“Fallen Timbers” – S.E. White

In the eighties, my father sold insurance, protection against those rainy days, but it wasn’t raining the night he came home from work four hours late. That night had been clear and dry. He didn’t speak for two full days. His suit that night (the blue pinstripe his father had wanted to be buried in but Grandma claimed had too much wear left) wasn’t even wrinkled when he seemingly strolled up the sidewalk to the back step, gingerly seated himself and pulled a baby bird from his breast pocket. He cradled the bird, closed his hands as if to pray, and sobbed until my mother opened the screen door and hugged his shoulders. I stayed inside the house and watched my father through the glass window—his body distorted by a flaw in the panes. The sight of him is as clear to me now, a woman in her late thirties, as when I held my breath and watched my insurance salesman father weep over a baby bird who’d fallen from its nest.

Before that night and our eventual move to Oregon, my father built model ships in the room at the top of the stairs. He would close the door, hunch over the bench where he sat walled in by maritime books, X-Acto knives and long tweezers, and slip bits of wood through the narrow neck of empty bottles of Southern Comfort. The wind chimes outside the window played a tune I’ve stopped dead in traffic remembering.

“People are like ships in bottles,” he said once, scolding me for touching things in his hallowed room. He pushed up his wire-rim glasses and looked me squarely in the eyes. “The most beautiful part is what you can see but can never quite touch.” He held one of the bottles up to the window and whispered, “They’re too fragile to be touched.”

That night, after my father gave the bird to my mother as if it were as fragile as one of those model ships, he wandered up the stairs and smashed every ship in a bottle he’d ever built. Splinters of glass sprayed the walls, ships floated on glistening shards, crunched beneath his leather wing-tip shoes. He grabbed one after the other by the neck and shattered them. Hulls, masts, decks no larger than a thumbnail sprinkled onto his desk. I stood at the base of the stairs. My mother was halfway up. She ran her fingers through her short, black hair, fumbled with the buttons on her business suit. She didn’t look down at me. I didn’t look past her. We both stood staring at the shadows flashing on the white, white ceiling of the room at the top of the stairs.

Two months later, we packed up our lives and drove from Ohio to Oregon where my father with the pale, smooth hands got a job as a logger. The beard he spent days growing was as full and black as the bruise on his right cheek. The only words he ever offered on that crescent slice were, “You should’ve seen the other guy.” I never cared what happened to “the other guy;” all I wanted to know is what happened to my father, the man I’d known.

I was too young at the time, ten years old, to realize what my father might’ve been going through, and nobody in the early eighties would have considered the idea of “rape,” much less of a tryst gone bad. The official statement my mother issued on the subject was that my father had been mugged.

“If anyone asks,” she told me at breakfast the next morning, “your father was mugged.”

Nobody asked. But the people I told at school believed me, or seemed to. I could tell a good lie when I knew it wasn’t the truth. The way my mother told me, stern faced, hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, made me think there was more to know. We moved to Oregon two months later. My father stopped selling insurance, stopped building model ships, and simply stopped being the man he was before. My mother grew her short, black hair long, long enough to braid, long enough for my father to touch and lose his hands in. She wore more dresses, quit her job working in a bank, and spent her days at home. From time to time, she would peer out the glass windows and rub her hands against the panes.

We sit, my father and I, on a bench, staring at a piece of land protected and preserved to commemorate a battle that took place across the road. A statue of three men stares off with us. Those men, enemies in the flesh, now stand as brothers in stone. A pioneer with a straggly beard, a muscular native, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne: each looking properly grim. My father is old. Blue and violet veins are pronounced on his pale, scarred hands, each winding around cartilage and bone like the glimpse of a river we see flickering in the distance, beyond a snatch of road and a field overgrown and weedy and not the place where the Battle of Fallen Timber was fought. But this is where it is remembered.

Ten years ago, my son Dane and I moved back to Ohio, brought my father with us. His beard is gone, shaved like it was before he was mugged. His chin juts; neck seems unnaturally long and vulnerable. He has little to say to the question I just asked him. Why did he want to stop here before he and Dane went fishing?

My father rubs his chin. “Let’s just fish.”

Dane sits in the parking lot, barely visible beyond the distant glare of the car’s windshield; the boat is attached to the back of the car, poles in the backseat. He won’t come out of the car to sit with us on the bench. I know he didn’t want me to come on this fishing trip. Ever since he was charged with identity theft—using a fake ID, using other people’s credit cards—he keeps his distance from me. But, I knew that he would want to fish with his grandfather, so I had to come.

Slowly, I turn my head and stare at my father’s crescent scar, listening to sparrows and starlings chirp to one another. Songs of warning.

