My Thundercloud

She didn’t bring in no wood this afternoon, but I don’t give a shit.  Most days, she don’t do nothing I ask, so today ain’t no different. But it got warm all of the sudden, after that little rain shower, and almost humid like summer.  Here in October. So there ain’t no need for stoking the fire and I guess that means she gets a pass, like most always.

Funny how Carrie always skates on this side of luck.  It’s always been that way.  When we were young, when her Daddy was beating up everything he weren’t feeling up, her Ma got in trouble with the law and she went to live in Indianapolis or some such shit with her grumma.  She was away all them years that man was terrorizing the rest of us.  The girls got tits and the boys got whiskers and the one made that nasty son of a bitch get a hard on and the other made him itch to fight.  The meanest bastard ever tore hisself out of a woman.

Then the year she come back to live on the block, he got sent to prison for something or other.  It wasn’t for putting it to the girls and it weren’t for beating up boys under age.  Probably selling pot.  So she comes back and gets to move in with Aunt Sally and it’s just the two of them.  Aunt Sally just works and sleeps, like she’s always done.  She never paid her brother no mind.  If she weren’t holding down the counter at the video store, she was taking NyQuil and passing out in front of the TV.  She loved herself some Golden Girls.

With Junior out of the picture, Aunt Sally was glad enough to have another body around that nasty place. They had fly ribbons all year round, thick as lumps of raisins hanging by the door.  Well, it’s gone now, torn down cause of black mold.

Queen bee got the royal welcome.  A new set of sheets and a trip to the mall for some new clothes.  Carrie primped in front of the mirror, tossed all that black hair of hers around like a princess in a cartoon movie.  Aunt Sally came in and was like, they forgot to charge us for your jeans.  More luck.

She’s lucky about timing and weather and people falling out of harm’s way before they get to her.  She makes me think of them old cartoons where somebody bends over to tie their shoe right before a piano would’ve landed on them.  So it ain’t no shock it got warm today when I said to bring in more wood.

I never had no such luck.  If I let someone cross the road on the way to work, the light turns red on me and then there’s a train coming after that and I got to idle at the track, worrying about what the foreman’ll say.  If I give some dummy my last smoke at the end of my shift, the store is closed when I stop to get more. It happened once, just like that, and a 7-fucking-Eleven, to boot.  Something about faulty wires.  I stood outside the door reading the sign and I was like, hell, you gotta be kidding me.  I ain’t making this shit up.

The first time I can remember knowing my luck was bad luck was when my grandpa died. Don’t start welling up with tears, y’all, because I didn’t give a rats ass about that old fucker.  He come to live with us when I was seven.  Smelled like cigarettes and whiskey and that cream you rub on your ass for hemorrhoids.  Or maybe like some kind of peppermints to cover the whiskey.  But it didn’t work.  His first order of business was ratting me out for wearing Carrie’s skirt around the house.  He told my daddy and I got whipped good.  Fucker.

Well, it weren’t like I was a faggot. I was just curious and I liked the way it felt. I ain’t going to lie. You get a lot more air on you in a skirt. Stand in front of the box fan, saying shit into it so you sound like a robot, letting the wind blow up nice and soft from underneath. That was the end of that.  I found an old smoking jacket Grandpa had brought with him, kind of fancy, black and silver with a sash. I had to ask what it was and now I look back on it, why’d he have it? Old redneck probably didn’t know what it was. He weren’t like those men in the movies, sipping out of them glasses that look like they’re for wine, but with a short stump and all kind of fat at the bottom like a balloon.  Probably got it in a flea market grab bag; they say my granny used to buy shit like that.

I wore that silver and black thing all the time.  It was long on me like a robe because I was a kid and I felt just as nice in it as I did in that purple skirt of Carrie’s that I worn.  But no one cared because it was made for guys; it weren’t a skirt.

What was I saying? Oh, luck. Hell, I ain’t got none.

So one night I got left at home with the old buzzard and that’s the night he went and died.  Out there in the kitchen, cooking peas or something, fell over and had hisself a heart attack. I was in my room and I didn’t know till I smelled something burning.  What a mess. Piss on the floor, smoke in the air.  He was too far gone. Purple.  You don’t forget skin what turns that color.

This is how I come to know luck ain’t for everyone.  I had a choice not to be home that night.  My friend Bart asked me to come over, but he’d been bragging about his new Nintendo and making rules about who got to play and how and for how long and I’d been about sick of that shit for well over a week.  So I said, no thanks, I’ve got stuff to do.  And all I did was sit in my room. I was so bored.  Then I smelled that smoke.

If I’d have gone to Bart’s house, I wouldn’t had to seen that old thing die.  I know it sounds heartless, but I just didn’t care. I told Carrie that once, when we started to date for real, and she said, well, why does that mean you ain’t lucky? You didn’t care that he was dead. And then she said besides, if you hadn’t been there, the house would’ve caught on fire and that would’ve been worse still.  She’s always got one more point to make than you asked for.

But then I said, yeah, but now I got the nightmares.  She looked at me, her hands dropping to her sides.  And I said, well, I got these nightmares.  They started the night before his funeral.  I’m always walking down our street and it’s just about dark.  When I look over my shoulder, cause you do in my part of town – all the fucking time – there he is, walking behind me, purple as the night he died on the kitchen floor.  And he don’t look mad and he don’t look happy, neither. He just looks kind of calm, like he knows something.  He’s watching me and whatever he’s got to say, it ain’t good, I can tell.  Twenty fucking years.

It don’t happen every night or else I’d kill myself, probably, and it don’t happen so much I can take pills or pot around it.  Not that I ain’t tried.  Carrie looked at me all funny when I told her about the nightmares.  It’s just a nightmare, she said, it don’t mean jack.  But she never saw his eyes, dark and gentle like they never were before, with something real sad and heavy in them.  It’s like he’s a weatherman, coming to say it’s gonna start raining but it ain’t never gonna stop, neither.  That’s bad luck, something Carrie just don’t understand, and it hangs on me, my thundercloud.

