Sam Miller propped open the rusted screen door with his well-worn work boot. He stared at the man he hadn’t seen for twenty-one years. He appeared smaller than Sam remembered, and his skin had taken on the texture of the baseball mitt he’d given Sam thirty-some years before, but the blue eyes and bulbous nose matched Sam’s perfectly. Sam cleared his throat. “What the hell do you want?”
“I quit drinking,” Jake Miller said, as though that explained everything.
Sam positioned his obese body to block Jake’s view into the trailer. “A little late, ain’t it?”
Jake smiled apologetically. “Guess I left you with a mess.”
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “A mess? Is that what you call it?”
“I’m sorry. I—” Sweat beaded on Jake’s ruddy face.
“You think me and the boys didn’t miss Mom, too? You think I knew how to run a house and take care of kids and pay the bills?”
Jake danced from foot to foot on the uneven cement blocks used for steps. “I wanna make it up to you.”
Sam slammed the door and twisted the lock.
Alma jerked a loose thread from her cut-offs. “Who was that?”
“Wrong number.” Sam peeked between sagging priscillas and watched his father trudge to the beat-up Plymouth, his body bent.
“That’s your Daddy, ain’t it?”
Sam rubbed his chest. “Get me a beer.”
“Pete was just saying the other day he wondered if his Daddy was still alive. On your birthday, ‘member? When Pete and Annie and Howie and Marlene and the kids were all out here? Pete told Annie that’s why we never had no kids. Cause you had him and Howie and Bobby and that was enough heartache. Didn’t need no more.”
Sam lit a Camel, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs. “Just get me a beer, would you?”
For two weeks, Sam chased his beer with Alka Seltzer, but nothing stopped the ache that started deep in his oversized gut, penetrated his heart and dulled as it reached his neck and shoulders. He’d suffered from heartburn for years, but since his father’s visit, it never let up.
Sam watched the tiny bubbles mimic a colorless fireworks display and wondered why he bothered.
“Another tummy ache?” Alma wrapped her arms around his portly waist.
Sam shrugged and swallowed the antacid.
Alma moved her hand under his thin undershirt and rubbed the hair around his belly button, the way she did when she had words to say he wouldn’t want to hear. “Your daddy called earlier. Said he didn’t blame you for hating him, but he wanted you to know he’d changed.”
A jagged pain ripped across Sam’s shoulder and down his arm. He sucked in his breath.
Alma curled his belly hair around her finger. “You got too good a heart to let it rot with hate.”
He pulled away from her and dropped into one of the vinyl chairs circling the Formica dinette table, his body spilling over the small frame.
A car pulled into the driveway, spewing gravel.
“Speaking of the son-of-a-bitch—”
Alma patted his arm on her way to the door. “Be nice.”
Sam made a face. He didn’t feel like fighting. He was shaky, like he was coming down with a virus.
Alma opened the door. “You must be Sam’s daddy.”
“Jake. Call me Jake.”
Sam shoved away from the table, a cold sweat on his brow. “Get the hell outta my house.”
“Now, Sam,” Alma said, touching his shoulder, “don’t be like that.”
“I wanted—” Jake looked at his son’s damp, doughy face. “You okay?”
Sam wiped at the sweat on his forehead. It was the flu. It had to be the flu. He was hot, dizzy, nauseated. Lightning pierced his shoulder again, traveled down his arm and extended through his fingers.
“Sam?” Alma’s voice echoed like she was in a tunnel, far away.
The table melted, the fake wood grain swirling in a brown pool with wavering black lines. Sam stared at it, trying to make sense of it.
“Come lay down.” Jake’s voice seemed as distant as Alma’s had.
Sam put his fingers through the liquid table. The Formica puddle grabbed his hand, bending and twisting his arm with agonizing pain, squeezing his chest until his breath left him, then sucked him into the black abyss. He tried to jerk back, but the spiraling depths consumed him, drawing him deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Jake jumped behind his son, easing Sam’s fall. He rolled Sam to his back and put his ear close to Sam’s mouth. “He ain’t breathing.” He shook Sam’s shoulder. “Sammy!”
Sam gave no response.
