WITH AN ALUMINUM TUBE THAT HAD ONCE , long ago, been a section of a tent pole, he stoked the coals in the terracotta chimenea, stirring up a few flames into the twilight, and some ashes, too. It was still too cool to be sitting outside on the porch. He just couldn’t sit inside anymore. Outside he could not hear the phone not ringing.
In the soft old chair that had been retired to the porch, with his sweatsocked feet propped on the low porch rail, Jeffrey gazed at the woods that abutted their property. It was these woods, these black walnuts and butternuts, quaking aspens and white poplars, scotch pines and pitch pines, that had sold him on this house almost fifteen years before. It’s federally protected land, the young realtor had assured him. Won’t ever be cut. Can’t be.
Unlike so many others, this promise had proven true. Development had encroached on the other sides. What had been a Monet hayfield across the road had long since gone for “townhouses” – eight faux barnwood façade structures, sixteen homes, sixteen families, more than twenty cars, a school bus stop, a big sign with a miniature waterwheel. Millrace Townhomes. Jeffrey could not stop himself from wondering every single time he passed this sign: Does anyone who lives there know what a millrace is? Or that there used to be a stream nearby that actually fed a mill, a couple of miles from there, on the other side of the wildlife refuge? He’d often walked with Bethie, shown her the ruins, the old stones and rusted, twisted iron that were all that remained of what must have been a thriving business for some years, forgotten for more than a hundred.
Bethie had loved her walks with her daddy, from the days when he mostly had to carry her, through the Flotsam Years, when their clumsy, long-eared mutt had followed them everywhere. Joanne had left them – left him, she’d have said, but, net net net it was the same thing – six springs ago, the year before Flotsam had died. Jeff’s secret name for Beth’s mother, since she had gone, was Jetsam. But in truth, it was she who had jettisoned them. Him.
The first week of April was a tricky time. The weather could be anything. That was one of the things he’d, stupidly, pointed out to Beth a few hours ago. Don’t you think I know that? Do you think I only know how to drive when the sun is shining? And, when he’d tried to restate, retract, she’d done her remarkable eye-roll, the one that spoke such volumes of wronged, misunderstood injustice. Oh. Oh, please. Then she’d buckled her seatbelt and driven away.
But the evidence of April’s capriciousness was everywhere. A small patch of snow remained in the shadow of the garage, and the weatherman had even speculated on some possible flakes later in the week. Just flakes, but still. Yesterday, Saturday, had been June-like, and he’d worked outside in shorts and a t-shirt. He was pretty sure he’d seen a mosquito. Today he pulled the fuzzy blanket around him in chilled awareness that he was attempting to rush porch season.
You could never tell with this time of year, but Jeffrey measured the progress of spring’s approach by what he called the thickening. In the summer, the woods behind the house were a wall of pure green, an emerald fortress, a border that was, to be sure, porous and explorable, but only by physically entering it, not just by looking. In the fall, it was a circus of colors, more dazzling than the wall of the emerald fortress. During the day, even the twilight hour, like now, you couldn’t look through that wall of hot gold and blood red to see deep into the woods. But autumn evenings, in the dark, that’s when you knew that the trees behind the house were leaving, slipping inside themselves, hunkering down for the long winter. You could tell this best in the dark because the wildlife refuge had a tiny parking lot on the far side of the woods. There was a one-story, one-room log-built park office, and a public men’s and women’s room, and a flagpole with an American flag that went up each morning and came down each evening. On the roof of the public restroom was a light fixture that came on each night to illuminate the little parking lot. In the summer you couldn’t see it from his porch; in the winter it shone through like the eye of a watchful god. In the fall, as the leaves thinned out and fell, the light was revealed. It was always there, he knew, but he only thought about it when it intruded visibly into his consciousness.
Spring was the time of the thickening. The walnuts closest to his property were almost uniformly around eighty feet tall. Only a few had trunks more than twelve inches in diameter. It seemed to Jeffrey that the trees had stopped growing taller, and had stopped growing fatter, for several years now. He didn’t know, but he theorized that trees could continue to thrive but, like goldfish in a tank, knew when to stop growing larger in order not to outgrow their environment.
