Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
“I had to throw my father off my trail. He wanted me to enlist. He would have tracked me all the way to the Northwest Territories if he knew how yellow I was. He'd rather kill me with his own hands than have people in this town call one of his boys a coward.”
“He'd rather have a convict than a coward?”
“Yeah, he wouldâas long as I don't let on I didn't have a real gun.”
“Well, you got out of it,” Nina said. “You didn't have to go to Canada or Vietnam.”
“What a lucky guy.”
“I'd say so.”
“I missed a lot. I'm still missing it.” He stood up and paced. His face was dry and red, and he couldn't look at Nina. “I feel like I got my arms cut off. You don't know what it's like, being locked up, looking at men every minute, never seeing a woman, never being alone. And then one day you're staring at yourself in the mirror and you see there's some guy behind you, and he's watching you too because you're skinny and the youngest one on the block, and he knows he can have you. He puts his hand on your shoulder, moves it down your spine. And you let him.”
Mom stood behind the screen door with a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses on a tray. Rafe yelled at her through the screen, “Do you know what I'm telling you?”
Mom said, “How about some nice lemonade?”
“No,” Rafe said, collecting himself, remembering his manners, “no, thank you, ma'am.”
“This heat can make a person crazy if you don't get enough to drink.”
Rafe shook his head. This had nothing to do with the heat. As he walked away I imagined his shirt sleeves hung empty, flapping in the hot wind.
“That poor boy,” Mom said, pouring the lemonade. “I had no idea.”
Nina grunted and slumped down on the swing. She leaned back. Before I'd finished my drink, her lips fluttered and she snored like an old man.
“It's all those cigarettes,” Mom said. “I don't think that girl can breathe right anymore.”
I didn't care if she could breathe or not. I thought there was something more seriously wrong with her than too much smoke if she could fall asleep after a man told her he felt as if he had no arms. A man with no arms can't hold a woman. A man with no arms can't break his fall.
That night Daddy came downstairs for dinnerâthe first meal he'd had at the table since the night of the fire. He even dressed himself, but his pants had grown baggy and he had to cinch his belt up two notches. His blond hair was beautiful, combed back, trimmed perfectly over his big ears, delicately curved on the neck. Mother set an extra place for him and acted as if this were nothing unusual. Nina sat beside Daddy. She let him hold her hand while he said grace, the old grace that he hadn't said since we were children: “Father, we thank thee for these mercies.â¦”
Arlen showed up just as we finished supper. “Well, I'll be damned,” she said. “Lazarus has risen. A walking miracle. No, I stand corrected, a
miracle.” She cackled, and I thought this might send my father skittering back up the stairs to hide in his room for another three weeks, but Nina truly had worked a miracle.
“How are you, Arlen?” Dad said, as if he'd seen her just yesterday.
“Better than you. You look like a starved rat.”
“How're Les and the kids?” Dad said, not taking the bait.
“Fine, they're fine.” For once Arlen was short on words.
Nina said, “What have you got there, Arlen?”
“Oh, this. I almost forgot. I made pies today, apple. Thought you might like one.”
“Course we would,” said Nina.
I could see it now. Nina would wolf down half the pie and fall asleep with her head on the kitchen table.
That's just how it happened too, except that she didn't eat quite half the pie because Daddy was chewing even faster than she could. Later he shuffled out to the porch. Weeks in bed had made him lame; he'd spend a month shaking old age out of his legs. He said he smelled the wind changing. We were in for a cool night. But in the kitchen where Mom and I cleared dishes around the sleeping girl, the air was close and hot.
I heard the lone coo of an owl. It reminded me of the old days when there were always boys whistling in the grass. But tonight's cries went unanswered; the girl slept, the food in her stomach heavy as a drug, a drug that kept her safe from the story a boy with no arms wanted to tell.
I sat on the back steps in the dark. My father was right: the wind was changing, blowing the stars out of the night, leaving the sky heavy with yellow fog. In the kitchen, Nina cried out. I ran inside and flicked on the light. She jerked straight up in her seat as if to pretend she hadn't been out cold for the past three hours. We heard Daddy limping up the stairs, on his way to bed.
“I guess he's better,” Nina said.
Mom was right behind me. “Because of you,” she said.
