It was right when I moved out of Los Angeles County that I bought both the four-wheel drive and the handgun. The former was purchased to cart all my stuff back east after my second wife tossed me out of her Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills. The latter acquisition had nothing to do with either that ex-wife or the other one.
It’s no joke—moving in with a parent at the age of forty. My father, a complex, taciturn man who spent the majority of his working years employed as a railcar welder at the Bethlehem Steel’s Johnstown Works and who, at sixty-nine, still stands half-a-head taller than me, looks more or less pleased to see me as I jerk my newly acquired SUV to a stop where the graveled rural route meets his short blacktop driveway.
Cuffing up the sleeves of his quilted work shirt as he slowly crosses the driveway, my father nods at the large silver Trooper.
“What’d you pay for that?” he says by way of greeting.
I fling open the driver’s side door and try to come up with something to say. Something upbeat. Something non-confrontational. Something that will not get us started on the topic of my finances.
“Less than it’s worth,” I answer.
As I swing my stiff legs over the cheap cloth seats, Ruth, my four-year old Doberman, launches herself across my lap and out of the Trooper.
Barking maniacally, she pins my father to the retaining wall at the edge of the driveway. His face goes white and all traces of welcome evaporate.
“Oh, shit,” I say.
As a Marine Corps veteran who served 18 months line duty in Korea, my father possesses no shortage of physical courage. He suffers acutely, however, from a long-standing fear of large dogs. He flattens himself against the four and a half foot high wall of soot-colored railroad ties, his eyes pinned wide.
Ruth’s considerable front paws are turned out and planted and her tail points straight up. Walking slowly toward the two of them as if nothing’s wrong, I tell my father Ruth is just confused. I say she doesn’t know what to make of him. I instruct him to remain still.
Hearing this, my father forces himself up onto the tips of his steel-toe boots trying to put every possible millimeter of space between Ruth and himself. His hands press harder against the creosote-painted retaining wall and I notice the age spots on the back of his hands, observable only with care in good light during my last visit, have darkened and multiplied.
I grab Ruth’s patterned nylon collar, pull her back a few inches, and tell her to sit while I fix her leash to the metal ring on her collar. I stroke her muzzle and scratch the fur between her ears. I give her a biscuit from my shirt pocket.
“Sorry about that,” I say.
My father looks warily at Ruth. He offers me a quick smile with a nervous edge to it—a smile with just the left corner of his mouth turned up and the rest communicated with the eyes. This is the smile he reserved throughout my childhood for guests upon whom he wanted to make a favorable impression.
“That’s a hell of a big dog,” my father says.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table drinking instant coffee with whole milk and Equal. I stare at the new white microwave and the row of white pine cabinets that were installed above the sink shortly before my mother’s death three years ago. Banished to the basement, Ruth is whining and crying and clawing the hell out of the wooden basement door with her long nails.
Tapping the excess coffee from his teaspoon into a red and white AFL-CIO mug, my father asks, not about my failed marriage, but how I managed to go through all the money from the script I sold. I don’t have the energy to explain to him that in Los Angeles it’s not exactly considered the height of reckless extravagance to live on sixty-five thousand dollars for two years.
“I thought your wife paid for the house,” my father says.
Sipping gingerly at my weak, steaming coffee, I inform him I’ll only be staying for six weeks or so.
“Just till this job with Richard starts up, Pop.”
In the course of a tense, collect phone call from a diner outside of Albuquerque six days back, a friend from a brief stint in AA who now heads up the English department at Allegheny County Community College, has agreed—as long as I can stay sober—to let me teach a couple sections of freshman composition. Working in Pennsylvania’s steel mills through the 70s and early 80s, my father is no stranger to waiting for jobs—so this, unlike the rest of my life, doesn’t strike him as particularly abnormal.
My father puts on water for more coffee and I rummage though a kitchen drawer for a deck of blue Aviator cards and a small plastic cup of change. As my father shuffles the cards quickly and precisely, I ask after the fortunes of uncles and aunts, cousins and their children. My father delivers not uncharacteristically terse updates, enumerating various illnesses, grade school promotions and plant layoffs. He seems to have some of the names mixed up, but I don’t say anything because I’ve never really kept track myself and am not interested in being corrected.
