Authors: Karen Halvorsen Schreck
SILENCE FOLLOWS THE
sound. The tornado that hit Alba in 1930 left in its wake such a silence. But this silence stretches even longer. This silence becomes its own kind of terrible noise.
Something moves beside me, breaking whatever spell has kept me frozen in place. I look down. Edna Faye. Her gray eyes seem to swallow her hollow moon face. “What was that?” she asks.
I shake my head, and once I start, I can't stop. Shaking my head, I walk to the front door. I open it. Even now there's not a sound to be heard. No one stands in the silent road. Any birds in the treesâblack crows, brown thrashers, blue jaysâare stunned dumb. Our mourning doveÂ .Â .Â . I hope she flew far away from here this morning. I tell myself she flew far away. She will return at nighttime, when Charlie returns, because Charlie was working in a new field today, a faraway field, a safe field, far away.
I stand on the porch and watch for him, though it is not yet time for him to come home. In fact, time seems to have stopped, which no doubt will delay him all the longer.
I look toward where the sun should be, fixed to a standstill on the horizon, and where the sun should be looms a black cloud of smoke rising, rising, enormous already and ballooning bigger. I smell it then. Burning oil. And something elseâsomething like scorched meat and singed hair.
I clap my hands over my nose and mouth to block the smell, to suppress the cry thickening in my throat, and time starts again. Neighbors spill from tents and homes like ours, women and children and menâmen too old to be working or injured men unable to workâwho are shouting. “Blowout!” Over and over I hear the word, but no matter how many times I hear it, I can't think what it means.
Someone tugs at my dress. “I have to find my ma.”
Edna Faye's high, thin voice is solemn with understanding. I drop to my knees. We are eye to eye, and she is the teacher. “What happened?”
“Blowout,” she says.
Something in my expressionâimpatience? anger?âmakes Edna Faye wince. She is afraid. I don't want to be another adult who makes her fearful. I should smile reassuringly and tell her to go find her ma. Instead, I grab her shoulders and yank her close so I can hear her every word through the noise of lamentation rising all around us.
“What's a blowout?”
“A fire. A big fire. A bad fire.” She's crying now. “Killed my uncle and my grandpa, too, up in Whizbang a while back.”
Whizbang, Oklahoma, she means. The boomtown that sprang up almost overnight around one of the biggest gushers ever discoveredânearly as big as the gushers here. I heard about Whizbang. I heard about that fire. It destroyed everything in its path. It almost destroyed Whizbang.
I look to the horizon again. The fire is in the west. Which way did Charlie drive this morning after he folded himself into our truck's front seat? I watched him walk to the truck, his lunch pail swinging at his thigh. I watched him climb inside. I raised my hand and blew him a kiss. He blew a kiss back. Waving, he backed the truck toward the dirt road that took him in whichever direction he went. But I didn't watch him drive away. Already, I'd turned back to the house. Because today is Monday.
I had to get busy. And there are his shirts, soaking in the pot. There are his dungarees, hanging from the line, and his socks, clothespinned into place. The East Texas wind has dried them already. But I will wash them againâ
âbecause look: faint tendrils of oily, black smoke, black as any dust storm's blizzard, black as any mood, snaking around the dungarees and socks, and the shirts still soaking in the potâclothes that Charlie will wear against his skin. My husband's skin smells like Ivory soap, and beneath that, a hint of Lava. I can't have him heading off to work smelling like somethingâ
âlike someone burned.
This is what I'm doing when a man comes and tells me that Charlie is dead, killed in the blowout. I'm scrubbing Charlie's shirts, dungarees, and socks. The man talks to me. He talks to me. Talks to me. To the back of my bowed head he talks, to my rounded shoulders, my body heaving with effort. I hear “husband,” and I hear “dead,” and that is all I hear. That is all I need to hear. Now I must get busy. Never have I worked so hard at one simple task. Monday's task. I work at it.
