I walk the orchard in my Sunday suit, black Oxfords dusted with gypsum and dirt. Ten thousand apple trees bower sans scabbed bark or a plague of beetle borers. Hard to believe the ginger dwarfs grew at all. They bulge trunks and muscle boughs heaped with green leaves and red apples. Rows even hummock deer shit without fences to keep out the wildlife that feast on the fallen fruit. It’s sweltering out. The fiery sun makes me squint and burns my shaved face. Dearly departed Aunt Doreen made me shave once, and I remember us working this once-infested field. But it’s been decades since I’ve been back. I want to fish for spotted rainbow trout down at the oak-shaded irrigation flume. I think better of it, head to the house for funeral reception instead.
I climb the wold – what Doreen called the hill the ranch house sits on. She had a way with words, always cultivation in mind. The boreen, what Uncle Roy called the bulldozed road because it rhymes with Doreen, is covered with commercial gravel and cars with orange stickers from the cortege. The procession went on for blocks, like a president's, a sign of a lasting impression, a loving friend, and to me, a steadfast protector.
Dust chalks my wool pants and I recall razing this hill way back. Roy's men quickly felled oaks while I less-than gamboled, lamenting the end of Little League baseball season, being sent off without mention to these Yosemite mountains with a sore knee and other sores I never mentioned. I brooded, slowly gathering the squaw wood – the dead branches already on the dusty ground. I wanted a hammock, a summer nap and to dream of the upcoming football season on TV. Instead, we dug up shrubs, plants, rhizomes and a radix of roots, fibrous as scalp locks. They even resembled strands of oily black hair. It made me wonder if this was an ancient Native American burial mound, gossip stone, or reservation meeting place. We also dynamited a deep-seated boulder a bulldozer couldn’t budge before footing and curing the foundation. The outcrop featured a bedrock mortar, wider than a holy water stoup at church, smoothed from grinding acorns, grain and small game in some indigenous era. But, no artifacts, bits of bone, or remains turned up after the blast rained rocks. Not even a stone pestle or arrowhead.
Now, the longhouse facades centurion stone and bay windows, surrounded by fake horsetail grass and ferns. Large decorative Dolmen stones stand like regal kings above a limestone riprap. A cedar staircase descends to a pine-shaded Amish gazebo for two on the creek. Amazing how things change, like Doreen succumbing to melanoma, for one.
I head to the garage where she made us shed boots, work pants, and shirts – skivvies and socks too if were soaked from watering the sickly apple trees – before entering her sanctum. Roy’s BMW coupe, Jeep Wrangler, and lemon-lime Pickle-fork speedboat occupy the stalls. I rest in the cooler air. Sweat masses on my forehead, draws the salt on my lips. I could go for a beer and a cold shower. But I’m not about to streak half-naked (like I used to) through this packed house for the bathroom.
“I should have put a mudroom in the garage,” I hear Roy saying long ago. “At least a shower or a sink.” He sounded like the construction foreman he used to be when he and my dad came out to California.
“Too late, now,” Doreen replied, smiling white teeth she learned to maintain as a dental assistant.
“I’ll just have to come in neck-id,” Roy said Okie-style, leaning into her like a bull.
“Behave,” Doreen said, patting his barreled chest. “Not in front of Jimmy. Now, what about that wall?”
“Got just the thing.”
I spot the orange fishing rods in a rustic pine holder on the wall. They look new and unused like years ago. I was always tempted to use one but never dared. Roy would have caught me, said, “Gonna catch an apple tree? That ain’t for diggin’ furrows, boy. Put it back.” Roy could always piss me off. I straighten my tie, stomp sodic soil from the welts of my shoes, head in the door.
I walk the parquet hallway, treading a mosaic of illuminated herringbone. Doreen loved the wood pattern. Zigzag slats point in the direction of the den, like Moses zigzagging his people home. The skylight showers Jesus rays – what she called them for fun. But she was more ordinal than religious. She knew the name, order, and relative importance of things. And, she knew how to kindly explain them, a habit from reciting flashcards before dropping out of dental school and marrying Roy. He was anything but ordinary, she said with a wink, born without his upper #7 and #10 adult lateral incisors like me, a sign we were related. She added that I belonged in a series of special, gap-toothed Okies on Dad’s side (it almost sounded like a biblical genealogy), and not from Mom’s Hispanic side. But it was Roy who put me in my place in the order of things. He named me his blue-eyed-Mexican Jew because it sounded better than blue-eyed-Mexican Catholic. Then he changed it to one-eyed-Mexican Jew because I squinted so much from ptosis. He said my left eye was just as lazy as the rest of me. I shake my head again, enter the den, where the boulder used to be. It’s big as an elegant barn with peeled cedar beams and troves with convivial country folk dressed in mourning black, mostly strangers, come to pay respect.