We play hand after hand of poker—Seven Card No-Peek and Low Hole Card, Midnight Baseball and Follow the Queen—games that devoured weekend afternoons in the 1970s when my father’s parents were still alive and overtime in the mills was no longer in the offing for anybody. The familiar ritual of dealing out the cards and collecting them up again is at once palliative and vexing. Although we have this, it’s clear this is all we have. We have next to nothing to say to one another.
In an hour and a half, I’m up six dollars and fifty cents. Although my father has never been a particularly efficient card player, this is a lot of losing for a nickel and dime game. At times, he seems to be uncertain as to whether or not he’s won at the end of a hand.
After I call him out for trying to bluff a straight when I’ve already got a flush showing, he smiles his weird smile and tells me to “shove it up my ass.”
Nearly knocking over his coffee mug, he pushes back from the table. “And stop that goddamn dog from scratching up my door,” he says.
Three days later we are driving through Mine 45, the town where my father grew up. Slapped down in the middle of western Pennsylvania’s low, coal-seamed hills in the 1920s by the Berwind-White Coal Company, the “town” consists of three short streets of cheaply constructed duplexes and the red brick shell of a long-abandoned company store. It is early evening and the sun is dropping behind the rust-colored mountain of mine tailings at the end of Third Street.
Our plan is to set up the throwing rig at the leveled top of the slag heap and bring down the ½ case of clay pigeons I’ve found in the garage. We have been driving the network of dirt and coal dust roads behind the mine for nearly an hour. My father has navigated us onto three dead ends, into a dump and up a winding 500-yard stretch of deep ruts where even the Trooper was nearly high-centered.
He has tuned the radio to an AM station that seems to broadcast nothing but polkas and lottery results. The rear seats of the Trooper are folded forward to accommodate Ruth, a Clay Hawk trap thrower and an over and under style .12 gauge shotgun. Since being cooped up for the long drive east, Ruth’s been skittish about getting back into the Trooper and I suspect her constant whining hasn’t aided my father’s age-impaired navigational skills. Also distracting, I imagine, have been the bouts of snarling, barking and growling. Sometime near the middle of the drive from California, Ruth concluded that any time she was in the Trooper the passenger seat was her territory, and despite my father’s present occupancy, she remains vocal and insistent.
After whining and snarling our way through yet another wrong turn, my father asks me again why we had to “bring along this goddamn dog.” I state calmly that he refused to let Ruth stay inside the house. Heading off his next question, I remind him that somewhere in the basement—he can’t recall where—he has just placed a shitload of rat poison.
“Hey Stash,” my father says, as we continue down the narrow road. “Make a left up by the trestle.”
I exhale loudly and yank the wheel. When we are stopped at the side of the road, I shift into park and let my hands drop into my lap. Stash, or more completely, Stanislaus, is my father’s younger brother. Stash was killed in a mine accident in West Virginia in the middle of the 60s.
“Dad,” I say. “I’m not Stash. I’m Kenny.”
“I know who you are,” my father says. He stares right into the dashboard.
Neither of us says a thing.
Looking west from the nearly flat summit of the mountain of mine tailings, we can see down into the valley that contains the mine’s powerhouse and its rotting tipple, the blighted strips of duplexes and the decaying company store. The skeletal remains of the coal conveyors tower like an abandoned wood frame roller coaster over the flat car track and the red brick washhouse. At the base of the slag heap winds a sulfur-orange stream bed. Upstream smaller slag heaps stretch for miles. While my father scours the glove compartment for earplugs, I set up the throwing rig. Ruth sprints around the SUV sniffing the rocks and the chunks of red dog and the coal dust on the tires.
I lay Ruth’s blanket across the silver hood of the Trooper and carefully balance the shotgun on top of it. Then I shoulder the box of clay pigeons and slap it down beside the throwing rig. I fix my shooting glasses up on my forehead and slide the targets down into the rig.
“Hey Pop, you ready?”
“Kenny,” my father says. “I can’t find the car keys.”
“That’s because you’re looking for earplugs.” I retrieve a box of shells from the back of the Trooper and slap a green number 7½ shot cartridge into each barrel of the Mossberg.
