In the swamp.
A man I once knew died in Watertown. Last minute drive to a place I haven't been in 10 years, because that's what I had to do. She wanted to come, to be with me, she said. Calvin Powell is dead and buried now, and until five days ago, Cherise never knew he existed. So, this Cal, she would ask if I explained more than I have already, what was up with him? There is so much of Watertown I try not to think about--less that I want to share--but, just now, as I look at Cherise, I see that she knows less of me than she would like.
Until six days ago, as far as I was concerned, Cal Powell didn't exist. I was at work when a high school friend I haven't thought of in years called to say Cal's heart gave out while he was driving someplace. I looked out my office window to the flat, gray wall of Boston sky and said his name: Calvin Powell, the same way I catch myself in the middle of meetings, mumbling the names of rivers--Suck Creek, Chattahoochie, Nantahala--because if you pass years without speaking a name, you can come to think that maybe there was nothing to that name. Calvin Delrose Powell. The bass of it was thick in the back of my mouth. I said it again and again--Calvin Delrose Powell--and he was dead, then alive for a moment, and then dead.
I don't know what I will tell Cherise, but I pull the car to the side of the road. She isn't surprised by the stop and her shoulders relax into the seat. The sun glows on the cinnamon-brown of her face and though her jaw is slack with calm, her eyes shift from the road to the fields, to the sky, to her hands. It's her way of looking irritated. Her hair is cut short, and she looks like the proudfaced child I have seen in photographs on her parent's mantle. A few strands hide those eyes, looking at everything but me. She is waiting to hear what I have to say. It's damn time I started explaining what she doesn't know, why this quick drive south, why I did not make an effort to speak to anyone, why no one spoke to us, why I have said very little to her in three days.
"I'm not going to get into all of it now," I tell her, "it would take more than a few day's drive for that. Sometimes you have to see something laid to rest. That's why I went to see Cal put in the ground. Let some things settle for good." And I want to say more, but I pause, thinking of what to include in the story I might tell her.
Cherise came up in a house where her parents talk through their problems and enjoy recounting the stories of their past--what was embarrasing is made endearing, what was painful, they romanticize their having endured it. Though she has never said it, I know she feels she and I should share in everything. After all, we are getting married, someday. We are engaged, without a wedding day in mind. This should be the time when we grow together, and yet this is where I am stuck: not in loving her and that proud-girl beauty of hers, but in what I share of myself. What to tell, what to remember, what not to tell. I didn't come up like she did.
If I tell her anything more than what I have, I will tell her about when I was 17, when Cal was foreman for my summer job at Weyerhardt Steel and I was spending more hours out of my house than in. We lived just outside town, where 15 years' of my mother's savings as a cleaning woman secured two acres and a two-story, three-bedroom house. It was just my mother and me, and had been like that for as long as I could remember. I never knew my father, and though I'd get the questions about where my Daddy was, I was never bothered by who or where that man was. If asked, I would answer that he lived in Memphis, and that was as far as I went with it.
Other than the folks we saw at church and the neighbors Momma traded across-the-fence pleasantries with, I never knew Momma to have friends. For some reason, what friends I had never came by the house. It did not seem like the thing to do. Momma was always startled by neighbors who dropped by unannounced. Her voice would be pleasant and measured as she served them sweet tea, but her tone was never welcoming.
When I was much younger, Momma would take me when she cleaned other people's homes rather than leave me with a sitter. If it was warm out, she would sit me on a porch or in a backyard with crayons and paper. She had a portable radio and she would set it where I could hear it while she cleaned inside. If it was cold, she would set me up in a kitchen, same crayons, paper and radio. Every once in a while, she would come to check on me, a look through the door, or call from the top of some stairs, but never a touch on the head, or a moment to take up a crayon to add to what planes, bears, and racing cars I had doodled.
My teenage years felt much the same: Momma from a distance, calling me for supper, sending me to the yard for chores, wishing me goodnight from behind a closed door. No time together spent watching television or playing dominoes. Momma wasn't like that. She was a proud, calm-faced woman, with hard, distant eyes that never rested on you for long.
