The Night Watchman
The man stands on the threshold to the bathroom, stunned by the light even though he flipped the switch himself. He stumbles back a step. A moment before he had been sewn shut into a black flannel bag of sleep. Now the world glares at him. He blinks slowly at the reflection in the vanity mirror of a man catching himself, the left hand planted flat on the marble vanity, the right arm hanging down at an odd, familiar angle.
The arm had been broken and improperly set, many years ago. He could rotate it counterclockwise at the elbow beyond its natural limit, making it appear spring-loaded. The morning of the accident, his thoughts ran ahead of him to a day of idling with pals in town, maybe taking in a picture show, a western. But the promises of a long summer day were cut short by one of his grand daddies milk cows. He failed to notice the heavy rear leg contract and never saw the blur of the hoof as it hammered backward, sending the world inside the barn spinning. There had been a moment of exhilaration within a vacuum of silence that quickly compressed into a flat cake of pain on the packed dirt floor. He looks at his mirror image and tries to remember how old he’d been that day.
The arm healed quickly and did not interfere with the remainder of his childhood. He spent the next few years swimming and fishing, cutting tobacco and digging potatoes, pursuits that occupied a vivid foreground against a colorless backdrop of school. A few years later the arm survived the merest scrutiny of the doctor at the induction center. The elderly physician stamped his approval on the document before him without once looking up at the skinny, naked boy.
Over the years his arms grew thick, acquiring the appearance of blunt instruments. The left one was tanned deep brown to the biceps all year long. Years of hoisting heavy tie-down chains, dragging trailer skids and the sheer effort of holding a hurtling tractor-trailer loaded with seven new cars to a true line on the road had left him with hands like slabs. They appeared bolted and cabled to the twin engines of his arms.
The bathroom door had been closed when he approached it, as if the room was occupied. He'd been too sleepy to make the observation. Recovered now from the explosion of bright light he peers into the room. His teenage son is here with him, flat on the floor. This discovery upsets a well worn routine.
The man was accustomed to moving easily through the darkness of the early morning hours, measuring in minutes the time between waking and driving away after locking the door behind him. He kept wallet, keys and knife in the pockets of the work pants that hung from the back of the bedroom chair, a heavy belt strung through the loops. He always clamped his hand around the buckle to dampen the sound when stepping into his pants.
The house itself always seemed to be asleep and unaware of his presence, as if he had acquired the ability to move through the still air without leaving a wake. More than once he’d imagined himself a night watchman spending long hours haunting a darkened building, unseen and unknown to the people that came with the morning light.
Stale bathroom air washes over him, exposing nettles of memory that snag and bind him. He remembers being aboard a rusting transport ship among a group of doomed boys in khaki pants and military issue undershirts dark with sweat, a spectator to a card game below decks, dealt on an upturned case of quinine. Smoke, exhaled from the corners of mouths or through flared nostrils, seems to boil beneath the swinging overhead light, forming a shroud over them like spun silk. His accent, a lazy parade of vowels formed among the ridges and hollows of home, is lost in a whirl of laughter and cursing, a fury of voices that snaps like live current. A bottle makes its way around, coming to rest on the tilting deck, clamped between the heels of someone’s new jungle boots.
The memory of the smell of dead air, sour sweat, alcohol and fear, of boys lost in smoke, makes him reel. In a spasm he jerks his head and shoulders, breaks free, and manages, once again, to bury it all.
He takes another step into the room and looks down at his son. The boy lies on his side between the bathtub and the toilet, facing away from the door. His knees are pulled tight to his bare chest.
The man does not advance to bend to the boy. He does not press his face to the boy’s face or place his fingers against his throat or brush the hair away from his forehead. He stands immobile as if contemplating the tree line of a dark forest. He will not risk even a few steps into the woods for fear of losing his way back.
The man looks at the boys' curved spine and is reminded of a string of toy pop-beads. He closes his eyes, considers counting to ten, changes his mind and takes a step back. But the sudden introduction of fresh air and the glaring bathroom light brings the boy to his feet.
He rises unsteadily and the man shrinks back, like a night watchman looking on, hidden, as thieves escape with the goods, wanting only to return to his rounds, content to try only the doors he knows are secure.
Later, he won’t remember stepping aside. The boy rushes by him into the hallway and disappears into his room down the hall. Just for a moment they converge, possibly they touch, the boy’s thin arm brushing up against his own, hanging useless at his side.
The Chrysler has a good heater that quickly takes away the chill. Traffic is light this time of morning. A few miles away his truck sits loaded and waiting. The sun will be up in a couple of hours, but by that time he will be far away.