New Fiction -- A tale of family roots and the angst of turning
40, by a well-known writer of the northwest.
By Elizabeth Engstrom
"A Child's Memory" by Chansonetta Emmons, from American Album, © 1968
by American Heritage Publishing Co.
The note said simply, "Charlie died and your dad had a stroke burying
him. Come home." Laura assumed that the Reverend Morganstern wrote the note
and addressed the envelope, per her mother's request. It wasn't her mother's handwriting;
her mother had no handwriting. And her mother would insist that the reverend not
embellish the message at all, either. There were no embellishments, not even a signature.
There were certainly no sentiments.
Laura canceled her appointments for the next three days and had her secretary book
a flight and a rental car.
Finally, it was time to go home.
In a way, she was sad that she had waited so long and wouldn't be seeing her dad,
or so she assumed. But then, she never expected to see either of her parents again.
She never wanted to. And she didn't want to now, but she couldn't ignore this summons.
She never expected that her mother would need her.
She only hoped her mother didn't need her too much. Laura had a busy, full life,
and while she wasn't proud of the thoughts she had about her illiterate, dirt-poor
parents and their lifestyle, she wasn't about to compromise her hard-won financial
independence and freedom from that sticky-mud Appalachian rootball.
Every Christmas, Laura tucked a couple of hundred-dollar bills into her Christmas
card to them, and she assumed the money was received, though it was never acknowledged.
They had had no other communication since Laura moved away to go to college on a
merit scholarship over twenty years before. Her books were her life. She got straight
A's all the way through college, cementing her grants and loans and scholarships,
studying summers and during term breaks. She worked part-time in various medical
laboratories, gaining important research experience as well as extra credit. She
taught basic biology while getting her graduate degree, and once firmly ensconced
as a research assistant in one of the larger pharmaceutical companies, wrote her
dissertation and acquired her Ph.D.
Nice looking, soft spoken, hard driven and dedicated, she turned out to be Mymet
Laboratory's biggest gun in soliciting research grants. Her dirt farm heritage was
a nasty little secret that she didn't want anyone to discover. She hated owning that
attitude, but over the years, it had become a habit. At first, she was too busy to
go home. School and work tied her nose to the grindstone, and she couldn't get away,
couldn't afford to go back.
Then she was too proud. She had nice clothes. She could read and write. She studied
the classics in literature classes. She mapped DNA genomes. She was a whiz at math
and chemistry. She didn't know what she would talk about with her parents. She didn't
want to see them through educated eyes.
Then she was too political. Her high-paid future at Mymet was predicated on her gracious,
well-timed ability to extract big bucks from those government agencies with the grants.
She also spoke at stockholder meetings, where she impressed not only the board of
directors, but those who held large blocks of preferred Mymet stock. Most of those
people were old-money, conservative, squeaky-clean people and they wanted those they
associated with to have the same pristine background. Or at least the illusion of
it. Laura worked hard to feel at home in those circles.
Then, as time and experience funneled wisdom into her head, almost against her will,
she was too ashamed of herself to swallow her pride and come back home to the family
she had deserted so many years ago.
And now Charlie was dead, her daddy was too, like as not, and her mama needed her.
"Time to grow up, Laura," she told herself.
"You'll turn forty this year. It's time to reconcile."
She knew her mama would die some day, and her daddy too, but Charlie? Charlie was
never supposed to die.
On the plane, Laura made a fearless, realistic appraisal of her life. She was professionally
successful and personally a disaster. She had no mate; she rarely even dated. She
owned a nice, professionally decorated apartment that had no soul. She had two good
women friends, but distance was necessitated by her fictional history. They were
professional colleagues before they were friends, and once she had told them the
story of her middle-class upbringing, it had to add up on all fronts.
Laura kept a tight rein on her life. So tight it pinched. It choked her. Laura was
afraid that if she eased up in any area -- acquiring a boyfriend, getting intimate
with girltalk, going on a wild spree of any kind, be it a rummy vacation in the Bahamas
or a new hairdo or a trendy wardrobe or a whimsical redecoration of her bedroom --
that she would lose the steel bands that kept the staves of her carefully designed
and constructed persona together.
