The Lady in Bonesweep
She wasn’t sick as a girl, and technically, there was nothing wrong with her eyes. Still, she definitely saw two, sometimes three, of everything: twin moons, one just slightly paler than the other; a ghost of her white-peeling house hovering slightly above ground; two or three times as many skeletal cottonwoods floating on the horizon where a hundred years before a homesteading family had planted and watered a quarter mile’s worth of windbreak. From the edge of town, where her grandfather’s farmhouse was slowly buckling in the wind, she could see five, sometimes six Bonesweeps—one drifting just above the other, the softest and brightest of them wholly out of reach. And as many as a dozen shadows of every form hovering around each door, spoon, table, or hardboiled egg. It made navigating the world difficult, so she moved slowly and uncertainly, her own body surrounded by many dim versions of herself arising, she imagined, out of a central body she could never quite locate or feel.
At fourteen she started drinking alone on top of an old airport beacon tower just beyond where a string of fallen fenceposts trailing rusted wire marked the property line. It was Old Crow or it was Popov; it was cheap and it was whatever she could get her hands on. For a girl her age it was one of those things that was both hard to get and greatly desired, like gold had once been in those parts, or good dirt, or medicine. But there was always something and there was always some way. After dinner or instead of dinner and sometimes in the morning or after school she’d climb up there and have a little, and lean back and watch one country drift over the false horizons multiplying one atop another in a sky of thin and vacant stripes. From the beacon there were overlapping images of her house set on a neglected section of mixed weeds and loess as hard and pale as concrete. To the west, a dark horizontal band of hills and in every other direction, bleached clay interrupted here and there with heavily irrigated corn and serried wheat.
Her father, Jody, was famous in town for putting his teeth clear through his upper lip when he keeled over in front of The Last Dollar Saloon. Sully, her grandfather, did three things: eat, sleep and read. And though her mother was long gone and Jody was at best an unreliable and unemployable drunk, people in Bonesweep generally blamed her grandfather. Every other man and family that lost out to the industry farms had learned to make money some other way, even if it meant leaving. Sully was only 56 then, plenty of years in him to make an honest living, but during a single term teaching dryland agriculture at the community college, someone read to him about a wise man making poetry at the ploughtail, and he forgot all about the dignity of work.
What business had a small-grain farmer such as he was with all those books? Books were fine for a rich man. But Sully would fill up his head with whatever was in them, then his head would rot in the earth, and what good would all those marks on a page have done a single living creature? What made it all the more shameful was that the girl, who was taken for unattractive and dull if not some kind of idiot, would never marry or get out of Bonesweep. Her only future would be her inheritance: the Quonset hut Sully and eventually Jody would leave behind, filled to the rafters with rusted metal, wood, wire and ranch equipment—relics of a fertile land that had never really existed—and now dozens of books, too, which you couldn’t sell if you wanted to. Even the libraries themselves were giving them away, which was how Sully came by so many of them. The books were from Hartford, Cincinnati, Dallas, Kansas City, or Denver, with manila due date cards still glued in the backs.
He cleared his workbench, and stacked it neatly with perhaps forty or fifty books—a sizeable amount considering he read them all, and several of them twice. He read philosophy and history, and some of the classics. The pages were dry and clean and he did not write in the margins. He read by desk light on a stool made of scrap wood and a Hoosier tractor seat as he drank Lipton tea. The girl became a teenager, and the stitches across Jody’s upper lip dissolved into his face.
She wasn’t ever really drunk; she had just enough to fill behind her face with a little warmth, to make her disregard the confused mess of the double, sometimes triple worlds before her. She was for the most part on her own, except when curious boys found she made willing if unenthusiastic practice for the few better-looking girls in the county. She let them move on her as if they were moving on someone else, and when they spoke to her, if they did, she replied as if from beside herself. None of them ever really spoke to her or looked at her otherwise, but she didn’t blame them, and she never fought it. For one, there was no telling who’d be swinging at what. She’d seen boys fight each other before, and thought them brilliant athletes for their ability to swing a solid arm of fist and flesh and bone, and hit a solid target.
The afternoon they put Sully in the old homesteaders’ cemetery up the road, Jody and the girl walked back to the house where he opened a beer and surveyed the grounds. “What in hell am I going to do with this dump?”
“You could build something new,” she said.
