This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
Once again there are more
dead things than ever before.— MARTHA ZWEIG
~ ~ ~
We are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
We float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
We know that this is impossible.
We the people.
We believe all the words which thou hast spoken.
We cannot understand the words.
We fled all that day into the wilderness, even until it was dark.
We commanded the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us.
We will, we will rock you.
We cross this great water in darkness.
We lost a great number of our choice men.
We will change them into cedars.
We see there was no chance they should live forever.
We will change them into cedars.
We have spoken, which is the end.
We should call the name.
We should call the name.
We know that this is impossible.
~ ~ ~
“FAR FROM HERE, THERE’S A CHURCH. Inside the church, there’s a box. Inside the box is Judas’s hand.” Nat is slight and striking as a birch branch.
“Who cut it off?” Ruth asks. “How?”
But Nat’s a preacher in a fever. His lesson continues with a new topic. “Baby deer have no scent when they are born.” Nat conducts the air. “Keeps those babies safe as long as their stinking mothers stay far away.” This is how Nat loves Ruth. He fills her head with his wisdom.
“My mom doesn’t stink.”
“You don’t even know who your mom is, Ru.”
“Of course I do. She’s a veterinarian. She already had too many animals when I was born.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Ruth looks left, then right. “OK. She’s a bank robber. When you’re asleep, she brings me money.”
“Where’s all the cash, then? Are you hiding it in some big cardboard box?”
So Ruth swerves again, returning to the version of a mother she uses most often. “I mean my mom’s a bird, a red cardinal.”
“A male? Your mom’s a boy?”
“No, she isn’t. She’s a stone. Bones. I spit on her.” Nat steals confidence from thin air.
Ruth pulls her long dress tight across bent knees. She doesn’t even know enough about mothers to fabricate a good one. Her idea of a mother is like a non-dead person’s idea of heaven. It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she’s got now. “I’m just saying, wherever she is, she doesn’t stink.”
Nat flips the feathers of his hair. “Wherever she is. Exactly.” He holds his hand in a ray of sunlight. “I’m here now.” He lifts the hand that touched light up to her ear, squeezing the lobe, an odd, familiar affection between their bodies. Nat touches the scar on her face, tangled knots of tissue, keloid dots on her nose and cheeks. “Do you know how they deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?”
“I taught you this before. Please.” Nat is cruel or Nat is gentle. Nat hates/loves Ruth as much as he hates/loves himself. He’ll say, “Sleep on the floor tonight” or “I’m taking your blue coat. I like it” or “Stop crying right now.” But he’ll also say, “Eat this” and “You can dance, girl” and “Stay the fuck away from Ruth, or I’ll slice your ear cartilage off and give it to a dog to chew on.” When the Father raises a switch, Nat gives his back. “Are you just someone who wants to stay stupid?”
“No. Tell me.”
She wrinkles her nose.
“Don’t believe me? You’re welcome to shop elsewhere.”
“I believe you. You’re the only shop in town.”
They are alone in Love of Christ!’s bright living room. They are happiest when they are alone together. “Tell me what you know about light.”
“It’s the fastest thing in the world.”
“Faster than Jesus?”
“Way faster than Jesus.”
Dust turns before her eyes. “OK. I believe you.”
Nat looks right at her, smiles. “What killed Uncle Sam?”
She imagines a forgotten relative, an inheritance, a home. “Who’s that?”
“Samuel Wilson, the meatpacking man once called Uncle Sam. Symbol of our nation? He’s buried just down the road apiece. You didn’t even know Uncle Sam was dead.”
“I didn’t know Uncle Sam was a real person. What killed him?”
“Stupidity, girl. Stupidity.”
His, she wonders, or mine?
Nothing is near here, upstate New York. The scope of the galaxy seems reasonable. Light, traveling ten thousand years to reach Earth, makes sense because from here even the city of Troy, three miles away, is as distant as Venus. What difference could ten thousand light years make? Nat and Ruth have never been to Manhattan.
The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission is a brick bear spotted with mange. Handiwork from days past — ledge and brace doors, finger-joint chair rails, and hardwood floors — is being terrorized by state-provided, institutional, indestructible furniture common to dormitories and religious organizations. The house’s wooden floors are smooth as a gun butt. In summer Drosophila melanogaster breed in the compost pile. Each snaggletooth of a homestead constructed during the Civil War pleases Father Arthur, lord of the domain, founder of Love of Christ! “Hand of the creator,” he says. Clapboards that keep out only some of the wind; sills that have slipped off square; splinters as long as fingers. The house is always cold with a useless hearth since the State frowns on foster home fireplaces. “Meddlers!” Father Arthur unleashed his rage against bureaucracy, using a sledge on the innocent, elderly chimney. Now once a day when the sun reaches alignment, a sliver of light shines into the house through the busted-up flue, a precise astronomical calendar if anyone knew how to read it.
At Love of Christ! children feel the Lord, and the Lord is often furious and unpredictable, so Father Arthur cowers from corrupting influences. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women’s slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they’ve kept alive for years. Blessed be the bacteria. The children remain ignorant of the bountiful mysteries filling the nearby Price Chopper.
Boys at Love of Christ! wear black cotton pants and solid tops from a limited palette of white, tan, or brown. The girls wear plain dresses last seen on Little House on the Prairie reruns. Simple fabric, a few pale flowers, a modest length for working. Fingernails are clean and rounded. Teeth are scrubbed with baking soda. The old ways survive, and seasonal orders dictate.
But — like the olivine-bronzite chondrite meteor that surprised a Tomhannock Creek farmer back in 1863—corruption has a way of breaking through. New charges arrive with words from the outside: mad cow disease, La-Z-Boy recliner, Barbie doll.
“You know what Myst is?” Ruth asks Nat.
“M.I.S.T. Yes. A secretive branch of the Marines. Surprised you’ve heard of it.” He works with more confidence than facts.
“I thought it was a video game.”
“Video game? What’s that?”
