If Joshua Ives knew the word serene, he would use it to describe his childhood, but Joshua and his brother Noah didn’t know any fancy words like that. When their father, Branson announced that he would not be sending any of his sons to that Sissy School, he took on their education himself. They would have sporadic lessons in between Branson’s trips to the woods for his business.
Branson used to have a job, but he gave it up because he was a real man, and wasn’t going to become a wage slave to the American government. So now he conducted his business in the woods which the boys learned never to ask about. Whenever he had a free moment, he taught Joshua and Noah. Most of his lessons revolved around hunting and wilderness survival, but somehow both boys had learned how to read and do simple mathematics. Noah somehow developed a taste for poetry, but he had enough sense to hide it from Branson
In fact, both of the boys had a secret skill they kept from their father. Joshua learned how to cook. He loved his mother’s cooking, but there would be days she would announce that she wasn’t planning on doing anything. She would just lie in bed doing nothing, not even sleeping, and someone had to pick up the slack. On those days, around dinnertime Noah would cajole Mother out of bed, and they would tie an apron around her middle. By the time Branson got home, dinner would be ready and an apron-clad Mother would be seated at the table. It was just easier if no one told Branson Joshua had done all the cooking.
The Ives family lived so far out in the mountains that Mother and Branson never had any strict rules for the boys. On the days Mother got up, she would usually have grits on the stove. The men in the family would eat theirs with maple syrup. If Mother ever ate grits in the morning Joshua never saw. Noah would take a few slow bites, waiting for Joshua to finish eating. Usually Joshua would finish off Noah’s breakfast too. If they didn’t have any lessons, they would pack Branson’s old suitcase with an assortment of food for the day. Then they would set out before the fighting started, spending the rest of the day by the river watching trout and poking at the mud, hoping to scare up a bullfrog or two.
Their peace was a curated one, but it was good enough.
When Joshua was eight, Branson took them out in the boat for some fishing. He never let them talk much, which was fine with Joshua. Noah always took it hard though. He would whisper things to Joshua, despite the fact that it made Branson angry. Joshua would always try to give him discouraging looks, but nothing ever stopped Noah from talking.
They all three caught a fish that day, but Joshua’s was the biggest. It took all of his strength and a little of Branson’s to drag it out of the water. When they finally got it into the boat, the boys stared at it wide-eyed. It was the kind of fish that usually got away in most people’s stories. They both looked to Branson.
“Pretty decent,” Branson said.
“Decent? It’s the biggest fish in this river,” Joshua said.
It was a rare outburst. Usually Joshua would outwardly agree with everything his dad said, even if he harbored doubts.
“Well, it’s the biggest fish now,” Branson said, spitting over the side of the boat. “When I was a year younger’n you I got one that was double that.”
“You did not.”
Joshua felt Noah beginning to move his elbow against his stomach. He hated when people touched his stomach, so he shoved his brother away from him.
“This is bigger’n any fish you or anyone ever caught,” Joshua insisted.
Everything seemed to go quiet. The birds stopped calling and Noah started to shrink in on himself. Even the water sounds seemed to lessen around them. Branson turned his ice blue eyes on his son's face for a beat, and then looked out across the river to the other side.
“You callin’ me a liar?” Branson said, calm enough to make Joshua’s blood instantly cool.
“No sir,” he whispered to his own shoes.
“Good. I said you done good, didn’t I? That’s a decent sized fish. Now let’s take it Mother and get her to cook it for us.”
The constructed peace resumed with the sounds of the river.
Two days after Joshua turned twenty-one, he was sitting at the bar when Melody asked him if he was embarrassed by his father.
He didn’t know how to respond. Branson Ives had given up a good paying job in order to raise two men. He had taught Joshua and Noah how to hunt and fish and survive in the forest with nothing but the clothes you were wearing. On the other hand, Joshua knew Branson was someone who would come home drunk almost every day of the week, and berate Mother and tell Noah he might as well have been born a girl. To top it all off, Joshua loved Melody. He was angry with her for making him think all these uncomfortable thoughts, but he wanted to impress her so bad.
“I don’t pay him no mind,” he said.
She didn’t look at him, but she began to rigorously wipe down the already gleaming copper bar in front of Joshua. He clutched at his beer bottle to make sure she didn’t knock it over. Her hand was uncomfortably close to his belly. Joshua had been waiting to drop his baby fat for what seemed like years. He sucked in and straightened his spine to move away from her.
“He’s in here all the time,” she said, still without making eye contact.
“I think a lot of men come in here,” Joshua said, but he knew it wasn’t the same.
