Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Age of Iron



"For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.... Bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil."

-- Hesiod, Works and Days

I: A prettiness like the end of day

Taylor sat at the small folding table in the kitchen and listened to the song play softly in her head. It was the same song that had played all day, and its wordless tune was becoming familiar to her so late in the afternoon, coming on evening, actually. She glanced around and noticed all the clutter. She decided to do something with the mess. It was mostly unpaid bills, probably, and old newspapers and National Geographic magazines, and junk advertisements, and mailings all scattered over the top of the table. It was a wonder they could ever find anything.

She thumbed through the mess of papers and noticed his name on almost all of them. "Most of this mess is his fault," she thought, (as she had thought so many times before). She shook her head and sighed, and then she pulled the trash can out from under the kitchen sink and moved it over beside the folding table with the cracked and torn plastic cover in the middle of it--the "lovely centerpiece" of their "lovely dining-room table," she often made a point to chide her husband--and with a broad sweep of her petite and delicate arm, she cleared the table of all its papers and watched them fall into the garbage. "Done. Just like that," she thought. And she smiled. "Simple. So simple. No mess." She sighed again and moved to the counter, reaching above the sink this time and opening the cupboard door.

She was young--somewhere in her late 20s--and she was pretty. Very pretty, actually. But Taylor's prettiness was more like the soft, unearthly glow of dusk, when all of nature seems frozen in place for just the briefest of seconds, locked as it is in a muted and indescernible haze of dying colors. Taylor's prettiness had been likened to a Monet painting one time, but that was years ago, back when she was younger and in college, and her admirer had been just one of many. He had been studying art, she remembered, although she could not remember his name. Her sorority sisters, then, had ridiculed her for playing with his attentions. But oh well, what did it matter? She smiled, remembering that he, at least, had known who Monet was. She remembered that much about him, anyway. And he was cute. He was a young man who had known the distinction of shades, and Taylor's beauty was "impressionistic," he had told her. It was like a silhouette, almost, even back then. And even now, there was the dark outline of the girl she used to be, to be sure, but the warmth and the brightness of those days seemed behind her now. As well as the days earlier. And the days earlier still. Until now, even though she was only in her late 20s, all that seemed left behind was the dim outline. The prettiness of shadow, and the subtle difference--and the sometimes not-so-subtle difference--between light and darkness.

She pulled down the bottle from the cupboard, unstoppering the cork, and tilted the Chardonnay into her wine glass. Taylor looked out the window above the sink as she slowly pressed her palm against the top of the splintered cork and palm-pressed it back a quarter of its length into the bottle's green neck. She stood there looking out the window at the flat, barren wasteland of western Kansas stretching away from her. Trees were absent, but what few trees there were scattered their brown-gold leaves in the stirring of wind. There were no houses nearby. No neighbors. No one at all within miles. Wooden poles and power lines that leaned and sagged along the dirt road in front of their house seemed to taunt her. The wires always seemed like a joke to her, almost, disappearing with their thin cords into the distance the way they did, as if anyone or anything was actually on the other end of them.

She shook her head to clear such thoughts, and she took another drink of her wine. Looking out the window, she saw her husband. He had been outside all day. All by himself. Doing God-only-knows what. His red pickup was parked by the old barn behind the house, the battered old flatbed-trailer was hitched behind it, piled with junk that Burton had been working on all day. "More fucking clutter," she thought to herself and almost laughed. But she took another drink instead.

Burton had been working back by the old iron pile all day, leaving her alone inside the house. And the old farmhouse was big. It had been built by Burton's grandfather, back sometime in the late 1800s, or so the story went. All she knew was that the old house was a bitch for her to keep clean, even though it was only just the two of them, she and Burton. But when it was built, Burton's grandfather had planned for many rooms, because back in those days--back in the late 1800s, certainly, alone on a farm in the middle of nowhere in western Kansas--the plan was for a man and his wife to have as many children as possible to help with the work. The boys would be there to help their father in the fields and the girls to help their mother in the house with all the cooking and the cleaning and the washing and the chores. 

Taylor had heard it all before from Burton's father. She had heard it many times before from that miserable old man. And even though it had been just a little less than four years since Burton's father had died from the emphysema and the eventual lung cancer that everyone knew was bound to catch up with him, Taylor swore she could still hear him sometimes. She swore--in the quiet of the large, empty house all by herself when Burton was away at work or even when he was lying beside her in the dark of the night in their bed--that she could still hear the old man's rattling voice. Burton's father. And that goddamned cough of his.

The past weighed heavily on her.

Taylor swirled the remnants of Chardonnay in her glass, and then she put the wine to her lips to finish it off. She clutched gently at her chest as she swallowed. She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, and she stood by the sink and looked out the window into the far yard at her young husband working alone. He appeared to be talking to himself as he worked, she couldn't help but notice.  A fact which didn't surprise her all that much. Not these days, anyway.

