When I get to my father’s house, he’s outside pushing a tripod orchard ladder across the lawn. No surprise he checked himself out of the hospital and has already started working. It’s been six months since I’ve been home, and he looks thin, even under his long-sleeve flannel. As he pushes the ladder, his flannel flaps back in the wind. There’s too much room in that shirt.

I survey everything from the car, leaning over the steering column. The big willow in the backyard still stands. Its yellow-stranded branches sweep back and forth. The garden is intact as well, brown below and light green and bushy above. The peach orchard in the back is gone now. Full of rows of small green trees, the land no longer owned by my father.

He stops pushing the ladder, as if something has bitten him. He slaps his hand on a wooden step, ensuring its sturdiness. I had seen him do this on many occasions when I was a young boy, only now I know his hands are covered in little brown dots. I see those hands shake as he ruffles the front of his shirt, pulls on the tail of it.

I sit back in the driver’s seat, roll down the window, and call to him. He doesn’t hear me. When I step out of the car, he’s pushing the ladder again, and I realize he’s trying to get it over to the side of the house to check on the few peach trees that stand there. The last of them. He’s not pushing in a straight path but going over the grass in a zigzag pattern.

“Dad,” I say, louder this time. He turns his head.

“You made it out to the old place, uh?” he says.

I walk over to him. “I can’t believe they let you go already.”

“Just a minor thing. You didn’t have to come.”

“Should you really be in the yard?” I ask.

“How long you going to be around this time?”

“Dad, you shouldn’t be out here.”

“It was minor. No complications. A man can work still. They didn’t say anything about a man not working.”

Work has been my father’s life ever since my mother died when I was six. It was work that drove him to get up in the early morning and push late into the night. The rest of the time, he mostly wandered the house in a trance, without really saying or hearing anything. When the peach trees weren’t enough to keep him together, he started harvesting grapes for wine and growing raspberries and strawberries. He occupied himself out in the field and the orchard and in the yard. He started cutting down trees and chopping his own firewood, pushing his body to the limit.

He suffers now from cardiomyopathy, an inflammation of the heart muscle. It’s become more severe over the years, and now he has problems with his lungs as well, difficulty breathing. I attribute the illnesses to his stubborn behavior. My father was fifty-eight when he had his first heart attack, and I remember coming home not long after the incident, much like now, and having to park along the curb because he was standing in the driveway with a jackhammer between his legs, churning up the cement.

“You should probably take it easy for a while,” I say to him. I think of reaching out and touching him on the shoulder. Then my father lets go of the ladder and walks away from me toward the rental car.

“So, how long you going to be out?” he asks over his shoulder.

“A few days,” I say.

He doesn’t answer, just keeps walking as if he never posed the question. “Should’ve got a truck,” he says.
“Would have been useful. Mine’s in the shop. Something with the gasket I couldn’t fix.”

“Economy cars are cheaper, Dad. They get better mileage, less likely to break down.”

There’s a set of three heavy iron keys on a small stand next to the front door of my father’s house. These are the original keys. He made sure never to change the knobs, only the locks and bolts. The home was built in 1836, and he’s spent his whole life trying to keep it looking that way. The bathrooms have claw-footed tubs and basins on wooden stands with towels and soap. All along the walls and bedrooms, my father used to hang black-and-white photographs of his family, my mother’s family. But now, there are gaps on the walls, white outlines where pictures once hung. Over the last few years, my father has started taking the pictures down from the walls and off the dressers but only the ones that contain her side of the family. Each visit, I notice more pictures missing. As I look now, there’s not a single photograph of my mother.

My father notices me staring at the bare walls and grabs my suitcase from the floor. “Dad,” I say, but he ignores me and goes up the staircase, teetering with the heavy load.

Even I, shorter than my father, have to duck going up the stairs. This house is so old that the ceiling at the bottom of the staircase comes down very low. Inside my old room, I see that he’s heaved my bags onto the bed and gone into the bathroom. The door’s ajar, and I look inside. He’s hunched over with his hands on his knees. He hacks from the back of his throat and spits in the toilet. I turn away and open my suitcase and go through it like I think I’ve lost something important.

My father comes out of the bathroom. “Get some dinner in an hour,” he says.

“Sure thing,” I say, staying focused on the things I’ve spread all over the mattress. I hear him on the stairs, his feet shuffling a one-two on each step. He makes sure both feet rest on a single stair before going down to the next. He never used to walk this way. I go to the bathroom to wash my face in the basin. I fill it with warm water from the sink, and as I turn to set it back on the stand, I see that my father forgot to flush the toilet. I push the handle down and watch some of his blood swirl, turning pink as it dilutes in the water, until it’s fully sucked under.