But I cannot get Charlie's clothes clean enough. I cannot wash them white as the snow that I have seen only a few times in my life. One time I was with Charlie. This was eight years ago. He was fourteen. I was thirteen. We were walking home from school late one January afternoon, when the moon already hung in the sky, as the moon must hang in the sky now, only that January moon was hidden by clouds and this March moon is hidden by smoke. Charlie and I were walking and talking, discussing a comment Mrs. Himmel had made about the sixth day and Adam and Eve. In a low voice, Charlie told me about something he'd read on the sly, tucked away in the corner of the Alba public library where one day I would work. Charlie had read bits and pieces from a book by a man named Darwin. This man Darwin thought seven days wasn't all it took to make the world, and Charlie wondered what I thought about that. I was thinking on what I thought, and Charlie was waiting for my answer, when snow began to fall like manna from the sky. “Look!” Charlie said. And we raised our mittened hands like hallelujah, and the white flakes dusted the wool. Charlie's hands were big. Mine were small. Charlie's mittens were blue. Mine were red. I remember this. We gazed at our mittened hands, at the crystals sparkling against the wool, each as unique as a human soul, shining fiercely, swiftly extinguished. “It's a miracle,” I said, and Charlie said yes. A miracle. Our first snow together, a miracle we shared, and we promised each other we'd share many more.
Our first snow together was when Charlie and I fell in love, I realize as I wash his clothes all through the dark, smoky night. I wash holes into the knees of his dungarees and bigger holes into the heels of his socks. I wash the cuffs and collars of his shirts to shreds. I wash my hands raw. I wash my hands bloody.
The day Charlie and I fell in love. The day of the one and only miracle in my life.
other's scuffed brown lace-ups appear in my field of vision. “It's time, Ruth.”
I sit on the floor in the spot where our bed used to be an island, but now I am lost at sea. The bed is gone, given to someone who needs a bed big enough for two. The room is empty. Our house is empty, and what's left of my life.
My parents and Charlie's mother, Margaret, made the decisions about what to sell or give away. I saw them do so as if from a great distance while the black fog encroached from where it lurked at the corners of my eyes, the back of my mind, the outer limits of my heart that beats dully on and on. I heard the three of them talking, also as if from a great distance. Their voices rose and fell, pitched high and low with varying emotion, but their words remained indecipherable, distorted, like a gramophone played at the wrong speed.
Days have passed since the blowout, possibly weeksâdon't know, don't careâand all this endless, senseless time, I've been waiting for the black fog to cover me completely. I've been waiting to vanish, as Charlie did. Charlie was incinerated, Margaret told me, weeping as I have yet to weep. Tears fail me. Dry-eyed, I watched Margaret's mouth move. “The flames consumed him.”
Let the black fog consume me.
Mother's thin hand settles on my shoulder. She gives me a shake. “Your daddy has a meeting.”
I slide down the length of her words into the back room off the sanctuary where Daddy and the other leaders of the Holy Church of the Redeemed hold their meetings. There is the cone of yellow light cast by the lamp that hangs over the table, and there are the men who keep the CovenantâDaddy and the othersâheads thrust forward, shirtsleeves rolled up, fingers pointing.
“Oh, for heaven's sake!” Mother's voice shrills to anxious. “Margaret left some time ago. She wanted to reach Alba before dusk. At this rate, we'll arrive tomorrow. He'll miss his meeting, Ruth, and you know we don't want that.”
With a strength that surprises me (Mother's strength always surprises me), she grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet. Out the empty bedroom, down the empty hallway, past the empty kitchen and the empty front room, and across the threshold over which Charlie carried me, Mother drags me. Back to before, she drags me. Back to Alba.
Shock of sunlight. Then someone says my name. “Mrs. Ruth.”
For the first time since the blowout, a voice I want to hear. I wrench my arm from Mother's grasp and turn to Edna Faye.
She stands beneath the sagging laundry line, staring at me.
her mouth makes, and her gray eyes, big as they've ever been, brim with dismay. And there's Edna Faye's familyâall but her father, who is now a name in the alphabetical list of names that precede
a name etched on the black slab of granite laid down by the oil company beneath a tall sweet gum tree outside of camp. Edna Faye's siblings have piled onto the mattress that lines the bed of the dilapidated wagon hooked up to their jalopy, tent poles strapped to its running board. Edna Faye's mother, who seems to have aged twenty years in however long it's been since the blowout, sits hunched behind the steering wheel. What unbelievable quiet for such noisy kids. They lean into their belongingsâblankets, buckets, boxes, two battered bicycles, and an old cookstoveâand keep the silence of the dead. Where are they going? West? I've heard about West on the radio, read about it in the papers and on the fliers distributed by the farm owners, which promise work and better weather. I've seen evidence of west-bound refugees on the road, too. So many fleeing their homes and farms, driven out by dust storms, drought, and dissolution, rattling on toward where the sun inevitably sets. Mother's closest friend from her childhood back in Guthrie had to go west; Mother has told me so time and again, until the telling has distilled into a kind of refrain: “Alice Everly and her family were far better off than us. If they turned homeless, what are the odds we'll do the same?”