 

 

Ash

Bury me in the deep snow.  Lay my ashes where the sun and the wind will uncover me.  The same breeze that carries the yellow dust of the goldenrod will unwind my grey remains and send them whirling into eternity.  All cares will be long gone as I drift to rest on tomato leaves and bicycle wheels, clinging to the pores of bricks, then sailing far out over green rivers.  As ash, I will never grow weary on my travels.  Some fine particles of me will be swallowed by mud, never to take to air again until the earth is turned by hands not yet formed.

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When they come to the base of the tree, my friends will remove their gloves and use their fingers to make a hole in the snow.  The cold will needle their knuckles. They’ll pause now and again to make fists and kindergarten turkeys of their fingers, opening and closing their hands to bring blood to the tips.  Finally they will pour in the ash and cover it over, quickly, lest the flirtatious gale of a winter morning should send me off sooner than I would like.

Their boots will make a soft crunch as they wend their way back through the field, to the small line of cars parked along the fence.  Black coats and white snow.  If we are lucky, there will be scarves of color to remind us that life is for the living: turquoise and yellow.  A breathtaking flash of carmine, flying like a rampart against the sky, would be a joyful sight.

In the weeks before the melt, I would hear the ice loosen at noon and tighten at dusk.  The tree above me, holding out her long, lovely bones to the sky, would say nothing.  Yet we would be friends for all those days and long after the spring breeze came to lead me on my next adventure.

Touch

Dirk started the truck and left it running, a growling sort of beast silencing the bird song.  Sitting on the edge of the porch, he pawed in his breast pocket for his smokes and lighter.  The flint needed to be replaced; it took a while to get a flame.  Squinting at the sun coming over the ridge, he let the first plume of smoke blossom darkly on the air.  The morning was only a little nippy, though the ground was still hard from cold.  He found a mark from his boot the day before in the bald grass and matched his foot to it for no particular reason.  His shoulders folded his chest as his body eased into a slump.

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The screen door opened behind him, the spring making queer music as it stretched full, and Eva said, “She’s almost ready.  Why you running that engine? It don’t need to warm up.”

“Yes, it does. Let me be, woman.”

“Fool,” she spat.  Then the music played in swift reverse as the spring drew up tight.  The door slapped the jam with a fearsome clatter that made Dirk jump, though he’d known it was coming.

“Cow,” he said.

Eva had been a simple, smiling kind of woman twenty years ago.  She was slight – weighed nothing in his arms – with a pretty round face and small, sparkling brown eyes.  When the light hit her eyes just so, like one day when they stood at the quarry, with rusty leaves falling all around them, there was a tiger gold lurking beneath the chestnut.  It maddened him a little how pretty she was back in those days.  And she seemed to like just everything about him, which naturally pleased him.

“You’re a snappy dresser,” she said the first time they really talked.  While they dated, she never failed to compliment some little detail of his clothes. Sometimes Eva reached out and stroked the lapel of his jacket or the patches on his sleeves.  She liked soft things to touch, dense velvet and tender suede, and though she was farm-raised like himself, she somehow had dainty white hands that he liked to see sliding along his tweeds.  In his memory, their courtship had a lot of quiet moments, with touches that were better than words.  Everything around them seemed to fall away when their eyes or fingertips met, so that one had to dig around in the mind later to recall where they’d been when one of those moments passed between them.

When the children came it seemed to bleed out every drop of honey.  He never knew a woman with a more hateful tongue.  They filled the silence with quarrels.  Her hands had changed, lumpy knuckled and reddened, and they never touched him anymore.  There were things in their house that bridged their hands, pot handles and door knobs, but they never held any lingering warmth to pass from one of them to the other.

The love of just a few years had been a tender sort of thing, the bead of nectar drawn from the honeysuckle.  One had to let the tongue take it quick before it dropped away.  After the babies, what remained was a tough hatred, dark and sticky as the sap of cedars, a bond that seemed a mistake, a mess that could not be cleaned up easily.

They didn’t have the words to figure out the change.  Words had never been their strength.  The ones that passed between them now were crude, clumsy weapons that hardly hurt anymore, they’d been wielded so often.  Wounds are ugly things, but hard to open again when they’ve leathered over good.

He drank too much, that was true, and she hated him most when his breath was all booze fumes and his hands and feet clumsy as colts.  Whiskey made him lusty with a gaze as cagey and dark as snake-eyes;  she never hated the sight of anything that much.  Sometimes she wished he was a snake, something she could kill easily with a garden hoe.

____________

They had three girls and no boys.  The first two came early, when there was still a little perfume of affection floating between them.  Back then they lived out at the old home place, where the front room looked out over Hog Back Mountain.  In the spring the ridge was covered in redbud, a lurid and romantic shade that made one want to disappear in the woods the whole of the day.  The slope below the barn dressed like a bride when all the laurel bloomed.  They had a dozen springs together on that hillside, each one less kind than the one before.

Later they built the house out on the dell, a sunny bit of land with smaller views.  He sold the home place, but about as much of the money went to whiskey over the coming years as it did to anything else.  It was a strange romance he had with the bottle, he was the first to admit, but it was like finding happiness again.  The heedless, proud stride of a young man seemed to come back to him when he walked in those rye clouds.

Eva liked the new house, a squat little bungalow with dormers that worried the sky, but she wished it didn’t sit so close to the road.  Dirk planted a row of hemlocks along the property line so she’d feel a little more tucked away.  Then over the years the trees grew swift and thick, blotting out the sunrises and leaving the front rooms dark all the day long.  Eva didn’t seem to mind.  She was queer about the sun harming their things and since it was her egg money that bought the parlor set, she happily suffered the gloom to preserve the red velvet.  Once he caught her pausing while cleaning house, running her fingertips over the fabric with a dreamy, far away look.  He wondered if she was remembering something he remembered, too.  When she noticed his gaze, her face closed up tight.

“Get out of here,” she said.

