During an uncomfortable hour of silent driving, Paul sucked six cigarettes down to his knuckles and chucked them out the window. The whole drive he’d been plugging Marlboro Reds, sticks of pink peppermint gum, broken toothpicks, and his fat, greasy fingertips in his mouth to keep words from breaking that dam. I knew he just wanted to scream at me.
The beat up blue Ford Taurus jerked every time Paul stomped the accelerator. He was in a mad hurry to get somewhere, which I assumed was out of the car and away from me, but the car was lazy. I fingered a penny-sized burn in the cloth seat between my legs and stared out the dirty window at the watery ditch and the skinny trees waving at us.
The world seemed alive again.
“Do you still resent your father?” asked Dr. White, his pen angled toward his notepad. His gray wool trousers scratched together where his legs crossed and his left brown loafer rocked rhythmically. He stared at me over spectacles dangled ridiculously low on his proboscis nose.
“Do you still resent your father for giving you that nose?” I shot back.
“Actually, I believe I got my nose from my mother. She was an anteater.”
I tried to resist but laughter overcame me like a sneeze. I didn’t belong in Sunnybrook. Dr. White did. Dr. White and his Bugs Bunny tie and his red and green plaid Christmas socks and his wool trousers and his stupid spectacles. Dr. White who picked his nose when he thought I wasn’t looking.
Paul turned down the heavy metal on the radio. “So, how’re you doing, Jason?”
“You don’t have to talk, you know.”
“I’m just tryin-”
“Have you talked to Jane lately?” I asked, knowing my question was a punch in the testicles. Jane left Paul for another woman.
“No, no I haven’t.” Paul scowled. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. “And I don’t plan to either.”
“Okay, okay. Jeeze. Just trying to make small talk, you know?”
Paul snorted and turned to the window to mutter something.
“Where are we going anyway? You taking me out to the woods to strangle me and leave me for the bears?”
“Look, Jason, I know you don’t want to talk to me. You think of me as the bad guy, the man in the long white coat. You associate your stay in this place with me because I’m the authority figure here. But life is not that black and white. It’s not always good guys versus bad guys.”
“I only know what I see.”
“Yes, you do,” said Dr. White with a measured pace. “And what have you seen in your father?”
“You’ve got me for four more days,” I sneered. “So do your worst.”
“Four more days?” Dr. White glanced at his wristwatch.
“Yeah, then I’m out of here.” I threw my eyes out the window. Out on the rolling green grass drying up in the autumn chill, down the asphalt river to the guardhouse and the chain link fence. This place was dying. The grass, the trees, the patients.
“Yes, but, Jason, you will only be released when you are deemed rehabilitated. This is not a jail.”
“You can’t keep me here!” I jumped up, knocking the wooden chair onto its back. The doctor flinched. He knew I could tear him to pieces.
“Calm down, Jason. You know I don’t want to keep you here–”
They released me at 1 p.m. They gave me two plastic bags to hold my belongings– two white shirts, a pair of blue jeans, a pair of gym socks, a paperback copy of The Castle by Kafka, a diary filled with the rants of a lunatic, and four orange pill bottles with white tops and white labels. Blue pills for insomnia. Green antipsychotics. Purple geltabs for depression. White benzodiazepines. Strutting down that squeaky tile floor toward the exit, I sounded like I was shaking maracas.
Paul waited for me on the front steps, blowing smoke circles. He wore a black trenchcoat, his hands deep in the pockets, and tan deck shoes. With his raccoon eyes, he looked ten years older than he had last year.
I bet he never thought I’d get out this soon or that I’d be his responsibility. I bet he thought Jane would come swooping down like a momma bird to fly me away from here.
“So, we meet again,” I said, like a cool villain in a James Bond movie.
Paul grunted, and with a jerk of his head, he told me to follow him to the parking lot.
Purple, green, blue and white — mix them together and you get black. Black in my mouth and dissolving in my stomach. Black overcoming my senses and blotting out the world.
Paul turned the key in the ignition, carefully. The radio came on and Mick Jagger whined: “–the red door and I want it painted black…” Paul pushed the key further. The tired engine screeched complaints.
