Of Kites and Tractors
You remember the grassy field of your youth as soft, but when you sit down, the stubble from the last haying is pointy and stabs at your thighs as though to remind you not to stay too long. Your father sits beside you, but he’s in the plastic lawn chair you placed here so he can rest on his daily walk. They say exercise is good for people like him, whose brains are all scrambled up like this.
You watch as your son Ethan, nine now, learns to dance with his kite. He sets it down in the newly mowed hayfield, turns, and scampers, shirtless, along the two string lines. He dips low to scoop up the red handle and the blue handle. He composes himself, steps back, hands at shoulder height, and jerks the handles down, setting flight to the orange trick kite. His skin is brown, mahogany brown, like his father’s. It is backed up by the blue sky in the most brilliant way.
Your father has been silent watching all this. Three years ago, he taught Ethan how to fly a kite in this hayfield. It is likely your father does not realize he bought that first paper diamond, rigged the string himself, and ran next to your son, one arm to the sky, in this very field.
“It’s noble of you, to have taken that boy in,” your father says.
You squint at him. Most days he thinks you are his dead sister, so this should not surprise you—this denial that this child is of your flesh, of his lineage. But it is more than denial. Last night, he scolded Ethan for eating dinner at the table. “Eat in the kitchen, boy.” He said it the way his own father and his father’s father must have said it when they had maids in Virginia, when they were a family of money and not a family with a decaying dairy farm in upstate New York. Ethan, you hope, believes the old man is growing crazier by the day. You hope—with eyes shut, breath held and palms on your chest—that he does not realize what so confuses his grandfather. This son of yours, he should not be here. You keep telling yourself this. You are grateful, in a way, that your husband works too much and cannot find the time to visit this summer. The last month has given way to the fact that you are now afraid of what your father might do with a grown black man in his house. He wasn’t always like this. He used to point to your wedding photos and say what a beautiful family it was. But now those frames are smudged from his stabbing fingers on your husband’s black figure, and you have lifted them from hallway where they hung for 12 years and stashed them in your bedroom instead. You pleaded for an old high school friend to take Ethan on the train to NYC to visit his father for a weekend, to avoid having your own husband share the bed in the farmhouse of your childhood. You considered saying Ethan could not come back. But your husband, he works too much, and nine is too young for a latchkey child.
Last night at dinner, in that careful negotiated arc of avoidant conversation, you told them dinner was over. You sent Ethan outside and pushed a bar of chocolate into his hands as consolation for removing his plate before he’d finished. You guided him to the door off the dining room, towards the tire swing under the weeping willow. He used to be afraid of the dark here in the country, but you have noticed he has taken a penchant to sitting on the tire swing in the moonlight. This night air, the stars—they are the only good things emerging from this summer. This, you think, is what will make him a man like his father. The kind of man who will look to the night sky for guidance, rather than into the hardness of a fist or a bottle. The kind of man who dreams a peaceful silence.
And as you retreated back into the kitchen, you heard the old man mutter something that sounded like, “Nigger in my house.” A plate broke in the sink, the ceramic edge scraping the knuckles, pulling a stream of blood across your tired skin. Red dripped down into the dishwater, then disappeared in a rosy haze.
You waited until Ethan was asleep, when the moonlight lit your father’s first-floor bedroom, and then you stepped forward to chastise him.
“How could you? How could you say that to Ethan?” It had come out as a subdued roar. You had wanted take his neck in the vice of your thumb and fingers and shake him silly.
He had looked at you, called you Martha, his dead sister’s name, and spoke quietly. “Who’s Ethan?” His eyes have a habit of not focusing when someone tries to explain things such as this, as though he’s shuffling a spilled pile of glitter in his mind, trying to bring order to the glints and reflections. He looked so small sitting there, shoulders hunched forward, that confused look on his face. Hands trembling in their uncertainty as they clutched his knees. Impossibly small. So easy to hurt.
“Your grandson. You called him a….” But you couldn’t finish. Instead, you had told him you couldn’t keep doing this. I can’t, you said.
Maybe what you meant was: I can’t take care of all of you, of all these men I’m supposed to love.
