The Skies Over Bethlehem

He had a dream last night that left him floating all the morning in a surreal fog.  In the dream, he was looking through the woods for a persimmon tree he’d once found but lost.  That much he recognized; that tree had been on his mind recently.  His mother took him to it once when he was a boy and she’d said the fruit was only good when it was nice and fully ripe.

“Otherwise, it’ll turn your mouth inside out.”

He’d been thinking of his mother, too.  It happened like this a lot in the autumn.  They’d last seen her on a brittle Sunday afternoon of a long lost November.  The woman who disappeared just before his tenth birthday had worn a warm coat and a knit scarf of mixed greens and oranges.  Her scuffed boots had been brown like her hair.   She waved before climbing into the station wagon.  The man behind the steering wheel stared straight ahead, his thick glasses glinting so that his eyes could not be seen.  She winked at him as they backed into the drive, that familiar wink that was meant to say everything would turn out fine.  It wasn’t convincing this time around.  He and his sisters lifted their hands and waved as the dusty car vanished down the pale drive.

___________

In the dream, he came to a clearing in the woods and he stood there and turned around and round, peering into the forest, trying to spot the tree.  Then suddenly, in the way of dreams, he was no longer alone.  Stretched out in the clearing, lit by a stream of heavenly light, was a woman giving birth.  Her shoulders and her belly and her knees under the nightdress were a range of mountains.  The damp brown hair snaking through the wild onion was a black spring that began and ended with her.  He started at the sight of her, but she only smiled at him through her labored breathing.  It was a pained, mysterious smile, a bittersweet smile that was a little afraid.  She wasn’t his mother, but she had her smile.

“They say you forget the pain,” she said.

He crouched beside her in the wild onions and the hand that reached out to comfort her was pale and dimpled and small.  He hadn’t known until then that he was a child in this dream.  She took his wrist painfully.

“But you won’t be forever,” she said. “None of us are forever.”

“Please, let me go.”

She looked into his eyes for a long while.  He could not decide the color of hers.  They shone like the tops of lakes on days when the sun hasn’t broke through, but it might just.  Her gaze was a moving storm.   Finally, she released his wrist and he took his hand back.  He’d not got to comfort her, after all.

In the next moment, she was gone.  The clearing seemed to be growing smaller around him.  When he looked at his feet, the wild onion had become pine needles.  Soon, the forest was overhead again and the sky had changed to a deep, smoky violet.  It wasn’t the real color of a night sky, but the color of night skies in children’s books.  No, more than that, he decided; it was the exact color of a sky they had painted.

____________

His mother had agreed to help with the Christmas pageant at church.  She felt that it was her turn and perhaps she wanted a little something to help fill the long autumn nights.  She corralled each of them into the station wagon, Tuesday and Thursday nights for weeks, stopping along the way to pick up the Clatterbuck girl and then, a little farther on, the Willard twins.  The other kids lived close enough to the church to walk.  They were always there on the porch waiting when they pulled up in front, because his mother had never been on time to anything.   When she got the heavy paneled door unlocked, she’d reach along the inside wall for the switch to the vestibule.  Then one of the older boys would feel his way half way down the basement steps to flip the breakers for the knave.  It had been wired late and funny.

When the lights came up, the red plush cushions on the pews jumped out first, then the dark green carpet running up the twin aisles. The alter looked bare without the Sunday flowers.  The big room was cold at first, but the huge old oil furnace would quickly warm the place.  Coats and hats went into a graceless pile on a pew at the back.

His mother got them started on lines and in a half hour, another woman came to help out.  She brought a few kids with her, too, and she played the piano in the choir loft and helped with the singing bits.  His mother was in over her head, her slightly stunned face confessed, but she laughed a lot as she tried her best.  That was all she could do.

Close to the pageant, she had one of her breakdowns at home.  It was on the carport, while she tried to finish the backdrop to the nativity scene.  It was hard to paint the skies over Bethlehem with the wind kicking at the corners of the cloth.  The coffee tins she tried using weren’t heavy enough.  She tried prying up some stones from the garden.  By the time she spilled the paint, she was a nervous wreck.

“Goddam it!” she yelled. “It’s tomorrow.  Can’t the world give me a fucking break?”

