Friday, October 5, 2007


by Rob Howard

Two days before my sixth birthday Dad walked up the basement stairs. His feet scuffed the wood steps as he rose to the top where he shut off the light. He stood against the dark, saw me in the landing’s half-lit shadows and smiled.

“Hi son,” he said, “you look like you’re waiting for someone.”

No matter how I tried, I couldn’t fool him. So I just kicked the old linoleum floor with my toe.

“Or maybe it’s some thing,” he said, his smile broadening, his blue eyes cutting through the murk to mine. I see now how gently he teased me. But back then when he caught onto me I felt endangered by the huge hands hanging down by his sides like un-cocked guns. Although he never used them against me, in that moment they felt too close for comfort. So I lied.

“I just wanted to see you Dad.”

That wasn’t a complete lie. I wanted my dangerous Dad. I wanted him to come home from work, to sling me at the ceiling or sky then catch me just above the floor or ground. I loved how he made me gasp like that and then sat down and taught me to read. I wanted to know what he knew, to do the things he did. He fixed wires in the light fixtures, unplugged the drains and re-plumbed the pipes. He climbed ladders and patched the leaky shingles and then patched the ceilings and walls where the rainwater fractured the blackened plaster. He leaned beneath the hood of our ‘56 Chevy Bel Air and, as he said, made it purr. He tinkered with the basement’s oil furnace until it sounded like the Chevy. He gently looked at broken things; he touched them and they worked. He never let me see him impatient, and although sometimes I heard him shout from another room, by the time I got there he’d be humming or chuckling to himself. And whenever I became frustrated, like the day I learned to ride a borrowed bike, he’d soothe me just enough so I’d keep trying. Today I marvel at the father who descended into me to find the broken, the half made and the good. But that day on the landing, I didn’t want Dad poking around inside me. I wanted my birthday gift early, the bike in the basement.

Our basement sat beneath us like a magic gold mine. After some banging and singing down there, up he’d come with treasure. I remember him once hauling up hand-crafted sections of oak furniture to the landing, and then packing them up the narrow twisting stairwell to my parents’ freshly painted bedroom. He packed bureaus gaping for their drawers, then the drawers themselves, and night stands, a headboard, pieces of the mattress frame, and the legs he’d sculpted on a lathe so they’d look pretty holding up the bed. Somehow he’d curved one piece of oak into an oval around a beveled mirror. I followed him up and down the stairs, and stood in the bedroom doorway while he littered the floor with pieces of a puzzle that made no sense to me. Finally, when he looked at me and nodded, I came and kneeled behind him so that I could reach into his tool box and hand him what he wanted. I listened to him drilling, to the muted squeaks of turning screws, to the sighs and chuckles leaking from him. He fit pieces together until a whole bedroom of hand-made furniture stood in disarray before us. Better than store bought, the neighbors said later. When Dad showed me how he’d flushed the edges and hidden the screws, I wanted to keep him a secret lest someone steal him away. This stingy son didn’t yet understand how much everyone needed his dad.

Then Mom came in and helped dad arrange the furniture. The room grew large and beautiful as every piece found its place. Mom packed in treasures too, the ones she’d conjured in the spare bedroom. She made the bed with flannel sheets, brightly colored cotton blankets and a creamy bedspread filled with holes that she called eyelets. She fluffed the matching pillows and hung flowered curtains on oak rods. She set down circles of lace on the twin night stands and on her dressing table. Dad remarked how everything she placed on the tanned wood drew out its darker grain. She nodded and dressed the stained and polished floorboards with her hand-braided rugs. Finally she plugged in a nicked up brass lamp that Dad found abandoned in the basement by the previous owners. She touched it with the kind of light that in the late afternoon, as she said, pulled the room together. At last my parents stopped to look at their work. Then Dad put on the finishing touches as he fit the back of Mom’s body against the front of his, and me into the space between their hips. We rested there a long time, my parents touching each other, touching me too.

I wanted all the basement treasures Dad made to be ours, but he gave so many of them away. It seemed as if some days he woke determined to anger me with his generosity toward others. He’d work for hours or days on something and then just hand it over as if it were nothing; to the priests and nuns, to the cop who lived down the street, to the grumpy gray-haired teacher around the corner, the one who never smiled at me. I didn’t like my Dad being that nice to those people. As far as I could see, they did nothing to deserve his gifts.

