This was one of several stories I wrote that was sort of based on my father. Although this story is completely fictional, the characters are based on actual people. This one was intended as the first chapter of a short story collection that would work almost like an episodic novel. The final chapter would be “My Father’s Ghost”.
Originally published in The Rusty Nail, March, 2013.
My Father’s Hands
By Lee Wright
My father has rough hands, callused, scarred, and scraped raw by fourteen years on the line. A few of the knuckles have been broken, the little finger of the left hand will never again be straight, and there is always a little black crescent of machine oil beneath the yellowed nails. I am thirteen, pale and lanky, with smooth unblemished hands, shaggy hair and thick glasses. Still wearing our Sunday best, we sit on the porch at Lester Kegg’s little cabin and watch the late summer night swallow the world.
The rough hands extract a Marlboro and light it with an old Zippo. On one side of the lighter, the finish is worn down to the steel in a rough elongated teardrop. A similar but lighter patch blemishes the lid, just above the hinge. For the last few years, he has actually been using his thumb to push the lid open. I can’t remember the last time I saw him open it with a flick of the wrist and light it by snapping his fingers above the flint wheel. In nearly all aspects of my father’s life, the pretense of flair and magic is gone.
“What’s going to happen to the cabin?” I ask. “Did Mister Kegg have a will?”
The orange-red tip of the cigarette brightens as he inhales then fades almost to nothing. “People like us don’t have wills.”
I ask, “You remember the first time you brought me up here?”
“Your tenth birthday, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. We went fishing and you and Mister Kegg taught me to play blackjack and Mister Kegg killed that copperhead.”
The snake’s head is still nailed above the door, fangs bared menacingly, but, after three years, it is desiccated, the scales dull, the eyes just empty sockets. Kegg told me a snake head above the door would keep away the haints.
My father takes a long drag on his cigarette and exhales slowly. The smoke is almost invisible in the gathering gloom.
Finally, I ask. I have to. “Did you see it? The accident, I mean.”
His face is in shadows, but I see him close his eyes. I wait. The tip of his cigarette glows faintly.
“And he just fell in?”
Heat prickles the back of my neck, but I shiver. I’ve been to the mill, I’ve seen the scrapper, and I know what it can do to chunks of fabric, wood, plastic, even metal.
Dad stands, stretches, drops his cigarette and crushes it with the toe of his seldom worn dress shoes. “Anything here you want?” he asks.
I want the snake, but I don’t want to tell him that. I just shake my head, stand and, in the darkness, take one long last look at the cabin they built together just after ‘Nam. It was a shack but they called it the Hunting Lodge. You could hear the capital letters when they referred to it.
As we walk back to the truck, Dad lights another cigarette. There is no snap, no Zippo magic, just the rough hands of a weary factory worker, lighting the last cigarette of the third pack of the day.
© 2013 Lee Wright