After we eat our egg foo yung—Dad’s favorite meal, lately—my mother pushes herself up from her chair. She pokes around in the corner behind, flips open a small wicker chest, and yanks out a colorful quilt of rhombus design. “Charmaine!” she calls, but Charmaine is already there. “Give me a hand with this. Don’t want my husband to catch cold while he’s—”
Charmaine rubs Mom’s shoulder. “Leti, I understand,” she says, catching Mom’s eyes before they drop sullen again.
Charmaine is my father’s nurse and, coincidentally, my high school sweetheart (or perhaps not so coincidentally because we are in the small town of my birth). She grabs the other end of the quilt, stretches it out and covers Dad up to his chin, composing and smoothing the quilt across his shivering body. Tucking him in for the day, for the night, for eternity, for the afterlife or God, Dad’s enshrouded for whatever journey in colorful rhombuses.
“A fine style,” I say and no one laughs.
Landis, my lean and muscular, accountant older brother, checks the firmness of his bicep then bounces his finger on his lips, meaning I should shut up. Next his knees start bouncing.
“Sorry. Meant it as a compliment,” I say.
Staring at my father shrouded in vivid color, for whatever reason, I think back to the arrow incident. I must have been nine years old then. . . .
One hazy and humid summer afternoon around this same time of year, Dad had marched my older brother and me out into the backyard wearing only his sandals and boxers and carrying an arrow and a bow. “Today I will show you how to shoot an arrow with a bow,” he had said as he marched and I skipped excitedly behind, with Landis dragging up the rear.
I don’t recall what any of us had been doing beforehand, or why or how Dad even owned a bow and arrow, because our family didn’t hunt, but Dad marched us into some kind of battle right there on the freshly mown grasses of the backyard next to Mom’s vegetable garden, a garden my brother and I used to weed, which lay under the bough of our crabapple tree, where we gathered crabapples for crabapple pie, which I hated and my brother loved.
Dad stopped his march with the bow and arrow where the dandelions threatened to poach the finer grasses of our lawn, our activity hidden by my mother’s lilac bush, her high leylandii hedge, and her amaranth caudadus, with its rich burgundy-and-gold inflorescences—beautiful, yes, but whose flora sent needles of pollen into my brother’s allergic eyes and nose. Already love lay bleeding.
Bare and barrel-chested with thick forearms and hands with a grip that could pinch your forearms apart at the ulna, Dad draped his bow off his hip with one hand and clutched the arrow mid-shaft in the other. Another appendage, one of his ever-present cigarettes, stuck out from his lips as his eyes strained to locate the other cigs he’d tucked elsewhere—behind his ears, between his fingers, in the waistband of his shorts. We were in for a show.
“Stand back!” our father ordered his sons, and we already were.
Holy shit! I might have shrieked had I known how to curse yet.
Dad ignited the cigarette in his mouth with a match, then wagged the match into smolder before tossing it into the lawn (lucky for all of us the grass was mostly green then). Then he took a deep fingerless drag before exhaling and obscuring his face in a cloud of smoke befitting yesteryear’s Apollo rocket awaiting liftoff doing same. The countdown had begun.
Dad gathered his arrow-flinging apparatus around him before rearing up to fit the string into the arrow’s nock. Inflating himself, he clamped his lips tighter on the cigarette in his mouth and squinted his eyes into focus. What target he focused on, I didn’t know, because no target stood in our backyard. The target was out there somewhere in that great blue dome of sky.
He raised the tip of the arrow and stretched the bow apart, his arms like two hyenas tug-of-warring over a downed zebra. Shaking with much vigor for a diminutive man, composing himself in the shape of a harp as he reared the arrow’s tip skyward—a different man, this stocky harpist-archer, than the man I saw now, inert, frail, and confined to a hospice bed. He muttered some Godspeed or Goddamn as he waited for the wind to still. Cigarette smoke swirled up in a sudden vortex kicked off the plains into the squared circle of my mother’s hedgerow.
The real thrill of Dad’s drawn bow was the risk, the risk that the arrow would shoot wayward, say, through the open window of our neighbor’s house to stick into the wall between their heads as they watched the midday news—or worse, that Dad would, in his juggling of cigarettes, arrow, and bow lose his grip or footing and launch his projectile straight through one of his own flesh and blood. These catastrophes wouldn’t have happened, for the dexterity and focus of our chess-master, musician, surgeon, table-tennis champ father were legend. I was only a kid.
