Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Up From the Dirt.

this is a long one, but here it is:

Up From the Dirt

The earth breathed in the Friday afternoon sun. It was the first day without rain in nearly two weeks, and the grass, more than ankle high, stood tall and motionless as it carpeted the fields surrounding the farm-house. the white house paint had recently started to peel and fall into the grass, where a dog had not yet learned better than to eat it. In the air hung the scent of earthworms and the wine of a lawnmower drowning out the retching sounds of the dog. The screen door squeaked and then slammed shut as Jane stepped barefoot onto the cool smooth blue wood of the wrap-around porch. With a wicker laundry basket against one hip, she walked down the stairs into the damp grass and made her way to the clothes-line which hung between two rusty poles, sticking up from the dirt like lower-case t’s. She placed the basket at the base of the pole furthest from the house, closer to the dirt road leading to the farm, and began to hang the sheets she had spent that morning washing. The rain had kept her inside for too long, and she had woken up early to take advantage of the sun and the still air to dry her linens. As she made her way left-to-right toward the house, she noticed a person walking up the dirt road. The figure shook in the haze coming off the ground, but as it came nearer the farm, Jane was able to identify the body as belonging to a man.
The remote farm never had many visitors, so this man, she assumed, must have been from town, likely stopped by car troubles on his way to wherever. As the man stepped delicately toward the driveway, Jane tried to picture where her husband kept the tin gas tank. When the stranger reached the doorway, however, he just looked at the house and kept walking, and so Jane turned back to the task at hand and reached into the basket at her hip to hang one last sheet. She turned over the basket and wore it on her head as she walked through the grass up the stairs to the house. She set to preparing dinner, and through the kitchen window, Jane could see her husband, marching back and forth behind his lawnmower. When the whine of the mower stopped, Jane poured a tall glass of lemonade.
“Paint’s peeling,” her husband said to her, letting the screen door slam behind him as he entered the kitchen. “Makin’ the dog sick,” he continued, pausing to gulp down the lemonade. “I’ll hafta get to it next week.” Leaning against the kitchen sink, he took off his cautionary orange hat and used it to wipe sweat from his neck as Jane poured him a second drink.
Wet from the condensation on the glass pitcher, Jane dried her hands on the pale yellow apron she wore over her sun dress as she sat at the kitchen table. “We’ll go into town and get some paint tomorrow,” she said. she hadn’t been to town since the rain started, and she was thankful for the chance and made a mental note to pick up some groceries while they were out. Her husband drank half of the second lemonade, set the glass down on the kitchen table, and, putting his hat on again, went back out into the sun. Jane drank down his leftover lemonade in one gulp and wiped up the rings left behind the glass. She sat with her right arm propped up on the back of the tall chair for a few minutes, and then she stood and began peeling the potatoes peeling in the sink. Through the open kitchen window, Jane heard the dog bark and strain against its chain. She walked through the house out onto the front porch expecting to find the school bus rolling up the gravel road but found only her sheets hanging still in the air. A rustling called her attention, but as she turned her head to look, she caught a glimpse of the yellow bus and walked to the end of the driveway to meet her daughter.
As her husband finished his tasks for the day, Jane and their daughter prepared a meal that he took down with few words. He was not mean or even cold. He was just a bit simple. A smart man, he could fix anything that was broken. It was his handiness that had attracted Jane to him in the first place; how he, like her father, could look for just a few minutes at a stalled car engine or a wobbly table, and without more than a few words, diagnose and solve the problem. He never expected anything in return, but Jane gave him much. Herself a beautiful brunette, she had passed not only her hair, but her hazel eyes and freckled shoulders on to their daughter, and the two ladies of the house made him more proud than any physical task ever seemed to. “I fix what’s broke,” he had said simply. But the love of Jane and their daughter was validating. Without them, he was little more than an overworked tool.
After dinner, their daughter went to her room to do homework, and Jane and her husband sat on the swing on the front porch. As her husband pushed the swing back and forth with his strong legs, Jane held hers almost straight out, letting the cool air breeze against the flesh exposed under her sun dress, her feet just grazing the smooth wood of the porch.
They sat silently until their peace was interrupted by a creaking noise from the metal supports of the swing. Jane looked up and, noticing this, her husband said “I hear it too, Janie. I’ll hafta grease it tomorrow, as if I ain’t got enough to do.” He rested one hand one Jane’s thigh and rubbed the back of his own neck with the other.
