BARRELS • by Dirk Knight

“Here, help me with this one!”

“Dad, they’re all empty. Just stop!”

The old man looks with empty eyes and says, “I’m not going to give up, you hear me? So, just grab your end!”

Terrance looks to his father, Ernie Raglan, with resignation and reaches for the rusted barrel’s lid. The steel groans in protest and exhales the red dust of oxidized metal from the rim. The barrel is empty, again, but Ernie is not deterred.

Scrambling for another barrel, he has a maniacal look of determination and blind faith that Terrance has seen before. Ernie will not give up. Nor will he let Terrance; that was not the Raglan way.

Taking a look over his shoulder, Terry sees the sun setting on a sea of opened, empty containers. There must be thousands they have already unfastened. How long have we been here?

Groan as another cask’s cover springs loose.

“Ah hah, I told you!” Ernie screams with joy.

Terrance looks over the lip of the drum into the chasm-deep abyss of the drum and, for a fleeting moment, he sees it too. He is five years old — with twig-thin arms and legs, wearing a helmet so big that he looks like a dandelion — and is wobbly and unsure, but he is doing it! Terrance has finally ridden his bike without the trainers. He remembers the ecstasy in that crack of time and turns to see the pride in Ernie’s face, as he relives this long passed moment, illuminating him from within like an underwater fire. He hasn’t seen the old man like this in so long. Then again, the old man hasn’t found anything in a barrel in a long time either.

Before the smile has a chance to dissipate, that moment it is gone. That frozen piece of time melts and drains through a rusted hole at the bottom corner of the barrel until this drum, like all the countless others, is empty.  Terry is beginning to understand what his father must be enduring — searching day and night for a glimmer of his memory, only to have the moment diffuse into nothing right in front of his face. Terrance imagines that trying to catch fireflies with a net made of chicken wire would be less frustrating, less hopeless, than the endless searching.

“Over here, Son, this one! Your mother can’t be far. She’s here somewhere, I can feel it!” he says, moving to the next container, then turns with a stern look. “I have to find her, Son, I have to, and I need your help…”

“Of course, Dad, I’m here, let’s find Mom,” he says with a tear in his eye. “I love you, Dad”.

“I love you, too, Son, and I am so proud of you! You have grown up so much… I can’t believe you’re already riding a bike!” he says.

Ernie doesn’t look disheartened or deterred in the least when the next barrel screams open to  proclaim a bone dry and hollow rusted space. He turns to Terrance and repeats, “I’m so proud of you, Son. My Big Guy!” Then, after a confused and confusing pause, “Your mother is in one of these barrels, Son, you have to help me; will you help me, Son?”

Again Terry affirms his father and smiles through the tears. “Of course I will, Pop,” he says out loud, but only to himself, because Ernie is on to the next barrel, already calling again for help.

“She’s in one of these, Son. I can feel it!”

The field, the sunset, the barrels, his father… they become fuzzy all at once and he realizes he is waking up from a dream. His father and the rest of the scene is melted, oozes, and trickles away just as his father’s memories had. His grasp on this alternate reality fades in an instant and his eyelids crack open to harsh bleaching light from the florescent tubes buried in the translucent ceiling tiles.

The door rattles in its jamb, closed too hard by a withered and tired old woman. Terrance wipes the sleep from his eyes to reveal his mother holding some of that God-awful coffee they serve in the hospital cafeteria.

“Thanks for watching your father, Dear, I just needed to stretch my legs. Did he come around at all, Honey?”

“No, Mom, he’s not moved since I got here… just keeps staring out the window. I talked to him for a little while; I guess I just dozed off.”

“Well, Honey, you’ve been here for a spell, so why don’t you go on home to Cindy and the kids? I will call you if his condition changes. Alzheimer’s is a strange thing. Most days he just sits here like this, staring into nothing, or asking the nurses if they have seen the keys to his Studebaker; that was the car he drove when we met. I miss that car. And then some days he will snap out of it like he was stuck with a safety pin, come over and give me a kiss and tell me he ‘found a barrel’ or something. Sometimes, I wonder if he is still in there at all.”

Stunned but unwilling to show it, Terrance smiles at his mother’s tired eyes and tells her, “He’s in there, Mom… He is. I really must be tired, because he did say something. He told me he was proud of me, and he wants me to tell you he loves you.”

His mother’s smile dominates her face and the tired eyes seem to gain new light with this comment. Terrance squeezes her frail hand gently, and then looks towards Ernie, unsure how he was able to share a moment of reality in his father’s delusions, but sure that it was as concrete for both men as it had seemed in his dream.

“I’ll be back tomorrow, Mom. I love you.”

Dirk Knight uses writing to explore the darkest parts of himself. He says: “We are all evil and we are all good… I just think the good gets more attention.”

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