Hell Fire

In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town.  It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira.  You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me.  I deserve nothing less.  Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up.  With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong.  Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.

station wagon edit

Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind.  Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm.  Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs.  We didn’t care who heard us singing.

If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town.  This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor.  You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.

Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment.  He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside.  This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.

The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez.   Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment.   My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20.  Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents.  Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it.  Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in.  When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.

That had started innocently enough in the late winter.  At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories.  They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them.  We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve.   Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.

But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past.  It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said,  “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”

Then came melba toast and cottage cheese.  It was war.

“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart.  Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”

“Now, damn it, kids. No.”

“Please? Please? Please?”

“Goddam it.”

Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss.  As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”

We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.

The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library.  If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books.  On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles.  Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.

“It’s the transplants.  They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”

Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully.  If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden.  If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.

“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”

Perhaps Mom was cranky.  It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch.  As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop.  Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.

 

 

1986

He was closer to his mother when he was a boy.  The father could not put him to sleep; only she, the soft love of her soft voice reading.  As she spoke the stories, he forgot to be afraid of shadows.  He found the enchantment of other worlds: a cabin in the prairie with a china lady on the mantle; a little island out over Canada where the roads were red and the gables green.

The boysome, bounding bravery of others did not come easily to him.  His voice was gentle, his brown eyes shadowed.  Early on in his childhood, he found a dread of school.  Other children sensed something about him was different.  The questions in their faces humiliated him and when they found the words that fit, if clumsily, their savagery cleaved him from any sense of belonging.  The world at school was terrible to him.  Had he been able to disappear into it, had he a talent for that, he might have slipped through the years less scathed.

In his fear, he was friendless, except that he had his mother.  She forgave him his fears, by and large, even if she couldn’t pry the cause of them from him.  It made sense that she understood him.  She was a nervous wreck herself: afraid of spiders, big open spaces and stairwells.  In their little ranch house with the yellow walls and the low ceilings, they were safe for a long while.  Then she began to fear crossing the bridge between the house and town.  It began to imprison them.

Escape

[From a piece about escaping to a childhood home, a theme that recurred a lot in my imagination in my 20s and found its way into my drafts last year.  The idea of a person taking shelter in a forgotten place was comforting to me once; perhaps it turns on the same part of the psyche that makes preppers enthusiastically dig out their bunkers.]


 

It is starting to mist when she asks the driver to stop at a clapboard house with a broken trellis and a faded green door.  He sets her suitcase on the walk while she counts out change from her coin purse.  From the porch, she watches him turn the taxi around and head back from where they came.  His taillights paint a second set of red eyes on the wet street when he brakes lightly at the intersection.  Then the vehicle rolls forward and soon vanishes into the distance.  Taking a breath, she steps onto the sidewalk and heads across the street, turning southward along a wall of shrubbery.  Her steps are quick.  She keeps her head lowered.  Once she hears a car approaching and she presses close to the hedge, holding her breath.  The car turns at the corner and she moves on.

Delaware Farmhouse 1From the house with the faded door, it takes her ten minutes to walk to the place just outside of town where the old main road meets the highway.  She almost misses the mouth of the drive because the honeysuckle has laced the fence posts together, a Jacob’s ladder of vine.  It will be best if she does not disturb their camouflage, so she hunts a while to find an opening she can squeeze through.  When she’s on the other side of the vines, she breaks off a twig of cedar and reaches out to swipe her footprints from the damp soil.

The drive is much as she remembered it, though the view to left and right has changed.  Even in the smoldering twilight she can see arcs of wild poke berry and sumac in the fields.  All the soft wily growth of the countryside has returned.  There was a time when even the dreamy dandelion was kept at bay.  It is better this way; let the scrub grow and grow, blotting out the farm and hiding her from all searching eyes.

 

Character Study: Marion Morrow

[Likely an excerpt from an idea for a novel, I found this in my drafts – incomplete – and liked the tone of the main character.  A good dragoon is hard to find.]

Marion Morrow was displeased that the train only ran to Bantry because she didn’t like riding in buses.  It wasn’t entirely the people, although she was happiest when she was the only person about; her stomach didn’t agree with rough engines.  It had been proven to her late in life, as she was already well past forty before even the smallest motors began to litter the streets. As she followed the porter up the platform, she fished around in her purse for coins to give him, all the while turning over options in her mind.

“It does seem a shame,” she said aloud, although not to the porter necessarily, “as I’m only another twenty odd miles to my destination.”

If he heard her, he didn’t indicate it by slowing step or a turn of the head.

The comment had not been for his benefit, she thought again, yet she repeated it once more, slightly louder.

As they were coming to the door into the modest Bantry station, he paused and turned to face her.  He had heavy eyelids that gave him a look of boredom or superiority.  She had often worn that expression in life.  Straightening her spine, she donned it now.

