How to Cry

How to Cry
by Chris Offutt

We had a neighbor who was in the National Guard. Once a month he left for training, a regular schedule well-known in the community. On a weekend when he was absent, someone tried to peek at his wife. My father saw him from our house. Dad sneaked across the yard carrying a BB rifle to confront the trespasser, who was standing on his toes to peer through a window. Dad concentrated on maintating absolute stillness in order not to rattle the BBs and give away the weakness of his weapon. He and the intruder stared at one another in the darkness until the man turned and walked away.

Dad came back to the house, relieved and proud. He never told the neighbor about what happened. Dad believed it was honorable to serve in the National Guard. He didn’t want the man to be nervous about his wife when he was gone.

They had a son who died at age six of a freak disease and for a while afterwards the man would occasionally get drunk. On a warm summer evening he and my father had their only disagreement. They were standing outside in dim light. My mother watched from the kitchen window, tiptoing to pull back the curtains. I sat doing homework. Mom’s intense interest shifted to fear. She wasn’t often afraid and I wanted to help her. I didn't know what she feared but I knew it had to do with my father and the neighborman.

I went through the backporch and picked up the first tool I saw, a single-blade hatchet, and stepped outside. I crossed the ground, hearing katydids and crickets. Dad and the neighbor were talking in grim low tones. I smacked the dull side of the hatchet against my palm the way I’d seen a cowboy in a movie threaten with a tomahawk. The neighborman focussed on me. I didn’t know he was drunk, or that drunk people can be volatile and violent. I didn’t know enough to be afraid. But I could sense my father’s fear.

The neighborman stared at me for a long time. He was big and strong, red-faced from drink, swaying on his feet. He could destroy my father and me with ease. But he did nothing, just looked at me. After a minute I could see light twinkle below his eyes and I understood he was crying. He stared at me in the darkness, then turned and walked away.

My father later said that during the whole time he was afraid if the man hit him in the face, Dad's dentures would shatter and fill his mouth with little plastic daggers. He asked me why I’d joined him. I knew better than to tell the truth, that my motivation was Mom's fear. I lied easily, telling him what he wanted to hear—I’d come to back him up.

Over the years I often thought about the neighborman. He was quiet and diligent, a little shy. I hadn’t run him off with the hatchet. It was my presence—as a son—the very thing he’d lost, that had stopped events from escalating. What I recall most were his tears. I’d never seen a grown man cry. His eyes seemed to leak of their own accord with no dramatic sobs, no hunching of shoulders or bobbing of head. He didn’t wipe the tears or blow his nose. He stood in the dark and wept without sound.

My father never cried in my presence. Because he didn’t, I thought I shouldn’t either. After seeing the neighborman cry, a man who was strong and powerful, I understood that crying was acceptable. Years later when I felt moved emotionally I cried the same way he had. I stood immobile and let water run out of two holes in my head.