Sunday, April 6, 2008

Chapter Three: Dad is Left Motherless

Bob and his buddies played on until it got almost dark, and he still had six miles to walk home. He had been given leave from his chores to go to town to play baseball, mainly because Mama needed some rest. That’s what his grandma told him anyway. He was always so annoying and restless, and now that he was almost twelve, Grandma needed him to learn how to do the chores of a man. She had to show him everything, since his father was either out delivering milk or down on a bar stool at Pete’s. All that farm work needing done, and inside Bob’s mother was sleeping in her bed. Grandma had to show Bob how to mend the fence, her gnarled hands twisting the pliars while he clumsily held the wire. He shoveled out the barn every morning, taking twice as long as a grown man would take to do it. He was always in her hair, asking, “How do I do this?” or “I can’t find it.” So this morning, she had told him in an exasperated voice, “Go play somewhere.”
Bob ran to town, stopping first at Greg’s house, then on to Jim’s and soon the ballgame was underway. Playing ball with his buddies was much better than watching Mama slowly fade, the cancer in her breast draining her eyes little by little each day. By dark, his father would be home and probably drunk, too. His grandmother would need help changing his Mama’s bed sheets. Grandma had a notion that if she kept fresh sheets on the bed each day, Rose would get better. She didn’t understand that someone could be so sick from the inside, unseen spots of spreading death. All her other children had gotten sick from foul air, or drinking bad water, or walking around in the snow with not enough clothes. To cure them, she had to freshen the air, dust harder, boil the water longer, sew more clothes. By working hard toward a remedy, in time, the illness went away. But no matter how often she boiled the sheets or scrubbed the floors with coal oil soap, this daughter would not get better. And who was going to take care of this boy? Certainly not his good-for-nothing father.
When Bob walked in the house, his father was sitting bent over the kitchen table with his head in his hands, and Grandma was just coming in from the backyard with her arms full of damp sheets from the clothesline. Nothing could dry fast in that humid Kentucky air, so every night Grandma ironed the damp sheets until they were dry, then she would go change the bed and take the changed sheets onto the back porch for soaking in soapy water, waiting for the pre-dawn boiling. Eying the boy who was covered with dirt, grass stains and sweat from running home, she growled, “Robert, get those filthy clothes off and put them on the porch. You fix yourself something to eat, and leave me alone.” She licked her finger and gingerly tapped the hot metal iron, satisfied with the sizzle.
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Where you been boy?” his father managed to ask before he directed his attention to his glass. Bob knew Pop wasn’t really listening when he answered, “playing ball in town.” Bob knew how to cook for himself and clean house. He fried up some eggs and salt ham slices he found in the pantry and sat across from his father, inhaling his dinner.
His grandmother sweated over the iron. It was so hot in the kitchen. In August, when the sun went down the air outside enclosed your skin like a sticky cocoon; it felt like breathing mud. Grandma pushed the iron unnecessarily hard across the white cloth. She only took her eyes off her task when her son-in-law raised himself up out of his chair and walked into the front room to get more bourbon. He always seemed to have enough money for whiskey or gambling, but not enough to pay the doctor when he came. The doctor never did any good, anyway.
Grandma got the sheets dry and went to the door of the bedroom. Standing silently, listening, she gently tapped the wooden door and opened it a crack to peek in. Too weak to answer, Rose lay white and still, her lips parched in her sweaty face, sunken eyes looking out the dark window. Maybe she was looking at the stars, maybe at her memories, maybe at nothing. She raised her head as her mom came toward the bed. If only her eyes would loose that pall and smile again! Grandma tenderly placed her hand on Rose’s head, guiding her to rest again. “Shh, Shatzie, I’ll get you some water.” Still clutching the warm sheets, she went to the water jug and poured a teacup full. A sip was all, too much could make her vomit. She brought the cup over to Rose and sat on the edge of the bed. Holding Rose’s head up, she tipped the water into her dry mouth. Rose struggled in her throat to swallow and closed her eyes, breathing hard from the effort.
“I’ve got your sheets, Baby. You feeling strong enough to get up? You wanna sit by the window a few minutes?” This nightly ritual was lately the only time all day Rose got out of bed. Tonight, she put her hand on her mother’s raw, red fingers and whispered, “No.” She looked at her mother clearly, her eyes momentarily as direct as they had been when she was a bright, growing child. “No” she said again, and this time, instead of fighting her, cajoling her out of bed to walk to the chair, Grandma just looked at her. For a brief moment there was Rose again, standing up to her mother, proud and grown, deciding exactly where her life was headed. This was Rose’s expression the day she told her mother she was going to marry Phillip, “No matter what”. That good-for-nothing bum? And look how he turned out! Why wouldn’t Elaine ever listen? So much pain might have been prevented. Maybe this sorrow that was eating her daughter’s spirit alive, even before any gray hairs had grown on her head, would have never happened, if only the girl had listened. But those were not the eyes of someone inclined to hear another’s wisdom. And now Rose was not going to get out of bed. Grandma didn’t argue. Her heart rose in her throat, and Rose closed her eyes and sunk back into the pillow.
