Blue, Texas

"Field of Bluebonnets at Sunset," by Julian Onderdonk, 1919-1920.

"Field of Bluebonnets at Sunset," by Julian Onderdonk, San Antonio, Texas, 1919-1920.

 

When I was a child my father would tell me lies as big as God, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Great State of Texas all rolled into one. Blue didn’t have its Walmart back then, just my father’s ag-supply store. It was located inside a hangar that the Army Air Corps had used during the Second World War, back when they’d sent blimps out over the Gulf looking for Nazi submarines. For a time, that place was the whole world to me, as big as anything I could imagine. “Listen here,” my father liked to say, dropping down to a knee at my side. “When the weather’s just right? And those front doors’re open? Clouds can form.” He’d point to the ceiling here, and I’d tilt back on my heels to take in the dizzying view. “Clouds can form indoors and it’ll rain.”

This wasn’t true, of course, but in Texas, where bullshit is the language of the heart, a father can be at his best when he lies, and a boy can do nothing worse than lose his sense of humor.

If I were to pick one day when our relationship began to change, it’d have to be the one when I walked into the ag-supply store with a permission slip from the library. I needed it signed in order to read the books the librarian considered “too adult” for me, but my father barely listened to my request. I’d found him in the mouth of aisle eight, standing alongside Martha May Williams, the slim-waisted divorcee who sold Mary Kay cosmetics from the backseat of her long pink Cadillac. She was holding an empty basket from the crook of her arm and smiling at everything my dad had to say.

“I was just telling Martha here that when the weather’s just right, and those doors are open”—my dad dropped down to a knee at my side—“clouds’ll form up there and it’ll rain. Isn’t that right, Luther?”

Martha wore pink heels and had pink nails, and she laughed a laugh that made me think of the fizz of pink champagne.

I gave my father the form and asked him again: “Can you sign this?”

He stood, then, and gave Martha a side-long glance as he reached into his shirt pocket for a pen. “I guess this one’s already grown up and ready to pay his taxes.” He handed the form back to me then, telling me not to go reading anything that’d get him in trouble.

That weekend, while my father entertained Miss May at our home, I visited my aunt in a suburb of nearby Houston. She had three boys, each spaced three years apart, with the youngest only a year older than me. Jack, Toby, and Mark liked to watch cartoons and wrestle, to shoot toy soldiers off a fence-post with a pump-action BB gun, and to reach for a magnifying glass whenever a slow-moving ant happened by on a sunny day. That night, the oldest would sneak sips from a bottle of Jim Beam before bed and force me to do the same. But before that, he led a game of Nerf football in the backyard. I declined his invitation to play, and instead tried to take a book down to the creek that snaked through the woods out back of their home. I only got a couple steps away; then one of my cousins flung the ball in my direction and knocked the book out of my hand. I cursed as I’d heard them curse, but the words were new to me and didn’t have the same effect.

Jack the oldest pounced first, followed by Toby and Mark, and then the three of them were like one writhing body, humping flesh and throwing fists, twisting arms and saying oh I’m Luther, I’m Luther the faggot who reads. They pushed my face down into a gnarled root poking up out of the dirt, and laughed when I spoke of my blood and pain; then the pile shifted atop me, and as I reached for my ankle, feeling something pop, their mother moved in from the back screen-door and swatted at the air with her dish rag.

“You boys get off a him!” she cried. “You know Luther doesn’t like to play grab-ass!”

Seconds later, she stood over us and peeled them away, allowing me to rise on the strength of one foot and follow her into the bathroom. “They love you,” she said, as I sat on the toilet wincing beneath the sting of a Q-tip doused in hydrogen peroxide. “When they say ‘pussy’ and ‘faggot,’ they might as well be telling you, ‘You’re our friend,’ do you hear?”

God’s love must be great for the women of Texas; mine was too. It didn’t matter that I didn’t believe my Aunt Tildie’s words. As she stung me with that Q-tip, I cried openly, and then more loudly as she tried to soothe me. Those boys loved me no less than anyone at my elementary school, I knew. It was only my aunt who truly loved me, I thought, and I loved her more than anyone because of that, loved her even more than my own father, which seemed such a despicable thing for a son to think that it only got me crying louder still.

