The man stood in the doorway for a moment before grabbing the elongated brass handle to open the door. He was looking at the house to the west of his and noticed how the image of the lowering sun was about to touch the roofline. The slate roof seemed to dip in the moment of the sun’s contact, causing the illusion that the weight of the sun was bearing down on the roof, or maybe the roof was molding itself to the shape of the sun to give it a more comfortable resting place at the end of its long day. The sun was bright, of course, but softened somehow in the closer atmosphere and haze of industry and pollen and life that existed above the horizon’s curving line, so the man stood there with unshielded eyes and continued to watch the sun’s dip into and below the roof line. He turned away and the golden glow remained in his eyes as he looked through the door’s glass to find his son. It was time for dinner and the boy was somewhere outside.
The door handle lowered without a sound and the door swung open quietly as the man pushed against it and walked out onto the back patio of the house. As he passed the mustard-colored and rectangular-shaped charcoal grill, he noticed that it still smelled of burnt sugar from the last time he barbequed ribs. It had been a couple weeks or more, but the scent still lingered. The man was barefoot and noticed, too, that the cement of the patio was still warm from the day’s sun, but the grass was cool as he stepped into it and began his search for his son. The man turned to the left from the patio and looked into the back-yard proper, gazing at the rock-fronted embankments that supported the tiered lawn that rose from the yard up to the street that ran behind his house. As he walked toward the front of the house that faced the town’s park, he craned his neck to look further into the yard to where the boy liked to play around the young, conical pine trees that resembled miniature Christmas trees when they were dusted or coated with December’s snow.
The evening was peaceful, now that the neighborhood kids had left the park and gone home or wherever after playing soccer for most of the afternoon. Looking toward the east and over the hills that fronted that side of the town, the man noticed the swallows darting over the park for their evening feeding and play-time. Overhead, the clouds were pink and orange and white and darkening gray with the falling sun and approaching night. Further north, he could still see the white line of a plane’s contrail that was still intact even though the plane had been gone for hours…just the singular, lined cloud was left in its passing. The man didn’t see his son anywhere, not in this side of the yard and not out in the park. He thought about calling-out for him, but didn’t want to break the quiet by raising his voice or yelling. Instead, he retraced his steps around the house, passed the back-door patio, and toward the other end of the yard, the side that fronted their street. The man walked along the low hedge that separated his yard from the neighbor’s and then past the gooseberry bushes and toward the side of the house where he could peek around the corner to see if his son was playing under the cherry trees. His step was quiet in the cool grass and the moss that grew thinly among the grass where he was, but was thicker under the trees.
Because the sun had completely lowered itself beneath the roofline of the neighbor’s house by now, there was no chance of the man’s son seeing his father’s shadow intrude into his quiet play. When the man slowly moved his head around the corner, he saw that his son was sitting cross-legged, facing away from him, and leaning forward with his hands busy at some task. The boy had his tan and green army-men positioned in loose rows and partially hidden in the moss, or situated behind various military vehicles and broken sticks from the trees above him. He occasionally leaned back or to the right or left to straighten a fallen man or to move a truck closer to the grouped men, enacting some strategy or maneuver of protection or attack. The boy even rolled a golf-ball or lightly tossed a shiny, black cherry in the direction of the men, imagining that they were rockets or some other projectile, sometimes knocking over one of the men or coming to rest next to or on top of one of the vehicles, and sometimes not. With the impact of the cherries or golf ball, the boy made his eleven year-old’s version of a soft explosion…a hushed “pkshew!” that he thought only he could hear.
The man smiled to himself as he watched and listened to his son. He saw the purplish-pink stains on the boy’s white t-shirt and imagined the cherry-fight that he had had with his friends earlier in the afternoon…the cherry-fight that he wasn’t supposed to have had. As the man attempted to kneel down into the moss and grass next to the house, his shorts scraped on the prickly stucco finish on the house and startled his son. The boy was in mid-reach across his battlefield and gasped and dropped one of his army men as he jerked and turned around to face his father.
The boy’s heart was pounding and his mouth was suddenly dry. “I didn’t know you were there,” he said. His mind was racing back through his day, wondering at what he might have done wrong, wondering what little or grand sin had been revealed and was now set to ruin what he thought was an otherwise good day, and wondering why, if he hadn’t done anything wrong, his father was there on the side of the yard looking for him…and getting ready to sit down like he was planning to stay for a while.
“Well, I wasn’t here for very long. What are you doing?”
The boy tried to swallow. “Just playing…Army.”
“Weren’t your friends out here earlier?”
“Yes Sir, but they had to leave.”
“Which friends were here?”
“You said your friends were here earlier. Which ones were here?”
The boy looked across the gravel and grass driveway and out into the park where the swallows were still darting around. He saw a couple boys at the water fountain at the far side of the park. “I…don’t know,” he stammered. “I don’t remember.”
“But they were just here,” the man said, “who were they? You’re not in trouble, Stephan, I’m just asking which friends were here.”
“Hansi and Martin.”
“Isn’t Hansi’s father the butcher?”
“I don’t know. I think so…maybe.”
“Isn’t he one of those older boys that you were playing with in the spring and got into trouble with?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember,” the father said, “when you guys stole the bratwurst and then went off into the woods and cooked it? You don’t remember that?”