My father closes the passenger door and hands me a set of yellow foam earplugs. I pass him the gun and tell him the safety’s on. I crush the plugs between my thumb and forefinger and slide them into my ears. My father stands there for a second looking uncertainly down at the gun.
“C’mon, Pop,” I say, somewhat impatiently. “We’re losing the light.”
My father’s eyes clear suddenly and he looks into mine, his own now all harshness and cogency. Saying nothing, he shifts the gun toward his shoulder, slides his finger into the trigger guard and looks down the top of the barrel into the flat, gray sky.
I depress the button on the remote and a clay target arcs up over a coal black hillock to our left and across the sky. My father leads the target with the bead at the muzzle of his gun, but he’s at least ten feet behind it when he fires and the clay drops whole in a tiny cloud of coal dust and lignite.
“Can’t see for shit,” my father says.
Watching my father fling his shotgun down into pile of coal dust in front of him the events of the last harsh days clarify, assuming a savage, gut-punch quality. In his right mind, my father would no more handle a gun like this than he would vote Ho Chi Minh for the U.S. Senate. He would not have spent the better part of last Thursday putting a double lock on his gas tank to prevent imaginary neighbors from siphoning his gas. He would remember to remove a frozen pizza from the oven long before the house fills with so much smoke there is serious discussion of steam cleaning carpets and drapes. He would certainly not confuse me with a man thirty years dead.
I pick up my father’s gun and hand him my yellow-tint aviator glasses. I wipe the coal dust from the gunstock with my shirt and watch my father futz with the glasses while Ruth tries to chew through the base of the throwing rig. I yell “no bites” at Ruth and tell her to come and sit beside me.
Undoing the top buttons of his field jacket, my father removes a prescription bottle from the breast pocket of his denim work shirt. He shakes out a handful of red and yellow capsules and dry-swallows them in a gulp.
“What are those?” I ask.
I snatch the amber bottle from my father’s hand. The label reads: Cognex: Take ONE capsule daily at bedtime. Dr. Chester Pulaski.
“Pop, I’m going to hold on to these for a while.”
Irritated, my father thrusts out his chest and closes the distance between us.
“Gimme that back,” he says.
“I’m just going to keep it for a little bit.” I hold out his shotgun and smile. “Take your gun,” I say. “We’ll see if you can do any better with the glasses.”
“Kenny, I’m not foolin’ around.”
Another step closer and Ruth has forced herself into the space between us, canines bared and growling.
“Dad,” I say. “Don’t screw around. The dog doesn’t understand what’s going on here.” The dog, I think to myself, is not alone in this.
My father looks down warily at the snarling dog and takes the proffered shotgun. He misses his next two clays, but catches the third with the edge of the pattern.
“Alright now,” I say. “Knew you’d hit something eventually.”
I push the remote into my father’s hand and take back the shotgun. I set the gun on the dog blanket on the hood of the Trooper, then reload the throwing rig. Picking up the Mossberg, I crack the breech and slip fresh shells into each barrel.
As the first clay zings up over the bony pile, I snap the gun flush to my shoulder. I get the bead out in front of the clay and squeeze the trigger just before it crosses the plane of fire. Caught dead center in the pattern, the target shatters and succumbs to gravity, pieces falling into the coal dust and slate.
I shoot five for six and carefully place the gun back on the hood of the Trooper. With his back turned to where I’ve been shooting, my father squats next to the throwing rig and fingers the shooting glasses. He peers over the edge of the slag heap staring across the sulfur-orange stream bed and down at the abandoned mine and the three-street town.
Removing the earplugs, I cross to the edge of the promontory. As I put my hand on my father’s shoulder, Ruth pushes her snout into my leg and I give the short smooth fur of her muzzle a few quick strokes. Then she runs off sniffing at the coal dust on the ground.
“Shit’s no joke,” he says.
“I hear you,” I say.
My father rises and shuffles back toward the Trooper. Standing at parade rest in front of the vehicle, he tells me how his symptoms started less than a year after my mother died. He says his sense of smell was the first thing to go.
“I was in the back of the church, you know,” he says. “Good Friday. At the end of the mass I went up to the sacristy and asked the priest how come they didn’t use no incense.” I watch him as his hands zip out from behind his back, gesticulating briefly, then flop to the seam of his pants.
