A man does not set himself on fire.
A man works. Strapped to the ceiling, dangling over a half-made truck, he welds, he solders, twelve hours, fourteen hours, weekends, overtime.
Thus, he is tired at day’s end. He does not lie awake, waiting out the dark hours open-eyed and jittery, shocked by the few quick splashes that haunt the bridge of his wife’s nose, headlights from the rare car out in this weather—folks coming home from the VFW hall a mile up the road.
A man enjoys a beer. His first beer, he enjoys the most. Twelve years old. Pabst on tap. Bunch of old drunks leaning over card tables, slapping him on the back. The women biting their Virginia Slims Menthols, hugging his boyish face to their breasts. His father’s hand ghosting itself on the chilled mug and the beer was so smooth—
Or was it bitter?
Yes, that’s right. Before he was a man, he had looked around that hall and silently vowed never to go to war. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing a leg, the terror that rose in him whenever he saw the strange pattern of burns that moved down his father’s back like the red-bellied snakes in a fallow cornfield.
No. A man is courageous. He is willing to fight. Sometimes he is just born in a good month, has the right letter beginning his last name, misses the draft, lands himself a fine job.
But this is not how a man’s memory works, the truth slipping back and forth like that painting thick with blue and yellow paint.
Painted by a madman, his wife had said.
Of course, a man pays no attention to art, and his soul certainly does not slip a bit in his chest over a damned painting. But maybe he could make an exception for this guy, crazy or not, who had captured so exactly the landscape of his youth, the blurred lights of distant smokestacks rising up beyond the hills, blazing in the night.
Those are stars, his smallest daughter said.
A man knows when he’s bested. He could have simply said: Sure are.
Instead, he turned his too-clean hands up, stuffed them useless into his pockets, and wandered away. When no one was looking, he tore the painting out of the magazine and filed it deep in his wallet.
A man does not tremble in the dark as he extracts himself from a woman’s arms. He pulls on his old white tube socks, union suit, grease-stained Wranglers, flannel, UAW hat—Local 594, Pontiac Assembly Center, used to be Truck and Bus in the good old days. A man loves these clothes even if a woman hates them, even if she’s wished for him in a suit and tie or even in one of those faggy black turtlenecks the guys in her art magazines wear with pleated beige pants.
Though she might tell you otherwise, a woman born and bred in Michigan loves a Big Three Man, the black-crusted half-moon fingernails, the life-line on his palms a telling river of oil. A man like that can always reassure a woman. He never has to tiptoe away like a criminal. Like a loser who has nothing to show for his thirty-one years. An idiot who could have just gone ahead and enlisted like everybody else, gotten his balls all full of Agent Orange. If he’d survived, he’d at least have benefits to offer his family. Something besides the life insurance policy sold to him by that shiny-faced guy who went door-to-door.
A man does not dream up accidents, no matter how much nothing he finds turning out his pockets.
Before a man leaves the house in the night, he checks on his girls. His youngest has crawled in with the middle girl on the bottom bunk. Their faces are pressed together as if they have been telling secrets.
The middle girl loves to dance—at least, she used to love it, wandered around in a tutu most of her second-grade year. He took her to the VFW hall with him once—a secret he knew she’d keep from her mother. There, he twirled her, taught her to do the Achy Breaky Heart. Now she’s dyed her hair green and wears nothing but the tattered black t-shirts she’s scavenged from her brother’s closet. She looks like a mourning leprechaun and he tells her so.
Goddamnit, now. A man stands beside the women in his life, does not leave them to fend for themselves. A man pays for their weddings, sends them to college. He’s worth more alive than dead.
He looks at the face of his oldest daughter, the one who dreamed of going away to school but settled for some classes up at the community college. Because a man never thinks about what he takes from a woman, he’s erased the memory of that desperate year when everyone was out a job—Flint was closing—and this girl sat awake with him like a woman at the table in that small trailer at four in the morning while her mother scrubbed the floor of an office building in the city, trying to make up the difference.
He was drunk. He cried.
A real man walks his girl back to bed, tucks her in with a glass of milk—real milk from a jug with a red cap, Vitamin D fortified, not that powdered crap issued by the state. He tells her to have sweet dreams even if worry and loneliness drown his heart.
He hardly knows this daughter now. She is for another man to know.
A man might pause briefly at his son’s empty room. He does not lift a white undershirt to his nose and inhale, trying to get at the musky smell that remains in the cotton. He picks up his boy’s football and tosses it up in the air to watch it spin and come neatly back to his palm, but he does not hold it in the crook of his arm and think of his boy as a baby: sweet-faced, too kind to murder anyone, even for his country.
