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"Speck, 1985" by Eric Day

Eric is a junior-high language arts teacher.  He lives in Tempe, AZ.


© 2006 Eric Day


I'd been outside flying my new kite—a plastic affair cheap as it was the color of blood. I had it so high it was swallowed in the dusk, far above the reach of streetlamps. I tied the string to the mailbox and went in. Morning I thought it still may be flying.  I entered the house unnoticed. My father still sat at the dinner table, his back to me, the dishes done. My mother was sewing at her machine while my sister, I could barely hear, practiced her flute in some very distant room. She was first chair in sophomore symphonic. I never used oil on my trombone slide and when I got up earlier that day on the little plywood platform up front—where the teacher tapped his hard black shoe woodenly—to show the orchestra I knew all seven positions, my slide stuck in first and wouldn't budge to second. This was some slight rebellion, I guess, for I was the son of the man who owned the biggest music store in town, where everyone rented their Yamahas and Bundys and Bachs and Gemeinhardts. I hadn't told my father I'd been kicked out of band yet.

In front of my father on the dinner table sat our two dogs, Max and Seven, two complete mutts small as medium cats. Max had long and coarse black hair, a kind of terrier with bulging eyes and a flat face. Seven -- named that by the girl in front of Safeway who gave them away out of the orange crate -- had curly yellow hair resembling popcorn and a pointy snout. When they saw me, ears rose and tails wagged.


"Watch," my father said without looking up at me. He touched their haunches to make them sit. I could tell he'd been laughing, so I sat down in Mom's chair, on the other end of the dinner table, to watch. My father tore off two squares of paper towel, first one then another, with care. He pressed a single sheet of paper towel over Max's head, which punctured through, and the dog now wore it like a bib around its neck. With the other sheet of paper towel, my father did the same to Seven. They sat there, looking to my father and then to me and finally at each other, settling into their new stations in life by lying straight down on the table.


My father choked on laughter.  "They do nothing," he said, constricted and red. "Look at them. The fools. They just sit there."


The white paper towels contrasted with their wet black eyes. Max had an ear bit off once during a fight. Seven was a girl and each season we fought to keep them from mating.  My father went to the cupboard with his goblet, a low laugh gurgling from his wet lips. He lifted up the back of the wine box to re-fill.


In the distance my sister practiced scales. I wondered if my kite still flew. The dogs raised their heads as my father returned to the table.

"I think I got kicked out of band today," I said.

"That's nonsense," he said, creaking into his chair. "You can't quit."

"I didn't. My slide stuck and the teacher sent me out."


"You'll go tomorrow with a new horn," he said, and then I said I wanted to quit and I hated it, that there was nothing worse to me than that musty instrument case, valve oil, cork grease smell to the band room. "There is no quitting," he said. "The only thing worse than that is crying." And in fact I was crying. In those days I fell to crying whenever I said more than expected—later it would be the opposite.


He drank off his goblet and rose. "Come here," he said. He went to the utility drawer in the kitchen and I stood beside him under the light.  His beard shone with wine and sticky short ribs. "Look it," he said.  There was a sheet of notebook paper on the counter and he held an orange pencil covered in black soccer balls. Seeing their chance, the dogs fled, leaping down and scattering, their ears flapping as they shook their heads free of my father's ornaments.


On the paper my father drew a pyramid.  "This is life," he said. I could hear my mom sewing on her machine, stitches slow and gradually faster as she gained assurance of its
line. My sister was on to Scarlatti. A good bottom portion of the pyramid was childhood, my father explained, and this he colored in black. My father never hit me, but once when I got lost in the forest, he found me and spanked me with a skinny branch. I hiccupped and trembled in my sleep. The welts were seen in the locker room. I boasted they were done with barbed wire, gotten from drinking two bottles of my father's Scotch.

The middle section of the pyramid started from when I would become an adult, which meant I had a job. This he colored in with faint vertical stripes of gray. Then, pressing hard with the pencil, he spelled across the middle section M-I-S-T-A-K-E-S in huge letters. He was careful that I knew that word.


"Mis means wrong," he said. "A take means an action"—he paused—"by you."


The middle section was made up of nothing but mistakes, he went on, as was childhood, but the difference between the two was the mistakes in the middle were all mine. I would be an adult making decisions. The bottom portion was made up of mistakes that were unavoidable, as I was being formed like so much moist clay. The very tip of the pyramid was left white, a half-inch high, and this would be a period of peace and wisdom. The more I listened to my father in my childhood years, the more I would learn and the lesser the middle would be. The more I did what he said now, the more my top section would increase.

"You are here," he said, drawing an X that was invisible in the black of the bottom section. "Let you do what you want..." he said. "And I may as well fill that middle up to the very top, leaving just a speck for the minutes you'll spend on your death bed wishing you'd listened to me, and that second's worth of understanding is that speck." He turned to me, a mass of vintage facial hair. "Do you want to be a speck, son?"

I said that I did not want to be a speck and he gave me the pyramid to keep. He called and searched for the dogs and I tacked the pyramid next to my bed in the crimson glow of my digital clock. After band we'd race our trombones in their latched cases down the outside stairs, where they'd crash at the bottom in a heap like logs. I hoped the new horn would come in a fiberglass case because they slid quicker than the wooden ones. I never heard my kite come down that night, though I imagined its plastic fluttering the faster and closer it came to the ground. It would be my goal to decrease the middle section.  The top section would be a space of light, I hoped, where I could live and breathe like someone normal.


I fell asleep to the sound of my mother sewing, my sister playing her flute, and my father's laughter trailing further into the night.








All work is copyrighted property of Eric Day.






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