If those bands ever loosened, backwoods dirtwater would leak out of her, pool on
her thick-pile beige carpeting and she'd leave a barefoot, pigshit stench wherever
She'd worked too hard to pull herself out of that sty. She refused to be sucked back
But acknowledging her roots didn't mean having to move back into the dirt floor shack,
now, did it?
Her only pair of jeans -- expensive designer jeans -- were in the weekender valise
in the overhead compartment. She had bought a pair of tennis shoes and a couple of
light cotton tops she could throw away when this trip was over. And she had packed
a black dress, anticipating her daddy's funeral. She'd see to her mama, and then
she'd go back to her high rise apartment, and she'd give it all some serious thought.
Who knew what she would actually find, once she got back to West Virginia? Older
versions of the same kids she went to school with, she imagined. Working at the dime
store and slinging hash at Tiddly's just like their parents did. They'd each have
six sickly kids with ringworm and lice, and they'd live in old run-down trailers
with rusted car carcasses in the front yards, leggy weeds growing up through the
transmissions and out from under the bent up hoods.
Laura felt sick to her stomach just thinking about it. She opened the in-flight magazine
and looked at the upcoming year in fashion.
* * *
Enid Bridges heard from Donny Brooks that her daughter had booked a room for three
nights in her little bed and breakfast in town. Enid couldn't quite imagine that
Donny had the guts to rent out her son's old room, add a stack of flapjacks and call
it a Bed and Breakfast, although she guessed that's exactly what Donny offered. A
bed. And breakfast. Donny's old house was right next to the post office, so it was
in a central location, not way out Highway 38, like Enid and Whip's place.
But Donny wasted no time driving her old Ford on out to tell Enid that Laura was
coming, and for that, Enid was grateful, if a bit shamed that the neighbors knew
about it before she did. And they knew that Laura wouldn't stay in her own room in
her own house. And now, on the morning of the day Laura was supposed to arrive, Enid
looked around and didn't know what to do to prepare for her daughter's arrival.
The house was clean, Whip was bathed and fed, and now slept peacefully on the sofa,
the television giving him comfortable background noise. She'd changed the sheets
on the bed Laura wasn't going to use, and put out fresh towels. A chicken stewed
on the stove, and Enid had baked a cake the night before.
The chickens took care of their ownselves now days, and after Charlie died, Enid
went down to the police station and asked Mort if he'd come take the two horses and
four young beeves to the auction for her. Mort and his son came by the following
Saturday morning, and left behind an empty barn and a simpler, emptier life for Enid.
The chores were done, the house was ready, there was nothing for her to do now, but
She paced the scrubbed kitchen floor one more time, then looked in on her husband.
When he was sleeping, he looked like a normal man. It was only when he was awake,
and trying to talk, or laugh, or eat, or be normal that she could see the sag to
the left side of his face. He tried to be Whip, he tried real hard, but a chunk of
him was gone. He left a big part of himself up on the knoll, Enid figured.
There was nothing sadder than to see the mortality of one's mate. She'd always hoped
she'd die first, so as to never have to face life without Whip, but over the years
she had grown strong, strong enough to help him through this, strong enough to see
the end of their days, strong enough to hope that he died first.
She'd become strong enough to endure being abandoned by their only child. Strong
enough to insist that Laura come home. And Laura was coming. Today.
Whip needed to see Laura if only for the last time before he died. And Laura needed
to see her daddy. There wasn't anything Enid could do to change Laura's feelings
about her family, though she would if she could. Laura had always been a high-spirited
girl. And smarter by far than her parents by the time she was old enough for school.
By the time she was in high school, she was spending all night, it seemed, at the
little library, and she'd bring these big books home and try to talk about them at
the dinner table.
Enid tried, God knows she tried, to talk to her girl, but the things Laura said confounded
her and made as much sense as Chinese. Whip used to get mad and throw down his napkin,
but Enid knew it wasn't Laura's fault -- she was cursed with a big brain, and a yearning
for knowledge that came from somewhere outside their family traits. Enid was proud
of her, but afraid that all that book studying would come to no good when it came
time to find a husband, raise a family and cook the daily meat and potatoes. All
that knowledge just puts restlessness in the soul. Or so she believed.
But she really didn't know. For all she knew, Laura had married well and had a passel
of her own kids.
