Evening Street Press of Sacramento, CA is an independent press with a philosophy. Dedicated to the equality of all people, Evening Street publishes an anthology twice a year featuring poetry and prose of “clarity and depth.”
Evening Street Review #35, Autumn 2022 includes my newest story, Streets of Sorrow. A fictional tale inspired by events that took place in my hometown of Cedar Rapids Iowa, Streets of Sorrow is about a young writer meeting an old writer. As their friendship deepens, young Natalie’s new mentor teaches her to translate life into art.
The night my parents reported me missing, the police came over and searched the house. Missing kids can turn up in closets where they’ve dozed off playing hide-and-seek. The heating ducts in the old house conducted sound between floors, so I heard the doorbell, my father giving orders, my mother’s mousey squeak.
“We’ll search from top to bottom,” said an officer, heavy shoes on the staircase. Up, up, up to the attic. Their sounds faded, then grew closer as the party descended through the house. The men moved furniture, opened doors, pushed coats aside in the hall closet. They rummaged in the laundry room, looked behind the TV and shined flashlights around Dad’s dark office, its shadowy shelves heaped with his army gear.
I was there behind the furnace, holding my breath as lights swept over rucksacks, spare boots, camo fatigues, and MREs, the room reeking of army camps, dried sweat and worn leather. Officers shifted the desk and filing cabinet where Dad kept his red pens, teacher’s gradebook, past papers, and drafts of his letters to the editor. His draft notice, dated 1970, lay among the leaves of a faded photo album in the bottom drawer. Police beams directed at the furnace, and even behind it didn’t illuminate every corner. With my feet tucked in, I was invisible.
“We’ll search the neighborhood,” said the officer.
“The neighbors will be asleep, won’t they?” said Mom, “We can’t go knocking on people’s doors at this hour.” But off they went, up the stairs, convincing Mom that the neighbors would want to help. The front door opened and closed. Mom stayed home in case I returned.
In the morning, I overslept, so I missed them going out. Dad’s staff meetings started at 7:30am. Mom’s boss was a real jerk. The house was quiet from top to bottom. I used the bathroom and ate from the fridge. The phone kept ringing throughout the day. Of course, I didn’t answer. I watched TV until I heard Mom’s car. I was in hiding again before she got inside. Dad came home later, after a cheerful stint in the bar where he arrived around four o’clock most afternoons. He liked to share a pitcher of Miller Lite before the evening grind of correcting papers and grading tests. Maybe two or three pitchers.
“Did you hear from the police?”
“They left a message with the receptionist. No news.”
“I didn’t give them my work number. I can’t take personal calls during office hours.”
That night, I slept in my own bed. It was too dusty behind the furnace, even with a pillow and blanket. In the morning, I woke to the sound of the shower, footsteps passing my bedroom door, and bickering.
“I’m going to be late.”
“You’re late every day.”
“You sound like my boss.”
Down the stairs and out the door, they rushed. Their cars pulled away, one after the other. I slept another hour, then got up and washed the cobwebs out of my hair. Around lunchtime, I walked over to the school and from there; I went to the park. If I’d had 50 cents, I’d have ridden the bus somewhere, but my pockets were empty. I returned to school in time to hear the last bell ring, falling in step with the kids from my neighborhood.
“Didn’t see you in class today.”
“I came in late. Doctor appointment.”
I let myself in with my house-key, turned on the TV and sat down to finish a tub of chocolate ice cream. I rinsed it and buried it in the trash when I was done. The phone rang. Later, it rang again. I was on the couch when Mom came in from work smelling of copy paper, printer ink, and fading perfume. “Meatloaf for dinner tonight and no complaining,” she said as she passed. I hate meatloaf.
She came back a moment later, her face dark with emotion. “What are you doing?”
“Where have you been?”
“In the basement.”
“The basement? For two days? God damn you. We’ve been looking for you. The police came.”
“What is wrong with you? I’m going to have to call the police station and tell them you wasted their time. I’ll have to tell them they spent all that taxpayer money for no reason. That might be a crime, you know. You might go to jail for this.”
“They don’t put kids in jail.”
“Juvenile detention, then. Your father wants to send you to military school. But it’s too expensive.”
“I’m going to my room.”
“Stay up there.”
On the stairs, I met my brother. “Where were you hiding?” he asked.
Published first in Backchannels, Issue 4 March 2020
Before the wildfire some years back, Grandpa George’s summer place was an ageing cabin, a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers, a picturesque place to get away an hour’s drive from downtown.
The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.
Print editions are for sale at eveningstreetpress.com.
My newest story, Of Course, I Didn’t, has been accepted for publication this fall in the online literary magazine, Rock Salt Journal. Told in the first person and weighing in at just 800 words, it’s a quick, thoughtful read. Themes of isolation resolve into the quiet comradery of kindred spirits.
Look for Of Course, I Didn’t in the October 2022 edition of Rock Salt journal at rocksaltjournal.com. While you’re there, you’ll find a curated selection of short fiction, creative nonfiction, and photography.
