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All The Living
By C. E. Morgan
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2009 C. E. Morgan
All rights reserved.
She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to. It was the right house, she knew it was. It was as he had described. She shielded her eyes as she drove the long slope, her truck jolting and bucking as she approached. The bottomland yawned into view and she saw the fields where the young tobacco faltered on the drybeat earth, the ridge beyond. All around the soil had leached to chalky dust under the sun. She looked for the newer, smaller house that Orren had told her of, but she did not see it, only the old listing structure before her and the fields and the slope of tall grasses that fronted the house. She parked her truck and stared, her tongue troubled the inside of her teeth. The house cast no shadow in the bare noon light.
The ragged porch clung weakly to the wall of the building, its floorboards lining out from the door, their splintering gray now naked to the elements that first undressed them. When she tested a board with one foot, the wood ached and sounded under her, but did not move. She picked her way around a mudspattered posthole digger and a length of chicken wire to reach the door where she found a paper heart taped to the wood. The shape of the thing gave her pause. She read the note without touching it.
If you come when I'm gone, the tractor busted and I went to Hansonville for parts. Go on in. I will come back soon,
In this house, she thought, or the new one? She straightened up and hesitated. Over her head a porch fan hung spinless, trailing its cobwebs like old hair, its spiders gone. She turned to peer behind her down the gravel drive. Displaced dust still hung close behind the fender of her truck, loath to lie down in boredom again. It was quiet, both on the buckling blacktop road where not a single car had passed since she'd driven up, and here on the porch where the breezeless day was silent. A few midday insects spoke and that was all. She turned around and walked into the house.
If it was abandoned, it was not empty. Curtains hung bleached to gray and tattered rugs scattered across the floor. Against one wall, nestled under the rise of a staircase and a high landing, stood an old upright piano. One sulling eyebrow rose. Orren had told her of a piano on the property, one she could practice on, but it could not be this. Aloma edged past its sunken frame, leaving it untouched, and walked back through a dining room washed in south light past a table papered with bills and letters, into the kitchen. The ceiling here was high and white. It seemed clean mostly because it was empty — spacious and empty as a church. She circled the room, tugged open drawers and cabinets, but her eyes stared at their contents unseeing, her mind wheeling backward. She turned on her heel and stalked to the first room. She tossed back the fallboard and reached her fingers to the ivory. The keys stuttered to the bed, fractionally apart beneath her fingers, and it was no more, no less than she had expected. The sound was spoiled like a meat. She slapped the fallboard down, wood on wood clapped out into the echoing house in cracking waves, and then it was gone. She turned away with the air of someone halfheartedly resigned to endure, but as she turned, she started and stopped. A wall of faces stood before her, photographs in frames armied around a blackened mantel, eyes from floor to ceiling. She studied them without stepping closer. They gazed back.
She left the room as quick as she had come, retraced her steps to the kitchen where she had spied a door that led outside. She opened it wide to the June day. From where she stood, she claimed a long view of the back property. A field of tobacco began down a slope a hundred yards from the house and a fallow field neighbored close by, its beds risen like new graves. There a black curing barn stood and from its rafters a bit of tobacco hung like browned bird wings, pinions down, too early and out of season, she could not say why. To her left another barn, this one red, with a large gated pen and a gallery on one side. The pasture was empty. The cows had all wandered up a hillside to a stand of brazen green trees and stood blackly on the fringe of its shade gazing out, their bodies in the cloaking dark but their heads shined to a high gloss like black pennies in the sunlight. Far below their unmoving faces the newer house pointed south, no larger than a doublewide, no taller, no prettier. It banked the barbed edge of the cows' pasture. But none of this held Aloma's gaze for more than a moment. Instead, she looked out into the distance where, because she could not will them away or otherwise erase them from the earth, the spiny ridges of the mountains stood. She laughed a laugh without humor. All her hopes, and there they were. Had they been any closer, she'd have suffered to hear them laughing back.
