The Last Field
Of fields, my father had three.
Right behind the house was an extended lawn that went on for about a football field and a half. This eased into a couple hundred yards of ground that had a small corn patch on the left side, with a rangy vegetable garden on the right, where an above ground pool had once been.
Beyond that was the field where our parents had jokingly reminded me and my brother Cal never to go. This was the running gag in our family, that coyotes or whatever the predator du jour was roamed here, but then my mom would kiss my dad in this over-the-top way that was kind of cute because that had been their place. That spot where, to our thinking, they had done things with a really high “ick” factor.
But the field became a lot less cute or funny after my mother died. My father was shot there. I was at school. He called it a hunting accident. The bullet went through his left foot. It happened again a couple years later, about a semester before my college teaching career came to a hiatus. His right thigh this time. He’d gone after a couple of coyotes that had taken out our dog Max. Tripped and fell, he said, with the gun going off when it hit a stump.
I was teaching at the time at a small liberal arts school out in western Pennsylvania, about 100 miles from home. I was always on the verge of quitting, but you know how it is when you talk in your head about the bad choices you’ve made in life, taking on work that is not for you, how you’ll get out, get started anew. But resolve falters a lot, doesn’t it, once the moment of its inspiration fades? The decision you were going to make tends to cycle back into the latest restarting of what you were already doing, but with the hope that something else will come along.
For me, that was a grad student named Kelsey with whom I’d sit up late at night discussing the overlooked output of someone like Frank Norris, before we’d tumble into each other, and then retumble the first moment a few rays of sunlight infiltrated the blinds in the morning. I thought I was on to something, whereas she just thought she was off to something else, because that’s how life is when you’re very young, and then the semester ended. There was a flowery Facebook private message from her end, followed by a defriending and a blocking. I tended my resignation later that day. I’d go home and regather, and it’s not like my dad didn’t need me.
I had less reason to believe my dad’s hunting accident story than Cal did. “You can rest easy, Aid,” our father had said to me one night on the phone before I moved back home. He always called me Aid instead of Aiden when he was trying to put something past me. “It’s only a flesh wound.” You could practically feel him smiling his regular crinkly smile he’d make whenever he did his Monty Python imitation—I had gotten him a box set one year—like I was supposed to not think what he must have known I was thinking.
Cal had long been out of the house by the time dad got shot, living in New Jersey with his wife. Close, but not there. Huge difference in life, close to being there and actually being there.
Dad was getting around with a cane when I got home. “Mind the field,” he’d always offer by way of warning when I handed him his thermos of the Starbucks coffee I’d just brewed in the kitchen and he sat down for a marathon viewing of season two of Gunsmoke. Like there were woodland sprites out there waiting to trip me up. I told him I would, because that was what he wanted to hear, and it was what I wanted to hear myself say. My dad and I had a lot in common with things like that, around that time.
That was on my mind as I started sitting in a café come the midday as I stared at a dog-eared edition of Frank Norris’s McTeague, which I’d only ever read once but talked about like I revisited it annually. At one point I was trying to impress Kelsey with that half-truth. Non-truth. But every day at the café there was a strawberry blonde who wasn’t Kelsey. She was probably ten or so years older, which made her older than I was, though she had one of those faces that could have passed for seventeen in the right context. I stared a lot, I guess, because one day between bites of a biscotti she gently pointed out that I was staring. I brilliantly asked at what, and she said her; I said, oh, sorry, and she said, don’t be. Her name was Mara, and I was scared of her at first. I told her my mother’s name had been Maura, like this mattered at all.
For a few days I’d come in with my book, trying to look busier than the day before, like I was a man with important things to do. By day four, we were sitting together and I was telling her about my dad, and she revealed that she was a grad student working in town with a professor who was writing a book on Victorian architecture–how it had influenced the visual design of the northeastern cities of the US.
“So it’s really about how a place and how it looks can change how you might otherwise think,” she offered.
“Like in fairy tales.” I thought I was being smart.
“Okay, like in fairy tales. Let’s say you’re Hansel, and you’re out on a stroll. That stroll is going to impact how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, much more differently if you’re passing through the veldt or walking in Boston’s Back Bay. You probably walk with more purpose in the Back Bay, your mind might start to think more thoughts of industry, whereas, out in the sticks, maybe dreamier thoughts.”
“You know what I mean. Biscotti?”
I told her about my dad and his accidents, and how they happened in that place where he and my mom had their place of places. I let it slip, too, that I had confided in Kelsey—which had been a mistake—that my mom’s death had an impact on me beyond maybe what someone would think, but I didn’t tell Kelsey why. I let it go at that. Kelsey being Kelsey had mustered up some tears and stroked my forearm, muttering something about “so brave, so brave.” We were having our little moment. I probably looked off into the distance all steely-eyed, playing my part, while I felt more like I was hiding something.
