In My Father's Silence
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical
Joey needed to open the note. Not Mae. She was too delicate to be dealing with such a thing. But Joey could take it. I’d seen it in him. And he’d just have to.
I stood at the workbench in the garage and wrote the note. Beside me, my old welding toolbox stood open, the lid hanging. The pencil felt awkward in my hands, and the paper too smooth and clean under my fingers where I held it still against the bench. I didn’t write often. My fingers’d not been made for such things. Joey was a hand with writing. He must’ve got that from Mae. I never knew what to say.
I looked over at my old Jeep, the tail doors ajar, showing the duffels and gear I’d packed in tight, leaving just enough space for Joey’s bag and my toolbox. The dogs could lay on top it all. It was well done, well packed.
I looked back at the paper and shifted my grip on the pencil. It was just another tool. I was good with tools.
I wrote again. The pencil caught sometimes on the gouges in the old wood of the workbench, the letters shifting on the paper, ending not where I’d meant them to be. But no matter. Joey could read it. And it said all it needed to say.
All he needed to know.
I set the pencil down and it rolled a little away from me on the workbench. I looked at the note for a moment, then pressed folds into it, and slid it into the envelope. It looked like a proper letter, from the outside, though I’d not signed it, nor put Joey’s name on the envelope. But when the time came, Joey’d know it was for him.
I set the envelope in the toolbox, on top of the pistols, closed the lid, locked it, and slid it into its space in the back of the Jeep. It fit nicely and I shut the doors.
Good. No more words. No more talking. Or writing. Just the doing of it.
It rained the day I opened my father’s gun safe. It wasn’t a real safe. More like a toolbox with a lock on it, a beat-up old red thing with his name painted in yellow block letters on the lid, a leftover from his days working as a welder. He liked to keep old junk around, just in case it might turn out to be useful. It did; he kept the pistols and the gun-cleaning gear in that toolbox on trips to our cabin in the hills.
Quail season had started and we’d left town Friday evening, wanting to have a full day in the hills Saturday. We drove the old four-wheel drive Jeep my father had kept from his college days for these trips, the dogs riding in the back on top of the gear, leaning forward over our shoulders, panting in our ears. We made the trip in four hours, four long, quiet hours, punctuated only by the slam and clank of the Jeep as my father threw it at the rock-strewn and potholed ranch road.
“Take it easy, would ya?” I’d said, after a particularly nasty wrench threw me against the sidepost. “You’re gonna break something.”
My father’s face tightened a little and he stared forward over the wheel. “I know my own rig,” was all he’d said.
Sometimes, I tried, said things just to fill the silence, to pretend. But we didn’t talk much. Not even when we were hunting. He knew where I was, I knew where he was, and the dogs ran between us as we paced through the hills with the sounds of pebbles sliding downslope and the rubbing of the manzanita brush and dry grass against our jeans. We only spoke commands to the dogs and occasionally one of us called out to claim a shot on a lone bird rising.
But it rained that day I opened his toolbox, the light resting dim and grey on the hills and the thunder rumbling faint and steady in the distance and the constant flux of sheet lightning flaring deep in the clouds. It had rained all morning, with no sign of quitting. The quail would be hunkered down hard in the brush, leaving no scent for the dogs to find. And walking the brushy foothills in the rain was miserable enough without having anything to show for it. The rain dripped in erratic staccato rhythm in the puddles off the porch and I stood in the cabin doorway and leaned against the jamb, looking down the slow slope of the hills to the vague distance of the valley. My father sat under the overhang out on the bare deck of the porch, smoking a cigarette, his back to the splintered boards of the cabin wall.
“Well, this sucks,” I said.
“Hmh,” my father said. One of the dogs got up from the hearthrugs inside and came and stood in the doorway next to me, leaning against my knee and whining.
“Not today, girl,” I said. “Not today.”
My father lit another cigarette and we just waited, listening to the rain and watching the distance.
“Well, shit. I gotta do something,” I said.
The dog wandered out onto the porch and I turned back into the cabin.
