But when we reach the season’s end, sunflowers become a food source for all the wild birds

But when we reach the season’s end, sunflowers become a food source for all the wild birds

But when we reach the season’s end, sunflowers become a food source for all the wild birds 1920 972 Amie Souza Reilly

The sunflowers in the yard hung their heavy heads beneath October.
Jack’s head bowed over his phone, though there was no message yet.
His phone cast a shadow over his father’s face, and David thought My head is an eclipse.

It was 2:00 in the afternoon. In front of the old shaker-shingled house, the metal door of a trailer creaked as it unlocked, then unfolded, landing with a thud against the pavement. Male voices laughed, a motor turned on, deep with bass, and the air buzzed with the hornet-hum of a weedwhacker. Glenda, David’s wife, called out from the backdoor to their son. Jack, can you help your father get inside before the landscapers get back there?

Jack hadn’t looked into his father’s eyes again since he arrived at his parents’ house the night before. He couldn’t comprehend the way the whites had turned blue, his brown irises dulled to gray, the depth of his pupils no longer black but a murky navy two shades darker than dryer lint. His father’s eyes were eighty. Jack was waiting for his phone to ring with news about the baby, who, at birth, would also have eyes made entirely of shades of blue. There’s a way about baby eyes, how they start out a deep indigo before becoming brown or green or hazel, like they need to see the world through water for a little bit longer.

 

David’s beard was close-cut, every hair of it white. His skin, like his father’s, was the brown-green of the Portuguese. The whiteness of his beard against the darkness of his skin made him look like a photo negative of his younger self. He had congestive heart failure, gingivitis, arthritis, athlete’s foot, prostate cancer, and seasonal allergies. The last time Jack visited Essex was for his fortieth birthday, in March, which this far north is still winter. He and Xavier had come up with a box of macarons and an announcement. They were adopting a baby. David was in better health then, still walking, though sometimes with a walker fashioned with tennis balls. But his heart, the cardiologist told Glenda, would give out soon.

On Tuesday, Glenda had called Jack and Xavier and said it was time for them to come. That David needed a wheelchair almost always, that he slept most of the day, that his hands were permanently cold. As they packed their suitcases, the adoption agency called. The young mother of their baby had some bleeding and her doctors expected she’d deliver early. They were supposed to have three more weeks.

Jack fell against his husband. Our baby is going to born. My father is going to die. 

Xavier stayed behind to wait for the baby. When Jack pulled out in the rental car, cautiously, into the streets of Manhattan he kept checking the rearview mirror. How strange it was that as he drove away he was leaving his future behind him.

Now Jack, pushing his father’s wheelchair, wondered who’d built the ramp at the backdoor. Inside, there were only three chairs at the table; one had been removed so the width of David’s wheelchair could fit.

Are you hungry, Dad? Jack asked, his head in the refrigerator. Oh, I don’t eat much now, David said, and then, From over here, looking at you rifling through the fridge, I’d swear you were still sixteen. Jack grabbed a loaf of bread, a brick of Vermont cheddar, a jar of fancy brown mustard. He found the cutting board in the same place it had always been, next to the sink, propped up against the tile, soft wood cut into the shape of fat-bellied pig. While he made himself a sandwich he checked the ringer on his phone to be certain, again, that it was on and he wouldn’t miss Xavier’s call. Outside the kitchen window, a flock of starlings startled and flew from a bare tree. An invasive species, brought here by a man who wanted all the birds of Shakespeare’s plays to live in Central Park.

Any word, Jack? Glenda asked, coming into the kitchen from the bathroom. Her hair was white, too, braided down her back. She always wore solid colors and even at eighty stood straight. Not yet, Mom. The doctor told Xavier it could happen fast, or it could be awhile. There’s no way to tell. She’s resting now. 

Does her mother know? Glenda leaned over her husband to kiss the top of his head. David’s ears pinked. I don’t think so, Jack answered. When they first met Lai, she was three months pregnant. Over stale doughnuts in the clean adoption agency office, Jack and Xavier fell in love with the way she touched her earlobe when she talked.

 

Outside David and Glenda’s, the landscapers mowed, the scent of grass and gasoline sneaked into the house like a cat. Glenda, grabbing a jacket, told Jack she was going to get groceries. I’ll probably stop at the library on my way home, since you’re here with your father. 

Jack didn’t notice the speck of mustard he’d dripped in his stubble.

The house felt stuffy and dark, though the curtains were open. Jack finished his sandwich and his father handed him a napkin from the basket on the table.

For your chin, he said.

Jack needed a walk, or a drink, or a walk to get a drink. His father’s fingernails, which needed cutting, looked like curved yellow shells against his thighs.