When they had mothers, Nat’s read him books and fed him vitamins until a bad man bit off the tip of her right breast and told her he’d be back for the left one. She didn’t stop driving until she reached New York State. She left Nat at a babysitter’s house, disappearing with a hero from the personal ads, a man who appreciated firm thighs more than tiny kids and perfect breasts. Nat set fire to his first group home. No one died.
Ruth never knew her mom, but when she was young, her sister, Eleanor, lived at Love of Christ! El was like a mom. She petted Ruth at night, told Ruth she was beautiful despite the messed-up scar on her face. “When you were a baby,” El said, “you used to point at birds.” Then Eleanor turned eighteen.
“Real sorry.” The Father woke them with a fist on the door. “Time to go.” El jumped up. Ruth froze cold. She was only five. El stalled her departure in the driveway, but Ruth didn’t appear. “Bye,” El spoke to the house. No sign of Ruth. No blood vow to find one another once El got settled. It would be a long time before El would be able to come for her, if El, an unemployed eighteen-year-old, would ever be able to come for her five-year-old sister. Ruth breathed into the window upstairs, looked down on the driveway scene, a surgery in some anatomy theater removing the only familiar thing she’d ever known. El was leaving in the truck. Ruth had no idea where it would take her. A bus station? The YWCA? Some mall parking lot in the capital with eighty bucks and a crucifix from the Father in her bag? Ruth pushed harder into the pane. A black thread, lashed around the chrome bumper, yanked an organ from Ruth’s chest, dragged it in the dirt behind the Father’s truck like a couple of gory beer cans.
Ruth said nothing for two weeks. No one noticed. Eventually the State brought the Father a replacement, a boy named Nat who’d had trouble with matches and kerosene.
The Word became flesh and lived among them. The Word became flesh and lived among them. “You can be my sister now,” Ruth told him. That was the Word.
Nat was also five, small enough to stuff inside the tall white garbage bag of clothes he carried. “All right,” he agreed. “Sisters.” Nat moved into the room Ruth had shared with El — didn’t even change the sheets. One twin bed. They slept foot to face. Two heads on one body, joined like a knave card. Sisters.
Ruth grew. Nat grew. The bed stayed small. Her hair got longer. His beauty sharpened like a vampire’s, and while the Father was distracted by meditations on his messiah-hood, fantasizing his interview with Rolling Stone magazine and Oprah, some dewy bridge, a bundled corpus callosum, metastasized between the person of Nat and the person of Ruth. Their intimacy was obscene. The Father tried to separate them. It was ungodly, he said, the way Nat and Ruth clung to one another, shared a toothbrush. But Nat didn’t want to be separated. He drafted a report, accounts of drunken nights, corporal punishment, food shortages, and the possibility that state funds might have been used kitting out a black-and-orange monster truck the Father calls the Holy Roller. Nat showed his report to the Father. The Father never tried to split them up again.
Nat’s T-shirt DIESEL FUMES MAKE ME HORNY defies the dress code. His pants are slung under his pelvis bones. A channel of dark hair points toward his fly because at seventeen — save in the eyes of the State — Nat and Ruth aren’t really children anymore.
She curls her spine over bent legs. She holds the folds of her belly. On all fours, Nat rests his head in her lap. “All we need is a room somewhere. We can fix it up.” He plays the part of the man.
“And a pair of jeans for me,” Ruth says, playing the part of the woman.
“We’ll see.” Being a man is scary.
“Children! Come unload the van,” the Mother calls from the bottom of the stairs. The Mother is a part-time parishioner, part-time wife, part-time drug addict. She’s most visible in the residue she leaves after preparing midnight snacks or sneaking a shower. Her infrequent appearances allow the children to believe there is something holy about her, though she looks like the singer in a hair metal cocaine band. Purple velvet pants, high black boots. She’s got a homemade permanent wave, and her face is soft, as if termites have had their way with the undercarriage.
When the Mother’s around and right in the head, she cares for some of the home’s daily needs: shopping, cooking, math, science, the mission’s tax-free status, state inspections, and a Christmas light display so involved, planning begins in mid-August. She does not follow the Father’s partiality for olden times.
“Children! Supplies!” Or, for those who don’t cotton to an approaching Armageddon, groceries.
Nat and Ruth join the ranks outside. The Love of Christ! children are a rainbow of deformities.
Roberta, eleven, and her weird tiny body. She has an old face on a kid’s body. She raises stray kittens in the barn, relying on coyotes to cull her pack.
Tonya, sixteen, sold pencils and blowjobs when she lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her aunt. She compares the honeyed days of Worcester to “living on Capri,” the Tyrrhenian Sea island she once glimpsed as a photo in an Italian restaurant downtown on Ida Street.
Colly, fifteen, brown as a mummy, is a boy who thinks he’s a girl.
Vladimir, fifteen, the albino is Colly’s bunkmate. He once described to Ruth the pleasures of masturbating in a jar of mayonnaise. She’s not touched the condiment since.
Shauna, twelve, and Lisa, thirteen, are actual sisters. Their mother, another addict, sold them to their uncle when they were nine and ten. He turned them out and made a pretty penny until Shauna was picked up by the cops. They speak in their own language, spare and coded.
Raffaella, ten, has claw hands from arthritis.
Sarge, sixteen. Her real name is Sarah. She was a gutter punk who arrived at Love of Christ! with dark insects skittering beneath the skin of her forearms. In the race to be the most messed up, competition is steep between Sarge and
Tika, fifteen, a big girl who jig-tattooed the word “fuck” across her cheek and spelled it wrong, and
Ceph, seventeen, whose body seems broad as Niagara and disturbs thinking in the same way. He resembles a scoop of lard. Ceph is angry enough to deform DNA.
Then there’s Nat, seventeen.
Then there’s Ruth, seventeen, and her wormy mess of a scar.
The Father requests damaged wards, parents who are dead, retarded, in jail, all of the above. The more desperate the case, the more money the State gives him. “Got any ugly ones?” The Father doesn’t want reunions or adoptions. He doesn’t even want scheduled visitations. He wants converts. He wants Jesus Warriors, foster kids for indoctrination, labor, and money to fund his mission.
