map Mary vs. Heaven

by Rachel Stewart Johnson

Published in Issue No. 208 ~ September, 2014
Photo and dolls made by Ana Aranda (Madrid, Spain)

Photo and dolls made by Ana Aranda (Madrid, Spain)

 

There will be an argument. It will be the spitting-while-speaking kind. The precise point of origin will be the knob on the rear door to the garage. From there it will move throughout the property, and it will renew with each fractious leap of either stomach. Regret will swish against two hearts like the business of the body. In the spans when the partners pause there will be no rest, just the nervous hover of damselfly over cold water, answering where next? First, Delphine will feel the knob rattle. Loose again goddamn it. Immediately ashamed of her enduring disregard for the Lord’s commandments, she will spirit a restlessness into her own muscles that will not withstand the pressure of an earthen body and will require immediate release. She will choose her daughter, fat, pregnant, unmarried 20-year-old Nancy, to help rid her of this toxin. Then there will be the rules that govern the breaking of hearts: a doorknob, a rattle, a lonely widow.

 

And so the doorknob rattled. The next sound was similar to an ugh, but more like the noise one makes after freeing something that has been stuck, when the sudden loss of resistance demands an acknowledgement in voice. Delphine winced. A moment passed. Another soft shake, and the rattle did not correct. Delphine pursed her lips and swallowed. “I can’t believe you won’t even consider naming the baby after Grandma Mary,” she began.

“Wull…” her daughter, Nancy, said.

“Well it’s just such a silly thing to think you can’t use a fine name from the family.”

“I.”

“And to want to name the baby something like Heaven…that’s a sacred name for the Lord.”

“No it isn’t.”

“We have to respect the name of our Lord God.”

“Heaven isn’t God’s name.”

“Well it’s a holy word. A holy place. The holiest place of all. You don’t just go tossing around the sacred like that.”

“Ask Pastor Greg. I bet he’ll say it’s okay. I think Heaven’s a pretty name.”

Nancy held a wide metallic bowl full of water for the dog. She stood outside in the chill of central Kansas just two weeks into January. Due to give birth soon, on the sixth day of February, she had not felt cold for weeks. She was aware of the water threatening the lip of the bowl as she held it there, but she believed the liquid was slowed by the chunk of ice still suspended in the core. The melting had commenced as the sunrise began and was incomplete; meanwhile the dog was licking snow.

They argued on about Mary vs. Heaven, and then who’d be paying for everything, and how they’d gotten to this point at all, and what about getting a job. The daughter’s pregnancy plopped all its realities between the two of them in an unsightly mound on the cold hearth of the garage.

“Oh, it’s cold,” Delphine finally sniffed. The fight did not end. It moved indoors to the nearly-hot insides of the small house Delphine’s husband bought twenty-five years ago in the heart of Springer, Kansas. Now that husband was dead, buried three years, and the doorknobs went slack when grasped face-first, a repeating unkindness.

She spoke to him often, to Tom her husband newly gone. It wasn’t conversation; just one word at a time, offered up with need. Look, she told him. She had to speak it aloud, figuring that since he was not the Lord Jesus Christ, he could not hear unless her word was spoken, as was true in life. There were other words. Can’t, she explained. No, she reminded him. Her most strident reflection: This.

“This,” she said as she stepped from the garage into the smoothness of the kitchen, their fat and pregnant and unmarried 20-year-old daughter following behind. The clamor grew inside Delphine’s head, causing her ears to ache. She lamented her daughter’s lack of common sense, the fool she slept with, and then she decided to go for a sure zinger and offered up the word “fornicating.” It gave her daughter wild eyes that thrashed behind her eyeglasses. When Delphine saw the blotches of red that appeared so quickly around her daughter’s eyes, she forgave the doorknob.

