Christopher Merkner

Three Stories

 

Accidents

A truck hit a preg­nant woman near our home. The woman lived; the baby died. There were wit­ness­es. They have yet to catch the dri­ver. I have hit two peo­ple with my car and nei­ther died. I hit both on the same day. I hit the one at 830AM, the oth­er after lunch. It was the end of the semes­ter. I was busy. I had many errands. The first one went up the hood, then down; I clipped the oth­er one and sent him into a dra­mat­ic spin. In both cas­es, I stopped and got out.  I helped each gen­tle­man off the ground.

Both were my boss­es. My pro­gram direc­tor said, A more detailed expla­na­tion would help. Then he walked away and sat down on the curb. He is a poet, bald, and has three names. My dean is also bald but goes by just one name and a title. He popped back up and said he was fine, excel­lent, hap­pens to the best of us. He was bleed­ing from the mouth. His knees were exposed through the shreds of his pants. He was very friend­ly. He dust­ed me off, swip­ing at the front of my shoul­ders. He nod­ded and sug­gest­ed we call it a career.

I went home. I played ball with my son. At nine­teen-eigh­teen he received one free-throw because we were in the one-and-one bonus. If he’d made the first he would have received a sec­ond. But the boy missed, I wiped that shit off the glass, and I called him a tool. He did not care for this. He walked to the gro­cery store. I dropped the ball, called him anoth­er, ugli­er name. I fol­lowed him. He went straight to Bread. I found him cross-legged on the floor, gag­ging on Vündercrüst.

I sat down in front of him. The linoleum was cold. Look, I said, prob­a­bly this is about your hypo­thal­a­mus. My first time was in a gro­cery store, actu­al­ly, let me tell you about it. He stopped me. He said he’d heard what I’d done. He said he saw it on the news. He asked if I under­stood repen­tance and atone­ment. He was young. We dis­cussed this. Then I tore open the soft­er Vünderbüns: atone­ment, I said and winked, is way bet­ter over a meal.

I stood up and pulled the dis­play propane grill into Bread. I cranked it. I nabbed some franks from the out­skirts of Produce. I pushed the dogs around with a chop­stick. I ate sev­en­teen hot dogs; my son ate one half of one. I told him I knew one thing for cer­tain: he was per­ma­nent­ly in the bonus and could shoot two free throws for any foul into the indef­i­nite future. He looked wan. Look, I said, You don’t always choose your choic­es. You don’t always choose your vic­tims. And you don’t always choose your wit­ness­es. These are the words that were liv­ing between us until this most recent acci­dent near our home.

_______________________________

People

He used to say, “Is this me.” But he was three. We now believe he meant, “This is you two.” But my wife and me, we did not see us. We did not see him. We just stared at the paper. He would point to a tiny diag­o­nal slash of cray­on (“Is this me.”) and we would look at that paper, see noth­ing, run our fin­gers through his fine hair, and tell him he was real­ly a won­der­ful artist.

It’s hard to lie to chil­dren. It gives a per­son an unpleas­ing plea­sure. But we have so few tools to tell the truth, we had to lie to him. We clapped and raved and told him we would show his art to var­i­ous peo­ple from whom we would actu­al­ly be hid­ing the art. We were aware he might walk some­where into the future with this. We talked about it. We said to one anoth­er in the cool­ness of our bed­room sheets that he may nev­er get bet­ter at draw­ing or syn­tax or any­thing if we con­tin­ued lying to him about his short­com­ings and inad­e­qua­cies. We were in agree­ment that we might nev­er mate­ri­al­ize in his eyes and in his life, as our par­ents had not mate­ri­al­ized in our lives, if we kept this up. And we agreed we might for­ev­er find our­selves hav­ing to lie to him, as our own par­ents, as so many peo­ple over the years had lied to us.