Oak trees shade the windows of the room, filling it with green light like water in a still pond. I can’t take a nap on this sofa, its awkward cushions sliding, its antique headrest brooding. Gran looks in and says, “Be still.” The mantle clock is ticking. Three hundred seconds equals five minutes. Then three hundred more. Not a whisper. Not a dripping tap. Pop’s ghost asks Gran for a dance in the kitchen to an old tune on the AM radio. The oak trees drop their leaves one by one, the mantle clock keeping time with the dance steps.
Meg rented office #10a where she worked most weekdays, her desk facing the door, the window raised behind her. No drapes. No blinds. Office #10, adjacent, had once connected to #10a through a door to Meg’s right long ago painted shut. On the left stood Meg’s couch, an ashtray on the floor beside it, an e-reader on the charger. Lazy afternoons, she lay there examining the water-stains on the ceiling in which she imagined faces, figures, and sometimes, mathematical equations. Meg looked up from her keyboard when the outer door opened and a smart young woman entered. The girl smiled as she hung her hat on a coat-hook Meg had never noticed.
“He in yet?” the girl asked.
Meg returned a blank look.
The young lady giggled. “See you at lunch.”
Meg glanced at the clock. 9:45am. When she turned back, the inter-office door was closing as the girl disappeared into the adjoining room. “Morning, Mr. Linney,” the girl was saying. Meg heard a man’s deep voice rumble in reply.
Meg went to the door and ran a finger over its surface and hinges coated in layers of thick paint, applied one over another for decades. The knob held firm. The lock stuck fast. This door hasn’t opened for years. Laying her ear to the wood, she heard the clack of a typewriter.
Meg peered at the girl’s hat. Soft and black. Smelling of lavender. A diesel engine roared in the alley beyond the open window. Meg closed the sash and sat at the desk. Any sounds from next-door lost out to the din. She stared at her screen, typed something, deleted it. She lay on the couch. Droning sounds enveloped her, and soon she dozed.
When later she woke to deep quiet, Meg sensed that someone had just left the room, that if she’d opened her eyes a moment sooner, she’d have seen someone there. On her keyboard lay a handwritten note:
Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Catch ya next time!
Meg looked at the sealed door, noticed a wisp of lavender hanging in the air. “If she is real,” Meg said to herself, “She couldn’t have gone through the door. If she is a ghost, she can’t have left me this note.”Meg put the paper in a drawer and called it a day.
“I think my office is haunted,” Meg told her husband, Mark, at dinner that night.
Mark grinned. “Is the ghost going to split the rent?”
“Oh, ha-ha,” said Meg, wishing she sold enough stories to keep him from making that joke.
“More wine?” the server popped in to ask.
“Not for me,” said Meg.
Mark’s phone rang, and a grimace crossed his face. “Sorry, Meg. This’ll just take a minute.”
“I’ll go for a smoke.”
They left the table in opposite directions, Meg heading outside, Mark to a quiet corner on the restaurant’s dining terrace. Meg lit a cigarette and surveyed the cracked parking lot that stretched for acres, edged on three sides by retail. A furniture store here, a supermarket there, a space where the bookstore used to be. Meg had worked in a bookstore once. If Jean had come in, she might have asked for ‘Romance.’
Meg’s phone buzzed in her pocket: You coming back? She stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the table.
Meg worked at the office, though she could’ve stayed home if she liked. She didn’t have deadlines. No editors or agents to meet. She had no reason to write except the passion for it. She sold a story now and then, by accident, it seemed. When her eyes drooped during afternoons with no air conditioner, she read books on the couch and smoked cigarettes until the ashtray was full. She napped and dreamt of knights on The Crusades or Vikings in Canada.
Jean appeared again one day as Meg tinkered with her query letter, rewriting it, guessing what an editor might want to hear from a writer who hadn’t much to say. “Hello?” said Meg as the outer door opened and Jean entered, a paper cup of coffee in each hand.
Jean didn’t reply. As she reached the inner door, she tapped it with the toe of her simple black shoe. “It’s me, Mr. Linney,” she called out.
“It doesn’t open,” Meg said.
The door swung inward, obscuring Meg’s view. A gruff voice greeted Jean as she stepped out of sight. “Hello?” Meg said again to no one. The door closed and Meg jumped up to examine it. In a moment she was there, but thick paint sealed the door, as it always had. When she scanned the wall where Jean had hung her hat, a patched hole lay where the hook had been. She opened a desk drawer and found the note Jean had left. Catch ya later, she’d written.
Meg was dreaming, she realized, as she opened her eyes and sat up on the couch. She couldn’t remember falling asleep, but here she was waking, feeling disoriented, not discerning dream from reality. As she gathered her belongings to go home, Meg looked around for Jean’s note but couldn’t find it.
“You wouldn’t believe the dream I had this afternoon,” Meg said to Mark as he stood at the stove stirring sauce.
