Comes the rain

Boyd Henry over there, he watches me. I have never seen a child so committed to watching. He is four years old and seven months. I love him, Lord, but his intensity wears on me. He plays with his toys under the porch, and the dried-up mud and boot grit falls on the back of his neck. He flours up the dust, and it powders most of him, but his neck gets it worse. He shows me his dusty palms when he sees me seeing him.

Lorianne is on the porch with him now, and her hands are curled around his small shoulders. I’m grateful that she loves him, because Boyd Henry is different from most. He is my gift, he is my surprise.

Today is wash day, the day I float away. Watching Boyd Henry makes me lonely to think there was a time before him. It makes me lonely whenever the wash water from the cotton pillowcases drips onto my arms, because it bears the same coldness and travels down the same paths of my skin as it did last week, and last month.

Nothing has changed, except in the small ways of loneliness, and in the smaller ways of fading.

The sheets and towels are to be washed first. They need to hang before the rain catches them. The wind has swelled up, and it tugs at my kerchief like a kite. Boyd Henry stops wiggling in Lorianne’s arms, and he watches me as I adjust the scarf. He is already dirty, and he will turn into mud when it starts to rain. She wipes him down with a washcloth when she can.

The woods beyond the hayfield are generously leafy because of the rain, and there are some mornings when their greenness becomes transparent in the sunshine.

And so I rise.

I see the shape of a man come forth from these trees, and it is an unblemished shape, clean and handsome. I wonder if he is a good man. It will take him a long time to reach my doorway.

At first, his stride is strong, and he walks with purpose, but after a few steps, he begins to founder. He struggles with the slope of the field and the softness of the soil. He is still just a shape to me, too far to notice his features, but even in the distance I see that he is tall and narrow-chested. With each step, his left leg falters. He clutches it and continues. I cannot see his face, but I can see his pain.

The crows,” says Lorianne, and she points to the selfsame field.

There are a half-dozen crows on the other side of the field gate, and they glide low to the ground. Abruptly, they ascend, like barn swallows, and there is a strenuous fold and unfolding of wings. Their constructs are not made for elegant flight, and they rise in an awkward lurch, and nearly collide with one another. They repeat the design again and again, moving further down the field each time, flexing their wings in evident agony, until they disappear below the standing hay.

Lorianne’s face is serious, but she giggles at the strangeness of it. “Why were they flying like that, mama?”

I don’t know,” I say. “They might be warning us of a bad storm.”

Or it might be a bird illness. Or it might be they were not crows at all. I don’t say those things, of course, because it will cause her to worry. But I don’t know why they were flying like that.

***

It’s not a hard thing to do, to leave a place where you don’t belong. The things you walk away from, the pictures and trinkets and combs, they are just the scraps of our presence. There will be new things, and they will probably be the same things, but with different thoughts behind them. There will always be things to gather for our tables.

I left my father’s house when I was young, and then my grandmother’s when I was done being foolish. This place has become my truest home. I came here when I married, and I have stayed here since he passed, six years ago. This land belonged to his family, and then to him, and now to me. If it would bring him back, even for a minute, I would leave it behind. But it is my children’s home now, his daughter and my son. I lease out the work fields and I raise my children the best I can. I keep my pictures and trinkets and combs in a box carved from gopher wood, under my bed.

***

The rain is hard, as promised. We sit inside our little living room and listen to the tin roof percussion. It is a loud and drunken sound. Lorianne has her box of crayons on the rug, and she hunts for the right shade of rain. Boyd Henry watches her, and he peels off the papers, one color at a time. She digs into a plastic shopping bag for another coloring book, and she moans, quite theatrically: “Oh, my goodness, have I done them all?”

I stare at the wood stove and the slow tangle of flame: how long will it keep us warm, how long will it give us light?

And the rain, it still falls, five days in.

He wears  a white shirt, sweat-stained, wrinkled. His hair is black, tousled, but thinning. Gray eyes, uneven teeth, a weary shrug of shoulders. Just let me sit down for a minute, he says.

He said, “There will be rain. You will need two of everything. One plus one.”

“I have two,” I said.

“The rain will be hard,” he said. “And it will last. Forty days, at least.”

Boyd Henry, over there, he watches me watching him. And Lorianne, she loves me in my fever, loves me in my worry,  and in my rain.

His hair is black and tousled. I have two children who are surviving the rain. And my boy, he watches me, and I watch him back. But it is harder to see him, because we are becoming blurs in the rain.

