"Learning to Walk with a Limp." Originally published in the Revolution John Magazine.
The first time we saw Dad was at the grocery store. Mom, Jonny, and I had pulled into the parking lot, and there it was—the red and white, two-toned truck, unmistakable with its orange reflectors mounted on the top of the cab.
Mom gripped and re-gripped the steering wheel.
“Dad,” exclaimed Jonny. “Hey, it’s Dad’s truck. We get to see Dad.”
In the store, Mom kept touching our shoulders. She was reassuring herself we were near, as if we might somehow be blown away. Maybe she was worried she might be blown away.
Mom pulled the shopping list out of her purse and steered toward the produce section, but Jonny and I wanted to look for Dad.
“I don’t want to miss him,” said Jonny. I nodded agreement, pleading with my eyes.
Mom stopped the cart. She tucked her hair behind her ears, her hands meeting and clasping behind her neck. She had a small, pinched chin, and a high forehead. When she curled her hair and put on a dress, she could steal a room, but her face could also put on fifteen years with worry.
“Yes, well, we might as well,” she said, turning the cart and driving across the front of the store until we found him in the freezer section.
When he saw us, he placed a half-gallon of ice cream in his cart, while Jonny and I took our positions at his side, moving toward him until his arms were draped over our shoulders.
Mom tapped her foot. Dad spoke in a half-whisper, barely audible above the drone of the refrigerators. Their eyes wandered from the floor to the ceiling, to their own reflections quivering in the glass cases.
Finally, she said, “How’s Mom?” Dad had moved into an empty trailer on his parents’ property.
“Oh, you know,” said Dad, meaning that Grandmother was heartbroken. She loved her daughter-in-law like her own child, and now this.
“I’d like to come by and see you,” said Dad. “I’ll bring dinner.”
Mom stopped. She pointed and led him down the aisle and out of earshot, leaving Jonny and me standing next to the frozen fish sticks, chicken nuggets, and perfectly round frozen pizzas. We waited silently in the cold. A few moments later, Mom returned without Dad, and walked right out of the store, Jonny and I trailing at her heels, the cart abandoned in the middle of the aisle.
A couple of weeks later, the four of us went out to dinner together. I’m guessing Grandma had something to do with it, and I know my parents had gone for counseling with the pastor of our Methodist church.
We traveled north along the Passumpsic River to the town of St. Johnsbury. Mom drove the Chevette following Dad in the truck. After we parked, we went to Penney’s. Mom shopped for clothes and the three boys followed behind. Then we walked through downtown to the diner. It was a Saturday, and St. Johnsbury was littered with families like us collected from surrounding towns. Kids ran the sidewalks as if racing to an event that was just about to start. Normally, Jonny and I would have begged for money, eager to sneak off to the drug store in search of a pack of baseball cards and an ice cream cone. But this Saturday, Jonny and I were quiet. We felt as out of place as a gang of wild turkeys on those city sidewalks, pushing our way forward step by step.
I was relieved, then, when we found our way into the diner and were seated together, just the four of us in our booth. Mom wore a white linen shirt, a brown skirt, and make-up. Dad was clean-shaven, his collar pressed flat, a mile away from the last time we’d seen him.
I sat beside Mom, and Dad sat with Jonny, and the four of us fumbled with our menus, though we would each order burgers and milkshakes just like always. Then Dad started making us laugh the way he would, telling stories about foolish Harold from work and the mustached woman he’d seen standing outside the post office. Mom told Dad to stop his antics, but we knew she didn’t mean it.
Right after the food arrived, it happened. Mom reached out and took Dad’s hand, and she said, “Peter, all I want to do is pretend, just for tonight, that nothing’s ever happened. That’s all I want is to have this one night. Can we do that?” Dad didn’t say a word. He wrapped his hands around hers, and they held on to one another for a long moment across the table.
