Good on Paper
by Bodie Parkhurst
Publication date: May 2010
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Published by Magic Dog Press at CreateSpace
Once upon a time, a king named David got the hots for a steamy little number named Bathsheba. Lucky for David, Mr. Bathsheba was busy being one of David’s best generals, so Bathsheba was home all by her lonesome. See where this is heading?
Of course you do. So does Sarah Conrad, reluctant Bible scholar and unwilling paramour of Pastor Jimmy Jay Rayburn, televangelist extraordinaire. It’s a destination she knows all too well. But the destination is only the beginning. Sarah didn’t wind up sleeping with an aging self-described “man of God” by accident. Elaine’s minister husband isn’t divorcing her on a whim. Mute Elizabeth doesn’t vanish in a room full of blood just because, at long last, she has begun talking.
Or does she?
Join Sarah, her sisters Elaine and Elizabeth, and her sister-in-law Jennifer as they unravel how Dan and Gwen Conrad, clean-living, salt-of-the-earth farmers with guaranteed tickets to heaven, have managed to raise such disappointing children—and why someone is angry enough to push Dan Conrad into his own hay chopper and leave him to die.
Good on Paper is a terrifying, hilarious, infuriating, sad, poetic journey one family makes to self-knowledge, as well as a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be “good,” and not just “good on paper.”
About the Author
Award-winning novelist Bodie Parkhurst lives in a small farming community in the empty half of Oregon. She is a graphic artist and illustrator, and has produced several children’s books. This is her second novel. Contact her online at magicdogpress.com.
Good On Paper–Excerpt
Once upon a time, a king named David got the hots for a steamy little number named Bathsheba. Lucky for David, Mr. Bathsheba, or Uriah, was busy being one of David’s best generals, so Bathsheba was home all by her lonesome. See where this is heading?
David did the kingly thing—he set up a rendezvous and they went at it like crazed weasels. By morning, he was in love. Nobody knew what Bathsheba thought—David was king, so it didn’t really matter. Bathsheba went home in the morning, no harm, no foul. Right? Wrong. Couple weeks later, David got a note. I’m late. And Mr. Bathsheba was still off fighting Philistines.
David thought fast.
He sent a note. Dear Uriah, Come on home. We need to talk. ’Course, what he planned was that Uriah would sleep with the little woman and nobody’d be any the wiser about the bun David had cooked up in her oven.
“How’s the battle?” David asked when Uriah showed up.
“Better before I left the guys unsupervised,” said Uriah, a little testily.
“Okay,” said David. “Just checkin’. Time for a quickie before you head back.”
“Nope,” said Uriah, “not while my men are dying. There’ll be none of that until we all come home.” He just couldn’t take a hint.
David thought fast again. “Okay,” he said. “I admire your grit. Can you take a note to your commanding officer?”
“Sure thing,” said Uriah.
Put him where the fighting is hottest. David sealed the note. “See that it gets to your commanding officer,” he said again.
“Sure thing, King Dave,” said Uriah. He spent the night in the barracks and headed out in the morning. ’Course, poor Bathsheba was just as knocked up as ever. Uriah delivered the note.
“Looks like you’ve been reassigned, Uriah,” said his commanding officer. Shortly thereafter, Uriah was tragically, predictably, and oh so conveniently dead. “Too bad, so sad,” said David. “He was a good man. Get yourself a new dress, Bathie baby, and let’s get this done before you start looking like you ate watermelon seeds.”
They got married. David was happy. Bathsheba was, too, or at least smart enough to keep quiet. Then God’s Man in the Street, Nathan, showed up at the palace in full Ancient Mariner mode. He told David a story about a guy who loved his pet sheep.
As it turned out, he—the man in the story, not Nathan—loved this sheep so much he’d been sleeping with it, which seems like an odd arrangement unless we’re talking about Montana, here, where the men are men and the sheep are damned nervous. The man and his sheep were very happy together … until some rich guy stole the sheep and cooked it for dinner. The sheep lover was pissed about this.
David was, too. “Put that rich guy to death,” he roared. “Give all his stuff to the poor guy who’s lost his sheep. And get the poor guy some counseling, or a match.com membership, or something.”
Then Nathan delivered his zinger. “You’re the rich guy, David. You stole Uriah’s one little sheep (I can just imagine Bathsheba’s face at this) and you’ve already got more wives and concubines than you can remember.” And then, probably jealous as hell, he went on to rip David a new one before telling him that this sin would doom his kingdom. Which it did. And just to be sure David got the point, God killed Bathsheba’s baby, too, and that baby had nothing to do with anything.
Oh yeah, I think it’s safe to say that God’s definitely against adultery.
Pastor Jimmy Jay Rayburn, on the other hand, says taking off my panties is all part of God’s plan for him. He’s my boss, so his view is the one we’re going with right now. What do I think about it? Doesn’t really matter. My friend Janet said so when I asked her about it. Not that I gave her gory details or anything. I just said, “What happens if a secretary files a sexual abuse claim against her boss?”
“You can’t,” Janet said. “You’ll lose your job. That’s how it works. The minister they transfer. The secretary they fire. And they disfellowship her, too.” I don’t care about being disfellowshipped, but I know I don’t dare lose this job. So Pastor Rayburn wins, not because he’s right, but because I’m smart enough to keep quiet.
Pastor Rayburn’s definite that screwing me is part of The Divine Plan, but he’s not quite as clear on why. Sometimes he says the whole sorry mess is to teach him about sin, humility, compassion—shit like that. Sometimes he says it’s God’s way of rewarding him—you know—evening things out. “I’m so lonely,” he used to say to me in the beginning. “The Old Battle Axe just don’t understand me, an’ ever since I saw you in that flowered dress at Lainie’s graduation, I knew you would.”
I wanted to smack him. Elaine hated that name. She always did. I had no idea why, just like I don’t know why Daddy persisted in calling her that. Come to think of it, though, she never really said she hated it. It was just something I knew, something I had probably either been born knowing or learned before I could remember. Having Pastor Rayburn calling her Lainie felt like he was looking at her with her clothes off.
“Call her Elaine,” I finally said one day.
“Call her Elaine. Her name is Elaine,” I said. Even as the words came out of my mouth I knew I was going too far.
Pastor Rayburn cracked me a good one. I felt my lip split.
“You watch your mouth, girlie,” he said.
I grinned my biggest, shit-eatingest grin at him. I could feel the blood trickling down my chin.
“You think a little thing like that’s gonna shut me up?” I asked. He cracked me another one, harder. I felt one of my teeth wiggle, but I just kept on grinning. “You call her Elaine,” I said to him. “She deserves that much.”
“Huh?” he asked.
I rolled off the bed, picked up my skirt, and started working it up over my hips. “Just call her Elaine,” I said past my puffed, bleeding lip.
“Aw, honey, don’t be mad,” he said. “You know I gotta keep you in line. That mouth a yours …” and then he stopped and leered at me.
My mouth throbbed. I could feel my nose and lip puffing up already.
“Come on, just a quick one,” he said.
I wish I could say I bit it off. I wish I could say I walked out of there without saying a word. But I didn’t. I knelt down by the bed and gave him a quick one. Then I went into the bathroom and threw up blood and slime until I thought I’d turn inside out. When I came out of the bathroom, Pastor Rayburn was gone.
