Wednesday, May 25, 2011

His Whole World

Luke killed the engine of his ‘85 Ford pickup, silently praising the truck for lasting one more day. A long day at work—but not really long enough. There was still so much to do in the fields. He’d had to lay off 3 of his workers a month ago because money had gotten so tight. Their absence left him pulling their weight of the work himself.
Opening the door against the wind, he stepped out of the truck and looked up at the dark sky. A storm was definitely thinking about happening. But he didn’t mind; summer thunderstorms meant rain—rain was good for the crops. After grabbing his lunch box from the bed of the truck, he plodded toward the front porch with the burden of a man older than his 28 years.
The wind chime hanging from the overhang on the porch chimed out a frenzied cacophony in the wind. On the other side of the porch, the little Coke can airplane’s propeller was spinning. He chuckled, thinking that, had he loosed it from its wire, it would have sailed away. To where? he wondered. As he stared at the plane, slowly, he realized that he was stalling. Stalling to go from one storm into another.
He stepped up onto the concrete porch at the door, leaned against the posts, and kicked his boots against the top step to knock the mud from them. He wouldn’t be called a ‘careless slob’ twice. The door was unlocked and once inside he untied the boots and left them sitting beside the stacks of newspapers and dead potted plants in the foyer. As he walked into the kitchen, he hoped that she’d be waiting for him. He always hoped for that, even when there was never nourishment for his hope. But tonight, maybe. After all, she hated storms—especially being alone in them.
Instead, he predictably found the little light over the sink left on in the empty kitchen. Releasing a heavy sigh, he trudged across the dirty linoleum to the microwave. Inside, he found a covered plate of a casserole and steamed broccoli. He pressed the minute button and walked to the fridge. Pulling a glass from the dish drainer, he weighed it in his hands thoughtfully—one of his parents’ cups. He filled it with milk from a Tupperware pitcher in the refrigerator then turned to look out the kitchen window. The curtains writhed in the breeze coming through the screen. It was dark, but by the dusk to dawn light, he could see the branches of the oaks bouncing in a frantic rain dance.
“It’s looking bad out there.” Her soft words behind him sounded a bit scared, a bit angry—as if blaming him for the weather. When he turned, his wife was hugging herself, standing barefoot in boy shorts and one of his old t-shirts which was falling off one shoulder. Her hair was pulled back sloppily in a ponytail. She walked over to the beeping microwave, opened the door and stuck her finger in the casserole. Satisfied with the temperature, she set the plate down on the table and sighed. “Come eat, ‘fore it gets cold.”
Enough things are already cold in here, Luke thought. He didn’t move toward the table, watching as she turned to go back in the bedroom.
“Sade.” He felt desperate for her presence. “Will you sit with me? Please.”
She stopped, standing with her back to him long enough to make him doubt that she would concede. Finally, she walked back to the table.
He pulled a chair out for her and she sat down stiffly, staring down at her fingers.
He sat on the other side of the table and smiled a bit unsurely, feeling as if they’d just made a step toward—something. He stuck his fork in the casserole and took a bite. “Mmm. This is really good, sweetheart.” The words sounded contrived, as if he were flattering a stranger; the compliment was met with silence. So he took another bite. Why’d I think it’d be any different from any supper for the past 8 months? Or had it been longer? He’d lost count of the time since he and his wife had stopped almost all communication except for the absolute necessities. She slept upstairs in the guest room—she had moved her stuff up there one weekend while he was out of town for a conference. It hadn’t really surprised him—they’d stopped touching months before that—right after the doctor confirmed what Sade said she already knew: her body would never bear the children she carried in her heart.
She’d turned inward, refusing to let Luke hold her while she sobbed, curled up in the bed next to him. Some days she stayed in her room, only getting up to fix him meals which were usually left in the microwave. When she did laundry, it was left in piles on the living room floor for him to sort through. He knew she blamed herself for something where no blame was due. Somewhere in the darkness she’d been wandering around in, he knew that she had begun to blame him too.
Looking at her now broke his heart. She looked tired, her eyes hollow, but he couldn’t take his gaze away from her.
She picked at a string on the hem of the t-shirt, took a deep breath and launched the words, “Luke—I—I want a divorce.”
He had known it was coming. It’s not like he hadn’t had warning. But somehow the sudden proclamation pummeled through his heart, leveling the little mounds of hope, restoration, and determination he had built.
“I don’t want it anymore. And I don’t know how to want it. And—you say you do, but—” her lower lip started trembling when she looked up at him.
