Fiction by Paul J. Garth
Night I drove back, somewhere around Wichita, when the sun was falling off to the west, I realized I’d forgotten what my father’s face looked like. It’d been seven years since I’d last seen him, and aside from his phone call the a few nights before, and the times I heard him yelling in the background the couple of times his new wife had got in touch to give updates on his health – always steadily failing but never enough to put a toe in the grave – the two of us hadn’t breathed a word to each other since the night I’d left.
Somewhere inside, I knew I’d be betraying my mother if I did.
It wasn’t his name that’d shown up when he’d called the other night. He’d found my number in Julianne’s phone.
I didn’t recognize his voice at first, and the fact he sounded like a dead man hadn’t much helped me place it. It was raw and torn, and I realized after I’d hung up he’d probably been up most of the night, crying or screaming, probably both. He told me what he needed me for, and I told him I should call the Sheriff right then. Told him I wouldn’t come back, that I wouldn’t help, I’d cut him out of my life. “You’re someone else’s problem now,” I’d said, but over the next two nights, he kept calling, until finally I was all worn down.
Some things run too deep to rip all the way out. Something I’m sure he knew just as well as I did.
I stopped at a Wal-Mart off the interstate in Topeka to get supplies, and after, while I drove through the night, I tried to remember.
In the years I’d been gone, working pipes together in the oil plains of Odessa, I’d almost completely forgotten him. My first week on the job, a guy I worked with, a roughneck from North Dakota, told me the Texas sun killed everything but the muscles, and memory was the first thing to go. He’d been right. Under that sun, anytime my father had come up in my thoughts, I pushed him back down deeper, until he stopped coming at all. His face, his voice, the scars on his knuckles and the smell of his work shirts. Even the color of his hair. They were things I blocked off and buried, ghosts whose outlines could only be seen in their black milky absence on the nights I’d wake up in my room at one A.M. and realize, somewhere out there, I still had a dad.
I never could fall back asleep on nights like that. I’d lay there, tracing lines in the cracked ceiling above me, pretending they were oil pipelines spreading across a white-hot desert, each foot of pipe, same as ones I spent my days fitting, pressurized with thoughts of my father, pushing against the steel.
Those nights, I felt his presence all around me, throbbing like a rotten tooth.
I got into Holdrege about one in the morning, and climbing the rickety front porch of our old house, my hands twitched at the wrist. I turned back towards the road. The lights of the gas station mingled with the dull glow of stars and the wind pushed the smell of rotting dirt from the fields. I hated this fucking town. I’d never been supposed to come back.
I looked around the porch, putting off going inside. Our bench was still there, the one I’d sat on so many times as a kid, my mother beside me, sipping a drink in the summer heat, both of us watching for the headlights of his truck. Nothing had changed. The cushions were still the same, just faded even more now, and his boots lay underneath it like they always had. I wondered if they were the same boots that’d been there the day I left.
“It’s okay,” I told myself, but my bones were shaking in their skin and bile had pooled in my mouth, and pulling the door open, I knew it wasn’t okay, not anywhere close, but the door opened on darkness, and I stepped inside anyway.
Dad was sitting in the same old ratty easy-chair he’d always sat in, waiting for me with no lights or TV or radio on. He was a silhouette in the dark, and I couldn’t make out anything of him except for the cigarette between his lips that flared in the blackness. The smell of the place wormed its way into my nose and I wondered if it was just a mix of blood and smoke and unwashed dishes and clothes, or if he’d finally tipped that last little bit into insanity and found a way to insulate the walls with dead cats.
I could feel him staring at me like he always did when I’d done something to piss him off, and was scared by how easily it all started coming back.
He didn’t answer. Instead the cigarette tip flared again, and watching that cherry burn in the dark, I realized that part of me had always known something like this was going to happen.
I wondered if it was my fault.
I’d been a bad son for leaving him and an even worse son for staying away and allowing myself to forget. It was me who’d thrown up distance and kept myself away, and I knew, no matter how much I told myself otherwise, it wasn’t because of the beatings or the times he got drunk and told me I was the reason she’d left while he gave me the belt. It wasn’t even because of him. It was because it hurt to think about him because it was never just him, but my mother too. Sixteen years gone and I could still remember her face – every line and curve of it, how it looked on a summer afternoon while the two of us worked the garden out back of the house, sweat running down her nose. Even after she’d left soundlessly in the middle of the night when I was nine – leaving me with only a note – there was something horrible about being able to remember her so effortlessly alongside him. I hated her for it, and I suppose, I hated him for it as well.
