The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The summer of 1975 found my mother still waiting for her life to pick up again. In the years since she’d divorced my father, she had been without a man, without money, without friends. When she wasn’t bogged down with her night job cleaning the Ben Franklin five-and-dime on Main Street, she waited at the kitchen table or in front of the TV for the phone to ring, so something good could happen. She waited through packs of cigarettes and cups of coffee and baskets of folded laundry and episodes of Happy Days.
Then, in the spring of that year, she met Marv. They went out dancing and to the movies, and she came home talking excitedly about the shark in Jaws, and how I absolutely had to see it. As the months passed, a new kind of waiting began. She waited for Marv to ask her to marry him. She waited on the edge of the bathtub with one elbow resting on her crossed knee as she held up a mirror and put on her face. She waited at the living-room window with the curtain balled up in her hand. She waited in the kitchen with a knife and a cutting board and the radio tuned to an oldies station that played happy songs about love. She waited upstairs in her room, on the back steps, the front steps, by the tree on the boulevard, on the curb.
I waited, too. I waited all summer for the days to pass: the mornings when I rode my bike along the highway to go fishing at the Cottonwood with my friends; my tenth birthday, when my mother finally let me get a job mowing lawns; the Fourth of July celebration, with the sky exploding in reds and blues and silvers; Corn Days down at the park, when the whole town sat at picnic tables and ate roasted sweet corn soaked in butter. I was waiting for autumn, for colored leaves outside my school window, because that was when my father would call and ask if I wanted to go hunting.
The phone call would be the first time I’d heard his voice in a year. In the summer, my father repaired track for the railroad, and in the winter, he disappeared for long stretches to places he never talked about. My mother would only say he was “on the lam” again. She called him a drunk and a loser, a greaseball who lived all summer in a cracker-box shack with his one-armed brother Jack and stacked railroad ties at the roundhouse to keep them in booze. Then, when the weather turned, he traipsed off to God knows where. She said all this to me every year when my father called, but I didn’t care, because I knew when she was finished I could pack my stuff and go.
I filled a plastic bag with T-shirts and jeans, threw in a toothbrush and toothpaste, my baseball glove and a ball, and put it in the back of the station wagon. Then my mother backed the car out of the driveway and drove through town. We passed my school and the grocery-store parking lot where all the older kids hung out. As the pavement and buildings and streetlights gave way to field after field of corn and soybeans, my mother said, “I have other things I could be doing, you know.”
“I know,” I said.
“There’s laundry. Cleaning. I could be bowling with Marv. Anything. Your father could pick you up. What, the world’s got to stop for him? He doesn’t appreciate anything.”
“Yes he does.”
“No, he doesn’t.” There was real anger in her voice, something I rarely heard, and it made us both quiet. After a few minutes, she said, “Frank, you would tell me if something bad happened, wouldn’t you?”
“Nothing bad happens.”
“Are you sure?”
“They don’t drink too much, do they? I don’t want you around that stuff, Frank. It’s not good for you.”
Dump trucks half full of grain squatted in the fields. Massey Ferguson and John Deere harvesters crawled slowly over the hills, clouds of chaff and dust trailing behind them like smoke from a steam engine. We passed farmhouse after farmhouse, most of them tucked far back from the road and partially hidden by groves of trees. My mother, I am sure, was thinking of the time when I was little, maybe three or four, and Jack and my father lay passed out while I sat in the driveway piling rocks — an incident I did not remember, but which my mother would never forget. I hoped she wouldn’t say anything about it now, that she wouldn’t say anything at all. I loved both her and my father. There was nothing more to say.
When we got to Jack’s place, my mother stopped in the street — she didn’t even turn into the driveway — kissed my cheek, and said goodbye. I know now that she felt her son pulling away from her, toward his father’s life, a life she associated with anger and sadness, a life she had walked away from. But not once back then did I think of how she felt. I was thinking of hunting, of football. Of my father. I stood on the sidewalk and looked up at the house and wished that I could stay there with my father forever, even though in the best of cases it would only be until he ran out of money, or until my mother found out for sure he was drinking.
