Sunday, March 22, 2020

From Volume 40: “The Dry Years” by Jessica Barksdale

The Dry Years
by Jessica Barksdale


Pippa sometimes forgot the joke Em told them when times were strange. What was it? That saying from the British comedy show in the 70s?
On the YouTube clips, the audience burst into laughter when the red-robed, crucifix-wearing priests broke through the flimsy set door and surprised the family eating dinner, the employees at the quarterly meeting, the primary school students learning fractions.
Em had repeated the expression in the face of four-mile long traffic jams, surprise tax bills, leaking toilets, raccoons in the basement. She said it when Mattie brought home bad grades or Pippa forgot to clean her room. Em would cross her arms, give them a pretend-stern look, and repeat it slowly, her voice a fake deep. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
She said it at the very end when nothing was funny.
Pippa agreed. No one expects extermination, even though that’s the deal with living in the first place. Disease, rancid old age, fascist regime, pogrom, tornado, earthquake.
You just don’t expect it, is all.

***

Pippa refilled her coffee mug and sat back down at her computer, waiting for someone to respond to their boss Sue’s rant about the lack of donations. She had colleagues she’d never met in person and who were images (sometimes pixilated) on a computerized meeting screen, words in messages, emails, and texts, and/or voices on infrequent phone calls. She’d met Sue once, when Pippa interviewed for the data position at Nature Now, two days before moving to Hilo three years ago. The only thing they all had in common was the slogan: Remember the Sloths.
After a pause, Royce from Minneapolis, the guy with the profile pic that looked like a 1980s Marlon Brando, said, “The school shooting diverted the flow.”
“Jesus,” Sue said. “Of course it did.”
“The NRA picked up the slack. Their donations tripled last month?” Royce said, a lift at the end of his sentence. Even over the internet, Royce looked red as sin.
The ConfAll link screen went silent. All sidebar messages stopped. Apparently the NRA was worse than the school shooting itself.
Pippa, a familiar, uncomfortable feeling in her chest, coughed the scratch from her throat. “But it’s a new month.”
“Be that as it may,” Sue began, “we are way down in legacy donations not to mention tip jar giving.”
The conversation began to roll again. Pippa relaxed in her chair as she listened to a meeting that was happening 2500 miles away and three hours ahead in time.
“As long as you meet your deliverables,” Sue had said to Pippa’s question about working remotely on the nonprofit’s data team. “You can live anywhere. Just get your work done.”
So that’s what Pippa had done for twenty-five dollars an hour, money that wouldn’t go very far in Hawaii if she didn’t have her caretaking job. After two months with Nature Now and at Sue’s repeated request, Pippa had posted a headshot on her page, email, and links. By then, Sue had forgotten what Pippa looked like anyway, so Pippa got away with using a photo of her older sister Mattie. In essentials, they looked the same, so Pippa really couldn’t blame busy Sue for not noticing. Blonde, brown-eyed, oval-faced, darkly eyebrowed. Prominent cheekbones, pixie chin.
The photo Pippa snagged was from Mattie’s wedding. The sun glinted behind her sister, her whole face alight. Mattie had married her true love, Walter, and moved to Portland to open up their very own restaurant. Last year, they had their first child, named Emma, after Em.
“You haven’t even pretended to want to visit,” Mattie said every time she called, which was at least twice a week. “You haven’t invited us to come see you. I miss you.”
“You can’t leave the restaurant,” Pippa replied each time because it was true.
In front of her, the computer images flickered like a flock of starlings.
“I’ll search for all the maybes,” Pippa said into the silence of the online meeting space. “Those who were encouraging on the cold calls but didn’t donate.”
“Social media,” Royce added. “Barrage.”
“Do it,” said Sue.
And then, like that, the meeting collapsed into nothing but air.

