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.

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 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.

Birthday

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

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

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

____________

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

  ____________

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

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

Our Lady of Perpetual Snark

As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack.  Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”

Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night.  Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold.  The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.

Image

Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule.  She hated her first name.  It was a soft name that never fit her personality.  Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”

“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.

The two of them could always joke in that way.  A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could.  She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are.  Honest.”

She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time.  It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed.  Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.

As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”

Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser.  Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list.  If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass.  No, thanks.

Hawkins knew the drill.  She knew how to talk to people like Denise.  Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice.  “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”

“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report.  “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”

Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that.  She composed herself, decided the game was up.  “Look.  What you mutter is private.”

“Then why mutter it at all?”

“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it.  Out of courtesy.”

Denise looked at her for a long while.  Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can.  Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.

“Well, she does have super good hearing.  I’ll give her that.  How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something?  Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”

Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it.  Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”

The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette.  She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child.  The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars.  Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.

Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”

At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.  If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t likely.

“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air.  “Maybe he had it coming.”

If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good.  Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips.  Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.

She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue.  They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them.  Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day.  Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s.  The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate.  She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.

She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island.  On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food.  It quickened her hunger and she walked faster.  Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days.  The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.

Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them.  The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully.  He glanced up at her when she entered.

“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know.  I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday.  You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”

He laughed. “You have a good day?”

“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones.  They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen.  She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake.  “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”

“They’re good,” Shawn said.  “And I did clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep.  And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”

Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”

“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”

She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions.  As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”

When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn.  His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name.  The other two came a good long while later.  Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself.  In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other.   When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short.  Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself.  One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.

Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her.  Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything.  She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove.  And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school.  He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.

“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him.  “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”

“I forgot about my trust fund.”

She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t.  It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college.  His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough.  Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.

“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”

That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces.  She set her jaw.

“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers.  Get it?”

He’d given her one of his looks.  His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp.  Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold.  It amused the old woman.  “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.”  Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look.  It always made her glance away.

Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again.  Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father.  He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard.  Her boy was self-possessed like herself.  With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.

In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue.  She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son.  It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home.  But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer.  Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus.  It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory.  Maybe it was.

She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night.  All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit.  In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee.  She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully.  The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind.  Howl.

Roosevelt

The force of the train rumbled the soil as it pushed into the mountain and back out of it again.  And the bridge carried it out over the water, tight and patient, though the steel burned from the heat.  In the shadows of the water below, the fish and turtles would not stop the work of living. The ferns in the wood stirred but the deer and the squirrel paused until the chugging storm passed.

  Image

Industry was the bumper crop of the clever and it seemed no drought could cause it to ebb.  Far away in the steel towns, the women rose before the men that coffee and biscuits would be waiting.  The day opened with pink Easterly light.  Hours later the men came home in charcoal dusk, themselves as grey as the shadows cloaking their little brick houses.  The pay of it made rent and food and sometimes clothes and less often shoes.  Just the same each year, by December the cash became oranges and candy and gifts to anchor a wistful Christmas tree.  Their sleep was so heavy it was often dreamless, but in the wakeful hours, their eyes strayed again and again to their little jam-sticky broods and something hopeful, something like Roosevelt seemed to think might work, kept them rising to grip the hours ahead.  Everything they made, the train took away, but at the other end, there were people who needed it.