Impossible Terms

The train tracks were two buildings behind his in St. Paul, but Sam could feel how close they were by the tremor that made the bed frame vibrate. The cars of the train lumbered, and the more Sam squeezed the bedpost, as if to make the vibrations stop, the closer the train was and the harder it became to ignore the thought of his deceased father, which came now at an inopportune moment. Sam could feel the slow movement of the train, as if the tracks on which the train rode were the bones along his spine.

Sam had returned from his father’s funeral in Alpharetta, Georgia, not even two weeks ago. The train on its tracks reminded Sam of the effort his father had made to teach him something when he had been in high school, before he had moved to the Midwest for college.

“What is it?” asked his wife.

“Nothing,” he said, but he couldn’t quite lose the flitting thoughts about his father, as much as he wanted to.

Sam made out the features in the dark of this wife’s face from the pale blue light of the alarm clock on the nightstand. He saw that her eyes, as reflective as pools of water under moonlight, were open and intent on him with that question, What is it?

 

It had been Sunday, eighteen years ago in Georgia, and while most were heading to the first church service or sleeping in, Sam’s father had been taking him fishing. It had been trite: father and son fishing together for the first time. His father had been surprised that they’d not gone earlier in life to do this, but his father was not much of a fisherman, he had said, and that was the reason.

Yet his father had talked about perfection. “A complete life,” he had said, “involves integrity to principles. It involves developing the body along with the mind. You have to try and excel at everything that is important to you.” His father, who had played on two varsity teams in high school, had seemed to want some glimmer of, if not interest in, physical prowess in his son. It had been only when they talked about politics or books, however, that he and his father had found common interests. His father had stopped suggesting high school sports after Sam wouldn’t even try out for cross-country. Now there was the outdoors and cultivating an interest in Sam for that.

Sam couldn’t help but feel that, in his father’s eyes at least, he lived at the edge of a vast terrain of shame for not falling into the examples of manhood his father had in mind. All of the older males had even served in the military, and it had seemed very unlikely that Sam would.

Even though his father had become an Episcopal deacon ten years before passing away, Sam remembered how imperfect his father had been, despite his father’s talk, despite the fact that his father had believed that lives had to be grand performances—strong and moral—even in fishing.

They had been walking for ten minutes, following a path of red dirt that went alongside the power lines, Sam remembered. He hadn’t wanted to come, but he tried to romanticize fishing. He had, of all things, just read The Old Man and the Sea in his English class.

“Manliness, ruggedness, individualism and patience. These are all the values of the sport of fishing,” his father had said.

They had been carrying close to $200 of new equipment. Sam’s fishing pole had been an unexpected gift on his birthday, solidifying the obligation he now had to go with his father.

His grandfather, whom he hadn’t known well, had passed away the prior July, and his father’s attitude toward him had changed because of it. His father now talked of life and death as real matters, subjects he had said Sam had to consider with a great deal of importance now that he was entering his prime.

“You have to, have to,” his father had said with emphasis, somewhere, sometime, along the walk to the fishing hole, “find something in life you want to do that will make you happy, and a partner, a good woman, who’ll stand by your side.”

“Of course, Dad,” Sam had said.

“I’m serious. You don’t want to listen to me, do you?”

“I do.”

In some small space in a corner of his heart he had wanted to, but he had recalled how often his parents had bickered until they had decided that being quiet in each other’s company was an amicable truce, almost the same time he and his father had gone fishing.

He had likened the stillness of the water they arrived at, before them, to the quiet his parents had found between each other—flat on the surface, dark and murky underneath. He had likened it also to his own uncertain future and his own relationship with his father.

 

The train traveled up the back of his spine when Sam thought of it and almost cut a valley down his skull. There was no way to quiet these thoughts at this inopportune moment.

Parents were always enigmas to their children, Sam thought now, eighteen years forward. You wanted, and didn’t want to know, why they were the way they were.

Now that his father had passed away, he felt a kind of forgiveness, looking back. Two people, even father and son, Sam thought, expected things from each other on different, often impossible, terms.

“No, son, no,” his father had said, trying to show him how to properly swing the pole to get the line out. “You’re releasing too soon.” Sam remembered his father’s impatience as well.

Sam listened to his own breathing in bed and then noticed how his breathing responded to his wife’s.

All he had wanted from his father, Sam thought now, had been what every other kid wanted—a break from having to meet every expectation.

“What is it?” his wife asked.

“Sorry,” answered Sam.

“Where’s your mind?”

“The train.”

“What?”

“Nothing, really.”

“Your mind should be on us.”

“It is.” This wasn’t far from the truth.

 

In the first ten minutes, Sam had managed to get the hook in his index finger twice, causing it to bleed the second time, eighteen years ago. The first thing he had reeled in was a clump of algae. He had exerted so much effort to pull it that his sinker had almost hit his father’s forehead.

“Lots of roots under water,” his father had said, trying to make him feel better. “Don’t worry.”

“Sorry.”

“Just keep trying. That’s all you have to do; you’d be surprised how far that’ll get you in life. Remember Teddy. Shoot, remember your grandfather.”

Sam blushed. He couldn’t believe that his father had to mention two dead men, including his grandfather, who had been a decorated naval officer in World War II. The reference to Teddy Roosevelt was a fascination and near idolatry his father had for the late President.

Sam had been grateful when all he had to do was watch the bobber float, when nothing would happen and his father would be quiet. Sam had his digital watch on, which was a terrible thing to have now, and when he didn’t look at it to observe the minutes pass, he had stared at his left index finger to see that it had stopped bleeding.

 

The feeling, and even muted sound, of the train continued. There were their breaths more excited than they would be at sleep, and these were, more than ever now, expectant, nearly ready to power down and conserve. Yet Sam hated thinking of his father now. He wondered why death made his father more alive than when his father had been living and if he would be more hurt than his wife if they never had children of their own.

