt, holding myself close to my father, knowing that he would not let anything bring us back down.
Twenty years later things have changed. I wake on my father’s couch, wrapped in an old, tattered quilt, using my balled-up jacket as a pillow. Outside, snowflakes fall through the dark. It is late but my father is still awake, sitting in his rocker pulled too close to the muted television, bathed in its blue-white light, silent and still. Dust floats down around him, slowly, glowing in the cast of the television. He sits, spellbound by the news, paying me no attention, unaware that I am awake. He shifts his weight and the rocker groans. His thin hair, unkempt and thinner now than ever, stands up in long, oily wisps. His once gaunt face has been replaced by one that is fatter but not so fat as to be plump; only soft, wrinkled and loose. Three days’ stubble covers his sagging cheeks, highlighting an old but still-pink scar in the center of his chin—the consequence of a drunken police chase that resulted in a motorcycle crash and a night in jail. (The police were generous about it; willing to let him out, charged with only reckless driving and resisting arrest, but my mother would not retrieve him; convinced that a night in the cooler would do him good.) The deep furrows of his brow make him look angry, or maybe just confused, as he squints through his glasses to focus on the voiceless screen. Next year, I hear him mumble and he nods.
Empty beer bottles surround him, twinkling in the cast of the weather report. In his right hand, dangling over the arm of the chair, hangs another bottle, nearly empty, held too loosely, like a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. His hands are scarred from fistfights, his fingers thickened from years of hard work. My father raises the bottle to his mouth, tilts the bottom high and empties it. He places it quietly and carefully with the others and then he is still. His chest rises, his eyes blink but he does not move. He looks tired but not sleepy. After a few moments, he takes a deep breath, leans forward and pushes himself up from the chair. He stretches and turns and, with his first step toward the kitchen, kicks over one of the empty bottles which hits another, sending nearly all the rest tumbling, rolling and clanking into one another. Only then does he notice I am not asleep.
“Shit,” he says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I was awake already.” I begin to sit up so that I might help him.
“Stay there,” he says. “I’ve got this.” He kneels and begins gathering the bottles. “What a mess,” he says then jokes, “Guess I shouldn’t have let the maid off for the holidays.” Then he stands with a half dozen bottles tucked beneath his right arm, using his left hand to steady himself on the arm of the couch. He walks down the hall to the back door that opens to nothing. In the front of this new trailer—the old one, long gone, left behind to crumble after too many uninhabited winters and wet and windy summer storms—he has built a set of steps from cinder blocks but in the back he has built nothing. The required bricks set, neatly stacked in the middle of the clearing below the trailer, covered in snow, purchased months ago. I imagine my father staring at them guiltily before cracking the first beer of his weekend with a shrug that no one will see. My father drops the empty bottles into the fresh snow, where they will stay until the thaw.
“Son of a bitch, it’s cold out there,” he says and brushes fresh flakes from his shoulder. He begins to hum the first few notes of “White Christmas” then stops.
“My ass,” he says, quietly to himself.
He walks back to the kitchen, shuffling his socked feet. I see the light of the refrigerator, hear the crack of a bottle cap. Then he stands above me, staring at the television. I look up to him—his arms and legs are still thin but his stomach protrudes like that of a pregnant woman.
“Why are you so tired?” he asks without looking away from the television. “Aren’t you supposed to be on California time?”
“I don’t know. Flying wears me out, I guess,” I tell him. “I’m sorry.”
“You awake now?” he asks.
“Okay. Come on, then,” he says. “Get up and have a beer with your old man. Just one before we call it a night.”
In the kitchen, we play gin rummy and drink beer. A pan of water simmers on the stove, an improvised humidifier, keeping the air from getting too dry. Snow falls behind tattered curtains. Winter is late.
“Just in time,” my father says. “First snow of the year, the moment you hit the ground.” He looks to the calendar held to the refrigerator by a magnet, all the yesterdays scratched off with an ‘X’. There are three days left before Christmas.
He shuffles the cards, their edges ragged and brown, and deals. He talks about work. He works at the bottom of a quarry now, fixing dump trucks and loaders, big machines with tires that stand twice as high as he is tall. The noise is bad, with rocks being crushed, the huge engines banging away, and the blasting they sometimes do, but the dust is worse. It’s everywhere. It covers the windshield of his truck, seeps into the vents, works its way into the fabric of his clothes, fills the wrinkles of his skin. Some days he coughs up phlegm that is chalky and as hard as a rock. “But at least it ain’t coal,” he says and shrugs.
