a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The trick was easy. Ryan had practiced it a hundred times since his father brought home the magic set. It was all a matter of what the thin booklet called sleight of hand. To slip the coin down your sleeve with a quick flick of the wrist. Just a trick. Still, it felt like magic when he got it right, when the coin truly did seem to disappear. A quick flick of the wrist. He could almost do it perfectly now.
His stomach growled. He put away the coin and went down the hall into the kitchen. It was Sunday morning, and his father was asleep at the table. Ryan moved past him to the fridge. There was hardly any food: peanut butter, a half-full carton of french fries. Old relish. His father didn’t shop anymore. During the week, Ryan snuck extra sandwiches from the cafeteria. On the weekends, he could get even better sandwiches after Mass, in the little room where the priest taught Catechism. The priest, a kind, ruddy man named Father Pete, never said anything about it. And so Ryan always brought something home for his father, too.
But his father was never hungry. Ryan hardly ever saw him eat anymore.
He decided on the french fries, and popped them in the microwave. When they were ready, he brought them to the table with the jar of peanut butter. His father was still asleep, with his head on the table. His curly black hair was thinning and the white scalp showed beneath like a fish’s belly. If they went fishing, he and his father, they’d do it just like on TV, water sizzling against the side of the boat and his father at the helm as he drove them further and further away from shore. As if seeing it too, Ryan’s father raised his head. One eye was all red like something had burst inside. He blinked.
“Morning,” Ryan said. He pushed the plate across the table.
His father coughed, like his throat was full of sand. Ryan got up and filled a glass at the sink.
“Thanks,” his father said, taking the glass. “Is there any coffee?”
Ryan knew the can was empty without looking; it had been since Tuesday, and no one had been to the store. But he checked anyway—nothing inside but his own reflection, warped at the bottom of the can. He threw it away. When he turned around his father had the foil out.
He took back the plate of french fries. His father wouldn’t eat them now. The foil crackled and Ryan dipped a finger into the peanut butter and drew out a gob and slid it into his mouth. He ate a fry, too. His father’s lighter scraped once, twice, and Ryan waited for it to be done.
After a while, he looked up, and the foil was blackened and empty. His father was watching him, nodding and biting his lip. “How’s mom?” Ryan asked, even though there was no use asking.
Today Father Pete talked about transubstantiation: the hinge of Catholic faith. Ryan already knew the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation and all about the different kinds of sin. If somebody killed you immediately after consuming the Eucharist, he would be doing you a favor, because you wouldn’t have the chance to sin again. Last year Ryan received his First Communion, and ever since he’d watched at every Mass while Father Pete covered the paten with a white cloth and an altar server rang the bell. He kept his eyes on the Eucharist during Hosanna in the Highest and when he knelt, then stood, and said the “Our Father.” He never saw any change. When he said “Amen” and received the Eucharist, it looked the same as before—a small, skin-colored disc. And it tasted, true, plain as a cracker.
But he knew about things that could change, that could look one way and act the other.
Monday, after school, he walked toward the center of town, and after a block or so the dog appeared. The stray was all black, nose to tail, with only a diamond of white on her head. She followed him to school each morning and wore no collar. Sometimes, like today, he could find her on the way home, too. She liked to be scratched on the little white patch on her head, closing her eyes and growling low, like a purr. She also liked to eat crawfish shells from the side of the road: red husks, black eyes and antennas. The dog crunched them down.
They walked together a few blocks, until chain link fences marked off dusty yards and children his own age, but black, ran around in the dust. Men sat on upturned milk crates on the sides of houses and stopped talking when Ryan walked past. A large woman came out the door of a house and yelled at the circle of running children. They scattered back into the woods. Ryan walked on, to the railroad tracks. They bent from the woods to the north, past an abandoned grain elevator, and ran along a strip of spongy grass before disappearing between the old brick buildings on Main Street. This was his favorite place.
But the dog had left him, drawn to the running children or smell of cooking food or other dogs lying in the dust on the sides of houses. He walked along the tracks and kicked rocks that clattered along the ties. The rails ran north across the whole country, everywhere, anywhere you wanted to go.
It began as a hum, more of a feeling, really, than noise. A tingling in the hair of the back of his neck.
Years ago, his father had shown him how to lay a coin on the silver rail before a train came through.