Still it is not all bad at Love of Christ! The Father takes each child’s face in his hands and reminds him or her, “You are the light of the world. You are the light.” Most of these children have never heard that before.
Still, the adjustment’s not smooth. New arrivals carve filthy words into their dry skin, aching for their absent mothers.
“You know who my mom is?” Colly asks one night. Four boys, two bunk beds. “Barbra Streisand. ‘People,’” Colly sings. “‘People who need people.’”
Ceph doesn’t get the joke. Ceph doesn’t know how white Barbra is.
Vladimir on the bunk below calls Ceph a dumbass, so Ceph pins Vladimir to the bed, strikes a lighter, and sets his hair on fire. The room fills with a sticky stench, caramelized and runny. Colly throws a blanket over both boys. Vladimir with scorched hair says nothing. No one tells the Father because the Father fetishizes obedience, developing creative punishments when he should be sleeping. He withholds food until a child becomes docile. He locks children in the downstairs bathroom. He strikes the soles of their feet with a wooden dowel or sprays a child with a frigid garden hose, then screams at the child to cover his or her immodest, naked body. He issues shunnings, forbidding anyone in the house from speaking to a particularly willful child. The Father practices holding therapy, which sounds tender but entails sitting on a child, pinning the arms and legs to humble and break the will.
And still Love of Christ! is better than some of the other options the State has for hard cases. The Father says, “Come with me and you won’t have to go back to public school, where just now a gang of sixteen-year-old thugs with nunchucks are anxious to sprinkle your teeth across the linoleum of F Wing. I have clothing, beds, food, and clean lavatories. I have a purpose for you, labor and the Lord. I have farm animals.” Other foster kids bounce from home to home and school to school, but the Father never lets a child go. He deposits checks from the State and makes up a list of chores. “Stay,” he says, imagining he’s a savior performing rescues — and, in some rank way, he is.
The children make a human chain from van to kitchen, hefting bags of groceries into the house. It’s hard to be the light of the world.
The Mother calmly praises their work. “Such strength. Such cooperation.” She sings, “‘Ride on, ride on, in Majesty!’” clapping the rhythm. She sings, “‘Mama, Mama, I’m coming home,’” an insensitive choice from Ozzy Osbourne but one of her favorites. The children unpack supplies into the pantry, so happy to have food in the house again. Not many American children get to know how lucky they are on such a regular basis.
The Father supervises from the doorjamb, nodding, praising the Mother in turn. “The very spirit of love, sister.” They’ll be getting it on later.
Raffaella hefts a twenty-pound bag of rice. Her arthritis is not bad today. “The Father and I prayed hard last night. God took away the pain.” Sometimes God takes away the pain, sometimes God sticks it back in, twisting the knife tang.
The Mother points at the kitchen crucifix, an emaciated thing. “Magnificent.”
Ruth takes a long peek down her nose. “Yeah. Jesus is a hottie.” Ruth does love Jesus, same way she loves Lincoln, Robin Hood, Martin Luther King, and Nat. Handsome men who fight for justice.
After morning chores comes school. The Father walks with the children out to the barn, a pied piper fantasy of the little children coming unto the Lord — if the Lord looked like a pale electronics department clerk. The Father wears natural-fiber clothing that he scrubs and starches before re-ruffling in an approximation of ancient Jerusalem chic. Every morning the Father braids his long hair, smoothing the split ends with beeswax. He coats his skin with a homebrewed sunscreen. He takes a spoonful of ground flaxseed and a spoonful of turmeric powder in his nightly goat’s milk. He self-administers a coffee colonic on the fifteenth of each month. On the sixteenth, he reports any visions experienced during the purge. And every now and then, he loses control, drinking nothing but Canadian whiskey for three days. The visions he receives when drunk are a different sort of sight.
On a steely cherry tree, Ruth keeps a feeder she made from a pie tin. Birds hop in the grass below, eating rejected seeds. A couple of sparrows, a few starlings, but every now and again a goldfinch or cardinal in his brilliant red coat. Hello, Mom.
Sarge opens the barn door, a huge thing on wheels and runners. There’s no heat inside. A number of plain benches rule the wooden floor. The goats are penned in the northern corner. The rafters reach high as a cathedral. Cobwebs too dusty for spiders drape the gables. The loft is filled with onion racks, devices of torture, traces of hay, urine, and hide. “Cold in here.”
“And Christ suffered.” The Father smiles. They enter the sanctuary, where he thrills his small congregation with vitriolic sermons each Saturday, the real Sabbath, so says the Father, so says the mission. The Father nods at the cross. “Yes, indeed. The Lord is reigning from the tree.” Ruth hears, The Lord is raining, leaving her with a kindly, catholic idea of God. God is the tree. God is the light. God is the rain that falls on everyone, even girls with ugly scars.
If you ask the Father what denomination, his answer is, “I follow the Bible. Heard of it?” Father Arthur takes from the Baptists, the Episcopalians, and the Evangelists. Ruth trusts Nat’s assessment of their caretaker best: “Part hippie, part psychopath.”
Public schools, zoning boards, and outsiders terrify him. They hide the devil and a bottle of booze. Before he was the Father, he was a drunk in Buffalo on the jam band circuit. That’s where he met the Mother. They’d drink and drug until the Lord saw fit to save their souls again. The hill is steep, but the Lord is full of forgiveness.
The Father rests one butt cheek on a stool set beside the lectern, like a folksinger in a coffeehouse. “Now. Where were we? The Jews? Yes, the Jews.”
Ruth speaks out of turn. “Jews invented eyeglasses.”
The Father is astonished. “Children, do we speak without being called on?”
No one answers.
“We do not. And where in God’s glorious kingdom did you get that idea?”
She’s not sure. It was just there in her head. She’s never even met a Jew, but she wanted to give them something, a weapon, eyeglasses, before the Father tears them down. Ruth shrugs.
