Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3
I cracked the door to the middle room closet and stepped a few feet inside. I listened to the back bedroom. Maynard and Mom giggled, another cassette clicked into the tape deck. Roy Orbison crooned "Crying." It was the song Maynard always put on after a week of hauling frightened cattle to the slaughterhouse. Cows had such sweetness to them that you had to be a certain kind of man to hear their screams and keep on driving. I always thought how there were eyes inside a bologna sandwich.
I stuffed a towel into the doorjamb and pulled on the string to the light bulb. The full-length mirror, its icicles held in by refrigerator tape, tried to stare me down. Running a hanger along the high shelf, I probed for Mom's purses. Crying over you. Down tumbled the burgundy hatbox, the snakeskin with split-in-half strap. All alone and crying, crying. Maynard said when he was a kid he'd seen Roy Orbison at the Blue Moon Casino, but that was all talk—smoky nightclubs and Las Vegas, those grainy pictures in old movie magazines with celebrities gathered like killdeer around the restaurant table. Famous people made me want to bite a hole in my wrist. Maynard was raised in Reno, Iowa, and sometimes he wept along to that song, but he didn't cry quiet, he grunted.
I wedged the snakeskin between my knees. Inside were the things Mom needed when she was in between places—a used soap bar, dry Wet Wipes, and two dollars. I pocketed the cash. My first taste of stolen money. Half of the closet was devoted to Maynard's coats and overalls, the other half to Mom's square dancing dresses, prom gowns with bedraggled bows and rhinestone trains, her teaching skirts, all waiting to come back into style. My heart beat in my neck as I poked the hanger into a nest of evening bags. A mesh pouch stitched with indigo carnival beads hit my head. I stuck my fingers in through the rip and felt a bill, hoping for a fiver. I was disappointed. Just another dollar. Now the blood beat in my temples. I shook the cloth satchel. Two dimes fell out. I slipped the dimes into my jeans' pocket, and threw Maynard's boots to the back of the closet. "You've got a long way to travel. That's not enough," some voice in my head said. "Get some more. More, honey, more." When was the last time Mom carried the wicker basket with the wax banana attached? I grabbed it like I was plucking a chicken, and inside under a crumpled Kleenex, I found a five-dollar bill. The tissue opened and I saw the bleeding outline of her lips. Eight dollars and twenty cents. I should stop. I could hear the wind pick up, rattling the kitchen door like a stirring of hornets. A few yards away a fresh gust shook the sheet plastic tied over the basement of the promised new house—a partly cemented hole in the frostbitten ground. Touch of your hand can start me crying. The wood floor in the backroom creaked. Eight dollars and two dimes. How long could I last on that? A few days. Five coffees, five Mountain Dews or three coffees, three Mountain Dews, and two cinnamon bear claws. I kept listening. They were still making love. The dragonflies at it.
I pictured myself in chore-coat and red-flapped cap with a trap slung over my shoulder, a cold gopher dangling from its jaw. Maynard owed me. "The courthouse only pays for claws. I don't want the whole gopher. Go cut them off and then I'll give you fifty cents," Maynard had said. But I wasn't a girl in butterfly glasses and knee scabs anymore. I turned fifteen on my birthday. The bed had gone quiet.
"Angelique, set the table," Mom called. "I'll be getting supper in a jiffy."
I froze. "Crying" ejected and started again. I was all right for awhile… Footsteps hurried into the middle room. I grabbed the towel from the doorjamb, shut out the light. The footsteps were coming. I threw myself into the darkest part of the closet where my dead Gran's good coat clutched its wooden hanger. Cumbersome as a rug, shoulder pads like hubcaps, only the raccoon collar said it would hide me. In the old days they sewed the whole animal, except for its guts, into the coat. I rubbed the raccoon's shellacked eyes. The light dead inside them. I hated people. We were killing all the animals except the human kind. I looked to animals on how to live. I wanted the untamed. I wanted the wild, but not people wild. I understood how a woman could find herself more beautiful with a raccoon against her neck. I wrapped myself in Gran's coat. The fur smelled like a cold fig.