“You could start off on your own again. Like you did back home.”
“That’s over,” he says. “I’m too old for that now.”
My father stops talking as we play. He plays carefully, studies the cards I take, the cards I leave. He concentrates and takes his time every turn, his brow knitted in concentration. The first game, we play to two-hundred and he wins. We start over and play to three hundred and he wins again. He gathers the cards into a pile, pulls them close in front of him. When I was younger, he barely had the patience to play, let alone win.
“Just because something changes, doesn’t mean it gets better,” he says as if he has been thinking about this the entire time and takes a drink from his beer. “Another job might be worse.”
“It might,” I say and nod.
“It’s a crapshoot. Everything’s a crapshoot. And there’s not a lot you can do to change the odds,” he says as he shuffles the cards. He passes them to me. “Deal,” he says.
After a few turns, he asks me about school. I had been kicked out for taking tests for other students.
“You screw this up, you’ll regret it. You’ll be breaking rocks like your old man. You’ve always been lucky so you don’t know.”
“I know, Dad. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll finish.”
My father looks up from his cards. “Don’t screw around. I’m telling you. These things catch up with you.”
“I know,” I say. “They let me back in, I’ll keep my nose clean.”
“You’d better. Sometimes I worry you’re too much like me. Like I was at your age.” He means I should change. But the truth is I am nothing like my father was at my age. I know because I have tried to be. I have tried to be reckless. I have tried to be intrepid. I have tried to be cocky and smug. I have tried to be all the things I know my father has been but I have always failed. I ran from the fights that would have left him bloody and bruised but still standing. I braked for the curves that he would have raced around, throttle wide-open, tires squealing. And with every failed opportunity, I have felt a disappointment, knowing that there is something in those moments that I have lost. I always believed that if I could somehow manage to be more like my father I would be stronger, freer and happier. I wanted the freedom my father took.
My mother used to say that my father solved all of his problems by creating bigger ones. That is never the way it looked to me. To me, my father was always a man unafraid of trouble and unwilling to back down. I thought he got what he wanted because he was not scared of losing anything. I thought my father was brave, straight-forward and upstanding.
My trouble at school is nothing my father would have done. It was a sneaky and well-hidden crime, and did not require the slightest hint of daring. I stood up to nothing and was afraid of everything.
My father would have done it all differently.
My father lays down all the cards in his hand and, as I lose for this third time, he gets angry.
“You have to try, son,” he says. “You, at least, have to try.” But he does not yell and he takes the cards from my hands and drops them into a pile in the middle of the table.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Your brother plays much better.”
“I’m just still a little tired.”
He stands and says, “You’re right. It’s late. I’m going to bed.”
“We can play another game,” I say.
“No. It’s late,” he says. “Let’s just go to bed.”
“Are you mad?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “I’ve just got to get to sleep. It’s late,” he says and takes the water from the stove. He turns off the burner but I swear, while I lay in the dark on the couch, for at least a few minutes, I can still see it glowing orange.
In the morning when my father wakes me, he is already dressed. He is wearing his heavy coat, the snow slowly melting around his collar.
“Looks like we’re going to be here a while,” he says. “Snow’s piled up and drifted all across the road. Got the car stuck up the top of the drive.” A stack of three boxes wrapped in brown paper stands near the front door. The paper is dark and wet along the edges and across the creases. “Good thing I stocked up on beer,” he jokes.
“We’re stuck here?” I ask.
“For a while.”
“Won’t they plow the road?”
“They will. But not for a while. We’re a pretty low priority.”
“Where were you going?”
“Town. Pick up some stuff, put some packages in the mail.”
“You should have mailed them by now. They won’t get there.”
“I know,” he says. “It just took me a while picking something out.”
“What are we going to do now?” I ask.
“Stay warm. Drink beer. Maybe get a Christmas tree.”
“I thought we were stuck.”
“There’s got to be at least one goddamn pine tree out in those woods,” he says.
