Robert Nordstrom is a poet, fiction writer and school bus driver who spends mornings and afternoons
hauling precious cargo over the pot-holed...read more backroads of Mukwonago, Wisconsin. Although he is pleased
that his poetry, fiction and essays have been published in numerous literary publications, his most worthy
accomplishments of late are teaching high schoolers how to respond when an adult says good morning
and a second grader that it's probably best she not lick the seat in front of her.
Henry watches Marty walk slowly toward the house. He does that too often—stands in a dark room looking out the window waiting for Marty to get home. He must be freezing wearing only that sweatshirt, Henry thinks, but he doesn’t look like he’s in any hurry to get inside. His throat clenches, I told him to take the jacket, then releases, as if anything has anything to do with a jacket.
Marty looks around, pulls off his sweatshirt and drops it into the trashcan sitting at the curb. He throws his arms and shoulders back, slaps his bare arms, then crouches in a three-point football stance. Henry looks up the street but sees no one. He feels the tension in his son’s coiled body and counts for him—hup one, hup two, hup three. On five Marty explodes from his crouch, knees high, elbows close to his body. Henry holds his breath, willing Marty to turn up the driveway, but he doesn't, running past the house, through light into shadow into light again, disappearing into the night.
The street lamps glow. Henry looks up and down the gauntlet of cape cods lining the street, their dormers protruding like eyeballs on a row of flat faces, waiting for his son to reappear.
Finally, five houses down, he spots Marty walking slowly toward the house. He bends over, picks up a stone and whips it side-armed into the street, and Henry pictures his father's open hand poised like a guillotine above him.
Forgive your father. Those were George’s words.
He glances at his watch. 6:30. They must be through Cleveland by now—George at the till of his great highway ship, Helen perched like a well-mannered pet at his side.
At least I never hit my son, Henry hisses through clenched teeth, never have and never will.
When George called, he asked for Henry Furston. After several questions and considerable confusion, Henry realized George was asking for his father. He told George that his father, Henry, Sr., had died five years ago. There was a long pause; then George said that they had been in the war together. Henry couldn't think of a way to end the conversation so he invited him over for a beer.
In the driveway George grabbed Henry's hand like it was a pump handle, then hitched a thumb inside his big brass belt buckle. He patted the grill of his thirty-foot RV as if it were a horse's muzzle.
"The fruits of fifteen acres of prime Iowa farm land. Even trade."
Henry nodded, wondering whether he should ask for a tour.
"So you're Henry's kid. Jesus, time flies." He lifted his green John Deere cap and scratched his forehead with his wrist. "Oh, this is Helen. Helen, Henry. Henry Junior, must be?"
Helen tucked her chin shyly to the side, reminding Henry of the mourning doves that loaf near the bird feeder in the backyard.
"Helen and I were having coffee in Big Boy and I saw this guy with one arm sitting at the counter. I said, 'Helen, where are we?' and she said, 'Big Boy,' and I said, 'no, what city we in?' She didn’t know so I answered my own question. 'Toledo,' I said, 'we're in Toledo and that's where Henry Furston was from. Give me the cell, I'm going to find his number and call.' Henry, rest his soul, he was a good man, a good soldier. But you lived with him longer than I ever did so I guess you know that."
George stepped back, cocking his large sun-blotched head to the side. "Funny, I couldn't picture what Henry looked like. But I see him now in you. The nose and forehead."
Helen hugged herself, her eyes jumping around the yard looking for a place to land. George laughed and slapped Henry on the shoulder. "Helen's been telling me for the past forty years that I talk too much and don't let anybody get a word in edgewise. I'm sure she's right, she generally is, so just shut me up when you feel like it cause it won't hurt my feelings none. We'll be on our way shortly and let you get back to whatever you were doing. Look at that sky. Christ, it's a beautiful day."
Henry nodded. The weather, he thought, there's always the weather. He sifted through George's monologue trying to find something to hook on to and pull the conversation forward, or better yet, get George and Helen back into their RV and down the road. A one-armed guy in Big Boy—what the hell was that supposed to mean?
