All that Martin had done was have a bit too much to drink in celebration of an American holiday. He sat on his son’s couch and watched a football game while the turkey finished cooking. “I can’t believe you won’t let Jack Staples build on land his father gave him.”
Peter, he of the authority of county septic inspector, granter and denier of permits, adjusted his baseball cap. “There’s bedrock running a foot under that whole property. That land won’t perc.”
“It’s their land.”
“I can’t have shit running all over the place. It’s my job.”
“Our tax dollars at work,” Martin said and changed the channel to Fox News.
Peter slapped his knees and stood. “No prob. I’ll watch the game upstairs.”
They used to be so close. Peter had worked for Martin’s surveying company through high school, the best rod man he’d ever had. When Martin told the boy to walk twenty yards, the boy walked twenty yards, exact. Peter held the rod straight while Martin shot from the tripod. They competed with each other cutting line through the woods with bush axes, talked trash who could clear the farthest in an hour. They communicated over hand held radios at a hundred yards. Now, they sat on the same couch and could barely speak to each other.
On Fox, a lady waving a sign at a pro-life demonstration screamed at a woman hurrying with her head down into a clinic. “How’d you feel?” the lady shouted, “if your fetus aborted you? How’d you like that?”
Why would anyone want to abort their parents? The world was making less and less sense to Martin. He poured another three-finger whiskey. A PlayStation was hooked up to the television. His son: a grown man who played video games.
Martin picked up the controller. He remembered Peter in middle school, eyes glued to the screen, thumbs punching buttons. He should have played video games with him every now and then. He turned on the PlayStation and fell back into the cushy sofa.
It was a shoot ‘em game. Men in green fatigues ran around a warehouse and killed Martin. Again and again he was shot down or blown up. On three humiliating occasions he was backslapped across the face to death. The whiskey swirled with his never-ending animated demise.
At the dinner table, everything would have been just fine if Martin had said the blessing like he was supposed to, but what the whiskey said instead of Heavenly Father was: “You can’t believe in abortion and be a Christian.” Peter and his fiancé took their plates to eat in the living room. His wife Emma glared at him. “Really?” she said.
Back home, Martin drank from the faucet to rehydrate in the aftermath of Thanksgiving. Where had things gone wrong? He was proud he’d sent his son to college, even if that’s when things had started to go south between them. He wished that university understood the real world, where you couldn’t spend all day fussing over best practices, stream buffers, and silt fences. Peter came home from college spouting off all the things Martin shouldn’t be doing. It got so bad they couldn’t work together.
Out the window, two boys snuck across Martin’s pasture in the moonlight. Oh, hell no, he thought. Not tonight. He marched past his wife and grabbed his shotgun. Stomping out the back door, he loaded without looking.
He was halfway across the pasture before the boys saw him. For once, he had gotten the drop on trespassers. Big boy kept pulling up his britches over his backside as he hoofed away. The skinny one leapt over the fence and yelled to his friend. “Come on!”
Martin checked to make sure the safety was off.
Living in the country used to be peaceful. But High Times magazine had named his field, his private property, the Number One Mushroom Picking Field in the County, a county this same rag had crowned the Mushroom Capital of the South. Martin had chased local kids off his property for years, but now his place had become a goddamn stoner tourist attraction.
The slob snagged himself climbing over the barbed wire fence. He teetered, bent over, britches half down, pale ass an ample target. Martin pulled the trigger. Barrel ablaze, the shotgun bucked against his shoulder. Fatty flipped over the fence and awkwardly slammed the ground.
My God, Martin thought. I killed him.
He had meant to grab salt load. Had he mistakenly loaded buckshot instead?
He hadn’t meant to kill fatty.
“You fucker!” the skinny kid screamed. “You fucking fucker!”
The fat kid groaned and pushed himself off the ground. They jumped in their car and sped off. Martin ejected the spent shell from the chamber. Salt load, thank God. He avoided cow patties as he walked home across the pasture. On the ground, a zip lock bag glowed in the moonlight. Inside were three tawny mushrooms with straight stems and slightly-rounded triangular caps.
There’d been one night in particular. Peter had come home, sat on the couch, and watched an episode of M*A*S*H with Martin. He had seemed, how best to put it, too fascinated, but he was in such a good mood that Martin never said anything. It was a nice break from watching news alone while the world spun faster and faster in crisis until it seemed like it was sure to come undone.
Martin examined the mushrooms in his hand. So this is what all the fuss is about, he thought. Standing there in that vulnerable moment, so profoundly thankful that he hadn’t just killed a kid, it was more an urge than decision. He popped the mushrooms in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed the pungent fungi that tasted exactly how something that grew on cow shit should taste.
Emma waited, arms crossed on the backstairs.
“I finally got one,” he said.
“Good for you,” she said. Her tone said otherwise. He went to kiss her cheek, but she turned away. “I love you,” she said. “But I don’t like you right now.”
“I’m getting that sense,” Martin said. He plopped down in his recliner, kicked up the footrest, and turned on the TV. He was going to watch the news and see what this mushroom business was all about.
Gradually, Martin stopped listening to the pundits. He focused on their faces. They looked so angry talking over each other. He turned the channel to CNN. Sometimes he watched news besides Fox, even if he disagreed, which he did. If he muted the TV, the pundits looked like they were all saying the same thing. He wanted to make a big point he couldn’t quite grasp. Mushrooms were a lot stronger than the ditch weed he’d smoked growing up. His thoughts raced so fast he couldn’t track them down. Noodles, he thought. My thoughts are noodles. His thought noodles were usually dry noodles running in the same straight direction, but now his thoughts were boiled noodles, swarming everywhere. They poured out of his head into a colander and exploded into stars.
