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The Laws of Fathers and Sons

                                    Nick McRae


I. LOAFING

In an old Polaroid I no longer have—one that I may have only imagined, though I remember it well—my father is behind the wheel of the pale blue 1976 Ford pickup that he drove from the time of my earliest memory of him until the transmission finally went. He’s wearing one of his going-to-town shirts—a short-sleeved plaid button-up in green or slate blue or the brown of summer eggs. A couple of fingers curl loosely around the wheel as the other hand steadies the can of Diet Coke that rests on the seat between his thighs. His eyes are hidden by the glare from a bleached country highway as it reflects on the pitted lenses of his glasses. The window is down. His still-thick hair—white as politicians’ teeth—ruffles gently in the wind, his mouth poised as if about to whistle.

As a child, I liked to play in his shop as he worked. Sometimes he would let me sweep, pushing the wide broom through mounds of paint dust as he sanded, or buffed, or filled small holes in fenders with thick gray putty. And sometimes, on the best days, he would emerge from his spartan office, rubbing his hands with a bit of rag, and say, “Hop in the truck,” which meant it was time to loaf.

Loafing, as we use the word, means driving. Not driving toward or away from anything in particular, but just driving, plain and simple. Just to pass the time. This is how I learned the back roads, the ridge and valley byways of Chattooga County, Georgia. This is how I learned to drive slowly, dreamily, in near perfect silence.

There are many types of silence with many different uses, and on most days it seemed my father had mastered them all. But on loafing days—the ones I believe he felt closest to me—he would forget the silence altogether. He’d purse his lips and let a thin, skillful whistle begin to escape, improvising a tune as winding and familiar as the roads he steered us down.

 

II. BODIES OF CLAY

I am lying on my left side, my left arm crushed between my body and the car door, my shoulder pushing into glass shards and knotted pine roots, the steering wheel against my chest. The dash presses deep into my thighs. When I open my eyes the world is sideways. Everything is still. The pulsating buzz of the insects in the trees and hay fields rises to the pitch of a scream. Even the air is still, and in the deep shade of the pine, the hot, dense air presses down on my face.

I feel no pain. My head is pressed between something very heavy and the shockingly cool silt of the ground. I see tree bark. I see bare, crumpled steel. I can barely breathe. When I do breathe, I splatter the wood and metal with flecks of blood. My body feels bound and compressed inside the car. I hear the erratic ticking and popping of a machine settling into itself. In a flash I recall the sound of metal twisting and rending. The sick thrill of being thrust forward into the blackness uncontrollably. The stillness that follows.

My head is pinned to the earth by the curved blue metal roof of my ‘92 Lincoln Continental, a gift from my father. I think of him and then I think of nothing. I feel the seatbelt strung tight across my hips and chest. I grope blindly around again with my right hand. I slide my hand across the headliner’s still-cool plush. It warms with my touch, and quickly the whole cabin is an oven.

I hear a voice. It’s a woman’s voice, with the croak of cigarettes and age and the soft sibilance of missing teeth. She tells me help is coming. Then she is gone. In the rush of what follows, anyone could disappear. Later, when I ask, no one will know who she was or that she was ever there. From this day, at sixteen years old, I will believe she was an angel—a rough, wizened, backwoods angel—until years later when, questioning the God who let my body break, I will let that belief go.

 

I hear sirens pushing toward me out of the distance, the sound of diesel engines. Boots slapping the ground. Brusque shouts from many throats. Someone is talking to me. I say I feel no pain at all. I say it’s hard to breathe. An oxygen mask is strapped to my face, and I breathe blood into the plastic dome of it. I hear everything but all I see is wood and metal and blood. I hear the hammer striking glass. Someone crawls into the car and takes me by the arm. The needle enters my skin like cool water. I feel the gentle tug of medical tape as it’s drawn across the tube’s narrow neck. As the morphine enters my bloodstream, sounds grow eerily distinct, and the wood and metal and blood blur around the edges.

