Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Have


Kent Tankersley

Something in the middle of the night woke Gladys. At first she wondered if it was maybe thunder rattling the windows. She could feel a storm coming. Like she always told Henry, she could feel them coming long before the first flash of lightning or burst of thunder. But as she listened now to the low rumbling in the distance, she knew the storm was still too far away to have woken her. Must have been something else, she reckoned, something right nearby. Maybe it was a stick of wood collapsing in the stove, though she wondered how something that familiar could jerk her out of such a thick sleep. Maybe it was Henry snoring like he did sometimes, loud enough to wake the dead.

Only not tonight. Tonight the room was silent, except for faint thunder and the fluid sound of wind against the walls.

She nestled deeper in the bed. She had been dreaming of her father and the first time he had taken her to town, when she was only three or four. For her, the trip by wagon had been an uncommon adventure. They had traveled for miles, fording streams, passing other farms and houses, some even painted, before finally rolling into the town in the middle of the day. There were horses, mules and some motor cars, and lots of people, none of whom took much notice of Gladys and her Papa. The square in the center of the little town was lined with half a dozen stores, all made of brick and overlooked by a three-storey hotel and a courthouse with white columns in front. At one of the stores on the square, Papa had traded their eggs and vegetables for some flour and cloth. Gladys remembers how the shelves were crammed with canned goods. And she remembers the one-armed man with a beard behind the counter. But what she remembers most is what happened next.

After he had concluded his business at the store, Papa had driven the wagon over to the rail depot to show her a train coming in. The locomotive, a giant of a machine hissing clouds of steam and clanging a bell, had thundered to a stop right beside the wagon. It was all more than their mule Raymond could take. Terrified, the animal reared toward the sky, clawing the air with his hoofs and threatening to fall back on Gladys, frozen in the seat of the wagon, before Papa took hold of the harness and held Raymond steady. Gladys was sure then, as now, that her Papa was the only man alive who could have kept that animal under control.

But that had been a long time ago when they had trains like that, when people had mules, and when there were men like her Papa. She lay there thinking about that and listening for the thunder again. She wondered how the room could be so quiet. She couldn't even hear Henry’s raspy breath beside her.

Maybe he's up again, she thought, maybe his pain's keeping him awake like it's done lately. But then again, she knew it wasn't like Henry to get up alone. He was always sure to get her out of bed to heat his bottle of medicine and then watch while he sat by the stove and complained. The doctor never said to heat it, only somehow Henry was sure medicine didn't work unless you helped it along.

He must be up alone, she figured, though she couldn't hear him moving around in the kitchen either. She didn't bother to move. It felt peaceful enough just to lie there in the dark under the four quilts holding her old-woman warmth close. And so much the better if she didn't have to tend to Henry.

She let herself almost sink back to sleep as she listened to the storm rolling closer like the 4 A.M. coal train laboring its way in the dark up through Truckman Gorge. If it did come a big rain, she reminded herself, she'd have to put out some pans, but why bother yet? "Let Henry do it, since he's up," she half muttered.

Just then a flash of lightning filled the window and she saw Henry, still lying there on his side of the bed. She turned toward him. "Henry?"

She reached for his arm. It felt cool, as cool as spring water. She grasped and shook him, he didn't move. She squeezed him hard. Nothing. For a minute longer she held his thin arm, so strong and forceful when they first lay like this years before. When she finally let go, the thought spun through her mind, blotting out the storm, the room, everything: "Dead. The old man is dead."

He lay only a foot away, the same as before but all different now -- just a wooden weight against the bedsprings, finally quiet, finally demanding nothing. Gladys's head reeled. She felt as if she were sinking, as if she were slowly spinning down a deep well but never reaching the bottom.

After a while, a crack of thunder jolted her head clear. She fastened her thoughts onto the sparse, sour-smelling room, and pulled herself out from the covers and away from her dead husband.

Routines as old as her marriage drew her through the house, routines not changed by anything as disturbing as Henry's passing. She moved through rooms lit only by the flicker of the storm as she placed pans and buckets under well-known leaks. She added wood to the stove and, only then, lit the kerosene lamp. They never had electricity put in when most of the county did. They lived too far from the power lines back then, and Henry was too tight to pay for it anyway. At first she kept after him about it, but after a few years she gave up and never brought it up again.

