blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Haven’t I Been Sweet to You

May 2002
Mom calls, her voice agitated—I think it must be some change in her white blood cell count, but she’s asking about Brad—if he’s phoned me—nobody knows where he is, he’s been gone two days. My conversations with him have become less frequent; either he doesn’t answer or he’ll call me late at night, his speech sometimes too rushed to follow or else trailing off, hard to make out. The last time we talked was a few weeks back, a Sunday when Dad had come into the shop at the farm where Brad was working on an engine and shooting the breeze with his housemate Fry and a couple of friends hanging out by the tool bench, drinking some beers—“guys in their thirties and forties, for god’s sake,” Brad said that night. Dad had started screaming, throwing the others out, saying take their beer with them, he didn’t want them wasting Brad’s time, messing up his shop. Brad didn’t know, and neither did I, that Dad had been checking around for weeks, following Brad’s truck in town, suspicious.

“It’s not about Dad this time,” Mom says. “There’s something else. Deb, I’m scared for him.”

The next morning I call back and Mom’s voice is shaky—Brad was released from Sully County Jail with charges pending, she says. He’d been up to our cousin Bryan’s on Cheyenne River and gotten pulled over on the way back for “lane driving,” which the officer had explained meant shifting over the no-passing line, accidentally or not.

“There’s never anyone on those roads to run into,” Mom says. “Nobody up there even obeys the speed limit. Odd to see any cop in that area.”

What Mom doesn’t yet know, what the officer hadn’t said, was that Brad had been tracked by federal aerial surveillance monitoring Bryan’s place. They’d let Brad stop at a deserted four-corners, shoot up, and then drive on—waiting for him to cross out of the reservation, where only federal and tribal law obtain. Once he was past the border, the state trooper they’d called was to find a pretext for pulling him over, then search the car for meth. Brad was held overnight in Sully County Jail while down in Hughes County the farmhouse was searched. The charges on the sheet handed over with his belongings the next day would change his life. And save it, Brad will say eventually.

August 2002
Courthouse miles behind us for now; sun low, light angling to pink at the surrounding horizon; heat beginning to lift finally. Meadowlarks flit up, away from the car, veering over the ditch at field’s edge where horses stand patient, paired head to rump, unmoving except for tails brushing flies from each other’s eyes and nostrils. Sweet corn, then field corn, milo turning but not ready yet; thick scent of vetch-cover; buckwheat; a harrow left out where the tractor was last unhitched. No traffic, but lowering dark quivers further east with a hint of sheet lightning, and Brad tells me about a sundown like this years back—his pulling over, the truck doors left open, Martha faceup next to him on the ground, the two of them watching sky change above, waiting for the breeze to pick up, clouds to open with rain, storm to purify, take them out of their lives.

What he doesn’t say, what we both know: the minute they graduate high school they marry—powder-blue suit, lace gown, smiles of relief and hope snapped in the pictures—then that night, rice still caught in their hair, driving to Colorado for a honeymoon weekend, they’re struck head-on by a drunk who’s fallen asleep going ninety, skewing across the median. No other cars on the road at that hour; if not for the pickup’s CB radio Brad drags himself back to after being thrown, they’d all three be dead. Martha’s spleen and part of her liver gone, then finally she’s out of the hospital, still needing tending-to while he’s in the fields all day, so Mom and Dad’s basement is the newlywed cell they wind up living in till she’s strong enough to move to the farm. Even after they’ve moved, Dad’s out there every day, giving orders, criticizing, walking in the house without knocking. No getting away from this stark horizon.

March 2003
Dad says he’s going on out to check the fields, and drops me at the farmhouse with Mom’s pan of apple crisp. She insisted on making it for Brad early this morning, then was too tired afterward to come along to the farm to see him, stuck out here on house arrest, still waiting for a hearing.

Sprawled below the sink in the kitchen, he calls over as I close the back door, “Hey—I’m almost done tightening this pipe—be with you in a minute.”

