Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rockets Under Water

Rockets Under Water
by Ellis Purdie

A year ago I let go of a baseball scholarship at State and eloped with my high school girlfriend, Alyssa Lowery. We’d had a pregnancy scare. My father, Ted Mitchell, was devastated and had not spoken to me since. His dreams of watching me pitch in packed stadiums were stolen. He would answer the phone and pass it to my mother after hearing my voice.

I was done waiting for forgiveness, was tired of being afraid. The way I saw it, either one of us could die any time and be left with resentment and regret. I aimed to say that to him in person. Of all people, I didn’t understand why that hadn’t occurred to him: a Marine, a Vietnam vet who’d taken shrapnel to the right thigh and brought home a Purple Heart.
Sunlight beamed in around the edges of the curtains. I removed my arm from around Alyssa’s chest, slowly, the foldout bed creaking as I placed my legs over the side. I slid a pair of jeans on, buttoned a shirt and put on shoes. I went to the curtain and held it aside. Empty Coors Light cans floated in the swimming pool outside the window, Mik, my boss at Records and Stuff, asleep on a foam pool lounge, his midsection under water.
Alyssa turned over and swept her hair from her eyes. “Getting coffee and donuts?” she said.

I let the curtain fall, the room black after staring out the window. “I’ve got to see Dad,” I said, walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth.

She propped herself on her elbows, narrowed her eyes. “Your dad?”
“My dad,” I said, brushing.

She got out of bed and came to the door. “Have you called him?”
I shook my head.

Alyssa leaned into the doorframe. “You’re just going over?”
“Uh-huh,” I bent to the faucet and rinsed.

She went to the dresser where the TV sat, grabbed her purse and took out the keys. “You need the car?”

“I’m going to walk,” I said. “Think about what I’m going to say.”
“You sure you don’t want a ride?”

“I’ll be all right.”

“You should get Wayne while you’re there,” she said.

Wayne was my beagle. Dad had kept him, but he had no use for him. As far as I knew, my father, like me, hadn’t been hunting in the past year. He’d held onto the beagle out of meanness, spite, and Alyssa was right: if he wouldn’t have me back, he could at least give me the dog.

I walked over and kissed the side of her head, smelled the green apple Suave she washed her hair with. “I’ll see if I can.”

Alyssa tucked my hair behind my ears—shoulder length because she liked it that way. “You know I’m praying for you,” she said.

I shrugged and patted her bottom, went out the back door and down the steps. I hadn’t taken any comfort in prayer for a while. If Christ was forgiving and lived in my father, I couldn’t tell.

I stopped at the pool and reached down, fished out the empty beer cans. Water striders skated around the cans, their legs making points of light on the surface. I cleared the pool of trash and turned on the vaccum, and it made me feel better to see only Mik in the clean blue-green water, asleep and floating. If only all problems were that easy to fix. I kicked water on him and he frowned, pushed his glasses up his nose and opened his eyes. His red hair was windblown and thin, his face rough with stubble.

“I’m going to be late to work,” I said.

He shielded his eyes. “Again?” he said. “I should fire your ass, Colin.”

“You won’t,” I said. “You like seeing my wife in a bathing suit too much.”

“You’ve no evidence of that,” he said.

I laughed. “Call if there’s an emergency.”

“Wait,” he held up a hand. “Where you headed?”

I told him. The vacuum hose surfaced and hissed a jet of water and sunk, drops landing on my shirt.

“Ha!” Mik leaned back and slipped off into the pool, came up blowing air through his lips. “In that case,” he said. “You call me if there’s an emergency.”

“You’re so encouraging.” I jumped the fence and headed for the woods.

