blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



How Beautiful Thy Feet With Shoes

After waking from a troubled dream that at the final hour his mind abandoned him to wander in an unknown land, the old man took stock. He was certain who he was—Mack Spain at ninety, give or take—and where—his room for over half a century, its window giving onto what amounted to a grassland outpost where he’d landed in the dust storms and had never meant to stay. The question of when was easy. All his life he’d tracked the seasons, his memory an almanac. A Sunday in the month of June, the last year of the seventh decade, the early morning moon a waxing crescent. His frame, he calculated, was rusted past repair, but his faculties were fine. In the dream he heard no voices. He could tell the living from the dead. So far the dead had kept their distance. It was unsettled business with the living that gnawed at him.

At noon he expected the arrival of the woman who had been, in what now seemed another life, his daughter. After a long estrangement—he blamed hard times, his faulty fathering, her pride—she traveled every Sunday the hundred miles that separated them, bringing groceries—bread, tinned milk, a bag of ginger snaps he rationed to make it last the week. In fair return he stood by while she assayed his decline, suffered her devotion while she daughtered past the silence on his part that kept from her the fact that she was not his daughter but his niece.

Her name was Maxine but she was called Mackie, as if a shared nickname could shield her from his brother’s violence in her begetting, or from his own. Just home to Joplin from the Meuse-Argonne, hearing a woman’s screams in the winter woods where he was tracking a buck, Mack had mistaken Hardy for a stranger. Into the moonlit darkness he shouted, “Whoa up!” He aimed the barrel high, meaning to fire a warning shot to scare off the attacker. When he clambered up the ridge he learned he’d shot his brother in the back. Wracked with horror, wanting to make right, he sought out the girl, married her to give the coming child a name. When he found a spread of ranch land at a tolerable price, he moved them out to Oklahoma.

His hope had been to found at Salt Camp the orphan’s vision of the paradise of kin, a plot of well-loved ground, a crowded, ample table and a happy life for generations, love abundant, room enough for all. He’d failed at this so grandly that it stunned him still, but at last he’d come to understand his sin of sins. Because he wanted to be good, he asked the same of others, held them to a light they couldn’t possibly reflect, and when they let him down he trained on them the full force of his disappointment with himself.

Rising this June morning, he made up his mind to talk her into driving him out to look at the place he had stayed away from for forty years. At this late date he didn’t plan to tell her their relation—what purpose would the truth serve if his was the only mind it eased?—but he had sensed in her a kindred affliction. She moved from town to town, wandering the desert like the Israelites, failing to take root, as if trying to outrun her failures. He wanted to warn her away from dwelling in the wasteland of remorse, whether she burned up the road to do so or stayed put.

Times before, when he suggested the trip, she came up with excuses. It would eat up the day and she had work to do. There was nothing left to see but go-back land and anyway his eyesight was so bad he couldn’t tell what he’d be looking at. His boots were an embarrassment. He wondered if her shilly-shally rose from qualms that going back might rattle loose a failing of her own.

Hers too was one of clouding the truth. Just before the Second War she came back with a boy of three or four, saying she’d taken him to raise. The practice was common in Depression years—stray people and loose-ended children had been everywhere. Schooled in keeping his own counsel, in the exacting counterweights of shame and pride, he had let her story stand, no matter that the child was Hardy, spit and image.

Whatever her reasons, it galled him that her counts against him weren’t far wrong. He could no longer see to drive—his pick-up rusted in the machine shed—and his toes, for want of tending, had crabbed over on themselves, the nails grown antler-yellow, hard as horn. He had tried every tool, the ordinary mill bastard file, the polling shears, the pig tooth nippers, but he couldn’t get the angle right, couldn’t bend right, couldn’t see. His hands were stiff as plankwood, all drawing tendons and swelling joints. His feet were worse. No boot or shoe would fit and so for months he’d shuffled around in carpet slippers, but in honor of the day’s errand he worked to rig a pair of wingtips bought in higher times by cutting out the toe box. If he looked like a funny-papers bum for his trouble, at least he would be able to walk the land, get her up onto the rise and feel that old lost living ground still swelling under him.

