Stones

A child’s wheelbarrow lay on its side in the yard. Above it, the white undersides of maple leaves shimmered through warped window glass, and the whole lawn lay bare in the spottled shade.

The fight had started in the basement as a complaint about putting tools back where he had found them. And what was he using them for anyway? He was twelve years old. He didn’t even know how to use tools, did he? And with that humiliation there at the bottom of the steps it should have ended.

Indeed, by mid-morning, the home was again quiet.

The front door, open to the living room, and the back, for taking trash out of the kitchen, were open for fresh air. His father had stormed out to the shed to change the oil in the mower and sharpen its blade for the season. So he had sulked on the couch in the living room, wondering when, if ever, he would run away to the Merchant Marines.

He had only wanted to round the edges off a two-by-four with a square of sandpaper.

There had been no purpose in it other than using the materials down where he had heard the voices coming up through the ventilator shaft to his bedroom on the second floor. He had told no one about the voices. He had only felt drawn to the damp basement and comfortable at the workbench where his father had left a knocked out brier pipe and around the bowl’s rim loose flecks of tobacco and ash rested weightless on the linseed finish. He could not say what he liked about being at the table, only that he did like it, and then too the dust from sanding, which rose in a suspended puff into the pale light afforded by a window well set above the bench.

His father, who had come down for a file, caught him with the wood and sandpaper and ripped him good.

He sulked on the living room couch until he heard the mower start, and then with the quick flash of movement best known to children, he was up the stairs, in his room, and on his side on his bed with a picture book of Scandinavia open by his elbow. He turned the pages to his earliest and still innocent love, Denmark’s “Little Mermaid.” It was not her thick braided hair, the slooped roundedness of her shoulders, or her breasts, which had been set firm, high, and wide by the sculptor, that attracted him (although for the first time something in him enjoyed simply looking), but a sadness in her that he took to be his own, and he looked at her and longed for her many minutes before flipping the pages to Sweden and windmills, fishing villages, starkly angular white brick churches, not unlike the Baptist one on the corner up the street from where he lived, and soft lighted farmhouse kitchens visually warmed by caramel pine and hunter green cabinets and tables.

Toward noon, the air in the room became warm, but with his window open and the doors open down the stairs, there was breeze enough to cool him even with his head sunk down into the crook of his elbow.

His father had promised to take him fishing later in the afternoon, and he was hoping it would happen although he knew better than to count on anything his father said, especially if one of his father’s girlfriends called. Then anything could happen. Maybe they would go fishing. Maybe they would go to McDonald’s. Maybe the three of them would walk around the aisles at Value Hardware. Maybe they would watch a video and later, when he was in bed, leave him alone in the house, and not come back for hours.

He lay on his bed in the warm air with his head down in his arms, the book set aside, his eyes closed, drowsing, thinking about these things that had been bothering him when he felt the air turn suddenly cool and the feint touch of fingers slicking back the shock of hair that fell across his forehead. He opened his eyes. There was no on else in the room. But his book had been closed and placed on his night stand. Then he heard his father coming up the stairs.

“Robby, get up.”

His father stood in the doorway wearing his black steel-toed work shoes, gray dungarees, a drab oil-stained work shirt, and a baseball hat. He walked into the room.

“Look at this shit,” he said, knocking the book from the night stand. “I’m not raising no goddamn wimp.” He put one of his grease-stained hands on his son’s shoulders and shook him. “I got some work for you.”

Robby sat up.

“Come on.”

He followed his father down the stairs, through the living room, and out the kitchen door to the steel landing leading down to the yard.

“I cleared this yard when we moved here,” he said, “and now it’s full of stones.”

His father stared down hard at him.

Robby didn’t know anything about the stones.

“I don’t know who’s throwing them,” his father said, “but I damn sure know who’s picking them up.”

His father walked across the yard to the back where the shed was, went in for a moment, and came out with a thick burlap sack.

None of the stones were heavy but some were larger than a child could pick up with one hand, so stooping often with both hands wrapped around a rock, Robby worked his way back along the white pickets of the side fence, diligently putting each stone in the sack and dragging it a few yards to the next patch of uncleared lawn.