“Then, let’s fish,” I reply. He only has a few hours before I have to take him back to the nursing home for dinner.

The muddy, undulating Maumee is close by. It is the river where Wayne’s forces camped before the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Rumors claim that Tecumseh had been there. Indians and soldiers fought each other in a grove where the trees had been felled by a tornado. The bark gnarled, scarred: the spot is scenic in a weather-beaten way. Sitting here all these years later, centuries now, that bloodshed feels senseless: bravery or greed? They fought for land that only truly belongs to itself—the weaving of earthworms, tunneling of ants. These trees wait here, as if to outlast us all.

The walk to the car feels like a long one for a man as seemingly fragile as my father. We pass Turkey Foot Rock where Little Turtle stood to rally his troops. Gourds and a few shucks of corn have been placed there as an offering to their memory.

“I proposed to your mother here,” my father mumbles through his cracked lips.

I look at him. “I didn’t know that, Dad.” That’s not the story my mother told.

My father nods.

“I thought you popped the question in the middle of a dance floor on New Year’s Eve.”

His eyes cloud over. He grunts. We come to the parking lot, and he scratches at the crescent on his cheek.

I help my father into the car, allow my fingertips to graze his shoulder blade. I don’t know when I ever touched my father—a hug, a peck on the cheek, a random brush of his arm. The last time I touched any man was ten years ago.

My ex-husband had been abusive to our son Dane. He left one night after he slapped Dane, and I finally hit him back. He whipped his belt from its loops, smacked it against the refrigerator. Dane rushed into the kitchen when he heard me tumble into the dishes and drop to the floor. The black leather tip of Danny’s belt licked Dane across the face. I balled my fist until the nails bit my palm, and swung. My knuckles cracked, and his crooked front teeth ground across the bone. He blinked, staggering a step or two, then wiped the blood—both his and mine—from his lips.

“Fuck me,” the words dripped from his bottom lip.

He grimaced, stared at me like I’d done more than punched him.

That night, he packed his things and left—the screen door softly bumping closed. His golden blonde hair glowed down the sidewalk until he disappeared.

Now, Dane sits with my father in that old red fishing boat. The water is shallow enough at this time of year to almost walk across. I tied my father into a lifejacket despite his grumbling. His calloused hands take hold of one of the poles, and he slips a minnow onto a hook before he drops it through the Maumee’s muddy, beige surface. My son watches him, looks at his grandfather to provide a model of manhood for him. He has never said that, nor would he ever say it. But it’s in his eyes, the way they follow my father’s every move.

My son Dane is almost sixteen, well beyond the age of listening to his mother and well within the age of battling any man in order to prove his own strength to himself. His earring. His tattoo. All of the anger in his face. These things I see reflect what he feels inside, I’m sure. But I can’t reach inside him, can’t touch what he holds so deeply in those clear, blue eyes. But, with my father, he listens, sits passive, studies.

Together, they drift in a boat, while I dip a pole into the shallow water along the banks. They don’t speak to one another. The rippling of the Maumee rushing downstream speaks enough to justify their silence. Dane shifts, runs the back of his hand across his mouth—his father’s nervous gesture—but stares hard into the river and clenches his jaw.

Each ripple of the river flashes in the sun like bits of shattered glass. The boat continues to drift downstream. My father looks old, delicate; the sagging skin on his face resembles tissue paper. Trees overhang the boat the farther my father and son float away from me; the leaves cradle flocks of invisible birds, and with each gust of wind, I hear the soft rustling of a lore I can only witness. I realize that the silence between my father and my son is their way of communicating—this is a language I cannot speak, cannot hear.

The gnarled bark of the trees reminds me of Oregon, of my father with the tan, rough fingers, full bushy beard. I hear him. I feel the coolness of his shadow beside me, and I peer upwards into his bearded face as it blocks the sun. He takes my ten-year-old hand, and we stroll together through the Oregon woods.

“Trees are like any other crop,” he tells me. “Sometimes they need to be harvested.”

He touches the bark, looks down at me and winks.

“Mother Nature doesn’t always have the best hygiene,” he puffs his chest. “Loggers are like surgeons. You’ve got to amputate before the limbs get too rotten and useless.”

Here in Oregon, he wears every piece of stereotypical flannel his money can buy, leather boots with a bull emblazoned on the tongues. When he comes home at night, he has chips of wood, sprinkles of the insides of these trees on his shoulders, in his beard, on his clothes. He has mud, and occasionally feathers, caked to the soles of his boots—a tree himself.

