Volume 26, Summer 2004
University of Alaska Fairbanks
By Dave Donelson
I drew a picture of my father; he could not see. All around him in the blackness there were demons. My mother, my brothers, and me, we danced and sang dirges while tirades flowed from his lips and he cried because he could not be with us.
I think that is what he wanted. I drew the picture but I didn't know his secret thoughts or anything else about him except that he pushed a broom somewhere and he was gone.
He pulled my tooth out once, in his overalls in the principal's office. Pop! It was gone. His chambray shirt was starched and neat, the sleeves buttoned, and the collar buttoned, and no patches anywhere. He might have smiled or grunted. I put the Kleenex with my tooth in the pocket of my rayon shirt that screamed red and black slashes on white.
How long? How many? More and more flew around his head, wings flitter-flapping, tails snapping, beaks clicking and eyes popping. Squeaks and squeals and screeches from some. Others sang wash day songs and sucked on their teeth. We danced and dirged.
"Are you okay now?"
"Sure. Thanks. Good to see you."
He disappeared in the crowded hall. Big kids shoved to class. Bells rang; papers rustled; the buzz of the lights blanked out the songs. I didn't see him go. I knew where he was, though: down in the basement deeper underneath, tending the shiny boiler with his talented hands. Bright, bright light bulbs. Hard shadows everywhere. Me nowhere. Him down there with a red handkerchief in the pocket of his overalls like a farmer.
The picture didn't have a sky. A lost boy went behind Safeway to play the splintered boxes and eat pears. You could hear the cooler engines running and smell the milk on the asphalt but far enough away it got better and dusty in the tall, dry grass. The pear tree was wild but was there a house there one long time ago? Maybe. He would have been, too, but, you know.
I went home to draw some pictures of stick people and forgot. The Kleenex melted in the wash with my tooth. He melted, too, I guess, into the sky that wasn't there or into the boiler or into the milk on the asphalt behind Safeway. We sang and sang, but he never really came back.
* * *
The tent would leak if I touched it from the inside while it was raining outside, he told me. That made no sense but I believed him anyway because he was my daddy. I read Ivanhoe while he fumed.
He had built a plywood box and filled it with food and cutlery and a stove and put it in the truck which was his fantasy marked "and sons." There was only one real son, plus me, whatever I was every other week. We drove to the lake anyway, taking the plywood box and the tent that rained inside and Ivanhoe. He put the row boat on top by himself because we were too short and weak. First the highway, then the gravel, then the dirt road; out in the frustrations, we camped together.
It was a grand plan, but the seine didn't catch any bait so we dug worms and put them in the Folgers can with mud, but they drowned. I lost the red and white wooden bass plug. It scared me. I foresaw its deadly gang hooks piercing my thumb because he jerked the line too quick. One point dug through to scrape the bone. The other flesh-ripped the soft skin on the back of my hand with the barb through my freckled skin. It peeled back the meat but no blood came, just me going white while he jerked and yanked it closer. Instead, I cast the stiff metal rod. The reel whirred. The plug flew. The line snarled in tangles and tiny knots. The red and white wooden bass plug splashed into the lily pads.
"He jumped right up and he said, I'm glad I'm just a little green frog, swimming in the water. Glump, glump, glump."
He took a turn around his hand and yanked hard, hard, so very hard that the line sliced his flesh and he screamed. He snatched a knife from his belt and cut the line. Sad, so sad, smiling faces were everywhere in the sky. They reflected on the lily pads.
That night he showed me a broomstick with a green steel spearhead with two points. Neptune had one, I said.
"A gig?" he asked.
"A trident," I answered, cocky.
"For frogs?" he asked.
"For stirring storms and parting the waters," I answered.
"No," he dismissed me, "that was someone else."
We floated through the bulrushes in the dark. I held the light to find the red frog eyes. Could he? Whoosh stab! No!
In the day light he dangled a red yarn hook but the now-yellow frog's eyes just stared, never blinking, never crying. One bit and snagged and dangled, bleeding on the string. He cut the lips but the legs were too small.
It wasn't time to go until the next day but Ivanhoe was done and it rained inside the tent because I touched it, so we packed up the seine with the gig and the metal pole and packed back up the plywood box with the food and the cutlery and the stove and put it all in the truck and drove home. He to his; me to mine. No talk.
* * *
The Pieta glowed rosy pink in the Sunday sunrise as Mary wept over her wasted son. Shuffle on by we did with the crowd chatting its way into the sanctuary. Shuffle, shuffle, flowers on hats and ties and paper fans. Shuffle, shuffle to the pew, fronts to backs, fans flapping in the closing-in air. Sit, sing, bow our heads front to back, listen, stand, sit, pay, pray, sing the doxology and recite the Apostle's Creed. Shuffle, shuffle out past the pink Pieta and into the sticky black parking lot.
I went with him to his mother's house where I changed into my good play clothes and went with him into the basement where he taught me how to skin a squirrel. It was dark in the basement but he pulled the string on the light and we were blinded by the bulb at first, sun exploded in our eyes like death exploded in the squirrel's head when he shot him. Then our eyes cleared and I saw the dead squirrels in the basket at the end of the table. Just slit the belly and slide off the slippery skin, chop off the head and hands and slip out the entrails and wrap it all up in the skin. Keep the tail, though, you could use that on your bike or something someday. There was very little blood, now that I think about it, considering that the entire big basket was full of little tawny creatures that had been shot just that morning. He showed me how, then I did it.
Through many miles of wild and dangerous country, we tried to drive home or wherever we were going. Nasty yellow mist rose from the ground head of us, stinking and obscuring the trail, filling our burning eyes as the day wore on and the wheels crunched over the ground. Halfway home,
"There are two things you should know," he said. I didn't answer; he didn't expect me to by now. "You need a shine on your shoes and clean teeth." I still didn't say anything, but I looked at my scuffed shoes and ran my tongue over my furry teeth. "People look at thinks like that. They judge you that way. You know what I mean?"
He was only partly right, of course, just like he was only partly there some of the time and not there at all most of the time.
Later, I didn't even know he was there until after the commencement ceremony, the diploma, the caps and gowns and the walk up and down the aisle. He snagged my arm in the sunshine and gave me a gold ballpoint pen in a box. Cost him sixty dollars--more than I paid for my first car. More than three weeks' rent. More than he could ever again afford.