That Made Four


I 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.

My 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 for ghosts.

I'm 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.”

Momma shook her head. “Boy's too young to distinguish fact from fiction.”

Hell, 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. ”

Momma shook her head. “That ain't right, Frank.”

Daddy nudged me. “How many people came down this street last week, looking for ghosts?”

Some 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.

See that, Mary Ellen?”

Just 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.”

What'd you tell him?” Daddy wanted to know.

I didn't answer him.” Truth be told, I wasn't sure if I had.

Daddy 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?”

Shouldn't make light of a place where so many people died.”

It'll 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.

Daddy 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.”

I remember laughing a little at that. A man at ten.

I've got to go, Bobby. It's time for me to make my own history.”

And then he was gone.

* * *

Baked or fried,” my mother asked me on my seventeenth birthday.

I looked up from my math homework, irritated by this interruption. “Why are you asking me that? You know I like my chicken fried.”

Just giving you the option,” she replied.

Make a lot,” I said. “I'm hungry.”

After she'd prepared the chicken and tucked it into the frying pan, my mother pulled the guitar from the stand.

I narrowed my eyes. “You leave my father's guitar alone.”

She 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.

Eventually, 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.

What's that smell?” I said.

Mamma 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.

You burned it,” I said, watching her pick up the tongs, flipping legs, thighs, breasts. “You ruined my birthday meal.”

I'm sorry,” she said. “I didn't mean to.”

I 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.”

My mother's smile was wistful. “Your father didn't leave me. I kicked him out.”

I stared, surprised. “You're not kicking me out.”

I don't intend to.”

That's right, you don't intend to. When Daddy left he told me I was the man of the house.”

Momma laughed and set her tongs on the counter. “Well, I guess my job here is done,” she said as she left the kitchen.

Where you going?” I asked. “You've got that mess to clean up.”

She 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.”

Momma 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.

The 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.

On 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.”

My 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.”

Where?” I always thought she'd come home.

Got me a recording contract.” She smiled. “I've been discovered by one of those New Yorkers your father was always mocking.”

I laughed. “Come on, Momma. Winter's coming on.”

She turned and walked away, the case bumping against her leg with every step.

Three 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?”

No one,” I said.

That's your mother! She's got the voice of an angel!”

She does not.” I clicked the television off.

My 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.

And 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.”

He doesn't have it.”

My father narrowed his eyes. “I don't like your sass.”

Well,” 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 problem.”

Son, you need to keep your woman in line,” my father said.

Sasha laughed long and hard. “The way you did?”

My father narrowed his eyes. “Get out.”

Don't worry.” Sasha began packing up her things, stuffing her belongings into a suitcase. “I'm leaving.”

I looked at my father. “All you've ever done is pretend.”

He speared a piece of chicken and drew his knife across it.

Sasha 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.

Was hitting my mother a gift?” I whispered to Sasha one night.

Sasha wide-eyed me in the dark. “What?”

Will 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 today?”

The 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.

Where you going?”

I'm afraid you're going to get the urge to give me some courage.”

And for the third time in my life, a person that I loved walked out on me.

She took the baby with her.

I guess that made four.

I returned to live with my father, to help him give tours of our home.

I am there still, searching for ghosts.

Sometimes, as I fall asleep, I can still hear the echo of my mother's guitar in the alleyway.


For the Scriptic.org prompt exchange this week, SAM at http://frommywriteside.wordpress.comgave me this prompt: You can still hear the echo of the guitar in the alleyway today.

I gave Katri at http://bookslikeher.wordpress.com/this prompt: Dear Mr. President. Dear Mr. Romney.

Labels: ,

Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams: That Made Four

Thursday, November 1, 2012

That Made Four


I 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.

My 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 for ghosts.

I'm 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.”

Momma shook her head. “Boy's too young to distinguish fact from fiction.”

Hell, 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. ”

Momma shook her head. “That ain't right, Frank.”

Daddy nudged me. “How many people came down this street last week, looking for ghosts?”

Some 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.

See that, Mary Ellen?”

Just 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.”

