“Glass,” A Short Story from Gale Massey’s “Rising and Other Stories”

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Dad was a thin man with a high forehead and a bent nose. He wore a black patch over his left eye and worked as a carpenter at a shop across the railroad tracks. Mama took me there a few times when Dad had forgotten to take his lunch box. The place smelled sweet and earthy from the sawdust. The blades tearing through the pine flesh of two-by-fours were loud and terrifying, making me cover my ears. Dad told me some of the men wore earplugs so that they might still be able to hear when they got to be old men. Once I started first grade, I never went back to the carpenter shop, but I remember how Dad always smelled of sawdust when he came home in the evenings.

On days when Mama needed the Ford for grocery shopping or a doctor’s appointment, Dad would leave it with her and arrange a ride with John, the Black man who owned the shop. He and Dad had become friends during their time in the army. Dad served stateside in the VA hospital because having lost an eye in a hunting accident as a boy meant he could only serve in maintenance. John, having been injured overseas, had spent several months on the ward where Dad was a janitor. They spent enough time together to form a bond. Then when John needed a reference for a loan from the bank to open his cabinet shop, Dad had vouched for him and in turn became his first employee.

Dad would grab his lunch pail when the sound of a truck’s engine rumbled outside on the street. I could feel the tension come off Mama like a heatwave whenever those people, as she called them, came to our side of town. It was a bristle of anger, perhaps imperceptible to anyone but her own flesh and blood, but it changed the way she smelled and as her child, I paid attention to that. Fear gave off a metallic smell, anger smelled like sweat. Happy, though—happy had no smell.

Dad paid no attention to these fluctuations. Nothing about Mama scared him. He saw his ride waiting for him on the street and kissed her cheek.

“It’s Friday, Sugarfoot,” he said to me before he closed the door behind him. “We’ll be on the river by tomorrow noon.”

I knew this because we went every Saturday and would have gone on Sundays, too, except there was always church.

This weekend was going to be different, though. I was finally tall enough to learn to fly fish, even though I felt like I already knew how just from having watched him my whole life. He’d told me the week before, when he was standing in the middle of the river in his waders, water rippling over the small stones at his feet, shade from the cypress trees falling in his eyes. Dad’s line caught on a branch one too many times, and when thunder clouds gathered on the southern horizon, Dad had called it a day. We were collecting the nets and rods and heading to the car when he patted the top of my head. “Sugarfoot, you’ve grown another inch. Time to get you your own gear.” Until then I had sometimes fished with Mama’s rod and reel, but that afternoon we’d stopped at the store on our way home. Tomorrow would be my first official lesson.

Dad was more of a fisherman than a carpenter. Out in the middle of a river, his blind eye was a small annoyance, but it didn’t hold him back like in the shop, where his measurements had to be checked and approved before the wood got run through the blade. Dad said he’d rather be judged by the fish in his basket at the end of the day than the time it took him to measure a two-by-four.

By the time I got home from school that Friday, it was four and Mama was talking on the phone with another church lady like she did every afternoon. She had gone to the store and had hamburger patties made and lying out on the counter, salted and covered in wax paper. She would put them on as soon as Dad came through the front door and we’d have an early supper. I went to my room to make sure I had my favorite shorts and swimsuit ready for the morning. We’d be up and on the road by the time the sun came peeking through the rear window of the Ford. Five o’clock came and went, but there was no sign of Dad.

I got the rods down from the brackets in the garage, thinking he would want to pack the car after supper. He liked to do that himself, fitting everything in so that the rods didn’t hit anyone’s head when the road dipped and curved. Inside the house, Mama was on the phone. She paced, looking out the front window occasionally so she would know as soon as he appeared and turn on the stove.

At six o’clock she came outside. “You seen any sign of him?”

“No, Mama” was all I said. She was worried and I didn’t want to upset her with my own fears. Dad hated to be late to anything. He was always checking his watch and herding Mama and me to the car. And the shop always closed a little early on Fridays. I listened harder for John’s truck to arrive at the corner, waiting for Dad to show up and let me climb on his shoulders for our evening walk around the yard inspecting the row of maple trees he’d planted the year I was born.

Along the street, other fathers were pulling into their driveways, their kids rushing to carry their lunch pails or tool belts. Before that evening I had never paid attention to how similar the houses on our block were. Dirt driveways, cinder-block houses on small plots, tiny front porches.