The closet door jerked open, and the light went on. "Who's been in here? Look at this mess," Mom said. I didn't have to see her to know she was frowning, her hazel eyes darting up and down.
"Ask your darling daughter," Maynard answered.
"Where is my hair piece?" The wrinkle between her eyebrows deepened. "I have my Robert Browning meeting tonight."
She took a step, her foot crunching on the carnival beads. I wanted to push her away. Like hiding in a dream except this was the Bible belt and you could feel the old time religion blowing in from the fields, cutting off every direction of escape. "Who moved my purses around? I can't find my wig carrier. Where's my hairpiece?"
"I don't wear the damn thing," Maynard yelled.
"Don't say damn, Maynard. Say darn."
Mom's brain edited his language and the word damn became darn. But the boss of Old Jappa Road wasn't in the bedroom. I knew how his voice sounded coming from there. Who really knew what to call the rooms in the farmhouse? The kitchen was easy because it had a refrigerator and sink and a transistor radio that barely picked up Cedar Rapids, and it had the table where Mom home schooled me; but the room next to it with the stairway, the silver tinsel tree with angels cut from chicken pot pie tins, and the door to the bathroom, was harder, mainly something to walk through, so it was the middle room, and then the room off it that held a piano, davenport, and the farmhouse's one heat register, had to be the living room. Beyond that was the back parlor where Mom and Maynard slept, and when they changed into dragonflies, made the bed shake. Double doors once closed it off, but they were long gone, so Mom hemmed a rose bedspread and stretched it from a rope. This farmhouse was the only one I knew of heated by bituminous coal. I slept under the pink eaves in the unheated upstairs. Winters, it hit zero in my room.
"Why are all my purses out?"
Don't ask, Mom. Find your hairpiece and get out, Mom, you don't want to find me. You don't want to know the real Angelique. But I didn't have to defend myself at all. She lifted her wig carrier from the shelf. Silence. I peeked out. Mom had smoothed back her auburn bangs and loosened her ponytail. You could see the smudges on her forehead from the brown crayon she used on her white roots. In a slip with a cuffed flannel shirt over it and sandals with leather strings she reminded me of young Liz Taylor in Cleopatra. They didn't really resemble each other. Liz's eyes were a slanting violet with liner thick as garter snakes, and Mom's were hazel, almost a diluted blue like a burnt skillet's soak water, and almost hidden behind her glasses. But they both had a mole on their cheek and black eyelashes, only Liz Taylor's eyelashes went on and on and Mom's were hardly there at all. Eyelashes were something I always noticed, how expressive they were naturally or changed by mascara and shadow, what they said about the eyes themselves. How pretty Mom was, hair past her shoulders, hair softening the crease between her brows, her laugh lines; but when she twisted her hair up and plopped the redhead wig on, all the tiredness came back. She licked her finger and rubbed at the line between her eyes, and then switched off the light. I knew I wasn't going to have the same bad luck as Mom—marrying a younger man who died while their baby was still inside her, and then frantically square dancing from man to man, until she found Maynard, so much younger he was sure not to die before her.
The toilet flushed. "Babe, I'm starved, let's get the grub on the table before midnight."
Mom slammed the closet door. It was dark. I breathed. This was the dark of Highway 218 that I had a date with for later. This closet was Indiana, a state I'd never been to but soon would. The names of the towns rose up from the Great Plains—Terre Haute, Lebanon, Palmyra. Eight measly dollars. What happened to the money I gave Mom from working at the Phillips 66 all summer?
Before I could tell it not to, my hand slipped into the pocket of Maynard's brown jacket. Already it was richer in here. I had twenty dollars in my hand. Black leather, buckskin, windbreaker, goose down. I went down the line of all the jackets, all the things that existed specifically to keep Maynard warm. It was easy as picking corn. I was harvesting the jackets. And when I finished, I stuck my hands in the bib of his overalls, the one that felt like his fist was still balled there, and I found a fifty-dollar bill. My hair tingled at the roots. This was real stealing. I pried open his can of Copenhagen chewing tobacco, and inside I found two twenties, and a key. If he caught me how would he punish me? Tie me up in the big truck with the egg carton holes alone with all the cow ghosts, or press me in with the living, hundreds of hearts pounding, or make me help him birth and then butcher piglets like he had last winter?