He left the house to the cry of the screen door, letting it slap the jam as hateful as it ever did.  He wasn’t a man for tears, but his eyes burned hot that afternoon.  He went to the shed to get his ax.  He meant to cut down the hemlocks, to let the sun come back into the house.  When he got there, he lost his furor.  His hand fell away from the worn handle and instead he fished around behind coffee tins of nails and the parts of a busted kitchen chair, looking for a bottle he’d hidden there.  He didn’t come out of the shed for hours.

____________

The third girl was born in the bungalow, when the first two girls were already teenagers.  It was a wonder they made another child, as bitter as they were, but a jug of moonshine and moonshine on lilacs is a double sort of magic.  They met in a common loneliness one spring night.  Their hands remembered kinder days; their lips found how to kiss again.

The girl was a lovely little thing, the bonniest one of them all.  They named her Lenore because Eva had read it in a poem.  Running her fingers over the newborn’s fuzzy head, she said, “It’d be nice to have a girl with a pretty name for once.”

At the other end of the bed, her Betty and Madge exchanged glances and left the room stiffly.  Eva didn’t seem to notice or care.  She hardly liked the older girls anymore than she did their father.

Lenore’s eyes changed quickly to a brown as sweet as chocolate drops.  Dirk was smitten from the start.  He was older now, his hair gone to salt, and he had more hours to spend at home.  Eva said no one would hire him, since it was impossible to trust a rummy.

“You could still work a full week,” she said.  She had Lenore on one hip, the face a little sunflower in a ruffled bonnet, and she was flipping buckwheat cakes for breakfast.  The lard popped, a tiny hot bubble that landed on the babe’s hand, and the child cried, though it hardly left a mark.  Dirk took Lenore from Eva with a savage kind of furry stirring him.

“Don’t yank her out of my hands, you fool,” she said. “You almost knocked me into the stove. Is that what you wanted to do?”

“You ain’t gonna harm this child ever!”

Her mouth fell open in astonishment.  She laughed, “As if I would, you ass!”

“You ugly cow,” he said.  He crossed to the window so baby could look out into the sunshine.  Giving Eva a a long stare, he said with finality, “Just make sure you don’t.”

From that day on, he made Lenore his special pet.  He found a secret, wicked delight in treating Eva as if she wasn’t taking proper care of the little one.  And as he painted a wide circle around he and the child, it seemed Eva stood ever farther outside of it.  It wasn’t exactly his plan to do it, but somehow the more he loved Lenore, the less she seemed to belong to Eva.

In his shrinking world, he’d carved a universe of tenderness for himself and the last baby.  He wouldn’t suffer Eva to enter into it, to spoil it with her sharp tongue.  As if he’d cast a spell, she fell prey to his will in this one matter.  Only when he went away now and again for day work did she have time with her youngest, but she could find none of the sweet hopefulness she felt when she had stroked the peachy head the first time and given her, her name.

One afternoon she stood out at the clothesline, mindlessly hanging one thing after another.  When the basket was empty, she remembered that Lenore had been playing in it a moment before, and her eyes combed the grassy slope behind the house for the fat toddler.  There was no sign of her.  She called out twice, then again, her voice breaking.  All along the slope, she ran zig zag like a rabbit, hoping to find Lenore sitting in the grass that was left uncut last autumn and which the light winter had not bent.

“You’ll be all itches,” she called out. “That grass is gonna scratch those fat legs, girl.”

When Dirk got home, he was so furious he had no words – not even their poison favorites.  They combed the forest together in the waning light.  The older girls sat together on the porch, waiting in case Lenore came back, holding hands and wishing they could cry.  Between them, Dirk and Eva left their echos in every nook and cranny of the hollow.  They shared one word between them, passing it back and forth through the branches and the wild vines, until their cries were thin and ragged.

“Lenore! Lenore!”  In the distance, bloodhounds called back to them, a familiar cry that quickened their hearts and their pace.

The moon climbed high, so full and bright it pulled the yellow up out of the forsythia.  Finally, doubling back where they’d been time and again, Dirk spotted the little one lying in the sparkling creek water.  He bent to her, hands shaking as a chilling dread dried his throat. Her coldness told him they were too late.  When Eva came upon him a moment later, he was cradling the girl in his arms.  She gave a cry and reached out with gently curled fingers, but he struck her away.

“Don’t touch my child,” he said.

She was too shocked to argue with him.   He left her standing by the water, her hands clasped together at her stomach, her eyes pleading for something that the mouth wouldn’t ask.  Maybe she wanted to hold Lenore or maybe she just wanted there to be a kindness for just a moment now.  When he was out of her sight, she sank to her knees in the wet moss and she spoke the child’s name to the moon.  She said it again to the creek that had stolen her last breath and then she said it once more, tenderly, for only herself.

____________

Dirk was finishing his second cigarette when the screen door opened a while later.  Eva was holding Lenore in her arms, the child’s dark hair combed smooth, the ruffles of her best bonnet ironed crisp.  After she’d dressed her, she wasn’t sure what one did next, and she wished her own mother was still around – cruel as she was – to tell her.  She handed her over to Dirk, who took her gingerly and carried her to the truck.  He was going to take her down the road, where an old farmer could make a coffin small enough for one so little.

“How you gonna do this?” she called across the yard. “I ought to come, too, to hold her.”

“I put a basket on the seat last night,” he said. “I don’t need you.”

She watched him climb into the truck and she eased back into the house so slowly the screen door didn’t make a sound in her wake.  He was backing out of the drive when she flew out again, leaping off the porch as she hadn’t since she was a younger woman.  She cried out for him to stop, waving a small, snowy wool coat in her hand like a flag of surrender.  He put his foot on the brake and watched her through the side window as she ran to him.

When she opened the door, she was too winded to talk, but she held up the coat again and gave him a pleading glance.  He nodded, twisting in the seat to lift Lenore out of the basket he had lined with quilts out in the moonlight last night.  He held her between them while Eva carefully fitted the little arms into the sleeves.

