Ace Boggess of Charleston, West Virginia, is author of the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea, 2016) and four books of poetry, most recently I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So (Unsolicited, 2018) and Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road, 2017). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Lumina, and Belmont Story Review. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison.
“Bull dug under the fence again.” Pop pointed to a hole in churned earth beneath the wire mesh. It looked about a foot and a half wide and six inches deep—gaping enough for anything to crawl through. “We’ll have to fix that.”
“Sure, Pop,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t remember it. His mind worked like a camera’s lens, only catching whatever happened to be in frame. “Get right on it.”
“Good ole Bull never could stay put.”
“Not a chance,” I agreed. “Too much fox in his blood.” I remembered the phrase as something Pop used to say before Bull died almost twenty years ago. Bull wasn’t part fox. His name stood for bulldog, which he also wasn’t. I pictured a mutt that could’ve been spaniel, hound, or an oversized, floppy-eared rat Pop mistook and adopted.
I moved Pop along the fence line, the graves of his eyes taking in everything, his thin, skeletal face pale and bluish in the morning light. I didn’t correct him about Bull or the hole which had been put there months ago by a raccoon or opossum. Pop didn’t recall much these days—not my kids Jan and Luanne who were off at college, not my ex-wife Sheila who was off in the head. He knew he used to drive a truck for the coal companies and that he bussed tables once as a teenager. Dementia took almost everything else, filling in gaps with black-suited demons and other colorful characters Pop saw dancing on the lawn.
Sometimes, on a peaceful day like this, he remembered Mom. “Zack,” he said, “where’s Caroline’s apple tree?” He pointed to a circle of dirt where a young tree used to sprout tiny fruit that none of us ever ate. Pop uprooted the thing after Mom died. He burned it branch by branch and log by log in the fireplace, despite it being the middle of August and the air conditioner roaring to keep pace. “I think the tornadoes came and sucked it right up.”
“Could be, Pop.”
“Caroline’s gonna be pissed. She’ll raise holy hell about it.”
“Uh huh. You know Mom.”
“Lucky them funnels missed the house,” he said. “You’d be sending me messages through the Devil’s Express.”
My brother Ted would’ve laughed to hear him say that, but I hated the phrase. I’d heard it enough since Pop’s dementia kicked in. It brought up the one thing he never forgot: the time he gutted a man in Charleston. He got in a fight over a woman. Not Mom. The one before her. Even with Alzheimer’s eating away at his brain, Pop still obsessed about the killing. He could recite every line of dialogue he and Jimbo Duggan spoke, and he did… far too often for my taste.
“Now, Conway,” Jimbo said, “I didn’t know you was still seeing her. Angie told me you two broke up.” Jimbo was naked and covered neck to ankle in blue jailhouse tattoos. Pop could describe all of them, especially the five-card hand of poker over Jimbo’s heart—not the usual four aces and a king, but a busted straight: two, three, four, six, queen. Duggan, older than Pop, had been in the pokey much of his life, but he’d been out for a while, and now his prison muscles had gone soft.
“I already sent Angie out the door,” Pop told him, “bare-assed, just like you.”
“Ain’t right, Conway.”
“You wanted me to throw rose petals and escort you all down the aisle?”
“No, I wanted you to go fuck a pig!”
When telling the story, Pop usually added as aside: Can you believe that, Son? He was making me a pig fucker!
When Jimbo lunged, Pop’s hunting knife came so fast neither man saw a glint of steel.
I told the cops he said he’d kill me, Pop sometimes added. Only thing that kept the murder charge off me.
He spent eight years in Moundsville on voluntary manslaughter. How Pop came out a better man, I never understood. I’d read some horrible stories about what happened at that place before the state shut it down. I couldn’t imagine Pop experiencing anything but brutality. Luckily, he didn’t remember any of that.
Ted and I didn’t learn about Pop’s history until we were in high school. We knew he was twenty years older than Mom, and we’d seen his blue tattoos: a cobra on his wrist, a dagger on his shoulder blade. To us, he was just our father. He kept us clothed and fed, bought us presents every Christmas, took us to football practice. Later, he co-signed our student loans to get me to college and Ted all the way through law school, putting up his house as collateral. He was good to us, even after Mom passed.
I was seventeen—two years older than Ted—when she lost control of her car and rolled it down an embankment. The crash mangled her body, severing one arm and crushing her skull.
We hadn’t seen Pop cry before. Nor had we heard him cuss. Now both flowed out of him as if he couldn’t make up his mind between sorrow and rage. That night, burdened, Pop told us about his past. “Caroline kept me in line,” he said. “She met a bad man at a bad time in his life, and she mopped it all away like dirt on the linoleum.”
Neither of us knew what to say. It hurt to have lost her, but now we understood that she’d been the heroine of our father’s story, too. And to watch Pop sob and swear and, that night, drink brown liquor for the first time since I’d been born—we broke down and gulped that bourbon with him until Ted went puking in the toilet and Pop started giving me life advice.
“Two things,” my father told me. “First, women are like a hand of poker. Sometimes a weak ace turns out to be good enough, but it’s always the ones you think strongest that rob you of everything you’ve got.”
“Sure, Pop,” I said.
“Second thing…” He paused, eyes glazed over, and lost his thoughts.
“What’s the second thing, Pop?”
“If you ever kill a man, right or wrong, don’t get caught.”