Yet, they flourished. In the spring they put out new shoots, new branches, new buds, and eventually new leaves. They replaced what winter took, and they added new. Fresh bark, tiny tendrils, cones, the promise of their fruit, each after its own kind. And this made the thickening. On April Fool’s Day every year the light from the refuge office still pierced the woods, intruding right through Jeffrey’s bedroom window. By Beth’s birthday, April 30, it was nowhere in evidence from any part of their house. That was why on dark April evenings Jeffrey loved to watch it begin to disappear behind the thickening of the woods. He would observe carefully, trying to determine if the gradual change had begun, if the light was beginning to be filtered by the trees. It was a lot like trying to catch the movement of the hour hand on his watch.
It was fully dark now, and the floodlight from the refuge shone through with intrusive intensity. Jeffrey noticed birds, swallows maybe, flitting frantically, black against deep blue directly above his head. Not birds, he realized. Bats. As he made this recognition a sound accompanied it: not the clicking of the bats, but a low, distant wail. He felt its meaning in his lower intestine before he decoded it in his brain: siren.
Jeffrey jumped. He craned his neck. The siren pulsed, louder/softer, higher/lower. He couldn’t tell if it was getting closer, or even which direction it was coming from. He stood as still as he could, leaning as far over the porchrail as his center of gravity permitted, but he still couldn’t place it. He knew its signature though. It was the township volunteer ambulance corps.
Beth was a fine driver, he knew. He hadn’t let her take her test until she’d met all of his safety standards, but she had met them, early and easily.
Maybe it was the combination of the darkness, and the disdainful look on his daughter’s face as she pulled away from him down the driveway just an hour before.
Maybe it was the conversation he’d overheard in the diner last week. A bunch of kids he didn’t know were talking about the upcoming senior prom. They were talking limousines and tuxedos and late night trips to the city. One of the girls mentioned the fact that the prom was only a few weeks away, and there hadn’t been an accident yet.
“What do you mean?” a boy asked. “What accident?”
And then the girl related the “fact” that every year, almost always in the weeks before prom, a tragic car accident occurred, with students from their school being critically injured, some even dying.
Jeffrey had forced himself to focus on his lunch and stop eavesdropping.
The siren still wailed in the hills. The ambulance was speeding somewhere, eating up the twisting curves through the greening mountains— was it on the way to a wreck? Or did it already have a patient aboard, racing against the progress of the injuries to get to the emergency room?
He realized he wasn’t breathing. He breathed.
Through the sliding doors, across the kitchen, he slid sideways in his socks toward the pantry and the telephone table. Yes. The damned light was blinking. Once, long pause. Once, long pause. Bethie had called while he’d been outside, and now the siren…
He touched the answering machine’s button and stood, straight but leaning just a little, like a skinny birch tree ready to come down with a single axeblow. The words that came out confused him. Which hospital did he have to run to? And whom would he call to come and take him there, since Beth had the car, which—
But, no. It was a robocall from a company selling mortgage refinancing. Not even a person. Jeffrey found the delete button.
He felt as if he had been rescued, but the feeling lasted less than the time it took him to normalize his breathing again. It wasn’t a rescue, it was a warning. Act now, it had said. That frantic trip to the ER could still be yours if you don’t act now.
In the drawer of the phone table was their phone list. He called Jennifer’s house first. Jennifer was Beth’s best friend, he was pretty sure. She seemed both smart and slutty to him, but he never said that to his daughter. That would be the fastest road to an outraged door slam and a lengthy breakdown in their communication. He knew better.
The phone at Jennifer’s house was answered by the voices of Jennifer and her kid brother on the family’s answering machine. The next call was to Stefan-the-non-boyfriend’s house. It was similarly answered. In neither case did he leave a message. He thought maybe he should, but he wasn’t sure what to say, and he wasn’t sure whether he was more worried about what he might find out, or Beth’s reaction to his calling her friends’ parents.