They brought Doreen’s memorial portrait on a wooden easel with a serenity wreath of roses, carnations, and lilies from the funeral chapel. She’s in her Sunday best: silk blouse, pearls, warm smile, skin pale as paraffin. I think about the only time she took me to Sunday Mass back then. She was Methodist but knew I missed home, Catholic Mass and being an altar boy, the priest's assistant, dressing in a white cassock. Roy stayed in bed, joking he had a date with a hooker in a real dress. It made me think of wanting to see Coach Earl from Little League with one in a dress instead of naked me.
Standing in the walk-in closet, large as Christ's tomb, linens and clothes arranged as neatly, Doreen hollered, “What on earth? Roy, stop that. Don’t listen to him, Jimmy.”
I wished I could do the same for Earl who was always in my head after the motel room and twisted bed sheets on my birthday weekend away.
Sitting up against the tufted headboard, looking tough like Earl but at least in underwear, Uncle Roy asked me, “You gonna pray in church to meet a purty lady like your aunt?”
“No? What do ya mean, no? You like girls, don’t you?”
“Well, then maybe you better pray your football team gets better.”
When we were about to go, Aunt Doreen said, “Jimmy, you can’t go like that.” She was finger-combing her perm. Roy grabbed her ass and she brushed him away.
I said, “These are the only dress clothes my mom sent me with for the summer.” I made sure my shirt was buttoned and tucked into my cords and my belt buckled. I then patted my cowlick to make sure it was sprayed down and not sticking up like an Indian feather. Roy gave me a name for that too. Big Chief.
“I mean the peach fuzz on your face,” she said. “Go shave.” She smiled perfect rows of upper and lower teeth – the names, number, and order of which she knew by heart. “Roy, show him, will ya?”
When he got out of bed, she patted his ass in turn. “Lather him up,” she said. “Teach him how a man shaves.”
Smiling, I followed him and his wife beater and droopy boxers into the master bathroom. Everything gleamed: the Windex mirrors, the shower door, the deep basins, and the gold fixtures.
+ + +
At Church, I dipped my fingers in the holy water as though the tarnished, turquoise-colored slimy stoup was a shaving scuttle or a bedrock mortar. I made the sign of the cross. Then I tapped my throbbing cheeks that smelled of Aqua Velva. They hurt like the oozing sores Earl gave me under my scrotum, as though we’d shaved them too.
“The burn will go away eventually,” Aunt Doreen whispered over my shoulder. Her breath smelled of spearmint gum, which I think she swallowed.
I genuflected slowly before entering the pew out of reverence and because my knees hurt from playing catcher at baseball and knew she would follow my lead. Before the mass began, I gingerly knelt on the padded kneeler. I folded my hands and prayed silently. I asked God if it was His will that I meet a pretty girl or become a celibate priest. Then I not only prayed that my football team got better but that they would, in kind, beat the hell out of Uncle Roy's when they played.
At the Confiteor, Aunt Doreen leaned in. “Show me,” she said, and I smelled the mousse in her spiral perm and the Aloe soap on her skin.
I put my finger on the line in the missal, and she joined in, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault–” I knew it was my fault what Earl did to me in the motel because I didn't say no. But then I felt Aunt Doreen's pillow-soft breast on my shoulder, and I stopped praying.
At Offertory collection, when the clean-shaven, old ushers in polyester suits dipped the long-handled baskets in the rows like snake tongs, Doreen coiled back. When she saw money and coins and envelopes, she reached for her purse but was too late. “You might have warned me,” she whispered.
“There’s a donation slot at the door.”
At Eucharistic Prayer no. 3, when the priest asked God to welcome our dearly departed into His kingdom, Aunt Doreen put her soft hand on mine, squeezed, and whispered, “I just know your daddy’s in heaven.”
I squeezed back and then let go.