He drives the Rock Caterpillar, laughs when the other men who work with him call him “Doc,” especially when they see him around town after they’ve spent the night drinking beers and whatever else they did after-hours. In Oregon, he comes home late, later than that night he was mugged. Mom waits up for him less and less. At least, she lets him know less and less about how she waits up for him.

I remember the night she sat on the couch, in the dark, wrapped in the seaweed green afghan her mother spent nights knitting years before, the moonlight drenching her shoulders and the black hair she cut that afternoon. My father wanted her to grow it long before the move, so she did. But, that afternoon, she had cut it short, shorter than his own hair.

I see her silhouette through the rungs in the stairway railing—both of us drowning in the darkness.

When the door slams, we both jump. My father has been drinking, still swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels. His eyes are glassy.

“I don’t need you waiting up for me,” he says.

“I was worried,” she answers.

His hand strokes his full, bushy beard. “I can take care of myself.”

She sits silent, tilts her face downward in that “all-knowing” way of hers, in that way I still miss.

“I get home when I get home,” he says. “I’m the man of this house.”

He stumbles over the coffee table.

“I’m a goddamn logger,” he slurs. “If I can handle a saw, I can handle being out after dark. I don’t need my wife waiting up for me.”

This man is not my father. My father, who sold insurance, with the pale, smooth fingers, never raised his voice. He wore suits, wing-tipped shoes. He built model ships, enjoyed working in his garden. He wouldn’t have moved us to Oregon, or worn flannel, let alone handled a saw. This man is tan, rough, falling, falling towards something he’s afraid he’ll hit but can’t stop himself from reaching out for.

He sits down and starts laughing, pulls out a cigarette, flicks his lighter and laughs some more.

“They hired a woman foreman today,” he says.

I cling tighter to the railing. My heart throbs. I cannot breathe.

“What in the hell did you do?” he demands. “What the hell did you do to your hair? You look like a damn man. Why didn’t you ask me first?”

“I got a job today, too,” she answers, her words measured, voice low.

“You don’t need to work.”

“I need to get out.”

He runs his hand over his face, pulls at his beard. He knocks his boots together in front of his outstretched legs.

“You’ll quit,” he says.

She looks at him and says, “No.”

He twists the wedding ring on his finger, laughs.

“You’ll do what I feel is best.”

“I moved out here with you because I love you,” she says, unwrapping herself, rising to her feet.

He stands, too, stuffs one hand into the front pocket of his tight Levis, the other he hooks onto his belt. He squares himself, leans as if he might uncoil and slap her. I feel trapped behind the rungs.

“And?” he asks.

She lets the afghan fall to the floor. The moonlight catches the white of her eyes as she glances over to where I sit. I crouch down but know it’s too late.

“Go to bed,” she tells me. Her voice sounds tired, firm. She walks up the stairs and closes the door to their bedroom.

My father stands alone in the living room. He heads for the front door, then stops, turns towards where I’m still crouching on the staircase. He extends his hand to me. I am in my nightgown. My feet feel cold but I go with him—outside the door, outside into the crisp night air, outside the safety of our house.

I walk with him. The sidewalk feels bumpy and cool beneath my feet. He doesn’t say anything. I don’t expect him to. He simply holds my hand, loosely, swallows hard, his eyes wide, searching the darkness for something I’m sure he sees but isn’t there. I look into his face, into his eyes, but I can’t see past the fear, glimpse behind the reflection of myself in his wide stare.

“Scary at night, isn’t it?” he finally speaks. “So many eyes could be watching you. You’re so vulnerable walking at night.”

I struggle to keep up with him.

“Listen,” he whispers. “Listen to the trees. How they rustle. Any one of those trunks could be someone.”

He picks me up, holds me against his flannel. He smells of layers of sweat and dead skin, the faintest hint of sawdust. The street is quiet. No cars. Neighbors shut up safely in their homes.

“You’re my best girl, aren’t you?” he asks. “You’re Daddy’s girl. You always will be.” He clings tighter to me. “Right?”

“Yes,” I mumble. I want to go back home. It’s too dark outside. I don’t like having to answer his questions. I don’t like not having a choice. He’s my father.

We meander our way down to the gas station on the corner. A woman and her children fill their minivan. An old man glares at us, then streaks a squeegee across his windshield. My father puts me down, lets my cold feet touch the even colder pavement. He reaches into the pocket of his pants, and together, we walk through the glass doors.

The young girl behind the counter has copper red hair, dark eye shadow and her nose pierced. She barely acknowledges my father at the counter. I hold his hand, shift my feet to keep them warm.

“A carton of cigarettes,” he says.

“Merit, Pall Mall, Marlboro?” she drones.

