A Lonely, Cold Place
~for Jacque Wilson-Jordan, who always brings warmth with her
I rise in the dark brutality of mid-February, feel for my slippers, grope for my warm, parka-like robe and cinch it at my waist. I imagine this is what it is to be blind, as my fingertips dance along the surface of my husband’s great-grandmother’s bureau top. I run them over the butterfly stitch of my favorite hat, then put it on, pulling it down over my ears. Before the wood-burning stove is good and going, the house is a lonely, cold place and although we have been here for half a year, I am still learning it, still finding my way.
But I feel as though this morning ritual has always been waiting for me, and I am most myself when I am focused on emptying the ash hopper without spilling it, balling the newspaper in its empty mouth, then listening to the metallic slide until it has caught and found its place. Once I thought the kindling needed to be small, dried twigs, but fire will consume any wood if it is kept dry enough, and oh, the pleasure I take in lighting the newspaper, and then opening the door to look into the belly, to watch the flames leap and lick the wood before consuming it. I always smell the sulfur of the extinguished match before I toss it in, then turn and wait for my backside to warm before I move to melt my front. I place the kettle on, already full of well water. When it boils I will use the French press, but until then I stand and wait until I can take a proper heat bath. This silence is the closest I get to praying, although my husband urges me to attend AA meetings in Wheelhouse, 38 miles away, with him, make it a date night even, where we could eat out or catch a show, but it seems foolish to me to risk our necks on the potholed, ice-rimmed roads. Jerry looks at it as though he wouldn’t be 6 months sober otherwise, so he’d be risking his neck if he didn’t risk his neck. I think I am managing on my own just fine, and I have my bread and soups and knitting, and I sell them all, and it is enough to be secluded, unable to see our closest neighbor’s house three miles away. I have my books and this house, his great-grandmother’s, bequeathed upon Jerry’s own mother’s death. We live in a house full of her things, sleep in her bed on her sheets, and when we came we brought only our clothes and our aging Corolla that smelled like our dog, Atticus, even with the pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. That smell liked to have broke us, coming as we were from Illinois to North Dakota, fleeing as we were, ourselves or the selves responsible for Atticus’ death. Good God, we could barely stand to look at one another the whole trip. We had nothing left, and we weren’t sure we wanted to be married without Atticus.
It is only when the kettle whistles that I notice I am not alone, and then only because the shadows near the couch shift and I see there is a person, swaddled in quilts. “Good morning.” It is a man’s voice, and I nearly drop the kettle.
“Morning,’” I say, and then because I am in no frame of mind to be near people, I whisper, “Go back to sleep.” It is in this way that I find myself a prisoner in my own kitchen. The coffee and day old newspaper hold no pleasure, and so when the sky turns from black to blue, then the green yellow of a bruise, I am already letting honey-whole wheat, French baguettes, and cloverleaf rolls rise. I am putting the loaves of cinnamon oatmeal bread in the ancient oven to bake. The oven is testy, like Jerry’s own great-grandmother, but I have come to an understanding with it.
I know Jerry will sleep until mid-afternoon, as he’s never home until 4:00 a.m. from bar tending and closing up at The Copper Penny. The owners let him sell my bread and soups, my hats, socks, and scarves all done in outlandishly colorful yarn. Jerry can talk a shirt right off a man, dance money out of anyone’s wallet, but these days he’s turning that particular talent to his higher power. It is when the bread is done and I am at the counter, slicing off a piece to slather in butter that the man shows himself. He stands in the doorway, barefooted, in jeans and a t-shirt. Black, curly hair spills out of the neck of his shirt, and I look away from him because I feel I have seen something I shouldn’t, then back to take in his face. He’s young, maybe twenty-two, with a military buzz cut and a bony face, not an ounce of fat on him. From where he stands I can smell this morning’s whiskey, certain he was at the bar until Jerry closed up, no place to go so Jerry took him home. Jerry found Atticus in a box in a ditch, just a puppy, and brought him home to me in the same way. That dog. How to explain that a dog can blow open windows in your sad, alcohol soaked life, and be the only thing that made getting up and out possible? How I loved that dog. The young man clears his throat and flexes his fingers as if they ache. I butter the bread, put it on a plate, and reach out to the kid. “Here,” I say, and then “Sit.” He does. “Milk or coffee or coffee with milk?”
