by Sandy Tritt
Miller propped open the rusted screen door
with his well-worn work
boot. He stared at the man he hadn't seen
for twenty-one years. He
appeared smaller than Sam remembered, and
his skin had taken on the
texture of the baseball mitt he'd given Sam
thirty-some years before,
but the blue eyes and bulbous nose matched
Sam's perfectly. Sam cleared
his throat. "What the hell do you want?"
drinking," Jake Miller said, as though that
his obese body to block Jake's view into the
trailer. "A little late,
apologetically. "Guess I left you with a
narrowed. "A mess? Is that what you call
I—" Sweat beaded
on Jake's ruddy face.
"You think me
and the boys didn't miss Mom, too? You think
I knew how to run a house
and take care of kids and pay the bills?"
from foot to foot on the uneven cement
blocks used for steps. "I wanna
make it up to you."
door and twisted the lock.
Alma jerked a
loose thread from her cut-offs. "Who was
Sam peeked between sagging priscillas and
watched his father trudge to
the beat-up Plymouth, his body bent.
Daddy, ain't it?"
Sam rubbed his
chest. "Get me a beer."
was just saying the other day he wondered if
his Daddy was still alive.
On your birthday, 'member? When Pete and
Annie and Howie and Marlene
and the kids were all out here? Pete told
Annie that's why we never had
no kids. Cause you had him and Howie and
Bobby and that was enough
heartache. Didn't need no more."
Sam lit a
Camel, drawing the smoke deep into his
lungs. "Just get me a beer,
two weeks, Sam chased his beer with Alka
Seltzer, but nothing stopped
the ache that started deep in his oversized
gut, penetrated his heart
and dulled as it reached his neck and
shoulders. He'd suffered from
heartburn for years, but since his father's
visit, it never let up.
tiny bubbles mimic a colorless fireworks
display and wondered why he
ache?" Alma wrapped her arms around his
and swallowed the antacid.
moved her hand under his thin undershirt and
rubbed the hair around his
belly button, the way she did when she had
words to say he wouldn't
want to hear. "Your daddy called earlier.
Said he didn't blame you for
hating him, but he wanted you to know he'd
A jagged pain
ripped across Sam's shoulder and down his
arm. He sucked in his breath.
belly hair around her finger. "You got too
good a heart to let it rot
pulled away from her and dropped into one of
the vinyl chairs circling
the Formica dinette table, his body spilling
over the small frame.
A car pulled
into the driveway, spewing gravel.
arm on her way to the door. "Be nice."
Sam made a
face. He didn't feel like fighting. He was
shaky, like he was coming
down with a virus.
door. "You must be Sam's daddy."
"Jake. Call me
from the table, a cold sweat on his brow.
"Get the hell outta my house."
Alma said, touching his shoulder, "don't be
Jake looked at his son's damp, doughy face.
wiped at the sweat on his forehead. It was
the flu. It had to be the
flu. He was hot, dizzy, nauseated. Lightning
pierced his shoulder
again, traveled down his arm and extended
through his fingers.
voice echoed like she was in a tunnel, far
table melted, the fake wood grain swirling
in a brown pool with
wavering black lines. Sam stared at it,
trying to make sense of it.
down." Jake's voice seemed as distant as
put his fingers through the liquid table.
The Formica puddle grabbed
his hand, bending and twisting his arm with
agonizing pain, squeezing
his chest until his breath left him, then
sucked him into the black
abyss. He tried to jerk back, but the
spiraling depths consumed him,
drawing him deeper and deeper into the
jumped behind his son, easing Sam's fall. He
rolled Sam to his back and
put his ear close to Sam's mouth. "He ain't
breathing." He shook Sam's
Sam gave no
tilted Sam's head back, pushed his chin up
and forced two quick breaths
into Sam's lungs. He felt for a pulse. "Call
with him?" Alma asked, her voice unusually
knelt by Sam's side and positioned his hands
two fingertips above Sam's
rib triangle, his arms straight. "Get an
hovered in a dream-like state of flowing
nothingness. A scene danced in
the distance. As he was propelled forward,
the old farmhouse from his
childhood came into focus. The screen door
flapped in the wind and
light glowed from the kitchen. A young man
stood at the range, spatula
in hand. Smells of potatoes frying and
chicken roasting filled the
autumn air. As Sam moved closer, he
recognized his own
twenty-two-year-old body, bloated biceps
straining his dirty T-shirt.
frustration of those horrible years washed
over him. Each day he
expected his father to return. Instead, each
ever-increasing problems for which he was
unprepared. Bobby and Howard
smoked dope behind the barn. Little Pete
cried for his parents and had
trouble with school. Howard fell off the
loft and broke his leg.
Bobby's tummy ache turned into appendicitis.
after day, Sam's legs ached from ten hours
on concrete, changing oil
and rotating tires at Smitty's Exxon, then
coming home and cleaning and
cooking and worrying. He never quit
worrying, even after the boys
graduated. A thousand times Sam's heart was
busted. Bobby died in
Vietnam. Howard turned to drugs and thumbed
his way around the country.
