Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
“I thought, I don't know how to do a damn thing. Best job I could get would be slapping mayonnaise on buns in a burger joint. By the time I paid somebody to watch Amos, I might as well stay home. So I paid the rent early and told Mrs. Clate I'd be back in a couple of days. She took my money, but she didn't believe me.
“I strapped Amos to my chest under my coat and hitched down to the reservation. Billy wasn't hard to find. I knew he'd be with a woman. I asked around. When I knocked on his door, he acted like he'd been expecting me. He told me the woman's name was Rowena and she was his cousin, and I said, âYeah, I know,' like I believed him. She was twice my size and didn't try to hide it. She wore a down vest over a flannel shirt. The woman looked old enough to be Billy's mama. I figured that's what he saw in her, some kind of mama love I couldn't touch. I knew there was no sense in begging. How could I compete with a six-foot-tall Indian with a punched-in nose and a barrel chest? I was a wild canary and she was a buffalo. A man has to choose. I told him, âYou wanna live down here, fine with me, but you're gonna have to take Amos because there's no way I can make it on my own with some kid hanging on my rear end.' Amos was already on the floor, playing with Rowena's boys. She had three of her own plus one that belonged to her fifteen-year-old daughter. Billy looked from me to Rowena and back again, thinking I'd put a wire cage over his head. But Rowena set us all free. She laid her hand on my shoulder. Her touch surprised meâsomething flowed through that hand, some kind of healing in the heat of her blood, and I knew why Billy loved her. She said, âHe can stay.' With three words, a woman I didn't know gave my life back to me.”
“You left him?” Mother said. The rain streamed down the windowpanes in thick rivulets. “You left your baby?”
“Maybe it would have been different if I'd found Billy right away. The snow blinded me. But when the wind died down, I saw what I had to do. We never did get around to getting married, so all I had to do was shake hands and leave.”
“But Amosâyou can't shake hands over a child's life.”
“Oh I've heard all this,” Nina snapped. “I'm some kind of unnatural mother, some kind of monster who's deformed on the inside. Listen, I was nineteen years old; I had twenty-seven dollars and no job. I tell you, women with warm houses and cupboards full of soup and beans, women with husbands who come home at the end of every week with a paycheck, women like that, like you, Mama, have the luxury of loving their children in a
way. Women like me aren't so lucky. Love to us is leftover scraps, bits of rags, other people's garbage. How much love do you think a woman has when there's no money and no food, when the baby's howling his head off and the landlady is banging a broom on her floor so hard your ceiling rattles?”
“We would have taken himâour own grandchild.”
Nina pounded her fists on the table. “No, Mama. Can't you see? Look in the mirror some night and see how tired my life has made you already. If I'd brought Amos here, I would have had to stay too. What kind of life would that be for any of us?”
“What kind of life do you have now?” My mother's voice was cool and hard as a polished stone.
“My own life,” Nina said. “My own life.” And her voice turned to water, fast and clear, rolling over every rock in her way. “I don't mean to offend you by talking this way, Mama, but I can't live my life the way you lived yoursâdoing things for Daddy, doing things for us, never taking one sweet breath that was just for you. When I hear about women who run away and leave their families, I'm not surprised. You know what surprises me? It surprises me when any woman stays. I look at you, Mama, and I wonder why you don't hate us all. What did any of us do for you that was half what you did for us?”
The rain beat out a steady answer: nothing.
Mother cradled her head in her hands. “I have hated you,” she said, “all of you. But it goes away if you can just wait.” Her voice was so low I had to look at her to be sure her lips moved.
“How many years?” Nina said. “How many years do you have to wait, Mama?”
I closed my eyes. Nina threw a merciless light on us. I couldn't bear to see our faces in that glare. I thought of the reservation and the dark highway, a dead dog in the ditch. I saw my mother pressed up against the sweaty body of a stranger, the trucker who listened, and I knew how badly she wanted to keep driving north.
The sky tore above us. A rip of thunder exploded in the distance. Already it seemed the rain had fallen forever, that the words in this room had made it unstoppable.
My mother spoke from the hollow box of her years. “Tell me about this life you call your own, Nina.”
