Morning Coal Train, Coopers, West Virginia by Kevin Scanlon
Father dumped the coins from his change purse into my hands. Then he removed two dimes and two nickels and laid them on the dash.
“How much is there?” he asked. I counted the few remaining coins quickly.
“There’s a dollar,” I said. “Exactly one dollar.”
“Give me a $1.00’s worth of regular,” he said handing the coins to the station attendant.
Father took the coins from the dash and put them back in his purse while the attendant pumped the gas into our Chevy panel truck. Then we drove to the end of town and turned left at the intersection. There we picked up Route 52 and headed toward Father’s favorite berry picking territory.
Soon, the Blue Goose pulled in line with the rest of the vehicles waiting to cross the toll bridge into Kentucky. “I don’t see anyone in the booth,” I said to Father. “Maybe today is a free day.”
“Here,” he said handing me his change purse. “Get out a dime and a nickel. Then get in the back. In this world, nothing is free.”
It wasn’t hard to find the two coins, since there were only four. After handing him the money, I crawled over my seat to the back of the truck and hid under a dirty oil tarp surrounded by bowls, buckets, and small washtubs.
As the truck rolled onto the toll bridge, the tires rumbled against the metal grating and vibrated the floor. My body tingled from the movement, but I sat quiet and still. Within a few seconds we were running on smooth road again.
“Okay.” Father said. “We’re on the other side.”
I climbed out from the tarp and joined Father in the front seat again. For awhile, fog filled the riverbanks along the road and settled into the large grassy bottomlands. We snaked our way along the narrow road, and then turned left onto a dirt road.
“Now that we’re away from the river, the fog won’t be so bad,” he began. “Won’t be too much longer either.” He pointed to a ray of sun shining through the treetops.
Soon the sun shone with all its strength. Hot, humid July. The perfect time for picking blackberries. Blackberries our family needed. Not to eat, but to sell. Check day wouldn’t come for another week. I took the store list from my pocket and read over the list: flour, milk, potatoes, beans, sugar, and cornmeal. This was only the beginning of Mother’s list. It went on and on. This sure was going to take a lot of berry picking.
“All right,” Father began. “Watch out for old farm houses and barns. Berries usually grow near.”
I put the list away and watched carefully out the window. “What about over there?” I said pointing to an old house with a slanted roof.
“No,” he said. “There’s people still living there. You can’t pick berries in somebody’s yard. Just keep watching.”
I watched and fidgeted at the same time. I was getting hot in my double layered clothing: two pairs of pants, two long-sleeved shirts, two pairs of socks, black arctic boots. I tucked my hair under an old baseball hat so the briars and thorns wouldn’t pull it. Soon we came to an abandoned coal tipple, and Father pulled off the road.
“Let’s look here,” he said opening the door. “Berries usually grow in places like this.” He grabbed his wooden pegleg from behind his seat and strapped it on.
We met at the back of the truck and Father opened the two heavy doors. I crawled inside and gathered bowls and buckets, and left them near the edge of the truck.
“Don’t forget the oil,” he said. “And your stick.”
I took the ten-cent bottle of cinnamon oil from the glove box and splashed a few drops around the bottom of my pants. Father believed that this kept snakes away. “Wear a few drops of this on your boots,” he’d say, “and snakes won’t even come near. The smell gets in their eyes. And they don’t like that.”
“Be sure to beat the ground a few times with your stick before walking up on those berries, now,” he reminded.
I walked carefully through the high weeds toward the old tipple keeping clear of the broken fence. Pink and white rambling roses ran wild along both sides, and I didn’t want to get tangled in their thorny stems.
Father stood near the path where I entered the abandoned site and continued talking as I made my way into the berry patch.
“Remember now,” he began, “only pick the black ones. Not the red. Leave the red ones to ripen for someone else.”
“I won’t pick any red ones,” I yelled back and continued picking. This patch wasn’t very big, and all I got was a little over a quart.
We drove on till we came to a caved in railroad tunnel. The new tracks lay across the road and no tunnel was needed.
“Let’s try here,” he said. There might be some beyond that brush there. It looked awful thick and scary.
I beat the stick against the ground as I walked through the overgrown meadow toward the tunnel. I looked all around for several minutes. Then I parted the weeds with the stick and held them back so I could walk through without the briars grabbing my legs. Strong, tough briars could tear through even two pairs of pants. Finally, I looked up and towering above me was a beautiful patch of berries. But they were on top of the hill above the tunnel. I couldn’t get to them.
“There’s some,” I yelled back to Father. “Up there. See. On top of the tunnel.”
“Go on,” he said. “Climb up on the left. “The path looks better.” I trusted him because he could see better than I could from where he was standing.
I looked at the path and tied my bucket to my belt, so I could use both hands for climbing. The steep path was overgrown with thick green bushes and small trees. Long branches from briar patches spread out like tentacles on an upside down octopus. They pricked through my clothes and stung my arms and legs. I stumbled over the yellow muddy rocks that washed down from the mountain above. When I reached the top, I was hot and sweaty. It felt like I was home sitting in front of the gas stove in the living room in the middle of winter. I tugged at the hot shirts and pants. My fingers were already stained a reddish-purple which I had swiped on my forehead.
There weren’t many berries, but what I did get were big and plump. Now I had about a quart and a half. We dumped the berries into a flat pan in the back of the truck. Father had a special way of storing his berries. He always poured them into flat pans until it came time to sell them at the end of the day. This way, they never mashed and they were plump and juicy right up until the time you sold them.
The sun became hotter and higher as we passed a few more patches, but we didn’t stop. Berry pickers had picked the vines clean, then stomped them to make a path back to the open road.
“Always remember,” he began. “Respect the vines. Don’t ever do what someone did here. Not only did they clean out the vines, they destroyed them, too. There will never be another berry grow on those vines.”
We continued on for a mile or so, and then Father turned down another dirt road. It was narrower than the one we had been on. There was barely enough room for the Blue Goose to pass. Lower limbs poked through the windows forcing us to lean back in our seats, but we kept going. Soon the roadway opened up to a little creek. It wasn’t very deep, only six to eight inches. There were tire tracks leading down into the creek, but there weren’t any on the other side.
“That’s funny,” I said. “How can there be tire tracks on this side of the creek, but nothing on the other side?”
“Because they didn’t go through the creek,” Father answered. “Looks like they turned around right here and went back.”
Father drove slowly through the quiet stream, and I poked my head out the window to watch the tires pull through the water. Small stones turned in from the pressure of the tires and small crawdads ran to bury themselves in the sand.
Around the next curve, came a short straight stretch. Father slowed down and carefully studied the area. “If I remember right, over there used to be an old chicken farm down over the hill. Lots of berries, too.” He pulled over.
“Climb on the hood and look over in there. See if you can see anything,” he said turning off the motor.
I kicked open the door and climbed up the front bumper onto the hood. I couldn’t see over the tall weeds and clump of trees. I climbed to the top of the truck and peered below into a large overgrown meadow and called out to Father what I saw: an old run down house, broken fence posts with old rusty chicken wire, lots of bushes and trees, and a field of green splashed with black and red berries.
I scrambled down from the truck, grabbed my bucket and stick and made my way through the weeds. I picked berries until my fingers bled from briar scratches. I picked berries until my hands and face turned violet from me swiping my forehead.
Later, the sun rose overhead signaling lunch time, and I stopped to eat a can of smooth and salty Armour Potted Meat followed by a few sips of water from a plastic jug. Then I hit the berry field again.
By late afternoon, every bowl, bucket, and pan was filled, and we headed toward home. Home to coal camps where we would sell the berries, then go the the A & P grocery store. I took off one of the shirts and pair of pants. I removed the tape from my wrists and ankles and for the first time since awakening, I felt like I could breathe. I leaned back in the seat and looked over the list once more. I smiled knowing Mother would be pleased.
Soon we came to the road leading toward the toll bridge. As we sat there in line waiting for our turn to cross the bridge, I read the sign posted on the outside of the booth.
Car & Driver …………10 cents
Truck and Driver… .... 15 cents
Each Passenger………..05 cents
Slowly we inched our way toward the booth. I gave Father the last dime and nickel, then climbed in the back and sat down beside the berries. When I felt the tires vibrate on the metal grating, I covered myself with the tarp.
I don’t know how many folks outside of West Virginia remember Dagmar anymore, but once she was famous. Back in the early and mid-fifties, Dagmar had been black-and-white TV’s version of Marilyn Monroe, or, maybe more accurately, of B movie queen Jayne Mansfield. Dagmar was the resident dumb blonde with big breasts on the old Milton Berle Texaco Theater, where she cultivated a funny, startled, deceptively stupid look. She also appeared on the TV variety show Broadway Open House, and even had her own short-lived Dagmar’s Canteen in 1952, where Frank Sinatra was once a guest.
Dagmar had been my own first hope and inspiration for a future beyond the ordinary. She had become the source of all my earliest discovery and flight and fame fantasies. But I let Dagmar and her famous big breasts slip through my fingers.
Dagmar’s real name was Virginia Ruth Egnor, and she was born in 1924 in Huntington, West Virginia. When I was a boy, Dagmar’s folks had lived three doors down from us on Waverly Road in Huntington for several years. There were no fences around the small-frame houses on our road back in those days, and we kids darted in our games like free-range chickens across that little prairie of backyards. In Dagmar’s folks’ backyard there was a spreading old oak we often used as homebase, where I relished the role of being “it” during hide-and-seek. Being “it” meant that I could hover about that homebase old oak, where it was only a matter of time until one day Dagmar would discover me. Someday Dagmar would be visiting her folks, maybe sitting out at the kitchen table sipping coffee one morning with her Mom, when through the back window she would spot a swift, singular, beautiful boy fearless at his play, and with a mere glance Dagmar would recognize the shining of his inner star.
Dagmar would stub out the cigarette she had been languidly smoking, while trying to explain the enigmatic nature of fame to her old Mom, and she would rush out the backdoor to that special splendid boy, rush to enfold him in her fame, not to mention extraordinary bosom, her famous nipples fiery red through her filmy clinging negligee (I loved those words: nipples, negligee, nipples, nipples, nipples, which were among those magically learned juicy words of my childhood I would roll around on my tongue like holy cherry Life Savers.)
And then it really happened. Dagmar had actually shown up at her folks’ home on Waverly Road the summer I was ten. We awakened one August Saturday morning into all the ordinariness of our own lives to discover an enormous car parked in front of Dagmar’s folks’ little house. It was a CADILLAC! It was a Cadillac CONVERTIBLE! It was YELLOW! I loved that car at first sight. The neighborhood was abuzz. One of Dagmar’s prissy little nieces kept sashaying out of the house to preen and prance and keep everybody abreast of the radiant blonde being within. Apparently Dagmar had brought her latest husband home to meet her folks for a real low-key down- home family visit. I skulked and lurked about the little frame house like all the rest of the obscure neighborhood minions that Saturday morning hoping to get at least a peek at the inscrutable face of fame, but to no avail.
Around noon my Dad, or Captain as everybody called him, piled as many neighborhood kids as would fit in his old battered green Plymouth station wagon, as was his Saturday afternoon custom, and hauled us down the road to a public swimming pool called Dreamland. Dad was called Captain because he had been the captain of the Second World War, which he had apparently won pretty much single-handedly. He was famous for this. When he had mustered out of the army at the end of the war a hero, some folks had encouraged him to get into politics. Captain was a big, gregarious fellow with an easy booming laugh, a full-blown sort of character folks always declared was a dead ringer for John Wayne, and it was true. Some folks even declared that Captain would be a natural for governor of West Virginia, although he was by nature neither a drunk nor a crook. Captain, who was a generally unemployed hero, hauled all us rowdy kids out of the neighborhood on weekends so that my Mom, who was an emergency room night shift nurse, and who pretty much brought home the proverbial bacon in our house plus cooked it up, could collapse in peace.
I recall Dreamland as a vast pool of wavy, faintly blue-green water splashing with sunlight, air thick with the pungent puzzling sweetness of chlorine and suntan lotion, joyful screams and squeals strangely echoey, smooth oiled teenage girls parading imperiously with their movie star sunglasses and implicating smiles and the sweet shadowy secrets of their shaved underarms. Music was always blasting from a huge white-stucco two-storied clubhouse trimmed in blue, and blue onion-shaped domes rose above dressing rooms on a knoll at the far end of the long pool. Dreamland was a Taj Mahal of a swimming pool I both loved and feared, a site of excitement and profound failure for me.
Dreamland was where I learned to swim my first spastic strokes, and where I failed repeatedly to muster courage enough to attempt swimming out to the deep end. I was not afraid of drowning in the deep end. It wasn’t that. It was, for one thing, my fear of not looking cool and sleek swimming around like the older boys, but dopey as a duck as I thrashed about in the water of the deep end. I was afraid of being embarrassed if I swam out to the huge circular concrete float in the deep end where the older boys hung out as they strutted and flexed their fulsome brown muscled bodies. Mostly, though, my fear of the deep end was because of the bad dreams.
We piled out of Captain’s old Plymouth station wagon that Saturday and charged for the ticket counters, bouncing about impatiently as we inched along in one of the two endless lines. And then I spotted her, in the next line, the famous monster girl with no face. I had seen her maybe two or three other times, and it was always a shock. She was a monster girl whose face had no features. It was like looking at a blur of a face. You got the impression of holes here and there for what could have been perhaps nostrils and a mouth maybe, and eyes, like unaligned marbles amid folds and flaps of flesh and hair that looked like fur and feathers. There were rumors that the girl had been born that way, or that her face had burned off in a fire, or been cut to ribbons in a terrible car wreck or by an escaped convict crazy man with a knife. Her blur of a face was at an angle to me, and I stared at it. I couldn’t help it. I blinked my eyes trying to somehow adjust them, to get them into focus, to compose something recognizable as the regular human face of a girl amid that pulpy mess of skin. Suddenly the monster girl turned her head in my direction and I jerked my eyes away. But she knew I had been staring. I could feel she knew I had been staring, and my neck burned with shame and embarrassment for her exotic horribleness. I couldn’t think of anything worse than being her, a person whose face could never show her sadness, or happiness, if she ever had any, whose only expression would be horribleness. How could a girl with no face ever leave a dark room? How could a monster girl ever crawl out from under her rock?
Let’s head for the deep end, Soldierboy, Captain said to me the minute we laid out our towels on a grassy slope above the pool that Saturday. Let’s go kick that deep end’s ass, Captain added, laughing that bold confident winner-of-the-Second-World-War laugh of his, and he gave my shoulder a poke with his finger that about knocked me down. I was this boney kid who had at best a baffled sense of balance. Then Captain gave me a snappy salute, which meant that I, his little soldierboy, was supposed to snap him a salute back, a little private father-son camaraderie he had initiated when I was maybe one. I knew what this meant in a heartbeat. This meant that my cowardly ass was grass and the Second World War was the mower. I hated the Second World War. This also meant Mom had ratted me out to Captain about the deep end and my cowardliness and I resolved at that moment to keep my heart hidden from everybody forever.
At noon each day when I came home from playing or school for lunch, there would be two pans heating on the stove. One pan contained simmering Campbell’s tomato soup. I loved Campbell’s tomato soup. A syringe and needle were being sterilized in the other bubbling water. After I had enjoyed my Campbell’s tomato soup, which I slurped with infinitely slow appreciation while nibbling with elegant slowness upon the crumbs of Saltines, Mom would lead me upstairs, and I would trudge forlornly behind her like the proverbial prisoner going to the gallows. I would lie face down on my bed with my butt bared, until such time as I had worked up enough courage to gasp into my pillow a feathered, fluttering little birdy whimper of that word: now. Whereupon Mom would deliver into my shivery little boy butt via that needle the approximate size of a harpoon my daily dose of raging male hormones (I had had a little undescended testicle problem that took four visits to the famous Mayo Clinic to eventually make all better). While I was working up the courage to say now, Mom would let me jabber my head off, as I stalled. If I sensed Mom growing impatient with me, I would attempt to distract her with entertaining albeit inscrutable stories. Sometimes I would be forced to pretend to confide in Mom, telling her what I hoped would pass as truthful, private things, making my revelations as puzzling and painful as possible to engage her interest and sympathies. Hence I had told her more truthfully than I meant to about my fear of the deep end, and then I had told her about the nightmares I had had for years that as I was swimming along happily, some horrible scary creature who lived on the bottom of the deep end would awake and see me up above on the surface of the water. Whereupon in my nightmares I would feel something grab my feet from below, and pull me screaming down under the water to be eaten raw.
So there was Captain treading water in the shivery blue green water of the deep end, throwing salutes my way and hollering above the pool racket to jump on in, soldierboy, the water’s right. But soldierboy just stood there looking down his at toes, curled like scared worms over the pool’s edge. You can swim like a fish, soldierboy, just jump on in and swim to your old dad. I’m right here, son, nothing will happen. You won’t drown, hollered Captain. But soldierboy knew he wouldn’t drown. That wasn’t it. Soldierboy stood there trembling. Like a cowardly leaf. Soldierboy wanted more than anything to be under the water of his beloved shallow end, holding his breath in the currents of uncomplexity at its bottom where nobody could see him. Come on now, soldierboy, Captain implored, gritting his teeth. I stared at my worried worms. Come on now, Goddamnit, Chuck, jump! Captain encouraged me and slapped the water with a cupped hand. It sounded like a shot. I flinched violently. Why don’t you go ahead and jump, chickenshit, a neighborhood boy said from behind me and hooted with laughter. They were all around me, the neighborhood boys and girls, all those creepy kids with their giggles, their laughter. I spun around and ran. I pushed my way relentlessly through hooting human beings who knew me.
I skulked around that lake of a pool and slipped into the shameful shallow end on the far side, among the comforting presence of strangers, where I felt at home. I bobbed about in the shallow water, a floating head, keeping a wary eye out for Captain or any of the evil neighborhood kids, while I plotted my revenge. If only I could transform this once sweet Persian dream of a pool into a lake of acid. Or have schools of gigantic piranha churn the waves into a foam of blood. If only the creature of the deep end awoke while Captain was swimming out there all alone, when suddenly it happened, and with but a shudder of his great muscles Captain would be pulled down into the deep end, and although my old man wrestled heroically with the groping tentacles, for he was such a big brave shit, they slowly entangled him, pulling him into the dark water toward the deep end monster’s huge yellow crazy eyes, and great bloody maw.
Then I heard an announcement over the clubhouse’s loudspeakers. They announced that we were all honored to have Dagmar, the famous star of screen and television, as a special guest that day at Dreamland. I stood up in the shallow end and looked around wildly. Dagmar, man oh man! I saw a crowd passing slowly along the side of the pool by the clubhouse stairs toward the picnic area on the same slope where we had our stuff laid out. In a momentary parting of the excited throng, I was certain I caught a glimpse of utter blondeness. For a moment I considered returning to my site of shame, swallowing my pride in order to see that famous blonde person and her wondrous breasts up close. But I didn’t. I had my pride. I turned and dogpaddled with dignity out to the float in the shallow end, where I pulled myself up and sat with my back to Dad and Dagmar and all they meant.
At some point, I began jumping over and over again into the pool. Time and again, I would run and hurl myself belly first from the float painfully into the choppy water. Then I would drag myself back up on the float and do it again. I didn’t care. I didn’t care if I knocked myself out and drowned shamefully at the bottom of the shallow end. I pictured Captain standing over where they had drug my pitiful drowned body onto the side of the pool, blue green water draining from my mouth and nose and ears and eyes. I tried to picture Captain crying his heart out, but I couldn’t. The only thing I could make come alive in my imagination was Captain carrying my limp dripping body up the clubhouse stairs while some sad song like “Endless Sea” blasted on the loud speakers, and all the evil neighborhood kids were standing around wondering out loud if I would come back from the dead and fuck with them, which, buddy, you can bet I would.
Then I pictured Dagmar swimming toward me underwater. Like a wondrous waterplant’s blooming, her beautiful blonde hair floated about her head as her face came toward my own until it filled my vision. Whereupon, in the moment before I lost consciousness, I felt Dagmar’s soft white arms enfold me. I was only ten years old, but I imagined myself being deliciously smothered in the immensity of Dagmar’s blonde breasts as she delivered the drowning soldierboy safely to the surface.
So there I stood on the shallow end float trying to catch my breath after a particularly painful bellybuster, when a kid came directly up to me out of the basic blue and excitedly said these exact words: “Dagmar saw you, boy!” Dagmar saw you, boy! That kid said exactly that. I swear it! I spun around like an insane top. I looked everywhere. I looked in the water around the float. I scanned the far sides of the pool, and the grassy slopes. Dagmar saw you, boy. When I looked back for the kid he was gone. But that boy had been real, and he had said those exact words full of more wonder than any other words of my childhood. I swear it.
Dagmar had spotted me. That much was clear. I believed that with all of my heart. I believe it to this day. Somehow my fierce painful brave bellybusters had caught Dagmar’s attention. Perhaps her blue famous eyes were settled upon me at that moment. They could be. They were. I sprang into action. I threw myself from the float like a virgin into a volcano. I exploded into that violence of water and began to swim frantically for the float in the deep end. I thrashed my arms and kicked my feet wildly. I chopped across the rough surface of the deep end, choking, my eyes burning, toward the distant float. The deep end’s water strangled into my throat with each ragged stroke and it dawned on me I might never make it. It dawned on me that I might actually drown like a rat. And for what? Fame? Fame wasn’t worth it I realized. Fame wasn’t worth drowning like a rat.
But at that epiphanal moment I felt strangely calm. I closed my eyes, and simply kept chopping, blindly, but unafraid, trancelike, and then suddenly I touched concrete. I slapped an astonished hand onto the surface of the float in the deep end and held on for dear life. I had not drowned like a rat after all. I had a second chance at everything, including fame. I was coughing and spitting and my sore arms trembled nearly out of control. I wiped water off of my face with my free hand and pushed my hair out of my eyes. I was there. Soldierboy had made it. Soldierboy was at the float in the deep end where he had always really belonged. Soldierboy loved that float. He gripped the edge of the float and looked around to see who had witnessed this amazing feat. He looked for the evil neighborhood kids. He looked for Dad. Soldierboy looked around for Dagmar.
And then suddenly somebody emerged from the water right beside me and grabbed the edge of the float. It was the famous girl with no face. I took one look at her and screamed. I screamed and screamed and fell back into the water, flapping my arms like crazy wings.
("The Girl With No Face" is Chapter One of Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life )
Said when them boys jumped out, ours was already loaded, safety off, and cocked. Said nobody thought. Said who could of lived through that close of range, what the hell we gonna do now? Said it was the other two fired first, but ours aimed best, what the hell? Said both of them got up afterwards, the least hurt dragging the most hurt away. Said it’ll be all over town by evening, all over the county by morning, what? Said get our goddamned story straight, that’s what they said.
They come off the mountain with their own boy in a purple-lipped panic, lips a-quivering like you took a finger, flick. Eyes frogged out and reared back both, horse at a snake, and shiny with a crazy crying, at first I thought it was just a crazy crying, only later did I hear the guilt. And him a big boy, at least fifteen, you’d thought it was him’d got hit, but although it was him they wanted, he wasn’t so much as grazed. While I just went on a-peeling my potatoes, scooping out the little eyes. Lick your finger on the nick.
First I thought it was an accident, then I started hearing how on the other side it must of been planned. First thought it was only our boy pulled the our-side trigger, then started hearing I was at least half wrong. Heat off that woodstove, heat off fourteen scared men, and already five different stories fighting for what would be said. I was getting my taters going, bacon grease out a cup, when I felt the oldest one, Franklin’s first son, Bunk, come up on my back. I shifted my head and I looked at him there. “Chester. Ches.” Was all he said.
