I started talking to grass two weeks after Dad’s heart stopped. I hadn’t lost my mind or thought it would help the grass grow, but Dad had talked to the zoysia, especially as he grew older, and the more I took the positions he’d taken in his final days, the more I became an awkward version of him.
“You’re doing alright,” I said and wiggled my toes in the grass.
For hours he’d stood there in his dirty robe, water dribbling from the hose in his hand, mumbling encouragement. That grass was an island in a sea of hardy invasives, clinging to its territory, guarding it like an underdog country in a border battle.
“Don’t give up,” I said, looking down at it.
The zoysia hadn’t impressed anyone by spreading, but it had impressed me with one thing: it outlived Dad. And though I’d never believed it before, I thought it might need encouragement to go on living, the way everyone did now and then.
“Who are you talking to?” Gloria said. She was the teenage Jackson daughter, and the only one in the family I would end up liking.
Even though Dad’s body had been dropped in a hole at the cemetery in town, it seemed he was actually buried here, still mumbling encouragement from below the dirt and beneath the shade of the oak trees. I’d guessed that he followed us home from the funeral. As if things weren’t hard enough.
He had given direct, however obscure, instructions in his will: the estate was to be left to Gerald and me. And because Gerald was too busy and I was a pushover, it was my responsibility to sell what I was beginning to believe was actually our Dad to the strangers.
Like I said, I wasn’t losing my mind. But I wasn’t quite myself either.
“My brother and I lived out here during the summers,” I said, ignoring Gloria’s question and waving my arm like a magician at the landscape around me. Gloria’s younger brothers did not look up from their phones.
At that time, I figured the two boys’ hearts were the ones I needed to win. Since Gerald was pushing me to sell as fast as possible, and because I’d always been one to take the longer, harder route to success, I ignored Gloria.
I tried for Mrs. Jackson instead. She had been walking around with her bleach-bright smile all morning listening to her husband’s visions of demolition and ostentatious construction.
“Doesn’t the lawn look fine, Mrs. Jackson?” I said, gesturing to the zoysia.
She looked at it and nodded. The rest of the lawn was a disaster, just overgrown weeds, but if you just looked at the zoysia, it truly was fine.
“Could I,” Gloria cut in, looking from me to her Mom, “have pool parties and invite friends over?”
Mrs. Jackson beamed. “Oh, of course, honey. You could have all of your friends over.”
I looked around. “But, there’s no pool here.”
“Not yet,” a voice drifted down from the garage. Mr. Jackson high-stepped towards us, pinching his khakis at his hips, watching his loafers and talking excitedly. “But it’s number one on the list.”
I surprised myself when I spit in the grass, like Dad at a church barbeque. He never wanted anyone thinking he was impressed, and a good spit seemed to express all the complexities of his distaste with none of the labor of speaking.
“There’s a pond, you know,” I said. I wiped my mouth and pointed past Gloria. “We swam in it all summer.”
Gloria was horrified. “Aren’t there things in there?”
“Of course. Fish, frogs, turtles, even—” I paused, hoping to see the eye color of the boys, “—snakes.”
The oldest boy raised an eyebrow but didn’t look up.
A soft moan escaped Gloria’s mouth, and she turned to walk uphill, putting as much space between her and the pond as possible. Mr. and Mrs. Jackson smiled painfully at me.
“We never had trouble with the snakes,” I said.
I spit in the grass again.
“Maybe you could come down and help,” I said. “It’s weird without you and Dad.”
Gerald snorted into the phone. “You mean it’s weird not hearing all his hacks and spits and groans and farts? Aggh, uggh, huhh, waaap.“
“Urrph, grrrk, wuumph,” I said.
Gerald laughed and said, “I miss the old man.”
“Seriously,” I said. “It’s weird.”
“I’m tied up with the car wash right now, Bill,” he said.
“I thought it ran itself? That’s why you bought—”
“Out of office work,” he interrupted. “Besides, aren’t the Joneses about to close?”
“The Jacksons,” I said. “Maybe. I just—”
“What,” he said. “They low-balling?”