“Right in the center,” he’d said, showing him where to put the penny. “Otherwise it won’t work right.” His father balanced the penny on the rail. “And even then, even if you get it just right, sometimes it doesn’t work. But that’s just life.”
The train howled as it nosed around the bend of pines. Ryan searched his pockets, but didn’t find a coin. The train sent its thrumming up his feet from the rails and up his spine to his teeth. The black grille of metal and glass passed the grain elevator. Its whistle cried a long note. Ryan knew how he must look, standing on the tracks, wearing his school’s navy uniform jacket and khakis like a doll, a miniature boy, his own face round like a penny and toylike small to the train that zoomed toward him.
He took a few steps back into the grass and watched the train blow past. It wasn’t a passenger train, but he watched it anyway. The cars went too fast to count, and trying made him sick.
The whistle shrieked as it barreled through the intersection in town—flashing lights and clanging bells and striped arms held flat, stopping traffic. The train rocked side to side, like a caravan of bulls lashed together and thundering south toward Manchac and the swamps, where the tracks would carry it over cypress-knotted black water, one more place Ryan had heard about but never seen.
At home, the couch and coffee table had been dragged against the far wall. He had to squeeze past them to get through the front door. His father had the TV face down on the living room floor. The back panel was open to plastic circuit boards and coils of metal, and he was staring into the cavity. Various tools were neatly arranged at his side. The foil, greasy brown and used, was balanced on the low windowsill, and Ryan could smell it.
“You came at just the right time,” his father said. His eyes shone. “Come here.”
Ryan dropped his backpack on the floor and knelt beside him. “What happened?”
“Nothing happened.” He looked irritated—then, in a second, ecstatic. “No, of course it did, something did, something happened, something always does. You’re very smart. You’ll understand this.” He took a huge, elaborate breath. “It won’t turn on, is all.”
“Oh.” Ryan looked into the TV.
“What good am I if I can’t fix a simple problem?” He folded his hands in his lap. “Nothing. Total shit.” He leaned close and widened his eyes, showing the pink webs. “But I can fix it. We can fix it. Together.”
It had been so long since they had done anything together.
His father showed him what he thought the problem was—the power cord was loose where it hooked onto the green circuit plate inside the back of the TV.
“Do you have a new one?”
“I bet we can fix it just the way it is. Hand me that soldering iron.”
The heavy black tool had a fine point and a cord running out the back, which his father plugged into the socket near the windowsill. His hands stopped a few inches from the foil and for a moment his whole body was still, and then he moved back to the TV and pressed the iron to the solder, melting it into little beads on the circuit plate where the cord hooked on.
“What do I always tell you?”
He had to think. “Right tool for the job?”
“You got it.” He put the cover back on the TV and set it upright on the floor, and when he plugged it in an image jumped onto the screen and music played from the speakers, too loud, and they leapt to their feet and slapped high fives.
“I’ll get some dinner ready, if you want,” Ryan said as his father dragged the couch and coffee table back in place.
“I’m not hungry. You make whatever you want, though.” He set the TV on top its wooden stand against the wall, then retrieved the foil from the windowsill and sat on the couch with it in his lap. “You want to watch with me? Your mother could be on at any time.” He flicked the lighter.
“I have a lot of homework to do,” Ryan said.
“I’ll get you when she shows up.”
He went down the hall to his room, shut the door, and slid the magic set from beneath his bed. He practiced the coin trick over and over again. Later, when his father called, he didn’t move.
The dog wasn’t waiting for him in the morning. Walking home, at the end of the day, he spotted it in the backyard of one of those houses where the black kids lived. It was like this throughout the week. He walked home alone and the dog did not follow. It would be running in the woods or lying in the shade on the side of the houses. It never seemed to see him. Ryan stomped every crawfish shell he found into the dirt.
By Thursday he had a plan. He set out toward the house where the dog now stayed with his pockets stuffed with sandwiches wrapped in paper napkins, along with a few chicken nuggets. He’d toss it a piece, or something. It wasn’t much of a plan. But they were very good chicken nuggets and he’d had to smell them all afternoon in his pockets. The dog would have to follow him home.
In the woods behind the house, the children were shouting. Ryan stood in the street. What would they say if he jumped the ditch and ran in there? He scanned the woods, looking for flashes of movement, and then he saw his father’s car. It was parked in the front yard of the house by the woods, pulled up close.
