Winner of Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize
Anthologized in Sudden Fiction (Continued) (Norton)
Reprinted in Literary Cavalcade (Scholastic)
Published as a recording in the audio-lit journal, The Drum, Mar. 2013 - “The Fish”
Come daybreak, Ida knew what they’d find – Jake standing over 120 of his cattle he’d managed to pen and shoot, one by one. She knew full well that he’d lost his mind and she’d never have him back. She knew that she was now a widow.
Her porch light showed two cows that had escaped, standing in the black morning near the ranchhouse and looking out towards Jake’s hissing kerosene lantern, the only other light for five miles. She clicked off her light and sat in her porch rocker.
She’d called the sheriff, but by the time he got there Jake was two-thirds finished and they couldn’t see him in the dark and “besides,” as the sheriff said, “they’re his cows anyway. No point in pushing a man into taking a shot at you.” So he parked his patrol car up the dirt road and decided to wait for daylight.
A gunshot sounded from the corral and echoed off a mountain bluff a mile away. In the silence that followed, Ida heard the sheriff’s radio crackle once, and then his voice calm and quiet, saying he’d presently be bringing Jake in. There was a garbled and mechanical reply, then the radio was turned off. The only indication of the sheriff in the darkness was the red pinpoint of his cigarette where he stood waiting outside his car. “He’ll simmer down,” he’d told her, “after he finishes.”
But she knew there’d be no simmering down. It was the way Jake had said, “Goodnight, Ida,” as he stepped out the screen door with his gun. On those words, whatever bond had held them together for 47 years snapped. And she saw Jake drifting into space like an astronaut who gets his cord cut to the mother ship in one of those sci-fi movies. She was on the mother ship. The mother ship was earth, and Jake was gone.
Her calmness surprised her. But she’d known nights like this before. She’d been through the death watches of both her parents, and was there and awake when the trembling took her father and he opened his eyes, knowing what was coming. And she remembered when she was a girl and her neighbors, the Ramseys, lost their house to fire and had no insurance. Her mother gave their two little girls cookies and read them stories while the men dug through the ashes.
All her years had taught her that no matter how horrible the night, the next day the world would always be different; maybe not better, but changed and set off on a new course. And all you had to do was let the world take you that way. Her mother once told her that you can’t let your heart break if no good can come of it.
With her toe she pushed against the porch floor of the house and the rocker creaked back and forth. She knew the sun would be breaking through any moment to the east behind her. The fence had appeared in front of the house like a shadow and a shrub or two on the other side of it were dark blurs. Each morning from the porch she watched the first light come up from the ground across the ranch like mist, objects crystallizing before her. Now she could see three tumbleweeds pressed against the fence and remembered the tumbleweed snowmen she had made each Christmas since she got the idea 30 years ago.
She leaned back in her chair and thought of Florida and her sister and realized that was more than likely where she was headed. Good, she thought. Someplace different. Her sister had warned her against marrying Jake, said any man that would try and raise milk cows instead of beef cows in west Texas was crazy. “Jake’s interested in milk,” she’d heard herself say and regretted it the instant she said it. No way her sister was going to understand. Ida didn’t understand herself, but she knew whatever made Jake want to raise milk cows against all common sense was tied in with the thing that made her love him.
To everyone’s surprise, Jake somehow managed to turn a profit from his little dairy. The milk cows certainly weren’t made for long-range, West Texas grazing, but he was able to cut a couple of good deals with local farmers for feed, and by irrigating was able to raise a few acres of alfalfa himself. And he sure didn’t have to worry about competition for his milk.
Only when they first married did he say anything about the cows. He explained that he just liked the idea of feeding babies, of them going from their mother’s breast to him and his cows, then growing up and into the world. He liked being a part of that.
Ida wondered how many gentle and fragile people lived full, happy lives because the one event that could have pushed them over the edge never occurred. For Jake, that event was the test the people from Texas A&M ran on his milk. It showed traces of lead and arsenic, just within legal limits, and more than likely on the rise. What Jake could not get from his mind for the next three days was the thought that babies had been drinking his milk. Today was the fourth day.
Some young people had approached them about it, pointing fingers towards groundwater pollution and a toxic dump site. They wanted them to take it to court. But for those three days after the test it was all Ida could do to take care of Jake, and now it was too late to matter. With Jake gone, she was surprised how easily everything fell from her shoulders, how easily she could let go of the burden of this beautiful, desolate land. This was Jake’s country, and she could not bear witness to it without him. And without Jake, it lost its claim on her. It would be easy enough to leave this house.
