In late June, after a week of rain, a tremendous windstorm sucked the trees out of the rain-softened earth to crush the cars and houses lying in the path of their descent.
The next day, his gas-powered chainsaw lying beside him, Gage sat on the cracked cement stoop back of his house lacing his boots.
First he heard a whistling, then a pop above his head.
“Fuck You,” he yelled, the skin of his head tightening like leather around swelling ankles. His curse filled the backyards of adjacent homes like pond water filling a sinking car.
He stood up, silence pooling at his feet. It was early on a Saturday morning. A bird whistled. Then he heard the first chainsaw of the neighborhood sputter and start.
Eventually, a boy, fourteen, came into view on a neighbor’s deck. “I’m…I’m sorry,” he said.
Gage stood with his hands on his hips, one boot unlaced.
“I wasn’t aiming it at you,” the boy said.
Gage walked into his house and looked at his wife sitting on the couch. Her eyes were lowered, her fingers wrapped around a hot cup of tea, for the day after a windstorm is invariably cold. She’d heard Gage cursing a child, and he knew it.
“What?” he said. He wouldn’t stand for her silent accusations in a house with dirty dishes and unbathed children.
The ravings of the deaf neighbor against his stepson were a nightly occurrence. Husband and wife had looked at each other and said nothing, had seen the boy moping about, his head lowered, ashamed to inhabit the earth.
Gage walked back out the door, jumped the chain-linked fence into the neighbor’s yard, and called to the boy, who walked to within twenty feet of him and stopped. It was still cool, but the boy had his shirt off, and the dry patches on his skin appeared desperately dry.
“What is it with you people?” Gage said.
The boy scowled.
It was easier for Gage to imagine himself as a slobber-covered baby than as a rail-thin teen. He put one hand on his hip and raised the other with dramatic flair. One boot was still untied, the laces of which lay atop the grass like on a bed of nails. “Why do you go around making people yell at you?”
The boy dipped a shoulder and began to turn around before stopping and saying with a slight stutter, though he did not have a stutter, “Why do you go around yelling at people?”
Racing to get the words out as fast as he could, Gage said, “If certain people took care of their business, I wouldn’t have to.”
The boy mumbled something.
“What’d you say?” Gage said, loudly—His wife would say he was yelling. He wasn’t yelling. He was being heard.
The boy repeated what he had said, “Nobody’s holding a gun to your head.”
Before Gage could assault the boy, the sliding glass door on the neighbor’s back porch opened, and the boy’s stepfather stepped out, a big man who wore a black, sleeveless undershirt and black shorts and swore incomprehensibly.
Swiping his fists past his lips partly to prevent them being read, Gage said, “I ain’t afraid of no deaf motherfucker,” but his arms dropped slack to his sides when he realized the neighbor had not stepped outside to defend his stepson, but to berate him with violent hand gestures and the occasional protrusion of tongue.
The boy was on the porch now, and the man’s hands not only made words, but struck the boy’s head. Then a massive hand pointed the boy in Gage’s direction. The boy raised his chest, took a deep breath, then exhaled, his shoulders rounding forward. As the words I’m sorry came out of his mouth, a firecracker went off, and the boy jumped.
Grunting. Bulging eyes. Tongue out. The old man had picked up the firecrackers the boy’d been playing with, was lighting them, one after another, and was throwing them at his feet.
The boy leapt over the exploding floor of the deck to say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I really mean it, I’m sorry.”
Gage felt a tingling, as if he had to urinate. He adjusted himself and spat. Then he looked at his boots and the laces and the short cropped grass and for some reason tried to remember the length of the boy’s hair, if it was cropped short, too.
During the week of rain, the boy had been out in it, mowing the grass.
The apologizing and the explosions of firecrackers stopped before Gage looked up to see the boy walking toward him. Gage stepped backwards.
When Gage realized the boy, his face wet with tears, was going to walk past him, he said, at a volume that was the opposite of yelling, “You’re a good kid.”
The boy didn’t stop, didn’t look at Gage, probably didn’t hear him. He walked out of the backyard through the gate, spun and latched it shut.
Gage noted its unevenness, felt superior to the builder and his memory, wherever it was kept. The boy drifted out of Gage’s view. He could say anything now, and no one would hear.
“It’s a shame a man doesn’t know how to build a fence anymore,” he said. Then he bent down to tie his laces.
When he stood, he turned round to look at the man on the deck, who now had a proud look on his face. Not a father’s pride, but the pride of a disobedient boy who’d just let someone know most emphatically that no one could get one over on him, not a lie, not an insult, and sure as hell not a bottle rocket. The man made some noises as he gestured with his hands. Gage didn’t try to understand.
He hopped over the fence into his yard, and went to work cutting the myriad limbs that had fallen into his uncut grass.
Steven Lovett is a musician and writer in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.A., where he lives with his wife and their beagle, Pinto. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and North Dakota Quarterly.