“Tough day at the office, eh?”
Meg sipped a diet soda. “You know how it goes.” He knew.
“So what dreams, then?” Mark asked.
“The ghost again.”
“That’s the story you should write,” he said, dipping a spoon in the pot for a cook’s taste.
“What was she up to, anyway?”
“Just ghosting around.”
Mark smiled across the kitchen, a husband who knew his wife’s ways. He’d have her telling the whole story by the time he served her dessert. He threw a handful of noodles into boiling water.
By Meg Lewis,
This modest office building was once a gem tucked between a dress shop and a cheerful grocery with a lunch counter at the back. The fresh suburban main street came in with the post-war boom, the upswing transforming the valley’s orange groves into just the places that downtown poets railed against, drunk and self-righteous in damp city basements and vegetarian restaurants. Now, the rent here is low, the neighborhood seedy, the building rundown. When I sell a story, I jump to take a lease; my first office. A real writer. I’m upstairs at the back.
My husband, Paul, buys me a couch to put under the window, but I move it to the side wall because I have no blinds. He offers to buy those, too, but I decline. I say, “I’ll buy them myself when I sell another story.” So, it may be awhile before I can move the couch back.
I’m a writer. I live in my imagination. The walls are blank on purpose. The water stains on the ceiling are what I need. I don’t feel guilty if I take a nap. Paul doesn’t like the teenage boys congregating in the alley at dusk. I tell him, “There’s nothing wrong with those boys.” He tells me I see the world through rose-colored glasses.
Someone strolls in as I’m working busily, typing my first 500 words of the day. I’m startled, and I turn to the door. She’s hanging her hat on a coat rack I haven’t noticed. “Hello?” I say with a frown.
“Good morning,” she says, carrying donuts in a bag as she crosses the room, her plain dress, timeless style, swishing around her hips. I’m bewildered. She smiles like a lifelong friend. “See you at lunch,” she says and opens the door, which connects us to the neighboring office. That door is out of use. A chill passes through me.
I inspect the door. They’ve applied layer after layer of thick white paint from top to bottom. When I try to open it, it’s stuck fast. I can hear the girl’s voice in the next office. “Yes, Mr. Linney.” I can’t make out Linney’s muffled reply. I cross the room to inspect the hat. Made of soft felt. Scented with lavender. I lie on the couch and listen to the voices in the next office, Linney’s voice dictating, the girl’s voice saying, “Yes, Mr. Linney.” I don’t realize I’m dropping to sleep. At 1:30, I come around and find a note on my keyboard. “Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Getcha next time, Jean” And that’s how I learn her name.
Meg held her head in her hands, rubbed her temples, and stretched. She flopped on the couch and lit a cigarette. For a few minutes she lay with her eyes closed, unwinding. As her cigarette burned, she reached for a recent collection of prize-winning stories. My stuff is so amateur, Meg thought, but read on, hoping to absorb the genius. Next, she was rubbing her eyes with the book beside her where it had slipped as she’d dozed off, this time sleeping without dreams and waking in a semi-weightless state as if she’d been off the planet without realizing it.
Some days, Meg worked, some days not. Some days, she walked up to a nearby row of antique shops to pick through old times. She noticed a rhinestone brooch and imagined Jean wearing it. On the next shelf was a saint carved in black soapstone.
“Something catch your eye, Miss?” asked a man in flannel and denim.
Meg picked up the figure.
“Little St. Columba,” said the man, “Whose prayers converted the Picts of ancient Scotland.”
Meg was charmed and bought the figure.
Back at the office, Meg made tea and sat in her chair to drink it. She tapped the keyboard for an hour in a meandering way, feeling in the dark. Again and again, she considered what had happened with Jean, if it had happened. She expected to write it and make sense of it. Instead, it felt banal and derivative.
A bang came from Linney’s office. Someone cried out. A door slammed. Meg froze. Is this another dream? The sealed door opened. For a moment, she could see nothing; then someone stepped out. A rush of air through the room blew open the outer door as Meg raised her arm to shield her eyes. When she recovered, she flew to the hall where a woman with a cleaning cart stood stricken. Clutching her apron, she crossed herself and fled. Meg ducked back inside and sank onto the couch, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. When she opened them again, several hours had passed, and the sun was sinking over the alley. Call 911, came the frantic thought.
But what, Meg asked herself, could she report to the authorities? I was working; a gun fired. This sealed door opened. Someone came through, but a wind came up from somewhere and I couldn’t see who it was. There was a woman in the hall; maybe she knows more? Meg decided a sane person could not call emergency services to say that. Another dream, that’s it. But they were getting worse.
Meg took breaks from the office at the coffee shop on street level. When she’d first considered renting upstairs, the landlord had used the shop as a selling point for an otherwise tired building.
“Harry’s has been here for decades,” he assured her, “A neighborhood place. Great coffee; not the overpriced swill from Starbuck’s.”
