You are reading Fiddleblack #3
At first I thought my father was dying, but that would come much later.
The way he snatched pots and pans from the cupboard, telling me we were going camping, telling me to pack my things. As if we had to leave quickly because he could keel over any minute and then, too late.
I was twelve then and had never been camping before. As far as I knew, neither had Bruce, my father. He could have gone camping once, back in another lifetime, as a boy. Maybe he was a Boy Scout. Eagle even. Back then I never thought to ask.
The day before, I had listened outside my parents’ bedroom door while my mother and Bruce talked about how he should take me out. How we needed to do more father and son things. Man to man and all that.
On the morning we left I asked, “Are you okay?”
He tousled my hair. “Sure, bud. Can’t your old man take you camping?”
Bruce was an accountant and he worked even when he came home from work. He kept his tie knotted tight and his shirt buttoned up to his neck even at the dinner table. Afterward Bruce went upstairs to his office. He scribbled on legal pads and punched the keys on an electric calculator that printed out rolls of receipt paper. I knew he brought up coffee because of the brown crescents on the desk blotter. That was all I knew about Bruce and what he did. This break in his routine was alarming. It didn’t matter though because we were going camping. Between the ground and the sky, under the water, beside the fire. I was excited to take something away from it. Something of substance.
Bruce loaded a duffle bag with supplies: paper plates, our good silverware, napkins, even placemats. As if we would be using placemats. He threw in matches and some rope and a saw. In a pillowcase, canned beans and soup and a pack of hot dogs. He arranged a fishing pole and two flashlights and a flat of bottled water by the front door. I asked if we needed all those things. He said, “You need a lot of things to go camping.” Told me to pack warm clothes and get the sleeping bags from the attic. I didn’t know if people read when they went camping, but just in case, I packed my copy of The Sword of Shannara. I was always reading fantasy stories back then. Bruce lifted his bright silver toolbox into the back of the station wagon. All the tools inside were bright too. I don’t remember him ever using them.
“Where are we going?” We were on the road now.
“I know a place,” he said.
I didn’t know how he knew a place. The only place I ever knew he went was work. When we were out of our neighborhood he cursed and braked hard. “The tent,” he said.
“We don’t have a tent,” I said.
“I know. We’ll have to buy one.”
At Wal-Mart we found a tent that slept five. “This will work,” he said. Then, “Hooks. Bait. We need fishing things.”
I walked the aisles and looked for signs that read HOOKS and BAIT. I picked up packages of hooks, dozens of sizes and styles. I held lures. Rubber worms that reminded me of candy. Some gadgets, medieval and torturous. Bruce handed me a package of hooks and a fillet knife with a wooden handle and a Swiss Army Knife.
“A hatchet,” Bruce said. “We need a hatchet.” He found a hatchet and he handed that to me too. With the saw and the hatchet and the knives and hooks and rope, we had enough weaponry to take out an army.
I asked with arms loaded, “Should we get a cart?”
“No,” he said. “That should be it. That’s all you need to go camping.”
We walked to the checkout counter. Then, “Wait. Coffee. We need coffee.”
He told me to wait and he walked away. The clerk put the scanning gun down on the counter where other guns were on display. Handguns in the glass case in front of me. Rifles and shotguns stood upright in another glass case. I wondered if Bruce wanted to buy one of those too. I arranged all our things on the counter so she could scan them easily. Bruce returned with a small can of Maxwell House and a coffee set made for camping with picture of a kettle and two small cups on the box.
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s all you need.”
I still believed he knew what he was doing.
We drove for an hour on the interstate. When we crossed a bridge that ran over train tracks and a river, Bruce said, “This looks good,” and pulled off at the next exit then turned down a narrow road flanked by trees and brush. One or two mailboxes sprung up along the way. The road narrowed more and we passed signs that read NO TRESPASSING. He made right turns until we hit a gravel trail. We passed the backs of houses, set far back into the woods. The bank of a river showed through a strip of forest. We didn’t see any houses or mailboxes for another two miles.
“This is it.” Bruce stopped the car on the side of the road. “This is the place.”
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But I knew it was here.”
He told me to unload the back. I wondered if he wanted me to unload the whole car myself, or if he planned on helping. Bruce pulled off his blue work shirt and his undershirt. He wedged the undershirt in the window and rolled it up so the whiteness draped like a flag. I’d seen Bruce without his shirt before, his rolling belly and a chest that looked like it was punched in, but out there in the woods, out where bare-chested men could look normal, Bruce did not. His belly bloated out, lumpy and pocked with the scar he received two years before when the doctors had taken out his appendix.
