It was the final resting place of a Matador, a clunky overweight sedan that American Motors Corporation produced during the 1970s, a car that tended to have a shorter lifespan than some fighting bulls, and which had certainly not outlived any actual bullfighter. Nestled into the fencerow and surrounded by a clump of staghorn sumac, the maroon four-door had been a fixture on the farm as long as Rob could remember. The glass was all intact, surprisingly, but whether it was the posted signs or the distance from the road that had saved it from the depredations of hunters, he couldn’t say. He noted the patina of grime on the side windows, windows that reflected his upper body and the top of Henry’s head.
“Uh, uh!” Henry said, and tugged his father’s hand toward the derelict car.
The boy’s hand was limp and moist in his own, and Rob was afraid to let it go, the kid was so fast, he’d find trouble before the man could blink. Shading his eyes with his free hand, he once more looked to the sky. The thunderhead was growing fast. He wiped sweat from his brow with his forearm and returned his gaze to the boy.
“No, Henry, it’s all dirty. Your mom won’t be happy if I bring you back covered in filth.” The boy started to make his shrill cry and his father gritted his teeth. “God damn it,” he said softly, and allowed the boy to lead him to the car. He let go of the boy’s hand but kept very close to the small body.
“Uh, uh!” said the boy, and slapped his hands repeatedly against the driver’s window for several long minutes. Next he flattened his lips against the glass, then licked the window up as high as he could reach, a snail-trail of clean on the glass.
Rob covered his eyes with a hand and shook his head. “God, Henry, d’you have to do that?” But it was a rhetorical question. Henry only made the ‘uh, uh’ noise or, when vexed, a strident wail. Rob received no answer, expected none; he merely followed the silent boy around to the front of the car.
Henry wouldn’t or couldn’t even make eye contact, except with animals, which was why if the weather was decent Rob brought him on alternate weekends, his time with the boy, to his neighbor’s dairy. Today Henry had gazed into the calves’ eyes for ages, until he wet himself in fact, and the calves stared back with their big doe-eyes and long bovine lashes, whether sharing mute secrets or just passing the time, Rob had no idea. Even the schizoid Border collie grew tame around the boy, and kissed his face with its long foxy muzzle and let him bury his hands in tangled fur. But they had finished visiting the animals, and were walking crosslots through the hayfields back to Rob’s place when the Matador sidetracked them.
“Uh, uh!” Henry tried to use the bumper as a step to get on the hood, but his foot slipped on the rounded chrome. “Uh!” he said, and repeated the process again, step, slip, grunt, and again and again with dogged determination.
Rob thought, like that damn turtle Julie got him once, always trying to crawl out of its terrarium. “How long you gonna keep that up, kid?” There probably was an answer to that question, and to others like it, but the man had never waited long enough to find out. He knew the boy might continue beyond exhaustion, even beyond injury. Finally Rob grasped him firmly but gently under the armpits. In the brief moment his father held him, the boy shrieked and squirmed as if the cracked and scarred hands were white hot. He placed the boy on the hood.
When he set Henry down, the boy instantly fell silent and scrambled, turtle-like, on all fours to the juncture of windshield and hood where years worth of composted leaves had accumulated. Rob watched him unearth the windshield wipers, then glanced at the sky and frowned. When he looked back down Henry was arranging round, pea-sized seeds along the wipers, which served as a miniature pair of shelves. After a few minutes the pattern seemed obvious: two seeds with holes, holes made by some insect that ate the insides out, followed by one intact seed. There was always a pattern to his fascinations, though some took a long time to identify.
“Those are basswood seeds, Henry,” the man said. “Grow up to be big like these.” He gestured to trees in the fencerow. Henry didn’t seem to hear his father, and certainly didn’t look where the man was pointing. “Basswood’s good for carving. Wood’s soft, and it doesn’t check.” The man did some carving, and he imagined just then sitting next to his boy on the back deck. You hold the knife like this, Henry, that’s it. Hey that came out nice, Bud, you’re getting to be a real pro. Thanks, Dad.
He came back from his daydream and looked at his son’s besmirched face, nothing that couldn’t be cleaned up, he thought, and then considered the expression. Intent. Henry would stay there sorting until he ran out of seeds, which, given their abundance, Rob reckoned would take about three days. The face was intent, yet at the same time somehow vacant. It was the eyes, the proverbial thousand-yard stare, fixed on Planet Henry, where no one else could go. Rob wished he could be sure, just once, that the boy saw him.
Thunder boomed, and the man’s heart pounded. Things were getting dark fast. Since childhood he’d been afraid of thunder and lightning, deathly afraid, and he found it ironic that his son, who startled at the click of a light switch, was paradoxically oblivious to thunder. And hence was unafraid.
Somehow the thought of feeling the scalp-prickle of rising hairs, knowing a lightning strike was an instant away and unavoidable, filled him with a terror like no other. When he and Julie were together she’d tease him, big lug like you scared of lightning, c’mon. But it was good-natured back then, before Henry, before everything turned.