He pulled the fletching of the arrow closer to his eye with his fist, then leveled his sight down the arrow’s shaft, daring the fletching to slice his cheek or eye. Dad hovered in Mom’s green space holding the nock, steadying the far end of the shaft between his fingers along the shelf of the bow, wheezing as he exhaled to steady himself against the earth. At full tension, the arrow’s tip yearned for sky.
The string of the bow snapped forward with a small blast of wind and an off-key twang. The rush of the arrow shot chased every oriole and tanager from Mom’s bird feeder. He let the bow gently fall with that peculiar surprised look of his that seemed to say, Did I just do that? He did, and now his knuckles stuck to his hips, and he squinted into space tracing the arrow’s path. It wasn’t an arrow being fired; it was a rocket launch to Mars.
Higher, farther, and faster than ever imagined or surmised from the arrow firings my child eyes had witnessed in Ancient World documentaries or Old West reruns—out of the yard; over hedge, tree, and housetop; piercing atmosphere above the neighbor’s pine grove before becoming a vibrating sliver that vanished into its own thinness, then a dot hopscotching to some unknown destination. All I wanted was to be that arrow.
“Didja see that!” I squealed, jumping with both feet and grabbing my head like a delighted chimpanzee, laughing so hard it hurt then foot-stomping a rotation to drop my jaw at my brother Landis, who for some reason was anything but thrilled, ignoring the wonder that had just occurred, instead grumbling and looking away as he kicked at a dry patch of grass and rubbed the itch from his watering eyes while me and Dad bent over at the waist laughing our asses off.
“That day? He did that all the time.”
Landis taps his temple. “Early signs.”
My brother often tried to pin insanity on Dad, but I’m not convinced. What I had convinced myself was that my brother clings to the childhood fibs he still tells himself to get over his good-and-obedient first-born son’s guilt over resisting Dad’s orders or wishes. It gives him an emotional out.
“Guess who had to retrieve the arrows, Ruben?” he says.
I calculate a smirk. “You?”
“Exactly.” Landis snaps his gum.
I lean back in my chair, and girlhood Charmaine appears in the periphery of the backyard with us. At the time our neighbor girl in pigtails, missing both front teeth, halter top wrapping her flat chest and hot pants warping her skinny upper thighs—every pale inch the boyhood crush who sent a weirdly nauseating feeling into my stomach and who had started to sneak through my mother’s leylandii to show her affection by pulling my hair till it hurt. There she was in our periphery, bone-skinny, yet-unmarked by tattoos, spying on the three of us through the hedge.
The vision doesn’t last. I stare at adult Charmaine under garish hospice light, now fully enveloped in her late thirties, doting over my ailing father. She stares back at me like she’s been reading my mind. I can’t stop thinking about the arrow. I turn back to Landis. “I think Dad only did that once.”
“Did what once?” Landis pinches his gum out of his mouth and flicks it in the trash can next to Dad’s bed.
“Shoot an arrow out of the backyard. It was the exception.”
“You’re still thinking about that? Jesus,” he says. “Let it go.”
My brother, like my father, likes to be right. He doesn’t let it go. “Dad didn’t shoot an arrow once—it wasn’t some anomaly that he dragged us out back every friggin’ Sunday to shoot an arrow. It was his excuse to smoke, boss me around, and cause trouble,” my brother says. “It wasn’t the exception, it was irresponsible. He had no compunction.”
“Landis, Ruben, stop,” my mother says. “No arguments today. You’ll disturb your father.”
My mother hates conflict. We love her for it (though she even regards lively conversation or a difference of opinion as an argument).
“We’re not arguing, Ma,” Landis says. “I’m correcting your son’s memory.”
“Landis, Ruben, you’re both my sons,” my mother says, starting to fan herself again. “Darn these hot flashes. Shouldn’t have eaten egg foo yung. MSG makes my heart race. Just awful.”
“Ma, most Chinese restaurants don’t use MSG anymore. Not even the bulletproof ones back where I live,” I say.
“Bulletproof who?” Ma says.
My father’s action might have been careless, but a compunctionless ruse? The arrow incident might have been the opposite of what my brother believed. Maybe Dad did it for a reason, to show off or make up for the times he wasn’t around to rear us. Maybe he wanted to embody the meaning of potential or of fascination. No compunction? Habit or freak occurrence, maybe he wanted the three of us to bond around him, the former Greek national actor, as he modeled some ideal father-form on the stage of our lawn to delight, inspire, and entertain Landis and me, his sons. Portraying the hero, wanting us to revere that hero—not another excuse to smoke or dominate my brother. It just couldn’t be. Maybe Landis was the one with no compunction, denying Dad’s wish.