In our unease, we bought him class­es: four times a week, we deliv­ered him to a small house in a fan­cy neigh­bor­hood. The teacher was a love­ly woman. She was young. She was someone’s daugh­ter. We pre­sumed she knew Mandarin, and we pre­sumed she desired to teach it. She seemed eager to lis­ten to our inter­est in her lan­guage, gen­er­al­ly, and very inter­est­ed in what we were ask­ing her. She smiled so warm­ly. We felt strong­ly we need­ed to give our son some­thing spe­cif­ic and tan­gi­ble we knew would ben­e­fit his future (We knew Mandarin was going nowhere any­time soon. Even if he failed at it, as he so read­i­ly showed him­self capa­ble of fail­ing at so many things, we fig­ured he could get some­thing, some­where with his knowl­edge of the lan­guage of the Chinese, and he would not blame us and hold us, as we held our own par­ents, in con­temp­tu­ous absen­tia for the dura­tion of his life), and so we hand­ed her a check and told her “please, do what you do” with­out real­ly clar­i­fy­ing the terms of these ses­sions at her house in the fan­cy neigh­bor­hood.

But, this young woman had no inter­est in teach­ing our son Mandarin. She desired instead to teach our son art, in English. I caught them one after­noon. I had been about an hour or two late pick­ing him up. I’d walked to the front door of the nice house and knocked. When no one answered, I tell you I became very ner­vous. I went around to the side win­dow and looked in. They were right there at her din­ing room table. She was reach­ing across the table, her hand over the top of his. Paper had been scat­tered, and box­es, box­es of crayons had been spilled over. He was speak­ing to her. She was nod­ding, lis­ten­ing as though he were instruct­ing her!

I rocked the din­ing room win­dow. They both flinched and turned. They looked at me like they had not seen me in years and could not quite place me. Then they waved. My son fin­ished his sen­tence, and then she looked at me again and sig­naled for me to go around to the front. She let me in, greet­ed me with­out a smile. She asked if I would like to see my “son’s work­ing.” I said I would like to hear my son speak Chinese—

I went past her and into the din­ing room. There, in front of the child, was the gun smok­ing: a draw­ing, a per­son, bad­ly com­posed. The per­son was a bub­ble mess. I could dis­cern the figure’s head well enough, yes, and his tor­so, arms and legs, but the shape was essen­tial­ly a col­or­less and fraud­u­lent attempt at real­ism. “Say ‘hel­lo’ to me in Chinese,” I demand­ed.

Hello.”

I asked him if he could speak any words in Mandarin, and when he could not—when it became clear he had no idea what I was ask­ing him—I just gazed at our young Mandarin teacher until she fled her own din­ing room in shame.

Oh god, was his heart bro­ken!  He wept with­out end. He spoke in a blub­ber­ing we agreed sound­ed like a for­eign lan­guage we both knew well. My wife and I nod­ded: we’d been there before. We knew this betray­al. We knew what it felt like when your par­ents had under­cut, killed you. We knew what that feel­ing sound­ed like. We knew that lan­guage. Yet, we spurned it. It made us sick. You can­not speak that lan­guage. That kind of lan­guage will ruin your life prospects. We told him this, though in dif­fer­ent words. “I sound­ed like my moth­er,” I lat­er said. My wife said, “You sound­ed like my father.”

That was the moment we should have called the Mandarin teacher, repent­ed, and begged her to come over to our house imme­di­ate­ly to teach us all bad art togeth­er at one table. Instead, we for­bade the boy’s bad art. We installed him in a pro­fes­sion­al clin­ic for lan­guages where he remained for more than two decades. He even­tu­al­ly trav­eled and mar­ried a woman in South Korea, of all places. He lives there still with her fam­i­ly. They have four chil­dren, appar­ent­ly. We have seen no pic­tures. We have not seen one of these grand­chil­dren. All we have now, we have hung on the refrig­er­a­tor. Yesterday, we were talk­ing about these images. I said aloud (and my wife said, “What?”), “Is this me?”