“Come on, you piece of trash!” He pounded the steering wheel.
Why is silence so uncomfortable? Why can’t I just sit here in this car without looking over at Paul and thinking why doesn’t he say something, anything, even if it’s Ihateyou Ihateyou hateyou!
It’s like he’s waiting for me to say something. People waste half of their lives waiting for someone else to say something — I love you, I need you, I’m sorry.
The car rolled down a leafy macadam road that disappeared around a corner where redheaded maples huddled next to pines drooping with recent rain.
“Almost there,” said Paul.
We’d been driving for an hour and a half. Out of upstate New York and across into eastern Vermont.
“This can’t be it,” I mumbled.
Paul squeezed the Taurus between the outstretched arms of surprised trees, which scraped and scratched metal and glass. The dirt road had a median of matted down weeds and grasses. And the road just got narrower and narrower.
“There must’ve been a storm,” Paul said.
Behind us, the trees embraced the road. I wondered how we’d ever get back out.
“Come on,” Paul said, opening his squeaky door. “I’ll need your help moving this tree.”
A pine lay across the road in front of the car.
“There’s an axe in the trunk,” he said.
He reallycame prepared to chop my head off.
But there was no axe. Instead, he came around the front of the car with a square shovel and a pack on his back.
“What– are we gonna tunnel under it?”
“Get your bags, Jason. We’re walking.”
“Maybe if you had a truck, Paul, instead of this piece of–”
“Listen,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t call me Paul.”
“Do I still resent my father? Is that a real question? You should be a friggin comedian.”
Dr. White folded his hands on his knee and looked at me over his glasses. Then he scribbled something in his notepad.
“What are you writing there, Doc? That I’m uncooperative? That I’m insane?”
Dr. White relaxed his pen, licked his lip, and said, “I was just writing myself a reminder to pick up some Provolone on the way home tonight.”
“You know you’ve been here before?”
“I brought you here when you were a little boy.. Used to be my uncle’s place. He died earlier this year and left me the cabin.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You were about five. It was about this time of year, mid October. I walked down this road with you on my shoulders.
“Because your car broke down?”
He laughed. “You kept asking me why the leaves change color.”
“Just a stupid kid.”
“No, no, far from it. You’ve always been smart.”
“So what’d you say? God wiped his ass with every leaf and turned them brown?”
“Not quite. I told you that life was a cycle of changing colors. I told you about the seasons, and how spring is a time of birth and rebirth, when our eyes see the colorful world freshly. And how summer represents the days of passion, glory and pride, when we all feel invincible and immortal.”
“You probably put me right to sleep with that story.”
“You were a good listener. We actually had conversations back then.“
“Must’ve been nice.”
“I told you how the leaves change in autumn from green to browns and reds and yellows because they feel the first chill of winter coming, the cold of compromise and disappointment, the cold of hard decisions to be made. But I told you that autumn represents resilience in the midst of imminent adversity.”
He went silent, pondering something. Was he smiling? Soggy leaves squished into the muck and newly fallen ones crunched beneath our steps. A sudden breeze rattled leaves from their perches and sent them swirling. Paul slowed down and I slowed down. He searched for something to the right of the path.
“There it is. Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“He’s the whole reason I’m in here. A year of my life, gone! All because of him.”
“All because of him? Is it that black and white for you?”
“What is your obsession with black and white? You must eat a lot of Oreos.”
“I shouldn’t have done what I did. Okay. But he didn’t have to get the police involved. He could’ve handled it like a real dad.”
“You do realize, Jason, that he did all he could to protect you–”
Stabbing the dirt, Paul dug out mounds of leaves and black soil. Beside him stood a tall tree with an X branded on its trunk. A sentinel guarding buried treasure. Golden sunlight slanted through the forest, framing us. Finally, the shovel clinked against metal.
Paul dropped to his knees and clawed at the dirt. He wiped the top of the metal box and looked up at me, smiling.
“Well?” I stood with arms crossed.. I had no jacket to fight the wind.