Meg soon befriended the servers and stopped in whenever, walking past the window on her way upstairs, she noticed her favorite table was free. These past few weeks, she’d been too busy to visit much. Jean’s story had unlocked something. Everywhere Meg went, she imagined Jean there looking demure, her plain skirt sophisticated and understated. She could sit at Harry’s with a mug of coffee and a jelly donut. Maybe browsing dresses in the second-hand store. Or raising a polite hand to the cars waiting for her at the crosswalk. When Meg hurried upstairs to write, Jean was there to give inspiration. She came in every morning at 9:45am, often bringing something for Mr. Linney: a paper cup of coffee from Harry’s, a donut in a bag.
“He in yet?”
“Never a peep until you arrive.”
She giggled. “See you at lunch.”
The mornings passed in a whirl. The rewrites were not a chore. A rhythm she’d lost months ago resurfaced. The pages increased. Jean’s Ghost revealed a noir tragedy set in the building’s glory days.
Jean and Linney, a down-on-his-luck attorney, are the ghosts of a couple who worked together in this office in the 1930s and carried on a torrid affair. Their passion ignites in the close confines of the office but is thwarted by his conventional wife and stifling middle class life. He pulls Jean into a dark corner. She resists but is overcome. In Act Two, Linney is forced to take on a gang of disreputable clients to shore up his failing practice and divorce his wife. Jean’s angst keeps her at home nights waiting for him to call while intimidating office visits from the new clients leave her shaken.
One night, Jean can’t stand it any longer. She knows Linney is at the office for an after-hours meeting. She goes there intending to wait unnoticed and catch Linney after the thugs have left, before he can disappear home to his wife. Listening at the inter-office door, she overhears a terrifying exchange, Linney pleading for more time, the gang leader threatening him with a gun. In a moment of fright, Jean gasps and gives herself away. They drag her into Linney’s office, where she kneels before the aggressors. “We’re in love,” she cries, “Won’t you give us a chance?”
“Love won’t pay the bills, lady,” says the killer.
Meg sat back. She stretched her shoulders and reached for her cigarettes. In a haze of smoke and afternoon sunlight, she reclined on the couch, studying the water-marked ceiling. She saw a killer’s face with a scar and the long shadow lines cast by half-closed blinds. Her eyes drooped. A fly buzzed in the window casement.
The next moment, Meg was being shaken awake by a rough hand. “Get up, Sister,” growled a harsh voice. Meg rubbed her eyes in astonishment. A man in a fedora hat and trench coat stood before her, a pistol in his hand. “I said, GET UP.”
Meg rose, this dream world suddenly black and white, shadows lurking just beyond the light. She knew, this time, that it couldn’t be real. “You got something of mine, don’t ya?”
“Hand over what belongs to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, lady, you think I’m an idiot? I know what you’re up to in here.” He turned to Meg’s desk. “Search the place, Boys,” he said as the shadows in the background took on form and mass.
A henchman silhouetted in the window spoke up. “It ain’t here, Boss.”
The man turned hard eyes on Meg. “That so?”
“What are you looking for?” asked Meg. She marvelled at her office, now lit like a movie set, her own story unfolding around her, the dream writing the next chapter.
“I’m looking for them stories you’ve been writing, the ones you expect to sell to the papers.”
“Don’t play dumb.”
Meg stood stunned. “I don’t write for the paper.”
The man sneered. “You think I’m going to let you take me down? You think I’m going to let you put the cops on me? I’ve been watching you. My guys have heard you from Linney’s office, typing every morning, bragging to the waitresses downstairs how this is the story that’ll get you noticed by The Times.”
“I’ve said nothing to anyone.” The man was close. Unlike her earlier dreams, this one didn’t come with a rush of air and a sense of not quite seeing. Instead, it pressed in from everywhere.
Meg stood frozen as he raised his pistol.
“You’ve got it wrong,” she said, “I swear.”
He pulled back the hammer. The mechanism, as it clicked, tripped her mind into a panic.
“Please!” she cried, “I haven’t written about you. I’ve barely published. I don’t even have an agent!”
“Too bad,” said the man with a sinister laugh. “I guess now you never will.”
“Oh, don’t,” said Meg, “There’s no need. I’m not a real writer. I’m not a writer!”
I close all the windows. The wind is picking up & the dust will blow in. In the streaming sunshine, a man walks alone on the dirt road. From the kitchen, Mother calls, “Opal, have you got those windows closed up?”
“Yes, Ma,” I call back.
“Go tell the boys to get washed for dinner,” she says, coming in & drawing the curtain aside. Seeing the stranger in the road, Mother leans forward for a closer look. Could it be? she’s thinking. But no, she realizes. It isn’t him. Her eyes are gentle when she says, “Another one blowing in hopeless & hungry. Set an extra place before you fetch the boys.”
