The child had been warned. His father said he would nail that rock-throwing hand to the shed wall, saying it would be hard to break windshields and people’s windows with a hand nailed to the shed wall . Wouldn’t it? said his father, home for a few hours from the forest he could not extinguish. Goddamn it, didn’t the child know what windshields costed? His father held the child up by his ear to better see the spider web burst of windshield glass. All the clawing child could better see were the rivets holding his father’s smoke-smelling pants together.
Even the child could not understand how the windshield had happened, the child that morning playing splay-legged in the dusty rough driveway, dripping seed-size gravel from a tiny hourglass of fist, flipping a fake stone kernel to a crow come flying down to watch, and the crow not fooled, flapping back away, taking flight when the child rained sand, the child splashing around in the dirt like a seaside idiot, rock droplets up in the air, into the smoky sky that was white like broken melon rind and smelled like the old man’s beard and breath.
A playmate had sprung up from the ground near the gully where the good rocks grew, and they began gauging themselves against themselves
again, lessons of arc and trajectory, the specific nature of things spinning farther today than yesterday in that white-rind sky, until one rock left the child’s fingers while his mind was on something else, this rock on a course that even the playmate ceased fire to regard.
Time slowed for them, the rock arcing toward the friendly family car parked pleasantly in the pecan tree shade. Time slowed and slowed. If time had not slowed, the rock would have sailed over the car, over the pecan tree, over the rented house, and over the town and the burning forests beyond. But the world was enormous that morning, its gravity immense. To arc and trajectory add the lessons of apogee and descent, the rock descending into a broken-glass poke in the eye for the friendly family car, the playmate suddenly skipping away dropping stones, skipping away to slither, laughing, along the gully home.
All afternoon the rind sky lowered and smelled of burning woods.
Goddamn it! Didn’t the child know what windshields costed? His father in his dirty, roughed -up denim, of all days to come home, mud and ash, machete on the hip and the snake pistol, timber boots laced with wire that wouldn’t burn, the blackened shanks of ankles, the boot soles cracked by heat and desperate shoveling, his father footprinting crazy mazes of topography across the clean wooden floors.
Goddamn it, what was in that head his father shook in his hands like a snow globe? Nothing, said the child, and in his heart the words of the covenant: Never, ever throw another rock ever again. Ever.
In those days the fire went south and the old man was gone again, sleeping in woods and fields the flames had not yet found. The child
posted himself at the top of the rough driveway and waited for his father’s truck, pious with an unbroken covenant in his heart, no stone had touched his fingers, no rock had he held. He knew his mother was watching him wait for his father from the front window of the rented house. He had heard her wonder if her husband would ever come home again.
On a Saturday afternoon when it did not seem like his father was ever coming home , the child stood at the top of the rough driveway, watching a mule pull a wagon full of black men past the rented house into town. A black man sitting on the tailgate of the wagon extended a middle finger toward the child and the child waved back. The wind was keeping the smoke out of town that day and the child decided to go lie in the gully and pretend he was dead in a battlefield trench.
The child walked down the washed-out driveway, shirtless, Indian-brown, and barefoot, scuffing along until a baby-headed tomahawk stone revealed itself in the dust. The child stopped and poked at the stone with his toe. The child poked at the stone and worried the stone with his toe until the stone was free in the driveway dirt. The child searched the covenant in his heart and discovered nothing about just kicking a stone, so the child kicked the baby-headed tomahawk stone to the end of the driveway where the grass was tall and dense, uncut by his absent father. There was nothing in the covenant, nothing in the agreement the child had in his heart with his father about just picking up a stone over grass, that’s all it was, so the child just picked up the stone to carry it over the grass to the gully where he could look at it while pretending to be dead in a battlefield trench.
But just picking up the stone from its place in the common earth seemed to signify the stone somehow, and it would probably be best to put it in a special place. Not to throw, never to throw, because that would break the agreement in the heart with the father, but just to put the stone away somewhere to consider it later , maybe even as a test to never, ever throw another rock ever again. So the child carried the stone to the tin-roofed shed. There was nothing in the covenant about just carrying a stone into a shed as an example of the child’s goodness. There was a box in the shed where the child could hide the stone. To study later. And when he grew up and was older than the old man, he could even shake the thing up to the old man’s face and say, See? Here is a rock I didn’t throw!