He didn’t say that he thought people weren’t buried in coats.  He wasn’t sure exactly what was normal, but he figured he understood Eva’s mind this once.  She was crying as she fastened the buttons with her chapped, red hands.

“I thought she might be cold,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

They locked gazes then.  In the slanting morning light, this side of the hemlock row, he could see that tiger gold in back of her brown eyes.  She dropped her gaze, pushing the last button up through.  Her fingers slipped gently along the soft wool.  Dirk watched her for a moment; he didn’t feel that old impulse to put himself between her and the girl.  She stroked the coat once more, then her hand found the edge of the door as she stepped back.  Hesitating, she looked at him again.

“I’m sorry.” They were the only words she could find.

He heaved a sigh. “Maybe you ought to hop in, Eva. I think that’s how it ought to be.”

Something tried to draw up her mouth, but grief is a heavy thing and the smile could not quite bloom.  She folded herself into the truck and he handed her the child with the tenderest care he could find in himself.  She took her from him that way, too, the crook of her arm a quiet poem about everything.

The Boys Who Die

I miss the boys who died, knowing their inner sadness belongs to boys who both knew and yet never never knew how they were loved.  This is the work of a lifetime – be it a scant few years or a long stream of decades –  finding that we are liked, wanted and needed.  A part of us is always skeptical.  We try so hard to please, come up against our own fragility – grey dawns of the heart – and despair at our failings.  The moments of laughter, the warm press of a friendly hand, the sweet, but slipping smiles of friendships: these are all breezes that catch our sails and tug us farther along the sea of our journey.  These are tender moments, warm with the texture of knitted things, comforting like the scents of favorite soups and newly found desserts.  This is joy to pull us through bleakest despair and remind us that at the end of our worked days, we will see smiles we know again, share confidences and food and a pause while every nose recalls together that this is the smell of spring coming again.  This bittersweet lesson – learned when dear people pass from this world –  is found in the tears that come from knowing you can remember the timber of their voice but never hear it again and that you only got to say so many thank yous to ears like your own that could hear them.  Never hold back your applause, never be shy with praise and love.  The bitterest regrets are plaudits that fell away without being spoken and all the times that love was shamed into a muddier, cooler kind of warmth.

Missouri

The kids were drowsy by the time the sunset painted the big sky over Missouri orange and fuchsia.  All day long they’d found things to quarrel about.  Most often Julie and Crosspatch sided together against Burpy.  This was the usual way.  They accused her of letting her snot drip just to gross them out.  Burpy was singing terrible on purpose, they crowed, while the culprit screeched the Prince song playing on her Walkman.

“She doesn’t even have to hear herself!” Julie complained bitterly.

It was mean of them to make such a fuss about her snot; Burpy was still getting over a cold.  But Benny had to suppress a smile about the singing.  Her little tow head did have the worst singing voice.  Now they were in the home stretch of their long westward haul and the silence in the car was a blessing.

Benny glanced over her shoulder at her brood.  Julie was nose deep in a book and Burpy was sleeping.  Crosspatch was looking out the window.  His round chocolate eyes rolled to match her gaze.  He’d be asleep in minutes, she guessed, if the others stayed quiet.  She gave him a little smile and he smiled back.  She put a finger up to her lips and he let his head roll to his shoulder, his eyes returning to the rainbow sherbet sky.

It was dark when they reached their hotel on the outskirts of the city, a row of rooms hunkered low on an acre of balding grass.  Each door was turquoise.  Weeds grew along the fence around the pool and on the gate a rusted sign read ‘Watch Your Children’.  Mike stopped the car in front of the office and Benny watched him cross to the door with a heavy heart.  He looked thicker than ever yet somehow very small.  He carried himself like a man older than his years.  She felt her heart agitate in her chest and she took a few breaths to chase off her sense of panic.

It was hard to see her husband so whittled.  He was a strong person.  Never missed work, never broke promises.  By Friday night he was dead on his feet, but on Saturday morning he was up first, making batter for the silver dollar pancakes the kids loved so much.  This past week had been terrible for him.  When their eyes met, his held something she’d never seen in them before.  The hazel was clouded, the whites shot with red.  His mouth was broken and could not muster a smile.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and found Julie sitting forward, watching Mike through the window of the office.  He stood at the counter talking to a woman in a yellow smock.  He pulled his checkbook out of the back pocket of his trousers.  Julie was her eldest child, the one most like her father.  She had his sharp eyes, his high forehead and his steady ways. The girl looked worried, so Benny gave her hand a pat.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “Your father.”

Julie nodded.

They didn’t wake the two little ones while they unloaded the luggage.  Mike made sure he took the big suitcase out himself.  The handle was broken and had to be carried a special way.  There were a lot of things like that in their life: hinges that needed babying, appliances that needed a tap before they’d run.  He had a knack for all that sort of managing and if it bothered him, he never said.  He didn’t like to complain.

After all the suitcases and grocery store bags with kid clothes in them were on the beds, they opened the side doors as quietly as they could.  Benny lifted Crosspatch out of the back seat while Mike reached in from the other side and got Burpy.  She was damp with sweat and smelled like a chocolate candy bar. Julie stood outside the room, hugging herself because the night was chilly.  Under strings of wind-blown hair, her eyes roamed the parking lot gravely.  In the distance, cars and tractors hummed along the highway.  A lot of people were still heading places.

Her mother mussed her hair, said, “Come on in.  We’ve got everything.”

____________

Earlier that year, Mike’s father had come to live with them.  The two of them were cut from different cloths, people who knew them liked to say.  Mike was good at figuring things.  He worked in Washington, drafting contracts for the FDA.  In a picture he’d sent home years ago, he sat with overflowing ‘out’ and ‘in’ boxes to one side of him.  A coffee cup with a dried drip on the handle held down a stack of paperwork in the foreground.  Behind him, in soft focus, a secretary in a green dress was shifting the blinds.  His eyes were lost behind a glare on his thick glasses, but his smile told them he was happy.  On the back of the photo he’d written, “Hey, folks, they’re keeping me busy.”