“OK, then, tomorrow’s another day.” Grandma stood up and loudly shook out the sheets and placed them folded on the empty chair.
Bob wiped out the cast iron skillet and headed for his climbing tree in the front of the house. Even in the dark he could make his way up, his bare feet feeling the big knot that stuck out and let him get his balance. He grabbed the lower limb and pulled himself up to sit on it. In the cool, smooth arm of the tree he could lean against the trunk and see out over the fields for miles. Looking in the direction of the road he had run home on, he saw the lights of Okalona. . He sat still as night, gazing at those lights as he had done hundreds of times. Porch lamps dotted the dark, thin toward the edges where the farms were and thickening in the center. The brightest lights in town shone from the Southern High School football field. Tonight the lights were on, getting tested for the new season. On Friday nights every fall the stadium lights lit the whole center of town, and the roar of the crowd made it all the way to Bob’s tree. He thrilled to hear it. He saw himself down there, running the ball across the field, dodging and weaving the opposition, jaw set, no fear allowed. Only victory. Running the ball to the end zone and slamming it down in triumph, his buddies piled on top of him, shouting, “We won, you did it!” The crowd roared for him. He was hoisted up onto his teammates’ shoulders, a mass of elation moving across the field. Back in the locker room, the boys smacked their towels in the air next to his ear in appreciation for making it, for risking everything and coming through, and he glowed with pride. He saw himself changing out of his sweaty uniform and into his jeans, breathing hard to make it to the bleachers on time. His girl would be waiting, leaning back against the fence with her foot propped up and her knee moving from side to side as she watched him walk toward her from the locker room. The scent of triumph would surround them as he took her hand and they walked out the gate, across the street to the soda shop.
Monday morning Bob would go to school there, leaving behind his one-room schoolhouse. He would finally get to walk down the hill, walk into the stone gymnasium and sign up for tryouts. There would be hard competition; all his buddies would be practicing hard to prove themselves to the coach. Bob was ready to work. There could be no victory without hard work. He wanted to work hard with his teammates and win more than anything.
“Bob? Bob Hill, git in here now!” His Grandma’s voice sounded higher than normal, as if something was wrong. Bob’s foot was asleep, but he shimmied down the tree and ran into the house. His dad sat smoking in the dark front room; Bob ran past to his mother’s bedroom where Grandma was standing.
“Your momma wants to see you. Slow down, boy, don’t be so wild.” She ran her hands over his head and down his arms, as if wiping away germs, and she gave him a whack on his rear for good measure. He doubted his mom had asked for him because she looked asleep and very white. He walked slowly, placing his toes down first on the creaking wooden floor, and made his way to her side.
Rose dragged her eyes open and found her son. This was the one who wasn’t yet grown. All the others were already finding their own way, but Bob stood there like a half-done loaf of bread pulled from the oven too soon. She opened her hand and he placed his in hers. He was surprised to feel her grip firm and she now looked at him straight on. Confused, he asked her “You want some water, Mama?”
“You be a good boy, Bob. Take care of your grandma. And don’t be mad at your father. He can’t help it.” Her blue eyes watched him closely, and he felt it was very important to understand what she was saying, even though he really didn’t. His head got hot, and he blinked tears that dropped onto his mother’s hand.
“Promise me, boy. Say you promise.”
“Yes, Mama, I promise.”
Elaine gave his hand a gentle squeeze and smiled all the love she had left into this trembling boy. Bob fought back tears and stood as still as he could. He did not want to cry like a baby. He wanted to stand tall and firm like a man. His mother squeezed his hand again and closed her eyes. Rose let go of his hand, and he stood stock still, watching her breathe. After what seemed like a long time he noticed his Grandma watching her too. Rose looked peaceful and soft.
“Come on boy, let’s let her sleep.” She put her hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the room. “You go to bed now. There’s work to do in the morning.” Her voice sounded less irritated than usual. He walked past the dark front room where his father was now passed out sitting up in his chair. Bob climbed the stairs to his tiny bedroom and stared at the magazine clippings of baseball and football players glued to his walls. The next thing he knew the sun was up, and his mother was dead.

Chapter Two: Mom and Dad Meet

The afternoon air hung heavy like a damp wool coat. Lucy wobbled on her bike, balancing her baseball glove on the handlebars and a bat under her arm. Leaning oaks touched their tops together over the dirt road. The still air, the cicadas’ mad buzz, the leaning tree shadows: if she squinted her eyes just right she was in a fairy tunnel on her way to Neverland.