The kitchen smelled of coffee, and a high-school football game blared from the radio. Jack and my father were hunched over on the couch, coffee cups on the table, eyes on the floor. They wore flannel shirts, Jack’s with one sleeve pinned up because of his missing arm. Everything looked the same. The kitchen floor was dirty and faded, and the table had magazines spread all over it. A cot was pushed up against the far wall. Stacks of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream were tipping over beside the couch, and newspapers covered the floor. In the mess, I saw a picture of Chuck Foreman on the sports page raising a football over his head, the number 44 bright on his chest. When you walked across the papers, it made a sound like corn husks rustling in the wind. On the wall hung a framed black-and-white photograph of my grandmother, back when she was young and pretty, holding on to a sapling with both hands, a shy smile on her face.
After the play ended, Jack looked over and said, “Hi, Frank.”
My father leaned back on the couch and said, “Hey, glad you could make it. Grab a Coke and pull up a seat.”
The fact that neither of them got up to shake my hand or rub my hair made me feel good. It was as if, instead of going home for a year, I had just gone to the corner milk machine and back — as if I’d never left.
While we listened to the game, I imagined a life for my father and me that didn’t include Jack. I imagined just the two of us traveling south in his car, keeping ahead of the snow line, stopping at different depots and roundhouses where he could find work as a laborer. He would fix track or repair motors, and afterward we would stay in a motel with a color TV and talk about the World Series and the Super Bowl and pheasants and cars and whatever else we wanted. In the summer, I would go back and live with my mother, and she would be happy with Marv and not worry about me.
The game was the Minnesota state playoffs. The St. James Saints were in the finals for the first time in many years, up against a big school from the Twin Cities. I don’t remember who won, but I remember my father and Jack on the couch yelling and hitting each other the way brothers do; the picture of my grandmother, young and pretty, with her hands resting against the bark of a tree; and myself sitting in a chair making up conversations in my head and breathing in the smell of my father, all grease and leather and smoke.
After the game, I asked when we would go hunting.
“Hunting?” Jack said. “Are we going hunting?”
“I don’t know,” my father said, smiling at me.
“I thought we were going to do some painting around the house,” Jack said.
I suspected Jack was kidding, but I wasn’t sure. He had a way of saying things so you couldn’t tell whether he was serious or not. One time, when I was younger, he’d told me that everyone grew tits, but on men they fell off. I didn’t believe him, of course, because I’d never seen a man with tits, but he kept at it and kept at it until I asked my father if it was possible.
“He’s messing with you,” he said.
“Why does he do that?”
“It’s his way of telling you he likes you. It’s just something he does. It helps keep his mind off things.”
When we did go hunting, we road-hunted — which was still legal in Minnesota then — because Jack could shoot best from inside the car. We took gravel roads that curved and twisted around lakes and looped back on themselves. We crawled along at ten miles per hour, watching for movement near the ditch, where pheasants and partridges often hid. We spent all day driving around looking for those birds — spent so much time together that, even now, when I think of 1975, I think first of my father smiling as he leans back on the couch, and Jack mussing my hair and saying everything will be all right, and of how everything seemed to float like a yellow leaf on the wind.
Our first morning out, Jack loaded the guns and packed them in the trunk and put the spare shells in the glove compartment. Then we waited in the driveway for my father, who was going to the bathroom. The air was cool, and the dew was fat on the grass. A large maple in the front yard spread its branches wide and empty, its purple leaves covering the ground.
“This is going to be a great week, Frankie. I can feel it,” Jack said. “Birds are going to be everywhere.”
My father came out with a Stanley thermos full of coffee, and we climbed into the car. Once we were outside of town, Jack brought the guns inside and placed them on the back seat beside me.
As we drove, we listened to a sports radio station. Most of the talk was about the Vikings, how they were poised to make a run for the Super Bowl. Their defensive line, known as the Purple People Eaters, was the most tenacious in football. At home, when I played ball with my friends, I pretended I was a Viking lineman — Carl Eller or Jim Marshall or Alan Page or Gary Larsen — and I knew what it was like to be strong. It was something that came from your stomach, from your lungs, and made you feel as if you could run fast enough to fly. And when you felt that way, you believed that nothing bad could ever happen to you, no matter what.
When Jack said my name, we went into motion. My father slowed the car to a stop, Jack rolled down his window, and I uncased his gun and handed it to him. It was loaded, so I had to be careful. Jack rested the barrel on the window and crouched so that his eye was level with the sights. He made himself small. The angle wasn’t right, so he said, “Go,” and my father inched the car forward until Jack said, “Yep, that’s it.” I ducked down close to the floor and covered my ears. For a few seconds, it was quiet. I smelled the floor carpeting and heard my breath rushing through my nose.