He presses the button on the fire detector to make sure the green light still flashes, but he does not send its small bleep echoing through the hallway until his youngest girl moans for him to stop.
A man takes pleasure in passing through the door to his garage. It’s just your standard door, but it leads to his own world. And at least once a week he’s entitled to fiddle at his workbench or sit in a green plastic yard chair amidst the junk cars, wound up orange extension cords, and old power tools. A man smokes and sips whiskey, warms his feet by the small kerosene heater, listens to the old country songs his girls hate. Hick music, they call it. A man knows he’s not a hick. He’s not an alcoholic. He’s worked hard in his lifetime. Thus, a man has to have his space. He can’t have his foreman screaming in one ear and his wife in the other twenty-four seven.
A man does not hunt the shelves frantically and nearly weep to find that he gave the last of the kerosene to the neighbors. Everybody’s hurting. It’s a man’s job to make sure the people he knows get what they need. It’s a man’s job to solve difficult problems. He’ll have to take some canisters up to Larry’s. It’s the Super America, now, open twenty-four hours, but before that it was just Larry’s, open ‘til ten.
He emerges from the side door of the garage carrying in his flanneled arms two old gas canisters from his boat, one of them slightly dented, a crease in the red paint that bothers his thumbnail. He stares into the snowy sky, suddenly remembering those barn kittens his brothers did that autumn long ago. No, he was never green, a virgin in his thirteenth spring, and helpless. He was never thin enough to fall in with the young saplings at the pasture’s edge where he watched his brothers hold those late summer kittens by their tails and dip them into a bucket of gasoline. The kittens mewed and arched their terrified backs.
Don’t do it. Please. He’d never beg like that.
Surely he admired his brothers’ rippling arms as they hefted the burlap sack. They said the kittens would be like balls of fire rolling down the road.
A man does not hate his brothers for their cruelty, even if his girls do hate them, even if the middle girl, upon hearing this story, says she’ll never talk to Uncle Buddy again. But a man can’t hold a grudge against a guy whose wife hasn’t given it up for years. A man does not think: If I were his wife, I’d sleep in another bed, too. Kitten-Killer.
This is the equation between father and daughter: He protects and cares for her. He asks nothing in exchange. He swears he’ll murder anyone who hurts her. And maybe he does it, too.
A man does not leave a house full of women for two years and his son barely sixteen, even if General Motors says: it’s that or lose his job.
This middle daughter, the one who looks most like him, was eleven when they forced him to take the transfer to Baltimore. There, a lost bird, wounded, flew onto the balcony of his shitty apartment where he lived by himself. He set its wing, nursed it back to health. A man does not believe the bird was his daughter’s spirit calling him home to save her. When he was returned to his family, he took his girl on his knee only to have her cringe away. A man would get angry about what happened to her, not scared.
Tonight his breath is a cloud in the air and his truck—beautiful Silverado 1500 extended cab, half-ton, American-made—leaves tracks that will soon be covered by more loose white powder. He takes the back roads where he taught his boy to drive. A man loves the moment his boy understands the release of the clutch and the car chugs violently forward.
It was spring, then. Everything was green.
A man does not imagine the moment his boy’s shaved blonde skull is destroyed by shrapnel, grenade, bullet. It’s probably the middle of the day in Iraq and his son might be driving over some gravelly dusty road, maybe thinking of him, too. It’s hot and sunny in the desert and a man who believes in his country and its power has to believe his boy is safe because his boy has always been brave. Courage, a man thinks, leads to surviving any risk. A man is proud of his boy, weapons-of-mass-destruction or no.
His boy was the only person who understood how close they had come so many times to losing everything. These are the things with which a man trusts a son: layoffs, bankruptcies, strikes, the houses that seemed to slip through his hands like so much sand. A man can admit this much of the past: the harder he held to any life, the faster it ran out, and at the last moment, when it seemed he had grasped something solid, it was skin on skin. But he tries not to think about the jobs he worked during the lean years. He’s proud of how he and the boy managed things, but won’t tell you about stints sweeping parking lots, selling vacuum cleaners, mopping floors right alongside his wife. Jobs you can’t even find anymore.
The boy took up a Sunday paper route to bring in grocery money. That’s a good boy.
But a man does not consider the days he came home, exhausted and dirty, to find his son, just thirteen, patching a hole in the roof or his daughter wearing an apron while her mother slept, all of them forging the signatures on the report cards and stifling their thick winter coughs in a chorus of grateful suffocation. He does not ask: what must that have been like? That childhood?