There are so many voices, so much talking. Too much talking. The heat is stifling. Even with the oxygen, breaths are harder and harder to draw. The voices drone on. Loosened by the morphine, I begin to speak. Stop talking about it and do something—get me out of here, I tell them. They say they must be very careful or they might hurt me more. No one knows how badly I am damaged. Besides the weight in my chest, I can’t tell if I am hurt at all. There is still no pain. What the talkers can see—the flesh of my scalp torn back, the blood streaming from my head—I cannot. I have lain so long in this oven. All I want is out.

I hear a generator sputter to life. I hear bodies shuffling around me, bracing the hulking steel frame that rests on my head. I hear sharp metal scraping paint, the dull tap of steel gripping steel, a voice counting toward one. The car shudders as the hydraulic cutter pinches through it with a muffled clank. Then again. Over and over the voices count, the massive jaws close, the car’s roof shifts. Three two one. Clank. Shudder. Soon the roof is lifted off and I can feel the gentle stir of air on my sweat-soaked body. My head is now free and I could lift it and look around me, but I lie still nonetheless and stare at the wood and metal and blood. I hear the pulsing beat of a helicopter landing somewhere close. I feel someone leaning over me, running a blade though the taut seatbelt. I feel powerful arms gripping mine and pulling hard against my body. I don’t budge, the dash still clamping down on my thighs. From the corner of my eye I see hydraulic spreaders wedged into the far side of the car. The voices count. The spreaders expand, and as the dash lifts from my legs, I am pulled from the broken shell of the car and half-dragged onto a stretcher. Faces hover over me. Hands hold my arms, legs, and head as they strap me into place.

I am lifted from the ground and moving jerkily toward the deep thrum of the helicopter. Out of the shadow of the pine, the sunlight weighs on my skin like a physical object. The sky is a bold blue and completely clear. I slip into the shadow of the helicopter’s hull. As the machine rises from the ground, a calm, clean-shaven face looks down into mine. His mouth is a straight line and his eyes impossibly dark and darkening yet. The morphine has hold of me fully. Flying through the air is thrilling. It is pleasurable in a way it should not be right now. This is fun—I’ve never been in a helicopter before, I tell him. I realize later that this is not true. But in the past it was a touristy vacation novelty, and this time it is about my life. I am the center of the machine as a child is the center of a father’s worry. I am flying toward another life. I never want the journey to end.

 

On the landing pad, I close my eyes tightly against the sun, and then it’s gone and I’m thrust through doors into the cold of the trauma unit. There are hands everywhere. Hands with scissors hacking at my belt and slicing through my jeans and shirt and underwear. Hands pulling shards of glass from my face and arms and picking the glistening, clear-red granules from my wounds. Hands washing the blood and dirt from the torn places in my flesh. I hear a voice—this is going to feel really strange, but everything is okay, everything is okay—and the hands insert a long plastic catheter into my urethra. It feels wrong and intrusive and humiliating, and then it’s deep inside me and it’s over. I hear another voice—I need you to swallow, okay, just start swallowing, no matter what—and the hands feed a plastic tube through my right nostril. I feel it in my throat and I want to vomit, but I listen to the voice and swallow over and over again until the tube is all the way within me. I feel a needle entering my chest just below the shoulder bone and everything is fuzzy and growing darker and then everything stops and time stops and I stop thinking.

 

When I open my eyes, the world is dim and blue and silent but for the hum of the blinking machine hovering over the bed. Mom and Dad are here, quietly leaning toward me. I can make out the horrified looks on their faces even in the eerie darkness of the intensive care unit. I am swimming in morphine. I feel no pain but a dull ache in my chest, and when I try to move my hands they feel heavy and distant and will move only a few inches before I am exhausted. My mouth and throat feel dry and blistered as though caked in sand. My thirst is overwhelming. I try to cry out for water but manage only a faint croak. Only then can I feel the tube running down my throat. I croak again and again. Dad looks on silently, wet-faced. Somehow Mom can interpret my noises. Strangely calm, she tells me I can’t have water yet. To my opiate-drenched mind, this is devastating. I stare at the ceiling in defeat and Mom gently cradles my right hand as though afraid she might break it.

