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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

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BOOK: In This Light
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After that her brothers stopped paying her to dance for them, and Leon made Rafe and Dale cut their thumbs with his hunting knife and swear by their own blood that they’d never tell anyone what they did in the barn that year.

You can’t make my brothers do much of anything unless you force them to swear in blood, Iona thought.

One morning after a storm, she tramped out to the barn to do her milking. The wind howled, cutting through her jeans. Snow had drifted against the door; she bent over and dug like a dog. The first stall was empty. She ran to the next, shining her flashlight in every corner, trying to believe a cow could hide in a shadow like a cat, but she knew, even as she ran in circles, she knew that all four cows were out in the fields, that her brothers had just assumed an animal will head for shelter on its own. They didn’t know cows the way Iona and her mama did. A cow’s hardly any smarter than a chicken; a cow has half the brains of a pig; a cow’s like an overgrown child, like the Wilkerson boy, who grew tall and fat but never got smart.

She heard them. As she ran across the fields, stumbling in the snow, falling on her face more than once and snorting ice through her nose, she heard them crying like old women. The four of them huddled together, standing up past their knees in the drifts. Snow had piled in ridges down their backs; they hadn’t moved all night. They let out that sound, that awful wail, as if their souls were being torn out of them. Iona had to whip them with her belt to get them going; that’s how cows are: they’ll drop to their knees and freeze to death with their eyes wide open and the barn door barely a hundred feet in front of them.

Later, Iona took Mama her aspirin and hot milk, sat on the edge of her bed and moaned like the cows, closing her eyes and stretching her mouth wide as it would go. Mama breathed deep with laughter, holding her stomach; the milk sloshed in the cup and Iona had to hold it. Mama had a bad time holding on to things. Her fingers were stiff and twisted, and that winter, her knees swelled up so big she couldn’t walk.

Iona Moon told Jay Tyler how it was in the winter on the Kila Flats, how the wind had nothing to stand in its way, how the water froze in the pipes and you had to use the outhouse, how you held it just as long as you could because the snow didn’t fall, it blew straight in your face; splinters of ice pierced your skin and you could go blind or lose your way just walking to that little hut twenty-five yards behind the house. She told him she kept a thunder mug under her bed in case she had to pee in the night. But she didn’t tell him her mama had to use a bedpan all the time, and Iona was the one who slid it under her bony butt because Mama said it wasn’t right for the man you love to see you that way.

Mama knew Iona had a guy. She made Iona tell her that Jay Tyler was on the diving team in the summer. He could fly off the high board backward, do two somersaults and half a twist; he seemed to open the water with his hands, and his body made a sound like a flat stone you spin sideways so it cuts without a splash: blurp, that’s all. Mama worked the rest of it out of Iona too. Jay’s father was a dentist with a pointed gray beard and no hair. Jay was going to college so he could come back to White Falls and go into business with his dad. Iona said it as if she was proud, but Mama shook her head and blinked hard at her gnarled hands, trying to make something go away. She said, “If I was a strong woman, Iona, I’d lock you in this house till you got over that boy. I’d rather have you hate me than see your heart be broke.”

“Jay’s not like that,” Iona said.

“Every boy’s like that in the end. Dentists don’t marry the daughters of potato farmers. He’ll be lookin’ for a girl with an education.” She didn’t talk that way to be mean. Iona knew Mama loved her more than anyone alive.

Willy thought that just listening to Jay Tyler and his father might be dangerous, a bad thing that made his stomach thump like a second heart. Horton Hamilton had raised his son to believe there was one way that was right and one way that was wrong and nothing, absolutely nothing, in between. Willy said, “What if someone steals food because he’s hungry?” And his father said, “Stealing’s wrong.” Willy said, “If a man’s dying, if he feels his whole body filling up with pain, would the Lord blame him for taking his own life?” Horton Hamilton rubbed his chin. “The Lord would
forgive
him, Willy, because that’s the good Lord’s way, but no man has the right to choose his time of death, or any other man’s time of death.” Willy thought he had him now: “Why do you carry a gun?” His father said his gun was to warn and to wound, but only if there was no other way. He liked talking better.

Willy remembered the way his father talked to Matt Fry. He saw Matt Fry hobbling down the middle of the street, his head bobbing, his pants crusted with dirt, smelling of piss. He thought maybe Matt Fry would have been better off if his father had shot him dead at Miller Creek. And he bowed his head with the shame of letting himself imagine it.

