Fall 2019Fiction

The Horseshoe Crab – D.E. Lee

Ro leaps from one rooftop to the next on the morning of the funeral. Free. The word shimmers in his mind like the sunlight glinting on the broken windows of the slaggy buildings. Free, free at last, a puff of cloud, the lone idea, in the blue sky. He’s twenty-six, and freerunning holds out the hope of release. Free. He double kongs a long rooftop unit. His hands burn from the stick on the metal casing but the flow work is good and the burn is just one more momentum piece on this unstoppable journey through the urbanscape.

Roaming, no point A to B trip, doesn’t know where or when he’ll stop. The next gap is large. He flies across. A precision landing leaves the heels just over the ledge. Solid, same as the smile, the expression of a simple joy, the joy of sure footing. Free. He walks the ledge and looks down at the alley. Black trash bags beside brown wooden crates. A dusty red Yugo angled near concrete steps. Dark yellow grass wild at the base of the building. He stays above it all. Free, free at last. A phrase so famous he no longer knows its source. He rides it higher off the earth, the intense way he feels, a light cooling breeze percussing the skin and impulsive feet light with Hermes’ wings. Sweat snakes down the body into baggy pants. His friend Michael told him to wear them long. “It’s the difference between a cut and a bruise.”

Tethered by the pain, by the funeral, he needs to move, he races for the remnant of a fire stair and flagging it with underbars tic-tacs down the metal. Rust flakes in his palms. He lands in a crouch and bursts over a bench toward the park. At the same time he’s taking the fence a blur fills the corner of his eye. A girl going stride for stride with him. Hair short and black with a stubtail wiggling behind like a finger. He doesn’t acknowledge her. She pays no mind. Nonetheless, they are migrating like relentless beasts together over the terrain, and it seems O.K. Michael often told him, “Worry about your own movement.”

###

A few years earlier, last term of college, Ro began training with Michael and Jeff, another freerunner, and why had less to do with the joy of movement than with the sheer panic and the inexplicable lack of feeling over the loss of his mother. And he resented that his father moved right past it so easily. The man sported a surface thickness that made it possible to imagine that his entire life was consumed by the immediate and the mundane, like the afternoon he was showing Uncle Norval his big toe.

“What you need is some WD40,” Uncle Norval said. “Spray that on there and it’ll knock it right out.”

“You don’t have the fungus, Nor,” his father said. “So what do you know?”

“I know you need some WD40.”

“Vinegar. That’s what does it. Cleans it right up.”
“Why’s it still there?”

“You have to use organic vinegar.” His father sucked his teeth. “A bit of black walnut oil and some tea tree oil. I like to add a little Listerine, too. I got the recipe if you want it.”

Uncle Norval kept shaking his head. “I don’t got the toe fungus, Ford. What do I want with a recipe?”

They went on like that for several minutes. Then one of them mentioned the shooting. Ro had heard this a thousand times. There were as many versions as there were times telling. One of them, who depends on who’s telling the story, shot at the other while they were squirrel hunting. Sometimes the gun went off accidentally. Sometimes it was retribution for getting the other in trouble with their mama. The dispute always ended with both convinced the other had lost his mind. Uncle Norval shook his head, going “naw, naw.” His father sucked his teeth, holding back spit.

“You coming out with us?” Uncle Norval looked hopeful.

“He got interested a while back,” his father said.

Uncle Norval looked over the tops of his readers and raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?”

A few short head shakes.

“Well, sure you did,” his father said. “You come in yelling ‘Par four! Par four!’ like you was going nuts.”

“I thought you hated golf,” Uncle Norval said.

Not wanting to say he hated golf, which he did, Ro shrugged his shoulders. He’d never figured out how to deal with his father the way his mother had. Even when she was thin with the illness that eventually killed her, she could get his father to listen.

His father had spent so many years on the flightline that he now heard only parts of words. He was one of those greeting cards with three people sitting on a bench at a park, and the first one goes, It sure looks pretty here, and the next one goes, I don’t see a pier, and the third one says, Yeah, I could go for a beer.