By the time her El Camino pulled into the yard, he had passed muster in the kitchen mirror. His thready hair was water-spruced and furrowed with comb tracks, the stubbled crosshatch of his chin free of tobacco juice. He waited on the lean-to porch, busying himself with inspecting a tenpenny nail worked out of the baluster.

A small, spare woman nearing sixty, she appeared, in the week since he had seen her, to have made herself over. Instead of the shapeless house-dress he’d come to expect, she wore a pair of Levi’s, a crisp snap-buttoned shirt with a Western yoke, a Spanish belt. The hammered conchos glittered in the morning light. New earrings, some kind of crystal that reminded him of the salt crust at the Rock Saline, dangled from her earlobes. Her hair, once worn in a knot, was loosely gathered with a leather ornament. He’d never known her to be vain—she hadn’t been a beauty but she had a pretty, bright-eyed face with color quick to rise—but the changes became her and from her blush he saw that she was pleased with them herself. It struck him that he wasn’t the only one who had a mission.

From the seat she pulled out grocery bags, her pocketbook, a box of Oxydol. “Morning, Dad.”

He cleared his throat, thick with the quid habit he’d taken up to hurry sundown on long solitary days. “That it is.”

She squinted against the sun’s glare off the porch’s tin roof, already ticking with the heat. “How are you doing?”

He grinned; he’d made the joke before. “Mildewing.”

Dutifully—at least that was unchanged—she laughed, shading her eyes to take him in.

He essayed a shuffle, a creaky, bone-jarring step to take her attention from the cuspidor he’d forgotten to hide, a sludge-filled Mason jar beside his bench, but her quick eye spied it. He tapped again to shift her notice to his shoes, but he stepped down wrong, flinched when pain knifed up his ankle. He wondered, not for the first time, why he took to clowning when he felt the possibility of blame.

She shook her head at the spit jar and then lengthened her gaze to survey the place, the mounting pile of cans beside the porch—Luck’s, Dinty Moore, Hormel—the wracked timbers of the far barn, the nearer barn collapsed into a creature haven overgrown with trumpet vine and brambles. The windmill, spavined as a burden-broken horse, folded inward on itself. He readied for reproof. Truth told, for all he’d yearned for family life, the decades she stayed away had come as a relief. Alone, he had to bear no judgment but his own for his boar’s nest or the habits he refused to break. Tobacco, cold canned chili, rumination.

“I brought you something. Look—” she held a stewpot—“field peas. Your favorite.”

They weren’t. At some point he must have made over them. Her efforts to please him often pained him. If he was guilty of believing he could mend the worn-out world with God and spit and baling wire, she behaved as though it could be nursed to health with false cheer and hot food. When she thrust the pot into his hands he was relieved of the awkward chance of an embrace.

In a fit of dithering she took back the pot. “Oh, never mind. I’ll set these on.”

He followed her across the porch, propping the screen door for her with his cut-down shoe and showing it to advantage. “Maybe you hadn’t ought to settle in so fast.”

A barn cat with her ears laid back was what she called to mind. Not spooked enough to run, but watchful. She thought he was either telling her to go away or passing judgement on her gypsy ways. “In case we go somewhere, I mean.”

If her fault-finding grated, it was her fear of him that nerved him up. Maybe she was wary by nature and maybe he was to blame. He had favored her sister Etta, born two years later. He didn’t know if it was the eldest’s affliction—her foot curled slightly inward, causing her to limp—that caused his wife to watch for slights, but he believed her vigilance set further hindrance to his dealings with his brother’s child. Even now they weren’t able to talk straight, couldn’t find a way to meet each other in the middle.

He made a sheaf of the papers on the table, his budget, advertising flyers for things he didn’t want or need. “Not too big a mess to clean up in here this week.”

“Not bad at all.” Her voice was bright, a signal of her willingness to try again. She set the pot on the burner, lighted the flame, and then went to the pantry. She returned with a torn sack of cornmeal.