“Let me ask again, the Jews?”
A number of hands shoot into the air; the children are anxious to placate the Father, to keep him at simmer.
The girl contorts her face in thought. She stands, hands clasped in front of her womb, the way the Father told her ladies stand. “Umm.”
“Begin again. No hesitation.”
“Right.” Tonya steadies her eyes. “Jews murder their children through abortion and Christ rejection.”
Tonya blushes in the blessing of correctness.
“And let’s not forget — slayers of Christ. Now, the Catholics?” The Father scans for volunteers, Price Is Right style. “Colly?”
Colly stands, the only black kid at Love of Christ! The Father keeps Colly around to defend against charges of racism. Or to have a whipping post.
Colly fluffs his sternum. “Mary was a sinner who masturbated in public.”
“Indeed. And what does God have in store for brothers and sisters who are selfish with their pleasures?”
“Fires of hell.” Like a platter of toothpicked cold cuts.
The Father steers the children from eternal death. “Undeniably. Watch for the cloven toe.” He eyes Colly. “I’ve told you of my profligate uncle and the night we dragged his drunken body from a charred mobile home up in Mooers?”
“Yes, sir. Last week. And the week before.”
“Flesh bubbled, burnt blacker than you even.” The Father looks up thoughtfully. “And oddly yellow in places where the pus fat had boiled to bursting. I can’t help but think of him when I see you, son.”
“Yes. You’ve told me, sir.”
“Burnt,” the Father repeats. “Slave to intoxicants.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Just checking. Because it’s important to Christ. He wants to forgive you. He wants to forgive all of us.”
The Father nods, smiles, moves on. “Good. So, Nat. Mormons.”
“Mormons are just like you and me.”
The other children hold their breath.
The Father sounds a dull buzz. “Just like us?” Slowly, chuckling. “We kidnap blond children and sodomize them while wearing magic underpants?” A number of the students snicker. The Father joins them in this laugh. Ruth looks to Nat. Ruth’s hair is brown. “I’ve always appreciated your vivid imagination, Nat, but this is our history, and history asks us for facts, not fiction. Take a seat, son.”
The Father mopes, staring at his shoes. “Ruth? How can I sleep at night when your soul will roast in perdition?” He’s overcome by his sorrow. “Tell me how you love Jesus. Tell me how you adore his flesh and spirit.” When the Father speaks of Jesus, it’s so intimate it embarrasses Ruth, like he’s talking about his penis or a case of hemorrhoids. Other days, better days, the Father mentions grace, mercy, and the majestic beauty of God’s promised kingdom. Once Ruth even heard him say, “Christians glory in the well-being of others.” But not today.
“I don’t know, Father Arthur. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Correct.” He blooms into a smile. “Tomorrow,” he announces, “Muslims!”
Ruth takes a seat, and the Father begins the day’s lesson on the chalkboard, geometric proofs detailing how the three branches of American government — executive, legislative, and judicial — are a false trinity. The lesson is long. The Father includes stops along the way at the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation (big smiles to Colly) and Roe v. Wade. The Father knows the story of history and manages to actually educate the children by teaching them to think and ask questions, to not accept the rubbish they hear, especially his rubbish.
Every day the lesson winds up at the Apocalypse. Total financial collapse, hurricane, earthquake, or nuclear war — it makes no difference to him. The Father used to prepare to survive the Apocalypse, spending the State’s money on rations and rifles. He taught the children skills to live through the devastation: farming, engineering, dowsing, husbandry, canning, intermediate nursing, and marksmanship to destroy the hungry hordes moving north from the city. Then one morning, coming off a binge, John 2:15 came to him. “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” At breakfast he told the children, “I don’t want us to survive.” He looked around the room. “What was I thinking, children? Trying to forestall the time when we will dwell with Heavenly Father in paradise? I must have been nuts.” Which, of course, he was.
When the Father’s done, he asks, “Ruth? You ready?” Once a week, as a senior student in his school, she’s allowed to teach the other children about birds.
Ruth straightens her dress. “Thank you.” In a quiet voice she tells the others, “This week, you might be interested in the Red-Eyed Vireo.” She flips through herPeterson Field Guide, a present from the Father last Christmas, her only present and a generous one, as most books are not allowed at Love of Christ! “These birds build cup-shaped nests in the forks of trees and fall victim to brood parasitism at the hands of the cowbird. Does anyone know what that means?”
“That’s when cowbirds slip their eggs into the vireo’s nest so they won’t have to raise their own babies.” Ruth moves through mating habits, habitat, diet, and migration patterns. “The good news is vireos spend their winters in South America.”
After class, more chores. The Father retires to his private quarters, bolting his door. Rumors say he’s got his liquor, an Internet connection, and the only phone in the house in there.
Outside the barn there’s a plastic playhouse partially melted by vandals with a roofing torch. The Father keeps it around as a metaphor. Ruth thinks of her melted face, her endangered soul.
Nat and Ruth wash clothes in the laundry room. She handles undershirts; he pairs the piles of socks. Alone with Nat, a perfect place can exist, their own terrarium. “Nat.” She lifts a clean shirt. He smiles. Her nose detects the alkylbenzene sulfonate surfactant in the laundry soap. She twitches. A sneeze mounts in her lower meatus. She swallows it.
They carry the damp bedclothes out to the drying line, the light of the long afternoon sun. In the yard behind the house, they hang blankets and sheets to dry. Nat makes a hidden place for them in the linens, away from the other kids. Ruth sweeps some dried leaves into a nest. He grabs her arm. “Pretend you’re my wife. Lie underneath me.”
She lies down. He takes his place on top of her. Two flat, straight, clothed bodies. Nat pins her to the earth, and Ruth doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even brush a hard stem or stick from her neck. They feel one another through their clothes, all the systems of their bodies — circulatory, respiratory, others whose names they can’t remember just then. They don’t kiss or grope. They’re sisters. Some time passes, some birds overhead. Nat stands, dust his knees, and returns to hanging laundry.