Aside from Bunk, they brung me only because they could stand my cooking and was always short on people to drive, I knowed that. And because, at sixty-nine, I was still my father’s son, them theirs. And because they knowed I couldn’t talk good when I could talk at all, and most people thinks what comes out your mouth is one and the same with what runs in your head. Which works against you most of the time, but sometimes it works for. With them it was usually for. Hunting places around here have shrunkt up smaller every year. I needed fresh meat in my freezer. Now Bunk had slumped away from it, into a back-cracked chair between the cookstove and wall, and he dropped that gray chin in one hand.
Got to slicing my onions, sharp of the odor a-stamping at theirs, boots and blaze orange and gun cases and guns, all of them still in their coveralls and coats, they was a-raising a steam with what they thought should be said. Closest to my age were Franklin’s three sons--Bunk, Gordon, and Kenny Lee--and them three’d had five sons, and out of their son-in-laws, two who would hunt. And then that bunch had a whole slew of boys, Franklin’s great-grands, but only four with us now. A few was too little, and others only hunted on video screens. And some of them argued nasty, and some argued reasonable, and some argued crazy, and some argued half-sweet, but only the Ryan one showed any hurt for them two shot kids, kids, I heard them say, he knowed from school. And other things. He was the youngest with us, Rusty’s son, Gordon’s grand, Franklin’s great, I’d never paid him much mind, him a-surlying around under stringy red hair, fingering spots on his face. But now he was carrying on like a just-cut calf, snotting and bawling where he curled on a cot, until one of em said get out there in that johnnyhouse til you get hold yourself. Then another one said, no, just go out there sit in Uncle Kenny’s truck. I poked the rings out my onions. Felt the thin curl of trigger in the middle of his finger. Before pot, before cocaine, before crack, oxycontin, and crystal methalatum . . . . My daddy wasn’t a drinking man. Franklin, he wasn’t neither.
Started my onions in the skillet next the taters, they said the boys was a-waiting for theirs, couldn’t have known how this family hunts. Because most people these days still-hunt, that would have made the Ryan alone, but they did it the old way, drive and watch, which meant there was all kind of family nearby them boys didn’t know about. Now Frankie, Bunk’s boy, was a-stepping out his coveralls, and he drop-spilled a whole box of cartridges on the floor, and if that didn’t rattle em higher. They was big men, I tell you, they got fatter as they went the generations down. They was bearchested and bullheaded and they knowed more about guns than they did people, woods, or sense. My daddy talked good, walked tall, stood right alongside Franklin even if he never did own not one acre of land. But Chester, he told me, you watch his boys, and that was before the grands come along, and long before the greats.
Now Bunk’d got up, he was trying to talk sense to the younger ones, his brother Gordon was, too. Me with my back to em, moving onions, moving taters, I was hearing more than I could see and smelling more than either. Heat of em beading water on the winders, water a-starting to drip, and it’d already come to me I was smelling em when before I couldn’t, but then it come to me that I couldn’t before because before they’d smelled like me. I flopped a liver out a bread bag and onto the heat, stepped back when the bacon grease popped high.
“Oh, he won’t say nothing.”
There it was. Me the only one not related by blood or marriage.
“Course he won’t say nothing, but he can still tell!” Hothead Rusty talking, even fireder up than usual with the Ryan being his.
“You know what I mean,” that was Bunk again, we’d come up together, him just two years younger. But although Bunk had always wanted different, wanted us to be like Franklin and Daddy, me and Bunk could never be.
“Well, we got to know for sure, and he’s got to keep it straight,” another grandson, I couldn’t tell which, but I could hear the walleye scare of his eyes.
“Hell, I don’t even know if he can remember something right for that long,” and one or two snickered despite everything else.
“He’s ever bit as bright as any one of you!” Kenny, the third and last son. Liver colored like the boy’s shivery lips and jerking in the pan. Like its nerves not yet shut down from the deer it got cut out of.
Then somebody’s chair legs went a-scudding crosst the boards, and “Make eem write it down!” and then they was thrusting for paper. Slamming through kitchen drawers and outturning dirty pockets, and they ripped off part of the tater bag, but decided that was too small. Bunk fell back into the chair, I seed him. I seed his gray face spiderheld in his hands. My back still to em, water dribbling down the winder insides, and guess drug dealin and deer huntin don’t mix too good, I wanted to, but never said. Then one fished a doughnut box out the garbage, and another grandson took a knife to it, and that gave them some room.
I couldn’t see who it was grabbed my arm, but I heard the spatula hit the floor. “Write it down!” Turned me, and then I seed them all, but their faces had done run away. Their faces had gone away and they was stubble, they was glasses, they was orange and camouflage caps, and I could feel in his arm he was still holding back, I could hear it in the way his breath left his mouth. He slammed my hand on the box piece, and one stubble-cap turned into Gordon and turned away, and with a stub of a pencil out of somebody’s pocket “I won’t say nothing,” I said.
“Naw! Naw! Put ‘I’ll tell it exactly like they want’!”
I felt me swaver a little on my feet. Them winders were a-swimming, they took no reflection, they let in no night. I steadied myself with my left hand on the table edge, and I pressed down hard to keep the mark from wiggling, and how little you all are a-knowing, I said in my head. Then it got so quiet, all of them watching my hand, you could hear the sugar crust crunch under the tip. Quiet enough you could hear Kenny or Gordon a-walking away up the stairs, I could tell it was a son by the heavy slow in the step. Then I laid the pencil down, stepped back best I could, them all up around me, when Rusty yapped out “Put ‘I swear’!” How little you all are a-knowing. I pulled the pencil to the very edge. I squinched the “I swear” in. How little you are knowing, and nothing about said.
Rusty grabbed the scrap, jammed it in the thigh pocket of his canvas pants. And for about three seconds, they all of them looked at me there. For about three seconds, all of them’s faces come back, each one clear, and dark, and at a great far away. And I seed Franklin, Gordon, Kenny, I seed Bunk, even in the by-marriage ones, I seed. Then they turned from me and back on themselves. A-arguing again over what would be said.
I picked my spatula up off the floor. I lifted that liver out, still bleeding a little, and laid it on a plate. Shoved the taters on a back burner, figured if they scorched, they wouldn’t notice much. Then I walked out of the said. And into a dusk so silent you could hear smoke leave the roof.
My daddy’d been a few years older than Franklin, I was older than all his sons. Old enough to listen. Old enough to not have said. Franklin called that an accident, too, but only one man pulled the trigger then. And that story didn’t have to get made and straight because the woman didn’t get winged and run away, and she was from back in the hills anyway, her good looks didn’t save her there. And no one seed it happen but Franklin hisself, and just one man, Franklin’s tenant farmer, my daddy, seed it after, as he helped to clean and cover up.
My daddy told only me. Me still a wee little boy, but already understanding way ahead of where my mouth would ever get. Somehow Daddy knowed that then. He said to me just once what happened, but he said to me the other many times more. That he never knowed forever afterwards if he was a friend or a debt.
I grabbed me a broom, dropped Kenny Lee’s tailgate, felt it sharp in my knees when I swung up in. I waited a second for the pain to ease. Then I walked the bed to the cab.
The Ryan laid crumpled on the bench seat there. Teary face part turned up and his hands squeezed between his legs. He looked at me out of an eye and a half, and I looked back. Then I turned, set my broom between the liner ridges, and swept the deer blood out. Nothing yet said.
I will have to guess my age because I’m back in that surprisingly huge chunk of my memory called “not-in-school-yet” and events there don’t come with numbers attached. I’m not older than five, but I could be as young as four. My mother and I are in our apartment. I’m lying on the floor in the sunporch, drawing a picture, and she’s off in her bedroom, doing something grown-ups do, like reading a book. I’m not thinking about her. There’s a knock on the door.
I’ve lived in other places, but I only know that because they’ve told me. The only memory I have of living anywhere is of right here. I’ve walked through this small apartment both right side up and—with a mirror held under my nose—upside down, so I know every inch of it, every pattern of every wallpaper in every room, every crack in the linoleum, every tuft or threadbare patch on every rug, every rough underside of every table. If I stand up and look through the window, I’ll see that the evening is fading into night, and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to describe what that looks like—the lights of town gleaming against the old smoky blue-grey hills, the lights repeated and blurred in the dark river. This will always be the most basic, fundamental, bred-in-the-bone landscape for me, and no name will ever be big enough to hold it. This is my home. I live at 14 North Front Street, on Wheeling Island, in Wheeling, West Virginia, in the United States of America, and that’s what I should tell anybody if I ever get lost.
Again, there’s a knock on the door—and something about it that frightens me—a knock that says, “I want to come in, and I will come in.” I never go to open the door by myself—not at night—and something about the sound of that night’s knock tells me to stay away, way far away. I don’t even want to look at the door. Writing about it now, I have to work hard at finding my child’s mind—or some approximation of it—but, by God, I still remember the light, the way it leaked through the glass panes in that door. If we were inside our apartment, if there were no lights on in our apartment, then the light from the bare bulb in the hallway outside filtered through the curtain—folds of cotton discolored with time—to make a smeary glow that wouldn’t go away, a wasp-yellow light that stunk of the hallway outside, the “Hunky cookin’,” as my grandmother called it, from our neighbors, the Wertzenbackers and the Eliases, and the unidentifiable filth of old shoe dirt, the nastiness of aging rubber strips of something-or-other, the heads of tacks working their way up from creaking wood to nip at my bare feet. The door itself was frightening. In my nightmares, or in the night terrors I had as a child, half waking, things came through doors. At least once, my mother found me in the night, not quite asleep but certainly not conscious either, leaning my whole body against that door to keep it shut.
My mother is not in any hurry to answer the knock. “Can you get it, honey?” she calls to me. I’m scared, but I creep through the kitchen and down the hall. I have to work up my courage to open the door. Standing just outside is an old gypsy woman. She’s not doing anything; she’s just standing there.
I recognize her as an old gypsy woman for the same reason I would recognize a knight or a witch, an angel or a devil, because she’s so exactly a story-book image, because every detail identifies her—the gaudy bandanna tied around her head in the distinctive gypsy style, the old ragged shawl wrapped around her shoulders, the enormous golden bangle earrings that vibrate when her head moves, the multitude of rings on her fingers, and the huge, brilliantly colored, old-fashioned skirt that falls all the way to the floor. Her skin is dark mahogany, and she’s thickly painted—black lines around her eyes, the bloodiest of reds on her lips, circles of fiery rouge on her cheeks—all of this on an old woman’s lined face. Where could she could have come from? Why is she here, why is she at our door? What does she want? I don’t know what I can possibly do. She’s hasn’t moved, but she says in a deep contralto, in an affected theatrical voice straight from a fairy tale, “Can I come in?” The only thing I can do is very slowly shut the door in her face until I hear it click.
My mother suddenly appears and says, “What was that? Was there someone at the door?” and I can’t speak, and she says, “It’s okay, honey, open the door.”
Maybe the old gypsy woman will have vanished. In stories, things vanish sometimes in a puff of smoke, or maybe they don’t even leave the smoke behind; they’re just here one moment and gone the next, so maybe it will be all right. I don’t want to do it, but I open the door again. The old gypsy woman hasn’t vanished. She stares straight down at me, and she says again in that creepy story-book voice, “Can I come in?” I can’t move, I can’t speak, I can’t do anything but stand there staring back up at her.
My mother says, “It’s okay, she can come in.”
I’m afraid that my mother’s made a terrible mistake, that she’s fallen under the spell, been bewitched. I’m afraid that if I let the old gypsy woman in, it will be like letting the flood waters in—we’ll be swept away and everything will be lost or ruined—but I’m just a little kid, and my mother is my mother, and so I step back to let this evil old gypsy woman into our home, our little safe apartment, and she crosses the threshold and steps in, clutching her gypsy’s shawl around her shoulders, and she walks on into our kitchen just like she owns the place, and she sits down at our table, and she says, “I’m going to tell your fortune, do you want me to tell your fortune?”
No, I do not want her to tell my fortune. It’s the last thing in the world I want. I want everything to be ordinary again. I want her to go away. This isn’t just a story; this is for real, a nightmare come true right in the place where I live, the place that has always felt safe to me. But my mother puts her hand on my shoulder and guides me over to the table. I sit down, and the old gypsy woman takes my hand and turns it over and runs her fingers lightly over the palm of my hand. Her nails are painted the same bloody color as her lips.
The old gypsy woman begins by telling me what she sees in the palm of my hand. She sees a very strange life for me there, a long life with many twists and turns. As she starts to tell the story of my life, I become fascinated in spite of myself. I get drawn into her voice. I stop being afraid because the story she’s telling me is so interesting. She’s telling the story of someone who has a very complicated and interesting life, who grows up to do strange and interesting things, who is a very successful person. She spins out the story so I can see it, so it becomes absolutely real—this strange life that I will have—and she tells my entire fortune, and I wish now that I could remember what she said, but I can’t.
She closes up my hand, and then I’m not afraid anymore because she’s told me a wonderful story about myself, and I actually like the old gypsy woman. I can’t understand why I was so afraid of her before, because she’s really nice, and she knows many strange and wonderful things.
Then my mother and the old gypsy woman start to laugh, and the old gypsy woman takes off her bandana, and her rings, and her bangle earrings, and another person gradually emerges. The old gypsy woman is my grandmother, my familiar grandmother, the person I live with every day of my life. There’s nothing I can do but laugh too.
Her name was Mabel Idona Thomas. If you asked her middle name, she would shrug and say, “I don na,” a joke she must have been making all of her life. She was born in 1886, so she would have been sixty or sixty-one when she impersonated a gypsy fortune teller for me—a vigorous woman at the height of her power—and I still dream of her like that. I knew she was old by the dents worn into the side of her nose by her glasses. I knew she was strong by the way she got things done. She had the squared-off, truculent, bulldog jaw of the Thomases and pale eyes that snapped with blue light.
My mother went off to work, and my grandmother stayed home. It was my grandmother who dressed me before I could dress myself, who took care of me if I got sick or cut myself or was stung by a bee, who baked cookies and pies, who fed me breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My mother sometimes came home from work and shut herself in her bedroom with a sick headache, but my grandmother was always forcefully there, making things work. Even when I was four, she did me the honor of talking to me as though I were an adult; as soon as I was able, I returned the favor.
“Grandfather Thomas told all of the boys not to go on the river,” she would tell me, “but they all went on the river.”
Family stories were not told only once; they were recycled endlessly. Even though there were only three of us in our apartment, our life was packed with people, some of them shadowy, with little more than names—uncle Rube, aunt Lola—others recreated in such meticulous detail they might as well have been living with us in an imaginary spare room. Yes, I knew that Grandfather Thomas had told all of the boys not to go on the river. I’d heard it a million times, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to hear it again—or hear the story of what each of the boys had done on the river, especially the one of the boys who was my great-grandfather, Everett Thomas.
In what might be my earliest memory, I’m sitting on the kitchen counter playing with rationing stamps. I like their pretty colors. I’m watching my grandmother mash the yellow ball into the white blob that will make margarine. I know there’s a war, but it’s way far away, and it won’t hurt me. When I look out the sunporch window at the river, I think that’s where the war has to be—on the other side of the river. It’s the farthest away I can imagine. Then, later, as my memory thickens to match the world around me, I’m playing with my grandmother’s sewing machine— “Grandfather Thomas… that was Thaddeus Thomas… he was a captain on a boat. His brother Rube was a boiler engineer. His sister Lola, we just called aunt Lole. Well, Uncle Rube had sons Mark and Charlie, two daughters, Lydia and Edith. They were all river people…”
Before she gave up her shop and came to take care of me and my mother, my grandmother had been a seamstress and was quite proud of it. “The whole out-the-pike”—that meant the rich folks—came to her shop to get clothes made or alterations done. I’d learned how to thread a needle so early it seemed that I’d always known how, and I also knew how to run my grandmother’s sewing machine. As often as she’d told me about the Thomas boys going on the river, she’d told me to be careful with the sewing machine, and I was careful, but you’d have to be magnificently stupid in order to run the needle through your fingers. The machine wouldn’t go if the needle was raised up, and if the needle was lowered down, you’d have to force your fingers under a little metal gadget to get them anywhere near the needle, so I knew I was safe. I sewed bits of fabric together on the machine. If I got bored with that, I sat on the floor and sewed things together by hand. Time unwound like thread on the bobbin, like the river rolling by, like the sound of my grandmother’s voice—
“All those men… Thaddeus and Uncle Rube had beards. Everybody had a beard. Then the next generation, they didn’t. Whenever anybody had a birthday, we had a big to-do, tables outside, all the family together. Yeah, we were great people for each other. All the men learned the river trade…”
I don’t remember playing with the little tin trucks or cars that other boys had; I surely owned things like that, but they didn’t make any impression on me. I do remember Lincoln Logs; you could build little cabins out of them, and that was fun every once in a while, but I liked to make things, to sew or to cut pictures out of magazines and glue them down—what kids now call “scrap-booking”—and they tell me that I began drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. Whenever I looked out the window from the sunporch, I could see the river.
“You see, Dad had his boat tied up in West Wheeling, and the railroad ran down to the river… I’d go with him at noon. In the train, he’d take me down with the engineer, and I’d stand there with the engineer, and we’d ride to West Wheeling and get on Dad’s boat. We carried nails and tobacco. The boats were very small, built with a pilot house and a cabin. We were always up in the pilot house, had to stay where Dad could see us, you know. I pretended I was steering the boat…”
This is the story at the center of all the stories. My grandmother always comes back to it, never gets tired of telling it, just as I never get tired of hearing it. She’s a little girl, standing on a box in front of her father, Everett Thomas, the river boat captain. He’s piloting his boat down the Ohio River, but her hands are on the wheel too. In her make-believe world, she’s the pilot.
She stops what she’s doing in the kitchen, steps out onto the sunporch with me. Her hands are red from the hot water; she’s drying them on a tea towel. “The wheel was big and round as that doorway,” she says, pointing to show me, “maybe bigger.”
She sweeps her arm in an arc across the sunporch windows. “The whole top was windows,” she says, creating the pilot house for me. “There was this gadget to tell the engine room how to go.” She draws it in the air. “A string from the ceiling for the whistle.” The string appears right before my eyes. “You gave it a little tug for one toot, or two toots, or whatever. You had to blow your whistle right around Wheeling…”
She stands there a moment, looking out at the river. “Well,” she says—that single word she uses to sum up the entire universe. She keeps on drying her hands although they’re dry already.
“I started going with Dad when I was about six, I guess.” She walks back into the kitchen. “I was the only one of the kids who went with him. I liked that sort of thing, and the others didn’t. Well.”
Growing up with my grandmother was like having an open window on the nineteenth century. To give me a good start in life, she passed on a trunk full of antique lore and terminology that I still have safely stored away in the attic of my mind. What I’ve learned to call a “fridge,” I know perfectly well is an “ice box.” When my wife talks about a “face cloth,” it always sounds pretentious to me because I know that the plain, ordinary, everyday name for that hunk of absorbent cotton is a “warsh rag” and that it’s useful for many things other than scrubbing your face. Money doesn’t grow on trees—any fool knows that—so you should never throw away warsh rags until you get your full wear out of them. Naturally we used the brand new ones on our faces, but then, as they aged—were warshed and bleached in scalding water, becoming thinner and rattier—they sank downward in status, turned into dish rags, then kitchen rags, then shoe-shine rags, then finally junk rags kept in a sack for emergencies like plugged toilets.
The fire engine that clanged up the street, sirens wailing, was known as “the hook and ladder,” and the object of furniture that stood in my grandmother’s bedroom was a “chifferobe”—a word I’ve found in no dictionary. When I’ve written it into my novels, copy-editors have always queried me: “Did you mean chiffereau?” No, damn it, I did not mean “chiffereau.” It was a massively constructed hunk of dark brown wood with drawers in it and a mirror on top, and, by God, it was a “chifferobe.” But was it? After years of never seeing the word in print, I was beginning to doubt my own memory when, with a lovely flicker of grace, it appeared to me in a novel of Mary Lee Settle’s.
My grandmother was full of ancient jokes that were utterly incomprehensible to me as a child. I didn’t understand either the point of these stories or why they were supposed to be funny, as, for instance, one that goes like this. Oliver Twist came to Wheeling and was staying in the big hotel downtown, the McClure. In the middle of the night, pressed by the needs of nature, he relieved himself. The products of his midnight activities were stinking up his room, so he dumped the contents of the chamber pot out the window, but, unfortunately, a man was passing by on the street below and caught the whole works full on the head. The man yelled up, “Hey, buddy, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Oliver Twist rose to his full dignity and said, “Well, my good man, don’t you know who I am? I am Oliver Twist.”
The man down on the street yelled back, “Well, you may be Oliver Twist, but I’m all over shit.”
Now if you don’t know who Oliver Twist is, and if you don’t know that, in this case, Oliver Twist is a stand-in for Dickens himself, a great visiting writer from Britain who would have been splashed all over the papers in my great-grandparents’ day, you’ll miss some of the humor in that story, and my grandmother made it even harder to get because she’d never pronounce “bad” words, always replaced them with “humm,” so that you had to guess what she was saying. When she told that story, her punch line went, “Well, you may be Oliver Twist, but I’m all over humm,” and any hope I had of understanding was obliterated at the outset.
Others of her sayings made immediate sense to me. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” is an easy image if you live on an island with four bridges. Although I’d never seen horses fording the river, I’d seen pictures of them doing it, so I had no problem with, “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.” But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out, “Piss in one hand and wish in the other and see which gets filled the quicker” because of my grandmother’s refusal to say the word “piss,” so, in her version, it was “humm” in one hand.
For years I thought that my grandmother had made up her jokes, only later came to see her as a conduit for a rich old vein of American folk humor, much of it based on the parody of high culture. Her version of Julius Caesar’s tragic dying words was: “Et! You brute.” From time to time, she referred to a lovely piece of classical piano music called “Clar de Saloon” or burst into the popular song from Carmen:
Don’t spit on the floor!
Use the cuspidor,
That’s what it’s for.
“What’s a cuspidor?” I asked her.
“It’s another name for a spittoon,” she told me. “It was a big brass pot the men spit their tobacco into back in the old days,” and later, when she saw one standing in a corner of a shop, made sure to point it out to me: “That’s a cuspidor.”
Like all American children of her generation, she’d learned from McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader and had been forced to memorize that hoary old poem “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck”—
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
The boy cannot leave his post until he receives permission from his father, but, alas, his father is dead and permission never comes, so the boy remains steadfast and dies. In my grandmother’s version, the boy is constrained by an impulse more cogent than filial duty:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Eating peanuts by the peck.
“Where was Moses when the lights went out?” my grandmother would sometimes call out to me. Gleefully, I’d yell back the correct answer: “Down in the basement eating sauerkraut!” For years I would wonder what the hell that was all about. I now know that it must have originated in a spoof sermon recorded by the beloved black comedian, Bert Williams, in 1901.
