It was a very tall summer in 1957, and I’ll tell you why:
Old homesteads were set afire for no good reason, and the smoke and the dust eclipsed any kindness that may have had a chance to grow. I do recall the anger that slid in the smoky heat, uncoiling like a snake, waiting to strike. I won’t lie: the snake in the Garden must have been a woman, because I understand it perfect. Thou shalt not poured through my head, but murder did not come at the end of that thought. Goddamn it, Jeremiah, thou shalt not have done unto me.
The heat rose over that flat gray earth in great sheets of steam. The air was hard in the mornings, pressing down like an iron on cloth. A scouring dust, a withering kind, that bore the smell of infertility. In the afternoons, the heat was dirty, with a roly-poly wind that conjured dust devils and reshaped the hollow spaces. There were acres of withered corn, dry-boned and bled useless. They were sterile days.
The sky had no top, because that’s all there was. The flat, stubby fields gave life a shallow perspective. A man or woman could drift away like a mote of dust. It was all size and lonesomeness. The sky would break you if you thought about it for too long, or stared too hard. The soil was nothing, a farm was nothing, the people were nothing, compared to that huge and hard canopy that filled our lives.
That summer was very tall.
July 8, 1957
And there he is, scurrying for rest.
Jug on the porch, fields unplowed, it’s never a hard choice for him. Jeremiah will sit and idle for no good reason, except he had his reasons. Work is not in his bones, never will be. But I love him the way a girl will love a broken kitten. Someone has to look after him, and that falls to me. But Lord, it is tiring. Mam asked me once, why him? All I could answer was that someone has to love him, and someone has to love me, and we got to loving each other, so it was all right that he was lazy and I wasn’t worth a picture on the wall. He could be tender towards me, and sometimes kind. There was meat provided for the table, and candles on the mantel when the darkness got too deep. He would take my hand on occasion and tell me something sweet, or make me laugh and feel good. So when he scurries for rest, I let him be.
On warm days when the stillness is abundant, I will sit with him and drink a glass of buttermilk. Mostly I sit by myself at the kitchen table and cross-stitch while the sun is still coming through the screen. I will watch him rock himself to sleep. Sometimes he will turn on the radio and we will listen together. And I will think, these are the good days I will remember of us.
“Far off in the tall sky,” said Jeremiah. “That is where we will live.” He said this when we were courting. A place of our own, he said, away from the world. I was already thirty-five years old. I knew what folks called me, a woman whose time had passed. But I did not feel old when I was with him. My time had not passed. He was over fifty, and that was old, but he was not. When he said he loved me, I knew it to be so. I knew if we were together, the sky would be only as tall as it had to be. I would not be buried by it.
It has not been so long that I have forgotten the sound of dust settling on a table. It is a heavy sound if you have heard it before, like sheafs of pages turning in a library. It is delicate and ponderous. A sneaky sound, like the whisper of rats in a pantry. Jeremiah’s hearing isn’t good, but the sound is enough to wake him. It woke us both up that night in early July. We could smell the smoke, far off, in the direction of Gunth Tabor’s old homestead.
Gunth had moved on, two years ago last spring. Packed up his squalor and left, and Jeremiah said good riddance.
Still, when the wind brings smoke, pity and fear fills the heart. Pity for his loss, fear for your own.
“I was dreaming about a pork sandwich,” said Jeremiah. “And then I smelled burning. I heard the dust, and I said, ‘Charlotte, you need to watch the pork, it’s burning.’” He held me in the dark. He was the big next to my small, and even when he was dream-confused, his size was my comfort. Some nights, his soft belly atop mine eclipsed the world.
“Was it a storm?” I asked. “Maybe lightning?”
“No storm. It’s not in the air. But I can smell the dust again. It’s peculiar.” He got out of bed and walked to the window. “Gunth’s old place,” he said.
“He’s been gone a long time,” I said.
“Vagabonds, maybe. Or squatters. Set up a fire in his front yard, maybe. He had those big pines. I tried to convince him to cut them, but he never took any advice that wasn’t his own. The pines were brittle. And it was a dry spring.” He hesitated. “I still remember the black rollers from ’36. Once a man sees them, he carries them to his dreams. I can’t say which is worse, a fire or the dust.”