Dr. Eaves says I need to start a journal, so I am, for what it’s worth. I don’t know why she wants me to rake it all up again.
I know some people think counseling’s helpful, but I think most people know what they need to do, they just don’t want to do it, and counseling gives them an out. “They always blame the parents,” Daddy says. I think there’s some truth in that. Of course there are special cases, but overall I think it’s a pretty useless exercise. What good does talking about the past do now? Done’s done. That’s what Daddy says.
Still, here I am. I haven’t told Daddy that I’m going to a counselor. He’d hit the roof. And besides, it’s nothing to do with him, just me and Joe and the boys. When a marriage breaks up, it’s a good idea to get some counseling. I’ve said so myself. I just never thought it would apply to me. I suspect that in my case the counselor is a self-indulgence—a part of me looking for an excuse for my own failures.
My head knows I need a counselor. I would advise one for anyone else in my position. People in my position need professional help. But the idea of it scares me to death, and I don’t really know why. Why should the very idea of talking to a counselor leave me feeling sick and ashamed, like I’m sticking my nose into things that are none of my business? When I was a kid, I used to do that a lot, until I figured out that every time I did it, bad things happened. Still, though, Dr. Eaves wants me to write about my childhood, so here goes.
What shall I write about? The only time I really felt like a kid was when I was riding Harry. So Harry it is. I’ll write about Harry.
Harry was the only horse I ever had, and I loved him. Oh, I loved him. I got him when I was ten, because I had memorized all my memory verses for the year. It was a big thing. Pastor Rayburn had me go up in front of church and recite them all, and then he preached a sermon on the verse, “A little child shall lead them.” Daddy was so proud. The next day he took me out to the barn and there was this little horse. He was soft gray all over, and his mane and tail were almost black. He looked over the stall door at me with the deepest, softest brown eyes. I reached up and stroked his black nose. I know it’s a cliché, but it really did feel like velvet. I rubbed my fingers over that soft, soft skin, and I fell in love. Daddy put his hand on my shoulder and said, “He’s yours. I’m so proud of you.”
I whirled around and threw my arms around his waist. “I love you, Daddy,” I said into his plaid shirt.
“Dinner’s on,” Momma said from the stable door. “What’re you doing, Dan?”
“What does it look like?”
“That’s why I’m asking.”
I felt Daddy get stiff. He pulled away from me. “You have a filthy mind, Gwennie,” he said. “I’m just giving her a horse.”
“Take a look.”
Momma picked her way through the stable to the stall. She reached out and ran her thin, scarred hand gently over the horse’s nose. He snuffled and pushed his nose at her palm. One corner of her mouth quirked up into an almost-smile. “He’s good-looking little pony,” she said. She cupped his jaw and lifted it. “Nice head.” She rubbed her fingers briskly behind his ears, then peeled back his lips and looked at his teeth. “Young.”
Daddy laughed. “What would you know about it, Gwennie?”
Momma stepped back and didn’t say anything else.
“Go on, take a ride,” Daddy told me. He slipped a bridle onto the little horse’s head, opened the stall door, led him out, then lifted me onto his back. “You’ll have to learn to get on and off by yourself,” he said as I lifted the reins. He stepped back, and swatted the horse on the rump. The horse jumped. My head snapped backward and without meaning to, I jerked on the reins. The horse stopped. And then he turned his head around and nuzzled my bare foot. Warm moist air huffed over my toes. I jerked my foot and giggled. The horse snorted.
“Get going,” said Daddy. He lifted his hand and smacked the horse again. The horse flinched, but he didn’t move. And then something amazing happened. I felt him through the reins. It was like we could read each others’ minds, like we had become one thing. I knew why he hadn’t moved; he was waiting for me.
“Go on,” Daddy shouted, “Hyah!” and smacked him again. The little horse stood like a rock.
I leaned forward and lifted the reins. He took a step, then another, then another, and then we were clopping along. His head bobbed with every step.
“Don’t ride him on the gravel,” Momma called. “You’ll get rocks in his feet.”
“Shut up, Gwennie. Just let her enjoy him,” came Daddy’s voice. “Won’t hurt him to walk on gravel.”
I was so proud that he trusted me with this wonderful horse, that he knew how much I loved it. Momma never did like to see me just being happy. She always had to cut it short. All the same, though, I skirted the gravel until I reached the gate leading into the big plowed field behind the barn.
The horse lifted his head. I felt him quiver. I knew he wanted to run. I also knew he wouldn’t until I let him know it was all right. I made him walk for a few minutes, to show him who was boss, then I leaned forward just a little bit, lifted the reins a little higher, and said, “Hup,” like the girls did in the library books I read. He broke into a smooth, easy lope. I felt myself moving with him, rocking, rocking, rocking. His mane whipped in my face. The wind rushed past us. It felt like flying. It felt powerful. It felt safe, and free, and happy. We loped out across the field, made a big loop, and then back to where Momma and Daddy stood.
When we got close I just settled down on his back and gathered the reins a bit. The horse eased to a stop. Daddy stepped forward and patted his neck. Momma stood back, hands jammed into her apron pockets, staring at the ground, darting quick glances at me when Daddy’s back was turned.
“It’s as easy as riding Harry,” I rejoiced. Harry, or Harry the Hairless Horse, was a spring-mounted rocking horse we had. I had given him quite a workout until I got too big. Now Sarah and Bethie rode him sometimes, but mostly Harry just slouched in the corner on his stretched springs, dusty and sad.
“What will you name him?” Momma asked as I slid off.
I opened my mouth to say, “Stormy,” after the horse in my favorite library book, but Daddy spoke first.
“Harry’s a good name for him,” Daddy said, and squeezed my shoulder. I was a little disappointed, but Harry was okay. Stormy would have been better, but Daddy wanted Harry. Harry was fine.
“Tell me more about Harry,” Dr. Eaves said.
I shrugged. “There’s not really that much more to tell.”
“But it sounds like he was really important to you.”
“He was,” I said. “He was all the world to me.”
“But there’s nothing more to tell?”
“I didn’t have him very long.”
I shook my head. “Not long at all.”
“I lost him.” I thought my throat would seal itself.
I laughed through my aching throat. “I was sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong.”
“Yes. Daddy was always calling me down for it.”
“So how did that lead to you losing Harry?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but the little chime went off and she said, “Write about it, okay?”
“Okay.” I could hear my anger in my voice. I stopped, and got myself under control.
“You don’t want to write about losing Harry?”
“It’s painful,” I said stiffly. “And there’s nothing to be gained by dredging things up.”
“What would you like to write about?”
“I just don’t think this is helping,” I said. “It’s nothing personal.”
Dr. Eaves sat back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Would you like me to refer you to someone else?”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” I said. I smiled my polite, professional smile. Then I stood, picked up my journal and my purse, and walked out, tall, straight, and cool, like Daddy had taught me. I didn’t make an appointment on the way out.
Dr. Eaves is useless. How dare she pry into our family business like that? She’s probably writing a paper or something. We’ll turn up, distorted, twisted, and exaggerated, as a horrible warning. Counselors always place the blackest possible interpretation on events. Daddy was strict, but that was only because Momma was such a nonentity, and he wanted us to be fit for heaven. Our lives were hard, but they made us strong. There’s nothing sick and twisted about Daddy. For Joe to say such things….
