Sam Connors. That was his father’s name, a man built like an old oak tree. Les wasn’t so wide and wasn’t so red, but he still carried his father’s last name the way some sons do, the way a paraplegic carries useless limbs.
There was only one photo of Sam Connors in Les’ house. His mother kept it hanging in the back of her closet, behind the clothes. He showed me the photo after we got stoned one afternoon and ran out of 90’s sitcoms to watch on an old television in his mother’s room. She had piles of unlabeled VHS tapes that we’d slide into her old VCR and watch until the tape ran dry and the TV screen filled with fuzz. Married With Children. Family Matters. I can’t explain it, but there was peace somewhere in the fuzz that followed the abandoned shows, fuzz burned obsolete by technology. Or maybe it was just the drugs.
When he showed me his father’s picture, Les held his mother’s clothes aside, like curtains, so I could see the crooked photo pinned too low on the wall for me to see at my full height. We sat inside his mother’s closet, clothes stretching down to us like vines, our knees between us. Les said he only knew his father’s name because it was typed on his birth certificate. Whenever he asked his mother about him, she replied that she was his mother and his father and that was that.
My own father wasn’t so mysterious. He arrived home from work every day by 6:30 and spent his Sundays doing yard work while my mother was at church. We kept photos of him all over the house. There were no secret photos hanging behind a row of clothes in the back of a closet. There were no secrets at all.
I told this to Les, leaning forward when I spoke. His eyes were shot with blood, like lightening in the sky. Les reached across the small space and pulled my head towards his, kissing me. One of his palms covered my ear and created a sort of dull hum inside my head, not as peaceful as the television fuzz, but still nice.
Les started dating Jennifer James a week later. We never talked about the kiss.
I dated a boy named Josh Wieland through most of high school. I liked that his last name started with the same letter as mine. Wieland and West. I thought that if we married and had kids together, our kids would ride in the back seat of the alphabet, too, and that seemed good to me. It was a comfortable place to be.
Josh and I slept together one summer day in his bedroom while it rained outside. His room smelled like cinnamon. He told me he loved me.
It wasn’t long after graduation that Josh and I broke up. He said he didn’t think I felt the same way about him that he felt about me. I didn’t argue with him. By the time he left, he wouldn’t look at me. Just after he pulled out of the drive, my father pulled in, home from work, asking about dinner.
A few days later, Les called and asked me to meet him in the morning. When I got to his house, he was waiting on his front steps. A gray duffle bag sat next to his feet. His mother stood in the front window and I waved to her as Les climbed into my car but she didn’t wave back. Les asked me to drive him to the bus station. He said he joined the Army and needed to report to boot camp. I didn’t know what to say.
The sun seemed to be having a hard time rising that day and there was an indistinct fog clinging to the ground. A few miles out of town, the fog lifted, revealing an orange sun in the distance. We talked a little. He told me his mother had spent the night crying at the foot of his bed while he packed.
“I’m not a kid,” he said every couple of sentences. I didn’t argue with him.
There was a line of people waiting outside the bus station when Les went inside to buy his ticket. His hair, usually a chocolate brown, had a reddish tint in the morning sun. Leaning against my car, I waited for him.
“All set?” I said when he returned.
When I pushed away from my car, Les pulled me to him and kissed me, pressing my body against his like pages of a book closing. I don’t know how long we stood kissing at the front of my car, but I know I felt like crying when we pulled apart. Les didn’t say anything before boarding the bus.
Over the next few years, Les mailed me letters from too many towns to count. He spent a long time in Florida before going overseas. When I wrote that I didn’t know we were at war, he replied that some things were just like that.
I started dating a guy who worked at a real estate office but was really a painter. Kale Hartman. He showed his work in strange exhibits that were constructed in abandoned warehouses and hollowed out apartments. I liked the way he scratched at his ear lobe when he talked.
We moved into a one-bedroom apartment littered with art supplies. I worked in an office that sold software to dental offices. Kale won a small grant.
One morning Les called and said he was coming home in ten days. He asked me to meet him the day after he got home. I picked him up at his mother’s house.
“Where to?” I said.
His hair was shorter than I’d ever seen it and his shoulders were wider than I remembered. He set a beat-up backpack between his feet.
Dinosaur Hill was a dirt hill that we used to ride our bikes down when we were kids. It was a long, sloping mud track that flared out over a small stream.
“Okay, but it’s not a hill anymore,” I said. “They mowed it over to build some houses.”
“The stream’s still there,” I said. I guess they couldn’t tear that down.