“All I did was be alive.”
“That's no small thing.”
Nina stretched her arms over her head. “Is there any more of that pie?”
“Your father finished it.” Mom reached for Nina's hand, but Nina stood up to shake off sleep and the dream that had made her yell.
“I hope you can forgive him,” Mom said.
“For eating the pie?”
“For what he did before.”
“You mean for telling me he never wanted to see my face again? You mean for nearly breaking my jaw? You mean for calling me a piece of trash and a worthless slut and no daughter of his from that day forward?”
Mom nodded, ashamed, as if they were her words, not my father's.
“Hell,” Nina said, “that was nothing. I don't blame him. I could have let him cool down for a month or two and shown up on your doorstep. With my belly the way it was, he never would have hit me. I chose my life. Nobody ruined me and nobody's gonna save me, either. Shit, I bet Rafe Carson blames his father for wrecking his life, making him run away. But Rafe didn't have to steal no fifty dollars. He could have earned it in a week. He was looking for an easy way and you can see where it got him.”
“What did happen after you left here?” Mom said.
Nina hummed a snatch of song. “I think it's cooler tonight,” she said. “Smells like rain.” She twirled on her toes. “Wouldn't that be something? Rain. Now,
would be a miracle.”
“Please,” Mom said, “tell me.”
Nina leaned against the stove, sighing like a girl who'd been dancing all night. “Don't make me think of all that now.”
“But you'll leaveâ”
“Yes, in the morning.”
“âand I won't know anything about you. You've been wandering around in my head for five years, Nina, like some dead girl who can't rest.”
Nina fell into her chair. “I'm not dead, Mama, but sometimes I'm afraid to lie down. I can't sleep in a bed without it getting narrow in my dreams, without a lid slamming shut on me. I can't hear a soundâmy ears are full of water. I see Jesse. Remember how white he was? Like he didn't have any blood.” She held out her hands, exposing the underside of her forearms. “Look at me,” she said. “Look how pale I am.” And it was true. That skin was as white as the underside of a fish.
The girl in the airplane pressed her face up to the glass, stunned and silent, awed by her own death. Even Myron Evans who chose his time must have been startled when it finally happened. He didn't know death would be a hard slap, a boot in the back, knocking him off the chairâno, he was hoping death had arms to hold him, fingers to smooth his hair, lips to kiss his eyes closed, good-night for the last time.
Nina put her head down on the table. “No,” Mom said, shaking her, “you can't sleep now. You have to tell me.”
“Tell you what?” She sounded groggy already. She was afraid of her dreams, and still she longed for them.
“What happened to Billy? What happened to the baby?”
, that was so long ago.” She looked around the room as if she expected someone to walk in the door and tell the story for her. “Lizzie,” she said, “could you make your old sister some tea?” I nodded and she smiled at me as if I'd just done her a great kindness. Her gratitude mocked me. All these days I'd been wishing she would go away and leave me with my visions of my sister, and the only thing she wanted from me was a cup of tea.
“Why did you go with that boy?”
“He touched me right.”
“That's no reason.”
“It was to me. The boys before Billy made me feel like a heap of damp ground. They couldn't wait to get their hands under my clothes, but I could have been anybody in the darkâI could have been a pig tied down tight for all they cared. Not Billy. He had a way with his hands. Once a wild canary landed in his palm, and his fingers closed around her so slow that she was stunned and didn't try to fly away. He called me his yellow bird. He said my heart whispered to his hand. He said if I left with him, he'd fill my house with birdsâowls to coo us to sleep, peacocks to parade in the yard, a rooster to wake us at dawn. But I woke one day and realized a house of birds has walls of feathers that fly away the first time the wind blows. I woke up on the reservation and saw my house just as it was: a plywood shack with a roof of corrugated tin where the birds never landed, where the sound of rain on metal could make you go mad. Nobody sang to me, but my whole body was awake with sound, and the sound was my baby's cry. I heard it so deep I thought my bones were sobbing.
“Billy rubbed my breast with his callused fingers, telling me, âAmos is awake,' as if I didn't know. He poked at me, using a touch he'd learned somewhere else with a woman who liked it hard and fast, good-night. Those fingers had forgotten how to tempt birds. That palm could have rested flat on my chest without feeling the beat of my heart. He was bored with me. He'd already found some dark-skinned lady who made him laugh and didn't expect too much. This was February, the first year. I already saw myself leaving.”
