Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Dirt is Coming

by Chris Wood




My father walks through the darkness in our house every night. From my bed, I can hear him walking around on the first floor then walking on the second floor without using the stairs, and I don’t know how he gets from down to up.

He opens my bedroom door and stands in the doorway, breathing. I know he’s watching me breathe, so I just keep breathing. When he’s satisfied I’m still alive, he closes the door, and I can hear him walking around in the attic, where he likes to stay in the darkness.

In the morning, I walk down to the kitchen, where my mother is sitting at the table with her head in her hands. When she hears me enter, she kneads herself a new face and presents it to me.

“Dad at work?” I pour a glass of orange juice from the fridge and gulp it down.

She offers a noncommittal nod and asks what I want for breakfast. She asks this every morning, and every morning I tell her I don’t eat breakfast. Dad does before he leaves at daybreak, so she must be used to cooking early. The sink is empty.

My mother doesn’t get up from the table, just sits there looking at me, like she wants to tell me something but it’ll ruin the surprise. I kiss her on the forehead and tell her I love her. Slinging my book bag over my shoulder, I walk out the back door, down the steps of our wooden deck, and into the light. In the light I never see my father.

When I’m at school, I often think about my father during classes. Every day he works a double shift at the coal mine, so he doesn’t come home until it’s dark and I’m in bed. Sometimes

I wonder if darkness is where all fathers go. Do they return in it, searching for their families, or do they use it as a cover to avoid the love and responsibility of them? Is darkness where fathers go to hide? They work underground in it, leave and come home in it. Are they used to being in the dark, and if they are, do they prefer darkness to light?

I haven’t seen my father in light for a very long time, but I can hear him breathing above me in the attic, can feel him waiting for me in the basement when I go down there to do my laundry. One night I turn on the light to the wooden deck, and I see his outline just inside the darkness where it meets the light spilling across the backyard.

“I mowed the lawn today,” I call out to him, and he breathes his approval, inhaling the sweet, wet scent of freshly cut grass. “I knew you’d like it.” Then I go back inside and switch off the light to give him his space.

There’s light inside the house, so I follow it to the living room, where my mother is slumped in her chair, sleep-watching Family Feud. She watches one episode after another, one rerun after another, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I just kiss her goodnight and go upstairs to my room. I do my homework until I get sleepy. Then I get in bed, click off the lamp, and wait for my father to come.

That night he comes to the door and stands breathing there. This time I sit up in bed. “Your heart doesn’t belong to you anymore, does it? You left it for Mom and me.” His breathing quickens, and I think he’s going to say something. Instead, he just closes the door, and I hear him walking around in the attic. I can tell by the way he bumps around that he’s looking for something. But he never seems to find it, and that saddens me.

The next night I follow my father up to the attic. “What are you looking for?”

I can hear him breathing in a corner. He knows talking to me is a struggle because I’ll have trouble understanding him, so all he can do is breathe his meanings to me.

I’ve brought a flashlight, so I tell him to move out of the way. When he does -- or when I think he does -- I snap it on. The light finds a box with packing tape on the lid. I rip it off and peer inside.

The box is full of old photos of my father’s family. They always leer at the camera, as though they’re unhappy and their lives are being interrupted. Even in a Sears family portrait they look like misplaced mannequins with tousled hair and polyester clothes, gnashing their teeth at the camera as though their lives depend on it. At the bottom of the box, my hand lands on a scrapbook, and my father’s breathing quickens.

I set the scrapbook on top of the box, where I leaf through each page with one hand and hold the light with the other. Each page has pictures of me on it, and I grow bigger and bigger as I leaf until I reach the last one, where I find a picture of a fifteen-year-old me with my father’s arm around my shoulders. In the picture we’re both smiling at the camera my mother had held. My father looks so proud, and I’m smiling because I know he is. It’s my fifteenth birthday.

There’s a cake with candles on the table in front of us. Even upside down, I can read what the icing says: “Happy Birthday, Eric.”

“Is this what you’ve been looking for?”

His breathing speeds up, so I peel the picture from the scrapbook and take it with me to my room, where I set it on my nightstand. Then I fall asleep, knowing my father is still in the attic.

The following morning, I put the picture on the kitchen table in front of my mother. Her eyes dart down at it. Then they jerk up and focus on me. “You’ve been in the attic,” she says. “Why?”

“Dad’s been coming to my room every night. And during the day he hides in the dark places.”

“Where’s he now?”

“I think he’s in the basement. It’s darker down there.”

“Your father is dead, Eric,” she says. “He won’t be going to the mine anymore. He won’t be coming home anymore. In case you haven’t noticed, his truck is gone. That’s because it was totaled in the accident.”

“How did he die?”

“You already know that.”

“I want to know again.”

She sighs and shakes her head. “I can’t go through this again, Eric.”

“Please.”

