John Riley ::What Did She Lose?::


Southern Legitimacy Statement

A field did stretch between our old house in Randolph County, with its recently exposed plumbing that froze every winter, and a much nicer house across the field. The people who lived in the nice house wanted nothing to do with us newcomers from the housing project in High Point, although Mr. Willard, the old man who lived there with his mean wife, was a drop-down drunk I helped get home many times. Sometimes I’d bring him to our house and try to sober him up so his wife wouldn’t be so mean but it never worked. The field was once full of silage grown to sell to the dairy farm down the road. It also had a small section of an acre and a half set off as a government allotment for tobacco, but both parts of the field had been fallow for years. So many things happened in that field. Once my angry sister set it on fire and it took us hours to stop the flames from destroying both houses. Now, when I imagine, it seems a field is always in my head.

What Did She Lose?

Something was lost. I knew this but had forgotten, minutes after my search began, what I was looking for and was beginning to slip into despair. What was I looking for was not a question I could ask my mother. She had told me once and there would be disgust if I asked her again. I had joined her on the search with my older sister, who had hated me since I was born. She lived as an only child for five years when there was still a father and mother and she blamed me for bringing it to the end. The trouble started soon after I was born, and he left before I could remember.

My sister ignored me as she searched, eager to be the one who found the prize. We were in the wide field beside our old house, a field where the yellow late summer sun-burnt weeds and the dried vines that had bloomed orange and yellow and blue flowers only a few hot weeks before tried to wrap around my feet. Now all the bright colors except the gold dead weeds were gone and we were searching for something my mother had taken out into the field, had run into the middle of the wide field that morning, ran to where the weed and grass and vines were the thickest, and slung what was in her hand with all the force and arc she could assemble.

Now she was full of regret and was holding back tears as she bent forward and used her foot to push weeds and vines side to side. I knew what was lost was something she had kept from me. That it was something from before I was born that I didn’t know about and now, although she had told me, I’d forgotten what it was. I watched her search. Her face was always straining and I sometimes worried her eyes would be pushed out of their sockets by the force of her stare, but she was still beautiful. My sister had told me our dad once said she was as lovely as Hedy Lamar and the nickname Hedy had stuck for a while. Now she flew into anger if anyone said the name around her. He had disappeared and she hated everything about him and we should too. I watched as she continued searching, heavy weariness on her face, her hands stained from the hosiery mill.

I was six as I searched and there was so much history from after I was born that I had to learn, although I knew I’d never learn it all. It was my first impossibility, to know what had happened when I was already alive. I’d heard the stories about our moves zigzagging up and down the California coast, then to Nevada, where I’d fallen and ended up in the hospital with a concussion. Then sometime later running through the woods of eastern North Carolina as our father chased us with a shotgun. Police coming into our house in Tennessee and taking him out in handcuffs. I had heard of the times that had exploded during those years but still knew nothing that I needed to know about them. What were the looks on their faces, how loud were the sounds of the smacks, how far did the spit fly out of their mouths? I needed to feel the ground and sticks beneath my feet as we ran through the pines, the invisible father behind us with a gun. The smell of the California coast, the stink of the Mississippi, the tears while watching my father being marched away by the police. The emptiness of knowing he was gone for good this time. I could not continue on without knowing these things, without living them, without feeling them. My feet would never touch the ground if I didn’t know. I was a phony human.

Learning this was my only concern and at school I was being taken to special classes because I was slow to read and learn numbers. I wanted nothing from them in the old red brick building until I knew the forces and causes of the madness that happened before I was old enough to remember. This was all that mattered and now I was pretending to search for an object and did not know what I was searching for. People, adults, looked at me with quiet sadness, even pity, in their eyes. I was slow to learn and unable to remember because my mind was consumed with knowing the forces that made it. How could anything else matter? They did not know this, nor care, if I ever knew.

What did my mother need now? What had her fury, her deep and constantly boiling rage, caused her to lose this time? What had she flung into the wide field? I knew I’d never remember what it was and, finally wearied of pretending, I turned to walk to the screaming furnace of her face and ask what I had forgotten when, as I turned, I saw something soft pink and a very light shade of white beneath a vine only a foot or so away. A thin gold band, a ring, had been threaded on the necklace. I had never seen pearls but I knew it was a necklace of pearls. It was small, perhaps too small for my mother’s neck now, but its hint of grace held me. Here was an artifact from my history and I had found it in this empty place, in this empty world.

