Newton’s First

By Kale Meyer

A front yard

These days I find myself thinking back to the summer just before my dad left for good. I guess the old memories make the house seem less empty than it is. I try to fill my head with the pleasant ones. Of me running through the hallways giggling breathlessly, my dog Jack in hot pursuit. Painting these same walls with Mom in her hot air balloon festival shirt, splattered with the wall colors from past years. Years before she was old, and sick, and tired. Before she died, and this house became mine and my own families’. Much better those memories than the others, fresher and more painful, ricocheting violently around in my brain. There’s the jabbing gut reaction to Sophie’s tiny colicky wails when we first brought her home.  Or the one that strikes me with such intense force every time I’m in the kitchen, and I can’t help but look at the ancient crack in the tile from when I snuck up behind Madi and scared her as she was making pancakes, and she dropped a cast iron skillet fully loaded with flapjacks. We laughed about it, after, for the few years when we were happy together here, and we argued about it all the other years. I never got around to replacing the tile. An object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an external force. I know that’s true. I feel like I haven’t moved at all since I came home six weeks ago, and they were gone. I have been frozen in place. Maybe I have been for longer than I even realize.

My dad left us at the end of a fiendishly hot summer, right before I began my sophomore year. The heat is what stands out the most in my memory. It had body to it, extension, you had to force your way through like you were wading through a shimmering haze. It resisted any attempt on your part to occupy the same space as it did. Despite that I worked with my dad in the yard every weekend that summer, my bare back darkening under the fiery gaze of the sun. I remember the sky too, absolutely cloudless, and a glorious, radiant blue, like the tip of a lit

Our “yard” was a pit. The whole thing was all thirsty grit ready to whip up into your eyes at the slightest breeze. It sloped so steeply that stepping onto it from the porch caused an avalanche of sunbaked clay clods to tumble down to the grey brick wall that separated our space from the neighbors on the other side. From our frantic scrambling since moving in the year before the screen of a thousand tiny geologic movements had reached halfway up the wall in a gradual, suffocating wave, like a dirt glacier. The only evidence of life was the brittle stems of some giant noxious weed, but even those couldn’t withstand the sun. They pierced the soil like a fractured bone in sharp, ossified splinters, dusty white and dead. Our first job was to dig them up. The roots were deep, and I had countless angry red scratches and cuts from the spiny stems, which had spikes that pricked even through my work gloves.

Weekend after weekend we were out there, first weeding, then wrestling uncounted wheelbarrows of dirt from here to there, hopelessly fighting the slope. Then grading for drainage. We constructed a brick retaining wall. Then mixed bags of sand and concrete in a rented drum mixer, rushing around like madmen when they mix, squelching down the hill like roiling lava, didn’t feel like cooperating with the mold we had built. We had a good laugh about that after we had gotten everything under control. Mom would come out in her robe around lunchtime and hand us glasses of lemonade, or coke and sandwiches, and we would sit in silence, I struck dumb by what we had left to do, my dad already planning the next step.

My dad was never one to slow down. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force. You would think that rather than getting conked by an apple, Sir Isaac had just been observing my dad. Most of my friends had dads who drank cheap beer on greasy La-Z-boys and wouldn’t play football with them when they asked. My dad didn’t play football with me when I asked either, but that was because he was hurtling out the door to help Mr. Rourke down the street fix his garage door spring, or was strapping on kneepads to do a tiling job gratis for someone he had met at the rotary club. The only way to spend time with him was to keep up, and he was not an easy man to keep up with. That’s why I didn’t really mind working in the yard that summer. At least then he had a centralized location.

He was a blast to work with. He would make lame jokes and whistle old songs and ask my opinion on what we should do about various things that were well over my head, taking my answers very seriously.

“What do you think about this water feature here? Should we have the stairs go straight down there and build a little bridge across the stream? What color stones should we use around the pond? Want to go pick out pavers for the patio with me?”

He was happy as long as there was something to do. After work on Saturdays, we would go out for ice cream or a burger. He could talk excitedly for hours about the project, what the next step was, how he thought we would solve the next problem. He would also ask me about my plans for the future. What I wanted to do, where I thought I might want to go to college. But as soon as I started to tell him about a girl I thought was cute, or a tough conversation with a friend, or what I liked about a book I was reading, he would squirm with discomfort and then clumsily navigate the conversation back to the yard.

The summer days were coming to an end when we finished, school was just around the corner. On our last day, the work was light, laying just a few square feet of sod. We were done by noon and moseyed up to our new patio, plopping down on the white plastic chairs that we had sat on all summer. I looked down at our new yard. It was like Eden compared to the beginning of break. To my left there was a pond that fed a whispering stream, gliding over a bed of smooth round stones set deep in concrete from one side of the yard to the other, culminating in a fountain at the bottom that pumped the water in underground pipes back uphill. We had built a wooden bench and engraved our initials in it and planted a tree that would grow to shade it in the coming years. The grass was so freshly laid you could see the seams of the strips it came rolled in, the furrows between the thick juicy blades giving off a rich, dark, happy earth smell. Big-leafed plants and dainty white flowers rustled gleefully along the water, which plopped and gurgled, the new cleaning-fish tenants already hard at work in the pond. I grinned with pride and looked over at my dad.

“What do you think, Pops?”

He didn’t answer, and it seemed to me that he looked sad.

“Looks great, yeah?” I prompted.

He didn’t look at me, but he said,

“Yeah, buddy. Looks great.”

He left soon after, but I never did. I guess there was nothing here to keep him, after the yard was done. And nothing to make me leave, even all these years later. After he was gone, I sort of just stopped. I lived here with my Mom through college, got a local job, met and married a local girl. I raised my daughter in this house. She splashed in the pond we dug that summer and sat on the bench I built with the Grandpa she never got to meet. Once she asked me about the worn initials carved there, and I couldn’t make myself answer. It really is true, inexorably
so. An object at rest, stays at rest, and an object in motion, stays in motion, unless acted upon by an external force. Sometimes I’ll let a rough, bitter chuckle echo through the house, now that there’s no one else to hear it. It strikes me as funny. When was the last time someone was punished for obeying a law? But here we are, my dad, wherever he is, and me. Both alone. Both helplessly incapable of breaking Newton’s first.

Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing