She was from Barstow. The children were hers from a previous marriage. A boy with an older sister. The girl took to shoplifting, and that first summer we got enough greeting cards to last an entire marriage.
Their mother drank white brandy and talked about getting back to Barstow and the different ways in which the children were lengthening and starting their paced stabs into adolescence. Hair, thin and mostly blond and boyish, had begun to pile up in the most surprising of corners.
She said, bereaved, that we should let the damned beaver rot. It had been in her flowerbeds for weeks and she finished it off with a fistful of BBs. A baby. Seventeen to the skull at close range. She used her father’s gun, her childhood gun, lever action and small. Told the children it was a dog instead of what it actually was. It was dangerous enough out there and everyone knew the beasts were worse in the south. There was no benefit in confusing things for a child.
It was undomesticated death that she didn’t want them to see though. She had already lost one child to it before I came along and she didn’t want to frighten them unnecessarily. But, betraying her design, they were frightened and rigid with nightmares for weeks, peeking out through the blinds in the mornings to see if that lump of damp fur was still there barely covered in pine straw.
The boy came up to me weeks later and said, Look, we know about the beaver. But don’t tell mom. It’s the way she covers those things up that lets her know that she’s doing her job. But just so you know, we know.
A year past the beaver and the marriage had just exploded. All of her spare time went to taking the house, so it made sense that I would be the first to notice the boy’s changes.
To start, he was the very best in heels. He was also pretty conservative with the curling iron, only slightly stinking the bathroom with over-pressed hair when it could have been much worse. Not as much can be said of the dresses he wore though. They trailed him everywhere. All bunched up broken parachute pieces.
We wrote. First quick little emails, then lengthier ones. Then the letters. There was plenty to be said on the subject of people putting themselves on to one another, but the boy pierced his ears and lay still all night, listening for the faint, dark masculine sounds. He left the safety pins in all night, the blood running down from the punctures toward his pillow, drying behind his neck.
Soon after she sent me a letter under a lawyer’s letterhead. It was my fault the boy was flummoxing everything. That was the word the lawyer used. He called me once to be emphatic, and I thought about it for a minute and said, What about things ever really changes?
Then why did you call to tell me this?
I just wanted to be emphatic, he said.
Should I tell you about marriage, son? Should I tell you about authority? It’s all there in the Bible. And greater things too. Let’s start from the smallest particle of all: the apology.
This was my father taking up the answering machine. I called him back and he refused the call. I demanded she put him on.
Son, your mother and I have discovered the most magnificent syllables. You should really come and listen.
I don’t know what to say.
Don’t say anything, son. Just come meet us at the fire. There will be singing and dancing. There will be all of it, everything.
When I was a kid there was some talk of sending her away after the fire, my sister. But it was decided that we couldn’t pawn her off on someone with no way of ever loving her. The neighborhood thought she was a monster, but she took to punishing herself for setting the blaze by locking herself in her bedroom for hours, revising her manual. Once, I caught her at her bedroom door and asked her, What are you writing all the time?
She pushed me back into the hallway, and I fell to the ground. She squatted over me and said, How to die properly! Wouldn’t you like to know!
Then she went into her room, locking the door behind her.
My father and I built her a workhouse in the backyard near the tree line. When we finished we offered it to her. She didn’t say a word. She only walked in and closed the door.
She was dark in there for weeks.
Then the second fire.
Rummaging the ash pile, my parents found scattered animal bones, small ones. There was a collection of scissors. An axe. Knives. There had been jars of formaldehyde just in case it all came to something.
One afternoon when the crew came to take away the blackened debris, my father grabbed my wrist and asked, How the hell did she get her hands on formaldehyde? Formaldehyde for Christ’s sake.
That was the last of it. They sent her off to a school filled with sisters and daughters that knew they were supposed to act some way, but were never sure exactly how. She never came back for a visit. Not even on holidays.
I would love to tell you how we are doing, son. I really would. But there are other concerns. Other, better obligations. Think of the politics, the history, the logic.