The cabin held an old quietness, three makeshift rooms pieced together with rusty nails, rawhide, and dirt, adorned only with some castoff wooden chairs, a table, and a stone fireplace. The wind came in cold whistles through the gaps in the walls and the floorboards creaked as if tortured as I walked to the table and picked up my father’s keys. I looked around the front room and the other dog eyed me from her place on a rug, her tail thumping slowly.
The dog, the ice chest, our bags and kitchen gear; it all looked out of place, the colors speaking of brevity in their brightness, set strongly against the faded patient hues of the old cabin. I walked into the bedroom, and even the old red of the gun-safe seemed too bright, sitting there at the foot of my father’s cot.
His cot was neatly made, the rough green of the army surplus blanket stretched tight over the thin mattress.
My cot was a mess.
“I’ll do it later,” I’d said earlier that morning.
“Don’t do anything later you can do now,” he’d said, not looking at me as he bent over his cot.
I’d made some rude noise and walked out of the room.
I sighed and ignored my cot and sat on the floor in front of the old toolbox and dragged it toward me. It slid across the gritty un-swept floor with a hollow scraping sound.
“What are you doing?” my father said, his voice abrupt, suspicious. He was still on the porch, just on the other side of the thin boards of the cabin wall. The wall flexed inward and the boards of the porch creaked as he got up. “Joey?”
“I’m gonna clean the pistols,” I said.
“No,” he said. “No, wait. I’ll do it.” I had the key in the toolbox’s lock, already turning. His boots scraped into the front room and the floorboards squealed.
“I got it,” I said. “I’ll just give ‘em a once over. I’m bored anyway.” I heard the dogs scrambling to their feet and following him. I unhooked the lock.
“No, lemme just. . . . Wait,” he said again, his voice louder, too loud. One of the dogs barked, as if something was wrong. I hesitated for a second. What was with him? Why would he care if I cleaned the pistols? I undid the latch, and started to open the lid. By then he was in the room and his boot hit the lid of the box and slammed it shut. I yanked my hands back.
“What the hell!” I said. I looked up at him. “You coulda cut my fingers off!” I said. “What the hell.”
“I said wait!” he said. He stared down at me, breathing too fast, his face pinching, all the wrinkles pointing to the hard anger in his eyes. “I said I’ll do it,” he said.
He didn’t apologize. Just stayed looking at me, as the dogs came after him into the room and pushed in between us, breathing with their tongues hanging out and pushing their wet muzzles against my face. Then my father’s eyes softened a little and he looked away from me. “I’ll do it,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. I didn’t ask why; I just got up and walked out of the room. My coat was hanging from the pegs by the door. I grabbed it and shrugged into it. “Come on, dogs,” I called out.
“Where you going?” my father said from the other room.
“Wherever. Walkin’. Come on, dogs,” I said again. I kicked the door shut behind them and pulled up my hood as I stepped off the porch into the rain.
The road was rougher than last trip, and in the dark the rocks and potholes appeared out of nowhere. The Jeep slammed through them hard, clanking and groaning, but she was a tough rig. She could take it. I didn’t slow down. Joey grumbled in the passenger seat. The dogs stood on widespread feet atop the gear in the back and finally decided it was better to lie down.
The drive stretched long. Every now and again Joey would say something from the passenger seat, but in between there was just the dark of the road, the quiet, and too much thinking. I focused on the road. I didn’t want to remember anymore. But the goddamn thing still stayed, a knot inside me, the turns of it layered with their faces.
Most of such things came out with time, and doing. But not this one. I didn’t even want to try to figure out how many years it’d been with me.
I’d tried. I’d tried to say something. As if that would help. But words were never my thing. I was better at doing. And talking never did any good anyhow.
I tried to watch the road, think about something else: I remembered when I lost my welding job. I started welding out of the service; a man I knew out in ‘Nam hooked me up and I got certified right away. Then that catwalk broke. Nobody died, but they as might as well of. Nobody’d hire me. My welds were the reason it broke, they said. Money was already tight back then, with Joey in that private school and Mae not wanting to work anymore.
“I don’t know what to do,” I’d told her. Mae closed her eyes and put her head in her hands.
“Don’t tell me this,” she’d said. “I can’t worry about this too.”
Mae always was a delicate thing.