"Well, I imagine you could use a beer before you hit the road."
As they walked toward the house, Henry wondered if he had sounded like he was trying to push them on their way. But George didn’t seem like someone who paid attention to subtleties; he was already telling him he should get some cones on those roses. Helen, she obviously hasn't said what she knows for a lot of years now.
Henry opened three beers and set them on the kitchen table. George caressed the bottle like it was an old friend. He was smiling, a soft sentimental smile that reminded Henry of a Norman Rockwell painting. He leaned toward Henry and the smile disappeared. "Your old man was special, son."
His eyes moved quickly over Henry's face. Henry detected the hint of a question behind the statement, as if he were waiting for affirmation.
George threw his head back and took a long swallow of beer. He slapped the bottle down on the table and suppressed a belch, "He was there, son, do you know what I mean? In Italy, I saw some guys get ugly, really ugly. It numbed me. When I mustered out, it was like I'd never been there. I went home, climbed aboard my tractor and turned over a new furrow, so to speak. But your old man was different. He was there, right there in the war. He didn't even try to be anywhere else. Do you know what I mean?"
Henry stared at the clock above the sink, nibbling at the beer label with his fingernail. He glanced at Helen., who was running her hand across the table’s surface as if sweeping crumbs.
"You want another beer?"
"Driving that big old bus makes you thirsty. Why not."
Squatting in front of the open refrigerator, he was sorry he had offered the beer and wished they would leave. The old man was special all right. He ought to tell George just how special he was.
"How did Henry die, son?"
"Cancer." He felt the corner of his eye twitch.
George grimaced. "Strange—you dodge bullets in all those god-forsaken shitholes, then forty years later your body pulls a fast one on you like that."
"Did you ever see my father after the war?"
"Never even talked. Our unit had a reunion back in the sixties, but I had no desire to go. Don't imagine your old man did either."
"No, he wasn't. Me neither. I've never seen anyone from the war and probably never will. It was just that one-armed guy in the restaurant and being in Toledo—who knows, sometimes I’m just impulsive like that."
George stared at his beer in silence. Henry wondered what the one-armed man had to do with anything but was reluctant to ask. He didn’t need new information. He had wasted too many years trying to figure out that son of a bitch and had no desire to reopen the investigation. Drink up, George, there’s nothing to revisit here.
"You get a picture in your head and you just can't get rid of it," George said slowly, gazing at the table. “You can't let it go cause if you did, it would be like losing a piece of yourself. Maybe if I'd seen it happen, it would be different. Sometimes the imagination gets hold of you and things get bigger than what they actually were. I heard about it the next day. A guy who was in the foxhole with your father told me the arm landed straight up in the mud. He said it looked like somebody clawing his way out of the bowels of hell and that Henry just reached down and grabbed it—like how do you do, mister—and threw it like a hunk of meat to a pack of wolves back to the war. The next morning the arm lay tangled in concertina wire. They found out it was Jim Rosen's arm from his watch—the damn thing was still ticking. That's all that was left of him—a ticking arm. Henry wrapped Rosen’s arm up in paper and took it off somewhere. The medics wanted to ship it back to the States, but Henry wouldn't tell them where he buried it. They even threatened to bring up charges on him, but he wouldn’t say. Some guys thought he was wrong about that and started talking behind his back. You know, like why did he grab Rosen’s arm in the first place and why did he throw it away? And then why’d he take it off somewhere the next day? What right did he have and all that garbage. But I always stuck up for your old man. I admired him for what he did. Who knows why people do what they do? But with your old man I always thought he did what he did out of respect, and you can’t fault another man’s way of paying respect. I asked myself what I would have done and I’ve never come up with an answer. Maybe him taking that arm…maybe it was your old man’s way of showing respect in a place where it was easy to forget you were even human. That’s how I figured it. Like maybe he couldn’t give up being the last one to touch Rosen. And being the last one, he was duty bound to honor what little bit that was left of Rosen and he’d do it better than all those strangers who’d shove the arm in a plastic bag and ship it off to the land of the free. No, I think I understood your old man’s reason for doing what he did. Just bury it all right there. Keep all the bad memories right there where they belonged. Why send any of it back home where nobody understood anything."