"He looks soft," she thought to herself. "Too young to be so soft...." And she smiled.

She heard the wind picking up outside, pulling at what leaves were left in the lonely, late-October trees around the old farmhouse. She heard the distant song playing softly in her head, and before long she began to sway back and forth on the kitchen floor by the sink and the folding table with the cracked plastic cover. She swayed to the song, and she even sang quietly in her head, moving to the rhythm and the chords as if she knew the words. As if she were dancing. Alone.

II: Clouds and desert

"Be careful, son," Burton said. "You don't want to stand too close. Sometimes heated iron will pop, and it will get you."

"Your father is right," the old man said. His face was thin, and the skin around his eyes and mouth hung in folds and looked to be nearly translucent in the last hours of the daylight. The wrinkles on the old man's face reminded the little boy of clouds.

The sky in the west was dark, and the clouds looked like sand dunes in the desert. The little boy had seen pictures of the desert before, just some pictures in a magazine that his father received in the mail. He had been sitting on his father's lap one warm, comfortable afternoon when it was just the two of them, and they had looked through the magazine together. And the clouds looked like those shifting hills of sand in the desert, he thought. Yes, those clouds in the west looked like a patchwork of hills all blue and gray.

"You don't ever want to underestimate iron," the old man continued. His voice was weak and muffled by a deep cough. The old man's cough sounded like death. The old man's cough was hollow, and it seemed to tear something from whatever was left of his insides. And it hurt to listen to it. It was scary listening to it. And sometimes it seemed it would last forever. But the cough would always end. And then the next cough would come, worse than the one before.

"No, you don't ever want to underestimate iron," the old man said again. "Burton, do you remember that time Mitch Thompson caught a piece of red-hot down his shirt?"

Burton tipped the beer can in his hand. The last swallows of beer washed down his throat. It felt good the way the beer was cool and wet. His throat was dry, and it burned from the day's work. He crinkled the aluminum with one hand and tossed it in the back of his pickup truck, where it clattered amid the other empties piled atop one another. He looked over at the old man, and then he burped and smiled.

The old man shook his head, and then he laughed, but his laugh turned into a cough--like it usually did--and they all had to wait until the cough subsided and all was quiet again. "Goddamn, Burton," the old man finally managed to say, "you're drinkin' that beer like there's no tomorrow."

Burton reached up and adjusted the strap on his welding helmet, and he smiled. A good smile. A good face. His smile made him look younger. It was not that Burton looked old. He was only 27, after all, hardly what could be called an "old man." But when Burton smiled, some people said he looked like a young boy.

He cupped his hand to his ear. His blue eyes glittered below his sandy blond hair. The wind wanted under the clumsy, gray welding helmet that he wore. Burton could feel the wind, like soft, strong fingers working through his hair. He winked at the old man. "What did you say?"

"I said you're drinkin' that beer like there's no tomorrow," the old man said.

"Well, maybe there isn't."

"Either way, I wish I could have me a beer. I'd show you how to drink some beer if only my liver weren't so damn tender...."

"Well, I'd let you have one, Dad, but it looks like I've drunk them all." Burton flipped open the lid to his cooler in the bed of his red pickup truck. The bottom of the cooler sloshed with water and melting ice, and there were no more cans of beer. "Good Lord," Burton thought, "have I really drunk that much this afternoon?" He looked at the scattered pile of pinched beer cans rattling in a heap in the back of his truck. He would have to count them later, he supposed. There was still some work to do before the day was done.

The sky was turning a darker shade of blue, he noticed. In the west, the sky was falling, and it was pulling the temperature down with it. He had better finish cutting what was left of the old pile of scrap-iron. He had made a lot of progress today, but the day was now falling, and so was the sky in the west, which looked to him--oddly--like some pictures he had seen before.

"Anyway," the old man said, "I was askin' you if you remembered what happened to old Mitch Thompson?"

"I don't know," Burton said. He lowered the front of the helmet over his face. His eyes were hidden now behind the thin, black rectangle on the front of the welding helmet. The world looked different to Burton from behind the helmet. But Burton liked looking through the thin, black rectangle. It made everything look darker, and it made his view much more limited; all he could see in the shaded darkness behind the safety of the welding helmet was what the torch allowed him to see. And all Burton could see was the narrow blue flame heating the iron in front of him and making the old rusted iron glow orange and yellow and turn into pools of liquid fire that flowed and dripped and smoldered when it landed on the brown grass by his boots.

"You know Mitch Thompson," the old man said. "Bill and Marlene's dad. He used to farm some ground over by Kilman, until he went broke and the bank had to buy him out. Then he went to work with his brother-in-law at their machine shop in town. Delroy's..."

