The Walk Away

Cass Pursell

 

The trimmed grass around the dirt of my father’s grave was pale and tinged white with frost. A week had passed since the service and I made a note again to take up with the groundskeeper the issue of sodding. While I understood his position – the sodding of new graves being done at the discretion of the cemetery and parks supervisor who prefers seeding this time of year – there was something about that bare dirt, and asking for a few squares of sod wasn’t exactly reaching for the moon. What was the worst that could happen? The roots don’t take and the job needs doing again in the spring. As much as I paid to get the man buried a little rework’s a pretty small thing to risk. You’d hope running a cemetery would be as much about helping folks cope with loss as keeping up the grounds.

I looked around for other issues to include in my complaint and started at the sight of a young man sleeping on his side, partially hidden by Josh Treml’s small stone marker. He lay on the space reserved for Josh’s wife, Elizabeth, though she’d remarried and moved to Florida six years ago. Wisps of the sleeping man’s breath clouded in the crisp morning air, and a lazy October gust lifted and eddied a dozen dead leaves next to him under the thick gray oak towering over us. He wore a dirty yellow sweater over a blue flannel shirt, his hands pressed tight between his thighs. He had a slight frame that made him look no older than my son, who would turn sixteen in the spring and who my wife wanted me to let be a boy a while longer, though to me it seemed Jamie was drifting aimless. Standing at my father’s grave it was hard not to be aware that the timing of things such as when to require a boy start becoming a man mattered, that there was a time when it became too late. Too late to be a good father or a good son or even a good man.

I nudged the young man’s leg with my boot and leaves crunched under me.  “Can’t sleep here, son.”

He was up and facing me, knees bent in a feral crouch, before I withdrew my foot.  He held one hand low behind his back, a posture that filled my chest with a cool draft and I took a step backward. His beltless jeans hung low on his hips. Unwashed blonde shoulder-length hair fell from under a black skullcap. His smooth cheeks were like the tip of his nose, red with cold. He had eyes that belonged to someone several times his age, tired and dull–as my father’s eyes had often been.

He straightened, turned from me and fisted his hands deep in his pockets. He rotated his shoulders and grimaced like someone working out stiffness, and I eased back another step, my gloved palms open and out at my sides.

“I’m the sheriff here, but that don’t mean I came for you. Just can’t have our young men sleeping it off in the cemetery.” I smiled, but he stayed stock-still. “Some boys around here get so dead drunk, mistakes could be made, you see.”

He tensed, unpocketing then clenching and unclenching his fists.

“You look cold, son. How about I buy you a coffee? Give you a ride to where you’re going?”

My big ring of keys jingled in my coat pocket in the still, cold silence as I motioned at the Jeep. The township had sprung for the vehicle after the big development went in off Michigan Avenue, giving our little farm town bedroom-community status and putting a charge into our tax base.

He stole a look over his shoulder at the line of elms that bordered the cemetery, calculating their distance.

I sighed. “Wait one second.” I opened the back gate of the Jeep to pick an old army jacket from the lost and found pile on its way to the Goodwill. I threw him the coat, and he looked me straight in the eye while he shrugged into it, then turned and trotted away.

I lingered after he disappeared into the trees, trying to recapture the quiet. Some men, my father among them, wander off in search of understanding while others hunker down in a quiet spot and wait for it to come. Like sitting in a deer blind maybe, or loitering around at gravesites. In any case, my reason for visiting the cemetery had nothing to do with homeless boys who’d walked away from the nearby city’s sprawl, and more to do with a restlessness of spirit I imagine comes on most men who are staring at forty and whose fathers lay freshly buried. The sun was warm on my shoulders and the back of my neck. I knelt and swept the graves of my parents clear of leaves, righted their vases of plastic flowers.

My father was a young man when he passed, only fifty-eight years old. He died four weeks after experiencing a myocardial infarction, to use the surgeon’s manner of speaking. When asked, my father would say he suffered a heart attack, but knowing what I know from reading all those pamphlets about cardio trauma, he’d done his part to bring on that particular end.

It wasn’t until I pulled out of the cemetery and re-entered our little township that I thought I might have made a mistake, letting the boy walk off like that. I called my dispatcher Sharon Roberts on the radio and raised my voice over the heater fan to tell her there’d been a man in the graveyard, that he was young and harmless, had only been sleeping, moved on now, and she ought to make a note in the logbook, run a check on outstanding warrants. “A homeless kid, I’m guessing.”