George paused, then reached forward and grabbed Henry’s elbow. "Your father, son. Do you know what I’m saying?"
Helen glanced sharply at George and he released Henry's arm.
"Sorry. Helen and I never had any kids of our own. I either shot blanks or Helen forgot to hold up the target. I tend to get a little worked up and come on strong sometimes."
Henry looked away toward the small pile of dirty dishes on the counter. We could stop here. We could make small talk and fiddle with our beer bottles until we stumble into our awkward goodbyes.
"We're not talking about the same man." He spoke slowly and from the back of his throat to hide the tremor in his voice.
George looked up. His lips were wet with beer, his eyes moist.
"My old man may be your hero, but he’s not mine. He used to beat me. He’d get stinking drunk and beat me."
George looked at Helen. She leaned forward slightly, gathering him up and mothering him with her eyes. Henry stared at the light winnowing through her thin hair wondering what it must be like to have someone look at you with such kindness and compassion.
"That’s hard for me to believe, son. That's not the Henry I knew."
"Believe it, George, it’s the man I knew. I don’t mean to tarnish your memory, but my old man wasn’t a compassionate man. I don’t know why he did what he did in the war but I can’t believe it was motivated by compassion. Once I forgot to flush the toilet and your war buddy, my old man, got so pissed off he picked me up and dangled my head inside the bowl. A great teaching strategy, don’t you think? When I was five, he grabbed my teddy bear out of my hands and threw it in the fire—said I was too old to be carrying around a sissy thing like that. He beat the hell out of me when I was a kid. I can’t think of one encouraging word he ever said to me. He must have said something, every father must say something, but if he did he must have knocked it out of my head the next day. I thought about all those things while I sat in the hospital watching him die. Everybody told me to go home, but I refused. I wanted to give him a last chance. But nothing happened. I fell asleep in the chair and he just died."
Henry backs away from the window, watching Marty standing in the middle of the sidewalk, hands on his hips.
“Forgive your father,” George said when he finally looked up from the table.
The yellow light of the street lamp makes Marty look sinister, or pathetic, Henry can’t decide which. His father used to stand like that, smoking a cigarette, staring out at the line of firs bordering the yard. As a child, Henry would watch from the window, follow his father’s gaze into the black spaces surrounding him, afraid of whatever it was his father was seeing. When his father moved, he would duck, heart pounding, below the sill.
One evening a few weeks ago, Marty walked around the block three times before he finally came inside. Henry's first thought was drugs. When he finally walked up the drive, Henry grabbed the newspaper. "Detroit won," he yelled. Marty didn’t reply, just walked down the hall to his room. Henry peaked above the newspaper to see if there was a wobble in his walk. He felt like a coward.
Henry rests his head against the wall, feeling exhausted and defeated. How do you repair what’s broken if you’re afraid to touch the cracks? Be careful, it’s always better to be careful. Marty could have been another Henry. It was suggested—Henry Furston III—but he wouldn’t even consider it. No, it all had to stop here. That’s what he told himself.
"Forgive your father," George had said again as he climbed into the RV and turned the ignition key, Hank Williams blaring from the speakers. He lifted his hands above the steering column, as if waiting for a response, then dropped them on the wheel.
Helen shot Henry a sad hangdog look as they backed out of the driveway. George threw his hand up from the street. He looked as if he were smiling, but it may have been the low sun in his eyes.
Henry raised his arm in response, watching the RV grow smaller, turn the corner, then disappear. I’m sorry, George, he said to himself. You didn’t deserve that.
Jesse slows when he nears the big elm, holding the ball high like a trophy, then spiking it on the ground.