If he couldn’t locate her through friends, he realized, he was ready to call Denton Memorial Hospital. Or the state police.
Beth had been taken to Denton’s emergency room once before, when she was less than a year old. Joanne had held her as Jeffrey had sped there. A baby with a broken arm. A mother who hadn’t heard her fall.
Stephanie! Hadn’t she said something about Stephanie, before they’d argued about the car? “Hi, it’s Jeff Salazar,” he could say, “Beth’s dad? I just have a message for Beth, and she’s out, and I thought Stephanie might know…” Yeah, something like that. He felt sure he could do it without sounding too freaked out.
He reached for the receiver but it rang before he touched it. This confused him for a second, and he almost dropped it before he got it to his face.
“Daddy, is it okay if Jen comes over to spend the night tonight? Her mom said it’s okay. Please?”
The joy the sound of her voice incited washed over him and through him. Jeffrey drained all emotion from his own voice before responding to her question in the affirmative. Then he sat down, heavily, weary, at the kitchen table.
The phone rang again. “Daddy, what if, I mean, is it okay if a couple of kids come over too, but they’ll leave, I promise, before… before midnight? Okay?”
“A couple of friends?”
“Just two. Please?”
“But you know them,” she said, and he heard the laugh in her voice that hadn’t been there recently. “Just Victor and Elias, you know.” Jeffrey couldn’t picture Victor, and was quite sure he had never heard the name Elias in his life. It didn’t matter.
“When will you be here?”
They worked out the details. He made sure that Jennifer’s mother was in the loop, and they negotiated the boys’ departure time up to 10:30; then Jeffrey hung up. When he saw his reflection in the now opaque sliding glass door, he recognized that he was standing more erect than he had been a moment earlier. He looked less haggard.
Back outside, it was now completely dark.
The siren was gone. The air was as quiet as it was fresh and dark and all-enveloping. Whose kid, or wife, or grandparent had needed a swift trip to Denton Memorial? How much blood had their been?
His heart had returned to something near its normal rate. Things develop, he thought. Beth was a better driver than he was. Joanne, on the other hand, had driven like a maniac. Beth, he knew, would be better than either of them– at everything. Wasn’t that the goal?
Jeffrey slipped his gardening sandals on over his dirty socks. He walked in the pitch black across the yard to the nearest trees of the refuge. The only illumination came toward him through the trees from the refuge office floodlight, and that made it even harder to see in front of him, but his feet seemed to know exactly how many steps would take him to the verge of the forest. He stretched out his hands and touched the rough cool of the walnut’s bark, the absolute immobility and depth of its root system. He put his face against its roughness. With his arms encircling the trunk’s girth, Jeffrey bit a piece of bark and held it on his tongue with his mouth closed. He pressed his whole body against the trunk of the tree.
His own backyard lights blazed on.
“Daddy? Daddy! What’s going on?” Her voice reached to him across the yard, from the exact spot on the porch he had just vacated. “We’re going downstairs to watch— what are you doing in the woods in the dark?”
Jeffrey spat out the bark. “Nothing, Bethie— Beth. Just – checking – just nothing. I’ll be in in a minute.”
Back on his porch, he saw that the glare from the far side of the woods was now barely visible, washed out by his own backyard lights, the ones Beth had switched on. He switched them off. There it was again, still quite strong through the trees. He put himself back in the armchair, closed his eyes, and listened to the rivery sound of teenagers laughing in his basement. A tiny choir of brand new tree frogs, undoubtedly down by the pond, all but invisible even in broadest daylight, chirped into the night, announcing their intentions. The fire in the chimenea had gone out, and he left the ashes unmolested. He let the darkness hold him.
A writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, Richard Goffman teaches writing, literature, journalism and public speaking in Paterson, New Jersey. He has published two textbooks as well as many freelance magazine articles and marketing pieces. He has written two novels, Heartless Cruelty and Takeover, and lives with his wife Linda Watkins-Goffman, also a writer, in Wantage, New Jersey, on a very small branch of the Papakating Creek.