The teapot whistled and I leaped out of my chair. Nina snorted. “Everybody has to answer to something,” she said. I put the pot and the cups on the table, and Nina kept talking. “I told Billy I couldn't stand that filthy crook in the road they called a town, that rathole he called a house. I wanted curtains to hang in my windows instead of sheets. I wanted a car that ran instead of a rusty pickup with no tires, sunk in the mud of our yard. I wanted to live where people painted their houses white and yellow and gray instead of turquoise and flaming pink. I never wanted to see another trailer turned into a house again. I said we were moving to Missoula to live like decent people. âLike white people,' he said, âisn't that what you mean?' And I said, âYeah, what's wrong with that?' And he said, âYou'll see.'
“So we did move, stayed almost a year, but Billy couldn't keep a job. He said folks didn't trust Indians; I said he made his own misery expecting people to treat him wrong.
“One night I was doing the dishes. Billy patted me on the butt and said, âI'm goin' out for cigarettesâyou need anything?' âMilk,' I said, âfor Amos.' He was gone an hour and I started to wonder. Sometimes the neighborhood kids waited in the alley and ran at him with sticks.
“There was only one other explanation. I'll tell you the truth: I wanted to believe he'd been beaten more than I wanted to believe he'd left me that way, with a pat and a lie. Things weren't too bad by then. He'd had the same job for two months. We'd saved nearly fifty dollars. He didn't like heaving garbage, but nobody gave him a bad time. âAll garbage men look dirty,' he said, âso they don't notice me. And there's nothing to steal.'
“By midnight, I knew Billy was on his way back to the reservation. I planned to go after him in the morning, drag him home by his hair if I had to, but a storm whipped through the night and the snow piled up all the next day. Frozen waves blew across the road. The wind found every crack in the apartment. I thought I'd just lie down and let the bed fill up with snow. Amos and I crawled under the blankets, made a tent for ourselves and waited. I needed the damn milk. All I had was a cup of powder; it wouldn't last long, and Amos didn't like it. At least Billy could have brought the milk before he split.”
Nina looked at the screen door; a cool breeze filled the room. “There it is,” she said, “the rain.” It took me longer to hear it. At first it was no louder than leaves rubbing together in the dark, as hard to hear as your own heart. But in a flash the sky heaved and broke and poured out all the rain held back through the long hot days of August. Rain pummeled the side of the house with a thousand furious fists, and Nina said, “At last.”
“So you didn't go after him,” Mom said.
“As soon as the blizzard died down, Billy's boss was looking for him. We didn't have a phone, so he called Mrs. Clate, the landlady. That fat bitch came banging. She said, âI know your husband's goneâif he is your husbandâand I say good riddance, but don't get the idea I'm running some kind of charity home here. You pay the rent like everybody else or you're out on your ass. I rented to you against my better judgment, but don't think there aren't limits to my kindness.' Amos sat in the middle of the floor. He was barely a year old, but he burst into a full-bellied scream just like he understood every word, just like he saw the two of us on our butts in the snow. Mrs. Clate poked her head inside and said, âI'm sick of his squallin'. You keep him quiet or you're out whether you have the rent or not.' I slammed the door so fast I almost caught her nose. âAgainst her better judgment.'
“We stashed our money in a tin under the tea bags. I'd been afraid to look. Now I prayed he hadn't left me dry. We paid Mrs. Clate by the week: on Monday, I'd need twenty dollars. I bolted the door and walked to the cupboard, picking Amos up on the way and bouncing him on my hip. I was in no hurry. The money was there or it wasn't. Running and digging weren't going to change anything. I dumped the tin on the table. Billy had left me nine tea bags and forty-seven dollars. âLook, Amos,' I said, waving a five-dollar bill in front of his nose, âwe've got two weeks, as long as we don't eat much.' Something about that struck me funny and I started giggling. I got cackling and rocking so hard I couldn't stop. Then all of a sudden I was crying and Amos was crying too and we sat there for a long time, rocking ourselves and wailing at the ceiling.