My grandmother kept a sundry lot of memorabilia in a box. As I was learning to read, I studied the contents—old programs and menus, photographs of mysteriously dead Thomases, and postcards with cryptic messages written on them, like the one stamped at 5 PM in June of 1910 at Clarington, Ohio, mailed for one cent, that had been sent to Mr. Arch G. Thomas at #212 ½ Eoff Street in Wheeling and read:
Bring me five pint jars they are in the dining room cupboard & Elle wants the Laidies Homejournal the June Number Irene & Mrs Clark was at the “Farm” this afternoon stayed until evening Delora is better but cross & I had a Post-card from Aunt Lole today Mrs Clark thought the “Farm” was a dandy place Ruth & Ev was down yesterday (in Haste – Ophelia
Among these curious objects—the venerable relics of my grandmother’s life as she’d lived it in that imponderable time before I was born—were a number of business cards. The one advertising “Mabel Sharp Seamstress” made sense to me, but many others didn’t. A card from my uncle Harley drove me nuts with its cryptic message: YCSISOYA. “That’s just a joke,” my grandmother said, but my mother took me aside and whispered the translation for me: “You Can’t Sell Insurance Sitting On Your Ass.”
Another business card puzzled me so deeply that I’ve never forgotten it. It bore the black silhouette of a bulldog and the words:
Dogs that bite and never bark
Are sure surprises in the dark!
It was clearly a warning, and it had to be an important one or they wouldn’t have put it on a card, but what was I supposed to do about it? I already knew that you had to be careful with dogs, that some of them did bite, but they’d usually bark first, or at least snarl, so you’d have a chance to run away. I also knew that you should never pet strange dogs, but if a dog looked friendly—if his tail was wagging—you could let him sniff you so he’d know who you were. But if there were dogs that didn’t bark before they bit you, and it was so dark that you couldn’t even see them, then what on earth could you do about them? Nothing that I could ever figure out.
From among my grandmother’s other sayings, her favorite was: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken”—a motto so characteristic of her that my mother referred to it as “Mother’s remark.” I heard my grandmother say it countless times, and she believed it absolutely. If you weakened, life rolled over you and squashed you flat and destroyed you, so you had to maintain your firmness and your strength and your unshakable conviction of what was right and wrong that you learned somewhere back in the 1890s on the banks of the Ohio River, and my grandmother never did weaken. She lived to be nearly ninety-seven. In the last weeks of her life, she was struck by a grinding pain in her guts so severe that she cried out in the night. My mother sweet-talked their family doctor into making a house call. Hearing that the doctor was coming, my grandmother got up and got dressed, met the doctor in the living room and chatted as though it were a social visit. “Tell the doctor about your pain,” my mother said.
“What pain?” my grandmother said.
["The Old Gypsy Woman" is an excerpt from He Was a Good Dancer (memoir), scheduled for publication 2009, Thomas Allen, Publisher, Toronto. ©Copyright, Keith Maillard, 2008, all rights reserved. ]
They is many a way to mark a baby while it is still yet in the womb. A fright to its mother will render it nervous and fretful after it is birthed. If a copperhead strikes, a fiery red snake will be stamped on the baby's face or back. And a portentous event will violate a woman's entrails, grab a youngun by the ankle and wrench a life out of joint.
Me and Dillon Lloyd spoke of such things on the night Rondal was borned. It was eighteen and ninety, the year the railroad come in and took up the land, two year before the land was give out from under us to the coal company. Dillon seen it coming. We perched out on the hillside and spied for shooting s6tars, while Dillon told me how Rondal, his brother's first child, come into the world.
"Hit was fast for a first youngun, and the granny woman was too late. Clabe werent back from fetchin her down from Raven. Werent nary a soul to help birth him but me. He cried out when I smacked him but then he got real quiet. I held him up and he looked me right in the eye. Wouldn't look away. Them's blue eyes he's got, long and down-turned."
Dillon carved on a slab of hickory, fashioning the slender neck of a banjo for the baby. I caught curls of wood as they fell and flung them out into the moonlight.
"How do you know he's goin to take to the banjer?" I asked. "Maybe he ain't got the gift like you."
"I seen them hands. That one will be a picker. Them fingers was curved and he was moving them back and forth slow like. He's goin to love the feel of this here neck. And the strings will be soft. I'll git the guts from that old tabby in the barn. And I'll tan its hide for the head. Hit' too old to mouse these days."
"How can you pick on them strings when you know where they come from?"
"Don't bother me none. I wisht I could be put to some use when I die, stead of moulderin in the ground. My skin for a banjer, my bones for a scythe or a flail to clear paths in this here world."
I loved to hear him talk that way. Dillon Lloyd was always a free-talking man. He lived alone in a cabin back up on the hill from his brother Clabe. They worked the land together, one hundred acres at the mouth of Trace. Dillon's thick black hair hung down between his shoulder blades like an Indian's. People said that he had the second sight, that he could set the Evil Eye on a body. He went abroad at night, not hunting, just walking. Vernie, Clabe's wife, was scared of him. Dillon laughed at her behind her back.
When my papaw could spare me from chores, I rode my mule up Blackberry Creek to the Lloyd homeplace and spent the night. Dillon took me out after dark, coon hunting or bull-frogging, or maybe just walking. Later I'd lie alone in the loft of his cabin. The summer breeze would rush through the window and rustle the bedclothes, bearing the flailing of his banjo like the sound of the river running yonder.
When Rondal was borned, Dillon let me stay out with him all night. The moon on the wane was giving light enough to show the creek rippling silver where it joined Trace Fork. My mind's eye could see all the land– the mountain wrapped like a protecting arm around the cabin, the prickly grass in the pasture up Trace where the cows and sheep grazed, the dark fields fanning out along the bottom, soon to be dense with corn, the wall of mountain across Blackberry, the side of it rearing straight up from the creek bed.
"Bad times comin," said Dillon. "That youngun will suffer it. He was in the womb when the papers was signed."
"My papaw says it too. He don't trust them railroad men. And he aint took no money neither."
I was proud of it. My papaw, Henry Marcum, had refused to sign the paper giving the minerals to the railroad. He hadn't knowed what the minerals was, but when he heard they was on his land, he wanted to keep them. Still he was scared, like most people. The railroad men claimed they owned all the land, had bought it off somebody in Philadelphia whose papaw had fought in the Revolutionary War and been give it as a gift. According to them, they owned most of Justice County, and McDowell County, too. Then they come around, fat, smooth-faced men in black suits, and vowed they'd leave us the land if we'd sign over the minerals. Vernie signed one day when Clabe was gone hunting. Clabe didn't chastise her.
But Papaw sucked loudly on his teeth when he heard what Clabe and Vernie had done. Wouldn't no good come if it, he said. He'd already wrangled with the railroad men. When he told them about the deed he held at the courthouse, they laughed at him. Junior patent, they kept saying. Senior patent is what we own. That takes precedence. Ask any judge.
The judges we was supposed to ask was a way far off, so most folks signed. The railroad men vowed they'd not bother us no more. We'll see, Dillon said. He sat on the mountain on the night of Rondal's birth and said it again. We'll see.
("C.J. Marcum" is the opening passage of Denise Giardina's novel Storming Heaven published by Random House in 1987. All rights reserved.)
A Sign of Respect
When my father was outdoors, he always wore a hat. The weather or the occasion didn’t matter, the hat was there. For outdoor work, Daddy wore several nylon baseball caps that read “John Deere” or “CAD” across the front in bright colors. I loved those caps. I couldn’t wait to grow into a cap of my own.
“But you’re a girl,” Daddy told me once as we worked together on our small dairy farm in rural West Virginia. That day his cap was blue, dusty with use, worn far back upon his thinning blonde hair. “These are men’s caps. Could you see your Mama or Jeannette wearing one?”
Of course I couldn’t. That was part of the allure of Daddy’s hats. Jeannette was my older sister. Older by seven years. Jeannette had long curly brown hair and three freckles spread across her nose. She wasn’t a very good worker, but then, she took second-runner-up in the Ravell County Reunion Days Beauty Pageant this past year. Jeannette would never wear a baseball cap, no matter that her head was large enough to fit into one.
I insisted on wearing my own cap, even when I spent most of my time pushing it back from my eyes. Mama didn’t like it, but Daddy stuck up for me. “Jill’s gotta right to express herself,” he told Mama when she fussed.
“She smells like a pig-sty,” she muttered, holding my barn coveralls away from her.
Daddy winked at me. “Funny, we ain’t had no pigs on this land for fifteen years.”
“You know what I mean, Harper,” Mama would say in her stern voice.
“Yes ma’am,” Daddy replied. He looked at the floor. When Mama left the room, he looked up with his familiar grin and took the still-too-big cap from my head and hung it on a hook, next to his own.
* * *
The only time Daddy took off his hat outside was when we attended a funeral and watched the casket being lowered into the ground. Daddy loved funerals. He never went to church, or joined any of the local clubs in town, so funerals offered him a chance to visit with people and hear all their news. He spent every evening poring over the newspaper, reading the national news, the local news, and then finally, the obituaries.
“Says here that Esther Holbrook passed on,” he read to Mama. The paper rustled in his callused hands.
“Who’s that?” Mama asked, her eyes never leaving the television sit-com. I could hear the canned laughter as I did my homework at the kitchen table. Mama laughed when the audience laughed, whether she caught the joke or not.
Daddy continued reading. “Beloved daughter of the late Walter and Esther Styles Holbrook. She is survived by her brothers, William Holbrook and Richard Holbrook, both of Evansdale, West Virginia, and a sister, Mrs. Jack Peters of Rushton, Ohio....” He read the funeral home and dates and times.
When he finished, he would look over at Mama. I would stop writing in the kitchen, waiting for Mama’s reply.
“Don’t believe we know them,” she said after a long pause.
Most of the time we didn’t know them. But at least once a week, Daddy got lucky.
“Ruthie Pritchard.” He snapped the newspaper triumphantly. “Says here she’s old Malcolm Russell’s girl. Didn’t you go to school with one of Malcolm’s sisters?”
“Cousin, I think,” Mama replied. My homework sat forgotten on the table. Laughter from the television; from Mama’s chair. “Janie Russell, I think she was,” Mama continued when the laughing was over.
“Lists a Jean here. A sister. Maybe she’s the one?”
“I’m sure it was Janie,” Mama told him.
“Still, it would be best if we go,” Daddy insisted. I peered into the lamp-lit gloom of the living room, watching Mama. She nodded her head. “Reckon so,” she said at long last. Daddy looked over at me, grinning in relief. The laughter in the room filled it with sound.
* * *
Daddy had a special hat just for funerals. A dark felt hat with a black leather band. The band held a tiny red feather. He kept the hat on during the drive to the cemetery, and only took it off when the minister offered the final prayer over the coffin. He held the hat in his work-worn left hand, always putting his right arm around Mama -- to offer her support, he said. Once, when I was about ten, I tried removing my white straw hat with its nasty elastic band around my chin. Jeannette, who should have had her eyes closed during the prayer, hissed “Mama!”
“Put that hat on, Jill,” Mama whispered. Her voice rushed into my ear. I knew the tone well. I put the hat back on.
Mama smiled and patted my shoulder. Jeannette rolled her eyes. Daddy winked at me and passed me some mints he had picked up back at the funeral home.
“Why does Daddy get to take off his hat,” I asked when we were back in the car. I got to eat all the mints, since Jeannette didn’t want any.
“I’m a man,” was Daddy’s reply to my question. “It’s a sign of respect.”
“Respect for what?” I asked. The mint dissolved under my tongue.
“For making a choice. The choice to leave this world.” He turned the car onto our road and began to drive through what was now our land. “Not everyone wants to make that choice, but everyone got to sometime. And that takes guts. Deserves respect.”
“Harper!” Mama scolded. “You’re filling that girl’s head with nonsense.”
“Look around you, woman,” Daddy said waving at the fields and trees. “Look at the beautiful world. Who would want to leave it?” Without his hands on the steering wheel, the car swerved near the deep ditch that ran alongside the dirt road.
“Some people think the life to come is worth dying for,” Mama told him. I held my breath. I knew by her voice that Mama was angry. “And then there’s people who’re sick. People who are too old to work.”
“Longer you’re here, the harder it is to leave, I’m thinking,” Daddy said. “Besides, what if you think you’re going to the other place? Making the choice to die then certainly is tough. No matter how sick and dying you are, it’s better than the pits of hell.”
“Harper Miller!” Mama yelled again. But she wasn’t angry any more. Daddy pulled the car to the front of our house.
“Why don’t I get to show respect then?” I asked.
Daddy slammed his car door closed and went over to open Mama’s. “You keeping your hat on is your way of showing respect,” Daddy told me. “Boys take their hats off, girls keep their hats on.”
“But why?” I asked again. Mama unlocked the front door. The phone rang and Jeannette ran to get it.
Daddy shrugged. “I don’t know Jill,” he answered. “That’s just the way it is.”
* * *
I was fifteen when Daddy stopped working the dairy. I didn’t like doing chores much anymore, and the only reason I wore a cap now that they fit was to keep the smelly barn dust from my hair, which I tried to grow long like Jeannette’s used to be.
“A man can’t keep up a farm like he used to,” Daddy muttered over the dinner table. I was tired of hearing him. Mama bustled about, hurrying to clear the table and finish the dishes so she could get over to Jeannette’s and help with the new babies. Jeannette had two, one named after her husband John and the other after Daddy, although John’s mother had been upset about that.
When milk prices dropped again, Daddy sat in his chair in the living room and admitted defeat. “I can’t do it,” he told Mama. “The farm hasn’t made a profit in five years, and without the government checks, we’d have to mortgage it just to keep going.”
“What did the man at the bank say?” Mama asked. The television was off. No light came from the corner where Daddy sat in the dark.
“He said the government will increase my monthly payment, if I sell the herd.” Daddy’s voice was low. I strained to hear. “Seems it’s cheaper for people in Washington to buy me out than it is for them to increase the price of milk.”
“But folks is paying a dollar thirty nine for a half gallon,” Mama protested. “We don’t see any of that. Where does all the money go?”
I couldn’t see Daddy’s face. “Seems that’s just the way it is.”
“Well,” Mama replied, turning on the television. I watched her return to her chair. “You do what you think is best, Harper. I trust you.” When Daddy said nothing, she said, “If you won’t be working around here next summer, perhaps we could take us a trip. Might do you some good. We haven’t had a vacation in over eighteen years.”
I knew Mama wasn’t too unhappy about selling the dairy. “Money would come in handy,” she’d said to me several times the past few weeks. I didn’t want to be like Mama, but I really wasn’t too sad about seeing the work go myself. Daddy’s corner remained in the dark.
I felt differently the day the herd was rounded up to leave, but only because of Daddy. I had stayed home from school that day to help, although there was nothing really for us to do except to stand there and watch the placid black and white cows move single file onto the cattle truck. Once Daddy reached out and patted one cow on her rump. His Adam’s apple moved up and down his weathered neck.
When the last cow was loaded and counted, Daddy signed the forms the man handed him. “You be good to them,” he said in a harsh whisper. “They’ve been mighty good to me.” His voice was strong and frightening at the same time.
“Yes sir,” the man standing there replied. He took the forms and looked over them. He nodded and smiled at Daddy, then at me. He didn’t look much older than me. Younger than Jeannette. “Thank you sir.”
Daddy watched the dark green cattle truck pull slowly down the barn lane and onto the main road. “Best be cleaning out this barn so it don’t smell. Man’ll be here tomorrow about the milking equipment. Reckon he’ll want it clean.”
I nodded, and turned to look at him.
He stood in front of the barn with his baseball cap in hand, brushing his dark veined hand across his bald head. The skin looked soft and pink beneath the roughened fingers. Whenever I think of Daddy, this is what I see.
* * *
Daddy learned about my college scholarship in the barn, where he spent part of every day working with the few beef cattle we kept on hand. I suppose it was only right, that I told him in our barn, but I didn’t think that at the time. I wasn’t thinking of anything but myself when I opened the buckled barn door and raced by the nearly empty grain bins.
“Daddy?” I called through the animal pens. Mama had said he was up here, but I didn’t see him. “Daddy? You here?” My voice was loud, rolling across the stone walls and floor.
After a minute the wooden partition opened from the old barn and Daddy crossed the cement floor to where I stood. “It’s here!” I yelled, listening to my echo. I waved the paper I held in my hand. “I got it Daddy.” I was so excited I almost burst into tears. The clean white paper fluttered between us. “I got the full scholarship to Georgetown.”
His body no longer stood quite so tall as I remember. I don’t know if it’s because he was beginning to stoop then or because I felt so tall. “So you’ll be going there, then,” was all he said. He knew I had a full scholarship from West Virginia University, just twenty-five miles from our farm. He knew I couldn’t go to Washington DC without some money from the school.
“It’s the best school for government and political science,” I told him for the hundredth time. “You know what a chance this is for me.”
He took the paper from my fluttering hands. He said nothing. He’d said nothing most of the time I’d talked and talked about going to Georgetown since I got my SAT scores last summer.
I felt a rush of anger. Why couldn’t he understand? Why couldn’t he be excited for me? “Someone in this world gets to make the decisions,” I told him in a sharp tone. “Decisions about people like us selling our dairy. Someone decided that. Someone in Washington. Next time, it might as well be me.”
For a long moment, Daddy just stared at the paper and said nothing. He looked so small. My anger faded under his heavily wrinkled face. Then suddenly, he lifted his head and looked me in the eye. “Bob Elmer’s boy just graduated from college. He still ain’t found work yet.”
I nodded my head, but looked away. We both knew what he meant. We knew that in this mountain bound world where a man could not find college-level work, there was no place for a college-educated woman. We knew that this meant I would not be coming home.
“It’s gonna be hard on your Mama, you know.”
I made a swiping motion with my hand, churning the barn dust in the sunlight. It danced around the cracked barn windows. “You know she’s got Jeannette and the kids.” The dust shimmered a moment, then hung in the air.
“Yeah,” Daddy sighed. “Your Mama’s got Jeannette.”
He stared at the paper in his hand. I could see the dark squiggles through the page. I could hardly believe how quickly I had gone from being so excited to being so sad. I told myself I should have expected it. That I should not have wanted.
“Mighty fancy signature down here,” Daddy said squinting at the bottom of the page. “Reckon he signed it himself?”
“I’m sure he did, Daddy,” I said, my tone impatient. I wanted to snatch the paper from his hands. Take it from his faded eyes.
He looked away from the paper, a shadow of his former grins crossing his mouth. “My Daddy used to make a big ole’ X at the bottom of his papers. Nothing but an X, but it was the biggest, fanciest X I ever saw.”
The hairs on my head felt electric. My fingers twitched, unable to hold still.
“Be pretty nice to see the name Miller written across the page all fancy like that.”
Joy danced through me, quiet and warm. Settled upon me like the fine, swirling dust. I was surprised how good his pride made me feel. But not too surprised.
“I’ll do my best Daddy,” I said.
Daddy turned and peered down at me. “You see that you do. My Daddy may not have had much, but no one ever took advantage. And no one ever got from him less than he deserved.”
For a moment I almost hugged him, but I knew he would be embarrassed. When I looked up at him, he winked. My face felt hot and dry. I suddenly had nothing to say.
“Best get on home,” he said, opening the door to the barn and closing it behind us. As we walked past the dairy house and down the hill, I felt something soft and gentle upon my head.
“You always used to pester the life out of me, wanting to wear my hats.” Outside in the sun, his bald head shone.
“I like your hats,” I told him.
“Will you be taking any of them to your Washington school?” he asked.
“Yes, Daddy,” I replied.
He put his arm around him shoulders. “You make sure you write -- your Mama will want to know how you’re doing.”
“Yes, Daddy,” I said again. I adjusted the hat on my head until it was secure.
“She’s likely to worry. You’re still her little girl, you know.”
("A Sign of Respect" was published previously in MOBIUS, Winter 1999)
Trailer Dogs Barking
Fifty five . . . sixty. . . road kill, another coon . . . another stretch of concrete driving Cynthia in this damn van again, dealing with a radiator leak and trying to forget McCracken’s betrayal. Passing slowpokes. . . ten o’clock Sunday morning, so hot and so sticky, and no cool a. c. and little Timothy’s there curled up covering his ears from the rumble, that turtle in his lap. Hey, sleepy head, we’re halfway home. Don’t do that, mom. And you Angel smiling, in the visor mirror; those soft but drained blue eyes, and the curls needing a clip . . . since you’re closing in on that big three oh.
In back, Cynthia in her custom wheelchair, her head rolling with the road bumps, and dreaming of how she claimed her rights at the mountain state park, throwing a tantrum ‘cause it wasn’t equipped for her kind, and hollering. She about ran over the park guard in her wheelchair at the front gate. She and McCracken would never listen to what I have to say. He’d only shrug if I told him that little Timmy sat thirsty and dry in the sun—not a stinking soda machine on the grounds—and I couldn’t light up a cigarette there. Access . . . c’mon, we’ve got rights, too; where’s ours?
I can imagine the scene if McCracken’s pick-up truck is parked by my trailer. I’d want to tell him that nightmares beat in my head. Would he listen, no, and I’d want to tell him, what do you mean. . . let’s pick up where we left off. . . where did we leave off? He’d never think to ask how I’m feeling when driving Cynthia on these mountain roads—this way and that way—or asking what might happen if we’re stuck out here on the highway. . . my son along for the ride.
He just wouldn’t get it either . . . like that last time he stopped by the trailer; came in like he owned the place, ragging about how I live. Where does he get off accusing me of spending too much money on Timothy, and spoiling his son; his son? After he’d gone, a church woman came by handing out leaflets with that end of the world crap. But really checking on people like they like to do. Her hatpin fell off and into the sofa. Oh, I’ll get it, I said; never you mind, she said. She wrestled with a cushion and pulled out a small pot pipe. Belong to you, she asked; not mine I said, maybe from before I moved in.
Damn pot bowl. McCracken knew my troubles at home and why I ran away, first at fourteen and being stupid enough, back then. . . running off with him at only eighteen. What a waste Daytona; what a waste three years. My defenses go crazy ‘cause of that drug rap he got me into and my best friend. In jail before I even had halfway decent clothes, and before I could get a tan on the beach, free.
Sixty five . . . seventy . . .
Windshield’s smudged but drizzle’s let up . . . half out of gas but the heat gauge’s not on red, not yet . . . and no, Angel, you’re not much good with an old man or finding a car. Everything’s a piece of junk or too expensive, and more debt. You got the used car blues and no luck in romance.
Sure hope Cynthia’s back there dreaming of buying a new van . . . and how to find her self a new domestic. That last weekday woman asked for paid sick days after two years but Cynthia bitched, and called her a fat, sloppy sloth. Fired her same day: oh, she’ll find a job, she said; the Sunday classifieds are full of live-in domestic work at thirteen dollars an hour . . . and what’s a paid sick day.
When I got ill last Saturday night, even vomited back from the doctor’s, Cynthia wanted to see a movie, and we had Timmy with us. But she had to go to the toilet three times, all in the first hour. Never did see much, except the end. . . where Dunaway is shot by her father. . . and didn’t put Cynthia in bed until come three thirty in the morning. . . so, what’s a Saturday night life. . . and sure, she can sleep in back. . . most likely still in an evil mood from when we left Friday.
Cynthia bitched over wearing the right dress for the trip and we went through dozens in her closet.
“There you are Cynthia,” I said. “How about this one?”
She shook her head no and I grabbed another.
“No,” she said. “Not that one.”
We went through all color shades of dresses in an hour. Then she tossed her cup, half full of coffee; and that goes over the TV, the plants, and the carpet. Without her two pills a day, she throws things.
“Now you’ve done it,” I said.
“Done what?” she said. “Call Stanley Steemer for the mess.”
