"Mrs. White," Clayton says, "we really hate to go, but it's getting late."
I want to tell him that he's too young to know what late really is, but instead I say, "I didn't mean to keep you so long," even though he's only been here a little while, not the hours that seem written all over his face.
"Don't feel like you've kept us." He raises his hand and shakes his head, looking quite earnest. "It's been good to sit and talk with you for a spell." I'm sure he says "spell" because he thinks I would say such a thing, but I never do.
Now my granddaughter Angie rises, puts one hand on his arm, and says, "Maybe he could come for dinner some night. Wouldn't that be great?"
Clayton nods unenthusiastically, probably as uneager to eat with me as I would be to cook some food for him.
"Dear," I tell Angie, "Around here, we call the evening meal supper."
She hits her hand against her head playfully and says, "Oh, yeah. I always forget that."
We all laugh false and awkward laughs, and I pull my tired old self up from my chair. "You're not going to be late, are you?"
Clayton has already made it to the door, but stops, keeping his hand on the knob, and looks back without really looking at me at all. "The show's not over until past midnight, and it's an hour ride on back here."
"That's so late," I say.
"I'll be okay." Angie slips her arm around Clayton's waist and locks one finger in a belt loop of his jeans.
"She'll be in good hands with me," Clayton says. "Bye, Mrs. White."
I have my own ideas about what his hands will be doing with my granddaughter, but she's seventeen and will do pretty much what she wants. I'm feeling put out that I am even in a position where I have to act like I care, when I couldn't do much about what her own mother did at this same terrible age when a girl is too old to be a child, too young to be a real woman, but just the right age to make a complete mess of everything.
I watch Clayton leave with Angie in tow and move toward the door where I look through the screen. Angie turns awkwardly, waves, and says, "Bye, Grandma!" Clayton lifts his hand without looking back, not so much a wave as a dismissal, but I wave anyway as they get in his car. Clayton does not open the door for her.
His car is black and shiny with chrome wheels, and it is jacked up in the rear like a bobcat about to leap on its prey. I feel anxious for my granddaughter, but only for an instant. The car starts with a loud burst of exhaust and rumbles and shakes as Clayton backs down the driveway. He drives off slowly with the clamor of the engine drifting away, low and heavy like the sound of a tractor going into the fields. My husband used to start the Allis Chalmers early in the morning, and I would hear it idling out by the machine shed. When he would drive by the house, the tractor's racket filled the rooms and emptied them back out as he went on down the lane. The sound of Clayton's car is like the sound of my husband going away.
Bye, Mrs. White, Clayton said as he was leaving.
I sit back down and watch television. A horde of young people run across a field as music plays . . . yes, I think, a Coke would be nice, but I am too tired and not thirsty enough to warrant getting back up. I am suddenly exhausted, downright bone-tired, and I know I'll be asleep before Angie ever returns. The truth of the matter is that I rarely know when she makes her way into the house, unless it's those times after the break of day when she slinks in like a stray cat. There are always excuses, tiresome and inexcusable excuses.
I try not to think about Angie and all her reasons for doing what she does as I turn on the lamp beside my chair, so I can read the magazine I put aside when Clayton came by, acting like he was doing me a favor when he came inside and strained out some conversation. Just a little buttering up was all it amounted to, before he took off with my granddaughter to do . . . Only God knows what they do, but I have my notions.
Once more I put aside thoughts of Angie and notice the woman's magazine has a pretty young blonde on the cover, scarcely what I would call a woman. Beneath her photograph is the title of an article, "Keeping Your Love Alive: Secrets for a Happy Marriage." I have read so many of these, and none is more than a little common sense. I wonder what kinds of people write such things. Have they been married nearly fifty years, as I was? Will they make it until "death do us part" like the preacher had made us vow?
I place the magazine back on the end table where the Bible always sits. A wedding gift from my Aunt Stella, its black leather cover has turned a faded grey. Inside, on a page entitled "Family Record," I wrote the names of my father and mother and my husband's mother and father. Beneath them I wrote my own name and Eddie's and the date we were married. On the pages that followed, I wrote in our children's names and the names of their children. In the family record there were blanks to fill in for all the marriages, baptisms, births, and deaths. My husband is listed in the book, written in among the deceased.
This evening when Clayton left, he said, "Bye, Mrs. White," as if I were married to a dead man.