To me, it was like air. It was as if we had been huddled in a closed room for all of this time and there wasn’t enough to breathe, and then all of the sudden, a window was flung open and the air came rushing in. And so I breathed, and breathed, and tried to take in as much oxygen as I could hold for however long it might last. Maybe that’s why we lingered—for the air. We ate dinner and drank our milkshakes down to the bottom of the tall, steel mugs. After that, we ordered a banana split, and Mom and Dad put money in the jukebox, and we lingered until we could no longer think of a reason to stay.
That night, Dad drove me home in the truck.
“The best race I ever ran was right here in St. Jay,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said. I knew the story, but I wanted to hear it again.
“This guy from the Academy was supposed to win the four hundred. I was ranked second.”
I closed my eyes as I listened, picturing my teenaged father as I had seen him in photographs at my grandparents’ house—tall, thin, and muscular—set in his blocks and ready to spring forward.
“I held the lead for the first three hundred,” Dad continued, “but he caught me on the second turn.” Dad fiddled with the radio, turned the music up a notch, thought better, and turned it back down.
“But there was no way he was passing me. No way.” I could feel my heart beating faster as I listened, picturing my father the racer, his head on a swivel as his competitor caught him from the inside lane.
I looked up at him then as if to say, What did you do? How did you respond?
“I’ll tell you something, Daniel. The four hundred isn’t about speed, it’s about determination. Your side splits, your lungs burn, but the runner who wins is the one who keeps breathing and pushes right through it.”
“I took two long breaths,” he continued, “I forced my lungs to breathe. And when my lungs started working, so did my legs—carried me all the way to the finish.”
I cranked my window until it was open halfway and put my fingers out into the rushing air. I felt the pulse of it pressing against my fingers and wondered what it would be like to win a race of my own.
Our next dinner together took place at our family home, though the event was unplanned.
Dad ran his truck into a tree, smashing his bumper, bending the hood and the right front fender. Mom never said so, but he’d been drinking. I overheard Grandma saying she was going to take his license away herself if no one else would. After the accident, Dad called Mom and asked if he could work in the garage. Mom said fine. What else was she going to say? But she must have been grinding her gears inside that whole week as she waited for the day to come.
When Saturday arrived, Dad was out there working before I was up. He had coffee from the gas station in a styro-foam cup. Mom ate her breakfast and left through the front door with a list of errands. Jonny and I lingered in the house for a while then went to the backyard to play catch. The whole day felt as if it were covered with some sort of film like a layer of pollen sticking to everything.
Dad never strayed from the garage. The grinder squealed. His hammer rang out as he forced the truck’s frame back into place. We didn't hear his voice once, only the muffled sound of his shoes sliding on the gritty concrete. He must have been thirsty. It may have been a form of penance, working without food or drink.
We watched Mom make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, drop it onto a paper plate, and then add a handful of raw vegetables. She rested the plate on the floor of the garage and quickly closed the door like she was trying to keep the bugs out of the house.
A few minutes later, Dad came in to wash his hands with the orange soap from under the sink and fetch a glass of water.
“Thank you, Lena,” he said.
“Oh, you might as well stay for dinner,” she said. “You working all day with practically nothing to eat. It’s a wonder you haven’t collapsed out there.”
At dinnertime, Dad said, “There’s no excuse for what I’ve done, Lena. There isn’t.” He looked thin, his cheeks gaunt. With his eyes red from the day’s work, his condition leant a gravity to his apology.
“You’re right,” she said, “and I’m trying to forgive you, and then you have to go and make it worse, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to.” She said this with her eyes down, looking at her plate.
“I don’t know either,” Dad said. “But I’m asking you to try to understand that things have been hard.”
“Thing been hard, have they? I’m sure sorry it’s been so hard on you, leaving me here alone with the kids and a broken heart.” Now she was looking right at him.
“I didn’t leave,” Dad said. “It’s what you wanted—you wanted me to go.”
“You had to go,” Mom said, “just like you have to go now.” And so Dad stood up, carried his dishes to the sink, and walked out to the garage, where he started up his truck and rolled away.
