In this weekend’s story, Andrew Sullivan lets us into the dark parts of the soul, where the real struggle to be a good man lies. Our narrator is out on parole and stuck between his past potential and the reality of his present, between his warring mother and father, between jail–not only the place but the feeling–and freedom. This is not a story to be missed. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
The day I get out on parole, Toby picks me up in Kingston. He’s two hours late.
“You got skinny, brother. Big boys steal your food in there? Call it the lock-up diet?”
The sky is empty above us as we hits the outskirts of town. Toby’s got all the windows open, but the car still smells like bud and Burger King wrappers. The radio dial is covered in grease.
“We gotta go check in on the old man; he’s been after Mom again. Dropped a full ton of gravel in her driveway last week. Said since she kept the rock on her finger, he may as well add to the pile. Spray painted happy birthday over the whole thing too. Ass still remembers her birthday out of spite, I swear to God. And she won’t shut up about it. He’s still got it in for you too, by the way, so maybe you can talk it out. Just don’t get me too involved, okay?”
Up and down both sides of the highway, sunflowers stand hunched over brittle stalks. Their massive heads droop down toward the poisoned soil. Too much fertilizer makes it impossible for them to follow the sun. A few ruptured husks blow onto the road, but the tires crush them as we drive past. Crows circle above the yellow rows in silence.
“I shoulda probably got you some new clothes or let you shower, eh?” Toby says, but he has no intention of pulling over. “You smell like that pink soap they got in movie theatre shitters.”
It was my idea to try and steal the bulldozer three years ago. I knew how to get under the fences on Dad’s property, knew where he kept the keys and the combinations. I knew I had a need and that there were always guys in need of a bulldozer—my logic was fuzzy at the time, interspersed with 10-hour binges in the dark where I believed all my dreams could come to life along the dirty edge of a windowsill, all within my reach. Oxy does that sometimes—it lets you believe. Stealing a bulldozer did not seem out of reach. I could still drive standard even though my license was suspended. My only problem was outrunning the cops once I drove into a ditch.
I don’t blame Kali for it. We were both cooped up in that basement apartment, breathing in each other’s fumes, rubbing powder on our gums and trying to say I love you through gritted teeth. The word forever occasionally slipped out too, before we started to grind our jaws into dust. I watched my legs slowly deteriorate under the quilts, the muscles from cross country withering after months without use that winter. Mom blamed Dad for the back-hoe running over my foot in high school, but I still tried to run afterward. The pain pills helped me keep up. They made everything lighter around the edges. I barely noticed the downward incline at first.
“I tried calling Dad before I grabbed you. Apparently the newspaper people came by, wanted to interview him. All the neighbours are out front at Mom’s, taking pictures of the gravel pile. She tried shovelling it this morning, but gave up after a while. Half the letters are still there, but I don’t think it says happy birthday anymore. Maybe just ‘hap.’ Something like that.”
While I was in the hospital in high school, Mom egged Dad’s truck twice before demanding a divorce. He rear-ended her car in the long-term parking and keyed the entire left side during one of my physio treatments. The signed court papers were tucked under the wipers. I told him to go home, go find a new home and get the fuck out, so he bought a farm outside of town and stopped calling. That’s where he kept all the equipment for excavating. I stopped working for him in the summers, tired of accidentally digging up dead dogs and septic tanks in the heat.
Toby likes to call my accident the catalyst, but he failed Grade 10 chemistry so I don’t put much weight in what he says. These things take time—nothing is instant. I don’t believe in stars or signs or all that horoscope shit. Stuff happens. I’m a Rabbit according to the Chinese, but Kali might have been lying about that. I’m not that fast anymore and most of my nerves are shot.
“Almost there. Now if he says anything about you smelling like shit, you can just blame that on me. I know I haven’t been the best of brothers or anything,” Toby says. “He’s almost forgiven me for growing weed in the back fields, so I’ll take the hit for you this time.”
The car comes over a crest and I see a figure out in the fields, walking toward the house. There are no sunflowers out here. Just rows and rows of corn and lonely scarecrows emerging like stop signs every fifty feet to scare off all the birds. They don’t pay much attention.
“I’m sure it’ll be no hard feelings or anything,” Toby says. “You still talkin’ to Kali? I seen her around a bit, but I think she was a little too interested in me, so I kept my distance. Don’t want to ruin a good thing. Thought you might appreciate that, right?”