 

The off-ramp from  I-70 into the town of Springer dropped right onto Center Street, a common-sense route that marked the middle of town and was changed by nothing all year but the Fourth of July parade. There were fifteen cross streets, the largest being Burress Avenue, named after Dr. Nathaniel Burress, a thick bearded man who ventured south from Sioux Falls in 1887 and started a clinic for the farming community west of Topeka. The people of that stretch of Kansas were so far-flung that no one could ever reach the clinic before the need for it lifted, either by death or miracle or the eventual wearing-away afforded by the passing of time. In recent decades the town of Springer was still little more than an interruption that complicated the landscape for the few minutes it would take to travel its entire length at the speed limit of 25 miles per hour. A traveler might decide to stop if equipped with a quarter tank of gas or less, drawn by the promise of GAS FOOD PHONE. Visitors here never hoped for a quaint shopping district or anything that would be announced in neon. They expected what they found: twin gas stations on either side of Center Street. In the Chevron the hot dogs sweated in shallow trenches. Die-cast cars sold infrequently at $3.99.

July Allard lived on the opposite side of the highway at the end of her own dirt road. Her small two-bedroom house had only this for an address: Rural Route 6. July used to be a piano teacher in Lawrence but quit when she realized her greatest pleasure came from her no-shows. She would look at the time and relish: on the hour, two minutes past, now a full five minutes late. Wish this upon too many children, she figured, and the day would come when she would have to atone for her disinterest. Without explanation to anyone, she sold her house, wished her students luck, and fled. She would commune with the wheat, the vast uncomplicated commercial wheat that would do its job while she did hers, and she would tend and hire and remain tucked away, pushed so far into Rural Route 6 that no one could find her.

 

The day after her argument with her daughter, Delphine neglected her household chores. She did not sweep, did not battle with the cobwebs in high corners, and she let the dust remain. There was dust near the television thick enough to write her name in, but she did not bother to find a rag and wipe it away. Instead she imagined herself resting her finger in the dust, using the fat pad of her index finger to draw a circle. The shape in her imagination was imperfect, favoring its bottom half, so she imagined a fresher circle with a fatter perimeter, and this one was lovely. The lampshades never got really clean anyway, she told herself. I won’t bother. I won’t bother.

The day was not a total loss. Nancy, after all, had been pleasant enough since she awoke, and now she was at the Young Women’s Bible Study held every Friday at noon at Cornerstone Christian Church. Delphine decided she would go early to pick her up. When she arrived in the fellowship hall, there was no sign of the Bible Study. The group was not in its usual spot, at the far corner of the hall, back by the kitchen. Delphine realized when she turned around that she had left a trail of dirty footprints behind her. “Oh my goodness,” she said. She glanced briefly at a silhouette image of Jesus on a banner draped over a table. I will be your God, and you shall be My people, the banner read. Delphine was glad that this Jesus had no eyes. “Well I wonder who tracked that in,” she said, her voice louder now. Then she ducked into the kitchen. She was rubbing paper towels over the tracks with her foot when her daughter appeared in the entryway.

“Finally,” Nancy said, her hands on her hips. She was leaning backward to compensate for the weight of her pregnant belly, round enough for three babies. Delphine often couldn’t keep herself from squinting at her daughter in disbelief.

“What are you doing?” Delphine asked. “What do you mean?”

“Been waiting here the whole time almost.”

“What happened to the Bible Study?”

“Was only me, so Mrs. Linda asked if we could just skip it and maybe do it later.” Nancy broke into a yawn.

“Well oh dear,” Delphine said. “You need to go to those things.” She dropped her eyes onto Nancy’s belly. “That’s too bad. What’s Mrs. Linda–,” she began, and stopped.

The two drove home in silence. Delphine sat as close to the steering wheel as possible, her back straight. This was her approach to driving in winter, her battle plan against the ice that lurked on the streets. It was nearly far enough into the winter for the fallen snow to petrify. As the winter weeks passed, the rivets would polish like stones on a shore, settled  into a new terrain that threatened the spine. The coarse routes of cold always remained into spring.

 

The phone rang before breakfast on the 11th of February at the home of Beth Newman, a grandmother of seven, the youngest born only last month. The call was from her longtime friend, Donna, who had terrible news about her sister, Delphine.

“I have terrible news,” Donna began. Then she repeated herself: “I have terrible news.”

Beth could feel the scandal building. “What happened?”

“Delphine’s Nancy went in to the hospital to have her baby and the baby– is dead. The baby was born but it died. The baby was stillborn.”