“Wait,” Ruth says. “Pretend I’m your wife still, but pretend I cheated on you with your boss. You have to punish me.”
Nat lashes her to the clothing line with imagined ropes. He lifts her dress over her head. He beats her bare back with a real stripped branch, gently at first. “Jezebel. Judas.” When he strikes, rainbows are released from her skin. Three, four, five. She feels it. He lets in the air. Nine, ten lashes until finally she says, “That’s good. Thanks.”
Six damp sheets make a house. The afternoon sun warms the small room. If this were a Father-approved Christian teen movie, Chastity and Adam or In the Sheaves, this would be the moment where the young sweethearts feel God’s love burning into them and the righteousness of their lives, imagining their wedding day. But Nat and Ruth — having just finished a tidy whipping — are not a Christian movie. “Sinners,” he says.
“Jesus doesn’t mind. He’s like us. He is us.”
“Sure. And you. Your mom. Telephone poles, flowers.”
They return to the house more twisted into one another than they’d been the day before.
After chores, the Mother, and thus dinner, cannot be found. This is not unusual.
The Father doles out three dollars and sixty-five cents per child. They pile into the pickup. He drives to town. The Father says, “Heavenly Deity, we are grateful for these gifts we are about to receive.” The Father waits while the children get supper at Hook’s Diner. Hamburgers cost two twenty-five. The waitresses scowl at the non-tipping orphans. The other diners stare at the children’s clothing, wondering if they are involved with a historical reenactment museum.
Nat and Ruth pool their funds for an open-faced roast turkey sandwich with gravy. Roberta eats a slice of apple pie, pocketing the rest of her cash so she’s got some savings. It’s risky. Things get stolen in the home. Underwear, food, toothbrushes, money, of course, photos of strangers. Many of these stolen items end up in Nat’s dresser drawers.
The Father storms through room check. “I will plow your fallow ground! I will plant the seeds of understanding! I will cut off the ugly head of self-centeredness in you like a venomous viper in a baby’s crib. Draw into a quiet shell and obey!” Spit flies. The Father crushes his fists together, wondering what Trojan den of iniquity his wife disappeared into today. He imagines her dancing on tabletops. He falls down to his knees and back up again, amazing feats of strength powered by jealousy. “Now let me hear you sing praises to God!” which confuses a number of the children. Draw into a quiet shell or sing? The Father passes out state-mandated anti-psychotics to some, Adderall to most. The Father starts a hymn. “And if the devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack!” He claps his hands while Ruth, Nat, and the other children join in. A blessed day at Love of Christ! comes to an end.
~ ~ ~
INDEMNITY IS A SUM PAID from A to B by way of compensation for a particular loss suffered by B. From eight-thirty until nine in the morning, I skim through claims. Three house fires. Seven no-fault car accidents. A flood. One act of vandalism. Who is responsible? That depends. I gulp cooling coffee. I don’t handle business claims or life insurance. I make phone calls. After lunch I have an inspection in the field. I check the battery on my camera. By nine-thirty I need a break. I fire up my computer and run a search on Lord’s wife, Janine. Nothing new. No obituary or anything. A couple of old records she broke in high school track and a picture from when she worked in real estate. Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Hair on her head. There’s nothing special about Lord’s wife.
I click a link to a house in Budapest where the carpeting cost four hundred seven dollars a square foot. My coworker Monique comes by. I show her the carpeting. “What’s the big deal?” she asks, squeezing the bridge of her nose. Monique settles into her cubicle, sniffling mucus down her throat. “I’m oozing like a slug.” From a blister pack, Monique pops a capsule brewed with such lovely stuff as guaifenesin, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, sodium carboxymethyl, and magnesium stearate. A little something to get the chemical day started.
I compare prices on a couple pair of shoes, break off the corner of a nut-’n’-strawberry-flavored fruit breakfast bar. Overhead a fluorescent flickers. I order the more expensive pair and experience a feeling of euphoria. Having made the correct shoe choice, I now understand the nature of mystery in the universe. I now belong to a tribe of shod people. Waves of enthusiasm and moral righteousness inflate me straight up to heaven.
I click to check the weather. I read some news about Hollywood. The actor we thought was gay is gay, and this warms me, being part of a human crisis, tucked in with the rest of you who also knew he was gay, and Look! We were right. I search for a rice pudding recipe, my favorite. I cultivate a public persona based on my love of rice pudding. The girls in my college dormitory knew me as such, and now the people I work with share the same truth. I no longer wrestle with the challenges of identity. I am the woman who likes rice pudding, who wears fantastic shoes.
At ten I visit the ladies’ room, hoping it will be empty. It’s not. Denise is there. Denise handles life insurance, all the fraud and fun. Denise self-tans. She dabs her lipstick and glares at me. “Cora. Kind of rhymes with whore.” She smiles at herself in the mirror, tossing the brown paper towel with her purple lip impression into the trash before leaving. The door shuts.
“Denise,” I mutter. “Kind of rhymes with fucking twat.”
Back at my computer, I e-mail Kendra in sales: “Denise eats donkey dick.” I e-mail Joe in security: “Just saw Denise Clint stealing toilet paper from the ladies’ room. Again.”
Her boyfriend, Mike the claims inspector, flirts with me. B.F.D. We had lunch once, and he spent the whole time talking about her. He told me Denise likes it rough, as if that were something really special, as if she’s an angel come down from heaven because she likes her heinie paddled. Mike went starry-eyed thinking about slapping her orange thighs. “She likes it rough? Who doesn’t?” I asked. “Who, for Pete’s sake, doesn’t?”
I do a search for my name. Same as yesterday. Some flight attendant who got fired for throwing hot tea on a passenger; the mug shot of a woman arrested for obstructing justice; some teenage Mormon girl’s blog; an adjunct professor of environmental science; then me, insurance adjuster, one-time Daisy girl, one-time honor student, dean’s list, et cetera. I live far from the top of the search engine results. This is my cross to bear.