We walked around to the back of the house. Pop didn’t have a backyard, just a rocky hillside sloping up into dark woods of pine and oak. The path between hill and house was muddy, with even the walkway stones covered. Everything smelled oily and fishlike.
“Where we going, Son?” he asked.
“Just taking a walk, Pop. Doc said you need fresh air once in a while…”
“He did not!” The sudden anger startled but didn’t shock me. He often reacted that way to things folks talked about that he couldn’t remember.
“Well, nobody told me!”
“Doc was out here just yesterday, Pop.” I’m not sure why I argued. It’d be easier if I agreed with whatever he said and just pretended. I couldn’t do it. Maybe some part of me still believed it might reach some part of him.
“Nobody told me,” he repeated, sounding less angry and a little bit afraid.
I put a hand on his shoulder, and he flinched. I wasn’t sure if he was reliving past trauma or just startled in that moment by the unexpected contact. It could be hard to tell the difference. “You okay, Pop?”
He stopped and looked at me as if I were a stranger.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Something.”
I hated these times most. If he lost himself in his memories, at least that made sense. I understood it. These in-between pauses were like sensing ghosts in another room—more doubt and discomfort, less terror, although that too seemed imminent. I wanted to turn on the lights and make our hearts feel safe and calm again.
I wondered if Ted felt that way. He could laugh about Pop’s condition. He called it “Time Machine Syndrome,” or said “If he’s gotta get stuck in another part of his life, I’m glad it’s a happy one most of the time.”
Not sure what else to do, I nudged Pop onward.
“Old Bull,” he said, as if reliving something specific. He didn’t elaborate, though, and we kept moving.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw Joe the day nurse watching us through the rear window. Young, stocky, and dressed in maroon hospital scrubs, Joe wore his hair buzzed and looked more like a soldier for some foreign nation than a nurse. His cheeks were gaunt, but his arms muscular as if both designed for the jobs he had to do. He treated Pop with kindness and kept him from accidentally burning down the house or sleeping too long in his own excrement. Even so, Joe still drove a Mustang as if he were once the cool kid in school and never wanted to forget that feeling.
He waved to us through the window.
I waved back.
Pop looked at me funny and said, “What’s wrong with your arm?”
Ted and I split the cost of Pop’s twenty-four-hour care. It was the least we could do. Killer or not, Pop had been a perfect father to us. We wanted to let him live out his days in his own house. We didn’t think it would be right for us to dump him in a nursing home. I would’ve felt like we’d sent him back to prison. Only problem: Lifecare Plus, the company Joe worked for, stopped sending female nurses a couple years back. Our dad often called them Caroline, which was okay, but he also sometimes said Angie and tried to grope them.
“Just stretching,” I said, deciding not to mention Joe who Pop wouldn’t recognize even after two years.
We walked a little further, and he asked, “Where we going, Son?”
“Just taking a walk, Pop….”
I’m not sure how Ted did it. He knew the right people in the right places, I guess. Somehow, he found Pop’s mugshot from half a century ago. He had it blown up into a black and white eight-by-ten, then framed it. When he showed me, I stared at the picture and couldn’t speak. There was Pop: Conway Jeffers, age 23, square-jawed and with a head full of dark hair parted neatly on the left. The height marker showed him to be five-nine.
Ted and I talked it over, and we agreed the picture would make a good gift for Pop on his seventy-fifth birthday. This was eighteen years after Mom died, and Pop’s Alzheimer’s had begun its long work of erasure. Pop talked openly about the murder now, sometimes regretting, other times swearing, The son of a bitch had it comin’. He told us he called the cops himself and confessed to it, his statement all true except for that one fib about Jimbo threatening to murder him first. He described the feel of the handcuffs—like a beartrap closing too slowly—and how he thought about his mama on the way to jail, wondering if she’d ever speak to him again because she was, as he put it, scared of Jesus. So, we thought it would be a fun thing to do for Pop to show him this image he swore he’d never seen. Maybe it was a bit tasteless, but at this point Pop seemed beyond worrying about stuff like that.
Ted and I arrived together, he in his expensive lawyer suit, I in my JCPenney classic. Pop met us at the door, his mind still clear enough to remember us and that it was his birthday, although not which one. He hugged us, accepted our gift, unwrapped it, stared at the picture for maybe three seconds, then removed it from its frame and walked away.
We followed him into the kitchen, each of us asking Pop if he was okay.
He didn’t answer. His hand went into a drawer and came back holding a long, slender grill ignitor. He clicked it and touched the tiny flame to his picture.
“Sorry, Pop,” Ted told him.
I said, “We thought you’d enjoy seeing it.”
Pop waited until all but a corner burned away, then dropped the rest on the pale green linoleum and stomped on it. He bowed his head while we stood there in silence. After a while, he glanced up, met Ted’s gaze, then mine, and said, “Boys, I’m never going back. They wanna catch me, least they won’t have that to identify me with. I’m only a free man until the cops figure out they made a mistake in ever letting me go.”
Guiding Pop back around to the front yard, I stared through the fence at the dirt road and the creek beyond. Past that were more trees and hillsides, one of which was home to an overgrown cemetery. I could see a few tombstones sticking up through years of leaves and vines as if wanting to escape but held back by force.
He tapped me on the shoulder with the back of his hand. “Look,” he said.
“What is it?”
He pointed. “Bull dug under the fence again.”
“Sure, Pop. Sure.” I almost asked him if he dug that hole himself. But I knew he wouldn’t answer. Convicts know how to keep their secrets, sometimes even from themselves.