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Jan 152014
 

by  C. Boyce McKay

Listening

 

          Around Dad’s head swirled the Clydesdales.  He watched through the long-cracked dining room window, from the army cot where he lay, as they marched rhythmically, faithfully.  He saw Mother; fallen oaks and stunted corn stalks; Martha and Mollie; broken plows in the weeds; Mother and Mark; the pump on the side porch; Matt; Martha.  And always, the Clydesdales, in splendid harness.

          It was an August evening when Matt drove over in his green pickup to check on his parents and pump their water for the next day; also, to look after his younger sister Martha’s saddle horse, Mollie.  He wore overalls, a long-sleeve work shirt, and his blue and white pinstripe Yankees ball cap.  His hair and mustache were ruddy as ever.

          The white farmhouse, to which the family moved when Matt’s father got sick of the city, promised to be the pride of the county, but after the drought, the tornadoes, and Dad’s illness, it was nearly a shambles, the family virtually destitute.  Only a chicken house and outhouse stood in the weeds. 

          The house lay over the creek, two miles from Matt’s place, which was more shack than house.  When he came back last Spring, he hoped for a place in town, but money was tight.

          Matt sat with his father about half an hour. As usual, Dad got out a few halting syllables about the game they saw thirty-five years ago, the first time Matt saw a city.  “Yep, Babe nailed it,” answered Matt.  When Dad mumbled, “Clil,” Matt nodded: “Most beautiful horses west of the Hebrides.”  He pulled his father’s faded green and white night shirt over his head, unpinned the raggedy cloth and threw it into the chamber pot, sponged him off, and worked him into his other shirt.  The smell still bothered him.  Matt sat him on the edge of the cot so his stocking feet touched the floor.  “Will you walk, Dad?”  Dad sat like a withered baby.  Matt gave him a sip of water, laid him down, and turned on the radio.  President Kennedy was talking about Martin Luther King: “. . . gg . . . Damn Roo–,” Dad stuttered. Matt combed his hair, it only seemed right. 

          Matt limped through the kitchen to the side porch, where he pumped the next day’s water and sat with his mother.      

          Matt loved to pump.  Left arm in tune with the flow of silver water, he pumped two pitchers for the icebox, two kettles for the stove, and one bucket just in case.  Halfway, so Mother could lift and pour.  Finally, he pumped one last pail for tomorrow’s priming. The floor was concrete, the well covered by boards. 

          Matt and his mother sat on their straight-backed chairs.  It was hot, and Matt rolled the sleeves above his elbows.  Mother wore her green and white checked dress and pale green headscarf.  She wiped the sweat out of her eyes with her handkerchief,  initials stitched, in red, in the corner.  “Aren’t I the elegant one?”  Dad’s old cane rested on her lap.  “Try to get your father up tomorrow.”

          “You say that every night, Mother.  I always try.”  His asthma, which  flared up during haying season, made his voice rasp even more than usual.  His pique soon dimmed.

          The lightning bugs flashed yellow, then faded gray.  “Did I tell you that means they’re courting,” asked Mother.

          “Yes, Mother.  It’s very romantic.”  They laughed.

          “Martha was going to come mow today.  I wonder why she didn’t.” 

          “She wasn’t feeling well this morning; she asked me to feed Mollie, too.  I’ll come mow tomorrow if you like, but I don’t really think it needs it.” 

          After a few minutes, Mother  snapped her fingers: “I forgot to get the mail this morning. I wondered why I couldn’t find the paper.  Come on, I’ll race you.”

          “Ready, set, go!”

          Mother leaned forward and pushed hard on the cane. “Maybe there’ll be a letter from your brother.” 

          “Well, Mark is awfully busy, what with the college and all.”

          “Fiddle faddle.  Any boy smart enough to teach in that college is smart enough to write to his mother.”   

          Matt carried her chair.  The yard was lumpy with mole holes, and the grass came to the top of his boots:  He thought maybe he should mow tomorrow after all.  His limp was more pronounced than usual.  The cane dug into the soft ground.  Every several steps, Matt set the chair down until Mother got her breath.  “I need my rest; I might have to chase that rascal fox out of the chicken house tonight.”  She pulled the handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped her face. She waved at a car that drove past; she believed in being friendly.  Then she pulled herself up and walked another few feet.      

          “Maybe I should just throw that old chamber pot at him.”  Matt smiled, but again, he didn’t laugh.  She made the same joke yesterday.

          “Say, you bring me a nice plump hen from out back tomorrow, Matthew.”

          “I will, Mother.  Mother, are you all right? Your face is red.”

           “I’m just a little tired.  I hope Martha comes and mows tomorrow.  I don’t want to do it myself,” she laughed.  “Then I will have to sit down.