There were men at church who tried getting close to her after service, but other than Pastor and later Cal Powell, I remember few men coming to our home.
Before he was my ride to work, Cal was the man Momma would call when our trees needed pruning, when the water pump went out, septic line backed up, things like that. Momma had a strong back and strong hands. She could fix the furnace and change the oil in the car, but there were some jobs she wouldn't do. She didn't mind Cal's prices, either: a fifth of Wild Turkey, half-dozen jars of peaches or pickled beets. Cal had been coming to our house for years, but in late spring of my seventeenth year, I seemed to see more of him than I had been used to.
When I was younger--eight or nine--Cal would take me fishing and, as I grew into my teens, to minor league games. Momma didn't mind. Cal took to me like a friend, and by the time I was 17, I had shared more than a few beers with him on fishing trips and in bleecher seats. He knew how to time a joke. Knew about fish, birds, land and trees, engines and dogs. He could tell better than anybody else how Ronnie Sours hit a ball clean out of Ferris Field, something nobody, except for Harmon Killebrew, had done before or since.
I had been working the foundry job two weeks into June when I first heard Cal's Dodge rumbling up our drive 20 minutes before he was supposed to pick me up for work. He talked to Momma on the porch while I ate my breakfast. Come Monday the next week, he was at the table when I came down to eat. Momma had fresh biscuits and sausage gravy on the table. Cal ate slowly, chewed on one side of his mouth, then the other, like each bite mattered. I had seen the man take down three ham sandwiches during our 15-minute afternoon break. More than that, the whole kitchen smelled of Aqua-Velva. Momma made fresh biscuits for him every morning that week.
On Friday morning, he pushed from the table to go, leaned over to Momma and said, "biscuits so good, I might carry that boy to work Saturday, Sunday, Christmas, New Year's, Easter, Juneteenth, too." He got up, left out the back door. It took me a week to notice that Momma had a faint hue of dark red glossing her brown lips. And the hairnet she wore most mornings was nowhere to be seen.
By the end of June he was spending his evenings at the house. We might sit at the kitchen table or in the Florida room, glass louevers open, eating fried catfish and listening to the radio. I used to think the thing between them was about the way they talked late into the night, the stolen glances they shared as we cleared dinner plates, or the way they sat together on the porch: Momma leaning into him, swaying to what was on the radio, her elbows on her knees, then a hand reaching to sip at his bourbon. Long after I had gone upstairs, I could hear them from my room, their soft laughter caught up in the canopy of the poplars that stood just outside my window.
One early July morning after such an evening, I rose to hear Momma singing. When I came downstairs she was on the back porch, pressing pleats into a dress I had never seen her wear. The house smelled of biscuits. I don't remember what I said, something to tease her about how late they were up, and I remember her laughing out loud, just as she had with Cal. She looked off to the edge of the yard, and I was thinking to myself that maybe that weekend she might come with us to a ballgame. Ballgames, fried corn and catfish, dominoes on the porch, Albert King on the radio. Maybe the summer was going to be like that. And Momma and I were laughing together, something that did not happen often. I was not one to crack jokes with her, but hearing her laugh right then, I felt like I could. I smiled and said to Momma, "you should see yourself, laughing like a girl in high school."
But then she stopped grinning. She looked at me for a moment and then took the apron into the kitchen before she was done. I didn't know what I had said. But in that moment I realized there were parts of her I would never know. A week later, I woke on a Saturday morning to hear Momma yelling, something she rarely did, especially not in the middle of the driveway. I certainly never heard her yell at Cal.
"I got troubles as it is, don't need yours too, not in my house, not around my boy."
I heard Cal's truck start up, watched from my window as he drove off. My mother watched him from the yard. He didn't come around the house at all the following week, and instead picked me up for work at the corner.
