K Y L E B I L I N S K I
The butcher bowed down over some slab of meat at the back of Queen Anne’s Co-op, disappearing behind the iced-down display case. The five o’clock line—a chain of blue and white collars with baskets and gleaming smart phones—waited for him to chop, wrap, weigh, and wave us closer. I broke up the pack of men, tugging my braid free, and traced the conduit and black iron pipes veining through the open timber trusses above. I studied the web of workmanship and mulled over my day of inspections: new homes and condos, demos and additions, shops and a pool (11 passed, 6 failed). I’d wanted to skip out on the work to spoon steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula for Dad’s birthday dinner, but decided against blowing a vacation day when Donny reminded me how he couldn’t distinguish a sockeye from a rockfish anymore, wild or store bought.
I pointed at the smallest farm-raised salmon when my turn came—half the cost of wild—then added the wrapped filet to my basket of cilantro, onion, limes, black beans, and tortillas. I carried the basket to checkout then hauled the bagged groceries home on foot, six blocks downhill to the west end of North Queen Anne, to our cross-gabled home. I’d already taken the number 29 to get to the co-op, as I did each night, and this last sliver of commute, with its row of asymmetrical facades and bold paint colors, never seemed long enough, sunny or wet.
“Can I help you?” Dad asked after I rang the doorbell. Barging in my own house with my own set of keys rattled him. I couldn’t even justify carrying them around in my front pocket all day, but I continued to do so out of habit and some stupid hope that things might spool back.
“That’s our Opal,” Donny said. He stood at the kitchen island grating cheese, dressed in bright gym clothes with his favorite checked apron slung around his neck. The table was set, and the gift I’d wrapped that morning placed in mom’s old spot. He walked over and kissed me long and hard, like always, but with sharp cheddar breath.
I traded my groceries for the vodka-Squirt in his grip. “Hope you saved us some cheese,” I said and took a swig of my favorite summer drink, hot and thirsty from the walk.
Dad and I sat at the table while Donny seared the salmon with butter and lime and onion. I hated this part of the workweek—getting reacquainted, reintroduced. I fussed with my hair and vodka-Squirt, jealous Donny the homebody didn’t have to go through this, working cyber security from our den. I looked out the window, at our detached shop, as Dad studied me and asked elementary questions. But I was grateful Donny didn’t mind keeping an eye on him, my bloodline, while I hopped from one jobsite to the other in my South Park territory. Dad was all the family Donny or I had left. We’d married a decade earlier, in our mid-forties, after meeting on a jam-packed morning commute metro—too old for kids.
“Go ahead,” I told Dad. He’d been eyeing the package. “That’s all yours.” I didn’t tell him how old he’d turned (79), or the occasion, or that we’d forgone the empty calories of his birthday cake. He ripped the wrapping paper with care while Donny chopped cilantro, its sharp scent intertwining with the butter and onion. Dad held the present close to his face afterward and examined the six-disk special edition Planet Earth Blu-Ray set until Donny walked over with the scathing frying pan.
“Taco Tuesday,” Donny said and slid the first salmon taco onto Dad’s plate. He prepared them one at a time, to melt the cheese and crisp the tortillas. Dad seemed more interested in his gift but set it aside. He loved PBS and the Discovery Channel, something he’d never had time or energy for throughout his homebuilding career. I think he liked the composed narrations, the elaborate explanations. Even if he’d seen them before, the episodes appeared new to him, and yet he never felt lost.
Donny ate standing up over the stove in between serving Dad and me but sat down for the last taco. I told him about the failed inspections while he chewed (jobs that passed didn’t interest him) and waited for him to tell me about the newest online threats after he washed down his food with a glass of water. He didn’t say much, though, and I knew he was itching for the shop and his bit of freedom—running his heart rate up on the treadmill and repping free weights on his various benches—now that I was home.
“Time for church,” I said. That’s what we called our shop. Mostly because of the stained-glass windows I’d found at a salvage yard and framed into the east and west sides of the building to refract the best light. Donny helped me rafter and shingle the steeply pitched gabled roof so long as I saved half the space for him. His weights and machines circled the west window, and all the woodworking tools I now used to fulfill my Etsy orders (mostly pictures frames and tiny jewelry boxes) circled the east. We loved to set aside space for its order and machinery, but there was also something majestic in the way the shop lit up at opposite ends of the day.
