Many Generations Dead

From the uneven wooden porch in front of my mother’s trailer, I sat watching for my father’s red truck. Our trailer park was a teardrop shape with a single exit to the main road. That morning, it was walled on all sides by a heavy morning fog, silent as cotton, sterile as snow.

My mother pushed open the slider and cinched her robe tight around her belly to keep out the cold. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth. She grabbed an old coffee can from the corner of the porch, poured out the rainwater, and set it back up for an ashtray.

“You going to bring me something home to cook up this time?” she asked.

I nodded, keeping my eyes trained on the end of the road.

She sat down next to me and took a deep drag from her cigarette, then exhaled the smoke in a stream in front of her like a kid blowing bubbles. The lights from my father’s truck appeared first, before I could see the rusty body or hear the old V8 engine.

My mother grabbed me around the shoulders with one arm and kissed me on the top of the head. “You be good,” she said.

The truck pulled into the driveway. I leapt from the porch and slid into the passenger side.

“Hey.” My father nodded from his open window.

“Morning Dave,” she said, then dropped her cigarette in the empty coffee can and turned back inside.

My father put the truck in gear and turned right at the end of the little dirt lane onto Amos Fortune Road. We passed Amos’s little white house on the left. My father had told me the story of Amos Fortune many times as a kid. He’d point and ask me, “You know who lived there?” I didn’t mind the repetition. It was like a song between us. Sometimes I’d fill in pieces of the story. I’d say, “And then he…” or “And after she died, he…” It was like I could see Amos through the fog, standing there in front, his gray hair, his very black skin, with one hand tucked into his overall pocket, the other, two fingers raised, saluting our truck.

My old man told the same stories again and again, for want of anything new to say. He was a man that was comfortable with silence, but I think he felt obliged to pass on what stories he could, and maybe there was just less to teach as I got older. Our 1979 Ford F-250 bounced and squeaked on the gravelly road; the lights cut into the fog ahead of us. It was still pretty dark and the mornings had become frosty and cold. I rubbed my tired eyes with my finger.

My dad had on his black and gold, sweat-stained work hat from Kendrix, the local ball bearings plant. He had curved the brim and kept the hat pulled down tight, so from my seat, I couldn’t see his eyes. He worked long hours, and the truck smelled like third-shift, cigarettes, and Maxwell House coffee. He kept a travel mug of it perpetually between his thighs.

At sixteen, I would inherit the truck and start taking my friends fishing. I had stopped going with my dad, but when I was a kid, the old man and I would toss the boat on the back and go fishing most every Saturday morning throughout the warmer months.

“How many more times you think we got ‘til it gets too cold?” I asked.

“Don’t know.” My dad’s breath came out in gray puffs. “One or two probably.”

After a few miles, we turned onto the much smoother Route 137. There was a loud clank. I looked back into the truck bed and saw that the multicolored bungee cords were still holding our old aluminum boat on tight. Mud Pond, our fishing destination, was about a ten minute drive up 137.

Out my window, the fog tinted the landscape, like watching a grainy black and white movie. The leaves had already turned from the fiery palette of New England mountain colors to a dried and withered brown. The trees resembled molted birds, their once proud feathers shed embarrassingly at their feet, revealing their nakedness. The 300-year-old gray stonewalls, marking out each property line and built by men many generations dead, were visible deep into the woods without the cover of leaves. Snow wouldn’t be too far off.

We parked to the side of the road and slid the boat into the water. I grabbed the tackle and poles, and climbed in. My old man stuck in the oars and pushed off. The pond was foggy still. I looked for the blue heron I’d spot most days we drove by, but couldn’t find it through the gray. It would stand there a ways off, always turned with its side to the road, like a statue in the water. I don’t think it ever appeared when I dropped the boat in the pond, as if it were untouchable, unreachable.

The water lapped against the side as my father slowly rowed. He had forbade me from talking on the water, except in a whisper. “You’ll scare the fish,” he’d say, so we kept dead silent most of the time. I pulled out two night crawlers from the Styrofoam tub and baited the hooks. They wriggled as I pierced them a few times through their slimy purple bodies. I hung the ends of the poles off the boat so the lines wouldn’t tangle, and turned toward a copse of trees in the distance to the right where I often spotted the heron from the road.

I leaned over the side of the boat and squinted toward the trees. It was like looking into a stereogram, searching for a shape that I knew was there, but I was never able to see, and even in those moments I thought I saw something, I was unsure.

Most of the pond was shallow and murky. Weeds and long leafed plants grew from the floor and obscured the water further. We followed a thin path laid out between the plants toward our secluded spot on the opposite edge of the pond.