Little Pete loved too hard, drove too fast
and drank too much. And all
the while, Sam's resentment for the man
who'd left them grew into hate.
scene blackened and Sam spun in dizzying
circles, like he was trapped
in an out-of-control carnival ride, then
deposited in view of another
scene. He saw himself again, about the same
age as before, perhaps a
bit younger, walking through the cornfield
at dusk. He searched his
memory for the situation, but couldn't
Sammy continued walking, on and on, until
the cornfield eased into the
distance and he entered thick woods. Just
inside the tree canopy, his
mother's fresh grave glowed. "Dad?" he
called, his voice wavering.
father rose from the shadows. His face was
distorted, enlarged, his
fingers clutching an empty Jack Daniel's
bottle. He held an antique oil
lantern, the source of the strange light. "I
can't do it," he mumbled,
his words rolled together, the smell of
stale whiskey oozing from his
"Dad, we need
"I can't," he
said, his words becoming sobs. "I'm sorry. I
can't. Maybe someday
tried to shut his eyes, but the vision of
his weak, slobbering father
remained, igniting the anger that smoldered
within Sam. Just when he
gave up fighting the view, he was grabbed by
the whirlwind and turned
to face another vision.
recognized the cramped bedroom of his youth—the twin bed
against the painted blue wall, dirty clothes
littering the floor and
American History and Auto Mechanics—resting on
the homemade desk of concrete blocks and
plywood. A fan vibrated in the
window, yet it was still humid and stuffy.
the middle of the unmade bed sat
chubby, already hanging over his
clothes--his head buried in his arms,
his shoulders shaking. A gold-framed
eight-by-ten of pretty Sarah
Martin smiled next to him. Sam's senior
ring, still wrapped in red
angora and smelling of Sarah's perfume,
rolled on the glass.
door opened and Jake walked in. "I'm so
sorry," he said, draping his
arm over his son.
stayed next to his son for a long time,
saying nothing. But his
presence spoke loudly and formed the words
Jake couldn't: "I know you
loved her. I know you were good to her. And
I know I can't say anything
to make your pain go away. But I'm here and
I'll stand behind you no
vacuum swallowed Sam and carried him for
what seemed a great distance
before expelling him. A man and a small boy
hiked through the woods.
Sam smiled as he recalled his fifth
birthday. The only thing he wanted
that year was a camping trip. His mother
made a knap-sack from scraps
of material and his father, despite the
unbearable heat of the August
night, took him to the cave deep in the
hills behind the farm.
watched, knowing what would happen. The boy—young Sammy—raced into
the dark cave. "I get to sleep here!" he
shouted, throwing his
knap-sack deep in the recess. He plunged
forward, then froze at the
sound of the rattle echoing off stone walls.
Jake said, his voice unnaturally calm.
became louder, more urgent, as Sammy's eyes
adjusted to the dimness and
saw the snake posed to strike.
large rock whizzed through the air. It
struck the rattler, knocking it
to the ground. Jake leapt from behind Sammy,
moving faster than Sammy
thought was possible. His heavy work boot
stomped on the snake's head,
and within seconds his hunting knife ripped
through the tough hide.
after Jake disposed of the body and they had
eaten, Sammy drifted off
to sleep with visions of black bears dozing
next to him.
the adult Sam saw something the child Sammy
hadn't: instead of making
his own bed, Jake leaned against the stone
wall next to his son, his
eyes and ears alert in the darkness, and
guarded his son until daybreak.
didn't want to leave, Sam was jerked back
into the void and dropped at
squatted on the floor, her down-turned face
covered by long black hair.
Next to her, a teen-aged boy wrung his
curious. He moved closer, straining for a
Let me call Mrs. Jones."
piano leg and grunted. Blood dripped onto
towels under her. She panted, then took a
Dee." The young man was Sam's father.
Jake held a
towel under her. "The head. I see the head."
"Shit. It has
amazed, as his father worked the head, then
the shoulders. The baby
emerged, gray and mucus-covered.
breathing." Jake held the baby in both
back on her hips and straightened her legs.
ain't breathing," Jake repeated. He wiped
the baby's face. "Come on,
Sammy," he said, "come on." He placed the
tiny body on the floor and
rubbed the chest, then covered the infant's
mouth with his own. He blew
air until the chest rose. "Breathe, Sammy.
kicked, then turned from gray to blue to
deep pink. Jake cradled the
infant tight against his chest.
Sam wanted to
stay, wanted to continue to watch, but the
darkness grabbed him and
took him away.
on, Sammy," Jake said. "Come on." He jumped
to Sam's head and breathed
for him. He felt again for a pulse. There
was none. He moved back to
the side and started chest compressions.
Alma sat on
floor and squeezed Sam's limp hand. "Mrs.
Jones. Maybe Mrs. Jones—"
Jake said. "He needs equipment." His arms
ached. It seemed he had been
pumping forever. He heard sirens in the
distance, growing closer.
"Breathe, Sammy," he whispered, "please
throat burned. Beeping and sighing sounds
echoed in the silence. And
his chest. The pressure was unbearable, like
an elephant rested on it.
Maybe he was underwater. That would account
for the distortion of sound
and the struggle to breathe.
Sam tried to
open his eyes, but they were too thick.
starting to wake up." He knew the voice. It
was important to him,
belonging to someone he loved. His wife. He
scanned his memory for her
"I'll wait in
the lobby. I don't wanna upset him." Another
familiar voice. His
doctor said it ain't your fault."
it is," Jake said, his voice quiet. "It's my
fault I let Jack Daniel's
make my decisions for me, made me think my
boys were better off without
darkness threatened to overtake Sam again,
and he fought it. He forced
his heavy eyelids to open.
Alma patted his arm. "You had a heart
Sam loved her
voice. It was calm, reassuring. He wished he
could remember her name.
"You're at the
hospital, doing fine." Alma moved closer so
he could see her face.
"Your daddy saved your life."
Sam's hand. "I know you can't talk, but if
you want me to leave, lift
your finger, okay? I don't wanna upset you."
didn't lift just one finger, but all of
them. Then he moved his hand on
top of his father's and wrapped his fingers
around it and squeezed as
tightly as he could. He felt the darkness
coming, but he didn't fight
it. As long as his father was there to watch
over him, he'd be fine.
© 1999. Sandy
Echoes (2004); in Mountain