There was that void that appeared after the arrow flew off where I saw my brother was gone. The void, I felt deeper now in Dad’s hospice room, some void of awe or terror, shame or delight, don’t know which. After Dad fired the arrow, he let the bow drop to his side, snickering to himself. He hung his head while poking around for another cigarette to fix in his mouth, no longer laughing with me or making eye contact, only staring at the ground, releasing more smoke from his head.
I was too young then to know where Landis went or whether that memorable day was triumphant or humiliating and for whom. I can imagine my brother futilely grumbling and trudging around somewhere past the neighbor’s pine grove—all so much Mongolian steppe to me—searching for Dad’s far-flung arrow, fearing the worst, that Dad’s arrow had struck a living thing, perhaps not a deer, but, say, a family dog, a golden retriever or collie, or worse, a human being. What could he say? Why is that boy carrying that arrow wearing such a frown? a passing neighbor might have thought. If asked, Landis wouldn’t have answered.
My brother raises his head from staring at his watch. He glances at me and his brow lowers across his gaze. “Look, Ruben, all I’m saying is that arrow crap wasn’t some spontaneous thing. Dad knew exactly what he was doing. It was calculated.”
“Calculated for what?”
“To rattle and harass Birn.”
Birn was our conservative, Waspy neighbor and Dad’s sworn nemesis who lived across the street. Blond and dashing and Republican Birn, the local Donald Trump figure Dad hated, we all hated, who had vainly published his own book, Let Wealth Open the Gates to Heaven, featuring himself in stiff corporate repose on the cover, all elbows in his gold watch, cuff links, pink tie, bleached-white teeth, gelled-back blond coif, the envy of his wife and everyone else, the biggest fish in our local pond of otherwise smaller worker or civil-servant fish, whose blonder wife would breeze around braless on our corner, nipples bouncing hard under her shirt, and whose even blonder daughter often resorted to faking her own kidnapping to gain attention (they usually found her curled up in her closet). As for us, we weren’t such public people.
“What did Birn have to do with it?”
“Ruben, I know you want to remember Dad shooting off arrows as some special moment between father and son, but it was more of a conspiracy.”
“How do you know?”
My brother looked at his watch again and clicked off more seconds with his tongue, no longer checking his bicep. His smile that always threatened to laugh finally did. “Because I was in on it,” he says.
“In on what?”
“I told you, Birn, Birn. The arrow was all about Birn.”
“Shush!” my mother chides. “Give your father his last peace.”
“Sorry, Ma,” Landis says.
“So what about Birn?” I say.
My brother snorts. “See, while you and Dad were getting your rocks off, I was out trying to find the arrow.”
“You said that. Someone had to, right?”
“Typical of you say to say that. Jesus. It sucked. I mean, if Dad’s arrow would have hurt somebody or some thing, or even if someone had seen it come down and stick in the earth, who do you think would’ve taken the blame? Me, that’s who. I was cover. Would’ve been sent to juvie, like you were that time they caught you smoking marijuana and drinking beer with your delinquent punk friends before school.”
“The chances are small a randomly fired arrow would hit somebody in a sparsely populated place like Bargo. From what I can tell, no one even walks down the block here. Everyone drives.”
“Whatever, Ruben. It wasn’t random what Dad did or the humiliating thing I had to do.”
“Spit it out, Landis.”
Dad’s breathing accelerates.
“You’re upsetting your father,” my mother says.
“Ma, it’s okay, Dad’s always upset, alive or, uh—it’s nothing new,” Landis says, and he’s right. He turns back to me. “I was doing reconnaissance. Dad wasn’t firing the arrow out of the backyard for no reason, and definitely not to entertain you. That was a side effect. It was all about Dad’s hatred of Birn.”
“Not sure what you mean.”
“Birn played golf every Sunday at his family’s country club on the other side of that pine grove near our house. I know because I used to caddie there.”
“Don’t remember that.”
“You wouldn’t, because back then you either had your head in the clouds or up your ass, never knew which.” Landis laughs.
“Ruben, please,” my mother says.
“Landis started it,” I say.
