f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"The Deal" by Don Hoesel

“You remember any of this?”

My father’s voice startles me after an hour of navigating the winding mountain roads without a word between us. Since the stop for gas in Chelsea, when he asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, the rumbling of the V-8 has filled the aural vacuum. Maybe what made me jump, beyond the fact that the timbre of my father’s voice could wake Lazarus, is that I’d been considering the same thing – how none of this seemed familiar until the last turn, when I could see the red outline of the cider mill through the pine trees some two-hundred feet below us.

As a boy I would watch for that mill, playing a game with my father to see who could spot it first. I can’t remember a time when he won that contest and I am certain now that he derived the greater pleasure from my small triumphs. He took me to see the mill once, when I was eight or nine. We walked through the place, watching the coring, peeling and pressing of the apples. He’d told me that before the mill was ushered into the twentieth century, migrant workers, mostly black families, would show up at harvest time to pick and process the fruit.

For a few of those seasons my father had worked alongside them, sweating beneath the sun, learning the work songs of a different people. He’d lost the tip of his finger in the press during his last harvest and the mill foreman had burned the wound with lye to stop the bleeding. They had loaded him into the back of the man’s car and driven him twenty miles to Randle, where the doctor had given my father a shot for the pain, telling him there was little he could do that the lye had not already done. That same afternoon my father was back working at the press.

“I remember the mill,” I say.

My father nods but does not take his eyes from the road. His large hands, tough and brown like leather, rest on the wheel, guiding the Ford around curves and up inclines that must be as familiar to him as the halls of the hospital are to me. I do not know how often he has taken this trip since my mom passed; maybe this is the first time. But he grew up in these mountains, on land owned by his people for generations; this place is a part of him in a way that my suburban childhood home could never be for me.

“You win again,” he says.

I do not answer but turn away to look out the window. It is strange that I am back in this place, sitting alongside this man, as if the intervening twenty years have been erased. How many times as a child did I take this trip with him, sitting in the silence of a different cab and sharing the lost and simple pleasure of just being together?

“So how’s that doctor thing working out?”

Like most children, I once thought my father the wisest man in the world. He seldom spoke and when he did his words were reasoned, filled with the wisdom of a people for whom both logic and superstition held sway. By the time I took my first breath in the world he was educated, in the top five percent of his class at the University of Virginia, but more than ever convinced that people spoke too much. It is this that makes my father’s question seem out of place – the fact that it is idle chatter and unlike him.

“Everything’s great, dad. My residency will be over next month. Then I’ll probably take that job out in California. I think I told you about it.”

He nods but does not answer and when I look, his eyes are dark. His hands have tightened on the wheel, draining the color from his knuckles. It takes me a fraction of a second before I, too, feel the palpable unsettlement that has crept into the cab. As I refocus my attention on the green outside of the truck, I know without knowing how that we are very near the place. Call it a psychic scar or some other metaphysical crap but I do not think a person can live through something traumatic without elements of the event searing themselves into the unconscious.

What’s funny to me is that, for an event that has wrought such grave consequences, I don’t remember much of the accident, only turning at the sound of my mother’s gasp, watching her look down on me with an expression that only later I identified as an apology. The rest of it I can relive only as images: lights flashing, someone in black and yellow reaching for me, a window with spider web cracks. Then nothing until the hospital: a physical therapy session. I sometimes wonder what happened to the other memories, for surely I must have some that cover the period between my first awakening in the hospital to the painful stretching of damaged bones and muscles in the PT room. Among my clearest recollections is that my father had not been there; I remember looking around the room as I held the padded bars, like someone just waking to a knowledge of himself. I cried then, asking about my mother and my father, and the therapist set me in a wheelchair and took me back to my room.

I’m watching now – looking for the tree, wondering if we left a mark on it as identifiable as the one it left on our family. Perhaps a mile goes by and I see nothing; I know we must have passed it.

“It was back a ways,” my father says. I can see his face in profile, the suggestion of a sad smile that alights on his craggy skin, and I am pleased that he could feel my need.