Burton was leaning over a thick piece of angle-iron. He held the tip of the cutting torch an inch or two from the surface of the iron. He held it there, and his hands never shook. Not once. He waited for the thick piece of iron to flow orange and yellow. He acted like he did not even hear his father.

The old man turned to the little boy now. Burton was busy again, or so it seemed. Too busy to listen, anyway.

"You should have seen it, Cody," the old man said. "Of course I didn't see it, but I heard tell of it, and I guess it was just about the funniest damn thing you ever did see. At least the way I heard it."

Cody smiled at his grandfather. Sometimes the old man was scary. Sometimes the old man scared the little boy with his deep and painful cough. The old man seemed so old and mysterious to the little boy. Growing old was something the little boy would never know. And sometimes Cody did not understand what his grandfather said to him, and he was frightened by what he did not understand.

But Cody loved the old man. He loved the wrinkles in his grandfather's face that reminded him of clouds and of pictures in a magazine of some faraway, dry desert.

Burton stood up and raised the front of the helmet. His eyes were hard now, and he was no longer smiling. "Don't talk like that in front of Cody, Dad. I've told you before a million times."

The old man looked embarrassed. He kicked a rock at his feet with his scuffed and work-worn pair of cowboy boots. "Okay, okay..." he said. "But you should let me tell you this story about Mitch Thompson." The old man began to chuckle, and then that chuckle turned into a cough. The three of them waited for it to clear, again. Burton stood where he was, and the thin blue flame still hissed from the tip of his cutting torch. The hiss from the torch seemed loud as they waited for the old man's cough to go away.

"Anyway," the old man continued, "I guess Mitch was cuttin' along, kinda like what you're doin', and then his iron popped on him--it was a big old piece of two-inch rod, I'm guessin'--and that red-hot shot straight up in the air like a flare-pistol at sea and fell down to land, wouldn't you know it, plop, right down the front of his work shirt!" The old man laughed again. He started to cough, but this time it did not last as long. "Like I said, I didn't see it, but I guess he tore to cussin' like you've never heard, slappin', and dancin', and hittin' at the front of hisself, all along his neck and chest and stomach. Caught his damn shirt to fire and everything!" The old man stopped and coughed once. He spit a mouthful of nasty, brown looking stuff on the ground by his boots. Cody looked away. The old man laughed. "Guess he had that damn shirt of his tucked in, too, to keep it out of his way when workin'. For safety, wouldn't you know it," he laughed. "Anyway, it comes to be some of that red-hot slipped down his shirt and all the way down the front of his denim jeans, too, I guess." He paused and winked knowingly at the little boy. "Damn near burnt half his pecker off, the way I hear it. Guess he coulda stood to lose an inch or two from it, too, the way it was always told to me..."

Dad..." Burton shook his head disgustedly and lowered the helmet over his face again, turning again to work, doing his best to ignore his father. He leaned over and held the tip of the cutting torch one or two inches from the thick piece of angle-iron. He held the torch there and waited for the iron to glow.

The old man looked at his grandson. He winked again, as if through the telling of his simple story a kind of bond had been formed between the two of them--grandfather and grandson--and he smiled at the little boy. There were very few teeth left  in the old man's mouth, but he smiled anyway. "And that, Cody, is why you never want to underestimate iron," he said.

III: The fortress of solitude

Taylor cradled  the cordless phone between her ear and her shoulder. She was busy pouring herself another drink, and the pale yellow wine splashed playfully in her glass. "Come on," she whispered.

But no one answered on the other end. She held the phone lifelessly in her hand, and she let it ring two or three more times. Frustrated, she finally pushed the red button on the handset and hung up, and then she shook her head and muttered something under her breath. She drank the wine quickly, setting the glass on the counter by the sink.

The old house was dark and full of many rooms and closets and corners where children could play and hide. The empty house creaked in the wind, and it was drafty at times. She could feel the cold north wind sneaking in through the open windows. The sky looked darker in the west. There was a storm moving in; she had heard the weather report earlier in the day, and looking out the windows to the west proved the forecasters to be right for once.

Taylor glided through the house, shutting windows that she had opened earlier in the day to let in the pleasant October air. But the air had changed since then, and so now she moved alone through the empty, old farmhouse and shut it up to keep the wind out. She moved down the upstairs hallway, but before getting to the master bedroom at the end on the left she turned and entered the spare bedroom that had recently been converted to "Burton's study."

The room was cold, and wind blew through the thin beige curtain across the window. She moved quickly to shut it, and she noticed some papers that had blown from her husband's desk and onto the carpeted floor. Unpaid bills, more than likely, she assumed, and she made no point to pick them up. She figured she'd let him do it, if he even cared enough to ever bother to do it.

