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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

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BOOK: Meteors in August
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“I heard this story before. You're not telling it right.”

“I'm telling the truth. If you don't want to hear it, I'll think the rest to myself.”

“No, go on.”

“He fell asleep. He would have frozen to death, but he cried out from a dream, and a pair of wolves heard him, and knew his voice. Years before, he'd spared the life of the male. The trapper's rifle was aimed at the animal's head, but he heard the she-wolf howling in the hills as if she knew her mate was in danger. He emptied six rounds into the dirt and the wolf ran free.”

“Now I remember,” Gwen said. “They found that trapper, and he was still tied to the stove, and he was dead. That's what you get for marrying an Indian. My father says Indians should be able to join the union at the mill, just like anyone else. Ruby says that if we let them do that, the next thing you know they'll be wanting to marry our daughters, and the town will be full of women like Mary Louise Furey. Who cares that the trapper died anyway? No one knew him.”

“The animals thought they owed the trapper something. They gnawed through the ropes; they slept beside him to keep him warm. And when he woke, he was changed. He couldn't talk like a man; he could only bark and howl. He's still looking for the Indian girl.”

Gwen said, “I heard the girl killed herself when she found out the man had frozen to death. Her brothers locked her up in a little hut and she drowned herself in the pail of water they'd left for her. They buried her in the old way, sitting up instead of lying down, like she was expecting company, wearing all her beads and a doeskin dress.”

“It's not true,” I told her. “They aren't dead; they just can't find each other.”

“I don't want to be buried. I want to be burned. I want my ashes scattered so no one can dig me up later and look at my bones.”

“I want to disappear,” I said. “I don't want anyone to do anything with my body.”

“No one just disappears.”

I didn't answer. I knew how wrong she was. I thought of my mother's shoe box hidden in the closet, all the pictures Nina destroyed. I imagined her coming home, carrying an envelope with all the missing pieces. We'd sit on the living-room floor and tape the pictures together. She'd stay long enough for the seams to mend and fade like old scars.

“Do you think the trapper will look for her forever?” Gwen said.

“For the rest of his life. Maybe longer.”

“I want someone to love me that much.”

“I don't. You have to be dead for someone to love you that much, dead or gone for a long, long time.”

Gwen laughed. “It's only a story.”

In the square of sky there were too many stars to count. I thought each star was a person who was lost. Their eyes watched the world night after night. They were safe and knew exactly where to find us.

I don't remember falling asleep, I only remember waking. The trailer pitched as if the ground had split open beneath it. For years we'd been warned that Willis sat on a fault line. I prayed I would end up in the same hole as my parents. Gwen clawed at my back. “Jesus, somebody's trying to knock the trailer over,” she said. Only then did I realize it was the trailer shaking, not the earth. “Damn you and your crazy trapper,” she sputtered. She thought that talking about a man could bring him to life. The rocking stopped and the trailer shuddered as it settled back into its ruts.

Gwen said, “Lock the door.”

“Why me?”

“You're closest.” She gave me a little kick.

I wasn't scared, but I believed the best thing to do at times like these was to screw your eyes shut and pull the covers over your head until the bad thing went away. I slid the bolt in place. “Anyone who can rock this trailer can rip the door right off the hinges,” I said.

Gwen jumped out of bed to rummage through the closet. She came up with a broken broom handle and a flashlight. When she flicked it on, I knocked it from her hand and the light blew out. “He'll see us,” I said. The trailer swayed again. I tugged the broken broom handle away from Gwen. Its jagged edge gave me a vague idea of how I might use it.

“I bet it's Myron Evans,” she said, “that dirty little creep.”

In my mind I saw Myron dragging his bad foot. “It can't be Myron,” I said. “He's not strong enough.”

“It is Myron. Who else but a pervert would try to scare us this way? I'll beat his head with the flashlight if he comes in here. I'll crack his skull, I swear.”

Suddenly everything was still. I pulled myself up to the window just in time to see two boys leap the fence and duck down the alley, Gwen's rotten brother and his slow shadow.

“Can you see anything?”

