grew up four miles west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a small plot
of land with a hardscrabble house. My mother believed in doing things
the old-fashioned way: scratching out a small garden, hanging clothes
out on the line, even in the coldest of weather, keeping chickens and
a goat and a handful of cats.
father had been a history major who'd always dreamed of writing
books. But instead of making his own history, he chose to relive the
histories of others. Daddy was a reenactor, dressing up every day in
the costume of a Northerner, pretending to be someone he was not
while hordes of tourists got off long busses and acted interested
when all they really wanted to do was go out to dinner before hunting
going to pick up ghost hunting, Mary Ellen,” Daddy said one day
after he'd put away his gun and hung up his costume. “Weekends.”
He nodded at me. “Bobby here can go with me.”
shook her head. “Boy's too young to distinguish fact from fiction.”
seven ain't too young, is it, Bobby?” He grinned at me. “We'll
take a bunch of tourists to Devil's Den and just let 'em loose. ”
shook her head. “That ain't right, Frank.”
nudged me. “How many people came down this street last week,
looking for ghosts?”
people, figuring that all the tourism might have scared the ghosts
off, started to search on the outskirts of the area, bypassing the
haunted hotels and restaurants, even the battlefield. They spread
around in ever-widening concentric circles looking for something to
believe in. “Five cars, at least,” I said.
that, Mary Ellen?”
yesterday, a boy about my age got out of a white BMW while his daddy
sat in the car. He stepped onto the front porch and asked me if I'd
ever met a ghost.”
you tell him?” Daddy wanted to know.
didn't answer him.” Truth be told, I wasn't sure if I had.
snickered. “Can't you just see all those New Yorkers, picking their
way through the rocks, taking care not to break an ankle, looking all
wide-eyed and scared in their fancy clothes?”
make light of a place where so many people died.”
pay the bills, Mary Ellen.” Daddy said and his mouth was in a
straight line which told Momma that she'd better keep her mouth shut
if she knew what was good for her. She sighed and started cleaning
the chicken she'd slaughtered that afternoon. Daddy grabbed his
guitar from the stand beside the fireplace. He sat at the kitchen
table and picked out a simple tune, his eyes searching the dusty air
for the memory of music.
started up his ghost hunting business. He kept Momma's protests quiet
with his fists. And three years later, my father took me to the front
porch. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Bobby. You're the
man of the house now.”
remember laughing a little at that. A man at ten.
got to go, Bobby. It's time for me to make my own history.”
then he was gone.
or fried,” my mother asked me on my seventeenth birthday.
looked up from my math homework, irritated by this interruption. “Why
are you asking me that? You know I like my chicken fried.”
giving you the option,” she replied.
a lot,” I said. “I'm hungry.”
she'd prepared the chicken and tucked it into the frying pan, my
mother pulled the guitar from the stand.
narrowed my eyes. “You leave my father's guitar alone.”
shook her head. “This isn't your father's guitar. It belongs to
me.” She settled it on her lap, curled her body around it just so,
like she was cradling a newborn baby and I knew, watching that
instrument become a part of her body, that she was telling the truth.
At first, her fingers wandered, high-stepping the strings like a hen
in tall grass, carefully plucking her way around an old familiar
place. The creases on her face smoothed out and I could see my mother
as a young woman. As a beautiful woman.
she warmed to the music, her fingers remembering how to play in the
same way her hand never forgot how to wring the neck of a chicken.
