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ruffling the leaves of the sprays on the two caskets. Ian's summer wool suit pants itched, and the new dress shoes he wore, bought that day by his great-aunt Jo, had already rubbed a blister on his left heel.
His bony flame didn't wear the suit well. He felt as if he had been placed in a large sack and was being challenged to punch his way out. The new haircut made his neck feel prickly too. With that and the wool and the shoes, he couldn't remember ever feeling so uncomfortable. But his discomfort served as a distraction, for which he was grateful. Itchy clothes/So it goes, he said to himself.
He had only met Aunt Jo two days before. He knew she existed, though. She had sent him a ten-dollar bill for his tenth birthday last October. Of course, if Ian hadn't retrieved the mail every day from the mailbox himself, he might have never gotten it, he figured. Maybe Aunt Jo had sent him other gifts, gifts that he'd never received, gifts that his parents had intercepted through the years. Since he had started doing everything around the house himself, he was finding a lot of things he had never known before. He had learned to cook, to clean, to do laundry, and to be very quiet when his parents were drinking, which recently had been most of the time.
Ian gazed at the two coffins in front of him. They were smooth and shiny, almost pretty. He was suddenly glad that his parents' final rest would be in a place so lovely and not littered with whiskey bottles, cigarettes, and the stench of their own bodies. He wanted to touch the coffins, like one final caress of his mother's hair, one farewell pat on his father's back. He didn't dare, though. He couldn't remember the last time he'd touched them or been touched by them tenderly. A final touch/That's too much.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the pastor said piously. Ian snapped back to the sound of the minister's voice. Ashes! He almost laughed. It was an ironic eulogy for his two dead parents. If they'd died in an auto accident or by natural causes, it would not have seemed amusing. But these two had perished in a house fire. Ian looked up at the reverend and at the faces of the small somber group: Aunt Jo; Nick and Trooper; two drinking buddies of his parents; the reverend's wife, and the reverend himself. No one else had caught the joke.
Ian's parents, Ed and Mary Lane, had never set foot in the pastor's church, and they had made no secret of their distrust of organized religion and the clergy. The pastor's occasional visits to the house were usually met with drunken ramblings or angry curses. Ian knew that this man's services and last words at their funeral were strained and obligatory.
Sweat trickled down Ian's face. Or was it a tear?
Ian hadn't talked to anyone about that night. He had only remembered some of it. No one had helped him fill in the empty spaces. All he knew was that his parents were dead, his heel throbbed, he itched all over, and he would probably go to live with his aunt Jo in another town.
Ian tuned out the next recitation of Scripture. Instead, he remembered a poem he'd had to memorize at school, "Where Go the Boats" by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Dark brown is the river, Golden is the sand. It flows along for ever, With trees on either hand.
Green leaves a-floating, Castles of the foam, Boats of mine a-boating-Where will all come home?
He loved the sentiment, the idea of drifting away on a river going somewhere, anywhere. It painted pictures in his mind of endless miles of escape to grand and glorious castles. He loved the way it felt to think of it. But Ian loved the rhyme and the meter of poems too, and he often made up his own poems to certain rhythms. Sometimes it was to his walking pace or to the cadence of his endless cleaning chores in his own house. Scrubbing the bathtub, he'd say, "Scrub, scrub/Scrub the tub/This is the way/We clean today/Sponge, sponge/Get the grunge/So Mom and Dad/ Won't get so mad."
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me/Let me hide myself in thee" the pastor's wife's contralto voice began with a hard vibrato. Though he'd never heard the song before, Ian liked the rhyme. He made a promise to himself to find the place to hide that the song lyric talked about.
There had been no wake, no church service, only the graveside memorial. In Madison, people always came out for funerals. In some cases, they were almost political rallies. In others, they were gossip sessions. Sometimes they were sincere expressions of grief and condolence followed by a gathering at the home of the family or the deceased. Food abounded-comfort food-and reflection on the departed's influence on the community always followed the graveside service.
However, there was no house to go back to, no family to gather, no food or remembrance for Ed and Mary. After the final "amen," Ian climbed into the late-model Chevy with his great-aunt Jo and rode silently down I-10 to her home in Crestview.
