MY ACHING BLACK HEART
Appeared in Anthology Year Two: Inner Demons Out, The Four Horsemen, November, 2013; Great Jones Street Press, 2016
As I spend another day waist deep in the Missouri River, questions plague my mind, tease the folds of memories buried within, and penetrate the deepest senses of my being. Fly fishing relaxes me, allows my mind the freedom to venture beyond flesh and bone, purges the pressure that nearly drives me insane. It also numbs the pain. It’s all I can do to avoid clenching my teeth around six inches of blued steel.
The sun has barely risen above the horizon, its shape oblong, its rays struggling to push though the low-lying haze of distant Montana wildfires. Even in the foothills, the smoky taste sits heavily on the back of my tongue, something I’ve long since gotten used to. A lime green floating line whispers to me as I judge the current, stripping its length through the eyes of a nine-foot rod with a pause every few seconds. Bugs dance around my face beneath the brim of a stained and tired New England Patriots cap that also protects the whitish glow at the top of my thinning dome of hair.
Gnats and mosquitoes test the wrinkled creases of my flesh, repelling as the smoke of a Swisher Sweet forces second thoughts among the small army of flying projectiles. I don’t inhale, never have. A habit taught by my father, the white tip of the cigar is there only to bite upon and survive the hatch; the only way to spend the day on the river this time of year and still go home with eyes not swollen shut.
As a father to an only son myself, I had only one chance to do it right and failed miserably. It hurts to think about, causes me to squint against something more than the rising sun as I attempt to quell a sudden wetness from brewing for fear that another thought would allow the weight of retrospect to fall in the form of stinging tears.
Some witnessed in person, most imagined from distant cities that had no plans of entering my future when I first plunged into the perplexities of pharmaceutical sales. I only wanted to put a roof over my family’s head, ensure food always lined the shelves of the refrigerator, and never have to worry about the thermostat setting. I accomplished all of these things—and more—for most of my life, lived in a home well beyond anything I would ever need. I was good at what I did, usually to a fault. As fate would have it, I needed to be.
Five years ago, as autumn quickly turned to fall, my wife became a victim of an invisible sheet of black ice on her way home from getting a gallon of milk. A goddamned gallon of milk changed our lives in the mere seconds it took to complete a three-hundred-sixty degree turn smack in the middle of 10th Avenue South and slam our Impala head-on into a semi full of cattle. She survived, but paralysis spread its wrath from her waist down to her toenails that she sometimes let me paint on cold winter nights.
Hospital bills led to required, expensive home improvements and more adjustments for the family as a whole. Quite simply, I needed to make more money, which required me to step up my game among obsessively driven pharmaceutical reps in order to ensure that our family survived. To guarantee my family got the best of what a radically changed life now had to offer, I had to be the best.
With a drive for success came enjoyment, then fulfillment, then a craving that spawned a hunger for more. And with success came sacrifice.
When a new client needed schmoozing, the company called. When another deal needed closing, the company called again, sure of my success as evidenced by my very profitable and growing track record. No longer did I have the time to spend on the river with my son, teaching him the art of fly fishing and how to appreciate the simple things life had to offer, or discuss those sacred questions a growing boy asked a father.
One day on the river once puffed my chest out and squared my shoulders with pride, but now only leaves me feeling deflated with skin hanging loosely from shattered bones.
I watched as my son Anthony contemplated how to get to an exposed rock, too far out into the river, without getting wet. Too short for any waders I could find, he wore just a tee shirt, jeans, and a beat up pair of hiking boots. Still learning, he always convinced himself that the perfect fishing spot was just a bit further. Sometimes, he was right.
I could almost see the cogs turning in his brain and smoke starting to drift out of his ears as he faced his dilemma. I let my fly drift to the side of the banking behind me and watched, anxiously awaiting his solution. Chewed on the end of my cigar and silently encouraged him.
In a sudden moment of revelation, Anthony dropped his rod and searched the ground nearby, then a little further, certainly searching for the best tool to accomplish his small mission. He was right again as he bent to pick up a rock of perfect size and dimensions—flat on the bottom and large enough to give him plenty of stepping room. He sauntered to the river, hunched over and grimacing, but never asked for help. Then dropped the rock dead-center between the riverbank and his target location with a splash that certainly startled any fish away.