On Friday night, Cal and I picked up our routine: a plate of ribs and a ballgame, and I was thinking that what ever happened with Momma and him might soon cool off. But as he took me home Cal pulled his truck to the side of the road that led to my house. I wondered if he planned to let me off at the corner where he picked me up for work.
When I asked him why he hadn't been around, he started with, "Your mother ..." caught himself, and didn't say another word about it. Then he turned the truck around, said, "Let's get us some dranks," and drove toward Ephron's Market.
I never knew for sure why he stopped coming around. If I had asked Momma about it, she'd have said it was not for me to know. She never let anyone get too close for too long.
I was only 17, but Cal and I had spent time that June in bars along Eleventh Street, out in the sticks, in back-road garages and barns, where beer sat in coolers under engine blocks and bald-felt pool tables. We bounced that rusted-out Dodge all over the county. I didn't mind riding around with him. I didn't want to go to my house either.
It was very late, if not already early. The heat of the day had long given up, and the air was sweet, the way it is at four in the morning, when only drunks and lovers take notice. Wind pushed at the trees without a sound and the scent of black locust and new hay discs blew across the fields. Mist hung in the culverts and along the treelines. The wetlands were the dark nothing beyond. We were nearing the bridge at Donahue's Field, which used to graze cattle before it was a dump on the edge of swamp land. Now it held the American Legion softball diamonds. When we crossed the bridge, Cal was griping about how the Braves would never take the pennant.
One moment he was going on and on about "back in the Henry Aaron days ..." over the truck tires hitting the steel span of the bridge, and then the screech of the brakes.
I steadied myself on the dash and turned to see what had happened. Cal heaved air like something had burst in his chest. He tried to smile, the way folks do when they want to avoid crying. He was built the way folks were built before machines did most of their work. Not tall, but thick. Small head, wide back, satisfied belly. You could see the strength in his hands, like he could work rivets into place without a jack. But right then, he looked like a scared boy, poised to set off running.
Everything was still, and for a moment I lost a sense of where I was. Cal whispered something, a word--maybe he said it twice--then he shuddered and his shoulders locked up. If I knew back then how seizures can take a body like a bullet, I might have thought he was having one. I might have eased him to the passenger's side of the cab, and hurried on to his house or to a hospital, but instead I just watched.
He turned away and looked out past the patches of grass in the swamp stream. Maybe I heard an early cardinal; maybe I wanted to. Frogs called from down the stream. The Dodge was idling.
"Let's get on," he said and slowly pulled off. The headlights flickered across paved road. We turned a corner. He looked ahead into the blue band of night over the swamp and the glow from town lit his face.
"That field," he said.
"What? Donahue Field?" I was quick to answer back.
He was quiet for a moment. He said, "Back in '67, somebody tole me they buried a whole mess a tires under that field, part of the land-fill where it used to be swamp. You got these tires, right? They's rubber. Just work they way back up. Flat ball field turned to lumps. Had to come in with heavy equipment to lay that field right." He rubbed one palm on his thigh, switched with his steering hand and did the same with the other. "Some things just do like that."
By then, he was driving fast. I could only watch him, leaning one arm out the window, face shifting from the glint of far off lights. He was saying something, but I couldn't hear him. Then he looked at me, and I felt like I was supposed to say something, but I didn't. We just rode around. I can't call the names of roads we crossed. I remember that we were quiet.
After driving like that for a half-hour or so, we came up on Ephron's Market. The 'Snacks-Tackle-Beer' sign glowed over the dark fields. He turned into the lot and stopped.
Cal smiled at me, rubbed his face, and said, "Millertime," as if it was Saturday afternoon and we had bleacher seats and a bucket of fried chicken at Fulton County Stadium.
I watched him walk through the cloud of moths buzzing the bulb above the gas pumps. For a moment he blurred into the flashes the mothwings made as they swarmed under the lamp. He stood there a moment, and looked up into the swirl of soft sparks before stepping out of the circle of light. I heard the bell tinkle as Cal walked into the store and shouted, "Hey, Sammy Eff, how much for a free beer?"