The Twins game’s on in the living room, the drapes closed—dark, heavy green fabric, dusty along the outer folds, as if they’ve been permanently pulled against daylight. I walk over to the south window and lift the edge of one curtain to look down the draw, past the cattle-dam and lower bluffs, across the wide river with its shifting sand bars and beyond, to the western bluffs facing ours.

“You mind if I open these?” I ask as Brad comes in behind me, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Beautiful out there—might lift your spirits. . . .

“Oh, sure. I forget about it. Go out to work it, but I don’t always think about the view in here. So often I can’t sleep at night, I lay out here with the TV, awake all hours, so I just leave ’em like that, in case I finally drowse off late. You know, Dad loves finding me on the couch when he comes in in the mornings.” He chuckles and leans over, pulls the cord to open both curtains, then steps back and puts an arm around my shoulder, reaching in his pocket for his cigarettes with the other. “Guess I got used to not wanting to be seen from out there, too, not knowing who could come up the road or be training their long-range antenna this direction from the next bluff over—you know, they even got you identified on a couple phone records, Sis—one of the few details that makes sense in those notebooks the lawyer passed on from the prosecutor. Most of it about people I don’t know, never even heard of. When I do find my name, they seem to think I’m talking some kind of code, or Bryan is—you know, can ya bring that old horse trailer up next time you come? Pretty suspicious-sounding.”

“Listen, honey, I’m here to talk any of it over, if you want to. I know you’re not supposed to discuss the discovery stuff except with your lawyer or wife, but Martha’s not here anymore, and the lawyer’s three hours off in Rapid City—and they took your driver’s license, for god’s sake. If you need help thinking things through, I’m here, okay? Especially now, while I’m actually around, and we don’t have to use the phone.” I look out the window again. “Some spot Grandpa happened on here.”

“Yeah.” Brad pulls out a cigarette. “He kept thinking there must be more value in it, though. I remember following him around when I was little, when he’d rove the fields with that Geiger counter he ordered, sure there must be uranium in the ground here somewhere, some secret find to make us rich.” He laughs a cut-off laugh. “Shouldn’t really have been ours at all. Remember that mammoth tooth Norman found that got taken away, the School of Mines saying it didn’t belong to us? None of this does, really.” He gazes out beside me and twirls the cigarette through his fingers, like a tiny baton.

I nod at his hand. “Fancy.”

“Yeah—see how long I can keep it out of my mouth. Hey—about my trouble—maybe let’s be careful what’s said, in case they’re still surveilling the place. Goddamn Kadlecek, my new neighbor, he’s the one that was at it, I think. Saw him out there once, up on the rise north of the house beyond the windbreak, just sitting in his car with the big antenna. I was on foot—he didn’t even see me come up. Expert detective. Just watching the sunset, he said. Federal job in town was what he’d told me when he moved in at the old Erikson house. Hunted pheasant in our corn that first fall he was here. Borrowed my county atlas and never returned it.”

He chuckles quietly again, rolls his eyes. I always thought of him as the sunnier kid between us—everyone did—livelier, more gregarious, funny, face always open. He looked like Mom’s brother Bud the minute he arrived, grew up joking like Bud—good-natured, drawing people to him. I inherited more of Dad’s darker features and temperament, it was said, and I hated it. I wonder now if Brad’s open face and charm became for him a kind of disappearing. In so many ways, growing older, moving far from here, I’ve hardly known him, including his ways of vanishing—maybe because I never wanted to admit that my own escaping made escape harder for him. I managed to follow rules, or appear to, to be good, unassailable, finally get away—but I was the girl. Not possible for him, with the expectation that he carry on this place he loves, that must have seemed meant to destroy him sometimes, turn him into someone he wasn’t. He had to check out by different means. The other night when I asked him about meth—what it feels like—he talked about starting to drink around fourteen as a way to be gone, then about the first time he signed himself in for treatment, senior year of high school—how furious Dad was, then more furious when Mom started going to Al-Anon meetings for Brad, sure that people would think the alcoholic in the family was Dad. “Didn’t occur to him that his Tuesday and Friday poker nights with the AA guys might’ve given that impression for years,” Brad laughed. But about meth, addiction endgame, he said, “At first the pure pleasure, feeling of being lifted out of yourself, is unbelievable. Then before long it doesn’t take you away anymore; just turns you into a body without pain for a while, a blank, doing things you never thought you’d do, while your soul’s what’s gone, somewhere distant, someplace you’ve lost track of.”