He didn’t like it when she took it on herself to tidy up, especially when it meant a wasted nickel. “I might have use for that.”

“Weevils got into it.” She dropped the cornmeal bag into the trash bin.

He started to protest but then he decided to pick his battles. “Say,” he began, thinking that a little saddle soap about her wardrobe might ease the way for her to notice his and set them on their way, “is that the latest style?”

“Oh, I just threw it on.” She fiddled with her shirt cuffs, rolled up her sleeves. The dungarees were spanking-new, still stiff.

Aggravated that he was shambling around his topic when he ought to outright state it, he pulled out a kitchen chair but before he could sit down and lay out his plan, he was seized by the urge to get away.

In his prime he could have stumped out to the fields, stayed gone all day and come back empty-minded, but his range had narrowed to the mailbox on the road. “Going to the box. Might be the check’s here.”

“Nothing’s come. I looked. Besides, it’s Sunday.”

To leaven their stand-off, he gave her a wily look. “It’s the government. You don’t know what they’ll do.”

Her earrings jittered, seemed to throw off sparks. “You can’t take someone else’s word?”

He pretended not to hear, and he headed down the steps and across the yard, his spine held straight, the posture Etta had once called his ‘riding back.’ When he believed she was no longer watching, he slowed to save his feet. Even the softest leather rubbed. The split toe box threw off his gait. The ground was hard, the going slow, giving him time to mull again the question that had vexed him all his life—how could it be that things he meant to do so right could end up so wrong?

In his dogged hunt for the first wrong turning, starting with his boyhood in the Baptist Home for Boys, his mind took him past youth, past early manhood, past French forest and Missouri woods to fix on an April day in his middle years at Salt Camp.

That morning too he had awakened at first light, just as the Dominecker rooster muttered and hens grudged awake. He went to stand on the back steps in union suit, sock feet. A faint warm breeze, stars pot-iron gray, the moon an aging quarter in the west. East, a spill of crimson at the cloud line. Red sky at morning. He let his spirits rise.

For years the droughty earth had blown, fine farms and ranches gone to ruin. Somehow his escaped the damage. He credited his faith. He trusted heaven to provide and heaven had repaid him. If the promise of sunrise meant anything, the coming thunderstorm would be a drencher, pastures soaked to pan, the creek high, froth boiling in the eddies. His hayfield was nearing bloom; with rain, the field would be a sea of blue, the winter wheat a billow. Let Noah’s flood come, yes, he thought, for once not caring that he borrowed God’s own voice: Let there be rain.

Upstairs, his family slept in bedsteads of his own carpentry, under the gabled roof of his own shoring. Billie with her face unpinched, too early in the season for hay fever to clot her breathing, in sleep as not in waking satisfied. Mackie at fourteen a nerve-strung sleeper, legs atwitch. Contrary Etta, at twelve in her last year to be a child, curled for once into a compact stillness, his spitfire. He counted his blessings, sending up a grateful word.

He went inside to take his bib-alls from the peg, stepped in and hoisted up. Stretching, he felt his neck pop, his backbone righting itself like a signal deep within. He eased on his boots and started for the barn.

This is the church and this is the steeple—always the Sunday school rhyme as he heaved open the great doors. He loved the deep-bayed cow barn, the place cathedral-like as dawn broke through, the smells of neatsfoot oil and polished tack, feather dander, hay dust from the winter-cure. He loved the stamp and shuffle of his shorthorn milchers, the beasts ungainly, yawing on their hooves, the chuff of hide against the hand-hewn rails, the heft of swollen udders. He forked silage into the manger and the cows moved in, heads lowered, as if coming forward at an altar call. He set the stanchions and settled in to milk.

In church, he couldn’t pray. The sanctuary was too close with the smells of must and sizing, a sour whiff of snuff, the woman’s monthly smell. Too human and too carnal, reminding him of flesh. A shaft of sunlight streaming through the Gethsemane window might cast a patch of fire across the stuff of his black trousers, turn them redder than mercurochrome, and the heat might cause him to look up into the choir loft for a certain pigeon-y soprano. His daydreams would inflame him and he’d have to rest the hymnal on his lap. To clear his mind, he sent it to the fields, slew panic grass and shattercane, thwacking at the seed heads with a scythe until more righteous thoughts returned.

