FIRST PLACE: Sons and Fathers
By John Allen Boyd
We are standing in the road, the two brothers and I. Not a smooth road for real traffic. Just a rough, curving, dead-end lane. Once an ancient toll pike of hand-cracked stones and now by-passed by the highway higher up beyond the tree line. Below us, farther on, the old trail curls down the hill into secondary growth retaining the rutted impressions of wagon wheels. I hear the bells from the nearby monastery calling for prayer. It is more distant but on the same road where the Donkey Tree is. Everbody here’bouts, the taller brother tells me, knows the Donkey Tree.
The sun is dropping below the ridge, but we have enough light to see each other. Our eyes and mouths clear to us. We stand at least an arm’s length from each other. Perhaps pose is a better word than stand. Posing slaunchwise as men do among relaxed male company. The trinity of us. I, the old man, favoring my right leg, with my shoulders back and hands in back pockets. The two of them, the brothers, watching me, their bodies supple and rough hewn. Their voices sounding blood kin to their t-shirts and boots and blue jeans. Showing polite deference to me. Mister Avery, they call me. Judging by their crust-edged hands and faces, both are in their thirties. The younger one, Gan, has lived a harsher life than Dice, I think. Each of them chained to his separate indenture.
Mysteriously, under my eyes, they alternately swell and shrink, involved in their self-consciousness. And looking at them, I imagine the two as small boys playing Hurt and Kiss. One squeezing a finger of the other until that one cries tears. You gotta make real tears. Then the squeezer kisses the finger to absolve the pain. Back and forth. As I had done long ago with my brother. A game of other as self.
I am here. We are here. In the rurals. An incestuous place. Many in this population retain the tongueless mind-sets of their elders. The hugeness and danger of their fathers. Their necessity to be harsh. A view that says I am stuck here because I can’t begin B unless I achieve A without much effort. So why bother? For these brothers, I realize their final choice was the status quo. Sharing immobility and acceptance that they have come as far as they could. Drop out at sixteen and drift around from one fuck-up to another. Marriages. Jobs. Hopes that have been abandoned and forgotten. Ignorance. An occasional bright moment. Never enough money. Not hearing the music of Time sliding away. Life is desperate. Don’t think about it. Don’t think.
Some years back, I was a teacher of their father, now dead. He was a boy then. Before he spent time in prison. And now his sons, I think of them as boys, stand with me. Both slender in muscular ways. Dice smoking a cigarette. Gan, now and again, gnawing at a troublesome fingernail. After I fanned the air, they stepped a pace or two down wind from me. Hardened men. The kind who are content to know little of other places. Both of them bearing the rugged countenance of drugs and booze. Of disruption and solitude. Of perpetual anxiety — which softens while we talk.
Off in the cedars are the lights of Gan’s trailer. One end sagging to the ground. He tells me his daughter moved out recently to be with her boyfriend. And Dice teases with adagio tempo, An’ yew know whut! Last year his old lady divorced him. I seen her drivin’ off waving her middle finger out the winder. At that, the boys grin at each other. Amused.
They are close. We visit of an evening about this same time. Come together and say little, I think. Share some weed and drink a beer or two. An assurance. Like the monastery bells. A place to be at the end of the day.
I drove here from the city to buy some pot from Gan. Home-grown is better. That delicious incense able to repel the Enemy. Green aroma of hay and a touch of skunk. And I paid him for the quarter bag with Dice standing off to the side, attentive while avoiding the appearance of watching.
Our transaction was in Gan’s dirt driveway hidden from the road by scrub cedars. Then we moved casually out to the scrumbly blacktop for a few moments of respectful conversation in the open space there. I am trusted even though I no longer belong here. In the rurals. But they credit me for having been a teacher of their father and once hunted coons with him and his older uncles on a night of low clouds and light, sharp sleet. The time the dogs treed the albino coon. A kill talked about by the local coon hunters even today. Imbedded in that set of lore.
Over there. To the side of their grandmother’s house — the altar of that family — Dice’s little boy is wrestling with the yellow dog. On her lawn. Both one-third grown. Tumbling. Scruffling. Yipping. Popping up and rolling over one another. Chasing each other. Running in circles. At times, instead of a flaxen haired boy and yellow dog, I see two young boys. Or is it two puppies? Free. Each of the same mind.
I comment to the brothers, Look at them. That must be the highest form of happiness. The brothers look at the boy and the dog. I see their eyes, Dice and Gan’s, working over my words. A slight lifting nod of agreement from both. Clearly, they are not the sort of men to act silly. Not any more.
The security light at the driveway to the grandmother’s house comes on. First a hum. Then a yellow uncertainty before turning moon white. Each brother shifts his stance. Shuffling of boots. A one-step. A two-step. I hear the scuff of their heels. Not restlessness. Just prevention of stagnation. Though they are a little apart from me, now and then they tilt toward each other. Then away. I catch how they glance at each other. There is an intimacy that bonds the two. Connected like pups in a litter.
As we look, the boy, oblivious of us, stands with his arms out, and he twirls. A spinning top. The pup sits back and studies this. Puzzled. Its head cocked. The boy lifts his arms toward the security light. We hear the tolling from the monastery again. Then he begins hurling his arms for greater inertia to twirl and, in moments, tumbles to the grass. His eye agoggle and unmindful of the dog. We are remembering our own times. Images of trust and freedom and silly fun waver in our minds. Then the pup rocks back and pounces on the boy. Their open joy resuming.
