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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

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BOOK: Meteors in August
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Just before dawn the day the Indian disappeared, Mary Louise Furey heard ten shots. By the time she got out of bed, Red Elk had vanished and there were holes in the porch, one for each toe, a perfect outline. “He must've come damn close,” Mary Louise told Ike.

It was strange that the woman was the one to make him go. Red Elk could hold his own against any white man, but the white woman he loved made him hide out for seven years. I didn't understand why Mary Louise blamed him for the sorrow my father and his friends had caused.

I was cold, standing there by the window, so I went back to bed, but I still couldn't keep my eyes closed. I was remembering my father at church the morning after he'd tried to run the Indian out of town. I saw Nina skipping up beside him as we walked home, Nina who could forget so easily, Nina who didn't know enough to be afraid of our father that day. And I saw my mother and myself behind them, looking at Daddy's back, seeing him exactly as he was.


about the way Red Elk got his wife to take him back. Mary Louise Furey told Ike Turner she'd been finding gifts on her porch and tracks in the snow for several weeks. There were three skinned rabbits with their eyes gouged out, a venison rump roast, and a string of sausages hanging in front of her door.

Ike Turner was proud of the fact that he was the first person in town to see Red Elk—besides Mary Louise, of course. Every customer who stopped in at the truck stop that day heard about Ike's conversation with the Indian.

He offered Red Elk a job pumping gas, but the man told him working the pumps was a boy's job, and Mary Louise would never stand for it. “I might as well go back to the reservation as come home smelling like gasoline every night,” Red Elk said. Ike Turner understood; Mary Louise Furey was no easy woman to please. But when he found out Red Elk meant to go back to the mill, Ike Turner said he wished he believed in God so he could say a prayer for his friend.

The day after Joshua Holler gave Red Elk a job, Daddy didn't come home from work. At seven, Mother called me and Arlen to dinner. Nobody said a word until Arlen blurted, “He's done it. He's gotten into it with the big Indian. He's drinking himself blind or digging himself into a hole to die.”

“Shut up, Arlen,” Mom said. “Shut your goddamn mouth.”

Arlen straightened her back and sat stone-still, holding her breath, waiting for the ill wind to pass. Finally she dabbed both sides of her mouth with her napkin, said “Very well,” and waltzed her way out of the kitchen. A moment later Mother got up too, bundled herself in an oversized coat, and slipped out front to sit on the porch swing.

From my bedroom above the porch, I watched the road. When I cracked the window open, I heard the whine of the swing, my mother rocking—rocking slowly to make time pass more slowly. I felt her fear: a stiffness in my joints like old age springing suddenly upon me, and I lay like a shell across my bed, unable to move.

I tried not to think about what might have happened to my father, but I imagined him changing his mind, deciding he wanted Red Elk dead after all. He might have rounded up his old gang, Dwight Carson and the mangy Foot brothers. Perhaps the men waited for the Indian after work. They might jump him in the parking lot, pull a garbage bag over his head and tie it at the knees, heave him into the bed of a pickup and head for the frozen lake. I wondered if my mother was troubled by the same visions.

An hour passed, and still Mother sat outside in the cold, waiting for the moment of my father's return. Somehow I knew he was near; I felt him just as I felt her. I crawled over my bed to the window. A car whizzed by, but the lights were too low, too close to the ground for me to mistake it for my father's truck. Then I saw him at the end of the block, on foot, lurching against a light swirl of snow.

Mother did not rise to meet him. She let him reel and stumble. Fool. She watched him. I thought she must hate him for making her so afraid, for letting her think he might be dead when all the time he was drunk and very much alive.

Now he was at the bottom of the steps, looking up at her. He didn't try to climb onto the porch; he only mouthed her name. “You should be ashamed,” she said.

“I am,” he whispered.

“Drinking yourself dumb.”

But he wasn't drunk. He swore, no, not a drop, “I couldn't.” And yet he said, “Who will forgive me?”

She knew him too well to think he lied. Her rage spilled on the steps, useless now, leaving her as weak as he was. She pulled him toward her. It was a long time before he spoke. And it was a long time before she asked.