Dead leaves whispered under my feet. I stopped and pressed a hand into the rough bark of an old pine. Blades of light came in through the canopy of limbs. The broken white lines of Bozeman Road were thirty yards ahead and a Mustang sighed past. Another mile and a half down the road was my folks’ place. It was Mississippi-in-July kind of hot, and I put my hair back in a ponytail to get it off my neck. I was starting to wish I’d let Alyssa drive.
I pushed out of the woods and onto Bozeman. The road was hot with new asphalt, heat shimmering over the blacktop. I walked toward home. Sweat collected on my brow and I wiped it with my sleeve. An old beat up Ford drove by, slowed and shifted into reverse, and came toward me: Joseph Brown—the man who lived on the lot next to my parents.
He reached across the seat and rolled down the glass. “A young Mitchell,” he said. He wore a worn-out t-shirt, paint flecked with the sleeves cut off. His finger bulged around his class ring. He had a round head, a crew cut and a full beard. He looked glad to see me. “You hitch hiking?”

“I’m not,” I said. “Just walking.”

“You ought to get in,” he said. “Where you headed?”

“I’m actually headed home,” I said. “Just up the road.” A car came around the curve, headed toward us.

He glanced at the rearview and saw the car, pointed his truck toward the grass and eased over. I followed him.

“Let me give you a ride,” he said. “You and the old man patch things up?”

Brown had been pulled over and arrested a few times for drug-related charges. I didn’t want to get into the car with him. He’d come from well-to-do people, his father a successful lawyer, but neither he nor his brother, Allen, stayed straight for long. They owned a pawnshop in Sardis, Mississippi—a piss poor town devastated by meth. Growing up, I knew if they were next door, they were getting clean.

“No,” I said. “Things aren’t so good.”

He looked somber, nodding. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “But suffering builds character. I know that from my life.”

I don’t know why I got into the car. There was something in his face like maybe he understood, could help me make things right if I listened to him talk. He’d seen his own share of hardship, and we had that in common. I climbed in and pulled the door shut.
“You still playing ball any?” he said.

He’d been to Wendy’s. Droplets coursed down the side of the cup in one drink holder. An apple wobbled in the other holder, above coins and a few receipts. A hard pack of Marlboro Lights was open on the dash, a joint stuck in the top row of smokes. Next to it a long worn-out book.

“Nowhere to play,” I said. “I guess I could join a church league.”

Brown laughed. “You’d be too good for them,” he said. “No one would make a hit off of you.”

I remembered my father telling me I would pitch a no-hitting season. That I would be one of the great no-hitters if I kept it up. He’d hoped I’d play my way to winning the Cy Young Award someday, and for as long as I could remember what he wanted for me was all I wanted. “I think all that’s over,” I said.

“You don’t miss it?”

“I miss playing,” I said. “Sure. But I can do other things, good things. I mostly want to go back to school.”

“For what?”

“Social work,” I said. “Hell, maybe grief counseling, just something that does some good in the world.”

“I admire that,” he said. “I’ve got my own entrepreneurial things going.”
“What have you got going on?”

“I’m going to try to build some rental property,” he said. “Out here at my pop’s place, and make the rent affordable for some friends of mine.”

“They’re in a bind?” I said.

“Struggling right now,” he said. “A lot of people are.”

“Very true,” I said.

“I’ll tell you,” Brown said. “I think this project is going to be the one that keeps me straight. I’ve needed it, and if I get this thing going, I might get a few more going, have a real business on my hands.”

“Sounds like you’re on your way,” I said.

“I need to speak with your daddy about it, actually,” he said.

“What for?”

Brown took the book off the dashboard. “This,” he said, “is the deed to our property line. I think your daddy’s fence may be running through our land.”

“You sure of that?” I said. “A coyote pisses on my daddy’s property he knows about it. Seems like he wouldn’t have let that slip through his fingers.”

On the right was my parents’ mailbox. Brown slowed and turned up the hill and the Ford quaked in the ruts. Gravel popped and tinged off the truck. In the pasture off to the right my father drove the tractor, turning down a row of Bermuda grass. He looked up at us and braked, killed the engine.

Brown swept into the top of the driveway and put the truck in park. “Reckon I might ask him now,” he said. “If that’s all right with you.”

“I needed to speak with him myself,” I said. “It’d be better if this could wait.”

“It won’t take but a second,” he said, opening the door. He stepped out and grabbed the deed and closed the door.

