The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Matt Thomas

       The father watched the older son work the hoe through the dirt beside the house. There was no reason to take the plot. He had already given him 20 square feet next to the garage. Within a few months the eldest son had grown tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages and beans. He even crafted a mini-greenhouse that contained the smallest of delicious strawberries.
      Still, the older son wanted more. But this time he didn’t ask. He grabbed the hoe, walked to the side of the house and began hacking away.
      “Hey,” said the father. “You’re not killing the pachysandra, are you?”
      No answer.
      Only sounds of leaves being cut and grains of dirt hitting the yellow shingles of the suburban cape. Maybe his son didn’t understand. The pachysandra took care of themselves. They never needed to be watered; they were always green; together they formed a miniature forest in which weeds would never grow; they prevented the plot from taking on too much water and then flooding the basement. To remove the pachysandra would only create problems, and much more work for the father.
      The father moved closer. He could hear his son breathing. The boy looked more like a man these days. His clothes, darkened by sweat and streaked with brown mud, were filthy. He hacked at the plants with anger. Each swipe took out five at once, roots included. The father yelled his son’s name. Finally the older boy stopped, turned and nodded to his father. The two stared for a while. The father looking at the plot and back at his son.
      “What are you doing?” asked the father.
      “Clearing the pachysandra.”
      “I wanted to put some more tomato plants in.”
      “But you have the whole garden.”
      “There’s no more room.”
      “Well, you didn’t even ask.”
      “It’s not your house. That’s ‘so.’”
      The boy turned, raised the hoe and continued to chop away.
      He didn’t listen. He didn’t care. The father turned around, wiggled his way through the narrow opening created by a space between the house and a flowery bush, moved through the yard, ascended the brick stoop and stepped into his kitchen.
      The black dog greeted him by wagging its tail wildly and licking the father’s leg. The man pet the dog on the head, saying, “Good boy. Yes, you’re a good boy.”
      His wife was washing dishes and boiling something in a large pot. Steam rose from the pot, creating an uncomfortable heat. She was aging, they both were, but his wife contained a goodness he had never seen in another human being. A goodness he could not help but love and envy.
      “Did you see what he’s doing out there?” said the father.
      “What?” his wife said.
      “Your son.”
      “What about him?”
      “He’s killing all the pachysandra. For tomato plants.”
      “Where?” She looked out the window. The dog walked in a circle and finally rested in between the couple. “Behind the garage?”
      “No,” he shook his head and exhaled. “On the side of the house. Right next to Mr. McNeal’s place.”
      “Christ,” the father threw up his arms. “He never asked!”
      She turned off the faucet and began drying the wet dishes. “You know how he is. It’s not like he’s robbing banks. And I bet you dimes to doughnuts it’s calming him down. Just leave it alone.”
      “No.” How could she say this? Just let him dig up plants? Who did he think he was? Man of the house? The son didn’t pay the bills. The father paid the bills. It was his name on the mortgage. Well, his wife’s actually, but still.
      “Yes,” said the wife. “Now sit down.”
      The father ignored her. “What are you making?”
      “Lentil soup,” she wafted a cloud of steam to her nostrils, sniffed and smiled. “It’s very good.”
      The father cringed and waved off the meal.
      “But you’ve always loved lentil soup.”
      The father shook his head. “I’ve never liked it. It’s like eating dirt.”
      “You have to eat something.”
      “I’ll just have eggs.”
      “Yeah. Eggs.”
      “Fine.” The wife turned off the burner and stirred the soup with a wooden spoon. “I don’t care.”
      The father walked down to the basement where his younger son was sitting on the couch and watching TV. He stopped and stared as the younger son channel-surfed. Remote control in one hand, bowl of potato chips in another. His cheeks were heavy, and his stomach large.
      “You should go outside,” said the father. “It’s beautiful out there.”
      “Nah,” said the younger son. “It’s too hot.”
      “You can help me in the garden.”
      “I hate doing that.”
      “Can you leave me alone? Why do you want me to go outside?”
