Not asking for much kept me safe. There was nothing else to recommend the habit, just that. Books, music, the heat and smell of a fire in the wood stove—those were company and comfort. I didn’t go looking for more or expect it to come for me. I was close to 40 when Carrie held out her hand and we began our slow dance. She gave me time to feel the rhythm and follow it, to be grateful for a gift.
To expect another would have been greed, but I never said so to her.
When Nathan came, I loved him in the same whole-hearted, thankful way I loved his mother, perhaps because there was no one before her and there was no other way I knew. When he was asleep on my shoulder and it felt right and natural to have him there, I put away my suspicion that Carrie and I tempted our luck. I forgot for a while that happiness is fragile, that life is made of glass. Maybe I chose to forget those things or needed a rest from knowing them. Once I was reminded, I never forgot again.
Sorrow was an old acquaintance by the day I lingered at the edge of a cemetery and watched strangers put my wife in the ground and refill the rest of an ugly hole with nothing better than the earth that came from it. When they took all the flowers from people who loved her and laid them on the dirt, what I saw from a distance was a quilt Carrie sewed by hand and filled with down and spread over a bed that we were meant to share.
Nathan was there too, far enough away during the service that everyone knew not to talk to him, not even if—for once—they wanted to be kind. He didn’t want talking any more than I did. I did the bare minimum I was supposed to and told Carrie’s sister I wouldn’t be returning to my own house to eat and drink and mill around in little groups of people, as uncomfortable to be there as I would have been. I’ve never cared to see people or honor an occasion that way and I wasn’t going to do it without Carrie or even because of her.
When the gravediggers climbed back into their truck and drove away, Nathan and I were left to stare at one another across rows of polished granite, gray or pink, until he turned and disappeared behind a tall hedge and I heard the engine of his old pickup turn over. I didn’t know where he was going. I didn’t see him again for days.
• • •
Carrie always had the patience he needed. I envied her that. When Nathan was a two-year-old having a tantrum, I could sit with him and wait it out for as long as she could, all the while talking to him calmly and wondering how a small thing—a misplaced toy, bedtime—could cause such fury. But when he was old enough that I thought he should know better, when there was something on his plate he didn’t like and he picked it up in his hand and flung it across the kitchen, I couldn’t listen to Carrie explain that it was wrong to waste food. I grabbed him from his chair, carried him down the hall, closed him in his room and let him wail.
“He has to learn,” I’d say when I returned to the table, worried that he might not and that his anger was passed by blood, an infection from grandparents gone before he was born, wasted by a whiskey-fueled rage at one another, at the inconvenience of a child, at too little education or money or hope. I couldn’t stand the thought of Nathan growing into them or of anyone hating my boy, or fearing him, as I had my own father and mother.
That was too much to confide to Carrie and I didn’t, not even when she talked to me in the same low voice she used with Nathan, telling me we needed to understand his anger, help him understand it and together we could fix it. I wasn’t so sure, but she took our son to doctors and brought home promises that he was not afflicted with this condition or that, that he suffered from something they called anger overload, a challenge we could handle, a problem, not a disease. I listened, but I wondered if her compassion was not misplaced. That he suffered, she said. That he suffered.
She fought the idea of medicating Nathan and, instead, learned the triggers that set him off. When his anger rose and I battled my gut reaction to it, Carrie was calm. I was often no better than a witness to my wife using all the reasoning tools that doctors gave her and all her love to bring our boy to a safe and quiet place.
I worried that his anger was passed by blood, an infection from grandparents gone before he was born.
Afterward, I worried about Nathan and also about what must be wrong with me.
I think Whit Hoyle guessed at that, but I never laid it out for him or anyone. He knew me longer than Carrie did—in some ways, maybe better. He taught me my trade and, in time, sold me his woodworking shop, but he never stopped coming in or checking my work to be sure I hadn’t forgotten how to use a planer or a jointer or a lathe. “Any good?” I’d ask when I caught him at it and Whit would occasionally allow that I was not entirely unskilled. He was more generous with my son.