Her eyes caught the wooden baby crib sitting over in the corner of the room. There were clothes and towels draped across the top rail of it--the top rail capped with a yellow plastic "teething guard," decorated with Tigger and Pooh Bear and Piglet and Eeyore--while inside was piled a stack of old, yellowed paperback books that Burton had already read and no longer wanted and so had decided to donate to the library.

Taylor's breath left her suddenly, and she sat down in her husband's recliner in the nearer corner of the room. Her eyes were still locked on the unused crib, now doubling as a bookshelf and as a clothes-rack. She could hear her heartbeat in the silence of the small room that had once been planned for the baby's room but that now served as a "fortress of solitude" for her husband to sit in late at night and to drink by himself and to thumb through back issues of his damned National Geographic magazines.

She glanced down beside the recliner and noticed a stack of the magazines on the floor. Picking one up, she looked only briefly at the cover--which declared something about a pictorial spread of the "Dunes of the Gobi"--and then dropped it back on the floor where it had lain with the others. She smelled dust.

"This is his mess," she said aloud quietly to no one and then got to her feet and left the room, shutting the door behind her this time, and slowly resuming her walk down the upstairs hallway to her bedroom.

IV: Stories of those things left behind

The old man chuckled. He reached under his bib-overalls into his shirt pocket and pulled out a wrinkled red package of Marlboros and a thin book of matches. After bumping one of the cigarettes out of the pack and placing it between his dry lips, the old man tore a match and struck it. The smoke from the cigarette smelled strangely sweet to the little boy, compared to the bitter odor of the burning iron, anyway. The old man drew in the smoke from his cigarette, and then he sat down on the tailgate of his son's pickup. He sat on the tailgate of Burton's pickup, propping his boot to rest on the trailer's hitch below him, and he enjoyed the smoke from his cigarette in the cool of the late-October evening. He listened to the hiss and pop of the cutting torch, and he looked ahead at the deepening blue in the western sky as he fumbled with the zipper on his jacket.

"Say, Cody," he said. "Do you happen to know the story behind that big piece of iron your dad's cuttin' up?"

"Huh-uh," the little boy said. His voice was quiet. He looked over at his father. The iron glowed now under the heat of his father's torch. The glow from the iron was soft but bright, like sunlight reflected off water.

"Don't look at it when he's cuttin', Cody! How many times do I have to tell you that?"

The little boy looked down at his boots. His boots were tiny compared to his father's boots and to his grandfather's boots. He almost felt like crying right then, but he knew he did not dare. Sometimes the old man could be so frightening. Sometimes he did not understand the old man at all.

"Anyway, that piece of iron there used to belong to an old one-way that used to belong to my father, if you can believe such a thing." The old man smiled as the cigarette smoke drifted out from his nose and from between his pale lips. He stared ahead of him at the gray, ashen clouds in the west. "That would be your great-grandfather, Cody. And that old rusted one-way there was the first piece of tractor machinery Dad owned. One of the first pieces of machinery like that in the county, the way I always heard tell of it. I remember the day he bought it, even. He bought the one-way and his old Minnie together. That was in the summer of...let's see, what would it  have been? I was born in '37, and Dad bought that ol' tractor and one-way from Lawrence Mathews when I was only 5." He chuckled and coughed. The cigarette stayed in his mouth when he coughed. "Can you believe I was ever 5 years old, Cody? Can you believe this old man was ever that young?"

Cody just looked at his grandfather. "I don't know," he said.

"Well, I was," the old man said. "And I learned to drive a tractor on that old Minnie. I remember Dad sittin' me behind the wheel and tellin' me what to do, like I knew what the hell he was talkin' about and like I knew what I was doin'. And that was the only way to learn back then. That was the best way, I s'pose."

"Were you scared, Grampa?"

"Hell yes I was scared," the old man laughed. "I'd never driven a tractor or pulled a one-way before. Hell, a tractor was a fairly new thing back in these parts in those days, if you can believe that. But it was excitin' to a young boy my age. That was how they taught you back then. Just plunked you down before you was even barely old enough and tall enough to see over the damn steerin' wheel, and, crack, sure as the devil, you were told how to do it. And you did it." He pulled his gaze from the western sky and looked at his grandson. He sucked on his cigarette and slowly released the smoke. "I don't s'pose you've ever learned to drive a tractor yet, have you Cody? In fact, I don't s'pose you've ever been asked to do a day's work, have you?"

The little boy looked at his grandfather. His eyes grew big, and he smiled at the old man. "Huh-uh," he said. And then he giggled.

The old man looked at the boy. He inhaled the smoke from his cigarette and blew it out in small clouds around his face. His gaze again moved to the wall of deep blue slowly approaching from the west. "I didn't think so," the old man said.