“Yes Sir…I…think I remember.”
“Wasn’t Hansi one of those older boys?”
The boys had moved from the water fountain and were now kicking a soccer ball out on the field at the park. “I don’t know.”
The man sat down in the grass and moss and leaned against the house. “Stephan…look at me. You’re not in trouble…we’re just talking…ok? You can answer me,” said the man. “Look…here,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “You’re ok.”
The boy turned his head from watching the boys with the soccer ball and met his father’s eyes. He didn’t answer him immediately, but just looked at him. This was unusual for him; the boy…he felt odd, bold somehow…maybe even brave. His father’s manner and voice were unsettling. There was none of the harshness or sarcasm that he was used to…and his eyes didn’t look angry. It looked like his father was really just asking him a question…not investigating an offense.
“Augie’s father is the butcher,” said the boy, “but Hansi was part of the group that did that, yes Sir.”
“Is that Hansi out there playing soccer?”
The boy looked at the two other boys out on the field for a couple seconds and then turned again to his father. “No Sir. Hansi had to go home. He said it was almost getting dark and he had to go in for dinner.”
“Why what?” said the man.
“Why’d you want to know if that’s Hansi out there playing soccer?”
“Nothing, Stephan. I was just asking…nothing. Relax, would you? And stop calling me ‘Sir.’”
The boy looked at his father’s hands for a couple seconds and then moved up to meet his eyes. The eyes were still dark brown and still set deep into his father’s head, but the prominent brow-ridge seemed less severe as his eye-brows were raised in a gentle and almost inquisitive arch.
“What? Just call me ‘Dad’ now. Say ‘Yes Dad,’ not ‘Yes Sir.’ That seems wrong somehow.”
“Can I ask you something and not get in trouble?”
“Yes…ask or say anything you want.”
The boy just looked at him.
“I’m serious…really…anything…you won’t get in trouble.”
“What happened to you in the wreck? I know you broke a couple ribs, but what happened…you know…inside your head? Mom said it went through the front window, right?”
The man looked at his son…intently, gently…and picked a tuft of moss from the ground. He moved his eyes to the moss and then asked, “What do you mean, ‘What happened in my head?’”
“You’re not like you used to be,” said the boy, looking past his father, but still watching him, trying to sense if he was going too far. “You’re different.”
“Almost dying in the wreck like that made me think about my life; it made me think about how I was treating people…how I treated you and your mom…and I decided that I needed to be different.”
The boy looked out into the park again. He didn’t want his father to see the tears that were starting to spill from his eyes. “Just like that…you ‘decided’ that you needed to be different?”
The man looked down and watched his fingers as they slowly tore the moss apart and let it drop back into the grass. “I guess so. When I was laying there in the hospital with my neck in that brace and my face all bandaged-up and tubes sticking out of my lungs, I thought about how lucky I was that my heart was still beating and that I wasn’t hurt as bad as I could have been considering what I had been through. It almost seemed like I was being given a second chance or something, you know…somehow…maybe…to do things right…if that’s possible.”
The boy turned back and looked toward his father, not meeting his eyes exactly, but looking through him at some point directly behind his head. “If you could just decide that you needed to be different when you were laying there in the hospital, why couldn’t you have decided a long time ago that you would be different…why didn’t you decide when I was a littler kid that you weren’t going to be so mean…that you could talk to me instead of hitting me, or that I could talk to you like you were just my dad and not some…kind…of…whatever you’ve been?”
“I don’t know, Stephan. I guess it took me almost dying to realize how much I love you…I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well, that’s when I figured out that I don’t love you,” said the boy, “when you were in the hospital almost dying. I always thought I did, or wanted to, maybe. I thought that if I loved you more you’d be nicer to me, but it didn’t work. So when Mom told me that you might die, I was hoping you would, because I knew I wouldn’t have to try to love you anymore. It would be ok that I didn’t…and now you’re not dead and I still don’t love you.”
The man turned his eyes to watch the neighbor drive past in his blue Saab. He followed the car until it stopped at the water fountain by the corner of the park and then turned down the hill where it disappeared behind the Vivo store on the opposite corner. Then he turned slightly in the other direction and watched the kids chasing each other and kicking the soccer ball for a few seconds. Finally, he looked back at his son and said, “Wow…I don’t know what to do with that, Stephan.”
“I don’t either,” said the boy as he reached for one of his army men.
“I guess I’ll have to work on that, won’t I? Give you a reason to love me?”
The boy pulled a handful of moss and began to gently tear it apart and lay the pieces across his army trucks, camouflaging them against the enemy that was lined-up behind the moss and grass berm that he had built close to the trunk of the nearest tree. He then absently grabbed a cherry from the ground and slipped it into his mouth. He bit down on the sweet flesh and then used his tongue to separate the seed as he slowly chewed and swallowed the tiny fruit.
“Stephan? I said I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”
“I don’t know.”
The man slowly stood and then leaned over to stretch his legs that had been folded under him while he sat and talked with his son. He said “Ok,” and then turned to walk back around the corner of the house. After a couple steps, he turned around and leaned down so he could see his son better under the cherry trees. “You need to come in now. The streetlights are coming on and it’s time to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
The man raised his voice a little – “Stephan, I said you need to come in.”
This is a Favorite re-post from May, 2010.