Monday, May 27, 2019

Burning Down My Father's House, fiction by MIchael Gills

I once thought to burn down my father’s house. It happens like this: I’ve flown into Little Rock though everyone thinks I’m floating the Green as I often do, four days rafting from Flaming Gorge to Swallow Canyon, slaying calf-length browns on golden rapalas. I don’t seem to notice that my flight is traceable to my name or even if I rent a car and drive my credit cards will light up my tracks. Truth is, it’s hard to burn down your father’s house without getting caught. However I get there, I get there, and I’ve rented a car, and brought one of those 2.5 gallon red plastic gas cans like the one at home that has MOWER written on it in permanent black marker. That’s me, Mr. Mower. I’ve filled it to the brim, the gas can, and you can smell where it spilled in the back floorboard, hear it slosh at the J-Ville exit where I hang a louie toward Foxgrove Country Club where Daddy’s house is built off the front nine, where leaning against the garage is the hot tub Mama drowned in, his trophy.

It’s always late afternoon, when I break in, the refrigerator contents showing he hadn’t changed a bit, same six-month old Styrofoam tray of brown hamburger meat, fetid pasta, light beer, some bacon and a slice of country club cake in plastic from Foxgrove just down the way.

That’s not fair–Mama’s the one who let the hamburger go bad.

I smell him.

The musk from when him and Mama shared the same closet, his shirts and underwear down by the shoes, the green road suitcase from whence Mama once pulled a condom and baked into the Sunday meatloaf, made sure he got the right piece. I’d watched him put it into his mouth and make the discovery, look at Mama across the table, blue eyes hard as pond ice.

He hadn’t come from country club people. His daddy drove for ETW and C, and was a local driver who masked the whiskey on his breath with Certs, which he always kept in the front pocket of the Pendleton shirt he wore in winter, a white t-shirt in summer. I’d stayed with him and Evelyn the August Mama had Jimmy, and I’d missed her, silly six-year-old me, and had picked a bouquet of red tulips from his front yard for her, and he’d spanked my ass with a belt—for picking flowers.

Evelyn, his mother, she was a crazy drunk who’d offer you a pickle to kiss her, then she’d go in the bedroom and try to kill herself, so Daddy’s brother Chester’d have to drive her to the ER, and they’d sew her up or pump her stomach and she’d be home again, there on Thayer, across the street from a paraplegic who’d lay in the deep grass of his front yard, face up, so you could see his teeth. Daddy and Uncle Chester’d played baseball with his son, they’d talk to him and he’d recognize their voices, call each by name, tell a dirty joke.

Some Black Panthers had moved in up the street so Grandfather kept a single barrel shotgun leaned in every corner. I stayed there some nights—where they mixed and drank their whiskey I have no idea, I never witnessed a single bottle, not ever, but it was always on their breath, always.

They never got fall-down drunk, either, nor passed out or blackout, even. I could just always sense a difference, a glint in their eyes, hot brown like Chester, who’d go on to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals–go ahead, run his name–my daughter and I have, his ERA and win/loss record. Daddy’d played with Brooks Robinson, got his autograph for me at the Central High 40th where he and Mama’d attended a get-together of the Tigers and Doughboys,. Dear Joe, it says, could your old man ever throw the ball. And I guess he could, all those afternoon pitchout sessions on the new cut grass that stained the white cleats he’d bought me for Pony League, American Legion, rock and fire, he’d say. Rock and fire.

I’ve never actually seen the house I’ve come to burn down. So I haven’t really processed key points like where to park or registered who’s home and might eyewitness me amongst these neighbors, country club snoots who lay out at the pool then practice their pitching wedges on the practice green, their Ping putters in one gloved hand, the wedge in the other. And I’m the sort of person that makes people suspicious, always have been. Cop sees me driving down the road, on come the lights. And even once, when I’d showed up at the Utah Supreme Court because the Chief Justice, Don Dierling, who was a friend of mine, who was giving me the pick of his personal library before retiring, his wife Nina was late to meet me at the courthouse door and I’d stood inside the rotunda and the security guard got a look at me, and stood their glaring for a siloed minute until I couldn’t take it any more and walked outside. There came NiNi walking up, so I told her–about the security guard who’d glared, how I’d never been one time to court for a good reason. “You’re such a strange man, Joe,” she’d said, and I guess it was true–regular folk could smell it on my breath, the strangeness.

It was, of course, imperative that O.W. not see me. He was a smart motherfucker and without surprise on my side, I didn’t stand a chance. I was toast if he saw me first, and he’d know exactly why I’d come, had been waiting for a long time for me to so, probably wondering where the hell I was, what was taking me so long–didn’t I have a hair? Once I had some girls over and yes we had some liquor–small potatoes, peppermint schnapps, maybe, or Wellers, And I’d called FrostLand to ask for his ETA, when would he be home? And he’d called the house straight away from the mobile in his long white International, said, “You’re not having a party in my house. Send the floozies home. And you’d best take your booze back where you got it from.” Just like that. I didn’t say a word, sent the girls home, poured out the schnapps or Wellers or whatever I had. He could read me, O.W., see through the layers of my heart.

