The Good Life _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Mark and Rebecca Spencer
The word comes . . . comes from where? From forty years ago? From the sky, like these snow flakes? It's not a word I have ever used to describe myself, but here it is.
No. The images it conjures are not me.
I shake my head. Imagine . . . me, a lover.
I'm sixty-five years old, and even forty years ago--even when things almost happened between me and Rose--I was no movie
star. Tall and broad-shouldered, people would have said, sure, but a plain man. An ordinary man.
I think of the romance novels Meg, my wife, used to check out of the county library every week, and I smile, imagining a novel about a woman meeting her ideal man and him being a balding farmer and retired school teacher named "Fowood." I see me on the cover of one of those novels. My chest hair is gray. With long hair I'd look more like Benjamin Franklin than like Fabio.
Me--a lover. Oh, sure. My students used to say that a lot --"Oh, sure"--in response to something that was impossible or a lie.
But Rose did want me all those years ago. And now today I'm going to be in her house. I'm going to see her again.
Memories drift, having fallen from the attic of my mind, countless as these snowflakes.
Maybe I'm not ordinary. Maybe no man is.
I'm standing on my wooden porch, and I look west, across my fields of winter wheat. The sky rushes, thick and almost black. Heavy snow is on its way.
Farmer. School teacher.
I try to think of other words to describe myself. A man needs to take stock of himself on a regular basis. If he doesn't, something will remind him to. He needs to unfold his life before him like a road map, study it, make sure he hasn't gotten himself lost. My life's map would be a big one that covered a small area, just Adams County, Ohio, the only place I've ever lived; a bit of the Ohio River would be shown, the surrounding counties, some little boxes in the corners of the map to show the few places I've visited. The map would show a small area, but it would be highly detailed.
Part-time moving man.
Relocation Professional--a phrase my boss, Lon, used the other day. He was smiling. He had heard it on some TV show. It's a phrase a man would use only if he was trying to appear to be more than he was or something other than what he was.
I help Lon with moves in the winter and sometimes in other seasons when I don't have much more to do on the farm than throw corn at the chickens. Extra money never hurts, never hurts to have a nest egg. I learned that lesson young, the hard way, when my boy, Nick, was born. I can still feel the sticky vinyl chair of the fathers' waiting room, a room without windows, can see the splattered-paint design of the floor tile. I looked up to see the little delivery-room nurse coming through the heavy double doors, the blood gone from her face, tears in her eyes. She had said when I brought Meg in that it was her first day on the job. The young doctor with the pale eyebrows and long smooth hands like a woman's came in behind her, his eyes all over the room, looking at everything except me . . . .
Although I'm retired from teaching, I still substitute from time to time, put the money in my savings account. I figure I'll live another twenty-five or thirty years, and that's not just wishful thinking. All four of my grandparents lived up into their nineties. I still have all my own teeth, and I can lift and carry things Lon can't get off the ground. "Use your legs," I tell him. "Keep your back straight. Keep your head up. You need to get more sleep."
Sixty-five years old but I tell people I'm forty-nine--a harmless fib--and they believe me.
I look up my gravel driveway but don't see or hear Lon's moving van yet. I can taste the coffee I had at four this morning. Usually it turns out good, but this morning it was bitter. My stomach churns over today's job--at the prospect of seeing Rose. My heart shrinks from it.
I see Rose in my head, as she was forty years ago, and I again think the word lover.
Lon called last night and said that after the local move we had in the morning we had another in the afternoon. The morning job, he said, was from a house at three-twenty-one Third Street in Peebles to the Buena Vista Apartments on Seventh. The afternoon job was in town, too. "I don't know yet where the stuff is going," he said. "But we're taking it from five eleven Mockingbird."
I said, "What was that address? What? Say again?" Then, "What?" He asked if something was wrong. "No," I said. "No. No." He must have thought me an idiot or senile.
After we said good-bye to each other, I thought of calling him back and telling him I was sick, but then he would have no help. Lon's step-son Mort, who has helped with a couple of moves, is nineteen but lazy and clumsy, drops half the things he picks up.
Besides, I don't feel right running from things--not that I haven't run on occasion--and there was a part of me that immediately wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, the excuse, to see Rose. Although I go into town once or twice a week, it's been years since I've had a glimpse of her.
Lord, what a beauty of a woman.
I know she lost her looks years ago, but I have no right to criticize. I would hate to think of myself as a shallow man.
A shallow man could not have resisted her beauty.
