As the clown from Twelfth Night says, What is that but that, and is but is?
He’s been up two days and two nights when his friends deliver him to his father’s driveway.He tries again to protest, but they all have work in the morning, and what with hauling his ornery butt all the way up the gorge plus another 15 miles past Albion, and then having to drive all the way back to Portland . . .
“Sucks to be you,” says Leif.
Still, he’s halfway down the drive before he understands they aren’t joking. They’re gone, and he’s home whether he likes it or not. He tries to stop moving, feeling the pitch of the concrete through his shoes, the flex of his ankles and calves, and for a moment he believes he is standing still, motionless in the sharp spring air—the spark, perhaps, of this latest sleepless tear after winter’s merciless gloom.
But he’s all the way to the porch before he finally does stop. His father’s house, a treeless rental, trembles beside an orchard turned into unsold spec lots. Leif tries to steady his breathing, aims for a moment of calm.
Where’s his board? He spins around, certain now his friends must be fooling with him. But the road is silent, the night still, the air filled with the scent of soil come to life, fruit trees in bloom, the river off in the distance.
Is any of this real?
He stands empty-handed, his skateboard . . . Lost? Stolen? Forgotten? He feels as if he’s missing part of himself, his balance, Maddie on his arm, pain—and then he tries to remember it all, the rush of the city, hour after hour spent in skate parks, private bowls, midnight streets—the speed and transgressions tangled up with echoes of beat and beer and headlights and backlit smoke, the reckless flight of lines drawn across pavement and plywood, stairways, intersections, fear.
He opens the door, steps inside. The bright light strikes like wind. And then the heady smells of his father’s incessant cooking—chilies, cumin, garlic, game.
Wearing boxers, nothing else, his father runs a wet towel over the stovetop, talking into his cell phone above the twang of tinny rock music straining from the computer, his pale body marred by folds at his elbows, his lean biceps, the sharp movement of muscle beneath a mat of gray hair woven across his chest.
Leif hovers in the gale of light until he grows tired of waiting for his father to see him.
“Still can’t get a date?” he asks.
Startled, his father turns away, ducking his head as if trying to hide the phone. He drops the towel in the sink and heads for his bedroom, holding the phone to his ear as though shielding a wound.
Alone, Leif thumbs through his mail on the counter. The college. Wells Fargo. Tax stuff. His psych nurse. A towing notice, already opened, from the City of Portland.
His father returns in jeans and a T-shirt advertising a Shakespeare festival. He stops at the computer—a bright screen amidst stacks of dark books—and silences it.
“That was Maddie. Says she knows you.” His father points at the phone as though it were to blame. “She’s trying to help.”
Leif looks at his father, who looks back at him and then slowly looks away.
“I don’t need any help.”
His father starts to say something, stops, looks at the paper in Leif’s hand.
“What about your truck?”
Leif sets the paper atop the rest of his mail. “What about it?” He turns and heads for the garage. “I’ll worry about it later.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Halfway through the doorway, Leif turns and again looks directly at his father, who stands staring at him like an animal uncertain whether to hold still or flee.
“Means I’m busy. What do you think it means?”
But he isn’t busy. Just moving. He slides along the side of his father’s pickup, runs a hand over the dented tailgate, slips past the truck to the edge of the light and then sees the closet, dark as the promise of pre-dawn streets; he feels the keys in his pocket and then knows exactly what he’s here to do. And why.
Later, after changing clothes and loading his pack, he plugs in the compressor to fill the tires on his mountain bike. The noise brings his father to the door.
“What now?” His father stands beside the open door, holding the knob as though steadying himself.
Leif gestures with an open hand towards his gun and the pile of gear beside his bike. “T-day, Pops.”
His father steps into the garage. “Taxes? You’re worried about paying your taxes?”
Leif can’t tell if his father is joking or not. He must be. “Gonna get my bird,” he says.
“Don’t you remember anything anymore?”
Leif unplugs the compressor then opens the drain valve. “Tomorrow’s the day,” he says over the hiss of escaping air. He looks at his watch. “Or today.”
* * *
It’s not the fear so much as the awful uncertainty about his son’s state of mind that propels Erik Sager along the abandoned logging road, the drum of his boots moving in and out of the sound of the river.
Were it only a nightmare.
He halts to catch his breath in a dense stand of oak and old pine, their shadows black beyond reason beneath the moonless sky.
Leif’s here somewhere. But if I find him, then what?
Then he’s off again, hurrying upriver, glancing east for signs of daylight.