My father cooks breakfast. Eggs fried hard in butter, a slice of ham, two toasted slices of Wonderbread. We eat silently to the sound of the television—a history program about knights and armor and catapults.
I get dressed and my father stands at the front door with a backpack full of bottles of beer, leaning on a camping saw as if it were a cane.
“I’m ready,” I say.
“Son, you’re going to freeze,” he says. “Didn’t you bring any heavier coat?”
“I don’t have a heavier coat.”
“California boy,” he says. He opens the closet near the front door, slides the packages out of the way. The top one bears a label with my brother’s name and my mother’s address. My father pulls out an old wool coat and hands it to me.
“Wear this,” he says.
The coat is large and carries a dirty-sweet smell. A ring of grease, waxy and shiny, covers the crease of the collar. The sleeves are too long and the chest is too roomy.
“Jesus, you’re skinny,” my father says.
“You used to be too,” I say.
“Not anymore,” he says and rubs his belly with both hands. “Not since I’ve been cooking for myself.”
Snow still falls, light and slow. I follow in my father’s tracks, where it is easier to walk. He takes short strides, lifting his knees high. The air is cold but there is little wind. The flakes float down like the seeds blown from a dandelion. I can see my father’s breath, steam rising from his knit cap. The bottles clink against each other inside the bag on his back.
“You want me to take the backpack?” I ask him.
“No way,” he says. “I’m not trusting you with the beer.” He laughs.
We cross the empty clearing on which the trailer is set. At the edge of the woods the snow on the ground thins and my father no longer leaves any recognizable tracks.
“Should be easy to find,” my father says. “Should be the only thing green.”
Most trees are bare, their trunks black and grey. The ground is dark with black jagged rocks, fallen branches and rotting leaves. There is nothing green.
It is quiet. The only thing to be heard is our breathing, the crunch of twigs and ice beneath our feet and the clank of bottles against one another. After we have walked for only a short while, I turn around. I can no longer see the clearing or the trailer. It is as if the trees have closed in behind us, the woods equally dense in every direction. I cannot see another house or another road. We are alone in the cold snowy woods. The aloneness brings a calm, as if we are both hidden from our history, from our problems. I breathe more deeply, let my shoulders drop. Then my father points up, through the bare trees where, squinting, I see a plume of smoke drift dark across the grey sky.
“We should probably head downhill,” he says. “Don’t want to end up on someone’s lawn.”
We walk a bit further, then my father announces he is thirsty. He stops and, after brushing the snow aside, sits on a black rock that reaches up from the ground. He removes the backpack and hands me a beer. It is hard to hold with the thick gloves he has given me to wear so I take them off. The bottle is as cold as a block of ice.
My father stares up to the tops of the trees, lets out a deep breath and watches it rise into the air. Then he looks down to his boots, kicks them together to clear them of snow.
“What scares you, Johnny?” my father asks me.
“I don’t know.”
“Nothing scares you?” he asks.
“No. Things scare me. I just can’t think of anything right now.”
“Drowning,” I say.
He takes a sip of his beer, nods his head, then regards the bottle.
“No. That’s not what I mean,” he says. He looks up to me. “I mean what do you worry about.” he says. “Are there things?”
“Listen. Don’t worry about them; they are nothing. The things you worry about.” He shakes his head. “The things you worry about are never the ones that get you,” he says. “It’s the surprises.” Then he is quiet. He drinks his beer, taps his bottle gently against the rock he sits on.
I try to think of a good thing to worry about; an answer more like what my father was expecting.
“I worry about being poor,” I say.
He turns to me. “That’s fine,” he says. “But there are worse things. Trust me.”
We drink another beer, saving the bottles but tossing the caps off into the woods. I cannot see the sun. It does not burn through the thick overcast skies and I cannot even guess how much time has passed. The standing makes me cold and my teeth begin to chatter.
“I guess we’d better get on after this tree,” my father says and with a grunt, using the saw as support, he stands. My father is slow but tireless. He walks deliberately, stepping over fallen branches, ducking under low-hanging limbs, focusing far ahead. He does not say a word for what seems a long time. Then he stops.
“There,” he says and points with the saw. “There’s our tree.”
