He’d never say a word to her. He’d remain strong, unscathed, a man, her father. He’d place no weight on her, and she would remain his warrant, a ticket to continue, though he would move on unreachable, the sun could not warm his skin, the cold could not leave from the trees, Ann could not see him, but he’d prove he was still a man, standing for her.
Running, taking the dogs out again before the winter finally set in. He ran passed the park signs, the benches, the dry gold and brown grass that lined the outside of park where he found a muddled, thin trail slipping west through the pinewoods. Weeds grew between the cracks of pressed dirt. Few people ran this way and he paused for footing before entering the trees, panting louder than the dogs as his eyes wandered the hairline trail curving and twisting around the pine and leaf-covered ground until it disappeared far ahead in a layer of September.
When he was younger, in his twenties, before Ann was born, before he was married, he could run eight miles and never grasp for breath. Was that why he ran off the park path? Trying to prove something because he was forty? He didn’t consider it.
He rotated his ankles, left, right, and jumped on his toes, feeling the bulging veins of dirt below him as he starred down the forever dusk of light and trees ahead. The sun was high, but the thick cover told lies of the time. The sun wouldn’t be setting for few hours. Home, he’d be home by then.
He plunged into a run. The trail was for interpretation, faint and unruly. The dogs became nothing more than familiar sounds somewhere beyond Rich’s ears. Lonnie’s yellow fur loomed forward, his nose tapping the ground as his youthful curiosity veered in other directions. From time to time he’d return to rub his nose against Rich’s jogging ankles, checking in. A breeze chilled the moistened area as Rich raised his knees high over the leaves, broken branches. No sound beyond his running shoes. His breath pumping with each heel to the dirt. Lonnie trampled on, his paws too light to rustle anything beneath them, while Dark, the elder dog, gray and almost midnight blue, broke sticks beneath his heavy forelegs.
He’d gotten more than a mile in. The woods thicker. He’d turn his head back to see the entrance as an amber ornament hanging in the distance. The sun shining beyond the trees. Running, his chest pumping. Then Dark yelped from somewhere, short, high. Lonnie ran right, toward the sound and through the trees. He disappeared behind a fallen stump where another yelp, same, high, always short, echoed over the wood. Rich turned, deer-jumping over the log to a clearing in the center of the woods. The leaves raked in unnatural mounds. There, Dark’s head was caught in a metal trap, his neck laced in iron teeth pressing passed his gray fur and sinking deeper. Lonnie, his head within the trap jaws, his face missing somewhere beyond the steal locked to the ground. Pressing his front paws into the mud, he started tugging, jerking backward. With each wrench, the teeth bit harder, his golden fur turning brown where the metal mouth gashed deeper. Rich hurried toward him, “Lonnie, stay! Stop!” His voice echoed. His running shoes soaked up mud. And sharp bite took Rich’s ankle, splintering into the bone with a metallic chime, twisting him, sending his left shoulder to the dirt where another bite collared his arm. He yelled, the sound rolled between the trunks of each pine and shrub, muffled out.
He’d never be heard, never call out to her. Never be weak. He was still breathing, still wincing. The wincing meant he was alive.
His right foot caught in a rusted bear trap, his left shoulder in the mouth of another. He managed to tear the jaw from around his biceps, prying it apart with his free hand, splitting the skin and ripping it in a jagged line. His arm was bleeding, melting out from beneath the flesh, running over and past his elbow in flowing lines, those red lines. He could still feel them as he woke each night.
Rich woke to darkness still pouring in the window. A faded red glow fogged the corner of his room, the alarm clock blinking 5:42am. He was tired. His knees ached with air between the joints. He rotated his ankle until the clicking stopped.
He sat up and dropped his legs off the bed, pulled the chain on the lamp and a yellow light replaced the red. The loose skin of his stomach sagged over the elastic waist of his pajamas. Hair wreathed his navel. He rubbed his cheeks, the bones pressing into his morning headache. He placed his palms over his eyes and felt the pull of his thick eyebrows tangled with the tips of his long hair. He rubbed his scalp, his dull nails sounded like a truck dumping gravel in his head.