In a way, that tree ended two things for me: my happy childhood and my relationship with my father. When he buried my mother, with me still in the hospital, he buried a part of himself – the part that told jokes, that smiled, that hugged. I think I missed his touch the most: a hand on my shoulder while I struggled to reel in a trout, the rough play on the floor of the family room, how he would tousle my hair when he put me to bed.

“You remember that fish you caught up in Randle?” he asks me. I’m starting to wonder if my memories are that transparent or if, more likely, our thoughts are running along similar veins.

“It weighed seventeen pounds,” I answer. “I still have that picture; it’s on the wall of my office.”

He looks at me for a moment and I see a warmth in his eyes that I have not seen in twenty years, and maybe a hint of sadness. It makes me wonder, again, about the invitation to make this trip with him – and my eagerness to accept such a journey down a path littered with emotional and physical scars.

Maybe one of the things that I picked up from my daddy’s people, the mountain folk whose blood courses though my veins, is a sort of fatalism – the knowledge that things happen, that no one but God almighty can say why, and that it does no use to dwell on the acts of this mysterious, sometimes vengeful being. It is a stoicism of the simple folk, which makes me wonder if this trip means anything at all. Maybe the baggage I’ve carried over the last twenty years is a suspect gift from my mother’s side, and my father has been over this thing for a long time. Maybe.

The Ford is navigating a steeper stretch of rutted road and I anticipate a half-remembered level out. When we hit it, it is like the sky opening before us –like nothing else exists in the world except for the blue canopy and us. It strikes me almost the same as it did when I was young, even through the years of schooling that have worked so hard to teach me that God does not exist. It is romanticism of the worst kind and, despite the view, I laugh. My father’s kin would never have been affected by a view in this way; everything they did, everything they were, was bound up in nature in a way that people who rely on machinery and supply chains cannot fathom. To them, to my father, God is something else entirely – not a beauty-invoked catharsis, but a being to be respected and appeased and feared.

“What’s so funny?”

I allow the mirth to recede and meet his eyes.

“I guess I’m just nervous. It’s been a long time.”

We exit the truck and I feel the crisp air on my skin. It feels good in my lungs, free of the antiseptic odors of the hospital, the smell of subdivision fertilizer and the scent of cigars in my office. Beneath my feet the leaves crunch with a fierceness amplified by the silence of this remote place.
My father is at the back of the truck and he lowers the tailgate. He reaches beneath the canvas cover and pulls out two orange vests, two canteens and our jacketed guns. I unzip the bag and remove my Remington. This is the first my dad has seen of it and he admires it with a practiced eye.

“That an 870?” he says in a way that tells me he already knows the answer. I doubt there is a gun in existence that my father does not recognize.

“It is.” I like the gun, the way it feels in my hands, the slight recoil into my shoulder, the accuracy – even as I know that it is something that my father would never own. My father’s guns get used; by the end of a hunt, mud will coat the stock, the barrel might have another ding and the trigger will be imperceptibly worn by the caress of his finger. The 870 looks new, expensive – it’s all styling.

When he pulls his gun from its case I am not surprised to see that he is still using the Winchester Model 70. It is a classic firearm and carries with it the marks of a thousand expeditions. When I was younger, I watched him buy and sell any number of guns, never attaching any maudlin sentiment to any of them. Can it be a coincidence that this one that he has kept is the first that he let me shoot?

We don the orange vests and set off, my father taking the lead. I always walked behind him when I was young, following in his steps, mimicking the way he held his gun, how his head would turn as he watched the forest. In a few steps we are off the road and entering the cover of the trees, browning leaves crunching beneath our waterproof boots. There is a familiarity to this, even through the marked differences – the foremost being the length of my stride. The last time I hunted with my father I was only nine and had to work to keep up with his steps. Now I find myself slowing to match his gait, wondering if his step has slowed a bit over the years.

We pass a mile in comfortable silence, scanning the woods for movement, for hoof prints preserved in soft earth, for rut marks gouged in tree bark; this last is most important as it would signify the passage of a buck. Mockingbirds provide the only sound beyond our steps and the wind and I am lulled into a sense of peace that I can only get when I am hunting. When we break through into a clearing I instantly know the place, vivid even after two decades. I locate the tree stand on the other side of the empty space that covers maybe twenty yards. The wood has worn to gray beneath the assault of the elements. I shot my first and only buck from that stand, then dressed the carcass under my father’s patient tutelage.