He could tell she couldn’t bring herself to accuse him of that. Without looking at her, he set down his fork and took a sip of milk to wash the food down around the lump forming in his throat. Before setting the cup down he held it at eyelevel, remembering his parents and the hope they’d had for his and Sade’s marriage. Dad had lifted one of these glasses at their first anniversary dinner—hoping for simple things to keep them happy. That had been 3 years ago—6 months before his mom died from breast cancer and a year before his dad died from a heart attack in the field. Sade and he had moved from their little apartment in Birmingham into the old farm house soon after his dad died so that Luke could take over managing the farm. Had he hoped that moving into his parents’ house would somehow give him and Sade the happiness that his parents had? As if happiness had been left behind like a glass flower vase beneath the sink.
No doubt, their marriage had been pocked with grief—the death of his parents, the unexpected responsibilities that no young couple should have to accept, the disappointment of barrenness. But happiness had been there—once. He was sure of it.
At least in the beginning.
They’d met over 10 years ago at the county fair in East Birmingham. He was inside one of the livestock exhibits with Edith, a heifer he had raised since she was a calf. Now she was getting ready to give birth to a calf herself. Though they always tried to plan when the heifer would deliver, it had just been sheer luck that it happened on Tuesday of the fair. Luke hated making Edith a spectacle, but the people loved the live birth exhibit. He had posted signs commanding silence and had enforced it. But when the calf slid out, the crowd applauded, breaking the silence. He set the spindly calf in the clean straw and looked up at the surrounding people that he had, for the most part, tuned out. That was when he saw her standing at the front of the crowd, right up against the fence. She had tears in her eyes, focused not on the newborn calf, struggling to figure out what strange place he had been deported to, but at Luke, his shirt soaked and arms slick from the amniotic fluids and blood. Her hand covered her mouth as if to dam emotions that wanted to overflow her heart. Finally, coming to herself, she held up her camera as if to ask for permission. He waved his hand toward Edith and the calf; they were the show after all. As she snapped pictures, in that moment, Luke knew he wanted her, if for no other reason than because he didn’t know why.
He turned to Edith, soothing her and patting her flank, thankful that someone was appreciating the animal almost as much as he. When he looked back, the woman was gone. He frowned and stood, grabbing a towel off the fence at the back of the pen.
“Good timing.” His dad came in behind him and put his hands on his hips, looking down at the calf. “Did it come easy?”
“Yes sir,” Luke wiped his arms on the towel, grinning. “She did good. It’s a little bull.”
“You did good, son.” His father clapped him on the shoulder. “Go get cleaned up. I think your mama hung some clean clothes for you in the back of the truck.” He began moving straw around with a pitchfork.
“Dad—would you mind if I walk around for a little bit?”
“Sure son.” His father looked over his shoulder. “Did you see something you wanted?”
“Yes, sir.” Luke grinned and took off for the truck.
While he cleaned his arms and pulled on the clean shirt, he practiced his lines. What would he say when he found her? Or what if he didn’t find her? He pushed that option from his mind. He would find her.
And he did—she was inspecting the flower display not far from their exhibit. When he finally got up the nerve to start a conversation, he forgot all the lines he had practiced—and it turned out he didn’t need them. The conversation was easy, like two old friends who had always known one another. A corndog and a cliché Ferris wheel ride later, he had her number. Sade was her name. Her eyes were the color of clover, and freckles spattered her nose and cheeks. Her mane of auburn hair hung in a messy bun. And with her turquoise sequined top and designer jeans, she was a sparkly trinket he wanted to take back to show his mama.
She said she’d fallen in love with his passion for what he was doing and his joy for when life started. And two years later when he took her out to the dock by his parents’ pond and told her he didn’t have much but proposed anyway, with fireflies as witnesses, she had said he would be all she’d ever need.
Unlike Luke, she had gone to college, getting a degree in Cosmetology. Though a city girl, she was adaptable to their visits to his parents’ farm, while he struggled to fit in the traffic of Birmingham, and never quite nailed the pronunciation of macchiato. She had built a clientele of people who wanted her to style their hair, and was planning to start her own salon in Birmingham. A week after his dad died, when Luke announced that they needed to move to the farm, Sade had been reluctant to uproot herself. It was too far for her to commute from the farm back to her beloved Birmingham.
Maybe that’s when the darkness began to rise. Maybe it had been the overload of grief remaining still in this house with all the furniture left from his parents. Maybe it was the cultural shock of moving from all her friends and Starbucks in Birmingham. Maybe—
A bolt of lightning cracked outside, slicing through his thoughts, bringing him back to the present storm.
Sade walked to close the window. He watched her in silence, waited for her to continue.