Sitting in the chair that was my husband's favorite, I realize night has fully come. It seeped into the room like tea I might have left on the stove too long and forgotten about, retuning late and finding it too strong. I never have gotten used to the long days of summer, even though the seasons come and go the same way every year. On the farm, work and meals fit in around chores and the light of day, and summers always left me with too much work and not enough night. I've heard people describe themselves as day or night people. Me, I'm a winter person.
The fan sits on the floor in front of me, humming patiently, dragging its breeze across the room in slow arcs that make the curtains wave ghost-like around the inky rectangles of the open windows. Besides the fan's steady noise, the crackling voices on the television talk among themselves, my evening company. I never have been the type to entertain people, especially when I was younger. Family was always enough. In fact, the family all by itself was a crowd. I didn't need anyone else. More people always meant more work, and I always had plenty of that.
I spent long hours in the kitchen cooking meals that were devoured in mere minutes. Everyone ate as if it were one more chore to finish. Sometimes I only saw the top of my husband's head and his hands moving food that disappeared beneath his tobacco-stained mustache. He smacked and chewed and made gruff noises like an animal tearing apart flesh. Those sounds were the only way I knew the food was good because Eddie spoke mostly in negatives. He felt that if something was done right, nothing needed to be said. That was the way things were supposed to be.
When he spoke at all during supper, it was to complain about a farm hand that was slow or a piece of machinery that broke down. If he addressed me directly, it was to ask for something, like "Pass me the potatoes, Mama," and that would be all. I can't recall when he first started calling me "Mama" instead of "Dear," but then again, I never have noticed when changes take place. Only later do I ever realize things are different, and by then it's too late to say or do anything about any of it.
It was the same way with the children. First there was one, and before I knew what happened there was a houseful of them. Back then, it was like I was in one of those trances, just moving from one point to another while they all grew up around me.
Randy was the first to leave, and he went on such bad terms. He never finished high school, and that was way past the days when boys had to quit because of work and such reasons as that. I know he could have finished, maybe done well, but he never had the choice. The principal called one day and said he couldn't come to school any more. He refused to do his schoolwork and the teachers could do nothing with him. It wasn't that Randy was a bad boy. I'm sure of that. And he was smart, too, but a different kind of smart.
That boy couldn't be expected to sit and read books and listen to teachers explain matters that weren't part of his world. No, Randy's world was not one of thoughts, but one of tools and machines, a world he could hold in his hands. Even when he was only a little boy, he loved tools and always preferred the toys he made to the store bought ones, which were few to begin with. A few pine blocks nailed to a board became a boat he sailed down the ditch beside the road. A broken wagon and a packing crate became a tank. His toys only got bigger as he got older. He was still a boy when he started working on farm machinery and cars and driving down back roads without a license whenever he thought he could get away with it.
It seemed like Randy lived in the machine shed behind the house. I'd call for him to come for supper, and when he finally came he would gulp down his food and be up again, heading for the door with a biscuit between his grease-stained fingers. As the sun went down, the machine-shed lights would come on. Later, I would walk outside and tell him to get ready for bed.
"Be done in a minute," he would say. But the banging and grinding would keep me awake for hours while my husband slept beside me, his snores ratcheting with each breath.
The day Randy had to quit school, he came home and went straight to the room he shared with his brothers. I tried to talk to him through the closed door, but he said, "I haven't got time." Later, one of his friends came by with an old truck, and they loaded it with Randy's things. He left, muttering something about not staying around to hear "any of the old man's crap." As I watched the truck drive away, my heart was heavy, but I was sure he would be back. After all, he was only sixteen. One day become another and another, and he was all moved in with the people he called his friends. His father didn't really seem to care, and eventually I ignored the place in my heart that was like lead because there were others to care for, and there was work to be done.
Still, I can remember Randy leaving so plainly because he was my first-born, the first to leave, the first to get married not much later. His wife was already in the family way, as ladies used to say, and I was a grandmother before I knew it.
After Randy, others left, one by one, but I can't recollect what it was like when each one went away. It is almost like my middle children, all five of them, are only one child in my mind. All of them together are simply my children.
Sometimes when I'm in town, old acquaintances will ask me about them, but I never have much to say. It was peculiar, but the other day a woman stopped her cart right in the aisle of the grocery store and took to showing me picture after picture of her children and their brood of young ones. Perhaps she was only being polite, after making me look at all those photos, but she asked me if I had any of my family. I propped my purse on a stack of canned cling peaches and took out the little plastic folio labeled "Grandmother's Pictures," which was a gift from Angie, but she was little then, and I'm sure her mother, Elaine, had bought it for her to give to me.
