My dad won’t leave the porch again. He’s attached to his rocker. The rotted wood and the chipped paint, parts of his body now. His elbow and butt, parts of the chair. I offered to go on a walk with him, but he just looked at me, a Swisher Sweet hanging from his mouth, a steady line of smoke leading the way, his mind keeping up, always moving, always plotting.

I’m stuck here where planes are joints and joints are planes. Where clouds have more smoke than water. Where the rain is dirt and the dirt is rain.

Today was the first day of school, and Next Door Katie was taking her daughter Lila, who should be in third grade now, and Dad yelled down to them. Said have a great day, angel. Have a great year. After they cleared our yard, after Katie might have accepted my dad’s harmlessness, he had one for only me to hear. Said that’s right—keep smiling little monkey—by the time you’re half my age, the whole world will be on fire.

Did I ever tell you how Mom used to call me out of the blue? Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes late afternoon. Said she was calling just to see if I was still alive. Said she had the feeling mothers get when they know their child is no longer with us.

*

This town is as shitty as ever. Always shitty, always raining, the only thing keeping her from burning while the rest of the west is on fire, smoke blocking out the sun. The town still failing. Still. Potholes everywhere. Potholes with dirty gravel filling up with shitty rainwater. Potholes spreading beyond the streets, down the driveways, up the sides of shitty buildings, off the faces of shitty children.

And I’m stuck here where time is slow and thoughts are fast. Where dark sarcasm sheds a light and a light is nothing but a shadow in reverse. Where bones are nothing but broken watermarks, floating under the skin.

Learning to survive my father might have been my greatest test. I wish you could hear him. You could see that I’m not making it up. This morning he asked why I was still running from the past. Said I’ve always been a fool like that. Said it’s the future that’s going to take me down. It has always been the future.

I know the feeling Mom had. Maybe I should call myself out of the blue to see if I’m still alive. The thing is, she never sounded relieved to hear my voice. To find out. She never said much either way, but I don’t think it was release. I think it was surprise.

*

Dad was quiet for most of the afternoon. I was trying to figure out what brought the change when the top of Katie’s head appeared at the bottom of the hill, walking little Lila back from school, and he finally spoke. Said he had been thinking about how they say we’ve only tapped into a tenth of our brains. Said if that’s true, he figures we’ve only found a fraction of the pain as well.

And I’m stuck here where ugliness and beauty are equally sharp and all you can do is take the cuts. Where smoke doesn’t always mean fire. Where to get back home you have to let home go.

If learning to survive my father has been my greatest test then it might be my biggest failure too. I’m glad you can’t hear him. You would see the limitations of words. Stupid little words like love and duty. This morning he told me not to worry about him and Mom. Said dying dreams always leave the body the hard way.

Out here there’s a big hand-painted sign off the highway that says Prepare to Meet Thy God, but it’s on the edge of town, so you only see it if you leave the town, if you leave the porch, if you leave your mind. And that’s not happening, not yet, so I have to tell you—I want to tell you—I will be there soon enough, and we can sit together, watch the world burn.

Al Kratz lives in Indianola, Iowa. His work has been in Cheap Pop, Bull, Bath Flash Fiction, and others. You can find him @silverbackedG.

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