Monday, March 25, 2013

Why He Couldn't Forget

by: Robert G. Cowser

Tom Courson remembered well the weekend just before his nineteenth birthday  when his parents helped his sister find a doctor who would perform an abortion.  Though the events had occurred more than thirty years before, Tom could recall vividly certain emotions he had experienced.  As he grew older, he found himself remembering the events of that weekend more often than he had earlier.  If he had married, if he had fathered a child, perhaps he would not have recalled the events with such sadness.
            Tom’s parents had no telephone service.  Earlier in the week his sister Ramona wrote a note to them announcing that she would be arriving Friday evening on the Greyhound bus.  She made no reference to her husband, nor did she give a reason for the impromptu visit.
            Tom had spent the summer at home after having attended the teachers’ college thirty miles away the previous year.  He was biding his time until the fall term began.  His father had recently moved a small shotgun house on to the property and had converted it into a barn.  He attached a lean-to to the building, and he planned to store hay in the two rooms of the house.  Tom spent many hours that summer sitting on the floor of one of the rooms.  He read several plays in the Shakespeare volume that he used as his textbook the year before.. 
Late Friday afternoon his father said to Tom, “Why don’t you ride with me to the bus stop?  You remember that Ramona is comin’ in on the bus, don’t you?”
            “Sure, I’ll go along,” Tom said.
            The bus was only twenty minutes late in arriving.  Tom’s father had time to chat with a few men who had stayed in town later than usual.  They liked to plant themselves in front of Bill’s Grocery, squatting Indian fashion or sitting on upturned Coca-Cola crates.  Tom sat in the car and watched the trucks and cars moving along the highway that bisected the little town of Dillon.
            Ramona was the only passenger getting off the bus that particular day.  She looked preoccupied, Tom thought, as she handed her father the overnight kit.  Her brown hair was pulled back from her face, and there were beads of perspiration on her brow.  Tom knew that at times the air-conditioning system on the buses did not work well.
            Dillon was at the top of a strip of prairie land that lay across the state of Texas like a crescent.  As they drove the four miles to the Coursons’ house, Tom looked at the familiar fields on either side of the road.  Already, some of the cotton stalks were beginning to drop their leaves.  The harvest would begin soon.  Crews of pickers would enter the fields each morning as soon as the dew on the bolls had dried.
            With one hand casually steering the wheel, Mr. Courson waved the other toward the fields.  “Cotton’s good this year.  Thrives on hot, dry weather because the weevils ain’t as thick as they are when it’s rainy.  Corn crops is burnt up, though.”
 “It’s sure been hot this summer in Dallas.  We’ve been usin’ the fan a lot in that upstairs apartment,” Ramona said.
            Neither Tom nor Mr. Courson asked about Harvey, Ramona’s second husband.  He was an alcoholic; he missed work on the average of a couple of days a week.  Probably he would have already been fired except that when he was sober, he was the best employee the freight company had at operating the Comptometer.
            When they arrived at the farmhouse, Ramona washed her face and hands with water from the basin at the kitchen sink.  Then she began to help her mother set the table for the evening meal.  Tom went to the shallow pool beside the barn, taking a bucket with him.  He filled the bucket with the murky water and took it to the calf lot adjacent to the barn.  He wondered how long it would be before the pool level became so low that he would have to draw water from the well near the house and carry bucket after bucket to the trough where the two half-grown calves drank.  The calves had reddish coats with white faces.
            As he opened the door leading to the back porch, he heard his mother and Ramona in animated conversation.  Mr. Courson was listening to the evening news on the radio in the living room.  “We’ll see about helpin’ you git a abortion,” Tom’s mother said.
            Then when Tom walked into the kitchen, the conversation between Ramona and her mother stopped abruptly.  Mrs. Courson announced supper, and the family ate.  In between short trips from her chair at the table to the kitchen stove in order
to get hot bread or more rutabaga turnips, she told Ramona about the births and deaths, the separations and the marriages that had taken place in Dillon since Ramona had visited.
            After supper, Tom read the entertainment section of that day’s Dallas Morning News, the newspaper Ramona brought with her.  He noticed that a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew  was scheduled for the first week in September at the State Fair Park Auditorium.  He would like to see the production, but he could not afford the price of a ticket or bus fare to Dallas. He remembered well the play he had read for his course the previous semester.
Just before bedtime Ramona took the flashlight from the kitchen counter.  She said that she was going to the privy, located a few yards behind the house.  When she returned to the kitchen a few minutes later, she took a match from the metal match holder on the wall in order to light the cigarette she was holding.  Turning to walk into the spare room where she would sleep, she called over her shoulder, “I can’t have this baby.  I’ve got to make a livin’.”  His parents and Tom already knew that Ramona’s husband was not a reliable provider.
