On Burying A Friend

The air is still moist from the night when I with gloved hands take up the shovel to make the grave for our very old friend.  It helps to be alone out here, bent over the earth with my thoughts.

Later the loneliness is edging close as thankfully my husband joins me in a cap to keep his ears warm. And so we take turns cracking through tree roots and pulling up stones. Helpmates. Silent in our grief, the passing of our ginger cat.

Our Guy.

The scratch of iron and rock make a sharp cry to break the calm of the woods, fittingly rough, like how we aren’t ready to let go.  Finally the hole is deep enough.  We climb the steep hill and I take off my muddy boots before entering the house.

My eye drops toward the floor as I push the door open, to where he usually stands with curious eyes asking to go out.  I cannot give a moment for tears just yet.  I push through the house, to the cool spare room, where he waits in his carrier.

I take him outside and together my husband and I wrap him up for burial.  He weighs the same in my hands as he ever did.  Or is he lighter now, not twisting to protest being cradled like a human baby?   I feel he must be given a final hug, something to say that inside the bundle is still the lovely creature who shared so many years with us.  I curve around his still form, weeping freely, my husband weeping with me, the two of us with rubbery garden gloves, hands a little cartoonish, eyes as red as pickled eggs.

“Okay,” I say.

Somehow we fitted his resting place perfectly.  The bundle settles into the depression as if sized by tireless craft, rather than the educated guess of two men unfamiliar with the digging of graves.  I gather a wad of mud between my hands, say a word of good-bye and sprinkle him over with earth.  My husband says his farewell and reaches out to let his gathered clay fall like dark heavy snow.

I am careful with the first shovels-full of dirt, filling in the edges until the ground is level with the top of him.   Then another level until the black bundle is covered over. When the ground is filled in again, we pull a rake over the earth until it is smooth.  Then I rake away the autumn leaves because they make his resting place seem too forlorn.

I decide we ought to cover him over in stones to keep animals from digging him up.  We root around at the edge of the woods as the day opens up bright and warm above us.  The mud on ours boots grows thicker as we work.  We cannot seem to stop hunting for new stones.  I like best the ones from under the leaves, the ones cleaned by a recent rain.  One crude rock at a time, we build a mound to cover the grave of this our very old friend.

“We’ll put a ring of bulbs around it in the spring,” I say.

And my husband nods through his tears.

“I’m glad it got warm. I fell asleep last night dreading the cold, knowing how he hated it.”

We are silent a moment more before taking up the shovel and the rake and climbing the hill.  At the side of the house, I realize we have forgotten the pick axe.  When I return to the edge of the woods to fetch it, I see a small rock winking up from the ground.  I almost turn away from it, but it seems that in noticing it, I ought to add it to the mound.kingly-guy

 

Rideshare

originally posted under the name ‘Fireflies’


Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.

The evening was thick, scented with a rain to come, and in the distance he could hear the traffic that ran alongside the subway station. It was late and he was the only one waiting just now.  At last he took his phone from his pocket.  He stared down at it for a moment before calling home. She answered on the second ring.

“You on the way?”

“Well, I’ve run into a snag.”

“Oh.”

“Well, there were a lot of people because the holiday-”

“The holiday is why I suggested you leave earlier,” she said. “But what about all these people?”

He held the phone away so she wouldn’t hear his sigh. Mariam hated to hear it; she would tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself.

“Of the four card machines, two were out of order, so the lines were twice as long as ever. I almost made it, ran all the way down and even scratched my leg on the escalator, but I was just a couple of seconds too late. I’m sorry, Mariam.”

She took in a breath. It sounded like she dropped something heavily on the counter. It might have been metal: a knife or a spatula maybe.

“The next one will be here in about seven minutes.”

“But you’ll miss Will,” she said. “He never waits – not even for a minute. Remember last week?”

“He saw me running across the lot. I know he did.”

“He’s kind of a prick that way.”

“Isn’t he though?” he said. Perhaps she would direct her ire at the man who always gave him a ride to the end of their drive, providing he didn’t have to wait. “It really was too much this last time.  He’s so rude.”

“It’s still your fault,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

A pause snaked between them, too long and too thin. Finally she said, “I guess I’ll drive into town when you get in, but you’ll have to call me when you pass Dunn Grave so I’ll have about five minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But this has to stop. We have to get your car fixed.”