Some creep pulled his middle daughter into a car as she walked home from her dance class and opened her body. Her father was not there to gather her as the others in their sheer pink tights were gathered. A man does not pretend this did not happen. He doesn’t lock himself in his garage and drink whiskey. He doesn’t rest until he finds out who he ought to kill. He remembers a particular pair of eyes in the VFW hall one of those twirling nights, a specific skinny punk playing basketball in the park. He does not look at other men and discover every single one is the one who hurt his girl.
He guns the engine. The white cloud that lifts into the air behind his tires might give him a flash of the compact his mother opened to take the shine from her nose in church. But the snow does not suddenly smell to him of incense—a kind of clean, washed holiness. The stars do not become her eyes, staring at him, admonishing him. A man does not remember how the incense clung to her even as she walked out into a bright Sunday afternoon. A man does not bury his face for just a moment in the grey curls that peek out from the green silk kerchief. He does not suddenly hold his mother with an urge strong as sex to press her birdlike ribs against his cotton T-shirt.
And if she dies the next morning, if her body lies alone on the floor in the hallway for days after that, a man is allowed a field or two of open grief. But no more.
Paused briefly at the junction where he’ll turn onto the highway, even a man will admire—just briefly—how the snow’s weighed down the long broad arms of the pine trees so they are like his mother was too, carrying so much but still standing, still moving toward him. A man doesn’t ask: What would she think if she could see him now? Were her sacrifices worth nothing to him?
And his father! Second Infantry, “Indianhead Division.” His father was pushed face down in a pile of muck along the Yalu River in Korea, taken prisoner. His old man didn’t lay eyes on him until he was three years old. A man does not admit that he was scared of the strange soldier who limped up the driveway from the mailbox. That he is still scared of the man who thrashed him for forgetting to latch the gate to the hog pen, for spying on his sisters, for crying when Sister Margaret rapped his knuckles because he insisted on writing with his left hand. A man admits he had it coming. He had it coming every time it came. His old man did the best he could.
Having endured the cherry-hot pincers that left the scars on his back, his pops should not have to endure, too, raising a son fond of watercolors, a quiet boy who loved to sit in the corner of the kindergarten class and stare at A Child’s Introduction to Art. A father should not have to tolerate a boy who cried like a baby when his brothers played some stupid prank with a bunch of useless barn cats. And if a father does get stuck with such a son, why would that son subject him to this final insult? This final sissy act?
And what about his own son coming back from Iraq to find—No.
A man wouldn’t even think about this. He would not, in fact, think of any of this—except perhaps that his father was a hero for having endured “Death Valley” and it means he is a hero’s son even if he did not sign up to go to Vietnam.
A man swings his legs from his truck, feels the slight crunch as his feet sink into the unplowed parking lot. He is full of pride, not shame, as he walks into the station, shakes his sodden boots off on the mat and greets an old buddy with a slap on the back.
Ain’t the same, he thinks, now that the Super America come in and razed everything, got rid of the porch and the salvage out back. The old men in UAW hats who read the paper there, too, seem to have disappeared.
A man rolls with the changes.
He doesn’t use grief or fear, insomnia or depression. He says his balls are still on midnights after all those years of taking what he could get.
He doesn’t say unfair. Those fuckers who buy foreign, he says. Fucking gas prices and President Fucking Bush.
Larry says he thinks that’s the real name his momma give him.
A man says, Bailouts or no, I’m getting raped.
Larry asks how the boy is over there.
A man nods, tightens his lips. The boy’s holding up. He’s carrying fifty-six pounds of gear on his lanky frame through the Iraqi Desert. A man can face the footage—thank God on CNN and not their local news—in which his boy—he knew it was his boy right away—kicks the body of a dead Iraqi. For sport, the reporter had said. Sport. A man doesn’t whine, even to himself: What else could my son do? What choice did my boy have? He says: That’s what war can do to a man. It changes a man on the level of the blood. A father simply accepts a fiercer son, one whose face revealed his pleasure, not his rage, as he slammed his heavy foot into that body.
Larry cracks a beer even though it’s past two in the morning. A man pounds his friend on the back some more—nothing in the world as good as putting beer on your whiskey—and drains the Stroh’s to the can’s bottom. He could ask Larry for more whiskey and Larry’d surely pony it up, but only if a guy’ll say something about why he’s here in the middle of the night. Fight with his wife. Trouble with the neighbors. No time for fishing. But a man cannot tell an old buddy the truth. He can’t turn to Larry as they come back in through the milk crates and toilet paper and hold him and say that he just can’t take it anymore.