In the barn, alone but for the cows, hot daydreams didn’t plague him. Instead, something calm and holy seemed called out of him and he felt clean as a boy, light in his bones. Here, he was moved to pray his constant prayer, Thank you, I am sorry. To sing hymns in his cracked morning voice, starting low, more murmur than music. By the time the pail was full his dark thoughts would be washed away.

“Angels to beckon me,” he sang against the red whorls of a shorthorn’s flank, hearing the reach of his warming tenor to the rafters. “Darkness be o’er me, my rest a stone.” Outside the half-door, low clouds scudded whitely by, lamb-like and fleet.

After church, beside the stand of stunted creek willows in what was called the pasturage, the congregation lingered, speculating. A passable crop if prices held. If it didn’t blow to China. If jackrabbits didn’t get it. If it would rain. The little children chased around the circle of parked automobiles while the BYF youth played a kissing game forbidden from the pulpit. Off behind the privy he’d found them, his lame girl and the pastor’s boy, locked in an embrace. Her look was rapturous and stupid, spellbound. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d snatched up a willow switch.

The boy fled but she stood, head bowed, taking his blows. She wouldn’t cry, refused to, stood there with a saintly look on her small features. It wasn’t noise she made that drew the others, but his own, a stream of bellowed hellfire that he hadn’t known was in him. All he knew was that the blood had risen to his throat, and he was shouting, bringing down the switch against her legs. A group of deacons stopped him. “Mack, let go. She’s just a little girl. She meant no harm.”

Back home in the lull of afternoon he stretched out on the front room rug to nap. The dinner hour had passed in stony silence. Troubled by what he’d done at the pasturage, he had a hard time dozing, but when he did at last he slept too hard, too long, woke to a hot and airless house, to the heartsunk understanding that he’d lit into her in penance for his own unruly lusts.

Bleared with sleep, he went to the window. Outside, a long low cloud glowed red. Strange light seemed to overtake his wife as she stood in the chicken yard. Out near the currant bushes Mackie sat among the flock of Dutch Everydays. He looked for Etta, taking in the barn, the silo, her rope swing, but she was nowhere to be seen. Sand gusted against the window glass, but even then he let himself believe the cloud portended rain.

He exulted at the first huge drops, the shudder of unstable air, heat-charged, then frigid. Then the rain ceased and grit needled at his face. Forearm shielding his eyes, he waited for the spate to pass, but in the clearing air the cloud came on. A blistering wind, a seethe of sand and haystraw glinting in the sifting dirt, tattered paper scraps white as the cattle egrets that flew before the dark red roller cloud.

He called for Etta, but the wind tore the breath from his mouth. At last in the blowing dust he caught a glimpse of her on the roof of the washing shed, saw Mackie there beneath the eaves. Instantly he knew what Etta had done, her trick forbidden as the kissing game; she’d sewn her feet together in a spectacle she called The Hindu Needle. She sprawled face down, half-on, half-off the roof, her sister tugging at her bound feet. He broke into a run and closed the distance. His heart broke when she whimpered, “Don’t hit me!”

Mackie yanked and Etta dropped, her weight pitching the two girls backward. He ran to pick them up, carried Etta through dirt already drifting, the other coming on behind.

When he set the child inside the door, she crumpled. “It’s all right,” he told her, “I won’t hit you.”

Billie lit the lamp, took in the scene, went for the rugbeater. He had threatened that if he caught her again, there’d be a reckoning.

“Let me take her in the front room.” There, away from the others, he could lighten his hand.

Billie hardened her eyes. A renegade idea coursed through his mind, Refuse. But his wife had snipped the thread, pulled up the girl and turned her around.

The lamp flickered, dimmed, the globe already filmed with dust. He loved her then more than he ever had, his stormy girl, her face defiant, and he’d known, even as he raised the rug beater, that he would lose her, if not this day, then soon. He wanted to say something about Abraham and Isaac, about sacrifice, to liken her wrong to her sister’s in the pasturage. He wanted to teach a lesson that just then he couldn’t put words to, except to know the lesson would be his.