He didn’t know what to say. They both knew they couldn’t afford the repairs. As it was, they were always a month behind on the house payment. Their little house with the crack in the stoop and the stink of mildew in the bathroom, it was a little bit of nothing that even so they could scarcely afford. How did she imagine that repairing the car was going to happen?

“Call me at Dunn Grave,” she said and she rang off without a good-bye.

“Thank you,” he said a moment too late. She hadn’t heard.

____________

When the train got beyond Mauricetown, the city glow was blotted out by the overhanging trees.  If he pressed his face to the glass, he could watch the fireflies begin to light, green stars in a galaxy of woods.  He noticed them last week, when he was late the last time.  They weren’t visible on the earlier trip; the waning days of summer were still too bright at that time to note them.  But if one missed the train and came on the very next one, there they were, something hopeful and beautiful to watch all the dreary ride homeward.

He recalled a night when he was a child, when his father was still alive.  It had been the two of them and his sister, returning from the barn after feeding the animals.  They spilled out into the night, the three of them, when the sky was purple all but for a ribbon of gold over the mountains.

“Do you see that?” his father whispered.  The two children fell silent.

At first, like star gazing, they could not quite see the fireflies.  Then they noticed one and then another and then a dozen more and finally countless lights in the dark lower pasture.

“Daddy,” his sister said.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he answered.

They stood in the silence and the night, hearing the throaty noises of the summer bugs, watching the green lights come and go and come again.  Behind them, a few pale rectangles marked the windows of their house on the hill, but they were lost in the beauty before them and forgot everything else.

It was hard to tell how long they stood there, three side by side, so calm and happy together, unlike so many other times.  Whether it was a minute or an hour, in the years after, he learned it was not long enough.  Had he deliberately missed the train tonight so that he’d see these fireflies again?  He wondered about that, unable to answer. There had been no broken machines at the station.  He’d just sort of moved too slow, his mind elsewhere, until suddenly he heard the train departing.  It would never do to let Mariam know the truth.

He was so happy to watch the fireflies of this day, pressed to the train window, that he forgot to call her as the train went through the station at Dunn Grave.  Finally, it came to his own stop, the end of the line, where the parking lot lights of the sprawling commuter town wore unholy halos in the muggy evening air.

At the end of the station lot, where a strip mall butted up seamlessly, his gaze fell briefly on the spot where Will usually parked his car while at work.  The slot was empty, as he already knew it would be.  He faced the street toward home and started walking away from the town.  He might have called Mariam, told her he couldn’t get a signal at Dunn Grave, told her he’d wait in the vestibule of the Target until she drove up to get him.  Instead, he headed toward home, grim and sure of the argument that would await.  He would never know why suddenly he couldn’t lie to placate her, but he trudged into the shadows of the county road like a child going to meet the strap.

When the last street light was at his back, he started to notice the fireflies again.  He thought of a spot on the road ahead where he could sit and watch them; the porch steps of an empty, plain farm house overgrown with Virginia creeper.  The iron gate cried out when he pressed through, and while it startled an owl out of a hole in the eaves, it did not startle him.  Nothing about the house frightened him tonight, though at times he’d thought it vaguely sinister.  In the autumn, if he glanced over just as his car lights flashed on the dusty window glass, he feared seeing a grim face looking out.  Tonight it was merely a lonely old thing, dead inside and out, with a little of its bones poking through its outsides, like a deer rotting open on the roadside.

He sat on the step and looked out into the familiar points of light.

It had been a long time since the night that he and his sister and his father shared this simple pleasure.  He remembered when the memory of it still was fresh, when he was a younger man, and he recalled that for a while it lay dormant, pushed aside by many other cares, only some his own.  But since last week, it was as clear as if it had just happened. It seemed like a sort of magic was waiting to unfold.  Perhaps there was an enchanted door somewhere, maybe inside the old house, that would spill him out into that other meadow and that other night.  He could steal up softly beside the three figures, the tall one and two little ones.  His steps would have to be still, so as not to frighten them, but if he could manage it, he’d stay as long as they had stayed and then he’d wait longer still, until the last light went out.