Sunset was around eight thirty that night and Dad still had not called or come home. Sometimes the deacons held emergency prayer meetings and maybe Dad had gone there, but he would have come home, washed up, and changed into his good white shirt first.

“Did he say anything about going somewhere after work tonight?” Mama was at the door of my bedroom. I was on the floor playing with a doll my cousin had left after her last visit, and as soon as Mama came to my door, I smelled metal. I shook my head. She had the phone receiver in her hand, the mouthpiece covered. She was talking with her brother about going out to look for Dad. Uncle Bud was a cop, big and round and always smelled like donuts.

Mama took her hand away from the phone and spoke into it. “Well, where would I even look?”

Our town was small, a single red light where the train crossed. A main street with a feedstore, a grocery store, three churches. Dad was a simple man who always came straight home from work. He didn’t have many friends outside of church. John should have dropped him off hours ago. Outside of our own backyard and garage, I couldn’t think of a single place to go look for Dad.

“No, Bud, I have the car. John picked him up this morning,” Mama said into the phone. “I’m not saying that. It’s just he was the last person I saw him with.”

My skin pricked at the accusatory tone. I sniffed the air. Sweat.

“I don’t know where he lives. Somewhere across town, over on the south side.”

A half hour later Uncle Bud showed up in his cruiser. Another cop rode shotgun. I followed Mama outside. The blue lights flashed in the night and made it hard to see the face of the person in the backseat, but I knew right away it wasn’t Dad.

Uncle Bud got out and walked to the porch. “Is that John?”

Mama stood in the doorframe and lifted her chin. “Yes, that’s him. He gave him a ride this morning.”

I walked past them and went to the cruiser. John always gave me a lemon drop from his pocket. Ordinarily I would smile and hold out my hand, but I just stood there staring at his busted lip, the blood on the lapel of his shirt, the metal handcuffs around his wrists. He didn’t look like the man I remembered.

“Get away from there.” Uncle Bud waved his hand at me from the porch. “Go inside.”

The blood on John’s shirt meant he’d been fighting but that made no sense. Unless he’d been fighting with Dad, but Dad wasn’t a fighter. And they were friends. Still, I wondered if Dad was at the hospital right now, or worse, at the morgue. The cop riding shotgun had a welt on his chin and I worried that John might have put it there.

“Have you seen my dad?” I asked through the glass, but John looked away.

It was getting toward midnight. Dad had never been out so late unless he’d been called to sit with a dying member of our congregation. Sometimes he had to do that if the preacher was on vacation. Being out this late meant someone was in a bad way. I hoped it wasn’t him.

The streetlight at the corner hummed, and colored our yard and a portion of the street with a yellow haze, but beyond it the night sky was a black dome.

“He’ll talk once I get him to the station,” Uncle Bud said to Mama.

I motioned for John to roll down the window, wondering why he wouldn’t talk now and save them from the trouble of going to the station. John looked out the opposite window. He’d never ignored me before.

Uncle Bud pushed me away from the door. “Don’t rile him up, girl. They can be nasty when they’re provoked.”

I stepped backward and looked around for a bee or a hornet, trying to understand what my uncle meant by they. It didn’t make sense. Until it did. They meant John and the others. The ones that didn’t live on our side of town or look like us. They worked in car shops. They had their own churches and schools. Cold fear climbed up my back. What did they have to do with Dad not coming home? And who was John if he was a they?

“I said, go inside.” Uncle Bud pushed me toward the porch. I yanked my arm from his grip.

From the darkness at the edge of the yard, a tall silhouetted man walked toward me. I yelped when I saw it was Dad and ran to him. He let me cling to his leg. He would make sense of this. We walked to the end of our driveway before I looked up into his face and jerked backward. His face was different and strange. It took a moment for me to understand. He’d taken off the black patch and inside that socket was a brown glass eye.

Uncle Bud stood at the door of the cruiser. He saw the difference, too, and eyed Dad with suspicion.

Mama ran to us, the smell of sweat and metal coming off her. “I’ve been worried sick! Where have you been all night?”

“I was at the veteran’s hospital. They called me at work and said my eye was ready.” He looked inside the back of the cruiser and grabbed the door handle but it was locked.

“Hold on,” Uncle Bud said.

Dad kicked the door handle. “What the hell are you doing with John?”

