‘A Silent Passing’ by Mike L. Nichols

See the man. He stands in the Saturday morning’s autumn sunlight and stares at a small-white-car. He wears a black t-shirt and blue jeans. His hands hang limp at his sides. His feet are bare. A small split-level house with tan paint and dark brown trim stands in the background. Living room drapes fall back into place as small hands release them and small faces dip under the sill.

Moments before a woman in tears had berated him as she paced in the driveway by the door of a blue sedan, its engine running. He had stood, had stood it, his head declined and his eyes cast low. When the woman fell silent he opened his mouth and creasing the skin between his eyebrows started to speak. Instead, he cast his eyes back down to the cracked driveway. The woman flung herself into the sedan and slamming the door drove away leaving him standing watching her go.

A tow-truck is just now delivering the small-white-car to the curb of this house on Christine Avenue. The mullet headed tow-truck driver asks the man what he plans to do with the small-white-car, so obviously totaled. The man does not answer, his vacant gaze locked on the place where the missing steering wheel should be until the small-white-car is freed of the bar and the chains are stowed.

As the tow-truck driver climbs up to his seat he tells the man that the car will just be towed again as soon as his neighbors complain. He slams the door and the man’s blank eyes shift over to the stylized script on the door, Dave’s Towing – Best Little Hooker in Town. The man watches the truck drive away, then turns to stare at the small-white-car again.

The small-white-car is a two door model. The kind of car you see advertised for a few hundred dollars. Still runs great. A lot of miles left on this car. Perfect for a student.  It sits facing against traffic on Christine Avenue, its missing driver’s door to the curb. The engine compartment is pushed into the front seat as if some giant hand had crushed it like an empty soda can. The steering wheel rests in the back seat alongside a mangled red white and blue license plate. Splinters and shards of tempered windshield glass sparkle on the seats.  

Look closely and you will see an almost imperceptible vibration that starts in the man’s right hand. It moves up his arm and across his chest, an indistinct tremor almost imperceptible except for the ripple of his black T-shirt. He inhales deeply and lets the breath out slowly. He turns and stalks up the driveway to the single car garage, its door already open. The cuffs of his beltless jeans scuff against the concrete.  The front curtains swish shut again as he passes.

Inside the garage a shelf runs along the left hand wall and on this shelf sit various hand sized gardening tools: trowels, a three pronged rake, a diamond headed hoe. The man stands and considers these. He looks further along the shelf past the weed killers and insecticides and the red two-gallon gas can. His eyes settle where the long shelf stops. Here stand the larger tools. Some rest on the concrete floor and some hang from ten penny nails on the wall, shovels and rakes and hoes, a green wheelbarrow with splintered handles. A small red and yellow child’s model stands parallel to the green one as if measured and moved until it rests in perfect alignment next to its adult version.

The man’s eyes settle on a six foot long, twenty five pound posthole digger. One end is a tapered chisel for breaking through earth and the other end is flattened and circular for tamping. He lifts the posthole digger and stands it next to him. It chimes flat and metallic against the concrete. He straightens and holds this hunk of metal, this earth rending tool out from his body. Perhaps, like some contemporary caduceus, it designates an authority upon its bearer to voice some formerly unknown wisdom, for in fact his lips do part to shape some silent knowledge.  

The man leaves the garage holding the posthole digger in his right hand.  Its chisel end drags and scrapes against the concrete behind him. It makes a grating, tinny music as it skids along, its tone changing as it bumps over the cracks. The curtains open again revealing a small face behind the window glass. His jeans again scuff against the driveway with each step.

He stops at the curb and coldly regards the homes, the cars, the green and neatly manicured lawns all around him. Then the man in his wrinkled black t-shirt and fray legged jeans lifts the posthole digger with both hands and aims it, chisel end out, a clumsy spear, and begins to disassemble the remains of the small-white-car.

He works methodically at first, stabbing the posthole digger into the leg of painted metal at the left rear corner until he has severed it from its base. Window glass breaks and sprinkles into the backseat and onto the rear bumper and into the gutter of Christine Avenue.

He steps off the curb and walks to the right rear corner and repeats this process. His face calm and determined, his jaw clenched, his eyes squinted. He separates this second leg of metal more cleanly, more efficiently than the first. The concrete gutter freckles red as his glass-cut feet step and depart.

So engrossed is the man as he steps along the asphalt of Christine Avenue to the front of the small-white-car that he does not notice the door of the house as it opens in halting increments, its brass knocker glinting. He seems not to hear the rasping squeak of the screen door opening to produce two children who tread softly to stand immobile in the chemically green grass like lawn statuary, beardless garden gnomes in cartoon pajamas.

The man goes about his work on the small-white-car, separating the leg of metal at the front passenger corner of the roof. Spider webbed glass at the rear driver’s side of the splinters as the man separates the final support at its base. The roof falls and slides to balance at the point where that final bit of glass has just given way.

The man lets go the posthole digger and it clangs to the sidewalk. He takes hold of the metal edge of the roof and with great strain he lifts and drags it to rest in the shade against the elm tree in the yard. He whisks his hands against the hips of his jeans and smears of red bloom on his palms.

Turning, he comes face to face with the children. He looks at them and cocks his head to one side and gapes at them as if they were indeed some bizarre lawn ornamentation.

Oh, he says.