 

Compared to my Aunt’s Tildie’s place, my home was a mausoleum. Nights in the living room, I’d work on my homework on the sofa and often turn to see my father standing in the mouth of the hallway, just looking at me and drinking a beer from a can. He’d have a look on his face like I’d done something wrong, but before I could ever find the courage to ask him what, he’d continue on into the kitchen for another beer, asking if I’d had anything to eat.

I hated him for the silence that grew between us, the silence that was amplified by the absence of the woman whose senior portrait hung in the hall. That picture showed my mother in three-quarter profile, smiling and bright-eyed, with a helmet of blonde hair that curled up over the black gown that cut across her bare shoulders.

One night I stood in front of that portrait so lost in thought I didn’t realize my father had turned out of his bedroom until he was right behind me. Again, he gave me that look I didn’t think a father should give, one that pushed me away as much as my aunt’s smiling face pulled me toward her.

“How come there aren’t any pictures of me and mom?” I asked one night. It was a question I’d asked myself a hundred times before, but only now had I found the courage to say it aloud.

My father drank the last of his Lone Star and continued toward the kitchen. “Wasn’t no time for group photography,” he said, “you know that.”

I knew only what he had told me, that she had died in a car accident on the way home from the hospital, but he had spoken these words so long ago that they seemed more like myth than reality. That’s why, one afternoon not long after this, I rode away from school on my Huffy bicycle and didn’t stop until I’d reached the library.

It was November, and when I approached Miss Wilkins at the reference desk, she was cutting a turkey out a large piece of brown construction paper.

“Why do you want to go reading about 1970?” she asked, when I’d told her what I was here for.

“It’s a school project,” I said. “We’re supposed to read the newspaper from the day we were born.”

She looked at me suspiciously, then said she hadn’t had any other kids come in to do the same.

“I must be the first,” I told her.

She nodded some, then — if anyone would’ve been the first, it was me — and put her scissors down and stood from her chair. “Well, come on, then. I’ll show you how it’s done.” She led me to the microfiche machine set up in the back corner of the room.

“Now, if you need to change the film,” she said, “you call me. This thing won’t stand for no rough-housing. But I suppose I shouldn’t worry about that with you, should I?”

“No, ma’am. No need to worry at all.”

When she had loaded the reel and was gone, I turned the dial and blurred forward through the microfiche, aiming to stop on that day in September when I knew the accident had occurred. My timing was off, though, or maybe I was just impatient. Whatever the case, I first stopped in early March when a big black blur took up the whole of a front page. It was a picture of our downtown, though I’d never seen it like this before. At the crossroads of Avenue A and Main Street, there were empty patches where Quonset huts had once stood and brick buildings that looked as if they’d been bombed. “Twister leaves three dead, one seriously injured,” the headline read, not too far above this paragraph about my mother:

“Caroline Colbert, 17, of Blue, was among those injured. Her body was discovered in her father’s utility truck, which she’d crashed into the wall of the IGA. Due to the severity of her injuries, Miss Colbert was transported to Houston Memorial Hospital, where she was entered into the intensive care unit.”

“‘She must’ve gotten herself turned around,’ said Clifford Henke, who reported seeing Miss Colbert driving down Avenue A when he came up from his home’s cellar to holler after his dog. ‘She was driving straight for that tornado, and fast, too – like you couldn’t get there from here in time but she was gonna try.’”

There was nothing more about her in the paper, so I moved on through the next few weekly editions, looking for a follow-up about her condition. But there wasn’t one; I couldn’t find a thing on through into October, by which point I realized Miss Wilkins was standing with her arms crossed at my side and her eyes not quite meeting mine.

“We’ve been closed ten minutes now, Luther.” She spoke in a way I hadn’t heard before, not like an adult to a child, but as if she were trying to apologize. “You like, you can come back tomorrow.”