When the gun went off, I flinched at the explosion. Jack must have missed, because he shot again. The shell casing ejected over the front seat and landed on my back. Its light touch, so soon after the deafening noise, startled me.
Then Jack said, “OK, Frankie,” and I knew he’d gotten a hit.
“Where is it?” I asked.
He pointed to the tall grass. I walked out into it up to my waist, searching for the bird. This was what made me different from a regular kid. I had a grown-up job to do, and that meant I was an equal. I never called back to the car for help. I dragged my feet through the grass, looking down as I did, even though I couldn’t see anything. I could tell the feel of something dead against my toe. When I found the bird, I picked it up and carried it to the nearest telephone pole. Every gravel road was strung with telephone poles and surrounded by grass and empty fields. Then I shoved the bird deep into the grass beside the pole, so deep that nobody could find it but me.
At the end of the day, we drove back to all the right poles and loaded up the trunk with birds. By then, the sky had turned from blue to faded gray. It amazed me that Jack and my father could find their way back to every bird in the gathering darkness.
One night later that week, my father and I went to buy beer. Jack stayed home. My father held a cup of coffee between his legs, and I had a hot chocolate. I warmed my fingers by passing them over the top of the cup. When a car passed, I could see the steam rising in the glare of the headlights. I asked my father why Jack had to come along on our hunting trips. He wasn’t a very good shot, and he never seemed to enjoy himself anyhow. He hardly ever said anything except to bitch about the Vikings. He called them the Queens.
My father didn’t say anything for a long time. The car heater whooshed, and the tires hummed, and the wipers tapped steadily as he kept his eyes on the car ahead of us. Its taillights glowed brighter, and it turned off on another road. My father pulled over beneath a streetlight, lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and held it. When he blew out the smoke, it banked against the windshield and curled in on itself like a cloud. Then he cleared his throat and began to tell me about Jack.
He told me how, when Jack was eight, he had to go and get coal at the rail yard on nights so cold you could hear the trees cracking in the darkness. Jack had no boots, only shoes, and before he left, he’d wrap his feet in plastic to keep them warm. He’d walk the whole way in the snow, and when he returned, he’d sit on the floor and rock, his frozen toes cupped in his hands, refusing to cry in front of the other kids. As the eldest, Jack had to take on this responsibility, because their dad was a drunk, and their mother had kicked him out. Jack had to help the family. “His life has been full of shit like that,” my father said. “Think of what that would do to a person.”
Then he told me something he’d alluded to before but never said outright. Jack was dying, he said. Chemotherapy might help, but Jack had refused treatment, said the odds weren’t good enough to have to live that way. “So this could be the last time you see him,” my father said, taking a quick glance at me. “That stuff will spread until it eats him up.”
My father didn’t say any more after that, just put the car in gear and drove to the liquor store.
Waiting in the parking lot, I felt sorry for the things I’d thought about Jack, not just that day, but all the years before. I’d always thought of him as someone who stood in our way, someone we were obligated to take with us. Alone in the dark car, I wondered what life had been like for Jack as a kid, back when he had both arms. I wondered if he’d liked football, liked running and catching things.
In the store windows, signs with big black letters advertised prices for cases of Hamm’s and Olympia. I tried to look between the signs to see my father, to make sure he was all right. I wanted to go inside and touch the elbow of his flannel shirt and tell him that I didn’t mean what I’d said. But when I spotted him walking beneath the glow of the fluorescent lights, he looked like a stranger.
When I awoke the next morning, my father was gone. A note on the table said he and Jack had gone to run some errands and would be back later. A twenty-dollar bill lay next to the note. I took the money and went uptown to buy a football. The woman at the store counter asked why I wasn’t in school, and I told her I was going hunting with my dad.
“With a football?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, and left.
When I got back to Jack’s, I threw the ball in the air and caught it a few times. I pictured my father and Jack out drinking somewhere, at one of the country bars we always passed while driving, out by some lake in the middle of nowhere, the blacktop curving past a gravel parking lot and a small building with a Schmitt beer sign dangling from a post. I imagined how they looked to other people: a couple of guys in dirty jeans with beers in front of them, talking too low to be heard, shaking their heads and looking at their hands. They looked older than they were, like farmers who had been out in the sun watching their fields dry up year after year.