He says his garage heater’s out—he’s trying to watch the replays of the game—asks about the kerosene.
Them red cans are for gasoline. Can’t letcha fill ‘em with the kerosene, buddy, Larry says.
You shitting me? he asks.
No way no how. Super America rules.
Crock of shit, a man says. But he takes this in stride like a man would, chooses gasoline.
Careful with that, Larry says. Can’t use it in the kerosene lamp.
But a man can do most anything the packaging of an appliance warns you not to do. And he does not think: Bingo. The insurance company will eat that up like candy.
Go home to your wife, now, asshole, Larry says.
A man, after carousing, returns himself to a woman who stood by him while other families were broken by layoffs and shutdowns and fear. He forgets all of those things that could have sent a jagged crack into their union, wakes in the morning, drinks a hot cup of coffee. Maybe he buys some night crawlers and tries his luck in the lake. But after that, what does he do? What does he do if there is no place to make cars?
The first time he peered under the hood of an old Model-T, that tangle of rubber and metal was more familiar to him in a glance than his own innards and veins, more familiar than the women he loved in that car paid for with his own barnyard sweat every Sunday. And once he bought it, he was a man. A car was what made you a man. A man, everyone’s got to understand, cannot just sit around with his union suit hanging out of his jeans and watch The Geography Channel all damned day.
A man does not, as he hauls those stinking canisters into the garage, merely shrug when his woman appears at the door in her tattered grey robe to ask: It’s midwinter. It’s the middle of the night. What’s the need for gasoline, now?
She’s thinking it’s the house he’s going to do.
A man takes her in his arms, says, I would never risk that. We’re going to make it, a man says. He tells her they were out of kerosene. His feet were cold.
A man does not get nervous when she rests her hand on the small green aluminum boat as if she’s going to stay awhile. A man is never forced to sell his real boat, the one that carried him far enough out into the blue to feel he had escaped, to claim a dented patchling like this one. A man’s boat has his own wife’s name on the side and its tiny engine is not rigged to the gunnel with a coat hanger. His boat ranks up there with his truck, his tackle, his favorite wrench.
If a woman persists, a man tells her that it’s just an Irish errand, as his mother always said when she did something he could not understand.
A man kisses his worried wife’s forehead, and sends her back to bed.
He does not stare for long hours out the window from his seat in the garage. He’s made to last. He’s like a rock. A man makes a truck and drives the truck he’s made. He smells of the factory—oil, grease, sweat—where he has worked for thirty-one years. He believes the great American automobile will rise again.
He might tease his sweet and ruined daughter as she walks through the garage just after dawn, all gelled up and ready for school.
She might say, Anything wrong, Dad?
Not a thing, he says. He smiles and rubs his hand over her spiked hair, asks why, when God give her such nice hair, she’s done the shit she done to it.
Even though they both know why, a man and his daughter laugh.
A man simply does not do this thing in front of her, his bird who doubles back, worried.
He does not give his youngest this constellation as she cries and pounds on the glass of the garage door leading to the kitchen and screams: No.
Nor does he do this in front of his oldest—a man does not offer her this dream, unforgettable, burned onto her eyelids for the rest of her life so that she never sleeps again without seeing it: this flailing, spinning, screaming angel of fire whose wings rise suddenly into the rafters.
A man does not do this to a woman who loved him when he was down to nothing and fed him and his children and in all the years he’s known her has never once hurt him or them nor complained. A woman who smiled every time she felt him watching her in the dark.
A man does not do this.
But he’s not a man, anymore.
Freed from all the rules he’s ever known, he bolts his side of the garage door. He wails as he would have his entire life if a man were allowed to wail. He opens the cap on one of the canisters and holds it over his head. He pours and shakes his hair, the way his murderer son used to do with water between plays on the football field. He even opens his mouth, letting the gasoline coat his tongue, sting his nostrils. It soaks him, trickles down into his shoes. Because he wants to be sure of this thing, he empties the second canister. He makes sure the kerosene heater gets a good dose and stands before it. He takes up a match.
They are behind the glass of the door. Their eyes and mouths beg. His wife brings up her fist wrapped in the sleeve of her tattered terry-cloth robe to break the door’s glass, but not soon enough. He wants to stop, let her save him again. But they’ll be better off without him.
He strikes it.
A man would find another way. If he were a man, he’d be sorry. But if he had a whole town, he’d be the thick yellow moon in the sky. He’d never waver. If he painted himself, he’d be the bright star rising above the trees and he’d sail right over everything that’s left here.
Runner-up, 2010 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Steve Almond