Dad and I watched him jog down the string of pads I’d poured—two dozen steps staggering down to the shop. The handrail was a new addition, but since we didn’t have a TV in the shop, Dad rarely left the flatscreen in the living room. He rose from the table with his birthday gift, headed in that direction, when I stopped him.
“I need your help tonight,” I said. I asked him to clear the table while I made a bath of hot soapy water in the sink. It wasn’t true. I could’ve used the dishwasher but hand-scrubbed and rinsed the dishes then handed them off to Dad. I just felt like hanging out with him on his birthday.
He took his time drying each plate and pot and pan, and I told him where everything went in the cabinets. Then he clutched the handrail and followed me down the steps to church.
“Mind if we join,” I asked Donny. His backlit window looked alive—fiery yellows and oranges and reds. He had the Mariner’s game on the stereo and what looked to be his body weight held up overhead. He breathed in as the weight dropped down to his chest, then exhaled as he bench-pressed it back up and rested the bar on the holds.
“Church is always open,” he said. He didn’t seem irritated, even though we rarely worked in the space together. He toweled off his forehead and got back to his reps, and Dad and I moved towards my lumber racks bolted to the south wall. I told him to pick a board. I hated to rip and chop while Donny lifted and curled, and I thought it best to stick with something small and easy, start to finish. Dad pointed at the quarter-sawn rift white oak, which surprised me. I thought he’d choose something with lots of color in the raw, like walnut or purpleheart, and it made me wonder if he ever recalled the hope chest he’d made out of the same rift white oak for my high school graduation gift, which sat ambered and nicked at the foot of his bed.
I ripped four equal strips and set them on the workbench where I’d told Dad to stand and sand. I showed him how to break the edges then smooth the four sides. He asked what we were making, but I kept him guessing. Donny seemed interested, too. He faced us and curled dumbbells, working his biceps. Dad positioned the strips on the miter saw fence for me to cut 45-degree ends, then clamped the strips to the workbench to router recesses. The pocket holes were last. Dad held the boards in the jig while I predrilled. I wondered if he could see the picture frame yet, but after we’d glued and fastened the four corners together, he still seemed puzzled.
He zoned out on the hand tools hung on my floor-to-ceiling pegboard, the tools he’d passed down to me—hand planes, chisels, mallets, levels, saws, files, crowbars, screwdrivers—after I’d taken over the family homebuilding business, before rheumatoid arthritis set in and pushed me into inspecting. I wasn’t probing him to bounce back, as I’d tried countless times before. I’d only wanted quality time—banding together on a project like we’d done so many times throughout my life—but I didn’t want to rub clearcoat on the frame with him anymore. I’d finish it in the morning, alone before work.
Donny switched off the ballgame and asked if we were ready to go. I nodded. I didn’t know how he did it all-day, every-day with Dad. And I wondered who would look after me later in life if I turned out like Dad. For the first time, the thought of hiking up the steps to the house seemed exhausting. I didn’t care about brushing my teeth, washing my face. All I wanted to do was crash in bed.
“Remember that thirty-pounder we hooked with grandpa on the Bogachiel?” Dad asked. I almost didn’t turn, scared to break his recollection. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d come back. “You were three, maybe four years old,” he continued and fumbled for his old fly rod on the top hooks of the pegboard, the grip and reel coated in sawdust. “He fought so long grandpa and I had to take turns pulling him in.”
“He seemed bigger to me,” I said. I told him about the snapshot I’d found in one of mom’s old photo album shoeboxes: us posing and showing off that very steelhead with grandpa.
Dad put the fly rod back on the pegboard and smiled at me and Donny. “It’d look nice in that frame we just made,” he said. Then he was gone but still standing before us in a wash of stained-glass refractions. I reached for his hand and led him outside to the handrail. I placed my hand against his back. Donny flicked the lights and locked up. We climbed in silence.
Kyle Bilinski has worked as a painting contractor, flight attendant, delivery driver, commercial estimator, building plans examiner, and manned plumbing and electrical will-call counters. His work can be found in The Baltimore Review, BULL, Eckleburg, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He lives in Idaho with his wife and son and shih tzu.