“Is there someone I could hire to drive me to Pendlebrook?”

He shook his head.  “No hacks in this town, ma’am.  If you took the train back down to Burlington, you could find drivers there. They got everything there in Burlington.”

Behind the charcoal glass of her round spectacles, she rolled her eyes heavenward.  “I have a hard time believing there isn’t a soul in this town clever enough to put an old woman beside himself on his wagon and drive her up to Pendlebrook.  The day is fair.  It’s early yet, so the drive back would only half be in the dark.”

He shrugged and turned to open the door into the station.

At the ticket window, she asked the same question a moment later.

It was a thin woman staring back at her there, with copper hair scoured into a bun at the back of her head.  Her own spectacles caught the light, making it impossible to read her eyes as she confirmed what the porter had said.  Marion Morrow was leaning in to argue, possibly to deliver a treatise on the national social illness of do-nothingness, when there was a discreet cough at her rear.  Assuming it was a person impatient with the queue,  she turned with a frown.

The very elder man who smiled back at her, immaculately dressed in light colors and fine fabrics, startled her out of her ire for a moment.  He took advantage of the moment to fill the silence.

“I am driving toward Pendlebrook, madam.  I’d be happy to bring you along with me, if you’d care for the kindness.”

Marion quickly agreed, although with an awkward lack of the proper words.  As the porter and the old man lead her from the station office, she glanced back to see if the copper-haired woman in the ticket window was watching them.  The woman was staring back intently, holding a sandwich up in front of her mouth.  The early afternoon light was still frosting her lenses, whiting her eyes.

In the lot outside the station, she was mildly irked to see that the good samaritan would be conveying her to Pendlebrook in a motor car, although she took some comfort in noticing it was as fine as the clothes he wore.  Who was the old man, she wondered, and she decided he was a monied eccentric.  She didn’t care much for the peculiar, especially when fancy was given opportunity for wild expression by means of wealth.  It was her opinion that outlandishness was par for the course among the poor, possibly a byproduct of degradation, but that among people with means, it was unseemly.

The Sandalwood Spell

Mrs. Lowell died today.  She was ninety-one.

We remember her fondly.  There was a time when she taught us lady-like things, spidery handwriting and the proper way to serve tea.  She belonged to another world.  In her little cottage, there were relics of that bygone place and time.  A fan open on a marble table top, carved of wood and bone, with a rose tassel, rotting despite all her clean and careful ways.  In the hall, a collection of walking sticks from all over the world marched along the wall.  One had the fearsome face of a tribal god.  She taught us the name, but it is long forgotten.

Her husband was English, the last of the keepers of the empire, she said.  They married late in life, when his diligence in the name of a young queen was no longer needed, and they came to her home place in America, the cottage on the bend in the road near our house.  Somehow she fit everything they’d ever loved from their life in Africa into those four small rooms.

Once, she gestured to the parlor, saying, “When I was a girl, there was only a stove and a pair of armchairs.  The reverend and mother sat side by side, so many years the velvet wore through, and all of the little ones sat on the floor.  Now there are more seats than people for sitting.”

She didn’t sound lonely too much when she said that.  The colonel, her husband, was long dead by that time.  She was used to her singular existence, one supposes, or as used to that as any child of God can ever be.  We are never alone, if one thinks about it the right way.

Her hands were slender and pale, the nails always pared just so, though they yellowed in the late years.  She tutted over them with a frown, trying to remember something she used to know.  White rice vinegar, she said, but there was something else.  Her gaze moved out the window, to the soft green brightness of the yard.

“Well, it will come to me,” she said at last.  Her eyes were silvered over gently with cataracts. “The vinegar and something else, something hard to get.  He brought it from town for me and surprised me.  Mother Superior soaked her hands in it and they turned as white and soft as a girl’s hands.”

We sat and listened.  The house smelled like old things, old roses.  In the pauses, one heard the wood pop now and again, as if the walls were cracking their knuckles absently.  Mrs. Lowell drew a breath.

“One mustn’t think she was vein, mind you.  Mother Superior.  It was only that her hands itched from the dryness.  It was meant to make them soft.  When it made them young again, it was only a little blessing more.”

On the walk home, we speculated about the other ingredient.  But perhaps it was something African, some exotic oil from a flower unknown to us.  Perhaps she had only imagined the outcome.  If it were possible to find it, we asked ourselves, and there was only enough to fill a small basin, what part of ourselves would we wash?  Our hands were already feeling age, mine more than yours.  You said you’d prefer your feet, because if they felt as they had when we were young, you’d walk out more, long distances away.  Your eyes went a little dreamy.  It sounded nice to me, too, and neither of us said we’d wash our faces in the basin.  Perhaps we would have just a few years before.