My father scratches at the crescent on his cheek. “Marlboro,” he answers, giving my hand a reflexive squeeze.

She slides a carton out from behind the counter. She doesn’t look at either of us. Doesn’t smile. All but rolls her eyes at being expected to do what she gets paid for. My father sets the crumpled bills onto the counter. She presses hard on the cash register buttons, then hands him his change.

“This is wrong,” my father says.

She blinks, looks him over, then at the register.

“You hear me?” he asks.

I tense.

“It’s the price that comes up in the system,” she replies.

“It’s wrong.”

“I don’t set the prices.”

“Yeah,” my father answers. I stand on one foot, then the other. “I’m not leaving here until you give me the correct change.”

“I gave you the correct change.”

“Listen,” my father grits his teeth, points his forefinger into her face.

Her hands disappear beneath the counter, and she leans forward, stares hard into my father’s eyes. “I just work here,” she says. “Complain to the manager. I don’t have the time to argue. I don’t have the time for any trouble, so you can just turn around and walk your ass out of here.”

My father’s jaw shifts. I expect him to blow up, to let loose with a string of profanities, to tell her that she’s ignorant, that women shouldn’t handle money, but he stays perfectly still, blinking fast, as though he is suddenly caught in something shrinking around him.

“Take it,” he says, his voice quivers. “You just take it. Keep the change.”

He reaches into his pockets and pulls out a few more crumpled dollars, tosses them onto the counter. When I look up, his face is red, eyes bloodshot, tears trickling down his nose. He swallows back a sob.

He might’ve stood there, sobbing in front of that girl, in front of those people, if I hadn’t taken him by the hand and led him back out the glass doors. He’s drunk. Through his sobs, he wipes the back of his hand across his eyes and mutters, “stupid bitch” to himself. “Everybody wants something.”

I watch him now. He and my son drift downstream. They aren’t anchored. I can hear Dane’s voice. I wring my hands.

Before she passed away from ovarian cancer, my mother told me what she thought happened the night my father was mugged. She told me the story my father doesn’t seem to have the words for anymore. We were wrapped together in her seaweed green afghan. I was twenty-one, pregnant with Dane. She was forty-six; her face ashen, lips violet. My father still drove the Rock Caterpillar, came home from work in time for dinner, still smelled of sawdust and earth. He rarely spoke, except to bitch about the cost of things and how the country was “going to hell in a hand basket.”

“He was mugged,” she said, stroking the hair from my eyes as I leaned against her.

We flipped through a photo album of when we lived in Ohio. Our memories framed by the camera’s gaze: my father in his insurance salesman suit knelt in his garden—my eight-year-old self a sundress blur.

“What did they take?” I asked.

“Whatever muggers usually take,” she answered.

“What else happened to him?” I asked, lifting the photo album to inspect a picture of my father in his treasured room at the top of the stairs.

“Something else?”

“Else?” She took a deep breath.

I folded my arms and shrugged. “You know,” I said.

“No,” she snapped. “I don’t know.”

My mother stopped stroking my forehead.

“Why did he change so much?” I asked.

She flipped another page in the album.

“He didn’t really change all that much,” she answered.

I almost laughed. “Well,” I said with a sarcasm I couldn’t suppress, “did they ever catch the guy?”

My mother shifted her weight and coughed.

“The guy just got away?” I asked.

“I don’t even know where it happened.” She ran her hand over her face.

“And?”

“And,” Mom replied sharply. “Some man stuck a gun in his face, your father got scared, and he was mugged.”

“Mugged?” I asked. “I thought maybe he was—” The words caught in my throat; just then, Dane kicked.

My mother closed the photo album, patted my belly. “End of story.”

I didn’t believe her. Even now, sitting on the banks of the Maumee, I don’t entirely believe her. The boat continues to drift. I want to hear the truth about my father. I want to know all that happened to my father that night—from him. I want him to explain to me what happened that night. I have to know, especially now, staring at my own boy on the verge of becoming a man—I have to know what that means.

I signal to Dane to steer the boat back. He obeys, dips an oar into the flickering surface and paddles back towards the banks.

My father stumbles onto the shore. I catch an arm. Dane catches the other.

“Time to go back, Dad,” I say. “Dinner’s in an hour.”

“I didn’t catch any fish,” he grumbles.

I lead him up the narrow moss covered steps, exchange a look with my son. “The fish weren’t biting.”

At the nursing home, I guide my father through the double glass doors, past the gathering of old, gray-haired women cuddling dolls as though infants, towards his room near the back hallway. Dane follows behind.