So enthralled with his problem, he never realized I was watching the entire episode unspool before me. I could see the biggest smile stretch to each side of his face as he topped the elusive rock that was now within easy reach. A short time and a five-pound brownie later, he was right … again.
Those days … those days are long …
My steadfast work ethic prevented me from refusing the work when I knew I instead should be showing my son how to tie a new fly to match the hatch, tucking presents under the tree before dawn, or showering the bed with rose petals, though our lovemaking days were long gone. Thoughts of commissions and advancement continuously cluttered my mind, always wanting more, and, to be honest, a much needed escape from a lifestyle change that I couldn’t handle. Every successful business venture only lent itself to a driving need to prove myself again, like an addict in need of a fix. Right before a deal closed, my limbs got to tingling and my heart picked up a steady hammer within my chest as the need for even more reared its ugly head.
During a rare meal at home, on the eve of another promising business trip, I noticed my son’s changed complexion. Teenaged years were proving unkind as acne started to dot his face and neck, enough to produce small sores and scabs where he had scratched. His water glass clattered against his teeth before he managed a sip, the tips of his fingers quivering ever so slightly, almost tipping the glass as he tried to set it down and quickly place his hand under the table. Matted, sweat-stringy hair hanging in front of his face, he picked up his fork, only to fiddle with his mashed potatoes and gravy, seemingly fascinated at the food pushing through silver tines.
I don’t think I ever saw him take a bite. Or swallow. Or notice the way his shirt appeared a little baggier on his frame. Nor was I aware of the increasing use of methamphetamines among teenagers, even away from the big cities. Montana, of all places. Meth labs were now as prevalent as the oriental massage parlors.
A quick glance from my wife over a wine glass told me there was more to discuss. I let it go unsaid beneath a few gulps from my own glass, certain all would be well upon my next return.
In the middle of dinner with a potential client, my cell phone vibrated in the pocket of my suit coat. I could feel it rattling against my reading glasses in my breast pocket. I kept on talking, ignoring the gentle buzz, talking a little louder about a new psoriasis medication so the person in front of me couldn’t hear the sudden interruption, sure whoever was calling would leave a message. I relaxed when the buzzing stopped, felt my blood pressure dip to a comfortable level, then spike with a vengeance when the phone buzzed again.
Beads of sweat gathered at my temples as the buzzing continued. And continued, dripping into my ears, down the back of my neck, and along the sides of my chest. I talked louder, faster, in a rush to close this lucrative deal, my limbs tingling with excitement. Loosened my suffocating tie. Out of sight, my hand squeezed the dinner napkin into a sweaty ball as the incessant buzzing toyed with my temper. My tongue disobeyed the messages my brain attempted to send to the man across from me—so close to finally shaking hands on our agreement—but my words only tripped over each other, stringing into nothing more than a nonsensical babbling of syllables. Three times I tried to begin my speech anew, a rote script easily tapped into—usually—but it only exacerbated my frustration. With a dramatic roll of his eyes, my client left the table, tossing his napkin in disgust.
I choked the cell phone out of my suit coat, tempted to throw it at the back of my client’s head as he exited the restaurant and raised an arm to hail a cab.
“WHAT?” I screamed into the phone, ignoring the sudden silence produced among the other dining customers, still feeling the cold November breeze from my client’s sudden exit ripple along my flesh. I glared back at them—each and every one of them—telepathically forcing them all to start chewing again and mind their own fucking business. Slowly, they did, but failing to resist a few smirks around mouthfuls of food. My jaw clenched; teeth produced tiny squeaks.
“It’s Tony,” she said in barely a whisper, but exuding a tangible panic within three short syllables.
My stomach lurched; faced flush with a heat that knew what would follow would not be good. The smell of my untouched salmon made me nauseous. I took a deep, needed breath; let it out with a fluttering hiss.
“What happened now?” I asked, unable to keep the accusatory tone out of my voice. His behavior had been on the verge of ridiculous recently, not belonging to the same little boy that once loved little league baseball, fishing, and boiled peanuts at the circus. Now his interests involved … absolutely nothing. Behind his bedroom door, he spent most hours of the day locked away from humanity, from us. Steady pounding on the poster-plastered door only produced muffled grunts beneath the raucous of maniacal music. He would disappear at night, sometimes for hours.