He was a vague shadow in front of the window. The curtains were still, which meant there was no stirring of wind. His belly looked smaller when he was a shadow.
“No wind, so it won’t travel far,” I said.
“Fire always finds a way to travel,” he said. “I believe I’ll sit up for a while, Charlotte. It’s warm enough to sit on the porch. I’ll watch. You go back to sleep.”
“I can’t sleep now, Jer. I’ll be thinking about fire and dust.”
He reached for my hand. “It won’t travel far tonight. In the morning, if it’s still burning, we should take a drive. Gunth’s house wasn’t much, and all we’ll see are the bones. It’s a shame.” He thought about it, and said again, “It’s a shame.” I closed my eyes and he shuffled downstairs.
And I thought: Tomorrow will be the day.
July 9, 1957
Morning comes early here, often before the first blush of sunlight. Jeremiah was fast asleep on the porch, and I didn’t want to wake him. A slice of moon was still in the sky, and the crickets were mostly silent. I put on the coffee pot and waited for it to be done.
I brushed my fingers across the kitchen table, expecting a thick coat of dust, but it came away clean. As clean as it can be, in these parts. Dust is always a part of this life, like houseflies around the porch in spring, and lemonade in the icebox. It’s an old house, third-generation from Jeremiah’s granddaddy, but it has stood well for all these years. And dust can be cleaned with soap and water and a good rag.
The sun was starting its arch when I noticed Jeremiah standing in the doorway. He was watching me prepare his coffee. He liked it sweet, three teaspoons of sugar, and cream when we had it. We didn’t today.
“I fell asleep,” he said.
“Queer dreams. I misremember them now, but I think the smell of unwelcome smoke got into my head.” He pushed the screen door open, and it sounded like the rusty yowl of a tomcat. He kept saying he would fix it, but time got away from him. From us. “Coffee ready?”
“It is,” I said, and poured him a cup. I let him spoon his own sugar, because some mornings he required more than I allotted. He looked tired and rumpled. I thought about another day of the planting being neglected, but I would not carp. The fields were always planted in time. He was older and needed more time to prepare himself; he was never intentionally neglectful. “I don’t smell smoke this morning.”
“It smelled heavier for a time, before I fell asleep. Too dark to see anything, even with a bit of moon. Or maybe I’m turning soft, smelling smoke across every field.” He sat beside me and placed one of his big hands on mine. It was very red. “The smoke is like your dust. Sometimes I think we’re prone to imagining our worst thoughts. If I had an imagination.” He smiled, but it was distant. “That it woke us both seems to make it real. And Gunth’s place would be just the place for flames to take hold. He was always careless. Maybe he left an old can of kerosene in one of his sheds.”
“You have an imagination, Jer. You imagined a wife and a place to keep her safe, so don’t put too many things upon yourself.”
He nodded, and I could see he was still distracted. Sleep-heavy, maybe. “No, not very much imagination. But a fine nose. I know what I smelt, and it was smoke. Maybe it was heat lightning, and not vagabonds. Or maybe it was just time for the place to burn.”
I took a drink from my cup. As much as I didn’t want to waste the morning by driving to Gunth’s old place, it was an adventure. It was a good day for things to happen.
We rarely got away from the homestead, other than our monthly trips into Handsome, and that was almost forty miles away. Gunth’s homestead was only five or six miles away, and we would be back in no time. There were chickens and hogs to feed, and our cattle to tend. Five cows and a bull isn’t much to call cattle, but one was heavy with calf, and Jermiah had fence work that needed tending. The drive was a distraction, but necessary. I’d been looking forward to it for a long time.
There was a loud crack of thunder nearby. It was very loud. I looked to the sky, and it was transparent blue; if you could see beyond it, you could see all the stars. I turned to Jeremiah, and he was
falling to the ground, his belly red and wet. It wasn’t thunder at all, but a gun shot.
He reached for his tobacco pouch. “I wish you wouldn’t do that when you’re driving,” I said. “You get it all over yourself and make a mess of your shirt.”