***

Outside, the air was crisp and filled with the calls of invasive bird species, the ones Pippa liked best for their colors and sounds: red-billed leiothrix, red-crested cardinals, Gambel’s quail. Alone in the yard, she would answer the quail, calling out, ha, ha, aha, aha, aha, mimicking the slow, prolonged laugh.
“If you don’t catch the seedlings,” her landlord Nate told her when he explained the yard work, “the whole house will disappear. A three-bedroom house is no match for ten acres of wet Hawaiian soil.”
“That’s not the plants’ fault.” Pippa tried to keep her voice light. “It’s not like they asked to come here.”
“Someone brought them,” Nate said.
“They could have been stowaways,” Pippa said, “on ships and in luggage.”
“Or flung by storm.”
“Trapped,” Pippa added.
“Trying to escape,” Nate said, laughing. “No rest for the wicked.”
“It feels so arbitrary.” She wondered how she could rip something whole and alive from the ground. She could almost hear the roots screaming.
“Everything is. But you can do it,” Nate said. “You’ll see.”
Now, sweat trickled down her spine as she clipped and yanked, practiced now at plant murder.
“A gentleman’s farm,” Nate said during their first call. He had called from his dry-as-toast house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’d already moved. “Keep the farm out of the house, and you can live there forever.”
For two weeks, she wondered if Nate’s ad on Craigslist had been a scam that would eventually find her a sex slave in an Illinois subdivision, but he was really Nate in Santa Fe who didn’t want to sell his Hilo house, at least not yet. His closest neighbor was moving back to the mainland and couldn’t watch the place anymore.
“Let’s see where this artist thing goes,” he told her.
Every month, he reported on the high and dry climate of the southwest and his wretched painting classes. “Watch out or I’ll send my rejects home to Hilo.”
But he never did.
Pippa plotted out her work, listed her tasks on a spreadsheet along with her work schedule. Today was ripping out the bastard jasmine, which was its actual name. Bastard jasmine. She sat on the warm, wet grass and pulled at the vines that scrambled over the hedges and across the lawn. The tubular flowers were bright crimson with yellow pistils, so pretty that she had two vases of them on the kitchen counter.
She’d taken the machete to the pampas grass yesterday, and tomorrow was about ripping out the rubbervine. Once a week, she sat on the mower and made perfect circles around the house, the thick, springy grass an orderly protection against the other flora that threatened to swallow it.
She made sure the catchment was catching and the cesspool didn’t overflow or explode or whatever it was that cesspools did when things went horribly wrong. She kept an eye out for cockroaches and fire ants. Pippa battened down the hatches and closed the storm shutters against potential tsunamis, not that she or the house would survive one of those.
As best as possible, Pippa took care, as per agreement.
Wind pushed up out of the ocean and swirled across the tops of trees. Pippa hunkered on her haunches, throwing a wad of jasmine on the pile. The clouds overhead were black with rain but nothing was falling. On the house wall next to her, a gecko paused.
Em had taught her about birds. Plants, too. That’s what she was doing at the very end as she and Pippa looked out the shattered window.
Blood trickled down her face, but Em pointed up. “Look at the branches. We’re held between palms.”
Em tried to smile, and Pippa stilled.
“Eucalyptus,” Em said. “So green.”
The long leaves hung down like claws, seed pods clicking on the car roof.

***

Mattie was eighteen when it happened, old enough to be given charge of her thirteen-year-old sister. The judge appointed her custodian, even though it was clear she couldn’t take care of herself, much less Pippa. Mattie stayed out late and came home early, sleeping till noon. She lost one job and then another. Her skin grew dry, her hair turned into magical dead straw. She weighed less than one hundred pounds, her knees as knobby as oranges. So Pippa made sure they ate dinner and the rugs were vacuumed. She paid the bills online and fed the animals.
After court-appointed therapy, Mattie managed to crest up and over her “bad period” and signed Pippa up for SAT tutoring and helped her with college applications. Mattie rented the U-Haul and drove Pippa to Claremont College and went to freshman orientation with her. Pippa came home to Mattie during college breaks. Mattie was Pippa’s family until Mattie made another one.
After Pippa’s first year of college, Mattie sold the house. She paid off the mortgage and the back taxes and put enough aside for Pippa’s last three years of school. Just before she moved to Portland, Mattie split the proceeds fifty-fifty, money that Pippa had mostly spent. She gave Pippa exactly half of everything else, six spoons, six knives, six forks. Fifty books. One of the two big tables. Pippa put her things into storage and sold them before she moved to Hilo.

***

In the late afternoon after dumping the cuttings into the compost pile, Pippa headed downtown. She had her dinner menus down pat: tofu and broccoli, red curry over basmati, salmon on mixed greens, mushroom rice. Repeat. Breakfast was always yogurt, fruit, and granola. Lunch was nuts and half a papaya squirted with lime or some leftovers from the night before. All the clerks at the KTA knew her, nodding or giving her the half-smile for a resident but not a true local. The store aisles were clumped with retired mainlanders, all of them sun-damaged and wearing inappropriate shorts.
They smiled at Pippa as if in collusion, and she smiled back, hoping to get by without conversation. In the produce section, she hovered over the vegetables, nodding to Brian, who worked most afternoons.
“Just put out some new broccoli.” He pointed to the fresh, densely headed stalks. “Get it while you can.”
During her first shopping trips here, Brian seemed to flirt with her, despite the fact he was a true local. Maybe Dale from meats had flirted, too, but while she tried to figure out how to respond, they stopped. Now they made pleasant conversation, the same way they did with the retired folks.
“Watch out for the condiment aisle. Some kind of medical emergency.”
“What?” she asked, but Brian was rolling away with his trolley.
Pippa put a head of broccoli in her wagon and then headed past the packaged meat toward the aisle in question. Three emergency-garbed men stood with hands on their hips staring at something. Wildly reflective even in the daylight, their bright greens, yellows, and reds beat into Pippa’s head. One talked into a radio giving an update. A man, chest pains. Maybe diabetic.
“I need some soy sauce,” an older woman said to a KTA employee. “I really, really need it.”
“You can’t go down there yet,” he told her.
“Well.” The woman looked at Pippa for agreement, and when she didn’t get any, she huffed past.
Pippa stared, though she could see very little. The only visible body part was the man’s outstretched arm on the painted concrete floor, his skin weathered and dark, fingernails thick and slightly yellowed. He was tented by highly trained professionals, their gear spread around them. The radio crackled again, and then came the clack of the gurney being wheeled down the aisle.
“Step back,” one of the emergency workers said, and Pippa did, literally backward. One step, two. How she remembered that feeling of being saved. Her body on the flat expanse of a gurney, the air on her face as they pulled her up.
“I said step back,” the man said again, even though Pippa was moving away. But he knew. He saw that in her mind, she was standing right next to the man, urging him to be okay. She was next to him as they rushed to the hospital. She would be hovering all night, until it was over.

