Stepping out of my apartment, I had to squint to see where my truck was parked. It was eleven in the morning, and I could already see the waves of heat rising up from the street. The air was heavy and inundated with the smell of a dead animal. I looked behind the neighbor’s house to see if one of their dogs had died. Sweat beaded on my forehead, as I searched the scorched brown grass in an otherwise empty backyard. Early September in East Texas was an inferno.
Walking to the parking lot, the sun seemed to be melting the color of my truck from gold to brown. Only the silver of the door handle contrasted with my skin. I quickly jumped into the seat and rolled down the windows. Begrudgingly, my eyes drug past the lever for the air conditioner that my grandpa had said we should fix. It needed a new compressor.
I had bought the truck frame and transmission for six-hundred bucks. He had laughed when I told him. He couldn’t believe I would buy a truck with no motor. At the time, his reaction rubbed me wrong, but I wasn’t in a position to object. I needed his help rebuilding an engine. So I endured his amusement, until he finally told me to come down to his shop on my next days off. Now, speeding down the blistering road, I shook my head at the thought of how far I had to drive like this. The back of my shirt was damp with sweat and I leaned forward in hopes of improving the circulation of the hot air in the truck.
I had worked with my grandpa before, when I was younger. Between customers, he would teach me how to change the oil, how to check the tire pressure, how drum brakes worked. Most people seemed to like him, and I came to know the names of the police officers and parts couriers that frequented his shop. But despite the time I had spent with my grandpa, I never felt that we grew any closer. I thought maybe his age and my youth had created that distance between us. He is from a different time, my mother used to say.
But when we began working on my truck, things changed. He talked more than I remembered. He shared things with me that had only been whispers and half stories I had heard at family reunions. I didn’t make much money, so I could only buy a few parts at a time, and with every trip came another story. His childhood with my great-grandmother, who was still alive but sick with Alzheimer’s, why his fear of another Great Depression had caused him to stockpile food and ammunition, even a first wife and child living in France. As the summer wore on, I began to realize that I was learning more about the man than about his craft. He was cautious and calculated, but once he got comfortable, he loved to laugh and talk. He always called me Joe, and I was happy when he said it. His real name was Frank, but I wouldn’t dare say it in front of him.
I needed gas and water, so I pulled into my usual convenience store. I stopped at this place regularly on my way to work, but this time, the sign was different and the old brown uniforms were now all blue. At least I recognized the clerk behind the counter.
“You guys get bought out?” I asked.
“Yeah, the owners have been trying to sell this place for a while,” he said. “They finally found someone that wasn’t an Indian or Arab.”
I stood half-smiling awkwardly as he chuckled. His words had caught me off guard, but practice had replaced emotion and I widened my grin to meet his.
“That’s good,” I heard myself say.
Or maybe it was my mother or grandfather who had said it. Or my friends at the time. Maybe it was in the grocery store or at my job. Or maybe it was the year before, at 3am, when everyone was drunk and still waiting for Y2k. I took my change and walked out to my truck, contemplating what the cashier had said. I could see the highway stretching out into the distance as far as I could see, until the black road met the clear, blue sky. Climbing into my truck, I tried to ignore the heat.
Back on the road, I fought to push the onslaught of memories out of my head. They were just words and phrases. He was just a convenience store cashier. She was my mother and he was my grandfather. I knew that I was one of them. It was the others they were bitching about. I wasn’t like the others. My mother was always quick to tell me so. We never spoke of my father. Nobody did. Her first marriage was strictly off limits. When I finally did build up the nerve to ask about him, she abruptly told me that her current husband was my father. Why did I have brown skin while the rest of the family was white? She had never called me Yousef, though she was the one that gave that name to me. She looked past me, tears welling in her eyes, and told me it was for my own good. I had no right to disrespect her husband, my new father, he had clothed and fed and sheltered me. And that was enough, or so I thought, as I learned to grow around the empty spaces.
