By Toni Morgan

After a fitful sleep, Ken was relieved to see dawn shredding the last vestiges of night.  Outside his bedroom window, a thick glaze of frost covered the ground.  He pulled on the clothes he’d worn the day before and shoved his bare feet into an old pair of leather boots.  A board creaked as he tiptoed past his mother’s door.  He stopped to listen, hoping he hadn’t awakened her. The hum of the refrigerator came from the kitchen. No other sound. A moment later, he grabbed his windbreaker and stepped onto the porch.

His eyes swept across the fenced-in meadow separating the house from the highway. Every spring his father had traded venison or elk meat for a calf, which they’d fed up there. Marie always tried to make pets of them, no matter how many times he warned her not to, and every fall she cried when he and their father loaded the fattened animal into the back of the truck and drove off with it, heading for the butcher.

On the north side of the house, aluminum pie pans swung on dirty, wet string.  A scarecrow, its tattered remains anyway, lay propped against a broken bale of straw. Ken chuckled softly. Both were evidence of the war his mother waged each summer, trying to keep the deer, rabbits, and birds from her garden.

Hands stuffed in his pockets, he walked out to lean against the fence. A trail of dark footprints followed him.  Across the valley, wedged beneath a cloud-packed sky, white-crested mountains soared, their flanks blue-black with timber.

He sniffed the air.  It would snow soon.

“Ken?” His mother stood in the doorway, wrapped in a faded chenille bathrobe.  Her arms were crossed against the cold and she held a steaming cup in her hand. “Coffee’s made.”

Later, Ken went out to start the truck, careful to avoid getting dirt on the shoes he’d polished to a glossy sheen the night before.  He started the engine and let it warm up a few minutes before going back in the house for his mother.

“You look handsome in your uniform,” she said as he drove down the lane. At the end of the lane, he turned left, onto the highway.

“Thanks,” he said.  They were cautious with one another, the previous night’s conflict lingering between them.

When they reached the church, Marie and Paul waited in the vestibule.  Marie held the baby.  It was hard to think of his little sister as a wife and mother.  At eighteen, her face still carried the soft contours of her own childhood.  Paul, beside her, stood awkward and silent.  His big hands stuck out of the cuffs of his white dress-shirt, so new the creases from when it had been in the store wrapper were visible.

Ken hugged Marie and shook hands with Paul.  Marie’s eyes and nose were red, but she pulled back the edge of the blanket to show off her son.  It was the first Ken had seen his nephew and he wasn’t sure what he should say.  Paul tugged at his collar, lifting and extending his chin.

Ken glanced around, surprised at the number of people gathered. They’d never been much for attending church—from something his father had once said, he knew the old man had been brought up Catholic, though his father had never attended the Catholic church in town, at least to Ken’s knowledge.  His mother had taken him and Marie to the local Methodist church a few times, but that had stopped years before.  And they’d never participated much in town events—the Fourth of July rodeo was about it.

His mother had grown up in Platt City, though—her parents had owned the local grocery store. He and Marie had gone to school there, too, so he guessed some knew his father well enough they wanted to pay their respects.

He wondered what his father would have thought about being buried Protestant, if it would have mattered to him.  At sixty-three, had his old man thought he had plenty of time to make his peace with the priests?  Maybe he’d made whatever peace he needed to while lying on the ground next to the woodpile, his face crumpled and twisted, or in the ambulance, its siren sounding and lights flashing while the medics worked on him.

The baby stirred. Marie hushed him by stroking his back and whispering to him. Between them, Ken’s mother sat with her chin up, gazing at the minister. Her hands were gripped together in her lap and she twisted her wedding ring around and around on her finger. Ken fought the urge to reach over and take one of her hands, hold it, but he was afraid she might crack, the self-control holding her rigid, disintegrate.

He tried to listen to what the minister was saying, but couldn’t stay focused; how could the man say anything relevant about someone he’d probably never met? If he had met his father, maybe he could explain all the dead-end jobs his father had held or jobs he’d quit or walked away from—just so he could go hunting or fishing or whatever the hell he did up there in the mountains.