The key in my hand fit Maynard's strongbox, the one he kept in the barn in his drinking stall. I knew he didn't trust banks. What if he kept his big money inside it? I pocketed the key. This was for everything, for the lie that Mom was depositing every one of the social security checks that came in my name so I could go to college; this was for the Three Feathers she bought Maynard after a week of substitute teaching so she'd have a happy weekend, and then giving up subbing completely and removing me from junior high public school to teach me the mastery curriculum pack and Christian character enhancement; this was for all the time she spent with him in the backroom, for not letting me go to public high school; this was for the money from selling Gran's farm, all of it going to Maynard. His haggard world surrounded me. Rusting manure spreaders and feeders, hazelbrush and lice feathers. No wonder Highway 218 ran away from us and the school bus used to hate stopping.
"Angelique, come set the table. How many times do I have to ask?"
Two seconds was all it took to slip out and run into the bathroom. I switched on the space heater, emptying my pockets. Mom's panty hose hung above the tub. In a bucket more of her hose soaked. She rarely ironed, but kept her stockings pristine. Things that touched her woman parts. His money stared up at me from the pink rug, the stilted faces of Andrew Jackson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. Abraham Lincoln was different, and though he was homely and strange, even on a five-dollar bill I could feel his kindness. One hundred and eight dollars. I had stolen a hundred dollars from Maynard. It was thrilling. It was still me in the mirror. I could have boiled a cat in acid. I could have blinded someone with lye. I could have put a bomb in a mailbox. I looked the same. A round face framed by brown hair that hung to the middle of my back, a small nose, and unusually large brown eyes. People said I had cow eyes, doe eyes. Strangers sometimes told me I had beautiful eyes, and Mom said eyes like mine were almost a birth defect, and too big for my head. Except for them, I was only a farm girl you might not see in a city crowd. The prettiest part of me lived under my clothes. My body was cut like an antelope's, slender haunches and buttocks, flat stomach, firm handfuls of breasts. I undressed. It might be days before I bathed again.
While the tub filled I practiced hitchhiking. How high should I raise my arm? Straight out and even with my shoulder, or low slung with my hip? I made a fist. That wasn't it. Hip jutting, I dropped my arm, cocked my thumb. I tried again, arm not all the way down but not straight out either. Look at the end of your thumb, not into the mirror where the car will be. That's how to do it, like you couldn't care less if anyone stopped. Better, like I'd done it before. I poured in rock-hard Mr. Bubble and let myself sink to the bottom, last wash in the old claw and ball tub with the rust stain, last visit with the tin soap dish, my cells mixing with Mom and Maynard's and forming a rainbow of scum, hair DNA, bits of thoughts. Even in the hot water I was shivering; my flesh wouldn't warm up, because I was afraid. Fear was white, not a pale yellow, a bright white, the inescapable color of all the talk of what happens to girls alone on the road, how they're not just raped, but thrown into the ditch, how the night heron watches, singing them to a shallow grave. I pushed my fist into the pit of my stomach where the bright white was like a wall of ice. I pressed until the wall fell down.
From the kitchen, pans rattled.
"Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles. Miles and miles on the solitary pastures," Mom recited, practicing her Robert Browning for tonight. What was it she and her friends saw in his poetry? Maybe she heard music. I didn't have friends anymore, and I couldn't hear anything in evening smiling. I thought night might wear a grimace.
"Christ, don't you dare set the table. I mean it, woman. You ask one thing, and she'd better do it." Maynard's voice sounded oddly loud; maybe he stood right outside the door.
"She's taking a bath to warm up. It's ice cold upstairs, Maynard. And don't use the Lord's name like that." A plate thudded onto the table. "…where our sheep half-asleep tinkle homeward thro' the twilight, stray or stop…"
"What do you want me to do? Knock a hole in the ceiling?" Maynard asked.
