The sun rose on me in the yard, chain of beer-tabs around my neck, lipstick smears about my pale love handles. I couldn’t breathe right and my first thought was of Catalina. Then I thought of Dad’s emphysema, and that my toe must be broken. I put my shoes back on and dusted flaking mud from my dungarees, went into the house and slung a chair into the hallway. The chair broke, and I listened to my messages.
“Hey, it’s me,” Catalina, “Just wondering what you’re doing tonight. I’m at Mom’s and Mike’s and it’s okay. Miss you.”
A beep. Somebody called but left no message.
I fried an egg and sat on my couch and smoked a cigarillo. I couldn’t breathe right and I didn’t know what to do. I looked at my reflection in a picture frame. Our uncle Karl Marx Stonewall Jackson Wushineh was in the picture, and he looked noble, situated in the 1930s as he was, as a young Indian man, trying to make his way in this country despite all of them hardships and all. I did not look noble – I looked like a used birthday cake. Bad plastic copy of myself, maybe: red and white, with a daring spackle of spiraling black hair. I kicked somebody’s shoes out of my way and sat down in the hall and coughed for a while.
I picked up the phone and dialed Dad as I struggled into a pair of clean shorts.
“You used to be in the Navy, right?”
“Would you train me up? Give some special training?”
“Like boot camp,” I said. I got my shorts buttoned. “Make me special-forces-tough.”
“What do you mean by that?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I needed a challenge. I needed to toughen up. I needed to know more about him before he died, and, mainly I needed a change of pace. I wasn’t getting any hours at the shop, so what else? I told him that it’d be a good way to spend time together. I told him I wanted to get in shape. I needed the exercise, God knew, I babbled on. My breathing.
“Come over and we’ll talk about it. Bring me bacon.”
He was smoking and coughing, and cussing at the television. He had a one-room off 9th street, near the mill and between GlamFingers! Nail Salon and the Nothin’ Butt Smokes. His florally wallpaper was stilettoed with little wallet-sized photos from years ago, and newspaper clippings. Here an op-ed praising the new black mayor, there a little blue picture gone green, full of freckles and dreadful black Bangles hair. My sister.
His Pekingese was scratching at the back screen-door.
“Let Rider in,” he said. I did, and she ran in a wide circle and smiled, dripping slobber.
Dad wiped sweat off his face and looked up at me like I had a knife. “My bacon?”
“Oh. I left it in the truck.”
“It’ll go bad out there, son.” He shook his head. His tone: he didn’t believe I knew much about meat.
“I’ll get it in a minute. Why don’t you turn off the television.”
It was C-SPAN.
“I’m not watching it,” he said. “I’m reading,” he said. He held up a crumbling paperback, waggled it in my face. “I read!”
“Well, listen,” I said. I scraped some newspapers off the loveseat and sat down amidst the dust and dog hair. I just sat there. I said, “I’m tired.”
“You still seeing that young girl?”
“Why, Catalina, you fool.” He eyed me hard. His face was pocked and oily and red and yellow. He had once been regally handsome, I think, though always he had looked pretty mean. Above his lawn chair, on the main wall, hung a picture of him in his military days. Epaulets and all, pendants on his chest, like the leader of the Vampire Guard. He’d looked like a cross between Ming the Merciless and a Great Dane.
“Yeah, I still see her.”
“That’s good. I like her.” Catalina was a hairdresser. Dad went to her to get his head shaved on Mondays.
I said, “I know you do, Dad.”
He glared at me till I went back out to the car.
We soon got right to it.
Dad said: “Our program is this: You will rise when I tell you to rise and eat the slop I make for your breakfast. The slop will be nasty to eat and there won’t be much of it. Then I will drill you all morning and then you will have some lunch that I make that will not be real good to eat either. Then you will do the work I tell you to do until dark or so, and/or until I say to stop. When you have to go to work, you will go to work, then come right back here. You won’t have any other latitude. I will cuss you and humiliate you all week. You won’t see Catalina at all. You will wake here and go to sleep when I say to, and eat what I say, and do what I say. All clear? That is our regimen. There will be lots of fucking chores.”