Everybody jostles around the long kitchen table, getting seated, keeping their hands in their laps with Mother’s pork stew & dumplings before them. Father is on the back porch with the stranger who holds his cap in his hands. Mother & my oldest sister, Nessa, bring the food. I sit on a bench between the little girls, Martha & Clara. Our brothers, George & Merle, are across the table ribbing each other. There’s Baby sitting up in his cradle. He holds his hands out & cries as Nessa goes by with a bowl of potatoes but he’s okay. I try to hear what Father is saying to the stranger, but there’s too much noise. I see their mouths moving. Hate to ask you, the man is saying. Welcome, Stranger, say Father’s lips.
Father leads us in prayer. Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest. Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest. “Amen,” replies the table. We wait until Father has taken a ladleful & served the stranger before we move. As the plates go around, I help the little girls. Baby is on Mother’s lap while Nessa spoons out their stew.
Mother speaks first. “Tell us your name, Stranger,” she says with a smile.
“Name’s Harris, Ma’am,” he says, “And I’m pleased to meet you all. Thank you for the meal. Been a long time since I’ve seen a spread like this.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Harris,” says Mother, “Where do you hail from?”
“I guess you’d say I come & go as I please.” As the stranger heaps his plate with seconds & then thirds, George & Merle throw him resentful gazes. Nessa never looks his way at all. She helps Mother with Baby, brings more bread, & fills our glasses with creamy fresh milk.
Harris sleeps in the hayloft on a sprung mattress under an old quilt. It’s clean if worn. Mother gives him a towel to wash his face & a pillow for his head. Father gives him an oil lamp & a Bible to read. “Hayloft’s near empty this time of the year or I couldn’t let you take a light up there. Even so, you’ll be careful with this.” The boys scowl after Harris as he disappears into the dark. I am nestled in bed between Martha & Clara, both asleep, when Nessa looks in.
“Time to put out your light,” she says & I obey. She crosses the room to close our window which faces the barn, lamplight glowing in the hayloft.
“Leave the curtains,” I say, “I like to watch the moon go by.”
“There’s no moon tonight,” says Nessa leaving a gap in the curtains anyway. “Good night, Opal,” she says.
In the barnyard next morning collecting eggs, I know right away that something is wrong. The dogs are nowhere in sight. Approaching the chicken coop, I find blood & feathers around the little doorway. “Get in here with those eggs, Opal,” Mother shouts from the kitchen window but I don’t move.
Father passes with a pail of fresh milk. “What is it, Opal?”
“There’s a dead chicken,” I say, pointing to the mess.
Father looks stricken. “Where are the dogs?” he asks.
He groans. “Don’t touch it,” he says, “Get the eggs; the boys & I will clean up after breakfast.” I nod & make my way in. My stomach heaves as I step around the gore. I swallow hard hearing Mother’s voice in my head, Don’t be a ninny, Opal. You’ll cut the heads off dozens of chickens when you’re a farmer’s wife. I get the eggs fast & go back to the house.
Harris sits beside Father at the head of the table. Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest. Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest. “Amen.” We pass platters of eggs, bread & sausage.
When they come his way, Harris says, “Not so much for me this morning.”
George & Merle exchange satisfied glances hearing that the newcomer is learning his place. Meanwhile they heap their plates until Mother says, “Leave some for the rest of us.”
“Well, Harris,” says Father, wiping his chin, “We got a fence needs mending down by the creek. Could use an extra hand if you’ll be around a while. Can’t pay you, of course, but you’re welcome to stay & board with us if you like.”
“Thank you,” says Harris, “I believe I will.”
At night, I lay in bed between the girls & watch the moon. Night by night, it grows from a sliver rising over the barn until it reaches full bloom, a great yellow circle glowing behind the corn silo, lighting up the barnyard. In the black dark barn, the oil lamp flickers in the hayloft. It’s late when I hear something in the yard. I get up to close the window. In the bright moonlight, nothing moves. The animals are restless in the barn. The dogs are whining, penned up to keep them out of the henhouse. I hurry back to bed. For a long time, nothing happens. It’s a struggle to stay awake but I keep watch, shadows changing shape as the moon drifts overhead. The flame flickers in the hayloft. In the morning, there’s another dead chicken.
“Why do you let him stay,” I ask Mother as we’re kneading bread dough at the floured work table. We’ve rolled up our sleeves, our dresses covered by long aprons.
“Why shouldn’t he stay?” Mother asks, “Father says he’s a good hand. He does the chores Bill used to do. Before he went away.”
We put the bread dough in loaf pans & cover them with flour sacks to rise. I fetch a pail of water. Mother is feeding Baby when I return. Nessa is knitting new sweaters for winter while eavesdropping on the party-line phone out in the hall. “You shouldn’t listen in,” I exclaim. She shushes me & waves me away. I wander out to the barn & give a dish of cream to the cats. I visit the dairy cows whose milk Father sells to the grocer in town. I look up to the hayloft & wonder.