If I plotted a map of every person named Cora Sykes on planet Earth, what would the map look like? What secret history would be revealed? Maybe better not to know.
I check the headlines. I check the traffic. I check on Lord’s wife, Janine, again. No change, she’s still not dead according to the Internet. I leave for lunch.
Outside a bunch of starlings sit on a wire above the parking lot. I italicize them with my eyes. Copy and paste them right down the phone line. My computer and I spend a lot of time together. Like a dog and its master, I’m starting to look like it, act like it. I ask Google, “Why do I suck?” or “Should I break up with Lord?” I think I can edit/undo things with my mind, say, a cup of spilled coffee or an unintended pregnancy.
Lord is my boyfriend. Weird name, I know. Lord is married to Janine. Lord has romantic delusions about things like girls, hunting, marriage, honor, poetry, the ocean, America, facial hair. He used to be a Marine. Janine, Marine. I could write a poem. He once left a wild turkey on my doorstep, imagining I’d truss it up and serve it to him for dinner. I covered it with a black garbage bag and dragged it out to the curb. Lord grew a mustache to fool me into thinking he’s actually a man. Like a real, real man, as in a human male who takes care of someone besides himself. I am the child of a single mom. I don’t believe in real men. I also don’t believe in the lottery or God. They are stories we tell ourselves at night when we’re scared. I’m not scared of anything anymore. I know no one else is going to take care of me.
Lord’s in my driveway when I get home from work.
“You want to go camping tonight?”
“Is your wife coming?” I regret that I cannot stop myself from asking these types of questions.
He grips the wheel. “You want to go or not?”
I check with the sky. “All right,” I tell him. “All right.”
We drive over to the Finger Lakes. We fill his packs with food, clothes, beers, and start our hike as the sun sets. All the while Lord quizzes me about birdcalls, bird species.
“I don’t know, Lord. I just don’t know.”
“Pileated.” His disappointment reeks. “Who doesn’t know the pileated woodpecker? Mercy. Were you raised by wolves?”
“No,” he says. “Even a wolf would know the pileated woodpecker.”
I was raised by Eleanor, my mom. She’s not a wolf, but she was pregnant, homeless, and alone at eighteen, so almost a wolf. She still works at least two jobs. She never trusted babysitters so I raised myself. Maybe I’m the wolf.
We hike a mile. It gets dark. Lord’s wearing a headlight. I follow along behind, stumbling some. I use the screen of my smartphone to see until the battery goes dead. We build a fire in the woods and eat stew dinner from a can with hunks of cheddar cheese melted on top. Then a few bites from a chocolate bar. Lord belches. “‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O no. It is an ever-fixed—’”
“How’d you learn that?” I’ve got to tamp him down sometimes.
He coughs. Spits. “I read books. Ever heard of ’em?” Lord’s got a hateful streak here in the forest. At home too. But I’m trying to improve myself so I listen to him.
“What’s that mean, computer girl? What kind of books do you read?”
It takes me a second to say it. Not because I don’t know who I am but because Lord throws off a lot of interference. “I like ghost stories.”
“Ghost stories suck.”
“They aren’t real.”
“Yeah.” He drinks his beer.
“All stories are ghost stories,” I tell him.
“Is that right?”
“Yup.” He’s making fun of me. I don’t care. “You want to hear one?”
“A ghost story?”
“Sure. Here we go.” But then I don’t start yet. I want it quiet, real scary and silent, before I say anything. Let Lord listen to the woods. OK. OK. OK. “You know West Lane, the twisty road that heads out to the highway?”
“Well, it was dark out there one night. It’s always dark out there, right? Raining. You know. A dark road. Wet road. No one around.” I put plenty of space between each small description. Slowly, slowly. “A man, fella around your age, was driving home on that road, squinting through the raindrops on his windshield when all the sudden there’s a pretty girl standing in the street, eight years old, wearing a summer dress, wrong for the weather. Think she was in my cousin’s class at school, but I don’t remember her name. Maybe you knew her. Anyway, guy slams on the brakes. Right?”
I look into the woods. I look at my hands in the firelight. “He tells her to get in. It’s freezing, wet, cold. ‘Climb in,’ he says. ‘I’ll take you home.’ Right?”
Lord nods. “Right,” like I’m wasting his time.
“‘Thank you,’ she says, and I know,” I tell Lord, “if you’re like me, you think that’s the scary part, right? Young girl, bad dude? That’s not the scary part. Just hold on. Girl says, ‘My mother will be worried.’”
I’m doing my best with the voices, girl’s voice high, man’s voice low. And both voices slowly, slowly. Scary.
“Then he asks her, ‘What are you doing out here alone at night?’ The girl was so young and brave, acting like she had no reason in the world to be scared, like she’d never even imagined the bad things men do to girls every moment of every day.” I am required to apply guilt to Lord, remind him how much he and, really, all men suck. “‘There was a party,’ the girl tells the man, or a recital, something like that. I can’t remember where she was coming from. But she climbs in his car. ‘What address?’ he asks. ‘Just up over the ridge. You know Horseshoe Hill? Half a mile past that.’
“The two drive on, and it’s quiet in the car. He notices she’s shivering. ‘Take my coat.’ He wraps it over her shoulders, a tan windbreaker, a real gentleman or maybe not. Maybe that’s what a total creep would do, hard to say because, you know, it could have been a bad situation.
“The rain picked up, lashing the windshield, and he had to concentrate again just to keep the car on the road. It’s dark out that way. Finally the girl stops him. ‘Here it is. Just there.’ And you’re like, phew. The little girl made it home safely. A small white cape. Very tidy. You know it? I’ve looked for it, but I’m not totally sure which one it is. You know it?”
I watch the fire for a bit, saying nothing. I rub my thighs, pushing them open just the slightest bit to remind Lord what’s between them. I look off again into the dark woods beyond our fire. I know Lord’s horny because he’s always horny, old guy, young girl. But I can’t tell if he’s scared. I want him to be scared. I watch the woods. I let the story percolate.