“I live in a basement, two rooms, fifteen a week. I don't mind the dark. I tend bar down the street. It's better than waitressing. I did that for a while. When you're behind the bar, some guy can grab your hand but he can't grab your ass. It's just temporary, fast money till I find something better. Rowena said the problem with me is that I can't imagine my life. She says I only saw three choices in this town: get married quick, sling slop out at the truck stop, or sell lipstick at the five-and-dime. Rowena thought up her whole life and then made it happen. She left the oldest girl with her mama and went to college. Now she's back on the reservation teaching school. She says she got tired of white women full of their own good deeds coming to the reservation and running away after the first hard winter, after the first drunken suitor banged on her door. She said those kids needed someone to admire, someone who looked like them, someone they'd see around town. She says she always dreamed of knowing things worth telling other people and now she does. I never dreamed anything like that for myself. I let my life fall on me. Everything I've ever done was an accident. Did you imagine your life, Mama?”
“I didn't think so.”
“My mother got sick and my father was long gone. I had to take a job. Like you say, a girl in this town doesn't have a lot of options. So I filed papers at the mill. I met your father. He was the only man in town willing to take me and Mother both, so I figured I could learn to love him. Your grandmother did love him. She begged me to marry him. She wanted to know somebody was going to be there to look after me when she was gone. âPut your old mother's mind at ease,' she said. I married him because a dying woman wanted it. She forgave his transgressions easier than I did. If he came home stumbling, my door was locked, but hers was always open. Lots of mornings I'd find him asleep in a chair in her room. She told me, âDrinking's no crime as long as a man comes home at the end of the night. Your own daddy didn't touch a drop, that holy man. Just look what he did for us, Evelyn.'”
“Did you learn to love him, Mama?”
“Well enough, I suppose.” My mother's hands lay on the table, pale and limp, the knuckles already beginning to knot with arthritis, like her own mother's hands. I wondered how long it would be before I sat beside her in Grandmother's room, how long before the bad dreams came and I had to pull the covers from her gnarled claws.
I thought she'd tell Nina how she wanted to go to Canada with that truck driver. I saw them crossing the border, humming along with Patsy Cline. But she spared my sister that knowledge. What difference did it make? Nina was already gone by then. She wasn't the one our mother wanted to leave. She wasn't the one who would have sat by the window day after day, afraid to move, afraid to breathe. She wasn't the one who would have had to watch our father drink himself blind. No, Nina would not have heard the windowpane shatter, would not have picked the slivers of glass from his bloody fist or bandaged his hand while he wept.
Somehow day had come without its ever getting light. The rain had spent itself and given way to a gray drizzle. It rolled off the roof with the weary sound of a child who has cried herself to sleep and still sobs in her dreams.
Nina said, “I'll just pack my bag and wait for Daddy to wake up so I can say good-bye.”
I couldn't stay in the kitchen alone with my mother, hearing things about her life I never wanted to know, hearing there were times she hated us, knowing we deserved nothing better for the way we'd stolen her life away from her before she had the chance to dream it. I stood, and Mother said, “Turn out the light before you go.”
Leaves hung heavy with rain and tree trunks stood slick and black against the sky. The rain had come too late to save the yellow grass. Nina rustled upstairs, running water in the bathroom, whispering to Daddy. And all I could think, after my years of longing, was how glad I would be to see her go: glad to have her makeup off the bathroom counter, glad not to hear her words to my mother, those words that Nina would leave behind and I would live with. And I would be glad when she could not keep secrets with my father. He would get better or worse, but he would have to depend on us again either way.
I went back to the kitchen, where Mother still sat at the kitchen table, staring at her own hands. “Shall I make coffee?” I said. She was deaf to my question. I made it anyway and put some in front of her, but she never drank it.
Nina clamored down the stairs, her startling heavy steps smacking the wood. In the hallway she made a phone call, her voice hushed and sweet, a demand and a plea. “Thanks, baby,” I heard her say. “I knew I could count on you.”