He watched her for a moment through the screen door and waited for the nervous giggles that her breakdowns always caused.  This time they didn’t come, which was a blessing.  They always infuriated her, even though she knew it was involuntary. He pushed open the door and came to crouch beside her.

“I’ll help, Mommy,” he said.

“It’s too purple anyway,” she said.  Her face looked older than it needed to look under the yellowy overhead light.  The doubt and the anger and the suffering in her eyes was something he couldn’t quite understand.  They would get the skies over Bethlehem painted in time.  But her misery would vanish and come again and again. It was the way of things.  He felt the feelings with her and for her, even when they made no sense.

He took up the brush and began to smear the spill back and forth, filling in more and more of the white canvas.  Because there was so much, it spread far and quickly.  She sat beside him, her face in her hands, but her frown beginning to fade.  After a moment, she found another brush in her caddy and she crawled to the other side of the cloth.

“Just pour some on,” he advised. “It works good that way.”

Soon they met in the middle of a vast, plummy sky and laughing, they held up palms of the exact same shade.

“We should have started here and worked out,” she said ruefully.  But the crisis had passed again.

We

Saturday morning, station wagon.

Mom & Dad

The girls & me.

We are us.

And us is we.

Image

On the road to Winchester, the hills roller coaster.

The farms tilt up

And the farms tilt down.

Daddy hits the gas to make us soar

High we fly and low we fall.

Butterflies burst in our bellies.

Everyone says it together,

Big people and little ones:

Wee.

It is always sunny

On the road to Winchester.

Even when it is raining.

Even when mother’s eyes

Silver with sadness.

If Daddy makes butterflies.

We. Are. Happy.

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.

On School Mornings

On cold school mornings, it was hard to wake up, get out of bed.  The wood floors were chilly on our toes, the house was church quiet in the wan light.  The last things we touched before bed were just as we’d left them: an open board game on the dining table; smashed up sofa pillows in a nest in front of the TV set.  Mom would have stoked up the wood fire. Its smoky scent suggested to me the comfort of a day at home with soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, so that the thought of washing my face for school made me sick with dread.

We lived on a country road outside of town, in a little brick rambler on a thirteen acre patch.  In the summer, it was cheery with falling birch tendrils and floating mimosa blossoms.  Dashing bare foot over soft wild clover, our only concern was not to step on bees.  That happened to me once and twenty-four hours later – a peculiar delay – my foot swelled up fat as a melon.  There was an orchard, or three apple trees we called an orchard, you could see from the bedroom windows.  Once I spread a quilt there and read in the shadows, heedless of heat and snakes.  Another time, me and Mom discovered a dove nesting amid the blooms and we visited often to watch her bringing food to her fledglings.  One day we went to find them, but there was only a mess of blood and feathers.  The cat had gotten to the little winged family.

When the season turned, there was a sad kind of beauty that took place of all the gold and the green.  The autumn wind bowled easily through the shallow hills, bending grasses that were auburn and blond like my two sisters’ hair, and scrubbing the scrub cedar until the air was heady with its chill spice.  Sometimes, when the fall was new, I would walk with Mom out to the pond and then into the woods.  We’d take note of all the summer things that had vanished – the blue quaker ladies we found on the pine hill, the orange lantern vines that decorated a marsh-footed persimmon tree – and we’d stand for a good while at the water’s edge, marveling at the blue mirror of an October sky.  If you were silent, the breeze in the pines sounded like the very world was taking a deep breath.  On weekends Dad might walk with us and though he was often like a stranger to me, it was nice to be three.  The girls seemed never to be part of those ramblings, my oldest sister, Moo, happy to stay in her room, her nose buried in a romance novel, while tow-headed Bird talked on the phone with friends, usually about the new boys that year.  If my folks had a little buddy for traipsing through the autumn woods, I guess it was me.  At least, that is how I remember it.

There was as much to love about autumn as there was summer – except for school, which seemed only a sterile building to be placed for the day, where the learning was sometimes a pleasure, but where the cruelty of the roughest kids paralyzed me.  School gave me a knot in the stomach, a dread that began at bedtime each night.  In August, when the first day was still a few weeks away, I would have nightmares about it.  The defenses I put up against the unkind few – I later discovered – also kept away those who might have been my friends.  I lived my childhood years in a cage that I had built from the inside but did not know how to dismantle.  What was meant to protect me became the thing that made it hard to be happy.  I now know how being safe can be a delusion, keeping us from being bold, from trying our own, unique untried. But try telling a kid that, especially when you’re that kid.