“And did you have something to hide?” Mara asked after we left the coffee shop and kept taking turns around the small village green across the street where the public library and the police station were.
“Well, we knew she was going to die. That was never not the way it was going to be after a certain point. She had late stage pancreatic cancer which had blanketed all of the surrounding organs. I didn’t want to go back to school. But I did.” Mara’s hands were in the pockets of her vest. You didn’t see a lot of women wearing vests. I’d ask if her arms didn’t get cold, and she’d push herself against me. I always liked that kind of answer from her, no matter what we were talking about.
“But you still weren’t ready for it?”
“You might say I was ready for certain things. The doctor said it was going to be like a King’s tide. I had to look that up. It’s a tide that goes higher than normal high tides by a lot, that comes on fast. You get up on a Tuesday, you figure out if you want to have coffee or tea with breakfast, and you go before the dishes are in the sink, maybe. Then you go before the sitcom you were watching is over. King’s tide. Anyway, she wanted me back in school. ‘How am I ever going to read what you write if you don’t write something that will last forever,’ is what she said. Big smile on her face. Like she’d have when the Sears catalog would first come each fall and she’d put it down in front of Cal and me and ask if there might be anything we wanted for Christmas that year. I guess her point—well, it was probably a joke, too—is that if you write something that will last, that maybe goes beyond just what people are supposed to read on the train and then throw away and forget about, it can stretch beyond whatever points these things normally get to and she’d be able to see it where she was. I don’t know. She was on a lot of medications, too.”
My dad met Mara and liked her. Said she reminded him of my mother. That’s not really what you want to hear when you’d just started doing with someone the things we were doing. Still, I asked him how so, and he said that my mother had eyes like that. You would have thought you could give someone no better compliment when I told Mara that on one of our walks across the town. Some days we would go a clear ten miles. That was a day I wanted to just keep walking, not be bounded by the realities of it getting dark and colder outside and having to go to sleep and the alarm clock signaling the start of the next day.
“My mother was a proud sort of person. You know how people talk about dying on their own terms? People mostly just say that. When the moment is looking straight back at them, I don’t really think they’re capable of thinking in any kind of decrees they might give out. They just don’t want to be in that spot. They’d rather be in any other. But my mother wasn’t like that. Later my dad lost sight of that idea, I think.”
I didn’t tell her the rest of it just then. Sometimes you have to bail out the oceans that flood your heart in wine glasses rather than buckets. She was quiet for a few seconds. Probably more like a minute. We both were. But it was one of those moments where you both know what words will be sounded next. And we both knew they’d be her words.
“And you did, too?”
“Yeah. I did, too.”
We let it go for that day. I put Mara in a cab, and walked all the way back to my dad’s. I cleared the brush around the yard over the next few days. Even though it was autumn, I liked taking my shirt off while working in the yard after I made my dad his coffee. He was getting more mobile and didn’t need the cane, though he still had a pronounced limp. I always worked with my back facing the house; it was just the way the morphology of my body went, I guess, like you walk a certain way, at a certain angle, because of your dominant leg.
I’d take these long looks, that were like the breaths you take when you’re clearing your thoughts, with one to the left, towards town, thinking of Mara, whom I’d see later at the café where we’d usually meet up around dusk, which came on ever earlier; and then to the right, past the lawn I was now tending, past the stretch of land with the tiny corn patch and the now-harvested vegetable garden, my eye settling on the grove of cedars, trying to search back behind them to where my parents’ field was. Mara took to my dad, too. She came over some days to hang out with him when I got caught up in what I was writing, because I thought maybe I had a hand for that, and the last place I wanted to go was back to some university.
I didn’t know why, exactly, but I liked the idea of them being alone, without me around. Sometimes Mara would come and find me at the café, after my yardwork, after she’d worked with her professor and made her way to the house to have coffee with my dad. One evening at this Italian place in town that had been there forever, so far as the locals believed—which meant since 1957—she came in with this look on her face that imparted she knew more about me than she had when we last saw each other.
I had gotten there first and ordered a whiskey. Then I had had another. And a third. Because you know when these times are coming. If you’re doing something the right way with someone, you’re always heading towards these sorts of things. It’s how you bind to what you bind to. Like paint needs to bind to a surface or else it’s just liquid color that puddles on the ground.
She held my hand as we looked at the menus. Waiters sometimes have an astonishing knack for knowing when to stay away, so we just sat like that, eventually giving up the pretense of mulling what we might wish to order.
“Your father carried your mother out there, then?”
“He did. He told you that?”
She didn’t answer me with any words, which was answer enough for me to continue.