He turned and walked down the street. He knew his father had to get it somewhere, but why here? A door slammed. The engine started, its familiar rattle. He peeked over his shoulder: the back end of his father’s car was edging out the driveway. Up ahead was just empty road, the intersection too far away to run to before his father would see him. The bottom of the car scraped asphalt as it backed fully out the driveway and he jumped the ditch and crashed through a thorn bush and hunkered down, watching the road.
The car passed slowly. Both his father’s hands were on the wheel, and his face was pale. His tongue was between his lips, like he was biting it.
Ryan walked deeper into the woods, toward the sound of the kids playing. Soon he could see them darting between the trees, and there was the dog, running behind. He ducked a low-hanging vine and came onto a path. There were two of them—one older, in front, and one younger, just behind—and they jumped and shouted when they saw Ryan.
“You scared us half to death!” the older one said.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Just walking home.” The dog ran forward and licked Ryan’s hand. He rubbed the white spot on her head and gave her a piece of the chicken nugget. “Hey girl,” he said.
“How you know Mamee?” the younger boy asked.
“This is my dog.”
“No she ain’t.”
“Sure she is.” Ryan gave her another piece of the chicken nugget. “She’s just been missing.”
“Mamee is our dog,” the older boy said. “Has been forever.”
“That’s a lie.”
They stared at each other.
“Come here Mamee,” the older boy said.
The dog cocked her head but stayed where she was at Ryan’s side.
“See?” he said. “I’ll bet she follows me home, too.”
The older boy took a step closer. “No she won’t. You’re not taking Mamee away.” He grabbed the dog’s scruff with one hand and she yelped and skittered her feet through the leaves as he dragged her down the path.
“He gonna tie her up,” the younger boy said, “and she won’t get out again. Bad Mamee.” He turned and followed the older boy.
Tree shadows slid across their backs as they moved down the path. Pretty soon they would be gone, the dog tied up somewhere and he would never see her again. They were walking away; they’d already forgotten him. It was the same as everything else.
He ran after them.
The older one turned, saw him running, and let go of the dog’s scruff and took off through the woods. The younger one was slower. Ryan grabbed him and whirled him around. Something came unhinged in the kid’s wrist, and he started wailing, but Ryan held on. The older one was already far off in the thorny woods and running with the dog. Ryan yanked the kid to the ground and fell on top of him, digging his knees into the kid’s chest. There was another popping sound, like the kid was made of dry spaghetti. Ryan hit him, splitting his lip. The kid was shrieking now. His voice was frantic, hitching with every breath. Ryan kept hitting.
His father was on the couch. The TV was on and the foil, heaped with butter-colored powder, sat on his lap. “How was school?” he said.
“It was okay.”
His father put an empty pen tube in his mouth and lit the lighter beneath the foil. It crackled and his father inhaled and Ryan could smell the wet-paint smell.
“I got in a fight.”
His father turned his head, the pen tube still in his mouth. There were sharp creases in his cheeks, like arrows pointing to his pursed lips. “In school?” His words were muffled by the plastic tube.
“You look all right.”
“I didn’t get hurt.”
His father smiled around the tube, biting on it. “That’s my boy,” he said. He turned back to the TV and lifted the lighter and foil again. “That’s my goddam boy.”
“Well, the kids. They.” He watched his father and listened to the wheeze of his breath through the plastic tube. “Yeah.”
His father closed his eyes and opened them again. They were wet and reflected the yellow and red light of the TV screen.
Ryan remembered the sandwiches in his pocket and took them out. They were mashed flat and had leaked through the napkins a bit, but they were still okay.
“Here. You hungry?”
His father waved a hand, still looking at the TV. “No, no, you eat. I’m fine.” He flicked the lighter.
“I’ll save one for you for later.”
His father finally took the pen tube out of his mouth and put it with the blackened foil on the coffee table. He flipped through the channels with the remote then leaned forward, his neck jutting out.
There was a woman on the screen. She walked down a busy street and the camera followed her through a crowd of people that seemed to part and make way for her. She wore dark sunglasses and red lipstick. Her hair was shoulder-length and black.
“She’s beautiful,” his father said. “God, she was always beautiful. Just look at her.” He pointed. “Where is that, New York? I knew she’d make it to New York.”