***

The next day, Pippa logged off work at the same time there was an earthquake in Papua New Guinea. As she closed her computer, her phone buzzed with texts, the island chain of Hawaii under tsunami alert, even though the forecasters predicted a non-event. Worse than the imagined tsunami was the rain that started to fall, hard, the roof clattering. Wind slapped the house and blew palm fronds onto the sodden grass.
She didn’t bother to shutter the windows but sat at the kitchen table, watching as things flew past, the view as it had been that last day with Em. All they had been able to do was look up, still and quiet.
“That looks like an ice cream cone,” Em had said about a cloud. “Maybe a dog.”
“Or a cat,” Pippa had said, trying to encourage Em to say more. But mostly, Pippa had stared at the back of Em’s head, her hair dark and wet.
Pippa’s cell phone buzzed and then at the same moment, the house phone rang, a sound she’d only heard a few times because no one ever called it.
“Hello?” she said into the home phone. Her cell phone blared Mattie, and then went to voice mail. Her sister kept alerts on her phone, and this call was likely about the tsunami and the storm, a double whammy.
Her cell phone rang again. Still Mattie.
“Pippa Randall?”
“Who is this?” Perhaps she was being evacuated, Pippa thought, the threat finally real once again.
“My name is Donald McDonald. I represent the estate of Nathaniel Brower.”
“Estate?”
Donald McDonald cleared his throat. “You haven’t received our letters?”
Pippa sat down on the kitchen chair, blinking into the refrigerator’s stainless door.
“No.”
“I’m sorry to say that Nathaniel Brower died last week.”
Pippa’s mouth opened, and she stopped breathing for a moment. Outside, the world crashed against Nathaniel Brower’s home. All the trees threw what they could at his former house. Her former house. Soon real estate agents would converge. The furniture would be sold; the yard would be wacked into an inch of its life. The tenant would be evicted, she that tenant.
“Miss Randall?”
“I’m sorry,” she blurted, a strange, ragged feeling in her throat.
“My apologies,” Donald McDonald said. “You should have received notification by now.”
She wanted to tell Donald that no one even knew her enough to notify her about anything, much less news about Nate’s gentlemanly farm. His mail was forwarded to Santa Fe; she had a box at the post office. She was a stranger who talked with him once or twice a month. She did what he asked, but he didn’t know anything about her.
“I’m calling because I have news. It’s good, I hope.”
A wall of wind beat the kitchen window like the whirring whap of helicopter blades rising out of a canyon.
“What do you mean?”
“Mr. Brower left you the Hilo house.”
The kitchen light wavered but stayed on. Pippa wiped her eyes and nose and looked out the window, expecting to see a giant wave cupping the shore, but all she saw were clouds.
“I don’t understand.”
Donald cleared his throat, discomfort in the gravelly sound. “Mr. Brower had no remaining family or beneficiaries. The rest is going to various charities. I’ll be sending a letter he also left for you.”
Pippa brushed tears off her face with the back of her hand. “Wait! How—how did he die?”
“I’ll send the letter,” Donald said. “And expect some registered mail with important documents. Also, I’ve contacted a Hilo lawyer who will help you with some documents. She’ll be in touch.”
She gave him her P.O. Box address. “Thank you,” Pippa said, wishing she could really say that to Nate. She pictured walking up to him and giving him a hug, but she didn’t even know what he looked like, having only seen a few photos in the house. Maybe he’d looked like the sound of his voice. Skinny, light, full of hope.

***

By the time Pippa got on her flight to Hilo, it had been years since she’d been in the air. She wasn’t afraid until the moment she sat down in her seat, economy, 29C, an aisle seat close to the bathroom. As the flight attendant went over lifejacket protocol during a water crash, the cabin began to swim with orbs of light. Pippa’s entire body felt ready to split from her skin.
“Are you okay?” the college kid next to her asked.
“Sure,” Pippa said as she dug in her purse.
“I’m Malcolm,” he said, extending a hand. But Pippa was opening a pill bottle and swallowing two of the Trazodone she’d been prescribed years before.
The rest of the flight was a dark wall of nothing. When she woke up, she was in a dorm at the U of H with Malcolm and his two nervous roommates. Her luggage was in the middle of the room like a lonely piece of Stonehenge.
“They were going to arrest you for drunk and disorderly behavior,” he told Pippa when he drove her up to Nate’s. “I had to tell them that you were my sister. I lied and said you had the flu.”
Pippa wanted to invite Malcolm into Nate’s house, but she didn’t. At first, she thought she’d call him, but she didn’t do that either. When she went into town, she almost hoped she’d run into him, so she could take him for a drink or a coffee. But she never saw him, not once. By now, he must have graduated and gone off into his real life, the kind that other people seemed to take for granted.

