Arrow of Light

By  |  December 13, 2013

Photograph by Mark Steinmetz | marksteinmetz.netPhotograph by Mark Steinmetz | marksteinmetz.netThe evening Jimmy died my father was late picking me up from a Webelos meeting. I sat under a Japanese maple and practiced the square knot, the last knot I needed to master before receiving my Arrow of Light badge. Then I could enter Boy Scouts at ten, instead of eleven. Useful for survival, the square knot works as a binding knot. Good for clamping a wound but not the best for carrying things or securing them.

Under the maple, I threaded one rope over another twice, made a loop, and pulled. Grass and leaves make good wound compresses, as long as they aren’t poisonous like ivy or oak. Behind me, tires squealed, and I turned to see my father’s beat-up green truck, affectionately nicknamed The Turd.

“Come on now,” he yelled. “Hurry up.”

His long hair hid most of his face but I could still make out his expression, one that made us kids hide in our rooms. Wide eyes. Blue in the center with red all around.

“We got to check on Jimmy,” he said in a calmer tone.

Jimmy usually meant a good thing. When he came around, my parents laughed and talked loud. He threw my brother and me over his shoulders, stuffed us in the broken freezer on the back porch, and snuck us sips of beer. For a moment I felt happy as I slipped into the truck next to my father. But he drove too fast, barely missing red lights, passing cars. “Drive, fucker!” he’d yell at a city bus, or left-turning dump truck. Sometimes Jimmy would ride with us to Scout meetings. In the summer, I’d sit at just the right angle in the back of The Turd so my hair, long like my father’s, slapped against my cheek. In the winter, I’d listen to them talk, squished together up in the cab, and smell their sawdust and car grease smell.

At Jimmy’s house, my father fishtailed into the driveway and threw the truck into park. Opening his door he said, “Don’t let me catch you in the yard.” I waited for him to go inside Jimmy’s house before I stepped out of the truck. Next to The Turd stood a large cherry tree bare of any blossoms. I found a low-hanging branch and practiced the square knot on the limb as if it were a fellow scout’s bleeding arm.

After a few minutes, my father stormed out the front door with Deborah, Jimmy’s wife, in tow. I crouched by the tree and heard her say, “Hurry up. Cops’ll be here soon.” My father didn’t respond. He moved fast across the yard toward Jimmy’s truck. I saw the busted back windshield. A blood red painted out where glass still hung.

Opening the passenger door to Jimmy’s truck, my father drew back quick and vomited. I’d never seen him sick before. He bent down low, holding his hair away from his face, and fought to catch his breath before throwing up a second time. Still begging for air, my father wiped his mouth on his flannel sleeve. For a moment, he stood motionless holding his elbow against his mouth. Then he reached into the truck, dug around, and came out with a small but weighted plastic bag. He walked back toward Deborah without closing Jimmy’s truck door. “Flush it,” I heard him say as he handed the bag off to Deborah. Followed her inside.

I unmade the square knot I’d just tied off and hid behind the cherry tree. My father came out of the house carrying an empty sandwich bag. He opened the driver’s side door and stood with his head down, hands resting on the roof of the cab. After a moment, he reached into the truck. Through the shattered rear window, I watched him gather bits of blood-covered glass scattered along the seat bench and scoop them into the Ziploc. He stuffed the bag into his pocket, and paused only briefly before he reared back and kicked the side of Jimmy’s truck—“Stupid mother fucker!” he yelled. He charged the truck and kicked the door. His lips peeled back and his teeth grit tight as he kicked the door again, and twice more after the latch took. “FUCK!” He opened the door. Slammed it once more before he left it hanging wide. I ran back to The Turd, but didn’t get in.

A police car came up the drive without any lights or sirens on. When he saw the squad car, my father started walking toward the officer. Deborah came out of the house and stood a little ways off. This time she held her infant son. “Just can’t face him,” she said, and sobbed. “Just can’t.”

“Y’all needed an ID,” my father said to the cop and pointed toward Jimmy’s truck. “Well, it’s him.” The officer talked so soft I only heard how my father responded, loud and angry. “Make it fast,” he said. The cop took down my father’s name in a little notebook. “Oldest friend,” he said to a question I couldn’t hear. An ambulance pulled into the drive as my father walked over to The Turd. “Back in the truck,” he said to me.