When he came, she saw the sun flashes between the farthest trees where the road ran out of the north and she stepped forward and waited. Her eyes worried the spot where the treeline ended. Then when the truck shot free from the last trees and she knew that it was his, she took another step forward and her hands came together of their own accord, but she did not leave the porch. His truck, as familiar to her as a face, turned in the drive, the glass glinted. Her eyes followed his progress up the hill, the dust rolling and sweeping low to the ground in blond curls behind his truck, then flanging and fading to nothing. At first she could see his figure only as a dark shape and the sun firing on the watch on his right arm as he turned the wheel. Then when he was finally before her, braking and leaning in slightly under the shade of the visor to pull the keys from the ignition, she found the broad contours of his face and the color of his skin, much browner than the last time she had seen him, the day after the funeral three weeks ago when he came down to the school and sat beside her and set a question to her. He said, You'll come up? And she said, Yes, yes. And it don't matter if it's all out of order like it is? And she shook her head and took his blanched face in her hands and kissed him, and that had struck her later as an odd reversal, he usually being the one to reach out and pull her to him. But she'd thought of it only later when she recalled how his lips had not made any motion against hers. It aroused a feeling in her like fear, but so slight and quick to fade that she didn't recognize it for what it was. Now she could not take her eyes from him sitting motionless in the truck watching her as she watched him. She stepped off the porch, hesitant at first, but then half running until she was standing at his door, her hand on the burning chrome of the handle. The tips of his eyelashes were pale as straw now, bleached from the sun so it seemed he had no eyelashes at all, nothing to impede his gaze. She yanked open the door of the truck or he pushed it open and she was half sitting in his lap and they were kissing. She said his name. He said nothing against her mouth. When she pulled away, Aloma saw the hatchings around his eyes were deeper than before. He was drawn, even more so than after the funeral she had not attended because she had to accompany the school's choir to Grayson, the principal had not given her the day off, she had her commitments. They were not her people, after all.
Orren placed his hand on his own chest flat-palmed and she saw the dark line of dirt under his nails like earthen parentheses. He looked at her directly. He said, You been here long?
No, she said, I only just got here a half hour ago.
He gave her a little shove then so he could ease up out of the cab, and when he did, she saw there was something altered in his body. Sudden age had impressed itself on his frame. With something like embarrassment, she turned slightly to look elsewhere, but found her eyes unwilling to obey, wary of this new thing, and when he slammed the door and stood before her, they both appeared ill at ease for a moment as if sizing up their differences. Then Orren stepped in to close the space between them and kissed her again and she sought after his familiar tobaccoed breath. He took her hand and said, Come on. You seen the house?
Which one? she said, her hand pressed a slight resistance onto his.
The real one, he said and nodded up at the big house.
Yeah, she said slowly, thought to say something more, but desisted. She let him lead her around the side and she peeked at him as he looked up at the height of it, squinting, his thin lips flattening further. He hitched up the waistband of his jeans and he crossed his arms over his chest and she saw clearly she had been mistaken. He had not turned old in three weeks' time, it was as though someone had come along with a plane and sheered off all the extra that once cushioned him. He was like something corded, every movement curtailed. She had noticed this too that first day after the funeral when he stepped from his truck looking pared as a carving and just as stiff, though he'd felt the same under her hands when she held him. But there was something different in his carriage — he was newly fitted to his skeleton — something that she saw now was a lasting change and not just a momentary trick of grief. This new bounded self had banished the old.
At the rear of the house, Orren steered her down along the rutted path that led to the newer, smaller house. She stepped smart to match his pace, eager to see the inside and maybe show him how much she preferred it to the large and rambling structure behind them. But he stopped abruptly only partway down the path and she stumbled against him and put her hand on his hip to steady herself. Orren raised one arm and pointed out toward the hills.
It's us all the way to the ridge, right under, he said. From where they stood at the crown of the tobacco field, the whole of the back property spread before them. The tobacco, sallow and tawny too early on its undersides, ran halfway out to the ridge where it met the young corn with its young sprouts of hair that skirted the upslope. Between the rows, the dirt was pale as cocoa powder. A few cows had wandered down off the hillside and spread out still and easy in their late-afternoon pasture. They stood singly, one or two with their hides pressed to the fence, watching or perhaps not watching but gazing slackly beyond the strictures of the field. One stood half in and half out of the barn, undecided, unmoving.
Orren reached around and placed his forearm on the back of Aloma's neck. It was heavy and warm and she felt the imposing damp of his sweat.
This is ours now, he said. She swallowed and nodded, but then she said, That makes me a little scared.
No, don't be scared, he said and when she turned to face him, he suddenly looked so much older than she, though he was only three years her senior, that she felt her youth on her like a yoke.
