Richard Lee Zuras (M.F.A., McNeese State University) studied under the auspices of Robert Olen Butler. Currently teaching creative writing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, his work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, Passages North, South Dakota Review, Xavier Review, and Yemassee, for which he received a Yemassee Fiction Writing Award. He is at work on his first novel.
This is the last story I heard about my father.
His name was Jack Grady, and he worked as a rail-yard guard north of Denver for twenty-two years before moving my mom and me and our dog Kirkie to a little town called Beach, along the North Dakota Montana border. I was eleven or twelve at the time, and I guess he was near fifty or fifty-one. Years later my mom's younger sister told me that I was a mistake. She also told me my father had never wanted kids, had even threatened to give me away a couple years earlier to a Sioux couple he came to know working construction north of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where the White River snakes its way out of Badlands National Park. But he never did. Though I did meet that Indian couple once, by chance, fishing Lake Oahe, ice fishing, where we pulled what I guessed were dead pike out of a frying pan sized hole my father had cut-out with his hand axe. My father always carried a hand axe with him, even when he wasn't clearing paths through the Badlands National Park, where he worked, or the Teddy Roosevelt National Park, where he also worked. It was a thick handled thing, made of pure ashplant, heavier than it looked, with my father's initials burned into the base of it.
But this time I want to tell of had nothing to do with my father's work in the national parks, though it did have something to do with nature. My father had taken to drinking again, especially weekends, something he had not done since we left Denver. My aunt told me years later that he had "jumped right off the wagon." It was the first I had ever heard that he'd had a real drinking problem. Whenever I'd asked my mother she just shrugged it off and told me "everyone drinks" or that it was just a lot of "bad talk." But this last story anyone knows about my father, he's drunk no matter who tells it. And no matter who tells it, no matter how this detail or that changes, the story always ends up in the same place.
It was the first full winter we had spent in Beach, North Dakota, a couple of weeks into the new year and my father without any steady work. We were living in a trailer, a single-wide, maybe fifteen by forty feet, the four of us including my mom's sister, who was visiting, and our mutt Kirkie. My mother had taken a job waitressing at a little diner in town, maybe a ten minute car ride from the farm where our trailer was parked. My father, I remember, joked that we were too far from downtown Beach to hear the ocean. He'd always take me outside to look at the stars when Mom would work overnight shifts. And he took me outside the last night I ever saw him.
I could smell the Ben-Gay he always rubbed into his arms, even on days he didn't work. It was a menthol smell, and it's with me so much to this day I can't smell a lit menthol cigarette or walk into a locker room without thinking of him. That night the air seemed very still, and his scent seemed especially strong.
"Good star night," he said. Every night he took me out he said it. He said it if the sky was clear and a whole moon sat up in the dead middle of the sky. He said it if a black snow cloud was sagging low overhead. He said it even on nights when all we could see was the glow of our black and white TV flickering through the trailer windows.
"Great night, Pop." And it was. The steady snow had stopped around supper, and though a new storm was supposed to be arcing its way down, an Alberta Clipper, it held off long enough for the moon and the stars to come out again.
"Bother you, son? Your mom working and all?"
"I don't know." I knew, though. "I guess," I said.
"Me too," he said. He held an unlit cigarette in his mouth. One of mom's. Every once in a while he'd strike a chimney match along the edge of his steel-toed boots. Every once in a while he'd get one to light, and he'd bring it up to the tip of his cigarette and then curse it out with a big blow of his breath.
"Over there, see," he said. He was pointing more with his chin than his hands, which he kept tucked up under his arms. In the distance I could just make out a yellow flare of lights. They looked like one big blur, like when you're at a stop light and it goes yellow and you squint at it and the light of the traffic signal merges with the streetlights and every light blends together and runs soft, incandescent, warm. But the light I was seeing were the lights coming out of downtown Beach.
"One of those lights—your mother's inside one of those lights."
Looking back, it was the first he'd ever mentioned Mom when she wasn't around. It's funny how two people can get so intertwined, can become such a pair of one, and then when separated, the one never mentions the other. I've seen the same behavior a dozen times with a dozen couples since. And so I'm always struck by the way a dog will search the entire house, exhaust every room, the moment it knows someone is missing.
"I'm tired," I said. I was always ready to go to sleep just when he'd bring me out to look at the lights. And every night, after I'd look around and notice the same truths—that we were on some guy's farm in a trailer big enough for one, that our car looked like it'd been in a demolition derby, and last, that the accumulation of the winter's snow was not going anywhere—I'd tell him I had school the next morning or hockey practice, and he'd say, "Yep," and we'd, both of us, head back in, brush our teeth, and sack out for the night.