 

That night, my father pulled two TV dinners from the oven and sat down across from me in the kitchen. Dan Rather spoke to us from the television in the living room, telling us the news from Moscow: Brezhnev had died; no one knew who’d come next.

I sat with my ankles laced around the metal legs of my padded chair, and blew at the steam rising from my cherry cobbler.

“Eat your meat first,” he said.

I touched it with one finger. “It’s cold.”

“But your dessert’s hot?”

I shrugged. Said something about microwaves.

He fell into his meal, too stubborn to reheat it. “You want a gourmet dinner, go see your Aunt Tildie.”

Then I said it: “Mom crashed into the grocery store. Six months before I was even born.”

It took everything I had to say this, and now that I had, all the weight in my body seemed to have collected in my head. I had to hold my neck stiff and steady to keep from falling over. I didn’t breathe.

“Where’d you hear this?” he said after a long while.

“Library. In the newspaper. It said she was put in the ICU. That means I would’ve been there, too.”

My father chewed his cold meat.

“I couldn’t find anything after that. There wasn’t any more news about it.”

He pushed his dinner away. “Cause it wasn’t fit to print.”

I looked at him as he stood from the table and crossed to the fridge. I waited for him to tell me more. But he said what he’d always said before: “Your mother died in a car accident on the way home from the hospital.” Then he cracked a fresh beer and turned toward his bedroom in the back of the house, telling me to clean up when I was done.

 

For Christmas that year, my father reluctantly agreed to buy me a subscription to the New Yorker, and I thanked him for it by placing inscrutable cartoons on the fridge.

“D’you get it?” I’d say.

“You’re gonna get it,” he’d tell me.

So far as I know, I was the only subscriber in Blue beside the library, though by the following summer that number had doubled. That was when the Steinbergs, who were weren’t infrequently described in Blue as “real live New York Jews,” wandered down from the interstate and into our lives.

Before their arrival, Mr. Steinberg had been the rabbi at the oldest Reform synagogue on Long Island. No one knew why he had left his congregation in Flushing; years afterward, the most accomplished gossip in Blue could still only say, “He had a falling out with their god.” What is certain is this: Mr. Steinberg was headed west to a new life in California when he found himself pulling into our town and parking the family mini-van in front of the IGA. He’d intended to do nothing more than buy a few cold drinks for the road, but as he got to the glass door he saw the sign that had left everyone shopping twelve miles away: “Closed indefinitely due to death.” This was written on white butcher paper in that way you only see in grocery stores, and from the back of it you could make out the shadow of the bold, thick-limbed letters that spelled out the original ad: “Pork Chops 89 cents a Pound!” Something about this—death and pork chops—must have appealed to Mr. Steinberg’s sense of humor, and even to that small part of him that still wished to believe in a providential God, because after seeing it he turned and entered the realty office across the street to inquire about the building’s price.

When he returned to the family mini-van and announced his plans, his wife immediately protested. “In Texas you want us to live? Texas?” “Yes, why not Texas?” Mr. Steinberg answered. “For more than one-hundred years there’s been a synagogue in Houston, but you find it strange to be a Jew in Texas? Did someone refuse to stamp my papers? Tell me I could only drive through?” She looked out her window, muttering about the absurdities of their life, and his quickness to invoke the Holocaust. “You wish to hurt me,” she said. “To do me physical harm. This is why you’d have us live here.” Her husband would not explicitly confirm this. Instead, he turned the key in the ignition and offered a few words from Isaiah. “‘Yet it pleased the Lord to Bruise him.’” Then, telling her there was no better way to serve god than to feed his people, he drove off toward the town’s only roadside motel.

I met Jeremy Steinberg that September, while lingering with him at lunch that first day of the new school year. As the others ran outside to play, we ate at our desks, and if only to have something to talk about, I told him I was recovering from a sprained ankle.

He nodded in response, but even so there was so much about him that impressed me. He wore dark trousers and heavy black shoes, the kind I would have only put on for a funeral, and had kinky hair and was chewing on a strange sandwich. I was eating two slices of Oscar Meyer bologna that I’d topped with a squiggle of yellow mustard and squeezed between two slices of white Wonder bread. But he held a bulging thing housed between two dense slices of dark bread, a sandwich that was both pungent and foreign, about as unreal as anything I could recall.