She stood in the kitchen doorway wearing her denim skirt and denim jacket, leaning against the frame, Nina, a glimmer of her old self, always leaning up against something, the porch railing, a window, and the boys watching, always, their bodies saying,
Lean against me
. But she was not that girl. She had her bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I remembered the silky curtain of her golden hair falling across one eye; now it sprang from her head, curly and wild, that weird unbelievable blond.
“Daddy promised me he'd go back to work,” she said. Mom cleared her throat, her eyes still fixed on her own hands. “Mama, I'm sorry if I hurt you,” Nina said, as if more words could change the ones that the walls of this room had heard and taken as their own. She scuffed to the sink and poured cold water over her cigarette, then flicked it in the trash.
“No need to be sorry for speaking the truth.”
“Then look at me, Mama, please, because I have to go.”
Finally my mother raised her head. Her eyes caught no more light than dust on the road. “There now,” she said, “I'm looking.”
Nina kissed the top of her head and said, “Oh, Mama,” into her hair.
“How're you getting back?”
“Hitching down to Rovato Falls. I'll catch a bus from there.”
Mother didn't make any offer to drive her or fuss about the hitching because all three of us knew this was one of Nina's small lies. And I believe my mother didn't want to know for sure, didn't want to be told straight out that Nina had called a boy, that for all her talk about having her own life, she was wrapping some kind of rope around her neck again.
I said, “I'll walk you to the highway.” I don't know why I said it. Maybe I wanted to be alone with her. Maybe I just needed to get out of that house full of all the words that could be spoken only at night. But I was thinking at that moment that I wanted to make damn sure she really left town.
I carried her bag and we didn't talk. The drizzle touched my cheeks like tiny fingers, tender and probing; I was a leaf bud they wanted to open, and I lifted my face but my heart remained stubborn, a fist in my chest, forever closed.
Rafe Carson was parked on Main Street, right in front of Elliot Foot's burned-out bar. Rafe, the only boy left in Willis for Nina to call. Rafe, the boy who would never hurt her because he knew the sorrow of being forced to his knees. I thought of the day they raised the sign above this bar; I had a vision of the gutted building being fixed up again, and everything starting all over. Rafe's yellow Volkswagen gleamed, glazed with rain, the only bright spot on the gray street.
Nina trotted now, fast and sure. With her escape in sight, she couldn't get out of Willis soon enough. She said, “You won't tell Mama,” her words a statement, not a plea.
She tugged her bag out of my hand and tossed it into Rafe's car. “Fancy meeting you here,” he said. And she answered, “Yes, just imagine.”
Nina turned and hugged me quick, so I didn't have time to hug her back or pull away. “How'd my baby get so tall?” she said, then climbed in the bug and rolled down the window. “Take care of them for me, Lizzie.”
I have been, I thought, all this timeâfor you, because of you. I stood and watched the Volkswagen buzz down Main. The fine rain fell through the open roof of the Last Chance Bar, fell on the steps of the Lutheran church and on the street in between, that street like a river, carrying my sister away again.
I thought, At the end of the day the rain will still be falling. My father will stand alone at his bedroom window. My mother will sit at the kitchen table. All the lights will be off when dusk comes, and dark. And the doors will be open, and the wind will blow through our house.
The little yellow car disappeared. I wondered how far Rafe Carson would drive her. I wondered if he would be able to leave her at that dingy bus station in Rovato Falls, or if somewhere along the way he'd say, “I might as well drive you to Missoula; I'm not doing anything else today.” And I wondered if he'd stay the night or the week, a year or half a life. How strange that she'd chosen him, a boy she'd taunted back in the days when she was a beautiful girl. But they'd grown alike somehow, both of them living on the borderline, trying not to step across. They might hold on to each other for a while and be safe; maybe the best kind of man for Nina was one who couldn't afford to judge her.
I thought she was brave in a way, taking all the credit and all the blame for her own life. I didn't know whom to admireâNina who cut herself free or my mother who took her life just as it was. I only knew that I wanted my own life someday. I wasn't going to wait on the road for some trucker to take me north. I wasn't going to settle for some redheaded boy whose misery and humiliation matched mine. Someday I was going to leave this town. But when I did, I was leaving by myself, and I was going to decide where I was headed before I got there. Standing on Main Street in the rain, my own life was the only thing that seemed worth having.