She remembered driving down the dirt driveway that Friday morning after the doctor told them Jake couldn’t father any children. She hated the doctor for that. He should’ve never said whose fault it was because it didn’t matter. They couldn’t have children, not Jake alone. Driving home he didn’t say a word, and in the silence she became gripped by the fear he’d leave her. She knew he was thinking that he wasn’t good enough for her, wasn’t enough of a man. In bed that night she insisted he love her. Demanded it. And when he couldn’t, and the coldness and distance swept into her, some dark part of herself opened and she did something she never thought she could do, then things she’d never even heard of. She was so shameless it scared him, but it woke him up and brought him to her. “It’s not for babies,” she told him. “It’s for me. It’s so you can please me.”
A shot rang out, and she blushed, having been caught remembering that, then slowly began pushing those memories away. They didn’t go easily. They seemed to flutter inside her like birds; frightened, insistent, white. She imagined opening a window and setting them free; watched them fly over the desert until the curves of their wings shrunk to pinpoints, then disappeared altogether into the sky.
There was nothing she could do to bring him back this time. She had nothing new to show him. He was through, and that was all. She knew him well enough to let him be.
“Accept, accept,” she whispered as she slowly rocked. This part of her life was simply over. She told herself to count her blessings for 47 years with a man like Jake. And if her sister, Mae, brought it up, then Ida’d have to point out that her husband only lasted 25.
She thought again of Florida: she could get fresh seafood, and she remembered riding with Mae in the back seat of their Chevrolet the summer before the war when their folks took them to Galveston. Ida ordered flounder almost every meal. It infuriated Mae, who could see no point in eating a fish so silly it had both eyes on the same side of its face. But Ida explained that it simply wanted to see the sky. And Jake when he was courting her – she caught him lying on his back in a field in the middle of the morning. She walked out to him and asked him what he thought he was doing. “I reckon I’m just looking up,” he told her. She watched him, then lay beside him. When he reached out and took her hand, she knew she was married.
Ida hadn’t thought about the flounder since she was a little girl. She’d have to tell Mae, and Mae would tell her she was as crazy as Jake. Ida was surprised the thought could make her smile. It was daylight now, quiet, and she could see the sheriff ambling toward the corral.
Published in Willow Springs
While riding the subway to work I was reading Blindness, the Saramago novel in which everyone in the world goes blind. As the car reached my stop and I stepped out, I had to remind myself of my location—the 5th Avenue subway station in midtown Manhattan—in order to shake off the sense of doom pervading the book. I heard a commotion ahead from where the lower stairway empties onto the concrete landing to the right. A woman was screaming—which isn’t necessarily that big of a deal in New York. You go on alert, but more often than not it’s only an angry woman making a very public point, or maybe a crazy person you have to walk around, but nothing you don’t run across every six months or so. I heard a male voice speaking softly to her. Then two balloons drifted into sight over the walkway: one blue, one white, the white a foot higher than the blue and both trailing strings inches above the pavement. They continued out over the tracks where they hesitated, then changed direction, as if by will, and headed down the dark subway tunnel. I blinked, stared after them, then proceeded toward the screaming woman and the stairs and the escalator that would take me to the street. I wondered if the screaming was over the balloons.
Before I reached the woman her screams stopped. I hesitated, then turned the corner and saw her sitting on the concrete landing: a mother, late twenties, white, hysterical, her curly brown hair disheveled, her eyelids peeled back from her eyes in terror and rage, her lips stretched back and her teeth bared as if threatening to bite. She held a newborn in her arms that was a shade of purple I’d never seen. Its only movement came from the mother bouncing it. It bounced like it was made of rubber. A stroller was capsized nearby, resting upside down at the foot of the concrete stairs. The carrier’s fabric was white with tiny red and blue dots, its wheels black and still. A few feet away a fluffy white stuffed animal lay on its side, a rabbit, I think, but I’m not sure. And the two balloons, of course, had come untied and were gone.
“It’s not breathing!” the woman screamed. She stared at a half dozen people standing in a semicircle around her as if looking for the enemy among them, the predator who’d caused this, so she could attack. A man in the semicircle spoke softly. The others kept themselves a good six or seven feet away.
It was easy to decipher what had happened. You see mothers in the subway maneuvering strollers up sets of stairs like this one every day. Often they hoist the stroller, with child, into their arms and carry it. Sometimes they pull it, step-by-step, up the entire flight. A person passing by might offer to grab the rail on the bottom of the stroller, and the two then carry it easily. My guess was that this new mother had tried to carry her stroller by herself, and being inexperienced, perhaps in a hurry, had lost her grip some number of steps up, when everything fell.