Dear Dad

 

I went with Ed to put flowers on your grave today. Two roses from the bushes we just planted. One for me and one for Ed. I thought you’d like that, something simple and beautiful earned by hard work. You showed me that in spades.
I thought about you the other day in a particular way I had not before. I thought about how you found a second passion, later in life, when you went into real estate. It was something you’d wanted to do when you were younger. You patiently met your retirement goals with NIH and then you started again, a new life in a sense. And just as you might have the first time around, you had to build from scratch, take risks, be patient, make mistakes, try again. I thought about how maybe it was hard on you waiting that long to start over again. How it must have been so tiring to your spirit.
But then, I wasn’t with you at the NIH job every day. Maybe you had a couple of work pals to cut up with; maybe you took pride in completing projects. Maybe that fed you enough, especially with dreams and future plans to mull over on the long ride home and the ride back.
I was trying to think of which of the flowers we planted to take to you. I thought of the snap dragons and then I wondered if there was metaphor lurking there. I decided not, but it did give me pause, remembering how your eyes glowed red all my childhood, abused as they were by paper work, long hours and – your constant companion – bitter allergies. You seemed tired to me so much, impatient and gruff and hard to please in the years I was little and wanting to please the most. By the time your circumstances, your mellowing age and perhaps a shift in values made you over gentler, I had become the hard one. A young man bent on his own goals, making perfunctory dinner plans, feeling I was doing my duty, thinking somewhere deep that one day it would even out. We’d meet in the middle.
In many ways, we did grow closer. I know you loved me and I know you knew I loved you. The last year of your life, when we thought you’d fooled your cancer, I found often that I had hit a button on my phone by accident. I’d look down and see your name on the screen. For a second, I’d wonder had you called me or had I called you. Caught off guard, distracted, I would give the least of myself to a quick conversation, laughing shortly that I had called by accident. I’d ask how you were and you always answered honestly, humbly, and with thought. You’d ask how I was doing. I would say fine, that work was busy, that all was normal at home.
me and dad at wedding reception
Recently I had a client who wanted some help developing a business plan. It isn’t my expertise, but I felt like I could offer something. Like you, I’m not without ideas, not without a solid sense of logistics. I worked with a friend to help me. It came out good. Then the client’s realtor started acting cagey toward them and I wanted to ask you for advice. It hurt me so much that I couldn’t make that call. Not because of business, but because it was another reminder that all that I could make of us, I had done – in youth, arrogance, unforgiving just a little bit, cautious a mite.
I made peace with the harsher memories of being the different child in the family, the one judged for it, when I was younger. In the years that followed, you showed the kindness and the love that I wish had always been between us. And I was thankful for it. But I was also unsure of it. I stood to the side of it, giving back a lukewarm version of the same. I think time, my own age and humility, would have helped with the knitting you were casting.
I wish you had lived to be old – very old – to have felt strong and manly and capable as long as possible. It would have been great to get to be old enough in my own skin to have met you fully in the middle. It is a regret, painful to be sure, but one that I want to put to bed. It isn’t fair to think I could have done more. I did what I knew to do in those days and hours in which we were both here.
Now, in the aftermath of your death, I have been changed. I have never been short of empathy and compassion, but I now want to show some of that to myself, that I can avoid the snap dragon years. I am a sourpuss at times, eyes red like your own, tired more than my age. I would have what you found later now. I have been trying to feel more patience toward other people. I’ve been trying to let things bother me less. I cursed the garden hose this morning, fowl and guttural, and perhaps battling to become so saintly as to overcome pique at tricky, dumb things about the house is asking too much. I only want to make more room for pleasures, to ask myself if my impatience in a moment would be replaced with calm. One gentle lesson at a time, to retire bad habits of spirit early or as early as possible. I miss you, old man, in more ways than any one letter can cover. Know that I love you, miss you, and wish we could have had more of time and talk.
In the spirit of you, I am happy to set a goal of more life, love, freedom and joy in myself – a little spell to cast, pulling myself out of shadows, delusions of age, finding the sun again, the light and optimism that youth cannot help but hold easily. We who are ripening know something about optimism that youth sometimes misses: it takes tending, I’m grateful to know. You set a fine example.
All my love, your son, Paul

Pillar

The custard would not thicken and finally, having added this and that without result, she turned off the burner and walked away from it.  There was some ice cream in the freezer and some strawberries in the fridge.  The berries were a little sad-looking, but she’d cut out the bad parts and macerate the rest.  Her mother would never notice.