I should have said yes. Capitalization was hardwired in Gerald like it had been in Dad, and it pleased me to think of him going red-faced berserk on the Jackson boys, scaring them from their virtual worlds. Reality, hot and heavy, in the form of Gerald.
“Their offer was disappointingly high, actually.”
“What? Would you prefer we give it away?” Gerald asked.
“No,” I said and opened the curtains in my childhood bedroom. “But do you remember how simply we lived? We were always short on money.”
“Our poor childhood doesn’t make your point, I don’t think.”
“What I mean is, I feel like we’re selling everything Dad worked for just so we’ll have some extra money. Surely he didn’t—”
“A better life,” Gerald said. “That’s why he worked.”
“Just sell the place, Bill,” he said. “Dad would be glad to see a couple of boys grow up there.”
I adjusted the blinds to let more sunlight in and squinted. The yard outside was a canvas of highlighted organelles and dark blurs. There were shapes whose identity I knew—the old wheelbarrow, a collection of rhododendrons, the pond—but their details were lost in a glittering gauze. I looked harder, and my cheeks felt tight against my eyes.
“They don’t know how to grow up here,” I said, trying to blink away the blurriness. “The other day they experienced less of the outdoors than I thought humanly possible while actually standing outside. They just don’t want it.” (Haha somehow both funny and sad)
“It’s a new generation,” Gerald said. “Just—”
“I couldn’t even get them to walk down to the pond,” I said, pacing the floor.
“They’re going to put a pool in,” I said.
“They’ll dig up the zoysia. They’ll—”
We were quiet.
“Just sell it.”
I sat at the kitchen table in my underwear when the Jacksons’ white SUV peeked over the crest of the asphalt driveway, like the end of an eclipse. Behind on my work and with a new sensation of two stones rubbing between my lower vertebrae, I groaned.
Dad’s house was being methodically disassembled, as if I might find a letter saying it was okay to sell his home. I looked through the dozens of photo albums on the bookshelf and scanned sci-fi novels, hoping he’d left a note or marked a passage that would tell me something. I even listened to the old lockbox Gerald and I used to steal from. I pressed my ear to it and dropped a few coins in, but the ringing of copper was empty. At least I’d paid him back.
His bedroom smelled like him. Milk, which he drank at night, and cigar smoke—scents of his little indulgences, reminders of his routines. The way his beard scratched my neck when I hugged him, or the sparse, buzzed hair like that of a baby otter I once petted. In his last ten years he’d quit getting dressed except for the old robe that hung on his door. I suggested we bury him in it. Gerald didn’t like that.
When I was seventeen Dad had joked about my shoulders, that I must’ve gotten my build from the milkman. I began holding myself straighter. What power. A few words carried enough weight to forever change my posture, like an injury, or a promise of love.
I’d gotten no smaller, so it was surprising the robe fit. I searched the pockets for a note, but there was only a flaky, used tissue. I put it back and smoothed the pocket over. Straightening my shoulders and sighing, I went to greet the Jacksons.
Mr. Jackson stood in the driveway shading the sun with one hand.
“Sorry we’re a little early,” he said. “We had some ideas.” He did his own magician’s wave.
“Three hours early,” I said, squinting at him over my coffee cup.
“Yes, well,” he said.
I coughed and something loosened in my throat, a warm piece of phlegm that stuck against my vocal chords, giving me a fit.
“Agggh!” I said. “Grrrrk.”
“Good,” Mr. Jackson raised his voice over my hacking sounds. “Sounds great.”
Back inside and at the front window, I thought of taking the garden hose and standing in the yard. With the dirty robe wrapped around me I’d talk. “Please,” I’d beg. “Just grow.”
If the zoysia could win, I could sell. Or maybe I’d know I couldn’t sell because Dad had finally spoken, like the Burning Bush. The zoysia, however, wasn’t winning, or burning, or speaking in any way. I didn’t have the energy to look for miracles, so I turned away from the window.
I knelt on the kitchen floor with the contents of the pantry. Cans of tomatoes from the 90s, crackers hard as plywood, and out-of-production cereals. How had he gotten so old? How had I missed the signs that he was declining? What else had I missed?
Lessons I could never get back.
Thoughts lost with the time I didn’t spend with him.