Wait, he had it: if you stopped listening to the words the faces expressed the same emotions, except that, and this was key: CNN preferred brunettes and FOX preferred blondes. And just for the sake of comparison, yep, MSNBC preferred shorthaired women. But what did it all mean? Martin leaned forward, studying the TV.
“What are you doing?” Emma said. She had appeared in the middle of the room. How had she gotten there?
“Trying to think,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “You should be.” Then, softer, “about what?”
“Where did we go wrong?”
“We haven’t, Martin. But Peter hasn’t either. You need to focus on what matters. And if you don’t know what that is, you need to try a little harder.”
“I can’t focus right now,” Martin said.
Emma handed him a glass of water. “This might help,” she said. And it did. There was a glass of cold water in his hands. He was glad that Emma disappeared because the glass did something funny. It got skinny in the middle. Then it got fat. Then it snapped back and was just a normal glass of water again. Shit, Martin said. I’m tripping. He had heard the word before. I’ll be damned, Martin said. I’m tripping.
CNN showed a map of red states and blue states. Martin lived in South Carolina. South Carolina was red. Thank Jesus. Red was an emotional, intense color. Martin thought about his son. Peter was blue and lived in South Carolina so not all of South Carolina was red. The map could not be trusted. If South Carolina had a little bit of blue, maybe Martin was not all red.
Martin could not be trusted.
He wondered what he might do.
He giggled. He sat the glass of water in the middle of the rug. The rug was intricately designed and very complicated. Everything in the room besides the rug pulsed. He needed to relax and not worry about the rug. He turned the TV volume up. Maybe he could listen to them now. The pundit spoke to Martin in a demonic voice.
He ran outside. He ran down the driveway to clear his head. He reached the road and slowed to a jog. Maybe all he needed was to turn off the TV. Who knew there were demons inside that box? Outside, in the night, he felt safe. He felt cognizant. He felt extraordinarily cognizant. He didn’t need the TV to explain his state, where he’d lived his whole life. He didn’t need the TV to explain his son. He loved his son and wanted what was best for him. The problem was that what Peter wanted was not best for Peter.
If the son disagreed with the father’s politics, then he didn’t believe in what the father stood for: it was more than a political disagreement, it insulted bedrock, discredited how the father had raised the son. There were deep, foundational problems. Politics should perc. When the relationship wasn’t working, politics was the shit running over the field.
The stars were bright. Lightning flashed on a clear night. Martin realized it wasn’t lightning but the Northern Lights: the Goddamn aurora borealis. How far had he walked? No, it was God giving him his own personal light show.
But there was a problem. Martin had forgotten his name. It was there, just on the edge of his mind, out of reach. Headlights shined, an approaching car. He hid in the trees. Thorns snagged his pants. He didn’t feel safe walking on the road and pushed into the woods. The night was deep and blue. Leaves rippled. Tiny creations crawled across the ground. Everything was alive. Everything breathed. The same essence that crawled across the ground and over the trees flowed across his skin. He was connected to the earth by this crawling film. He wanted it off him. He looked at the sky and saw its crystal exactness not swarming but perfect pinpricks of light coming through space. He was afraid he could fall into the vastness of the sky. He ran terrified into a pine tree, which knocked him down. You can’t control this, he thought. If you try to control this, you are going to hurt yourself.
He walked across a field. He realized his state was temporary. In time, he would be normal again. For the moment, he should enjoy being not normal. He counted thirty steps across the field, ninety feet, straight. He cut the field in half. To the left, he freaked out. To the right, he relaxed. Those were the two subdivided possibilities. Either way, didn’t matter. He turned 90 degrees and walked twenty steps, bisecting freaking out. Either he had ruined Thanksgiving or he hadn’t ruined Thanksgiving. He had ruined Thanksgiving. He turned again and bisected ruined Thanksgiving. To the left, he loved his son. To the right, he was a complete asshole. If he loved his son then he was not a complete asshole. He had only acted like an asshole. He might have temporarily been an asshole, but he was not permanently an asshole, for nothing was permanent. Except for things that deserved to be permanent. Being a father was permanent, but that did not mean one permanently had to be an asshole father. This was good news for Martin, who remembered his name. His name was Martin. Martin remembered where he was: in a field he recognized. He walked across the field and through the pines to his son’s house. The key hung from a nail under the backstairs. Martin let himself in and snuck down to the TV room. He picked up the controller and turned on the PlayStation.
This time he didn’t get frustrated. The game slowed down for him. Enemies fell before his bullets. Martin dropped them and kept dropping them. He found a gold medallion. He stood on the docks and looked across an ocean. He ran up a long pier toward a setting sun. He reached the second level.
Martin turned around.
“Jesus Christ,” Peter said, holding a Glock. “I almost shot you, Dad.”
“But you wouldn’t want to, right?” Martin said.
“What are you talking about? I almost killed you.”
Martin stood and hugged his son. Peter tried to push him away, but then hugged him back. His son: a grown man, giving him a hug. Martin looked him in the eyes. “I saw an aurora borealis. I’m not a permanent asshole anymore.”