On the Street
Richie Burns, age seven, stood on the sidewalk that led from his sagging front porch across the withered lawn into Prospect Street and watched his breath go up like smoke. Although traffic usually was light in this Kansas City neighborhood, his father, Frank, had forbidden him to go into the street. Since the family had moved here from their tinderbox farmhouse on the outskirts of Independence, the boy had wondered where Prospect might take him. He could see its blacktop and gray cement curbs weren't like the nameless dusty gravel road that seemed to run forever straight past the farmhouse; instead, Prospect became a dead end at the bottom of the hill where it branched off into different streets and those streets into still others. Who knew where they went? His father had told him if he went into the street, he would be lost. "There's no telling where you might end up," his father warned, "family court, a foster home, reform school."
Richie felt like running, but he forced himself to stay on the sidewalk. He looked down at the concrete. Cracked and broken beneath his feet by dead roots, it forced him to lean forward, as if urging him to dart off in some new direction. When he looked ahead, the whole world seemed to be off balance. He spun around quickly, trying to stay on his feet and make it all come straight. But everything behind him hung over his head, twisted into odd angles—not only the house but the clouded sky. Richie turned back and felt his way down the sidewalk looking for a flat spot where he had a better chance of holding his ground.
He paused by the stump of an old oak tree. It was almost as big as the table, which his father had bought at a thrift shop and wrestled into the kitchen on moving day, just after Christmas. Richie remembered his dad bent sweating over the table and grunting, "Boy, you are one heavy son of a bitch! What was I thinking, bringing you? But you're here now, and you're gonna stay." When his dad trotted back to the U-Haul for the chairs, Richie lingered in the kitchen, standing in the melting snow of his father's footsteps. He set his coloring book down on the table and ran a red crayon back and forth over the sketch of a bungalow, trying to stay within the lines.
The family had moved to Prospect Street after the divorce and the accident, as soon as Traveler's Insurance had issued a check. From the day they moved in Richie's father had worried over that tree, but he had waited until the middle of March, when the weather warmed, to take it down. Richie remembered that hardly a day had gone by without his dad grumbling across the table, "I'd feel better if I knew the roots were good. Anybody can see the branches run off every which a way. And that stubby one hanging over the house? That looks rotten. Any little thing might bring it down." Then, his father would look directly at Richie and growl, "I'm not going to stand by and watch the roof fall in on another house." His father kept trying to set the family straight: they were staying together.
From where Richie stood, the whole last year seemed crooked and splintered. At first the old farmhouse near Independence had seemed too crowded. There was a lot of yelling and throwing dishes around, some ruffled feathers and even a little blood—something about a secretary where his father worked. Then, Richie's mother had run off to Texas, and the house felt too empty. A month after the divorce his father had married Brenda, a receptionist at Kinsman Trucking where he was a dispatcher in the freight division. When Brenda moved in and brought her five-year-old daughter, Amy, from a previous marriage to a policeman, the farmhouse became more crowded than ever. A few weeks later it burned down. The fire had started in the kitchen. Richie remembered how hot the flames felt on his face and hands that night. He had turned and run into the autumn darkness, found the garden hose coiled outside the back door, and doused himself with cold water.
Now he waited for his father, as he had been told, beside the stump. With his left hand he followed the jagged scar across the wood. He could see that before the two saw cuts running from opposite sides could come together, the tree had snapped and come crashing down. It reminded Richie of the way a kitchen match will splinter when it is struck too hard against the box.
Richie remembered the chain saw's snarl, the smell of charred dust, his father's shouted warning to stay put. But when the tree began to fall of its own weight, he had turned away from his father and run, stopping just short of the street. When he looked back at the felled tree beside the driveway, he had seen fluttering birds trying to perch crookedly on its broken limbs. Even after his father had dismembered the old oak, split the logs, and stacked them to be hauled away for firewood, a sweet, sickening smell lingered, hanging over the house and yard.
Richie recalled that after dinner his father had sent him into the dusk to sweep up the broken twigs and dead leaves in the driveway. With his feet he had traced the impression the fallen trunk had left. It was like stumbling around in a shallow grave. Richie had hoped to find some scraps of wood to make a frame for the contact sheet of six small pictures his mother had left behind—him seated on her lap, both making silly faces in a 25-cent, self-service photo booth at Walgreen's. When his dad had seen them, he'd taken scissors, threatening to cut Richie's mother out of each picture. But Richie had snatched them from his dad's hands and run screaming, so he had gotten to keep them. Now only small splintered branches remained scattered or buried, nothing suitable for making a frame to hold a memory.