When I dragged myself back to the garage the family stood around Dad’s workbench. Peering over their shoulders I saw a plan view of the property. The boys were paying attention, and I saw their eyes. Green and blue.
“Plans,” I said. “It looks like—” I fought my new habit of spitting, and pointed to a red square near the pond. “What’s this?”
“Our gaming space,” the youngest boy explained.
“For video game playing?”
The boy looked at his older brother.
“Virtual reality, mostly,” the older one said.
“When I was your age,” I said, “the whole world was our space. Our virtual reality was here,” I tapped my temple, “and it was unlimited.”
The boys looked at me for a moment, and then turned away. “We’d have to have our own internet connection, of course, Dad. The load would be too much to share with the main house.”
“Of course,” Mr. Jackson agreed.
I felt very tired.
“Remember when Dad finally got cable?” I asked.
Gerald laughed. “Yeah and we watched all of those stupid sci-fi shows.”
It was quiet except for me digging in the kitchen drawer. I loved those shows.
“Gerald, they’re going to destroy this place,” I said. “They want to turn it into an amusement park.”
I found a box of cigars and removed one, smelling it.
“Isn’t that what the place was to us? If Dad could’ve afforded it, we’d have had all sorts of stuff.”
“What if,” I said, lighting the cigar, “Dad didn’t want us to sell? What if—”
“Are you smoking?”
I squinted through the smoke and spoke around the cigar. “Wha’ i’ I sell and regre’ i’?”
“Bill,” he said, “try showing them what it is you love about the place. Show them the pond, show them the dog cages, the garden, and Dad’s record player. Maybe they’ll start to understand, and maybe you’ll feel better.”
“Is that what I’m supposed to be doing,” I asked, “just making myself feel better?”
“You can try,” he said.
Gerald always had a way of convincing me, and I felt my doubts blur.
“Okay,” I said. “But I wish you’d come help.”
And I really did.
The four of us stood in a circle beneath the slow-growing water oak that marked our heights over the years. The youngest boy, Tim, touched the marks and smiled. There was one below him.
“I’m tall,” he said.
“Alright,” I said to the group, “on the count of three, we’ll go. You find something interesting and bring it back. Last person back has to go first, explaining why his thing is best. Then we vote.”
“What is this game even called?” Gloria said.
“Mine’s best,” I said.
They were silent.
“Isn’t it, like, not fair,” Gloria said, “because you’re biggest?”
“I’ll give a ten-second head start then.”
This was reasonable to everyone.
John, the oldest boy, began to take his loafers off. “I don’t want to get them dirty.”
“Great idea,” I said. We all removed our shoes.
“One, two, three!“
Being barefoot mutated them, and as they erupted in a downhill sprint, they were children again. No more devices. No more adolescent angst. Gloria’s hair danced behind her, and the boys screamed in delight, bounding through the tall grass.
They disappeared behind the pine trees, and I strolled down after them with my hands clasped. Gerald might have been right. Dad would be glad. I listened to their giggling fade, and then it was just me and the oak leaves that danced in the treetops, the faraway crows cawing at one another, and the warm sunlight. I was living an old life, one I no longer had rights to, and I felt alright.
I’d allowed myself the dangerous luxury of faith, bathing my worries in the hope of things working out. I’d begun to believe. For the first time since Dad died, I was relieved, like I could breathe and see again. Then, someone screamed.
As I arrived at the pond, tasting the cigar from the night before, heaving, I found Gloria making an awful, air-slicing wail. John, who was only marginally closer to the pond, looked towards the water like it were a volcano, simultaneously plugging one ear with his finger. Young Tim squatted at the water’s edge with one finger submerged.
“Timothy, no!” She screamed. “There are snakes!“
“Gloria,” I said when she inhaled. “Stop scream—”
“AHH!” she said.
Tim removed his finger and looked at me.
“There are snakes,” I said, “but they’re just as afraid of you as—”
John stepped behind his sister. “This isn’t fun.”
I’d had enough. I tore my shirt over my head and threw it at Gloria who stopped her screaming long enough to catch it.
“What—” she said.
I took two steps and leapt. Tim’s curious eyes followed me, and I bellowed, “Cannonball!”
