In the Wild
Cari Scribner

It took a crew of three men the month of September to tame my father’s wild yard after the summer he died. They worked every weekend into the night that early fall transforming the space into something new and whole again.

They bulldozed the yard, clearing out the overgrown shrubs shrouding the front door so no one could see where to ring the bell or how to get inside. The men flattened the slope where we used to sled on snow days when we were small. Once, when a neighborhood kid came over with his slip-n-slide, we charged him a nickel for five runs down the hill. Later, our mother made us give it back.

I had not seen my father in decades; my son, an adult himself at 21, never knew him.

When they were small, my kids, all three of them, asked me to tell stories about when I was little.

I told them my father was a master of fixing broken things like popped bicycle tires, baby dolls who’d lost their limbs, a robot alarm clock that no longer rang. I told them he made the best spaghetti sauce in the world, that neighbors would come with Tupperware to take some home for dinner.

I didn’t tell them he had the broken parts strewn across a makeshift tool table, that he muttered to himself and paced and tapped his fingers on his head, something maybe meant to be self-soothing, but he never got better.

I didn’t tell my kids that when one of my sisters or I played the Ken role in a Barbie Doll game, we made Ken holler and moan and knock things over in the kitchen, the plastic plates, the vat of make-believe soup, the pink utensils. Then we made Ken sob and say he was sorry, which we knew to be a bold-faced lie. Like our father, Ken was never really sorry.

I didn’t tell my kids that there is a visible red stain over the stove in my childhood home from the spaghetti sauce he hurled at my mother after she added salt that he believed poisoned it. Good thing my mother had the sense to duck, just in time.

As they grew up, I watched my children for signs of mental illness, for rage or mood swings or despair, because he might have passed down the schizophrenia. I monitored myself as well, and although I would be diagnosed with depression and PTSD, compared to my father, I was the poster child for mental health. Genetics or environment? Nature or nurture? My sisters and I were screwed on both counts.

That summer after my father died (alone, in his home, stroke), the dozer shredded the yellow tarps he had spread across the lawn in the back yard. He did this to snuff out the grass so he wouldn’t have to mow.

The largest tarp, a perfect circle, was once the cover of our childhood swimming pool, long collapsed. Every year in June, my father hauled the mildewed cover off the pool and stretched it across the backyard lawn. He made my sisters and me crawl on hands and knees looking for tiny tears in the plastic. He believed rain was seeping in, polluting the pool water. We put rolls of duct tape on our wrists like bracelets, cut pieces with our teeth, put them over holes so small we might have imagined them. My father wasn’t satisfied until the pool cover was zig-zagged with strips of tape faded gray in the sun. When we rolled up the cover, the grass was bent and brown underneath, which is what inspired him to tarp the rest of the yard.

In the winter when we were small, we laced up our skates and climbed the pool ladder to shuffle across the thin layer of ice that formed over the cover. My mother was frantic, but my father cheered us on, telling us to get back up when we fell to our knees, to do shaky figure 8s, and to put our heads down and try to race the way they did in the Olympics.

It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood the inherent danger in this activity, the possibility our skates would crack the ice and we’d fall through, the black pool cover forming a perfect vacuum to pull us under.

That summer cleaning out the backyard, we found empty glass whiskey bottles lining the sides of the house, his homemade security system. My father thought if anyone tried to get in, the sound of breaking glass would be an early warning. Or, if the intruders were barefoot, the shards would do a lot of damage to the soles of their feet.

The glass bottles were clear, green, and blue. Some had bubbles, as if he had been washing them out. The garden under the back window smelled of Ivory soap, soil, and Jameson. The glass choked out the tiny tomato seedlings we’d planted decades before, valiantly trying to re-root like wildflowers reaching for the sun.

My son and I spent weekends deciphering the mania on my father’s property that summer. There were cinder blocks in the backyard where my father sat and boiled rice and hot cereal on a makeshift camp stove made of a tin foil pie tray with a small fire beneath. He stirred it with a small whittled stick. We found this near the boiling pot, blackened from years of use.

The willow tree, a backyard treasure because of its strong limbs that seemed made for a tire swing, was hacked to pieces. My father had taken a hatchet to the branches, then painted the empty spots with red stain. The tree trunk, still standing, looked wounded, raining down willow leaf tears from the small branches trying to regrow near the top.

We found a pink sled sweating in the sun by the back door of my father’s house. Cracked down the middle, my father had attempted a repair by sewing it with green twine. His father was a tailor; signs of my father trying to make him proud were everywhere that summer we cleared out his yard.

We found my father’s pocket knife hanging near a pile of sticks woven together with blue thread. We thought he may have been making a dream catcher to put near his bed. He’d carried the pocket knife everywhere in a small sandwich bag, along with a silver key chain with a tarnished peace symbol.

One winter night, in the last year of his life, my father had gone to the Lions Club for a beer, and when he got home, the pocket knife was missing. The next day, he drove in a raging snowstorm to the lodge to look through the front door into the vestibule, where the knife lay, kicked aside in its plastic bag. My father dug a path in the snow with his hands to circle building looking for an open window to retrieve his knife, each time setting off silent alarms. When three squad cars arrived to check out the disturbance, they found my father trying to pick a lock with a wire hanger to get inside. They thought he was a homeless man seeking shelter.

My father had a home but turned it into something wild, like himself. As we sorted through his odd, alarming collection of belongings, my son and I felt like trespassers in the back yard, my father’s own private wilderness, where I was a child all over again.

Cari Scribner has been a freelance writer/journalist for more than 20 years, with thousands of bylines in local, regional and national newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. Her short fiction has been published in The Nottingham Review, Gravel, Southeast Review, The Tishman Review, and several other journals. Find more about Cari here.