When I get to the kitchen, my father’s bracing himself with both hands on the table. He stands erect when I enter. He points to the chair across from him. His plate is already full of food, mashed potatoes in a spiral hump and so many ham slices that they hang off the sides. My plate is empty, and just as I move toward it, my father swipes it from the table and heads to the stove.

“I can get my own,” I say.

“You always take your time,” he says, and I can see he didn’t fill my plate to prove a point. To show that he’s not as helpless as I might think, that he’s actually taking care of me here. “Let’s see, let’s see,” he says. He hovers over the frying pan, looks down into it as if he’s just now preparing the meal.

“No meat,” I remind him. I’ve been a vegetarian for the past six years, since I was thirty-one. It was my father’s first heart attack that spurred it on. That and my own high blood pressure and cholesterol. When I went to have the blood drawn, the nurse wrapped a blue cord around my arm and pulled it tight. When I saw the needle, I nearly passed out. My father would have shaken his head had he been there to see it. If he were having the blood drawn, he’d have asked the nurse for a bigger needle, laughed, and offered both arms.

My father has to take the two slices of ham he’s put on my plate and flip them back into the pan. I don’t know if he’s forgotten I’m a vegetarian or it’s just something he never wanted to hear.

There’s an assortment of vials sitting on top of the refrigerator in a pie tin. “That’s a lot of pills,” I say.

“The older you get the more you lose in the head and body and wallet.” My father comes over to me and puts the plate down. He hums an old rockabilly tune I can’t quite place and folds a napkin for me. Instead of setting it on the table, he tucks it into my shirt collar and chuckles. His rough fingertips brush my skin. I can’t remember the last time we’ve touched. He doesn’t seem to notice.

“Don’t mess with me,” I say, spouting the lyrics to the only rockabilly song I remember.

My father pulls away. “What?”

“’Cause I got a cast iron arm.” I sing this part so he’ll know what I’m saying.

But he doesn’t seem to. He shakes his head as if he’s never heard the song. But it’s always been his song, the one he used to play in the living room over and over after my mother died, when he’d sit in his dark-leather chair and stare out the back window, drinking whiskey from a small glass.

He walks back to his side of the table and sits down. He takes a drink of water, swishes it around, and looks out of the window over the kitchen sink.

“You’ve got to gain something as you get older. It’s not a one-way street.” I’m not sure why I say this now, but I can’t stand to think of my father as a man who believes it’s all lost.

“More pain, maybe. Probably that’s right,” he says.

He pulls one leg out from under the table and scratches his shin hard. He has a scar there from when he almost got hit by an old Chevy going down the same highway that runs in front of the house. He dodged the car by a few inches and crashed his bike into a barbwire fence and tore up that leg pretty bad. It left him with smooth pink scars and a permanent dip in his shin like a winking moon. When I was a child, he used to tell me that if he could, he’d shrink me down at night to a size so tiny that I could sleep in that small gap so I wouldn’t have to run to him in the dark after a bad dream.

My father grabs hold of his fork and sticks a piece of ham. He’d filled half my plate with mashed potatoes and dropped in a few handfuls of lettuce.

“These greens look good. From the garden?”

No answer. I look up at him. He sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. He tilts his head up with the fork still gripped in his hand, the ham run through and hanging.

“Dad,” I say.

“Uh?”

“You okay?”

“Little tired.” He makes his free hand into a fist and presses it hard against his chest.
“Should you take your pills now?”

“Did it before you got down here. I took care of it. Don’t needle me.”

“Okay. Just making sure.” I push the lettuce into small piles with my fork. I look up again. “How’s the ham?” My father folds the slice of ham against the tines and puts it in his mouth. I listen to the soft crunch of lettuce between my teeth.

“You know what we called that when I was a kid?”

“What?”

“Rabbit food.” My father laughs. There’s something about him, the way he doesn’t stop eating or trying to eat when he talks at the table, that makes me laugh along with him. I hear our different laughs together.

 

My father has never let me do the dishes, all antique china, handed down from his father and his father before that, just like everything else in this house. They’re white with blue thorny designs, weaving in and out of the edges of plates, around the handles of coffee cups, splashing in the middle of saucers. Cracks run all over the china like spider webs. I’ve told him it’s unhealthy to keep eating off it. I’ve told him mold grows from the cracks and sickness grows out of the mold. He only waves his hand at me and turns his head.