I looked over at Joey in the passenger seat of the Jeep, holding himself steady with the oh-shit handle. I thought about him reading my note and I wondered how much he could really take. I wondered if he could handle their faces always looking at him.
Maybe I should’ve told him about them.
The Jeep bucked through a pothole.
“Take it easy, would you?” Joey said. “You’re gonna break something.”
No. Joey didn’t know anything about the kinds of things I’d done. He wouldn’t understand. Besides, he shouldn’t have to carry such a thing as that. I let it alone and looked forward to the road again. “I know my own rig,” I said.
I walked straight west from the cabin, down into the valley. The rain wasn’t letting up and the dogs didn’t like it. They squinted against the spit of the rain on the wind and hung behind me, looking back toward the cabin where I’d left my father, torn between loyalty and comfort.
I ignored the dogs and kept walking, across the ground trod rough by cattle, through short dead brown grass hiding scattered chunks of old mudflow rock. Ankle- breaking country. I didn’t stop and the dogs eventually followed.
Always gotta be his way.
The ground made for slow going, and I just walked, trying to not think, keeping only the steps before me in my mind. The rain slowly soaked through my jacket and my hands started to stiffen with the cold.
I stopped for a moment and dropped my head, then kept walking. I’d run away again. I hadn’t said anything to him. Again. I was still afraid of my father. He seemed steady, but a background, like pavement under the tires at night, present, involved, but unnoticed. But then the pavement just abruptly ended, dropped to sliding gravel, potholes yawning open. No warning, just an unwarranted reaction, the sudden fierce exercise of his forgotten authority. He scared me. I could never get to know the man. I never knew what was inside him–where that came from.
He didn’t talk. I wandered around with him, hunting, fixing things, and he said nothing and I waited to see what he’d do. It was as if he wasn’t even really there, until he lunged out of the dark.
He’d never hit me. But fear always rose in me. Not the cramped anxious dread in my chest, but hot present fear reaching up from my belly, my heart turning to a juddering, pulsing bag of warm fluid. I hated the feeling in myself. I didn’t even know the reason for it.
I just wanted to clean the pistols. I’d done it before. Shit, half of them were mine, though he’d kept them for me since I moved out.
I tripped on the rough ground, my ankle twisting out sideways off the edge of a rock. I went down on one knee, my hand reaching toward the ground, a jagged stone’s edge stabbing into my palm, mud squishing up through my fingers.
“Son of a bitch.” The two dogs gathered in front of me, standing with their backs to the wind, watching me, waiting. I looked at my hand and red ran through the dark brown of the mud.
“Son of a bitch,” I said. The dogs whined.
“All right, all right,” I said. “C’mere.”
I wiped my hand free of mud on one of the dog’s backs. I pulled the edges of the gash open, letting it bleed. The cut was small, but flecked with dirt. I picked at it through the blood.
I should head back and clean it out. I stood up and looked at the hills behind me. The storm was settling in, the wind picking up, the clouds dropping lower, grey shapes dragging across the hills. The small dark box of the cabin huddled singly on the pale slope of the hill, just below the scrubline, between the wide-spaced oaks. I took a few steps back toward the cabin and a low concussion sounded, far off. I hesitated, not sure if I’d heard it. It might have been thunder. But the dogs perked up and started forward a little with plaintive whines.
I looked at them and waited another moment, listening, but heard only the gusting of the wind by my ears and the wet patter of raindrops against my jacket. It couldn’t have been my father. He wouldn’t go hunting in the rain, and certainly not without the dogs. But I couldn’t think who else it would be. Not out here. Not in the rain.
The dogs looked at me expectantly.
“Let’s go,” I said. They barked and ran on ahead.
I sat on the porch of the old cabin and smoked a cigarette. Joey stood in the doorway, shifting and sighing and saying small things. He’d never learned very well to just be still. To wait. Being a soldier’d taught me that much.
It rained. There wasn’t going to be any hunting. I didn’t care for it either, but I didn’t say anything.
I dragged on my cigarette. The cherry flared and slid toward me. There was a brown stain on my fingers from the nicotine. Mae didn’t like that. Said it looked like white trash. I exhaled and looked at the rain falling grey across the valley.
I could see their faces. So many of them, watching me.