He smiles, “Coffee, no milk, but lots of sugar if you have it.” I nod. “Smells like heaven in here,” he says, “if heaven is a bakery, and I hope it is.”
“Amanda,” I say, suddenly self-conscious in my long underwear, flannel nightgown, robe, and slippers. My hair is in a thick braid that falls down the center of my back. I am 39 years old, but I might as well be his grandmother. I adjust my hat.
“Jimmy,” he says, mouth full, then, “Sorry, ma’am. Jerry told me all about you.”
“Please,” I ask, “no ma’aming? He did, did he?”
“Not like that. No disrespect intended. Just that you bake the most amazing bread. It’s how he convinced me to get in his truck. He described this, right here, painted a picture, and this kitchen is just what he said, only better. The same goes for this bread. I’m not sure anything’s ever tasted better.” I hand him a cup of coffee with two spoons of brown sugar. The mug trembles in his hands, and while the oven door is open to let the heat out as it cooled, I am glad for my hat, my robe. In his shirtsleeves, the boy is sweating. I sit myself, wishing Atticus was here to sit beside me, place his head in my lap.
When he is finished eating, I ask, “Another?”
“Not sure I could. Thank you.”
“There’s a shower, up the stairs, first door on your right. The water pressure is weak, but stay in there long enough, you’ll get clean. Do you need fresh clothes? I can lend you some of Jerry’s, and then wash what you have on.”
“That’s kind, ma’am, but my rucksack’s in the back of Jerry’s truck. That shower sounds fine. Then I’ll be on my way.”
“It’s twelve miles to the village. You don’t want to walk in subzero temps. I don’t drive myself, but Jerry will take you in around 5:00 p.m. tonight. We don’t have a television out here, but you can read and rest before you go where you’re going.”
“I don’t rightly know. I suppose home. I suppose Wheelhouse, but I’m not sure I can face seeing my mama in person, not after all what I’ve done.”
I nod. In mid-February, if people get an inch of quiet in the same room as another person, they’ll unburden themselves. I won’t do it myself, but like Jerry thinks his penance is pouring booze for other people, booze he can’t ever drink, and caring for the ones the booze he’s poured has laid out, well my penance is absorbing other’s pain without sharing my own.
“I got out, after two tours, and my buddy gave me a line on some oil rig work, and it was right up my alley, still a bit of a charge. Dangerous enough to be worthwhile. But I fell in with some bad people. I knew they was bad, and I knew what I was doing was bad—the drugs, the stealing, the violence, but it made a part of me feel good, feel satisfied. It was scratching a terrible itch. Then one day I was driving with my buddy, to our supplier, and he saw an oncoming car, a good half-mile away, but kicking up a smoke of dust and he grabbed the gun he kept in the side door and he just stopped, rolled down his window real calm like, and didn’t say a word, just drew a bead on the car and started shooting, and it veered off the shoulder and somehow managed to get back on the road, and he kept shooting, real measured and controlled until it made it past us. It was like a dream. People say that, don’t they, but it was, and then, plain as day, he put the gun away and we drove on, business as usual.”
He drinks the coffee. I run my thumb on the grain of the kitchen table. Over seventy years old, this table, but I bet it hasn’t been privy to any discussion like this.
“So that night, I threw my stuff in my bag and headed for home on the Greyhound, but when we went through the village I saw The Copper Penny. I made the bus driver stop. He wasn’t happy, but I couldn’t bear it. To see my own mom. To have her see me.”
I gather his plate, and my own, and nod. “You’ll feel better after you stand under some hot water and sleep off the night you had. I’ll grab you a towel, some fresh soap. You stand in there until the hot water runs out.”
