Authors: Elizabeth Evans
These Stories Have Appeared in the Following Publications
“Beautiful Land,” in
“English as a Second Language,” in
“Home Ec,” in
“Blood and Gore,” in
“Voodoo Girls on Ice,” in
“A New Life,” in
“Americans” also appears in the anthology
The Best of Crazyhorse
Special thanks to the Centrum Foundation, Port Townsend, Washington, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Brooklyn, New York, for their support of this project.
,” Mickey whispered.
“Wait,” I said, “wait.” Because it was still far off, the car looked small and dark, but it grew lighter, a dusty blue. Dad. Slipping off the road and into the wide ditch along the highway, then rolling back up again, so slow that from where we kids stood the motion looked almost peaceful, like an ocean wave.
I tucked little Krystal higher up on my shoulder and prayed she'd go on sleeping. “Knock that off now,” I told the rest. Except for Mickey, they'd all started throwing gravel from the shoulder as soon as we left the truck stop. Their cheeks were red with the cold, but they still laughed, they tumbled into the ditch on purpose. They didn't know what was what.
A big truck went by, fast enough that it sucked at our clothes and made things even colder. When the trucker got close to dangerous Dad's car, he leaned on the horn.
“Wow,” Mickey said. He squinted down the road. “Dad's driving doesn't look so hot.”
“When's it ever?” I asked. The rate Dad came on, we'd still be standing on the side of the highway when spring arrived; by the time
he got there, maybe the climate would have changed entirely, Nebraska would be under the sea again and the kids and I would all have flippers.
“What sort of mood do you figure he's in now?” Mickey asked.
“Ha,” I said. I knew Mickey wanted to blame me for us being out here, but it had been Mickey that Dad was burned at
, so mad he punched a hole in the bathroom. Dad hadn't even yet fixed the hole he kicked between the living room and the hall last summer.
particular hole. The little ones liked to look at each other through that hole. Sammy's idea of a good time: pull a diaper box out in the hall and sit there watching TV through the hole. Personally, the hole made me sick: always plaster dust on the floor from the little kids picking, and the wall smudged with finger marks.
I cried at the new hole, but when Dad said, “Stop your blubbering,” I did. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to provide the children with a lifelong model of Christian toleranceâwhich, if I didn't have, I didn't have a thing. Except maybe the children. Maybe Krystal, now shifting in my arms on that cold and dirty road that her father traveled down slow as a camel, slower.
I blew into the yellow down of Krystal's hair, made a star. If Krystal looked like anybody on earth, I was it. No one alive would have guessed such a perfect child came from Dad and my stepmother, Anndean. But that's always the way with children, isn't it? When my real mom brought home my brothers and sisters from the hospital, they smelled sweet as bread. They might have cried out for relief of earthly suffering, but they never did a truly bad or cruel thing to anybody.
“Whoa!” Mickey threw his hands up before him like somebody opening a sheet onto a bed. I looked. Dad's car climbed the median, it headed straight for a big pole.
The children screamed. They didn't even know what had happened. They screamed because I did, and they were hooked to me that way, like those Christmas tree lights where if one goes out they all do. Still, Dad missed the pole. He stuck his head out the window, like he'd
just found the right address, any moment someone would call out, “Come on in for a beer, Gary!”
Mickey started toward Dad, but I said, “Wait. We wait til
comes for us. He can do that at least.”
“Of course you're cold,” I told him. “It's cold out here. If you weren't cold, something would be wrong with you, so I guess you're all right.”
Mickey smiled. I could always make him smile. I smiled back to help him along, but I didn't feel like smiling. I wished we were in the truck-stop diner still. Krystal would wake soon, and then what? I'd used the last diapers and bottles over two hours ago; the three littlest kids were sure to be wet by now, and pretty soon they'd notice, start to holler.
I breathed on Krystal's face to warm it. The most wonderful baby in the worldâlike all babiesâshe remained as yet unspoiled by contact with us, but I imagined her in our company, simmering like a poor little pot roast until she, too, cooked clear through.
Dad started to work on backing up off the median. I asked Mickey, “If Dad died right now, do you think he'd go to heaven?”
