Andrew Siegrist is a graduate of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Greensboro Review, Pembroke Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee.
It’s 2:00 a.m. and the old man is sleeping. He keeps me up most nights crying out his nightmare prayers to God. I guess something behind his eyelids looks too much like Hell. His words come out tangled up and twisted. I listen to him, lying in bed scared those dreams will be mine one day. The doctor said people in his condition often have trouble sleeping. I didn’t tell the doctor that before Mom died, and before his condition, they slept in separate rooms so that she wouldn’t wake up with bruises on her arms from where his fists swung at things that haunted his sleep.
She said it didn’t happen much. But now, with half his mind gone and the other half going, seems like these fits come on most every night.
When he wakes, the old man says he doesn’t remember anything about his dreams, but he’s always drenched with sweat and sore from shaking. His bones must remember. You can see it in the way he limps around the place.
It’s 2:00 a.m. and the neighbor girl’s light comes on. I can see it out my window. Just for a second and then off again. I pray she’s just getting up to use the bathroom. Sometimes her man comes over late. Let’s loose whatever anger he’s been holding onto. He keeps at it until he tires himself out and falls asleep on the couch. Sometimes the light is on all night. Sometimes he doesn’t get tired.
The hands on the clock move slow in the shadows, but I don’t blame them. They got nowhere to be and no one to help them get there. I try to close my eyes, but the old man is at it again, and these thin walls don’t keep nothing secret.
When I was fourteen, he got drunk one night and told me about a girl who used to live in the woods. A girl whose eyelashes grew in long braids down to her waist. I’d heard about her my whole life, rumors told in whispers at school, but never from the old man. He said she’d showed up the first day of school one year. Rumors spread, that she was sick, that her braids would fall out and slither on the ground like snakes if you tugged them. The old man just wanted to see the color of her eyes. He saw beauty in something so strange. But she was gone after a week. Her daddy took her back into the woods because she couldn’t see nothing and the other kids would pull at her eyes when the teacher wasn’t watching. The old man never tried to stop them, and he always wondered what would have happened if he had. He heard that her father taught her how to divine sacred ground, how to move slow through the lost parts of the woods and feel for God’s breath. And once she got the hang of it, she charged folks a week’s pay to show them where to bury their prayers. She’d even dig the hole for them. And sure enough the following spring they’d come back with prayers answered to the spot she’d marked and see that something beautiful had grown. But one year nothing bloomed, and people claimed the prayers they’d buried hadn’t been answered.
The girl cut her braids one morning when snow was thick on the ground and shot herself through the chest. At her funeral, her eyelashes had already started to grow back out. The priest closed the lid of the casket and refused to open it, even for family, because he believed there was evil inside.
For all I know, the old man said, she’s buried somewhere with her eyelashes still growing, maybe up toward the sky like trees. Maybe down like roots reaching out through dark earth.
The old man said her daddy was holding a locked box at her funeral and wouldn’t speak to anyone. Must have had those braids in there. Thrown the key somewhere it would never be found. A week later he was gone. Probably drove until the road ended into shoreline and threw that box in the ocean, prayed for it to sink.
Maybe that’s what the old man sees when he sleeps. That wild girl cutting her braids and firing a pistol into her breast. A dust of blood being covered by a slow fall of snow.
I check the clock and count off three fingers, three hours until the sun lightens the timbered horizon. In school, they laughed at me for counting on my fingers when everyone else had calculators powered by sunlight. The old man said he’d never had need of a calculator, and that was that. Good enough for me. When I moved back last year, after Mom died, I noticed the old man counting on his fingers, always starting with the thumb, same as me. But now, sometimes the numbers get lost, and he has to shake out his hand and start from zero.
A few cars pass on the road outside my window. Some of them moving too fast, some moving too slow. All of them moving at a speed that seems dangerous this time of night. I hear a thud from the old man’s wall. Sometimes he swings fists. Sometimes he kicks his bare feet. Always he fights back.
I worry I’ll walk in there one morning and he’ll be dead, lying on the floor. Knuckles bruised and head split open. People will come to his funeral and see what a mess he’d done to himself and whisper to each other that I shouldn’t have been the one caring for him, that I couldn’t even keep him safe at night.
The girl I was with before I moved home said I was crazy. Said I should just put him into a home where people who knew what they were doing could look after him. I told her I wasn’t going to lock my own father up in place he didn’t know, surrounded by people drooling down their shirts and waiting to die. The next day, I quit my job at the rock quarry and didn’t even tell her goodbye. Didn’t know she was right for saying what she’d said.