In a clearing, beneath a much larger one, stands a thin and lopsided pine tree. It leans hard to the right and near the top holds a brown patch of dead needles and limbs. Standing wider than it is tall, it does not seem so much a tree as an overgrown bush. But as we get closer it becomes bigger than it had at first seemed, taller and fuller. My father grabs a branch and tries to shake the snow from the tree. He stands back and admires it.
“That’ll make one hell of a tree, I think,” he says. He begins to dig snow away from the base with his boot so he can get to the trunk. He kneels down and crawls under the lowest branches, dragging the saw behind. As he disappears into the needles and snow, the tree seems to grow even larger. It takes shape; takes on a symmetry. I imagine it dressed in bulbs and lights, topped with a bright star. It will make a beautiful tree.
From beneath its snowy branches, I can hear the first few passes my father makes with the saw, short and slow, fitful. I hear him start and stop, wrestling with the lowest limbs and the saw.
My father crawls back out. He stands beside me. The knees of his jeans soaked through. His bare hands, red, wet and raw. He looks at the base of the tree, then at the crown. It is at least ten feet tall. Maybe twelve.
“Maybe it’s too big,” he says.
“It might be,” I say. “Maybe we should just take the top.”
My father looks around. “I’m not sure whose land we’re on but I know it’s not mine.”
“I don’t see any houses,” I say. “I don’t think anyone would miss it.”
“I don’t have any ornaments,” he says. “It’d just be a bare tree. That’d be a shame.”
“It’d be okay,” I say.
“I think we should just leave it,” he says. “Last thing we need is to get arrested for stealing a tree two days before Christmas. What would your mother think?”
“I don’t think that would happen, Dad.”
“Still. This wasn’t a good idea.”
“Should we find another one?”
“No,” he says. “Let’s just go back.”
“Okay,” I say but it is not okay. We walk several yards back up the snowy hill. My father looks back over his shoulder.
“It would’ve been a hell of a tree though,” he says.
“It’s okay. We don’t need one,” I say because I cannot say anything else.
“Next year we will,” he says. “Next year we’ll have one.”
The snow picks up. It falls harder as if thrown down from above. Wetter and colder than before, it swirls around and finds its way down the collar of my coat and behind the lenses of my glasses.
My father follows a new path home. He leads me back through denser, darker woods to a creek that winds its way down the hill. We walk along a narrow but well-worn trail, against the flow of the trickling water. Ice creeps out from the banks of the creek to the center. The snow is late but the cold has been here a long time and there are sections that are nearly frozen over. Some places that, at night when it is colder, are surely frozen solid, thawing only during the day when the water further upstream is warmed by the sun. Flakes make their way through the thickets of leafless branches. Some gather on the tops of stones and rocks that peak up out of the water and ice, others land in the slender thread of water that in summer will be a deep and rushing stream.
“Remember, when you were little, throwing rocks in this crick?” my father asks. (The word crick would make my mother cringe. She would chastise me for using it when I was younger. ‘That is a hillbilly word,’ she would say. ‘We’re better than that, aren’t we?’)
“Yes,” I say but I do not remember this creek. I remember another that ran through a rusty culvert on which we sat and threw stones but the particulars are not important now.
“As soon as I got home from work, you wanted to throw stones. You’d tug on my hand and not let me sit down.”
“I remember,” I say and I do. I remember wrapping my hands around a finger of each of his hands and pulling with all my weight.
“I always had to carry you home. You always got tired. I’d always ask you, ‘You going to walk back yourself this time?’ ‘Yes, Dad’ But by the time all the stones were thrown you were too tired. ‘Carry me. Carry me.'” Carry me, carry me, he says it in the same mocking, singsong tone he uses for my mother and for a moment, I hate that I remind him of her. Then he stops and says, “But it’s okay. You were just a little guy then.”
The dust covering everything in my father’s trailer is different from the dust that clouds the air at the quarry. A flood-swollen river once ran through the trailer, leaving rocks and mud and the broken branches of fallen trees behind. The water and debris are gone but the silt remains as fine, dark dust. The air inside feels thick. A thin film of brown coats everything and when the wind blows hard it puffs from the gaps in the paneling. I feel it on my fingertips. It makes my eyes itch. When I lick my lips, I can taste it, ashy and tart with the taste of rot.
“Flood salvage,” my father says. “Can’t beat the price.” With the cuff of his sleeve, he wipes the screen of the television. “For just a little dust,” he says and shrugs.