My father was crossing the pasture toward the gate. He wore a dirty white t-shirt and jeans, and the Cubs hat he worked in—stained with the salt from his brow. He was six-three, well-built, and full of expectation. I thought about staying in the car, letting Brown drop me off after he was done. Then I saw Wayne. He ducked beneath the barbed wire and ran to Brown.

Dad hadn’t seen me. I watched out the back window. He took Brown’s hand and shook it, adjusted his hat. Wayne, his face to the ground, wound toward a scent, and I knew if he found me Dad would come over and see me too. He paused and sniffed, kept walking. The dog stopped in front of my door, perked his ears and grew still. He looked up, soft brown eyes landing on me, and he yowled like someone was clipping his tail, raked his paws down the side of the truck.

“Uh-uh, Wayne!” my father said. “Get back!” The lines in my father’s face had grown deeper. He looked wise and I felt like his gaze might break me. He walked to the truck and took Wayne by the collar, glanced at the window and met my stare. He turned and then looked back. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“You could die any day,” I said to the window. “Meet your maker.”

“What?” he said. “Why are you here?”

I opened the door and got out. He backed up and rested his arms at his sides. “You taken up with Brown?” he said. “Dealing in Sardis?”

“He just gave me a ride,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

“We’ll talk when I’m ready to talk,” he said. “Same as always. I’ll tell you what you’re going to do—.”

I raised my voice. “You’re done telling me what to do.”

He came closer—stuck a finger into my chest. “You ought to be goddamn ashamed,” he said. “The hours I poured into you, busting my ass so you could get out there to State!”
My ears rang, the world seemed to focus in on my father’s face. Whatever was there was not love, and I wasn’t sure he had any left for me.

“Hold it,” Brown said. He stuck an arm between us and nudged my father away. “I’ve got my own dealings with you. Relax on the boy a minute.”

“Speak and get on,” Dad said. “You’re wasting daylight.”

Brown told him about the property line, opened the book and showed him the old deed. My father stared for a while, brought the page close to his face because he didn’t have his glasses. “I don’t see how you could be right about this,” he said. “That line has been checked within the last ten years for accuracy.”

“I aim to show this to a surveyor,” Brown said. “I have something in mind for that plot.”
“Hell, get a surveyor,” Dad said. “But you’re wasting your money.”

“Would you just hear him out?” I said. “Jesus. You don’t know what’s best for everybody.”

“If you knew what was best for you,” he said. “You’d still be in Starkville on the mound.”
I whistled. “Wayne, come on, bud.” I let down the tailgate of Brown’s truck, popped the steel twice for Wayne to hop up.

The beagle raced to the truck, leapt in.

“What are you doing?” Dad said.

“I’m taking the dog,” I said. “He’s mine. You don’t need him.”

He crossed he driveway toward me. I shut the tailgate, and my father came behind me and opened it, looped his fingers through Wayne’s collar and pulled—the dog’s nails scraping against the metal. He led the beagle onto the ground, turned to me and took my shirt in his hand.

I swung a fist, felt knuckles meet bone. I knew it was the wrong thing to do. Dad brought me to the ground. Gravel scraped my back, dust clouds kicking up around me—like sliding into first base. My mother, Julia, ran out into the yard, grabbed my father by the shoulder. “Ted! Ted get off him!” she said. Brown reached in, wrapped an arm around me and drug me to my feet. None of it seemed real. I saw myself shielded by Brown, my mother and father yelling at one another, Wayne with his head down slinking off to the side. I didn’t know how things got this way. What we wanted made us do awful things to one another.
Brown opened the passenger door and shoved me in. I swung the door shut and Brown rounded the front of the truck to the driver’s side, started the engine. “You lived with that son of a bitch?” he said.

I stared out the window. Ducks glided on the pond next to the house, Vs trailing behind them in the water. I thought about that story in the Bible where the father celebrates his son’s return, and wondered why my father hadn’t done the same. He’d once told me I was going to be the next Mickey Mantle—“the Mick” he called him—that I would pitch several great seasons and when I got too old to throw as hard, I’d finish out on first base, where my arm could handle the short range.

“Wasn’t always like that,” I said. “He used to be all right.”