I thought back to weeks ago when we were out fishing and he spoke of towns and people he knew. He had been places. Left and picked up, gone, lived some life and come back. I had only known Watertown, the roads around it, Momma and me alone in that house. Cal talked to me like an old travelling companion, reminiscing on places as if we had both been off, looking for things to get into. Once that beer got in him, he would get wound up in one of his stories about the women he'd known.
"There weren't many, but what there was, I give 'em what all I got," he said. But he had loved only one. He spoke about her the least, out of respect for Momma. He never told me much more than the way this woman laughed, the dress she looked good in, how she cooked greens better than his momma's. He'd catch himself before he said too much. When I asked Momma about her, she said that Glenda Kendricks left town, without a word, sometime in spring of that year, a month or so before Cal became more than a handyman around our house. No one knew for certain what day she actually cut out of Watertown. She was the sort of lady nobody knew well but saw around the way, at church and in bars, walking Eleventh Street, where folks assumed she lived.
Momma said the story about Calvin Powell and Glenda Kendricks took all types of family, friends, postal carriers, barber shop tales, and after-church gossip to build up to anything people couldn't settle in their minds themselves. No one wanted to tell a story about her just up and gone, no goodbye, no reason. People wanted to figure out why, like something in them wouldn't be settled if they didn't get it right.
After she was gone, folks put Glenda Kendricks all over the South and as far west as Galveston: she was looking for her first love; some man come to town in a smoke-gray Lincoln, waving money around, and off she went; she took a bus for Texas, looking for a child she gave up when she was young. I never knew which story to fix on. Momma said she knew of Glenda but she didn't like to speak of somebody the way other folks did.
"People get to forgetting or recalling as it suits them," she would say. "Time somebody re-remember you in and out of the story they got working in their own mind, it ain't hardly you."
The boys at the foundry told me Cal kept a picture of a lady in his wallet, but if they asked about her, all he'd say was "jus my ole used-to-be," and that was as much as he would say.
In the truck at Ephron's, Cal gone to get beer, I leaned back, lost in what had happened out by the field. He looked scared when he told me about the tires, but before the tires he had mumbled something else. And as Cherise and I now sit on the side of the road, it comes to me like a small, sharp echo: Glenda.
Cal came back to the truck, and we drove to a pond to drink beer and talk into early morning. More than talk, there was the dark, cloudless sky, the slick, black pond and the company of night things. It sounded like a world of cicadas and frogs. I said something about those sounds, slipping into echoes across the water. He said nothing. I tried to catch a look at his eyes as I gave him a beer, but he turned and walked to sit on his heels at the water's edge. I followed and stood a few feet behind him. Half of his beer was gone in one draw, and he threw the bottle toward deep water. It spun away from us, end over end, foam trailing, glass sparkling in the glow from town lights, before splashing in the shadows. We stared out to where it hit and we were silent for a while, like that meant something.
"Bottles. Stay put where they sink. Now those tires," I said, trying to make some connection to what I thought startled him earlier that night, "they don't stay down, sounds like. Piles of tires," but I wasn't sure of what I was saying, "Seen shit like that, brother, thrown all the hell everywhere. A world of mosquitos up in there, waitin to put the sting on your ass." And I laughed because I wanted it to be funny.
"It ain't just about tires," he said, "the swamp, it moves things. Everybody throw they shit in there. You throw something in there, never give a care for it again, and up it come someplace else."
I thought I understood him. The swamp was strange that way. It was a wide stretch of bottomland, scarred with stands of pond pine, oak and sycamore. It wasn't a real swamp, not like in Mississipi, but it smelled like swamp, sucked at your feet like swamps do. From a plane, the swamp wasn't much, but walk in it for a while, and the land got large. It felt like a swamp, so that's what we called it.
Folks from way back used to dig graves on the solid land back in there, the only burial land left for them, but most would tell you it was so the dogwood they planted there would thrive. Over the years farmers graded the land around the swamp, put in land-fill, planted crops, harvested, turned the soil. Rivers and waterways shifted, pushed and pulled at the soil. People worked the land more than they watched how it washed away.
