As if made of rice, her stomach flooded with water, the harvest too soon. That’s what the woman said, at least, whenever she rang to talk to my mother about the children inside her who were never really born. Each time she called—twice that year—my mother went next door to see her and stay the night. When she came back in the morning she would come to my room and sit on the edge of my bed, prodding me awake. “She’s hurting,” my mother would say. “More than you know.”
Except for those nights, the woman would keep to herself, never calling my mother to talk about the weather or to complain about our neighbors, the ones who kept their dog outside at night, leaving it to howl until morning. But my mother didn’t mind. Really, the two—the woman and my mother—didn’t know much about each other, I don’t think. A few times each week the woman would come out of her house wearing a sweater and clean, black shoes. Her hair was brown, and she would wrap it in a bun, sticking it to the back of her head. When she got to her car she would stand next to it and lean on its side, her arms laid on its top, her head dipped low so that her chin could rest. She would stay like that for a while, and if anyone else was watching her they might have thought she was sad. They might have thought she was lost, waiting with her eyes closed, for direction, for some sort of answer. But she wasn’t. She wasn’t lost. She knew where she was going: She would get in her car and eventually back out of the drive, heading off for the day, to run errands, maybe, to go to work. I asked my mother if the woman ever talked about where she went. “Do you know where she’s going?” I said.
I wanted to know.
I wanted to know that the woman had somewhere to go after all, that she really did, that she really wasn’t lost, not yet, that she wasn’t hurting, that she would be okay. But my mother couldn’t say. “No, James,” she said. “I don’t know where she’s going, or if she works,” she continued. “We’ve never talked about it.”
That couldn’t be true. My mother must have known more. She was the person the woman called when she needed someone most, when she needed something to hold, when she needed to be held, when she flooded from the inside out.
“We’ve never talked about it,” my mother had said. “We’ve never talked about anything like that.”
When I was small, when I didn’t know what he really meant, my father told me that I would one day be like him.
“This right here,” he said, patting his head as we sat across from each other at the breakfast table, me with my bowl of cereal, he with his toast. He rubbed his hand in circles and tousled his hair and then looked at mine. “Take a look at what’s in store,” he said, his forehead too prominent, the hair that once covered the top of it faded from view, already receded. “That’s right,” he said, talking to me as much as he was talking to his toast, the butter melting into the heat. “Keep looking. Take a long look.”
My hair was thick and curly. It didn’t look like his. It was still full of color, and my forehead wasn’t as big. But in a way he was right. It was as if knew exactly what my hair would turn into, that my nose would have a small cleft, that the bones in my cheeks wouldn’t be so much as sharp as they are soft. That’s what my wife tells me at least. So soft, she says, stopping to hold them when we walk past each other in the house, her hands cupped around the bottom of my mouth. You’re so soft.
As far as I could tell it was the same man who visited the woman each time. He would drive up to her house in a rusty, beat-up truck on Saturday and leave a week later, kicking up gravel and dirt. But each morning he was there he would sit outside on the woman’s porch, a porch meant for all seasons even though the screen was split, cut through on one side. He would sit on a chair that belonged to the woman and drink coffee out of a cup that belonged to the woman and it was my mother who told me the man came only when he and the woman wanted to have a child, something for them both. I understood why they would want to create something together, why they wanted to bring something into the world, making a world of their own, giving it a name, trying to give it enough, but I couldn’t figure out why the man never stayed, why he always left, why when it didn’t work the woman let him come back, why they always tried again.
One night, as my mother tucked me into bed, I asked her why the woman and the man didn’t get married like she and dad, who was at that moment in the other room doing word puzzles. I asked her why the woman lived alone, why the man didn’t stay if she deserved his love, if she deserved more.
“What she has is love,” my mother said. “It is. It’s not up to you or me to say it’s not.” She tucked her hair behind her ear.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I looked out my window in the direction of the woman’s house, its brown shutters almost crooked, the wind pushing through an old set of wind chimes like a ghost.
“I mean love is a shadow. It’s in front of you or you don’t see it at all, but out there, somewhere, it’s always waiting to come back.”
I thought of the man, the popping sound his truck made when he pulled up in front of the woman’s house, the ground getting used to the tires. “You can’t be a person without a shadow,” I said.