Dad never cursed. I wanted him to smell like always, like sawdust, but tonight, he smelled like the inside of a doctor’s office.

Mama stared at his face. “You were at the hospital? All this time?”

Gale Massey

“Yes. I wanted to surprise you. I took the bus there after work and missed the last bus coming home. I had to walk.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

“I did call after I missed the bus, but the line was busy They fitted me for it last month. It didn’t cost a thing.”

All this time John was sitting in the back of the cruiser, dried blood on his lip. Uncle Bud hooked his thumbs on his belt and said, “Shit. What am I going to do with him?”

He started to get in the cruiser but Dad stepped between him and the door. “Get him out of there. I’ll take him home.” He kept rubbing the temple next to his new eye, and I could tell it hurt him because the socket wasn’t used to it yet. He took out a bottle of aspirin from this lunch pail and swallowed a few with the spit in his mouth.

He tried the handle again. “Come on, Bud. You know he didn’t do anything.”

Uncle Bud stared into Dad’s eyes, darting from one to the other like he couldn’t tell which one was new, which one was fake. “How am I going to account to the captain for taking the cruiser out this late?”

“How’re you going to account for busting him up?”

“I don’t need to account for that. He resisted.”

“Just say you were out looking for me. You found me, right? Case closed. Now let him out and get back to your family.”

Uncle Bud walked to his partner’s side of the cruiser and stooped down to talk it over. The other cop yawned, and finally my uncle opened the back door and removed the handcuffs. John climbed out.

Uncle Bud cut the lights on the cruiser and backed out of the driveway.

Mama went back up toward the house. “You had me worried all night for nothing.” She didn’t seem to care about the missing patch or the new eye.

Dad yelled at John to wait but John started walking up the street. Dad ran inside to get the car keys. Mama told me to get to bed but I pleaded to go with Dad. She slammed the front door behind us after we went back outside.

We found John a few blocks away, walking toward the tracks. I crawled into the backseat and John got in. We drove through town, past the church and the baseball park, and across the railroad crossing. There were fireflies lighting up in the weeds along the tracks.

Dad offered his handkerchief but John waved it away. He brought out his own, spit on it, and dabbed at the blood on his shirt. “I’ve been thinking, and I believe you and your wife need a second set of wheels.”

Dad nodded. “I guess we do.”

“Stop here and let me out,” John said. We had stopped at a corner in front of a white clapboard church. The door was open and lights were on inside the church.

“It’s late. Don’t you want to get home?”

“They’ll be waiting for me inside.”

“Waiting for you?” Dad asked.

“Yes, praying, maybe singing some hymns.”

John started to say something but then he just shook his head and got out. He leaned back through the window. “It isn’t something you would understand. But when my people see someone like me get picked up at my own house, word gets around fast. We do what we can to get through the night, to comfort the family.”

I could see it because I’d seen it on the television. Cops in cruisers dragging a man out of his house, little kids scared and crying, a wife flailing her empty arms.

It wasn’t like Dad to let someone out if there was still a way to go, but he pulled to the curb and stared out the opposite window. He wiped his nose and sniffed. He’d never smelled like anything but sawdust before, but at that moment he smelled like sweat. John walked up the church steps and disappeared inside. He didn’t look back or wave or say good night.

Dad rubbed his temple again, then reached into his socket and pulled out the glass eye. He stuck it in his shirt pocket and blew his nose into his handkerchief.

We didn’t make it to the river that weekend or even that month. Dad stayed on the couch, tending to the headache brought on by having to adjust to that new glass eye. He called in sick the next week for three days straight and lay on the couch, popping aspirin until they gave him a stomachache. Thursday night Mama told him he had to go to work because we couldn’t afford to go a week without rent and grocery money.

Friday morning Dad told Mama she’d have to give him a ride to the shop if she wanted to keep the car for grocery shopping that day. I rode with them so she could drop me off at school on her way back home.

By then Dad had given up on wearing his new eye. His family had not been able to afford one back then but too many years had gone by and his socket had shrunken over the years and the glass one didn’t fit right. And it was cold when he went outside in the morning, which caused a momentary shock in his forehead. He was hoping the veteran’s hospital could order him a smaller one, but until then he was back to wearing the eye patch.