Joey’d only ever killed birds. Animals.
It wasn’t the same. They’re meat, made for eating. People ain’t the same.
Bullets open places in a body a man’s not supposed to see. And then they lay in the mud, thrown anyhow, just bloody pieces of people held together. Their arms and legs tangled together in the graves and their faces looked up at me.
I’d started seeing them again, nights.
Their faces. Their skinny eyes. And the jungle, that nightmare green.
When the Army sent me back stateside and I started with the welding, I didn’t see their faces. All that was over there. It was different place, far away. Done, buried, and Army-whitewashed. There weren’t any faces no more. Just memories, which I thought were nothing at all anyhow. I had Mae at home waiting for me, and Joey born while I was gone. It was good. I’d slept deep back then.
Joey shifted again in the cabin doorway and sighed.
“This sucks,” he said. I grunted at him.
Joey must’ve got all the talking from his mother. She was always jabbering on about something. Sometimes Joey knew when to be quiet. Out when we walked the hills for quail. Down at the river after a long day, tying the boats down. We tossed the ropes to each other over the truck with the sunset light lapping across us off the water. Talking didn’t belong. No need. There were plenty enough better things.
The rain dripped in puddles off the eaves of the porch. It was wet, hanging-on, jungle rain. Joey said something and went inside. I saw their faces all the time now. First it was just some dreams, waking up too hot and the sheet slick with sweat, Mae’s hand on me asking what’s the matter. Now I didn’t even have to sleep to see them.
Lining up the sights on a quail rising, the kick of the gun against my shoulder, and I saw their slitty eyes going wide at the bullets. Then they were just half-open, looking up at me as we threw them in the pit. Their mouths hanging wide like they wanted to say something to me. But of course they couldn’t anymore. But damn it if they didn’t keep trying.
One of the dogs came out on the porch and lay next to me and I put a hand on it. I heard Joey in the room behind me, and some sound, the grinding slide of metal and dirt.
“Joey? What are you doing?” I said, but I was already moving. That sounded like the toolbox, and I’d left the keys on the table.
Joey said something about the guns. “I got it.” I said. “Wait.” Goddamn it. Wait.
He’d find the note and mess it all up. Then there’d be no end of talking.
Joey was opening the lid when I got in the room and I could see the white of the envelope there on top of the guns. I stepped on the box and the lid slammed shut and for a moment I thought I’d hurt him, the way he jerked his hands back. The dogs scrabbled into the room behind me, barking.
“I said wait.”
Joey looked up at me. He looked angry. I wondered if he’d remember my face like I remembered theirs.
“I’ll get it,” I said.
I stood there with my foot on the toolbox as Joey said something and walked out. The door slammed behind him and the old cabin shook a little.
Back at the cabin, I scraped the mud off my boots at the edge of the porch. The dogs shook, water flying every which way, and pushed up against the front door, scratching at the wood.
“Hold your horses. I’m coming,” I said. I stood a minute and let the water off the shingles run into the cut on my hand. When the dirt was gone I opened the door and the dogs rushed in to bicker over their places on the rugs. The cabin was dry and empty and cold, the table bare but for the open toolbox. He hadn’t cleaned the pistols either.
“Where you at?” I said. No answer. I stripped off my wet coat and hung it on the peg by the door. I was hungry and hoping that my father had heated something up for lunch.
“Are you here?” No answer. He must have gone for a walk too. Maybe he had decided to try hunting alone in the rain. Yeah right. Maybe he regretted yelling at me for no reason. Just as likely.
Whatever. I toweled the dogs off with some rags and wrapped a clean strap of one around my hand. I knelt at the hearth to start a fire. The dogs approved, curling nose to tail as near as they could get. I sat with them, feeding split oak to the flames, my hands on their backs as the fire grew, the heat swelling out into the cold of the room, steam rising from the wet front of my shirt.
My hands were cold, my fingers still slow and clenched. I wanted chili, a hot can of chili, with some toasted tortillas. That would go over nice. I got up and walked to the box of foodstuffs next to the table. The toolbox caught my eye. Open. No guns on the table. No gear. Like he was interrupted. Or never started. I walked to the table and put my hand on the rim of the box, the metal a cold hard line against my palm.