Advertisements

Thursdays

What day was it when they put up the swing rope? It was a Thursday. No reason to remember that, it didn’t mean anything, but David remembered. Elani was excited. She was always excited when she was at the creek. It was, maybe, the only place where she could be herself. She was the speaking water, full of splashes and exclamations. It could be exhausting, being with her, but David was always smiling, or outright laughing. Even Efrim laughed, and he didn’t do that often. She brightened everything. And it had nothing to do with silliness. She was all splash and chatter, with hardly any silence between them.

And when she was still, the world became still, and those moments left echoes.

Like a fridge over troubled daughter,” she sang.

What?”

It’s a song I heard,” she said. “Honestly, David, don’t you listen to any good music?”

I don’t think those are the words,” he said.

I know that. But don’t you think mine are more interesting? I mean, what does that even mean? What’s troubled water? And why a bridge?”

***

There are crows in the back field, behind Jimmy’s Grill. Jimmy has no imagination beyond perfecting his Manhattan. Thursday night, all-you-can-eat wings night, and the place is grim and gray. The neon does it no favors. Twelve-month Christmas lights droop from the ceiling, and the jukebox cooks in the corner, steaming 50’s rock and roll.

Gin?” the bartender asks her, as if it’s a real question.

Elani nods, and she can still hear the crows over “Kansas City”.

The outside sounds are soothing. She can hear her real nature in their dimness. The fog of old music in the background, the craunch of gravel as another truck pulls in. A song, a shot, or many, and the flatness of background conversation that has nothing to do with her. She, always laughing or cringing, the polar parts of her. She has to be strong, crush the anxious, bury the worthless. Music, a drink, and left alone. These are the things she cares about.

The door swings open, and in walks another cowboy, complete with hat and rogue mustache. He’s gray at the temples, wearing the requisite ninety-dollar Calvins, the L.L Bean shirt fresh out of the wrapper. Oh, and the imitation snake skin boots. Of course. More East Coast than Eastwood. A whiskey-drinking son-of-a-gun ready to stir the ladies.

He ambles towards her when he sees her looking, a big grin on his face, and she says: “No thanks. I’d really love to break your heart, but no.”

Why did they always think they knew what she wanted?

Silhouettes

Oh, honey, there are shapes beneath these roads. They push me and they drag me, and, God help me, I’m yoked to every mile. I am numb to the drizzled headlights and smudged taillights, the curves, the swerves, the nerves of bumper-to-bumper, the mathematical sinew of the overpasses, the posterboard landscapes, the flat hallucinations of the alpha and omega. Oh, and sweetheart, the construction, the obstructions, the crazy and the caffeinated, they want to pour their horsepower into the concrete while I’m steering left-handed, trying to pry the goddamn plastic lids off the goddamn Styrofoam cups, and honey, I always spill the hot coffee on my fucking wrist.

These have been my nights and days since I left you.

And then I came upon this place: a slender space beside the swagged shoulders of an unmarked highway. I recognized the tarnished ancianos who were waiting for me. There were six men and a woman, and they were sitting in a straight line on the sloped walkway of the Motel Fatigado. A flat line of hands rose to guard eyes against dust and sun. They studied my silhouette for a moment, then resumed their pinched slouches.

An old man dismounted from his chair and approached. He was wearing a shredded straw hat and baggy jeans. His shirt was a clean button-down, faded antediluvian white. He could have been an Old Testament priest soliciting confessions, eager to pore over fresh sin. More likely, he was tired of sitting.

You have el bagaje? Suitcase?” he asked.

I nodded.

He pulled a packet of folded tissue paper from his shirt pocket, and offered me a cigarette. He told me that Room 8 was vacant and clean. He did not ask me my name. I accepted his tobacco, and he lit it with a wooden match. His hands were narrow and veiny.

He said his name was Cándido, and the woman was called Melancholia. “The new guests always ask about the woman. You see her? The beautiful woman who sits among the dogs? She is clean-handed. You understand? Inocente. She knows magic. You prey on her, you will leave with bruises.”

I nodded.

Sit with us,” Cándido said. “Melancholia keeps the plastic cups in her room. We have tap water and tequila. Perhaps there is ice. I will introduce you to the others.”

I declined.

***

Forgive me for my long absence. I’ve  been dealing with some health issues and slowly working on a new novel. I hope to get back into regular posting and visiting soon, so please bear with me. 🙂 – SB

Speaking of Drunk Larry…

Ricky laughed. “Speaking of opening the door. Guess who was waiting on me to open the joint this morning?”