Even having heard that, I find myself wanting his reassuring smile that must still be part mask, his comforting nod that he’s all right, he’s safe, out of treatment now—court-ordered treatment this time—when we both know safety’s a long ways away.

“Come here,” he says, and walks ahead of me down the hall to the office. Opening the door he holds a finger to his lips, then he steps over and pulls two fat blue binders off the shelf below his rows of CDs and model tractors. Rubber-banded to the top binder is a small box he unfastens and hands to me. I open it: it’s full of photographs. “I don’t recognize any of it,” he says. “I definitely let myself wind up in a lot of wrong places, but not these—really don’t think I was ever in any of ’em.”

The kitchen door slams. “Anybody here?” Dad hollers.

“Look for a while; I’ll talk to him,” Brad says, stepping out, closing the door, leaving me at the desk alone.

The pictures are shots of nightmare. Dark, chaotic, inscrutable scenes I feel I almost remember or might’ve dreamed. Coolers and scattered trash outside a trailer whose door hangs open above chipped cinder block steps. Flashes of dim rooms inside—or maybe in another trailer or house—buckets and bottles and canisters and rubber hosing going every which way, rusty, grime-encrusted sink, pulled-open drawers, rug ripped and burned away, a mirror’s shadowy spattered doubling of the scene. One room with a naked mattress, the sheet pulled loose and stained red, surrounded by chaos of big soda bottles. Hardee’s bags. Antifreeze jugs. Matted teddy bear half-covered by plastic sheeting duct-taped but fallen down from a window. I can’t look at all of them, not now. I push them back into the box, thinking of the grubby dirt cellar that used to be below Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Norman’s house, which this house I’m sitting in replaced—the crumbling earth walls that made me think that old house could fall in, nights I was left to stay out here, nights before Brad came along. Dusty beet and tomato jars lined up on shelves along the walls, twisted garlic vines hanging over baskets of potatoes and piled-up tires in the corners, musty file boxes, the dingy mud-smell dark of a grave, scratch of mice my uncle said would crawl up inside my nightgown.

In the notebooks, Brad’s lawyer has highlighted the places Brad’s name appears—looks like maybe ten, twelve paragraphs in hundreds of pages. The first three are the transcripts of Brad’s old school-friend Jim McCann coming over to the house on three different nights, just as Brad told me he had, to ask Brad if he has any crank to spare. Each time Brad says no, he’s sorry, then finally the third time McCann says, Come on, I’m beggin’, man—and Brad asks, Jim, who’s been tellin’ you I’ve got anything? You know you didn’t hear it from me. Then—Sit down, for god’s sake, wait here a minute, and he comes back with a little for McCann, who tries to pay him, but Brad won’t take the money, pushes it away. You do the same for me sometime, friend. What Brad doesn’t know in that moment: even giving away meth is distribution, and McCann’s been wearing a wire each time he’s knocked, trying to save himself from prison.

I’ll make an excuse to come back later, alone, with Mom’s car; reading through these pages will take hours. Dad’s out in the living room talking with Brad, no doubt wanting to know what I’m doing. I close the binder, its blue plastic cover like the cover of the scrapbook my high school boyfriend Keith gave me after we’d stopped going together. We weren’t driving around anymore in his jacked-up car, tuning in rock and roll from a distant tower, skimming along moon-dim back roads, going nowhere. But he hadn’t yet pulled his Chevy into the little YOU-WASH-IT after school, rolled both hinged garage doors down to the concrete and slid back in behind the wheel to wait, radio up, windows open, motor roaring. That was later in the day, after Keith had given me his scrapbook binder. And I hadn’t asked why, hadn’t even looked before I stuffed it in my locker at lunch; I liked being the keeper of feelings, being needed but not touched.

