Calvin Schroeder and his friends walked through the woods laughing about their little adventure. The thick, hearty men owed their girth to the beer, steaks and fried foods they regularly consumed. They exercised by hopping in and out of their boats or climbing the bleachers at a high school football game. They all wore flannel, jeans, work boots and ball caps on their head embroidered with a brand of tractor they liked or the number of their favorite NASCAR driver.
Though they had slowed to a stroll, their hearts still thudded in their chests from the brisk jog they took through the woods in trying to surprise Levi. If they had been fitter they would have found him sooner but their poor diets made them slow and loud.
Levi, not built like his father, had the body of a sprinter, not a shot put thrower. Though less athletic and coordinated than Levi, his father considered his son to be scrawny and frail or at least that is what he wanted to believe.
Behind drinking and fishing, Calvin most favored spending a good deal of his time rationalizing how poorly he treated Levi. Calvin’s own father had mistreated him and so he in turn treated Levi with similar harshness. Calvin knew he acted difficult. At times he even admitted to himself he treated Levi cruelly. As Levi grew older however and continued to succeed, his father rationalized that his manner of upbringing must not be so flawed and so he stayed the course. He passed the point of no return. He could never admit he had made mistakes with Levi or that he could have done better. Any attempt to warm his ways and improve their relationship might be interpreted as an admission of guilt and he suffered too much from obstinance to bow and make amends for injustices he had inflicted on his son. Therefore, he continued treading like an arrogant dictator down the same cold path and provided for Levi the minimum necessities.
Did he need to go out of his way on such evenings to torment Levi? No, but it impressed his friends and provided amusement for them as they thought they were having some good-natured fun with Levi. They didn’t understand the true animosity Calvin felt for his son.
Calvin wrestled with his conscience as they walked. If he hated Levi so much, why couldn’t he at least leave him be and why did he have to hate him in the first place? Because he loves his mother and wants to be with her. Levi screamed for her the day Calvin threw her out and so Calvin sought to purge him of his “momma boy” ways but it didn’t work. The moment Levi turned eighteen, Calvin returned to an empty home and a note.
Levi had packed the things he bought, and left with the car he purchased. Everything else to which Calvin may have contributed remained. Calvin had no sense or warning of Levi’s plans to leave. He stood in the empty room with a confounded expression!
Anger accompanied the humiliation of having his own son run out on him. He had to explain to his friends why Levi bolted. He had to craft a lie so the neighbors and community didn’t conclude he terrorized Levi as they speculated. College provided a simple enough answer. He told them Levi left for school. He hadn’t of course. Levi ran to mommy, the woman who sought to betray him; sought to betray his secret.
Calvin hated his ex-wife and hated as much how Levi took after her. Deep down Calvin wanted to sour Levi as his father had soured him. Make Levi hard and bitter so his mother would not recognize him as the sweet child she left behind. She would not welcome him back if he were as corrupted as Calvin.
He failed though he tried his best. He took things from Levi, punished him, poked and prodded him and belittled his mother but Levi resisted. He turned his life over to Christ, caught rides to Sunday school and stayed away all day while Calvin chose to drink. Levi asked for nothing. He did not ask for friends to come over, he made no Christmas lists, wanted no rides to the movie theater and did not ask to see his mother.
Calvin noticed Levi did his best to live independently but each rare instance Levi came seeking approval, Calvin seized the opportunity and stomped on him. He hated to see his son, his ex-wife’s child, succeed where he had not!
His plan didn’t work and his son while bitter, reserved his resentment for him; not to the world or to his mother. Calvin knew his son would hate him. An acceptable sacrifice, but he wanted his son also to hate the world as he hated it. He needed him to be as bitter, angry and resentful.
Calvin had returned home from his long day of work to see Levi’s car missing as usual from the driveway. It was Levi’s 18th birthday and Calvin had no problem with Levi’s absence especially since he had not bothered to buy him a present. He grabbed a can of cheap beer from his refrigerator, plopped into his leather recliner and reached for his cigarettes on the end table. With luck, he would pass out before Levi got home and avoid the disapproving glare. Instead he found a note on top of his cigarettes, right where Levi knew his dad would find it. Calvin unfolded the note card.
