THINKING ABOUT WALKING TO THE MAILBOX
by Gary Carter
I reckon it’s safe to go check the mailbox now since I’m pretty sure I heard Mister Baker’s car stop a couple of minutes ago. Just wish it wasn’t such a long walk out to the road and back. Course when I came to this house as a freshly married girl it was just a hop, skip and jump. Now that age is creaking my bones, it seems a whole lot longer.
And it might be bitter cold out there today. Sure looks like it from here—dingy sky, wind ruffling the white tops of that ugly old grass plant, some South American thing that Leon put in there out of the blue one day a couple of years ago, thinking I was gonna like it. As I recollect, it must’ve been about two months before he got killed. Which I have to admit, even now, that was one that shocked me, stopped me slap cold in the middle of my day and put me to bed. Of all people I had to hear it from, it was Lab, who’s absolutely worthless as a passer of news, has been ever since we were little. Except when he had something on me to tell Mama.
But this time, like near about every other time, he just wandered in the backdoor and sat down at the kitchen table, lit a cigarette, leaned back and looked like he was passing time. He’d been working cause his shirt was filthy, and also I knew he was supposed to be putting a new drain pipe into Eloise Watkin’s kitchen sink cause she told me at church a couple of Sundays ago that it hadn’t worked right since her youngest one rolled half a dozen cherry tomatoes down it. Lab might as well been asking for a cup of coffee the way he dropped the news.
“Heard this morning that Leon Lomax got himself killed last night,” he said to the ceiling, sounding like he was just about too tired to get all the words out. That was it. He didn’t say another word, probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t plopped down real hard at the table and looked him square on.
“What’d you say?” I asked him, hoping like you always do that I’d heard him wrong, that my ears had been playing tricks on me. But he repeated himself, I listened hard, thought about it, and then had to ask how.
“Well, Jerry Boyles—you know, the deputy—told me this morning down at the diner that Leon was working on his tractor’s front axle last night in his barn and it must’ve slipped off the jack and pinned him to the floor. Jerry said the sheriff figured it must’ve broken his neck but Doc Willis said that it crushed his throat and cut off his air and suffocated him. Worse thing is Doc said it looked like it probably didn’t crush him all at once but kind of slow. He said it probably took him awhile to die.”
That’s when I got up and went into my bedroom. I pulled the curtains, though I remember it was so gloomy out it didn’t really seem to make much difference. I laid down, didn’t even kick off my house slippers and yanked the bedspread over me. I didn’t cry cause I’m one of those women that just don’t let loose a flood of tears at the drop of a hat. My Mama was like that too. I remember when Daddy died she never shed one tear, at least not that I know of, and I kept a pretty good eye on her since I was the oldest.
Anyway, my two brothers were both like Daddy, all emotional and broke up, holding back and then every so often letting loose. Daddy was like that. Why, he’d get all misty every time the choir would sail real sweet into “Precious Memories.” He told me once, after I probably asked him why, that it was his Mama’s favorite hymn and that every time he heard it he might as well have been sitting back in the home place up there on Spook’s Branch. Said he could see her plain as day sitting by the window in her rocker, piddling with some sewing and singing real soft, keeping rhythm when her feet hit the floor. I remember he said it was a childhood memory cause it was so clear in his head and also because his Mama always looked so young. He said she knew every word to every verse, and sometimes she’d get so taken away with it that her hands would just fall into her lap and she’d rest her head on the back of the chair and sing serious. And he said there was a certain way the light coming in those two windows hit her face that made her look positively like an angel. Since I knew this, we sang “Precious Memories” at Daddy’s graveyard service and I recall thinking I hope his Mama who was buried right down the hill was knowing he was coming.