People continued up and down the stairs around the mother and the people watching her. As they passed they glanced at the incident as if considering whether they should do something, then continued on. A diagonal line of people above us floated up the escalator to the street.
The woman screamed again, “It’s not breathing!” I noted she used the word, “it.” The purple baby continued to bounce like rubber in her arms. I remember thinking, My God, I’m going to see a baby die. I’m going to see a mother see her baby die.
Though I did not know what to do or what was being done, I had to move, to take some action if only to use that as an excuse to run from the sight and the outcome I was so afraid of witnessing. I turned and bolted up the stairs three steps at a time, across the short landing, up the second identical set of stairs, then sprinted to the escalator, where I tried running up its clear, left-hand side—the passing lane, I’d called it before—to reach a bank of payphones at the top.
The escalator was long, immense. It stretched alongside four full flights of concrete stairs. I remember thinking I’d never make it to the top in time, and even if I did, the paramedics would never reach the baby in time. Less than a quarter of the way up, a man to my right said, “Somebody’s already gone to call.” I stopped, nodded. I stepped to my right and let myself be carried up with the rest of the passengers. My heart pattered in my chest. I made a mental check of my legs, noted that my left thigh might be strained.
As I reached the top I saw a small, animated man in a blue suit speaking into one of the payphones. He had longish, dark hair. He was maybe forty. His jacket was open and his tie askew. He looked exasperated. “She doesn’t know where the 5th Avenue subway stop is,” he told me as I approached. “I dial 9-1-1 and get somebody in North Carolina. She wants the address. Who knows the address?” He turned back to the receiver. “It’s on 53rd Street,” he said into the receiver, “between…” Then his mind went blank as he tried to recall the cross-streets.
“Between Park and Madison,” coached a tall, broad man stepping beside us whose flesh looked primed to burst through his sleeves and collar and suit coat.
“Between Park and Madison,” the shorter man repeated into the phone. “The cops will know where it is. Everybody knows where it is.” He turned from the phone to us. “Jesus. Do you believe this? Fucking North Carolina.”
I backed away. The two men commiserated with one another. I noticed that the subway attendant in his booth was on the phone too. There was nothing for me to do. I looked down the concrete corridor leading to the stairwell that would take me to the street. I could go now, I told myself. I was late for work; I should go. It wouldn’t do any good for me to see a dead baby and its mother. But their image was already in me. It was weighty, and if I left I would only carry it. It would grow inside. I turned, stepped on the escalator and floated down to witness one of two possible endings to the story, which had now become my story as well: the first—the child and its mother’s death, because they were surely joined, and the death of one would lay waste to the other; or the second—the happy one, in which somehow the baby was fine, or at least fine enough.
I let the moving steps carry me. I didn’t hurry. At the bottom when I stepped away and began down the first flight of stairs, I heard a baby crying. I continued down the second flight to see the mother still on the concrete floor jostling the baby, but now it was bright pink, and its arms were waving, its hands clenched into tight fists. It didn’t sound like it was in pain, but just frightened or angry.
I took a breath. The mother was still filled with terror, but that was already melting into what would become tears once she was certain of the baby’s safety. The animal aggression had left her face. The semicircle of people stood a few steps closer to her. I took another breath. I turned and walked back up the stairs. I thanked myself for that part of me that had to know, that insisted upon it.
At the top, the smaller, dark-haired man was still on the phone beside the large man, still frustrated as he tried to communicate through the line. The large man shook his head as he watched. “The baby’s breathing now,” I told him. “It’s crying and sounds okay.” He told me that the woman had fallen and the stroller capsized and the baby bounced down some steps. He said he thought it had gone into shock and really wasn’t that badly hurt. I nodded and headed down the corridor, then up the stairs onto the street where the sunlight was blinding.
I sat at my desk ten minutes later and twenty floors up in the adjoining building. I turned on my computer, and when the screen came to life I remembered the balloons, how they’d left the mother and child, how they’d moved together, wedded, and turned, as if by will, to travel into the dark tunnel. My chest tightened and locked up at the image. Old injuries began to announce themselves: a shoulder dislocation from a fall, a lower back strain from when I worked in a grocery store. I seemed to be getting heavier with each moment. I tried to reason with myself. The baby was fine. The mother was fine. But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about them anymore. It was about the seed that had been planted. It was about the balloons.
Glimmer Train’s Bulletin Jan. 2013. Your Sanctuary