A thought would get into somebody that they should visit the family plot. They would go to pay their respects and find their plot gone. Some would find a keeling headstone, displaced yards into a pond. Some might only find the 10-year old tupelo they last saw when it was a sapling. The older men still talk on the porch of Ephron's about a rainy summer before TVA dams, when Ellard Williams was moving fieldstones on the edge of his land and found somebody's ribcage.
All of us had known of something lost and found near the swamp. I wanted to say this, but I felt like Cal wouldn't hear it right, like I was just mixing his mess in with everybody else's. I was 17 and on summer vacation. I just let it go.
At some point I finally said, "We best be getting on."
He took his time throwing stones into dark water.
I tried to nudge him, and he stood up fast enough so that I stepped back. He was swaying. I figured he was drunk. I reached out to steady him, and he took hold of my thumb. He bent it toward my wrist and pain flared from my hand to my shoulder. We looked dead at each other a moment. His grip loosened and he eased me back a step. After he had taken a few steps toward the truck, I followed.
I said, "It's just getting late, that's all; you know how folks always worry."
And he said, "Not always."
We were quiet as he drove me home. The swamp felt larger around us and I was eager to get out of it. Cal had told me a long while ago that the only people who knew their way of out there were runaway slaves and their children, his family, who had found a way to live back up in there. It was the one place, besides hundreds of miles north and west, that master wouldn't follow. More than a hundred years gone, there were still people who went into the swamp to hunt, to live, hide from the law or hide something that wouldn't be found. I felt like I was hearing everything around us at a volume louder than things needed to be-tires on the road, racoon and possum rustling through Johnson grass, calls of what I wanted to be birds, but could imagine as people, lost, and wandering the dark.
When he let me out at my house, he didn't say a word. I stepped to the porch and turned to watch the glow from the truck's running lights pull away. That was a Friday and we didn't speak over the weekend. He wasn't at Sunday Service. On Monday, he missed his first day at the foundry in 10 years. That Thursday I heard they found him in the swamp.
He was stooped over, breathing hard, shirt dried stiff with sweat, his arms and legs stuck in the mud. He'd been out there for a day or so before an old man poaching dove came up on him. If the man hadn't been ducking the game warden, he would have never seen Cal in such a tucked away place.
"Damn fool was bent over; had his arms all jammed into the mud," the man told the fellas at Ephron's, "like he was lookin for somethin."
All that I heard about Cal was through the boys at the barbershop and the older men who held court on the front porch of Ephron's. The hospital released Cal within a day. They said he was a strong man for his fifties, all he needed was water and rest. But he didn't go back to work.
By then Momma had made me quit the plant job. She said I had saved enough of my pay to take the rest of the summer off. Soon I would be off to college, she told me, and it would be good to be closer to home before I was gone. The next to last thing I heard about Cal was that the plant fired him so that he could draw unemployment. The last thing I heard about him was that he went into Mackie's Lounge for one bourbon and a beer, and was rarely seen in town for weeks after. I remember being relieved, not because he had been found, or that he wasn't dead, but because I did not want to see the man ever again.
When Cherise and I were first driving south, my best explanation was that I had to go to the funeral because I hadn't thought of Cal in years. I tried to explain about how remembering him was like naming a river--a hill, the street you grew up on, folks you laughed with--just so that you know you came from somewhere. With all that in my head, I tried to tell her, it takes me some time to remember where I came from.
But Cherise is a tax lawyer who knows a thing or two about selective memory, and she was quick to point out, "You never speak of your mother, and she isn't a damn river." And I didn't have an for answer that.
I sit in the car with my fiancee. I touch her wrist and draw in the breath that ! think is going to push me to start talking to her. She's shared enough of my life in restaurants and bars, up and down grocery isles, on vacations to Oak Bluff and laughing with her family in Springfield to feel she knows me. She looks at me, her face at first soft, like she's eager to understand when I tell her not just about Cal Powell, but more about me. Who are my people? That's what she wants. I smile as if I'm about to explain just that, but I'm silent, and the lines in her face go tight. She thinks I'm all bullshit. She gets out of the car, sits on the hood. The car is running, I'm sitting in it, and even if I could explain what I haven't told her about my family, something in me wants to hold onto it for myself.
