The idea of my dad feeling trapped crushes me. All my life I knew he’d rather lose his wallet than his keys because then he could drive away if he ever wanted to. He could always go home and unlock the door to his house.
“If one of you will come pick me up, I’d be happy to buy you lunch,” he says in an email to my sister and me.
“Cattle’s astronomically high right now,” my dad says as he uses his fork to cut through the white fish on his plate. It rests on a bed of rice, next to the pinto beans and boiled cabbage he chose from among the sides at BJ’s Market Café. Dad calls it the farmer’s market. “I wanted to sell them all, but your stepmother wouldn’t let me, so we just sold 74. We’ve got another 30 still.”
“Why is cattle so high?” I ask him. I ignore the feeling in me that says he thinks I should already know. That it’s a dumb question. That I wouldn’t be so ignorant if I hadn’t spent the last few years in New Orleans, working restaurant jobs and drinking brands of whiskey he’s never heard of.
“The drought this summer out west. Everybody sold off their herds. Those that didn’t sell—like we did—spent a fortune on hay through the winter. Now we’re recouping some of that investment.” His fork moves toward his plate less determined than I remember. The hand that holds it less sure of itself.
Sometimes we don’t have much to talk about when it’s just the two of us, but we talk politics. We talk about how there was a nice write-up in the New York Times about our governor. And how scary it is there’s so much money from outside the state financing Arkansas campaigns now. Dad never mentions his own time in the legislature. And I never tell him how much I loved campaigning with him. Hitting fish fries and chili cook-offs. Shaking hands and walking the streets of neighboring towns. Taking that orange highlighter and marking on the map the blocks where we had knocked on doors. Getting to sit in the pew at the black church on the edge of his district where my bus driver played the piano. The service lasted twice as long as ours, but was 10 times more enjoyable because nobody gave a damn if you were chewing gum like at our church. Everybody at the black church was too busy shouting a rejoiceful noise to the Lord. Amen? Amen!
“I better get back before I get fired,” I tell him.
“Okay,” he says. There’s something like defeat or disappointment in his voice. “Is your sister out of town?”
“No, but she’s covered up at work—we’ve got that big conference next week, you know.” My sister is my boss. Pretty much always has been, but we made it official a couple of years ago when I took a job in the marketing department of a growing engineering firm.
I tell him all about the conference, what we’re doing to prepare for it. When I say we’re spending $20,000 on hotel rooms for the out-of-town guests, he shakes his head.
“Maybe Oakley’s should have a conference like that and invite some folks,” I say. I know my father well enough to know he thinks the unlikely idea of that is funny, even if he doesn’t smile.
In the truck, we talk about Rose City, where he works. It’s been a while since I’ve driven through it.
“Not much has changed,” he says. “They still have the liquor store and everything.”
Like him, I know I don’t have to smile for him to know I appreciate his jokes as well.
“Those ladies are still pushing that car, I see.” I nod toward two large women pushing an old Buick Le Sabre on the side of the road.
“Yeah, there they are; 14 years later, still pushing it.”
“Does Rosco still set up around here?” I ask.
It takes him a second to remember the man who set up a barbeque trailer in the parking lot of Harvest Foods, which has since become a City Market. Rosco used to go inside the Harvest Foods in the morning and buy his meat, walk out to his trailer in the parking lot and smoke it. People would line up. That summer I worked for Dad at the grain elevator, I loved going to Rosco’s. Long after I ever ate there I always told people it was the best barbeque in town, and only now am I realizing it was probably because I knew my dad liked it. These are his people and so he patronizes their businesses. Rosco’s had the best barbecue, Hum’s has the best hardware, and that lady at the liquor store—by God, her Old Charter is the best Old Charter you can get.
When we pull up in front of his office, he doesn’t get out. Dad’s always eager to get out, to get back to work. I can tell today, though, he wants to sit for a minute. I worry about what he’s going to tell me. Lately, bad news has been on tap. But we just talk about that time he rented the hydraulic post-hole digger and how great it was compared to the old wooden-handled ones he used to use. The ones he used to plant the dogwood tree in the front yard when he and Mom were still together. Anybody driving down Main Street in our small town could see that hole giving him fits.
“You did help me do that, didn’t you?”
To hear him acknowledge now the work we put in that day was the reason I put the work in to begin with. Years later, I finally got what I sweat for.
“What fence was that?” I ask. I know already, but the question comes out of my mouth before I can catch it. My instinct is to hold the rhythm of conversation my dad has spent 35 years teaching me.
“The wooden one behind the Rocky Point house, where Eric lives now.”
“How many houses do you have now, Dad?” Like politics, real estate has always been a conversation we could count on.
“Just three, since we had to tear down the Yellow House.”
I remember the Yellow House, a one-story with low ceilings, wood paneling, not much overhead lighting. I remember how someone built the porch around the old well and eventually nailed a piece of plywood over it to keep kids from falling into it. When I noticed the wood rotting, I remember looking over my shoulder, across the highway to look for any evidence of children, but there was none.
“Why did you have to tear it down? Didn’t you do a little remodeling in there?”
“I didn’t tell you about that?”
I can’t tell if Dad’s excited to actually tell me the story, or if he’s happy he’s bought himself some more time sitting in the cab of my small pick-up truck.
“Well, your stepmother and I bought that place, the Yellow House and the acreage when our neighbor died and his wife didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want it, but she was in a bind, so we bought it. We tried to sell it, but we couldn’t, so we rented it to this guy Elliott and his girlfriend Shaina—they weren’t married. She’d been in a bad way in her previous marriage—she’d married this old boy that used to beat her up and she got on drugs. Well, we rented it to her and Elliott and they paid rent on time every month and everything was good. Elliott wore us out trying to buy the house. ‘Please, please, please sell me that house,’ Elliott used to say. Well, now that we had it, I didn’t want to sell it, but I finally gave in because he wanted it so badly.”