In my old room, I take some time to realign the things I’d scattered from my suitcase earlier: shaving kit, crosswords, bundled socks. My father has emptied the dresser, and I put my folded shirts and pants away. There’s an antique vanity my father’s recently placed next to the dresser, as recently as six months, anyhow. I step away from it and take my clothes off. I can hear my father downstairs, turning the water on and off as he carefully washes each dish.

He was even afraid for my mother to touch the dishes. He was worried she might drop them in the sink or on the floor, her hands being so soft and fragile. I’ve always had the hands of my mother, really the whole look of her. I can see it now in the mirror. The slender body, the small ribcage, the narrow shoulders. I turn, raise my arms, lower my arms, stride across the floor. My father, after having lost so much weight and muscle, looks more like me now than ever before. But I believe he’s still a strong man, skinny or not.
It reminds me of that thing he told me about boxing when I was a kid and he was trying to teach me to defend myself. I told him I didn’t want to fight anybody, but he told me sometimes you just have to fight. I asked why he still had so much strength, and he said, “Your power is the last thing to go.”

I have trouble sleeping and wake too early. No nightmares, only a strange and uneasy feeling. I get out of bed and go to the window in the hallway. I can hear my father snoring downstairs in his room and the hum and breaths of the apparatus the hospital gave him a few years ago to help with his apnea. Morning birds chirp outside. I see the sun at a faraway distance, barely poking its round, red glow over the land.

There’s one street light directly across from me on the other side of the small highway that shines over Butch Bager’s machine shed. The shed runs parallel with the highway, probably thirty feet long. Butch is a peach farmer, just like my father, only he owns about ten acres, and he can still run his whole operation. My father had five acres in his prime and had to start leasing out the land to other farmers after his first heart attack. The last time we talked on the phone, maybe a few months ago, he told me he was going to try and keep a half-acre. Then he asked me if I regretted getting out of Oregon and wondered how the big city was treating me. He thinks Trumbull, Connecticut, is a real city, electric. I didn’t know how to say that I was lonely, that I ate every meal from a plastic container and had asked only one woman for a date by tearing a corner of the newspaper, jotting my number on it, and passing it to her on the bus. I didn’t know how to tell him that I missed the peach farm and the divots in the lane and the ropes of the willow and how sometimes in the very early morning when I’m running water to shave, I can hear his voice in the rattling pipes.

 

In the morning I find my father in the garden. He’s braced between rows of raspberry bushes, and he’s got all his weight on his knees. A pair of clippers and a bucket lie beside him.

“Morning, Dad.”

“Morning. How’d you sleep?” He’s got a trowel in his hand and holds it above his eyes.

“Really good. Nothing like home,” I say.

“What do you say about watering the trees over there?” He points to the side of the house. The tripod ladder is sitting in the same place he’d left it yesterday. Abandoned so anyone could step up the ladder and pick from the tree.

“A little early for heavy water,” I say, walking away from him.

“I prepped them for an early harvest this year. Look at those babies. So big and heavy. They could fall off the branches anytime.”

I walk up close to the tree and look at the branches. The peaches hang like heavy globes, their red-orange skin tight and pure. A slight wind causes the peaches to sway. My father’s right. They’re ready to fall.

“Looking good,” I say. Then I turn on the spigot attached to the house and wrap the watering hose over my shoulder. It’s heavier than I remember, though I haven’t helped my father with the trees in a long time. I spray all around the base, up and down the trunk, careful not to knock off any of the peaches. Then I get this sudden urge to step back with the hose and stick my thumb in the nozzle. I create a heavy mist and shoot it over the tops of the trees, let it rain down.

“Hey,” my father says.

I keep the shower going over the trees.

“Hey, knock it off,” my father yells. “Put the damn hose where it belongs.”

I don’t stop. I raise the hose higher. My arm’s extended as far as I can reach. I can feel how tense this must be making him because there’s this weight in the bottom of my stomach. It starts from the ground, and I can feel it coming up through my shoes.

“I’m not kidding. Knock it off,” my father yells. I look over at him. I want to tell him it’s okay, that I’ve got control of all this. But he’s gotten up from his knees, and now he’s holding the trowel real tight in his hand, pointing it at me like he wants to stab me through the gut.

I look back at the spray. Things feel blurry now, everything except this stream I’m making. For one strange moment, I think of my father as already dead, his body buried within the winding roots of the peach trees. Then I feel his rough hand on my wrist, the strength of this man as he pulls me down hard, makes me fall to my knees.

“I told you, god dammit,” he says. There’s something about this touch. This hurt. I never want it to stop.