From the top of the ladder, I can see Mother’s quilt folded on the mattress, the oil lamp on an upturned milk crate under the window. I note the Bible with a red satin marker tucked into its pages. His knapsack lies in the corner near an old pitchfork. I wonder if I’m brave enough to open it. I step forward looking around, searching for signs. There’s nothing. I pick up the Bible & read from the marked page. …a generation that curseth their father, and doth not bless their mother. There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up. There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour…
“Opal, I’m surprised to find you here,” says Harris. My heart leaps as I turn to find him standing at the top of the ladder, his face obscure in the dim light.
“Mr. Harris,” I say stammering, “I’m sorry to intrude. I don’t know why I came up here.”
“In search of something to read?” he suggests motioning to the Bible in my hands.
“No, no,” I say & put the book down, “I’m so sorry.”
“Please don’t apologize,” says Harris, “Will you be going?”
“Yes, yes,” I say aware now that I’m frozen in place. I’m clumsy getting to the ladder.
“Careful now,” says Harris. He watches me all the way down, sees me disappear around the cow stalls. His eyes are on me from the hayloft as I cross the yard but when I reach the kitchen door & turn to face him, there’s only an empty window.
Baby has come down with a fever & Nessa is tending him when it’s time to put the light out. “The Baumbach twins are down, too,” she says when she comes in to check on us, “I heard Lyddie call the doctor this afternoon.”
“Mother says it’s wrong to use the party-line to snoop on people.”
“It’s not snooping,” says Nessa going back to Baby.
A breeze comes through the open window. There’s no moon. The lamp lights the hayloft as always but tonight Harris is there, too, reading beside the window with his back to me. His eyeglasses glint in the light from the lamp. He never stretches, never turns, never moves at all. What are you? I think to myself. Baby cries out from his fever & I’m startled awake. The window in the hayloft is light but empty. Harris is gone. The animals stir & a wind picks up in the yard. I rush to close the window & see Harris there in the dark, disappearing around the back of the chicken coop. He turns & looks up at me as I slam down the sash.
At breakfast, Nessa does all the cooking. Mother is upstairs with Baby, swabbing his brow as he sweats & fusses. I steal glances at Harris sitting next to Father. Each time I do, he turns to meet my gaze. I look away. Still, I notice that his plate is full & at the next glimpse, empty though he seems to have eaten nothing. Then Clara spills her milk & before we finish mopping up Father, Harris & the boys have all left for morning chores.
“What do you think of Mr. Harris?” I ask Nessa as we clear the table.
“Why should I think anything about him?” she asks, “He’s nobody to me.”
“I don’t care for the way he looks at me,” Nessa says, “As if he would eat me up.”
“He seems to know my thoughts.”
“Men always act that way,” says Nessa.
Mother is watching over Baby while he tries to sleep, mending a pair of Harris’ work pants. “Men never mind their clothes,” she says. I’m putting a button back on Father’s Sunday shirt. Nessa is working the foot pedal on the Singer sewing machine, taking in one of my old dresses for Martha. “Maybe some of Bill’s old work clothes would fit Mr. Harris,” says Mother reflectively, “Bill wouldn’t mind. He’d be glad to help. Of course, he would.” I finish the button & pick up a sock to darn. “Maybe Mr. Harris will stay through haymaking this fall,” says Mother, “Of course, he can’t sleep out in the barn when winter sets in. By then, he’ll have to go.” Through with her mending, she looks up & says, “Do you suppose some family is looking after Bill like we take care of Mr. Harris? I hope so. Wherever he is, I pray someone is feeding him & giving him work. Do you think so, Girls? I think so.”
By the end of the summer, we’ve lost Baby. His fever never breaks. Mother neither sleeps nor eats, keeping watch night after night. After weeks of nursing him, Baby slips away in her arms. Nessa stands in the doorway her eyes soaked with tears. There’s a graveyard outside the country church. We lay Baby in the ground next to an infant brother & the stillborn who came between me & Martha. We mourn with solemn faces while the pastor says the words. Wind sweeps over the ripe fields. Harris comes down from the hayloft as we rumble into the yard in Father’s pickup truck. “My condolences,” he says, joining us in the kitchen where we find that our neighbors have been round to drop off casseroles & stews, salads & desserts. We collapse onto the benches. Baby’s cradle is empty by the window.
After a day of quiet mourning, Father & Harris take their axes out to the back acreage to clear tree stumps. George & Merle go along planning mischief & hoping for a chance to sneak away. Mother is resting in bed with the door closed. Nessa won’t come away from the party-line phone. I climb up to the hayloft & thumb the pages of the old Bible to mark the page which begins, We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed. When the men come in, I’m at the worktable under the window cleaning the oil lamp.
“Opal, that’s Mr. Harris’ lamp,” says Father.
“Yes,” I say, my voice level, my eyes on Harris “And it was kind of you to bring it down, Mr. Harris, with all your things now you’ve decided to leave.”
“Are you leaving, Harris?” Father asks surprised. I take Father’s arm saying, “He’s brought all his things here to the kitchen & the hayloft is swept clean.”