It was strange to her to be going through normal little rituals like planning for dessert.  In light of everything, she ought to be sitting with friends to either side of her, holding her hands, rubbing her shoulders.  That is what a woman should want when her lover has been murdered.  No one who knew her would deny it to her.

In the back of their cabin, the yard was a narrow strip running along a steep bank, thickly overgrown with scrub cedar and autumn olive.  Below, the thin branch of the North river slipped past, a determined and patient body, head down as it acquiesced to the bends and boulders and to the fallen trees.  It was low just now, silent and safe.

Last year there had been a flood and the river climbed the bank, pushed through the woods and rose up into the cabin.  The furniture lifted off the floor and swam about the rooms. When the water dropped, the dining chairs were ganged in a corner, drunkenly toppled against each other.  The carpet was covered over in mud and silt.

She and Mike had cleaned the place on their own, drawing on the wall in the bedroom closet when they were done, a mark of where the water had been, with the words, “We’ve decided to stay anyway.”  They added the year as an afterthought, hoping it was true this was a hundred year flood plain.

One night when they were cleaning up, they talked about where they might have gone if they hadn’t stayed put.  Mike was cutting out the bottom two feet of the drywall in the living room.  A work lamp, clamped to the ladder, cast his face in shadow, lit his golden hair and arms.  She glanced up now and then as she emptied out the kitchen cabinets, watching the muscles in his back moving under his shirt.

“What was that place Suzanne used to talk about?” she called out. “That town in Vermont where she went to school?”

“I don’t remember,” he said. “But I remember the name of the lunch place she used to talk about.  The Goat Head.  Sounded so good.  Didn’t she bring us hummus from there once?”

“Yep.”

“I could live up north,” he said.

“I could, too.”

She shifted onto her hands and knees and began to scrub the inside of the cabinet with bleach water.  The fumes stung her eyes, but they said it was the only way to prevent mold.  “We used to go to Maryland when I was a little girl.  There was a house on a point on the Chesapeake.  Mom always came alive there. She wasn’t much of a people person.  There she didn’t have to put on any acts.  She could flop around all day, drinking coffee and smoking.  She spent most of the day on the screened porch, reading and watching us down at the water’s edge.  It was peaceful.”

For a moment, his work went still.  She wondered if he was feeling sorry for her, but just as she would have cautioned him not to say anything about her mother, she heard his hammer at work, pulling nails.  She let out her breath, leaning out of the cabinet to breathe.

Outside they heard rain drops falling on the grass.

“Maybe this’ll kill the humidity.”

“That would be nice.”

They were whispering, though they were alone.

“Hey, Mike.”

“What?”

“I’m glad we didn’t move up north.”

 

 


 

Her mother was sanskrit before they cracked the code.  She was unreadable, unknowable, a column of femininity with pointy flats at the ground and a smooth dark crown that reached up into the sky.  She was not a tree, because they had boughs that reached out, listed, trembled with life.  Her mother’s arms were always close to her frame, folded against her chest; or else her hands were linked at her back or tucked into pockets.

Her voice was low, slightly less so when she was lying.

“Tell your father we went for a walk today.  All of us together.”

“But we didn’t.”

“I know, but he’s been hounding me.  Just tell him we went down to the point and then back.  Tell him I seemed good.”

Molly peered up at her.  “You did seem good.  Resting in the house.”

“Don’t be like that.  Just tell him I took you guys out for a walk.”

“Okay.”

Her mother hugged her shoulders, turning her head to pull on the cigarette dangling from her long fingers.  “Mmm. Tell him it was nice.”

Molly loved her father and she was almost sure she loved her mother, but it was never joyful to be around them at the same time.  He treated his wife like something delicate, as if he cherished a thing about her no one else could see.  His eyes followed her wistfully; he shifted himself to fit closer to her in all ways.

On his fortieth birthday, her mother fretted over a cake.  It surprised the kids not only because she usually treated the kitchen like the coffee counter at a gas station, but because she never went to any pains for their father.  It just wasn’t how they operated.

The night of the birthday dinner, he was telling them about something that had gone wrong at work, when their mother heaved a sigh and dropped her fork onto her plate.