“You’re tense,” Jane said to her husband, reaching up to shoo away his hand and rub his tanned skin herself. “You’re wound too tight,” she continued. “This swig will hold.”
“I’m sure it will, he replied. “I built it. I don’t want no one getting’ hurt, though. I been thinking’ I oughta hire someone to help me out around here. Crops is gonna be good this year, all this rain we had.”
“Well,” Jane said, still rubbing his neck, “We got the room. We’ll post a notice tomorrow when we get into town.”
The two continued swinging as the night air turned cooler. Jane wrapped her husband’s flannel shirt around her legs for a bit, and he rubbed her arms to fight the chill, but when it became too much, the two went inside and went to bed. Behind the house, the dog barked in the dark, but neither Jane nor her husband heard it over his muttering “Janie” or the rhythmic thudding of their knobby headboard against the wall of the pitch black bedroom.
In the morning, she prepared coffee for her husband, who hugged her from behind while she filled his mug. “Before we go inta town,” he said, “I’d like to change my oil. Be about an hour.”
While her husband was in the large tin garage, Jane pushed her daughter on the tire swing beside the road. When she got tired of pushing, she leaned against the tree and watched as her daughter twisted the rope until it could be heard straining against itself. When her toes could no longer touch the ground, she let herself go, spinning wildly in the opposite direction. As Jane watched the shadow of her daughter’s legs flicker quickly on the grass, she looked up casually and noticed again the man from the day before walking up the dirt road, his figure once again wavering in the heat rising off of the sandy road. This time, when he reached the driveway, he stopped, looked at the house again, and started toward the porch.
“Alright now,” Jane said to her daughter. “Don’t make yourself dizzy.” And as the stranger neared the tire swing, Jane thought him strangely pretty. she was looking at his soft jaw line when he walked past her without a word, revealing a ponytail that hung down between his shoulder blades.
Some time passed, and Jane did not see the stranger again or hear from her husband a word about going into town, so she fixed lunch for herself and her daughter. Standing in the kitchen washing the dishes, she heard footsteps at the back stairs. She held her breath as she turned to face the door and let it go as her husband walked in.
“Fix another plate for supper,” he said to her. “And the spare room. We got our help. We’ll get to town another day.”
Jane did not see her husband or the stranger again until dinner, where the stranger sat across from their daughter. It was explained to Jane that the stranger would stay on at least until the end of the summer and help out for $40 a week in addition to room and board. At this, the stranger made a joke out of the word “bored,” which went over the heads of Jane and her family. As the four ate, Jane found something peculiar in the way the stranger brought food to his mouth. He would load his fork, then move it almost to his mouth, but then lift it away, raising it roughly to eye level, before bringing it down again to his mouth quickly. He looked like he was conducting some simple symphony. He looked like nothing Jane had ever seen before.
On Sunday, the stranger slept in while Jane and her family went to church. When they returned, they found him sitting on the back porch, reading, seemingly oblivious to the dog barking at him as its chain flapped dust into the air above the sandy circle it had made over the years.
“Good idea to be getting that rest,” Jane’s husband said to the boy. “Tomorrow we’re goin’ inta town for paint, and we’ll get you a few new shirts. Next day we’ll start to painting,” he finished before yelling at the still barking dog. With that, Jane and her family went inside and left the boy to read on the porch. At the top of the stairs, Jane noticed that he had rearranged the bedroom Jane had prepared for him. The twin bed had been moved to the center of the room, and he had blocked the view of it by putting the dresser right up against it. His shoes sat just inside the bedroom door, and, aside from the laces of one shoe, nothing touched any of the walls. Jane prepared lunch for her family and for the hired hand, but when she went to call him inside, he was not on the porch. She stepped gracefully into the back yard where she found his book lying open in the grass and found the boy standing on top of the dog house as the dog barked and pawed at the overhanging shingles.
Jane whistled, and the dog turned. “Roscoe! Quiet!” she yelled, and the dog became silent. “Sit!” she demanded,” and the dog came to her and sat at her feet. Jane knelt and, putting the boy’s book down in the grass, wrapped one arm around the dog’s neck and petted its back with her free hand. “I’ve never seen him like that,” she said to the boy now sitting on the dog house. “Usually he’s so gentle. It’s probably safe to come down now.”