He secured his undershirt in the window and wrote a note on a legal pad and pinned it to the windshield under the wipers. It read, “Car broken down. Please do not remove. Will be back soon.”
He caught me reading the note. “There’s no parking in the wilderness, son. Just covering the bases.”
We carried the bags to the river’s edge where a clearing with enough space for a tent and a fire gave way to a steep bank. The river rested on the bed like a ribbon of silk. The water, deep purple. Farther out into the river, swirls textured the surface like knots in a tree where the water ran over something on the riverbed. A rock, maybe. I wanted to strip down to nothing and jump in naked. Hold on to whatever was out there while the current pulled me to wherever it was rushing. But I couldn’t with Bruce there. He was my father and all, but I was old enough to feel awkward about everything that was budding south of my belly.
He dropped the bags and the tent and hitched up his trousers and said, “Why don’t you bait a hook while I get this unpacked?”
There wasn’t a word about why we were there. Why we came and why now of all times. Like maybe he had some secret to tell me about life, about being a man. But nothing.
“You deaf?” he said. “Bait a hook.”
I sat on a rock, untangled fishing line that bunched up at the reel.
“No bait.” Bruce rummaged through the plastic shopping bags that littered our camp. On the ground there was a bottle of whiskey, something I hadn’t seen him pack. “Where’s the bait?”
“What?” I asked.
“You forgot bait. Didn’t I tell you to get bait? Dammit. All that crap and we didn’t buy bait.”
“What should I use?” I checked the ground for caterpillars and grasshoppers.
“Dig for worms,” he said. “Anything.”
I knelt and clawed at the earth, pale and dusty at first. When I got into it, when I really dug down, the earth turned over a deep brown, loamy and spongy. I got dirt under my nails but I didn’t mind because we were camping. No worms. I turned over a rock, a log, anything heavy, under which the critters of the earth crawled. I turned over another rock and found a bustling niche where small things with many legs scurried about in the exposure. Tiny robots. Tiny nano-robot insects that could crawl into your ear and munch on your brains. I picked out a particularly vile insect and plucked a new brass hook from the package. I speared the writhing many-legged thing on the hook. It squirmed more. Made the shape of an S over and over. Its tiny legs curved together and made itself into other shapes, precise and mathematical.
Behind me, Bruce wrestled with the tent flaps. Nature thrived all around me. The river ate away the sludgy bank. I knew somewhere within the onyx waters, fish turned and dove. Furious and haphazard. Organisms crawled under my feet. My father and I had brought supplies where only we had use for them. We were out of place in the wild, and I started to wonder if Bruce knew what he was doing.
The insect stopped moving, hung from the hook like a lynching. I flipped the reel on the rod and let out the slack. Holding the rod steady while threading the line through the hook was a task. After dropping it several times I wised up and I held the rod between my knees while I worked on tying the hook. I dropped it again, and Bruce said, “Fumble.” This was supposed to be funny, as if tying off a line was a cakewalk while pitching a tent was a different story altogether. He fought his own battle getting the tent ready. I finally managed and took pride in the completed fishing pole, baited and tied and ready to catch dinner.
Bruce kicked the tent. He lifted it and let it fall as if he made a bed. Then knelt and crawled to the middle and smoothed the bumps. “Give me a hand here?” he said. “You’ll have to do this one day, too. With your son.”
I doubted it but walked over anyway, pulled one corner of the tent while Bruce pulled the other. We nailed in the spikes.
“Point them away from you,” he said. “They’ll hold better.”
We tied the guy ropes and secured the poles. The completed tent, a deflated bubble propped by the flimsy rods, caved in on one side but we weren’t going to make it any better.
Bruce, half-naked sweating and heaving. He swatted at something against his fat neck and said, “It’ll do.”
Bruce told me to catch a fish while he gathered wood for the fire. I walked to the bank where my shoes sank into the mud, downriver where he couldn’t see me. I wanted to do it without any instruction from him. After a dozen casts of reeling in nothing, the insect still hung from the hook, soggy and limp. Upriver our camp was hidden behind several hundred yards of forest. I imagined Bruce stepping through the woods and picking up sticks as if he played a game.
