The permutations of anger: the same lean belt administered each time, creased leather, broken down, worn, worn; the flesh burst purple below his underpants, somehow artful — a stained spider scarred on his ass, a sledge of pain stretched across each swing, torn, torn; the days of suppers in the dark, the last fibers of light pulled tight across a Chinese restaurant chimney, just down the street, he, outside, hip against the Parisienne, drawing from his smoke, long, long, in the rain.
Bobby came to this place, his father’s house, three days before Labor Day, one year after they buried him. He favored these days for their softer summer light, when the mosquitoes were disinterested in anything beyond the riverbank. The trout were spry in the morning and fed on small damselflies and midge larvae. He left them alone. Their splashes were enough.
His father lived here the last few years of his life, after his second wife passed. There was a little insurance money, and he had always been frugal, so he bought it outright. “Come on down, Bobby,” he said. “The river’s hopping with brook trout, just like that stream by Cranberry Falls. You wanna do that, come see your old man?”
He deferred. Every Easter weekend, every Fourth of July, every October weekend closest to his birthday. No, it was crunchtime at work, or, no, he was coming down with something coughy, or — just to fuck with him — no, he needed to spend time with Meg and the kids. “Bring ‘em, I’d love to see them.” “Megan’s mom is sick, dunno, could be bad.” “Oh-no.” ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ shit without the irony.
The truth remained: Meg left him months ago, found a new boyfriend who wrote game code, the kids loved him. Boyfriend was the new superman. “You’re such an angry man, Bobby,” she told him. “I have that capacity, yes,” he said, “but I’m not a violent man.” “Not yet,” she said. “No.” The most naked word he ever spoke.
Bobby helped them pack their things and he sold his car to her for a dollar. “We need to stay good to each other,” he said. “No anger, no resentments.” She agreed. It broke him that it could end so cleanly. They still spoke on the phone, they still listened to each other’s yearnings and grievances, but he was more muted. He taught himself to listen without being defensive, and so he listened. She talked, she wept, she became angry with herself for talking and weeping. “No worries,” he said. “So what are you doing next?” she asked. “I’m gone fishing this weekend or next.” “You should do that,” she said. “Maybe resolve things with your father, finally.” “I should, yes,” knowing that he wouldn’t. Resolve things was too big, akin to maybe you should plant a flag on Everest, or, hey, the moon could use your boot print. Sure. They made it through another conversation, and they remained on the good side of good.
Life inside summers, between inflatable pools and pitchers of lukewarm lemonade, he saw his own reflection in his boys, prismed, damaged. He considered his father’s place, the clean little river, the smooth elasticity of its current, bound by chubby clay berms stitched with grass. He told his father he would take care of the property. There was no signed will, no legal papers to clarify to whom his shit should go. The estate was still in probate, and he was the only surviving heir. It didn’t matter much to Bobby, he went there when it felt right. He mostly wanted to visit the river, and Labor Day weekend sounded right.
The rain held back, straining hard against heavy-bellied clouds. Not even dusk yet, and he could hear the far away preparations for fireworks, a coiled whistle and crackling strings of firecrackers, an indistinct murmur of approval from the crowd. He decided to mow the path of grass between the car and the porch, and, suddenly ambitious, from the porch to the back of the yard towards the river. The mower sputtered. He checked the oil, topped up the gas. Mechanical needs fulfilled, he cranked it again. Five minutes in, he was sweating from his scalp onto his neck. The yard was weedy and uneven, but the smell of grass clippings was pleasant. He remembered his father tinkering with his Evinrude on hot days, smudged fingerprints on his shirt pocket whenever he reached for his cigarettes, rags spread out on the workbench according to absorbency. “Go tell your mother I need a soda, but none of that diet Tab shit. Coke or a 7-Up.” He was a rigid abstainer; his own father drank and it ruined him, so he was determined to be the straightest fucking nail ever to be driven. Maybe a glass of bourbon would have mellowed him, maybe it would have set his brain on fire, who could tell? Bobby drank beer when it was hot, when he was puttering in the yard, but didn’t think about it too much.