Jarl thought that life looked like hell.  He couldn’t imagine being in an office all day.  He’d spent his years out in the sunshine, growing peanuts and sometimes watermelon, hooking catfish out of the river and selling the yield.  There were a lot of families, black and white and bronze, along the shaggy county roads and not one wife could resist his bright eyes or his tall tales.  The sweet melons he brought, the bags of waffle-shelled peanuts and the strings of fish, they wound up in just about every kitchen there around.  Some of  the money came home to his wife and his two boys, but most of it went into the till at the Knotty Pine bar in midtown.  It was a simpler life than the one his son lived, there was no doubt, but he never gave his liver much rest.  It got worse after his wife died.  By the time he came to live with his son’s family, he was worn pretty thin.

Mike brought his father into their home because it was the right thing to do, but sharing space was hard, especially with a soul who came by happiness the hard way.  It didn’t take them long to figure out things ran smoother when Jarl was drinking.  If he was dry, he was sullen; his gaze threatened frost bite if you crossed him.  When he drank, his drawl went soft and lazy like a daydream.  The frost melted and his eyes bloomed cornflower over his rosy cheeks.  He puttered in the kitchen, making a split pea soup that left you homesick for the next bowl.  He prowled the garden, leaning on his cane and turning over the tomatoes to check the other side.

The girls found in the old man the thing his customers had seen.  They saw the sparkle of his eyes, liked the silly way he told stories.  Crosspatch could not warm to his grandfather.  He had given up his room when Jarl came to stay.  Crosspatch was a funny little boy, whimsical by turns, but older than his seven years.  His chocolate eyes carried a lot of worries.

Crosspatch had always kept his little green bedroom tidy.  Every toy had a proper place.  The bed was made as soon as he got up each morning.  When Jarl took the room, he made it his own.  The bed was left a tangle and the nightstand was piled with the tissues into which he emptied his sinuses through all his fitful nights.  Crosspatch stormed through the room once a week, angrily jamming the dried tissues into the waste basket, yanking at the quilt until the bed looked like his again.

“You’re different, aren’t you?” Jarl would say.

He squinted ruefully at the child and Crosspatch knew there was an insult in the question, though he couldn’t figure it out exactly.  He could find no love for the old man.

Benny felt sorry for her father in law.  From the window in the dining room, she saw him out in the yard sometimes, the wind molding his loose clothes to his frame, revealing the wreck of his once manly figure.  His watery eyes carried many regrets, even when they were stormy and cold.  His sun-spotted hands, open on his lap when he dozed, seemed too empty.  She wondered how much he missed his fields and his fishing rods.  In their house, he was tended to so that no harm could befall him, but Benny sensed his was not such a great life.  He was just killing time now and he knew it as well as anyone else.

____________

Last Sunday morning, they woke to a heavy frost.  The cars in the driveway were silvered over, the grass white sugar crusted.  A sparkling sun promised to melt the dew, yet it seemed like the kind of day to stay in out of the wind.  Mike and the kids piled up in front of the television to watch an old black and white movie on channel five.  Benny took refuge in the kitchen, phoning her sister and riffling through her recipe box.  She tossed out magazine clippings ruthlessly, in one her moods suddenly to be rid of dead weight.  After about an hour, her neck got stiff from clamping the receiver between ear and shoulder.  When an argument in the family room erupted, she took it as an excuse to say goodbye and hang up.

Burpy had tried to tap dance like the lady in the movie and when the dog joined in, circling her and barking, the other two revolted.  Jeering loudly, Julie and Crosspatch had finally succeeded in booing their sister off her imagined stage.  She and the dog had retreated to a corner, from where they were casting vengeful glances when Benny stepped into the room.  Crosspatch was still riled up.

“It is very rude to make noise when other people are watching TV!” he said.

Burpy was so mad she pulled her twin ponytails until they hurt.  “I hate you!”

One glance at Mike showed her why he had not intervened yet.  She gave his arm a shake,  “Wake up and come help me feed the animals.”

When they got back in from the barn, Mike’s dad had started to make up a batch of lima beans, sizzling up a fatty cut of bacon before opening one of their canning jars into the pot.  One look at his glowing cheeks told them he was in a soft mood.  He’d been nursing his bottle in his room all morning.  The movie had ended or else the children had tired of it.  The television set was off, the curved glass reflecting back a view of the room, aglow in chilly autumn sunlight.  Benny headed to their room to lie down and read for a while.  Mike went to find the kids.

They were all together, the upsets of the morning forgotten, laying together on the bed they had shared since Jarl moved in with them.  As Mike came to the door, Crosspatch was telling one of his stories and the girls were pretending to sleep.  In a grave voice, Mike said, “I see little people who need to be tickled.”

Julie rolled on her side with a groan and Burpy followed suit. Crosspatch kept to his storytelling, but a grin betrayed him.  He heard his father.  Mike loved tickling the kids.  He liked to announce it first, then to close in for the attack.  He wouldn’t believe anyone who said it wasn’t as fun for the tickled as it was for the tickler.  That afternoon, he was merciless. Armpits, bellies, knees.  He knew where to get a giggle from each one of them.

Benny was the first to smell something burning on the stove.  She bolted past the door to the kids’ room.  Mike rolled off the bed and barreled after her.  They found Jarl on the kitchen floor.  His face was a lurid violet.  Mike knelt beside him and called his name and shook him, his voice rising, growing sharp, breaking.  Benny was on the phone instantly, but by the time the paramedics came, there was nothing they could do.  The blood receded from his cheeks, taking his whiskey bloom with it, leaving his eyes as pale and distant as the skies over his old home place.  It was impossible to shield the children from seeing.  There was no time to think in all the confusion.  The girls were sobbing in the family room, as confused as they were sad.  Crosspatch just stared, unable to find tears.