Sam wondered why he had tried to become who he was—a copywriter, a husband, a half-hearted jogger two mornings a week, a liar, a lover, a pessimist, someone who read only the front of the local newspaper every morning, and innumerable other things, as he went through the scattered thoughts through his head, through time and place, to his father and now to this moment, which should have had his full attention.

Chekov had said that you only need a moment in a life to capture the person, Sam had read. He wondered if that time he had gone fishing with his father captured his father’s entire life. He wondered what moment would capture his.

Yet Sam was no Hemingway to raise the catching of a fish to an eternal struggle between humankind and the short stature of his years. The recognition Sam had wanted from his father came when his father had told him how proud he was of the life he had made when he had gotten married and the family he would start.

“She’s a fine woman,” he had said. “You’ve made me a proud father today.”

Yet the recognition seemed of his wife, not him, an admission of his father’s own failures to find, as he had put it, a good partner.

 

The fishing was supposed to be best in the morning, his father had said, eighteen years ago. Something had nibbled, and Sam had reeled in his line, only for slack to come back after the first try. This had happened several times, but Sam had gained confidence in his ability to cast his bait past the shallows. He even thought, maybe, this fishing thing could work out.

After practicing his newfound casting ability for more than a half hour, Sam had looked up to see an elusive sun behind slow-moving clouds. His father had looked up too, and each time his father did, Sam noticed how much his father had to squint.

“It’s a crazy world, isn’t it?” his father had said.

Sam had paused and sighed. He had imagined a moralizing tangent about to come from his father, as irritating as a bout of coughing.

“Crazy,” his father had continued. “You know what the biggest difference between your mother and me is?”

Sam had typically shut off at this point. He had wanted to hear, and not hear, what his father had to say.

“You got a girlfriend?” his father had gone on. “What happened to that girl from India you went to prom with?”

“We were just friends.” There had been no girl, and Sam hadn’t felt very much like talking about that with his father. Yes, he couldn’t play sports, and didn’t even try out. Yes, his life wasn’t a grand performance. Yes, he still hadn’t finished Anna Karenina, a book Teddy Roosevelt had finished while apprehending two thieves who had taken his prize row boat when he had been about Sam’s age. Yes, he wasn’t dating and was too scared to ask anyone to.

“You will,” his father had said, dismissively.

Sam had glanced at his father and back to the muddy water. They had sat on two backless green fold-out chairs. His father had slouched forward in his and used his knees for support. They had brought a thermos with coffee Sam poured into two plastic cups. Sam was frustrated.

“The difference,” his father had said, “is that I love your mother, but your mother doesn’t love me.”

 

It had been the abruptness of it, Sam remembered now. It had been, partly, in the coolness also.

Sam wondered what made two people of the opposite sex palpable, how all of a sudden they could make bonds for the rest of their lives simply for the sake of having children or not living alone, how they could go on so unused to it, except as they had received that kind of commitment from their parents, and then expect it from a random encounter, a stranger. His father had, no less, married a foreign woman, a Turkish woman to be exact when his father had been in the Army, but it could have been any woman. She could have been from New Hampshire or Arizona, and they could still have been different people.

Sam couldn’t concentrate on the love he was supposed to make to his wife. He hadn’t known love, so how could he be prepared to know how it ended? Or what that was like?

When a man loses his father, thought Sam, he loses his one best chance to see the rest of his life.

“What is it?” asked his wife.

“Nothing,” he said and kissed her. But then he thought he had an answer. “Baby?” he said.

“What?”

The bed frame still trembled, as did all the confidence he had, about the future, about himself and her.

His wife lay under him, and Sam wondered when the day would come when she would no longer love him, no matter how many innumerable acts of love they would perform.

 

Eighteen years into the past, a fish jumping out of the water, a crack of thunder or something pulling the line would have distracted Sam and his father, maybe even have had some symbolic attractiveness later, but there had been only the stillness, the unmoving quality of everything, including time, as if his father had quieted everything in the landscape and brought it to a standstill, the way a parent, perhaps, only could, everywhere still except his father’s hands, which, Sam noticed now, were trembling.

“I cheated on your mother last week,” his father had said.

The idea of love absent, his father cheating, them alone in the woods on a lake of abundant fish he couldn’t catch, all of it together had been beyond Sam’s ability to grasp. He had felt balanced between a terror of his father he hadn’t remembered and the feeling he was supposed to have of anger, along with confusion and disappointment.

“You don’t know the woman,” his father had continued, “and you won’t know her because what was between us is over.”

Sam had stared at the small lake to where his white-and-red bobber floated still on the surface. Sam had known his mouth would be as quiet as the bobber almost motionless on the lake, and his father wouldn’t be able to coax him into doing anything new like fishing anymore.

The modest panorama had been still. His father had relinquished his power over the natural world. There had been two fish his father had decided to keep in the old white paint bucket beside them filled with some of the lake’s brackish water. It had been, perhaps, his father’s most memorable performance, if all memories could be thought of as such. His father might have even gained some satisfaction, or sense of absolution from the act of confessing to his son—Sam could only imagine.

They had not been as far away from civilization as Sam had thought they were. Near the pond, he had been able to hear an engine on its tracks getting louder.

 

Sam kissed his wife’s neck. The old man was gone. The trains were distant and far away, but not so far that he couldn’t feel them in some strange way in his bones and the unknown genes that made up who he was.

The train was interminable. The vibrations continued, it seemed to Sam, even though only a few minutes had passed. Everything is a risk—marriage, love in all forms, and parenthood.

“Baby,” he said and kissed her. How could he tell her all the things on his mind in one sentence, or word or breath?

 

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