When it’s in Cynthia’s mind to be a bitch, the devil can’t bring her down. . . and she pushes away anyone who’s nice and least a half dozen domestics quit. The last woman drove her back and forth to Florida—all that way—only to hear Cynthia’s brother tell them: I don’t have room, go find a hotel. Her brother doesn’t care about her rights. . . oh he cares. . . when money arrives from their dad’s trust fund, he cares. Besides she’s getting worse and forgetting.
People visit her at odd hours, all kinds of people on the run . . . and from shelters. I fear one’s a child molester, and I know the ex-cons. Huh, Angel—not much room to talk there. Maybe it was that kind of trash that broke into the trailer last week and took near all we had, which ain’t much.
“What’s missing?” A state trooper sat across in the recliner.
I was in cut-offs, barefoot and nervous. I thought of what’s missing, what’s kept where, and who’s been in here. I played with my wing curls ‘cause my hair needed a wash and watched state troopers looking around, all over the trailer, examining for fingerprints from walls, windows, even beer cans.
“See the tan lines?” I arched my hand. “I left the rings on the bathroom sink—and they’re gone. My VCR’s gone. Three gold chains gone.”
Luckily not gone was the watch Timothy bought for my birthday with Grandma’s help, and I recalled then that I needed to take the watch to a jeweler and get a link removed so the band fits tighter.
“Anything else?” The trooper leaned back, comfortable like McCracken might do. His eyes shifted across my bikini top.
“Fifty dollars in a jar,” I said. “Mine and Timothy’s fun money—that’s gone. I had an extra seventy dollars left over after paying bills last month, but usually it’s only twenty. They didn’t take the TV. I have a Fisher and those are good TVs. They only took the VCR.”
I thought then that no one else’s trailer gets broken into, but mine: a smashed window, the old car broken into twice; first robbery though and a little over eight hundred dollars but no rental insurance; had to cancel that to pay a doctor when Timothy got pneumonia ‘cause hospitals cost.
“Move around much in your job?” More questions. “If you’re away, I mean, maybe someone might know that you’re not at home.”
“I do spare work.”
“House sit for friends. There’s domestic weekend jobs and home care stuff like driving my neighbor Cynthia across the way there. Make ends meet. That’s the type of work I do ‘cause I hate to sit around.”
“Maybe someone from your past?”
“I don’t hang around rough people.” I lied and thought of McCracken’s trash. “I stay with up people, right people.”
“Staying on here?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“I can cruise by and check.” He snapped his pen and stared across space. “On my off duty nights, maybe . . . ”
Maybe I’ll move into the apartment that Grandma owns in town. . . pack small stuff at first. No one knows about that place. Cynthia might, not McCracken. Move for my son’s sake. If Timmy gets scared at night, he runs to my end of the trailer and crawls into bed. But there’s that one chance that something happens and I hear trailer dogs barking at night.
Later after the trooper left, nosey neighbors came around offering advice . . . all those you should’ves. Where were they when Timmy got sent home, suspended from fourth grade a second time. He said, kids made fun, mom; one boy said, hey Timmy, your mom’s an ex-con; I popped him a good one for you mom. The gossip. . . damn newspaper headlines.
Fan kicks in. . . oh, cool air . . . exit. . . forty, thirty five.
Yellow light. . . almost home but if McCracken is in town, he’ll have his pick-up parked at my trailer and no doubt he’ll be steaming. I’ll need to deal with his subtle sweet invitation—c’mon Angel, let’s pick up where we left off. I’ll try to tell him I’d rather walk alone in old Daniel Boone Park where the lights reflect off the water and where I can get my head straight, and away from potheads and bars full of people on the run.
In back, Cynthia’s eyes are open. She’s asking what I’m going to do. . . and if I’m going to quit and leave her employ. . . but I can’t think straight just yet; I can only imagine the face-to-face with McCracken.
“Angel, hey babe.” McCracken enters the trailer and sulks around. He flops into the recliner, acting suspicious, and asks for a cold beer. The window fan draws stale air from the trailer court. He pops a can of Busch and asks, “Why so late, Angel?”
“Hole in the radiator hose the size of a quarter.” I freshen my face and sip ice water from the fridge, drowning the road dust. “Got stuck on the highway for two hours. A trucker stopped but comes on to me, and not to help. What’s going on, I ask. He smiles like he wanted something.”
“Bad luck,” I say. “What if that guy had a gun or something?
“I’d be in his rig, fighting and losing. Heck, I got back in the van and hit the road.”
“Went to the next town. Every gas station I found was self-serve. Not a mechanic anywhere. I found probably the only stinkin’ pay phone in the town. And that didn’t work.”
“How’d you make it home?”
“Used a plug nickel for the leak like you showed me.”
“Huh, it worked?”
“Yeah, it worked.”
I’d want to say that Cynthia’s got to get a whole new van, if she wants to take any long trips. . . especially if little Timothy’s tagging along; that her old van is ready to break down every time, and it’s hell. . . and no, the trucker didn’t have a gun . . . not this time, and there’s Cynthia asking again, am I going to quit. . .
“Yes. . .” the words flee my mouth. “I am.”
I make the turn.
“Suit yourself.” Cynthia wipes her wet cheek with the back of her hand. “You’ll see if anyone will hire someone like you, someone who’s been in jail. You’ll see.”
Her cut makes me think about all the trash. I want to slam on the brakes, almost ready to push Cynthia out onto the side of the road, but don’t. The familiar crunch of gravel grabs the tires. No sign of McCracken’s truck. No trashed windows.
Timothy’s yawning, stretching out and nudging me away: mom, don’t, don’t eat my ear. He runs into the court looking for his friends to show off his turtle. I wheel Cynthia into her trailer, say goodbye, thanks.
I turn the van around for the next person hired by Cynthia, and notice the one young guy who drops in on Cynthia, asking sometimes, and he’s wearing his mark, a blue bandana. He’s flexing his arms in the air, frustrated. He’s speaking to a thin black woman who lives down the court; she’s got a yellow dollar bag pressed at her side, there’s a split in the plastic, and her hand is over the opening.
She’s saying, “and that’s all I knows, and my friend told me she run off. . . “
The bandana man lowers both hands to his head stretched like a bird for flight. He flexes his arms, the tattoos; and says, “she can’t have left. . .”
“She did,” the woman said.
“She can’t have. . .”
“She did, I’m telling ya.”
“My car gone . . . and she with it.”
The woman with the yellow bag continued walking on; the guy fisted his hands and thumped his head twice, and kicked at the dirt.
Inside my place, the air is thick, and I start the window fan. I scrounge for a can of beer and sit for a spell. There’s the phone. . . and maybe. . . if I could see that nice guy again, life would get better. In a day I could be dancing to bluegrass. Been four months but not so long that I forget apple pie and ice cream on a rainy day, and slow dirty dancing at the Blue Bell Inn.
The phone is ringing and it’s Cynthia mumbling on the line. Usually, she’s tough to understand ‘cause of her ailment but I’ve gotten used to it. Her voice is calm and low, asking if I could come over and talk about driving . . . about the beach. . . about a few dollars more. . . about having tea right now. And so, what else can I do, Angel, ’cause there’s something about what prison time does to a person . . . and makes me hate an office job where I’d have to please a boss, make co-workers happy.
I’ve never been good at being a people-pleaser, the way I've grown to be. Having only one boss, even Cynthia, and not having to please everybody; that’s the type of work I like, Angel . . . and you know what you know, and you go with it; which way, you’re not always sure but you know that much . . . at least you tell yourself that much.
Someone is living in the great old sloped house that my great-grandfather built on Edgewood Drive in Charleston, West Virginia. Someone other than my grandfather who was born there or my father who had taken his wife back down there to live. My mother had gone there a young bride right out of college and left there a widow at the age of 34. The summer my father died, my mother took me back up north to Ohio where she was from. I was 12-years-old and didn’t want to leave the only home I had ever known. In retaliation, I broke every glass in the house. Crushed them in my hands against the counter and called it packing.
My mother watched me do this for a little while, standing in the doorway, blood and glass splattering across the hardwood floor and the walls like some abstract work of art. Then finally she said, “Well now, Missy, are you going to clean this up?”
“No, ma’am,” I replied.
“Okay, then. I guess we’ll just have to leave it.”
My mother knew me, knew that my stubborn streak was like my father’s and that it would pass just as quick as it had come on. She knew that I couldn’t stand the messes I’d made and that if she left me alone long enough I would take care of them. That night while she sat in the living room packing knick knacks in tissue paper and watching Magnum, P.I., I stood over the sink with tweezers pulling the leftover shards of glass out of my hands pretending that it didn’t hurt. She didn’t say a word as I swept the floor up with bandaged bloody fingers, a broom, then later Spick and Span.
When my Aunt Jane came down the next week to help us finish cleaning the house out, she asked me what happened, how I’d hurt myself. As I sat there doing real packing, I lied and said I had cut myself in art class working on a project. She asked to see it. I said that I had left it at school, that my teacher thought it was so good that she had asked to keep it.
“What was it?” Jane asked as she scoured cabinets with bleach water and helped us get ready for the evil family who was coming to steal my home.
“A diorama,” I replied though I wasn’t even sure what that was. I don’t think Jane knew either because after that she stopped asking questions. Besides, though Jane was good hearted, she wasn’t the one with the brains in the family. That was my mother. Though after my mother married my father and he finished medical school, she stopped working and stayed home with me.
My mother did not correct me, did not admonish me for the alternative version of reality that I had created though she did look down at me from the refrigerator she was cleaning with black piercing eyes. Instead my mother let Aunt Jane believe my elaborate story but she didn’t let me forget that she knew what I had done. Nor did she let me forget that she thought my father had been to blame for his own death.
For years and years and years my mother would say over and over again in the same words like a creed, “If your father had only watched his weight more, cut back on the fat and cholesterol in his diet, he might still be here today. Your father was a doctor. He should have known better.”
But my mother’s words, true as they were, especially when she said them that year too close to his death for me to see him as anything other than a hero, a god, the perfect man he never really was, only made me hate her, hardened me against her. I remembered the Sunday morning trips to Tudor’s Biscuit World— grease and grease and grease— with longing. When we moved up to Ohio and my relatives offered to take me to McDonalds for breakfast, I refused. “No,” I said affecting a more Southern accent than I had with my younger, dumber cousin, Susie, whose apartment we were staying at—I was from West Virginia not Alabama—, “Ya’ll don’t know how to make biscuits up in the north.”
“You’re such a little brat,” Susie said pacing the floor of her bedroom, the one I was temporarily sharing. She was pissed because the McDonalds scheme was contingent on my approval.
“And you’re a stuck up bitch,” I replied as I flicked a Barbie off her desk.
“I’m telling on you,” Susie whined, wide-eyed.
“Go ahead,” I challenged. “And I’ll say that you were making fun of me cause my dad’s dead.”
Dumb little Susie with her cat’s eye pig tail holders looked at me with hatred and resignation. She was gullible enough to think that anyone would believe this. But what she didn’t know was that my mother knew I was a liar, but she was an accomplice in my crime. She pardoned my flaws on account of my father’s death. I think she also let me get away with lies because she couldn’t take the truth herself. Couldn’t face the fact that she and my father hadn’t been happy for years. It was the fact of my existence and appearances alone that kept them together all along after the initial infatuation of dating a handsome man wore off.
My mother met and married my father her senior year at Ohio State. When Dad asked her to marry him and move to West Virginia so he could go to medical school at Marshall, she said sure. But she hadn’t realized how much she’d hate it. She thought that West Virginia, even Charleston, the state capital and one of the state’s most populated areas, was the back-ass middle of nowhere. My mother and father lived with his parents in the home they had owned for generations on the West Side of Charleston, my father commuted to Huntington for school, and the rent was free so my mother couldn’t complain. Not while they were alive. I think sometimes that my mother thought about going back home calling the marriage thing quits, but months after they married, she was already pregnant with me. This distracted her from the depth of her misery. It also made her determined to stay for the duration. The first chance she got though, when my father died, she immediately fled back home to Ohio and I think she let me alone because she was half afraid of my judgment or my father’s through me.
Though the marriage was hard for her, I think, in her own way, she did love him.
Dayton struck me as a dirty gritty city. My Aunt Jane described the neighborhood she was in as “diverse.” But it was a place that I didn’t feel comfortable walking around in alone. If you didn’t watch, someone could steal your wallet or worse. Though my mother claimed to think the north was so much better, I think my mother felt uncomfortable too. Ohio had changed, jobs lost, crime gained in the years since she had left. The first chance she got, after she found herself a job working for Wright State University, my mother fled south to the ritzy Dayton suburb of Centerville. She said this was for my benefit. The schools there are better than the ones downtown. I was a tough kid. I would have made it in the inner-city but my mother said she wanted me to learn something.
What I mostly learned in school was how much I hated Ohio. What I mostly did in my free time was read about West Virginia. I made myself more knowledgeable about the state than I had ever been while I was living there. I learned about the Harpers Ferry, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Hatfield and the McCoys. Like other kids studied and memorized the stars, I memorized maps of West Virginia, the counties— Harrison, Kanawha, Boone, Putnam, Clay, Braxton, Webster, and on and on and on. The rivers, the mountains. What I didn’t have to memorize was the feel of the roads, those steep hills even surrounding the city of Charleston itself. Those sloping, winding hills and the Kanawha River. If I closed my eyes, there were two things I could see, the roads around the West Side of Charleston where I was from, and my father, a man who was large and round and hilly, like the State of West Virginia itself.
In some ways, I think I would’ve done better in an inner city school. As it was though, I rebelled against that snooty building with the carpeted floors and those new state of the art computers. Being from West Virginia, I got made fun of bad. Made fun of for no reason other than many of the other kids didn’t want to be singled out themselves. On my first day, a preppy little girl in a size double zero T-shirt that said Angel came up to me and asked, “Do people from West Virginia wear shoes?”
“No, what we use them for is for kicking stupid preppy girls’ asses,” I replied. I was about to take one off to demonstrate. She backed off.
Another day, another skinny boring girl with an IQ that was probably bordering on mentally retarded asked me if I was a Beverly Hillybilly. “That’s a fake show,” I told her, “but not as fake as your eyelashes.” She actually was wearing fake eyelashes. That and too tight jeans so that you could see her cottage-cheese butt. I didn’t tell her that the Beverly Hillbillies were from Missouri because I knew it wouldn’t have made a difference.
I could see that it wasn’t going to be easy for me to make friends, especially girl friends. Back home, I had been respected, popular, well liked, the doctor’s daughter, a jv cheerleader. But here though, all I was was that girl from West Virginia. So I embraced the stereotype, took on a tough girl attitude. Wore dirty ripped clothes, let my hair knot. And I sought out the toughest boys I could find.
“Hey,” I said one afternoon in the hallway walking up to one farm boy who was rumored to carry a shotgun and drive a pickup truck one afternoon, “I’m Missy McDonald and I’m from West Virginia.”
He eyed me in my semi-clean clothes with my messed up hair, not knowing what to think or say. Still, when I smiled, I knew I looked good. Maybe the messiness, the I- don’t-give-a-shit-about-what-you-think attitude was part of my appeal.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m Billy Burgess.”
“Do you wanna get together sometime?” I was the one asking him out, but I let him think it was him. I understood even then that farm boys who listened to country music, went to church on Sundays and believed that the U.S. was a Christian nation needed to feel like they were in charge.
“Okay, sure,” I replied as if the thought had never occurred to me. “But I gotta ask my mama first.” Normally, I did not refer to my mother as my mama. But I knew it was probably his fantasy to date a farm girl. So I could be one. For the moment.
Our apartment in Centerville was small and cramped and miserable. But then again, I think that any apartment would have felt small and cramped and miserable after moving to it from a house. When I sat on my bed in the hastily pained white room that was half the size of my old one, I could see our old house clearly, in my mind. Where it sat on that hill. How it bordered the house of John and Phillip Jenkins whose family had built their house 70 years ago and had lived in West Virginia since before the Civil War, before West Virginia had become a state. Behind me, lived the McAtees. Their grandfather had worked in the coal mines. My grandfather had owned a successful downtown department store that had long since closed. In West Virginia, my family had had money but in Ohio, with my father dead, all of that money would just go towards paying for my education. My mother didn’t tell me that, but still I knew. And I resented it. I would have given up all the education in the world for one night back at home on the front porch watching the cars driving up and down the street, hearing the dogs howl at the full autumn moon. Because the land in Ohio was so flat, it live seem flat too.
Billy Burgess wasn’t my first boyfriend. All throughout first and second and third and fourth and five grades, I had had them. But now, in junior high school, you were expected to do something with them, something other than just write each other notes in class and kiss each other on the cheek.
Billy was a year older than me and that made all the difference. I was 12 going on 13, and he was 13 going on 14 when we started dating. He taught me how to really kiss where it was more than just pecking. At first, I was scared of his tongue—slippery and wet. It reminded me of a sea creature like the ones I had seen that time when my daddy took me down to the zoo in Cincinnati. Even then I hadn’t been impressed by the state of Ohio. When I saw the skyscrapers, all I said was, “It’s so dirty and flat here,” and my father who at 6’5’’ and 350 pounds, a great big giant of a man, had taken my six-year-old hand in his and said, “Every state can’t be as beautiful as West Virginia.” My father, the cardiologist, died of a heart attack and then we went to live in Ohio.
That first year all we did was kiss. And then we worked our way through the bases. Billy said I had beautiful breasts even though, at first, they were flat as pancakes. The summer I turned thirteen and started bleeding, they grew. “We’re going to have to be more careful now,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. We weren’t sleeping together just kissing hard and long till our lips chapped and our mouths grew dry and my mother never imagining that I was even close to something like that. I was so young she hadn’t even talked to me about sex yet. Besides, she didn’t realize that I even had a boyfriend. I tended to tell her as little as I could. I think I wanted her to believe I was more miserable than I was.
“In case, we, you know,” Billy said. We were both too young to drive and so where we mainly met was downtown by the river. I told my mother I was going to the library and, afterward, so it wouldn’t be a total lie, I walked over there, got some books and hauled them back home. Sometimes, I even read them.
“Oh, that,” I laughed, realizing what Billy meant. I let him kiss me hard and harder still till he grew hard and I grew wet but I didn’t plan on doing that.
But, by the time I neared the end of eighth grade, my life had begun to feel like nothing. Aside from Billy, it was nothing. I had my mother, of course, and school, but that didn’t feel like anything.
Nights, standing outside the wood door of my room in the apartment I had decorated in maps of West Virginia in counties and rivers and mythical battles that I knew nothing about, only knowing that the people from my state were fighters, my mother tried to talk to me.
“How’s school, Missy?”
“Fine,” I mouthed.
“Made any friends yet?”
“Ever going to have them over?”
“No.” Pretty soon, she knew I’d be close to glaring at her. But still she tried. I thought maybe I’d try something else this evening, for variety. “How’s work, Mom? Made any friends there?”
She looked at me with surprise. I never asked her about her life. I persisted. “Girlfriends or boyfriends?”
“Missy,” she said looking at me all sad. There was a kind of sorrow I couldn’t define in her voice and I felt kind bad. Out of loyalty to my father, I stopped pushing. I was on the verge of saying something else, something like, I’m sorry, Mom, but I didn’t and that day in my room that year was as close as we got to talking about anything important.
We finally did it in some abandoned house in a neighborhood that was so sketchy that I felt scared to walk alone. But I didn’t feel scared walking through it with Billy. Billy lifted weights, could shoot his shotgun straight, he’d showed me. After high school, he would either work on his family’s farm or join the military. He liked Toby Keith, was proud to be an American.
“Are you sure you’re ready, Missy?” he asked me. We sat on a blanket we’d brought. We laid it on the floor. There were cobwebs and dust and, down the street, I think there was a crack house. I listened hard for gunshots. Then I left him start kissing me and it felt good, better. It drowned out the outside noise and pain.
Sometimes this hurts, I realized. I’d read it somewhere. I looked it up at the library in a section I shouldn’t have been in. In a textbook. When the librarians came close, I backed away and pretended that I was looking for information on the Wright Brothers, Dayton’s claim to fame and something I cared nothing about. They’d been thrilled to escort me to the special section on Orville and Wilbur. I’d muttered something about how excited I was to learn about Kitty Hawk.
We didn’t buy condoms. Both of us were too young and scared to do that. But not too young and scared to have sex. We used the withdraw method of birth control and, of course, it didn’t work. So there I was pregnant at 14.
My first impulse was to run. I guess I thought I’d go on home to West Virginia and have the baby and find someone to rescue me or rescue my baby, give it a better life like they’d rescued Moses out of the reeds. I took all the money my mother had in her emergency fund in the bottom drawer of her dresser, the one I wasn’t supposed to know about. But sitting there at the bus station on Fifth Street with wads of bills in my purposely dirty jeans, dirty because I liked looking down and out, I got scared. I didn’t have family back home anymore. Homeless men swirled around me and suddenly I wondered if this maybe wasn’t my brightest idea. I wondered if maybe Biblical things didn’t happen so much. And then I realized there were only two people to tell this story to, only two people who gave and damn about me and I wondered who I should call, my boyfriend or my mother? It only took me a minute to decide.
I walked over to the payphone, dialed the number, hands shaking wondering what she’d say.
“Mom,” I said wrapping the silver payphone cord around my arm, “I’m pregnant.”
I waited for her response. If there was emotion in her voice, I didn’t hear it. She was business-like, matter of fact. She always did well in crises. When my father died, she had called her sister, called the funeral home director, and she hadn’t cried, not until it was all over and she could. Not until after the guests and her sister had gone. And that night with just me in the house and her memories she’d sobbed and sobbed. But not until she’d taken care of business. Through the payphone, she asked, “Well, Missy, what do you wanna do?”
And I thought for a second, so relieved that she wasn’t yelling, and then I said, “Come home, I guess.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll come and get you.”
And when she showed up to the bus station in her red VW bug, an old used one she’d restored, she didn’t say anything. We didn’t talk but there was something in the silence that kept me from crying and almost kept me from wanting my father from wanting his big soft hands around me. Finally, as we drove south from the city back to our apartment, my home now, she did say something, and what she said was this. She asked me, “Are you finished now?”
“Finished with what?” I asked her as I eyed her perfectly hair sprayed, bobby pinned black hair. I realized that she looked I thought like a fashion model and I looked like a slob.
“With acting like this? Have you got all this outta your system?”
I didn’t respond, so she said, “You know, don’t you, that doing these stupid things isn’t going to bring back your father?”
And then I did cry and she let me. I dried my eyes.
“When we get home,” she said, “you are taking off those dirty clothes and washing your hair. And no matter what else happens you are not going outside looking like this again. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said and then I opened up the passenger side window, stuck my head out like I had when I was a little kid sitting in the back seat, my mother and father in the front fighting, me trying to drown them out. When I pulled my head back in, Mom looked at me and I looked at her and then I settled back down and turned on the radio. It was some old corny Neil Diamond song. I turned it up loud. His voice, strong and sober, was like my father’s. And I realized that I missed him then, missed him still and that I would go on missing him. But, in that afternoon, in that moment, though nothing was really right, I began to sing, “Play it now,” and Mom did too, and it was as if, for a moment, that the whole world hadn’t fallen apart. I thought of those glasses I had broken. The worst part hadn’t been the breaking but the cleanup that followed. To clean up glass, you have to pick it up, piece by tedious piece.