Like that jaw grinder of a next door neighbor Mr. Jones who I refused to call mister. He complained about our noisy front yard football games, claimed the shade of our trees killed his trees that our weeds choked his grass. In truth dead limbs throttled his trees and his weedy uncut grass oozed clouds of pollen that made our whole neighborhood sneeze. For some crazy reason he took to walking home from the market with nothing but an empty brown shopping bag. Paint peeled from his house in long thin scabs until one weekend Dad and some neighbors cut the weeds and grass and scraped and painted the whole house. Jones thanked everyone by complaining about the color of the trim and wondering out loud if Dad hadn’t thinned the paint to save a buck.

That Jones, so many times I watched him stand in his brown yard, a bastard troll who wet himself, pointing his finger over the low fence, calling my Dad names. I wanted to yell, point back Dad, make your fists and hit him! But Dad just listened as if the old fart had a point, and then he’d smile and promise Jones to keep our yard weed and make sure us kids didn’t bother him. I shook with rage as Jones stalked then into his house, slamming his door like a big shot as if Dad didn’t still stand there. I felt ashamed following my defeated Dad inside our house where Mom was already busy baking up a chicken, sausage or baked bean casserole. After the timer went off, she’d fuss with her hair then walk the steaming dish over to the Jones’s covered front porch.

Her pretty smile only brightened when Jones threw open the door demanding to know what she wanted. What a fake. He smelled the food coming. And just like Dad, Mom always gave in. She’d hold up the casserole dish where Jones poked at it before jerking it out of her hands. He always told her he hoped it didn’t make him or the missus ill, and as far as he was concerned it was the effort that counted and they’d make the best of it. Then he’d yell over his shoulder isn’t that right hon to a wife too good to come to the door.

I wanted to throw rocks at Jones. Break his windows. Make his bald head bleed, see him stumble with the stoning. Make his stuck up wife come out to wring her hands, and turn some helpless circles around her fallen man. I hated her for hiding, and him for talking to my parents like they were bums or bad kids, or people who just didn’t give a damn. When it was the Jones’s who didn’t care. They never returned my mother’s casserole dishes. Must have had fifty or a hundred of them piled inside their kitchen in dirty rickety columns like in a Dr. Seuss book. Never did they cook my Mom and Dad a dinner and walk it over.

I woke on my birthday fed up with the unfairness of my family and neighbors. I sulked all day, even while, thanks to Mom, I ate my favorite dinner. Then with candles burning on a frosted cake named for me, I shouted at my parents for letting Jones bully them. Every so often for emphasis I shouted, what’s wrong with you? While I ranted my parents treated me like they treated Jones, listening until the candles burned out and I stopped shouting. As six smoky spirals rose from my melted name, Mom and Dad rested their foreheads together like embers sharing heat. Then they grinned, I thought back then, to make fun of me. Their little loving smiles, I see now. Then Mom, her long lashes fluttering in time with her movie star mouth, spoke to me in fragmented hard things were for Mr. Jones, how much he needed people to be kind to him; how much the rest of us needed to practice kindness; what a gift to our family, to everyone on the block! Then Dad chimed in with, “We all need each other son, this one to lighten that one’s load, that one to test another’s strength.” Then Mom said how important it might be at times to know that others cared for you even when you weren’t at your best. And to share, she went on to say, even when no one says thank you because sometimes receiving a gift is all some people can manage.

Mom’s words reminded me I had a bike coming. Dang my Dad, I thought, for making me wait two more days when I had scores to settle. Now he stood and led me down into the basement where he slipped the sheet off an old Schwinn he’d found somewhere and fixed up. The scratched chrome fenders gleamed in the light of the lone bulb, the butterfly handlebars rose high like a ship’s wheel, the brand new whitewall tires matched my white high top tennis shoes. He lifted the rear wheel off the floor and I turned the pedals and together we listened to the chain purr around the sprockets. He let me push the bike up the stairs by myself, helping only when in my haste I slipped. Out the backdoor I flew, bouncing down the concrete steps, running beside the bike and swinging up into the seat like a cowboy onto his horse, leaving everyone in my dust. How quickly I’d grown above saying thank you.

I spent the next six days finding new ways to heckle Jones with my bike. I began by cutting brodies in his dying lawn. The next afternoon I raced up and down his crumbly concrete driveway until he stumbled drunkenly onto his porch roaring. The following day, while he walked to morning mass, I turned silent narrow circles around him. The day after I spun out so gravel flew against his old Ford Fairlane, and the day after that I darted from an alley to make fun of his pee-stained pants. On day six as he trudged home from the market with one of those stupid empty sacks, I balanced on my pedals beside him calling him every name I knew. And on the seventh day, before I could get him again, Jones died.