But then at the Right of Peace, I faced her; she panicked, and said, “What do I do?”
“Give me a hug.”
“Oh,” she said and laughed and gave me a loving bear hug. I felt her breasts on my chest and smelled her hair again.
She slipped a $20 bill into the gold collection slot on the way out of the church. “What nice people,” she said to no one. Beads of sweat big as morning dew sat on her upper lip.
Driving home through the denuded forest stricken with needle blight, we looked through the dusty windshield at the uneven, yellow tree line. It made me think of my sores that leaked butter-colored puss under my scabs and the diseased apple saplings in the fields that had scabs too.
She said, “I’m surprised I understood everything. I thought Mass would be in Latin or something. You Catholics like to repeat words. Kneel lots, too.”
“Maybe that’s why my knees hurt.”
“Those are just growing pains. You’ll be fine.”
I didn’t say anything, knowing she meant well.
Then she said, “Anyway, at church, I did notice that parquet floor down the center aisle, leading to the altar. Made me think of the hallway at the house, feel like I’m on the right track.”
She became distracted and looked through the top of the windshield again. She slowed the coupe, down-shifting, then folded her hands on the wheel as though on the back of a church pew. “Lot of dead trees,” she said.
“Are the apple trees going to be safe?”
“That’s blight. We’ve got beetle borers. Let’s hope the blight doesn’t spread up the mountain.”
+ + +
Mourners are spread over the den. Kids click, country clubbers huddle and gossip by the framed picture of President George H.W. Bush on the banister where there’s also a framed donation thank-you letter from the White House. I kid myself that it’s Roy’s acceptance into the electoral college. I gravitate to my sister Rachel, who has elected to teach college. She’s wearing reading glasses on a rainbow lanyard. She looks around like a prairie dog on her tiptoes. Next to her, Mom has a new cane, her first, trying to hide it behind her leg like a smuggler does booze. Mom’s old, hunchbacked, and looks sideways and well enough out of one eye.
“You shaved,” she says. “You never shave.”
Feeling like I used Roy’s dull razor from thirty years ago, I rub the nicks on my cheeks and chin. Then I check for blood blots on my fingers like I used to check my underwear after Mom once asked about the spotted stains when doing laundry. I said my baseball cup pinched me during a Little League game and drew blood. I used the same lie on Doreen.
“Couldn’t keep the vultures out,” Rachel says, and takes off her glasses.
“Why, am I bleeding?” I say, touch my chin, and check my fingers again. In the fields, Roy always told me the vultures would mistake me for dead and attack if I didn’t work any faster. I duck for effect.
“No,” my sister says. “You’re fine."
It's taken me decades to feel fine after negative blood tests, Earl at the root of my colliding vicissitudes, but never draining out via the needle.
“No,” my sister says. "I meant the vultures circling Roy, the gold diggers. Who’s getting his money?”
“Got no idea,” I say.
“Come on and play. Just look closer.”
“Is that what you teach in college, how to become a gold digger?”
“Sounds like good Catholic values. Is there any wine?” Rachel says.
“Check Mom’s cane,” I joke. “It doubles as a flask.”
“Now why didn’t I think of that?” Mom ha-ha laughs like in the operas we used to see. She reveals the mahogany cane with the crooked handle and black rubber stopper, ready to break out in Broadway song and dance.
I see a geriatric cougar with a string of frippery pearls and bauble earrings. She has cotton hair and the makeup of a pale-faced Elizabethan aristocrat, powdered as gypsum, bags under eyes caked with concealer. Her puffy ankles wobble in black peep-toe pumps with black stockings. But her shoes are cleaner than mine. Her white slip shows past her black dress hem. She clings to Roy’s arm like she could pick the estate from his pocket. He clings back. Gaunt from months of no appetite – he shriveled alongside Doreen – his bankerish suit hangs on him like a bag. He looks lachrymose like the sad clown, Canio, in the opera Pagliacci.
“You got some of his money,” Mom says, “the hard way.”
I remember making the bet.
“Five hundred bucks?” Roy said in disbelief as I shot my mouth off. It was summertime, we were at a crowded saloon-style steakhouse with his football buddies and Doreen. The men drank beer and gloated in Roper boots, beat-up Stetson's and faded Raider Super Bowl T-shirts. Roy rubbed it in worse than a sunburn, which made me hot mad and feel branded like one of his cattle.