Dad, Jack said, loudly enough to wake his father from the thin layer of sleep he’d suddenly fallen into, how far can we push you in that thing? 

 

Jack wheeled his father beneath maple trees still holding on to the last of the year’s leaves. Over the branches, an egret flew toward the lake, its black legs sticking out like a handle. When David asked Jack, Where did mom go? his voice was clear, and maybe he hadn’t forgotten what Glen said but had simply not heard her. Groceries, Dad. And the library.

 

Even when Jack was a child, men sat at the bar at The Old Dock restaurant talking about fish they never caught, their weathered hands clinking pint glasses filled by a bartender whose head was smooth as an egg. The east and west walls of the bar were glass, smeared with fingerprints on the inside and bird droppings on the outside. The back wall was lined with shelves of dark liquor and a few dusty trophies the chef’s son had won playing hockey. The bald bartender had his foot propped up on a box while he laughed with a fisherman wearing a knit hat. Jack and his father sat at a table in the middle of the room, each of them looking over the other one’s shoulder to watch the lake.

When the waitress came by, Jack ordered for them both—two stouts from a brewery in Burlington, two bowls of French onion soup—though he knew neither one of them was hungry. The sun silvered the dust floating in the air. Jack faced the window framing the ferry booth where two cars waited to cross the lake. Someone had planted annuals in front; the heads of white and yellow mums spilled over the ground like popcorn.

David, through the other window, saw the smudge where lake met sky. Two boys stood in a rowboat, eighth-graders, their bodies simultaneously lanky and elegant. One pushed the other too hard, but he widened his stance and regained his balance. The way they were playing, the boat would surely tip, and the boys would be wet and cold when they rode their bikes home, where inside their houses their parents would warm towels for them in the dryer.

 

Whatever happened to Sam, Jack? You two were together all the time when you were kids. Jack, not seeing the rowboat or the boys, not seeing anything but the tollbooth and the blankness of his phone, choked a little on his stout. He never expected his father to ask about Sam. They’d both gone to the city together, longing to get away from their small town, Jack to Fordham where he met Xavier, and Sam to NYU, where he got drunk on freedom and art and the gay bars popping up all over Chelsea. Jack had always been quieter than Sam, less antsy. For a while, he’d call Jack’s dorm late at night, high and giddy, and Jack would leave the phone face up on his desk, let Sam prattle on while he slept. When he stopped calling, Jack tucked Sam away in his memory like an old love letter.

We never asked you about it because we didn’t want to be nosy, but Jack, look at those kids out there. 

The lake used to be so cold that even in August only the wildest kids swam in it for any length of time. David used to joke that the winter ice only melted around the edges and then sunk to the bottom, keeping the water knee-numbing cold. But now, on the first Wednesday of October, these two boys were playing at falling in.

Dad, have you ever done anything you regret? As the sun slanted over his father, Jack realized he was seeing something wholly new. David’s father had died at sixty, his father’s father had died in the first world war, at twenty-six. Eighty was something his family hadn’t seen.

Jack. We all have regrets. One of the boys fell into the lake, his mouth open in a scream. David watched them, unaware of the bartender drying glasses or the truck outside carrying the landscapers north to Elizabethtown, past the Mennonite farms where Glenda was buying produce and a new wool blanket to wrap around her husband’s legs.

David sipped his beer, his fingers so stiff that the glass didn’t seem to be held but suspended. It spilled down the front of his shirt. He patted at the wetness, neither brushing it away or pushing it in to the fibers. When my parents died, I was a little younger than you. I had had a good childhood, college was fun. I was dating your mom, and we were enjoying each other. And then they were just. Gone. 

This story was the reason why Jack drove so cautiously, never breaking the speed limit on highways, even now, after having a license for longer than he hadn’t.

When the police called and said that their car slid underneath that truck, I asked if they knew how it happened. They told me they saw no evidence of braking, that my father must’ve been distracted. Maybe they never even knew, maybe it was quick. But losing them both like that gutted me. 

Jack looked at his father’s face; noticed the mole on his eyelid was the same deep black color of his beer.

I went out drinking. By myself. I needed to think and drove all the way to a bar over by Whiteface. During ski season it’s packed, but it was July and empty. By the time the bartender threw me out it was dark. I shouldn’t have been driving, but it was too late to call anyone. I was almost home, had crossed the bridge by Grand Union, and I was nodding off, I think, or crying, or both, and Joni Mitchell was singing about California. I wasn’t looking at the road. I’d been looking too far ahead, beyond where my headlights were, at the darkest part. And that’s when I hit her.