He kept Ann’s letter and invitation on the nightstand. Her high school graduation on Sunday, eighteen, she was eighteen now. From the picture he thought she looked like her mother. Her blonde hair gathered and lane over her shoulders, laugh lines at her mouth, her mother’s mouth, wide and pale across gapped teeth. He could still smell her perfume on the paper. It filtered the smell of his empty breath from the room. He thought of the way she smelled when she was his. He felt naked and reached for a shirt from the bedpost, sealed it over his chest, and unrolled the left sleeve to cover a coarse, brown scar. He imagined there were bits of fiber beneath the surface where his jacket had been injected by the traps, saved away for eleven years behind the mark. In the pocket, he stored a piece of paper, a letter; he’d call it to himself. He’d written three lines, could never think of the fourth.
He cupped his knees and the warmth of his hands was a relief before he rose from the bed.
In the daylight, coffee on his breath, the phone in his pocket vibrated. His ex-wife, Karen.
“You haven’t Rsvp’d for Sunday.”
“I’ll be there.”
“She wants to see you. She wants to talk to you.”
“I’ll be there.” He cleared his throat and followed the swirl of steam coming from his coffee mug sticking to the kitchen table. “What do I say to her?”
Rich stepped barefoot across the driveway, unlocked the 88’ Ford station wagon, and popped the hood. The brakes went out again last night, had to use the emergency brake at all the red lights. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Just a bunch of wires, metal, piping, nothing seemed to lead to anything. Nothing stood out as broken. He reached in, wrapping his wrist once under something he assumed was the battery, setting his arm deep within the engine until he felt a sinking pressure at his biceps. The strain wrapped around his arm and toward his shoulder. His knees wilted. He wrenched back, straightening himself. He cupped his arm, turning and tracing the pale creases of his palm, no blood, only a reminder he would never feel of one piece again. It felt like he had burst open, a sausage on the grill.
In the memory from which he’d awaken, in the woods, nowhere to go, his leg bolted down in a trap, Rich found a broken barbed-wire fence beneath a layer of dirt. It had been around the traps, blocking them off, pulled around the clearing, holding back anything smart enough to see it. Fallen down and eclipsed by leaves some time ago.
He took a piece of the wire, twisted it back and forth until the hinge turned loose, white, and he could pull it from the rest of the fence. He measured it around his arm. Then, he stabbed one of the barbs into his bicep on the left side of the tear from where he’d landed in the trap. He pulled it tight, gritting his teeth and growling with the same begging sounds as Dark lying behind him somewhere Rich couldn’t see. Then, he stretched it over the bleeding and punctured it into the right side. He cried out through clenched jaws, pulling his face tight until his eyes closed and he couldn’t see where his fingers gripped his arm. It bled.
He couldn’t see Dark, couldn’t turn his body enough to find him. Both of the dogs had gotten quiet, stopped rustling as many leaves, stopped howling and crying. Lonnie was lying in front of him where he could see each time he’d twitch. Every time the sun glittered through the leaves, Lonnie would push his front paws down into a rut in the dirt to tug his head back from the trap, fighting. After a while, Rich didn’t know how long Lonnie hadn’t moved. His tail was tucked behind his legs as he lay on his side. It was silent without him tugging. He couldn’t hear him crying, couldn’t hear him breathing.
The mud seeped through his clothes, cold and wet. Rich could raise himself up on his elbows enough to see the break in the trees where he entered, now just a small hovering eye of white light in the distance. He watched the hole, the sun constant over the park. He stared at the distant daylight, too far. Soon his arm would quickly start to burn and the bleeding would seep through again, and he’d slump back down.
He lay on his back; the curve indent of his spine insulating the cold. The small hatch marks the twigs and saplings slashed across his calves as he’d passed through them, now burning with sweat. A bird landed in the branches above him. It seemed a bird could rest there for hours, unaware of the ground below it, watching the pine needles, the leaves. The clock stopped when he entered the woods. He knew night had not come. The birds would leave when night set in. Each hour more gray until then.