You squint into the sun now, knowing that it etches another decade of lines and wrinkles into your skin, but it is how you must face him. You have learned, in these last three months, the careful choices you must make between using a mother’s sternness and a lover’s sympathy. It is not talking so much as it is navigating. Directing.
“Dad, Ethan is my son, your grandson.”
His gray head of hair does the half-shake, half-nod he has mastered. Silent attitude. Confusion. He grips his walking stick with both hands, one fist of swollen knuckles on top of the other, and pulls himself to standing.
“Call me Slim,” he says, and continues on his old-man’s march towards the river. The flesh of his walking-stick arm sways with each step, a bellowing of age where once there was the python arm of a Washington county dairy farmer. Each day, he traverses the western hills of his 200-acre farm. Each day, even in this 85-degree heat, he wears brown corduroys and a white, sleeveless undershirt, which is yellowed at the armpits. He climbs through the old cow pastures, slow, sweat blooming onto his shirt, spreading with the effort; he sits in his chair at the top, surveys the scene—his farming empire now retired to hay and alfalfa fields he leases out to a man in Saratoga. And then he descends, heading for the river and completing the loop back to the farmhouse. It is a walk of ritual, a walk that keeps him alive, the doctor says. It is one of the few things he does not forget, and it is possible that these days, his body remembers more than his mind does.
Ethan trots in front of you, guiding the kite down into a crash landing near the river. From a distance, you see him hoist himself into the crook of a weeping willow tree along the point bank, and when you and your father arrive, he is holding a one-gallon Ziploc bag filled not with matchbox cars but with miniature toy farm equipment: green John Deere tractors, red hay wagons, black tillers. He jumps to the ground, squats down to open the bag. Holes pepper the plastic, and the equipment shows evidence of a flood, with wheels and seats caked in dry mud.
Your boy has not spoken. He is taking out each piece, one by one. First a manure spreader and a combine, then a grain cart and a mulch ripper.
Your father, however, is speaking:
“Where’d that come from? Where’d you get that?”
Ethan does not answer.
Your father continues, “I have a John Deere 9530 and a 635 MOCO. The damn bank, those money-hungry bastards—Joe Irish—he wanted to take them away. I drove them all up to the top of Cobble, into the woods up there.” He points to the highest point of the property, which is wooded and hides a century of broken-down machines, cars and household appliances. “Hayed at night that year. Told Joe I’d sold ‘em all and lost the money in Saratoga. They never did find them.”
You don’t know if any part of this is true. Most of the farm’s tractors had been International Farmalls; though, you remember your father spent many Sundays at the racetrack in Saratoga.
You squat down next to your son. “Honey,” you say. “Where’d you find that?”
Your boy, holding a red hay wagon in the palm of his hand, looks up with glassy eyes.
“In the crook of the tree,” he says.
“It must’ve been washed up in the spring flood. Or some boy hid them up there.”
Your father is circling the both of you, peering periodically into the river, which is running low this summer, and tilting his head right to left. Assessing.
“Bullshit,” he finally says. Curse words, also, are new to his everyday vernacular.
Your boy looks at you, pleading, “Can I keep them?”
“I don’t see why not,” you answer.
Your father stamps his walking stick onto the plastic bag. “This is my land. Those are my tractors.”
“But Grandpa…I found them.”
“No more. Give them to me.” He holds out his hand.
You nod at your son. “Go on,” you say.
He hesitates, fingers still laying a claim to the plastic bag, both dangerously close to the mallet-like end of the walking stick.
“Ethan. Please,” you say.
“No. I found them.”
“Please.” You must plead now. It is always a favor. Always an invitation to be complicit in protecting this man. This is easier, you think. He is learning how it is easier to nod in agreement than to invite the wrath of the tantrums—full of bellowing and fist throwing—because you must save energy for the big battles, such as keeping the man from trying to pat the 17-year-old asses of field hockey players in kilts. You found him once, drinking coffee at the mini-mart, reaching his free hand out toward the blue plaid skirt, toward the short hemline, the smooth legs of a teenager slurping down a fountain drink in her game jersey. This, you had to stop with a full-body block, inserting your body so his hand grazed your own thigh. You apologized to the girl, explained he was ill. The girl shrugged, then told you that last year he’d offered her a fifty in exchange for a date. She said yes, she claimed, just to get the money. She needed it, she said, but he wandered off towards the pond to watch the geese instead.