      The father sighed heavily, and stepped into the other room where a slop sink rested between the boiler and dryer. He turned on the faucet and placed his filthy hands before the stream. He liked to watch the specks of dirt rush from his tanned skin and into the drain. He liked the feeling of being cleansed, the action of it. Above him was a narrow window that provided a view into his yard.
      He saw the older son dragging a black garbage bag from the side of the house to one of the three garbage barrels in the driveway.
      What a waste.
      He had planted those pachysandra with his wife when they first bought the home. She was seven months pregnant with their first child, but insisted on helping. Each plant had to be placed into the earth in a special way. First he bore a deep divot, grabbed one plant, twisted its green stem around his finger, creating a spiral shape, then inserted the flimsy stalk in the divot and finally buried it so that only a few leaves were showing. There were hundreds of plants. It took them two days. But they did it. And within a year the small pachysandra field was thriving. He hadn’t had to weed that area since. Now it was gone. Just like that. It wasn’t because he put down too much fertilizer, overwatered or that they weren’t getting enough sunlight. He could’ve lived with any of those.
      It was because his son wanted to move some tomato plants.
      It was because his son wanted to kill those pachysandra.
      The father grabbed a bar of brown soap, rubbed it over each hand and forearm until white suds formed. He washed the suds off with cold water, grabbed a soiled towel and moved it over his face and arms.
      The dog started barking. Whimpering, really. Low at first, but soon the dog walked to the doorway at the top of the staircase where the whine crescendoed into a high-pitched bark.
      The father walked into the den, where his younger son was still snacking and channel-surfing.
      “Hello?” said the father.
      “What?” said the younger son.
      “You don’t hear that? I know you do.”
      “I’ll take him out. One second. I want to see the end of this.”
      “Walk the dog.”
      “I will.”
      “I’m not walking him. When he shits all over the floor you can clean it up.”
      The younger son turned off the television with the remote, dropped the remote to the couch, moved the bowl of chips to the coffee table and walked up the stairs. The dog jumped with excitement and the boy knelt down to hug the dog and pet its wide face.
      The father went back to the other room, grabbed a load of dirty clothes from the hamper, and began loading them into the washing machine. After each garment went in, his eyes went to the window. First he saw the younger son and the dog walk together into the street. He saw the older son toiling in the garden among two tight rows of tomato plants; unearthing five or six of them and tying each to a long stake with pieces of twine. The father used the latch in the middle of the window to roll it open. All that stood between him and the outdoors was a thin grid-like screen.
      “They won’t get sunlight at the side of the house,” the father said. “You’re going to kill them.”
      The older son kept on working.
      “Can you hear me? Hello? You’re going to kill those plants. Why don’t you just put the pachysandra back there. They don’t need a lot of light. What do you think? I’ll help you put them back.”
      The older son kept on working.
      “I know you can hear me.”
      “Shut up already,” the older son dropped one of the stakes and wiped his brow with a clean forearm. “I’m putting them in. Who cares about those weeds.”
      “They’re not weeds,” the father said. “Do you know how hard it is to find pachysandra like that?”
      The older son went back to work. The father used the latch to close the window, and continued to throw garments into the washing machine until the hamper was empty.
      He stood there in the basement for the duration of the 25 minute wash cycle. When the buzzer sounded he transferred most of the wet clothes to the dryer, and hung some of the more delicate articles onto the clothesline he had hung in the basement.
      He stood there for the duration of the 48 minute drying cycle. When the buzzer sounded he removed each garment individually, folded the garment, placed it into the appropriate pile (t-shirts, collared shirts, dress shirts, socks, boxers, etc.) and delivered the garments to the appropriate areas (his dresser, his wife’s closet and the closets of his sons). It all smelled right, like fresh linen. Each was without a wrinkle. He had learned how to fold in the Navy, so his family’s clothing never needed ironing. If they only knew of the care he put into each shirt, every pair of pants and all those balls of socks.
      He walked into the kitchen, where his wife and younger son were eating the lentil soup and talking about how nice the black dog was. How it cared about the family.