We approached a deeper section. The weeds faded. The water turned a blackish-blue. My father gave one big row and then held the oars up and let us drift.

“Hey,” my dad whispered.

I turned toward him. The old man had a queer look on his face. “What?” I asked.

“Shh.” He put his finger to his lips, and then made a circular motion for me to turn around. “Look,” he whispered.

I turned, not sure what to expect to see, but there was nothing except water and fog. “What?” I asked, this time in a whisper. “What’s there?”

He carefully stepped forward and sat next to me. He leaned over and whispered, “You hear that?”

I listened. It sounded like a single paddle rowing. “Yeah.”

He leaned against me and made it so I could use his finger like a gun sight. “Look there,” he said. “See that?”

I did. Out about thirty or forty yards from our boat, barely visible, obscured by the fog, another boat was slowly moving from right to left in front of us. It wasn’t a rowboat; it looked more like a canoe. We didn’t often see other boats on Mud Pond. A slender man sat in the back, rowing, occasionally bringing the single paddle back across his body to keep the canoe straight. His features were unrecognizable and plain. In front, facing him, sat a child looking down. They weren’t talking. I didn’t see any rods or tackle, but they could have been on the floor of the boat.

The fog seemed to flow around them, from them, and distort them like heat does above blacktop on a bright day. My dad and I held our breath to listen. The two didn’t make a sound except for that wooden paddle cutting into the water. The canoe left no visible wake, as though it floated above the water, barely skimming the surface.

“Hullo!” my father shouted, startling me. They didn’t respond, or turn, or even seem to notice. “Hullo!” he tried again, this time cupping his hands around his mouth, but still nothing.

We waited and listened.

“Why don’t they answer?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You ever see them before?”

He squinted and rubbed his cheek with his palm. “I don’t know.”

We watched them fade in and out of the fog for a time. I wasn’t sure how long. The boy never raised his head, and the man just made the one motion, pushing them across the water, smooth and slow. As we watched, the sun began to burn off the fog, and they seemed to fade in the distance. We could no longer hear the sound of rowing, only the faint growl of the occasional car passing by and the splashing of our own boat shifting in the water.

My father sat back in his seat and held the handles of the oars in his lap, thinking.

“Who do you suppose that was?” I asked, still in a whisper.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Why do you think they didn’t answer you? Do you think they didn’t hear you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to follow them? To see? I bet we could catch up to them.”

“I don’t want to follow them.” My father pulled out a cigarette from the pocket of his flannel shirt, lit it, and took a long drag. Unlike my mother, he had never smoked in front of me. He closed his eyes and took a few more long puffs, then stuck the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and began rowing again.

We made it to the opposite side of the pond, to our favorite spot, and dropped in our lines with our bobbers. We didn’t talk any more that morning on the water, and like most mornings that year, we didn’t catch but a few small pickerel that we gingerly put back into the pond. On the way back to the truck, I watched for the other boat, but couldn’t find it.

The trip home was quiet. My father kept his window open, and he smoked the entire time, turning his head to the cold wind as he exhaled. As we came to Amos’s house, my father pulled the truck over and shifted the engine to neutral. Suddenly, the house, uninhabited for so many years, looked lifeless in the morning sun. It was like a tombstone faded, the name worn away, the dates chipped from the stone.

“Dad?”

“Yeah.”

“Who taught you about Amos Fortune?”

“Your granddad did when I was a little kid.” He pressed the cigarette into the ashtray and flicked it out the window.

“How did he know about it?”

“Your granddad knew everything about this little town. He loved it.”

“I like it too.”

“You two probably would have gotten along pretty well then.”

“You don’t like Jaffrey?”

My father pulled at his mustache and stared at the little house. “No, it’s not that. There’s a lot I like in this town. I know this town. I know it like family, but family doesn’t always mean nice. Family can be hard too, you know?”

“You mean mom?” I asked.

“No, not your mom. Your granddad and I weren’t real close, that’s all.” He pulled off his hat and scratched his head. “Part of me wishes you met him before he died, but part of me is glad you didn’t. Sometimes it’s easier to remember people in stories.”

“You don’t tell many stories about him.”

“I tell you all the stories he told me.” My father turned his head away from me. His fingers tapped the top of the steering wheel. “That’s the best way I can think of telling you about your granddad. He and I used to go fishing just like we do. He was a great fisherman, a real outdoorsman, and he taught me what I know.” He took a long draught from his mug of lukewarm coffee. “Come on. I need to get you back to your mother.”

He pushed the truck into gear and started back down the road. When we got back to the house, he gripped my shoulder and smiled at me through his mustache. I jumped from the truck and watched him pull out from the driveway and leave. A cloud of dust kicked up behind the truck and obscured it more and more as he got further and further from me.

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