Force of Nature
The father is speeding home from work. He wants to beat the darkness. He’s not used to it. There are too many trees in this new life he has made. Tall ones. They block the sun in the early and later hours. By the time he’s on his way home from banging nails, it’s nowhere to be seen. The day is good as over. It puts him in an even darker mood. As do the splattered crabapples alongside the road. The berry stains. The white line, the yellow line, and the black space between.
He wants to get home while there’s still some light. There are old sections of stockade fence in the back of his pickup. They’re for his son. He’s been fighting at school. The father will have him smash the pickets up for kindling. Perhaps it will burn some of his anger, but really the father doesn’t know why he’s bothering. His own father tried like hell with him and it was never any use. There’s no use to anything, not when it’s in your nature. The father firmly believes this, but the son has already lost a mother. The father will barely have the heart when he gets home. But he’ll try to smile at the son and tell him responsible things that aren’t true. It’s what people call an honest living, not that the father would know.
They used to live in the brightest of cities. There the father was darkness. Here he no longer has the energy, but there’s always his son. The change of scenery has been good for his anger. All these trees. Lakes and rivers too. They jokingly call this new home of theirs the wilderness. The father doesn’t think it’s all that funny. It’s violent here, more so than the city. You just got to see things the right way, but nobody cares how birds and insects treat each other, or that big trees branch out and kill their own babies. Nobody looks at things like that. The father does. The trees alongside the road and the withering saplings below are living proof.
They live in an ugly house on the main road. It looks like a vinyl-sided milk carton. The father bought it so the son could grow to resent it. The town wishes it were never built. The father does too, but he pulls into the driveway nonetheless. The son and a friend are sitting on the front lawn plucking grass. He’s relieved to see the friend. It means the son won’t need his full attention. He can go straight inside and deal with the darkness. It usually takes an hour. The son can never know. Keeping him busy is the best way. Kill the curiosity.
The father gets out of the truck with hammer and pry-bar in hand. He points the hammer at the sections of fence.
“Break them up with these,” he says, dropping the tools to the grass. The son doesn’t stand but his friend does.
“What for?” the son asks wisely.
“Kindling,” the father says. “It’ll also give that temper of yours something to aim at.”
The friend is a dark freckly kid with bright blue eyes. His clothes are expensive but dirty. The father respects that.
“He never starts them,” the friend says. “People always start with him because he’s new.”
“Who are you his lawyer?” says the father.
“My father’s a lawyer and he always says intention is nine-tenths the law.”
“I think you mean possession,” says the father.
“Speaking of possession,” says the son, pointing to a bucket of crab apples in the middle of the yard. “I found those in the back woods. Don’t we own back there? Aren’t those our trees?”
“Those are crab apples,” says the father. “They’re not for eating.”
“What’s the difference?” asks the friend.
“The difference is they’re not for eating. That’s the only difference worth knowing.”
The son crawls over to the tools as if wounded. He collects them and somersaults to his feet. Upright, he lunges at the friend, pretending to run him through with the pry bar. The friend clenches it in his armpit and falls down to die with much groaning. The son then steps towards the father with the hammer held high. The father kicks him in the gut with just enough force, just a little something to let the son know. The son doubles over, laughing at his own impotence.
“Alright, alright, enough dicking around,” says the father.
He grabs a section of fence and tosses it across the lawn with everything he’s got. It belly flops onto the grass with a fatal snapping sound. The boys give it a good laugh, but then everything goes quiet. The father stands there staring at the contrast of bright splinters and weathered wood. It’s something to see in this strange twilight. He fears that he has revealed too much. It’s time to disappear.
“Get going on the fence,” he says, “and don’t come in until you’re done. I’ll be inside taking care of some business.”
“What kind of business,” the son asks.
“None of your business,” says the father.
He walks away without turning around. He enters the house, and with the same force as the kick, closes the door behind him. He locks it and walks through each room to pull the shades. He sits on the edge of the couch in his dirty work clothes, still wearing his boots. He should never feel comfortable while doing this, not with her photo across the room. Elbows on knees, he buries his face in his palms and breathes deep.
The son wails away on the fence. He’s seeing red. A picket snaps and slaps him on the wrist. This gets him good and pissed. He thinks about his mother, losing her to cancer. He thinks about cancer and how dumb God is for inventing it. If the son were God he would make cancer extinct, as well as science and history. English too. He doesn’t mind gym or lunch.
“Dude, your father is crazy strong,” the friend says. “You ever see him beat the hell out of someone?”
The son stops to catch his breath. “I once saw him rip the side of a cop’s face off with a single punch.”
This isn’t true. Everything happened before he was born.
“What’s he do in there every night?” the friend asks. “Everybody in town thinks it’s something illegal.”
“Just because something’s illegal doesn’t make it wrong,” the son says.
“My father says people from the city are shady.”
“Your father’s a pussy,” says the son.
A log truck roars by. The son flings the hammer down and the claw end sticks into a section of fence perfectly. They both laugh like hell at the miracle. The son looks around the yard through teary eyes. Everything is just the right green. The leaves. The lawn. The green mold on the roof shingles. The light never outshines anything around here. He loves living in the wild. Just the other day he found some coyote scat with a cat collar in it. Here you can spit a lungee in the lake and watch the fish feed on it. Here you can beat back the woods with a stick and it always grows back for more.
