Monday, March 11, 2013

Fathers and Sons

“You’re not so different from me,” the father said to the son.

The son furrowed his brow, looking puzzled.

“Not so different from you?” he said. “You don’t know that.”

The father looked down, studying his calloused hands. He patted his son’s knee—his pant leg caked with mud—and scooted closer. They were sitting on the front step of the house’s wraparound porch.

A spring breeze rustled the maple trees. A cloud of dust kicked up on the gravel road, which wound from the highway down a lane to the farmhouse.

The father turned to his son and smiled, slightly, shaking his head in a knowing way, the way fathers do sometimes.

A year earlier, the father had said goodbye to his son. In that time, he hadn’t heard from him, didn’t know what had happened to him, whether he were alive or dead. That was the hardest thing—the not knowing.

Now, the father sat with him, looking out onto the road. His boy was a man now.

“I’ll tell you a little story, Son,” he said to him. They sat in the breeze, which carried the smell of fresh-tilled earth. Soon, it would be planting time.

“If you’re granddaddy Pete was here he’d tell you himself.”

The father told the story of a boy who didn’t like the words, “No, “You can’t,” “You shouldn’t,” “You mustn’t.” “That boy,” his father said, “was like a horse without bit or bridle. Just wanting to run free.”

He told how the boy’s parents had done everything to try “to rein him in,” to keep him from hurting himself or others, but the boy just wouldn’t listen.

All other options exhausted, the father decided to send his “wild” son off to a special boarding school, which promised in its glossy brochure “to turn a reckless young man into a responsible one.” The father believed it. He didn’t have another option.

So, off the boy went to the school. He spent a year there.

What a year that had been, the father told his son. One of Fs in the boy’s subjects, of bad conduct reports, of long-distance phone calls to and from the headmaster—until the boy reached his year of “emancipation.”

At seventeen, as he frequently had told his father, he would be free. The father almost looked forward to it. He was weary of the conflicts, the uncertainties. The father, usually on edge, wondered what the boy would do next.

Emancipated, the boy would be on his own. “I can’t wait,” the father told himself.

“Wait, Daddy,” the son said, turning to his father on that front porch. “This isn’t just a story, is it?”

The father shook his head. “No, it’s not just a story. That day I came home from boarding school was some day. Granddaddy Pete was madder than a swarm of wasps.”

“The way you can get mad, Daddy?” the son said.

“Worse. My daddy told he how disappointed he was in me, how he’d tried everything, done everything for me, and he just didn’t know what to do anymore. He’d run out of ideas.

“But I didn’t care. I was tired of being told that, ‘He was just looking out for my own good.’ I’d had years of that—of him nagging me, ‘Get an education. Make something of yourself.’

He said his father didn’t understand that he just wanted to be his own man.

There had been a lot of shouting that day, his father said. He told how his father had grabbed him by the collar of his flannel shirt. He shook him with his big hands.

“I thought he’d shake my head right off my shoulders. ’Let me go,’ I yelled. I tried to break away.

“’Let you go,” he said to me.”’I’ll let you go. I’ve tried to hang onto you too long. Go, if you want. I can’t stop you. Just go.’”

He went to his little room and packed his hand-me-down suitcase—scratched and scuffed by the years, fastened shut by straps, the lock broken long ago.

“I needed to travel light. I’d be hitching highways, hopping freight trains, until I got to the city. Then, I’d be free. I’d live.”

He went downstairs with his suitcase in hand. His mother sat on the couch in the front room. Her lap held a mound of crumbled tissues. She was crying. He’d never seen her so upset.

His father hulked before the front door. He thought his father would use his giant hands to try to stop him from going.

The father thrust a brown paper bag toward him. “’Take it. It’s yours,’ he said to me. ‘It’s what you’ve wanted. Asked for. It’s yours now.’

“My daddy gave me a bag of money. He’d been saving for me since I was a baby. For college. For my future.’

“I took it,” the father said. “I hugged Mama and said goodbye to Daddy, and off I went. I didn’t walk down that road there. I ran to the highway. Caught a ride from a trucker. My first ride to freedom. I thought.”

The father paused, remembering those days.

He went on, telling his son that he’d traveled highways and rails until he finally got to the city. What a great time he had. He ate steak and lobster, not the ham and potatoes of the farm; drank with his new-found friends, played poker, frequented the jazz clubs.

“I’d drink myself drunk,” the father said, “and then pass out. I’d wake up beside a different girl every morning. It was the same thing day to day, month to month. Until, one day, Son, that bag of cash was empty—and so was I.

“I’d spent everything and didn’t have anything to show for it. The friends I thought I had? The minute my money ran out, so did they.

“I begged food. Couldn’t afford a room, a bath, to wash my clothes. And the things I did just to survive? Waiting on the street corners ‘til somebody took pity on me. Or picked me up. Shameful things.”

The father shook his head in disbelief. He still felt regret, even shame. But that was in the past, he reminded himself.

As he told his son the story, he began to tremble. He took out a red-and-white checked hanky from his overalls. He dried his eyes, blew his nose.

What a sound he made—like the honk of a duck as it leaped from the lake into the air just before the hunter fired.

Father and son smiled at one another and, at the same time, remembered the good times and how they used to sit in that freezing duck blind, waiting, whispering, drinking black coffee out of an old thermos.

As they sat together on the porch, the father reached his arm around the son’s thin waist—he’d lost weight, the father thought—and pulled him closer, just the way he had as a child.

Quiet now, the two of them stared up the gravel road. They could hear the rumble of the big trucks on the highway as they hauled coal from the mountains of eastern Kentucky up to the railroad in Ashland.

“We’re not so different, Son,” the father said again.

The son shook his head in agreement.

They were silent for awhile on the front porch, sitting side by side, letting the sunlight fall upon their faces, the breeze play in their hair, the father’s just a few gray wisps now, the son’s thick brown hair tied back in a ponytail.

They both breathed deeply, as if drawing the moment deep inside themselves to keep forever.

The father spoke first. “So, when I saw you walking down that road right there—filthy, stinking, that suitcase of mine in your hand—I did what your granddaddy Pete did when he saw me on that road there. 

“I ran to you, threw my arms around you, and kissed you like you were a newborn. I couldn’t help myself. You'd come back to your Mama and me. This was the moment we'd prayed for."

“Oh, Daddy. You know. You understand."

“We’re not so different, Son," the father said, shaking his head. 'Yep, I do. We both were lost, but now we’re found. Dead, but now we’re alive.”

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