She stood leaning on the sink, her back to him. “This isn’t what I wanted. It’s not what you promised—”
“I promised you that I’d take care of you and love you—”
She whirled around. “That translates to me nice things, a nice life. ” She threw up her hands “Not 4 o’clock milkings, and hand-me-down 100 year old farm houses.” She gazed at the table furiously, “and ugly old glasses.”
Luke wrapped his hand around the glass at the side of his plate.
She crossed her arms and they fell silent as she tried to gather her thoughts. She breathed shallow breaths, as if not wanting to stop now that she had started. “And time, Luke. I thought that love meant time. But you’re always so busy with the farm—”
“Sade, this farm is our life.” He was trying to stay calm. “It was Dad’s life—”
“But Luke you’re NOT your father. You haven’t been able to make this farm run like him—”
Enraged, Luke slammed his fist on the table. “I’m trying. Okay?”
She blinked at his sudden ferocity, and then fell sullen. “It’s easy for you.”
“Easy?” His voice tightened. When did he ever once make his life seem easy? Picking up where his dad left off—trying to keep not just a farm but a legacy from folding—none of that was easy.
“We have one truck and you take that with you every day. I can’t even leave the house.” Her voice raised into a whine. “Why can’t we move closer into town?”
“You KNOW why I don’t wan—why we can’t move. This farm and this house—”
She interrupted him, throwing up her hands and rolling her eyes. “There you go again. This farm. This house. Those things mean more to you than I do.”
He stared at her, a disgusted feeling rising in his stomach. Perhaps he had been simplistic in his planning of bringing her out here. Idealistic for believing her when she’d said he would be all she’d ever need. He figured they’d start a family—that she’d be the sexy barefoot mama of his children. But when they moved out here, and rather than children came grief, and the farm started falling behind with him working to keep up, let alone get ahead, he realized that his wife didn’t know what to do with herself. He had just assumed she’d be happy hanging laundry on the lines. That she’d want to learn to can and quilt like his mama had. But even after 5 years of marriage she didn’t know even half of what his mama had known about sacrifice—about what really mattered. And somewhere along the line he hadn’t had time to show her.
But he couldn’t stay angry at her for her selfishness. This pathetic person was not the Sade he knew—it was a monster formed in the darkness of grief, self-pity, and blame. And he was determined to tame it with patience.
“I never promised you that this life would be easy when I brought you out here.” He reasoned.
Her voice was raspy and tight. “You never told me it’d be this hard,”
He turned back to his plate and said softly, “Things will look better tomorrow.” Wanting that to be the last word, he shoveled a fork full of broccoli in his mouth.
“That’s what you always say.”
He clinched his teeth tightly for a minute, and then set the fork down and turned to her. She was looking at him as if a bit scared that he would erupt. He took a deep breath and smiled. “You’re right, sweetheart. Maybe we’ll go into town tomorrow evening; we’ll have a nice dinner, and figure this out.”
She stared into his eyes for a minute, as if surprised by the kindness. Then she unfolded her arms and shuffled back toward the bedroom, wearily. At the doorway, she stopped and looked over her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter, Luke. I think we both wanted something different out of life. We need something more—”
“More than what, Sade? Each other?” He saw tears pooling in her eyes. Her breathing was rigid.
Slowly, she nodded and disappeared into the darkness of the next room.
Luke ran a shaky hand through his hair. Her confession had shaken him to his core. How could it all be over just like that? But it wasn’t just like that. He’d seen it coming. He could have done more. But what—
A bolt of lightning exploded, making him jump. Tumbling clatter let him know the wind was kicking the trashcans around outside. Walking over to the window to inspect the back yard, he heard the cows mooing in the barn. He needed to calm them. After putting on his boots, he barely got the screen door open against the wind. He braced his body against the force of the gusts assaulting him all the way to the barn. Once inside, he began murmuring to Edith and the other two heifers and the chickens that were clucking their concern. Edith walked over to him, her brown eyes wide with fear.
“Shhh, girl. It’s okay. You’re safe in here.” He patted her nose, rubbed her neck trying to imagine what life would be like without the farm or the animals or land. Honest living, his father called it. Though Luke wasn’t so sure he’d call what he’d been doing living. This farm had meant so much to his dad and his dad had meant so much to him.
“She doesn’t understand, girl.” he murmured to the cow who seemed comforted in his presence even though the wind was still rushing over the roof. “Whatcha think? Is she’s right? Should we call it quits?” the cow bobbed her head about. Luke chuckled, grabbed a pitchfork and started spreading some fresh hay in the stall. “Dad and Mom would be disappointed, you know. But the truth is, I can’t imagine life without the farm.” Suddenly, he thought of what Sade had said about the farm being more important to him than she was. He leaned against the pitchfork, realizing deeply what he had thought he already knew. “But I can’t imagine life without her, Edith.” He set the pitchfork against the wall and walked back over to the cow. “No matter what that means, I can’t imagine not having her in my life.”