The boy stepped down from the house, not taking his eyes off of the dog while his left foot searched for the ground. “Thanks,” he said quietly. He took slow steps until he reached Jane and the dog and the sprinted to the stairs of the back porch, not bothering to pick up his book from the grass. Jane stayed talking to the dog, rubbing it behind its ears and speaking into its open mouth for a few minutes before giving it two affirmative pats on the back, picking up the book, and walking back into the kitchen. In the kitchen, her husband and daughter sat eating the sandwiches she had prepared.
“He’s upstairs?” she asked, pointing the book at the empty place setting at the table.
“Mmhmm,” one or both of them said with their mouths full, and Jane took the book upstairs. Finding his door shut, she left it sitting on the floor in the hallway, and as she walked back down the stairs to eat her own lunch, she heard the door open and close quickly. At dinner, Jane’s husband apologized on behalf of the dog, citing the paint chips as a possible motive for the dog’s behavior.
In the morning, Jane woke again to make coffee. Her husband offered some to the boy while Jane saw their daughter onto the school bus, but the boy declined. When Jane came back inside, the three marched out the back door and into the garage where they climbed into the truck, Jane sitting between the two on the sole bench seat. As they drove into town, Jane slipped her left hand under her husband’s strong thigh and left it there under the warm pressure until they got out of the truck. When her husband suggested that she go get a few groceries while he and the boy got the things they needed, the boy asked Jane if it wouldn’t be too much trouble o get him some tea and a bottle of honey. Jane was first to return to the truck, and she was leaning against the driver’s side door, eating a peach when the other two returned, and the three rode back home, Jane placing her hand again under her husband’s thigh when the roads of the town gave way to the bumpy dirt roads of their home.
The following morning, the men stood in the kitchen while Jane again saw their daughter onto the bus. The boy drank his tea with honey while Jane’s husband ate toast. when the boy went to fetch the ladder so that they could begin painting, Jane’s husband made a joke about the tea between sips of his black coffee.
“You oughta be nice,” Jane said, though she did laugh at the joke. “He seems nice enough,” she continued. “Why don’t you take him fishing this weekend?”
“Eh, we’ll see,” her husband replied, shrugging. “He might be able to tie a ponytail, but I don’t know ‘bout tyin’ flies.” Jane laughed again, bust straightened her face when she heard the boy coming up the back stairs.
“Ladder’s ready,” he said upon entering the kitchen. “Just lemme change my shirt.”
“Alright,” Jane’s husband said. “I’ll be out back. I’ll see you at lunch time, honey,” he said to his wife, who covered her face to hide her smile.
Throughout the week, the boy and the man worked side by side all over the few acres of farm land. At the end of the week, they made plans to go fishing on Saturday. It was a beautiful day, and Jane was still asleep when her husband crept out of bed and met the boy downstairs. She was taking laundry off of the clothesline when they returned.
“Catch us dinner?” she asked, not specifically directing the question at either of them. The boy said nothing as he climbed the stairs into the house.
“Biggest catfish I ever seen,” her husband laughed. “He caught ‘im, too, but says he don’t wanna gut the thing.”
“Strange,” Jane replied.
“I’ll say. You shoulda heard him complaining out there. Said he couldn’t stand the smell of fish, thought that didn’t surprise me much.” He laughed heartily. “and the way he handled the worms. “Oh, I tell ya, Janie!”
“Alright, so go and gut it, then,” Jane replied to her husband. “You play too much.” Her husband drank as he gutted the fish on the back porch and let the dog eat the scraps. Jane made rice, and when everything was ready, she called everyone into the kitchen.
“Hell of a catch,” her husband said, still drinking and smiling at the boy, who didn’t say anything. “It’s good though, isn’t it?” he continued. Jane nodded. “You like it, hon?” he asked his daughter. She smiled, her mouth again too full to reply, and that was good enough for both Jane and her husband, but the boy didn’t respond. He finished his meal and went to his room. After dinner, in the bedroom, Jane’s husband continued. “The worms!” he laughed. “Spilled ‘em all over his lap and didn’t know what to do with hisself!” His voice was getting louder, and as he fell onto the bed. “Oh, Janie!” he continued. “I like him, but it was sure comical!” he said, now staring at the ceiling.
Out of the boy’s sign now, Jane laughed more heartily and without putting covering her face. She liked him too, but there was something certainly peculiar about him. the two continued to laugh, moving past the husband’s tales of the day on to times they’d shared, but through walls and all that was audible was the chuckling, which gave way eventually to moaning and the pounding of the headboard.