“This is boring,” she said.

A silence fell in the small dining room.  The children glanced into their father’s stunned face, then studied their laps.  Molly tried to think of something to say so he could finish his story.  Maybe she could act like mother was just joking. She lifted her face to try the lie.

“Anyway,” her mother said.  “You could get to the point a little sooner.”

When she brought out the cake after supper, he made an effort to seem enthused. And despite his hurt over the earlier comment, Molly could see he was touched by the gesture.

“You didn’t have to, Annie,” he murmured.

“I know,” she said.  She looked into his face quickly, then lowered a scowl onto the cake as she cut it.  “Anyway, I hope you like it.”

 

 


 

The man who murdered Mike had known them both since high school.  His name was Julian.  He was lanky and handsome with shadowy brown eyes and curly hair that made him seem boyish.  Sometimes they made runs together, he and Mike, bringing pot across the state line to sell in town.  Mike wasn’t much of a drug dealer.  He knew a couple of guys who’d buy a quarter pound at a time.  It was Julian who had a roster of clients.  He sold his share in little bits to just about anyone: eighths, dimes, and nickels.  He’d sell a junior high kid a single bud, wrapped up in the cellophane of a cigarette pack, rather than turn away a five dollar bill.

She never liked Julian, never trusted him.  He used to look up at her from under his curls, letting a slow and knowing smile bloom on his face.  His lips were red and cherry sweet inside the frame of his dark beard and she could not deny that the smile had an affect.  He could see it in her eyes and they both knew it.   She always looked away.  He never touched her, never came up close or behind her.  He never said a sweet thing to her, told her she looked good in any color.  In truth, Julian didn’t talk much.

Mike told her one night how their drug runs always went down.  They drove up Route 50 into Maryland, then turned onto Greenlick Road just before the old burned out church.  There were two more turns off that road, each new road a little narrower, the last one gravel only.  Julian made him sit in the car while he went in to buy.  He’d play the radio, but low, because the men inside didn’t like noise from outside.

Every time they went there, it ended with three sounds.  The first was the screen door on the little green cabin, whining as it opened, then slapping the frame softly.  Julian tapped on the trunk and Mike hit the latch on the floorboard to open it.  Julian always closed the trunk so softly it made no sound, but then he’d tap his knuckles on the glass of the passenger door and Mike would unlock the car.

“How’d you guys work that out?” she asked, turning something over on the stove.

“We didn’t really,” Mike said.  “It’s just always like that.”

“So you never see the pot until you get back into town and split it up?”

“Nope.”  He pulled his guitar out from behind the sofa and began to tune it.  He wasn’t much of a player, but he handled the thing every day.

“So you don’t even know if its good until you own it?”

“Nope.”

She pulled the pan off the burner and came to sit on the coffee table in front of him.  It was winter that night, snow flying at the windows, the Kodiak stove hot to the touch, heating the little rooms faithfully.  “Listen to me,” she said.

He smiled up at her, knowing she was going to give him advice.  At times like this, she wondered how much he really took her words to heart.

“Molly Harding?” he said.

“What?”

“I’m listening.”

She put a hand over his, stilling the guitar strings.

“If you guys ever get caught, you need to play dumb.  You need to act like you thought he was just buying enough for himself.”

He opened his mouth to speak.

“Julian’s a piece of shit.  He’d throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.  You’ve never seen the seller but you know how to get to the house.  Draw the cops a map. Cooperate. Say you smoke now and again – they’ll test you, so no use lying about it.  Say you drove Julian because he’d been drinking.  Unless they’ve been following you guys a while, they’ll never know the difference.”

“What about my guys?”

“Your guys? Your three college friends who split your share?  They’re the opposite of him; they’d never betray you.  Besides, they’re all model citizens, don’t even really look like potheads.  We’re not in our twenties anymore.  Only people like Julian fit what cops think of as trouble.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you ever get caught, you were driving Julian because he’d had a little too much to drink. You knew he was getting some pot, but you thought it was just a little for himself.  And then you draw them a map of how to get to the place.  Julian’s exactly the kind of guy they’d like to send up.  If you get them to the place where he’s buying, that’s all they’ll want from you.”

He’d looked at her for a long while.

