Squatting, by Zacharia Arthur Rupp

1

My father smoked cigarettes and drank cheap beer, sitting in his plastic lawn chair in the late afternoon, waiting for the sun to set. He looked like a dead man there, slouched in the chair with his big wraparound Glaucoma glasses hiding his eyes, spit or beer in his beard, his arms hanging over the sides of the lawn chair, his jeans torn and stained with oil and earth. I held my breath and watched the smoke rise from the cigarette in his left hand, watched it lift up and float over the dried grass of the ten-acre field we squatted on. When the smoke was a thin wisp I exhaled and my father brought the cigarette to his lips. He coughed then and the cicadas started buzzing in the trees behind us. Out in the distance, the late afternoon was boiling the air and I thought a ghost was pointing at me, calling for me to stomp through the goathead stickers to reach him. I closed my eyes and smelled the truck’s rubber tires beside me, like honey and earth and cigarettes and road, and I thought This smell will one day define me. I liked the way the words felt when I mouthed them, though I did not understand what they meant. I thought of the road, the way it hums under the tires’ tread, the lullaby it sings sometimes when the surface changes. When I opened my eyes the ghost was gone and the sun was beginning to set. My father removed his sunglasses and squinted at the descending sun.

“That’s money out there,” he said in his slow way.

“Out there?” I shielded my eyes and tried to see behind the sun.

He straightened in his lawn chair and pointed with his pursed lips to the pumpjack nodding sickly a few acres ahead of us. “Out there,” he said.

2

When the stars were burning over us, my father built a fire and stuck a hotdog on an old wire hanger for me to burn. He drank from his night flask and handed it to me, as he always did when his night flask was full, and I let the whisky burn my lips but I did not drink. When he looked satisfied I put the flask in the groove I’d carved in the dirt beside the leg of his chair, and my father patted his breast pockets for the cigarettes he’d already smoked.

“Kiel,” he said, looking up at the stars with his hands in his pockets. He whispered to himself for a while and then kicked a can into the fire. “Do you ever feel small, Kiel?” he asked. “Like you’re nothing?”

This was during that time when I hadn’t the courage to respond to men when they asked questions, so I ate my hotdog and watched the fire leap in front of me.

“Look out there,” he said, and the way the fire lit his face made him look like he could have been my kid brother instead of my father. “Look.”

I lay on my back and looked up at the stars. As I stared at that cold sky, searching for constellations that I could not name, I felt that my body had left me, that I was no longer grounded, but floating up, up, up. In all directions, stars and black empty night. I was something moving, something not me, some strange unseeing thing. The earth was like a vehicle. Not like a vehicle, but a dream. Not a dream, but a thought. Not a thought, but a song, a whispered song. I gripped tufts of the long dead grass, believed that this world was the real, that the world up there was the lie, and I sat up.

“Old soul,” he said, smiling down at me. “Old soul.”

3

He picked up his flask again and I let the whiskey burn my lips again when he handed it to me. “This is God’s medicine,” he used to say to me in those far off days before we were squatting in fields. Or was that a dream?

4

My father lifted the flask a few inches from the ground and dropped it with a sigh.

“You let me drink too much,” he said.

The fire was dying and the wind blew embers over the stones surrounding the fire pit and onto my knees. I wondered how we’d come to this place. It had been night, I remembered, and the road seemed to breathe into the silent car as we drove. The warm wind blew through the car and it smelled like midnight, all wet and dusty and new. My father kept wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans and clearing his throat like he wanted to say something. When we turned onto the gravel road I wanted to tell him to get back on the highway until the sun rose. But I didn’t say anything. And then we were here, on just another field during just another night. I had watched my father curse and dig this fire pit while I removed the stones we’d collected from the back of the truck.

Those stones seemed a part of this field now, not something transplanted by a couple of nomads. I looked up at my father from the ground and saw that he was angry with me.

“You didn’t drink any of it,” he said.

“One of us has to keep the other alive.”

He closed his eyes and smiled. I knew what he was going to say about me then, that I was an old soul, but I didn’t want to hear it. I just wanted a good night’s sleep, for once.

“We need a tent,” I said. “I’m tired of sleeping on the ground.”

I watched his mouth move while he fought sleep, like he was trying to say something to me, but couldn’t get the words out. And then he finally did get the words out.

“Well you won’t sleep in the chair.”

“I don’t want the stupid chair. I want a tent.”

5

“You’re going to be sick again,” I said.

He laughed a slow wheezing laugh for a good long time and then he fell asleep. The dreams he fought that night must have been those of my mother, of methamphetamine and broken teeth. The light from the fire’s coals stopped at my father’s knees, so I could not see the emotions he wore. I listened to his snoring and his sleep talk and tried to stay awake with him through the night, but I fell asleep soon after he did and only awoke when I heard him sputtering on his vomit. You learn to be alert to that kind of thing.

6

In the morning he nudged me in the chest with his boot and told me to get up. I heard him shake his empty flask absentmindedly, heard him whistle an old tune. I had goathead stickers in my underwear and when I told him he laughed and spat into the fire pit.