“No, nothing.”

“Do you think he's gone?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I bet Myron knows Zack told us what he tried to do. He wants to scare us so we won't talk. They can lock a man up for good for the kind of stuff Myron Evans likes.”

Poor Myron. He even got blamed for things he didn't do. I remembered a time when a gang of us followed Myron home. We hid behind trees and shrubs and called to him:
Myron, oh Myron
. We sang it.
Sweetheart, Dear One
. He twirled in the street, looking for us, nearly stumbling over his lame leg.
Myron, my darling
. And he hobbled away, trying to run. But he was brave, much braver than I was. When he was just a child and those boys pinned him to the ground, he was strong enough to beat his own head bloody.

Gwen said, “Maybe it was the trapper. I bet he saw my hair and thought I was the Indian girl.” She was no longer afraid. The trapper was no different from the boys cruising Main, and Gwen was smiling, her teeth wet and shiny in the dark. She whispered, “Do you think he'll keep after me?”

7

WE CALLED
ourselves Lutherans, as good as any in the county, but we only made it to church when the mood struck my father. In late September the feeling hit him hard. That's when I heard the story of Freda Graves, how she'd fallen away, possessed by some private passion.

It all began on a Friday night. I'd been in school for only three weeks, and I was already fantasizing about diseases and accidents that might keep me out of class for months at a stretch. Not long after my father got home from work, someone banged at the front door. I thought one of my teachers had discovered I'd stuck Marlene Grosswilder's locker shut with twenty pieces of chewed Super Bubble. I still owed that girl for things that had happened in third grade; I might never be done paying her back.

I opened my door a crack. If Mr. Lippman, the science teacher, was the bearer of bad news, he would take great pleasure in the details, throwing in a few of my other bad habits as long as he was at it.

I sneaked down the stairs and realized I wasn't the one in trouble today. A small woman was slapping at Daddy's chest. He was too surprised to defend himself. She cried, “Look at you, a big brute like you. You nearly broke my Lanfear's arm. You can have your damn twelve dollars.” She threw a wad of crumpled bills at his feet. “What do you care if my kids don't eat dinner? It's better to have them go hungry for a week than to have you beat on my husband so he can't work.” She was young, her hands tiny as a child's. I'd seen her at church and knew her name—Miriam Deets. She was not a pretty woman, but her skin was smooth and rosy. You knew just by looking at her she'd be sweet to touch. Miriam had married a man twice her age. Lanfear Deets worked under my father, and I'd heard Daddy say he was lazier than an Indian.

Father dropped down to his hands and knees in front of Miriam and plucked the money off the floor. She looked as if she wanted to kick him in the ribs. But she didn't: she just stared at him, seeing some kind of hideous animal too vile to strike, a two-headed calf, an earless dog.

When Daddy got back on his feet, he stuffed the bills in Miriam's fist and told her to get on home. Her mouth was a tight circle of struggle. She was too proud to take it and too poor to hand it back. “Tell your husband the debt's canceled. Tell him not to bet money he don't have to spend. And tell him the one thing that makes me sick to my stomach is a man who sends his woman out to do his talking for him.”

The guys at the mill always owed my father. He had to write all his poker winnings down in a little black book just to keep track. I'd never known him to forget a debt or let a single dollar slide, and I wanted to tell Miriam Deets to shoo before he came to his senses.

All evening Father fretted and paced, popping out of his chair every five minutes. Mother must've said, “What is it, Dean?” six or seven times. Even a night's sleep didn't snap him out of it. At breakfast he put four teaspoons of sugar in his coffee and was ready to dump the fifth when Mom said, “What's eating you?”

“You're eating me with all your damn questions.” He stomped out the back door. Mom and I watched him tramp across Aunt Arlen's lawn and pound on her window. When she appeared, he gestured toward the chicken coop. Arlen nodded. She doted on her chickens as long as they were alive, but she wasn't sentimental when one's time came.

