Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 160 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. Sand, a collection of his short stories, was published recently by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee
A Hole in His Boot
By Steve Carr
Our house was built on the side of a hill. The walls were built from stone chiseled out of the surrounding mountains and the roof, floor and everything else that was wood came from the cedar, pine and maple trees in the woods that surround our property. The glass for the windows came from a factory in Lexington.
Pa built the house with his own two hands. That was ten years before I was born. By the time I came into the world, the house had begun to fall apart due to neglect. By the time I was six, Ma had to keep a bucket in the upstairs hallway under a hole in the roof to catch rain that dripped through, two windows that cracked were never replaced and during the winter cold air seeped in around the window frames. Some of the floorboards on the front porch had buckled and the entire porch was slowly detaching from the house.
It was on my sixth birthday that from my bedroom window on the second floor I watched watched Ma walk down the dirt driveway with her suitcase in her hand and out of our lives.
That was ten years ago.
Bandit, my pet raccoon, sits on an overturned wood crate and nibbles on a carrot that he holds to his mouth with his human-like paws. This is keeping him busy and stops him from being a nuisance while I gather vegetables from the garden. Pa says I should have taught Bandit to be more obedient while he was young, but Bandit has always been a raccoon with a stubborn streak, so teaching him anything has never been easy. He knows enough to stay on the other side of the mesh fence around the garden, but teaching him that took almost an entire summer.
The carrots, beets, rutabaga and spinach have grown nicely this summer, but that’s due more to good weather than anything I’ve done. I like spending time in the garden. Pa calls the garden my church. He says the woods are his church.
With my basket full of vegetables I open the gate in the fence and step through it, then close and fasten it to keep deer, rabbits and other raccoons out, and give Bandit a small beet and pat him on the head before going to the house. The back screen door is hanging on one hinge and the screen is torn. It is through the hole in the screen that Bandit goes in and out of the house. I open it carefully and step into the kitchen, pulling the door closed behind me. The aroma from this morning’s breakfast of venison bacon and fried eggs hangs in the air. I push aside the dishes still on the table and set the basket down.
When Pa comes into the kitchen, he says, “I’m thinkin’ ’bout spendin’ a day or two huntin’ in Pardunk Gorge. You gonna be okay here by yerself?”
“Sure Pa,” I say. “I always am. When you gonna go?”
“I got some errands to run in town first,” he says, “so probably late this afternoon.”
“Okay,” I say and notice the hole in the toe of his left boot. “You got a big hole in your boot, Pa,” I say.
He looks down at his shoes as if he had never seen them before. “Look at that. I’ve always loved these old boots,” he says as he wiggles his big toe in and out of the hole. “Everything falls apart eventually,” he says, and then turns and starts to leave the kitchen. He stops in the doorway and says, “Ned Bickens says he’s shot two rabid coons in the past week, so keep an eye on that one of yours.”
“I will Pa,” I say.
With the window to my bedroom open I listen to the choruses of owls and hawks in the nearby trees and toads and crickets from the small pond hidden not far away in the woods. There’s a warm breeze blowing in and the air is damp and scented with pine and honeysuckle. The wick to the oil lamp that sets on my bedside stand has a bright yellow flame. Even with the light, the room is full of shadows. Lying on my bed, just thinking, I trace the cracks in the ceiling that are spread out in a spiderweb-like pattern.
What I remember most about Ma was how quiet she was. She moved through the house like an invisible presence, almost like a ghost. I don’t recall her voice at all, but I remember how she played the upright piano in our living room. It had been given to her by her mother and was her prized possession. She didn’t play well and she played songs that were loud, as if the piano made the noise she was afraid to make on her own. Pa smashed the keys with a hammer right after Ma left. The piano is covered in dust. If she ever comes back it will be to get the piano.
Next year I’ll be graduating from high school. Pa tells me I should get out and see the world after that.
“I saw a little bit of it before buildin’ this house,” he said. “There’s some pretty places but a lot of it has gone to wrack and ruin, but you need to see it for yourself.”