“Where’s your damn sense? Christ,” he says. He lets go of my wrist and puts the hose at the base of the tree and lets the water run down into the little trench he’s dug. I watch him walk away. He throws the trowel hard into the garden dirt. It sticks out from the ground like a dart.

Just then I’m reminded of something that happened during the year my mother died. The harvest had been bad that season. Peaches fell off the branches early. Some of them fell off with bruises, dark and ragged. My father took me outside one evening in the early summer and stopped next to the peach trees beside the house. He pointed at all the peaches scattered along the ground.

“Not something to be believed, is it?” he said. He spread his arms out high above the peaches, as if they’d rise from the ground and pop back onto the branches.

“No, sir,” I said. I nudged a few of the peaches with my shoe. Then I got down on my knees and pushed them around with my knuckles. I picked one up and felt its mushy body, saw its dried-up insides through a crack.

I set it on top of my thumb and tried to shoot it like a marble, but it only rolled off my hand.

My father stepped in front of me, bent down, and took a peach in his hand. He turned from the trees, from the house, from me and pointed straight across to Butch Bager’s machine shed. I followed his arm from the shoulder on out. “I’m hitting that oval of rust right there,” he said, and slung the peach over the highway. I watched it rise in the air, arc above the painted lines, fall like a rainbow until it hit the very center of his target. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I tried to tell him.

“Pop,” I said. “That was—”

“Hush,” he said. Then he picked me up over his shoulder and carried me inside.

 

I take a rest on the back patio after dinner and look out at the fields. My father built the patio after my mother died. He laid each brick in a crisscross pattern. He always said he didn’t want to add anything to the house, but after she was gone, something must have changed his mind. Sometimes I’d go up to the attic and watch him through the round window. I could see how my father labored for her. He tore up his hands. I think perspective will do that to a person, change the way you see them by the angle you’re looking from. One time, he hurt his hand, and it bled. But he didn’t stop with the bricks. Either the pain wasn’t so much or there was something I couldn’t understand about how he dealt with it. He just kept working, pausing every few minutes to wipe the blood away or suck it out.

“Dinner okay?” my father asks. He managed to open the back door and step onto the patio without making a sound.

“Yeah. Very good.”

“Moon’s at three-quarters,” he says. He sits down in a chair next to me.

“It’s pretty. You must miss having the old fields, huh?”

“I got plenty to do,” he says. Then he coughs and puts one hand over his mouth and beats on his sternum with the other.

“Dad, you okay?”

“Fine.”

“So what did the doctors say? About your condition and everything?”

“Nothing new. I told you it wasn’t complicated. Stop making it seem like it’s more than it is.”

“What about the blood?”

“What about it?” He turns to me, and his shoulders get real square.

“Do you spit up blood every day?”

My father laughs and grabs hold of his chair. He uses the arm rests to push himself out of it. “Are those the worst of your worries?” he asks as he walks off the patio and into the grass. I stand and move close to him.

“Yes,” I say. “I worry a lot about you.”

“It’s nothing. They prescribe a bunch of pills that make me piss neon. That’s all it really amounts to.”

“You need—”

“Me, nothing,” he says. He turns toward me. He opens and closes his fists. His eyes have gone glossy, and I can’t tell if he’s going to pull me into him or knock my lights out. He does neither and walks away toward the screen door. I stand still for seconds, almost let him slip away. Then I move real fast to get ahead of him and block the door.

“Dad.”

“Move it,” he says. His face is all red.

“You can’t keep shutting down like this.”

“You don’t come to my house and tell me how to live.”

“How are you going to last running all the time? Working yourself until you can hardly move. Maybe it’s what you’ve always done. Maybe you got by just fine like that when Mom died. I’m here, though. Now. Jesus, I’m here,” I say.

“Don’t talk to me like you know anything about the world. You didn’t know the half of your mother. You don’t know the half of what it takes to lose it all and be left with a tiny spitting image of the only person you ever loved more than yourself. Tough it out is what you do. That’s life, son. You need to learn to build it up in your guts. But you can’t ever. You won’t, will you?”

I stand there. I can’t say a word, can barely breathe or think. The only thing I do is step aside to let him by. He walks past me. Just as he enters the house, he pauses like he has something else to say. Then he closes the door with a shaking hand.