____________

It was ten before they got settled in the hotel room.  It was too late to go out for food, so Mike and Benny poured over the yellow pages, shoulder to shoulder, looking for a pizza place that delivered.  In the soft glow of  a single lamp, the cheap little room felt close and safe.  One forgot the smell of mildew that had first greeted them.  For tonight and tomorrow night, this would have to be home, until the funeral was over and they made the trip they had just made in reverse.

The children were murmuring softly to each other, piled on the other bed, waiting for their bath.  Despite the long dusty ride, Benny still smelled a little like her morning shower.  The warmth of her was a comfort and he was awash suddenly in gratitude.  He’d been shaken, beaten and stunned since last Sunday.  In a moment, all he still had came back to him.  The little voices. The shampoo on Benny’s hair. Her hopeful smile, the sad watchful eyes. The four homely walls that stood against the wind to keep them warm.  He could still be happy, he could find it again.  Just not now.  It wasn’t time yet, he sensed as an animal knows things, but the reminder that life would wait for him left him trembling with humility and thanksgiving.  He did not realize he’d grabbed hold of her, that he was clinging to her and crying into her hair.  The children had gathered around, their little hands patting his arm in comfort.  Let them hold him, he thought, as he had held them all.

Birthday

The landscape of my childhood is not honey colored or bright with rosy reds. There were stormy blues and sleepy yellows.  If I colored it with crayons, it would be the hues children leave in the box.

In photographs that have faded as much as memory, the fields around our old house are paler than boiler onions.  All the winter walks have become one remembered walk, our breath blowing out ahead in thin clouds, the ice on the bent grass crunching under foot.  Let the snow birds break the air, startled out of the underbrush. Let the dogs make chase, each cry bold and bright and startling.  They are a part of this magic and cannot disturb it.  But we would walk gently, let no words pierce the air.  If I want her to hold my hand, I need only to reach up and my mother will curl her warm, work-worn fingers around.  She will never be happier than on this walk.  She and the woods speak a common language.

I am mesmerized by the pine needles on the forest floor.  If I nudge them with my shoe, they open, but they are deep and never reveal the dark soil beneath.  Yet I know what lies under them.  I dig open the earth each spring, following the smell of the chives, hoping to uncover how it all works.  Where do the earthworms go when the thistle drops its head and the ice returns, first thin and white as powder sugar, than thicker and grayer toward the morose stretch of February?

____________

My mother has a rage that runs deep, a sadness that is darker than all the long nights of winter.  We children are what constrain her, what contain her and pull at her to rise each morning and try again.  We did not ask for the burden; she did not ask for her pain.  She erupts at times, when she is at her limit, and there is no creature that could barrel out of the shadow of the woods that would be any more terrifying.  The boar and the bear would fall back before her and, glancing around her, design their escape.

  ____________

When a parent dies, they leave a child.  The age of the child does not matter.  When my father died, his son had as much grey hair as he had brown.  In the wake of his passing, childhood has been opened again.  I thought I knew my past.  But the youth I thought I knew was merely one edit.  The original cannot be altered, merely viewed at different intervals, seen in another way by eyes that know more now than they did before.

____________

On a warm summer night in my thirty-ninth year, I lose myself in an argument.  This is not the soft rage I have known before, nor am I fueled by anger so much as fear.  We are two souls, deeply in love, but not seeing each other or hearing each other.  Blind and bitter and ugly, we are up the stairs and down the stairs.  We are on the bed and in the kitchen.  Words on words, voices climbing and falling, but never arriving.

Before this night, I have glanced around for something to throw, but I have never done it.  I have wanted to rend the air, but instead have gone away to cry, pleaded for pardon and hung my head in remorse the whole of the long, sad day to come.  It is never just my fault, but I imagine myself the keeper of the joy.  The impulse to cook, to keep things tidy, to find the wisdom and the humor in the things that go awry – these are a part of me, a magic that lets the boat rise with the storm.

On this night, this summer night, I pick something up and send it across the kitchen.  The noise is tremendous.  I pick up another thing and another, each missile thrown harder than the last.  Then he comes to me, startled from our strange spell, horrified by what I have become in this instant. I am horrified, as well, but surely breaking the silence is something.  Now the opening has been forced, we can work up and out of the hole.

I clean up my mess on my hands and knees, first with a little broom and dustpan, then with the vacuum.  I stop only to hold him because he is crying.  We are children parenting ourselves and our love.  He fears we cannot find our way back.  I think we’re halfway there.

As I have always done, I want to bring us back to safer ground.  I sent us into deeper shadows than we have probed before, but my wings are strong enough to carry us home.  And sure enough, we do find the healing words and though we will go to work the next day with a terrible weight, we will get lighter with each night’s sleep.  It is in us to keep loving, to keep the light.

The dent in the freezer door and the scratches on the floor remain.  No amount of regret can pop the steel or knit the finish on the tiles.  My rage left its traces on the surface of our life, but through it, the hearts beneath are stronger and closer.

____________

When there is too much happening inside – a terrible brew of sad thoughts, regrets, incomplete sentences, formless worries and dreams bent over on themselves – the explosion is the thing that must happen.  There is a better way, surely, and we hope never to see ourselves blow open that way again.  We will walk away the next time.  We will let our worries out in short, safe little puffs.

Since the night I went mad, I see my mother’s rages anew.  It is true, she could make a wild animal bolt when she lost it.  Now I know what her insides felt like. Before I only knew how she looked on the surface.  I knew the vein on her temple, the black cave of her mouth, the fire running over her cheeks and the white ice of her knuckles as her fist clutched the air.  She was alone with a despair that was killing her and this was the best she could manage.

In my thirty-ninth year I lost my father, which is a terrible thing.  Yet I have found something grave and golden, a lovely cold comfort.  I have found another well of compassion, deep waters connecting me to my mother.

____________

She never had to explain to me the thing about being quiet in the woods.  I knew it because she knew it.  We come out of the pines and pause at the edge of the pond. The banks are brown and muddy on this end.  We step close, but not too close.

