After church we would file out of the sanctuary into air even hotter than inside, live oaks thick with gray moss like clumps of a dead man's hair fairly lit up with the noise of cicadas, everyone everywhere fanning themselves with bamboo and paper fans printed with the words to "Amazing Grace" on one side, Psalm 23 on the other. Daddy would shake hands with Pastor, pass time with whoever might want to, all the time his one arm round my mother's shoulder, his hair still just as shiny, little runnels of sweat slipping down his sideburns. He acted the part of my daddy, would even on occasion hunch down and kiss me on the cheek, pat my hair, smile at me, though everyone in the entire congregation, and even those heathens not in attendance, knew we no longer lived together.
Once we were home, he would simply see us to the door, give me the pat on the head good-bye I hated even more than his showing up at sundown the night before, and kiss my momma full on the lips. Then he would turn, step down off the porch. Without so much as a backward glance or the smallest of waves, he would head off down our dirt road, back to the logging shack not two miles away.
Momma and I watched him go each time, watched until the road took him deep into pine and cypress, the green of wild grape vines everywhere that swallowed him up. I wished each Sunday afternoon that green would never let him go, wished he'd never make it back to whatever pleasures he found during the week, pleasures he wanted to pursue more than plant himself at home with us, his own. We watched him go, and only once we could see no more movement, no more slips of white shirt through the shield of green forest, did we go in. My momma always went in first, though it had been her he'd given his kiss to, her who'd given her whole self to him. She turned, her eyes down to the porch floor, and moved on inside. I was always the last one out on the porch, just watching that green, hoping he would not find his way out.
The day he broke his neck was a Tuesday. I was already home from school, out on the porch with my tablet and thick red pencil, doing my figuring for the next day. I knew even then I wanted to be a teacher, something in me with the need to lead and stand before people and explain in a plain and simple voice bits of the world they could not know were it not for me. I was only eleven, but knew already, too, that my wanting to teach had to do with my momma and how she acted once Daddy had gone, how our trips into Purvis had become ordeals for her, her standing at the dry goods store and touching a bolt of gingham, a tin of baking powder, looking at them as though they were troubling bits of her own history, things she knew she needed but hated all the same. I ended up taking her by the hand to Mr. Robineau at the register, where she'd give her feeble smile to him as I placed our items on the glass counter, him never meeting our eyes but smiling all the same.
So that on that Tuesday, when I saw four men through the green of the forest, I was the one to go into the house and take her hand and lead her up from her cane rocker, the one she spent most hours of the day in, and out onto the porch. The men had cleared the trees by then, and I could see them, hair wet, faces white, jaws set with the weight of whatever lay in the doubled-up gray wool blanket they toted, one man to a corner, the middle sagging, nearly touching ground with each step they took. They wore only undershirts and blue jeans, all of them barefooted, their feet red with the dust of the road they'd walked.
I wasn't afraid, not even when Momma, behind me, whispered, "Oh," then, louder, "Oh. Oh." I heard her take one step back, then another, but there she stopped. The men were off the road and onto our yard now, their eyes never yet looking up to us; men I couldn't place from anywhere. I looked behind me to Momma, saw her there with a hand to her face, covering her eyes, the other hand at her throat and holding on to the collar of her dress.
Copyright © 1991 by Bret Lott
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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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