Carla runs up the edge of the cattail patch along their yard, her feet slapping the soggy grass. By the time Vance pulls in, the elder of his two daughters stands in the pebbled strip where he parks. With one arm, he hugs her to his hip, presses her head to his work belt with his elbow for fear of leaving on her light hair a greasy print. His other hand he raises to the lazy women fanning themselves and swatting at flies out on the torn screened porch across from his trailer. The old lady and her mangy brood hail back. He lets Carla go, shoos her along. She jumps onto their wooden walkway, her ankles and feet red from chigger bites and swamp runoff. Even if it catches all the rain and drain water from the rest of Princeton Hill above it, this little plot of land is his. Betty appears on the little side stoop, wiping her hands on her jean shorts. He wants to sit down upright, away from a car, or being stooped half way inside one or under it.
He shoos Carla inside, kicks an overripe crabapply where it'd rolled against the walkway. A sweat bee dives and nips at his neck. He wishes he could take his pretty younger wife on a decent vacation somewhere, load up his good car and ride beyond East River Mountain. The screen door slaps shut. He kisses his wife's cheek.
“They still at it over there?” He nods his head toward the shack stretched to the seams with women. Barefoot, she spins, trots ahead. He still likes to watch her walk. Inside, their other daughters sit in the little floor space between the loveseat and couch, watching blue cartoon creatures. He reaches over them, shuts off the TV with his clean little finger, walks over to where his wife stirs chicken. She nudges him.
“That's all they're talking about, drive a person crazy. It's got them about half scared to death now, too. “ The girls, hearing “them “ look up from a puzzle they have taken out of a box. She drops her voice. “I'll catch you up on it later. “
His wet hair drips into his clean T-shirt, irritating the insect bite as Carla says grace. The meal passes quietly. The silence of food on the table. Vance adjusts to the sounds of crickets and frogs in the marsh. Better any day than a lathe sawing in his ear.
After supper, he takes the two younger girls out to the tire swing in the apple tree, sits them in facing each other, his back to the women still on their porch. He swats away mosquitoes. His girls shriek as Vance spins faster, steeper. Through the window, Carla adjusts her chair at her desk. School had started. She bends over a book and writes with a pencil. Mist settles over the cattails, turns their fluff thorny, purple. Out West, a volcano brews and erupts, streaking the sky here three thousand miles away in colors from a gas flame or like sparks and shavings when whittling steel. A crescent moon appears. On the other side of an ocean, a woman unties her hair. Behind him, up goes a round of women-cackles.
Betty opens the screen door, yells for the girls to come for their bath. Vance slows their tire swing to a halt, untangles them from each other. They move quick, don't wait for him to second her; they are children that don't have to be told things twice. Tired, but he still walks over to his good car, been inside all day, not ready to sit inside yet. He opens the car door, sits, and pops the hood. Something rattles lately that he can't identify.
“Just like some kind of movie.” The voice of the crotchety neighbor from further up the hill carries in the foggy bottom. The other women flutter agreement.
“I just don't know, don't what we are a going to do.” Joretta starts again.
He's heard this phrase nigh on a thousand times in the last three or four days. Vance stands, takes the two steps to his hood, pushes it to, then lets his car door fall closed with a heavy slam.
“What ya'll need to do–,” he finds he sounds more tired than he is, “is to stop scaring my kids with your nonsense.” The women pause as Vance walks over into the high weeds of their property.
Joretta whines, smacks her fan at her fat arm. “It ain't only your kids. All of us are scared to death.”
Her frog-faced daughter chimes in. “We ain't got a man. No one. The police laughed right at us.”
Once, as he stood at the edge of the vegetable patch, his mama came up out of the corn like a banshee, split right between the eyes of the copperhead at his feet with a hoe. Another time, as he played in the mud near the cow creek, she grabbed him by the arms, outran a bull by leaping right over the fence. In labor, Betty had waited until he'd finished his day; she wouldn't call; she didn't want him to lose any of his wages. After he'd come home to a mess, he cursed her as crazy all the way to the hospital. Smiling, with their black-haired daughter Shanda in her arms, Betty had said, “See, I can clean a mess. We couldn't-a gotten your money back.”
Vance takes his time to answer. “It's someone out pulling pranks. Early Happy Hallow’s eve,” he says, leans his hand on the porch frame, but does not cross the entrance. “Ya'll need to get out there with an attitude adjuster is all.”
A flat-nosed woman he does not recognize sucks her teeth. God knows how many relatives these people had. It seems like women just begetting women. Men wouldn't take them, their sloppy clothes, unkempt house for too long, even with those younger girls opening themselves up to any snipe. From the looks of the garbage bags always dumped in lopsided piles out front, then about half strung out across creation by raccoons, opossums, dogs, wild cats–all their meals came out of plastic bags, aluminum trays, or pop-top cans. A man might be caught for a while by an easy lay, but a decent man couldn't live only by that alone. Vance starts to back out backward through the weeds.
A strange woman, some kin he supposed, licks around her mouth, rotten teeth bearing out up top.
“What they need is a preacher.”
He shouldn't have bothered. Looked at his car instead of dealing with these loons. Vance scoops up a lighting bug in one hand, closes his fist, then shakes the insect free, calls back to them from back across his property line.
“Maybe so. Maybe no. But I can tell ya'll one thing,” he calls over his shoulder, so Carla in her bedroom can hear. “No ghost, real nor otherwise, ever got the best of me.”
The women snort as he walks further into his yard. Dusk has changed the haze, brought steel blue to the cattails, the same as what suspends over the mountain. Trifling wenches. He picks up fallen apples, sails them one by one over into the waterweeds. They scatter birds, frogs stop their croaking. That's how you know something big is in the grass, something unexpected has moved, the frogs won't sing. Same goes for rice paddies covered in aquamarine mist. Up in the sky is that crescent moon. Sex in a shack at the edge of a rice paddy, a woman in her one slip of silk, eyes in the shadows, the lurking of death. These dumb bitches. He, yes he, he has known ghosts.
A moment or so later, the frogs begin again. Vance circles around. It's always something that'll waste your time.
Joretta rocks, then rocks herself again until she is upright, holds on to the chair for fear of falling back squat, and while the others sit and watch. She waddles out and down the porch steps, flicking her fan on the railing as she holds tight with the other hand. The unattached stoop wobbles, pops.
“Listen. Looky here.” Her hand flips open the fan again, everything sweating from so much movement. Vance focuses his eyes on what is in front of him. Better to focus on what is right there. Joretta rustles through the weeds, drops her voice as she nears. Not just for effect, but she truly whispers. “Now, I ain’t meaning to bother you, but I tell you my girls about out of their wits. Ghosts? We had ghosts working the place alive when I was a kid, they’d sit right down at the table and eat with us, right there in that house, if you was playing, they’d take a turn at jacks. They didn’t mean no meanness, wasn’t any more harmful than this here mist.” Joretta snaps the fan shut, makes three short motions at the swamp with her wrist. “My mother,” Joretta turns to where the others wait, she pulls Vance closer. He can count the hairs on her chin. “She drew people in, drew in they spirits. Through her they moved on. Now, when she died, damn, you bought the property right after that, you remember. I never telled you, but all this stopped. Now, it’s back and the ghosts, they harmful. They scaring us. Scaring us to death.”
The toad-faced woman sets her eyes to his. He coughs into his hand, notices the dirt ground into its creases.
“Joretta,” he starts. “What you want with all this, Joretta?”
She leans forward, taps him with her fan on the knee.
“What I am asking for, Vance James Junior, is for you to see what you can see, that’s all. I got to sit with my girls or they ‘bout have attacks, but if you stay up–”
“Joretta, I’m a working man. I don’t got–.”
“Just once-t. Just once-t. We all want this to end and maybe if they see someone, like you said, someone ain’t scared, they'll back down. They run into someone they can’t get the better of, they back off. Ain’t no fun haunting someone who you can’t haint.”
“Loretta, ain’t no hainting–”
“Vance Junior, you stay up and see,” Loretta waggles a stumpy finger at him. “You just stay up and see!”
Betty closes the door to the younger girls’ room, squinches up the skin above her eyebrows, crosses the kitchen. She whispers to Vance as he watches the forms that play on the dark of the walls and on the floor from the TV.
“Why you let her talk you into this foolishness?”
He plays cat with the glow, taps his foot on the specters. What would you call these things like shadows, but they happened to be places of light? Like sun on the jungle floor. Vance bet the Vietnamese would have had a word for it. He slides his hands out to his wife, pulls her into the chair with him, her legs flying up in the air. As she settles, he flicks the hair out of her eyes.
“Cause sometimes, darlin', you got look at things from a fool’s perspective to know how to fight ‘em.”
“I’ll be worried to death.” She knocks her elbow into his chest, pushes herself off from him with her feet against the loveseat like she is swimming. Standing, she glides on her toes. In a flash, Vance clicks off the TV, he struggles with her around the shoulders. In one move, he has her by the collar and the seat of the pants dancing her back and forth.
Betty laughs, throws her hands over her mouth. “Vance Junior, you’re going to wake up those girls.”
He swings her to and fro. “Ten dollars they ain’t asleep.” He hoists, then drops her in the hall. She pulls her shorts around straight. Vance taps her flank. “You bury your head in a pillow and hide from the boogieman. I’m the one out here doing and dealing with Joretta’s goofiness.”
“Then come on.” Betty crosses into their bedroom. “Get what you need and get this over with.”
Flipping to the key on his ring, Vance picks it out and open the glass case, rubs his hands across the bottom two, then settles on a rifle. He leans down and kisses Betty’s cheek. She walks into the vanity space between their toilet and shower. In the hall, he tugs the string to “off,” taps in the nightlight the two steps from the bedroom to the kitchen. The last of the summer crickets chirp in through the screened window. He rolls it shut.
The front storm door lightly clicks shut. He feels for his keys in his pocket. Hunkering down on the stoop, he slides out one leg at a time, finds his balance on the narrow strip of step, leans back against the trailer, lays the rifle across his knees. Across his property over to Joretta’s, through a wave of mist, he can see her fat figure, dark and fuzzy against the electric light. The city’s streetlamp two roads up dims through the fog. Working with the occasional break-up in radiance, Vance slowly takes apart and begins to rebuild his rifle. He pulls his handkerchief from his pocket, wipes down the barrel, lets the night slide. He sits and waits for the ghosts.
It takes hours, but the mountain settles for the cold, pushes the fog out, breaks open the universe sky. Working its way from his toes, the steel of fear digs into his veins, his eyes search the swamp below Joretta's, search the road, the trees, the grass. Vance knows. From his eye’s corner, he glimpses the enemy. He shakes himself, reaches behind and touches his home. No, they cannot search him out here, wouldn’t leave their ancestors to bother with here. Vance has built behind him, what he has been able to build since. He has let go and eked out safe when he knows, he knows from ghosts, there ain’t no place safe. Ghosts here his ass. Carla cries in her sleep from her bed. Vance plows through the door and is with his older girl-child. He gathers her up in his arms, pulls the nightgown around her legs against the night’s bugs, steps out to the porch. He rocks her on his lap, the rifle tucked under, locked in the crook of his knees. Carla cries about the dark.
“Look here, brave girl.” Foolishness. Joretta has scared his children away from the dark. “Those lazy ignorant women don’t know what they talking about. You, you a smart girl, a brave girl. You can see the beauty of the night.” Carla shifts, he wraps his arms around, cups her cold feet in his hand. His daughter peeps at him. “Listen,” Vance says. “Listen. Hear the crickets. Hear the frogs. See the whole world broke out in stars?” Carla looks up as he talks. Vance can’t forget, but it ain’t ghosts. “Brave girl, in Viet Nam I knew a man who knew what all them stars meant.” Vance waits as a star drops. No ghost real or imagined ever got the best of him. He wants children that don’t have to be told things twice. He hugs his eldest child.
“Carla, don’t be scared of night.” Vance breathes in, memories settle. “Brave girl, night gives the earth time to rest, gives us time to rest, if not, they’d have us up plowing and working twenty-four hours a day. You tell them women that next time they start.” Vance crooks his head to the east, that volcano out West rolls smoke into these East River Mountain clouds, the orange strike of day appears, ready to hit. Vance kisses his daughter’s cheek. “Brave girl, you tell them to get up off they lazy asses and go look, go look out for themselves.” Vance thinks of swamps, shooting at ghosts deep into the night, his mother hacking a snake with a hoe, his wife. “Carla, your mama and I ain’t hardly scared of nothing for nothing. Brave girl, you, don’t you need to be neither.”
A Death in the Mountains
Hard winter came.
The sun rose on the first day of a new year. It rose as on any other day. There was nothing special about it.
The old man woke up terrified in a bed that was not his, in a cabin that was not his. He watched the light grow outside the window and he longed for the dark. He was less afraid in the dark. In the dark, no one could find him, could see him.
He was old, and he was closer to the day he was born than he had ever been -- naked in thin light, weak, and not in control of anything.
He had no job. He was too old for a job.
He had nothing.
The coal company had it all. Strange, he would often think, he had never been in a mine, and yet the mine had always been in him.
His wife still slept beside him. He heard the small noises she made deep within her throat and he knew that she was dreaming bad things. She trusted him to care for her and he no longer knew where to hold that trust. He only knew what it weighed. He could not lift it. If she fell ill, he could not pay for her care. If she were hungry, he could not give her food. He could give her only of his heart and mind and those were not things to keep her alive.
God, God, he thought, it wasn't supposed to be like this.
Colder. And still.
He watched as his wife moved silently about the cabin, looking for something to do, something that was right. She was wrapped in a thin housecoat, her gray hair hanging limply around her face, her arms wrapped around her waist.
But there was nothing for her to do.
The temperature was one degree below freezing.
His wife cried silently, trying to hide her face from him.
But he knew.
It was only a matter of time. We all knew that.
There was really nothing left to do.
And so the time came.
And so the old man died.
I knew him.
I was of his clan.
His was a family of hard, flinty men and spare, dark-chiseled women, and he was the last of them, of those mountain people.
He was born out of the smoke and mists that crawled up the hollers like the heavy scent of death, bent men walking underneath it, axes slung heavy over shoulders, mine timbers piled jumbled by rutted, muddy tracks that slashed through stands of doomed timber.
He died, and he was the last of them, the ones born to the hills, the real and true hills, the hills of wraithful spirits and a wrathful God, the hills that aren't mountains but may be the most hardened mountains of all, mountains that loomed in his mind and the grizzled parts of his heart.
In the mountains of West Virginia.
My brother found the photographs, those brittle, faded pictures gathered from the cracked bottoms of cheap, ill-fitting bureau drawers and slipped between the pages of crumbling, yellowed albums. In the old pictures the man stood straight, a young man then, trying to be taller. And he did not smile, knowing, perhaps, the spare and long life ahead of him.
And so the old man died. On Christmas Eve.
In the old pictures we could not see the cracked bones and raw skin, could not hear a heart born to beat for ninety years without the old man knowing why.
In the old pictures.
In the old pictures he was young and fast and lean. In the old pictures he did not smile.
And so the old man died.
Now, he lay in his box, tight-lipped and stern. At rest, they said.
But I knew better. I touched his hand and face, waiting, not believing. He would shake off this box. He had work to do, a wife to care for.
But he did not.
For all but two years he lived his life in the county, never more than a lean handful of miles from where he was born. For those two years he went to a large and foreign city on the coast where he rode dark, growling, smoke-stale buses to work at midnight and came home in daylight to a wife crying at a table with a warped top, pale light reflecting crazily from a cracked window that looked out into a bin where garbage flowed from the tops of fatally dented cans and large rats sat poised, guarding their food.
She cried for the mountains.
It was a foreign city, but it was not the city that was foreign. It was the man, then young. Then falling quickly into old.
In the old pictures he did not smile.
I could not keep up, did not know where he went inside himself. He grew past me, out from me, and I never really knew him although I thought I did. He was there when I arrived and he was always there but he carried a place in him locked and tight that I never reached, a hard and private place buried so deep that no light ever warmed it, a place that hoarded a distant collection of jagged bits and parts that I would never know, never see. And I knew that locked place was there with him in the box. His. Forever. Not mine. Never mine.
And so the old man died.
I stood in the frigid wind on a low ridge, naked trees black and bent against a gray, smothering sky. The box, closed now, rested on crossbars. To the side, the raw, cold earth from the hole was thrown over with green mats, as though the dirt that would cover the old man should not be seen.
The wind cut my eyes and crept into my bones.
There were some words said by men I did not know and I did not hear the words or know why I was standing there and before the wind could quit that awful place people were moving back to their cars, the box still on the crossbars. Not for long. I knew.
Going away from a grave people walk slowly, drive slowly, as though trying to slink quietly from the dead before the dead realized where they were, realized what was happening.
And they laid him down there, not more than a handful of miles from where he was born.
In the mountains of West Virginia.
By the time I got to the narrow highway I knew the crossbars were gone, the box gone, the covers on the raw earth gone, and I knew the black dirt was raining down and he was gone.
His humiliation over.
I was alone in the car. I pulled to the side of the road on a gentle curve that looked out over a steep holler. I got out and stood by the guardrail, feeling the knife-thrust of the winter air. I pulled it into my lungs.
I wanted to scream.
But I did not.
The night after the levees broke in New Orleans, a strange vaporous glow appeared above the Indian Mounds on the campus of LSU, casting a shimmer on the nearby live oaks, pines, azaleas, crepe myrtles and red bud bushes. Huey Long Fieldhouse appeared as orange as refinery flames in the background, the water in the rooftop swimming pool warming several degrees, some people claimed, beneath the constant Blackhawks, Kiowa Warriors, and Chinooks that churned the soupy sky between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The light zigzagged like a huge, partially unfolded paper clip, pale green as the undersides of magnolia leaves. It neither dissipated nor drifted away on the breezes. It only undulated slightly, the folds of light accordioning tight and loose, appearing at once as tactile as steam and as abstract to the touch as flashlight beams. The light seemed imbedded in the humidity, like markings on an animal’s hide. Even the whirring chopper blades above couldn’t make it flicker or flutter.
It took a few days for anyone to look directly at the light. Eventually, a campus maintenance worker distributed welding glasses, which everyone used for several nights, watching the light strangely refract all other light, the halogen street lamps and the strobing flashes from the ambulances, police cars, fire and utility trucks, and National Guard Humvees. The tint in the glasses, though, changed the color of the light to that of antifreeze. So one by one, sweating more so than usual, everyone gradually removed their glasses, not wanting to filter out the light’s green authenticity, as if they all knew this was something they may never see again.
However, no one would touch it or walk through it, afraid of what it was. Some claimed it was toxic fumes from Exxon to the north, or from some hurricane-demolished chemical plant or refinery to the south or west, blown in like pelicans by Katrina. When Rita blasted Lake Charles and the rest of southwest Louisiana, everyone wondered whether the light might get blown away, too. The morning after Rita, though, the light remained, a stubborn molecular specter.
Some claimed the light was indeed a specter, the ghosts of the tribes whose boundary the mounds supposedly marked. The ghosts had risen up to collect the souls of dead Indians from south Louisiana’s tribes, whose members were killed by the hurricanes: the Pointe-au-Chien and the various tribes of the Muscogee—the Terrebonne, the Houma, and the Isle de Jean Charles and the Bayou Lafourche Bands of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederations.
Others believed the mounds themselves, with thousands of Indians displaced, were serving their original function, guiding Indians away from the tragedy and destruction, toward safety with other tribes farther inland, to the north and west.
A few people even claimed the mounds were protecting Baton Rouge. They pointed out that Baton Rouge was just to the west of Katrina, just to the east of Rita, barely getting clipped by the ragged saw-toothed counter-clockwise spirals of clouds. To which, other folks countered that, in ’92, the mounds didn’t do much to deflect Hurricane Andrew, a storm that was said to be perfect, the mathematically symmetrical eye, the clouds coiled tight as cable on a spool, the massive girth. Katrina, someone said, flattened imperfectly on the eastern side, a flaw not indicative of the damage it wreaked.
Before the football games, after the light appeared, no kids annoyed the mounds by sledding the slopes on cardboard, as was pregame custom, beneath the helicopter flyovers. Students no longer studied or read there. The last two people seen on the mounds were there the night before the levees broke in New Orleans. A student with a trumpet stood atop each mound and played “When the Saints Go Marching In” in unison. Since, no one had done so again, nor were guitars strummed, harmonicas blown, fiddles scratched between classes. The Red Stick Ramblers offered no impromptu concerts between the mounds, as they usually did once a week, if they were in town. Girls refused to sun there. Wiccans kneeled at the presence of the light over the mounds, but at safe distances. Even Sword Boy, in his hakama and his zori sandals, the front of his head shaved, the rest oiled and pulled into a ponytail, declined climbing the northern-most mound and execute his sword routine and then meditate, as he’d always done since arriving at LSU from Lutcher seven or eight years ago. No lusty freshman couples consummated their doomed relationships on those slopes after the bars closed, the chopper chatter droning, the sirens’ wailing painting the liquid dark.
Because of the light, the feral cats on campus wouldn’t go near the mounds, even during the day, when the light disappeared or maybe just couldn’t be seen by human eyes. Water warmed everywhere at night, driving nutria aground. Around LSU lakes and the Mississippi, nutria began foraging during the day, flinching at the choppers and ambulance cries, unused to daylight, to making themselves so vulnerable. Egrets and herons refused to wade the shallow waters. They squabbled and squawked on the crowded, sagging Cyprus branches until they grew too hungry to wait out the light and water temperature, and then they flew to the fringes of the Baton Rouge Parishes. Turtles clung to Cyprus roots, rock outcroppings, and the banks. Only water snakes remained in the lake, now not having to sun first thing. Each morning, catfish, carp, bass, gar and panfish floated belly up, city workers dragging nets between john boats to skim the fish from the surface of the lakes. Each night, Mike the Tiger howled musically from his habitat, his keepers and veterinarians looking on, bewildered by his newfound voice for aria. Music majors detected partial scales in the howls, noticed them jumping up or down an octave. One of their tuners registered his pitch as a B flat.
Then something odd happened. One morning, dozens of geckos, similar in color to the light, lay dead and limp, crowning the mounds in a layer. Flies wouldn’t land on them and lay eggs in their carcasses. Crows, egrets, and the feral cats ignored them. Even rats would not venture up the grassy slopes to forage. No one had a credible explanation for this phenomenon. The best guess was the colors, people from animal sciences said; the lizards were attracted to the light’s colors. Now they were dead, lying sun-cooked and soft in the humid swampy air.
To everyone’s surprise, that night a coyote appeared. She—a veterinarian student with binoculars had confirmed the animal’s sex—climbed the northern-most mound and answered, in yips, Mike the Tiger’s melodic howls before settling in to eat the dead lizards, the green light algow in her fur. Someone suggested shooting the coyote, but it was decided that she should stay alive, at least long enough to solve the lizard problem. The coyote rarely ventured off the mounds, usually only to drink from the fountain in the Quad. To save her from encounters with students, a galvanized trough was placed as close to the mounds as the groundskeepers were willing to get and then filled with water. Opposite the mounds from the water, the coyote shat and pissed. Groundskeepers, in radiation-protective suits and masks, scooped up the feces with long-handled shovels and dropped it into a yellow and black 55-gallon drum marked “Hazardous Waste.”
The next day, her coat holding a vague green sheen, she moved to the other mound and began on those lizards, napping between courses. She seemed to realize she was unthreatened up there, lying about, relaxing in the sun and oblivious to the green light, the heat, the helicopters, the ambulances blaring past, delivering the wounded to the PMAC, which was now nothing more than a M*A*S*H unit and morgue, refrigerated semis in the parking lot, their generators humming as constant as life.