Sharon is the hub of the town’s gossip wheel. One such call from me gets out the word. I drove to the office slow, trying to enjoy the oranges and the reds of the trees outside my windshield.

§

By the time I made it home for dinner the light was about bled out of the early evening sky. Marie still wore her work clothes, newer black jeans that hugged her thighs, an off-white sweater that scooped, showing off her bust line. Even when our finances were skintight she’d had a knack for looking good. She handed me the phone where I sat at the kitchen table. “Clem,” she said and rolled her eyes and went back to rinsing off the dinner plates.

Like a lot of people, Clem Shaw hadn’t bothered to put in an appearance at my father’s funeral, maybe still angry that I’d had his cousin’s old Audi confiscated under the new civil forfeiture law when he got caught smoking pot down at the lake. Jamie’s birthday only around the corner, I’d bought the car for $100 at the auction with plans for a father/son project, a minor scandal since I’d kept the fact of the sale quiet. But the need to make your own luck was one of the few points on my father’s short list of life philosophies I agreed with.

Clem stammered an apology for getting me at home. I got up and wrapped one arm around Marie’s waist in front of the old farm sink she’d wanted so bad and I’d finally gotten around to installing over the summer. With my father gone, my family was down to me and Marie and Jamie, the kind of thought I’d been having regularly since the funeral.

“That’s all right, Clem, you know you can call anytime.”

When Clem started back up his voice shook. “I don’t think you’ve been listening to me at all, Harry.” Which of course I hadn’t been. Seems a stranger in an old army coat had put a scare into Clem and his family. The man had taken shelter in their garage and had run when they pulled in, catching him with the lights, just home from the Friday night fish fry at the Village Inn. Clem had heard about the cemetery. “Now, I’m not saying I would have handled it any different, but the man had a knife.”

“He did, did he? What kind?” Clem had an active imagination in the calmest of circumstances.

“Don’t treat me like that. I know what I saw.”

That I don’t respect Clem is a fact that comes from knowing him as well as I do. I’d call him rabbitty, and as a result I can’t help seeing him as less than manly. “So you can’t say what it looked like. This knife.”

“If one of the kids had got in his way…”

I sat down at the kitchen table, the long phone cord all twisted behind me. Marie passed by and kissed the crown of my head. “Well, the important thing is they didn’t.”

“No, they didn’t, but they could have.” Clem cleared his throat and his voice took on a nasal urgency. “I have to say, Harry, I think you should’ve picked the man up when you had a chance.”

My pique could still close on me in a blink, like the intruder in my home invasion dream who can go from the bottom of the stairs to the top before I can get my hands out of my robe pockets. I swatted the phone cord off my shoulder. “Is that right?”

Clem pushed right back, brave on the phone. “That is right. And I’m not alone in this. Lots of people feel the same way.”

I found myself standing in the middle of the kitchen and gripping the receiver like a broken pool cue, but I held my voice quiet. “Is that right?”

Clem sighed, shaky, his small store of pluck running empty. “It’s scary having a stranger with a knife running around is all. I got my shotgun out. And I know I’m not the only one.”

Across the room Marie studied me close. I took a minute and counted three breaths, pulled the chair back and sat down, my voice resigned even to my own ears. “You’ll end up shooting Claudette or one of the kids.”

“I’m a good shot. You’ve hunted with me.”

“Put your gun away. You can tell everyone I’ll pick him up, if I can find him.”

When I hung up Marie shook her head, sympathizing. “Clem.”

“He winds me up, I can’t help it.”

“Anything the matter?”

“I’m starting to think maybe.” I told her about the cemetery and what Clem had told me about the break-in.

She fingered one of the red garnet stud earrings I’d gotten for her on her birthday. “So you were out there again this morning?” She looked at me, concerned, but trying to come off conversational.

Since the funeral it was true I’d been at the cemetery each morning, as if drawn by a forgotten scrap of business I’d been trying to locate there and complete. To say that my relationship with my father had not been a close one would be to describe what we had in grandiose terms. What little connection he and I’d had was painful and strained. He’d been a man’s man, but he’d been hard. Having grown up with me, Marie could testify that, like her own father, mine drank hard and hit hard, too. One of those things in common that made her and me fall for each other, I suppose, growing up like we did with a good understanding of a particular brand of difficulty. People who get raised in nice homes may be nicer people for it, but I’m sorry, they can sometimes seem naïve about the world.

