Song of the Flightless Bird
There was a maple tree at the edge of our yard, boasting its height above the yucca bushes that ran along the split-rail fence. Fall was causing the leaves to turn and sail down in ceaseless droves, pulsing Santa Ana winds upping the pace. My dad was on the porch smoking, flicking his cigarette butts into the flower beds while he watched me rake. When enough butts littered the dirt there, my mom would give me and my younger brother grocery bags and pay us to pick them up, a penny each (which was, to give her credit, a pretty fair price—we usually got a couple bucks each for five or ten minutes of work). Every few seconds, I’d sneak a look at my dad, a Camel dancing between his fingers, a mean look on his face. The deal was that I had to clear the driveway before dinner if I wanted to eat with everyone else. It was a reasonable chore for most ten-year-olds, but my father didn’t mean mostly clear; he meant that there could be not a single leaf on the driveway when I called to say I was done. I knew that much before I ever got to the shed to grab the rake.
Several times my dad came outside, smoked, spat, went inside, yelled, turned red, and repeated the whole thing. It was a routine we were all used to by then, me and my four siblings (two older brothers, an older sister, and a younger brother). My younger brother was the only biological son my “dad” had with my mom. The older three had the same father. He lived in Hawaii, where all of them eventually moved when they were old enough to decide which parent to live with. My father was a nomad, moving to wherever had a recent earthquake or hurricane, showing up with his van to scrap metal from ruined buildings before moving on to disasters elsewhere. My grandmother in Missouri all but refused to speak about him. It got her head shaking and face reddening any time I asked her if she’d heard from Joe in a while. He wouldn’t (still doesn’t) admit that I’m his kid. The resemblance and like mannerisms do nothing to convince him, things my Aunt Maggie points out in a sad way whenever the subject of my father comes up.
My mother married Ted when I was three, so he was all the father I knew. Even so, I was young, and he was unpredictable. I remember always watching him, like I might now watch a loose dog wandering the neighborhood with my children in the front yard playing, trying to see from the hair on its back, the slack in its mouth, the speed of its trot what intention or nature of the animal. It was like that, watching my dad, but it was further complicated because I knew his nature. He was a dog with teeth bared, hair raised, and body poised always. He’d put his hand on the back of my head to kiss me goodnight with the same face he’d have when pushing my face into the pee beside the toilet when I missed, pack up our three-wheelers on a trailer for a desert trip with the same rancorous mood as when he found out I’d been kicked out of Pepper Drive Elementary in the fifth grade (my first of four expulsions, the last being in my sophomore year of high school).
After I’d been raking a couple hours, he came out for the umpteenth time. I watched him as discreetly as I could, sang 90s country songs while I worked, in a voice that was just a little bit shaky. I could hardly see his face in the shadow of our porch, the sun behind our house sinking to almost touch the El Cajon hills. The driveway wasn’t cleared of leaves, but it looked a bit better than before. The wind had died down some as evening approached.
I gripped the handle of the rake, my palms red with matching blisters on each side, just below the fingers. It was cooling some, but I was sweating hard, thirsty and hungry. I didn’t know what time it was, but my stomach suggested it was just about dinner time. As my dad smoked, I gathered up the courage to ask if I could be done. When he got up and spat in the dirt where he threw his cigarette butts, I knew he was done smoking.
“Hey, dad?” I said, walking toward the house a little, halfway raking still.
“What?” he said. He looked irritated, but what was knew? I went for it.
“Do you think I could come in now, please?”
He looked hard at me, flexed his jaw. I almost winced. Now I was standing beside the rake, holding it upright with one hand up high on the handle. I tried not to look at the driveway.
As far back as I could remember I’d been doing these impossible chores, driven to the breaking point, or further. Trying to earn my dad’s satisfaction was like trying to slap a fly on my knee. Every once in a while I got lucky, but otherwise….
Until my dad was satisfied with—with what? The work? The steepening angle of my shoulders? The tears down my face? It was a crapshoot. Sometimes I was done with a chore and sometimes I wasn’t. It was his say, and even my mother had barely any more power over him than I did (which was none). She somehow upheld certain limits for him—he couldn’t starve me or kill me, rarely hit me—but how could she have explained to an officer or judge that her husband made her son rake leaves for too long? That he made me pull weeds that were too big, too spiny, for little hands to grab and pull without gloves? She couldn’t, I understand now. She worked with what she had, and for that I’m grateful.
I don’t remember what my dad said after that, exactly, but his message was this: I was going to rake until the driveway was clear or I wouldn’t eat dinner.
I looked down and said, “Yes, sir,” the proper and only response to his commands. Maybe because I wanted to be as far from my dad as I could, or maybe because I was being subconsciously strategic with my raking pattern, I went to the top of the driveway. The wind had died down, but the branches of our maple still swayed like a parader’s wave, an almost imperceptible, steady wind loosing dozens of leaves at a time onto the driveway and yard.
I sank to the ground. And I wept.
A terrible weight clung to me with the realization that I would not be eating until the next morning. Fear of my dad and a hint of hope that he might change his mind drove me to keep raking. The methodical, sweeping motion served as a therapy that, while it sure wasn’t a hug or warm meal, ended up being a sufficient distraction from the groans and pains of my body, hands, and mind.
What could I do? Unlike the burdens and afflictions of most, I had no confession to make or option for repair or redemption. If I had done something wrong to earn the chore in the first place, I had paid for it already. Sure, I thought of running away, calling my grandparents, my friends, the police. I still had a few bruises from the last time he got rough with me, maybe I could’ve shown them those and maybe they would’ve given me at least dinner, at most a new family. I had not the courage, or the stupidity. I knew enough about running away to know it wasn’t a real option. What else could I do?
I did the only thing I knew to, what the afflicted do, when afflicted: I sang. Sad songs, mostly. I don’t recall most of them, but that was my routine in such a mood. Somehow it was comforting, to imagine musicians like Billy Gillman and John Michael Montgomery thinking of kids like me when they wrote music. I sometimes sang other songs, too, uppity bits from Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks, George Strait, but not that night. I recall with a surety I’d risk my life on that I had just sang Billy Gillman’s “One Voice” when a man I didn’t know was there said from across the street that I sounded just like the radio.
I started a little, turned to the man. I hadn’t made it far down our driveway yet, so there was maybe fifty feet from me to him. I was a fast runner, and it was only forty feet or so to the house, so I wasn’t afraid. “Thanks,” I said. The man said he loved that song, and he asked if I’d sing another.
He asked me how old I was. I told him ten.
For the next long while he stood and listened to me sing while I raked the driveway. I tried to kind of face him, so he could hear, and I don’t know if he noticed, but I held the rake so most of the time it was near my mouth, like a microphone, and closed my eyes when I was really feeling the lyrics. I raked in time with whatever song I was singing, and when I was another twenty feet down the helplessly leafy driveway, he said again that I could be on the radio and told me to keep singing but he had to go. He was just out for a walk. I thanked him, smiled wider than I had in as long as I could remember, and gave no pause to my raking or song until my dad went to sleep and my mom came out in her nightgown, apologizing fiercely, saying she couldn’t get Ted to let me come in, she was so sorry, she warmed up some enchiladas in the microwave, oh my gosh, I must be so hungry.