Kenneth Dove’s new girlfriend would not let him meet his boy’s grandparents at the lawyer’s office to sign the Consent to Adoption, because Kenneth’s new girlfriend rightly assumed that the boy’s mother would be there. The new girlfriend could not stop thinking about the tattoo on the boy’s mother’s hip, which was of a half-naked woman with large breasts and a tiger’s head.
Though Kenneth only dated the new girlfriend for seven months, those months coincided with the Petition for Adoption filed by the boy’s grandparents, so when Kenneth, years later, thought about his boy—when he thought about his boy reaching out to hug him, to tell Kenneth that he loved him—it was the new girlfriend’s voice that came out of the boy’s small mouth. Kenneth realized he could not remember what his boy’s voice sounded like, but hers stuck with him for the rest of his life.
For her part, in the years that followed their break-up, the new girlfriend only had cause to think of Kenneth Dove when she would drive past the courthouse and see him sitting on his upturned bucket, witnessing, shaking his friendship bracelets at people passing by. Eventually, she moved away with a fellow she met and never thought of Kenneth again.
The grandparents already had legal custody of the boy—CPS had intervened and removed the boy from the apartment that he was sharing with his mother and her new boyfriend, a place of sores and bruises and feeling dizzy and tired—but the grandparents wanted to formally adopt him so as to qualify for increased Social Security benefits. The boy needed clothes. The boy needed food. The boy was growing.
If Kenneth would sign the papers that the lawyer had drawn up like they asked, they would not have to have a hearing and there would be no need for the court to appoint a guardian ad litem and they could save a good bit of money. The lawyer mailed the papers weeks and weeks ago, but he’d not signed them. He’d not even opened the envelope. The grandparents told Kenneth that they’d meet him at the lawyer’s office to sign everything, and they waited and waited for him, but he never showed up. Without his knowledge, his new girlfriend had seen the pictures on his cell phone detailing, among other things, the boy’s mother’s tattoos. Though she said nothing in the days leading up to when Kenneth was to meet the boy’s grandparents at the lawyer’s office, the new girlfriend’s aggressively noncommittal posture—legs crossed, flipping through an old copy of Marie Claire—announced her disapproval. He was sensitive to the subtle shift in her body in much the same way that a spiritualist’s flame flickers at the arrival of an unseen spirit. Kenneth asked her, “Why won’t you let me go?” and she said, “I ain’t stopping you. You ain’t even opened that letter.” She did not look up from the glossy page. He walked to the door and then back to the couch and then said, “I need to do the right thing.” And then nothing else was said.
The envelope sat on the little table by his bed, unopened. When he picked the letter up, which he did often, he ran his fingertips over the heavy bond paper and felt where a legal assistant’s whirring typewriter had embossed his name and address, tiny valleys filled with black ink. It bulged, and he could feel the folded pages struggling to break free from the prison that this unseen legal assistant had licked closed. At night in his bedroom, he lay in bed, pillow propped on headboard, and the light from the lamp drizzled down to the unopened envelope as he balanced an ashtray on his stomach, window cracked to draw the smoke so that his mother would not complain.
He wanted to take the boy to the lake in the summer, but then the fall came and they still hadn’t done it. The papers were still at the lawyer’s office, forgotten about. They’d had a hearing, which he’d not attended and the guardian ad litem moved for her fees and an Order was entered and put on record in the Clerk’s Office. It was fall, he was still propped on his folded pillow, window open, cool air drawing his smoke, and then the bulb burned out and all that was left was the red tip of his cigarette in the dark of his bedroom, the line of light at the bottom of the door, and downstairs, the sound of his mother watching one of the singing shows while playing Bejeweled on the desktop computer in the kitchen. He’d wanted to take the boy to the lake, to sit and look out at the water, but he’d forgotten and winter had come and gone.
All this was before his problems really started, but the flaw was there already, everyone knew, a family trait tucked into the flesh.
Inability or unwillingness to admit prior mental illness or mental defect or to believe any of your problems existed and lies concerning same and unconscious feelings of inadequacy and conscious feelings of inadequacy or intense facial affect grimacing smiling yawning mouth wide and open and teeth exposed to the light while the women are trying to finish lunch startled by the look on your face but her voice was not the voice you expected nor were the faces of the children walking down the sidewalk what you expected and you called out to them asking about your boy trying to explain hoping they would stop and listen to you hoping they would let you hold them because the summer is cold this year and the wind must be blowing down from the North Pole because its teeth are racing along your skin—
When his old girlfriend began to show, Kenneth Dove would look at her belly and watch the blurry blue brambles tattooed there balloon outward. This was how he remembered it: the branches growing across her stomach, empty skin filling with thorns. In bed he would stare at her stomach, and he was certain that he could see the small thing inside her moving around.