And I was there, back in the time and place where everything broke.
I’m not going back to Dr. Eaves. The woman’s a fool. But I kind of like keeping this journal. It’s good to have a place to write my thoughts. And it’s not like I have to worry about anybody reading it. I’m alone in the house. And maybe, maybe if I write about some of the hard times, it’ll help me. Might as well give it a try.
Life wasn’t easy. Momma was always sick, and it took me a while to learn to live up to my responsibilities. Sometimes the little ones suffered for my mistakes. There was one time … but that doesn’t make sense. Daddy was strict. He made us toe the line. Heaven knows, it wasn’t easy, but the hard time I remember more clearly was losing Harry. So here I am, full circle, doing what Dr. Eaves suggested. I’ll write about losing Harry, but no way will I show her this. Daddy would never forgive me.
Losing Harry started in a prideful moment. Momma had been sick, as usual. I had been taking care of Sarah, Elaine, and DJ and doing the laundry and sewing buttons back on Daddy’s shirts and in between it all sneaking in rides on Harry. I thought nobody noticed, but then, one Sabbath afternoon, Daddy followed me when I went in to pick up Bethie’s bedroom. As I was straightening the things on her dresser, he said, “I’m so proud of you. You’ve been running this house better than Momma does. You should know that.”
My heart swelled with joy. He wrapped his arms around me and kissed me on the lips, and the next thing I knew Momma had me by my right arm and was hauling me out of Daddy’s arms and into the hallway. “What do you think you’re doing?” Daddy called. He laughed an angry laugh. “You have a filthy mind, Gwennie.”
Momma pushed me into my room, and slapped my face when I scornfully repeated Daddy’s question. “What do you think you’re doing, Momma?”
“Don’t let me ever catch the two of you alone again,” Momma hissed.
I was eleven by then. I understood. “You’re just mad because he likes me better than you,” I said coolly, tossing my shimmering white-blonde hair. It went down to my waist. “I’ll kiss Daddy whenever I want to.”
Momma stood there, faded and old, her hair cropped so short the bald patch in the back showed, and all the scars. I lifted my chin and shook my shining hair again. Something shifted behind Momma’s eyes. I turned to run. Too late.
Momma’s claw-like hand dug into my arm. She towed me into the bedroom she shared with Daddy. Still clutching my arm, she bent and fished under the sagging mattress on her side of the bed, then emerged triumphant with a pair of sewing shears. Her grip shifted to my long, pale hair.
The shears went snick, snick, snick.
My white-gold hair whispered down my neck and settled on my shoulders, caught on my T-shirt, on my delicate new breasts, on my jeans. Daddy was going to be furious. He was always quoting St. Paul about how a woman’s hair was her glory. He looked at Momma’s bald head when he said that. Even dark, ugly, little Bethie and fat blonde Sarah’s hair had never been cut, and theirs was nowhere near as pretty as mine. My hair and helping were what I had, what I was. I stood stiff and shaking as Momma stripped me of my glory.
The shears dropped. I turned and looked at Momma. She looked back steadily, her jaw set. Then suddenly her shoulders sagged, her eyes softened, and her hands came up in entreaty. Power filled me like poison. “Are you going to cut Bethie and Sarah’s hair, too?”
“Bethie and Sarah? Why?”
“So we’ll all look uglier than you do.” I lifted my chin again, light-headed with the salty, cruel truth of my words.
Momma crumpled to the edge of the bed, head bowed, hands dangling between her knees. “You have no idea,” she said to her loose hands. “Someday you’ll thank me.”
“No, I won’t,” I said. I turned on my heel and walked out, watching myself, proud, strong, and tall. I had spoken nothing but the truth. I pulled the door shut gently, finally, behind me on the way out, the way a good Christian should.
Once out of Momma’s sight, I hurried past the dark streaks that had trailed along the hall ever since I could remember. I slammed into my room and ran up to the mirror. It was better than I had expected. Instead of the hacked and gouged mess I’d feared, my hair lay in neat waves over my head. Short, too short, but with a little trimming—perky and cute. I looked new, different.
Grown-up and younger, all at once. It suited me, I decided. But Daddy was still going to be furious, just as he was every time Momma came out of the bathroom with her hair shorn nearly to her scalp. I couldn’t figure out why she kept it that way. Daddy hated it. Daddy will be furious, but not at me, I vowed. When Daddy asked, I would tell him the truth, the way a good Christian should.
“Momma did it,” I would say quietly, hands neatly folded, eyes downcast. “I didn’t want her to, but she did anyway.” And Momma, not I, would pay.
She pushed opened my door without knocking. “Why did you do it? Just tell me that.”
I looked at her in the mirror. “What?”
“You know what. And just before our vacation. Why?”
I turned around so I could look straight at her. “Momma? Don’t you remember? You did it.” I was both confused and affronted.
“Don’t you lie to me.” Momma’s voice wavered. “It’s all over my room.”
“Momma, I didn’t do it.” My voice rose, light and panicky in the sweet spring air.
“Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” Daddy’s voice said faintly from down the hall, and then the sound of a slap, and then more screams, soon mercifully muted. “You should be ashamed of yourself, a great big girl like you,” he said, so I knew he must be in Bethie’s room.
I sniffed tiredly. Bethie had peed herself again. Honestly, she was seven now. She should have learned after all these years. Daddy was right; she was disgusting. I remembered guiltily that Bethie was retarded. You couldn’t expect any better of her, though you could never let her know it. She had to strive for perfection along with the rest of us.
“I can’t take this anymore,” Momma said abruptly. She turned and was gone. A moment later I heard her bedroom door slam shut.
Great, another fight, I thought grimly. And on Sabbath, too. I found my Bible, opened it, and tried to read. My stomach was in knots. A little later Daddy pushed my door open. He never knocked, either. “It’s my house,” he always said. “I shouldn’t have to ask permission before I go anywhere in it.” He was right, but sometimes when I was changing clothes it was embarrassing.
“Why did you cut your hair?” he asked me, so I knew Momma had gotten to him first.
“I didn’t do it. Momma did.”
“She says you did. Are you calling her a liar?”
“I didn’t cut my hair.” My voice was high and tight. “She pulled me into your room and used the scissors.”
“The ones under her mattress.”
Daddy stared at me, then he turned and strode down the hall. I followed. Daddy will see I am telling the truth, and then he will know I am a good girl, and say he is sorry. He opened the door. Past his arm, I saw Momma, bending, then jerking upright, her face ashen.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Just sitting here.” She sat down hurriedly on the edge of the bed and laced her fingers together. Her upturned palms made an empty cup between her thighs.
He was beside her with two long strides, pushing her aside, reaching between the mattresses, straightening triumphantly. The stainless steel sewing shears glittered like a dagger in his thick, callused fingers. “What is this?” he asked Momma.
Momma was lying! I must have made a sound, because Daddy whipped around and saw me. “Get out and close the door. This is between your momma and me.” His face was square, hard, and tight. I fled, ashamed to be caught snooping. A few minutes later he pushed open my door. “You better start being nicer to your Momma. She’s not strong. Do you want to put her in an insane asylum?”
“No.” I felt angry and hurt at his defection.
“Now you go in there and say you’re sorry.”
Reluctantly I stood up and shuffled down the hall, trailing my hand along the streaks. When I was little, they had been dark red, like dried blood. Now they just looked like dirt. I knocked.
