Sharpening the Chainsaw

A son's curiousity leads him to the truth about his father

short story smokingI grew up in one of those plasterboard houses on a small block on the edge of town. There was an old shed out the back made of corrugated iron and rotting wooden posts. The Old Man used to go out there of an evening and come back moving languidly, with his eyes tinged pink and gaze distant.

He was docile and cheery after his time in the shed. Mum would glare at him as he walked over the porch and back through the sliding door that was never quite shut, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. He would just smile like a simpleton and wander towards the kitchen.

Sometimes he would smack his lips together, making an awful dry sound like an old person chewing dentures. I don’t know what it was about that sound but it always made me shudder.

I remember one time asking Mum why The Old Man’s eyes were red. She said it was just sparks in his eye from sharpening the chainsaw. It sounded painful and I wondered why he’d do it every night if it made his eyes so sore and red. But it made him cheery so there must have been something pleasant about it.

We weren’t allowed in the shed, my sister and I—there were too many ways to hurt ourselves in there, Mum said. Sometimes The Old Man let me sit and watch while he worked on this old motorbike, occasionally asking for a wrench or spanner, but that was only sometimes and only on weekends. Every other time it was off-limits.

I remember being ten or eleven—I can’t really remember, but it was one of those prepubescent ages when everything is still foreign and exciting and adults are held in a sort of god-like awe—and watching him saunter out to the shed when he got home from work one night.

Mum was in the kitchen moving from fridge to pantry to chopping board to stove in a kind of disjointed dance and my sister was in her room plucking notes on the cheap guitar she’d gotten for her birthday.

I was bored and curious. I pushed open the sliding door, the one that was never quite closed, and crept across the back lawn.

The darkened silhouette of the shed loomed before me like a temple or castle—the sort of building you look at with wide eyes and limited control over the muscles in your jaw.

With the sound of my heart thundering in my ear, I crept up to the shed and edged the door open gently enough to avoid the squeak of rusted hinges.

I peered through the crack and there was The Old Man. He was hunched over in a camping chair with his lips pressed inside a huge glass cylinder which he held in his left hand. In his other hand I could see a lime green lighter; the kind that sat in a square on top of the counter in the shop. White smoke pooled in the cylinder and crept up towards The Old Man’s puckered lips, accompanied by a bubbling sound like someone using mouthwash.

I watched as The Old Man’s face became strained, the muscles in his neck causing contours on his skin, his forehead creased intently. The smoke thickened and the gurgling amplified. The cylinder filled completely and it looked like a ghost trapped in a bottle struggling to get out, but unable to find an exit. And then, with a pop and a final gurgle the smoke shot up the cylinder and into The Old Man. There was a moment of stillness and silence that seemed to stretch either side of eternity, but probably only lasted about a second, and then smoke came rocketing from his mouth in a thick plume.

The Old Man sighed and nodded to nobody, and then slumped further into the camping chair. I stood transfixed with my face up against the crack; unable to move and unsure what I just witnessed. Behind The Old Man I could see the chainsaw resting on one of the high shelves. It looked like it hadn’t been touched in months.

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