Mom sighed, "Finish the new house like you promised."
"Show me some cash and I'll do just that."
Silverware clattered. "Coal's so dirty. We're not going to have it in the new house."
I wanted to step in and take up Mom's part, tell him how he'd drained every cent Gran left Mom. Every sickle, furrow, and pewter spoon went to him. How many times had I said I was leaving? Every morning I heard the grinding gears of the school bus pass by. Every night since Mom had put her foot down. No home educated adult is unemployed or on welfare. But this night was different. I had money. Now I understood why Maynard thought he had to have all of it, and Mom nothing. Money freed you. Bangs hanging in my eyes, I unrolled adhesive tape, the kind you wrapped sprained fingers in, and crisscrossed the twenties to my thighs, inner and outer. The fives and most of the tens I folded into my boot. Already I felt the money on the inside of my legs, the tape pinching skin. I taped a ten above my navel, a ten between my breasts. I liked myself decorated with money. If Gran were here, she'd say I was using my head, by breaking it up and putting it in many places at once.
I flexed, my biceps rippling from chores and hauling thirty-pound bags of oyster shells for the chickens. The men at the grain elevator loaded the bags into Mom's trunk, but she couldn't lift them. Her finger joints cracked even when she did the simplest things like turning on a light switch. I put on the triangle halter, a blue work shirt over it, knotting it above my belly button, where the fear was. Over that I pulled a red hooded sweatshirt. I could take the cold, shiver like crazy and get warm. Old people couldn't shiver; that's why they always wanted you to pile on clothes. I saved the last of my Ben Hur perfume for tonight. Even if I was rich, I'd choose Ben Hur that cost 75 cents an ounce. I tapped the bottle twice on each wrist, and when I sniffed warm red licorice, I knew I'd put on enough. I slipped into my granny boots. The brown suede boots were fawns running and made my jeans hang better. I carried my head higher. Standing in money the boots dared me to show them highway.
"I'm coming, Mom, " I called out.
In the kitchen everything was battleship blue, including the cupboards, the ceiling, the holes where you could stick your hand in the wall and grab the lathes. I squeezed by Mom who was bent over the sink running hot water on a tin salad mold, sure that she could see that I'd robbed her and felt no guilt, that I was wearing Maynard's money. Gran's china plates eyed me from between the forks and knives. The table already set. I felt a twinge; I wasn't a good girl.
"You're late." Mom's redhead wig tilted. She had changed out of her flannel shirt into her triple straps—bra, slip and dress shields. Her mouth looked melted. "Don't bother telling me you're sorry. Maynard says I spoil you."
She shook the mold upside down. Jell-O wiggled onto the plate where a lettuce leaf waited. It was Gran's special recipe. Strawberry Jell-O and Philadelphia cream cheese with miniature marshmallows and celery. My mouth watered. There was usually nothing on our table but three-bean salad and pork. Maynard had cut her grocery money in half since the hog cholera of last winter.
"Maynard said if you were his daughter he'd slap your mouth and hard."
An air stream came up, shaking the door. I liked the sudden cold. The Canadian prairie sweeping in through wall cracks. Before Maynard moved us in, the farmhouse had been used to store fodder.
"If I was his daughter, I'd cut my head off." But I'm your daughter, I thought. Why do you have to look like the wind dresses you, blows any ragged thing onto you?
From the transistor that sat on top of the broken toaster oven, the KCRG weather-man predicted snow flurries for the Hawkeye State. First snow of the season, the storm might be freakish, full of Arctic temperatures and Eskimos keening in tongues. I'd be long gone by early morning.
"Pour Maynard his lemonade. You can at least do that much."
I picked up the screwdriver from the counter and pried open the refrigerator. No other woman in the world could have belonged to this refrigerator. Mom washed out margarine and cottage cheese tubs and used them to store leftovers. Every bread crust and hunk of moldy Velveeta, every lima bean and hominy grit had its own container. Fifty on the middle shelf alone. I reached for the pineapple pitcher. Maynard's lemonade. Yesterday I'd added vinegar to it. I couldn't say why, only that I had to. Like scratching an itch. Cottage cheese containers clattered to the floor. Peas and beets rolled over the linoleum.