For Henry, even a small transition seemed a turbulent rearrangement of the known universe, and Rob braced himself for the flailing and shrill scream as he reached for the boy—they had to really hustle for the last half-mile back to the trailer to beat the storm. But before he made contact with his son, there were sounds of protest.
“Uh, uh! Uh, uh!”
Rob cocked his head and looked at his son. There were still plenty of basswood seeds within reach, so what was wrong? Then he noticed the strain on the boy’s face and smelled what was happening. He slipped off the backpack and unzipped it.
“Jesus,” he said. “God damn bad timing.” He smoothed out a bed in the alfalfa, made sure there was no stubble to poke the boy, and spread out the thin blanket. When Henry was a baby Rob didn’t mind this but now that he was five it was different. The boy was silent and stiff on the hood of the car, and Rob scooped him up and laid him on the ground. More thunder, and Rob fumbled with shoes and pants. It was a mess, and required most of the wipes. He shot a look upward, then fumbled with a clean pull-up, then pants and shoes. A smattering of raindrops fell amongst the hay, it was a soft sound, not at all a dangerous one, but the man knew the storm was upon them. He set his boy on his feet.
“Uh, uh!” Henry pointed to the car.
“Sorry, Henry, we have to hurry. We’ll play with the car next time. Maybe.” Rob donned the pack and picked up Henry, looking down the hill toward his trailer. He still ran twice a week, he could make it carrying the boy. The screaming hurt his ears, and the boy thrashed. “Hang on, Henry.”
Then it hit. A flash of blue and a popping like the breaking of an incandescent bulb, followed immediately by thunder that shook Rob’s flesh. He landed hard on his back, heard something inside the pack break, or maybe, he thought, it was his back. He felt a weight and warmth on his chest, realized it was Henry and stared in amazement. The first time they’d ever touched without a struggle. His heart lurched. Shit, something must be wrong.
“Henry? You OK?” he asked, and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Henry screamed and recoiled. “Take it that’s a yes,” The man murmured. He sighed, scrambled to his feet, then grimaced. His right ankle, he realized, was not going to let him run anytime soon. Must have twisted it somehow, didn’t even remember. Not broken, he was pretty sure, but maybe a sprain. No running, and shit, maybe no walking either.
But there had been no hair standing up, no direct hit to them or even right near them. Still, it couldn’t have hit far off. Down the fencerow Rob spotted the trunk of a black locust, its lemon-lime-colored wood splintered and exposed. If dynamite had gone off inside it, it couldn’t have done worse. Strewn all into the mown hay, chunks of wood shone bright and fresh even in the storm-gloom. Rob shivered.
“Uh, uh!” Henry pointed toward the car. Thunder sounded, the soft pattering turned to heavy cold rain.
Rob thought—open fields between them and home, bad idea in a T-storm to begin with, plus he might have to crawl. The car was dry, and while there were no tires to insulate against a lightning strike, the upholstered seats would provide some protection.
“Yeah, good idea, Henry,” Rob said, and took the boy’s hand. “Just till it blows over.”
The door opened hard and then the smell of mold and mouse urine poured out. Henry began to retch, but his father pushed him onto the bench seat, slid in next to him and slammed the door. Henry stopped gagging after a moment.
“Sorry guy, I know it smells bad. Here, look at this.” He pointed to the basswood seeds arranged on the wiper blades. Thick overhead foliage, dirty windows and a dark sky made it hard to see, but Henry squinted, and began to touch the windshield behind each seed, poke, poke, poke, moving right to left. Rob smiled. “Good thing we’re both easily amused, Bud.” He sat back and listened to the rain, smelled the fungus and ammonia funk and watched his son.
After the ultrasound revealed to the excited parents it was a boy, he’d gone out, bought a little baseball glove and a foam football, barely resisted purchasing a minibike. While the boy was still in his bassinette he imagined his son hanging around at the shop with him, see kid, when the tranny fluid’s brown like this it’s a bad sign, going fishing with his son, that’s a bullhead, you have to grab him behind the pectoral fins like this or he’ll stick you, driving the back roads with his son on his lap steering, you’re drifting left, Henry, now correct nice and easy, that’s it.
“Uh!” said Rob. Henry was moving left, touching the windshield behind each seed and, not seeming to notice his father, had stepped on the man’s lap. “Jeez, that hurts, kid.” He watched the boy finish and then start over, moving left to right this time. Water sheeted down the windows, twilight was turning to midnight, punctuated by lightning. Whenever a flash illuminated the car, the man tensed for the thunder.
While Henry poked at the glass, Rob’s mind wandered. He thought about his motorcycle. Would Henry be able to ride safely? He couldn’t lean with the bike, but he was small for his age, Rob could handle the dead weight. But no, the helmet would drive him nuts, he refused even to wear a toque in the winter. And Julie, she’d never allow it anyway. He sighed. Then looked toward Henry. Lightning flashed.