When he first saw her body, crisp in the bright light of a bare bulb in a friend’s basement, she’d told him about her old boyfriend who’d done the tattoo. It was his first, an experiment one evening when it was muggy and there was nothing else to do. She described the old boyfriend’s large hands, one holding her skin taut, one holding the thin needle. Kenneth had moved over her, shielding her body from the light, at an angle so that he could not see the other man’s work. He worried the ink would be bad for the baby.
Walking to work, he wondered what the child would call him. Daddy. Dad. Pa. Papa. Pop. He repeated the names over and over in his head until they were nonsense syllables, the spinning sounds of which made him laugh as he spent the morning turning the canned vegetables on the bottom shelf of aisle two face out.
He wasn’t there when the boy came. His son’s grandmother, who would one day gain legal custody of the boy, called Kenneth a few days later to tell him. He had the next day off and walked to her house and sat on the porch and waited for them to come out with the boy. When they did, Kenneth could barely see him, such a little thing lost in the convoluted folds of a green blanket. “My boy.” Kenneth sobbed and the old girlfriend’s mother looked away, off at the storage sheds across the street, smoke from her cigarette growing up out of her hand like a dogwood branch.
Then the old girlfriend got a new boyfriend and the old girlfriend’s mother wouldn’t open the screen door. She just kept shaking her head and whispering. But Kenneth kept the old girlfriend’s texts and at night would read them and pretend they were new. The pictures she sent slithered in between Kenneth and what he remembered.
Kenneth Dove didn’t really remember his father. What he remembered swayed slower than drapes on an open window in a half-dark room. A picnic, maybe a family reunion, a day impossibly bright and warm, near a lake, and he could see, up the slope of a hill, at the edge of a parking lot, a man in an orange and brown shirt with his back turned, talking to a group of other men, their voices loud, but then the man was gone. That was all Kenneth Dove had.
His mother in her pink polyester pants, legs crossed on a picnic bench, green and blue floral shirt, hair done in a stiff cloud around her head, smoking, cigarette between her fingers, forever burning down to the filter as ash took to the wind. The group of men at the far end of that parking lot were gone, his father gone, the sound of engines racing down the gravel road away from the lake. All of this, just barely there, painted on the tattered ends of the tapestry of his memory.
In bed at night, when he thought about that picnic or family reunion, when he thought about all of those adults whose faces he could not see or voices he could not hear, the one thing that did not seem to waver and fade like a tongue of flame was the old house he’d seen across the lake. Down along the muddy edge, older cousins ran and screamed, chasing one another, tossing a football or spitting lake water at one another in muddy arcs. Kenneth sat on a rock in the mud by himself, the youngest of the cousins, unwanted, and looked at an old house across the lake. Halfway up the sharp rise of the round, gray and dark, the porch falling in, the tangle of the woods around it.
One of the older boys ran up and told him that the place was haunted and that if he looked at it long enough, he might see the face of the ghost looking out. Kenneth watched the house the whole rest of the day and into evening. He watched the house as the sun slowly began to set and the grills cooled and the flies busied themselves with the unwanted burgers cooling on a paper plate. He watched the broken windows of that house, fading in the dying light into the shadow of the trees around it, and the cousins were gone, having run up toward the cars, to where everything was being gathered up, the wind rising in the gathering dark, and he watched, seeing nothing in those windows, no pale face ever appearing, and then he noticed that his mother was calling, but looking up toward the benches, he couldn’t see anyone. Everyone was gone.
When Kenneth Dove was a little boy, whenever an adult would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up—the adult crouched down and expectant, smiling at such a cute little boy—Kenneth wouldn’t say anything. He’d just sit there looking up at the hulking face of the strange person above him, his mouth open, his breath smelling like sinus, and the adult would, after a moment, stand, knees cracking, and, still smiling, say something like Bless softly, completely unaware that in that moment Kenneth was elsewhere. A vast empire of glass and stone. Impossible textured skies. Pale melodies of streams weaving through the branches of trees and raining droplets of rhythm down on the dancing children clothed in swirling mists and wings. His classmates called him a motherfucker and pointed at his shoes and laughed. They hooted at him, and even the PE teacher smirked.