I cast again, pulling the line tight. After watching the line, fine as a spider web and bowing with the wind, it jerked tight, pulled against the current and tugged again. I imagined something gargantuan chomping its way up the line, yanking me in and swallowing me whole. I felt strong when the pole curved under the weight, so taught I thought it would snap. I pulled against the resistance, feeling the fight at the end of the line, the power in my steady hands. The fish dragged against the current, losing momentum, fighting and turning and cutting left then right. I jerked the pole upward, and the fish broke the surface and left the weight of the water and the current behind. It flew past my head and hit the higher part of the bank behind me. I dropped the pole and dislodged my feet, leaving one shoe stuck in the mud. The fish jumped and flipped as if it tried to fly away.
The fish was oval-shaped, flat like a pancake, six inches from end to end. Its mouth and gills flared in sync while the tail flipped. The fish’s mouth closed on the line, trying to chew itself free. I held open its mouth with my thumb and worked my finger into the hole. The hook had caught itself on the gill and blood flushed the membranes and tissues inside. I anchored the fish with my bare foot and knelt and pulled the line, more delicate now, and worked the hook free. The line came, a little at a time, scraping and tearing along the fish’s insides. With the hook out, the fish stopped writhing. Blood and mucus coated my fingers. A bit of jagged flesh hung from the hook’s barb.
I couldn’t take the fish back to my father like that. I buried it where my shoe had sunk into the mud. The hole, a perfect size. I covered the hole with more mud. If I had known any prayers I would have said one but I didn’t.
Bruce sat in a lawn chair in front of a small fire and pulled at the bottle of whiskey. “Nothing?” he asked.
I leaned the fishing pole against a tree.
“I should have gone.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Too dark out now. Cook us up some hotdogs then. Can’t starve.”
The sun had only begun to set. Plenty of light for a few more casts. I found a package of beef franks. They had turned soft and warm, but I was hungry. I speared four franks on a stick and cooked them over the flames. Bruce drank his whiskey. We ate our hotdogs, burned on the outside and cool in the middle. After, Bruce sent me to fetch more wood. I went off into the woods and came back with an armful of logs.
“That’ll do,” he said. “Good.” Then later, “What are you crazy? We need more. Bring a lot more. It’s got to last us. You want to freeze?”
I went out again and came back with as much as I could carry. My arms ached. I dropped the wood.
“Careful, man,” he said.
The wood popped and flared like firecrackers. Cicadas screeched. The buzzing heat had died down, and the river drowned out the sounds of cars passing on the main road. These sounds grew sharp in my head. They sloshed like the whiskey Bruce swirled inside the bottle as if it were a fine wine. Then he asked me a question.
“You seen any tits I should know about?”
The sounds ceased. I dragged my fingers across my arm.
“Tits,” he said. “You know. Chest. Jugs. Ta-tas. You got your eye on anyone?”
“No.” A lie. Sarah Payne was my crush that year. Attraction to girls was constant. One crush bled into another, a new girl fading out the old. But I kept my crushes private, like one might hide dreams of becoming a dancer or an astronaut. Bruce’s probing was an invasion.
“No?” he asked.
I realized then that my father was arrogant. His first arrogance was that of a man, returning to nature and bringing with him all the tools to make the wilderness more comfortable. His second arrogance was that of a father, as if that circumstance granted him access to my desires.
“You kissed a girl yet?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“You’re behind, son.” He drank. “I kissed my first girl when I was your age. After that, I couldn’t stop.”
The hotdogs turned in my stomach. I hoped the flames and the heat from the fire would burn away the image I had of my father groping girls and sucking on their lips like he sucked now from the bottle. In my mind he was shirtless as he was before me. Even though the scar from his operation was only two years old, there it was in my brain, slashed across his adolescent belly, jagged and beaded with blood, the scar tissue not strong enough to hold in his seething lust.
“You want to hear about it?” he asked.
“It was intense.” He set his bottle down and folded his hands. “Me and my folks went to this camp called Fox Cove in the summers. It wasn’t a camp like this but one of those big family camps were you get your own cabin and there are fancy dinners and a dance and all. Real nice place, okay? They had a trail that ran up the side of a mountain and up a stream to a waterfall. All along the way there was this rickety wooden railing. So at the top, when you finish the trail, you could stand at the edge and look down the waterfall. I was your age. Twelve or thirteen. Just me and Nana and Papa. We were there for a week, and that whole time I spent with this girl, Angela. We were the same age. She had freckles. Those freckles killed me.”
The glow from the fire shifted the features on his face. He was remembering. Like he could see her face, something reverent.
“She was a real cutie. God. Body like a gymnast. You know the kind.” One side of his mouth pulled back as if hooked. A snarl.