Not long before that day, Fridays when my little brother was somewhere downtown buying beer from other kids my age who had fake IDs, I’d been riding with Keith any direction away from town, sometimes hours away, or sneaking with him over the caution barrier to the old condemned railroad bridge above the river. After Keith was gone, I drove by myself out of town Fridays after school, or climbed to high places where I could disappear—sitting alone hours in Mom’s car on the northeast bluff overlooking town, or trudging up the hill to the Catholic school playground emptied out for the weekend, where I couldn’t confess. But I could hover up there apart from my life, twisting the chains on one of the low swings, scuffing my feet in ruts made by years of Catholic kids, looking down on houses and streets below that appeared small and harmless from that distance—my neighborhood obscured by big oaks planted decades before along Capitol Avenue. Swaying back and forth above the narrow troughs that many little feet had dug, I was lifted for a while above the tiny town looking tinier, while a small, dark box I was hardly aware of rocked back and forth inside me, along with the wish to be yet higher up, hundreds of miles away.

“Where you been?” Dad asks as I walk back to the living room, his eyes glancing over from the baseball game as it flickers to a commercial. “—All right, I’ll catch the rest of this in town; don’t let the Yankees get another run,” he warns Brad. “Need any groceries tomorrow when I come out? Or if you want to get into town I can take you.” Dad’s the only one with legal permission to drive Brad anywhere off the farm.

“I’m fine; Mom keeps sending out food. Tell her to go easy, all right?” To me he says, “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” I say, closing the curtains he opened earlier. “I’ll come out tomorrow sometime with Mom’s car. You get some rest tonight. You all right?”

“Sure—better than ever.” He tilts his head and smiles.

July 2003
Brad calls to tell me Mom’s in St. Mary’s—something’s worse, more dangerous now. Dad picks me up at the airport, drives straight to the hospital. Stepping out of the elevator, I see Bryan first, and a woman I don’t know—then Brad, further down the hall, alone. I hug Bryan, whose dad, Mom’s twin brother Bud, passed away last year.

“Docs asked everyone to stay out for a bit—I’m sure you can see her soon,” Bryan says, and the woman beside him looks down.

I move past her to Brad, who’s coming toward me, his big arms open, then enfolding me, trembling.

“She’s gonna make it, Deb, she’ll get past this—it’ll help her to have you here—really glad you could come this soon.”

“Me too,” says Dad as Brad and I separate, and I turn.

“Who’s the woman with Bryan?”

“Parole officer,” says Dad. “Making sure Bryan and Brad don’t talk to each other, don’t try to line their stories up.”

Two doctors step out of Mom’s room, and Brad introduces me. They explain about the morphine, the possibility that she’ll need to be moved to Sioux Falls. Dad walks down to tell Bryan, and Brad and I go into the room together, whispering, since Mom’s eyes are closed, but when she hears us, she asks, “Is that Bud?”

“It’s Brad and Deb,” I say, and hug her, carefully, not wanting to disturb all the tubes, telling her I love her, stroking her hair, as Brad lays a hand on her leg, so thin under the blanket and sheet, saying, “Mom, we’ll have you home soon.”

Her eyes open then and, gazing above Brad’s head, she asks, “Are those balloons?”

Brad turns around.

“Bud’s gonna have a party,” she says, slurring a little. “Bud’s getting ready.”

Brad turns back, looks quickly at me, then says, “That’s the wallpaper, Mom. Bright colors to cheer you up.”

“Tell them I’m happy enough,” she says mildly, wearily, closing her eyes again.

August 2003
Sitting ashamed in the swivel chair with a shiny, black salon smock on, I can hear through the women’s voices around me my brother’s teasing that this disguising of age is an amusing bit of vanity.