“I could build something new.” He looked at her. “Are you retarded? ”
She tried to look him in the eye, but couldn’t find his true face.
“Ah Christ,” he said, dropping the empty on the dirt and stamping it into a disc. “This is not what I had in mind.” He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at her. She stared straight ahead. “Bet it’s not what you had in mind either.”
“I didn’t have anything in mind.”
On his way home from the Last Dollar Saloon that afternoon, Jody stopped his truck at the Sinclair and bought a blue and white cardboard box of beer, a package of beef hotdogs, some Ruffles, two cans of tomato soup and a quart of milk. At home he took the box of beer out into the Quonset hut and sat on the floor with his back up against the giant broken radio, where he’d sat as a boy. Then it’d played their first year of public radio out of Minnesota, and it’d played the last year’s hits–Mean as Hell and The Yardbirds–when Paul McCartney met Linda Eastman in a bar in another country on some other planet. Jody’s eyes went hot and he clenched his fists and put them to his forehead. Above the sheet metal roofing, the looping slurred whistles of orioles in the blanched sunlight.
That night he announced the house would be going up in the Spring, and that she’d better make arrangements for post high school.
“I don’t graduate for another year.”
“Well you’re not staying here.”
She looked at him blankly.
“You can make a few thousand a week in North Dakota.” He touched his eyes and cheeks and lips. “Little make-up. You’d make out good.”
“When’s your birthday?”
She looked down at her white dinner plate, surrounded by an overlapping ring of identical pale wafers.
“I’m serious,” he went on. “That’s a lot money for someone your age if you could keep out of trouble.”
“Where you going to go?”
“Why?” she asked.
“Make a plan,” he said, and lifted his fork, gummed with rust-colored beans. “Or don’t. Makes no difference to me. You just can’t be here.” He looked up at her. “Unless you want me to sell you with the house?” He laughed, and so did someone else. One Jody walked to the stove, another stayed seated at the table.
“How many of you are there?” the girl said, staring hard at the table. Jody turned around and looked at her as he pulled up the tab on a Red Blatz.
“Oh that’s good,” he said. “You keep talking like that, sweetheart, and the state’ll take care of you. You won’t even have to dance.”
She found him in the Quonset hut the next day after school, hip-deep in trash and trying to haul out Mamie’s old organ.
“Help me move this sonofabitch.” It was the first full-on warm day and sweat was shining at his temples and on his upper lip. The thing had to weigh two hundred pounds. They leaned and pushed, its metal feet scratching white lines across the concrete floor until they reached the overhead door of corrugated metal. Jody opened it and drew his sleeve across his forehead. Dust motes. Moths. Suddenly a new silence in there, deeper than the silence had been when the door was closed.
“What are you doing with it?” she asked.
“I want it out of the way. I bet there’s a thousand dollars in scrap metal in this shit hole.” Behind him on the workbench was a gold can of beer and all of Sully’s books. So self-satisified and upright and smooth. The girl turned away from them, toward the open garage door, retrieved her empty backpack and went inside without another word. She made a hot dog sandwich and brought it out to the beacon tower until it grew dark and she saw the electric go out in the Quonset hut. One upstairs window in the farmhouse began flashing pale blue. The one civil domestic agreement she and her father shared was that she could drink all she wanted and he’d never get on her case, as long as she didn’t take his beer if it looked like he was getting low himself, and as long as she never took the last one.
In the Quonset she opened Jody’s cooler, and saw two remaining cans of the box he’d brought home the day before. Something shifted behind her. Thinking it was Jody, she took a can quickly, put it in the waistband of her pants, and pulled a giant smooth book out of Sully’s stacks as if that’d been her business. Back in the house, in the kitchen, she had to stand still for a long time before all the blue cloth covered books moved toward each other and settled into a single cover. She saw by the orange oven light that she had The Annals of the World. She opened it.
The world’s history is a divine poem of which the history of every nation is a canto and every man a word.
She stood leaning against the kitchen sink, and flipped ahead and back and forward again, straining and furrowing her brow.
Many words were recorded which his ghost had spoken and the answers which it made.
Moses affirmed that the royal seat of the kingdom was Here.
The house was quiet. The brittle and peeling linoleum floor beneath her dirty tennis shoes was flat and solid. She took the beer from her waistband, opened it, and drank it as she read. It was cold. She almost never got a cold one.