In second grade, Kenneth’s teacher was a young woman. When he thought about her, she was always wearing a red sweater. Each morning when he got to school, he hugged her for as long as she would let him, and each afternoon when the class was dismissed, he dawdled so as to be the last one out, and as he walked by her desk, he snuck a glance at her—looking down at the grade book, or out the window, or, on special occasions that signaled a sudden throb in the unthinking genius of creation, at him. When Kenneth did it with his boy’s mother, on the couch of her father’s apartment when her father was in the hospital following an accident at work, it was his second grade teacher’s face that he thought about. He didn’t imagine her looking at him—he couldn’t stand the thought of her knowing he did things like this—but instead saw her in profile on a fall day, looking out the window at the street, at cars passing. Not at him.
When they finished, Kenneth looked at the tattoo of the big-breasted woman with the head of a tiger on her hip and at the bramble across her side and stomach and at the newly added rose petals floating down her thigh, and his boy’s mother asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he was silent, lost again, and she shifted off the couch so that she could reach her drawers.
The manager of the gas station where Kenneth Dove worked asked him if he would be interested in becoming the night manager. The guy who’d been managing nights had just got on at the leather processing plant. He’d called and said he wasn’t coming back. The manager said the new job paid seven-fifty an hour.
The next day, Kenneth went to the strip mall where the movie theater used to be and got a haircut so that he would look nice for his first shift as night manager. The haircut cost twelve dollars. He gave the barber, an old man with hair growing on the bridge of his nose, a ten and a five and told him to keep the change.
That night, deep in the night when there hadn’t been a customer for hours, as Kenneth swept up the grainy substance that he’d poured on the cement to clean up the day’s dribblings of gasoline, he looked up at the night sky hoping to see stars. It was a cloudy night, and instead he only saw the pink light of the small town reflected on the face of the low clouds. A car was coming down the street. Maybe it would stop. Kenneth rushed inside to be ready.
A woman, driving home from dinner with her church small group, realized that she was low on gas. A gas station at the end of the block burned bright beneath its colorful sign, but it was late and the downtown streets were deserted, so she decided that she’d just as soon get home and fill the car up tomorrow. As she passed, she could see a middle-aged man inside the gas station watching out the window. As she sped by, he was little more than shadow in the bright box of light, everything around him brilliant and for sale.
Handcuffed and standing by the cement deer, Kenneth Dove watched the deputy writhe on the ground in front of the jail. The deputy looked like he was saying something, but there was no sound coming out. He was looking up from the ground at Kenneth, his jaw and lips wriggling and eyes so wide. Cars passed, but none stopped, even as Kenneth hopped up and down as best he could with his ankles cuffed. Rising and falling in his orange jumpsuit, arms flailing, but no one wanting to stop. Finally, Kenneth shuffled over to a cement wolf and sat down and waited for someone to come help. The deputy was still now.
Cement deer, cement rabbits, cement foxes, and a plywood manger waiting for December. His mother used to bring him here at Christmas to see the star atop the jail and the little wood Jesus, and he always wanted to bring his boy here, but at some point, the grandparents stopped letting Kenneth take the boy anywhere, Kenneth couldn’t remember when, but then they stopped putting out the Baby Jesus and Joseph and Mary and the star on top of everything at Christmas. Sitting there watching traffic pass, all of those Christmases that his mother brought him to see the lights felt like something he’d just imagined.
This time, a violation of Kentucky Revised Statute 512.090: Unlawful Acts Related to Acquiring Metals. A person is guilty of unlawful acts relating to acquiring metals when the person intentionally and without permission cuts, mutilates, defaces, or otherwise injures any personal or real property of another, including any fixtures or improvements, for the purpose of obtaining any restricted metal, nonferrous metal, or ferrous metal as defined— Not to exceed ninety days in jail. Caught in those half-built houses near the drive-in, a nice new subdivision, copper wire tangled like a briar patch in his bag. Or was it Failure to Disperse? Or was it Interference with a Funeral? Obstructing a Highway or Other Public Passage or Violating a Grave or Institutional Vandalism? Ninety days and ninety days and ninety days. The same small county jail cot waited to happily sag beneath the weight of his dreaming body, no matter what the judge said the reason was.
Clear spring sky, bright blue with nothing in it, a blank of blue and below it, Kenneth felt a chill. So close to summer, but still so cold, and he in nothing but an orange jumper. He leaned down to the deputy and asked if he was okay, but the deputy didn’t say anything. Kenneth sat up straight on his wolf for a moment, spine like a tree. Then he began to rock, watching cars pass. He got down on the ground, right next to the deputy and asked again, a little louder, afraid of his own voice in the cool air. He could feel the damp of the grass on his knees through the thin fabric. The deputy was as still and as silent as the sky and Kenneth sat back on the grass, in the shadow of a bear and began to cry. He’d gone to high school with the deputy, but Kenneth couldn’t remember his name. He’d been a nice guy and no one would stop in their car and help.