Three more hours, I think, and open a window to let the cool night in. I like the damp on the pillow in the morning, the smell of a new day beginning again. It’s only then I can sleep, with the scent of the old man’s coffee coming from the kitchen and the birds calling out songs to wake dawn.
The clock is getting closer now. The neighbor girl’s light turns on again, and this time for good. Maybe she’ll make a pot of coffee, an egg or two. If her man isn’t passed out on the couch, she can sit and watch infomercials until it’s time for work. His truck isn’t out front so maybe he didn’t show. Maybe there isn’t a bathroom sink full of bloody tissues. Sometimes she goes into work with a busted lip and eyes swollen and bruised. I imagine her telling well-worn lies about sleepwalking into a doorframe, her coworkers nodding and waiting until she’s gone to exchange knowing glances. She’ll hear them whispering and she’ll run to the bathroom to cry, the tears coming out red and trailing down her cheeks like braids.
The world is turning gray. The old man is in the bathroom running hot water over his stiff fingers. The neighbor girl starts her car and tries to back out of the driveway without bumping the mailbox. She gets too close and pulls forward, turns the wheel and tries again. The sun is coming. Dew is damp on the sheets. Soon I will be able to sleep.
When I wake up the old man is gone. Fishing. A baitless hook and the child’s pole I bought him at the flea market the morning I found him standing by the pond tossing pebbles into the flat water. Each time, waiting for it to still again before tossing another. Used to be you’d get a bite almost every cast in that pond. Not anymore. Now, I don’t know what’s beneath the surface.
The doctor said the old man would have good days and bad days. But good or bad he always leaves the house with that pole and comes back hours later having caught nothing. On the bad days, he has trouble remembering my name and wakes me up to tell me he’s going to the big pond to meet Markum Lundgrave. Markum was a friend of his from growing up. He died almost fifteen years ago. On good days, he doesn’t say anything to me at all, lets me sleep until the high sun comes through my window.
Today is a good day. I get up and pour what’s left of the coffee into a SEE ROCK CITY coffee mug with the old man’s name on it. Mom bought it for him years ago, and there are coffee rings inside that don’t come out when it’s washed.
The coffee is cold, but I’ve learned to drink it that way. The old man unplugs the coffee maker before he leaves, even on bad days.
I finish my coffee and go into his room. The bed is made, sheets tucked tight beneath the mattress. Even with his brain turning to shit he still keeps clean and organized. I open the drawer and remove his shirts and underclothes. I try to keep them creased the way he folded them. His suitcase is in the closet. I start filling it with things he’ll need. When it’s full I put a picture of him and Mom on top of his clothes and zip the suitcase shut. In the picture they are standing together, leaning against a railing, the ocean behind them hundreds of feet below. I wonder if he’ll even remember taking that picture, if he’ll open the suitcase and try in vain to remember the woman’s name.
Before Mom died I asked her about the story the old man told me when I was fourteen. She told me she’d heard of a girl living in the woods with braided eyes since she was little. Everyone around here had their own version of the story.
“And that’s your daddy’s,” she said. “He had him a girlfriend in high school, thought he was going to marry. Her father was a preacher, and he’d take your daddy out with him to run his birddogs. Taught your daddy these prayers to say as they went along. ‘Lord bless this earth beneath us lest we walk on unholy ground.’ Stuff like that. Before they graduated that girl killed herself. Your daddy never could figure out why. Blamed himself, I think.”
I pull my pickup to the edge of the pond and cut the engine. The old man sees me and nods in my direction. I stay in the cab of the truck, watching him. The tip of his rod is motionless, the surface of the pond as still as a pane of glass. I sit and watch until the truck’s too hot and I can’t bear it any longer.
“Catching anything?” I say.
“Couple nibbles,” he says. He is standing but motions for me to sit in a folding chair beside him.
I can’t tell if he recognizes me or is just being friendly.
“Pulled a catfish the size of your thigh out of here couple years back,” he says.
I sit down. “Is that right?”
He turns to me. “You remember.”
“My eighteenth birthday,” I say. “You brought the grill out and Mom cooked them up as quick as you could catch them.” I don’t tell him it was almost twenty years ago.