In the tin-roofed shed was the lawn mower his father used to cut the ragged yard. There were broken fire tools the father brought home to fix. On a nail hung a drip of steel helmet melted by a mad-dog fire that had chased the father hatless across three firebreaks, had chased him into a steaming river, had run him through an orange-and-red ravine where his father dove into the ragged mouth of a cave, and his father crawled as deep as he could crawl into that worst-smelling place until he crawled on top of a bear trying to crawl as deep as it could crawl away from the mad-dog fire that was barking at the mouth of the cave to come in. His father and the bear crawled to the farthest corner of the cave and curled up together, the bear hugging his father and calling out and crying the worst you’ve ever heard, said his father, because she had left her cub out in the orange-and-red ravine where the mad-dog fire was barking and where the world was coming to an end.
And in the tin-roofed shed the child saw where the Goat should have been parked— the Goat, the big, yellow fire bike, the marble-size knobs on the tire treads, the homemade steel-mesh cages the old man had welded around the chain and spokes against brush and branches, his father riding the Goat’s back in wild reconnaissance of the fire’s forward lines, and on Sundays when the world was not on fire the old man and his disciples drank beer in the backyard and rode the Goat down the washed-out driveway fast enough to leap the gully, doing drunken doughnuts and wheelies in the cornfield until somebody’s wife went home mad or until somebody broke his arm and thought it was funny.
Considering the spot where the Goat should have been parked warmed the baby-headed tomahawk stone in the child’s hand until there was no comfortable way to hold it.
It was much easier to hold the stone behind the tin-roofed shed where there was nothing of his father’s to see, nothing to see at all except oceans of corn you would need a ship to cross. Behind the tin-roofed shed was the pile of rocks from the time the landlord tore down the old well house, and the child was never to go near where the old well house had been, he and his father had a handshake agreement about that, he was never to go near the place in the ground that was covered with thick planks; there were snakes down there and the hole was bottomless and even the child knew how bottomless it was by all the sticks and tree limbs he had shoved down between the planks trying to stir the snakes up to the surface.
The child had to decide how to hide the stone to distinguish it from all
these other common well-house rocks piled behind the tin-roofed shed. The rotten lean of the place put the edge of the tin roof within the child’s reach if he stood on the pile of common rocks, so he did, he climbed the rock pile and reaching up he could almost hide his stone on the roof if he could just toss it up there, not throw it, that was not what he was going to do, but to just toss the stone up on the roof to distinguish it from the other common rock-pile rocks, putting the stone in a special place, keeping it for later.
It was a cheap gunshot noise the child made when he tossed the stone up on the tin-roofed shed, not artillery or anything apocalyptic yet, just a nice, good, gunfight-starting shot, and immediately the common rocks in the rock pile the child was standing on were jealous, he could feel them jealous under his feet. They wanted to be not rocks but rockets, rockets and artillery, and the child said, Okay, just a couple, tossing a couple of rocks is not like throwing a couple of rocks where windshields and people’s windows break. He was just being nice to the common well -house rocks.
So the child began to heave the rocks from the rock pile he was standing on up onto the tin roof of the shed. It was a gunfight and a battle and a war, the way they bounced and blew up on the roof, bouncing and clattering around, he worked his way through the pistols and the rifles, bending and tossing, bending and tossing, not waiting until the din had dimmed, but keeping rocks in the air, bouncing and banging. Rockets! the child tossed, Hand grenades! Until the large keystone of the well house was uncovered and the child said, Adam bomb! And the child had to heave the
heavy rock with both hands with all of that day’s strength, and in his strength his foot slipped on the loose rocks and the child slipped off the rock pile. The doomsday rock failed to clear the edge of the roof. Down it came square on top of the fallen child’s crew-cut head.
The best white doctor in town was the abortionist up the wooden steps across from the courthouse. It was sticky hot, and the doctor slept stuck to the dirty exam-table paper. Flawless liftoffs from Florida tarmac, warm pulpy orange juice, the cool white spread of oscillating fan across the naked backs of Nurse Bedpan’s legs, these the morphine dreams of an ex–flight surgeon, grounded, a rough shuddering landing from his sleep when the friendly green family car jumps the sidewalk curb just outside and crushes in the corner of the doctor’s wooden building, so difficult to see to drive when the windshield is shattered in bright and opaque pieces, the mother’s head out the window to see to steer, one hand on the steering wheel and the other keeping constant pressure on the pretty pink ruined towel turban-wrapped around the child’s head, driving a shift, too, more balls than all of us, the old man would say about her, her driving, her springing young black men from their places on the sidewalk where they have come by mule wagon and on foot to loiter and to spit, black bucks jumping back from the kneecap-crushing fender-leveled friendly green family car , the front end rattling the doctor from where he had bid sweet Morpheus take him to his beloved Nurse Bedpan, the fender rattling the old building and the old building’s rainspout and gutters where the nightwings hid, the bats behind there, bats hanging by the hundreds and
thousands over Main Street all day long if you really looked for them, gone at night flitting for the ton or two of mosquitoes the ballpark ditches and third-base mud hole yielded in the evenings, but back during the day and you could see them if you really looked for them, a tiny wing here and there folded over a bent rain gutter, that long line of black tar caulking the roof beams, not really caulking at all, just the tops of thousands of tiny bat heads hanging upside down along the eaves and roofline, at least one shaken awake by the crash that woke the doctor, awake now and cotton -mouthed, a fleeting face in the ceiling corner of his favorite flyboy, the one endowed with extraterrestrial hand-eye and an irritating venereal drip.