The attorney arrived just before Kenneth Dove’s case was to be called. Kenneth’s mother had met with the attorney months before. The attorney sighed and grimaced while listening to her tell about her son’s trouble and said that he’d need a retainer before he could do anything. “It’s a fairly complicated matter,” he said. There were several shelves of green-spine books behind him in the conference room. Old reporters with tattered spines hanging loose. Neither of them knew that behind the row of American Jurisprudence, 2d on the bottom shelf, termites busied themselves in the rotten pages of law.
In the hallway of the courthouse, the attorney looked over Kenneth’s file for the first time. It was a manila folder with a few pages that his assistant had printed off of the court’s website. He signed and then asked the small group of people lingering in the hallway, waiting for the door to the courtroom to be unlocked, if any of them were there to be witnesses in the Dove matter. People shifted their weight and no one spoke. The attorney’s cheeks flushed. He double-checked the date. He double-checked the time. He did not double-check the jurisdiction.
The attorney would also fail to appear at his own disciplinary hearing before the Kentucky State Bar the following year. Delinquent pleadings. Trust accounts commingled. Failure to return calls to clients in a timely manner. Evidence was taken without objection, and an order was entered suspending his license.
The weeping willow by the stream swayed.
A man of good hygiene, good habits, of the earth, kind, gentle, a member of the church and capable of hard work, prompt, dependable, willing to talk, always smiling and able to take direction, able to listen, polite and deferential, perhaps occasionally prone to agitation, but not in an alarming way, gentlemanly, only the slightest tremble in his hands, the way the left eye drops just so in the corner, able to care for himself, for the most part able to maintain an appropriate level of hygiene, to keep house, to cook simple meals, whose aspect only hints at any congenital weakness, at any illness inherited from his mother, at the limitations of a man of his sort, and despite some issues in the past, good with children, if closely observed at all times—
A stream cutting through limestone. Young trees grow at odd angles on the vertical bank. The boys were scared, but they kept watching the man by the weeping willow dance. Sweatpants stained and face exalted. The boys ran home, clucking about what they’d seen, cutting copy-cat capers in the living room and collapsing in lung-exhausting giggles, but by dinner they’d forgotten what they’d seen.
The man came out of the ranch house. He walked down to the end of the driveway to where Kenneth Dove was standing. The man had his arms out in front of him, flicking his hands as though he was trying to shoo Kenneth away like feral cat. It was dark, so Kenneth could not see the man’s expression, but his voice was sharp: “I told you, the people you are looking for do not live here. You have the wrong house.” Kenneth looked past the man, toward the windows. They were bright with living-room light through drawn curtains. “I don’t know any older couple or a boy. I’ve told you this. You need to leave.” Kenneth began to explain, but the man moved toward him again. “I told you we bought the house from the bank. We don’t know who you are looking for. I don’t want to have to call someone, but you have to stop coming here. Do you understand? You are upsetting my wife and my children. Please.” Kenneth shifted his weight, and the man pulled out his cell phone and began to dial.
The boy’s grandparents’ house looked just like it had always looked. Even though it was dark he could tell it did, but they were not there. In the violet sky, just after sunset, the chimney swifts circled and dove into the ranch house’s chimney.
He walked along the dark road back to town, back to his mother’s house. As he walked, he met a man. The man was ahead of Kenneth, walking the same direction, but slower. For a long time, Kenneth wasn’t sure if he saw someone or not. It was dark and there weren’t many lights along the road, and it could have been a man walking along or it could have been the dark swirling and swelling in his tired eyes. As he gained on the man, Kenneth began to be able to make out his clothes, his shape, the slow swing of an arm. The man didn’t turn around as Kenneth drew alongside him. He greeted the man and they walked in silence together for a while, Kenneth slowing his pace, the only sound that of shoes on the grit of the shoulder. Finally, the quiet got to him, and Kenneth began to talk to the man, telling him all about his boy and how he wanted to take the boy to the lake, but that he was afraid that it would never happen now. They got to a place where the road met a little dirt lane, and the man stopped walking. He told Kenneth that it would all be okay and then walked down the lane into the dark of the trees. The rest of the walk to his mother’s house, Kenneth felt better.