I pushed open the door. Momma was lying face down on the bed. She lifted her head to look at me through red-rimmed eyes. “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“Cutting my hair.”
Momma sat up. “Why did you lie about it?”
“I was scared,” I whispered.
“Elaine, you don’t ever have to be afraid to tell me the truth,” Momma said. “It’s the lies I can’t stand. I understand that you want to look more grown-up, but Daddy and I are still your parents, and we know what’s best for you.”
“I know,” I whispered again.
“Let’s ask the Lord’s forgiveness.” Momma slid to her knees next to her bed. I sank reluctantly down beside her.
“Dear Jesus, please forgive me for cutting my hair and then lying about it,” I prayed dutifully, careful to get my tone just right. If I didn’t Momma would say I wasn’t really sorry and I’d have to do it again. “Amen.” Momma hugged me and I fled back to my room to sit on my bed and wonder if maybe I really had cut my hair. Maybe I forgot. I don’t remember forgetting, but maybe I did. I must have, or why would Momma and Daddy say I did? The guilt rose in me. I dropped to my knees and prayed again for forgiveness, this time in earnest.
I lay in bed that night, the undefined—and therefore unforgivable—guilt like a stone in my belly. My bedroom door opened, and the sheer curtains at my window belled in the cool draft. Momma stood framed against the lighted hall. “Good night, Lainie,” she whispered. “I love you, sweetheart.”
My heart wrenched at the sound of my baby name. She hadn’t used it for years. The door began to close. “Momma?”
I sat up. “I’m so sorry, Momma.”
Momma closed the door and crossed the diamond-shaped patch of moonlight lying on my floor like a glowing rug. She eased down on the side of the bed, hissing her breath between her teeth, and gathered me into her arms slowly, carefully. Love for my clumsy, broken, angry mother welled up in me. I laid my head on Momma’s shoulder and began to cry. “Shhh,” Momma soothed, stroking my hair. “Hush, now. I know, I know.”
“Momma, I just don’t understand why I say these things,” I gulped. “I love you.”
“I know, sweetheart. Sometimes we all do things we wish we hadn’t.” Momma drew back, her hands on my shoulders, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. “But this is our life. We don’t get another one no matter how much we may want it. We just have to make the best of what we have.”
“But there’s heaven,” I reminded her.
Momma smiled wryly. “Yeah,” was all she said.
I found myself wondering for the first time if Momma really believed in heaven like Daddy and I did. I almost asked, but the peace between us was too tender to risk. Down the hall Sarah was weeping, hopelessly, monotonously. I knew who it was because when Bethie cried she never made a sound. Momma sighed. “I’d better go see to her.” She straightened reluctantly, painfully, her arms dropping away before I was ready. Daddy’s heavy footsteps passed my door and went into his and Momma’s room. The door clicked shut. “Good night, sweetheart,” Momma whispered. Her hand stroked my cheek. I could feel her slender, knobby fingers, cool and trembling, and for just a second, I was Lainie again. The fingers cupped my cheek, then slid away. The door closed quietly, and Momma was gone. I lay back down, closed my eyes, and slept in the cool night breeze, clean and purged.
Momma was already in the kitchen when I came downstairs the next morning. “Go exercise Harry,” she said.
“Are you sure, Momma? I can help with breakfast first.”
“No, I’ve got it today.” Momma gave me her lopsided smile. “Go now, quick, before Daddy comes in.”
I smiled at the love in her eyes, then hurried out to the barn, brushed Harry down, slid on a bridle, gave him a cupped handful of grain, and vaulted onto his bare back. Harry wheeled out of the barnyard gate, and I kicked him into a long slow canter. The wind pulled at my new short hair. I rocked easily to the pony’s rhythm. I reached the other end of the field, turned onto the section Daddy had plowed just for me, and began doing figure eights. I kept it up until sweat rose under my thighs, then turned and cantered Harry back across the field. When I approached the scrubby sagebrush signaling the drop-off into the creek bed behind the barn, I pulled up with a flourish, wheeled Harry around and touched him with the long reins and a bare heel. He surged ahead—and then I heard it: A little cry. It sounded like a baby down by the creek. I thought of Moses in the bulrushes, reined up and slid off Harry’s round, shiny back, dropping my reins to ground hitch him.
The cry came again, and then a sharp report. Nobody’s supposed to be down there. This is Conrad land. I squared my shoulders. I’m a Conrad. I belong here. Whoever is down by the creek doesn’t, or they wouldn’t have sneaked in. I started to stalk to the path, then another thought struck me. What if they were outlaws? It almost sounded like somebody was being hurt down there. Maybe I’d better just see what was up, then go get Daddy. I slipped quietly into the brush, crept to the lip of the wash, parted the thick grass, and looked down. Momma and Daddy? What was Momma doing here? Momma was making breakfast. Daddy’s hand flew out and there was a sharp crack. Momma’s head snapped sideways. Daddy muttered something that ended “—hair.” His hand flew out again.
I stared. He was hitting Momma because she had cut my hair? He knew! But then why did he blame me yesterday? His hand flew out again. Momma staggered and blood, bright and shocking, burst out of her nose. My gasp echoed loud in the cool morning air. Daddy looked up and saw me peering through the tall grass. “You know better than to spy on Momma and Daddy,” he panted. “I told you about that yesterday. You go straight to your room and stay there. I’ll deal with you later.”
“But Momma’s bleeding,” I burst out.
“It’s okay, honey.” Momma smiled shakily through the blood. “I’m fine. Go on in, like Daddy said. I’ll be right there.”
“You stay out of it when I’m correcting Elaine,” Daddy snarled. Then he turned back to me. “You heard me. Go to your room,” he said. His voice was hard and mean.
I went. My stomach churned as I turned Harry into his stall, rubbed him down, fed and watered him, and then hurried into the house. Momma was hurt, and Daddy had done it. He must have had a reason. Daddy always had reasons for the things he did. Momma was the crazy one. Daddy said so. “Momma’s not strong,” he always said. “Do you want to put her in an insane asylum? You better be nicer to her.”
I needed to go to the bathroom, and I wanted a drink, but Daddy had told me to go straight to my room. I sat on my bed, thighs squeezed tight together, thirsty, sick with guilt. The smell of Harry’s sweat rose around me.
Daddy’s feet thudded up the stairs. My hands fisted in my lap. He opened my door, came in, closed it, and sat down beside me on my bed. It gave under his weight. I darted a quick look at him out of the corner of my eye. His head drooped. The silence stretched.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I blurted out.
“Sorry doesn’t fix it,” he said sadly. “Momma still got hurt because of what you did. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times, Momma’s not strong. She’s not smart like we are. She’s like Bethie. She doesn’t understand things, and she won’t listen when I try to explain them to her unless I get her attention first. I don’t know why you insist on poking your nose into things that are none of your business, but I sure hope you enjoyed it, because you caused your Momma a lot of pain. I just don’t know what I can do to get through to you.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, drowning in guilt. “Where is she?”
“That’s none of your business. You’ve got to learn to keep your nose out of things that don’t concern you.”
“But I didn’t mean to spy. I was just riding Harry and I heard—”
“—and so you just had to go bulling your way into something that didn’t concern you. And Momma got hurt because of you.”