Jay Tyler’s dad wanted to be a lawyer but became a dentist like his own father instead. He taught Jay to argue both sides of every question with equal passion. When Willy told him there was one right and one wrong and all you had to do was look in the Bible to see which was which, Andrew Johnson Tyler scratched his bald head and said, “Well, Willy, I tell you, it’s hard for a
medical man
to believe in God.” Willy couldn’t figure out why, but there was something about the way Dr. Tyler said “medical man,” some secret reverence, that made Willy afraid to question him.

Jay’s mother floated across the veranda, her footsteps so soft that Willy glanced at her feet to be sure they touched wood. The folds of her speckled dress fell forward and back; Willy saw the outline of her thighs and had to look away. “All this talk, all this talk,” she said. “How about some lemonade? I’m so dry I could choke.” Everything about her was pale: her cheeks, flushed from the heat; the sweep of yellow hair, wound in a bun but not too tight; a few blond tendrils swirling at the nape of her neck, damp with her own sweat; the white dress with tiny pink roses, cut low in front so that when she leaned forward and said, “Why don’t you help me, Willy,” he saw the curve of her breasts.

In the kitchen she brushed his hair from his eyes, touched his hand, almost as if she didn’t mean to do it, but he knew. He scurried out to the porch with the lemonade on a tray, ice rattling against glass. From the cool shadows of the house, he swore he heard a woman holding her laughter in her throat.

Willy lost his way on the Kila Flats. All those dirt roads looked the same. Jay told him: “Turn left, turn right, take another right at the fork”; he sent Willy halfway around the county so he’d have time in the backseat with Iona Moon, time to unhook her bra, time to unzip his pants. Willy kept looking in the rearview mirror; he’d dropped Belinda Beller off hours ago. He imagined his father cruising Main and Woodvale Park, looking for him. He imagined his mother at the window, parting the drapes with one hand, pressing her nose to the glass. She worried. She saw a metal bumper twisted around a tree, a wheel spinning a foot above the ground, headlights blasting into the black woods. She washed the blood off the faces of the four teenagers, combed their hair, dabbed their bruises with flesh-colored powder, painted their blue lips a fresh, bright pink. That was back in ’57, but she saw their open eyes and surprised mouths every time Willy was late. “Forgive me, Lord, for not trusting you. I know my thoughts are a curse. I know he’s safe with you, Lord, and he’s a good boy, a careful boy, but I can’t help my worrying, Lord: he’s my only son. I love my girls, but he’s special, you see, in that way.” She unlaced her fingers and hissed, “I’ll thrash his hide when he walks in that door.” She said it out loud because God only listened to prayers and silence. He was too busy to pay attention to all the clatter of words spoken in ordinary tones.

Jay said, “Shit, Willy, you took the wrong turn back there. I told you
right
at the fork.” And Willy said he did go right, and Jay answered, “We’d be in front of Iona’s house if you went right.” There was something in Jay’s voice, a creak or a gurgle in the throat, that gave him away. Willy slammed the brakes; his Chevy did a quarter spin that threw Jay and Iona against the door.

“What the hell?” said Jay.

“Get out,” Willy said.

“What?”

“You heard me. Get out of my car.”

Jay zipped his pants and opened the door; Iona started to climb out after him. “Just Jay,” Willy said, and he got out too. The front window was cracked open enough for Iona to hear Willy say, “You’re gonna get me grounded because you wanna fool around with that little slut.” Jay shoved Willy over the hood of the car, and Iona watched the dust curl in the streams of yellow light, waiting for the blow. But Jay didn’t hit him; he held him there, leaning on top of him, ten seconds, twenty; and when he let Willy up, Jay clapped him on the shoulder, said, “Sorry, buddy, I’ll make it up to you.”

Jay stood on the diving board, lean and tan, unbeatable. Willy was almost as good, some days better; but next to Jay he was pale and scrawny, unconvincing. Jay rolled off the balls of his feet, muscles flexing from his calves to his thighs. He threw an easy one first, a single somersault in layout position. As he opened up above the water, Iona gasped, expecting him to swoop back into the air.

Willy did the same dive, nearly as well. All day they went on this way, first one, then the other; Jay led Willy by a point and a half; the rest of the field dropped by ten.