I don’t know what you’re saying.
Love, son, the big stuff. Just make certain you show you are excitable. If you can’t do that you’re dead in the water, my boy, dead in the water.
I left brotherly messages saying they were in hospice. I told her how the doctors said the best case would be that one would go and the pain of loss would send the other along soon after, the heart too frail to keep on.
I said I didn’t know what to do either.
Walking home from the bus stop one evening I was jumped, cut, left for dead in a ditch. He took my keys, my rings, my blazer. Said it would look real pretty on his bitch.
The authorities told me I was lucky and they questioned me. They could canvass the area, find the guy. I told them to leave it alone, that it was all a fugue episode anyway. They looked at me blankly and left, and I pressed the morphine button until sleep.
I woke up at home in my bed. I didn’t know how I got there. A figure was sitting in front of me. It was her, all the way from Iowa. She spent the entire week. Slept on the couch. A fold-out. She tried not to complain, but she said it did make her shiver a little at night.
When I asked her why she was there after so long, since we sent her to that school in the first place, she said that the hospital had called saying I had listed her as emergency contact.
And it was an emergency, she said.
The answering machine had built up the entire time I was in the hospital. There were twenty-nine messages, each from Dad. They said: From…the…tower…we…can…see…the…ocean…all…spread…out…and…now…we…know…that…the…enemy…is…everywhere…Bivouak…your…household…pets…men…The…enemy…is…everywhere!
She stood there and deleted each message one by one. When she finished she looked at me, scratching hard at something behind her ear, and said, That’s what he sounds like now?
It didn’t take her long to go through my finances thoroughly. She asked about receipts. Apologized. Blamed it on her work. She warned me that I was living well beyond my means, that things would be a tight squeeze but that she and Harold, her husband, would do what they could.
Once I was well enough, we walked to the ditch. She said she wanted to see where it happened. I half expected the blood to have stained the dirt, but it didn’t. She asked if I really thought blood stains dirt.
I don’t know what blood does, I answered.
It was a small town, and the sun was starting to set. Cars passed leisurely, and we stood there for a long time. The sun was setting where a skyline should be, mixing the clouds together in reds and blues like candy all over.
We sat on the couch together that night, laughed, emptied two bottles of wine between us. I said that I wanted to thank her but I couldn’t tell if her being there was charity or something else.
The day she left we had lunch at a café. We drank beer until we were drunk. She said she missed me, that she felt bad for a lot of things, that she was just so busy trying to put her life back together. She promised she’d keep in touch, bring the kids down next time maybe. Harold, too.
She said, I don’t know what to say. What should I say?
The last of father’s calls came early when everything was still blue. There was just his heavy, pointed breath for a while. Then he spoke:
There is everything to say.
There is everything to say.
There is everything to say.
The on-duty nurse summoned me in vacant, tired, business tones to come visit them while they could still remember home. I took a cab. The nurse stopped me in the hall, just as I entered, and slipped all of the important papers into my back pocket for later.
I eased my way into mother’s room and watched her there grabbing at my father’s lips, trying to say something. Her hair was all burnt wires, and she was sticking her finger into my father, poking him in his softer parts. He giggled. She started winding her hair with her little finger. They were at the end.
There I was, easing out of the room I had barely set foot in, the nurse holding my chest from behind. I wish there was a way to say I cared for them better and visited them until the end, but I only turned and walked away.
It was cold, as it tends to be in those places, and I pretended that I was sad like those times when you press through the rooms of your house, thinking that memories are somehow there, in the paint, in the years.
So I went outside for the heat and waited for a taxi. The hospice standing tall and well lit behind me, another place on earth:
My mother, blind, locked in a heated scratching with herself.
My father picking out the moon and howling.
About the author:
Gary Sheppard lives, works and writes in Oxford, Mississippi. He is a John and Renee Grisham fellow in the M.F.A program at The University of Mississippi. He is also the recipient of a Bondurant Prize in fiction. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Tyrant and The Chiron Review.