Something was wrong with that, but I was too sick with guilt to figure it out. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s too late now, little girl. The damage is done. If riding Harry makes you hurt your mother, what do you think we should do?”
“Get rid of him,” I forced out past the lump of guilt. Knowing the right answer was easy. It was always the one that hurt.
“Good girl.” Daddy hugged me. “I’m proud of you for being willing to make it right.”
“Can I tell him good-bye?” I whispered.
“Do you think you deserve to?”
I hung my head. I knew that answer, too. “No.” Harry was gone.
Or not. Momma and Daddy had been planning to drive us to Chicago to visit Daddy’s parents. Now they put off the vacation while Daddy advertised for a buyer. No one responded. After two weeks I dared to hope. Maybe he’d forget. Maybe if I was extra good the Lord would perform a miracle. Daddy’d see that I’d learned my lesson, and Harry could stay. Even if I couldn’t ride him, just to see him running free in the pasture, his long mane and tail blowing in the wind created by his passing….
The days stretched. Suitcases were unpacked. And then, one August morning, for no reason I could see, Daddy told Momma, “Get the suitcases packed again.”
“But we haven’t sold Harry yet,” she objected.
“It’s all taken care of,” he said. “I’ve called somebody.”
I was jubilant. Daddy had gotten someone to watch him while we were gone! I had another two weeks to show him that I could be trusted, that he had gotten through to me!
The next morning I was folding clothes into my suitcase when I heard a truck pull in. I ran to the window, thinking it was the man who was going to take care of Harry.
“Allen’s Pet Products,” said the peeling sign on the truck’s covered back. Daddy came out of the shop, walked over to the truck with his long strides, shook the man’s hand, and stood back while the man jumped out—and then reached back in for the dark, shiny rifle racked in the cab’s back window. At last I understood. All thoughts of proving how good I could be evaporated. I ran outside.
“Please, Daddy, I’ll be good, I’ll be so good,” I cried out. “I’ll never do it again.”
The man stopped. “This her pony?” he asked.
“Yep,” Daddy said. “Get back in the house, Lainie.”
“Please, I’ll be so good!” I was crying so hard I could hardly form the words. “Please don’t hurt him.”
“I said go back to the house. And stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about. You should have thought of this before.”
“Please, Daddy,” I begged. “Please.” I threw my arms around his waist and tried to hug him.
He pushed me away. “Kids,” he said to the man, and they both laughed. “Get back in the house,” he said to me. “Don’t make me ask you again.”
“Please, Daddy,” I whispered, reckless in my grief.
The man stopped laughing. He looked at me, looked at Daddy, opened his mouth, then shut it. I turned and trudged back to the house, rubbing my eyes with the heels of my hands, trying to swallow my sobs. Daddy and the man went into the barn. I climbed the stairs to my room, sat on the bed beside my open suitcase, and waited. Silence.
Feet crunched on gravel. I looked out my window. The man was striding back to his truck, jaw clenched, arms swinging the gun. “I don’t kill healthy animals just to teach kids a lesson,” he shouted. “You find somebody else.”
Daddy appeared in the barn door. “—plenty who will,” he shouted. “We gotta get this taken care of. We’re going on vacation!”
The man slammed into his truck and roared out of the driveway.
“Thank you, Jesus,” I prayed. Harry was safe, at least for the moment.
But then Daddy looked up and saw me. His jaw set. I jerked back. I was doing it again—sticking my nose into something that was none of my business! And Daddy had seen me. I heard him come into the house, go into his bedroom, come back out again, then go down the stairs. I wanted more than anything to know what was happening, but obedience was my only hope of saving Harry—I had to prove to Daddy that I had learned my lesson. Resolutely I sat on my bed, reciting the Bible verses that had won me Harry. I didn’t look out the window, even when I heard Harry’s feet crunching on the gravel, then thudding on dirt, then fading into silence. I didn’t look even when I heard the gun blast once, heard Harry’s agonized whinny, heard the gun blast again, and then again. I just sat on my bed, trying to remember my next verse, trying not to cry. Finally I broke. I dropped to my knees by the bed. Harry had died because I hadn’t minded my own business. I imagined his beautiful smooth head, his eyes, his velvet nose, saw it destroyed in the shotgun blasts.
“Dear Jesus, please forgive me. Please, please, forgive me.” It was too late to beg Harry’s forgiveness. Daddy always said “sorry” didn’t fix it. My head dropped under the weight of my guilt. I think I fell asleep kneeling by my bed.
Momma woke me for supper. Her jaw was swollen, and she had a black eye. I wondered if Daddy had had to get her attention again. Guilt rose, sickening and thick in my throat. At the table I stared at the potatoes, beans, and bread on my plate. No one spoke. Even DJ ate silently. Sarah and DJ finished first and asked to be excused. Bethie finished next and looked silently at Momma. Momma nodded once. Bethie slipped off her chair and disappeared. My plate was still nearly full. I had to finish. That was the rule. “My kids eat what’s put in front of them,” Daddy bragged to his friends. But I couldn’t.
“You are excused, Lainie,” Momma said suddenly.
My head jerked up just as Daddy said, “Finish your food, Lainie.” His lips were tight, his eyes nearly as red as my own.
“No, Dan,” Momma said quietly, defiantly. “She is excused.”
“I can see I didn’t get through to you this morning,” Daddy said.
Momma’s eyes dropped to her lap.
My eyes flew between them. I wanted more than anything to just crawl away into a dark corner and curl up and cry and cry, but leaving would be taking Momma’s side, betraying Daddy, an admission that he hadn’t gotten through to me, either. I saw his red eyes and knew he felt as bad about Harry as I did. If he could eat, so could I. I scooted my fork under my mashed potatoes and raised it to my lips, opened, slid it in, closed my lips, forced potatoes past the lump in my throat. I lifted another, and another, tasting nothing, gagging on every bite. At last I finished.
Momma sat in silence.
When my plate was empty, Daddy said, “That’s my girl, you’re excused. Now go finish packing. We’re leaving for Grandma’s house tomorrow morning. Won’t that be fun?” He said it brightly, hopefully. He sounded like he had when he had led me out to the barn and given me to Harry. I rose from the table. Daddy stood, too. He hugged me tightly, so tightly, I nearly began to cry again. “I’ll miss him, too,” he whispered. And I knew that Daddy loved me, and wanted what was best for me, and would do what he thought was right, what he needed to do to fit me for heaven, even when the cost to all of us was high, so high. Unlike Momma, I had learned my lesson. Daddy would never have to get my attention again. Momma pushed her chair back and wearily began clearing the table.
I had to force myself to write those last words. My hand was shaking so badly, I could hardly form the letters. How could I have missed this? How could I have simply accepted the fact that Daddy beat Momma not once, but over and over, if her bruises were anything to go by? I couldn’t claim the absolution of having “forgotten” how I lost Harry. I could still see the images from that day, hear that day’s sounds, smell the grass, the dust, the gunpowder on Daddy’s shirt, the iron tang from the bloody stain on his sleeve. Perhaps because I could remember it so clearly … perhaps my mind had constructed a bypass, a detour around that day. It was there, always. The outlines I had thought I knew so well were clearly visible.
I was using Harry to spy on people, and so, to protect the world from my snooping, Daddy had to get rid of Harry. I could use euphemisms in the shadowy outlines. Daddy had to “get Momma’s attention,” or “get through to her.” He had to “get rid of Harry.”