As Daddy unlatched the door of the coop the chickens sensed his purpose and squawked, fluttering against the cage. In less than a minute he had what he wanted. Holding the chosen one by her scrawny neck, he made straight for Arlen's chopping block. He laid the hen on the stump, grabbed the ax, and swung once. I jumped. The headless chicken twitched.

“Guess he has a craving for fried chicken,” Mother said.

He carried it inside and plopped it in the sink. Mom followed him, crouching to wipe up the trail of splattered blood. Daddy didn't say a word: he just started plucking, both hands moving like pistons.

When the hen was bare and pink, he opened her up to clean out the innards. He dropped the dark liver, the heart and kidneys into a plastic bag, scooped the stomach and lungs and tangled bowels into the garbage, then ripped open a paper sack to wrap around the naked chicken. With the bundle in one hand and the giblets in the other, he shouldered past Mother and me and stalked off down the alley.

“Where is he going?” Mom said.

“How would I know?” My voice gave me away.

“Lizzie?”

Traitor or liar, I had to choose. Father or Mother, who loved me best?

“Do you know about this?”

I spilled the story, minus a few details. The look on Mother's face told me I'd done her no favor. Honesty would win me no grace.

Dad shook me awake at eight o'clock Sunday morning and told me to get ready for church. I knew right away he was still suffering over Miriam Deets. She'd called him a brute and for some reason he believed her.

Guilt had driven Father to church as long as I could remember. Grandmother Macon stared at him from a sepia-toned photograph on his dresser. I imagine she was the first thing he saw when he woke that day. She reminded him. Her lips were drawn into a tight line as if she were ready to scold her son for taking money from other men. Her own husband had lost a thousand dollars during the long month before he dropped dead of a heart attack. She believed God struck him down to spare her family more suffering.

She did suffer, though, dying slowly from a cancer of the stomach. Her three daughters all married young to escape her house, but her only son stayed to the end, enduring her scorn. She fumed when he drank and refused to eat if he came home late with a pocketful of money. She berated him even as he carried her to the toilet.

In the photograph she is young and gaunt with lank hair and bony, unforgiving shoulders. Alive or dead, it did not matter. My father faced her daily judgment.

I groped down the hall, eyes half shut. Daddy was already in the bathroom. The door was wide open. He leaned over the sink, his face inches from the mirror while he shaved. He pulled the razor down one side and then the other, his stroke quick and long. He rinsed his face, dabbed at the bloody spots with toilet paper, then went after his head with a pair of scissors. He lifted one clump of hair at a time, snipping close to the scalp. His hair was coarse, the scissors dull: he had to work them hard, and I saw the back of his neck turning redder and redder.

Nobody looked as if he belonged in church less than my father did. His good suit was worn to a shine at the elbows and the knees, and was too small besides. He kept squirming to find a comfortable way to sit in his pants. Even when he managed to sit still, there was something awkward about the way his big hands fell across his lap and dangled between his knees.

Reverend Piggott rose in his pulpit. His body was little more than a rack to hang his robes, but he had a face full of fire when he said, “Each time a child of God falls away, we all suffer. The day Freda Graves left this church, I felt as if one of my limbs had been torn from my body, as if my own child had been ripped from my womb. Yes, I tell you truly, that is how deeply I grieved. A great fever raged in her for days. I thought, surely
this
will show her the folly of her ways, but it did not, and she cursed the good doctor and sent him from her house with foul words and accusations.” I spotted Dr. Ben four rows in front of us; his thin white hair curled over the collar of his black jacket. I imagined his clean, soap-smelling hands on Freda Graves's burning forehead. He watched her as he had watched me while I tossed in the heat of a fever: his gray eyes watery and strangely opaque, his head shaking in a way that made you wonder if you were doomed to pass from this world to the next before the day was done.

“I prayed for two days and two nights, did not sleep or eat or speak to anyone save God. Our sister is possessed of an evil delusion; I hoped our Lord would show me how to carry this lamb back to the fold.” The idea of Reverend Piggott, that rail in the wind, trying to shoulder the massive weight of Freda Graves made me cover my mouth. “Freda Graves is practicing a dangerous kind of worship right here in this town.”

BOOK: Meteors in August
5.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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