In Darkness Floating

In Darkness Floating by Dustin M. Hoffman

Dad’s drunk and riding the bucket that dangles at the top of the cherry picker’s extended arm. He begged me to drive him around the country roads so he could be closer to the moon. I gave in. I said sure. I’m only half buzzed on the cheap-ass bottle of tequila we bought. Dos Manos, it’s called, two hands. I’m driving with one. Earlier, we passed the bottle back and forth after finishing the Hendersons’ gutters. That was the last job we had lined up and Trump just got elected, so we might as well celebrate our doom. We don’t know what’s next. But we sure as shit know Trump can’t stop the no-work dead time of endless snow, which could happen any day now that Michigan has smashed into November. I wonder about making rent. Forget about making the late-late payment on the cherry picker we’ve named Bertha. The repo man’s coming, has already been sniffing around the house, the neighbors say. But Dad worries about nothing. Usually. He’s always had the skill of willing ignorant bliss, but tonight he’s drinking like I’ve never seen. Tonight he needs help forgetting. I hear him out the open window hooting at the owls, then howling for coyotes, then shouting “tree, tree, tree” at the trees, which isn’t really the sound trees make.

But then I realize he’s shouting at me. I stomp on the brake too late and we skid under the branches of a massive oak or maple or who knows what. The autumn-dead leaves clatter a hellish scraping against the bucket metal, maybe against Dad’s face. When the truck finally stops on the dirt road, I’m spilling out the door and my knees clap the ground, and I guess I’m a bit drunker than I previously calculated.

“Are you dead, Dad?” I yell at the empty bucket now laced in moonlit leaves and branches.

Dad’s head pops over the bucket rim. “Blood, oh my blood! To feel my heart pump from my toes to my nose, darling! What a rush.” He howls at the moon again.

“Sure you didn’t lose anything important back there?” My head feels wobbly tilted against my shoulders. “Like your fucking brains?”

“Your turn,” Dad says and lowers the bucket. The arm retracts fast as a snail and emits an electronic whirring, a grind here and there. The night stutters in slow motion. I have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery of nowhere. We’re out on dirt country roads skirting Mattawan or Paw Paw or maybe even further off track from home. The clock in the cab doesn’t work and my phone’s dead, so who knows how long I’ve been driving. Maybe we’ve gone so far west that the cornfields might give way to beach, and then we might spill right into the thirty-three-degree Lake Michigan waves.

Dad kicks the bucket door open, jumps to the dirt road. Of course he falls forward on his face, but he does some sort of roll thing, pops right back up, arms outstretched in a ta-da gesture. If there’s one thing Dad knows, it’s graceful recovery.

“What a night for wonder, my dear daughter.” He wraps an arm over my shoulder, swings his head back at the sky. “Where’s the bottle?”

I retrieve the Dos Manos from the toolbox, take a long swig, then chuck it as far as I can into the cornstalks. “No more if you’re driving.”

“You think I’m some kind of irresponsible derelict? I merely want my dear daughter to treat herself, which you did, with a dramatic flourish.” He reaches his hands to the stars, as if to scoop them. “Just like your mother.”

“I’m not like her.”

“Not in the least,” he says. “Besides that you’re brilliant and beautiful and way too good for me. So saddle up, lady,” Dad says and heads toward the cab.

“So now you’re fine to drive?”

“I certainly am not.” He waltzes a few steps of straight line, heel to toe, as if walking for the cops. “That’s why I’m just going to idle.”

Mom would ride the bucket. Mom would for the experience, for her art, for the whimsy, the danger, the passion, and I don’t want to share any of her papier-mâché-thin motivation. But then I’m in the bucket before I can reason myself out of her steps. We’ve owned this rusty bucket truck for a whole summer of work, and I still barely know how to operate it. The truck, Bertha, she hates me, this tangle of creaky metal joints and hydraulic lines. Tonight’s no different. Tonight’s probably much worse now that my last big tequila swig is flashing through my veins. I’d rather be back in the cab, turning a wheel, pushing a pedal, a logical vehicle. Instead, a cramped control panel decorated with buttons and sticks mocks me. I punch a joystick up, and the arm slams down. I jab buttons and flip switches until I’m headed up. She bucks and kicks and shrieks. But I persist. I’m stubborn as shit, which is what Dad always said about Mom, but I am in no fucking way my mom, who got while the getting was good, while I was away at school last semester. She thought I was all settled out of the nest so it was her time to fly, but school didn’t work out. I got smart and realized a ceramics degree doesn’t mean dick to the real world. And once I came back to the nest to join Dad’s business—which he’d recently renamed Sky’s the Limit, due to the new cherry picker—Mom had flown all the way to Puerto Rico. Her dream come true. She’s painting sunsets on the beach and screwing some dude named Pablo or Miguel, some dude who’s younger than me.