Tom was disappointed that his parents supported Ramona’s plan to get an abortion.  However, he was resigned to the fact that they probably could find a local physician willing to perform the abortion.  He knew that certain local women had been successful in doing so.
            Two years before Tom had  been told that during the previous school year one of his former high school teachers had gone to a clinic in the town where the teachers’ college was located.  Supposedly the surgeon there performed an appendectomy on the teacher, though reports from some of the high school students were that she had gone to the hospital for an abortion.  Rumors circulated that one of the boys in the eleventh grade fathered the child.
            The next morning Tom went to the barn.  If Ramona and his mother wanted to talk privately, then he would leave them free to do so.  After he had watered the two calves in the pen, he went into the front room.  In a trunk he found some of the essays he had written the year before in his composition class.  He sat on the floor and read them.  Then he picked up the Shakespeare volume in order to resume reading Henry IV, Part I.  His mother had told them that she planned an early lunch, so after he had finished reading a few more pages of the play, he returned to the house.
            Tom’s parents and Ramona hardly talked at lunch.  Tom ate quickly so that his mother could clear the table.  He noticed that she was wearing one of the chambray dresses she wore only when she was going to church or to shop in the county seat.  Ramona ate hurriedly and then went to the room where she had slept.  Tom heard her rummaging through the overnight kit that she had brought with her.  He decided to return to the barn where he had spent the morning.  He did not want to be at the house when his parents and Ramona left.
            While standing behind the barn, he heard the engine of his father’s car and then the sound of the wheels on the pavement as his father drove the car north toward the main highway.  They would drive first to the county seat where Dr. Shrode lived.  Years before he had treated Ramona when she had almost died of diphtheria.  While the women sat in the car under the shade of one of the tall elms that lined the street where Dr. Shrode lived, Tom’s father would go inside.  He would plead with Dr. Shrode to perform an abortion on Ramona.
                        *                      *                      *                      *                      *
            After his parents died, Tom took a teaching job in a high school in the Panhandle of  Florida.  He rented an apartment in Pensacola and commuted to the school where he taught.  Ramona divorced Harvey soon after she had the abortion.  She worked for several years at minimum-wage jobs in Dallas.  Eventually she returned to the farm house in Dillon where she spent her last days.  She died alone of congestive heart disease one summer afternoon.
            As he sat in the darkening room, Tom remembered how he resented that Ramona had come to his parents for help in getting an abortion.  If she had remained in Dallas, he would never have had to deal directly with the fact of her decision.  He might have considered that Harvey forced her to get the abortion.
            Once more, Tom’s mind returned to that Saturday afternoon when Ramona and his parents drove away.   Since the calves were particularly thirsty that day, Tom had gone to the pond for several pails of water.  In between two of the trips he scratched the top of one calf’s neck and the ridge at the top of its head.  He also touched the calf’s nose and noticed how cool and moist the tip of the nose felt, even though it was a hot day. 
        Perhaps thinking of the calf’s thirst  made Tom acutely aware that his throat felt particularly dry.  He stood up and walked the few paces to the sink so that he could fill a glass with tap water.  He drank the tepid water and then walked to the shower in preparation for going to a restaurant nearby.  Though he would be sitting alone in a booth or at a table, dining in a busy restaurant would be a welcomed change from eating in his apartment.
            Over the years, Tom gradually realized that the man or woman who would have developed from that fetus that was aborted would probably still be alive somewhere on the planet.  He or she might have fathered or borne a child, possibly several.  The bond of family between Tom and each member of this imaginary group would have been important to him.
            As Tom closed the front door behind him and stepped out on the balcony on his way to the stairs that led to the parking lot, he heard the sounds of children at play.  Looking toward the swing set and the sandbox near the complex, he saw a boy and a girl, each approximately five years old.  He heard intermittent shouts of glee from one and then the other.  The spontaneous laughter was in sharp contrast to the continuous hum of the refrigerator’s motor he had heard while in the apartment.
            When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Tom glanced in the direction of the apartment building facing his.  He saw a girl running from the stairs leading to the second floor of that building.  The girl’s hair was cut short in the same style Tom had seen his sister Ramona wearing in a photograph taken of her when she was in elementary school.  After he began walking toward his car, he heard the girl laughing.  Turning his head, Tom saw again the boy and the other girl he had noticed earlier at the swing set.  The two were pumping their swings in sweeping arcs as Tom automatically felt inside his pocket for the key to the ignition.  
Robert Cowser is a native of Texas who now lives in Martin, TN.  He writes memoirs, poetry, and fiction. His  chapbook Selected Poems 1985-2010, 2nd Ed was recently published by The University of Tennessee at Martin.  His poems have appeared recently in English Journal and The Distillery, and an essay in The Chiron Review.