In the buttery light of the lamp, Gladys put her dress on, working each button slowly as the rain finally started to lash against the roof. She combed her hair before the mirror without really watching. She twisted it into a gray, braided rope by feel only, while the first drops of rain started to ricochet in a bucket behind her. Finally gazing into the looking-glass, she caught a glimpse of Henry lying on his back in the bed behind her.
Almost startled, she had to sit down. I’ll have to do something about him, she thought, that was sure. Not knowing exactly why, she took a sheet from the chest at the foot of the bed and pulled the fabric over Henry, sliding it across his stubbly cheek. She held it raised just a moment to look at his face before letting it fall around him.

"Guess I'll have to get someone to come and get you, Henry," she said aloud. "Guess I will."

She cocked her head toward the window, then looked at the sheet again. "It's really started coming down. I knew it would."

She went to the kitchen door to put on Henry's stiff raincoat and the rubber boots he always wore around the pasture. Henry was a big man -- had been a big man -- and his coat swallowed up Gladys in nylon that smelled of mildew. She took the flashlight from the shelf by the door, picked up a sourwood staff, blew out the lamp and looked back just once before going out into the night.

It didn't occur to her to wait for the rain to stop. Too many times she'd been out in downpours looking for sick cows or lost calves. To her, rain was nothing. With the flashlight and the walking staff, she headed for the road.

The nearest phone was at the Hudson place, a mile down the hollow. Because he was the youngest, Henry had got the runt's portion of his father's land, the part furthest from anything and right up against the mountain. In the last fifty years, people had moved closer and closer to their place as Henry's brothers sold off their pieces of rich bottom land. Before the Hudsons built their house on an overgrown field Henry sold them, no one else lived even this close. And no one ever came this far up the road except loggers or hunters on their way up to the high mountaintops, where you can see halfway to Kentucky.

Gladys headed down the road, with woods towering over her on one side and on the other just the sky emptying rain onto their lower pasture. With every few steps, the sky ignited in blue heat and, for an instant, day returned, exposing the shapes of thick-headed cows standing on the other side of the fence. Gladys was not bothered by all the commotion in the clouds above. She kept her eyes on the rise of clay between the ruts, now flowing with rust-red water. With each step she stabbed the ground with her stick, trying to keep from slipping on mud that seemed alive with the beating of the rain.

Henry had a car, a Dodge, but he had never taught her to drive and wouldn't have let her anyway. If there was anything Henry loved, it was that car, the one possession his brothers would appreciate, the one thing that showed he had done something right. At least that's what Gladys had always thought.

She hated the car. When she and Henry rode into town to see their son, she'd sit like someone taking a whipping. She hated the care Henry took easing over each bump on the worn-out dirt road. She hated the way he would raise his chin and almost smile when they reached pavement and started down the open highway. She would just sit tight-mouthed, refusing to share his pleasure. He always thought she was terrified of his driving. But she was afraid of nothing -- as he should have known -- least of all him and his car.
Oh, how Henry had loved that machine. He used to go on and on about how a car didn't tie you down. Looking her straight in the eye, he would say you could always get another car if the one you had turned out to be worthless.

Now she could try to get rid of the thing, and she was glad. She would sell it for junk, which was all it was by now anyway. Maybe Alvin Hudson would take it off her hands, though when she thought about it, she couldn't see Alvin doing her any favors.
Even if the Hudsons where the closest people around, you couldn't call them neighbors. They had moved here four years before on a piece of land Alvin had finally managed to talk Henry into selling. After he built his house, Alvin thought he could persuade the old man to sell more land for next to nothing. Or so Henry always figured. Alvin had kept bringing it up, asking what Henry was planning to do with the rest of his property, seeing how his son couldn't take over from him. Henry went silent as Alvin continued talking, blathering on about wanting some land to try a little farming himself and how Henry shouldn't let the land go to waste. Mentioning Henry's son had been a mistake. After that, Henry wouldn't hear of selling Alvin any more land, not that he couldn't have used the money.