The bucket shutters, stalls, and I realize I’m all the way up, the arm fully extended. Below me, Dad has turned on the cab’s dome light. His head flicks out the window and he gives me a thumbs up, waits for me to return it. No way Dad can see me in this dark, see me waving him on, ready to go, but the cherry picker lurches forward.

We might be doing fifteen miles per hour, but I feel like a kamikaze meteor thirty feet up and choking on wind. Moon-grayed cornstalks fuzz into a blur of motion beneath me. We blow through an intersection, probably a stop sign, and then it’s all corn again. I doubt Dad has hit twenty-five, yet I cling to the frigid metal of the bucket rim. My knuckles want to pop out of their skin. This near-death, half-drunk flying is exhilarating, of course. Dad’s known how to do this, how to fake flying, since I was a baby, a year old, and he’d lie on his back, palm my butt in one hand, and rocket me straight up. I’ve seen the pictures, and Mom oil-painted a scene, just Dad’s tanned arm shooting up from the bottom of the frame, his fingers a claw around my bulging toddler thighs. When I was five, I’d superman, my belly on his feet. At ten, he brought me up the extension ladders, let me straddle the roof peaks—and now you’re above everyone, so high no one can tug you down, he’d whisper in my ear. By fifteen, I was living on ladders, earning spending cash gunning the power washer. Dad never once worried over me, so neither did I. If the ladder legs were going to slip, on the job or in life, I always figured I’d decipher it in Dad’s face. He’s never stopped smiling.

But today he hasn’t stopped drinking, and I wonder if it’s because he heard the repo man was coming for Bertha. Or maybe because the mitten turned red last night. Dad’s been laughing for weeks any time one of the guys at Sherwin Williams or Menard’s talks about Trump. “He stiffs his contractors,” Dad says to them. “Done. End of story. No greater sin,” Dad’s been saying, and then laughing right through the sliding glass doors under the electric eye.

I wonder if Dad’s face has cracked down there. He has to feel the slip of ladder legs this time. But he won’t let me see it on him.

Just when I feel my stomach lurching, wanting to spill the beers and On Fire jalapeño burger Dad and I split at the Olde Peninsula pub, I look up. The stars steady me. I’m too high to be tugged, touched. The stars seem unmoving in their enormity. The Milky Way has ripped the sky wide open, and it’s bleeding sparkles. I forget about puking. I forget about Mom and Trump and whether the repo man will be packing a gun tomorrow and if Dad might be stupid and pick a fight. I forget about school, the potter’s wheel, my hands aching to cup the buttery silt of clay spinning in my palms. I forget all and let this moment be one of flying.

And then there’s a powerline. I scream for Dad to stop, but he’s not as fast as me, or I’m not as loud as him. I duck into the bucket to await electrocution. Our momentum slams to a stop. My skull smacks into the bucket’s side. There’s a pulling, a snap, a twang. We’re not moving, and I look up at the stars again. I suppose because I see them instead of my spirit being smeared into them that means I’m still alive.

“Darling,” I hear below me, “you goddamn better be hiding in that bucket and not flung onto the road.”

I smile, can’t help myself, this throb in my heart that wants my dad to contemplate my death for exactly three and a half seconds before I pop up and allow him to breathe.

“Your night vision’s shitty, old man,” I say.

“You ran into a tree, I’ll remind you, which is mighty easier to spot than a tiny string of telephone wire floating in the night.”

“Where is it?” I look down the arm and expect to see a line stretched like a bow or maybe a split wire shooting sparks.