It was the first time I drove to Dinosaur Hill by car and not bike. I parked on the street facing the houses. We followed the stream a little ways before Les sat beneath a slender maple tree. When he pulled a silver urn out of his bag, I took a step back.
“Who is that?” I nodded towards the urn.
Les lit a cigarette.
“This is Sam,” he said. He placed his hand on top of the urn but then removed it as if the metal was hot.
“Sam Connors?” I said. “Your father?”
“You found him?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“And he’s dead?”
“Well he wasn’t when I found him,” Les said, laughing.
“That’s the thing about the army, when you’re not fighting, you’re not doing much of anything,” he said. “At first I just sort of laid around, but that got boring. Eventually, I used my free time to track down Sam. I tracked down lots of Sam Connors, actually. There are hundreds of them out there.” He laughed again. “I started contacting them one-by-one. After a couple dozen, I found the one.”
I sat down across from him. “Where’d you find him?”
“Up North.” Les rubbed the stubble along his jaw line. “Working on a fishing boat or some shit.” Les passed his cigarette to me across the open space between us.
“Y’know he didn’t even know about me.” He lit another cigarette for himself.
“Your mom never told him?” I said.
“That’s what he said.”
“What’d your mom say?”
Les shook his head. “I didn’t ask her.”
I took a pull on the cigarette and let it claw at my throat. I didn’t smoke much anymore.
“So, how’d he die?” I said.
“Some kind of car accident, I guess,” he said.
“Did he have a funeral?” I stubbed out my half-smoked cigarette on the bottom of my sneaker.
“I think so,” he said. “Some guys he worked with on the boat took care of it. I didn’t know he was dead until a few months after it happened.” He stubbed out his own cigarette.
“I stayed with him a couple days,” he said, “after I found him, when he was alive. I met a couple guys he worked with on the boat. They only knew my name and that I was in the army, so after he was cremated, they wrote me a letter. But they didn’t know where to send it so they just dropped it off at some rinky-dink recruitment office in town.” His laugh was a half snort. “Can you imagine,” he said, “just dropping off a letter at a recruitment office addressed to Les Connors, US Army?” He used a different voice for that last part. He laughed harder, a deep laugh that rolled across the stream. “I’m surprised it ever got to me.”
“Anyway, he was already dead, so I waited ‘til my next leave and I took a bus up North to pick him up.”
“And now he’s here,” I said.
“What’re you gonna do with his ashes?”
“I’m gonna scatter them here,” he said. “What’d you think we’re doing here?”
“Honestly, I had no idea what we were doing here.”
This time, we both laughed.
“Yeah, I guess you probably wouldn’t,” he said. He said something else, but the wind blew his words away from me. He stood and dusted off his pants.
“Are you just going to let the wind take him or something?”
“No, I was thinking of letting him go in the stream. I thought he’d like the water. I mean, he worked on a boat.”
The stream was lined with thick rows of mud. A pair of dragonflies, one straddling the other, landed on a flat leaf nearby.
“Must be nice,” Les said, moving his hand towards the pair of dragonflies. “All they ever seem to do is fly and fuck.”
I laughed. “You know why they do that? The lifespan of a dragonfly is only twenty-four hours.”
“Really?” he said. He let out a low whistle that slid through the air as easily as the stream slid through the ground.
“It’s kind of nice, don’t you think? It’s like witnessing a miracle. I mean, they only live for one day, and we got to see them,” I said.
Les turned to me.
“We got to see them fucking,” he said.
I smiled and shrugged. There was that.
When Les turned back toward the stream, he drew in a breath so deep it actually raised him up. I stayed back while he sunk down into the mud half an inch, then half an inch more. By the time he got to the stream, I could barely see his shoes.
“Should we say something?”
Les didn’t turn around. “What would we say?”
He leaned towards the water, one knee sinking into the muddy bank. His father’s urn gleaned as bright as the water. Behind us, the houses were silent ghosts.
When Les emptied the bag inside the urn of his father’s ashes, they fell in clumps into the sun-glazed water. It was choppy, where I expected grace. I guess that’s how things go sometimes.
From where I stood, I couldn’t see the ashes float downstream, so I watched Les watch his father go instead. The urn lay on its side in the mud.
“Is that true?” Les’ voice was soft as the breeze. “About the dragonflies only living twenty-four hours?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just something I heard.”
Sometimes, that’s just how things go.
Kristin Kozlowski has work published in The Dirty Napkin and Fine Lines Literary Journal, among other places. She lives and works in every Chicago season, and only dreams of mountains on occasion.