“You’re a little cold sometimes, you know that?”

She wanted to smile but couldn’t.  “I know how to take care of my chickens.”

He dropped his gaze.

“Well, I’ll think about it.”

“If you ever get caught, do it exactly like I said.”  She went back to the stove, “Or stop running with him.  I’d prefer that.”

He shook his head at the thought.

In the Spring they had another party, marking the flood from the year before. Everyone was to bring something. They made a makeshift table out on the side yard under two sycamores: two sawhorses from Mike’s shed and a piece of plywood. She spread two cloths over the rough panel and though they didn’t match, it didn’t matter once all the bowls of food covered everything over. She had asked him not to, but Mike invited Julian.

“I didn’t think he’d come.”

She was clipping flowers from the edge of the yard. “There’s free food and booze. Of course he’d come.”

After the sun set, people had started to separate into groups, some down by the river, where a couple of guys were making music.  Julian found her in the kitchen by herself, doing dishes.

“You always keep moving, Molly.”

She didn’t look up from the water.

In the darkening glass of the window over the sink, she could see his curly head outlined by the ceiling light from the living room. It almost seemed he was wearing a halo.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You not speaking to me tonight?” he asked, his drawl never so lazy. “You’re always mean to me, Molly Harding.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said.

He laughed, a rich sound like one from an old wooden violin. No, not that distinguished.  She slowed her breathing, trying to decide what to say but a moment later he stepped away, leaving her alone in the house.  He left his scent with her in the kitchen, spicy and sweaty and warm.  Pulling her lips tight, she switched on the ceiling fan.

In August, they went through a long, rainy period.  The river rose again, rapidly, and people started talking about a second flood.  She and Mike never said their fears aloud.  One night he went on a run with Julian up Route 50 and when he was gone two hours longer than usual, she convinced herself the road had got washed out and they were stuck up country for a while.  They’d probably have to wait for the water to drop and that might take a couple of days.  She tried to imagine how the two men would spend that much time together.  She wondered when Mike would think to call her.

It was the middle of the night before the phone rang, waking her from a light slumber that had stole over her despite her efforts to stay awake.  She answered with a dry voice.  An operator asked if she would take a collect call from the county jail. Her heart sinking, she said she’d take the call.

“Mike?”

“I decided to take your advice,” he said.

 


 

When her mother got to the house that evening, she was sporting a new haircut. Over dinner she told Molly about the trouble she’d had finding a good stylist.  She only let men touch her hair.

“I don’t trust a woman to tell me what looks good on me.”

Molly didn’t ask why, mostly because she didn’t care.  She moved the food around on her plate.  Her mother pulled a leather cigarette case out of her purse, which always rested on the floor near her feet, even at dinner – and no matter the house.

“You mind?” she asked.

Molly rose and opened a couple of windows.

“Okay, I’ll be quick,” her mother said.  “It’s cold out there.”

The two women sat without words, the one eating her dinner half-heartedly, the other burning down her smoke like it was being timed.  At last her mother broke the silence.

“You gonna find a renter for this place?”

Molly’s eyes widened; it had only been ten days.

“What?”

“I mean, you can’t sell it. It’s in a flood plain. I tried to tell you guys that before.”

“It isn’t even on my mind right now.”

Molly pushed her food away.

“Okay. Suit yourself.”

“Mom!”

Her mother shrugged, rising to put her cigarette out under the kitchen faucet. Dropping the butt into the trash, she moved to close the windows.

“Not yet,” Molly said.  “It still stinks in here.”

Her mother folded her arms.  “You can’t stay here.  Those bastards may still be out there.”

“They’re not coming for me.  It wasn’t my fight.”

“You don’t know.”

Molly dropped her face into her hands, rubbed her eyes until she thought she’d rub them out, the two dark stains that had been condemning her from the bathroom mirror since the night of the shooting.  Eyes that said she’d brought this on him.

Her mother sighed.  “Can I close the windows now?”

“If you want to.”

They closed softly.  Molly looked up and caught her mother gazing at herself in the glass, her expression wistful or else nothing at all but tired.  This woman had taught her how to lie good and she had schooled Mike to do the same.  She frowned down at her hands, folded on the table.  It wasn’t fair to string things together that way.

It wasn’t the whole story.