      The father removed a small frying pan from an upper cabinet, collected margarine and eggs from the fridge and started cooking his dinner. He cracked three eggs, dropped their contents into the pan and left the shells on the counter. When the transparent mucus hardened and turned white he flipped them onto a plate and then sprinkled an abundance of pepper onto each yolk. He ate them with a fork over the sink.
      “Sit down with us,” the wife said. “Why are you standing?”
      The father shook his head, mouth full with hot eggs, and continued to shovel more food into his mouth. There was a window above the sink that provided him with a view of the garden. It was missing six tomato plants. Clumps of dirt and mud were littered over the lawn and led to the side of the house. His son was planting them. Soon the plants would take root, grow and sprout large tomatoes.
      The pachysandra was in a black bag.
      Baking in the sun.
      Such a waste.
      He choked on the eggs.
       His wife rushed to him and offered water. The father refused, placed the plate onto the counter, walked to the fridge, opened the door and lifted a carton of milk. He drank from the carton, swallowed strongly and breathed. After placing the carton onto the counter, he walked outside and followed the trail of dirt to the side of the house.
      For a while he stood there, staring at his eldest son who was sweating and covered with dirt. The older son was plunging a stake into a divot. Once it was sturdy he knelt down and pushed piles of loose soil into the hole and around the stake. The tomato plant was secure; two rows complete; six large plants. The son looked at his father. “What?” he asked.
      “Nothing,” he took a step toward his son. “I was thinking it’s stupid to just kill off all the pachysandra. You have all this dirt left over. How’s about we put some of them back in together?”
      The older son stood up and looked at the dirt. “I left patches of them all over. I didn’t take out the whole lot.”
      “I know, but there’s still space.”
      “In between the plants, and around them.”
      The son looked at the spaces. “But I’ll just walk on them every time I come in here.”
      “You can be careful.”
      “That’s stupid. The plants are in and that’s it.”
      “What do you mean, “that’s it”?”
      “It’s done. I’m not putting those weeds back in here.”
      “They’re not weeds.”
      “Look like weeds.”
      “These tomato plants are going to die anyway. There’s not enough light, and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Just put the pachysandra back in the ground. Please.”
      “Fuck you.”
      The older son collected his father’s tools, moved past him, and walked to the garage. The father stared at the tomato plants and looked to his son. He waited for the boy to walk back into the house. His son had become a skilled gardener, a natural. And one day, when the boy grew up and bought his own property, he could plant whatever he wanted wherever he’d like to. But this wasn’t his property.
      The father grabbed one of the stakes and tried pulling it out, but it would not budge. He leaned into it and the piece shifted. He pulled, pushed, twisted, and bent until the stake slid from the earth around it. He threw it, with the tomato plant attached, onto the lawn behind him. One at a time, he extracted the stakes and plants like decaying teeth. Each was harder than the last, more tiring, more infuriating. The father panted, cursed, and groaned; sweated furiously; allowed rage to surface.
      Finally, there was a pile of plants before him and a naked plot of dirt in their wake. He went to his garage, retrieved a spade, knelt before the plants, and chopped off the roots. All were suddenly disfigured and dying. After discarding the spade, the father gathered up the stakes and plants with both hands, secured them against his chest, walked up the stoop, and opened the screen-door with one hand. Once inside, he dropped the pile to the kitchen floor and called for his eldest son.
      The wife had been sitting in the living room, talking with the younger son who was playing with the black dog. The dog trotted over and began to sniff the plants, but the father pushed him away. The dog whimpered.
      “What are you doing?” said the wife.
      The father ignored her, and again called for his son.
      “Are those the tomato plants?” said the younger son. “Didn’t he just plant those? Are you crazy, Dad?”
      Plodding footsteps could be heard as the older son ran down the staircase and walked into the living room. He saw his father standing over the plants. Grains of dirt were spread over the floor tiles.
      “What did you do?” said the older son, hands running through his hair.
      The father pointed at his son. “This isn’t your house. It never will be. You think the pachysandra are weeds? These are weeds. And I don’t want them.”
      “I’ll just replant them.”
      “They’re dead. I ripped out the roots. And if you pull this shit again, I’ll kill that whole garden of yours. This is my fucking house. Mine.”