After the officer had brought him into the booth across from me and removed the handcuffs, Brad had smiled, picking up the phone on his side of the plexiglass, asking me how Mom was doing. She was back home, where we’d worried she might not ever be again, but not able to come to the jail. She was asking about him, I said.

“Please give her a hug for me. And hug yourself,” he said, putting a hand up to the window, then tilting his head a little. “How is it they can do that to your hair?”

“Ah, I pay them. Brad—”

Anything he could play out a bit to keep the talk from being about him, about why he was in custody now, still awaiting sentencing.

He laughed. “Whatever it takes to feel good inside your own skin—or outside it,” he said, finally adding, “Just keep it legal, don’t want to wind up like this,” pointing to himself. “I asked about a different color jumpsuit—one that sets off my baby blues—but it hasn’t come through yet.”

Even smiling, as if he needed to keep my spirits up, his eyes looked so heavy, like they hadn’t closed in years, as though time had stopped a long while back and he hadn’t blinked since.


His voice dissolves into vague scents of sage and coconut, and I gaze past Maggie’s black latex gloves starting to work on me. My face in the mirror, hair pulled back around it chaotically and dabbed with goop, looks thin and small, wide-set eyes too large for it, more than ever like Mom’s face when she’s helpless—“Not on the head, Bob—please”—so often just a goad for Dad’s smacking Brad again, over spilling a feed bag or leaving tools out of place, or dashing out to somebody’s truck at the gate before Dad himself sauntered from the barn to see who it was, sometimes over something neither Mom nor I could figure out, but asking made it worse. I doubt Mom and Dad were calmer before Brad came along, but I have few recollections of earlier, and once he arrived, his trouble, his gift for diversion, helped protect me. Distinct memory begins with him, me waiting in the big stuffed chair for Mom to place my new brother in my lap, her hand cupping his head carefully as she rests it in the crook of my arm, saying, “You have to hold his head up for him.”


“It’s okay, we’ll be right over there—you can see us from here the whole time,” a woman in silver jeans is saying as she turns toward the lounge area, her large bag bumping her hip with each step as she moves away from the chair hidden behind Maggie’s mirror. The toddler she carries cranes his neck to look back until he’s plopped on the curved sectioned couch that circles a table of magazines. I can’t see who they’ve left opposite me, in the seat bolted, like the rest of its row, into the other half of the cavernous room whirring with blow-dryers and soft rock and idle conversation.

“So what kind of new look would you like?” I hear the stylist in charge of the invisible person ask cheerily, her paisley elbows and hips moving past the mirror edges, a comb poised now and then in one hand as she lifts strands with the other, apparently considering options.

“I don’t want my hair touched,” a high, tight little voice replies. Or maybe she says “cut.”


Everyone must have blank moments, a word overheard sliding open a door in the mind, stairs down to some hidden part of a house once known, dim rooms not quite in focus, people in them doing indecipherable things. When I went to visit Brad in the Hughes County Jail, signed my name on the list to wait for my ten minutes on the phone across from him, the two of us watching each other’s eyes, then pressing hands to the bulletproof glass—what did I understand of the conditions he’d be taken back down to afterward? The thought of unstoppable yelling and slamming only called up for me remote echoes of crib or playpen surrounded by parents’ hollering. What I remembered most clearly of confinement was the opposite: silence, motionlessness, darkness of eyes closed, waiting for someone to move on by, not find me. Flattened high-up on a gritty shelf in the furnace room, soundless until Dad’s anger passed; standing behind Grandma’s long bear-fur coat in the front hall closet, my legs inside a pair of big boots, waiting till he left for the farm. Or out at the farm, in the back of Shep’s little house, breathing in dog smell, curled behind quiet haunches and tail. Those were places I’d put myself into, though, to avoid getting caught. But in some dreams a shadow bends over me, holding me down as my mouth tries to open wider and scream, yet can make no sound. I shared a bed with Grandma Hazel at home, but when she’d leave to visit our cousins up at Eagle Butte or Billings I’d sing over and over to myself, to stay awake, keep night away—”Tammy,” “The Easter Parade,” “You Are My Sunshine”—hoping not to be taken out to the farm to stay with my other grandma and grandpa and Uncle Norm.