***

Pua Kalawai’a’s law office was on Laukapu Street, not too far from Big Island Candies, a store Pippa went to when she sent her guilty gift basket to Mattie every Christmas.
Pua’s receptionist had bright red lips and heavy eyeliner, as if preparing to join Cirque du Soleil. Her body was tight like the piece of corded rope that she might twirl up.
“Ms. Kalawai’a will see you now.” Her voice was like flung knives.
Pua came out of her office and gestured Pippa in. She wore no makeup and a very sensible lightweight blue suit and black flats. She was round where the receptionist was thin, but Ms. Kalawai’a was sturdy and buttoned-down.
“Pua Kalawai’a,” she said, reaching out a hand.
“Pippa.” Pippa put her hand into Pua’s, shaking in a way that she hoped meant business.
“Sort of like the lottery, right?”
Pippa sat down on the chair, as Pua riffled through the pages of the document. “Wish someone left me a big house when I was twenty-five.”
“I—”
“So lucky.”
Pippa’s thighs tightened, her feet solid on the floor. She could call Donald McDonald and tell him to get another lawyer.
“This Mr. Brower. You know him well?”
“I’ve been taking care of his house for three years.” Pippa rubbed her right thumb, her skin dry, her cuticles ragged from all the gardening.
“So like I said.” Pua handed over a document with a yellow tab showing Pippa where to sign. “Lucky duck.”
“I’m not lucky.” Pippa scratched out her name once and then again.
Pua waited for more and then when Pippa just stared back, she said, “Lots of people don’t have their own house.”
Pippa nodded. “I know.”
As Pua waited, Pippa flushed, heat filling her from the top down.
“So the deed has been transferred,” Pua said finally. “And these—Grace, I need the next page notarized.”
Grace came in with her box and pens and stamp. “Driver’s license.”
Pippa swallowed and pulled out her ID and handed it to Grace who began to fill in a form. This was almost over.
“Do you know how he died?” Pippa asked.
Pua and Grace both looked up from their papers.
“No one told me,” Pippa explained.
“Suicide,” Pua said. “Apparently he was really sick. Oh, and here. I was supposed to mail this, but you’re here. He wrote this to you before, well, he did it.”
Pippa took the envelope, and then she signed everything Grace and Pua asked her to, leaving her thumbprints behind as proof.

***

It hadn’t rained for months, so when it finally started to pour in mid-December, everyone was ecstatic. But who expected the oils to pull up from the roads? No one, apparently. And really, who cared when everyone could finally turn off their sprinklers and lawns could grow back? Trees and shrubs plumped up and dust washed off cars, buildings, and benches in dirty rivulets.
Each morning, Pippa had a long, uphill walk to the bus stop, so on Day Four of the deluge, Em told her enough was enough. Mattie had already left for her English comp class at the college, so this seemed the best plan. “You are showing up to school like a wet rat. Let’s go.”
Pippa hadn’t been paying much attention. She was reading a book and then looking at her cell phone, hoping her best friend Julia would call. She worried about smashing her orange in her backpack. Em turned on NPR, so she wasn’t talking, either. It wasn’t until she said, “Oh, no,” that Pippa looked up into a world that was off balance and then spinning.
It was slow at first. The car sliding diagonally down Honey Hill Road, surfing the asphalt sideways, gaining speed, bumping up and over the curb and the partially broken guardrail and then hurtling down, down, down into the canyon below. The dry years killed the Monterey pines that might have caught them, but the car crashed through branches crisped and sharpened by drought, one busting through the windshield to impale Em on their way down. They smashed, they spun, they flew, finally caught and pulled back by an enormous eucalyptus.
For a few seconds, they hung, bouncing, ready to break free and fall to the road far below. Too afraid to cry, Pippa looked at Em who was unconscious, part of a branch in her stomach, one of her arms at a strange angle.
“Mom,” Pippa whispered, scared her voice might add weight to the car.
The rain beat down, drops heavy like bullets. Pippa watched her mother, noticing a new wound with each breath: ear, shoulder, forehead.
Pippa was untouched, snug in her seatbelt cage, her side of the windshield unbroken.
“Mom,” she whispered again, and then again, one “Mom” every few seconds until finally Em woke up.
“Oh,” she said. “Pippa. Are you okay?”
“I think so,” Pippa said. “But….”
Em passed out again, coming to every once in a while to reassure Pippa that someone would come and save them. Somehow, the invasive, improper eucalyptus kept them aloft, even when the wind whipped lashes of rain against and then into the car through the broken window.
“Mom,” Pippa kept repeating. “Please.”

***

Not only did Pippa get the house, a yearly operating budget, the land, and all of Nate’s possessions in the Hilo property, she got his car, too, the Honda she’d been driving since she moved in. When she got home from Pua’s office, Pippa allowed herself—for the first time—to go into Nate’s room. He’d taken most of his clothes and personal things during his move to Santa Fe, but he had a dozen or so Hawaiian shirts in the closet and flip-flops lined up underneath them. There were sculptures of Hawaiian birds and a few prints of the ocean and the volcano in a sulfurous uproar, but nothing else offered up much information.
On his dresser, there was a photo from a long time ago, the edges yellowed, a smiling man in a uniform, Naval, maybe. Pippa had only seen Nate in photos in the kitchen drawer, but she thought she saw a resemblance. His grandfather. After opening a few drawers and surveying the shelves, Pippa couldn’t find any other evidence of family, a fact that both lawyers had confirmed. Nate had ended up alone in the world except for Pippa who lived thousands of miles away, a total stranger.
In the dining room, Pippa sat at the table and opened the letter. For a second, she thought she might recognize the handwriting, but of course that was ridiculous. Nate had never sent checks, but paid all bills online. He emailed and texted but never wrote, so she was surprised by his light and flowing scrawl.

