The morning after he gets out of the penitentiary, my father sits in the cane chair beneath the shade of the sugar maple while my mother cuts his hair. I watch from the stoop. With the window open behind me, I can hear them run the funeral home ad on the radio. It makes me think about the picture Hortense drew in third grade. It looked like a man hung from the neck. I slip off the farmhouse porch, walk across the yard towards them. The sky has a down. Across the gravel road, birds are sassing from dusty trees where yesterday they log chained a roasting pig to a branch, and I watched my father reach up in the pig’s throat. He pulled out the heart and all the birds flew away. It took five hours to roast that pig; and by the time it was done, the birds came back. Everybody went to bed with grease on their fingers, but I couldn’t sleep for wondering if birds ever got tired of their trees.
I stop at the clothesline pole, watch a praying mantis feed on a butter fly A time ago, we searched for crawdads alone the south creek, keeping dead easy against the shoreline so our limbs wouldn’t throw shadows on the creek bottom when Hortense found a tiger moth he mistook for a butterfly. Our mother had just told us the news about the old man winning parole,and all I could think about was him finally getting out and coming home to us. But it was different for Hortense. He was fifteen by then and never really knew the man, never wanted to know what it was I saw that was worth writing all the letters I wrote to him. I was hunched over a flatrock ready to dip my arm in the creek, nudge that crawdad hideout with my hand, watch for one to scuttle in a muddy smokescreen when my brother’s voice stopped me.
“I found a butterfly,” Hortense said, his fingers pinching the tiger moth’s wings•
“That1s not a butterfly,” I told him.
“The hell it’s not.”
“How come you don’t want to go with us to get him next June?” I asked.
We watched the tiger moth flutter to the far bank, lost him in the under brush, and Hortense shrugged. His blonde hair fell in curls to his shoulders, and I remember the way he picked up a skipping rock, curling his finger around the edge like I showed him. His voice tried to hold its own. “Bet a dollar it goes three.”
I studied the shallow creek. “Not enough surface,” I told him.
He side-armed the rock. It skipped twice and hopped the bank into the weeds.
“You can owe me,” he said, grinning.
I put up my dukes and we slap-boxed in the heat; but by then, he was too old to be a sucker for my left hook and I wondered when the change had come.
A cool breeze fans my face, stirs the rebel flag that Moondog draped over the mailbox last night. The yard is strewn with plastic beer cups, rutted with tire tracks from Harley-Davidsons. I drag my toes in one of the crescent scars, look across the gravel road at the bonfire long gone out. All that remains of the kegger is a shroud of ashes, the charred bones of the pig, a dull confetti of paper plates and wine bottles. A wisp of smoke curls in the sunlight. It all waits for the summer rain, I guess.
My mother’s laughter seeps across the yard made light and dark by trees.
Her scissors snip at my father’s hair. Long wet hanks fall to the grass. “Oh Jimmy,” she says. “If that place didn’t just make you more ornery!”
“But I wouldn’t lie about something like that, Emma,” he tells her. I walk up to them. Want me to make some coffee?” I say.
They crane around. Dad says, “You up, already?” and I notice again the new bleached hair at his temples ,the sharp leftovers of prison life lining his face. I sort of smile. He says, “Well ••• yeah. I don’t guess I’m quite used to having stuff whenever I want it. I’m still trying to handle all this fresh country air.”
He breathes in and out. “Your mother’s working to make me ••• what’d you call it?”
“Respectable,” she says. “Now hold still. Let me finish up, here.”
“Yeah,that’s it,” he says. “I never can remember that word.”
When he splays the width of his mustache, I catch the sight of pig blood under his nails, and all the sleepless hours begin to wear me down. I turn and look off across the gravel road. Rings of smoke haze the tops of the trees, making the sunlight cast ghosts across their boughs. Watching them float over the fields behind the silhouette of my father to disappear, I remember Hortense packing. It was the night I’d come home from failing my draft physical down in St. Louis. I’d scored some angel dust for the trip,and when the army shrink got a look at my diagnostic, they sent me home. Little brother found out about it from Moondog, and it made bad blood between us. Hortense told me I was just like Dad, that the sprite was on me.