The old man reels in the line and spits on the naked hook and throws it back into the murky water. “You ran off soon as it got dark,” he says. “And that girl Loren, her uncle brought you home around daybreak with nothing but your britches on. He said he pulled you out of that house while his brother was looking for a rifle, didn’t have time to get your shirt.”
We both laugh, and I try to keep smiling, but it seems like the good days are harder than the bad ones. Days when his brain snaps back into shape for an hour or two and I think he’s back for good, then his eyes start moving quick and he asks me my name again, tells me it’s been nice talking with me but his wife and son ought to be home any minute for supper, and that he’s sorry, but he’s not interested it whatever it is I had come to sell. That I should run along and good luck.
I think about that girl, with eyelashes in long braids. I wonder how she knew when she was standing on holy ground. What prayers could she help me say for the old man? And what would grow out of the ground if I said them right?
I tell the old man I need to take him somewhere, and he doesn’t say much. He reels the hook to the tip of the rod and folds up his chair. He puts both in the bed of the truck next to his suitcase. I see in his eyes that he recognizes it.
“Where you taking me?” he says.
I climb in the cab of the truck and crank the engine.
He gets in and pulls his door shut, but not all the way. The ajar symbol lights up on the dash.
“Door ain’t closed,” I say.
“Where we going?”
I’m already sweating so I turn the A/C on high. He cranks it off. I stare at the ajar light and feel his eyes on me.
“Dad, I just can’t,” I say. “I just don’t think I can do it on my own anymore.”
The old man turns away from me and pulls his door closed. He rolls down his window. I try to think of something else to say, but it’s too hot in the truck and my mind’s not working right. I put it in gear and turn the radio to his favorite station. I don’t know if he understands any of this. Neither of us says anything. The old man’s eyes look angry. The muscles in his jaw are clenched.
After an hour, the old man begins humming along to a John Prine song. The boy in the song wants his daddy to take him back to the green river. The daddy says, son I’m sorry, but it’s no longer there. The old man knows every word. I turn and look and see the anger has left him. He is calm and relaxed, one hand hung out the open window, tapping along to the beat of the song.
“Next anniversary,” he says, “I’m taking my wife down to Nashville to see John play the Opry. Already got the tickets, hidden in my sock drawer.”
I pull over to the side of the road and cry into the steering wheel. I feel the old man’s hand on my back, a hesitant pat, the way you would try to comfort someone crying next to you at a bus stop.
He says, “Everything is going to be okay, fella,” and gets out of the truck. I know that when I pull it together and tell him to hop back in he is going to ask me my name.
I stand in the parking lot of the assisted living facility. The old man’s fishing pole and chair are still in the bed of my truck. His suitcase isn’t. I wonder if I should run back in and bring him his pole. But I already made a scene in there, cried like a boy seeing his dog get put down. The old man just watched me wondering who the hell I was. The nurse said I could come back anytime, sign him out and take him fishing. When she said this, the old man smiled big and told her that a few days ago he’d reeled in a catfish as big around as her thigh.
On the way home, I drive through the Depot and get a bottle of Dickel. I take a pull while the cashier makes change. He gives me a cross look but doesn’t say anything. He reaches me my change, but I tell him to keep it. I see his arm still outstretched as I pull away.
When I get to the pond, there’s a good bit missing from the bottle. The sun has already set, but there is still a gloam of light hanging onto the horizon. A white pickup passes by slow and stops in front of the neighbor girl’s house. I watch it, red taillights lit up. A bullfrog splashes the water. I wonder if there’s any fish left beneath the surface, or if the old man pulled them all out years ago. The white pickup pulls off.
It’s almost full dark when I see the pickup come back again. This time it doesn’t stop. The neighbor girl’s man is inside. He’s got the dome light on. I can see him in there, one hand at the top of the steering wheel and a ball cap pulled low over his eyes. He guns the engine to let her know he’s out there. He looks at me when he passes the pond and turns the dome light off. I figure he’s going out to find him a barstool somewhere, figure this isn’t the last time I’ll see him tonight.
It’s close to midnight when I knock on the neighbor girl’s door. I saw her leave an hour before, but even when you’re sure no one’s home you still knock. I turn the knob, but it’s locked. Around the back of the house, I find an open window. I reach through and feel a sink faucet. There are no lights on inside. I set the bottle of Dickel on the counter and climb through the window. The handle of the faucet catches my foot, and the water turns on as I fall to the floor. I stand and hold my hand beneath the cold water before turning it off.