“I’ll be more careful,” he said, and he frowned.
I will never get all that blood out of his shirt, I thought. It was an odd thought, removed from everything, a wandering flea in my head.
“Gunth kept an old bentwood rocker on his porch,” he said. “Maybe it’s still there.”
The road was flat, shimmering heat rising already. It would be a hot day, and I was glad for the big shade tree in our yard.
A common sound, except when it is unexpected. A common sound, except when it tears a hole in your husband’s belly. A common sound, except when your legs are stone; no, not just legs, but everything. I was stone eroding from inside. Everything I knew was a single ruined thought. Too shocked to speak, or scream, or beg time to step back for a moment, to contemplate what had been done. And Jeremiah stood still for a moment, for the rest of his lifetime, his hands cradling his damaged stomach. His eyes saw nothing but whatever thoughts were left behind them. And then he fell. Collapsed in the dust, and the dust chuffed up and surrounded him, unconcerned.
And there was another shot. My legs were stone. I understood.
My Jeremiah was a quiet man. Except when he wasn’t. He was mostly kind. I looked upon his body, and the sorrow was scorching. I wanted to cradle him. His eyes stared at nothing, pale green marbles marveling death.
The man I married, who shared his bed with me, who had given me a lifeless child, was gone. His body was already gathering flies.
His hands were bloody claws; dark crimson was still spurting between his spread fingers. Those hands were not used to suffering, or hard work. There were no scars, no deep scraches, only smooth lines of flesh now savagely washed clean. The only callus was on the inside of his right forefinger, where he held his burlapped jug. I know it was a mean thought, a dark and sad thought, but my husband was not a working man; he was a resting man, content to drink corn liquor on the porch. And now he was not even that. What kind of a wife would think such dark thoughts? I loved him, yes, but that also meant I knew him. What thoughts did he have of me, I wondered. He loved me, yes, but he did not know me. Horror flowed through me as I stared at his mostly pristine hands, forever and ever stained.
Could I leave him like that, just leave him? I stared at what was left of Gunth’s old house, and listened. Was the next shot for me? Would I hear it? Would it matter? Blessed apathy, I call your name, please gather my bones and give me a blanket.
The embers were still smoldering, and the building was black and white rubble. The charred beams glowed orange whenever a breeze touched upon them. But the fire was mostly done. Even Gunth’s old bentwood rocker, the one Jeremiah coveted more than anything else, wasn’t much more than whitened ash. If wood possesses a spirit, all those spirits had fled. Everything was dead here, unquietly dead, except for me. I waited and waited for the chamber to be emptied. Would I suffer, or would I clutch at my own death with gratitude? I waited for a long time, until the heat of the morning started to pour down on my neck and arms. I needed to leave this dead place while I still had a mind to think. Horror blessed me with the resolultion to move.
And so I walked.
“You best wash up those dishes before we leave, Charlotte,” he said. There were two cups, two plates, a butter knife and a spoon. The coffee pot was still warm. There were bread crumbs on the counter, and smudge of butter.
“All right, Jerimiah,” I said, and washed them. A few crumbs landed on the floor, and I swept the floor without being told. For a mostly quiet man, Jeremiah could be fastidious.
I remember the click of the latch when I closed the pantry. I remember it. I’m sure I closed it, and listened for that soft click. And then the ticking of the clock. But mostly that click. It was solid and true. Jeremiah started the truck and he was waiting on me. So I pushed the door closed, as I had done a hundred times before, and I heard the click. He honked the horn, a rough, flatulant sound. He was eager to be off, eager to get back, eager to see if the bentwood was salvagable, and I waited for the click, not really listening for it, but expecting it, feeling it, because I’ve done it a hundred times before without thinking about it. There have been so many other sounds since – thousands, maybe – but I’m sure. It would not do to have mice running rampant, ruining the food. It was an ingrained instinct. Repetition. You can’t live in an old farm house and not close the pantry before leaving. I heard it and it sounded like a footstep. Click. Click. Click. I remember it. I’m sure I remember it.