I asked him why he built this house. We were on the porch and it was pouring rain.
“I wanted to build something that would last,” he said. He stomped on a warped board. “I guess I was wrong.”
I roll onto my side and look out the window at the star freckled sky. I’ve never been a deep thinker, but I imagine that out there somewhere is a planet exactly like this one. On that planet is a boy exactly like me, and he lives in a house just like this one that his Pa built also. But the house isn’t slowly crumbling around him.
Bandit comes into the room and climbs up on the bed. I roll over to pet him. His ear is torn and there is a bite mark on his front left leg.
“Who you been in a fight with?” I say as I put my arms around him.
In the garden the early morning fog hovers a few feet from the ground. In the trees, chickadees and woodpeckers break the muted silence of the woods. Kneeling on the ground, I pull weeds from the mounds of dirt that surround each row of vegetables and toss the weeds into a pile. Bandit is sitting on the crate and licking his wounded leg. I hear Pa’s footsteps before I see him. He’s hidden behind the fog, like being hidden behind a veil.
He comes through the fog and stops at the garden fence. He has his rifle hoisted on his right shoulder. “You doin’ okay, boy?” he says.
“I’m doin’ fine, Pa, “ I say. “You weren’t gone long. You get anything?”
“Almost got a deer, a buck with a small rack,” he says. “But it ran off just as I was about to shoot.”
I pull two carrots from the ground and stand and walk over to the fence to hand one to Pa. “Have some breakfast,” I say. As he takes it from my hand I look down at his boot. “Pa, the hole in your boot has gotten bigger.”
He brushes the dirt off the carrot and takes a bite, then looks down at his boot. “So it has. Things closest to you have a way of going to pieces the minute you take your eyes off ’em,” he says.
I walk to the other side of the garden and go out the gate. Pa follows, going around the outside of the fence. At the crate I break the carrot in two and hand a piece to Bandit. As he takes it in his paws, Pa says, “What happened to his leg?”
“He got into a scrap with something last night,” I say. “Looks like something bit him.”
Without hesitation he says, “You gotta get rid of that animal right now. If it were a rabid coon that bit him then it’ll only be a matter of time before he sickens and dies. While that’s happenin’ that coon would be a danger to both of us.”
“I can’t get rid of Bandit, Pa,” I say. “He’s been my pet since he was an orphaned kit.”
Pa tosses his remaining carrot into the underbrush beneath the trees that separates our property from the woods. “You heard me,” he says angrily. “You get rid of it today or I’ll shoot it before the sun goes down.”
“But Pa . . .,” I start to say, but he walks away and into the house.
The gold and purple of twilight filters through the trees. Twigs and dead leaves snap and crackle beneath my boots. The woods are full of birdsong. Inside the cardboard box I carry in my arms, Bandit has finally settled down after spending the last two hours chattering angrily and scratching at the insides of the box. Stepping on large flat rocks I cross Piney Creek and on the bank I set the box down and pull open the top flaps. Without hesitation, Bandit jumps out of the box and runs a few feet from me and stops, sets on his haunches and preens his fur.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” I say as I reach into the creek bed and gather a handful of stones. As I begin to throw them at him, his confusion is obvious. He runs toward the nearest trees, then runs toward me, then away again. My hand trembles with every stone I throw. The sound of them hitting him is the most terrible sound I’ve ever heard. “Get out of here,” I scream at him. The last stone hits him in the head and he runs into the woods.
I run across the creek, and keep running, looking back to make sure he isn’t following. Once back home and under a cloudy night sky I open the garden gate and step inside. It doesn’t feel the same and somehow I think it never will. For his sake, I only hope Bandit doesn’t find his way back here. Pa isn’t one to joke about killin’.
I go into the house and in the kitchen Pa is sitting at the table. He has his boot in his hands and is peeling back the leather. The hole now extends to the shoelaces. He looks up at me and says, “Did you get rid of your coon?”
“Yes, Pa,” I say. “I took Bandit deep in the woods and ran him off.”
“It does no good gettin’ attached to things,” he says as he rips a piece of leather from the boot.