An old grain truck full of soybeans eases by us where we sit in front of Dad’s work. It pulls slowly onto the scale. The sweat on the driver’s arm hanging out the window makes me want the truck to sit heavily. This is the end of the process, when farmers finally have a product to sell. I’m pulling for him and his beat-up truck, which looks like it could crap out any day now. It’s going to be a blow to his operation, I know. When that truck goes, he’s going to have to take a good hard look at things in the way that farmers do around here.
“Elliott couldn’t get a note from the bank, so we financed it for him,” Dad says. “Everything was going along good, but then they started having some problems. Elliott used to walk over to the house and tell us all about it. Shaina eventually got caught up with some old boy outta Texas, I think, and it liked to have drove Elliott nuts.”
Dad fixates himself on a bar receipt I discarded into that space where car factories used to install ash trays. He’s looking at the receipt in a way that makes me think he’s not reading it. Eyes too glazed from the sympathy he has for Elliott.
“One night Elliott called 9-1-1 and said, ‘You need to send a policeman and an ambulance and the coroner because I’m fixin’ to kill myself.’”
I imagine Elliott saying it in the matter-of-fact way Dad tells it to me now. I hope that’s not how he said it. I’m still pulling for Elliott in this story. I want him to change his mind, even though I know he can’t.
“When they all got there, the door was locked, so they called me to let’em in,” Dad says. “Because I was the property owner, but I don’t know why they called at all because they ended up just kicking the door in before I could get there.”
“How’d he do it?” I ask. “With a gun?”
“Yeah.” Dad held onto the word for a second. I could sense he didn’t like telling me how Elliott had killed himself. It was only for the sake of the story he’d told me. Otherwise, he might’ve told me it was none of my business. That it didn’t matter how he did it.
“I called Shaina and said, ‘The payments are up to date on this, so if you want to keep making the payment, it’s your house,’ but...” He shook his head to indicate she didn’t want it. In that head shake, I knew he didn’t like that Elliott had begged for the chance to buy the house, worked hard to pay for it, and then no one associated with him got anything for it.
“We filed the paperwork to repossess the house, and we decided we should demolish it,” he says. He says it with relief.
“Ended up being a damn mess,” he says. “Elliott’s mama’s about half-nuts, and she apparently told some guys they could go over to the house and get whatever they wanted. By the time I got over there, they’d stripped off all the ceiling fans and all the fixtures.”
“Did they get the copper wiring?”
“No. I took Eric over there and we were going to see if he couldn’t get the copper out of it, and when we got there, there was a note taped to the door. It said something like, ‘If you’re interested in renting this house, call this number.’ Well that got me all pissed off and worked up. So I called the number. Nobody picked up, but I laid into them on that voicemail. I said, ‘I don’t know who the hell you are, or who the hell you think you are, but you better stay the hell off my property.’”
He snickered to himself while he watched another grain truck pull onto the scale. He waved to the driver with a small lift of his hand.
“When I got home I told your stepmother about it,” he says. “She told me, ‘Are you sure they were trying to rent out the house to other people, or were they trying to rent the house from us?’ Well, I told Eric to go back down there and get the note. Sure enough, somebody wanted to rent the house from us. Your stepmother called the girl and apologized. The girl said she didn’t know what she had done to piss me off.”
“So did she still want to rent the house from you? After she knew you were probably going to be a crazy old bastard of a landlord?”
“Yeah, but we told her we were just planning to knock the Yellow House down. She said she wanted to rent it, but we told her about the house over on the Hastings place she could rent. She lives over there now.”
“Why didn’t you just rent the Yellow House to her?”
“It wasn’t in good shape,” he says, “but we couldn’t rent it to somebody after what had happened in there.”
We both sit looking out opposite windows of my truck and I wonder where I was living when I lost the ability to be impressed by a man driven to suck the bullet from the barrel of a gun. Before I moved back home, I would’ve never understood why he’d knock the house down if someone was willing to rent it. Now, though, I’m beginning to feel the weight of what must have compelled Dad to make that decision.
When he finally opens the passenger door and gets out of my truck, he turns toward me. “Tell your sister I’ll probably be fine. Nothing to worry about.”
His short hair makes the scar from his stroke last year more visible. In the morning, he’s got an MRI scheduled to get to the bottom of why he had that seizure last weekend. The MRI will reveal the tumor on his brain, which we’ll learn—in a few days—is malignant.
I watch him walk into his office and I imagine him easing back into the chair at his desk to study the changing price of soybeans and corn and wheat. Everyone around him—myself included—wondering if he shouldn’t take some time off. Most of us probably would, but then again, most of us would handle a lot of things differently than Dad has.
Sitting next to my stepmother in the hospital waiting room, she says, “Did your dad tell you we bulldozed the Yellow House?”
“He did,” I say, and she chuckles at the story she’s keeping in her head. Laughing to distract herself from Elliott’s sad struggle and the struggle my father is heading toward. And the idea that sometimes you have to bulldoze houses for no other reason but out of respect for those who lived in them.
Guy Choate received an MFA at the University of New Orleans. You can find his essays published or forthcoming in Cream City Review, Cobalt Review, Trop Magazine, and Public Radio’s Tales From the South, among other places. He maintains a photo-a-day blog addressed to his unborn children at www.getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com and curates the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, Arkansas.