Burton straightened upright, twisting the dials on the cutting torch, and its thin blue flame disappeared. He laid the torch on the ground by his boots and pulled the helmet off his head. The wind finally had a chance to exult in Burton's hair, teasing it and playing with it. And the wind was cold, he noticed; it was easy to forget the cold at this time of year, working behind the heat of the cutting torch. The flame from the torch and the fire of the glowing iron was lulling, in a way. It was comfortable and warming, and it made it easy for him to forget the cold.

Burton sighed and picked up a thick piece of angle-iron he had just cut. The original long piece now lay on the ground in three smaller pieces, and he carried the iron over to the flatbed-trailer and tossed the iron onto the back, where it clattered and clanged amid the rest of the cut pieces. The trailer was piled with all the old scrap-iron that Burton had cut that day.

"Dad, don't you think Cody might be a little young, yet, to learn how to drive a tractor?"

"Oh, that's bullshit..."

"Dad, do you have to talk that way in front of Cody? How many times do I have to ask you to please watch what you say around him?"

"Oh, that's bullshit, too" the old man said. "If he's old enough to watch how men work, then he's old enough to hear how men talk. It's all part of it. And it's time he learned that. It's time he learned the way of the world, don't you think? What do you think he is Burton, a little boy?" The old  man looked at his grandson. The old man's yellowing eyes moved up and down the boy. "Hell, Burton, he's not a little boy anymore." He sucked on his cigarette and blew the smoke out quickly. "How old is the boy, anyway?"

Burton looked at his father, and  then he looked at his son. "What?" he said. "How old...what?" Burton's eyes searched his father. "What did you say, Dad?"

"I asked you how old your boy is and how come he can't learn the ways of men. Like Dad did for me. And lilke his dad--my grandfather, and your great-grandfather, Burton--did for him."

"Dad...."

"It's the way of it, goddammit."

"What are you talking about, Dad? I don't..."

"I'm talkin' about generations, son. I'm talkin' about tradition. I'm talkin' about continuation. I'm talkin' about family, goddammit, and the future of family. Or have you stopped carin' about your family these days? Since when did family mean so goddamn little to you, anyway, Burton?" The old man's withered voice dissolved into another painful cough, and he removed the cigarette from his mouth and held it for a moment between his leathered fingers. Then the old man dropped the butt on the ground and crushed it beneath the heel of his boot.

Burton looked over at his son. Cody was looking down at the ground now, trying not to cry. Burton wanted so badly to scoop up his son in his arms and hold him and protect him from the old man. He knew how frightening his father could be sometimes, especially to a young boy who did not understand. Burton knew what it felt like to be confused and scared of the old man.

But Burton did not go to his son. He knew that if he did he would never hear the end of it. So he bent down instead and lifted another piece of iron to throw on the back of the trailer.

"There you go again, throwin' away a piece of your grandfather's old one-way," his father said. His voice was rough. "Throwin' away history. All of this iron in this pile back here...." The old man paused and motioned slowly around him at the surrounding farmstead. His hands shook as they spread wide to take in the barns and the old collapsed chickencoop and the machine shed and the brick grain silo. "Do you know how long it's taken this pile of iron here...." The old man paused again, coughed, and motioned toward the pile of scrap-iron before them. "Do you know how old some of this iron is back here? Do you know what this means, the history here you're cuttin' up and gettin' rid of without so much as a thought? The years. The age of this pile back here. It's nothin' to you. Goddammit, son, do you have any idea what you're doin', anyway? Do you have any idea what you're cuttin' up with no care at all and throwin' away for a dime or two on the back of this trailer? Do you know what that pile of old cut up iron means, Burton? Do you know what any of it means anymore? Do you even give a shit? What has happened to you?"

Burton tossed the heavy angle-iron onto the flatbed trailer, and then he pulled his heavy welding gloves off his hands and turned to face his old father. The wind whipped at his hair.

For a moment he wanted to say something, but then he didn't know what to say. For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Except for the wind crashing in from the west and the rattle of the dead leaves that used to be in the trees now skipping across the dry, brown ground. Other than that there was only the silence.

"You like stories, don't you Dad?" Burton finally said aloud. "Everything has a story to it, doesn't it? Even every fucking piece of iron out here." He did his best to laugh. "Every fucking rusted, rotting piece of old iron doing nothing out here but taking up a corner and a weight of the world in the middle of nowhere...." He laughed, then. "History...."

The old man looked at his son. And then he stood up slowly from the tailgate of his son's red pickup truck and looked down at the ground and stomped his legs. The old man looked up at Burton and smiled.

Burton's eyes were tight, squinting against the wind, and he glared at his father. "Do you want a story of some of this shit back here, Dad? A good story?"