It is sad to think that Mrs. Lowell is gone, the last lady of another era.  I never quite learned the knack of her fine calligraphy, but when someone talks of the old British empire, I can think of many relics out of Africa, ones that I touched with my hands.  I know what Indian sandalwood smells like when it’s been captured in a rosewood box for thirty years and is released onto the limpid air of a Virginia summer.

A letter fell out and I bent to pick it up her her.  Mrs. Lowell trembled as she glanced at the words written on the pages.  I recognized the hand, glanced away as one must do.  The sandalwood was a spell between us, though only she knew the words.  Then she said in a voice that sounded richer and rounder and smoother than her age, “We surround ourselves with old romance, but forget we were ever romantic ourselves.  I’m glad you asked to see the box, child.”

I recall we went into the garden then and she told us the names of flowers she’d brought over the ocean, the ones that survived our native soil and even the ones that did not.  Mrs. Lowell described them with glistening eyes and color in her cheeks.  To hear her, there were shades of scarlet and of yellow we had not yet seen in this world.  In these bright spirits, she took us under the oaks and pointed to violets in pots she had nestled among the roots.

“I bring them inside for the winter.  They’re beautiful but awfully delicate.”

I fetched three folding chairs of bamboo from the house while you stayed with her and we sat in the shade until the sun set and the fireflies came out, sparkling on the dark green field.  The stories she told are forgotten to me, except in bits and pieces, but these are my treasures, crowded in my mind like all the things of her little home on the bend.

Good night, Mrs. Lowell.

The May Day Knot

Tiger walked home from school, a knot in his gut he hoped a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would ease.  The knot had nothing to do with hunger, but he’d found that almost anything between two pieces of white bread made the worry a bit smaller.  In the slanting light, his shadow trudged beside him, long and thin when they walked beside parking lots; short, fat, and folded when they passed in front of stores and houses.  He could see lots of things in his shadow: the bulging wood buttons on his coat; the fuzzy edge of his boots where they met his pants; the fringes of his scarf that fluttered with the breeze and his movement.  He tried to see the outline of his face in profile – the shape of his nose, the full lips the girls all envied – but when he turned to try to catch it, the shadow turned, too.  He was left staring at the outline of his ear, with the bulky fold of his cap just above it.

Image

It was too warm for the coat and the hat, he’d argued that morning with Grangie, but his granny always got her way.  If she planted her feet and reared back her head, it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth after that.  She was the boss.  As he went back to his room to grab the coat, he’d mumbled something about the flowers in the yard.

“I hear you, smart ass,” Grangie said.  “But it’s gonna rain today and bring in a cold front, the weather man say.  First of May don’t mean jack.”

“It means May Day,” he said, tucking a grin into the coat.

She shook her head at him, but smiling.  “Well, it won’t kill you to carry it over your arm if I’m wrong, Tiger man.”

“Other kids don’t have to wear coats now.”

“Right. Cause other kids come from trash.  They’ll be out at the emergency room or whatever, waiting three hours to have someone tell them they got pneumonia.”

He thought about what Grangie said as he came to the community center.  She’d been right about the rain and the chill.  The pavement was dry now, but only on account of the cold breeze.  He dug his hands into the pockets of the coat and the left one found the shape of something in a wrapper.  He pulled it out with a smile, a pack of Reese cups from Easter time.  He wondered if Grangie put it there for him.  She might have done.

Looking over his shoulder, he decided to sit for a minute and eat the candy by himself.  He climbed the steps of the old community center and found a dry spot at the front door.  There was a cover over head, a kind of porch roof, but it didn’t have any posts.  It just sort of reached up heavenward, like it was always looking for bad weather.  It was like Grangie, never letting the other shoe fall, always holding out a hand to catch it by the laces in the nick of time.

The paint on the center was new and old ladies like his grandma were proud of how it looked.  They always brought it up in the line at the grocery store.  Didn’t the green on the windows come out nice?  Made the place look kind of summery.  Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, they said, leaning in to share a laugh that Tiger didn’t understand.  Grangie and her friends seemed to know another language.  It used most of the words he already knew, but they put them together differently.  Sometimes they stopped talking all together when a kid came into the room.  Or else they started down one road with their words, then paused, giving each other a look.  Whatever else they were going to say was routed to their eyes.  The others would press their lips together and nod.

“Mmm-hmm,” they’d say.  Or, “Well, I told her that would happen.”

Sometimes, “But ain’t that always the way it goes?”