My father didn't move. He didn't seem to be hearing me. His head was cocked away from his body and turned in a profile, and he just sort of leaned toward the lights of downtown Beach.
"You want to go see your mom?"
"Not really," I said. What I wanted to do was to go back inside and crawl under my covers and sleep. It seemed colder the clearer the night sky got. In the moonlight I noticed my father had shaved his face. Usually he wore a short beard all the way down his neck. But in that sparse light I could see patches of red, and the crust of blood where the blade had cut him near his adam's apple.
"We could go see her," he said. There was a flash off his boot, and then it came up and flared again at the end of his cigarette. It was the first time I'd ever seen him smoke a cigarette. He'd play poker sometimes in the summer, out on the red picnic table we always dragged around with us, and sometimes he'd smoke a cigar, if anyone had gotten a hold of a Cuban. "We could, you and I, son, get in that pickup truck and we could get on sixteen and drive on into downtown Beach. We could get a scoop of ice cream at your mom's diner. You still like mint chocolate chip? We could get a double scoop sugar cone of mint chocolate chip, each of us, and we could walk on out of there without paying, without so much as a word to anyone. And we could get back in our truck and take the service road to the interstate and head west. Then we'd be in Montana, just like that." He snapped his fingers as he finished, and then he turned to look at me. His eyes were a little red, I guess from the cigarette smoke, and then he turned and stared back again at Beach.
I said, "I'm too cold for ice cream." But I don't think he heard me.
"We could keep on heading west, too, son. We could take turns at the wheel. In Montana, you'd be old enough that nobody would pull you over. Take her easy though. Take it real nice and easy. Just spell me while I took a drink you know? Then before sun-up we'd make Missoula. We could stop in Billings and pick up supplies and gas-up. But we'd eat breakfast in Missoula. How about that? Did you know you could wake up and eat easy fried eggs in a whole other world if you want to? Did you know that?"
"I hate fried eggs," I said.
"You could get some damn pancakes then. Or toast and jelly." He put his arm on my shoulder and squeezed it. Hard. He looked at me and smiled. "I'm saying a man can get somewhere, you know? We could be up in Glacier National Park by the afternoon, and do some fishing in Flathead Lake along the way there. You ever been to Canada?"
I looked at Beach when he said it, like maybe I could see what it was he was looking at. My mother had taken me to see relatives one summer when my father had taken a road-paving job through the Rocky Mountains, and my father always wondered where all we'd been while he was gone. I hadn't thought about that summer in years.
"No," I said. Though I wasn't quite sure. We had spent some time in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I figured if we had been in Canada, it was only in a car, driving, and I didn't think that counted.
"We could go up there. The Glacier National Park stretches right up into Alberta."
"I've never been there," I said.
He crushed the cigarette under the toe of his boot. "Me neither," he said.
I went back inside, half expecting him to come get me again. But he didn't. He stood outside in the same spot, his head cocked toward Beach. Toward mom. Through my bedroom window I could see him shifting his weight from one boot to the other. And occasionally he'd pick up a stone and arch his back and heave it in the direction of the lights. Then I fell asleep.
There was a noise, a sharp metal-on-metal kind of noise, and then I heard my aunt say, "What's that?" Then my father's voice in a low, rumbly tone said, "Go back to bed Gerty." I stood up, and I put on my jeans and my hockey shirt, and I peered outside. My father was there, but now he was over by the pick-up, and Gerty's hands kept reaching for him, and he kept backing away from her. Then I saw her hands grab at his and his hands jerked away, and then she ran toward the back of our trailer and he took off running after her. I went out the front door and I came around to hide behind the truck, and I could hear Kirkie's bark coming from different rooms in our trailer, my bedroom, then the kitchen. Then my father yelled, "The hell you are. The hell you are."