“He’s going to think all right when I get that surveyor out here,” Brown said. “He better be ready to fork over those acres.”

“You might take his word on the deed,” I said. I leaned my head against the warm glass. “He knows what he’s talking about.”

“You’re old man is wrong about this one,” Brown said. “He’ll see. After all of that I’ll be putting him to work directly.”

“Give it some more thought,” I said. “Like I told you, he would know if something were off.”

“How do I get you back to your place?”

I didn’t go in to work. I sat in a lawn chair in the back yard, staring into the pool. The sun made its way toward the horizon, and the air grew comfortable—bands of pink glowing behind the tree line. The neighbor’s impulse sprinkler chinked and spun water into the grass, a calming sound. I imagined Wayne diving into the pool and paddling to the side with a tennis ball in his mouth. A couple of yards down, a few people were gathered on a deck, the grill smoking, smelling sweet with barbecue.

Around dark, the back door opened and Alyssa came down the steps into the yard, her fair skin soft in the early evening. In her hand were a few bottle rockets, left over from July 4th I assumed. She was barefoot, and wore a black, tiered, tank top dress. “Catch any sparrows?” she said.


“You know, birds that fall from trees,” she said. She kissed me high on the cheek and put her arms around me. “I mean did anything good happen.”

“Oh,” I said. “No. The sparrow fell flat. Neck broken.”

“I’m sorry,” Alyssa said. She ran her hand through my hair, a finger catching on the way down. She gently pulled apart the knot. “What happened?” She sat down at the edge of the pool, stuck her legs in.

I leaned back in the chair. “I was hoping for forgiveness,” I said. “But that’s not likely now. I slugged him.”

She turned the bottle rockets by their stems. “He never pegged you for a slugger,” she said, smiling.

“Ha ha,” I said, giving her a thumbs up. “What’s with the fireworks?”
“I read something today that I want to try,” she said. “Underwater rockets.”

“You don’t seem that affected by my story,” I said.

“Well I’m about half proud of you for hitting him,” she said.

“He’ll probably sue me,” I said.

“He just hasn’t forgotten you as a pitcher,” she said. “Forgetting is everything when it comes to forgiveness.”

I nodded. “I’d just like to know if there’s any love in the guy,” I said. “There’s not a lot of time. Our lives are so brief compared to eternity.”

A group of boys biked past the gap between Mik’s place and the neighbor’s house, their voices rolling through the warm air.

“So watch this.” Alyssa stood and grabbed my arm, tugged me from the chair. “Do you have a lighter?” she said.

“When have I ever smoked?”

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll use the car lighter.”

She ran around the side of the house to our Honda. The lighter was glowing orange in her fingers when she came back. She held the ring to the fuse and sparks arced backwards. When the fuse was almost gone, Alyssa stuck the thing into the pool. The rocket spiraled down into the water and made a quiet flash against the walls like sheet lighting—a trail of bubbles lit up and rising behind.

I would apologize to Dad and move on.

I went to Best Buy and bought my father a radio headset, thinking he’d like to listen to the news or the game while working. I didn’t know if he’d even accept the gift, but I wanted to try, to show him I was sorry.

I drove out to his place, found him working out by the fence, near the old barn. The barn needed painting. I had been in high school the last time we’d given it a fresh coat. When he saw me his jaw locked, a fissure running down his cheek.

“I got you something,” I said. I held the box out to him.

“Take it to the house,” he said. He carried a pair of wire cutters in one hand, a shovel in the other. Barbed wire had been cut, fence posts pulled out of the ground
“You were on Brown’s property?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Other way around.”
“What do you mean?”

“Turns out he was on mine,” he said.

In the distance, Brown’s Ford came over the hill, coming toward us and not slowing down at all. He passed through the posts and gained speed. My father grabbed me and brought me down to the ground out of the way.  I was broken with certainty.


Ellis Purdie is a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi.  He has been a bookseller at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi: the best independent bookstore in the south.  When he's not reading and writing, he's taking care of his cat, Leon--a Russian Blue pulled right off the Mississippi interstate and nursed back to health.  He walks lots of dogs.