“I was telling him about parkour,” Ro said. “He didn’t hear it right.”

They were looking at him with blank stares. He told them parkour was about adaptation to the environment, using the body as the transport vehicle, a movement art, going from one place to another with efficiency and speed. “Walking,” he said, “is ancient. No longer the best way to get around. An obstacle for you is a playground for me.”

His father broke into a wide grin and put his shoe on. “Well, Nor, I guess what he’s saying is he don’t want to play golf with us today.”

Ro wasn’t going to get into it. Yet he couldn’t hold back a small grunt. His father stared at him with a sorry look of disgust. Uncle Norval intervened with a shrewd chuckle. “Come along swing the clubs’ll build up that frame of yours.”

Ro nodded. “I know, I know. I’d just spend my time in the rough. That ain’t fun.”

“Life ain’t always fun, son.”

Damn. He’d given his father a lecture bullet and he was taking aim. About to shoot him full of south Alabama bromide. Uncle Norval must have known the ensuing lecture would not be pleasant—or being the younger of the two had heard it enough through the years. He mentioned the turnip truck.

“It was potatoes, Nor,” his father said. He turned. “He’s talking about our first job.”

He’d heard this one before, too.

“Daddy moved us all to Fairhope during the war,” Uncle Norval said. “He was in the Merchant Marines. One day we saw a truck filled with people going out to pull turnips.”

“I was seven,” his father said. “Nor was six. It was a cool spring day. We spent the whole day pulling potatoes.”

“He don’t remember exactly,” Uncle Norval said. “It was cool, but it was a cool fall day. They paid us about six cents for the work.”

“That was hard work,” his father said. “And I remember it like it was this morning.”

“I didn’t go back next day,” Uncle Norval said.

“He wanted to,” his father said, chuckling. “I talked him out of it.”

“Naw, naw, ain’t never talked me out of nothing.”
Ro remained silent. No sense feeding an argument. He’d learned this from his mother. She’d throw up her hands and shout, “Oh, Ford!” and walk away fast leaving his father to have the last word by himself. But at the end when she lay wasting like an unfinished meal his father was silenced by her silence and he just held her hand and looked lost and embarrassed.

Unlike his mother, Ro couldn’t just throw up his hands and walk out of a room. That was defiance. He kept his mouth shut and nodded with feigned interest until his father had talked himself out.

They were arguing on their way out the door. I’m driving. You drove last time. Naw, naw. You can’t remember a thing. I remember everything since I was two years old. Naw, naw. All they needed was face paint and a little fire engine.

###

When they were gone, Ro lay on his bed and stared at the popcorn-textured ceiling. Shadows spread in ambiguous browns and grays, and he imagined he was running over a moonscape. And at the same time, about whether wanderlust was coded into his DNA.

His grandfather was double-jointed. He could put his feet behind his head and walk around on his hands. Go up and down a flight of stairs like that. Ro remembered standing shirtless and feeling his grandfather’s hard muscles, “Got potatoes in there,” his grandfather said, and smelling the smoke on his rough sunburnt skin.

“Daddy never could sit still,” Ro’s father said but the old man lay dying of pneumonia in a cold and green-tiled hospital. “One day he got up at dawn and gone off hoboing with a buddy. They rode the rails from Mobile to Houston. Jacinto City had a carnival going on and to make a little money he got in the ring for a dollar a round if he won. Five dollars for the match. The way Daddy tells it,” his father said, “he beat the man the first round, lost the second, and got worn out in the last.”

“You mean he left you?”

“That’s how he was, Roland. Just up and go. Around the county or beyond. Not a word to anyone. Why? He just felt like doing it.”

Ro found a bent photo of his grandfather on a war ship. The scratches on the surface lent the image an apprehensive mood. He imagined his grandfather walking miles on the decks to keep his feet moving. He was posed near a gun turret in the snapshot. Wisps of curly hair dipped just below the rim of his sailor’s Dixie cup cap. His eyes round and curious as a baby’s. Ghostly blue, revealing the wanderlust within.