Drunk Larry.”

Hell, yeah.” He combed through his hair with his fingers. A quick task since all that was left were gray bristles. The boy he had been rode a Harley Softail and had hair down to the middle of his back. Now he looked like a retired drill sergeant. It was like looking at a double exposure. An old habit from a fractured past. How many of us want to look at age straight in the face? “I mean, how many times have we tossed him? Eight? Twenty? So he’s standing there – shaking there – and he starts bitching how I was five minutes late opening up. Did you know he’s still parking his van behind the bar? Sleeps there, I guess. He can’t afford another DUI, so he forces himself to walk those twenty extra steps.”

I wonder if we can do something about that,” I said. “Convince him to take his business elsewhere.”

It’s not like we’re getting rich off the guy. We’re the idiots for serving him. He’s stiffed us more times than I can count.”

I told you not to serve him. Show him the door. Head first, if needed.”

Ricky nodded. “Aww, I feel sorry for him, Bart. He’s harmless. But you’re right. There’s other places he can go to weasel a few drinks. Gilly’s would fit him better. It’s a dive. And he ain’t exactly supporting our pension fund.”

This isn’t Cheers,” I said. “And he isn’t Norm. He’s probably draining off customers. Nobody likes a drunk, even in a bar. A tire iron to his windshield would do it.”

Yeah, probably would.” He grinned, but I didn’t grin back. “You serious?”

Serious as suicide,” I said and regretted it. It hurt in all the wrong places. “We can do it tonight, after closing. I’m done with Drunk Larry.”

Uh huh. Christ, Bart, one shot of Chivas and you’re ready to go full-on, ain’tcha? Oh, and by the way, he was rambling on about something he saw at Wolf Creek last week. Something about moving shapes. It was all mixed up. He was a fucking moving shape.”

I studied Ricky’s face, and it was calm. “What do you think? You worried?”

Me? Nah. He was stewed. It’s been too many years to mean anything. Something would have come out by now. He’s just a nervous drunk, afraid of being caught sober. I figure he spends a lot of time out there, hunting for beer bottles to cash in at the Depot. The Creek’s where all the kids go to drink. His brain is as pickled as Einstein’s.”

You think so?”

Sure. It’s been years and years since–”

All right,” I said, and considered. “Two beers a night, Ricky. Whatever’s on tap. And then show him the door.”

You worried about him? Seriously? I’m sorry I mentioned it.”

Don’t be. It’s probably nothing. But it bears watching, right?”

Everything bears watching, Bart. You taught me that.”

Did I?” I asked. It was a real question.

Rehearsal

We grew to become cruel men. We gathered our wounds and we coddled our scars and lionized them under the tract lighting of The Saluda Bar. When called upon, we mourned our dead, and then moved on. But sometimes we couldn’t.

This past July I lost my son, Daniel Benton Sawyer. He was twenty-three years old. I could tell you the number of months and days, but I won’t. My life was a rehearsal for this loss and I am unprepared to measure his life against mine.

Two days after my boy’s passing, my friend Wayne Scobee was busted for illicit behavior. He offered to blow a Georgia Tech student in a Ruby Tuesday bathroom stall. The boy was nineteen and he broke Wayne’s nose. I thought about breaking it again if he showed up at the funeral, but I was too goddamn tired. Nineteen? My head orbited that number like a comet. Nineteen. That was younger than Danny. I needed time to sort through the rubble, and time was no longer a luxury, if it ever was. My heart was too cruel a place for any illusion of forgiveness.

(A work in progress)

Brother Efrim

Ah, brother Efrim. He never told his story well. Everything about him was submerged. He wore both masks, the comic and the tragic. When he drank, he was the best goddamn drunk he could be. Sober, his heart was larger than anyone she knew. Elani loved him and she understood the depths, the wear-and-tear of pride, the oscillating moods. She tried to rescue him, and still hoped she could. He was stubborn.

She often drew him in her sketch book, always from memory. He had little patience for sitting still or staying in the moment. His face was angular and whiskered, pliant skin over bone. The portraits were always in charcoal and pencil, because that was him, practically a Dickensian character, bare meat on his bones, unwashed hair, seared lips.

She found him once, on one of her rescue missions, slumped on the sidewalk. The street lights dredged the pavement like flour, and he was a shapeless drift of luminance. He was waiting for the better angels to show up. Or his sister.

