Tuesday, June 17, 2014

My Father's Mill

The smell of hot plastic reminds me of a Tennessee summer.
Like the way the “easy assembly” swimming pools smelled
when they first surfaced out of the box.
Right before they were planted on your lawn,
the neighborhood’s newest attraction.

A thousand tiny memories swim through my mind
As I lean there against the tarp covered pick-up.
My father drove a Ford.
And even though he paid for it,
He never let me forget I chose a Nissan.
Especially when it broke down.

Hence, why I’m standing here in heels and a blazer
baking in the sun.
Most people would assume that as an out and proud flamer
I might know a little bit about cars and their inner workings.
That is completely false.

Proven so by my blank stare.
The mechanic laughs as he toils over my carburetor
(I think.)
I let my mind drift off with the breeze.

For just a moment I’m back in my front yard
Handing wrenches and screwdrivers to my old man.
He finally stopped asking for them by name,
And resulted in a more practical form of communication.
“Can you get me the big one shaped like a crescent moon?”
“This big one? Or the other one.” I asked, uninterested.
I hand him what I think is correct.
Nine times out of ten I’m right. 

He sits on a five gallon bucket, and cranks another nut… or bolt…
I never could remember the difference.
His massive hands were covered black with dust and tar.
It always left his fingernails dirty at the dinner table.
At the time it made me turn up my nose.
Looking back now, I wish I knew someone who worked quite that hard.

I was annoyed to be there standing by his old pick-up.
I could think of a thousand other places I’d rather be.
The local pool with my girlfriend.
The river with my friends.

Instead, I waited impatiently beside him to finish changing a tire.
He needed help at the mill,
and that meant another two hours of blazing sun.

Finally back on the road, the dust swirled in the air behind us.
Dirt roads are telling in the sense that when you take them,
The rear view mirror shows the proof.
Never could sneak down an old dirt road.
Many times, I tried.

When we arrived at the gate, I climbed out of his F-150
And shuffled my feet over to the lock.
Stepping up onto the bar, I swung it open riding the steel wave.
Wind in my hair, it was the most fun I would have all day.

He yelled at me to hurry up, so I pulled down the tailgate
and drug my feet as we pulled through the lumber yard.
“It’s time for inventory.”, he tells me.
I hated inventory.

Inventory meant splinters and a forced fear of heights.
He led me to the furthest row of oak two-by-fours
And pointed to the ticket stapled to the top.
“Up you go. Read it off to me.”

I placed one hand above the next as I scaled the jagged stack of lumber.
Splinters dug themselves into my skin from my knuckles to underneath my fingernails.
The pain was fierce, but wasn’t quite enough to make me let go.
It was a long way down.

“Just keep your eyes on your foothold.”
“Nice and steady.”
“That’a girl.”

As I neared the top, some sixteen to eighteen feet in the air
I could feel my heart pounding.
The beat was so strong,
That I was certain it would ricochet through my body,
jerking me from the ledge.

My fingers ached as I held myself against the looming stack.
“5X4772” I whispered.
“Speak up, mouse.”
“5X4772” I choked out, a little louder.
“Read the last two again.”
“I said the last two numbers. Read the last two.”

As I tried to call out the remaining digits, I lost my concentration and my foot slipped.
My flailing body drug down the wood, scraping my shins and forearm.
I found myself plummeting towards the earth.
Expecting to meet certain death.
Instead, my father’s giant hand reached out and caught one of my arms.
It was enough to keep me from crashing to the ground.

He was a broad man, tall, with large shoulders.
From afar, he resembled a grizzly bear covered in stubbly fur.
Quiet by nature, he tended to speak only when necessary.
I suppose now it was.
“Close one. You gotta be more careful.” He said,
as if I hadn’t fallen from a near two-story building.

My heart pounded even faster now.
My shoulder ached from where he had caught me,
And despite the fact that my face hadn’t been mangled and nothing was broken
I was angry.

“I shouldn’t even be up there.” I cried.
Tears now streaming down my face.
 “Hey, you’re alright. It’s just a little scratch.” He insisted.
“Are you crazy? What kind of father sends their kid up there?”
I shouldn’t have reacted that way.
I should have been thankful that he grabbed me,
but adrenaline was rushing through my veins and out my lips.

He looked at me with sadness in his eyes.
Two heart attacks and five bypasses were the reason I was climbing.
Because his large hands could no longer hoist the weight of his once nimble body.
He wasn’t a man of many feelings, but I could read the guilt on his face.

“Wait in the truck.” He said to me.
I should have stayed.
I should have helped.
I should have been less angry.
My pride was hurt more than anything.
I had scaled barns, and trees, and never once hesitated.
It was only because I didn’t want to be there that I blamed him.

He never asked me to go back.
I would see his pick-up peel away, rolling slowly down that dirt road.
Spitting out dust and smoke behind it.
He would come home around dark, his eyes a reflection of the night sky.
He was weary.
Doing alone, the work that two could accomplish in half the time.
I never regretted leaving him to himself, until now.

He hasn’t worked in almost 10 years,
and the lumber mill has since shut down.
We don’t talk much anymore.
Not that we ever really did.
Sometimes I find that I’m still angry.
Lately, more at myself than him.
He is a simple man.
His entire life has been spent within a 45 mile radius,
And here I sit across the country, wondering why he never loved me.
At 25, I wish him a happy father’s day from California.
And he tells me thank you, but our voices trail off with little else to say.

It wasn’t until today that I finally accepted that he does love me.
the only way that he’s ever known how.
With brief stories about deer hunting, and how possums keep coming up in the yard.  
He showed me he loved me by taking me with him to the mill,
And trusted me to scale a looming stack of lumber.
He loved me by catching me when I fell.
He always caught me if I fell…

The man was nothing near a saint,
Nor was he a demon.
He never beat me.
Never cursed me without apology.
He isn’t a drunkard, or a cheat.
He sits quietly in his chair everyday,
Staring out the window… wishing he had done more with his life.
Even wishing that he loved us a little better.

Part of me wishes that he had too.
Then part of me is just thankful to have known a man like him.
One who worked from dusk ‘til dawn.
One who taught me how to drive a tractor,
And skin a deer.
Not that I ever really enjoyed either one,
But he took the time to show me how.

He might not have come to my ball games,
But every night he came home.
That’s more than some can say.

I love this man.
The one who didn’t learn how to use that word until I was 11.
My mother taught him.
She taught him with her touch, and her trust.
She taught him with her kindness, and good will.

And he taught me to thrive.
To push past immeasurable odds.
He is the reason that I couldn’t give up.
I didn’t know how to.
It wasn’t allowed.

Here’s to the father who loves me…
Even if I don’t know how to be loved.

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