In my mother's house there was never talk of my father, or how Momma left him, asleep in an East St. Louis duplex in the middle of the night, bound for family in Knoxville-me, in the backseat of a bus, confused at five years old, but sure by morning that west Tennessee was far enough away that we wouldn't be going back. I remember nothing of the months we lived in Knoxville. And I soon forgot the family that didn't chase after Momma when she moved on to Watertown before that year was out. I knew our distant family only as faces floating in the pictures my mother kept until I was 17.
One day, without a word, she got rid of them. By then the sassafrass was already turning. August was almost gone, and it had been weeks since Cal Powell drove his truck out of our driveway. Momma didn't talk about him or any other man. It was a Saturday, and she had me folding blankets in the attic for storage. There was just enough light from the dormer window to see dust drift across the cedar panels that lined the attic. After blankets, I was to wipe down the kitchen baseboards.
I was done with the blankets much earlier than Momma had planned. I lay on top of the trunk and watched the dust drift from the dark of the cedar panelling into the hazy light glowing through the dormer window. I dozed in and out until the light outside quickly faded. Streamers of grey smoke blocked out the sun as I stepped to the window. I looked down to the yard, where the smoke churned from an oil drum we used to burn garbage and cuttings. Momma was next to the can. She tore pages from large books and threw them over the small fire. The pages held photographs which curled against the fire rising in the can.
I recognized the books, three clothbound albums Momma had carried in a gingham table cloth on her lap when we took the bus from Knoxville to Watertown. I didn't know all the names of the people in the pictures, but I knew they were family.
Even now, all I know of family was what I saw in those photographs: twig of crepe myrtle stuck in a baby's wicker basinette, pinky ring on a young soldier, the pomade and stocking cap waves in an uncle's hair, if he was an uncle at all. In the back of the third album Momma had begun to paste in pictures of us: Cal, her and me, pictures that, unlike any other photographs, she labelled: "Cal cleaning fish, lucky catch ...;" "The boys fixing(and breaking) the car;" "Cal and me, off to the movies." I had taken the shot before the movies. Cal had been to the barber's. He held a straw porkpie with a new grograin band. Momma's dress was a simple cotton, but she had pressed with starch three times. She smiled the same smile I saw in pictures from her childhood.
Just as I came to realizing this, Momma poured a jar of clear liquid over the photos, and I could hear the flames explode from where I stood inside the attic. By the time I reached the second floor coils of black smoke raced past the landing window. By the time I reached the yard, there was nothing left of the books but flames and thick smoke. A gasoline flash-fire, it burned fierce and quick like a match before I could get the hose, and then nothing.
Momma parted her lips to a nervous smile. She spread the sweat from her face to press back her hair. Right then, she felt less like my mother and more simply like a woman I had seen but never known, observed for years a few rows up in church or along the aisles of the grocery store. I saw in her the girl of photos from her younger years in west Tennessee, a big-eyed girl whose slim smile didn't hide how at so early an age the bright in her eyes was already gone. We two were the only family I could name, and I had no way to know whether it was my mother's doing or not, but I decided that would not forgive her for making it that way.
I left Momma in the yard and went to my room. I don't know what put the thought in my head, but I knew I wanted to leave. That would take some planning, and money. It was not too long before September, when I would be off to college, but I wanted to go right then. Maybe to Knoxville, maybe to Memphis. Chicago, Kansas City, Boston; I had never been anywhere. I stood in my room for a while, not knowing what to do. I took my fishing tackle from the hall closet and went for the back door. Momma was in the kitchen. She squared her shoulders to say something, but I walked past her for the back door. By the time I realized she was saying don't you slam that screen door in my face I had already done it. I got in the car and turned it out of the yard. I looked back long enough to see her behind the screen, then I drove off.