His first blow was a glancing one, but Etta wailed. The others watched him, eyes like judges. Wind lashed at the weatherboard.

Again and again he brought down the rope-webbed beater, brought it down until he was spent with loathing, sick with the knowledge he was bringing down his hand on all of them except the one he struck.

He had reached the lane end to open the mailbox he knew was empty. Walking, he had willed a letter to appear, a check, a flyer or a handbill, anything to earn the need for the errand, but there was nothing.

On the way back to the house he took measure of his gumption, found he still wanted to see Salt Camp, more now than before. He would tell her he was sorry for the way he treated her. He would get her to remember better days, show her how he tried. Remind her of the kiddie wagon he’d pulled her around in. The goat they’d bottle-fed. A hutch he’d built beneath the cedars where she played café, serving the rabbits lettuce leaves on doll house plates. Somewhere in a bureau drawer there was a tintype of her at two, her hair still baby-fluff. He had stood for the photographer in the front yard of the Salt Camp house beside a trellis of Cherokee roses while she perched on his shoulders, her legs around his neck, her dimpled hands pressed into his eyes, wild delight in hers. He would find the picture, tuck it in his shirt pocket, show it to her once they got there, proof. And then he would tell her that he loved her, letting the words he had found himself unable to say—not to her or to her sister, not to anyone—stand for every other lesson he would like to leave behind. If they left soon, they could be back before the sun went down.

In the kitchen, tin cans were stowed in grocery bags and set by the back door. She had run sudsy water in the sink. The smell of vinegar and Bon Ami stung his eyes. On the stove the field peas simmered.

He rubbed his hands in a show of heartiness, hoping to right the day. “Smells good in here.” Suddenly he meant it. The earthy, fragrant steam had chased away the staleness, and with the window open the room felt light, the day seemed new. He took a chair at the table, easing off his feet and trying not to groan.

“Why, it’s just peas.”

“But what’s that you put in for seasoning?”

“Salt and pepper. Ham. A little blackstrap if I’m feeling venturesome.”

“Venturesome,” he repeated. An inroad. But before he could follow through she clamped the pot lid on the peas.

“I have something to tell you.” She hooked a strand of hair behind her ear, then grabbed the broom to sweep under the table, the strokes brisk and determined.

His preoccupation with confession braced him for hers. “You planning to tell me what the something is?” His voice sounded gruffer than he wanted it to, and so he winked.

“I’m going by a different name.”

He tried to remember the last time he called her by the name they shared. What had he called her?

Whisk went the straw broom. “Maxine is what I go by over there.”

A phrase came to him from eighth grade Latin: Nomen est omen, but he couldn’t puzzle out its meaning. To show her he would take her decision at face value, he said, “Well, that’s near enough I won’t forget it, and it’s your given name, besides.”

“It’s what they know me by. In case you ever had to call, or needed to find me. . .” Her voice trailed off. The shadow of her sister hovered. There had been bad blood between the girls; his favoring played a part. He had tried to track Etta, but he found no trace of her or of the hired boy who’d taken off to fetch her. He blamed himself for that as well.

He suspected the news about her name was just the first run at the wall. If she finally came out with the truth about her son, he would do her the honor of not asking questions. Her wrongs would dovetail into his and he could speak his piece.

She swept dirt into the dustpan, and then propped the broom beside the door, looking around for the next chore. She picked up a sponge and stooped to work at a sticky spot on the linoleum.

Winding sideways toward his ends—Salt Camp was on the way to the panhandle town where she moved a few weeks before—he asked, “Aiming to settle over there?”

She took his question as judgment, he could tell by the cant of her head, her hooded gaze, trying to meet his but failing. “I might just.” She appeared to want to say more, but the sponge just then needed wringing.