I’m gone dad. I won’t be here to trouble you further. I think you know where
I’ve gone. I’m sure you are angry as well but deep down you know this works out best for the both of us. It was a hard life but one day I will forgive you. I know you don’t think you need it but perhaps one day you will. Levi.
Calvin balled up the note card and threw it in the fire place. He ran to Levi’s room but found the sheets and pillows remained on the bed. The lamps and furniture were all present. Levi took only the clothes he purchased. He removed nothing Calvin provided and Calvin felt cheated. He hungered for an excuse to go after him and take back his belongings.
He gritted his teeth, dragged on his cigarettes and crushed his beer cans in his hands. Forgiveness? He needed no forgiveness. He wanted respect and appreciation but not forgiveness! In his mind he had done nothing wrong.
Calvin and his two friends jumped the ditch and pulled down the tail gait of the truck they had left parked on the side of the road. They opened their cooler and cracked a few icy beers to quench their thirst.
“Man, that tastes good!” one of them exclaimed after he chugged a quarter of the can.
“Yeah, it’s hot out here,” the second man replied. He pulled off his John Deere hat and wiped his brow with the cold aluminum.
“I remember coming down here when I was younger and sneaking around the old house.”
Calvin nodded. “I can remember when it burned down too. They say after the owner passed, his son set fire to it to collect the insurance money.”
“Shh, do you hear something?” the burly man with the John Deere hat asked.
They all remained still and heard coming towards them the crunch of footsteps on the gravel.
“You think its Levi?” one whispered.
Calvin reached into the tool box, pulled out a long, heavy duty flashlight and shined it up the road. The yellow beam reflected off a man in dull armor walking towards them. Calvin and his friends retreated a step but Calvin did not lower the flashlight. The armored man held out his hand to block the light from his eyes. Metal ground against metal as he withdrew his sword from his scabbard but he did not slow.
The light illuminated the bones beneath his skin and they saw his skeletal hand he used as a shield.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” the large friend shouted. He bounded around and jumped in the passenger side of the truck. Calvin leaped behind the wheel while the other man dove into the bed. Calvin fired the truck, threw it into gear, and sped away kicking up a large amount of dust and debris as they fled. The armored man, fearing for his life, swung his sword and struck the side of Calvin’s truck as they passed. A spark from clashing metal sent Calvin’s friend, scrambling to the other side.
The soldier removed the gun from his shoulder and took aim at the fleeing iron monster, but when he pulled the trigger the gun did not fire. He uttered a profanity and examined the firing mechanism but in the dark he noticed nothing.
He watched as the truck fled and then satisfied he had dispatched the danger, sheathed his sword and continued onward.
Doris sat in an old rocking chair much like the one she used on her porch and watched a T.V. show with poor reception. She had no cable, and no satellite and so had to rely on her television’s rabbit ears and the sagging antennae on the roof. She received but three channels and two of those came in fuzzy part of the time but since knew not of what she missed, she remained content with what she had.
Her chair sat next to a leather recliner far more comfortable than her rocker but Doris chose not to sit in it. The chair belonged to her husband and no one had used it since he left. A five-inch-tall stack of National Geographics stood next to an ashtray filled with his cigarette butts. His black Bic lighter lay next to a crumpled pack of cigarettes.
Her husband’s habitat remained intact as it existed when he still lived with her. She didn’t keep it undisturbed believing he would return. She did it to remember him sitting in his chair and pretend he still watched T.V. with her. She even turned on the game shows he liked to watch, ones she didn’t even care for, and listened to the sounds as she washed her dishes. Occasionally she lit a cigarette, set it to burn in the ashtray, and let the living room fill with tobacco smoke to feel he sat there. When feeling especially lonely, she carried on conversations with him or asked him about a show playing on the tube.
Her loving daughter tried to remove her many times but Doris refused to leave. She could not leave the memory of her husband behind. As the house fell apart and her daughter’s objections grew more profound, Doris cut contact off with her. She stopped answering the phone and when her daughter and son-in-law appeared on the front porch one day, insinuating she would be forced from her feeble dwelling, Doris called the town sheriff.
This last straw broke her daughter. In her mind her father had abandoned Doris and her mother like a lunatic clung to his memory even choosing to live in squalor to do so. Humiliated, her daughter left with her husband and never returned.
