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Authors: Bruce Machart

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BOOK: Men in the Making
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Now, if you were there in that truck near the edge of town, with sleet stinging your face and the highway ice slapping against the fender wells, and you decided you'd had enough of this maniac driver you'd somehow become and did what I was tempted each mile to do—that is, turn the truck around and let Lonnie's family and friends tend to his wake—you'd drive five miles west, just shy of halfway back to the mill on Highway 10, and then, near the foot of the mountain, on the other side of the road near a stand of pin oaks, you'd slow down, hang a right just after the yellow mailbox. From that point on, you could put it in neutral and coast all the way to the barn, half a mile, the grade just steep enough to pull you home, gravel dredged from the Petit Jean River crunching under your tires the entire way, and when a few hours later, after Lonnie's wake and after a trip to the mill with Red, I made it home to join you on the porch for a drink, I'd give you the nickel tour and tell you how the place used to be a farm. Chickens and pigs mostly, and corn.

I'd say that the old boy who sold it to me kept rambling on about the soil. "Uncommon dark for these parts," he'd said, spitting tobacco through the gap of his teeth. So proud, he seemed, and sad to be selling, that I didn't have the heart to tell him I hadn't planned on farming. I'd just wanted a quiet place set back away from the highway, but my wife, Anne, she must have been listening to him, because before I got a fresh coat of paint on the place, she'd tilled up a patch of ground between the barn and the back porch.

The daughter of a toolpusher from Abilene, and the only sister of four older brothers, Anne was always at home in a world ruled by muscle and force. Lean and strong, she was a physical woman, forever in touch with her body, and luckily, I always thought, remarkably in touch with mine. She called making love "roughhousing," and at times, especially early in our marriage, that seemed like an understatement. When angered, she was more likely to elbow you in the chest or smack you atop the head than resort to the silent treatment. She was a woman who spanked her children as soundly and shamelessly as she hugged them, who swung a hoe hard and took pride in her work, all the while wearing a dress. I can't do it justice, I'm sure, but watching her at work in that garden, or driving nails into the side of the barn so she could hang her tools there, her calves taut and shining in the evening's last hint of sun—well, let's just say it made me do math. In my head.
How many steps between us? How long to close the gap? How many seconds to get her up the stairs and out of that dress? How long could I keep her there beneath me? How long could I keep her?

Just the thought of that garden, I admit, fills me with something crackling and sharp, an electric kind of longing. It was quite a sight, something to come home to, something alive and green and ever-changing, especially in springtime when the sun was still out. I'd roll up in my old truck, beat down and dusty from a day at the mill, and Anne would be squatting in her garden in one of those short, flowery dresses, her toes curled up in the earth, the roots of her long blond hair darkened with sweat. She'd spend hours out there babying those plants. So many that I used to tease her, claiming she loved them as much as she loved the boys, and for years after she left I thought for sure it was true, but that was anger talking, the kind that's sometimes long-lived and almost always laced with self-pity. The kind that finds a man sitting nights on his porch in the dead of winter, sipping whiskey, wondering why he's alone, the only one still living his life, the last one left in Arkansas.

 

Some nights, if the whiskey can't find its way into my glass, and I can keep myself off that back porch and out of sight of where Anne's garden used to be, when I think about her I can admit to myself that she loved our boys as much as any mother, and that, sure, she loved her garden, and that it doesn't make any sense to compare the two. Lose a plant and you learn to respect the elements, to prepare for them. There's no one to blame but yourself. Lose a child and, for a while, the only thing that can keep you sane and above ground and alive enough to hate yourself is the burn-off of rage you ignite by laying blame somewhere, on something or someone else, so you can keep it from burrowing inside you and living where deep down you believe it belongs.

Plants and children.

I was acting the fool to ever compare them, or to think that Anne ever had, but what I do accept is that all her affections grew from the same source. It was the raising she loved, the cause and effect of nurture and growth. When our firstborn, Nate, started walking, she tacked a cloth tape to the inside wall of our closet and measured his progress against the pencil marks she made on the wall. I remember his laughter, so high and happy, at being tucked away in that closed quiet space with his mother, the woman who cooed and praised him for every half inch.