The road is long and straight. You could unravel a ball of yarn, if one could be so long, without it gathering or twisting. Five and a half miles. The distance between home and Gunth’s. A few minute’s drive. I walk that distance every day, from the kitchen to the barn, from the outhouse to the summer garden. The garden is worse off than the fields.
Tomatoes so dry that they rot before they mature. Onions like soft blisters. And dirty brown flowers that nod at the dirt. But I walk those miles, tidying, feeding, milking, sweeping, preparing, washing, folding, dusting. Hearing the dust settle even though I don’t always see it. It glows in the sunshine, like something pretending to be beautiful, but if you ignore it for long, you start to see your footsteps between the porch and the kitchen, and feel it gather on the soles of your feet. Miles of sweeping and wiping and sweeping. Five and a half miles is easy when you can sit down and wipe your brow on the porch, and pour yourself a glass of water. Five and a half miles in a straight line is different. You can’t sit down if you think someone is following you. And so I walked.
The stunted corn spoke to me in dry, feathery voices. There were two places to get lost in a tall summer day: in the sky and in the voices of the corn. Acres and miles of standing corn, weathered and dry, already kneeling before the sun. I guessed it was past ten o’clock already, but that was just a guess. Time felt like a rubber band, badly stretched, with no elasticity left. Five and a half miles of one-step-at-a-time, head down, listening to the wind and the corn and the heartbeat between my ears. I was listening to the click of the pantry door, I was listening to Jeremiah spit his tobacco out the window, I was listening to the sound of the gunshot. The only thing I couldn’t hear was Jeremiah fall to the dirt. I imagine he sounded like a heavy pile of laundry, it was that sudden. Or a basket of sheets, it was that slow. It was a rumpled collapse, a folding-up of flesh and cloth. And I stood there, surprised. No, not surprised. Amazed. Amazed at how it all happened, in a moment that wouldn’t surrender itself.
Just five and a half miles. I walk at least that far every day.
Jeremiah used to buy me cordial chocolates for my birthday. Perfect clumps of chocolate ruined by cherries. The first year, the box was wrapped with tidy pink tissue paper and a blue ribbon. The next, the box was on my night table when I woke up, three of the chocolates already removed. I kissed him on the nose and made him breakfast. Jememiah was not a romantic, though he did love cordial chocolates. Sometimes he brought them home, even when it wasn’t my birthday. Eventually, he forgot they were supposed to be for me. I didn’t remind him. It didn’t seem important. I didn’t like them, anyway. So why was I thinking about it?
Mam always asked why. Why Jeremiah? At best, he was a dullard, she said. And he was old, probably set in his ways. Men like that ain’t necessarily eager to chanage their pace, she said. They don’t bend as much as you want them to.
Look at me, Mam. I know I’m plain. No man has wanted me yet, and I’m getting older. Soon I won’t even be a shadow that passes them on the street.
“You ain’t, Charlotte,” she said. “You’re a fine looking girl.”
“But not fine enough for suitors. I know what I am, and that’s all right. And Jeremiah–”
“You’ll be aching for a flea’s company in time.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“The most interesting conversation you’ll have will be with yourself.”
Maybe, Mam, I said to the corn, which did not deem it important enough to answer.
Is it odd that I blot those moments out of my memory, like a tobacco stain on linen, or a splash of mud on the welcome mat? You can fade the stain, but it never comes out. He fell, just like that. A simple moment, and I blot it with memories of chocolate and old conversation. He fell in the dirt. Surprised and clumsy. Or was it elegance? The lack of drama, a simple conclusion. Who is following me? Why can’t I remember that? He is following me. I’ve never had anyone follow me. Ever. I told you that, Mam, but you wouldn’t listen. You made up your fairy tales about attraction and desire lining up to take my hand. I wish you told me the truth instead of feather-bedding my mistakes. A man can want you, but for the wrong reasons. Did I blot that out, too? I could not remember.
Do you remember Doodums Delahunt? asked Mam. Haven’t thought of him in years.