I climbed into the back of the pick-up and laid chest-down against the truck-bed. The metal burned cold into my bare cheek, and then a beer can clanked into the corner, emptying the rest of itself under the plastic seats at the base of the truck-bed. Then one door slammed shut; the truck moved to that side; then the other slammed, and the truck rocked back again. I looked up enough to see that the rear windows were closed, and I sat up and strapped myself into one of the plastic jump seats. My mother wouldn't let us ride in them, but my father said he'd bought a Brat because of those seats, and he'd let us ride in them on short trips. I could tell from the quick start that it was my father behind the wheel. He had a way of popping the clutch so fast that the wheels would spin in every gear. I could hear them pretty clearly through the window, and I hunched down a little so they wouldn't see my hair blowing or anything. I figured my father was just going into town to see Mom, but when we came off the farm, we made a couple of wrong turns, and then we wound up driving a road I hadn't remembered being on. Everything looked pretty much the same outside Beach. Farm property covered in snow, the occasional John Deere covered in snow, abandoned cars covered in snow. Then I saw a sign that said Wilbaux, two miles, and I knew we'd gone across the border into Montana. We were picking up speed, and my feet were getting cold; they felt hard, and for a moment I'd wondered if I'd forgotten to put on any shoes. I looked down and realized I'd grabbed a pair of worn-out sneakers, and I was grateful for a moment, until the pain started up again. There was an old, ripped-up blanket underneath my seat, a little wet from the beer, and I wrapped it around my feet. Then I got nervous again, wondering whether my aunt had actually gotten in the truck. I began to think maybe I'd just heard a woman's voice from the AM radio, and I began to think my father actually was going to wake up in a new place. I started trying to calculate how long it would be before he'd stop in Billings for gas, and whether I had enough money to hop a bus back home. I prayed he'd stay off the interstate at least. I decided if he got on the interstate I'd just turn and bang on the little back window. And then the truck stopped fast, and I heard my father say, " Fine Gerty." Then I did recognize her voice, but I couldn't quite hear the words she said.
We went back the way we'd come, and I could hear the sound of her voice every mile or so. She was talking real soft, and my father wasn't saying a word. Then we found our way back up the hill behind our trailer, and when my father shut off the lights, I could see the lights of Beach come into view again. My father cut the engine, and we rolled to a stop in some deep snow by a cottonwood. My father called them snow trees because when they blew their cotton, it looked like a little winter storm. I thought that maybe he was thinking that right there in the truck, sitting there with my aunt and looking out over the snow. I heard my father's ring against the glass and the sliding of the panels and then the sound of jazz music coming from the radio. The warm smell of cigarette smoke filled the space around me and then just drifted into the night. We sat there through a couple of songs, and then the DJ came in and started reading public service announcements, and then the radio went dead. The door on my side opened, and I could hear my aunt give a little cough, and then the door shut again. When my father got out, I looked up over the roof. I could see he had caught up to her, and they had started talking again. When I got inside, I had to grab Kirkie and muzzle him. He let out a little wincing noise then followed me sleepily into bed. I thought about watching them through the window, but before I could even get the covers up and around me, I was out cold.
All of that I know happened. The rest of that night, from three a.m. on, I know only from my aunt. It was years before she told me everything, around the time I turned eighteen and moved up into Manitoba away from her and my mother. She said a story is something you hear from a person you don't know. But when someone who loves you tells you things about a loved one, that's called truth. My aunt also said you have to accept things as absolutes, hold them like truths, or they will eat at you forever. And I think maybe I believe that absolutely. The thing is, the truth about my father eats at me too.
My Aunt Gerty and my father got back in his truck around four a.m. with a six pack and a bag of saltine crackers. They were on their way into Beach to see my mother. My father drove, and Gerty went up and down the radio dial waiting for a response.
"Right there," my father said. "Go back."
Gerty went left and eased in a country song.
"That'll do," he said. "Tonight, that will just sit up and do."
"Listen, Jack. We could just go get breakfast at the truck-stop. My treat."
"We're going to the diner, Gerty."
Gerty popped the tabs on two beers and handed him one. "Go easy," she said.
"Always," he said. "What's that they say? Calm, cool and collective."
"I think it's collected, Jack. Calm, cool and collected."
"Oh, right," he said. He turned the volume knob down a bit. "That's one dumb song," he said.
"You picked it, friend."
"I'm your friend, am I?" he said.
"Jack, look, of course—I'm just trying to work this through for you. People hit patches, right? Like you hit some ice or something. What's that when you can't see the ice?"
"Black ice," he said.
"Right," she said. She rolled her window down a bit and squinted through the crack. "You hit some black ice and things get a little extreme and then you get a grip again and you just keep going."
"I've hit black ice," he said.
"Yes. Well, not you. My stupid sister has. But she'll come through it eventually."
"That's not what you told me a couple hours ago, Gerty."