She cupped the back of his head. No more, he mouthed, but the words were a malt liquor vapor.

***Excerpt from a work-in-progress, The Stone Age***

Romantic ideas

“I love her, you know.”

“Everyone loves her.”

“But, yeah. I mean really.”

“Well…..”

“No, really.”

“She’s a nice girl. But c’mon. You’re too young. She’s too young.”

“Doesn’t mean it isn’t real, Efrim.”

“Well don’t tell her. She’ll get all upset.”

“Why?”

“Just because. You don’t know, David. She’s… flighty. She gets these big romantic ideas and she doesn’t know what to do with them. She cries at the end of movies. She keeps a diary and draws hearts on the cover. She thinks the Partridge Family is real. If she thought things like that were real… well, I dunno. She’d take it too serious. She’d imagine wedding cakes and sparkly placemats. She’s not old enough to know that those things aren’t ready for her yet. If she knew that you loved her, she’d think bad things could never happen. And bad things always happen, especially to kids.”

“Maybe not this time?”

“Just wait, David. Please.”

“But I love her.”

“Then you should wait. Okay? You wanna shoot off some firecrackers?”

“Hey, yeah!”

The father of children

The move to Wishing was the best thing. Frank Cobin wasn’t a big shot in town anymore, engorged with bravado and insolence. He was the stranger in town, and had no favor with the thin-faced men: the corner-men, the hustlers, the scammers, the casually dangerous.

The move to Wishing was the worst thing. Marooned from his pals, Frank took his temper out on his wife and kid, bullied them with his knuckles and insults. His ambitions were volatile, written in chalk, scribbled and wiped clean every day.

Eldridge caught him with his pants down, with that woman from downtown, that woman who worked at Bibby’s Department Store, and his old man didn’t have much to say about that. He had a weakness for the Negro women, he told his boy, and

runnels of sweat ran down her round belly, clean like rain water. Her breasts rose with every inhalation, nipples hard like rock candy, hips churning to a hallowed beat. Eldridge could smell the woman’s sweat, and it was not fear-sweat, but a submissive heat-sweat, her face straining for pleasure, her eyes greedy, flooded with inside light, and

don’t tell your mother, don’t let her know.

And his father cried and groveled, but not for forgiveness. He needed to preserve that secret, that deep echo of himself, and he begged his boy not to draw out that darkness.

Eldridge never did tell, but the secret exhausted him. It was a guilty-belly, hungry-belly secret, like a tongue against a throbbing tooth. His father stopped using his fists, and Eldridge learned to use his. He discovered his own appetite that night, and the shades pulled down on his childhood. The shadows, he understood, never went away. They clove to everything, and soon the headaches began, and his temper grew more sour.

Eldridge stared down at his father, his old and ruptured flesh, and heard Frank’s impious excuses for the last time. He ended that part of his life for good. No one ever knew.

“The father of children”, he said, “has a duty to protect them, not bury them.” That was what Frank Cobin did. He buried his son in a lie.

“The father of children needs to be accountable,” he said, and kneeled on his father’s shoulders. The old man had turned scrawny in his old age, dry as jerky, so it wasn’t hard. It was like resting on a piece of shredded hickory.

“You punished us for the smallest mistakes,” he said. His voice was calm, almost soothing. He lowered the heel of his hand on his father’s throat, and he felt its pulse, irregular but strong. “You betrayed your wife and your child for the sake of a whore.”

“No whore,” the old man wheezed.

“You couldn’t be trusted. Who do I trust now? You made us feel like dirt, like we were useless. And you were whoring around like a man of the town, laughing at us behind our back. And the only thing you’ve ever been ashamed of is that you were caught. How do you think that makes us feel? At least Mom was spared. I protected her.” He sunk his hand deeper into Frank’s throat. He felt bone and gristle, paper thin.

Then things got fuzzy around the edge of his temper.

**Excerpt from The Stone Age — a work in progress**

Academia

The funeral was simple but elegant. There were few in attendance, other than his father’s former colleagues whom David barely remembered. He recalled dim dinners with them, and the unappetizing fare such as oysters and fowls that were not chicken. There was wine and cognac, and peach-based desserts. Sometimes there was a sweltering ham, sliced thick, and rich, lumpy potato salad, and that felt more honest. The men would talk about academia, and the women would discuss complex novels and romantic poetry. It was a rarefied environment, full of big ponderings and show-offy intellect, and David understood none of it. He reckoned they were trying to impress one another when they debated the arcane, pausing only to parse each other’s words until they had no meaning. Dull and dull. The nights usually ended with Donald at the piano, playing something “bawdy by Bach”, played barrel-house style. That was the best part of those nights, and David loved his father most when he riffed on the keys and then gave David a broad, unselfconscious grin.