In the toolbox, the envelope cut white sharp edges against the dark hues of the gun’s blued metal and the deep gloss of the worn brown leather holsters. I picked up the envelope, the damp of my hands tacky on the dry paper.
Beneath the envelope, the holster for the .44 was empty. It was a big gun, with a hefty rise when we shot full loads, which we almost always did. But we target shot on Sundays. Always. Not Saturdays. And not in the rain. We punched holes in chili cans set on rocks down the hill, and sighted in the rifles on targets drawn on cardboard boxes we’d brought along. There was no reason for him to have taken the .44 with him. Unless something was wrong.
I turned the envelope over in my hands and remembered his voice, his boot slamming down on the top of the box, the lines of anger on his face, the way his eyes changed for a moment.
I said wait.
There was no name on the envelope. I didn’t want to open it. I laid it on the table and sat down slowly on one of the chairs. It creaked at my weight and the dogs eyed me.
“Jenga,” I said. “Mandy. C’mere.” I stared at the envelope and the dogs came to me. They were good dogs. Pointers. I’d helped my father train them. I’d grown up with them, chose them from the litter. They were my dogs as much as they were his, though he had kept them after I left home, just like the guns.
“Down,” I said, and they sat with me and I roughed their ears and talked to them. I petted them, their hair wiry under my hands. I told them how good they were, how I loved them. They panted smiles at me and I could smell their wet breath as they nosed at me.
“Yeah, Jenga,” I said. “Good dogs. Yeah, Mandy. Good girls.”
On the table, the envelope waited.
Joey’s small shape moved in the distance, walking down into the spread of the valley, the dogs trailing behind him. I leaned against one of the posts on the cabin porch and watched him. The rain splattered on the toes of my boots and the wind blew wet and cold.
I taught Joey to shoot at seven years old, down in the river bottom. We started with a .22 but I remember when he shot the .38. I put muffs on his ears and knelt down with him on the gravel bar behind an old cottonwood log. His hands were little and fat and white on the grip of the old pistol.
“Just hold onto it,” I’d said. “And squeeze.” They were light loads, but the crack and jump of it scared him. He missed the can by a mile and dirt cascaded down from high up the bank behind. He turned to me with his face pale and looking like he was going to cry.
“You missed,” I said. “Try it again.”
He never even hit the can, but he kept shooting, and walking back to the truck through the willows you would’ve thought he won a medal or something, the way he carried on. I just listened. Maybe I should’ve said something. But it was done now.
I walked back into the cabin and carried the toolbox out into the front room and set it on the table. I opened the lid. The envelope was very white against the guns. I thought about putting the note on his bed or some such, but that seemed like too much of a fuss. Joey’d see it here. He’d find it.
I took out the .44.
I found my father upslope of the cabin, lying on his back in the grass past a clump of oaks. The dogs ran up to him, nosed against his head. It lolled away from them, red showing through the brown grass.
“Get out! Get out!” I shouted. I went down on my knees, hitting at the dogs.
They scrabbled away with little yelps.
Small dark circle up under his chin, at the top of his throat, next to my probing fingers. The gun in his open hand beside him, rain beading and running cross the oily dark metal. The rain had washed the blood away. Just pale clammy bluish skin, rain drops in his beard, dark circles under his eyes, open to the patter of the rain, looking at me. I tried to close them with my fingers but they wouldn’t stay shut. I wanted to vomit, the saliva thick and ropy in my mouth.
People leave notes, so here it is. But this ain’t an explanation. Just so you know, I did it on purpose.
He’d done it right, he was too much of a hunter not to, the shot angled up to the brainstem. I didn’t want to turn him over to see. The dogs circled at a distance, sniffing downslope at the ground where the blood had run. I picked up the gun and rotated the cylinder open. Only one spent cartridge, the other cylinders empty.
“What are you doing?” I said. “What is this?”
You’re the one that might understand. I’ve seen you’re strong enough. That’s why I did it here. Your mother couldn’t take it.
“Understand what? I don’t even know you! How could I understand?” I stared at him, but there was nothing else to see. My knees hurt, the cold and wet soaking through my jeans. “Oh my God,” I said.