“We’d skip all the canoeing and the pottery and the archery and we’d take walks, or sneak out of dinner early to go swimming. Things like that. There was a dance after dinner on Saturday, and Angela and I danced real close. I pulled her in so she pressed against me. But it wasn’t enough so I said, ‘Let’s go for a walk. Let’s walk up the waterfall,’ I said. It was pretty dark by then, but the moon was out so we could see a little. So we walked up this trail, next to this stream and all the way up to the waterfall. When we got to the top it was beautiful and the moon was out and shining down real pretty, so I took her hand and I went in and kissed her. She had a real soft mouth, I can still remember, and I felt like lightning bolts were shooting from her lips. But she was leaning against the railing, and like I said, the damn thing was so rickety, it gave way. I mean the whole damn railing cracked and gave. Angela slipped on some loose rocks and fell backwards down the cliff.”
This was the first interesting thing I remember my father ever saying.
“I panicked.” He spoke slower now, not looking at me. He was telling this, finally, for the first time. It was important. “I ran back down the trail as fast as I could to where I thought she landed. I couldn’t find her at first but then I finally did. Half of her was in the water and half of her was pulled up on the bank like she’d tried to climb out. I ran over to her. There was this big bloody gash straight across her forehead. I almost lost it, I didn’t know what to do.”
He made fists and tapped them together. He stared into the fire, remembering. Trying to remember.
“I called her name. I said, ‘Angela! Angela!’ but she didn’t say anything like she couldn’t hear me or something. Her eyes rolled wherever her head went. She lifted her hand but it was weak. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared so I just … pushed her down.”
He cocked his arm and pushed down with the flat of his hand. It shook under Angela’s phantom resistance. He did it over and over, as if working a pump. “I pushed her head back away from the bank and into the water. She sank, and then . . .”
His head dropped to his chest and his shoulders went limp. He bobbed, slow at first, and then his whole body shook. I had never seen Bruce cry before. I don’t know what I did then, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t fair. I believed I was the first to hear this and it wasn’t fair because someone else had to have known. If not Mom, then maybe Nana and Papa. Angela’s parents. Secret horrible things happen to normal people and they have to put it away to stay normal, but still. Someone else had to know.
All this was gone when Bruce raised his head. His eyes, not sad but wild. Tearless and fiery bulbs in his head. He wasn’t crying but laughing. I thought he was crazy. The final blow came when he said, “That was classic. Your face.” He bent over. He shook. “You should have seen your face. I can’t believe you bought that.” He lost it again and then I really knew he was crazy.
He held the bottle up to his eyes and said, “I’m goner than a Chinese gong.” He was far away, on the other side of the fire. He extended the bottle.
I wanted to smash the bottle against his face. Instead I said, “Liar,” but quiet and with some uncertainty.
“What did you just say?”
Louder this time, “Bastard.”
Bruce kicked dirt and rocks my way, started like getting up. “You know what—” he said, but then eased back into a slouch. “Never mind. Not even worth it.” He shrugged and drank. Closed his eyes. Soon he was out.
Bruce’s snoring relieved something in the atmosphere like air cracking a vacuum. A sudden whoosh and release of pressure. I kicked Bruce’s toe, and he choked and slumped and went on snoozing. A signal of his complete absence. The wind shifted and faded out the low droning from his throat and sinuses. Things rustled and rattled in the leaves and the branches. Deer and squirrels and birds and even insects, as if everything was now allowed to come alive. The river nearby roared, and I went to it.
Without any of the hesitation that griped me so tightly just hours before, I shed my clothes. My nipples hardened at the chill. The skin of my groin tightened, and I shriveled up, but not from shame and embarrassment so familiar from the locker room at school, or at the doctor’s office for my physical just months before, where Mom sat in the chair, and I, belly up on examination table, Dr. Phillips probing my genitals. (“Well, Mom,” he had said. “Puberty has started.” I’d gotten taller, broadened out, started to grow hair, as far as I’d known, before most of the boys my age, as if nature had endowed me with some sort of freakish head start.)
That night the river took me in, formed all around me, and yielded to every lunge, kick, and paddle. On my back, I floated my chest up, the moon-lit water rolling off my body, the bulge between my legs rising from the surface as though pulled by the moon’s gravity, revealing to everything and nothing at once that I was leaving behind my boyhood. And there, between the water and the sparkling strip of sky above, I embraced my growth, my freedom.