“Snapped it clean. And now we better make our escape before someone says my wallet is accountable.”

I punch at the controls and, as usual, get nothing but whirring. I do my switch-flipping routine, still nothing. “Stuck. Damn.”

Dad gives it a try below on the parallel control panel affixed to the back of the truck. Even from up here, I spot him biting his tongue in concentration, like he does when he’s cutting with a paintbrush or caulking a miter. “Been thinking,” he hollers up at me.

“Don’t hurt yourself.”

“Thinking of renaming again, reinvigorating the old DBA down at the courthouse.”

“Would be the third time this year,” I remind him. Before Sky’s the Limit, it was Handy Man Stan, even though his name’s Gus. Before that it was Hammering Hank. He’s changed it a couple dozen times over the years, but since Mom left his business seems to be going through an identity crisis.

“Daughter and Dad on a Ladder,” he says. “What do you think?”

It’s the first time I’ve been included in a business name. I’d find the moment a whole bunch sweeter if I wasn’t suspended in the bucket that had nearly killed me. I feel the bile rise again. This jammed bucket’s a combination of claustrophobia and acrophobia. I’m trapped in an air-stuck coffin.

“That sounds like a grand fucking plan, Dad on a Ladder,” I say. “How about you go get that ladder and get me down?”

“Or maybe this: A-A-A-A Handy Dad and Daughter. Then we secure one of those primo first spots in the yellow pages.” He’s flipping switches as randomly as I do now, as hopeless as the yellow pages are these days. “Tell me, what’s the point of having Bertha, if you need to carry ladders?”

So no rescue’s coming. I study the arm’s dead-drop slope, try to route a path where I could climb down without tumbling thirty feet onto skull. The arm bends in my drunk vision. My head goes light. I puke over the side. I hear Dad shouting, cussing, scuffling out of the path of my insides splatter-thunking against the truck’s body.

When I lift my head, I spot a shadow on the night skyline. Looks like a farmhouse, someone living out here in this sea of dirt. I point it out to Dad.

“Good eye, my floating daughter. Onward to our saviors.” He whistles his way back to the driver’s seat, and we’re off, headed for the only house sprouting out of the hibernating fields.

While we drive, I squat, prop my head against the buzzing bucket, and stare down sky. It’s all that can keep my guts inside. It’s an impossible image to capture, the night sky, any sky, despite what painters pretend. Fuck Starry Night. Mom loved smearing her oils and pretending that there it was, but her blues were never right, her blacks never deep enough. That’s the catastrophe of representation. Painters like her, they cover a canvas in darks and stab a couple white dots and think they made night. Pollock came closer, better yet, Rothko, by admitting the impossibility of mimicking reality, yet even they still pretended their colors came close. This is why I chose clay. Give me mud squeezed between my fingers over color-slopped ox hairs. One of us is trying to trick people into believing their lying eyes. The other is making something to drink from. Give me water. Sustain me. That lying canvas is merely Mom’s masturbatory escape.

The stars slow and my head steadies. Dad has stopped. I struggle up on my wobbly legs. Dad’s already out of the truck, hands cupped around his mouth. He whisper-hisses up at me, “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail, darling,” and then he scuttles off toward a house that must be the one I spotted. We’re parked on the dirt road, next to their mailbox. I’m eye-level with an oak that’s lost its leaves. Through the skeletal upper branches, a window spills yellow light. I have a perfect view of a bed barely large enough for two, a wooden crucifix above it. Below Dad skips toward their barn. Not toward the house, where he should be goddamn going to ask for help. He disappears, and I’m left to listen to nothing—no breeze, no crickets, no traffic. This nothing swarms me, makes my ears ring. My breaths are riotous. I look around for anything to distract me. Across the road, a little way down, stands the biggest damn Trump-Pence sign I’ve ever seen. This behemoth’s whiteness throbs in the moonlight. I can’t imagine the local campaign headquarters dole these out. This is a custom job, hand painted, and the “Make America Great Again” gets cramped and slanted on the “again” where the artist planned their space poorly. It’s not on the lot with the farmhouse, but I don’t see any other houses. It must be their folk-art tribute to Trump.