“Without love,” said my mother. “Without love.”
When my wife said she wanted a child I told her about the woman made of rice. “There was this woman who used to live next door to where I grew up,” I said. “She wanted a kid,” I continued. “A boy.” I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. “She would have this guy over sometimes but it never worked out.”
“What does that have to do with me?” my wife asked, pushing her glasses from her nose to her forehead. “What does that have to do with us?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was just telling you.” I looked at my wife’s face, the part of it that showed a dimple when she smiled. And her hair, its brown curls. On our first date, when I first met her, I told her she looked like a waterfall. We had met for dinner at a restaurant in town, introduced to each other through a mutual friend, a coworker at the office. What? she asked, laughing. What did you say? We were almost done eating and I laughed too, my fork hitting my plate. Your hair’s a waterfall, I said, still laughing, getting it right this time. Not you, not you. Your hair.
“Well what are you trying to say?” said my wife, trying to understand what I wanted, why I was talking about the woman who leaned on her car, the one who let her man sit on her porch and drink from her cups.
“I’m not trying to say anything,” I said. But I was. I wanted to tell her that I wouldn’t know what to do with a child, with a son or a daughter. I wanted to tell her I was still trying to figure out how to give her what she needed, let alone someone else.
She looked at my eyes. She started to talk and I could tell she wanted to, but she just kept looking at me, through me, past me, past the wall, past everything.
Later, when we were ready for sleep, as we lay in bed with the lights out, she said, “I’m not sure.” She said it again. “I’m not sure. Not anymore. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I can’t do this if I don’t know what you’re thinking.”
When I was old enough I moved far from home, away from the gravel roads, the all-weather porches. I moved east, to New York, a place where people are more likely to go, less likely to leave, a place where everyone is from somewhere else. I kept in touch with my mother on occasion, near holidays, and heard news of my father through her. It was almost always the same: He’s your father, she would say. He’s getting along. She would talk like she was hurrying, trying to speed through conversations, as if she was done, pushing him out. He’s fine.
After I settled into an apartment, and after I met my wife, and after we moved into a house just outside the city, my mother called to tell me how my father died. She had been out picking up groceries, and when she came home she found him in the front yard, where he had been working on the lawn. She said it was his heart. His heart, she continued. It gave out, just like that.
“He meant a lot,” she said. “Your father.”
I listened for a hitch in her voice.
“Yeah?” I said, my voice sliding.
“A nice reminder of what he used to be,” she said. She was talking slow but she was calm. She knew what she wanted to say. “He used to give so much.” What she wanted me to understand. “He did a lot for me when he could.”
We were both quiet on the line, waiting for the other.
“Oh,” she said, breaking the quiet. “You knew your father. You knew he could have been more.” It had taken me a long time to realize what he was: damaged, looking for what he would never find. I thought of that morning at the table, when he was talking to me about his hair. He had finished a piece of his toast before looking up at me, smiling like a clothesline with laundry still in the air. He said I had a lot to look forward to, and then he laughed, quiet, as if he didn’t mean it, as if he meant something else, as if was talking to someone who wasn’t in the room, saying quit—might as well, at least think about it—quit while you’re ahead.
“I’m sorry he couldn’t be what you needed,” my mother said. She knew him for who he was too, but long before I did, and she knew him before he became that person, before he let himself slip into a place where he was so close to drowning, somewhere between floating and going under.
“You don’t need to apologize,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I do.” She kept going. “You didn’t know him when he was good, when he saw the world as something he could give himself to, something that would give back. By the time you were old enough to talk to him he was already empty.”
I think my mother was wrong. I think he was too full—us, my mother and me—making him heavy.
One weekend in summer, a long time ago, before I started high school, my father left without telling us where he was going. He packed up our car with a fishing pole and a pair of rubber boats and without a word walked out the front door and drove away. My mother and I were in the kitchen. She stood at the sink and washed plates in the sink as I sat on a stool at the counter, almost done with breakfast.
“Going to the lake,” my mother said, looking out the window at the backyard, holding a dish in one hand in a sponge in the other, the suds from the soap on her wrists. “He’s going to the lake.”