I want to skip forward now a couple of months. We were now, Jonny and me, in the middle of our summer vacation, which was a time of freedom as we had never experienced it. Mom had gone to work as a cashier at the TruValue Hardware, and even though Grandma and Grandpa often came by to check on us, I was left in charge, which mostly meant putting sandwiches and lemonade on the table for lunch, as well as keeping the garden watered and weeded.
One day, Jonny didn’t turn up for lunch. I wasn’t alarmed at first. I wandered down to the hardware store looking for him, figuring he was pestering Mom for a dollar. When I didn’t find him at the hardware store, I jogged out to the ball field, which was the next most likely place. The field was abandoned, and I found myself alone under the glare of the mid-day sun.
It was as I sat on the dugout bench catching my breath that I realized where he had gone. Jonny had gone to the old mill, the one place we were not allowed to go. Mom had begged us not to go anywhere near the mill yard, turning it into a beacon of fascination for my brother. “Please, please,” she had said to us on more than one occasion, “please, boys.” And I’ll say for Jonny that he was not a bad kid. He had a gentle spirit, but curiosity bit at him like flies attacking a horse, hovering and landing, hovering and landing.
There are many dangers at an abandoned mill. For one thing, a large number of hastily built outbuildings speckle the yard. These buildings quickly turn decrepit and could collapse at any time. Rusted out tools and machinery are strewn about the place. And then there’s the river. The mill in our Vermont town is situated on a steep passage of the Passumpsic River, and the original saw was powered by water. At the site of the mill, the current has carved out embankments of ten to twenty feet. Water pools at the top and then drops two stories, crashing into a basin of rock.
I started moving toward the old mill. It wasn’t long before I was running, jogging the way Dad had taught me, leaning into the up-hills and then stretching out long-legged for the down hills, letting my momentum carry me forward. I didn’t want to think about the trouble Jonny might have gotten himself into, so I focused on my stride. Then, when the mill came into view, I slowed to a walk and continued down the road, calling out for my brother.
You can imagine my relief when Jonny responded to my calls, though his voice came back thin. “Danny, Danny.” I jogged then, heading into the lumberyard, where I found him trapped from the waist in a pile of logs. He’d been climbing, and when a log beneath him shifted, another turned over, pinching his legs tight with the force of a car engaged at the axel and locked into its advance.
It is a strange irony that many of the harshest and bitterest experiences of our lives are laced with beauty. When I think of that day, I remember not only the terror pulsing through my body but also the beauty of the place. I remember the mill’s leaning metal roof glinting with light, the Queen Anne’s Lace waving in the afternoon breeze, nervous and top-heavy. I remember the sound of the river, how it roared in the background in throaty gasps. Everything was overgrown, as if it might someday be completely swallowed up in grass, and grapevines, and rust, and time.
“Danny, I can’t move,” said Jonny.
I vaulted forward, moving as lightly as possible to the top of the unstable pile.
“Hold on.” I found solid footing, laced my fingers together, and pulled at the log with both hands. It was useless. I could not relieve the pressure on Jonny’s leg—not by an ounce.
“It hurts,” he said. He was pale as a ghost, and I could see the panic working its way into him, like a worm digging into an apple.
“I know. I’ve got to get Dad, but you’ll be ok. You’ll be ok.” And now, again, I was off at a run toward the hardware store another mile up the road. A stitch began burning in my side, but again I remembered Dad’s advice. Take long breaths and push through the pain. I breathed in deep and kept running, driven by Jonny’s pleading voice, until I had arrived, half blind with the sweat soaking my eyes and practically stumbling into the TruValue in search of my mother.
Dad picked us up at the curb, and we went barreling down to the mill. Behind us, a police siren sprang to life. I don’t know how fast Dad drove, but my memory is soaked with the sound of an engine revving and the smell of oil and coolant burning off the top of the block.