She closed her eyes and settled into her song, the way a chicken
settles upon the prize of an egg and my mother's playing went from
this translucent, shivering thing to something of confidence and
strength and beauty.
that smell?” I said.
opened her eyes and the music dripped from her fingertips and puddled
on the floor. “Oh good lord, that's the chicken.” She replaced
the guitar in its stand and hurried to the kitchen.
burned it,” I said, watching her pick up the tongs, flipping legs,
thighs, breasts. “You ruined my birthday meal.”
sorry,” she said. “I didn't mean to.”
stepped right into my daddy's shoes then. I reached up my manly hand
and smacked my mother across the cheek, the way I'd seen my father
do. “No wonder he left you.”
mother's smile was wistful. “Your father didn't leave me. I kicked
stared, surprised. “You're not kicking me out.”
don't intend to.”
right, you don't intend to. When Daddy left he told me I was the man
of the house.”
laughed and set her tongs on the counter. “Well, I guess my job
here is done,” she said as she left the kitchen.
you going?” I asked. “You've got that mess to clean up.”
picked up her guitar and walked to the front door. “You can take
care of yourself now.” She paused at the door. “Maybe you should
pay more attention to your past before you head into your future.”
set up shop in an alley beside a restaurant, where the tourists came
to gawk and read the little historical plaques scattered like chicken
feed around the town. She played for eight hours straight every day
and spent her nights in a shelter.
chickens were eaten by a coyote. The goat dried up. The cats ran off.
I found myself a girl willing to bring it all back.
my nineteenth birthday, I went to find my mother. I stood at the
square, arms crossed, watching her play on the hotel's front porch.
The people smiled at one another, tapping their feet to the music,
nodding when they recognized a song. I watched her play for two
hours.When she was done, I walked up to her. “Come home, Momma.
Sasha's frying up some chicken.”
mother set her guitar in her case and folded down the hinges. “I
hate fried chicken, Billy.” She stood and picked up her case. “I
always preferred it baked.” She smiled and ran her finger along my
jawline. “I'm headed out tomorrow.”
I always thought she'd come home.
me a recording contract.” She smiled. “I've been discovered by
one of those New Yorkers your father was always mocking.”
laughed. “Come on, Momma. Winter's coming on.”
turned and walked away, the case bumping against her leg with every
months later, I saw her on a television show. Her hair was cut and
styled. She had on new clothes. She looked right into the camera and
I felt her eyes touch mine. Then she picked up her guitar and began
to play. When she opened her mouth to sing, Sasha rushed into the
room. “Who is that?”
one,” I said.
your mother! She's got the voice of an angel!”
does not.” I clicked the television off.
mother went on tours. She began making all kinds of television
appearances. I couldn't go anywhere without seeing her face. The
tourists began showing up at the house, knocking at the door in the
middle of the night, wanting to see where it all began.
then, my father showed up. “It's time to get this family back
together again,” he said. He pulled out a chair and sat. “Give me
your mother's telephone number.”
doesn't have it.”
father narrowed his eyes. “I don't like your sass.”
Sasha said, hands on hips. If I squinted just right I could make out
the gentle swell of the baby she was carrying. “That's not my
you need to keep your woman in line,” my father said.
laughed long and hard. “The way you did?”
father narrowed his eyes. “Get out.”
worry.” Sasha began packing up her things, stuffing her belongings
into a suitcase. “I'm leaving.”
looked at my father. “All you've ever done is pretend.”
speared a piece of chicken and drew his knife across it.
and I took up residence in the same shelter where my mother had
lived. And in the quiet and stillness of the evenings, while my
father gave tours of his house to starry-eyed fans, Sasha and I
cradled our child between us.
hitting my mother a gift?” I whispered to Sasha one night.
wide-eyed me in the dark. “What?”
a man realize his right to freedom only when you do violence to him?”
I sat up on my elbows then. “By hitting my mother, did my
father...did I...give her the courage she needed to become who she is
baby cried and Sasha nestled him against her breast and I realize how
like an egg life is. Strong yet fragile. Messy and clean.
Unpredictable and contained. A tear slowly rolled down her cheek onto
our baby's head. “You need to stop justifying your actions, Bobby,
and face up to what you did. You and your father both.” She rose
and picked up her bag.
afraid you're going to get the urge to give me some courage.”
for the third time in my life, a person that I loved walked out on
took the baby with her.
guess that made four.
returned to live with my father, to help him give tours of our home.
am there still, searching for ghosts.
as I fall asleep, I can still hear the echo of my mother's guitar in
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