“Until my dad gets the store opened up, my mom insists we shop in Houston,” he said, snapping into a spear of pickle. “There’s a store there,” he said, cryptically, as if in the sixty miles between here and there you could find no such thing. A store.

We rode our bikes to the Dairy Queen that afternoon, then meandered back toward my home after eating an ice cream. Along the way, I pointed out all the people he should avoid and all the places that weren’t half-bad, and in return he told me about New York City, a world that seemed to be an endless subway ride to art museums and delicatessens and double-headers at Shea Stadium.

It occurred to me, then, as we pedaled up my driveway and parked our bikes, that there wasn’t much to my town, and that Jeremy would know it just as well as I did before he could even finish telling me about half the things he’d done back east.

 

The previous year for Christmas, my father had bought himself a projection television set that broadcast its images onto a big screen in beams of red, blue, and green. This summer, he added to this by purchasing a satellite dish, one of the first ones in Blue. The dish was a massive white thing that he’d sunk into a buried bucket of concrete in the backyard, out past the barbecue pit in a corner of my father’s beloved stretch of lawn.

That satellite pulled in Playboy TV and Canadian television and stations from all fifty states. It even let you see Dan Rather during a commercial break, something that was so fascinating to us that we must’ve invited every neighbor over to watch him get his hair combed or cheeks powdered. In the end, that set was for one thing, though — football.

My father loved the sport. He rooted for the Longhorns of UT on Saturdays, but saved his greatest passions for the Cowboys the next day. To him, there was no father, son and Holy Ghost, only Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett. Every Sunday during football season, our house filled with people to watch the game and feast on the brisket my dad had cooked low and slow in the smoker overnight. I always sat in on these festivities, but never with anything approaching enthusiasm. It was only after I’d befriended Jeremy that I began to enjoy them myself.

“What the hell’s that?” my father asked the first time he came over.

I’d thrown a soy-burger onto the grill before him, something I’d special ordered from an 800 number after watching a show broadcast by the NBC affiliate in San Francisco. “It’s from Marin County,” I said.

“What’s it made from, dirt?”

There were three or four guys on the other side of the grill, tilting beers and smiling, and I’m sure my father had said this for their benefit.

“What about you?” he continued, pointing his grilling fork at Jeremy. “You eat real food?”

Jeremy was no vegetarian, but even so he couldn’t help but fix his eyes on the pot on the grill that had boiled over with beans.

“I don’t eat pork,” he said, causing one of the guys watching us to snort out a little laugh. I feared my father would do the same or worse. Blue had a history, you see. On into the sixties, hand-painted signs, like those that once advertised Burma-Shave, had run alongside the highway before you entered downtown. Nigger, one read. You’ll be Black & Blue — if you let the Sun — fall down on You — In Blue!

“And how ’bout football?” my father asked, while throwing on a new patty.

“My dad and I love it,” he said, before adding that they were fans of the New York Jets.

“The Jets?” My father shared a look with the grinning dummies around the barbecue. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Shit! The Jets?”

But you could tell he enjoyed saying it, and when I looked at Jeremy, you could tell he did, too. “My father used to say, there’s something to be said for faith.”

My father took a pull of his beer. “And there’s something to be said for winning, too. Don’t you worry.” He tilted the mouth of his beer bottle in Jeremy’s direction. “You’ll get along here, so long as you root for the Cowboys.”

 

My friend turned thirteen that year I met him, and after I became a familiar face over at his house, I began to hear his mother and father talk about a bar mitzvah. “Let him decide these matters,” his mother would say. “It’s not for you to destroy another’s faith.” “Nor encourage it,” he said. “And tell me, where does it say he needs one? Can you? That’s all I ask. Where in Talmud does it instruct us to buy deli meats and rent a social hall and play disco music. This is human creation,” he said, “it satisfies no commandment. But for all of this you’d like that I take my son all the time to Temple Beth Israel in Houston? An hour or more each way?” He swatted the air. “Forget it,” he said. “If there’s a God, he’s in my store as much as he’s in Houston.”