Beth Newman was surprised. She had never known this to happen to anyone. “My god,” she said, and stopped.

“So the baby was stillborn. A girl. She was full size and healthy but the cord got her. Wrapped around her neck.”

“Oh for heaven say.”

“It was her first baby you know. I think the baby was healthy as a plum too, nice and full-size and everything. I just cannot believe.”

“Well Lord have mercy. And this was in Topeka?”

“Yes. Doctors and all, they said. Doctors and all.”

“Oh for heaven say.”

“They named the baby Mary.”

“Oh bless her soul,” Beth said. For a moment there was silence. Beth ventured again, uncertain of what to say. “Oh dear.”

“My sister is in shock. There’s nothing like a daughter’s baby.”

“Oh my goodness,” Beth said, and thought of her own newborn grandchild. She would be careful not to mention that baby. Her newest granddaughter’s name was Margaret-called-Peggy, named after her other grandmother. Beth would not mention this.

Donna still had much to say. “Tommy, her boy, has two babies and she loves those babies but there’s nothing like your daughter’s baby, you know. They were going to raise that little girl together.”

“Oh,” Beth said. This part was awkward. “Yes.” Her newest granddaughter, still not quite a month old, had been given the middle name Elizabeth. She was named after the two grandmothers, you see. But Beth would not mention this.

“And now there is no little girl to raise,” Donna said. “I think we’re all in shock.”

“Oh of course,” Beth said. “Of course you are. You should. You are. Lord have mercy. I will pray.”

July Allard did not mind the winter. Even after she outgrew the child’s thrill with accumulating snow, she appreciated the tools of winter: she liked boots. She preferred something flat and wide, something with oomph to it. By early March it had already been a long winter, the tasks of the farm still at only a trickle, and July was not certain how to handle her time. She had brought her piano from Lawrence, her handsome Kawai, but her sheet music remained out of sight. Instead she hid behind the winter, tucked inside her little house or wandering with only modest purpose on the property, boots on. This time, she greeted the arrival of March with hesitation, uncertain whether to welcome the coming spring or fear it.

She was sitting next to her neglected breakfast dish when the she heard a car approaching. She had grown accustomed to silence on Rural Route 6, the only sounds the distant work of farm machinery. The car was an old sedan, robbed of its looks. Paint was peeling off the top, and the black bumpers had changed, now blotted with white and gray. A dirt road in late winter was not the place for that little car.

The car stopped with its front tires on the edge of July’s front lawn, the north-facing grass tamped by the snowpack since late October. Nothing happened. July could see a teenage girl still inside the car, her face mousy with thick glasses, searching for something. The girl did not seem concerned with the possibility of July’s watching her. When she finally emerged from the vehicle, her pace seemed off, too slow even for ice. July felt a twinge of embarrassment at her unshoveled front path. The girl’s gait required her arms to stick out, working in bends and straights. The air felt stiff when July opened the door.

The girl wore a giant winter coat, powder blue with wooly cuffs. July looked down at the girl’s boots. They were the type that July favored, good assertive boots. “Good morning,” July said, the greeting nearly a question.

“Oh thanks,” the girl said.

Thanks?, July wondered. Perhaps she had misheard her. The girl’s voice was as unassertive as her face. July stood in her doorway and the girl stopped.

“You need gloves,” July said. “Can I—?” July began, and stopped. Better to wait. But the girl still only stood at the door, just beyond the reach of July’s arms. July began to feel cold. “Um. Here, come on in,” July told her. “You need gloves hunh,” she repeated.

“Yeah.”

“Um. Come in,” July said again, extending her arm back into the house.

The girl stood in the doorway, boots still dusted with snow. “Oh. I should take these off,” she said, looking down. She let loose a forceful sniff. “Ah.” She began to lean over, but the size of her midsection made this a challenge. Snow fell from onto the carpet. She used one boot as a base from which to work off the other, steadying herself by holding onto the frame of the door.

July watched her, uncertain of what to do. “Can I—” she tried again. Finally the girl had wriggled her second foot free. The girl edged past the mess and closed the door, which caught some of the snow as it brushed past. July picked up the larger clumps, then strode to her tiny kitchen and dropped the snow in the sink.