Jay saved the backward double somersault with a twist for last. He climbed the ladder slowly, as if he had to think about the dive rung by rung. His buttocks bunched up tight, clenched like fists. On the board, he rolled his shoulders, shook his hands, his feet. He strutted to the end, raised his arms, and spun on his toes. Every muscle frozen, he gritted his teeth and leaped, clamped his knees to his chest and heaved head over heel, once, twice, opened up and twisted, limbs straight as a drill.

But in that last moment, Jay Tyler’s concentration snapped. By some fluke, some sudden weakness, his knees bent and his feet slapped the water.

Iona thought she’d see Jay spit with disgust as he gripped the gutter of the pool, but he came up grinning, flashing his straight, white teeth, his father’s best work. Willy offered his hand. “I threw it too hard, buddy,” Jay said.
Buddy.
Iona stood outside the chain-link fence; she barely heard it, but it made her think of that dusty road; stars flung in the cool black sky by a careless hand; Willy pinned to the hood of the car; and Jay saying:
Sorry, buddy, I’ll make it up to you.
Only this way, Willy would never know. It was just like Jay not to give a damn about blame or forgiveness.

Willy’s dive was easier, two somersaults without a twist, but flawless. He crept ahead of Jay and no one else touched their scores. They sauntered to the bathhouse with their arms around each other’s shoulders, knowing they’d won the day.

Standing in the dappled light beneath an oak, Jay Tyler’s mother hugged Willy and Jay, and his father pumped their hands. Willy wished his parents could have seen him, this day above all others, but his father was on duty; and old lady Griswold had died, so his mother was busy making her look prettier than she ever was.

Iona Moon shuffled toward them, head down, eyes on the ground. Willy nudged Jay. In a single motion, graceful as the dive he almost hit, Jay turned, smiled, winked, and flicked his wrist near his thigh, a wave that said everything: go away, Iona; can’t you see I’m with
my parents
? Willy felt the empty pit of his stomach, a throb of blood in his temples that made him dizzy, as if he were the one shooed away, as if he slunk in the shadows and disappeared behind the thick trunk of the tired tree, its limbs drooping with their own weight.

He was ashamed, like the small boy squinting under the fluorescent lights of the bathroom. His mother stripped his flannel pajamas off him with quick, hard strokes and said, “You’re
soaked
, Willy; you’re absolutely
drowned.”

Upstairs the air was still and hot, but Hannah Moon couldn’t stand the noise of the fan and told Iona, no, please, don’t turn it on. Iona said, “I’m going to town tonight, Mama. You want anything?”

“Why don’t you just stay here and read to me till I fall asleep? What are you planning in town?”

“Nothing, nothing at all in particular. I get this desire, you know. It’s so dark out here at night, just our little lights and the black fields and the blacker hills. I want to see a whole blaze of lights, all the streetlamps going on at once, all the houses burning—like something’s about to happen. You have to believe something’s going to happen.”

“Don’t you go looking for him,” Mama said. “Don’t you go looking for that boy. I know he hasn’t called you once since school got out. Bad enough what he did, but don’t you go making it worse by being a fool.”

“He’s nothing to me, Mama. You want a treat or something, maybe a magazine?”

“Take a dollar from my jewelry box and get me as much chocolate as that’ll buy. And don’t you tell your daddy, promise?”

“Promise.”

“He thinks it’s not good for me; I think I’ve got to have some pleasure.”

Daddy sat on the porch with Leon and Rafe and Dale. They rocked in the great silence of men, each with his pipe, each with the same tilt of the head as if a single thought wove through their minds. A breeze high in the pines made the tops sway so the limbs rubbed up against one another. The sound they made was less than a breath, a whisper in a dream or the last thing your mother said before she kissed you good night. You were too small to understand the words, but you knew from her voice that you were loved and safe; the kiss on your forehead was a whisper too, a promise no one could keep.

Iona buzzed up and down Main, feeling strong riding up high in the cab of Daddy’s red truck, looking down on cars and rumbling over potholes too fast. Daddy kept a coil of rope, a hacksaw, and a rifle in the back behind the seat. She had no intention, no intention at all, but she swung down Willow Glen Road, past Jay Tyler’s house. She honked her horn at imaginary children in the street, stomped on her brakes, and laid rubber to avoid a cat that wasn’t there; but all that noise didn’t lure anyone out of the Tyler house, and no lights popped on upstairs or down. In the green light of dusk, the house looked gray and cool, a huge lifeless thing waiting to crumble.

BOOK: In This Light
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