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Like swallowing a capsule I was filled with memories, and they slid through me as the warm water passed over my body. Summers spent swimming and playing, conversations of adolescent understanding, beers stolen from Dad and shared between Gerald and me, and even my first kiss over on the levee. All of it was here, and the feeling was too big and too fleeting to comprehend. It was warm, and it was brief, cut short by a new feeling—a sharp pain in the meat of my leg.
I rose from the water screaming, to find Gloria already there, a pitch above me. We were an off-key choir trying to sing over one another, and we might have gone on that way for some time if John hadn’t pointed and shouted, “Cool!”
Sticking from my calf was a piece of aluminum the size of my thumb. Gloria, somehow, screamed louder. And Tim just dipped his finger in the water again.
“It wasn’t that deep,” I confided, “it just scared me.”
“What was it, though?” Gerald asked.
“Probably trash Dad threw out. Maybe part of the old jon boat.” He’d been in the early stages of dementia and wouldn’t have remembered. Over the previous winter when his electricity shut off, I asked if he’d paid the electric bill. He just told me about the ice storm of ’93.
“I was there for it, Dad,” I’d told him. “But did you pay last month’s bill?”
Gerald broke into my memory. “I guess they didn’t get in and swim with you.”
I looked down at the bandage on my leg. “Very funny, Gerald. It’s your fault, really.”
“I’m just glad you didn’t scare the buyers away.”
“Thanks for caring.”
The television was playing lowly, the bright images of exploding ships and lasers reflecting off the dull wood floor and walls. “It seemed to somehow encourage them,” I said. “They’re just going to fill the pond in and make another parking area.”
“Jesus,” Gerald muttered.
I felt encouraged. “For the kids and their friends,” I said. “They want their own little home down there. Where we grew up fishing and playing and climbing trees, they’re going to park their stupid cars and play video games and eventually do drugs—”
“Come on,” he said. “We did plenty.”
“We weren’t there for the bass and fresh air.”
“No, but—” I stopped. A man dressed in a cheaply made costume had just burst through a portal. He shot at a two-headed creature whose heads were screaming in unison. Like Gloria and me.
“I’m equally afraid of selling,” I said. “What if we sell and start to forget about Dad. What will we have left of him? How will we remember him? His home was his world.”
Little James, Gerald’s infant, cried in the background of the phone line.
“Dad’s value was never in the things he gave us, it was in the time he spent with us. And he knew that. Everyone did.”
“But how do I know that now?”
“Bill, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go.” He paused, moving closer to James’s wails. “You already do know. You’ve just got to get it through your head that nothing changed just because he died.”
He hung up, leaving me with the two-headed monster and the flashing special effects of some poorly designed future.
On Wednesday I remembered it was Wednesday because it was the third day in a row I hadn’t done any work. The family was outside making plans, and I was inside brooding. Gloria came in, bored, and looked at the mess in the living room.
I lay on the couch throwing and catching a signed baseball of Dad’s, and I was feeling rather sorry for myself.
“Are you keeping these?”
At her feet lay dozens of records.
“Depends,” I said looking at the albums around her. “You interested?”
“Those were my Dad’s,” I said. “He taught me what rock and roll meant.”
She was quiet.
“Everything seemed to have a story attached to it—the time he rolled his truck into the ditch in front of his parents’ house (almost made it home!), a fox he killed and sold to a bartender, a girl he loved, a job he hated, what my grandparents thought of the devil’s music.”
Gloria laughed and picked up a pair of Zeppelin albums.
“These are cool,” she said.
“Give me five for the pair,” I said, tossing the ball too far and missing it. It thudded next to her.
She frowned at the baseball. “Eight for all four,” she said and looked down at Neil Young and The Doobie Brothers.
“Ten,” I said, rolling over and looking at her, “and I’ll throw in that Steve Miller.”
“Deal,” she said.
Unexpectedly, and for the first time that week, I felt accomplished. “How about some lunch,” I said, standing. “I think we’ve got some tomatoes in the garden.”
She stood with the stack of records in her arms.
“Got any hot sauce?”
“Deal,” she said, smiling.
Her teeth were bright like her mother’s.