* * *
By the time I arrived, I was drenched in sweat. I drove down the dirt road that came up behind my grandfather’s house, where a gate provided access to his property. He was retired now, and after he sold his business, he had moved all his tools and lifts to a small shop behind his lake house. As I pulled in, he was standing in the yard, wearing a fedora and blue work pants, a fire burning in the fire pit. His weathered face wore a soft smile. A big black gum tree stood beside his house atop a small hill. Its blood red leaves were scattered across his green grass. It is this memory of him that I recall the most.
As I eased out of my truck, a large grin swept across his face. I used my shirt to wipe the sweat now dripping down my forehead, neck, and shoulders. He asked me if I had changed my mind about fixing the air conditioner, and though I tried to fight it, I couldn’t help but laugh. Even after we had finished rebuilding the engine, I had continued to come see my grandpa on my days off. Sometimes he would have me mow his grass or help him work on a car—despite his retirement, he had new customers from the houses springing up around the lake. More often, he had me split firewood. I had hated it at first, but in time, after the calluses and muscles had formed, it became something I enjoyed. I looked at the fire and then the row of cut tree sections laying in the yard by the fence.
“You need some more firewood?” I asked.
He looked over at his boat parked in front of his shop.
“Nope” he said, “I want to go fishin’. You eat lunch?”
I shook my head.
“C’mon, let’s go up to the house,”
We walked up the path and past the heavy smell of earth that was his garden. He stopped and picked a plump, red tomato off the vine. Once inside, we made turkey, cheese and tomato sandwiches on homemade bread. I watched his callused hands as he spread mustard on both sides. His knuckles were swollen and his fingers shook slightly. I looked at his creased face and the marks that time had left. He had been handsome once, with black hair and green eyes. My mom had shown me a picture of him when he was young, in a white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve. He had just got back from Europe, sometime not long after World War II, where the Army had trained him to be a mechanic.
“You want a beer,” he asked after making both sandwiches.
“Sure,” I said, surprised.
“Don’t drink too much,” he handed me a cold beer from the fridge. “Because then neither of us can drive the boat.”
“Ok. I won’t.” I eyed the cold beer in my hand and then looked back at him.
He grinned, “Your twenty now, you can have a beer with me.”
“Thanks.” I said awkwardly. I opened the can and let the cold liquid quench my thirst as the bubbles burned down my throat and into my stomach. I fought to keep my eyes from watering and made sure not to drink too much. As I set the can down, I noticed that he was still looking at me and I readied myself for trouble. His lips moved briefly but no words formed and I moved quickly to fill the silence.
“You still using that jig or we gonna use minnows today?”
“I reckon we can use a jig, caught plenty of fish with ‘em.” He replied.
He looked down at his plate and then picked up his sandwich and took a bite. I took another swig of beer and then turned to mine.
My grandpa loved fishing as much as he loved working on cars. Even before he lived on the lake, he would spend most of his free time fishing it. He often told me that he couldn’t imagine leaving it, and the truth is that I can never imagine that lake without him. He taught me everything I knew about fishing. Which jigs worked best for crappie, where the best areas for bass were, and how to hand-line catfish. I knew where the lake shallowed up, how best to navigate it, and all of his favorite fishing spots.
He swung the truck wide to get the boat through the gate and then drove down the dirt access road. The trees from the forest ran right up to the road on one side, chain link fence in the foreground and then houses formed a row on the other side. I watched the partitioned back yards file past me. Towards the end of the row, an old man my grandpa called the Chinaman, stood wearing a dark blue hat and raking leaves. He waved and we both waved back.
Normally, he seemed happiest on days we were out on the lake. But there was a change in him today. It had come on suddenly, as we drove down to the boat ramp. I turned my head just in time to watch the boat slide off the trailer quietly into the water. I pulled his truck forward and parked it in closest spot of the parking lot. I couldn’t remember the lake ever being so empty at this time of the year.
The motor droned along, churning through the muddy, tea colored water. I watched my grandpa scanning the horizon, his eroded face a reflection of the lake. The afternoon was humid and thick. He pointed the boat towards a group of cypress trees in the distance. The wind picked up slightly as if to greet us and I closed my eyes and welcomed its embrace.
