There’s a recurring vision I see when I’m alone of a graveyard of burning trucks, of big burning trucks, and when I see it, I like to think I am seeing the grave of the big truck I watched burn.
Of the life I watched burn.
Of a night on a bridge. A night I was young and in my parents’ truck. We were on our way back from our beach house when it happened. When the tractor trailer with the big white trailer hung half-way through the bridge wall. Hung over the edge. Angled down. Down at the ocean.
At the start it didn’t seem so bad. At the start Father had on the radio, listening to men talk about high school football games. Talk about the scores. The plays. Plays Mother didn’t care for. “Do we really have to listen to this?” Mother said. “There isn’t anything else to listen to,” Father said. “I’d like to listen to the Latin station,” Mother said. “Like I said, nothing else to listen to,” Father said.
Nothing else when the games were long over and we were still sitting on the bridge. In it. Heavy rain. Pounding. Thunder. Lightning. Gashes brightly shining across the tractor trailer hanging off the bridge. Siren lights flickering. Round and round. Men in neon working off fire engine ladders. Working to get the driver out.
We were up close when they stopped traffic. Not when it happened. When they stopped traffic. And when we stopped, we were maybe three cars from the tractor trailer. Close enough we saw flashes of light, of bright burning light, burning from the men in neon on the ladders. Father pointed and said, “They’re welding him out.” “That’s horrible. What a horrible thing,” Mother said. “This is going to take all night,” Father said. “As long as they’re alive,” Mother said. “All night,” Father said. “All fucking night,” Father said.
All night men worked. I saw them up on the ladder. Walking. Welding. Sparks. Siren lights. Swirling and swirling. I saw it all because there was nothing else to see. Nothing but the night and the people asleep in dark cars. The man next to us, outside his car and on his phone. Outside in it. In the rain. The lightning. In it.
When it went up in flames I don’t know if it was the lightning or the welding that sent it up, but it went up. It went up and I remember how it went up. Bright orange. Flickers of brighter orange. Flickering across my parents’ faces. Across the policemen’s. The firemen’s. The men’s. Their hands on their heads. Ambulances leaving.
We left soon after. The cab burned out. Smoldering. Steaming. “They should’ve just pushed it off,” Father said. “That’s horrible, Brian,” Mother said. “So was sitting here,” Father said. “So was sitting here.”
There in Italy.
I thought about this. I thought about what father would have said if he was stuck on a train from Tarquinia to Florence that hadn’t moved in an hour. I thought about what he would have said if I said I didn’t know why it hadn’t moved in an hour. I thought this because we were twenty miles outside of Arezzo when we stopped. Two hours from Florence. I was headed to see my friend Taylor there. She was abroad in London, on spring break in Italy. I, just on break. Just doing a lot of not thinking. But here. Here on that train. Here I was thinking. I thought about my father and what he would say.
The conductor kept saying “re-route” in Italian, which I didn’t know meant “re-route” until I translated it. See, I only knew conversational Italian. Bar Italian. But this wasn’t bar Italian, this “re-route” the conductor said as he went down the train. I thought I’d ask him about it, this “re-route,” so I pulled him aside.
“What’s happened?” I said.
“Accident,” he said.
“A how long kind of accident?”
“An accident,” he said.
“How long is this going to take?”
“It’s a bad accident.”
“Sure. And how long?”
“A man was hit by a train up ahead,” he said.
“So the long kind,” I said, “That’s all I was asking.”
The conductor went back to going down the train. Back to saying, “re-route.” I thought then about what father would do. I thought then I didn’t want to think about father and anything he’d do.
I got off. Went into town. Bought a bottle of wine. Finished it. Bought another. Finished it. Passed out. Woke at night. In the dark. In the bar. Woke to missed calls from Taylor. Missed texts. “Where are you?” “Hello.” “Guess we won’t be having dinner,” Taylor said. “Accident,” I said. “No service,” I said.
I typed out each word. Each letter. So each was clear. Each was sober.
Went to the station. Got on the next train to Florence. An hour out. Midnight. Texted Taylor I’d be coming in late. Texted her we’d go out when I got there. We’d go out how we used to go out.
Out of control. Out of chances. Out. I needed to get out. Junior year. St. Lawrence. Needed to get out. I applied to study abroad. Tuscania. Small city. No English. I applied knowing no Italian.
