When he was about fifteen, my son Raleigh came to me one afternoon, chaffing over some homework assignment and in a general mood of malignant procrastination. “How the hell do you start a short story?” he demanded, expecting that I’d ruminate for fifteen minutes if he let me and that those fifteen minutes would be every bit as useful at delaying the work as tearing out sheets of loose-leaf paper and wadding them into projectiles, his younger self’s go-to defiance in the years before he discovered drugs. On that afternoon though, he hadn’t reckoned that I was learning to anticipate his moodiness and understood that whatever I told him would only make him resent the assignment even more, so I didn’t take the bait. I think I muttered something like Just throw your character into a mess and make him show us how he gets out. Not for the first time that year, he hit me with an F-bomb and said “Thanks for nothing, dad!” then sulked out.
I didn’t know it yet, but that performance would come to characterize our relationship for the rest of his life: my son asking me to decode the world for him and me deferring, sending him off with a riddle or an exhortation to face the thing he found uncomfortable. In his frustration and anger, he always took the last word, the one he’d learned to hone as the blackest dagger to my heart. And in that, his vocabulary was a veritable rapier’s-edge of resentments.
All the last words are mine now and I hate it that it’s just me struggling to make sense of them. But I still remember what it felt like when he was fifteen, when he thought I knew the answers. I remember that I went back to my desk disappointed in myself and what our relationship was becoming. I remember that I wanted a redeeming gesture, a rapprochement. I remember that I typed out a quick paragraph off the top of my head and emailed it to Raleigh, whom I could hear in his room, kicking the wall behind his desk and ginning up his fury, both for its procrastinatory payoff and its reflexive, adolescent cri de coeur.
“Here. This is how a story starts. Asshole.”
I found that orphaned paragraph today. A story he might have run with and made his own if I’d only found a way to bridge that gulf, the one between a boy’s expectations and a father’s insufficiency. I don’t think he ever read it.
After an hour or two, the rain stopped and peepers started howling again in the musky dark. He had lain in this spot, a muddy ditch below a low escarpment, for most of the afternoon, and if the feeling in his legs wasn’t exactly gone, neither was he inclined to stand. For one thing, his boots were missing. The effort to think about where he’d left them or to remember if he’d dreamt the highwaymen or whether in fact he lay in this ditch because of some as yet uncatalogued injury—that was more than the boy cared to venture. He was about fifteen years old, a bit more gaunt than when he’d left the valley three weeks ago, and sported a large red welt across his left cheek where a branch had smacked him roughly in the dark on the seventh night of his journey. He cursed vigorously each time he was reminded of it. His clothes had never been particularly fine, but now they were a sodden shambles and his hat, a worn, gray fedora, flopped limply above his brow, draining damply into his shirt collars.