Doris loved her daughter and Doris knew she shouldn’t be living in such a terrible place but she couldn’t leave. Her hope for the impossible bound her there. Before her husband left, they did all they could to maintain the house but once he left she lost the drive to cut the grass, paint the porch, or even dust. Sadness sapped her will and her social security checks did not provide enough income for repairs. As the authorities could not find or pronounce her husband dead, she had no access to his life insurance or company pension. Her daughter stopped sending support checks after the incident with the sheriff but Doris never cashed them anyway.
She had not dusted in years and not vacuumed in months. She washed the dishes from time to time but only a plate or two. As a feeble old lady she didn’t do much to soil the house but years of neglect took its toll. She existed in a home you would not want your mother or grandmother to live. You wouldn’t set your grandchildren on the floor to play in a home like Doris’.
She spent most of her time looking out of the window. Her body ached, she had no friends, just enough money to keep the lights buzzing, and lived in a condemned home, but she possessed a strong will to face each day and she pondered what power moved her to get out of bed each morning. She did not want to die but did not know how long she could endure living in such a manner. Sooner or later someone would remove her or the house might collapse and kill her.
At night she kept the kitchen dark because she did not want anyone to see her inside if they should be driving by and she especially did not want ghosts loitering at the woods’ edge to stare at her as she washed her dishes.
She pushed herself from her chair and shuffled her feet into the kitchen. Her slippers scraped over the grit. She grabbed a glass from her cabinet, blew into it to remove loose dust lingering at the bottom, then filled it with tap water. She took a sip. The taste of the hard, iron filled water didn’t phase her.
She opened her creaky screen door and took a seat in her rocking chair on the porch hoping to catch a little weekend traffic going up and down her road.
The wasps in her porch roof sat huddled, upside down, on their nest but the rest of the woods’ insects buzzed and chirped. The faint smell of cigarette smoke drifted out and the memory of her husband cursing at the T.V. as he watched his beloved Redskins lose, filled her. She rocked over her loose boards for a while but when no cars drove past, she returned to her T.V. program.
As she stood, she heard a rustling near the woods. She eased over the porch railing and peered down the dark road. She heard at once several voices but saw no one. A second later she heard three loud thuds and saw the brake lights of a vehicle appear in the dark about one hundred feet away. The headlights burst onto the road in front of the truck and it zoomed away. She watched the vehicle until it turned the corner and vanished from view.
She remained at her porch’s edge for a moment speculating what those people were doing in the woods and why they fled. Occasionally thrill seekers drove to Haven Beach road at night and stared into the woods hoping for a quick scare which the gullible and weak minded usually received. They often saw things that weren’t there. She turned to go inside when she heard the faint crunch of footsteps approaching her home in the dark. She flattened herself against the wall and peered into the darkness. She heard each step as it ground into the gravel. They did not approach quickly enough to alarm her nor slowly enough to suggest sneaking. These footsteps belonged to someone out for a general stroll but whether these footsteps had caused the truck to flee concerned her most.
Doris bent low and eased open her screen door. She swore its creak could be heard for miles in the still air and she “shushed” it like a child. She squeezed through a small sliver and still crouching, made her way to the kitchen window above her sink. She raised her head a few inches at a time and peered through. To her shock, the Spanish soldier strolled into view as he had numerous times on the road at night. She had not seen him in years but his manner of dress and age had not changed. He stared straight ahead and did not acknowledge the house in any way. He kept right on walking towards the beach with his gun slung over his shoulder.
Levi lied stewing in bed next to his sleeping wife. He considered various scenarios and all their possible outcomes in his head of how he better could have handled the encounter with his father and his friends. He knew he had made the proper decision. If he revealed himself they would have teased him over camping in the woods or running and hiding like a child when he heard them coming. Like pack dogs, they’d have tore into him with their good ole’ boy ribbing and heard nothing else but their own words and laughter.
He did not want to be viewed as a coward but he understood his situation would not have improved had he jumped out, so he took comfort in the fact his pride did not get the better of him.
Still, he wouldn’t ignore his father and friends’ effort to go out of their way to harass him and though these were men old enough to be grandfathers, they had no trouble foregoing their maturity for a chance at scaring Levi. Though Levi was a grown, married man, he still appeared as a child in their eyes because of the belittling way in which Levi’s father spoke of him. His father had no problems insulting him in front of either his friends or Levi’s friends and upon occasion even did so in front of Levi’s children.