Knowing I had to get out. Knowing I had to. I had fucked it up. Fucked it till it felt more fucked up to me than it did to anyone else. Than it did to my friends. Than it did to who mattered.
What I’d done is this. I’ll tell you a little, so you know. So you understand. I came back Junior year out of swimming shape. Out of it. I’d been partying and surfing all summer with Natalie. Had been arguing with her over whether or not I liked this open relationship that I’d asked for. Whether I liked how she talked about this Richard she was fucking now. I had issues with it. I had issues that I couldn’t talk to her about. That’s really what the issue was, but they were my issues. I had issues with myself. Issues that got me paying sixteen hundred for an ambulance ride. Some other costs my mother paid and didn’t tell.
I haven’t told anyone this part, but I’ll tell what I want. See it happened like this. First night back on campus. You know how it is. Little this, little that. I’m in this room after, with my friends. It’s late. Maybe two. Everything goes black and I see the little fragments I still see now. I see a friend telling me to get changed. To hurry up and get changed. I see this security woman bitching about me being fucked up. About me throwing up. I see Taylor from a stretcher as I’m taken from the house. I see her yelling my name. Yelling, “Robert.” Yelling it louder than my parents. Calling my parents. My mother. “I’m not telling Brian, you know how he is,” Mother said, “He’ll say he doesn’t care and say to stop being a pussy. You know he’ll say that,” Mother said. “I know,” I said. “But you don’t know how he’ll cry later. How if I told him, he’d cry to me in bed and tell me he couldn’t deal with losing you. You don’t know him how I know him,” Mother said. “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t,” I said.
I know a father who woke me at four every morning to work out before my seven am team workout. Before my morning swim practice. I know a father who liked to say, “Son, I can only do one thing. Coach.” Father liked to tell me this when he woke me up. When he drove me to practice before I had a license. When he reminded me of how good he was at it. How lucky I was to be working out with him at four, and when I worked out with him at four, he liked to say, “I’ve taught world champion bodybuilders. Olympic lifters. Hall of famers. Look at Dre’ Bly. I’ve taught all fucking kinds and none of them are you. You. You’ve got some work to do.”
Some work. Work to my father is not work. It is not the kind of work that you will understand. That you could understand. It is not a job. It is not a passion. It is the only thing father knows. Work. Working with his physicality. His body. His hands. Working with wood. With steel. Carrying steel along gaffing. Rolling nails along rough hands. Working with his body is how he did the kind of work he wanted to do. The kind of work done in gyms. The kind of work spoken of in announcer’s booths. The kind of work spoken of in speeches. The kind of work others understand as attrition, as a word father would not understand. Father understands work. The breaking down of the body. The breaking through the breaking down. This is father’s work.
We worked in the garage. In a gym he built with his hands. In a gym he owned. He coached in boxers. Stopwatch in hand. Cottage cheese in the other. “Green Grass & High Tides” on repeat through surround sound. He coached shirtless, walking barrel-chested, saying, “See how your face is red. You inhale when you spend energy. You’re holding. Holding. Fucking holding. If I was on there right now and doing lightweight like you are, I’d still be inhaling because that’s how it’s done. Heavy or light. Man, woman. That’s how it’s done. Not the Robert way.” After, he’d say, “Remember. One thing. Coaching.” I remember this and I remember being on the VASA at the end of a set, and sweating, and listening to the interval beeper, and listening for Father to yell about the interval beeper, and listening for Father to get down by my ear and say, “Pick it up. Pick it up, this isn’t foreplay.” He’d say this. Sayings like this.
Father never said anything after the workout ended. Never said anything while I rolled out after, on the mats. At the end, father would go sit on the stairs to the kitchen. He’d have several dog treats and he’d put the dog treats at the lip of the door and wait for the dog. For Merengue. Blind and deaf thirteen-year-old Merengue. Father would wait for the dog to the come to the door, and he’d feed him treats, and kiss his grey muzzle, and tell him what a good dog he was. How I wished he would have told me what a good athlete I was. What a good son I was.