There was another old song that used to cloud Daddy up, a real tearjerker old love song that I never can remember the name of but I do remember a line that said something like they can take you from my arms but never from my heart. It was on an old scratchy record he had but hardly ever played, at least when I was around. But it was more likely to get hold of him when it came on the radio and caught him cold. I have this scene in my head of him standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, stock still in mid-step, after it came on the radio that sat on the counter next to the bread bin. It was like it froze him with this kind of blank look on his face. I must’ve just been little, but I remember it because it seemed like he was gone away, like his body was just a shell like when you find a locust hull on a tree limb where it got shucked. I watched him until the song ended, and Mama did too.
After it went off, he stood another second or two and then kinda snapped back. He looked around real quick to see if anybody was watching. He saw me and grinned sorta silly, but quit grinning when he looked at Mama. She was drying a saucer, half turned away, but he could still see most of her face. She didn’t look at him, she just said real quietly, “Thinking about her?”
It seemed like it took him by surprise but he managed to say straight back, “Naw, don’t be silly, I just always have liked that old song.”
Mama turned her back then and put her hands into the dishwater, which told me that Daddy’s answer hadn’t been very convincing. Nothing else was said and Daddy eased out the backdoor, saying something about needing something from the tool shed and being unusually careful not to slam the screen.
I had no idea who Mama meant when she asked Daddy if he was thinking about her. It could’ve been his Mama—she’d been dead about two years then, but that song just wasn’t that kind of song. No, this was a love song, one of those that would mean something between two people, make them draw close together whenever they heard it, even if they weren’t together.
But I can’t imagine my Daddy ever loving anyone except Mama. I always understood they just naturally matched up when they were about fourteen and stayed together through thick and thin—high school, the first world war, five children and one that died at birth for reasons no one ever knew, and then Mama got cancer. But maybe there was a time, a bad time probably, when Daddy did get close to someone else. I reckon stranger things have happened. Fact is, I know good and well they have.
That’s why the news about Leon smacked me down hard, cause there was a time a long while ago when my husband Slater was away in the service that something just happened between Leon and me. I can’t put my finger on any good reason, not even after all this time. It just happened and later I always felt bad about it. Maybe it was just being alone that spring which was so warm with nights you could pull around you like a soft baby blanket. Maybe it was some spell of spring that grabbed us and made us act without reasoning, him sneaking off from his wife and slipping in my backdoor, us pulling the shades and clinging under the covers for just a little bit, hardly ever talking even. Looking back, I believe we were both ashamed, feeling wicked and sinful and afraid of someone finding out. That kind of news spreads like wildfire in a little town, just like it did when Leon got killed.
I tried to close my eyes and imagine how it must’ve felt to all of a sudden find yourself in the grip of something that’s beyond your control. I used to be real good at that when I was younger, always conjuring up what if’s in my head, like what if my Daddy suddenly got killed in a car wreck or Slater got cancer or one of the kids drowned in the pond. I reckon that was my way of preparing for all those things beyond my control though I don’t really believe you could be prepared for something to happen to you like it did to Leon. One minute you’re doing something you’ve done plenty of times before and the next thing you know the cold metal axle of a tractor is mashing down on your throat, stealing away your breath so you can’t even scream. What would you think about? or would you pray? or would there be some kind of acceptance and then peace? For Leon’s sake, I always hoped so.
So I reckon I’ll walk out to the mailbox though chances are good there’ll be nothing but junk out there. But I’ll look at that bush now I’ve thought about Leon. And probably something else’ll come to mind, slip up from one of those dark corners of an old lady’s memory. Which is the problem when memories get to be about all you’ve got, cause you have to be on your guard all the time so one doesn’t come creeping round like a troublesome old ghost and catch you unaware.
Based in Asheville, North Carolina, Gary Carter is a writer and editor whose most recently published work is Eliot’s Tale, a reverse coming-of-age road trip novel that contemplates things done and left undone. His short fiction also has appeared recently in Dead Mule, Burnt Bridge, Muscadine Lines and Read Short Fiction.
The Dew reviewed Eliot's Tale on February 28, 2011.