“Which one?” I asked. There were four he could drive to, some bigger than the others. They were all within some twenty miles of our house. I had never been to any of them. I never had a reason. They weren’t the types of lakes that were safe for swimming; there was too much life inside them, turtles and different kinds of plants.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said my mother. She didn’t talk as she scrubbed piecrust off a small plate, a remnant from the night before. “North Woods,” she said, speaking up, talking loud, as if the answer came to her in a flash, in an instant. She was guessing. She didn’t really know. She couldn’t say.
“Does he go a lot?” I asked. I hadn’t even known my father fished. I had seen his fishing gear in a corner of our shed in the backyard but I thought it was there for no reason other than some sort of necessity, for show, having bought the rod for a cheap price at a yard sale. It looked like that kind of thing. It was used, a little rusty, like someone had owned it before.
“Sure,” she said. “Especially this time of year,” her words still sounding like guesses, like a story she was trying to figure out.
“That’s good,” I said, after I finished eating. “It’s nice out,” I continued, not sure what to say. It was true though. The sun was warm, and a few clouds were tucked into the sky. “He picked a good day.” I wanted to help my mother. I wanted her to believe her story, believe that my father had really gone fishing, to the lake, that he had eaten breakfast with us, that he was coming back.
The next day, he did come back. I hadn’t heard him park the car in front of the house but from my room I heard the front door open and then shut. He took of his shoes and breathed heavy, a big sigh.
“Hey there,” my mother said. She was sitting on the couch and reading, or else waiting for him. “Bring anything back?” she asked. “Anything good for dinner?”
I couldn’t hear what my father was saying but I could hear his voice, low like a baritone. He went to his and my mother’s room and shut the door, to rest. He had walked by my door and he looked a little dirty, a little tired. I wondered where he stayed the night before, if he had slept in the car or if he packed a tent. It was common for people to do that, camp out in North Woods. But I wondered if he had gone to North Woods at all, if he had gone somewhere else altogether, if he had driven all day and all night and came back only because he didn’t know where he was going. I wondered if he had nowhere else to go.
“I don’t know what made him like that,” my mother continued, still on the phone. “But I couldn’t snap him out of it. His funk. I couldn’t bring him back.”
She said more but I forget what. I stopped listening. All I could think of was when she would visit the woman who lived next to us, the woman calling to us in the nights, after her man had been away for too long, after something inside her broke.
Maybe my mother was closer to the woman than she was to my father, able to share in the woman’s sadness, her grief. Just as the woman’s children were lost to the world inside her my mother lost me to a world that was bigger, the world outside, my father, his blood inside mine, becoming my own.
“I’m sorry,” my mother had said, her voice solid, even while apologizing for her husband—my father—gone.
A week after my wife asked about a child and I told her about the woman, she asked again.
“Do you want to take this seriously this time?” she said. “Or are you going to go on about something else?”
“I am taking this seriously,” I said. “I just don’t know.” We were up early. I was getting ready for work, covering some extra hours.
“What don’t you know?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to tell her.
“I just don’t,” I said. “I can’t explain.” I was afraid. Afraid to try to have a child and only get that far. Afraid that if we got further I would never be able to give enough.
“Well I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” she said. “I don’t know how to read you.”
I didn’t know how to help her, how to show her what I was thinking. I left for work and she told me to figure myself out, to let her know when I was ready to talk.
“I will,” I said. “I’ll try.”
When I got home I found a note she had left on the counter. She told me not to call. I won’t pick up if it’s you, the note said. But I’ll come back. When I’m ready I’ll come back. I’ll be ready when you’re ready. I’ll know when it’s time. I made myself a snack and brought the note to my room, laying it under my pillow. I went to bed early and dreamed of where I grew up. In the dream I watched as my mother left our house for the one that belonged to the woman made of rice. Except she wasn’t visiting the woman. She was looking for my father. He was lost and she was going to find him. For some reason I turned away before she got to the door, but I knew it was my father in that house, and it made sense. When I woke I read my wife’s note again and told myself I would be better. I would try. I remembered back to when I would come home from school to find my father asleep on the couch, on his back, his arm over his face, his body rising, never sinking.
|No. 12 - Fall 2013
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