The bird flew away.
He’d let her fly away, off she flies, off she goes. Let her go, weightless.
Eventually his arm stopped bleeding. The metal stitches held by the time the sun set into night.
He pulled in to Mario’s Body Shop. His ankle shot shrapnel up his leg as he hobbled in his boots, the laces wrapped three times around the ankles. He crossed the warped linoleum as the bell above the door dinged, and he nodded at a fat man in a blue shirt behind the counter. A woman with a flimsy magazine over her lap stared blankly at an automotive commercial-loop on the TV hanging in the corner.
“Can I help you?”
“The brakes went out on my car last night. I was hoping to get that fixed. How long of a wait would that be?” Rich glanced at the fat man’s nametag, Jerry.
“Depends on the damage,” said Jerry. “If it’s a broken foot, we can fix it in an hour. Got a guy specializes in brake work in today. If it’s brake fluid or axels we might require over-night or a few days.”
“When can you look at it? I need it by Sunday.”
“Twenty minutes. We’ll get you an inspection. Forty dollars to look. Then, you can decide if you don’t mind waiting. Got Sunday plans?”
Rich nodded and limped toward a plastic seat along the wall. He braced his wrists on the arms of the chair and lowered himself. His skin was pale ivory, drained. The skin of his hands speckled in red.
He sat for a half hour before Jerry told him it was a foot and they’d replace it within an hour. Rich nodded and grabbed the newspaper off the table at his knees. He read the first headline, dark. Then, he closed his eyes and rested his head on the wall behind him. His mouth gapped open. His head felt like it was filled with sand waiting to drain from his nostrils.
He thought of her. The sun pelted in layers through the blinds leading to the parking lot lighting Rich’s lids a hot pink to match the girlish inflections of Ann’s voice running through his mind. And as he listened to her, the whirling of drills muffled through the window to the mechanic’s garage.
“You watch me too much,” He told Ann over breakfast when she was twelve, she’d come to visit.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He feared she watched him looking for a sign of the family pictures, who he was in those pictures. He’d drained since then, his body sagged down as his weight disappeared behind daydreams and forgotten meals. He stopped shaving in the mornings. His color had gone, as if their last family photo, when Ann was nine, sucked the light out of his pigments and left him stale.
She stirred her oatmeal. Her feet wrapped around her chair, her elbows close to her side.
“I used to watch you. Couldn’t take my eyes off you. We went anywhere and I’d blink to find you a mile down the road still truckin’ with a smile on your face so bright I saw the shine of it from behind you, my little Lone Ranger” Ann began to smile, her tongue tucked behind her bottom row of teeth. “I swear that’s why I started running, to keep up with you.”
Her smile closed, her lips tighter. “Then, one day, you stopped running, after you spent the night in the woods.”
Rich watched the smile force itself into Ann’s cheeks. He cleared his throat and sat up, his spine pulling at the base of his neck, his chest forward. He winced, “I’m sitting with you here, now. Right here.” He paused. “But, that’s right. And then you started walking next to me.”
And she left before she started to walk in front of him.
“Can I read this?” Rich opened his eyes to the stare of the woman beside him. “Can I read this or are you using it?” She pointed at the newspaper.
Rich said nothing and stretched his legs. He placed the paper on the woman’s lap. Closed his eyes, again. The woman opened the magnet on her purse and dragged on a layer of lipstick, the pasty smell creeping to Rich. “Hey Dad? Does it hurt you, your leg?” Ann asked. “No.”
When the woman popped her lips Rich opened his eyes.
His voice crept from his throat, “Do you have a pen?”
“Excuse me?” The woman said.
“A pen? I need one.”
She dug in her purse, deep into the bottom, looking forward with her mind’s eye deep into the bag. She pulled out a pen.
“I have a little pad of paper.”
“I’ve got paper.” He arched his back and slid the damp letter from his back pocket. The women’s eyes glanced down at the blue corners, the creases, the bow imprint of his sit. “I’ve been working on it for a while. Whenever I have time.”