At last she said, “Tell me”; and he answered, “Lanfear Deets lost his hand. Lanfear Deets cut off his damn hand because I got him promoted.”

“You can't blame yourself for doing a man a favor.”

“For the wrong reasons.”

“He deserved the raise.”

“I told the sonuvabitch a thousand times if I told him once, ‘Watch what you're doing.' But he wasn't watching. He was gabbing with Vern Foot, clucking like a damn woman. You can't hear a thing in there; the fool was leaning over so far he practically had his nose stuck in Vern's ear. Saw caught his sleeve, Jesus, pulled him halfway onto the table.”

“He's to blame.”

“I knew he was an idiot. But she, the way she looked at him. She'll never forgive me. She forgave me for twisting his arm to get my twelve dollars out of that worthless weasel, but she won't ever forgive me for cutting off his hand.”

“You didn't.”

He stared at his callused palms. “Everything I touch,” he said.

In the morning the sun fell through the blinds of the kitchen window, throwing rails of light on the floor. My father didn't go to work that day or the next, or the one after that. He chopped firewood for three days straight, brought home four truckloads of logs and split them all, then piled them along the side of the house. He rarely rested, and when he did, he didn't eat; he just sat on a stump and smoked. Mother and I watched the stack grow. “At least we won't freeze,” she said.

I was sure people would figure out why my father stayed clear of the mill. He wasn't the kind to take a sick day. But of course no one pieced it together. No one blamed him as he blamed himself. Lanfear Deets wasn't the first man to mangle a limb at the Willis mill, and his wounds weren't the worst. “Lucky to have his arm,” some folks said. “Lucky to have his head,” someone added. And everyone laughed. The only people who weren't laughing lived in my house.

That was the same week Arlen's chickens died and she went home. The night the temperature dropped to 20 below, Lester Munter left the door of Arlen's chicken coop open a crack—an accident, he said. He claimed he flicked off the lamps just by habit. In the calm of morning, Arlen spotted the open door, the wind-drifted snow. She found her chickens this way: rigid, destroyed, blocks of chicken-shaped ice that would be rotten by the time they were thawed enough to bleed. She cleared the snow from a circle in her yard and gathered two armloads of my father's wood, stacked a triangle on the hard earth, and stuffed the holes with newspaper. Two by two, she carried her chickens out by their legs, tossed them on top of the logs until she had a three-foot pile of frozen fluff.

She spent hours fanning the pale flames in the cold, but when the pyre finally caught, the inferno looked as if it would burn for days. Thick smoke rose and hung above the house, a blue cloud that refused to scatter or drift. The stink of singed feathers and scorched skin filled the neighborhood, squeezed under door-frames, seeped along the sills of closed windows.

By nightfall, when the bonfire flickered low, when her precious chickens were nothing but ash and charred bone, Arlen packed her bags and went home. I was glad when she left, glad there was no one else to hear our secrets or our silences.


could have rescued me during Christmas break. Running through the gully with her might have made me forget about my father. I could have gone to the gully alone, but when I was by myself, the stripped tamaracks and the crunch of frozen snow under my boots only reminded me of what Daddy had done. I blamed him for Lanfear Deets's hand—not because the poor man had lost it and couldn't work, but because the saw kept whirring in my brain. I saw Lanfear Deets's fingers, fat as sausages, guiding the rough boards. He remembered a joke and looked over his shoulder to tell Vern Foot. And they laughed, too hard; Lanfear jerked his hand away just in time. That was a warning, a little scare before the real thing. I imagined the second joke, minutes later, Lanfear glancing sideways, the unstoppable saw lifting his body onto the table, the bewildered look before the pain, the bad joke untold.

By then I knew that Red Elk had saved Lanfear Deets. He'd ripped the bandanna from his neck and tied a tourniquet at Lanfear's elbow. Blood spurted on Red Elk's hands and thighs, spit all the way to his eye when he cinched the cloth tight—that's what my father said. When I closed my eyes, I saw Lanfear Deets's blood spreading on the floor, a giant poppy slowly opening.

I was almost relieved to go back to school. The first Friday, Mr. Lippman told the class to choose lab partners for our science project: on Monday, each pair of students would have one frog to dissect together. I stared at Gwen, but she leaned across the aisle to tap Jill Silverlake on the arm. They giggled and squeezed each other's hands as if they'd just agreed to go steady.