I rolled in the river. I swam, it seemed for hours, to the other side and back until every muscle burned. At the bank, I spread mud over my body and chucked stones into the water. They lifted in glorious arcs and came down like stars, exploding at the end of their invisible rainbows into the water. Their plunges, things told without a word, without a lie. I washed off the mud. Let the wind pass over my skin, cool me, dry me. Then, when I was satisfied, took up my clothes, dressed, and back to our campsite where Bruce, still hunched in his chair, snored through his deep and drunken slumber.
The owners of the property came while I warmed myself by the fire, rekindling it and bringing it to a hearty roar. One held a shotgun. My father’s age, in overalls and a hunter’s cap. The other swung a flashlight. A thin brush of whiskers grew along his upper lip and oozing pimples sprouted all over his face. Bruce’s chin rested on his chest. Drool shining by the light of the fire. My heart seized up in my chest.
“That your Pa?” The older one said.
“Be a good man and wake him.”
He shooed me over to Bruce with end of the gun barrel. I shoved Bruce and he snorted awake. Annoyed at first, then he saw the man with the gun.
“Seen your car,” the man said. “Seen the note so I left it alone. Then I seen your fire.”
Bruce was frozen sober. He gripped the arms on his chair.
“You’re trespassing. And drunk. Should teach your boy not to do such things.” The man lifted the gun and took aim. “Now clear out ‘fore I get crazy.”
The boy behind him looked out from the darkness with a statue’s gaze, confident, as if this were common. I wondered if he and his father did this often. If they camped out here, and if so, how they did it.
Bruce shrunk under the invisible crosshairs. He folded into the chair and creased along the scar on his belly.
Seeing that this man didn’t blame me for our trespass, I set to packing. I folded the chair and shoved things back into the bags. I couldn’t count on Bruce to do what needed to be done.
Farther out, up where Bruce parked the car, I saw the lights from the house. I couldn’t make out the shape or size of the house, just the lights. I hadn’t noticed them before, but there they were.
I folded up the tent into an unwieldy pile of air and fabric under the guidance of the fire and the beam from the boy’s flashlight. Again I shoved Bruce, swallowing and staring, said “Let’s go,” and poked him. I couldn’t trust him to do a thing.
Bruce rubbed his face and we packed up all the stuff we didn’t use – the coffee maker, the napkins. The man and the boy followed us up to the car and stayed while we finished loading the back, Bruce sputtering and fumbling the whole way. They watched when Bruce turned over the engine and we rambled down the dirt road, back from where we had first come.
My mother woke when we got home, asked what we were doing back. Bruce told her I wanted to come back. That he guessed I couldn’t handle it. I went to my room, without a word. Figured that setting right one lie in a million wouldn’t fix much of anything.
I didn’t realize that I had made a decision that night. It wasn’t the kind of decision that one might make to divide what once was from what will be. To go forward with marriage, say, or to stop eating meat. My decision came in silence, like a depth charge on delay that didn’t explode until a month ago when Mom and I buried Bruce. He was not old, but he was large. One afternoon while he mowed the lawn, his poor eating habits and late nights and overwork over the years caught up to him and strangled his heart. Mom told me he dropped right there in the front yard. The paramedics pronounced him dead when they arrived. Mom cried at his funeral, and I did too.
We walked each other back to the car, holding one another. It started to rain. Mom said, “When it rains at a funeral, it means a soul has gone to heaven.” I didn’t care that he was gone, and I doubted that heaven was a place that suited him, but I didn’t say it. Mom loved him, and he wasn’t a horrible father. Not in an active way that makes some fathers horrible. He put up half the money for my first car and put me through college. For that, I am grateful. It doesn’t make him a saint, but he did that much.
On the ride home from the funeral the depth charge exploded. I knew that on that night years ago I had decided that I couldn’t trust my father. Until then, it was never a question. I had no reason for doing either until I saw him stripped down and naked. He was ugly. I was ambivalent to whatever knowledge a father might impart to his son from then on. Whatever desire I once had to learn from him departed long ago.
For that, I cried.
I must have kissed over a dozen girls since I was twelve. The first one, Sarah Payne, that summer at the community pool. We swam together all day and stayed until the lifeguards closed up. Outside the gate, Sarah dropped her towel. I picked it up to give it back to her. She leaned in and landed one right on my mouth. Tight lipped and quick. Then she walked off down the street. Neither of us lost our balance. Neither of us died. That’s what I tell people whenever they ask, because that’s what happened.
David Williamson holds an MFA in fiction from Old Dominion University. His stories have appeared in C4 and 5×5, and his original screenplay Colby won the 2010 Virginia Screenwriting Competition. David lives with his family in Norfolk, Virgnia.