I watched from my bike as some men in a Catholic ambulance came and packed something out of his house wrapped in a sheet. Everybody said that Jones lay inside but to me the small white lump looked like a dead dog. Then my parents and their neighbors began packing garbage from Jones’s house. Dad made me put my bike away and come help. The whole house stunk like a dirty bathroom. I stomped streams of roaches until Dad touched my shoulder, handed me a broom and said, “I’d rather you help us son by sweeping up the floor here.”

No one found a Mrs. Jones. I didn’t know how or when she’d left. At the end of the second day of cleaning, just before sunset, someone found the key to a long row of locked metal kitchen cabinets. Inside sat rows of paper sacks each stuffed with something and taped shut. A woman gasped as a man tore the taped edge off one bag and peeked inside.

It’s a casserole dish, he announced. Everyone looked at the rest of the sacks.

Why? another man asked.

To keep them clean, a woman answered.

Women wiped the counter tops and began pulling bags out to set them there. Before another man could rip open another bag, a woman appeared with scissors. She cut carefully, gently brought forth a dish. Oh my, she whispered as she took off the lid. People gathered around and looked down at an envelope addressed to my Mom. She held it up so I could see. And here, another woman hushed over the first dish. Everyone looked at Mom, and when she nodded women passed the scissors, opening each bag to free that dish’s envelope. A pile of Shirleys rose on the counter. Some women washed the table and others set the envelopes there. Dad, the neighbors, they disappeared while mom sat down and fiddled with the pile. When she noticed me watching from the arched doorway she waved me over and wrapped me in a warm arm.

What’s in the letters mom? I asked. She opened an envelope and showed me how inside the card Jones had written her name again, and just below scribbled four lines. I pointed at his smeared words. Tears, my mother said. I read the smudges to myself. What do they mean Mom? I asked. Thank you, she said, and she asked me to read another one out loud with her.

A wife for me no more
A wife like you right next door
This work, these words, late I know
The last I do before I go

In every card the same poem, every one unsigned. We read them all together. The more we read the more Mom’s pretty voice deepened like when Dad did something nice for her. I didn’t understand how that mean old man could make my mom feel good.

Finally Mom handed me the last envelope, this one addressed to me. I don’t want it, I said. Open it, Mom replied. So I read: I’m sorry I yelled at you son. You’re a good boy. Be a good man, like your dad.

Then I saw he’d signed a mangled name; oh God the same as Dad’s, the same as mine. I tried to hide my stinging tears but Mom pulled my hands around her neck, leaned into me and pressed her lips against my eyes. Then she cried these scary sounds, so long and high I thought she might die too. Her hands gripped me, those warm arms crushed me so, and her slender fingers turned in the curls of my long blond little boy hair. Then one by one Dad and the neighbors came and stood around the table holding hands, a whole neighborhood swaying and humming, weeping with one heart. Our tears fell on something holy, a man saying I’m Sorry in every single Thank You.

The day after Mr. Jones’s funeral my parents took a trip into the country, just them, up the sharp canyon edges of Greens Springs Drive. I watched the Chevy disappear down the road then, helped by my memories of them, imagined my parents inside. Dad relaxed at the wheel, his arm out the window. Mom’s back leaning into Dad’s side, her bare left foot on the seat, her other foot on the sill of the open passenger window where she touched the wind with her toes. Dad’s free arm draped down the front of Mom’s bosom, his hand patting and rubbing and resting on her hip. Mom held and stroked and squeezed Dad’s arm, her fingers slipping up his rolled sleeve to tickle and pinch him. For miles and miles they laughed and teased and talked. Together they climbed high.

That night I dreamt a dream that still comes. A wheel falls off on a high curving road. Dad crushes Mom to him as he brings his right arm up to turn the wheel. But the curve turns faster and the air can’t hold them. Dragged down by the draft of the plunging car I’m just a bird falling in frantic circles, seeing through the Chevy’s windows my parents’ faces kaleidoscope through fear, surrender, to love looking at each other. Then the canyon floor’s afire; Dad and Mom stand in flames, smiling there with Mr. Jones.

Who knows the language of dreams? I just know they come when with our habits silenced by sleep we might see something new. I woke the next morning wanting for the first time in my life to give my neighbors gifts. So I started running errands on my bike for everyone on the block. Yes, I felt guilty about how I treated Mr. Jones. But greater than guilt I felt a bit of selfish boy burning up in me, and a better boy burning on.

1 comment:

John McLarty said...


Thanks for the story. It was sweetness for my spirit today.

John McLarty