“That’s nice.” She said.
He swore in his last efforts he’d darkened the front and back of the letter’s pages. He had memories of writing over the coffee ring in the bottom corner. But the letter was short with things he did not want to tell:
If words and muscles were the same, I’d have them. The only way I could keep from breaking was to act numb and set apart as if dead already.
He put the pen down after the last word he’d written. The pen was blue and the words of his last efforts, black. It wouldn’t look right. Then he stopped and folded up his efforts.
He focused through the window at the men conversing and pressed his good leg to the floor standing up, hopping like a bird until he caught his balance the way he’d learned. No pressure on the left leg until he had to take the first step with it. He approached the counter as Jerry came back in, wiping his hands into a grey and brown towel. Rich leaned his chest over the desk, ribbing a paper check-in form with his shirt button, and bent his knee to rest the toe of his boot on the floor.
“Brakes aren’t fixed, yet. Looks like they’ll need full replacing which will take a few days. And Bennie wants to know if you’d like him to punch out the dents in the back passenger for a little extra before you sign your check.”
“How much extra to have you do it today?”
“Enough. You don’t want to pay it. We have a line of cars stacked up to our ceiling back there. You can grab it Monday. We’re closed Sunday.”
“For church? For God?”
“No business on Sundays. People don’t want to be here. Wanna be with their families.”
“Can you park it outside Sunday? Will it be done? Can I just swing by and grab it?”
“That’s not how we work. It’ll be done Monday at a good price.”
Rich rubbed his face, stretching his eyes done, then up. He hummed.
“You want the dent out too?”
“Didn’t know there was anything back there. Is it that bad?”
“It’s pretty noticeable. I’m surprised you say you haven’t seen it.”
The mechanic’s garage was riddled with the whirling sounds of drivers, compressors, tighteners, the same sounds as an open field at night when the wind can’t be stopped. Pushing on the corn stalks, weakening the stems, making tiny tears in the leaves that scar brown when they dry up, heal.
It was dark between globes of white light floating over the hoods of three cars. One, an old navy Buick, looked like it’d been parked in the center of the garage to impress customers.
After the engine to a Kia Sephia stopped revving, Jerry yelled for the mechanic. His head ducked out of the hood of Rich’s car with a steadiness, a strength in his neck and shoulders. He was a large man, his wide hands a caricature from just feet away. In the car’s lighted globe, Bennie’s face–a black mustache, scared pores on his cheeks–rose up beyond and into the darkness. His broad chest and nametag crisped in the light. With few lights, ashen windows, Rich studied what he could. For a moment, he thought he felt a numbing breath somewhere in the whirl of noises.
Bennie had grease smudges on his face, one on his neck that looked like the continent of Africa. There was a scar on his nose from the arch dragged to the right nostril. Rich watched it flare to white with the pressure of a rag as Bennie wiped it across his tan face, then it faded back to brown.
“Bennie, this here is Rich Grossman, owns the wagon.”
The night had been spent lying awake, trying to stay awake. Had to remind Lonnie not to move, stay calm. He watched the light drain from the entrance those miles away. Then, he watched the sun fade back in. Time only changed in that hole of light. In the woods, it paused a forever gray, an old light, nutrient free and thin.
He was weak; he’d move his leg. He light dust began to fill his bones; he’d move his head, stretching his neck from side to side. And when his feet went numb he began to talk to himself for the first time. Smile. Smile now because you can. And his eyes thinned, his cheeks moved up, and a smile wiped across his mouth. If he could smile he was alive, if he could smile this wasn’t the worst of it, he could keep going, this wasn’t getting to him, not yet. “Smile for me,” he said to Ann when she was sick, and she’d smile briefly with a stern anger in her eyes. “If you can smile you’re not too sick. You’ll be alright in the morning.” He smiled, again. He could still move his legs. He could still smile.
Later, the light flickered as if something was blocking the glow.