Mrs. Steinberg wouldn’t back down, though. She was as forceful about this as her husband had been about living in Blue, so finally a compromise was struck. Mr. Steinberg would teach his son the Torah, would even perform the ceremony, but only if the bar mitzvah could be held in the produce section, a demand which caused his wife’s mouth to fly open and release something like the sound of ancestral pain. “To show,” Mr. Steinberg said, throwing his finger out before him, “to show,” he said, but then his wife interrupted him, saying enough of your showing, why turn your back on God if all you want to do is show people this and show people that — “Go back to the temple if this is what you want to do!” “To show that God is everywhere if he is anywhere at all.” “Have you no respect for Jewish law?” she answered, to which her husband again swatted the air, saying, “Jewish law? Jewish law? Need I remind you what Spinoza says about Jewish law? The produce section,” he finished, and that was the end of that.

When she saw there would be no changing this, Mrs. Steinberg went on several furtive trips to Houston, where she spoke of her husband’s stubbornness as if an entire volume of the Talmud had been dedicated to an examination of it. In doing so, she secured the use of a Torah and fought to form a minyan. A request for the latter was met with skepticism by the members of the Beth Israel Reform congregation, as these Houstonians did not believe ten men were required to make a ceremony holy, and certainly not when the ceremony in question was being held at the IGA. But Mrs. Steinberg persisted. “If my son’s bar mitzvah is to be in a produce section,” she said, “would it hurt to be blessed with a touch of Orthodoxy, if only so God understands this is not of my doing?”

They were winning words, it turns out, and so on the appointed day the minyan arrived in Blue and I joined Jeremy’s mother in the two rows of folding chairs that had been set up in front of the misted cabbage. Jeremy stood at a podium borrowed from the local high school, and as he recited his blessing over the Torah, his father nodded along at his side, moving his lips silently to the words he’d once recited himself.

For me, this was all so wonderfully exotic. These words, I knew, had never been spoken in Blue, where only twenty years earlier it had been blacks and Jews need not apply. It got me thinking there must be a Heaven in every Hell, someplace we can always go to no matter where we are. Then I noticed the people at the door. They were crowded around and pushing in for a better view, wondering what could have closed the IGA on a perfectly good shopping day. Even now, I can’t say if my father saw me. After working his way to the front of the crowd, he pushed his face into the glass and shielded his eyes with one hand. Either he saw me and turned away, or didn’t and did the same. It was the turning that struck me; as my friend droned on behind me, I knew that turning was somehow irreversible, that my whole life had changed, so as I turned round in my chair I snatched the yarmulke from my head and held it down in my lap until I knew my best friend had become a man.

 

When I came home that night, my father wasn’t home; nor was he there when I woke up the next morning. I was afraid he might have had too much to drink and driven off the road, and for the first time I wondered what I’d do and who I’d have if he wasn’t there for me each night I walked through the door.

I grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge and stood drinking from it at the kitchen window, thinking perhaps I should call my aunt or even the police. But then his truck appeared at the end of our driveway, a looping half-circle of gravel that parked sixteen cars from start to finish. He didn’t pull round and park in front of the door like he normally would; instead, he drove straight and went crashing through the side gate, sending me at a run to the sliding glass door in the living room.

Our yard wasn’t wild. It was a manicured rectangle of green, separated from the neighboring woods by a chain-link fence. We had a hot tub on one end, a barbecue pit in the middle, and the satellite dish a little farther past that. At first I thought he was going to drive into the barbecue, but then he slammed on the brakes and backed up toward the satellite dish, leaving maybe fifteen or twenty feet between him and it.

By the time he’d parked, I’d stepped out onto our deck. But as soon as he looked at me, I stopped moving toward him. His one eye was swollen shut, and his lip was blooded. He carried his left arm close to his chest, too, either because it was hurt or his ribs were – I still can’t say, because he never did tell me.