Maggie pulls off the hair clip that’s been holding a towel around my neck. “You can go relax for a while now,” she says, unsnapping the vinyl apron and gesturing toward the lounge. “Go hang out for forty minutes and let those colors seep in. Lena will come find you when it’s time to rinse you out.”

I maneuver across the room in my shapeless kimono-smock and hair sticking out at odd angles between folds of foil, as whispery rock fades, switches to The Supremes. I picture Diana Ross and her backup singers—I loved swimming my arms along with them when they came on TV, their long, snug gloves so graceful, the glittery ankle-tight gowns and sculpted hair glowing under the spotlights. Haven’t I been good to you . . . haven’t I been sweet to you? Think it o-o-ver. I got an outfit like that for my Barbie doll, with over-the-elbow pink gloves, plus a tiara, and Brad once swiped some of the accessories without my knowing. I thought I’d searched everyplace, that they’d vanished, but they showed up a day or so later at breakfast—a fork propped in a juice glass, raising pink nylon fingers to the ceiling; a couple of Dad’s cigarettes sticking out of the pack, wearing tiny black plastic high heels.


From the cushion I’ve sunk into I can see now the girl on the other side of Maggie’s mirror. She’s staring straight ahead as a stranger snips off her hair and lets the long locks fall to the floor, to be swept away by some other stranger. I pick up Vanity Fair, page through lovely faces that appear to know nothing of ordinary heartbreak—childhood griefs or hair going gray or mistakes that lead to cinder block rooms of interrogation. But secretly they must know that if they make some pathetic error, wind up crossing the law, or not watching out for someone close to them who might, if they simply keep on living, if they love anyone, heartbreak will find them. Then one beautiful face, shattered—Kevin Bacon, in a preview shot from Mystic River, a movie I’ve read about already and want to see, and am a little afraid to—and I think of my brother again, and the thousands and thousands of others with no theater or restaurant or hair salon or Vanity Fair magazine. And I feel ashamed, yet keep looking at this face in the photograph, this actor aware that in close observation, a real life—the smallest, unsolved, impossible details of what someone’s been through or is capable of—shows there’s no one who doesn’t need solace, or forgiveness.

The pages, as I turn them, seem to have dimmed slightly. I look up and see that outside, the midday sky has darkened, late summer heat growing stormy, but not quite threatening—a fairly calm rain coming. The kind of weather Dad would pray for this time of year, if he prayed. He doesn’t, not even with a son in jail, a wife desperately ill, but like any farmer, any gambler, in spite of himself he puts a little secret faith in near-miracle. He’s seen it happen a few times, sudden change over a matter of hours, after months of drought—fields parched and withering, nearly given up on, then one long, steady rain bringing new growth, brilliant green, answer to a wish never admitted. I wish it for him.


The stylist across from Maggie is walking the girl over to her mother already, smiling, unlike her charge. The girl must be about eight, but looks older, otherworldly in her retro pixie cut and impassive face that doesn’t seem to recognize her mom behind me, or her little brother’s voice exclaiming her name—Jenny, or Janie. Her yellow flip-flops go by—large yellow daisies quivering between her big and smaller toes—pause briefly, then slap past again in the other direction, unaccompanied, moving toward the front door, where she stops to look out at the rain beginning, as her brother scrambles after her.

A touch on my arm. Lena has come up beside me so quietly I hadn’t noticed. She shows me to the chair before the gleaming, deep black sink with its curve for the neck, covers my shoulders with a plush towel, then gently lowers my head back with a surprisingly strong hand while with the other she turns on the water. I notice the rows of lamps hanging by long cords from the ceiling, and close my eyes.

“Is the temperature all right for you?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She begins massaging into my hair a shampoo that smells like a flower I once knew, but can’t recall the name of.

