Your father was a mechanic. His hands dwarfed the wrenches and ratchets they held, the screwdrivers, the pliers, the bottles of Bud, your mother’s limp hand in her hospital bed the night she stopped breathing. The last time you saw your father was two years ago, when he’d come stumbling into the bar where you’d parked yourself in front of a baseball game and a beer. He was alone. You almost didn’t recognize him. He’d been in some kind of an accident and every last inch of him—the skin on his forearms, the backs of his hands, his neck and face and eyelids—was splotched with little flaming welts, like cigarette burns, that he’d dabbed with ointment. “Riding lawnmower cut out,” he said, shrugging off your concern and swigging his Bud. “Bellied down to the blade and, why shit, ended up dry-humping a whole motherfucking nest of ants.”
That night when you told your wife the story you thought she might ask if he needed to go to the hospital, if maybe he was having an allergic reaction and needed your help. You thought if she asked you that, then you’d have an excuse to go back and talk to him—really talk. Instead she just frowned.
“That’s sad,” she said.
In the fall you went back to college and your wife left you. The first few weeks she would call home every night, and you were sure she’d come back. You read the Beat poets. Nothing made any sense.
There were a few nights after she left, a few nights in your crappy apartment, alone, when you turned off the TV and sat in stunned silence wondering what had happened and what was going to happen next. But mostly you got up each morning and dutifully sat in your classes at school, watched the eighteen-year-olds as though they were some alien species. The dopey boys in their sweatpants, staring out the window. The girls with their enormous daily planners, their highlighter pens. When class got boring, you doodled the house centipede you’d seen one night while taking a piss. It drifted across the wall before you, fluidly, its hundred legs like long rippling eyelashes.
In the spring you dropped out and took a job third-shift at the electric meter plant, making overloads for electric meters. On a good night, you made 500 of them. Overloads—tiny jigsaw pieces of tin crimped around copper bars dotted with glue and baked hard in a blast oven. You kept your head down. You worked. You figured that if no one there knew you it would be like you weren’t there at all, and to square that circle you began to wipe clean from your consciousness every last one of your coworkers. That aging nympho Janet with the bouffant hair who squeezed your biceps and said she liked them young muscles. Janet’s best friend, Blondie, whose husband Bobby Ray was a drag racer laid up in the hospital burn unit, burnt to a crisp after his racecar flipped and lit up like a struck match. The sociology major with the Neil Young sideburns. The lunch-break Bible studiers. The pornographic graffiti artist whose drawings appeared each night on the bathroom stalls and would have almost been funny if they possessed an ounce of irony. With each kuh-chunk of the overload machine they vanished.
One night that scruffy redhead Danny, forty and freckled, stole the book you brought to read on break—The Pleasures of the Damned. Bukowski. You didn’t say a word to him because even though you knew he stole it (and he knew you knew he stole it), you wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of existing. You had read that book a hundred times anyway. Bukowski died from leukemia—the same thing that finally took your mother—and though you were tempted to deify the man and his writing, you always suspected that really he was just a common drunk. Like your father.
One night you saw your father strolling down the long tiled hallway on his way to the shop floor and couldn’t believe he’d taken a job here. But then it wasn’t him. It was someone who looked like your father.
One night you saw your father’s hands at the ends of your arms, operating the overload machine. Kuh-chunk.
Nights the work got slow, you told yourself that the meter plant made more sense than a college degree. Your 500 overloads would go into 500 electric meters, which would be fitted onto 500 homes. Your work was not theoretical but actual. Real. You stuffed your thumbs into the safety sensors and the machine sprang to life in a series of mechanical grunts and spasms, and moments later spit out a shiny new overload for the oven. But you couldn’t think of those 500 overloads and electric meters without also thinking of the families who would use them in their homes, the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, who as they went about their lives would be blissfully unaware of you and your work. Which made you feel like a ghost. Which made you see ghosts everywhere. In the produce section at the grocery store stood the Mexican migrants who picked the strawberries. Behind the counter at the bowling alley were the gangs of Chinese women who stitched together the shoes.
You thought about calling your father. Just calling him. Or maybe stopping by the house with a sixer some Saturday morning after work. You remembered Saturday mornings as a kid—he and a few buddies slowly getting lit at the picnic table in the front yard, then sleeping it off all afternoon. You remembered the way a sweetness would sometimes creep in and you could get close to him, sit in his lap, take his big hand in your own and knead it like a lump of dough.
You thought if you brought over a sixer and the two of you sat out front drinking it that that sweetness might return, that life could be normal again, that a world without your mother might be bearable.
But on Saturday morning after work, and after stopping by the liquor store for beer and ice, you lost the nerve. You sat in your car just staring at the house. It seemed more rundown than you remembered. There were big cracks in the stucco. The gutters sagged. Scabs of moss clung to rotting shingles.
So instead you drove out of town on 9th Street, past farms and fields, over the muddy Wabash River and through the small towns of Battle Ground and Brookston, just driving, the windows rolled down, the morning’s coolness washing over you, the scent of freshly broken soil like a long-forgotten dream recalled. You played baseball in these towns. You stood in the outfield in your uniform, in stirrups and cleats and cap, under a dome of clear blue summer sky. You fished these streams and creeks, hunted rabbits in these woods. You knew yourself out here. Your mother wasn’t dead out here. And as long as you kept aiming the car down these county roads, kept this abandoned corner of childhood scrolling past your windshield, she would never die. You thought about that. Jesus. And you pulled over and shifted into park and killed the engine. Outside, a thousand acres of black earth quietly steamed in the morning sun. Red-winged blackbirds called from their perches on cattails in the drainage ditch. Your mother had a special name for you, a name no one else ever used. You listened to the blackbirds. They were saying it.
Steve Edwards is author of Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months of “unparalleled solitude” as caretaker of a wilderness ranch in Oregon. He lives in Massachusetts, where he is an assistant professor at Fitchburg State University.