“He didn’t come home last night,” she said, choking back a sob.
“THAT’s why you called?” I said, and seethed, pinching the inside of my thigh to keep from bursting. “Why the hell—”
“He left a note,” she butted in, ignoring me, surely knowing not to let me keep going. It’s what she did. “It’s the only way he knew how to talk to you.”
I chewed on this and felt shame burn my cheeks.
“Well, what did it say?” My jaw was starting to ache, pulse pounding at my temples.
“I think you need to come home,” she said with an irritating nasal slurp, then delivered a constant tone with a single click of a button on her end.
I slammed my fist upon the table, water seeming to boil out the top my glass, silverware making a sudden bounce to the left. Those around me jumped in unison. Fuckers.
A master of living out of a battle-scarred suitcase, I quickly found myself on the next flight back to Montana, still livid about my first utter failure of a business trip. Tie loosened around a wrinkled collar, whiskey in hand, every bump of turbulence ignited my fury. Every screaming baby and food cart bumping into my foot poured more fuel onto the inferno that already blazed inside.
Three teeth-grinding hours later, I reached my destination.
With a jarring dip of the hood of my car as I stood on the brake pedal, I had barely removed the key from the ignition before I had one foot on the driveway. The garage door made a sickening grinding noise, taunting me with its geriatric rising. I always used the door through the garage to avoid walking up the wheel-chair ramp in the front of my home, think I was actually embarrassed to use such a thing. So I waited, hands opening and closing at my sides, the scent of clean mountain air trying to dissuade me from my current mood—impossible.
I spotted a shoelace first, untied and dangling, as the garage opened its gaping maw with more than its customary creaks and groans. Then the wheels of a chair.
And the body of my son, hanging from one of the tracks of the garage door opener, his weight bending the metal in its place, where a leather belt was fastened and stretched to wrap around his neck. The door met the kink and started coming back down. I slapped an automatic hand to the inside wall of the garage to stop its descent, only to wish the groaning motor still infused my ears with its discord.
The squeaks of twisting leather seemed so much louder, magnified within the small enclosure, pausing for too short of a moment as my son’s body changed direction. His tongue, impossibly swollen and flaccid, drooped from one side of his mouth. Worst of all, his eyes seemed to pop with accusations that had built exponentially, ultimately erupting on this fateful day. I turned away, not from disgust, but guilt. And shame.
Then fell to my knees.
My wife sat in her wheelchair, slumped over and crying, one hand caressing the leg of my son, shoulders rising in twitching hitches as she appeared to strangle on her sadness. An envelope weaved through the fingers of her other hand as her fist pounded against her chest. Hair disheveled, nightgown haphazardly draped around her body, she raised a tear-streaked face.
“He’s home,” she said, and handed me the envelope. In bold letters, DAD appeared in shaky script.
I couldn’t open it.
My aching heart dropped to my feet, where I wanted to stomp on it for all the blackness it contained in my desire for career versus family, knowing no amount of dedication or drive or will to succeed at mending our lives back together would ever work.
Unable to accept our loss, share a consoling embrace, or speak a single word to each other, my wife left soon after, using my time away to have someone move her things.
I sold the house, quit working, bought an Airstream and a plot of land where the Missouri River provided a wishing well of requests that would only wash downriver.
Like the river itself, my grief ebbs and flows. Certain times of the year—like today, the anniversary of my son’s death—it swells enough to overflow and give birth to a desire to end it all. Instead, I continue my penance, letting myself burn with insurmountable guilt, searching for answers, for reasons why.
Sometimes I see him before I go to sleep at night, hanging from my short ceiling with those hauntingly accusing eyes, a blackened tongue hanging to one side, his body swinging in a gentle circle, sometimes touching my toes with a cold, mottled hand.
The note still rests inside its unsealed envelope, unread, kept as a constant reminder on the refrigerator like a self-inflicted lashing with razor wire.
So many painful questions, some of which I’d rather not know the answers to.
As the sun touches the horizon with an ethereal glow I used to enjoy, I climb into my Airstream and gaze upon the river before closing the door with a congested sigh, wondering if the river will provide the answers tomorrow.
Or if one answer will eliminate the need to ever ask another.