Nineteen hundred and three years elapsed from this time to the capture of Babylon by Alexander the Great.
She could see, peripherally, one refrigerator. One dead aloe plant. One empty green box of Apple Jacks. She lifted her head, and watched the kitchen door smear and separate into three wooden doors. She lowered her head.
wisdom if it be hidden, and a treasure unseen, what profit is there of either of them?
And she watched, out of the corner of her eye, as the three came together into a single, solid door.
In her room she brought a shadeless table lamp over to her bed and read through the second age of the world, taking in little and recalling nothing. The longer she read, the longer the effect seemed to last. One lamp. One bed. One smooth flat sky-blue pillow beneath her head. Inside a single cage of ribs, her heart stood still.
When she woke the next morning, she sat up and set her bare feet on the wood floor. They looked up at her. There were two of them. Nothing moved. The morning cast a parallelogram of light across the smooth, scarred floor.
Down the hall, the toilet flushed, and her vision doubled, righted itself, and doubled again. She opened the book and read as she carried it downstairs, where she filled the kettle and stood by the stove while the water boiled. She read, and looked up, and read, and looked up. There it was, one kettle, boiling one cup of water, on one stove. Her eyes filled and she wrapped her arms tight around The Annals of the World, which was solid, singular, and totally itself. The edges of its hard back pressed into the soft white bellies of her arms.
Outside Jody hauled out two spools of unused and rusted barbed wire to unwind and hammer flat. He could get 80 dollars a ton for unprepared metal but twice that if he took all the shit apart and made it easy to load onto rail cars and have taken away.
“We got copper tubes in that organ,” he said.
“Are you getting them out?”
“Doesn’t it work?”
“Who’s going to play the fucking organ? You?”
He was drunk. Six pairs of hands full of rusted wire. It was eight AM. The girl recalled Mamie, Sully’s wife, playing Que Sera Sera, and Hello Young Lovers. Those were simple songs; yes, she could have played them. She walked to school with the book open.
It is very probable Adam was turned out of paradise the same day that he was brought into it.
That evening in the kitchen, Jody watched the girl read from the heavy book, then look up at a broken green bottle she’d taken from the growing trash heap in the yard and set on the windowsill across the room, now lit up from behind by the runny spring twilight. That green was the only color in the room. Then back to the page, then back to the bottle.
“Think we could sell some of those old books?”
The girl shrugged, her eyes stopped on the page. “To who?”
“That good huh.”
She made no reply.
“What’s with the bottle?”
“What are you testing the book for?”
She looked up at Jody. Two of him. She glanced sideways. One bottle. “I don’t know,” she said.
“What is it you’re reading?”
She looked up at him with a blank face.
“The title?” he said, and shook his head at her.
She closed the book and looked at its cover, and showed it to him.
“Are you even it reading it for chrissakes?”
The girl closed the book and looked up and across the kitchen to the window. One, beautiful, filthy, cracked frame window. Outside of it, a single unmoving aromatic skunk tree, veiled in a lace of new lettuce green. “No,” she said. “Not really.”
“Never did take you for a reader.” Jody turned around and faced the refrigerator.
After dinner, she walked carefully over the hard, uneven ground to the beacon tower where she had a stolen bottle of Four Roses. There was a skinny boy at the bottom of the tower, hugging himself. She stopped in front of him.
He couldn’t have been twelve years old. There was only one of him. He was very small in the wide open space. The wind lifted his white blonde hair and pushed his gray t-shirt so she could see the narrow case of his ribs. His eyes were close set and he squinted, and shrugged. “Go home,” she said. He said nothing, but watched her as she turned to the beacon tower ladder. She took a deep, even breath and closed her eyes as she climbed, moving by feel, so as not to grab a ghost rung with a real hand or a real rung with a ghost hand. By the time she reached the top, the backs of her eyes burned and her face was wet with tears. The boy was racing away across the white pavement of the old runway, split and drifting apart in plates in the short dead wool of last year’s grass. She reached beneath the platform to the lip and behind the rebar, and fished out the bottle of whisky, and poured it over the rail and chucked the empty overhand into the grass.