“Don't start,” Mickey said, “that's how we got here in the first place, Marie.”
I sniffed. The sound frightened me. I looked around for Anndean. Then I did it again: sniff.
“Did you hear that, Mickey?” I said. “Did you hear me sniff?”
“Don't change the subject,” Mickey said. “It is your fault, Marie.”
“I've been infected with Anndean's gruesome habit!” I cried. “She's infected me, Mickey!”
Mickey didn't smile. Because of this morning. Anndean had wanted her coffee, but it still perked, so since I couldn't bring her a cup yet, I just sat down with her and the children at the breakfast table. Anndean turned away from the TV to give me a dose of her fishy stare. That's what got me started. And the sniff. As always, she sniffed: sniff, like she understood things through her nose, or else I stunk. Anndean
wasn't that much older than me, and I was smarter, but marriage to Dad gave her the advantage, say, a sledgehammer has over something like a microscope or a fancy computer: whatever I could do, she could put an end to it, quick.
“You!” she said, and wagged her cigarette beneath my nose. “Stop looking, you!”
“Did I look?” I said. “I didn't mean to, Anndean, but I suppose observation is my nature.” This was not a lie. “You're a good observer,” more than one teacher at the schools had told me. Indeed, I often found myself fascinated by the bottom line of Anndean's face, which traveled from ear to ear by the shortest distance, so that, head-on, Anndean looked like a mailbox we had the time we lived in the country.
Judge not lest ye be judged, but I did suspect that the
of Anndean's head was like the mailbox, too; maybe once a day something ended up in there, but she mostly stood empty. A sweeter, more practical woman would have let us use the space between her ears for storing some of the stuff that spilled out of cupboards and closets and boxes wherever we lived. Canned goods, I thought once, just to make myself laugh, canned goods would be my choice.
“Anndean,” I had said this morning. I turned down the TV despite the honking of the children. “Do you know, Anndean, I used to think and think, Why are we saved by the coming of Jesus? A visit's a visit. Rules are rules, okay, but how does following them give us eternal life? How could Jesus die for
sins? And in so doing ransom us all from eternal death?”
Anndean flicked at my ear with her fingernails to keep me from getting close. Anndeanâshe was nothing like my real mother. My real mother looked precisely like the movie star Susan Sarandon, except she had blue eyes. She never hurt us kids and it upset her so when Dad did that she had to go in her room and just lock the door. Anndean, on the other hand, could always be counted on to possess, within easy reach, a pointed shoe, a serving fork, some item that would let her join the fray.
She didn't want to listen this morning, but I went on: “Then I figured
it out. Even though God made men, He couldn't understand what it meant to be a man until He took the form of man. And when He did! And saw how bad life was! How it pretty much stunk most of the time, and people did
things to one another, sometimes not even out of the rottenness of their hearts, but because He gave them bad equipment . . . why, He put His face in His hands. He just said, âI don't blame anybody for anything!' Which was all He
say, really, since it was His fault, but, let's face it, the rest of us don't always behave that graciously.”
I did not look directly at Anndean, but I watched for signs of absorption. Like I said, she was not bright. She thought TV programs where people sat in chairs and discussed things like wars and the national debtâI could
Anndean thought that those shows appeared by mistake, that she caught glimpses of them the way she might spy strangers in hospital rooms while on her way to visit a friend. “Turn!” she'd say if I stopped to hear a little, “Turn, turn, turn!”
If my theory about Jesus relieved Anndean this morning, she did not let on. Maybe she accepted God's forgiveness as her due, though she
served time for breaking and entering,
when my baby was born one month after her KrystalâTommy Lawrence Handsell I named him, though nobody cared, the people who adopted him gave him a name I will never know as long as I liveâwhen my baby was born Anndean worked hard and long to persuade Dad I had to give him away.
“Anndean,” I said, “forgiveness and forbearance.” She turned the TV back up, lit another cigarette, stubbed out the last in her jam. “Even,” I told her, “for Jesus, who made the fig tree
when He was hungry and it bore no fruit!”