But now I had driven off the well-worn bypass. I had taken the dusty, overgrown road up to the memory. It wasn’t shadowy anymore. Euphemisms were no longer possible. Daddy beat Momma. Daddy took his gun and blew holes in Harry’s head because he was angry at being seen beating her. Harry died to teach me the value of keeping Daddy’s secrets. I had learned the lesson well. Daddy had never needed to get my attention again.
I didn’t question Daddy’s assertion that “Momma wasn’t right.” I had lived in her fractured world too long to doubt its veracity. The very fact that she stayed with Daddy proved it. She stayed because she was too broken to leave. I had always simply accepted Momma’s mental state as a fact of life. Now I stared at the words I had written, and for the first time I wondered what had made her that way.
As I closed my journal and tucked it away at last I acknowledged to myself that, though I didn’t believe Daddy had been molesting either of my sons, perhaps Joe had seen him hitting them. For all that now hitting is now politically incorrect, it’s not criminal. Daddy must have been disciplining them, getting their attention. I didn’t like it, but I had no doubt that he was acting out of love, however misguided. Joe had overreacted. And so I found a peace that allowed me to if not exonerate Daddy, at least excuse him. He was the product of another, harder time. He had been acting out of love. Even if he had temporarily caused my sons pain, they would get over it. They would be fine. After all, I was, wasn’t I?
I didn’t need Dr. Eaves. I had the explanation that would allow me to make peace with my loss and get on with my life. That was good, because Daddy was about to need me as he never had before.
I come alive in my memory the day my grandfather died. I was standing in the Monkey House at the Brookfield Zoo with Elaine, Sarah, and DJ, smelling the rank, sharp shadows, chilly after the blaze of the Chicago summer. We were breathing through our mouths to keep the reek bearable, keeping silent lest we try our parents’ love too far. They’d driven us from Oregon to Illinois to visit Grandma and Grandpa. The old green and white Chevy wagon was not air-conditioned. It was August. We kids got carsick. Elaine was sad about Harry and being extra holy so Daddy wouldn’t notice she was sad. By day we drove, packed in with the suitcases, tent, boxes of food, and garbage bag full of dirty underwear and damp bedding. By night we camped in fields and meadows along the road.
When we rolled into the sticky asphalt parking lot at the Brookfield Zoo, we knew better than to ask for things. By the time we reached the Monkey House, we knew it was unwise to say anything at all. We also knew we hated camping.
In 1969 nobody thought much about monkeys’ mental health. Zookeepers believed in sanitation before sanity. Twice a day masked and coveralled men slung buckets of bleach water over the tile walls and floor, swiped mops through the sludge, then hosed the whole mess into a gutter along one wall. The gutters never emptied; the floors never dried. The Monkey House rang. Souls in bondage howled to the dim, deaf ceiling, and the stink of monkey shit rose like incense forever and ever, amen. The monkeys were all crazy. I knew what crazy looked like—it looked like Momma, and it looked like me. Daddy was always reminding the others that if they weren’t careful, their behavior would put Momma in an insane asylum. When he said that I pictured Momma huddled in the corner of a wet tile cage, clutching her shabby housedress around her, chicken wire embedded in the glass through which we would peer on visiting days. I don’t recall specific instances of Momma’s crazy behavior, but I remember working very hard to keep her out of the insane asylum. Just like I kept silent for years to save myself the same awful fate.
We all stood silent that morning, Elaine, Sarah, and DJ’s blonde heads like scalding metal to my eyes, my head reddish brown—monkey shit brown, as one of my less kind classmates informed me when my teacher read the story of my vacation to the class at school that fall. We stood in silence and waited for directions—for permission to move, actually. Years later, when we could laugh about it, Sarah said that Daddy thought life was boot camp for Paradise: As long as we were good soldiers and obeyed orders as we marched along the Narrow Way in the King’s Army, everything would be all right. Some day we would storm the gates of Heaven, blast our way up the golden streets, kick the bodies out of the way, and live as a United Family in a marble mansion studded with pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. There’d be no television and no jewelry, but our driveway would be paved with gold, and the vegetable garden would never need weeding. That would be something, at least. Then Sarah stuck her finger down her throat and made gagging noises.
Looking back, I think she was right, although I didn’t see it at the time, and to tell the truth, I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I already knew Hell would be my eternal home unless I sneaked through the Pearly Gates undetected. I even knew what Hell looked like—Hell was a burning city, in the midst of which I would live in a blazing frame house, sleep on a smoldering bed, and drink boiling water. It was agonizing, orange, and immediate. Heaven was lost in the blue and holy distance.
When I saw the Brookfield Zoo, I knew what Heaven would look like if God sprang for a decent gardener—long straight walkways, manicured gardens, mansions, animal statuary—not naked people—and lots and lots of animals. No popcorn, striped awnings, ice cream, and hot dog vendors, of course, since those were earthly things. But it would still be beautiful.
Monkeys are filthy, carnal beasts, a fact of which I suspect my parents were unaware. In those days, there was no Discovery Channel, only Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, with Marlin Perkins, Jim, and chaste, virginal animals. No monkey would dare fornicate on Mutual of Omaha—Marlin would have disapproved, and Jim, a more muscular sort of Christian altogether, would have slapped it silly. We only had antenna TV, anyway, so we saw our monkeys as through a cataract: pale, snowy, and indistinct. Baby monkeys resulted from Virgin Births, like the Christ Child, or, for that matter, us. Mothers didn’t behave like that in our house.
The monkeys at the Brookfield Zoo had clearly never met Marlin or seen Wild Kingdom. They fornicated with abandon while we snuck peeks out of the corners of our lowered eyes. So. It happened to monkeys, too. Other children were less restrained. I heard one little boy snigger to another, “They’re fucking.”
So now I could name it. Fucking. An inexplicable, agonizing ritual, the participants blind to each other—indeed, seemingly unaware that their bodies were joined. The male pumped at his daughter’s bottom, staring vacantly over her head. She endured. I wondered if she went away like I did. Momma and Daddy grabbed our shoulders and double-timed us away from the fucking monkeys. Daddy said in a mournful voice, “I’m so ashamed of you kids. You know better than to watch something like that.”
They finally called a halt when we reached a display even Marlin Perkins would have sanctioned—Samson, an immense silverback bachelor gorilla, the pride of the Monkey House. His world consisted of mildewed green tile floors glistening wet in the watery light, a tire swing, gorilla shit, moldy straw piled in the corners, and a steel-mesh-reinforced viewing window several inches thick.
Samson was safe. There would be no fucking going on in his cage. Momma and Daddy’s hands dropped from our shoulders. We stumbled to a stop, panting. Samson looked sad, mossy, and wet through the thick glass—like he lived underwater. I wondered how he could bear to sit on that slimy, mucky floor. But he had no choice.
People stood eight deep watching Samson slouch on his wet straw and absently pick his nose. We stood at the back of the crowd, jumping to see over shoulders, peering around jutting hips and bulging purses.
And then I saw him standing among the children in the front row, a beer can in his hand. He wore plaid Bermuda shorts, a dingy T-shirt starred with a constellation of tiny holes, black ankle socks with failing elastic stretched tight over scrawny shins, and grimy sandals. As I watched, he adjusted his cap (rectangular sections snipped from beer cans, punched, and crocheted together by somebody who kept dropping stitches) and rotated his shoulders. Then he leaned forward and crisply rapped his beer can on the railing outside the glass.