He got to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on the table. If he waited for her to out with her confession, he would have to wait all day. If she planned to tell him, she could do that just as well when they were in the car. He thought of Salt Camp in the spring, the pastures green with timothy, and he saw them flying down the highway, his 3X Stetson squared, the wind against his sleeve.

“Look here, I want us to go over home.”

“To Salt Camp?” She opened the oven door to peer inside. “Dad, what are you roasting in here? Ox?”

“If it’s my shoes . . .”

She faced him, no downward glance, no hem-haw. “It’s your feet. You had to creep out to the mailbox. Hobble was more like it. I’ll take you over there, but first you’ll have to fix your feet.”

“They’re fine. They reach the ground.”

No smile for his old joke, she turned back to consider the blackened oven. “How about next Sunday? That way we can plan it.”

He wanted to walk back down the lane, take himself away to collect his thoughts and work himself back up, but he’d already done that. Why did it have to be so hard to get something across? “Now, today.”

“All right.” She shut the oven door. “But first let’s have a look.”

“No horsetrading. My feet are fine. Let’s just get going. Day’s a’wasting.”

She angled out a kitchen chair. “Dad, sit down.”

“I said they’re fine.”

She shrugged, picked up the broom again, intent on knocking cobwebs from the corners.

He sat, began to work at the knots he’d labored to tie. By the time his socks were shucked, she had filled the enamel roaster pan with warm water and Epsom salts. She lowered the pan to the floor, pushed it nearer his chair. The water wavered, sloshed.

“Soak a good long while. Then you can doctor up your feet and your boots will fit. And then we’ll see about going.”

“We’ll see about?”

She pursed her lips, the picture of her mother. “We’ll go.”

Where it wasn’t yellowed, his skin was milky blue and scaling, the overgrown nails yellow-gray as polled horn stubs, his toes clawed, crippled things. Exposed in the patch of sunlight that stole across the linoleum, the wreckage of his feet shocked him. He eased them into the water, not to do her bidding but to hide them, and as he did so something in him seemed to turn against her. Who was she to call him on his ways? On his broken windmill or his spit jar or his feet?

While she busied herself in the back room, he looked at a Reader’s Digest. Even the large print version blurred. Mack Spain who’d once maneuvered wiry and surefooted on the frets above the stockyards at Baxter Springs, who’d driven cattle up the Chisholm Trail, who’d taken fire near the Hindenburg Line, that man’s worth had been spilled out on the ground or dumped into the trash bin, swept away, and what was left was useless as a pail of water in a drought.

She returned from the back room where she was changing the bed sheets to ladle some field peas onto a plate. She set them on the table with a glass of milk beside which she laid out three ginger snaps, a child’s meal. “Eat a little something.”

He spooned up some field peas, tasted them. Too hot. He tried a cookie and before he knew it he had eaten all three and she had caught him in the act. “Dad, you’ll spoil your appetite.”

“It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken.” He didn’t know why he’d said this. The phrase was a Depression saying. What he meant was that age was bad enough, the narrowing of vision, the hobbling of his senses. She didn’t have to point it out.

“Keep at it. I’ll go find the clippers.” She was gone before he could tell her he’d already tried them.

He spooned up some more field peas, tried again to eat them, but he’d lost his appetite, and somehow this too was her fault. He started to call after her but he felt a quaver rising in his throat. He never swore, but he was moved to add a word to tamp the tremor. “Damn things won’t work.”

She returned with a towel, some LaCross clippers and a pair of snips, forged steel but black with tarnish, and the hoof rasp. “Daddy, if you’d soaked them before they’d have clipped easier.”

She never called him Daddy and it set him off. “I’m not a child.”

“Then don’t act like one.”

When she was a girl she’d lived to please him. Anything he did was fine. “You never would have talked to me like that before.”

Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of his chair, she lifted his foot from the water, dried it with a towel. His skin was waterlogged and soft, his toes had puckered. He drew back. “That hurts.”

“We haven’t even started.”

A breeze wafted through the open screen door and with it a rise of ticklishness he willed away. The hoof rasp muttered across the softened nail, setting his teeth on edge. He said again, he didn’t know why, “It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken.”