Except that Enid knew her daughter's heart well enough -- or hoped she did -- that
if Laura had children, she'd want them to meet their grandparents, even if the only
book those grandparents owned held the bedroom door from slamming.
No, Enid was certain that Laura had never married, had never had a child. Enid felt
it was in some way her fault that Laura was born so smart that she'd put her priorities
all in the wrong order. It was as if Enid and Whip were supposed to have seven or
eight kids, but when the time came, and they were only given the one, that one, that
poor Laura, was cursed with the smarts of all seven or eight.
And that made her a misfit. The life of a misfit was never an easy one. Enid prayed
every day that with all those smarts of Laura's, she'd figure out a way to fit in.
Well, they'd see, wouldn't they? Laura was coming home. Today. Enid fingered the
worn lace on the edge of her fresh apron and tried not to worry.
* * *
Laura pulled into the driveway, scattering chickens. It was exactly the same. The
driveway, the barn, the house, everything. Everything was exactly the same. She couldn't
Then a short, white-haired woman came out the kitchen door, and Laura barely recognized
her mother. But the way Enid held on to the screen door so it wouldn't slam, and
the way she took tentative steps down the shaky porch stairs, then held her hands
clasped in front of her was as familiar and recognizable as the way out to this old
farmhouse. Her fingers tugged on a threadbare apron that Laura remembered -- an apron
that should have been a dustrag twenty years ago.
She got out of the car and the silence of the country stunned her for a moment. She
had to consciously take a breath. It, too, was familiar, as if it had been bred into
her genes, and she'd been fooling herself by living in the city all these years.
"Hi, Mama," she said simply, and walked around the back of the car to hug
her tiny mother. Enid even smelled the same. Ivory soap and baby powder.
"It's good to have you home," Enid said. "I know your father will
be happy to see you."
"Daddy? I thought--"
"It won't be long now," Enid said. "Come see him while you still can."
Laura walked up those same split porch steps, through that same loose screen door
and into that same, scrubbed kitchen. It was almost exactly the same -- perhaps a
little shabbier. The worn black spot in the middle of the kitchen sink had grown,
the kitchen curtains were a little thinner from the sun and the regular washings,
the wallpaper a little more faded. The linoleum had worn in a path right down to
the black mastic. But the Blue Delphi plates were still on the walls and her high
school graduation picture was still taped to the ancient refrigerator door.
"Whip?" Enid said, and walked through the kitchen into the living room.
Laura heard her mother click off the television. She didn't want to go in there,
but she had to, she knew she had to.
"Guess who's come to see you, honey? Can you sit up?"
Laura heard groaning and a couple of low syllables as she imagined her mother readied
her father for company. "Come on in," Enid called.
Laura stepped around the corner into her childhood. The living room was exactly the
same. Even the same old black and white television.
But her father wasn't. Thin and with few strands of white hair left, he sat propped
up in the corner of the couch, surrounded by pillows. His pencil legs were covered
by a crocheted afghan, and the scarred, working-man fingers of one hand played the
piano in midair.
"Hi, Daddy," Laura said, and his eyes brightened as he recognized her,
but his mouth stayed still. She sat on the sofa next to him, and a tear tripped off
his lower lid and skidded down his old cheek which was lined from the sun and dotted
with dark brown spots.
"F-f-f-goddamn!" he said.
Enid laughed with fondness at him, while Laura looked at him in confusion. "He
has a hard time talking," she said, "but he can still cuss."
Laura kissed his cheek, and though his father-fragrance had turned to an old-man
odor, she could still detect sunshine and fertilizer, hay and cow manure. Fresh farm
smells. She took his restless hand in hers and kissed it, then held it still in her
lap. There were no words for her emotion. There wasn't even any definition to her
emotion. She was overwhelmed, and she didn't know what it was that overwhelmed her.
"Lemonade?" Enid asked.
"F-f-f-goddamn!" Whip said, another tear following the first down into
a crease in his cheek, and he squeezed Laura's hand. She wished he'd squeeze it hard
enough to squeeze a tear out of her eye. She felt full to bursting.
Enid brought three glasses of lemonade into the living room and opened the curtains
to let in the late afternoon sun. "So," she said. "Dandy new car."
"It's a rental," Laura said.
"I always liked a red car."