Samson was squatting apathetically in his corner, his head sunk on his chest. The man rapped again, then grabbed the railing and shook it furiously. It must have been loose, because its rattle echoed over even the craziest monkey’s screams. Samson shuffled around to face the corner. The man beat on the railing again, then waved his arms and shouted, “Hey, ya big, ugly bastard! Come ’n’ get me.” Signs warned that the wire mesh reinforcing the window was electrified. The man never touched the glass.
Momma sucked in her breath at his language and said, “Dan?”
Samson glanced over his shoulder. Encouraged, the man shouted again and waved his arms. Beer droplets sprayed from the open can he held. Some people turned away in disgust. More stayed to watch, spellbound. They didn’t rap on the railing themselves, but neither did they try to stop the man in the beer-can hat. By now he was red and sweating, screaming obscenities, the brim of his hat flapping loose as he flailed his arms and cursed Samson. Mothers eyed man and gorilla nervously, and some—motivated by the same instinct that inspires cattle to nose calves deep in the herd when wolves appear—reached out thin white arms, seized small shoulders, and yanked protesting children back to safety in the crowd.
The man was still screaming. “Yeah, yeah, you’re not so tough, are ya, ya motherfucker!”
And then it happened, the thing we had all been waiting for. Samson leaped around and rocked forward onto his massive knuckles, shoulders bulging. He bared his fangs and roared.
“Da—?” Momma started again, but before she could finish Samson catapulted himself across the streaming tile floor, leaped, spun, and slammed his shoulder against the reinforced glass. With a sound like a shot, a lightning line crazed the window, top to bottom. Samson screamed as he bounced off the electrified glass, but the screams of the parents and children stampeding away toward the caged paradise outside, drowned his voice. The man in the beer can hat and black socks nearly trampled me as he shoved his way to the head of the retreating pack.
I caught my balance and ran with everybody else, but as I ran I sneaked a look over my shoulder at Samson. He was back in his corner, curled down on himself, arms wrapped around his shoulders, crooning—or groaning—and rocking, rocking, rocking.
On the way back to Grandma’s house, Elaine said primly, “The man shouldn’t have been teasing him.”
Sarah said, “I think it would be funny for the man to be in the cage where Samson could get him.”
Momma said, “Sarah, that’s not nice.”
“What did you think, Bethie?” Daddy asked me. I froze. “What did you think?” he asked again.
“She can’t talk, Dan,” Momma said, brave in the security of the front seat on a public highway.
“Yes, she can. There’s nothing wrong with one of my girls. Couldn’t shut her up when she was a baby. She’s just being owly. If you’d stop coddling her, she’d be fine.”
Momma didn’t say anymore, but pretty soon Daddy stopped pressing me for an answer, so that was all right. DJ drove his Hot Wheels back and forth on the back of the front seat, making engine noises in the uneasy silence. He eyed me thoughtfully. Nobody needed to ask what he thought; we all knew he would think whatever Daddy told him to. Daddy finally blustered, “They oughta get rid of that beast. Someday he’s gonna break out and kill somebody.”
I hoped fiercely that he would.
When we got back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, no one was there. We waited in the car while Daddy walked around back, shouted, then came back out front to us. “Don’t know where they’ve gone,” he said. “It’s not like Mom to not leave a note or something. I found a window open in back. I’ll boost DJ through and he can open the door for us.”
Inside, we sat quietly in Grandma’s musty living room. Daddy napped in Grandpa’s big chair. And then the telephone rang. Daddy picked it up.
“Hello? Mom? Where are you? What’s wrong? …Oh, no….”
He hung up the phone. “Daddy’s gone, Gwennie,” he said to the telephone in its cradle.
Momma shifted in her chair and fumbled her hands. “I—” she started.
Daddy lifted his face and looked at her. His eyes were as blank as his voice sounded.
“Oh—” Momma started again, wringing her hands frantically.
“I have to go to the hospital,” he said, surging out of his chair. He started slapping at his pockets. “Keys…keys…” he muttered. He found them at last, in his front pants pocket, where he always kept them. He strode out of the living room without looking at any of us. I heard the kitchen door squeak open, the screen door bang shut, the car start. He was gone. Momma’s hands stopped twisting each other into knots and fell loose onto her flowered lap like two exhausted pigeons.
And everything changed.
Back home, we tumbled out of the Chevy station wagon into the sweltering, buzzing morning. Our swimsuits, faded and snagged, lay tangled up with ragged bath towels in the back of the car.
Momma had said that if we picked enough blackberries we could go swimming in the river. The sun stung my shoulders and nose, but shadows still lay blue and cool on the fine sand under the shaggy trees. A breeze ruffled over us. Momma handed out tin buckets and gloves—one of each for each of us—and pointed us toward the brambles along the river.
She followed, staggering under the weight of grease-stained, splintered plywood sheets, her slender, muscular arms tight and golden in the sun. She tipped the boards into the brambles, making fragile, unreliable bridges into the tangle’s mysterious depths and pulling the glistening, berry-laden top branches down within reach. We were alone in that pocket of sunshine, a universe away from the house, and even farther from Daddy.
In an unprecedented act of bravery and overall saneness, Momma had driven us back home while Daddy stayed behind in Illinois to help Grandma. It had been a month, and already Daddy seemed like ancient history. We didn’t know Grandpa. He had lived in Illinois, after all, and we had never visited him and Grandma before that summer. It was hard to feel sad about losing him when it meant that for the first time in my life I felt safe. Momma made us be quiet for the first day of the trip back, out of respect for Grandpa, but then even she caught the giddiness of it, driving through those long summer days with her arm out the window, the wind ruffling her short, wavy hair, the radio crooning songs by a man named Elvis Presley. She ignored us unless we asked her a question, and then she’d just answer quietly. Sometimes, later in the trip, she smiled.
At home, the house felt different. Momma walked faster, and she, not Elaine, supervised our baths at night and got us breakfast in the morning. We woke late and came downstairs to find Momma making us special breakfasts or out weeding the garden in the morning sunshine. Once Sarah and I even saw her sitting at the table, a brown grocery bag in front of her, a pencil in her hand.
“What’cha doin’, Momma?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, and went to fold the laundry.
“Look,” Sarah said. “It’s a tomato.”
Sure enough, Momma had drawn a tomato. The lines swept and flowed, circled into the tomato’s round, glossy body, curled out into delicate leaves and tendrils. Momma had drawn that. Momma. I hadn’t known she could do such a thing. Sarah took the bag, tore out the picture, and stuck it up on the refrigerator next to Elaine’s last picture of Harry, the one that had been there before we left, that nobody had the heart to take down now, even though we all knew Elaine was carefully not looking at the refrigerator these days.
That beautiful tomato signaled a change for us. We ran through the days and laughed at the supper table. We had pillow fights, dashing from room to room in the moonlight. I didn’t think about Grandpa at all, or about Daddy back helping his own Momma sort through their past, apportioning memories among his brothers and sisters.
Momma was better. I knew it was true because she’d drawn a tomato. And because she had decided to make jam, which was why we were at the river picking blackberries. A blue heron flopped heavily overhead. Blackbirds creaked nearby. A lark warbled.