Later they are gone and I am alone in the blue dark of the ICU. Through the glass wall in front of me, I see a nurse hunched over a magazine at the high counter. I look over at the TV hanging from my ceiling. Someone left it on, the volume inaudibly low. I can tell by the gold symbol in the corner of the screen that it is the Christian channel. The nice-looking middle-aged man in the show seems jolly and content. He’s wearing full blue-and-white striped pajamas and a long sleeping cap in the same pattern. The voiceover is a low, distant rumbling. He lies down in his bed, draws the covers up to his chin, and drifts smiling off to sleep. When he opens his eyes he is in Hell. His bed is gone and he’s swirling in a world of flame. Pitchfork wielding demons prod him cruelly as a bearded, red-eyed Satan looks on and laughs.

I close my eyes and turn my face away. I care very much for my soul but know nothing about it. I will not ask for years yet why God would break me open. Until then I will bear, like Job, the burden of a derailed life and damaged body squarely on my own two shoulders. Until then, I will accept it as His plan, the Father’s plan, never asking, what of mine? In the sterile, blue-washed ICU as the televised hellfire licks the screen, I don’t know anything but the lightness of my own body and the rasp of the plastic on the sensitive tissue of my throat. The machine beside me hums and hums and I wish I were anywhere else and pray I won’t die and I slip into the deep pool of morphine sleep.

 

It is days later and I am in a new room—white walls, the whir and beep of electronic devices, distant footsteps, hushed talking. I can speak and eat ice chips and even drink a little water. I’m being prepped for surgery again. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the surgeons repaired the compound fracture of my left femur with a long titanium rod and closed up the torn flesh around it, split open my left arm to piece my shattered humerus back together with a titanium plate and screws, then stapled shut my lacerated scalp and all the other large wounds. This surgery is for the other leg—all the knee’s ligaments torn save the medial collateral ligament. Mom, Dad, and my brother Chris are in the room. A doctor and two nurses enter. One of the nurses slides a needle into the central venous line—the plastic tube running into my chest—and pumps a syringe of colorless fluid into the vein and straight to my heart. Instantly I feel my muscles begin to relax and all the tension leave my body. My family looks on as the three white-clad forms unlock the wheels of the bed and steer me out of the room and into the long, busy hallway.

The operating room is cold and bright and oddly loud. Many voices chatter and surgical instruments clatter onto trays and ring out tinnily as they strike against each other. Then it is quiet and faces are all around me, peering down into mine. A hand places a clear plastic dome over my nose and mouth. Breathe in and count backward from ten, a man says, his voice going flat and monotone and metallic as he speaks and my vision begins to cloud. You all sound like robots, I say. The faces all smile and someone chuckles.

Then you’re almost there, the doctor’s robot voice says, and then I’m beneath a wave in an ocean of blackness and I let myself sink to the floor of it.

 

When I wake up the pain is blinding. My eyes refuse to open. The pain is stabbing and burning and pulsating all at once and radiates outward from my leg to the rest of my body. In the post-operative, post-anesthesia haze of paralysis and confusion, my mind goes to strange places. In my mind, everyone is my captor and my torturer. In my mind, my legs have been cruelly twisted and mangled and the whole length of me shoved into a tiny shopping cart and the doctors have rolled me to a remote corner of the hospital and left me there to suffer and die. I begin to weep at the injustice of it. What had I done to deserve this horrible torture, this abandonment, this indignity of being stuffed like so many Thanksgiving turkeys into the cold wire basket of a cart and left in the storeroom to rot?

My eyelids feel lighter. Prepared to look on my own bizarre shame, I manage to open them. Instead of the cart I see my two legs sticking straight out in front of me. The room is bright and clean. A nurse sits poring over stacks of forms at her desk. The recovery room. I look at my right knee, the source of the dreadful pain. I half expect it to be on fire, or to see a rusted shank of rebar jabbing through one side and hanging, blood-slicked, out the other. Instead I see puffy bandages strapped with medical tape and spotted along the top and right side with the faint orange of gauze soaked in blood and Betadine. I can’t understand why there is so much pain when before there was none. I want to go back into the bliss of shock and crushed nerves and morphine. I want to undo the surgeons’ work and cover my eyes with my hands and sleep for a year.