Maybe we had that in common–seeing though each other's shit.

Trace’s wedding reception was at Foxgrove, about close as Mama ever got to her Dream Wedding, a catered white cake affair after the June ceremony at First Baptist, where those tiny dents up in front of the pulpit marked exactly where Jimmy’s casket had sat when I bent over him that linked my heart and blood and love, even, directly to O.W., how he’d bound us together till flying through the windshield at eighty miles an hour on Highway 319 outside Vilonia, the shortcut I’d taught him back from UCA where I’d been first of us to dare college, and then he was gone and O.W. wept the way he had when his daddy died, and it felt like a heartbreak there is no healing from, one of those moments in life that seals your direction for good and ever. Yes, that was it, Mama’s lupus erupting full throttle, and it was only the Clinton Campaign in ‘92 and the man whose face was so like Jimmy’s that stopped her fall, so she’d let her guard down and O.W. had sleuthed it out, so her finalĂ© was set. She drowned of a heart attack he’d said in the midnight call, so we never said goodbye, me and Mama, and for a long time she tried to contact me from the grave until I told her to shut the hell up and die, and she did, and I have not heard her voice in a long time.

The hot tub leans on its side beside the garage in the back yard, just like I’d dreamed it a half-dozen times. Of all goddamn places, they’d had it installed in Jimmy’s bedroom some years after the car wreck, the clothes hanging in the closet just like he’d left them that day before Mother’s Day when he died. O.W.’d insisted Trace have it hauled to J’Ville when she disinstalled the monstrosity, and there it sits, the abject tool of my mother’s death. Risking all, I pee on it for long as I can, crouched in shadow behind its back, the heat from it enough to melt my hand. Back home, my wife and daughter live their lives, the first of May already, a big ass snow storm dumping flakes big as hands, a foot of fresh powder gleaming up on Gobbler’s Knob.

No such luck here. Arkansas, May, the heat factor brutal already, ninety-five with eighty percent humidity, you forget that in Utah, the heat and the ticks and the fleas. Daddy’s air conditioner kicks on, the fan whirring. The pad where he parks his golf cart has oil leaked on it, little circles on top of circles. Odd, in my dream he’s electric. The back door is unlocked, I walk right in.

There’s a recliner as ever, a brick fireplace and on the mantel the photograph they’d had made without me–the full smug look on his face, his family at last, Trace, Mama, O.W. and blue-eyed Jimmy, bad, bad luck if you think about it, letting that picture get taken. And what a twist, here in J’Ville, where Mama’d met my blood father at the Base, his tight-fitting uniform and white teeth–the very town where I’m standing, the family photograph where I’m missing.

Upstairs in his bedroom, the master bath with its scales and poofy toilet cover, Trace’s touch, before she moved out with her boy, Dougie, the two of them across town in a trailer, she’d hit me up over the phone for first and last month’s rent. “Mama’d want me to help you,” I’d said. “Please don’t cry, please.”

The way he’d worked it, Daddy, was to mortgage his and Mama’s house for all it was worth–it’d paid off when she died, an add-on they’d signed for when they made the down payment–then put the whole load on the 25 Club Road property he’d once tried to talk her into buying before she cut him off her bank account. Our house, Trace signed papers for the full amount, and when she got behind they took it back, she lost the house, and had to move in with O.W., just across from Foxgrove, where her now deceased husband and her had cut the wedding cake with a silver knife that shone up front on the cover of her wedding album she’s left on the mattress of the bed that must have been hers before he kicked her out, O.W. So the house is gone with Mama’s ghost in her dead son’s bedroom, a whole lot of skeletons in that closet.

A green chair I recognized sat in the corner of the dark room, an air vent purring in the floor beneath it, the light mute through the draped window–it had hurt her eyes, there at the end, light, Mama. I got down on my knees and crawled behind it, the green chair from home, with nickels and pennies missing from my pockets, Jimmy’s under the cushion, bits of dropped food, stray pills. In the house I’ve never seen but know–what kind of arsonist, me?

Uncle Chester used to call me up drunk and tell me how it happened. I’d be half buzzed myself, so we were on the same channel, me and Chester. I’d take the call in my home office, built on the back of the house‘s back bedroom, Lara’s, and if it was summer, I’d ease open the back door and sit on the steps so the night air would ooze in, listen to him slur how it hadn’t been a suicide, it hadn’t been like it was for his mother. The most ferocious fight Id ever witnessed between two men had happened in our driveway when Chester’d called his mother a suicidal bitch and Daddy’d hit him in the face, and then all hell broke lose, both of them heavyweights, over six feet, two forty or so, they beat the living shit out of each other when I was ten or so, so Mama’d had to call the police. She took me inside, but I could hear it through the window, the unearthly sound of fists on flesh, I’d never dreamed one man could hit another so hard, both of them bloody-faced, their fists dripping, the sound of, through the glass, bap, bap, bap, a sick sound that turned my stomach and never completely let me be again.