The minister’s voice faded. Ken was five years old again, standing on the porch next to his mother as the old green pickup truck his father drove swerved around the worst of the ruts, heading down the lane.  His mother held herself so still she didn’t seem to be breathing.

At the end of the lane, the truck stopped, appearing to hesitate.  Then, in a swirl of dust, it turned right, toward the mountains.  Instead of going to work, his father was going hunting.  Even at five, Ken understood this was not what fathers were meant to do.  They were supposed to go to work and take care of their families.

His mother’s shoulders sagged before she turned and stepped back into the kitchen.  He followed her inside and watched as she crossed to the sink and filled it with soapy water. Marie sat in her highchair, carefully examining each tiny circle of cereal before pushing it into her mouth.   When the sink was full, his mother picked up a cereal bowl from the breakfast dishes piled on the counter.  She washed it, rinsed it, and put it in the rack to dry.  As she reached for another, she scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her wrist.  Then she dropped the second bowl, splashing water down the front of her dress. She put her face in both of her hands, her shoulders shook.

Ken went to her and leaned his forehead against the back of her legs.  “It’s okay, Mommy.  We’ll be good.”

His mother knelt and gathered him close, resting her check against the top of his head.  “I know you will, honey.  You’re the man of this house when Daddy’s away.”

The image of his weeping mother had remained firmly planted in Ken’s memory. As he moved from childhood to teenager and then young man, his resentment toward his father grew, creating a wide gulf between them—a gulf frequently charged with bitter words and accusations.

Their final confrontation had come without warning, moving in as quickly as the lightning-filled summer storms that arrived every August, bringing with them the forest fires his mother dreaded.

They always ate dinner early on Sundays.  His father finished and pushed his plate aside.  “I’m going fishing tomorrow, up on Elk River.” He reached for his coffee.  “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

Anger, sudden and full-blown, flooded Ken. “You can’t go fishing.  What about your job? You don’t have any vacation time coming yet.  You’re just taking off again, aren’t you?”  His face was rigid with the effort it took to keep from shouting.

His father took a sip of coffee. “Don’t worry about it.”

His father’s implacable calm enraged Ken even more.  “Somebody around here has to, because you sure as hell don’t.  You’re never around when we need you.  There’s never enough money, either.  Mom is always having to do without things, worrying about bills, how to get enough food even.”

The last part wasn’t true, they always had plenty to eat, but by then Ken didn’t care.

His father shoved his cup aside. A muscle twitched in his cheek. “You leave your mother out of this.”

Ken’s chin jutted forward. “I won’t leave her out.”

Marie remained silent. Her eyes, large and shocked, moved from their father to Ken.

His mother’s face drained of color. “Ken, please…please don’t do this.”

Tears stung Ken’s eyes, making him even angrier that his father would see his weakness. He clenched his hands to keep them from trembling and ignored his mother’s effort to keep the peace; this had been building for too long.

He drew a deep breath. “She won’t tell you how many nights, while you’re off playing mountain-man, or whatever it is you do up there, I hear her crying. She won’t tell you how people look down their noses at us.  The kids at school laugh at Marie’s clothes.  They laugh at her, for God’s sake.  Mom won’t tell you the truth about any of it.  But I will.  I don’t know why you don’t just do us all a favor and stay up there in your goddam mountains.  You love them so much, why don’t you just stay up there?”

His mother’s hand flew to her mouth.  “Ken!”

Ken jumped up, knocking the chair over in his haste, and bolted out of the house, his father’s shout left hanging in the air behind him.  He tore off through the woods behind the house and didn’t stop running until, panting and sweat-soaked, he reached the river.  Leaning forward, he braced himself with his hands on his knees as he fought to catch his breath.

The riverbank’s smooth stones were still warm from the late afternoon sun.  When his heart finally slowed and his breathing evened out, he sat and stared over the water, noting a flicker of silver where a trout fed.

