Spring 1999, Volume 16.3
At My Father's House in Illinois, February, 1995
Shale Sloat graduated from the University of Colorado with a BA in Geology. She then spent 15 years in advertising, before returning to Arizona State University as a MFA student. Recently she lives in Reliance, Wyoming.
This was written during a serious illness.
I am accustomed to writing about landscape but at present the internal picture takes precedence. The outer view encompasses a gray-skied, bare-treed, cold and windy midwestern midwinter day, and my internal state is overwhelmed by longing. In a way I am thankful that the land is bleak; a blue sky over red cliffs, shadowed hills, or dark, abrupt mountainsides might provoke an unbearable contrast to the lock that despair has placed on my heart.
A short-needled fir, composed of a gently curving trunk and long branches that resemble dog tails, stands in front of my truck. I start the engine periodically and slide the heater lever far to the right to counter cold air that sinks through the windows. My brother paces outside, indifferent to the cold. He is not lazy per se, but for some reason he is not productive either, expending energy on the complications which can be made to adhere to any project, in the process derailing his efforts into lost canyons. I confess that this compulsion baffles me. Next weekend there will be a flea market west of Chicago which monthly attracts thousands of buyers come rain, snow, or as we have joked, nuclear peril. I have tried to find a reason, a rational reason that is, for why my brother will not sell there. All I have extracted from him is a reference to another dealer with whom he had a disagreement. He hinted that the man stalked him afterward, or showed up at the same place once or twice and looked evilly at him. (Might not two antique dealers show up at the same sales and auctions?) This all happened years ago, yet he will not sell at that market.
Today, we have dragged a trailer load of goods to the parking lot of an antique store, the same store my brother refused to venture into last week. He sent me instead with a box of things to sell but the owner was not in; I waited for an hour or so, passing the time by pricing egg cups, starched doilies and elfin figurines. My Ismael Garcia brother urged me to repeat the effort some days later but I declined, and surprisingly, he went himself to his profit, but last night he refused to attend an auction that this same man frequents.
I pause to look out at the gray Illinois sky, at cars which pass between the cement barn next to us and the plain houses across the street. My brother is in view where he leans against the flank of my truck. Rotund and nearly fifty, with a gray knit cap squashed over his forehead and greasy black hair straggling from beneath it, and wearing an arctic nylon parka with a ripped sleeve and other tears and many stains on the front, zipped up over a tan neck scarf, his hands tucked into what's left of the pockets, he tilts his face toward the dark, snow-spitting sky and I see that his glasses are dirty, too. He smiles at me and I smile back; two people could not be more unalike, but we are, nevertheless, family.
Barricaded by black trees and the winter box which besets my father's house, it is impossible for me to know what transpires in the larger world. A storm cloaked northern Illinois with ice during the night. A thick skin mimics the shape of my truck and the driveway appears to be cast from clear plastic. A plume of white powder drifts above the sidewalk, then settles; the source is a trowel held in my father's hand from which wood ashes trickle. Last night I swept the porch while my brother scrubbed the kitchen floor. He must know that we'll track the wet, gooey ashes inside. Still, he shakes trowelful after trowelful over the concrete like some medicine man might describe a chant. As he passes a red concrete goose, who like its sacred sisters guards the entry, she acquires a mantle of ashes.
Two tiny patches of blue sky can be seen for the first time in days, just above the tangled black oak branches at the edge of the lot. A small forest begins there, dense and unlovely like a hundred lines of type superimposed by a printer which is stuck.
When I was nine years old my father abandoned his mother and sister as if they were nothing. In the anxiety of this event I fled to the perimeter of the Garden, but his harsh judgement followed me there, worn into my thoughts like the hollows in the rocks beneath a waterfall. Thus I learned to reject the conception that an entity picks and chooses among us, who shall suffer and who shall prosper, as monstrous.
I sort, keeping a few manuscripts, photographs, and a quantity of art supplies. I possess few articles of clothing, no furniture and I've sold most of my books, retaining about ten volumes. Most significantly, I have $7.60. That's it. The last time I was equally short of cash I was likely seven or eight years old.
Spring ought to have made gains by now but our days remain gray and ice-sheathed. Without notice, something sharp and cautionary breaks through. Impulses one could call manic threaten the compliant, silent demeanor I have cultivated these many weeks. Happy hysteria is feared yet longed for, its green brightness something I must withhold, a peculiar, protective, irrational impulse.
Tiles in the shower enclosure fall away from plaster that is black in places with mold. Chunks tumble into the tub where they remain. I wash anyway, feeling a shadow of guilt by doing this healthy, normal thing. According to my father and brother I am ruining the bath because the extra, `unneeded' water will hasten the rot. The two calculate that by not bathing they can delay repairs indefinitely. I recall seeing my brother with damp hair on two occasions, my father never, but he hasn't much hair. I enter the bathroom appalled; if my mother were alive….