All the while, the dazed and homeless drifted past, afoot or in rattling junkers, with no idea of what they were looking for, what they would find, or where they might find it. The displaced invaded North Gates, hands out. They begged change at the Circle K, in front of Chimes, all up and down Chimes and State Streets, Highland Road—everywhere. Their sad stories rose up and snaked together in the hot briny unyielding sky, a woven rope of desperate language and harried narratives, the first real stories of Katrina, the talking heads and pundits on the televisions in the bars be damned.
But pundit those heads must. No matter. A coyote understands little, if any, punditry. It understands survival and can rationalize the easiest path to it. So, each night, she yipped harmonies with Mike and awaited the lemming-esque pilgrimage of geckos, eating them as they arrived. The next day, she moved to the other mound and devoured the previous night’s dead.
Thusly it occurred. For several weeks, the coyote and the geckos grew routine. Her and Mike’s songs became as familiar as the quarter-hourly bell tolls from Memorial Tower, the thumping helicopters overhead, the sirens, the dieselly yammering of rescue vehicles and boom trucks—all as unceasing as the influx of displaced Orleans Parishioners, now the Lost Tribe of New Orleans, and their laments, their voices a fraught and saddened music, their stories a new apocalyptic gospel, their wails and cries and sobs lamenting New Orleans. Their now devastated Samaria, the Ninth Ward their Temple, lay ninety miles southeast of them and this light, this eerie green light.
Melva smoothed deepening creases in her forehead with rough, reddened fingers as she read the official looking letter. She laid it carelessly on the kitchen table and looked across into Becky’s anxious brown eyes. Melva inhaled slowly before speaking.
“When did you apply,” she asked.
“Early this spring,” Becky replied.
“You never said anything.”
“There was no point till I was accepted, Mom.”
“This is all Jack’s doing, isn’t it,” Melva retorted.
“No, it’s not. But I want to be with him if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I hoped you’d forget each other when he went away to Georgetown University. Obviously, it wasn’t far enough.”
“It was a test all right, two hundred miles.” Becky smiled for the first time since she had handed Melva the letter. “We decided last Christmas to be together, so I applied to Georgetown and got accepted for the fall semester. I want to be there with him.”
“You should’ve told me,” Melva said. “All this time I thought you were happy at West Virginia University.”
“I went there only because you wanted me to. But I feel stifled. Morgantown’s so—so small. There’s a whole world out there and I’m removed from it. I want to discover more.”
“Yeah, with Jack.”
Melva rubbed her forehead. It felt leathery to her touch. Her feet ached from long hours spent waiting tables at Country Vittles. She wanted to change out of the red skirt and white blouse she had worn to work; they smelled of grease and smoke.
When she arrived home from work, Becky had greeted her with a cup of coffee and asked her to sit down. Other people, Melva knew, preferred to relax with a glass of wine, but she liked how a cup of coffee revived her after a long day, even on a hot early summer’s one like today. It came as a surprise to her that Becky had plotted to leave home, and this is what lay behind her excited, flushed welcome.
Melva turned the coffee cup ‘round and ‘round. “When I married your father and we got this apartment, I thought Morgantown was a big place.”
“That’s understandable, Mom, after growing up on a small farm, miles from everywhere.”
“It was different when I was your age,” Melva said. “I didn’t get away from the farm very often. There were the chores to do, and we all had to help. I could only date now and then.”
She had gone out with on a handful of dates before meeting Paul, and he changed how she saw the world. It became a special place after that. Even farm life wasn’t dull anymore. Fields of long grass ready for cutting, looked greener, and her mother’s perfumed roses made her want to lie in a bed of petals and inhale their scent.
The same way she inhaled Paul’s scent, felt the smoothness of his face after he shaved. His smile drew people to him with the same ease that she was drawn to him. She loved how he carried himself, his head held high in that open, confident way. To him, life was not a mere legacy handed down through generations, but an adventure, a chance to explore exciting new things and places. He was happiest when he was testing his limits.
Melva liked things that were safe. She wondered if it was this very difference that made her fall deeply in love with Paul. When he said he loved her, they did what was expected, and got married. Melva was ready to settle down, to make a home for her and Paul and then have a baby. But Paul found marriage too confining. She pressured him to stay home, and he looked for ways to escape, especially after she became pregnant. He found excuses to practice daredevil stunts and ride in motorcycle races.
Close to her due date, Melva felt more tired than usual. She protested when Paul announced he had entered a motorcycle race not far from Morgantown. “I wish you wouldn’t go,” she said.
“You’ll be able to buy all kinds of nice stuff for the baby when I win,” he said. “It’s a difficult course, but one that I know pretty well. I’ll have the advantage—“
“I could deliver any time.”
He took her hands in his. “Honey, the doctor says it won’t happen for weeks yet.”
“First babies are unpredictable. The doctor could be wrong.”
“I’ll only be gone a few hours. You have emergency numbers just in case.”
“Please—don’t.” She buried her face against his chest.
“Honey, c’mon now. I’ve already paid the entrance fee—I can’t back out. Take a nice long nap and when you wake up, I’ll be home.” He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her forehead.
That evening Paul’s father came to tell her that Paul had missed a curve. “He skidded off the track and struck a tree,” her father-in-law explained, gathering her into his arms. “Paul broke…broke his neck.”
Melva saw her handsome husband for the last time at the funeral. While the minister droned on about the “faithfully departed,” she stared at Paul’s once-strong body, cold and unmoving, his handsome face expressionless. He had changed her life completely; he was so young and full of vigor. How could he lie there—motionless? She wanted to shake him, to tell him to get up.
Becky tapped Melva’s hand lightly. “You all right, Mom?” she asked.
Melva got up from the table and went into the small living room where photos of Becky covered almost a whole wall. Becky as a baby, with a small crop of black hair held in a pink bow. Becky as a toddler, her smile just like her father’s, even then. All her school pictures. When she was seven, and had no front teeth. At fourteen, all braces with a tight little smile. And the latest, Becky’s graduation from Morgantown High School, taken only one short year ago. She stood beside Jack, her thick black hair loose over her shoulders, a contrast to his short, blond hair. Melva admitted they made a striking couple, even if she resented Jack for stealing her daughter’s affections.
She lifted Becky’s baby photo off the wall and carried it to the kitchen table. Her hands moved over the walnut frame, fingering it lovingly. “This frame has been in the family for years. It’s used to hold the photo of the first grandchild of each generation. I had expected my grandchild to be born here in Morgantown…”
Becky twiddled her thumbs and looked uncomfortable.
“Mom, have you ever thought that I might not be—that I might not be the one to have the first grandchild for the clan? That someone else might be first…?” Her voice trailed off as Melva raised the baby photo to her chest and hugged it.
“See what going to Washington, D.C. is doing to you already? Before you know it, you’ll be off to some other highfalutin city with no thoughts of home at all.”
“Mom—please—don’t… Can’t you be okay with this?”
“You know D.C. is crime-ridden,” Melva said. “They have rapes and murders there.”
“I’ll be on campus,” Becky said softly. “I’ll be safe.”
“You won’t know anyone. How can you be sure?”
“Jack’ll be there.”
“He won’t be around all the time to protect you. With so many people, how will you know who to trust?”
“I’ll be real careful—I promise.”
“Being careful is not enough,” Melva said.
“I’ll carry mace, then.”
“Someone might try to drug you.”
“I’ll avoid places where there’s drugs and alcohol.”
Melva wiped the photo frame with a napkin. “I never expected this—never. To go so far away from home…”
“It’s only two hundred miles. I’ll be back for all the holidays, and I’ll come home and work during the summer.”
“Once you get a taste of the big city, you’ll never come back.”
“You’re being dramatic, Mom. Jack’s been back.”
“He only returned because of you.”
“His family is here too.”
“Once you’re there together, there’ll be no need…”
“Stop it, Mom. I promise we’ll be home every chance we get.”
“You say that now—“
“We will. We will.”
Becky’s voice had become shrill. Melva made swirling movements with the napkin on the already spotless photo frame. The napkin squeaked against the glass as silence settled between them.
“What about money?” Melva asked after awhile.
“I’ve applied for scholarships, and it looks like I’ll get them,” Becky said flatly. “I’ll get financial aid too.” She pointed to the letter. “You didn’t read it all—the details are there.” She gestured to a paragraph two-thirds down on the page.
Melva looked briefly where Becky indicated, but didn’t read the print. “I’ll get a part-time job too,” Becky continued.
“It’ll be harder in a place like D.C.,” Melva protested. “You’ll be competing with lots of other people. It’s not like here where everyone knows you. You’ll be a stranger there.”
“I’ll find something. Jack will help me.”
Melva sighed. “Jack is all you ever think about. He doesn’t know everything.”
“He’s been at Georgetown for a year now and he’ll help me get situated.”
“Situated,” Melva repeated. “He’s luring you away from your family for God’s sake.”
“I’ll be home at Thanksgiving.”
“First your father, now you—promising to be home, but always running off somewhere,” Melva said. “Don’t go. Stay here. Stay at WVU.”
“My mind’s made up, Mom. I’m going.”
Becky’s lips formed a tight line, her eyes unwavering. It was the same look Paul had during those moments when Melva tried to convince him he was taking too many risks. “What can I say to change your mind,” she said in a low voice.
Melva got up to return the baby photo to the living room wall. She grasped the frame weakly. It slipped through her fingers and shattered on the floor. She stared at the shattered pieces of glass for a moment before bending to examine the damage. Tears filled her eyes.
“It’s broken,” she said. “The frame’s cracked. How will I ever fix it?” She glanced round the room, then up at Becky, who stood by helplessly. Everything, even her daughter, appeared blurred through her tears.
("Separate Dreams" also appeared in Mist on the Mon.)
Out of the Woods
Amelia stood before the trailhead post, reading the description of the Bare Branch Hiking Trail. Two miles. Spectacular 30-foot falls. Rating: Difficult.
Just a few days ago, that advisory would have sent her scurrying back to her car. She glanced at the start of the leaf-littered loop. It wound up and around a hillside congested with maples, oaks, pines and a fine variety of spring wildflowers and weeds. Difficult wasn’t the same thing as dangerous. Difficult just meant that one needed to stick to the task until it was accomplished.
In her black dress pants and magenta-colored rayon blouse, Amelia did not project the image of an intrepid hiker. But the glow of positive thinking now enveloped her. She had just emerged that Sunday afternoon from a weekend seminar where she and a dozen other women had learned that attitude created confident, competent women.
On her drive home, she had impulsively veered off the interstate when she saw the parkways sign advertising scenic waterfalls. At the entrance to the state forest, she’d found the parking lot empty as everyone else hurried home to start another week of dronehood. Be spontaneous. Embrace life. She’d learned that this weekend. No need to start fretting until Monday about the inventory list at the carpet store where she worked.
A confident step forward on the trail, then hesitation, as she considered that her mother no doubt had calculated the time her return trip would take and would be expecting a call long before Amelia could finish the hike. Amelia was required to call whenever she traveled so her mother could be assured that her 45-year-old baby had not driven her car into a ravine, where wild animals would dine upon her corpse while unaware motorists whizzed by. Previous protests always resulted in, “At least I could call 911. It’s not like there’s somebody at home waiting for you.”
Exactly. There was nobody at home waiting for her. No child needing help with homework. He was away at school, convinced his life had been ruined by being forced to attend a college in state. No husband expecting a roast prepared almost as proficiently as his mother’s. He was away permanently.
She patted the slash pockets of her dress pants. Car keys in one pocket, cell phone in the other. The phone registered only one bar, but surely that would suffice to summon emergency assistance. As soon as she returned to the interstate and picked up a stronger signal, she’d call her mother and imply that she was nearly home.
Amelia bent to tighten the lacing on the sneakers she’d snatched from her suitcase. She hadn’t walked far up the path, wondering whether disease-infested ticks lurked in the grass and weeds brushing against her, when her calves began to protest. She stopped, extending her arms and resting her hands against the trunk of an ironwood tree and stretched each leg, breathing in and out with awareness, just as she’d learned at the retreat. A bird twittered at her in encouragement.
She’d just been congratulating herself for successfully huffing and puffing her way up the incline when she rounded a bend to find her first obstacle: a stream, with no bridge. Upon further inspection, she discerned that someone had cleverly aligned a few rocks to create a sketchy footpath across the water. Amelia could almost hear her mother: Look how deep that water is! What if you fell and cracked your head? What if—
Amelia stepped onto the first rock. Then the next. And the next. Whoops, she’d almost slipped. But she was safely across. She was a competent, confident woman.
The trail turned treacherous, appearing as nothing more than a rocky washout. She picked her way onward and upward through the stone. Are you crazy? Do you know how easy it would be to twist an ankle? A swarm of spring gnats greeted her with delight. She swatted at them, waving them away from her contact lenses, but they loyally persisted in accompanying her.
She’d begun to sweat, but she had learned this weekend that sweat was nature’s way of detoxifying the body. Perhaps if she walked long and hard enough, she could rid herself of the guilt for the drugstore incident.
Ridiculous to be so worked up over such a small scene. Leaving the retreat, she’d detoured into town to pick up another bottle of saline solution for her contacts. In her haste to park, she’d tapped the bumper of another vehicle. Amelia had jumped out of her car to see what she’d done, but the only damage appeared to be some black streaks on her Toyota from the rubber bumper of a big yellow sports utility vehicle. She saw no evidence of dents on either vehicle, not even a scratch on the SUV’s “Honk if you want to see my finger” bumper sticker.
An old woman sitting in a truck seemed to frown at her. The weight of that frown propelled Amelia to reach inside her car for her purse. Inside, she found a bright pink notepad from the retreat. She scribbled a note with her name and telephone number, and slid the paper under one of the SUV’s windshield wipers.
When she exited the drugstore, she found the SUV still parked. An old man walking out the door behind her climbed into the truck containing the old woman and drove off. Amelia opened the door of her own vehicle, then stopped. She could just hear her mother protesting. Are you crazy? You’re going to leave your name and telephone number? Who knows what kind of damage they might claim? Amelia walked over to the SUV. What if they come after you? You might get attacked. Or worse.
Amelia lifted the note from the windshield, tucking it inside a pants pocket and drove straight to a car wash, where she was gratified to find that most of the smudges could be rinsed away. Macbeth should have been so lucky.
A clamoring sound brought her back to awareness of the moment. As she rounded yet another bend, she found herself caught by the beauty of the cascading falls. Amelia paused to breathe in the heady fresh scent of water pouring in abundance.
Continuing her climb, she congratulated herself on her perseverance until she confronted a rocky chasm. She could see, just above it, the crest of a ridge. From there, she imagined, it would be a short descent to the car. Tentatively, she stepped out onto a large, relatively flat rock that teetered, but held. Then she stepped up onto another rock, solid, but barely wide enough to support both feet. She would have to hop to the bank.
She could not make the jump. She possessed too many pounds and not enough flexibility. But she couldn’t turn back. If she tried to retreat, she knew she’d tumble and crack her head, just as her mother predicted.
Reminding herself that she was a competent, confident woman, Amelia leap-flopped onto the bank. She landed on her leading leg with a force that left her right shin and knee complaining. Taking a deep breath, Amelia attempted to send relaxing messages to her muscles and joints, and resumed walking.
Once again, the trail spiraled upwards and Amelia trudged along, slapping in futility at her halo of gnats. Finally, she gained the ridge – only to look down at a nearly perpendicular descent. She stood immobile, knowing that a misstep could send her sprawling. Then the confident, competent Amelia turned sideways and began inching her way down the trail until the path leveled out at a shadowy bend filled with old brown leaves still smelling of autumn’s decay. She had just exhaled a sigh, releasing the tension from her careful downhill trek, when her right foot plunged through the mass of leaves to wedge itself between two rocks.
Amelia willed herself to remain calm. She bent forward and patted the debris until she found solid ground. She wiggled her foot and carefully lifted it from the crevice. Nothing sprained. She lumbered through the treacherous leaves, testing every step, not feeling quite so confident and competent. She froze at a sudden churning of the leaves, panicking at the idea of a poisonous copperhead or rattler, then smiled as a chipmunk popped its head from a pile of leaves and scampered away.
Finally, she emerged to find herself back in sunshine, on a narrow ledge serving as a path. She began yet another descent, this one not so steep. Had to be the home stretch. She’d made it. She’d conquered a challenge with her new can-do attitude.
You’re not out of the woods yet. The thought had just flashed into her mind when suddenly she found herself tumbling off the trail. Did she trip? Did her tennis shoes slide on pebbles? It didn’t matter. A few seconds ago she was upright, and now she had fallen off the mountain.
She lay face down, feeling the heavy pull of gravity wanting to suck her down into the forest’s abyss. Only her right knee, snagged in a sapling, saved her from sliding straight down the slick-leafed mountain. It did not, however, prevent her cell phone from sliding out of her pocket. Faster than a luge, it sped out of sight.
Impossible to reach back to the sapling for support. No other trees or even roots to give her some leverage. If the sapling gave way, she’d follow the fate of her phone. She lay as helpless as an upended turtle.
The sound of rustling leaves made her turn her head. Just a robin, rooting around for dinner. She might lie here until dark, waiting for the unlikely appearance of another hiker. What else would emerge looking for a meal?
And that was when she saw a snake the color of midnight slithering toward her. Stay calm, she commanded herself. It’s just a black snake. It’s the farmer’s friend. Nonetheless, she did not care for the way it eyed her, as though assessing whether she might be some unusual specimen of edible vermin. Afraid of hurtling into the ravine if she moved too quickly, she feebly plucked a bit of leaf and stone from the ground and tossed it toward the reptile. The snake raised its head, then veered away. Amelia’s eyes locked on a broad oak tree several yards down the slope. If she could slide to the base of the tree, maybe she could turn over and then make her way back up to the trail.
The moment she lifted her knee, though ever so slightly, she began sliding downward. But the strategy worked, though she suffered several cuts on her arms and face from small rocks. Nothing too serious, it seemed, though as rolled over into a kneeling position she noticed through a rip in her sleeve that an old burn scar from childhood now sported a web of scratches.
The incline proved far too steep to allow her to stand, so she tried crawling up to the path. Her first attempt only resulted in skidding further backwards. In desperation, she dug her hands and nails into the bank, clawing her way sideways and upwards.
Somehow, she managed to hoist herself back onto the trail. Adrenalin pushed her to a standing position. She didn’t think anything was broken, but her right leg registered definite distress. Something, maybe a knee ligament, must be torn or sprained. She took a deep breath and began to hobble, ever so carefully, down the path. The gnats rejoined her.
Joy filled Amelia’s heart when she caught sight of her car. She staggered over to it and leaned against it, digging into her pants pockets for her keys. The SUV note was there, but the keys were gone, no doubt resting somewhere in that forest chasm. Sunday evening. The visitor’s center would be closed, but maybe there’d be a pay phone and she thought she remembered the toll-free number of the roadside service her mother had insisted she purchase. She began limping her way to the center.
Sure, said the representative, a locksmith could be dispatched. In about an hour, when he finished with his current call. Amelia spent the next two hours sitting on the steps of the visitor center, contemplating the swelling of her knee, watching the woods turn gloomy in the fading light, wondering about the possibility of bears and berating herself for her stupidity.
A lone gnat sneaked beneath one of her contact lenses. She blinked fiercely, trying to excrete the invader, knowing she dare not touch her eye with her filthy fingers. She checked both pockets, hoping for a tissue. Nothing. Just the note with her name and phone number that she should have left on the SUV. She blinked until she could feel the gnat floating to a corner of her eye socket.
Finally, an old fellow in a truck showed up. When Amelia stood, a fierce pain shot through her knee, and she almost collapsed. Instead, she forced herself to walk over to the truck.
“Sorry to make you wait. Big pileup on the interstate.” He squinted at her from beneath the rim of his Cincinnati Reds cap. “You don’t look so great yourself.”
“My car’s right over there.” Amelia pointed. “Can I ride with you?”
“Sorry, no can do. Liability, you know.” He drove off, leaving Amelia to hobble behind.
He’d already opened the car by the time Amelia reached him. There was something familiar about him, and his truck. He presented her with a paper. “Sign here.” He removed his cap, scratched his head and replaced the hat, slightly askew.
“Can you wait just a minute?” She opened the passenger door and reached inside the glove compartment. No sign of her spare keys.
“I hate to rush you, ma’am, but the missus will be after my hide if I don’t get home.”
“I don’t have any keys. Please, can’t you give me a ride?” She grabbed her purse and extracted a twenty-dollar bill. “Could I give you something extra for your trouble?”
The old man considered. “I don’t reckon I can leave you stranded. Tell you what, we’ll stop at the house, and you can call your husband.” Amelia did not correct him. They did not converse further. The old man had tuned into a gospel station, and Amelia was considering her strategy. If her neighbors were home, maybe they’d come pick her up. She’d retrieve the keys from her house. Maybe they’d even drive her back to her car, though she might have to wait until Monday. There was no way she could tell her anxious mother what had happened.
Locksmithing must be a profitable trade, Amelia judged as the truck stopped in front of a brick ranch home. She clambered out of the truck, barely able to sustain weight on her injured knee. But she followed the old man to the door, which opened to reveal an old woman with a wooden spoon in one hand. She frowned at Amelia, but all she said was, “About time.”
The locksmith led her to the kitchen and pointed to a telephone on the wall before departing to wash up. Amelia wanted to scrub her own hands and attempt to extract the gnat from her burning eye, but first she’d summon a ride. “I’ll use my calling card,” Amelia said, waving her wallet in demonstration to the old woman standing at the stove, stirring something that smelled like it contained authentic fatback. Amelia’s eye started watering again. Out of habit, she reached into her pocket for a tissue, but instead dislodged the pink note, which floated to the floor. She stuffed it back in her pocket and dialed the telephone number.
The neighbors were indeed home and agreeable to a rescue mission, though the husband’s tone sounded rather grudging to Amelia. “Got no family of your own?” the old woman inquired when Amelia hung up the phone.
“One son, away. My mother.” Amelia hesitated. “I need to call her, but I don’t know what I’m going to tell her.”
The old woman turned from the stove, frowning, and in that moment, Amelia recognized her as the witness to her drugstore crime. The crone stared without mercy right at Amelia. “Why don’t you try telling the truth?”
“You don’t understand--” Amelia began, then stopped. She had fallen off a mountain and survived. Why should she be afraid of her mother, a woman who barely topped five feet? Amelia dialed the number, then lowered herself onto a nearby chair.
“Hello, Mom?” The spine of the confident, competent woman sagged as her mother immediately launched into a harangue: Why hadn’t she called before now? Had something happened? Something had happened. Was she hurt? She was hurt. How bad? This was what came of gallivanting off alone.
Amelia let the words flow through her. Absently, she watched the old woman at the stove, remembering how many evenings her own mother had stood at the stove, preparing a hot meal. Amelia also remembered the time she’d wandered into the kitchen to ask if she could play outside until supper was ready. Her mother hadn’t seen her, and in turning with a pot of hot soup in her hands, had collided with Amelia. “Watch where you’re going! Be more careful!” As Amelia registered the pain of the searing liquid and began screaming, the scolding had turned tearful. “What have I done?”
The burns, though bad, had healed in time. But Amelia now realized her mother hadn’t. “Mom,” Amelia said, interrupting her mother’s monologue. Why don’t you try telling the truth? “I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
“You need to wash those cuts,” the old woman said as soon as Amelia had hung up the phone. “And then I reckon you might as well eat with us.” She pulled a pan of cornbread from the oven. “Do you eat brown beans?” The old woman glared at Amelia as though daring her to demur.