On the drive home he kept quiet, a cigarette clamped tight between his teeth. He smoked without using his hands. “Did Jimmy get robbed?” I asked. The way my father looked at me said don’t, but also told me he would answer. His eyes softened into an apology. I stared at the cigarette as he rubbed his hands through my hair and said, “Sorry you had to be there. Should’ve just left you at the church.” “No,” I said. “I wanted to come.” Though I did not know what I’d come for.

We stopped at a red light. My father snorted and his face crumpled the way mine did when I tried not to cry. I stared down at my shirt, played with the yellow, red, and green tassels that hung from my Webelos badge. Looking away, my father flicked his cigarette out the window and drew in snot through his nose. There were tears, but I pretended not to see. He turned on the radio—Do-do-do. Looking out my back door—and cranked up the volume.

 

No one had talked to me about Jimmy since my father and I left his house. My brother, Chris, and I didn’t attend the public funeral held for Jimmy two days after his death. Instead, our grandmother kept an eye on us. The familiar sounds and smells of frying chicken and steamed greens took over the house. My brother and I hid upstairs in our rooms. I stayed clear of Nana because any time our parents were away she taped my ears against my head. “Keep ’em from sticking out so far.”

When I grew bored in my room, I went down the hall to my brother’s. In an unsuccessful attempt to escape me, Chris had moved away from our conjoining bedroom. When I was still a baby, my father bought a large two-story house in Midtown Memphis. It was falling apart, abandoned for so long wild dogs slept there, coming in at night through holes in the walls. Over the years my father remodeled most of the house. My brother’s new room sat at the far end of the upstairs hallway and hadn’t been fixed up yet. Plywood covered one window. The Depression-era cardboard walls had holes that exposed dark wood studs.

I walked in without knocking. Years of not being separated by a door had left me unprepared for Chris’s sudden need for privacy. He had taken the plywood off the glassless window frame and sat on the outside sill smoking one of the mini-cigars our grandfather had given my father as a birthday gift. In the extra freezer, next to a stock of red-wax-covered spicy sausages, were at least thirteen cartons of the brown cigarillos. Chris startled when I came in, tossed his cigarette into the back yard, and turned around.

“Why don’t you knock?” he said, and lit a new cigarillo.

Without asking, I sat on the floor next to a half-assembled model car, a Chevy Bel-Air. Instead of painting it cab yellow, like the instructions suggested, he’d painted it flat black. On a piece of cardboard, he’d drawn flames with a paintbrush. Chris didn’t move from the window, or ask me to leave. His hair hung down to the middle of his back, and he had on the same purple Rude Dog shirt he wore every day.

“Where is everybody?” I asked. “Why’s Nana here?”

Looking back over his shoulder, Chris snorted, shook his head in disgust, and took a drag. I knew he smoked, because when he first started he showed me. Not with a real cigarette, but with tobacco scavenged from the butts our parents left around the house and then rolled in Bible pages. “It’s easy,” he’d said. “All you have to do is roll it up and lick it.” But he hadn’t told me about this new method of stealing from the freezer supply.

Tapping out the cigarette on the sole of his Converse, he climbed back inside. He pressed play on the tape deck and Slayer blared from tinny speakers. I picked up a small plastic engine and looked it over.

“What do you want?” He took the engine from me. “Glue’s still wet,” he said.

Chris had changed. The model cars were still the same, but listening to Slayer was new. So were Metallica and Iron Maiden. He got into those bands that year when he began seventh grade. The Poison Flesh and Blood cassette I bought him for his thirteenth birthday that fall sat unopened next to a pile of car magazines with glossy covers of girls in bikinis.

“You haven’t listened to it,” I said. “Thought you liked Poison.”

“No,” he said. “You like Poison.”

“Not true, you like them just as much,” I said. “You recorded their videos.”

We had piles of VHS tapes filled with music videos. After our parents went to bed, we hovered over the record button, and waited for the first image or note of our favorite songs. That year it was “18 and Life” by Skid Row or Poison’s “Unskinny Bop.”

“Poison’s pussy metal,” Chris said.

“Come on! They’re on Headbanger’s Ball,” I said. “Riki Rachtman plays Poison.”

“And Riki Rachtman’s a pussy,” he said.

Whenever Chris lied, his face turned red and a fat vein grew prominent on his forehead. It infuriated me. I had paid for the tape with my own money. Standing up, I threw the cassette hard at his forehead.