“I was drinking at the Yellow Rose last night,” he said, still holding his door open, “and this man beside me, he said you must have a Yankee soul.”

In Blue, this was akin to saying you were a faggot or a Communist or a Godless Jew, and though my father might have suspected as much himself, I gathered from the looks of him that he didn’t appreciate hearing it in public.

He slammed his door then and moved away from me, going round to the back of his truck. There, he popped the tailgate and reached in for a long, thick chain, one end of which he attached to his trailer hitch.

I took a few more steps toward him then, watching as he strode to the satellite dish and wove the chain around its base, working as quickly as a cowboy would tying up a calf. As he came back toward the driver’s side door, he fixed me again with a fierce look and said, “No more MTV.” Seconds later, he’d started the truck and was revving the engine, and poking his head out the window to say: “No more Marin County!” Then he was slamming his foot down on the gas and gone.

I can still see it, as if in slow motion. That chain stretched taut behind him; then the pole holding up that satellite dish – it snapped clean in two and went bouncing after him like an umbrella caught in the wind.

 

The rest of that summer and on into fall, I read Marx and Lenin exclusively in public. I let my hair grow long and shaggy, and took to sitting lotus on the floor of the gazebo in the park, where I’d smile like a little Buddha, imagining how people would talk. My father drank more than usual, exhausted a new bird dog, and stalked every creaky hinge in the house. I don’t think he would’ve said more’n a few words to me if it weren’t for the Dallas Cowboys and the Longhorns of UT. He couldn’t make it through the season watching the games down at the bar, and whenever he connected the big screen to the antennae on the roof, the pixels of the picture were the size of tennis balls in comparison.

“I’m buying a new dish,” he said one day in late-November. “You want, get yourself a steak for the weekend.”

I was at the fridge, looking inside for dinner, but after hearing this I closed the door and reminded him I was a vegetarian.

“Well fuck it,” he said, “buy yourself some corn, I don’t know.”

I did barbecue that weekend, but only so I could set my soy burgers over the open flame and talk about the growth hormones being fed to America’s cows. On my feet were a pair of mail-order Birkenstocks; on my chest, a t-shirt that read “NEA not NRA!”

“My son,” my father said to his friends, “the freak.”

This might have hurt more than anything else that weekend, but then I turned and saw what had caught my dad’s attention: Jeremy, walking over in blue jeans and a pair of black lizard-skin Tony Lama boots.

“When’d you become a cowboy?” I said.

“Whole lot better’n a Jet,” my dad added, throwing an arm around him as he said, “You want a steak?”

 

The next summer, as we prepared to enter high school, Jeremy told me how one of the more adventurous cheerleaders in town had let him drive her to one of the spots where my classmates parked their trucks on Saturday nights.

“But you don’t even have a license,” I said.

“Don’t mean I don’t know how to drive,” he shot back. “But listen, will you?” We were in my room, sitting cross-legged on the floor. He leaned in toward me, unable to hold back a proud smile. “She said I have good hands.”

He’d gotten laid at fourteen, what would be seven years ahead of me. And looking back on everything, it’s this comment – that he had good hands – that I’ve attributed to his deciding to join the football team. I only learned of this decision while riding my bike by the high school early that August and seeing him in pads with all the others, dropping and rising and slapping his shoulders, then dropping and rising and slapping his shoulders again.

As I watched from the fence that day, I realized my world was as exotic to him as his had been to me. Jeremy loved football. I’d never expected it. But now he was lining up as a wide receiver, and then pushing weights around the gym.

Jeremy spent his first two years on junior varsity, and though I felt funny sitting in the stands on Friday afternoons watching him play, there weren’t many people there to take in the game and share in my embarrassment. It was only during our junior year that I stopped watching. I could disappear into the bleachers, just one face among hundreds, but I felt sure everyone was looking at me, that they knew what we’d been and what we were now. I felt so very much alone.

Jeremy no longer had time for me. On Friday afternoons he needed “to get pumped up,” and then after the game he’d be off with all the other players to some party I never felt comfortable at. He proved to be a good player. Jeremy caught sixty-two passes that first year on the squad, seven for a touchdown, the former a district record. By December, I could barely even stand his company at one of my father’s backyard barbecues.