Dad frowned and picked up his paperback. He looked at the cover, and put it down on his knees. “We start tomorrow morning. You get here before sunrise,” he coughed, “That means before the sun rises.” He turned toward the television again and drifted off into the confirmation hearing.
I left him alone. I went back home and cleaned up all the butts and bottles and yellow Dixie cups. Then I called Catalina and she said I could come by the shop.
She was cutting Meldonna’s hair. Meldonna had a restaurant on Highway 80, near the new Sutherland’s. “What you doing now?” asked Meldonna, glancing up from under the shears snipping her wet bangs.
“I work at the print shop,” I said.
“Okay. Is it good?”
“Yeah, it’s good. Just need more hours.” I coughed. “Can I smoke in here?”
Catalina nodded, but Meldonna raised her voice, “No way. You gonna interrupt my oxygen, boy. You need to tell your daddy to come by and see me.”
“Don’t call me boy.” You know. The Wushinehs, we’re Native. We’re brownish. And that word “boy” still grates on a man.
Her lips kinked into a grimace. “You’re to the youth of me,” she said. “I’ve got seniority in this room,” she had tears in her eyes, “And I think that I can say whatever I want to when I’m the one getting my hair cut!”
Catalina gestured at me with a comb above Mel’s head, her bicep flexing in her pink sleeve. “Don’t pay attention to him, Meldonna,” said Catalina. She was cutting me the get out of here eyes. She shifted her hips, and her green skirt crinkled.
“You get off after 6?” I said.
“Yeah.” She frowned and puffed out her lips, like, Thanks for arguing with my clientele.
“Well I’ll see you later.” I got up, and on the way out heard Meldonna say “I was going to offer him some hours at the restaurant, but not no damn more. Not now that he thinks he’s better than I am.”
I got home and did my fifteen pushups, then I ran around the yard twice without stopping. Then I stopped to catch my breath and drank some amaretto left over from last night’s debauchery. I upchucked, a little bit, when I got a mouthful of cigarette butts people’d popped in the bottle. I keep trying not to drink, and I do so keep failing.
My chest feels tight.
To business, I decided, and woke way early — 3 AM — and drank a bunch of cups of coffee and put on my blue jeans and a tee shirt and read yesterday’s newspaper and smoked a cigarillo and watched the television news and ate a cheese sandwich. Only 4, still a couple of hours to kill. All quiet. So I organized my closet, took out and rearranged boxes. I’ve got all these little shoeboxes full of pinewood derby stuff, some Legos.
A photo fell out. It was one of my mother laughing and throwing a sock at Dad. She’s in a green pantsuit, sitting on the floor, peanut shells in her lap. I tried to stuff the picture back in a box, back up under the lip, but that bent it up. I put it in my back pocket.
Kitchen, then, to stare at the treeline for a bit. I poured the rest of the coffee down the sink, tapped the coffee grounds out in the garbage, put out fresh kibble for Kevin. I locked the door and left for Dad’s.
He was asleep when I knocked, but the sun was peeking through the tree trunks on the hill already. “Wake up!” I shouted at the windows.
He unlocked the door. He had crust in his eyes, stubble all over.
He shouted, “Faggots do not get to enter the house like normal people.” He stopped to wheeze. “Go around back, hop over the fence, and knock on the back door once you have run me one hundred laps around the yard and done me sixty pushups.” He bowed his head and slowly closed the door.
I got through 30 laps around the yard and I had to stop. I could hear the television come on, morning news. My breath was cold and ragged in my chest. I could smell coffee. Somebody next door was laughing mightily. I rested on the pile of creosote railroad ties till I felt his eyes on me from the kitchen window, then I got back up and started running again. I ran 71 more laps; the yard’s not all that big. I did some pushups, then stopped. I heard a window slide open, knew he was watching me some more, so I did some more. The sun was well over the treetops. I probably did about 16 pushups, total, and I knocked on the back door.