She smiled gently. “Dad, nobody’s perfect.”

“Isn’t that the truth.” He was proud of his comeback, one lick closer to the topic. If it didn’t lead her to the next part of her news, he didn’t know what would.

She went on filing until it was clear the hoof rasp wouldn’t do the job, its gauge too large. She picked up the clippers. “Just keep imagining how good you’ll feel when this is done.” Her eyes were light brown, deep-set in a web of wrinkles. “Just think, ‘How beautiful thy feet with shoes. . . .’”

For reasons he couldn’t name the verse from Solomon crossed him wrong. “But not without?”

“Oh, Dad.”

If she didn’t hurry up and get what she’d come to tell him over with—he wasn’t born yesterday, it was coming, he’d bet money on it—he was going to kick away the roaster pan, splash water on the floor and stomp out to the porch, bite off a big fat plug. She was trying to help, but somehow this made him want to kick her.

Her breath on his feet was warm, too close. He thought of the foot-washing service at the Salt Camp church at Easter, and he wanted to wrest away. One of her earrings cast a rainbow on the water in the roaster. A deep clip sent a shard pinging against the cupboard.

“How’s the boy?” She’d shown him a picture of the grandson he’d never met, a toddler on a plastic tricycle. For all her own wrong turns and wandering, she’d ended up with what he’d always wanted. How was that fair?

“Buddy’s fine. Jesse and Marie moved west of Albuquerque.” She clipped, then clipped again.

He was goading her but he’d gone too far to stop. “Did Jesse ever straighten out?”

Jesse was her sore spot, the boy—the man, he guessed—headstrong and lazy. Aimless, no direction whatsoever and so he fired in any one that came to mind. He came to Mack a few times in the sixties, a rangy long-hair with a blue bandanna tied around his forehead, a cheap guitar, a smell of burning stinkweed. Wanted Mack to show him how to cowboy, but like Hardy he was wound too tight, couldn’t stand still long enough to learn a pastern from a fetlock, a curb bit from a hackamore, and Mack had already strung a five-strand fence around his heart.

“He’s trying.” She kept on clipping.

He had put his own restless energy to use, driven to work from sun to no-sun. The force that pushed him then to tong and whang at things under his hand until they amounted to something or else shattered drove him now, made him want to harry the truth out of her. He felt in his pocket for his quid pouch, but it was out on the porch under his bench. He longed for a cheek-load of bitter juice.

“Did he never,” he asked, fixing on the question he calculated would trip her spring, “want to know his mother?”

He wasn’t sure what he expected. A flood of tears, the martyred look she’d given at the pasturage that fueled his wrath. In truth he’d whaled at her so hard because in her he saw his own holy do-good notions, and the desire to break her seized him as fiercely now as it had then. But she looked up at him dry-eyed and sorrowful, and he understood she saw him the way in his worst judgment he saw himself, feeble, mean, embittered. She had written off his cruelty to age.

She had finished with one foot and set to working on the other, the nail shards falling like so many nutshells. As if she’d worked it all out in her mind a long time back, she said levelly, collapsing every board he’d used to build his grudge against her, “I had him, Dad. He always knew. I’ve done plenty to him, I suppose, but that one thing I couldn’t.”

“Well,” he said. “Well, hell.”

She didn’t lower her eyes but met his straight. “I didn’t know what to tell you. I didn’t want to disappoint you and then it got to be too late and the lie got too big to take back. I thought you’d. . . .”

“Judge? I’d never.” He looked at the Mason jar upended in the drainer, immaculate and shining. “I’d never.”

It wasn’t lost on him that she saw his claim for the untruth it was but didn’t trouble to dispute it.

She scooped the nail parings into the dustpan. Pushing up from the floor, she said briskly, radiant with relief, “It’s done. Shoe up and we’ll go out there. I’d half like to see the place again.”

She wiped her hands on her Levi’s, looked around to see if anything else needed doing before they left, her gaze coming to rest on the ruined wingtips beside the chair where he’d left them, as if he’d stepped out of them to be taken in the Rapture. “Try them now, why don’t you?”