If there was one thing that brightened the mornings – those awful school mornings – it was breakfast.  The scent would bring us to the kitchen quick, still sandy-eyed as we tried to walk and step into our socks at once.  The sounds of eggs being cracked, a whisk rattling against a mixing bowl, water running, toast popping, bacon frying – this lovely song of morning comforts was the very thing that made leaving the house shortly after seem crueler still.  I would be thinking of my options for staying home even as I sat down at the table.  My sister Bird would be eyeing the morning fare with only mild interest, most likely wondering yet again why Mom would deprive us the pleasures of Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch.  If I had used the complaint of a sore throat the day before, I would decide that it ought to be an upset stomach this time.  It was important to keep it varied.  Those stomach ache mornings required a terrible sacrifice, as I knew from experience that you needed to feign a poor appetite to really seem sick.  I’m sure when Mom noticed the histrionic pushing around of a stack of pancakes, accompanied by the grave face and a string of heavy sighs, she knew what was coming.

We struggled with each other horribly, me sticking to my claims hard and fast, she refuting them and insisting – yet again – that this time the truancy officers really would come and take me away and throw her in jail as an unfit mother.  But when I could break her down and get my way, it was quite simply turning off dread, turning on happiness.  If it meant having to hide in my room all morning, reading and keeping up the game, it was worth it, knowing that by lunch we would be friends again.  I would come out around eleven, saying I thought I felt a little better, and I would offer to do some little house chore for her.  She would be busy at her typewriter, typing medical records from dictation, and would roll her eyes and say warily, “Whatever, Paul.”

I would try to be quiet as I washed dishes or cleaned up breakfast from the counters.  Her mornings were stressful even aside from my contribution.  She spent as much time as she could trying to finish that days batch of work, while dodging calls from friends who seemed to think working from home was a lot like not working, and occasionally hiding in the living room if Jehovah Witnesses or salespeople knocked at the door.  It was fun to stand in the shadows with her; we always caught each others eyes and got a case of the church giggles.  Our eyes are a lot alike – keen, brown, and sleep-shadowed – and they always seem to recognize the ridiculous when they meet.  Mom and I were the worst for sharing nervous laughter.  By lunch time, she would be thawing, perhaps deciding it was useless in the big scheme of things to carry on a show of her disappointment in me.  She and I were equally powerless to explain or best what had become, by the time I was nine, the phobia that was shaping me.  She had her own cadre of anxieties – perhaps she could sympathize.  At the time, I figured she liked my company as much as I liked hers and that it was a reluctant acceptance of this that brought about the lunch hour reprieve.

Putting her work aside, she would step into the kitchen and pull out one of her Weight Watcher lunches, saying how she would much prefer some biscuits and Dinty Moore beef stew.  I would readily agree, “You only had two pancakes at breakfast, Mom, and you had fruit on your yogurt.”

My agenda was obvious and she might give me one last withering glance as she said, “That doesn’t matter, Paul.  You have to stick to it every meal.”

I would shrug, “Can I have some Dinty Moore and biscuits then?”

“Oh, so your stomach’s that much better.”

“Yes.”

Inevitably she would toss the box of grilled barbecue chicken, peas and rice back into the freezer and knock open a roll of biscuits on the counter edge.  I would get out the can opener and rummage in the pantry cabinet.  I would chatter nervously, happily as the food cooked.  As we ate, Mom would eventually get back around to the school problem, but I would try to charm us onto other topics.  If we steered clear of those troubled waters, we had fun, so I learned to get us going on things she liked to talk about.  As we gathered up our crumbs and spills into the folds of the paper towels we called napkins, for the first time that day I would notice the knot in my stomach had gone away.  She would have to get back to her dictation and I would ask if I could watch TV if I kept the volume down.  In a brief, hard-captured peace, we parted for a few hours and the morning tumult seemed impossible to remember with the sounds of typewriter keys and game show music replacing the silence.