He liked being with Grangie’s ladies sometimes.  They didn’t seem to mind him lingering in the room.  Without missing a beat, they switched to the language of their eyes and half sentences.  Some of them had such big round eyes, when they rolled them, it made Tiger want to laugh.  The biggest, roundest, darkest eyes must have all kinds of funny things to say, he supposed, because the other ladies laughed, too.  He’d stand at Grangie’s side, resting his cheek against her shoulder and listening and not listening.  She might reach across the table, take the lid off the cookie jar and hold one out for him, all without looking at him or breaking the chatter.

If the ladies started to talk about him, it made him happy and worried all at once.

“Angie, ain’t he got your Joe-Joe’s eyes?”

“Little boys are sometimes prettier than the little girls, you know what I’m saying?”

“Look at them lips.  Ruby red.”

“Oh, girl. Now he’s blushing.”

“Preening more like,” Grangie would say. “Now stop fluttering your lashes like a you know what.  Get on out of here, Tiger man. Go play with Teeny’s girls.  They’re out on the porch.  But play nice or I’ll get you.”

Then she’d add a look that sealed the promise.  He’d leave them with heavy feet, dreading playing with the other kids.  He wasn’t like anyone else, he felt too keenly, and it made it hard for him to warm up.  Kids at school said he was a snob.  Or else a sissy.  Two older boys had taken to taunting him in the halls.

“Queer,” they’d whisper as he approached his locker.

They were tall boys, handsome already, dressed better than most.  If there was a new kind of shoes, they were the first to wear them.  Had they lived just one street over, he understood, they’d be going to the big school out near the library.  Instead they went to his school like a handful of other white kids.

One of the boys already had a shadow over his lip where a mustache would want to grow one day.  The other had large hands with broad knuckles that could make a hateful fist, but still they fascinated Tiger.  He didn’t know why yet, but he always noticed those hands, how the fingers were long, how the knuckles were dusted with golden brown hair like a man’s hand.  When he saw the pair of boys coming along the hall toward him, he had two thoughts, one chasing the other: first he thought how good-looking they were, like boys on album covers at the record store; then he remembered anew who they were and what was to come.  Each of the two thoughts left him with the knot in his stomach.  He lowered his eyes and tried to think of other things, hoping they would not notice him.  He longed to be invisible until they parted like the Red Sea and moved around and past him.

Lots of things left him with a knot in his stomach.  He was used to the feeling of one gathering and thickening there, not long after the last one had slipped loose.  His face, one of Grangie’s ladies once said, was a worried face.  “Some children do more than others,” she said, her own old face looking sad and heavy.  She tucked her chin close to her neck, her jowls making her into a kind of hound dog for a moment.

Grangie had given him a long look, then frowned into her coffee.  She slid her flask out from her apron pocket, gave the mug a little pinch of encouragement, and sipped the brew again.  “Well, I try to keep things together, girl, but you know…”

“Mmm-hmm.”

The Reese cups were good.  He pushed out the center with the tip of his finger and ate that first.  It was best to save the thick, chocolate edges for last.  “It’s like they’re little peanut butter pies with chocolate crusts. I love them,” he said softly to himself.  The breeze made the little baby leaves on the trees whisper even as he noticed the sound of a train rumbling through town in the distance.

In a month, they’d be out of school, he thought, letting the chocolate melt between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.  The summer would begin for kids.  Grangie would take him to the community pool, then make him wash with lots of soap when they got back.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” she’d say. “Chlorine or whatever it is don’t make a bit of difference if people be peeing in the water. Don’t you ever let that shit in your mouth, Tiger-man, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He liked the water but he always got the knot when he thought about all those other kids there.

“Go find your friends,” Grangie would say, rifling through her bag for something or other.

Tiger didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t really have any.  She’d give him that sad look of hers and it would make him cry.  Before long, she’d be crying, too, and they’d both be what she called a mess. So he’d sidle up near kids he sort of knew from school, standing just to the outside of their circle, miming a quiet laughter as they laughed.  Silent so they wouldn’t mind his intrusion too much; but the look of laughing with them, in case Grangie glanced up from her novel and noticed.

It was hard to imagine the pool days coming so soon, sitting there outside the community center in his coat, the tip of his nose going cold in the chilly wind.  He ate the second Reese cup a little slower, the sugar cheery like sunshine.  When he lifted his hand to take a bite, his shadow did the same, the two of them tucking away the last bites of Easter.

 

Neighbor

Lord, how I miss having Lady B next door.  The new people don’t do nothing but come and go, never looking right or left.  Act like throwing up a hand might kill them. All those big, dumb-looking boys do is work on they dog cages.  Never crack each other up, just mumble back and forth like they got nails in they mouths.  And the woman, she let all the weeds choke out Lady B’s pretty flowers.  Looks a mess over there.  You’d never know anyone ever cared for that house, oiled the floors, gave the curtains a spring wash.