The other night during dinner he and Noah had kept their eyes fixed on their plates in order to not see Mother’s red-brimmed eyes. Instead he focused on the four even scratches across his father’s arm. It wasn’t like Branson was the only guilty person in the room. They both hollered at each other, and Branson had never hit Mother, at least, not that Joshua had seen.
“You could probably stop this,” Melody said. “He tried to feel up some woman who came in here, you know? Almost got in a big fight with her boyfriend.”
He sipped his beer, and kept his eyes on her hands still wiping off imaginary streaks.
“What am I supposed to do about it?” he said.
“Do you know what courage means?”
“Yeah, it means brave. Just cause I didn’t go to school doesn’t mean I don’t know words.”
“You know he’s always talking ugly about your mom, right?”
Joshua slammed the bottle of beer on the counter and walked out.
He walked past his truck, and out to the dock where his father used to keep the boat. It had disappeared one day along with several pieces of furniture and no one had ever asked Branson what had happened.
Joshua looked out over the water just in time to see a dark shape rise from the water and flop back in with a splash. It still wasn’t as big as that fish he’d caught as a boy, he thought to himself. He picked up a rock and skipped it as far as it could go.
“What can I do?” he asked the river.
Twelve years later, Joshua sat in his father’s living room, watching a replay of the 1985 Iron Bowl. It was one of Branson’s favorites, but lately Joshua had to wake him up before Jelks made his famous twenty-six yard run.
Joshua sighed and looked across the room at Branson sprawled out on the couch. His eyes were closed, and the red of his nose seemed to light up the dim room. The beer clutched in Branson’s hands tipped forward as if he was just about to spill it. For a moment, Joshua considered taking the bottle away, but he had decided last year it was no longer up to him to change Branson.
At first, he had tried. The day Mother and Noah had packed up their clothes and left, Joshua had begun to fight with his father. He told him it was his fault Mother and Noah had to leave. How they had snuck food into a suitcase in an attempt to be assured of their next meal. How alcohol had turned him into an embarrassing paranoid drunk, who had deprived his children of an education. For years after that, Joshua argued with Branson and nothing had changed. He had even tried dumping out any alcohol he found in the house, which was an exercise in futility since Branson had been bootlegging for years. The day the doctors told them the cirrhosis was advanced too far for them to do anything, Joshua had felt white hot rage sweep through his body. He was ashamed to think about how he had stormed out of the doctor’s office, leaving his father alone to think about his own death.
Once again, he had taken his feelings down to the river. Melody had been sent to fetch him. She no longer worked at the bar. She got a job at the hospital answering phones, and Branson had asked her to run after Joshua. She took her pumps off and sat beside Joshua dangling her feet in the water, pretending not to notice how he sucked his belly in. He’d always done that when she was around.
“Your dad’s in pretty bad shape,” she said.
“Yeah, well, he put himself there. I have been arguing with that man ever since you told me I should be embarrassed by him.”
Melody didn’t answer for a long time. She flicked her long leg out of the water a few times, sending glittering droplets into the air.
“I think I might have asked you if you knew what courage was. I guess you had it. I mean, you done all you could,” she finally said.
“Well, it wasn’t enough.”
“You’re all he has, Joshua. Besides, sometimes it’s just as courageous to love someone who don’t deserve it.”
She got up and put her shoes back on. By the time she had started back to the hospital, Joshua was walking beside her. She pretended not to notice that he was crying.
Joshua began spending weekends at his father’s house, making him dinner and watching re-runs of football games with him. They didn’t speak about the liver damage, and Branson continued his drinking. Joshua couldn’t see the point of stopping him now. He might as well enjoy his last few months.
Branson grunted and his eyes flickered open.
“You know, you’re fat Joshua,” he said.
Joshua smiled mildly, and didn’t respond.
After he and Melody had married, she had convinced him to go to his first counseling session. He had resisted it at first, hearing Branson’s voice in his head telling him that kind of stuff was for sissies. Eventually he had formed a relationship with the strange guy who had helped him see that no one was just one thing. Branson could be both a mean drunk and a childhood hero. Joshua had returned to silence, but not the silence of his childhood where he pretended problems away. It was a wise silence, accepting all aspects of his father.
“Speaking of which, are you gonna pick us up something to eat?” Branson asked.
Joshua stood up and picked up his keys from the coffee table.
“You know what, Joshua?” Branson said.
Joshua turned around, expecting Branson to ask him to grab another six-pack while he was out.
“I think that fish you caught was bigger than mine.”
Joshua’s throat closed up and he swallowed a few times before he spoke.
“Yeah, I always knew it, you big liar.”
Joshua could hear his father chuckling as he let the screen door go behind him. It was just a small comment, and no one else but Joshua could tell that the admission held more than its words. It was the closest Branson Ives would come to saying “I love you.”