“Is the pressure okay?”

“Yes, thanks.”

Her fingers’ circular motion on my scalp is firm but careful, almost tender, as if she’s in charge of something very fragile, as if there were no more important thing in the world to be done than this. She moves her fingers through my hair, delicately shifting them across my head but circling in the same direction over and over, then she presses rhythmically along my temples and down around my ears, toward the back of my neck, which she lifts so easily that my head seems to weigh less than I know it does—almost floating in Lena’s hands, as she draws first one palm up along the base of my neck, then the other, all the while holding my head and tipping it slightly to one side and then the other, as though trouble, if there were such a thing, should drain away, or as if it were someone else’s head she might be taking care of. All this she does very slowly, three times over, before rinsing. Then she applies conditioner and massages again, repeating the ritual once more, again tilting my head a bit, first one way, then the other, until finally she rinses a last time and wraps my hair up tight in a soft, dry towel that just fits my head, binding it perfectly, as though it could be held this way for good, and opening my eyes again might not be necessary.

September 18, 2003
Dad says he’ll be back in a while. He can barely stand the hospital on a good day—as if he were visiting jail, where he might appear guilty by association, not to be allowed out again. The woman from hospice stops by once more to check on me and offer her condolences, as does the volunteer chaplain, who asked earlier to hold Dad’s hands and mine above Mom’s bed. Then it’s just Mom and me, person who looks more like Mom than anyone—more than I used to—more than Mom does now. Her hands, the hands the chaplain didn’t hold, that Brad can’t hold, are very chilly already, colder maybe than on winter days they’ve known—pulling calves in a slanting blizzard or fishing over the creaky ice of the Cheyenne, shoveling out with her twin brother a tunnel from house to barn, the two of them no doubt teasing one another the whole time, puffs of laughter rearranging frigid air. The stillness of her hands is what seems foreign now, and makes me still, too, I don’t know for how long. After a while the men from the funeral home, Warren and Allen, look in, ask if I need some more time. The window has grown darker, maybe just the sky clouding over; I say I think I do, then stand and follow them down the hall to tell them I’m going after all, to get a suitcase for my mother’s things.

It’s Mom’s car that I drove here days before, left in the lot down behind the hospital, that now I unlock again, slide into. The seat and mirrors are still set to her height and glance, just as she adjusted them. I drive the couple of miles to the house—Dad not there either—find her overnight bag and carry it out to the car, then up the hospital’s unlocked back elevator, to pack the music tapes and pictures I brought in earlier, the cards, drawings from her brother’s great-grandkids, few clothes and a pair of shoes from the day she was last admitted. At the fourth floor the thick metal door opens, and when I look up to step into the hall, the gurney is there, waiting to go down, Warren and Allen at either end of it, both looking at me, startled, as if they were new to this, or had seen a ghost.


I’d called the sergeant right away, tried to press him, but he was firm, said he was sorry—Brad can’t see anyone again until day after tomorrow. Prisoners at the jail get visitors only every three days.

“We’ll let him know,” the sergeant said. “He can call you collect tonight.”

When he does call, Dad hands me the phone after a few sentences and turns away; these calls cut off abruptly at ten minutes.

I tell Brad I held her hands for him. That she wasn’t awake, but as she was going I kept saying he’d be all right—hearing is the last sense to go, I say, and that was all she’d wanted to hear for days. The call is mostly sobbing, my telling him no, she felt him with her, maybe more than she felt anyone.

“I wasn’t there. I’m the reason I wasn’t.”

“Brad, those people at the jail have no hearts. But they’ll have to let you come to the funeral.”

He pauses. “I’ve asked.”


I can’t spend the night on the cot in the subacute ward anymore; Mom’s room there is someone else’s now. Here at the house, her bedroom is the one that used to be mine and Brad’s when we were little, with Grandma, when Grandma wasn’t away visiting our cousins—the room above the one downstairs where the dollhouse used to slide out from under Mousy Leonard’s bed, Uncle Norm’s friend who rented the basement, who took me to the river with Norm when nobody knew. Still, this is a room, with a bed; it’s not a metal bunk in the jail.