Then she was silent for a minute or two. She took his hand when he reached across for another beer, and it felt so cold and hard in hers. He left it there, and for a moment the ride felt smoother, and then he took it back and slapped it hard and flat on the dashboard.
He said, "That damn old man's touching my wife. You know, Gerty? He's touching her." His face seemed to grow larger as he spoke, and the pitch of his voice went up and down in waves. It seemed to Gerty like it was cracking, like it must have when he was thirteen or so. She wondered what his face looked like then. Then she said, "What will you do?"
"He's my son, Gerty. How the hell does she think she's going to get him. That's a laugh. You know what that is? That's a damn laugh!"
"Look Jack. Be smart about this. That's all I'm saying. Don't make them do things you'll regret."
"I'll regret? I'll regret what they do?" Then he turned and stared at her, and for a moment Gerty thought they might go right off the road, miss a turn altogether and plow right into a snow drift. He looked that wild right then. Like he was capable of doing something. When she spoke again, he turned back to the road.
"Jack, all I'm saying is this guy's not just a lawyer in Beach. He's also a travelling judge. Circuit court or something. He knows everyone in Beach."
"He don't know me," he said.
She started to say, "Everyone that matters…" but caught herself. Instead she said, "They're all a bunch of crooks."
"Then you tell me how she'll get custody? She leaves me for some old fart judge and she gets custody? A man gets fired twice and he's a drunk? I never hit nobody."
"I know," she said.
"I work, you know. I still work."
"I know," she said. "It's just how it is now. Maybe if you don't say anything it'll pass. You know? Maybe you guys just need a cooling-off period or something."
"Or something," he said.
From where they parked they could see my mother through the front glass. She was serving pie to a younger lady, and at the end of the counter sat a man in a checked homburg reading a newspaper.
"That him?" he said.
"Might be," she said. "I think so. I just know he's in town right now."
Then the both of them watched my mother come up behind the man and place her bare left hand, fingers spread, across his upper back. His face turned in towards her, and then she leaned in and kissed him on the mouth. It wasn't a deep kiss, or even a public kiss, but the kind of kiss you see two people give one another when there is something unspoken between them. And then they sat in silence, unable to figure out what to do next. Like they had too many options to choose from, or too few. Like they knew any move could be the wrong move, or simply the next one. And then my father told my aunt to get out, and she did.
She stood there in the cold, still holding the remaining four beers by their plastic holder, the cans dangling limp at her side. She looked in at my mother who had her back to them, moving a rag back and forth across the counter where the pies and coffee cups and saucers were stacked up. Then she looked back at my father, who was still sitting there, his knuckles all lined up in a row atop the steering wheel. It seemed to Gerty that they, the four of them, did this for some time. The four of them, there, all hopelessly intertwined and familiar and so close and just so unaware of each another. Then my father started the car, backed up, and drove away with his lights shut off. It was a moment, Gerty later said, that felt less like regret and more like calm. She said it was the only time in her life when she actually heard absolute silence.
After a minute or so the car came back around to the front of the diner. Gerty climbed back in, and the two of them headed for the interstate. They got on 94 and headed east. They passed Home on the Range and the Chateau de Mores historical site and were coming up on Fryburg before Gerty dared to say a word.
"You miss working here?" she said.
"What, the park? Sure. Teddy Roosevelt was a great man," he said. He grabbed a beer from Gerty's lap, popped the top, and took a long, slow, draught. "Warm as hell."
"Maybe," Gerty said, "I should dangle them out the window." Then she laughed. She looked over and tried to read his face by the light of the dash. He took another swallow.
"Let me know when you see the signs for 85 south, will you?"
"Sure," she said. She thought to ask him where they were going, but when she looked back at the road, she could see the sun coming up straight ahead.
"We're heading straight into that big orange fireball," she said. She was relieved to see it. "We could be in Bismarck in two hours."
The car slowed, and he eased into the exit lane, and in a moment the sun was no longer in front of them. She sensed where it was, like a plant or a dog might, and turned to her left and found herself staring at my father, this man she had known for so many years, and with the sun shining from behind his head, in the silhouette, she noticed traces of salt on his cheek bone.
Out her window she watched the southern end of the park roll by. The snow had covered everything in a fresh white down. The trees in the distance looked like giant Christmas trees, and she cracked open her window hoping to glean the scent of a fresh pine or spruce or fir. By the time they rolled up and across the edges of White Butte she had drifted off into a deep sleep.
"Up Gerty. We're here. Wake up," he said.