Laura watched as her mother helped her father sip some lemonade, more of it going
down his chin than in his mouth. She laughed, teasing him with great affection as
he groaned his frustration. She wiped his face, kissed his cheek, and then sat down
again in a straightbacked chair on the other side of the coffee table.
The coffee table had the same empty nut dishes that had been there when Laura was
a kid, each perched daintily on its own hand-crocheted doily.
"Married?" Enid asked.
"No, Mama," Laura said, indignation rising. "Don't you think I'd let
you know if I got married or had any kids?"
"Don't know," Enid said. "I'd hope so, though. Too late now, don't
Laura looked across the table at the woman who had given birth to her but who was
now a stranger and Laura was amazed at her lack of propriety. That topic of discussion
was way too personal. And yet. And yet, this was her mother.
She felt a familiar attitude coming on. She stepped into this house and she became
a child again. Well, she wasn't a child, and she didn't have to put up with being
made to feel like one. Laura felt her blood pressure rise. Relax, she told herself.
"Suppose so," she said, telling herself that she could do this, she could
endure this for a couple of days and then she could go home again, back to Minnesota,
back to where she was comfortable, back to where she was a competent adult, back
to where she knew who she was and what she was about. This would be but a very short
period of time. She'd been uncomfortable before; she could put up with it.
Whip pulled his hand from Laura's and began waving it around, and making sounds with
a mouth that didn't work and a tongue that lay flat.
"He wants to know how long you're staying," Enid translated.
"I'm going home Thursday," Laura said. "I have to leave here about
Whip looked at Enid.
"Today's Tuesday," she said to him.
He nodded, put his hand back into his daughter's, then said something else that sounded
like wailing to Laura.
"No, honey," Enid said. "She's staying down at Donny's."
A pang of guilt grabbed Laura. "I could stay here," she said. "I just
didn't want to be any trouble," she said.
"No trouble," Enid said. "Wherever you're comfortable."
Whip pulled his hand away from Laura's again, and with a finger, stabbed the sofa
between them. She didn't need any translation.
"Okay, Daddy," she said. "I'll stay here."
He nodded again, then looked at Enid.
"He's ready for dinner, Laura," she said. "Will you help me in the
The television provided background noise, the stew pot bubbled with delicious smells,
as Laura set places for two at the kitchen table, and for one on the coffee table,
per her mother's instructions. Enid mixed up dumplings and they worked around each
other in silence. If Laura closed her eyes, she could be a child again, her father
due home for dinner from the fields, Charlie in the living room watching cartoons,
Laura reluctantly setting the table when she'd rather be upstairs immersing herself
in either her schoolwork or a novel that transported her far, far away from West
She still wanted to be transported far, far away.
The air here smelled the same. It had that same, poor, illiterate stink to it that
she had always hated. That hadn't changed. That would never change.
"Here," Enid said, handing Laura a bowl of chicken and dumplings. "Go
help your daddy, while I ice this here cake."
Laura didn't like being ordered around, but she was glad for something to do, and
it wouldn't be a bad thing to help her father eat.
It was a terribly frustrating process.
By the time she realized that the kitchen towel her mother handed her along with
the bowl of soup was to put around his neck, she had dribbled chicken broth all down
the front of his shirt. His swallowing was impaired, and she had to cut the chicken
up into pieces so small it was almost as if she was chewing it for him, and every
other mouthful he'd choke and cough and she would begin to panic.
"I'm sorry, Daddy," she said, close to tears. "I'm not very good at
"Me, neither," he said as clearly as if his language apparatus worked perfectly.
What he did was make an incomprehensible sound, but Laura understood. She smiled,
the tears overflowing her lower lids this time, and gave him a hug.
"F-f-f-goddamn!" he said, and they both laughed, or as close to it as they
By the time he gave up, she had fed him maybe half a bowl of soup, and spilled another
third of it down the front of him. She kissed his temple and took everything back
into the kitchen.
"He eat?" Enid was dishing up their bowls.
"That's good. His appetite has been waning."
"I kind of made a mess."
"It takes practice. I'll clean him up."
Laura put ice water in their two glasses, then carried the steaming bowls to the
table. Maybe it was a good thing she'd never married, she thought. She'd never be
able to take care of somebody like this. Never. Her mother fed him three, maybe four
times a day, helped him bathe, shave, go to the bathroom, dress, sleep, oh god, no
way. No way.