Anndean looked around the room at all those children waiting to be fed. She'd given her Krystal a bottle all right, she did care for Krystal. Right then, she reached over and stuck her finger under Krystal's sleeper and gave her a little tickle. Then she looked at me. Ran her fingers down her neck and into the V of her bathrobe. Rose from her chair. Opened her mouth.
“Get out of my house!” she yelled. She chased me into the living room with the coffeepot, throwing coffee toward me like I was moving fire, and screaming, and whacking Erin in the face with Krystal's bottle.
While she screamed Dad out of bed, I helped the little kids find something to put on, and grabbed up diapers and things. I couldn't locate a shirt so I just stuffed my nightgown in my jeans. Krystal lay on my bunk, bawling; but once I picked her up, she'd be fine. I'd been more mother to her than Anndean any day of the week. I'd meant to breast nurse Tommy so he'd have all the protection possible against whatever was out there, and when they took him away, I secretly gave the milk to Krystal, twice a day for a whole month, once for her night feeding and again before the rest got up.
“Out!” screamed Anndean. “Out!”
When Dad and us started off down the drive, she came after. She threw toys and chunks of snow at the car. A couple of neighbors stuck their heads out to look. I think that's when it occurred to Anndean that I had Krystal. “Bring back my baby!” she yelled.
Dad looked in the rearview mirror, then over at me and Krystal. His hair was mashed with sleep. He looked like he had a fry pan stuck on his head. “Think I ought to give her a chance to cool off?” he said.
Chances were, if I agreed with him, he'd get suspicious. He'd stop the car and take Krystal back. So I kept my mouth shut. And prayed. For nothing more than forbearance and forgiveness. But I suspected my prayers concealed wishes, had little pockets sly as those folds in your brain scientists say contain everything you ever heard or said or smelled, even though you don't know it.
With Krystal in my lap, maybe I secretly prayed for all the things that would give me the peace I seemed to need before I got forbearance. Like an automobile safety seat for Krystal. And knowing my Tommy was safe and sound. And revenge on Dad and Anndean.
The way Anndean acted about my theory, you'd have thought I came up with it for my own pleasure. But consider this: If everybody
go to heaven, heaven would just be life on earth all over again,
wouldn't it? Also, suppose you're nuts and kill somebody. Suppose you're not and do the same. Does that mean you are nuts?
The children had shivered and shook in the car this morning. I'd tried to comfort them. I'd put my foot over the rusted-out place in the floor to keep splatters of slush from shooting up at us. If the rusted-out place had been there two years ago, January 17, maybe Mom could not have killed herself. I've tortured and tortured myself, trying to rust out the metal earlier or make one of the windows impossible to roll tight. I didn't ever want to get in a car again after that. I thought we ought to become Amish. The Amish don't have cars. They live in solid houses where if a thing wears out, they fix it, or make another. They only have things they
fix. They grow their food. They eat hot meals with crowds of people who pray and believe the same things, so at least you had a chance of turning out right for your earthly life, and didn't just figure you'd say “sorry” before you died.
This morning, when Dad dropped us at that truck stopâa place out farther than I could remember ever going beforeâhe just said, “Get something to eat. I'll be by later. You watch for me.”
He knew I didn't have any money, so why ask him for some? Off he drove, and there stood the kids, six of them besides me and the baby, waiting to eat.
“May as well get whatever you want,” I told them; and the waitress: “Our dad'll be by later.”
Of course, I could not entirely stop the kids from spilling syrup and tearing open sugars and blowing straws. I scolded, I prayed, but our waitress still had to stand a couple feet from the table to get our dessert orders. “But which dessert's
” Sammy cried. “Which one's very
“Sorry,” I told the waitress. She deserved it. She had forbearance, like my real mom. A skinny man at the counter asked her if he could have “a beaver on rye,” and she didn't frown or smile or anything. I really admired her until about eleven thirty, at which time she began to cast looks my way, like, “Where's your dad?” and “So who's paying for all this?”
I stared out the window at all those trucks. I thought, I will be stuck in this booth the rest of my life and I've already been here forever.