He heard the pickup’s engine long before it turned off the logging road onto the track leading down to the river.  He didn’t turn to look as the truck crunched to a halt behind him. Instead, he kept his gaze forward, fixed on the river.  The truck door slammed and footsteps sounded in the gravel.  He tensed as his father paused and then eased down beside him.
His father was the first to break the silence.

“You surprised me, Ken.  I guess saying I’m sorry I haven’t been the provider your mother deserves isn’t going to change things much.  Won’t really change things between you and me.”

Ken worked to swallow the tension in his throat.  “I’ve got to get out of here.  I’m eighteen. I’ll be graduating in a couple of months.  I’m going to join the Marine Corps.”

For a long minute, his father studied him, like he was trying to see underneath his words.  “You’re sure that’s what you want to do?  You’re not just thinking you’ll run off because you’re angry?”

The pressure Ken had felt for so long, as well as the lump in his throat, eased a bit.  “Yeah, I’m sure.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”  Ever since the recruiter had come to school.  He needed to get away, wanted to get away—wanted to test himself and prove he had what it took to be a man.

“I won’t try to change your mind if you’ve already decided.  I was hoping you’d set yourself on a different track, but each man needs to decide for himself what road he’s going to follow.  If the Marine Corps is yours, I’ll respect it.”

Ken nodded, as much to himself as to his father.  “It’s what I’ve decided.”

The rustle of movement around him as people stood returned Ken to the present. The service was over.

He held his mother’s elbow as they stepped outside the church into the blustery wind.  A neighbor came up to them, his mane of thick gray hair blowing around his weathered face.  Holding his hat in his left hand—the tips of his middle and index fingers missing, the result of a long-ago ranch accident—he extended his right.  “If there’s anything I can do for you, missus, you tell me.  I liked your man.”

His mother gave a weak smile.  “Thank you.” Her softly spoken words were whipped away in a gust of wind that rattled the bare branches of a nearby cottonwood tree.

It was too cold to stand and chat; as soon as the brief ceremony in the cemetery was over, people fled to their waiting cars and trucks. The family, including Paul’s father, caravanned back to the house for the lunch Ken’s mother had prepared the night before.  When they reached home, they found a ham and several covered dishes on the porch.  

His mother picked up the ham.  “People have been doing this for days.  You’ll have to take some home with you, Marie.  You, too, Frank,” she said to Paul’s father.  “Otherwise it will go to waste.”

During the meal, Marie kept looking at their father’s chair and crying.  Paul tried to comfort her, but she wouldn’t be.  The baby woke up crying, too, until Ken’s mother picked him up and held him on her lap.  Paul’s father tried to keep a conversation going, but got no help and eventually gave up.

Like the rest of them, Ken pushed his food around on his plate and thought his own thoughts—mainly about how his mother was going to cope.  The place always needed something done: firewood chopped; the garden plowed every spring; there was a porch rail that came loose each summer, when the wood dried out.  He pictured her sitting alone in the evenings, lonely and brooding.  His enlistment would be up in a year-and-a-half.  He’d planned to re-enlist, to make the Marine Corps a career, but if she wouldn’t leave this house, he’d have to get out. He’d have to come home and take care of her.

“I don’t know why you won’t sell,” he blurted out, surprising himself, but unable to contain his feelings.

“We’ve already talked about this, Ken.” His mother’s voice was even, though her eyes held a warning gleam.

“He’s right, Mom.”

Ken had talked to Marie on the phone the night before, a long, whispered conversation after their mother had gone to bed. They’d agreed one-hundred percent their mother should sell.

Marie gripped her mother’s hand. “This house is too big for one person. You should sell it and move into town near Paul and me.”

“Or use the money to travel.” Travel is what Ken would do. Who’d hang around Platt City, Idaho, when there was a chance to get out and see the world?  She wasn’t even old yet.

“I’ve told you, both of you, this is my home.  I’m not leaving.” 

By the set of his mother’s jaw, Ken knew it was no use talking sense to her, at least not now.  Just because his father had built it, she acted as though it was the Taj Mahal or something.  It was a house, for Christ’s sake, not a fucking monument.  Why couldn’t she figure that out?