I drove to the downtown liquor store, got two bumpers of Colt 45 and buzzed six yellow lights out Valley Road. Once the road passed the Confederate cemetary and crossed Eleventh Street, it was a straight shot until it hit the river. It wound south, along the riverbend and then west, running the length of the valley, bending around the town and ran a few miles before stretches of solid land gave way to swamp. I drove a ways into the swamp, looking for a place to fish. I pulled off the road, smoked some herb, and carried the malt liquor and my fishing tackle out into the wetlands. There was plenty of nothing out there. Once the road got past the foundry and Donahue's Field, there was nothing but swamp. Small patches of old growth, stands of pine and oak thriving too deep in the swamp for any logging trail or tractor to mess with.
What happened next was simpler than I'd like it to be: I was high, I drank until well after dark, I passed out.
I woke to the whisper Johnson grass made against my leg when I walked through it, but I wasn't the one who was walking. I was doubled over someone's shoulder, the ground was passing below me, grass giving way to work boots. I heard someone say, you damn lucky your Momma ain't burnt my phone number, and all that I remember after that comes in random flashes: light of the evening shimmering through the trees before the sky went black. The night air full of wet cold and cicada wail that buzzed inside my skin. Glow of a pitch lantern bobbing above swamp mist. Calvin Powell's wide-boned face, winding my way through the dark. When Cal carried me out, he knew I'd be embarrassed, so he took me home instead of the hospital. He didn't stop once.
After I had been put to bed, I could hear Momma running dish water in the empty kitchen sink. Cal's mud-caked boots thudded down the hall and down the stairs. Chairs were dragged from the Florida room to the patio. Momma was still in the kitchen, clinking bottles in the back of the bread drawer, where she kept the bourbon. Sometime in early morning, I woke from some dream I was having about :he wet air of high summer, covering me like too many quilts. I stepped to my window to catch the breeze. Cal's truck was still in the driveway, its chalky-gray primer coat catching the blue light of the new morning. I woke later to the rumble of Cal's truck pulling out of our drive and there was Momma, leaning right over me. She was smiling and I wasn't sure what she was smiling about: me being safe at home, Cal having been the one to carry me home, or Cal staying through the night with her.
Momma held my hands tightly in hers so that it would take an effort for me to pull them back. It would have been cruel to do that. But part of me wanted to be hard. I wanted to say something to hurt her, and I thought about earlier that summer, Cal and that swamp, some woman whose story nobody would ever get right. But Momma kept smiling. How did it work that people could let go of their pasts? Just burn away the parts they didn't want, open their arms to the life they wanted? I wondered what story Momma had made of Glenda and Cal, and what Cal thought of Momma. Burn or bury, forget or not remember, it felt the same to me. That's when I felt like not remembering would be a good thing for me.
In the days that passed after that--I don't know how many--I kept to my room. I spent most hours waiting for the hounds in my bedroom wallpaper to catch the fox, that or the walleye to escape the hook in the alternating pattern. There was wallpaper watching, reading comic books and getting up to watch Cal's truck pull into our driveway every evening, watching it rumble out in the early morning.
Momma and I didn't speak much after that. That was fine with me. It was almost fall and I would be leaving soon. When I started eating supper at the table, those minutes were long with no talk. Sometimes Momma would say, "Well, Lord knows we got to make do with what we got," and sit staring at the tablecloth with a stillness she reserved for Grace. There would be a silence, and then we would speak of the heat or rain or the collards and peas out back. Then we would be silent, like we had agreed to something.
Before too long I was off to college. We did not speak much while I was away, not until I had graduated and was living back in Watertown. When I was 22, after I'd gone to college, worked some time away and was back home, working small-town insurance claims, Momma had a stroke. She was confined to a wheelchair and couldn't speak. I found a home for her, and a third of my pay went into that. I'd visit her for an hour or so on holidays. Three years of Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and her birthday: me watching her, looking sometimes at me, sometimes at nothing at all. There were times when her eyes would perk up and she'd open her mouth, as if to ask a question. Or she might reach out her hand toward my sleeve, and sometimes, I'd start to lean to her, ready to answer, but I would catch myself. By then she was a woman who could not remember that she had been my mother.