In the garden we brushed against the tomato plants who released their pungent fragrance and whose tiny hairs tickled our bare flesh. Gloria helped me pick the ripest tomatoes.
After lunch she asked about photographs. I told her stories of Gerald and I catching fish, the springwater pool in town we visited on Saturdays, and the Memphis Zoo, where I once petted an otter. It was easy to remember these things, and I found I was eager for her to ask more questions.
I was unlatching a chest of forgotten treasures. I told stories, and together we examined their value with a magnifying glass.
“You kill any of those?” She gestured at the mounted deer heads.
“My Dad,” I said.
I looked at her. “You want—”
“The antlers,” she finished.
I looked at the wise deer, the dust on his black, glass eyes, and the bleached antlers reaching for the ceiling. I supposed he wouldn’t miss his rack.
“My Dad killed that one over on Mr. Greenley’s property. Biggest buck of his life,” I said. “That was the same year his brother died.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I shrugged. “It was well before my time, but I was always sorry too. He didn’t talk about it much, but he didn’t have to. Gerald and I never forgot.”
Dad had wept bitterly the only time he told us the story of his brother getting cancer. He’d been eighteen years old. They were the first tears I ever saw on his face, running onto his beard like water on grease, not mixing so much as floating there. Afterwards, Gerald and I went to sit in the zoysia and stare at each other. Who would die first?
“Twenty bucks,” Gloria said, picking her teeth with a toothpick. “Final offer.”
“You didn’t let me counter-offer,” I said.
She hesitated, but then stamped her foot. “Final.”
It was a deal.
We continued through the house. I told stories, and Gloria named prices. Touching his things and telling his stories, I knew Dad was near. I stopped at the coin lockbox and put a nickel in. Details I hadn’t thought about since my childhood were being whispered through his belongings. Everything seemed new again. Gloria made a list of her new possessions on an old, unpaid, and certainly forgotten parking ticket.
“You sure know a lot of his stories,” she said. “I don’t know any of my Dad’s.”
“His stories were gold, for the most part,” I said.
“Does that mean some were silver?”
I laughed. “I guess so. Maybe the ones I forgot. They were probably gold when he told them though.”
She was already turned away, heading to the staircase. I took the stairs one at a time, as my left knee had begun to hurt. Dad’s left had given him trouble. “He told stories as often as we’d listen,” I went on. “I wish I’d listened more.”
Gloria walked patiently behind me, even holding onto my elbow as we made the final turn in the staircase. Back in the garage with the other Jacksons, she pumped my hand.
“Go ahead,” she chirped, “make him an offer. I just stocked my bedroom for less than a hundred bucks.”
The boys looked up. Mr. Jackson raised a finger to speak and stopped, and we all decided to be quiet. A breeze shook the oaks that shaded the driveway, and a few fallen leaves scooted into the garage with us, whispering like little ice skaters on the concrete. I leaned against the door knob to take pressure off my knee and smiled.
I felt better than I had all week.
“You’re selling Dad’s stuff?”
“I didn’t think you’d mind,” I said, taking a sip of milk.
“You’re the sentimentalist,” Gerald said.
I looked at the tally of cash on the yellowing notebook paper. The numbers meant nothing, just black curves and cuts across the blue guidelines, the money only a dull whir beneath Dad’s voice telling stories that day.
“It’s all or none. The stuff doesn’t really mean anything. You were right. I feel better.”
“I said show them what you liked about the place, not sell all of Dad’s belongings.”
“I didn’t think you minded?”
I stood in my underwear, barefoot, with the phone pinched between my cheek and shoulder. I gestured through the dark room. “It’s like mailing a goodbye letter after his ship already set sail. It’ll catch up to him, eventually.”
“What is? What does that even mean?”
The milk was cold on my lips. Behind Gerald’s voice I heard James cry.
“Need to go?”
“Not yet,” he said, sighing. “Not just yet.”
I caressed the curves of the wooden bedpost and opened the curtains. The moon was bright enough to make the room a shade of blue, and the tall grass was illuminated in brushed highlights. My vision had worsened further and everything was soft and quiet.
