The Distance, and the Damage

            I am your boy, he said to the photograph at the end of the hallway. Wooden boards creaking, Deckard leaned his head on the wall. Put his hand on the glass of the photo frame. Whispered words, the etching of a remembered prayer, the fragment of a stray poem. I am your boy, repeated the picture, a deep reckoning of a father long gone and sent away. 

            Deckard Maynes Barlow found his way to the boy’s room. He was still asleep.

            “Time,” he said, as he opened the curtains. “Come now.”

            “Morning already?” whispered the boy.

            “Come over here. Let me dress you with my own hands.” Deckard took the suit from the cupboard and dusted it clear. Little puffs like busted angels wafted to the window, into the flow of the morning’s light. The suit was too small for the boy. The pants came up past his ankles. The jacket scarcely reached his wrists.

            “But the tie, that’ll work,” said Deckard, as he manipulated the black and grey thing through knots. He’d forgotten how to do it. Kept trying and failing, as though the morning were meant for him to stand there forever.

            “You never showed me how to do that,” said the boy. 

            “Never saw the need. Don’t see it now, either.”

            “Someone’s going to teach me, though? Some day?”

            Deckard’s head split. His body tightened until he was knotted up, and scarcely believed that he was going to slip loose, ever. His hands fiddled with the tie, touching the skin of this ten-year-old boy whose life he had witnessed in its entirety, every moment. 

            “Someone will,” he said finally, when the tie hung on his boy, the boy who stood surrounded by sunlight in a suit that would not fit, his feet bare, his eyes searching out the face of a father who had to look away. Everywhere but at him, thought Deckard, taking in the ruins of the room, the gaps in the wood panels, the critters sneaking in through the cracks in the window frame. 

            Downstairs, they ate boiled eggs topped with coarse salt, with a lump of cream and some beans that had been cooked yesterday. “The last of the cream. The salt, too,” said Deckard, smiling. The boy nodded and licked his plate clean. “I have some bread for you.”

            Table was quiet. The house groaned. Deckard fancied he could hear whispers upstairs, the ghosts of days past talking about the illusions they perceived in the lives of those who remained alive. 

            “Are you going to take me all the way?” asked the boy.

            “Every step,” promised Deckard. “Every step.”

            “And then you’re going to come back here?”

            “It’s home.”

            “But it’ll just be you.”

            Deckard nodded. “I’ll have the work. Plenty of it to be done in the fields. The house needs fixing too.” He stared at the blue blue of the boy’s eyes, the mist in them lifting as he realized that this was the day, the first of one thing, the last of another, not just another day, not just another few minutes in a tired old house with a tired old man, but something else – something that had just come down the road and over the dusty lane onto a sagging porch, to have done with its business.

            They finished the bread. At the front door, the boy was breathing hard. He looked up at his father. “Don’t want to leave. Want to stay here.”

            “Be brave about it, and maybe you’ll feel otherwise.”

            “I won’t,” he said. One hand clung to the door. The other held the hand of his father.

            “Poor house to raise a child. All those drafts, and the bugs. And the stuff that don’t work. This will be better. This will be fine.”

            He shook his head and squeezed tighter. But what he really said was, I am your boy, your boy, and that is not something you contain in a house or sift through a screen that removes this truth from the life we have shared, or the memories that we own.

            Porch creaked. Down the steps. Onto the lane, and then the road. It’s time to walk, thought Deckard. Today is not a day for the car. Today is not a day for walking quickly. 

            Fields they passed. Birds that lurked in trees that watched. A little parcel of breeze brought by the morning heat. Sunlight, the same as from when the world was born, just a little older, a bit more tired. And the words between a boy and his father, as they kicked stones into the ditch, or pitched them at the fence posts. The names of two brothers and a mother recited as though they had made their way into a song fit only for this morning, only for these moments. A hand in a hand. A pulsing of life and heartbeats, coming from the same source, risen from the same ground and hardness of earth. The sound of love. The whisper of ghosts. One step after another, leading down a road a last time.

            The town came out of nowhere. It rose as though the breeze had pulled it from the packed earth, nourished by sunlight to be all these colours and all these sounds and people. Deckard drew his boy into the streets, and nodded at people who knew him, people who might have wondered why the boy was dressed in that suit on this day.