There are no pictures in my father’s trailer. The walls are bare except for a promotional calendar featuring cars, women and wrenches, hanging over a makeshift desk, comprised of a hollow-core door laid across a stack of cinder blocks. There are notes on the calendar, written in my father’s jagged handwriting. Pay lights. Pay phone. Paulie’s B-day.
My mother’s house, the house I grew up in, the house my father lived in before he moved back here, is full of photos. Framed and hung on the wall, standing atop the TV and the mantle, packed into the albums that stress swaybacked closet shelves. In an album full of pictures from before I was born there is one photograph that is my favorite. It is of my father and my mother. They are straddling a motorcycle. The motorcycle is facing the camera. My father in front, my mother behind, her arms wrapped around his ribs. She is peeking over his left shoulder and smiling, big and wild, maybe even laughing. My father has both his hands on the bars, his blue eyes squinting in the sun. In his face there is a smugness, a confidence, that I recognized even when I was young, sitting on my grandmother’s lap as she turned the pages to point him out. There’s your Daddy. Fearless and triumphant, a young man who could never be caught off-guard by any surprise. In his mouth, a cigarette hangs from the slightest smile.
My father looks out the window. He runs his hand over his balding head, through his sparse hair. “Jesus, this fucking snow,” he says. “Once it starts, it won’t quit.” He wants to get the packages to the post office. He paces. An open beer sits on his desk. He takes a sip, sets it back down, walks to the packages, then to the window, then back to the beer again.
“They won’t get there by Christmas, Dad,” I say.
“I know. I know,” he says and relaxes. He picks up his beer and sits in his rocker. Then he turns to look out the window. “But the sooner, the better,” he says.
My father watches television, a program about the excavation of Pompeii, and I try to read a day-old newspaper because today’s will never arrive. Without turning his attention away from the television my father says, “Thanks for coming out, Johnny.”
“Of course,” I said. “That was the plan, right?”
“I’m happy here, Dad.”
“Have you talked to him?”
“Before I left.”
“Is he mad?” he asks and turns to me.
“No. He understands. Tickets are expensive.”
“Next year I’ll be able to afford it.” He shakes his head, looks back toward the television. His feet, covered with dingy, holey socks, rest on an upturned milk crate.
“I know. And he knows too. But you should call him.”
“No. He doesn’t need me bothering him. They’re probably all having a good time. He wants to talk to his Old Man, he’ll call.” He nods, as if assuring himself he is right.
The kitchen sink drips and, combined with the dust, leaves a muddy puddle around the dirty dishes. The dust collects in the bottom of the light fixture and casts a faint, murky shadow on the kitchen table. My father naps in his chair, the television singing lullaby tales of Tutankhamen’s tomb. I take the opportunity to explore my father’s new home. He snores, his head tilted back, mouth open, and I wander through the trailer, furnished with hand-me-downs and garage sale finds. Nothing is new; it is all old and heavily worn, fortunate to have landed here instead of being left to decay in the corner of some forgotten field. Other than the rocker, which was a wedding gift to my parents, nothing in the trailer is familiar to me. All of these things must hold memories for someone but not for me.
Milk crates and cardboard boxes once used for packing, that moved my father’s things from out West to back East, now serve as furniture. A five-gallon paint bucket as an end table. A cardboard box as a dresser, holding all of my father’s shirts, socks, and underwear.
I walk down the hall to the bedroom where my father’s mattress lies on the floor, unmade. Atop a cinder block that rests length-wise near the wall that serves as my father’s headboard, sits a small shade-less lamp and an old wind-up alarm clock. Beside it, a stack of books about World War II, old airplanes, and Mayan ruins. A legal pad, a box of envelopes, and a roll of stamps are piled neatly on the other side, used to write the seemingly-empty letters he sends to me and I am sure he sends Paulie too. How are you? Everything’s fine here. Be good. Love, Dad. Written in heavy-handed, ball-point script, the words carved into the page.