      The older son began sobbing.
      “Why would you do this?” said the wife. “Are you crazy?” She stood to console her older son, who buried his head in the wife’s shoulder. The younger boy held his dog.
      “Crazy?” said the father. “He’s 16 and still can’t listen. You don’t listen because you’re stupid, and this is what happens to stupid people.”
      The older son stopped crying, marched to his father and began to hit the man. The father welcomed it and fought back, landing blows onto his son’s head and face. The wife stepped in between them, and pushed her son to the couch. His face was red and swollen. The younger son stood in front of his father, a human barrier, while the sweat-covered man grabbed a mug from the cupboard and a longneck from the fridge. He unscrewed the top, poured the beer into the mug and began to sip. The wife was whispering to her son.
      The father began mimicking his son’s cries, laughing at him.
      “Why don’t you go watch TV, Dad?” the younger son said.
      The father ignored him, and continued prodding at the older one.
      “Please, Dad,” the younger son held back tears. “Please?”
      The father moved down the hallway and into his bedroom. He sat on the bed, chugged the rest of the beer and stared at the younger son who had followed in hopes of keeping the peace. “Don’t touch my stuff,” the father said. “Don’t touch my fucking stuff.” The younger son stood in the doorway, afraid to say anything.
      Nearly thirty minutes ticked by. The wife passed the younger son and stepped into the bedroom. “What’s wrong with you?” she said.
      “It’s not his house,” the father said.
      “He suffers from seizures. You hit him right on the head.”
      “It was self-defense. He attacked me.”
      “He’s a boy.”
      “He’s big enough.”
      “Why? Because of your little plants? He loves that garden.”
      “It’s not his garden. It’s mine. I let him use it.”
      “I called the police.”
      “I can’t let you do this anymore. You’re completely out of control.”
      The father grabbed the mug, raised it like a hammer, and took aim. The younger boy lunged at the man, hoping to block him. It struck the boy on the face and he fell to the ground. The wife backed away and closed the bedroom door as the father stood and moved toward her, stepping over the crying boy.
      He opened the door and walked into the living room. Through the window he espied a single police cruiser. Its red and blue lights slashed through the windows, painting the family with bursts of color. An officer walked to the front door. The wife waited patiently while sitting next to the older son.
      The father sat upon a recliner.
      The officer rang the doorbell, and the wife let the man into the house. She explained what had happened while the father sat and listened. She decided to omit the part about the mug.
      The officer spoke with the eldest son in the front yard. The younger son remained in his bedroom petting the black dog. Eventually the officer asked to speak with the father. Finally, he had a chance to tell his side of the story, which he did in painstaking detail.
      “I mean they’re mine,” argued the father. “You can’t just rip them out.”
      “Of course not,” the officer said. “I understand completely. It’s your house.”
      The officer spoke with the wife on his way out. He told her that the father was justified in defending himself. If she were to press charges the only one to go to jail would be the eldest son.
      “I’m going to leave this as a domestic dispute,” the officer said. “You need to work this out.” He left the house.
      The father returned to the recliner, and watched as his oldest son passed him and walked into the backyard. Once there, the boy grabbed the black garbage bag filled with pachysandra and dragged it to the side of the house. He replanted the pachysandra, one by one, using his bare hands to dig through the dirt. Tears stained the soil below him.
      The younger son walked into the kitchen, grabbed the plants and transferred them to the garbage barrels outside. When he returned, he swept up the dirt and leaves on the floor. The black dog followed the boy to his bedroom where he sobbed silently.
      That night the wife slept next to her husband. Once in the safety of darkness, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He could feel her tremble and squirm beneath his touch, but she did not resist. He held her closely and whispered his love for her.
      She said nothing.
      But he knew she would come around.
      She always did.

Matt Thomas is a freelance writer who received his BA and MA degrees in English from Syracuse University. Since graduating, Thomas has gone on to publish articles and stories in The Village Voice, Word Riot, The Journal of American Culture, The Literary House Review,, and The Journal of Caribbean Literatures. Two of his short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

You can read all of his published works here: The Village to the Blog

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