I hesitated to pick it up, to take it to my mother. What if it wasn’t what we were searching for? What if it belonged to someone else and she would then have to find the owner? My mother did not steal. “I will not be burdened with other people’s things,” she said. It was then I realized the anger of now and the burden of then was what forced her to throw her lovely necklace away. She was tired of carrying it, tired of holding it when the sight of it dragged her down, drove her back into the history I needed to feel beneath my feet. Everything is heavy. I knew this as I picked up the necklace, carefully as to not let it come apart, for coming apart was a common response to change, and turned toward my mother, who had stopped searching and was standing upright, still, cast in the pale light of the end of an August day.

What We Know

Rick’s wife died. He took her to the hospital while she was in so much pain she rode in the back seat of their small car, sitting bent forward so her face was on her knees. “I’m dying,” she said and then she said she was sorry for all of the pain she had caused Rick. He paid her no attention. His job was to get her to the hospital so the magic people inside the white building with rows of windows could fix her. She was admitted immediately and taken to the ICU. Rick couldn’t see her the first night. The nurses told him he could see her the next day.

They hoped she would be doing better. The next morning Rick bought peppermint candy and a type of muffin she loved. He had the items in a small bag when he turned to walk down the hall to her room and saw a gathering of people wearing blue scrubs standing outside his wife’s room. He tried to walk through them and a nurse took his arm and said he could not go in. Rick is from Queens and his accent hasn’t changed during the thirty years living in the South. He pulled his arm free and demanded the nurse move out of his way and then a man in a dull blue uniform stepped in front of him and said, “You don’t want to go in there” and Rick knew before the doctor, a short blondish man, told him that his wife had grown sicker during the night and before dawn she had begun to deteriorate rapidly. He did not share with Rick that she had started waving her arms and chattering her teeth and calling out names. The doctor, who had to struggle to not fall into total practicality, thought dying people were reaching out for a spirit only the dying can see when they did what Rick’s wife had done. It’s not an original idea, the doctor knows.

He is an analytical man who tries to nourish the small quiet he has inside and it bothered him that as he watched Rick’s wife do her death ritual he was content. He didn’t say this to Rick, of course, instead, he continued to talk about ulcers and the swollen liver that no longer worked. She died, quietly and peacefully the doctor said, and flinched for the lie. She had died like a failed ballerina unable to stand but determined to perform her routine with arm movements. Rick is telling us what he knows in the largest room of the Friends Meeting House where we meet every week at six o’clock on Saturday nights when the Friends aren’t using it, but he doesn’t know about the death rituals. For some reason, there are several people in the meeting from Queens. There’s a sixty-two-year-old man who wears thin t-shirts and has a gathering of fake gold chains around his neck, and another with a tattoo of a cat on his round stomach he likes to show people. Rick is sitting in a chair like the one he sat on in the hospital the first night when they were still trying to save his wife. He didn’t notice this though and instead he said he was broken. She would not be with him to help him make friends. She had not done this in years. Rick had the stages of his life mixed up. For the last years,  his wife had sat in a chair in their bedroom and drank cheap vodka and watched whatever came across the television. Now Rick is broken. His accent thickens as he talks and his voice begins to lift until it is as though he is from another planet instead of Queens. Maybe a planet no one ever died on. He wouldn’t have to cry out to a big room of people and beg someone to love him the way his wife had loved him years ago when they were young and went to parties before they realized they couldn’t stop the party although the party had ended years before. Rick finally escaped the dead party, but she continued and now he is alone and crying out for his dead wife in a room filled with people who know they are not far from the darkness themselves, sitting in the biggest room in the Friends Meeting House, where people come on Sundays and hope their quietness will connect them to the spirit the blond doctor who wasn’t very tall knew was there.

We, our group, had no intention of seeing the spirit until there was no choice. We are practical people who are taught to look straight and deal with what phenomena approaches when it approaches. Rick isn’t practical today. They had finally let him in the room and there she was. Her lovely, milky dark skin he loved to kiss and tickle when they were young was losing its color and turning to a washed-out gray. Rick had dull beige skin and he wondered what color his skin would turn when he left but he only pondered this for a moment and wailed again. There was an eloquence in his wail and we all woke to that and leaned forward in our chairs, the men and the women, many of them mates, and tried to release whatever existed inside of us but Rick could not feel it. He cried and wailed again and asked Why me Why me? He had loved his wife for over thirty years and now she is gone and he has to fight an urge to go with her. Would she be there, he wondered, if he journeyed? Is there a tunnel he will flow through, or a cave he must make his way down to a village where she lives and she will know him when he appears and there they will not drink cheap vodka they no longer have to worry will kill them?