“Don’t worry, Father,” I say, “I’m sure Mr. Harris knows how we’re missing Baby & feels it’s time to move on.” Harris’ gaze hardens. I lift his knapsack from the table & offer it up. Harris takes the bag with Father looking on.
“Hate to see you go,” says Father, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Perhaps Mr. Harris will find his way back sometime,” I say, “Isn’t that so, Mr. Harris?”
“I come & go as I please,” says Harris.
Yes. “You’ll be wanting to take this with you, too, won’t you,” I say, handing him the old Bible with the newly placed page marker. As he takes it, his eyes grow wide & he shrinks from me.
“Yes, yes,” he says hurriedly, “I wouldn’t like to go without it.”
“Wise words,” says Father.
In a moment, Harris is gone. Father & the boys are settling down around the table. I serve them cold meats & brown bread. I pour out glasses of our own good milk cool from the icebox. Nessa comes in listlessly & sits in her place beside Mother’s empty chair. She is pale, but she eats. I help the little girls with their meals & bring out more food to fill my brothers’ plates. I clear the table & wash the dishes while Nessa dries. “Are you glad he’s gone?” I ask.
“Opal,” cries Nessa, “How could I be glad? Baby’s dead. How can you even ask me?”
“Not Baby,” I say, “Harris.”
“Oh, him,” says Nessa with disdain, “Well, if he wouldn’t take me with him, he may just as well be gone.” She sighs & looks disgusted. With the dishes done, I go around & close all the windows. When the wind picks up, the dust blows in.
Before the wildfire some years back, Grandpa George’s summer place was an ageing cabin, a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers, a picturesque place to get away an hour’s drive from downtown. The cabin could sleep only 4, had no air conditioning & no washing machine. There was 1 tiny shower stall, 1 lonely electrical socket in the whole place. When the fire ripped through the valley, its savage winds taking down power lines, sparks bursting into flames, the little cabin was devoured along with all the rest on Red Rose Drive, a gravel road overlooking a vast pine forest believed until modern times to be sacred. The forest has renewed itself since the fire. Red Rose Drive has been improved & rebuilt.
Deciding whether to sell Grandpa’s land after the fire & divide the profits or use the insurance payout to put things back together, Anne’s family had been split.
“Grandpa would have wanted us to keep the old place,” Uncle John had pointed out.
“Grandpa is dead,” Anne’s mother, Carol, had said, “What does it matter to him?” After a family vote that could have gone either way, a contractor & architect had been hired. The house had been remade, not as a rustic cabin but as a proper summer home with 3 bedrooms, a modern kitchen & several bathrooms. Neighboring plots were similarly improved; nobody wanted a cabin anymore. It had taken considerably more than the insurance money for Anne’s family to finish the project.
“I told you,” Carol had said, bills & bank statements in hand.
Scaffolding surrounds the place rising on the neighboring plot. Mrs. Taylor, a resident on Red Rose Drive for 35 years & the 1st to rebuild, has met the new residents out with their building firm, blueprints rustling in the breeze.
“That place will have 5 bedrooms,” Mrs. Taylor tells Carol when they arrive for 4th of July weekend, “Can you believe that? It was Bob Graham’s fishing cabin. It had an outhouse!”
“I know,” says Carol, holding her nose.
Many of the closest neighbors, most of them family friends for decades, haven’t kept their places. “It’s not the same without the Harrisons up here,” Uncle John remarks, coming in with his 2 boys, “No one made a better cherry pie than Mrs. Harrison.”
“We should have sold the place before we sank so much money into it,” Carol gripes from the kitchen table which she is dusting.
Anne winces as she sweeps cobwebs down from the light fixtures, dust falling in her eyes. “Come on, Mom,” she says.
“It sits empty all year,” Carol answers, “And it takes 3 hours to get up here these days. It’s not worth it anymore.” Uncle John shakes his head & takes the suitcases downstairs.
By dinner time, Uncle John’s wife, Molly, has called to say she will not drive up after all; a problem with the car, it seems. That means Anne’s brother, Jake, & his girlfriend will also be absent, having planned to carpool. Carol has made a fresh green salad. Uncle John has grilled burgers & hot dogs. His teenage sons, Will & Joshua, devour a mountain of food then disappear to play video games in their bedroom downstairs.
“Sure is different up here than it used to be,” Carol remarks as she loads the dishwasher. Anne takes a pack of cigarettes from her purse & opens the sliding glass doors onto the deck. “You still smoking?” Carol says with a reproving look. Anne stops & turns to her mother. “You smoked when you were my age,” she says.
“But I quit,” says Carol, “And you should, too.”
“Yeah,” says Anne & goes out.
She looks out at the black, black mountainsides, the sky above with its field of stars. It’s just us, she thinks. She imagines her dad as he was in her childhood, long before the divorce, out on the back-porch smoking with Grandpa George before he died. Now they’re both dead, she thinks. She remembers Dad & Grandpa talking baseball through the afternoon & into the night.