Paul’s father pushed back from the table.  “I guess it’s time for me to head on home.”  Head cocked to one side, he looked at his son and daughter-in-law.

Marie answered his unspoken question. “We’ll stay a little longer.”

“Now don’t you be worrying about the dishes,” Ken’s mother said.  “I can take care of them in no time.”

Marie picked up her plate and silverware.  “No, Mom.  You go relax; play with your grandson.  Paul and Ken will help me.”

Later, when Marie, Paul and the baby had gone home and his mother, looking drained, said she was going to lie down for a while, Ken took the truck keys from their hook by the door. 

Twenty minutes later, he turned onto the logging road. He ignored the No Trespassing sign, just as he and his high school friends used to do, just as his father had done.

Signs of summer lingered in the clearing beside the river: a thick rope hung from a bare tree branch; a pair of red, high-top tennis shoes tied together by the laces, dangled from another branch; some soda and beer cans were piled next to a log.  He turned off the truck’s engine, but didn’t get out.

The laughter of his friends echoed all around him as he recalled summers past—the wild splashing, the horseplay, the crazy dares.  Many times, he’d come alone and sat on the rocks under the bridge, throwing stones at empty tin cans while logging trucks roared above his head.  Sometimes, out of frustration or boredom or simple recklessness, he’d swum to exhaustion, barely having strength to fight the current back to shore.

But the last time he’d been there, when his anger at his father had erupted and his father had followed him to the river, that was the memory that stayed with him. That and the image of his mother crying at the sink, the image that had fueled his childhood and teenage anger.

Then, staring at the swollen river flowing silently past, another memory emerged.  It must have happened about the same time, maybe the same trip.  They were eating dinner. Ken, his fork paused in midair, glanced at his mother when he heard the familiar sound of his father’s truck coming down the lane. He didn’t know how long his father had been gone. A week, maybe two.

He watched the stillness on his mother’s face as his father’s footsteps sounded on the porch.  When the door opened and shut, a gust of wind sent sparks shooting up the chimney.  Without a word, his father walked across the room to the table, then dropped down beside Marie’s highchair, leaned over and retrieved her spoon from the floor.

As though it had just happened, Ken saw again the loving look that had appeared in his mother’s eyes, the warm and welcoming smile that played across her lips as she reached out and rested a hand on his father’s unshaven, wind-reddened cheek.

Ken’s own cheek burned with the sudden memory. He began to remember other things about his father, things he’d long ago set aside. Like sitting on the porch when he and Marie were young, Marie on their father’s lap, watching a storm approach over the mountains. They’d counted the seconds between the lightning and when they heard the thunder. When the storm was close and the thunder loud, his father had cupped his hands over Marie’s ears.

He remembered, too, the stories and legends his father told them about the woods and the creatures that inhabited them. The stories were so real, Ken had felt he was right there, seeing the cougar that had surveyed his father from across a creek before suddenly disappearing, as though it had never been there at all. Or watching the mother deer, her nose raised and twitching, as she led her young fawn through the forest.  

His thoughts returned to the day his father had followed him to the river. After he’d announced he was joining the Marine Corps and his father accepted his decision, they’d remained on the bank, quietly talking, until a breeze rustled the leaves on the branches of the trees lining the far bank of the river, making their shadows toss and dance as they skipped across the water and climbed the bank to where they sat.

“It’s time to go home,” his father had said.  “Your mother’s waiting.”

Across the river, the same trees lined the bank, their branches, now bare, shook in the wind. Ken ignored the cold seeping into the truck’s cab. Finally, when nightfall arrived and the trees became only a shadowy blur, he reached out and started the engine.

It’s time to go, he thought, almost echoing his father’s words.

He put the truck in gear. It shot forward.

About the Author:

Toni Morgan’s previous publishing credits include two drafts of a short story in Mooring Against the Tide, a creative writing textbook published by Prentice Hall, and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. Toni is a retired banker.