Aunt Adelita had unruly black hair she wore tied off in a ponytail. She cooked pot roast and mashed potatoes with string bean salad and bowls of chopped-up lettuce, and for dessert there'd be strawberry rhubarb pies or pineapple pies with blue cheese. It was as if she could not cook enough food to satisfy herself.
There were so many women, aunts and great-aunts, who'd buried husbands, dead from the wars, dead from the trauma of accidents - the celerity of white pine turned and twisted, split and shattered and descending from the sky, or under the earth where the kettlebottoms, petrified tree stumps, dropped from the roofs of mines to break a shoulder or stave in a skull. The women watched their children be hobbled by rickets, go deaf from untreated ear infections. They knew what it was to live on corn bread, molasses, and scrap and see their children eating dirt for the mineral it contained, and after a time they turned a bend in life and their teeth went bad, their lovely strong backs and shoulders grew humped and stooped, their knuckles thickened from chores and cold, and their cheeks and necks grew hollow.
The men in Henry's family, they were big, sprawling, raw boned. They were angular, muscular, warlike and discontented. They farmed and mined and logged and framed out houses and worked the shipyards, and they quarreled beyond reconciliation and then it would be forgotten. From them Henry learned the stories of his grandfather and his old uncles. He learned that if any one of them was threatened they would descend with all stealth and fury, with gun or knife or torch or dynamite. They were a family relentless in their hatreds.
It was in one of those newspapers where they read that Uncle Golden died by his own hand after an eight-hour standoff along the highway. There'd been a high-speed chase, reaching ninety miles an hour, until finally he lost control and went off the road. He lay in the wreck the whole time threatening to shoot anyone who came near and finally put the gun to his own head. In the newspaper, it never said why. But for the most, they were homesick castaway men who worked in the shipyards in Norfolk, men who built the Golden Gate Bridge, Boulder Dam, the Holland Tunnel. They smoked Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes and carried them rolled in the sleeves of their T-shirts.
They drove old Pontiacs that chugged exhaust fumes and they moved as tender and wary animals. They were polite and solicitous of Clemmie. They'd ask her of the Captain as if they were supplicants and she the last of the blessed, and as the years passed and as Henry grew older, one by one, they disappeared.
From The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead. © 2012 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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