Dear Pippa—
Sorry to do this in such a terrible manner. I didn’t tell you I was sick when you applied for the job. Hilo didn’t have the medical services I needed, so thus the move to a city with a specialist. It wasn’t the art that drew me to Santa Fe, but the art was nice, at least for a while.
After our first phone conversation, I looked you up. A background check with a couple of services. You were going to be taking over my life, after all. I didn’t mention it later because nothing bad surfaced. Then one service sent me some links about you and your mother, but what happened wasn’t something I could work in when discussing the roofing materials or patching the driveway.
What a horrible story. So much danger. You were there for her until she wasn’t. After I read the articles, I wondered how you still managed to walk the planet, much less move to another state and set up a whole new life.
You took such good care of my house, and by extension, me. Thank you for giving me something so special—the ability to not worry about all that while I worried about my health.
But things aren’t going well, and I’m done. Flat out ready. It’s been a long haul. I’m not scared. And I don’t want you to feel responsible for any of this. You did everything right, and even if you’d known, you couldn’t have changed my mind.
Quit that remote job. Enjoy the house and the farm. You know exactly what to do—you’ve been doing it for three years. Buy a couple of goats. What about one of those miniature donkeys? Plant some tomatoes.
All best,
Nate

Pippa sat at the table. The sun set and the bullfrogs started in with their nightly honking. Her mother was next to her, nodding as she read the paper. She smelled like toast and sleep and black tea. On the stove top, something odd, lentils with squash or bouillabaisse. Sunflowers in a vase on the pine table. A book, a magazine, and a newspaper. As she read, Em pushed her hair back and chuckled at something she read, looking up at Pippa and then reading aloud.
“So funny,” Em said, slapping her hand on the table. “Who would have known?”
Pippa could only stare. Em. Her mother. Mom. Blonde-haired and brown-eyed, just like Mattie and Pippa. Slightly crooked nose. Fingernails painted pink, her favorite color. Mattie now was exactly as their mother had been for all their childhood.
Just before Pippa had heard the helicopter and saw the helmeted man dangling outside her window, her mother died. Pippa hadn’t really known clinically, but something heavy lifted from the broken cab.
“Ten more minutes and that branch would have snapped,” she’d heard a firefighter say in the hospital hallway. “Can’t believe it held that long.”
The last time she saw her mother, Pippa was in the air, held flat in a metal gurney being lifted into the sky. Despite being strapped down and buffeted by the great machine above her, she turned her body so that she could see her mother’s hair, part of her face, her hand. Later, her throat raw, she would remember she had been screaming.
The helicopter pulled her up and up, her mother a dot in a giant tree.

***

Outside, the rain stopped. Pippa flipped on an outdoor light, terrifying a gecko, who stared at her with its bulging dark eyes, all parts of him pulsing with fear. His green, blue, and red sides heaved air in and out so fast Pippa worried he might explode.
“Sorry,” she whispered, stepping back. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
The gecko opened his mouth, and Pippa waited for a second to see what he might say. Instead, he licked his left eye. So she turned toward the lush darkness. From the trees came the popping whoop of coqui frogs, another interloper, calling and responding to things she could only begin to guess at. A warm wind held her upper arms and her face. In the distance, the ocean tumbled against the invisible shore.
Pippa waited. Sucked tight to the wall, the gecko’s breathing finally slowed, his rhythm like the wind. In and out, in and out. After a moment, he started to amble up the wall, one sticky foot at a time.


Sunday, February 23, 2020

From Volume 40: “After the Garden” by Hannah Grace Dierdorff


After the Garden
by Hannah Grace Dierdorff


It isn’t the tree—she misses
the roses and lilies, the does
that came, thighs trembling, to eat
from her hand. Sometimes her palm
shivers remembering their silky wet

mouths. No garden she tills now
would ever welcome deer to nibble
carrot greens and lettuce heads.
Man with the bow refuses to tend
the land, and no harvest has come.

At dusk, he squats or kneels, plucks
and carves the breast of a dove,
throws feathers and blood into fire
as if they never made a body fly.
He thumbs the two eggs he took

from the nest and tilts back his head
to split each orb between open teeth.
Later he’ll undo the lamb skin
from her shoulders, finger her white
flesh with his eyes, and pull her down.