I remember the name, of course, and his face. As a child, I thought he looked like a sad, clever little dog. A basset hound, perhaps, one who kept scraps of cloth under a porch. He sometimes brought me penny candies – peppermint sticks mostly, but sometimes licorice. He brought Mam copies of the Saturday Evening Post. They were sometimes two or three months old, but she did enjoy looking at them. She kept them on the coffee table until they were needed to swat flies. Doodums approved. He had such a clever face, and a widow’s peak, and big hands. He and Mam would sit on the porch and talk about worldly things, like the price of corn or exotic breeds of chickens. He fancied her.
Oh, he did not, Charlotte. He was a lonely man who couldn’t find his way. He was a widower, you know that. And you know, I once saw him crying to himself. That year we lost all those hens. He blamed himself, even apologized, though I don’t know why. And he liked you, said you were very polite, and that candy wasn’t sweet enough for you.
“I always brought him water,” I said. “He was always sweating. I remember he sometimes stood in the front yard, staring at the road. He would scuff the dust with his big brown boots and stare. Once I saw him crying.”
I doubt he was crying, said Mam. There was a lot of dust that year. That was the first dusty year, remember? Before it started to roll and cover everything. Doodums was a sickly man, I recall, always coughing up dust.
And then he was gone. He didn’t show up again. And it was a long time before I remembered he wasn’t there. I missed the licorice, mostly, but also the peppermints.
He lost his place. It was the other side of Garland’s, two miles past. That’s gone, too. It’s all gone. Those years were hard.
Oh Lord, it’s hot.
Where is my grief? The road is a flat gray sheet, leading to nothing. It is a wet illusion. I see fresh, flat rain above the pavement. It’s a trick of the eyes, I know that. Miles of road, and clean oscillating puddles that disappear when you approach. The heat, Lord, the heat, it pours down the way that rain should pour. There’s grimness in such a hard wide sky. You wouldn’t think so when you’re sitting on your porch and watching the day tramp through the front yard. But miles of a liar road, and a person can hardly see themselves; they’re hidden from their own life. There is my grief.
Mam died a year after Jeremiah and I wed.
Her dense black hair became fine, and you could see her scalp through the weed garden it had become. Her soft brown hands, always strong, looked brittle and bleached. There was a dryness inside her, something that drank all her color and fleshiness. It happened so fast, a person couldn’t see it right away. But even in the weeks between, I noticed it, how the sickness crept up on her and then pounced.
We both pretended that we didn’t know what was happening.
“You can’t change the color of a person’s sickness no more than you can change the color of the wind,” she said, and that was the only time we came close to talking about it.
If she could see me now, so full of blood colors and heat, I wonder what she would think.
Miles to go, you ungrateful son of a bitch. You left her in her prime.
Daddy, you kissed her freckled nose and drove away. You ruffled my hair like I was a border collie, told me to be good, and that was all. Did you see the unhappiness in her eyes? I did, and I was just a little girl. I saw her pale smile, the drizzle on her eyelashes, and knew you weren’t coming back. I felt like something stopped ticking inside me, a weight that wouldn’t go away. But Mam stood there and waved goodbye. She knew what kind of man you were, as much as anyone could. I saw your face as you drove away, lips pursed, forehead scrunched, beads of sweat on your cheek. I knew you weren’t coming back, you son of a bitch. I gave you more thought than you deserved. I only knew you for six years, Mam knew you longer and had bigger hopes for you. She never said a bad thing about you, but she never talked about you, either. And I didn’t ask. I didn’t have to. I saw your silhouette when you started the car. I saw the anger and the relief when you put it in gear. I saw the trail of dust you left when you sped off, eager to get anywhere but where you needed to stay.
I hope those miles were long ones, you son of a bitch, miles without rest, miles without the comfort of knowing where you were going to sleep every night.
Calm yourself, Charlotte, calm yourself. Hasn’t that always been the traditional pacifier? Stay sweet. Peace is over the next hill.
But there are no hills, just this flatness. Footfalls with shallow echoes, blunt rustling corn that has its own strange voice. Calm yourself. Stay sweet. You’ve walked, what, an entire mile? You should see your home soon, that’s the only advantage of the flatness, you can see what’s ahead from miles away. But the illusion of the waves from the road distort the distance. There are no markers, no mail boxes, no trees to lend perspective, no hills to strive for, just this straight, blached line of road. And the heat, Lord, the heat. Not a cloud to be seen.