"We thank you for the money you send every Christmas," Enid said.
"You must be doing good up there in Minnesota."
"It's a good job. It's a challenge, and a lot of fun. Next month I go to Washington
to testify before Congress."
"No." Enid stopped doing what she was doing, turned and looked at her daughter
with admiration all over her face. "Congress? The real Congress? In Washington,
"Yeah. It's about, you know, drugs. We want our new drugs approved by the FDA,
because we could help people who need them, but the government makes us jump through
too many hoops."
"What kind of drugs?"
"Well, we've developed a pill that can cure a yeast infection with only one
dose. We think it should be available over the counter."
"You got anything that could help your daddy?"
Laura looked down at her plate. "No, Mama. Has he seen a doctor? Did you take
him to the hospital? He should be on some blood thinners or something."
"No, no hospital. They'll just try to make him live longer, and he don't want
to, not like this."
"Stroke victims sometimes recover lots of their former faculties. If he had
Enid just shook her head.
"Nobody thought Charlie'd ever speak, either. Or dress himself. But he did,"
"Charlie was a little boy. God made children like little rubber balls. Your
daddy, his bounce is gone." Enid smiled. "He spent it right, and he used
it all up."
She was right, Laura knew. It was so odd to hear her mother talking of her husband's
death without putting up a fight, though. She accepted it as if... as if... as if
death were a part of life. Which it was, and Laura ought to know that by now.
Her old bedroom looked like a guest room, and Laura even had conflicting feelings
about that. On one hand, she hoped they had preserved her childhood self in there,
and on the other hand, she hoped they hadn't clung to her like that. And now that
she saw they hadn't, she kind of wished they had. The furniture was the same, but
the walls were newly white and the quilt and curtains were fresh. Everything of her
childhood was gone, and the room was cool and as sterile as a room with handsewn
quilts could be. They'd moved on. Did she think she had so much power over them that
they would pine for her year after year for twenty years?
Laura snuggled down in the cool sheets with the warm quilt over her and listened
for Charlie in the next room. But this wasn't her room any more, she wasn't in high
school any more, and Charlie didn't sleep next door any more.
"One day down," she said to herself, punched the pillow, took a deep breath
of the familiar scent of her old room, and reached for sleep.
* * *
Enid got her husband cleaned up, into his pajamas, and settled down on the sofa for
the night. He lived on the sofa now, and would for the rest of his days.
She turned off the television and sat with him for a while, holding his hand, running
her thumb back and forth across his forehead.
Laura will want to go see Charlie's grave tomorrow, she thought. Maybe she'll drive
that fancy red car into town and see some of her old friends, too.
"She's a beautiful girl," she said softly to Whip. "Smart and successful."
A certain sadness mixed with the pride she felt. She was so happy to have raised
an independent girl, an educated girl, who escaped the beatings of a drunken husband
and the life of raising a dozen shoeless kids -- the life so many of her classmates
had fallen into.
But there seemed to be a certain soullessness to Laura's life instead. No husband
to beat her, but yet no husband at all. Enid looked with fondness at Whip, who began
to twitch in the early stages of falling asleep. What would her life have been about
if it hadn't been about Whip? And no children for Laura, either. What would Enid
have to be proud about if it wasn't for Laura? And Charlie, too, she supposed, though
he wasn't hers by birth, he might as well have been. And though he grew to be a man,
and they treated him like a man, he was always and forever a child.
Oh God, she missed Charlie more than she thought was possible. She didn't think she'd
even miss Whip as much when he passed on.
He'd come to them so young, maybe six or seven, nobody really knew. He'd been dropped
off or left behind or something at Tiddly's. Told the waitress his name was Charlie,
but that's pretty much all he said before the accident over at the Sinclair station.
He'd been sleeping in the pile of old catalogs in the back, begging for food with
those blue eyes of his and that quick smile. The men took to feeding him like any
stray, and he hung around, watching the men wrench on those engines. One afternoon,
Charlie was sitting on a stack of tires, watching the men, when an air hose busted
loose from the compressor, snicked around and the brass end of it crushed a hole
in the boy's skull.
Whip was there filling up the gas cans for his tractor when it happened, and he grabbed
the boy and brought him home.