The year I turned 25, she passed away in her sleep. I arranged her burial, sold what was left in the house to auctioneers and moved out of town a few months later.
It hasn't been long since Cherise got out of the car and walked to the bridge, but I'm sure she is tired of waiting for me to say something. From the car I watch her, standing on the bridge. The late day sun is almost full on her face. She looks back for a moment as I open my door, but then quickly returns to her view of the stream. I get out of the car and walk to her. She knows I'm coming, but she's not looking. She's thinking, no more bullshit.
I start talking before I get to her. I tell her I couldn't have told her why I had to go back because I wasn't sure myself until I got into Watertown. She looks my way, but doesn't say a word. She leans against the bridge rail. Her arms are folded. I want to hold her while I try to explain, but I know she's not having that.
"No bullshit," I say, and tell her the story about how Calvin Powell, a man with the strength of two, shivered like a child when he whispered Glenda Kendricks's name. I start with that and consider telling her the rest. I pause, not sure of what I'm waiting for.
Cherise listens and asks no questions. I'm thinking that she might ask about family and friends in Watertown, as she did years ago, when she first wondered why I never took her home. I told her then that was my business, and soon we got to talking like folks who were close to last words. Then she got quiet, like now.
She doesn't know the whole of the story, but I can see her working to figure out what I have told her. She thinks she understands what troubles me, and as she considers it, she begins to smile. It is not a cruel or cynical smile, but one of pity, as if my story is as simple as what I won't say about Cal Powell, Glenda Kendricks, and my mother. She will be wrong, but she is the sort who is used to figuring things out. She is thinking the reason I came back to Watertown was the same reason I stayed away for all those years, and in a few minutes, she is sure to explain it to me: Cal Powell represented a cofusing part of your childhood--angered youth, small town, no father-figure sort of thing--but you didn't want to remember him as a bad man. If she explains this to me, Cherise will look concerned. She will still have that smile that gets me, part sigh, part smirk.
But she says nothing.
I don't know what I will do. Maybe I'll look at her and remember that she's not trying to force me to do anything. I'll take in that face, lit in the haze of the afternoon. I will look away for a moment, see all the miles to drive with this woman and maybe my breath will get short, because I haven't told her everything. I look back to her and though she would hate for me to notice, I'll see some yearning there, too.
Just now, I see Momma's face, caught behind the screen door, its grid making a haze over her features. It is all in flashes now: Momma in that kitchen, the hot day outside of it, the night that followed, the silence that filled the days after that. Cherise will work on how to feel about Cal, but I'm working on what I have kept to myself: that woman in the kitchen door, her child rushing from the house, and she can't get him to come back. He is gone too quickly, the day too hot and the road too quiet to have words out in the yard; the worn wood of the screen door is swollen with summer heat and it catches when she wants it to open. Her arms must have pressed against the screen, her head to the door frame. I see her, still calling after me as she gets that door open. She steps just a few feet into the yard, not to chase, not to explain, but to hope that maybe her boy would come back. Cherise doesn't know this, but she will know the look on my face well enough to take me for real when I say I don't know what else to tell you.
William Henry Lewis is the author of two collections of short stories, In the Arms of Our Elders (Carolina Wren P, 1995) and I Got Somebody in Staunton (Amistad, 2005). His writing has appeared in the nation's leading journals, including Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Callaloo, His work has been also been included in many anthologies, including Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing (Harlem Moon, 2002), Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream (Beacon, 1996), African American West: A Century of Short Stories (UP of Colorado, 2000), and Best American Short Stories of 1996 (Houghton Mifflin). Lewis is Associate Professor of English at Colgate University.
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|Author:||Lewis, William Henry|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Short Story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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