The father hung green-painted antlers above the garage door to ward Them off. He explained that the prongs, the tines, somehow stymied Their spying signals. They were always watching and listening to him, even after all these years, and us, too, because we might know something, might do something. The signals were not like receivers in his crowns and fillings; he’d had those checked out long ago.
It began as a young Navy man when he carried secret papers back and forth to the Philippines during the war. Or maybe it went back further than that. Once, when he was a boy, a stranger, nattily dressed in suit and hat, approached the farm and stood for a long time in the dusty lane studying the house. He took a photograph of that man with his Brownie box camera and kept the photo with his other treasures: an oval agate from the Black Hills, a horseshoe from his favorite piebald pony, some dried fireflies.
He also saved photos of his carpenter shop in the jungle with its fine sharp tools, laid out in neat patterns, and photos of the tall, big-leafed shrubs and half-naked children. He told us that his photographer tentmate had probably watched him and reported to Them.
The father said he’d always wondered whether the malaria hospital stay was truly malaria, or whether he’d been given some kind of drug to weaken him—a reason, an excuse to put him somewhere safe for awhile. Still, when we gave blood for him that last year, he said he’d always wanted to donate blood himself but felt he couldn’t, shouldn’t, offer up his malaria-spoiled blood.
He told us he had never looked at the papers he carried; they were sealed with tape and braided ribbons: red, white, and blue.
From the Philippines, he wrote sweet letters to his wife and daughter and infant son; his wife kept every letter, saved them in a shoebox in their crisp ivory air-mail envelopes edged in red and blue. He sent a name for the baby from halfway around the world. Years later, the daughter said they’d all been happy once upon a time…hadn’t they? The son said he’d read that prisoners, murderers—evil men—wrote loving letters to their mothers and sweethearts.
A couple of years after he came home from the war, he disappeared for a few days. The mother tracked him down and took the two children to watch him play baseball on the schoolyard with his friends (his no-account friends, the mother called them). He wore a white shirt, Sunday trousers, fedora (always the naughty boy), and three times hit the ball into the alfalfa fields. He came back home that afternoon, put on his old clothes and walked on his hands up and down the front walk.
One January, off to work in his carpenter overalls, he carried his daughter through knee-high snow to kindergarten. Another snowy day he drove around the country roads to find the stray dog the mother had taken there and left on the side of the road. Over the years, he’d bring his drinking friends home, more strays, and the mother would cook for them and wash their stinking clothes.
This carpenter, this excellent craftsman, sat outside every weekend singing cowboy songs—“Don’t Fence Me In” was a favorite—and sharpening his saws. That high-low scritch-scratch was enough to trouble anyone’s dental work.
His highs—buying a flatbed truck; three Triumph Spitfires; a Fordson tractor; and Keno, the part-wolf dog that had to be tied to a stake down the hill. His lows—sitting in the recliner with Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, not talking. His too-brief middle times—laughing, telling tales, tending the few old apple trees, playing Wiffle ball with the grandchildren and scaring them with stories of bears in the woods. One charmed summer, he built a beautiful maple chest for the mother and helped his grandson use the come-along to put a new engine in Prince, the midnight-blue ’63 Plymouth Valiant.
Near the end, he sat in the kitchen—piercing eyes, wild eyebrows, dark hair and mustache, still-handsome face—and listened to his sister and his daughter sing “Amazing Grace.” He told everyone in the room, “You are not here. You’re in some other world. Not heaven, not hell.”
Pointing in the direction of the green antlers, he said, “Be careful. They’re still watching.”
To his oldest daughter, he passed on his love of words and books; to his oldest son, his talent for, his way with, wood and tools; and to all of his children a wariness and a fierce need to get things right.
The daughter was never sure, is still not sure, whom they should fear—Them or the father or their own tentative, unfinished selves.
Judy Brackett was born in Nebraska, moved to California as a child, and lives in a small town in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills. She is a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and has taught English composition, literature, and creative writing at Sierra College.
Her stories and poems have appeared in Epoch, The Maine Review, Catamaran, burntdistrict, Commonweal, Midwest Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Miramar, Subtropics, Crab Orchard Review, The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets (Backwaters Press), and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook, Flat Water: Nebraska Poems, was published by Finishing Line Press in February 2019.