As a little boy, Nathan called him Pop-Pop because Whit’s old truck was prone to backfiring. Whit called him Loudmouth and Backtalk and other terms of endearment that Nathan never misunderstood. The two of them got along like a blue sky and sunshine. I saw Whit’s deep, slow voice work the same magic on Nathan as Carrie’s calm demeanor and even tone. It pained me that my dependable love was not enough, that it could only have mattered to Nathan if it came with the unwavering patience over which I stumbled time and again in a habit of stops and false starts, of losing my temper, waiting for another chance and trying again.
By the time other parents were sending Nathan home because he wasn’t playing well with their children, because there were disagreements over the rules of a game that escalated to kicking and screaming, Carrie was a pro at the incentives and consequences needed to manage his anger. She reminded me a hundred times to be grateful that our son didn’t have a worse issue on a wide spectrum of disorders, one that would have required more than behavioral strategies to control, one that might have concealed the sweet boy who lived between the bursts of rage.
He tried to do what we wanted. And I was grateful—I was—except on the days I noticed Carrie’s furrowed brow and read her mind. Except when some parent or teacher called to say, “There’s something wrong,” and I heard the blame in that and felt responsible all over again for the genetic stain on my son.
An idea like that is a weight on the heart, a dead weight if it goes unshared forever, and the last thing I wanted was to share it. It shamed me to watch my wife and an old man take pleasure in a boy I mostly worried over. I was a bystander to Nathan sitting on Whit’s leg and baiting his first hook, following Whit’s instructions and learning to cast. We started taking him fishing when he was five or six. We brought home our catch; Whit cleaned it, I cooked it, and Nathan told his mother everything he learned from Whit.
I enjoyed fishing with Whit but never took up his invitation to go hunting. I didn’t care for guns, never fired one and wondered if that was why Whit waited until an evening meal at our house to ask Carrie for permission to take Nathan. I was sure she’d refuse.
The boy was only thirteen then and one of the things Carrie was always telling him between storms was that the worst thing to come of his anger was waste—waste of friends and opportunities, waste of things broken in frustration and thrown away. But that was my upbringing making assumptions. I was the one who came north and settled where Whit and Carrie had always lived. Up here, a lot of hunters make meals of what they kill.
“You’ll be eating venison steaks and stew all winter,” Whit said, and Carrie agreed.
He shouldn’t have talked to Nathan about it first or asked Carrie about it in front of him. But in the end, what Nathan saw was his mother’s vote of confidence, and Whit Hoyle’s, and how different they looked from the doubt on my face.
Starting that year, Whit and Nathan took many trips up the mountain with rifles over their shoulders and packs with all the tools they needed to field dress a deer and carry the meat home. For a man who never married, never had a child of his own, Whit had a gift for grandfathering. He made the woods a classroom, taught Nathan the name of every tree and the woodsman’s skill of silence, of being still and listening to wind and water, hearing every bird and animal. He explained the difference between hunting and slaughter, respect and waste. I can’t say I ever saw those things the same way as Whit and Carrie and Nathan, but it was a difference of experience that I accepted.
There were other trips up the mountain for day hikes or overnight camping. I tagged along on some of those, entitled but never entirely welcomed, a witness to the easy rhythm between my son and the man whose name got shortened to Pop. It was a bond I’d never had with my old man and couldn’t seem to find with Nathan. I knew I’d let my own anger rise to answer his too many times to be trusted. How could I say it was from fear at seeing my blood’s history in him?
For the length of Nathan’s childhood and adolescence, we were sustained by the promise that he’d learn to control his temper. Carrie did everything to make that come true. I did my best, regretted when I failed, and counted the weeks in every long stretch of peace. And they did get longer. They lasted weeks at a time, but not without a cost to Nathan.
Some days, headed home from high school, he stopped by the shop and Whit gave him a lesson in woodworking, enjoying any chance to tell Nathan about something that took me longer to learn than it took to invent the first saw. If that got a rise out of me, Whit hooted with amusement, setting off Nathan’s laughter and sometimes my own. That was permission for Nathan to try something without the risk of error spilling into anger, a chance to loosen the knot in which he tied himself.
• • •
We lost Whit to cancer the summer Nathan finished high school. Carrie and I sat beside him as the light slipped out of a late June day and he went with it.
When we pulled into our yard after midnight, Nathan had the back lights on and was out by the woodpile swinging an axe over his head, bringing it down hard on what was left of a big oak stump. His shirt was soaked. He’d been at it for some time, producing a supply of firewood we wouldn’t need for months.