“So. The guy pulls over, and the little girl dashes out of the car, darting across the road into the darkness and rain. He can’t see where she went or if she made it safely inside because of the rain. For a minute he thinks, ‘Forget it. I did my job.’ Turns out the guy’s not a creep, turns out he’s OK. He had parents who loved him. But he’s so OK that he can’t help it. He’s worried about the girl. Plus, she has his coat, so he gets out. It’s late but the lights are on downstairs in the little house. He rings the bell, and almost immediately an older woman answers the door like she’d been waiting for him. ‘Don’t say anything,’ she tells him, which seems pretty weird. ‘Come in.’ Still he tries, ‘Ma’am,’ he says. ‘Ma’am, did a young—’ She doesn’t let him finish. ‘My daughter. Yes. Thank you. Please.’ She hurries him in. ‘Follow me.’ The guy is starting to freak out. Everyone’s acting weird and all that rain. Still, he follows her. The old woman leads the man upstairs and into a bedroom, a girl’s bedroom. He stumbles in and there’s a photo of his hitchhiker there on the bureau. ‘My daughter,’ the old woman says again, but it’s impossible that such an old woman could be the mother to such a young girl. He starts to question, ‘But—’ Again she interrupts. ‘Twenty years ago, on a night like this one,’ she says, and the hairs on his neck rise. The storm blows. He doesn’t want her to go on. Fear’s making, you know, static in his head. ‘My daughter was killed,’ she says. ‘Struck down by a car as she walked home. The driver never even stopped to see if she was all right. Now, when it rains, she returns. She comes back, finding a ride with some kind driver. She’s home,’ the woman said. ‘She’s home. She’s come back again.’
“‘No,’ he says. ‘No. No!’ The guy, he runs down the stairs, out the back door. The rain’s blinding him and he’s lost his bearings. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ the guy keeps telling himself — just like you — clenching his fists. He’s terrified, stumbling, trying not to see that right there in front of him, what he thought was a garden is a small graveyard, and in the graveyard is a tombstone and a low rusted wrought-iron fence. ‘No. No.’ He shakes his head, crazy because there, on top of the grave, is a tan windbreaker, his tan windbreaker, half buried in the muddy churned-up dirt.”
Then I get real quiet, watching the fire, nodding my head. Finally, I add the clincher. “Ghosts don’t care if we believe in them or—”
“Yeah?” I smile. I scared Lord.
“That’s the oldest story in the world.”
“It’s been told a million times. We used to tell it when we were kids. Different location and all, different item of clothing hanging out of the grave, but same story. It’s not real.”
I straighten my spine. Fucking jerk. “Doesn’t mean it’s not scary.”
“Yup.” Lord gives me a wink. “Pretty scary. Pretty, scar — BOO!” He pounces on me and bites into my cheek. Lord smells like boiled pasta. He digs his face into my chest, toggling between my boobs.
“You weren’t scared?”
Lord walks away from our campsite as if he’s going to take a pee. I shout into the woods. “It’s not real?” But Lord doesn’t answer and then Lord doesn’t come back, so I think it’s something a little more involved than pee, but he still doesn’t come back. A really, really long time passes, so I know what he’s trying to do. He wants me to think the bogeyman got him, think I’m all alone in the woods with a psycho on the loose.
I’m not going to let him do that to me. I put away the dinner dishes, strum his guitar, and later when I can’t think of anything else, I just sit there by the fire perfectly still with a fucked-up-looking clown smile on my face. I’m good at that. Lord’s too big a jerk to scare me. Orange light flickers on the underside of the tree branches. I think about the little girl who can’t stop coming back. I wonder what would make her come back. Love for her mother? Anger at the driver who killed her? Why keep coming back? Why not just stay dead?
Lord doesn’t explain anything when he returns. We do it like wild beasts for an hour right there in the dirt, like I’m the innocent little girl and he’s the big bad man with the car come to run me down.
Afterward he asks, “Do you want to shoot the gun?”
“Sure.” I’m still naked except for my hiking boots. The kick of his gun throws me three feet back. He thinks that’s the funniest thing ever. Lord opens more beers. I rub my arm. My shoulder will be bruised yellow for days.
“Janine was nineteen when I met her.”
His wife. Every freaking time the man comes, he starts feeling guilty. Every freaking orgasm.
“She was giving haircuts at a house party. Had no idea what she was doing, but the men lined up. Hatchet jobs. Including mine. Janine’s so beautiful, like a model almost. I’d let her do anything. She’s just so beautiful.”
He means: She is; you’re not. I want to tell him that she’s just normal-looking, nothing too special, but I’ve never met her and I don’t want him to know I stalk her on the Internet. He already thinks he’s better than me because he doesn’t use the Internet.
“We fell in love in a bloody way, thorns and hooks.”
Lord’s wiry and strong. “You must have been something at nineteen.” I hope that hurts. Lord’s old now. Forty-five, at least.
“Yeah. We got hitched and tangled together.”
This never stops him from sleeping with me.
“Well,” I say. “I can’t wait to meet her!”
He keeps a hand on his mustache. “We’d been married a year when she started screaming about men from the K.C.G. controlling people with solar panels and jet trails.”
“What’s the K.C.G.?”
“Kancer Containment Guard. Usually they’re harmless old men, bumbling and sweet, but sometimes they’re evil. They fill juice boxes with strychnine.”
Lord looks at me, disappointed again. I put my clothes on. He makes me miss my faithful computer.
“I believed every word she said. I’d even make stuff up myself to confirm it for her. Wall vents, I’d tell her. Suspicious-looking cars. I created bullshit evidence. But then Janine told me my sister Emilia was the head of the K.C.G. and that we needed to kill her.” Lord looks at me sideways. “You know my sister?”
I’ve never met his family.
“Emilia has spina bifida. She was twelve when Janine said that.” Lord reaches for another branch for the fire. He pauses for drama. He does that a lot. “I kept Janine home until she brought scissors to bed and tried to use them on my neck. ‘I’m cutting your hair!’ That’s what she was screaming.” Lord wraps both hands around his neck, choking himself. “She’s in the mental ward of the VA. Take your pill, watch TV, and sometime this afternoon an orderly will change your diaper.”