When she was beside me, the world was all right.  Everyday that door of hers be swinging open, that hinge her man couldn’t fix whining like a cat in heat.  She had a light way of walking, but I always heard her feet on the hen gravel.  She pop that head around the corner of the porch and smile like sunshine on the lake.  Rooney said she wasn’t pretty at all, but that fool only like thick girls with blond hair all down they back.  I thought Lady B. was just about the prettiest thing I ever set eyes on.

Image

“I got a piece of pie, if you want it,” she say to me sometimes.  Or else, “I made a pot of chili.” I already knew if she was making chili because it made the whole holler smell good and warm like flannel.  Lady B never had no little ones of her own, but she was a mamma through and through.  She fed anyone who wanted a bite.  I was just the luckiest one, my porch right next to hers.

Her kitchen was small and yellow.  The table was just big enough for two.  When that man of hers rumbled away in the morning in his truck, long before the sun was up, she had that place to herself until nigh dark.  We’d start the morning off with some little cake or something and coffee, telling the same stories over and over, and agreeing on who was good and who was rotten of the folks we knew.  We’d part for a while in the middle of the day, clean up our places a little bit, maybe do a little fuss with the dirty clothes and start a pot of soup.  But always I think I hear her on the porch and wish I could get my chores done sooner.

Then one day that man come home and tell her he got a new job, other side of the valley, and they ought to move on down the mountain, closer to town.  She was sad to say good-bye to that little house and the holler, but I was more sad than Lady B.  It didn’t hurt much, knowing I was more torn up to see her go than she was to be leaving.  It weren’t her fault she could cotton to anything and anyone, while I be the kind who keeps close to myself.  She give out her last cup of flour to a tramp.  I be thinking, ‘What he gonna do with it? Don’t look like he got anything else to make bread with.’

Lady B could get herself caught by the Bible thumpers, standing behind the screen door, smiling all nice while they talk Jesus at her with they hats in they hands.  I peep out from behind my sorry front room curtain, trying not to breath unless they gonna hear me.

When she went down off the mountain, she took her light with her.  Wherever she landed, she’s passing out little bits of herself, sweet slices of pie and all kind of kindness.  I wish she changed me.  I wish sometimes I took over a bowl of chili to that worn old dog living in Lady B’s house.  But that woman got small eyes, a jaw you could split logs with.  She ain’t nothing but meanness, I can tell, and I’d rather my rooms be quiet all the day than trade an angel for a sore old sow.  Anyway, maybe it’s time we got out of the holler anyway.

I think sometimes we could make it down in town, maybe find a couple little rooms on the street where Lady B lives.  She’d have all kinds of friends now, but she’d make room for me at her table, I know.  And this house would fall apart like her own had done, but that wouldn’t matter none.  It’s people that mean anything.  Houses are just wood and clay and tin and they ain’t no better than them what keeps them.

The Guest

We’re pleased to have you for a visit, Mr. Landau.  It’s not often we have a man of letters in these parts.  I hear your stories are quite popular in some sets, though I’m not much of a reader, I’ll admit.  You look tired, though. I hope the train ride wasn’t too long? Now, mind that step, bless you.

These stairs are narrow and a mite crooked, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of them soon enough. Now, what is this?  I’m sure I told that girl to sweep up here. Well, old houses, you know. Now, this is the garret, as you can see, but we’ve given it a lovely sprucing up.  You like the color? Mother was worried that it was too green, but I said it made the place seem quite sunny, though I don’t suppose the rug goes very well now that I look at it.

The windows stick now and again, if we’ve had rain – which you know is often out in these parts – but if you give the casing a good whack, they’ll come open fine.  This one has the best view. Oh dear, mind your head, Mr. Landau.  It’ll take you a while to get accustomed to the ceilings, like as not. You are a tall one, I’ll say that, and willowy.

See out there? Isn’t that nice? Just below is the lake, which I’ll grant you looks a bit bleak just now, but in a few weeks, it’ll be surrounded with flowers – purple and blue and little ones of yellow that you only see when you’re down walking through them.

Now that, out there, is Grandy Mountain, which’ll wear that bonnet of snow all the year, even in July, when we’re all broiling like pigs over a spit down here.  There’s paths up, but some safer than others, so you’ll need to ask around before you set off on any exploring.  But then, I suppose you might not be the sporting type.

Now, here I’ve been gabbing away and not telling you where to put down your trunk. Oh, but then so you have and over there, too, in that spot. Oh dear. Well, I don’t see why not. I suppose if it crimps the edge of mother’s rug, we can somehow smooth it out. Maybe over the kettle.

Oh and so you’re moving it, are you? Well, it might be for the best. I’d recommend putting it there, in the front gable.  That way you can walk straight up to it as you need and not bump your head.  Is it as heavy as all that, sir? You do look a mite strained, Mr. Landau.