In celebration of nature, the son presses a battered section of four splintery pickets overhead and tosses it. The fence doesn’t go all that far but two of its pickets stab into the earth at an angle, planting itself like a four-pronged javelin. Another miracle. The boys go nuts. The son dives to the earth and punches it in wild amusement.
Wanting more, the son gets up and runs for the bucket of crabapples. He turns and throws without looking. The crabapple hits the windshield of a passing dump truck hauling a wood chipper. It comes to a screechy halt, the chipper jackknifing a little. A sizable man with flaming red hair jumps out and sprints straight at the son. He doesn’t think to run. He’s too amazed.
The redhead grabs the son by the collar and lifts him off his feet. Not even his father has ever held him like this. He can’t help but smile.
“You little shit. You think this is funny?”
The son doesn’t answer. He just smiles even more. The redhead shakes him.
“I’m calling DSS,” the friend shouts.
“Go get his father,” the redhead yells back. “I’ll call DSS myself.”
The son watches his friend take off for the front door.
This can’t any better, he thinks. I finally get to see my father beat the hell out of someone.
There’s frantic knocking. The father swipes everything from the coffee table and hides it under the couch. He tiptoes into the hallway and puts an eye to the peephole. It’s the friend. The father assumes the worst. He slides the deadlock and opens up.
“What’s happened?” he asks.
Before the friend can answer, the father sees a man clenching his son by the collar. He’s relieved to see that it’s nothing serious.
The father walks towards them. It’s considerably darker out. The father can’t see much of the redhead until standing an arm’s length away. They are about the same height. The redhead is younger.
“What he do?” the father asks.
“This little jerk threw an apple at my truck.”
“You can let go of him,” the father says. “I’ll take care of it.”
“I doubt that,” the redhead says. “I see this kid standing out here almost every night. There’s seems to be a lack of parenting.”
“It’s none of your business,” says the father, “and let go of him. I won’t tell you again.”
The redhead does not let go. “We all know what you do in there,” he says.
“There’s no way you can know anything,” says the father.
“I looked you up on the Internet. Everybody in town knows what you do.”
If it were before, if it were back in the city, the redhead would already be suffering, but the father no longer has that desire. Anger takes want, and the father only wants to go back inside. He has nothing left, nothing but the son’s idea of him.
“Let go of him or else,” says the father.
“Trust me, pal. You ain’t all that. Not around here,” says the redhead.
The father smiles at how untrue it is. He smiles as if having all the answers.
“You should move back to the city,” the redhead says. “Nobody wants you around here. People like you are a cancer.”
The father strikes the redhead in the throat with an open palm, with just enough force. The redhead releases the boy in favor of clutching his Adam’s apple. He drops to his knees, coughing and wheezing.
“Get the hell home!” the father yells to the friend.
The friend obeys, running like mad out of sight. The father then turns to the son.
“Finish with the fence. I still need some time inside.”
The son doesn’t answer. He can’t take his eyes off the struggling redhead.
“He’ll live,” says the father.
“Is the story about you punching off a cop’s face true?”
“More or less,” says the father.
The son finally turns to him, looks the father straight in the eye.
“Did you really kill people?” he asks.
The father tries outstaring him, but eventually blinks first.
“I can never tell you that,” he says.
“Why do you hurt people?” the son asks.
“Because they never know what’s good for them. The only way is to show them.”
“Why can’t I go inside with you?” the son asks.
“You can’t know what I do,” says the father. “It’ll mess with your head. It’ll give you the wrong idea.”
The father sees a light come on in the son’s eyes. The son smiles like he has all the answers. There’s nothing left for the father. Everything is good as dark. His son is better. He pats him on the neck and heads back to the house.
The son watches the redhead stagger across the street to his truck, still coughing, but no longer wheezing. He resumes smashing pickets. He is giddy with something but doesn’t know what. The feeling carries him through each swing. When finished, he piles the pieces into a neat stack next to the bulkhead. He stands on the pile of wood and spies into the living room window. It’s shadowy inside, but he can see just enough. He can see the father sitting on the edge of the couch, hunched over the table, photographs spread about, his face is buried in his palms, shoulders convulsing. It’s what the son has always thought, but he’s glad the father is still man enough to hide it.
The son sits there on the pile of kindling waiting for something. He waits for night birds to chirp, but that’s not it. He waits for mosquitos to bite, but it’s still not the right time. He waits for the moon to slowly rise from the trees. This is the thing. He closes one eye and cups his hands around the moon. He holds it in the sky. If only he were God. A tumor shining through an eye. He slowly squeezes the light from it.
Eugenio Volpe has stories published or forthcoming with New York Tyrant, Post Road, Salamander, Smokelong Quarterly, Superstition Review, Thought Catalog, FRiGG, decomP, and more. He has won the PEN Discovery Award for his unpublished novel and been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes. His novella King James will be published in fall of 2013 by Solstice. He lives in Bristol, RI and blogs about surfing and Don DeLillo at mebeingbrand.blogspot.com.