The storm was beginning to let up a little when Gladys first made out a white light up ahead. The Hudson place. Alvin might not have as much land as Henry, but hefe did have a fancy house, with electricity. That seemed to only annoy Henry all the more.
The summer after the Hudson's built their house, one of Henry's cows died way down at the lower end of the pasture, just across the fence from Alvin's backyard. Since it wasn't close to his own house, Henry wasn't inclined to do anything about the poor beast, which bloated up so bad its legs stuck out like a stool that’d been knocked over. After a few days, Alvin couldn't stand the smell any longer and asked if Henry wouldn't mind if Alvin drug the cow off himself. Henry smiled in a funny way when he agreed. Alvin brought his jeep through the gate, hooked a chain around one of the legs, now stiff as a locust post, and pulled the cow to the edge of the woods in a far corner of Henry's pasture.

The next day, the cow was right back where she had dropped dead. Henry had gone out in the night, out of meanness, to drag her back. This time Alvin didn't ask. He moved the wretched carcass clear off Henry's land somewhere where he couldn't find it.

Henry was furious. He walked around fuming all day, clenching one hand into a fist over and over, but saying nothing. After he took a shot at one of Alvin's dogs the next day, the sheriff paid a visit. Henry didn't say another word about it, but for weeks kicked at everything in his path as he did chores. And he never spoke to Alvin again. Alvin really should have never mentioned Henry's son in the first place.

Gladys thought about Bobby. Their poor, ill-begotten son had never been "right", and now he was a child in a grown man's body. He had become more than they could manage long before they sent him to live in the nursing home in town, but it still troubled her. Henry had called the boy a curse and had cursed Gladys for it. It didn't matter. He was still her son, and her only joy. Now without the car and without Henry to drive her, it wouldn't be easy to go to see Bobby, but maybe she'd find a way. And she would still be glad to get rid of the car.

Lost in these thoughts, she was surprised to see the mud of the road had given way to smooth gravel. She looked up. Alvin Hudson's house sat back from the road bathed in the glare of a security light that seemed to float in the rain high above the yard. Gladys marched through that harsh, white light into the shadow of Alvin's porch while a dog barked fiercely somewhere behind the house.

It took several knocks before she heard voices inside, then a shuffling of feet and the door was finally pulled open by a tall, shirtless beanpole of a man. "Mrs. Parsons! What in the world are you doing out on a night like this?" Alvin said. He looked over his shoulder at the clock on the mantelpiece. "It's nearly four in the morning."

Gladys passed through the door, and said, "I want to use your phone, Alvin."

"Well, sure. I mean, go right ahead. Is there something wrong? Is Mr. Parsons all right?"
The woman pushed back the hood of Henry's coat. "He's dead."

Alvin shifted backwards, looking more unsettled by the news than the stooped woman who had walked through a storm to bring it to him. He clasped his hands together. "Well, I'm awfully sorry to hear that. I really am. Did it just happen?"

She didn't answer, but looked past him to scan the room from one end to the other. Hudson watched her eyes dart back and forth for a moment before seeming to wake from a spell. "Oh, that's right, I'm sorry, you'd like to use the phone," he said at once and pointed to a table against the wall. "It's over here."

Alvin dialed the funeral home for her, then excused himself to put on a shirt. While Gladys listened to the ringing on the other end, Alvin's wife appeared in a doorway and eyed the old woman dripping on her hardwood floor. She looked at her muddy boots, then glared at Alvin as he returned to hover over Gladys as dutifully as any preacher. Alvin's five children, some with their pajamas half falling off, came to another doorway to blink at the scene. Gladys wheeled around once to look their way, and one of them shot out of sight behind the corner. To the younger ones, she was still the bogey lady from up the road, the "witchy-woman" that they ran away from with glee whenever they saw her plodding through the pasture. Now absolutely convinced she was a witch, they couldn't take their eyes off this haggard, sharp-eyed woman who wandered around in the middle of the night. She turned her back to their staring faces as she talked to the undertaker.
When she hung up the phone, Gladys only half looked at these strangers awkwardly watching her. "They said it'll be a couple of hours before they can get up here."

