by Tom Vollman
I was on a park bench with my wife and son when the news arrived. Jimmy had been murdered in a desert worlds away. My son was lost in his first-ever root beer float, and I felt something inside me shatter—something small but suddenly desperately important—something I didn’t know I needed, but now could barely breathe without.
That morning—hours before I got the news about Jimmy—my three year-old son tucked his toy cell phone into his underpants instead of his pocket, and he and I went outside. He hooked a tape measure on the waistband of his shorts and clipped a black Sharpie to his t-shirt collar, the same as me. For about fifteen minutes, he helped me drill holes. He wrapped his tiny hand around mine as I squeezed the trigger and sent the bit into board after board.
I can remember being so excited to help my dad with projects. I’d ask him, Are we being workmen, Daddy?
Yep, pal, we are, he’d answer.
Things never really worked out with those projects, though. I’m not exactly sure what I expected. I was only a kid. A little one.
Hey, Sport, Dad would say, you wanna help me build Hoppy’s new cage?
Of course I did. I always did. But I was always on the outside looking in.
One time, I hit Dad in the head with a hammer. My Mom tells that fucking story all the time.
Well, your Dad was putting cement in your digging space, she says.
But that wasn’t it. I hit him because he was mostly never present enough to hold onto.
That morning, before I heard about Jimmy, my son and I drilled holes and screwed boards to the front porch. Suddenly, he decided that he wanted to—needed to—write on the boards.
“You want to mark them?” I asked.
“Uh-huh,” he answered.
He had on these small, orange goggles that fogged when he exhaled. They made him look like an insect.
“Remember, though,” I said, “that’s a tall-person marker, so you can only mark on the boards, not on your arms or Papa’s arms or the driveway or anything else, okay?”
He raised his face to mine. “Okay, I’ll mark them for you, Papa, so you know where to drill.”
I watched him unhitch the Sharpie from his collar, carefully uncap it, then trace short, vertical marks followed by long, horizontal lines along the freshly-painted one-by-twos. At first, I wanted to stop him—to tell him I’d just painted them and that he could mark the other ones, the scrap pieces. But I didn’t. His marks were lovely.
“Papa,” he said, “my marks are ready for you.”
“Yes, they are,” I laughed. “Thank you, mister. That’s super helpful.”
“Ready for the next one, Papa?”
And so it continued.
After about twenty minutes, I’d mounted twelve boards, all with squiggly, broken, black lines across their fronts. We stopped in order to bike to an appointment my wife had a few blocks away.
“But what about the project?” my son asked as we readied ourselves for the short ride. Then he cried. “I’m sad, Papa.”
He wanted to finish—to stay at home and continue our work. I smiled. “It’ll be here when we get back.”
“But Papa,” he countered, “I love working with you.”
Finally, he agreed. “Okay,” he said as I buckled him into the bike trailer’s belt harness. “When we get home. After Mommy’s appointment.” He adjusted his Spider-Man helmet. “You promise, Papa?”
“Yes, mister, I do.”
After the appointment, I got the news.
Jimmy had been missing for a couple of years. He’d been abducted in Syria. We all held out hope that he’d get out. Sometimes those hopes shrank. Sometimes they almost disappeared completely. But everyone held fast to the idea that we’d see him again, have beers, talk shit, and make noise.
But that wouldn’t be the case.
When we got home, I kept my promise to my son. We worked on the project, but my head swam with the news of Jimmy, and my son was exhausted. We mounted a few boards, then stopped for dinner. Afterwards, my wife put my son to bed and I went back outside to finish. I plugged in a pair of flood lights and caulked and sanded the seams. My son’s marks made me smile. Then I thought about Jimmy. I couldn’t begin to imagine what he’d been through, where he’d been held, or what he’d thought about for the past two years when he closed his eyes.
When my wife and I found out we were pregnant, I didn’t tell my parents right away. When I finally did, I was in the car. My mom gushed when I delivered the news. My dad got on the line and thanked me for believing in the future.
My son turned three six months ago. Neither one of my parents have ever met him.
That night, after the news about Jimmy, I dipped my brush into the half-empty gallon of gibraltar grey and ran a few strokes over my son’s marks. They disappeared. Each of them were gone, as if they never existed. They’d been a testimony, of sorts, to my son’s joy. He’d been lost in that moment, free from any attachment except the notions he’d invented. And I painted over them.
I dropped my brush and began to sob. Our street was quiet and empty, the houses mostly dark at a quarter after ten. I cried and cried and then finally made my way inside. I left everything on the lawn just as it was. Tears and snot gathered on my cheeks and upper lip. I could barely say my wife’s name as I collapsed on the couch. The TV, which had timed out on the channel guide, threw a blue glare across the room. I looked at my arms—at my tattoos—little black lines skating across the winter white of my skin. My eyes clouded. “Jimmy,” I finally spat, “so fucking sad.”