Later, I will hear in a movie that the knee is one of the most painful places to be shot. I won’t know if it is true, but I will believe it nonetheless. I will remember the torture and feel the memory in my bones and nod solemnly as the actor—and the character, who knows this pain as I do—delivers his line.

 

I am back in my regular hospital room in the deep haze of a morphine dream. Everything is two things at once, as things can only be in dreams. I am lying trapped in the car again, this time facing upward. The car is crushing me but the car is also my body and I love it. My friends all stand around me, but it is also a scene from a Vietnam War movie and they are a platoon of soldiers with automatic rifles. Unseen forms rustle the high pine branches above us and my friends, stoic, raise their weapons and fire into the tufts of cones and needles. I watch them firing at the tree people and I am proud of them yet inconsolably sad. Then I feel the ground begin to shift beneath me and suddenly we’re all sinking into a pit of deep red clay and we kick and struggle as it slowly sucks us down into the mire.

When I open my eyes I am writhing in the bed and trying desperately to kick the air—to save myself from the hungry red clay of the morphine dream—though my legs are barely strong enough to move at all. Dad is leaning over me with one hand on my face and one gripping the bedrail. Are you okay son? Son what’s the matter? he says breathlessly. I wince at the cutting pain in my legs—dull on one side, excruciating on the other—aggravated by my writhing and bucking.

It’s okay Dad, I’m okay, there were people in the trees and I was sinking, I say. Dad sits down and exhales. I look down at my legs. I don’t want to sink back into the clay.

I stare at the ceiling. Pain is everywhere—my whole body pulses with it. Of Job, Satan told God, put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. He was wrong. Job was strong and sure, and when his affliction ended his body was made whole again. I am not Job. Like him, I will not die, and for a time I will be strong and sure, but at sixteen years old, broken and terrified, I do not know that at nineteen I will curse and turn away from God and come crawling back to Him at twenty-three, tentative and skeptical and desperate for a way to understand this God who would break me open with the same large hands in which He is supposed to cradle the world. I don’t know now that my body will never quite be fixed, and that the pain will be with me every day of my life, though lessened. I don’t know that there will always be clay in which to sink, a healing sea—be it medicine, or love, or God re-imagined—to swim, and the sometimes obvious, sometimes obscured choice between them.

Here, now, writhing in the bright hospital room with Dad praying quietly at my side, I choose to swim. I reach for the morphine button, press it as hard as I can, and close my eyes, waiting for the sleep to come wash over me again, wondering if it ever will, knowing if it does I’ll swim out into it as though it were the tide going out and never turn back until I find a new shore on which to drag myself, and crawl, and finally walk again, a labored walk though it must be.

 

III. BUG

I am standing in the driveway with a bent piece of scrap metal on my head—I am a Sherman tank, I am the robot 217MX, I am an Elite Space Marine from the year 2222, I am Charlemagne—when I see Dad’s blue ’73 Ford pickup careen, as slowly as you’ve ever seen anything careen in your life, into the dust of the driveway. I am ten years old. He’s pulling a trailer with something on it—I can’t tell what. It’s hard to see anything through the rusted-out nail-holes—through the visor of my sophisticated headgear. I lift the metal sheet off my head and place it gently on the ground with my custom briar-spear and rough-barked, high-tech oak stick rifle. I still can’t see. I left my glasses in my bookbag—in the house—so far away. Mom is in the house watching Murder, She Wrote. I hate my glasses. They’re ugly. They’re gold, and the frames slope down on the outside so that it looks like I’m sad all the time. I’m only sad part of the time. God, he’s going so slow. He’s barreling up the driveway at such a recklessly slow pace you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost like he isn’t even barreling at all. But he is. You can’t drive a truck like that and not barrel and careen. It just isn’t done.