Remember the clouds of spring: thin, transparent silk. Skim milk clouds. And in autumn, those October clouds can turn mean, and when they don’t, they are piled like spun sugar, clouds you can grab by the handful if you arms could reach. But summer, this summer, just this greasy blue, this frying pan sky. Calm yourself, Charlotte. Stay sweet.
It’s all a guise, you know. Staying sweet. Where did I get that? Why was it bestowed upon me that I be the sweet one? If a person has no voice, they must be filled with sugar. Any complaint is sour, and they think you have an unkind disposition, a bitter outlook. Sweet is better, silence is preferred. But what if I wanted – needed – to talk back? You’re not being very sweet, honey, you need to stay sweet. Peace is over the next hill. What hill? Show me these hills and I’ll climb them, if only to get away from the aggravation and isolation. I never asked for a tall sky. Maybe I wanted a short box of a sky, with trees and rooftops I could see. Maybe I wanted clouds I could reach and pull down like curtains. This grand, tall sky lends no perspective to who I am, or could be. I feel swallowed by Leviathan, digested every day, until the sweetness is gone, like a depleted piece of candy.
Calm yourself, Charlotte, you’re getting closer. Closer to what? To rest. A glass of ice water and a chair. Closer to a place with some shadows. You can turn on the box fan, turn on the radio if you want. You can pace the floor of your own kitchen and wait. Wait for what? Wait for whatever’s beyond the next hill.
And wait. And wait.
Voices in a restaurant:
It was a long drive to Handsome for a meal. The few farmers left (not including the ones with money) gathered in The Clatchy two or three times a year to talk about their farms. The conversation was often as bitter as the coffee.
Some chose to bring their wives, most didn’t. It was a social time, I suppose, for the men to get together and complain about their imminent extinction. After a flurry of handshakes and fare-thee-well grins, tables were brought together, the “Closed” sign flipped over, and the coffee was poured. These men had little money, but they laid down their coin for bowls of homemade soup and thin slices of pie.
If the men wore ties, they were faded and stained with greasy fingerprints and neck sweat. The ties were quickly removed, folded, and tucked away in pockets. Cow manure had been scraped from boots, shirts stiffly pressed, handkerchiefs rolled up like biscuits. The five cent cigars were passed around, and the talking began, usually regarding the weather or corn prices. Weather was always the primer. About that, they could do nothing. About the price of corn, they could still do nothing, but the conversation became livelier, more hostile.
And the wives – three or four of us – would sit at a separate table and feign interest in the talk, or neatly construct a conversation of our own: quilting patterns, domestic duties, children, radio programs, the overall spilling of our lives into each day. We knew it wasn’t quite as important as the work our men did. There was a substandardness we all recognized in ourselves, but a smile, a pat on each others’ hands as a sign of support and selfsame recognition, those things were meant to make it feel better. Worthwhile and relevent, though those words were never said out loud. Our smiles were glued on and covered with pale shades of lipstick. A tremor or a twitch was a sign of weakness, so facial expressions were limited. A raised eyebrow really meant, what is this crazy play, this separation? Why are we here, unwanted, unacknowledged? Of course, we never said such a thing.
“That Henson boy, he let his daddy’s place go to hell,” said Donnie Mitchell, who was the oldest of the men, and the most likely to slip whiskey into his cup. “The only thing that’s growing is his wife. And I ain’t sure he knows how to harvest her.” The other men laughed.
Did they not see us sitting in the corner? Bessie Sullivan, poor thing, looked ashamed. She was a big woman, with soft green eyes and man-sized hands. With her fuming Irish hair and Kewpie doll dimples, I thought she was very pretty. Of all the women I knew, she was the kindest and most soft-spoken. She made the most beautiful quilts from old curtains and worn-out dresses. It was delicate stitch work; surprising, considering the size of her fingers. She was shy, as I suppose we all were, and she blushed easy. Her face was as red as a candy apple. Donnie could have been talking about her. Or about any of us, really. We were done with our blossoming years, and were full grown woman. I am still convinced that men like Donnie Mitchell are deep-down afraid of the female form and all its fullness.