"He got you, Jesse, two hands, he got you," Randy yells.
Marty picks himself up off the ground and tries to brush the mud from the front of his soaked gray sweatshirt but it smears. Randy grabs him by the elbow. "You got him, didn't you, Marty?"
His voice is whiny, his eyes are too. Looking at him makes Marty feel tired. He wipes his hands on his jeans and says, "Nope."
"Come on, Marty," Randy whispers, "I know you did."
"Nope," and he walks downfield toward the punishment of Jesse's grin.
Jeff smiles and pats Jesse on the back. Jesse rocks on his toes like he always does when he's in the spotlight, which is most of the time. Marty smiles, too, tight-lipped, a phony but necessary response. Like the time Mrs. Barstow called the old man to school because he kept disrupting class by tapping his foot on the floor. In the principal's office he stared at Marty while Barstow told him about his son’s problems in class. Marty smiled. He knew how mad that smile made him, how hard it was for him to concentrate on what Barstow was saying while his son sat there smiling, but he couldn't help himself. The angrier the old man got, the more necessary the smile was. It was the same with the foot tapping. He didn’t even know he was doing it until Barstow told him to stop. But he couldn't, or maybe he just needed to know what would happen if he didn't. Marty thought he’d catch hell for sure, but, as usual, he just got the silent treatment for a week or so.
The wind swells Jesse's sandy blond hair like a surfer's wave. He spins the football from one hand to the other. "When you're good, you're good." Marty considers slapping it out of his hands.
Randy and Jeff watch, waiting for something to happen. They know Jesse and he don't like each other. For several months now they’ve been inching toward a fight. Either one of them could break the tension with some stupid comment, a joke, but they won't. They're hungry for a fight, Marty thinks, already taking sides within their own chicken-shit fear of Jesse and me.
Marty feels a shiver run up his side, his left thigh quivering. He wishes now he had brought the jacket. And maybe he would have if the old man hadn't told him to. The jacket hung on the door knob between them. "Wear it," he said, his jaw muscle twitching. He started to walk away, just like he always does, then turned back.
"If you come down with pneumonia, don't ask me to care."
"What's new," and Marty slammed the door behind him. Walking to the field, he felt bad at first, then mad again.
Marty flexes his leg to stop it from shaking, then reaches forward, tipping the ball with his fingers and juggling it into his hands. Now that he has the ball he doesn’t know what to do with it, so he flips it over his shoulder. It rolls against the back of his foot. It's Jesse's ball. He'll have to step around him to pick it up.
Jesse’s smile thins out. "Pick it up."
Marty feels oddly detached from his body, as if he’s caught up in an event over which he has no control. Fights are never about what they seem to be about. He pictures himself reaching forward, sliding his hand like a magician's scarf over Jesse's face and turning it into a smile. Instead, he says, "Pick it up yourself, asshole."
Over Jesse's shoulder a sparrow struggles against the wind, breaks, then dips toward the earth. The heel of Jesse's hand strikes his shoulder.
"You man enough to back up—" and Marty’s fist shoots forward catching the corner of Jesse's eye. Jesse backs off, fists raised. The punch was weak, held back. Marty crouches, looking for a leg to hook. He’s never had the quick killer instincts that boxing requires, preferring the grappling pauses of wrestling, the opportunity for mercy, both given and received. They circle each other. Randy and Jeff back away. Jesse's low boxer's crouch looks like something he might have seen on TV. He’d laugh at him, but it's his will to win he’s fighting, not his pose. Jesse bobs and circles to his left, looking for an opening. Marty turns with him, hands closed loosely, not sure whether to throw another punch or dive for a leg.
"What is this?" Jeff says, "You guys gonna dance or fight?" He hooks his arm in Randy's and skips limp-wristed around him.