_______________________________

O Sweet One in the Bluff

At first I actu­al­ly could speak to her. I could speak to her quite often, actu­al­ly quite nat­u­ral­ly. She just couldn’t speak back, and that real­ly helped. I told her repeat­ed­ly that I was in love with her every chance, every time I saw her rolling on the car­pet, ogling the ceil­ing, any­time I could catch her con­scious. “My god,” I could say to her then, “I love you so much, my lit­tle beau­ti­ful.”

And my wife would roll her eyes. “Must be nice,” she would say.

But then my daugh­ter start­ed speak­ing and it was enor­mous and awe­some in its own way. She was twelve, thir­teen months old. She man­u­fac­tured ver­bal things like “ad” and “non.”  It was awe­some, and the awe­some total­ly silenced me, utter­ly shut me down again. I went sol­id stone with her—and sulky. I just froze up, shut down. It was like I was try­ing to date again, back on the dat­ing scene some twen­ty years pre­vi­ous to this.

I had major prob­lems with dat­ing, as every­one knows, because it’s very hard to date when you can’t speak nat­u­ral­ly to the intend­ed objects of your inter­est. You have to rely on your body.  I have a real­ly good body, real­ly fit, thank god, and every­one knows that if my wife hadn’t been into my body and there­fore deter­mined to break me social­ly, back when we were in col­lege, I might have tum­bled silent and absti­nent into my lone­ly and filthy lit­tle grave.

But my wife did break me, thank god.

Or, I’d thought I’d been bro­ken. For all these years I’ve been pret­ty much bro­ken, talk­ing to men and to women with rel­a­tive com­fort, rel­a­tive nice­ness. But then we had this daugh­ter of ours, and our daugh­ter want­ed to speak to me pret­ty much as soon as she could begin speak­ing, and I could not say a thing back to her. At first I could talk to her, yes, as I’ve said, but this lasted—in the frame­work of a lifetime—about twen­ty sec­onds.

My wife absorbed my silence to my daugh­ter as she would a per­son­al injury to her­self. She could not sum­mon the same deter­mi­na­tion to break me as she had when we’d been court­ing. She was wound­ed by it, hurt, suf­fer­ing. She cried a lot. She whim­pered. She got frus­trat­ed and banged things on the coun­ters loud­ly in bursts of anx­i­ety. And yet she tried to help me. She sat me down across from our daugh­ter and said things like, “Go ahead. Just say, ‘Hi.’ Just say, ‘Hey.’ Just start with one word.”

I would have to shake my head. I had a rock in my throat. “No.”

Just say the first thing that pops out of your heart,” she tried.

I want to tell her I am in love with her.”

My wife took a breath and looked off to a dis­tant coun­try. “Maybe try some­thing less dra­mat­ic.”

She was very patient. She is an extra­or­di­nary woman. She stood there and watched me star­ing at my daugh­ter. “Dad,” my daugh­ter would lat­er say to me, “play with me.” And Iwould play with her. But I would do so in silence. I maneu­vered fan­cy smelling pur­ple and pink hors­es into and out of fairy lands. I combed her long hon­ey hair. I took her to the swingset, pushed her. I just did it all with­out voic­ing a sin­gle word to her. I just looked at her. And my wife just looked at me, often agape.

Either this indi­cates you are a misog­y­nist,” my ther­a­pist offered, “a hater of all women, or else you are homo­sex­u­al and clos­et­ed. Perhaps you have trans­ferred your wan­ton crav­ings for men into an abject con­tempt for the nat­ur­al inter­est your daugh­ter might have to speak with you.”

My wife offered, “I fear the only thing we talk about any­more is our daugh­ter.”

I some­times talk about me.”

Yes,” she answered qui­et­ly, “let’s not do that any­more.”