Sarah pushed me. I pushed her back. DJ stood with his finger in his mouth, his white hair shining in the sun, his knees chubby and brown above his boots. Momma worked a glove over her hand, slipped the bucket handle over her belt, and began stripping the high brambles, leaving the low ones for us.
She picked quickly, gracefully. This was not the Momma I had always known, the woman who stumbled through her life. This was a mysterious woman whose hair had grown out to spring thick, golden, and wavy, concealing the scarred patch on her head, a woman who wore clam diggers and crisp, sleeveless blouses instead of shapeless housedresses, who listened to Elvis Presley and smiled when my sisters sang along, who drew graceful, elegant little pictures.
Elaine grabbed a bucket, tied it to the tail of her shirt, slid the stiff, greasy leather gauntlet onto her left hand, and stepped onto the rocking, tippy board. She jumped a few times, forcing the board down into the brambles. The gauntlet slipped down and she shot her arm above her head, catching it before it slid off, then reached out and grabbed a sagging bramble with the glove and stripped the berries, dropping them by handfuls into her bucket. She was almost as fast as Momma.
Burning to be big girls, Sarah and I grabbed buckets and tied them to our shirttails, too. We snatched for brambles and tried to strip the berries with Momma and Elaine’s easy grace, but it was beyond us. Our gloves were too big, too stiff to bend with our hands. The knots holding our buckets to our shirts kept slipping. Our picking hands were soon full of scratches and punctures. “Gol dang it,” Sarah swore when a bramble dug into her calf. I sucked in my breath and shot a look at Momma. She should have whipped Sarah for swearing. Instead she just said, “Careful, honey.” Sarah let out her breath, then bent and carefully pulled the bramble loose.
DJ staggered into a bramble hidden in the grass and curled up, howling. Momma went to pick him up and kiss the angry red scratches streaking his legs. DJ’s head fell back against her shoulder and his eyes closed. The day lay sultry and peaceful upon us. A snatch of music rippled from somewhere far away. I cocked my head to listen. Momma sat in shade, leaning against a tree, her berry bucket and glove by her side. DJ, still little more than a baby, slept in her arms. The sun struck golden sparks off the delicate hairs on her arms. “Bring me the car quilt, Sarah honey,” she finally said, and her voice was just another river sound, low and burring like the bees’ hum of the bees and the far-away music.
Sarah turned. Her bucket, sagging below her knees, bumped her shins. She tripped, staggered toward the edge of the board, teetered, caught herself, and kicked out impatiently. The bucket flew up and smacked her in the face, scattering a hail of hard-won blackberries around us. “Ow!” she whispered angrily, rubbing her nose, tears standing in her eyes.
“Don’t kick the bucket, Sarah,” Elaine scolded softly.
Sarah hopped off the board and limped toward the car and the car quilt while I gathered the scattered berries. And then I heard it. A soft, rough sound. My eyes flew up, seeking the source, and settled on my mother’s face, glowing in the dappled shade, her eyes gentle on Sarah, her mouth curved.
My mother was laughing. I stared, awestruck.
“Let me see your bucket,” Momma murmured. Sarah limped over, angry tears sparkling in her eyes. Momma leaned forward, careful not to disturb DJ, and peeked over the edge of Sarah’s bucket. A few berries rolled forlorn in the bottom. “That’s real good, honey,” Momma said. “Go get your suit on.” She lifted a thin brown hand and smoothed Sarah’s bright white hair back from her sweaty red face.
“But what about the jam?” Elaine asked. “We don’t have enough berries.”
“Who needs jam?” Momma asked. “How many of these days do we get? Hurry, now. Nobody should have to work after they’ve kicked the bucket.” She laughed again.
We stared at her, not getting the joke. She looked back at us, and then she smiled a beautiful, peaceful smile and even though she was a stranger, we fell in love with her.
“Come swimming with us, Momma?” Elaine whispered.
“When DJ wakes up.” And then she leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes. The sun poured over her delicate ankles and flickered on her face and slender golden arms.
We ran for the car, set our buckets on the tailgate, scrambled into our suits, and dashed for the river, toe-tipping over the rough grass, wincing and pulling goat head thorns out of our bare feet, hotfooting it across the scalding sand. And then the water poured cool around us, and Momma sat up to watch over us. “Don’t go in too deep,” she called softly. Sarah and I splashed in the shallows. Elaine waded deeper, standing up to her thighs in the slow-flowing water. She raised slim tanned arms, bent her head with its shining cap of white-gold curls, and dove under the surface, swimming against the current. Her head broke the surface in silver splashes and she rose, gasping and laughing. For once she wasn’t thinking about Harry. I could tell because she had forgotten to be holy.
Sarah and I dug a tadpole corral and filled it with hapless tadpoles fished from a nearby mossy puddle, then paddled near the river’s edge. DJ finally woke up and Momma brought him down to wade in the hot, shallow pools between the white, dry rocks. Elaine lay on her back, floating with the current, a pale saintly mermaid with a wavering platinum halo. I heard it again—faint music. I looked at my sisters, at Momma, at DJ. They were laughing and splashing, so I guessed they didn’t hear. The sun sparkled on the river and flashed bright on their wet, tarnished-platinum heads.
Leaves rustled gently in a treetop breeze. My skin stung, then cooled as Sarah and I raced through sun, through shade, into the river, and back into sun. As the afternoon waned we settled on the shore, letting the water lap around our feet. Elaine came and flopped down beside me. I lay back between Sarah and Elaine and pillowed my head on my arms. Effortlessly, thoughtlessly, the tune
I had been hearing all day vibrated rustily in the back of my throat.
Sarah and Elaine’s heads jerked around. “Bethie’s singing, Momma,” Elaine said, shocked.
“What?” asked Momma. She knelt beside the river, holding baby DJ so he wouldn’t fall in.
“She can’t be,” Momma said. “Bethie can’t talk.”
“She is, too,” Sarah insisted.
“Bethie?” Momma turned and peered at me, eyebrows raised.
The tune withered in my throat. Momma stood and hurried over. “Watch DJ, Lainie,” she said, thrusting him into Elaine’s arms as she leaned over me. “Bethie, honey, were you singing?”
I stared up at her, my throat locked and aching.
Momma’s eyes got soft in a way I had never seen them before. And then she did a strange thing. She sat down beside me, and pulled me into her lap, even though I was a big girl, and she put her arms around me and rocked me gently in the sunshine. And I felt tears, warm and wet on my shoulder.
I closed my eyes and listened to the music and felt it trembling in my throat, and I wanted more than anything to let it out, but I knew better, though I didn’t know why. The knowledge that survival depended on silence stretched beyond memory. My eyes drifted shut. I laid my head on my mother’s shoulder, felt the sun on my back and the trembling in my throat, and just let her rock me. And all the while the music drifted over us.
These two stories, the story of the Brookfield Zoo and the story of the day we picked blackberries, hold the key to understanding my life. The first point, of course, is that my father hurt me. I survived because I learned to hold my tongue—and I learned to “go away,” to slip out of my body and travel paths others cannot walk. The second point is that my mother did the same thing. A third point grows out of the first. I learned that everyone and every situation is more than it appears to be on the surface, and that if one is quiet, and looks for the “more,” one sometimes stumbles upon magic. Magic was there that day by the river. It was in the music only I could hear.