The silence drew out long. Into it he could confess his wrongs, not just his failings but his sins, the truth he’d kept from her. He could come clean.

She smiled encouragingly, and it occurred to him she was the one person on earth who would forgive him anything. But something had shifted outside his power to reckon or foresee, outside the guiding of his hand. “Maybe another time. It would be dark by the time we got there.”

“I should be going anyway. Your bed’s made if you want a nap.” She stowed the cleaning supplies and dumped the water, dug in her pocketbook for keys.

He wanted to mark what had taken place between them, but he wasn’t certain what it was. “The peas sure tasted good.”

She clasped her pocketbook. “Did they?”

This was what he meant about the pattern of their dealings, the skittish back-and-forth. She was either doubting him or fishing for a compliment, but he couldn’t tell. What he wanted, what was needed was clean, straight, simple talk.

“Can’t you take me at my word?”

Her eyes watered and she blinked. “I’ll bring you something else next time. What do you think you’d like?”

“Look,” he raised his voice to make it stick, “the peas are fine. I’ll eat them until they’re gone. One by one if that’ll prove to you I like them.”

She didn’t even pretend to be bewildered by his outburst.

He wanted to back up and try again. Say what he meant to say. That he was grateful she’d come all this way to tend him. That he was sorry he had acted like a jack mule.

She gave the table a last swipe, straightened the shoes and tucked his socks inside. Sometimes at the end of a visit, she said, “I love you, Dad,” and he would have to look away, or pretend he hadn’t heard, or if she put him on the spot, he’d have to mumble “You too,” or some such. He wanted her to say it now, so he could say it back and mean it. “Well,” he dropped the word into the silence to give her time, but when nothing came of it, he finished with, “you’ll have a long drive home.”

“I don’t mind. It gives me time to think.”

Her answer went contrariwise to his intention, but she was trying to be gracious and so he let it ride. He walked her to the porch and down the steps, stood by while she loaded up. When she swung into the driver’s seat and shut the door, he wondered why although the day hadn’t gone the way he planned, he felt so oddly gleeful. It wasn’t just his shriven feet or that they’d dealt with one another to the metes and bounds of their imperfect powers or that the fire he’d felt to say his piece had come to smoke. Something else had left him.

His faith stood fast—from the steps he’d looked into the cloudless sky to test it and found God as ever in His heaven—but it came to him there was no need to square himself and no undoing in a lesson what had been laid down in a lifetime. There was no coming clean, not now or ever. If this meant that when the roll was called up yonder he would not be there, it would have to be—it was—all right, but if there was a place for those who wanted to be better than they knew they were, he’d hope for that. Or maybe he should just relax and go to hell. In either place, he reckoned, there’d be kin to spare.

He felt—although the urge to foolery made him wonder if his wits had left him—like acting up, and a reckless feeling in his bones moved him to try a tent-show buck-and-wing. He jutted his elbows, executed a step that came off as a jerky, sideways hop. He looked to see if she would smile.

She started the engine, her near arm elbowed out the open window. “You’re all right, Dad?”

He made a show of patting himself down—chest to belly to hip pockets—and mugging his amazement. “Seem to be.”

One laugh, not given out of duty but sincerely, would be sign enough for him to hear what he least deserved but most needed to hear, and when it came it was more a puff pressed through her lips that made a little air-leak sound, but it was so genuine that if it had been a coin it wouldn’t dent.

When he reached out to pat her arm, sunlight glinted off the sideview mirror—an unkind glare that if it were in his sway to do so he would soften—to cast a square of light across her eyes, her brows raised in unguarded startle at his touch. “Well, then,” she said. She shifted into gear and headed down the lane.

She always made a point of looking back as she turned onto the road, and just before her last view of the old man he knew she saw as he stood barefoot in the yard of a makeshift place on stopgap land, a word he should have said came to him, a word so sentimental that his vision clouded and he knew and didn’t care that he wasn’t long for this or any world, a blessing that he prayed would stay with him and follow her like mercy, like his better ghost, and he willed it to her understanding, Godspeed.  

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