So, then, for a peri­od span­ning approx­i­mate­ly fif­teen years I did not talk to my wife about our daugh­ter, or about any­thing, and I stopped talk­ing to every­one and entered a sus­tained peri­od of com­pre­hen­sive silence. These were the years I was only writ­ing notes down on a piece of paper at gro­cery stores, to pester shelv­ing clerks about the new loca­tion for the organ­ic pro­duce, and these were the years I would answer the tele­phone only to hear some­one speak to me before I even­tu­al­ly hung up on them.  These were the years I fell into study­ing my domes­tic life as a qual­i­ta­tive sci­en­tist might study a trou­bling social trend: I took exten­sive nar­ra­tive notes on my wife’s pat­terns of toi­letry usage, main­tained a three-dimen­sion­al scat­ter chart visu­al­ly depict­ing the angles at which my daugh­ter would prop her cel­lu­lar tele­phone against her face while speak­ing to dif­fer­ent interlocutors—males, females, adults (10 – 13, 14 – 16, 17+)—and I ran  a run­ning spread­sheet of dic­tion and syn­tax usages my wife and daugh­ter shared in moments of expressed frus­tra­tion toward my silence.

Then one after­noon, well into my fif­teenth year of silence, while my wife was out of the house, my daugh­ter came to me in the kitchen.  I was scour­ing pans. She was unusu­al­ly fid­gety, very pret­ty. She said to me, “I am a total fuck waste.”

I turned off the water and turned to her. “That is a lie,” I said.

Holy,” she said. She put her hands over her mouth. Then she put them on top of her head. She was smil­ing. I hadn’t seen her smil­ing in more than a decade.

The pow­er of sight is often smoth­ered by its sis­ter sens­es, espe­cial­ly sound and smell, but I have found sight to be my great­est and clos­est friend over the years, par­tic­u­lar­ly in my silence. It was our first direct exchange in her cere­bral life, and I found the visu­al dimen­sion of that moment its most grat­i­fy­ing aspect. She had amaz­ing teeth, it turns out, and her cheeks formed dim­ples that ran clear to her ears. I had nev­er seen that. It wasn’t the way her moth­er had ever smiled with me. Perhaps, indeed, her moth­er had nev­er smiled with me, a gut­ting thought.

I need to get out of here,” my daugh­ter repeat­ed.

I nod­ded.

My life is about to end,” she said. “And I have to get the hell out of here. Let’s just go. You don’t need to talk. I want to go to the moun­tain. I’ll dri­ve. You don’t have to talk or do any­thing. I just need to go. I just want you to come with me. We can pan for gold, or some­thing, I don’t know.”

Do you want me to talk?”

She thought about this for a moment. “No.”

She must have seen me sink.

That’s why I asked you and not Mom. I just need some­one to be with who won’t tell me what to do.”

I nod­ded and rubbed my face. I had a lot I want­ed to say that she was mak­ing me swal­low.

I had nev­er been to the moun­tain. I had no idea what peo­ple did on the moun­tain. It is the only moun­tain in Wisconsin. Indeed, it is the only moun­tain with­in a one or two thou­sand mile radius. Indeed, it’s not a moun­tain at all. It’s a bluff, and because we see it as a bluff, a total fraud, we call it a moun­tain. Miners liked it years ago. But that didn’t last, and I can see why. It has always seemed a par­tic­u­lar­ly depress­ing moun­tain to me. It has always seemed like some eco­log­i­cal flaw, a mis­step of cre­ation, an eye­sore that sup­pressed our prop­er­ty val­ues and our perspectives—a painful­ly slow ris­ing from the earth matched only by its salient and rather unpleas­ing drop back down again—a metaphor to kill the plea­sure of all metaphors in and around and about this coun­try­side.

I prob­a­bly should have dis­cour­aged her from dri­ving. She was four­teen. She passed cars on the right edge of the high­way. She played extra­or­di­nar­i­ly loud music. The music seemed unbe­liev­ably unre­lat­able. I won­dered at the cal­i­bra­tion of their anger and what a world looked like in which peo­ple wore their anger so open­ly, or a world in which peo­ple paid mon­ey to hear peo­ple this flu­ent with their anger. I near­ly bit my hand off as we round­ed the slop­ing switch­backs. I have nev­er been more grate­ful to see a park­ing lot.