The room buzzed and I waited. Finally Mr. Lippman thumped his desk with his fist and told us to raise our hands if we didn't have a partner. Only two other hands wagged in the air: the five dimpled fingers of Marlene Grosswilder and the dark hand of Claude Champeaux, one of the three Indian brothers who was brave or foolish enough to come to our school. Mr. Lippman assigned Marlene to me and took Claude as his own partner. He didn't want any hysterical mothers calling him in the middle of the night. He didn't want some hefty mill worker standing at his door with a rifle, asking where he got the nerve to let a white girl work with an Indian boy.

“It's a sign,” Marlene said, cornering me by my locker. “The Lord wants us to be friends.”

“Bug off, Marlene.”

She covered her ears. “I don't hear nasty language.”

“How about this,” I said, grabbing her collar and pulling her toward me until our noses nearly touched, “can you hear me now? Does your God think that after we whack a little frog on the back of the head, stab a needle in his brain and slit his gut, we'll be pals for life?”

“Stop it. You're choking me.” I let her go. Marlene shook her finger as she backed away from me. “I'm still praying for you. I'm praying for you, Lizzie Macon.”

I opened my mouth and stuck my fingers inside to show her that the idea of her praying for me made me gag.

“The Lord tells me that you must be suffering in some way.”

I kicked my locker shut. “Yeah, I'm suffering, all right. I'm suffering being forced to talk to a stupid cow like you.”

“I forgive you for what you just said. And the Lord forgives you too.”

Now that she'd swallowed religion, Marlene Grosswilder was impossible to rile. I said, “The Lord has nothing to do with anything that happens between us.” Marlene was the only girl in the eighth grade who was as tall as I was. We stood nose to nose and I peered through her thick glasses thinking how strange her eyes looked, magnified twice their natural size.

She sucked in her breath, gathering up the peace that passes understanding. “God sees everything,” she said, “whether you believe it or not.”

“If He's watching us, why'd He let me choke a good girl like you?”

“He doesn't always interfere. He allows us to be tempted by the evil one. How else can we prove our faith?”

“The evil one must've tempted you a few times.”

“When he does, I pray. And I pray for you, Elizabeth.”

The idea of Marlene Grosswilder talking about me to God made the muscles in my chest so tight I thought my heart would stop. The only way I could think to relieve the pressure was to knock her flat on her ass. But we were both spared. She waddled off down the hall. I watched her, following her steps from her thick ankles to her pudgy knees up to the wrinkles of her skirt where it bunched and creased to stretch over her broad beam.

My hatred for Marlene was as pure as it was the year she made special valentines with a piece of homemade fudge wrapped in colored foil glued on top for everyone in the class except for three kids—and I was one of them. That was bad enough, but she wouldn't let it lie: she had to make a particular effort to let those kids know what a delicious treat they'd missed; she had to lick her chubby fingers right in front of me. That was in third grade. I never forgot. I guess that made her some kind of superior person to me because she already forgave me for what I said today, and I'd been holding a grudge for six years. She'd left me in some mighty fine company: the only others who didn't get valentines were the Furey brothers. One was supposed to be in fifth grade and one was supposed to be in fourth. Maybe they were Mary Louise's cousins or maybe they were her brothers. When it came to the Furey clan, these distinctions didn't make much difference. They all had too much of the same blood; they all had short necks and small ears. Some of them were born with six toes on each foot, but Harley Furey was scared of that. He said it was the mark of the devil and amputated the evil little growths, leaving several of his sons with nasty scars and a fumbling gait. Sometimes I worried that Nina's relationship with Billy Elk meant that I was connected to all the Fureys, but I didn't think on it too deeply.

Marlene Grosswilder got me another time, in fifth grade. By then the Furey brothers had dropped out of school; I didn't even have the misery of their company. Marlene had a Halloween party with a haunted house and real caramel apples, and everyone talked about it for weeks before it happened. I waited. Right up to the very day of the party, I hoped she'd just forgotten my invitation. Even Gwen got a card with a ghost that popped out of the fold.

BOOK: Meteors in August
5.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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