“You don’t recognize this?” he asked, surprised.
“Well, why don’t you do the honors?”
The box exhaled a musty smell. It was full of little plastic baggies. I took out the one on top and opened it. It smelled like something had died in there.
“That was your baloney sandwich. You thought you might be hungry when you came back to open it.” He laughed.
“Yuck. Here, dig in.” I handed it to Paul and he threw it over his shoulder.
The next plastic bag had two one-dollar bills inside.
“You were a smart kid, Jason. You knew not to trust banks. You said you’d leave a dollar in there and then come back and get it someday. I guess you thought it would grow. I matched your dollar when you weren’t looking.”
I slipped the two dollars out of the baggie, inspected them, and slipped them into my pocket. Now I was two dollars richer. “Here, you open one.”
Paul moved closer, grinning, eyes set on the metal box as if it were a holy relic. He closed his eyes and took a baggie from the bottom of the box. He opened one eye and laughed. “I know what this is.”
He took out a little Polaroid picture. I was a tiny boy in a red and black lumberjack shirt, same as his, and I was on his shoulders.
“Your mom took that picture,” Paul said. “Turn it over.”
On the back, in my mom’s handwriting, were the words
Paul and Jason, my two favorite men
XoXo Jane Cole
I was stunned. Dizzy. He looked so happy. We both looked so happy. What had happened?
“Wait, there’s one more bag. And only you can open it,” Paul said.
I could tell what was in the bag without opening it. Leaves. Leaves so old they’d turned to dust, crumbling between my fingers as I held up the bag. I opened it anyway, thinking there would be something else, too.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s a bunch of leaves.”
“Exactly. Exactly. It’s a bunch of leaves.”
Paul waited. “The trees lost those leaves forever.. They never got them back. What do you think that means?”
I sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Think about it, Jason. We’ve gone through some rough times lately, haven’t we? Some serious changes?”
“Well, so do the trees. They shed their leaves just as we do. We bare our souls, letting the wind and the cold come and try its best to wither us, but we survive, we survive and when spring comes in our lives, we grow new leaves; we become new people with new attitudes about life. We get second chances to be better people. You understood when you were five–”
Don’t let him don’t let him don’t let him
RUN RUN RUN RUN
“I want you to know,” he cleared his throat, “that I’ve forgiven you for everything. Everything.
I couldn’t breathe. My face burned. My muscles tensed, neck like a rock, fists clenched.
“I love you, Jason. I want to be your father again.”
“You never said what winter represented, you know.” I choked on the words, without inhaling. Anything to change the subject. Make him stop stop stop!
“Winter represents the coldest times of our lives, when loneliness makes us feel hollow, when we feel naked and defenseless against forces we do not comprehend. Winter is the time when we need each other the most.”
My eyes blurred. A stream of heat flowed up my spine and gathered at my ears. My hands pressed into my temples, trying to keep my head from exploding. A low hiss came from between my teeth. An angry demon was fighting to keep control of my body.
I swung at him. He didn’t move. I punched his flabby belly and slapped his arms and grasped at his hair and tore at his face and spit and screamed No no no! and raged and
groaned and collapsed into his arms.
I collected a few maple leaves and gently put them into a plastic baggie. I put the four orange pill bottles in another baggie. In case I ever wanted to join a mariachi band.
Paul put his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll match your two dollars if you want.” We put a baggie with four one-dollar bills back into the box.
“With the economy the way it is, we might just be rich in a few years,” I said, and wiped my nose with the back of my arm.
Paul unzipped his backpack and took out a Polaroid camera.
“No way,” I said.
“I didn’t know they still made those things.” I stood up and dusted off my knees. I brushed my hair out of my face and wiped my eyes.
Paul stood next to me, only an inch or two taller than me, and he put his arm around me. His face was all scratched up, hair disheveled, lip swollen, shirt torn. The flash caught us both laughing.
Before we turned around and headed for the road, before I sealed the box and buried it again, before I put the photo in a baggie and placed it in the box, I took a ballpoint pen from my bag and wrote on the white space on the back of the photo
Me and Dad 2002