He saw someone this time, this time it was really someone. Rich bit his bottom lip and felt his neck tighten as he hugged himself up on a tree and flagged at the broad shadow. “Help! Help over here! Please!” The figure, a man, stopped, his hood disappeared behind the pale of his face as he looked up from the ground. “Can you hear me?” Lonnie’s chains started chinking. He was getting excited. “Lonnie, down. Sit,” he whispered. The figure moved closer, this time slower. He’d glance over his shoulders every few steps. He arched his neck forward like he was trying to focus. Both men figures in the distance.
A buckle on the man’s boots rattled with each left step. His face was covered in black, fading smudges. There was a scar across the bridge of his nose. The same gray smears were on his shirt and along the top of his pants fading into his pockets where he tucked his hands. Rich could see the patch on the left chest of his shirt, a nametag.
As he came over the log, Rich yelled, “Watch out! There are traps everywhere.”
The man never looked down, “You caught?” He smelled like grease as he passed Rich.
“Yes! My dogs and I were running through and—“
“Mhmm,” Rich heard him at Dark’s chain. “You’ve been here a while.”
“Is he dead? I can’t see him, I couldn’t see him, my leg is stuck. Please—“
The man came back into Rich’s line of view. He ran his fingers through his hair. “This dog’s not in good shape, either. Worse shape.” He pulled the base of the chain connected to the trap around Lonnie’s head. Lonnie hadn’t even loosened it over the night. “These traps are for coyotes. I caught a coyote out here once, his leg was broken, so was his neck.” He pointed at Rich, “That one around your leg is for bears. Surprised you still got it clamped to you.”
“It’s tight, I tried to pry it off, but I can’t.”
His voice cracked with a thickness coating over it. “I meant your foot. Surprised you’re in one piece. You need a key for the traps.” He reached into the pocket behind his name, Benjamin, and pulled out a small black lever. He knelt at Rich’s side and slid the key into the brace, it unclamped from Rich’s leg. His ankle started to bleed, red blood spilling into his sock from patterned pits like a crown of thorns above his foot. Then, Benjamin pulled a blue handkerchief out of his back pocket and tied it around Rich’s leg covering up the perforations and soaking deep into purple.
“Shit,” he whispered, “Shit.”
“My dog, can you get Lonnie?”
He was at Lonnie’s neck, sticking the key into the brace. Lonnie’s nose was crusted in blood. The yellow of his fur clumping in pickets around his collar, blood soaking between the hairs. He didn’t move.
Benjamin’s hands were rough, “What happened to your arm?” He cupped Rich’s bicep above the elbow, but any pressure felt like a tight squeeze. The slice expanded between the barbed wire tourniquet, “Are you a doctor? You patch it up yourself?”
Rich fell back on the tree, his back arching with the pain, “I’m not anyone, a working man.” He seethed and gasped through his teeth, “I fell on that trap over there. It was all I could find to hold it closed. I couldn’t move. I—“
Benjamin pricked his finger on an exposed piece of barbed wire. Rich could smell his breath, cold and yeasty. His eyes were black, deep, hollow, no, there’s something there, something unrecognizable. His breath came from the back of his throat, he flared his nose. “You think I set these traps?”
“I don’t know.” He steadied himself against the tree, removing the weight from his leg. He attempted to point the toes of his right foot to the ground, easing the weight from the ankle, but it screamed in his ears, blinding him in circles, rolling eyes back with a yanking pressure. His teeth tight together, “I don’t know!”
He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, “You think I set them?”
He peeled a piece of bark from a tree in front of Rich and threw it across the woods toward the sunlight. Lonnie cried and lain his head over. “Traps are illegal without a sign, permit. They’re illegal in well populated areas, too.” He unbuckled Lonnie’s collar and set it to a tighter notch. Then, he slid it higher up on his neck using it to seal over the blood. “Your dogs aren’t gonna make it if you don’t get going.”
“I can’t. I’ll need your help to get to a phone, or the hospital, or something. I, I won’t tell anyone I met you.”
“You think these are my traps, then?”