“Where you gonna play ball after you graduate?” my dad asked him one Saturday when he came over for a barbecue. “Say you get a scholarship to UT and A&M, where you gonna go?”

“Shit,” he tossed back. “That ain’t a question, that’s a dare.” He looked around at all the others, widening their circle of conversation. “Only a fool or a jarhead wouldn’t want to be a Longhorn.”

My father loved that answer so much it was good enough for a beer and a hushed warning that Jeremy not tell his father. I think I already wanted a different life then, or a new chance at the one I’d lost, because the following month, when I entered the ag-supply store and found my father pointing up to the ceiling alongside my one-time friend, I didn’t know where to go or what to do or what if anything I should apologize for.

The summer before my senior year, I locked myself in my bedroom and pored over college brochures, placing myself in the woods of Vermont, on the edge of an ocean, anywhere but here. I imagined majors—art history, medieval studies, zoology—that lifted me far from the Gulf of Mexico and sent me to another world. My father and I barely spoke. We barely even saw each other. Mornings he was gone to work before I awoke, and nights he’d take something microwaveable to the sofa, while I’d sulk about in the kitchen fixing an elaborate meal of soy.

It was three months before graduation, in March, on a Thursday, that he died.

I found him that morning at the kitchen table, face-first in a plate of bacon and eggs. A pack of Camels lay unopened at his side, right next to the morning newspaper. I called the sheriff, andI lifted my father’s face and wiped it clean. I righted him in his chair, then, and sat across from him and waited. “Well,” I said. And when the deputies arrived ten or fifteen minutes later, looking between us as if wondering which one was dead, I stood and went to the stove asking if they’d like a cup of coffee.

“Well,” I said.

 

The ag-supply store was sold soon after that, and the money from the sale was put into a trust on my behalf. I spent my last few months at Blue High, and then the year after graduation, living with the Steinbergs. I worked full-time at the IGA, while Jeremy went off to UT, where he found only limited playing time on the football field as a walk-on.

It was a strange life, like one I’d always wanted but had finally joined too late. One evening I sat down to supper and poked for ten minutes at my matzo ball soup, wondering who would teach me how to slow-cook a brisket. The Steinbergs were good people, though. They let me be as quiet as I wanted to be, until finally I felt not better, but able to function. It was then, not long after I’d accepted a place at Southwest Texas State, that Mr. Steinberg sat me down in Jeremy’s room and said, “You’re a man now. You should know.”

It was inevitable that he learn about my mother. Not only was this a small town, but it was into his store that she had crashed. As the tornado approached third and Main, the overhead wires snapped, sending the streetlights crashing down. Some say my mother must’ve been there when it happened, because she veered sharply off the road and across the parking lot adjacent to the IGA, crashing into the faded Campbell’s Soup mural that had been painted years ago onto its exterior brick wall. Moments later, the tornado swept through, and the force of its winds were so overwhelming that they pulled opened the side panels of my grandfather’s utility truck, sucking out all the tools and lifting them up in a tight cone of hammers and wrenches.

My mother had been thrown from one side of the car to the other; she was found with her face pressed down into the hard yellow foam poking out from the split upholstery of the passenger seat. Her knees were touching the floorboard, and her arms were flung up over her head, the hands almost touching.I’ve seen her like this so many times in my dreams. Some nights she looks as if she’s down before an altar, praying to be forgiven for her imagined sins; other times, I think she must be willing herself to have the strength to go through with it.

There was a gym bag in the car with her, you see. It had been thrown onto the seat behind the steering wheel. My father’s old gym bag, I would learn. Packed with a couple changes of clothes and a toothbrush, as well as a map on which the route to Mexico had been traced by a black felt-tip pin.