Suddenly I am bored of staring down the long driveway, sheets of heat rising from the white gravel, the grinding, shifting sound of tires on rock. I turn to look at the house, pick up my futuristic precision laser assault oak stick machinegun. The house is blue-gray with the frayed bits of wood protruding from the siding. The shutters, which have been recently and hastily painted a dark gray color, are swung wide open, as is their natural and unwavering state. Dainty curtains dance in the currents of stale air-conditioning. I can hear the high-pitched whine of the TV. It is dark inside. Some of the roofing tiles are barely holding on, but it’s too hot to fix them—Dad would fry like a catfish up there. I aim my devastating weapon at the window of my room, at the air-conditioning unit hanging there, leaking condensation that sizzles to nothing as soon as it drips onto the black shingles. A mosquito flies into my open mouth. I spit it out onto the dry grass, take aim, and fire away.

I turn around and Dad’s truck is almost upon me, crawling past like a wounded robot elephant. On the trailer is something enormous.

 

I’ve been looking at it for fifteen minutes and I still don’t know what I’m supposed to say. Dad is looking at it too and I think he’s waiting for me to say something. I want to cry. Sitting before us on four flat tires in front of Dad’s shop is a 1967 hardtop Volkswagen Beetle: 54 horsepower, 1500cc engine, 4-speed manual transmission with the upgraded 12-volt electrical system. The running boards are rusted pretty much to nothing and the dome hubcaps look like someone has really gone to town on them with a hammer or a baseball bat. The backglass has been busted out and granules of glass litter the small ledge above the back seat. The body is blue with huge pale sunspots and gritty patches of rust. One of the fenders has been unevenly spray-painted a toxic shade of orange. The headliner hangs like a soggy diaper over the splitting upholstery. Someone ripped out the radio and half of the dash with it, and I can see wires jutting from the gape. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I know that he has brought it here for me—that he means it to be mine.

Dad is looking at me again and I don’t want to say that I have no idea what to say, so I say nothing. I stare straight ahead at the Bug, and then past it to the open maw of Dad’s shop, the sliding doors drawn back for ventilation. Tools and hydraulic hoses litter the floor. A 50's model Chevrolet pickup is the only vehicle inside. The cab, hood, and front fenders have been sanded to the bare metal, patched here and there with pink-gray Bondo. The bed has been lifted off somewhere so that the back end is all chassis and shocks and white-wall tires. Everything else in the shop is coated with gray paint dust. I can see the shop’s huge ventilation fan, a homemade thing that looks a propeller salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic and set in a hollowed-out frame of sheet metal, turning slowly in the back of the building. The noisy motor of the air-compressor kicks on and its drone lulls me into a trance. A huge mosquito snaps me out of it, nibbling on my calf. I slap at it; its life ends in a tiny explosion of blood and bug goo, which I wipe on my bluejean shorts. Jeans are immune to bug goo. I look up and Dad is still staring at me.

“Well?” he says, hands on his hips. There is an open can of Diet Coke in his back pocket. His weighty glasses ride down on his nose like a Sunday school teacher’s. He is a Sunday school teacher. His gaze is intense and expressionless, like a gnarled Spock. Suddenly I wish he were Spock, because then we would have teleportation technology and I could beam myself to somewhere else, like maybe a distant planet where the laws of nature—the laws of fathers and sons as we know them—do not apply.

I walk over to the gorgeously dilapidated Bug, run my hands over the fenders, across the roof, scrape at the rust and paint flakes with a fingernail. The sun is heavy bright. The metal is stupidly hot but I don’t care. I walk around to the far side of the car and peer through the doubled panes. I see my Dad, draining the last of his Diet Coke and slipping the empty can into his pocket. He who sweats while I read and play Nintendo in air-conditioned vaults. Me not knowing how to climb a tree or ride a bike or rebuild a diesel engine. Me sleeping on the couch for hours at a time in the summers while Mom watches Murder, She Wrote and crochets. Me playing space cadets alone with sticks and pinecones while Dad and my brother and my uncle stare out knowingly across the pastureland talking about crops and cattle prices and the dealings of dimly-lit auction houses. Dad’s form is crisp and sun-soaked even through the dirty glass, my face just inches from it, and I can make out the square of his jaw, his wavy shock of hair tinted green by paint, until I exhale and he disappears in the fog.


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