“I can’t even smell bread in a bakery,” he says. “A pisser, that is.”
He describes the subsequent and escalating string of misplaced keys, wallets, glasses and clothing. His voice goes up half an octave as he relates his confusion over the payment of utility bills, his bounced checks and the shut-offs of electrical service. Turning his back to me, he places a hand on the Trooper’s grille.
“Kenny,” he says. “I run my truck out of gas four times already this summer. This goddamn summer.”
He launches into a tirade cursing his doctors, the tests he’s undergone, his dietary restrictions, his headaches and the diarrhea that goes along with the medication. Most frightening of all, he says, are the sporadic moments of lucidity—the flash moments in which he can see clearly that he is losing his mind. Shocked at the panic and unalloyed humiliation in his quavering voice, I listen as he reveals how he sold his welding tools six months ago when, after leaving a valve open, he nearly blew up the house.
Looking down and shaking his head, my father says, “I been going down Bedford with your Aunt Sophie every so often to see Chet, you know.”
I nod. Now in his late eighties, my Uncle Chet, actually my father’s cousin, has been a resident of the Bedford Home for the Aged since a stroke paralyzed the left side of his body during the first Bush administration.
“They give me a look at the ward where they keep the people ….” My father pauses. His expression is pained and his flat eyes look as played out as any of the coal seams running beneath our feet.
“Jesus Christ, Kenny,” he says. “Them damn people don’t even know where they’re at. They got food all over themselves. Their hair ain’t combed. They don’t know what day it is. It’s no way to live, Kenny.”
“I hear you,” I say.
“I can’t live like that.”
“Yeah.” I watch as my father grabs his Mossberg from the hood of the Trooper.
“I want you to shoot me,” he says.
“Pop, I’m not gonna shoot you.”
“I’m serious,” he says. “I been thinkin’ about this since I knew you was coming back.”
Walking toward me, he holds the Mossberg out in front of him.
“It could look like an accident,” he tells me.
I shake my head.
“No way, Pop. Can’t do it.”
My father tries to push the shotgun into my hands, but I clench my hands into fists and keep them closed tight.
“No, goddammit, I won’t take it,” I say.
My father’s face collapses in on itself and without warning he heaves the shotgun off the steep end of the bony pile. After a half second we hear two quick clicks as it slaps slate or red dog on the way down.
“You know we’re not gonna get that back,” I say.
We hold each other’s eyes for maybe thirty seconds. Now that my father understands I want no part of this, he looks exhausted and his eyes have fixed in middle distance behind me.
“It’s gonna rain,” he says.
He’s right. In the twenty minutes since we stopped shooting, huge, black clouds have rolled in. Stacked on top of each other like filthy bed pillows, they fill the horizon. Heavy, rhythmic drops of rain pelt the Trooper’s hood and roof.
“Pop,” I say. “I think it’s time we got out of Dodge.”
I grab my father by the arm and help him inside the passenger’s door of the Trooper. The storm is turning out to be a real downpour. I snatch the dog blanket from the hood and I toss it into the back of the Trooper. Dripping with water, my hair falls across my face as I poke my head into the front driver’s side door.
“Pop,” I say. “I have to get the dog. Just relax for a second. I’ll be right back.” I reach over and turn the key backward in the ignition.
“Listen to the radio,” I instruct. As a DJ announces “The Jailbreak Polka,” I slam the driver’s side door of the Trooper. Turning around, I cup my hands around my mouth and start down over the hill yelling, “Ruth!”
Balanced on the low edge of an arroyo, Ruth raises her head and looks at me before she sniffs the air and takes off down into the gully. I catch a quick glimpse of her tail just as she ducks out of sight. The rain is transforming the coal dust into a thick, greasy mud. My loafers stick in the ooze as I pick my way down the side of the bony pile. Having crossed the orange creek, Ruth barks and claws at a groundhog hole in the brush on the far side.
“Ruth!” I yell.
The dog glances up for a second, then goes right back to barking and digging. I balance myself against the steep pitch of the hill, sliding and skidding my way down the slope. Several inches of black runoff fill the dozens of gullies that line the side of the slag heap like varicose veins.
