The First Cut is the Deepest
Henry Crease was twelve years old the last time he saw his dad. It was an August day at his grandparents’ house. His father had had a new knife to show, and Henry’s grandparents had been furious, but not about the knife. After that day his dad just disappeared. It was like the country had swallowed him up. That was twenty years ago; no one has seen or heard from him since. Jack had always been more myth than father, anyways; a fable who haunted the edges of Henry’s life.
Henry’s parents were divorced when he was five. He couldn’t imagine them ever being married. Jack hated his ex-wife, Elaine. Custody of Henry had been granted to his mother, but the agreement allowed Jack visitation rights every other weekend as well as special occasions. The visits were rarely that often, however. Jack worked as a Boilermaker for Local 517. The Union sent him all over the Eastern seaboard and the southern states, so he was constantly on the move.
It was late summer and Jack hadn’t been around since Christmas. He had called Elaine from a payphone that day telling her he had something important to say to his son. Henry was waiting at his grandparents’ house when Jack walked through the door.
His father was not yet forty but had lost the majority of his hair, what remained was tucked behind his ears. His head was covered by a cotton welder’s cap with a brim that pointed straight down. Jack was like some mysterious horseman that drifted through the fantasy stories Henry read: an enigmatic figure that always seemed to have exotic hand-made weapons and a secret knowledge of the way the world worked.
Like those characters, his father had weapons and, Henry imagined, possessed secret knowledge too. Jack made knives in his spare time and on several occasions he had held up a sheet of paper in front of his son and cut straight down the length of it. The blades were so highly polished and sharp that they never tore the paper, no snags whatsoever. The knives were always made from the horn of some animal Jack had killed, offsetting the sleekness of the blades with a primeval, mysterious rawness.
The everyday tools of his dad’s work seemed mysterious as well. Once when he stood watching Jack unload tools from his work truck, Henry spotted a large pair of gloves. He imagined they were gauntlets. He could see his father standing in the middle of a field, arms raised, while hundreds of hawks raced towards those waiting arms.
“Dad, what are those gloves for? Are they for catching hawks?” Henry had asked.
“No son, those are welding gloves. They keep the fire off ya.”
“Oh,” Henry had softly responded, that’s even better.
These objects were from a world that Henry didn’t understand. It was a world of men and work. Henry’s grandfather, Pap, inhabited this realm; he had been brought up in it and was privy to its secrets. Henry was only twelve and being raised by his mother, so this world was largely hidden from him and the ability to communicate with men was underdeveloped and stunted. There seemed to be no common ground, especially with his father.
That summer day Jack had walked through the door and casually greeted his son, “Hey Henry. How ya been?”
Henry moved around the table and hugged his father.
“I’ve been okay, I think school’s gonna be hard this year. Do you still have your truck?” Henry didn’t know what else to say.
“Well, son…I sold the truck. I’ve got a jeep now; you wanna go for a ride?”
“Yeah, cool,” Henry replied as he moved toward the door.
Henry’s grandmother inserted herself between the father and son. “I need to talk to you,” she said to Jack.
“Can’t it wait, mother? I’m talkin’ to my son, here. You can see that can’t you?” Jack was annoyed and tried to stare his mother down, but it was useless. Althea Crease would not be put off. Jack reluctantly followed his mother outside.
“I’ll be right back, son,” he said as he closed the door.
Henry went to the kitchen window and looked outside straining to hear the voices. Jack and his mother moved further away from the house. Pap, who had been seated at the table, spoke up.
“Sit down, boy. They’ll be back in a minute. Let them be.”
“Yes sir,” he replied and sat back down.
Henry and Pap sat in silence. Voices raised and lowered in the back yard, but the words were impossible to make out. After about five minutes, Jack walked back in followed by Althea, who stalked off down the hallway and slammed the bedroom door. Jack sat down at the kitchen table.
“Hey Daddy, how’s things been?” Jack said and softly chuckled, “Mama’s pretty upset.”
“I think she has a right to be, son, don’t you?”
“Well, Daddy…I’m not sure about that. It doesn’t make sense to me, I’m a grown goddamned man…and I hate to say it but this is what I’m going to do and you and mother don’t really have a say. I just don’t see what the hell you two have to do with it.”
“That’s enough, son…I know damn good and well you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do,” Pap said coldly.
“All right…all I’m sayin’ is…you and Mama are just alike,” Jack muttered, and looked at his hands. He began to work his fingernail between the vinyl and the pressboard of the table creating a slit. The only sound in the kitchen was the edge of the table splitting as Jack ran his fingernail down its length. Pap watched his son and didn’t say anything. Jack stopped and looked up at Pap, but he spoke to Henry.
“When does school start back up?”
“In three weeks. I’m supposed to have Miss Stanhope for geometry this year. Jimmy told me she was hard.”
“Yeah…she is. I failed that class. That woman’s older than dirt; I think she was alive before they invented math,” his father adjusted his cap and stopped clawing at the table.
Henry laughed, “That’s what Jimmy said. He said that God had been in her class too, but she would never let him get up to go to the bathroom,” Henry snorted and started giggling. His cousin Jimmy always made him laugh; it often got him in trouble.
“That doesn’t make any sense son…”
Henry stopped laughing and looked down at his lap, “…sorry.”
Pap spoke up then, “Why don’t you just tell the boy what you come here to tell him…you ain’t changed Jackson, not one damn bit. You’re always gonna leave, so just do it, quit tryin’ to be a father…” He pushed himself away from the table and got up, the metal legs scraping on the linoleum.
“You got five minutes to tell that boy what you come here for, then I want you gone,” and he turned, walked into the living room, sat in his recliner and turned on the TV.
Pap’s face was redder than Henry had ever seen it. His grandfather was rarely angry, Henry didn’t know what was happening and it scared him. He looked at his father, but didn’t dare speak.
Jack was staring into the living room. He chuckled softly again and shook his head. “Goddamn,” he breathed and then leaned back, reaching toward his belt.
“Look at this one, son, it’s brand new. The handle came from a ten point buck I shot in Edwards County, you wanna see?”
“Yeah,” he said, but Henry didn’t care about the knife.
“You think your grandfather wants to see it? Maybe I could show him what it can do? What do you think, son?”
“I don’t…” Henry stammered.
“Ah, hell…it doesn’t matter…your granddaddy never did care about anything I made anyway,” Jack chuckled again and stared at the blade, “shit.”
The television gently played in the living room. Henry thought he could hear his grandmother crying and swearing from down the hall, but it could have been his imagination. His father continued to sit at the kitchen table, staring at the knife and turning the handle in his hand. He seemed lost and anxious to leave, like a ghost who doesn’t understand why he can’t move on.
At last his father spoke, “Son, get me a piece of paper; let’s see just how sharp this one is.”
“Yessir,” and Henry moved across the kitchen. His grandparents kept a stack of paper underneath the phone. As he grabbed a sheet he thought, I don’t need to be shown how sharp that blade is. Henry knew the knife would slide right through the paper making one long, smooth cut with no ragged edge and no snags. Not one little snag.