Amelia hated brown beans. But she looked straight back at the old woman, blinking back the gnat, and said, truthfully and confidently, “I can eat brown beans.”
Arms Youngblood, 112 Pound Champion
He was skinny, but his bones were made dense by calcium supplements. When he sat, he squeezed heavy-tension handgrips until the springs went loose. This made for big Popeye forearms. Thus the nickname. Outside a circle of serious wrestlers, it is not widely remembered that his real name was Dale Youngblood III, and he was solely responsible for the banishment of the standing hip toss in West Virginia high school wrestling.
He had grand cauliflower ears. He ran stairs and suicide sprints with push ups in between. Physical exercise took up six hours of his day. One story goes that a guy on the team called Arms a “fucking weirdo” after somebody had written the following above the bank of urinals in the third floor bathroom: Arms Youngblood boils his own pee and then he drinks it. Arms hadn’t addressed the rumor, as he never said much on anything. When the guy called him out, he got in return a straight right that stuck his lips to his braces and caused him to run home to his momma, screaming and trailing blood.
By his senior year, Arms’s mother had had enough of this type of thing. He was, she’d decided, a “fucking weirdo,” and his loud, five a.m. training regimen got to her. The regimen involved jump rope and the soundtrack from Rocky, and his mother simply lost her temper one winter morning. “You’re driving me up the god damn walls,” she told him. That, and “You’re getting to be as bad as he was with this stuff.”
He was Dale Youngblood Jr., Arms’s father, who’d also had a nickname. Devil. Devil Dale Youngblood. The only great wrestler West Virginia had ever raised up. He lost precisely one match in four years of high school wrestling. He was an All-American, a three time state champion at 140 pounds. He took a full ride to the University of Washington, on the theory that getting as far from home as was physically possible might prove worthwhile somehow. In his sophomore season, he reached the pinnacle of his existence on this earth. Tied, with four seconds left in the 142 pound championship match at the 1970 NCAA tournament, Dale scored a duck-under takedown against Dan Gable, the greatest folkstyle wrestler to step foot on any mat. It was to be Gable’s only loss, ever.
But Dale never won another championship, despite his six hour daily workout routine. He took to the drink and the drug after college, moved back to West Virginia, got a girl pregnant, and then killed a man with his bare hands outside a bar on a cold January night in 1977. The man had questioned Dale’s strength, had called him “a flash in the pan.” In return, he’d gotten a crushed esophagus, so that he died slow, on his knees, on the uneven street bricks between two parked cars. Dale had watched the man fall then try to get up before falling again, unable to emit a sound through his collapsed pipes, his head no doubt filling with all types of white explosions against the black shutdown of oxygen. Dale lit a cigarette and walked away slow and a little confused. He always said the poor bastard was alive when he left him there, hadn’t yet given up on his futile wind suckings.
Regardless, Devil Dale got life.
Arms didn’t like to be compared to his Daddy, no matter their shared gift for wrestling. So he never said anything to his mother when she compared him to Devil Dale. He kept his mouth shut and his eyes glazed. He worked those handgrips and did his sit ups on an incline and read library books on the history of wrestling. Always, in his head, was a cacophony of voices telling him to go and go some more, and that if he ever quit going, he’d end up in the state pen like old Devil, who was truly touched in the head. Long gone. Broken from what he’d imbibed, along with having killed a man. Devil Dale took no visitors. That went for family too.
Arms was a little touched in the head himself, of course. It was loud in there. He didn’t need headphones. But by the time senior year regionals came, the voices uttered a singular, uniform phrase. They screamed the same words his coach called out when drilling escape from the bottom position: Cat back . . . Pussy! Cat Back . . . Pussy! Over and over, and all day everyday, it was cat back pussy, cat back pussy.
He tried to shake it loose, but it had gotten stuck like certain tunes will. Like “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky.
Arms took a vow of silence two months before the state tournament. He hummed to himself, but it was no tune anybody recognized. At a duel with Parkersburg South, he was up 5 to nothing in the second period when the referee asked him his position of preference. Arms didn’t answer with his customary muted hand signals for neutral or top or bottom. He broke his vow of silence. Pointed at the mat and said, “Par terre.” The referee cleared his throat and said, “Whatnow?”
When he blew the whistle, Arms promptly escaped and went grand amplitude. He dislocated the shoulder of a semi-retarded boy who’d only made weight by garbage-bagging in the school furnace room.
People were wary of Arms after that. And they should have been. Some had noticed the strange words he uttered at the Parkersburg South duel, the only words he’d spoken before re-declaring his vow of silence. An assistant coach even knew that Par Terre was the French phrase for the ground position, but he kept that knowledge to himself.
With vows of silence came more voices. Louder voices. They could only be quieted with the smack and settle of a perfectly executed standing hip toss. But those had been temporarily banned after the slow boy’s shoulder dislocation.
The state tournament came to the Civic Center. People showed in droves. They wanted to see if Arms would use the banned maneuver. Everybody was in love with hip tosses and nacho cheese.
Quarterfinals and semis came and went without much excitement. Early pins, all of them. Then, in the 112 final, Arms found himself again in the down position.
His opponent, a tough, rope-muscled black kid from Woodrow Wilson, didn’t like the way Arms hummed while he wrestled. “Better knock that shit off,” he told Arms as he gripped his left elbow. The whistle sounded. What came next has been disputed.
Nobody will argue that the sound was somehow thunderous. That when Arms threw back his head before escaping, the crack of the other boy’s nosebones exploding was like the outdoor discharge of a small rifle, crisp but echoed on the edges. You can’t tell much from the shaky camcorder footage, but in two seconds time, Arms cat-back-pussied all the way to his feet, reversed, hooked in, and kept his unconscious opponent upright, positioned on his hip. Some say you could see a comet-tail of blood trailing the two of them through the air as the hip toss swiveled into its perfect arc. When Arms landed on his opponent, more blood thumped upwards from his face. The referee didn’t even silent count, didn’t even drop to the mat or poise his hand to slap it. He froze like everyone else in the place, and Arms stood up and walked to the exit.
The Woodrow Wilson boy required a good bit of surgery on his nose, and for the rest of his life, his breathing went funny when it got below thirty degrees outside. His mother and father were distraught at first, malevolent even toward the boy who’d done this to their son. But when Arms came out of hiding to visit the hospital and cried like a child right in front of them, they decided that high school boys sometimes will do such things in a wrestling match, and they simply ignored him until he went away.
The people who remember Arms say he was crazy. But he was sane enough to cross state lines. Southeast Ohio was his locale to unravel. And unravel he did.
Drunk Uncle Windy lived in a trailer in Proctorville and welcomed a houseguest with the energy to do dishes and sweep. Arms turned out to be a natural born imbiber of alcohol and he went at it hard. A little speed and weed were thrown in for good measure. He never graduated high school. Within a year, he could drink Drunk Uncle Windy under the table, and often scared him there with nothing more than the look in his eyes. By nineteen, Arms worked a full time, six hour junkie’s regimen in order that those voices might finally shut the fuck up.
He’d follow Devil Dale on the path to hell, but he’d be damned if he’d serve time at Huttonsville with the man whose curses he’d inherited. Arms went to the big house at Chillicothe instead, for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Inside, he took to preaching. Overcoming internal demons and whatnot through the Lord. An ex-con or two has claimed Arms picked a righteous guitar while he preached. That he hollered in tongues. Tongues indiscernible but laced with catback pussy and par terre and all kinds of grunts and giggles.
They say that Arms went through five or six guitars a year in there. His hands were so strong he squeezed the necks to sawdust.
Bing Butler hunkers over in the breakfast nook scraping butter across burnt toast, black crumbs speckling his plate, his eggs. He jabs his knife into jelly and starts slathering, but his hands are so trembly he drops a grape glob on his lap.
“Son of a bitch,” he mutters, standing to blot at the mess with a napkin, only smearing it deeper into his tan coveralls, his standard uniform for the last 50 years. “Well shoot,” he says, heading to the bedroom to change, practically tripping over the packed and taped boxes scattered like landmines around the living room floor. Before he gets to the hall a fan belt squeals out front. “Already?” he says, squinting at the steering wheel-sized wall clock--a monstrosity, he knows, but at least he can make out the two-inch fat numbers: 6:42. “Newspaper said 8:00!” He opens the front door, running fingers through his hair that he hasn’t yet sculpted into the wavy pompadour he’s been sporting since the 1950s, his only vainglory. Three cars are parked in front of his house. When the occupants see him they rush from their vehicles and scramble for the driveway: ping pong, picnic, and card tables set out the night before and covered with sheets to hide the dishes and jigsaw puzzles and state park ashtrays Bing and his dead wife collected during their 52-year marriage.
“Paper said 8:00!” he hollers, sliding thick glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. The scavengers are too busy lifting sheets to scour vases and checker boards and meat thermometers to heed his rebuff. Bing lopes toward a lug of man who turns to Bing and asks: “Got any tools?”
Bing looks at the man’s meaty hands, the grimy fingernails, healed over nicks. “This way,” Bing says, resigned, walking to the garage door. He bends to open it, but his back is stiff and the door won’t budge under his meager effort.
“Let me,” the man says, hoisting it up easily with one hand.
“Thanks,” Bing mutters to the man’s work boots. He pulls the frayed light string illuminating the workshop he practically lived in after he retired from The Plant. He wonders how many table tops he planed and varnished in here, how many chair legs he turned on that lathe. Impossible to calculate, so he shakes his head at the hobby he was forced to give up after all those cases of welder’s burn finally caught up with his eyes. He looks over at his torch and visor lying at the end of his workbench, folded leather cape pockmarked with burns. Dust-coated chisel, hammer, and brush lined up waiting for him to chip off the slag and make a seam so smooth a blind man could never feel it. Bing feels like he’s the blind man now.
A lady in pink foamy curlers points toward the front door. “Anything inside?”
“Yep,” Bing says. “Everything goes except what’s boxed up or in the master bedroom.” He watches her enter, suspicious, but her change purse is too small to steal anything of consequence, and besides, last night he hauled his valuables next door to Dillard’s for safe keeping: Barbara’s jewelry box; stack of photo albums; Safeway sack full of important documents.
For three hours a steady stream of yard salers parade across his front lawn knocking over the SOLD sign twice. Bing takes their low offers, too embarrassed to haggle over 50 cents for one of Barbara’s purses or a pair of her house slippers. One lady buys a whole box of aprons and dish towels worn thin from years of hand drying and table wiping. She tucks them in her trunk and Bing reckons he should have washed them since they are likely crusted with bread dough or spaghetti sauce or pie filling from the thousands of meals his wife prepared over the years. The woman drives off, heading home to her own kitchen, Bing imagines, to her own suppers to fix, tables to wipe.
“Need a break?” Dillard makes his way over with a coffee mug in each hand, trying not to spill.
“Thanks,” Bing says, gripping a cup. His knuckles ache and he realizes he forgot to take his arthritis medication again. Or his heart pills.
“How’s it goin?” Dillard asks.
“Vultures,” Bing says. “They’re like a bunch of vultures picking at a carcass.”
A man skinny as a golf club bangs out the storm door with Bing’s living room curtains looped over his shoulder. A woman follows with the rods and Bing tries not to think about the day, maybe twenty years ago, that he and Barbara hung those flowery drapes he never really liked. Barbara did, and home furnishing was her department, so he never said a word.
“It’ll thin out soon,” Dillard says, “When the sun gets too hot.”
Bing tugs a kerchief from his hip pocket and wipes the back of his neck. “Pretty hot already. That’s one thing I won’t miss. The heat.”
“I hear West Virginia can get pretty hot, too.”
“Can’t be like Texas heat,” Bing says. “Hard on the ticker.”
“Yep.” Dillard scratches the shirt over the scar from his own open heart surgery.
Two burly women haul out Bing’s sofa. He forgot to check under the cushions.
“When you leavin again?” Dillard asks.
“Monday a week.”
Dillard grunts. “Neighborhood won’t be the same without you.”
“Hasn’t been the same neighborhood for years,” Bing says, nodding across the street at José Córdova just stepping out to scoop his newspaper from the front porch. He waves the paper in greeting and the men hold up their mugs in reply.
“Know what you mean,” Dillard says. He looks at the SOLD sign, the trumpet of grass around the pole that the mower couldn’t get. “The couple that bought the house. They’re not--.”
“No,” Bing says. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Bing remembers when he and Barbara first looked at this house. It was a brand new subdivision with scrawny saplings planted in every yard, spotless concrete driveways. Bing just a year out of the navy, married only 11 months. Barbara two months pregnant and tired of living in her parents’ garage apartment. “It’s a great starter home,” the realtor had said, and they always planned on outgrowing it, having more children than this house had bedrooms.
A young boy darts over with a shoebox full of baseball cards Bing’s son Roger collected. The boy looks back over his shoulder at his mother who urges: “Go on.”
“How much?” he asks.
Bing doesn’t know how much.
“Could be some real gems in there,” Dillard says. “Johnny Bench. Hank Aaron. Cal Ripkin.”
“Could be,” Bing says, but he knows better. Roger stopped collecting long before them. In the sixties, when he was a teen. Before Vietnam. Before--.
“They’re not for sale,” Bing says, wrestling the box from the boy’s grip.
The boy’s lower lip juts out and his eyes water up. He walks back to his mother who gives Bing a sneer before strapping her arm around her son’s shoulder and steering him toward the street.
Dillard looks at the shoe box in Bing’s hands. “Those Roger’s?”
“Yeah.” He watches the mother and son get in their car, fasten their seat belts, start the engine. Bing looks at the cards. “Oh hell,” he mutters. “Wait!” he calls, shuffling over. The boy rolls down the window and Bing shoves the box inside. He waves off any payment and the boy smiles, both front teeth missing.
“That was nice,” Dillard says, after the mother and son drive off.
“No time to get sentimental. Whatever I don’t get rid of I have to move.”
Two women fight over a wooden salad bowl set. The mustachioed one wins and presses three quarters into Bing’s palm.
“I can’t believe Susie finally got you to move up there with them,” Dillard says.
Bing nudges a lump of crab grass with his boot. “I know. She’s been after me for two solid years.” A teenage boy hands Bing a twenty for the lawn mower. He wants the gas can and weed whacker thrown in free. Bing agrees and watches him push the mower toward his truck, lift it in one smooth arc onto the truck bed.
“I just can’t keep the place up anymore.” Bing looks back at his one story rancher, the sagging porch roof, leaf-filled gutters, overgrown azaleas. This is a mighty confession and he can’t look at Dillard, who is friend enough to look away while Bing speaks.
“I imagine your house looks a sight better than what you’ll see up in West Virginia. They even got plumbing up there?”
Bing laughs. He has been trading these hillbilly barbs with Dillard over the back fence, or at The Plant, ever since Susie announced she would be marrying that West Virginia boy she met at UT–Austin. The boy she started bringing home for Thanksgiving though all they did was bicker over everything from Dick Cavett to George Wallace. Their voices rumbled so loud one night Bing wanted to send Glen packing so Bing could eat his turkey leg in peace. But Barbara said: “You leave them be. She’s finally met a man who can hold his own.” Bing agreed, but that didn’t change Glen’s ancestry, and in the twenty-five years since his daughter married and became a hyphenated, Butler-Babcock gal, Bing and Dillard have used up all the good ones about pig toting, barefoot, gap-toothed, in-bred, holler-dwellers.
“He a coal miner?” Dillard asks.
Bing chuckles until he realizes it is an earnest question. Often the first question people ask when they hear where Susie’s husband is from. Dillard’s memory is failing.
“No,” Bing says. “He and Susie teach at the university up there. Marshall, you know, where Randy Moss came from.”
“Randy Moss. Helluva football player.”
“Yep,” Bing says. “That’s a fact.”
Dillard pours the last of his tepid coffee into the grass. “They got Blacks up there too, eh?”
“Huh,” Dillard says. He juts his chin toward José Córdova’s house. “Least you won’t have to contend with them.”
“Amen to that.”
Bing starts counting the number of houses on his street where white people still live. Used to be all of them until 1967 when the Bradfords moved in, a colored family just stubborn enough to ignore the cold shoulders and veiled threats. Course no one would really harm them, Bing felt sure, but a few late night phone calls to shake them up was all right. And they had a passel of children, of course, with their big Afros and slouchy walks, which was bad enough, but even worse when his Susie started hanging out over there. Going right inside that colored house like it was a regular thing to do, and didn’t that make Bing want to lock her in a hole somewhere, and himself while he was at it out of shame.
In the late seventies all the Mexicans started moving in. By then there were four colored families and they were none to happy about the wetbacks taking over. Made their own obscene phone calls, or so rumor had it, but it didn’t work for them any better than it had for Dillard and Bing a decade earlier. Now, well, the place was gone to hell. Property values so low Bing and Barbara couldn’t get nearly enough out of the old place to move into a new one. And really, Barbara said, she wouldn’t feel right living any place else. This was her home, she said, after all.
“You think West Virginia’s ready for the likes a you?” Dillard says.
“They better be. I’ll have to teach em a thing or two about big city living.”
“Hell,” Dillard says, “you could probably run for office. Mayor Butler. I’d vote for you--twice.”
Dillard’s wife Tootie traipses over with a plate of turkey bologna sandwiches.
“Mighty kind,” Bing says. “I’ve got something for you, too.” He shuffles to the front door and leans in to scoop up the egg basket just inside the hall closet.
“Barbara would want you to have all this,” he says, handing over an assortment of Texas memorabilia that collected dust on a separate shelf in the china cabinet: plates with scenes from South Padre Island, the Hill Country, big thicket; a six inch limestone replica of the San Jacinto monument; sand dollars from Galveston with beach scenes painted on top.
“Don’t you want to take all this up to Susie’s?” Tootie says. “Something to remember us by?”
“Naw,” Bing says, taking a bite of sandwich and shoving it to one side of his mouth. “I’m sure she’s got her china cabinet filled with all kinds of West Virginia doodads.”
Dillard snorts. “Imagine what kind of junk that is.”
“Almost afraid to,” Bing says.
“Outhouse penny banks,” Dillard says. “Flip the handle and the penny shoots into the crapper.”
“Rolls of toilet paper made out of the Sears catalogue,” Bing says, “so they can read while they’re at it.”
“Except none of em can read.”
“Now you all quit,” Tootie says. “I’m sure they’re fine people up there same as here. Susie wouldn’t have married in if they weren’t.”
“That’s a fact,” Bing says, feeling scolded.
“Little turd paperweights made out of coal,” Dillard says.
Bing laughs so hard he nearly chokes on a lettuce leaf.
Tootie shakes her head. “I swear,” she says. “You two.”
That night, after Goodwill drives off with all the junk nobody would buy, Bing walks through his house which feels so naked now. Every carpet stain, every plaster crack exposed, every nick in the kitchen linoleum from Roger’s football cleats and Susie’s aerial darts, though he told her a million times not to play with them in the house. There’s the black splotch on the ceiling in Susie’s bedroom from where she burnt incense night after night, smoke wafting up, the sweet strawberry smell that finally made Bing so nauseous he barged in one night and threw a glass of water on it, drenching all the incense cones lined up waiting for their turn to burn. He imagines the new couple will paint all these walls, every room, and rip up the shag carpet while they’re at it.
And isn’t that what he’s doing? Starting fresh? A new life with his daughter, the last place he ever figured he’d end up. But what else can he do? He can’t see anymore, for God’s sake, not without his coke-bottle glasses that he regularly misplaces. He hasn’t told Susie that. She’d never let him make this trip all by himself, and his gut tells him he has to do this one last thing before surrendering himself to old age.
For supper, Bing settles in bed with a glass of milk and a pack of Oreos. He’ll eat the entire package if he wants, never mind the crumbs--sorry, Barbara--and he does make it through a whole row before falling asleep, chocolate spittle covering his teeth, his chin, and by morning, his pillowcase, too.
The day before he leaves, Bing slides into a booth at Rosie’s where he’s eaten five nights a week since Barbara died--cholesterol be damned. He orders red beans and rice, Frito pie, and chicken fried steak.
Janey, his favorite waitress, says: “Now where in the world are you gonna put all that?”
“I’ll make room,” Bing says, patting his belly. “No tellin what all they’ll feed me up there.”
“I hear the food’s real good,” Janey says. “Pinto beans and cornbread. Buttermilk biscuits and redeye gravy.”
“Maybe,” Bing says, doubtful. Bing watches Janey sashay to the kitchen, backside swaying from side to side. That’s another thing he’ll miss.
He pulls out his roadmap and starts tracing his route, using salt shakers and sugar packets to highlight attractions where he might stop. The restaurant gradually fills with regulars. He counts four tables of Mexicans, rowdy dark men and their cackling wives and crabby babies. The men order for their families in chopped-up English and Bing doubts there’s a green card among them. Janey is just as polite as always. Course she has to be, Bing figures, if she wants a decent tip. He has noticed that Mexicans are generally good tippers.
Bing’s food arrives and he savors every fork full, working a blend of whipped potatoes and chili beans and corn chips around his tongue, all to the accompaniment of those Mexican families laughing and whooping and yumming it up. Bing would never admit this out loud, but he’s grown so used to the din: toddlers wailing, mothers scolding, the melodic chatter of Spanish and English, that it has become difficult for him to enjoy a meal in his own kitchen by himself. Too quiet. But he doesn’t expect that to be a problem at Susie’s. That was #3 on his list when he tallied up all the reasons he should pack 77 years worth of Texas living and move up there with all those Yankees: No more quiet dinners.
At 6:23am Bing clears the odometer before starting the 2100 mile trip to Huntington. He wants to see how close AAA is to actual mileage. He lays the trip-tik on the seat beside him, packs his lip with his morning Skoal, and settles an empty Coke can between his legs for his spit. “So long,” he says, throat achy.
It’s difficult backing out of the driveway with the U-Haul trailer hitched to his Olds. He wishes Dillard could see how expertly he’s handling the turn. Doesn’t even scrape the fire hydrant, a regular mishap these last few years that’s kept his glove box full of rubbing compound and spray paint.
Dillard’s windows are dark. Bing clicks his tongue and drives four blocks out of his way to pass Shorty’s, his favorite watering hole. No more tossing back a Lone Star on Friday and Saturday afternoons with Dillard and the boys, no more good natured dart games. Bing’s eyes blur with wetness and he blinks fast to clear them, something he’s had to do more and more since Barbara died.
I-10 East is already crowded. The U-Haul drags Bing down, cars whizzing by, but he’s in no hurry as he snakes through the city. He admires Houston’s skyline, concrete and glass and brick. Towers reaching up into the sky. All that money during the oil boom. Then the bust. Now Enron. And the general fear of attack since 9/11 though that’s been over a year ago. Thirteen months, to be exact. All those oil refineries so close makes people fidgety, it seems. Bing included, and he imagines West Virginia might be a safe bet, nothing much to target up there. He feels like a coward abandoning his home state when the going gets tough.
When the urban sprawl thins, Bing drives over a bayou and spots a gang of boys crossing the bridge. Skipping school, probably, to look for turtles and fishing bait. One of them has a crabbing net slung over his shoulder, reminding Bing of the weekend Barbara coaxed him into going crabbing in Galveston with Roger’s Cub Scout troop. “You need to spend time with your son,” she had said, the words echoing so loud in Bing’s ears he loaded the Dodge Meadowbrook with four squirmy, carsick boys--chubby Roger the greenest of all--and caravanned down with all those gung ho fathers who knew nothing about crabbing.