“Give ‘em to me, boy,” your father says. His hand still waits.
“No,” says Ethan.
“Boy,” your father starts.
You whisper to Ethan, “Just for now, let him carry them back to the house for you. Fly your kite.”
He slowly hands the bag over. “Just for now,” he says. His eyes have a daring you have not seen before. He slips the red hay wagon into his pocket.
He picks up the kite, launches it. He tests the left hand, then the right, with short tugs, sending the diamond kite into wild, uneven figure eights in the sky. The nylon fabric roars through the air—the sound of teenagers drag racing stoplights in town on a summer night. He learns manipulation. He learns sweet spots and power zones. He moves in front of you, back toward the farmhouse. Each flight ends with his kite diving to the ground in dramatic abandon and his chin falling to his chest. Always he runs, arms rigid and pumping, taking care to set the kite straight in the grassy stubble, to untangle the lines, and to give it flight once more. Again and again, your boy launches, soars, and crashes.
Launch, soar, roar. Crash.
Launch, soar, roar. Crash.
Launch, soar, roar. He lets it hover low over the field, his belly arced out, weight shifted to the balls of his feet, chest puffing with each downward swing of his arms. Youth harnessed. He flaps his skinny brown arms; he is a bullfighter snapping a cape.
Your father trails behind you. Three generations of McKays traipse down the hill in this manner, each in their own world, each bearing a weight made all the more obvious by the work of gravity.
The three of you have been living in the white farmhouse on the corner of Cobble Hill Road because you made some sort of promise not to put your father in a home and because, frankly, there is no money to pay for such a place. There is a wretched legal document that prevents you from selling or renting the property while he is still alive. This is why your husband works two jobs in New York City; this is why you are here, babysitting an old man who’s crafting his own sub-reality in the breaking waves of his brain. You and your son have made a sanctuary upstairs, which was fine in June, but with a heat wave in July, you spend evenings rubbing ice cubes on your temples in the bedroom of your childhood. No one speaks of what will happen in September when school begins.
Your father, his body remembers these fields, and it remembers women. It plots escapes each evening, when the light begins to fade. It pushes him down the dirt drive, towards the paved county road, towards town and the hotel. Twice you got phone calls from the sheriff, who found him the first time on the wrong side of the white line on Main Street, and the second time pacing in front of the hotel. After this, you installed combination locks on the doors to keep him inside during the evening hours. The locks are, admittedly, embarrassing. You drilled the holes below eye level, a foot off the floorboards in hope that the rare visitor might not see the metal latches. Your mother would have called them a fire hazard; she also would have called it cheating. She would have sat up next to him most nights, you’re sure, to keep watch. But fastened iron is the only way to keep him from walking into the night while you sleep with a puddle of melted ice in the hollow of your neck.
For the last four nights, he’s dressed for a date—twice with a woman named Georgette, twice with a woman who carries the name of his dead wife. You call them “dates.” Your father calls them “meetings.” Each night, when he goes to open the bolted door, that is your son’s cue to run upstairs and use your cell phone to call the house phone. Each night, the message is the same: “Georgette (or Mary) regrets she cannot meet with you tonight. She is not feeling well.” Each night, your father hangs his head and returns to his bedroom. Each night, you feel a little less guilty about the lie. Each night, you think your boy is growing up too fast.
Some days, you still hear your father’s voice as though it’s passing kind virtues somewhere between 99.4 and 99.5 on the FM radio waves. In the static of your imagination, he remains the supple-skinned man whose broad hands pushed you on the swing under the willow, whose rough thumb brushed tears from your cheek after you discovered him leading an old Jersey cow out into the rear pasture, a loaded shotgun in his hand. He dropped the lead rope, laid the gun against a tree, and carried you back to the house, your legs straddling his stomach, his arms crossing as they held you against his chest. He smelled of hay and motor oil. He is the man who set your feet straight in the stirrups of your first pony, the man who refused to sell that pony, even after you graduated from college and moved 300 miles away. He is the man who poured two shots of whiskey and sat on the front porch with your future husband. He is the man who toasted that same love of yours two years later at your wedding. The same man who climbed into bed when his wife died eight years ago and didn’t get out for three weeks. This static is your own version of insanity, but most days, you believe it is the only reason you remain in this house. You have stopped trying to deduce who the real Slim McKay is: gambler, womanizer, devoted husband, racist, devoted father, farmer. It is all scrambled, you tell yourself.