"Angelique," she took a deep breath, "what man will have you?"
"Plenty of men," I said, grabbing a dishrag, and scooping up peas, "but I won't have them. "
"Your looks are average, Angelique; I'm not so sure you'll have a pick like I did. "
I winced, smashing the peas into the linoleum. "What do you mean by average?" I asked, knowing it meant ordinary, but hoping it might mean something different to her.
She lifted an eyebrow that needed to be plucked. "In the middle, not so hot."
A dusk pale as cat piss was falling. Snow clouds drifted into the kitchen, hitting the wall above the sink. The outdoors stunk of wet cold feathers. I balled my fists and silently thanked her for the black gift. Whenever I was with her, I hated myself. I wanted to slap my own face. This was our last night together, and she didn't know I was committing her to memory.
"Mom, do you think you're pretty?" I asked, my stomach knotting.
I could see out the window to the mailbox. The summer kitchen missing part of its roof. An outhouse tumbled in the back pasture. It was brokenness, the opposite of wholeness. I was already on the side of the road.
Her eyes moved up and down me. "My face isn't round like yours. Why do you have your new jeans on? You aren't going anywhere."
It stuck in my throat the way she said I wasn't going anywhere, the way she didn't mean to tell me I wasn't pretty, but was just being honest.
"She must think she's going somewhere. Off to visit some secret admirer, Miss Iowa?" It was Maynard. "I sure like those new boots your mother bought you."
He stood in the doorway, all six feet four inches of him, in overalls and a cornmeal-colored teeshirt. Sometimes when he was full of Three Feathers he'd show off the muscles he got working the line at Wilson's Meat Packing Plant. He was so good at sledge-hammering they promoted him to foreman. Where was all the pity that killing must have set off in him? For a big man you could hardly hear him when he talked, and I thought the murdered cows had stolen his voice. He ambled to the cupboard for his bottle of apple vinegar. He poured vinegar on everything.
"I'm stretching the boots. They're tight." I leaned to pour his lemonade.
"Not as tight as your jeans."
"Sit down, Maynard, and let Angelique say the prayer. Don't wait for me."
He scraped his chair to the table. "Lydie, your daughter must have used a shoe horn to put on her pants."
My prayer matched the centerpiece. It was trying to be thankful for a world that didn't exist. Maynard sat too close to me.
"What do you have on under that sweatshirt? When you lift your arms I can see your belly button." He spoke before the prayer was out of my mouth.
My hand moved quickly to my midriff afraid the money might be showing. Keep your eyes to yourself, this isn't your room, not that forbidden place that smelled of coal dust, window rags and Aqua Velva. I imagined the night when I was seven or eight and had gone there to look for my mother, and she was in their bed clutching a blanket to hide the soft fall of her breasts, her nipples bloody as mulberries. Maynard on his knees holding her legs in the air.
Mom shook Vanilla Wafers onto a coffee saucer. "To help in life in straight ways, broad enough for vulgar souls."
"Enough, Lydie," Maynard grunted. "No more Robert Brown Bag at my table."
She grabbed the oven door with a hot pad. The familiar odor wafted out. Pork chops sizzled in a battered pan on the middle rack.
I groaned. "Not again."
"Angelique, open a can of pineapple."
"This pork was sick," I answered. "We'll probably get parasites from it."
Maynard wiped his nose with his hand. "Plenty of the people you know would be glad to eat these chops. Your own neighbor buddies, the Dubeck kids, go hungry. Old lady Dubeck brings home ten-pound cans of tomato soup and pickles. They eat what she steals from her job at Mercy Hospital."
"The pigs in our freezer died of hog cholera. I'd rather eat pickles."