"My circulation seems to be gettin' worse all the time," his father said. "My legs are dead asleep."

"Just wait, Dad," Burton said. And he moved off slowly behind the barn, walking as if being pulled against the wind on some invisible thread that remained taut and would not let him turn away.

The old man watched his son walk off. He pulled the zipper up higher on his jacket and turned the collar up around his wrinkled neck. The skin around his neck was loose. The old man's eyes narrowed slightly as Burton reappeared around the corner of the old barn, carrying something hoisted over his shoulder.

"I think that cold front we've been watchin' all afternoon is finally here," the old man said. "Welcome to winter, boys." He chuckled and coughed. "I think it's time for me to be gettin' back."

"Do you want to hear a story, Dad? Huh?" Burton walked over to his father and dropped the thing he had carried over to him from behind the barn, where he had stashed the thing several years ago behind some tall, overgrown weeds and a pile of brush. He dropped it now to the ground and unfolded it in front of the old man. The baby stroller was originally blue but was now spotted with red and brown rust spots, and the cloth tarp spread open at the top was torn. A wheel was missing from the stroller, having sat exposed outside in the rain and the wind and the snow, and now it canted on the ground, resting only on its three wheels that remained. "Would you like to hear a story about this thing here?"

The old man shivered and wrapped his arms in front of his body. "It's gettin' cold out here, Burton. I'm goin' back to your mother and see what she's got warm for me to eat." He motioned with his shoulder to the old, white farmhouse behind them. There was a light on in the kitchen and another light glowing upstairs in the master bedroom. The lights from inside the old house spilled dimly onto the brown grass in the yard. "Why don't you go inside and see what Taylor's got warm settin' on the table for you?"

"Look at this, Dad."

The old man sighed, and then he coughed. "What am I lookin' at?"

Burton did not wait for the old man's cough to go away. He raised his voice to be heard over the old man's cough. "Why, it's a baby stroller, Dad. As clearly anyone can see. Just an old, rusted out and weather beaten baby stroller. Brand new, actually, though you wouldn't know to look at it." And Burton laughed. Or at least he gave his best impression of a laugh. "Never been used. Not once. Not ever..." he whispered quietly, as if to himself. "Do you want to hear a story about this piece of shit thing here, Dad? I can tell you a story or two...."

The old man raised his eyes and spit out another mouthful of whatever was left of his insides. "That's not even iron. It looks mainly like cheap, thin metal and plastic. What the hell is it doing with the rest of this?"

"Dad, I..." He started to say something to his father, something that would explain everything, something that would somehow make sense of it all, and then he stopped. He didn't know what to say. Or rather, he knew what he wanted to say, but he didn't know how to say it. But he knew he had to say something. Finally.

"Dad.... It's very hard for me right now. I'm just.... It's just, it's not easy. It's never easy, and I don't know what I'm going to do...."

"What the hell are you talking about Burton?"

"What? Dad.... I'm trying to tell you. I'm trying to explain...."

"You're doing nothin' of the kind," the old man muttered. "You're feelin' sorry for yourself is all. Feelin' sorry, and whinin' about it. Cryin', and whinin', and carryin' on.... I swear, you always were such a whiny little shit. Always feelin' sorry for yourself and thinkin' as if you've got things so bad." He stared hard at his son. "So, go on.... Tell me how bad it is for you. Tell me. Tell me what's wrong with you."

"Dad, stop.... Just please.... Stop it. You don't know. You just don't know. It's Taylor. I've tried.... We've tried. We can't. She just can't...." Burton brushed at his eyes with the sleeve of his coat. He looked up at the sky, felt the wind pull at his hair, and he tried his best to smile at the cool air of the early evening on his face. "There's no kids, Dad. There's no future. No family. Not anymore.... We couldn't have kids, she and I. Or we wouldn't. Or we didn't..." He sighed and wiped at his eyes. "Fuck, I don't even remember anymore. What's the difference, anyway? What's it like to be happy? What's it like to even laugh anymore, or to love, or to feel loved? I just don't even remember anymore..." He bent and picked up the baby stroller at his feet and heaved it with a gentle push up into the air and onto the top of the pile of cut up rubble on the back of the trailer hitched to his red pickup truck. It banged and clattered only for a second, and then it slid and fell, until one of its wheels lodged in the corner of a rusted piece of metal. Lodged and stayed put. "She doesn't love me anymore...." Burton said to his father. "She's with other men now. Always. And her mind is gone from me. And her heart...it's gone. And I'm all alone out here. Can't you see that? I never thought my life was going to be like this. Do you think I like this? Do you?.... And I just.... I just don't know what I'm going to do. I've got no one, Dad. I've got nobody..... And I don't know what I'm going to do now..."