I still don’t know why any of the wives were invited. We were mostly ignored, usually forgotten, and, when they took notice of us, deliberately cosseted us like we were squirming childen. Why do you bother taking me, I asked Jeremiah once. He shrugged and said it was just polite business, and we should probably go somewhere together on occasion. He was no better than the other men. Maybe it was a show of weakness to bring along a wife, but no one could say so because they were married too. Sometimes an argument isn’t worth the aggravation. Or maybe we were there to lend these get-togethers some semblance of civility. Their conversations got rowdy, with many a good goddamn and hellfire spoken in loud tones, but I’m sure it would have been worse without us. We were the ice water to the heat of their language. Or maybe they just didn’t know what to do with us. I could have been that simple; we were parcels with ribbons they felt obligated to bring along.
I don’t know why that strikes me funny. But good goddamn and hellfire, it sounds about right.
Hard yellow light bled through the sky, and the world became nostalgic. Even the road looked denser, darker, like raw sienna. The tall sky had been built with layers upon layers of dense color, each blending to give an illusion of blue. But the fancy disappeared for a moment. I felt like I was walking inside a breathing photograph. It was unsettling.
It made me think of age. I was once a child, now an adult, and one day a memory. I wondered who was left to pull this old photograph out of a family album, stare at my shape, linger over the inconsequential elements of road, corn, and peeling sky. That’s what she looked like, so long ago, they would say. But who would say? There was no photographer to capture the moment or share in the heat, smell the sweat, feel the craven loneliness, the sorrow. The photograph, if there were one, was of me, and it was inside my head and that is where it would stay. The corners would curl, the colors would fade, and I would be the only one who would say, remember when?
“I remember my first kiss,” I told Jeremiah. He is behind me, a blurred red comma in the dirt.
You asked me once if you were my first kiss, and I lied, because… well, just because. I heard the timidness in the question. I said you were my first. Your eyes softened. Then came that damned boastfulness that men carry with them, that truckful of swagger. I recall you didn’t kiss me at that moment. Satisfied with my answer, there was no need to punctuate it with real affection.
I wanted to tell you what that first kiss tasted like, but didn’t, because then you’d know it wasn’t you. Your kisses were always affectionate, but awkward. You never knew what to do with your mouth, or where your tongue should or shouldn’t go. I should have told you to trust your mouth, let your tongue weave until it became as natural as drawing breath.
I was seventeen and Mam was weeding bull thistles out of the garden. I offered Henry Miller a glass of lemonade. He was a neighbor boy who sometimes helped when things were run down or busted. We’d known each other since childhood. We were talking about the dust and the wind, and then he snuck a kiss. I felt his tongue dash around my teeth, and it startled me. But it was so sudden and sweet that I didn’t push him away. Not at first. It was like a spark set off in my head. Then he tried to slip a hand under my blouse, and I pushed him away, more afraid of Mam if she saw us than of what he was doing. Henry didn’t take offense. He knew he was being a rascal. He was two years older than me, and awfully presumptuous. I didn’t say a word to him, and he smiled, like he knew something about me that I didn’t.
I dreamed about him, and the kiss, for weeks after. It was a moment, a snuck kiss on the porch, with Mam not a hundred yards away, cursing the weeds. I always wondered, what if….
It might have meant a different life. I try hard not to think about it, but it keeps returning, over and again. And see here, here I am thinking about it still, with him lying dead not two miles down the road.
Lord, will this road never end.
I made it as much my home as his, though it was through effort and argument. I brought in some very old watercolors my grandmother painted, and it didn’t fit with all of Jeremiah’s adornments. The paintings weren’t very good, but they were a part of my life, handed down from my mother. The living room was filled with the unfinished wood carvings Jermemiah had wrought as he was entertained by his jug. Look here, he said, this one’s a bear, and this one’s an eagle. This one… well, I’m not sure yet, but I think it’s going to be a longhorn.