“You think your boys from Chicago can beat the Home Team this year?” Dad asks. “Home Team, my foot,” Grandpa answers back, “I don’t know how you can root for those bums. I’m a Chicagoan ‘til the day I die.” They lament the surrounding mountains which block out the radio broadcast. “But it’s paradise up here,” Grandpa says, “Simply paradise.
“Yeah,” Anne’s dad agrees. They fall silent. Anne is alone again on the deck, her cigarette burning. Before it’s quite finished, she uses it to light another.
Uncle John takes the boys down to the lake for a day of fishing off the boat. They invite Anne to join but she declines. Carol says she wants to spend the day reading. She has an inspirational guide to spirituality waiting on the coffee table. Anne sits on a barstool at the counter which divides the open-plan kitchen from the living room. Is that a million trees? she thinks gazing through a plate-glass window, Does anybody count trees?
“You planning to sit there the rest of the day staring out the window?” asks Carol, bustling in, “I’m taking my book out to the deck.”
“I’ll come out,” says Anne. She smokes a cigarette using Grandpa George’s favorite ashtray. It’s one of the few things to survive the fire.
“We are not keeping that,” Carol had said with disgust.
“But everything else burned up,” John had insisted, “How can we throw out the only thing that’s left?”
“Fine,” Carol had grudgingly conceded, “Have it your way.”
“Why don’t you take a walk up the trail behind the Thompson’s place,” Carol suggests with a sideways look, “It’s beautiful. I went up before breakfast. If you’d been awake, you could’ve come with me.”
I hate walks, Anne thinks not knowing what to say, Just the word ‘walk’ & already I’m tired.
“It’s better than sitting here smoking ½ a pack of cigarettes,” her mother says, turning back to her book, “I came up here for the fresh air, you know.”
“I’ll go,” Anne says.
“Good,” says Carol, “And if you’re not too worn out, you can come with me after dinner tonight, too. Gotta’ get my steps in.” Anne nods & goes inside to put on walking shoes.
Anne comes into the meadow at the top of the trail. There’s a stream that comes down along the far side with shade trees. Who was the 1st human to walk in this meadow, she wonders, 10,000 years ago? Longer? Anne knows which tree she likes. She finds it waiting for her. The dirt is hard & dry; the tree roots decide what shape the ground will be. Anne settles herself in. The branches above are in full leaf. The birds & insects go about their business. Anne leans her head back & hears a nearby radio playing. She looks around but sees nothing. The wind blows & she thinks, They must be playing music down at the Thompson place. Her eyelids are heavy. The mountain air is fresh & cool.
“I thought you’d never wake up,” says a voice.
Anne finds she’s opening her eyes & turning to look. Dad? she thinks.
“You must’ve been asleep awhile,” he says.
It’s not Dad, she thinks though she’s not sure. He’s sitting in a folding chair with a cooler & a portable radio playing static beside him. He smokes a cigarette casually. She notices a pile of butts on the bare ground stacked as neatly as firewood. He’ll take those with him when he goes, Anne thinks, just like Dad.
“You okay?” the man asks.
“I didn’t realize I’d gone to sleep,” Anne says, rubbing her eyes. “You look like my dad,” she says wonderingly. “But, of course, he’s dead.”
The man gives her a wry grin. “I’m not your dad,” he says, “And I’m not dead.”
The breeze changes, the radio static clears & Anne can hear it’s tuned to a ballgame. “My dad used to listen to games up here sometimes,” Anne says, “He claimed you could get a signal if you tuned in the AM radio just right.”
“It gets patchy,” says the man, shrugging his shoulders, “Some days, I can’t hear a thing. But look at the view.”
“Yeah,” says Anne. She feels dizzy. “Did you buy the old Thompson place?”
“No,” says the man, reaching toward the cooler, “Can I offer a lady an ice-cold beer?”
“No, thanks,” says Anne.
“Suit yourself,” he says.
“You up here for the 4th?” Anne asks.
“Looks like it,” he says. She waits for him to say more but he’s listening for the baseball scores. Anne hears the woods & the meadow, a mix static & baseball commentary coming through on the radio.
“Who’s your team?” she asks idly.
“I always root for the Home Team,” he says.
Of course, she thinks, her mind drifting.
“I have a daughter,” the man says after a while.
Anne nods, feigning interest. “That’s nice,” she says.
“My daughter is something else,” the man says.
“Yeah?” says Anne.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding, “Just like me when I was young.” He’s the spitting image of Dad, biting his lip & looking far into the distance. “It all goes by so fast,” he says.
A loud bang comes from the somewhere beyond the meadow in the direction of Red Rose Drive. Anne wakes, her heart racing as the popping of firecrackers & smell of BBQ take her by surprise. She’s alone on the bank of the stream, the rippling of leaves above her sounding like quiet static on a small radio.