The girl only sniffed. “Thanks,” she said, and more snow dropped from the sleeves of her coat.

“Hi. So. What can I help you with?” July asked.

“I’m looking for work.”

July stared at her, maybe just a kid from the high school, her nose red from the cold but her cheeks pale. She was a chapped and cold person, possibly as much as 200 pounds, in July’s living room. Her socks looked like they could use a good bleaching.

“Okay. Well. I don’t—” July said. “Why don’t you—. You should warm up a bit. I can make tea?”

“Oh. Um. No that’s okay.” The girl’s shoulders drooped. “You don’t got any work here? I can do jus’ bout anything. I’m actually pretty strong, you know, so I can lift stuff like the boys do and maybe pull things, or at least I can after the baby comes.”

July looked at the girl’s wide middle. “Oh, you’re expecting.”

The girl took a deep breath and nodded. She pulled both hands into the sleeves of her coat, like a child would do. She sniffed again loudly.

“Can I get you a tissue?” When July looked back at the girl, she was wiping her nose with the back of her hand. July handed her a tissue anyway. The girl put the tissue in a coat pocket.

“When are you due?”

“What?”

“Your due date? For the baby?”

“Oh. Um, like later on.”

July glanced outside. Perhaps this girl distracts the victim while her partners rob the place. It seemed like a reasonable scenario. The girl had removed her thick glasses and begun wiping them with the tissue. Her exposed nose had a deep red mark on either side where the glasses sat.

July decided she should find a way out of this situation. “Would you—? You know, I have to go over into town anyway today for some things. I could—would you like to get a cup of tea or something there? You’re from Springer?”

The girl nodded as she returned her glasses to the bridge of her nose. “Yeah. So you got some work?”

“Well. We can talk about it. Not so much right now but maybe more later. More like spring, later spring, summer.”

“’Kay.”

Again there was silence. “So I was just getting ready to leave here pretty soon,” July told the girl.

“Okay,” the girl responded. “What?”

“I was just. I can–. How about that place’s called Lucy’s by the highway? You know that one? I could go there. We could go there.”

The girl sniffed. “Yeah, kinda out, pushed back?” She made a sweeping gesture with one hand.

“What?”

“Lucy’s kinda out of the way from the rest of town.”

“A bit, yes.”

“Yeah.” The girl nodded and sniffed.

“Okay alrighty,” July said. “We can meet up there then if you want.”

“Sure.”

“Alright. I didn’t catch your name, I’m sorry,” July said.

“Oh yeah.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not good with names.”

“Oh. Mary,” the girl said.

“Um, okay yes Mary. Okay yes. Alright well I’ll see you at the place then– that we just talked about.” With that, July patted her pockets. She was grateful when she saw that Mary had begun the process of returning her boots to her feet. Mary paused after the first foot and let her open hand rest on her abdomen. She took a slow breath.

July retreated to her bedroom. She put a sweater over her head and changed from slippers to socks. She paused on the bed to rub the arch of one foot, then held still.

 

Lucy’s Burgers was the only restaurant on a lengthy stretch of I-70 to have a patio with seating. The roof extended over the patio and was surrounded with a half wall of cement on all sides, but it remained unused and empty for a good three-quarters of the calendar. The rest of the time, the patio was the territory of an ugly dog. The dog’s body lingered too long on either side as it waddled, its legs churning with work, as if it were assembled by one of the students at Agape Baptist’s Vacation Bible School. The dog spent most of every day sleeping somewhere on the patio at Lucy’s, usually on a little brown bed in the corner. Even the bed was unsightly, squashed to a blanket’s thickness and covered with hair. On the other side of the half wall hung a banner. NOW OPEN, it said, and had hung for 19 months.

July tried to detach herself from the morning as she drove in her Jeep Grand Cherokee behind the girl’s car, the pace slow. She noticed that the girl put on her turn signal as soon as they’d crossed under the interstate.