Alvin took a step closer, "Well, then, you're welcome to wait right here until they come."
Gladys looked around the brightly lit room. Kids’ toys were scattered here and there among cushy chairs. Against the wall in front of her sat a big television with a huge, blank-eyed screen that mirrored the whole scene. On its smooth surface Gladys could see the entire room reflected in dark glass framed by chrome. There she was in Henry's ungainly coat, being watched by a gang of kids and a nervous figure of a man distorted and stretched even thinner by the big screen. There was the leather sofa and the lazyboy recliner with magazines strewn on the floor beside it. She could even see the portrait of Jesus looking at them all from over the mantelpiece.

"No, I'm going on back up to the house," she said. "I'm not about to trouble you folks anymore."

"Well, it wouldn't be trouble, really," Alvin insisted, catching a sharp glance from his wife. "I mean, if you wanted to."

Gladys shook her head.

"Are you sure?" Alvin asked. "Well, at least let me get my boy Sam to carry you back."
She thought for a moment. She was soaked despite Henry's coat, and she noticed for the first time tonight that her legs were hurting.

"All right," she said, releasing a breath.

As they waited for Sam to get dressed, Alvin's wife herded the other kids away, then leaned in the doorway to silently watch Gladys.

"I sure am sorry about Mr. Parson," Alvin ventured. "Was he sick or was there a...I don't know, was there an accident or something?"

Gladys looked at him.

Alvin wrung his hands. "I know it must be hard on you and all. It's always such a shock when a loved-one, I mean when..." Alvin continued, not seeming to notice when Gladys turned away and pulled the hood over her head as if shielding herself from the rain.
Alvin kept talking until Sam had the truck idling out front with its headlights burning against the house. When Alvin saw Gladys out to the porch, his wife turned away without a word.

While Sam drove her home Gladys sat motionless with her hands on her knees. The boy hunching toward the windshield was every bit as skinny as his father and appeared even more nervous in the green glow of the dashboard. He gripped the steering wheel with big-knuckled hands as they bounced over the ruts. Now and then, he looked over at Gladys, trying to decide whether to say something. She looked ahead to the road, the rain, and beyond, saying nothing.

Sam stopped in front of Gladys's ramshackle house, but didn't shut off the motor right away. He began to swing his door open. Gladys snapped, "Ain't no need for you to get out."
The boy hesitated as Gladys tried to open her door. "But my daddy says I should stay here with you until the ambulance comes."

Shaking the door latch harder, Gladys glared out the window toward the house. "Don’t bother. I don't need you, Henry ain't going anywhere."

"Yeah, but I'm suppose to keep you from being alone."

"Never mind that. Just go on back," she said, as the door finally gave.

Sam drew his door shut. "But you don't want to be alone, do you?"

Gladys stepped out into the muddy yard, calling over her shoulder, ”That's all I've ever wanted. To be left alone."

Sam ground the gears of his daddy's truck as he aimed it back into the road even before Gladys had reached the porch. Inside the house, everything was just as it had been before. The rain dripping off her coat sounded like bullets in the thin silence as she stood listening, half expecting something surprising to happen now, though she knew nothing would.

"I guess everything's going to be just the same," she said aloud. "Dying ain't going to change anything now, Henry." She relit the lamps and added more wood to the smoldering fire. It would be daybreak soon. She set a kettle of water on the stove and moved a chair closer.

She left the grate open so she could warm her hands as she sat with her back to the bedroom door. The fire inside the stove began to feed on the new wood, the flames curling around the splintered sticks with hungry energy. Her face, brightened by the quivering light, was calm, unbothered. She set up in her chair and raised her head at the sound of a vehicle coming up the road in low gear. The murmur of the engine approached, grew loud enough to drown out the rain, then passed by, climbing further into the woods that rose behind the house.

"Hunters," Gladys whispered to the stove.

When the growl of the motor faded completely, there was only the drumming of the rain and the crackle of the fire.

"Dead and gone, Henry." She tilted her head toward the bedroom. "Just think of that. I thought you would never die. Never would die. What took you so long, Henry? What took you so God-all-mighty long?"

The End


Bio: Kent Tankersley is an American living in Helsinki, Finland, where he has worked in public relations and as a freelance travel writer. His fiction has appeared in The Ante Review, in Children, Churches and Daddies,and elsewhere. He is currently working on a screenplay and a sporadic blog about life as an expat.