There was a man-smell throughout the house before I moved in. Sweat, unwashed and forgotten socks that smelled like onions, moldering cardboard boxes filled with wood shavings. Unwashed tin plates and tin utensils, undershirts under the bed. There was a smell that was distinctly male throughout the rooms, something fetid and forelorn. The ghost of boot tracks all through the kitchen and bedroom. I wanted to give it a female touch, so I brought the watercolors, and some brightly stitched needlepoint, and china dishes that didn’t feel greasy after washing. I brought a throw rug for the living room, and a mantel clock, and colored vases for flowers. Jeremiah grumbled about each thing, particularly the throw rug and the vases, but after awhile, he let them be. It wasn’t those touches he objected to, so much as the colors. Bright yellows and lavenders, the polished silver hands of the clock. He prefered dark colors, dark like long-steeped tea, and primitive browns that drank in the light. Manly colors, he called them.
And I miss those memories already, simple snapshots of place and time, the bright beads of sunlight in his whiskers.
The memories want to roar in and through me, his idiosyncracies, his moody, stubborn temperament, the rough words, the kind words, and the passage of days that ran into each other like a smear of spackled rain.
Is this shock or exhaustion or heat or futility of motion, an empty house ahead, a bleeding out of grief.
And who is following? I hear the steps, hidden somewhere in the low corn, rustling, and footsteps in the dirt, so careful but so mean because they’re meant to be heard. Even the crows have lost their sheen, cautious, ever cautious of an interruption to their deeds.
All right. So I’m not alone. A raccoon in the middle of the road. Just like that. From nowhere, going nowhere. They used to steal the chicken eggs, but they’ve moved on. Where there is no water, there is no place to forage. Where there is a ready shotgun, there is no nothing for them to sneak. There are too many other places, abandoned and forgotten, so they have moved on.
There has been no road traffic for days. There’s nowhere to go, other than weekly trips for groceries. The corn is dry, though edible. These fellows don’t care. It’s not like spoiled meat. They can chew and consume, and sleep under the folds of the brown leaves. But here. A dead possum. Perfectly framed like a photograph, set down as a reminder. There used to be life here.
He is sitting. His hind end is flattened, squashed in a dirty red lump, but his paws are tucked under his face. Contemplative and serious. Assessing the worth of his life. Wondering where to go next, if there is a next.
And so I stand here at the side of the road and stare at him. Is this what we are, how we finish up? Am I grieving for him? I think I am. I hear the rustle of the corn, the soft gritty voice of a hot wind. I can’t stop looking at him. He is perfect from the throat up, other than being dead. Finally, finally, I look away, and look ahead, and I can see my home, maybe a mile away. The grief wants me to stay, but my feet move anyway. I move on.
Home, where I can rest and grieve proper.
A walk of a thousand miles, or five-and-a-half. It’s all the same when a person is weary and depleted. Every step is another step back when your mind is behind you.
I turned onto the small lane leading to our house. My house now, with no one to greet me, no one to lead me inside where it is cooler. Everything is imprinted by the past. Everything is faded, like sun-washed curtains.
A small and simple wood frame, seared by generations of wind and dust, peeled down to the marrow. Scraps of weeds poke from the dirt. And the geography, reduced to raw scour. This was home. Not the image I kept in my head, but a faded place built by long-dead hands. I now see it as a newcomer to the land, a stranger approaching with an unsentimental perspective. It is all built upon the fading skin of time.
Jeremiah was sitting on the porch, hoisting his jug. His throat was working more than his hands ever did. Fresh splats of tobacco around his chair, an imperfect semi-circle. He knew how much I disliked his habit, and he usually spat into an old mayonnaise jar he kept for the job.
Of course he wasn’t there.
The door was open. Did I close it when we left? I couldn’t remember. And did it matter?
My feet were blistered and my mouth was dry. I wanted to sit, just sit, not think, not move. My heart felt bruised.
I stumbled towards the kitchen sink. The shotgun I used to kill Jeremiah helped my balance.
I placed it on the kitchen table. Already, there was a thin layer of dust settling, but it didn’t matter.
I drank from the tap, slowly at first, but then more greedy. And waited for something else. I didn’t know what, but that didn’t matter, either.
I listened to the dust as it fell.