My father hired a high school kid, Dan, to work on our family farm. He seemed both grown-up and child-like to me, big and small at the same time: he could drive a car, but didn’t seem to know things I figured all adults knew, such as how to build a fence.
At five-years-old, I’d already seen my father build more than a few fences, and I’d helped by keeping track of his tape measure and handing him tools. I knew how to set posts in our hard ground, how to fasten rails to those posts, and what galvanized nails felt like between my lips—rough skinned, like coarse birch-bark—a line of them held in my mouth for easy grabbing.
The fence my father put Dan to work building would block my Grandma Walker’s new air conditioning unit from the sight of the country road. Dan had never built a fence. He’d never built anything, far as I could tell. I hung around my Grandma’s front yard while Dan worked, watching him, trying to help. I was in charge of Dan, but I wonder if Dan thought it the other way around.
Dan set the posts just fine. He figured out the stainless steel brackets, how a smack of the hammer sunk a shallow hook into the wood that held them in place while he drove nails through the mounting holes. He was good with the cedar pickets as well, aligning the top edges to a string pulled taut between two points, like my father had taught him. He got stuck, however, notching a picket so it would fit around the rail where the fence separated in two directions. I watched in judgment while the tools that always worked for my father defied Dan: the saw jammed cutting across the grain, splitting another picket. I kept trying to help, but Dan didn’t seem to want advice from a kindergartener.
I delivered my verdict to my father: Dan couldn’t build a fence to save himself from a pack of wild dogs.
Dan finished high school, got married, found a job driving a truck for Pepsi Cola Bottling Company, and one day was gone from my life. I worried that my fence verdict, my tattling, had done more than stain Dan’s reputation—I feared I’d ruined him. No one had ever outgrown my father’s employ before. I thought family farms made everyone family, forever.
After Dan left, my father started to hire a different type of man: older, bouncing back from lost jobs, divorces, stints in prison. Second Dan rode a motorcycle, wore leather vests and threadbare denim, and combed his dark hair straight back. He took regular cigarette breaks, but his nervous expression seldom relaxed. I’m not sure what his story was, only that my father never left me alone with him.
One of Second Dan’s jobs was mowing our front yard with the new push mower my father had bought to replace a gas-powered wreck. I watched him working through the dining room window. His long strides took him up and down the lawn and over the edge of the tile walkway that bordered one edge. It didn’t seem important at the time, his travel across the tile lip—he was fast and didn’t leave lines in the grass and didn’t need much telling what to do, qualities I knew my father, Second Dan’s boss, valued highly.
After Second Dan left my father’s employ the lawn became my job. I used the same push mower, but I wasn’t fast and didn’t do a good job. My parents blamed my shoddy work on Second Dan. They said he’d dulled the blade and bent the axle by always pushing the mower up and over the walkway. Chipped, rounded edges of tile pavers damned him. Second Dan became Lazy Dan, Danger Dan, Dan the Loser, an incompetent sent by the world to damage what was ours. Back then I agreed with my parents. All Dumb Dan’s fault. Nothing wrong with us.
That’s how things work on a family farm, or so I’ve learned since moving away from mine. Good enough for now won’t be good enough after you’ve gone. Choose to leave the protection of acres, of names, and you’ll become like everyone else. To stay in a family’s good graces, you must stay on the farm, whoever you are.
MUSCLE & BONE
People called my father Workaholic, Type-A Personality. I heard these phrases so often I repeated them when describing my father: He’s a workaholic with a Type-A Personality. It must have been strange hearing a child use those words but my father was exactly those things.
The price he paid was a body under attack deep in the muscles, undetectable from the outside except for pain swinging his moods from bad to worse. He was always impatient, but knotted muscles between his shoulder blades, or bicep and deltoid, or buried near the hip joint, turned him monstrous—in this state he’d curse an instant for taking too long. When he demanded my help I couldn’t refuse.
He lay on the carpet, shirt balled under his forehead, grabbing breath while I dug into his body, mining for the core of his pain. I massaged the gluteus muscle through the back pocket of his jeans, my hands stacked for pressure, the knot moving in his cheek like a currant in jelly. It helped, my father said, but brought only temporary relief. He always went back to work and came in worse than before.
Once he needed my help getting into a hot bath. He stripped off his briefs. Penis plastered with sweat to his thigh. I tried to look somewhere else, but have you ever tried looking somewhere else in a bathroom? I held his naked middle—ladders of ribs, flexing belly—as he lifted one leg into the tub, and felt his weight shift to the petrified muscle, foot squealing for grip like a tire on the linoleum. His momentum moved to and from the protection of my hands, back and forth, one second needing me then not then needing me. Settled safely on the bottom, he sighed in the therapeutic heat. His glasses steamed. Don’t go far, he said. I might need you to get out.
I am not naturally a Workaholic, Type-A Personality, and was often in trouble with my father because of it, so I tried to learn. I waited in my bedroom, which shared a wall with the bath, my ear to the cold stucco between us, waiting for him to call out. I heard more sighs through the wall. Water swished. His skin broke suction with the enamel.
He didn’t need my help again. He never knew my vigil lasted longer than the worst of his pain.
I am a danger to myself playing any sport, twisting knees and wrenching shoulders, and especially prone to jamming fingers. I spent the years between fifth and eighth grades, when intramural sports were compulsory at Alvina Elementary, with at least two fingers taped together to stabilize the swollen knuckle against its slightly stronger neighbor. Such minor but real injuries trained my coaches not to argue when I told them I was too hurt to play. I didn’t feel guilty, only relief for having escaped another game of flag football, basketball, or softball against the boys of Burrell, Monroe, or Helm Elementary Schools.
Sometimes I told my mother I didn’t feel well enough to go to school. I’d long since established my weak constitution at home too. Recurring bouts of strep throat used to quarantine me for three days at a time six times a year. A stomach problem that was not appendicitis, diverticulitis, or anything else the doctors could name led to dehydration and an intravenous diet and twenty-one absences in a row. With such a pattern of doctor’s orders backing me up, I could say my throat was sore, my stomach hurt, I felt dizzy, and my mother let me stay home; I’d spend the day watching television and drinking-instant-breakfast-and-ice-cream shakes.
Once, my mother drove to Alvina to collect the work I’d missed and was t-boned by a speeding car as she crossed Mountain View Avenue. Our Aerostar minivan bent in half on impact. The car spun and ended up facing the wrong way in a neighbor’s vineyard. As the frame crumpled the passenger seat collided with my mother’s shoulder, breaking her collarbone. She woke to someone picking glass out of her face. The hospital fit her with a harness that pulled her shoulders back. She waited months for the bone halves to rejoin without any hope her body would be as it was before.
My father took me with him to the wrecking yard to collect our things from the wrecked Aerostar. Only three wheels touched the ground. Sheared metal stabbed upwards through the carpets. Blue nuggets of broken safety glass covered every surface. We gathered cassette tapes, sunglasses, textbooks, all thrown by the collision. He must have wondered how sick I’d been to have caused this.
Mom still feels the rain coming in her collarbone. I’ve never admitted faking sick. None of us completely heal.
John Carr Walker is the author of the story collection Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside 2014). Recently, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, Gimmick, Shantih, Gravel, Hippocampus, Five:2:One, The Toasted Cheese, Inlandia, Split Lip, and The Collagist. A native of California’s San Joaquin Valley, he now lives in Oregon.