It took her a moment to get herself oriented, and another before she could speak. Then she said, "Where the hell are we, Jack?"
"West of Castle Rock," he said. Then he got out of the car and walked off. She looked around the car for her gloves and found them on the floor in front of her, under the beer cans, all empties. It took her a minute or two to catch up to him; his gait was long, and she still felt achy with sleep. She looked back and noticed the car was parked in a kind of makeshift lot with picnic tables sitting here and there, a children's plastic play area, and some swings like you put infants in. No one else had parked there, but there were enough spaces cut out that it had to be more than just a roadside pull-off. When she caught up to him, he was sitting on a log and sipping one of their warm beers.
"Don't worry," he said. "I didn't drink while you were sleeping."
"Oh," she said. Then she said, "Thanks."
"We've been here about forty-five minutes or so, maybe less."
"That the last beer then?"
"Yep. Sorry," he said. Then he swallowed the last of it and tossed the empty behind him. "Don't litter," he said. "Keep your National Parks clean and serene."
"Are we in a National Park?"
"No," he said. Then he stood up and opened his arms wide. "We're at the epicenter of the whole damned country." Then he made a turn with his arms still out at his sides. Before he could turn a full revolution, his feet came off the edges of the log and he stumbled back a few feet onto his back. She started toward him, but he was back up before she could get to him.
"From here," he said, "we can get anywhere."
"I don't get it," she said. She looked around and tried to figure out where they were. "Are we in Wyoming or something?"
"No," he said. "We're in South Dakota, sister."
"I'm not your sister," she said.
"Right," he said.
"I think there's a storm coming," she said.
"I think you're right," he said. Then he climbed back onto the log and took out his hand axe. He tossed it at the log and it struck in with its blade. He did this a couple of times. Then he said, "From here a man could wake up anywhere he wanted the next day. In twenty-four hours I could drive my truck almost anywhere from right here." He pointed at the ground as he said it, and then he split the log again with his axe.
Gerty sat down and pulled her arms tight around her. Even with the heat that the sun had offered, the air was still chilly, and the beginnings of snow flakes were edging their way down from above. She could hear the snow give beneath her as she sat, and the crunching noise it gave seemed so familiar, so calm. Then she pulled her hat down over the folds of her ears and just breathed. In the distance she saw Jack toss his axe up and then clap when the axe would give itself over to the weight of its blade and strike itself clean into the log. Then he'd pull it out and toss it upward again. The mid-day sun was giving in to the roll of the snow clouds, and the failing light did its best to gleam the metal of the whirling axe blade.
After a while he stood up on the log and began to toss the axe and then catch it by its short, wooden handle. His motion was fluid, jerking his hand in only at the last second, out in front of his chest and a little to his side.
"You're pretty good," she said. "You don't even look scared."
He smiled at this, at this little thing she'd said to him. Then he tossed the axe a little higher, adding one more swing, one more time around, handle over blade, handle over blade. And he never missed. Gerty tried to count the revolutions the way her sister and she had counted the revolutions on their baton. Maybe it was more than twenty she thought. She watched it come down, and she could see his arm rise up from the side, rise up to snatch it peacefully out of the air; then she saw the other come up as well, and neither arm stopped; they reached out to each side, and she thought he might turn himself, add one more revolution, and then his right arm did lurch forward, and then she could hear a sound, muffled, and then his eyes grew big and an elbow appeared in front of him, awkward, and then his body gave a little bend forward, and then a longer bend backward and the little axe seemed to be pushing at him, pushing at his chest and at his throat. The silence returned to her. The godawful, full throated, sound of complete and utter nothingness.
I spent the next few years with Gerty and my mother—who were never the same after all of that—in towns like New Salem, Watford City and Lostwood, before we finally settled down just outside Williston, North Dakota. We never talked about any of it, not really, until Gerty told me all this truth, and a week after that I packed up my stuff and headed north into Canada. Once, a few years back, I tried to make my way to the spot where it all happened, down to the geographical heart of America, but I couldn't manage to get past the little town of Buffalo, South Dakota, before heading back. To tell the truth, I doubt I'll ever get all the way there.
But if I do end up there someday, I guess it will be at sun-up, and I'll just point myself in one direction or the other and drive out as far as I can get in one lonely day, and then I'll pull off and stop at the first roadside diner I come to, and I'll sit down, very calm, and order a full plate of easy fried eggs and sit there, a man waking up in a new place, and I'll just watch that sun come up again. Maybe then, for me, that will be the end of it. Just maybe.