S T E P H E N G R A H A M J O N E S * T H E F A T H E R L A N D I S R I C H A N D V A R I E D



 

The night before my flight to Raleigh my wife breaks the atlas out for my son, so he can put one finger on where I am now, one on Raleigh, trace the line in between with his eyes. I don’t say anything about the curvature of the earth, just watch the two of them bent over the kitchen table. My son doesn’t smile, is concentrating, double-checking before he finally says it: “Grandpa.”

Where his finger is now—between me and Raleigh—there’s already a blue foil star, from the last geography lesson.

“He’s right.” This from my wife.

I shake my head no to her but she knows my Chicago layover is four hours. Longer if the connecting plane’s late.

On my pillow that night is the cordless phone, my wife at her vanity mirror, pretending not to watch me.

“He’ll be asleep,” I say. “I’m not calling.”

“Would you rather talk to him when he’s awake?” she says back, angling her head down to remove an earring.

I dial his number.

“So where do you want to do it?” my father says into his end, after I tell him about my layover.

“I’ll have to come back in through security,” I tell him. “Somewhere close. I don’t want to miss my flight.”

“Should I rent a van?”

“Ha ha. Just the usual—I don’t know. It’s your town.”

“You lived here too.”

“I called you, Dad.”

He gives me that, doesn’t say goodbye when he hangs up but I can see him all the same, sitting up in his bed, the bedcovers pooled in his lap, his eyes open, watching the wall.

By my coffee the next morning is the ibuprofen. “Because Raleigh,” my wife sing-songs on her way out.

I take five, two more than usual.

On the plane my lips are numb and I hate my father.

He’s waiting for me by the second baggage carousel, a small old-fashioned leather satchel by his leg. The zipper antique, practically.

I nod down to it and my father tells me he’s not as young as he used to be, then adds that that doesn’t mean he can’t still kick my ass all the way down the street.

“We’ll see,” I tell him.

He shrugs, turns, and I follow him outside. The place he’s found is across the skywalk, on the top level of the parking garage. It’s long-term, open to the elements, a last resort: empty.

“Good,” I say, taking my jacket off one arm at a time. He taught me this young.

My father drops his satchel, rolls the sleeves of his dress shirt up.

“Been to see Mom lately?” I say, to get things started.

She died when I was sixteen.

“You ingracious little—” my father starts, then finishes with his meaty right fist. It drives into my stomach, feels like it dings the front of my spine. I fold around it like in the cartoons my wife lets my son watch, my mouth even open in a surprised, animated oval. But there’s no surprise.

I come back with the crown of my head. It’s supposed to catch him under the chin, fill his mouth with blood, but instead glances off his right cheekbone, leaving the skin there raw. We stand then, facing each other, our hands balled into fists at our sides, eyes locked, and after three deep breaths I feint with my shoulders and reach across for him with everything I have, which turns out to be the first and second knuckle of my right hand—like him, my left is useless in a fight—and it’s the same cheekbone I already scratched with my hair. It opens.

My father steps back, touches his face and studies the blood on his fingertips.

“Enough?” I say.

“Like hell,” he says back, and when we stop forty-five minutes later, it’s only so I can catch my plane to Raleigh.

North Carolina,” my father spits. “What do you have there?”

We’re still at the top of the parking garage, where the sky opens up.

“Business,” I say, and leave it at that.

My father passes me a gauze patch from his leather bag. It’s new. I rip it away from his hand, apply it to what’s left of my lower lip.

“Well,” my father says, standing as best he can, “thanks for the heads-up, anyway.”

“Say hi to Mom for me,” I tell him, then turn around, pop my briefcase open. In it is a piece of sky-blue construction paper, a crayon airplane drawn carefully on it. More attention paid to the windows than the wings. My father is sitting beside his bag now. Like maybe he fell when I had my back turned but is trying to play it off.

“Here,” I tell him, “he wanted you to have it,” and let the sheet of construction paper drift down to him.

Walking back through security the guards look in my mouth but it’s only more ibuprofen, washing into the space behind my eyes.

The guard smiles, touches his lip, meaning mine, and I shrug, tell him with zero mirth that it was a reunion. He waves me through, onto the ticketing agent and the plane and my preassigned seat in the fourteenth row by the window. I strap myself in and try to see the Chicago asphalt below but I’m over the wing. The tint of my window makes it blue. I look away and then it’s the crush of liftoff, my breath shallow, and I’m seeing my father again, clawing through the air for that crude airplane, afraid more than anything of damaging it. When the window beside me drops into shadow for an instant I think it’s him, even, his thick fingers circling the fuselage, a massive leg planted on each side of the terminal, but then it’s just a cloud and Raleigh is a closer thing.

The flight attendant brings me a scotch and I have to empty my jacket’s inside pocket to pay her.

She smiles, looking down at the newspaper in my lap.

I follow her eyes to everything I’ve pulled from my pocket: the sunglasses I’ll wear to hide my left cheekbone, my calendar book in its rubber band, my wallet, checkbook, the smelling salts neither of us needed this time, and, about to roll into the crease of the paper, a plane-silver crayon.

“Oh,” the flight attendant says, leaning down, angling for a tip here, “Daddy’s little helper, I guess?”

I hold the crayon up sideways before my face, the way people who love smoking will study a cigarette from the side, to fully appreciate it, and then laugh through my nose a bit, stuff the crayon down into the pocket of the seatback in front of me, tap it down out of sight, the last coffin nail.

“Sir?” the flight attendant says, concern there in her voice. For my face, maybe. For the safety of the rest of her passengers.

I give her twice what the scotch is worth and turn away, become the construction paper man in the fourteenth window of my father’s crude airplane, the guy with the crude red slash for a mouth, the schedule book full of appointments tucked into his pocket, and though he’s years away from ever fitting into the suit he wore to his mother’s funeral, the suit his father bought him the day before, like a ritual, still, the way his face is drawn and shadowed, you can see it in his eyes if you look close enough. That he can still remember those meaty hands pinching the shoulder of the suit up, so it wouldn’t bunch, then pulling down on the sleeve for a crisp, mournful line.

It took me all morning to get it right, I mean.

My father’ll never see it.



 


Stephen Graham Jones' latest novel is Demon Theory. His next is Ledfeather. He has three more, plus a story collection. Find him at demontheory.net if you want.

 

Copyright Stephen Graham Jones 2007