Ro’s father on the other hand had been an obligated traveler. Nothing about him suggested adventure. Yet, he’d signed up for military service right out of high school. He’d gone to Africa, Germany, Thailand, and Japan, where he brought his wife and son to live in an apartment on Misawa Air Force base. In the evenings, Ro went with his father to the gym to watch him play in volleyball leagues, out to the ball fields for softball, to the courts for squash and racquetball. His father wore a bandage on his knee. He dripped with sweat. He took cold showers. “Always take a cold shower after a hot one,” he told him. “It closes your pores.” He was an encyclopedia of old wives’ tales.

While his father raced up and down the court, Ro played on the periphery, behind the telescoping bleachers in the gym. The tunnels beneath the wooden planks became ruins he explored, finding change or lost items. Sometimes he climbed the understructure and worked his way out through the openings beneath the seats, coming from catacombs into sunlight. Or it was a machine gun nest and he shot the players racing up and down the court.

There were nights he couldn’t sleep and looked out his window at the other apartment buildings and at the street lamp across the road. It stood shiny with a white glow like a sentinel on the edge of a wilderness. Through squinted eyes he made a starburst of the light. During the snows, he slung himself over the radiator next to his bed and watched the flakes build snow boots up to the knees of the sentinel. He examined it all through the lens of a magnifying glass he’d gotten from a Crackerjack box. Time seemed to curl in his memory and lay soft like the snow.

One night he heard a clatter in the kitchen and shuffled out from the bedroom. His mother had dropped a knife on the floor. It lay there long and sharp and wide, glinting with light from the fluorescent strip on the ceiling. His parents looked as if they were dancing and had suddenly become frozen, her arm upraised, his hand clasped to her wrist. They were shaking and flushed. His father looked afraid. His mother had tears rolling down her face. They turned. He dashed for the bed. Under the blanket, he tried to figure out why their smiles looked so painful.

His mother had her first operation in Japan. When she came home he was told to go outside or be quiet. An easy choice. Only later did he realize that the choice was a bad one. He believed then that his parents were indestructible. He didn’t know how hard it was to cultivate immortality.

As he lay on the bed watching the moonscape shadows, his arms behind his head, he tried to feel sad about the loss of his mother. His body shook with the effort. That he seemed incapable of feeling sadness when he had every reason to feel it bolstered his idea that something was wrong. He stabbed his eyes with his thumbs. He blinked several times and became angry. Angry because he couldn’t force a tear. Nothing to release the pressure in his chest, he searched for a better memory.

He’d been happy in Japan. Nine or ten years old, and riding around on a pretend horse beneath layers of purple sky. A copper wheel of sun spinning downward behind the flightline hangers. He ranged far over grass fields and bunkers, through the BX parking lot, beneath the mounted F-104s in the Zen garden, and to the main gate, to the edge of the base.

He was a superhero. His mother gave him markers. She sat on the floor and helped him with spelling. He meticulously wrote ROLAND THE INVINCIBLE on a t-shirt and put underwear on over his pants. He fought villains in the stairwell until it was time for sandwiches and corn chips.

Invincible. Before they left Japan, his mother had two more operations. His father intensified his fitness routines, adding jogging and aerobics to the numerous sporting leagues. He tried to get her to come with him. “Exercise,” he told her, “can cure anything.”

###

A merry-go-round lies ahead. The girl, like the memory, keeps pace. The only antidote, acceleration. She bounds over the merry-go-round first, steps light and quick over the knobby spinning surface, and comes out of it slapping her hands flat on the grass and races for the monkey bars. Impressed that she knows the terrain and not to be outdone, Ro hits the merry-go-round while it’s spinning. He twists out with a side flip. A little showy but the move steadies him. She cats the upper bar. She’s wearing martial arts shoes. The tan soles work deftly along the bar, her hands alternately grabbing and releasing. She backflips out. A graphic flash move if ever there was. Michael would call it moist.

