Permission by Mark Clemens

Out at the barbecue, Abel puts everything he has into commandeering tri-tips around the grill, flipping one steak, sliding to the next, elbows akimbo, spatula flashing, trying to lose himself in the sizzle and burn. Then the heat sears too close and he pulls back, squeezing his watering eyes shut. He cant shut out what he just learned, though, one more thing he didnt know about his fathers secret life.

Come on honey, partys on.” 

His wifes voice lilts across the yard. Abel opens his eyes to find Jodie waving at him from the deck where shes serving a gang of men hunkered in the shade, Abels cronies, early arrivals for the beer, per usual. Abel pulls out his watch: just three minutes in, the tri-tips are starting to char. His dad always said eight minutes on the first side of a steak. 

Abel, are you going to change?” Jodie calls. 

Abel looks down at his dark blue overalls smeared with ink and holds his hands out, palms up. I dont have time!” he shouts, snatching a squirt bottle to trigger away at spot fires flaring in the red-hot coals. Bring water!” he shouts as the bottle runs dry, last squirt cut off mid-stream.

Then he sees Jodies tending to his friends: Wally from work; Donnie and Victor from the neighborhood; and Victors construction partner, Keith. Theyll all join Abel soon enough to hold court around the grill, but Jodies joshing them, her laughter peeling out of the hubbub high and girlish. She wends her way through the crowd, holding a beaded pitcher of beer aloft. 

Here you go, guys,” she says, setting the pitcher on the bench as she taps a cooler with the heel of her bare foot. Its all yours.” 

It is Monday, July 1, the day of Abel and Jodies annual barbecue for family and friends, a prequel to the towns sunburned celebration of Independence Day that they took over from his mom and dad twelve years ago. For Abel, best comes last: homemade ice cream as evening falls and fireflies weave through the trees along the creek. His zeal for the rest of it has wavered: the parade of parties to come, all the prep and clean up, ad infinitum. The memories have been made; just rewind and hit play. Abel looks forward to the fireflies: the party will soon be over. Can he make it that far tonight? 

The tri-tips must be moved or they will burn. In spite of this, Abel stands still, tongs aloft. He peers at the ink under his fingernails, then the smoldering grill, the lawn chairs circled around it, the cattails along the creek bordering the backyard, a dying box elder on the bank. Perched part way up, a crow watches Abel as it preens. Finally, his eyes come to the tool shed in the patchy shade, its door cracked open. He checks an urge to trot over and latch it, sealing away what he discovered there only minutes ago.

Its hardly been a half hour since Abel pulled up from work and walked into the escalating din of his home. Baby Jake on her hip, Jodie pivoted peg leg around the kitchen, straw boss to her mother who came to help. A pack of kids led by Abels oldest, tomboy Angela and sidekick Henry, surged through the house and out into the yard and back, building to crescendo. 

Abel cut through the household on the fly, no time to change his overalls. He fired up the grill down by the creek, ran back inside to the basement fridge and back out with two teetering platters of tri-tips. Then he unlocked the shed and reached inside for the long-handled spatula and tongs. The tongs came loose, but the spatula hung up. Abel stepped into the windowless shed, sweating in the stuffy dark. 

Sunlight cut diamond lines through the cracks, illuminating the spatulas chrome neck and wood handle, its leather thong snarled on a nail in the top plate. When Abel took it down, he saw a sliver of telltale white peeking out from under the rafters. Stretching up, he pulled down a dusty pack of cigarettes. Chesterfields. His dads. 

Abel looks at the crow halfway up the box elder, eying him. It caws as he starts moving the steaks, a grating rasp above the hooting on the deck. Its like the crows jabbing him for something, but what?

The Fourth of July falls on Thursday this year, and Abel considered taking the whole week off from the printing plant. Instead, he worked ahead on sales, then slipped into his old job as assistant pressman, spelling Wally, who’d gone up north for muskies. Pulled down some overtime, new tires for the van, bonus for the kidscollege fund. 

Mid-afternoon as they got the last press run rolling, Abel was wadding up paper waste coming off the folder. He glanced at the copy counter clicking off Happy Mart inserts as they slid down the rollers . . .  2011 . . . 2012 . . . 2013 . . . The press picked up speed, the counter keeping pace. . . 2017 . . . 2018 . . . 2019. . . Abel could only stare. . . 2022 . . . 2023 . . . 2024 . . .

Abel kept bunching ink-smeared newsprint until the web was up and humming, the counter a blur. He nodded at the head pressman and retreated to the parking lot with a can of soda, blinking at the blasting sun, slipping into infinity, spooked how fast the years sped by. 

For the first time in years, he wanted a cigarette. 

Which is a personal anniversary that also falls on July 1. Eleven years ago this day, he had been hosting the barbecue with his dad when Abel quit smoking out of the blue. Abel doesnt remember how he kicked the habit, only that he began badgering his father to join him, aggravating him no end. Then, his dad had a mild stroke and had to quit. Abel remembers his father feeling lost without his smokes. But hed stayed quit, even when lung cancer cropped up three years ago. He stayed quit up to the operation two weeks after that. In recovery, he joked in a gruff whisper about coming in on a lung and a prayer. Four days later, he died.