No wonder the Internet doesn’t have much to say about her. She’s in the loony bin. Lord’s wife is locked up like all the wives in a public television British miniseries. No wonder he’s so in love with her.
Lord looks up into the dark trees. He’s learned a lot from the movies. “Love of my life.”
“Well,” I say. “That’s real nice you love someone, even if it’s not me.”
And he nods. Like I mean it. Like I actually mean it.
The next day Lord drops me off at the end of my driveway. “I’ve got to get to the hospital before visiting hours are over.” I head up the drive. Purple loosestrife is beginning to bloom.
Eleanor and I live in the caretaker’s house on a larger property. The cottage belonged to El’s mother. She’s dead now. I still live with El. I pay rent. I buy food. I went to college. I cook and clean. I have a job. El and I get along fine.
She’s always working, and work has made her large, strong. She gets mistaken for a dyke or a biker or a dyke biker. She never tells me that I am alive because of her, but I know I am and I’m grateful, since it turns out that getting born is the best thing that can happen for your life.
Sometimes my mom and I go to a bar together, and the man she has her eye on has his eye on me. Though this opens up an unnatural seam between us, El has never turned against me. She’s had a couple boyfriends. She lets men visit, but they don’t stay. She says, “I like men.” But then she’ll say, “I like dogs” or “I like toast.” The truth is El likes me and not much else.
When I was a girl, there was so little to do around here. We lived with my grandma, a nasty woman. I avoided her, so before I was old enough for school, I was alone much of the time. I’d walk to the end of our driveway, a place of great opportunity where you could go one way or the other. Our street was quiet. Nothing much happened that I remember. No accidents or incidents of road rage. With the noise of other people gone, the sky could open up. The air, the grass, the asters, the stones on the road would take what they wanted, a little blood or breath, some nightmare or earwax. I didn’t mind. Nature would nibble, thinning my body out like a piece of burnt film, light streaming through the holes of me. I was as much a part of the natural world as a shredded brown leaf gnawed on by a grub. I’d wait for El to get home from work. She’d join me out on the driveway. She didn’t like my grandma either. I’d sit on her lap, and she’d sit on the gravel. She’d pat the skin of my hands, my arms. I’d tell her what I was thinking about holes and nature, and she’d say, “I know just what you mean.”
On Monday I head back to Erie Indemnity. “Hello, computer.” It never answers me. A girl I know from high school has posted new photos of her husband, her kid. Pictures of her drinking from the lip of a champagne bottle. Headlines say: STOCKS ARE DOWN. GOLD NAIL POLISH IS BEING WORN BY WOMEN IN THE KNOW. A war is being fought. Another girl I know posted footage of her C-section. I watch the doctor slicing her abdomen open. Her fat looks like last month’s ricotta. A guy I knew in college posts a photo of his kid bent over the toilet, vomiting. #puke #sickkid #dayoffwork. Another guy I know posts: “Not much to report here.”
I call Lord from the stairwell. There’s an elevator in my office building so only total freaks use the stairwell. I leave a message on his cell. “I’m pregnant.”
I’ve known for three weeks, though I have no idea how far along I am. I wasn’t paying attention, and I’ve never had regular periods anyway. Two months? Three months? Maybe even four. I was stuck with some stupid idea that Lord being married to someone else would stop me from getting pregnant. “I’m going to keep it,” I tell his voicemail, and after I hang up, I sit alone in the stairwell. I put my hands on my stomach. Somewhere inside there is my baby. I don’t care about Lord at all. I don’t think I even like him, but this baby, even though it’s barely here — some half-dead, half-alive thing — I feel it, and it’s something big. To me at least, in all my smallness, this baby is really something very big.
A few days later, Lord calls me back at home. I can hear cars rushing by on his end of the line as if he’s standing beside a highway. “You know anything about Safe Haven laws?” he asks.
“No. You drop a baby off at a hospital or police station. No questions.”
“Oh,” I tell him. “I’ll be fine. I won’t need that.”
“You don’t understand what I’m saying. Anyone can drop the kid off. It doesn’t have to be you. You don’t need ID. The baby just gets lost, becomes a ward of the state. Say someone were to take your baby. There’d be no way for you to find it again. It disappears into the system because it doesn’t have a name. See what I’m saying?”
“You can’t stop me from having it.”
“And you can’t stop me from getting rid of it.”
Two weeks of nothing goes by. When Lord calls again, he says he wants to make me dinner.
“You kill something?” The only times he’s made me dinner before is after he killed it. Venison with cranberry sauce, roasted duck, squirrel soup.
One good thing I can say about Lord — like if we were in couples counseling or something and I was required to provide one good quality about him — is that he isn’t marked by the fever for documenting each chicken he roasts. He’s old enough to have escaped social media. For people my age, including me, if we don’t post it, it never happened. People’s children will disappear if every ounce of magnificence is not made public and circulated widely. Lord’s not like that. He kisses me without considering if we’d look better under a Lo-Fi or Kelvin filter.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I’ve done some thinking, Cora. I’ve had a change of mind. OK?”
He shows up with a bag of groceries and some wine. I tell him no thanks to the wine. “Right,” he says. “Right. You’re pregnant.” He goes back to the kitchen. He makes spaghetti and meatballs. It’s just fine. Store-bought meat. I ask about his sister, and he says, “You ever seen Rosemary’s Baby? The movie?”
“It was on the other night. Good movie.”
He clears our plates and brings out two cups of tapioca pudding, one for him, one for me. “Your favorite, right?”
No, but he’s trying.
Lord feeds me the first bite. This is strange. “I can feed myself.” Tapioca is the unborn eggs of an alien fish species. Someone should design a video game called Tapioca Pudding. Still, he’s trying, so I eat some of this disgusting stuff. ...
All rights belong to the author: Samantha Hunt.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.