Creatures were stirred, creatures were stirring, and en route to the doctor’s, through a gap in the wrapping of the turban towel, the child had studied the tiny pebbles stuck in the green rubber floor mat of the family car, excruciating corduroy design was all he could see, was all that was his focus, those tiny pebbles stuck in the long green rubber lines. He had felt the collision of friendly car and drain spout, had felt himself being pulled across the seat, and then he could see his blood-mottled dusty feet down through the slit in his towel wrap, he saw his feet take a step up a curb. There was a splattering of tobacco chew beside his mother’s foot, the pressure of her hand tightened on the towel over the spot where his head had broken open. He felt her pressure on the towel on his head and her other hand leading him to a wooden step leading to another wooden step leading up , and then suddenly he heard her scream, and he heard men laughing, and he felt the towel fall away because she was not holding it
any longer and he felt the towel fall like a mantle onto his shoulders, and the light was white to his turbaned eyes as he squinted, and just after he felt the wet towel fall to his shoulders something else fell, and it fell flapping against his neck where the blood ticked dripping from his broken-open head and the thing that fell against his neck felt like tickling fingers, and still blinded he shrugged it off and it fell at his feet, and it flapped around and shrieked at his toes and his eyes focused on the thing and he heard his mother screaming and he heard men laughing and someone caught him and lifted him up the wooden stairs before he went into a different kind of sleep that day.
The child was sitting in cold bathwater worrying about bats falling out of his head again when they finally brought his father home. The large sanitary napkin the doctor had taped to the top of the child’s head was now dirty and ragged, the doctor saying not to wash his hair for two weeks until the stitches came out, and now it had been two weeks and the stitches itched to come out, or at least something felt like it was scratching its little black claws in the child’s scalp to come out. The child did not trust the stitches to hold against the bats and was hoping they would not break while his mother was around because he was sure it would frighten her to see things falling out of his head again, and what if they didn’t just fall out but flew around the house getting into the curtains? The doctor had been eager to get back to his dreaming and even the child knew he had done a hurry-up job on his head, the mother saying later that the doctor’s sewing was better suited for patching a Mexican
blanket, the doctor even forgetting to be paid until the mother insisted on a bill and the doctor wrote some numbers on a piece of yellow paper and then locked the door behind them so he could needle himself back to that place with the white patio, him in his white uniform, the nurse with the white breasts he loved so much, that white place, the white sand, those white waves.
When they brought his father into the hallway, the child did not recognize him at first. His father was missing his hair on his head and his eyebrows were gone and his beard had melted into little black knots on his skin. He had been the only one left, they said. They told his mother in the hall that it was as if the father had refused to burn when everyone else they found had turned into short, black, shriveled roasts of people. The child’s father was wearing just a ladies ’ raincoat that was clear plastic and wouldn’t stick to the burns you could see that were red and raw and black on the father’s back and arms. The father’s hands were packed in grease and wrapped in gauze and the child wondered if those hands would even be able to hold a hammer to nail a rock-throwing hand to the shed wall. The child stood over his parents’ bed for a long time, watching his father sleep in the room that smelled like a curing barn.
On Sunday on their way to the shed the father gathered his tools and showed the child his reckoning, his little column of figures, his carryovers, his paperwork. The white papers were windows and windshield. The yellow paper was the doctor. The little green stub was what they paid the father for keeping the fire from coming into town. By the father’s figuring, he didn’t think he could afford to keep the child, could not keep him in
glass at least. It had been two weeks, but there were to be no more trips to Doctor Duck, the Quack, he called him. The rock-throwing hand had finally cost the father more than he had earned.
Sorry, said the father.
At the shed the father opened his toolbox and told the child it would be all right to holler if it hurt, that the child’s hollering probably wouldn’t bother anybody. It was Sunday and the mother had gone to church. The father rattled the tools around in his toolbox, poking around with his clawed fingers. The child had closed his eyes and when he smelled his father standing beside him, he lifted up his rock-throwing hand.
Here we go, said the father, and with his shears and his pliers the father set to work on the child’s head, snipping and tugging at the black silky thread that had bound together the torn flesh of his only son.
(2007-12-18). The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (Kindle Locations 1484-1491). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.