Robby’s father looked on from the kitchen’s steel black landing, the cold bottle of beer in his fist sweating out a fine mist on the dark green glass. If it hadn’t been the boy throwing stones, it had to have been one of the neighbor’s young punks, he thought. This wasn’t New England. The frost didn’t just heave them out of the ground. He went back into the kitchen, put the beer down on the kitchen table and ducked his head in the refrigerator to see what odd collection of solids had assembled there in the past week.

The refrigerator held more condiments than food.

Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire, A1’s Bold, and Kraft’s Bold and Spicy were in there on the door’s bottom rack, entirely useless without the burger, chop, or steak, and there was no burger, chop, or steak–he would have to get to the store, or have Amy pick up something before she came by. Maybe, he thought, he could sell her on a backyard barbecue and she’d do the shopping and haul enough in to last them through the next weekend. Either that, or he’d take the boy to McDonald’s, and afterward they’d pick up the chips and salsa, some fresh wheat bread, a few boxes of cereal, a couple cans of beans, hot dogs, hot dog buns, potato salad. In the meantime, he’d just have to do with what was in there that could be eaten–one or two slices of American cheese, each slice wrapped in plastic, a sliver of Vidalia onion, and a dry piece of last week’s rye bread. He pulled these items from the fridge and turned to set them where his beer had been.

For a moment, he just stared at the empty spot on the kitchen table.

Then he put down the groceries.

Through the doorway, he could see Robby on his knees far in the backyard with the burlap sack beside him. And then he saw the open Heinekin set down on the landing, its dewy sweat glistening in the sun that had just risen high enough over the eaves to strike it. He looked again at Robby, who was dragging the sack another yard toward the back of the lot. Well, maybe, he thought, he didn’t put it on the table in the first place–but there was a ring of wet on the table, so he had put it there.

What he’d do, he thought, was bawl the boy out good. Don’t fuck with my tools, is what he’d tell him, and keep your hands off my goddamn beer.

He stepped out the door to pick up his beer but jerked his hand away as over the lip appeared the white face of a hornet.

“Jesus H. Fucking Christ!” he cursed and kicked the bottle off the landing.

Robby looked back to see his father turn back into the kitchen. Then he went on picking up stones. His jeans were grass stained and soaked at the knees and his back hurt with scrunching over and lifting the stones one-by-one and popping them into the sack. They would all be picking up stones, he thought, if his mother were with them. He went on reaching for stones and thinking about what everyone told him was “the accent”.

It was a car accent.

And she couldn’t come home.

They didn’t tell Robby anything else. He was six years old then, and now, six years later, he had figured out about the crash, the bottles in the refrigerator (“they’ll kill me too,” his father said when he took them out of their cartons and lined them up in soldierly order on the top rack), and the young women who for a time brought into their home laughter amid the dark scents of leather and perfume and who each time left a new absence and loneliness. Robby knelt on the lawn, picking up stones, feeling the sun warm him into a sweat, and feeling too the eyes of his father looking on from the kitchen.

The lawn was damp despite the direct springtime sun.

Even on the cloudless dry afternoons of mid-summer, it remained damp.

The yard sloped gently north to south, flowing with the contours of the hill on which the subdivision, an oil to pastel collection of Baltimore homes built independently from the 1920’s forward, had been planted. At the top of the hill stood the white clapboard construction of Rosedale Baptist Church and right across the street the stone-built Rosedale Methodist Church and three doors down that block, Cavalry Catholic, a small stone building with cathedral-like arches, and all three had been perched on the generous knoll to compete for the souls and otherwise serve the varying faiths represented in the neighborhoods spreading beneath them. The three had also been built to take close advantage of a shallow underground spring that surged up from a great river flowing down the eastern seaboard five hundred feet beneath its surface. What anomaly in the rock opened that well no geologist could tell, but it had been there and known since settlement, and it had kept the hillside, even stripped of forest for building and open to the sun, green through drought for centuries.

Robby dragged the burlap sack, a quarter full of stones, beside him.

“That was some neat trick with the beer,” his father said.

Robby looked up at the solid build of the sandy haired man who was his chief connection to the world inhabited by adults. No teacher could mean to a child what a father meant, however mean, neglectful, or unpredictable.

“You did it, didn’t you?”

Robby picked up another stone. His father bent down and slapped it from his hand.

