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Strength of the Father
My father left the old leather gloves on the dusty, wooden hand railing on the back porch; the thumb of the bottom glove nestled in the palm of the top glove. The cool November atmosphere of the rain from the night before was evaporated by this day’s sun, the moisture suspended stock-still in the air, and the sky’s color that of a peach--all slowly fading away, but still beautiful. It was cold enough for me to grab a coat before going to load, but I left my face exposed to the evening, to its chill, leaving the skin under my beard to become dryer and dryer.
For three days I had been back home; I had only been gone for one year, but my father moved and existed as if I had died, as if that was how I left, like I was a ghost.
He pulled the tarp off the pile of firewood. The stack was unassorted, uneven and rigid, assembled only by the natural discourse of when a hundred or so pieces of timber is poured from a tailgate--like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from their box. The wrinkling of the tarp cooperating with the harsh movements of the wind sounded like thunder. Kicking away the pieces of wood-debris at his feet, Dad examined the pile while I fastened my gloves.
“Start stacking,” he said dropping to one knee and prying a portion of the pile onto the needle-smothered grove. I stooped down behind him and brought in some of the wood to scoop up, but as I stood up I glanced at him remaining on his knee. With one hand he turned a log on its end on the ground, struggling to acquire a way to grip the log within his hand. From behind, I could see him becoming frustrated with the struggle, then he felt my eyes upon him.
“Gosh darn it! That dealer,” he said looking down on the log in his hand, “we won’t be gettin’ wood from him anymore,” and he slowly rose off his knee and onto his feet. “This wood he gave us---it’s too big! I can’t hold it in my hands!”
I looked down at the wood that I held in my arms, then remembered back to when I was little and how I stacked with Dad then. He used to set aside the smaller chunks for me to carry one-by-one from the pile to the wheelbarrow, while he would carry four at a time: three laid across his arm and hugged into his chest, and one in his other hand, his strong hand, gripped by its end. The logs of those winters, I realized, were no different from the ones that were in front of us now.
He reached down with both hands for the log he now despised and tucked it under his armpit. As he reached for another at his feet to bring in, he said, “Grab them however you can. I guess we’ll just be out here a little longer than we hoped.” I now heard in his voice the raspiness of a tired old man. I realized how long I had been away, how reducing the year must have been for him, just as time does for fathers his age; long enough for his strength to deplete from his body, as light does from the sky at the end of the day. Pity came over me, but also fear.
With a deep breath, more like a wheeze, he returned to his work, just as he had expected himself to, and moved the chopped timber one log at a time from the unassorted pile on the ground to the assorted load in the wheelbarrow. I, too, went to work, as was also expected, but I found myself also moving only one log at a time. His stance was wide, he maneuvered his chest over the ground, and his arms were held in front of him as he transferred his repeated motions--back and forth, back and forth--like the wheels on a steam engine. His head turned pink and the veins on his temple and neck protruded, while I now stood beside him moving effortlessly with the task.
Slower and slower were his movements, becoming more and more like the inert moisture in the air. The tired knees of his body trembled under his ancient denim jeans, while the arms above them began to toss the logs onto the neat stack within the bed of the wheelbarrow, instead of placing them. His face no longer obtained its fighting look of rage but rather of plea--wincing at every clank of the logs falling upon the metal.
Just as I was placing another log onto the formed peak of the wheelbarrow’s load, another suddenly crashed into the vehicle’s side, ricocheting off of the bordering metal lips, and onto the ground with a thud, jostling the bed and slightly disassorting the load. My head turned to my father who was now still in the moment. He stared at his miscalculation. His stance was low as before, but his arms now supported his exhausted weight by stilting them onto the tops of his knees. The engine had come to its halt.
Worry had entirely taken over me and now I, too, was frozen. I looked upon my father, begging for some sign of strength--a gasping movement in his soul to show that he was still my father and not just another heap of polypeptides.
While the man’s head remained fixed in the direction of the fallen log, his eyes within it moved to me. They were soft and vulnerable. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he let out, startling me more than the misconstrued throw. He rose out of his low composure and he looked around at everything but the log he had thrown and me. Patting his gloved hands together, ridding of their dust, he said, “It must’ve slipped from my hands. You know, they’re too bi. . .” His voice trailed off, as if he knew the that rest of what he was going to say would have been useless to say at all.
He turned and waddled to retrieve the fallen log. Just as he had set himself to stoop down and pick it up, I blurted from behind, “It’s alright. Happens to everybody.” He was still for that moment to hear what I said, but did not acknowledge that anything was said.
When he stood up with the single log laid across his arms, he looked up at the dim November sky, as if something had caught his attention; a bird or a peculiar shape of a cloud perhaps, or just the blends of colors. He looked like a boy with his flannel tucked loosely into his jeans that appeared a size to large for him--fascinated by things above him and out of his control. His head dropped to examine the sliver of nature that rested in his arms. He turned and moved back towards the wheelbarrow and me, keeping his eyes on what he had protected in his arms, like a sleeping baby. His movement of gently placing the log on the top of the load reminded me of a monk--at peace, living alone in alps somewhere, placing a tea-kettle on a flame.
“Dad?” I said beside him with almost a whisper.
“Is it ready to be taken up? To the shed?” my father returned in a deep voice, with his hands gently resting upon the load, as if drawing energy from it. His eyes shifted from the bed to me and he said with an emerging smile, “Why don’t you take it up, today? You’re old enough.”
I looked at his course gloves that hid his still hands, and I remembered how he had delicately left mine on the back porch just before we started stacking. As I pushed up the hill, the wooden post-handles twisted in my protected hands as I grasped the rounded ends with my thumbs, despite being nailed into the metal frame. I could see over time the splitting and loosening of the handle’s fibers, equally as worn as the hands underneath gloves that gripped them.