Enid boiled up some darning needles, some sharps and a spool of thread, and with
Charlie's head in her lap and his blood soaking through towels, she pulled up the
pieces of bone by their edges until they pretty closely matched the curvature of
his head. Then she sewed up the tear in his scalp with her sewing kit, wrapped the
boy's head and put him to bed in the spare room next to Laura's.
The next day he woke, and he could eat, but his eyes were vacant. It was a good month
before life returned to those eyes. It was two years before language came to the
boy, and maturity, never. But he grew big and strong and loyal and hard working.
He helped Whip with all the chores and acted like a little brother to Laura, and
never failed to kiss Enid's cheek when he left for chores after breakfast or when
he came home for dinner. Never missed. Never forgot.
Oh, she missed those kisses.
Laura was just a baby when Charlie came to them, and she mentally passed him up before
she was three. But she seemed to understand that he was damaged, and while she never
doted on him, she was never mean to him, either. She just accepted him as being who
he was, an older brother, kind of, who was always younger.
In the dark hours of the night, when sleep eluded her, Enid wondered if Laura had
forsaken the family because too much of her time was spent with Charlie. He was needier,
so he got more attention. Would Laura be softer and have a bigger heart and a more
normal life today if she had been raised with normal brothers and sisters? Or if
she had been an only child?
What if Laura knew that Charlie cried for six months after she left? What if Enid
told her that every Christmas when a beautiful card full of money came from the postman,
Charlie would grab the card and have Enid tell him stories about Laura and the angels,
for surely she lived with angels in Minnesota, or she wouldn't send pictures of them
every year. Then the card would disappear into his room.
If Laura only knew how much Charlie missed her. Would that make a difference to her?
Or would telling her just make her feel bad? What good would it do now?
"I did the best I could with what I had and what I knew at the time," she
said softly to Whip, whose eyes fluttered open for a moment, then closed again. "I
always tried to do right," she said, feeling the softness of Charlie's lips
on her cheek, the freshness of his shave in the mornings, the buzz of his heavy reddish
beard stubble in the afternoons. She thought of her beautiful daughter, asleep upstairs,
and wondered when she last got a kiss on the cheek from Laura.
So different, Enid thought.
I did the best I could at the time, she thought. And I'll do the best I can tomorrow,
She kissed her husband's forehead, tucked the afghan up around his neck, turned off
the light and went into her bedroom, leaving the door open in case he needed her
in the night.
* * *
Tiddly's was exactly the same, except the naugahyde booths were now black instead
of red. Laura wasn't really hungry, not after that enormous breakfast her mother
made, but she wanted to cruise through town, and Tiddly's was the center of the social
First she settled up with Donny Brooks -- she hadn't canceled her reservation, so
she paid anyway, despite Donny's protests. Donny fussed over her like a visiting
diplomat, which made Laura uneasy, but she exited Donny's foyer as quickly and as
gracefully as good manners would allow. Donny walked her out to the car, admired
the rented Taurus, then said, "Sorry about your Daddy, Laura." Then before
Laura could respond, Donny added, "And Charlie, of course."
There. Somebody had finally said his name. Tears bloomed in Laura's eyes, and she
accepted Donny's hug, squeaked out a "thank you," got in her car, and blew
Enid hadn't said anything about Charlie. Laura began to wonder how he died. Why he
died. He was only, what, forty-six? He was supposed to be there to take care of the
folks, to be their son, their grandson, their great-grandson, to see them through
the rest of their lives.
He was supposed to be there, absent Laura. He was to be the one to assuage her guilt.
She repaired her makeup and drove the two blocks to the cafe. When she walked in,
she remembered a few good times, when she felt a part of a crowd, and she remembered
the bad times, when she felt ostracized by everybody.
Most specifically, she remember giving Randall Cosgrove his ring back in that corner
booth. She'd cried as she slowly unwound the angora yarn from it, making him as uncomfortable
as she could, for as long as she could, and the next day that same ring was on a
chain around Cynthia Newcomb's neck.
Laura sat at the counter and ordered coffee, and it wasn't until it was served that
she recognized the waitress. Lisa Mae Wolff.
Lisa Mae recognized her at the same instant, squealed and ran around the counter
for a hug, then called into the back that she was taking a break. A younger, high-school-age
girl came out to take her place. The cafe wasn't busy, so the girl set herself to
refilling sugar dispensers.