I cross the stream at the bottom and hop from one slick orange rock to the next. About eight inches of water are running through it and although I’ve given up hope for keeping my shoes or pants dry, I’m still not quite ready to be up to my ankles in what my grandfather used to call “Halloween Water.”
At the edge of the brush, I grab Ruth by her collar as she orbits the hole and pull her to me. I fix her to the leash and we start back across the creek, up the greasy hill.
Ruth summits the bony pile first, grimy stick clamped firmly in her jaws. When I shamble up after her, a leash-length behind, the first thing I notice is that my Trooper is gone. The second thing I notice is a pair of high beam headlights shining up into the storm at a 30 degree angle from behind the hillock of scrap coal off to the left of where we’d been shooting. Following Ruth across the grimy, puddle-choked top of the bony pile, I hear a high-pitched buzz of spinning tires coming from behind the hillock. Rounding the hill at a light jog, my jaw clenches when I see the Trooper.
Its ass end two feet off the road and eight inches away from a four foot deep gully, the Trooper is fast sliding sideways in the slick, coal-infused mud. I break into a full sprint with Ruth barking beside me. Watery sludge splashes as we race across the top of the bony pile. The Trooper’s back tires are spinning so fast they whine as it edges closer to the lip of the gully. Reaching the SUV, I rap my fist on the driver’s side window.
My father must not hear me, because he guns the engine. I jump away from the door as the front end lurches toward me. When my father lets off on the accelerator, I spring back toward the vehicle and grab the door handle, climb up onto the running board.
Frantic, I pound my fist on the window, trying to keep hold of the leash as Ruth strains at the other end. My father turns his head and throws me a look of annoyance as he lowers the window halfway. From my perch on the running board I can see he still hasn’t shifted the Trooper into four-wheel drive.
“Kenny,” he shouts above the storm and the polka band. “You can’t stand there. I gotta get unstuck.”
“Pop,” I admonish. “You’re sliding all over the place. Put it in ‘park.’”
“Don’t worry,” my father tells me. “I know what I’m doing.”
“No,” I say, louder. “You have no goddamn idea what you’re doing.”
My father shoves the door open, knocking me back off the running board. He jumps from the driver’s seat and grabs me with both hands at the collar as I struggle for footing in the slick mud.
He lowers his head and pushes his face in right up close to mine. Embittered and at full volume he says, “I won the goddamn bronze star and a little bastard like you is gonna tell me how to drive.”
None too keen on letting this go any further, I slip both my arms inside of my father’s and swing both up as hard as I can. My forearms slam into the bend of my father’s elbows and knock his hands upwards and off my shirt. Infuriated, he winds his right arm back to take a swing and that’s the moment when things go really bad.
If I’d been paying more attention, or had been a little less pissed off, I might have felt the leash go slack, might have anticipated the lunge Ruth will make for my father’s right arm.
But I don’t. Don’t even entirely understand what’s happened until my father is flat on his back and Ruth’s got his triceps between her teeth and there’s a good bit of blood and my father is screaming to high heaven.
I drop to my knees and shove my fingers into Ruth’s mouth and force the flesh of her snout underneath her jaws. Releasing my father’s arm immediately, she barks once then slinks underneath the Trooper. My father whimpers as I rip his shirt open further to survey the damage.
“Holy shit, Kenny. How’s it look?”
“Dad,” I say. “I think we’re gonna be makin’ a trip to the hospital.”
The rain didn’t let up for the next two days and in fact got a good bit worse before it got better. At Mercy, my dad got 35 stitches in his right arm and a refill on his Cognex prescription. I left for the job at the community college almost a month early and we didn’t say much before I packed up the Trooper and split. I left my father the .45 caliber pistol I’d purchased in California to do with as he would. I decided I wasn’t going to need it after all.
© Damian Dressick 2010
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Author of the forthcoming story collection Fables of the Deconstruction (Spire Press: 2010) and two-time Pushcart nominee, Damian Dressick’s stories have appeared in more than forty literary journals, including failbetter.com, New Delta Review, McSweeney’s (online), Caketrain, Vestal Review and Alimentum. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Mary and daughter Ondine. He can be found online at www.damiandressick.com
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