Nobody went to church the next morning. Hung over, her husband slept in, and Jane went to the kitchen to make herself some coffee. The boy was already awake, though he did not appear to have slept at all. he was drinking tea with honey, and Jane asked if she couldn’t have a cup for herself instead of coffee. “I hope we didn’t keep you up,” Jane started. “he can be loud when he’s been drinking, but he loves to laugh.”
“Yes, ma’am,, and he is certainly funny. You’ve got a great laugh yourself,” the boy said.
“Oh, well thank you,” Jane replied, her smile hidden behind the mug as he enjoyed her tea. She took his kindness as an opportunity to get to know the stranger, but he didn’t offer much. There wasn’t much to offer either, it seemed. He had spent some time here and there, he said, but not much in either one, but not too much in either place. He had also spent a year and a half at a college studying English before his parents died, and he no longer felt obligated to amount to anything. Jane could barely guess at his age, but there was a stillness in him that made her think it hadn’t been too terribly long since his parents had just passed. At forty, she guessed him to be about twenty two years old, putting him right between herself and her daughter.
“If you’ll excuse me now, Janie,” he said, “I’d like to spend the day reading outside.”
All her life, only two people had called her Janie, her own father and her husband. Both of them bears of men, it was endearing to hear them say it. The way their gruff voices smoothed out with the long A sound. To hear this hired hand say it, though, was immediately unsettling to Jane. His voice was sheepish and more comparable to that of her daughter than her husband. A blank look came over her face for a minute, and before she could collect her thoughts, he was out of the kitchen, and she thought she could hear him sniffling on his way outside.
As night fell, Jane helped her daughter with some homework. The boy had not come inside again all day, and she hoped that he would soon so that the dog would stop barking, and her daughter could get some sleep. They finished the homework, and as Jane sent her daughter to get washed up, she suddenly noticed the barking had stopped. Relieved, Jane stood to turn down her daughter’s bed. She heard the bedroom door open and turned, saying “Alright, now in you go,” but when she looked up, it was not her daughter but the boy.
“Dog got away, ma’am,” he said, leaning against the door frame. “But your husband’s after him.”
“Thank you,” Jane replied as her daughter walked under the stranger’s arm and crawled into bed.
“What happened to Roscoe, mommy?” she asked.
“Your dad’ll get him,” the boy said.
“Yes, he will,” Jane said. “Now get to sleep. Goodnight.” She leaned over her daughter to kiss her on the forehead, and she was relieved when she stood up and the boy was gone from the doorway. She looked at her daughter for a moment before turning off the light and closing the door behind her.
She went to the end of the hall to turn off the bathroom light, and when she passed the boy’s room, he was sitting on his bed with his head in his hands. She turned off the bathroom light and turned to walk downstairs to find a flashlight for her husband, but as she passed the boy’s room this time, he grabbed her from behind, wrapping one arm around her waist and using the other hand to cover her mouth as he backed her into his room. He bent her over the dresser beside his bed and pushed her head over the edge, where she saw his soiled mattress.
“Quiet now, Janie,” he said in his girlish voice as he lifted her sun dress with his right hand, his left still covering her mouth. As he pushed himself inside of her, Jane tried to cry out, but he had her muzzled. He tore at the top of her dress and kissed her freckled shoulders, and Jane’s thoughts raced to her daughter sleeping down the hall. In her pain, she felt a brief sense of relief that it was not her bent over in the middle of this barren room. The boy continued thrusting himself against her, and between sobs she could hear him crying as well as whispering “Janie,” the second syllable stretched out like a song he was trying to remember. Suddenly the dog was barking again, and Jane knew that her husband must be back. She pictured his strong hands pulling the boy from her, throwing him down, pants still around his ankles, and insulting him as he kicked him, but the boy too had heard of sounds of the dog barking, and he pulled himself from her, smashing her head against the drawer, leaving her nearly unconscious as he pulled up his pants and made his way out of the house.
The dog continued barking as Jane reeled atop the dresser. “Shut up, will ya?” she heard her husband yell at the dog as she heard the front screen door squeal open. She tried to roll to one side, but her neck couldn’t follow her head’s lead, and she heard the back door slam shut. “I said shut up!” her husband shouted, and she hard the clank of a glass against the lemonade pitcher, but the dog kept barking at the dust storm she imagined the stranger kicking up as he tore off down the dirt road that had brought him here.