In Dr. Dransfield’s letter, he said you were sick from exhaustion, so I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of rest. Well, as you can imagine, sir, we have a surplus of quiet out here in our little corner of the world. Mother has the preacher – and sometimes Anna, that is Ms. Galvistan – out for Sunday supper every week, but generally it’s just the two of us, so you shan’t have to worry about the noise of comings and goings.

Now, I’ve put this table here for your typewriter. It’s mother’s sewing table, but the contraption’s been on the fritz, so we sent it to London to have it looked at.  It’s quite a sturdy little table, though not very big.  You could open the top to make it a little bigger, but then there’d be the hole and what good would that do you, I ask?  I’d only request that you leave this bit of oil cloth in place, so as not to scratch the wood.  Mother thinks it’s walnut and very fine, though I suspect it’s only the finish.  Still, she’d be so heart-broken if it were gauged by your typewriter.

You look so fagged, poor Mr. Landau. I shall get out of your hair in just a moment, but first I ought to point out one or two more things, so as you’ll feel absolutely comfortable and need me no more to feel right at home.

I will admit to knowing a little something about you besides that you’re a writer, Mr. Landau.  A little something which has made mother and me very sympathetic to your plight.  It was Mrs. Whitticombe, who does over our bonnets, who told us about it. She’s a terrible gossip and that son of hers, Jimmy – the one who up and went off to work in the theatre – well, he’s the one who told her.  She says that Jimmy’s getting very important in London, but Mrs. Whitticombe likes to put on airs, so there’s no telling the truth of that.  She tried to sell me feathers for my autumn bonnet once; said they were ring tail pheasant, but I could tell she’d marked plain ones in with paint. It didn’t look natural, at all.  Still, out here in the provinces, when there is only one woman who’s any good with hats, you have to make do and put up with the prattle.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Landau?

Well, I only wanted to say, mother and I are very sympathetic, dear man.  I blessedly have never had the misfortune of falling in love – indeed, I think I’m missing the part that fancies men very much.  Not that I mean to say… Well, I mean, I think love is a rather foolish thing.  That is all.

I think people like you must take it all the harder, isn’t that right, Mr. Landau? I mean, artist, they say, are quite sensitive people really. Mother says they take things harder than other folks. So, we’ve made a pact – mother and I have – to be sure you’re not bothered by a soul while you’re up here. You shall have as much peace and quiet as you need and before you know it, sir, you’ll be right as rain.

Now, enough of that, Mr. Landau. I can see you’re getting all the more strained by the minute. I know I shouldn’t have brought it up, but I just thought you’d like to know you have our sympathies. It’s always the delicate ones who the girls throw over for men with charm and swagger.  We’re terrible, fickle creatures, mother always says, and not to be trusted. Oh, dear, you have got a look about you, sir. Quite pale, you’ve gotten.

But to business, sir. I’ve cleared out this wardrobe for your things.  It smelled of mouse, I worried, so I hung some lavender in it.  Then mother said gentlemen didn’t like to smell of sachets, so I had the girl take the lavender down and scrub it good with lemon oil.  It turned out quite nice, if a bit pungent.  I hope it’ll do.  Oh, I see you’ve found the bed. My goodness, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?

Well, I had wanted to point out that mother volunteered her favorite coverlet because it’s so pretty, but she did ask that I show you the lace along the edge, so that you’d be extra careful of it while you stayed.  No, no, sir. Not that edge. It’s here, under your boot. Oh heavens, and it’s so delicate.  I think it was rather extravagant of mother, poor dear.  I don’t think you’ll be able to relax at all, knowing that lace will be ripped to shreds by the time your stay is over. I have a nice wool blanket, plain but sturdy, that I shall bring up before supper.  Never fear, sir. We’ll have everything sorted soon enough.

I did want to tell you about dinner, because mother is very strict about sitting down, only because she’s rather cross if the cabbage goes cold.  When you hear the bell, it means five minutes until we sit down.  If you prefer to take dinner in your room, you may let me know earlier in the day.  I don’t suppose you’re much of an eater, but I hope our chilly air will enliven your stomach.  Hot meals are the best way to keep the bones warm.

Oh sir, I hate to see you getting up if you’re so tired. I told you I would tend to the coverlet later.  You are a dear.  Mother was given that coverlet by a very fine lady who stayed here many years ago.  A shy enough creature, delicate like yourself, who cut her summer short quite out of the blue.  She sent us a letter, weeks later along with the coverlet, apologizing for her hasty departure.  I think she was the type who enjoys the city more than the countryside.  It seemed her nerves only got worse the longer she stayed with us.  Poor dear.