“God!” he screamed. “Get out.” He wanted to pummel me, but he never did. He never hit me. I hit him, threw things at him, kicked him all the time but he would never hit back. At most he’d hold me down until I stopped flailing.

I climbed into my narrow closet, where I’d built a fort by hanging a sheet over the clothes rod, and slammed the door.

“You boys behavin’ up there?” Nana called from downstairs.

A few minutes later, Chris came down the hall. From the dark of my closet I heard the thump of his body lean against my bedroom wall. “Don’t you hate it?” he said, and I could hear crying in his voice. “Jimmy’s dead and we’re not even allowed to go to the funeral.”

It was the first time I’d heard the word dead in reference to Jimmy. Opening the door just a little, I asked, “How do you know?”

“Shot himself in the truck,” he said.

Jimmy was a big man. Before he married Deborah, he rode a chopper. Thick black hair covered his body, covered his many tattoos of skeletons, flags, and women. He wouldn’t accidently shoot himself.

“How?” I asked.

“With a shotgun,” Chris said. “In the head.”

“You don’t know shit,” I said.

He nodded, tears already forming. “Uh-huh,” he said. “Heard Dad tell Mom.” By the time he got the words out, he was a mess of snot and tears. When I put my hand on his shoulder, he knocked it away and hit the back of his head against the wall.

“You remember when Jimmy took us on the back porch to watch tornados?” Chris asked through his tears. “He was just messing around, but then we saw the funnel rise over the roofs. Right then, the sirens started.”

“Kind of,” I said. I remembered the sirens.

“You cried the whole time.”

Chris had four years on me, and his memories included Jimmy more than my own. He held his breath until the tears stopped. His face was red and snot streaked. I thought only of the shattered window, the colored glass, and my father saying oldest friend. I told Chris about the small bag our father handed off to Deborah.

“Coke,” he said.

“It wasn’t liquid,” I said.

“No,” he laughed. “It’s a drug.”

“What’s it do?”

“Makes you hyper.”

 

When our parents came home later that day, our father found us in the game room playing Super Mario Brothers 3. He wore dress clothes, black slacks, and a blue shirt. “Get your bags together,” he said. “We’re going to the river.” His face looked angry, set in hard curves, and when he spoke his mouth didn’t open. It was already late, and the river is a two-hour drive east of Memphis. We owned half an acre on a small wooded property that butted up against a nature reserve and a lumber forest of white pine. The one main road dead-ended at the Tennessee River where we swam and boats docked out to fish.

As we packed our bags, our parents fought. “It’s not about them,” my mother said.

“Well dammit! I’m making it about them,” he said. “Tired of not being around enough to teach them how this fucking world works!”

Upstairs, I packed my Swiss Army knife, two small lengths of rope, one flashlight, and a change of clothes, and put my ID, quarter for a phone call, and personal information card into a plastic baggy because we were going to be near water. All of this was Wolf-badge stuff, easy.

Chris sat smoking in the broken window, again. He didn’t look confident doing it yet. Our father could build things—use a hammer or work on an engine—while he smoked. Chris looked like he needed both hands.

“D’ya pack?” I asked.

“Don’t need to,” he said. “We’re coming back tomorrow.”

“What about swimming?” I said.

“Why don’t you ever knock?” he said.

I slammed his door two, three times before I stormed off to my closet. This was our new way. One minute everything was normal, playing and talking, and then he’d need to be alone. Under the protection of my makeshift fort, I hid in the closet and waited.

Without knocking, my father opened the door. I felt stupid for being closed up in the dark, and stood up to leave. “Wait,” he said, and put his hands on my shoulders. “I didn’t mean to take you to Jimmy’s.” Being taken to Jimmy’s with him that night was special to me. I felt that he needed me, that we were partners. “It’s okay,” I said.

“You understand what happened?” he asked. “Jimmy did something very stupid.” I nodded. “Ain’t right to take your life. Understand?” I nodded again. I followed my dad out into the hall with my overnight bag, and we found Chris sitting on the edge of the top step. He didn’t have a bag. Just a big felt hat, like Indiana Jones, that our father gave him for his birthday. “Ready?” Dad asked him. Chris nodded. “Move your ass, then,” he said, and pinched his underarms to make him giggle.

 

By the time we arrived at the river, it was dark. I had fallen asleep and woke up hungry. My father had not changed from his funeral clothes. When we passed by the road toward our piece of land I whined, “Missed the turn.”