If not for a sense of misguided appreciation he felt he owed to his father for his mediocre upbringing, he would have cut ties with the man years ago. He felt obligated though to continue acting civil at least for the mere reason his father had provided him with food and shelter until he turned eighteen but he provided nothing more. Levi did not participate in sports as a child because he had no means to get to and from practice. His father chose not to buy him a car and so he rode the bus for most of high school until he could bum rides home from his friends. He eventually acquired a job and through the kindness of his co-workers, obtained transport to and from work before he could afford to buy his own car.
He was so proud he had paid for it himself and hoped his dad would show equal pride, but no, his dad ridiculed the car and criticized Levi for getting ripped off in his purchase when in reality Levi had secured an excellent deal.
At that moment Levi decided he no longer loved his father. He had clung to the hope his father would turn the corner and appreciate Levi as a man if not so as a boy, but right then Levi knew chances were nil. His father would not allow himself to love Levi. Calvin would either hate him for what he couldn’t achieve or hate him for what he could.
At Levi’s wedding, his father criticized Jules’ family for going cheap on the drinks but he himself refused to pay for the rehearsal dinner and left the bill for Levi’s mother and her husband to pay. He stayed long enough to eat his free meal and then left as though the Super Bowl were about to start. Levi enjoyed seeing him go. He had dreaded all night the potential embarrassment of watching his father stumble around and belittle the wedding party.
During the reception, his father gave a toast for appearance sake and half-heartedly joked that Levi was a burden he was elated to relinquish to Jules. Those who did not know Levi’s father well laughed and applauded at the end while the others who saw through the façade, clapped with false enthusiasm. Yes, Levi and his father had a poor relationship which grew worse year after year.
Levi never knew about what his mother and father argued but did understand why she never returned for him. His father had threatened to hurt Levi according to his mother and so Levi always dealt with this thought during every encounter with his dad. He hoped his mother misunderstood, but his father had never shown him the love to suggest otherwise.
Levi knew if he had not always walked away at the height of their arguments, they would have thrown punches years ago. When his father stumbled around drunk Levi saw see the disdain in his eyes. Levi always gave way. He never wanted their arguments to reach a point where he had to throw fists to defend himself from his father.
He would not gain his father’s respect through winning or losing the fight. His father sought not to test Levi’s manhood but rather wanted to hurt him.
Levi felt his unwillingness to fight contributed to his sense of inadequacy. He knew he could fight. He had the knowledge, fitness, strength, and speed and with his father, the motivation to win, but he felt to lose control or allow such a confrontation to occur, demonstrated weakness on his part. To fight conveyed a lack of mental superiority and discipline. He would not obtain the glory one does while achieving victory with fists. Backing down made him look like a coward but through intelligence and self-control, he achieved true victory.
Levi’s own double standard victimized him. He felt weak for not fighting and weak for fighting.
The day grew near when his father would challenge him. Age and deterioration approached and his father would make sure he got the fight in before he grew too old to win.
Levi watched at his wife sleeping next to him. Did she consider him a man? Would she be impressed if he finally silenced his father with his fists or did she appreciate his self-control? He thought women’s minds told them they should be with a secure, mature man who didn’t fight, but he thought their hearts yearned for a strong man who could settle confrontations with knuckles, elbows, and knees. He wanted so much to impress his wife but did not want such a thing to impress her.
He nudged her shoulder. She opened her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“I want you to know that I’m going to impress you one of these days.”
Jules smiled and closed her eyes, “You impress me every day, honey.”
He knew she didn’t mean it but appreciated her effort in trying to make him feel good.
Calvin sat in his recliner with a glass of gin in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His big screen T.V. pulsated through the smoky haze drifting over his living room. He stared at the stuffed deer’s head mounted on his wall.
Each time he brought the glass to his lips his left arm trembled and shook similarly each time he took a drag from his cigarette using his right. The cigarette burned to his fingers as he took a long, unhealthy puff and then mashed it into the ashtray. He gulped the last swallow of his drink, set it on the floor next to his chair, and then lit another cigarette for himself. He placed it burning into the ashtray then he poured another splash of gin into his glass from a plastic liter bottle sitting nearby. The night proceeded this way for the three hours since he left the woods when they saw the ghost soldier approach them.
They had flown down the twisty back roads like mad men and they did not stop until they reached town. They pulled over to the curb and let their friend who rode in the bed jump up front with them.
