Flash Fiction: A Life in Pine and Steel by Wess Mongo Jolley

The hospice nurse comes twice a day now and has shown us how to use the morphine in the “end-of-life” kit in the refrigerator. She says we’ll know when the time is right. She tells us the cancer is shutting down his body. She suggests we take him to the bathroom, just so he can get out of the rented hospital bed and stand under his own power one last time.

Leaning heavily on his walker and the nurse, my stepfather shuffles through this last journey. Halfway there, he hesitates mid-step, and looks down—eyes focused on something invisible on the blue carpet in front of him. For a moment, his voice is strong, and he’s my stepfather again. The man who married my mother and made her life complete after almost two decades as a widow. The father of three, in whose service he had cut thousands of boards, driven thousands of nails. The man who picked me up at the airport, his face drawn with grief, to usher me to the hospital so I could be with my mother in her last moments.

The man who held up the crumbling body of the woman he loved, year after year, until time and the cancer she fought so bravely took her from his still strong hands.

As he shuffles toward the bathroom, his voice is clear, and his eyes catch mine for just a moment as he points to the carpeted floor of the bedroom.

“Don’t step on that board,” he says. “There are nails in it.”

The nurse smiles and steers him around the empty spot on the carpet, before sitting him down on the toilet and closing the door to give him some privacy. We all stand outside and wait.

Likely, the board he remembers was not remarkable at the time. Perhaps it was forty years ago, and as he was finishing up the playhouse he was building for his first daughter, he saw it lying at his feet. It wasn’t a remarkable board, but it stuck in his memory because there were nails in it, and he shuddered with the dread every parent has that something they neglect will injure their child.

What if Lisa had stepped on that? he thought as he picked it up and tossed it onto the workbench.

Or maybe that’s not the board at all.

I imagine this man, my stepfather, as a five-year-old. It is sometime around the second World War, and he is sitting behind his house in the dust, practicing a newly learned skill. With both hands on an adult-size hammer, I see him pounding nail after rusty nail into an old scrap of barn wood. The sun is golden, as it always is in memories, and he is wiping beads of sweat off his brow, focused so intently on his task that even the midday mosquitoes don’t break his concentration. Slowly, but with growing confidence, he pounds nail after nail into the old board, until it can’t hold any more, and splits into the dust.

Perhaps there was a treehouse he built as a teenager, just as he would teach his sons to do years later. He was enchanted by the way those scraps of wood and rusty nails magically transformed that tree into a mighty fortress. The board he remembers could be one that he nailed, horizontally, into the trunk, providing a hand and foot hold that lifted him to that castle in the sky.

Or perhaps it is a board which he has left, even now, unfinished on the table in his workshop. It lies there, in the garage below our feet, lost among every imaginable scrap of wood, length of hose, tool, and hunk of hardware that a working man can accumulate in three-quarters of a century of tinkering. The board he remembers could be a part of some project that he began, even as his own cancer made lifting a hammer beyond his means. Halfway finished, and too tired to continue, perhaps he stared at the board with the nails in it, thinking, Someone should pull those out before one of the grandkids hurt themselves.

Or, more likely, there is no single board. For a man who has spent his life measuring and cutting and nailing, at some point it all blurs, and there is only an archetypal paternal image of wood and tools, cuts and angles, grain and texture. The board he envisions may represent the continual process of building and creating that defined every day of his life.

Likewise, there are no nails in this single board. Just the thousands upon thousands of nails he’s pounded over the years—in houses and woodsheds, in lawn furniture and doghouses, and in the decking behind the summer cabin. Curiously succinct and pointed objects, these nails, with clear meaning and purpose: to pierce, and to join. Pieces of steel that help make a life out of the raw materials of living.

It’s not the board or the nails, it’s the laughing child in the playhouse. It’s the face of his wife as she relaxed in the sun on the deck he built for her. It’s the ramp he hammered together to load the snowmobiles into the truck, the picnic table he repaired at the cabin so they could sit with the grandchildren in the sunshine and share laughter and food and listen to the click of the dominoes against the red painted wood. It’s the extra handrails he installed, to give my mother another few months of being able to climb the stairs on her own.

My stepfather’s old hands, now too weak to grasp the walker, still tremble as if they long for the feel of a rubber-gripped hammer. As if they still remember that thrill of driving a nail with a single powerful stroke.

It’s not the board or the nails that matter, at the end. It’s the steady and strong hands that gripped the tools for the better part of a century and built a world that brought joy to those he loved. It’s the totality of a life lived in pine and steel.

Wess Mongo Jolley is a Canadian novelist, editor, podcaster, poet, and poetry promoter. He is most well-known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for over ten years. His poetry and short stories have appeared in journals such as Apparition Literary Magazine, Off the Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, Danse Macabre, The Chamber Magazine, The Legendary, decomP, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, RFD, TreeHouse Arts, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. His supernatural horror trilogy, The Last Handful of Clover, is currently being released serially on Patreon, Wattpad, QSaltLake, and as an audiobook podcast. Mongo writes and freelance edits full time from his home in Montréal, Québec. Learn more about him at http://wessmongojolley.com.

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