“Ma, relax, we aren’t arguing,” Landis says. “Anyway, Ruben, imagine you are out trying to relax on a Sunday playing golf at your own tony-as-fuck country club and a frigging arrow with a broadhead, one of those razor tips for hunting, comes flying onto the green.”
“Think it’s funny?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Killing for sport, Dad was?” I laugh through the goosebumps rising on my arms.
“Laugh all you want bitch-slap. A broadhead’s no joke.”
“Shh! Language,” my mother pleads through gritted teeth.
“Sorry, Ma,” Landis says. “Gotta get this off my chest.”
“Get it off, get it off,” I say.
“Keep your voices down,” my mother says.
“Ruben started it.”
The three of us sigh.
“There are always ramifications,” Landis continues. “Imagine you’re playing your Sunday round of golf and whenever you get to a certain hole—say, the eleventh, the closest hole to our house—you see an arrow stuck in the green, or you see an arrow strafing in at you when you step onto the green. Happens once, sure, maybe a prank by some local punks. Happens more than once, say, often, again and again, closer and closer, well, call yourself rattled.”
I can’t disagree.
“Imagine a thirteen-year-old boy forced to march out alone in the name of his overgrown-delinquent father’s absurd, potentially catastrophic unneighborly transgression in hopes of not only finding the arrow his crazy father has fired but hoping, praying, it didn’t hurt anyone, with no idea what to say or do if it did. Pure abuse.”
“Dad must have been a good shot, getting so close like that, firing blind.”
“You think that?”
My mother covers her ears, utters the Lord’s Prayer, crossing herself in the Orthodox way, right shoulder first:
Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven. . . .
She’s all nervous, reverent motion now. (Later, my mother would use every cuss word in the book.)
“After you and Dad had your jollies, Dad would drag me by the ear down to his den and force me to report where I had found the arrow according to Birn’s probable position at the time. He would statistically average out the trajectory and timing of his next shot. Closer and closer and closer . . . every frigging Sunday afternoon after church.”
“Complicated. Back then, maps and a chart. Triangulation. I knew Birn’s approximate golfing time and rate, his par, handicap, and whatnot, whether he used a cart or a caddie on that particular day. Of course, there was a chance element. If this sounds insane to you that’s because it was.”
“Landis, there’s almost zero chance the arrow would’ve hit Birn.”
“Killing Birn wasn’t the point. Rattling him was. For that, chance was good enough.”
“How close did he get?” I guiltily ask, stifling a giggle.
“Damn close, and that’s the day Birn caught me. Dad’s arrow landed inches from Birn’s cleats when he putted for his eleventh-hole birdie. It scared the bejesus out of him and, worse, threw his birdie into bogey territory. While he threw his golfer’s tantrum, I ran out from the rough where I was hiding and tried to yank the arrow out of the green. Birn saw me and sent his caddy, this bully kid, Haskell, to nab me. Haskell was always a little slow, so I was able to get away. Problem was I left the arrow stuck in the green. When I showed up empty-handed back at our house—oh man—Dad was pissed.”
Dad stirs in bed. We both look at him. He’s paler than before and makes no expression.
“Ruben, I suppose you don’t remember Dad pincering me by the neck and marching me into the house.”
Landis rubs his neck. “That pinch still hurts. No compunction whatsoever.”
“And I suppose you don’t remember Dad dressing me down for an hour for ‘failing him as a son.’ ”
“You don’t remember Dad going back into the backyard and bursting into laughter when he saw how thrilled you still were with all of it—he couldn’t resist pantomiming the whole travesty out again—at my expense.”
“Didn’t think so,” says my brother, folding his arms tight enough to make his bicep veins stand out. “And I know you don’t remember Birn, flustered and shaking and red-faced, storming our backyard from around Ma’s lilac bush? Shaking the arrow in his fist like a damn cartoon in his two-toned spiked Gatsby spatterdashes, yellow golf knickers, white-pink-and-black argyle sweater vest, pink-mint-yellow-and-gold argyle socks, trying to break the arrow over his knee just for the show of it while Haskell sneered and cracked his knuckles.”
“Haskell came around?”
“You think Birn would come alone knowing I was there? Hell no.”
“Sounds like a fiasco.”
“You know what Dad did?
“Absolutely nothing. He stood there with his bow and cigarette floating his arms above his head like nothing happened.”
“Landis, Ruben, save these stories for after,” my mother says, crossing herself again. “Lord.”
