The Good Life _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Mark and Rebecca Spencer
We rumble past the "Welcome to Peebles" sign behind a flat-bed truck hauling hay bales, and Lon down shifts. We pass Love's convenience store, Lorene's Cafe, and Ethel's Antiques. Ethel is an antique herself at a hundred and one years old. She taught English at the high school for sixty years. When I was in ninth grade, she was my teacher and whacked the back of my hand with a ruler for not knowing enough about the laws of semicolons. Holding the ruler behind her back, out of sight, as she walked about the room, she was always whacking hands. She was sweet and soft-spoken until you slouched in your chair, talked out of turn, neglected your homework, or said "ain't." Now days she'd be getting sued every week by some irate parent or shot in the head by some doped-up student. She sits in her antique store all day, rarely selling anything, I hear. She runs off tourists by ranting at them--"Are you just going to stand around and look, or are you going to buy something?"--and by correcting their grammar.
Lon and I drive past the post office. In front is a bronze plow commemorating Adams County as the site of the 1957 World Plowing Competition. Big-shouldered farmers from all over the world plowed up the county fairgrounds, Germans and Swedes being the best at the old-fashioned horse plowing. A man had to plow fast and straight. The competition occurred in the early fall, just a few months after things almost happened between me and Rose.
I competed, hoping to win some money, but glancing up into the grandstand to smile at Meg, I caught sight of Rose and her husband, her face pale and drawn, his red like a fat tomato, his lips pursed, his eyes glaring at me. I ended up plowing a row that was a wavy mess.
Lord, sometimes I wish I didn't have such a good memory. The day I was in the plowing competition was a Saturday. Meg was quiet that night. The next morning--I don't know, maybe part of it was hormones with her being pregnant--Meg flung two coffee mugs at me. The coffee stains never would wash off the wallpaper. Years later I covered them with new wallpaper.
We were sitting at the kitchen table, and I noticed her looking at the wedding announcements in the newspaper. There were pictures of new brides. I reached across the table and touched her arm and told her she was prettier than all those girls. She glared at me a moment, then crumpled the newspaper, called me a liar, and then threw her coffee mug at me. I dodged. Coffee splattered everywhere.
"I'm not pretty, and you know it." She stood up and grabbed hunks of her limp hair. "Look at me. Look at me."
Instead, I looked at the mess of newspaper on the table. She snatched up my mug and flung the coffee in my face. So then I sat there with luke-warm coffee dripping from my face, and she hovered over me.
"Look at me. I said look at me."
As soon as I did, she bolted from the kitchen. I heard her in the bathroom, where she could see herself in the mirror--her thin straw-colored hair, her narrow, pinched face, her breasts still small despite the swell of her belly--and she called, "Now Rose--Rose is pretty. Don't say I'm pretty."
I picked up my mug and stared at the coffee grounds stuck to its bottom until she came out of the bathroom and hovered over me again. She was still wearing her nightgown because we didn't go to church anymore. With her hands spread on the mound of her belly, she said, "Don't be a liar, Fowood."
I opened my mouth, trying to find words, but in most of the important moments of my life it has been a futile search. She
looked at the oak kitchen cabinets I had built for her recently, and suddenly she seemed to soften, to deflate. She kept staring at the cabinets. I hoped she was appreciating the workmanship, but all she said was, "I'm not eating anymore," and shuffled to our bedroom and locked the door.
* * *
The moving van rumbles along.
Rose was pretty.
But whatever might have been didn't happen.
"Nothing happened," I said to him.
"I'll say a prayer for your damnation, fucker," Rodney said to me on the phone late one night.
"Who is it?" Meg wanted to know, standing in the shadows of the hall outside the kitchen, holding Nick, who had been awakened by the phone. He squirmed in her arms like a worm.
It had been a year since things almost happened with Rose.
"You woke my boy," I said into the phone. "If you call again, I'll kill you."
The moving van sways as Lon turns off Main Street . I shake my head--I don't want to think about these things that will ruin seeing Rose again.
