Pa had worn that old gray coat until it was almost nothing but a rag that hung on his big frame. It smelled of rancid venison, catfish and gasoline but Pa didn’t mind any. He wore it almost everywhere and year ’round. He would have worn it at church on Sunday morning but that was where Ma put her foot down. Pa wasn’t much into giving in to what other people wanted and didn’t give a whit what people thought of him, but when it came to Ma, he deferred to her good judgment and wishes.
I was going on fifteen when we moved to a small piece of farmland near the banks of the Ohio River. Even before Ma unpacked the dishes, Pa had put on his coat and gotten his fishing pole from the back of the truck.
“You wanna come along?” he asked me.
“Can’t, Pa,” I said. “I have a piece to learn.”
I untied the blanket wrapped around the piano to protect it during the move and sat down on the bench and watched him through the window as he headed off through a field of dead brown stalks of corn going toward the river. It was late fall and the trees had shed most of their leaves. Everything looked gray, as if nature was dying right in front of my eyes. Pa’s coat served as camouflage and he was soon lost from view shortly after entering the woods that separated the farm from the river.
Cold air seeped into my bedroom through some of the small spaces between the boards in the wall and from around the window frame. The wallpaper was old and buckled or peeling and did nothing to keep the chill out. Ma had put some masking tape around the window and hung wool curtains but it didn’t really help. I sat in my bed with the comforter my grandma had given me pulled around me and by lamplight looked at sheet music and tried to memorize the notes. The wind whistled through the walls providing notes of its own.
“You awake in there, son?” Pa asked.
“Yeah, Pa. Just studying my music. Come on in.”
Pa opened the creaking door and stuck his head in before coming all the way in. “You going to be okay here?”
“Sure, Pa. It’s a bit chilly but I’ll get used to it,” I said. “You missed supper. How was the fishing?”
“Didn’t catch a damn thing,” he said.
He came in and moved the curtain aside and looked at the window. “Your Ma did a good job with the tape.” He stared out the window for a moment then put the curtain back into place. “If you go down to the river be careful. I found a trap buried under some brush.”
“What kind of trap?” I asked.
“For small game. Just big enough to injure you if you don’t look out,” he said.
“Okay Pa, I’ll be careful.”
Before leaving he stopped in the doorway. “I heard you singing all the way down to the river. You’ve been given a gift, son. Don’t squander it.”
“I won’t, Pa.”
During the night I lay in bed under the comforter and listened to the hooting of an owl as the wind whistled through the walls. I tried to attach musical notes to the sounds and fell asleep imagining I was listening to a song.
Ma was standing at the stove stirring a large pot of venison stew when Pa came in from outside through the back door. He sat down at the table across from me. The aromas of outdoors, wet earth and damp air, wafted toward me along with the scents of his coat. He put his feet up on another chair. The soles were covered in dry mud.
“That stew smells good, Gracie,” he said.
“It’s still got about thirty minutes to go,” Ma said. “Where have you been?”
“I went down to the river,” he said. “Watching up close all that water flowing by is a powerful experience.”
Ma put the lid on the pot and sat down at the table. “Aren’t you going to practice today?” she said to me.
“I had the music room all to myself during lunch time at school,” I said. “I was able to play and sing for about an hour.”
“You making friends there?” Pa asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
“It’s a new school. It’ll take a little time,” Pa said. “You been down to the river yet?”
The dead stalks of corn crunched beneath my boots. The air was full of ice crystals, as if the sky wanted to snow but couldn’t quite work it out. I had a wool cap pulled down over my head and a scarf wrapped around my neck and was wearing a heavy coat. Entering the woods I kept my eyes on the ground ahead of me, keeping a lookout for traps. I barely noticed the trees around me. I heard the river even before I saw it. The sound of it filled my ears. I was on dry earth but felt like I had been swallowed by a swiftly moving current. I lifted my eyes and gazed in wonder at the gray slate of moving water stretched out in front of me. The surface of the river was no more than a foot below the bank that I was standing on.
I looked down the bank a ways and there was Pa. His hands were in the pockets of his coat and he was facing the river. He looked like a statue or that he was a frozen. There was something private going on between him and the river. I felt like an intruder, and so I turned and went back the same way I had come.
Sleet and rain whipped the stained glass windows of the small church. I sat between Ma and Pa. Ma had her Bible open and in her lap. The pages of it were yellowed with age and the corners were creased or bent. I was to begin the morning services by singing a solo and I had the hymnal open and was going through the notes in my head. Pa was squirming as he always did in the suit he wore to church.
The church organist nodded at me and I went up to the pulpit and lay the hymnal on it and for the next four minutes nothing existed in the world for me but singing.
When I sat down Pa whispered in my ear. “That was real good son.”
“Thanks Pa,” I whispered back.
At dusk I stood on the porch and watched a flock of geese fly in v formation across the cloud filled gray sky. Darkness had already made one tree indistinguishable from the next along the boundary line of the woods. The fields had been turned into a marsh. The loneliness of the landscape bore into my bones
Pa came out of the house and stood next to me. “It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it son?”
“You still need to go down to the river,” he said.
I said nothing.
Water dripped from the gutter and splashed in the puddle that had formed around the house like a moat.
Ma was in the kitchen when I got home from school. She was chopping celery and humming the same song I had sung at church.
“How was school?” she asked as I took a piece of the celery and bit into it.
“It was okay,” I said.
The kitchen was the warmest room in the house. It was where Ma spent most of her time even when she wasn’t cooking.
“Dinner will be ready soon. Can you go get your father?” she said.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“I saw him wandering across the field going toward that river,” she said. The way she said “that river” was the same way she talked about other things she held in derision. That broken down car of ours. That high priced meat at the store.
I went out the front door and by the time I was half way across the field my boots were covered in mud. The storm had shaken off most of the leaves that had been clinging on. The bare branches were locked in combat above my head. Before reaching the river bank I found a trap with a dead squirrel caught in it. The teeth of the trap were clasped on its hind leg.
The river was swollen. A couple inches more and it would be flowing over the bank. I watched as a dead tree was carried along on the swift current. Pa was nowhere along the bank. I walked along it for a ways until I found his coat neatly folded and lying on a bed of wet leaves at the river’s edge.
I sang at the church service for Pa. I sang about a river. I never sang again.