Bing did, and the gaggle of scouts gathered around him on the back bay dunes, sea wind whipping their hair, crusting their eyes and ears with sand. “Grab you a chicken neck,” Bing instructed, “and tie a long piece of string around it.”
The boys tried not to grimace as they reached in the ice chest for chilled pieces of poultry, hands slippery with fat, making the knot tying difficult. The scout master and fathers did most of the tying, but not for Roger, Bing insisted, because he wanted his son to tie his own knot.
By the time Roger secured it all the good crabbing spots were taken. Bing steered him to a quiet place where he could plop his bait in the brackish water and wait for the first tug. And when it happened, Roger got so excited he tried to whip the crab out and flop him into the sand, but as soon as the crab hit air it unclenched its claws and plopped back into the water.
“You have to scoop him out with this,” Bing said, handing over the net.
It was rough going at first, Roger trying to coordinate the chicken neck and the net that was as tall as he was. He dropped it time and again, crabs scattering, until he found the delicate balance, the net’s sweet spot, so that he could tug his string with one hand, hold the net at the ready with the other. Finally, after an hour of hard work, he got a firm nibble.
“Take your time,” Bing said.
Bing’s scrutiny made the boy’s hands shake, the net wobble in his grip. His lips parted and a thin admission slipped out: “I can’t.”
Bing crouched down and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “You’re doing fine,” he whispered. “You can do it.”
Roger pulled in a big lungful of air that stilled his hands as he patiently tugged the crab closer and closer, dipped the lip of the net in the water, slowly slipped it under the crab and scooped him up.
“That’s a doozey!” Bing said, squeezing his son’s shoulder, big grin slicing Roger’s face.
When they finally joined up with the other boys showing off their piddly five and six inch hard-shell trophies, neither Bing nor Roger felt inclined to brag about their whopper that measured in at over eight inches. They didn’t want to suffer the attention, and besides, Bing was teaching Roger another lesson about the potent value of secrets.
Hours later a white sign looms in Bing’s windshield, growing larger and larger as he rumbles toward it and can finally read the scripted letters: WELCOME TO LOUISIANA. Bing’s chest thunks so hard he jams on the brakes and veers off on the berm, contents of the U-Haul dangerously shifting, rear bumper still eleven inches in traffic. Bing gets out and leans over, gripping his knees as he takes deep breaths, suddenly remembering his cardiologist’s warning to pull over every few hours to move around, keep his blood circulating. When he straightens he looks up at the billboard, the Mardi Gras masks smiling down at him.
Bing doesn’t feel like smiling, so he turns around and looks west at the black ribbon of asphalt he just traveled. To the soil he loved so long and so well. Only time he left was during the war and he wrote letters home daily while he floated around the Pacific, anxious for the return envelopes he received from his mother, from Barbara, but mostly he treasured the Texas post mark. “Shit,” Bing says, wiping his eyes, his stupid eyes that will not stop watering, so he gets in the car and doesn’t bother to look as he squeals back onto the road, gravel spraying off his back tires, horn from a passing big rig wailing displeasure.
Bing pretends to enjoy the new sights. “This is an adventure!” he reminds himself. Crossing the Port Arthur bridge gets his vertigo going, so high above the water, cars so close he expects their side mirrors to touch. He drives by Lake Pontchartrain and wishes Barbara could see it. She always ordered trout Pontchartrain from that Cajun restaurant with the name that sounded like a sneeze. Remembering his wife calms him and he pretends she’s sitting beside him, pouring coffee from the silver thermos, stirring half a Sweet‘N Low into hers. Settling a quartered ham salad sandwich between them, reading aloud from Reader’s Digest “Humor in Uniform” or “Increase Your Word Power” to help pass the travel time.
Even the memory works, and soon Bing pulls into the pitted parking lot of the Motel 6 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, his destination for the day. Dairy Queen is next door and Bing looks forward to sliding into a booth with his chili dog and perusing the Battle of Vicksburg pamphlet he picked up in the motel lobby. He pushes through the heavy door, happily inhaling the aroma of Freon and frying meat, until he sees that every counter person, cook, customer is Black. Nappy heads swivel in his direction as he enters and stops short, keys flying out of his hand and clanging against the tile floor. Holy shit, he thinks, eyes nervously sweeping the room. Eating in a room full of Mexicans is one thing, but this, well, holy shit. He bends to scoop up his keys. While he’s down there he tries to word an excuse to back out the door: Left my lights on; forgot my billfold, except that it’s conspicuously bulging from his breast pocket.
When he stands, Lavonda, the counter girl, urges him forward with a smile, teeth whiter than his daily Bayer. “May I take your order?” she asks. Bing stands there, mute. Lavonda juts her face forward. “Help you?” she says louder as Bing’s eyes bounce around the neon menu above her head, having completely forgotten what he wanted. “I, uh, want,” Bing says. The cook in the back looks at him, spatula teetering in his hand as he waits to hear what kind of meat to slap onto the grill. Probably working up a big gob of spit to hawk into my food, Bing thinks. Eat this, whitey.
“Are you here for ice cream?” Lavonda nods, encouraging, and he echoes the motion even as he knows that’s not what he wanted at all. “Cone or a sundae?” Lavonda says, head still wagging.
“Sundae,” he says, because he has to say something.
Lavonda opens her mouth, probably to offer choices of butterscotch or chocolate; wet nuts or dry. She must think better of it because she slams her mouth shut and rings up a hot fudge sundae, fingers clicking the register keys, drawing Bing’s attention to her inch-long nails, perfect ocean sunsets painted on each one.
Bing pays and leaves, chest heaving as he crosses the parking lot, unlocks his motel room door, and lunges into the darkness. He sits on his bed looking at the ice cream in his hands. He picks off the cherry, sets it on the Gideon Bible, and eats scoop after scoop of the whipped cream and soft serve he never really liked. But their chili dogs. “Damn,” he says, remembering. “Damn,” he says again, scraping the last of the chocolate sauce and nuts from the Styrofoam cup.
In the morning, Bing pulls the Olds into the Dairy Queen drive-thru and orders a chili dog on principle. He drives even slower than the day before. Cars pass him, honking, drivers shaking their heads. Bing doesn’t care. This may be his last bit of peace. Soon he’ll be squeezed into Susie’s guest bedroom, or maybe a fold-out couch. Her wild kids, Reenie and Brian, playing their loud music at all hours. Back-talking him the way teenagers do. But he has no choice, really, and it isn’t easy for him to admit his limitations to himself. The danger he presents. He hasn’t told anyone about setting a fire on the stove not once, but twice. About leaving his car engine running in the garage. He prefers to let Susie think he is doing this for her, that he finally gave in to her pleading: “Do it for me, Dad. I promised Mom I’d look after you.”
Bing wonders how his wife finagled that deal. Bing and Susie aren’t close. A distance that only widened when she turned 15 and started reading all that women’s libber crap. Stopped wearing a bra--which embarrassed Bing to no end whenever she bounced into a room blathering on about Gloria Steinem and suddenly everything about Bing was wrong-wrong-wrong.
This dismal thinking slows him even more, and that night he stops in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He calls Susie to tell her he’ll be a day late.
A staticky pause. “That’s okay, Dad. Just drive safely. Please.”
By the next morning he’s back on the road, up to full speed to make up for lost time. Not twenty minutes later he sees the sign for Mammoth Cave. “I’ll be jiggered,” he says, marveling that he overlooked this portentous highlight during his trip preparations. It’s an omen he cannot refuse. He exits and follows the National Park signs, recalling the night two weeks before Barbara died when she was back in the hospital for good. He pulled the visitor’s chair up beside her and held her hand as they watched a documentary on Mammoth Cave. Enthralled, Barbara said: “Next summer, I want to go there.”
“Sure thing,” Bing said.
“And while we’re at it we’ll visit our Susie,” Barbara said, tears streaming, knowing full well there would be no next summer.
“Whatever you want,” Bing said, nodding. He’s nodding even now, in the car, by himself, feeling Barbara’s presence so thickly he can smell her Ponds Lotion.
Bing settles into the line of cars and campers heading in. “I told you I’d bring you here.”
He swings into a NO PARKING zone at the end of a row and worries about leaving the U-Haul unattended. He checks the padlock and follows the blond man and woman who parked beside him, their four wheat-haired children. They’re going to buy tickets, at least that’s what Bing hopes since the park signs are so small he can barely make out their instructions. Mom-dad-kids tack themselves onto a line. Bing falls in behind them. He ignores the jostling and toe smashing from the fair-haired brood, all beginning to complain about hunger pangs and bladder issues. Mom pulls a baggy full of Chex Mix from her purse. “You just went,” she says about their second dilemma, her words tinged with some foreign accent. Bing feels a twinge in his groin at the mention of bladder, but the people are already twenty deep behind him and he doesn’t dare detach himself from the Swedes--he has decided they are Scandinavians. They are his north star to find his way back to the Olds.
Inching forward, a weird wave washes over Bing as he remembers waiting in line after line with Barbara, in car, on foot, as they traveled around Texas: Big Bend, Enchanted Rock. She even coaxed him to tube down the Comal River with water so blue he felt certain they must add dye. He can feel her beside him now, her forearm against his to steady whatever reading material she picked up to enlighten their visit. Her presence so palpable he forgets to listen to what cave the Swedes are touring. When it’s Bing’s turn he says to the ticket lady: “Same as them.”
“How many tickets would you like?”
“What’s that?” Bing asks, trying to unscramble the Kentucky phonetics that sounded something like: Hayow minny tikits wud ya lak?
“Two,” Bing says, the number engrained, and he doesn’t even blink as he swaps his money for two red stubs.
“Tour starts in five minutes right over there,” the ticket lady says, pointing.
Bing makes his way toward a cluster of bodies, looking for yellow heads, wondering if he has time to go to the bathroom. But a ranger wearing a Yogi Bear hat waves his arms to gather the group in, randomly passing out flashlights, directing their steps. Bing can’t find the Swedes and decides he is on the wrong tour, but he’s carried along by the mob’s inertia as they march to the cave entrance. He tries to relax, breathe deeply, enjoy this experience if not for himself, for Barbara. After all, how hard can it be to find an orange U-Haul with a purple albatross painted on its side?
He trots down a dozen or more steps toward the mouth of the cave. It does look like a mouth, ominous, gaping. Someone shouts: “Maybe we’ll find Bin Laden!” a joke that sinks like an anchor, the wound still too fresh, so the group pushes ahead in silence.
As they near the entrance the temperature drops and a chill wind rushes over them. Bing’s forearms pimple and he pictures his jacket on the back seat of the Olds with his ball cap and umbrella. He wants to rub his arms to warm them, but the teenage boy behind him does that and his girlfriend calls him a pussy, making Bing’s face redden.
The park ranger delivers a history of Mammoth Cave--at least that’s what Bing guesses since he can’t hear much from his stance at the back of the group. The guide is a mumbler and that teenage couple makes fun, calling him Ranger Numb Wad and latching onto words such as guano and saltpeter and stalactits. Finally they enter the cave and sunlight disappears as they move forward, rock walls narrowing as they become flashlight reliant. Bing’s nose is cold and he feels the damp chill in his bones, hears the drip-drip of water, feels the sympathetic twinge in his kidneys. Ranger flashes his light on prominent features formed by thousands of years of water, one drop at a time, building columns and straws. Underground channels splitting off, walls smooth and glistening. The slender septum of earth separating two paths, looking so much like the laparoscopy Bing watched on The Discovery Channel, trachea branching off into the bronchial tree.
A tickle on his lip and Bing realizes his nose is running, drip-drip. He feels for his handkerchief but it’s not in his pocket. He drags his forearm across his lip but a new bead forms, so he tilts his head back and sees Ranger’s spotlight on a crevice where four brown blobs dangle. “Bats,” Ranger says. A squeal erupts from the group. “If they start flying, just duck.”
“And now let’s see what real dark looks like,” Ranger says, instructing all flashlight holders to turn off their lights--Now!
Sudden, complete, absolute blackness. A dark so penetrating Bing opens his eyelids wider and wider, waiting for his pupils to adjust, but there’s nothing to adjust to, nothing to see. No hint of edges or shoulders or heads. And the impeccable quiet until Bing’s ears pick up the ever-present drip-drip. Bing imagines water pooling in a concave depression in the rock, or his bladder, one drop after another, stretching the thin skin taut.
The teenage boy lets out a ghostly “Oooooooo” and the group chuckles, needing that relief from the immobilizing blackness.
When the lights are back on Bing inhales deeply and feels his belly tighten against the waistband of his coveralls. He has to pee--now. He tries to squeeze down the urge even as a few warm drops seep. Damn incontinence. His body’s lingering protest to prostate surgery, an utterly shameful betrayal. The group moves forward around a craggy bend and Bing pretends absorption in a guano splat so the teenagers will pass him, which they do. Bing is embarrassed, but as soon as he’s alone, light and chatter fading, he wedges himself behind a stalagmite and unzips his fly. Keep watch! he thinks, his standing orders to Barbara whenever he had to perform this very private act in public places. How she tricked him--once. Yelled: Look out! so loud he sprayed a golden arc of urine on a weather worn statue of LBJ in some remote rose garden. Bing was furious, but Barbara couldn’t stop cackling at the former president’s sopping shoulder. “If Susie were here she’d kiss you on both cheeks,” Barbara said, recalling the heated political debates between father and daughter during those fiery Vietnam years.
Bing strains to empty his bladder, pushing harder and harder, eyes latched onto the hint of light in the distance, fainter and fainter as the group recedes, Bing once again thrust into blackness.
“Shit!” Bing says, tucking himself back into his coveralls though he isn’t quite through, zipping his fly with dribbled-on fingers, banging his knee against the stalagmite as he bumbles forward, hopefully forward, both hands against the damp curving walls as he inches along. The word Help! forms in his brain, on his tongue, but he can’t spit it out as he imagines those teenagers’ rude epitaphs. Besides, if he keeps moving, he’ll catch up. How far could they have gotten?
A whoosh of cold air and Bing follows it, deciding this must lead to an exit, even as he feels his body descending, feet slanting downward, toes gripping the soles of his boots. Bing scuttles forward, one hand on each side of the tunnel for balance, until suddenly the walls disappear and Bing crumples forward, banging his knees, palms in the sand. Bing stands with a grunt which echoes off distant walls. He claps his hands free of sand, the sharp smack of skin on skin. He stands and hears running water, an underground stream. Bing is drawn toward it, arms out for balance as he slides one foot forward, then another, and another until he feels frigid water seeping into his right boot. He withdraws it, shaking it against the wetness saturating his sock.
He tries to back up, find the tunnel he just came from and worm his way to the entrance. Arms straight out in front, feeling blindly, he hits wall and works his way along until he feels an opening, a glorious opening and he ducks in. The ceiling seems lower, walls narrower, but this has to be it. Has to be and Bing propels himself forward, outracing the scary thought, the probability that he is in the wrong shaft. “Shit!” Bing says, heart quavering. “Help!” he calls, words blunted by the close ceiling that drops lower and lower until Bing bangs his head against something that breaks loose and crunches beneath his feet. Bing puts his hands on his knees, trying to decide what to do. “Go back,” he says, awkwardly turning around in the cramped space to head back to the stream. He drags his knuckles along the cold walls, trying to remember how many steps he took, how many minutes. He can’t remember so he keeps walking, and walking, banging his knees, his head, his shoulders, and he knows it’s taking much longer to get out than it did to get in. Somehow, he must have veered down another opening, is in yet another shaft leading to who-knows-where. The uncertainty makes him run, as much as he is able to run with his bad knees and the geologic booby-traps he continually bangs-bumps-scrapes against. His lungs labor and he pictures his own trachea, his own glistening pink septum quivering against chilled oxygen. People probably get lost in these caves all the time, he figures. Dozens of them. Hundreds. They must have emergency plans. Do head counts of tours. Surely his mumbling ranger will notice they have one less body. He’ll send a search party with flashlights and flares and blankets. Or at the end of the day someone will notice the lone U-Haul in the parking lot. They probably have to deal with this all the time, Bing prays.
Suddenly he bursts out into an expanse of room, listens for the gurgling water but does not hear it. Still, he is no longer in that cramped space and he inhales thin air until his heart steadies, pulse settles. He takes a step forward, foot landing in a depression and his legs crumble as he folds to the damp earth going face-first into the dirt. Stunned, he lies there, listening, hearing only his own wheezing breath, the rustling of tan coveralls as he rolls off a sharp something and lies flat on his back, arms beside him, legs stretched out. His body settles into the moist earth and he feels the chill from his heel to his scalp.
“Barbara,” he moans. “Barbara!”
A horrible image in his brain and he pictures Barbara in that bronze coffin. Her placid face, skin waxy, the wrong lipstick, hair too pouffy. He imagines her in that box in the cold earth right now. How dark it must be. Just like here. He sees her silhouette in the box, her eyes fluttering, pulling against whatever glue they use to keep them closed. The embalmer’s fingertips squirting or swabbing or dabbing it onto her hazel eyes, eyes that he loved to peer into when she wasn’t looking, only when she wasn’t looking. Barbara. He pictures a road map with two red Xs, one on the spot in Texas, one in Kentucky, marking the earth where they both lie, peaceful. And it does feel peaceful. He could fall asleep right now, right here, and maybe never wake up. Never, ever have to move into a house where he suspects he is not really wanted. Forfeit the humiliating end that surely awaits him, in a hospital room with tubes and beeping machines, and an empty visitor’s chair beside him because there is no Barbara to wait patiently and hold his hand and watch a PBS special about caves where old people go to die.
Minutes, hours, days later Bing feels something warm on his face. He opens his eyes and the light insults him so he seals them fast and feels his shoulder being jostled. “Old man. You all right? Hey old man!” He opens his eyes to the sun, but it isn’t the sun, it’s a flashlight, and behind it a silhouette, no, two of them, tilted over him, jabbing their mean fingers into his shoulders, his side, until Bing says: “Stop it!”
“Shit!” one of them says. “We thought you were dead.”
Aren’t I? Bing thinks, chest sinking. Aren’t I?
("Caving,” the first chapter of Shrapnel, first appeared in the fall 2004 issue of GSU Review. )
Becca watched the lightning bug struggle up the stray blade of grass her son Sam had placed in the empty Miracle Whip jar, the blue lid tightly turned, nearly oxygen-free. As the bug attempted to escape, its light flickered sporadically. She felt its suffocation, but knew the bug, unlike her, would not survive the night.
Sam had darted this way and that, his canvas shoes squeaking from the dew-dampened grass as he ran in the twilight, trying so hard to catch just one. Finally, his tiny hands captured the unsuspecting insect and he placed it in the jar “so it wouldn’t get away.”
He had been so excited she thought he’d never settle down enough to fall asleep. After a warm bath, a few soda crackers washed down with milk, and many readings of Goodnight Moon, he finally drifted off, his breathing steady yet quiet: a true mother’s moment. She stayed at his side a few minutes longer, just to make sure he was really asleep, before creeping back down to the kitchen.
Becca picked up the jar and tiptoed outside, quietly shutting the screen door behind her so as not to wake her husband, Mike. She knew he was mentally and physically exhausted, each day a balancing act since his mother’s stroke.
Becca put the jar on the banister and settled herself on the porch swing. The night air was warm; the moon shone brightly among glittering stars, casting shadows across the fields. Crickets chirped, and the cry of an owl somewhere in the distance interrupted her silence. The presence of nature always comforted her, helped her to sort out her thoughts and keep her priorities straight.
Priorities. Responsibilities. Not just words anymore, but the way she was forced to live her life.
Her thoughts drifted to earlier in the day when Mike’s sister, Jeannine, had suggested a nursing home for Donna, Becca’s mother-in-law. Mike had turned away and focused his attention out the hospital window on some faraway place while Jeannine explained the expenses involved and the care each home offered. Jeannine made excuses as to why she couldn’t possibly take their mother home with her. Why would Jeannine turn her back on her own mother?
On the way home from the hospital that evening Mike had been unusually quiet.
“Mike, please talk to me,” she’d said.
“I don’t want Mom in a nursing home,” he answered.
“What do you want?”
“I’ve been thinking. We could fix up the room next to Sam’s,” he said.
“You mean have your mom move in with us? But who would take care of her? We’re both at work all day.”
“I don’t know. Maybe hire someone to come during the day. The doctor said it was a slight stroke. She’ll improve.”
She sat silently, letting his words settle in.
“It’s just an idea,” he said.
He’d do the same for her, she knew. But how could she say “Yes” and mean it? She cared a great deal for Donna. They had never spoken a cross or unkind word to one another. It had been Donna who sent dinner to their house every night for a week when Becca had Sam. She was the one they called when they needed a sitter. Why couldn’t they share their home with her?
Becca didn’t know if she could. This was her house, her husband, her son, and her decision. She would no longer be the only Mrs. Connor in the house, the only woman. Would Donna overshadow her? Make her feel invisible, unneeded, eventually unwanted and unloved? Would Sam still run to her to kiss a scraped knee, Mike to share his thoughts? Yet, she also knew she could never, would never forgive herself if she said, “No.”
Heat lightning flickered across the sky. Becca looked in its direction, and as she did she noticed a family of rabbits not far from the porch. The mother munched on grass, keeping an eye on her babies: nature taking care of nature. Becca’s gaze shifted to the banister, where the lightning bug was crawling around the perimeter of the jar.
She tiptoed back into the house and got the ice pick from the kitchen drawer. As quietly as possible, she went back outside and punched holes in the jar lid, a little of her frustration unleashed with each forceful jab. The movement startled the bug; it began again the steep climb up the blade of grass.
The brush of soft fur around her ankles brought Becca back to the moment. She looked down to see Kittycat weaving through her legs. Barely a light flickered from the jar, but enough to catch the cat’s attention. Before she could shoo the cat away, it knocked over the jar with one quick sweep of a paw. Then, frightened by the shattering glass, Kittycat disappeared under the porch. Becca watched the bug fly away from its shattered prison, a weak light in the darkness.
Quickly, she cleaned up the pieces of glass as well as possible with only the moonlight to guide her. She tiptoed back inside and paused at the bedroom, where Mike was sound asleep. The scent of Old Spice that lingered in the air and the sound of his light snoring were comforting. She settled into bed beside him and soon fell asleep.
Becca woke up without the weight of indecision she’d felt the previous day. Yet she was still trapped—by family, values, and a sense for doing what she knew was right.
She reached over to wake Mike, but his side of the bed was empty, the covers thrown back. She slipped on her robe and slippers and went looking for him. He was on the back porch, his arm around Sam’s shoulder, the blue lid in his hand. Becca winced at the sight, silently scolding herself for not thinking to throw the lid away when she cleaned up. Sam’s head slumped forward onto his chest, and Becca saw him swipe tears from his face. Unable to hear what Mike was saying, she stood silently, waiting. He tousled Sam’s hair and raised his hand to meet Sam’s in a high-five slap. She could see the beginning of a smile cross her son’s face. It widened when he looked up and saw her in the doorway.
“Guess what, Mom. The bug is gone. Dad said his mommy must’ve come and rescued him,” Sam explained.
“Your dad’s pretty smart.” Her eyes met Mike’s.
“Coffee ready?” Mike asked.
“Yeah. How about some pancakes and bacon to go with it?”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Just thought you’d like a good breakfast before you get started on that room,” she said.
“What room?” Sam asked.
“Your Grandma Donna’s,” Becca answered.
Hill Run, Covel, West Virginia by Kevin Scanlon