Once we were far enough in the trees, I grabbed the bottom of a big, sturdy cypress branch and tied a rope around it. The limbs grew close to the water and were tough and pliable. I had never seen a catfish break one off. On the other end of the rope, I fashioned a hook. I cut a chunk of chicken liver and slid it on. I watched the line splash down in the soupy water, and was suddenly aware of the silence. This ate at my attention for a while but I kept on tying ropes and hooks. Eventually it went away and so did we.
Leaving the cypress trees behind, my grandpa set a familiar course towards a small slough, close to where two rivers meet, that he loved to fish for crappie. It took about an hour boat ride to get there. The hum of the engine eventually became a soothing song, as I watched the scenery transform around me. The South holds secrets in places like these, and I never ventured too hard to find them. My grandpa always said that secrets beget secrets. I watched as an alligator dove from the bank into the water, startled by our boat motor plowing up the river. Logs and stumps as well as clusters of cypress groves littered the terrain. As we got closer to the slough, the trees became larger and the water more narrow. The bank on either side was full of pines and hard woods, stretching up high into the sky.
The sun shone through the trees in jets of sunlight as we slowly navigated through the shallow water. The trees were no longer restricted to the bank here, forming a large canopy from the sun. I leaned back in the boat and watched patches of blue filled sky followed by patches of towering green mossy branches. The water moved like our boat, slow and peaceful. It was a soft black. I carefully leaned over the side and let my fingers lightly skim across the top. Then I watched as my grandpa quietly maneuvered past two rising tree trunks and an underwater stump. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes. We didn’t talk a lot on the water. There never seemed to be much to say.
Arriving at the fishing hole, I quietly put the two pieces of the bamboo pole together and sat the jig down by a large stump. I could smell the pine trees in the air as I watched two Mallards swimming in the increasingly shallow slough. The pull of my line brought me back to the boat, as I lifted my pole and pulled a large crappie out of the water. Quickly putting my hook back in the same place, I was suddenly reminded of the silence again. As I contemplated it, I heard my grandpa’s voice cut through my thoughts.
“You hear that?” he asked. His voice was soft but firm.
“Hear what?” I almost whispered. My eyes focused sharply and I felt my senses heighten.
“Listen,” he said.
I sat silent, the wind whipping through some leaves.
“I don’t hear anything.”
I sat confused for a moment.
“I’m not following you.”
“Do you hear any planes?
I looked up instinctively and then shook my head.
“This will probably be the only day in your life, when you won’t hear airplanes flyin’ over you out here.”
I let his words wash over me for a minute and then I suddenly remembered what I had been ignoring.
“You think we are going to go to war?” I said.
He sat looking at the end of his fishing pole.
“I hope they kill them all,” I quickly added.
He remained silent and fixed in his position.
I looked out over the water and felt guilty for being there. After some time had passed, my grandpa turned around and looked at me directly.
“You should stay with me tonight.”
I didn’t answer right away.
“Maybe you should.” He repeated more firmly.
“Really, I have to go back.”
He turned and set his hook back into the water.
“The thing with fishin’ out here,” he finally said, “is that a man’s got nowhere to hide from himself.”
* * *
The extreme banging of the boat motor beat repeatedly inside my head as I tried to gather my thoughts. I scanned my grandpa’s face for comfort, but he sat looking straight and motionless, except for the occasional moving of his arm to change directions or avoid something in the lake. He offered nothing to offset the incessant banging. I combed the bank for something to focus my attention but the shoreline had been abandoned. The banging grew louder and in desperation I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being back on the dock. But the air had become too thick and I felt like I was going to suffocate. I rocked forward and opened my eyes, determined to find some way to block out the banging. But it persisted. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. I felt a surge of anger as the same pattern repeated over and over. Bang, bang, bang, bang. Then, before I could react, I slammed my hand down as hard as I could on the side of the aluminum boat. The pain reverberated through my wrist as I felt the boat slow and the motor quiet to a low hum. My grandpa took his sunglasses off and looked at me confused. I waved him off. Still irritated, I sunk down in my seat and covered my face with both hands. The tingling, numb sensation of the one contrasting with the warmth of feeling from the other.