My wife moved toward me. I told her how I’d painted over Ty’s marks. I told her how happy they’d made me, how fragile they’d been. I said it was too much. I sobbed and shook, so confused. I said I didn’t know how both things could be—how my son’s marks and what happened to Jimmy could both exist.
“You’re so brave,” she said, “for feeling this. For holding that space.” She paused. I wiped my nose. It was the first time in about a half hour that I’d been able to pull my hands away from my eyes. “But you can’t wire those things together. Go back to that bench in the park, at the mall. Feel sad for Jimmy, but don’t bring this other stuff to it.”
I nodded. She was right.
I cried more and we talked more. My heart hurt—it just seemed to continue to break, over and over and over again. And the tears came in waves. Somehow, though, I felt lighter. Not better, but cleaner.
“But,” I stammered, “I know it sounds idealistic or trite or whatever, but I really want to live in a world where I don’t have to explain this to Ty. Somewhere where it doesn’t exist. Where the joy and hope and love that traced those marks never, ever goes away. Never gets tempered. I want us to be better.” I was sweating pretty badly. “All of us.”
My wife smiled and hugged me.
“Because I can’t explain it to him,” I continued. “I can’t do it.” I paused to wipe my face again. “There’s just no explanation. None,” I added.
“You’re right,” my wife replied, “there isn’t one.” She moved even closer. “But that’s why it’s so important, the wiring. That’s why it’s so necessary to get this right—to wire it right and eliminate the confusion and the things you carry—that we all, more or less, carry.”
“I know, I know. But I wish. I just fucking wish.”
Tears drowned my words again. I thought about my Dad and his idea of the future.
I’d told my wife what he said about us being pregnant.
“What?” she’d puzzled. “What in the hell does that even mean?”
At the time, I shrugged.
I told my therapist about it, too. He laughed. He’s a pretty slight man, but his laugh is rich. “Oh my,” he said, “that’s amazing. In fact, I’m going to use that, if it’s okay.” He shifted in his wide, leather chair. “Geez. The future. Holy smoke.” He shook his head and brushed the mop of shoulder-length, grayish-blonde hair from his face. His laugh grabbed him again. “Who says that? I mean, come on.”
I reminded my wife of what my Dad said, again, there in the living room. I tried to tell her why it echoed with me now, after Jimmy’s death. “If I had a nickel,” I told her, “for every time my Dad told me that Albert Einstein said the war after the next would be fought with sticks and stones . . . ” I shook my head. “Fuck.”
My wife’s face crumpled. “Jesus.”
“Yeah,” I continued, “that’s where it comes from—how it started. He told us all the time—me and my brothers—that it’d be up to us to figure things out. He said that he’d be dead and we needed to pay attention, to know what was happening.”
“So how does that tie to the future thing—believing in the future?” she asked.
“Because, here I am at twelve or fourteen or whatever and my dad’s telling me how screwed up things are—how dangerous and hopeless the world is, and then fast-forward almost thirty years when things are even more fucked and I’m telling him we’re having a kid, that we’re bringing another soul into this mess—the one he’s been obsessed with and afraid of for so goddamned long. That’s what he meant: thanks for believing so much in the fact that the world’s not gonna go and fuck itself to death in the next decade or so that you—that we—would feel confident enough to have a baby and be complicit in bringing him into this craziness.”
That night, I slept like shit and dreamed that I kept getting punched right in the mouth. I woke up too early, shifty and in a mood. I thought about the fact that hope is a motherfucking juggernaut. And I thought about how my wife is right: it’s important not to get things wired wrong. What wires together does, in fact, fire together. We are our own experience, but we are equally other peoples’ experiences.
My friend has tattoos on his fingers. The ink spells out HOPE when he closes his right hand, LOVE when squeezes his left. I think about that ink a lot these days. It helps me hold a space. It hurts to keep my heart open and be honest and present for my son. Sometimes, the hurt’s bigger than me, more than I can handle or even express. Jimmy was special: a bright star in the suffocating darkness of hatred and hopelessness. He embodied conviction, and he won’t be lost. I’ll always see him—a wide, contagious smile cracked across his face, that goddamned yellow Colorado Buffaloes knit helmet-hat on his head—there to make things better, or at least try, because that’s so fucking important. Jimmy did what he needed to, the best way he could. That’s hope. That’s love.
Tom Vollman is enrolled in the doctoral program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Currently, he teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Recently, Tom had stories appear in Pithead Chapel, Dark Matter Journal, and Per Contra, Palaver, Crab Fat Magazine, and was selected as an Honorable Mention for Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters,” and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s “Short-Story Award for New Writers.” He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tom really likes Raymond Carver, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Greg Dulli, Tom Colicchio, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He’s working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling. Tom will also be releasing a new record, These Ghosts, in late 2015.