Now, if you open the window today, Mr. Landau, it may get a bit chilly by sunset.  The draft is the devil.  Oh, my! What a whack you’ve got on you, but as I said, that is the only way to get it open.  That is rather a lot to open it, dear sir.  It may stick if you open it so far. I had wanted to have the girl take some beeswax along the case, but you know she said she needed to get home for supper and I thought perhaps that was a hint that she thought we ought to offer her some of ours and I hadn’t made very much that day.  Well, and the girl is a rather large creature with a big appetite. I think her people are Welsh and you know how they eat, sir.

Well, and so you’re putting your trunk on the sill.  Sir, is that wise? Well – oh my! There it goes! If I didn’t know better, Mr. Landau, I would have thought you sent that out on purpose. Mr. Landau, what in heavens name are you up to? Do you need air?  My goodness, you’re far too long legged to try to fold yourself through that opening.  My goodness, it’s like watching a spider coming out of the drain. Mr. Landau, have you quite lost your senses? Oh!

What madness!  I hope he hasn’t fallen on mother’s hydrangea.  She is terribly particular about them and they barely came back last year, what with all them mites and then the mildew.  Mr. Landau? Mr. Landau, what were you thinking?  Oh my, and now he’s up and over the hedge.  How peculiar.

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.

Last Bus Stop

The school bus had twenty-seven stops on Dumpling Ridge Road.  The last one was for the Gilbert twins, who were a boy and girl and not two girls or two boys.  They didn’t look anything alike either.  Victor was pudgy and brunette with white skin and nibbled down finger nails.  Deena was slender and blond, her grey eyes trimmed in long white eyelashes.  From licking them all the time, her chapped lips looked like cracked glaze on doughnuts.

Their house was so far up the ridge, there was twelve minutes between the next to last stop and theirs.  Deena read quietly from magazines about antique furniture.  Victor stared out the window with a finger plugging one ear. The bus driver thought they were weird children.  When he got home, he’d strip down to his socks and boxers first thing, make himself a cheese sandwich on Wonder bread and tell his partner the same joke.

“Well, another day without the twins knifing me and dumping my body off Pie Man Peak.”

His partner gave back a half smile and a grunt.  In what he called his other life, he’d been a mailman.  Now he spent his days watching soap operas and making miniature worlds in old fish tanks.  This was a man who could craft elf houses out of polymer clay for hours.  With that kind of patience, he could tolerate the same joke every day for nine months of the year.

When they were let off, the Gilbert twins had a long driveway to walk.  They never said goodbye as they thumped down the bus steps.  They never looked back or waved, but the driver was already gunning the engine to get out of there.

They lived with their grandparents.  The grandmother was a sturdy woman with long white hair in a braid down her back.  Her arms were covered in faded tattoos.  The walls of her little office were plastered with pictures from her youth when she was a roller derby queen.

“I used to mow those girls down like bowling pins,” she’d say when someone asked about the photos.  “I miss them all so much.”

It wasn’t easy to go down memory lane near her husband.  Fred always took it as an opportunity to sermonize on the way the world had gone since they were young.  He said things like, “Simpler times back then, Bets.  Now you got faggots in the White House and prostitutes running the courts.”

She rolled her eyes.  Political antagonism was the only heat left in their marriage.  Over the years she’d stubbornly held her ground as a mid-century liberal, while he careened rightward after Reagan.  She told herself he’d had a shower of strokes when Clinton got elected.  It allowed her to pity him instead of shoving a knife in his back.

He spent most of his time in his wood shop, listening to AM radio or opening clips from Fox news his old navy buddies emailed to everyone they ever knew.  When he aimed to get his wife’s goat, he hurled insults in peculiar sets, like mismatched salt and pepper shakers.  His pairings had a certain poetry to them, no matter how nonsensical.

“You got gooks running the Fed and chicks with dicks shutting down the high court.”

“There’s muff-divers taking our guns and chinks tearing up the CIA.”

“Now we got jigaboos running the schools and Mexicans guarding the hen house.”

Bets was not one for debates.  She usually picked up her purse and the keys to the truck and drove the kids into town for ice cream.  There was a place on a side street called Pop’s.  You could sit out at a picnic table in the warm months or in the overheated little dining area in winter.  People in their town took ice cream very seriously.  This was not a seasonal business.

The twins had funny ways about them, but they liked ice cream as much as any kid.  Victor always got chocolate.  He ate it fast, his finger in his ear, and waited for the headache.  As much as it hurt, it fascinated him.  His sister ate her strawberry sundae very slowly.  Victor sat watching her, jealous that he’d already finished his.  Deena’s lips changed while she was eating the ice cream.  They got soft and smooth from the pink cream.  She licked them over and over again on the way home until they got crusty and dry again.  No one in her family noticed; no one suggested chap stick or made her stop licking.