          “Wait a minute, Son.  Set the chair down.”  Its back legs dug deeper into the dirt than its front.  “I worry about that horse of hers, too.  What if she doesn’t feed her?”

          “Don’t worry, Mother, I’ll feed Mollie.”

          “What’s wrong with Martha?”

          “Maybe her asthma is bad.  Or maybe her lumbago’s acting up.”  They both laughed.  “It’s hard to mow, you know, when your lumbago is acting up.”    

          “You’re funny, Matthew.  I wish lumbago was all I had to worry about.”

          “You are looking a little more stooped than you were last week.”

          “I’m not stupid, Matthew!”  It was one of their jokes they always enjoyed.

          “Anyway,” she said, “I worry about that horse.” 

          She wiped her face again and stood up.  “You know, it almost killed your father to have to sell the Clydesdales.  He said for a year all he dreamed about were dead horses, strewn around the pasture.”

          Matt pulled the mailbox open and handed two issues of the Courier to his mother.  “That irks me, Matthew.  Why didn’t they send me one paper yesterday and one today?  They think we country people don’t want to read every day!”

          “Don’t get your feathers ruffled, Mother.  You’ll have plenty to read tomorrow.” 

          She laughed and got her breath.  She wiped the sweat out of her eyes as they headed back.  “I hate to admit it,” she smiled, “but you’re right.  I’ll read to your father tomorrow.  Maybe that’ll wake him up.  Make him mad, like the news always did.”  She wiped her face again.  “He’d have no more truck with that Kennedy boy than he did with Franklin Roosevelt.”

          Back on the porch, they settled on their chairs.  After the mole holes, they were grateful for the concrete.  Mother’s face was red.  “I shouldn’t talk so much.”  She caught her breath, wiped her face, and tucked the handkerchief back into her pocket.  She got up, went into the kitchen, and brought Matt a glass off iced tea.  “Thank you, Mother.”

          “I wonder why Mark hasn’t written.”

          “Didn’t I say?  I got a letter the other day.  He’s awfully busy.  Maybe tomorrow.”

          “Do you think he’ll come for Thanksgiving this year?”

           “I hate to say I doubt it.”

           “Is that boy so busy he’s forgotten his own mother?! Makes me glad you didn’t finish college.  I don’t know how I’d take care of Dad.”

          Matt looked at the floor and then at the pump.  He took off his cap, wiped his mustache, and answered slowly, “Well, I guess that worked out okay.” 

          Matt stood up to go home.  “Here,” Mother said.  “Here’s  two papers from last week.  You take them to Martha.  Smart girl like her needs something to read.”

          Matt watched the gnats race around the yellow light.  Mosquitoes were coming out, and he slapped them when they landed on his neck.  He rolled down his sleeves.  

          Mother asked, “When’s Faith coming home with those boys?”

“Didn’t I tell you, Mother?  She wrote yesterday.  She misses you.”  Matt sat down again and asked for another glass of iced tea, which he drank slowly.

          “She’s got to sell the boat before she comes down.  And the boys have to finish summer school.”

          “I want her to get down here.  I like talking to her, she’s awfully smart.  I miss those boys, too.  They’re good boys.  Tell her to write me, and tell those boys to write, too.”

          Matt drank slowly.  He crossed his legs.

          “They’re smart, too, like their mother.  You tell them to come paint my mailbox.”  Matthew smiled: Every day, she told him the mailbox needed to be painted, and he thought that was amusing.

          “They’ll probably come next month.  But, you know, Faith loves her teaching job up there, and the boys are doing well in school; she might decide to stay and come down here for a weekend every month or so.  That’s the only way we could afford to send the boys to private school, you know.  Especially with me not working.  There’s hardly room in that shack, anyway.”

          “Tell those boys my mailbox needs a coat of paint.  You write to Mark, too; tell him to come home for Thanksgiving.  

          “Why don’t you write, Mother.”

          “I’d just get mad, that’s why.  I’ve a good mind to have you drive me over there, and I’ll tell him a thing or two.  Martha can take care of your father for a day.”

          Pretty soon, Mother started to talk about the biographies she loved to read: The sad mystery of Amelia Earhart.  Carrie Nation: “I’d have grabbed your granddad’s axe and marched right into those saloons with her.”  She had nothing good to say about Eleanor Roosevelt: “Your father and I didn’t see eye to eye on much, but we agreed about her and her husband.  They were Communists.  Folks ought to take care of their own. 