“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Robby stood up slowly, his young back hurting as it straightened from better than an hour of obedient stooping.

“I don’t want you playing with my tools, and you don’t ever touch my beer.”

“I didn’t do nothing with your fucking beer,” Robby said.

“Don’t you cuss at me!” Robby’s father stepped forward to backhand him and Robby stepped back. “Get in the house. I don’t want to look at you.”

Robby stomped off toward the house.

The father underscored his superiority to the child by chucking toward the shed the stones remaining on the lawn. That was the way he liked to do things–make them simple to do, reduce the labor, do them. In twenty minutes, dozens of stones had fallen to rest near the shed, and all went into the sack.

As a father, he wasn’t angry with the boy, he thought: it had just been hard without her. This was his litany: out of high school, both working, scraping together the cash for a down payment on a run down home in an old neighborhood north of town, she getting pregnant, then the baby, and a few years of good times and bad, just the three of them, and then the accident.

The Accident.

The only accident that had ever happened to anyone.

The only one that had ever mattered to him.

They should have buried him too because that was it. After a few months of brooding, he went to work at being happy again, but the company of drinking buddies got old, and he found other women didn’t understand him and the way he refused to change things. In fact, they all told him to sell the house. They said, more or less, it was destroying him by keeping him in the long shadow of another life’s memories, but he didn’t see the point if the problems were all emotional. For the dollars, he knew he wouldn’t find better, and, he thought, feelings died down and memories always faded.

And he was right about the house.

It was Robby, the little boy that was growing up, that kept alive not only the memory of his wife but his unhappiness with the marriage itself. The things he loved about her–her looks, her smell, her hell-on-wheels attitude, her frailty–were things he had come to despise in her. It seemed the baby changed him more than it changed her. When the coroner reported significant levels of alcohol and cocaine in her blood at the time of death, he went crazy. So she had not been a PTA mom, he thought then, but what kind of mother runs around coked and drunk with a six-year-old boy and a working husband waiting for her at home? What could she have been thinking about when the Mustang was spitting gravel off the shoulder and then swiping the guard rail for seventy-five yards before hitting head-on the concrete bridge abutment?

The shed was cool in the oak shade beneath the early afternoon sun. The father sat at the bench, this one used for gardening as well as lawnmower work, and lit a cigarette to pass a few minutes time before firing up the mower in earnest and walking it around the backyard.

While his father made time pass in twists of smoke, Robby lay staring up at the ceiling from his bed. He had tried being good, but he couldn’t be–everything he did turned out wrong. Maybe if he didn’t do anything, he thought, his father wouldn’t get mad at him. So he lay perfectly still looking up at the ceiling in the warm room. After a while, he could hear the man and woman whispering in the basement, and the man was saying, “Let him go.” The rest of the conversation was obscured by the sound of running water. Was his father back in the house? He didn’t care to get up to check, but another thought followed: what if his father couldn’t find him in the house? Maybe, he thought, he wouldn’t be so mad. He could hide somewhere–under the bed, in the farthest corner of the closet, or somewhere else.

Robby sat up.

His father was in the house.

He listened to his father’s footsteps on the stairs and then coming down the hallway, followed by a brief pause at his closed door, and then moving up the hallway, and then nothing. He waited several minutes for a door to close or open, for the sound of the shower running, or the audio of the television in his father’s bedroom. But it was quiet except for the whispers coming up through the ventilation grill and, down there, the sound of water gurgling.

When Robby opened his bedroom door, he saw the attic stairway pulled down. He had not been in the attic for years. Maybe his father was up there, he thought, and not mad at him anymore. He called up the stairs, “Dad?”

Robby’s father stubbed out his cigarette on the bench, stepped off the stool, and stood behind the mower to push it out the door, but in front of the mower was the burlap sack, and it was empty. This time, he flushed. He wasn’t mad at the boy. He was scared.

“Robby?” He raised his voice. “Robby?”

He stepped around the mower and looked across the yard. The stones had been scattered everywhere. Even from where he stood, he could see stones on the kitchen landing and above it, more stones scattered across the green shingles of the roof.

And up in the attic, Robby believed he had found a swing set hanging from a cross brace, and he was swaying, looking out the window toward the front lawn, looking at the white undersides of maple leaves, his kicking legs dangling carelessly several feet above the floor.

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