The first foray into the world of short fiction. Written in 2009, published in the now defunct Ruthless Peoples Magazine.
I look into his eyes, then step forward and unwind.
“Why are we out here?” My words waft white in the frigid air as we walk through the trees. His response is his typical silent pause followed by brown spit into frozen weeds. Although I was born in the house behind these woods I feel no comfort of familiarity. Only cold.
“Pops, why did you bring me out here?” I continue. He hates it when I call him Pops.
“I planted a bunch of these when I was kid,” he says, as if stepping a couple of acorns and walnuts into the ground and walking away qualified as planting. “Couple o’ these trees got some kind of rot. I want to cut out what’s not right, keep it from spreading. We’ll get the low branches first.”
“Then why the ax and not a chainsaw?”
“Chainsaw’s busted. Besides, hard work is good for you. Makes a man out of you. “
Our crisp footfalls end before a small, twisted tree. The whorled trunk’s growth has been stunted; its straight and true brethren tower over it. Most of the branches are dead and naked of bark, unevenly spread, reaching out at awkward angles.
“So why do I need the hard work, Pops?”
Again the silence and another brown projectile of tobacco residue. I pick a branch and swing the ax. It bites wood with a hollow thud.
“Just worried about ya.”
“Why?” As if I don’t know what’s on his mind. But let him say it!
“Well, you know. Since you moved to California, you’ve changed. You ain’t the same.”
I am the same. I’m just proud of it now.
“In what way?”
Another blow. I feel the pain of impact up my arms as chips fall to our feet.
“I don’t know about that whole music thing.” He has never thought of music as a proper hobby, much less a profession, but that isn’t what’s bothering him. I’m glad he’s uncomfortable; let him understand what it’s like to be uncomfortable in his own skin.
I pull back and strike again. The limb barely hangs on.
“Pam always thought you were doin’ drugs.” He continues.
Hell yes! Of course I do drugs. Probably no worse than his own six Pabst a night. And why does he care now? He was proud when the cops brought me home drunk at 14!
“And then there’s the Mohawk.”
Another hit. The limb falls to my feet. I pick it up, throw it aside, select the next target.
I had green hair even before I left. The old man’s still dancing around the point. He just can’t say it, the coward. I should never have come back here. I never would have if Mom hadn’t gotten sick.
The silence wedges cold between us before he mumbles:
“She said you’re living with another man.”
Ahhh, there it is, what truly bothers you. Took you long enough.
I attack another branch. It bites clean through. I rest on the ax handle.
“What’s wrong with that Dad, if he makes me happy?”
“It ain’t right.”
Always such a great judge of right and wrong. Was it right to come home every night from the chocolate factory and ignore the wife and kid while he drank shit beer and puttered in the workshop? Did it ever make him happy?
“Aren’t you happy that I’m happy?”
Again the silence. He scratches his beard while I deliberate further dismemberment of this pathetic, twisted little tree.
“Look. I just want you to have a normal life” he finally says. “I don’t think it’s healthy.”
It’s too late for that. Now I get his concern? That’s not what bothers him. I know him. I take another hard swing. It provides no relief.
“You are my son. I don’t want no son of mine growing up weird, is all.”
“Don’t want me growing up weird?” And there’s the rub. Afraid that it is some reflection of you? Maybe it is! The anger that has been simmering all my life, suppressed but not forgotten, begins to sweat from my pores, driving the next cut deeply into soft wood.
“You know. Maybe more like your cousins, little more normal. Nothing wrong with that is there?”
His beloved nephews, truck driving football stars. Shining beacons of comparison all my life.
“Since when do you care?”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean? You are my son aren’t you? Can’t a Dad care about his son’s well being?”
I stop my swing and look at my father. Old beyond his years, hunched there, hands in his pockets. Fucker! You start caring now? You never said shit my entire life!
“You think there’s something wrong with me?”
Again silence as he looks at the tree, then at his shoes, says nothing.
“Well, Pops, whose... fucking… fault… is.. that?”
“Now don’t be blaming me for your problems.”
What the fuck? Did he forget? Because I didn’t. I can’t. I’ve tried to, pretended to, but never have! a man remembers being five. Remembers his father making him promise not to tell, to keep a secret, nothing wrong with what he just did with me, did to me. Again.
I had swallowed the truth, not for him or myself, but to spare my mother. But now she’s gone, the earth still brown and raw above her grave. So it doesn’t matter, does it?
And her last words to me: “I’m sorry”. Two tiny words that had destroyed what little I had left. All those years, and she had known.
I stare at the rotted trunk in front of me, barely able to see through the seething red that creeps into my vision. This tree is beyond salvation, beyond any possible efforts of the swinging blade.
I hate him for making me hate her!
Cut out what’s not right? Cut out the twisted? You created the twist!
His precious trees mock me with their strength, their solemn health, surrounding this decay before me. And he wants to save their perfection. Only loves perfection.
Anger overwhelms. I no longer care. I grip the ax tightly, trembling.
I look into his eyes and unwind.