The other end is called the deep end.  Its banks are not dark and soft; they are pebbled with light shale.  It is easy to scuttle forward on that end, to slide into the water.  I don’t know how deep the deep end is, but I feel a sort of terror about it and seldom walk around to that side.

If she and I are careful, we can lean forward, holding hands to help balance one another, and we can peer at the gentle blue of the winter sky, mirrored on the surface.  But we cannot lean in far enough to see each other glancing up at ourselves.  If we fell in, the mirror breaks open and the cold water pulls us under.

Good Night, Lucille

She was the last one to ever care about the place.  Her grandpa had cleared the land and her father had worked it. By his side, she made it her work, too, even though her mother warned her she’d grow thick and spotty. When she was a teenager, her sisters lay in a ring on the green living room carpet, looking at the dresses in the Sears catalog.  Lucille sat on the stairs by herself, studying the Almanac.  Image

She turned that soil each season of her life, till her hands were tough and brown and her back always just a little bent.  The years saw the passing of her mother and her father and then two sisters from cancer.  Her other sister, Jean, drove out from Washington in her shiny green sedan now and again, but it seemed she had lost her love of all things country.  She thought the ham was too salty, the bird egg beans too soft.  Sitting in the living room, Jean’s eyes would climb the walls with an air of disbelief.  

“You can hardly keep this place up anymore,” she’d say. “But you never cared about the house as much as the barn. Just like Daddy.”

She loved Jean, but Lucille was never sad to see her go.  The place went back to normal when it was just her and the dogs and the swallows.  Little by little, the house was falling apart, but she was sure it didn’t mind too much.  The farm had taught her to understand rot. 

She loved each turn of the year, knew how the fields smelled when they were ripening.  In the mornings, nothing pleased her more than to stand beside the silver wood corral, stroking her old mare’s nose and mulling over what would get done that day. 

By the time her hair was white, she was working smaller crops, and she let two brothers from El Salvador live in one of the old migrant houses at the edge of the place in turn for helping her with things.  They were nice boys with sweet smiles.  Some nights, she stood on the back porch and could hear guitar music floating over the place.  She’d lean against the post, close her eyes and wonder how it was that a song she’d never heard could seem so much like a forgotten lullaby. 

She passed in the Autumn, on such a night, quite happily sitting on the rusty porch glider, falling in and out of sleep.  It was foggy out, but the strains of the guitar still came across.  A light out at the barn flashed through the grey soup now and again, seeming to wink at her as though the land itself knew and was saying, “Good night, Lucille.”

Two Baths

She was five when they lived on Darby Road.  The house was small, a brick rancher with yellow wood floors and green bathroom tiles.  In the afternoon before her father came home, her mother ran the bath until it was only a bit full.  Then she put her in the tepid water and washed her with a soapy cloth.  She was a daydreamer girl, mesmerized by the gentle touch, the wallpaper pattern of bird cages, the shadows of the pine needles slanting across the window sill.

“You got good and dirty today, little girl,” her mother never failed to say.  “Now let me check that belly button. Promise not to be ticklish this time.”  Their laughter made the dim little house seem bright.

Her mother’s hands were red and creased, the nails wide, plain ovals.  In winter, the skin was rough from carrying in the fire wood, chapped by the cold winds.  In summer, the skin was peanut butter brown and there were calluses from gardening.  Looking up at her mother from the bath water, she thought the tired eyes were beautiful.  They were brown back then, she would always remember.  Later, they silvered with age.

____________

Many years later, when she was a woman, she lived with her husband in an apartment in town.  The walls were white everywhere, and the floors a dim gold that refused to honey with washing.  It was a homely little place where each balcony faced another, exactly the same, across a square inner yard of tightly shorn grass.

His name was Andrew and she loved him very dearly.  He was a gentle person.  He taught her to do things he knew how to do, like change the engine oil, because she asked him how.  When she told him she was lonely in the apartment during the days, he got her a small dog they named Spook, because his birthday was Halloween.   The dog was a menace and it took her a long while to grow fond of it.  She never told Andrew, though, because it had been sweet of him to think of it.

When her husband got sick, they went to many doctors.  No one could cure him and in little time he went from golden to grey.  On a windy March evening, as he lay in the hospital, squeezing her hand, he whispered that he wished they were home together.  Despite its bone-colored walls and bare tables, he loved that place because it was theirs.  She took him out of the hospital that night, despite the protests of the doctors.

At the apartment, she made up his bed on the sofa.  She put the stacks of bills in a kitchen drawer so he wouldn’t see them.  Spook climbed up and curled beside him.  When he grew feverish and cold some hours later,  she drew a hot bath and she took his weight full against her as she helped him into the water.  Gently, she bathed his pale shoulders, the thin arms and neck.  She was glad when he closed his eyes because she was not able to stop the tears.

He smiled at her and stilled her hands.  He said, “Isn’t this bath full enough already, sugar?”   He was kind enough to want to make her laugh, so she pushed up a smile for him and gave his nose a tweak.

When she got to his feet, she heard a last sigh and he was gone.  Her knees and her back ached and she sank down to sit next to the tub.  She found his hand and held it in hers until the water and his skin grew cold.  Dawn was slanting through the apartment, a fragile light spilling into the hall.

The Bad Ankle

George could remember exactly when he busted the bone – or tore the muscle, or sprained the whole damned thing.  The thing was that he would not see a doctor about it, so there was no telling the exact malady.  But it happened at the vowel renewal of friends, of that much he was sure.  It was when the DJ started playing all the old music that always made him dance.  The thin dress shoes had been protesting, pinching at his ankles, the angel hair laces creaking like a ship going down.  When the twist that botched it happened, he bit his tongue and waited for the right moment to ease off the floor. Later he stood outside the club house, his breath floating on the January air like banners of spider web, and he checked his emails in the compulsive way he had, waiting for the ache to subside.  He had been dancing hard, dancing to feel the ecstasy of being just limbs moving to sound, dancing to forget his grief.  It had been working, too.

