1 : Home
The house is cold. He doesn’t look at her, just sits hunched at the kitchen table, with the hood of his sweatshirt up: under cover. Her son. He is even thinner than when she left.
The stink of cigarettes. Something rotting in the dark of a cupboard, and the sink is right to the top with dirty dishes, hardened strings of spaghetti, grease congealed in a pan. A still life. She could paint it on a wall of canvas: moldy glasses big as barrels, their funhouse faces wavering beyond. Welcome Home.
The wood box is empty. She knows, without even going in there, what the bottom of the tub looks like. One whole end of the pole barn will be stacked high with trash, a month’s worth of garbage, leaking random pools on the floor. And all of it is pretty much how she thought it would be given what he was up to when she left.
“I’m too sick to do anything,” he says. His hands pull at the sides of his hood.
“I can see that.” Close the shutters. Goodbye.
“Luke took off running with the Bensons’ dogs just before you came up the road.”
When Luke didn’t come rushing to greet her, she’d hoped it was only this. How she’s missed that dog.
“Some woman from your painters’ group called. It’s on the machine.”
He finally looks her way. “If you can drive me up to Carla’s to get enough to where I can function for the next few days, I’ll be able to make the calls to line up a bed at a detox. I’ll get some wood in, clean up around here. Make me almost normal.”
Through the window she watches the plastic tarp smack the uprights, most of the last few cords exposed: a lot of the logs will be wet. “All right,” she says.
If you agree not to contaminate this space, she had told him — two years ago — you may stay until you become more stable. This, after she said he could not come home when he called desperate from Oregon. After she had refused to send him bus fare. After she had changed her phone number to unlisted. A week later she’d found him crashed in his drum-room down in the barn, the heat turned to eighty. A cigarette burn as big as a nickel between his fingers where he had passed out without even feeling it there.
The path from the house to the wood is a slick of ice. It’s so March she almost laughs. Everything gray. Dank. Sleet finds its way down the back of her neck as she shifts the wood around, looking for a few small, semi-dry splits to start a fire. Hard to believe that only forty-eight hours ago she was kayaking on the Gulf toward a small island, ahead of her an egret, still, waiting: a shock of white in all that green. That’s what she’d like to put on the canvas: the shock of white on green. Or the light and dark of flesh. The life drawing group will be getting together again in Marna’s studio now that the hard cold is past.
She hears barking, scans the hillside toward the Bensons’ for a dash of brown. Need to deal with the Bensons’ dogs on the loose. It’s the only time Luke leaves their land. Soon the Bensons’ hill will disappear. Once the leaves are on, no one would know anyone lives over here. Only another six weeks or so. The buds are already making their move.
The stove is so full of ashes, they spill out as she opens the door. Above her in the loft she can hear Mark on the phone, putting together some arrangement that will yield him some of Carla’s morphine, what he needs to bring him to “almost normal.”
She taps the stovepipe to hear how much buildup. Chunks of creosote crunch around the edges of the clean-out door when she starts to ease that open. Probably a lot of low smoky fires all of February. The stove was always Aaron’s job, something he took on when he was in sixth grade, the winter they moved into the stone house, the year after their father . . . after Lee’s death.
There’s no newspaper. She needs something to get the fire going. She hates to risk the refrigerator. Any Buddha-calm she’s got left, or denial, may drop away. She reaches in, without really looking, and grabs what she knows will be a mostly empty, sour carton of milk. She rinses out the stink, shakes it good and crushes it under her heel. That, with a couple of ripped cereal boxes, has a fifty-fifty chance if the right amount of air goes between the splits.
She hears Mark say he’ll get the whole two hundred he owes to Smithy when his money comes. Smithy, Carla’s boyfriend. Smithy’s got to be at least fifty, the same age as Carla. Ten years or so younger than she is. Drug accounting is complicated: food stamps, benzoid-meds, transport to buy, homegrown, miscellaneous. What equals what is open to interpretation. Anyway Mark may be gone by the time his disability check gets deposited. Tucked away in detox.
Do not grasp the detox plan. It may happen; it may not.
No kitchen matches. The book matches jar is empty as well. These will all have been used to cook up in a flare and now dozens of them will be out in the March muck, tossed from the loft window, still aflame, she supposes. Though it’s always painful to come upon these burnt offerings, she appreciates their honesty: This is what I’m doing — this week. She’s never actually seen Mark, any of them, in the act. Her first hypodermic encounters — something banging in the dryer, something dropping from a pocket in a stack of clothes getting bagged to go to the Salvation Army during one of Mark’s cross-country-bus times — produced a case of the shakes, left her breathless. Now when she stumbles on something, a blackened spoon behind a paint can in the barn, it may make her cry, but it’s no longer as if someone kicked her in the chest. She reaches back into the cupboard behind the flour. Kitchen matches, cached for just such occasions.