Her, dad? You hit someone?

No, Jack. I hit a deer. I hit her and pulled over and got out of my car. Her back leg looked broken and she was making a gargle sound and using her front legs to try and get up. I remember whispering for her to hush. The car door was open and Joni Mitchell was still singing and the deer laid down, panting. I knew I should go find a payphone and call someone, but I was drunk, and I didn’t want to get arrested, and I didn’t want to drive anymore. That meant I should run her over, put her out of her misery. But I just. I couldn’t. 

Jack pushed the soup closer to his father, then wrapped David’s hands around the bowl.

I laid on the ground next to her. Then I kissed her nose, and I stayed there, fell asleep with the radio still on and the car door wide open and the deer barely breathing.

Dad. Does mom know?

No. When I woke up the deer was gone. There were scrapes in the ground, and I followed them. I found her, ten feet in, dead. She had tried to get away from me. And my car battery was dead and my clothes were muddy and my parents were dead. I walked to the Grand Union and used the payphone to call your mom. I told her not to ask what happened. She brought me home and I threw my clothes out the bathroom window and took a shower. 

The waitress came back, asked them if they wanted anything else, and Jack felt strange taking up the table even though there was no one else around, so he asked her for two coffees.

Forty-six years had passed between his grandparents’ deaths and this moment where David, with an unreliable heart and a crock of soup in his hands, told his son a story about a dead deer, and Jack, whose breath was shallow with waiting, nearly broke at the fragility of it all. David watched the two boys drag their rowboat up the shore, still wearing life vests.

Dad. Sam and I were a couple back then. Did you know?

We thought so, your mom and me. But we hung back. We figured you two needed space. And we knew Sam’s mom was hard on him. 

I think we were a couple because we were the only boys in school who were like us. Gay. But neither of us ever said gay out loud back then. But we knew it. And sometimes at night I would lay awake and worry about how it was going to kill us, and I’d panic. Tell Sam we were wrong. But every time I did, he came back. Like some kind of Labrador. Retrieving me from myself. He’d be on our porch when I got home, and he’d smile at me and we’d be back the way we were. But then some kids at school started in on us and I got scared again. They weren’t beating us up, only taunting us. They were bigger, stronger, and they started a game where they punched anyone they caught looking at us. Sometimes one boy would trick another into looking at us, then punch him when he fell for it. It was awful. Wherever we went, people turned away from us. 

When the waitress brought the coffees out, Jack checked his phone for word from Xavier, and noticed it was getting late. His mother would be home soon, and he hadn’t left a note saying where they’d gone. He thought to call her, then the egret flew by the window.

One night we were in our yard, and I was telling Sam I thought we should make other friends, and he got upset. He tried to tell me we were almost done with high school so it didn’t matter. He had big plans for us, college in the city, where everything would be different. Magic Johnson had just come out about being HIV positive and Jack thought this meant there’d be a cure soon, that we didn’t have to worry like the older guys did. He was so sure of it all. And I wasn’t, and that made me furious. I told him I wasn’t like him. That I just felt sorry for him. I told him to leave me alone. He was sitting on the ground and I was standing over him. I’d been tossing this rock from one hand to another, sort of juggling it.

David took his hands off the bowl of soup, reached for the pitcher of cream and poured some into his son’s coffee.

I threw the rock at him, right at his forehead, and it split open, wide, like a mouth. He didn’t say anything. Just grabbed his skateboard and went home. We weren’t the same after that. 

David reached for a napkin on the table, blotted his face, which was damp.

Jack.  

Every time I looked at him, I saw the scar. I think college made it easy for him to let me let us drift apart. 

Jack’s phone rang and he jumped, spilling his coffee. But it was Glenda, not Xavier, and she was worried, wondering when they would be home. Jack paid the check and they wheeled back, the sky just on the edge of darkness.

 

The lake looks thicker at dusk. The water softens as the sky changes colors, turns it silver; more like mercury than water. Inside their house, Glenda was brushing olive oil over a pan of brussels sprouts. Bread dough was rising in a small rectangular pan on the counter. The towel draped over the top had a tear at the edge.

Glenda burned bread every time she baked it. Even instant biscuits, the kind that come in a tube and have to be opened with the back of a spoon. David would laugh when they came out of the oven, would help her scrape the burnt bits off. It’s hard to imagine that he and the man who kissed the nose of a dying deer were the same man, that his father would ever do the wrong thing, would see hurt and not be able to fix it.

Jack went upstairs to call Xavier.

How is he? Xavier asked, without saying hello.

He looks small. Crumpled. And he told me a story about killing a deer after his parents died.

Your dad?