Under thumb, her body will crack
till gold bleeds into the earth.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

From Volume 40: "Summer 1965 – Celie" by Susan Merson



Summer 1965 – Celie
by Susan Merson


My dad travels the back roads of the Midwest, selling dinettes to small furniture stores that double as mortuaries. Summer is here again.
            “You can drive, Rosie. You can be my assistant. I like a good lookin’ assistant.”
            I have nothing going on until Drivers’ Ed in August so I take him up on the offer. He is talking about his days as a shill for the Royal American Side Shows.
            He launches into his patter. “A pretty girl is like a melody and keeps you warm at night besides.”
            “Dad.”
            We swing onto the expressway, facing rivers of concrete and hours of spinning wheels.
            “I been to Auction, Bauction, Baraboo. Newport, Bridgeport, Salem, too. My hometown is a one-horse town, but it’s big enough for me,” he sings. “What’s next, Rosie?”
            “On this side I’m a man…” I recite.
            “Ri-i-i-i-ght!”
            “Strong and vir-ile. On this side,” I continue.
            “I’m a woman. Soft and tender. Right, you are my girl.”
            “My home town is a one-horse town. What is a one-horse town?” I ask.
            “Aw, a place where you don’t always step in shit.” he replies. He dodges a twelve-wheeler barreling right at us. I let some concrete tap tap tap under the car. I like being gone. All last week I was perched on Marsha Richman’s porch, pretending to be her best friend while really seeing if I could get a glimpse of Isaac Crown. He’s tall and quiet with eyes that I swim in. And I pretty much can think of nothing else these days. Better to be on the road.
            “You ran away to join the circus?” I say, contemplating my own escape.
            “There were twisty girls and bearded ladies and a lot of shit—elephant shit, camel shit, horse shit. The Royal American Side Shows.” He chuckles to himself.
            It is true, all that stuff about the circus. I know because he takes me every year and we sit in the front row and the clowns all come over and talk to me as I sit in my dad’s lap. He laughs and smiles so wide that I can see his missing tooth gap in the back of his mouth.
            “How come you never talk about it?”
            We ride in silence for a while.
            “Your mother wants you should have a classy life. She doesn’t like the circus stuff, especially when they come by to hit me up for cash.” He flashes a crooked smile. “Nice to have a couple of bucks to spread around though.”

***

“There’s the sign for Bay City, Dad. Didn’t you want to go to Bay City?”
            “Yeah, yeah. I know a great joint there. We’ll have a burger. You can drive after lunch.”
            Dad steers the big Chrysler Imperial toward the exit and into the farmland. He finds the main street of this little town and pulls up in front of Bay City Burgers. The car is longer than the double front window of the diner. We order two, with everything. Dad lifts the burger to his face and smells. We don’t stick out as city slickers in this little town. There are other men there with plastic pen holders in the front pocket of their white shirts.

***

“Oh yeah,” my dad says as we exit the diner. He belches quietly and pops a couple of Maalox. “Here we go. Ferris Brothers, our next stop. You can stay in the car.”
            “It’s hot. I’ll take a walk.”
            “It’s just I gotta do some quick business. Then we can keep moving,” he says.
            “There’s a dime store. I’ll look in there.”
            “Okay, take a walk, Rosie. I’ll be back in a half hour, no more.”
            I look across the street at the Ferris Furniture sign. Dad sets off.
            “Just take a walk,” he says to me.
            I find it funny since he always likes to show me off to his friends. Especially these days, after I got taller, sprouted breasts, and started to wash my hair regularly.
            Dad opens the plate glass door and I hear him. “Missss-taaaah Ferris, how the hell are ya?”
            I wander across the street toward the five and dime. I pass by Ferris Furniture. There is an open workshop next to the store. It’s a wood shop and smells of resin and burnt saw blades. I smile at the workman leaning back in his beat-up, wheeled office chair. He’s about sixty. He looks me over pretty good.
            “I hep’ you, young lady? Give you tips on the hot spots?”  
            “Just taking a walk.”
            “Leo bring you for the burgers, betcha.”
            “Yeah. They’re good. You know my dad?”
            “He never brought you before.” He motions for me to come in. “Not going to bite ya. Here’s a cool drink.”
            He’s wiping his hands on a red handkerchief, having already dipped his hand in the Coca Cola cooler.
            “Thanks,” I say, grabbing the Coke, my eyes wandering to the big fresh pine boxes in the back of the garage. There’s a boy lying on a hard couch with metal armrests. His arm is over his forehead. His legs extend past the rails. Flies buzz around his eyes.
            “That’s Junior. That’s my boy.”
            My face flushes.
            “Hot day, young lady. Hot day.” He smiles like he’s feeling his underwear.
            “My dad needs to see Mr. Ferris for a minute.” I look down the heat-blasted street.
            “Big business man, Mr. Ferris. Got the furniture store. Makes caskets. Got it all sewn up, but money ain’t everything.”
            “No. ‘Course not.”
            My eyes find the rise and fall of the boy’s chest as he breathes.
            “But we been real busy. Besides the four caskets we made for his family—Mr. Ferris’s—burned themselves up in a fire a couple of months ago, we got a regular trade from the nursing home. We make caskets for all sizes.”
            “Oh.”
            “Yep. Ferris had three kids and a wife. We boxed ‘em up and set ‘em in the ground.”
            Around the corner, toward the front of the workshop, I hear my Dad’s footsteps.
            “My boy was in love with the girl. Knowed this family our whole life.”
            “Rosie. You in here?”
            “Love changed him for the worse, that’s for sure,” Frank says, glancing back at his comatose son. “Easy come, easy go, I always say.”
            Dad appears, the sun behind him. I squint to see his silhouette.
            “You get yourself a sale there, Mister?” Frank says to my dad.
            “I came to see how my friend is doing.”
            “You Jews. Always looking for a sale.”
            “See you next time, Frank.”
            “We’ll still be here.”
            Frank moves back into the shadow of the garage. His boy rolls onto his side and looks out at me, past the caskets and the tight underwear, wondering if I might be somebody else.

