Dad built a fire pit in our backyard this summer, a beautiful ring of blue granite wrapped around crushed gravel and packed sand. It’s the first project he’s completed since he retired back in March and sold his auto body shop to a national chain, and sitting here in the backyard with him and Mom and a six-pack of Coors at my feet, staring into the crackling flames, the smell of cedar smoke filling my nose, I feel like things might actually be okay for once, but then Dad clears his throat in that loud, harsh, formal way he does when he really wants to get my attention, and just like that my nice little buzz is gone and my brain goes back to feeling like a stretched out garbage bag that’s about to split open.
“Dale,” Dad says, staring through the flames at me. Before he can say another word, I snap a beer off my six-pack, pop the tab, and start chugging. “Dale, put down the beer and listen to me, please.”
I hold up my index finger and chug for another four seconds and let out a little burp. In an instant I feel better, as if I’m far away from myself and the rest of the world, locked in a safe place where the pain and the bullshit can no longer touch me. Then I put down my beer because it’s empty.
“Jesus,” Dad says.
Mom shakes her head and looks up. Black storm clouds that weren’t there ten minutes ago cluster in the sky. The leaves on the trees flutter in the strengthening breeze and turn upside down.
“Looks like rain,” I say, reaching for another beer.
“Dale, listen to me,” Dad says, his voice rising with anger and concern. “You have to stop with the drinking. You have a serious problem.”
I shake my head and pop the tab of my second beer.
“There’s nothing wrong with liking beer,” I say, raising the can to my lips. I don’t say anything else because the real thoughts in my head would scare them too much. How can I tell them that ever since I graduated college three years ago, my life has become nothing but a meaningless trudge between my empty room at home and my shitty, minimum-wage job at the car wash?
“But you were driving drunk last night!” Mom yells. “You destroyed the mailbox when you pulled into the driveway. You could’ve killed someone!”
Staring at the empty beer can in the grass, I remember all the days in college I spent drinking and watching hockey with the boys, back when booze was just a fun and exciting distraction, not a necessity for survival.
“I know,” I say. “But I didn’t.”
“What you need is to get out of your goddamn head and think about someone else for a change,” Dad says, jabbing his finger at me. “They always need help down at the soup kitchen in town. And now that I mention it, you and me are going to go down there tomorrow and volunteer for the day.”
“But that’ll just make things worse,” I say. I chug the rest of my second beer, but the pain doesn’t go away this time. I’m still my same shitty self, trapped in my same shitty life, sitting in front of Dad’s nice fire pit. “That’s just working without getting paid!”
Thunder crashes overhead, a godlike roar that seems to shake the earth beneath me.
All three of us shudder at the noise and look up.
“We’ll continue this inside,” Dad says to me. Then he picks up the bucket sitting beside him, pours water onto the fire, and swirls the ashes with the blade of a shovel. As he and Mom jog back to the house, he stops and speaks into my ear.
“You’re never going to be happy until you learn how to care about something other than yourself. Think about that.”
Once he’s gone, I guzzle another beer and look up. Instead of rain, dozens of three-toed sloths start falling from the sky.
My first instinct tells me to bend down, save the rest of my six-pack, and book it back to the house, but I don’t. This time I step back from the fire pit and actually think about Dad’s words. When I look up again, I see a falling sloth coming my way. Backpedaling, I get into position to make the catch. I bend at the knees and cup my arms into a basket. A ragged gust of wind cuts past my face. The wait seems to last forever.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/