Something thumped against the wall of the barn and he realized he needed to get back inside before the rain started. He gave the cow one last hard pat on the flank. “Y’all’ll be all right in here. Storm’ll be over soon.” Opening the barn door was strenuous. The wind’s shoulder pressed against it. Debris swirled in the air—leaves, hay, branches. He discovered one of the shutters from the house had blown against the side of the barn. Shielding his eyes with his arms, he pressed toward the house.
But over the wind roaring through his ears and the clatter of the wind chime on the porch, he heard it. A louder roar somewhere in the distance.
He stopped and looked toward the noise that seemed to be all around him. What he feared was illuminated by another bolt of lightning. A swirling funnel cloud was racing toward the barn, a massive pillar of strength and terror.
Luke broke into a run, yelling, “Sade, Sade, get out here.” As he opened the screen door, the wind caught it, tearing it off its hinges.
“Luke,” She was already racing out toward him, squinting in the wind blowing through the open doorway. “What’s going on—”
“It’s a twister. We’ve got to get to the storm cellar now.” He grabbed her hand and ran out the already opened doorway. Out in the wind with debris flying all around them, he knew they’d never make it around to the back of the house and get that cellar door open and closed against the suction and pressure of the wind. He held her to him, shielding her with his body and pulling her toward the only other place of shelter he could think of, the big front porch with a crawl space under it. “Get under the porch. Hurry!”
She clambered into the tiny opening, wailing in fear as the roar got closer. Luke looked back toward the barn one last time, the dust slicing at his eyes.
Sade screamed his name under the porch, pulling at his legs. Tearing his gaze away from the barn, he pulled himself under the porch and felt for her, pulling her to him, stroking her hair. “It’s all right baby, it’s all right.” She was sobbing and he felt her heart pounding through her back. “It’ll be over soo—” Suddenly the yard light went out, leaving them in the pitch black. He squeezed her tighter as he heard the sounds. Wood splintering. Creaking metal. The cows bawling.
She sobbed, “Luke, The animals—”
“It’s all right.” He spoke around the lump in his throat, past his breath shortened by fear and adrenaline. “Sade, whatever happens. I love you.” He pressed his face into her hair.
“I-I love you too.”
And then they it was upon them and they heard the sound of life being uprooted right above them as glass shattered; the ground rumbled beneath them. Things collapsed around them, on top of them.
She screamed.
He held her for what seemed like forever.
And then the roar was passed.
“Wh—what’s going on?” She whimpered.
He listened for a moment before assuring her, “It’s over, sweetheart. It’s over. You okay?”
He felt her nod, and then she began sobbing again. “What are we gonna do?”
“Shh. It’s okay. We’ll stay under here for now. We don’t know what’s out there and don’t have any light to see by.”
She drew a shaky breath, begging him to do what he’d wanted to do for months. “Hold me, Luke. Just hold me.”
They sat silent, neither asking questions that they knew neither had the answers to. At some point, weariness pressed them against the cool earth, and they slept.

The sun sliced through the darkness of their cavern. Luke woke, stiff and aching, unsure of when he fell asleep and halfway forgetting where they were. Then he remembered. Eager to survey the damage outside, he leaned over and smoothed his wife’s hair back from her face, murmuring in her ear, “Sade. It’s morning.”
Her puffy eyes opened and she gazed around confused.
“Remember? The twister?” Seeing recognition on her face, he continued, “We need to get out of here.”
She sat up and watched him as he looked at the side opening, obstructed with branches and wooden poles that he recognized from the porch. He kicked at them, shoving an opening large enough for them to squeeze through. When he had crawled out, he helped her stand then straightened to look around.
The view caught his breath. What had been the barn lay in mounds on the back field. What had been their home was strewn across the yard, and collapsed in a heap—the porch roof had fallen directly on top of the porch they were under.
Sade covered her mouth with a shaky hand, stifling tears. “What are we gonna do?”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him.
Somewhere in the branches of a toppled tree, a bird welcomed the new morning over the wreckage. Luke let his gaze pan once more over what he had thought would be his future, now just wood, glass, wires, steel, hay strewn all about.
Then the rising sunlight glinted off something by the clothesline post. He stared at it for a moment before realizing what it was: one of his mother’s brown glasses, unbroken, pristine, full of clear rain water.
Luke breathed in deeply, remembering his wife’s question. He gripped her shoulders against him and felt her—his whole world in her form. Quietly, he said, “We’ll just have to start over.”

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