As I leafed through those pictures, I was surprised at how many there were, children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren. But I was most surprised at all the pictures of my own children. It seemed like there should have been only one for all of them, some crazy mixed up picture with locks of hair from each, eyes that were both brown and blue, features that were all different, yet the same. Just one picture, except for Randy and Elaine.
She stands out in my memories because she was the last, the baby of the family, and she seemed to stay that way longer than the rest, as if she knew there was no rush for her to grow up. She matured slowly and deliberately, staying at home even after she became a young woman. Then, suddenly like everything else, she said she was in love and leaving home, but not just home, she was leaving the state. On the day Elaine packed up and got in the truck with the man who became Angie's father, I saw them off and stood in the lane for a long while after they were out of sight. My husband went inside and left me there while I was thinking, "I am no longer a mother. The last one has left." It wasn't until then that I realized all the rest were really gone. Between Randy and Elaine, they had all slipped away.
My husband still called me Mama, and it wasn't too long after that when I became like a mother to him. After his stroke, I had to bathe him, dress him, and even feed him. We sold the farm because it was more than we could handle, but he was a farmer until he passed on. It was like something in him that wouldn't die, still sealed up in his body that wasn't good for work anymore. He still woke up before the sun, and I'd fix breakfast for him, just like always. I'd help him out to the living room, and he'd sit in his chair watching the farm reports, the news, and sometimes the cartoons. It was all the same to him, and eventually he'd doze off. One morning I couldn't wake him, and he was already gone.
After his funeral, when the children had all dispersed to their own homes yet again, I sat in his chair. It seemed I didn't have the energy for grief. Besides that, even with him gone, nothing had really changed. Everything remained the same as it was before, only more so.
I told Angie to call if she was ever going to be late or was in any trouble and needed help. I assumed that's what I was supposed to do when she came to live with me, and not more than a week later she started taking up with Clayton, who had no good reason to be with a girl as young as Angie, even if she did have all the charms of a woman. I had also told her own mother to call when she was her age, but, of course, she never did either.
Many nights I was wide-awake on my bed, as I am now, but back then I was next to my sleeping husband as Elaine tried to sneak into the house at some God-forsaken hour. Each step creaked and popped, but my husband slept through it all. He never noticed that his daughter was out all hours, and he never realized how many nights I would leave our bed and sit in the kitchen, ready to meet her and have a talk that would change everything and bring her back to being the same good girl I once knew. But, if the truth be told, we never really talked. I asked questions and waited while she sat silently, not even letting her eyes reveal their secrets, making fences with her gestures and a fortress out of her own silent rage that said: How dare you intrude in my life. Still, she stayed in our home, disobeying my wishes, but I couldn't send her away, and her father had nothing to say about it all, one way or another.
No, Elaine never called when she was staying out all night, but she remembered to phone when her husband left her. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Elaine was always independent-minded, but she wanted to be cared for anyway. She stayed home at an age when all of her friends had moved out and started homes of their own. Not once did she offer to pay anything toward the food she ate, and she couldn't be counted on to help with the littlest chore. She was probably like that in marriage, too, always taking, never putting back a thing. It takes work to make a marriage work, and she quit. She wanted to start all over. Is that ever possible? No, moving away wasn't starting over. It was simply finishing differently from what she had planned. Finishing poorly, I might add.
Elaine said she didn't have enough money to take Angie with her. Besides that, it wouldn't be good for Angie to go someplace totally different, someplace temporary while Elaine got back on her feet, as she put it. So Elaine asked if Angie could stay with me, just for the summer, just to give her a little time. How could I refuse, even though I am far too old to have teenager to look after?
All things considered, Angie and I get along rather well. The first days were no problem at all. Angie stayed in the house but kept from underfoot. Then she took up with that boy, staying out late and making me feel obligated to care like a parent all over again. Little really changed between us, though. We still made our way around the house, quietly avoiding each other and occasionally making a show of cordiality. Angie thinks she's smart about this, playing some game, but she needn't bother.
Sometimes Angie will be in the kitchen fixing a sandwich. "Would you like one?'" she will say, but she is always relieved when I tell her not to bother, and her smile slackens as she smears mayonnaise on her bread, ignoring me again.
No, we really have no terms between us, and Angie makes it easy to be unconcerned. I lie on the sheets damp with sweat while the fan pushes stale air over me, its sound a comfort that keeps the silence at bay. I say to myself, "Good night, old woman, good night," knowing I will be asleep long before Angie returns.
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