He recognized only one of the pallbearers, Stanley Olay, a fat man not much younger than his father. He used to pull nickels out of David’s ear, and bring the latest copies of The New Yorker, where they were displayed on the coffee table and gathered dust until his next visit. Occasionally, he would pull out a packet of photographs, usually of his children, or his favorite restaurant architecture, and he and Donald would sit on the porch and discuss college politics, who was up for tenure, who was retiring. David remembered those visits only because because Stanley Olay was friendly and unimpressive. He didn’t try to be the smartest person in the room.

**Excerpt from The Stone Age, a work-in-progress**

A change in the weather

DSCN9548

David showed up with a knapsack on his back, a big grin on his face.

What’s with all the mystery?” he asked. “Note in the mailbox? Ya’ll can still come to my door.”

Efrim shrugged. He didn’t want to explain. It seemed too complicated and he didn’t want to hurt David’s feelings.

Elani smiled when she saw him. She always smiled when she saw him, and she pointed at the bag. “Whatcha got?”

David brush an errant pine limb from his head. “I love the smell of these old pines, but they get in the way. They could trip a boy up.” He smiled back at Elani. “Some of my old books. I already read them to pieces but thought you might like them. Seriously, Efrim, what’s with the secret message? You’re lucky I checked the mailbox first. My folks would wonder what the heck was going on.”

Efrim shrugged again. “It’s hard to explain, I guess.”

Our daddy doesn’t want us to play together anymore,” said Elani. “But he’s hardly ever home, and Mom doesn’t care.”

Oh,” said David. “It’s like that, is is?”

Like what?”

Never mind,” said Efrim. “You can’t stop friends from being friends.” And then, shyly: “Right?”

Right,” said David, but he frowned. “I don’t want to get you guys in trouble.”

It’s our trouble,” said Elani. “We’ll be careful, won’t we, Efrim?”

We’ll be careful,” he said. “What kind of books?”

‘Aww, I got some Hardy Boys, and some Tom Swift, and there’s one, To Kill a Mockingbird, you might like. My dad says I read to much white bread, but it’s still a good story.”

Elani giggled. “How do you read white bread?”

It means they’re too white,” said Efrim.

What’s that mean?”

Doesn’t matter,” said David. “They’re all right. Hardy Boys are sorta dumb, but I read them all. There’s a couple of Westerns, if you like that kind of stuff. Louis L’Amour. I thought they’d be fun to read when it’s too hot to play.”

I don’t read a lot,” said Efrim. “Some of the words… I can’t read so well.”

You read me a lot of stories,” said Elani. “Some of the big words are hard, and I don’t understand them all, but you read okay.”

He shrugged. “I make up some of the words,” he said.

Context,” said David.

Huh?”

You might not know what the word is, but you fit one in that works. I learned that in school last year. You know what the word’s supposed to be, but sometimes it’s too fancy.”

I know that,” said Efrim. “My teacher says I’m lazy.”

David looked around, uncomfortable. “You’re not lazy. It was your idea for the rope swing and how to put it up. And the steps to climb it up the tree. That’s not lazy, it’s good thinking.”

Oh, I’m all right for building things and figuring out how things work. But reading and writing, not so good.”

You know how to tell stories,” said Elani. “That’s pretty smart.”

David nodded. “It took me awhile to figure out how stories work, Efrim. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy, it just means you don’t care about them as much as you do other things. Me, I can’t figure out how to build a soap box car with my dad. I bet you could figure it out in a minute.”

Efrim thought about it. “Wouldn’t be that hard. Probably get most of the stuff from the dump.”

Sure, but I wouldn’t know how to start. Maybe we could–”

A rumble from the sky, flat and distant, and a rush of wind, almost ticklish in the heat, swaying the leaves and grass. The sky was still bright, but it wore a yellow second skin. Something coming in from the lake, something serious if it moved fast enough. The raindrops would be fat and hard if it took hold.

Oh oh,” said Elani, and her voice sounded like an echo.

***

Excerpt from The  Stone Age, a work-in-progress