After learning where my mother had been headed, I couldn’t help but think back to the day in the library when I’d blurred through the microfiche hoping to discover more about my mother’s fate. Could I have stopped on an article about Norma McCorvey, the woman whose class-action lawsuit against the state’s anti-abortion laws wouldn’t be resolved for another three years? Doubtful. Knowing the Blue News and Sentinel like I do, I’m sure the eventual Jane Roe was only mentioned after her case had gone before the United States Supreme Court. That’s how Blue was, and maybe still is. It believed in the firm hold of an under-wire bra, and taught you sex was dirty and shameful and nasty, but most of all something you shared with the one you loved. The only women to abort took a long drive and crossed the Rio Grande to do so, and then on their return moved up to Dallas or Forth Worth, where people wouldn’t shake their head and talk about them and say, isn’t it a shame?

For weeks after the accident, people from as far away as a mile or two drove up to my mother’s house with a dish of food and a hammer or a torque wrench that they swore had blown into their yard. My grandfather must’ve collected three times as many tools as he’d lost, not that he ever put them to use. He died of a heart attack not quite a year later, the stress of the waiting, of the not knowing, too much to absorb. For all that time, you see, or at least a little more than six months after the accident, my mother had lain asleep in a bed in that hospital in Houston, kept alive by machines that released submarine sounds and drew squiggly little lines across a tiny green screen. More than six months she lasted, with me inside her the whole time. Then the doctors decided she was far enough along, and they cut me out like a fawn from the belly of a deer struck down on the side of the road, and they turned her off.

 

Two years after enrolling at Southwest Texas State, I transferred to a private Catholic university near San Francisco, don’t ask why, and that’s where I met Irene and married young. We now live in rural northern California, where late at night we often have whispered conversations about how our children will look. We’re trying.

This last summer, when Irene and I went back east for her mother’s funeral, I took a separate flight home and touched down in Houston. My eldest cousin met me at the airport, and gave me a manila envelope he said his own ailing mother had told him to pass on to me. We had lunch and promised to see each other again, and then I rented a car and drove to Blue for the first time in years. I was amazed at its growth—a colony of fast-food restaurants, the Walmart, a subdivision of new homes. It was hot, more than a hundred and slick with humidity, so it was with some urgency that I left the cool air of my rental car and entered the bubble of air conditioning inside my father’s store. The place was run-down, not as cared for as it had been when the profit margins were higher, but it was good to be back all the same, as close as I could get to being back at home.

I didn’t really know what I was doing there, but I toured the aisles of animal feed and farm supplies as if at any moment I’d turn the corner of one aisle and see my purpose revealed on the shelves of another. Then it happened. As I neared the front check-out counters, I felt the presence of my father beside me, the skin of my body registering it as physically as if I’d stepped into a fallen cloud. He’d been just a young boy when I was thrust into his care; we’d both grown up together, though neither too well. I was almost crying when I did it – almost crying when I craned my neck to the ceiling and silently prayed for rain. Then that presence I’d felt beside me was gone, and I saw that a clerk had stopped scanning a customer’s items to look at me.

I hurried out through the front doors and into my car, and I grabbed the manila envelope I’d left on the passenger seat. I reached for it and looked again at the black and white photo I’d been given. It shows my mother before they turned her off, a body really, no different than something you might see at the morgue. She wears a dull gray hospital smock and lies within the hinged metal frames of her bed. Her hair is browner than it was in the picture that had once hung in the hallway of my childhood home, and it’s flatter too, pressed down against her skull. Her eyes are closed, but her mouth is slightly parted, giving her the look of someone who’s trying to remember something. I’m there too, a tiny pinched-eyed little thing placed diagonally across her chest like a prom queen’s sash. Her arms haven’t been repositioned to hold me; they lay lifeless at her side. No one else is in the picture, but my father’s presence can be felt all the same, for I am sure he was the one who took it, thinking of the day it would be given to me.

 

Stephan Eirik Clark is the author of the novel Sweetness #9 and Vladimir’s Mustache, a short story collection that was named a finalist for the 2013 Minnesota Book Award. A former Fulbright Fellow to Ukraine, he is an assistant professor of English at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. His website is: stephanclark.com.
 
tags: Culture, Fiction, Interfaith, Judaism   
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