Despite her history of knocking down girls on skates, despite the tattoo on her back that read ‘Fear the Reaper’ and despite her favorite story about once smoking a joint with Iggy Pop in a janitor’s closet at O’Hare Airport , their granny loved delicate and old-fashioned things.  Her collection of treasures looked like they got their weekly dusting from an Angela Lansbury type.

ImageHer favorite thing was this one porcelain lamp.  Just below the tasseled shade, a party of French aristocrats played violin and spinet. They were dressed in pink coats and ruffled gowns and on their cold white faces, they each wore the same peaceful expression.

“That’s just beautiful,” Bets said every time she finished with the Pledge and an old toothbrush.  “Look at the details, kids.  That’s what quality looks like.”

Then Fred would get to roll his eyes.

The twins weren’t sure why their grandparents were raising them.  Fred let it slip once that their father might have been anyone.  Their granny was so instantly furious, she sacrificed one of her teapots to get him in the back good and square.  Later the boy helped her clean up her mess and tried to comfort her by saying it was one of the ugly ones.

“Thanks, honey,” Bets said, her tears meeting on the tip of her nose as she bent down with the dust pan.  “Now you go find your sister. I think she went out into the woods.”

Victor didn’t like the task.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about Deena.  Everyone said they ought to be close.  They ought to know each other better than most brothers and sisters.  There was supposed to be a connection.  He couldn’t decide if it was true.

In the end, he didn’t have to search the woods for her.  Their grandparents came out onto the back porch together and Fred said, “Come on, you two. We’re going to Pop’s.”

Victor paused halfway across the lawn near he broken swing set, and after a moment Deena came out from the trees, her face red from crying.  When she got to him, they walked side by side to the truck, not touching except for a moment, when Victor pulled some pine needles off her sweater.

One winter Victor got pneumonia really bad and they had to put him in the hospital.  Deena waited in the lobby outside the gift shop, perched on the edge of her chair so she could make her shoes squeak on the linoleum.  The windows of the gift shop were crowded with teddy bears and pastel trinkets.  There were bursts of daisies in cheery mugs.  She wanted to look closer at the toys, but the old woman behind the counter gave her mean looks when their eyes met.  Her hair was short and tightly curled, washed a pale shade of violet, and she wore a tiny gold cross on a chain around her neck.  Under her pink ribbed sweater, you could see where her bra pinched her lumpy frame.

A nurse breezed by and stopped at the soda machine down the hall.  She got herself a Mountain Dew and stepped into the gift shop on her way back.  Deena could hear some of what they were saying.  She was pretty sure they were talking about her.

“…second time this year.  But I’m not surprised.”

“Well, what can you do?”

“Trash always let a cold turn on them.  I guess they like hospital food.”

The two of them laughed.

The old women compressed her lips into a grave slit, said, “I just feel sorry for the kids.”

“I’d save that for when the mom gets out of jail. It’ll get worse then.”

The old woman nodded with a look on her face that said she agreed.

On the way home that night, Bets didn’t talk.  She was someone who liked to tell stories while she drove.  Usually she knew a little bit of something about the people in the houses on their route.  Once she talked about two old maids who lived in a blue cottage outside of town; one of them had an iron lung and the other one fell in love with a Korean who worked at the Chinese restaurant.  They couldn’t get married because of their families.  Another time she said, “That’s where your bus driver lives. I’ll tell you about that when you’re older.”

Tonight she didn’t say anything.  Deena licked her lips, scooted across the bench seat, and leaned her head against Bets’ arm.

“He’ll be okay,” her granny said.  Her voice was hoarse.

“Is it bad?”

There was a silence.  “Pretty bad.”

They were climbing one of the big hills on their road now.  It was the hill the bus always had trouble with in the winter.  One time, Mr. Day had to back down really slow and start up again.  Everyone of the kids had been white with terror.  Tonight the roads were clear, but the truck engine rumbled angrily all the same.  It was no easy patch, no matter the weather.

One time Deena asked her granny why they lived so far up the mountain, away from all the town people, even a little ways farther out than anyone else.  Cleaning up the dinner mess, Bets seemed distracted and first she made a joky kind of  answer.

“Cause we’re far out, honey.”

Deena blinked at her and waited.  Bets let out the dish water, shrugged and turned to face her, “People are shits, honey.  At least, that’s how I see it.  We belong up here.”

As they climbed the mountain that night, Deena wasn’t sure what to think of her granny’s moody silence.  She wondered if Victor was ever going to make it home.  Her mind turned over the things the nurse and the gift shop lady had said.  The cold winter moon was peering at them through the windshield while a spidery veil of tree limbs flew across its face.  She gave her granny’s elbow a squeeze and Bets pulled away for just a second so she could hook her arm over Deena’s slender little frame. It was warm in the truck, the heater blowing hot in their faces.