My father cuts deadfall with a chainsaw this morning. The branches are small, about three to four inches in diameter, and he cuts enough to fill the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, then rolls it up the lawn to the screened porch which is covered by plastic sheets that do not come off in summer. Unavailable as a bug-free haven, the space is reserved for makeshift stacks of scrapwood which he loads day and night, winter and summer, into the fireplace like bodies into a crematorium. It is my observation that neither the heat gained nor the life of the flames propels what he calls recycling. Broken up pallets and furniture, roof shingles and plastics are sacrificed to the darker purpose of being perverse for perversity's sake. He punishes the air we breathe in order to punish us.
My father is indifferent to the trees on his lot; none is trimmed, shaped, sprayed, or removed. Infested branches plummet audibly to the ground. Five bushes grow so closely to a spreading tree that they lean away as if attempting to flee. Apparently randomly placed metal rods, each with a rusted can balanced on its top, dot the yard. The placement of the rods, however, is not random. At one time tiny volunteer trees grew from seeds of the old, rotted hickory, and my father marked them in this way in order to avoid mowing them down. He may have done so; regardless, they died. Only the rods and cans remain, which I offered to remove, but he forbade me to do it.
We never mention my mother, but I thought of her tonight as I plucked giant yellow tulips from the front yard of my father's house. The tulips grow in clumps in the grass along a line marking a relict garden, which is why I thought of my mother. It was only to remark to myself how she would have liked to see the flowers, but as they were before she died, when the lawn was mowed, the beds were readied for planting, and the weeds kept away. Now, all is awry. The sidewalk has split and the lower section subsides so that a fault scarp as well as a pair of overturned urns must be negotiated on the way to the door. Next to the stoop a crater of unknown origin is being populated by bright green cones of convallaria that grow among ferns which lie brown and prostrate as if blown down by an explosion. We never mention my mother, as if there had always been just the three of us.
My brother and I toured the yard today in search of material I might use to build planters. Our contact over the three months I've been here has been cordially formal, like that of the residents of an apartment building who pass in the hallway. At one point I looked directly at him thinking, What's wrong with clean clothes and hair, a trim, polished eyeglasses? Suddenly, a spasmodic cough overcame him and I turned away to behold a giant pear tree dressed in thousands of fragrant white blossoms. Where did this apparition of life, this white tower of profuse flowers come from? My brother halted every few feet on his way to the house to bend over and cough. I felt helpless, embarrassed. Whatever is wrong is none of my business, though were he a stranger or acquaintance I would ask. His health is just another part of the family's world from which I am excluded, a world where nothing is open to discussion.
The drive home from town is a pleasant trip across a broad valley edged by low, glacial ridges. Only once does the road run high enough so that what lies ahead becomes visible and the image of a narrow asphalt thread snaking eastward toward my father's house reminds me of roads that cross western plains. Something that rests under my heart lifts upwards, and, weightless, I float over the valley along the rolling gray road. No matter how small I may seem, I belong to the universe, not to my family or anyone else.
My existence tears and flutters like tissue, yet I survive. Last night I checked inside, looked into the goo that resides at the bottom of the well. The stuff began to rise like a gas bubble in heavy oil and strange things appeared as it broke the surface; bouquets of sea creatures that appeared black and metallic, yet glinted with color. Nuclear winds reduced me to a crouching corpse, transformed me into a lump of ash, yet I breathed, a short, gasping breath, once in a while. Someone spoke and I was encouraged by the recognition that it was myself.
While I lay in bed this morning my father walked in; I conveyed to him that I was unwell but prostration merely qualified me as an audience for a monologue centered on what a clever lad he had been. The man possesses a remarkable memory for data, such as how tall the fence posts were at home, or the exact dimensions of a boat he constructed. I must admit that as he went on and on I sank into a numbing despair which helped to pass the time.
Days slide underfoot, pass from front to back like buck ets of debris in a rescue brigade. My days are wasted in the knowledge of the Gothic cathedral and its chain of souls, the apex of daring among men and women who imagined heaven as an experience. Petty and superstitious as individuals, together they were one great being in love. Love comes to me in remembrances of traveling stones and anchored sagebrush, of red-leaved grasses nodding below boiling clouds.
On the morning that I didn't leave my father's house for the 5th, 6th, 7th time, I can't remember how many times I'd planned to do it, the air was cold and the sun was shining. The sound of traffic on faraway highways and the rumble of a prop plane carried into my escape pod, a travel trailer that I'd parked in front of a shed nearer to the road than the house. The dogs lay with me on top of an electric blanket, unaware of the journey that they would miss that day. The morning that I didn't leave my father's house I was sick with confusion, cigarettes, and self-hatred and wanted to lie in bed until I died. I lit another cigarette though my throat was dry and the ashtray full, and I tried to imagine the three of us parked along a clear stream a thousand miles west. Soon, I must go up to the house. My head hurt and I was hungry and humiliation called. I closed my eyes and sought relief in the warm blanket, but the airplane circled and my stomach dipped and dived with it. You are a coward, some friend inside observed. I decided, as I had done 10, 20, 30 times before, who remembers such things, to delete the files and begin again.
