Fiction · 04/13/2011

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My old man used to tell me about rumors. He’d say that somebody wakes up in the morning and looks out a window at a clear sky and wishes for weather. And even if the weather doesn’t come, it is enough to start a rumor about it to make it real for people.

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That boy. Maybe he was a man. It was hard to tell because he looked mannish but carried himself like a child. Clumsy. I used to watch him from the window as he worked around the apartment building where I lived before I got married. I remember his dirty, oversized, sloppily arranged clothing. Laboring for his father the maintenance man. Painting, mowing, cleaning windows. It was that first job that killed him. The preparation for the job. When he was up on a hyper-extended aluminum ladder scraping white paint off the eaves so his father could follow with a brush. When the ladder shifted and touched a power line. After they cleaned it up, I found two holes in the sidewalk where the legs of the ladder had been. The electricity had turned concrete sand into balls of glass. I was working when this happened. But I heard the father was crazy with grief.

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Let’s talk about that dream my wife had the other night. Let’s talk about how serious she was in relating it to me in the morning. Let me tell you about her eyes, sagging, as she told me about how in the dream the three of us — me, her, our little son — were lying in bed together in the morning watching the news. Let me tell you how she said that I had brought a wild animal to bed with us and let it hide under the covers. I asked, but she couldn’t identify the animal. And I was relieved.

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At Orchard Lake, my old man fought the dead catfish to shore and hauled it up on the grass. The fish’s back half looked like it had been picked near clean. Gray meat hung off the white spine. The tail chewed off. The strong smell reached me where I sat on the cooler up on the scorched bank. My old man twisted the hook out of the top of the catfish’s head where he’d snagged it. Then he picked it up through a gill to show it off. “Look there,” he said and smiled. Posing with the carcass. He released it gently into the water and it floated. He laid his rod down and walked up to the cooler and motioned for me to get off of it. He grabbed out a beer and lit a cigarette. I did the same and we sat on the burned grass smoking and sipping from the cold beers.

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Epitaphs: a road two days after a big snow; stone wall crawling with vines, moss, wet, cracks, ants; chestnut husks split, emptied on dead leaves; bloated deer, headless, blood-sprayed pavement.

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I barely noticed that my old man had entered the library’s reading room at the far end. He was wearing his hunting clothes and stalked low between the tables. He was unarmed. He kept his eyes on me and made his way through the tables. Then he climbed atop a section of bookshelves and perched there on his hands and knees. He reached up and drew the broad shade over the high window that goes all the way up to the ceiling. He crawled toward me along the top of the bookshelves, stopping at each of the windows and pulling the strings to make the shades drop and the room dark.

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Escape artists: I could barely hear what my wife was saying. I was dreaming, but it was just a maintenance dream. No substance. I could make out certain words she was saying. I thought maybe she was screaming, because her volume increased in grades as my consciousness congealed. I tried to open my eyes just a bit, but they were wrapped in crinkle paper. My brain felt swollen like a little pumpkin. I saw the blurred ceiling and realized I was on the couch in the living room. All the lights on and the television going, showing a cartoon. She was home from her afternoon shift. “He’s gone!” she screamed. “You left the goddamned door unlocked!” Yes, she was definitely screaming. “I’ll kill you!” I started to rock up to a sitting position and I felt her fists on me like baseballs, and I laid back down for more sleep.

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One morning, our son awakened much later than usual and escaped his little wooden cage. It was already daylight and we still slept because it was Saturday. I heard him stomp through the kitchen on his way to our bedroom. I turned in bed towards my wife and kept my eyes shut and waited for him to order me awake. But he visited not my side nor my wife’s side. He moved back and forth across the bedroom at the foot of the bed. Then he stopped. “Ladybug!” he said. “Ladybug, ladybug!” Ladybugs had infested the other house. Swarmed in all the corners by the ceiling. But we hadn’t seen them here yet. I swung my legs out of bed and sat there on the edge, itching my upper arms. I stood up in my underwear and went around to where the boy was standing and pointing and I saw something brown on the red carpet. I didn’t have my glasses on, so I had to bend and squint to discern exactly what it was: a large wood spider. He reached down for the spider. I tell myself now that it was instinct that compelled me to grab him and tear him away, throw him back into the dresser. He fell to his knees on the carpet and looked up at me, stunned, his knuckles on the carpet. He looked like a little ape. “It’s dirty,” I said. “Don’t touch it.”

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When he was three, my son sat at the kitchen table, painting abstracts with water-soluble paints. My wife was his assistant. He was strapped to a plastic chair and she was handing him brushes. The light bulb that revealed the table gave my son the pallor of a corpse.

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Against my old man’s wishes, I headed down to the edge of the swamp and hurried into the cattails. My shoes sank in the black mud. I picked up my foot and it was hard to get it out of the mud. My body flowed. I waded to waist deep in the black water. My old man had talked about snakes and drowning. There were no snakes. I was alive. His warnings were meaningless. There was no danger. I felt a little sick.

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On our way to Orchard Lake, I rolled down the window and leaned my elbow out. The air was getting hotter. My old man turned off the air conditioner and rolled his window down, too. He reached across and opened the glove compartment. As he dug for a pack of cigarettes in the trash, I saw a dog-eared photo of myself as a kid sitting on a bicycle in the yard at the other house. I wore his yellow motorcycle helmet. It was too big and made my head droop. The bicycle was too big. My feet barely touched the ground. I was smiling in the picture. There, in my old man’s truck, I almost remembered the day the photo was taken. Almost. I don’t really remember much of my childhood. My old man slammed the glove compartment door shut, shook out a cigarette and pushed in the dash lighter. Then he turned up the radio against the screaming wind.

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When I turned sixteen, I got a job and bought a brown hatchback for two hundred dollars. It was a Tuesday morning when I washed it in the driveway and my old man watched from the garage. When I was done, I dried the car quickly because the sun was high and hot. I had planned on changing the oil next. I popped the hood. Then I wheeled out the hydraulic floor jack from the garage into the driveway and positioned it under the car. My old man leaned on his workbench and smoked a cigar. I began to pump the jack handle. “What in the hell are you doing?” my old man said. I stopped pumping. He strode out to the driveway and flicked the cigar into the yard and yelled, “You want to goddamn kill yourself?” He took over.

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Sometimes, images of my old man make me feel solemn. But there’s no reason. I see him sitting in a chair at the kitchen table reading the paper. He never read the paper; he watched the news on television. I can’t make out his face. It’s a smear. I can see he wears a sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows. His arid fingers grip the paper. Through the window behind him I can see it is snowing. And then comes another: My old man standing at a thick wooden table on a pier, gutting a small hammerhead shark. “You can’t eat these,” he says. “You can’t eat shark.” He tosses the cleaned carcass into a heaped garbage drum.

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Justin D. Anderson is an MFA candidate in fiction and writing teacher at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he lives with his wife and son. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Whitefish Review, South Dakota Review, Emprise Review, Word Riot, Fractured West, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and elsewhere and has been nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize.