The View from up Here
It's hard getting out of bed on these cold mornings. After three full days of rain and wind, the mold in the walls is pretty well activated. Dad's been up since early, I can hear him walking out back with Brix. Dad moves a chewed-up tennis ball from one foot to another and sends the thing a good twenty feet away. The dog returns the ball, placing it flat across the top of Dad's boot. He leans forward a bit without losing the ball, scraping Brix’s head with one of his dangling hands. Once more, Dad sends the ball off towards the mountain road.
The air is clear today, I can see what's left of the mountaintop, fences and everything. Most of my childhood was spent between this house and that mountain. Before everything was parceled off and the wells and the fences went up. The light against the mountain is the color of times long gone. I have no time for nostalgia, so I close the shade.
I'm pretty hungry, I check to see if we have any eats left. There's still some coffee left that Dad managed to get going from one of the packs. I get out some venison to defrost and settle on some canned greens as a side. The pantry cupboard still has a few cans of okra and bok choy—export crops.
By the time get Brix and Dad get back inside, the meal is underway.
"Ah, good, I was getting hungry," Dad says. "C'mon," he slinks back a bit. Brix, biting into a sleeve, pulls Dad's coat off, manages to drape the thing on the low hook by the door. "Good boy," Dad again grazing the dog's head with the dangling hand.
Warm memories inside my cold frame: Dad returning from work, Brix bringing him the newspaper and slippers. We'd all get kisses, Mom, me, Bill. Dad never let us know when he had a bad day, he was always glad to see us. That was back when Dad had luxuries like his slippers or a newspaper. Or a job. Back when we had Mom and Bill. All these memories triggered today. Dad needs me strong, I have no time for nostalgia.
"This is good venison," Dad says, maneuvering the meat about a half foot above his plate up to his mouth. He says the venison is good every time.
"I made it just the way you like it, Dad." I say that every time. I am so sick of venison. If we had any other protein sources, I could live without eating the stuff again for the rest of my life. At least it’s not another MRE. The local vets group brings us the food. Dad hates taking it, he hates the idea of charity. Unfortunately, we don't have much choice. Ever since the incident with the senator, and Dad getting all his benefits cut, things have been pretty much rock bottom.
My nose is just running all over the place. Everything feels runny: my joints, my eyes, as if my whole body could just slide off the bones like a plate of powdered eggs. Speaking of powdered eggs, back when I was in the youth Ritz, I had a bunkmate used to say too much phlegm was a result of the liquid leaving the bones. Guy was a total blowhard with all these made up theories. You couldn't argue with him about anything, it was pointless. He was a pain in the ass. Would've been harmless in a different context, on the outside where you could avoid him. He definitely didn't deserve some of the things that befell him in there. Good god, no human deserves that. I generally don't think about those days much, that was a different time. The thought of it leaves me with this aching blankness. Plus, that was a time I was out of commission in terms of helping the family. While I was gone and useless, everything shifted, and the family got winnowed down. Dad doesn't blame me, but I'd like to think I could've been of some help. Bill tried to help, and look where he is now.
I help Dad dab the food off his face. "I'm alright, damnit" he says, trying to wave me away. Always the protector, Brix growls at me. It's a routine we go through every time. I start wrestling with the dog and whack my elbow against the table leg. "Ow," I say.
"You gotta watch those arms," Dad says, sitting there with his ruined arms.
Now Brix's up in a living room window, barking at the trucks.
"He never gets used to them," I say.
Dad says, "Have you? I sure haven't."
"No, but I'm beyond barking at them."
"I hear they're hiring," Dad says.
"Is that so? What do they need, supervisors for the prisoners?"
"Don't know. They want veterans. It was in one of the papers the vets brought me along with the provisions. I thought about applying, just to piss 'em off."
Dad is so stubborn. Still insists he has no regrets. Better to die on your knees, he says. But what else could he possibly say? Honestly, him and Bill, they should've kept their mouths shut. No regrets, he's got, and look where we are now.
I try to coax the still-barking Brix out of the window. A caravan of trucks with heavy equipment trudges up the mountain road. Dad would usually konk out in front of the radio around now. I’m getting nervous, I need him to not be around when my guy shows up.
"Seems like more and more all the time," Dad says.
"You should see all the mud flying, looks like a shitstorm," I say.
"I don’t need to see it.”
"Maybe I'll apply with you, Dad.”
"Yeah," Dad says, not enjoying the joke much anymore. Neither of us could work in the place. Dad had been so severely disabled, he couldn't do much of anything. And they didn't hire felons in the pit. They used plenty of prisoners, but that was different. When they first set up shop on the mountain, the company had promised all kinds of perks and benefits to the local community. Not much trickled down, except for what went to a few families with land to sell for rite of passage for the trucks and equipment. We didn't get shit, not even an eminent domain payout for the house or land.
"I should just go live in the vets' indigent home," Dad says. "Relieve you of this burden."
"Who would take care of Brix?" The vets did have an indigent home, but I'm not sure if Dad could even get in. From the stories I’ve heard, it was a step above a homeless shelter. Dad just says that stuff to guilt me out.
Dad asks me to get his meds for him. When he lost his benefits, he wasn't able to get anything for his pain. The vets would give him meds when they could. He got so used to not taking the things that he'd amassed a surplus of pills. I get the top off the bottle for him, help him get settled into his chair with a glass of water, turn the radio on. The reception isn't too good. Still, Dad liked to listen to some of the news stations.
When I'm pretty sure Dad is konked, I hoof it out to the road. I need to make this transaction without him knowing. Brix barking at the buyer could really sour things, so I wait down the road. A van covered with the graffiti you get parking a white vehicle in the city pulls up. I flag the guy down, ask if he could pull in a bit before the house. "I don't know, this is kind of sketchy," he says. I explain that my father is sick. The buyer pulls in and walks around the house with me to the garage. Honing right in on the tools: "Alright, hammer drill. Can I plug it in, test it? Calipers, ratchets, nice." He assesses the tools closely, looking at everything up close like he knows what he's doing.
I keep enough distance that I can get to the rifle hanging on the wall, just in case. This guy doesn't seem the type—he looks like a typical city guy, wide frame grasses, black t-shirt. The last buyer who came out started loading tools into a duffel bag. I'll take these, and you won't do shit about it, he'd said. I grabbed the shotgun, aimed it at him. I'm not sure how convincing I was, but after a minute of staring me down, he backed out the door and onto the road.
Now, as the guy from the city examines the tools, I see a bit of my reflection in the glass pane on the garage door. I barely recognize what I'm looking at, the skin on my face draped from cheekbone to jaw, flapping a bit when I talk.
"I can give you twenty for this, ten for this, five for these," the buyer lowballing me.
"You said the prices were good when you responded to the ad," I say. And he had. He mentioned tool prices were inflated in the city, so it made more sense to take a road trip.
"Yeah, but your ad's been up for months. Seems like you’re not getting too many bites."
"These were my father's tools," I say. "I haven't been in a rush to sell them."
"This is good stuff," the guy says. "Why are you selling all of this, anyway?"
"Because we're starving."
"Hey, look, I wasn't trying to be a scammer. What were you asking in the ad, $150 for everything? I can pay that." He turns towards the old touring bike hanging on the wall. "You selling the bike stuff, too?"
I show him Dad's bike stuff—the full set of cone wrenches, bottom bracket tools, the freewheel removers. "I'll take all of this," the buyer says. "Will you sell that Schwinn?"
I help him load the stuff in the van. Another caravan of trucks loosens up a plume of dust. "They really play up the muscle shit, huh? Those guys on the back had full machine guns," the buyer says. "My grandmother used to live about twelve miles from here. They really ruined the whole landscape. I haven't been back since she died. Plus, all the checkpoints are a pain in the ass. It was hard enough getting up here. They're closing off the road down there."
"What do you mean?"
"That's what they said at the checkpoint down the road. They were moving barricades. The guard said they were closing it up soon. He thought I was heading up the mountain to apply for a job."
Closing the road? This was news to me. I try to think of the last time I'd been all the way down the road. I can't remember. Back in the day, I never took the road, there were so many different routes then. Now everything was fenced off, totally unreachable.
I ask, "How were the checkpoints from the city?"
"See this?" He taps on a silver strip on the passenger-side windshield. "Previous van owner never canceled it. Sail right through the checkpoints. Elite vet and cop corps."
"They don't check you out? I thought they had facial recognition scanners.”
"The sticker scans in advance. Honestly, they don't seem to care all that much," the buyer says. "It's not like at the border or anything. You wanna hitch along to the city?"
"Seriously?" I think of Dad. Poor, helpless Dad. I think of hitching to the city, a new life. Dad could live in the vets’ indigent home. "Is there much work in the city?"
"Is there any work here? Except for up on the mountain? Looks like you don't have much time. It's your choice. You're welcome to tag along, if you want."
I could sneak into the house while Dad slept, stuff a bag full of clothes. Leave a note, telling him to call the vets. They'd take care of him. I'm sorry, I'd tell him. I was mostly a burden on the guy, anyway. I could at least have a chance of survival in the city, anything would be better than this.
I think it over, if you could call it thinking. I’m so nervous at the prospect of going anywhere that separate pulses seem to be operating in my stomach and throat. Could I do it, leave Dad? No, I couldn't.
"Thanks for the offer, but I couldn’t leave my old man," I tell the buyer.
I actually feel a little proud of myself. The life here was barely a life. Still, me, Dad and Brix have each other. Plus, now I have close to three hundred dollars to help with food for a while. I walk back into the house quietly, pulling a window shade to shut out the latest caravan of trucks. Dad really has the radio cranking. Thankfully he can sleep through anything. From the kitchen, I see Brix on the floor. I walk into the living room, around the back of Dad's easy chair. On the floor, Dad’s in a fetal position, Brix licking his face. I put my hand under the nose. No breath. The pill bottle is empty.
I run out of the house to the road, yelling "Wait." All the way down to the base of the road, no sign of the buyer's van. Just the sound of another caravan of trucks tearing up the road. The dust blotting out our house, the mountain, nothing but dust up the road, down the road.
Rico Cleffi lives and writes down the block from the old Caton Market, where the Dollar Junction awaits the wrecking ball and, eventually, rebirth as a bland, under-inhabited tower. His writing has appeared in publications including the Village Voice, the Indypendent, and the Brooklyn Rail.