by Jack Byrne
Mom saw Zach with his father, Mr. Lloyd, at the grocery store. She said Zach had grown several inches in height since she had last seen him and she thought he looked a lot like Mr. Lloyd. Mom said she liked that, Mr. Lloyd and Zach, said she thought it was a good thing. Mom told us that evening over dinner we ought to spend more time together. “How else is a boy to learn how to be a man if he never spends time with his father?” That is what she said. Dad only shrugged and sipped on his Corona.
That was two days ago, now it is Thursday afternoon and we are on our way to football and cans at Bob Folks. I drive, he drinks. I say nothing to him about it.
The last time Dad and I were together like this I was ten and he brought me fishing. It was Fair Hill Creek beneath the red barn bridge. He had caught a medium-sized catfish. I had never seen a catfish before and he let me hold it. Its grey whiskers felt like slime between my fingers. I watched as it gasped for air, its lungs and mouth opening and closing. Then Dad smacked its head against a rock and lay it out to dry on some grass before he gutted it. I remember, most, the look on Mom’s face when we got home and showed it to her. She looked scared but mostly happy, I think. We used to fish like that every weekend. As I said, that was a while ago.
Few other cars are on the highway and the sun is shining. He had just gotten off work when I met him in the drive with the cooler and a duffel bag filled with two towels, boots, and a change of clothes for each of us. I crack my window, the air is warm and smells of newly threshed wheat. We get to talking about the good weather. Then we talk about the Amish and what life would be like without electricity. Then I watch him sip from his can and he tells me to keep my eyes on the road. I want to feel good, but I am worried. I am worried because I don’t want to get pulled over and I don’t want the police to see Dad’s beer can in my cupholder. More than anything, I don’t want to have to explain it to Mom. Then I worry he can tell I’m worried and hope he doesn’t get annoyed. He finishes his can, crushes it against the floor of my car with his foot, then tosses it into the cooler in the backseat. He doesn’t notice, it seems.
I turn left onto Telegraph Road and let my eyes wander. The cornfields look like gold and the sky is only blue. I know it will be all backroads from here on. I shift into fourth, check my mirrors, and try to relax my shoulders. We pass an old Amish barn with clothes pinned on a line in the front yard. Dad opens another can and tells me we’re almost there.
When I stop at a stop sign I do so completely, then look both ways before driving on. When we get to a small bridge and there is only room for one vehicle at a time, I flash my lights and let the other cars go first.
We arrive at Folks’s through the back entrance and I park beside the horse stables beneath a grove of maples. A few guys are already out on the field taking shots on a small goal made of PVC pipe and orange netting. Dad points behind us to a rust-colored, open-faced barn with a tin roof and says to get out and grab the cones from inside it. I take off my sandals, push my feet into my boots, then make for the barn. I find the cones tucked behind the large back wheel of a tractor and they are filled with daddy-long-legs. I use the end of a stick I find on the ground to pick them up and shake the hay off. A long white, one-story home is adjacent to the barn. A blue Subaru is parked in front beside a red Saturn filled with Mexicans drinking Modelos and blasting the Spanish-language channel. I carefully place a cone at each of the four corners of the field as well as one on either side where I’ve approximated its center. Chavier, who is an older man with a small bald head and one of Dad’s friends, gestures to me that I pull them in tighter.
At a quarter past, we are finally ready to be divided into teams. Chavier and Dad, the two eldest, are nominated for team captains. Dad loses the coin toss and Chavier chooses me first because I am the youngest and he probably thinks that means I am fast—which I am. Dad picks Joaquin, a dark-skinned Mexican boy around my age, and that more or less decides the teams.
Twenty minutes in, Chavier calls, “Half time.” The sun is directly overhead and I want to take my jersey off but don’t. I watch Joaquin do it, then Dad. Dad’s pink belly hangs down over his shorts and Joaquin flexes his right arm so the centaur with a crossbow tattooed on it dances. The guys laugh and take turns slapping Dad’s belly. Chavier calls Dad gay then takes his jersey off. I wait until we are back at the car before I take my jersey off too. Dad offers me the extra water bottle and hands me a cold towel. I chew on ice from the cooler and drink water while the others have a beer.
Shortly into the second half, I am out of breath. Dad tells Chavier to put me in goal and give Basil a break. Basil takes one look at me and agrees I need it. In goal, I feel the heat pulsating off my scalp and waves of icy chills prickle up my spine. I imagine this is what that catfish felt like if that catfish could feel. The other guys do not seem so bothered by the heat. Their stamina is like the horses they break. Just then, Joaquin sprints past Chavier and comes for the goal. He strikes hard and the ball hits me only in the gut and I try not to vomit. I wish I worked outside.
Twenty more minutes and Chavier calls, “Game.” We retreat beneath the maples and sit on the backs of trucks and tops of coolers. Beers, towels, and chunks of ice are passed around. That’s when Basil asks if he still loves her. Dad looks at me.