I wiped my feet on the ratty carpet and thought of my mother’s face, suddenly angry with her in a way I hadn’t been in years, angry that she’d left me behind, tied to him for everything in the world. I tried to keep my hands still, but they shook by my sides.
“Dad?” I tried again.
I told myself that if he didn’t have anything to say, if he didn’t speak, I was going to leave, but after driving all the way from Texas for him, I knew that was all talk. I couldn’t make myself leave until he told me the job was well done. Until I’d proved myself as a son again.
“You got it all?” He asked from behind the corona of another drag.
“Told you I would.”
“All of it? I wanna make sure ‘fore we head out all that way and we find out you fucked up, didn’t pack a shovel.”
“Anytime you want, you tell me and I’ll go. This isn’t my mess and since you’re strong enough to make it, you probably can clean it up yourself. Think you’d do such a goddamn bang-up job.”
He began coughing, “Hell, son, this is partly your fault. You got her all wound up with your call and now we got us a mess,” he said, acting like the mean streak in him was something only ever brought to the surface by others.
“She called me.” I flipped the light. Nothing. Then I remembered Julianne saying something about how he’d removed all the bulbs from their sockets, and I felt sorry for her all over again.
“And I’m sure you finally told her all about how bad I am.”
I bit down on my tongue. He’d been spewin’ this bullshit about it being my fault all three days since it’d happened. It’d been an accident, he’d said that first night, when he called to ask for my help, “You know the kind of man I am. I only ever wanted to be a good father and husband,” and I’d believed him when he said it, even though I remembered the nights he’d come home and whipped me for reasons neither of us could remember the next day. But still, I’d felt sick hearing it, and I’d hung up on him then and both times after. But here I was. My first day off in a week, back in Nebraska, all the way from fucking Texas, just to help him.
“If you don’t need me, say the word and I’ll go. This makes me sick. But I’m here for you, so if you do, then tell me what needs done.”
“Right,” he said. “Just like my son to threaten to leave his old man in his time of need. Like I didn’t do all I could to raise you. Me. A single father.”
I drove, keeping to the backroads on the off chance that the Sheriff might be up and making rounds. Dad sat beside me, chain smoking with the window up, not saying anything.
We’d been loading the bed of my truck with Julianne’s body when I got my first look at him. His skin sagged around his chin, like it was dribbling down his neck, and his cheeks were patchy and red with whiskers trying to push through. His shirt was stained and ratty, and I tried not to think on what exactly those stains were or how long they’d been there. He was silent while we worked, carrying her body from the house to the truck, and I would have thought he was in shock, except for his eyes. They were dull, but there was a kind of glowing in them while we carried her, too, and I thought to myself it seemed like he was almost happy she’d finally made him do what he’d done.
“What are you gonna tell the Sheriff?” I asked while we drove. “I know Veal is gone. Julieanne told me. The new guy. You know him?”
But he said nothing. Just stared ahead at the thin roads that pulled us further and further out and into the fields and emptiness until somewhere past the highway he started giving me directions, his voice sounding like someone pulling rocks over cracked glass. “It’s up here,” he said, directing me where to turn.
I turned off the road and guided the truck over the packed dirt of some farmer’s field. My headlights washed over a small grove of trees, bare and pointed at the purple sky, the clouded moon dull behind them.
“We made it,” he said. “Good job, John, you managed to get here without fucking up.”
I thought about slamming his head into the dash and leaving him in the field. I thought about Julianne and how sweet her voice had sounded the few times I’d heard it on the phone. I thought about Mom and how happy I was she’d been able to see what he had in him and how pissed I was she’d left me behind anyway. But then I thought of the night she left and how he’d come in my room and shook me awake and said that it was just us now. That we had to be strong. Had to be a pack. “Like junkyard dogs,” he’d said, “with teeth only for each other.” I thought about how hard that must have been for him, and how I’d left him too, just like she did.
I got out of the truck.
Spring frost had made the dirt hard, and by the time the hole was three feet deep, I’d stripped off my jacket and sweated through my shirt.
Dad pulled down the tailgate and sat next to Julianne’s small feet, smoking and dispensing wisdom. “Gotta make it deeper than that, yet. Sometimes these guys like to till far down.”
“How do you know about this place?” I asked, but he didn’t answer. Just kept on smoking.
I spit and kept digging.
After Mom left, I used to look at the moon and wonder if she were seeing it too. I looked almost every night till high school before I stopped, and each night, I tried picturing her somewhere else beneath it, happy without me, but I never could. That night, I kept looking up while I dug, but the moon had hid itself behind low gray clouds, like it was ashamed of what I was doing. I dug and thought about the note she’d written for me the night she left. I’d never shown it to anyone, not even my father. It was mine and no one else’s, and I treasured it as though it were a pile of diamonds sharp enough to make your hands bloody.