I pictured the barn the night of the hog cholera, stars like tin can lids above the frozen, rutted lot. "Angelique," Mom had said, "he needs your help; his sow is sick." The lit up pen, the sow, a humid mucus slipping out of her vagina. Maynard stripped to his waist, his overall suspenders hanging at his sides, sweating, his shoulders tufted with hair, a red ape, the radio singing Willie Nelson, "Georgia on My Mind," the smell of fresh birth blood, the space heaters, orange glowing, darkness in every corner, the Three Feathers empties in a pile. "This is my shitty luck. Everything I touch turns to shit." The sow squealed and heaved; her abdomen turned blue, and her gummed together eyelids opened, her eyes a mauve-gray in her suffering face, and then from between her legs diarrhea and blood gushed. Her litter of seven—two mummified fetuses, five piglets stillborn.
"I outdone myself this time," Maynard cried. "This one's only got one leg." He laughed and then a sob broke through him. "This one doesn't have eyes. Want to see, Angelique?"
I stepped in the pen. The snout and head a smooth white with one half moon where an eye might have been. I knelt.
Maynard kept on. "My luck. Hog cholera ain't showed up in the United States for ten years except my place. Everything turns to shit Maynard touches."
The sow had swallowed the afterbirth and cleaned her offspring, but was too sick to start eating them.
"Do you want me to dig a hole to bury them?" I made myself ask.
"My investment," he laughed, "and you want to bury it. Besides the ground's froze. We aren't letting good meat go to waste. You pay for baby pork." Before he went to get his long bladed boning knife, he tossed a length of clothesline rope at me. "Tie their back legs together."
Their legs felt like tallow; their hooves were thimbles of canning wax, and when I touched their hind quarters my thumbs sunk in. I knotted their ankles, and Maynard threw the end of the rope over a rafter, double knotted the rope to a nail, and hoisted them up. Five hanged men. Tiny sailors.
"Get buckets under each of them."
He cut them close to the head, in the neck, to bleed them out, the blood rattling into the buckets, and then he skinned them starting with their hind legs. Piglets who never opened their eyes were dying again on his long knife.
"This is what I used to do for a living at the meat packing plant. Watch, girl, and you'll learn. I was good at it. The best. I wore an apron like the rest. But I got next to nothing on it."
The barn stretched out on every side, not homey and hay-strewn like Gran's, where hobos trusted themselves to sleep.
"Now I'm going to give them a little twist and break the spine at the base of the skull. See, I'm cutting all around with the big knife. I've got my blade between the meat and skin."
I wanted to close my eyes, but I needed to somehow protect the piglets. To make sure he didn't hurt them more than he had to.
"Here, Angelique, you gut it. Be careful not to rupture nothing." A bead of water hung from his nose. He waited until it began to form a string and then sucked it in.
"Maynard, I can't …"
"Take the knife. You're mouthy enough; now show me how tough you are." In the dim light I still couldn't help seeing his pale eyebrows sticking out like splinters, the color of the dead piglets.
I took the knife. The rafters swayed; pigeons in the roost dropped coos.
"Let the guts just fall onto the ground."
He stood next to me. I saw flecks of blood on his hairy shoulders. His blue eyes darted from knife to piglet to the lightbulbs swinging from electrical cords.
"I don't want to gut it in front of the mother."
"Swine don't care who you kill. If she felt better, she'd rush over to drink the blood. These things are stillborn, so we're not going to get the blood pumped out properly. Now get its large intestine out."
"Forgive me," I said under my breath, and I lifted the knife.
They were butchered, intestines and bladders pulled out, legs cut off for soup bones, backbones sawed into chops, packed with snow into buckets. I ran them into the house, to the flat sink where Mom stood washing them in scalding water, reciting. "…in her crocus vest woven of sea-wools, with her two white hands…"
"Hotter," Maynard yelled when he stomped in, rivulets of snow and tallow-like chocolate shavings over the kitchen floor. "Get the water hotter."
It was dawn when I crawled into bed. "Get off her already," I wanted to shriek, when I heard the bed creaking downstairs. On and on until at last the rocking stopped and he sobbed, finished, hadn't started, his dream a gush of diarrhea, his first wife, a Mexican woman in Mechanicsville wouldn't allow him to see his own daughter. He wept and squealed, and I imagined him with his ankles tied together swinging from the barn rafters. I buried myself inside the igloo of featherticks and laughed until I started to choke. Where was my compassion for him? I didn't understand.