“Love,” he goes, “you get older. You need each other more. What else is there to say about it.” Then he kind of tosses both his hands in the air.
“But do you love her?” Basil asks again. Dad looks at me. He is sitting on this blue and white cooler just looking at me. I look down at the beer in my hand. Then Basil starts laughing, slaps Dad on the shoulder and says something about giving Mom a ride. Dad laughs too, then Chavier and the other guys. Even Joaquin laughs, though I doubt he understands English. Then Dad says something like, “a happy wife—” Dad looks at me again, but this time different. Like he wants to see if I am laughing too. Like he is curious about how I am doing.
The red Saturn is first to leave. Then Niles, Basil, Taff and Kevin pile in Chavier’s Subaru and drive off. Dad and I load the few unopened cans into the cooler. When we run out of space, we pile the rest into the duffel bag, along with all of the empty cans. We stop by the trash bin inside the stables and empty the duffel bag.
On the way out of Folks’s Dad cracks the window and opens another can. “Eyes on the road.” He says and takes a sip. I hadn’t even looked towards him and I wonder if he is joking. Then it occurs to me he might have been joking this whole time.
This time of day is the best time for a drive. The sun is setting and the fields and sky look like they have been dipped in molasses. I feel good. I think Dad does too and for a moment everything is just that, good. I think to ask him if he remembers the catfish, how it was pregnant and we only found out when he gutted it. Then I think, Maybe I won’t, maybe I will just suggest we go fishing again sometime. Instead, I ask about Chavier.
“So,” I say. He takes another sip. “Was that all true?” I ask, then laugh a little.
“That stuff Chavier said about—you know.” I laugh a little bit again.
“Look,” he says, “it’s how it is with the boys. They talk. We talk. It’s just that. Talk.” He sounds annoyed and I don’t know why. I didn’t mean it like that. But now I guess I am a little annoyed too, so I keep going.
“So did you then?”
He throws back the remainder of the can and cracks open another. I slow a little and check my rear-view mirror, then accelerate until I am back to where I was, where I ought to have been, I mean—that being an even ten over the speed limit.
“Listen,” he says, “when you’ve been married for as long as I have, working as long as I have, you’ll get it. Now pull over,” he goes, “I need to piss.”
I keep my eyes on the road. I keep driving.
“Jack, did you hear me? I said I need to piss, pull over please.” He goes.
“Jack.” He says.
I pull over into a side road. All the roads in this part of the country are side roads, but this one looks good. He barely makes it out of the truck when he’s up and over the hedge. I can hear him from the truck. I turn on the stereo and Hank Williams is singing about rivers. For a while growing up, I didn’t have a room of my own, just a bed against the far wall upstairs, outside my parents’ room. Dad used to sit at the computer desk beside my bed reading emails and playing the likes of Williams and Patsy Klein while I fell asleep. I remember the image of his silhouette against that screen, the room all blue. I loved Hank. Then there was the time I heard it playing in the morning when I walked in on it. Hank on the radio, and them. Dad was working a lot in those days. He asked if I’d rather he beat her. “At least we are loving,” he had said, my Dad. I told him he could think to close the door, and then it happened so quickly I didn’t know myself. Hank went silent below the yelling, then all I heard was his foot tapping to the rhythm of each rap of my backside with his leather belt.
He stumbles into the truck and I check my mirrors, then back out onto the main road and drive towards home. The sun is nearly set and the sky is colder now. Big grey clouds roll in from the West and I see a flock of geese flying straight towards them. He turns up the radio.
“That’s better,” he says. He digs through the cooler but it is all ice and empty cans, so he just sits there tapping his foot to the bump.
“You know,” he goes, “if you wanna know, it’s about what makes it work. If you don’t work, if you’re not getting what you need, unloading what you don’t, you gotta be sure as hell you and the lady aren’t gonna work either. Understand?”
I don’t, but I nod all the same.
“I work hard. And I never walked out on your mom for nothing.”
I am still nodding.
“A man deserves to feel like something some time, doesn’t he?”
We don’t talk for the rest of the drive, except when I ask for directions and he gives them to me. When we pull into the drive it is night and raining. The light is on in the kitchen. The dog is barking. I grab my bag, his bag, and the cooler. Home smells like roast chicken and Mom smiles when she asks if I scored. I want to tell her I feel like someone else; as if I’ve gone somewhere and I haven’t come back yet. I don’t and I know that’s part of it. I say it was good—really good. Then she kisses Dad on the ear and tells us to wash our hands for dinner.
Jack Byrne, 25, studied viola at the Eastman School of Music and pursued a Take Five Certificate in world literature at the University of Rochester. He spent the last year living in Dublin, Ireland, where he worked at a village bookshop and wrote in his free time. He looks forward to returning to Rochester, NY after the pandemic settles.