I remember Anne's routine before she was pregnant with our second boy, Matty. She'd groan when I got out of bed and dragged myself to the shower, but by the time I'd dressed she'd have Nate's food warming in a saucepan and mine sizzling on the griddle. When I'd leave for work, she'd be weeding in the garden, telling little stories to Nate, who'd be sitting in a white diaper between two rows of carrots. When I got home at night, the place would hold signs that life had gone on inside—dishes from lunch stacked in the sink, wash going in the utility room—but she'd usually be back in the garden, sometimes weeding, mostly watering. Always talking. She spoke to them—her son, her plants—as if they were somehow interchangeable. "A little water for you," she'd say, and then she'd turn the hose to Nate's feet, and he'd laugh and flap his arms and wiggle his toes while Anne said, "and a sprinkle for you, big boy. Just look how big we're all getting."

Her plants and her son. They grew up together, heard the same encouraging words whispered, rooted in those same rows of soil. Then Anne started growing, and by the time Matty came into our world, the garden was four years in the making, the same age as Nate.

 

Anne had a knack for knowing things early. She could tell by nightfall whether the next day would bring rain—said she could hear it in the wind, that it sounded like a seashell tide—and her garden was rarely overwatered. In the spring, she never brushed the soil back from the tops of the carrots. She knew by the shape of the greens how long to wait. And two months before he was born, Anne knew something was wrong with Matty.

"It's not right," she said one night, climbing into bed. "It feels like everything's all mixed up inside."

She brushed her thumb over my lips and her face folded into furrows. With my finger, I traced the darkening line that ran from her distended belly button to her panty line. "We've seen the ultrasound," I said. "Doctor says everything looks fine."

"I know, Tom." Her eyes were wide. She took hold of my ears and leaned in close. "But I feel it," she whispered, "and it's all wrong."

 

Looking back, and knowing how this has all turned out—with her in Abilene and me still out here in the valley alone—it might sound naive, but I was a man who trusted his wife. I believed in her body's warnings the way I believe a green sky during tornado season, so when nine weeks later I was called from the waiting room and found Anne upright in bed, holding our baby to her breast, such a charge of relief rolled through me that I took hold of the bed railing to keep my balance. I must have been grinning to beat all, and Anne smiled too. A slight, exhausted smile. Her hair hung in wet, matted ropes at her neck and tiny beads of sweat clung to her forehead. She pulled back the blanket and there he was, our Matty, sleeping and sucking softly. Anne looked up at me, then her eyes dropped down to her child and she pressed her lips so tightly together that her chin began to quiver. Pulling the blanket back further, she uncovered Matty's twisted foot. It was tiny, pink, dimpled like a new potato, and I remember tilting my head like a puzzled dog, thinking it might all make sense if I could just get the right perspective, but it was no use. I leaned closer, praying I'd find toes, and I must have looked ridiculous, a grown man all twisted up around himself, so obviously keeping his distance from the freak object of his curiosity. A man frightened by his own son, afraid to hold the tiny foot in his palm and raise it to his cheek, or warm it with his breath.

Anne didn't look up at me. She kept her eyes down and stroked Matty's head with the backs of her fingers. I don't know how long I stood there, but I remember wanting the comfort of Anne's eyes on me, wanting her to know we'd be okay the way she knew about the weather, wanting her to know it so surely that I would too. But more than that, I wanted her to share the awkward silence somehow, even if her look was unknowing, or piercing, or fierce.

I must have sat there for an hour, maybe longer, a solid block of fear in my stomach. And when I left the hospital, carrying a nauseating uncertainty out to my truck with me, I didn't know what to do next. Before that day and since, I've heard parents tell guilt-riddled stories about forgetting their children—maybe starting the car and backing onto High Street before realizing the baby's still sitting in his stroller on the sidewalk, being an hour late to pick a child up after Little League, that sort of thing—and all I can say is that sometimes, no matter how long they've been toddling underfoot, you surface from somewhere in the undertow of your thoughts to the sudden and crashing realization that you're a parent. That afternoon, I must have driven the back roads for half an hour, and only after gunning the engine on the downhill stretch of Highway 10 and circling around our land on the gravel farm road did I remember Nate. I veered off at the fork and headed toward our neighbor Mrs. Janson's place, where I'd left him that morning.

I found Nate out back, perched on the iron seat of an antique tractor. His hands gripped the wheel and his head was thrown back, his lips sputtering with the sounds of imaginary harvest.