I came back to myself at the supper table, Maynard's knee bumping against
mine. The taped twenties on my thighs pulled when I crossed my legs. Sometimes I
remembered things too vividly, and lost track of where I was in the present. Mom
forked half of a pork chop onto my plate. It was one of the piglets that never
breathed. My stomach shrank. I picked marshmallows out of the Jell-O salad. They
reminded me of teeth. Mom tucked a napkin into the collar of Maynard's
teeshirt. Her hand brushed his neck, and she pulled the lobe of his ear between the knuckles of her index and middle fingers. I needed to make my move right now while they were eating, sneak out through the cellar door, run to the barn, try the key to his strongbox, take more money, and then get the key back into his Copenhagen can. Once I stole from his box there was no turning back.
"Would you sit down and eat, Lydie," Maynard snarled.
The corn trollop schoolteacher sat down, chewing as if her food tasted like straw. How I hated the pineapple on the end of her fork, the new potato on her plate. Her eating was the sound of her obeying him. What was she afraid of? That he wouldn't make love to her again tonight? That he might look for another women? The wind picked up strong enough to lift gravel from the road and throw it against the house. Wind whooshed into the plastic over the foundation of the promised house and snapped it like a gigantic whip.
"Listen to that wind." His hand tufted with wiry red hair reached for a napkin. "You're not going out of this driveway tonight, woman."
Mom's name was Lydia but that sounded uppity to his ears, so he shortened it to Lydie, and when he gave her orders he called her woman. He was fourteen years younger than her. Woman. Mrs. Maynard Baugh. Thankfully I didn't have his last name. Her friends had all been luckier than her and had gone off somewhere else.
"I've been driving in bad weather all my life, Maynard."
"It's about to blizzard so you ain't going. Freezing drizzle. The roads will turn to sheets of ice. I'm not letting you risk your life for Robert Brown Bag."
"I've got snow tires."
"Are you in love with old Robert Brown Tart?"
"I'll be back in two hours…before the storm hits. Please, Maynard."
It surprised me that going to her meeting meant so much. A group of six farm ladies ate fudge brownies and recited the bard between sips of hot apple cider. Maybe she could taste what it felt like to be ordered to stay home.
"Mom, this isn't study hall," I blurted out. "You don't need his permission."
I looked over and saw a bead of water bubbling from his right nostril, sliding down over his mouth by a web of snot fine as a spider. Freezing drizzle couldn't change my route. Highway 218. Interstate 380 from Cedar Rapids, then 240 to Davenport, 80 to Moline, stay on 80 all the way to Chicago, only don't go into Chicago, dodge around it, no, better to take I-74 to Peoria.
It was later. The yard light was shining like a frozen star. Fully dressed in my four-poster bed I clutched the Eveready and stared out the curtainless window to the stand of shagbark pines. My listening ears waited for sleep to take Mom and Maynard, straining to hear just their moves, each time they twitched from back to stomach, but there were a thousand sounds. The barn creaking, the one cow in it tonguing the filthy salt lick, the leghorn hens roosting. It was the same at Gran's farm, every empty and broken sound louder when the sun went down. That was in the BM years. Before Maynard. I was seven years old when we married him.
