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Richard Wertime is the author of Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 2001 recipient of the James A. Michener Memorial Prize. His work has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. “The Case for Empathy,” his most recent publication, appeared in the September 15, 2020 issue of The American Scholar. He is currently at work on a novel, A Taste of Italy.
From WTP Vol. IX #3
Matt’s love for his son Kevin has never been so fierce as it is at this moment. As he’s pulling up the drive he can see, through the kitchen window, the stricken expression on his teen son’s face.
So, he’s been apprised. He knows.
Those earliest intimations . . . that morning, months ago, as he was driving Kevin home from his orthodontist’s appointment and they were coming down the hill toward the Fairway in Rydal. He’d been shocked by the sight, at the bottom of the hill, of the wide lawn fronting the Buick dealership: it had been burned away, seared, every single blade of it, leaving a sea of scorched earth in place of green grass.
His vision had tricked him, just for an instant. Matt had blinked, he recalls, and lifted his hand to his face to excavate webs. Looking again, he had seen, not a lawn blistered red in the glare of morning sunlight but the expected pelt of lawn, as neatly kept as it normally was. It was, after all, a Buick dealership.
A similar thing had happened a couple of nights later when, in a dream, he’d awakened for the day to discover all the grass on their ample side lawn scraped raw, burned away. When actual morning came, he had rushed to the window, Meg still asleep.
Green lawn. No change.
It’s a struggle for Matt to lift himself from the car given the heaviness of his limbs. These symptoms (how he’s fought them!) that have held sway for . . . how long has it actually been? How much time has elapsed since he first allowed himself to accept, see, realize what was happening in his marriage? No, to his marriage. Those first concussive findings, unbearably painful: Meg turning to another man—a doctor, no less, her mother’s physician, the one who’d attended the failing old lady. Then the endless mutual blaming; the storms of grief and outrage; the long trust lost. Time has become, like so much in his life, an altered universe, his body performing its unwelcome feats of merciless transformation. He can barely lift his legs from underneath the steering wheel, and his bloodless arms, in turn, are of almost no use in extricating him. This is how it is: bloodless arms, bloodless legs. And all of the skin on his back flayed away.
His wife is first to join him. She has stepped from the kitchen onto the patio by the driveway just as he’s pulling the car up the drive. A quick glance tells him there is purpose in her aspect.
Shutting the ignition, he sits for some seconds while she makes her approach. Drawing in a breath, readying himself for what’s ahead. That he is able—has been able, since the onset of this crisis—to drive across the city to get himself to work and manage to function, give lectures, meet his students, interact with his colleagues; manage, even, in the evenings, to steady his mind enough (though sometimes, just barely) to read his students’ work and comment upon it: the preservation of these abilities has been essential to his enduring this startling transformation. His very existence, he knows, has been at stake, has been at issue. His professional survival: If I gave that up—then . . .
That is, until today. Until today. This afternoon.
As his wife is walking toward him, Matt makes it from the car and stands there on the gravel, his briefcase still in the middle of the backseat. He’ll have to fetch it later. No wish to do it now given the weakness in his limbs.
They face each other, air separating them. Meg wears a beige skirt and a gray mottled mockneck—dressed, it would appear, for whatever might follow.
“I’ve explained it to Kevin,” she says in a low voice, at first not looking into his eyes, not directly, but then lifting hers, as though to have him understand.
All his life, Matt has suffered from this body-image problem: as tall as he is—not overly so, but tall enough—he has harbored the conviction of his being short in stature. Hence it comes now as something of a curious revelation (any fresh news in this?) that he stands, in reality, a full head taller than his wife, this wife of two decades, and that he is looking down on her as she speaks these words to him. Among the most dreaded of his symptoms has been a spatial illusion, one that functions in something like forward and reverse. At times, he imagines that he is suddenly being distended, grown tall as a giraffe; more often, though, the earth beneath his feet opens up and he takes a terrible plunge. The endless fall will suddenly halt, and he is back in a blink, secure in his footing. Of these two symptoms, it’s the latter he dreads more.