***

We drive along the lakeshore. It is getting dusky. A big mosquito—full of someone’s blood—splats against the front windshield.
            “Sonofabitch! Look at that.”
            The blood doesn’t register with me. I’m sailing on the big lake and I see Frank’s boy floating in a rowboat, still lying prone, hand over his forehead, flies buzzing at his eyes, dreaming again.
            “Goddammit!” Dad says.
            He gets out of the car and starts to poke at the windshield with his finger.
            “Goddamn sonofabitch,” he says, as if the blood will disappear if he swears at it long enough.
            “You drive for a while, Rosie. I’m beat.”
            I slip out of my side of the car and get behind the wheel, feeling the spray of the water of the wipers as they finally start to move. In the rearview mirror I see the elegant lifted tail fins of the Imperial, chrome catching the glint of strung lanterns on a cottage pier. I pull out, driving Jonah’s whale away from the boy with the leaky eyes.
            “Did you know the kids, Daddy? Mr. Ferris’s kids?”
            “I knew them. I met them. His wife. You know. Business.”
            “Oh.”
            “Watch the stop sign.”
            “That man Frank. He said his son loved the girl. His girlfriend. He said the boy lost his girlfriend in the fire.”
            “Girlfriend? What girlfriend?”
            “The boy, his father said it. He loved the girl.”
            “What does he know? Love. You know love?” Dad looks out into the soft light and shakes his head. “You got a boyfriend? You like a boy?”
            “Daddy.” It makes me feel squirmy, how he asks me. Do I like a boy?
            “Stay away from the boys.”
            I drive a little more.
            Then he asks again, “You like a boy?”
            I don’t say anything.
            “It can kill ya, I’ll tell ya that.”
            We are moving into a little town now. It’s got a few rusty signs, a closed diner and a billboard for Sandy’s Cottages, Lakeside Dining.
            Just past two huge pines, a string of Christmas lights struggles to stay cheery in the summer night.
            “There’s Sandy’s,” Dad says. “Pull in there.”
            I maneuver the huge Imperial neatly into the space in front of the Office sign. I can see a small living room behind the counter where a television is on. A slumped figure sleeps in a La-Z-Boy.
            Sandy, a short, very short, little woman, comes snorting up to the car. Her eyes come to the bottom of the driver’s side power windows. Greasy glasses gleam at me.
            “Hallo, Leo,” she says in a squeaky voice. “We’ve been on needles and pins all day. Curtis tried to stay awake to say hello, but he only barks when he’s awake these days anyway. The stroke finished him off!”
            She has pulled open the driver’s side door and sees me staring. “Don’t worry, he only really barks when he sees a bone!” Sandy sputters and laughs. “This your daughter? She’s bee-you-tee-fool. Glad to finally meetchu, little pretty one.”
            I get out and stand up. The woman’s head comes to my waist.
            Dad comes out of the car from his side and around to meet Sandy.
            “Come here. Let me get my arms around you!” she squeaks.
            Sandy runs up to the porch and quickly climbs onto a tree stump, which makes her about the same height as Dad. He moves to the porch with a shy smile. Sandy’s stubby arms grab his neck.
            Sandy stretches her little arms and cracks her fingers. She glances at me.
            “C’mere. I get to hug you too.”
            I step forward and her gnarled hands touch my face. She looks into my eyes and pats my shoulder.
            “That’s it,” she says. “Okay, I made sammiches. Left ‘em in the room. And some Vernor’s. You like Vernor’s, young lady?”
            “Yes. Sure. I like Vernor’s.”
            “Oh, Lordy. Thank God for that!”
            She squeezes Dad again and hops off the tree stump.
            “C’mon. Here’s the cottage key. I put you near the water, like always.”
            Sandy scampers across the stubbly grass in front of a circle of sagging cabins with their wooden porches. She runs like a monkey, agile and loping, a smile on her face.
            “I’ve known your daddy for many a year, Missy,” she squeaks to me as she runs.
            “In It-ly. When we were young and gay. He ever tell you the stories?”
            Sandy opens the door and flips on the light. She checks that the screens fit and runs the water in the sink.
            “And here. Sammiches. Turkey and ham—aw hell. You eat ham?”
            “It’s fine,” Dad says.
            “You don’t eat ham!”
            Sandy grabs the plate and heads back to the door of the cabin.
            “I’ll bring back salami. At least the Vernor’s is cold!”
            On the wooden desk there is a metal bowl filled with ice and wrapped in a white and red dishtowel—and a big glass bottle of Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Sandy vaguely resembles the little gnome painted in green on the side of the bottle. She notices me making the connection.
            “It’s my grampa! It’s the truth,” she says, pointing to the small man with the pointy beard on the bottle. Sandy starts to cackle and move at the same time. Dad laughs too. “Back in a minute. Gotta get Curt to bed.”
            “How the hell you gonna handle Curt? He’s six feet tall!” he asks. “You got no one to help?”
            Dad sets our bag in the room and heads back out the door with Sandy.
             