He met Michael and Jeff at a park. They were running on the limbs of a 200-year-old oak. Jeff told him to keep moving, keep moving, that’s all there is to it. They showed him basic techniques. “It’s about adaptation,” Jeff said, balanced on a long knotty limb. “The tree’s an unstable surface. I don’t expect it to change for me.” Another time, after a run through a government complex, Michael, leaning sweaty against a concrete column, said, “We’re not rebels.” He left a wet outline when he moved from the column. “We’re not skaters,” Jeff added. “We’re adaptors.” Sweat dripped from Michael’s nose. “We’re conservers of the environment. We want to fit into it, be a part of it, not dominate it.” Jeff stretched his legs. “We’re being moist in our surroundings. Good flow, good movement.”

That’s what the girl does, backflips out and, as if to stoke memory, winks. Of all things. A teasing wink, and it’s time to push it, leave her behind.

Ro passes the girl stumbling out of backflip 2. Her eyes glancing narrow and intense. Beneath the wet hair, a smile flickers out subtle with friendly allusion. At the gates of the park Ro plants a foot halfway up the stone wall and cranes on the opposite wall, spinning over it to the pavement on the other side. He doesn’t look back. Free of her at last.

But a moment later he hears the soft double tap of her landing. Heartbeat acceleration is not panic but moist infusion. He dumps her with a minor wall run, catches a limb, and swings to the next. As he releases the first she catches it. They are double images, one limb to the next, then to the ground in a sprint over an asphalt parking lot. She comes up beside him. Looks as if she’s come out of a warm equatorial sea. She seems to be speaking. What if you have to carry it with you? The tone is healthy and so familiar he no longer knows its source but tenderly it presses. Can you stand to take it with you? Or if not speaking—her lips are not moving—she is transferring an idea. Can you? Her lips are not moving, and all he hears is the sound of rubber soles on the pavement, quiet and steady as an afternoon rain.

Ro sees at the end of the parking lot a low wall and then several feet higher a black railing on short tube legs. On the other side is a drop of unknowable distance. Easy enough to vault the first and climb up to the railing. He glances, she signals go. They run up the wall and leap across the gap with their knees tucked and land on the balls of their feet, crouching slightly for balance, and swing their arms loosely in front. The landing is precise. An intense still moment of perfect balance on the railing. Everything behind leads to this moment, the gutsy foot on the rail, free, free at last, shaking apart from the weight of her question, and the fear, what lies ahead when the foot leaves the rail, bears down.

###

Readjusting to the States was difficult. Ro was twelve. In Japan, he’d been ensconced in the sixth grade with a teacher he adored and a comfortable way of life. He missed Misawa. He missed her. He felt a pervasive sense of dread in the trailer park just off the county road in South Carolina. The fragile metal shell of their mobile home shook violently during storms, and the turbulence of the cultural expectations of his peers frightened him. He didn’t know these people, who they were or what they wanted. He lost the insularity he’d had in Japan. He was outside the gates now, outside the fences.

For the first time in his life he felt an acute urgency to grow up. He entered the confusion of middle school dreaming of the final bell, dreaming of the wide ranges that existed now only in his memory—and fading fast. Youth was being siphoned from his body, though he realized it only years later when there was nothing he could do about it except stare at the carcass.

Sometimes he thought he had caused his mother’s illness. His father had said it was his goddamn attitude putting stress on her. He retreated into his room, closed the door, and for some reason the position of the door became a source of irritation to his father who banged on it and demanded it be left open. Ro opened it. “And leave it open,” his father said, looking lost, as if he were trying to find a reason to explain why the door had to be left open. Standing in the narrow hall, his father sucked his teeth. And when he couldn’t come up with anything he shouted. “Just leave the goddamn door open!” Soon as his father left, Ro shut the door.

But at first Ro did as he was told. Only later did he ignore his father, trying to do as his mother had done when he’d become demanding or irrational. Ironically, her weakened condition gave her more strength when it came to quieting his father. She needed only to move painfully and he raced to fix her something or prop her up or ease her back—whatever she wanted. Imitating her, Ro put his own pain out there. But his father didn’t buy it. They bickered when he was in his room—or he went to his room to avoid the bickering. He wasn’t sure which came first. But he knew nothing could keep him in.