            In front of the smithy’s, a truck had parked. The engine was running.

            “Could go back with you,” said the boy. His voice was done. Ruined.

            “I would if it could be,” said Deckard, words not the equal of what he needed to say now, what he had to get out before it became too late. He tried. The words came, familiar ones, practiced ones about how it would be okay, how the future was still bright, how there were so many possibilities in this life. 

            No more ghosts whispering. No more wind blowing. The small sound that came to Deckard pleaded to stay, first for forever, then just for another year, then finally just for another day, one last day in the house if it could be. “You be brave about it,” returned Deckard. You be brave, for you are my boy. You be whole, and proud of yourself and what you will be, and you think on me, your dad, when you look around at the world. For I’ll be here, and I’ll think on you for the rest of my life, I promise it to you.

            “This him?” growled the fat man. He was sweating, and there was food in his beard. He hobbled around the boy, tugging at the suit. “No need for this finery. Simple clothes would have been just fine.”

            “It’s the best he has.”

            The fat man frowned. “I bet it is. But he’ll have no use for a tie and jacket. I’ll sell them later. Buy him a better cot, maybe.”

            Deckard stopped him. “You’ll take care of him. You will. You promise that to me here, while you’re in front of me.”

            “I made you all the advertisements I’m going to. There’s no more to be had. You understand that, Deckard.” He didn’t wait for a response. “Listen now. You’ll write no letters. If you do, they’ll be burned. You’ll never try to visit. If you do, you’ll be shot as a trespasser. You’ll not raise hell with the authorities. If you do, something may happen to this boy. What you should try to do is forget. Go drink it out. Work it away. Find something, Deckard. Best advice I have for you.”

            The fat man turned to the boy. “Listen, and carefully. I want you to climb into that truck now. And I want you to look down at the floorboards. Don’t you look back at this man, your daddy. Don’t you dare stare out the corner of your eye for a last look. You don’t do that, you hear? You keep this moment, your hand in his, as your last of him. That’ll stand you in good stead. I figure in a few years you’ll lose even that. You’ll forget it, what his hand feels like to cling to so hard. Do as I say now. Let go his hand and get in the truck.”

            The hesitation was only a second, but a lifetime in the making. Deckard felt the fingers slip out of his, leaving a trace of heat. He watched a small back and tight clothes climb the steps into the back of the truck. A head staring at the boards, not moving.

            “There, it’s done,” said the fat man. Deckard said nothing. The fat man tugged at his beard and spat. “Do yourself a kindness. Go to the pub. Your debt’s paid off, and you’re alone. No one cares if you go down that road again. There’s nothing more to lose, Deckard. Nothing.”

            “Debt’s paid,” croaked Deckard.

            “It is. All that you owe, we forgive. You’re free, man. Free.”

            Deckard stood there, in the silence of a breeze and within the scrutiny of a sun that judged his every breath. People may have been looking at him, but he wouldn’t have known it. The next thing he knew, diesel fumes gathered as an engine roared. Wheels groaned into motion. Don’t look up, he told himself, only be with yourself and the hardness of the ground on which you stand – for there is nothing else left to consider, nothing at all. But his eyes rose anyway, to watch the truck move down the street, belching fumes into the air of the new morning. And there in the back of that truck, a little figure sitting there in a suit too small, with a heart too big, with a life too new, given commands not to look back – but looking back anyway. Blue blue eyes staring down the road, and a small hand waving a goodbye, the last treasure Deckard was ever going to know.

###

            In truth, Deckard walked to the steps of the pub. People inside saw him coming and a few called him over. He made it as far as the porch.

            The road was hard. Cars and horses mingled with each other in a dance that was only heading in one direction, but he was the only one walking. At the edge of the buildings, the breeze picked up. He kicked a stone into the ditch. He grabbed other stones and threw them as far as he could into the crisped fields.

            The whole way home, he saw no one. Not even a ghost.

            The porch creaked. The door opened. He went through the house to the other side, into the garden and then just beyond, to a small plot where three graves had been dug. One small and so old he couldn’t remember having done it. The second small, too, but newer. And the third, a place where he had put his love not long ago. 