There was a time, shortly after my parents divorced, when I looked for my father wherever I went. I thought of him as lonely and in need of help. One evening, I said as much to my mother, who was watching television with a cigarette in her hand. “That’s hogwash,” she said. “Your father needs help, all right. Professional help. Help paying child support. Help visiting his own kid. Help writing a letter, for Christ’s sake.”
My father and Jack came home drunk and sat down in the living room and talked loudly. I had been staring at the TV and thinking about how I didn’t want to go home, but now I forgot about all that. Everything was all right again. When Jack talked, he motioned with his one arm to emphasize his points. His empty sleeve didn’t move at all. I thought something under there might twist or rise, but there was nothing. Most of the sleeve had been torn off and the ends sewn together. Suddenly, everyone was quiet, and I realized Jack was looking at me. He’d caught me staring.
“Can’t get enough of the one-armed gimp?” he said.
I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. “No,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Come here.” He started unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ll show you my missing arm.”
“Jack,” my father said.
“Relax,” Jack said to my father. Then he looked at me. “You want to see my scar, Frankie?”
“OK,” I said, but I didn’t move. My heart knocked against my chest, and my mouth was dry.
I got up slowly and sat down beside Jack on the couch. He took off his shirt. His arm was completely gone, whittled down to a small white scar. He took my hand and touched my fingers to the scar, which was puckered like a leech’s mouth and as soft as my mother’s skin. Jagged lines around the edges gathered into a small circle of white. Behind the white was a deep shade of pink. When Jack breathed, the scar moved as if it were alive. I felt sick.
“What happened to your arm?” I asked.
My father got up and went to the kitchen for a beer and stayed there. I remember clearly the soft light and the way his head bent down and how the table shone as if it were made of water. He was worried for us, I think. For Jack, for me, for himself. The darkness outside pressed against the windows, complete and final, as my father sat in the kitchen alone.
“My arm’s just gone,” Jack said. He was looking at the picture of his mother. He sat there for a long time, motionless except for his breathing scar. Finally, he said, “She sure was pretty, huh, Frankie?”
“Yes,” I said, although I had never seen her alive. To me, that was all there was of her: just a picture of a young woman, her hands around a sapling’s trunk, its leaves spread out over her head.
Jack rubbed the top of my head. “Yeah,” he said. “She sure was.”
When I hopped off the couch and started to walk away, he called my name. Then he told me his arm was in the closet, that he was taking himself apart one piece at a time. And that I did a good job finding the birds.
The next day, my father and Jack bought both beer and whiskey. We weren’t going hunting, so I didn’t have anything to do. I couldn’t make friends, because all the other kids my age were in school. Saying that he and Jack wanted to talk, my father gave me five dollars to go up to the Band Box and play pinball and drink pop.
After I’d spent the money, I walked back along the tracks, stepping on the ties so my feet didn’t sink into the crushed rock between them. I knew a person couldn’t come apart like Jack had said, but I sensed that things could come apart. Life changed. People died or left, and then you were on your own, doing homework and watching TV and waiting for something to come along and fill the absences.
A black dog stood on the tracks ahead of me, big and friendly. He wagged his tail and lowered his head as he walked toward me, tongue lolling to one side. I thought of my mother and what she would say about my father and Jack if she saw how things were. She would look at them drinking, or passed out, at the overflowing garbage can in the corner, the sink full of dishes, the newspapers and hunting magazines on the floor, and she would say, “Who lives like this?” She’d say, “God, Frankie, why didn’t you tell me?” But there was nothing to tell. They needed my help, and I needed theirs. They were nice to me.
Wasn’t she nice, too? my mother would ask. Didn’t she work all night at the Ben Franklin so that I could have decent clothes for school? So that I could eat? Didn’t she give me everything she possibly could?
I knew with all certainty that my mother would’ve given me the skin off her back. But, as surely as I knew this, I also knew that it would never be enough.
I picked up a rock and felt its edges in my hand like the seam of a baseball, then threw it at the dog as hard as I could. I missed. The dog stopped and turned sideways. I picked up another rock and threw it, and another, and another, until I heard the hollow thunk of a rock hitting the dog’s rib cage. The dog turned and ran. I sat down on the tracks and closed my eyes. But I did not cry.