Mom was too frantic to be of any real help. She stood by while Dad and I tried to move the log by hand—completely hopeless—and then paced about while Dad talked with the police officer, negotiating our next move. The officer wanted to wait for a rescue squad, and Dad didn’t want to take the time. He pointed to Jonny, who was moaning, the pain and exhaustion seeping out of him.
Dad said, “Oh, hell,” and he jumped in his truck, backing his rear bumper perpendicular to the pile of logs. Then he started hooking his chain to the frame of his truck and talking to me all the while. “Daniel, when that log moves—the moment it moves—I want you to yell at the top of your lungs. Tell me to stop and tell Jonny to get out of there.” And then, when he wrapped the other end of his chain around the log, he said to Jonny, “The moment it moves, Jonny, the moment it moves.”
The police officer said he didn’t know what he was doing, but Dad didn’t care. He wasn’t going to watch his son suffer a moment longer. He jumped back in the truck and rolled forward until the chain was stretched tight. The truck grumbled in its belly, as if it were anxious to perform its duty.
“Ready!” he yelled, and he revved the engine. The engine hummed, and the wheels jumped, slipping on the grass. The chain creaked, but the log didn’t budge. I wondered if Jonny might be trapped in that pile forever. The thought made me sick to my stomach.
Mom was now sitting at the edge of the pile talking to Jonny. I couldn't tell if he was listening, but she was saying the same thing over and over again. “Jonny, I promise. I promise, darling. Daddy’s going to get you out of there. I promise.”
Dad put the truck into reverse and rolled backward a couple of feet. This time, he jammed the pedal, and the truck jumped into the chain like a dog throwing itself to the end of its rope. The roar of the engine grew until it was topped with a high-pitched squeal. The chain cried out. The tires trembled, slipped, and spun. And then with a crack, the log moved. “Dad,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Jonny!”
Dad hit the brakes, the truck came to a lurching stop, and Jonny started to move. When I saw that Jonny was unable to stand, I skipped to the top of the pile and grabbed him around the chest. Together we tumbled from log to log until we were again safely on the ground, though Jonny’s legs were a mess. A stripe of skin was torn from his leg, and it was red like the pulp of a cherry tree with blue veins weaving through it like tendrils.
“I’m freezing,” he hissed.
Mom had run to Jonny and taken hold of him, but Jonny passed out in her arms, his body’s response to the pain. Mom cried, and her body shook through the sobs, while Dad promised her Jonny was going to be alright. Then the ambulance arrived, and the medics said Jonny would lose his leg, and Dad yelled at the police officer who had refused to help. Meanwhile, I found myself dizzy with exhaustion. I sat down a few feet from Jonny and then laid back onto a patch of grass. The medics loaded both of us into the ambulance and hooked us to IV’s. I was released the same day, but Jonny spent the next three weeks in the hospital, absorbing three separate surgeries to the same leg.
During the first surgery, Mom, Dad, and I sat together in the waiting room. Mom and Dad both held on to coffees, though it was stifling and humid.
“Daniel,” Dad said, “you’re a hero, you know that, son?”
I didn’t say anything. I was the one who lost Jonny in the first place, and if he lost his leg, I had pledged never to forgive myself.
“You are,” said Mom. “You found him—you found me—you stayed calm through the whole thing.” I couldn’t talk. My mouth was dry, and the tears were burning my eyes. Mom shifted in her seat and took my hand. Leaning forward, I released the tears, let them fall down my cheeks and into my hands. Then I rolled over into my mother’s lap.
For a while, we sat together in silence. Then Dad said, “That’s my boy.” And it was at this point, when the tears had passed, that I was suddenly flooded with an untimely sense of peace, at the very moment when doctors were fishing pieces of bone from the cavity in Jonny’s leg, my body was finally breathing out, expelling the fear that had taken up residence in my chest.