He’d helped, Uncle Chester. Taken over O.W.’s rig in Rocky Mount, made the delivery, played his brother to the T. Mama’d never seen it coming, or had she? He’d threatened it plenty. Trace had found her a full day later. Back to his truck, he’d called to say she wasn’t answering the phone, that he was worried, how he’d so feared the day she didn’t answer his call. I’d been down in Florida that day, June 14, and the call’d come after midnight–Mama’d drowned of a heart attack–how on earth to know that before the autopsy? We’d stolen our rental, made the two day drive to the funeral where he wore the fierce blue suit Mama’d bought him. The gravedigger’d called asking where the plot should be dug–in the goddamn ground, he’d answered. I’d said that if the gravedigger was a smart man, he wouldn’t be a gravedigger, and he’d looked me straight in the face, then turned to Chester: dumb truck driver, he’d said, and smiled just a little, which seemed strange to the lost and forsaken soul I was at that moment, me.

“That took a brave man,” Chester’d told me the last time we talked. He’d be dead himself inside six months, “Standing up there speaking for your mother. I could never do it.”

He was sorry about the whole thing, Chester. He wouldn’t do it again for anything. Then he died and daddy paid the same funeral home director who’d done Mama to do him. “Oh my,” she’d said the moment we met. “You have her skin.”

All week in Florida, I’d burned at the beach.

“I’ve got some cream that will help that.”

Hidden behind the green chair from our old living room, the whir of his golf cart, the opening of the back door grounded me in the here and now, cold vent air on the small of my back, dark enough now for the nightlights to be on outside. He pissed, long and hard in the first floor toilet. All those years he’d take me in with him to roadside honkytonks, where they’d set me out a Coke in a little icy bottle, a pickled egg or a Slim Jim, and the sawdust from the shuffleboard table shone in the smokey air, everything neon and aglow. Music would be playing, honkytonk blues bled into swing. I’d follow him to the john that reeked of PineSol and piss, the sugar-sweet aroma of hangover shit. Everybody, just about, loved or feared him. Is there any difference between the two?

Of course my heart beat hard–I’d always feared him, was only ever comfortable when he was on the road and Mama’d make spaghetti and garlic bread, then he’d walk in and she’d make him a platter and the diesel’d idle all night out on the drive.

The stairs gave beneath his weight, groaned and creaked. He’ll know–I know he’ll know–blood of Row Magnon in his veins, B-negative, rarest in Arkansas, used in ER transfusions for any type, remnant DNA from the ancient meat-eating hunter. He’d know and he’d kill me, I’ve come here to die, that’s what I thought, and he leaned his head through the doorjamb, sniffed, a little phlegm in his sinuses. He could be the stillest man, a snake gazing slit-eyed before the strike. The fear in my throat now, an inch from announcing myself: I’m here to burn your house down, O.W. Go ahead and kill me. Fucker. Do it.

Then he was gone, and after a while my heart settled some. In my father’s house are many reminders of who I am, who I’m not. How I got that way. How much time do I need to consider?

From the door opening into the master bedroom, it is five steps, fifteen feet, to the bed where he lay on his back, face up. I could hear his breath, how it rattled some in his chest. Until he got Jesus, he’d been a smoker, Pall Mall, the red package, he’d smoked in bed, maybe that’s how the first house went, him in bed smoking, thick-headed with beer, falling asleep, the butt on the floor, a tissue ignited, then the bed sheets, the whole two-story wood frame gone in an hour, he’d made it out in his underwear, found a hideout key to the Pontiac and driven to Uncle Earl’s down the road. We’d been in California then, and when we got back him and Mama sifted the ashes with window screens, looking for something to tether them to the lives they’d just lost.

He’d turn eighty on Friday, O.W. His birthday, Mother’s Day, and Jimmy’s death day all rolled up into a trifecta from hell. In a sweat lodge time and space disappear. Prisoners duck out of jail time when they enter inipi, a portal to the quiet place within. I found out after Mama died when I was sick and lost, and a man I’d only known peripherally had poured a healing lodge for me, channeled Mama’s last moments, her voice, even, it came out of his mouth. He’d beat me with eagle’s wings, spat in my face, sang the Lakota words to lay the dead to rest, to make them leave you be, a long way, this journey home.

“What did she love?” the medicine man asked.

“Ice water,” I said, “Mama loved ice water.”

