The pickup lurches a little when I put it in gear, and there’s a rattle I’m starting to fear is coming from the water pump. If it’ll hold for the next two paychecks I’ll be able to have it replaced.
It’s October and warm for the afternoon. I steer to avoid smashed road kill and a deputy notices that I cross the center line. I see him in my rearview mirror, debating whether or not to hassle me. He never pulls out, though. I’m at my pop’s house in twenty minutes.
He gives the dogs free reign inside, which gives the house the suffocating odor of musk and hidden dog shit. I make a mental note to set aside a weekend to help him clean.
He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a fat boxer sitting over both his feet. Two disassembled pistols are on the table, and he’s cleaning them with oil and cotton balls. The guns give off a sharp odor that I hate worse than the smell of the dogs.
He’s let his hair grow since retirement. He keeps it tied back but he doesn’t brush it enough, and it looks stringy. I can see patches of his scalp between the vines of gray hair. He turns, slowly. “Hey, kid,” he tells me, looking almost stunned. He runs a hand over his unshaven face. “How’s work?”
“It’s work.” I grab a nylon folding chair from against the wall and bring it to the table to sit. The whole tabletop is overrun with mail and small tools. Mom always hated this. “I wash dishes. I fry eggs.”
He nods gravely, like I’ve said something worth pondering. “This is that .357 I got you that one Christmas. The one you left behind when you moved out.”
“Oh, yeah.” The gun is somewhat obscene in size, and I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would practically need it. I do carry a gun, though, sometimes. A little .38 I’ve always been fond of. Pop bought it for Mom but she never much cared for it. He’s something of a lone enthusiast under this roof. I doubt the dogs care about guns at all.
Roscoe, a rickety old brown pitbull, comes hobbling over. He’s got bad knees, and watching him sit down or stand up makes me wince. But he’s a sweet old thing and I scratch him behind the ears.
“I oughtta take that gun back with me one of these days.”
“Well, I can hold onto it for ya,” Pop tells me. “Keep it safe till ya need to come home.”
I moved out five years ago. I’ve been taking night classes the past two years. The nest is old and covered in cobwebs.
“You ready to head out?” I ask him.
He turns and checks the time on the microwave. “Yeah, I guess we should go.” He stands up, takes a moment to steady himself against any joints that might yell out. He grabs his cane, an oak branch with a handle shaped naturally like a duck’s head, and I stick close in case he loses his balance. He doesn’t. He shuffles his feet loose from the boxer and we head for the door.
“Sean’s here, too.” Pop waves at me, standing by the door.
“Oh,” Mom says, sounding unsure. “That’s nice.”
“Come on in, kid,” Pop says, obliviously.
“I’m okay, Pop.” The only thing she remembers about me these days is the rage I used to inspire in her. Last summer she swung at me with a plastic fork. Pop sits alone across from Mom.
“Me and Sean are heading out today, the way we used to when we all had Sunday off.” When she shows no interest he asks her as casually as he can: “Would you wanna come with us sometime?”
“Oh. No.” She turns to watch hummingbirds out her window. Her roommate mutters in her sleep.
Pop reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I miss you, baby.”
Her arm doesn’t move. She doesn’t pull her hand away or hold his tighter. The knuckles sit there, unflinching.
When we start to leave Mom is still looking through the window. The nurse at the desk tells her she’s been more lucid than usual lately. This nurse always says that.
Pop and I dig a fire pit. Really I dig it, but Pop sets out the can and lays the charcoal inside. A grill is balanced, and sausages begin to sweat alongside hissing potatoes in foil.
We drink bottles of water pulled from a cooler. “I almost miss beer,” Pop says after a quiet moment.
“You ever miss it much?”
“I said I almost miss it,” he reminds me, then lights a cigarette. Putting the lighter down makes him wince.
“You alright, Pop?”
“Back,” he mutters. “My fuckin’ back.”
The aluminum armrests of the folding chairs scrape together when we move. Pop chews his food loudly, smacking and sucking at his teeth. I’ve learned to not let this bother me. Conditioning makes it hard to ignore, though. Nothing used to irritate my parents more than when my sister and I smacked our lips at meals.
“You’re doctor’s kids,” Pop would say, in that tone he used during lectures. “Behave like it.”
The old man in plaid and faded denim wipes his face with a dirty napkin.
It’s getting cold. We sit under blankets and sometimes talk about Mom. At some point I notice the wheezing breaths he takes when he’s fallen asleep. I put my arm around his shoulder. There are stars out tonight. Moonlight shines against the armrests of our folding chairs. I hold my father while he sleeps.