Music played on the TV and the camera cut to a shot of her high heels jabbing the sidewalk, then to glass buildings that caught her reflection, then way, way up to show the crowd unzipping before her as she walked and coming together again in her wake. Ryan tried to pretend that she actually was his mother, like his father could pretend each night, no matter who it was. He ate his sandwich and tried not to think about the way she looked before she left, or where she might be now. She left on the train—she must have, he’d decided, because she didn’t take the car. Most of her things were still hanging neatly in his father’s closet. Or she could be just across town. She could have just walked away.
He tried not to think about it. She took the train. But he knew that New York was very far away and they didn’t let people like his mother in movies, even if she did put on dark sunglasses and lipstick.
Later, he practiced the coin trick. He had it down now. He could make it disappear into his sleeve quick as a blink.
On Sunday, he walked early to Mass and waited in one of the back pews for the red light above the confessional to turn green. After a while, a lady came out, and he walked in and sat in the wicker chair across from Father Pete. Between them, on the table, was a bible. There was no booth or screen and Ryan wished there was, even though Father Pete would have recognized his voice and known it was him, anyway.
He scuffed his shoes against the chair. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”
“Bless you my son.”
He told him about grabbing the boy and kneeling on his chest and hitting him. He told him about the sound the boy’s chest had made and the blood on his hand.
It took Father Pete a long time to respond. “Why did you do that?”
“I just got really mad and it happened. I knew it was wrong.”
Father Pete rubbed the bible’s black cover, then clasped his hands. “We all get angry sometimes,” he said. “Anger is like a trap, and we have to do our best not fall into it. When I get angry, and I feel like doing something violent, like what you said, I close my eyes and take deep breaths. Have you tried that before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“It helps. Everyone feels anger, violent anger. Next time, try taking deep breaths. Slow breaths. Don’t try to pray, or anything—not when you feel like that. You’ve got to calm down first.” He flipped open the bible and found a passage, put his finger on the page. “How’s your dad doing?”
He stared at the tiny print. “He’s okay.”
“I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Not too sick, I hope.”
Father Pete was silent a moment and Ryan thought he was about to start asking questions. He looked up at Father Pete’s collar too tight on his neck and a spot he’d missed while shaving.
“If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. You know where I am.”
He lifted his finger from the page and read the passage, then told Ryan to say ten Hail Mary’s and ten Our Father’s and let him leave. Ryan went back to the pew and knelt and said the prayers.
He should have told him about the dog. He should have said that everything was getting out of hand. He knew that leaving things out or even bending the truth was lying, and it was a sin to lie in confession. But he couldn’t tell it to Father Pete, so he asked God to forgive him, then sat back in the pew and waited for Mass to start.
It was one of those times when there wasn’t any singing. At communion, it took forever for everyone to shuffle down the aisle, and there wasn’t any noise except for people’s feet moving and Father Pete’s low voice at the front, offering the Eucharist. Ryan tried to not make a sound, but even his breathing was loud. At every Mass he had the same fear: that he would trip and fall into the person in front of him, who would fall into the next, and like dominos they’d tumble all the way to the front and spill the Eucharist. He focused on his footsteps and eventually made it to the altar. Now it was his turn.
“The body of Christ.”
Father Pete offered the Eucharist, and Ryan brought it to his mouth and then slipped it into his sleeve as he crossed himself and walked back to the pew. He knelt until all had received, and Father Pete collected what was not consumed, and then Ryan crossed himself again and sat back.
It lay flat against his forearm, a sharp, cold circle.
After Mass, the train came through. Its whistle blew over the rooftops and he stopped at the bottom of the church steps, letting families pass on either side. He closed his eyes and listened. Really, he loved the train, the way it turned the town into a big clock, hammering through on time, day after day. All his life he would live in train towns. The rest of the families filtered out and walked away, and Ryan went home.
His father was asleep at the table.
His father groaned and stayed where he was, hunched into folded arms. Ryan said it again, and eventually his father sat up and dropped his forehead into his palm, his elbow on the table. His eyes were glassy and veined, with greasy bruises under them, valleys and pools. A garbage smell came off him.
“I’m sick, Buddy.”
The foil was like a dead silver bird on the table. There was nothing in it but a black stain, but his father reached for it anyway.
“Wait,” Ryan said. He dug the communion wafer from his sleeve and held it out. “You need to do this.”
His father’s hand stopped crawling toward the foil. He laughed, a small laugh without opening his mouth. And then he sat up straight and stuck out his tongue.