As the months passed, the ache came and went, never quite leaving.  Getting out of bed in the middle of the night was bad; he hobbled down the steps to the bathroom like a much older man.  He didn’t feel forty when the ankle was acting on him.  He didn’t know any older age to feel, but he supposed this might be what ancient felt like.  It seemed to mirror his grief.  Three months.  Five months. Eight.  The year was spinning forward, separating him from the night that he got the call.

His mother, her voice small, said, “Your father passed. The girls are on their way over.”

“We’ll be over as soon as possible.”

His husband was already up, shaking open a sweater, fishing a stray shoe out from under the hall bench.  It was the night before Thanksgiving.  In the car ride over, they got into a curious argument, for reasons George supposed were his fault but could not later remember.  He turned the car around, saying he would take his husband home, he would go to the others alone.  And then he was crying and babbling an apology and turning the car around yet again.  They made it to his folks house about fifteen minutes later.

The months since that distant, cold night had been an awakening for George.  He found himself by turns numb or overly sensitive.  He took up little projects, but abandoned them quickly.  He cried often.  He learned to lean on people.  He learned to be glad to need others and gladder to have them.  Yet there was a heavy stone in his heart and another on his chest when he woke in the night.  In those moments, he was aware of an utter loneliness.  And he knew it was not just his own.  He knew it to be the loneliness everyone had, whether they could feel it or not.

He saw it in old men pushing shopping carts at the grocery store. It was plain on the faces of children eating ice cream in the sunshine.  It did not negate the joys of life, it could not erase pleasure.  It stood beside all that was sunshine and all that was shadow.  It was in everything, behind laughter and music and soft chatter.  He knew now in his soul that to a one, every man, woman and child he saw was going to die.  It was strange, but he could not talk about it easily.  It might be mistaken for depression or morbidity.  Instead he took it as a kind of beauty, albeit a beauty that made his gaze climb over roofs and trees to find the sky.

When the summer came, he reveled in the sunshine.  He went to the beach and took to the waves with childish delight.  He talked with friends late into the nights, drinking Scotch and now and again smoking cigarettes.  He took pictures of rotting barns and for a while he took up baking.   There was much to do in business and at home.  He got used to the new view of things.  This was what life had become.

Now and then he imagined that he was gravely ill, that a cancer was creeping inside of him, changing his cells, chewing him up treacherously, as it had his father.  And two aunts.  And two uncles.  It took only a sore muscle, a stiff neck to bring on the fear. Then he had to talk himself down from panic.  He never stopped to imagine the ankle was anything deadly.  It was mostly a nuisance.  It came and it went.

One day he decided to go through some old boxes from childhood.  In one he found a baseball and he could think of no reason he possessed it.  He knew it was not his.  Then one day a week after, he remembered that it belonged to a boy he was briefly friends with as a kid.  He was a hero-like blond named Bobby who had an older brother with a congenital heart defect who died when he was only thirteen.  George then remembered a night when Bobby stayed over.  He had not thought of it in years.  For some reason, that night he had decided to scare the other boy.  Perhaps he was a little jealous of Bobby, who knew all about fishing, football and fast cars, who was the kind of boy a boy was supposed to be.  Or maybe it was a thoughtless kind of mischief.   As they were drifting off to sleep, he heard himself say into the darkness, “Sometimes I think of that door in the basement and how rotted it is near the lock.”

Bobby was slow to respond. “Why?”

“Oh, it just seems like if a robber or a killer wanted to bust in, they could get in pretty easily.”

It surprised him then – as it did on recalling it later – that it was so easy to spook the boy.  In an instant the brash, brave one was transformed into merely a weeping child.  The fear he had thought to conjure had taken hold.

“I’m scared,” Bobby sobbed.

George had felt immediate remorse.  It was something he had never imagined, that he could have the power to cause someone else so much worry and grief.  Hastily, he made to fix what he had done.

“Oh, I was just messing around with you…”

“I saw the door, George. I know what you mean. It is awful rotted out.”

“But we have a security system,” George lied.  It was a stroke of genius.

Bobby was instantly relieved, “Really?”

“Oh yeah.” George said, “An alarm would go off if someone opened any of the doors.”

Bobby had been calmed and was soon sleeping, but George lay awake for hours, sure that if there was a monster to worry about, it was in himself.  He learned that night how easy it was to be cruel and how awful it made him feel.  But it was not the last time he was cruel.  Pride and ego make a person petty and unkind by turns, and George found it plagued him all his life.  Finding the baseball and remembering that long ago night caused him nightmares through late July and into August.

Mostly he was a kind man, doing much for others, generous with time or money, which ever was needed – yet the child who saw the monster in himself never quite vanished beneath the thickening layers of manhood that time wrought.  The year his father died, he found his soul laid bare.  Now and again that child looked back at him through mirrors.  The face belonged to the man, dripping with a splash of cold water, but the tear-reddened eyes were the boys.  Wide, worried and lost, they knew all about the loneliness.

Autumn came and began to copper the hills.  The last crickets played late into the nights.  In window wells and along the eaves, the last of the moths and of the leaves huddled in the cold.  George woke at three one morning and struggled up on the damned ankle.  It was no more or less sore than normal.  He winced as he made his way down the stairs.  On the third step to the bottom, the ankle gave out and he clawed at the air for balance, but as he fell forward, his head struck the hall table hard and he was out.  He opened his eyes briefly, later, and his husband’s face was above him, white and drawn, his lips moving with words George could not hear.  His last thoughts were an odd assortment.  They were these:

I love you, handsome.

What was the loneliness? Something about children at an ice cream stand…

The door will hold.

And then he noticed that the pain that had been in the bad ankle was now in his head, and in a way it was all over, but yet he didn’t feel any of it so much anymore.  He knew he was leaving and as he looked up at his husband’s face, he wanted to say something to calm the fear he saw there.  He wanted to say the thing about the door, how they were really quite safe after all, but he could not because then, quite peacefully, he was going through it.