To them, I am a curiosity from the lands beyond their lives. But having taught their father and people up and down the roads and lanes of this place, I have their tacit passport for safe entry and trust. For protection, even, should I call for it.
My awareness of this boy — and his father and uncle beside me — rings stronger and more vivid. The idea of paternity surfaces. The continuance of seed. That endless and easy flow of generations. In my head I catch a scene of a father walking in tall grass. His young boys trying to stay close. Leaping up again and again. Their heads bobbing above the grass to keep him in sight.
Now, in my last years, I understand. It was here in the rurals where I encountered that sharp-edged reality: a son’s growth is his father’s decline — a son’s youth is his father’s envy — a son’s friends are his father’s enemies. And I remember the father of Dice and Gan.
I earlier inspected them for traces of their father as I remember him from back in the unruly 1960s. A teasing sort of kid in bib overalls and boots sometimes redolent of a dairy barn. At other times, the faint odor of wet wood ashes about him. A laboring man’s hands. A smooth face trying to look older — his life already sculpted there. A sturdy boy with smoke blue eyes and harsh eyebrows — like his sons, Gan and Dice. A ninth grader not quite sixteen biding his time to be an adult man.
He was fascinated by our Opportunity Class and was usually the first to rush in. At the beginning of the second week, just before the others came rumbling in, he showed me his new Barlow knife. To impress me. To relate to me. A gentle offer of trust. The sharing of his pride and a step into the shy courtship of a boy awed by an older man.
In class he scrambled letters in words — god for dog.
The superintendent anointed this English class Opportunity Class. My instructions from on high were, Do whatever you can to encourage their language skills. Most of them will drop out as soon as they can. See if you can improve their reading, writing, and speaking.
I knew about being different. About belittlement and failure in the eyes of my own people. And vicious teasing and abuse for being different. About frustration and social predation. The idea of this classroom captivated me. A potential way of atonement maybe. I would use whatever tricks I could to energize these kids. Set it up so that each one might find pride in individual ingenuity. No girl among them. Twenty-nine troubled boys. Hardly a one could read beyond basic service words. But they loved nature. And guns. Messing around with motors and electric circuits. Stories about dogs and horses and hot rods. And, high among their attainments, teasing one another.
Two of them had killed their drunken fathers — to protect their mothers. Both in bleak mid-winter. One with his father’s shotgun. The other with his mother’s butcher knife. The grand jury did not indict either of them, though their paternal grandmothers did. When time came for first one and then the other, with dark circles under eyes, to return to school, no one in our class treated them differently. Both of them disarmed of their fathers. Each now walking with a different step.
The boys in that class amazed me in their practiced obdurance against academic learning. So I had them bring in snakes and turtles and fish and worms and frogs. For our terrarium. To nourish and observe. For dissecting. Learning words words words.
I went coon hunting with several of them and got to know their families and ways. Their values. Their superstitions. Every one of them firmly believed in ghosts. And God less firmly. Each boy had a dog. They all knew first hand about death. Yet, when I read Old Yeller to them, most of them sniffled and teared up quietly at the end. Along with me. Their heads looking down. A muffled silence in our classroom.
Standing in the hush of evening, I told Gan and Dice about the time I left Opportunity Class for a few minutes and came back to find them, including their father, in a circle holding hands. I thought, Now what? Then I understood. They had been waiting for a chance to play with an Army surplus telephone generator I had on my desk. The kind that you might notice in a war movie. A soldier in a fox hole cranking the box to connect with headquarters for artillery support. I took in the spectacle of this class holding hands. One boy had a finger on the anode and another boy pressed a thumb to the cathode so the current would travel around the circle of boys. Hands innocently holding hands. One little fellow, the one terrified of electrical shocks, cranked up the generator sending out twelve volts around the circle. The smallest boys experiencing the jolts. Yelling. But the big boys looking blank. Until Scaredy Cat revved up the generator to as fast as he could go, his tongue to one side of his lips and his eyes sparks of happiness. That’s when the big ones leaped and lurched and squawled out. All of them as one.
Another great moment of learning had slipped in on them. About electrical resistance. And I bragged loudly to them about how they cooperated with each other. That different kind of power.
The memories of an old man feeling compassion for the past.
When Christmas break came, I asked who would take the cage and pair of love birds home since I would be out of town. The father of Gan and Dice pleaded and begged louder than the others. So I appointed him. Drove him to his home after school. Not far from the monastery and the Donkey Tree. Way out in the country. He marched, maybe paraded is the better word, proud as a turkey into his mother’s house, talking and cooing to the birds and looking back over his shoulder at me.
And when school resumed in January, in he shuffled with the cage. Empty. He looked at my feet and began lightly crying. Holding back sobs. I held his shoulders at arm’s length, looking down at him, and asked what had happened. Between gulps and sniffling, he said, Saturty last, I let them birds out to fly around in the house and my cat ate ’em up. Solemn looks from the other boys. We had lost members of our family and strengthened an understanding of food-chains and survival of the fittest.
There in the country road, I told that story to Dice and Gan. But I left out that their father had cried. They were standing still, listening to this memory of him. The three of us cloaked under the free and happy sounds of the boy and yellow dog on the lawn. The boy taking a moment to lie stretched flat on his back in the grass. Arms out to his sides. The dog wondering about this. Waiting for more.
Gan’s eyes went to his boots, inspecting them, before lifting his head to his brother and grinning. The air between them busy. Old Dad, he sure didn’t need no embalmin’ fluid when he died, did he?
Each of us there a son, never coddled by a father.