The note said she loved me but that she had to go, that I was supposed to be a good boy for my dad, and that he knew right and I should take care to always listen to him, especially now that things were going to be hard and he’d need my help more than ever. She said she knew I wouldn’t let her down.
She didn’t sign it but put the date instead, and I used to cry over those numbers until tears blurred my eyes and squinting through then I could make the numbers shape a name, “Maureen.”
At some point, Dad coughed, threw down his cigarette and told me it was good enough. “You dug deep,” he said, his voice rising in his chest, and, somehow, it sounded like he was proud.
Together, we took the tarp Julianne was wrapped in from the bed of the truck. I did my best to lower her in, but his worn and callused fingers let her slip, and she tumbled out of it and bounced off the sides of the hole and came to rest face down in the cold black earth, one of her arms twisted underneath her.
We stood, staring into the pit I’d dug, silent observers at an unattended funeral.
Up above the moon began to peek from behind the clouds.
“She was a bitch,” my father said, breaking the silence and patting me on the back. “But sometimes she could be a good woman too.”
I stared down into the hole, stared at Julianne’s body, thinking that even though I didn’t know her past our phone calls when she’d tell me about what was going on in town and her job at the gas station, I should say something for her, maybe about how sorry I was she’d ended up in a place like this.
“A good woman,” Dad repeated. “A lot like your mother. Now that I think on it. Maybe that’s why I loved her so much.”
He wiped his eyes and flicked his cigarette into the hole after her. The cherry exploded and burnt out on the skin of one of Julianne’s elbows, the flesh going black around the ember.
He turned to me and pulled his pack from the front pocket of his shirt. I watched him light one of his cigarettes, watched the tip of it burn, and suddenly I remembered the night he came in my room, smelling of sweat and whiskey and smoke, telling me that my mother was gone. That she’d left him and me and that she wasn’t coming back. I remembered the way his cigarette burned in the dark that night. The angry orange glow it made when he sucked in on it. I remembered him reaching up and pulling it from his mouth.
And I remembered when he did, he had dirt on his hands.
He moved to the edge of the hole and took one more look in. “Get to work,” he said. “I’m not strong enough for this kind of shit anymore.”
I remembered the note then. Every line of it, the shaking stroke of every letter. How it wasn’t signed. My stomach fell away from me and my head titled back and I stared up at the sky. Cold starlight poked through the clouds and the moon had become half uncovered, as though it were shredding its lies and revealing itself pure and bare. My legs shook. The shovel felt solid in my grip. I hoisted it slowly, my muscles burning with acid and fire, but growing more solid as I lifted it higher. I raised it up over my head. The shovel hung there for a moment, me below it, still scared, still shaking, still sweating in the dark.
Still in front of me, he began to cough, and when he was done, I heard him whispering to himself. “These goddamn women,” he said.
I brought the blade down as hard as I could.
The tip of the shovel went in first and dug into the back of his skull. There was no breaking sound, no snap, just the squelch of another load of wet dirt. He staggered, then straightened, a weak murmur slipping from his lips. Dark blood flowed from beneath his hat, down through his greasy hair and smeared over his ratty cheeks and neck.
He didn’t look at me. Didn’t show me his eyes. I pulled back on the shovel, wrenching it from his skull, and my father stumbled at the lip of the hole and fell in on top of his second dead wife.
He screamed from down there, that cold dark place. He told me that I was a bastard, that he’d never wanted me. He told me to remember my mother’s note, that I was his son and he needed me. He told me he was ashamed of me. That he loved me and needed me and that he was proud. I stood and listened until he’d screamed himself out, then stuck the bloody tip of the shovel in the dirt and started to fill in the hole. “I’m sorry,” I said, but I didn’t know if I was talking to him or my mother or myself.
As I worked, I kept looking on up at the moon, hoping to see it like I had those nights I thought my mother had run away.
Finally, when I was almost done, it shed the last of its clouds and came through, full and bright and round, and I stood under it, my breath catching in my chest as moonlight fell down over me, wrapping me up it in, making me the color of bones, and then the light moved on, and I was alone.
Paul J. Garth
Paul J. Garth’s short fiction, twice selected as Distinguished Stories in Best American Mystery and Suspense, has been published in Thuglit, Tough, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Vautrin, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, and several other anthologies and web magazines. The author of the novella The Low White Plain, and an editor for Rock and a Hard Place magazine and former editor of Shotgun Honey, he is based in Nebraska where he lives with his family and writes.