“I know,” she told the blinking light. The road to Lucy’s was silly, a long slow stretch leading to only one building. “Who’s idea…” she murmured. When she exited her Jeep, she couldn’t find the front door of the restaurant. She followed Mary, who was traveling with her usual uncertain meter, knees bent slightly and arms away from her sides. They had to walk the entire length of the wall and around the corner, where there was a white metal gate. They entered the patio and July noticed the dog. It looked at her, low to high, full of regret.

Inside, the restaurant looked out of place, with brick arches around the windows and paint the color of putty. There were dark red candles unlit everywhere, and each table was wrapped top and bottom in a thick vinyl tablecloth.

“You want the smoking section?” Mary asked July as they stood near the door.

“Me? No. But whatever is fine.”

They sat at a booth. Mary had to work to squeeze her body into the space. When she sat, she sighed. “You got kids?” she asked.

“No. It’s just me.” July looked at the place setting below her. She had heard this all before, answered the same question many times. “I never—.” That was all she told.

“What’s your name?” Mary asked.

“Oh that’s true,” July was embarrassed to realize that the girl didn’t know this. What am I doing, she wondered to herself. “July Allard. My first name is July.”

“Really? That’s pretty.”

“Thank you.”

“You got a brother named August?”

July smiled weakly. “No. It was just me, no brothers or sisters.” She nodded and looked down. Then she lied: “But that would be kind of cute huh.”

“Yeah that would,” Mary said.

“My mother just thought if May and June were good names, then July ought to be too.”

“Yeah,” Mary said, nodding. July nodded too.

“I’m kind of new to town,” July said next, filling the quiet. “Around here,” she added, circling a finger in the air.

“Did somebody die?”

“What?”

“Somebody die and leave you their farm?”

“Oh. No. I just bought that farm.”

“Why?”

There was a young woman standing then at their table, her eyes round and eager, heavy with eyeliner, notepad held cutely with both hands at her stomach. They hadn’t looked at the menus. July ordered for them – two hot teas.

“You got fries right?” Mary asked the waitress. “Maybe one big fries or like a bucket of fries or something.”

The waitress left then and Mary and July sat again in silence. It was Mary who spoke again. “Nobody ever comes here,” she said.

“Springer? Yeah that’s probably true.”

“No. Well yeah. But I mean here here.”

“It’s a nice little place.”

“I got a question for you and you can’t say no,” Mary said, rubbing her nose.

July laughed. “Okay.”

“Do you believe in heaven?”

July rubbed the skin above one eyebrow. “Well, I can’t say no.”

Mary nodded. July let out a single laugh. She touched the tablecloth with an index finger. Mary coughed. “So do you?” she asked.

“Well. I suppose.”

“Everyone in Springer believes in heaven. They all do,” Mary said.

“Do you?” With that they were interrupted by the waitress bringing hot water and tea bags. “Wow that’s nice. Look at all those,” July said, scanning the caddy placed before her. “Makes it hard to choose.” July lifted the kettle and enjoyed the gurgle of the hot water emptying into a mug. When she started the second mug, Mary held up her hand.

“No me. I’ll do it.”

July stopped pouring. The second mug was a quarter full. “Okay.”

Mary swallowed hard and poured. “You got kids?”

July had looked outside, and her eyes were struggling against the brightness of the coming afternoon. Sunlight rocketed off the snow, collecting also at the edges of the street lamps that lined the lonely street outside Lucy’s, and grew down the spaces where leaves once were, the idle hollows above and below the outer reaches of bare tree limbs.

“What? Or—do I like kids you said. Sure. I used to teach. Piano,” July said.

“Oh. You got your own?”

“Me? A piano? Or. Kids? No, like I said.”

“Oh. Same here.”

“Well. Not for long,” July said, looking at Mary’s belly. After that, July did not look outside anymore. She concentrated on her tea.

“So can I start tomorrow?”

July rubbed her eye. “You’re–.” She smiled. “We haven’t talked about what you’d do. And I can’t pay much.”

“That’s okay.”

“I guess. Well. Just come for the morning and I can have you help in the house. But just a few hours here and there really is all I need still. Summer would be more. Maybe I don’t know sixty dollars a week. Really not much. And then I think you should stop until you have your baby.”