Your best friend tells you it is time to let go, to save yourself and put him in a home. But this is what a daughter does, you say. Someone has to keep him from wandering. Last winter, you’d read in the paper how a man with Alzheimer’s got in his daughter’s car in Vermont, drove west for three hours, weaving his way onto a deserted road in the Adirondack mountains. The car, it slid off the snowy road and into a snow bank. Two days later they found him, frozen to death. You should keep your car keys under your mattress.
Your boy shortens his kite strings until they are only twice his height. He jogs, then sidesteps with a prance, through the last stretch of grass in complete control, a sunburned kite following his lead. He gazes up into the sky, glancing only sporadically at his path. He overtakes you and your father in line to the house. You watch him ease the blaze of color out of the sky, into the fallow field—more of a landing than a crash this time.
At the farmhouse, the three of you walk into the kitchen your mother occupied for 30 years before her body got too heavy for her legs, before she took to the chair in the sunroom your father built for her off the front of the house, before she then took to bed, and finally, never woke up. Your father is still holding the bag of toys. He empties them into the porcelain sink and begins to rinse, then scrub each one with the vegetable brush. Dirty water courses from his hands, leaves brown rivulets streaking the sink. He dries them with a dish towel like a man cleaning a cow’s udder.
Your boy looks at you, then at his grandfather.
“Not now,” you say.
“It’s not fair. I found them,” he tells you. And you stand there, shoulders sagging, and you give him the truth: Life is not fair. The truth is that he will not always get what he deserves. You regret it before you finish speaking. You expect it to break his heart, to crush him, to strip away his innocence in some way. Instead he moves towards you with two tiny fists balled against his hips.
“You are not fair,” he says. His chest rises like a man preparing to fight. “It’s not the world. It’s you.”
Your throat buckles.
He turns his back on you and leaves the house. You watch him scale the back hill, his stride chopping into the tall grass. His rib cage, it’s leading him now. And you can hear it rising and falling as he disappears over the horizon of hills that rise above the farmhouse.
You lock the door behind him, to keep what is already here safe. And you hover along the west end of the house, watching, waiting for him to return. It is two hours later when his small body finally spills out of the hills again. He carries a long stick in one hand and periodically slashes the grass with its length, as though to clear his path. You unlock the back door (22-4-32) and then return to the kitchen, to the pot of pasta on the stove, afraid he might not walk in if you are waiting at the door.
At dinner, there is silence from both men. As you clean up in the kitchen that night, you reconsider your options. Take out a loan and hire a live-in caretaker to watch your father. Go back to your husband. Leave this house before it turns you all into something unrecognizable. The dementia may be contagious, you think. The dishwater burns your hands, and the sound of plates landing in the dish rack takes on a deafening sound. The clatter, the clanks, the drips of water—they pour on you. You begin to hear clinking even when you stand still. Slowly, it begins to dawn on you that the sound is originating from elsewhere in the house. You walk into the dining room, and you find your father arranging his John Deer tractors in two rows, on the middle shelf of the china cabinet. Your mother’s gold-trimmed Limoges china plates, a wedding gift, are on the floor, in a trash bag—thankfully, unbroken. You quietly pick up the white bag, sliding your arm underneath to support the fragile weight, and haul it upstairs, plates clinking, to your bedroom. When you return, he is standing in front of the china cabinet, one hand on each glass door, arms spread as though he’s about to fly. He nods once and closes the doors. You see he has also placed a thistle globe and a single silver half-dollar on the shelf alongside the fleet of farm equipment. He locks the door and slips the key into his pocket. Your eyes meet in the distorted glare of the glass. You see an old man and an aging woman. You see blue walls and white trim. You see a fleet of toys on a wooden shelf, under lock and key.
You are standing at the open freezer door gathering a Mason jar full of ice for the evening when he calls for you—for Martha. Come quick, he commands.