The clapboard house was neat as a pin. The shrubbery that lined the front of the house was evenly manicured. The azaleas had long since bloomed, but the foliage had been pruned to perfection. The crepe myrtles at the corners of the house were still heavy with white flowers. Ian's own yard had not been well maintained, but Ian liked the lone crepe myrtle bush there. He liked to play with the tiny berries that hid a surprise. When he'd squeeze them, a tender shirred bloom would emerge, and he could smell the sweetness of it. He loved the way that life sprang forth from a tiny unassuming pod on a tree.
Ian didn't see any playground equipment at his aunt's house. No slides or tree houses anywhere, just a large painted swing hanging by two chains from the eaves of the front porch. Apparently, Aunt Jo had not housed children in recent years, or ever. Behind the house, however, was an outbuilding, a garage or storage shed that looked interesting. It had two doors on the front with a u-shaped handle on each. Threaded through the handles was a rusty chain that was bound end to end by a padlock. Ian guessed that the shed was off-limits to him or anybody else except the keeper of the key.
"Do you live here by yourself?" Ian finally asked as he passed through the front door.
"Yes, hon. Your uncle Harlan passed away five years ago. I'm by myself now. You'd have liked your uncle Harlan. He was a good man." Aunt Jo began to ramble on about her husband of thirty-five years. Ian only partially listened. His uncle had owned a small feed-and-seed store in Crestview, it seemed, and he'd been the county horseshoe pitcher at the river festival every year. Though he wasn't sick a day in his life, she said, they found him slumped over his desk at the store, dead of an apparent heart attack. Her voice trailed off a bit. Ian looked at his great-aunt and saw her wiping her eyes with a tissue.
"We never had children of our own, but your mother was like ..." Jo stopped and reevaluated where this conversation might go. She reached over and combed through Ian's hair with her fingers.
Finally Aunt Jo directed him to a large room with a bed with an iron headboard, a small dresser, and a chifforobe. The bed looked comfortable and clean. It had two large pillows and a white chenille bedspread.
"This is your room now, Ian," Aunt Jo said in a sweet voice. "Let's get some air moving in here." She turned on a large window fan, and a warm breeze caressed Ian's face. He wondered if the old house had air-conditioning.
"Now you can put your clothes away there in the dresser and then put your little suitcase in the chifforobe. Hang up your good suit, sweet, and it'll stay nice for Sunday school. You go ahead and change while I get us something yummy to eat. I'll meet you on the porch in a jiffy," Aunt Jo said, leaving the room.
Ian opened the suitcase. These weren't his clothes. He'd never seen them before. Then he remembered. Except for what he had had on that night, all his clothes had burned. He took one item at a time out of the suitcase, looking at it and smelling it. Apparently Aunt Jo had bought these for him at the same time she had bought the uncomfortable suit and shoes. There were shirts, shorts, pants, socks, and underwear all neatly folded and piled in the suitcase. The shirts were a little stiff from lack of wear, but all in all he liked the clothes. There was a pair of new Nike tennis shoes still in the box at the bottom of the suitcase. He was excited to have all new clothes. He just hoped they fit.
"Well, don't you look nice," Aunt Jo said in her kind drawl as Ian stepped out on the porch with all-new clothes and shoes. He tugged at the white cotton collared shirt. It was new and a little itchy still but much better than the suit and tie he had just been freed from.
"Everything fit OK?" Aunt Jo asked.
"Yes'm," Ian answered.
"Good. I just had to guess on your size. Got some of the shorts with elastic so you'd have room to grow. Then I talked to Fred down at the department store. Gave him your approximate height and weight and such, and he helped me put together the rest. The shoes are what I'm most worried about. We can exchange 'em for another size if you'll tell me now before you scuff 'em up."
"They're fine," Ian said, embarrassed that he'd caused his aunt to fret over him so. The shoes were a little big, but he didn't want to say anything. "Uh, thanks." Ian was sincerely grateful for everything she'd done so far.
The two sat on the porch swing silently for a while enjoying the cookies and lemonade she had made for them. Ian had a lot of questions, but he really didn't want to know the answers. He was afraid then that his aunt would start asking him what he remembered about that night. He would have to tell her that he didn't remember much at all. Just the smell of smoke, the blaze, and then the flashing lights of the fire truck. Before that or even after that, he just wasn't sure about. The afternoon breeze gently pushed the swing. Swing, swing, swing on the swing/Up so high we'll touch the sky.