"You've got a brother," I told him, wiping some of his engine slobber from the corner of his mouth. "A baby brother."

His eyes focused in on me with a serious precision that looked artificial on the face of a child. "Okay, Daddy," he said, raising his arms to be picked up. "Let's go see."

It's unsettling sometimes, how the roles of father and son get jumbled, how much security a four-year-old can offer a man, but Nate's raised arms and the matter-of-fact look on his face set me at ease, and I remember actually whistling while driving us back to town.

"Mommy," Nate said when we came into the room. "Is that one ours?"

Anne nodded. "Come see," she whispered, pulling back the blanket.

Matty was sleeping and dreaming and sucking at air. Nate pressed his palms to the new pink skin of his brother's chest, and something about the solemn and gentle look on his face reminded me of a holy man, a preacher, and as Nate laid hands on Matty his lips moved with half-whispered thoughts that resembled prayer. He froze when he saw the foot, but one look at his mother and her smiling nod was all the reassurance he needed. He took Matty's shriveled foot in his little brown hands and held on to it.

Anne raised her eyebrows and winked at me. She held out her hand, the corners of her lips curled into a sad smile, and when I went to her I realized that I'd come for them all. I couldn't wait to carry them home, all three of them, to pile them into the truck and drive them out of town, back down the hill through the shadow of the mountain and into our valley.

 

From that first day, Nate took possession of his brother, and when Matty turned two, Nate decided that he should walk. Nate stood facing his baby brother and pulled him up by the arms, holding him steady while Matty forced his first uneven steps toward the encouraging face of his teacher. For Nate, this was serious business, and Matty walked. Two years later, when the mill's insurance finally agreed to pay for prosthetics, Matty followed Nate everywhere, even into the bathroom. He'd walk slowly, his arms tense at his sides, his face scrunched up like he'd licked a lime.

"What's wrong with him?" I said. "He need to go number two or something?"

Anne laughed and rolled her eyes. "He's trying to walk like Nate," she said. I turned to watch him creeping behind his brother into the kitchen. "Without the limp."

Nate was determined that Matty be normal; looking the part was never enough. The first day of second grade, Matty cried out from the boys' bedroom that he couldn't find his arm braces. By that time he was walking fine without them, only a slight limp, but he tired easily. He'd already made a habit of spending hours alone, playing quietly indoors or reading in his room, and he grew more impatient and irritable the longer he was on his feet.

"I'll help him," Nate said, now a cool, burr-headed sixth-grader, and minutes later they emerged from the back hall together, Nate with a hand on Matty's shoulder. Anne was flipping pancakes onto plates, we all sat down to breakfast, and later Matty walked to school without his braces, his older brother at his side.

 

This past August, while Matty was packing his things for his move to college, I did some rooting around in the attic. I was digging through a hope chest, trying to find the brass cigarette lighter my grandfather had gotten as standard issue while serving in World War I. He'd given it to my father, who gave it to me, and even though my son and I don't smoke, it was the only family heirloom I'd ever had, and I wanted to press it into Matty's palm before he left me for college. Crawling out of the attic, I saw one of Matty's old braces sticking out of a box, and I took it down with the lighter.

"You remember the day you quit using these?" I asked, and Matty smiled, his eyes bright.

"You mean the day Nate hid them from me?" Matty said. He raised his eyebrows and nodded at the old lighter in my hands. "What else you got there?"

In the years since Nate's death, nothing I asked of Matty had come free of charge. A few days after the funeral, I'd sat the boy down and pressed him for details about the accident. I wanted to know if he'd seen Nate after the crash, if my oldest had moved, or spoken, or if Matty had seen him breathing. Anything. But Matty just sat there, his fingers drumming the kitchen table. "I'm hungry," he said, so I took him to town and bought us a pizza. A small gesture, I thought. Hardly a bribe. His favorite dinner for an hour of conversation. At first, I thought it a harmless exercise. After all, Matty had shared a bedroom with Nate, had walked to the bus stop with him on school days, had seen him and talked with him and laughed and joked with him for hours each day while I tended to business at the mill. I couldn't help myself. I wanted these stories. I wanted the time I had missed, and over the years I found myself engaging in all kinds of bargains, buying Matty's memories of his brother. Paying for bits and pieces of Nate's history.

BOOK: Men in the Making
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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