Is lover on that imagined road map of my life? A hamlet on a barely traveled dirt road--a couple of shacks, a gas station, and a fire works stand?
Slowly, I take a deep breath of the cold air, and my lungs burn with it, and I turn one way, then the other, surveying my place. Now this is truly my life--my tall, white house, the red barn bigger than a tent at the state fair, the barbed-wire fences that stretch out in every direction, dipping and rising with the roll of the land, keeping the chickens and the hogs where they belong and sectioning off the fields of horse corn, soy beans, sweet corn. I'd like to see my place from an airplane. I'd bet it looks tidy as the quilts Mama made. She never wasted a scrap of cloth. Everything had a use, she said. Everything was part of a design--like the world under God's hand, she used to say.
Hard worker. I have yet to hire help. I do everything myself.
Independent. Not even any help in the garden with the tomatoes or the pumpkins or the beans--or even with the housekeeping. For two years Meg couldn't walk from her bed to the bathroom without getting short of breath. Heart trouble. Come March, it will be three years since she passed away.
Husband. I always ended up doing what was right.
Honest. Maybe too much so.
The snow flurries start to fall faster. Some hogs squeal in their pen next to the tractor shed, where my red and gray 1949 Ford tractor sits sheltered from the coming storm. Three hogs are fighting, and two of them roll into the electric fence and send up shrieks that echo in the hollow behind the barn where I dump trash.
I look hard in the direction of the hollow as if I could see the echoes like wisps of ghosts floating among the bare trees. I have good eyes, still. I look through the trees, can see a squirrel on a branch, look past the squirrel into the heart of the thick woods, into nothing, into darkness.
I've heard that a person can see for miles out west where everything is flat and treeless. Here, if there's not a hill in front of your face, woods are not far away. When I was a kid I'd go up onto the top of a hill and then climb a tree, and on a clear day I could see the hills of Kentucky on the other side of the river. I couldn't see the river, but I could see the peaks
of those blue Kentucky hills, what seemed like a far-off land.
When kids moved over to the Ohio side of the river from there, the school set them back a grade. Teachers said Ohio was way ahead--nicer than saying it the other way around. Kentucky kids got called "hicks," "hillbillies," "retards." I'm glad I never called them names. Especially "retard." In town with Nick, on the sidewalk, in the cafe, in the barber shop, and in the hardware store, I have heard the mutter and the whisper and the half-laugh-half-grunt of the word "retard"--the "t" and the "d" hard and ugly as any sounds a human can make.
But I don't want to think about Nick right now, and I bring my vision out of those dark woods, that hollow, and look down at the gray-painted floorboards of the porch, at the toes of my steel-tipped boots, steel tipped because I have only nine toes as is, thanks to a hay baler that caught my foot when I was twelve. I do okay, don't waddle or limp. I've adjusted.
"No ballet lessons for you now," Daddy said and grinned. This was a week after the accident. I was morose, wouldn't eat much, wouldn't talk. Daddy said, "Nothing to do but go on. You accept loss and go on, learn to live with it. Milton Bruer down on Tater Ridge Road has only six fingers. The man has one of the nicest farms in the county." Daddy playfully mussed up my hair. "Now you eat." Daddy's rough hands smelled of wood smoke and grease, sometimes lye soap.
I have. Today I will see a woman I almost let myself love forty years ago. But so what?
Really. So what?
I look up, inspect my place again, the white paint on the house and the fences, the orderliness of everything. Inside the barn is my '54 Dodge pickup. It's a nicely preserved old truck that has served me well. The original two-tone blue and white paint job still looks good, and I get lots of looks when I drive into town. For many years it was just an old truck. If I had let it rust, people would have called it a junker. Now it's the same truck, just older, but everyone considers it a classic. That's the way with everything over time--everything looks different after a while and everything changes in value. And the past colors the present. The present colors the past.
"Just another job," I tell myself out loud, my breath like plumes of smoke hanging in the air a second, then gone. Plumes of breath rise thick where the hogs are huddled together by the tractor shed.
"So what?" I say to the sky.
So what if I'll be inside Rose's house, look her in the eye? Nothing much ever happened. "Not a thing," I remember telling her husband, and I feel anger rise up from deep down and warm my face. I would want to break that man's neck if he weren't already dead.
She might not recognize me. Or she might. She might say, Get the hell out of my house, you son of a bitch. She might try to shoot me again.
But that was all long ago. There were some bad moments, sure. Some confusion. Some mistakes. But I ended up doing the right thing. I kept my life on course. A good life.