It was over a hundred degrees that July 4th in 1960, Pa’s birthday, and he and I were crammed in the narrow irrigation pumphouse by the river, pulling the pump apart for the third time that morning. I was small for thirteen and my job was to crinkle up underneath the pump and hold one wrench tight, while Pa wrestled with another one above me. He wore his at-home fedora on his bald head like always, and each time his wrench slipped, his sweat jiggled off and landed on my forehead.
“New bolts, maybe,” I said. “We should get new bolts. The heads are stripped.”
“If I can just get this…” There was a thump and a curse. I wasn’t allowed to curse.
“Nothing for the wrench to grab onto,” I said.
“Dammit, you just hold tight.” Splash on my forehead, which was starting to piss me off. My old man and me, we gave each other a lot of room since his logging accident gave him a bum leg and he was home all the time. We had five acres of gravelly desert soil in fifteen thousand thirsty tomato plants since the logging money stopped, and five acres was more than enough room. But there was too much of my father in that pumphouse.
“Your hat’s dripping on me. Maybe could you take it off?”
He grunted. “You’re no goddamned help,” he said.
“Well, the guppies are out. They clog the impeller. Maybe if we put some screen around the intake in the river. Then they wouldn’t get sucked into the pump.”
There was a thud when his wrench slipped and banged into the wall and caught him on the knuckles and he yelped. The wrench fell to the floor an inch from my head and I yelped, too.
“JesusMotherFuckingChristHoppingBullshittingCocksuckingChrist!” he yelled. “You’re the goddamned smart one, aren’t you?” His soaked fedora landed on my face as he tried to grab me, but I scrambled out of the pumphouse, holding his hat.
“No, I’m goddamned not!” I yelled back. I didn’t know before that that he thought I was smart. He reared up at me and I threw his goddamned hat in the river.
“All right, that’s it,” he said, and lunged for me.
“Not this time,” I said, and ran up the hill to the tomato fields. He followed, but with his bum leg, I was faster. I ran through the wilting tomatoes but Pa ignored me and went straight for our house. He came out again carrying the black hunting belt and went after me for real.
I ran around our five acres of tomato fields three times and every time I stopped to turn around, he was hopping along flapping that belt in his hands. I think he started out to strap me and got to where he just wanted to kill me outright. Maybe that’s what made him stop and go back to the house on his own.
I kept an eye out for awhile and then went down and cleaned the guppies out of the pump myself. I’d seen him do it so many times that it wasn’t that hard, if you took your time with the stripped bolts. I turned the pump on and took a swim to get back in my body again, which felt different, because I knew he’d never try to strap me again. Then I changed the sprinkler lines for the poor tomatoes. The aluminum irrigation pipes were twenty feet long and I put my mouth to the end of an empty one and whispered, “JesusMotherFuckingChristHoppingBullshittingCocksuckingChrist” just to hear what it sounded like without it sounding like my words.
Later I went to the house. Pa was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table and didn’t look up. Ma looked worried. In my room, I put lye in the big vinegar jar and added tinfoil and cold water and it boiled right away. The jar got hot, but I put a balloon over the lip and it filled with hydrogen like magic. I made three balloons that floated right up, and I tied thread to them like tails.
In the kitchen, Ma was icing Pa’s birthday cake on the counter. Chocolate, his favorite and mine, too. Pa just sat there reading his paper while I tied the three balloons to the three long hairs on top of his bald head. Ma covered her mouth with her hand. I kissed my old man on his bald head. He looked up at the three balloons bobbing over him and turned the page in his newspaper.
“Nice birthday hat,” he said, reading again. “You’re a good boy.”
Barry Friesen‘s stories appear in New Plains Review, Flashquake, The Toronto Quarterly, and SnipLits.