Right now, his shoes are solidly planted on the gravel, although his legs feel heavy. Leaden. He can barely lift his arms.
“I’ve informed him,” she says, “that you might be going into the hospital tonight.”
To this, Matt says nothing. It’s at this exact moment that Kevin steps from the kitchen and starts up toward them.
As Kevin grows nearer, Matt turns to Meg and says, “We’ll be a few minutes.”
He nods his wife away, awaiting his son.
Kevin is fifteen. Taller than Matt already, he is likely not to suffer in the course of his life from the erroneous belief that he is shorter than he is. Slender now, if big-boned, with a frame yet to grow into, he still has that awkwardness that comes with speedy growth—over the past ten months or so, he has shot up many inches, and groans when they go anywhere from knees that give him torment: the classic growing pains. Facially, he takes after Meg’s father Wilfred, dead some six years now: wide-spaced eyes and strongly molded cheek bones, his eyes a hazel color that can harden with displeasure but equally, or more so, soften into a tenderness displaying care and vulnerability. His son is less of an athlete than Matt has been in his lifetime, but he’s a game kid, eager.
When Kevin reaches his father, his eyes are neither angry nor demonstrative of tenderness. They’re wary, guarded—the look, Matt thinks, of a wild frightened animal trapped in confusion. The boy’s expression manifests his state of alarm: his mother’s news has drawn taut the fibers in his neck and set his braced teeth on edge. If emotions had a trace scent, it occurs to Matt to think, the air right around them would bear a musty, feral odor.
Kevin is a creature awaiting a blow.
Matt’s heart floods: floods for all that has happened just today, this very day. For all that has passed since that sight of burned grass coming down the hill toward Rydal. For all the news, the symptoms, the upsets, the consequences. For all the ways in which Kevin’s life has been wrenched.
“Hey. Go get the ball,” Matt suggests to his son. “Let’s play some soccer.” Till this very moment, he has had no thought of how to handle the situation.
Just those few hours ago—so hard to believe already—he had sat in his car in the college parking lot, his whole body wracked, his every breath a struggle, his shirtsleeve rolled. The sharp blade poised.
It had all grown to be just too much for him. How could this have been?
He’d sat there in the car, pondering the maples that grew along the margin, noting how the early autumn light dappled things: shivers of sunlight slipping and sliding across the windshield and dashboard. Where had it occurred, the slippage that had brought him so suddenly to this, this ravaged condition, his married life in wreckage, his psyche upended by the startle of it all? When did I become so fragile—no, so brittle? He could not account for it. And yet, of course, he could—his memory too keen. For every detail. Voracious in retention, of every injury, every outrage. Every fresh revelation.
For all that, he’d believed that he was going to get through it, find some branch above the current he could grab onto, hold onto long enough while the flood swept away. But then he’d gone and done this crazy damage to himself, just a few minutes ago—prompted by just what, at this point, he couldn’t say, beyond his own darkening misery: for all that he had felt no impulse toward violence since the first of the troubling revelations had unfolded and Meg had made plain that she was having the affair and no intention, either, of giving it up; for all that he had had no wish until now (none conscious, anyway) to do her any harm, he had phoned her from the office, its door secured for the moment—oh, rash act! if only to call it back now—and had said to her in low tones, If you let it continue, I will fill your sky with lightning and with smokey fire. Knowing even as he said it that it was over-the-top, excessive. Grandiose. Melodramatic. But hoping for something.
She had offered no response.
A dyke had broken there, and the gods had descended, their punishing whips flailing to sting him with regret. He had given up in an instant unrecoverable ground: he could have no peace now. The branch had snapped. It had to end. Couldn’t he have found a better, more composed way of addressing the crisis? What was he thinking?