Later, he finds Leif’s bike resting against a solitary pine, as though left there for a brief stroll along the river, a piece of water they often wade, together or alone, crossing in the fall to fish the upstream run or in the spring toward the spot where they plant themselves to summon turkeys.
Which is what Leif said he planned to do, shoving his mountain bike into the night while Sager stood by silently, as helpless as a man watching his house collapse in flames.
He casts another anxious glance towards the east. What now? The bike proves only that his son has come this far, and now he’s somewhere with his pack, his camo, a decoy, his gun.
Above the mountains, a ragged haze obscures the stars one by one. Just another turkey hunt, thinks Sager, moving in tight anxious circles against a creeping chill, afraid to do more than wait for good light.
When he finally begins to see colors—blue above, the greens of maples and alders and oaks, the pumpkin-orange bark of mottled Ponderosas—he begins to hear the turkeys, stirring in their roosts somewhere across the river. He’s already decided that, whatever he does, he can’t call out his son’s name. Too much to lose, the chance at a bird being only part of it. It’s the other part—what Leif might do, how he’d react, where he might run to next—that keeps Sager silent and waiting.
Then, just like that, he spots his son’s hair across the river, flame-orange against the bark of an isolated pine, a wild fringe spilling from his camo cap, not quite the color of a tom’s fierce wattles but close: a suggestion of virility, excess, pride, lust. Sager isn’t sure what makes his son appear kin to the very birds roosting near the clearing, their annual stand already claimed by the big decoy.
Only the decoy is no longer alone. Had he looked away? Can he find, somewhere in his peripheral vision, an image of these birds dropping from their roosts? All he knows is that they’re there, edging about the clearing’s far perimeter, giving up the sounds of spring that animate his hope.
He can’t resist his excitement and holds perfectly still, anticipating the scratch and cluck of his son’s slate call. Surely he sees them, thinks Sager, watching the birds—two toms at least—as they show themselves through gaps in the vine maple.
But nothing from his son. For a moment he feels outrage—Leif’s failure to act, his own frightened hunt through the night. Then he sees it: his son has fallen asleep, propped against the tree, oblivious to the thrill of incoming birds.
A shiver of relief passes over Sager’s body. Thank God he’s stopped, even if only for a moment. He watches the big birds perform in the half-hidden stage of bright grass, the toms as intrigued or perplexed by the other as by the immobile hen nearby. While we strut to our confusion—a jolt of Shakespeare, some forgotten play that catches Sager by surprise, so shortly after imagining he might lose Leif for good. Or strangle him.
Two years out of the classroom and—what? Little has changed. He remains a puppet to his own conflicted responses to wayward, willful kids. Especially his son. He allows himself a breath of relief and insight to fuel his love for the boy—no, a man. Yet he still can’t find it in himself to consider Leif a grownup, an adult—not with these bursts of black irrational behavior that haunt their household more than ever.
What does the new doctor call it? Or the nurse? Sager regrets his inability to keep track—and then is struck again by the profound insult of being left out of the loop: his son, twenty-one, holding legal right to his own medical privacy. It’s absurd. Ever since his mother’s death from a senseless brain tumor when he was barely into middle school, Lief had been furious or traumatized or depressed or bipolar or another victim of adolescent attention disorders, the diagnosis depending on the counselor or therapist or doctor at the time. How can they just stop including him, the father, in the conversation?
He studies his son, the big toms poised nervously within range. In the itch of their affection: Shakespeare again. No wonder his students found his lectures confusing. His own scattered mind, swift in every way except along a direct route between two points, seems the rootstock of Leif’s unpredictable behavior. Or is the mind, instead, a slave to emotion? Is it only the most evil villain, an Iago, who believes will and reason capable of governing the heart, our hungers, our longings and lusts and unintelligible loins?
He closes his eyes. He knows nothing anymore, feels as vulnerable as the big horny toms. Who’s to say his own reckless emotions haven’t made him simply foolish, an easy mark for cooler heads—administrators, students’ parents, divorcées with designs on his time?
Or the stratagems of his own manic son.
He vaguely hears the sharp clap of Leif’s gun and his eyes snap open, sure, again, that he’s somehow failed as a father—that he’s missed another vital piece of information or insight while endlessly brooding. But there’s a bird in the air, headed toward the river, with Leif on his feet, gun in hand, sprinting in the same direction. It’s an ugly, dangerous piece of sport, yet Sager, too, takes off running, aware of the danger but unable to stop himself from trying, once more, to make things right.