As Richie waited beside the stump for his father, his stomach rebelled. He had only pretended to eat breakfast, pushing his spoon around in a bowl of gray, hot Ralston. For weeks he had begged his stepmother to buy the cereal so he could send off the box top for a Captain Marvel Secret Decoder ring. But she wouldn't give him the box top until the cereal was gone. No matter how much sugar he put on it the Ralston tasted like sawdust. Richie didn't think the box would ever be empty; he didn't think he would be able to decode the secrets that seemed to fill the air around him like weather.
Although he hadn't gotten enough to eat, he was relieved to escape the hot kitchen. His stepsister had been sitting at the table watching her mother chop onions. Both of them were crying. Beside the cutting board peeled russet potatoes lay white as bleached bones. A bloody pulp of cranberries simmered on the stove's back burner. Through the blue checkered housedress stretched tightly across his stepmother's big belly, he could see the baby kick. Brenda was drinking peppermint schnapps, pouring it into a jelly glass at breakfast while Frank looked at her and shook his head. Richie had heard his stepmother say to his father, "What? I just need a little taste to calm the kid down. Gimme a break, will ya?"
His father had left the kitchen and gone into the backyard, telling Richie to meet him around front by the stump. Richie thought schnapps smelled like Pepto Bismol. He usually took a tablespoon of the pink liquid for stomachaches on Monday mornings before school. Today was Thursday, Thanksgiving, and there was no school, but his stomach still hurt. As he waited for his father, he began to shiver in the gray morning light and yearned for the warmth he had left behind. The fall wind burned his face red and streaked it with cold tears.
Richie heard his father's heavy footsteps. Frank Burns turned the corner of the house, stepping quickly like a man being chased by something he is pretending not to know is behind him. He saw a chicken struggling in his father's left hand and a woodsman's axe balanced in his right. Five chickens had joined the family at Easter when they hatched from half a dozen eggs warmed by a 60-watt trouble light. At first Frank had housed them in a cardboard box. But they quickly outgrew the space, crowding together for warmth, then pecking at one another until they were spotted with blood. So his father had built a wood-and-wire pen in the backyard to keep them and fattened them on corn and table scraps. In June one had run off into the woods behind the house and not returned. In August another had been terrorized by a neighbor's fox terrier, run into the street, and been hit by a car. Now his father was holding a survivor by the legs.
As his dad approached the stump, Richie could see the muscles in his jaw working as if forming words that he could not speak. The chicken flapped its wings in an effort to right itself and fly off. Richie guessed he knew what it was like to see everything upside down. But he was puzzled when his father thrust the axe at him. Just last week his father had told him he couldn't touch it until he was old enough to join the Cub Scouts. Last year his dad had said the same thing about matches. The axe felt cold and heavy; its handle cut into the scar tissue creasing Richie's palms. It was too much weight to hold for long without cutting something whether he wanted to or not.
He watched his father lay the chicken across the stump and smooth its feathers, stroking it over and over. It reminded him of how his father had calmed him down after the family-court hearing. Some of the feathers pulled loose and stuck to the splintered scar on the stump. When the chicken closed its eyes, Frank Burns held out his right hand. Richie passed the axe to his father.
On its downward stroke the face of the blade caught the light in a series of distinct flashes like a signal mirror. For a second, Richie imagined that he saw his own face reflected there. When the chicken's head was severed from its body, Richie felt the blood spray scald his face and hands. It smelled sharp like a hot, rusty cook stove. He turned away from his father and ran blindly into the street. Over his own screaming he could hear his father shouting, "No, Richie! Don't! Look out!"
Pausing on the other side of Prospect, it seemed he could see everything clearly, big as Texas: His father holding the chicken's lifeless body by the legs, its blood dripping on his boots; his father yelling, "Damnit! Get back here! Where do you think you're going?"
Richie's legs felt heavy and wooden, but he turned and ran anyway. He ran down Prospect past the dead end and into the street branching to the left. He ran against traffic on the street whose name he did not know, and he kept running even after he could no longer hear his father's voice.
Don Kunz has now retired to Bend, Oregon where he continues to write fiction and poetry for publication, study Spanish, play Native American Flute, and volunteer for various non-profits. His short stories have been published in many different journals including Clifton Magazine; Down in the Dirt; Fugue; Heist Magazine; Many Mountains Moving; The Raven Chronicles; The Rejected Quarterly; The South Carolina Review; War, Literature, and the Arts. His story, "A Parade on June 25th," was nominated in 2004 for a Pushcart Prize by The Raven Chronicles.