Lucy had just escaped the thick tomato air of her mother’s kitchen after spending the morning helping Mom with the canning. She had chosen that chore over helping Daddy hoe the garden – at least the sweltering steam of the kitchen and the huge piles of tomatoes offered variety, better than the monotony of moving a hoe up and down long dirt rows and getting dirt mixed with sweat caked like brown paste on her legs. The tomatoes had to be washed, spots cut out, then dunked in a pot of boiling water followed by cold water in the sink. The papery skins peeled off so easy then, and the naked tomatoes made a squishy slurping sound as she pushed them into hot Mason jars. Mom had to stand on a wooden crate to be tall enough to see into the canning pot, making sure the boiling water covered the tops of the heavy jars. Mom frowned into the steam, her hair falling out of its hasty hairpins. At ten, Lucy was already taller than her mom, whom everyone called Pinkie. But the delicate operation of extracting the heavy jars out of the boiling water with long tongs and setting the jars down on folded flour sacks lining the kitchen table required strength the pioneer’s daughter had and the town-bred Lucy didn’t. Different strengths are required of women at different times. So while the tomato jars cooled in the dark kitchen, Pinkie saw no reason why Lucy couldn’t just go play for a little while. Lucy practically tripped herself running to get her bike. Now she only needed to find somebody with a ball.
Rounding the bend in the road, Lucy saw several boys playing baseball on the sawdust field. Her lucky day! She watched a while to see how hard they played. She saw she could hit farther than two of the littler boys and throw almost as good as the short one, so she lay her bike down in the grass at the edge of the road.
So far the boys had ignored the dark-haired tomboy on her bike. But when she started walking toward home plate, the boys, some her age, some a little older, watched her with sideways glances. Lucy stood behind the catcher and started swinging her bat a little. That was the last straw. This little intruder must be dealt with. The current batter up, the short sandy haired boy, spoke up first.
“What d’you want, baby?
“I want to play.”
You’re buggin’ me so move back.” Lucy took a step back and stood there staring at him, tilting her chin upward at being called something she knew she was definitely not. The boy faced the pitcher and slowly swung his bat, testing to see if she was far enough away. Deciding she wasn’t, the boy turned around and glared at Lucy.
“Move back more.” Lucy took one tiny step back, keeping her eyes steady on the boy.
Another tiny step.
“More!” The boy dropped his bat and started toward her. “Keep going till you get home, you girl! Go play with dolls!”
“I can hit better than you! Let me play!” She stood her ground. He got closer. The boys from the field by this time were yelling “Come on, Jimmy! Let’s just play!” But Jimmy wasn’t going to give up this staring contest. He gave his most menacing face and turned red for emphasis.
“Hey, Jim, slow down. Why not just let her play for a few minutes? Then she’ll go away.” Lucy gave up her stare to look at who had spoken. A lanky boy with such closely cropped blonde hair he looked nearly bald, with huge ears that stuck out from his head, took off his catcher’s glove and put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. Jim swung around and looked up at the boy, who laughed and affectionately shoved Jim’s head.
“But she’s just a gross girl, Bob!”
“It’s OK. Hey you girl, go stand in left field. You can be on my team.”
Lucy looked at him. She had seen him before at church. He looked different here, with dust and sunshine all around him. Although he was one of the ugliest boys she’d ever seen, his green eyes smiled at her and she ran to her spot. Her new teammates kept waving her on “Go back, more. Further back, you.” She took left field and stood punching her fist into her glove, ready for anything.
After a couple of hours of never getting a ball hit her way and always staying at the end of the batting line, she finally got on her bike to ride home. She waved thanks to the skinny boy who let her play. He ignored her. His name is Bob, she told herself.

Chapter One: Megan Plans Her Day

The brand new spinning wheel sat framed by the sunny living room window, near the antique china cabinet and the hand-woven baskets from Guatemala. Megan reclined in the big chair, sipping mocha and planning her day. She frowned at the hassle of picking up the Suburban from the shop. But she and Buck would need the air conditioner for their vacation in Death Valley, even in January. Yesterday the back yard thermometer had read 68 degrees. She pushed the vacant garden plot out of her mind. The gardener knew to leave her hobbies alone.
The morning sun highlighted the wheel, her Christmas present to herself. The unfinished pine pieces from the kit had fit together like Legos. After an hour in Home Depot she had settled on Antique Walnut stain. Rotted walnut hulls turned your fingers black, she remembered from her backwoods cabin adventures during college. This time, though, the fake would have to do. Finished, the wheel sat there, promising fun. This spring at the Renaissance Faire her character, Fanny Bobbin, would have a new authentic prop. These ancient crafts satisfied a memory in her hands. When the sheep’s wool first slipped easily through her fingers, she felt like the fairy tale maiden spinning straw into gold. Picking dried dung and weeds out of the raw wool wasn’t necessary – she ordered the wool online from Australia, pre-dyed and processed.