My wife stood patient and waited for me to say something back. Missing my father was a strange surprise to us both. I’d been struggling to better understand the grief his passing had left me with, which was taking the form, I suppose, of trying to better understand the man. I floated my left fist at my reflection in the kitchen window like a lazy jab. “I had this idea that maybe he kept people off him like a boxer.” And so if I’d been more skillful, if I’d been able to slip inside his circle of violence, gotten him into a clinch, I might have helped his life to feel more meaningful—and mine as well.

Marie glanced at the clock on the stove. She was taking another evening class at U of M’s continuing education program, like she’d been since landing her job with Child Welfare a few years ago, and that was another thing. There was never enough time to think things the whole way through, make sense of them. Life kept tugging on your arm like a selfish friend. “You’re going to run late,” I said, “if you don’t get going.”

She gave me a soft but steely look, meaning we both have things to do and I’m so sorry but you have to man the hell up. She had a front row seat to my childhood, so her perspective carried the weight of a witness. Her view was that I’d been a boy and my father a man and that should be where the conversation begins and ends. Nonetheless, without my wanting them to, my thoughts continued circling back to the idea that I could have done things different in my role as a son. Something more than stand dumb and watch the man live and die.

I handed Marie her coat and shrugged into my own. “You got your keys?” Maple Valley was a small town with a small town’s mentality, and like a lot of people Marie still left the house without locking up, though I was trying to break her from the habit. Most of the calls I fielded had to do with kids taking advantage of unlocked back doors to drink beer and watch dirty movies on Pay Per View, maybe pee in the kitchen sink, and that kind of violation isn’t so far from worse kinds, so I worried for her when I wasn’t home.

Though I do try to think of people as decent when push comes to shove.

§

At the foot of our drive Marie turned right toward Ann Arbor and I honked goodbye and turned left, driving down Michigan Avenue, past the Marathon Food Mart across from the middle school, then into and out of town. I turned around in the Greggs’ Grocery parking lot and cruised back slowly, looking up the side streets, shining my floodlight into the alley between Pizza King and Foster Davies’ and scaring a couple of kids – Gary Ullrich and a girl whose face I couldn’t see but assumed was his girlfriend Jill, still in high school – leaning against a brick wall and by all appearances sharing a joint. Gary used to be a basketball star, locally, even got himself a scholarship to Central Michigan. But he flunked out his first year and took a job unloading deliveries of furniture each morning for Foster Davies’.

At the Marathon Food Mart I turned left, crossed over the railroad tracks toward the lake, my thoughts wandering as they do when I drive.

I couldn’t remember an actual conversation with my father in all the years before his heart attack. Just afterward, though, he became downright chatty. We made up a bed in the TV room, and as I helped him to the bathroom or brought in scrambled eggs Marie whipped up, he’d tell me stories, all with the same basic meaning – that though I’d grown up in hard economic times I couldn’t possibly understand them. To understand, he said, someone had to carry the fear that can only come from having a hungry wife and child. And that is how I learned to conceive of my father not as a hard man but a frightened one, a man who kept the world off him as best he could, using what tools he had at his disposal. Understanding how to do that while letting close the ones you love is a problem I can relate to and have found difficult to solve myself.

From the lake I took the dirt road past Maple Valley Golf Course, up and around so I came out near Clem’s place. On my way back to town, I called the State Patrol.

§

About an hour later at the township offices, Russ Nagel threw his hat on my desk and sat down in front of me. He held the deerskin gloves his wife had made him from the twelve-point buck he’d shot three or four Octobers ago in one hand and rubbed his eyes with the other. A sergeant for the State Patrol, he was a bear of a man with bushy blonde hair and mutton chop sideburns who’d grown up with me in Jackson. “I hear you have a problem.”

“Some vagrant. Might have a knife. Slept last night in the cemetery, scared Clem Shaw and his family out on Knight Road. Might not even be around anymore.”

A plate of Gwen Ravelle’s cookies sat on the front corer of my desk. Gwen had a little stuffed-animal repair shop next to the bank, and though she complained about her lack of customers she was always putting up her “Back in a Flash” sign to flit around downtown on a search for fresh gossip. Cookie distribution was one of her primary newsgathering tactics. I offered the plate to Russ. He shook his head and patted his paunch. “Maybe a walk-away?”