We left the car and walked along a wood­en bridge lead­ing to a pre­fab­ri­cat­ed cab­in built off the face of the moun­tain. I want­ed to know how she’d known this place was here, but she would not read my note. She said, “Let’s go” like we were actors in some tele­vi­sion crime dra­ma. But I kept pace with her, and I remained silent. We paid fif­teen dol­lars each (she paid for her­self on a cred­it card I had not, to my knowl­edge, cosigned for her) for a flim­sy tin lid. The bro­ken-tooth and par­tial­ly beard­ed man at the counter said, “He know what he doing?”

No one knows what they’re doing, Billy” my daugh­ter answered.

He laughed. His mouth was a goth­ic cage. “You go like this,” he said to me. “Not like this. Got it?”

I nod­ded. I did not have it. I had no idea what he was talk­ing about. I smelled whisky, and I want­ed a long drink. He point­ed us out the back door, which he had propped open, and I could see through the back door anoth­er long bridge and a set of stairs that went down to the creek near the base of the moun­tain. He winked at me.

I fol­lowed my daugh­ter. She did not speak. I did not speak. It was by then late after­noon. The light fell against the face of the moun­tain rock in a pleas­ant way, so that I could see the black flies swarm­ing against the pollen and motes. At the bot­tom of the stairs we went straight for the creek bed. I knelt down.

Not here,” she said.

I stood back up.

She was look­ing around me, around us, and back up to the pre­fab­ri­cat­ed cab­in. Sensing I sup­pose that we were not being watched, she moved quick­ly up the creek, and I fol­lowed. We walked for anoth­er twen­ty min­utes until we arrived at the entrance to a mine por­tal. The entrance was board­ed over. The creek was spilling from beneath the boards. She stomped into the water, across the slick rocks, and went direct­ly to the entrance to begin yank­ing boards away.

I am not great at trans­gres­sions, which makes me both a great and hor­ri­ble father. She seemed to expect that I would not be able to assist her in her vio­la­tion of the mine prop­er­ty, as she did not turn around to ask for help. She grunt­ed, nois­es I had nev­er heard her make came up from her bel­ly and her heart, and she pulled against a final plank with a yell I had actu­al­ly heard her use before, some­what fre­quent­ly, with her moth­er. But she could not get that last plank away. She turned to me, “Someone used screws.”

I made a face. I came over.

Indeed, some­one had screwed the planks to the wood­en fram­ing of the mine. The screws were new, shiny sil­ver. I put my foot along the side and real­ly yanked. It came off, and I fell heav­i­ly onto the rocks and creek behind me.

She ducked down and went in. I scram­bled up out of the water and went with her. “Watch your” became the open­ing of her every sen­tence inside that moun­tain. “Watch your head,” and “watch your step” and “watch your right.” I just stayed close to her, fol­low­ing her deep­er into the dark. I tried to keep my hand on her back. I tried to thread my fin­ger through the hole of her shorts belt­loop, but she was so fast. It’s a good thing I have such a nice body, I thought to myself, though I was hunched over and shuf­fling for­ward like a witch.

Tell me your thoughts on dark, damp holes,” my ther­a­pist offered. “You’re clear­ly drawn to holes. You love to talk about them. You have some sort of obses­sion with them. I’m inter­est­ed in the type of holes that most inter­est you, call to you, some­times maybe come to you in your dreams. Because we all have holes, don’t we, that we want oth­ers to explore. And we know that, as we have holes, so too do oth­ers. And we like to look and explore holes to make sure that theirs are like our own.”

Indeed the mine was dark, and it was wet. But it was cool bor­der­ing on cold. It became very dark very rapid­ly, swal­low­ing any of the late-day’s light that had ear­li­er been chas­ing us. I turned around a few times and saw nothing—literally the por­trait of noth­ing. My daugh­ter used a small key­chain flash­light to guide us through the pas­sage­ways. Its pow­er against this dark­ness was aston­ish­ing. I said noth­ing.

