The rattle of cicada wings, and all of us are gathered in the garage. It is a summer night in Arkansas, and we are teenagers locked in a suggestive boredom. The first half of the night we swing sticks at each other, and laugh at the sudden blooms of pain. We follow that with a drink, raised skin healed by alcohol mixed with sprite and Kool-Aid.
I am too careless, I tell the others.
Nah, says John. We’re young, who cares?
Two years from now, his car will careen off the road and into a tree, slamming into a fence post, before the car flips and lands on top of him. He’ll be conscious when the paramedics arrive, patient enough to dictate his last words, aware of life splintering. I will pull his phone from the grass, place the battery back inside and listen to the voicemail. His mother yells for him to get his ass home. The phone’s greeting is clouded with smoke and coughing, John’s dazed voice temporal on the other end.
Ha, I say. Always.
My grandfather’s words are wheezing, and the connection separated by static. He is out West, I am still in Arkansas. He is, of course, still the large burly man that I remember. The one cloaked in midnight and whiskey breath, who sat on his porch after arguing with my steel-backed grandmother and gave me money with a wink to calm my nerves. He is not the photo my mother hands me, shriveled thin and cadaverous. Oxygen tank strapped tight.
Do you believe in the afterlife? He asks. This isn’t the first time.
Yes, of course, grandpa. I say. He doesn’t believe me.
When I dream, it’s of angels.
I don’t want to hear him speak. My mother handed me the phone, her face turned away. The last time I saw him, he bounded from the car in our driveway and lifted me from the ground. I was fourteen—moody and pubescent—but I aged backwards in his grasp, became pawing fingers and gum-toothed. He sat me on the ground with relish.
You are a MAN. His grin so wide the wrinkles swallow his face.
I want them to take me home. He says now, bathed in sound.
The house is on the bend, in the farmland outside Batesville. At one point, it must have been new, but it feels permanently disfigured, like a disability instilled since birth. The paint chips away at the touch, and there is a slight lean. The floors are not level, and a marble placed at one end will roll to the other side of the house. My stepfather works in the front yard, pulling weeds out by their roots. A cheap beer in his hand. He walks with a saunter—the result of an old car accident, one foot shorter than the other.
Am I a good father? he asked me once. Not here, but miles away. Before the move out to Arkansas.
I didn’t answer, and he walked away. The glimmer in his eyes clear.
Now, he pushes a hand on his back, stretches the muscles and takes a drink from the can.
Hell, son, he says. This ain’t so bad.
A few years from now, he’ll fall asleep and not wake up. I’ll receive a phone call, and hear the years of missed opportunities play back at me in the breath of my mother’s cries.
It’ll be just fine, I say.
The tree in the backyard looks no different. The trunk extends far enough above the house that the branches scrape the shingles. When the wind blows, the sound is like fingernails. Some great, begging beast on the roof. The only indication of change is the neat circle of worn away bark on the largest branch. Rope burn.
Inside the house, family gathers. Aunts from downstate, cousins from across the region. They talk quietly, in hushed voices that suggest that the children don’t understand. I am outside, and I reach forward, daring myself to touch the tree. Imaging the distance between this moment and forever. The sensation of falling, of a quick stop.
When my hands touch the bark, nothing feels different. There is no understanding, no change. My father, his ghost still swings from the tree. All I see is the night before. His body crouched on the roof, rope coiled. The way he must have closed his eyes to prepare himself. The final deep breath.
Dallas Allen received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Memphis, and since graduating has spent his time writing and working as an English Teacher at a local high school. During his MFA, he served as Senior Fiction Editor and Senior Online Editor for the Pinch Literary Journal. Outside of that, he spends much of his time telling his dogs to get off the dining room table.