Here is Abel awhirl, the crow jiving him from above as he tongs around singed steaks like a fool and tries to shake off the image of his dad smoking on the sly during his waning days. Three years in the closet with his Chesterfields, clove gum to cover up. Mightve smoked until he went under the knife. Abel struggles to reconcile his dads secret with his own forbidden urge, tries to let the sizzle of meat mute the memory of cellophane crinkling beneath his fingertips in the steamy darkness of the shed.

Abels looking for the garden hose when a whiffle ball sails over the house and skitters off the railing between Victor and Keith. It hops down the yard to stop at Abels feet. He plucks it up just as Angela roars around the house, arms pumping, eyes darting side to side looking for the ball. He raises the ball over his head and she races down the slope and slides to a halt before him, panting. Holding the ball high, Abel hands her the squirt bottle. Fill this quick and run it back.” 

Angela takes the bottle, then jumps for the ball. Abel stretches it out of reach. 

Close the shed door when you get back, okay? And latch it?” he says. 

Angela groans, then runs off laughing. 

Sometime before his father got sick, Abel decided they had to talk. There were rumors: his father had been seen with Lurine Alleman, a friend of the family, widowed for a year. Abels sister told him their mothers whispered fears: his father had given Lurine a ride home from a banquet, another time from a party, then someone spotted them at a roadhouse the next town over. 

Abel tried to have a man-to-man with his dad that night. If the old guy was considering a different life, if he stayed with the life he had—what could Abel say? Abel asked him to step outside after supper. They walked to an old jalopy parked out front and his dad leaned against the fender, arms crossed, streetlight shadowing his face.

There was Abel, trying to do right. He wanted to jump out of his skin, wanted to end the talk before it began. Ive got two things to say,” he said. 

His father remained close-mouthed.

First, I wanted to tell you I love you.” 

Abels father looked down. Looking up, he growled, What was the second thing?”

His dad didnt have much to say about the second thing either, except that he hadnt done anything. They kept that part of the conversation their secret, but Abel recounted the first part a number of times—how his old man brushed his sons love aside. Abel told it for laughs until one night in a tavern a stranger overheard: Wow.” The guy shook his head. That must have hurt.”

Abel made it home that night and sat out in the garage, twisting the steering wheel while he sobbed, his fathers hidden life run together with his own, an aching river. Never able to say what mattered, they still had things in common and now this. He didnt know what his father felt, but it seemed akin to doubts Abel thought were his alone. 

Jodie was the one he wed, his first love, yet there was something missing—long silences he could not bridge, times he turned stone angry and clammed up, her lack of interest in a world beyond washing dishes and folding laundry, nightly homework with the kids, everything for the kids. Jealousy lurked in the corner of his eye when she flirted with his friends, innocent, but temptation crept into his glance, strange women on the street. Even in good times, there was a whisper in his ear: This will not last. Whenever he heard that voice, Abel winced: The kids. 

Abel blinks and finds hes looking into Angelas clear blue eyes, her face all glad. She thrusts the dripping bottle into his hand and tears off with the whiffle ball. Startled, the crow croaks and takes off, wings thumping humid air. Abel follows it as he turns to douse the flames. The crow lofts above the smoking grill and levels out, coasting on down the creek, a speck dwindling toward downtown, gone.

Moments later, steaks grilling on their own, Abel lights a match and holds it level with his eyes in the still air of the shed. The flame glows serene yellow, smoke rising in blackened wisps. Here is Abel, joining his father in a long parade of like-minded souls who dare to inhale the evil weed, no matter the cost. After all, life is to be lived up full, not held down by rules and restrictions. He is tired of restrictions, years clicking away. He knows hes falling in with a parade of fools, his dad first among them, idiots who smoke defiantly despite doctorsadmonitions, disguising coughs with laughter, hiding from reproving spouses as they hack away, courting poor health and early death, flaunting—flaunting what? Themselves, supposes Abel, just like hes flying in the face of his personal pledge to never smoke again. It doesnt matter, he thinks, and the weariness of tracking all those smoke-free years lifts from his shoulders, a black bird on shining wings. 

Abel takes the cigarette in his lips. When he lights it, the tip crackles then burns red, dimming the darkened room. Something has been put to rest. He breathes deep and closes his eyes, waiting for the word thats swimming up, the one that will name this feeling.

Mark Clemens finds that sense of place in his writing comes from living in the Midwest, Mountain West and Pacific Northwest. Another place he’s close to: the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where he supported the disaster recovery effort in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. That experience wove its way into his first novel, Infinite Tenderness, for which he’s searching for a publisher. Likewise, he’s seeking a producer for “Gazette Girls,” a 60-minute TV pilot based on two sisters’ memoir from their 20s when they owned and operated a small-town weekly newspaper in Missouri during the Depression. In the course of earning an M.F.A. at the University of Montana, Clemens was lucky enough to place stories in Mountain Gazette and The North American Review. Since then, he’s been in the Northern Colorado Review, Slightly West, Talking River Review, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. He was in Gray’s a second time last fall, and forthcoming this summer will have a poem in The Orchards Poetry Journal, and two in The Limberlost Review. He worked for newspapers, state agencies and colleges while writing in his spare time. Writing full time now, Clemens lives in Washington state with his wife, Karen, also a writer, on the coast of the Salish Sea.