He’d examined his wrist, forearm mottled by the filtering sunlight. Wondering where to make the cut. Knowing that he had no skill in any of this. Still, the pain, the sorrow had grown too great.
Then this thought occurred to him, out of the blue: If you go ahead and do this, if you allow yourself to do this, where, exactly, will your curiosity have gone? Where WOULD your resilient curiosity have gone? For he knew in that instant that love would not save him, not love alone, not for his son or for his wife, or for the many people he cared for: all those were ashes. It humbled him to know it, to admit it to himself. The only thing that would save him was that one selfish thing. He’d phoned his wife back to tell her that he might need to be hospitalized this evening.
And had said nothing further.
When Kevin reemerges, soccer ball in hand, Matt sheds his suit coat and drops it on the hood, still warm to his touch. How he’s going to manage this with such leaden arms and legs, his back feeling raw, his head also a-swirl, he has no idea. Light-headedness has become his permanent state these recent months—one of the challenges he faces in the evening, grading papers.
The thought occurs to him to go inside for other shoes; but he knows that if he does so, the moment will be broken. He cannot afford that. His dress shoes must do.
Kevin, already, if only by degrees, seems more at ease, assured, as he tosses the ball from one hand to another. But still tense, still tight. The feral fear—of all that’s happened, of all that might happen—retaining its grip.
Son and father’s eyes meet. “Well, go on, then!” Matt smiles. “Chuck it to me, bub!”
It’s with the velocity Matt expects that the ball hurtles toward him. The anger is out now, out in the open! Matt stifles a “Yo!” as the leather meets his palms, smacks his hands with a sting. It’s not an unpleasant sting, since the impact has released from the surface of the ball that special soccer-ball smell, a fragrance tangy and yet wholesome.
Laughing, Matt meets his son’s eyes with a challenge. Of all the standard ball-sports—tennis and football, basketball and baseball—Matt has the least knowledge of and skill in this one. It’s the one sport that Kevin has gained some real adeptness in, in a weekend league that is held at his school.
Matt is glad for that. It’ll help level the playing field. So will his unwellness.
The side lawn of their house enjoys a fifty-yard depth, its width only marginally more modest in dimensions. The property is historic: a farm (or part of one) from an earlier century, it still harbors fruit trees—apple, pear, cherry—and old stands of berry cane, raspberry mainly. A grape arbor wraps two sides of the house on the sunny east and south sides, and garden plots, Matt’s recreation, now, in summer, grace the property’s farther reaches. Old-growth pines frame the longer of its borders.
Spinning the ball experimentally, Matt tosses it to Kevin, who immediately turns and dumps it onto the grass with a careless, insouciant gesture. Let the old man know who is going to be boss here! A later-in-life father, Matt is, for all that, a fit enough man for his stage of life, all else aside.
So it begins. Matt trots—trudges, rather, his legs filled with sand—to the lawn’s lower part, awaiting his son’s first advance. Attending on his father, Kevin opts to be showy, toeing the ball in the air with a flip of his foot, and then trading it back and forth, toe-to-knee, toe-to-knee, a standard warm-up routine.
Now Kevin launches. The ball flies high—high enough that Matt, ducking, lets it sail on past him, his cowardice clear. He turns away, laughing. “Heading” just isn’t in the picture right now. Not given his condition.
By the time he’s ambled after it and fetched it from the high grass, Kevin is upon him. Their four feet skirmish, Matt managing to outmaneuver Kevin for the moment. Taking the ball in control, he starts a move up the lawn.
But his son smacks into him, a full body-slam. Matt reels backward and comes up for air, startled by the impact. Kevin’s face wears a mix of . . . what? Revenge. Determination. The need for self-assertion. And, Matt sees as he draws in a hard breath, a need for reassurance. So, he says nothing.
Kevin has the ball now, dribbling from side to side, looking for a way to get past his father. Matt holds his ground, though, his son briefly stymied.