Good times is what I told myself I wanted. I told myself I wanted to be someone else. Somebody. In Italy I was. I could be. I could smoke has with my host brother, and I could sit there with his friends who didn’t speak English and laugh when they laughed, and smoke when they passed, and pass through the sofa and pass into nothing. Into someone I told myself I wanted to be. And when the night passed into the next day, my host brother and I would go into the tattoo studio he worked at. The one below his apartment in Civitavecchia. La Pecora Nera. And we would tattoo little tattoos onto each other that meant something to us. To only us. And when the girls we’d bring back to his apartment asked me what the tattoos meant, I’d say things like, “They’re spiritual.” “Personal.” “A death. My sister’s.” “My brother’s.” And they’d say how cool they were. The tattoos. How cool we were. I liked to sit with them, my arm around them, my mouth next to their ear, telling them about things I was not. “I’m an NCAA record holder. 100 back,” I’d say. “Screenwriter.” “Rich. Here on vacation.” I’d say things I thought they wanted to hear about a person they’d want to be with. They’d want to be.
And when there were no girls, my host brother, Giovanni, and I would fuck. And after we started fucking, the girls didn’t really come much. They didn’t need to. And I didn’t need to say anything about myself that I’d been saying because Giovanni and I spoke another kind of language. A kind I didn’t know to look for.
Looking is not what I wanted. Is not what I want. But it did happen then. What I wanted in Italy was to forget. To forget my father in the stands. To forget the way he looked at me on the blocks. The way he held his stopwatch, the same one he always held, in the gym, in the stands. The way he wouldn’t clap when I touched the pad. The way he looked at the board for my official time and wrote it down in his program. The way he sat after I’d finished and spoke with my mother. The way he stayed seated the entirety of my junior season when I came back out of shape. I wanted to forget how he stopped coming to the meets my junior year.
I wanted to be what he wanted me to be.
What he wanted.
What I wanted was, when Natalie texted me about Richard, about doing Richard’s English 101 paper, when she texted me about this, I wanted to be able to say, “Sure.” Sure, because he didn’t matter to me. He wasn’t a threat to me. He wasn’t anything to me, just another body she was fucking. But to me, to my brain, “Sure,” I was saying because the thought of losing her mattered to me more than I wanted it to.
What I wanted was to drink myself drunk until I forgot why I was drinking. This is what I wanted and this is what I did.
What I needed was someone who mattered. What I needed was my father. I needed him to tell me this. To say, “You’re not as important as you think you are. This little life. This little existence. This little issue you think you have. It doesn’t make you special. Does not make you unique. Does not separate you from the billions of people and their billions of issues. So either end it or end thinking it.”
This is what I needed him to say, but he wouldn’t have said that because he doesn’t speak like that, and he wouldn’t have said it even if I asked him to say it. He wouldn’t have. And I couldn’t ask him because we didn’t speak outside of working out.
Blackout was how I went out in Italy. With Giovanni. With his friends. I remember fragments. Parties along the volcanic shores of Bolsena. Picking up girls at bars there. Going to concerts in Viterbo. Clubs there. I remember him driving us out to Orvieto for a tour of a vineyard. But most of all I remember the drives back. The night drives. Drunk. Fast. Those I remember.
The dark drives through mountainous roads. Through the night. His one hand drunkenly on the wheel. His other rolling a cigarette. The red blinking light of the seatbelt. I remember how lights from oncoming cars showed across his face, and how when I would take my eyes off the road and look at him, he would take his eyes off the road and look me in the eyes, and I would smile, and he would smile, and I’d see lights flicker across his face and hide him under the light, and when I’d see him again, he’d be back looking ahead. Away from me. Eyes on the road. Cigarette slanted and burning.
There is something I see in this recurring vision before I see the big burning trucks, the burning graveyard of big burning trucks. Something I see when I am alone in my bed. Far away from anyone. Far away from the past. Far enough away that when I close my eyes I see my father. He is states away now and I am here now. Here. Alone. In my bed. And when I close my eyes he is here with me. In my vision. In this vision. And when I see my father in this vision the light shines across Giovanni’s face and swallows him, and when I see him again, I see my father’s face, and I see him looking me in the eyes, and I see him smiling how he has never smiled at me, and I remember this smile because it is the only time I have seen this smile, and when I see him smile, I see light shine over him and swallow him, and I see myself then, I see myself through my father’s eyes, and I see myself looking at him, and the light shines and swallows, and I see him and how he looks at me, and when he smiles is when the light comes for the final time, and when I see myself through my father’s eyes, we are the same face, and we have the same smile, and I hear him say it.
I hear him say what I need him to say.
Robert Warf is from Virginia. He has been previously published in X-R-A-Y and HAD. You can follow him on Twitter @RWarfBurke.