Six months later, they moved to Florida. Outside the gates of Eglin near a convergence of saltwater bayous, Ro wandered through woods and swamps to the muddy shores of Knife Pass Bayou, so named because it was a long body of water with offshoots resembling the blades of a pocketknife. The pass merged into a bay and then into the Gulf of Mexico. One time he found a horseshoe crab overturned like a bug. Using a stick to prod it, he saw that its shell, brown as a scab, had been smashed open. He poked at the curved legs, felt himself tensing to jump back if it suddenly moved. Black flies feasted on the rotting carcass. He broke off the tail and carried it with him for a while and then threw it into the bayou.

That night Ro overheard his father telling his mother that things would be better once he got Ro out on the course. Her face was in a paper bag. She was gasping. His father kept talking as if talking would make her stop throwing up. At last she was able to speak. “He’s a lot like a river, Ford,” she said. “You don’t have to push him to get him moving.” She put her face back in the bag. “That’s what I always do, Alice,” he said.

At first, golf was at least tolerable, if not pleasurable. His father liked to go early in the morning when the fog was lifting, when the grass glistened with dew. They stood at the tee box looking over a long sea of green tranquility. They strolled silently, except when his father had some advice about how to take a shot, which was often. Ro swung the clubs as if he were slugging baseballs into the outfield. More irritating to his father, Ro pretended the clubs were swords and fought off imaginary invaders. “Quit horsing around,” his father said. The reproach made him feel glum. He straightened himself up. But moments later found himself charging over bunkers or wandering into wooded areas. Some days the irritation was too much for his father. He hollered, made threats to never bring him again. Once he grabbed him by the arm and walked him off the course, marched him along the lanes back to the clubhouse, and slammed the clubs into the back of the car. He drove hunched over the wheel, grumbling and goddamming the whole way home. By the time he reached high school Ro hated golf. He especially hated the 10th hole. The Philosopher’s Hole. It was 264 yards, tee-to-hole, par 4, with a lake and lateral hazards.

He finished high school. Went to college. Graduated and got a job at the Department of Environmental Protection in the Coastal Management Program. Neither growing up nor golf eased the bitter tension Ro felt toward his father, and the sparring continued.

His mother intervened at times, but mostly she was sick, in bed, on the couch, lying ill in a layered chiffon nightgown with tiny embroidered flowers on the collar. “It makes my skin feel cool,” she told Ro, smoothing down the scrawny remnants of her hair. He sat touching her hand. The fingers seemed ready to snap. The skin had the loose feel of raw chicken. “Why’s he always gone?” Ro asked. “He can’t sit still,” she said. “That’s his way, how he deals with this.”

Ro felt anxious, impetuous, after sitting with her a while. He also wanted to go somewhere else. Overwhelmed by obligation, something he owed, though he didn’t know exactly what, he sat with his leg going up and down. “What’s he afraid of?” She touched his bouncing knee, not to stop him, just to let him know she knew what he wanted. “He doesn’t know what to do without me,” she said.

When she was admitted to the hospital his father bought bottles and bottles of vitamins. He removed everything from the wall cabinet and lined it with fish oil, flax seed, vitamin C, ginkgo biloba, calcium, vitamin D, one-a-day multies, red clover, and lecithin. “It’s for liver and cell function,” his father told Uncle Norval, trying to convince him to take it, too. Uncle Norval just shook his head. “I don’t need it,” he said. “Helps improve memory,” his father said. “You need that.”

In addition to turning the bathroom cabinet into a pharmacy, his father took up kickboxing. After a class, he’d stop by the hospital and stand at his wife’s side and ask if she was feeling better. He seemed puzzled when she said no.

She died on a Tuesday. It was just the two of them then. No way to get around that one.

###

Balanced on the rail, Ro can’t get around the girl’s question and, without thinking, he says, “Let’s go,” and he’s ready to fling himself from the rail. He speaks not with certainty but with fear, and in spite of fear, says again, “Let’s go.”

“I hate wet shoes,” the girl unexpectedly says. Her face shines with sweat. Dark bangs painted to the forehead.

Ro senses in the flashing light of her face that she’s let him off the hook for the moment, and the subtle descent of her knee, set to spring, tells him there’s no time to waste.