***

Night bugs and moths bat against the screens and I move onto the dusty screened-in porch with a wooden picnic table and two rocking chairs pulled up close to the view. Dad comes back with a plate of sandwiches.
            “Here’s dinner. I’m beat.” Dad takes a sandwich and drinks some Vernor’s. “Sandy’s a good old friend.”
            “From Italy?”
            “I used to bring circus performers over to do shows for the troops. Sandy came a couple of times with Curt. They had a specialty act. He was a muscle man and she dressed up like a fireplug. He lifted her with one hand.”
            “One hand?”
            “One hand, and then he married her.” Dad belches. “I’m going to bed,” he says.

***

The crickets are making a racket. Sandy’s cackle floats from the office over the laugh track from the TV show she’s watching. An owl hoots in a tall pine. Stars crowd the moon. The sandy beach soaks up the spilt moonlight. The screen door slams as I head to the beach. I can hear the ruffle of Dad’s snore, lost in his dreams, Mr. Ferris rolling alone in his ashy house, and Sandy giggling while her husband barks. And that boy.

***

In my dream I see that boy drifting, drifting farther into the water. I call to him, even sing him a siren song to keep me company but he flops to one side like a grieving walrus. The flies buzz at his eyes. I am afraid they will be eaten like jelly before the boy can see me. My crunchy long hair, my singed fingers, my baked scales. My battered mermaid tail falls away from me in the waves and I am all bones. The boy stands and I see his back. He shakes all over and dives into the water. I feel his mouth stretch from the hook as it breaks and pierces his lip. He rears up— a flying fish—and lets out a howl that no one can hear and then melts away into the water. My skin floats further from my skeleton. I am a new lizard and climb onto the beach to wait for the sun.

***

            My dad, all sleepy, has come to the beach to find me. I sit up straight.
            “I never even heard about these people. I don’t know anything about any of it. It feels creepy.”
            I bring my legs up under my bathrobe and feel the sand get lost in my cotton pajamas.
            “A life is long, Rosie.”
            “It’s just that you’re my dad, not someone else’s friend.”
            Dad smiles his shy smile just for me.
            “Why’d you go to the Army?”
            “It was wartime—Air Force. A job.”
            The moonlight dusts us both. I can feel him drifting somewhere else. It’s the stars, I think.
            “The first night I arrive in North Africa, I look up and I see this many stars but I was sleeping in the snow on a freezing football field.”
            Dad sighs. He’s quiet and then it’s too quiet.
            “So I get myself shipped to Bari, Italy. I bring over circus guys, singers, tap dance jobs—anyone I can think of to entertain the guys.”
            “That where you meet that woman?” I ask, my interest piqued.
            “What woman?”
            “That woman in the picture in your wallpaper book?”
            “Whaddaya talking about?”
            Dad moves away a little, but I can tell the memory is warm, like someone’s breath on his cheek.
            “For Leo. I sing your heart.”
            “Whaddaya talking about?”
            “I saw the picture, Daddy. She was pretty.”
            “Pretty. Yeah, she was pretty.”
            “What was her name?”
            There is a long silence, like his heart is deciding whether it wants the padlock dusted off.
            “There was a dive in Bari, The Blue Spot.” Leo takes a beat. “A girl singer showed up. A redhead.”
            “Did you have a romance with her, with the redhead?”
            “I’m not talking about romance with you. What am I? Crazy?”
            The sky is so big.
            “Daddy, I like a boy.”
            The stars adjust.
            “What boy?”
            “His name is Isaac. He’s at shule.”
            “You like him?”
            “Yeah.”
            “A lot?”
            “I can’t think about anything else. All the time. For a long time.”
            “You’re kidding me. You…I mean you don’t even go on dates with him. Do you? You sneak around?”
            “No. No. I can’t even talk to him I like him so much.”
            Daddy starts to grin. Then he laughs.
            “Okay. Well, I guess we don’t have to worry about baseball yet, huh?”
            “Baseball?”
            “You know—first base, second base...”
            “Daddy!”
            “Just kidding.”
            “It’s just…when I saw that kid today at Mr. Ferris’s and how sad he was and how he couldn’t seem to move, I thought that maybe that’s how I’d feel if I loved someone like I love Isaac Crown and I lost him like that.”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “What about that redhead in Italy? How did it feel to love her? And then never see her again?”
            “Aw, what the…” Dad gets up and starts to walk away down the beach. The moonlight hits him like a spot and he turns, a doll at a mike.
            “She was slinky.” Dad laughs, full and throaty, then he abandons that fantasy. Not with me there.
            “What was her name?”
            Dad looks up at the stars.
            “It must be one o’clock already. Let’s get you to bed, doll face,” he says softly.
            Dad grabs my hand. We stroll along the beach and the water licks my toe.
            “The little putz. Never even asked you out?”
            The screen door slams behind us.
            Dad turns out the light.
            “Night, doll,” he says.
            “Night, Daddy.”
            “Celie,” I hear him say. “Her name was Celie.”