In the living room, I find a worn-out leather recliner and sit in the dark and wait. The house is as quiet as a church prayer. I think about the old man in some new bed, shouting Hell into the shadows. Sweat staining the mattress beneath his sheets. Bones fighting to hold together, as he shakes violently until morning. I wonder if the walls at that place are thin like ours, if those other old men and women have their hands over their ears, afraid of the voice they are hearing.
A few minutes go by or a couple hours. Headlights brighten the room, casting shadows where before there was nothing but darkness. I reach for the bottle and feel that it’s empty, lighter now and not capable of as much damage. It’ll have to do. The old man once taught me where to hit a man to bring him to his knees. I figure if I close one eye I can see straight enough to know where to swing. The lights go off, and I’m standing in the dark. The floor is swaying to try and tip me over, but I widen my stance and stay upright. The lock turns and a bolt clicks into place. Keys land against a wooden table. High heels kicked clatter onto the floor. The lights come on and I’ve got one eye open and a bottle neck tight in my fist.
She sees me and stands there trying to figure me out. Doesn’t even scream, like she’s seen things like this too many times before. I look to the door to see if he’s coming through behind her. She follows my gaze.
“Where he at?” I say.
“Who?” she says.
I wonder if I picked the wrong house.
“That man who comes here to see you,” I say. “Drives a white pick up.”
The girl’s shoulders hunker as if beneath some lonesome weight.
“What he do?” she says.
I point the bottle at her and have to shift my feet to stay standing. “He done that to you.”
She covers the yellow-bruised skin around her eye and opens her mouth to say something.
“And he done it before,” I say. “And I figure to keep him from doing it tonight.”
She sets her purse on the floor and sits on the shoulder of the couch.
“I know you?” she says. Her body is relaxed, but her eyes stay sharp and focused on me.
“My old man lives next door,” I tell her. “I’ve been staying with him the last little bit. Keeping an eye on him.”
“Thought you seemed familiar,” she says. “Sit down and let me get you some coffee.”
I try to form a sentence in my head, but I can’t seem to find the right words. “Left my old man today,” I say.
She looks at me funny. “Take your coffee black?” she says.
Coffee’s a good idea. It’ll sober me up a bit in case that son of a bitch shows up and tries to get at her. I fall back into the chair and mumble something that sounds like "yes, please.:
I hear her take the phone off the hook in the kitchen, hear her pressing the numbers quick. I can’t make out everything she is saying, but I get enough to know this was all a mistake.
“. . . man in my living room . . . please hurry . . . 1217 Trussle road . . .”
She comes back in with two cups of coffee, but I’m already at the door. I know I should apologize, try and explain that I only came to help, that I made a mistake, that she’s a good girl and deserves better than to have men showing up at her house when all she probably wants is to be left alone. I know this is what I should say, but instead I feel my stomach retch, and it’s all I can do to make it out to the front lawn. When I’m done, I wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my shirt and hear the door lock behind me. I don’t turn around. I pray she keeps it locked forever.
I sit beside the pond and wait for morning. The cops came. I watched them from a bush. They stood in her yard and talked to her. She stood in the door and kept her arms crossed. Later, when they were finished with her they crossed the street and knocked on the old man’s door. No one there to answer. Just an empty house with walls too thin and a pot of cold coffee in the kitchen. The cops drove away. Now, all there is to do is wait for morning, when I can get some rest. I hear the birds beginning to wake. The old man is probably up, running warm water over his sore hands.
As the sun comes, I lie back and close my eyes. I feel sleep hanging from my eyelids, like heavy braids. The ground beneath me is good ground. Sacred ground, I think. But I don’t know if God is listening, and I don’t know the words to pray. So I just tell him what I’ll do. I’ll sleep the whiskey off and drive out to see the old man. I’ll take his rod with me and sign him out for a couple hours. I’ll bring him to the pond and sit right here and watch him toss that spit hook into the water. Both of us hoping something hits it and pulls hard. The rod will bend and threaten to snap. And the old man will remember how it feels to bring something heavy to the surface.
“ In graduate school, I was prescribed anti-seizure medication meant to alleviate a variety of sleeping disorders I had struggled with most of my life. These disorders had begun to manifest in increasingly disturbing ways. I wrote an early version of the opening paragraph of this story in a pharmacy parking lot waiting for that first prescription to be filled. ”