Sitting on an upturned bucket in front of the courthouse on Wednesday, Kenneth Dove cut twelve strands of different colored embroidery thread and braided them together into a friendship bracelet. After they made him stop singing hymns by the fountain on the square, he walked out to the K-Mart on the bypass and bought as much of the thread as he could. He walked out there in a brown shirt and blue jeans and bought red and black and white and orange and purple. He bought some silver and gold thread, but it was too stiff and wouldn’t braid right. Tough young birds get to sing from the top of the bank building’s façade, but Kenneth Dove on his bucket braided his bracelets and witnessed to anyone who stopped about the power of the Blood of Christ to make a change in your life. He wanted them to believe it because he wanted to believe it.
A group of teenage boys walked by. They were laughing and skipping like boys do when they are too full of heat and happiness to just walk regular. All but one, the one looking away as they passed. Kenneth held out a bracelet to the boy, but the boy kept looking away as he passed and Kenneth could not see his face. The other boys were crowded around him whooping and punching him, overcome with joy. Kenneth had felt the same joy for a moment when he’d let the Lord into his breast, and he wished this boy whose face was turned away would look at him and would take the bracelet so that he could know the love and blessing that came with it.
Young tough birds flocking and opening throats in song, crossing the street in stuttering gallops, looking back over their shoulders with faces bright, darning in and out of each other’s paths, crossing against the light, mouths open watching him wave, all but one, but they did not take a bracelet. Kenneth watched the group of boys until they disappeared around a corner.
In the afternoon, two men stopped and listened to Kenneth. Kenneth asked the men what would happen to them if they died right at that moment. Were they prepared to face what judgment awaited them? The men shifted their weight and looked at one another, unsure. From his bag, Kenneth produced a spiral-bound notebook. He opened it to an empty page and asked the men if he could write their names down in his list of those who’d accepted the salvation that the Lord Jesus Christ offered. One man nodded and spelled his name, but the other said that he’d have to think about it.
A siren through the open window. He was in his bed in his mother’s house, his ashtray balanced on his belly. He listened for his mother watching television downstairs, but the house was silent. He called out to her, but there was no answer.
The living room was empty, his sister having taken the television after the funeral because “Momma promised me it.”
The doorbell rang, but he did not answer. He held still in his room, in the small circle of orange light cast by the lamp on the floor next to his mattress. Ringing again and then knocking, and then, after a few moments, the sound of someone walking away, down the front walk.
The certainty that the words and orders came directly from the deity. Sudden feelings of wellbeing. Stillness in the face. An overwhelming stillness. Everyone sitting so still on the porch of the house. In old metal chairs. Dozens of butts in the bushes below them. Still, waiting for the heat to break. A woman with a burned face comes by and the men begin to holler at her, but Kenneth Dove tells them to hush and they do and the woman goes around the back of the house and Kenneth and the men keep scraping the heads off of the matches. He starts up his story again about the blue light he saw when he was a boy, a blue light floating out of a tree, and he doesn’t stop telling it, over and over, even though he knows they are not listening anymore.
The man turned to the woman behind him in line at the library and said, “I’m about to get this fortune ‘cause my sister died and I am the only one in my family left.” The woman smiled. “I had a boy once, but he’s gone.” Her daughter was standing next to her with four young-adult fantasy novels to check out. The man looked down at the girl and said, “I got a castle. Ain’t nobody here got a castle. I know everything about this town, and I know ain’t nobody got a castle and I know ain’t nobody got a whole kingdom of their own but me.” She could smell him but was not yet old enough to name the smell. She could see his swollen ankles above his slumping argyle socks. Around his wrist were ancient friendship bracelets like the girls in her school would make on the playground at recess and sell for a quarter.
It was Friday. She read all weekend and finished all four books by Monday. They weren’t very good, but she was still sad when they were over, having grown to care about the characters, especially the animals that talked. In class, she imagined boys with the heads of rabbits taking her hand and leading her to safety in a dark forest.
When the girl started college, she would tell an exaggerated version of this story of the man from the library and everyone would laugh. When she thought about him, she could see him in his castle, sitting alone in a great hall, on a towering throne, saying to no one in particular, “Ain’t no one got a castle,” and it always made her smile. Each time she told it, he said stranger things, his castle grew more outlandish, he smelled worse, and his clothes were more and more tattered. She pitched her voice down to say his lines, much to everyone’s glee. That first year of college was so great. She made friends in her dorm and went to a dance with the president of a fraternity and made the dean’s list. As she grew older, she would sometimes wish that she’d taken the time to really savor that year.
She told the story once in law school. After she finished, someone said, “Poor man. What do you think was wrong with him?” After that, the girl was unable to imagine the man in his castle, in his hall, on his throne. She never told the story again.