I almost hollered when I saw he only had canvas sneakers on his feet, but Carrie stopped me with just a hand on my arm.
“Don’t you want to say something about that?” I asked.
And she said, “I’m weighing it.”
Whit left him the old pickup he’d held together with duct tape and rope and spare parts as nearly worn out as the ones they replaced. Starting that September, Nathan drove it 30 miles each way to take classes at the state college, coming home each night to a community that remembered his anger and distrusted him because of it. When I looked at him, I saw myself at his age, needing a fresh start in a new place. But I was not my father; I would not have liked to see him go.
He took fewer courses the second semester and quit in the middle of it. He went out every night—we didn’t know where—came home late, slept late, and had little to say. We gave him time and space until the morning we found him waiting at the kitchen table in clothes from the day before, needing a ride to get his truck.
I’d noticed a bottle in the trash once and said nothing about it, not to Nathan and not to Carrie. I didn’t want to make too much of a nineteen-year-old taking a drink now and then. Neither did Sig Snyder, out on patrol when he came across Nathan’s truck pulled off the road on the outskirts of town. It was dark and Nathan had stepped out of the pickup, slipped into a ditch and was propped on his side puking. Sig held a flashlight on him until he was ready to be helped up and driven home.
I don’t know what he expected, sitting there with his keys on the table, still carrying the stink of liquor and vomit. He made no apology or excuse; he just wanted a ride. The meanest thing I could think to say was that his mother and I had put our happiness on hold long enough. What I said instead was to take a shower and make it quick.
He started working for me that morning. I told him on the drive in that he could stop the day he came up with another plan for himself. I told him I didn’t know if his drinking was recklessness or a real problem, a symptom of anger or the drowning of it, but that he needed a better way to bear my worry, his mother’s faith, and the long memories of others. I told him more about growing up than I ever had before and that the hardest thing I ever had to believe was that I could have a different life.
• • •
When I dropped him at his truck after work and turned around toward home, I watched in the mirror as he went the other way.
As I made dinner that night and wondered where he was, Carrie moved behind me and slid a hand around my waist. She turned me away from the chopping block, put down my knife and held me close without a word. Maybe for the first time, I knew she thought I handled a situation with Nathan in a proper way—instinctively, not how she would have, but in a manner that made sense with a boy who was nearly a man.
It would have been a lie to tell Nathan our happiness was on hold. What Carrie and I had between the two of us was never on hold. But in the kitchen that night, I wanted one more thing—the sound of my son coming in the door earlier than had become his habit. I didn’t get that, but the next morning he was up and ready for work when he was supposed to be.
Using good wood on jobs for paying customers wasn’t the same as fooling around with scrap lumber. Working for me wasn’t like playing with Whit. But Nathan paid attention and learned. Maybe he even learned faster than I did; that was Whit’s joke once but I saw it meant something to Nathan when I used it to compliment him.
After a few weeks, I wasn’t nervous every time he turned on a saw or tried something he hadn’t done before. I found more to praise; I made a point of it. I even began to think that further education could wait, that people in town could learn to see Nathan in a new light, that we could find the relationship that eluded us. I coaxed myself into believing those things. My head was buried in them the morning I heard one of the saws screech and looked up to see Nathan struggling with a long piece of maple.
Hard maple holds tension and pinches a blade when it isn’t properly dried—or if a cutter is inexperienced or distracted or worse. I hurried to help, but Nathan had already stepped off the foot pedal. The wood was ruined. I saw that. I smelled the blade burn before I caught the liquor on his breath and then my anger didn’t know which way to go—drinking and using a machine that could take an arm off, drinking at all, every damn tale I had told myself, every cozy lie he let me believe. But the single word I roared was, “Waste!”
An idea like that is a weight on the heart, a dead weight if it goes unshared forever, and the last thing I wanted was to share it.
It came out like a reflex, sounding nothing like one of Carrie’s gentle admonitions. As if to make sure it didn’t, I grabbed an unturned chair leg, beat it against the side of a bench and yelled it over and over and over again. Nathan kept his eyes on me and backed away. It felt familiar, except the way I remembered it, I was in his shoes.