“It’s just, you had the key.”
“Funny,” his laughed trickled out. His eyes began to well. “I didn’t mean to trap anyone in these. Even after I let you out, you’re still in a leg-hold unless I help you.” He chipped at bark on another tree. “I was trying to catch the coyote that crawl around my yard at night, you know? I didn’t mean to catch a man. His dogs.” He wiped his eye with the back of his hand. His knuckles were white. “Now I don’t know what to do with you.”
Rich turned, staring over Dark’s body, crumpled like a garbage bag, the trees were lit by gaps of sun. He could see the other end of the woods far behind the leaves. The light flickered in the distance, dancing closer to him, just out of reach. Rich’s foot burned and itched from rust. His arm was bleeding again, the blood dripped off his fingers. Blood clung to his pants, his shirt, his skin. His right shoe was brown from it. He could taste iron on his tongue. He spat.
Benjamin coughed behind Rich’s ear, he turned his head back. Rich became light-headed and dropped to the ground, the tree making divots in his back as he broke, “I can’t get out of these woods without you, Benjamin.”
“You don’t, don’t say my name. Don’t say my name.”
The leaves blinked over the sky.
Rich heard Benjamin’s teeth clicking at the side of his cheek, biting on his conscious until he tore a piece loose. He felt a cold breeze like the wind pushing in the raincloud in the hot summer. He felt isolated, cold.
“You’re not gonna die, are you?”
“I’d like to get home. I have a daughter, Ann. She’s seven, blonde hair.” He paused. Why did he say the next part? He couldn’t remember. “I won’t tell anyone. I’m all right; I can still speak to you, walk if you help me. I’ll be fine. No one will know this happened. Everyone says they won’t tell a soul, but I mean it.”
Benjamin nodded. The muscles of his neck tightened and he let out one short breath. His hand slipped into the low of his back, and his face cringed as he jiggled his arm up and pulled something from behind. A phone. “I’ll let you call someone,” deep wrinkles carved into his forehead, “One person. And I’ll listen to that call.” He stopped and tossed the phone in his hand. His hand was shaking. A drop of water hung from his nose. He looked at Dark still breathing, at Lonnie, still. His head fell forward and Rich saw him cry. He cried with his whole chest, his back, his face withering. His hands seemed to cry, tightening around the water seeping from him, running along his nose, his chin. He wept with a sort of crawling, dragging himself, pulling, reaching. Then, he stopped. He gasped, “And then I’ll go.” He wiped his mustache, “I didn’t mean to catch a man. We can look out for each other. I saved you. You save me. We’ll make that promise.” He rubbed the gristle of his chin and cheeks. His eyes were welling. He argued with himself under his breath about something Rich couldn’t hear.
“Nice to know you’re name, Rich Grossman.” Benjamin reached for his hand.
There was a fast whirl as another mechanic bolted a hubcap back in place on the Sephia platformed near the ceiling.
“You know, Jerry,” Rich said, “I don’t care about the dent. Call me Monday. I’ll answer.”
Jerry tried to josh him into staying, nudging him with a working-class elbow, two tosses to the ribs. Benjamin nodded and tossed the keys in his palm.
Benjamin pulled his head back and watched Rich out of the corners of his blue eye. He opened his mouth and thought better of whatever he’d planned to say. Then, “Ah, we already got him for the brakes. Let him go.” Benjamin tossed the car keys to Rich. They smacked his sternum and rang to the floor. Before Rich could bend down and pick them up, Benjamin was already at his feet.
“Nice boots, strong.” Benjamin said.
He placed his finger on the ankle of Rich’s boot with grace as if he knew what was on the other side, wanted to get to it. Wanted to see the scars. He rubbed his chin, looked up at Jerry. Rich said nothing. As he rose he opened his mouth, stretching his face so his eyes just began to sag. They were welled with water. “Tell you what, I’ll pull it around for you.” Benjamin smiled, a gray k-9 tooth crooked between his lips.