“Silver and black!” he said. “That’s where it’s at! None of that San Diego baby blue.” He slapped the bar countertop, making a loud clapping sound. As though on cue, more Raiders fans encroached through the louvered swinging doors from the planked sidewalk.
I felt cornered with my lemonade at the corner of the bar and hollered, “The Chargers wear navy blue and gold!”
“This was before your time,” Doreen interrupted and put her hand on my arm. She wore a Redskins shirt, filling it out better than any pro player. But she was only a pedestrian fan. Not having skin in our beef, she went peacemaker. “I think,” she said to Roy as though for him to ease up or can it. “They changed uniforms.” She squeezed my arm and looked at me. “They used to wear powder-blue jerseys – your daddy’s favorite. Loved that Bambi.” Her eyes were bright and happy.
I thought of the fawns I sometimes saw in the shade near the creek. But I said, “Bambi?”
“Whatever,” Roy said. “Even today, in 1996, they still suck and have never won a Super Bowl.”
“Oh, yeah?" I said. "I’ll bet you they’ll have more wins next year than the Raiders.”
“And if you lose? You don’t have five hundred bucks.”
“I’ll work next summer for free.”
“You blue-eyed-Mexican Jew, who says you’re getting paid to work now?”
“Roy!” Doreen hollered down the bar like she could raise Okie hell and bust a barstool over someone's head. Her eyes were no longer happy. “You are not going to bet that boy over football. He’s twelve years old!”
“Sure I am. Let’s see if he’s a man like his dad. Old Albert would have made that kind of bet.”
Doreen said, “Didn’t gambling kill him? Besides, what’s Jimmy’s mother going to say?”
Uncle Roy ignored her, looked at me and said, “You a man like your dad?”
“I never knew my dad. You tell me.”
He stared with watery eyes and didn’t know what to say. I’m told he held me, diapers and all, during my dad’s funeral. He cried like a baby and didn’t talk to anyone. Maybe he thought about that while running his tongue inside his lips. “So, straight season record? Raiders and Chargers,” he said. “Whoever has more wins.”
“Better regular-season record winsss,” I lisped.
“We’re clear on this,” he said and took a slow drink of his amber-colored long-neck beer. Then he said, “I mean, you’re not playing games, are you? And you’re not bullshittin’ me, are you, boy? You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. And I know a bullshitter when I see one. Your dad did too.”
“Don’t say it,” Aunt Doreen told me.
“I’m game,” I said anyway. “And I’m clear. Want to bet?”
Aunt Doreen shook her pretty, level head. “If that doesn’t beat all.” Then she said, “Bullshit.” She only cussed when warranted. She was the equivalent of Mom. “This isn’t going to do anybody any good.”
+ + +
During football season Uncle Roy called every week before the games started, just to give me hell. Sometimes, he disguised his voice as an FBI agent, asking if I had relatives in Waco or knew anybody with a criminal record or anything about the Oklahoma City bombing – something Doreen and I had talked about. So, Roy would get me going, then switch gears and break into Okie speak: “What’s yur quarterback’s name? Big FOOTS? Isn’t he some sort of ape animal?”
“No! It’s Fouts. Dan Fouts,” I’d say, trying not to smile. “But that was ten years ago. He doesn’t play for them anymore.”
“That Foots guy, he smells, doesn’t he? Stinky feet?”
“No! You’re stuck in the past. It’s Stan Humphries now.”
“Speaking of smell, I got a pig pen that needs cleaning. A lot of shit to shovel. Can’t wait to get you for free.”
“It’s not going to happen.”
“We’re closing in on you, boy.”
“You haven’t won enough games. I’m not worried.”
By week nine I was and started losing sleep. The Chargers’ lead had shrunk to two. Sunday morning, the phone rang before kickoff. I answered after one ring, expecting Roy. The lady on the other end sounded like an operator.
“Is this Jimmy? I’m calling from Big Brothers. We have a new match for you. Someone you know. His name is Earl, your old coach from Little League. Remember him? Is your mom there?”
“No.” I almost defecated. I started to shake and hung up.
The phone rang again. I didn’t answer it. Mom did after the third ring. She looked at me twice.
“Yes, we’ve already been to church, last night and this morning.