There is another room. Empty of furniture but filled with boxes, still-packed, and a garbage bag full of dirty laundry. The boxes are covered with dust, unopened for over a year. I imagine my father packing them, my mother gone for the day, having told him what he can take and what he can’t. My father filling the boxes because he is expected to, because he has all that room in the truck, because when you move you take things. Filling the boxes with old shoes, too-small shirts, dog-eared and faded girly magazines. Filling them with these useless things because he does not know what else to fill them with. In the beginning there were things that were his but those things were lost somewhere along the way and were never things that could have been packed up and saved anyway. He reaches for an unworn dress shirt, still wrapped in cellophane and pinned together, placing it in a nearly-full box, but he cannot remember what those things were, nor is he really even sure that there were things. He has only the vague, nagging feeling that he has forgotten something important.
“Let’s go,” my father says. He is dressed in his heavy coat, a woolen hat pulled down over his ears.
“Where?” I ask.
“Post Office.” He looks out the window, lifts the battered curtain though we can both easily see through it. “Snow’s about quit.”
“But they haven’t plowed the road yet.”
“It’s not that deep. We make it down, somebody’ll have it plowed by the time we get back.”
“Isn’t the car stuck?”
“Getting to the top is the hard part. It’s already there. You give it a push, we’re set.”
“They won’t get there in time,” I say.
“Sooner the better,” he says. “It might snow for days straight. Then what? Let’s go to town. I’ve driven through worse than this.”
There are consequences unacknowledged. The car could get stuck. We could crash, slip off the frozen road. We could get stranded in town, the storm worsening, leaving us no way to get back.
“Okay,” I say. “But you’re pushing. I’ll drive.”
“No way, José,” he says.
It is not difficult to free the car. We shovel the snow clear of the tires. My father feathers the throttle and the clutch and I bounce on the bumper. The tires catch and the car shoots forward. My father navigates the car slowly down the snow-covered road and I run to catch up. My father does not stop the car, careful to conserve his momentum. I catch the handle, jump in the car. My father hoots.
“Piece of cake,” he says. “Now if we can just keep between the ditches, we’ve got it made.”
There is no road before us. It has disappeared. Snow is everywhere, white and smooth, untouched and unmarked. My father navigates by trees and telephone poles; fence posts suggest the curve of the road. The trees with their interlaced branches, covered with fresh, heavy snow form an icy, blue-white tunnel and as my father guides the car through the center of the narrow entrance, I feel almost as if I should hold my breath, as if we are about to plunge down some deep, dark, unknown cave.
My father is giddy. A smile stretches across his face, his eyes are wide. The road bends sharply to the right and down and the car begins to slide. My father steers not only with his hands but with his shoulders and hips, twisting and sliding in his seat as if he can coax the car to follow his lead by shifting his weight. He laughs. He talks to the car, curses it. Stay right, you son of a bitch. Stay right. That’s it. He spins the wheel from left to right and back again. The car gains speed. Snow rushes up over the hood, splashes up over the side windows. The tires slip, the wheels spin.
I brace myself against the dash, push my feet hard against the floorboards. And, as we barrel down the frozen dirt road toward the main road where we will not be able to stop, where we may overshoot everything and land in the ditch on the far side, where a speeding truck might broadside us and smash this old car to bits, as fear tenses my muscles and pushes my fingertips into the soft vinyl dash, I also feel strangely secure. Sure that the worst will not happen, that my squirming, giggling father, his feet bouncing on the pedals, his hands tugging and pushing at the wheel, will not allow any other outcome than our safe arrival in town.
We are unable to stop at the base of the hill, but there is no oncoming truck, we do not slide into the ditch. Instead, my father drifts the car around the corner and through the intersection, braking and throttling, wrestling the steering wheel and setting it free, letting it spin in his hands, to land us finally, safely on the main road, heading in the right direction and in the right lane.
“Piece of cake,” he says again and wipes imaginary sweat from his brow and flings it out the window in exaggerated pantomime.
The main road is easier to drive. It is flatter and straighter and other cars have passed leaving deep, dark tracks in the snow that my father can follow. It is early afternoon but because of the storm and the shortness of winter light, darkness is nearly upon us. My father turns on the headlights and snowflakes drift through the beams like shooting stars, burning brightly then fading as they fall to the ground. The windshield wipers squeak and shudder across the glass. The heater drones against the cold. Snow swirls in through the cracked windows, left open to keep the windshield from fogging up.
“Your mother would have hated that,” my father says.
“She was a stick in the mud,” he says. I offer nothing in return and he continues. “I drove her a little crazy. I did a lot of stupid things. Nothing that ever turned out too bad but it could have.”