          “Did you hear the news, Son?  I mean that man King and the rest of those nigg–.”  She corrected herself quickly because she knew Matt didn’t like the word.  “–those Negroes,” she said.  “Why do they want to go to our schools, anyway?  They know we don’t want them.”  Matt didn’t want an argument; she always outtalked him, anyway, so he kept his mouth shut.       

          Matt finished his iced tea.  “Don’t forget to take those papers  to Martha.  She’ll need something to read.  Do you think she’ll come mow tomorrow?” 

          “I don’t know.”

          “That Martha’s a puzzlement, always has been; ornery, too.”

          Matt smiled, “You remember when Dad brought Mollie home?  That horse kicked her, and she kicked her back.”  They both laughed.

          “You know, I just forget things sometimes, and it irks me.”  She sat quiet for a minute.

          “Do you think Mark will come home for Thanksgiving?”

          “I hope so.”

          “Strange boy, he was.  Always had his nose in a book.  Your father had to whip him more than once when he didn’t do his chores. You know, I’ve a mind to have you drive me over to that college, and I’ll tell him a thing or two.”

          “He whipped me, too, even though I always did my chores. I fed those horses every day and scraped the burrs out of their manes–even when I had to climb on a hay bale to reach them.  Made my asthma kick up.  You know, I loved to see Dad toss that harness over the horse’s back, and let it settle.  “

          “I don’t know why Dad was always mad at you, Son.”

          “You whipped me more than once, too, you know, Mother.”

          “Well, you just made me mad sometimes.”

          Matt stood up again and started to walk toward his pick-up.  He turned around: “You know, I always wanted to be a professor like Mark.  It just didn’t work out.”

          “Well, I’m glad you’re here.”

          “I don’t remember either of you ever whipping Martha.”

          “I guess we had a soft spot for that girl, her being peculiar.  Anyway, you come and pump tomorrow–but mowing, that’s Martha’s job.”

          “You know, Mother, I don’t think I’ll ever understand Dad.”

          “I don’t think any of us will, Son.  Well, Martha, maybe.”

          “I thought maybe Mark.”

          Come morning, Matt brought Mollie two apples and gave her oats.  Her mane was tangled, but he didn’t scrape off the burrs.  He led her past the pump by the barn to the creek.  His leg was more sore than usual.  Mollie was twenty-three-years-old and walked with a limp, not bad enough to have her put down, though. 

          He pushed open Martha’s door: “Here I am, here’s some apples.”  He limped  on the path between the familiar piles of newspapers, turning sideways when he had to. Papers were piled on the floor as high as Martha could reach: beside her chair, on the washing machine, next to the ragged blue and white checked couch she lay on, looking out the cracked window.  Piles of paper blocked sight of the family photo on the wall.  The papers were meticulously bundled into squares like hay bales and tied with ragged twine that crawled under the kitchen table and into the bathroom.  He went into the bathroom and flushed the toilet.  It made him mad to have to flush her toilet. 

          He stayed about ten minutes.  He moved a stack of papers from the top of the washing machine onto the television.  “Wash your clothes.”  He left a glass of water on the table and headed for the pick-up.

          That evening, Matt mowed the weeds, front and back.  He spent his half-hour with Dad and sat with Mother. They drank their iced tea and watched the flash of the lightning bugs.  “Did I ever tell you that’s how they court?”

          “Yes, you did, Mother.”

          “Sorry, I forget sometimes.  I wonder if Martha will come over tomorrow.

          “Speaking of courtship, Mother, are you ever going to tell me how you met Dad?”

          “Matthew, you know that is a subject I do not discuss.”

          Matt sat for a few minutes, the ball cap on his knee.  He finished his tea and set the glass next to the well.  He stroked his mustache and spoke slowly: “Mother, I’ve always been afraid to ask: Did Dad ever beat you?”

          “That is a subject I do not discuss.”  They sat, looking away from each other.

          After a while, “How do you put up with it, Mother?”

          “Well, he sleeps most of the time, and I read to him sometimes; soothes me, anyway.

Otherwise, I do what I have to do because I have to do it.”

          Matt rolled his sleeves down against the mosquitoes and fiddled with the buttons.  Mother offered him applesauce, and he gladly accepted.  “I’m in no hurry.”

          “Did you hear from Faith today?”

          “She says they might come down in a few weeks.”

          “Those are good boys, Matthew.  I’m glad they go to that private school and don’t have to sit next to Negroes.”

          Matt didn’t argue; she could always outtalk him. 

          Matt loved the night sounds of late summer–the grasshoppers and tree crickets, the tree frogs. When he got up, his legs were stiff; he turned, held to the back of the chair, and slowly pushed himself up. “See you tomorrow, Mother.”

          “See you tomorrow, Son. Watch you don’t fall in the creek.”

          It was one of those jokes they always enjoyed.