“What’s that? Yes, he’s already watching the game,” she said, handing me the phone.
I shook my head no.
“The priest at Mass even prayed for the Chargers,” she said, motioning again.
I walked away.
Mom continued, “How’s Doreen?
+ + +
Now, Roy passes the glossy plate-glass cabinet with polished brass handles. Inside stand extruded rifles and double-barrel shotguns, some sawed-off, all loaded. A Remington with a scope, the one he always had behind the driver's seat in the tanker truck. Now, Roy sizes me up like I'm wild game on the loose in the fields, and I wonder if my father would have looked at me that way.
Roy says, “Haven’t heard from you in a long time, Jim.”
He’s not avuncular and I’m not prodigal. But it sounds strange; he always called me by a nickname. There's no boy or son or blue-eyed-Mexican Jew. Not even Big Chief. Disappointment dulls his timbre like when he paid the bet. The Chargers finished 8-8 that year; the Raiders 7-9. I didn’t work as hard as he wanted that next summer. I never cleaned the cote or chicken coop or shoveled the pigpen. I lunched alone in the shade at the flume and fished with my hoe. I never caught any spotted trout and worried I’d die from the spotted sores Coach Earl gave me. Plus, I was always late back to work and never caught up to the others making furrows – what Roy called hoeing a six-inch dam around each apple sapling so they could hold water from the tanker truck. At first, Roy hesitated to pay me for the 192 hours of labor. But then, shuffling my timecards like playing cards, he blurted, “Pay him.”
“How much?” Doreen wanted to know.
“Two dollars an hour.”
She rolled her pretty, keen eyes. Then she went over to the desk and wrote a check from a three-ring binder. As she filled numbers in the lime-shaded columns of the landscape-oriented ledger, Roy handed me a separate letter-sized envelope and said, “I’m doing this because I love you. Put this towards your education. And don’t spend it on bullshit like bubble gum.”
“Or a whore?” I wanted to say.
I knew I’d buy a car or put it towards one, get odd jobs, and make payments. Nothing fancy like his BMW coupe or, say, a red convertible. I couldn’t drive yet but I wanted something my sister could take us to school in, a transportation vehicle. It didn’t matter what kind. Just like the kind of whore didn’t matter either; any would do, a vehicle to drive Earl out of my head and into a raging river or off a high cliff, though it still would be a sin, and was in thought. It made me want to tell Uncle Roy about Earl but couldn’t. A man would never admit to being sodomized and having genital sores. Besides, Roy didn’t even know him. I felt my face go sour.
Inside the envelope was a $500 bill, the numbers like cramped columns of skinny white Flintstone’s bones in all four corners – three digits instead of the familiar two or one. And the legal tender note was certainly the color of money and its shades of green. It was well preserved, crisp and clean. I didn’t know there was such a large denomination. 1940’S series, it said. It had a serial number in red ink, a picture of President McKinley. In god we trust. It said that, too.
Uncle Roy’s expression was different, though, when I looked up. He was reposed. Something changed or even broke between us like two incompatible cultures, maybe because I didn’t reciprocate his admission of love. Perhaps he no longer saw my father in me, or our dental lineage, was at a loss, and I don’t mean the bet. That was my last summer there.
+ + +
Now, Roy offers a hand to shake, grip limp from age, smile like a cowslip.
“I’m here now,” I say.
He gazes with bloodshot eyes, fragile as glass grapes ready to explode and shard tears when he shuts his heavy lids. Lines furrow his shaved face. The hair he used to pomade feathers in cowlick sheaves. A bull, it appears, no more. His ears are shriveled. He gives me the once-over-twice again, settling on my shoes, and he smells of an Aqua Velva overdose.
“You been in the fields?”
When he says fields, his lips draw back. I see that he’s had his teeth fixed. The #7 and #10 spaces are filled in with shiny-whitey implants – dental crowns made of ceramic, sitting atop an abutment and titanium screw post drilled into the bone. I could never afford to get mine done; insurance doesn’t cover elective or cosmetic surgery for preexisting conditions. I’ve had the same out-of-pocket prosthetic partial for decades. Pops in and out like dentures. Roy’s falsies look perfectly good now. I’ll lay odds Doreen had to convince him to get his teeth in order and that they cost twenty times the bet.
Unable to hide my Oxfords, dusty as an Indian's moccasins, I say, “I wanted to look at the trees up close. Can’t believe how big they are.”