“Sure do, buddy. Sure,” I say. Toby moved in with Dad after everything went down in the divorce. I was already 18, so I just let it be. Mom would call me and ask for help in the garden, and I’d show up once in a while. I’d try running around the backyard, kicking up my heels to feel the tendon in my right foot twang. The doctors prescribed more meds and I started working in the hospital cafeteria. No one there asked me if I would be running anymore 10ks.
“You might even see her out there, actually. I seen her walking around town a lot.”
I met Kali while in rehab for my foot. She was in Toby’s grade, but school never interested her much after her step-dad broke her hand in the car door one April. Her Mom ended up requiring a restraining order, but Kali said she saw him sometimes outside her bedroom window at night, asking for forgiveness. He was never dressed for the weather and always dripping wet.
Kali couldn’t write with her left, so all her notes slopped to one side across the page. Sometimes her words slurred out between her lips as well, but I don’t think it was related to the hand. She told me the boys at school called her Strokes before she asked to borrow my medication while we smoked outside the visitor doors with the old men in wheelchairs and nurses on break. I never asked Toby about it—I never knew about his bullshit crush. He was the one who spotted me in the middle of the night driving the bulldozer through the gate three years ago. He didn’t call the cops—just told Dad about it.
“Well, let’s go lay down some rules. You know for the last three years I had to play peacekeeper while you were all cozy watching TV in your cell? They are like dogs in a pit, man. Tearing each other’s ears off and shit. I’ve seen it happen—with the dogs, I mean. I wouldn’t put it past Mom though. She still sends lilies on his birthday, you know, like for a funeral? Get outta the car and we’ll talk to him. I live with the asshole and he barely speaks to me.”
The wind tears at my clothes when I stand up. The first few months in jail were full of withdrawal—the puking and the sweats. I watched my fingernails grow and my beard wrap itself around my face. There was too much effort involved in maintenance. My crotch became a bush that I didn’t even bother to examine after a while. Everything was too tangled.
“He still digging holes like there’s something to find?” I ask.
“Always, buddy. Always.”
Toby and I walk toward the fields. The sun is directly above us. There are no shadows following us out here. I kick at the gopher holes and try to avoid ants swarming around my feet.
“So they let him go, eh? And he didn’t even bring a boyfriend.”
Dad’s teeth are bright yellow. He’s got a cigarette tucked in one corner of his mouth, but it doesn’t seem to obstruct his words. There’s a red ball cap on his head covered in salt rings. Toby starts plucking at ears of dead corn, dropping kernels onto the ground. On closer inspection, all the plants in here are just like the sunflowers. Something in the soil has accelerated all this growth; everything is overripe and slowly bursting.
“You know you could have called me first, son. And Toby, I don’t wanna hear nothing about your mom. She can deal with that mess on her own. I didn’t even say much to the papers anyway. It’ll all blow over eventually. She still sends me black cards on Valentine’s.”
“You’re like children,” I start to say. “Like the world is a sandbox or some shit to you.”
I can feel sweat running down my spine. I remember Dad in the courtroom, explaining how much the ’dozer was worth, how it was totalled. Detailing my past substance abuse issues, as he called them, my learning problems as a child and my mother’s over-protective nature. I heard him yelling at Kali outside the courtroom, mocking the way her voice slurred in stressful moments. He asked if she charged men by the hour. I was convicted of attempted robbery and resisting arrest. The bulldozer was considered a dangerous weapon.
“Look, you and your brother may think you know a lot of things. I never tried to play easy with you. Always gave you room to make mistakes. Just tried to balance out your mother. The world ain’t ever fair like she expects. Sometimes the world shits on you.”
There are crows around us in the field, picking at the corn. Nothing is too rotten here. There are still pieces they can salvage. Even now, the crows can eat well.
Kali would stop in from time to time on visitor days. She’d pass me notes about the program they had her in, the shelter that was protecting her from the elements and the groping hands of whoever found her in the dark. She still woke up sometimes with her step-dad’s face laughing in the rain, but there were no windows in her room. The visits began to slow down after a while. Mom told me Kali wasn’t showing up at the house much anymore. Sometimes she’d see her standing on a corner, smoke rising above her head, her legs torn and ragged at the knees. I practiced punching the wall in my cell and writing down the facts about each run I’d made before they locked me up. I tried to pinpoint the smells and the way mud stuck to my shoes. I tracked every leaf lying in my path and remembered the pain inside my shins, the fissures in my tendons, the ache of my lungs when all I could breathe out was steam—I wanted it back.