“My uncle used to chop those things up for firewood,” her mother had scoffed. Why would anybody need to burn a spinning wheel, Megan wondered. She was used to this ridicule, though. Gardening ruined fingernails, real firewood stunk, canning tomatoes in this heat? Girls in jeans and braids looked like ragamuffins. Nothing was ever good enough.
Several skeins of angel-grey yarn lay like soft babies in the Guatemalan baskets. Now, another problem surfaced – what would she ever do with all that yarn? A parade of hats, scarves, and sweaters marched past. The possibilities were endless; she automatically tried to think of them all. She imagined her daughters, sisters, mother, nieces - all smiling in awe as they opened their hand-knit items wrapped in tissue and ribbons. At least the nieces lived in St. Louis where it actually snowed once in a while. Maybe she could sell her creations at the boutique! Now strangers were handling the hats, also smiling. Megan sobered as she frowned about Southern California weather. It was just her luck to be stuck in a place where she didn’t belong, where her natural talents would have to stay underdeveloped and unappreciated. Just her rotten luck. Anyway, she would have to take a class to learn how to knit the sweaters. That would be a drive, since there were no such classes in her plastic little town. She was already driving an hour for her night class at the college. There just wasn’t ever enough time.
Megan sighed as she stood up to get another cup of coffee. After this next cup the day’s plan would be complete. Buck had already left for work, and Ellen was upstairs getting ready for school. Off-key vocals and clanging guitars blasted from the CD player, muffled by the perpetually shut bedroom door. For the past ten years those sounds had filtered through first one daughter’s bedroom door, then the other. Yesterday, when Megan had asked which band this one was, Ellen had smirked, “It’s Blonde Redhead.” Megan was used to being thought of as totally stupid. In just two years Ellen would follow her sister to college and there would be no more suppressed thumping coming from closed doors. Megan wondered if she would miss it.
Ellen bounded down the stairs. “Mom, have you seen my shoes?” She came around the corner into the kitchen, out of breath. Every morning was a fresh surprise. It was as if the child had gone to bed and been replaced in the night by a pre-Raphealite princess. Ellen’s striking blue eyes gazed from her round face; her golden hair cascaded like a lion’s mane around her shoulders. Each day she became more womanly. The baby pictures in the hallway were Megan’s proof that these beautiful strangers had once been hers. That way, when she caught sight of them in her house, she could remember who they were.
“They’re right where you left them. In the middle of the floor.” Megan pointed.
Ellen blustered through the cupboard searching for a breakfast bar. She smelled of too much perfume.
“What’s up with you today, Mom? I’ve got a test in Chemistry and is it OK if I meet Kyle after school for band practice.” Her questions were gradually sounding more like statements of fact. Only one correct answer was possible.
“Well sure, I guess. Can you get a ride home, though? I have class tonight. And I still have to do my homework.”
“Oh, mom, you’re so cute. I hope you make an A,” Ellen tossed a kiss behind her as she slammed the front door shut.
Megan sat down on the kitchen barstool. Each cup of coffee helped her avoid that nagging writing project. The handcrafted oak writing desk waited for her in the spare room. On that desk sat a new computer, a black leather notebook of unlined vellum, and several writing pens of various colors, ranging from fine point to regular. She could see it as clearly as if she had been sitting in the green leather captain’s chair, her elbows resting on the smooth wood, pen in hand. There was still the struggle between the computer and the vellum. The computer was faster, more efficient, but it offered many distractions. Megan tended to do anything but write her novel when she turned on the computer. So she hadn’t gone into the spare room for several days, not even to check her email. Now there was no more putting it off, if she wanted to save face in class that night. Today was her day off from teaching, and homework was due. Megan’s was proud of her decision to audit the Advanced Creative Writing class. The imposed deadlines helped her to begin what she had not been able to for twenty years – writing her 3rd person memoirs.
Megan picked herself up off the chair and strode into the spare room, cup in hand. She spent some time finding a coaster for her cup. Finally there was nothing more to do than to sit down in the captain’s chair and begin. She had already decided that in order to write about herself, she would have to being with her parents. Her self-imposed duties were to write about her father who had died in Vietnam, but she had found that she didn’t know a thing about him. So she would begin with her mother. The pen hesitated above the vellum, then she began,
“The afternoon air was warm and sticky.”
No, that sounded too much like cinnamon buns. She needed something catchy.
“The afternoon air clung to her skin like a…”
A what? A sticky film? Tape? Slime? What was really warm and damp at the same time, what could describe the thick humidity of a Kentucky summer day, the kind of day when it felt like you were breathing warm cotton? Ah…