“There’s the river maybe a mile that way,” he said, pointing north, over the hood of the black pickup truck behind me. He kicked the stones into the fire pit and scattered over it handfuls of green grass he’d pulled while I had slept. I coughed and spat into the pit before standing, and he looked at me all ashamed before running his hands through his hair and turning his back to me.

“Let’s wash up,” he said.

7

It’s not easy washing in the Canadian River during the summer, because of the mud and the garbage. I stepped on a fish hook and cried until my father pulled it out with his bare hands. He didn’t say anything as I cried and he worked the hook from the arch of my foot, but he was all sighs and his hands shook while he worked. We sat at the bank of the river, and he dipped my foot into the muddy water when the blood made it hard to see the hook. After a while, I asked him if the hook was free and he nodded without looking at me. He carried me then to the deepest part of the river and washed my hair with a bar of soap, scrubbed my armpits and my feet. The water was cold in that part of the river. I watched blood drip from my foot into the water, watched the current mix the blood with the soap suds.

8

We drove the highway for at least an hour. My foot hurt like fire, so I sang songs about being a poor boy who lost his daddy and my father whistled along until we got tired of that and we listened to the wind cooling the sweat in our clothes.

9

My father worked, though I don’t know anything else about that. I knew he was going to work when he’d shake that empty flask and whistle the old tunes his father taught him when my father was a boy, and I knew that it meant we’d be on the highway soon, like a couple of normal people. I liked looking at the other people on the highway when we drove, especially the people who were alone, singing and spitting on their windshields as they drove. I once saw a man my father’s age, in a suit coat and a tie, dancing like a woman as he sang, and then he looked over at us and stopped dancing. He straightened his tie and pretended that he was miserable before slowing down to let us pass.

10

After we got off the highway, my father dropped me off at the mall, handing me a sweaty ten dollar bill before telling me to be safe and to wait in the food court for him or else just walk around the mall.

“Don’t look for me,” he said. “I’ll find you.”

11

I walked around the mall for hours, watching the kids in baggy pants shout from one store to another, the tall women buy cheap shoes, the fat women search the stores with skinny mannequins in the windows. I played the arcades like the other kids, though I never understood the point and always left with a headache. I ran up and down the escalators until I could feel the scab on my foot burst open. When I felt sad, I left the mall and watched the traffic move on the highway, listened to the hum of the tires. I mouthed my father’s name–“Eugene,” I whispered–until I grew bold enough to say it so that anybody could hear me. When my sadness seemed to me ridiculous, I waited for the traffic to thin out and I ran across the highway to a steakhouse whose burgers I could smell all the way from the entrance of the mall. Those were God’s burgers in that steakhouse. Inside, a man named Jeff handed me a menu and frowned at me from the edge of the table.

“You want something different this time?” he asked.

I looked at the designs on the menu and tried to decipher them. After a while of that, Jeff wrote something in his notepad and left me there. He returned with a glass of Coca-Cola and drummed his fingers on the table.

“How old are you, anyway?”

“Sixteen,” I lied.

“You don’t look it,” he said. “Where’s your parents?”

“I’m my own man,” I said.

He laughed at that and sat down in the booth across from me. Jeff had a head like a thumb. I could tell by the way that his face shone under the dim lights that he hadn’t bathed that day.

“What kind of car do you drive?” I asked him.

“Do you drive?”

Since I couldn’t remember if sixteen-year-old boys drove, I didn’t answer him. He sighed and looked out the window beside us. After a while, Jeff asked me if I had any dreams and I told him that sometimes I dreamed my mother was still alive.

“That’s not what I mean,” he said. “I mean, like, dreams. You know? Life goals. I always wanted to be a famous musician.” He drummed on the table then and I could see that he might have been good.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just the thing about my mom is all.”

He looked at me like he wanted to say something, but he shook his head and pushed himself up from the table instead.

12

My father found me walking through the mall’s parking lot. He was on foot and he smiled when he yelled my name. His beard was gone and I saw for the first time that he had a cleft in his chin and that he had pimples on his cheeks, like a teenager. We walked up and down the parking lot together and he pointed out a Ferrari Enzo and a Mazda Spyder to me. They were beautiful cars and I wondered what it must be like to ride in them with the windows down while he leaned close against the windows to see what was inside. When the mall security car started following us, we headed for the truck.

13

My father reached behind my seat after I climbed into his truck, and retrieved a wrinkled paper bag smelling of fried onions. He put the bag in my lap and looked in the rearview mirror. I reached inside and felt jeans and a t-shirt balled up, his crude attempt at folding.

“I bought them for you,” he said, and I pinched the tags between my thumb and forefinger.

“I’ve got clothes,” I said. “We need a tent.” I dropped the bag into the floorboard in front of me and looked at myself in the sideview mirror. I am my own man, I thought as I watched the wind lift my hair. What are my dreams? In minutes we were on the highway again, and I breathed in the semi smoke, the sticky summer air, the sweet scent of wheat. But it was not the same.

“I know,” he said. He leaned his elbow out the window and covered his mouth with his left hand as he drove. “Kiel,” he said through the gaps between his fingers, “I know this isn’t fair to you. I do.”