I nodded toward the police-band radio. “If he walked away the prison would have put it out by now.”

“Not for 24-48 hours they wouldn’t. They’d try to handle it internally, cover their asses.” He took a cookie and ate half in one bite. “You should call them.” He brushed crumbs from his shirt.

That the boy may have walked away from confinement made me like him and root for his being far away, a thought that surprised me. “Maybe tomorrow morning.”

“You want me to call?”

“No. You’re right. No sense wasting time.”

Standing up, he retrieved his hat and squinted at the self-help book on my desk. “Tough job, reading books all day.”

“Gift from my son.” I picked up the unread book, held it in my hand.

Russ’ expression softened. He also has a son. “How is Jamie?”

“Figuring things out.”

He nodded, fidgeted with his hat.

“He doesn’t think much of me, I’m afraid.” I was sorry to have shared the thought, and I smiled.

“He must know you too well.” He winked and put on his hat.

I chuckled from politeness. “Thanks, Russ.”

“I’ll stick close. Holler if you need me.”

He took a second cookie and left, and I started the coffee and called the prison. Waiting on hold in my quiet office gave me a pang of loneliness. I listened to the coffee perking. My thoughts were scattered. I did not want to think about the young man in the cemetery and I did not want to think about my father. I thought about the confiscated Audi, maybe picking up spark plugs at the hardware. Jamie hadn’t taken to the project like I’d hoped, but the work still needed done. Across the street, Cary Wolbers arranged his display window, removing leaf blowers to be replaced no doubt with snow boots and shovels, planting ideas of winter in his customer’s minds.

One fall, when I was a boy, there’d been several weekends when my father had taken me for long walks through the woods and the leaf-filled fields past the cemetery, over the railroad tracks. We walked for miles. He kept a fair pace, as his exercise, but I never flagged. I discovered then a determination that has helped me in my life, a quiet focus and doggedness to do whatever it took to not fall too far behind. At some point he must have grown tired of my company and again took his walks alone. Before he died, grown melancholy, he said that alone his pace had slowed considerably and though we’d never spoken when we walked, the new quiet disturbed him. He wished he’d slowed his pace earlier, spoken more.

§

The next morning, I learned the vagrant’s name. Jed Zimmer. And that he wasn’t a vagrant at all but a trustee at the Jackson Prison, had been for over a year, in on a drug charge, before he walked away from the minimum-security work gang only six months before his release date. An irrational act that highlighted for me the rarity of rational action in the world. The Jackson Prison is a hard place for hard men where my father worked for a time before his ill-fated career in sales. Around the trustee farm the state had posted dozens of signs. “State Prison: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS,” and “Trustee Area: NO RIFLES OR SHOTGUNS PAST THIS POINT.” The Deputy Warden at Jackson Prison assured me Jed Zimmer wasn’t dangerous, just a bit touched.

It was 8:00 a.m., and I thanked the Deputy Warden and hung up the telephone, then put in a radio call to Russ. By 8:45 Russ, two other state troopers, and an administrative representative from the prison all packed into my small office, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and arguing jurisdiction when my phone rang.

The call was from Gary Ullrich. “Harry, you looking for a guy? In an army coat? With a knife?”

“Sure are.”

“Well, he sliced my arm pretty fucking good.”

I tried to keep my voice easy. “You get the blood stopped?”

“Jill bandaged me okay.”

“Good. Good. Thanks for calling. Where is he now?”

“I don’t know – I came into work, woke him up, surprised him. He cut me, ran out of the warehouse. I don’t know… up the alley maybe.”

I told Gary to have Jill drive him to the hospital and hung up and looked out the window at the early morning Michigan Avenue activity. Marty Brunty swept an already spotless sidewalk, Cary Wolbers switched on the new neon sign in his front window that said “Open” in bright red, and a Lion’s Club member stood on the front steps of the Comerica Bank in his red fez with a box full of red ribbons to sell. People stopped and gossiped and waved to one another across the street, bundled in wool coats and gloves against the early morning chill. Pickup trucks and cars drove by.

From the shadows of the alley between the furniture store and the pizza parlor the young man – Jed Zimmer – half stumbled, half ran. In the bright sunshine he stopped on the sidewalk and shaded his eyes, squinting. He wore the old army coat, ripped at the pocket. In his hand he held a carpet knife.