We got to the train tracks and I picked up my feet as we crossed. Mama had taught me to do that for good luck, but the tracks didn’t even seem to register with her that day. There was an empty stretch on the other side that marked where one town ended and the other began. Both towns were run through by Main Street and looked the same. A barber shop, a dry cleaner, a smoked-fish shack. I saw the little white church where Dad and I had dropped off John. The grocery store here was called Lockhart’s and it had wide windows out front pasted over with ads. I’d seen all this before, but that day everything felt different.

Mama turned right on Seventeenth Avenue South. The carpenter shop was a tall metal building behind the stores on Main. Two bays were open, with the garage doors rolled up into the roof. The saws were already keening and I could smell sawdust. Weeds grew at the edge of the parking lot, tiny grasshoppers clinging to the grassy tops, swaying in a breeze. We stopped in the parking lot and Dad opened the passenger door.

John was in the first bay. When he saw Dad, he waved toward the foreman and the saws went quiet as John came over to us. He pulled off his cap and shook Dad’s hand. Then he saw me climbing into the front seat and reached into the pocket of his coveralls.

“Hello, Pink Toe.” He offered me the pack of lemon drops.

Mama cleared her throat, which was code for don’t even. She’d never objected before but now the air inside the car smelled metallic. I knew better but reached for them anyway, felt the slap on my forearm, and the lemon drops fell on the ground.

John stepped back and stuck his hands in his pockets. I felt his sigh from three feet away.

Dad bent over and picked up the pack. He looked at Mama and said, “Honey, don’t.” After taking a lemon drop out of the pack, he handed it to me through the window. I stuck it in my mouth.

John went back inside the shop.

“Why does he call her Pink Toe?”

“Because she’s white. Don’t make a big deal over it. He isn’t being mean.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

The saws started up again, so Dad leaned through the window. “I don’t know why you think it’s okay to act like this. You owe him an apology and you know it.”

Dad rarely spoke like that to Mama in front of me. The lemon drop felt like a rock inside my mouth. I spit it out and put it in my pocket for later. Mama’s eyes were red. She wiped her nose and backed out of the parking lot.

I knew better than to ask what was wrong, so I just put my hand on her shoulder as we drove back across the tracks toward my school. Maybe I was trying to comfort her, or maybe I was reaching out to be comforted. She pulled the Ford into the drop-off zone and I got out.

“Walk straight home after school,” she said.

After watching her drive away, I started sobbing in uncontrollable spasms. An animal fear had gripped my midsection. The school secretary came outside but I had no words for my tears. She led me to the school nurse, who gave me a glass of water and had me lie down on a cot. When she left to call Mama, I got the lemon drop from my pocket and stuck it in my mouth. The clean fruity sugar soothed me. I stared at the tiles in the ceiling and thought about the river and my new rod and reel.

Mama didn’t answer the phone, but after an hour I recovered enough to go to class.

That night Dad pulled into our driveway in the shop’s old truck. It was beat-up and rusted and the door hinges creaked and popped, but the windows worked and the bed in the back was big enough to carry all our gear plus a tent. Sometimes we skipped church on Sunday mornings and camped overnight. There was never anyone else around and Mama and Dad never fought about things while they were on the river.

Later when I got old enough, Dad taught me to drive in that old truck. We took it out every weekend and Dad drove it to work and back every day until his heart gave out. He was fifty-two and I had already gone off to start my own family in Atlanta.

After that night with Uncle Bud, John had never come to our house again to give Dad a ride, but when Dad passed, Mom called John to come pick up the truck. She’d gone through Dad’s wallet and found the receipt he’d kept all those years. John had sold Dad that truck for one dollar. In his will, Dad had asked it be returned to his boss.

At the funeral, John wasn’t the only Black man to come pay respects. The entire shop closed that Monday afternoon, and every man Dad had worked with showed up. Some white, some Black, all of them grieving.

Afterward, Mama and I stood on the steps in the bright sunlight outside the church while they loaded Dad’s casket into the back of the hearse. The men and congregation watched from a distance. I stood behind Mama smelling the metallic sweat coming off her.

“Take these to him,” she said and handed me the keys.

When I got to John, he offered his hand. A carpenter’s hand, steady and calloused. I used the handshake to pull him in for a quick hug. His shirt, the skin at the back of his neck. The embrace was brief. I could feel Mama staring at us and he pulled away. It would have to be enough, that one last inhalation of sawdust and lemon drops.

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