After awhile it almost doesn't matter whether they're awake or not. That's how cold and stiff you are and how strong the desire to run away is. I got up into the deep freeze, pushed aside the sheet that hung over the opening to my closet. I tugged Mom's rubber boots over my brown suede ones and tiptoed, stopping to let the wood settle, across the middle room and into the cellar. I felt the coal cheering me on when I crept past it, pushing the lid doors apart with my shoulders. I headed into the wind toward the barnyard, welcoming the snow stinging my face. The barn door groaned. Whiffing old manure, straw, and the peppery-sweetness of fresh pig shit, I followed the flashlight beam, passing it over the sleeping hulk of Bonnie, Maynard's last pig who snored like a hundred Grans. No colder here than the upstairs where I slept, but this was a place you didn't want to stay in. I edged along the hay mangers to the milking barn where the floor wasn't boards sagging but cement. Enough stanchions for a herd, but only one ever saw duty. A three-legged stool appeared in the darkness where Maynard sat to milk Lilly Ann, the cow Mom bought him for his birthday. Against the west wall a table and chairs stood, along with a radio and an old cassette tape player. I set the Eveready down next to a bottle of Three Feathers. From the label the pheasant rustled his emerald, scarlet and yellow tail feathers. You'll never get out of the driveway tonight, that inner voice that sounded like Mom said; you just don't think right; you let the simplest things distract you. I saw too much. That's how objects sidetracked me, showing me their aliveness but always in the corners of my eyes, and in my ear drums at a higher pitch. I caught movement. Most people could block the aliveness.
A mitten between my teeth, I knelt under the table and dragged out the strongbox. The barn breathed in time with the sow, the roof and scaffolding expanding, and then settling back. How much of his money should I take? I wanted it all.
Somehow I knew going into Maynard's things was the real leave-taking. Last winter I kept track of tree shadows roaming the yard when the coal gave out, those afternoons when sun barely lasted to dusk. It was a three-bean salad Vanilla Wafers winter. When I lifted the strongbox lid, I startled, imagining I saw a tree run past. A box elder crying out, disappearing.
Postcards, probably every card he ever received, postmarks from Cincinnati and Belle Plaine, Akron and Spirit Lake, postcards with whiskey distillers for return addresses. His honorable discharge from the Army. Purple money frail as rice paper, a peso from Brazil, a German Reichsmark, a 10-yen coin stamped with flowers, an obituary card. Pretty things. I felt ashamed; this was a Maynard I didn't know, one who kept mementoes of his shrunken life, a corner of a barn in southeast Iowa. But where was his regular money? His Andrew Jacksons and Benjamin Franklins? My teeth were chattering by the time my fingers eagerly fumbled a fat manila envelope from the bottom of the strongbox. Bingo. But it wasn't money, no Ulysses Grant not even a crummy George Washington, nothing but a stack of photographs. Old grainy Polaroids. A six or seven year old girl sat in a bathtub, she must have been cold because the bathroom door stood open. The same dark-haired girl bathing in the tub with less than an inch of water and a rubber duck. Whoever took the pictures stood too close and used cheap film. It must be Maynard's daughter. The one he was forbidden to visit. Her body seemed so thin you could almost see the heart beating through her ribs. A gust of wind whelped through the barn. Farther away the aluminum storm door whacked against the side of the house. The chain must have come loose again. Another bang. My hands shook, almost too stiff to shuffle the photographs back in the envelope. Remember the year we married him, when we loved him, begged to ride his shoulders, to bounce on his knee? Remember how badly we wanted to have a father. I slammed the lid to his strongbox, setting the key on top.
The gate to the barnyard squeaked. Footsteps. The lights cut on in the front of the barn. Your goose is cooked. I doused the flashlight, and shoved the strongbox under the table. I didn't hear myself breathing at all. There was a hole in the west wall, and I could get out of the barn through it. In the darkness, stanchion by stanchion, I crept towards the far end where milk cans huddled. Footsteps crunched straw, the rubber treads squeaked over boards, and then stopped. I stopped. Footsteps again, and heavy breathing, someone banging into a stanchion. I froze. He was here. When he dropped into the chair, he reached for the string to the light bulb. His shadow curled over the ceiling. He took a pull on the bottle and punched in his tape player. Again Roy Orbison, but a different song, "Pretty Woman," shrill like a deer had just been brought down and bled out, a badger's paw finding the trap. Maynard fell onto his knees under the table and dragged the strongbox to him. I inched toward the hole. At last my fingers bent around the cracked board. I pulled myself through. The freezing muck of the dark lot struck my boots. Until I was out of the barnyard, I walked, and then I ran past the shagbarks, the Boy Scout Bag riding my shoulder like it belonged, down the lane away from the house I feared I'd never get out of, first snow hitting me in the face like fists.