They leap from the railing, float to the concrete below, and come from their rolls with sand and bits of glass flying from their backs. He leads through the open spaces of a library with huge columns, and vaults over bullet-shaped structures. She runs past and takes the next one. Then she hits a ledge with one foot planted on the side, the other arching up like a crane. He leaps to a metal railing, soars from one to the next, turns enough to give panic time to rise in his chest. The target—the slant of a concrete wall. The foot begins to slide down the metal. He twists to regain the momentum needed to cross the gap and clings like a cat to the upper edge. Then he walks up the side to the top. She flips forward off the ledge, lands with her hands slapping the ground below, and then bolts through the side yard of the library into a cool grassy plain with crape myrtles flaming up from the ground. He springs from the ledge toward a horizontal oak limb, touches it, swings to the next, and drops onto the grass. They close on each other. Running up a slanting wall and vaulting the outer barrier onto the sidewalk and somehow it’s as if they’ve returned to earth.

She bends with her hands on her knees. Sweat drips from her nose. He walks in circles, hands on head, and gulps mouthfuls of air. He’s thinking about what she said. Realizes it wasn’t anything about shoes. Traction. More ways to slip than stick, she meant. Slip as much about movement as stick. She rises, her chest heaving, a pattern of sweat mapping the front of the sleeveless tank. She gives a little wave and jogs to the corner and she’s gone.

###

Sometimes Ro imagined that his mother had gone shopping and would return shortly. Still at home several years after his mother had died, Ro worked long hours, while his father spent his time kickboxing and jogging and weeding the garden. Sometimes they set up TV trays in front of the wide screen and watched a ball game. Some superficial remarks. How was your day? Fine. How was yours? Fine. Commentary on the ball game. Not much else. They weren’t mean about it. Just no use getting into things.

Ro stretched out on the couch one day. The volume on the television low. The photographs on the wall seemed pointless hanging there. His father came in and stood looking a little lost, as if he’d forgotten something.

“Let’s go shoot some golf.”

Did his father really say that? He was standing in the half shade of morning. Hard to tell from the angle. Hard to tell the way the outside light nosed in past the heavy curtains whether the expression on his father’s face was sincere.

Ro stood up. Maybe it was boredom. The solitude of his father’s stance. Maybe Ro realized he’d never taken the time to do something for his father or that those times were quickly vanishing. He found his clubs in the shed. They were caked with white dust.

A westerly breeze blew through the tops of the pines. The fairway stretched long and green. They teed up in silence and took their swings. Ro spent his time chunking the turf. His father had no long ball but putted beautifully. The day wore on.

They approached The Philosopher’s Hole. His father shot first, sending the ball over the lake. Then Ro set up. The green was invisible from the tee because of an intervening hill. Just over the top the flag hung limp on the pole. The hazard stake stood a little bent to the left. Ro stood planning his shot so long that his father said, “Maybe you ought to hit from the red.”

He gave his father a look, shook his head, and lined it just behind the ball. He saw the splash before he heard it. His father got busy walking around the lake. A little later after Ro worked through sections of the hazard and the sand traps on the sloping side of the hill, he joined his father on a bench under a sprawling oak. The sun leaned lazy against the sky.

“Golf . . .,” his father began the sermon, sounding like Kirk going, “Space . . .”

Ro guessed his father chose this spot because it seemed insurmountable, had intimidating hazards, and pushed limits. After the struggle, a rest on a bench overlooking the fairway and trees and the town’s water tower rising to the north somehow exposed the remarkable details needed to form the folksy tropes of his father’s messages about life.

Ro sat looking at the sun, at the marble chunk of sky crumbling into late afternoon. He nodded so his father would think he was getting all that about keeping within the boundaries, about each hole representing a new day, about how journeys into the rough are necessary to shape character. Good guidelines all, but where were his father’s tears when his mother died? Ro craved something more primitive than fatherly advice.