Time had taught her why her Mother asked her to tell stories to her father.  She’d had reasons that were not without compassion.

“I want to buy you some blinds for the windows if you’re not leaving,” her mother said.  “Although I think when the shock wears off, you’ll want to start over again, somewhere else.”

Molly nodded wearily.  She was either too defeated to argue the point or not entirely sure the other woman was wrong.  Perhaps in time she would need to move on, to put these years in their place, and strike a fresh mark on a new page. If she had her mother’s strength or something like it.

 

Shooting Stars

They’ve packed up almost everything that’ll fit in the the van.  They’re leaving a rocker in the front hall they promised to Sonya and there’s a small pile of odds and ends to be run down to the parish thrift on their way out.  The place smells like pine and lemons and bleach, a sharp perfume that could almost cause a headache if the windows weren’t open.

He finds Jean standing in the middle of their bedroom, staring at a pattern of light and shadow on the wall where the bed was set up only hours ago.  She glances at him.

“When we moved in, I used to look at that all the time and think how lucky we were.  Then somehow I stopped seeing it.”

“It’s pretty,” he says.

She turns from him, a frown pulling her face. Walking to the lone window, she reaches up to take down a glass sphere they hung there years ago.  It was almost forgotten.  Her body breaks the pattern on the wall, the slanting gold light mirroring her shape down to the small flyaway curls around her face.

He digs his hands in his pockets.  “I was remembering that disgusting mayonnaise jar we found when Kath moved out.  Remember? The beer swill and cigarettes.”

She is having trouble getting the sphere down.  They hooped the string over an old curtain bracket twice.

He says, “You called it something funny, like troll puke or something.”

The string breaks and the ornament hits the floor with a crash that is madly loud in the empty space.  Shards of glass scatter all over.

“Shit,” she says.  For only a second, in her mind, it seems like his fault the thing broke.  He’s always trying to talk when she is concentrating on something else.  It never fails.  She takes a breath and smiles over her shoulder at him.

“It was shit, actually.  I called it troll shit.”

He bends down to push the glass into a pile; they already put the broom and dustpan in the moving van.  She kneels down beside him to help.

“Your mom gave you that,” she says.

“I know.”

“Sorry it got broke.”

He shrugs, gives her a smile.  In all the years, that smile has never lost its grave, handsome beauty.  It has not faded one bit, though his eyes are webbed all around with lines.  His long face, his carefully trimmed beard and gentle, intelligent gaze used to make her think of men from other times.  He has a manner to him like the way men look in paintings of American forefathers, as if even when he’s laughing, he bears a weight for many others.  It makes her feel bad for wanting to blame him for every little thing that feels like a crisis for a half minute.

She leans in and drops a kiss on the tip of his nose.  “Well, when we get to Kansas, we’ll find one like it maybe.”

Their fingers touch now and again as they push all the bits of glass into a pile.

____________

He drives the first shift, five hours mostly westward.  She sits Indian fashion in her seat, now and again helping him shift lanes by poking her head out to check their blind spot.  Her hair is blown all around, the curls gone to frizz in the wind.  They listen to the Shins mostly, because it’s one of the bands they can agree on.  It’s good road music.

Jean opens her notebook on her lap and tries to work on her speech for next week.  She was asked to talk to the students of a high school where there was a shooting two months ago.  Three students were killed and a teacher.  It wasn’t in the news for long because another one happened the next week, somewhere else, with more deaths.  It is only used now and again as list filler in the overall argument over gun laws.

She didn’t imagine a couple of years ago that she’d be a spokesperson for the issue of random violence.  When that kind of thing came on the news, she flipped the channel.  Just the kind of thing the media loved.  Despite their grave manner as they read off lists of murdered children, she was wise enough to know a school shooting gave the average reporter a raging boner.  No one ever got an Emmy for reporting a break out at city zoo.

Shaking the tension out of her shoulders, she begins her speech where she left off last night.  In the usual way, her fingers seem to speak to the keys before her mind knows what words to use.