I was rooted in place, holding what was left of the chair leg, when he started the pickup and wheeled out of the lot. I didn’t think he was too drunk to drive; I didn’t think he was drunk at all, but it was as bad as that to know he needed a drink to start his day, or keep his anger on a leash, or survive the small-town punishment of people with old stories to tell. It was worse to think he needed it just to spend a day with me. I locked the shop, started my own truck and headed after him.
His pickup was pulled into the yard, the engine running, the driver’s door left open. The only thing to think was that he was there to grab clothes or maybe camping gear and be on his way. The woods were his refuge; Whit had taught him to use them as a home. If he wanted, he could go up the mountain, keep his own company and live off the land from then until winter; it was no solution, but it was safe.
I only had my second thought when I heard him arguing with his mother, both of them shouting, and I froze for a moment at the unfamiliarity of it. I knew all the things that had never once made Carrie raise her voice to Nathan. Discounting all of those, I thought it could only be about a bottle for the road. The idea that he would fight Carrie for that boiled my blood.
Stepping into the kitchen, I heard them below me—not words, but two loud voices at the same time and then feet rushing up the steps from the basement. All I meant to do was head Nathan off, but when I flung open the door to confront him it was Carrie near the top of the stairs, startled at the madman suddenly before her. I watched her arms lift like wings, but she fell instead of flying, dropping away from me, her legs rising over her head until her face was at Nathan’s sneakered feet. Her mouth was open but I knew the sound of screaming was his and mine.
• • •
Sig Snyder talked to us separately, first to Nathan and then to me. I looked through the window at the silent movie of Nathan choking out his answers to whatever Sig asked, and then it was my turn.
What finally made Carrie mad was not a bottle of liquor, but me. She wanted to know why Nathan was suddenly home instead of at work, what had happened and where was he going and why. When all he could do was berate me, she came to my defense.
That was what Nathan told Sig and Sig told me.
After that, my son went into his room and locked the door.
Three days later, we drove in separate trucks to stand in silence and listen to a stranger with a prayer book tell us things about Carrie, as if he knew. And then flowers were laid upon her and Nathan disappeared behind a tall hedge. I heard the engine of his truck and didn’t know where he was going or when I would see him again.
It was Sig who eventually called and told me to come and get my boy.
There was no jail in town, just a room in the basement of the old town hall that Sig used as an office and, off of that, another room with a door that had a wired glass window. When I got there, the door to that second room wasn’t locked or even closed. Nathan was sitting on a bench inside of it, bent forward, studying the chipped linoleum floor. He didn’t look up as Sig told me what happened.
On the highway into town—or out of it, depending—there’s a windowless ruin of an old gas station. The outlines of the letters ESSO are barely visible. Passing the station that morning, the detached cab of a tractor trailer hit a white-tailed doe. The deer flipped over the top of the cab and fell into the center of the road fifty yards in front of Nathan’s pickup. The cab kept going but Nathan stopped. He pulled the carcass onto a tarp and dragged it onto the weedy asphalt in front of the station.
The first driver who called Sig said her children got hysterical when they thought Nathan was murdering a deer in the lot of the old ESSO station. I could imagine how he must have looked with his camp axe in one hand, his shirtsleeves bloody. I could see the blood as I listened to Sig. I could smell the animal on Nathan from across the room. He learned at thirteen to remove the internal organs and blood from a deer; he knew it had to be done quickly after a kill to cool the body and preserve its meat.
He was still at the task when Sig arrived and told him he couldn’t be dressing a deer on the side of a highway, that he was distracting drivers and scaring children. According to Sig, Nathan seemed confused by that. When Sig told him to put his tools away, get in his truck and go, Nathan refused.
“I tested him,” Sig said. “He’s not drunk, but there’s something wrong.”
I’d been listening to people say that about my son all his life.
“He should have listened to you,” I admitted to Sig, “but there’s nothing wrong with him.”
I was glad to be looking at Nathan through an open door. I wouldn’t have wanted to see him through wired glass, or worse. As soon as Sig let me know I could, I stepped through the doorway of his narrow room and sat beside my son.
It took a long time for him to pull his stare off the floor, to look at me with his mother’s green eyes and tell me what I already knew.
“It was a waste,” he said, and I told him he was right, it was, and asked him to come home.
I already knew what he would say about that too.
Photograph: Jacob Dimiter