“Okay.” Mary smiled for the first time that day, a soft grin that would have reminded her mother of the little girl she was, smiling toward the camera but keeping her eyes down. That was where her eyes tended to be: holding still in the subterranean quiet of the long-ago disappeared.

 

The next day, July found things for Mary to do around the house. After the second week of these visits, July believed that Mary should sit while she worked. So she had her count work gloves and heavy screws. She cleaned nozzles. She sorted cotton rags and burlap into piles while sitting at the kitchen table.

“Isn’t your baby coming soon?” July asked one morning.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well when is the due date?”

“Oh, later. Not ’til after April.”

So Mary continued to come every day and stay for just an hour, sometimes two. By late April, she shed her coat, but she wore sweaters or a Kansas State sweatshirt. Work had begun on the farm, and July spent an increasing amount of time away and outside. “I can do stuff out there too. I can learn,” Mary said. “The snow is gone.”

“Not when you’re about to have that baby. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

            Oh, praise Him! Praise the One who lights our ways, who lights the path of the righteous…

Singing aloud at the piano, Delphine did not like the way the “ry” sound in “righteous” landed on a high half note. She started over, her right hand on the piano and her left hand hanging, occasionally conducting the invisible choir that stood rehearsing in her living room.

Uh-oh, praise Him! Praise, praise! God lord God who lights our ways.

She liked the rhyme she had achieved and so she repeated the pair: praise, ways. The phone rang. It was Donna. Donna neglected to say hello. She only began an urgent bulletin. “There was an overnight frost. There was an overnight frost, last night. Better check your, better go and see. Mine seem, my plants, it all seems okay but Dick said there was a frost.”

“Here?” Delphine said.

“Yes, a late for spring. I didn’t think, I don’t think this was forecast. I had nothing covered. Did you? Did you know?”

“Well no.” Delphine peered outside. The sky was cloudless. “You’re sure? Here?”

Delphine breathed in a slow, determined breath that would free up some of her sister’s tension and let it fly away. She did her usual visualization: put the trouble in a bubble. Let it float away. The Lord will tend to it there in His infinite wisdom. She looked at the limbs of the birch tree in her front yard and tried to study its leaves from a distance. Were you too cold out—and then she remembered.

“I’d better check right now, the–” she told Donna, hanging up. She whistled her girth away from the piano. She maneuvered around an end table and opened the front door. She looked at the park bench that rested by her front door, a source of pride with real wrought-iron work on its back. There, obediently, sat her three rag dolls.

“Oh loves. Mama forgot, or she didn’t know, did she?” Delphine cooed. She decided to be more direct. “Mama so sorry. Oh so so sorry.”

There was a moment when she feared the worst, that when she touched a doll’s limb it would simply shatter from the cold it had endured. She brought the dolls inside. She wondered about body shock. What does one do in this situation? She spread a quilt on the sofa and placed the dolls there. Then she quickly went to the bookshelf on the opposite wall and found The Merck Manual of Medical Information. She felt the ache that sometimes developed when Tom entered her thoughts. He had given her this book the Christmas before he died. He was always concerned about things, but unlike Delphine, information comforted him. She began to flip through the book’s 1600 pages. She was unhappy when the first two words she noted from the index were “scrotum” and “herpes”. She wasn’t sure where to look. She tried the word “cold”.

Cold, common, 997-999

Cold environment

Injuries from, 1467-1469

 

She glanced at the three dolls on the sofa. She hurried to find the right page.

“Hypothermia. Sitting still for a time on the cold ground or a metal surface…” Delphine pulsed with guilt. She skipped ahead to Treatment. “The victim must be handled gently because a sudden jolt…” She dropped the book and lifted the dolls. She held them with both arms and breathed on them, trying to make her breath cold. She arrived in the laundry room near the back porch, the coldest room in the house. She laid the dolls on top of the washer.

“Hold on,” she told them.