I pace the backyard for what seems like hours, walking around the thick old willow. All of the lights are off in the house except for the one in my father’s room. I sit at the base of the tree and look through his window from a good distance. He’s left a crack in the curtains, and I see him come out of the bathroom and sit at his bedside. He opens the top drawer of the nightstand and takes something out, a paper, a photograph, it’s too hard to tell. I want to believe it’s a photograph of the three of us on the porch from many summers ago, my mother in her yellow sundress, leaning down to clutch my father at the waist as he holds me over his broad shoulder, giving me an exaggerated spanking. His smile could not be wider, and my mother’s laughing into his belly as I laugh with her and breathe against my father. But I don’t know what he’s truly looking at now, what he sees, only that he stares for a long while before returning it to the drawer. He puts his breathing mask over his face and turns on the machine that rests on the nightstand. Then he turns off the lamp.

I stand and head for the front door but somehow end up along the side of the house where the peach trees are. Even in the dark, the peaches beam ripe and strong. I walk over to the tripod ladder and scale it to the top. There are so many peaches at this height. For once I can’t resist, and I pick a few off and toss them to the ground. I know my father would wring my neck if he saw me tossing these things he loves so much from the tree. But across the way, I can see the streetlight shining on Butch Bager’s machine shed.

I climb down the ladder and grab a peach. I start with my feet even and try to imagine the way my father had thrown his peach all those years ago. Were his legs apart or together? I take a stride forward and throw the peach with all my might. It sails over the old highway and lands with a thud in the grass and dribbles to the base of the shed. I take another peach from the ground and roll it around in my hand. How did he do it? I cock my arm back and take a trotting start and throw so hard that my body torques. The peach hits the tin roof and skips over the other side. I feel about on the ground until I find another peach. I try to remember exactly how he’d done it. It can’t just be about strength and age and time. There must be something more to it. I pull my arm back and hold it there. My whole body’s hot from the center out. I take three steps forward and heave the peach, throw it with everything I’ve got so even my feet come up off the ground. Only the peach doesn’t fly in an arc like my father’s had, it goes almost straight and smashes against the side of the machine shed. I miss the oval of rust by a good ten feet, and the peach splatters. I walk away from the ladder and the trees and go upstairs to sleep in my room. Even under the covers, twenty minutes later, I can still feel something going through me.

 

I wake in the night and have to get up. It’s not that the nights haunt me here. That’s not it. It’s the thought of what will become of me, of this house when my father is gone. My mother’s already gone from this house. Her photographs, her presence. It feels as if she never lived here, as if he’s managed to erase her footsteps along these short halls.

I get down the stairs and hear my father’s snoring and his breathing machine. It’s very loud now as I walk toward his room. I creep to his door and turn the handle and push it open with great caution.

I look in at him. He lies in bed with his hands folded on his chest like he’s trying to keep his heart in. The breathing apparatus hums at his side, its yellow and green lights blinking. I tiptoe across his room and sit down in a chair beside the window. It faces the patio and garden out back and all the land my father used to own. I look through the partially drawn curtain. There are only chrysanthemums growing now in his old fields. Rows of dark green that I can see under the moonlight.

My father snores. I can hear his movements, but it’s only the kind of physical sounds a person makes when they’re lost in a dream. He grunts and lets out a few light snores before settling. I continue watching out the window, staring at the moon. I think of the divot in his leg, how I wish sometimes, even now as a grown man, that I could fit inside that wound and feel something more about him. But when I turn to see it, there’s a blanket over him. It covers the winking moon in his shin. Half of my father’s foot has slipped out from under the cover, and I rise and walk over to his bed. I grab hold of the cover and pull it over his foot.

Then I make my way around the bed, watching him work hard to breathe, a machine plugged into a machine. I am very close to him now and quiet as ever as I reach for the nightstand drawer and pull it open. There’s only true light from the window, and I cannot fully see what’s in the drawer, only the outlines of what I think are photographs. I want to grab them, but his deep, rushing breaths stop that thought, remind me that these photographs are his last imaginings, and maybe, I have no place there. I close the drawer and turn to look at him, the mask covering his nose and mouth, gray tubes coiling from him to the breathing apparatus.
I walk back to the chair by the window and sit down. My father continues to breathe in a rush, the machine forcing air in and pulling it out. And this true light is still coming off the moon and landing on me. I look at it all over my hands, and no matter how I spread my fingers or flip my palms, it’s there, touching me, covering every inch of what I know is true—I am here, and this is proof of it.
 
 
Photo by Jackson’s Orchard

Jonathan Starke

JONATHAN STARKE is a former bodybuilder and boxer. He's the founding editor of Palooka and serves as a writing coach and book editor. His essays and stories have appeared in The Sun, Missouri Review, Brevity, Threepenny Review, Gulf Coast, and River Teeth, among others. 

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