I had packed quietly over a period of two weeks, informing my father and brother with much emotion that I must leave, which was true. As I spoke I felt my energy ebb but I finished taking boxes to the trailer because, having declared that I was leaving, I must. My father brought a bundle of fishing rods from the basement and set it with my luggage. Why couldn't he see that my departure was due to spiritual distress of ancient duration and not because I wanted a holiday?
Later, he looked as if he would cry. I can't remember what he said, probably "Be careful," and "Have a good trip." I felt dismal and worse, I felt my strength and resolve, dissolve.
I got out of bed and went up to the house feeling hungry but couldn't eat and drank three cups of coffee. I said things to my father like, "I hate myself," which I did.
My father said what he used to say when my mother was "blubbering" over something, "Quit getting yourself all worked up," but tears and lamentation are an end state and not a beginning.
"It's a good thing that I'm crying because I haven't cried for ten terrible months," I said, though I felt so horrid it was hard for me to believe it myself.
I made a try at living that lasted an hour, then went out to the trailer and back to bed. I didn't sleep, but my head ached less and the trailer's hull acted like a second skull, temporarily protecting me for whatever would come next. As the sun went down I managed an hour's sleep, then returned to the house like a shipwreck who will not relinquish her life preserver though she stands on the beach.
The day that I left my father's house it was to go to a motel not eight miles away where I'd rented a room the day before. It was situated in the country next to a dairy farm that a young couple with five children had taken over from his parents. A German shepherd met me inside the office so I was encouraged that my dogs would be welcome.
I drove to my father's house and told him what I'd done. He may have been upset; it was hard to tell. I think he was thinking that it was a fool thing to do when I already had a roof over my head. The empty, benign look of the motel room called to my confused identity, but I spent one more night at my father's house. The next day I gathered some clothing and a box of food, waited until afternoon, then left. After ward, the motel room seemed ugly and smelled vomitus. I felt silly, but I asked to move. The new room proved to be warmer in color, the carpet was newer, and the room didn't smell, but I panicked around dinnertime anyway and felt ridiculous.
In the morning I didn't feel well but this had been going on every morning for ten months, so I did what I'd done all those mornings: brushed my teeth, showered, dried my hair and dressed, then pulled on rubber boots because it had snowed and a drift nearly two feet deep blocked my truck.
Two orange shovels leaned on the wall by the office door. No one was about and I could see it would take me some time to free the truck but there was nothing else to do. A man eventually joined me. "That shovel doesn't work too well," he said. We kept digging until the snow was gone.
I still felt awful, but I drove to a coffee shop and surprised myself by eating a plateful of eggs, hashbrowns, and toast with three cups of coffee. Encouraged, I drove to my father's house where someone had plowed the driveway and piled the snow in front of my trailer. Neither of them were home, so I let the dogs into the yard where the red dog ran circles around the big pines, plowing trails through the snow with her nose. The house felt less awful to me now that I no longer lived there and I crept around collecting shampoo and a headscarf, an electric teakettle and mouthwash.
When I returned to the motel I felt alright, perhaps relaxed. That night after going to bed, I lay in the dark for almost two hours as scenarios played out in my imagination. What did it mean that I'd left my father's house? The motel room was mine for a week. What then? Was I capable of hooking up the trailer and driving away? If so, where would I go and what would I do when I got there? How would I do any of this when I felt no ambition, no desire, no nothing?
Eight miles from my father's house and I'm homeless.
On the second morning after I left my father's house I returned and began removing the snow that blocked my trailer. The plow had scraped leaves and gravel into the pile and the resulting melange was difficult to dissect. I was irritated, and when my father came out to see what I was doing I commented, "The guy who plows your drive is short on sense."
On the third day after I left my father's house I didn't go there.
On the fourth day I went back to finish off the snow pile that barricaded my trailer since more bad weather was predicted. My father appeared carrying a garden shovel and jabbed at the snow and leaves looking for an entry. He mumbled something about his failure to dispose of the pile for me, and I reminded him that I had not asked, at which point my brother emerged from the house, bypassing me to address my father.
"Don't help her. This doesn't concern us," he said.
Yes, of course, but why was he antagonizing me when I would soon be out of his way?
"I didn't ask …," I said, which earned me a violent reprimand. I waited until he finished, then called him a jerk. He countered, hurling grudges from the depths of our history that he stockpiled like surplus warheads. I don't remember how it ended, but my trailer was free and ready to go. My father stood aside like a sagging sack of coal, passively sanctioning the bullying my mother and brother had used to shut me out years before; but where can an eight year old go? A forty year old?
"I'll be going to Wyoming," I told my father. I'd finally said it and I knew I would go.