Jake tilted Sam’s head back, pushed his chin up and forced two quick breaths into Sam’s lungs. He felt for a pulse. “Call an ambulance.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Alma asked, her voice unusually high.
Jake knelt by Sam’s side and positioned his hands two fingertips above Sam’s rib triangle, his arms straight. “Get an ambulance. Now.”
Sam hovered in a dream-like state of flowing nothingness. A scene danced in the distance. As he was propelled forward, the old farmhouse from his childhood came into focus. The screen door flapped in the wind and light glowed from the kitchen. A young man stood at the range, spatula in hand. Smells of potatoes frying and chicken roasting filled the autumn air. As Sam moved closer, he recognized his own twenty-two-year-old body, bloated biceps straining his dirty T-shirt.
The frustration of those horrible years washed over him. Each day he expected his father to return. Instead, each day presented ever-increasing problems for which he was unprepared. Bobby and Howard smoked dope behind the barn. Little Pete cried for his parents and had trouble with school. Howard fell off the loft and broke his leg. Bobby’s tummy ache turned into appendicitis.
Day after day, Sam’s legs ached from ten hours on concrete, changing oil and rotating tires at Smitty’s Exxon, then coming home and cleaning and cooking and worrying. He never quit worrying, even after the boys graduated. A thousand times Sam’s heart was busted. Bobby died in Vietnam. Howard turned to drugs and thumbed his way around the country. Little Pete loved too hard, drove too fast and drank too much. And all the while, Sam’s resentment for the man who’d left them grew into hate.
The scene blackened and Sam spun in dizzying circles, like he was trapped in an out-of-control carnival ride, then deposited in view of another scene. He saw himself again, about the same age as before, perhaps a bit younger, walking through the cornfield at dusk. He searched his memory for the situation, but couldn’t locate it.
Young Sammy continued walking, on and on, until the cornfield eased into the distance and he entered thick woods. Just inside the tree canopy, his mother’s fresh grave glowed. “Dad?” he called, his voice wavering.
His father rose from the shadows. His face was distorted, enlarged, his fingers clutching an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle. He held an antique oil lantern, the source of the strange light. “I can’t do it,” he mumbled, his words rolled together, the smell of stale whiskey oozing from his breath.
“Dad, we need you.”
“I can’t,” he said, his words becoming sobs. “I’m sorry. I can’t. Maybe someday you’ll understand.”
Sam tried to shut his eyes, but the vision of his weak, slobbering father remained, igniting the anger that smoldered within Sam. Just when he gave up fighting the view, he was grabbed by the whirlwind and turned to face another vision.
Sam recognized the cramped bedroom of his youth—the twin bed shoved against the painted blue wall, dirty clothes littering the floor and school books—Geometry, American History and Auto Mechanics—resting on the homemade desk of concrete blocks and plywood. A fan vibrated in the window, yet it was still humid and stuffy.
On the middle of the unmade bed sat seventeen-year-old Sammy—already chubby, already hanging over his clothes–his head buried in his arms, his shoulders shaking. A gold-framed eight-by-ten of pretty Sarah Martin smiled next to him. Sam’s senior ring, still wrapped in red angora and smelling of Sarah’s perfume, rolled on the glass.
The bedroom door opened and Jake walked in. “I’m so sorry,” he said, draping his arm over his son.
Sammy’s shoulders heaved.
Jake stayed next to his son for a long time, saying nothing. But his presence spoke loudly and formed the words Jake couldn’t: “I know you loved her. I know you were good to her. And I know I can’t say anything to make your pain go away. But I’m here and I’ll stand behind you no matter what.”
The vacuum swallowed Sam and carried him for what seemed a great distance before expelling him. A man and a small boy hiked through the woods. Sam smiled as he recalled his fifth birthday. The only thing he wanted that year was a camping trip. His mother made a knap-sack from scraps of material and his father, despite the unbearable heat of the August night, took him to the cave deep in the hills behind the farm.
Sam watched, knowing what would happen. The boy—young Sammy—raced into the dark cave. “I get to sleep here!” he shouted, throwing his knap-sack deep in the recess. He plunged forward, then froze at the sound of the rattle echoing off stone walls.
