By John Thomas Tuft

His boots are caked with mud when he comes in for the evening. He takes them off and shuffles down the long hallway, guided by the single brass sconce light high on the wall across from the door to the living room, stocking feet stepping on the braided rag rug Martha made from the kids’ old clothes. It is scuffed and worn, just like his boots. Faded just like his heart. Martha is gone now, the house is too empty, and the shadows in the corner of the kitchen make it feel all the colder. He silently curses the row of prescription bottles lined up on the windowsill above the old country sink. He opens the refrigerator door and the light from within reveals a few bottles of Old Man Winter Ale, some dried up Velveeta and a jar of pickles. He flips open the lone Styrofoam meal container, pulls out the slice of ham and cornbread muffin inside of it and slams the door closed, juggling the Old Man Winter Ale and his makeshift sandwich.

Back down the hallway he goes, self-consciously wiping his stocking feet on the rag rug before he steps into the room. On the wall above the fireplace mantel hangs a simple cross-stitch spelling out: “You say you love the baby, but then you crucify the man.” Some dried flowers in a vase sit beside a picture of Martha, the two girls and his son. Back in the day. He lights a fire in the fireplace, watches out the window for a few moments, noting the snow smoothing out the jagged tree branches that frame the gate, that leads to the road, that leads to the big, outside world. He chews the meat and cornbread slowly, savors the drink. Then he sits down at the old rolltop desk, picks up the familiar fountain pen, and pulls the paper close into the circle of light cast by the old banker’s lamp. He studies the shelves above the desk, lined with his collection of old railroad lanterns, hoping for some sort of signal, a right of way to speak his heart.

 “To my son,” he scratches across the paper. “There are a few things I wanted to tell you about being a man before…” He stops, not sure how to proceed. He goes back to the kitchen, counts out his heart pills and water pills and blood pressure pills and who knows what, returns to the desk and uses the last of the Old Man Winter Ale to wash them down. Martha would not approve, but that’s neither here nor there any longer. Picks up the pen and resumes: “before it is too late. You can read this or not, but I have to say it. You know me, I always try to say what I mean. But that’s just it. There are things you don’t know about me. That may surprise you, but fathers don’t always want their sons to think of them as anything but a strong man.” He stops and stares at his words, unaware that he is chewing on the end of the pen as he ponders.

“I was quiet as a boy, shy, and sometimes the other kids would tease me or bully me. I didn’t have very big dreams and the ones I did have seem to all be dilapidated as soon as I dreamed them. My daddy worked the railroad and we lived in a tar shack near the tracks. Momma made sure we got to school. I’m real sorry you never got to meet your grandparents but they were good folks. I taught you to work hard and you did, getting through college on your own. Your mother and I taught you to love reading and now you are a teacher.” He pauses, looks up at the signal lamps on the shelf. Am I looking for a ‘home’ signal or a ‘knock down’ instruction from the great beyond, he wonders? “I wanted to say that I am very proud of you, if I never told you before. Your sisters look up to you, just remember they have a mind of their own.”

He blots the ink, then adds, “It’s not how much you are liked or how much you make. It’s how much you love.” He turns out the light and sits in the dark for a long moment, watching the snow add quiet to the darkness. The lamp is turned back on and he notices he still is holding the pen. “To my son,” he adds, once again, “turn evil into hope and remember, you cannot lie to the land. Love, Your Father.” With that, he settles onto the couch and dozes off in front of the fire. The flicker of the flames reflects in the empty bottle of Old Man Winter Ale and, in the colored lenses of the railroad signal lanterns, on the shelf, above the desk, which cradles the letter, written To My Son. In the hallway, the light in the sconce lamp on the wall starts to flicker as stillness settles in…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.