I know. I’ve never seen him kill a spider. He said he was drunk when he hit it. It didn’t die and he didn’t know what to do so he laid on the ground with it and fell asleep. 

Jack was grateful for Xavier’s silence.

Then I told him about hitting Sam with that rock when we were kids. 

Jack. Do you think he’ll still be with us with the baby comes? 

I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like my legs won’t move. I can’t tell whether I am grieving or excited. 

I hung up with the obstetrician right as you called. She’s concerned Lai’s pelvis is too narrow to get the baby out. They’re going to do a C-section. Tomorrow or Friday. Can you come home? 

Spilling out of his suitcase, which was flopped open on the floor, Jack saw that Xavier had packed a pink blanket in with his sweaters.

Glenda was standing outside Jack’s door, not meaning to eavesdrop, but not meaning not to. She’d never wanted to pry, but had heard the dampness of worry in her son’s voice. Digging her thumb into the beveled trim of the door panels, she thought about how David became a father without his father. How Lai was having baby without her mother knowing. How when Jack was sixteen, she’d heard the soft, lonely cry of Sam’s mother sitting in the roses beneath their living room window and she was too unsure what to do to offer her any comfort and so had pretended she didn’t notice.

 

After dinner, the three of them sat outside, bundled in scarves and fleece hats. It smelled like firewood and rain; clouds covered the smear of stars above the tree where the starlings were this morning. David grabbed Glenda’s gloved hand and kissed it.

The doctor says Lai needs to have the C-section soon. Tomorrow, probably. Jack hadn’t told them at dinner because his father had been telling stories about his parents, how his father was the town’s first mailman and his mother once carried their dog to the vet because she thought it had eaten chocolate, though David had actually eaten the chocolate and let the poor dog get his stomach pumped so he wouldn’t get into trouble. David took long breaths between his sentences, and when Glenda pointed out that she hadn’t burned the bread, his laugh came out in a wheeze.

I’m going to be a father. He wanted to ask his father to hold on, but to ask meant also acknowledging that soon there would be a letting go.

David ruffled Jack’s hair. Glenda put her hand on her chest where her heart beat strong. Jack went inside to get a bottle of prosecco from the fridge, allowing himself, for a moment, to feel lightness.

When the bottle was empty, he tucked his parents into bed. They’d been sleeping in the guest room on the first floor, which seemed peculiar to Jack, his parents sleeping in the room where visitors slept instead of upstairs in their bedroom, the same one his grandparents had slept in.

 

Xavier called just before six in the morning. The doctor had phoned. The C-section would be that afternoon. If Jack left soon he’d make it in time.

Jack wanted to wake his parents, but it was too early. He went into the kitchen, glad he was in Essex, though wishing he was at his apartment too, standing with his husband in their last moments before becoming parents.

When they woke, he would make them coffee and tell them they had decided to name the baby Alice, after Jack’s grandmother. He would pack his things and go home, would FaceTime them when Alice was born, would bring her up to see them as soon as the hospital released her into their care.

 

Jack went outside where the grass was wet from the rain and mist plumed off the lake. A possum slunk beneath the porch and a fisherman squinted against the rising sun, while fish silver as cans flickered beneath the water’s surface. Jack stretched his arms into a V then stripped off his clothes and ran down to the dock, jumped off without hesitating. Under water, he screamed and the murkiness of the lake flooded his mouth. He filled his cheeks with it, surfaced, and spit it out like a fountain. Floating for a moment, he watched the blue of the mountains, a shade darker than the sky, and thought again of eyes. He swam back to the dock. The ladder that used to be made of wood was now metal, drilled into the concrete platform, sturdier than it was when he was a kid.

He ran his fingers through his hair and headed back toward the house, his skin pimpling in the air. Jack grabbed the clothes he’d tossed on the lawn, used his t-shirt like a towel. It was time to go inside, put on the coffee, be his parents’ son and then become a father.

As he walked up the ramp, Jack saw his mother inside, her hair loose as petals. As he reached to open the door, the sun crept over the mountains and touched his forearms. He heard his mother make a sound, a string of long Os, as if her air was being squeezed from her. He did not hear his father, and he stopped, just before turning the knob. Turning his head toward the fence, the one his grandfather had built to keep in the dog, the one he’d leaned his bike against, the fence that, when he moved away, became the backdrop for his father’s garden, Jack saw that the light was falling differently than it had yesterday morning. Harsher, abrupt. There was a pile of something on the ground, green and brown and gold, and from the top of the pile a tiny finch flew up and away, and as it disappeared into the sky, Jack realized that the landscapers had cut sunflowers down.

Header photograph © Barren Magazine.

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