“Don’t move,” Jake said, his voice unnaturally calm.
The rattle became louder, more urgent, as Sammy’s eyes adjusted to the dimness and saw the snake posed to strike.
A large rock whizzed through the air. It struck the rattler, knocking it to the ground. Jake leapt from behind Sammy, moving faster than Sammy thought was possible. His heavy work boot stomped on the snake’s head, and within seconds his hunting knife ripped through the tough hide.
Later, after Jake disposed of the body and they had eaten, Sammy drifted off to sleep with visions of black bears dozing next to him.
But the adult Sam saw something the child Sammy hadn’t: instead of making his own bed, Jake leaned against the stone wall next to his son, his eyes and ears alert in the darkness, and guarded his son until daybreak.
Although he didn’t want to leave, Sam was jerked back into the void and dropped at another scene.
A woman squatted on the floor, her down-turned face covered by long black hair. Next to her, a teen-aged boy wrung his hands.
Sam was curious. He moved closer, straining for a better view.
“Please, Dee. Let me call Mrs. Jones.”
Dee—Deloris–Sam’s mother—gripped the piano leg and grunted. Blood dripped onto the towels under her. She panted, then took a deep breath.
“Dee. Please, Dee.” The young man was Sam’s father.
“Get ready,” she said.
Jake held a towel under her. “The head. I see the head.”
“Shit. It has hair.”
Sam watched, amazed, as his father worked the head, then the shoulders. The baby emerged, gray and mucus-covered.
“He ain’t breathing.” Jake held the baby in both hands.
Deloris rolled back on her hips and straightened her legs.
“He ain’t breathing,” Jake repeated. He wiped the baby’s face. “Come on, Sammy,” he said, “come on.” He placed the tiny body on the floor and rubbed the chest, then covered the infant’s mouth with his own. He blew air until the chest rose. “Breathe, Sammy. Please breathe.”
The baby kicked, then turned from gray to blue to deep pink. Jake cradled the infant tight against his chest.
Sam wanted to stay, wanted to continue to watch, but the darkness grabbed him and took him away.
“Come on, Sammy,” Jake said. “Come on.” He jumped to Sam’s head and breathed for him. He felt again for a pulse. There was none. He moved back to the side and started chest compressions.
Alma sat on the floor and squeezed Sam’s limp hand. “Mrs. Jones. Maybe Mrs. Jones—”
“No,” Jake said. “He needs equipment.” His arms ached. It seemed he had been pumping forever. He heard sirens in the distance, growing closer. “Breathe, Sammy,” he whispered, “please breathe.”
Sam’s throat burned. Beeping and sighing sounds echoed in the silence. And his chest. The pressure was unbearable, like an elephant rested on it. Maybe he was underwater. That would account for the distortion of sound and the struggle to breathe.
Sam tried to open his eyes, but they were too thick.
“He’s starting to wake up.” He knew the voice. It was important to him, belonging to someone he loved. His wife. He scanned his memory for her name.
“I’ll wait in the lobby. I don’t wanna upset him.” Another familiar voice. His father’s.
“Now, Jake, the doctor said it ain’t your fault.”
“Yeah, it is,” Jake said, his voice quiet. “It’s my fault I let Jack Daniel’s make my decisions for me, made me think my boys were better off without me.”
The dizzying darkness threatened to overtake Sam again, and he fought it. He forced his heavy eyelids to open.
“He’s awake.” Alma patted his arm. “You had a heart attack.”
Sam loved her voice. It was calm, reassuring. He wished he could remember her name.
“You’re at the hospital, doing fine.” Alma moved closer so he could see her face. “Your daddy saved your life.”
Jake touched Sam’s hand. “I know you can’t talk, but if you want me to leave, lift your finger, okay? I don’t wanna upset you.”
Sam didn’t lift just one finger, but all of them. Then he moved his hand on top of his father’s and wrapped his fingers around it and squeezed as tightly as he could. He felt the darkness coming, but he didn’t fight it. As long as his father was there to watch over him, he’d be fine.
© 1999. Sandy Tritt. Published in Mountain Echoes (2004); in Mountain Voices (2006)