Take me with you, Edna Faye. Anywhere but Alba. Take me there.
I wrench my arm from Mother's grip and go to her. We clasp hands.
“One plus one equals two,” she says.
“Two minus one equals one,” she says.
I close my eyes against this difference.
“Don't give up.” I hear my voice for the first time since the blowout. Really hear itârough and thin as a piece of paper torn in half. “You hear me, bright girl? Keep learning.”
Mother's hand settles again on my shoulder. Edna Faye releases me, and Mother steers me toward Daddy's car. Next thing I know, I'm in the backseat. I watch through the window as Edna Faye climbs onto the mattress in the truck's bed and burrows down beside her brothers and sisters.
Edna Faye is crying. Out the window as we pull away, I watch that little girl, my bright girl, do a woman's work of tears.
SPRING CREEPS IN,
as it will. Blossoms open on the redbud by the road; I see them from my bedroom window. A flash of blue streaks by one dayâan indigo bunting whistling its sharp, clear song. The bellflowers out back will bloom soon, no doubt. All things blue recall Charlie's eyes. Mother says I am blue. “Pray. You're not praying hard enough. You must end this blue mood, Ruth.” Darker than blue, I think. Darker than Charlie's eyes. Black, the color of my eyes. Black fog punctured by occasional birdsong, the flickering movement of pink buds on a brown branch tossed by the windâthe wind that used to remind me of God's spirit encompassing me. Mother is right about one thing: I'm not praying hard enough. I'm not praying at all. I've tried. I can't. And if God speaks in a still, small voice, well, I can't hear God for the wind.
I lie in bed days and nights. I don't sleep much.
“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!”
Out of nowhere, Daddy's voice. It's the first time he's spoken to me since our return to Alba. I open my eyes, look toward the bedroom doorway. There he stands, wearing a denim shirt and a pair of hickory-stripe bib overalls, as he does every day of the week but Sunday. Dim light fills the bedroom; outside, the rooster, Captain, crows. It must be early morning. How long have I been lying here, awake?
Daddy strides to my bed, stands over me. He rubs his hand roughly over the gray stubble of his beard. “Free ride ends now, Ruth. Understand.” A statement, not a question.
He's gone then, leaving Mother in his wake. She pushes her thin hands through her thinning red hair. “You heard your daddy.” She's mustered sternness, but a thread of pity laces her tone. “Let's get on with it. Get on with life.” She glances at the wedding band I still wear. “Time to take that off, put it somewhere safe. Don't you think?”
I tuck my ringed hand under the bedcoversâa reflexive gesture, the kind a child would make. My expression must say,
because Mother sighs. “All right, then. Just get out of bed, Ruth, if you know what's good for you. Your daddy made his demands clear. You don't want to go messing with that. You know what I mean.”
At her rising urgency, the black fog lifts a little, and I do know what she means. Mess with Daddy and live to regret it.
So with Captain still crowing, I get out of bed. For the first time, I take stock of the bedroom. Somehow, the little bit left of what I had with Charlie has been unpacked and put away. Mother did this, more than likely. Here I am, right back exactly where I was, as I was, before. It's as if I never left Alba. It's as if my life with Charlie was a beautiful dream.
My nightgown is rank; I've been living in it. I give Mother a look, and she complies by leaving the room and me to myself. I strip off my nightgown and drop it in the empty basket that will soon hold other dirty laundry now that enough is enough. I put on the black dress I wore to the memorial service for Charlie and the other lost men. Then, without much more than a sip of coffee from the cup that Mother sets on the kitchen table before me, and a bite of milk toast from the bowl she puts down beside that, I say, “I'm going out.”