Issue January 27, 2010

SECOND PLACE: Pocket Knives and Hanging Flowers

By Wyatt McMurry

My father and I bought those hanging flowers at Asef’s Produce downtown. I liked them because they swung around and because they were deep purple, opening like trumpet cannons. Asef came round the corner and sprayed them with a hose, and the flowers flopped back and forth like springs. We bought a couple pots, and brought them home. He showed me how to use the screwdriver, and we put some hooks into the roof over the porch and hung them there. Partial shade, he said. They’ll be good there.

So we sat on the front porch steps that open to the cul-de-sac, and he brought out his pocket knife that doubles as a pair of pliers. He folded out the blade and held it in front of him. I asked him if the neighbors might care if he had a knife out, and he said they wouldn’t. He handed it to me, handle first as he told me to do, and I ran the flat part of the blade across the knee of my jeans. It made a sound like the squeak of a window under cloth. He got up and loped down the steps, his leather jacket’s tassels hanging down and flapping. He walked out to the walnut tree and picked up a gnarled stick, brought it close to his face, and dropped it, grunting. He kept going around in a circle with his head down like that, picking up sticks one after the other and dropping them down. I could see his bald head all lit up when he bent over.

I didn’t want to ask what he was doing. We weren’t so much like that, and I hadn’t seen him in a while. After taking two loops around the tree, he came back with a thin, straight stick and set it on his knee. Now give me the knife, he said. I’m going to show you something. So I gave it to him, handle first, and his hand touched mine, and it felt calloused but smooth like a fingernail. Taking the knife in his left hand, putting his right thumb right over one of the knots, he pressed the stick into his jeaned thigh with an elbow. The knife went forward, strong across the bark, and a thick curl of wood fell to the steps of the porch like hair to a barbershop floor. This is whittling, he said.

His head was bent far over, and his eyebrows were thick with intent. It was like he had complete control of the stick, like it was there for him and those eyes, and it would shed itself for him. Now you want to keep the blade facing away, so’s not to cut yourself, he said. He turned it slowly, cleaving away chunks of grey bark with each movement, and I felt good to be there with him, to see the stick manipulated by him, perfectly. And look, he said, holding up the blade coated with clinging sawdust, there’s no lock on this one, so you have to make sure you don’t close it on your hand. He pretended to do so and made a hacking noise. I laughed aloud, leaned back, and stomped my feet back onto the step. Don’t want to do that, he said. Don’t want to do that at all.

I wanted to whittle, but I wasn’t going to ask. I didn’t want to stop that clean arm movement. Slice forward. Draw back. As another shard dropped, he turned his head to me without moving his body and saw that I was watching him close. You want to have a go? I nodded. OK. He took the stick out from under the thick of his arm and handed it to me. I put it between my elbow and thigh, and he handed me the knife, handle first. Now hold it so the blade is facing away. Hold the stick tight. There you go. Now push the knife out and down a bit. Good. The curls were small, but they got bigger as I went. I pushed the blade out faster each time, and didn’t look up to him. These were his tools, and I was doing it. It was easy. It was OK.

I began to turn the stick around slowly, and I sent the blade forward. The curls came down, until I hit something and the blade stopped short. That’s a knot. Let me go get my bigger knife to get it off for you. Wait here. He got up and jumped down the three steps, turned right, and his leather tassels disappeared into the garage. He was better. I hadn’t seen him in a year or so, and he showed up at school to pick me up, and it’s OK. We’re OK. I didn’t see my mother at school, but I didn’t look too hard. He pulled up in the same old Sunfire he’s had forever, and I got in without bothering to say anything. I wondered what my mother would think. I remember them together once, but I don’t know; it’s been a while. She was knitting by the fire, and he came in with a briefcase and huge grin. It’s probably not real, but who knows. I took up the blade and brought it close to my face. It was so close it blocked out the tree from my vision. We’ll be OK. I brought the knife down, and pushed it into the knot. He’ll be OK. I pushed harder. They’ll be OK. The knife slipped from the knot, and slid quietly over my wrist. I felt nothing.

He came back from the garage, knife in hand. He ran over to me. You’re bleeding. Didn’t I tell you to wait for me? Son, I don’t have time. The blood was spilling from my wrist. It was in puddles. The pain came late. It dug from the cut into the rest of my hand, and I started to wail. Son, son I don’t have time. He threw off his jacket and the tassels spread out along the steps. He tore off his shirt, twisted it into one short length, and tied it around my arm. Stay here. Stay here. I have to call mom. I have to call her. Are you OK to stay? OK. I’ll be back. He leapt up the steps and the storm door slammed shut. The pain was snaking all over my hand, and the flowers were swaying in the breeze. She doesn’t know where I am. They’re going to be together. She’ll have to come. Why doesn’t he take me?

The stick had fallen onto the path, and blood was moving over towards it. The blood wasn’t stopping. It felt like my arm was being emptied. The flowers were swinging around and moving so fast. The breeze was strong, and it felt fresh on my wrist. He burst back out through the door. She’s coming now. She’ll be here in two minutes. Why didn’t you wait? He brought out a towel, and he pressed it into my wrist, and I screamed. I leaned back and forth into his chest, crying. He held me, and the blood flowed out over my fingertips in little droplets that landed on his jacket. I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry. No. Look. He pulled me tighter into him. I lay my head on his kneecap.

She came soon. Her black-brown hair swinging across her face, she ran over to us from her car. What are you doing with him? What the hell are you doing with him? What is going on? You can’t see him. He’s bled so much. My god. What is wrong with you? I’m sorry. I had to see him. I had to. You’ve done enough. Give him to me.

I pulled closer to him. I didn’t want to go. Why did you even call me? Why didn’t you take him yourself? He looked down, touched my hair, and said nothing. She lunged forward and grabbed me by my bloody shirt. No. No. I don’t want to go. It hurts. Stop it. She pulled harder, his grip loosened, and I came forward into her arms. The flowers were whipping the ceiling of the porch. No. I can’t go. It’s OK. I struggled away from her. Look mom! Look. I ran up the steps, jumped, and yanked some of the flowers from one of the hanging pots. Look, mom! We bought these today. We bought them for you. It’s OK. It’s OK. They’re purple. They’re like cannons. She stared at me. Are you OK? My god, he’s obviously lightheaded. Come here. Come here now! I had to. I walked towards her, and he sat, bloody, his head down.

She grabbed me by the arms, and pain struck through my hand. We have to go. You’re bleeding so much. Come. She pulled me forward, towards her car, and I couldn’t resist. I was so sleepy. He sat on the steps, and picked up his jacket, running the tassels through his fingers. No. No. He’s OK. We’re OK. I ripped off my seatbelt as she began to drive, and scrambled into the backseat to look from the rear window. We can’t leave him. He’s not OK. We can’t go. I pressed my face to the glass. I used to want him for you. I can’t anymore. It had started to rain.