* * *
As we loaded the boat back on the trailer, I could hear the chorus of insects beginning, the sun now low. To the east, the blue sky was slowly fading to black and the first stars were faintly beginning to shine. The fierce Texas heat of the day was giving way to the warm air of the night.
Driving home alone in the dark was only slightly better than the boat ride. I had rid myself of the banging but was overwhelmed by guilt and fear, unwelcome hitchhikers, and I wrestled with them as I tried to keep the truck on the road. I thought about who I was in relation to those who flew the planes. A knot tied firmly in my stomach. The images of them crashing into the World Trade Center the morning before kept flashing through my mind. I felt dizzy. I pulled over on the side of the road and got out for air. My feet tangled in a bramble of blackberry vines as headlights flashed past me, followed by wind. I bent over and tried to vomit.
Climbing back into my truck, I stared out into the darkness. I could feel the cuts from the blackberry thorns on my ankles and calves. The pain sent a warmth through my body. I thought about my grandpa, my mother, the store clerk from earlier in the day. I looked down at my brown arm hoping the color had finally disappeared. I refused to accept what deep down I already knew.
* * *
That fall, I found a job as far away from Texas as I thought possible and set out to find my way in Oregon. The air was cooler and it rained a lot, but after a time, I began to adjust. Thirteen summers in Oregon would pass before the broken air conditioner in my car reminded me of Texas, the scorching summer heat, my old F100, and my grandpa. On the drive home from work, I rolled down the window and let the warm summer breeze blow through the car. Pulling into my driveway, I pushed the electronic button that read “MAX A/C.” A slight smile began to creep across my face, despite the fact that a faint warm draft was the only response. I gathered my coffee cup and lunchbox and went inside.
Over the next couple of days I made excuses to avoid calling him. I wasn’t even sure if he was still alive. So long as I stayed busy it was easy enough. But in the down time, I would catch myself thinking about him. Just in flashes. A white tee-shirt. A fishing pole. The bathtub beside his shop with minnows in it. The smell of grease in his shop. Finally, after a few beers on a Saturday, I dialed his number and hoped for the best. I let the phone ring until the answering machine picked up. I thought about leaving a message but then hung up and sat down at the kitchen table. Memories of my grandpa kept seeping to the surface and with them that last summer together in Texas. The inside of the house was suddenly too hot and I got up and walked outside.
The last hours of daylight illuminated the white siding on the house. I glanced around the yard and took a deep breath. I walked over to the wood pile in the corner of the yard and pulled the axe out of a large section of oak. Whole pieces of our last fishing trip began to form, as I swung down on wood. The first log shattered and I felt the warmth of blood surge through my body. I instantly set down another log and then another and then again. Every swing slowly became faster. Every muscle tighter. My breathing found its rhythm. I had tried so hard to be accepted by him and my family that I had excused their prejudices and racism. I had even shared in some of them. The methodical swinging of the axe quickened as anger began to push me. How does one reconcile the one side with the other? The sweat was running down my face now, burning my eyes and providing cover for my tears. I swung harder and harder, and piece after piece the wood split, as a lifetime of denial shook and shuttered. I could feel my muscles, weaker now, and a familiar tightness in my stomach. But the cracking of the wood gave a certain satisfaction and I continued to chop until the axe stopped suddenly, buried deep inside a crooked log. I struggled to break it free from a large knot. I knew immediately that it could not be split; I would have to burn it whole. I threw it to the side and kept chopping wood until it was too dark to see. Then I started a fire and sat down in the silence of the night.
The cool Oregon air settled the blood rushing through my body. The feeling of exhaustion gave me a strange happiness. The starry night provided a beautiful backdrop and I found myself staring at a crescent moon. Returning my gaze to the fire, I remembered the log with the knot in it. I picked it up and tossed it in the fire. I watched it burn until my eyes grew heavy and the night too cool. The next morning, after the sun was high and bright in the sky, I called a mechanic’s shop that advertised air conditioning repair. Then I got in my car and went to have my air conditioner fixed.