Back at the house, bodies appear in the window. A woman slaps a man across the face once, slaps him again. He hangs his head. She’s yelling at him, but I hear nothing. This Michigan farm house is so well insulated against winter, against cold, that not a single syllable could escape. Not even as her mouth gapes, and I catch the flash of teeth and tongue. His chin buries deeper into his chest. And I wonder if this is how Dad took it from Mom, if she hit him, if he stopped smiling, if he begged. She used to berate him for his dumb purchases—the cherry picker, brand-new gas-powered paint sprayer, barely used jackhammer, the 3D printer he almost inexplicably purchased before I talked him out of it. He’s a dumb dream spender, but when Grandma died and left Mom a little money, she was the one buying paint and plane tickets. Dad, not her, wept when he saw my first tuition bill and immediately emptied his wallet into my hands.

The window woman holds the man’s cheeks, is probably scowling into his eyes, melting him with her stare. At least the man gets this. Mom probably jetted without warning. She sure as hell didn’t warn me, just called once she was in Dorado, Puerto Rico. She calls every Sunday now, regales me with detailed descriptions of her newest paintings, how her brushstrokes have grown so wide and free, how she’s evolved to using a palette knife. She tells me I have to visit right away. We’ll drink margaritas and sangrias on the beach and the whoosh of waves will invigorate my artist spirit. When we talk, I play this game of clicking the volume button on my phone, quieter and quieter until she’s less than a whisper.

The woman still holds the man’s face, and I’m waiting for these Trump lovers to explode at each other. Their torsos collapse together, their arms weaving into a hug. They both wear drab-colored plaid and from my distance, I can’t tell where one body separates from the other. The bile rises again, but I fight it back, force myself not to blink until my eyes burn. The night’s silence blares. Then crashing metal clatters from the barn. The bodies break apart, and the man nears the windows, peers out at the night where I am, where Dad is. And then the man’s body is gone. New squares of yellow light up as the man zig-zags through his house and down the stairs toward the front entrance.

The door opens, and a body stalks out. As he nears me on the way toward the barn, I identify the gun in his hand. Something long barreled, a shotgun or rifle. I know nothing. Dad has never owned a gun. I worry Dad’s buzzed enough to do something stupid. I imagine him pouncing on his shoulders from the rafters and then spinning into a sales pitch and stuffing the man’s flannel breast pockets with business cards. So I have to act first, even though I’m trapped up here with the trees. I hoot, like an owl. I’m not sure why I hoot, why I don’t just say, “Hey, asshole,” but I hoot and it works and the man is trudging my way with his gun.

“Bit late to be working the telephone lines.” He stands below Bertha’s bucket, and he’s close enough that I can clearly see what he’s packing. It’s a crossbow, dozily hanging in his grip, some fancy fiberglass number with a red laser dot dancing off the scope. A gun I’d feel better about. A gun is a comfortable, normalized product of American paranoia. This, though—I wonder if this farmer’s pillow bulges over the crossbow he sleeps on. Just in case. You never know when Obama will come for your guns. I wonder if this is the kind of man who might repo part-time when he’s not doing whatever farmers do and sharpening arrow tips on a grinder.

“We’re not doing anything,” I say.

He lifts the crossbow, points it at his house’s glowing bedroom window. “Having a little peep?”

“I didn’t see.”

“Just seems like a lot of trouble.” The man scratches his thigh using the crossbow. “Rent a lift truck, drive it all the way out here, just to see a middle-aged man’s skivvies.”

“We own it,” I say. And I think about spitting on that big moonlit Trump-loving nose. “My dad and me own it. We don’t rent.”

“Long-term perverts, then. Good for you making a serious go at it,” he says. “Now get off my property.”

“I’m in the road.”

“Well, get off my road.”

“You don’t own this,” I say. “It’s my right to stay here and look in any goddamn window owned by any goddamn idiot lazy and stupid enough not to hang curtains.”

“I suppose what I mean to say,” the man waves the crossbow in the air, “is I’m telling you that you gotta scram.”