            “It’s done,” he said to her. “You told me what it would cost to do the things I did. But you didn’t know what you meant by that. You didn’t. And all I can hope is that you can’t see what’s become of us. I never meant to bring this. I hope you know that. Truth is, I don’t know how it happened. All I know is that I’m here, alone. Seemed not long ago. Seemed not that long ago.”

            That night, the house was quiet. Lights were dimmed. And if there were any sifting to be done of starlight or other things belonging to the ether, they belonged to people far away from that sagging little house. Heat had come, as it would. Breezes had mixed with it, as they were wont to do. And upstairs, at the end of a hallway, Deckard rested his forehead against a wall, one hand touching the glass of a picture frame as his words whispered the night through, I am your boy. I am your boy. I am. 

Dream hard, rage hard.

23 thoughts on “The Distance, and the Damage

  1. I feel like I say this every time I read something of yours more than once: This is my favorite. This one, right here.

    I remember reading this years ago, aching so keenly I couldn’t even cry.

    I’ve read it a dozen times or more, and the loss in it is almost too much to bear.

    The way you make your characters *feel* is a gift.

    The way you make me feel is a gift.

    Your writing is a gift.

    Thank you for giving it.

    1. Yes, it’s an older one but somewhat updated, though the bones are still there. It needed some retrieval from the memory and some cleaning up. You’re killing me with praise, Jones. Killing me. But I’ll take it. Each and every word.

  2. The psychology of the materials you use is fascinating to me. Such refined writing. Art as device of passion. I’m sure this will be a grand year for you.

  3. Love this one, Trent. Absolutely love it. But unlike most stories I read and that goes for yours as well, at the end of this one, I was begging for more of this one. I want to know what happens to the boy, what brought Deckard to this point. I want so much more of this one.

    And I haven’t forgotten about Demolition.

    1. Hey thanks, Mark. Figure you would have remembered a previous iteration of this story, it’s changed a bit. But the essence is the same.

      I really don’t think I can revisit this one. It feels really hard to think about for me. But you do have my wheels turning suddenly…

  4. My third eye captured each and every gut wrenching scene of this NB. In black and white I see the dawn coming through the crooks and cracks of that desolate house. I clicked again when the angels busted in the morning light and yet again, when I was drawn into the mist of the blue blue eyes. I saw little frayed edges hovering above ankles too skinny to bear such weight as this young one must bear. I could go on through the whole story sharing each and every time my 3rd one blinked, but I’ll spare that and say this…today, I wish I was a painter instead of a wielder of a camera. The vision you create is so utterly, heartbreakingly, clear that I think even I could put it on canvas.

    1. SB – your comment gives me chills. It really does. I hate and love this story. Hate the subject matter, love that I was able to draw it out of me. Stories, like paintings, require courage at times. I hope to see what you’re been painting or picturing, and what life through your eyes looks like just now. Because as always, I have great affection for you.

  5. There are times, Trent Lewin, when I wonder why I let you do this to me. You break my heart in ways I would never let a man I know break my heart. He would have been out on his ear the first time he left me weeping. With you, I calm myself and wipe away the tears. I will think of that boy and his father at the very least until my head hits the pillow. Even then they will probably haunt my dreams. When I wake up one of the first things I will do is look to see if you have shared something new with us. Why? My only answer is that anything that can make you feel that deeply is well worth reading. Even if it breaks your heart.

    1. Ah heck Michelle, I’d be lying if I said my intention was other than to make people feel something. And for me to feel something. remember when we were kids and feeling, emotion, was so raw? I feel often that that’s beaten out of us, but I try to find that strength of feeling in stories. Like I’m a kid, in some cases though, reading harrowing tales.

      Yeah, this guy deserves nothing good. And he got nothing good. I find that so tragic that I can’t stand the thought of it.

      Such a wonderful comment, Michelle. Like a little story itself – thank you.

    1. I figure when you’re stuck on something, you always go to angels. Big angels, bad angels, angels with weird angles… the angel industry in the writing community is doing pretty good. I figure busted angels is a newer addition.

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