“Yeah, took a while, didn’t it? They just needed drip irrigation instead of watering by hand and hose. Nitrogen fertilizer helped too, and gypsum. And a good exterminator. The business did well.” He pauses, says, “But really, the payoff came with building houses and selling subdivisions and properties once all of the old men passed on.”
“Right,” I say, remembering the homesteaders they bought the land from for pennies on the dollar. The last survivor, tobacco-chewing Sabio, (Doreen said his name meant wise man) said his forebears went back two hundred years. They came from the old country, he didn’t say which, and didn’t want to see this land developed. Sabio was always in need of a bath. And a shave. He dressed in safari beige, blue-steel spectacles from the Civil War era and rubber boots, and still fished every day. He gutted and cleaned the spotted rainbow trout at the creek. Occasionally, he brought some to the house, an orange fishing pole over a shoulder, a .22 rifle over the other. Doreen always greeted him lovingly at the door, happily Okie-shouting, “Sabio!” And he addressed her as Mrs. Burman, the only times I saw him sans tobacco in his mouth. He even bowed out of old-world civility. She graciously accepted his offering which she prepared in egg wash and cornmeal. Despite his stench, she always emphatically invited him in for dinner, but Sabio never stayed. He said he wasn’t an indoor person and was eager to get back to the porch at his shack.
I say to Roy, “I saw the fishing poles in the garage.”
“We left them there to remember old Sabio.”
“With the brownie block of chewing tobacco. Slice a piece right off with the same pocketknife he used on the fish.”
“That’s right.” Then he says, “Never could stand his tobacco.”
I recall when Sabio caved to my request, reluctantly giving me a slice, telling me not to let my aunt and uncle know. We were in the fields, making furrows. I asked if he’d ever seen a real live Indian on the land. He said no. Then he joked that he had a purty black-haired squaw tied up in his shack, sounding like Roy and his hooker talk. The wise man suddenly sounded like a wise guy, and I almost choked on the tobacco. I chewed the coughed-up wad like bubblegum, the leaves bleeding a delicious woody peach-flavored nicotine juice that I swallowed before he told me not to. My stomach was fine; it was my head that felt fuzzy and funny.
Roy says in a sobering way, “That your dad’s tie?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Monogram’s on the front.”
I lift the silk black tie, run my fingers over the white stitching near the matte bottom where it says AB. I try to count all the years this thing hung in my mom’s closet.
“Doreen gave it to him before you were born. It was a birthday present. She loved your daddy about much as I did. We offered to adopt you after he died. Guess that’s why we had your mother send you to us for summers. You know, help her out with you boys and your sister. Later, we even thought you might be part of our family business. Maybe even run it.”
“Anyway, guess I thought you’d be wearing one of them priest collars.”
I run my hand down the tie again, say, “That was a different life ago. I never took any vows. I was never ordained.”
“I guess you wouldn’t.” Then he says, “You still married?”
“No, no. I’m not.”
“Living in Frisco with all those–”
“Tell me, you ever figure out the difference between boys and girls?”
I was never much of a chicken-sexer. Or could identify the gender of wild game. Nor could I tell the difference between a newborn heifer or bull calf when it came time for ear tagging, branding and castrating. As for humans in Frisco, I could ha ha Roy's homophobia or reservations about my sexuality. Instead, I think of a purty, gamine Indian girl from Madras I recently met at Mass and started dating. Farha is her name, an Indian Catholic – who knew? She wears saris and sometimes sundresses. She looks great in jeans and a T-shirt. She was born epicene with a penis. A hermaphroditic nubbin. The Hindi doctor cleaved it off at birth, revealing her clean vagina. She thought I should know, though I would have never known the difference there either. But I did ask about her C cups.
“Yes, these are real,” she said in what she calls her Gandhi accent while cupping both breasts, her hands like stoups. She added a ha ha for good measure. “They’re not implants. No falsies here.”
But this is no time for that. And though I feel cornered again but with no erstwhile Doreen to jump into the fray and act as buffer or protector, I still don’t want an argument. All I can spit out is, “Just the difference between the Chargers and Raiders.”