“Do you remember when Dad set those quail loose on the property so we could hunt them with dogs?”
Gerald chuckled. “You nearly shot one of the Pointers.”
“Aim fast,” I said.
“Shoot slow,” he finished.
I opened Dad’s bedside drawer and found a pair of wool socks. I sat on the bed and unfolded them. “How about when we tipped the boat over that one night?”
Gerald laughed again. “You screamed like a child.”
“I was six,” I said. “You were caught under the boat. I literally thought you were dying.”
“Dad made us wear life vests for six months,” he said, still laughing.
“Still trusted us out there though.”
“He wanted us to learn how to take care of ourselves, no matter what.”
“I suppose we did.”
I shuffled my feet along the concrete into the bathroom and flipped the light switch on.
“Jesus,” I said.
“What is it?” Gerald sounded interested, like maybe I’d found the life vests.
The mirror had a jagged, black crevice that stretched the length of it. In the distorted reflection, I saw Dad’s bulbous belly, whitey-tighties, and bald head shining in the vanity light.
“Nothing, I guess.” I rubbed my stomach and set the glass of milk down. I peered at my reflection, at the bags under my eyes. “Just starting to feel a little—”
I stretched the skin around my eyes with one finger.
“Listen, Bill,” he said, “I thought maybe I’d drive down. It’s only a few hours, and it seems like you could use some help before the closing.”
I frowned. Were those liver spots?
“I’m fine.” I fingered the loose skin on my neck. “It shouldn’t take but another week.”
“At the most,” he said.
I looked at my new crow’s feet. “Right,” I said and smiled. My teeth were yellow, and I ran my tongue over them. I blinked, trying one last time to clear my vision.
“Well, just let me know,” he said. “The car wash doesn’t take much running. I really don’t have much going on.”
In the background I heard the familiar sound of his wife’s voice.
“That’s nice of you, brother. Now go kiss James, and tell him good night for me.”
“It’s eight thirty, Bill. Tell me you’re not going to bed.”
I limped to the bed and patted it. My body ached, and I wanted to lie down. When I pulled the covers back, a new smell came free. It was unlike the others, but certainly routine, something along the lines of firewood and baby powder. Dad’s dust rose in the moonlight, and I moved my hand through it like water.
“Goodnight, Gerald. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Not too early, old man,” he said. “Seriously, though, not before—”
I hung up and set the phone on the bedside table. There, in the blue light of the country night, lay a hunting magazine. In the bottom corner a white square had our home address, and the edges of the pages were worn. I eased into bed. The room was cool on my lungs.
I let the magazine fall open to a dog-eared page. A pencil ran in the space under the words, like a punch in the night, right in my gut and up through my throat. An underlined passage:
“…stewardship of the land starts at home, with the way we show up for our families and friends, and how we interact with whatever piece of land, no matter how small, God has given us…”
If the air could hold memories, then by breathing I recounted them. I felt close to him. His belongings were strewn across the abandoned house, some tagged for new ownership, some destined for landfills. The pond was filled with unremembered trash, and the zoysia probably would not win. But I still knew my father. His stories were mine now. I needed to recount them and not to forget.
The ceiling fan softly thumped the air, and it stirred the pages of the magazine on the bed. A chill snuck into my blood, and I brought the comforter to my chin.
Despite what I’d thought before, stories had been his most prized possessions, composed only of breath and imagination. They were our first history lesson, greatest inheritance, and last instruction. Dad underlined the passage, and whether he left it for me to find or not, I had. In the end, an inelegant man became a catalyst for his world—Gerald and I—with surprising grace. By giving us gold and silver, and by giving us less than he might have, he authorized us to translate history, and to work our own stories in with it.
I closed my eyes, and I felt okay. He’d have been glad, alright. It didn’t matter what happened to this house, or the land. Not even where or to whom we told the stories, just that we did. It could be here. It could be anywhere.
Will Hearn is a firefighter. Between shifts he writes stories trying to scratch his own itch. He’s been published with RumbleFish Press, Eunoia Review, and in March with Visitant.
Fruits of his labor can be found on his blog http://willhearn.com and a few other publications across the interwebs. You can also find him on Instagram and Twitter: @will__hearn.