“We’re making a stop first,” my father said.

He turned down a gravel service road where a clean creek flowed. Normally, we would come in the morning and load up empty milk jugs with water for cooking and drinking. I’d never been down the road at night. The Turd went slowly, heaving up over fallen branches or dipping down into potholes. The headlights lit up the road in front of us, but the dark was so deep we could only see two or three trees on each side. There were signs with the word OPEN written under pictures of deer. Bags of blood hung from branches—“To keep the mosquitos busy,” my father said.

We finally stopped after crossing the creek. Dad cut the headlights, but left the motor running. Chris asked, “Why are we here?” He had just woken up, too.

“To get water,” I said.

“We have water.”

Our father got out of the truck, and we watched him dig out a hatchet and shovel from the back. Coming around to the passenger side, he opened the glove box and pulled out a paper bag that hung wet and heavy at the bottom. “Stay in the truck until I come back,” he said, and closed the door. He waded slowly through the roadside overgrowth and disappeared into the dark tree line. Chris rifled out a cigarette from a pack left on the dashboard. I cut the ignition and rolled down the windows. Cold air rushed in from outside. Our father’s footsteps echoed through the silent woods. They sounded huge and destructive in all of that dark and quiet.

I took out my two lengths of rope and practiced the square knot on the steering wheel. Threaded one rope over the other twice, made a loop, and pulled. A brief silence from the woods, and then the first strike of shovel hitting ground. A clean swoosh, followed by a thunkSwoosh, thunk. I untied the knot. Chris and I listened, careful not to move, not to miss the noise. Maybe Jimmy had left a map that led to gold or money he’d buried for my father to find, and though he would still be sad we’d go to Camden, the town thirty miles away, and eat McDonald’s. A final thud came from the woods. “Buried treasure,” I said out loud.

“Don’t be stupid,” Chris said. “What about the bag?”

With one length of rope, I made a new knot, a bowline. I didn’t need to know it yet but I’d learned anyway. Taking the top loose rope in my left hand, and the rest in my right, I pulled, making a loop, and tightened the hitch. A bowline fastens to a ring or post. Under load, it doesn’t slip or bind.

Listening to the sound of my father’s hatchet as it scraped against a tree, I counted the number of scratches, and imagined what he carved. The woods waited too, silent, detecting predator or prey, until my father stopped. He stayed quiet for so long that the insects and night birds began to make noise again. My brother and me, on the other hand, didn’t make a sound.

I stuck my hand through the open end of the bowline knot and pulled until it was tight against my wrist. The loose ends dangled among my fingers. I leaned out the driver’s side window, and waited for my father to emerge from the woods. He stepped directly in front of me at the edge of the road. His hands and forearms were covered in mud. He smiled, but it was a weak smile. After putting the shovel and hatchet in the truck bed, he called for us to get out. “I want to show you how to find Jimmy.” Chris and I walked around to the back of the truck. “There’s the creek,” he said. “Behind us.”

He pointed to a small clearing across the road. “That’s your second marker.” My father told us that he and Jimmy had gone camping out there once and found the meadow. They set up tents and spent the weekend. “Everything’s in walking distance,” he said. “Creek up on the road, and the river just on the other side of the trees. Drinking water and fishing.”

“Now come on,” he said, and walked into the woods. We didn’t follow. “Here,” my father said, and handed Chris his flashlight. I remembered mine, and pulled it out of my bag. With our father in the lead, it seemed like we walked forever. I tripped over brush, and spider webs wrapped around my face.

I spotted the mound of fresh, wet earth with my flashlight. The name JIMMY cut into the tree bark. No date, no last name. Just Jimmy. My father stood with his arm rested on the tree, his eyes closed. I shined my light around, looking for Chris, and found him standing a few feet behind me, dazed in the spot of my flashlight. He walked over, and Dad put his arms around him.

“Shut your lights,” he said. “I’m here.”

Reluctantly, I cut mine off, and we stood in the dark waiting for our eyes to adjust to the new paler light of the moon. The woods deepened with sounds unknown to us, with movement we could not see, until our eyes focused on the mound of freshly turned earth, and the carving in the tree.

Randal O’Wain is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis whose work has appeared in Crazyhorse,  Guernica,  and the Pinch.  He is a recent graduate of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.

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