“You are going about this the wrong way,” his father used to say, about almost everything Bobby did. The old man was good at drawing, amazingly good, fucking fantastically good, but he considered it a chore, something he only submitted to when he had exhausted everything else and didn’t feel like watching TV. He kept a Faber-Castell colored pencil set in his sock drawer and only took it out on rainy days or late nights when everyone else had gone to bed. Sometimes he told Bobby to watch him, maybe learn something. “You don’t just set the pencil on the paper and start to draw. No, sir. ‘Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.’ You know who said that? Michelangelo. And drawing is the same thing. Look for the thing and draw it. It’s already there. It doesn’t have to be hard, but it has to be good, the best you can do, excellent if you can. Get it? Do you understand why I don’t do it very often? Because it would goddamn consume me.” And that was the deepest his father ever spoke about anything, and Bobby was eight years old, and that stuck with him more than the physical beratements. The beatings. He never forgot the lesson and he never lived up to it. That was what goddamn consumed him. His imperfection and his apparent acceptance of it.
Megan called him after supper. The place still had a landline and Bobby kept the phone connected, because you couldn’t get any bars on a cellphone out here in the Great Beyond. You could be laid out beside the river, half-eaten by a bear, before anyone realized you’d already been digested. At least a landline forced you to crawl back inside the house and die righteously, on linoleum.
“Just wanted to make sure you got there okay,” she said. “Is the place alright?”
“Locked up tight. A little dusty, and the yellowjackets have built a nest over the woodpile, but it looks good. Oh, and I think the back deck has termites. I’m going to call the exterminators on Tuesday. Nothing broken, though.” He took a deep breath. He hadn’t spoken so many words since he filled the car on Thursday and bought two bags of ice for the cooler. ”How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said, and paused. “Shitty, actually. You know what? I miss you. Labor Day was always a fun time. Wasn’t it? The promise of kids going back to school, cooler days, everything feeling fresh again.”
“You’re just being sentimental. If I were there, you’d be missing Elon.”
“His name is Alan and you know it.”
“Sorry, it’s a bad connection. You have any plans for tonight? Fireworks, cocktails by the lake?”
“He’s working, as usual. Are you planning to blow shit up?”
“Not even a sparkler. I can hear them getting ready over at the park. I’ll watch from the yard. A shot of bourbon and I’ll call it a night.”
“How are the boys?”
“Oh, they’re okay. They’re hanging out with Dennis and that other one, what’s his name….”
“Rory. Like the cowboy. They say they’re going to play video games, but you know damn well they’ll be down at the lake smoking cigarettes and picking up women.”
“Milfs, they call them.”
“Is that what they call them?”
“Seriously, though. Are they doing alright?”
“Oh, sure. The magic has rubbed off with Alan, as I figured it would. They’re kids. They’ll get in trouble and it’ll burn them once or twice, but I think they’re good boys and hopefully it won’t be too devastating for them. They’re fine, Bobby, really.”
“Okay. You need me to give them a stern talking-to, just let me know.”
“You know I will.”
A companionable silence fell between them. A rumble of thunder came from somewhere in the west.
“I don’t want to go fishing in the Luna Maria anymore.”
“Well, that’s good,” she said. “I don’t think you’d catch very much, and the conditions aren’t conducive to, you know, living.”
“That’s what I’m saying. I’m tired. I don’t want to go further away.”
She was silent. He could almost see her, studying her watch, distracted by a noise from outside, contemplating her scratched rose fingernail polish. “I never asked you to.”
“Okay. I just wanted you to know.”
“What do I know?”
“That I think I want to keep this place, maybe flesh it out, build on it. It’s not his anymore. And that I want you and the boys to come visit and maybe hang out. Elon can come too, if he’s not too busy.”
She gave him a faint raspberry. “Talk to me tomorrow, Bobby. By the light of day, not by the light of fireworks and sentimentality.”
“I will. Are you sorry you called?”
“No. I just didn’t expect it to take this turn.”
They gradually said their goodnights and he sat in an old adirondack chair in the middle of the yard and waited for night to arrive. The overhead clouds shambled by slowly, great beasts sniffing at the earth.
The first raindrop fell on his wrist, and it was cold and spread onto his hand like a spider. The deluge was sudden, and it stopped him from moving; he was committed to it now, a full-on rain, and he was submerged in it, tasting it like a kid, and it felt a little like a blessing.