She took a sheet out of the hall closet and put it under the dolls. “No wait,” she murmured. When she returned, she held the drying rack from the kitchen. She situated the dolls on the rack, the sheet beneath them. “There,” she said. Finally she added a last touch: she put a second sheet over everything. She peered under it. “Okay? Doing alright in there?” The left braid of one doll dropped in answer. Delphine lifted it back onto the rack. “Oh dear,” she whispered. She no longer felt up for writing hymns. Tom would have told her that displaying dolls outside while there was any chance of a late spring frost was foolishness. No, she thought. He probably would say it was baloney. “The baby,” she told him, and felt the throb of refusing tears.

On the tenth day of May, Mary will arrive at the farm in the late morning. July will not be in the house at the moment Mary rings the doorbell. Mary will kick the stoop gently as she waits and will look around behind her. There have been men around the property in recent weeks. On this day Mary will stand, exposed like a bold doe, in front of the door.

There is gravel on the road as it nears the house, and the road widens. The gravel was spread over the dirt one year to help keep the road passable, but the pebbles didn’t last. Some pieces were pitched by the tires that passed over them, the launching movement resembling the spring of a disc in a game of tiddlywinks. Other pieces settled to the low height of the road itself, and now, all that remains is enough to add crackle to the rumble of a truck approaching. On this tenth day of May, the sound of the scree will freeze Mary where she stands. The truck that approaches has, like the rebel gravel beneath it, somehow survived for twenty years, scraped and misaligned, the headlights long frying the bugs they have killed.

The truck will stop over by the tall garage where some of the machinery is kept. The gravel will ease. Mary will remain. The truck will dare her not to flee, like a man to an animal – stay, girl, stay – and she will obey. There will be movement in her chest that was not there even moments prior, her breath catching on the rough of her ribs as it strokes past them. Mary will see that a young man is there, and then a second. She will lift and replace one foot like a doe would, deciding. The men will resemble each other, both wide in the shoulders, both dressed in long sleeves and jeans, one wearing a baseball cap. They will speak to each other. Nothing will make Mary look down this morning.

The tailgate dropping – a grip, a clang—would have been enough to make a doe run. Mary will blink with the sound but will remain, her only visible movement the bending of her fingers, handling a coin that is not there. From behind, finally, will come the only sound to alter her. She will look. There will be July, and she will say oh hi Mary good morning have you been out here long.

Mary will turn away from July and see one of the young men approaching. It will be Luke Watters, who was in her English class senior year.

“What? Oh,” Mary will answer.

Luke will be only twelve feet away, and Mary won’t hide her face or shield her eyes. She will look directly at him.

“We got the part in,” Luke will say to July. “Came in at the TSC this morning.”

“You what?” Mary will hear July say.

“Oh hey Nancy,” Luke will say. “I didn’t know you knew Ms. Allard?”

Mary will decide finally what to do.

July will look at her. July will be dressed for summer that day, outfitted like a younger woman with a t-shirt and khaki shorts. Mary will know what to do, and her breathing will slow with that knowing, her shoulders will rise and her back will straighten.

Mary will decide that she will go to heaven. “My baby died,” she will tell them all.

            Springer, Kansas. There is a stoplight at Burress Avenue and Center Street that in early June has begun to think of summer, with the wrens resting on its arm, their chatter in chirpy rattles and bolder answers. The stoplight is usually green toward Center, favoring the busier thoroughfare, marking time with only the third or greater minute. The days have grown lengthy toward summer, the sunlight persisting through the evenings like a guest enchanted with her host, avoiding the clock. The Hy-Vee north of Burress is not so blessed, its parking lot littered in the warmer months with cigarette butts and napkins. Discarded wrappers nod and stumble when breezes do, as they have always done when June arrives.

Another year, the geese return, another year. Two blocks off Center, right at the midpoint of the town’s diameter, a little house has begun to suffer from peeling paint, a split on a single plank of the home’s facade now repeated in numerous examples on every side of the house. Delphine has not studied the jagged lines left when chips of the paint’s color fall free. She will not.

“Oh that’s cute,” Nancy says. The girl reaches a hand to the bench by the door and straightens the apron on one of the three rag dolls that rest there.

Her mother does not look up. “The baby,” Delphine whispers to the dead.

  • Michelle Chouinard

    Oh, this is so haunting. Beautifully done.