She gazes down at the picture. This time when she looks up at me her eyes glisten. “He was driving home from work. In town he stopped at the traffic light. When it turned green, he was going through the intersection when he got blind-sided by a drunk driver. He died instantly. So you see, Eric, your father isn’t here.”

“But he is.”

“He isn’t. We buried him. You were at the funeral. We laid him to rest in the cemetery. Your father isn’t here. Now I don’t want to talk about this anymore. It’s hard enough living without him. But it’s even harder to hear he’s in the basement.” She hands me the picture. It trembles in her hand. “This is the last picture of you and your father. If it’s what you wish to remember him with, then keep it. It’s yours. Your father loved you, Eric.”

I want to tell her he still does, that he comes to my room every evening to watch me breathe, but I know this will only confuse her. My preacher once said that people grieve in their own ways. My mother is trying to let go, but I’m trying to hold on. She’s right, though. My father is no longer with us. But something of him remains with me, and whatever it is, it won’t let go of me.

“Your father’s in heaven,” my mother says.

I tell her there may be a heaven, but if there is, then this must be hell, and some people choose to stay in it.

That’s when tears stream from her eyes. “Get out,” she says. “You’re going to be late for school. And take that picture with you. It’s the only thing you have to hold on to.”

“My father’s the only thing I have to hold on to.” I leave her sitting at the kitchen table, holding her head in her hands.

When I come home from school, I do my chores. Then we eat dinner in silence. My mother doesn’t ask me about my day. She’s still wearing the bathrobe she had on this morning. I want to apologize to her, to tell her I believe there’s a heaven. But how does that explain my father? Somehow he’s avoided it. How can I apologize for something I believe? Instead I take up the dishes and wash them while my mother leaves the kitchen. From the living room, I hear Family Feud. And she doesn’t believe this is hell.

I go up to my room and do my homework until it’s time for bed. I turn off the lamp and wait for my father to come to the door. After a while, I guess I fall asleep because I’m awakened by somebody sitting at the foot of my bed. I can make out the form of a man. Then my eyes adjust to the dark, and I can tell it’s my father. He’s wearing dirty coveralls with fluorescent stripes running down his sleeves and pleats. Blood stains his shoulder straps and bib. From darkness to darkness he has come, from the mine to the house after the accident. And for the first time I can barely make out his emaciated face. It has black smudges and dry brown blood on it. His skin is a translucent grey. His lips are gone, exposing green teeth. Without sockets, his eyes just stay in place, staring straight ahead at me. The left side of his skull is bashed in, as if someone had hit him with a pick axe. His breath is wet. It sounds like water snorting into, then gurgling out of a floor drain. My room smells like a horse stable, and the air is wet with his breath. I realize my father is far from perfect, that no one is, and looking at him, I see the dirt we all become at the end of our lives.

I know he can’t speak, so I do the talking for both of us. “I love you, Dad. But Mom’s right. I must let you go. You’re here because I’ve wanted you here, but it’s time to come out of the dark and into the light. When you’re hiding, it’s safe because no one can see you. But you’re also hiding from yourself. If there’s a heaven, I want you to go because Mom thinks you’re there already.” I retrieve the picture from the nightstand and hold it up for him. He leans forward to get a better look at it. “I’ll always cherish this. Nothing hidden is ever lost. You’ve shown me that. Now it’s time for you to move on. I’ll see you in heaven when it’s my time.”

His wheezing increases. He tries to say something, but only fetid breath emits from what is left of his mouth. So he places a horny hand on his chest where his heart used to be. Then he touches my hand with the other one. It’s frigid to the touch, but I can feel his love surge through it.

He stands up stiffly and limps to the door, where he goes wheezingly into the hallway. I can hear his boots shuffle a few steps. Then I don’t hear them anymore. No more walking around in the attic. No more walking around downstairs. It’s as though he’s never been here. But I know he has, and I hope he’s looking to heaven, however he can find it. My preacher tells us there’s a light, even in darkness, but I don’t know if that’s true. I just want my father to be free. Everyone deserves that, even if he’s dead.

Maybe darkness was my father’s destiny. Maybe it’s for everybody. I don’t know that there’s a heaven, but perhaps there is one. Being alive and breathing, I can’t say. But tomorrow there will be daylight, and I’ll walk through it on my way to the kitchen, where I’ll tell my mother I want something for breakfast. I’ll tell her I’m sorry for what I’d said and that I’ve sent my father to heaven. I know she’ll be pleased, and I’ll pretend to be. I’ll kiss her on the cheek as I walk out the back door into sunlight, which is something we’re promised for only a short amount of time.

The dirt is coming for all of us, and the same ground I’m walking on is a guarantee forever.



THE END


2019 Chris Wood

Bio: Chris Wood’s writing has appeared in The Melic Review, Appalachian Heritage, Now & Then, Deep South Magazine, Aphelion, and Concho River Review.

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