“Stupid things. Fights and drinking and losing my temper.” He turns to me. “You know about these things.”
“Not really,” I say.
“But you know. You were there.”
“None of it ever seemed so bad.”
“Says you. Your mother thinks differently,” he says.
“She blames it all on the drinking,” I say.
“If it weren’t for the drinking we would have never gotten married,” he says. “It was one of the stupid things.” He laughs. “That’s alright,” he says. “It wasn’t all bad. I’m happy about you kids.”
My father is quiet for a while. He concentrates on the road, drives slowly and carefully. Then he rolls up his window and says, “She was right to leave me. She just waited too long. She waited too long for all of us.”
At the end of the main road lies the state highway. There is a slight rise in the road that leads to the stop sign. A turn right will take us to the bridge and over the river to town but a state trooper stands in the middle of the intersection, waving us left with a bright flashlight and a flailing arm. We roll toward him slowly then stop. The trooper points south. My father points north. The trooper shakes his head. His cruiser blocks the road. My father points again and the trooper approaches our car. There is no other traffic; there are no other cars heading up the highway; all the tracks stop here in a knot of U-turns. Maybe they have all been stopped further down or maybe they were all smart enough to stay home.
As the trooper approaches, my father rolls down his window.
“Where you heading?” the trooper asks. He is bent down to the window, resting his arm across the top of the car.
“To town,” my father answers calmly.
“Bridge is closed. I can’t let you through unless you live somewhere up this road.” The trooper says, almost apologetic.
“You’re shitting me,” my father says. “The snow’s not that bad.”
“The bridge is frozen.” The trooper says and shrugs his shoulders.
“What’s a little ice? It’s frozen three months out of the year.” He shrugs his shoulders too, hands off the wheel, palms up.
“The bridge is closed,” the trooper says.
“For what?” my father asks.
“Inclement weather.” The trooper’s patience at an end, he pulls his face from the window but still rest both hands against the car.
“What the hell is that? I’ve been driving in this kind of weather all my life; all of the sudden today it’s too bad.”
The trooper stands up, folds his arms. “The bridge is closed, sir. You can go this way or you can go that way but you cannot take the bridge. Understand?”
“Yes, officer.” My father rolls up his window. The muscles beneath his soft cheeks ripple as he clenches his jaw. He pulls the car across the highway into the pullout on the other side. We idle there for a moment. The shoulder is wide; there is space for us to squeeze by the trooper’s cruiser. My father turns right, toward the cruiser. The trooper sits there, on its hood, rubbing his gloved hands together. He would not chase us. He does not want the trouble. He wants to go home. He knows the bridge closure is nonsense.
My father eyes the trooper, eyes the clear, open road beyond the cruiser, then rolls slowly forward. What we have already driven through is surely much worse than anything the frozen bridge can offer us. I can see the lights of town, burning up over the tops of the farthest trees. My father inches forward. I brace myself, expecting him to gun the engine and squeal the tires. I can see in his eyes what he intends. Then he turns the car further and further right until finally we face back the way we came and he carefully follows the dark tracks that lead back home. As we pass the trooper, my father waves. “Merry Christmas,” he yells and he means it as much as anyone can. His voice is cheerful and sincere.
As we head down the hill, away from the highway, I ask my father, “Is there another way to town?”
“No,” he says.
“Then where are we going?”
“Home,” he says.
“What about town?”
“The bridge is closed, Johnny,” he says. “What do you want me to do?”
What I want is my father to turn around. I want him to speed past that trooper and laugh and slide this car across that bridge, bouncing off the guardrails, grinning, explaining to me the whole while that that is what guardrails are for. I want him to bang on the post office door until someone comes out because he knows someone is in there and I want him to make them take the packages. Then I want him to go to the liquor store and buy more beer than we could ever drink before New Year’s, so much beer that it fills the trunk and the backseat and I have to ride home with two cases on my lap, looking around them, instead of over them, to see down the road. I want him to drive back past the trooper and apologize. Had to be done. No hard feelings. I want him to invite the trooper over for beers after his shift. And if the apology is not good enough, if the trooper squawks or bitches or says anything about having to write my father up or take him in, I want my father to bust the trooper in the mouth and stand over him, the trooper’s face bleeding in the snow, wiping his mouth with his warm, puffy gloves, and I want my father to say, I said I was sorry. I want my father to do the things he did when we were both younger, before he got old, before anything surprised him.