"Well, hell, that's not even iron, Burton," the old man said, motioning to the old baby stroller sprawled amid the pile of rotting old iron. It seemed out of place, uncomfortable where it lay. The old man coughed and spit again. "Shit.... Leave it to you to throw somethin' like that up there with all that old iron belongin' to your grandfather. Turn it into a junk pile now. That's all it is. It's good for nothin'."

Burton wanted to laugh, but he didn't. He couldn't. He only shook his head and looked up at the sky. Then he looked at the rusted blue baby stroller on top of the iron pile. But he couldn't laugh. "It's nothing, Dad...."

For a moment, they were silent. There was only the wind. And the leaves on the wind.

"Yeah.... Well," the old man said. "You're soft, Burton, and that's all there is to it. It's all lost on you. It always was. You don't understand iron. It's no wonder you throw some worthless piece of metal and plastic on a pile of old iron like you have there.... It's all lost on you."

Burton swiped again at his eyes with the back of his arm. There was a wet streak now on the arm of Burton's coat where he swiped at his eyes. He looked around him. "Where's Cody?" he said. His voice was weak.

"I don't know. I haven't seen him," the old man said. He turned to the west and pulled his arms tighter around himself, shivering against the blast of cold. "Isn't that wind a bitch?" he said. And then he coughed and began to walk away. "See you tomorrow, boy," he said.

Burton watched the old man walk away from him, and he stood by the remains of the old iron pile that he had spent the day cutting up and throwing away. He watched the shadow of the old man fade into the dark blue of the clouds. And Burton felt alone and cold.

V: Memories of a young man who had once spoken of Monet

Taylor heard her cell phone vibrating atop the counter by the sink in her bathroom where she had last laid it down. She cursed herself for forgetting to switch the phone off Vibrate, afraid what she might have done had she missed his call. As it was, she just happened to be looking at herself in the mirror, fixing her hair, when she heard it buzz on the countertop. She picked it up, pressed its green button, and held it to her ear.

Her face brightened as soon as she heard the the voice on the other end.

"What are you doing?" she asked into the phone. Her voice grew quieter, gentler, almost teasing in a way. She smiled. The borders of her outline wavered for a moment, as if wanting to break. "I tried calling you a little earlier, but no one was home.... No, on my land line...." She sighed. "I know, I know," she said.

She smiled, thinking about his voice. She loved to hear his voice.

"Well, I"m getting changed right now," she said quietly. Her fingers made one last pass through her blonde hair, and she looked down at the counter by the sink, where her empty wine glass sat. "I just stepped out of the shower a little while ago," she said softly. "I'm standing here dripping wet, practically. But I just slipped into some new jeans when you called.... I was thinking about you." She waited a moment, listening to his voice again. And she smiled. "Well, I guess you'll just have to wait and find that out for yourself, won't you?" she whispered. "I've got to go.... Yes, of course I'll be there," she laughed softly. "I love you, too, honey. I'll see you soon."

And then she hung up. And as soon as she hung up, she felt something twist inside her, something she had not expected. She put a hand to her mouth and felt a choking sob twist its way inside her throat. A knot of pain and sadness so large she couldn't swallow, she couldn't breathe. She moved from the bathroom to her bed and lay down, curling up on top of the comforter, her knees pulled up to her chest. And she felt the tears start down her cheeks. But still she wouldn't make a sound. She refused to make a single sound as she lay there on her bed and cried.

And for some reason, somehow, she managed to find herself wondering about that young man she had once dated in college. Just some young man--she didn't even remember his name--who had known art, and who had said that she reminded him of a Monet painting that he had seen, by chance, somewhere, sometime, so long ago.

VI: Light and darkness

"Daddy!"

Burton turned to the sound. Where had it come from? Where was his boy? "Cody?" he said. Burton turned in a circle. His eyes were open. Looking.

"Daddy, I'm here...."

"Cody?"

Burton walked around to the front of his red pickup truck. There was his son. The little boy was squatting down by the passenger door, trying to stay out of the cold wind, trying to pick up leaves that blew by him as he stood and shivered in the cold.

"Look at their colors, Daddy," Cody said, holding up his tiny, soft hands, folding them open to show his daddy the colorful leaves he had managed to snag by his feet as they twisted along the ground, pulled and pushed along by the wind. "Aren't they pretty?"

Burton smiled. He bent down to be even with the boy and looked at his son's beautiful blue eyes. They were the most perfect blue eyes Burton had ever seen. And they always would be. He reached forward to wrap his hands around his son's hands. His boy had the most perfect little hands in the world. "Yes," he whispered. "They are very pretty, Cody. They really are."