The reason doesn’t matter much. So don’t make any big fuss thinking about it. It’s my deal. Nobody else’s. So just get on with things. Tell your mother that.
I stood and looked down at him and the dogs came to me. The wind was rising and they leaned against my legs like they always did. Jenga licked at the rag on my hand. The air moaned a little in the short oaks, the leaves rustling and scratching against each other with the drip of the rain.
You should keep the guns and the Jeep and the dogs. They always liked you better anyways. That’s it.
That was it. I just stood on the hillside over him and waited. I don’t know what for. The dogs whined and the rain kept falling and my mind tried to go ten different ways and went nowhere at all. He just lay there.
I stopped up near the oaks and looked out to the valley, the way Joey’d went. It was darker now. The clouds were dropping in and I couldn’t see him anymore. Goddamn rain. A last day hunting would’ve been nice. The rain trickled down my face and the back of my neck. I remembered Joey looking at me, angry.
I took the .44 out from under my coat. It hung from my hand, the rain slicking off it. It felt comfortable to me, something I still knew.
I could see their faces. Watching, waiting for me to join them.
Maybe I could talk to them. Or maybe we’d all just be quiet together.
I looked out to the valley again.
“You’ll be alright,” I said.
I remember the first time I caught a fish with my father. I was just a kid and I caught a largemouth bass, my heart running, the pole shaking in my hands as the fish surged under the murky golden glaze of the warm slough water, the line cutting close past the hull of the canoe.
The bass flopped in the bottom of boat, beating heavy and wet in hollow thumps against the aluminum of the deck. My father picked it up by the jaw and hit it over the head with his billy club and it shivered into hanging stillness. He scaled it quickly and held it and the knife out to me.
“Gut it,” he said. I hesitated. I’d only seen him do it before.
“Your fish,” he said. “Your deal.”
The tang of the knife slick with fish slime in my hands, the blade sliding sharp through the white underbelly, catching on stray scales. The guts and yellow eggs all warm with body heat through my fingers.
I coughed and turned aside for a moment.
“Gut it,” he said. I did. And when I was done he said nothing more, only took the carcass from me, rinsing it in the water, and laying it in the cooler on the crushed ice.
I sat in the bow seat as we headed home, with the presence of my father behind me, silent as we moved over the water. The trolling motor hummed low, and the water slapped lightly against the hull. We crossed into the main channel, the cold of the river water running in a line across the deck beneath my bare feet. My father shipped the motor and we paddled downstream together in slow rhythm, each stroke gurgling in slow fading vortexes on the water, the hull hissing with each forward surge, the water dripping in light speckles from the rising paddle blades. Behind me my father didn’t speak, but I knew he was there.
I left him lying in the rain and walked down the hill to the cabin. My hands shook from the cold as I built up the fire and the heat flushed my face and my shirt clung hot and wet to my chest. I lay down on the hearthstones and put my head on the floor and hugged my knees against me and let the heat wash over me and stared at the splinters in the cabin wall.
The dogs settled in around me and Mandy laid her chin out across my neck, her whiskers moving against my skin every time she breathed. I lay there and the fire burned down and then I thought about driving home, about telling the police, and what my mom would say, about how I had to work on Monday, about everything. I thought about my father lying on that hill, open-eyed in the rain, with his secrets still inside him.
The rain had started to ease off when I finally got up and walked back outside. My father always laid out an old blue tarp plastic under the supplies in the back of the Jeep. I stripped the tarp off the flooring and trudged up the hill to where he lay.
I wrapped my father in that old blue tarp and carried him down to the Jeep and put him in the front passenger seat. I went back in the cabin. I threw water on the coals in the fireplace. I gathered all our things, packed up the Jeep and called the dogs to me.
“Load up,” I said, and they scrabbled in atop the gear in the back. I slammed the doors behind them.
I drove slow, easing the old Jeep over the rocks and potholes while the dogs tried to sleep, occasionally rising and turning, snarling low at each other in the small space and bumping against the back of my seat as they lay down again.
It was dusk. Quiet, late. Lonely.
You’re the one that might understand.
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t understand.”
In the seat beside me, my father was silent.
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