But he’s been straight with her. Mostly. Her being his rep-payee for his disability money is critical. Gas to drive him to Mental Health when he’s going to Mental Health, when he’s taking his meds — his license suspended two years ago for not paying a speeding ticket. Food, heat, phone, DirecTV NBA pass, socks. Whatever it costs for him to be here comes right off the top. And he never tries to con any of that. What’s left is his. Usually about two hundred dollars. And it’s all gone in a couple of days. Running out of cigarettes caused hassles for the first couple of months. Him, needy and wanting an advance for just one more pack. The nine-mile trips to the Quickway in Stanton. The looming possibility that if he didn’t get a Camel, she’d end up having to drive him to Crisis on a night when freezing rain would increase her anxiety by times ten. She started buying six cans of tobacco, plus rolling papers, right out of his grocery fund. When his cigarette money is blown, he has the wherewithal to make his own. Which he hates doing. Please, may she never hear another whine for nicotine in any of her future lives.
She tilts the top log at a good angle and opens the front vents all the way. She loves this big old stove, but it’s a bitch to start.
“Definitely. If I end up getting a bed somewhere, then I’ll wire the money.”
There are long pauses. She knows Carla is giving him full scenes of the latest: He said this, then I said that. Her arms doing flamenco accompaniment, her eyes . . . Her eyes. Back when she and Carla were marijuana-smokers together, back when she was Carla’s friend. There in Carla’s kitchen, fascinated by it all. The motorcycles parked in the yard, the stories of Harley Rendezvous. The family album of Pagan arrests. Way back. Twelve, thirteen years ago. Five years before Aaron’s death. Back before Carla’s surgery, before Carla got into pain medication. Before Carla’s son Rudy, before Mark, became junkies.
This fire’s not going to work. She rummages around in the bottom of the kindling box for shreds of bark and pushes them under the top log to rest on the milk carton.
“Yeah, I called Rudy up and threatened to tell. He owed me fifty for the food stamps. I wanted my money.” Mark doesn’t lower his voice. She’s on the truth-side of the operation.
Drug dramas. And manic-depression. Hard to know which roller coaster you’re riding. In the two years Mark’s been back from Portland, off and on crashing with her, she’s never consciously tracked the sequence of events, but each month unfolds almost exactly like the last: everybody’s got money so there’s a frenzy — cars in and out down at the barn, the lights burning late, the rumble of Mark’s drums, the throb of guitars; the money’s gone and everybody’s starting to get sick; despair and isolation; somebody hocks something, another flurry; treading dark water until the beginning of the next month when everybody’s got money . . . All of it punctuated by variations of fallout: car wrecks and arrests — not Mark, he never goes to that edge, thank the gods, or he’s just lucky. And, yes, the occasional plunge toward sanity: the Navy, a halfway house in Arizona.
She’s a reluctant witness. She turns off the ringers, turns down the answering machine. Closes as many doors between her and it as she can. How many years, how many years has Mark been her main concern? And every time she comes to that question, she always has to add it up again. Since she and Lee separated the first time, when Aaron was two and Mark was four? Since Mark was fourteen, right after Lee’s death? In utero? At least twenty years that any call in the night registers ten on her adrenaline Richter. When things heat up beyond her tolerance, she plans flight: a one-room apartment with no return address. She wakes in the night, a rock of anxiety jammed under her sternum, and she starts mind-listing her options: he goes, she goes and all the permutations of that. Or, in what she thinks of as Tarbaby Time, say when he’s got another knot of infection swelling his arm that’s red-lining its way toward his heart and she’s driving him to Emergency again, she wishes he’d just go ahead and kill himself and put them all out of their misery.
But she knows he’s getting somewhere. A lot of the time she’s sure this is the best place for him to be. His father’s, his brother’s ashes buried up on their hill. They’re all here together: working on it.
“For sure. If I go, it’ll be at the Great American before noon . . . Yeah, she’s going to bring me up in about fifteen minutes.”
She is preferable to Mom when you’re thirty-seven.
His long legs appear, make their way down the loft-ladder.
“Approaching Wellsville,” he says.
“It’s all set. I could take your car.”
“I’ll drive you.” Up the dirt road to Carla’s. But she cannot, she will not, out on winter highways drive him anywhere else.
She touches the match to the waxy edges of the raisin bran wrap and closes the stove. Within seconds, there’s that reassuring roar.