“Mom just wants you to pick the stones back up, Dad,” Toby says. “Give me the keys to the truck and I’ll go do it. She said she’s going to call the cops…”
“And what did I do that was illegal exactly? You want to ask your brother about that? I don’t think I broke any laws. He is the expert after all. Got a three-year education, if I remember it correctly. They can investigate if they want, but if you ask me, it sounds like your mother is just looking her gift horse in the mouth. She got a brand new driveway in the deal!”
Eventually, I didn’t want Kali to come back. I didn’t want to be reminded of floating in that basement apartment, my synapses firing in all the wrong directions to bolster fantasies I couldn’t even name. Rabbits and all the spirit animals I denied, all the constellations forming over and over again across the network of my skull in the shape of bulldozers and excavators backing over my foot while laughing at the scream. I was focused on the pain instead, the one that rattled through my stupid foot and the old lungs I remembered, the ones that could taste the cold.
“Dad, you remember what she said after the excavator? You remember all that shit?”
His eyes shrink down to slits under the sun. He’s always wearing that stupid hat.
“What about it? You shouldn’t have been standing there in the first place, I told you that 100 times and I told your mother too, but she just doesn’t listen, you know that.”
I take a step towards him, avoiding the holes in the rotten soil around us.
“I agree. I should have been more careful. Coulda been a lot different if I had, but I didn’t. And that’s my mistake. Shouldn’t have taken that ’dozer either, no shit, that’s for sure.”
“No shit, indeed,” he says and tries to back away. Toby keeps picking at the corn.
“But you know what Mom said about all of that? Before she started egging your trucks and mailing flowers, and all that stupid shit? It was stupid, I can’t deny that. She said, you know what, your father makes a living scavenging other’s mistakes, digging up their shit . . .”
“Now son, you better watch what you’re saying. First day of parole and all, right? You don’t want to do anything that might send you back into a place like that.”
Six months before my planned release, Kali finally came in to see me again. I had some bug racking my body. My eyes were pink and hazy, but I could see the bruises around her neck, the wounds trickling up the insides of her arms like warnings for something else, and I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t have to anyway. She told me all about the nights out in the cold, the fits of scratching and the tastes of all those things inside her mouth. She told me about him picking her up one night, his eyes hidden beneath the brim of a ball cap, and that he didn’t ask for anything. He just wanted to remind her of what she was and what she’d done to all of us. She was just another piece of shit he pulled up to the surface. He drove her 15 miles outside town and then told her to get out. He told her to walk and watch out for cars. They might think they just hit an animal and keep on driving; they might not even notice the crunch of bone out there in the dark.
I didn’t want to hear anymore. I ran. And ran. I ran into the wall and the wall again. My head was bleeding when the guards tackled me to the floor. They pushed me down onto the tiles and slapped six more months onto my wait. I didn’t do much for a while after that.
“I don’t really give a shit about parole, I just wanna tell you what Mom said while you were busy keying her car in the parking lot. A living of digging up other people’s shit, she said, because you can’t bear to look at your own. Now does that sound about right? Too much time trolling through everyone else’s garbage, yeah? What do you have buried out here anyway?”
Dad takes a step back, but the dirt can’t hold him. It collapses around his right leg and he plunges into the wet, damp soil. I yank his hat off his head and toss it into the corn.
“You still listen to that bu-bitch?” he stutters. “Still a momma’s boy like before.”
Toby stands behind us without moving. He has nothing to say anymore. I realize I do smell like public bathroom soap. Dad tries to pull himself out of the ground, tearing at the soil around him. I spit down onto the shining bald head below me and kick him in the teeth once. They make a snapping sound and then my bad foot is wet. I don’t need to do it again.
“Toby, you gotta go call someone,” he coughs. There are jagged bits of bone and blood where his mouth was, but he doesn’t cry out. “Just get back to the goddamn house!”
I turn, but Toby is already fleeing through the corn. Crows erupt behind him like a plague.
I used to run like that. You should have seen me.
Photo Flickr/Smabs Sputzer