In the morning, Jody came out with a can of beer and a sledgehammer. He handed her the latter. “There—smash that, over there.” Grandpa’s old 1952 Massey Harris Pony tractor, its once shining red metal now a degraded, rust-splotched pink, its headlights broken off. No eyes. “We need it in pieces. You want a beer?”
The more pieces of junk there were—each one itself, each one unmoving on the ground or concrete floor—the more she felt a nagging, uncanny sensation: there was nothing and there was no place in there that wasn’t looking at her.
She could sense it in the broken Ward’s Airline Radio, Model 62-206 10, All-Wave High Fidelity Receiver and it announced itself with no sound. It looked at her from the cattle weening device, its long rusted nails. From the old irons that read No 1 American FDY MFG Co St. St. Louis MO. And it was in the pulley block with its pullies rusted shut lifting nothing from nothing, just resting there on a heap of trash, inertly offering up the only real question to which it was the only possible answer.
It was looking at her.
And, yes—it was there in the pages of her book.
Engaged in the pursuit of pleasure, or in the exercise of tyranny, the first Caesars seldom showed themselves to the armies, or to the provinces; nor were they disposed to suffer, that those triumphs which their indolence neglected, should be usurped by the conduct and valor of their lieutenants.
It was there in the lieutenants. Not in the long dead men to which the word referred, but in the word on the page. In the lieutenants.
And in each successive word:
It was looking at her from the vowels, from the thereness of each word. She set the book down and picked up an old dryland farming manual from the stack beside the record albums and Life magazines behind her.
The trees and range plants do not need any additional water apart from rain and floods.
And there it was:
At every water gate the water
The vegetationless moraines
Rotary hoe Rotary hoe Rotary hoe
1 kg of urea
kg kg kg
“What in the name of God are you doing?” Jody hollered at her from the drive. A crowbar hung limply from his hand. The girl looked across the filthy space at the crowbar, then at her father, and touched her own face.
Outside, there were the rusty green shoots of prairie Junegrass coming up through the airy dirt. They tapped on her as if on the outside of a shell in which she was curled like a baby bird, little blue winged arms over her head, eyes shut. Come out come out come out come out.
When the Quonset hut was half empty, Jody put a for-sale sign up in the yard. In the subsequent thirty-seven years it swung and bleached and creaked in the wind, no one inquired. For the rest of that Spring, the girl walked to school feeling the full weight of her body and the insides of her hands and feet and her tongue in her mouth. She followed the shoulder of the same old county road that was somehow totally unfamiliar, as if she’d never seen it before. The whole country was new, and it was returning her gaze.
On the last day she went to school, a boy approached her—an eleventh grader with long smooth arms and straight white teeth that nestled against each other in a straight line when he smiled and whose name, she knew, was Colt. He followed her behind the old run-down bus parked permanently behind the school, and where she’d settled in for the lunch hour with her book. She was on the dirt with it open in her lap when he stopped in front of her, his mouth in a line. She set the book aside without marking her page, and stood to face him. Though she knew now her aim was deft and her vision was sharp, she didn’t fight. She didn’t want to. It was looking at her from his nostrils, from his cheekbones, from his shoulders and hips. Colt suddenly took a step back, and looked at her in wonder, his pale blue eyes hard, then all at once round and laughing.
“In your dreams,” he said, and left her there with the book at her feet.
She walked home over the hard ground strewn with gravel and chickweed and found Jody was collapsed in a folding lawn chair. He raised his beer can at her and smiled broadly, as if the moment were an advertisement for something else, for some other man with a similar set of teeth.
In the Quonset hut she pulled a stack of manuals off the floor and a few smaller of the hardbacks from Sully’s workbench, then carried the pile of them, and her big book, the original book, out to the porch, and dragged out an old rocker, and made up her little station.
Years later, when she is a woman, and kids dare each other to go up the porch steps, she sends them away with handfuls of Ritz Crackers, or spotty oranges, and always with one of Sully’s old books, or a page from one of them, as if they all held the same key by virtue of the marks on the page, alone. If they stand beside her, they won’t see anything but the county road merging with the highway beside a dead treeline. But she will lean forward slightly in her rocker with her mouth a little open and her neck straight, as if she were on the edge of the universe, as if she were watching something unfold in the dusty haze out there. She’ll have one hand on the old history book. This was the first one, she’ll say, that set her straight. Just hold it up in your hands and look at the print on the page. Isn’t it something?