I stood to get a better look. In one of those freeze-frame moments the room went quiet – the five of us seemed to hold a collective breath. Then the prison administrator reached across my desk for the phone, and as if released by his action, the three state policemen left my office. The troopers fanned out as they crossed the street.

I followed close. The patrolmen hemmed Jed Zimmer in in front of the bank, forming a loose half-circle around him. Wordlessly, they looked to each other as if for direction, hands tense on their weapons at their hips. The Lion’s Club fundraiser stood trapped with his back to the bank’s locked door, clutching his box of red ribbons to his chest. His nose was running, but he didn’t move to wipe it. Somebody coughed behind me, and the patrolmen shifted their weight on their feet. Jed Zimmer acted as if he didn’t know the patrolmen were there and this confused them. He stood staring up into the sky with his hands at his sides.

Gwen Ravelle stepped out of Wolbers’ Hardware, heading in the direction of her shop. Her expression changed from curiosity to fear. She shrieked and pulled two older women by their coat sleeves back with her into the store.

Jed Zimmer’s eyes snapped to Gwen, then to the men encircling him. The officers tensed and crouched, and he tensed and crouched, his eyes cloudy, as if hidden by a gauze of thin fog. He took a step backward and the patrolmen drew their weapons. He slashed at the air in front of him with the carpet knife.

Time slowed, and inside my head I shouted, too, echoing the commands of the patrolmen but in more of a pleading way. Put the knife down, don’t shoot, move, do something. Russ Nagel wore white tennis shoes and his breath was visible when he shouted, the muscles in his neck standing out. I may have whispered, “Put it down, Jed.”

He looked at me. His eyes were like a sleepwalker’s, but he looked at me, and his eyes focused in recognition.

§

My father had been a large man, a salesman from the old school, the bourbon and beer chaser school, and a bar fighter. He’d never warmed to his role as father or as husband. I believe that his denial of his actual family life and his pining for some other unknown thing both made him less of a man and defined the walls of his confinement. He’d threatened to take his own life several times while drunk and alone in various motel rooms in various Midwestern cities. My mother always seemed happier while he was away.

After his heart attack, while I drove him home after his discharge from Foote Hospital where he’d been for ten days, he sat with his large, limp hands folded in his lap, staring out the window, his once bearded face clean-shaven, his weathered skin sunken and hanging from his cheek bones. He’d always had a commanding profile.

Three weeks later he died in my arms as I helped him on with his pajamas. Eyes large and open, he stared at me as if waking from a nightmare and pulled me close to his face. Suddenly strong, gripping my shirt at the chest in one fist and holding my arm, he whispered fiercely, “Don’t let me go. Please, son, don’t let me go.” He cried, frightened tears like a child. Then he was still, and I laid him back, an emptiness flowing into me like a great opportunity missed, again, and finally.

When I replay the scene in the street, this is what I remember: Jed Zimmer held a knife in his fist as if he had forgotten it was there. My own first reaction, like jerking awake. My step forward through the ring of men who surrounded him.

I handed my weapon to Russ as I passed him – I know this only because he gave it back later and told me what I had done was damn stupid. I felt a squeezing in my chest, like a drop in air pressure, a physical difference between standing outside that ring and stepping into its center. It’s the memory of that sensation that keeps me up at night.

Standing inside that small circle of patrolmen and looking into Jed Zimmer’s eyes, I stopped perceiving him as irrational and saw him as just another man unable to reconcile the freedom of being alive with his larger sense of confinement. Like my father, who even when alone and surrounded by nothing but bare trees and open fields seemed to feel closed in, limited in his possibilities.

Jed Zimmer handed me his knife when I asked him, the patrolmen pinioned him to the sidewalk, and I’ll keep this job now for as long as I want it.

Marie’s protests notwithstanding, I’ve replaced my mornings in the cemetery with occasional trips to see Jed Zimmer out at the state penitentiary. We sit across a low concrete table from each other in a small enclosed visiting area. We don’t speak much. But the quiet allows me to better hear the direction of the thoughts I’ve been having, like sitting in a deer blind and listening closely to the sound of hooves crunching leaves.

Or the sound of my father’s footsteps on our walks. I try to listen to how much I miss him. Not him exactly, maybe, but more the possibility of him. I try to figure out what that means for me, a father of course myself.

 


Cass Pursell recently had work published in Shenandoah, and is finishing his first novel and a story collection, of which “The Walk Away” is a part. He met his wife, Peg Alford Pursell, while earning his MFA at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and now lives in California.