“He didn’t tell Cal, right away, that she had died. The morning after, he phoned me. I came from school. My mother had told me a few weeks before that she wanted not to die in the house, or in a hospital, God forbid, but out in that field, with my dad, where they had started a part of their lives together. Like I said, I don’t think most people really stick with that whole death on their own terms thing. But my mother wasn’t most people. It had been wet the night before. Not pouring rain, but you know how it can be in autumn, when the moisture just circles the air, so that your clothes get damp, and the ground gets damp and soft, but you’re not really conscious of wetness. She had been getting so weak. Any time the phone rang I figured it would be for this. There was mud on the floor. My dad was in a chair. He was crying to himself. He sort of nodded towards their bedroom. I knew that he had carried her out there. I knew she had died the way she wanted to. The way he wanted her to, as well, because my dad would have been like that. I left him in the room, and I went into the bedroom. I sat by the bed. I felt like I couldn’t move, like I was bound in that moment, by the stillness. And I just sat there. My mother was not her normal color. More like the color of the bark of a beech tree. I was going to sit there until I could hear that my dad had stopped crying. Because I knew my dad well enough to know that he’d want that. And after about, I don’t know, twenty minutes, that’s when I heard it. The smallest, faintest, little breathing sound. I put my finger under my mother’s nostrils. Something was coming out. Barely. She was gone enough that I knew there was no coming back. I put my fingers over her nostrils, and when I released them, there was nothing else. When I was back in the sitting room, my dad had stopped crying. He said that we should call Cal.”
I hadn’t even noticed she had come around the table and was sitting next to me on my side of the booth.
“Yes,” she said. Nothing else. Maybe she didn’t even say it. But I’m pretty sure she did. Just the softest “yes,” almost entirely sibilance, and nothing more.
It was Mara who found my dad the third and final time he was shot in the field.
This time it was his arm. He was on the ground when she came up to him. She told me he looked like a kid who lies on this back with his friends, with each of them saying what they most think the passing clouds above resemble. He was discharged from the hospital and sent to a mental health evaluation facility. The psychiatrist assigned to his case—who had the habit of calling it, to me, “our case”—called what had happened—been happening—not an outright suicide attempt, or a series of them, but an “event precursor.” I had no idea what that meant.
“What it means, roughly speaking, is that your father doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t want to live, but a part of him wants to inflict some kind of punishment for being left behind. He told me he was responsible for your mother’s death. He took her out in the elements…”
I explained that wasn’t it. The good thing about this doctor was that I didn’t have to go any further. He wasn’t impelling me, and so the words just came. I told him that there was a time when my dad never would have thought anything like that, would have known he was doing exactly what my mom wanted him to, what she probably said she was glad he was doing as he carried her out there. I told him about being in the room with my mother, on that morning when my father had thought she had died the night before. Mara had come from my father’s room by then, having checked on him, making sure he was all settled in. He was going to be there for a couple of days while he was evaluated and what was next for him—and best—was worked out before going forward. Where he’d live, what he needed so far as treatment went, what was best for his safety, health, and, hopefully, some semblance of happiness that would come back. We didn’t know just then that he’d move into an assisted living home, sell the house, make new friends. Everything was uncertain. I told the doctor what I had done. I asked him if I should tell my father that, if it would help him with what guilt he had.
“Mr. Conklin,” he said, “we will keep what you’re saying here private between us. But it never does to throw guilt at guilt. Yours won’t help your father’s. Let it go. Or you’ll let go of things you don’t wish to let go of.” He gave Mara a quick look, before his eyes settled back on me.
We said goodbye to my father for the night. I promised to be back before he woke up the next morning. Mara and I started walking, in that way again in which you don’t want your walk capped by any of the normal things that cap a walk—the cold, the lateness of the hour, the practicalities of life.
We came once more to the village green we tended to stroll around. I asked her why she had walked back into the woods, anyway, to the field. Like I said, she was around the house a lot, and a gunshot is hard to miss. You walk in its direction when the person, or people, you’ve come to see aren’t there. But still—I felt like there’d be a little extra, you might say, to what she’d tell me.
“I was looking for you, actually.”
“Looking for me? What does that mean? I was at the café.”
“Doing them words?”
“Doing them words. You didn’t come in.”
The truth was, I knew what she meant. I wouldn’t have known before, maybe. Not even two months before. It’s like travel. There are all kinds of ways to travel. More than just getting your passport stamped. Looking for someone was the same way. Didn’t mean you had to be seeking out their actual physical person.
“Yeah. But I was looking for you all the same.”
I said okay, fair enough. I was going to ask her what she found, but I also knew there were all kinds of ways to look for an answer, and all kinds of ways to give one, too.
And we were busy walking, besides.
Colin Fleming’s fiction and nonfiction runs in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Daily Beast, TLS, The New York Times, and many other publications. He is the author of Meatheads Say the Realest Things: A Satirical (Short) Novel of the Last Bro (Tailwinds Press), and If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, F*ckery, Hope (Dzanc). He is a regular guest on many radio programs and podcasts. His website is colinfleminglit.com.