My mother did not cry all those years she sat alone wondering if leaving my father had been the right thing to do. I was certain that Jack did not cry when he lost his arm; that my father did not cry when he woke up alone in Peoria, or Abilene, or Santa Fe. And so I did not cry then. A person who waits does not cry. He waits for something to happen, knowing that when it does it will pass by too quickly. So he takes the time to remember each detail: The smell of smoke and sweat and empty beer cans. The feel of a scar under his fingers. The touch of a hand in his hair. He stores these images away until they lose context and become just empty pictures. He no longer remembers what it means to fall asleep at the kitchen table while learning to play poker; to feel his father’s hand at the side of his face; to catch a football thrown by a one-armed man. All he remembers is the dry taste they have left him with, and that keeps him from crying. And he knows what I was learning then, in the autumn of 1975, along a stretch of railroad track in a little farming town in Minnesota: that as the world comes together, it also moves apart, and that, between the two, time is a dead thing you carry alone.
My mother’s life did come together. She married Marv, and a few years later, they had a baby, a girl named Christine. My mother quit working at the Ben Franklin and took a part-time job cleaning houses so she could stay home in the afternoons and evenings. Marv moved up at Green Giant, becoming a foreman in the shipping-and-receiving department. They spent time with the baby and went on vacations to places like the Wisconsin Dells and the Black Hills, taking me when I wanted to come, leaving me home when I didn’t. But just as my mother’s life came together, the life my father and I shared came apart. That winter, he called to tell me Jack was dead. The funeral was over, and Jack had been boxed up and put in the ground. And with that, my father drifted away, and I did not see him again for seven years. When I did, he was drunk and angry and cold, as if he’d been walking too long through the frozen snow.
The day before I went home, we almost didn’t go hunting. Jack didn’t feel well. His face was pale, and his eyes were glazed and yellow. He moved stiffly, his body rigid. His hand shook as he brought his coffee cup to his lips. While he and my father talked at the kitchen table, I slumped on the couch in front of the TV. My father told Jack we didn’t have to go hunting, that it was all right. I felt Jack looking at me. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “We can go.”
Even inside the car, it was cold. Dry corn husks pirouetted along the ditches and across the roads. The ditch grass swayed, the sky was clear blue, and I couldn’t pick out a pheasant from a clump of dirt. Jack didn’t say anything, just stared out the side window. His jaw muscle clenched and unclenched, and his face looked different. Even his greasy black hair had lost its shine.
We got a lot of birds that day — how many, I don’t know, but I remember my father walking into the ditch and spooking a flock of pheasants. I remember how the air around him ignited with beating feathers, and how his gun angled off his shoulder. Jack let out a whoop from inside the car. My father’s gun thundered again and again, and birds fell everywhere. When he stopped shooting, I found and carried them, two at a time, to the car. Their toes scratched my hands, and their necks bobbed as I walked. We had at least ten birds in the trunk, well over our limit, but my father continued to wait in the ditch. He stood so still he looked frozen, and I knew that he’d heard or seen something that told him more birds were around. “He’s going to get another one, Frankie,” Jack whispered. “That fucker’s going to get another.”
I heard the shot but didn’t see the bird drop. I was watching Jack. For a moment, he looked like his old self, tired but smiling, his eyes shining like the sun. My father searched through the grass but didn’t find anything, so I went to help him. I walked slowly through the thick grass, breathing in the smell of it. The wind blew through my hair. I stepped on clumps of dirt but couldn’t find the bird. My father worked his way back to the road and said to forget it, that it had probably run off and a fox would take care of it. But I kept looking.
As he stood by the trunk, casing his gun, my father called to me, “Leave it, Frankie. It doesn’t matter.”
But I walked away from the car, farther into the grass, then sat down and put my head between my knees and rocked back and forth. The wind whistled over me, and the smell of autumn filled my lungs. My life would be changing soon — I could sense it — and what I wanted more than anything else was for the trip to start over again, for it to be the beginning of the week, with the Saints football game on the radio and me walking through Jack’s front door.
My father’s voice floated over the top of the grass. “Frankie? Frankie?” he called, until he found me and lifted me up by the arms. He put his hand on my back and walked me to the car. Jack reached out the window and touched my arm. “It’s all right, Frankie. You’re a good kid.”
As we drove back to town, the sky turned a grainy black. Telephone poles went by, one after another. There was no moon yet, no stars. The car bucked and shook from the wind, and I thought of birds, thousands of them, hunkered down in the deep grass, as if waiting for the snow.