Jerry scribbled out the receipt. The ink smeared behind his left hand. He smiled as he said, “We’ll charge you for parts. I’ll knock off labor, Bennie says he’ll hand it to ya. Forty for inspection today and you’re good to go.”
The sun burned the concrete, trees unable to grow through the pavement. The sunlight lit up his skin, warming up his hair. As Rich paused at the top of the step, he felt there was something he meant to say, not now, but some time ago, something that he shouldn’t have said. He dropped down quickly and let the door close. The garage door rose and Benjamin ducked beneath the rising door.
Rich watched, he looked clean, dry. Benjamin stretched a hand out toward Rich as he approached the office door.
A bird flew over the sun, a flash of dark over the pavement, a blink. Sun blazed down the windshield and Rich kept his eyes squinted. He stepped to meet Benjamin, skipping twice to get momentum. He pulled in his stomach, raised his chest. With each step he felt his knee click beneath the cap. He shifted his weight, limping more now across the pavement. He didn’t get far.
“I wanted to shake your hand.” Benjamin said. His eyes were welling again, maybe this time because of the sun. Then, he turned his mouth to the right and bit his cheek, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
Rich ran a hand through his hair, resting his fingers around his mouth trying to lock back whatever he thought to say. “Thank you.” Rich shook his hand. It was an impulse, and he could not explain why he did it other than to feel there connection was real.
Benjamin reached for his arm, grabbing it lightly the way a man of business would. “Did everything turn out all right?” He asked.
“Yes. I’m standing. I’m here.” He patted his stomach
“Your old dog? The one that made it?”
“He died a few years ago.”
Benjamin studied Rich in the shade of the office wall, searching for something in his face, his body, the way he was standing on the leg that was evidence he was telling the truth.
Rich said, “I look different, that’s not your fault.”
“Your eyes, they look the same.”
“I couldn’t decide all this time, if I’d rather you told somebody. Would it have been better to have the cops at my place, bringing me away somewhere, knowing you made it home well enough to call them? Or was it worth worrying about you for all these years, everyday wondering if you even got home at all, if that old dog made it? I couldn’t decide if I were a devil or an angel. I told my wife about you. It was the only way I could get by. One night, I told her and she lay there quiet with me for a while.” He wiped his eyes, opened his mouth to turn his jaw. He nodded to the cars passing on the street, placed his hand on the knob to the office entrance. “All right, then. I always wondered, Rich Grossman. Sure been wondering a lot of things about you, couldn’t stop thinking about it some days.”
They stared into each other’s eyes, the smell of steel and grease between them increasing as sweat trailed their spines and the place between Rich’s lip and nose. For a moment, Benjamin’s pupils caught the reflection of trees behind Rich. From where he stood, Rich could see the pines, one in each eye and a space in the center where the sun was still flashing through like an unmoving ornament.
“Can I drive you? Do you need a ride?”
“No, I can walk home.”
“I mean, to that party, to your daughter’s birthday.”
“No, I can walk.”
“Alone? The whole way?”
“Of course. I’m fine.” He rolled his lips together towards his teeth, and turned toward the sidewalk. “It’s only about two miles home,” he said, his back turned.
The next day, Rich doubled up the envelope and slid it in his shirt pocket; then he wrapped his boot laces around each ankle twice, patted his knees, and went to the door. The sun hit his skin and spread low across the grasses. He fingered the worm-like scar on his arm. The road was empty. He set his toe on the base of the stair out and stepped out the door.
He guessed there was something to spells or religion, something to spirits. If he had a spirit, it was gone and left his body to keep living. Body, spirit, they took things separately. His spirit gone away while he was still left walking.
He lifted his knees only slightly as he walked. Shifting by his hips more than the bending of his legs. He figured his knees would ache by the time he got to Main Street, but his legs felt surprising sturdy and willing as he waited for the walk sign to stop blinking. I never told you what happened because I made a promise. I promised to be your father, to take care of you. I got scared if I told you, you’d no longer consider me as such, didn’t know how you’d define me, but if I could stand…
The light changed, the sign frozen in white.
He stood still.