14

We squatted in the same field that night. My father spilled whiskey over his hands as he filled his flask, and I wondered why he didn’t just drink it from the bottle instead. With the light dancing on his beardless face for the first time, he looked frightened when he lit the fire. I could not stop watching this new man’s face frowning in front of me. Just an inch or so below his left eye, his cheek was scarred in a way that I did not then recognize. That crushed pink circle, the size of a pinky print, gleamed in the fire’s light. I sat down, my back against the truck’s rear tire, and watched my father start and kill, start and kill, and start the fire. Instead of sitting in his lawn chair, he kneeled in front of me and held my face gently in his calloused hands.

“You look like me,” he said. “I’m sorry about that.” He stood up then and reached into the bed of the truck. “You ever ate a bratwurst?” he asked. “Your granddaddy was a butcher. Did I ever tell you that?  He made the best bratwurst, your granddaddy.”

He handed me one of the two wire hangers he’d used to skewer the sausages and we roasted them in the fire, the two of us sitting there with our backs against the truck.

“I may not be the best dad,” my father said. He leaned forward then and pulled the flask from his back pocket. He started to unscrew the cap with his teeth but stopped. “I’ve tried to do good by you, Kiel,” he said. “I hope you understand me.”

If only I’d said something to him then, something to let him know that he did do good by me, that the life we lived was the life that suited me, that I didn’t need a goddamn tent anymore than I needed my meth-destroyed mother, that he was all I needed then. But I didn’t say those things. I didn’t understand him.

“Your granddaddy was a cruel man,” he said. “I was about your age, probably younger, when he made me kill a pig I raised from a baby. I know it might sound silly to you, wise as you are, but that pig was like my child, Kiel. She was my best friend in the whole world. She had a brown patch on her eye, and she used to bite my calves when she wanted attention or food.

“She was hanging by her hind legs in the back of the shop, over the big drain in the middle of the floor, and she was blowing snot everywhere, crying like a baby when she saw me. And I killed her, Kiel, because I was scared of my father. I killed her. My baby girl.”

He looked away from me then and heaved an enormous sigh.

“I named her after she was born. What kind of kid names a pig?” He looked at me looking at him and then he pulled his bratwurst from the fire.

“Precious. That was her name. Precious.”

He was silent then, and I watched the scar on his face reflect the fire light. I sometimes see that scar in my dreams, and I wake up, my underwear damp with sweat, and I look through the night to see if anybody’s watching me. I know now, with all these miles and years behind me, all the flops and whores I’ve passed, the scar a cigar leaves on a child’s face.

15

I woke up in the truck and I thought for a minute that I heard my father crying in the driver’s seat, but it was only the road singing beneath us. I tried pretending that I was asleep because I didn’t understand why we were driving or where we were going, but my father saw through my act.

“I’ve got to do this thing,” he said.

I sat up in my seat and looked out the window at the sun rising on the horizon. The chill morning air felt good blowing through the window, and I knew that in a few hours the sun would be wicked on us, that today it was going to hurt out there. I looked around the truck, at the dust on the grey dash, the empty spot where the CD player once rested, the peeling registration stickers on the windshield, and felt that I’d never really looked at these things before. The bag of new clothes sat crumpled at my feet and I picked it up so that I could see what my father had brought me. Inside were a red t-shirt with a smiling cartoon car on the front and some blue jeans. As we drove, I changed into the new clothes from the plain brown t-shirt and the dirty jeans I’d been wearing. The clothes made my skin itch and they were stiff, but I didn’t tell my father.

16

We stopped in front of a gas station and my father left me in the truck while he used a pay phone. As far as I know, that’s the only time I’ve seen him use a telephone. After he dialed the number, he turned around for a moment and stared at me with his lips parted, his tongue poking out from between his teeth. With his free hand he rubbed the back of his neck and then slowly ran his hand back and forth through his long hair.

17

We drove back roads instead of the highway that day. I think he wanted the trip to last as long as it could, though he didn’t speak a word since leaving the gas station. I sang a refrain from a song he taught me a few weeks before, but he didn’t whistle along with me so I stopped. My father sweated in the driver’s seat as we drove, and I watched his lips move, watched him shake his head with a pained look on his face. I soon bored of the drive on the back roads, so I slept.

18

The mall seemed a different world that morning, with only a few cars in the parking lot and almost nobody out on the highway. I sat in my seat and watched my father search his pockets for something which he could not find. He cursed then and worked his cheeks in his hands before opening the glove compartment and pulling out a yellowed envelope bulging with wrinkled bills. After he dumped the pennies from the ashtray inside the envelope, he handed it to me.

“Something to spend,” he said. He hugged me to him then and I could smell the whiskey on his hands, all sweet and sour and sick, though I could not smell it on his breath when he kissed my forehead. I waited for him to say something, but he did not.

“You’ll come find me?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, so I opened my door and climbed out of the truck. I held the envelope of wadded bills and ashy coins stupidly in my hands as he drove off.

***

Zacharia Arthur Rupp is a recovering musician and an MFA candidate at the University of Central Oklahoma. He lives with his wife and two cats in an apartment that seems to be shrinking by the second. This story marks his first publication.

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