I wonder how fast an arrow flies. I feel like I’d have time to duck if this asshole is truly crazy enough to fire. Then that arrow would just keep going, arc into a hayfield and plant itself until some other farmer came along and threshed it into horse feed. Two counties over, some expensive thoroughbred’s gums will spill blood like a magic trick.

“I’ll stay as long as I feel like,” I say.

“The shit you will.”

“Waddle along, redneck.”

“How about you come down and I teach you some manners?”

“She can’t come down,” Dad says. The farmer and I both turn. Dad somehow snuck up on us while hoisting a massive extension ladder over his head. “Our lift motor’s on the fritz. Betrayed us. She’s stuck as a duck up there.”

“Don’t see how that’s my problem,” he says. “Don’t see how that means you get to steal my ladder.”

“Just a borrow, my kind neighbor.” Dad stands his ground, even though the farmer now faces him, crossbow dangling. We all know it’s there. “Then we’ll be out of your business and back to ours.”

“What business you got so late?” the man says.

“Midnight Painters,” I holler. “Dry before dawn is our motto.”

“Cute.” The man spits at the ground without looking up at me.

“Twilight Fix ‘em Upper and Daughter,” Dad says.

“Give me a break.”

“By sunrise you won’t believe your eyes,” I say.

“Patch and Clean While You Dream Incorporated,” Dad says.

“Made in America,” I say.

“Licensed and insured,” Dad says.

“Totally legit,” I say.

“We pay taxes and have never once filed bankruptcy,” Dad says. He must have seen the sign. How could anyone miss it?

The man slings the crossbow over his shoulder, relaxes his posture.

“And we can build a wall. Around your whole farm to keep out the rapists if you contract us,” I say.

“It’s gonna be huge,” Dad says. “Super classy.”

“Walls Are Us,” I say.

“Have a Ball Walls,” Dad says.

“We Are the Wall-Rus,” I say.

“Wall-Mart,” Dad says.

“Wall-mageddon,” I say.

“Make America Great Again Walls,” Dad says. “Terrific walls. Tremendously winning walls.”

“We won’t leave a single pussy ungrabbed,” I say.

“Okay, okay,” the man waves with his empty hand for us to stop. I can’t tell if he’s laughing or fuming, but my chest stings with swelling. “Just go ahead and use the ladder so I can get back to sleep.”

But I know his secret. I know there’s fight and fissure awake in that house of his. No sleep for him anymore than for us.

Dad props the ladder against the bucket while the man holds the base for him, his crossbow abandoned on the cherry picker’s wheel well. Dad and the farmer seem to be chuckling about something. Dad calls for me to climb down, but I can’t do it. It’s not that I’m scared of heights or the fall. It’s that when I come down, this will be over, this night of drunk stars and hating Mom and floating over the real world that just voted on how they feel about me. What’s down there is no place for me—a dropout ceramicist, a woman worker, hell, a woman. No wonder Mom bailed. Staying stuck isn’t my worst option. I sink into the bucket. Dad shouts again, and the farmer joins in, both urging me out.

Eventually Dad’s wire-brush scalp pops over the bucket. He reaches out his hand. Even in moonlight his palms show calluses. When I was four, I used to sleep under my bed. I waited for that moment when Mom and Dad would whisper and shuffle around the room searching for me, terrified, imagining me gone. I never felt as full in my own body than in those seconds of being missing. Then Dad would drop to his belly, his head pressed to the carpet. He’d wiggle his mustache at me and reach out that same rough palm. When I took it, Mom would be there, and in a couple more hours the whole world would rematerialize from the night. Rational, tangible, sun-shining day.

I take Dad’s hand and yank. He looks surprised, but he gets it, gets me. He climbs into the bucket.

“What the hell you all doing up there?” the farmer calls.

“Sorry, darling,” Dad says just for me, just loud enough to stay in this bucket where we sit knees touching. “Wish the whole world was better for you.”

“Hell with the world.”

“We’ve always been okay,” he says. “Our little us.”

“You don’t know how to be alone.”

“I don’t.” He looks me in the eye even though I bet he wants to look anywhere else. “Not since you were born.”

“Fuck Mom and fuck Trump. They can drool over themselves and dream about how great they are and forget everyone else.”

“They’re not the same, my sweet,” he says. “Don’t lump your mom with lumpy Trump.”