“You know what, Danny?” Dad said. That truck is going to be yours when you’re old enough to drive it. You deserve it.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah. Though I most likely blew a gasket hauling that log, and who knows what else she’ll need between now and then.”
I sat up now and saw Mom looking at Dad, a glimmer in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Lena,” said Dad. “I know it’s not enough, but all I can do is say I’m sorry and hope and pray that someday you’ll let me back.” He flashed a nervous grin like a schoolboy asking his crush on a date.
“Just keep proving yourself,” she said. She reached past me and touched his shoulder and his stubbled chin.
The doctors saved Jonny’s leg. He would walk with a limp from then on, and he’d never be a great athlete. But he walked, sure enough, and that’s something when you’ve had your leg crushed the way he had.
When Jonny came home from the hospital, Dad started sleeping at the house a couple nights at a time. Then we wouldn’t see him for a couple of days, and Mom would find cash and a note in the bill rack. Once I asked where he’d gone, and Mom said, “He doesn’t want to overstay his welcome.”
One day, late in the summer, Mom came home from the TruValue for lunch. Jonny was staying with Grandma and Grandpa, so it was just the two of us, and Mom made BLT’s and topped them with mayo. She wore jeans and a pale yellow blouse that hung down to her thighs, and I remember thinking that she looked young, like she was too young to be my mother.
At one point, Mom took a bite, wiped the mayo from her lips, and said, “The thing about forgiveness is, it’s practice. It’s just like anything else—you do it every day, over and over again, and eventually you get good at it.”
At the time, I didn’t understand what she was saying. I looked at her, and she must have seen my confusion, because she laughed.
“Oh, don’t listen to me,” she said.
The day before school started, Dad moved home. His truck looked awkward, the bed overfull with boxes and pieces of furniture, and the hood refusing to close tight.
“I’ll fix it up proper when I’ve got the time,” Dad said to me. Then he said, “OK, let’s unload.”
That’s when I noticed Mom standing in the doorway of the house watching us. She was leaning against the doorframe and sipping a glass of iced tea.
Dad said, “You gonna lend a hand there, darling?”
“Oh, I’m just taking a break,” she said. But then she stood and walked over to the truck, placing her hands carefully on the back of Dad’s shirt as if she were inspecting its material.
“Needs washing,” she said.
Dad turned to face her. He didn’t speak but took her in. Mom wore a blue cotton dress that day, hanging lightly down to her knees. Her hair was piled in a bun on top of her head. She moved to the tailgate and picked up a box.
“Lena,” Dad said. “Thank you.”
At this, Mom stopped. She stood tall, her back straight, holding her box. And even though she was ten feet away from me, and even though her back was facing me, I could see her shoulders rising with each heaving breath, and I knew that she was crying. Dad knew, too, and he rested his hands on his hips and held back his own tears as best he was able.
It was a strange and beautiful moment, a cockeyed mixture of feelings that ran through me. On the one hand, my parents had survived separation; they had survived my father’s infidelity. Instead of pulling apart, they had somehow remained connected, as if by an invisible cord. On the other hand, our family was forever altered; the ease and the lightness was gone. We had survived, but our family would never be the same.
I walked to the back of the tailgate and picked up a box of Dad’s books. It was a bit heavy for me, and I lumbered to the house, leaving my parents standing together in the driveway. When I set the box down, I noticed that my breathing had deepened from the effort. And for a long moment, I stood in my parents’ bedroom, noticing what it felt like when my lungs filled with air, feeling the pressure building against my rib cage and then backing down. It was good. It was a good feeling to know that my body was working every moment of every day to keep me alive.
Years later, on the day I passed my driver’s test, Dad gave me the truck, paperwork and everything. It has its share of dings and dents, but it’s in full working order as promised. Jonny’s leg still hurts him most nights, and he has a lot of trouble sleeping. Sometimes, I still feel guilty, wishing I hadn’t lost him. That’s how it is in our family. We walk with a limp, but it’s a lot better than not being able to walk at all.