Mom and Dad haven’t slept in the same room in years, but Dad’s snoring blares through the wall anyway. I close again the door that still has no lock on it—no one in this house was allowed to lock a door but Dad—and look around at Mom’s pictures, the old portrait of Jesus from who knows where; stagecoach traveling over the prairie; my daughter in a little silver frame dressed up as Dorothy, her stuffed Toto in a basket, shiny red shoes meant to take her home. I stand across from my reflection in Mom’s mirror, but don’t look up; put my hairbrush down beside her jewelry box and bowl of pill bottles, her folded Tweety Bird sweatshirt on top of a pile of magazines passed on by her next-door neighbor: Redbook, People, Good Housekeeping. The bed behind me faces a different direction from the bed Grandma and I used to sleep in, and it’s a different, bigger bed, with a different bedspread, the matching curtains different, too, but the walls my father and his brother and their friends framed in are the same walls, windows looking out to the same yard, same cottonwoods planted by Dad along the sidewalk, grown tall under the same streetlight, same dark outside.

After some quiet, I hear Dad get up and walk through the hall to the bathroom whose door he once kicked a hole at the bottom of because it did have a lock, and I had locked it one day before getting in the shower. In a few minutes he goes back to bed again, but Mom’s little dog, who’s been sleeping in Dad’s room since Mom went into the hospital, comes out and noses at Mom’s door, room that’s been empty for weeks until now. He rustles back and forth outside, and I watch the shadow—I feel for him, his puzzlement, but I just can’t open it, and finally he goes back in with Dad.

I pull back the covers to lie down, and smell Mom’s lotion on the pillow. The round shadow cast up by the bedside lamp makes a wheel on the ceiling, or a drain, a snowflake, a communion tablet dissolving. I turn the light off and a car shushes by outside on Erskine Street. I hear the furnace kick in for a while, then off again. I remember the unnerving moan and whine that the tin weather-stripping above the front door used to send through the house when the wind came from the north. Dad’s snoring starts up once more and drowns out everything, until a rumble of thunder, then the sound of water lapping, a boat rocking down at the river. A cloud tears open in the sky. An animal moves in the grass behind me.

I wake thinking it’s Mom’s little dog again, but the sound was coming from inside the bed. The door is closed, Scotty’s not outside it. I hear the rustling inside the bed again. I lie still, listening, knowing I’m awake, there can’t be anything but box spring, mattress, and me on top of them. Dad’s snoring next door starts up again; I imagine he’s rolled onto his back. It will be two days before my husband and daughter can get here for the funeral. I want to stay awake until then.

But in the night, I’ve fallen asleep in the house my mother’s gone from. I hear something again at the door of her room, and the door is open now. There’s the shadow of a man looking in, a man wearing no clothes, and facing him, with her back to me, her head at the level of his erection, a girl, my daughter—and I scream, raising up in the bed, pushing away covers and lunging out, tearing at the air—seeing nothing there now, the door is closed. I gasp and put my face in my hands. It wasn’t my daughter, at least it wasn’t my daughter.

Dad’s still snoring in the next room; Scotty’s at the door listening to me.


Almost dawn, I write a note to Dad, saying I’ve left something at the hospital, I’ve taken Mom’s car and will be back later. I drive east, toward the sun rising, out to the farm where there’s no one, past the house I don’t want to look into alone, toward the wide field above the river, where I get out and walk through cold dried prairie grass to sit beside the big stone that’s been there as long as anyone’s known. I’m too tall now for it to hide me from the farmhouse, or the ghost of the old farmhouse, but I lean against its smooth, solid west surface, put my wet face against its face, watch the chilly wind rattle corn stubble beyond the fence, wondering how to wait till tomorrow when I can talk through the glass again to my sweet, lost brother whose head I can’t hold the way Mom once showed me to—see him nod that Mom doesn’t have to worry now.   end  

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