A heavy sleeper, O.W. doesn’t budge when I tie his feet to the posts of the very bed where Mama was conceived, that distant time in Danville before the calamities began, not so far from where they’d followed the Trail of Tears down from Henry County, Tennessee, and homesteaded the Solgahatchia bottoms where Mama lay now behind the iron gate that squalls when opened in a field of brown-eyed Susan.

He does not complain when I tie his hands nor insert the washcloth in his mouth, the silver slice of duct tape across his shaven face, one blue eye opening, and then the other, so he knows, we both know.

There was a time after Jimmy died, when O.W. and I were close–you could say we loved one another–and, like everything else about my people, such manifested itself in ways that bend belief. We were living in Greensboro then and sometimes O.W.’d roll through in the middle of the night on his way to the drop in Rocky Mount, call us from the truck stop out off the freeway, so we’d drive out to meet him, have a cup of coffee, a piece of coconut creme pie the Flying J was known for. And this one time, we’d talked about Mama, how hard it had been for her–Jimmy’s car wreck and the funeral, the endless string of holidays to remind her of it all over again. Just then, that time daddy rolled in around midnight and rang us on the phone, she was off in Jamaica having the affair that would get her killed, and I believe Daddy’d figured it out, and that he was wondering if I knew, if he could learn anything from me. Hurricane Hugo would plow through that September, barrel right through the truck stop and blow it down. For a while the highway’d close and O.W.’d sleep on our couch and we’d generally get sick of each other for good and ever, but that hadn’t happened yet.

We loved each other.

I was his only son.

And of course I had no idea about what was going on with Mama–how could I? And by the time we’d finished with pie he must have been satisfied to know that. He picked up the check, said to follow him to the truck, he wanted to show us something.

Renee had work the next morning–her school, Southeast Guilford, had just started and there was a new principal, she had to toe the line.

We were tired. It was past bedtime. We followed him, zigzagging rigs idling in the ten-acre parking lot to his white International, with its hundred-fifty-foot refrigerated trailer.

He unlocked the padlock, unbarred the doors, climbed up into the trailer of turkey carcasses framed in harsh light. What’s he doing? Renee asked. I didn’t know. Then he spun on a bootheel, under the garish light of the frozen room, a twenty-five pound slaughter turkey hanging from either hand, that wry smile I’d come to know from the moments when you could tell he was proud of himself.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said, stepped out and gave each of us a dripping bird. “Early.”

Renee said, “He can’t do that.”

“Oh yes he can” I said.

He nodded--held my eyes with his own. We were on the same page, me and O.W. Those godawful brawls when Uncle Chester called Evelyn a suicidal bitch, when he’d do all in his power to kill his brother, this is what that was about, standing up for your mother. What was wrong with me? his eyes asked. What had taken me so long? Get with it, kiddo. Get her done.

In my rearview, the roof bursts into flame, engulfing the trees and the garage and the goddamned hot tub that leans beside it. The great conflagration roars through the country club and the dipshit driving range, takes aim on the Air Force Base with its endless barrage of cargo planes that rattled our light fixtures during Sunday prayers. Behind me back there the whole goddamn lot of it goes up, the highest flames up to Solgahatchia by now, a column of smoke and flames you could see from the moon. They consume the sorry gate’s final squall, and it is done.

But, of course, it can’t end that way, the movie my mind makes. Hadn’t Trace called to say that Daddy’d lost the house, that he was into the final stages of dementia and repeated the same phrase over and over, she didn’t know why? It was making her crazy. If I wanted to ever see him alive again, now was the time.

Caught in the eye of the fire of my making, I cried out help me, Jesus, help me, Renee shaking me to wake, it’s okay, everything was okay, wake up now.

“What does he say?” I asked her before we hung up that very last time, “that makes you crazy?”

“Rock and fire,” she said. “I have no clue.”

From that place where the paraplegic man lay on his back in deep grass, his teeth shining, recognizing our voices from afar, where were Black Panthers and suicides and the older you get, the smarter I’ll be. He would have me love him even now?

Rock and fire, O.W.? Rock and fire?

photo by Austen Diamond
Michael Gills is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel WEST (Raw Dog Screaming Press,March 2019) and the forthcoming visionary memoir, FINISTERRE.His short story collection The House Across From The Deaf School (Texas Review Press, 2016) was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction and won the 15 Bytes Utah Book Prize. Other work has won the Southern Humanities Review’s Theodore Hoefner Prize forFiction, the Southern Review’s Best Debut of the Year, recognition in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, inclusion in New Stories From The South: The Year’s Best, and numerous Utah Arts Book Prizes. His undergraduate novel writing workshop has been featured in USA Today, and several of his students have gone on to publish books of their own. Gills teaches for the Honors College at the University of Utah, where he lives in the foothills with his wife, Jill.

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