Ian managed to slip out the back door while Aunt Jo was fixing supper. The outdoor shed proved to be too much of a curiosity for him. Making sure that his aunt couldn't see him from the kitchen window, he stood in front of the double-chained doors and realized that the chain was loose. He discovered that by pulling on one of the handles his skinny body could easily slip through. All he had to do was slide through under the chain, and he was in.
It was dark inside. A little bit of sunlight came through a dirty window at the back of the shed. It was enough light to see that there was an old metal boat sitting on the floor. It looked like there were fishing poles, rods, and tackle in the boat. Ian wondered if his dead uncle had been a fisherman. He guessed it was possible for Aunt Jo to like the sport, but he had never known a female to enjoy that sort of thing. On the other side of the shed was an old lawn mower. Some homemade shelves rose above it. There was a gasoline can with a rag stuck into the spout. Ian didn't dare touch it. He knew that gasoline was dangerous. Miscellaneous tools were hung between nails hammered into the wall next to the shelves. As far as he could tell, there wasn't anything that looked the least bit valuable. He wondered why his aunt had bothered to lock the shed.
Before he slithered out between the doors, Ian thought that the shed itself might have value to him later. It could be a place he could go to figure things out.
woke him. But before he opened his eyes, Ian was aware of his unfamiliar surroundings. There were sheets on the bed beneath him. That was the giveaway. He was not at home. The lumpy mattress he always slept on never had sheets, much less starched ones. When he tried to go back to sleep, the rhythm of the barking made his mind begin to concoct a rhyme. Sheets, sheets/They help you sleep/Bed, bed/Your parents are dead. The reality of that was neither saddening nor comforting. It was just reality. Numbing, sobering reality.
He smelled something sweet and unfamiliar. And then he heard the squeak and slam of an oven door. Aunt Jo must have cooked breakfast, he thought. But he reckoned that he would not be invited to join her. He would probably have to make his own breakfast as usual.
"Ian," the voice was sweet and drawled. "Ian, honey, I've got homemade cinnamon rolls fixed." Rolls, rolls/Rolls in the bowl ...
He opened his eyes and saw his aunt smiling down on him. He smiled back.
"I thought I'd let you sleep a little later today," she said while she lifted the hot, frosted rolls onto a small china plate and placed them in front of him. "We'll go around to the school later and talk to the principal, and you can meet your new teacher."
"New teacher?" Ian said, taking a bite before she could change her mind and take the breakfast away.
"Yes. We have to start you in school now that you're going to live here in Crestview," Jo said gently. "I know there's only another three weeks or so of school left before the summer, but we've got to get you registered somewhere. The school here is nice. I think you'll like it."
Ian shrugged and took another bite even before he'd swallowed the last one.
Jo's wrinkled hand touched his arm. "Now I know this will be hard for you, hon, moving in like this with your aunt Jo, somebody you hardly know."
Aunt Jo/I hardly know. It became the rhythm pattern for his chewing.
"But we'll make it, you and me. You don't have to worry." The words were sincere; the food was sweet. He savored the moment.
The school building was old and severe. It had been remodeled on the inside to meet modern educational standards, but on the outside the school did not make Ian feel welcome at all. In fact, the sight of it was frightening. The columns out front were large and solid. The double doors were heavy. From a distance, the building resembled a lion. The rust-colored brick was its head, the jagged shingles on the roof its mane, and the steps up into the front entrance its teeth. Eyes made of thick window glass stared at him, following him out of Aunt Jo's car and to the sidewalk. Suddenly Ian wanted to go back to his old school and, surprisingly, to his old house, the house that had burned down. As he approached the front steps, the sweet breakfast began to turn sour in his stomach. Aunt Jo gave him a gentle push when he hesitated. Lions roar/At the door.
"Well, Edward ..." The principal extended his hand.
"It's Ian," Aunt Jo corrected him. "His first name is Edward, but we call him by his middle name, Ian."
Ian was struck by the "we" part.
Excerpted from ASYLUM by Nan Corbitt Allen Copyright © 2004 by Nan Corbitt Allen. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 20, 2005