If the sight means anything to the older man, he does not show it in his steady stride. He looks ready to pass through and out of the clearing, his path taking him due west, but all I remember past this spot is a steep drop off, something I doubt a goat would attempt to navigate. In a low voice I call after him.

“Dad, why don’t we try the tree stand?”

He stops and half turns to wait while I come alongside him. When I do, he nods and starts off again, an unspoken invitation to remain at his shoulder. The clearing and the tree stand disappear behind us; I wonder if my initials could have still been seen in one of the boards or if, like so many other things, time has erased its existence.

“I made a deal, you know.”

I look at my father but his eyes are on the path. When some time passes without an answer from me, he meets my gaze.

“When you and your mom were lying in that hospital, I made a deal.”

I am caught off guard by the statement, by this admission of something; the only thing that I can think to do is nod.

He goes quiet then and casts a practiced eye over the forest. For a while nothing passes between us but shared labor until, after several moments, each one of which I count to myself, he starts again.

“Do you know what it was like sitting next to her?”

As a doctor I have watched family gather in a terminal patient’s room, saying their goodbyes, making their peace with whomever they needed to. But no, I do not know what it’s like detached from clinical distance.

“I bet I argued with God for two days over your mom’s bed. I begged Him to let her live.” He snorts and shifts his gun to the other hand. “I know I cursed Him some.”

If my father is waiting for some sort of response from me, I am in no position to give it. I have never heard him talk like this and I am wholly unprepared to process it, much less answer. I think he knows because his pauses seem to be for his own sake, as if the words need to be said, regardless of whether or not I am here to bear witness to their speaking.

“I asked God to spare her because I couldn’t take the thought of living alone.”

He looks at me then, as if making sure that he has my attention, as if I could be focused on anything else but his face, his words.

“I guessed that He had to take one of you.”

He does not look away, even as he continues to walk; his eyes bore into mine with a weight of emotion of which I would not have imagined him capable. And then I am given clarity. I can see a man at his wife’s side, begging a God he can not understand to let her live, offering the life of his son in exchange. A deal that God rejected.

After he sees the knowledge take hold he looks away, his eyes red. I have never once seen my father cry, not even in the aftermath of my mother’s loss. It shakes me to see him like this – a tremor through the things I have held most solid.

Almost unnoticed, the forest ends and we come out of the trees to stand at the edge of a cliff. Below us are rocks and mountain sediment. And a view that rivals anything I have ever seen. Still, I can hardly look away from my father’s face.

He sets the butt of his Winchester on the rock and turns into the wind, his eyes closed as if the air offers some kind of absolution.

“Do you have any idea how it feels to offer something that important, only to see her die anyway?”

His eyes are still shut but I answer.

“I don’t, dad.”

He gives a smile that is filled with pain but does not acknowledge my admission. I, who have seen men and women fighting for their very lives, can see that my dad is engaged in something similar – some kind of silent war that I am incapable of understanding.

“I added myself to the deal, too,” he says finally. “I said I would give myself to God. Whatever that meant.”

I reach for him now, wrapping my hand around his arm, my fingers pressing into flesh that feels bony and thin.

“You wanted Him to take me and leave her. I would have done the same thing. I understand, dad.” I want to pull him away from the edge, to talk to him, to empty the vessel through this emotional sieve, to keep him from doing what I think he may have come here for.

He turns and grasps my shoulder in his large hand, holding it fiercely.

“You can’t understand, son; it took me twenty years to do that.” Love and sorrow fill his voice in equal measure. “After seeing the man you’ve become, I finally know that God made the right choice. He let my angel die but gave the world a man who heals – a man with so much to give.”

I am caught in this strange and beautiful moment, but also puzzled.

“Then why are we here, dad?”

With his hand still on my shoulder he looks out over the valley below, and there is something in his eyes that I have never seen: a brightness, a peace.

“Because I had to fulfill my end of the deal.”