He looks confused and it’s cooler in the barn-like house – the overhead fans chuffing away – but I feel red-faced and awash in sweat again. Cortisol floods my stomach, will fester for as long as I brood. It burns like the fucking sun on my neck when I used to work the bug-infested fields. Burn turns to throbbing anger. I notice the gun rack again. Before I trigger another stupid bet, I say, “I’m sorry she’s gone. I really am."
He stares at me again with those bloodshot eyes. Glass grapes.
I pat-clap his weak shoulder blade, wishing I had Doreen’s affect. As I walk away, he says, “She always said you’d come back, and finish – what’d we call ‘em?”
“Furrows.” I don’t tell him he always had the word wrong. Or that Doreen made my last check out for five dollars an hour.
He doesn’t say any more. I maze through people, I pass the wall-mounted six-pointer (a male, right?). It has a red apple in its mouth, reminding me of the apple I wasn’t supposed to pick from the first-producing tree like it was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It tasted like cotton. So what if it was the first one. Weren’t there supposed to be more?
In the kitchen, I down several beers and Scotch. Then some apple wine, stumble to the office nook like I’m on Sabio’s chewing tobacco for the first time. Mom and Rachel have the room I summered in. So, I settle into the armchair, feet on the desk, and an early evening. Roy’s taunt Ohrwurms in my ear canal akin to the beetle bores in the apple tree trunks long ago. It occupies and saw dusts my mind, keeps me up most of the night, like the final weeks of the bet.
In the morning, I wake and see the shelved cookbooks and encyclopedias I browsed as a displaced boy. I’m cotton-mouthed, feeling like sun-dried deer shit, smelling like I stepped in some too, but wanting to smell Doreen’s biscuits and country gravy going in the kitchen instead. She’d be using a #12 blackened pan, always glossy and seasoned with lard. “Good patina,” she said of her Griswold cast iron. “That’s the key to nonstick.” What stuck with me was the Cross etched on the back of the pan; it gave her meals extra meaning and purpose. We’d also have scrambled eggs and jam from blackberries she and I picked from thorny brambles while walking upstream in Bear Creek. I remember nervously asking, “What if we sssee a grizzly?”
“Give him the berries,” she said and laughed that happy, Okie laugh. “Then run like hell.”
+ + +
I head into an empty kitchen. No one is up, not even a cast-iron skillet on the gas stove. No hot coffee, just the tick of Doreen's favorite teal chicken clock (there are dozens throughout the house) above the stainless-steel fridge.
At the faucet, I nurse a cup of the coldest water from copper pipes that replaced the roots and buried past of this hill, this wold. I drink more and it hydrates me some. After a final gulp, I head to the garage and grab an orange fishing pole. Then I go to the deck and look the thing over – the rod, the reel, if it has a name, if the wire has a hook on the end, see if I can make sense of how to use it. I remember Sabio saying it was a roller-style fishing rod as he rolled tobacco around in his mouth. Whatever roller-style means. I save myself the apoplexy and just roll with it. Just then, the back door opens.
It’s Mom, tap-tapping her cane, her new chalice of sorts. The thought of wine – a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon, of course – sloshing in the flask makes me smile. She’s the shape of a question mark and looks sideways. “Going fishing, Jimmy?” Her head shakes from Parkinson’s, making her agreeable to everything.
“Going to try.”
“Sleep in your clothes?” Her good eye angles to my chest. “Still got your father’s tie on.”
“I’ll use it in case the fishing pole doesn’t work.”
“Then maybe the fish will think it’s a big worm.”
“The tie is silk, after all.”
“Don’t be too long, your sister says we’re leaving at noon. Sharp.”
“You make it sound like a stagecoach in a Western.”
“Giddy up,” she says and holds up the cane. “Say, where do I put the wine in this thing?”
I raise the rod, say, “No idea. But cheers!”
I grin and go down the stairs beaded with dew, gumming gypsum on my soles. I leave chalk footprints on the clean cedar steps. Doreen would have raised Okie hell over that, God bless her. As I pray for the repose of her soul, something I couldn’t muster at her grave (I cried like Roy), the creek ripples over rocks and stones to the rusted diversion dam. Water ebbs to the flume where rainbow trout flit and tribe in a menstruum of shade. A breeze gathers the canopy of pines and oaks reaching for the groggy sun in a cowl of powder blue. It’s going to be hot, like the summer days when I worked these parched fields. But the burn on my face, in all of me, is going away.