The turkey clears the reach of willows along the far bank then drops in a glide toward the shallow riffle below the tailout. Above the sound of the river and his own footfall, Sager isolates the blustery rush of air from the turkey’s wings, and for a moment he considers that the big tom, clever with age, has dodged behind the riverside vegetation. Then it hits the water—a fierce tumbling collapse that propels Sager into the river in an instinctive plunge he immediately recognizes as not only dangerous but also perhaps the stupidest thing he’s ever done, hunting or otherwise.
Still, he’s on his feet, stumbling toward the thrashing bird despite the rocks and the cold and the jittery current, when he catches sight of Leif, downstream, slipping through a gap in the brush, gun already raised.
Later, in the safety of his guarded memory, Sager will ask himself why he didn’t simply stop; why, aware of the danger, he kept right on after the bird; why, on hearing Leif’s gun, he didn’t drop to the water but instead threw his arms around the tom and twisted and wrenched and fought until relieved of an unnamable need by the snap of a broken neck.
* * *
“I still don’t know what you were trying to prove.”
Leif lifts his bike overhead and hops up on the back bumper of his father’s truck. He strikes a pose above the dead bird, his gear, his gun, arranged in the bed in a way that suggests to him the fabulous lines of the past two days of flight—the kaleidoscope of speed, colors, Maddie’s willing mouth and the rhythm of recklessness that propelled him through the city’s streets. He can’t believe how good he feels. He lowers the bike onto the heap, careful not to disturb the tom’s fiercely wattled neck and naked blue head, and before jumping to the ground he bounces on the bumper, as though launching from a springboard.
“We’re just lucky nobody got hurt,” says Sager, opening the driver’s side door.
“Pops, I saw you.” Leif reaches into the truck bed and fiddles with the bike, making sure it will ride without marring the tom and its great waves of feathers during the short drive home. “It’s not like I was going to shoot you.”
Sager doesn’t respond. He pulls the seat forward and finds a picnic blanket bundled up with a sweater he’s been looking for since winter began. Hands still shaking from the cold, he stabs the key into the ignition and starts the truck, making sure the heater is running before backing away into the sunlight to peel off his wet clothes. “For all I knew you were in the middle of some half-cocked dream.”
Leif rests his arms on the edge of the truck bed and looks down at his boots, carried dry with his camo back and forth across the river. Should he have offered them up for the walk back to the truck? No way. He didn’t ask his father to come along. Half naked, his father seems kin to the homeless clustered beneath the freeway near the Burnside Skatepark.
“You really think I fell asleep?”
Tightening the blanket at his waist, Sager tries to figure out if his son is kidding him. “I could practically hear you snoring.”
“Just calling them to Mama,” says Leif, digging a toe into the dirt. Then he straightens up and climbs into the truck. When his father joins him, Leif begins gobbling—a raucous roll like the rhythm of wheels on concrete screaming through city lights.
When he finally stops, he fixes his father with wild wide eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re going deaf now, too.”
Behind the wheel, Sager shoves the blanket down between his bare thighs, as though protecting himself from his son. Then he turns and faces Leif. “If you weren’t sleeping, how the hell did you miss?”
Leif yelps one last trill and tremor and then suddenly stops, his eyes still wide, his head now perfectly still. “Something spooked ’em. Maybe you acting all nervous over there across the river.”
Without moving, Leif seems somehow to transform his stare from fear to flight—and though Sager can see his son’s eyes steady, aimed directly at the windshield, he feels Leif watching him through his peripheral vision.
“And I didn’t miss. He was just too far away.”
Leif turns and faces the side window, and for a moment Sager expects his son to open the door, get out, and walk away.
Instead, Leif turns back and glances at the dead tom in the truck bed. “Why do you think it ended up in the river?”
Sager doesn’t answer. He puts the truck in gear, first forward then reverse, until he gets turned around in the confines of the overgrown road. Driving back to the county highway, he tries several times to phrase a question in such a way that Leif won’t feel challenged or confronted or in some other way on the spot about the second shot—the one Sager’s sure he heard the instant before he fell upon the turkey. Where did that go?
And then, while checking for cars headed downriver, What is “that” but “that” and “is” but “is”?
Shakespeare again. Another one of his fools. The biggest question, perhaps, of all—it occupies his attention while he pulls onto the pavement and swings the truck toward town, watching as Leif’s blast of hair settles into the corner of the cab. By the time they reach home, Sager feels no closer than ever to an answer, but at least Leif hasn’t moved for miles.
At the bottom of the drive, Leif lifts his head and Sager asks, in all innocence, how he slept.
“I don’t sleep,” says Leif, staring out at the morning light.
Scott Sadil lives and writes in Hood River, Oregon. His latest book, Fly Tales: Lessons in Fly Fishing Like the Real Guys, was published last summer by Barclay Creek Press