His bloodied hands fall lifeless to his sides and dangle there while he stares first at the children then at the small-white-car and back to the children again. After a moment he straightens and squares his shoulders and motions for the children to follow. The three enter the garage in a line according to their size, man, girl, and boy. They stand where the man had earlier stood and contemplate the gardening tools.

The man turns and crosses the garage to stand before a peg board arrayed with construction tools. The children follow. The girl steps forward to watch the man’s face and the boy looks up at the hammers and handsaws, the chalk-line and T-square.

The man selects a two pound sledgehammer with a short plastic handle and hands it to the girl. She receives it in silence, the weight of it causing her hands to drop. The girl recovers quickly and lifts the sledge, resting it against her chest, staring all the while up at the man’s face as if she might puzzle some unwelcome secret from his expression.

The man turns and regards the pegboard again and selects a straight clawed roofing hammer, its black rubber grip eroded and peeling. He hands it to the boy who accepts it reverently in both hands and examines the length of it and clumsily hefts the weight of it. The man exits the garage and as if by some unseen signal the children follow. The three troop down the driveway, the children’s slippers and pajama bottoms accompany the scuffing sounds of the man’s jeans, this music an out of time drum brush, a soundtrack to impending destruction.

At the small-white-car the girl stands and stares at the dried and darkening blood coating the cracked instrument panel, visible through the missing driver’s door. If you look closely you will see the grooved and gleaming silver saw marks where the door hinges were cut away.

The man nods to the children and the boy nods back severely, militarily. The girl does not see this gesture. She stands transfixed and wide-eyed staring through the missing door.

The boy watches as the man retrieves the posthole digger from the sidewalk. He lifts it over his head and stabs it into the rumpled metal which once was the car’s hood and engine compartment. The boy flinches and the roofing hammer jumps in his hands.

The children watch the man work for a moment and then the boy tugs at the girl’s pajama sleeve. When she turns to him he asks her if their father is angry with the car because of what it has done to their sister. The girl considers this question, nods, and returns to watching the man.

The man’s grip is now blood slickened, the flow increasing with each blow to the small white car. He curses and flings the post hole digger into the lawn where the children had earlier stood. He tramps off up the drive and into the garage. He leaves a thin trail of blood behind him from his glass cut feet.

The children watch him go and look at each other and tentatively pick up where the man had left off. The girl swings first, putting a small dent in the panel behind the missing door. The boy follows her lead and swings the roofing hammer two handed to sing out against the rear bumper. They glance at each other as they work and in this way their aim and their power and their enthusiasm improve.

A neighbor, who had stood squinting on his lawn across the street, meets the man as he returns from the garage. The man wields a ten pound sledge hammer and wears green stripped gardening gloves. Hollow eyed he regards his neighbor.

The children stop and hold their hammers against their chests and listen.

This neighbor, with his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets and his pot-belly pushing aside red suspenders, speaks.

Look. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what’s happened – for your child. But this, he gestures widely at the small-white-car, this isn’t right. Isn’t there someone you can talk to? Someone you can call? The neighbor shrugs. These children.

The man grimly regards this neighbor, this counsel. He looks down at the street. He looks over to the boy, to the girl, to the small-white-car. He looks back to the red suspendered neighbor and petulantly, though almost imperceptibly, he shakes his head and turns to resume his work on the small-white-car.

The red suspendered neighbor looks at the children. The girl glares at him. The boy looks away. This neighbor shakes his head and turning walks back to his house across the street and enters it and closes its door.

The man alternates now between sledge and posthole digger to loosen and to pry dented metal and heave it into the heap under the elm. The children, panting, stop to rest from time to time. Once, the girl shrieks in frustration and pushes her tangled hair from her face. The boy has managed to break away a plastic hubcap but has lost his enthusiasm and finally is banging with little effect at the wheel underneath.   

Another neighbor, a pear shaped and red faced woman in pink robe and frazzled grey hair stomps across the street, her hands sunk into the fat drooping from her hips.

The man looks up at her just as she opens her beak-like mouth to shriek at him, What kind of a father are you? These children are going to get hurt and I won’t stand idly by. You – I’ll call the police!

The man stares at her. He cocks his chin to the right and stares off into the distance between houses. People cluster up and down Christine Avenue on this plain Saturday morning gesturing and mouthing words too distant to be heard. The man looks back toward the seething face of this pink robed neighbor. He nods twice, a silent consent. His permission given for her to do as she will, he turns and he and the children resume the demolition of the small-white-car.

The woman stands, frozen there in the middle of the street. Her gaping mouth, still opened to speak, snaps shut. She turns and shuffles back across the street. She enters her house and continues watching through her picture window. A telephone dangles and twists by its cord from her hand.

See the man heave the last few parts of the small-white-car into the pile, buried in the shade of the elm. Only the engine and transmission, the drivetrain and the wheels remain at the curb of Christine Avenue.

See him return the tools, neat and orderly, to their proper places inside the garage. The three, man, girl, and boy march in a wilting line to the front door. The man opens the squeaking screen door and stands holding it while the children trudge inside. He follows, and the door swings slowly shut.

About the contributor

Mike L. Nichols
Mike L. Nichols is a graduate of Idaho State University and a recipient of the Ford Swetnam Poetry Prize. He lives and writes in Eastern Idaho. Look for his work in Underground Voices, Black Rock & Sage, The Literary Nest, and elsewhere. Find more at deadgirldancing.net

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