Then she stopped and shone her flash­light into a stretch of water that appeared cloud­ed by lime and allu­vial tail­ings where the mine had been flood­ed and sim­ply pooled. She turned to me and put a hand on my chest. “This is where things get a lit­tle weird,” she said.

I nod­ded.

Be ready. I just met her a few weeks ago. She’s in some trou­ble. OK? So am I. I’m going to show her to you now. You’ll get it when you see her.”

I expect­ed a dead child. I don’t know why. I had no idea. It might have made more sense, in ret­ro­spect, to have imag­ined a crea­ture or under­world sci­ence-fic­tion crea­ture. But that’s what I pic­tured. I thought of a dead child. “Are you going to kill me,” I said.

She shushed me. “Just think about what we’re going to do with this infor­ma­tion. Don’t wor­ry about what it means. OK? And don’t talk.”

She then turned the flash­light fur­ther up the pool of water, deep­er into the mine. I had to squint, but I could see, in the dim and pasty light, a woman look­ing back at me.

Hi, Hannah,” my daugh­ter said. “It’s me.”

The woman I could see in the pool, in a biki­ni, was at once famil­iar and yet very, very strange to me. She was smok­ing a cig­a­rette, though I could not smell the smoke. She was sit­ting on the far edge of the pool of water, her legs to her knees sub­merged. Her biki­ni looked to be red and flo­ral. She wore her blond hair long and back, in a bun, and she looked rud­dy, with high rosy cheeks, but there was no mis­tak­ing that this woman was my daugh­ter, old­er. I was see­ing the specter of my daugh­ter as an adult. She was wav­ing. “Hannah doesn’t speak to me, either,” my daugh­ter said to me, loud enough that it seemed she want­ed the woman to hear her.

How do you know her name is Hannah?”

Shhh,” she said.

It’s you,” I said.

She shushed me again, this time with some force. “I know who it is, dad.”

Then we stood there in silence. I real­ly didn’t know what to say. The woman remained on the oth­er side of the water. We would have to get into the water to go toward her. I pre­sumed that was where this was head­ed. Or I imag­ined this woman, this specter of my daugh­ter, would low­er her­self into the water and swim over to us. But noth­ing occurred, no per­son of the three of us moved. My daugh­ter kept the flash­light on this woman, and the woman con­tin­ued smok­ing.

She had stopped wav­ing to us, but she looked back at us as though we were in mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion. She nod­ded nice­ly. She shift­ed, every now and then, and I could hear the harsh scratch of the loose mine sur­face beneath her when she shift­ed. Except when she would wince while mov­ing her weight, she remained large­ly placid in her expres­sion, entire­ly mat­ter of fact.

Just wait,” my daugh­ter whis­pered to me.

You OK, Hannah?” she called. “Can I get you any­thing?”

The woman then shook her head and shift­ed once more. She pulled a leg from the water and the light from my daughter’s flash­light caught a sur­pris­ing angle in the pro­file of this woman. I had not been able to see it before, but it was clear in an instant that this woman was preg­nant. Her bel­ly was enor­mous! She plopped her near hand on her womb. She tipped her head back and looked up to the dark rock ceil­ing. She opened her mouth and groaned.

And then the light went out and I stood there stone silent in the dark.

I didn’t move. I could see noth­ing. My eyes failed to adjust to the new light, because the new light was an utter absence of light, some­thing I had nev­er seen before, and some­thing I have nev­er seen since. The image of my preg­nant daugh­ter burned on the sur­face of my eyes, but if there are degrees of dark­ness there are sure­ly degrees of silence, and I tell you I left a life­time of rel­e­vant ver­bal mat­ter stuffed inside those holes no one any longer knows how to mine.

~

Christopher Merkner’s sto­ries are part of his man­u­script We have them to raise us, oth­er pieces from which have appeared recent­ly in Gulf Coast, Cutbank, New Orleans Review and New South.