____________

Since that August morning when my mother was killed, I have seen the world differently. Violence changes everyone it touches.  It changes the victims, their loved ones and even the person who commits it.  In one terrible hour, Shane Holtzman went from being a troubled boy who thought about killing to becoming a mass murderer who can never escape his actions.  I’ve thought a lot about that particularly.  Every day when he looks in the mirror, Shane Holtzman is seeing a man who took lives.  He lost his way, becoming someone his own mother says she has trouble recognizing, and he was so alone in his rage and his madness, that he couldn’t turn back once he’d decided to do what he ultimately did.

No one can turn back the clock, although I still have dreams where we somehow have.  My mother is alive again, calling me to ask me about work.  It’s a random dream and it feels real.  I guess if she is alive in my dreams sometimes, the others are, too.  I bet many of you have gone to sleep and found Chloe Michaels again and Ali Farook and Carrie Swartz and Mr. Timbrell. They are here again at school, moving through the days we all wish could come again.  The days when we could be thoughtless about violence, deaf to the unspoken rage in a classmate we hardly noticed.  Then we wake up and this is our world now.

I know all too well how you feel because I still feel it now and I’ve had longer to get used to it and to move on.  I was asked to speak to you, as I’ve been asked to before, and I can’t help but always ask myself why.  I can’t change what happened and I can’t stop you from hurting, from fearing.

____________

They stop for gas around seven-thirty.  In the distance, a huge orange sun sinks behind tall signs for restaurants and hotels.  The noise of the highway is one hiss, occasionally broken by a guttering groan as a semi speeds up to pass, then cuts back to slip again into the outside lane.  It seems to take a long time to fill the tank.  Jean buys them each a bottle of juice and grabs herself a candy bar, glancing out at him standing at the pump.  He glances back and throws up a hand in a quick wave.

She climbs into the driver seat and they ease onto the highway a minute later.  He scrolls through his phone to find another playlist.  The sun has vanished now, leaving a violet smear near the horizon that will darken in the coming moments.

“How’s the speech coming?”

She sighs. “I don’t know why I agreed again.”

“Can’t you use the last one?”

“I don’t like any of them,” she says. “They’re all shit.”

He plays the Rosebuds because he knows she likes them, but she gives him a sidewise glance that leaves him looking for another option.  “Sorry.”

She shrugs. “Don’t be. I think I just want something mellow.”

A few miles down the road, she turns down the music.

“You know why I hate writing these speeches?”

“Why?”

“Because it feels like I have to live with this terrible thing all my life.  To be honest, I’m ready to not be the daughter of a woman who was killed.  I wasn’t that person for thirty-six years.  Each time I sit down and write about it, I have to become her all over again.  And I’m sick to death of it.”

“Why don’t you write about that?” he asks.

She frowns.  “Are you kidding?”

“No, I’m not.  Maybe those kids would like someone to give them permission to stop grieving.”

“You can’t just stop.”

“No, but eventually you do.”

She presses her lips together, feeling like she should argue against him.  Yet she knows what he’s saying is only the truth.  And maybe he’s right.  She turns up the music again.

They drive without speaking for about a half hour.  They come to an area where the highway runs beside a small prairie city.  Traffic slows to a crawl as people get off and on the highway.  She turns down the music again.

“But how do you talk about that with the right tone?” she asks.

He glances over at her.  “I think you just say it as honest as you can.  No need to sugar coat it, no need to make it harder than it is.  You could say to those kids the exact thing you said to me.”

“What? That I’m sick of being the daughter of a murdered woman?”

“Yes.”

She laughs shortly, again feeling something like anger.  It isn’t at him, she knows, but still it feels almost like the moments before a fight.  She reaches to turn the music up again, but then she changes her mind.

“There is something to that.”

“I just think the thing I hated most about being a teenager was being coddled. I felt like I was ready to hear things honest.  And think of how being young feels.  I bet some of those kids wanted to go to the movies and laugh the very next day, because being young is wanting to live and have fun, but everyone expects them to grieve.”

She nods. “I remember the first time I laughed out loud, it felt wrong.”

“Then say that, too.”

His hand finds hers in the dark cab and she grips his fingers gratefully.  Smiling at him in the glow of the dash, she says, “You’re pretty smart.”

The traffic clears and they pick up speed.  In the large side mirror, when she glances back, the little city is a galaxy of light.  The shapes of the buildings and the knotty mess of exit ramps have vanished.  Only the lights shine out in the night, with the lights of the cars behind them bursting outward like shooting stars.

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.

Image

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.