What do you mean?” I said, tossing a pair of jeans to him.
“The sprite,” he said,angrily. “The spirit that gets on a guy and turns him bad. It done him in, and now it’s doing the same to you.”
I held out my hands. “I just don’t believe in what they’re doing in Vietnam, that’s all. It’s my life, man,” I told him, watching him walk out the door.
I keep thinking back to yesterday–the noisy sweep of birds against the sky, the way the blood sang in my chest. When I look down at my hands, the fingers curl on their own,and I catch the glaze in the tracks of my nails. So I stare out across the road again, try to find the tree where the ground is messed and wonder why the birds aren’t going crazy for the flies that swarm around it.
What time is it?” Dad says. “I’ve got to be in Quincy at eleven to see my parole officer.” He squints out at the sky,but the sun is hidden by clouds.
“I could drive you,” I say.
“Naw,” he says,still gazing off at the west Illinois hillside. Mother says, “But you don’t have a license no more, Jimmy.”
He guns her a look, then softens it. “It’ll be all right,” he says, patting a bell-bottomed leg.
Well,” she says. “I’m all finished up.” She has cut his bangs too short.
He stands and runs a hand through his hair,then fishes a smoke from a pack of Luckies in his pocket. He has on a sportshirt with the sleeves hacked away. His pale arms are knotted with muscle up to the puckered hollows of his shoulders where the tissue is damaged from skin-popping drugs. “How ’bout that joe?” he says.
I shake my head. I’d make you some,” I say, “but you look too respectable for instant.”
“I knew it,” he says. “You’re as bad as a trusty.”
Mother comes up behind me, gathers my hair in a ponytail. She whispers in my ear, “Did you show him your scholarship offer yet?”
I shake my head.
“Let’s go show him. I saved it for you to tell him. He needs something good.”
I shrug her off, turn around. “I don’t know if I even want to go to college anymore.”
I look off to Dad. He stands smoking in a circle of sunlight next to the tiny maple we planted. It was just a month before we drove down to Menard to get him. I can’t remember if I wrote and told him about it or not. He said he kept every last one of my letters, but I searched all through his duffel last night and came up empty.
Mother turns me around, fingers her lovebeads. “What is it, hon? Why so quiet today?”
I take in her same faded gingham sundress. I liked that dress once, but now the scent of woodsmoke pressed in the fabric brings on a headache. “All the excitement last night, I guess.”
She walks away to join Dad. I watch them climb the farmhouse steps; then I start to follow.
* * *
After breakfast,Dad pumps the well handle like he’s trying to row last night’s liquor out of his blood. He is bare-backed,and I notice how his tattoos have begun to wash with the years. Fingernail marks ribbon his shoulder blades, make the hair on the back of my neck tingle. He cups his hands when the water rushes out and makes a sound I cannot place. Pretty soon he slicks back his hair, and his bootheels leave tiny hexes in the concrete island.
“Scholarship,huh?” he says,toweling off.
I bow my head, finger the long swatches of hair. I don’t wait. “I’d rather join your crew. You could teach me to steal.”
He looks a long time at me. “Don’t seem right,” he says.
“Two kinds of people in the world, players and spectators. Only one of them can hook up with a crew. Now I ask you, which kind are you?”
I watch a dragonfly float in Dad’s shadow. I think about what he says for a minute,then say I don’t know.
“All right,”he says. “Which kind was Hortense?”
“He was a player, I guess.”
“There you go,” he says,and snaps his towel at the dragonfly. “But hell, you’re lucky. I mean, what’s that old saying? Those who turn and run away…”
“Yeah, only I didn’t run away.”
“You didn’t fight, either.”
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