And then he thought about the horseshoe crab he’d found on Knife Pass Bayou years ago. An adaptation generalist pre-dating most species on earth it belonged to a class of creatures whose name translated to “legs attached to the mouth” and it was not even a crab but a trilobite, the most successful of the earliest animals. A story of genetic transfer, of what was passed generation to generation. The one he’d found had come to the shore to shed its shell so it could grow larger—or, as he thought later, to lay eggs. Something had gotten to it, had clubbed it to death, and left it to rot. Envisioning the horseshoe crab lying there he felt sad. It had survived millennia, a sort of eternal hero, and had wandered onto the shore at the wrong time and had been vanquished without the slightest awareness of its accomplishment. Did it really need to know? Or would passing along information in 100,000 eggs be enough? Or, now it occurred to him, would the information his father passed down be enough?

His father touched his knee and stood up. “Well, I guess you know all that.” His eyes were glistening. “I just, I just want you to make your own way in the world. Like any father wants, I guess.”

Ro nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.”

###

Ro makes his way home for the funeral. The sky is a sparkling jewel. He stands serious as a pallbearer, though he isn’t one, in black jacket and bolo tie. He wears sunglasses. Uncle Norval teases, “Look at Mr. Hollywood.” They stand next to each other while friends read short passages and a trio of women sing about a mansion on a hill. The casket lies brown as a honey lozenge ready to be swallowed down an open throat. The small crowd disperses after a final prayer.

Just as they reach the car, a frail woman wearing pearls and smelling slightly of sour milk grasps his hand. She holds on, tremoring. “We went to school together,” she says. “Your father used to bring me a watermelon.” Another woman—perhaps the older woman’s daughter—guides her away with an amused smile.

At the house, Uncle Norval takes off his jacket and sits on a chair with a glass of tea. “I purchased a hundred acres down by the old home. You know, the place your daddy called ‘the ranch,’ down by there. Mostly woods right now, but I’m thinking of cutting a path through it.”

Ro sits on the edge of the couch slowly stirring the ice in his glass of water. The framed pictures seem to be staring from the walls. His favorite, the one of his grandfather standing next to the gun turret. Another of his mother just getting out of a ’56 Chevy Bel Air in the desert. A wind must be blowing. Her black hair sweeps across the cheek and covers part of the mouth and the faint flicker of a smile. A look of optimism on her face. How incredible that sensation of an unvarnished future must have felt. Several plaques hang in a downward slope. One has a set of golden clubs raised out of a walnut frame. Next to it is a black-and-white of his father in fatigues, his flat top bristling with expectation. Sporting a wide grin, he climbs down a metal stair next to a sleek fuselage and gives someone off-camera the thumbs up.

Uncle Norval sips his tea and continues, “Thought you might like to come out and join me, maybe move out there a little. You’d still keep your job, of course. Just have a longer drive is all.”

Ro turns his ice. Two days ago, during the viewing at the funeral home Uncle Norval stood shaking hands with the mourners. His face held a staunch expression. But later when things quieted down he began to cry a few hesitant tears. Then as he tried to talk about his brother, a flood. As Ro stood watching his uncle he felt shitty that he hadn’t been able to feel a thing.

The photos reach beyond their frames and reveal what cannot be seen in the plain image. He studies the one of his father. The shadows are crisp. The white lettering on the name tag is clear and bold, and the sleeve insignia—two upward stripes and a middle star—sit as a challenge on the arm. His teeth are strong and white, and he’s not afraid. Ro wasn’t even born when the photo was taken. But he knows now, he knows who’s off camera, who the thumbs up is for.

Outside the window a thin cloud races past the branches of an oak and disappears on its way across the sky. He’s feeling the urge to move.


D. E. Lee’s short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Swamp Ape Review, Palooka, Little Patuxent Review, Quiddity, Lunch Ticket, Alligator Juniper, The Lindenwood Review, Broad River Review, and others. Awards include finalist in Prairie Schooner’s 2018 Book Prize and Honorable Mention in the Cincinnati Review’s Robert and Adelle Shiff 2018 award. His novel, The Sky After Rain, won the Brighthorse Books 2015 novel contest and is available in paperback. Find out more information at https://www.deleeauthor.com/.

The author: Eric Williams

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