“Did you see what he did to your truck Calvin?” he shouted as he jumped into the back seat. “He hit it with his sword! There is a gash about an inch deep! He almost got me!”
Calvin didn’t answer. He pulled away from the curb and kept driving.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” the burly man in the passenger seat said. “That wasn’t a man. It was some kind of ghost.”
“Don’t you remember the old story of the guy who got a flat tire on the road and a man came upon him in armor with a sword?”
“That was sixty years ago!” the burly man exclaimed.
“So what?” the other responded. “Does that make a difference? The ghost was dead then and he’s still dead now.”
“I know! What I’m saying is, don’t you think someone would have seen him again since?”
“Yeah, us! We just saw him!”
“Well maybe we did!” the burly man replied and turned to look out of his window. “Maybe we did.”
“What should we do about it then?” the man in the back seat asked.
“What do you want to do about it?” Calvin grumbled. “Talk to the Gazette about it like all the fools did sixty years ago? Be made fun of in the community? Heck they all think we’re a bunch of drunks already. We need to just keep quiet.”
“What about Levi?” the man in back asked. “What if he is still in the woods?”
“We’re not going back!” Calvin exclaimed putting an end to the conversation. The other two exchanged anxious glances but said nothing.
Calvin continued to smoke and drink hoping to ease the anxiety coursing through him. He had never felt such fear. He felt like the specter came for him for something he did long ago. When the ghost drew his sword Calvin felt his time expiring and he knew a nice place did not await him.
He swallowed his gin and poured himself another shot. He didn’t want to move, look at the television or Heaven forbid, out the window. Fear crippled him. He had not experienced it to this degree since his father beat him. Not since before he physically overcame his father and saved the fearful little child inside, had fear so shaken him. Now he felt the scared, insecure child resurfacing and he hoped to drown him in alcohol.
The next morning Levi’s car crawled past his father’s house but he did not stop. He wanted to confront the man but did not want to admit to him he had hid so he kept driving. His relationship with his father needed to be removed like the cancerous black eye of a potato. His father’s existence gnawed at him just as his own existence tormented his father. What it all came down to, Levi wasn’t sure. When the resentment began he couldn’t determine; perhaps the moment he took his first breath, when his mother loved and nurtured him. Maybe this is when the anger and jealousy within his father ignited.
Levi continued to drive and cool his mind until he reached the woods. He felt drawn to them, and as he drove the gravel road, kicking up dust, he noticed Doris sitting on her front porch. He stopped and she watched him exit the car and make his way into the front yard with a smile.
“Did you go into the woods last night?” she asked like a grim general questioning his subordinate.
Levi nodded. “I did but I did not make it too long.” He didn’t crack a smile.
She didn’t smile or offer an “I told you so.” “What happened?”
“Some people tried to scare me. After that I was too angry to continue.”
Doris nodded. “I see. Who were these people? Do you know them?”
“I do, but it is irrelevant who they are. Just immature men out for a good time at my expense.”
“I saw a truck tear outta here last night. The same people don’t you think?”
“Probably,” Levi frowned. “It probably was,” he mumbled and shook his head with frustration.
“I think their plan backfired though.”
“What do you mean?”
“They aren’t the only ones I saw last night,” she pointed her arm which looked much like a withered branch, at the road. “My lost traveler returned not long after the truck I heard sped off.”
“What lost traveler? The one looking for his ship?” His mouth hung agape.
Doris smirked. “I think your friends got a dose of their own medicine.”
“You think they saw him?” He shook with excitement.
“They roared away and only a minute later he came strolling down the road. I’ll admit I wasn’t in the mood for conversation so I went inside when I heard him coming, but I’m sure though they saw him.”
Levi’s smile stretched wider than the grill of his car. He slumped he did not get to witness the ghost if Doris spoke the truth, but the remainder took pleasure in the turmoil his father and his friends faced.
“You made my day, Doris!”
“Did I? Been a while since I did such a thing for anyone. How about you make my day then and not go inside the woods again?”
Levi grimaced and felt that pang of guilt that accompanies disappointing someone. “I’m sorry but,” he hesitated and glanced at the woods. “I uh…I gotta go back.”
Doris gazed at him once more with her ancient stare, “Then do me a favor and ask my husband who or what killed him?”