But I don’t say anything. I just listen to the heater, blowing hard, and the squeak of the wipers. I watch the snow swirl down, soft and slow. My father leans forward over the wheel and squints into the windshield, following the fading tracks of the cars that have passed before.
My father still smokes outside. My mother forbade him to smoke indoors and now, even though she’s not here, my father still follows her rules out of habit. He sits in the hallway in his coat and knit cap, dangling his feet out the back door that goes to nowhere. The snow is picking up, tumbling in through the open door. My father takes a deep drag, the cherry glows red and he blows a lungful of smoke out into the dark and the snow.
“You’re going to freeze to death,” I say.
“No. The cold’s good for you. Improves your circulation. Good for your heart,” he says and pats his chest.
“I don’t know,” he says.
He takes another drag then he asks, “Do you think I blew it?”
“Blew what?” I ask but I know what he is asking. He is asking about my mother and their marriage.
“The whole thing,” he says.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think that.”
“What do you think?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“I think this was bound to happen. From the beginning. It wasn’t any surprise,” I say.
“It was to me,” he says. “That’s for sure.”
“It shouldn’t have been.”
“Like I said, she was right to do it,” he says. He exhales a cloud of smoke and his warm breath out into the cold air. “I should have changed some. Made things easier.”
“I think you did. You changed. You’re different now than you were.”
“I’m only older, Johnny,” he says. “That’s it. I’m just older.”
And he is older but that is not all. He is different.
“You’re not who you used to be,” I tell him. “You’re different.”
My father flicks his cigarette butt out into the snow where it lands with a faint hiss.
“Well, life’ll change you,” he says. “The surprises change you.”
He takes a sip of his beer. The snow suddenly stops. The clouds thin and spread and reveal the tiniest, sharpest stars. I push past my father and jump out the door wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jeans. I land in snow up to my knees. Beer bottles buried below the new snow roll beneath my feet.
“Where the hell are you going?” my father asks.
“Come on,” I say and as I stand, I stumble, tripping over loose bottles, landing face first in the wet snow. My shirt is wet. Snow freezes to my hair.
“You’re going to freeze,” he says.
“Come on,” I say again because it is important that he follow me. “It’s good for you,” I say and run around to the front of the trailer. The air is still and cold. I can feel each breath move through my nose and into my lungs, feel it burn through. I try to brush the snow from my hair but it sticks, frozen. I keep stumbling, never getting my footing. My hands are red and begin to sting. The snow crunches beneath every step of my bare feet.
The birch tree is still there. Tall and thin but bare of leaves now. The night is clear and I can see the glint of the snow that clings to the branches.
“Come on,” I yell but I do not look back.
The first branch is so much lower than I remember. I reach up and wrap both hands around it. I pull myself up, kicking at the trunk, my feet slipping from the frozen bark. My hands throb from the cold. The icy branch tears at the skin of my arms. I manage my elbow over that lowest branch and then my leg and then I am standing. I reach for the next branch and the next. Hard, icy snow falls onto my face, knocked from the branches above, but I move smoothly and swiftly up the tree.
The branches get thinner and the tree begins to sway. I can feel a breeze, a cold sting against my wet chest. My foot slips but I do not stop. I hold tight and continue to climb until the branches are so thin I can wrap my hand entirely around them, and I do not look down, I look out toward the highway and the river, the barren cornfields and the faded red barn. Out toward the yellow lights of town and the faint stars just above the horizon. Out toward the bare mountain face, shining like an iceberg beneath the cold winter moon. I hug the narrow trunk and listen for the creak, put my cheek against its cold, smooth bark. I inhale deeply and smell nothing but the cold. I look down to the trailer, see my father’s tracks across the snow. He stands beneath the tree waving his arms. I can hear his voice but I cannot understand what he is saying. He is yelling and he looks scared. His voice comes out as a puff of steam in the cold night air. I imagine the sound of the wind through the leaves. I imagine the crows that I know will not arrive until spring. My eyes closed, I press my cheek hard against the bark. This time my father will not bring me back down.