And here Matt makes yet another quick decision. What the hell! he considers. Two can play at this game! He, in turn, goes ahead and throws himself against his son, chest meeting chest. A full body slam.
Kevin staggers back, astonishment spreading its pink stain over his features.
The two take a pause here, facing each other. They have come, Matt reckons—more than reckons: understands—to a moment that’s decisive, a turning on its axis of the whole situation. Kevin’s face, flushed and sweaty, conveys the same information, his eyes meeting his father with a trace of some tincture, as old as his birth, something reaching back to his first weeks of life.
They enter into it, no words required. The evening moves toward dusk as the two of them skirmish, body against body, hard slams traded, toes meeting shins, each of them enveloped in the other’s ready presence.
And as the skirmish continues, Matt becomes conscious—could this actually be?—that an odd, miraculous thing is occurring every time his frame makes impact, makes hard, rough impact, with that of his son: he is freed from his symptoms! For just that one split second as their bodies collide, he experiences none of them—no heavy weights on his limbs, no skin peeled from his back; no dread of plunging. For an instant he is whole. It’s as if each blow is administering a shock, an electrical spark that cleanses him entirely. And now he sees, looking back, that that was the nature of the stinging in his hands when Kevin had hurled the ball at him in the driveway! It was a harbinger, that pleasure, of this deeper release from bondage.
“Had enough?” Matt asks, a rhetorical smile. Both are sweaty. Heated.
Gathering up the ball, Kevin nods. “Thanks, Dad.” He twirls the ball, grass-stained, as they’re starting toward the house.
There will be no hospitalization tonight for Matt: this much they both know. Matt knows as well, however, that nothing is over yet. That nothing is resolved. Already, his symptoms are reclaiming him as they come in through the kitchen. The leaden legs, the heavy arms, the flayed skin. All still there, despite this reprieve. He’ll have to endure them. Until such time.
Still. What has happened out there in the yard has afforded him a new lens for viewing, a new understanding, some arch wherethrough . . .
Meg enters the kitchen just as Kevin is reaching into the cupboard for some chips. Matt expects she’ll be wearing her usual look of disapproval—her “so-you-guys-have-been-out-there-having-a-good-time” look—but in fact she looks startled, her eyebrows elevated. It’s the look she reserves for unmet expectations.
“Dinner?” Matt says, his own eyebrows lifted. He glances at his son, who has rescued the chips.
“I haven’t started any,” she says.
“Mn,” Matt murmurs.
“I thought—” There she stops.
Kevin, chips in tow, is already in flight, heading north toward his bedroom. He knows well enough how the scene will play out.
His parents face each other, a space of air between them. How strange it all seems, still! It was out there by the gardens that he loves so in summer that he first learned about it, no scorched grass around.
“I left my briefcase in the car,” Matt says. “I’d better go get it.”
Meg has turned already to take her leave from the kitchen.
Darkness has fallen. Matt is careful with his footing as he walks toward the car. This long day of days has been both ruin and triumph.
His initial success, on reaching home this afternoon, had been his reading of his wife: his grasping what it was that in her growing weariness and exasperation with him, whether just or unjust, she was ready to see happen.
He unlocks the car. Before reaching into the backseat to lift out his briefcase, laden as it is with student essays for the evening, he pauses to breathe in the fresh night air.
The road through heartache is a rocky one, Matt knows, and the blows, the needed blows, will land where they will. His true, fair share (beyond the flaw of his unawareness) is still to be parsed. What he cannot know yet is that the descent into the pit will be steeper and more harrowing than he could possibly have imagined, and that the time is going to come when the people helping him—and there will be several—will need to say to him, We are going to get you through this!
And he will need to trust them.
What, for the moment, he can embrace is the essential paradox unfolding here today, as well as the secret it reveals—a son bound in love so deeply to his father that a way must be found for anger to be allowed. And that way, once found . . .
There will be no hospitalization tonight for Matt.
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