“No! Henry, no, don’t touch!” Rob had seen Henry with a yellow jacket on his finger, holding it up to his eye. “No!” He reached over to where he thought the hand would be and swatted through the darkness. Henry wailed like a siren, and Rob grabbed him and flipped him over the backrest into the back seat. “Sorry, Bud.”
Rob could hear buzzing now, and he knew there was a nest. Up and to his right—the sun visor, of course! He pulled it down, heard the paper nest tear and began to mash it, feeling the slime of pupae and smeared wasps. As the stings moved up his arms to his neck and face he swatted, frantic. Minutes passed, he wasn’t sure if five or fifteen, and the stinging was over. The buzzing stopped.
Henry had also stopped. The back seat was silent.
“You OK, little guy?”
“Uh,” said Henry.
“Guess you are. Here.” Feeling inside the pack, the man dug out the juice box that hadn’t burst when he fell and held it out. “Take it, Henry, go on.” Distant lightning struck and Rob could see his boy’s right index finger was swollen. So he had been stung, dang. “Poor guy. Just one, right? Here, let Daddy look.” He reached for the hand but the boy drew it away and shrieked. “OK, OK, you win. Here.” The man touched the box to Henry’s left hand and he took it. “Go on, Henry, it’s your favorite, drink up.” The boy lifted the straw to his mouth listlessly. “Good man. Guess we’ll have to tell Mom about our little incident.” He took the blanket from the pack, covered Henry’s lap and legs and turned forward again.
Rob, grateful Henry was resting peacefully, felt his ankle. It was only a little tender, and not as swollen as he expected. The strike had freaked him, he’d overreacted. The stings were another matter; they sent shock waves through his body like electrical charges. He could feel the swelling in his arms and shoulders, and especially his face, but he’d been stung up plenty of times. Julie was the one who went into anaphylactic shock from a sting and had to carry an epi-pen. It was going to be all right. The worst of the storm had gone by. Lightning and thunder were becoming less frequent and less intense, rain drummed soft but constant.
He wondered, how long would he have to change diapers? Would Henry always need this level of care? Julie and her new man took care of him now, but could Henry move into some kind of group home when he grew up? And, as Rob was already thirty-three, would he ever get a chance to have another family? Was it too much to ask to have a kid who hugged his dad? Who even looked at his dad? He closed his eyes as they began to tear up. A better father wouldn’t have thoughts like that.
When Rob awakened, the sun was breaking through. Glancing at the small figure lying on the back seat, he pushed open his door gently as he could, stepped out and pulled the backpack after him, leaving the door open. He yawned, stretched, breathed in the damp, refreshed, ozonated, hay-scented after-storm air and went to the back door. Looking through the filthy window at his son, he smiled.
Little rascal. Never napped a day in his life when he was a baby. Whoever said ‘sleeping like a baby’ never saw one like this, Julie and Rob had both said that when Henry was an infant. Must be all the fresh air got to him, romping through the fields. And the cow shit. He started to pull the handle, and waited.
He startles so bad, the kid’s going to scream bloody murder when I wake him. Maybe rap on the window. No, that’s too harsh a noise, he’ll startle. He pulled slowly. The door groaned, stiff on rusted hinges. Rob, amazed the boy hadn’t woken, could see the juice box had bled out a dark stain on the floor where it had fallen. The boy had bunched up the blanket by his neck, obscuring his face. His left arm looked swollen, and Rob blinked, hesitated. Damn. It’s just the arm, just the arm. I’ll put ice on it back at the trailer.
“Henry?” the man said. “Little man?” His voice cracked. “Henry?” He swallowed, reached for the blanket and stopped. Poor kid, must be really wiped out. “Hey. Time to go, mister.” Just let the kid rest, Rob told himself. Needs more rest. But already his scalp was prickling; he knew that when he moved the blanket, Henry’s face would be swollen and blue, knew that he could now look directly into those brown eyes if he dared, knew that lightning was about to strike him and that there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Paul Hetzler is an arborist, farmer/ homesteader and father of two adolescents. He lives off-grid in northern NY State and shares his farm with aforementioned children and sundry other types of wildlife. His stories have appeared in Highlights for Children, Northern Woodlands Magazine as well as in the medical journal The Lancet (2007 end-of-year special issue).
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Dispassionate and random as lightning, tragedy doesn’t exempt children; as a father, just imagining such loss wracks my solar plexus. And while even the most loving parent has pangs of ambivalence, of resentment, regret for such thoughts must compound the aftermath of a situation like this.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Probably right here where I live—woods, waterfalls, cliffs, ponds, fields...it's the kind of place people go to on vacation; I'm ridiculously blessed. There are more breathtaking places, for sure. But hey, second place ain't bad.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: My computers have all been hand-me-downs. Right now I have a PC notebook that I have to tip upside down and rap on the desk to start. It works and I love it.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: Inspiration, followed by a hurried first draft which I immediately submit all over. After the rejections I shelve it for a long time, eventually revising it like I should have in the first place.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: Funny, I don't think of myself as a writer. Come to think of it I don't really identify with any label, with the possible exception of "dad."