Laura and Lisa Mae slid into a booth, where Lisa Mae lit up a cigarette and moaned
about her feet, then they settled right down to gossiping. Lisa Mae still wore her
hair bleached yellow and ratted high up on her head. Her lipstick and nail polish
were as pink as the apron she wore over a white blouse and jeans. They had never
been very good friends in high school, but all that class distinction seemed to melt
away in the perspective of their approaching forties. They talked and laughed about
all their old classmates, most of whom lived an unenviable life.
"But look at you!" Lisa Mae said with admiration in her eyes. "We
always knew you were too smart to stick around here. You escaped this place, and
it was a good thing you did. You're the only one who did. Some got as far as Wheeling,
but that's not far enough. Most settled right here, or down yonder."
Laura knew that "down yonder" meant the hollow with the tin shacks and
old rundown travel trailers. Alcoholism, disease, incest, and murder weren't uncommon
down there. Living down yonder was a horrible life sentence, and Laura didn't know
how people ended up there, knowing about it the way everybody did, but there were
never many vacancies there.
"How many kids you got?" Lisa Mae asked.
"No kids," Laura said. "I never married."
"You never married?" Lisa Mae's eyes, rimmed with all that black makeup,
grew large. "You queer?"
"Never married, and no kids. Wow. I can't hardly imagine that. I'm on my second
husband now, and Jimbo is a good guy. I've got three kids and he's got three, so
together we've got us a houseful." She fished around in the pocket of her apron
and came up with a pack of cigarettes and a plastic case full of photographs.
Laura was amazed that Lisa Mae would carry photographs of her kids in her pocket
at work. But she did, and she unfolded them, and showed Laura the pride of her life,
and seemed to delight in every one of Jimbo's kids as much as her own. "I tell
them, 'You learn to read, and you learn to cook, and you don't never end up down
yonder.' Good advice, don't you think?"
Laura nodded. "If they can read, they can do anything."
"Yep. Wouldn't give 'em up for the world." Lisa Mae repocketed the photographs.
"Sorry about your pa," she said. "And Charlie."
"Charlie used to come in here for a cup of coffee with a tiny scoop of ice cream
in it almost every day."
"A real gentleman, that Charlie." Lisa Mae's eyes turned sad. "Then
he started having those fits. Your ma, sometimes she had to handle him all by herself,
and that Charlie, he was a big guy."
"Fits? You mean seizures?"
"You know, cracked head and all."
Laura nodded, trying to imagine her tiny mother handling Charlie during a Grand Mal
"But you got kids, you do whatever it takes, that's for sure." Lisa Mae
checked her watch. "I got to get back to work or I'll get my skinny ass fired.
Let me bring you a piece of pie. Mo makes it fresh every morning, and it's good as
it gets. My treat."
Moment later, a hot piece of apple pie with a scoop of ice cream landed on the table
in front of Laura, along with a dispenser napkin and a fork, but Laura was still
lost in the echoes of Lisa Mae's statement: "You got kids, you do whatever it
Lisa Mae stayed in this town, married twice, raised her children, was personable
and friendly to everybody, even those who treated her badly in high school. Laura
never treated her badly, but Laura never liked her much, either. And Lisa Mae dealt
with it. She didn't run away, abandon her heritage, she just lived with it. And here
she was, friendly and giving and loving, to someone who had run away from home, someone
who had denounced this jerkwater town, and Lisa Mae with barely a high school education.
And Laura, with all her fancy education, had left her tiny mother to deal with Charlie's
seizures. And her brain-damaged father. You got kids, you do whatever it takes. You
accept their brain damage, and you accept their abandonment.
Laura put a bite of pie into her dry mouth, swallowed it with the last of her coffee,
left a ten dollar bill on the table, waved to Lisa Mae, who waved back, and stumbled
for the door. She couldn't wait to get back to her mama. Laura had never learned
to do whatever it takes. Her life was one selfish act after another.
Her mother's life had been one charitable act after another.
Guilt surged like bile. Maybe it wasn't too late to make restitution. Maybe it wasn't
too late to figure it out. She drove fast back to the farm, but she drove carefully.