“I’m correcting your son’s memory,” Landis says. He floats his arms down and contorts himself into another of Dad’s signature gestures. “You know that weird shoulder shrug of his. ‘Who? Me?’ Like James Caan in The Godfather.”
“I think you are talking about Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.”
We both laugh.
Birn’s pastel-and-preppy getup alone went against everything my practical and utilitarian family stood for. Our Joneses were Zagmeits, Khrannas, Lowensteins, or Ogawas; Birn’s were Donahues, Hopewells, Stewarts, or Abbots, all riding around town burning fossil fuel in a class war between practical Toyotas and luxury Pontiacs occurring somewhere above me. Birn was the worst of the latter, the upper-middle classman who would do anything to brand himself a millionaire. Tall, lanky, flabby in arm and loose in joint like a scarecrow, skinny-fat like two-percent milk, not unfit but, according to neighborhood lore, an entitled wimp, one with varicose veins squirming throughout his spray-tanned legs. “Here come the snakes!” all of us neighborhood kids would scream before running for cover whenever he set foot out of his professionally groomed lawn.
“You want to hear the rest?” Landis says.
“Dad turned everything back on Birn. ‘You’re trespassing. Out of my yard!’ You know what Birn did then, Ruben?”
“He took out his niblick and went at Dad.”
“His what? Like his penis?”
“Ruben, please,” my mother chides.
Landis laughs. “Not his penis, idiot, his niblick, a nine iron.”
“I wasn’t a caddy, how would I know?”
“You wouldn’t know because you were too young. If someone shot arrows at you—or fired roman candles across the street at your house every Fourth of July—what would you do? That would have anyone fed up.”
I vaguely recalled Dad firing roman candles from our driveway off to somewhere, and I probably loved it. “So, the niblick,” I say.
“Birn came charging at Dad all shaking and red-faced swinging it, screaming, ‘You’re trying to—trying to get me! Trying to get me with your arrows!’ Dad charged Birn with his bow and before I broke it up, Dad had Birn pressed against Ma’s hedge with his arms tangled in the bowstring, threatening to burn his eyes out with his cigarette.”
“Ma’s hedge was full of thorns.”
“No shit, Sherlock, and yes there was blood. Haskell jumped in and it was on.”
“My poor leylandii,” my mother says. “All I wanted was one more season.”
Landis thumbs his chest. “I did. Dad and Birn got real nasty with each other—Dad had to get a tetanus shot afterward—but those guys weren’t fighters. I flying-punched Haskell as a warning shot, then basically ploughed the backyard of him and Birn. Lasted maybe a minute.”
My brother’s gasconade doesn’t surprise me, because my thirteen-year-old bully-assassin brother was already going on the muscular nineteen-year-old weightlifting-and-grappling champion he became later.
“I ripped Dad,” my brother continues. “Told him I wasn’t gonna take part in his charades anymore, and I never did again. For the record.” Landis folds his arms and stares into space. “The point is don’t fool yourself into thinking Dad’s ‘archery demonstration’ was in any way for your entertainment or learning. It was just another damn excuse to smoke his cancer sticks and harass Birn and order me around. Like I said, the man had no compunction.”
“Landis,” my mother says, pointing at Dad. “‘Has.’ He’s still with us.”
“Sorry, Ma. ‘Has no compunction.’”
“I must have inherited his countervailing personality,” I say.
“You’d like to think so.”
“From what I remember, Birn was a sonofabitch,” I say. “Maybe he deserved the harassment.”
“Whatever, Ma had basically threatened to leave if Dad didn’t stop, that and the smoking, right, Ma? Blowback.”
“Don’t want to talk about it,” my mother says. She stiffens her mouth into a tight smile just shy of wan to avoid any detection from Dad, who judging by his eerie grin, seems to have evolved or devolved into absolute opioid bliss. We’ve gone even weirder.
“Dad would use any excuse. Actions have ramifications,” my brother says, tearing up. “I was his errand boy. You were too oblivious to know any better. Don’t fool yourself.” He yanks a canary-yellow tissue out of the kleenex box my mother has on her lap and dries his eyes.
In my memory, the arrow Dad fired into the sky was metallic blue. In my memory, the smoke from Dad’s lungs swirled against the leaves of my mother’s leylandii too long. In my memory, I am too electrified by the arrow to know what to think or want to know the reasons why.
“An arrow isn’t a boomerang,” Landis grumbles, adjusting his watch. He fidgets in his chair and hangs his head.
# # #