The trees outside rustle but we cannot hear them in my father’s room. He sits down slowly on the edge of his bed. He has Polaroids on his bulletin board of when he had a beard, when he looked strong, virile. On the stand next to his bed sits a ship in a bottle that my son made for him. An empty, green bottle of buckeye ale, the ship inside one of those that probably drowned under the currents of Lake Erie, something he found in one of his grandfather’s books, I’m sure.

“I want to know what happened to you, Dad,” I say, surprised at my own boldness. “What gave you that scar?”

He scratches at his cheek, at the crescent. “I don’t know what you mean,” he mumbles.
I hear my son shift his feet behind me.

“I want to know, Dad.”

He stares out the window—his pale face stretched taut across his cheekbones. A cardinal sits on the windowsill. A female: brown wings, only the faintest hint of red on her breast. She’s chirping.

“We always misunderstand birds,” my father says. “She’s not singing. She’s calling.” He holds his hands together, like he did that night when he removed the baby bird from his breast pocket. “Probably looking for one of her babies. Or something like that. Years of working in the woods teaches you the difference.”

“Tell me, Dad,” I press.

He clears his throat. “I was driving home and found a little bird in the middle of the road. It was still alive. Still calling out. So I stopped and placed it in my pocket. To keep it warm.” His eyes begin to water. “Didn’t work. I couldn’t protect it, could I? Not even inside my pocket.” He laughs a little. “Mother Nature is cruel, did you know that?”

I want to ask if he was really mugged that night, if that was all that happened to him, if that could actually be all that happened to him. I hear Dane cough, and I stop the words.

“That’s what happened that night,” my father says. “I was late because I stopped to save a bird that died in my pocket.” He sighs, wipes his eyes. “End of story.”

I stare at him, grit my teeth, rush forward and grab his arms.

He meets his eyes to mine. “End of story,” he whispers.

This is a challenge.

“What happened to you, Dad?” I ask in a low voice.

“I already told you,” he answers, his eyes darkening. “End of story.”

This is the moment, I know it is. There are only so many moments in life when people have the chance for truth, to push through the layers of silence and lies. I feel like if I let him go, I will never know the man my father is.

“Come on, Mom,” Dane says. His voice startles me.

My eyes stay focused on my father’s downcast face.

“Dinner is almost ready,” my father mumbles. “Spam and potatoes again.”

And the moment goes as quickly as it came.

We give him our goodbyes, and I force myself down the hallway, back out those double glass doors. I turn around once we are in the parking lot and I see my father standing by his window, watching us, on the other side of those panes, too far away to hear the words the wind and rustling trees would steal from me even if I called them out to him.

“It’s okay,” I hear my son tell me, gently touching a hand to my shoulder.

I stop walking and hold him, tightly, as tightly as my arms will press him against me; I hold onto him. There are words I would say to him but none of those will do, so I hold him against me, hoping the beating of all that I have inside can communicate to him what it’s too late to say.

“I think I know what happened to him,” Dane says.

“What did he tell you?” I ask, my heart beating faster.

Dane pauses, sets his chin on my shoulder. “It was what he didn’t tell me.” Dane sighs. “He stared at Fallen Timbers, cried a little, I think.”

Dane tightens his embrace.

“I think your grandfather was raped, Dane,” I say. “All those years ago.”

“Raped?” Dane asks.

“Or was hurt somehow, affected somehow,” I answer, shaking my head. “He changed after that night, like he was afraid of something.”

“Why didn’t you ask him before?” Dane asks.

I move to shrug my shoulders, to tell him that I don’t know, but I don’t, I stop the impulse to dismiss this moment, this moment my father can no longer provide me, and I look my son square in the eyes. I see fear. I see past my own reflection in his eyes and see a little boy crouched inside, still vulnerable, still so fragile, and I answer, uncertain of what my eyes are showing him, “Because I was too afraid to know the answer.”

He nods, looks back towards the nursing home. He gives my arm a little squeeze, and together, we walk back to the car. We won’t speak anymore of this moment, I’m sure, but for the first time, we touched each other, not as mother and son, but as human beings, not too tall, not beyond reach, just two people with our guards down, doing our best to get through life without hurting each other or ourselves.

_

Thank you to S.E. White for sharing the complete text of her story “Fallen Timbers” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

S.E. White is a native of Bowling Green, Ohio, who earned her B.F.A. from Bowling Green State University, her M.A. from Iowa State University, and her M.F.A. from Purdue University. She has taught English at the college level since 2000. Her short fiction has been published in various venues. Her novella A Murder of Crows is available in paperback and Kindle. She also authors ANovelWeblog.com which often discusses growing up in Northwestern Ohio.