I smile, because what else can I do? Not everyone can be them. Hell, not even half the country wants this. I grip the ladder’s side rails and shout down at the farmer, “Wanna buy a cherry picker?”

“No?” he says like a question. I throw the rails and the ladder slides over. There’s nothing the farmer can do to stop its crash.

“She’s properly drunk, my friend.” Dad has popped up next to me. “Sincerest apologies.”

“That your sign over there?” I spit.

“If anything’s broken—a single rung dinged—you’ll receive reparations,” Dad says.

“Now’s the best time ever to buy a bucket truck.”

We’re yelling against and over each other. Dad kicks my shin playfully. He’s having as much fun as I am. He’s with me.

“Don’t worry about her,” Dad says and kicks again. “Moon’s out and her hysteria’s acting up.”

“They ripped too many babies out of me.”

“We’re planning a few fetus burials. That’ll fix her.”

“You’re invited, to every single one. All you gotta do is buy this here beauty.”

The farmer stares past us to the freezing dirt fields. “That sign just showed up one day. Like Christ’s face on your toast. And now every morning it blocks the sunrise. Big square of black shadow every morning.”

“Who’d you vote for?” I ask.

“At least whoever planted it there will pull it up now,” the farmer says, still gazing off. “Who the hell has time to vote?” he answers.

“Buy the truck, and we’ll throw in a free sign removal,” I say.

Dad seems out of jokes. Me too. We’re daughter and father full of missing—my clay, his wife, my mom, a house painted all white that we didn’t think mattered to us until it suddenly mattered more than anything has ever mattered. Trump’s calling for winners and losers, drawing a line, a binary colder than Michigan winters against Puerto Rican summers. I don’t see how we ever end up winners. At least we snapped the farmer’s telephone lines with Bertha’s bucket, and the news of those last twenty thousand Michigan votes will just stay suspended. I can’t bear to hear more. So I laugh for what I don’t know, and Dad laughs along, and we rock the bucket, and we make ghost oohs into the night. This farmer must be sure we’re complete nut jobs by now.

“Before I decide anything,” the farmer says, his head thrown back on his hinge neck, his eyes glistening, “I’d have to test drive.”

Dad tosses down the keys that crash in the man’s fist. The yellow square of bedroom light back at his house goes dark. He’s all night now, just like us. He gets into the cab and rumbles up Bertha’s gurgle-gutted engine. He’s gentle on the throttle, takes his time pushing out onto the long dirt road that in summer will be flanked by hay, by corn, by soy. Currently, the land stretches barren in waves of dirt. This is a stranger’s lands, and we’re trespassers clouding over every future seed and shoot some farmer will nurse.

We three know he’s not going to buy the cherry picker. But he’s driving faster. Dad slides an arm around my shoulder, tucks me against his ribs. I watch his face, his lips under that forever mustache of his. These are the parts of my parents I’ll never witness: Dad’s naked upper lip, Mom painting an unstill life on a Puerto Rican beach, my parents ever again together. Even though I can’t see them, those images ball in my head like a clump of clay. I could mash it all together, knead out the bubbles until no fire could ever harm these unwitnessed impossibilities.

The wind picks up. Our driver’s flannel arm sails out the window. His open palm surfs the wind waves. He could be taking us out to the woods to dump us. Or he could be just riding the night along with us. Wherever he’s driving, we’re gaining momentum. Dad’s arm leaves me, raises into the night air. Both hands up, fingers spread, catching the wind like the farmer, hailing the night. I’m not quite ready to let go of the bucket. I’m a potter. I make by squeezing, pressure over release. The cherry picker’s catching more speed, propelled by a heartbroken farmer. Heartbroken is easy. Fragments are easy to mash back together so long as they haven’t dried out. I haven’t been out of school too long. Not too late. And I hope this farmer in the cab of my father’s cherry picker has a hurt that’s still fresh and wet, too. All the hurt surrounding tonight seems new enough yet. Dad’s on his tip toes, head back, howling. And I might. I just might let go of the bucket rim and push my hands higher in the air too. Higher and higher. I might. I just might.

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now teaches creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, Witness, and Threepenny Review.