Jesse feints a weak left, then throws a haymaker right. Marty feels the seriousness of his intent in the air rushing across the top of his head. He lunges for Jesse’s leg, catching it behind the knee. The knee thrusts upward into his mouth. He tastes blood but holds onto the leg, lifting it high and twisting until Jesse is falling forward. Marty stumbles, falling on top of him. Jesse squirms wildly like an animal caught in a trap. Marty tries to inch his way up his body but feels him slipping out of his grasp, turning on him and sliding his legs beneath his body. From his knees he slugs Marty behind the ear. Marty lunges forward, this time catching him at the waist and driving him backward.
When he hears the snap, at first he thinks Jesse’s fallen against a tree branch, then there's the cry of pain, high-pitched, long.
Marty throws himself off and lies on his side propped up on his elbow. Jesse’s head and shoulders touch the ground, his chest rising toward the sky as if air were an anesthetic and he can't gulp enough of it. His right leg is tucked in a crimped vee beneath him. The foot turns inward, not outward like it should. Marty wants to touch him, offer comfort, but he’s too much like a wounded animal and he’s afraid.
Marty looks up and sees the fear in Randy's eyes. He looks at Jeff and sees the same fear. They appear to be inching forward, like animals sniffing out a kill. Their fear calms him.
"Get Jesse's dad," he tells Jeff. "Randy, come here and help me lift him off his leg."
Randy moves slowly, reluctantly.
"Goddamnit, hurry up."
They each grasp Jesse by an arm and lift. Jesse's scream halts in mid-shriek. His eyes are clamped shut so tightly that his cheeks appear to touch his eyebrows. His mouth opens and closes, fish like. They lower him gently onto his stomach. His leg doesn't move. It's angle and stillness make it seem like it’s attached only loosely to his body.
"It really looks bad," Randy says. Marty shuts him up with a look.
Jesse is still now, inside the pain. Marty rests his hand on his shoulder and waits. He understands this, the waiting. Like sitting in the principal’s office waiting for the old man to get there. Like smiling even when he doesn’t feel like smiling. He’ll tell him straight off. "I got in a fight and broke Jesse's leg." Once, when he came home with a bloody nose, the old man grabbed his arm and pulled him into the bathroom. "Look at yourself," he said. “Fighters are losers. No matter who wins, they're always losers." His old man wouldn’t look at him, like he was scared. Then he walked away and doled out the silent treatment for a few days. Tonight, he'll stare at me, Marty thinks, like a detective looking for a clue. Then he'll move to some far off room in the house.
In the distance Jeff and Jesse's father jog toward the park. For a brief moment they're frozen like lawn ornaments against the gray houses. Marty rubs Jesse's shoulder, liking him better now than he ever has.
And here you are, standing in the kitchen staring at Marty’s pink, hairless chest. Once I leaned over the bed to kiss you good night. I bet you don’t remember that. I loved you when you were sleeping. You frightened me when you were awake. But you weren't sleeping. Now do you remember? You wrapped your arms around my neck like I was some kind of genie in your dreams. I jerked my head back and felt your hands slip off my neck. The feel of your fingers on the back of my neck frightened me more than that damn arm.
Look at Marty, the way he holds his shoulders back, staring at your chin. I see my grandson more clearly now than ever before. He’s ours—yours and mine. The same distant look in his eyes. Wondering what things are worth. Why he should even bother trying. Look at him, Henry; already, at fourteen years old, he’s learning to give up on his future, because you can't give up your past.
Sure, you know all that now. You can see it in your boy’s eyes.
He makes to walk by you, to go to his room. Don’t let him do it. Go on, say it. Wait. just say it..
Marty freezes, his pink torso canting forward. He blinks, but his eyes refill with tears.
"I broke Jesse's leg. I got in a fight and broke Jesse's leg."
We stare at your son, my grandson, and for a brief moment everything becomes clear. Finally, son, for the first time we’re seeing it the same way: the arm rising above you, your body rigid as you wait for the terrible apex of its ascent. But this arm is weightless, beyond the gravity of my rage and your terror, floating off into the black star-splattered night as you reach forward, your hands warm and, yes, tender against your son’s cold back.