The store was only three miles from the house on the road to Hansonville, the town that straddled the county line twenty miles beyond. When she'd asked what was for dinner and Orren said eggs or peanut butter and not smiled for the irony of it, she took it upon herself to drive down the road in the thinning evening and find them something to eat. The store was a clapboard one-room with nothing else in sight but the trees and the fields and a few dogs that loped across the road farther up, roadraised and emaciated, just skin over legbone and brisket. Two aging pumps stood off to the side of the building. There were no other cars when Aloma parked. The only thing that moved was a sign that hung by a dog-tag chain in the window that read CHEAP TOBACCO, swinging on the false breeze of a fan. Inside, the store was split in two, one half a small grocery, the other a craft shop with rows of hand-painted gourds stenciled with Indian designs. They filled the store with the scent of autumn in summer.
Haddy, said the woman behind the counter. Aloma waved, head down and saying nothing, and steered a small buggy along the aisles. She found a ham in the cooler and some kind of green veined with bright red and a few more vegetables that she did not know the name of and had no idea how to cook. She picked up a dozen eggs and opened the carton to see if any of the shells were cracked, she had seen a cook at the school do that once. A white slab of fatback, a gallon of milk, half and half for herself because she was freed from that place, she could eat what she wanted, then a box of chocolate cereal as well. Behind the register, the woman and her hair watched in the bulging mirror tacked above a wall of potato chips. When Aloma's buggy was half full of things she didn't know how to prepare, she wheeled it to the counter.
Mind to put half this on the Fenton tab, she said, just as Orren had instructed her.
Oh, the woman said, taking another, closer look at her. Are you from up there, bless your heart.
Aloma nodded, regarded the woman.
Bless your heart, the woman said again. It's real sad about them. She said this with one hand to her high gray hair and the other upending a pencil over and over again.
That lady was real nice, she said. She always set and talked awhile when she come in. And such pretty red hair. Sure had a lot of opinions, though. She watched Aloma as she said this, her lids ridden up so that Aloma could see too much of her eyeballs, big glossy things. Aloma only nodded again, slowly, clutching Orren's billfold in her hand.
It's terrible what people don't deserve.
Yes, said Aloma carefully. She didn't like to yesmam, it always tasted like something foul on her tongue.
The woman leaned over slightly, her lips pursing like a tight unblossomed flower the closer she came. Aloma did not lean back, she gripped the buggy tight.
Now, I don't mean to sound unchristian, but which one didn't die?
Aloma blinked a few times. Orren, she said.
Now, is he the little one?
Aloma looked at her in confusion. He's about yay high, she said, holding her hand a good four or five inches over her head.
The woman threw her head back and laughed. No, I'm saying, is he the old one or the little one?
Oh, Aloma said, the younger one.
You ain't from around here.
No, my people were from Cady Station.
The woman's eyebrows rose slowly to greet her hair. I sure can't hear that in your talk.
Well, I went to a school.
We all got schooling, darlin, the woman said coolly.
One of the mission schools, Aloma said, her eyes narrowing. They worked a few things out of us.
Uh-huh. And what else they learn you up at this school?
I learned to play piano.
Oh. The woman smiled again, the tight mouth easing. Now, that's a right useful thing for a girl to know.
Yes, said Aloma, pushing her buggy forward a little. It's a good thing for a girl to be useful. She did not smile. The woman straightened up and took her time inspecting this statement and then with no speed whatsoever used her pencil to punch the keys on the register to ring Aloma out. But her eyes stayed on Aloma as she did this, and when the question came, Aloma was waiting for it.
So that little one is your husband. It was a question switchhitting as a statement.
Aloma did not blink this time. You're goddamn right he is, she said evenly and her face did not alter, but a flush ruddied her cheeks before she even finished her sentence. The woman's smile fell by increments until her lips were a little red slash across the bottom half of her face. She uncurled one taloned hand, palm up. Sixteen ninety-five, she said. And instead of using the tab, Aloma paid her cash out of Orren's billfold, then picked up the bags, turned her back on the woman, and left without another word.
She was sent to the mission school the month before she turned a thankless twelve, not because her aunt and uncle couldn't handle her anymore, but because there were nine in the house now — the adults, their five children, one foster child, and Aloma. Her aunt and uncle had always been fine to her, they possessed a kind of hollow-headed decency that couldn't be disparaged. When they told her of the school, they were gentle as doctors, and their voices said, This won't hurt a bit, and in fact, it had not really, at least not that Aloma could recall. Only that first night she found that her eyes stung and to make them stop she turned facedown into her pillow and let them tear with her mouth open ragged against the cotton ticking, but in the morning her eyes were better and she did not cry again, at least not over that.
Excerpted from All The Living by C. E. Morgan. Copyright © 2009 C. E. Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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