“There’s a stairway to the moon,” he says. He offers no other explanation. You pause. This is it, you think. Clear off his rocker. As though you have not already known this, concluded this, so many times before. But you make your way along the creaky floorboards, towards the tiny sunroom that juts off what was once the front entrance to the house, just opposite the staircase that rises to the second floor. The last light is fading from the sky. A full moon has appeared, fat and golden in the evening dusk. Your father is sitting in an old cane chair, in just his boxer shorts and undershirt, pointing to the sky with a wild, toothless grin on this face. Your son has joined you. What you see is the reflection of the front staircase cast in the window; and it does indeed rise to the moon.
Your son whirls around and jogs up the stairs, each step a creaking board of worn black paint. You watch in the window as his skinny legs mount toward the moon. Your father is laughing now, nearly in spasms. Your boy descends, does an about-face at the base of the stairwell, and repeats.
“I’m going to walk on the moon,” he shouts, rising once again, pausing periodically to look back, towards the sunroom, towards his grandfather, towards the moon. You smile.
You look at your father, toothless and laughing like a boy. You look at your son, high-stepping up the stairs. You look at the grandfather clock, broken, in the hallway. In the bottom is a box of silver dollars your mother hid there two decades ago. Her rainy day fund. Each time you dust, you check to make sure they’re still there. Your father’s chest rises in wheezing breaths of laughter. You think you hear him say, “I always knew.” Tears roll from his eyes. He wipes them with the back of his hand, stands, still seizing with chortles, and suddenly shuffles off towards his bedroom in the rear of the house. You hear his closet door slide open, and you know he has begun to prepare for his date.
Your son hops to your side, out of breath, still smiling, but seeing that his grandfather has left, he moves to exit. It’s almost time, you remind him, to make the phone call. He does not answer, but two minutes later he returns to where you stand in the kitchen with the half-melted glass of ice, and he puts the phone into your palm.
You move into the sitting room and sink down in the green velvet armchair. It was your mother’s most prized piece of furniture. You remember sitting in this chair as a teenager, hiking up your dress to feel its soft grain on the back of your legs. You would close your eyes and daydream of the neighbor boy, of the way his thumb might brush your collarbone, how his lips might come down, crushing. The lips would always crush. You close your eyes now, wanting it to be your husband. You should really hire help, you decide.
You listen to the floorboards creek overhead, to the thump-thump, thump-thump of a child’s feet descending on the stairs, the final two-footed landing. You track his movement into the kitchen via the sound of the wide floor planks that have loosened over the years. The sound of cabinets opening and closing. The refrigerator door. More cabinet doors.
Your eyes open as your son swings around the door jam and into the room. He is sucking on an orange popsicle. A breeze enters the room, and you look ahead to find its source—the open screen door off the dining room. You see yawning china cabinet doors, a shelf empty save for the thistle.
“The tractors?” you ask, pointing to the cabinet. “Did you take them?”
He shakes his head.
You look at the back door, slightly ajar.
“Did you go out?”
He shakes his head again, hand shoved in his pocket.
Your glance is frozen by the drawn-out peal of rubber tires squealing on the road. By the thud that follows.
You stand. You forget to breathe. And in that moment, you imagine a John Deere 9530 careening towards the double yellow lines. You see the manure spreader rolling in the opposite direction, spilling into the ditch, landing in a clump of orange Canada lilies and blue chicory.
You kneel. You press your palms together. You do not know for whom or for what exactly you are praying, and your lips move in heavy silence. This is all that is possible. Everything is numb save for your bottom two ribs.
Your son, he reaches down, pulls on your wrists with all his weight, as though his small body is the fulcrum that will make you rise. He pulls, you submit, and you allow him to lead you out into the night, through the unlocked door. Two taillights pierce the black road. The moon has risen higher. And your son, he tugs you towards the now stationary car. But you stop, dig your heels into the gravel, and say, No.
You can feel it now—the pounding in your chest, the way your skin is trying to breathe for you, how hard the rocks feel under your bare feet.
You pull his sinewy shoulders towards your hollow stomach. You will return him to the house, tell him he should not see this. And then you will walk slowly back through the door you did not lock on this night. You will find the green tractor first, near the center of the road, before you reach the car, before you reach the body and before you realize this is what you have done. You will pick up the tractor, put it in your palm and squeeze it. You will squeeze until the corners puncture the flesh, and then, only then, will you proceed forward.