I look at the buildings of this small town I have known all my life and think about how much there is that never changes, that never can.
The hay truck is still in front of us, and bits of straw rain against the moving van's windshield like sleet. Lon says, "I always hated baling hay when I was a kid."
"Hard job," I say, "but it builds up your muscles." I remember looking at my arms when I was fourteen and seeing the muscles ripple and the veins pop out, feeling proud.
Then I remember Nick trying to lift a hay bale--not long before we took him to the state home to live. Nick strained and moaned and cried, barely moving the bale.
I almost lost the farm because of the hospital bills when Nick was born. If I hadn't had my teacher's insurance, which covered a lot but not all, I would have. Nick looked like a runt piglet and couldn't come home for three months. I worked hard and borrowed and held on, accepted what God handed me, then paid back my debts and went on. It was the way I was taught. It was the only way I knew.
I look out the window in the direction of Al's Barber Shop, but what I actually see is Nick's limp, straw-colored hair and his small, white hands and his narrow shoulders, his broad nose and his small, trembling chin. I see Nick's pale head sticking up out of a crowd of hogs in the hog pen, hear Nick's screams. Nick tried to ride one of them and got mauled.
He tried to stroke chickens and got pecked. He tried to drive the tractor and turned it over in a ditch. Several times he got lost in the woods. Meg and I would tromp through the underbrush, hollering his name, the dogs running ahead. After we found him, he'd moan and wave his arms, use the few words he knew--"big," "rat," "bear"--trying to describe wonders or horrors. It was hard to tell which.
Meg and I talked and talked and argued with ourselves and each other about what was best to do with Nick. We asked doctors and counselors.
Then he killed a cat. I don't know why. He was usually gentle with cats--with every living thing. But he killed a big black tom cat, one of half a dozen cats we had around the farm at the time. He took a meat cleaver, and he must have held it down (I don't know; nobody saw him do it) and chopped its head off and then skinned it. He went into the kitchen where Meg was chopping onions for supper, his hands and the front of his shirt and pants bloody, and I heard her screams all the way out in the fields.
Not long after that, Meg and I decided that the best thing to do was put Nick in the state "home."
After he was gone, the house was quiet. Meg and I could go about our business and breathe easy for the first time in fifteen years. But, Lord, looking into Nick's empty bedroom, his charcoal drawings of animals with human faces all over the walls, I felt a knife in my heart.
Now, bouncing along in this truck all these years later, I can feel my son's bony body trembling in my arms, feel the boy's
hot breath on my face, the softness of his straw-colored hair. I feel Nick's tears and snot soaking into my shirt.
The hay truck's brake lights don't work, and Lon stops suddenly. I catch my forward motion at the same time I taste the memory of my own salty tears, feel my arm and back muscles ripple as I hug Nick, never wanting to let him go.
Nick has been in the state home for about twenty-five years now, is better off. "Safer," I say aloud softly, the word smothered by the noise of the diesel engine.
"The home" is what ladies and preachers call it. Most men call it "the booby hatch" and grin or smirk the same way they do when they say "cat house."
I never imagined myself moving boxes and furniture with Lon Peterson, the county's greatest baseball player, and when
I was young, it never crossed my mind that I might have a son in "the booby hatch." Daddy and I drove past the old state home when I was eight. We were on our way to Highland County to the carnival.
The old state facility sat far back from the road. The grounds were lush with oaks and weeping willows. A high wrought-iron fence surrounded the property. The building itself looked like a medieval castle, a four-story stone construction with copulas and spires. The windows had bars. I wouldn't have been surprised to see knights shooting arrows from the roof. When I asked what the place was, Daddy said, "The booby hatch."
The new place was built thirty years ago, is a low yellow brick building with a flat roof and no bars on the windows. Nick is not crazy, just slow and child-like and scared of everything. I don't know what to think about the thing with the cat. He had watched me butcher hogs. Maybe I shouldn't have let him watch. Maybe he thought he was doing a good thing with the cat.