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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.