“Come in,” Dad said. He had his little red wooden coffee table laid out with fried sausage and eggs and coffee and orange-juice and toast and butter and jam and peanut butter. “You will get just a short amount of time to eat breakfast!” He had a cup of coffee balanced on the oxygen tank by the left armrest of his lawn chair.
I sat down and started eating.
“Is this what you ate in the Army?”
“I was in God’s Air Force, you one-trick piece of shit. When I am ready to hear your voice, rest assured I will incite you to speech. I ate anything I could get in the Air Force. I ate stabilized-jet-fuel in the Air Force, through a stir-straw.” He punched lazily at the buttons on his remote, and the channels flickered till a kitchen appliance infomercial blared across the room. “I will eat you for breakfast. I am an animal, a No-Man’s Land-er.”
I said, “Yes sir.”
“Okay, then.” His face slackened as he stared at the screen. He said, “I was the robot. I was mean, so you wouldn’t have known me. Boy. That’s why I was asked to retire s-six years too early. I was metal-mad, capable of imploding c-c-ommunists with a single sly glance. Eat that mother-fucking peanut butter, faggot.”
“Can we chill with the ‘faggot’ stuff?”
“When I get through with you, you will become a tiger-robot, l-like me. I am the commie-eating robot of your doom.”
I got back outside and did more hard drills. He lorded over me with garden tools while I did the calisthenics. I was beginning to doubt the idea of all this, and I just about needed to puke. I mowed the grass, recklessly fast, and wasn’t sure he cared if I lost a foot or a shoe. I was purple. I sat again, spent and huffing, on a dark tuft of grass by the stack of creosote logs, sneezing and rubbing my throat.
Over me, Dad said, “You need to do me some more sit-ups,” and stuck me lightly in the ribs with the butt-end of his yard hoe. I did thirty sit-ups more, went in to drink some water.
“Dad, I’ve got to go to work now.”
I drove down to the print shop, went in and cleaned the crates, stacked them on pallets. Ink-dust rose up in wide, lavender swirls through the dead-white light of the fluorescents overhead. The attic fans clicked, clicked, click-click, clicked.
Close to midnight I went back to Dad’s and crashed amongst the junkmail on his couch.
The next day he had me flipping that stack of creosote ties, one by one, to the other side of the yard to make a new pile. I switched tactics, tried to pull them with ropes. He wouldn’t let me have water till I was through. I was about getting good-and-goddamn fed-up with our regimen.
I took a break to do pushups – fifty, and jumping jacks and sit-ups till I was faint and dizzy. He kept goading me to do more, do more. Told me to do it for Catalina.
I said, “Dad, you don’t really know shit about Catalina.”
“Yes, hell, I do. Yes, hell I do; I sit and talk with her every week, every single week, you broke-back.”
“No you don’t. You think you know all about me just because you’ve got a crush on her. Isn’t it? But all there is to it is she’s who shaves your head on Mondays. No sir, you don’t know shit about me or her. And she thinks you’re gross, anyway. Face like a grasshopper.”
Over me, Dad looked ghostly. He said, “You need to do me some more sit-ups,” and stuck me hard in the side with the butt-end of his yard hoe. I wheezed and puked. He said, “You’re no lady’s man.”
I hacked and said, “You broke my liver, Dad.”
“I ain’t broke it. You don’t know where a liver is. If we were starving and I fell dead, could you find my liver for a meal? No, you couldn’t; fishing around in the red chaos of me, up to your wrists in it and ignorant, you would starve. I know all the major organs. I bruised your spleen, just now, and I could fish it out for lunch, if I was starving, and make soup of you. Now rise. Keep moving till I drop you again, boy.”
“I forgot to tell you that Meldonna asked after you.”
“What?” If I’d been an eighteen-year-old Airman he would have scared me, I’m sure. But he leaned on his hoe and looked up to the cloud-obscured sun and he was gaunt. I wanted to retire him from his fatherhood of me.
“I’m through with our training,” I said.
“No.” He staggered upon me, sinewy and frowning, and hit me once more, very lightly. Oak leaves fluttering down around us.