She couldn't afford to be killed -- or worse yet, injured enough so her mother would
have someone else to care for -- before she made amends. If she ever could make amends
for the last twenty years.
She pulled into the drive amid a scattering of chickens, got out and ran to the front
door. "Mama?" she called, but the house was quiet. The breakfast dishes
had been done.
She put her purse on the kitchen table and went into the living room. Whip was sleeping
on the sofa, a game show playing softly on the television. Laura walked into her
mother's bedroom, but the bed was made and the room tidy.
"Mama?" she called upstairs, but there was no answer, so she walked up
Her bed was neatly made. She walked into Charlie's room, and found it to be in perfect
order, as well. Sweet boy, she thought, her heart squeezing. She looked at all the
toys on his dresser, race cars, mostly, lined up by their mother on a lace doily.
That had to be a new addition, Laura thought. She couldn't imagine Charlie living
with doilies in his room.
The house was so clean. Neat and clean. And now that Laura thought of it, it had
always been this way. Why did she always think of down yonder when she thought of
home, instead of thinking of how fresh and scrubbed everything was inside her parents'
There was a stack of comic books on Charlie's nightstand. Laura sat for a moment
on his bed, fingered the familiar bedspread, then picked up the comics.
Underneath them was a stack of Christmas cards.
Laura recognized them instantly, and a pang of grief threatened to double her over.
She put the comics back down on top of the cards, went down the stairs and out the
kitchen door, holding it back so it wouldn't slam and wake up her daddy.
The chickens ran over to see if she had any leftovers for them, but she just stood
there, needing her mother, overwhelmed with emotion that she didn't know how to identify
or to handle.
Then she saw a worn path through the weeds behind the house. She followed the path
with her eyes and saw a small figure, cotton dress flapping transparently around
the legs, standing on top of the ridge.
Laura started running.
* * *
Enid stood looking down on the mound of dirt that had begun to grow a good cover
of weeds already. By the end of the season, nobody would ever know that Charlie was
buried here, and that was probably just as well. He'd been a good man, but he came
in mystery and he left in mystery and he lived a good, helpful, simple, loving life.
It was fitting that he didn't leave much behind except those ripples of goodness.
Enid thanked God that the town had no doctor, and the sheriff had actually come help
her finish putting Charlie in the ground when Whip couldn't. No paperwork. Charlie
had never had any paperwork to begin with, he sure didn't need any to end with.
"You just keep on making those angels laugh, Charlie boy," she whispered
to him as she saw Laura come up the hill.
Laura was young and strong, stood straight and looked you right in the eyes. Enid
could not be more proud, although she would rest a little easier if Laura were married,
and had someone to take care of her. Women weren't meant to live alone and fend entirely
for themselves. Life was to be shared, and while that wasn't always easy, it was
really the only worthwhile thing.
Laura put an arm around Enid's shoulders and they stood looking down at Charlie's
grave for a long, silent moment.
"No marker?" Laura asked.
"Only in our hearts," Enid said.
Laura nodded, and Enid saw a drop darken a spot of dirt at her feet. Enid was cried
out, but she was glad Laura had a chance to loosen up and expel a little phlegm of
"I have to get back," Enid said. "Rufe Hoskins will be dropping by
"Rufe Hoskins? What for?"
"The neighbors take turns coming by every day," Enid said.
"I don't even know my neighbors," Laura said with a catch in her voice.
"You could," Enid said, her arm tightening around Laura's waist.
Laura shook her head, her emotional glacier splitting and cracking right before Enid's
eyes. "I don't know how."
"Well then," Enid said, realizing that missing her daughter's university
graduation was nothing, now that she had an opportunity to see her daughter finish
her real education, "come along and see Rufe. We'll show you."
Laura turned and wrapped her arms around Enid, and Enid felt those soft lips on her
cheek, softer even than Charlie's. She held her little girl as long as she could,
absorbing as much of that pain that she could, and then it was time to let the grief
lapse for a time and go back to the real world.
"Bye, Charlie," she said. "See you tomorrow, honey."
"Bye, Charlie," Laura said.
"Can you bake a pie?" Enid asked her. "Your daddy loves a cherry pie."
"Teach me," Laura said, and took her mother's hand.
© Elizabeth Engstrom.
Engstrom's web site at www.TripleTreePub.com