In the linen closet, there it is, folded up—the giant beach towel we used for Atticus. Even folded up, I can make out part of the big yellow sun, smiling one quarter of its goofy smile on an aqua backdrop. Half Jack Russell, half Beagle, he loved baths and he smiled so goddamned much that we saw it, both of us thinking of Atticus, and we had to have it. We bought that towel from a promotional display at our favorite liquor store. He’d climb in the shower if we let him. Everything else is so threadbare, my mother-in-law’s towels almost see-through with use, and it feels like this young man needs a measure of comfort. Some direct sun light. I find if I don’t look at it directly, I can manage touching it, although inside, something in me is fracturing apart, like ice on the river. I bring it to him, with a seashell shaped soap that smells of lavender, and a bottle of aspirin. Up close, I notice his brown eyes, mostly because of the tears they hold, but he’s smiling at me, so grateful it hurts to look at him too, so I don’t. I push the bundle toward him and leave the room.
I go outside for wood, thankful for the harsh cold. The wind, it howls and the snow drifts like sand dunes. I stay out here until I can’t stand it, and then I take the wood in, stack it on the tiled area where it can’t scratch the hardwood floor. I open the stove door and prod the fire, pretend my own tears are all just from the move indoors, to heat. I stack the wood on the molten embers, bank the fire, and look into it as though it can tell me the future. As though it can tell me that Jerry and I will become people deserving of this world. That we won’t ever slide back into the bottle.
And I am thinking of Atticus, how on the walk back from the liquor store we had tied his leash to the back bumper of our parked Corolla, double knotted because he was smart and strong and wanted, always, and so badly, to be where we were. And we wanted to drink in our own living room without his tail spilling something, and we didn’t have a yard. And when we drank all of what we’d bought, a week’s worth of booze for most people, we had a fight that left us both flat, and bruised, and my lip busted wide open, my eye already swelling, on the kitchen floor. That I gathered myself up and somehow, got the keys and got it in me that I’d flee, just leave, leave Jerry and who I was with Jerry, and I got into the car, and Atticus must have been sleeping beneath it, where the concrete drive was pleasingly cool, and I drove drunk, drunk enough that I don’t remember pulling into the rest stop or passing out, just remember waking to the heat and the July sun and my back and butt and legs sticking to the seat. Just remember getting sick in the parking lot, once, twice, a third time, and freshening up, rinsing my mouth and drinking from the foul sink in the bathroom. It was when I came back to the car that the wind picked up enough to make the stout leather leash, its remains, flutter like a ribbon. And I was sick again, could do nothing but crouch on the curb, shaking, hysterical, until a state officer came. On the drive home, in the backseat, caged and howling, incoherent, I looked and looked for Atticus, or what remained of all that I loved, but we were on the other side of the interstate. What could really be seen that I hadn’t already imagined?
Somehow I found the words to tell Jerry. Maybe they were just sounds, maybe I just wailed and keened, and maybe there was enough of an ember between us for him to understand. Jerry said nothing, just crumbled. His body and his face, like the newspaper I put in the ash hopper each morning. The same week his mother passed, and states away, we became homeowners. We drove toward the only place that would have us. Jerry says that we have a chance to be who we really are here, and in a short time, Jerry seems to know everyone. It is enough for me to think of someone, anyone, coming in from the cold, putting my socks on their feet, warming my soup and bread before eating. “Pay What You Can” the coffee can says that Jerry puts out for my wares at The Copper Penny, and people I’ve never met regularly overpay. Some put notes in, addressing me by name although I’ve never met them, complimenting me in straightforward ways, and it makes my skin crawl with shame. Jerry says we are part of a community here, and he shakes his head in wonder of being accepted, but I am still here, and I know who we are, deep down. He seems to forget we carried ourselves with us when we came. And honestly, Jerry’s sober gentleness shakes me, leaves me feeling scrubbed raw and naked. He hasn’t raised a hand, much less his voice in six months time. In his desperation to make amends, he stammered it was the one good that came from such terrible harm. I can’t think of him saying it without losing my breath. My hand goes to my heart, as if to shield what is no longer there.
I walk back out into the cold I can’t ever really shake, and head to the truck. I wrangle the boy’s army green rucksack. It is as heavy and unwieldy as a dead body. The bitter wind finds all the places my clothing doesn’t cover. Every small bit that’s exposed, it lays claim to. It’s unforgiving and rightfully accusatory. I place the bag on my back, shoulder its ungainliness, and bend over to accommodate its weight. It’s so desolate here and I deserve it. I deserve every stinging bit of it.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, and Text Magazine. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She blogs about all things mysterious with her friend Rebekah at here. She can be found here.