Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fork in the Road

This is a chapter from my novel, Sweet William.

The road is not clearly marked
as it narrows to a fork;
which way? The heart asks.

William was patching the tire of a Toyota pick-up when he saw Tom's golden Buick pull up. Tom was smiling, walking straighter and looking older, William noticed.

"You got an "A" didn't you? William asked.

Tom's smile grew bigger as he replied, "How'd you know?"

"Oh, I don't know, you just look like you have fifty dollars more than you did last time I saw you", William said, with a wink.

"I won't have it for long. I'm about to fill my tank with gas."

"Good, then you can take this old man for another ride when he's done working," William said.

"Not today," Tom said. I've got a date with Maria. Maybe some other time?"

"Sure, some other time," William said, touching the tire with a friendly pat. I've plenty to do here. Have fun on your date."

Tom jumped into his car with elastic in his legs and drove off with a wave as William watched, fighting to keep the smile on his face.

Later, even though he was tightening lug nuts, William was thinking of leaning against a tree in mountains far away; sitting so still that life around him went about its daily tasks. A cottontail dislodged the rotting leaves and pine needles beside him, then stopped and sniffed, scratched a soft, pink ear and disappeared behind a log. Purple Lupine caught the air, to dance in a spot of sun beside the California poppies that littered the slope. From the trail of his imagination, William heard the sound of water from a stream nearby. Three quail, bobbing their heads in unison, their pointed feather hats erect, marched with purpose towards the sound.

He rolled out from under the car, wiped his hands and wrote in neat print on the yellow order form. In the garage the air felt stiff. The smells of gasoline and oil filled his nostrils. He knew his skin and clothes held the lingering scent long after he left the garage. As he wiped off the tools he had been using and returned them to the drawer, he heard a scrape behind him. He felt the skin on his arms raise to goose flesh and felt his heart move from the peace place in his mind, then skip, jump and speed him a warning.

He turned slowly and looked at the young man standing there.

"What are you looking at?" he said to William. "I saw you with that fat chick ... she your girlfriend? She's got so much blubber; I don't know how you can do it with her. But then you're not much yourself, are you?"

William started walking towards the man. He could feel a red pounding in his temples, could feel the heat rise from inside where rage was hidden, could feel it pushing him.

"You ... listen ... you foul-mouthed piece of no good...."William couldn't continue. His mind had filled up with something that had no words.

The man's face contorted and dislodged a sound that belched an acid laugh into the garage. William could hear it echo unpleasantly across the meadow in his mind, where the mule deer, squirrel and black bear roamed. He saw it form a dark and menacing cloud over the sun-dappled place of poppies and lupine.

As William moved closer, the sounds ceased and the man spoke. "You're a yellow-bellied excuse for a man," he said. "You need some fat lady now to take care of you, ha. I could...."

William's fist came up from inside the cave where the sleeping bear had been all winter. It came up rested and filled with purpose and lunged with the full black weight of his hunger into the face before him. He felt the cartilage like chicken bones dislodge and heard a satisfying crack before the Technicolor of red blood erupted into the air. The man held his face with both hands and sank to his knees in front of William. Drops fell slowly onto the grease-stained cement making a satisfying and almost silent plop.

Before William understood what he had done, before he felt the throb in his knuckles, before he could even think what to do next about his leg that was aching to have a part in the action, the man got up sputtering and turned. In his hand was a knife.

He lunged at William, making a jabbing movement towards his chest. "I'm going to cut your heart out," he hissed, "I'm going to puncture your lungs till there's no more breath in you."

William looked around and saw the tire iron propped against the back of the car and a hub cap lying next to it. He hopped back and forth as he dodged the knife, until he could pick up the hub cap. He used it like a shield in front of him, as the knife twanged against the hard surface.

"Hey, what's going on here?" Clive was standing in the entrance of the garage. William saw light shimmer around him from the glare of the sun at his back, and for a moment thought Clive was an angel; only this angel had a gun in his hand.

"Mike, put that knife down right now. Before you have more trouble then you could ever imagine," Clive said.

Mike spun around with the knife raised and then saw the gun. First, the features on his face that had been a grimace, fell into place as he worked on calming his body. William watched in amazement as a monster became a confused and frightened youth. Mike dropped the knife on the cement at his feet, and then looked down at it as if he didn't know where it had come from.

"Hey, man, I was just defending myself against this son-of-a-bitch maniac," he said and looked at William. "He broke my nose," he whined.

"Do I need to call the police or were you about to get out of here? If you don't, you're going to jail", Clive told him. "You can do a lot of time for assault with a deadly weapon."

Mike started walking away, and then threw a look of hatred at William. "You haven't seen the last of me," he said. Clive and William watched as he lurched across the black asphalt and turned the corner.

"What happened to cause that?" Clive asked.

"He was saying bad things about Nell. I don't know ... I just had enough and hit him. I haven't been in a fight since high school. Then he pulled the knife." Williams hand was shaking as he reached down and picked up the knife and looked at the long silver blade.

William's hands were still shaking later as he sat in the library. He had the newspaper open on the table in front of him but he wasn't reading it. He was thinking about being a man. "He had it coming," Clive had said, but William was thinking about Tim.

Tim had been fourteen ... a slender boy with rosy cheeks and hair the color of Samantha Elizabeth's and curls like his own. "There's this guy that's been bothering me at school," he'd said. "He makes fun of me, takes my homework and scribbles on it, calls me 'pretty boy'."

Tim played the piano. His long tapering fingers pulled passion from a keyboard and it didn't come from a sheet of music in front of him, it came from inside him, from his soul. "What should I do?" he asked William that day.

"Nothing good ever comes from violence," William remembered saying. "Feel sorry for him, I would think. It doesn't seem like he has much self-esteem. If you ignore him and don't let what he says and does get your goat, then he'll probably lose interest and stop."

The words he'd said to Tim were fresh again. How could he have forgotten? William looked back down at the paper where he had read the words that seemed like they had been placed there today, just for him to see; the words that brought back Tim's question and his answer. The article he read was talking in general about violence and its effect on humanity. He read the words again: "We live in a society where violence is too often seen as a solution to our most intractable problems. Violence is not the solution: It is the clearest sign of our failures."

This was a question for fathers, a question for leaders of countries, and a question for humanity. It was a question from every son, and from his own son. Generations of questioning what is right and what is wrong. His own father had told him, be a man. He knew now what his father meant and if being a man was like that, he would be another kind of man.

The violence of twisted metal; violence of one man's solution from the bottle, had slammed into and twisted, then torn apart his family. Where was the difference in solutions? The bottle, the fist ... they both led to hurting and came from the same place. William felt warmth around him and the power of Samantha Elizabeth's soft touch and knew the answer.

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