What'd you tell him?” Daddy wanted to know.

I didn't answer him.” Truth be told, I wasn't sure if I had.

Daddy 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?”

Shouldn't make light of a place where so many people died.”

It'll 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.

Daddy 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.”

I remember laughing a little at that. A man at ten.

I've got to go, Bobby. It's time for me to make my own history.”

And then he was gone.

* * *

Baked or fried,” my mother asked me on my seventeenth birthday.

I looked up from my math homework, irritated by this interruption. “Why are you asking me that? You know I like my chicken fried.”

Just giving you the option,” she replied.

Make a lot,” I said. “I'm hungry.”

After she'd prepared the chicken and tucked it into the frying pan, my mother pulled the guitar from the stand.

I narrowed my eyes. “You leave my father's guitar alone.”

She 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.

Eventually, 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.

What's that smell?” I said.

Mamma 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.

You burned it,” I said, watching her pick up the tongs, flipping legs, thighs, breasts. “You ruined my birthday meal.”

I'm sorry,” she said. “I didn't mean to.”

I 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.”

My mother's smile was wistful. “Your father didn't leave me. I kicked him out.”

I stared, surprised. “You're not kicking me out.”

I don't intend to.”

That's right, you don't intend to. When Daddy left he told me I was the man of the house.”

Momma laughed and set her tongs on the counter. “Well, I guess my job here is done,” she said as she left the kitchen.

Where you going?” I asked. “You've got that mess to clean up.”

She 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.”

Momma 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.

The 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.

On 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.”

My 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.”

Where?” I always thought she'd come home.

Got me a recording contract.” She smiled. “I've been discovered by one of those New Yorkers your father was always mocking.”

I laughed. “Come on, Momma. Winter's coming on.”

She turned and walked away, the case bumping against her leg with every step.

Three 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?”

No one,” I said.

That's your mother! She's got the voice of an angel!”

She does not.” I clicked the television off.

My 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.

And 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.”

He doesn't have it.”

My father narrowed his eyes. “I don't like your sass.”

Well,” 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 problem.”

Son, you need to keep your woman in line,” my father said.

Sasha laughed long and hard. “The way you did?”

My father narrowed his eyes. “Get out.”

Don't worry.” Sasha began packing up her things, stuffing her belongings into a suitcase. “I'm leaving.”

I looked at my father. “All you've ever done is pretend.”

He speared a piece of chicken and drew his knife across it.

Sasha 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.

Was hitting my mother a gift?” I whispered to Sasha one night.

Sasha wide-eyed me in the dark. “What?”

Will 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 today?”

The 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.

Where you going?”

I'm afraid you're going to get the urge to give me some courage.”

And for the third time in my life, a person that I loved walked out on me.

She took the baby with her.

I guess that made four.

I returned to live with my father, to help him give tours of our home.

I am there still, searching for ghosts.

Sometimes, as I fall asleep, I can still hear the echo of my mother's guitar in the alleyway.


For the Scriptic.org prompt exchange this week, SAM at http://frommywriteside.wordpress.comgave me this prompt: You can still hear the echo of the guitar in the alleyway today.

I gave Katri at http://bookslikeher.wordpress.com/this prompt: Dear Mr. President. Dear Mr. Romney.

Labels: ,

4 Comments:

At November 1, 2012 at 5:02 PM , Anonymous SAM said...

I have goosebumps. What beautiful writing.

 
At November 2, 2012 at 9:40 AM , Anonymous jaum said...

What a great story. Loved the twists and turns, and favorite line “Maybe you should pay more attention to your past before you head into your future.”

 
At November 2, 2012 at 10:52 AM , Anonymous juliamaestaley said...

Ahhh! God, Kelly, yet another winner. Totally awesome writing. Well done! :)

 
At November 2, 2012 at 1:47 PM , Anonymous Liandra Sy said...

That was beautiful. I love how your tone facilitated the movement from a happier, pastoral past to the disillusioned, woeful present without ever changing voices. Bravo!

www.yourpredefinedtaste.blogspot.com

 

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