Cody shrugged and smiled. And then he looked up at his father, and suddenly his smile left him. He looked down at the brown grass between his little boots, and when he looked back up he noticed that the leaves in his hands had crushed to a dusty powder and blown away with the wind. And he began to cry. "Sometimes...." the little boy choked.

"It's all right," Burton whispered. His arms went around Cody, then, and held the little boy tight. So close. He swayed gently back and forth, holding his son in his arms. "Sssssshh. It's all right, Cody. It's okay."

"Sometimes...." the little boy said again. Burton released him and stroked his son's beautiful little face. The most perfectly beautiful little face. Cody choked on his tears and swiped at his eyes with the back of his arm. There was a wet streak now on the arm of Cody's coat where he swiped at his eyes. "Sometimes I get scared. Grampa...scares me sometimes."

"I know," his daddy whispered to him.

I know. I know. I know. I know.

Burton could feel something deep inside of him breaking. "I know, Cody. It's all right. Ssssshh, he's gone now. Grandpa's dead now, Cody, but sometimes he...sometimes he comes back. Sometimes he does. But he's gone now. See.... He's gone now. The old man can't hurt us now. Not anymore. It's just you and me, son. Just you and me. We're alone now...."

"I'm glad, Daddy."

"So am I, Cody."

"Daddy.... Grampa's dead?"

"Yes, that's right."

"What does 'dead' mean, Daddy?"

"It means he's not real. Not anymore, anyway."

The little boy thought on this. "What does 'real' mean, Daddy?"

"It means...." Burton stopped for a moment. "It means...." He sighed, and then he spoke slowly. "I don't know what it means, Cody. I'm sorry. I don't know.... I don't know anymore. But I used to...."

The little boy thought on that for a moment, too. "That's all right, Daddy," he finally said. "I'm cold." He burrowed against the warmth of his daddy's chest. He stood there, crouched down out of the wind, nuzzling against his daddy. The little boy dried his tears on his daddy's coat.

"I love you, Cody. So much," his daddy said.

"I love you too, Daddy. Can we go inside now?"

"Do you want to, Cody? Are you ready to go inside now?"

"Yes, I think so, Daddy."

"Do you want to see Mommy?"

"Yes."

"All right, then. Let's go. But hold on to me, Cody. You'll stay warmer that way."

"All right, Daddy. I will." But the little boy stayed like that for a moment longer, wrapped warmly in the comfortable hollow of his daddy's young, strong arms. He didn't want to move. And by the feel of it, his daddy wasn't in any hurry to move either. The little boy liked the feeling of his daddy's arms. It made him feel safe from the cold and the wind. Safe from the world. Just the way a daddy's arms should make a little boy feel. And Cody smiled. And he thought for a moment.

"I like this, Cody," Burton whispered to his son, as he did so often. Just the two of them. Alone.

"I like it too, Daddy," Cody said. "But Daddy...."

"Yes?"

"Daddy.... Am I real?" Cody said.

"Oh, Cody...." Burton whispered to himself. "Please Cody, don't. Please stay. Please don't ask me that again. No...."

Burton's arms were wrapped around himself, making it look as if he were doing his best to warm himself in the blast of cold wind that brutally blew down from the north and the west.

And Cody was gone.

Burton stood up slowly and wiped at the gravel stuck to the knees of his jeans. He looked around him. The sky was dark and the wind was cold. It was much too cold to be outside now. He pulled the zipper up higher on his coat and dabbed at his eyes one more time. The wind tore at his hair.

He knew Taylor was probably getting herself ready to go into town. Just like always. That was why the bedroom light was on now. He also knew that his wife did not have anything warm to eat waiting for him on the table. But the kitchen light was on for him anyway. Burton figured she probably forgot to turn the light off in the kitchen. He could have leftovers, he assumed. He knew where there was some cold chicken in the refrigerator from the day before.

But Burton hoped more than anything that Taylor had left a little something in the cupboard for him. Especially now that all his beer was gone, and he did not feel like driving all the way into town to get some more. "I could use something warm," he thought. "Just a touch of something hard left in the cupboard," he hoped. "Hard. Like iron."

His grandfather's old, white farmhouse seemed to lean toward him now. It leaned across the brown grass in the yard and across the gravel in the driveway. The old house seemed to lean as if pushed by the cold wind behind it. He looked ahead at the two lights in the windows. The rest of the house looked dark. The old house looked dark and empty. And it looked cold, too. Burton hoped that it would be warmer inside the house, but he knew that the house would not be warm. It never was. The house was old. It was built by his grandfather in the late 1800s. And it leaked air now. It was drafty. The old house was cold. The cold air from the clouds had penetrated the house. And Burton knew what awaited him as he walked slowly, alone, up the patch of brown, dying grass in the yard to the house that his grandfather had built.

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