DH: This is the second of three Brad Watson stories that I’m going to review. It’s like sending up three flares. Maybe Three Guys readers will notice at least one of them. Read read read Brad Watson.
Pops is out on the front porch. “An orange sunset was bleeding into the sky…” Blood on the sun is not a restorative image. We’re off into the land of disquiet. But the first person father narrator doesn’t want to leave the view to take a phone call. I felt the disconnect right away. A disturbing sunset that the father doesn’t want to leave. It’s like the character is fixated on something disturbing. Now, the disquiet that I felt was subtle. I shifted the weight in my reading chair a little or my head inclined slightly more towards the page. It’s a start.
Notice the great choice of first person narration by a father. This is a story about a parent who slowly realizes that he should be very worried about his son. His son is not in any direct danger (probably). He doesn’t understand Carl; therefore he’s lost control of him. Third person narration would have been wrong for this story. It’s too objective and would have been de-energizing.
A Mr. Secrist calls from Carl’s school to tell daddy that they are worried about the boy. He has argued with his teacher, that notable nonentity, Mrs. Fortenberry. I love these names. Secrist? Sounds like “secret” and “Christ” rolled together. Just the name made me a little more anxious. By degrees, reader, by degrees. Fortenberry? As in forte…strong…loud…berry…silly…stupid? Those are my associations. More disquiet. BW doesn’t tell us at first who Secrist is. He is calling “from the school. “Fortenberry” is just a name and as the reader puzzles to unpack it’s meaning, as I tried to do, the sense of unease keeps rising. You can see how Brad Watson is playing me.
Cat with a mouse. Secrist keeps calling back. Only it’s a mistake. He dialed the wrong number? No, it happens again when Secrist is sure he has dialed someone else. The phone rings in this household over and over. You want a rational explanation? BW provides one. The telephone people are repairing a glitch in the system. All the phones in the neighborhood are ringing over and over. It’s like a danger signal: red alert. Another blood red image in my head. Disquiet disquiet. Ring ring.
Phones compulsively ring and Carl’s parents compulsively worry while Carl zooms around in the darkening air with the kids in the neighborhood called the “Road Hogs.” They attach playing cards with clothes pins to the wheels of their “rangy” bikes so they can sound more like play motorcycles. Carl rides in back of another kid’s bike. Carl doesn’t know how to ride a bike. His parents argue about who should teach him. We know from the last BW story I reviewed, ‘Terrible Argument’ that unhappy couples, dysfunctional couples, argue about everything…anything. Right now they argue about how to raise their son.
Carl is taught to ride a bike. Picks it up fast and is off with the Road Hogs, night phantoms, whizzing around the neighborhood in the dusk, those playing cards buzzing like they’re not kids but a threatening insectoid swarm. Or, incredibly, is that dark shape, up in tree outside our house, Carl? Maybe. Carl’s outside. Later, a father looks in on his son asleep and it’s like he doesn’t recognize him. Carl’s outside now even when he’s inside. The unknown is in the house and it’s your own child. This story is beautifully terraced as BW piles on closely observed detail after detail about what these suburban blocks look like, sound like, feel like…until this becomes your neighborhood, your block, your house. But in a parallel movement, the more palpably real the setting becomes the more frighteningly unknown Carl becomes.