Catalina came over and brought some yard-flowers wrapped in a wet paper-towel. I put them in an empty pint bottle and had her sit on the couch, and I lay in her lap and she played with my hair.
My chest hurt. I needed a change, and I wasn’t getting it from any corner.
“Why don’t you marry me, Catalina?”
“Wow. You that serious?”
“Why should I marry you?”
“I’ve got a job. I’ve got my Dad under control.”
“Under control. What else?”
“You should marry me because I have fallen in love with you, girl.”
She smirked. “Well, listen. Your dad went to see Meldonna after he knocked you out. She called me. She gave him a free catfish plate.”
“And he wore a button-down shirt.”
“Hey, I said ‘what’ because I just said I love you and you’re still talking about Meldonna and my dad and their catfish plates.”
She leaned over me again, and her hair smelled of peaches. It fell over my face. She wasn’t serious about me at all, and it was okay. In a totally new way: I kinda didn’t give a damn.
I went to see Dad the next day. He let me in and I flopped down on the couch, put my feet on his coffee table, groaned with sincere pain.
“Here,” I said, and flicked him the picture of Mom. “Forgot to give this to you.”
He picked it up off the carpet. Rider looked at him, then me, then she rested her little hairy head on the cushion again. Dad said, “Where’d it come from?”
“It’s mine.” I glanced at the television. Wolf Blitzer was on. “You can have it though. I meant to give it to you last week, during our quality time.”
“Oh.” He looked at Wolf Blitzer too, for a minute. “I didn’t expect you’d visit me so soon after failing my regimen.”
“I didn’t fail it. You hit me with a hoe. You disqualified yourself from running things.”
“That’s the price of failing the regimen, son.”
“Quit it, Dad. We’re not in the regimen anymore, so you can’t talk about the regimen.”
“Why don’t you get out. I’ve got a show to watch.”
His crinkled paperback shook gently in his palsied hands. A Michael Moorcock novel, I think, going yellow, like him.
What I didn’t say was: “Hey. At great risk, I’m trying to get to know you.” But I did say, “Sorry none of this worked out, Dad.”
“Aw, Son, just go home. I don’t need you coming around with your sass, judging my life. All you do is work part time and watch television and get fat and use up women.” He paused to catch his breath. “And to be honest, I don’t need you bringing that vibe around my place.”
I slapped the pile of newspapers beside me on the couch, and Rider barked. I got up to leave. I yelled, “Loser!”
He threw his book at me but missed, and it hit the shadow-box hanging above the light switch by the door. Some trinkets, a glass dog and a military medal fell out and bounced on the burnt-sienna carpet.
I closed the door behind me and walked to my car. The air was hot and I was hungry, and sore. I looked at my reflection in the dust-streaked windshield, and I looked transparent, and my face shone pink.
I ran around the back of his place, jumped the fence. The azaleas along the back fencerow were budding white and brilliant and green-brown above the new stack of creosote. The mosquitoes pestered and stung as I worked, and the ties felt so much heavier now, but I straightened the stack properly; finished the fucking job.
It was going to rain. Frogs started singing from the ditches and trees. I stopped by the hardware shop for some blue paint and woodscrews for that broken chair back home. Finally fix my place up.
I took Catalina to Meldonna’s Flavoir. We had fried catfish filets, black-eyed peas with boiled okra, Mexican cornbread fritters, fried squash with onion, fresh green onion, fresh tomatoes, fresh cucumber, and sweet-hot vinegar pepper sauce.
I said, “This is going nowhere, you know?”
She poked her peas with a butter-knife. “Yeah.”
“But don’t be sad about it,” I said. Had a big, long swig of sweet iced tea. “No, don’t be sad about nothing. I like you.”
She gave me her come-on smirk, raised one eyebrow.
“Yeah, I like you. And I don’t need to go anywhere. But I want you to come see my chair. I broke my chair. But I painted it, and I fixed it.”
“This is all on me,” I said, and made wide, circular gestures over the table with the flats of my hands. I looked around, sat up with good posture. “All of it.”
I passed her some salt.
Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy